Barolo and Taurasi: Separated at Birth?

August 20, 2015

This post is for the really serious winos. Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by the many broad similarities and the few subtle differences between Nebbiolo and Aglianico, especially in their premier expressions, Barolo and Taurasi, and especially as those wines mature. Both varieties need very long growing seasons. Both can take heat but enjoy cool, not to say cold, weather.

Nebbiolo is obviously a northern grape, but even though Aglianico grows in the south, it grows high – above 400 meters – in the hills. Oldtimers in Campania can still remember harvesting Taurasi in the snow. Both grapes are rich in tannins and acidity. They have fairly similar flavor profiles, and they both obviously age long and well. You could say some of these things of other varieties as well, but not all of them, and it’s the weight of all those factors that urges the comparison upon me.

Most wine drinkers know Barolo well and Taurasi hardly at all, so many readers may be surprised by the juxtaposition. But Southern Italians have been irked for years by hearing Taurasi referred to as “the Barolo of the South,” whereas they feel that Barolo by rights should be called the Taurasi of the North. I’ve spoken to many Italian scientists of the grape, and more than one has told me that there may well be some Aglianico in Nebbiolo’s DNA – which is historically likely, given how the traffic flowed on ancient Italy’s trade routes and legionary roads.

Recently, it occurred to me there was a simple way to test the two wines’ similarities and differences as they play out on the palate: Taste a sample of each side by side, take notes, think, and enjoy. That, after all, was the basic structure of my first book, Mastering Wine: tasting two wines together tells you far more about each than any number of solitary tastings will reveal.

So, with the collaboration of wife, webmistress, and cook (that’s Diane: one person, not three), I set up two dinners around two chosen wines: a Barolo Parafada Riserva from Massolino, and a Taurasi Radici Riserva from Mastroberardino. Both wines were 1999, a very good but not spectacular vintage in both zones, and both had been kept in my usual far-from-perfect storage, so that made a pretty level playing field.

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two wines

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The dinners were designed to test different aspects of the wines. The first evening, we skipped an appetizer course and started with a plain broiled steak, baked eggplant slices, and sautéed zucchini; then went on to an assortment of cheeses, including a pungent, American-made Reblochon type that should test any wine’s mettle. The second dinner started with pâté de foie gras on toast and went on to pork chops braised with a shallot-and-mushroom gravy, flat Roman green beans, and boiled fingerling potatoes. Whatever else happened, we were going to eat well.

For the first meal, the wines had been uncorked just about an hour before drinking. For the second, the wine bottles had stood, recorked and half-full, in the refrigerator until about an hour before dinner. This was done by design, to see how they reacted to such long aeration. My hunch was they would be the better for it, and this comparison provided an opportunity to test that too.

And eat well we did, and very interestingly did the wines respond to the various dishes. At first opening, the Barolo was redolent of earth, dried roses, dried figs, and tobacco, while the Taurasi smelled of pine duff and underbrush, funghi porcini, and dried plums – quite clearly different, but hardly opposites. On the palate, the Parafada felt big and round and soft. It had some perceptible wood tannins, but mostly tasted of black fruit – a lot of it, powerful and deep. It finished long and tobacco-y/leathery. Elegant, it seemed to me. The Radici felt leaner and more muscular, lithe like a dancer. It also tasted predominantly of black fruits, along with mushrooms, and leather, with a finish similar to the Barolo’s: leathery and elegant. Both very fine wines, clearly, and clearly with some overlap of their flavor components.

Then on to taste them with the first dinner’s foods.

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First dinner

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The steak softened the Parafada’s evident tannins and brought up an abundance of black cherry flavors with sufficient acidity to support them. For the Radici, the steak likewise emphasized the richness of its fruit and the freshness and relative abundance of its acidity. Both wines handled the vegetables well but without a lot of enthusiasm, though the Taurasi seemed to pick up some bulk alongside them, while the Barolo got a touch austere.

The cheeses really fattened both wines – even the evil Reblochon-type, but especially a Bleu d’Auvergne. The Taurasi just loved the third cheese, Idiazabal, a Spanish sheep-milk wedge. By the time we were finished with food, the wines were moving in different directions, the Barolo growing more austere and powerful, while the fruit kept coming forward in the Taurasi.

Twenty-four hours later, the differences seemed much sharper. The Barolo’s aroma had grown much deeper and more mushroomy, while the Taurasi was showing more and deeper blackberry character. They seemed almost to have traded places from the first evening.

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Second dinner 2

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But on the palate, they were beginning to converge, both smooth and elegant and composed, both playing quite happily with the foie gras, both showing nice complexity. The only perceptible difference was that the apparently greater acidity of the Radici really made its fruit shine. Then the pork-and-mushroom dish bumped up the Parafada’s fruit too, just as it turned the Taurasi’s yet another notch higher, making both wines taste fresher and more lively.

By this point it was clear that while the flavor spectra of the two wines overlapped in many places, there was one sharp difference between them, and that hinged on acidity. Both wines were actually better – richer and more complex – the second day, with what most people would regard as a preposterous amount of aeration. But the generous and lively acidity of Aglianico kept the Taurasi vital, while the Nebbiolo wine needed a little help. Still a great wine, make no mistake; but by the end of dinner the Barolo wanted a little cheese, while the Taurasi wanted only to be sipped.

Let me urge you to try some matches like this on your own. As I learned many years ago in doing the research for Mastering Wine, any paired tastings are fun, and carefully selected pairs are informative as no other kind of tasting can be. If you try any of your own, I’d love to hear your results.

A Name to Know: Vinifera Imports

August 10, 2015

For lovers of Italian wine, there are a few key importers who really shape the American market. One such, one of the very best, is Vinifera Imports, which over the years has been a steady source of top-quality wines from all over Italy.

Vinifera logo

One recent, steamy July evening, I had a dinner with Vinifera’s founder and director, Dominic Nocerino, at which we tasted four of his new releases.

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Dominic

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Dominic was born and raised near Naples, and like almost every other Neapolitan boy (except the few who want to be operatic tenors), his first ambition was to play professional soccer. Fortunately for us winebibbers, that didn’t work out, and in his twenties Dominic emigrated to America – Chicago, specifically – where he found his calling in the wine business. He founded Vinifera Imports in 1979, and by dint of a soccer player’s energy and an amazing work ethic has grown it into a premier company – not the largest, but certainly one of the most important and most influential.

Dominic personally selected every wine in Vinifera’s portfolio and has made a personal friend of every one of his producers (38 of them at the moment). What you really need to know about Dominic is that he has an excellent palate and a total commitment to quality: The fact that he was for a long while Angelo Gaja’s American importer, and for an astonishing 22 years, Bruno Giacosa’s, tells you everything. Dominic continues to bring in amazing wines. The newest addition to his portfolio is the Taurasi of Guastaferro (about which I’ve raved here), whose maker, young Raffaele Guastaferro, is a passionate artisan with an appetite for work equal to Dominic’s. I think he will almost certainly soon be known as a producer very much in the mold of a Giacosa or a Bartolo Mascarello.

In fact, his 2007 Taurasi Riserva was one of the wines that Dominic poured at dinner back in July, happily announcing that his first guastaferroshipment of Guastaferro’s wines would be arriving soon. This opportunity to retaste the ‘07 completely confirmed my enthusiasm for the Guastaferro wines. Vinified from a two-hectare block of Aglianico vines more than 175 years old, on their own pre-phylloxera roots, this Taurasi riserva brims with dark, berry-ish fruit and iron and earth and funghi and other underbrush scents and tastes. An excellent acid/tannin balance keeps it restrained and elegant, though you can sense the massive power just under the surface. Raffaele thinks this ’07 the best wine he’s made yet – and enjoyable as it is to drink now, I think it’s a wine to cellar for as long as you can keep your hands off it: It’s only going to get better.

This was an evening of reconfirmations: The addition of this wine to Vinifera’s portfolio showed once again the high level of selection exercised all through the line. Piedmont wines like Rinaldi’s Barolos and Chionetti’s Dolcettos; Veneto bottles such as Pra’s superb Soaves and Amarone; the Tuscans of Fontodi, Poggiopiano, Valdicava, San Giusto, and Canalicchio di Sopra – those would make an impressive lineup of imports for any firm, and they are just a fraction of the producers Dominic brings in.

At our dinner, before we got to the Taurasi, we tasted one of his fine Falanghinas, I Pentri; then an unusual – because of its rarity – 2008 Pignolo from his own vineyards in Friuli. Then followed Cascina Chicco’s newest release, a 2008 Barolo Riserva Ginestra, one of the most prized crus of the Monforte commune.

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Three Vinifera wines

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The two reds provided a study in contrasts, one famous, the other virtually unknown, one a red variety of proven quality, the other of impressive potential for those with the patience to cultivate it and to wait for it. Where the Barolo showed elegance and restraint, the Pignolo showed heft and power. Where the Ginestra seemed already balanced and giving, the Pignolo felt tight and austere, maybe even a little rustic. Both are wines that will reward cellaring, but while we can pretty safely predict the way the Barolo will develop (because of so many years and bottles of past experience with Nebbiolo), the Pignolo’s future is an unknown. It has the structure to endure long and well – but how it will develop, chissà?

That kind of mystery is part of the fun of wine. The willingness to take a chance, to learn something new, to seek out a different sensation – that’s what makes a (I hate the word, but nothing else says it) connoisseur. It’s also what makes a superior importer.

Campania in New York

July 30, 2015

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Quite recently, a group of nine Campanian wine producers, some whose wines are already available in the US, some seeking importers, presented a selection of their wines at a tasting-seminar-luncheon event at Ristorante Gattopardo.

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tasting

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Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a great partisan of the wines of Campania: I think they offer an array of indigenous varieties of a distinctiveness and quality that is unmatchable by any other Italian region or by any wine-producing region anywhere. This tasting confirmed my opinion.

The nine producers and their wines were, in the order presented:

  • Cantine di Marzo Anni Venti Greco di Tufo Spumante DOCG NV
  • Cantine Rao Silva Aura Pallagrello Bianco Terre del Volturno IGP 2013
  • Tenuta Scuotto Oi Ni Campania Fiano DOCG 2011
  • Contea de Altavilla Greco di Tufo DOCG 2013
  • Tenute Bianchino Le Tre Rose di Gió Falanghina IGT 2014
  • Tenuta Cavalier Pepe La Loggia del Cavaliere Taurasi DOCG Riserva 2008
  • Terre di Valter Ventidue Marzo Irpinia Aglianico 2013
  • Macchie S. Maria Taurasi DOCG 2010
  • Donnachiara Taurasi DOCG 2011

Now, I have some quibbles with the order of the presentation: In the whites I would have tasted the Falanghina right after the spumante, then the Greco before the Fiano, and the Pallagrello after that; and in the reds I would have tasted the Aglianico first and the Taurasis in order of age, culminating in the 2008 riserva. But I’m a purist, and that is only a quibble. All the wines showed well, displaying in every case a fidelity to type that I find admirable. And since the primary purpose of the luncheon was to reveal to those unfamiliar with Campania the wide range of its wines, they served that purpose very well.

Individually, each wine also had particular, noteworthy qualities. The ones that registered most strongly with me were as follows:

anni-ventiThe di Marzo spumante. Vinified from 100% Greco di Tufo, this is an uncommon style for this variety, and it worked uncommonly well. The di Marzo vineyards, located right in the heart of Tufo, are the most historic in the appellation. In fact, the di Marzo family brought the Greco grape into this zone in the 16th century, when they shifted their home base from Benevento to the Avellino area. Long neglected, the vineyards are enjoying a rebirth under the direction of the di Somma family, descendants of the di Marzo, and this relatively innovative wine is an example of the new vitality they have brought to bear. Lovely and lively perlage serves as a splendid vehicle for characteristic Greco minerality and acidity, making this fully dry sparkler thoroughly Oi nienjoyable as either an aperitif or a dinner wine.

The Scuotto Oi Ni Fiano. Scuotto is a small, relatively new producer in Avellino province, whose vineyards sit at a lofty 550 meters above sea level – not unusual for this area, but necessitating a long growing season, which both Aglianico and Fiano like. This lovely Fiano spent almost a year in contact with its lees, which gave it a very pleasing roundness and richness.

ventidueThe Terre di Valter Aglianico. This too is a new, smallish property, a family enterprise. It has the good volcanic soils typical of Irpinia, which gift the wines with a fascinating earthiness and minerality. This Aglianico is made from younger vines and shows a delightful freshness and fruit, riding on a medium body with finely balanced tannins and acidity – thoroughly enjoyable.

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The Taurasis as a group, but especially the 2011 Donnachiara, were all wonderfully characteristic, showing in varying combinations the Aglianico grape’s richness of tannin and acid and dark, berry-ish fruit interlaced with tobacco and walnut and leather. All needed more aging, even – perhaps especially – Cavalier Pepe’s 2008 Riserva, which is a very big wine. The 2010 from Macchie S. Maria showed fine Aglianico character and is a very promising offering from another small grower, quite new to commercial production.

Taurasis

Donnachiara is probably better known for its excellent Campanian white wines, which stand at the top of their class, but this 2011 Taurasi seems to me to represent a big jump up in the elegance of its red wine. It has always been better than respectable, but it now seems to be becoming really polished.

Of these producers, Cavalier Pepe, di Marzo, and Donnachiara are already available in the US. The others are seeking importers, and I hope they succeed in finding them quickly. These are all highly pleasurable wines that deserve a place on the shelves and on our tables.

Revisiting Vintage 2000 Barolo

July 20, 2015

I had an unexpected encounter with the millennial vintage of Barolo recently. For reasons too annoying to go into here, I had to move and rearrange all the wines in my off-premises storage. In doing so, I came across a whole case of vintage 2000 wines – miscellaneous Tuscans and Barolos – that I had completely forgotten I had.

We’re in flabbergast city here, folks: Despite the Wine Spectator’s notoriously dubbing it the vintage of the century, I was never very fond of 2000 Barolo and thought it – and most of the vintage 2000 Italian crop – mediocre at best, with Piedmont wines in particular often marred by a deadly combination of over-ripe fruit and green tannins. I said at the time that for Barolo it was with few exceptions a vintage for near-term drinking (if at all), with little likelihood of any sort of long life, except for a handful of wines from top-notch producers. So you can imagine just how mixed my emotions were when I happened on this case. Treasure?  Not very likely. Trash? Could well be. Oh for my old, defunct vinegar barrel.

Well, of course I couldn’t just dump the wines, even though part of my brain told me that would be smart. So I started drinking them, beginning with the ones I thought had the best chance of showing some life. Luckily, I had four bottles of Oddero in there, one bottle of its basic Barolo and three crus. They may have been the reason I stored the case in the first place.

The Oddero family constitutes a significant landmark in Barolo winemaking history. From their primary location in La Morra – they have top-tier properties in several other communes as well – they have been making wine for about two centuries. They were among the very first producer/bottlers in the zone: They issued their first bottled wines in 1878, and they are still working the same vineyards.

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oddero family

Giacomo, Mariacristina, and the Next Generation

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The patriarchal Giacomo Oddero, a local monument in his own right, has turned the operation of the vineyards and cellar over to his daughters, Mariacristina (primarily) and Mariavittoria and, increasingly, their children. Under their guidance, cellar techniques have been slightly modernized – the cru Barolos, for instance, spend some time in barriques – but the house’s quality has never faltered.

CastiglioneThe three crus I rediscovered were Rocche di Castiglione, Mondoca di Bussia, and Rivera di Castiglione. We tried first the Rocche de Castiglione and the Mondoca, both through several courses at dinner at the home of friends. The Rocche met the challenges handsomely: still live, with some freshness and no evident harsh tannins, a decent amount of fruit and developed flavors, just enough acidity to keep it in balance – in short, one of the best bottles of 2000 Barolo I’ve tasted.

MondocaThe Mondoca, though fine for the vintage, was less pleasing: a little tired, less fresh, less complex – drinkable but clearly already past its peak. Nevertheless, I was happily surprised that both wines were definitely not inert – a nice proof that really fine winemakers can occasionally turn a sow’s ear of a vintage into a silk purse of a wine.

Thus encouraged, Diane and I went on to drink the remaining Odderos at home. Results were similar.

RiveraInitially, both the basic Barolo and the Rivera di Castiglione smelled and tasted old, seemingly well past their prime. But both opened in the glass, and once food arrived, they developed even further. The Rivera seemed fresher and fleshier and, especially with the food, showed a very nice acidity. Clearly, that was what was animating it. The – one hesitates to say “simple” – Barolo didn’t have as much acidity, so though it did show some complex, mature flavors and was quite drinkable, it just wasn’t as enjoyable as the cru wine.

There are other Barolos in that re-found case, all vintage 2000. These remaining bottles all come from producers much less accomplished than Oddero, so my hopes aren’t high. But we will taste them over the next week or two – I don’t want to drink even great Barolo every day, and these almost certainly will be far from great. But if I should happen upon a really pleasant surprise among them, you will hear about it.

Just to summarize: All four of these Oddero wines gave proof of superior selection at harvest and careful work in the cellar. 2000 was a hot, hot vintage, and the whole Alba zone was cursed with a crop wherein fruit ripeness far outstripped phenolic ripeness, resulting in high-alcohol, hot wines tasting of overripe grapes laced through and through with a bitter greenness. Most of the Barolos made that year were seriously unbalanced, flawed wines that died several years ago, and even these Odderos might have been better if I had drunk them five years earlier. Or maybe they then would have tasted green and unharmonious?  Maybe they needed all these almost 15 years since harvest to achieve even the fragile equilibrium they were now showing?  I can’t really say – but I can tell you this: If you still have any 2000 Barolo in your cellar, drink it yesterday.

 

Celebrating Colla

July 9, 2015

That’s Colla with two Ls, as in Poderi Colla, Beppe Colla, Colla Barolo, Colla Barbaresco, Colla Bricco del Drago – emphatically not to be confused with cola of any brand or flavor. Bricco del Drago is the immediate occasion of this post: The Colla family has just acquired ownership of the property whose vines they have tended and whose wines they have vinified for decades. But the underlying reason for this post is to celebrate a great winery and a great wine.

For all that greatness, the family members are extraordinarily modest. Patriarch Beppe Colla may be the quietest, most self-effacing of all of Piedmont’s grandmaster winemakers, and the rest of the family – his daughter Federica, his younger brother Tino, and Tino’s son Pietro – follow suit.

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Part of the reason for the modesty may be that the Collas have just always been there: Like the Empire State Building, they have become part of the landscape. Beppe was already a quiet legend as the winemaker at Prunotto back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a pioneer of things like the cru concept and a student of phenolic ripeness back before either was much talked about in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.

I first met him around 1984/5, just a few years after the wonder vintage of 1982, a year of record-breaking heat and until-that-time-unseen levels of ripeness in the grapes. (There have been many since.) The Italian Trade Commission had sent a group of wine journalists to visit some key producers in northern Italy, and Prunotto was one of our Piedmont destinations.

Beppe received us almost shyly and poured his wines for us with many informative remarks about the growing seasons and the cellar treatments, but nary a syllable of praise or evaluation. Please believe me when I tell you that that kind of restraint, that willingness to let us form our own opinion of his wines, is very, very rare.

Two moments of that long-ago tasting I still remember vividly.

Colla had poured his 1982 Dolcetto, explaining the while how very unusual the weather and consequently the harvest had been. We tasted, tasted again, looked at each other, and all started babbling and exclaiming. We had never tasted a Dolcetto like that – big, round, with enormous fruit and depth and an underlying complexity that we would have taken for Nebbiolo had he not told us otherwise. We congratulated him on his achievement: This was unquestionably a great wine. Colla smiled politely. “Yes,” he said, “yes, it is a great wine – but you mustn’t think of it as Dolcetto.” All I have ever learned since about the importance of fidelity to varietal standards I trace to that moment.

At the end of our tasting, after we had all expressed our gratitude and admiration and were reluctantly preparing to get back into the van and go on to our next port of call, Colla diffidently asked our organizer if we could possibly return later that day, because he had something special he would like us to taste. By that point, we would have driven two days out of our way to taste anything Colla considered special, so some six or seven hours later we were all sitting around the same table, while he pulled the cork on a 25-year-old magnum of Barolo, that, he explained, had been an experiment – his first (unlabeled) cru bottling.

Magic!  As soon as the cork came out, that small tasting room filled with the rich aroma of white truffles. The elixir that followed the aroma was no less magical – classic Barolo, with all the dried roses, tar, and truffle, leather and cherry and tobacco, that any wine writer in his finest frenzy of prose or palate could ever ask for. No one spat. No one even spoke – and for wine writers, that’s amazing. Everyone just sipped, swallowed, and made small, inarticulate pleasure noises. As I said, magic.

Eventually, the Prunotto firm was sold to Antinori, which still runs it and does its best to emulate Colla’s style of winemaking. Beppe left to form Poderi Colla with his family, and he has been there since. Day-to-day operations at the three principal vineyards – Dardi Le Rose in the Barolo zone, Roncaglia in Barbaresco, and Bricco del Drago, near Alba – are handled by Federica and Tino, but Beppe is always there to be consulted, and that is a priceless resource.

LabelThe wines all reflect his basic style – elegance, and restraint, and fidelity to the soil and to the variety. When I first tasted the 2010 Colla Barolo Dardi le Rose two years ago at Nebbiolo Prima, when it had just been bottled, I thought it lovely and rated it four stars. Tasting it again recently, I’d call it absolutely classic and give it a full five stars. I expect it will probably mature beautifully for decades. It certainly has the structure for very long life.

The Bricco del Drago estate that the Collas have just bought has long been very special to the family. It started as a joint project of Beppe Colla and his friend Luciano Degiacomi, who owned the property – 26 hectares, of which 12 are in vines: 4 Nebbiolo, 4 Dolcetto, 3 Pinot nero, and 1 Riesling renano. Degiacomi was a great partisan of the Langhe and especially its wine and foodways. Along with Colla and Renato Ratti, he founded the Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba – the Order of the Knights of the Truffles and Wines of Alba – which in turn organized the creation of the regional enoteca in the castle at Grinzane Cavour (now housing as well a fine small museum and an excellent regional restaurant).

The eponymous wine vinified from Bricco del Drago’s grapes was probably the earliest and is still one of the best of Piedmont’s handful of non-traditional wines  – a small irony for two such thoughtful traditionalists as Colla and Degiacomi. It’s always made from a blend of Dolcetto and Nebbiolo: proportions are usually around 85% Dolcetto to 15% Nebbiolo, but that is not ironclad – much depends on the harvest.

label 1I recently drank a beautiful ’07 of those proportions, which just loved a broiled steak and mushrooms. It was a classic Piedmontese red wine for meats and mushrooms, fats and earthy flavors – big and full in the mouth, with lots of Dolcetto fruit strengthened by a Nebbiolo spine. The aroma and flavor were cherry and underbrush, with a long finish of strawberry and tobacco, all classic Piedmont flavors in a slightly unusual combination. This was, as has been every Bricco del Drago I’ve ever had, a very, very fine wine, drinking beautifully at eight years old and showing no sign of fading at all.

By the way: never call it a Super Piedmont. The growers all hate that term. As far as they’re concerned, the wines their families have been making for generations are the true Super Piedmonts – and for the Colla wines, I would totally agree.

Bordeaux Second Labels

June 29, 2015

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a small tasting of second-label Bordeaux wines organized by the importer/retailer Millesima. They were the red Connétable de Talbot 2008, La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet 2008, Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine 2008, La Fugue de Nénin 2002, and the white L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc 2011. It was a very pleasant affair, low key, no pressure, just a chance to taste and evaluate a handful of wines – a very welcome haven on a drizzly, chilly New York afternoon.

Millesima_L'Esprit Chevalier Blanc_2011_PackshotThe L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc and the Talbot Connétable especially stood out, while La Fugue de Nénin seemed tired: 2002 was not a very great vintage, and 13 years is pushing the envelope for second-label wines, especially a Pomerol. But all in all, the wines were what I’ve come to expect sound second-label wines to be: good without being overwhelming, true to type without being definitive of the type. In short, pleasant wines pegged at a price point to give a nice lift of palatal pleasure and sophistication to otherwise everyday dinners.

Millesima_ConnetableTalbot_2008_PackshotBut the occasion also started me thinking: When did second labels start becoming important? When I first got hooked on wine and began seriously exploring it, I learned on French wines. In those now long past days, wine was French, and the way into it was primarily through Bordeaux and Burgundy. I can’t recall any ready availability of second labels from Bordeaux back then – and there still aren’t any from Burgundy: So where did they come from?

Millesima_Demoiselles Mallet_2008_PackshotWine estates in Bordeaux – by which I mean that cluster of Médoc communes that contain the wines ranked in the famous 1855 listing and their satellites – have long occupied an enviable position in the wine world, whether you focus on the palatal/esthetic/craftsmanly aspect of that world or its commercial aspect. The prestige of Bordeaux may now be fading somewhat, as younger drinkers seem less and less impressed by it and more and more willing to try wines “outside the canon,” but commercially there’s no question that Bordeaux still sets the pace.

Millesima_Fugue de Nenin_2002_PackshotTraditionally, very few of even the most prestigious Bordeaux estates had second wines. Because their emphasis was on quality, and because many Bordeaux estates are very large (Château Margaux, for instance, has 80 hectares – that’s almost 200 acres – of vines), they often had grapes that were not judged of high enough quality to be part of the wine that would bear the château’s name. In most cases, back then, those grapes were sold off, usually to négociants who blended the grapes of several estates to make either village wines – a shipper’s Margaux or St. Julien – or, a step down the scale, a Médoc rouge, or lower still, a Bordeaux rouge.

Millesima_Confidences PrieureLichine_2008_PackshotAs wine boomed in the last quarter of the 20th century, winemakers realized that they didn’t have to sell those rejected grapes on the bulk market. They could instead exploit the prestige of their estate’s reputation by making them into another wine – not the same quality as the flagship wine, to be sure, but similar to it, and offering some of the pleasures of their great wine at a lower price.

You can view this in either of two ways:

  • as an enlightened gesture to make at least the shadow of a great wine available to drinkers who might otherwise never be able to afford to taste it, or
  • as a crass piece of commercialism that generates a lot more income from something of otherwise little value.

I suspect the motivation is in almost every case mixed, though I doubt altruism was ever the dominant engine. Forgive my cynicism, please.

At any rate, as long as all the grapes in the lesser wine originate on the property, a second-label wine is entitled to the same appellation as the château wine. Only when those grapes are mixed with others from other properties does a wine get demoted to village, Médoc, or Bordeaux status. That declension is what happened, for instance, to Mouton Cadet. That wine began its life as a second label of the famous Château Mouton Rothschild (more than 82 hectares of vines, for the record), and has since become a separate enterprise with only a nominal connection to the great estate, whose second label is now Le Petit Mouton.

So what then does all this imply about second labels, for the canny wine lover? As prices of the Bordeaux great growths have soared into the stratosphere, some second labels can be relative bargains, a chance to taste decent Bordeaux at fairly reasonable prices. But they can all too often fall to mediocrity. Usually they are vinified from an estate’s youngest vines or poorest-performing parcels, so their potential is limited from the start. All they’ve got going for them is the location of those vines and parcels – the whole Médoc, after all, is essentially a single terroir – and the fact (or the hope) that they received the same attention as the rest of the estate’s wines. Only by accident, and in a truly exceptional vintage (of which there are fewer than the Bordeaux hype machine would have you believe), will these wines ever approach greatness. Still, in a good year, you should be able to find a number of winners in their ranks. If you love Bordeaux, it’s certainly worth the hunt.

Verdicchio: A Seriously Underesteemed Wine

June 17, 2015

Not a name that’s likely to set bells pealing in a wino’s brain, for sure, Verdicchio nevertheless deserves to be more highly valued than a good many other white wines of whatever origin. I’m not alone in thinking that Verdicchio ranks among Italy’s noblest white varieties.

verdicchioVerdicchio – the name of both the grape and the appellation – flourishes in the Marches, a region on Italy’s Adriatic coast bordered on the north by Emilia, on the south by Abruzzo, and on the west by Umbria. The grape is pretty much a Marches specialty: not much cultivated elsewhere, which may account for its lack of a larger reputation. That’s a real loss, because Verdicchio yields not only a very enjoyable everyday dinner wine but also a first-class, long-aging white of great subtlety and distinction.

According to Jancis Robinson’s authoritative book, Wine Grapes, Verdicchio probably originated in the Veneto but made its way into the Marches by the later Middle Ages. Recent studies have shown that it is the same as the variety now known in the Veneto as Trebbiano di Soave, which growers there prize as a component of the best Soave Classico – some indeed esteeming it above Garganega.

In the Marches, it appears in two distinct appellations, Verdicchio di Castelli di Iesi and Verdicchio Matelica, the former and larger zone more coastal, and the smaller Matelica zone more inland, near the border with Umbria. Both zones turn out a lot of simple, everyday Verdicchio, and both also produce much more important examples of delicious, structured dinner wines, with special reserve bottlings capable of impressive bottle age.

fazi bThe simple, everyday Verdicchio was once upon a time enormously popular in the US, at least on the east coast. Fazi-Battaglia’s version, packaged in a distinctive fish-shaped bottle (now only a stylized version of the original), was practically ubiquitous in Italian restaurants and made an unfailingly reliable accompaniment to seafood of all sorts – especially fried calamari. I still have fond memories of that enjoyable and inexpensive wine, as I do of those enjoyable and inexpensive restaurants. But as Heraclitus observed, panta rei – all things flow, and you can never step in the same river twice.

Nowadays, most Verdicchio that we see here is made to be more serious, which is really a great gain, no matter what I feel about the loss of the simpler wine. Contemporary Verdicchio belongs in the ranks of superior dinner wines, wines that bring not just citric or tropical fruit freshness to the table but also a complex minerality, round body, depth, and persistence. These are estimable wines, and they companion well with white meats and the best fish dishes. John Dory and sole, trout and sea trout, lobster and crab – all would shine alongside a good Verdicchio.

villa bucciFortunately, good ones abound. I recently enjoyed my last bottle of Villa Bucci Riserva 2007, which was a stunningly fine wine, reminiscent of top-quality white Burgundy in its structure and roundness, but unmistakably Italian in its racy acidity and distinctive slateyness. Bucci stands, in my estimation, at the top of the mountain in Verdicchio, and also has the distinction of being among the few wineries that still use the talents of the eccentric enologist Giorgio Grai, once a name to be conjured with in Italian wine circles.

But many other firms produce top-flight basic Verdicchio and Verdicchio Riserva: Fazi-Battaglia still ranks among the zone’s leaders, with its basic Titulus and its cru Le Moie. Equally highly reputed is Umani Ronchi, whose Riserva Casal di Serra is always among the Marches’s finest, long-aging Verdicchios. Garofoli makes a fine basic Verdicchio, Macrina, and several cru and riserva bottlings. Moncaro (a fine co-op very much in demand throughout Europe, but currently – and lamentably – lacking an importer in the US) produces the basic Le Vele and the distinguished Riserva Vigna Novali. These are all Castelli di Iesi wineries; the best Verdicchios of the smaller Matelica zone are the fine examples from La Monacesca.

What else can I add? If you already know Verdicchio well, this has been yesterday’s news for you – but if you don’t, you owe it to yourself to try some right away, especially now that warm weather and lighter meals are here, and preferably an older Riserva, so you can see right off the potential of this intriguing variety.

The Wine from the Pope’s New House

June 6, 2015
The pope's house

The 14th Century “new house” built for Pope John XXII, overlooking Chateauneuf du Pape village

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Châteauneuf du Pape doesn’t seem to be a very fashionable wine these days. I don’t know why that is: Name too long? Wine thought to be too big? Too rough? Made with the wrong grapes for current trends? All of the above? Whatever the reasons, it’s a shame, because Châteauneuf is, and has been for a long time, a reliably elegant wine, capable of aging long and gracefully, and wonderfully adaptable with food of all sorts. I have always loved Châteauneuf du Pape for both those qualities: Many decades ago it was a 15-year-old bottle of Château Fortia that first taught me about the glories of sun-toasted southern wines.

This was all brought back to me forcefully about two weeks ago, when Diane indulged ourselves and some friends in a dinner of marcassin, braised young boar, for which occasion I dug out of the deep recesses of my ancient baronial cellar two bottles of 1998 Domaine de la Solitude.

SolitudeDomaine de la Solitude has suffered its vicissitudes. One of the most historic estates in the whole appellation, it has been continuously producing wine since the beginning of the 17th century, and was actually one of the first estates in France to bottle its own wine, before even Lafite, though neither it nor its zone has ever acquired the prestige of the Bordeaux estates.

The whole area of southeastern France was among the earliest to be cursed with the plague of phylloxera, which devastated the local economy and from which it only slowly recovered. For many years, Châteauneuf and neighboring areas were thought of as producing only rough country wines, most of which were consumed locally or shipped north to Burgundy to give some heft to the often pusillanimous red wines of that region. The practice was so common, that hermitagiser became a widespread euphemism for it (and also palliated the adulteration of those wines with less honorific liquors).

Things began to change for Châteauneuf du Pape during the 1920s, when the almost legendary Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié of Château Fortia organized many local vignerons to protect the integrity of their wines – and, not coincidentally, to command more respect and a commensurately better price for them. The group drew up a list of regulations for Châteauneuf du Pape that later became the model for all of France’s subsequent AOC legislation.

Baron_Pierre_Le_Roy_de_Boiseaumarié

Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié

With some small modifications, those regulations still govern the making of Châteauneuf du Pape. Thirteen grape varieties are permitted in the blend. These include Mourvèdre and Syrah, as well as lesser known varieties such as Picpoul, Cinsault, and Counoise; but far and away the most important grape is Grenache, which in the opinion of many achieves its greatest heights in Châteauneuf. Grenache has at times constituted almost 90% of the blend from some estates. More usual is something in the neighborhood of 60%; anything as low as 40% is uncommon, but it does occur. Domaine de la Solitude’s blend has tended to run around 60% Grenache, with the balance being Mourvèdre and Syrah and a small amount of Cinsault.

At the wild boar dinner that triggered this mental excursion to southern France, we opened two bottles of 17-year-old Domaine de la Solitude about two or three hours before serving them. While both were thoroughly enjoyable, the marked differences between the two provided a vivid lesson about bottle variation in older wines. The first bottle we poured had one of the loveliest aromas I’ve encountered in any wine: fresh, with distinct floral notes intermingled with wild berries and forest underbrush, the whole package delicate and persistent – so much so that several of us spent a long time just sniffing before we ever got around to tasting.

When we did, the wine on the palate was not as ethereal as the wine on the nose. It tasted rounder and more robust than the aroma suggested, less nuanced – though to preserve my reputation with our guests, it interacted very well indeed with the richness and savoriness of the boar.

The second bottle lacked the magical aromas of the first: It was more straightforward and more mature-smelling. Nevertheless, on the palate it seemed slightly fresher and a little bigger than the first bottle, and it too matched quite comfortably with the last tastes of boar and the first tastes of the cheeses that followed. The differences between the two bottles and how one could possibly account for them also provided food for a good deal of (fairly farfetched) speculation and amusement. That, of course, is one of the great charms not just of Châteauneuf du Pape, but any good wine.

A Quick Report on Spain

May 26, 2015

While I wasn’t in Spain on a wine trip, I didn’t – of course – stop drinking wine, or at least trying to. Which didn’t turn out to be as easy as you might think, in the nation that boasts the world’s largest acreage of vineyards.

Old head-trained vines in Extremadura

 

We were staying in mostly simple rural hotels and eating at mostly simple rural cafes and restaurants – it was a birding trip, after all – where wine lists were brief (occasionally nonexistent) and concentrated on very local wines. Most of the people around us were drinking beer and soft drinks (Coca Cola seems to have Spain in thrall), even when – as we discovered is quite usual in Spain – wine is included in the price of the meal.

On some occasions, this was completely understandable. We had one or two meals where the local wine on offer gave plonk a good name. We also had two or three occasions when we were able to get quite good wines. But most of the time it was pretty ordinary stuff, drinkable and pleasant but in no way memorable. So there will no great revelations here (I’m at least as disappointed as you are), just a brief recounting of the most interesting bottles we hit upon.

Oh! One surprise, before I get started: Sherry is now next to impossible to find in Spain. I remember that in the past it was ubiquitous, and even simple bars offered a choice of finos, plus a manzanilla and/or an amontillado, with usually a PX lurking somewhere among the bottles. But not now. We hit upon the occasional fino, and once a manzanilla, but that was it for Sherry. We’d gotten better choices on our Iberia flights than we did in the rural parts of the peninsula.

The most widely available wine we found was, not surprisingly, Rioja, and we were pleased to drink it when it was offered. Several producers were not familiar to me (which was predictable), and the most widely available of the bigger, regularly imported producers was the ever-reliable Cune. A Cune 2007 Riserva was the one of the two oldest wines we drank on the trip – very enjoyable, with real elegance and restraint. Most wines were considerably younger, with four- or five-year-old Crianza Rioja serving as the major mature wine on most of the simple wine lists we saw.

 

Three Riojas

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The Parador de Cervera, in the Castile and Leon region, provided the one significant exception: a lovely bottle of Rioja Riserva 2008 from RemelluriRemelluri. A little post-trip research revealed that this was a truly traditional producer, whose 140 hectares of vineyards straddle the Rioja Alevesa and the Rioja Alta. Its Rioja Riserva contained not just Tempranillo but also Garnacia and Graciano, plus the white grapes Viura and Malvasia. This is – or was – the traditional kind of mixture of grapes that made Rioja, just as Chianti used to contain a mixture of white grapes and local red varieties beyond Sangiovese. I am happy to report that it made a very, very elegant wine, serene and harmonious – the best wine of our trip.

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White wines presented a much more mixed picture. Where Tempranillo was the ubiquitous, workhorse grape variety among reds, no single variety dominated among the whites. We had some decent and some indifferent Albarinos and Verdejos, as well as a number of whites blended of local varieties either unnamed or indecipherable on the label. Some of these latter showed a touch of fresh citric fruit and minerality, some were just blah.

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Four white wines

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The best of the whites, for freshness, pleasing, racy fruit, and consistent enjoyability, were unquestionably those fermented from a grape the labels called Macabeo. This turned out to be another name for the grape most of us know better as Viura. I was familiar with it from Catalonia, where it is blended into Cava, as well as being vinified and bottled solo. It appears to be the most popular white grape in the Rioja region also, which means that, with those strongholds in the northwest and southeast of the country, Viura/Macabeo amounts to the most widely available white wine in Spain – which is a fine thing, since it makes so pleasing a wine.

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Finally, I need to say a word about Spanish brandy. Spanish brandy looks and tastes very different from French: usually darker and sweeter, often with a slightly caramelized edge. It’s not what I want every day, but it follows a large Spanish dinner very well – and dinners all tend to be large, so we had recourse to it more often than we expected during our stay.

There are two chief kinds, both very fine: Sherry-based brandy – Brandy de Jerez – and brandy from, and based on, Malaga. Sherry is self-explanatory, but Malaga may need some introduction. The Sherry region lies northwest of Gibraltar, while Malaga lies about the same distance northeast. Its rich, dark dessert wine, made from Pedro Ximénez and a variety of Muscat grapes, used to be quite famous, but went even more deeply than most into the eclipse that the world’s great dessert wines endured. Lately, Malaga shows some signs of reviving as a wine, but it has never lost favor as the source of some of Spain’s best brandies. We enjoyed both kinds. Of the Jerez brandies, our favorites were Cardinal Mendoza, Gran Duque d’Alba, and Lepanto. Of the Malaga brandies, our hands-down favorite was 1866, which is a great brandy by any measure.

P.S. Diane’s blog has a post about some of the things we ate in Spain.

More on Campania’s Golden Triangle

May 12, 2015

This is the promised continuation of my post about three great Campanian wines. I apologize for writing so lengthily about them. It’s the curse and blessing of the enthusiast: Confront me with wines of this caliber, and I do go on. So on I will go. This time it’s on to the two remaining points of what I’ve dubbed the Golden Triangle: Tufo and Taurasi.

golden triangle map

Taurasi, top right; Tufo, high middle left

The town of Tufo lies about 20 kilometers north of Avellino, more or less on the road to Benevento. There, this spring, I visited the Benito Ferrara estate. This is very hilly country, and the soils are intensely volcanic, rich with all sorts of mineral traces. In fact, the old Di Marzo sulfur mine – for decades the area’s major employer – faces the main road of the town. Benito Ferrara’s eight hectares of vines are situated high among those hills, between 450 and 600 meters.

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All the steep vineyards face south – ideal location and ideal exposition for producing great Greco di Tufo. In fact, the winery makes all three of Irpinia’s DOCG wines, and at a very high level, but its Greco di Tufo, and especially the cru Vigna Cicogna, is its flagship wine. Vigna Cicogna pretty regularly wins Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli, which tells you all you need to know about its standing in Italy.

Here I was offered a horizontal tasting of the estate’s range, which is quite extensive despite its relatively small size.

2013 Greco di Tufo
Intensely mineral, slightly sulfurous nose. On the palate, great white fruit, recalling, without quite being, pears, with tons of mineral behind. Mineral/dried white flowers finish. Excellent: classic Greco di Tufo. If you don’t know Greco, this is the wine to teach you.

2013 Greco di Tufo Vigna Cicogna
Like the preceding wine, only more so. Nose and palate even more intense, already showing complexity – hazelnuts, herbs, thyme, and sage are among the many elements to be found. The wine has a slightly olive-y, faintly oily feel in the mouth that I consistently find in the best Greco di Tufo. This is simply a lovely wine, as true to type as it can possibly be.

2013 Fiano di Avellino
Lovely aroma of hazelnuts, white flowers, and mineral, with the same components showing up on the palate. Very different from the Greco: not as mineral, lighter in body and a bit more elegant/restrained, but still a lovely example of its kind.

All three of these whites opened and changed in the glass as they sat and I tasted and re-tasted them. That for me is also one of the hallmarks of a great wine:  It is alive and mutable, not inert. All three are vinified entirely in stainless steel, with no wood contact at all, so what one tastes in them is unmediated grapes and soil – the variety and the terroir, which, as far as I am concerned, is exactly as wine ought to be.

Benito Ferrara’s red wines – an Irpinia Aglianico Vigna Quattro Confini and a Taurasi of the same name – are also quite good, but for my Taurasi focus here I’ve chosen the remarkable Guastaferro estate, so I’ll head along there.

Located right in the commune of Taurasi are about seven and a half hectares of prime Aglianico vineyards that young Raffaele Guastaferro has had the good fortune to take over from his father. Two and a half of these consist of pre-phylloxera vines of between 175 and 200 years of age. Yes, you read that correctly: 175 to 200 years old, on their own roots.

Guastaferro vineyard 1

The remaining vineyards have been planted with cuttings from those old vines – so Guastaferro has all pre-phylloxera stock even though not all pre-phylloxera era. That, quite obviously, is a patrimony of enormous potential and very great responsibility. Raffaele has risen to the challenge handsomely. I was lucky enough to taste with him a selection of his Taurasi and Taurasi Riserva – the latter vinified exclusively from those two and a half hectares of ancient vines – starting with 2004, when he took over winemaking from his father.

2004 Taurasi Primum
This wine spent one year in barriques and six months in botti (huge barrels holding 10,000 liters or more) before being bottled. It is a lovely wine, of pure Aglianico character – dark, cherry-like fruit, firm tannins, supple acidity, with great depth, and maturing beautifully – but you can still taste the barriques in it. “My father is in love with barriques,” he says, “but I have gotten rid of them. I now use only botti. That’s what my generation does.”  I will pray on my knees, fasting, for a month, that he may be right.

2008 Taurasi Primum
This wine spent a year in large botti before bottling. At seven years old, it is still remarkably fresh, even slightly grapey in the nose and on the palate as well, but with wonderful Aglianico fruit and character. Its tannins are just starting to soften, and it evidently has years, if not decades, in front of it

2006 Taurasi Primum Riserva
Vinified entirely from the oldest vines, which naturally restrict yield, and aged in botti for one or two years, this wine had an amazing nose, huge and intensely fruity and mineral. On the palate, the tannins are only beginning to soften, but the enormous fruit and bright acidity are quite evident. Clearly, a wine still young, but structured to last very long indeed. For my taste, this was a truly great Taurasi, which is to say that it can stand with finest red wines from anywhere. But then I tasted . . .

2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva
Raffaele says this is his best wine so far: three years in botti, two years in bottle. Again, an amazing nose, live and rich, almost lush with dark fruits and minerality. The same elements in the mouth. Big and smooth on the palate, even though the tannins are still very firm. Here are my summary notes: “Huge structure, great fruit, great length – will go on forever. Even better than the ’06. This is a great vineyard.”

Small producers like the three I’ve just written about – there are many more I could have chosen – illustrate the exciting progress of Campanian winemaking. Small growers throughout the zone have started making their own wine and have begun a swift and steep learning process as they master the ability to express the nature of their vines and soil. They have wonderful specimens of both to work with, so for wine lovers, the prospect ahead is for years of excitement and discovery. Oh frabjous day!  Calloo!  Callay!


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