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!

It’s the Champagne Time of Year

December 14, 2016

The Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon signals to me the true start of the holiday season. It always falls on the first Wednesday of December, and it always spotlights between 15 and 20 excellent true Champagnes; this year, all Blanc de blancs. Curated again this year by colleague and friend Ed McCarthy – author of Champagne for Dummies, among several other books – this event for me is the surest sign that whatever winter and the world may do to us, consolation and pleasure are still within reach.

edAs Ed reminded us, Blanc de blancs are the most popular kind of France’s festive bubblies in the United States, even though not all Champagne houses make one. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t: Not every house has enough Chardonnay to supply its basic cuvée and make a Blanc de blancs. Chardonnay is the backbone of all Champagnes (except Blanc de noirs, of course) and there just isn’t enough of it within the Champagne zone.

That stretch of chalky ridges and hills probably constitutes the northernmost outpost of Chardonnay, and Ed believes that, as a northern extension of the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, it produces some of the finest and sturdiest Chardonnay in the world – but not a lot of it. The best lots, from Grand Cru sites like Mesnil, are especially scarce and very expensive, so a good Blanc de blancs is costly from the get-go. Rising demand for Blanc de blancs Champagnes will not make them any cheaper in the future, because there just isn’t much, if any, land available for new plantings within the Champagne appellation. So enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it – which is never bad advice, about anything.

Here, in the order in which they were presented, is the slate of wines Ed and the Media Guild gathered for this occasion, along with their suggested retail prices and selected comments – mostly Ed’s, but a few of mine – about each.

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roths-to-mumm

Barons de Rothschild (magnum) NV ($207 for magnum, $99 for 750ml)  An ideal apéritif Champagne, Ed says: My palate agrees.

Collet NV ($55)  New to the New York market: a small house, a cooperative, and not very familiar to Ed or any of the attendees. The wine is made from the top 10%, all Grands Crus, of the co-op’s hectares.

Mumm de Cramant NV ($64)  Once upon a time, Mumm de Cramant was one of my favorite Champagnes, but I was disappointed in this bottle, which I thought distinctly short on charm. Ed liked it better than I did.

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henriot-to-gosset

Henriot NV ($55)  This house is one of my current favorites, and I like almost everything it makes. Today’s Blanc de blancs was no exception. Ed didn’t think it was showing well, but the bottle I tasted was absolutely fine.

Ruinart NV ($72)  Always fine, Ed says, even though this isn’t Dom Ruinart, the house’s top-of-the-line Blanc de blancs. I thought it was lovely.

Gosset Grand Blanc NV ($77)  A great Champagne house that people in the US don’t know enough about, Ed rightly says. For me, Gosset is right up with Henriot among my favorite Champagnes. I thought this Blanc de blancs was excellent.

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ayala-to-dehours

Ayala 2008 ($85)  Another house much more esteemed in France than known in the US: our loss. This was the first vintage Champagne of the lineup. Ed says the three great Champagne vintages of the past 20 years are 1996, 2002, and 2008, and this is one of the best Ayalas he’s had in quite a while.

Philippe Gonet Bellemnita Grand Cru 2005 ($300)  A Blanc de blanc specialist located in Mesnil. This rare bottle, from a single site of old vines, was big and powerful but a little inelegant.

Dehours 2005 ($55)  A Marne Valley grower and passionate Champagne maker: This wine is from a 1.3 hectare site – that’s about three acres – so there isn’t a lot of it.

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roderer-to-paillard

Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009 ($85)  Another great Champagne house that does everything well, even in California. Brut Nature is relatively new to its line. Big and forceful, it’s a huge wine for a Blanc de blancs.

A.R. Lenoble 2008 ($64)  A small producer in a grand cru village and a great vintage. Ed thinks it a great value.

Bruno Paillard 2006 ($90) Not in New York right now, but coming. Ed thinks it an outstanding wine from a fine house. Its proprietor considers 2006 a Chardonnay year par excellence.

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jacquart-to-taittinger

André Jacquart Mesnil Brut Nature NV ($70)  An NV Champagne placed among the vintage Champagnes because of its heft. I found it indeed big and fine, classic Blanc de blancs.

Pol Roger 2008 ($110 to $125)  A famous and consistently fine Champagne house, showing a great vintage – “a stellar Champagne,” Ed says.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006, ($199)  Taittinger largely launched Blanc de blancs in modern times, and this bottle showed the house’s expertise. Consistently classic.

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perrier-to-heidsieck

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 ($300 to $350)  There was some controversy about this wine, because one or two of the bottles were seriously off. Ed thought it excellent (he got one of the good bottles), though he thinks the 2002s are far from their peak. But oh, that price!

Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires 1995 ($190 to $199)  A great, long-lived wine, long-finishing and elegant. Some people thought this the best wine of the day.

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And there you have it: a delightful slate of Blanc de blancs Champagnes, ranging in heft from apéritif style to substantial dinner wines. For me, a perfect kick-off for the holidays. For you, I hope, a dossier of useful information. Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année !

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).

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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.