“Campania Stories” and My Campania Story

March 28, 2015
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend Campania Stories, a week-long event held this year in Naples and Avellino. These days of intensive tastings and seminars allowed me organize and think through all the data I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years about the great changes going on in Campania. The upshot of it all is my large article that Quarterly Review of Wines has just posted online. Please go have a look. I’d love to hear your reactions.

Prosecco Can Age. Who Knew?

March 19, 2015

With a lot of curiosity and an only slightly smaller amount of skepticism, I last month accepted an invitation to a vertical tasting of Prosecco, a wine that is usually drunk young and fresh. The producer so bravely putting himself and his wine on the line was Primo Franco, owner of the Nino Franco winery (Nino was his grandfather) in Valdobbiadene, the heart of the heart of classic Prosecco country.

imagesI knew his wines to be excellent examples of the breed, with charm and elegance and fruit and an ever-so-slight hint of sweetness in the finish – lovely Proseccos, all of them, and I and a lot of other wine professionals regard his Prosecco Rustico as one of the best bargains in sparkling wine of any kind from anywhere.

And since I also knew him to be a serious winemaker, devoted to the highest standards of quality in the field, the cellar, and the bottle, my curiosity easily trumped my skepticism, so there I sat waiting to taste library samples of his Prosecco Primo Franco DOCG 2013, 2003, 2000, 1997, 1995, 1992, and 1989.

Seeing the projected lineup of wines, my skepticism had a little resurgence. 2003 was a wet, wet year all over Italy, and disastrously so in some regions. 2000 was hot, very hot, everywhere, producing a lot of wines that feature both over-ripe fruit and under-ripe tannins – not the best combination for a sparkling wine of elegance and charm. 1997 was superb in Tuscany, OK in Piedmont, and not so good further to the northeast. ’95 I couldn’t really recall, but I was pretty sure that ’92 hadn’t made distinguished wine anywhere.

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All these forebodings were reinforced by Primo himself, who in his preliminary remarks said that all the vintages he was showing had been very difficult – too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry – and (this confounded me) they had been chosen to be shown after he had tasted through some 30 consecutive vintages in his own cellar. We have got here, I thought to myself, either a brave man and a master winemaker or a complete lunatic. An hour later, it was very clear he wasn’t even a partial lunatic.

So here’s the short story: The 1989 was a little disappointing, showing a perceptible tad of oxidation – not a bad wine by any means, but a come-down from the superb standard that had been set by the other six vintages. Primo felt this was bottle variation: “Not the best bottle of this vintage” he had tasted recently, he said.

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Those other six bottles were across the board textbook top-of-the-line Prosecco, delightful to drink and fresh even at over 20 years old. Indeed, I was amazed at how consistently, through the whole lineup, aromas of honey, smoke, and acacia flowers persisted, how the palate deepened and intensified ever so slightly from vintage to vintage, how it preserved always the hints of spice and dried apricot and slate, the elegance and appealing effervescence of the youngest sample. (For more detailed tasting notes on these wines, see Charles Scicolone’s comments here.)

This is first-class winemaking, and a superb demonstration of the potential of the Glera grape (it used to be called Prosecco) in the right soils under the right hands. Several of the tasters, and Primo Franco himself, noted similarities between Glera and the great Chenin blanc wines of the Loire. There, Chenin yields wines dry and sweet, still and sparkling and capable of great age, as does Glera in Valdobbiadene.

Alas, the comparison doesn’t end there, because both varieties and regions are esteemed by experts but largely underappreciated by the general public. More makers of Primo Franco’s quality, offering more such graphic demonstrations of their wine’s greatness, should change that.

Wine Pros(e) and Cons

March 9, 2015

There is probably more writing about wine available to consumers now than ever before. That is due, of course, to the great democracy of the internet and its multiple channels for conveying opinions and information: blogs, social media, tweets, comments, consumer evaluation forums, and so on. The problem is, who checks the accuracy of the information? How do you judge the value of Person X’s opinion? The great democracy of the internet really culminates in a grand indeterminacy, in which – all too often – the more you can find written about a subject, the less you confidently know about it.

Just a few examples:

blog collage

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The blogosphere is enormously heterogeneous. It contains many serious wine writers who post useful information that could otherwise not easily be dug out – about, for instance, wineries in the American Midwest, unusual grape varieties, distribution patterns and consumption patterns – but it also hosts naïve enthusiasts and egoists who present their momentary reactions and crackpot theories as eternal truths. Nobody fact-checks the internet the way editors – a dying breed – used to check articles submitted for publication, and no one verifies authors’ credibility. I know this sounds like an old geezer’s lament, but it is true: Nowadays, having an opinion is sufficient warrant to publish it.

Well, I taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for several decades, and I can assure you of one great undemocratic truth: Not all opinions are equal. Your opinion is only as good as the data you can gather to support it and the intelligence and insight you can bring to understanding both the subject and the data. Beyond that, there are valid and invalid ways of using both, and knowing which is which takes experience: You have to learn it over time, and exercise it until you’re comfortable with it. Think of good judgment – or a good palate, if you prefer – as a muscle that can be developed by use and atrophied by idleness. So – speaking again as one who’s been doing this for a long while – writing about wine should involve a lot more than simply voicing your likes and dislikes as if they were fundamental truths.

I can understand why many people might not think so. Lots of terms that wine writers use generate confusion in readers. It’s hard, after all, to find objective language for what are largely subjective reactions. Moreover, since drinking wine is a greatly pleasurable activity, it’s understandable why many consumers assume that learning about it and writing about it must be equally subjective and enjoyable. While nobody in his/her right mind would undertake wine writing – or winemaking, for that matter – without a passion for it, the nasty little secret of professional wine tasting and writing is that they are rarely fun: They are work – hard, plodding work.

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hard plodding work

Is this the fun part?

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The civilian world – wine consumers – by and large think of tastings as enjoyable occasions, where they’ll sample six or eight wines, usually with some food, often with a full dinner, and with a professional – perhaps the winemaker – leading them through the tasting, essentially telling them what they’re experiencing and how excellent it is. There are various degrees of intensity and seriousness to these events, but they are rarely analytic or evaluative exercises. Essentially, their purpose is publicity or sales.

That may be a bit harsh. Some commentators at such events do try to convey real information – but I’ve got to say, at the risk of offending some of my colleagues, that most presenters at tastings designed for consumers try much harder to entertain than to inform. It’s not a choice I can fully respect: I think it sells at least some of the paying customers short and underestimates their intelligence and seriousness. (Perhaps I’m being naïve; perhaps the entertainers are right. If so, so much the worse – for me, I guess.)

Obviously, many consumers are quite content to enjoy wines without needing to know all about them – and who can fault that?  Many, many wine blog posts – the kind I think of as “What I Drank with Dinner Last Night” (a type I have been guilty of myself ) – deal almost exclusively with enjoyment, not analysis – and, unless they’re offered as analysis or eternal verity, who can fault that?

Nevertheless, there remains a gulf between the writing that results from serious wine tasting and the writing of even the most acute uninformed opinions. An occurrence a few years ago at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual week-long, for-professionals-only tasting of newly released Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba) summed that up for me.

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many bottles

Yes, you have to taste them all

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The organizers of the event, in a laudable attempt to “get with it,” had not invited many of the print journalists who had been their customary clientele and instead had asked a large number of bloggers to attend. So at the start of the week, bloggers of every stripe and several languages were present in force in Alba.

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tasting room

At work in the lab

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On the first day of the event, every place in the three tasting rooms was filled, and the tastings began in silence, just as austerely and rigorously as ever, with somewhere between 65 and 80 young Nebbiolo wines to be gotten through before lunch.

The next morning, there were conspicuous empty spaces. By the third morning, the tasting rooms were half empty. I don’t think a single blogger made it to the end of the week. Who can fault that?  There’s no question that it was brutally hard work, both physically and intellectually: Staying focused through repeated flights of young, tannic wines day after day requires real effort, and not everybody is capable of it. More than one winemaker I visited that week said “I couldn’t do what you do” – meaning not me personally but the whole cadre of tasters.

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tom tasting

Focus, focus, focus!

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But the point is that those who abandoned the tastings after a day or two thereby lost the whole point of the event: gaining knowledge of the character and quality of a whole vintage for an entire major wine zone. That’s knowledge and experience that can never be made up in any other way, and no amount of enthusiasm or personal certainty can equal it. How many of those disappearing bloggers, I wonder, went on to write “authoritatively” about that Barolo vintage?

In a later post, I may return to the differences between professional tastings and consumer tastings, because I think it’s an important topic and an all-too-often misunderstood one.

Bolla’s Back!

February 26, 2015

Long ago, when I was young and serving my time deep in the heart of Woody Hayes country, I used to revere the Bolla company. Bolla’s wines were then the best-known and best-distributed Italian wines in the US, and in the Midwest were often the only drinkable wines I could get. So I blessed their makers and drank a lot of them – Bardolino and Valpolicella and occasionally Amarone (I wasn’t earning much money back then) and of course the firm’s Soave, so well-known, so popular, and so reliably good that it practically became one word: Soavebolla.

That, of course, eventually became its undoing: Popularity led to increased demand led to overproduction led to decline in quality led to, eventually, a watery, characterless Soave and red wines that, if not following down the same road, at very least shared a fallen reputation. Sic transit gloria mundi, and Bolla went from being a dominant figure in the American wine market to playing a very marginal role in the Italian wine boom of the 70s and 80s.

Well, Bolla’s back, and that is welcome news. The source of the firm’s original quality lay in the fine vineyards it held in the heart of the Veneto’s prized wine zones. Those are still in place but under new management, so to speak.

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Vineyards

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ScrinziIn 2008, Bolla was taken over by a joint venture of the Italian GIV group and the American Banfi firm. Christian Scrinzi, who had been winemaker with Bolla since 2001 and in 2006 had been appointed director of oenology, then began a complete renewal of Bolla’s winemaking – everything from vineyard management to cellar equipment and procedures – with the goal of restoring Bolla’s premium quality and consequent reputation.

Lots of firms announce goals like that. With its new ownership, Bolla seems to be achieving them. My interest – and that opening fit of nostalgia – was originally kindled by drinking a bottle of its Amarone Le Origini 2006 some weeks back, as the holiday season dwindled down to its end. That bottle of Amarone provided closure for the holidays and opening for my curiosity. It was lovely and thoroughly classic: suave and deep and velvety, and drinking beautifully despite its – for Amarone – extreme youth. If Bolla was making wine that good again, I had to find out more.

To that end, I tasted through half a dozen of Bolla’s line. Here are the wines and my reactions to them, with all my usual caveats about the limitations of tasting notes.

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Bottle lineup

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2012 Soave Classico DOC
Light floral/mineral nose, medium body, showing nice white fruit (mostly undifferentiated, in the apple/pear range) and some minerality: The Soave zone is Italy’s northernmost volcanic terroir. The same generalized white-fruit finish. A very pleasant, enjoyable wine, with no sign of fragility or fading.

2013 Bardolino DOC
Here’s an old friend back after a long absence. Bardolino for some years just about disappeared from the American market, which was a shame, because it’s a charming wine with a real niche of its own. This one is a fine example of a lovely, slightly old-fashioned (thank god!) style of wine: light garnet in color; raspberry/blackberry notes in the nose; light body with berry-ish flavors and just a hint of tobacco (toasted oak?); good acidity; and a pleasant almost blackberry finish. Thoroughly enjoyable, and a perfect light lunch wine.

2013 Valpolicella DOC
In style, this simple Valpolicella is similar to the Bardolino. Berry/tobacco nose again, and the same notes on the palate. Slightly heavier in body than the Bardolino, with good acidity, and a longer, dried-fruit finish. Not complex, but very enjoyable.

2011 Le Poiane, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC
The ripasso technique referments Valpolicella on the lees of Amarone: It’s like giving the wine a dose of steroids. Very dark in color and in style. Earth, black plums, and tobacco (definitely toasted oak) aromas. Obvious tannicity, tasting of grape skins, earth, and black fruit, with a long, drying finish. For my palate, too much evidence of wood throughout makes this wine a little clumsy.

2009 Amarone Classico DOC
Very dark garnet. Mostly wood on the nose, with black, plummy fruit well underneath. The same dark fruit shows through on the palate, but there is still an abundance of tannins. Good black fruit again in the very long finish, which bodes well for this wine, but it needs years yet. As it opened, however, the up-front fruit got very sweet and even more forward, so it will please greatly those who drink Amarone young (fruit nuts, I say).

2011 Creso IGT
Markedly different aromas here from the rest of the wines. I smelled wood and Cabernet and Merlot as almost separate strands, but I was wrong about the Merlot. This wine is vinified from 65% Corvina (both fresh grapes and some partially dried ones) and 35% Cabernet sauvignon, and it sees a lot of barriques. On the palate, Creso shows sweetish black fruit (plum from the Corvina, I suppose): It’s big, soft, and slightly tannic, with a long, tannic, black-fruit finish. This wine is very well done of its kind, though this international style is far from my favorite in Italian wines.

All in all, coupled with that classic Amarone Le Origini, this lineup of wines shows that Bolla has terrific versatility and is turning out very enjoyable wines in a variety of styles. I’m a traditionalist, so I like best the wines that hew closest to the tastes of yesteryear – which is probably why I’m so inordinately pleased by the return of Bolla Bardolino.

 

Escape from Winter with Bartolo Mascarello and Ciro Picariello

February 16, 2015

On a recent evening, Diane and I enjoyed a very bright moment in the middle of this dreary winter. To accompany some braised short ribs, and to give us a treat and alleviate a bit of the depression that this seemingly endless grey, chill weather induces, I opened a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello’s 1998 Barolo.

barolo labelI expected an enjoyable bottle of a traditionally made Barolo: What we got was a marvel. By a great serendipity of timing, the bottle was absolutely at its peak, poised beautifully at the precise balance point of freshness and maturity. It was suave, it was elegant, it was complex, it was linear and structured, fleshy and fruity and voluptuous all at once. In trying to articulate what we found so wonderful about it, we both fell back on the image of our favorite Modigliani nude – linear and round at the same time, abstract and carnal, immediately accessible to the mind and the senses. Barolo just doesn’t get any better than this.

As most Barolo lovers know, Bartolo Mascarello was for decades an icon of traditional Piemontese winemaking, a model of integrity and consistency in his craft and in his life. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with him a few short years before he died, and his recollections were fascinating. He spoke quite modestly, even reluctantly, about his experiences in the Resistance, but he waxed eloquent and enthusiastic about his first experience, after Liberation, of American cigarettes: “Oh that aroma! That taste! I still remember it. So rich. We had been smoking straw, and those American cigarettes were intoxicating.”  Given his subsequent career in wine, it’s not surprising that aromas and flavors should stay fixed in his memory.

As he had resisted Fascists, he resisted fads in wine and fools in politics. He hated barriques, and he hated Berlusconi. One of his wines was once banned for sale in Italy because its label – he designed his own – proudly proclaimed “No Barrique  No Berlusconi.” Another said “We should make not barriques but barricades.”

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He even refused to make cru wines. Even though he owned vineyards in prime areas (two in La Morra – Rocche and Ruè – and a piece of Cannubi in Barolo), he continued the traditional practice of blending their unique characters to achieve the balance and harmony he and many other Barolistas consider the hallmark of fine Barolo.

In his last years, his daughter Maria Teresa had largely taken over the actual winemaking, and the recent vintages of Mascarello wine I’ve tasted indicate that she is following firmly in her father’s footsteps, both in style and in quality. Even though climate change in Piedmont has made all Barolos much more drinker-friendly much earlier than they used to be, these remain wines to cellar. Sure, you can drink them young – but given the amazing grace with which they mature, you’d be a fool to do so.

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???????????????????????????????On another such serendipitous evening as our Mascarello experience (yes, I’ve been dining well this winter), I opened a bottle of Picariello’s 2012 Fiano di Avellino to drink with some simple but excellent broiled chicken legs from a great poultry farm on Long Island. Ciro Picariello is first and foremost a classic Campanian grape grower, honest, hardworking, unpretentious, passionate about his wines and justifiably proud of their quality. He farms about 7 hectares – roughly 18 acres – high in the hills of Irpinia, and he oversees his lovely Fiano from blossom to barrel. Though, in fact, he doesn’t use barrels: His Fiano ferments and ages entirely in stainless steel. He and his wife started their winery in 1997, but he didn’t bottle anything under his own name until 2004 – and he attracted attention right from the start. Now he is a frequent winner of Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association.

2012 was a lovely white wine vintage in Campania, and Picariello has made the most of it. His wine is medium-bodied – almost full-bodied for a white – and round and soft in the mouth, with abundant but totally unobtrusive acidity to keep it vivacious. This wine struck us immediately by its purity and intensity: White flower and hazelnut scents, and apple/pear toned fruit, with hazelnut undertones and the generous minerality of its volcanic soils. It was an intriguing, complex wine from the very first taste, and one that constantly grew and changed in the glass. For all its immediate pleasure, it also hinted an ability to age and mature in very interesting ways. I’ve not tasted any bottles of Picariello’s more than five years old, but they all seemed still very fresh, with years before them. For anyone with a taste for fine, mature white wines, I’d suggest that Picariello’s Fiano is a name to add to your cellar list.

It’s being a long, hard winter, but happily there are ways to escape it that don’t involve long plane trips.

Brunello 2010

February 6, 2015

By now, I’m sure that anyone with the smallest interest in wine has heard at least some of the hoopla about the 2010 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino. The ’10 Brunellos are just now being released, because of the strict aging requirements that the Brunello DOCG demands. I didn’t make it to the Benvenuto Brunello event in Montalcino this year, where almost all the Brunello producers showed their wares, especially their 2010s, so I only caught up with any of the wines recently.

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Brunello seal

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Last month at Gotham Hall in New York, 44 Brunello producers showed their new releases. Forty-four may sound like a lot of Brunello makers, but it is only a fraction – about one-fifth – of the ones who pour their wines at the Montalcino event, so the New York version hardly gives a comprehensive view of the vintage. As you might expect, most of the participants here were larger estates, and all were wines that have already established at least a toehold on the American market. Consequently, I can’t make any judgments about what the vintage was like throughout Montalcino: My comments can reflect only the group of wines I was able to taste.

Enough qualifications: Let’s cut to the chase. What do I think of Brunello 2010?  Well, it’s unquestionably a good vintage, potentially a very good one indeed, but it’s not of the same caliber as the 2010 vintage was in Barolo and Barbaresco, which are superlative wines. Brunello producers love their 2010s, especially because they follow a few less-than-exciting harvests. The winemakers themselves who were actually in attendance in New York – very few, unfortunately – all raved about how equable the growing season had been, how problem-free the harvest went, what perfect ripeness the grapes achieved.

And I could taste that: All the wines, across the board, had fine structures, with good acidity, already softening tannins, and an abundance of dark-cherry fruit. Some displayed remarkable accessibility, being already pleasantly drinkable, though most still need time to fully come together. Almost all of them displayed the kind of equilibrium of fleshy fruit and acid/tannin/alcohol structure that promises not only long life but really interesting development. I think many of these 2010s will get better and better as they age. Certainly, were I a few decades younger than I am, I’d put some cases away and forget about them for as many years as I could.

This is not to say there weren’t the usual evidences of the human ability to screw anything up. A few wines were perceptibly over-oaked and/or over-manipulated, so that good Sangiovese fruit was submerged in a sweet stew of oak and vanilla and coffee. But there were in fact very few of those, and most of the wines I tasted reflected admirable restraint in the cellar, letting the pure pleasure of Montalcino’s grapes and soils shine through.

So why am I hesitating to be as super-enthusiastic about these wines as I have been about the 2010 Barolos and Barbarescos?  Good question, and one I’ve been trying answer for myself ever since I tasted them. Partially, of course, one cause is the difference in the grapes themselves. For my palate, Sangiovese, much as I love it, never achieves the amazing complexity and layered-ness that the best vintages of Nebbiolo reach. Granted, that shows best with older wines, and younger Sangiovese almost always makes pleasanter drinking than young Nebbiolo. But I think the main reason I’m hesitating is the growing season itself and its results in the two zones.

Good as the 2010 harvest was in Montalcino – especially in comparison with the two preceding ones (both generously overvalued by the consortium) – it just doesn’t seem to me that it was as off-the-charts good as 2010 in Alba. As much as I enjoyed the vast majority of 2010 Brunellos I tasted, very few of them made me tingle with anticipation from the very first smell and smack my lips with relish at the very first taste as so many of 2010 Barolos and Barbarescos did. Granted, that may be purely a subjective response – but it’s the only one I’ve got to work with. I’m just not getting from Montalcino’s wines the intensity, the perfect pitch, that I got from Alba’s.

Still: For all that, these 2010 Brunellos offer extremely high quality and the probability of very long life. Just because I’ve got an almost impossible standard of comparison for them is no reason to ignore them. As I implied before, if I had the slightest chance of living long enough to drink them at their maturity, I’d be stocking up on them. And these, in alphabetical order, are the wines I’d buy first:

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Argiano
Very good; still lots of tannin, but plenty of acidity and fruit – a meaty wine in the very best sense.

Argiano.

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Armilla
A very small estate. Soft tannins, lively fruit, a bit of astringency in the finish, but developing nicely.

Armilla

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Banfi
This one’s going to go long – a big, structured wine, with excellent fruit. Totally worthy of the vintage.

banfi

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Barbi
The basic Brunello has a lovely nose, good fruit, terrific acid, soft tannins, all developing very nicely. The cru Vigna del Fiore is huge and will need years to show its no-doubt spectacular best.

barbi

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Belpoggio
Deep, dark nose, slightly tobacco-y. Big dark fruit on the palate, beautiful long finish, almost licoricey. Well structured, like all the best wines of this vintage.

belpoggio

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Canalicchio di Sopra
Lighter-bodied than most, but well balanced and juicy. Structure is sound, on a slightly smaller scale than the very best wines of the vintage.

canalicchio

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Col d’Orcia
Good tannic, grape-skin nose. On palate, soft tannins, fine fruit, lots of acidity, quite long finish. Should develop and improve for many years.

col d'orcia

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Ferrero
A classically structured, classic tasting example of this very fine vintage.

ferrero label

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Lisini
Another slightly light-bodied wine, but beautifully put together and already juicy and flavorful.

lisini

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Sassetti Livio Pertimali
Simply a gorgeous wine, one of the best of the vintage I’ve so far tasted.

Pertimali label

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Talenti
A huge wine, beautifully balanced, with deep black cherry fruit supported by excellent acid and tannin, for me the outstanding wine of the vintage. My hands-down favorite. I think this is a great wine.

talenti label

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So there you have it, 2010 Brunello as I’ve so far experienced it. I may report on the vintage again in future posts as I taste more of it, especially if I come across anything I like better than these.

Let’s Have More Champagne

January 23, 2015

The New York Wine Press’s annual Champagne luncheon was held last December, as it always is, in a private room at The Brasserie. This year’s event was a standout even among those normally fine tastings, however, both because of the selection of Champagnes – all Rosé – and because of the sheer pleasure of the dishes that The Brasserie matched with them: Kudos to everyone involved. Here is the menu.

Wine Press Holiday Menu

Once again, Maestro Ed McCarthy chose and introduced the wines – and make no mistake about it, these were wines in every sense, not Ed___Vietti__Dec_08_400x400just pretty party bubbles. Rosé Champagne usually has more body – more substance – than most other Champagnes, and because of the importance of Pinot noir in its blend, it can often show more complexity and depth than other Champagnes. As Ed pointed out, Rosé has had a terrific growth in popularity here in the US (which may lead the world in its consumption), from a mere 5% of the total Champagne market about a decade ago to 15% of it now. Once regarded by the great houses as almost a novelty, Rosé is now taken seriously indeed and produced with steadily increasing care and quality.

As you can see from the menu above, Ed and The Brasserie carefully matched the wines with their food and their role in the meal, starting from the lightest-bodied as aperitifs and working up to the heftiest (at least in price) – the vintage Champagnes – with that beautifully rare Beef Wellington. The interplay of the wines and their accompanying dishes was a good part of the pleasure of the day, and I enjoyed all the Champagnes and was impressed by the quality of every single one, even though a few of them caused me sticker shock. Most, however, fell comfortably into the range of very fair price for the quality of the wine.

So: to specifics. I’m not going to comment on every bottle, since all fell into the good-to-very-good range, but I’ll concentrate on the wines that I found most appealing. (Regular readers will understand that that means on this particular day in these particular circumstances:  As I’ve said repeatedly, no tasting note by anybody about any wine is engraved in stone and forever true.)

Among the aperitif Champagnes, I was most impressed by the Ruinart, which showed a greater liveliness on the palate and complexity in its attack and finish than the others. Note that this is not Dom Ruinart, which is a much more expensive cuvée than this reasonably priced bottle.

The next flight had to face the challenge of the lushness of fresh foie gras and its accompanying poached pear. All performed admirably: The sweetness of the flesh and the fruit called up all the wines’ Pinot noir subtlety. These are all very reasonably priced wines for their quality: roughly $65 to $75, which is certainly not extravagant for Champagnes of this caliber. The Laurent-Perrier, by the way, was the only 100% Pinot noir wine of the entire line-up, and very good it was. For all that, my favorite of this group was the Henriot Brut Rosé, which had a restraint and elegance that greatly pleased me. Ed thought it “a bit too young,” and he is probably right: It certainly seems to have the stuff to develop well for a few years yet.

The next course presented a very different sort of challenge to the wines, to integrate with the lushness of buttery lobster and chanterelles. It rarely occurs to me to match chanterelles with seafood, but they went together very well, presenting two different yet complementary kinds of intensity for the Champagnes to partner with – which they did quite superbly. This was my favorite flight of the day, both for the wines in themselves and for the way they married with the lobster and mushrooms.

Ed said that the Pascal Doquet – a Premier Cru – had been blended of four different vintages. This was a big wine, almost gutty. Not quite as big but equally fine, and elegant and complex to boot, the Charles Heidsieck didn’t so much challenge the intensity of the food as merge with it almost seamlessly. My favorite wine, however, was the Gosset Grand Rosé, which, while still a big wine, had the lightest body of these three but also extreme elegance and poise. For me, it was in fact the single best wine of the day, even though Ed thought it too “a bit young,” and even though he may well once again be right.

The final flight had to deal with the woodsy flavor of morels paired with the richness of a rare and juicy beef filet, encased in the thinnest possible pastry crust that had been smeared inside with foie gras pâté. All four of the wines that Ed matched with those flavors were vintage Champagnes, and all were very good, quite substantial enough to deal very pleasurably with the meat and mushrooms. Because they were vintage bottlings, these were – with the exception of the Louis Roederer, which is quite modestly priced – the most expensive wines of the day. Nevertheless, I have to say I found them less complex and intriguing than the flight that preceded them. I think Rosé may be one case in which the blended, non-vintage wine surpasses the usually more prestigeous vintage bottlings. For the record, my favorite of this flight was the Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve.

It’s not often one experiences so utterly unmitigated a set of pleasures as this occasion presented – not a dull wine or bland dish in the array. Would that we – all of us – should always be so lucky!

VINO 2015

January 19, 2015
To anyone hoping to attend my seminar on Campanian wine at Vino 2015 in New York, I must tell you I won’t be there. I have withdrawn completely from the event. The subject is important to me, and I wanted to offer a well-planned, clear, and useful presentation of a large, complicated, and significant mass of information. As of two weeks before the event began, I had received no information about, nor been consulted about, the scope of the seminar, what supporting materials (if any) will be provided, what wines will be available for tasting (that is, not individual producers’ wines: which kinds of the many Campanian wines). I think this lack of organization is unprofessional. It is disrespectful to me (and any other serious wine journalist), to the Campanian producers who will be disserved by its consequences, and to the individuals who will attend.

Bah! Humbug! Let’s Have Some Champagne

January 9, 2015

Regular readers of this blog probably noticed a one-hundred-percent absence of any mention of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, or any other  opportunity for retail recently loudly proffered by what seems to have been the entire universe. This was not an accident, but deeply felt revulsion against a commercialism to which I don’t want to contribute any more than absolutely necessary.

However, contribute I must. I love wine – drinking it, talking about it, writing about it – and wine is of necessity as much a commercial venture as it is a craft, and so unfortunately is wine writing. Alas, that two and two make four!  This makes me something of a commercial quisling or fifth columnist (I guess as a writer the latter is all too appropriate) and I’m stuck with it: As the Borg told Picard, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

So: I give up. Here – belatedly – is all the stuff about Champagne that I held back during the frenzied shopping/holiday season. If you love Champagne, you don’t need holidays to justify drinking it.

Ed___Vietti__Dec_08_400x400The first major event I want to talk about was the Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon, held at Felidia Ristorante. The wines for the day – all Blanc de Blancs Champagnes – were selected and commented on by Champagne connoisseur extraordinaire Ed McCarthy, who probably loves the fizz more than any other human being I know. Here is the full slate of the day’s wines:

  • NV Marion-Bosser Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
  • NV A. R. Lenoble Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • 2007 Ayala Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Bruno Paillard Réserve Privée Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Mumm de Cramant
  • NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Henriot Blanc de Blancs
  • 2002 Pascal Doquet Le Mesnil sur Oger Grand Cru
  • 2007 Deutz Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Lanson Extra Age Blanc de Blancs
  • 2004 Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs
  • 2005 Taittinger Comptes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs
  • 2002 Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Gosset Célébris Blanc de Blancs
  • 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires

There were also two non-Blanc de Blancs wines: NV Leclerc Briant Les Chèvres Pierreuses 1er Cru, a producer new to this market, and an unscheduled but very welcome magnum of 1999 Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs.

An impressive lineup indeed, especially since, as Ed pointed out, Blanc de Blancs constitutes in volume by far the smallest fraction of Champagne production. He explained that that is because of Champagne’s three main grape varieties, Chardonnay is the most expensive and least widely planted, because, in turn, of the variety’s demands about soil, exposure, and care. Some large houses just don’t have enough Chardonnay to spare from their blends to make a Blanc de Blancs, and others – because of its cost – simply opt not to. Consequently, many of the most interesting Blanc de Blancs Champagnes on the market come from small grower-producers, who don’t face the volume demands of the grandes marques.

This is not to imply that all Blanc de Blancs Champagne is great. Far from it: A lot of it can be pretty ordinary fizz, though “ordinary” in the rarefied world of Champagne can still be very good. In fact, several of these Blanc de Blancs struck me as run-of-the-mill – bearing in mind that the mill in question is a fine one. Blanc de Blancs all tend toward greater dryness than most other Champagnes, and most also have a comparative lightness of body and liveliness on the palate that make them, for many drinkers, the ideal aperitif Champagnes. A few have the heft and authority of the red-grape-blended Champagnes, but they are exceptions to the usual Blanc de Blancs style.

I’ll confine my remarks here to the wines that I enjoyed most and that the others at my table cast their votes for – the latter by emptying the bottles, the surest sign that a wine has been enjoyed.

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These included both Henriot wines, the NV Blanc de Blancs and the 1999 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs. Henriot is not as well known here in the states as many other of the grandes marques, but it is much esteemed in France, and consistently produces Champagnes of great elegance, as were both these examples.

Henriots

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The 2007 Deutz was relished with the largely fish menu:  Ed says the 2008 will be even better, and no more expensive. The 2004 Pol Roger and the 1995 Charles Heidsieck were among the fullest-bodied of all these wines, as well as among the earliest bottles to be finished – which tells you a great deal about the palates of the WMG members and guests.

deutz pol henriot

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For me, the stand-out wine of the day was the Gosset Célébris, a Champagne that combined Blanc de Blancs suppleness with both great muscularity and great elegance. I admit I’m partial: Gosset and Pol Roger are probably my two favorite Champagne houses. Neither has ever let me down.

gosset 2

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This post is already long enough: My next one will take up the season’s other key Champagne event, The New York Wine Press’s annual Champagne lunch, this year featuring Rosé Champagne.

A New Generation of Fellugas to the Fore

December 26, 2014

Another generation of Fellugas is attracting attention in Friulian wine production. Marco Felluga has been famous for decades for the quality wines he has created at his two estates, Villa Russiz and Marco Felluga. Now, his grandchildren, Antonio and Caterina Zanon, and their mother, Patrizia Felluga, have established a new winery in Collio. It is called Zuani. That is the ancient place name of the 30-acre hillside vineyard in Giasbana, in the heart of the Collio zone, where this latest generation of Fellugas has set up shop.

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Family

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Patrizia learned winemaking at her father’s knee, and she has passed that family lore on to her children, both of whom remember growing up in the Felluga vineyards. For all practical purposes, winemaking is embedded in their DNA, so this new venture is hardly a surprise. What may be a bit of a surprise is their choice to treat their horseshoe-shaped hillside site as a single cru, and to produce from it only one wine, a DOC Collio Bianco that blends – in more or less equal parts, depending on the harvest – Friulano, Pinot grigio, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc.

Collio, of course, excels in white wine production, consistently turning out many of Italy’s absolutely top-flight whites. For decades after World War II, the vast majority of those wines were monovarietal – Friulano, Pinot grigio, Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the region’s lovely, endangered Picolit. Just about 30 years ago, some bolder spirits began experimenting with an older tradition, a pre-World War I tradition, of blending varieties. What followed was a succession of truly great wines – Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, Livio Felluga’s Terre Alte, Marco Felluga’s Molamatta and Col Disôre. Few, if any, of those wines are field blends. Rather, their grapes are selected from different sites and meet for the first time in the cellar. So, while it is clear where the notion of a Friulian blended wine comes from, what seems unusual about Zuani is that it is a single-site wine.

What lies behind that choice seems to be a quirk of Friulian, or more specifically, Collian geography. Open-ended U- or horseshoe-shaped valleys, locally called ronchi, are a fairly common feature of the terrain in this part of northeastern Italy.

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Collio map

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The Zuani hillside seems to be one of the more compact ones, but it has the same advantage as larger ones: The inward-facing slopes of its U afford a whole range of different exposures, all within the protected confines of the valley. The soils throughout the hillsides are what Friulians call ponca, a mix of marl and sandstone. For viniculture, that’s a great combination: Different varieties, with different requirements of sunlight and maturation, can be accommodated at different sites around the valley, all enjoying the same soils and general growing conditions. Ergo, a ready-made cru site for a blended wine: nature cooperating with wine making – or winemakers taking clever advantage of what nature offers. Antonio, the winemaker, says that this allows them “to express the character of this place” rather than the character of the varieties.

I said above that Zuani makes only one wine. That’s not entirely correct: Patrizia and her offspring make one blend but in two versions: Zuani Vigne and Zuani Zuani – the latter in essence a riserva. In both cases, each grape variety is harvested separately and kept separate and cold-macerated before fermentation. The Zuani Vigne grapes are fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel and never see any wood. The Zuani Zuani grapes are harvested about two weeks later than the Vigne grapes and are aged on their lees in small French barrels, resulting in a fuller wine of very different style from Zuani Vigne.

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zuani wines

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I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to taste an intriguing small vertical of both styles.

Zuani Vigne 2013:  Nice mineral nose and nice acidity on the palate. White fruit showing up front – apples and pears – and also in the finish, along with slate/mineral notes. Very enjoyable already. Antonio says this is the best harvest of the last ten years.

Zuani Vigne 2012:  A warm vintage and an early harvest. Very ripe-apple nose. Fat and round on the palate, with less acid than the preceding wine, and stronger fruit presence. Slightly leathery finish.

Zuani Vigne 2011:  A very elegant aroma, counterpoising earth and fruit. On the palate, lovely balance and the beginnings of complexity. A very long apple/mineral finish. This was a lovely wine, and my unequivocal favorite of the tasting.

Zuani Vigne 2010:  The harvest conditions were similar to 2013, Antonio says. The wine is nicely evolving into complexity and elegance, but it needs a little more time: Right now it’s at a slightly awkward in-between stage. All these wines have fine structure and should last quite well: I wouldn’t hesitate to cellar any of them for a while.

Zuani Riserva 2012:  Very deep, ripe-fruit nose, an almost Alsace-Pinot-gris quality to its intensity. On the palate, the wine is round and fat, with lots of mineral notes and ripe-berry-ish fruits. Antonio grins broadly as he calls it “our red wine.”  It does not taste markedly of oak. This is a very interesting wine, especially for a not-great vintage.

Zuani Riserva 2011:  This wine has a much more mature aroma than the ’12, with less Pinot gris quality and more balance. The palate is slightly closed now but already shows balance and complexity. A very intriguing wine, with a long, pleasing finish.

Generally speaking, I preferred the Zuani Vigne wines to the Zuani Riserva (or Zuani Zuani: the family really must make up its mind how it’s going to label them). I like the clean taste of the fruit and the soil, un-adjusted by oak. Even when the taste of oak isn’t obvious, it still alters the wine. Those who like that shift will love the Riservas; those who don’t will definitely prefer the Zuani Vigne.


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