WineInk: Wine of The Year — 2012 g. Cuneo Cellars Seccopassa
With the first sniff, I knew that what was in my glass was special.
There was a heady aroma of earth and soul. The liquid was dark, dense and had a level of viscosity that made it seem almost too substantial to be a wine. I gave it a swirl and the “legs,” those rivulets of wine, danced slowly and subtly down the inside of the glass. When I finally took a sip, no, actually it was a mouthful, I had an instantaneous and simultaneous epiphany of touch and taste. The feel of the wine on my tongue was velvety and smooth. Sensuous. A cornucopia of dark fruits, cherries, figs and blackberries co-mingled in my mouth as I tasted the wine. There were touches of both vanilla and chocolate, not sweet, but full of flavor. And behind it all, a hint of spice. I was smitten.
Yet, as wonderful as the g.Cuneo Cellars 2012 Seccopassa tasted, the experience of drinking it is just one reason why I selected this unique wine as the 2017 WineInk “Wine of the Year.” While this gem from Washington State not only met, neigh, exceeded, the taste test, it embodied both the passion and the unbridled, freethinking approach of its innovative winemaker, Gino Cuneo.
There was a time when I felt that “Wine of the Year” awards were gimmicky. But a couple of years ago I realized that certain wines, and the people who make them, deserve to be singled out for kudos for their efforts. In 2015, it was the wines of Napa’s Carte Blanche and winemaker Helen Keplinger that struck the right note. Then, in 2016, it was Gianluca Bisol, a maker of Prosecco from the D.O.C.G. Valdobbiadene region of Italy, who has handcrafted a wine on a Venetian island from an indigenous grape, Dorona, that was on the verge of extinction.
So it is that this year we acknowledge Gino Cuneo and the Italian varietals that he makes in his home base in Walla Walla, Washington. “Italian Style-American Soil” is how Gino characterizes the wines of g.Cuneo Cellars. That is to say he focuses on producing single variety bottlings of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, along with Amarone-style wines made from grapes grown in the fertile vineyards of the Great Northwest. While he is not the only Washington winemaker making wines from the grapes of the Boot, he may be the most intensely committed.
I first tried Gino’s Seccopassa wine at Tulio restaurant in The Hotel Vintage in Seattle, where I was conducting a tasting of eight Washington-made Italian varietals. The Seccopassa stood out like a purple thumb.
What makes Seccopassa so distinctive is that Gino makes the wine utilizing the time and labor-intensive appassimento method. This involves naturally air-drying the grapes on mats for up to three and half months after harvest and before fermentation. The method is used in the Veneto region of Italy for the production of rich and supple Amarone wines. And it was in Veneto, at Masi, a preeminent producer of Amarone, that Gino learned how to use the appassimento method.
While drying, the flavors in the grapes become concentrated and much of the moisture in the fruit evaporates. So much moisture is removed that by the time the grapes are ready for fermentation, 100 days after harvest, they weigh as little as 65 percent of what they weighed when picked. To produce just one bottle of Amarone, upward of 20 pounds of grapes must be harvested and dried. This is the process that Gino bravely chose to replicate.
But there is one big difference between Cuneo’s Seccopassa and Amarone. In Italy, for an Amarone to be an Amarone, only three grapes, Corvina, which dominates, Rondinella and Molinara, are allowed. In Washington, these grapes don’t exist. Gino uses three other gems in the Seccopassa.
“I have found over the years that the composition of varietals that works best for me is: 50 percent Barbera, contributing color, black fruit flavors, and a velvety texture when dried, 25 percent Nebbiolo for its red fruit aromatic qualities and acidic backbone, and 25 percent Sangiovese for its generous mid-palate.”
In other words, Gino incorporates a method to make his wine that no else in America uses, and he uses regional grapes that no one in Italy uses with the appassimento. That makes this 100-case lot one of the world’s most unique wines.
It for these reasons that I am honored to name the g.Cuneo Cellars 2012 Seccopassa the 2017 WineInk “Wine of the Year.”
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Former race-car driver, current Lewis Cellars winemaker Randy Lewis hosts Aspen dinner alongside chef Byron Gomez as part of the “Aspen Summer Supper Club Series” at 7908.