Aia Vecchia and the International Maremma

September 19, 2014

If there is any part of Italy that has a true vocation for French grape varieties, it has to be the Tuscan Maremma, that range of hills and scrub that lies just behind the Tyrrhenean coast. Cabernet and Merlot had already achieved fame there almost 40 years ago with Sassicaia and Ornellaia, before Angelo Gaja (for reasons other than rhyming) chose to make a major land purchase and build his monumental new Eliowinery there. Only gradually did native Maremmana grape growers join in the party, though in the past 20 years more and more of them have realized that the outsiders were on to a good thing. The latest entry, and a very promising one it is, is Aia Vecchia, whose young scion, Elia Pellegrini, describes his family as “the last of the real Bolgheri blood.”

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Bolgheri, of course, is where Sassicaia originates, a small country town with a pretty centro storico and a famous avenue of cypress trees leading up to it. There is a poem about them by Giosuè Carducci that almost every Italian schoolchild at some point has to memorize, so the spot was well imbedded in the Italian consciousness before Sassicaia called the wine world’s attention to it. The Pellegrini family has been growing grapes there for generations, and when they decided to produce their own wine they obtained the advice of the near-legendary Tibor Gal, a Hungarian, in selecting sites and varieties. After Gal’s shockingly early death in an auto accident, they worked with agronomist Daniel Schuster, a New Zealander. They produced their first commercial bottling (of Lagone, of which more below) in 1998. The name Aia Vecchia is not, as may appear, an attempt to ride on Sassicaia’s coattails, but the name of a tiny town that lies between Bolgheri and Castagneto Carducci.

Like the consultants they opted to work with, the grapes the Pellegrinis chose to grow show a distinctly international bent. In the Aia Vecchia vineyards, most of which lie within the Bolgheri DOC zone, they planted Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Petit verdot, and – oh yes – Sangiovese. On their acreage in Grosseto province, they grow Merlot and Viognier in addition to Sangiovese and Vermentino.

vineyards

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The preeminent figure in Pellegrini family history is Elio’s great-grandfather Ugo, who was known locally as Sor Ugo. Sor is local dialect for Sir, an honorific bestowed by popular acclaim because of his local importance, and now the name of the family’s top-of-the-line red wine.

Sor Ugo, back in the day

Sor Ugo, back in the day

The latest generation, Elia, hadn’t planned to join the family business just yet: He hoped to play professional soccer, which in Italy is rock-, movie-, and TV-stardom all rolled in one. And he did: he was playing for Livorno until just a few years ago, when, as he says, “I broke my knee and my heart.” Now he throws himself into wine with as much enthusiasm as he did soccer. Happily, the wines his family makes give him plenty to be enthusiastic about.

vermentinoOver a very pleasant recent lunch at Craft Bar, Elia poured three of the family’s most important wines. (A fourth, Morellino di Scansano from the Grosseto property, is not imported at this time.) We started with Vermentino, a lovely white wine from the grape of the same name. Most of the Vermentino coming to the US originates in Sardinia, but the Tuscan Maremma also shows a real aptitude for it. The bottle we tasted was a 2013, entirely handled in stainless steel and containing 5% Viognier, which contributed to its herbal/mineral aroma. The round, fruity palate seemed all Vermentino, however, especially the mineral/slaty finish. All in all, a very enjoyable white wine to drink as aperitif or with light antipasti, and an excellent value at a suggested retail price of $12.

lagoneWe then proceeded to the first red wine, Lagone, which is the mainstay of Aia Vecchia’s line. It too is an unquestionable value (suggested retail price: $15). Here the Bolgheri internationalism comes to the fore. Merlot (60%), Cabernet sauvignon (30%), and Cabernet franc (10%) make up the blend, which spends some time in American oak. The result is a very easy drinking, almost soft wine. A few tough tannins still showed, but this 2011 was still a very young wine, and those will no doubt soften, perhaps within the year. Lagone showed itself a fine companion to several different dishes and gives every sign that it can be a versatile dinner wine, its slightly California-inflected palate led by that soft Merlot and structured by the two Cabernets. And you can’t beat the price.

sorugoThe final wine we tasted was Aia Vecchia’s top-of-the-line Sor Ugo. All the grapes for Sor Ugo come from the estate’s best Bolgheri vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon (50%), Merlot (30%), Cabernet franc (15%) and Petit verdot (5%) spend a lot of time – 18 months minimum – in new Allier oak to produce a wine that surprised me completely by how much I enjoyed it. Regular readers of this post will know that (a) I’m not at all fond of using international grapes in Italian wines, and (b) I can’t stand an oak-dominated wine. Well, Sor Ugo isn’t oak-dominated, despite all that time in barriques. Its style is international in the precise sense that it balances France and Italy quite beautifully. Sor Ugo’s aroma is very elegant, in a distinctly Bordelaise manner. On the palate, its Bordelaise cassis is harmonized with Mediterranean macchia, Italian minerality, and bright acidity. The whole is very fine and quite elegant, and the 2010 we tasted gave every indication that it would age nicely for easily another 10 years. The Pellegrinis’ goal has been to make a wine of Bolgheri quality at a less-than-Bolgheri price. With Sor Ugo’s suggested retail price of $35, I’d say they have come very close indeed to achieving that goal.

 

Gloria in Excelsis

September 8, 2014

Château Gloria and I go back a long way together. It was one of the first serious Bordeaux I tasted when I was just learning wine, somewhere back in the early Cretaceous, and it is still a favorite of mine and Diane’s.

The way I went about learning wine was by going to a knowledgeable, friendly wine shop and asking the owner to put together a case of wines that would show me the kinds of wines that were available. The Cretaceous-era giveaway is that when he asked how much I wanted to pay, he didn’t bat an eye when I said my ceiling was a hundred dollars for the whole case. No problem: He just selected a dozen wines– almost all French, because that’s what wine was back then – that included, from Burgundy, a Corton Charlemagne and a Nuits St. Georges (Les Boudots, from Henri Gouges: I can still taste that amazing elixir), and from Bordeaux a Château Brane Cantenac and a Château Gloria.

Once hooked on Gloria (which was from the first sip), we drank a lot of it – most of it too young, but I was still learning. In those days, the great 1966 vintage of Gloria was available for $3 a bottle in Macy’s excellent wine shop (yes, Macy’s had a wine shop back then, and a butcher shop too, and both were fine) with a 10% case discount, which made it affordable even on a meager academic salary. How I wish now I still had some of those ‘66s, or could get a young Gloria at those prices!  Où sont les neiges d’antan, eh?

Chateau Gloria

Ave atque vale

A few nights ago, to match some succulent braised short ribs that Diane had made, I pulled our last bottle of Château Gloria out of my wine closet – which is what started this nostalgic riff. It was the last bottle not because we’ve lost our taste for it – far from it – but because it no longer costs $3 a bottle, or even 10 times that amount. More like 20 times, and Gloria has never been a price leader in Bordeaux. Our incomes, like most people’s, have not increased anything near 20 times since our youth, so Château Gloria along with the rest of Bordeaux has just sailed out of sight for us. Which is sad, since there are still some lovely wines there, even though I don’t like a lot of the changes that have taken place in Bordeaux over the years. But that’s a subject for another post, another time.

What I want to do here is not lament but celebrate, and particularly I want to celebrate the persistence and consistency of Gloria’s identity and character. When we first made its acquaintance, Château Gloria was a new kid on the block in Bordeaux, an estate only a little more than 20 years old, an unclassified growth of St. Julien that had been cobbled together out of bits and pieces of other estates (including some illustrious ones – Gruaud Larose, the Leovilles, Ducru-Beaucaillou). All those were classified growths, but that didn’t help Gloria’s status, and without the luster of history or high ranking, all it could rely on was its quality.

Fortunately it had that in abundance. Its creator, Henri Martin, the long-time mayor of St. Julien, wanted to make a wine that could stand with the Médoc’s greatest. He fought all his life to have the 1855 classification redone, and everyone in the wine world agreed that if it were redone his Gloria would be at very least a Fourth Growth, if not a Third – but of course that never happened, and Gloria continued to bump along, much beloved by many, but selling always at prices, compared to other Médoc wines, well below its standing. Which, of course, was fine for impecunious me, if not for M. Martin.

Which brings me to that final bottle, a 1990. Gloria has always been for me a classic St. Julien, elegant rather than big, suave and persistent rather than powerful. When I pulled the cork – carefully, because at 24 years old it was a little fragile – and poured our first glasses, many years (a few decades, to be honest) just evaporated. The aroma was exactly the same as those long-gone but fondly remembered ‘66s, and so was the taste and the mouth feel, the latter satiny and the former a rush of cedar and cassis edged with tobacco. It stayed that way through the whole meal, from a starter of cream of celery soup, through the unctuous braised short ribs, to the end of three very different cheeses (a nutty Brebis, a fine Wisconsin blue, and an assertive Grayson). Finished alone, even the last of the wine remained true to itself – poised, vital, elegant.

A lot of British wine wankers, including several who should know better, claim that Gloria isn’t the wine it used to be; that the house style changed in the 70s to a lighter, sweeter wine that wouldn’t age as well as the wines of the 50s and 60s. Somewhere between 10 and 15 years is often given as its life span. Well, my lovely final bottle, kept for years in my less-than-optimum storage conditions, just flat out gave the lie to that. Gloria remains what it always was – glorious.

Afterdinner Afterthought: Amaro and its Kin

August 28, 2014

In my last post, I cavalierly dismissed the thought of needing an after-dinner drink to ease the pangs of overeating, as if I never did that. Well, as Sheldon Cooper would say, that’s a lie: Sometimes I do. Not often – but every once in a while something Diane makes is so extraordinarily good that I just can’t resist cleaning my plate and coming back for more, regardless of all my pious resolutions of moderation. Or sometimes – this happens far more often in restaurants than ever at home – something I ate just doesn’t sit right with me, and the assorted inward gurgles and burbles send me looking for relief. In either case, I’d much rather take my relief in the form of an interesting amaro than a Pepto Dismal.

branca mentaThere is a whole cadre of such drinks available, and the majority of them are very interesting indeed, both for their flavor and efficacy and for their often exotic origins. Our family standby is Branca Menta, which is Fernet Branca gentled with an infusion of mint. Many an Italian still swears by plain old Fernet, which is just as effective as Branca Menta but a tad too bitter for my taste. Back in my childhood, every Italian-American household kept two bottles of spirits: Strega (why I don’t know) and Fernet. Neither Fernet nor Branca Menta is actually very spiritous – a mere 30% alcohol, which is only 60 proof – but they both work quickly and gently to break up the logjam in the stomach and relieve the discomforts of palatal excess. That welcome comfort appears to be due to their combinations of herbs, which give flavor, color, and congeners to the basic colorless and almost flavorless spirit from which they’re made.

Those herbs are still a family secret, preserved by the Branca heirs since the first production of the drink in 1845. They claim to use 27 of them, from 5 continents; among them aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, galingale from India, chamomile from Italy or Argentina – plus flowers, more herbs, roots and plants, some as extracts and teas, some macerated whole in the base alcohol. These are what, to quote Fernet’s website, “produce the beneficial properties of the product.” As near as I have been able to find out, the only difference in the formula for Branca Menta is an addition of mint oil. Whatever: It works like magic for me – a pleasing gastric roto-rooter far more effective than any patent medicine.

Of course these two are hardly the only herbal liqueurs around. Italy sports a whole battery of amari – herbal bitters – and each region seems to have a favorite, usually of local production. Each is interesting, and each is different, so it can be fun to taste them one by one on your travels through Italy, or through your local wine shop. China (pronounced keena, with some quinine in it), Averna, Lucano, Ramazzotti, Cynar (made with artichoke), Rabarbaro (rhubarb), vermouths both white and red:  All these belong in that same category, and all can succeed admirably as a comforting digestivo.

amari

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The origin of all such drinks lies probably in the monasteries and convents of late medieval Europe, where nuns and monks exploited the newly acquired (from the Arabs) art of distillation to produce cordials for use in their infirmaries.

Cave-de-la-Chartreuse

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VEPThe most famous of these is unquestionably Chartreuse, in some respects the grandfather of them all. There seems to exist an alchemical manuscript of 1605 which contains the still highly secret formula for the liqueur, which takes its name from the charterhouse of the Carthusian monks who still make it. Apparently it contains 130 herbs, plants, flowers and spices in a wine base, and the resultant liqueur is one of the most highly alcoholic of them all – around 110 proof for the green and 80 proof for the yellow version.

The best of all is Diane’s favorite, Chartreuse VEP, which shares the almost-electric color of the basic green Chartreuse but receives extra-long oak aging to become an absolutely exquisite liqueur, a digestif whose consumption doesn’t need discomfort to justify it.

Let Us Now Praise After-Dinner Drinks

August 18, 2014

I know summer is not supposed to be the time for thinking about, much less consuming, brandies, but I can’t help it: I’m addicted. For me, nothing completes an enjoyable dinner as well as a fine digestivo – or digestif, if you prefer. Whichever you call it, those names indicate exactly what that little tot does: Settle in the good food you’ve just ingested and comfortably begin the process of digesting it.

Not that I need to have eaten to the point of discomfort: far from it. I’m talking about a good, modest dinner, not a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Perhaps in my distant youth I might have been interested in some such marathon, but these days I couldn’t even if I wanted to: Age and metabolic changes (they will come to all of us) have drastically reduced my consumption. Diane and I together now can’t finish a T-bone steak that once would have been just right for one of us. Our capacity is way down, but that doesn’t make a juicy piece of beef any less delicious:  Now more than ever, it’s quality that counts, not quantity – just as, with wine, it has always been quality that mattered more than alcohol.

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So the only question in my mind is not whether one should end a good meal with a little snocker of something, but with which one?  Armagnac?  Calvados? Cognac? A fruit eau de vie? Grappa?  Marc?  Tequila?  Single-malt whisky? And which one of the many in each category?  There’s no easy answer to that: Each has its niche. And it isn’t just a question of the great diversity of these drinks. No: It’s also the fact that each one of these spirits alters with the food you’ve consumed before it. That can be most obvious in the case of grappa, where the same specimen will sometimes smell freshly fruity and sometimes reek like aged Parmigiano, but it is equally true of spirits seemingly more well-defined, like Cognac or Armagnac, which, when they are not exactly what the doctor ordered, can be either too fiery or too sweet, depending on what foods they’re following.

I know only one way to determine which little tot to choose on any given evening: Pull the cork and sniff the bottle. Usually, the meal’s flavors in your mouth and scents in your nose will point to a broad category of spirits: an Alsace fruit eau de vie, or a Piedmontese or a Tuscan grappa, for instance. But after that, only taking a good sniff from a bottle or two or three will make clear to you whether you want Framboise or Poire, Barbera or Moscato, Sangiovese or Canaiolo – or maybe you want to go in a completely other direction and pour yourself a wee dram of peaty, smoky, seaweedy Oban or Talisker.

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I’ve enjoyed all of the above at different times and in different circumstances, and each has had its moment when it seemed like the only taste in the world that could fit that moment. Equally, I’ve had times when I sniffed the bottle and thought “Why in the world would I ever drink that?”  The process is always illuminating, and the result is always fun, haphazard as it may be.

What actually causes these changes, in the drink and/or in my perception of it, I don’t really know. Science has other things on its mind, and no wine journalist I know of has made a serious study of this phenomenon – but it strikes me as far more interesting and pertinent to day-to-day gastronomic contentment than the molecular composition of any of Ferran Adria’s foams. That’s not the chemistry I’m interested in. Much of my contentment and my health, both mental and physical, derive from the day-to-day experimental science of the table and its pleasures.

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Recently, I’ve been spending more time than I really want to with members of the medical profession – nothing life-threatening, but a few symptoms that are quality-of-life disturbing – and some MDs seem both unfamiliar with the concept of pleasure and incapable of pronouncing words like “wine” or “cognac” or even “beer.”  To the puritanical breed of White Coats, there is only Alcohol; and it’s all the same, and it’s a poison. No matter how healthy your liver and kidneys, brains and guts may be, it’s poison, and if you “use” it, you’re killing yourself.

I’ve given up asking such doctors whether metabolisms aren’t sufficiently different to make generalizations like that useless, and pointing out that I don’t plan to live forever and would willingly trade off a few years of gustatory boredom for a slightly shorter span of intense palatal pleasure. That’s my version of the choice of Achilles. Sadly, such MDs don’t seem to even comprehend the alternatives.

Not all are like that, of course: Occasionally I come across a sybarite who, while poking my torso in search of overripe spots, happily picks my brain for wine suggestions. Maybe I should bill them for the consultation?

All this is not as far off my subject as it might at first appear. It’s no accident that brandies and whiskies and that whole class of distilled drinks used to be known as cordials. They were thought to be – and I think they are – good for your heart. And remember, many are still called eaux de vie, and eau de vie means water of life. Now that I think of it, that too is what whisky means. I don’t think any of this etymological convergence is accidental. Stoking digestion is good for you, and doing so with a complex and delicious, gently fiery small glass of spirits (again, the word is no accident) is one of the more brilliant inventions of our flawed civilization.

A Final 2010 Barolo Visit: Burlotto

August 7, 2014

Burlotto – to give the estate its full name, Commendatore G. B. Burlotto – is a long-established Barolo producer that I have been late in coming to appreciate. For the last few years at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual blind tasting in Alba at which about 300 producers show their new releases to invited international wine journalists) I’ve been noticing that I consistently score Burlotto’s wines very high. This year I decided it was time that I found out something about the winery, so I arranged to visit. Winemaker Fabio Alessandria hosted me for an afternoon at what turned out to be, to my intense pleasure, one of the most traditional wineries of the zone.

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Fabio and Botti

 

Not only was Burlotto’s cellar filled with fine old botti – the very large barrels of Slavonian oak that have been the traditional wine fermenters and containers in Piedmont at least since the 19th century – but also the family continues to grow all the traditional Piedmontese grapes – Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo – as well as the now-almost-endangered Freisa and Pelaverga. The latter were for me a special treat, because they make wines that are distinctive and always accessible and refreshing, especially after the sometimes daunting task of each morning’s tasting through 50 or 60 young Barolos.

Unfortunately Freisa and Pelaverga are not well known outside their native zone, hence don’t make a big market item, and, hence again, are steadily losing vineyard space to better-known, more easily sellable varieties. That’s yet one more instance of how the very success of wine is contributing to its homogenization. Thank whatever gods may be for steadfast traditionalists like Burlotto.

Fabio led me through a tasting of Burlotto’s extensive line of wines. All remarks within quotation marks in the rest of this piece are Fabio’s comments.

“Giovan Battista, my great-great-grandfather, is considered one of the founders of Barolo.  According to my family legend, he was the first producer to bottle a Barolo under his own name. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he surely was one of the pioneer small producers. We are still a family farm – 15-16 hectares, mostly in Verduno, plus some others in Cannubi and a few other places. We grow mostly Nebbiolo, but also a little Freisa and Pelaverga in Verduno.”

 

The vineyards of Verduno, northernmost of the Barolo townships. Monvigliero (in brown) is the most important. (Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti's Barolo DOCG The Official Crus. Info@enogea.it)

The vineyards of Verduno, northernmost of the Barolo townships. Monvigliero (in brown) is the most important. (Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Barolo DOCG The Official Crus. Info@enogea.it)

 

“We’re close to organic, but we’re not certified organic – no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides. The cellar is very traditional. The work is all artisanal, all done by hand. We don’t even try to control the fermentation temperature too much; we prefer to be as natural as possible.”

Viridis Sauvignon blanc 2013:  Classic nose, with lots of lime, citrus, sage, mint. On the palate, a bit less extravagant, but passionfruit-tasting: sweet and acid all wrapped up together. Very refreshing. A good example of Sauvignon from an unlikely zone. “In Verduno, we have small patches of chalk in some vineyards. That’s great for Sauvignon blanc, which is why we tried that variety here. “

Elatis Rosé 2013:  (45% Nebbiolo 45% Pelaverga 10% Barbera)  Very nice: light, fresh, berry-ish, with a few other fruits mixed in – strawberries and raspberries plus, as Fabio says, “a touch of pepperiness, a touch of peach – but especially the wild strawberry, from the Pelaverga.”  He adds, “Rosés aren’t traditional here. We were the first cellar in this area to produce and bottle one. They are becoming more and more popular now.”

Pelaverga 2013 and 2012:  The nose is very underbrushy, almost wild, especially wild strawberry. Complicated flavor, fresh and very interesting: very lively. All these characteristics very pronounced in the ’12. This is a variety I am really happy has survived. “Pelaverga evolves in the direction of Pinot noir – aromatic cooking herbs, thyme, bay leaf. My grandfather really loved Pelaverga and kept growing it while other people were abandoning it. It’s having a new life now, especially as a lunch wine, for which it’s perfect: light and flavorful, with a little complexity.”

Dolcetto 2012:  Lovely strawberry nose: classic Dolcetto aromas. Very fine: a beautifully done traditional Dolcetto. “2012 was a strange harvest, very warm. The wines turned out very different from our expectations – not fat or big, but more elegant, less alcoholic.”

Barbera 2012:  From vineyards in Roddi and Verduno. Aged in botti. Blackberry, brambly nose. Delightful Barbera fruit and acid: great fun – a perfect Barbera.

Barbera Aves 2012:  A selection of the best parts of each vineyard. Aged in tonneau. A touch of wood on the nose: smoother on the palate than the first Barbera, but still lively fruit. A bit more polished and elegant than the basic Barbera. “An important experiment for us, a chance to vary a bit from tradition. Barbera is more receptive to a little oak than Nebbiolo is.”

Langhe Freisa 2012:  Wild strawberry and raspberry aromas and flavors; fine acid/tannin balance; some elegance: Very fine. Another traditional Piedmont variety that deserves being preserved. “80% of the DNA in Freisa and Nebbiolo is the same. Freisa is the older variety, so it may be some sort of rustic great-grandparent of Nebbiolo. Yield is lower than Nebbiolo and the harvest is later, because Freisa’s tannins don’t ripen as well as Nebbiolo’s.”

Langhe Nebbiolo 2012:  Black cherries and underbrush; on palate cherry and earth notes. Medium body. Very elegant, very composed. “A little raspberry too in the flavor.”

Barolo 2010:  Wonderful black cherry, earth, and tar aroma. Delicious, with pleasing soft tannins, great acidity and freshness. A five-star wine for sure, and this is just Burlotto’s basic Barolo. “We produce four different Barolos. We work very traditionally. Verduno Barolo is more delicate and elegant than other zones, and we try to emphasize that.”

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Barolo Acclivi 2010:  This is what used to be called a riserva – a selection from several vineyards in the best years. More tar on nose – the fabled goudrun – and palate, more structured and less giving now. This one is built for the ages.

Barolo Monvigliero 2010:  “A single-vineyard wine, but one of our most traditional: We crush the grapes by foot, and we don’t always tightly control the temperature during fermentation. Two months maceration on the skins.” Lovely and elegant, with undertones of dried flowers, tar, dried fruit. Silky tannins. Totally enjoyable already, and yet giving every sign of long life ahead of it.

Barolo Cannubi 2010:  Equally as good as Monvigliero, but very different; austere, showing more power and a bit less elegance, but in no way heavy. A wonderful, pure Nebbiolo-fruit finish. Very, very fine: All these Barolos are five-star wines.

So concluded yet another fine visit in Barolo-land, leaving Ubriaco to mourn once again the passing of the days when one could take almost a case of wines onto the plane home as hand luggage.

More Fine 2010 Barolo Visits: Paolo Scavino

July 28, 2014

It was very hard to find a bad wine, even a mediocre one, among the 2010 new releases that I tasted in Alba back in May, so that made my afternoon visits to individual producers (the blind-tasting sessions ran all morning) very pleasurable indeed. One that I particularly enjoyed was to the Paolo Scavino estate, where Elisa Scavino treated me to their whole gamut of Piedmont wines. Scavino is a fourth-generation, family-owned producer.

Scavino family. Elisa is second from left.

Scavino family. Elisa is second from left.

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The winery and family headquarters are located in Castiglione Falletto, but the Scavinos own pieces of 19 different crus, scattered through the many communes of the Barolo zone.

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Scavino vineyards

Barolo crus in light purple; Scavino vineyards in dark purple

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Their most prized bottlings are:

  • Barolo Carabric (mostly Castiglione Falletto commune),
  • Barolo Bricco Ambrogio (the only cru of the small zone of Roddi),
  • Barolo Monvigliero (the grand cru of Verduno),
  • Barolo Cannubi (one of the most famous crus of Barolo township),
  • Barolo Bric del Fiasc (Castiglione Falletto commune), and
  • Barolo Rocche del Annunziata (the great La Morra cru).

In addition to those, the family also makes the classic Piedmontese gamut: a white (atypically vinified from Chardonnay and a little Viognier), Vino Rosso, a simple red blended from young vines of typical Piedmont varieties, plus Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo Langhe. So, as you can easily understand, these necessitate many small, separate vinifications. All the “simpler” wines – in Piedmont, it’s always wise to say “simple” in quotation marks – are fermented and aged only in stainless steel, while all the Barolos undergo malolactic fermentation in used barriques and later age in large botti, to finally rest for some months in stainless steel before bottling.

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Here are the wines I tasted, with my impressions and some of the remarks about them that Elisa Scavino made as we tasted.

Sorriso 2013:  A refreshing white wine (especially after a whole morning of young Nebbiolo), with a lovely Viognier nose, lively and friendly on the palate (apple and quince notes). Quite enjoyable. Elisa says this wine began as a project for the family’s use and only gradually grew into a wine for the portfolio. Slow, low-temperature fermentation, and no malo, in order to preserve the bright acidity.

Vino Rosso 2013:  A cuvee from young vines – Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, and a little Merlot. Big red fruit nose, pleasing simple red fruit on the palate, soft tannins, good acidity: a straightforwardly enjoyable wine for everyday meals. Elisa: “No wood at all on this wine or the Dolcetto or the Barbera.”

Dolcetto 2013:  Classic Dolcetto nose; on the palate, light sweet fruit, with great clarity and purity. Very fine and charming, in the best Dolcetto manner. Elisa: “In Piemonte, we always start an important dinner with Dolcetto: it lets you begin gently before you drink the big wines.”

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Barbera d’Alba 2013:  Textbook Barbera nose and Alba palate – round, fresh red fruit, a little peppery, with a clean, briskly acid finish. Very nice indeed. From a La Morra cru, Elisa said, with eastern exposure, not too warm, so it ripens slowly. “La Morra gives great elegance, both to Nebbiolo and to Barbera.”

Barbera d’Alba Affinato in Caratti 2012:  According to Elisa, this special Barbera comes from Bricco Ambrogio in Roddi, from vines that were planted in the 1950s. I found it very intense and complex, more serious and fine than Scavino’s basic Barbera, but no less authentically varietal. Elisa: “I like Barbera with a little age, because it gives the wine a chance to pull together and harmonize.”

Langhe Nebbiolo 2012:  Intensely tobacco-y Nebbiolo nose; big, soft fruit on the palate. Dark flavors, but lightish and live on the palate. Very good and quite drinkable. Elisa: “For us, this is an introduction to Barolo, a way to come to know Nebbiolo – less demanding or intimidating than Barolo, a wine that can be drunk younger than Barolo. Langhe Nebbiolo especially needs to be top quality because of that.”

Barolo 2010:  A lovely example of the vintage, with great fruit and real charm: impressive structure as well, as is a hallmark of the 2010 vintage. Very, very fine. “From seven different crus in Castiglione Falletto, Barolo, and Serralunga d’Alba, the selection depending on the vintage, blended to make the traditional Barolo,” says Elisa. “It should really be called Barolo Classico, but Italian law won’t let us do that.”

Barolo Carabric 2010:  Fine fruit, great structure – a fine wine, surprisingly drinkable already. Elisa: “Beautiful drinkability and great complexity, without being huge or overpowering – the 2010 vintage was like that right from the start – a beautiful vintage.”

Barolo Bricco Ambrogio 2010:  Cherry-sweet fruit from the only cru of Roddi. Intense underpinnings of tar/tobacco/earth/mushroom. Very fine and quite distinctive. Elisa: “Full south exposure, lots of limestone in the soil, vines nearing 20 years of age. Good fruit focus in this cru, always.”

Barolo Monvigliero 2010:  Black fruit, earth, mushrooms in the aroma. Black, sweet fruit on the palate. Again, distinctive – a huge structure, but with delicacy: the interplay of strength and delicacy is fascinating. A very, very great wine. Elisa: “The grand cru of Verduno – limestone and chalk soil. The grapes are always a little bit spicy.”

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Barolo Cannubi 2010:  Earth, dried flowers, funghi porcini in the nose, and in the mouth mineral, rock, funghi, then fruit – in short, classic Cannubi. A very great wine. Elisa: “We lease this vineyard year by year, since 1985. It’s unquestionably one of the best vineyards we work with. Largely Michet clone of Nebbiolo.”

Barolo Bric del Fiasc 2010:  In nose and palate, earth, tobacco, funghi, sottobosco; great fruit and minerality; very welcoming. Its underlying complexity opens slowly and gently. Elisa: “Our cru since 1921, the first we vinified as a single cru, in 1978. Very complex soil in this vineyard. For me, since I grew up with it, this is a classic expression of Barolo, a bit introverted and needing to be learned, but very long-aging and persistent.”

Barolo Rocche dell’ Annunziata Riserva 2008:  Simply gorgeous. Big, sweet, dark fruit, great structure and freshness: years to go. Lovely. Elisa: “Fantastic year, 2008. A very warm vineyard, with white, sandy soil, great drainage. We have one and a half hectares, which we are replanting, because the vines are too old. We’re using our own massal selection for the new vines.”

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This was the last wine I tasted that afternoon. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end a visit in Piedmont, with this majestic Barolo serving as the capstone of an impressive array of wines, consistent from start to finish in style and quality.

Great 2010 Barolo: Massolino

July 16, 2014

I tasted a lot of superb Barolos at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima, back in May. There’s no question that 2010 is one of the greatest Barolo vintages of my lifetime, and I’ve lived long enough to drink many fine ones, so I don’t say that lightly. I’d be very hard put to name one wine or one producer as the best of this striking vintage, but any shortlist that I drew up would be sure to include Massolino in the very top ranking. The Massolinos have been making wine in Serralunga for four generations now and own some of the best vineyards in that commune.

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The family is not given to overstatement, so when Franco Massolino says “We really think that 2010 is one of the best vintages of our history,” I pay attention.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit Massolino on my last afternoon in Alba, after I had already sampled 250-300 Barolos over the course of the week.

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I tasted all the estate’s 2010s – the classic multiple-vineyard Barolo and then the crus Margheria, Parafada, Vigna Rionda, and Parussi – plus a few older vintages. This happened in company and in conversation with Giovanni Angeli, who has been co-winemaker there with Franco Massolino since 2005 (and who had gone to school with Franco’s brother, so an old family friend to boot). Brother Roberto cares for the vineyards, while Franco and Giovanni tend the cellar.

Giovanni AngeliWe prefaced the tasting with some general remarks about winemaking in the Langhe. Giovanni noted that Italian doesn’t call him a “winemaker”: Its word for what he is and does is enologo – a person who studies wine, who has knowledge of wine. “I worked for a while in Australia,” he said; “There I learned what it means to be a winemaker. There, they make the wine. An enologo is very different.”

“People forget that wine is an agricultural product,” he continued. “90% of our work is out there in the dirt, so that during vinification and aging, our job is to preserve what the vineyard has given us. Every vintage, every growing season, is different. That’s where the experience of the family really helps.…”

“We follow the grapes very closely to get the perfect ripeness of everything – fruit, seeds, skins. The window is very small when it’s just the right time to pick, with full ripeness and no loss of acidity. We’re small enough that we can harvest quick: We can bring in all our Nebbiolo in a week. That’s why the vineyard work is so important.”

“In 2010, we had one the best vintages of the last 10 years. Skins and seeds were very ripe, the grapes very healthy. We harvested in the second half of October. That meant a long growing season, perfect for Nebbiolo. The wines were complete right from the start, with beautiful balance. They’re approachable now, but they have great potential for aging  – more power and concentration for aging even than 2004.”

This last Giovanni said as he poured the first of the several wines we were going to taste. Regular readers of this blog know that I think tasting notes are completely valid only for the one person who made them, and then only for that one time and place. But I was so impressed by the quality and stylistic consistency of the Massolino wines, that I will reproduce my tasting notes here (part of them, at least: I’ll leave out all the exclamation points), to give you some sense of the excitement I felt at the time.

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Barolo 2010:  Black cherry, black pepper, tar, and tobacco nose – already complex. Lovely fresh fruit on the palate, with accents of spice and tobacco, hinting at deeper flavors to come. Very long black-fruit-and-tar finish. An excellent wine, juicy and structured.

Barolo Margheria 2010:  More tenor, more peppery, higher-toned fruit, both in the aroma and on the palate. Lovely: juicy, peppery, complex, structured – an off-the-charts wine. Giovanni: “Serralunga is higher in acidity than other parts of Barolo: You can feel the potential of this 2010, but it’s very young.”

Barolo Margheria 2009:  Similar to the 2010, with nice sweet fruit, but not as peppery, intense, or structured. I’m no fan of the 2009 vintage in general, but this is one of the best examples of it I’ve tasted.

Barolo Parafada 2010:  Beautiful nose – enormous, in fact. Rich black fruit, almost sweet. The wine feels dense on the tongue. Long black cherry finish. The overall impression is of intense purity, of perfectly characteristic Nebbiolo. Simply lovely. Giovanni: “Parafada has the oldest vines on the estate – about 60 years old. In this vintage, the wine is light in the mouth, but the fruit is dense. In many vintages, Parafada needs time: It’s not so open and accessible as this. 2010 has amazing rich fruit. It has a surface of simplicity and directness with great underlying complexity. Serralunga Barolo is supposedly powerful and massive, but Masssolino Barolo is elegant. We try for less extraction to rein in the power and show the balance.”

Barolo Parafada 2009:  More tenor and not as rich as the 2010. Wonderful too, and only lesser by comparison.

Barolo Parussi 2010:  Aroma of wet stones, pepper, dried fruit. Abundant fruit in the mouth, but leaner than the preceding wines, almost more muscular, more athletic. Very dark dried-fruit finish. Altogether leaner and more muscular than the other crus. Giovanni:  “Parussi is in Castiglione Falleto – less clay, more limestone – very different soil from Serralunga. It gives a different texture, different tannins. The wine is maybe a bit more rustic, and needs more time. It’s a new vineyard for us (acquired in 2007), with 40-year-old vines. We’re still learning about it.”

Barolo Parussi 2009:  Very similar to the 2010 in aroma, palate, and finish, and similarly different from the Serralunga crus. The side-by-side comparison really shows how well Massolino is capturing the gout de terroir. Just lovely. I said that to Giovanni, who responded that “It’s important for us to underline the differences of vineyard from vineyard. We want to express the terroir. You know we experimented with barriques for a while, but when we saw that they lost that identity for us, we began moving back to big casks. For instance, since 2007, Parafada uses no barriques at all.”

The 2010 Vigna Rionda was judged not yet ready to be shown, so Giovanni poured a few older vintages of this great cru.

Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva 2008:  Gorgeous. A long, delectable licorice-and-black-cherry finish, and everything before that is a tight ball of complex, juicy, delicious flavors.

Barolo Vigna Rionda 2007:  Dried strawberry-and-tar aroma. The same on the palate, with a delightful, silky palatal feel. Great elegance and great complexity. Giovanni:  “2007 achieved beautiful ripeness. We left it 30-35 days on the skins because they and the seeds had such beautiful ripeness we didn’t fear any green tannins. The ’08 is even better structured – a bit more classic, a benchmark wine.”

Barolo Vigna Rionda 2004:  By now, I had just about run out of superlatives. ’04 was a wonderful vintage, the one most Barolo producers cite as comparable to 2010, and this superb example of it is maturing beautifully, with years (probably decades) of life before it. Once again, gorgeous.

Massolino has an admirable program of holding back some special wines and re-releasing them on their tenth anniversary: This ’04 Vigna Rionda is one of those wines, so it should be available now in the US. FYI, Massolino’s importer is Vineyard Brands.

This was the point at which I stopped spitting. Do you blame me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrations of the Everyday: Beaujolais and Chablis

July 6, 2014

One of the predictable pleasures of wine, paradoxically enough, is that you can count on the unexpected. There we were, two weeks ago, in a lodge in the middle of the Honduran rainforest, expecting a week of cold beer punctuated by an occasional Margarita and, if we were lucky, a glass of Argentinean Chardonnay – when we found ourselves staring at a modest but quite serious and varied wine list: bottles from France, Spain, and Italy, as well as North and South America. O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! Saved again!

Dining Room at Pico Bonito Lodge

Dining Room at Pico Bonito Lodge

A closer look deflated our joy substantially. The vintages shown were ominous: 2006 Faiveley AOC Chablis and 2007 Faiveley Beaujolais Villages. A little long in the tooth, both of them – and in that climate? A vision of dead wines, sun-baked and long gone, replaced the previous picture of cooling nectars reviving a pair of parched wino birdwatchers. But, what the hell, it was the best offer we were going to get in the middle of the jungle, so we tried ‘em.

Faivelely chablisThey were wonderful. Somehow or other, they’d been stored perfectly, and both were in fine condition. The Chablis showed just the slightest edge of oxidation, a little bit of the goût anglais that I don’t mind at all in a white Burgundy any more than I do in a Champagne, but otherwise a nice, medium-bodied, minerally white wine that went excellently with the fresh fish and chicken we had ordered. Nothing complex, nothing subtle, but an enjoyable dinner wine, and very refreshing in that Honduran heat and humidity.

faiveley beaujolaisThe next night the Beaujolais provided a similar experience. Despite its seven years of age, it was still juicy and fresh. Light-bodied for a red wine, to be sure, with no depth or complexity, but a simple, good-tasting – Gamay is just a lovable grape – and thoroughly enjoyable dinner wine, just like our basic Chablis. 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 degrees of humidity don’t want complex, deep, big wines: They want purity and simplicity and ease, and that’s what these two wines provided.

Accordingly, I hereby nominate simple Chablis and basic Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages as members 3 and 4 of CCAW – my Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines.

You can spend a bundle of money on Chablis if you’re so minded. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis easily run to three figures, and they are usually worth it for the intensity of their minerality (that famous Kimmeridgean limestone on which they grow). That and their complexity, their great ability to age and deepen, all place them within the select group of the world’s greatest white wines.

chablis map

But even though it’s not in that league, basic Chablis – simple Appellation Controlee Chablis – grown in the wider zone that surrounds the restricted Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, is no negligible wine. It has a small amount of that characteristic minerality, and, as our bottle in Honduras showed, it even shares a bit of the ability to age well. Most important, it’s enjoyable with many sorts of food, where it will reward attention if you want to pay it or quietly partner with your dinner if you don’t. And it doesn’t cost a fortune: Many are available – from small growers or from Burgundian negociants like Faiveley – at around $20. These days, that ain’t bad for an ideal warm-weather white wine.

Certainly, Beaujolais is the red wine equivalent of that: an ideal inexpensive warm-weather drink, light to medium-bodied, with charming fruit, low tannins, and a bracing acidity that allows it to match with foods of all sorts. (In the Beaujolais, they drink it even with fish.)

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As with Chablis, you can spend a lot more on single-vineyard wines from the named Beaujolais crus (Brouilly, Fleurie, Morgon, etc.). I don’t mean to belittle those: In fact, I love ‘em – but the two broader zones that surround those crus, Beaujolais Villages and the even larger Beaujolais, produce an ocean of delightful wines, all made with the same Gamay grape and all designed for easy drinking. That, I find, is especially true in summer: Beaujolais is very hard to beat as a hot-weather red wine. And its price is equally hard to beat: I’ve seen several on sale for as little $12, and rarely do they exceed $20.

Just one caveat:  I am emphatically excluding from my praise any and all Beaujolais Nouveau. I’ve never understood the fad for this wine, which arrives every November after harvest accompanied by hoopla and balloons: It always tastes sickly sweet to me, like liquid cotton candy (and with some of the same palate-coating character). I know some people like it (a lot, apparently), but I’m not one of them. So I hereby blackball Beaujolais Nouveau from CCAW, while warmly (pun intended) welcoming Chablis and Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages to membership.

Earlier inductees into the CCAW are described here (Chianti) and here (Muscadet).

 

Piedmont Vineyards Become a World Heritage Site

June 26, 2014

Barolo, Barbaresco, and some of their companions in the Langhe hills have just been designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO Standing Committee, meeting this year in Qatar, where I bet Commission members are wishing vainly that they could drink some the juice they’ve just honored.

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“It’s a just reward for the winegrowers who have preserved the Barolo and Barbaresco hills, skillfully cultivating their vineyards with respect for tradition and old farming skills,” says Pietro Ratti, president of the Barolo and Barbaresco Protection Consortium. “For us, the UNESCO recognition is a stimulus to keep on doing our job well with an even greater responsibility to pass on to our children the marvelous land that our fathers handed down to us.”

The new UNESCO site includes the Barolo DOCG communes of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Grinzane Cavour (and especially its castle), La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba, and the Barbaresco DOCG communes of Barbaresco and Neive. Nizza Monferrato and Canelli, which are primarily sites for the production of Barbera and Spumante, are also included within the designated area.

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Areas in pink and red are the UNESCO-designated site

All are regarded by UNESCO as “a cultural landscape,” because their present appearance results from, as the official announcement rather stuffily puts it, a unique, historic interaction of nature and human endeavor. Most wine lovers would readily agree that that assessment is as true of the wines made there as it is of the fields from which they flow.

Just to jog your memory, here are a few photos of what the designated portion of Piedmont looks like.

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You can find out more about this World Heritage Site designation – Italy’s 50th (are you surprised?) – here.

 

 

 

 

Nebbiolo Prima and 2010 Barolo

June 9, 2014

The online version of the Quarterly Review of Wine has just published my report on the 2010 Barolos I tasted last month at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima in Alba.

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This is a great, great vintage that anyone even slightly serious about Italian wine – about fine wine, period – should not miss out on. You can read the entire article here.

Or, if you’d rather just cut to the chase, here are direct links to QRW’s lists of the wines that I considered the finest of the 200 or so I tasted that week:

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After a lot of very serious wine tasting and very dreary New York weather, I’m now going to give my palate a break by taking a few weeks of vacation, including peering at birds and drinking nothing but beer and fruity/rummy concoctions adorned with small umbrellas, while eating my year’s allotment of chili peppers, at a luxurious eco-lodge in (hopefully) sunny Honduras.

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Veranda of the Lodge at Pico Bonito

When I get back, I will pick up where I left off, probably filling in some specific information about some of those great Barolos and – also part of Nebbiolo Prima – the not-at-all-shabby 2011 Barbarescos.  Fino alla prossima volta!


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