Archive for the ‘Barolo’ Category

Choosing Wine, Serving Wine, Mastering Wine

October 28, 2013

I visited the Museum of Modern Art a few days ago to view the new Magritte exhibition and look in on some old favorites. Among the latter I was struck in particular by a single Modigliani painting of a reclining nude.

Modigliani

.

It was off in a corner, virtually unlooked-at by the hordes that were parading admiringly past the Picassos. As far as I’m concerned, that single painting was worth more than all the Picasso nudes – pink, blue, or cubist – in the rooms around it.

Picasso

.

For all the mannerism of Modigliani’s drawing and painting, that nude was real and alive and intensely human. She radiated sensuality, and by doing so redefined sensuality. Everything in the painting served her, presented her, celebrated her. All the Picasso nudes I looked at that morning also celebrated something, but what they celebrated was mastery – Picasso’s mastery, of his medium, his techniques, his subjects. The women in his paintings didn’t live, they served: They were Picasso’s subjects in every sense of the word. Still great paintings, mind you – but great in a way different from Modigliani’s. Many people will prefer them to Modigliani. I once might have myself, and I still respect them – but I love the Modigliani.

So, I realized, for me there are two whole different categories of esthetic response, and probably two different kinds of art that create them: admiration of the artifice itself, and a new or renewed understanding of what the artifact in a literal sense re-presents. (I’m sure the philosophers have beaten me to this apprehension: There is nothing new under the sun.)

Needless to say, it quickly occurred to me that that was true of wine too. (It’s been a long away around, but you knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?)

I realized that there are producers whose wines celebrate the grapes and their terroir, and there are producers whose wines celebrate the mastery of the winemaker. A few nights ago, Diane and I enjoyed a 1999 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo with some excellent broiled lamb chops, followed by a small plate of equally excellent cheeses. And a few nights later, we drank a lovely bottle of classic Frascati – Fontana Candida’s Terre dei Grifi – with some simple fried chicken, preceded by an even simpler shrimp cocktail. Both wines were absolutely lovely, and both perfect with the meals they accompanied; and both, on their different scales, were celebrations of the grapes they were made from.

???????????????????????????????FrascatiTasting them, I thought Langhe hills! and Roman campagna!, not who the winemaker was or what the cellar had done. That the winemaker and cellar, in both cases, must have done a lot – or refrained from doing a lot – was evident upon reflection, but it’s not what popped into my head with the first, or second, or third sip. A lot of Piedmont wine – and not much Frascati – is like that, whereas a lot of Tuscan wine seems to me to fall into the other category, where what strikes you first and foremost is what the winemaker has accomplished. Certainly some Chianti Classico is like that, and a lot of Brunello, and almost everything that comes from Bolgheri – not to mention 99% of classified-growth Bordeaux. This is not to say that these are lesser wines, but wines different in nature, and having a different impact, both on the palate and on the imagination.

All this caused me to realize that for years now I have been choosing wines for my dinners for two different reasons: one set of wines for the vivid presence of the grapes and where they came from, the other for the technical perfection of the winemaking. These are equally admirable but very different kinds of wine, and I saw too that I usually serve them in different circumstances: the first with deliberately simple foods of the best available prima materia, the second with more elaborately constructed dishes or more complex sauces. I choose the first combination because it showcases the wine without in any way detracting from the food, the second because the interplay of food and wine intensifies them both. This is not an ironclad rule, of course – I’m too much of an anarchist to believe in ironclad anything – but it has been for me a useful, if unconscious, rule of thumb.

So my little epiphany in front of Modigliani’s gloriously incarnated painting also made me aware of something I had been acting on for a long time without ever being fully conscious of it, and that realization in turn has given me a new handle on the wines I drink and serve. A long time ago I set out to tell people about Mastering Wine: clearly, I’m still in the process of doing so myself. I have no idea whether my current thinking is my final destination or just a way-station on the road, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Stop the Presses: 1978 Barolo Is Finally Drinkable!

July 5, 2013

Yes, it’s true: Those formerly impenetrable 1978 Barolos, one of the most promising and also most frustrating vintages of Piedmont’s great red wine, have finally relaxed and opened – and they are wonderful, fully worth the 30-year wait since they were first released.

The 1978 vintage was unquestionably a classic pre-global-warming growing season in the Barolo zone. A cooler-than-average summer followed a cool, rainy spring but was capped by a glorious, warm autumn with great day/night temperature differentials – the latter always crucial for the proper maturation of Nebbiolo. The crop was small, and the wines were initially concentrated and very hard, with evident great structure but totally unyielding tannins. ’78 Barolos were notoriously slow to come around: Some critics feared they would never be drinkable. That worry has been slow to dissipate, as the wines remained hard and ungiving year after year.

Barolo vineyard *

Barolo vineyard *

My last post lamented the disaster of 2009 Barolo, but this one tells a very different story, a triumph for Barolo producers. My mornings at Nebbiolo Prima, back in May, were taken up with blind tastings of the newly released ’09 vintage, a painful chore at best. But my afternoons compensated: In the course of an assignment for Decanter, I visited several long-established producers whose cellars held enough older vintages to facilitate a comparative tasting of “classic” and “modern” Barolos, or, if you prefer, pre- and post-global-warming Barolos.

I was accompanied in these sessions by two colleagues, Tom Hyland, who had a similar assignment for Sommelier Journal, and Kerin O’Keefe, who was just finishing a likely-to-be-definitive book on Barolo for The University of California Press. These are two people with deep knowledge of Piedmontese wine and with palates I seriously respect – which means of course that their taste in Barolo resembles mine in being deeply traditional.

We wept and wailed in harmony at the dismal morning sessions, and we rejoiced together at our often-deeply-moving afternoon tastings. And we agreed completely that the 1978 vintage has finally come round, that it is marvelous drinking, and that it shows no signs of fatigue at all. This is a vintage, if you’re lucky enough to have it or to find it, to start drinking now and keep sipping for at least another ten years, and quite possibly more.

Here are the wines we tasted:

Barolos

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Riserva: deeply earth-and-truffle nose; fantastically fresh on the palate, with classic Nebbiolo dark-fruit, funghi-porcini flavors, and no sign of tiredness at all. Claudio Fenocchio has now taken over from his father, who made this wine: He is consciously reverting to very traditional modes of winemaking.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate: Spicy, earthy, evolved nose, and beautiful, fleshy Barolo palate. Great balance and elegance. Elvio Cogno made this wine before he left Marcarini for his own vineyards, but the estate has maintained the same, almost meaty style into its more recent vintages.

Massolino Barolo Riserva: A grape selection, not a cru, and a great wine, still fresh, live, supple, with enormous complexity and depth: big and mouth-filling without feeling weighty or ponderous. Franco Massolino says that this wine exemplifies the style he strives for.

Oddero Barolo: Classic Barolo in the sense that it is blended from several communes and crus, and classic in every other sense as well. Beautifully evolved, dark and velvety, a wonderfully evocative wine, typical – in the best sense – of Barolo of that generation, in its fascinating combination of rusticity and sophistication.

Pio Cesare Barolo: Great funky, mushroomy aroma, just turning to truffle; deep, mature, mushroomy flavors; long, long earth and dried-black-fruit finish, with plenty of life in it yet. A big wine, as the Pio Cesares tend to be.

???????????????????????????????

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva: A classic, mature Barolo, seemingly at its peak, with no sign of decline: very fine, powerful, and elegant. The nearly legendary Beppe Colla* made this wine in a very traditional manner – about 50 days of maceration on the skins, long aging in big botti.

Grand wines, all of them, and at the end of the day a very happy, very privileged bunch of journalists.

.

And One More Aging Surprise

Other than my own, that is, which is a constant surprise to me.

bussolaI recently discovered, in a case of wines that I had lost track of, a bottle of 1998 Tommaso Bussola Valpolicella Classico. Now, I had never had any intention of keeping a Valpolicella so long, and I thought surely this must be a long-dead wine – but there it was, and I am well supplied with corkscrews, so what the hell? I pulled the cork, I sniffed, and what do you know? The wine smelled just fine. Not young and fruity, as one expects of Valpolicella, but mature and somewhat claret-y.

We had it that night with dinner, and it was very pleasant: not earthshaking, but an enjoyable, medium-bodied, mature wine that might have been a Medoc cru bourgeois. I had never suspected Valpolicella could live so long or so pleasingly. Since it was only 11.5% alcohol, it had to be that brisk Valpolicella acidity that sustained it. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else has had similar experiences with Valpolicella or any of its kindred wines.

.

* Photos from The Mystique of Barolo, by Maurizio Rosso & Chris Meier

Barolo 2009: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

June 24, 2013

The news is mostly bad, I’m afraid, at least for lovers of traditional Barolo. The 2009 vintage is, to put it concisely, pretty crummy.

A chunk of my recent travels took me to Alba, as it does most years in mid-May, for Nebbiolo Prima, the week-long tasting of new release Barolo and Barbaresco. This year, Barbaresco had all the good news: Its growers were showing the 2010 vintage, which is hands-down spectacular, and about which I will have more to say in a later post. The bad news was all Barolo’s, and it was pretty dismal.

Event

.

This is not to say there weren’t some good Barolos. There were, some from consistent overachievers and some from small estates that are unknown to me. The communes of Barolo, Monforte, Serralunga, and tiny Novello did reasonably well. But many producers I normally count on joined the ranks of the serious underachievers this year and turned out wines that – to my traditionalist palate – had very little to do with Barolo. Particularly disappointing were the wines of the usually graceful commune of La Morra.

Here’s a question for the technocrats: How does a wine that (a) is too dark for Nebbiolo; (b) smells like espresso (and in one case like asparagus); and (c) tastes like coffee and toast – how does a wine like that get the Barolo DOCG designation? Something is seriously wrong here: Either I’m crazy, and my palate has gotten completely skewed, or the appellation’s tasting commission really blew it.

For the record, I don’t think my palate is very far off: Many other journalists agreed with me, and most of the winemakers described the harvest – off the record, to be sure – as “difficult” and the wines as “for short-term drinking.” I gather that many of them told a slightly-to-very different story to the trade – the buyers – who tasted in company with them a week before the journalists arrived in Alba to taste blind. Caveat emptor, eh?

Be that as it may, taste blind is what I and my colleagues of the press corps did.

???????????????????????????????

.

It was a pretty grueling experience: approximately 80 wines each morning, which would have been difficult enough had we been tasting Soave, but the bruising tannins and high alcohol of these young Nebbiolos made it an endurance contest. Most of us felt that we probably did not do justice to the last 10 or 15 wines of each morning, but there was just nothing to be done about that. The amount of alcohol absorbed through the mucous membranes, and the amount of wood and grape tannins by that point coating cheeks and tongue, weren’t going to be nullified by a short break or piece of bread or swallow of water.

So it is possible that I missed some good wines every day – but the pattern that was established each day by the first 65 samples certainly didn’t raise any high hopes for the remaining 15. Here are some of my typical comments on a string of wines from Wednesday morning (for the record, La Morra):

  • Closed – espresso finish
  • Coffee aroma – closed – espresso finish
  • Coffee and volatile acidity – palate closed – espresso finish
  • Espresso nose – closed palate – espresso finish
  • There is just nothing here to recommend. The drinking window of these wines – if there is one – runs from two years from now to five years from now. Not a vintage to recommend but to avoid.

And lest you think I’m really out in left field, here are some of the comments that Italian wine expert Franco Ziliani published from his own tasting notes:

Several wines left me totally indifferent, with no temptation to move on from sampling to drinking them, while for others I let my tasting notes speak for themselves: concentrated color, dirty wood, extractive green, wood extract, dry tannin, sub-zero pleasantness; . . .  scents of boiled cabbage and broccoli, . . . no substance, dry finale, ending on coffee-dust tones; dirty nose, reductive, extractive, vegetable, no vigor in the palate, dry tannin, toasted; . . . smelly, dirty rubber, vegetable extracts, limp, faded, sweetish in the palate, no vitality, a shameless meaningless wine.

Wishy-washy, isn’t he? One of the things I like about Franco is that he makes me look temperate.

As you can see, all that adds up to a pretty sad performance from what likes to think of itself as the premier red wine district of Italy. I can’t begin to imagine how so many winemakers got a vintage so wrong. Nor can I in all honesty imagine why many of them didn’t voluntarily declassify, or why the official tasting commission didn’t declassify for them.

Well, take that back: I can imagine one strong reason, and it begins with $ or €. But that should be the strongest reason for declassification in this case: To justify those large amounts of euros and dollars that bottles of Barolo are commanding, rigid enforcement of the quality standards is crucial. Without that, the DOCG is meaningless, the reputation of Barolo tanks, and its price plummets. So it’s in the growers’ best interests to insist on strict application of the wine’s standards to every grower in every vintage. Without that, just kiss off that new Mercedes.

To conclude this jeremiad with some good news, here’s my honor roll of wines that turned in creditable performances in this apparently very, very difficult vintage:

  • Ascheri: Barolo Sorano
  • Barale Fratelli: Barolo Bussia
  • Brezza Giacomo: Barolo Sarmassa
  • Bric Cenciurio: Barolo Coste di Rose
  • Cascina Cucco: Barolo Cerrati
  • Cavalotto-Bricco Boschis: Barolo Bricco Boschis
  • Ceretto: Barolo Prapo
  • Poderi Colla: Barolo Dardi Le Rose-Bussia
  • Aldo Conterno: Barolo Bussia
  • Aldo Conterno: Barolo Bussia Vigna Romirasco
  • Luigi Einaudi: Barolo Cannubi
  • Elvio Cogno: Barolo Cascina Nuova
  • Giacomo Fenocchio: Barolo Cannubi
  • Giacomo Fenocchio: Barolo Villero
  • Fontanafredda: Barolo Serralunga d’Alba
  • Giribaldi Mario: Barolo
  • Elio Grasso: Barolo Gavarini Vigna Chiniera
  • Elio Grasso: Barolo Ginestra Vigna Casa Matè
  • Paolo Manzone: Barolo Meriame
  • Marcarini: Barolo Brunate
  • Massolino-Vigna Rionda: Barolo Parussi
  • Pio Cesare: Barolo Ornato.
  • E. Pira & Figli: Barolo Cannubi
  • Rinaldi Giuseppe: Barolo Brunate-Le Coste
  • Gigi Rosso: Barolo Arione
  • Paolo Scavino: Barolo Bric del Fiasc
  • Sebaste: Barolo Bussia
  • Viberti Giovanni: Barolo Buon Padre

See an update on this vintage here.

Old Ways Are Best

June 4, 2013

As I become a cranky old fart, I find myself more and more enamored of the wines that my palate recalls from years back. I realize that the flavors I am romanticizing about used to occur only about once a decade in France and Italy and Spain, and that the other nine years were often enough just barely drinkable. Yes, it’s true: Thanks to technology and climate change, we now get more good vintages than bad out of every decade, and I would be an ungrateful churl to repine at that.

And yet, and yet . . . My palatal memory – which is not infallible, but is on the whole pretty reliable – tells me that the other vintage, that one in ten, was special in a way that even the best modern vintages rarely reach. I’m pretty sure I’m recalling something real – just as when Andre Tchelistcheff years ago assured me that the pre-phylloxera wines he drank in his youth tasted better, richer, more intense than anything he’d had since. The few pre-phylloxera wines I’ve been privileged to taste convince me that he too was remembering something real, not simply indulging in nostalgia.

So it gives me more than usual pleasure, and excites more than usual interest, when I discover some winemakers and some projects that are starting in a modest way to turn back the clock, to retain everything useful that has been learned in recent decades while paying some serious attention to what their grandfathers – who, as they will be quick to tell you, were no dummies – did and why they did it.

Where I am most aware of this happening in Italy is in what I regard as its two greatest red wine zones, Campania and Piedmont. In the former, both the great traditional house of Mastroberardino and the newer firm Feudi di San Gregorio have launched research into surviving pre-phylloxera vineyards, methods of cultivation, and clones of their great varieties. In Piedmont, there has so far been a lesser emphasis on clones and old vineyards, but more and more focus on how the anziani – the old timers – used to handle the grapes and what they did with them in the cellar.

Recently, I’ve experienced three very different Nebbiolo-based wines that are in their separate ways striving to recapture the great traditional character of Piedmontese wine: Vallana’s Cuvee Bernardo Vallana 2010; Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 2008 90 Di; and Prunotto’s single-vineyard Barolo Riserva Bussia 2008 Vigna Colonello.

.

Vallana’s Cuvee Bernardo Vallana 2010

Bernardo Vallana was an almost legendary winemaker, a pioneer in spreading the fame of the Alto Piemonte thanks to his favorite wine: Spanna. Spanna was and is the local name for Nebbiolo in Piedmont’s sub-Alpine zone, which includes appellations such as Gattinara and Boca. “Vini di altri tempi,” Vallana used to call his wines – “wines of yesteryear” – already in the 1960s and 70s hearkening back to the great, elegant Nebbiolos of the past. Now, 50 years later, his grandchildren, Francis and Marina Fogarty, are striving to recreate the taste and character of those wines in the vineyards that gave rise to them. Here is Marina’s explanation of the project.

Bernardo Vallana was a perfectionist, not simply a winemaker. He understood the importance both of single vineyard bottling for cru vineyards and of carefully blending cuvées when he wanted to emphasize the style of the winemaker. For this reason, he had an extremely long list of different labels for all of his wines. We have started to re-issue them, as we are determined to follow our grandfather’s footsteps. Bernardo Vallana’s house wine was Spanna del Camino (of the Fireplace), named after his home’s fireplace represented on the label. This is the first label to be re-launched in our project, and we re-named it Cuvée Bernardo Vallana.

???????????????????????????????

As opposed to the classic Colline Novaresi Spanna, which expresses a younger flavor profile, our Spanna Bernardo Vallana cuvée has been expressly created following the original style of those Vallana Spannas capable of ageing for 30 years or more which made Bernardo Vallana such a legend. The wine is enjoyable now, but honestly we made this wine for people who are aware of the ageing potential of Vallana Spanna and wish to have a wine that they can store now, and enjoy its evolution in 10, 20, 30+ years’ time (provided they resist the temptation!).

My own tasting of the 2010 vintage confirms that Vallana’s grandchildren would make him very proud. It’s a very big wine despite its moderate alcohol, mouth-filling and smooth, with still quite firm tannins and wonderful Piemontese flavors – black cherry and tobacco most obviously, but all sorts of mineral and sottobosco notes as well. This is clearly a wine to cellar for as long as your patience lasts, and it will just get better and better. It really did recall those wonderful Vallana Spannas that I enjoyed so much in the 70s and early 80s.

.

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 2008 90 Di

In the more-familiar-to-most-consumers Barolo zone, Claudio Fenocchio, owner and winemaker of Giacomo Fenocchio, is following a similar path. “I am becoming more and more old-school,” he says, and the proof of that is the experimental (only 410 bottles made) 2008 Barolo Bussia he calls 90 Di. That is for the 90 days of maceration – skins and juices in constant contact, in large barrels – that he imposes on the wine. This hearkens directly back to very “old-fashioned” Barolo-making methods, when the wines commonly macerated on the skins for two months or more. As Claudio says, this is a deliberate return “to the Barolo of tradition.”

90 Di label

My palate calls it a complete success. The wine was startlingly accessible, showing huge fruit from the nose through the finish – big dried fruit and floral elements, earth, tobacco, with even hints of dried orange peel; the whole Piedmontese panoply for a young Nebbiolo. Even more impressive, the dried fruit components grew and grew in bulk and complexity as the wine opened in the glass, arguing for superior longevity and development. This wine gave every appearance of becoming one of the Barolos of legend. We can only hope he makes more of it, or makes more wines in the same style.

.

Prunotto’s Barolo Riserva Bussia 2008 Vigna Colonello

Similarly, Gianluca Torrengo, the winemaker at Prunotto, is making every effort to return the winery to the style and character of the wines made there in the past by another Piedmontese legend, Beppe Colla. Among his many other accomplishments, Colla (who still advises at Poderi Colla, an estate run by his daughter Federica and younger brother Tino) is credited with being, in the 1960s, the first in Piedmont to bottle cru Barolo. That was then a dramatic innovation, since Barolo orthodoxy insisted on blending Barolos not just from different crus but from different communes. In homage to that legacy, Prunotto is for the first time issuing a single-vineyard bottle of a cru it acquired in 1990: Bussia Riserva 2008 Vigna Colonello.

Torrengo too avows an interest in “old-school” Barolo: He has lengthened maceration times and sharply reduced the use of barriques, moving Prunotto’s wines back along more classic lines – which is where anyone who recalls Beppe Colla’s wines will think they belong. The Vigna Colonello I think a resounding success, a lovely wine, with fine balance and wondrous Nebbiolo fruit that just sings in the glass – clearly, a wine that will be very long-lived. “Typical of Bussia,” Torrengo says, “fine and strong.” Typical of classic Barolo, I say, and let’s have three cheers for that!

Once More Into the Breach, Dear Winos

October 2, 2012

Wine season in New York began right after Labor Day with the proverbial bang, conglomerating more wine lunches, portfolio tastings, verticals, and horizontals in the past few weeks than any single liver could deal with. Here are a highly selected few of the season’s stand-out new release wines from a few of those events.

Champagne is always a good opener. Two beauties here: Ayala, which deserves to be as well known here as it is in Europe, is brought in by the small import firm Cognac One. Pol Roger, which is well known everywhere, is imported by the large firm Frederick Wildman.

Ayala is probably the smallest of the Grandes Marques, even though it was a founding member (1882) of that association. Owned since 2005 by Bollinger, Ayala has had the same cellar master (Nicolas Klym) for 25 years. Ayala regards itself as an artisan house, working with highly selected vineyards and grapes: There is quite a lot of grand cru Pinot noir in its basic Brut Majeur and Vintage Brut. I thought the Brut Majeur NV quite stylish and enjoyable, with the merest trace of sweetness in the finish. Drinkers less sensitive to sugar than I will not notice it at all. For total sugar-phobes, Ayala’s Brut Nature NV is the wine of choice: Sound, clean, and fully dry, with a lovely wheaty/toasty palatal presence, this wine would serve both as aperitif and dinner companion.

The Blanc de Blancs 2004 is vinified entirely from grand cru Chardonnay to make a lean and muscular wine, with ample fruit for enjoyable drinking. Cuvée Perle d’Ayala Nature 2002 is composed of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot noir from grand and premier cru villages. It has a fine wheaty nose, excellent body and full, mouth-filling flavor, with a very long finish. Ayala’s top-of-the-line Brut Millesimé 1999 reverses the blend – 80% Pinot noir and 20% Chardonnay – to make a lovely wine, elegant and balanced, deep and long-lasting. Very fine indeed.

Pol Roger is one of the best-known names in Champagne. The house is justly famous for quality throughout its line and for its maintenance of the distinctive fresh and full style that made it Winston Churchill’s favorite. Pol Roger “Pure” Brut Nature NV, Brut Réserve “White Foil” NV, Blanc de Blancs 2002, Vintage Brut 2002, and Brut Rosé 2004 are all cut from the same fine cloth: biggish wines that manage to be rich and austere at the same time, so that you don’t know whether to admire more the depth of their flavor or the restraint of their style. The Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999, named after the house’s most famous and most loyal client, is simply gorgeous – as usual. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Grands Marques houses is the way they preserve such a very high level of quality year in and year out. They make it look routine, but there is nothing easy about it.

I was also impressed by multiple wines from another Wildman producer, Paul Jaboulet Ainé. This Rhône master makes the whole gamut of northern and southern Rhône wines well, from its basic Parallèle 45 red and white up to some very rarified heights. I found its two red Hermitages, 2009 La Petite Chapelle and 2005 La Chapelle, very striking, the former very floral and – at this stage of its development – a bit rustic, the latter still half-closed but elegant and polished and structured for the ages. I loved Jaboulet’s Cornas Domaine Saint Pierre (2009), which was huge and utterly characteristic of Cornas – the northernmost outpost of Syrah in the Rhône, and an appellation that rarely gets the respect it deserves. Its wines are typically forceful, even aggressive in their youth, but mellow as they age into deep and polished, always identifiably southern, wines. They can age as long as any other Rhône appellation.

Much as I liked the Jaboulet reds, however, the two wines that really enchanted me were the firm’s 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape Les Cèdres blanc and 2007 Hermitage Chevalier de Sterimberg, the latter already an extremely lovely white wine, but one that will live and slowly improve for decades. Should I live so long, I would drink this wine when it’s 20 years old.

Back at the Cognac One tasting, another Rhône producer caught my attention: Cave de Tain. This is a co-op, and an excellent one. Headquartered right at Hermitage, Cave de Tain draws upon growers who produce more than half of all the northern Rhône AOC wines made. Its basic 2010 Syrah is a beautifully restrained example of the variety, while its red 2009 Crozes Hermitage, also 100% Syrah, shows the same restraint coupled with an excellent acidity and minerality, with fine potential for intermediate aging.

Cave de Tain Crozes Hermitages vineyard

2006 Saint-Joseph and 2005 Cornas, both, again, 100% Syrah, are already deep and showing complexity despite their relative youth. Both will age well for at least ten years. Neither appellation, it seems to me, gets sufficient attention from serious wine lovers.

The top of Cave de Tain’s range contains a lovely 2005 Hermitage rouge (nose of chestnuts and earth, deep palate, smooth and fresh), a 2010 Esprit de Granit Saint-Joseph (mineral and black pepper nose, deep peppery Syrah finish: needs years), and an absolutely gorgeous 2005 Gambert de Loche Hermitage (already deep and velvety; still evolving and deepening). These are all first-rate examples of Northern Rhône character.

Finally, one Italian producer (you knew I couldn’t resist): Aurelio Settimo of La Morra, one of the key communes of the Barolo zone. Tiziana Settimo, daughter of the eponymous founder and guiding spirit of the small estate for a decade now, hosted a lovely dinner at Porter House restaurant to celebrate her wines’ re-entry into the US market. Her new importer for New York and New Jersey is Verity Wine Partners. She showed the first four wines to arrive here: Dolcetto d’Alba 2010, Langhe Nebbiolo 2006, Barolo 2007, and Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2007.

All four wines showed the characteristic Aurelio Settimo elegance and restraint, coupled with – especially in the case of the two Barolos – intensity of flavor and the absolutely classic spectrum of Nebbiolo components. The Nebbiolo d’Alba, although slightly lighter-bodied than the two Barolos, showed the same purity of Nebbiolo character. This is a totally pleasurable wine, ready to drink now (it loved a porcini and black truffle risotto) and likely to hold at a fine level for at least five years yet. At about half the price of the Barolos, it represents the closest you’re going to come to a steal in Alba wines these days. The commune of La Morra has been pretty much setting the pace for Barolo for a few years now, and meticulous, painstaking winemakers like Tiziana are the reason why.

That’s all for now: there will be more reports on outstanding wines as the season wears on. Coraggio!

Piedmont Panorama: Part Two

June 24, 2012

It’s such a joy to visit winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco. No matter how packed your schedule or how long your day, each visit deserves and rewards however much time it takes. So each day of the Nebbiolo Prima this year, after tasting 65 to 80 young, rough wines in the morning I happily bolted my lunch and went off for an afternoon of tasting more Nebbiolos.

Last post I told you about my sessions with the Angelo Negro family and Tiziana Settimo. This post I want to fill you in on my visits to Renato Ratti, Boroli, and Roccheviberti.

Renato Ratti

The eponymous founder of this estate was a pioneer of the modern age in Barolo, and his son Pietro is carrying on with the same style and panache. We sat in the light-filled tasting room of his impressive new winery and tasted an equally impressive battery of wines – Dolcetto 2011 and Barbera (both Alba 2011 and Asti 2010), Nebbiolo 2010, Barolo Marcenasco 2009 and 2008, Barolo Conca 2008 – and then a vertical of Pietro’s prized cru, Rocche: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001, 2000, and 1999.

The ’08 was big and tannic but balanced by terrific acid and fruit, the best wine of that vintage I’d tasted that day (that includes some 70+ in the morning session). The ’07 seemed slightly rustic and forceful, more forward and attention grabbing.

“2008 is a precise vintage,” Pietro says; “you can taste the differences of place from place. 2007 is exuberant; 2008 is more narrow but deeper – more interesting, with more acidity, more focus. 2006 is more classic, more fruity – same family as ’08, but more classic.” In fact, I found the 2006 very similar to the ’08, deep and composed, a wine to wait for. Both remind me of the 1974s, which evolved into some of the finest Barolos of the second half of the century.

Ratti’s 2005 you don’t have to wait for: It’s already together – a lovely middle weight, totally drinkable now. The 2004 went to the other end of the spectrum, a great vintage, along with 2001 one of the greatest, but nowhere near ready to drink. The 2001 showed itself more developed, the nose darkening to tobacco and coffee, even burnt earth, the palate deep, smooth, and complex – almost but not quite ready. The 2000 stood among the better examples of this too-hot vintage, but it will never be my favorite. “A great Barolo vintage,” Pietro says, “combines power and elegance.” His 1999 Rocche did just that – big Nebbiolo fruit and leather and porcini on the nose and in the mouth, with an endless finish. A lovely wine, with years of development still before it.

Boroli

This is a newer house, run by a team of brothers with a lot of modern technology but also great love for traditional Barolo character, both of which showed nicely in the wines. Villero is their best cru: it’s one of the choice sites in the Barolo zone, and Boroli does it justice. The 2004 sported big Nebbiolo fruit – juicy black cherry – along with tobacco and leather. I thought it elegant and balanced and still very young. The ‘05 Villero showed itself very accessible, as is characteristic of that vintage – quite drinkable already, although evidently still young and growing. This is what people have in mind when they talk about a good restaurant Barolo. 2006 also proved true to its vintage: a structured, big, austere wine, with great minerality – a wine for long, long cellaring to enjoy at its maximum. Villero 2007 was an almost complete contrast, fresh and amazingly accessible for so young a Barolo. It too will no doubt mature and deepen, but it’s so enjoyable now that it may be hard to wait for it.

Roccheviberti

This is the smallest producer I visited – about 20,000 bottles a year, and that includes some Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, as well as Barolo. Production that small makes Claudio Viberti only a little more than a garagiste, but in quality he is approaching the top tier. He works roughly 13 acres, 5 of which are Nebbiolo, in the tiny village of Rocche within the commune of Castiglione Falletto. I went to visit him because, in the past two or three years, I had been giving his wines top marks at Nebbiolo Prima’s morning blind-tasting sessions, and I thought it was time I found out something about him.

I am very, very glad I did. His 2010 Dolcetto d’Alba Vigna Melera and his 2009 Barbera d’Alba Superiore were both textbook wines, so delicious and so characteristic that the first taste told me that I was in the hands of an excellent winemaker. His 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo confirmed that: It was all beautiful black cherry fruit that tasted fresh! fresh! fresh!

The vertical of Barolo Rocche di Castiglione that followed was the icing on the cake. 2008 showed classic Nebbiolo color, the true garnet bleeding to an orange edge, and the classic “feminine” Castiglione body, sapid, juicy, and well structured. The 2007 smelled of raspberries and roses and tasted of sweet black cherries, tar, and tea. The 2006 had a nose of dried roses, earth, and tea, and on the palate big acid and firm tannins supporting a huge body of fruit – a wine that seems to me will get better and better for decades. His 2005 showed the same dried roses in the aroma and great minerality on the palate, with excellent acidity and fine fruit. 2004 again smelled of dried roses, and on the palate was evolving beautifully, with plenty of still fresh fruit beginning to develop complexity and depth – a gentle, elegant, and deep wine.

These wines demonstrated an impressive consistency of quality and style from vintage to vintage. Claudio said that he ferments his Barolos for 18 to 25 days, depending on the harvest, and that he uses only French oak in large, traditional botti. His grandfather had started the winery for bulk sales, and he began making wine in 2003 – and he doesn’t make a Riserva because he doesn’t have the space. Honestly, I hope he never has: I wouldn’t want him to change a thing.

The Barolo and Barbaresco zones are real winemaker country. You’re never greeted ceremoniously by guys in designer suits. Instead, men and women in purple-stained jeans and equally stained hands welcome you with boundless enthusiasm for their wines and plenty of information about their last half dozen vintages – or more, if you display any curiosity. Is it any wonder that I visit as often as I can?

Piedmont Panorama: Part One

June 14, 2012

I went to Piedmont in May for Nebbiolo Prima, the annual preview of Barolo and Barbaresco new releases. The host city, Alba, remained reliably sunny and comfortably warm, and the wines – nearly 500 of them over the course of the work week – remained astonishingly unpredictable. Last year I thought the use of barriques here in the heart of Nebbiolo-land was waning; this year it was back in force, ruining – for my palate – most of the Barbarescos of the Neive commune and most of the Barolos of Monforte d’Alba.

Every day at Nebbiolo Prima follows the same routine. By 9 a.m. at the latest, you sit yourself down to blind-taste between 65 and 80 examples of the new vintages (this year, Barbaresco 2009, Barolo 2008).

After lunch (and a vigorous toothbrushing, if you have enough time to dash back to your hotel room), you meet the producers you’ve chosen to visit for a look at their vineyards and cellar and whatever tasting they opt to give you. I lucked in this year, and enjoyed a series of vertical tastings that wonderfully complemented the mornings’ intensive horizontals and also showed just why Nebbiolo is so special a grape and Barolo and Barbaresco so special a twin-set of wine zones.

I’ll write about all of Barbaresco in a later post: There were some lovely wines there from the other communes that deserve notice. Today and in my next post I want to focus on some splendid visits I enjoyed to producers around the two zones, and what made them splendid.

Here are my first two producer visits, in the order of their occurrence.

Angelo Negro

This family has been making wine for about 400 years, cultivating now some 60 hectares in the Roero and Barbaresco zones. They make white wines, including a refreshing brut spumante, with local varieties – Arneis and the too-little-known Favorita – but their main effort goes into reds: a Roero rosso called Sudisfà and Barbaresco Basarin, from the Neive commune.

They first poured for me 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 of the Sudisfà Riserva. This is a 100% Nebbiolo from the Roero zone, aged 24 months in French oak – but the traditional Piedmontese large botti, not barriques. This proved to be a lovely wine, with substantial Nebbiolo character that was lightened and freshened (and marked off from Barolo and Barbaresco) by the sandy soils of Roero. The ’04 was developing beautifully, in exactly the manner that will be familiar to Barolo fans, but with greater lightness. It had an almost-delicacy that is rare in Nebbiolo wines. The other vintages showed strong stylistic and palatal similarities – a consistency across vintages that I found impressive – though obviously younger and not as far along the track to maturity.

Next came 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 vintages of the Barbaresco Basarin Riserva, also 100% Nebbiolo, also 18 months in oak (80% botti, 20% tonneaux). This was one of few Neive commune Barbarescos that I enjoyed, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It showed itself a very different wine from Sudisfà: bigger, with firmer tannins, and slower maturing (the ’04 Basarin was far less ready than the ’04 Sudisfà), combining wonderful freshness with depth. This was a very fine sequence of vintages that showed again a fine stylistic consistency – a thing not easy to achieve with a grape as exacting as Nebbiolo.

Aurelio Settimo

Today managed by the founder’s granddaughter, Tiziana Settimo, this small estate (scarcely 6 hectares) works more than half its vineyards in the prized La Morra cru Rocche della Annunziata. Tiziana presented seven vintages of her Barolo Rocche: 2006, 2005, Riserva 2004, 1997, 1996, 1986, and 1985 – a really lovely line-up that showed clearly the exceptional aging ability of the wines of this cru.

All the wines were marked by an almost austere rendition of classic Barolo black-cherry and mineral scents and tastes with aromas in some cases (especially 2004) hinting at white truffle among the more familiar fruit and earth notes. I picked up tastes of mulberry in the finish of several, something I found in other La Morra wines as well: unexpected and intriguing. On the palate, all showed good acidity and firm tannins, the latter at different stages of softening from vintage to vintage.

The ’97 seemed to me to be peaking, something I’ve found true for all the 1997s I’ve tasted in the past year. I don’t think they are going into a secondary eclipse (something that can happen with Barolo and Barbaresco): I think they’re reaching the end of their lives. Very far from that fate were the 1996, the 1986, and the 1985. These showed themselves truly great wines, big and powerful, but with great elegance and still fresh fruit, along with their developing complexity. The oldest of them, the ’85 Barolo Rocche, gave no indication of fading; it still had fine body and balance, still marked Nebbiolo fruit, still vigor on the palate. A great wine, without question.

*

It’s worth noting that in part because of the economy and in part because of the extraordinary string of fine vintages Piedmont has enjoyed, many bottles of 2004, 5, 6, and 7 are still on the shelves, and often at prices lower than what this year’s new releases are likely to command. Buyer, take advantage!

My next post will continue the saga of my visits to producers during my week in Alba.

Five Decades of Conterno’s Barolo Monfortino

May 18, 2012

Am I ever a happy camper! Through the generosity of friends and friends of friends, I had the opportunity to share in a nine-bottle, five-decade tasting of one of Italy’s finest wines, Giacomo Conterno’s Barolo Riserva Monfortino. Nick Belfrage, who knows Italian wine well, has opted for a bottle of Monfortino as his “deathbed tipple.” The vintage he asks for is 1990. The youngest wine we tasted was 1985. Am I a happy camper?

The Giacomo Conterno winery, now run by Roberto Conterno, sits near some prime vineyards in Monforte d’Alba, though all its own vineyards are in Serralunga, and its finest wine is called Monfortino (Don’t ask; this is Italy). Roberto still makes wines the way his father and grandfather (the eponymous Giacomo) did, with long, long skin contact and long aging before release. Vintages of the last 15 years that I’ve tasted in Italy have all been impressive and formidable wines, structured on a large scale and packed with complex flavors that will need many years to evolve.

All the wines we tasted here in New York, however, were produced not by Roberto but by the older generations: 1985, 1978, 1971, 1967, 1968, 1958, 1955, 1947, and 1943. To me this made the tasting doubly interesting, because it was a chance to remind myself how the Barolos that first hooked me long ago have developed, as well as a chance to mentally compare them with what I’ve been tasting of more recent vintages.

In my private history of Piedmont wine, 1982 stands as a great dividing year, the year that climate change was first felt in the area. None of us realized that at the time: That very warm growing season gave grapes of such never-before-seen ripeness that it was thought of as a real anomaly: The growers called it their “California harvest.” Then ’85 was very warm again, forcing the growers to start to come to terms with changed climatic conditions. And then came the fantastic trio of harvests – 1988, 1989, and 1990 – that firmly pushed Barolo and Barbaresco into a whole new era.

From that point on, what came into the cellars from the fields was different from what Nebbiolo had been before. It had to be treated differently, even by the most traditional winemakers, and the history of Barolo and Barbaresco had to start over. If the wines of these latter years evolve anything like the wines of the pre-climate-change years that we had at this recent tasting, we all have a lot to look forward to.

So much for prologue: now for the tasting.

Monfortino 1985. Excellent color. Beautiful earth and mushroom nose, which opened in the glass to intense dry funghi porcini scents and finally to rich tobacco aromas. On the palate it was rich, smooth, and full, with very soft tannins and intense black fruits (with the merest suggestion of over-ripeness). The finish was all mushroom again. Wonderful as this wine was – unquestionably a five star wine – it would turn out to be one of the lesser wines we tasted. In contrast with the wines to come, it came to seem underdeveloped and needing more time to grow. And – just maybe – the winemaking wasn’t as sure-handed as it was before and would become again, once the Piedmont had adjusted to its new weather.

Monfortino 1978. Color and aroma quite similar to the ’85 – certainly no older looking, though perhaps a shade darker, and the porcini scents even more intense. The palate showed greater concentration, with the superb black cherry notes growing more intense, even liqueur-like, as they opened in the glass. Although ready to drink – the first ’78 I’ve encountered that I actually thought ready to drink (it was a tough year, marked by the hardest of tannins) – it was still remarkably fresh and gave every indication of having years and years of growth ahead of it. A glorious Barolo, simply off the charts.

Monfortino 1971. A bit more orange showing in the color, the start of truffle in the aroma, a touch thinner, less full, on the palate, with sour cherry and mushroom flavors dominating, and ending in a long, licorice-y finish. Classic pre-climate-change Barolo, with more obvious acidity contributing importantly to its structure and vitality, and everything held in a beautiful old-school balance. For many tasters, this was the wine of the day.

Monfortino 1967. Very pale: Most of the color had faded. Some acetone, some caramel in the nose, but lovely in the mouth: Burgundy-like, many tasters thought. A very balanced and elegant wine, Burgundian in its deportment and especially its finish.

Monfortino 1961. On the heels of the ’67, this wine was a surprise. It showed darker and more youthful-looking and smelled strongly of mushrooms and tobacco. It tasted young and fresh on the palate, with loads of maturing fruit and evident soft tannins. Not at all Burgudian, but pure Nebbiolo, through and through. For many, this wine upstaged even the ’78, which is really saying something.

Monfortino 1958. The color of this wine was slightly muddy, but it had an amazing nose of porcini and spices – really gorgeous. On the palate, fresh fruit with soft tannins and evident acidity (the latter clearly animating the whole wine), followed by a long licorice finish.

Monfortino 1955. Clearer and brighter than the ’58. Unusual nose of cumin and tobacco. Acidity is the factor structuring this wine and keeping it alive, which it very evidently was, in a state of lovely equilibrium. An excellent, still-sprightly wine with a long licorice finish. The prominence of the acidity seems to be a hallmark of pre-climate-change Barolo, and one of the characteristics that may distinguish it from our contemporary Barolos, which – I’m using the crystal ball here – don’t look to me as if their acidity will ever come so prominently to the fore.

Monfortino 1947. A wonder year all over Europe, producing some of the greatest wines of the last century. This wine was probably starting downslope: For my palate it was good but not great. It still had decent color and good aromas – tobacco, mushroom, earth. And its fruit was still sweet, soft, and long-finishing. It had no flaws: it was just playing in a very tough league, and at 65 years old it was showing a little fatigue.

Clockwise from bottom right: ’43, ’47, ’58, ’55

Monfortino 1943. A rare wine from the war years, and – sadly – over the hill. Its color had completely faded, leaving it looking like a sherry – a Palo Cortado or a Manzanilla – which it also smelled and tasted like. This was the only disappointing wine of the day. With so many so old wines, that, I think, says everything anyone needs to know about how high the level of winemaking was and is at Giacomo Conterno.

New Releases: French Whites and Italian Reds

March 12, 2012

‘Tis the season to be tasting! Wine importers are showing their latest arrivals, and there have been some splendid wines being splashed into glasses all over town. Several of these have been fine enough to make me deeply regret that the need for mere survival forces me to spit – but not to do so might be fun for a while and cirrhosis forever, so I have dutifully expectorated some good juice over the past few weeks. But enough repining: Here are some of the wines that impressed me most.

You’ve probably heard a good deal of hype already about how fantastic a vintage 2010 is for white Burgundy. Well, my experience so far confirms that it isn’t just hype: this vintage is for real. Not across the board, of course, but over enough of the appellations (those I’ve so far been able to taste) to make it no more than honest description to say that 2010 is shaping up as one of the best vintages for Burgundy white wine for a long time.

Burgundy as a wine zone has benefitted immensely over the past decade from climate change. Burgundian growers have been regularly achieving the kind of ripeness, and the attendant aromatics and flavors, that in the past were a once-in-ten-years occurrence, if that much. So 2010 really does deserve some bells and whistles.

Christian Moreau

The northernmost of the Burgundian appellations, Chablis, qualifies as one of its brightest stars. I’m a pushover for honest Chablis, with little or no oak intervening between the grapes and my palate – so for me the whole line of Christian Moreau wines that I tasted at a recent Frederick Wildman event were pure enjoyment. Moreau vinifies all its Chablis in stainless steel and uses minimal oak – very little of it new oak – on its most precious crus. Its 2010 wines all showed classic Chablis flint-and-stones mingled with the most austere of Chardonnay scents. On the palate, the wines followed through in similar style, with varying degrees of intensity, from the very nice, basic AOC Chablis through the impressive Premier Cru Vaillon up to a battery of truly grand crus – Vaudésir, Blanchot, Valmur, Les Clos – culminating in the very rare, only-made-in-the-best-vintages Clos des Hospices dans Les Clos.

All these grands crus, although drinking quite pleasurably already, belong to the class of Chablis that cry to be cellared: They are structured to mature and flesh out in what promises to be appropriately grand style. Were I a few years younger, I would try to put a case of these beauties away for a very long time.

I felt much the same way about the whites from the estate of Oliver Leflaive. Its delightful 2010 Bourgogne Blanc Les Sétilles makes the kind of base line that one can only wish all Burgundian houses achieved – and the wines ascended from there. The “simple” village wines – Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet – each showed the supposedly typical, but not always achieved, characteristics of each commune. If you’re just in the process of inducting yourself into the wonders of Burgundy, 2010 presents you with a good opportunity to taste these villages side by side to learn their distinctions. (What these are is a very complicated subject that needs a blog or two or three by itself. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I honestly can’t explain it all here. I suggest you take a look at Clive Coates’s Côte d’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy for all the details.)

The three premiers crus I tasted – Meursault Poruzots, Chassagne-Montrachet Clos St.-Marc, and Puligny-Montrachet Champ Gain – were all splendid, with both the Poruzots and Champ Gain displaying their terroir with great distinctiveness and clarity. The Grand Cru Bâtard-Montrachet, although already a big and graceful wine, clearly needs time; in only a few years, it will be wonderful; in 20 years, probably off the charts. Bâtard-Montrachet has for decades now been my archetypal Lobster Thermidor wine, the older the better.

Most of the red wines I’ve been tasting have been from older vintages than those whites, in some cases even re-releases of vintages that have been available for a while. Which is fine for the Brunellos and Barolos that impressed me at Winebow’s presentation: Additional age does them – and the consumer – a real favor. Both appellations benefit from, and in the best vintages demand, as much aging as you can be persuaded to give them. Fortunately for the producers of both, recent harvests seem to have set up an almost regular pattern of alternating, classic, highly structured vintages that require time to come round with softer, more accessible ones that can be enjoyed much younger – an ideal situation, in fact, for both the growers and the consumers: You get to drink your wine and have it too.

Among Brunellos, 2005 and 2007 are the more welcoming vintages, with many of Sangiovese’s youthful asperities covered by delightful, wild cherry fruit and an enlivening acidity: Salicutti provided excellent examples of both vintages. San Polo’s were equally good, but in a different style, showing more structure and less forwardness, but still with great fruit and balance and easy drinkability. Both houses made beautiful 2004s, with precisely calibrated combinations of fruit and earth tones and the kind of structures, with especially ripe tannins, that will keep these wines evolving beautifully for at least a decade yet. These are really classic Brunellos, the kind of wines the appellation’s high repute is based on.

Roberto Voerzio

Last, but hardly least in my estimation, my great passion: Barolo, from one of the ablest producers, Roberto Voerzio. I still wish Voerzio would use a little less new oak than he does, but for the most part he handles it very well. Only occasionally does it intrude on the Nebbiolo flavors that constitute the whole point of Barolo, and then only to a degree that I believe will subside with time in the bottle.

What comes through most in these wines is not wood but terroir. Voerzio has great vineyard sites – Brunate, Cerequio, La Serra, Rocche dell’ Annunziata – and he handles them very well indeed. I tasted the 2005 La Serra and Cerequio and the 2007 La Serra and Brunate: these all reflected the character of those two vintages in being remarkably welcoming for such young Barolos. This results not from cellar manipulation but from the character of the harvest, combined with all the changes in growing techniques that Piemonte has been adapting over the past 20 years.

The ’06 Cerequio and Brunate were different in character. They are more classic style Barolos – generously structured wines that will take time to come round and then should last at an impressive level for decades. The 2006 and 2001 Rocche dell’Annunziata wines were flat-out gorgeous, the ’06 promising great longevity and the ’01 – with ’04 and ’06, a top-tier Barolo vintage – already showing the beginnings of the classic earth-and-mushrooms nose, even though it is a wine still evolving. Cellar this beauty by all means.

Italian-American Relations

February 21, 2012

For a dinner at home, we recently had the pleasure of entertaining Valter Fissore, the winemaker at Elvio Cogno, and his public relations rep, our good friend Marta Sobrino from the Wellcom agency in Alba. At Marta’s request – this was only her second time in NY and the States – Diane prepared una cena vera Americana, a real American meal. We kept it as local and seasonal as possible (you can read the whole account of it on Diane’s blog) and I sought out good American wines to match the foods – but not too many, because I expected (rightly) that Valter would have some of his own beautiful bottles for us to taste.

We began over hors d’oeuvre with Gruet New Mexico sparkling wine. The Gruet family are the real thing, champagne makers from France, and they have very successfully transplanted their expertise. They can’t, by law, call any of their wines Champagne, but they make all of them by the traditional Champagne method, and the results are as authentic-tasting as any sparkling wine from anywhere. We drank their Blanc des Noirs, which I like because of its fine body and excellent, bone-dry fruit. Not to mention its versatility: it partnered very well with very diverse tidbits. Not entirely by the way, it is also very reasonably priced, which makes it very well worth seeking out.

The next wine, served with the fish course, was Castello di Borghese Chardonnay 2009. This wine originates on the North Fork of Long Island: The vineyards are those of the original Hargrave estate, the first of Long Island’s serious wine producers. This Chardonnay had never been in wood; that was one of my requirements, and you cannot imagine how difficult it is in New York City to find an unoaked domestic Chardonnay. I didn’t have time run out to the North Fork and visit the wineries to look for one – though given the time it took me to find one in town, perhaps I should have. In any case, I came up with this Borghese wine, American-made and Italian-named, and hoped this was a portent that it would be the perfect wine for my occasion.

Well, not really, though it certainly was interesting. It struck everybody with its huge, forward fruit, all of it tropical: pineapple and lichee flooding out of the glass in the nose and on the palate. No evident wood, and decent acidity – Long Island does that – made it more companionable with the fish than I at first feared it would be. Valter seemed fascinated by it, though I wasn’t sure whether that was from pleasure at something so different from the white wine he normally gets or from the strangeness of it. It’s not really my kind of Chardonnay – I like more restraint and more structure – but I can readily see that many people would find it very attractive. And it was certainly genuinely American.

When we moved on to meat, we switched to red. I tried a Ridge Zinfandel I’d never come across before – Buchignani Ranch 2007. Normally I’m very fond of Ridge Zinfandels. I like to drink them when they’re ten years old or so, by which point all the California and Primitivo-kin exuberance of the wine has calmed down and come into balance. They usually remind me, at that stage, of classic clarets – very harmonious and deep, even serene. Well, this one wasn’t serene. It was all forward fruit and tannins, a big push in the face of not-yet-integrated flavors. Like the Chardonnay, it wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but it was unquestionably American – and I think a bit of a shock to Italian palates.

Which were quickly soothed – as was my own – by the wines Valter had brought. From meat through cheeses (yes, they were American too, and excellent), we drank Cogno Barolo Ravera 2008 and Marcarini Barolo Brunate 1986. These were two lovely, very different wines.

The ’08 Ravera, as Valter pointed out and everyone’s tasting confirmed, showed the affinity of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. It had definite Pinot Noir flavors and some of the middle-weight suppleness of that variety. It was surprisingly easy to drink for a young Barolo, with clean outlines and beautifully soft, welcoming tannins. For all its readiness to drink, however, it still shows every sign of ageability: it will be a keeper, I think. This is a great wine for anyone coming to Barolo for the first time, particularly for someone making the transition from French to Italian wines.

About the ’86 Brunate, it’s hard to say anything beyond Wow! This was an absolutely classic mature Barolo, elegant, long, totally composed. It had dark, mushroomy/earthy aromas, dark flavors – leather/tobacco/dry black fruits – on the palate, all offering themselves willingly but not brashly: accessible yet restrained, full-flavored yet light on the palate – a short course in what Barolo is all about. This was a wine made by Valter’s father-in-law Elvio Cogno, when he was winemaker at Marcarini before he left to produce his own wines, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to drink it.

After all that intense palatal play, the evening ended diminuendo – coffee, grappa, and good night. Which it was.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 215 other followers