Dalla Cia: wine, grappa and food

According to winemaker Giorgio dalla Cia, tiramisu, that sweetly soft staple of ristorante and trattoria, originated as a sort of Red Bull for sexworkers. The origin is disputed, but Giorgio’s passion for food and wine is obvious from the merest glance, so I’ll go with his story. He relates that when an Italian regiment was stationed at Treviso (near Venice, and the home of Benetton and, as I know, an unusually dull art gallery), the local prostitutes were getting so exhausted that they asked a restaurateur to come up with a tasty energy-booster for them. He concocted tiramisu (“pick-me-up” in Italian), with its coffee, egg, mascarpone, etc.

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Giorgio and George dalla Cia

This story came when I was eating the version made by Giorgio’s daughter-in-law, Elena, at her delightful food and wine bar called Pane e Vino (Bread and Wine). on the outskirts of Stellenbosch alongside the Dalla Cia distillery. It fittingly concluded, along with grappa, a lunch that was simple but fresh and excellent, in the best Italian tradition. And, happily, accompanied by Giorgio’s wines. A proper Italian, he’d wanted to show me them in their proper context: food.

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Giorgio with the grappa still now managed by son George

It had been an enlightening visit altogether. I’d never seen a still expressly designed for producing grappa (correctly known in South Africa as “husk brandy”, the spirit made from the skins and pulp left over from winemaking). Giorgio had brought a grappa still from Italy when he was cellarmaster at Meerlust; he moved it here when he set up shop with his son, George. George is now the distiller, and it was he (with interjections from Papa) who explained the workings, and spoke of the vital need for the grapeskins to be watered and distilled while still fresh. And of much else, some of which I’ve remembered. The grappas that George makes are amongst the best of South Africa’s handful – and the 2014 tenth anniversary of Dalla Cia Wines will see the release of something unique and good (I’m banned from saying more).

Giorgio’s two white wines I like very much – there’s a fresh elegance and balance to both the ripe and unaggressive but not overly fruity Sauvignon Blanc (R75) and the scarcely oaked Chardonnay (R98), which has charm and delicacy.

The reds are more ambitious – and pricey, though the Classico Cabernet Sauvignon is reasonable value at R130, ripe and sweet-fruited and pretty ready for drinking. The others will benefit from a few years, preferably five-plus, in the bottle; perhaps time will integrate the evidence of toasty oak barrels that to my palate is a touch excessive (some will enjoy that taste). But they are all beautifully structured – Giorgio has a knack of building his reds with very firm but soft and unabrasive tannins; there’s nothing harsh or raw, even in youth.

There’s been just one vintage so far of a serious, stern but convincing Pinot Noir. The cabernet-based blend called Giorgio (R235) is long the flagship; packed with berry flavours, it’s as opulent as the straight cab, but more refined and firm, with a good dry finish. Latest addition to the list is a blend of cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties with the Tuscan sangiovese. Also beautifully made, it is bigger, bolder, riper than the others and something of a blockbuster – and much in the showy, impressive style of Italian so-called “SuperTuscans”. Its price of R790 is in the same immodest tradition.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 31 Jan-6 February 2014

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