Sunday, April 12, 2009

5 questions for Darrell Corti

Last weekend I visited Darrell Corti, owner of Corti Bros. in Sacramento. Corti is in the Vintners Hall of Fame because of his keen palate and because he was an early champion -- and sales outlet -- for unknown California wineries that were making great wine.

I'd never been to Corti Bros. before and was impressed with their selection of obscure gourmet items like hand-kneaded sugar, yuzu kosho (pepper paste), and the flat round croxetti pasta I'm eating for lunch today. Darrell can talk knowledgeably about all these things, but I chose to ask my five questions about wine.

WBG: What one wine in your store would you suggest any wine lover try?
Darrell Corti: Isole e Olena Chianti Classico. This wine is the only property whose wine we have bought every vintage. Their first vintage was in 1975, we bought it in 1978, and every vintage since. Even in terrible vintages like 1992, it was still excellent. Antinori declassified all their top wines in 1992. But (Isole e Olena) put everything they grown into the Chianti Classico -- Cabernet, Sangiovese, Syrah. It turned out to be an excellent wine.

WBG: What's your best cheap wine right now?
Darrell Corti: Gazela Vinho Verde ($5.99). Vinho verde is called verde because it's young wine, not mature wine. I like this because it's cheap. There are more important Vinho Verdes. There are single-varietal Vinho Verdes made only from Alvarinho, which this is not. This does have some Alvarinho in it. But it's very light, it's fragrant, the wine is delicious. We can't make wines like this normally. It's made by Sogrape (the big company behind Mateus). When people taste this wine, they're amzaed by it. They ask, "Why haven't we had a wine like this before?"

Vinho Verde is not a vintage wine. They keep making it as an ongoing blend. The biggest problem they have is that the vines are grown very high up. It rains a lot, and in order to protect the clusters from rot they grow them high. Traditionally they grew them on trees. But the grapes never got ripe. The wines had a light fizziness to them because fermentation wasn't finished. The Portuguese liked them. The English on vacation in Portugal during the summer liked them. They have a savory quality that makes them deliciously refreshing on a hot day. But they were terrible to drink in the wintertime because they were too sharp. (But modern Vinho Verde has more sophisticated winemaking techniques.) Some do still have a slight fizz, some don't. The really traditional ones should have it. You can't tell from the bottle.

(Bonus picks: Darrell's runner-up cheapies were Pierre Spar Alsace One 2007, Borsao 2007 and Don Silvestre Mendoza Malbec 2008).

WBG: Famously, you refused to sell non-fortified wines over 14% alcohol. Do you still maintain that stance?
Darrell Corti: We won't taste wines over 14.5% alcohol. You can find some wines here above that. But they're wines that are supposed to be like that. Amarone, for example. I told a writer once, I have my over-14.5% alcohol section. It's called Port and Madeira. Every time someone wants to talk about this, if it's a customer, they say thank you. Wine writers, that's another story.

WBG: Show me a really special spirit that you carry.

Darrell opens a locked case and takes out a bottle of 1977 Hine Cognac ($218).
Darrell Corti: We are the only ones in California who go out and buy barrels of it. This is Cognac uncolored and uncut. It was landed in the UK in 1980 and bottled in 2000. They mature it in the UK because it's cooler there and very damp. It's traditional to mature the Cognac in England. The best places to age Cognac are damp because when it's dry, the water evaporates first. When it's wet, the alcohol evaporates, leaving the water. This becomes a very different Cognac, very fragrant.

We used to mature our own barrels of Scotch, but we don't anymore. There's too much competition.

WBG: What are the most unique wines you have here?

Darrell Corti: Romanian wines. They sell extremely well for us. There are a lot of Romanians in Sacramento, and they drink their own wines. These are grape varieties we know nothing about. Jancis Robinson two years ago wrote that she finally came across a grape variety that she had never heard of before: Busuioaca de Bohotin. We have it here. Feteasca Neagra, Grasa de Cotnari -- we know nothing about these grapes. Do you want to try them with lunch?

WBG: Hell yes.

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