Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Aiace Riserva 2007

Producer: Castello Monaci
Name: Aiace Riserva
Varietals: Malvasia Nera 20%; Negroamaro 80%
Region: Salice Salentino D.O.C., Italy
Vintage: 2007 Riserva
Tasted: April 1, 2013
ABV: 14%

It really is interesting how much history of culture and civilization there is to be divined from a single word. For example, a principle grape of Salice Salentino D.O.C. is negroamaro. On the face of it, the word breaks down simply enough: negro derives from "black," amaro means "bitter," ergo "negroamaro" refers to a dark, bitter grape. And indeed the wine is often so; maybe that is all there is to say about the etymology here after all. A little snooping around outside the box, however, turns up the interesting fact that the suffix -maro is rooted in the Ancient Greek, and modern Salentine, word for "black." "Black-black," perhaps the grape is really called. Heck if the color does not approach such dark depths, and besides, while negroamaro does ferment into wine that includes notes of earth and herbs that may be considered on the bitter side (among many other notes), that would be an odd way to name a beverage that is, in totality, one of the sweet and pleasant drinks in life. The Ancient Greeks, furthermore, planted grapes in most of the motable wine regions around the Mediterranean before the Romans took over such tasks, including in Salento, the peninsula forming the heel of Italy's boot, towards the bottom of which Salice Salentino D.O.C. is located. Snooping around yet further, we find that before even the Greeks arrived in Salento, the Illyrians got there and made a wine called "merum." Mention of this merum is found here and there among Mediterranean literatures for the better part of a millenium, up through the days of the Romans. Technical records, to the poor extent that they exist, are sketchy, but it is plausible that negroamaro was used to make merum. In that case, then, we may have nothing less than "black merum" comprising eighty percent of this beverage here before us today. And who knows what the philologists, anthropologists, and ampelographists will discover next? Absent proof one way or another, we may consider it plausible that any number of civilizations brought negroamaro to Salento at almost any point over the last seven or eight millenia.

Fascinating, really. It is truly remarkable how a single word often contains more history and wonder just waiting to be discovered than an entire sentence that spells something out.

Castello Monaci named this estate bottling after Telemonian Ajax, Ajax the Great, cousin to Achilles and hero of the Greeks in the Trojan War. A blurb in Italian on the back of the bottle discusses how Ajax "distinguished himself time and again" with his "inherent strength and great valor. Powerful, imposing, and quite handsome, he remained calm and collected." (Translation mine.) Ajax was, generally, an intense person, as his falling out with Odysseus and mortal derangement illustrate. But Castello Monaci does well to remind its patrons of the hero's almost superhuman ability, on the battlefield, to keep his abundant energy away from his nerves, housing it instead within his massive limbs. He was thus a paragon of both strength and poise where it counted most. In that respect, it was very keen indeed to name this wine after Ajax.

The Aiace Riserva is a deep red wine, more garnet than ruby. The 2007 has just the absolute slightest hint of orange around the edges. We can certainly get the maximum out of it by drinking it now, without worry that it is not quite ready - but, were we to leave it until 2014 to open, we would be forgiven for looking at it then and thinking that we just hit the beginning of peak drinking age.

The aroma is full of sweet reds, primarily cherry and strawberry, and some purples, principally dried plum. There is even a fig come over to play. Not as heavy as most aromas with so many components, this aroma does lack any sign of the oak casks in which the wine has aged.

The first thing one notices when tasting the wine is how smooth it is. There are some initial notes of vanilla - there are those casks - and some redcurrants and plums. After a couple of sips, the vanilla fades away, and the fruits take over. The Aiace Riserva is medium bodied. It thereby is strong enough to have bold flavors, but it does not allow those flavors to run rampant about the mouth; rather, it keeps them to a gentle, easy glide as they flow smoothly down. The finish is cherry and plum, and I wish it lasted longer.

After breathing for twenty minutes, the wine drinks optimally. In the nose there are some purples and darker reds: plum, cranberry, pomegranite, fig. Still, though, the aroma does an impressive job of staying light. A couple of vanilla and toffee notes are to be found, but the fruits dominate. The palate is slightly richer than it had been earlier, though the tasting notes have not shifted too much at all. The redcurrants have morphed to slightly lighter reds, but they carry the depth of darker reds. The finish has not changed, nor, sadly, learned to endure longer.

Does this wine have an undercurrent of explosive emotions just waiting for a good reason to pop to the forefront of tales and adventures recounted and examined by laypeople and scholars all over the world for millenia to come? Probably not. After even a couple of hours, the wine remained cool and composed. But on the other hand, any time that I am drinking it is a time that counts - precisely the type of situation in which the warrior Ajax would have been the last to even flinch. Beautiful, powerful, poised - and with ends that come way too soon - Ajax the wine and Ajax the hero have an extraordinary amount in common. Open a gripping narrative of his exploits, pour a glass of the good stuff, sit back with both, and enjoy.

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