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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

The One and Only Super-Campanian Wine

March 31, 2014

Campania remains unique among Italian wine-producing regions in having strongly resisted the lure of international grape varieties and placing its faith in indigenous grapes, of which it has an abundance. There is one great exception to that rule, however, and it is one of the great wines of Italy. It’s exceptional too in that – even though I generally deplore polluting Italian varieties with Cabernet or Merlot – this is a wine I really like.

I’m speaking, of course, of Silvia Imparato’s Montevetrano, a magisterial blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, and Campania’s prince of red grapes, Aglianico. It’s grown in the Cilento, not far from Salerno, an area of Campania a touch wilder and less developed than most, and one not particularly noted for fine wine.


montevetrano vineyard


Montevetrano burst on the scene almost 25 years ago: 1991 was the first vintage, just for friends. Right after that Riccardo Cotarella came on board, and Montevetrano promptly began grabbing attention and awards. Over the years, for instance, it has accumulated 14 Tre Bicchieri awards – a record that would be enviable for wines from far more prestigious areas than the Cilento.

Silvia ImparatoAs Signora Imparato explained to me in a recent visit, when she inherited her family property, she had a lot of experience of wine but not of making wine. She knew she wanted to make a fine wine and not just an easy quaffer. Her motives were not simply her own satisfaction, but to provide work for the people of her native area and also, just maybe, to set an example that could contribute to the revitalization of the locality. But she needed advice, so she talked to her friend Renzo Cotarella, who was then just starting his career with Antinori as the enologist at Castello della Sala in Umbria, where he was working with Piero Antinori on the development of the since-famous Cervari. He, not entirely surprisingly, introduced her to his brother Riccardo, and the two of them began working together on the development of the Montevetrano vineyards. As Silvia puts it, “This was before he was Riccardo Cotarella.”

It was, however, when he was already deeply committed to Merlot, so the original plantings at Montevetrano leaned heavily on Bordelais grapes: Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot for the bulk of the blend, a little Aglianco – 10-12% – to finish it. This was something of a compromise, since Silvia, despite the pleasure she took in Bordeaux wines, had great faith in Aglianico. “I’m not sure that Riccardo then really knew Aglianico,” she says. “Now of course it’s different: Now he has great enthusiasm for Aglianico.”

To her increasing satisfaction, that enthusiasm has been translating into a greater and greater percentage of Aglianico in the Montevetrano blend. Aglianico now makes up 40% of Montevetrano, a percentage that will probably keep growing. “With the change in the climate,” Silvia explains, “Merlot is no longer giving me the perfumes I loved, so I am using less and less of it and increasing the Aglianico, which thrives in this climate.”

core-2012She has been working with Riccardo Cotarella for 20 years now, and to celebrate that anniversary they are introducing a new wine, a 100% Aglianico called Core. I had the chance to taste 2012 Core then and there, and also later at a blind tasting in Naples. My notes agree that both times, Core was a standout: very young, obviously, but with a gorgeous Aglianico nose of earth scents and dried black fruit, and a complex, intriguing palate of soft black fruit, tar, and tobacco. The finish was long and gently leathery.

Core is a very fine wine that will be pleasant drinking young but has the kind of acid/tannin structure that needs lots of time – in my opinion, 20 years is a reasonable horizon – and will be very great: a triumph for Silvia Imparato, Riccardo Cotarella, and cellarmaster Domenico (Mimi) La Rocca, who has been with Montevetrano from its very first vintage. (Interestingly, not all Core’s Aglianico is estate-grown: Because all her new vines are not yet ready, she bought grapes from Benevento, which has just recently received the DOCG – only Campania’s second red DOCG – for its Aglianico.)

Here some brief notes on the other wines I tasted during that visit:

Montevetrano 2011 – Beautiful aroma, with Aglianico notes riding over the Cab and Merlot scents. Soft and round in the mouth, with good underlying tannins. At first a bit closed, but opens nicely in the glass. Fine balance. Will be excellent.


Montevetrano 2010 – Leather, tar, dried fruit, and earth in the nose. Blackberryish fruit and leather in the mouth, with a long, fruit-leather finish. Very fine: Though it seems to be maturing rapidly, it has ample structure for long life.

Montevetrano 2009 – Stronger Cabernet presence in the nose. Lovely palate, very elegant, very composed, with a lot of tightly controlled nervous energy. Tastes as least as young as the 2011, with very great potential.

Montevetrano 2008 – Aroma just beginning to mature and deepen. Palate too starting to darken and deepen, with earthy, leathery, mushroomy notes beginning to show. Should be wonderful in 5 to 10 years.

The truly amazing thing to me is that there don’t seem to be any bad vintages at Montevetrano. I don’t know how they do that, but I definitely admire it.

One final note: I apologize to Silvia for the title of this post, since I think she hates that “Super Something” designation. I’m not crazy about it either, but it furnished the most concise way to headline an important point about the wine.

Celebrations of the Everyday: II – Muscadet

March 20, 2014

A few weeks back I wrote a post about Chianti Classico, the first of several pieces intended to celebrate wines that are friendly, adaptable, reliable, and pleasurable, even though of less prestige, less pressure, and less price than the stratospheric level of great ones. Now I will nominate for membership in the Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines (CCAW, pronounced ca-CAW, like a fish crow summoning his flock to a beach party) a vastly underappreciated white wine, Muscadet.

Muscadets can be, and these days often are, very lovely wines, and they are rarely costly, but nevertheless they don’t get much respect. Maybe it’s because the name is too easy to mispronounce (I once, eons ago, actually heard someone order a “mouse cadet,” as if Walt Disney ran a training school) or maybe it’s because, in the ‘70s, the wine was overproduced, uninteresting, and ubiquitous on French wine lists (and back then that meant 90% of all restaurants that had wine lists).

Whatever: All that is long past, and the Muscadets coming to this country now are a pretty nice crop of wines – still ideal with oysters, as their long-standing reputation has it, but fine too as aperitifs or as dinner companions with any seafood. The best bottles have heft and character to go well beyond that; they pair comfortably with chicken, veal, pork – with white meat dishes generally, unless they are very richly sauced. So Muscadet these days is a wine enjoyable to drink in many circumstances, versatile with many foods, undemanding of attention but rewarding should you choose to give it – in short, an ideal candidate for CCAW.



No one is quite sure where the name Muscadet came from. The one thing certain about it is that the grape has nothing whatever to do with Muscat. In fact, though the grape is sometimes referred to as Muscadet, its real name is Melon de Bourgogne, though Burgundy is not believed to be where it originated. We do know that it was several times banned there, because various Dukes of Burgundy put their power behind Chardonnay and Pinot noir. (No one has ever faulted them for that.)

Wherever Melon de Bourgogne – the Melon of Burgundy! what an undignified name for a wine grape! – originally came from, it eventually wound up at the mouth of the Loire, and upstream as far as around the city of Nantes. From that stretch of hills all the best Muscadet now originates. There, with a climate somewhat moderated by the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel, the peripatetic Melon settled in on lean, stony soils to make wines that drank beautifully with the bountiful seafood so close by. Like people, grapes have to find their right place, and the hills near Nantes and the sea let Melon de Bourgogne find its vocation.



These days, more and more growers are working hard to let the grape express its best nature, carefully choosing the sites on which to grow it, fermenting and aging it sur lie – on the yeast lees – to give it greater roundness, controlling yields very tightly to get more concentration. Their labor has paid off: Muscadet now is, at its least, a very pleasant wine to drink young and fresh, and at its best a distinctive, mineral-inflected wine with a moderate complexity and a moderate capacity to age.

Bear in mind too that with Muscadet, “mineral” covers a multitude of flavors. Exact science types point out – rightly – that we can’t taste “mineral,” but I know that I taste in various Muscadets elements that to my palate say slate, or chalk, or limestone, even oyster shell. Muscadets vary too in the foregrounding or backgrounding of their fruit (usually lemon or lime, occasionally white fruits). What this means for the consumer is that there are many styles of Muscadet to choose from – and since Muscadet is inexpensive – sometimes as little as $10, very rarely up to $30 – you can afford to try several bottles to find a style you like.

Here are a few of the many available I’ve been enjoying lately:


Cormerais, Clisson 2008
Old vines and lean soil yield a classic round, full (for a Muscadet) food wine, surprisingly fresh and vigorous for its age. This one very pleasantly surprised me. It would be worth cellaring some of these for a decade, just to see how they develop.


Domaine de l’Ecu, Cuvée Classique 2011, Expression de Gneiss 2011, Expression de Granite 2011
Grower Guy Bossard names some of his wines for the kinds of soil they grow in. The Classique is a blend of several vineyards, meant for drinking young. The other two are from the named soils and are a bit more austere – mineral-structured rather than fruit-driven – and can take a little bottle age. Very different from each other, and all very good drinking.



Domaine de la Louvetrie, Amphibolite Nature 2012
Totally dry, lean and fruity – slightly citrusy – with the mineral notes well in the background. Excellent aperitif wine and good accompaniment to light hors d’oeuvres and appetizers.

Domaine de la Pepière, Muscadet 2012
This is what I think of as classic Muscadet, dry and mineral-driven, with white fruit notes throughout. This is also Pepière’s basic Muscadet: the estate makes several others (for example, “3” and Chateau Thebaud Clos Morines), of increasing degrees of complexity and/or intensity. I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like.

Luneau-Papin, Pierre de la Grange 2011, Clos des Allées 2012
Both wines are from old vines and show intense minerality and a slight lemony character. Pleasant drinking now and structured to take some age.



As I said at the beginning of this post, Muscadet has had a checkered history in this country. From the ‘50s to the ‘70s, when most wine in America spoke French, Muscadet was everywhere. It was simple, it was inexpensive, and it was almost obligatory with oysters or clams on the half shell. Then, as with so many simple, enjoyable white wines, its popularity undid it. Production rose to meet demand, and that meant overcropping and cultivating unsuitable sites in order to pour more and more wine into circulation. Inevitably, as quality fell, Muscadet’s market died, and for a decade or two the wine virtually disappeared from retail shops and restaurant lists.

Since the turn of the millennium, Muscadet has been making a comeback, both in its production and on the market. Intermittently, attention has started being paid. A few years back, for instance, Eric Asimov wrote a nice article for the New York Times about the pleasures of Muscadet that caused a momentary flurry of interest, but few other journalists followed through, and enthusiasm for Muscadet has really stayed at a low-ish, just-above-cult level for a while now. I don’t expect my purple prose will change that, but at least I’d like to cast my vote for it. Muscadet is an amiable wine if there ever was one.

Confessions of a Heresiarch

March 10, 2014

It’s time to ‘fess up and face the shame. Brace yourself: I just don’t like California Cabernet. I’ve never really liked California Cabernet. Oh sure, there have been a few exceptions over the years – Ridge, Trefethen, Montelena – but for the most part, I just don’t get it. Cabernet sauvignon, from almost anywhere in California, leaves me cold.

It’s not that I actively dislike most California Cabs: I just don’t find them exciting. For my palate, they rarely – very, very rarely – taste of any place at all, and their expression of varietal character is always for me obscured and over-ridden by their one truly California characteristic, an aggressive, abrasive, sandpapery set of tannins. To be sure, these are not as powerful as they were a few decades back, when I really believed that whenever people spoke of “Cabs” they were using an acronym for California After-Burn – but for me those harsh tannins are still there. Consequently, 99 times out of 100, I will drink anything in preference to a California Cabernet. So stoke the fires: here’s your heretic.


heretic burning

What spurred this confession wasn’t any sort of an Inquisition, but an honest attempt to try to understand California Cabernet better. The Wine Media Guild, in its ongoing efforts to illuminate the dark recesses of its member wine journalists’ minds, staged a tasting of Napa and Sonoma mountain wineries, largely featuring Cabernet sauvignons. This, I thought, is my chance to learn something about wines that have so long put me off. The wines selected for the tasting represented a varied set of winemakers and estates of different scales from two key Cabernet-producing valleys of California. All the winemakers were serious, knowledgeable professionals who worked hard at their craft and thought seriously about what they’re doing. If ever I’m going to come to appreciate California Cabernet, I thought, this is my chance to start.

Alas, it was not to be: I continue not to get it. All around me my colleagues – people whose palates and opinions I respect – were tasting with pleasure and even enthusiasm, while I made notes like “blah,” “characterless,” “harsh tannins,” “how much?!” I don’t claim to have an infallible palate – nobody does, whatever the PR might suggest – but I do have a fairly decent one. And I’m a habitual Barolo drinker, so I know about tannins. So I have to ask myself, What is the disconnect here? What is keeping me from enjoying these wines?

It isn’t the grape, that’s for sure: I learned wines on Bordeaux, and I still love it. But it is true that over the years I have encountered increasing instances of over-aggressive Cabernet, and not just from California. It is certainly a possibility that what’s putting me off is what California soils and climates – and maybe California winemaking techniques – do to and with Cabernet. Certainly the kind of ripenesses that California vineyards routinely achieve were farfetched dreams in Bordeaux in pre-global warming days, when I formed my ideas of what a wine should be. Perhaps I’m stuck with an outmoded notion of wine in general and Cabernet in particular – but what I’ve observed of Cabernet in Italy (and increasingly in Bordeaux) leads me to think that warmer is emphatically not better for this variety.

Which leads me to my major heresy, which will probably end up getting me drummed out of the corps and sent into outer darkness, where I will be forced to drink Sterno strained through an old gym sock: I have long thought that, though California’s wine-producing potential is fantastic, its growers are by and large working with the wrong grapes. I don’t think they have yet found the right grapes for the right places, and they won’t as long as they continue pooh-poohing the idea of terroir. They probably need a few centuries of Cistercians working the land in silence and keeping meticulous records before they discover what varieties will actually work best – and that, of course, is not going to happen.

In the meanwhile, I don’t really believe that Cabernet sauvignon ought to be the variety that California growers count on. I don’t think it does its best there, and I think many other varieties can and will give much better results – especially now, with the climate changing in the ways it is. I don’t believe, however, that the vineyard situation is going to change any time soon, because winemaking has become almost totally market-driven, and the market wants Cabernet – or thinks it wants Cabernet, or is told it wants Cabernet. Unfortunately, for me, I only drink and taste with my own mouth – and I don’t want Cabernet.

Turn me over: I’m done on this side.

heretic burning 2

A Miscellany of White Wines

February 28, 2014

The shad have started running, one of the earliest signs that maybe this winter really will eventually end. And our neighborhood Citarella has been stocking beautifully fresh John Dory (Saint Pierre or San Pietro to those of you who speak Mediterranean, along the shores of which sea we first tasted it). It’s one of tastiest fish around, and between it and the shad, Diane and I have been hitting the white wines hard.

Both shad and John Dory are fish that are so rich and flavorful that we tend to cook them very simply, the former broiled because shad is very oily, the latter lightly floured and sautéed in butter or olive oil. With either fish, we want a wine to complement its intensity, not compete with it – so no big-bodied assertive wines, but rather medium- to light-bodied whites with plenty of minerality and acidity: ideally, a wine that could serve as aperitif or appetizer companion and segue gracefully into its place alongside the entrée.

Happily, there are many such, both French and Italian. Some of my French favorites I will treat in a later post. Right now, I want to focus on a handful of Italian producers whose wines have been giving us a lot of pleasure lately.




This is a large estate – it has grown to 90 hectares under vines – owned by Genagricola, which as the name implies is a corporate entity. There are several such that in Italy have entered the wine world, and – to the surprise of most of us who are suspicious of big corporations playing in what we think of as an artisan’s field – most of them do a very nice job. They have the deep pockets to acquire good sites and good people and to do the things necessary to attain quality.

In the case of Poggiobello, this involved not just the acquisition of land, though that was important: Poggiobello’s vineyards lie in and near Rosazzo in the Colli Orientali del Friuli, one of the best zones for Friulian wines. Beyond that, Genagricola invested heavily in terracing, canalization, and drainage – large expenditures and generally unaesthetic projects that make a huge difference to wine production.

Poggiobello makes the whole line of Friulian wines, including some, like Sauvignon and Merlot, that would elsewhere be classified as international varieties but that have been cultivated here for centuries. My favorites are the whites, especially Ribolla Gialla, a wine that doesn’t get enough attention and that pleases my palate immensely: It marries particularly well with firm-fleshed, distinctive fish like John Dory. My other favorites include Friulano, which used to be called Tocai – despite the changed name its pleasing, almondy character remains intact – and Pinot bianco, a variety that seems to make interesting wine wherever it’s planted.


Peter Zemmer

Peter Zemmer vineyards

This is a family-owned winery in the southernmost part of the province of Alto Adige, near the tiny, mostly German-speaking town of Cortina. This is a beautiful stretch of country, with fruit orchards lining the bottom lands alongside the Adige river and vineyards stretching up the slopes that frame the lush valley. Despite being so far north in Italy, the climate is more Mediterranean than continental, and a tremendous variety of grapes grow well here at different altitudes and on different soils. The latter differ quite sharply from one side of the river to the other and as you move up slope from the valley floor.

All that good fish my good wife has been preparing gave me an ideal chance to catch up with some of Zemmer’s latest vintages (I’ve written about his wine before, here). The new releases quite easily live up to the fine impression that earlier ones made. I particularly liked both the 2012 Pinot bianco, which showed excellent varietal character, and the very interesting blend called Cortinie Bianco (2010). The latter is composed of Chardonnay, Pinot grigio, Sauvignon, and Gewurztraminer. Two-thirds of the grapes are fermented in stainless steel, one-third in barriques, which conveyed no perceptible oak flavor to the wine but did give it a lovely roundness and some depth. Very pleasing wines, both.



Cusumano vineyards

This winery, with vineyards in several parts of northwest Sicily, is quite a large and committedly Sicilian firm. It has a deep faith in the native Sicilian Insolia (white) and Nero d’Avola (red) grapes, but it also cultivates Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, which it vinifies as 100% varietal wines and also blends with indigenous Sicilian grapes.

Minor point: I’ve always seen the native white grape spelled with a Z – Inzolia – but Cusumano spells it with an S. Who am I to argue? The major point is that the 2012 Insolia that I drank with shad was lovely: nice varietal character – white fruits, a little peachy, with excellent minerality – and good medium body to match with but neither conquer nor surrender to the shad. Purist that I am, I prefer this 100% Insolia to Cusumano’s 2012 Angimbé, a 70/30 blend of Insolia and Chardonnay. This probably more because I am totally bored with non-Burgundian Chardonnay than because of anything wrong with the wine – which was emphatically not the case. Angimbé is a well-done blend, mixing the minerality of the Insolia and the tropical fruit character of warm-climate Chardonnay. I just preferred the distinctiveness of the native grape in purezza, as the telling Italian phrase has it.

So there you have it: a run of shad, a run of white wines, and the prospect of a few more of both as spring gradually (hurry, please!) moves north.

Celebrations of the Everyday: I – Chianti

February 18, 2014

I don’t think anyone drinks great wine all the time. At least I’m sure I don’t, and not just for reasons of cost. Part of what makes greatness is its rarity, its intermittency in our lives. I couldn’t survive at the highest pitch of King Lear or of the Verdi Requiem every day, and I strongly suspect that a steady diet of foie gras and Yquem would pretty quickly become stultifying. So in this post and some future ones I propose to celebrate the everyday – some wines that are friendly, adaptable, and reliable, wines that consistently give pleasure, wines of less prestige, less pressure, and less price than the stratospheric level of great ones.

This lesser breed needs more recognition and more honor than it usually gets: Maybe these sorts of wine need their own classification – something indicative of their comfortable character. I therefore propose the honorable category of Amiable Wines.

This is bound to be subjective, of course, but what kind of wine writer would I be if I let that stop me?

That said, here is the first of the wines I propose for immediate election to the Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines. Not surprisingly, given my palate, my first choice is red and Italian: Chianti Classico – not Riserva, just the normal bottlings.

black rooster

Really, in a half-way decent vintage, it’s hard to find a wine that gives as much pleasure and adapts to as many different sorts of food. A few years back, I would have qualified that statement by saying “except Barbera,” but that’s no longer true: Too much Barbera these days has been monkeyed with and manipulated to make it “important,” so that as a species it’s now no match for Chianti Classico. Mind, I’m saying Classico and not simply Chianti, because the Chiantis from the numerous non-Classico zones are just too various and too uneven in quality (except Rufina) to generalize about.

They can be very good, but buying them is always a bit of a crapshoot (except Rufina). Among the Chianti Classicos, however, the level of quality is more uniform, selection is great, and distribution – especially here in the US – is wonderful, so that almost anyone in any market should have access to a reasonably priced, eminently drinkable bottle of good red wine.


In addition to the advantage of fine terroirs and expositions throughout the Classico zone, its Chiantis have the advantage that most of them contain more Sangiovese than the wines of the other Chianti zones. Up to 100% Sangiovese is permissible, and more and more producers are using it. Those that don’t, usually blend about 85% Sangiovese (80% is the legal minimum) with small quantities of native grapes such as Canaiolo or Mammolo or Colorino (all traditionally grown within the zone) or Montepulciano (despite the name, an introduction from the Marche) or even a little Merlot, which can gentle the sometimes sharp edges of Sangiovese.

Happily, Cabernet has almost completely disappeared from Chianti Classico: It never married well with Sangiovese, and even a small amount of it can take over a blend. It’s still grown in Tuscany, but these days tends either to be vinified and bottled separately or to be used in some Supertuscans, most of which for my palate are far from super and never very Tuscan.

That still leaves a lot of Chianti Classico to choose from. Some of my favorites? How much time do you have? All right, here are a few:

Badia a Coltibuono: This estate of the Stucchi-Prinetti family makes lovely, long-aging riserva Chiantis, but even its normal DOCG bottling is capable of great surprises, both in quality and ageability.

???????????????????????????????Brolio: Probably the single most important estate in the history of Chianti, Brolio makes several fine Chianti Classico DOCGs, but none lovelier than its cru Colledilà.

Casa Sola: This estate makes what tastes like classically Tuscan Chianti, even though its DOCG blend contain small amounts of international grapes.

castellareCastellare: Winemaker Alessandro Cellai has made top-flight Chianti Classico DOCG here vintage after vintage, working with Sangiovese and Canaiolo from prized vineyards near the town of Castellina.

Castello di Cacchiano: Not as well known in the US as it deserves to be, this ancient estate of the Ricasoli-Firidolfi produces some of the most Tuscan-accented of DOCG Chianti Classicos: 95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo, and excellent.

volpaiaCastello di Volpaia: Not so much a castle as a medieval village, Volpaia produces high-altitude Chianti Classico DOCG, marked always by grace and elegance. This is a distinctive wine, less of the Tuscan earth than of the Tuscan air.

Cecchi: A long-established Tuscan winemaking family in the Castellina area, Cecchi produces excellent value Chianti Classico DOCG year after year. Several different labels, all good and fairly priced.

Felsina: An estate in the far south of the Classico zone that is best known for its two superlative crus riservas, Fontalloro and Rancia, Felsina also produces a very reliable and somewhat hefty – “sturdy” is Nick Belfrage’s apt word for it – Chianti Classico DOCG.

Fonterutoli: The Mazzei family has been in the Tuscan wine trade for many centuries, and the current generation – brothers Filippo and Francesco – have held the banner high. Lovely Chianti Classico DOCG of Sangiovese blended with Colorino, Malvasia Nero, and Merlot.

FontodiFontodi: A great estate in the heart of Panzano’s conca d’oro. Owner Giovanni Manetti and consultant extraordinaire Franco Bernabei here craft some of the best DOCG Chiantis you’ll ever drink.

Isole e Olena: This is the name of two tiny hamlets owned and farmed by Paolo di Marchi. It’s most famous for its once-revolutionary 100% Sangiovese Cepparello, still an IGT wine, but its equally 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico DOCG is thoroughly enjoyable.

Poggiopiano: Last, but only alphabetically, this family-owned estate not too far from Florence makes wonderfully juicy Chianti Classico DOCG from Sangiovese with the merest whiff of Canaiolo.

You’ll have to take my word for it: These are only some of the many Chianti Classicos I could recommend. Happy hunting!

Ave Atque Vale, Antonio Mastroberardino

February 8, 2014

In the last week of January, Antonio Mastroberardino died at the age of 86. It was the end of an era for many of us, the closing of the door on what is beginning to look like the heroic age of Italian wine’s rebirth.


When Antonio and his brother Walter took over the family winery after World War II, located then as now in the town of Atripalda, in the heart of the historic wine district known by the ancient name of Irpinia, in the province of Avellino, in the region of Campania, in that beautiful, maddening country called Italy, it must have seemed to them that they had inherited nothing but dust.

Two thousand years previously, the area had been Campania Felix, Campania the Blessed – a combined Médoc, Côte d’Or, and Napa Valley for the Roman Empire. What Antonio and Walter had was not even a remnant of that blessing, in a region that had been ravaged first by the Risorgimento and consequent massive emigration, then by the conscriptions of WW I, then by the Great Depression, then by phylloxera (it reached Campania only in the 1930s), and finally by WW II and the subsequent flight of country folk to the factories of the north.

We can only wonder at the courage it must have taken to persist in the wine business in the face of all that – and in particular to persist with what has become Antonio Mastroberardino’s great legacy, the native grapes of Campania. If the red Aglianico and the white Fiano and Greco are now world-famous as Taurasi DOCG, Fiano di Avellino DOCG, and Greco di Tufo DOCG and are now widely replanted all through Campania, it all started here, and it didn’t happen by itself.

I’ve been lucky enough to know Antonio Mastroberardino for 35 years or more, and I’ve watched him work his way quietly – he was a soft-spoken man, gentle and thoughtful – through all sorts of market triumphs, market troubles, family triumphs, and family troubles. The latter included an estrangement from his brother Walter, who in the 1990s parted ways to found the Terredora di Paolo winery and continue the family loyalty to Campanian tradition on his own. There has been loss and pain there too: Last year, Walter’s son Lucio, a very talented winemaker, succumbed to cancer.

I’ve never known what caused the family split, and I’ve never asked: The Mastroberardinos are entitled to their privacy. But I do know that Antonio was very proud when his son Piero, who had been pursuing an academic career, stepped up and started leading the firm. And I know that he was very pleased and happy with the kind of direction Piero provided: When I last saw Antonio – last March, at that fabulous vertical tasting of Taurasi that I blogged about here – he was as relaxed and happy as I have ever seen him, almost serene despite the evidences of the Parkinson’s from which he suffered.

Antonio, Tom, and Piero. Photo by Tom Hyland

Antonio, Tom, and Piero. Photo by Tom Hyland

I’m very pleased that I can remember him that way: He earned his serenity. Hail and farewell, Antonio.

Nebbiolo Rules: Part 2

January 30, 2014

In my Decanter article on this topic, because of space constraints I had to drastically condense my comments on the specific vintages and wines I and my colleagues tasted over the course of this project. That cut really hurt, because I based all my key conclusions about Nebbiolo’s great, enduring identity on the data I gathered at those tastings: They were and are the ground of every assertion I made in my last post about the greatness of Nebbiolo. So here are those notes, as I originally wanted them to appear.

Not at all by the way, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the winemakers whose generosity and openness made this project possible:

Giacomo Conterno of Aldo Conterno
Claudio Fenocchio of Giacomo Fenocchio
Gianluca Grasso of Grasso
Manuel Marchetti of Marcarini
Franco Massolino of Massolino-Vigna Rionda
Mariacristina Oddero of Oddero
Pio Boffa of Pio Cesare
Emanuele Baldi and Gianluca Torrengo of Prunotto
Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti

In addition to being fine winemakers, these are all warm and enthusiastic human beings, of the sort who make reporting on the wines of Italy such a pleasure.

Vintage 2004

A wet spring, a mild summer, and a balmy, dry September and early October produced beautifully ripe Nebbiolo, yielding a wine with fine structure as well as typically modern forward fruit, drinkable right from the start.

Pietro Ratti

Pietro Ratti

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
A big, powerful wine with years to go – “a 40-year wine,” Pietro Ratti says. He finished picking this harvest on November 1.

Giacomo Fenocchio Bussia Riserva
Maturing classically in aroma (dried roses, tar, and earth) and palate (earth tones starting to dominate black fruit). Claudio Fenocchio calls it “a good traditional vintage – elegant.”

Prunotto Barolo Bussia
Fruit-forward, with some oak overtones, but very young; years, maybe decades, away from maturity.

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
A balanced and elegant wine, beginning to mutate from youthful flower aromas and fresh fruit to a more mature array.

Aldo Conterno Barolo Romirasco
Minty, herbal, spicy nose; on palate, black fruits and herbs, earth and mineral; fresh, live, balanced, complex, deep, elegant, with the silky mouth-feel of many 2004s.

Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Chiniera
Lovely, plump, sweet fruit, with great acidity, great floral qualities, and a consistent minerality.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
A gorgeous wine, very spicy in the nose and on the palate; rich and positively meaty – very impressive.

Oddero Barolo Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca
“Perfect weather and a classic vintage,” Mariacristina Oddero says. The wine reflects it: fresh and live and very drinkable, but “very slowly evolving.”

Vintage 2001

A sultry, dry August was balanced by early September rains and markedly lower temperatures, so that by October the Nebbiolo grapes were perfectly ripe and balanced.

Gianluca Grasso

Gianluca Grasso

Elio Grasso Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté
Fine orange-edged garnet color; scents of dried flowers, tar, and tobacco; terrific fresh black cherry fruit, with perfect acidity; depth and complexity starting to develop – “a classic vintage,” as Gianluca Grasso says.

Oddero Barolo Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca
Equally classic and just as slow maturing as Oddero’s ’04; an excellent wine that will seemingly last forever.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Deep, dark Nebbiolo nose, elegant Nebbiolo fruit, deepening further into earth and funghi porcini.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Earth and mineral now covering fruit on the nose, but the palate shows fine black fruit, acid, and soft tannin. Balanced on a huge scale: powerful.

Vintage 1999

Rain in early September greatly improved the maturity of the Nebbiolo grapes, pushing them to full sugar and phenolic ripeness while maintaining their important acidity.

Giacomo Conterno

Giacomo Conterno

Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonello
Brilliant garnet color with a thin orange edge; lovely dried roses aroma, fresh palate, opening beautifully in the glass, with a seemingly endless finish. “Now is the time to start drinking this wine,” Giacomo Conterno says; personally, I would wait a few more years.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Pietro Ratti describes this vintage as being “austere and classic, still severe and tight” on the palate. It showed dried flowers and lots of mineral in the nose, leather, mineral, and beef jerky on the palate – just gorgeous.

Vintage 1998

Although overshadowed by the much-touted 1997 vintage, 1998 produced grapes of at least as high quality, and for many growers, better balance.

Mariacristina Oddero

Mariacristina Oddero

Oddero Barolo Vigna Rionda
Mariacristina Oddero calls this a “correct” vintage, very balanced, with fine fruit, but still austere in the nose and palate, just beginning to develop and open.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Spicy, floral, with huge fruit over leather and mineral notes – classic in a different way than Ratti’s ’99: less austere, fruiter and more charming, with a touch of rusticity.

Vintage 1996

The first of a cluster of fine harvests, reaching through 1998. ‘96 is regarded by most growers as the most classic of the batch, and also the slowest maturing.

Claudio Fenocchio

Claudio Fenocchio

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Villero
Nose slightly funky, already starting to go truffly; palate fresh and live, rich with black fruits and earthy, mushroomy notes. Claudio Fenocchio says it’s “a vintage we’re all still waiting for; it’s not yet opened, not yet reached its potential.”

Prunotto Barolo Bussia
Terrific fresh fruit, with a little vanilla mixed in with the intense black cherry; very long-finishing. Still needs time to work through the wood.

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
A delayed release (2006), and all the better for it – deep, earthy, complex nose, refined palate of black fruit and soft tannins. “One of the more Piedmontese vintages,” Franco Massolino says, “closed and tough initially, with a long life ahead of it.”

Elio Grasso Barolo Roncot
A little oak sweetness showing, but the wine tastes mostly of Nebbiolo and terroir, as it ought. Shows every sign of being very long-lived.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Aroma still evolving (just beginning funghi porcini); in the mouth, spice, earth, porcini, and meat sweetness. To be drunk ten years from now.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Gorgeous tar and dried flowers nose, huge sweet fruit (the wood has subsided), with still years of development ahead of it.

Vintage 1990

The third of another group of fine vintages, ’88, ’89, ’90, all remarkably similar in quality and character. For most growers, this pivotal and important cluster of harvests marks the definitive onset of modern, “global warming” vintages in Piedmont.

Manuel Marchetti

Manuel Marchetti

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Funky and earthy, with aroma and palate still evolving, though clearly showing freshness and meat sweetness, with depth and complexity lurking – a lovely wine with years of development to go.

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Bussia Riserva
The nose has gone wonderfully to truffle, the palate is rich and still quite young-tasting.

Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco
Very live, fresh, and fruity on nose and palate; a wine with great personality, thoroughly enjoyable and in no way fully evolved yet.

Vintage 1989

Despite very mixed weather from spring through fall, the Nebbiolo was in good shape at harvest, though the crop was somewhat diminished.

Franco Massolino

Franco Massolino

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
Powerful aroma of dried roses, tar, etc. – the classic array. The palate is equally classic – profound, complex, polished, and still quite young. Very consistent in style from vintage to vintage.

Prunotto Barolo
Classic aromas and flavors beginning to shrug off the wood; a fine wine, still maturing.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Very fine aroma, palate evolved but far from finished – dark fruit, still fresh, great depth, great complexity – a fine, fine wine.

Renato Ratti Barolo Conca
Complex, big, and austere; tar and mint in nose, licorice and leather in finish, big Nebbiolo fruit in between. “Massive,” Pietro Ratti rightly calls it.

Vintage 1985

A fine summer and fall, though some producers remember it as very hot. All agree that at harvest, the Nebbiolo was splendid.

Beppe Colla

Beppe Colla

Prunotto Bussia
A really pretty wine, with rich black cherry, tar, and tobacco elements from nose through palate and on into the finish. The almost legendary Beppe Colla oversaw this wine through 50 days of fermentation in concrete, then into botti – the old way, and the result is a splendid wine that has years to go.

Vintage 1982

Hot and mostly dry, this year to my mind was a harbinger of the climate change to come. It gave a large and healthy crop, though the unusual (at the time) persistent heat made problems for many growers.

Gianluca Torrengo

Gianluca Torrengo

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva
An earthy, almost funky nose; lovely Nebbiolo fruit, very fresh still; a fruit-and-spice box, structured and complex – and for all the heat, only 13° of alcohol. It shows the hand of a master.

Vintage 1978

Unquestionably a classic, pre-global-warming growing season: A cool, rainy spring followed by a cooler than average summer, but capped by a glorious, warm autumn with great day/night temperature differentials. The crop was small, the wines initially concentrated and very hard, with evident great structure but totally unyielding tannins. Notoriously slow to come around: Some thought it would never be drinkable.

Pio Boffa

Pio Boffa

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.

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.

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva
A classic, mature Barolo, seemingly at its peak, with no sign of decline: very fine: powerful and elegant.

Massolino Barolo Riserva
A grape selection, not a cru, and a great wine, still fresh, live, supple, with enormous complexity and depth: feels big and mouth-filling but not weighty or ponderous.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Spicy, earthy, evolved nose, and beautiful, fleshy Barolo palate. Lovely continuity of style: spicy aromas, fleshy palate with great elegance. Elvio Cogno made this wine before he left Marcarini for his own vineyards.

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.

Vintage 1971

Freezing winter; late, wet spring; hail in May and June; hot dry summer; perfect late September and October: All resulted in a small but quite superior harvest. The wines were balanced and elegant from the start, but reticent: many were initially hard and closed.

Prunotto Barbaresco Riserva
A masterpiece from Beppe Colla, perhaps the finest wine I tasted all week. Gorgeous and mature, perfect in every point, showing fruit both fresh and mature, fully evolved tannins, fine acidity: an elegant and complete wine (13.5° of alcohol, for the record). This is a wine I would score 100 out of 100, without hesitation.


And there you have it. Wherever you set the dividing line between modern and traditional Barolo (I am using Barolo here, as I have throughout these two posts, as shorthand for all Piedmontese Nebbiolo wines), the character of Nebbiolo crosses it without noticing any difference. The grape and the soil dominate almost anything the winemaker or the weather can do – at least in great years. So again, Nebbiolo rules.

Nebbiolo Rules!

January 20, 2014

Recently, I published an article in Decanter’s annual Italy Guide about the aging ability of modern Barolo.


Any devotee of the wine who is at all familiar with the extraordinary aging ability of Barolo as it used to be made must wonder if contemporary Barolos will behave as well over years of cellaring.

After all, a tremendous amount has changed in the way Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards are planted and maintained, the way the vines are trained and thinned, the way the grapes are selected at harvest – not to mention how they’re selected at green harvest, some time earlier. On top of that add all the cellar changes since those great vintages of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, most of which were made without temperature controls or selected yeasts, and without either stainless steel or barriques.

Finally throw in climate change, which has made a tremendous difference in the harvests in Piedmont, especially for a vine like Nebbiolo, which needs a long growing season to achieve full ripeness. Put all those things together and you can’t blame a serious Nebbiolo-nut for wondering whether today’s wines are even the same thing as they used to be. Just how well will these modern Nebbiolos age? is a very real question.

Propelled by that curiosity (or anxiety, which may be more accurate), last May I joined two colleagues – Kerin O’Keefe and Tom Hyland – and visited several long-established Barolo wineries and tasted examples of four or five decades of their wines in each. For consistency’s sake, we tasted mostly Barolos, but our conclusions should certainly hold true also for Barbaresco, and I would argue for the northern Piedmontese Nebbiolo-based wines (Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, etc.) as well.


All of Piedmont’s important wine zones lie east of Turin.  The blue area on this map marks the northern Nebbiolo zone (Gattinara, Ghemme, etc.), while the red area is the Alba zone (Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo Langhe, etc.). Nebbiolo is not the principal grape in the green area.

Throughout our trip, the producers were pleased to have the opportunity to show what their wines could do, and in every case the wines justified their pride. Very, very few bottles showed any sign of fading: Even 40-year-olds still tasted live and supple, while at the same time their depth and complexity seemed to have grown and intensified. The oldest wine we tasted that week – a 1971 Barbaresco Riserva from Prunotto – provided an absolutely moving palatal experience in its elegance, profundity, and paradoxical mature freshness.

All of which of course would seem to confirm what we had already known: that the great Barolos of yesteryear were in fact Great Barolos, which tells us exactly nothing about the Barolos of today.

But not so fast: Everything depends on when you think “today” began, and we tried to structure our tastings – this was only accomplished with the very generous cooperation of the producers – to cover several possibilities. In the opinion of some producers, modern Barolo only began in 1988-1990, which is when they date the arrival of climate change in the Piedmont. For others, modern Barolo began when they first used stainless steel tanks and temperature-controlled fermentation. For yet others, the arrival of barriques in Piedmont was the watershed moment.

There are obviously good cases to be made for all those indicators, but for me the real change occurs between 1978 and 1982. 1978 for me marks the last classic, pre-climate-change vintage in Piedmont. The wines everywhere in the region that year – not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the wines of the northern Piedmont too – at the time of their release were the Nebbiolos of legend: hard, tannic, huge, pregnant with great fruit and beautiful balance, but in their youth ungiving and austere — and they stayed that way for years, some of them for decades.

Then came 1982, which at the time the Piedmontese referred to as their California vintage. It was hot and the growing season was long and the grapes achieved sugar levels and a uniformity of ripeness that few growers had ever seen before. Some producers flubbed the vintage because the harvest presented such novel challenges, but most made fantastic wine of a new sort – much more welcoming when young, with abundant tannins but even more abundant fruit. In retrospect, it’s easy to see 1982 as the advance guard of the climate change that was looming. So for me, ’78 and ’82 mark, respectively, the last of the great “old” Barolos and the first of the great “new” ones.

What our daily vertical tastings showed, however, was no such break. Instead, each estate’s wines demonstrated a stylistic and palatal continuity right across the years, from wines of the ‘70s to wines of the new century. It was as if, in each place, Nebbiolo maintained its character over the years. Despite fluctuations of the weather or changes of winemaker or vineyard manager, the grapes in each site continued to give essentially the same wine. Some years of course were more intense than others, some showed more fruit, some more or less acidity – but it was startlingly clear to us as we tasted that these were the same wines, from youngest to oldest (you can read the whole Decanter report here, and in my next post I’ll get into some specifics of vintages and wines).

That continuous self-identity clearly evidences the power and persistence of the Nebbiolo variety and is one of the many reasons that I rank it right up with Aglianico (with which it shares many characteristics) as the premier Italian red grape and one of the very small handful of elite varieties in the world. Sure, it’s a finicky grape, a difficult one, and it doesn’t do well just anywhere. But give it what it wants – and evidently Piedmont does – and it will reward you with stunning wines, wines not only of long, delicious life but wines of astonishing consistency. So in many senses, Nebbiolo rules.


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