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.

Amarone: From Novelty to Tradition in 55 Years

November 7, 2013

The shortest road from novelty to tradition is extraordinary quality, and there are two outstanding examples of that in Italian wine, two appellations with – by the Italian time scale – very short histories: Brunello, created 150 years ago, and Amarone, created about 60 years ago; both now prestige wines with their own established character and passionate defenders. Most wine aficionados know the story of how Brunello came to be, but how Amarone came into being is a much less familiar tale, and one that, despite the wine’s youth, is still not entirely clear.

Andrea Lonardi

I started thinking about this because of an Amarone tasting I attended two weeks ago at the Ai Fiori Restaurant in New York. Andrea Lonardi, the young winemaker for Bertani, presented a lovely vertical of the firm’s Amarones, a tasting that came close to being a whole history of Amarone.

As we tasted six Amarones running back from 2006, the current release, to 1964, one of Bertani’s earliest releases, Lonardi remarked, “Amarone was born in 1958, and it was born at Bertani.”

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Vertical

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Well, yes and no: Bertani certainly originated Amarone as we know it, and Bertani unquestionably marketed the first commercial bottlings of “Reciotto della Valpolicella Amarone,” as the wine was then called, in 1958. That made 2013 the 55th year of its production, and the vertical tasting Lonardi was leading close to a capsule history of the wine.

But surely, Amarone didn’t suddenly, in 1958, spring fully mature from Bertani’s cellars, like Athena from the mind of Zeus. For instance: Masi some years later released its 1957 vintage as Amarone, and Bolla may have done a one-time-only release even a few years earlier. Surely something like Amarone had to have existed before, or the Bertani brothers, like the Biondi-Santi ancestors in Montalcino, had to have spent some time in developing it. There seem to have been sporadic appearances of big, Reciotto-like-but-dry red wines in the Valpolicella zone for decades, perhaps for centuries, before Bertani’s breakthrough. The question becomes, what was different about this time?

Over the years, I’ve heard several different versions of the origins of Amarone. They differ in details, but they agree in two fundamental points: Its ancestor was the lusciously sweet Reciotto della Valpolicella, which was then the Valpolicella zone’s most prestigious wine; and the discovery of Amarone was an accident. Reciotto certainly provided the base from which Amarone could develop. Its vinification involved the passito process, in which selected bunches of grapes are allowed to dry for some time – days, weeks, sometimes months – to concentrate their sugars before being pressed and fermented. This much of the process Reciotto and Amarone still share.

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Grapes drying 2

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According to one version of the story, an unnamed wine maker – presumably a Bertani or an employee of the family’s, since no one disputes its key role in the development of Amarone – neglected to rack off a barrel of what was intended to be Reciotto. Racking is done to draw off yeasts and stop fermentation at a modest alcoholic level, leaving the necessary degree of residual sugar for a classic dessert wine. Omitting that step allowed the fermentation to carry on to complete dryness, so that when the wine was finally tasted, it was first judged to be a dismal failure – amaro, bitter – and only later determined to be something really good: not Reciotto, but another wine entirely, a big dry one, Amarone.

The other most common version of Amarone’s origin that I’ve encountered involves a run-away fermentation, a fermentation that simply couldn’t be stopped until the yeasts had exhausted all the grape sugars and fermented the wine to total dryness, with, once again an apparently ruined Reciotto being discovered to be a whole new kind of wine.

Both those stories, and all the other slight variations on them I’ve heard, beg the fundamental question of how you get from a one-off accident to a process that reliably yields the same wine every time. Just one problematic instance: the yeasts. As I understand it, the alcohol that the yeasts create out of the sugars they consume is also their death knell, and most yeast strains can’t survive in the kind of alcoholic stews that produce Amarone. If that is so (and I would appreciate some knowledgeable person illuminating me about this), then somewhere along the line someone had to isolate a strain or strains of yeasts that would do the job for Amarone on a consistent basis.

Then there is also the question of the blend of grapes that goes into the wine: Not just any grapes will yield a wine as distinguished as Amarone. In the past, Rondinella was the dominant grape in Valpolicella, both the zone and the wine, but from the beginning the Bertanis had focused on Corvina, which, with its sibling Corvinone, is now recognized throughout the zone as the most important variety for both Valpolicella and Amarone.

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Left, Corvina. Right, Corvinone.

Left, Corvina. Right, Corvinone.

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That doesn’t sound like another accident to me: It sounds more like someone who had been thinking along the lines of developing a serious dry wine in the zone for some time, and consequently experimenting with the properties of the different native varieties. But if so, why has no one stepped up and taken credit for that foresight? An odd situation, for sure, and a murky one, for so recent a development as the modern advent of Amarone.

In any event, what we do know of Amarone’s modern history leaves the Bertani firm (which, for the record, is no longer owned by the Bertani family) in the same relation to Amarone as the Biondi-Santi family is to Brunello. Each created the wine as we know it now and has overseen its progress from oddity/rarity to international darling.

Like the Biondi-Santis, Bertani has not been happy with what other producers have done with the wine at every stage of that development, particularly at attempts to restyle it to international tastes and passing fads. These include some misguided experiments with barriques (which even Bertani tried for a few years), as well as exaggerated alcohol and residual sugar levels, which are characteristic of too many Amarones today. This is far from saying that Bertani is the only good maker of Amarone; happily, there are many excellent ones – Masi, Allegrini, Quintarelli, and Dal Forno, to name only a few.

All those fine makers share with Bertani a commitment to preserving the character of Amarone as what the French call a vin de garde, a wine that deserves and wants long cellaring in order to reach its peak of velvety perfection. To demonstrate that was indeed the point of the vertical tasting that precipitated all this subsequent rumination about Amarone’s orgins.

From the current vintage to the oldest, the Bertani Amarones showed themselves to be enjoyable drinking at every stage – 2006; 1991; 1990; 1981; 1973; 1964. But there was a definite intensification of the taster’s pleasure and the wine’s subtlety and complexity and depth at each increase in age. The tasting group was unanimous in opting to keep the oldest wines to drink with lunch – in fact, the only real disagreement was about whether the ’73 was a better vintage than the ’64. I couldn’t make up my mind, because the two harvests gave such different wines. Here is a condensation of my notes on the two:

1973: Lots of fruit and a little alcohol in the nose. On the palate, round and soft (acid a touch lower than usual), tasting like a mouthful of walnuts and dry sherry. Extremely long-finishing, with lingering flavors of dried black cherries and concentrated raspberries. A lovely wine.

1964: Harvested late October; crushed in January/February; bottled 1983. Beautifully balanced – round, bright (excellent acid), with mature, almost-sherry-like fruit. Like all the Bertani Amarones, very long finishing. It cries for big roasts and the best cheeses. A classic wine.

1964By the way: That ’64 Amarone was aged in chestnut for four to six years before bottling, as was normal practice back then. In the past decade, Bertani has been returning to the use of chestnut, and also occasionally cherry wood, for maturing its wines. Chestnut used to be the most common wood for barrels and vats in many parts of Italy, and it does different things to wine than oak does. Cabernet likes oak, but a lot of Italian varieties don’t. In the past few years, I’ve tasted both new wines and old ones aged – and occasionally vinified – in chestnut, and I’ve liked very much what that wood does. It often confers a velvetiness that tames the sometimes harsh tannins of many Italian grapes. In Bertani’s case, the return to using chestnut is part of the firm’s admirable effort to maintain and carry forward the style of wine that originally – and justly – made it famous.

Choosing Wine, Serving Wine, Mastering Wine

October 28, 2013

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

Modigliani

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

Picasso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great White Wines from a Near-Alpine Augustinian Abbey

October 17, 2013

In any short list of Europe’s amazing places, the Abbazia di Novacella – aka Stiftskellerei Neustift – should hold a prominent mention. The abbey is historic: It was founded in the 12th century by a monastic order with a rule traceable back to St. Augustine. It’s also beautiful: Though many times sacked and occupied, even bombed in WWII, it has been lovingly restored to the peak of splendor it achieved in the mid-18th century.

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And it’s still alive, still a working monastery, performing all the pastoral tasks expected of such venerable establishments.

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Most amazing of all, I think, is that it largely supports itself by agriculture – including the making of some of the loveliest white wines in Italy, from some of the northernmost vineyards in the country.

Located in the most northern reaches of Alto Adige, the Abbazia di Novacella sits far up the valley of the Isarco river, near its headwaters at the foot of the Austrian Alps. Eventually the Isarco flows down past Bolzano, where it joins the Adige, which in turn flows down past Verona, turns east, and enters the Adriatic just south of the gulf of Venice.

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At its start, up there under the shadow of the Alps, what is now called Alto Adige was for centuries the South Tyrol, and its language is still largely German. So too are the grape varieties that are cultivated on those high, sunny slopes – Kerner, Sylvaner, Veltliner, and Gewurztraminer. The last grape, despite its strong associations with Germany and Alsace, actually takes its name from the Alto Adige village where it probably originated: Terlano in Italian, Tramin in German. So production of distinguished wine has a long tradition in this region, and all the evidence points to the Abbazia’s equally long involvement with it.

At the present day, the Abbazia achieves its greatest successes with grapes that don’t fare so well in other places. Sylvaner, an originally Austrian vine which in Alsace and Germany usually makes a fairly straightforward, ordinary wine, here yields a much more nuanced juice with nice hints of complexity and much more evident structure. Kerner, the Abbazia’s other most important variety, originated in Germany in 1929 as a deliberate cross between Schiava grossa and Riesling. Nowadays, it is the fifth most widely planted white variety in Germany, where – as far as I can tell – it is used mostly in blending. The Abbazia makes a varietal wine of it, and its top-of-the-line bottling regularly takes the highest awards from Gambero Rosso.

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Last week I tasted four of Abbazia di Novacella’s newest releases: the 2012 editions of Sylvaner, Syvaner Praepositus, Kerner, and Kerner Praepositus..

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I’ll cut to the chase: All four were fine, and the two Praepositus wines – selections of the best grapes from the best vineyards – were fabulous. And especially fabulous for their value: The suggested retail price for the basic whites (take that “basic” with a large grain of salt) is $20, for the two Praeposituses (Praepositi?) $28.

I am not alone in thinking the Kerner Praepositus one of Italy’s greatest white wines, and the 2011 Sylvaner Praepositus won Tre Bicchieri, so we are here talking about wines of the highest quality being offered at the price of some fancy-label plonks. The wines are imported by Skurnik, so at least here on the east coast they should be pretty readily available. Need I say more?

In case I do, here is a brief rundown on the four wines I tasted:

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????2012 Sylvaner: Forest floor (what Italians call sottobosco) aromas, plus flowers. Diane suggested also mirabelles, those delectable yellow plums so loved in Alsace. Nutty and floral palate. Excellent acidity, though still round in the mouth. Long-finishing. Very fine.

2012 Sylvaner Praepositus: Sottobosco again, and floral scents so strong as to seem almost overblown. On the palate, all the flavors noted above, with sapid minerality. Refined, elegant, round; very long-finishing. Medium body and lovely.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????2012 Kerner: Floral, woodsy aromas, with a little diesel oil smell (that Riesling ancestry, I guess). Medium-to-full body, with wonderful acid/fruit balance and almost chewy sottobosco flavors. Lovely.

2012 Kerner Praepositus: Spicy nose, suggesting woodruff. On the palate, everything the basic wine showed but raised a notch or two, into an utterly smooth and elegant package. Just gorgeous.

The Praepositus wines, it should be noted, will take a bit of bottle age and probably be the better for it. Certainly they lose nothing at five years old. These are wonderful wines that deserve to be better known, and I say that while ruing the fact that, once they are, the prices will probably rise. When journalism duty’s to be done, a writer’s lot is not a happy one.

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Whisky, You’re the Devil

October 7, 2013

Once upon a time, I toured the Highlands of Scotland with a small group of journalists. The Scotch Whisky Institute sponsored the trip, and it was very well organized. Nine o’clock every morning found us at the first of the three or four single malt distilleries we would visit that day, and at ten o’clock precisely, every morning, the manager or master distiller who was guiding us would look impishly at his watch and ask, “Now would ye care for a wee dram?”

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We discovered, on the first day of the trip and to its organizers’ deep consternation, that I was the only member of the press contingent who actually drank Scotch. The others had just been told by their editors that they would take this trip and write the story. Those were the days when “life style” articles were thought to require no expertise: How the world has changed!

Anyhow, that left it up to me to take one for the team – every day. I did so happily, and enjoyed the Highlands thoroughly, and – oh yes! – learned quite a bit about fine Scotch whisky. Before that trip, I had liked single malts. During it, I developed a passion for them that stays with me to this day. Many evenings, I will happily choose a good Scotch – by which I definitely mean a single malt – for my post-prandial digestive, even over my beloved grappa.

It always surprises me to find how many wine lovers think it’s somehow wrong to finish a meal with a whisky. Perhaps it’s some sophisticated echo of the old wino’s fear of mixing “the grape and the grain,” which schoolboys probably still think will make you sick – at least they did when I was a schoolboy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Single malts are as refined and as varied (even more, truth to tell) as Cognacs and Armagnacs, and almost as numerous and as highly differentiated as grappas.

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Oban

All are, as the name implies, distilled from malted and then fermented barley and only from barley. Blended Scotches contain grain whiskies – often a preponderance of the blend – as well as barley whiskies. Single malts, by contrast, are the thing itself, with all its nuances of terroir, malting of the barley, and water – especially water. You would not believe what a difference the source of its water can make to a Scotch. This is why so many distilleries cluster in northeast Scotland, in the valley of the river Spey. These Speyside malts are among the most elegant and distinguished of all Scotches. My favorite among their number is Oban, an incomparably complex and smooth aqua vitae.*

Islay maltsBut Speyside is just a small part of the Highlands, and fine single malts are made all through there – The Macallen is a great one – as well as in the Lowlands, Campbeltown, the islands, and Islay. The latter is probably my very favorite source of Scotches. All the Islay whiskies are marked by intense peatiness and brininess – the aroma, as my wife remarks, wrinkling her nose in distaste, of smoky beach fires and long-weathered seaweed. For most people, that’s enough to send them back to cognac, but for confirmed single malt drinkers, it’s sheer bliss. Laphroaig and Lagavulin have comforted me on many a chilly winter night and eased along that one-too-many tiny last slice of leg of lamb or apple pie.

TaliskerIslay is the only one of the numerous islands off Scotland’s western and northern coast to have its own recognized appellation, but the other islands also produce notable whiskies – especially Talisker, the only whisky produced on the Isle of Skye, a fabled spot in Scottish history. It was to Skye that Bonnie Prince Charlie fled in 1745 after the disaster of Culloden (massacre, Scots still call it), and it was from Skye that with the aid of its ancestral lairds, the MacDonalds, he escaped to France, leaving behind an abiding nostalgia for “the king over the water,” some beautiful folk songs, and the recipe for Scotland’s national liqueur, Drambuie.

All single malt distilleries bottle different versions of their whiskies at different ages. I prefer the relatively younger ones – between 10 and 16 years of age – because I find that beyond that they become a bit over-refined. I like them still with a bit of fire, and tasting more of where they came from than of the barrels they’ve been aging in. That’s what makes them so different from each other and so endlessly fascinating.

* Correction: Oban remains complex and smooth, but it’s not from Speyside. It’s a Highland whisky, as Ole Udsen points out in his comment.

The First Supertuscan: Capezzana’s Carmignano

September 26, 2013

No, the first Supertuscan isn’t Sassicaia, and it’s certainly not Tignanello. If you define a Supertuscan, as many do, as a wine combining the Italian Sangiovese and the French Cabernet, then Supertuscans have been around a lot longer than those two johnny-come-latelies. There is one place in Tuscany where Cabernet sauvignon has been at home for centuries, where it can legitimately be called a native variety and not an international introduction: the Carmignano zone.

Tuscany has many attention-hogging red wines – Brunello, Chianti Classico, the whole tribe of Supertuscans – but everyone seems to forget about Carmignano, even though it has a history almost as old as Chianti’s and far older than Brunello’s, to say nothing of the evanescent mayfly life of the Supertuscans, which no longer seem either very super or very Tuscan.

Carmignano was one of the wines and zones first delimited by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the 18th Century. Almost 200 years before that, Catarina di Medici – better known as Catherine de Medicis, Queen of France and introducer of petit pois, forks, and fine cuisine to the French – also introduced Cabernet sauvignon to Tuscany. In the Carmignano zone, Cabernet is still locally called uva francesca – the French grape – and it has been cultivated there ever since Catarina’s – sorry, Catherine’s time. That makes Carmignano the longest-established Supertuscan, by a very wide margin.

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Beatrice Contini Buonacossi

By an equally wide margin, Capezzana is the leader of the appellation. Beatrice Contini Buonacossi, one of the several siblings who now own and manage the estate their grandparents acquired almost a hundred years ago, was in New York recently to – in effect – reintroduce Carmignano to us. Many decades ago, when I was first starting out in wine writing, Capezzana’s Carmignano had a significant presence on the American market. If memory serves, it was part of the distinguished portfolio of Mediterranean Imports, at that time one of the chief players on the east coast Italian wine scene. Later, as the Supertuscans became news, Carmignano and Capezzano slipped from sight – a pity, because the wine never lost its quality, as the wines that Beatrice poured in a vertical tasting amply demonstrated.

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The large Capezzano property, about 30 miles west of Florence, was originally a Medici country estate, so it’s safe to assume that it was one of the earliest recipients of Catherine’s introduction. Certainly, the Cabernet sauvignon that grows there has acquired a much more Tuscan accent than what I’ve tasted elsewhere in Tuscany from newer plantings. It’s lighter on the palate, with seemingly more prominent acidity and a racier character that allows it to blend more seamlessly with the Sangiovese that makes up the preponderance of the Carmignano blend.

?????????????That blend – now DOCG – mandates 10% to 20% Cabernet to be combined with up to 80% Sangiovese. Some small amounts of other indigenous grapes – e.g., Canaiolo – are also permitted, though Capezzana currently doesn’t use them in its flagship wine, Villa di Capezzana. Capezzana produces several wines – Barco Reale (70% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet, 10% Canaiolo: a “baby Carmignano”); Trefiano (70% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet sauvignon, 10% Canaiolo, 5% Cabernet franc), and Ghiaie della Furba (60% Cabernet sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Syrah) – but Villa di Capezzana is its historic flagship bottling, and it was the wine that Beatrice showed in the vertical tasting.

Five vintages of Villa di Capezzana spanning five decades – 2008, 1998, 1988, 1977, 1968 – showed an impressive continuity of style and quality. All were delicious, for my palate the oldest ones especially so. Those oldest wines were still alive and lovely, with fully evolved dark fruit and underbrush and earth aromas and flavors. My favorite may have been the ’77 – I say “may have been” because the 1968 was also gorgeous – but all five of them showed wonderful balance and, above all, tremendous elegance, which is the hallmark of Capezzana wines. Wines like these are meant to be savored with your most important dinners, to be stashed away to comfort your old age, to relish with long-time friends who appreciate the nuances of older wines. Considering their quality and longevity, they are bargains.

Remember Claret?

September 16, 2013

A few nights ago, to accompany a classic rack of lamb, I dug out a classic bottle of claret. Claret has become a very old-fashioned word for what, I am afraid, is increasingly perceived as an old-fashioned wine: good, restrained, elegant, estate-bottled Bordeaux of a classified growth. Now, I will be quick to complain about many aspects of Bordeaux wines these days, but I also freely acknowledge that Bordeaux does several things incomparably well – and perhaps the foremost among them is to accompany lamb. To paraphrase something I wrote a few thousand years ago in The Right Wine, until lambs mutate into lobsters, Cabernet sauvignon is going to be a wonderful partner for their meat – and Bordeaux can still do Cabernet as well as anybody.

Talbot 86The bottle I chose for that succulent little rack was a 27-year-old St. Julien, Chateau Talbot 1986 – a mature wine but not an ancient one, and one from a conservative estate, where the post-Parker craze for big fruit and high alcohol has even now not taken hold. This was a wine made in the classic way on a large, traditional property (256 acres) of gravelly limestone soil in the commune of St. Julien. Vinified from 70% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and a mere 5% of Cabernet franc and Petit verdot, the wine was fermented in glass before aging long months in wood, with numerous rackings and finings. It then rested many years in what passes for my cellar, from which it finally emerged – “gloriously” would be too strong, and utterly inappropriate to Talbot’s style, so let’s say “finely” – with great polish and an almost British understatement.

Or maybe I think that because of the wine’s name and the estate’s history. I love a wine with a story, and this wine has a doozy. Talbot is obviously an English name (everyone of my generation will immediately think of hapless Lon Chaney Jr. as Lyle Talbot, the reluctant wolfman) and an old one at that. As most wine people know, the British involvement with Bordeaux – both its politics and its wine trade – dates back many centuries, and for a lot of those centuries Chateau Talbot was there. Certainly not the present buildings, but the property has been in situ since the 15th century. Talbot, along with Gruaud Larose (another favorite of mine and, not coincidentally, one owned by the Cordier family that also owns Talbot), stands among the few Bordeaux estates that still produce wine from the same vineyards that were classified in 1855. That’s what you call stability.

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The estate purportedly derives its name from the man whom tradition calls its first proprietor (though there is no absolute proof of this): John Talbot, First Earl of Shrewsbury and Constable of France. This Talbot was a famous English warrior in the Hundred Years’ War – companion of Edward the Black Prince, and of Henry V and Henry VI, opponent of Joan of Arc, scourge of several French armies. He died in battle in France in 1453. By all accounts, he was a violent, aggressive man of little polish but headstrong courage – in many ways, the stylistic opposite of the elegant French wine that carries his name into the 21st century. As Shakespeare says, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

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Chateau Talbot tends, I think, to be consistently underestimated as a wine. Its elegance and restraint seem to work against it in an age when boisterous assertion is prized (John Talbot, however, could easily be a hero for our time). Clive Coates is restrained in his praise. That the estate makes wines “of considerable flair” is the most he will say, while Robert Parker is surprisingly more enthusiastic: “consistently fine, robust, fruity, full-bodied wines” that “in certain vintages” can surpass the more prestigious wines of its sibling, Gruaud Larose. Back in 1990, Parker tasted the vintage I recently drank, Talbot 1986, and had this to say: “It’s my gut feeling that the 1986 is simply the finest Talbot made at this vast 250-acre estate since the legendary 1945.” He expected it to live until 2020.

Well, I can vouch for the fact that the ’86 was alive and entirely enjoyable just a few nights ago, though I must say I don’t find myself agreeing with much else about Parker’s description of the wine (see his Bordeaux, page 311, for the details of that). My bottle was soft and understated, with all its fruit mutated into ripe, dark flavors of earth and leather, tobacco and dried plum. Very structured still, and long-finishing to be sure, with a little lingering thrill of pure vinosity at the end. Not a “today” wine, though: no big fruit or forceful alcohol, but instead balance and polish. Chateau Talbot is a serenely self-possessed wine.

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It was my very last bottle, alas! Every time I enjoy a rack of lamb now I will remember it and miss it. I could wish wines like this were as replaceable as lamb racks – but then, I suppose, they would lose the very qualities that make them special and memorable. I suppose that too is an old-fashioned sort of idea. If so – as the French would once have said – tant pis.


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