Francesco Zonin of Zonin1821 Fine Wine & Spirits held a “Sommeliers’ Themed Lunch” in Chicago this month, but this was not an ordinary producer’s tasting. This was an experience. Francesco, a seventh generation Zonin, led a small number of industry professionals on a cultural journey of the senses through a blind tasting and multi-course lunch.

“To understand the wine, you must understand the culture,” Zonin said. “Wine is an experience.”

Having traveled through and spent extensive time in Italy, I always think back to the lively and passionate Italian culture, and the friendships and connections formed over food and wine. Whether it’s a leisurely lunch in a square, a homecooked meal enjoyed in a family home, or Sunday afternoon spent with a picnic in a vineyard, food and wine are woven throughout the lifestyle. And this is exactly what Zonin1821 created on a sunny, breezy October afternoon in Chicago’s River North neighborhood at Brindille.

At first, the dozen strangers that came together at a shared table for a blind wine tasting, made small talk, but what began as nervous giggles here and there, turned to laughter over shared stories and aperitivos. As the wines were poured and well-paced courses brought out, each was discussed in earnest. Walls came down, people relaxed and suddenly it was no longer a “business lunch” on a weekday in Chicago. Professional connections and friendships were taking shape, and nearly four hours later, this little group with a new shared experience, departed part of each other’s stories.   

Not only did this epicurean adventure create a cultural experience to set the stage for the wines, it also curated an environment in which they could be truly tasted without distraction or a need to assess and rush to conclusion. We were given space to absorb the aromas, tastes and mouth feel much as they were intended to be – among friends and with good food. And what we discovered surprised us all…but first, who is the Zonin family?

Familigia Zonin

The Zonin family has been making wines in Northern Italy for seven generations. Since 1821, the family has owned Casa Vinicola Zonin in the Veneto region of Italy. It wasn’t until 1970 that the Zonin’s purchased a second, Ca’ Bolani in Friuli. Another purchase was made shortly after in 1976, in Barboursville, Virginia, before the region’s recent foray into vinifera. Today, they family’s wineries include seven properties across Italy, the Barboursville Vineyards in the States, and Dos Almas in Chile.  

“Each region has its own traditions, each region has its own wines.”

This is the Zonin family philosophy under which they operate their 5,000 acres of vineyards. Every wine made is done to preserve the local winemaking traditions, land and culture of their respective regions. When choosing vineyard locations, the family first looks to the overall terroir of a region for its ability to grow high-quality grapes. Once the decision is made, the family then visits older winemaking generations within the area to obtain its history – what kind of grapes were grown, wines made, and what were the local traditions for making it.

“Making great pasta is about memory recall. We’re often first taught by an earlier generation and we learn to make the dough by feel, much as they too were taught by a generation before them,” said Zonin. “But with wine it’s more complex. Vintage variety makes it difficult to make wine strictly from memory. This is why a combination of modern vinification methods, indigenous varieties and historical expertise are necessary to create fine, well-balanced wines with elegance.”

The Unexpected Elegance and Freshness of the South of Italy

The Zonin family’s expertise was on full display with the wines presented at the Chicago luncheon. Each of the nine wines were sourced from two of the Zonin’s properties: Feudo Principi di Butera in Sicily and Masseria Altemura in Apulia. While the guests, all students of wine, knew the grapes and wines common to these regions, we were left to guess which region for each as well as the variety. Although the region was determined with a decent level of accuracy, the variety, was not. These wines both humbled and surprised the group with their softness, balance and vibrancy. The two biggest surprises were the sparkling wines. The first, the Neroluce Brut from Principi di Butera was a pale lemon brut with fine perlage and made from Nero d’Avola, one of the more well-known red wine grapes of Sicily. The other sparkling wine, a rosé, was the Rosamaro made from Negroamaro and coming from Masseria Altemura in Apulia. The Zonin’s also impressed the group with the two white wines a Fiano and Insolia from Apulia and Sicily, respectively. These wines each showed minerality and citrus, with stone fruit and florals on the Fiano and a more medium body on the Insolia owing to its time on the lees.

“It’s not all big red wines in Southern Italy,” said Zonin. “It is a common misperception owing to the fact that many of these wines are still relatively little-known.”

The red wines presented included two Primitivos, an Aglianico, a Nero d’Avola and a Cabernet Sauvignon. The Nero d’Avola was a 2005 and showed remarkable fruit and acidity remaining on the palate, a testament to the higher quality of the wine given its age. Each of the wines presented lived up to the theme of the lunch – elegance and freshness. These were not the typical big or spicy wines often perceived as coming from these warmer Mediterranean regions. It is Zonin1821’s goal to bring more of these wines to the market and begin changing the public perception of the wines of Southern Italy.

“Although Sicily, like Veneto, is one of Italy’s largest wine producing regions, the wines of this style and quality are not often what come to mind. It is our challenge to change that perception which takes courage, investment and consistent production of high-quality wines being brought to market and this is what we are committed to doing.”

The overall takeaway from this immersive lunch was indeed that wine is an experience. While the ability to write good tasting notes, and a knowledge base of grapes and regions is helpful, to fully understand a wine, one must understand the culture and history, keep an open mind and experience it in the way in which it was intended – with good food and company. This is wine education to the Zonin’s. What is wine education to you?

This week’s AWS blog was written and submitted by Kristy Wenz. Kristy is a wine writer and a WSET Diploma candidate.