Ever stumbled across an Italian red in a funkily-shaped bottle? I have — and it’s one of the very first wines that I can remember really gravitating to as a novice wine enthusiast. What a treat then to discuss this unique wine with its current overseer, Cinzia Travaglini, a fourth-generation winemaker who was recently in San Francisco for a lunch with wine writers along with her daughter Alessia.
Conversation ranged from the tiny size of Gattinara — whether the Travaligni family produces 59% of the region’s total of just 100 hectares — and, of course, the legendry behind the unique bottle. As it turns out, the bottle was indeed the brainchild of Giancarlo Travaligni, Cinzia’s father, who designed it personally in 1958. Why? The concept was part artistic and part designed around sediment. When poured properly, sediment will get trapped on its way to the neck of the bottle, rendering decanting unnecessary. (That said, every waiter I saw at the event poured with the label facing up, the opposite of how things are supposed to work; see Cinzia’s demonstration at right.) Stories about designing bottles to fit the Pope’s hand and bottles melted by fire are wholly apocryphal (and wrong).
Travaligni grows nothing but nebbiolo — the grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, which are southern but not far from Gattinara — and the winery produces a surprising number of bottlings using just one grape and a limited amount of vineyard space. At this event we sampled a very healthy selection of wines including both those in current release as well as library bottlings.
2013 Travaglini Nebole – Arguably the most interesting wine on the table: A white sparkling wine made from 100% nebbiolo grapes. Only the tips of the grape bunches are used to make this unusual sparkler, which is immediately drinkable with a grassy, nutty quality that evokes dried hay and brown rice. Fragrant and refreshing, with lots of minerals underlying the very dry finish. Virtually no sweetness at all… and not sold in the U.S. A- / $NA
2017 Travaglini Coste Della Sesia DOC – Travaglini’s entry-level table wine, designed for by-the-glass service. Fairly unremarkable, with a dense, earthy quality that pairs roughly with a significant fruitiness that emerges in time. Notes of ripe berries and licorice belie a rather dry finish. B / $21
2015 Travaglini Gattinara DOCG – This is the standard bearer, aged for 2 years in Slovenian oak barrels of varying sizes. This is an iconic example of the winery’s production — a hearty but fruit-forward wine with lots of blackberry and raspberry fruit. Some balsamic is laced through the lengthy but supple finish, along with layers of earth. A / $33
2013 Travaglini Gattinara Tre Vigne DOCG – A blending of three different older vine vineyard sites on the Travaglini estate (though, again, 100% nebbiolo). Notes of graphite lead into a sharper, more acidic expression of nebbiolo, though many of the same overall characteristics endure. Less overt fruit here, with some forest floor. A- / $50
2013 Travaglini Gattinara Riserva DOCG – From Travaglini’s oldest vines, up to 80 years of age. More density endures here, but again that classic Gattinara composition dominates. Strongly earthy up front, followed by blackberry-heavy fruit. A tiny balsamic edge lingers. Glorious stuff. A / $50
2009 Travaglini Gattinara Riserva DOCG – This library wine is lush with notes of mint and dark chocolate. An exceptional density pairs unexpectedly well with a sultry, juicy fruit component, as well as lingering balsamic hints. Absolutely gorgeous stuff. A / $NA
2006 Travaglini Gattinara Tre Vigne DOCG – Surprisingly gentle after 13 years, with many similarities to the 2013 current edition. Notes of light florals and figs lead to a surprisingly fresh finish. Tastes like it was bottled yesterday. A- / $NA
2014 Travaglini Il Sogno – Named after “the dreams of my father,” says Cinzia, this is a passito-style wine with 50% of the water evaporated before fermentation. (This disqualifies the wine from DOCG status.) Almost Port-like in character, it’s a big (and alcohol-heavy) wine with aggressive notes of chocolate dominating. Unctuous and unexpected, though it was too much of a digression for me at the moment when paired with a beautiful Italian entree from SF’s Perbacco. B+ / $128