Geography Lessons: Planeta’s Sicilian Vineyards

December 5, 2016

Alessio Planeta, who visits the United States often on behalf of his family’s winery, tried valiantly to explain Sicily’s multitude of terroirs alessio-planeta-2to a group of journalists gathered at Del Posto for a tasting of a selection of Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties. Planeta has a deep interest in this, since the family firm (headed by Alessio and his cousin Francesca, with knowledgeable input from her father/his uncle Diego) has been at the forefront of exploring and exploiting those diverse terroirs and their native grapes. Currently, the Planetas have vineyards in at least six different parts of Sicily, so Alessio had a good deal of information to impart.

That was no easy task, since there is a great deal of confusion about Sicily’s geography/geology, even among its residents. Because of its great variety of landscapes, Alessio remarked, people sometimes speak of Sicily as “not an island but a small continent,” and sometimes they refer to the Etna area – the eastern third of Sicily, roughly – as “an island within an island.” No wonder outsiders can find it all confusing.

As Professor Attilio Scienza of the Universita di Milano once explained it to me, Sicily really has two totally different geologies. The eastern third of the island is purely volcanic: Etna is the southernmost of a series of volcanoes that once ran down the length of Italy. Long ago, it rose above the sea and formed that chunk of land. The western two-thirds of Sicily consist of a very variegated piece of the North African karst that drifted north and got caught on or by the volcanic piece. So on the eastern part of Sicily you find volcanic soils of different ages and varying mineral traces, and on the western you have the whole variety of soils that can be found on continental North Africa.
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sicily-map-2

It all matters greatly, because different grape varieties do well – and the same grape variety performs differently – on the different soils in different parts of the island. That is exactly what the Planetas have set about investigating, so Alessio led us on a tasting tour of some of the family’s vineyards, focusing primarily on what happens to Nero d’Avola, one of Sicily’s most important red grapes, in those different locales – to wit, Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna, and Milazzo. Well, we skipped Etna, for the simple reason that Nero d’Avola doesn’t do well there at all – Nerello Mascalese is the red variety that excels there – but we palatally visited all the other areas.
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menfi-etc

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Alessio’s photos show the difference of the soils at the Planeta’s four vineyard sites, and his text ticks off the prime distinctive characteristics of the Nero d’Avola grown and vinified at each. Here are the wines we tasted and my reactions to them. We started in Vittoria, with

Frappato DOC Vittoria 2015. This wine is vinified from 100% Frappato, a very localized indigenous red variety, that makes a light, agile, and refreshing wine. Bitter almond and cherry nose and palate, medium-length dry finish – in all, unusual and intriguing. Then we went on to

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2014. Sicily’s only DOCG, this wine is vinified from 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato. It has a rich cherry/tobacco nose and a cherry/berry/tobacco palate and it finishes long and rich. The next wine was

Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2014. A cru wine made from 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato. All these wines so far saw no wood: all stainless steel fermentation and aging. This particular bottle was slightly closed on the nose, but showed lush cherry and chocolate notes on the palate: very nice indeed. Alessio said that Vittoria’s marine/calcareous soils yielded Nero d’Avola marked by strawberry and cherry aromas and tastes, showing great freshness. I didn’t pick up much strawberry, but about the cherry and the marked freshness I emphatically agree.

Then, to demonstrate that this seemingly ephemeral light wine could age well, Alessio showed a Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2007. This nine-year-old perfectly proved his point: It had an intense cherry/strawberry nose and palate, with a very long finish. Despite its age, it still felt light and agile. This was a completely enjoyable wine that I would go so far as to call distinguished. Any wine drinker would love this with the ritual holiday turkey.

We then moved to Planeta’s La Baronia vineyards in Milazzo, near Messina on Sicily’s northeast coast, for Nocera Sicilia DOC 2015. Nocera is another localized indigenous red variety that is undergoing a revival of interest – deservedly so, I would say. This example had a wonderful grapey/stemmy nose, strikingly fresh, before a delightful plum and black pepper palate that made me want to find out more about the variety and its potential. We then progressed to

Nero d’Avola Nocera Sicilia DOC 2014. 70% Nero d’Avola, 30% Nocera. Fermented in stainless steel, with 14 days’ maceration on the skins, and four months’ aging in used barriques before bottling. This wine had a very nice cherry and anise nose and palate and finished long – very good drinking. Alessio described the Nero d’Avola of this area as showing cherry and citrus flavors, with great freshness and a velvety mouth feel. I got more anise than citrus, but otherwise his comments tally very well with my tasting notes.

He then zigzagged us, geographically, to the Noto area, near Siracusa on Sicily’s southeast coast, to taste Noto Nero d’Avola DOC 2012. This wine is fermented and macerated in stainless steel, then racked and aged for ten months in second- and third-use Allier barriques. Alessio says that the features of Nero d’Avola from this area are incense aromas, as well as aromas and flavors of currants and carob, plus balsamic notes – quite a complex medley, in fact. And that was indeed what I tasted, though I think some of those more exotic notes may have come from the barriques rather than the grapes.

Next came Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2011, 100% Nero d’Avola and vinified in exactly the same way as the preceding wine. This example was intense and deeply characteristic in both the nose and the mouth, with the black currant flavors especially prominent – a very elegant and very long-finishing wine. Incidentally, 2011 is Alessio’s favorite of all the recent vintages. Drunk again with the lunch following the formal tasting, this wine showed very, very well – elegant, with dried cherry notes and hints of chocolate and tobacco, and an almost sweet finish.

The final wine of the formal tasting was Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2010, once again 100% Nero d’Avola, steel-fermented and oak-aged. I found this wine very aromatic and edgy, though round in the mouth, soft and deep, with the elegance that seems to be a hallmark of the Noto zone. I thought it fine, though I feel it really wants more aging.

With the lunch, we drank the 2011 again, as I mentioned above, as well as 2007 and 2005 Santa Cecilia Noto DOC. I found the ’07 slightly closed, needing time in the glass to open at all. It should be wonderful in a few years: This may merely be that dumb phase that so many substantial red wines go through. The ’05 was excellent, still fresh, though maturing beautifully, with lots of years still in front of it. As it opened in the glass, it just got fresher and fresher – very impressive indeed.

Thus ended the geography lesson, which gave me a greater understanding of how much more there is to learn about Sicilian varieties and their regional characters and just how much more than we have yet seen they may be capable of. That’s what’s most exciting for me about Italian wine: no region of Italy has hit its limit yet.

Chambolle Musigny

November 24, 2016

Despite being an active partisan of Italian wines, I retain a deep love of French wines, especially the great French red wines. In my youth, I thought Bordeaux was king – and besides, Burgundy was way more expensive then. But now, the situation has completely changed: Bordeaux prices have caught up with or surpassed those of Burgundy, while winemaking in Burgundy is reaching new heights. Moreover, climate change is helping Burgundy achieve more good vintages than ever before, and at the same time many Bordeaux reds are tasting increasingly industrial to me – and yes, I am talking about classified growths. So I have been turning more and more often to the great Burgundy villages when I want a change of taste from my frequent Italian tipples. Ergo, Chambolle Musigny.

For me, the village of Chambolle is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Opinions obviously differ about things like this, but for me Chambolle’s red wines have the greatest finesse, the loveliest, most complex fruit, the subtlest nuance of them all. Its two Grands Crus vineyards, Le Musigny and Bonnes Mares, are normally completely out of my price range, but the few times I’ve tasted either of them persist in my memory as moments of total palatal bliss – most notably, a lunch with the Drouhin family in Beaune a few years ago, at which they poured a 1968 Bonnes Mares. I don’t know which was my dominant feeling: honor at being so treated, or sheer ecstasy from the taste of that great wine.

chambolle-musignyWhile I don’t have any Musigny or Bonnes Mares in my “cellar,” I do have a few bottles of Premier Cru Chambolle Musigny, and since Mortality has been looming over my friends lately, I sought consolation in a bottle just the other evening. I opened a 2004 Drouhin (regular readers will know my long-standing esteem for the house of Drouhin), decanted it and let it stand for about two hours before drinking it with a broiled top-quality strip steak. Bliss again, and a great respite from quotidian cares. The wine’s aroma was heady of bitter chocolate, tobacco, and dark, dry fruits. The palate was that and more, with mushroom and mineral notes interwoven with all that fruit and tobacco and chocolate. Diane and I sipped and savored and made that bottle last as long as we could, despite the temptation to just bathe in it.

I know the village of Chambolle doesn’t loom as large in wine folklore as its neighbors, Vougeot and Morey Saint Denis, or the further distant Vosne Romanée or Corton. I guess that’s the only thing that has kept its prices from passing beyond all human reach. That narrow stretch of Burgundian hillsides that we call the Côte d’Or runs from a little south of Dijon to a little south of Santenay, a distance of only about 30 miles, regularly punctuated by different villages with at least slightly different terroirs. Chambolle lies in the middle of the northern half of the Côte de Nuits, which is the northern half of the Côte d’Or (the southern half is known as the Côte de Beaune).

cote-de-nuits

If you drive south from Dijon on Route Nationale 74, which runs the length of the Côte d’Or, you’ll pass many famous wine towns. Before you reach Chambolle are Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey Chambertin, and Morey St. Denis. Just south of Chambolle lie Vougeot, Vôsne Romanee, and Nuits Saint Georges. This is obviously great wine country, and Chambolle Musigny’s sparse, pebbly, limestony soil is typical of the meager soils on which great wines grow. Plots are characteristically small – Le Musigny totals only a little over 10 hectares, and Bonnes Mares 15 – and are frequently divided among many owners, as is typical in Burgundy. Production is very limited, by law and by the quest for excellence as much as by nature: Hail is frequent here and can be very destructive – thus the always substantial price of good Chambolle Musigny. I can only say that the examples I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy have been worth it.

drouhin-vineyard

Lest you think I’m simply raving, let me close this post with Clive Coates’ summary words about the Grand Cru Le Musigny (Côtes d’Or, p. 105):

At its best the red wine can be quite simply the most delicious wine to be found in Burgundy. Speaking personally, and I am not the only one, it is the summit of achievement. With its vibrant colour, exquisitely harmonious, complex, profound bouquet, the blissful balance between tannin, acidity, and the most intensely flavoured fruit – all the petits fruits rouges you could reasonably imagine – and its incomparable breed, depth, originality and purity on the finish, a great Musigny is heaven in a glass. Would that one could afford to drink it more often.

Now that’s enthusiasm! I’ll only add that the “lesser” wines of Chambolle Musigny are, in proportion, just as profound and moving. It’s a special occasion wine for sure, but one capable of making an occasion special.

Valpolicella: Of the People, By the People, For the People

November 14, 2016

Valpolicella is a simple wine, a wine for pleasure, not for analysis. Grown over a wide zone by more than 2,000 farmers, vinified by who knows how many winemakers, bottled by more than 200 firms for commercial sale, and happily drunk in 85 countries by many thousands of people, of whom probably only a tiny fraction would consider themselves connoisseurs for doing so, Valpolicella is the most democratic of wines, a true wine of the people. It goes with everything, from hors d’oeuvres to meats to cheeses. It even partners decently with fish, because it has the brisk acidity necessary for the job.

What prompted this post was the Wine Media Guild’s November tasting luncheon, which consisted of a presentation by the Valpolicella consortium of a dozen representative examples of the breed – all charming, all thoroughly enjoyable by themselves or with food, and most retailing for under $20. For a reliably quaffable wine with everyday meals, that just can’t be beat.

Valpolicella originates in a fairly large zone – 7,600 hectares under cultivation – in the western part of the Veneto region, just north of the lovely city of Verona, and not far from Lake Garda.

Valpolicella vineyards

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The lake has a great moderating effect on what would otherwise be a continental climate, since the vineyards lie along a series of sub-Alpine hills, with north-south running valleys. Even though the zone is large, it is relatively homogeneous, with vineyards planted on south-facing slopes and relatively uniform soils. The greatest variable is altitude: The best wines always come from the hills, which top out at about 700 meters above sea level.

valpolicella-altitudes

Valpolicella is blended from three native grape varieties: Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. The once ubiquitous Molinara has all but disappeared from the blend, and international varieties have never made much headway in this zone – simply because the indigenous varieties have so much character and charm and are naturally capable of elegance. The latter quality shows best in the more sophisticated wines made in the zone – Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone – but in good vintages even the simplest Valpolicella has its share of it.

And that is what I’m talking about here: the most basic wine of the region. Most of it is made at a very respectable level of quality. Sure, you can get a bad bottle now and again, from a producer more interested in quantity than quality – but as the Italian and international wine market has changed over the last 20 years, most producers have seen the handwriting on the wall and have opted for quality over quantity. Particularly with wines from Valpolicella’s two labeled sub-zones – Classico and Valpantena, the historic heartlands of the Valpolicella appellation – even the most naïve shopper can buy with confidence of getting an enjoyable bottle of wine.

doc-zones

Certainly there are variations from producer to producer and vintage to vintage – but to my palate, they are very slight. Valpolicella is a pretty uniform product. That may detract from a wine’s status for alberto-brunelliconnoisseurs, but it’s a distinct advantage for a wine that is quintessentially a companion for everyday meals. The WMG’s tasting included wines of the 2014 and 2015 vintages, which were very different from each other. As the consortium enologist Alberto Brunelli reported, 2014 was cold and rainy and yielded wines of low alcohol and high acidity, while 2015 was hot and dry and produced rounder, warmer, more balanced wines.

I tasted reasonably carefully, and I’ve got to report that yes, by concentrating I could discern differences, but they were very slight from producer to producer and vintage to vintage. All the wines were enjoyably drinkable, and part of their charm was that I could drink them without having to pay a lot of attention to them. If even an old wino like me can take pleasure in a wine like that, how much more so the large numbers of people who only want a nice glass of wine with their dinner and not a workout for their palate?

For your information, here are the wines the Valpolicella consortium showed us at the tasting that prompted this post.

  • Buglioni Valpolicella Classico 2015 Il Valpo
  • Cantina Valpolicella Negrar Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Gerardo Cesare Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Fattoria Valpolicella DOC 2015 Col de la Bastia
  • Massimago Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • Monte Zovo Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • San Cassiano Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • Santa Sofia Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Scriani Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Vigneti di Ettore Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Vigneti Villabella Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Villa San Carlo Valpolicella DOC 2015

 

Wining in Rome

November 3, 2016

Rome has many charms, but an abundance of great wine is not one of them. Once upon a time – my brother and I first visited Rome in 1964, so this is history, not fable – your wine options in most trattorias were rosso or bianco, both vino sfuso – that is, drawn from a barrel or demijohn, not from a bottle. The red was usually some form of Chianti and the white was almost always brown (from rapid oxidation, then a serious problem for Italan white wine) and usually some form of Frascati.

Much has changed for the better since then. The white wine now really is white, and almost invariably young and fresh and charming. And although now-much-improved Frascati is still ubiquitous, most trattorias – and certainly anything calling itself a ristorante – will also offer several other options from other parts of Italy. Red wine lists seem to have grown even more, now providing good choices of many varieties from all over Italy – including, at long last, a growing representation of indigenous Lazio (Rome’s region) bottlings.

 The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

Nevertheless, really deep wine lists are still few and far between, and the lover of older wines has to search pretty hard to find a mature bottle of almost anything. So when Diane and I went recently to Rome for a week of pure vacation – I promised no winery visits, no tasting sessions – we contented ourselves mostly with the kinds of wines that provide plenty of pleasure without needing long cellaring. Rome offered many of those.

We tried many young Frascatis, of course, and all were genuinely charming, with the light floral/mineral nose and palate characteristic of the breed. One of the most interesting, which we tasted at the Trimani wine bar, was in fact not a Frascati but an IGT Lazio wine from Casale alborea-2Certosa. It was a 2014 (almost all the whites were 2014, a very few 2015) Alborea, a rich, lightly golden wine of greater than usual intensity. It was blended from Grecchetto and Malvasia Puntinata, the latter grape a Lazio specialty and usually an important component of Frascati. I don’t think this wine is imported to the US.  One of the advantages (and limitations, from a wine journalist’s point of view) of drinking in Rome is the opportunity to taste wines, both kinds and producers, that don’t always make it across the pond.

falanghina-1Other whites that we enjoyed included a lovely light, refreshing 2015 Pigato from Liguria (Pigato is the regional name for Vermentino), a characteristic Falanghina from Benevento by Vinicola del Sannio, and a 2015 Mastroberardino Fiano – the latter, of course, in a distinctly different weight and quality class from the lighter more apéritif style of the preceding wines.

BTW, we tasted a lot of these wines by the glass at two of our favorite places in Rome to get a light lunch: the wine bars Cul de Sac and Angolo Divino. Both offer a splendid array of cheeses and salume and light dishes, though at both you can order more substantially if you wish. Either way, you can taste glasses of as many wines as you have time and capacity for, from a well-chosen list, with many, many more wines available by the bottle, should you opt to make an afternoon of it.

taurasiEverywhere we dined in Rome, our choices for red wine seemed much richer than for whites. The red wine situation, it’s fair to say, is happily more complex than the white. We drank a number of familiar standbys, of course – a 2009 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi, for instance, though that turned out to be infanticide: That bottle had years of development before it.

montevetrano-2We also drank a 2007 Montevetrano, which was a lovely representative of this unusual (for Campania) blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Aglianico. It was evolving beautifully, but it too had years of maturation to go. The slightly disappointing restaurant at which we drank it provided a wonderful instance of just how thin wine knowledge is even in seemingly better places. When I asked for a bottle of Montevetrano, our waiter didn’t recognize the name, and didn’t know it was on his wine list. I pointed it out and explained it was a Campanian wine. He  looked and said “No; this says it’s from Salerno.” – He didn’t even know Salerno is in Campania. After that he disappeared for a while and, apparently after consultation with someone more knowledgeable, returned bearing the bottle and self-importantly informed me that this was one of Italy’s greatest wines – which, of course, was why I had ordered it in the first place.

Most of the reds we enjoyed were younger than those two, however. One stand-out was a 2013 Villa Simone Cesanese – a native Lazio grape – that was soft, fresh, and fruity, with some real depth and excellent varietal character. We liked that so much we ordered a second bottle and made that dinner last. 4-spineAnother very distinctive regional wine, this one from the Amalfi coast, was 2012 Quattro Spine Costa d’Amalfi Rosso from Tenuta San Francesco. Again, I don’t know if this wine is available in the US, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, whether at home or abroad. It was an intriguing blend of Aglianico, Tintore, and Piedirosso, very dark, rich and deep, powerful and elegant. I’d love the chance to taste an older bottle.

zanella-1The oldest bottles we had on this trip we enjoyed at Fortunato del Pantheon, and at Checchino dal 1887. At the former, our waiter walked me into the attached enoteca (a new development since we’d last dined there), where the sommelier unearthed a 2007 (not so old, but hey! we’re in Rome) bottle of Maurizio Zanella Rosso del Sebino. A blend of 50% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 25% Cabernet franc, and almost inky dark, it was big, round, and soft, with very soft tannins, and tasted of mature black fruits. It proved an excellent companion to our dishes of tagliarini with white and black truffles.

picchioni-2By far the most interesting red wine of our trip was the sommelier’s suggestion at Checchino. This was no surprise, because it has one of the best wine lists in Rome, and when asked for a more mature wine, Francesco Mariani (one of the brothers who own Checchino) suggested a 1983 Colle Picchioni Rosso (as it turned out, the same wine he had served my friend and colleague Charles Scicolone just a week before ).

This is a Lazio wine, grown and vinified not many miles outside of Rome. It’s probably – firm data is hard to come by – a blend of the native Cesanese with Merlot and maybe Sangiovese, maybe Aglianico, maybe Cabernet; in 1983 things were still pretty loose in Lazio (Charles thinks it’s all international varieties; I’m not so sure). Francesco knows his stock: Whatever grapes are in it, this wine turned out to be perfect choice with our food, initially delicate but growing in strength as it opened. Pale garnet with an orange edge, it looked and smelled like a mature wine, the nose almost delicate. On the palate, very balanced, and even lively, with still fresh fruit suggesting dark berries that lingered into the elegant finish: a really lovely bottle of wine.

Diane has blogged about the meals we ate in Rome, so the palatally curious can see what kinds of food went with the wines I’ve been talking about by clicking here.

One final word: None of these wines was expensive, especially not by New York standards. The older wines cost far less than new vintages sell for at retail here, which gives you some sense of just how outrageous the price-gouging is in American restaurants. And in even the busiest, most touristed Roman restaurants, the sound levels were such that the two of us were able to speak in normal tones, which gives you some idea of what a deliberately manipulated environment most American restaurants are providing. As one of my old teachers used to say, verb. sap. sat. Save your money, and dine out in Europe.

A New Book About the Italian Piedmont

October 24, 2016

tom-hylandBack during the summer, my colleague and friend Tom Hyland published an important and useful new book, The Wines and Foods of Piemonte.  It covers just about everything a wine lover could want to know about this blessed region, but of course – since the subject is the Piedmont – it gives pride of place to red wines.  For that reason, I thought I’d wait to say anything about it until the weather cooled down, and an oenophile’s fancy lightly turns to vino rosso.

Well, the moment has come: There is a nip in the air and an uptick in the appetite and a little more time being spent in the kitchen; some of the more organized among us are probably already thinking ahead to holiday feasts and even shopping for Christmas presents. When better to introduce you to a book that lays out all the palatal pleasures of the Piedmont?

hyland

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The Wines and Foods of Piemonte
crams a huge amount of content into the space of a relatively small book.  Its less-than-200 pages cover not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the other Nebbiolo-based wines of the northern Piedmont, as well as the region’s other important red varieties, Barbera and Dolcetto, and even beyond them the less familiar but very, very interesting Ruché, Grignolino, Freisa, and – a particular favorite of mine – the delightful Pelaverga.

And that’s just the reds: Hyland also treats sparkling wines, white wines, and sweet wines. Granted, Piedmont is not famous for its whites, but it does possess several very tasty indigenous varieties, to all of which Hyland does justice: Arneis, Gavi, Erbaluce di Caluso, Timorasso, Favorita, and Nascetta.  These wines deserve to be better known, and some of them – I’m thinking particularly of Nascetta and Timorasso – are capable of great nuance (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).

The book provides useful lists of the best Barolo and Barbaresco crus and their producers, as well as recommendations for the best makers of other wines. It features very informative interviews with winemakers in all the Piedmont zones and also with some of the region’s most interesting chefs.  In fact, for anyone planning travel in Piedmont, the book’s most useful feature may be its several-pages-long list of recommended restaurants – many of which I can personally and happily vouch for.

Piedmont is a gustatory promised land, flowing with wine and truffles, and in Tom Hyland it has found an enthusiastic chronicler.

To order The Wines and Foods of Piemonte, contact the author at thomas2022@comcast.net.

Terenzi: Wines of the Maremma

October 13, 2016

I had a lucky September. I attended a series of wine lunches that featured top-flight restaurants and – and – top-flight wines. Believe me, the two don’t always coincide, and I count myself very fortunate indeed. This post, I want to tell you about Terenzi wines from the Tuscan Maremma. That’s the wine zone that lies just behind the Mediterranean seacoast.

map-of-maremma

Once upon a time, it was unhealthy country, with spurs of hills running down into malarial marshes, over which Italian cowboys – I’m not kidding – ran cattle, and every autumn Italian hunters pursued boar. Well, the cowboys are gone and most of the marshes have been drained and replaced by vineyards, but the boar are still there and still hunted: Pasta with a rich, dark sauce of tomato, red wine, and minced-up boar seems to be a delicious staple of the local diet.

When I met Federico Terenzi for lunch at New York’s Marea, boar wasn’t on the menu, but does pasta with a red-wine-reduction tomato sauce with octopus and beef marrow count? It should: It was delicious, and it brought out some of the best of his complex and elegant wines. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to who, what, and where.

federico-terenzi-2Who: Federico Terenzi, who with his brother Balbino and sister Francesca Romana owns the eponymous estate. What: a luncheon tasting of five of the family’s wines. Where: Marea, a top-flight Italian restaurant with a pronounced flair for seafood, in the space that once housed San Domenico, across from Central Park.

The who, what, and where of the winery is a bit more complex.

The Terenzi family established the winery in 2001 in the Morellino di Scansano zone of the Maremma with the aim of raising Morellino to the highest level of quality and elegance. Now, since Morellino is the local name for Sangiovese and we’re definitely in Tuscany, that shouldn’t seem an extravagant ambition, though many have tried it in this area, and the results have been mixed. Sangiovese almost always gives a drinkable wine, but wringing a really fine one from that tricky grape in newly planted fields in a terroir and microclimate different from other parts of Tuscany: that has not been easy, even for experienced Tuscan winemakers.

A Terenzi Vineyard

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Just for clarity’s sake, here’s a bit more about the where of this whole enterprise. The Tuscan Maremma (there’s a Maremma in Lazio too, though it gets little attention except from weekending Romans) stretches the length of the province, from near Volterra in the north down to Orbetello in the south. For wine lovers, the northern end is the most famous, since it includes Sassichaia and the other vineyards around Bolgheri. As a wine zone, that northern end is dominated by international varieties. Further south, inland from Grosseto and around the town of Scansano, Sangiovese holds sway, under the local name of Morellino.

.Starting in the ‘90s of what is now the last century, there was a bit of a land rush here as winemakers in other parts of Tuscany discovered (a) that Sangiovese cultivated here had a distinctive freshness and fruitiness that greatly excited them, and (b) that land was available at, for Tuscany, very reasonable prices. The registers for Morellino di Scansano have since been closed: The total amount of land that can be planted to grapes has been filled up. The only way anyone can create a new winery now is to buy an existing one, and the price of land has gone up quite substantially. So the Terenzis chose an auspicious place and time to put down their and their vines’ roots.

That they have done so successfully is amply attested by the fact that their cru Morellino, Riserva Madrechiesa, has already, in the winery’s short history, become a multiple Tre Bicchieri winner. But I’m getting ahead of myself again: Let me take the wines in the order I tasted them.

balbino

We opened with a lovely 2015 Vermentino called Balbino, for the winemaker brother, accompanying an equally lovely plate of crudi (raw fish). Vermentino is a great seafood wine, and this light and aromatic specimen played that role perfectly. Two weeks on the skins creates that pleasing fruity aroma and gives the wine a little hint of complexity, very intriguing in what is normally a simple aperitif wine. Federico says that Tuscan Vermentino always smells more intensely of the Mediterranean scrub, especially of rosemary, than does Sardinian.

terenzi-morellino-de-scansane-flasche_52668de3645ebWe went on to Terenzi’s 2015 Morellino, vinified from 100% Sangiovese. For my palate, this is a perfect luncheon wine – medium-bodied and not overpoweringly alcoholic, with appealing fresh cherry fruit, excellent acidity and good balance. At a suggested retail price of around $15, you’d be hard put to find a better wine.

2013 Morellino Riserva Purosangue came next. This wine showed all the characteristic aromas and flavor of the basic Morellino, kicked up a substantial notch in intensity and refinement. It is a selection of the best grapes from several vineyards, not a cru, but that makes no difference to its very high quality.

The next wine broke the traditional mold with a pronounced nod to the Scansano zone’s northern neighbors. Francesca Romana, named for Federico’s sister, blends Merlot, Petit verdot, and Cabernet sauvignon to create a (for me and my prejudices against international grape varieties in Italy) surprisingly successful wine, very bordelaise in style but because of its emphatic Tuscan acidity very Italian in total effect. It’s barrique-aged – another usual no-no for me – but I found the oak very controlled, and the wine as a whole very pleasing. I especially liked the olivaceous scents, which I’m pretty sure derive directly from the Petit verdot.

madrechiesa_600x600For our final wine, we tasted the 2013 Madrechiesa, a Morellino Riserva and a cru wine from Terenzi’s oldest vineyard. As I remarked above, this has been a pretty consistent Tre Bicchieri winner, and the reasons for that were immediately apparent. This is a big wine, and a touch austere – it’s young yet – with refined fruit and excellent balance. Above all, it is elegant – very, very elegant, a wine of poise and restrained power. Need I add I liked it a lot?

Overall, I thought that elegance was a hallmark of these wines all through the line. At least one reason for that, beyond the good terroir and the appropriate clonal selection, lies with the winemaker. The Terenzis made a canny choice there too: they engaged Giuseppe Caviola, a Piedmontese winemaker who has established himself as a premier enologist throughout Italy. It’s no wonder this Maremma estate is regarded as one of Tuscany’s rising stars.

Velenosi: Wines of Le Marche

October 3, 2016

angela-velenosiA few days ago, I enjoyed a delightful lunch with Angela Velenosi at Del Posto, an oasis of fine food and blessed quiet in the thunder of New York’s restaurant scene. Signora Velenosi owns the second largest family-run winery in Le Marche, a region to which wise winos should pay a lot more attention, for the variety and the quality of its wines and for the significant fact that the great majority of them are very reasonably priced.

If you’re unfamiliar with Italian geography and Italian regions, Le Marche lies on the Adriatic (eastern) coast of central Italy, bordered from north to south by Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, and Abruzzi. Its name derives from that fact: It means the marches, i.e., the borderlands. Le Marche epitomizes the geography of Italy: Its western border is all mountains – the spine of the Apennines – and its eastern all beaches. Locals like to say that you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, with, depending on your taste, a bracing mountain lunch or a light seafood repast in between. Clearly, Le Marche is a region that needs wines for every occasion.

The Velenosi winery seeks to respond to all those needs. The 32-year-old firm makes more than 20 wines, working primarily with the traditional grapes of the region. That means primarily Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Sangiovese for the reds, and Verdicchio, Pecorino, and Passerina for the whites, all vinified in a variety of ways.

We tasted eight of them at lunch, and they all showed a very high level of winemaking, as well as admirable varietal character.

three-whites

We started with Passerina Brut, a non-vintage charmat-method sparkler. Passerina is the name of the grape that constitutes 100% of this wine, a native variety that had almost been lost until a few enterprising producers undertook its resurrection about 20 years ago. It makes a lovely aperitif, light and refreshing, with a dried-lemon-rind nose and a palate of lemon peel and minerals.

We went on to a 2015 Querciantica Verdicchio DOC. This is another indigenous Marche variety, unquestionably the most important white grape of the region. Verdicchio seems destined for greatness – if it can ever grab the attention of wine drinkers outside the Marche. Think of the minerality of Chablis understrapped by a really bracing Italian acidity, and you’re getting close to a well-made Verdicchio. This young Verdicchio, from the Castelli di Jesi DOC zone, was well made indeed, with the classic bracing minerality. I stress its youth, because among Verdicchio’s many virtues is an ability to age and mature. Riserva bottlings especially can easily please after a decade, and the best vintages can go longer still.

For our third wine, we tasted yet another Marche specialty variety, a 2015 Villa Angela Pecorino, an Offida DOCG. Where the grape name comes from is something of a mystery: Pecorino means sheep in Italian, but there is nothing in any sense sheepish about this grape or the wine it yields. This fine example was intense and concentrated, with a complex palate that tasted of salt and mineral and grapefruit peel – very, very intriguing.

Then we switched over to reds, but we didn’t abandon indigenous varieties.

three-reds

Our first red was 2015 Querciantica Lacrima di Morra DOC. The grape is so called because its skins are so tender that just touching them can produce a small drop of juice – its tear (lacrima). This is a light-bodied red wine, often drunk in the Marche with antipasti or light lunches. This bottle showed the characteristic black cherry nose and palate, very fresh and appealing. You could happily drink lots of this, ever so lightly chilled, on a warm afternoon.

Next came 2014 Brecciarolo, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC. Rosso Piceno is the traditional red wine blend of the Marche, 70% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and 30% Sangiovese. Note that – despite the name – Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo has nothing to do with the Tuscan town Montepulciano. It is its own variety, long cultivated in the Marche: How it got its confusing name nobody knows for sure. Wherever the grape’s name comes from, Brecciarolo is a fine wine, with the Sangiovese bracing the softness of the Montepulciano, and the two harmonizing into a pleasing, almost elegant red wine for all occasions.

Then Signora Velenosi poured 2011 Roggio del Filare, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC, which raised the stakes. The blend is the same as Brecciarolo, but the harvest comes from super-ripe grapes on 50-year-old vines. They are given a long maceration on the skins to yield a deeply colored, intense wine of very great elegance. This 2011 already showed maturing, earthy/mushroomy notes on the nose, and the palate followed suit. Still lively and beautifully structured, this seems a wine that will deepen and improve for some years yet.

As you can tell, this was a wet lunch: We still had two red wines to go.

last-2

The one next up changed tack completely. A 2012 Ludi – the word means games – an Offida DOCG. It was vinified from 50% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 30% of the very non-indigenous Cabernet sauvignon, and 20% of the equally non-native Merlot. My regular readers will know I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but this wine may make me re-think my absolutism. It was excellent – very fine and elegant, with lovely fruit and soft tannins. It didn’t taste at all international: Rather it had a distinctive Italian accent. The Montepulciano and the Merlot (which does grow well in central Italy, I have to admit) definitely tamed the asperities of the usually aggressive Cabernet and folded it into a harmonious blend.

For our final wine, we reverted to Le Marche tradition: Visciole, a non-vintage red dessert wine made from 80% Lacrima di Morra and 20% fresh-squeezed syrup of wild cherries (visciole). The fully fermented Lacrima gets the infusion of visciole syrup, which causes a second fermentation that raises the alcohol to 14 degrees or above and intensifies the fruit sweetness of the wine. I’m not a big fan of dessert wines, but this is a lovely one, with that wonderful fruit stealing all the attention from the alcohol.

As this luncheon tasting clearly demonstrated, there is a lot to interest serious wine lovers in Le Marche: great native grapes, interesting experimentation and an extremely high level of winemaking, of which Velenosi is a fine example. For anyone seriously interested in wine – or indeed, for anyone simply looking for enjoyable wines at decent prices – Le Marche is well worth a look and a taste. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Donnachiara: A Fiano Vertical

September 22, 2016

Donnachiara, the Campanian wine estate, celebrated its 10th anniversary recently by presenting a vertical tasting of its elegant Fiano di Avellino during a classic Neapolitan lunch at Il Gattopardo restaurant in New York. The food was great, and the wines were even better. I only wish that anyone who still subscribes to the myth that Italian white wines can’t age would have the same sort of opportunity to experience just how beautifully Fiano matures.

Ilaria Petitto, now the managing director of the family-owned firm (established by her mother and named for her grandmother), hosted the event and presented the wines, with additional commentary from wine journalist John Gilman.

Photo by Charles Scicolone

Photo by Charles Scicolone

The wines appeared in flights of two, each pair accompanying a different course of the meal:

  • 2015 and 2013 Fiano alongside some mini arancini and mozzarella in carrozza
  • 2011 Fiano and Fiano Esoterica alongside a savory dish of freshly made pasta in a seafood sauce
  • 2009 and 2007 Fiano paired with a lovely fillet of sea bream in a light broth of tomato with tiny clams and mussels

The matches were perfect in every case, and the wines remarkable for their consistently high level of quality and elegance, right from the firm’s beginnings.

To my mind, Donnachiara has done amazing things for so young a firm and promises much more for the future. Indeed, Ilaria made a surprise announcement at the lunch that Donnachiara has just retained the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella as its winemaker. Several of the journalists at the lunch expressed the hope that Cotarella doesn’t change the estate’s white wines (Fiano, Greco, Falanghina) which we all felt are already great because they are so beautifully faithful to their varieties and terroirs.

donnachiara-vineyard

But we all agreed he could help substantially with the red Taurasi, which has not yet caught up to the level of the whites. Speriamo!
.

Here are some details of the wines we tasted.

2015
Donnachiara’s vintage notes call this “a wine with great potential for aging,” and I agree. It’s already balanced and lovely, with a long mineral finish, promising fine development. It resulted from a very wet winter, a “scorching” July, and then gradually moderating temperatures that “allowed for optimum ripeness of the fruit.” Everyone with room in their cellar should put away a case of this for 10 years.

2013
Very similar to 2015, only more so in every respect – bigger, fuller, fatter, more aromatic. That partially results from two additional years of maturation, partially from a long, hot, dry growing season that produced concentrated, structured grapes. It lacks a bit of the freshness of 2015, but it adds tremendous presence.

2011
This was – and is – a favorite white wine vintage for Campanian growers. Donnachiara describes it as “a balanced vintage par excellence” and thinks the wine is at an “optimal current aging phase.” I have to disagree: This lovely, aromatic wine is maturing beautifully, but for my palate – and from many years’ experience with Fianos of all ages – I’d say it was still quite young, with years of development still before it. If I had to choose one wine from this line-up to put in my cellar (and hope to live long enough to taste at maturity), 2011 would be the one.

2011 Esoterico
All Donnachiara’s white wines except this one are fermented and aged only in stainless steel, so as not to impose any other flavors on what the grapes and the vineyards give. Esoterica was a one-shot experiment, with part of the wines fermented and aged for 12 months in French oak. For me, this is the only wine that didn’t work with the food and where I felt that the true character of Fiano was obscured. It would probably taste great with foie gras, but it just didn’t work with seafood pasta.

2009
This was a difficult harvest, Donnachiara says, with too much rain early on, but the wine “has good balance and pleasant minerality, with beautiful aromatic complexity.”  I found it very fine – lean and elegant, with complex almondy/mineral flavors and a very long finish: in all, quite a lovely wine, still with remarkable freshness.

2007
A hot, dry summer yielded “a large, powerful wine, with great structure and good acidity – one of the best vintages for the aging of Fiano.” I found this Fiano just plain big – huge nose, big fruit on the palate, opulent and still quite fresh, and with a commensurate long, forceful finish. I can’t guess how much longer this wine will mature, because it is such a different vintage, but right now it is absolutely voluptuous drinking.

fianoI hope I will be around to celebrate Donnachiara’s 20th anniversary. The potential of this winery – and in fact the potential of the whole Irpinia area, the heartland of Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi – is only now beginning to be realized. Before it started making its own wines, Donnachiara sold its grapes to Mastroberardino, and I have drunk 20- and 30 year-old Fianos from Mastro that were simply gorgeous. For Campania, Fiano could be only the tip of the iceberg: As Ilaria almost casually remarked, one of the reasons Campania doesn’t do international grapes is because it has over a hundred native white varieties. If even a few of them approach the stature of Fiano and Greco, wine lovers will have found a treasure trove.

Great Nebbiolo and a Possible Pretender

September 12, 2016

nebbiolo-update

Nebbiolo grapeAs most wine fanciers know, the Nebbiolo grape achieves its greatest expression in Barolo and Barbaresco, with serious runner-ups in the wines of sub-Alpine Piedmont – e.g., Carema, Gattinara, Boca, and a few others. But in that same Barolo/Barbaresco heartland, there are two other DOCs for the grape: Nebbiolo d’Alba and Nebbiolo delle Langhe. These wines deserve more publicity than they usually get, because they offer not just true Nebbiolo flavors but also the nuances provided by that very special terroir – and usually at a price considerably lower than any Barolo or Barbaresco.

nebbiolo colla bottleI was reminded of this just a few nights ago when I opened a bottle of 2013 Nebbiolo d’Alba and spent a happy dinner hour enjoying bright cherry/berry fruit laced with hints of tobacco, mushroom, and forest floor – very much the young-Barolo range of flavors. The wine was not as big as a Barolo, of course, nor as substantially structured for aging, but it was nevertheless a real wine that interacted happily with all parts of my meal, as well as with me. This particular bottle was from a fine maker – Colla, a family that produces the whole gamut of red Alba wines at the top level. Their winemaking style allowed the grape and the local soil to speak, and what the two had to say was unequivocally lovely. The whole dining experience was a welcome reminder that you don’t need to wait for a great occasion, nor go to great expense, to enjoy some of the best that a great grape variety can offer.

That happy state, of course, depends on things continuing as they now stand, with the Nebbiolo DOC confined to those two appellations and zones, Alba and Langhe, the grape’s unquestionably best growing area. Apparently, as alertly reported by Kerin O’Keefe, there is a proposal afoot, originating in the Asti and Monferrato Barbera zones, to create a Nebbiolo Piemonte DOC, covering the whole of Piedmont. This is causing serious concern among Barolo and Barbaresco growers for a number of reasons.

First, it is an obvious attempt to ride on the coattails of their great wines, which have begun commanding impressive prices. Moreover, Barolo and Barbaresco producers fear – rightly, it seems to me – that such a potentially huge-volume appellation as Nebbiolo Piemonte would undermine the prestige of their wines by churning out large amounts of low-priced and mediocre Nebbiolo, which would confuse consumers about the true character of the variety and destroy the reputation that Barolo and Barbaresco makers have worked decades to achieve.

Piemonte map

That’s not just snobbishness on their part, nor is it a purely commercial consideration. Any great wine results from a special, often unique, conjunction of grape and soil – and a look at the map will show you just how small the present Nebbiolo DOC zones (in lavender) are in comparison to the Barbera zones to the north and east, not to mention the rest of Piedmont.

There is already a related cause for concern in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. The market success of those wines over recent decades has pushed a good number of only marginally suitable vineyards to be replanted to Nebbiolo – vineyards that used to grow Barbera and Dolcetto and even Freisa and Grignolino. And that doesn’t even figure in all the acres of forests and woods that, over that same period, I have watched being turned into Nebbiolo vineyards. (This is one of the reasons the Alba area now produces far fewer white truffles than it once did.)

The proposed legislation would allow Nebbiolo to be grown almost anywhere in Piedmont – and no matter how you figure it, that would be a disaster. Nebbiolo is a very finicky variety, extremely site-sensitive. You can’t plant it just anywhere and expect to produce a quality wine, as anyone familiar with the vast majority of attempts to grow Nebbiolo in California can testify. It needs just the right soil. Around Alba, it does its best in calcareous, tufa-based soils.

colla vineyard edited

A Colla Nebbiolo Vineyard

It wants south-facing slopes, at altitudes of between 200 and 450 meters, with a substantial day-night temperature change – and it especially needs a very long growing season, since it usually buds around the middle of April and ripens around the middle of October. Not too many places, even in Piedmont, can fill that bill.

Support for the new Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC seems mostly to be coming from growers in Barbera-growing areas – especially larger ones whose abundant hectares could be converted from modestly priced Barbera to better-paying Nebbiolo. But those are the areas that have always, for sound agricultural reasons, been regarded as completely inappropriate for growing Nebbiolo – thus my fear that if this new proposal is adopted, long-suffering consumers will be subjected to a flood of inferior Nebbiolo wines. Absit omen, as the Romans used to say: Let’s hope it’s not so.

Vermentino and its Aliases

September 1, 2016

Like Falanghina and Carricante, Vermentino is yet one more Italian grape that has been emerging from the relative obscurity of its local importance to start staking a claim to international attention. The variety either is indigenous to Italy or emigrated centuries ago from Corsica. It has become a significant white wine along the Tuscan and Ligurian coastline under the name Vermentino, most especially in Sardinia.

sardinian vineyard

 

Sometimes in Liguria it is called Pigato, and it has an inland identity in the Barolo/Barbaresco zone of Piedmont as Favorita, where the late Alfredo Currado of Vietti was its great rescuer and champion. But Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes emphatically says that rock-solid research has proven all three are the same variety.

In some respects, and not just that the vines seem to like to be near water, Vermentino makes an ideal seashore wine. Light and crisp, brisk and acidic, with refreshing herbal, citric, mineral notes, it serves beautifully as a warm-weather, fresh-air apéritif as well as a year-round companion to seafood of all sorts. It is the most important white grape in Sardinia, especially in the northeastern province of Gallura, where 20 years ago it had already achieved DOCG classification, Sardinia’s only such to date.

map of sardinia

Note that there is also a “simple” DOC Vermentino, vinified from grapes grown in other parts of Sardinia. It too can be quite good.

Most Sardinian Vermentino is harvested slightly early to preserve its high acidity, which is the characteristic – coupled of course with its pleasing mineral/herbal/citrus flavors – that makes it so pleasing an apéritif and light dinner wine. All the most famous Sardinian producers – Argiolas, Santadi, Sella & Mosca – offer well-made DOC Vermentino.

BranuUsually the DOCG Vermentino di Gallura stands a cut above these, with more intense fruit and sharper focus. Recently I tasted some bottles from Vigne Surrau, whose vineyards lie in the valley of the same name, just inland from the beautiful Costa Smeralda. Its 2015 Branu had a beautifully characteristic herbal nose that may remind some tasters of Sauvignon blanc at its best. On the palate, it was bright, acid, and lightly herbal, mixed with suggestions of Mediterranean macchia (juniper and such). This is classic apéritif wine, and equally classic companion to clams on the half shell and all their crustacean cousins.

ScialaSurrau’s 2015 Sciala, a DOCG Superiore (that means slightly higher alcohol), had a similar aroma and flavor spectrum, but was bigger and rounder, showing more white fruits on the palate, and finishing longer. This makes a lovely dinner wine with broiled scallops – that’s what I tried it with – and probably with any fin- or shellfish or chicken and veal as well. Nice wines, both of them, and fine examples of a variety well worth exploring.