Red Wines of Verona, Postscript: the Amarone Families

March 27, 2017

Some weeks after my return from Verona, the March meeting of the Wine Media Guild featured the wines of the Amarone Families, the breakaway group whose wines had not been shown at the Valpolicella Anteprima in Italy.
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As Sabrina Tedeschi, the president of the Amarone Families, explained, these producers left the Consorzio because they felt that it has to represent the differing interests of all the sorts of growers and producers in the extended Valpolicella zone, all 8,000 hectares of it: small growers and big industrial producers, old-timers and newcomers, growers in the hills and growers in the plain. For the Amarone Families’ 12 members, all of them family firms with a history of Amarone production, this meant that the standards being set for Amarone were not sufficiently stringent, so in 2009 they formed their own association with stricter requirements for Amarone: longer aging, higher alcohol levels, higher extract, and – to my mind the most important requirement – that the wine must be dry, with high acidity.

As I said in my last post, many of the Consorzio’s producers are making fine Amarone – but many are not. The Amarone Families’ approach seems to have eliminated the negatives and provided a set of guidelines that – to judge by the dozen samples I tasted at the meeting – has turned out wines of uniformly high quality. Even more important, all 12 wines, though very, very young by Amarone standards, tasted exactly as this long-time fancier of the breed believes Amarone should: aromatic, velvety on the palate, big in the mouth, with rich but fully dry, sometimes even austere, fruit; hinting and promising the complexity that will come with age, and very long-finishing. This far-from-dirty-dozen all tasted like infant and incipient octogenarians.

Here are the wines, in the order tasted:

  • Tedeschi Capitel Monte Olmi Amarone DOCG Classico Riserva 2009
  • Venturini Campomasua Amarone DOCG Classico 2009
  • Guerrieri Rizzardi Villa Rizzardi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Musella Amarone DOCG Riserva 2010
  • Tommasi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Masi Costasera Amarone DOCG Classico 2011
  • Brigaldara Casa Vecie Amarone DOCG 2011
  • Allegrini Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Begali Monte Ca’ Bianca Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Speri Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano DOCG Classico 2012
  • Zenato Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Tenuta Sant’Antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi Amarone DOCG 2013

All were surprisingly drinkable for extremely young Amarone. (Normally, I don’t drink Amarone before it is at least 10-15 years old.) The ones I most enjoyed (this particular day, with this particular lunch) were Tommasi, Masi, Speri, Zenato, and Sant’Antonio – the latter the youngest wine of the day, and consequently a real surprise to me.

Red Wines of Verona II: Amarone

March 16, 2017

Amarone is enjoying a surprising degree of popularity in the United States – surprising especially for a wine that many wine experts think is too big, too austere, too overpowering to match comfortably with any part of a meal except a course of strong, old cheeses. I strongly disagree. I’ve long been a proponent of Amarone: I love its heft and complexity, and I think it partners beautifully with equally hefty meats – unctuous prime rib roasts to be sure, and almost any game dish you can name, but also lamb roasts, or long-cooked braises of all sorts, as well as any number of cheeses. A well-made, well-balanced Amarone has no problems with any dish that can match it in scale.

We winos don’t talk very much about scale, but its importance can’t be overestimated – and it’s almost self-evident, as soon as you stop to think about it. A light wine can be as elegant, or complex, or balanced, as acidic or as tannic, as a big, full-bodied wine, but you would match it with different foods because of its size, its scale. It’s not just the meshing or counterpoint of flavors that makes a good wine-and-food match: It’s also important that, like boxers, the wine and the food belong to the same weight class. With as authoritative a wine as a great Amarone, that element of the match is crucial, lest the wine appear bullying and brutal.
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We’ve been very lucky here in the US in that we have for years been receiving steady supplies of some of the very best Amarones, largely from a group of producers who were not represented in the blind tasting of 2013 Amarones that climaxed my week in Verona last month. (The producers who call themselves the Amarone Families withdrew from the Consorzio a few years ago. Allegrini, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Masi, Speri, Tedeschi, Tommasi, and Zenato are the best known here.) Consequently, I had what was initially the very welcome opportunity to taste wines from more than 80 producers, most of whom were unknown to me.

It quickly became clear that this was a mixed blessing. The 2013 vintage was sound but not great – a wet spring, followed by a hot, dry summer, followed by colder than normal weather during Amarone’s crucial drying period, resulted in wines with high acidity (normally good for Amarone) but also lots of tannins. (For what makes Amarone different from other wines, see here.)
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Additionally, many of the wines in the tasting were barrel samples, and many of those that were in bottle had either been specially bottled for this tasting or bottled only a few weeks ago. A good many simply hadn’t pulled themselves together yet. Trying to judge wines this young is always an exercise in crystal ball gazing, and it is particularly difficult to judge anything definitively about a wine as long- and slow-maturing as Amarone. We tasters weren’t even dealing with infants but, for the most part, with premature births.

That said, and my expectations tempered to that reality, I was still very distressed by a lot of the wines I tasted. To put it bluntly, far too many wines tasted far too sweet to suit my expectations of Amarone. A few samples had so much sugar that I thought I had mistakenly been given a Recioto to taste.

This is a serious problem. The DOCG regulations for Amarone specify that the finished wine can contain a maximum of 12 grams of residual sugar per liter. For my palate, that is already high. I checked with a few of my wine colleagues (Michael Apstein, Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone) about sugar levels in Champagne, just to provide a baseline for comparison. They all agreed: 5 g/l is above the detectable level of sweetness: 12 g/l is the highest limit of Brut Champagne. So 12 g/l is moderately sweet, but a drinker’s perception of that sweetness will depend both on other factors in the wine (acids, tannins, alcohol, etc.) and subjective factors (personal tolerance of sugar, e.g.). I’m not very fond of most sweet wines, and I can’t tolerate a sweet dinner wine, so 12 g/l is really pushing the envelope for me, and I consequently found many of the Amarones in the blind tasting well above my threshold for sweetness. I don’t think I’m way off base on this, so if my palate is any reflection of what the market for Amarone wants, there are serious problems here.

Having said all that, I have to stress that the total picture was not all negative. Even in the blind tasting of these unformed embryos, I found some wines that showed real Amarone character – and of course I tasted yet more mature examples on my round of winery visits. Here are the ones I liked best from both venues (unless otherwise noted, all are 2013 vintage):

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Amarone Acinatico. A forceful, grapey nose, followed by a big mouthful of fresh fruit. Very young but well structured. Will be excellent.
  • Amarone Acinatico 1981. The winemaker poured this to make a point, which he did indeed. A big, soft, delicious wine, marked by mushroom and earth flavors and great depth. It kept changing in the glass, getting even richer as it opened – as great Amarone always does.

From Albino Armani:

  • Amarone Cusianus. Good dry Amarone nose, slight sweetness on palate, with just softening tannins; should develop well. (Barrel sample)
  • Amarone Cusianus 2011. A big, well-balanced wine, with excellent fruit, maturing exactly as it should.

From Bennati:

  • Amarone. Tobacco, black pepper, and dark fruit in the nose and on the palate, coming together in a fairly classic way.

From Bertani:

  • Amarone Valpantena. Very closed on the palate, but the absolutely classic aromas and finish indicate it will be fine. Bertani is, of course, one of the pioneers of Amarone, and its older vintages are benchmarks for Amarone ageability.

From Carlo Boscaino:

  • Amarone San Giorgio. A still closed barrel sample, but like the Bertani wine, the nose and finish promise excellent future development.
  • Amarone 2012. An almost smoky, grapey nose; tobacco and berry palate; balanced, while still forceful and elegant. Aged 30 months in big old barrels (botti). Very traditional, very fine.

From Ca’ Botta:

  • Amarone Tenuta Cajò. Classic, dry Amarone nose, big fruity finish. Another fairly tight sample, but showing the proper signs: should pull together and start opening in a year.

From Ca’ Rugate:

  • Amarone Punta Tolotti. Needs lots of time to pull together its rich components – tobacco, tar, mushrooms, mineral, black fruits – but in a year it should start to be wonderful.

From La Collina dei Ciliegi:

  • Amarone L’Amarone. Tobacco, pepper, and earth, both in the aromas and on the palate; long finishing. Very characteristic and promising.

From Corte Sant’Alda:

  • Amarone Valmezzane. Fruity, peppery nose, lightish on palate. Still coming together, but should be fine.

From Corte Rugolin:

  • Amarone Monte Danieli. Despite being a barrel sample, this wine impressed me as very correctly made and properly developing. It needs time, but should be fine.

From Corte San Benedetto:

  • Amarone. Very like the preceding wine. Still slightly closed, but showing all the right signs in nose and finish.

From Fumanelli:

  • Amarone. Cherry and tannin all through. Big, fresh, and structured. It seems likely to develop very well.
  • Amarone 2011. A classic Amarone – very soft on the palate, with lots of fruit and lots of structure. The tail is still tannic, but it will soften in a year or so.
  • Amarone Riserva Octavius 2010. A huge wine, with an intense stemmy/tobacco nose; round in the mouth, with loads of soft tannins, smoky cherry, tobacco, and hints of chocolate. Still young, but balanced, on a big scale.

From San Cassiano:

  • Amarone 2012. Very young, with tons of fruit and tannins, plus excellent minerality and nice acidity. Needs lots of time: The producer says to give it five years.

From Santa Sofia:

  • Amarone 2011. Just lovely – austere and rich at the same time. Structured to go on for years. A fine traditional Amarone.

From Sartori:

  • Amarone Corte Bra 2006. At 10 years old, this classic Amarone was just entering maturity. Perfectly balanced, it felt light on the palate despite its rich fruit and impressive structure. Just fine.

 

Red Wines of Verona I: Valpolicella

March 9, 2017

Several weeks ago, courtesy of the Consorzio di Valpolicella, I was able to spend most of a week in beautiful, sunny-but-cold Verona, visiting producers of Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone, and Recioto di Valpolicella.

Valpolicella vineyards

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It was an informative and illuminating series of visits. Even after all these years, it’s still something of a wonder to me that the same grape varieties, grown in the same fields, can produce wines as different as the light and charming Valpolicella and the full-bodied and impressive Amarone – to say nothing of the intensely fruit-sweet Recioto.

Those grape varieties remain local specialties, cultivated almost nowhere outside the Verona area; Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella are now the essential ones. In the past, Molinara was often included, but it’s now hardly used because it seems to contribute little beyond bulk. Some growers have become interested in reviving the indigenous Oseleta, which is also permitted within the Valpolicella Classico DOCG, but its use is not widespread, at least not yet.

Valpolicella was once one of the most popular Italian wines here in the States, but like many another wine, its own success almost destroyed it. To meet demand, more and more was bottled from grapes that were grown for quantity, not quality, and successive vintages of over-cropped grapes reduced an already light red wine to almost watery rosé. Its market collapsed, and that was all we heard of Valpolicella for quite a few years.

As the wine has improved on its home turf, with a renewed quest for quality, it has recently begun reviving on the market, but its problems aren’t over yet.

After a week of visiting, tasting, and talking, it seems to me that names and categories now form the nub of Valpolicella’s difficulties. This is a widely varied zone: In its five parallel valleys, some soils are volcanic, others are morainic, others rich in limestone – so wines bearing the same appellation may be very different from one valley to the next, making generalizations about the appellation iffy at best.
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valpolicella-map

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But in terms of nomenclature, that’s far from the worst of it. At even at the most basic level, simple Valpolicella, you have to start with the broad distinction, which many consumers seem not to grasp, between Valpolicella and Valpolicella Classico.

The latter wine originates in vineyards within the hilly traditional heartland of the appellation, the former comes from fields in the plains, to which the name Valpolicella was extended when the DOC designation was first granted, back in the days when Italy’s emphasis was on making a lot of wine, not on crafting quality wine. Wines from stony hillsides and higher altitudes are almost invariably much better that those from the usually warmer, wetter, more fertile plains. In the case of Valpolicella Classico, that is emphatically true.
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With the next category, Valpolicella Superiore, possibilities for consumer confusion increase further. The Valpolicella Superiore appellation requires that the wine reach a higher alcoholic level – 12° – and be aged for an additional year. That’s all. And that’s all that most producers do. But some are experimenting with drying some selected grapes (usually about 40% of the blend) for 40 days, an approach similar to what they do to the entire crop and for much longer to make Amarone.

For the special Superiore, they ferment these slightly dried grapes separately and then, before bottling, blend them in with their regularly harvested and fermented Valpolicella grapes. The resulting wine is still labeled Valpolicella Superiore, but it’s a whole other animal from the mass of Superiores: deeper, richer, more complex, and much more interesting. But the consumer can only know what sort of wine it is by carefully reading the back label – and how many of us actually ever do that?

Then we come to Ripasso, which consists of basic Valpolicella grapes, re-fermented on the lees of Amarone or Recioto, to produce a wine more robust and substantially higher in alcohol. This sort of wine was introduced – or reintroduced – by Masi back in 1964, and it still engenders serious disagreement in the zone. Some defend it as the revival of a traditional practice, others loathe it as a pure invention and a perversion of Valpolicella. Whatever the truth of that, it has proven popular on the export market, though locals still seem to prefer to drink Valpolicella pure and simple.

Among these three categories, I found a lot of well-made and enjoyable wines. But I can’t honestly describe everything I tasted that way: I was very surprised by how varied producers’ styles were and how uneven the level of quality was. I guess I’ve been spoiled by Piedmont, where – in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones at least – hardly anyone makes a bad wine any more. That said, the top level of winemaking in the Veneto is quite impressive, and the resulting wines totally pleasurable. Here are some of the ones I liked best.

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional grapes from high altitude vineyards, fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. An excellent example of classic Valpolicella, light and pleasing.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2014. Sapid and round in the mouth; another excellent example of its kind.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2008. Still live and fresh, with some mature flavors just emerging – proof, if any is needed, how well a good Ripasso can age. Accordini uses used tonneaux for his Ripasso, new ones for his Amarone, but not barriques, which he says are too strong for his wine.

From Albino Armani:

  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. A very nice wine from a very difficult vintage. It needed a little time to open in the glass, but the wait was worth it. The winemaker says his 2016 is brilliant.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big and round, with excellent cherry fruit and a long licorice/tobacco finish. Very enjoyable.

From Boscaini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. A very pretty nose, followed by a soft, almost strawberry-ish wine, with bright acidity. All stainless steel. Simply a great everyday wine from a very traditional producer whose whole line impressed me.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. “Old style,” the maker says: It spends nine months in used Slavonian oak botti. Big tobacco-inflected nose, rich fruit on the palate, tobacco/cherry finish.
  • Ripasso 2013. Two years in oak botti. This is an excellent example of Ripasso, but my heart is really with Boscaini’s Superiore.

From Ca Rugate:

  • Valpolicella Classico Ripasso 2014. Biggish – 14.5° alcohol – and deeply flavored, but very easy on the palate, with a long tobacco-and-tar finish. Quite fine. In the States, this producer is best known for its fine Soaves (the vineyards straddle both zones), but its Valpolicella was very stylish and pleasing.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Campo Lavis. A cru wine, with some of the grapes reserved and dried, then fermented and blended in with the rest of the harvest. The process yielded a smoky, dried grape nose and a big round wine, rich with cherry fruit and ribbed with tar and tobacco, as well as a long black cherry finish. A really intriguing wine.

From Fumanelli:

  • Valpolicella Classsico Superiore 2014. This wine spent 8 to 10 months in tonneaux, so it showed a slightly woody nose but the palate was just fine – classic Valpolicella cherry flavors. This is a small producer who has no desire to get bigger: “We make the wine we like to drink,” the young winemaker says. They sell off half their grapes, keeping the best half for themselves.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Squarano. This Superiore is made with 40% of the grapes dried for 8 to 10 weeks before fermentation. The house doesn’t make a Ripasso, preferring the richness of this Superiore, which struck me as very polished, very balanced, and very structured – and therefore probably very ageworthy, if you don’t drink it all up right away.

From San Cassiano:

  • Valpolicella 2015. Vivid proof that there is good wine outside the Classico zone, this small winery turns out excellent, basic Valpolicella.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big tobacco/berry nose; round on the palate, with soft tannins, savory and well balanced.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2012 Alene. Part of the harvest was separated and dried for 40 days before fermentation. Some of the wine also had barrique aging. The result is a big wine that could legitimately be called a baby Amarone.

From Santa Sofia:

  •  Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional varieties, in stainless steel – that adds up to textbook Valpolicella. This producer has been on the American market for decades and has always offered a top-quality wine.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2014 Montegradella. A wonderful example of the depth and complexity that results from blending the juices of 40-days-dried grapes into the juices of conventionally fermented grapes. A delightful wine, and great with food.

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Part Two of this post, concerning Amarone, will be online in about a week.

 

Carmignano: Pedigreed and Pioneering

February 27, 2017

Carmignano is probably the least known of the great, traditional Tuscan appellations. Its territory was originally delineated in 1716 by the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici. The Carmignano DOCG zone still occupies that same territory, about 16 kilometers northwest of Florence, and some of its wine-making estates – notably Capezzana – originated as Medici villas. In the case of Capezzana, now the property of the Contini Buonacossi family, the present villa was originally a Medici hunting lodge. This was and is a small zone: All of Carmignano contains just 110 hectares of vineyards. There are some individual Bordeaux estates that are larger than that.

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Capezzana unquestionably leads the Carmignano pack in terms of quality and fidelity to tradition, though the local winemaking tradition may strike many wine fanciers as amazingly modern. In the course of the 18th century, it became customary in the Carmignano zone to blend Cabernet sauvignon into the base Sangiovese, a practice that sharply distinguished the zone’s wines from the Chianti-style wines of the rest of Tuscany. History buffs will remember that a Medici – Caterina – had become Queen of France (she is popularly supposed to have taught the French how to cook peas and eat with forks), so the introduction of French varieties into Medici properties was certainly no accident.

the-capezzana-villa

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However the French grapes got there, Carmignano was producing SuperTuscans about 200 years before they became fashionable, and the zone continued doing so, virtually unnoticed by Tuscans and foreign consumers alike, all through the SuperTuscan fad. That was a real shame, because all those Chianti-zone winemakers who destroyed vintage after vintage of good Sangiovese by clumsily dosing it with Cabernet could have learned how to handle Cabernet well by simply consulting the producers of Carmignano, who had so many years of experience with it. I love Sangiovese, and it hurt me deeply to see so much of it transformed into tannic monsters and rendered undrinkable for so many years. The irony of there being a close-to-home example of how to do it right seems even now not to have dawned on many Tuscan producers.

Present DOCG regulations for Carmignano mandate minimally 50% Sangiovese to be blended with maximally 10-20% Cabernet sauvignon or Cabernet franc, maximally 20% Canaiolo nero, maximally 5% Mammolo and Colorino, and maximally 10% Trebbiano and Malvasia. Another irony: One of the most pioneering appellations in Tuscany also contains one of the region’s most traditional blends – Sangiovese, plus the indigenous varieties Canaiolo, Mammolo, Colorino, and even some white grapes, just as in the old, old Chianti formula, all joining hands with Cabernet sauvignon and/or Cabernet franc.

I love the idea, and I love its results. At its best – and it is often at its best from Capezzana – that blend makes a wine savory and harmonious, companionable with all sorts of meals, enjoyable young villa-capezzanaand still capable of great and graceful aging. I recently opened a bottle of Villa Capezzana 2000. I didn’t decant it, though I should have – not because it needed aeration but because of the heavy sediment it threw. When I pulled the cork, a great rush of plum and blackberry greeted me and persisted all through the meal. On the palate, the wine was rich with ripe fruit – black fruits – and soft, elegant tannins, with an almost endless finish. A lovely wine, especially in what was a hot vintage, in many parts of Tuscany yielding unbalanced wines tasting of over-ripe fruit. They do things right at Capezzana.

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

trebicchieri-2017

So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

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From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

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I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

Boca and His Brothers

February 6, 2017

Boca is a sub-Alpine Nebbiolo wine from the village of that name in Italy’s northern Piedmont. His “brothers” (with apologies to Luchino Visconti) are the wines of the villages of Bramaterra, Carema, and Lessona to the southwest, and Fara, Gattinara, Ghemme, and Sizzano to the south and east.

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These are lovely wines of elegance and grace, wonderful to drink young and even better to savor at their maturity. Even among Nebbiolo fans, they are not well known, partially because their production zones are small, their producers few, and their distribution in these United States spotty – and all that results from the simple fact that, as a wine-producing zone, the northern Piedmont never really recovered from the devastations of the late arrival of phylloxera and two subsequent world wars. Far, far fewer hectares are now planted to vines than there were before 1910, which was when phylloxera hit.

1985-bocaI start this post with Boca because I’ve recently enjoyed a few lovely ones, most especially a 1985 Campo delle Piane from the Le Piane estate, a wine of Burgundian elegance and polish. This wasn’t a wine I’d carefully laid away and forgotten about for a few decades (I wish I had, and more of it!). Rather, I bought this bottle recently, and at a price that was a bargain for a 30-year-old anything, much less a Nebbiolo blend (a very small amount of Vespolina and maybe some Croatina) from a zone once of the highest repute.

In the 19th century, Spanna – the northern Piedmontese name for Nebbiolo – was more highly regarded than Barolo, and particularly prized for its aging ability. Old winos here in New York will probably remember the great aged Spannas from Vallana that we used to be able to get at wonderful prices back in the 70s. Nowadays, older vintages of the Campo delle Piane Boca from the 90s and even 80s are appearing in dribs and drabs on the local market. My advice is simple: If you see them, grab them.

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Christoph Kuenzli

The Boca appellation is undergoing a real revival, of which it is fair to say Le Piane is the protagonist. Le Piane is in itself a fascinating story. A small estate of about 14 hectares – roughly 35 acres – Le Piane is owned and operated in a thoroughly hands-on manner by Christoph Kuenzli, a Swiss who almost 30 years ago succumbed to the charms of the area and befriended Antonio Cerri, one of the last winemakers in what was then an appellation on the verge of disappearing.

The already 80-year-old Cerri turned the operation of his vineyards and cellar over to Kuenzli and his enologist friend Alexander Trolf, and on Cerri’s death a few years later Kuenzli acquired the vineyards, cellar, and stock. These became the core of what is today Le Piane, an estate generally regarded by Italian cognoscenti as one of the best in the Alta Piemonte. The older vintages occasionally released by Kuenzli are drawn from Cerri’s cellars and are distinguished by being labeled Campo delle Piane, which was the name of Cerri’s vineyards. Kuenzli’s current enterprise and its releases are called Le Piane in Cerri’s honor.

vallana-bocaThere still aren’t a lot of Boca producers, and not many of those few find their way to these shores. One of the best is Vallana, which I mentioned earlier in connection with Spanna, an estate that makes a very elegant and age-worthy Boca. Now operated by Francis and Marina Fogarty, Vallana originally made its mark here in the days of their grandfather, Bernardo Vallana, whose Spannas became the stuff of legend.

Grandfather, his son, and then his son-in-law all died prematurely, leaving Bernardo’s daughter Giuseppina to raise three children and manage the vineyards, cellar, and wine business. That she managed to discharge all six responsibilities well is a great tribute to an intelligent and resourceful woman.

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Giuseppina, Marina, and Francis Fogarty

In her children’s hands, Vallana has returned to the American market and is currently producing wines that grandfather Bernardo would be proud of. And – since none of the sub-Alpine wines has the PR clout of Barolo or Barbaresco – they are generally available at very fair prices for their very high quality.

A future post will speak of Gattinara and Carema.

Benvenuto, 2012 Brunello

January 26, 2017

I was unable to go to Montalcino this year for Benvenuto Brunello, the annual event showcasing Brunello’s new releases – this time around, the 2012 vintage. But I was lucky enough to have at least a truncated version of the event come to me: Approximately 50 producers (out of about 225) brought their wines to New York last week for a very illuminating presentation.
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The major part of the event consisted of stand-up tastings at tables set up on the broad ground floor of Gotham Hall, plus two upstairs seminar-style presentations – the earlier one of older Brunello vintages and the later a presentation of the 2012 vintage as exemplified by wineries from differing parts of the zone. I was very curious about that aspect of the vintage, because the Brunello zone, though relatively compact (a rough square bounded by three rivers) possesses highly diverse soils and at least two distinct climate zones, sharply separated by the ridge that divides the square into northwestern and southeastern triangles.

So I booked myself into the second seminar and arrived well in advance of it so I could do some serious tasting at the tables before the event got crowded and turned into a rugby scrum, which it almost always does.
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I’m getting a little old for those sorts of contact sports, and I find it difficult enough to hold a wine in one hand and take notes with the other while standing up and trying to get access to the spit bucket (why does someone always plant him/herself right in front of the spit bucket?) and ask the attending producer some intelligent (I hope) questions about the vintage.

I tasted what I could – about 10 wines – before heading upstairs to the seminar. Preliminary conclusion: a good vintage, but probably not a great one, though with a long-aging wine like Brunello, that has got to be a very provisional judgment. The Brunello consorzio has awarded 2012 five stars (out of five), but the consorzio is always – let us say, optimistic – about the caliber of its vintages.

Certainly, one characteristic that leaped out at me from all the wines I had thus far tasted: 2012 was a very high-acid vintage. That has two consequences: These Brunellos would really need food to show their best, and they might live forever, since acidity is what keeps a wine – especially a Sangiovese wine – alive. Acidity is the element that makes a wine food-friendly and structures it for long life.

Thus provisionally enlightened, I made my way to the seminar, which featured examples of 2012 Brunello from Castelgiocondo, Collosorbo, La Magia, Le Macioche, Loacker Corte Pavone, Pian delle Querci, and Talenti, plus one 2011 Brunello Riserva Poggio alle Mura from Banfi. The areas represented included the center-west of the Brunello zone (Castelgiocondo), the extreme north of the zone (Pian delle Querci), the center-east (Le Macioche), and several spots in the south, ranging from near Castelnuovo dell’Abate (Collosorbo) westward past Sant’Angelo in Colle (Talenti) and southward toward Sant’Angelo Scalo (Banfi). Just for a reference point for Brunello buffs, the fabled Biondi Santi is located fairly centrally, just a short distance southeast of Montalcino.
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2012 seems to have been an agronomist’s and winemaker’s nightmare for most of the growing season. The Brunello zone, south of Siena, is normally drier and hotter than the Chianti Classico zone north of Siena. I can vouch from personal experience that hot in Montalcino can be really torrid. The zone depends on water reserves built up in the soil by winter snows, and the winter of 2011-12 didn’t provide many of those. There was some rain while the vines were flowering, which wound up reducing the crop by about a third of average size. Then it got dry again, with a very hot July and August. In late August, very good weather arrived and saved the season, so after a great deal of anxiety, the growers wound up pretty happy with the grapes they picked.

Though the selection of wines at this seminar was intended to show some of the differences of Brunello’s several soils and microclimates, that wasn’t the thing that struck me most forcefully about the tasting. There was a pretty good level of quality in all the wines, with a lot of fruit, all marked by very high acidity – but after that, what stood out for me was the extraordinary diversity of styles. A few wines were very traditional and tasted like classic Brunello, but most were all over the place, with differing degrees of international inflection, mostly shown by the use of new barriques, or with a market-appeal emphasis on big, up-front fruit and heavy extraction.
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Each of these styles will have its fans, of course, but my regular readers can guess where my heart is: I loved the classic Brunellos. Talenti for me was the stand-out wine of the seminar, followed by Pian delle Querci. In the broader tasting, I was struck by Col d’Orcia – always elegant – and by Banfi’s basic 2012 and especially its Poggio alle Mura 2012. It’s pleasantly ironic that Banfi, once seen as the disruptive modernist in the zone, now seems a pillar of traditional Brunello.

Probably in more climatically ideal vintages, like 2010, soils and microclimates loom larger in Brunello, but in vintages like 2012, where active field and cellar work seemed absolutely necessary, the agronomists’ and winemakers’ choices seem to create the greatest distinctions among the wines. What that means is that buyers have to taste at least a few Brunellos to find the style they like: Critics’ judgments and generalizations – and I include mine – will be no help.

Celebrating Sauternes

January 16, 2017

Far more people know something of Sauternes than have actually drunk it, I fear. Sauternes seems to be one of those wines that resonate in wine lore but are consumed less and less with every passing year. I have to plead guilty to my part in that neglect: I have unconscionably ignored Sauternes for far too long.

bottle-shotNot that that was ever a deliberate plan, mind you: I just sort of fell out of the Sauternes habit. Just what a pity that is I realized over the Christmas holidays when I stumbled on a bottle of Chateau Rieussec 1989 that I had completely forgotten I had. The bottle was only slightly ulled and the cork was sound. The wine had darkened to a deep reddish amber, and as soon as I pulled the cork a rich, sensuous aroma jumped right out at me. That wine was glorious, and it immediately reminded me why Sauternes was once so celebrated. Diane and I drank it with a very fine mousseline of foie gras, and the combination of flavors was perfect, the lush sweetness of the duck livers merging with the smoky/honey flavor of the Sauternes, and both held in lively tension by the wine’s vibrant acidity, which ensured that neither tasted excessive or cloying. On the face of it, an unlikely combination, but the genius who discovered it deserves a monument, as I’m sure Brillat-Savarin would agree.

glass-of-rieussecChateau Rieussec has long been my favorite Sauternes château because it so often achieves that crucial balance of sweetness and acidity – and is so much less expensive than the fabled Chateau d’Yquem. No Sauternes is an everyday wine, though I have read that in the 19th century it was often consumed right through dinner. Tastes obviously ran more pronouncedly to sweetness in those days: Now, it would have to be a very carefully designed dinner that could sustain Sauternes all the way through. These days, when Sauternes appears at all, it usually arrives with or as dessert, with occasional roles alongside foie gras, which as you can tell, I heartily endorse, or with Rocquefort, a combination still honored in France but to my palate problematic.

Wondering about Sauternes and other cheeses, and still having some of that lovely bottle, I tried a glass of it with my favorite simple dessert: a good Bosc pear and a scoop of Gorgonzola cremificato. The combination was wonderful. The harmony of the fruit and the cheese was elaborated and heightened by the complexity of the wine.

So emboldened, another day I tried the Rieussec alongside a first-course cheese tart. Once again, I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the combination worked. The tart and the Sauternes seemed to feed off each other, accentuating the savoriness of the cheese and the sapidity of the wine, to the extent that its sweetness was scarcely noticeable. Who knew? A whole new flavor world is opening for me.

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Back to Chateaux Rieussec, however. This estate began life as an abbey of Carmelite monks. At the Revolution, the abbey was confiscated and sold at auction, since which time it has passed through the hands of numerous owners. Now it forms an important part of the Domaines de Lafite Rothschild. Classified a premier cru in 1855, Rieussec has always maintained its reputation. Its vineyards and cellar have been thoroughly renovated under the Rothschilds. It now tallies about 95 hectares, twice its original size, and is densely planted to Semillion (almost 90% of the vines), Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle. On the east, Rieussec abuts Chateau d’Yquem and shares a very similar terroir.
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The estate produces a second Sauternes, Les Carmes de Rieussec, and a dry white wine, R de Rieussec. I don’t find either of these very exciting, but Chateau Rieussec will always command respect as a great, complex wine. By itself, it’s lovely. With the right food, it can be memorable. I’m going to have to re-cultivate my Sauternes habit.

Aging Gracefully: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux

January 5, 2017

Over the holidays, what with Christmas and New Year dinners, both Days and Eves, plus interstitial (I love the chance to use that word) gatherings with family and old friends, we tend to pour a fair amount of mature wine at casa Maresca. This year’s sacrificial lambs included a 10-year-old Barolo, a 15-year-old Barbaresco, and (sob!) a 50-year-old Bordeaux. These wines of course gave me great pleasure in the moment but also intense pangs afterward, as I realized that none of those wonderful bottles was replaceable, much less replicable. But that’s what family, friends, and holidays – and wines! – are for: celebration of all those fleeting moments.

Of course I just exaggerated a bit: Some of the wines I’m celebrating today are replaceable, at least if you move fast.
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baroloLet me start with the infant of the group: a 2006 Barolo Riserva Vignarionda from Oddero. I regard a 10-year-old as a young Barolo, so I decanted this and let it breathe for about 2 hours before pouring. At that point, it showed a rich, deep, earthy nose dominated by black fruits and tobacco. On the palate it tasted of those two components, with some still-emerging nutty and mineral flavors sliding in and out. If I had to be precise, I’d say black plums and black cherry, with clay notes, funghi porcini, and walnuts. It felt round and soft in the mouth with an abundance of fine but still firm tannins, and it finished very long. With food, and especially with cheese, the tannins softened and the flavors deepened.

This is an excellent Barolo, ready to drink but still far from its mature peak – and the best news is that it’s a new release. Oddero has adopted a policy of, in very good vintages, holding back some wines for release later, when they are more ready to drink and show more of what Barolo is all about. I think this is an excellent way for wine lovers new to Barolo to get a good sense of why dotty old winos like me make such a fuss about Barolo. This particular example is from a very good year and an excellent cru, so it has the structure and the components to go another 20 years, if you have the patience to wait for it. If not, just enjoy it now.

I hope this strategy of releasing some wine when it’s more mature catches on in Piedmont: I know that Massolino, a very fine winery, tried it a few years ago, and I hope it continues the practice. In these days when not every wine lover has the space or the budget for a well-stocked cellar, it’s a real service to the consumer.
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barbarescoTasting that ’06 made me very curious about how the 2001s are progressing. 2001 remains my favorite Piedmont vintage of this new century, and I thought it was time I should look in and see how the kids were doing. So I dug out a 2001 Barbaresco Bernadot from Ceretto, a long-time favorite producer of the whole range of Alba wines. This is a wine from a fine cru in a very great year, which I fully expected to have a substantial structure and great depth, and at 15 years old might yet be very closed, so I decanted it and gave it 2 hours of aeration. As it turned out, it probably could have taken more.

This was a taut wine, showing elegance over power, with great depth and complexity, and a pure pleasure in the mouth. The predominant flavors were black cherry and roasted walnut, but what struck me most was its beautiful balance, composure, and suavity – there really is no other word. And enjoyable as it was, it’s probably 15 years yet from its peak. So the kids are doing OK: I only hope I can live – and taste – long enough to enjoy them.

There may well be some 2001 Barolos and Barbarescos still available in shops here: If you see some, you should probably grab them.
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gruaud-larose-66This brings me to the truly mature wine of this group, a wine in every sense worth waiting for, a 1966 Chateau Gruaud Larose. Most wine lovers know that Gruaud Larose is a classic Bordeaux estate, categorized as a second growth in the famous 1855 ranking. It consists of some 85 hectares in the commune of St. Julien, planted predominantly to Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, with small amounts of Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec – a very traditional Bordeaux blend. Back in 1966 – which, by the way, was a very great vintage in Bordeaux – Gruaud Larose was owned by the Cordier family, who had by that time been its proprietors for more than half a century.

Gruaud Larose has personal meaning for Diane and me, since it is closely linked to a very long-standing friendship that we were able this December to commemorate with one old friend and several new ones. So I won’t even try to describe the wine, save to say that it was amazingly live and fresh and classically St. Julien – that is to say, mid-weight and polished, with wonderful balance and restraint. The best St. Juliens always charm and seduce rather than overpower, and this 50-year-old did just that. I only wish I had some more of it! But as I said at the start, occasions like this are exactly what wines like this are for.

Happy New Year to all!

 

Vintage Champagnes: Not Your Average Pleasure

December 26, 2016

As most sparkling wine fanciers know, blends of several grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot meunier, Pinot noir) and the reserve wines of several harvests constitute the norm for Champagne, and the reputation of the great Champagne houses stands or falls on the consistency of style and quality they can achieve in their non-vintage product. Vintage Champagnes are an aberration, made only when the quality and distinctiveness of a particular harvest justifies separating it from the house’s norm.

So vintage Champagnes are produced only in the best years – and not all Champagne houses may agree on which those are, so this is the class of Champagnes where the greatest differences from house to house show themselves. For Champagne lovers, this class of wines presents some of Champagne’s greatest pleasures and greatest distinctions.

The New York Wine Press kicked off Christmas week this year with its annual Champagne luncheon, as it has done every year for the past 13. Wine doyenne Harriet Lembeck and Champagne guru Ed McCarthy organized a presentation of vintage Champagnes from 12 great houses, covering 5 different vintages. These were all excellent wines, some of them great, and all had their partisans. Here is the slate of wines and the menu they accompanied.

2016-menu

There isn’t a wine there that I would rate lower than very good; several were excellent, and a few I thought outstanding – but (my usual caveat) that’s my palate and my preferences on one particular day with one particular array of foods. Others thought differently, and every wine had its partisans. With that forewarning, here are my reactions to each wine.
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Apéritif

dehoursDomaine Dehours Brut Rosé “Oeil de Perdrix” 2009
The day’s only rosé wine, and a handsome one: 55% Pinot meunier, 45% old-vine Chardonnay. Lovely color and perlage, distinctive floral/mineral notes on nose and palate. A great start to the day’s “work.”
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First Flight

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Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2008
A nice, wheaty Champagne with good vintage character. Ed McCarthy thinks 2008, 2002, and 1996 constitute the greatest Champagne vintages of the past 25 years. Most 2008s have not yet reached the US.

Piper-Heidsieck Vintage Brut 2006
Not as big or distinctive as the preceding Moet – that’s the difference of the vintages – but still fine, in the classic mid-weight Heidsieck style

Henriot Millésimé 2006
Robust and fine, with a lot of character – very much the Henriot approach to Champagne.

Louis Roederer et Philippe Starck Brut Nature 2009
This is a lean and muscular wine, not as big as any of the preceding but polished, with a lot of power behind its smiling face. Roederer consistently performs well, and this special bottling is no exception.

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Second Flight

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Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut 2008

Light and bright on the palate, showing clearly the superior character of the ’08 vintage.

Veuve Cliquot 2006 La Grande Dame Brut
Like some other 2006s here, this one showed a little lean (especially in comparison to 2008), but very elegant and fresh.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006
A goodly number of luncheon attendees thought this the wine of the day. Taittinger’s Comtes is certainly one of the pinnacles of Champagne art, and I thought this example – elegant and big for an ’06 – was excellent.

André Jacquart Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
Another blanc de blancs, another ’06, and by the evidence of these two wines I’d have to say that 2006 must have been a great year for Chardonnay. This one was lovely: elegant, distinctive, and very long-finishing. Another great wine.

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Third Flight

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Pol Roger Brut 2006

A great house, and always consistent in style and quality. This example was huge and classic, with typical initial austerity followed by a rush of flavors.

Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Brut 2006
Like Taitinger’s Comtes, Moet’s Dom represents a pinnacle of Champagne achievement. For the majority of tasters, this was the favorite wine of the day. I too thought it wonderful, though a trifle leaner than the Pol Roger – not a defect, but a difference.

Alfred Gratien Brut Millésimé 2000
By far the oldest wine of the day and proof of how well Champagne ages, if any was needed. A big, excellent wine, high-toned and elegant, from a great house not well enough known in the US.

Bollinger La Grande Année Brut 2005
Bollinger is always big – not huge, but solid – and always lovely. This one, the day’s sole example of the 2005 vintage, was rounded and mouth-filling, with the usual Bollinger richness – yet another exceptionally fine wine.

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And there you have it: quite an extraordinary collection of wonderful wines, any one of which could be the centerpiece of the most important celebration. My New Year’s wish for you all is that you have the chance, in 2017, to taste them all!