Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
September 18, 2008
With a history of winemaking that dates back centuries, it is little wonder that the Italians have discovered things to do with their grapes that are as imaginative as they are intoxicating. While I have been around a bit a few trips to Italy and more meals in Italian restaurants than I can count I have never come across the variety of after-dinner wine offerings that are found on the list at New Yorks Convivio, a charming, recently reconstituted restaurant on the citys east side. Following an intensely satisfying three-course dinner that began with an antipasti of Fegatini (grilled chicken liver on crostini with marsala onions) bridged by a Maccheroni pasta (pancetta, pecorino, scallions, an egg and black pepper) and finished off with Brasato al Pomodoro (braised San Marzano beef short ribs with brocoletti and provolone), all perfectly paired with an earthy Nero dAvola from Sicily, I thought I might skip desert and just have an espresso. Our waitress had been impeccable with her previous recommendations and she encouraged, no insisted, that we take a look at the desert menu. While the sweets were too enticing to ignore, it was the four pages of after-dinner drinks that caught my attention. Along with the standard single malt scotch, cognac and calvados, there were a variety of desert wines ranging from a Brachetto dAcqui from Piedmont, a Recioto della Valpolicella from Venice and Vin Santo from Tuscany. On the next page were Grappas from all around the boot as well as Aquaevitae, and flavored Brandy. Like I said, the Italians do many things with their fruit.It was all a bit overwhelming, but when I turned to a page that was headlined Amari & Chinati I knew that some counsel was required. I had heard of and tasted the digestif Fernet Branca before, and saw that there were variations on the list, but the other names I had never heard nor seen before. Chris Cannon, Convivios owner, was on the floor and he explained that an Amaro (Amari is the generic name for the category of drinks and means bitter in Italian; Amaro is a single selection) is a digestif, a wine-based concoction that is aromatized with a variety of herbs that are blended to help with the digestion of a meal. Chinati is basically Amari made exclusively in Piedmont from the finest category of nebbiolo grapes, the same grapes used to make Barolos and Barbarescos.According to a 1991 article in The New York Times by Louis Inturrisi, digestifs are an integral part of Italian society. At the time of publication he noted that nearly 300 different Amari are made all over Italy to be served after dinner in little glasses to help the stomach create the gastric juices that help regulate the digestive system. These Amari are very bitter, slightly syrupy and high in alcohol, ranging from a low of 16 percent to 35 percent and sometimes even beyond. They taste of the herbs and spices with which they have been infused. There may be dozens of these roots and herbs ranging from the bark of quinine to different kinds of mint, lemon verbena, sage, saffron, juniper, thyme, fennel and, well, the list is limited only by what grows locally in a given region and the tastes of the person in charge of the concoction.We had one Amaro and one Chinato (again, Chinati refers to the category, while an individual offering is a Chinato) and they were fascinating. While made from red grapes, the Chinato was clear and had a slightly sweet taste that made it a perfect accompaniment to the warm dark chocolate Budino cake that we selected for desert.It was fascinating to try an entirely new category of after-dinner drink. Amari and Chinati are exotic and clearly an acquired taste, and on my next trip to Italy I will be seeking them out.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.