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.)

beaujolais

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.

nominated zone

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!

Cascina delle Rose: a Great Barbaresco Estate

May 30, 2014

What makes a great Barbaresco? Easy to answer, not so easy to achieve. Superior grapes to start with, from a superior site, tended in the field with great care and in the cellar with great restraint, resulting ideally in a wine that expresses both the character of the Nebbiolo grape and the nature of the region’s special terroir. Cantina delle Rose does all the right things, and its Barbarescos show all the right stuff – as does every other wine this stellar estate produces.

cascina estate

Many winelovers have never even heard of Cascina delle Rose. It is neither one of the big names of Barbaresco nor a big estate: three and a half hectares – that’s under ten acres – and a total production of about 20,000 bottles. Family-run: Giovanna Rizzolio and husband Italo Sobrino and sons Davide and Riccardo do everything, including having designed and now operating the charming B&B on the manicured property.

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Most important wine zones, anywhere in the world, usually first break into consumers’ consciousness through the efforts of large estates or large negociant firms that have the quality and especially the volume of production that allows their wines to be present in noteworthy numbers in multiple markets, and these market openers usually establish the standards for the wines of their zones. It’s the sign of a maturing wine zone when small producers start turning out wines at the top level of quality that begin appearing – usually in limited quantities – in multiple markets.

From my experience at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima in Alba in May, tasting new releases of Barolo 2010 and Barbaresco 2011, I’d say that those two wine zones are entering that phase of winemaking maturity. My tasting notes proclaim this year’s event The Year of the Small Producers. This is not to say that larger and well-known producers did poorly with those vintages. Far from it, in fact: Many of them turned out wonderful wines, up to their own best standards. But in the blind tastings that are the norm at Nebbiolo Prima, I found that many of my top scores (after the tasting we get the answer sheet that identifies the wines for us) went to producers scarcely known to me, most of them small growers who have been steadily improving their winemaking skills over the past decade.

I had come to know Cascina delle Rose just a few years ago, because I’d noticed that for some time I had been scoring its wines very high and thought that I ought to learn something about it. Being, in my lucid moments, a fairly logical guy, I did just that, enjoying a memorable introductory visit that firmly proved that there was no mistake about the scores I was giving the wines. At this year’s Nebbiolo Prima, I revisited Giovanna and Italo. I was more impressed than ever. Wine after wine showed an almost Cartesian purity of fruit and structure, a fidelity to varietal character that simply obviates criticism. Because Cascina delle Rose is a small producer, its wines won’t be in every market – but they are emphatically worth the trouble of seeking out. (Very helpfully, the US importers are listed on its website.)

Here are the wines I tasted at the winery, and some very brief comments on them. (There are only so many exclamation points I can expect my readers to tolerate.)

cascina wines

Dolcetto d’Alba A Elizabeth 2013: Classic nose and palate – delightful light dinner wine.

Langhe Nebbiolo 2013: Beautiful fruit, great Nebbiolo character, long juicy finish – very, very lovely.

Barbera d’Alba 2012:  Textbook Barbera, fruity and lively.

Barbera d’Alba Superiore Donna Elena 2012: A barrel sample, aged longer than the regular Barbera. Slightly nebbiolized style: more elegant, complex, rounder, with chocolate and tobacco notes. Fine. (They later poured me some of the 2004 vintage of this wine, which was simply amazing: they have only a few bottles left, alas.)

Barbaresco Tre Stelle 2011: Very pretty, with dark Nebbiolo flavors already emerging. Wonderful structure. Five stars, the top rating on my simple scoring scale, as is the next wine also.

Barbaresco Rio Sordo 2011: Rounder, fatter, longer finishing than Tre Stelle. Quite lovely. These two Barbaresco crus are the flagship wines of the house, and in ’11 and ’10 (which I tasted at Nebbiolo Prima last year), they are the equal of any Barbarescos I’ve encountered.

After those current-release wines, Giovanna and Italo offered me a vertical of their Langhe Nebbiolo, which has never seen wood – it is fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. I’d already tasted the 2013, so they started with 2012 and ran back every year to 2004. The wines were uniformly fine and absolutely true to Nebbiolo type. In some years they could easily be mistaken in a blind tasting for medium-bodied Barbaresco. All, even the oldest, were fresh and lively and had wonderful fruit. As they got older they showed more and more earth and mushroom scents and flavors. The ’04 was actually starting to go white-truffly in the nose, and – finally giving in to the temptation I’d had several times in the course of this visit – I didn’t spit it.

This was for me a memorable visit to a new star in the Barbaresco firmament. The whole session was a demonstration of first-class winemaking exercised upon first-class grapes from first-class vineyards – one of those afternoons that make my job enviable and me very happy.

 

 

Campania Stories: Avellino

May 20, 2014

I should say at the outset that I love Aglianico. I’ve been told that, somewhere or other, Robert Parker has said that Aglianico may be Italy’s noblest red grape of all. If that is so, I totally, wholeheartedly agree, and I’m delighted he has at last seen the light: I can only hope that more wine journalists catch on.

In my previous post, I focused on the Naples/Piedirosso portion of March’s Campania Stories event. After that, the event shifted its location to Avellino and its attention to Aglianico. The province of Avellino is the home of Taurasi, for a long time Campania’s only red DOCG, and still the prince of Aglianico-based wines – all of which were the subjects of numerous seminars and tasting sessions for the balance of Campania Stories. Much as I enjoyed Naples and Piedirosso, this half of the event hit me where I live.

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The linking of the name Aglianico with some dialect form of the word Hellenic has been pretty much debunked as a false etymology – which is a shame, since however inaccurate it may be philologically, it is spot-on in indicating the antiquity of the variety and the persistence of its history in Campania. For our purposes, the most important chapter of that history occurred shortly after WWII, when the Mastroberardino family resisted the introduction of international varieties and unequivocally cast its lot with Campania’s native grapes, the immediate upshot of which was the survival and present importance of Fiano, Greco, and – most to the point – Aglianico and its greatest achievement, Taurasi.

Over my two days in Avellino, I tasted close to 100 Taurasis and Aglianicos, not all of which are available in the US. Many producers are quite small, and I’d guess that a good half of them have been bottling their own wine for only 20 years or less. That doesn’t mean they are new to the grape, however: Almost all were growers before, selling their grapes to co-ops or to a few large firms. There are no big outside investors here, buying up vineyards and planting international varieties. In fact, more than a few of the newer wine producers have family histories of grape farming several centuries long – so even brand-new labels may represent a lot of experience with Aglianico.

Taurasi lineup

That showed in the tastings, where the level of winemaking seemed impressively high, even judging it from the perspective of wine zones like Barolo and Barbaresco, which are further along the developmental curve than Campania. I found many wines to admire and even a few to love – and I’m getting pickier and pickier as I grow old and cranky. Here are some of my top-scorers.

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Best of the Best
(in order of preference)

Tecce: 2011 Irpinia Campi Taurasini Satyricon and 2010 Taurasi Poliphemo

Contrade di Taurasi (aka Cantina Lonardi): 2009 Taurasi Coste and Taurasi Vigne d’Alto

Donnachiara: 2009 Taurasi

Villa Raiano: 2012 Campania Aglianico and 2010 Taurasi

Feudi di San Gregorio: 2009 Taurasi Piano di Montevergine Riserva

 

Very Good
(in alphabetical order)

Antico Castello: 2011 Irpinia Aglianico Magis and 2010 Taurasi

Boccella: 2008 Irpinia Campi Taurasini Rasott

Colli di Castelfranci: 2009 Irpinia Campi Taurasino Candriano and Taurasi Alta Valle

D’Antiche Terre: 2008 Taurasi

Di Marzo: 2012 Irpinia Aglianico Cantine Storiche, 2012 Irpinia Aglianico Linea Stemma, and 2010 Taurasi Albertus

Di Prisco: 2010 Taurasi

Feudi di San Gregorio: 2012 Irpinia Aglianico Rubrato

Historia Antiqua: 2011 Irpinia Aglianico Historia Antiqua and 2009 Taurasi Historia Antiqua

I Capitani: 2009 Irpinia Rosso Emé and 2007 Taurasi Bosco Faiano

Il Cancelliere: 2010 Taurasi Nero Né and 2007 Taurasi Nero Né

La Marca: Cantine di Tufo: 2008 Taurasi Issàra

La Molara: 2007 Taurasi Santa Vara

Montesole: 2007 Taurasi Vigna Vinieri

Sanpaolo: 2010 Taurasi and 2009 Taurasi Riserva

Urciuolo: 2010 Taurasi

Vesevo: 2008 Taurasi

Villa Matilde: 2008 Taurasi

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All of these are impressive wines, though the very youngest are not really what I want to drink right now. But that’s the point with Aglianico, and especially with Taurasi: Even in lesser years, these wines reward patience. They are always worth the wait of at least a few years from release. All the commonplace comparisons with Barolo aren’t hype: They’re based on Aglianico’s inherent ability to evolve in the cellar into an incomparable nectar. Check my old post on last year’s Mastroberardino six-decade vertical, if you need proof of that.

This year, the big news in Aglianico has been the granting of the DOCG to Benevento province’s Aglianico del Taburno, a promotion that many producers see as giving a boost to the prestige of Aglianco and its wines all through Campania. Such a lift would certainly be justified: Benevento has been producing lovely Aglianicos (and most at quite reasonable prices) for some time now. They have a different style from Avellino’s Aglianicos – softer, more giving, less austere in their youth, but with immediately recognizable Aglianico flavors.

My impression is that most of them won’t be as long-lived as Irpinia Aglianico or, especially, as Taurasi. But I might be wrong about that: Certainly both the ’09 Villa Matilde Falerno del Massico Rosso and ’07 Falerno del Massico Rosso Vigna Camarato that I tasted in Avellino seemed ready to live for many more years, so who knows what the potential is in any of Campania’s provinces? These are very much zones in development, and they have years – if not decades – of excitement and discovery before them.

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Campania Stories: Naples

May 10, 2014

Campania Stories is the name of an increasingly important twice-a-year event held at a variety of sites in Campania. In the fall, it features the white wines of the region, with a focus on the newest releases and – usually – a retrospective of a five- or ten-year-old vintage. In the early spring, it showcases Taurasi and other red wines, with the same emphasis on the newest vintages and some significant anniversary vintages. For me, Campania Stories has acquired crucial importance as the most convenient and thorough way for me to track the rapidly accruing changes in what I believe to be not only the most dynamic wine area of Italy but also potentially the richest of the whole peninsula.

campania stories

I attended Campania Stories’ mid-March red wine sessions, held this year in Naples and Avellino, and my only complaint is that the wine seminars and tastings took so much time and attention that I didn’t have a chance to worship at any of Naples’s shrines of pizza (though I did manage to wolf down some excellent pizza at Pozzuoli’s Dea Bandata – but that’s another story). At the portion of the sessions held in Naples, the main focus was on the Piedirosso variety, and they afforded me a great opportunity to learn just how important this formerly secondary variety is becoming.

Piedirosso is a grape as ancient as any grown in Campania, and that probably translates to about two and a half millennia of history. The name means “red foot,” and its more poetic dialect name, per ‘e palummo, means “dove’s foot,” for the same reason: its vivid red stems look like the feet of doves. Some growers – notably Salvatore Avellone of Villa Matilde – believe that Piedirosso is the grape that made the ancient Cecubum, a wine prized in the Roman Empire; accordingly, Villa Matilde produces a wine that the Avellones call Cecubo, a blend of Piedirosso and Aglianico.

Whatever role Piedirosso may have played in ancient times, in recent history the variety has been upstaged by Aglianico, to which it has for a long time played second string. It has traditionally been used largely in blends to soften the asperities of Aglianico, whose tannins can in youth be very harsh indeed. Piedirosso on the other hand has very soft tannins and a kind of easy, giving fruitiness that makes it an ideal complement to Aglianico. So, if, as many winos do, you think in terms of the Médoc, Piedirosso acts to Aglianico as Merlot does to Cabernet. And like Merlot, Piedirosso has been discovered to have numerous virtues of its own. In recent years, better field work and careful clonal selection have uncovered in Piedirosso an intriguing complexity and a healthy ability to age, so more and more growers are now producing monovarietal Piedirosso of genuine quality and interest.

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Tom tasting

Breakfast of Champions

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Here are some of those that impressed me:

Agnanum Campo Flegrei Piedirosso Vigna delle Volpi 2007

Federiciane Campi Flegrei Piedirosso 2013

Grotta del Sole Campo Flegrei Piedirosso Montegauro Riserva 2009

Sorrentino Pompeiano Piedirosso Frupa 2011

Tommasone Ischia Per ‘e Palummo 2012

While the stand-out wine for me was the Grotta del Sole Montegauro – for the intensity and concentration of its varietal character – all these wines showed real Piedirosso softness and accessibility, and were revelatory of the great potential of the variety.

Interesting as it is, Piedirosso is not the only not-Aglianico-red vine drawing attention in Campania. The region holds a wealth of ancient red varieties, many of which are in danger of disappearing because of various manmade and natural disasters. Of these blights, phylloxera, devastating as it was, may not be the greatest. The impoverishment of the countryside caused first by Italian unification – which, for the then Kingdom of Naples, meant occupation and exploitation by a foreign power – led to massive emigration and to consequent depopulation. Then throw in two world wars and a major depression between them, and the end result is abandoned farms and vineyards and a severely threatened, if not outright broken, agricultural tradition, from which Campania is still in the process of recovering.

But recovering it is, and many ancient, threatened varieties are being rediscovered and propagated. Chief among these are Casavecchia and Pallagrello nero (also Pallagrello bianco, but that too is another story). Saved and propagated by Peppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli (Terre del Principe is their estate) and championed by, among others, Giovanni Ascione (his estate is Nanni Copè), these vines – most if not all on their own rootstocks – are yielding extraordinary wines that are already winning Tre Bicchieri in Italy. (I’ve posted about these before.) Other producers to know about include Alois, Il Verro, La Masserie, Selvanova, and Vigne Chigi.

Palagrello wines

 

Other varieties, like Tintore, are still further back on the rebirth curve but are nevertheless already making wines of more than passing interest – for instance, Monte di Grazia rosso, made from ungrafted Tintore vines that survived phylloxera and hence are well more than a hundred years old – as were the surviving scions of Palagrello and Casavecchia, from which all the new vines have been propagated.

Still other vines are even less known and have yet to make their way into growers’ and drinkers’ consciousness. Nicola Venditti, for instance, a traditional producer in Benevento province, cultivates 20 different varieties on his property, several of which, as he says, aren’t even in the books yet. Campania still has a lot of stories to tell, and will have for years to come.

Next post: Campania Stories: Avellino

 

 

 

 

 

Marisa Cuomo: Wine from the Cliffs

May 1, 2014

Years ago, when Diane and I had sharper eyesight, faster reflexes, and a higher quotient of adventurousness (or downright foolishness), we rented a car in Naples and spent a week or so driving the environs of Naples, Salerno, and – god save us! – the Amalfi peninsula, to learn the country and to visit wineries. In defense of our sanity, I will say that the wines and the food were magical, the countryside beautiful, Sorrento and the scenery of the drive incomparable, and the traffic much less in those days than now. We survived the adventure, and even enjoyed it, then. I would not now do it in any vehicle less vulnerable than a very large tank.

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What led to this attack of memory and recollection of former fearlessness was twofold: my recent attendance at Campania Stories: I Vini Rossi, an annual press event held this year in Naples and Avellino, and a bottle of wine I paired with a fine gumbo that Diane has just written about in her blog. At Campania Stories, I tasted several impressive bottles from the Costa d’Amalfi winery Marisa Cuomo. The gumbo partner was a bottle of Marisa Cuomo’s Ravello bianco. Ravello is one of the small towns perched on the steep slopes of the mountain spur that is the Amalfi peninsula. The winery itself is headquartered in another such small town, Furore, and during that memorable trip way back when, Diane and I visited Marisa Cuomo (a real person) and her winemaker husband Andrea Ferraioli.

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I’ve no doubt lost some memories of that trip – the surreal traffic of the city of Naples has happily faded to a blur of horns and brake screeches – but I have indelible images in my brain of the postage-stamp-sized, carefully terraced plots of vineyard that produced Marisa Cuomo’s grapes. Dotted up and down the hillsides, they all afforded wonderful views of the intensely blue Mediterranean (I still don’t understand Homer’s “wine-dark sea”), as well as undoubted hours of back-breaking labor. All the vineyard work had to be done by hand, and as far as I know it still is.

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I taste no difference in the wine or the winemaking. Marisa Cuomo’s were then and are now extremely well-made, honest, and traditional wines, vinified with great care from the indigenous grapes of seaside Campania: Biancolella and Falanghina chiefly among the whites, Aglianico and Piedirosso most prominently among the reds. The estate’s constantly prize-winning, late-harvested Fiorduva is made entirely from three lesser-known but locally important white grapes, Fenile, Ginestra, and Ripoli. Marisa Cuomo uses barriques on many of its wines, but you never taste the wood: That’s one of the things I mean by good, careful winemaking. The wine that Diane and I drank with our sausage and oyster gumbo was Marisa Cuomo’s 2010 Ravello bianco ($22 at 67 Wines). Here’s what I said about it for Diane’s blog:

???????????????????????????????This is a great white wine, reminiscent in its feel in the mouth of a fine white Burgundy. But it bears no other resemblance to that or any Chardonnay-based wine. Made with indigenous southern Italian varieties, it has a distinctive flavor, a balanced blend of apple, pear, chalk, and limestone. Its bright acidity enables it to stand up to almost any dish: It certainly loved our gumbo, and if it can work well with that I wouldn’t hesitate to try it with anything else.

By the way, the wine looked very dark yellow in the glass, initially giving the impression it might already be too old, but that was far from the truth – it was fresh and vital, with years of life (and evolution?) yet before it. In short, a lucky match that I would happily repeat.

To all that, I would now add: I had thought that the deep yellow color was probably due to time in wood, which winemaker Andrea Ferraioli sometimes uses even on whites, but that turns out not to be the case. There was no wood at all on this wine, which got long, low-temperature fermentation and storage in stainless steel. The blend here is 60% Falanghina and 40% Biancolella, and the combination of two by-themselves-pleasant grapes has created something much more estimable than either on its own.

In the seminar and tasting sessions at Campania Stories, I tasted Marisa Cuomo’s 2008 and 2009 Furore rosso riserva, both very impressive wines. The blend here is half Aglianico and half Piedirosso, piedirossothe latter known locally as Per ‘e palummo, dove’s foot, because the thin red stems of the bunches look like the feet of doves. Fully ripe grapes are harvested by hand, destemmed, and macerated almost a month before fermentation finishes. The wine spends a year in barriques before bottling – and normally I would find that much oak intrusive, but here I tasted only the merest trace of it in the younger wine and none at all in the 2008. In both wines, the aromas were marked by wild, black-fruit scents – what Italians call frutti del bosco – and earthy, mineral notes. The latter were even more marked on the palate, where the envelope of dark fruit was more transparent. Both wines were medium-bodied, with excellent acid/tannin balance and evident structure, likely to be long-lived – at least 10 to 15 years, maybe 20 – with lots of development still before them.

Wineries like Marisa Cuomo are why I get so excited about Campania. This is potentially the richest region in Italy for top-quality wines, both white and red, and it is filled with ancient varieties as yet scarcely known outside the areas where they are cultivated. Happily, there is a whole new generation of young, enterprising winemakers now beginning to make their mark. The number of Tre Bicchieri awards that Campania wins grows every year, and that is a significant straw in the wind. Save your Neapolitan scudi, boys: the south of Italy may rise again.

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Alto Adige Essentials: Peter Zemmer

April 21, 2014

Peter ZemmerAbout a week ago I was invited to lunch with Peter Zemmer, the top-flight Alto Adige winemaker, at Gotham, which is also top-flight (and celebrating its 30th anniversary, no commonplace occurrence in New York’s brutal restaurant scene). The lunch was fine – varied, flavorful, with the quality of the ingredients shining through each course. The wines were every bit as fine, radiating a varietal purity that is exceptional even for a zone as dedicated to its pursuit as Alto Adige. I’ve posted about Peter Zemmer before: the sheer pleasure of his wines is my excuse.

The family-owned winery is located in a tiny village in Alto Adige, which is certainly one of the most beautiful wine zones in the world. The facts that (a) it used to be a part of Austria – the Sud Tirol, (b) whichever way you look, the horizon is bounded by snow-capped mountains, and (c) the majority of its population still speaks German, lead most people to associate it first with skiing and only secondarily, if at all, with wine. Anything called the Tyrol must be too cold for vines, right?

Well, no. The Alto Adige gets a tremendous amount of sunshine – 1800 hours a year, better than 300 days of it, on average. In high summer, Bolzano, the regional capital, can be hotter than Palermo. Lush fruit orchards line both banks of the Adige river as it winds its way down from its origin in the Alps, past Bolzano and ultimately into the Adriatic. As you move away from the river, all directions become one: up, through vineyards sited at different altitudes as the soils, exposures, and microclimates dictate suitability. That’s why Alto Adige can grow so many different varieties so well, and with such distinctiveness to each.

zemmer vineyard

Which brings me precisely to what I find so extraordinarily pleasing about Peter Zemmer wines: their fidelity to their varietal character. For instance: If you want to remind yourself about what Pinot grigio tastes like, and why it became so popular before most makers turned it into mildly alcoholic water, try a bottle of Peter Zemmer’s 2013. My tasting note consists of several exclamation points and the words “Lovely ripe pear scent and taste. Great, live acid. Clean, crisp. Very long dry fruit finish. Just fine.”

I was similarly enthusiastic about the second wine of the day, 2012 Pinot bianco Pünggl (a vineyard name, hence a cru wine). Just having them side by side highlighted their fidelity to type. Where the Pinot grigio was all pear and bright acid, the Pinot bianco was all apple and roundness, fuller and more supple in the mouth – still live, with that characteristic acidity that enlivens so many Italian wines, but more Burgundian in its attack than the Pinot grigio.

So too the 2012 Riesling Rohracker: some green apple, a whiff of almost-grapefruit, a hint of peach and of citrus, with a slight oiliness on the palate – that would be textbook Riesling, whether it’s grown in Germany or Alsace or Austria or the Sud Tirol. As I get older, I relish Riesling more and more: It’s a wine of endless nuances. As a younger person I wasn’t so much interested in nuance as in having a wine slap me in the face and yell “Listen Up!”; and while I can still appreciate an attention-grabber like that, I’m more and more intrigued by wines that whisper their greatness rather than shout it, wines just like this lovely Riesling.

Zemmer poured one final white wine for that lunch, his 2010 Cortinie bianco. This is his only blended wine, a mix of roughly 50% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot grigio, and 10% each of Sauvignon blanc and Gewurztraminer. The elegance that marks his entire line of wines shows here in the delicate balance of flavors – ripe white fruits, with hints of apricot and honey – and in the lovely roundness and acidity of the palatal feel. It suggests full body without being in the least heavy, and just cries out for an important dinner – chicken, turkey, veal, fresh ham, fricassees with creamy sauces.

For all its affinities with Austria and Germany and its now almost century-long attachment to Italy, Alto Adige remains a curious borderland. Grape varieties that elsewhere in Italy would be regarded as “international” and recent introductions are natives here, having been grown here for centuries – Pinot gris and Pinot blanc among them, as well as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. The latter, with the most Germanic name of all, and associated by most wine lovers with Alsace, actually originated here around the town of Termano, in German Tramin – thus, Gewürztraminer, the spicy grape from Tramin.

Alto Adige’s reputation in the world at large is built on white wines, and rightly, but there are red grapes here too. Some of the soils contain significant amounts of porphyry, which red grapes like for reasons that go beyond color. Alto Adige’s hearty, Austrian-inflected Alpine cuisine needs some red wines, and the growers, who are as fond of their canerdeli as any of their neighbors, are happy to provide. Zemmer doesn’t grow the most popular red grape of the zone, the workhorse Schiava – he says he just doesn’t have the right soils for it – but he does make the region’s other favorite, Lagrein, as well as some very interesting Pinot nero.

The latter, Pinot nero Rollhütt 2012, nicely accompanied a tasty rabbit risotto. It showed a restrained, elegant, style – all Zemmer’s wines are elegant – that revealed more and more fruit as it opened in the glass. The long, black-peppery finish particularly complemented the food and left an intriguing dry buzz in the mouth. All in all, a very sophisticated wine.

If the Pinot nero seemed a big-city sophisticate, the Lagrein – 2012 Lagrein Raut – proved to be a classic country gentleman: very composed and balanced, rich with dark fruits and a little underlying earthiness and brambliness. Seventy percent of the wine is aged for 12 months in large oak barrels, the rest in second-passage barriques before blending and bottling.

barrels

Neither red wine tasted obtrusively of wood, which would most certainly, if immoderately used, have blurred or obliterated their varietal character. Both red wines, while enjoyable now, give every indication that they will be even better in a few years.

I can only hope that’s true of me too.

Rediscovering Three Spanish Wines

April 10, 2014

This post should really be called “The Blessings of Bad Bookkeeping.” Rummaging around in the mini-storage unit where I keep most of my wine, I discovered a case of Spanish wines – four each of a Rioja, a Garnacha, and a Jumilla – that I had meant to drink years ago. I had originally squirreled them away only because I had no room for any more wine at home. The wines – an ’01, an ’02, and an ’03, all non-riservas – were clearly meant for short-term keeping and drinking young, but once out of sight I promptly forgot about them. (Don’t try to tell me you’ve never done it.)

When I happened upon the case a few weeks back, I immediately brought it home, but not with any high hopes. Rather, I thought there was a better than fifty-fifty chance that the wines were all dead or dying, way past their prime. Well, the good news is I was very wrong: All three wines are drinking deliciously, with plenty of vitality left. Granted, the great burst of fresh fruit that had been their initial attraction had faded and been replaced in each case by a different medley of mature fruit-and-earth flavors – but that was and is fine by me: I love mature wines, and these three now fit that description. Sometimes our ineptitudes work for us: not always, not even often, but when it happens it can be very nice indeed. Here are the wines and what little I know about them.

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Allende Rioja DO 2001  

???????????????????????????????How can you not like Rioja? I think of Riojas as a lot like Chianti Classico: a traditional wine, made from a traditional blend of grape varieties, charming to drink young, yet – as this bottle showed – capable of aging gracefully and well. We drank this with grilled lamb chops, with which Rioja always collaborates beautifully.

Miguel Angel de Gregorio, the owner of Allende, is regarded as an innovator and modernist in the Rioja, and this vintage of his wine may well be made from 100% Tempranillo rather than the conventional blend, and may have been subjected to the usual modernist regime of Tronçais and Allier barriques – but you wouldn’t know it from its now-13-year-old package of flavor, which is gentle and harmonious in the classic style of traditional Rioja. The estate is located in Rioja Alta and cultivates the usual mix of varieties: Tempranillo chiefly, with Graciano, Malvasia, Garnacha, and Viura.

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Juan Gil Jumilla DO 2002

???????????????????????????????A large, family-owned estate, planted in old-vine Monastrell and newer vineyards of French varieties. My bottle was 100% Monastrell, for which the Jumilla DO is famous (at least in Spain). Monastrell is probably more familiar to most American winos as Mataro or Mourvèdre: Despite the proliferation of names, these all appear to be the same grape, and eastern Spain, around Valencia, where the Jumilla DO is located, appears to be its ancestral home. Jancis Robinson describes it as a “high-quality, heat-loving dark-skinned variety most valued for its heady, structured contribution to blends.”

Juan Gil’s Monastrell undergoes what appears to be a combination of traditional practices and modern treatment: long skin contact – 25 days – and then small French wood for a year. Once again, the wine, at more than a decade old, didn’t taste of oak, but of mature fruit – dark, just-going-pruny flavors, with a lot of earthy/mushroomy notes. Not too big: medium-bodied, in what Italians would call rustico-elegante style – meaning a little bit country style, but far from a bumpkin.

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Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha (Campo de Boria DO) 2003

BorsaoBodegas Borsao is essentially a large and extremely well-run cooperative, located in Aragon in northeast Spain – the so-called Empire of Garnacha. Garnacha is, of course, Grenache, probably one of the most widely planted varieties in the world. As Grenache does well in hot, arid zones, where it can produce a wine of great distinction and remarkable long life, Aragon suits it admirably, and Borsao’s low yields and tight quality controls make the most of it. Low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel and a brief excursion in oak result in a wine with abundant fruit, still showing notes of freshness and piquancy at eleven years, and with a structure of soft tannins and good acidity sufficient to carry it for at least five more years – maybe even another eleven. Like most Grenache wines, this one is very versatile with food, dealing comfortably with everything from roast chicken to a hearty chile con carne.

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So there you have it: the happy results of little digging around in storage. To paraphrase an annoying commercial, What’s in your closet?


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