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.

Chianti-Map

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.

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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.

mastroberardino--401x175

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.

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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.

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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.

In Praise of Pinot Gris

January 9, 2014

The other night, still under the influence of the recent holidays, I chose to accompany a simple pork loin roast with a more important wine than I would usually use for a weeknight dinner: an Albert Boxler Pinot gris, Grand Cru Brand 2004. In one sense, it was a mistake, in another, a splendid choice. The wine stole the show. The pork roast – Berkshire pig, well-fatted and slow-cooked – was succulent and rich. The Pinot gris was more so.

boxlerAlready golden colored – that deep, lovely tint that most of us know from white Burgundies of great age – and so aromatic that you could be forgiven for thinking the grape a kin to Muscat, the Pinot gris was mouth-filling and intense. Slightly oily on the palate, its fruit was so forceful that my initial thought was that I was drinking a sweet wine, and it took a few seconds for my brain to register that all that fruit was fully dry – dry mango, dry peach, freshly made bread, and a congeries of smoke-and-earth flavors, all clamoring for attention. The finish went on forever. That was the (very) good news. The bad news was that that scrumptious pork really took a back seat to the wine, instead of interacting with it. A less magnificent wine would have been a better match, a lesson I will take to heart in the future. In happy dining, balance is everything.

That’s not an uncommon problem with Alsace Pinot gris, which is often as forward and assertive as my bottle of Boxler was. I love Pinot gris, but it can be hard to find the right dish for it. It’s a complicated grape, from almost any point of view. Palatally, it most resembles a blend of Viognier and Muscat with maybe a little Gewurztraminer thrown in. It never even remotely recalls Pinot grigio, which of course is the very same grape – or clones thereof – grown almost anywhere but Alsace. In Italy, where Pinot grigio has become ubiquitous, it is usually harvested pretty early, while the grapes still retain plenty of acidity. It is then vinified quickly at relatively low temperatures and in stainless steel to produce a wine that was once racy and brisk and refreshing and now has become (with a very few exceptions) a pleasant stand-in for water.

pinot grisIn Alsace, the grape ripens longer on the vine, its acidity drops, and its other components flex their muscles. Vinification and skin contact are longer, and the wine that emerges is a different beast entirely – bigger, rounder, with a very distinct spicy flavor and a very forceful personality. In a world of well-mannered white wines, Alsace Pinot gris swaggers. Not a white wine for everybody or everyday, but those who like it – and I am one of those – regard properly aged Pinot gris as one of the world’s greatest white wines.

Pinot gris probably originated as a mutation of Pinot noir, as its name hints. Where and when that happened is very much a matter of conjecture, though the variety does have a verifiable history of several centuries. Pinot gris has tagged along on Pinot noir’s worldwide dispersal, but – while some good ones are grown in the US Pacific Northwest – its best production zone unquestionably remains Alsace. There, it stands as the third most popular grape (behind Riesling and Gewurztraminer) and accounts for about 15% of the vineyards under cultivation (about 6500 acres in all). So there is not a huge amount of Pinot gris in the world, and even Alsace’s production is not of uniform quality.

My bottle was from an excellent small producer whose family home sits right in the middle of a Grand Cru site in the village of Turkheim: Brand, famed for Riesling even more than for Pinot gris.

Boxler vineyards

Boxler vineyards just outside Turkheim

There are about 50 Grand Cru sites scattered through the 105-mile-long ribbon that is the Alsace growing zone, and they are not all equally grand. At the same time, some sites that experts consider very fine have not been designated Grand Cru, so the designation is not a foolproof sign of quality but rather a general indicator. Alsace’s terroirs are extremely varied: Brand, for instance, is among a handful that have granitic soils, which makes its wines quite distinctive. Zind-Humbrecht, which is famous for the intensity of its varietal wines, also owns a portion of the Brand vineyards. Its Pinot gris is perhaps the most powerful wine of them all, and is usually priced accordingly.

In addition, Alsace, like Burgundy and the Italian Piedmont, has benefitted from global warming. It has enjoyed more excellent vintages in the past 10 or so years than in the 30 preceding – so this is a good time to acquire and put away some of this intriguing variety to develop the wonderful character it is capable of. Young Pinot gris is certainly pleasurable, but I like them best between 5 and 10 years old, when they still show an intensity of fruit but add to it more complex, developed flavors. Of course, the very best vintages – my 2004 wasn’t even one of those – can go longer than that and grow yet more complex and powerful with each passing year.

“The Boar’s Head, as I Understand, Is the Rarest Dish in all the Land”

December 30, 2013

Equally repulsed as Diane and I are by super-sentimental and hyper-commercial Christmases, we usually opt for a quiet dinner with a few close friends and a few choice wines, with a menu more or less traditional and background music eclectic. This year was typical in all respects, and especially pleasing to me because the match between wine and food worked out very well for each course.

[The music wasn’t shabby either: It started with a CD called Une Fête Chez Rabelais (you will see why that was chosen) to set the mood, and followed for the rest of the evening with discs featuring the late, great guitarist Jim Hall playing with musicians like Bill Evans, Ron Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre. Jim – as I thought of him, though I always addressed him as Mr. Hall – lived just down the block from us, and Diane and I always used to see him walking his dog, J.J. He died earlier this month, and we miss him; so I privately thought of this not just as a Christmas dinner but as a personal Jim Hall memorial. I admire elegance in music as much as in wine, and Hall’s playing was always a model of elegance.]

pol rogerWe strove for some elegance in the meal too. We began with Champagne, of course: It’s almost obligatory at this time of year, and Pol Roger never lets us down.

That bubbly accompanied hors d’oeuvre of a mousseline of smoked sturgeon, a mousseline of asparagus, and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, the latter served hot out of the oven, all three playing nicely with the effervescence and acidity of the Champagne.

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???????????????????????????????Aloxe-CortonAt table, our first course was morilles à la crème en croûte. The morels were fresh, not dried. We had bought them during their brief season, sautéed them in butter, and, after eating as many as we could hold at the time, froze the rest for just such a festive occasion as this.

They were delicious in their indescribably earthy, woodsy way. Swaddled in crème fraiche and cushioned on the world’s richest short pastry crust, they partnered beautifully with a medium-bodied, suave 2005 Aloxe Corton Premier Cru Les Vercots from Antonin Guyon.

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???????????????????????????????The pièce de résistance – this was definitely a French-accented dinner – was not a boar’s head (we’re not that traditional) but a long-cooked braised shoulder of wild boar, accompanied by French green beans and a puree of potato and celery root.

Lafon RochetThose in turn accompanied a very well-structured and deeply flavored 1998 Lafon Rochet in magnum. Maybe because it was in magnum, maybe because of the vintage, and certainly because of what the Tesseron family has been doing with this property for a few decades now, this wine could have easily been cellared for another decade.

Lafon Rochet is a fourth growth St Estèphe estate that the Tesserons have transformed as thoroughly as they have their more famous Pauillac fifth growth, Pontet Canet. This Lafon drank most enjoyably, to be sure, but it still showed so much in reserve that it was almost a shame to have it now. But it was a fine wine with the boar. It had the strength and intensity to match the richness of the meat, and the polish and complexity to play intriguingly with the sauce.

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Then came the cheese course.

???????????????????????????????At this point in the meal, I always rejoice in living just a ten-minute walk from Murray’s. We had:

  • a Colston-Bassett Stilton (Great Britain), which is as fine a blue cheese as exists anywhere,
  • a lovely, ash-grey-outside-chalk-white-inside Valençay (France),
  • a slightly pungent and very rich Grayson (Virginia),
  • a creamy and even richer Fromage d’Affinois (France),
  • and a great slab of Roomano (Holland), a sort of aged Gouda that simply loved the wine.

CornasThe wine was my very final bottle of Auguste Clape’s 1988 Cornas, which I served with equal parts of hope and trepidation – the hope because some previous bottles of this wine had been glorious, the trepidation because the last one I had opened had been dead.

Hope triumphed, I am happy to say: This was one of the glorious ones. In fact, it still showed some youth and vigor, and in addition its classic Cornas robustness made it a wonderful match for all the cheeses.

I am deeply sorry now for all the bottles of this now-priced-out-of-my-league Rhône beauty that I drank before what-I-now-understand-to-be their peak. Of such simultaneous heights and depths is the wino’s life made.

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???????????????????????????????Riesling VTMichele Scicolone had brought dessert, so we next consumed (yes, we could still eat!) her luscious pine-nut-and-apricot-jam tart. I matched that with a 2001 Trimbach Riesling Vendange Tardive, a wine with some sweetness of its own but plenty of acidity and real heft.

This was a shot in the dark, but it worked out well. The sweetness and savoriness of the tart meshed nicely with the lesser sweetness, acidity, and steely body of the Alsace wine. Of course, either would have been completely enjoyable on its own, but together they created one more dimension of pleasure and provided the final touch to what was for Diane and myself – and we certainly hope for our guests – a classic and only slightly Rabelaisian holiday feast.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hall.

Blanc de Blancs Christmas

December 19, 2013

I would probably have my epaulets ripped off and be drummed ceremonially out of The Ancient and Honorable Company of Wine Journalists if I let the holidays go by without writing at least once about Champagne. So to avert that disgrace, here is my report on the New York Wine Press’s annual holiday luncheon at The Brasserie.

This year’s fete featured 11 Blanc de Blancs Champagnes – i.e., 100% Chardonnay bubblies – in 4 flights, each complemented by a lovely menu prepared by the Brasserie’s executive chef Luc Dimnet. As you could no doubt guess, the occasion very quickly became the essence of the merry holiday lunch. The food was – as always – delicious, and the sparklers – as always – drank easily and delightfully. While all were enjoyable, for my palate one wine stood out in each flight.

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We began with passed hors d’oeuvre of escargots in gougère puffs and spoonsful of sesame-crusted tuna. The aperitif wines were H. Blin Blanc de Blancs Brut nv and Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs nv.

Flight 1

My choice here was the Blin. This is a Champagne from a co-op on the Marne, not one of the grandes marques, which will probably make it difficult to find but well worth the effort, since Champagne expert Ed McCarthy pronounced it, at approximately $35 a bottle, the best value of the afternoon.

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The first seated course was foie gras, and the Champagnes were Henriot Blanc de Blancs nv, Mumm de Cramant Blanc de Blancs Brut nv, and Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Chardonnay 2005.

Flight 2

Of these, I enjoyed most the Mumm Cramant. Note that the word is Cramant, not crémant. Cramant is a village – one of the Champagne area’s most important Chardonnay growing villages – not a half-pressure style. I was very impressed by the richness and elegance of this wine; “One of Mumm’s stars” Ed called it. (About $60-$65.)

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The next course was a modest (thank god!) portion of really succulent lobster, accompanied by Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut nv, Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2007, and Alfred Gratien Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut 2007.

Flight 3.2

In this flight, the Alfred Gratien stole the show for me. A great old house that is not very well known here in the States, Gratien makes top-flight Champagnes. This one was biggish but still elegant, with lots of berry and bread aromas and flavors – very fine, especially with the lobster. (About $79.)

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Finally we were served a tournedos of beef, with leeks, truffled Mornay, and parsnip crisps. With this course came the biggest wines of the day: Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs Brut 2002, Pol Roger Extra Cuvee de Reserve Blanc de Blancs 2002, and Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1995.

Flight 4.2

This final flight was harder to judge, since all three wines showed very well indeed. But my old favorite Pol Roger edged out the others for me, with just a little more richness, a little more elegance, and a sense of underlying power that I find typical of the whole Pol Roger line. As most wine drinkers know, Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favorite Champagne, and I can’t fault his taste. I’ve always found Pol Roger consistently enjoyable and utterly reliable: for me, it epitomizes the idea of “house style” in Champagne. (About $116.)

Happy holidays, everyone!

A Great Barbaresco Cru: Montefico

December 9, 2013

Partly in the interests of equity, partly because I was narcissistically moved by my own prose in my last post about a great Barolo cru, and mostly because one fine palatal experience calls for another, I decided to devote this post to a too-little-known (in the US, at least) Barbaresco cru. Probably the most famous Barbaresco crus are Montestefano and Rabajà, with Asili pulling up in third place. My wine of choice today isn’t one of those: It’s Montefico.

Montefico is a Barbaresco of Barbaresco, a wine of the commune of Barbaresco within the appellation of Barbaresco. It faces the vineyards of the Montestefano cru across the road. Their soils are similar sorts of limestone, but the eastward facing Montefico yields wines of – for my palate – greater elegance than the usually heftier, more austere wines of Montestefano.

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Map from Alessandro Masnaghetti, available at almasnag@tin.it. Montefico is the pale blue segment.

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This is in no way to demean the latter, which is unquestionably a great site – but I will choose Montefico any time I can get it. It’s a big wine too, but that’s not for me its greatest attraction. Rather, it’s the grace with which Montefico usually wraps its Nebbiolo. When nature provides the good long growing season that Nebbiolo needs, the morning sun on Montefico’s slopes seems to induce a gentler ripening and a fuller, more even development of the grapes’ components than on many westward-facing sites, and that in turn – in the hands of a good winemaker – results in a more rounded, more nuanced wine.

Aldo VaccaMy bottle passed through the hands of a very good winemaker indeed: Aldo Vacca, who has been the presiding genius of the Produttori del Barbaresco for many years now. As most readers of this blog know, the Produttori del Barbaresco is one of the finest cooperative wineries to be found anywhere, and its wines are always an excellent buy. Among the great Nebbiolo wines of the Alba zones, quality for dollar, Produttori del Barbaresco simply cannot be beat.

Its 56 members cultivate 100 hectares of vines, spread over some of the most traditional sites in the zone. Those hundred hectares amount to almost a sixth of Barbaresco’s total area: It’s not a big zone – just about a third the size of its sibling Barolo. All that good Nebbiolo comes annually to the Produttori’s cellars. Year after year, that gives Vacca a lot of top-flight grapes from many top-flight sites to work with (they are always vinified separately, and the growers are always named on the labels), so that in the best vintages, the coop produces nine cru wines, all Barbaresco DOCG Riserva, and all grown within the commune of Barbaresco: Asili, Moccagotta (now Muncagotta), Montefico, Montestefano, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo.*

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Flip side of Masnaghetti’s map, showing ownership of Montefico vineyards

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In a good vintage, those nine crus will represent about 40% of the winery’s total production. (In an average year, they all form part of the basic Barbaresco DOCG – which, in an average year, makes that an above-average wine, one well worth knowing about.) Over the years, I’ve been able to taste all the crus in several different vintages, and I can assure you they really differ from each other in ways both significant and subtle, so you can give yourself a lot of interesting enjoyment by acquiring bottles of each and tasting them side by side.

produttori montefico 1But let me get back to my one special bottle: Barbaresco DOCG Riserva Montefico 1999. Like the 1989 Barolo Lazzarito of my last post, this was the middle of three highly rated vintages. 1998 was unquestionably good, though perhaps not showing as well now as many of us had hoped: In both Barolo and Barbaresco, ‘98’s awkward adolescence seems to be prolonging itself. 2000 I frankly think was overrated, especially in Barolo, where, despite James Suckling’s and the Wine Spectator’s grandiosely proclaiming it “the vintage of the century” (which one?), the great heat of the growing season produced almost cooked wines, most of which are already finished. Barbaresco, being generally cooler than Barolo, fared better, but if you still have any 2000s I’d urge you to drink them soonest. About ’99, opinions differ: Was it a great vintage, or merely a good one? Much depends of whose wine you’re drinking, I think. Nowhere was 1999 worse than good, and for some producers, it was excellent. Produttori is one of the latter.

My bottle of Montefico was, simply, glorious. Nowhere near peaking – it seems to have decades before it yet – but wonderfully balanced and open, it showed the kind of complexity and nuance the greatest Nebbiolo is capable of. Its nose was densely packed and multi-stranded. I could discern threads of black coffee and dried cherries and road tar and bitter cacao and an unpickable knot of underbrush, mushroom, and earth notes – no fresh fruit notes at all, but a congeries of matured and maturing aromas. In the mouth, the same sorts of flavors, in a svelte package that was round and full without seeming either big or heavy, very silky and elegant while still tasting of its roots in the earth. The finish, of course, was very, very long, in the classic Nebbiolo style. (FYI, the growers of this bottling were Grasso, Rocca, and Vacca.)

For my palate, this was a great wine, classic – there is no other word – through and through. Lovely as this wine is, the best news is that Aldo Vacca and the Produttori are still making these wines, still in the same way. Back in May in Alba I tasted the latest to be released string of Produttori del Barbaresco’s crus, the 2008s, and they are across the board lovely, with an abundance of quintessentially Nebbiolo fruit and the kind of structure that presages a very long life. And yes, for me the Montefico stood out – though I wouldn’t mind having some of the 2008 Asili or the Rabajà either.

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* That concentration within the Barbaresco commune results from the circumstances of the Produttori del Barbaresco’s founding. The cooperative was begun by the initiative of the Barbaresco parish priest in 1958, during the darkest days of Italy’s post-war rural economy, as an attempt to provide some way for the small growers of his area to survive on their land. It began with 17 growers, and all those original members still belong to the cooperative.

A Great Barolo Cru: Lazzarito

November 29, 2013

A few days of windy, wintery weather excited my self-indulgence gland, and I (rather easily) persuaded Diane that we needed A Rare Roast Beef and a Real Red Wine. A quick trip to our butcher, Ottomanelli, produced the fixings for the former, and a quick look into my hoard produced the latter: a 1989 – great vintage! – Vietti Barolo Lazzarito. To borrow a phrase from a memorable Flanders & Swann song, “A chorus of yums ran round the table.”

As a cru name, Lazzarito probably isn’t as immediately recognizable to American wine drinkers as, say, Cannubi, but it’s a site just as long-revered and just as important. Before the late-twentieth-century expansion of many Piedmont townships, the Lazzarito name was restricted to a very precise “bowl” of vineyards on the western slope of Serralunga, just about in the middle of that large commune’s north-south axis.

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The vineyards of Serralunga. North is on the left. Lazzarito is the yellow section in the middle.

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Most of the Nebbiolo vineyards (there is some Dolcetto too) lie between 300 and 400 meters in altitude, with western or southwestern exposures. The calcareous soils are largely ancient marine sediments, with admixtures of marl and sand, and they naturally restrict the abundance of Nebbiolo fruit, while conferring a wealth of trace elements. Taken together, the characteristics of the site contribute to producing Barolo of great elegance and complexity, with very long aging potential. In short, Lazzarito is a top-tier site.

There are documents that indicate that Lazzarito was known by that name already at the beginning of the 17th century, and that its wines were already prized. The name may mean that a lazar house – a leprosarium, or perhaps a hospice of some sort – once stood there, but that is very uncertain.

The entirety of the Lazzarito hillside was formerly the property of Opera Pia Barolo, a charitable entity established in 1854 by bequest of the last Marchesa di Barolo, Giulietta Falletti. The Marchesa was French, born Juliette Colbert, and she is legendarily supposed to have played a major role in the development of Barolo by bringing the French enologist Oudart to the zone. According to the story, the Fallettis shared Oudart’s services with the then King of Savoy (later of all Italy) on both their enormous properties throughout the area.

After the Marchese’s death and the Marchesa’s long childless widowhood, all those Falletti properties became part of the Opera Pia Barolo and were over the years gradually dispersed. Now the largest chunk of Lazzarito is owned by Fontanafredda (itself once an estate of the king – but that’s another story), with Guido Porro and Vietti next in line. Anselma, Ettore Germano, Rivetto, and Villadoria also own significant pieces.

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The Lazzarito cru. The central portion, on the west side of the road, is the most highly prized. Vietti owns the fields just slightly south of the Cantina Lazzarito.

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The present status of the name Lazzarito is slightly uncertain, since the recent (highly politicized – are you surprised?) designation of crus in Barolo has canonized the expanded township boundaries, and included under the revered Lazzarito designation some vineyard sites that used to be separate entities – for example, Lazzairasco, a good site, but not up to Lazzarito’s level. So for more recent vintages, it pays to know exactly where a producer’s vineyards are located – and for that information, nothing compares to the data on the back of Alessandro Masnaghetti’s maps, a portion of which is reproduced above.

color 1With older vintages, like my ’89, that is not a problem, since back then only growers who owned or had access to the very finest sites bothered with a cru designation. For Lazzarito, the major names to look for are Fontanafredda, Guido Porro, and Vietti. Vietti has long produced wine from Lazzarito and owns some of the choicest portions of the hillside. As for the vintage: Barolo fans will remember 1989 as the middle vintage of a succession of three great ones, regarded by many growers in the Alba area as marking the arrival of global warming as a fact of life in the zone. Most critics think 1990 was the finest of these three vintages, and in most cases they are probably right. ’90 certainly has power and fullness – but from some sites, and Lazzarito is surely one of those – 1989 has the finesse and elegance of the very greatest Barolos.

The bottle Diane and I enjoyed certainly did. Of the many superb Barolos I’ve been lucky enough to drink, this bottle offered the most velvet mouth feel, the most elegant mature fruit, and the longest finish of almost any I can recall. That it did so after many years in my less-than-ideal storage conditions is a tribute to the skills of the late Alfredo Currado, who with his wife Luciana owned Vietti and for years made all its wines. It’s also a testimony to the value of putting wines of a good vintage away and forgetting them for as long as you can stand it: As I’ve said so many times in this blog, the rewards are wonderful.

2009 Barolo and the Individual Palate

November 18, 2013

November-2013-homepageThe November issue of Decanter features a Tasting Panel Report that loves – loves – the 2009 Barolos. As the issue’s cover blazons, “Barolo 2009s tasted: 134 fantastic buys from ‘an outstanding vintage.’”

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I began my brief report on the vintage thus: “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.”

I found most of the wines marred by a deadly combination of over-ripeness and green tannins, covered over in far too many cases by excessive oak and toasted oak flavors. And the Decanter panel liked that?

Between those two responses to the same vintage of the same wine yawns a profound gulf of palatal differences. British wine writers often refer to an “American palate,” by which they usually mean a taste for big, jammy wines, with assertive flavors (and often high alcohol) and pronounced oak sweetness. On the basis of what I tasted in Alba last spring and the way Decanter’s panelists responded to a similar set of wines, I’d have to say that’s a British palate they’re talking about, not an American one – at very least, not this American one.

When I first read Ian d’Agata’s and Christelle Guibert’s report on the magazine’s tasting, I was flabbergasted. Could we really be talking about the same wine? It didn’t seem possible. The three Decanter panelists tasted 140 wines and recommended 134, which would be amazing in any vintage of any wine. At Nebbiolo Prima (the annual, week-long tasting of Barolo and Barbaresco new releases), I and some 60 other international journalists tasted over 225 Barolos of the 2009 vintage; I would recommend just about 10% of them, if that many – about 25 wines out of 225. And the Decanter panel recommended all but six of the wines they tasted?!

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alba tasting

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All the journalists I talked to during Nebbiolo Prima expressed at best guarded opinions about 2009 Barolo, and even the producers, with a handful of exceptions, spoke of it as a difficult vintage, best for near-term drinking. The writers whose palates I know best agreed with me that the case was worse than that: 2009 was a deeply flawed vintage that many, if not most, producers had flubbed.

It wasn’t just that the weather was hot, but that it was extremely irregular, and induced equally irregular ripening: Some grapes were fully ripe while others in the same row were still green. Wines that combine over-ripe fruit with green tannins cannot be rescued by using lots of oak, which, from what we journalists were tasting every morning, was what many wine makers had tried to do. So one explanation of the difference between my opinion and the magazine’s tasting panel’s may be simply that those tasters enjoy oak, whereas I abhor it.

There can be other explanations too. Of course, the wines were not identical. I and my Alban colleagues tasted our Barolos in early May. I don’t know when Decanter’s tasting took place, but I presume it was after that – and of course it was in London, not Piedmont. Those two facts would create some (I think small) differences in the wines.

Moreover, the Decanter panelists tasted only 140 wines – one each from 140 producers. In Alba, we tasted 225 wines from 146 producers, half again as many. Of the wines that the Decanter panel tasted, only 108 were the same as the Alba bottles: 32 were bottles of either producers or wines that weren’t shown at Alba. So the magazine tasters experienced less than half of the exact wines that we Alban tasters endured. And, by the same arithmetic, we Alba veterans tasted 117 wines that the Decanter panel escaped.

But whatever the arithmetic of the two occasions may be, at bottom we’re dealing with radically different assessments of a whole vintage of a major wine – and the only way to account for that is by palatal differences. You taste only with your own mouth, which is pertinent not only to the “professional” responses to these wines but to every reader of those responses. That’s why in these posts I give so many caveats about tasting notes: what I or anybody else tastes may not resemble what you taste. If you tell me that the Barolo you’re sipping tastes like broccoli to you (one of them did, back in May!), you cannot be wrong: It tastes like broccoli to you.

So I can’t say Decanter’s panelists are wrong when they praise these 2009 Barolos as, by their lights, a classic vintage – but their classic Barolo has a lot of oak in it, and that’s not my idea of what Nebbiolo tastes like. Furthermore, I think that my idea of classic Barolo flavors and character is much closer to the time-honored ideal that its makers have striven for over decades of vintages. In short, I would say they are wrong about what constitutes classic Barolo, and that it’s misleading to call wines with that much oak in their flavors classic Barolo. But if that’s what they like in the ’09 vintage, then we agree about what we’re all tasting. We just disagree – radically – about whether that makes good or bad Barolo.

I admit I’m probably responding more strongly to this set of judgments than I normally would, because for years now I’ve covered Nebbiolo Prima and the new vintages of Barolo for Decanter. I was supposed to again this year: I wrote and turned in my story, which was accepted and scheduled for the December issue – and then I found out it was being bumped from the magazine in favor of the panel tasting report that appeared in the November issue.

I was informed that the reason for this change was an editorial mix-up that left no other option but to bump my piece into the digital edition – where, I presume, the stark difference between my negative view of the vintage will contrast less sharply with the panel’s positive spin. But this is emphatically not a case of – to use a wonderfully apt cliché – sour grapes. My article (you can read the whole thing here) was written months before I ever saw or even heard about the panel report. No: This is a clear instance of the crucial subjectivity that underlies all “professional” judgments (I include my own) about wine.

A rating, a tasting note, a ranking – these are only as good as the palate(s) of the individual or group making them on one particular day, in one particular set of circumstances, and they depend – no matter how sharp or dull an individual taster’s palate may be that day – on the underlying preferences, prejudices, and presuppositions each taster brings to the occasion. For my palate, 2009 Barolo is an essentially flawed vintage, to be bought and drunk with extreme selectivity, and not to be seriously considered for long-term cellaring. For the Decanter panel, it is another creature entirely. Caveat emptor.


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