Principe Pallavicini: Roman Wine Nobility

December 12, 2014

Back at the end of October, while lazing in Lazio, I did take one day out from vacation for what my friends and relations usually refer to – ironically, of course – as “Tom’s work.” With the help of the good people at Vias, the American importer, I arranged a visit to the Principe Pallavicini estate near Frascati – now almost a suburb of Rome and for centuries its closest source of refreshing white wines.

The Pallavicini estate is one of the oldest in that antique landscape. Still in the hands of the same noble family, owners since the beginning of the 18th century (before that the property had belonged to the Colonna, one of the most powerful families of medieval and renaissance Rome), the vineyards roll back bucolically from behind a plain, massive palazzo now fronting on a heavily trafficked road.

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On the grounds themselves, among vine rows and old buildings, occasional smooth, black stones had pushed up through the soil — two-millennia-old remnants of Roman roads, once heavily trafficked themselves, now silently and patiently reposing. A very evocative place to visit, with suggestions of a vinous history running farther back than records or memories extend. The site alone prepares the visitor to be impressed. I was not disappointed.

Mauro di Angelis

Mauro di Angelis

Mauro de Angelis, the resident winemaker and factotum, conducted my visit, and we were later joined by Claudio Latagliata, the CEO of the winery. After the usual tour of the cellars and the winemaking facilities, and just a glimpse of the extensive vineyards rolling over gentle hills to the horizon – unfortunately this was the only cloudy day of my whole week-and-a-half in Rome and Lazio – we adjourned to the tasting room.

Pallavicini’s main production is, of course, Frascati, which used to be the white wine of Rome, served in every caffe and trattoria and the object of weekend excursions to the countryside by every Roman family that could manage them. Pallavicini’s Frascati has always been excellent, even during the period when – as with so many other white wines all around the world – the appellation’s popularity stimulated overproduction and subsequent decline in reputation and sales. Now that Frascati producers are attempting to reclaim their Roman and international markets, Pallavicini is doubling down on quality, as quickly became evident in my tasting.

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The first wine I tasted was Pallavicini’s basic DOC Frascati 2011, a thoroughly enjoyable light wine, with lovely white fruit character, slight overlays of a sort of volcanic minerality, and a long delicate finish – exactly what my memory says the ideal Frascati was in its glory days. An auspicious beginning, to be sure.

Poggio Verde, a Frascati Superiore DOCG 2011, followed. This wine spends a good deal of time on its yeasts and consequently develops more body and roundness. It showed a fine, floral nose, nice medium body with good white fruit and minerality, and a long, pronouncedly mineral finish – again suggestive of the volcanic nature of the Frascati zone soils. Much more a dinner wine than a cocktail wine, unquestionably. By the way, it just won Tre Bicchieri.

The third white wine was Roma, Malvasia Puntinata DOC 2013 (made from the grape of the same name, also known as Malvasia del Lazio). I found this wine intriguing – a fully dry Malvasia, with tangerine skin and mineral aroma and palate, big-bodied and round, with, under all the variety’s characteristic notes, the distinctive mineral-and-white-fruit tang of the Frascati terroir. It was very long-finishing, and had the kind of structure that suggests longevity and interesting bottle development. I wouldn’t mind having a half a dozen bottles of this to put away for four or five years, just to see how it matured. I think it would make a great companion to roast chicken or turkey or roasted fresh ham.

Then we switched to red wines, starting with Rubillo 2013, an IGT Lazio Cesanese. Virtually unknown in this country, and indeed not well known even in Italy, Cesanese is Lazio’s indigenous red variety. Not much information is available about its origins or affiliations: Even Jancis Robinson has very little to say about it, other than that it can be a difficult variety. Lazio producers have recently begun to take a lot more interest in working with it, which in my opinion is a very good development, because it tastes to me like a variety of very great potential. Even the simplest versions of it, like this basic Pallavicini example, characteristically show a pleasing softness and roundness (some call it a Merlot-like quality, but aside from the softness, I don’t see that comparison) and inviting blackberry/mulberry fruit notes.

We made a considerable jump up in quality and intensity with the next wine, Amarasco 2012, IGT Lazio Cesanese. This is a selection made from 50-year-old vines, whose juices undergo long maceration on the skins and are then aged for 12 months in tonneaux. It had excellent bitter cherry fruit, deep and dark, and an almost chewy texture – all on top of an evident structure and fine balance. This is an estimable wine, of beginning complexity: I would very much like to taste it again in a few years’ time.

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While I was most interested in what Pallavicini was accomplishing with Lazio’s native grapes, I shouldn’t neglect to mention that the estate also produces several bottlings of non-local and international varieties. I particularly enjoyed Moroello 2011, IGT Lazio, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, grown in the Lazio portion of the Maremma, a soft, pleasing, fruity wine that would be a perfect accompaniment to simple trattoria meals. Soleggio 2012, IGT Lazio, a Cabernet sauvignon from 21-year-old vines, shared the same soft fruit that seems to be almost a hallmark of the Pallavicini red wines. Mauro de Angelis attributes that to the soil: Along with the slight mineral tang, it’s what the Frascati zone gives the wine, he says.

La Fiorita: A Fine Terroirist Brunello

November 28, 2014

Roberto Cipresso is a very highly reputed consulting enologist in several parts of the world (e.g., Italy, Brazil). Originally from the Veneto, he first made his name in Tuscany and his heart lies there, at the Brunello di Montalcino estate La Fiorita, of which he is co-owner with Natalie Oliveros.

cipresso

A devoted terroirist, he speaks with passion of the soils of the Montalcino zone and his desire to express them in his wines. A few weeks back, over a tasting lunch at La Masseria restaurant in New York, he explained his stance. “There are two main styles of winemaking,” he said. “You can choose to express the variety or you can choose to express the terroir. Montalcino is the perfect place to do the latter. My ideal wine is like a glass – transparent, so the soil shines through.”

To that end, Cipresso does what he regards as minimal work in the cellar, opting instead to cleave to what the vineyards give him. He has three of them to work with: Poggio al Sole, between the hamlets of Castenuova dell’Abbate and Sant’Angelo; Pian Bossolino, slightly further north; and a new vineyard, not yet fully on line, Podere Giardinello, west of the town of Montalcino. The latter has completely different soils and exposure from those of the other two vineyards, and Cipresso is very excited by what it will add to his basic Brunello – so much so that he is contemplating the possibility of bottling it as a cru.

At present, the grapes from each vineyard are fermented separately for 25 days in large Slavonian oak vats and then drawn off into tonneaux, one-third of which are new each year, one-third of second passage, and one-third of third passage. The wines stay in the tonneaux for just eight months, then finish their two years of wood aging together in large Slavonian vats again. All La Fiorita Brunello then receives extra bottle aging beyond the DOCG requirements: Cipresso prefers to do this so the wine will integrate more fully and be readier to drink on release. La Fiorita’s 2008 vintage, for instance, is just coming onto the market now.

Over lunch, Cipresso showed four of his wines: the two most recent Brunellos and his first two Brunello riservas.

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Brunello 2008: The first things that struck me about this wine were its balance and elegance. This is the antithesis of fruit-bomb, in-your-face Brunellos. It starts light and grows on the palate, finishing big and persuasive. Dark cherry and tobacco in nose and mouth, with excellent acidity to keep it supple, and a long cherry finish. A thoroughly enjoyable wine with what tastes to me like true Brunello depth.

Brunello 2007: More tannic and tobacco-y than the 2008 but with equally fine balance. This wine shows a bit less fruit and a lot more structure than the preceding one, though this may simply be part of the normal evolution of the wine. Unquestionably as fine and elegant as the ’08, though the vintage difference is apparent.

Brunello Riserva 2006: This was La Fiorita’s second riserva bottling, and I found it initially still slightly closed, though it opened gradually and steadily in the glass. For sure, it will reward at least a few more years’ cellaring. It’s a big wine, balanced, and tasting emphatically more of earth and gravel than of Sangiovese fruit (though that is still abundantly present). An excellent example of the best that Montalcino can do, in my opinion.

Brunello Riserva 2004: This was La Fiorita’s first riserva. The vines, which had been planted in the 1990s, had just really come of age. It isn’t a huge wine, but it has great elegance and balance. It shows classic Montalcino dark cherry flavors and prominent acidity, with a very lively, long finish and overall great structure.

For all that, Cipresso doesn’t think this ’04 will live as long as the ’06 Riserva – and I’ve got to say, I kept going back to that 2006 all through the lunch, because it kept opening and changing in the glass in fascinating ways. All four wines were marked by the kind of great elegance and balance that Cipresso strives for, but each differed from the others in intriguing ways, expressing different aspects of Sangiovese, Montalcino climate, and Montalcino soil. What else can you ask of a great Brunello?

Properly Cellared For Long Life: Livio Felluga

November 14, 2014
livio  felluga

Livio Felluga in 2003

Since I’m one of the last berries on the grapevine, I’m only now catching up with the fact that, back in September, Livio Felluga, a pioneer of quality Friulian wine, celebrated his 100th birthday, an accomplishment he attributed to regularly consuming fine wine. Who am I to disagree?  I hope he’s right, since I’m doing my best to follow his example – in consumption, that is, not in production.

I first met Signor Felluga more years ago than I care to accurately count, when he was just a young pup of 60-something and I was a fledgling wine journalist, writing for the still-lamented (it folded owing me money) Attenzione. I’m pretty sure that my article about Felluga and Friulian wines was among the ones I never got paid for. Such is life: I long ago decided that coming to know these wines was payment enough.

Meeting Livio Felluga was an important and, as it turned out, a delightful event for me. I was travelling with a few other wine journalists, all of us on our first visit to Friuli, and we could have hoped for no better introduction to the zone and its wines than a day with Signor Felluga. He was already back then a fount of information about the soils and districts and grape varieties of Friuli. Tasting with him through his line of wines – he worked with all the important white varieties and even, if I remember correctly, a few reds – amounted to a graduate seminar in Friulian wine, and we were all eager students.

Later, sitting around the fire in the traditional fogolar and drinking those wines while he grilled sausages and veal chops, we also discovered that had he not chosen to be a winemaker, he probably could have been a successful stand-up comedian. I have never heard anybody tell a seemingly endless succession of carabinieri jokes as well as Livio Felluga. A belated Cent’ anni di piu, to you, Signor Felluga!

Nowadays, of course, younger members of the Felluga clan are running the vineyards and winery. But the quality of the wines and the intensity of the family’s devotion to Friuli’s patrimony seem not to have wavered in the slightest. Just last week I tasted a small selection of Felluga’s new releases, and they conformed in every respect – quality, varietal typicity, balance, and elegance – to the high standards the senior Felluga established decades ago.

felluga wines

Pinot Grigio 2013
Medium-bodied, smooth and round, with marked floral and mineral scents and flavors. Long finishing. Elegant and, by the standards of the mass of contemporary Pinot grigios, quite substantial. In short, a real wine.

Friulano 2013
Almond and mineral nose; medium body. Lovely balance of acid and fruit, with a long dry finish. This is the wine we used to know as Tocai. In Friuli, it is a wine of all uses and is particularly popular with the salty sweetness of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Often drunk here in the States as an aperitif, for my palate it’s far better as a dinner wine, where it really shines alongside preparations of fowl, veal, or pork, and even savory dishes such as Szekely Goulash, – to which I can testify because that’s what I just drank it with. For years, Livio Felluga’s Friulano has been an informal benchmark for the breed.

Terre Alte 2011
This is Felluga’s chef d’oeuvre, a masterly blend of (usually and approximately) one-third each of Friulano, Pinot bianco, and Sauvignon. The Pinot and Sauvignon are fermented and aged in stainless steel, the Friulano in small French oak. This is one of Italy’s great white wines and is always better for at least a few years of aging. In the best vintages, it rewards much more. The 2011 is very young and still tastes a bit closed, but it already shows the substantial body, elegance and balance that earned it Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli, among numerous other awards. This 2011 Terre Alte may not live as long as Livio has, but it surely has a lot time before it. A great wine.

Campania on Display

October 31, 2014

At the beginning of October, the Wine Media Guild presented the most complete tasting of the whole range of Campanian wines ever organized in the US. At its lunch meeting at Felidia Ristorante, members tasted 27 wines, representing most of the provincial appellations and almost the whole spectrum of Campanian grape varieties now in serious production – a long-overdue display of the amazing variety and quality of a region that rivals Italy’s most famous and highly reputed wines both red and white.

campania map

The event would not have been possible without the cooperation of numerous producers and the strenuous efforts of Miriade & Partners SRL, an Italian firm that every year organizes the two Campania Stories tastings that I have several times reported on (here, here, and here). While only two of the producers (Manuela Piancastelli of Terre del Principe and Ferrante di Somma of Cantine Di Marzo) were able to attend the WMG luncheon in person, the assembled wines spoke eloquently for all of them. Here’s the complete list of what we tasted:

White Wines

La Rivolta. Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2013

La Sibilla. Falanghina dei Campi Flegrei Cruna Delago 2012

Donnachiara. Irpinia Coda di Volpe 2013

Sorrentino. Coda di Volpe Pompeiano Natì 2011

Di Marzo. Greco di Tufo Franciscus 2013

I Favati. Fiano di Avellino Etichetta Nera 2013

Tenuta Sarno 1860. Fiano di Avellino Sarno 1860 2013

Picariello Ciro. Fiano di Avellino 2012

Villa Raiano. Fiano di Avellino Ventidue 2009

Feudi di San Gregorio. Irpinia Bianco Campanaro 2012

Terre del Principe. Fontanavigna – Pallagrello Bianco 2013

Tenuta San Francesco. Costa d’Amalfi Bianco Per Eva 2008

Cantine Marisa Cuomo. Costa d’Amalfi Fiorduva Furore Bianco 2012

 

Greco di Tufo vineyards at di Marzo estate

Greco di Tufo vineyards at Di Marzo estate

 Red Wines

Cantine Astroni. Tenuta Camaldoli 2011

Mastroberardino. Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso 2013

Masseria Felicia. Falerno del Massico Etichetta Bronzo 2006

Villa Matilde. Falerno del Massico Rosso Camarato 2006

La Guardiense. Aglianico Sannio Janare 2012

Mastroberardino. Redimore Irpinia Aglianico 2012

Antico Castello. Taurasi 2010

Contrade di Taurasi. Taurasi 2009

Tenuta Cavalier Pepe. Taurasi Opera Mia 2008

Tecce Luigi. Taurasi Poliphemo 2008

Terre del Principe. Centomoggia – Casavecchia 2010

Nanni Copé. Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco 2012

Vestini Campagnano. Pallagrello Nero 2011

Montevetrano. Montevetrano Colle di Salerno IGT 2011

 

Some of Mastroberardino's Aglianico vineyards

Some of Mastroberardino’s Aglianico vineyards

While many of those names – producers or appellations – will be familiar to many of my readers, many more probably won’t. Take my word: that is a stunning array of top-flight wines, and all the attendees agreed that every single bottle showed well. The reactions I overheard during the tasting and the luncheon that followed – murmurs of pleasure and small exclamations of happy surprise – showed clearly that the quality of the wines was accurately perceived and deeply appreciated.

At the time, I was asked by several colleagues which wines were my favorites, and – frankly – in response I just dithered: I really couldn’t narrow it down to just a few. Nanni Cope’s Pallagrello nero? Terre del Principe’s Casavecchia? Tecce’s Taurasi? Contrade del Taurasi’s Taurasi? And that’s just the big reds. I may be an enthusiast, but I defy anyone to select just one of those wines as a favorite or best. Non è possible. I can tell you that I was very pleased several times that afternoon when colleagues whose knowledge and palates I greatly respect approached me glass in hand to say “This is a great wine!”  I truthfully agreed every time.

But the coin has another side, and lest any reader think that a tasting like this for a group of professionals like this was a work of supererogation (I’ve been waiting a long time for a chance to use that word), I’ll report that I overheard one taster remark “I didn’t know that Campania even had white wines.” Needless to say, that person was quickly and strenuously corrected – but the remark itself indicates how little-known Campanian wine still is here in the US. I only hope that Campanian producers can manage to cooperate again, as they did so splendidly here, to put on more such displays in New York and other key US markets. Campania makes wonderful wines of every kind, from simply enjoyable sippers to true vins de garde, and wine lovers here need to know all of them better.

 

 

A New Book on Barolo & Barbaresco … plus a Related Item

October 17, 2014

The University of California Press has just published Kerin O’Keefe’s Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wines (346 pp, maps, photos, index: $39.95). I’ve been wanting to announce this ever since, over a year ago, I read the manuscript for the Press and enthusiastically recommended publication: To my mind, this is the most important book on these two great wines yet published.

O'Keefe

O’Keefe is a wine colleague and friend. I’ve tasted with her on many occasions, not least of which have been the Nebbiolo Prima sessions in Alba, during which we and a small army of other wine journalists have each year worked our way through several hundred new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco. I have great respect for her palate and even more for the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of her research. She and her husband Paolo Tenti (who did the photographs for her book) have spent innumerable weekends in the Alba area over many years, visiting vineyards and talking to producers large and small. (She lives within easy driving distance of Alba.)

O'KeefeThe depth of her knowledge of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones is unequalled by any other English-language journalist, and perhaps matched by only a small handful of native Italians. Despite the fact that I’ve been covering the great Nebbiolos for various publications for about 30 years (thoroughly, I thought), she has still managed to introduce me to some fine producers that I had simply never encountered. To put it briefly: The lady knows what she’s talking about.

What she’s talking about is all of Barolo and Barbaresco, its history, its development, its soils and varieties and makers. Barolo and Barbaresco has more complete information – and very accurate, revisionist information it is – about the mid-19th century creation of a dry Nebbiolo wine than any other source. The presentation of the soil variations throughout the two zones is equally complete.

What will probably be most pertinent for Nebbiolo aficionados, however, are her profiles of producers of both denominations. She does these village by village, detailing vineyards, field and cellar workings, house styles and their different bottlings. She doesn’t list every single producer, which would be almost impossible. But the wealth of information in her book is unmatched anywhere else – which is exactly why I was so enthusiastic in recommending it to the University of California Press. Now that it has been published, all I can add is this: If you love Barolo and Barbaresco, this book is indispensible.

And now for something completely – well, slightly – different.

Ceretto is one of the great Nebbiolo houses, and I have long admired its wines. Originally classic Piedmontese producers who bought grapes from all over both zones to make traditional Barolo and Barbaresco, brothers Bruno and Marcello Ceretto gradually acquired top-flight vineyards in some of the best crus of both appellations and used them to make some superb wines, in both the traditional mixed-communes style and in single-cru bottlings.

Bruno and Marcello Ceretto

Marcello and Bruno Ceretto

Since roughly the turn of the century, Bruno and Marcello have turned the operation over to their children, and initially at least the results were not, for my palate, completely happy. It was an almost stereotypical story in Alba: The younger generation turned to using a forest of new French oak (just how many oak trees, one wonders, does France have left?) to make their wines modern and stylish (and different from their parents’?) and for my palate not really either enjoyable or true to the region.

Then came vintage 2008. I will quote O’Keefe here, because we are in total agreement: “I was surprised by the graceful, pure Nebbiolo aromas and elegance of the firm’s 2008 Barbaresco Asij.” She goes on to explain this wine’s “graceful style, unfettered by obvious oak” as due to winemaker Alessandro Ceretto’s decision to turn away from new oak “to make wines,” she quotes him as saying, “that express terroir, that taste like they could only be from here.”  For me, this is wonderful news: it’s great to have an estimable house like Ceretto rediscovering the true distinction of its region.

I also had one other reassurance about Ceretto recently. I had been tasting a lot of old Barolo over the past year, and I’d had a few bottles of Ceretto that troubled me. They weren’t bad – far from it – but they tasted older than they should have, a little tired and fading when I thought that, given the fine vintages they were from, they should have been a lot more vigorous. I know that with older wines, bottle variation is inescapable, but even so, they worried me.

brunate 4My reassurance came a few weeks ago from a very unlikely source – a bottle of Ceretto’s Barolo Brunate, a lovely cru but a very unpromising vintage: 1993. O’Keefe rates 1993 as two stars (out of five) and describes it as “a middling and variable vintage . . . to drink early while waiting for the 1989s and 1990s to come round.” I remember the vintage as pretty much below average across the board. So my expectations were low when I discovered that I’d somehow stored away a bottle of ’93 – maybe by accident, maybe with some thought of discovering just how well off-year Barolo could age.

Well, if I had been disappointed by bottle variation with those other older Ceretto wines, in this case it seemed to work to my advantage. Either that, or the Cerettos really made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with the 1993 vintage, because my now 21-year-old bottle of Brunate was just lovely. Light-bodied for a Barolo, to be sure, and I’d never call it vigorous – but elegant it certainly was, and smelling and tasting classically if lightly of the truffle, tar, and dried roses for which the Nebbiolo of the Alba area is renowned. Diane and I enjoyed it thoroughly, and gave mental tribute to the good work of Marcello and Bruno.

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4

 

What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

two books

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

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.


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