What was Trieste? And what does it mean to organize a tasting dedicated to it?
Today, Trieste is an Italian city, just across the Adriatic from Venice.
A hundred-odd years ago, it was what was called an imperial free city—a member of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire but part of no state. The wine region in the hills outside of the city is today one of the world’s only transnational appellations: Kras/Carso, treated as a single region by the EU despite the Slovenian-Italian border that divides it. Go north, you cross through Slovenia’s Styria into Austria’s. Down the coast, the soils of Dalmatia bear the same name in Croatian (crvenica) as those of Carso do in Italian (terra rosa).
Mitteleuropa—peep the German—is a concept that’s been used to different ends at different times, some of them ugly. (This is a part of the world where everything has multiple names, and the one that you pick is very important; this is a part of the world where language is used to wound.)
The one I’m choosing to embrace as we taste and explore is a specific parsing of a term that has also been used for harm (it should be admitted), one that sees ‘Mitteleuropa’ as denoting a polyglot cultural landscape that embraces plural identity. If that all sounds a little abstract, well, I’m going to lean a bit on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, to paint the picture, using the example of a particular person:
Aron Ettore Schmitz was born in the city of Trieste at the end of 1861. His mother and father were Jews, of Italian and German origin, respectively. But Trieste was a free imperial city, the main trading port of the Austrian Empire, brought to greatness in the nineteenth century as it connected the empire to Asia. (“‘The third entrance to the Suez Canal,’ they used to call it,” Jan Morris, the English travel writer, tells us.) Young Ettore was, therefore, a citizen of the empire, which was rebaptized as the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was six. Indeed, whatever the words “German” and “Italian” meant when he was born, they didn’t mean you were citizen of Germany or Italy. When, in 1874, Ettore arrived at a new school near Würzburg, in Bavaria, he was visiting a Germany that was younger than he was. The country had been created, a mere three years earlier, through the unification, under a Prussian monarch, of more than two dozen federated kingdoms, duchies, and principalities with three cities of the ancient Hanseatic League. A month or so later, they would be joined by Alsace-Lorraine, ceded to Germany by France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.
As for Italy? Ettore and Italy were practically born twins. The modern Italian state was created in the year of his birth, when Victor Emmanuel, King of Piedmont-Sardinia, was proclaimed King of Italy, united Piedmont-Sardinia with the Venetian territories of the Austrian Empire, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. So, like his father’s German-ness, his mother’s Italianness was more a matter of language or culture than of citizenship.
Only in his late fifties, at the end of the First World War, did Trieste become what it is today, an Italian city. So Ettore Schmitz—Jewish by upbringing, a Catholic as a courtesy to his wife—had claims to being German and to being Italian, and never felt other than Triestine, whatever that meant exactly. Born a subject of the Austrian Emperor, he died a subject of the King of Italy. And his life poses sharply the question how you decide what country, if any, is yours.The Lies That Bind, Kwame Anthony Appiah (p. 71-72)
Ettore Schmitz decided to write, effortfully, in Italian. He chose, as his pen name, Italo Svevo (roughly, “Italian Swabian”). A contemporary—Umberto Saba, another Jewish-Catholic writer from Trieste, once wrote, “Svevo could have written well in German; he preferred to write badly in Italian.” Italo Svevo befriended James Joyce, wrote an iconic avant-garde novel (La coscienza di Zeno), reveled in the ambiguities and street life of his home city.
I’ll quote again from The Lies that Bind—from the end of the chapter, this time:
As a spumy wave of right-wing nationalism surges across Europe once more, we are bound to think about how fragile pluralism can seem. Few had a more acute sense of this than Italo Svevo, a man, who, during the First World War, was regularly summoned for interrogations by the Austrian authorities, and who found himself chafing no less under later policies of Italianization. Like Zeno, his greatest creation, Svevo was never happier than when walking among Trieste’s diverse neighborhoods; an inveterate ironist, he thrived on being sort-of Jewish, sort-of German, and, in the end, only sort-of Italian. For Svevo, who was at heart a man without country or cause, life was a dance with ambiguities. And when fascism convulsed Europe after his death, his kin were dashed against forces that detested ambiguity and venerated certainty—his Catholic wife, Livia, forced to register as a Jew, his grandsons shot as partisans or starved in camps.
And yet, in the canons of our culture, Italo Svevo is still with us. […] To come to terms with Svevo’s complex allegiances is to understand that we don’t have to accept the forced choice between globalism and patriotism. The unities we create fare better when we face the convoluted reality of our differences.
To begin our summer of Mitteleuropa, we tasted three wines that crossed borders and blurred boundaries between likeness and difference. Class was on 23 July, 2022. Here are some questions to ask while you taste:
1. All three of these wines are grown on comparable soils—in the case of Čotar and Vinas Mora, literally the same soil with the name transliterated. Very different winemaking and varieties aside, is there an energy or shape to these wines they carry in common?
2. Wines from this part of the world are often (for American drinkers) unfamiliar, whether in terms of variety, region, or both. Are there places or grapes these bottles take you to? Are they completely foreign ground?
3. Think about the shape, texture, and weight of these three wines. What would you drink them with, and in what context? Did any of them surprise you? Which would you drink again?
How it might look on a wine list
VINAS MORA, babič, “Andreïs”, DALMATIA
In one sentence
Primošten’s local vine treated infusion-style, sea salt + freeze-dried strawberries from the Dalmatian coast.
Who made it? A former somm and NYC-based importer, Kreso Petrekovic found himself back home in Primošten at the outset of the pandemic. He connected with a local winemaking couple, Neno + Josipa Marinov (their distribution model: plastic bottles sold on the side of the road). Together, they rehabbed a nearly abandoned local cooperative winery that supported a couple dozen small-scale local growers, and started a natural wine project partnered with those local farmers and with an eye to international distribution. (They asked Sepp Muster for permission to adapt the general idea for their labels, which were watercolors painted by an artist who at the time was working out of OSTUDIO in Bed-Stuy, where I now write the wine list—small world!)
Out of what? Babić, the local variety of Primošten, grown on intense, rocky soils known as crvenica (terra rosa in Carso/Kras—same geology transliterated to a different language).
From where? Primošten, just north of the city of Split, on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. ‘Vinas Mora’ means ‘wines from the sea’—the Adriatic is a constant influence.
Made how? A blend of two different very short (4- and 6-hour) macerations, pressed off to finish fermentation and age in neutral oak and plastic, bottled without filtration and with 10ppm SO2 addition before bottling.
How it might look on a wine list
ČOTAR, teran, “Terra Rosso”, KRAS
In one sentence
Rich, structured seaside red from the interstitial space between Italy and Slovenia.
Who made it? Branko + Vasja Čotar. (Branko was a restaurant owner who planted out his 7 hectares beginning in 1974; the thumbprint on the label is Branko’s.)
Out of what? Teran, one of the native red grapes of Istria (present-day Slovenia + Croatia), sun-loving and generally high in color and tannin.
From where? Kras/Carso, a borderland region in the hills outside of Trieste that is to my knowledge the only formally recognized international appellation (it sits on the highly-traveled Slovenian-Italian border). The soils, ‘terra rosa’ , the region’s hard, iron oxide-rich chalk, are the same as the crvenica (which means ‘reddish’ or ‘blackish’ if I’m remembering my Polish right?) down the Dalmatian Coast.
Made how? Ultra old-school, oxidative winemaking: fermented on the skins (10-20 days) and aged in the same barrels it was fermented in, a mix of 225L to 2000L, some new. Aged for 4-5 years before bottling.
How it might look on a wine list
TAUSS, sauvignon blanc, “H”, STEIERMARK
In one sentence
Sauvignon blanc like it is nowhere else in the world, tropical, aged, multidimensional.
Who made it? Alice + Roland Tauss, who have been making wine since the early ’90s (conventionally in those days, biodynamically and with no further interventions since the early aughts—they fully converted in 2005, and are part of a five-member group of biodynamic, naturally-minded Steiermark winemakers called Schmecke das Leben—’taste of life’). They farm just under 6 hectares of vines on a single hill named Hohenegg, with a chapel dedicated to St. Urban, the patron saint of winemakers, at the crest, that Roland hikes to every morning. (They also run a hotel + yoga retreat that Alice teaches classes for.)
Out of what? Sauvignon planted in 2001 on the steep upper part of the Hohenegg, on what’s locally called opok—a limestone and clay silt soil common in the region. (The hill is why “H”.)
From where? The Steiermark, Austria’s green garden, in the south, near the Alps and just on the Slovenian border (the local capital is Graz). Famous for dramatic river gorges, pumpkin seed oil, and being the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Made how? Destemmed, soaked on the skins for 2 days, pressed into a mix of different-sized neutral oak barrel + cask, where it spends two years finishing fermentation and settling down. Bottling with no filtration or sulfur. (See similarities in terms of oxidative wood-focused winemaking with no racking to Čotar, above!)