Sicily Is Hot!

April 25, 2016

OK, so I can’t resist a bad joke. But it’s true: Sicilian wine is hot right now, especially in Italy, where for the past several years the wines of the three-cornered isle have been getting a lot of press attention and a great deal of consumer demand. In recognition of that, the New York Wine Media Guild dedicated its April tasting and luncheon to surveying Sicily’s highly varied bottlings.Sicily wine map

Organized by co-chairs Pat Savoie and Charles Scicolone, with a little input from yours truly, the WMG tasting focused almost entirely on Sicilian wines vinified from indigenous grape varieties – a decision I heartily applaud. In my opinion, the two impediments to the growth and reputation of Sicilian wine have been the fad for international varieties – think about it: does the world really want a Sicilian Chardonnay or a Sicilian Cabernet? – and the influx of young Australian winemakers, some of whom assume (a) that Sicilians knew nothing about making wine until the Aussies arrived, and (b) that Syrah is the answer to all questions. So a tasting that concentrated on Sicilian wines made from native grapes – 25 wines in all – put the spotlight right where I think it belongs, on the wines that are unique to this beautiful island.

Here are the wines in the order of their presentation that day.

White

  •  Feudo Sartanna 2014 Zirito Grillo
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2014 Grillo Cavallo Delle Fate
  • Spadafora 2013 Dei Principi di Spadafora Grillo
  • Cusumano 2014 Insolia
  • Benanti 2013 Etna Bianco di Caselle (Carricante)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Vigna Casalj (Catarratto)
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2012 Nozze d’Oro Contea di Sclafani (Inzolia & Sauvignon)
  • Planeta 2014 Cometa (Fiano)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Piano Maltese (Grillo & Cataratto)

Rosé

  • Tasca d’Almerita 2015 Le Rose di Regaleali (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Paternò di Vittoria 2013 Frappato
  • Planeta 2014 Frappato
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2014 Frapatto
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2012 Paterno di Vittoria (Frappato & Nero d’Avola)

Red

  • Cusumano 2014 Nero d’Avola
  • Morgante 2011 Don Antonio Nero d’Avola Riserva
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2010 Rosso del Conte Regaleali Contea di Sclafani (Perricone & Nero d’Avola)
  • Vivera 2010 Etna Rosso Martinella
  • Benanti Etna Rosso 2013 Rovitello (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Palari 2011 Rosso del Soprano
  • Palari 2009 Faro
  • Palari 2008 Santa.Nè
  • Alessandro di Camporeale 2012 Kaid Syrah

Dessert

  • Florio Targa Riserva Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco
  • Florio 2009 Malvasia

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That is a pretty exhaustive sampling of Sicily’s native grapes, spread out over 9 whites, 5 rosés, 9 reds (one non-native Syrah slipped in there) and 2 dessert wines. The varieties covered there include the white Grillo, Insolia, and Catarratto, widely grown in the western two-thirds of the island, and the white Carricante, a specialty of the Etna region. The red Frappato is usually used to produce a charming rosé wine, delightful with Sicily’s great seafood cuisine – or just about anything else, for that matter. Nero d’Avola and Perricone are the favorite red grapes of the western chunk of Sicily, though a whole cluster of indigenous red varieties – Nerello mascalese and Nerello Capucci especially – replace them throughout the eastern piece of the island.

That kind of completeness has been characteristic of WMG tastings of Italian wines in recent years, and it is one of the most enjoyable and most useful aspects of those tastings: You come away from them with a good sense of an area’s production, quality, and styles, which is invaluable for a wine journalist and not at all harmful for a collector or consumer.

Needless to say, being the opinionated person I am, I have my favorites: I like especially the wines from Sicily’s eastern hills. It is a not sufficiently appreciated fact that, broadly speaking, Sicily has two distinct geologies. The eastern third of the island – think Messina, Catania, Etna – is part of the Italian geologic plate, a continuation of the same piece of land that is thrusting up into Europe, raising the Alps in the north and causing volcanic activity in the south. The western two-thirds of the island are a portion of North Africa that broke off from the mainland, drifted north, and got snagged by the Etna mass.

That eastern, Etna-anchored portion of Sicily, with its mineral-rich volcanic soils, makes the Sicilian wines that intrigue me most – the reds from Etna and from Palari (the Faro DOC), and the whites of Etna. All taste richly of their native grapes and of their roots in volcanic soil, which may well be a wine grape’s greatest ally.

Etna’s volcanic soils especially nurture richness and subtlety in the vines that grow there, so that red wines vinified from Nerello mascalese (Faro, Rosso del Soprano, Vivera, Benanti’s Rovitello) possess a richness and nuance that remind many fans of the beauties of Burgundy. The whites vinified there from Cataratto are in a league of their own: Some of Benanti’s are among the best white wines in Italy, though most of the market hasn’t realized that yet. Your gain, while it lasts, before tastings like this one spread the word.

Paumanok Vineyards’ Chenin Blanc

April 12, 2016

Every now and again, a wine comes out of left field and just bowls me over. This happened last week when I opened a bottle of Paumanok Vineyards’ Minimalist Chenin Blanc. To say the wine impressed me understates the case: I thought it was gorgeous. The dry and sweet white wines of the middle Loire are pretty much the gold standard for Chenin. This Long Island wine tasted fuller and richer than most dry Vouvray, less austere and almost as structured as Savennieres – which, god knows, is about as good as Old World Chenin gets. An eye-opener, an attention-getter of a wine. So I decided to look further into it.

paumonok sign

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Paumanok Vineyards got started in 1983, which makes it an old-timer among Long Island wineries. There were only a few of them then, pioneers excited by the possibilities of the North Fork’s long growing season and well-drained soils, as well as a loose similarity to the climate and terroir of France’s prized Médoc. The basic agriculture that had sustained the region – acres and acres of potatoes, cabbages, and corn – was fading, and land was available. If wine-growing did nothing else for the region, it scored a major triumph in saving the North Fork from developers and their battalions of boxes.

Kareem Massoud

Kareem Massoud

The Massoud family, owners of Paumanok, has roots in Lebanon and Germany, but from the start they planted French varieties: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, even Petit verdot. Kareem Massoud, son of the founder and now winemaker, says that there is nothing distinctive about the terroir of the Chenin vineyards, but that all the Loire varieties – especially Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc – seem to do well on Long Island. Chenin blanc, he says, they found growing on a plot they acquired in the late Eighties – and they almost ripped it out, until they realized how well it was doing.

I lived on Long Island way back when, and find it hard to imagine how Chenin blanc had ever found its way there among the potatoes and pumpkins, but a wonderfully serendipitous find it was. Paumanok’s Chenin blanc every year ranks among the best in the US – and yet it remains the only one made on Long Island. Hello? How can that happen?  Do all the other producers hate Vouvray?

minimalist cheninPaumanok’s Minimalist Chenin blanc stands a whole level higher, in my estimation, than the very fine “ordinary” Chenin, which wins the prizes. The back label of my 2014 bottle tells its story concisely:

This wine was produced using minimalist winemaking techniques. The fruit comes from our vineyard planted in 1982. Select clusters of unblemished Chenin Blanc that had attained total ripeness were carefully hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. The juice was transferred into stainless steel barrels where alcoholic fermentation spontaneously occurred. Only 84 cases were bottled.

As Kareem pointed out to me, this is a purely variety- and terroir-powered wine: Nothing intervenes to modify the expression of the grape and the soil. That purity comes through on the palate with lovely intensity.

Diane and I drank this Minimalist Chenin with some Scotch smoked salmon, followed by simply sauteed filets of John Dory, and it made a wonderful match with both. Its fruit was rich and dry, but hard to pin down: The closest I can come to an accurate descriptor would be half-ripe white figs with an amazing underlayer of minerality and structured by vivid acidity. I would guess that, like many Loire Chenins, this wine could age very well – but I can honestly say that I would be hard put not to drink it all before it had any chance to mature. For me, this is a masterly American wine. I wish there were more of it, and I hope there will be, eventually.

Convergence: Nostalgia and Preserving a Patrimony

March 31, 2016

I recently attended a seminar, sponsored by Banfi, on the subject of saving some Italian wines whose continued existence is threatened by a variety of modern phenomena, even including, in some cases, their own popularity. Such paradoxes aside, this is an important topic, and the Banfi presentation highlighted it with four wines that constituted a kind of nostalgia trip for me, a sort of where-are-the-snows-of-yesteryear experience with, for a change, a happy ending.

The wines were Albinea Canali FB (for Fermented in Bottle, which it is) Lambrusco di Sorbara, Luna Mater Frascati, Palari Faro, and Targa Riserva Marsala – four wines utterly different from each other but alike in how near they have come to slipping under the waves of fashion and disappearing into wine’s dead letter office – to thoroughly garble a metaphor. Language sometimes gets away from me, but I usually have a firm grasp on my glass.

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Albinea Canali FB Lambrusco di Sorbara

Many of my readers will remember clearly when Riunite Lambrusco was one of the largest selling wines in America. At its peak, tens of thousands of cases a month were being consumed. That wine was the sweet version of Lambrusco, and its amazing popularity effectually killed the American market for dry Lambrusco, the premier exponent of which was – and is – Lambrusco di Sorbara. A lot of sweet Lambrusco is still being purchased here, but the dry version has survived and is starting a comeback.

In contrast to the brashness of the sweet Lambrusco, Lambrusco di Sorbara is dry, delicate, and very elegant – a pleasing light wine to serve as an aperitif with any sort of hors d’oeuvre, or simply to sip as a cocktail. A niche wine, perhaps, but the niche is a big one, and the wine is pleasing enough to drink right through any light meal. The bottle of Canali FB that was poured at the seminar was pale salmon in color and, having undergone its final fermentation in the bottle, was unfiltered, fully dry, and with all its fresh fruit intact.

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Fontana Candida Luna Mater Frascati

Luna mater

The Fontana Candida Luna Mater was a 2011 bottle chosen to show just how well this wine can age. Really heavy nostalgia here: Frascati has always been the white wine of Rome, and in the days of yore it was one of the most popular white wines in America. Demand exceeded supply, and producers began overcropping or using any grapes they could lay their hands on. Consequently, many bottles of Frascati eventually devolved into lightly alcoholic water, and its American market disappeared.

But Fontana Candida soldiered on. The firm had been the first bottler of Frascati, and it now accounts for 40% of Frascati production. These days, it is fighting a war on two fronts: one to reclaim the reputation of properly vinified Frascati, the other to physically save the Frascati zone from Rome’s ever-encroaching urban sprawl. The only way to prevent small growers from selling their vineyards to developers is to make it more profitable for them to grow grapes, so Fontana Candida is working with growers both in terms of technical support and in the solid cash terms of paying premium prices for superior grapes.

Luna Mater is a key element in Fontana Candida’s campaign. Meticulously and painstakingly vinified by an intricate and lengthy process* from selected grapes, all from prime vineyards on the volcanic hills that surround Rome, Luna Mater evokes decades-old memories of charming, refreshing Frascatis, sipped on hot summer afternoons on cafe terraces in a quieter, far less touristed Rome than we will ever see again. Medium-bodied, aromatic, mineral on the palate, elegant and light, Luna Mater recalls not so much the snows of yesteryear as the bright sunshine of summers past.

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Palari Faro

Faro

Palari is the name of both the estate and the wine; Faro is the DOC. The name derives from the lighthouse (faro) of Messina, in whose zone the vineyards are located. When that DOC was on the verge of being swept off the books some 20 years ago, the great Italian wine journalist Luigi Veronelli challenged then-architect Salvatore Geraci to save it. Geraci had inherited his grandfather’s vineyards near Messina, and they needed heroic efforts to be brought back into production again. But the efforts were made, the DOC was preserved (the tiny Faro zone now has five working producers), and Geraci’s Palari started winning Tre Bicchieri awards almost from the get-go. Veronelli hailed Palari’s second vintage by comparing it to Clos de Vougeot. For me, it is probably the best red wine of Sicily (and I say this loving the red wines of Etna), however improbable its blend of obscure indigenous varieties from old, head-trained vines (Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Capucci, Nocera, Iacche, Acitana, Cor’e Palumba).

Signor Geraci tells me I was the first American journalist to visit Palari and the first in America to write about it: If so, I was amply repaid for my efforts by the taste of the 2009 he poured at the seminar. To call it fine is understatement: It was big, elegant, mineral, subtly fruited, and very long finishing, albeit still very young – a wine worthy of long cellaring, if you can keep your hands off it.

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Florio Targa Riserva Marsala

targa

The Florio Marsala was a 2003 semidry specimen. Marsala, once as esteemed as Port or Madeira, fell victim to its identification with culinary uses and flavored bottlings. Outside of Italy it never developed the kind of cult following that saved Port from decline when taste turned against sweet, fortified wines. The Florio family, which was among the Italian founders of Marsala in the early 19th Century, nevertheless persisted, becoming even better at their craft. They now make their Marsala only from the Grillo grape, which is vinified and aged with extreme care. The result, in the bottle poured at the seminar, was a beautifully Madeira-like wine – my first thought on tasting it was old Bual – sweet but balanced, with excellent acidity to keep it supple. I would love to serve it with some fine bloc foie gras, where I think it would work better than Sauternes.

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This was for me a very enjoyable session, not just for the quality of the wines served but also for the success of the mission each wine represented, for both of which Banfi should be congratulated. Italy is a treasure trove of fine wine varieties, and none of them should be allowed to fall out of use.

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* Handpicked grapes are divided into two lots. One is cooled before pressing to maintain aroma. The other is fermented on the skins in small oak barrels to preserve varietal character. A subsequent harvest, a few days later, adds hand de-stemmed whole grapes to the must to enhance aromas and flavors. (Source: Banfi website)

 

Chianti Classico’s Gran Selezione

March 17, 2016

Almost three years ago, the Chianti Classico growers and producers created a new top classification for their wines. It’s called Gran Selezione, and until now I have maintained a studied silence about it. Some recent tastings that I’ve been doing, however, have persuaded me that I do have something to say about Gran Selezione, and, while it will hardly be news, I think it may be useful for Chianti fans and general consumers to read.

Gran-selezione

I have long been a partisan of Chianti Classico, extolling its many pleasures, sympathizing with its unending skirmishes with the satellite Chianti denominations that so often ride on its coattails, and appreciating the public relations campaigns that its producers have had to wage for decades as its regulations have time and again been revised. The road of Chianti Classico has not been smooth: Its evolution has been marked by successive waves of seeming modernizations, as the 19th century formula for the wine’s blend, devised by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, was gradually and repeatedly modified.

First came the reduction, then the elimination, of white grapes from the official DOC blend. Later, growers were given permission to make a Chianti Classico of nothing but Sangiovese, and still later, permission to use – at different times, different percentages of – “international varieties.” Somewhere in there the DOCG happened, as well as the introduction of regulations about Riserva status that were supposed to guarantee not only quality but also a certain consumer-reassuring consistency. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and Riserva became a very iffy category – at its best, splendid, but too often just the basic wine aged for an extra year. Now, on top of Riserva, we have Gran Selezione.

Chianti Classico’s heart is Sangiovese, and I love Sangiovese. I think it is one of Italy’s noblest red grapes. When Sangiovese vines are properly cared for on one of the Classico zone’s distinguished terroirs, I think they are capable of enological greatness. I just wish the Tuscans could stop tinkering with Sangiovese and let it be itself, without the intrusion of French grapes or French oak or “international” styling. For the uninitiated, in this context “international” style means a wine designed for what many Tuscans still wrongly perceive as “the American market.” This phantom they understand to be a single entity, thirsty for fruit bombs and with lots of oak sweetness disfiguring them even further. What damage such emphases have done to a wine as elegant in its nature as Chianti Classico I leave to your judgment, but you can easily guess that the “international style” wines are not the Chianti Classicos I love.

When I first heard about Gran Selezione, my initial reaction was “Oh no! Not again! Not another classification change that really won’t change anything but will leave consumers – American consumers, at least – further confused about what is in the bottle they might be interested in buying if they could figure out what it is.” Remember, I love the wine, I’ve been following it for years, I have great admiration for many Chianti Classico producers and nothing but good will for all of them – but my fear was this just might be the last straw for many consumers. So I decided to keep my mouth shut and wait and see.

I’m happy to say that what I have seen lately is encouraging. In the past, many of Chianti Classico’s most distinguished wines were cru wines. Even though that is not an official category, Chianti Classico labels often sport a cru designation – Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo, or Felsina’s Colonia, or Castello di Volpaia’s Coltassala, for example. When such truly top crus were vinified as Riservas they made extraordinary wines, deep and complex and capable of long aging, all the while preserving Chianti Classico’s characteristic elegance.

What I am seeing now is that wines like these are migrating to the Gran Selezione category, whose requirements go far beyond simple extra aging and include quality and typicity tests, as well as strict control of things like acidity and extract. This is right and just, and it is where top-flight wines like these belong.

pyramid

If the producers and the consorzio can maintain the quality level they have thus far established, Gran Selezione may finally give consumers the kind of confidence in the name Chianti Classico that they have until now hoped for. If they do that, Gran Selezione could be the most important of all the changes Chianti Classico has undergone. If, however, the producers and the Consorzio fail to maintain that level of quality, if Gran Selezione is allowed to become a promiscuous designation, then it could be the final nail in the coffin of consumer confidence in the Chianti Classico name.

Follow-Up News

March 15, 2016
A much-expanded version of my article on Giacomo Tachis has now been published on QRW.com.

Moris Farms Avvoltore: A Match for Wild Boar and Tame Veal

March 7, 2016

In the past 25 years, the Tuscan Maremma – the stretch of hills and valleys just behind Tuscany’s Mediterranean seacoast – has become an important wine-making zone. The most prestigious part is the Bolgheri area, home to Sassicaia and Ornellaia and Angelo Gaja’s grandiose winery, as well more indigenous producers such as Grattamacco and Michele Satta. Right behind Bolgheri – in the prestige sense, not geography – is the Scansano zone, with its luscious Morellino, another delicious incarnation of Tuscany’s ubiquitous Sangiovese.

Among many newish enterprises in the Maremma, a few old-timers – real pioneers, such as Erik Banti – stand out. One of the best of these has the unusual name of Moris Farms, whose wines deserve to be far better known here in the US than they are.

vineyard

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2003 avvoltoreFarms is an English word, but Moris is Spanish, the name of the family that acquired two estates in the Maremma a few generations back. One is located in the Morellino di Scansano zone, and the other in a less well-known but very interesting part of Grosseto province, around the also-interesting town of Massa Marittima. Despite Morellino’s DOCG status, the latter, supposedly lesser, Moris Farms location produces what amounts to its banner wine, the IGT classification Avvoltore.

The estate also houses a pen of cinghiale, the wild boar that inhabit every uncultivated stretch of the Maremma and whose appetite for ripe grapes can wreak havoc in the vineyards at harvest time. The canny grape growers get their own back by hunting and eating boar at every opportunity, and I can assure you from several happy visits to the region that Avvoltore makes the ideal wine to accompany boar, whether it appears in a long-simmered pasta sauce, a stew, or simply braised or roasted. Boar is a forceful, full-flavored meat, and it wants a forceful, full-flavored wine to partner with. Avvoltore fills the bill admirably.

Moris farms boar

 

I can also tell you, from more recent, domestic experience, that Avvoltore matches equally well with milder, less wild meats. Diane and I served a 2003 Avvoltore at a dinner party alongside a handsome stuffed breast of veal, and the pairing was spot on – as Italians would say, un buon abbinamento.

Adolfo Parentini

Adolfo Parentini

Moris Farms’s vineyards are overseen by Adolfo Parentini, the husband of Caterina Moris, with the help of consulting enologist Attilio Pagli. Within Italy, Moris Farms has long been highly reputed, but awareness of the quality of its wines has been slow to reach these shores. This is surprising, because Avvoltore is the sort of “modern” wine – some Cabernet and a bit of Syrah blended with 75% Sangiovese, aged for a year in barriques – that in theory the American market loves and I usually hate. I can only defend my seeming inconsistency by saying this wine tastes purely Italian to me: The Sangiovese sings in the blend, albeit with deeper notes than in most other Tuscan wines, and the oak notes are seamlessly integrated, not dominant. With decent age – my 12-year-old was perfect – the wine is utterly harmonious. In The Finest Wines of Tuscany, Nicolas Belfrage describes Avvoltore as “a wine of complexity and character, rich but rounded, a Tuscan modern classic.”  I’d say that’s nailed it exactly.

Purely by the way, the name Avvoltore comes from the hillside vineyard in the Massa Marittima estate that grows the grapes, and it in turn is named with the local word for a bird of prey – apparently a falcon of some sort. Not inappropriate for a high-flying wine of this caliber.

Nil Nisi Bonum?

February 22, 2016

By now, every wine lover of any pretentions has heard of the death of Giacomo Tachis, a figure of central importance in the 20th century Italian wine scene. The homages have been unstinting and the praise unqualified. (See for instance the New York Times’s reverential obituary.) I have even seen him credited with introducing temperature-controlled fermentation – a decisively important development for Italian wine, to be sure, but the credit for it belongs to many individuals in many countries, not to Tachis alone.

I know we are supposed to speak only good of the dead, but I feel strongly that Tachis’s influence, though crucial for the commercial success of Tuscan wines in the sixties, seventies, and eighties of the last century (god, saying that makes me feel ancient!), has been in the long run baneful for the development of Italy’s wine culture. That’s the reason behind this contrarian take on his enological legacy.

Tachis of course achieved fame and prominence first for his work with the Antinori firm, primarily in the development of Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia. Tachis did not, as many people seem to believe, invent Sassicaia. Rather, he lucked into it. The Antinori’s cousins, the Incisa della Rocchetta family, had – back in the forties, I believe – planted an unlikely stretch of their property in the Tuscan Maremma (a very untraditional area for serious winemaking then and even much later) in the two Cabernets, sauvignon and franc, which their patriarch loved. The family had for years been vinifying them for their own consumption.

It is unclear – I have heard several versions of the story – whether the Incisa della Rocchetta approached the Antinori or the Antinori approached their cousins about commercializing the wine. But the Antinori did successfully accomplish that, and Sassicaia began winning prizes and gathering attention from press and public and wine lovers generally.

Many people speak of Tachis as a student of Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist and teacher. That is not literally true, though Tachis was an intense admirer of Peynaud’s work and writings. His own talent was for blending, a skill that fits very nicely into the traditions of both Tuscany and Bordeaux. With Piero Antinori’s backing, reinforced by the commercial and prestige success of Sassicaia, he soon developed Tignanello, which, except for its first vintage, has been a blend of predominantly Sangiovese with about 20% Cabernet sauvignon. Tachis then followed that with Solaia, a blend of mostly Cabernet sauvignon with about 20% Sangiovese and a little Cabernet franc.

These were immensely successful wines, soon spoken of in the press as Super Tuscans, a nom de guerre that, as the practice of using “international varieties” spread within Tuscany and Italy at large, almost pushed native Tuscan wines into economic oblivion. And there is why I think Tachis’s influence has been in the long run harmful, not just for Tuscan wine but for Italian wine generally.

I don’t drink Tignanello and Solaia. I just don’t like ‘em. They don’t taste Tuscan to me, and they don’t taste French. They taste commercial, as if they could have been grown and vinified anywhere, of almost any grapes. They’re sleek, and polished, and hollow at the heart, as most of the now-happily-fading-into-oblivion Super Tuscans all were. But their 20-year run of commercial success left vineyards of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, and Syrah dotted all over Italy, while perfectly worthy but untrumpeted native varieties have been allowed to languish.

Rucché, anyone? Pignolo? Pallagrello? Nerello?  These are varieties capable of making great wine, and there are many more such indigenous vines all through Italy. Their development has been slowed, and even their survival threatened, by the to-my-mind undeserved and unwarranted attention to international varieties. Beyond that, many Italian wines have been denatured – homogenized – by the continued admixture of international varieties. Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah particularly – even in small quantities – take over a blend and drown the distinctive characters of the native grapes.

For both these effects, it seems to me that Tachis and the Antinori must take primary responsibility. I’m not a forgiving sort: I will hold that grudge as long as a single Italian winemaker muddies the character of Sangiovese with Cabernet. And I every day bless the Piemontese and Campanian winemakers who resisted the lure of such varieties and stuck faithfully to their native grapes. Nebbiolo and Aglianico are powerful consolations in a world elsewhere gone awry.

Pinot Gris Is Not Pinot Grigio

February 8, 2016

Mention Alsace to a wine aficionado, and 9 times out of 10 the next word that pops out is Riesling. There’s nothing wrong with that: Alsace makes some of the best Rieslings in the world. What is wrong is if the conversation stops there, because Alsace also produces a perhaps even more distinctive wine from another grape variety, a variety that elsewhere produces largely simpler, everyday-enjoyable wines. There’s nothing wrong with that either, except that, as Alsace demonstrates, Pinot gris (yes, same grape as Pinot grigio) can be stunning – rich, complex, fully dry and at the same time luscious – a very different creature from the vast majority of its incarnations in other parts of the world.

Because of the physical limitations forced on me by my recent hip replacement and its subsequent complications, I haven’t been able to get out and around to taste all the newly released wines that normally I write about at this time of year, the heart of the New York wine season. Confined to home, I’ve been drinking a lot of simple, pleasant wines – or, more honestly, drinking a little simple wine as my digestion repairs itself from the ravages of some massive doses of antibiotics.

Boxler Brand 2004Every now and then, however, I’ve had to break out, especially when my Devoted Caregiver has provided an excellent meal that calls out to be matched with a better-than-average wine. This has meant delving ever deeper into neglected corners of my wine storage, with occasionally wonderful results. In this particular case, a delicious choucroute garnie (sauerkraut is wonderful for restoring the intestinal flora) accompanied by a superlative 2004 Pinot gris, Grand Cru Brand, from Albert Boxler, a wine so distinctive, so idiosyncratic, that I simply have no comparisons for it.

Let me be upfront here. A lot of people don’t like Alsace Pinot gris. They find it too rich, too assertive, with heavy, complex fruit so lush that it still tastes sweet even when fully dry. If I were pushed, I’d say it’s the white wine equivalent of Amarone – big and full and powerful, not for every meal, but incomparable when you find its slot. I love Amarone, and I love Alsace Pinot gris, especially with about 10 years of age on it. It will take more: The variety ages very well, but for me 10 to 15 years is the real sweet spot, where in a decent vintage the wine will still show youthful freshness while it has already started fleshing out its mature flavors.

Albert Boxler has been for years one of my favorite producers. This remains a small, family firm, working only about 13 hectares of vines – but what hectares! The family home and winery in Niedermorschwihr sits right at the foot of the Sommerberg, one of the finest Riesling grands crus in all of Alsace, and other vineyards lie in Brand, another excellent grand cru site. Both sites are on granite soils, which contribute to the mighty structure of the wines they produce.

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Boxler vineyards

Boxler’s Brand vineyard

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The proudly old-fashioned label on Boxler bottles tells you everything you need to know about fidelity to tradition in this great house.

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label

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My bottle of ’04 offered all the paradoxical pleasures one hopes for in a great, complex white wine: freshness with maturity, power with finesse, austerity with lush abundance. Never mind that most people think of choucroute garnie as a simple brasserie dish: That Boxler Pinot gris made love to it, coaxing every nuance of flavor out of the meats and answering them with its own battery of flavors. In the eloquent words of the immortal Brillat-Savarin, Yum!

Chianti Rufina … Villa Selvapiana … Riserva Bucerchiale … Glorious!

January 21, 2016

About a week back, I opened a bottle of a ten-year-old red wine, and I was immediately overwhelmed by how wonderful it smelled and tasted. You might not think that unusual, but for reasons I’ll explain below, my wine-and-food intake has been drastically curtailed through most of December and January, my palate hasn’t been all that stellar, and we’ve consequently been dining on­ — and drinking ­– fairly simple stuff. So this was for me a truly grand moment, an Aha! There Is Life After All! experience.

bucerchialeThe wine was of a kind and producer I’ve not paid enough attention to in this blog, a Chianti Rufina from the zone’s premier producer, Villa Selvapiana: its Riserva Bucerchiale 2006 (boo chair k’YAH lay), to be precise. From the first swirl of my glass, the scent enticed me: rich cherry-based fruits, with woodsy, underbrushy overtones that cut right through my pain-pill-and-antibiotic fog. And the taste! Pure velvet on the palate, with a whole congeries of black cherry/frutta del bosco/funghi porcini flavors, all supported by an elegant earthiness – not minerality, mind you, but real earthiness. It was just lovely. It was attention-grabbing. It was a wine for even me, in my debilitated state, to pay serious attention to.

All that is exactly what I had expected, why I had chosen the wine in the first place. I needed to be reminded of some of the joys of living, and I knew Bucerchiale – a wine reliable in its greatness – could do that.

Let’s get down to basics. Chianti Rufina is the smallest (750 hectares in vines) of all the Chianti denominations, and by far the most different from the others – so different that many people think it should simply be called Rufina and not linked to Chianti at all. I’ve visited the zone, and I can tell you it’s a very different world from the zones of the Classico and the other Chiantis. It lies northeast of Florence, not really contiguous with any part of the Classico, and it has a totally different geology and therefore a distinctive wine terroir.

No cypresses and bay bushes here: It’s higher, hillier, wilder, more rugged, with pine trees and mountain laurel as its characteristic vegetation. It’s very easy to get lost here (I speak from experience) as what you thought was a highway dwindles to a road to a track to an end. There are castles here, to be sure – this is still Tuscany – but they look a lot more businesslike than any in the Classico, as if they might not too long ago have been working propositions. The whole feel of Rufina is of another age.

What Rufina does share with the Chiantis, and with most of the rest of Tuscany, is Sangiovese, but Rufina’s Sangiovese differs widely from the Tuscan norm. It has an underlying base of earth and clay that grounds the wine foursquare, so that, as beautifully soprano as the fruit may get in its best vintages, it never lacks a complementary bass to round it. In my mind, this is a great, great terroir whose potential has not yet been fully exploited, save by a few producers, most notably the Frescobaldi, whose Castello di Nippozano is probably their best wine, and Villa Selvapiana.

Villa Selvapiana

Villa Selvapiana is an ancient property that has been in the hands of the Giuntini family since 1827. There are 58 hectares of vines, and many more of carefully tended olive trees, as well as a large tract of forest. The cru riserva Bucerchiale was born in 1979, under the watchful eye of consulting enologist Franco Bernabei, then a young man and now one of Tuscany’s pre-eminent consulting enologists, who still oversees the production of Villa Selvapiana’s wines.

Franco BernabeiI’ve visited Selvapiana a few times, and Bernabei has given me several verticals of Bucerchiale, so I can honestly say I know this wine well. It has vintage variations, to be sure – some years are lighter, some heavier, some with bigger fruit, others more earthy – but part of the greatness of Bucerchiale is its consistency, its recognizability from year to year, even as it ages and evolves. It starts out drinkable and just gets better and better, more and more interesting. I truly think it one of Italy’s finest red wines. I know I’m heaping on a lot of praise here, but for all the years I’ve loved this wine, to me it feels as if I am finally paying a debt I’ve owed for a long, long time.

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Now for something completely different. I’ve been essentially out of commission for most of December and January because of a hip replacement that ran into some nasty complications, requiring a second surgery, hospital time, and a battery of painkillers and antibiotics that I seriously think could paralyze an ox. (Perhaps I flatter myself.) Anyhow, I am only now slowly returning to normal human functioning, and for some time yet I’m not going to be up to attending the wine events where I make many of the new discoveries that I tell you about here. Consequently, there will be longer than usual intervals between new posts on this blog, and I may have to outright take a few weeks off for R&R. So bear with me please: I promise you my usual irascible self will be back as soon as possible.

Endings, and Maybe Some Beginnings

January 8, 2016

2016 snuck in on little cat’s feet in my neighborhood, shrouded by soft mist and a rising fog from the Hudson that, along with some pain pills for my outraged hip, had me asleep well before the canonical New Year’s Eve moment of rooting and tooting. This holiday season has been an ambivalent one for me, with unanticipated post-operative pain vying with the unnaturally warm weather to keep most thoughts of seasonally appropriate celebration at a distance. Plus – a side effect of my medications – my appetite and capacity have fallen to next to nothing. So there have been no big, year-end whoop-di-dos here, though Diane and I have managed a few low-key relishings of our survival and mutual company – probably the best way of all to mark the holidays in any event.

For you, o faithful reader, the consequence of all that is that there will be no connected narrative to hold this post together – just a series of musings, prompted by a few of the bottles with which we measured the end of 2015. Milestones, of a vinous and vital sort.

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champagneAndre Clouet Champagne Brut Rose Numero 5 nv. This year, this lovely bubbly has become my go-to Champagne for serving to guests who drink Champagne and not labels. It has body, it has elegance, it has compatibility with all sorts of canapés and more substantial dishes, and most of all it has the kind of palate-caressing flavor that makes you stop mid-sip and just enjoy. I am usually a fan of rosé Champagne primarily as a dinner companion, but I like this one everywhere. Something about the complexity of its flavor, the paradoxical lightness and weight of its body, reminds me each time I drink it of the excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first seriously began exploring Champagne and discovering, with some naïve amazement, the variety of its pleasures beyond just bubbles. Snows of yesteryear, eh?  A very appropriate sensation for the end of one year and the start of another.

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villa bucciVilla Bucci Verdicchio riserva 2006. No point beating around the bush here: This is flat-out a great white wine and a textbook example of how white wines can age. I am constantly amazed that Verdicchio hasn’t really caught on in this country. It is an excellent grape variety, and the best examples from its homeland, Italy’s Adriatic-facing Appenine slopes in the Marche, show not only the variety’s intriguing flavors but also the land’s distinctive minerality. This bottle partnered brilliantly with Diane’s sea scallops Nantais to create one of the best wine and food matches of our holiday season. Ampelio Bucci, the genial and devoted caretaker of his family’s ancestral properties, consistently produces what is always one of the best (very often, the best) Verdicchio of them all. His wines have been constantly reliable over years and years, always big, elegant, and distinctive. One of the New Year’s resolutions that I know I’m going to keep is that our home will never be without some.

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ormes de pezChateau Les Ormes de Pez 1989. What memories this wine evokes!  This was one of the first small chateaux I tasted back when I first began learning there was more to Bordeaux than shippers’ Medocs and out-of-my-financial-league premiers crus. Les Ormes de Pez was and remains a classic, even though only a cru bourgeois. Every time I drink it, it reminds me why I love St. Estephe. It has all the elegance and balance that the great wines of Bordeaux specialize in, and on top of that the lovely little rasp of the (to my mind and palate) utterly distinctive St. Estephe terroir. I still don’t understand why no St. Estephe wine was ever named a premier cru. What are Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – chopped liver? They cost, of course, many times what Les Ormes de Pez does, which is still a bargain in current releases. We used to buy the ‘66 for $3 a bottle; now that’s around $100 if you can find it – and if I could find it, I’d happily pay the fee. $100 is cheap these days for Bordeaux. Pity what’s happened to Bordeaux prices.

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brunelloBarbi Brunello Riserva 1977. This part of this post, alas, is a funeral service. This bottle was dead, deeply, profoundly dead, though remembered with great fondness. The bottle had been recorked at the winery several decades ago, but it couldn’t survive in my less-than optimal storage. Or perhaps it had just reached the end of its natural span. It’s always hard to tell with a wine of this age.

This was the last bottle of a case of Barbi 1977 Riserva that I received somewhere back in the mid-to-late ‘80s as part of my winning the Barbi Prize for journalism about Brunello di Montalcino. It was a great honor and a grand occasion: Francesca Colombini Cinelli herself, the grande dame of Montalcino winemaking, travelled to New York to make the presentation. 

barbi prize 1

The wines drank wonderfully for years, with all the paradoxical muscle and grace, smoothness and asperity of classic Brunello. I guess I kept this one just a bit too long. They will all be remembered – and missed.

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Les ClosI had a similar experience a few days earlier with a 2002 Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, a wine that by all rights should have been splendid. But no: this bottle was as oxidized as a wine can get. A lesson to me for 2016: Drink my older wines while they and I both survive.

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Let me finish up this hail-and-farewell with two producers whose wines will be around for a long time to come, Vallana and Produttori di Barbaresco. Both are Piedmont producers who have long been important in their zones and increasingly so on the American market. Both are some of the finest bargains in the entire wine field, offering top-flight examples of their denominations at what are very affordable prices.

spannaFirst up: we drank a Vallana Spanna 2011, a mostly Nebbiolo wine from the northern Piedmont, still in its youth. Back when Vallana made its first entry in the US market, in the 1960s and 70s, its Spannas were famous for their ageability, and many 10- to 20-year-old bottles were available. Such is not the case now, but the wine still shows all the capacity to age that it ever had. And if palatal memory doesn’t deceive me, the Vallana fruit, as cultivated by the Vallana grandchildren, Francis and Marina, now is even more ample and more refined, with a mouth-flooding juiciness that makes the wines supremely drinkable at any age. This particular bottle of Spanna was the last I had on hand, but my top New Year’s resolution is to fix that ASAP.

barbarescoFinally, a bottle of Produttori di Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 1999 rounded off our holidays – in a literal sense, since it was the wine that we drank with a New Year’s Day dinner. By now, everybody who knows Piedmont wine should know that the Produttori di Barbaresco consistently offers the unquestioned best value in the Alba zone. Its many cooperating growers between them control huge swathes of Barbaresco’s best vineyards and crus, and under the direction of Aldo Vaca, as knowledgable and understated a winemaker as any in Piedmont, the results are always worth drinking – in difficult years, sound and durable, in great years, off-the-charts wonderful.

Most wine journalists would agree with that assessment, just as most wine journalists have a kind of mental reservation that limits the praise they confer – maybe because it’s a co-op, and there is all the glamor of the single grower/artisan as opposed to the supposed “industrial” operation of a co-op. Let me start 2016 by saying that’s nonsense: The individual growers of Produttori di Barbaresco, and the winemaking skills of Aldo Vaca, between them make wines that stand on a par with any from the Barbaresco zone. These are simply great wines at great prices. My intention is to get more of them.

And so we turn the page from 2015 to 2016 – a look back, and a peek forward. Good luck and good wine to all of us! I have a feeling we’re going to need both.


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