By Mike Rosenberg
“Italy is not spaghetti and Chianti wine.”
-20 Mondi introduction
I imagine Michael Loos sitting at a table in a trattoria in Milan, Italy, musing on his fledgling project, 20 Mondi. “Over the years of living in Italy, discovering the immense varieties of Italian wines, I yearned to share the experiences with my friends outside of Italy. Basically, I wanted to let them in on the ‘other world’; the non Merlot/Chardonnay/Cabernet world.”
Loos grew up in Dayton, Ohio “watching Gilligan’s Island while eating warmed-up Spaghetti-O’s.” An alum of Butler High School, he graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s world-renowned graphic design program in 1985. He worked in New York City as a graphic designer until 1989, when he lit out for Florence, Italy. In 1997, he moved to Milan and opened his own design business, Loos Image Communications. His passion, however, is the country of Italy and its wines.
20 Mondi, which translates as “Twenty Worlds,” is Loos’ attempt to explore and document the winemakers and, by extension, the people and the culture, of each of Italy’s 20 wine growing regions. Loos pointed out that few outsiders realize that much of Italy lies in central Europe – bordering and sharing languages with Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland and France. It also extends southward to within 43 miles of Africa. (I had no idea.)
The driving force behind the project? Autochthonal grapes.
What the heck’s an “autochthonal” grape? Pronounced “aw-TAWK-tow-nal,” autochthonal is the proper term for a grape indigenous to a specific region. There are over 600 autochthonal varieties of winemaking grapes in Italy. Some of them are fairly well known – Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Prosecco, Nero d’Avola. But most of us have never had a glass of Forgiarin or Pompanuto.
“The small producers [of these grapes] are being squeezed out by more mainstream, primarily profit-driven producers,” explained Loos. Many of these producers are introducing better-known grapes like merlot and chardonnay to more easily market wines internationally. “Each territory,” Loos said, “is a treasure island unto itself, full of unique landscapes & family trees, folks & folk tales, and oral & oenological traditions and customs.”
Loos wants to bring attention to these grapes and, by extension, the people who carry on local traditions in winemaking, special regional foods, and local arts and crafts. Historically, people from a certain region tailor local wine to go alongside “hometown” cuisine. Loos fears the loss of these distinct regional Italian identities, so he wanted to showcase them. His plan? Get a camper, some close friends (including his sister and brother-in-law) and take a 10,000 mile road trip around Italy, exploring these winemaking worlds. “I start with suggestions from people I know in each region, then connections usually progress by word of mouth… I ask about their wines and the stories begin. People talk when they have a glass of wine. Or two.”
Loos is currently raising funds for 20 Mondi across Italy and the globe.
“The Barolo-colored camper is waiting on the sales lot for us to plop down the cash,” said Loos. He’s optimistic about raising the capital to make the trip a reality. “The great thing is that we’ve discovered that there is a real interest out there to support our project; we just need to harness it. In the meantime, we’ve started creating some content for our first ‘world,’ Lombardia [the region surrounding Milan], just using the car.”
As Loos and his companions travel around the Italian countryside, they hope to create a comprehensive video and photographic record of their trip, the wines, and local recipes. They are creating a series of online guides set up as downloadable apps for visitors to these various regions, as well as some large-format photo books, documenting the highlights. I’m certainly planning to follow along on his trek. To do my little part for the world of autochthonal winemaking, here are a few I’ve recently tracked down. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to put together autochthonal recipes to go alongside these wines, but I did the best I could:”
Leone de Castris 2008 Maiana Salice Salentino – From Puglia, which is the “heel of the Italian boot.” This wine is made from a 90/10 blend of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera grapes. When I poured it, the dark, dark purple gave me the expectation of a monstrous wine. Not so. It’s medium-bodied, bordering on lean. Imagine coffee-flavored cherries, with a mouthfeel a lot like coffee, and you’ll get the idea. The wine’s tannins are subtle, as is the “chalky” characteristic that many Italian wines possess. The finish is an interesting mix of tartness and soft tannins. I thought this was quite pleasant. Tried it first with a couple of cheeses –“drunken goat” cheese was a particularly interesting pairing. Dinner was flank steak marinated in lemon juice and garlic with some steamed veggies – it turned out yummy as I hoped. About $13.
Tenuta Delle Terre Nere 2010 Etna Bianco and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere 2010 Etna Rosso – Both these $15 wines are from Sicily, the island being perpetually punted by the Italian boot. These wines hail from vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna. (“Bianco” is “white” – “Rosso” is “red.”) The Bianco is a blend of Carricante, Inzolia, Grecanico, and Cataratto. The nose is full of tangerines and flowers. The flavor starts with a biting acidity that mellows into an orange-ish citrus. Body-wise, imagine a pinot grigio muscling up to a chardonnay. The finish is tart and lemon-rindy. On its own, just OK. Sicily’s cuisine includes a lot of shellfish, so I made a meal of shrimp & beans seasoned with garlic, sage, and pancetta. The food dialed the wine’s acidity way back, but the flavor had enough oomph to stand up to the big flavors in the food. Nomnomnom.
The Rosso was described to me as “very Burgundian,” which I can see since it’s lighter-bodied and fruit forward. I hit lots of cherry and mineral flavors right off the bat. Made from 100% Nerello, it’s certainly a friendly, delicate red. For dinner, though, I’d made an earthy pasta: rotini in a sauce of caramelized onion, pancetta, cremini mushrooms and parmesan. The pairing was outstanding. This wine was particularly to drink against a dusky background like that. Sign me up.
Azienda Agricola San Giovanni 2010 Il Lugana – This white, which you’ll probably find at a little closer to $20, is made from 100% Trebbiano. Two folks at one of my favorite wine stores independently described this wine as “killer.” I’d agree. This fairly complex, medium bodied entry is a dinner party pleaser waiting to happen – both flavorwise, and because of its short, stumpy, cool looking bottle. It starts with a deliciously fragrant nose of apple cider and lemon meringue. The body is smooth with more apple and a twist of tartness to give it a little grip. The finish is lasting and slightly sweet. I thought this was a particularly nice white on its own, and it held up exceptionally well with a fresh green salad with a vinaigrette – a combination which would ordinarily be a wine killer. The salad was a side for some grilled chicken breasts stuffed with asparagus, tomatoes, and fontina cheese which, unsurprisingly, worked extremely well. I’d put this wine next to almost anything up to roasted red meat. Imagine an Italian dry Riesling if you need a comparison, but, as Loos points out, it’s best to think of these wines in context.
As we wrapped up, I asked Loos to posit a suggested pairing for his childhood lunchtime staple: “A good Bonarda [made with the autochthonous grape Croatina], I would guess would be superb with Spaghetti-O’s, but I’m just postulating from a 40 year-old memory!”
Information about the ongoing project can be found at the website – http://www.20mondi.com
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at www.TheNakedVine.net.