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Over the years that I’ve been writing about wines, the red wines of Italy have gradually assumed their rightful place among the world’s great wines. It’s pretty generally acknowledged now that Italy has three noble red varieties – Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico – and one great red wine of process, Amarone. There are probably more than that: Italy is a cornucopia of indigenous varieties, but for the moment, those three grapes and Amarone stand as Italy’s contenders for the crown of greatness. Of them all, Aglianico is probably the least known inside and outside Italy, though that is changing steadily as its finest avatar, Taurasi, claims more and more respect with every harvest.

 

Taurasi Grapes

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It’s almost certainly not news to even casual readers of this blog that I have long admired the Taurasi produced by the Mastroberardino family. For me, every bottle of their Taurasi I open is a time trip, a summary review of the history of Campania’s greatest red wine, and Campanian wine generally, since WW II.

Those wines have a much longer history than that, of course. The vineyards of Campania felix – Campania the blessed – were the Côte d’Or of the Roman Empire, and many an emperor and senator thought as highly of them as Napoleon ever did of Gevrey Chambertin. More than a millennium after the fall of Rome, under the Bourbon kings, the wines of Campania were still famed. It was only with the Bourbon kingdom’s defeat by the Savoy dynasty – an event known to history as the Risorgimento – that the south and its wines went into decline, a process that was for all practical purposes finished off by the phylloxera and WW II.

That’s where the modern history of Aglianico and Taurasi begin. For many years, that history has centered on the work of the Mastroberardino family. Their winery in Atripaldi was the largest and most up-to-date in southern Italy, and the family held the line on quality, resisting both the pressure to make lots of wine fast, and the pressure to plant “international” varieties. Indeed, because of the Mastroberardinos, Campania was saved for native Italian varieties. It now has the smallest acreage of French grapes, and the highest percentage of indigenous varieties, of any Italian wine region. Whether it be Taurasi you’re savoring, or a regional Aglianico, or a Greco or Fiano or Falanghina, it was the Mastroberardinos, under the leadership of the now almost legendary patriarch Antonio, working side by side with his brother Walter, who ultimately made that possible.
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Mastroberardino Vineyards

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As the family made a success of this enterprise, others took notice. Not only did new investment begin to flow into the Campanian wine sector, but also many growers who had previously been content to sell off their grapes (often to Mastroberardino) began to vinify and bottle under their own names. A rising tide floats all boats, and for a few decades now the tide of profit and prestige has been steadily rising for the wines of Campania. I think that the wines now emerging from Campania felix are the best they have ever been – though, obviously, I am not quite old enough to personally verify that.

I can, however, vouch for the quality of the bottle of Mastro’s 2006 Taurasi Radici that I opened with dinner a few nights ago. 2006 was a good vintage in Campania – a substantial touch above average, let us say, but not a great, off-the-charts vintage to set critics agog. This bottle was not a riserva or a cru: Rather, it was the kind of wine that Mastroberardino regularly produces.
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Would that every winery everywhere worked to such standards! It was gorgeous. Ravishing. Velvet in the mouth, with scents and tastes of dark berries and forest undergrowth, with lovely minerality, and an exquisite balance of acids and tannins and alcohol, and still an underlying freshness that indicated it would have had years of life before it if I hadn’t greedily drunk it now.

Call it infanticide: I don’t regret a single droplet of it. Who knows how many amphorae of their beloved Falernum the winos of the classical ages drank too young? Posterity hasn’t indicted them, and I can hope to get off with as little pain, and as much – or more – pleasure.

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Livio Felluga is a highly respected name in Friulian wine, and rightly so. Since the middle of the last century, at least, the family firm has been at the forefront of quality wine production in Friuli and a leader in raising the quality of — and calling worldwide attention to – the varietal wines of Friuli, especially the white varieties...

Tocai – now called Friulano – was the native variety that first drew the wine world’s attention to Friuli. The Felluga family championed it, and I can still recall my pleasure at sipping its almond-inflected goodness, way back when I first encountered it, longer ago than any of us would care to recall.

Livio Felluga

I remember with equally deep pleasure my first press visit to the Felluga estate, tasting the whole range of its white varieties while listening to Livio, the principal winemaker, delivering a non-stop monologue of carabinieri jokes that had us all – even those who spoke no Italian – in stitches. I briefly wondered whether anyone so funny could possibly make great wine. He could, and he did. The Italian wine world was rich in such multi-faceted characters in those days.
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Terre Alte was Livio Felluga’s great invention. First produced in 1981, it was from the start – and still remains – a blend of three white varieties in pretty much equal proportions: Friulano, Pinot bianco, and Sauvignon. All are grown in some of the best and highest fields – thus the wine’s name – of the firm’s great Rosazzo property, where the soils are a complex of marl and decomposing sandstone.
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Felluga’s Rosazzo Vineyards

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While there is obviously some slight variation from vintage to vintage, Terre Alte has maintained a pretty consistent character right from its start: It’s a big wine, round and full in the mouth, with great aromatics – minerals and flowers, white fruits and forest scents – and a highly complex, mineral-inflected palate marked by notes of apricot and tropical fruits. With all that, Terre Alte also ages very well, growing subtler and deeper as it does. This is a world-class white wine, from one of the best sites and best producers in one of the world’s great white wine regions.

Just recently I opened a bottle of the 2007 Terre Alte to match with Diane’s beautiful dish of braised chicken and morel mushrooms in cream. I am not a great chicken aficionado, but I thought this combination of flavors and textures was wonderful – and the Terre Alte thought so too.

The wine was a lovely copper-gold color. I don’t know whether it was the power of that visual suggestion, or whether this vintage was an example of the ramato style that used to be more common in Friulian whites, but the very floral nose was marked by a distinct coppery edge that I found very attractive. In the mouth, the wine was big and round, balanced, with fine acid. Minerals and flowers and dry white fruits dominated the palate, with dried apricot notes becoming more and more prominent as the wine opened.

This was a very nuanced wine: nothing blatant, but lots of intriguing flavor hintlets and that persistent coppery edge. And it had one final surprise: with cheese, it suddenly felt very clean and fresh, as if it had shed years of aging.

If only wine writers could do the same. Sigh.

Portugal has as long a history of winemaking as any country in Europe. Unfortunately, most modern wine drinkers know it for only one wine, Port – a special niche wine if there ever was one. The best Ports have an almost cult following, but most winos consider them as heavy, super-sweet, and old-fashioned – think quaint pictures of vineyard workers still crushing grapes by foot, and Victorian vicars passing carafes of old Port along with their cigars.

While the foot-stomping for Port still occurs, many other aspects of Portuguese winemaking are much more up-to-date. This tiny country may harbor as many indigenous grape varieties as Italy, and many of its producers are moving as fast as they can to reclaim its once sizable share of world wine markets. In rural districts, you can still see the occasional oxcart on the road, but nowadays you’re just as likely around the next bend to happen on large, temperature-controlled, stainless-steel fermenters and wineries with well-equipped, up-to-the-minute testing and laboratory equipment.

Portugal’s wine output is tremendously varied, and I haven’t the space – or the current knowledge – to survey it all. What I want to talk about is one great producer, the acknowledged master of Bairrada – which is both the name of a district and the Portuguese equivalent of its DOC. That’s Luis Pato, and the grape that makes his wines is Portugal’s indigenous Baga.
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Baga is a difficult variety: Some producers say impossible. In Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson’s brief entry on Baga describes it as a “controversial, demanding Portuguese variety capable of making great, ageworthy wines.” It can, she says, “make the best of wines and the worst of wines.” Much depends on whether the growing season stays dry long enough for Baga to reach full ripeness. Short of complete ripeness, its tannins can be brutal. But in the best vintages, Baga makes a wine that may be austere in youth but matures into a rich, fascinatingly complex mouthful of flavors that range from forest floor through a whole bowl of fruits to tobacco and smoke. These are amazingly long-lived wines, and can go on for years at their peak of flavor.
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A Baga vineyard in Bairrada

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Luis Pato is the master of this kind of Baga. A no-nonsense kind of guy, he recently withdrew from the Bairrada DOC because he couldn’t stand all the politicking it involved, so his newest releases no longer say Bairrada anywhere on the label. I was lucky enough just a few months ago to be able to buy, at a quite reasonable price (don’t ask), a small cache of 2000 and 2001 vintages of some of Pato’s bottlings. He does several, each representing a different vineyard: He even bottles one, called Quinto do Ribeirinho Pé, with grapes from a pre-phylloxera vineyard. I had the good fortune to taste this 30 or so years ago, when I visited Luis Pato – its intensity is still vivid in my memory – but I have never seen a bottle of it here in the US (and probably couldn’t afford it if I did).

What I did recently acquire was his 2001 Vinha Barrio and 2000 Quinta do Moinho, both for me rarities and treasures.
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As my regular readers will know, I’m very skeptical of the value of tasting notes (they’re true for one person, one time, under a set of peculiar circumstances), but I can’t resist giving you my reaction to the Quinta do Moinho:

Big big big!  Lots of semi-soft tannins. Black currants, berries and coffee in the mouth (coffee in the nose). Only 12.5% alcohol, but it feels much bigger – not hot, but mouth-filling and complex. Long coffee/berry finish. A fine, quite distinctive wine. Served with a risotto of mushrooms, onions, and Spanish chorizo. The cheese course (Pont l’Eveque and Taleggio) brought up all the wine’s sweet fruit – cherry/berry, quite fresh. This wine seems to have decades yet to go.

In discussions of Pato’s wines, you sometimes run across very esoteric comments comparing his Bagas to Bordeaux wines, with finely nuanced arguments for their more greatly resembling Cabernet-based left-bank wines or fruitier right-bank wines. I don’t see that at all: these Baga wines seem to me distinctive, quite different in character and flavor from French, or Spanish or Italian reds.

That distinctiveness was reinforced for me on an evening when we paired lamb chops and chanterelles with Pato’s 2001 Vinha Barrio. That vineyard has been since replanted, but when this wine was vinified, the Barrio vineyard was Pato’s oldest: head-trained vines, ranging between 80 and 100 years of age.

They yielded another extraordinary wine. It felt huge in the mouth despite a modest 13% of alcohol, and it had a heady aroma – tobacco, coffee, pine duff, multiple forest and forest floor scents. All these also showed up on the palate, plus – to my total surprise – apple and other white fruits!  With the lamb, it was all polish and depth: dark fruits, tobacco, dried berries, especially black raspberry.

Old vines can almost always surprise: here, a mature nose combined with a very fresh palate – in all, a wine of intriguing paradoxes, tasting to me nothing like any Bordeaux wine, much less any Barolo, to which it is also often compared. Pato’s wines are sui generis, and a very distinguished genus it is. I think you can see why, despite my distrust of tasting notes, I needed to present these to give you some sense of the complexity and caliber of Pato’s wines.

Gilbert and Sullivan said it best, if ironically: “There is beauty in extreme old age”* – both mine and wine’s. Well, maybe my beauty is arguable, but the beauty of old wine is certain. I offer in evidence the bottle of 1979 Caparone Cabernet that Diane and I drank at home one evening recently, alongside a French-style dinner of salade de géziers confit followed by squabs crapaudine.

This wine – 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Maria Valley, Tepusquet Vineyard – was a marvel. The winemaker, David Caparone, sent me the bottle some years ago, and I put it aside for an occasion or a dinner appropriate for it. This one seemed right.
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When I first pulled the cork, the faintness and delicacy of the aroma worried me a little, even though it was very pleasing. Might it not have lasted as long as 43 years? The worry disappeared as soon as I poured the wine. Its aroma opened, and even more striking, its color was grand! Still a crystalline garnet, with scarcely any visible orange edge, despite being, as its label says, “unfined and unfiltered.” It looked like a wine half its age.

I won’t give you a mouthful-by-mouthful account of our dinner: It’s enough to say that that Cabernet gracefully accompanied every dish. (See Diane’s account of the squab dish here). On the palate, it showed mature California Cabernet fruit – no youthful boisterousness, of course, and nothing “in your face,” but also none of the pruniness of mature Bordeaux Cabernet.
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Santa Maria Valley vineyards

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The best description I can say is that it was vinous in the richest and most profound senses – medium-bodied but mouth-filling, composed and serene, seemingly open and self-evident, yet rewarding the slightest attention with constantly shifting nuances. Near the end of the bottle, it grew sweeter, as if its fruit were intensifying – a very lovely ending for a memorable bottle. Need I say that this is great winemaking? Thank you, Dave.

Now, I admit that I may not be aging as splendidly as that wine did, but I had the inestimable advantage of being able to drink it. No small pleasure of age is that I can now consume, at leisure and thoughtfully, the wines I accumulated when they were young and affordable, and I was still toting that barge and lifting that bale.

Way back then, when I was bit by bit picking up the knowledge and experience to start making sense of wine and my life, my palate ran to young wines, fresh, lively, up-front. Those are fine, and I can still enjoy them, but only gradually did I learn how much more there was to wine, not to mention to life.

Now I savor wine more slowly, more contemplatively, with far greater sense of its nuances than my younger self perceived. That’s true too of my life, now that I understand what my younger self was working toward. Without any real awareness of it, I was buying time, and it’s the best investment I ever made. That’s what age gives you: the ability to appreciate one’s own hard-earned savvy and a wine’s slow-matured savor. We old geezers know things our younger selves never imagined, and we enjoy things that still lie outside the scope of young wine drinkers (and I mean both young drinkers of wine and drinkers of young wine).

That’s the beauty of extreme old age – both mine and the wine’s. It’s a preternatural youth who knows at 18 everything s/he might know at 80 – but there are an awful lot of young people (of every generation, to be sure) who know at 18 all they’re ever going to know: “wine spritzer” people, not capable of long keeping or contemplation. I wish all my readers very long keeping and deep contemplation, and the wines to go with them.

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*  There is beauty in extreme old age.
….Do you fancy you are elderly enough?
….Information I’m requesting
….On a subject interesting:
….Is a maiden all the better when she’s tough?
…………………………..The Mikado

Lake Garda is Italy’s largest lake, and one of the most beautiful. Its shoreline grows the northernmost palm trees in the peninsula, and the fields around it yield a lovely olive oil. But for the resolutely focused wine lover, its greatest accomplishments are the splendid wines it produces, especially from the Lugana zone along its southeastern rim.
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This small wine zone – with a very distinctive soil, predominantly white clays and limestone varied with alluvial deposits, volcanic traces, and stony mountain gravel – seems to have a vocation for white wines. Those soils give Lugana white wines great freshness and character, making them wonderful food wines, companions to everything from fresh shellfish to roasted fowl. With warm weather not too far off (he said hopefully), those whites are getting my attention now.

Recently, I had the opportunity to taste an array of them, at a wine luncheon arranged by Susannah Gold, who represents the Lugana consorzio in the US. I enjoyed ten wines, in all of Lugana’s approved styles: Spumante, Lugana, Lugana Superiore, Lugana Riserva, and Vendemmia Tardiva.
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All the wines are made from a single variety: Turbiana, alias Trebbiano di Lugana. Despite the alias, Turbiana isn’t related to actual Trebbianos, but rather is a close relative of the Adriatic coast’s esteemed Verdicchio. Those who follow Italian wine closely know that’s a good family to belong to: Verdicchio yields wines that not only drink well when young but are also capable of fine aging. As winemaking techniques grow more sophisticated in the Lugana zone, its Turbiana is showing an ability to follow suit.

One other important item about Lugana: All its wines spend a long time on their lees, which makes them rounder and fuller, a sort of underscoring of the varietal fruit and flavor. Some white grapes lose freshness with that sort of treatment, but that has – in my experience – never been a problem for Lugana.

So here are the wines I tasted:

  • Sguardi di Terra Lugana Brut Spumante. This sparkler was made by the champagne method, Metodo Champenoise, and a charmer it was, a perfect apéritif: dry, lightly frizzante, with lovely fresh white-fleshed-fruit flavors.
  • Citari Lugana Sorgente 2020. This and the next wine partnered casonsèi, a rustic sausage-stuffed pasta of Lombardy, dressed with butter and sage. Both were very enjoyable with the dish. This wine was very soft and round, lightly fruity, with subdued acidity.
  • La Meridiana Lugana 2020 Organic. This wine was somewhat similar to the Citari, but a touch more subdued and also fuller. Perhaps it was a bit closed: It might need a little more time in bottle. It showed very fine acidity and a fine, dry, fruit finish, which bodes well for it.
  • Tenuta Roveglia Limne 2020. This and the next two wines accompanied a more complex meat-filled cabbage roll served in tomato sauce. Again, all three wines matched excellently with the food. This one was very nice indeed, biggish, with lots of fruit and minerality.
  • Colli Vaibò Lugana 2019. This wine greatly resembled the preceding one, and it bloomed with the food, opening to show more and more character. The extra year of aging, here as in the next wine, seems to make a real difference. Very fine.
  • Zeni Lugana Vigne Alte 2019. This was the biggest, most mouth-filling wine of this trio, and it grew even bigger and more flavorful with the food. As it opened, I tasted a resemblance to Soave Classico: Some people conjecture that Turbiana, aka Trebbiano di Lugana, is related to Trebbiano di Soave.
  • Seiterre Lugana Superiore 2018. A lovely, pale gold wine, with all the characteristic flavors of its breed, nicely maturing.
  • Zenato Riserva 2016. This wine showed more body and depth of flavor than its very light gold color would lead you expect. It is in no way tired or even peaking, which gives some hint of what Turbiana can do.
  • Tenuta Roveglia Filo di Ariana. Medium-bodied late harvest wine, with good minerality and suggestions of almond and white fruits. This wine comes from old vines, which gives it nice concentration and a bit of intensity.
  • Cobue 31 October 2019. A very pretty-in-the-mouth dessert wine vinified from overripe late harvest grapes. Its whimsical name tells you exactly when that occurred: the last day of October, 2019.

This lunch provided an impressive demonstration of Turbiana’s great range. Its zone may be small, but its potential is large indeed.
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I hate to sound cynical, but I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who happily consume Pinot grigio have no idea what that wine tastes like at its best, and that it should always taste that way. They’re mostly drinking, probably at inflated prices, inexpensive Pinot grigio that is being almost mass-produced for its apparently indiscriminate and insatiable market.

Old timers will remember that we’ve seen this before, with insane fads for light Italian white wines that looked as if they would never end – until they did: Soave, once upon a time, and Verdicchio, both of whose quality producers have had to labor mightily to restore their reputations once the bubble burst.

I’m hoping Pinot grigio can avoid a similar fate. The quiet, steady, rock-solid work that many producers are doing throughout the whole arc of Pinot grigio’s cultivation zone ought – ought – to be sufficient to sustain the wine’s reputation when the thirst for watery whites moves on to another variety.

A good example of what I mean by the best of Pinot grigio can be found in the bottles from Albino Armani. This is a firm that – despite its trendy, very fashionable and “now”-sounding name – is not a new start-up but a family firm that has been making wine since 1607. The name is their own, and the present head of the winery, Albino Armani, has been visiting the US and presenting his wines wherever Covid restrictions make that possible.  He and I did not meet this time, though we did many years ago when I visited the firm’s Veneto estate and headquarters.

This time, my Wine Media Guild colleague and US representative of several Italian wine organizations, Susannah Gold, provided me with some samples to taste. They form the basis of what follows, though my long-standing esteem for Armani wines flows from that long-ago visit, when I was bowled over by the wonderful typicity that Armani achieved with every variety it grew.

This time I was tasting three of Armani’s basic Pinot grigios: one from Valdadige, one from the Venezie, and one from the Grave del Friuli.

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That trio was particularly interesting to me because it represented in miniature the west-to-east sequence of the primary zones for Pinot grigio production in Italy. Armani maintains wineries in each, so I expected each of my bottles to accurately reflect the characters of Pinot grigio’s different growing areas.
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All three wines were of the 2020 vintage, and all three showed nearly identical pale straw color, as you would expect of Pinot grigio. I tasted west to east, so my first bottle was from Valdadige, which proved to be a fine place to begin.
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It initially had a lovely stony-and-stone fruit nose, followed by earth and spice. Diane picked up a little lemon among the stones.  In the mouth, the wine gave similar stone fruit, earth, and spice flavors.  Diane tasted pear as well. Over all, it was smooth feeling, with restrained acidity and a touch of elegance. (How often can you say that of a Pinot grigio?) I particularly liked its long, dried-peach finish.

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My second bottle was Pinot grigio delle Venezie.

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Its aroma was very similar to the Valdadige wine, but a bit stronger and a touch earthier, as were the flavors it gave in the mouth. I tasted dried apricots on the palate and some peach in the finish, but overall I found it subdued: not fully open, in fact, as if it needed more time to pull itself together. Diane called it austere. Based on the aroma and the finish, I think this wine will grow in time – six months, a year? – to become a really lovely example of almost hefty, medium-bodied, classic Pinot grigio. But not yet.

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My final sample was from the Grave del Friuli, which turned out, not to my surprise, to be my favorite: I think Friuli has a genius for all sorts of white wines and a bevy of producers – Jermann, both Fellugas, Princic, and Villa Russiz, just for example – capable of showing it.
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This Pinot grigio had a stronger, more assertive aroma than the first two. It featured the same kind of fruit but with more pronounced earth and mineral. On the palate, it seemed bigger, more complex, more characterful. Its finish was very mineral, with even a slight coppery edge.  This for me was the wine of the flight: I loved its weight and its complexity.

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Overall, these were three fine Pinot grigios. I would use the Valdadige wine for cocktails and aperitifs, the Friuli bottle as a dinner wine, and I would wait a year for the Venezie wine – and then drink it happily at any time.

 

In Praise of Pinot Gris

Pinot gris is the least celebrated of France’s noble white grape varieties. It’s also the most distinctive and, for my palate, the most interesting, so I’m very glad it’s finally enjoying a bit of attention from critics and consumers.
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However, there’s a lot of confusion about what Pinot gris is. You’re right, it is exactly the same variety as the Italian Pinot grigio. But the wines it yields in the Italian northeast – the arc from the eastern Veneto through Friuli, up to the Slovenian border – are very different from the wines it produces in northeast France; in Alsace, up against the border with Germany.

Different soils and climates, different clonal selections, different cultivation and vinification, very different aims – all make for wines that can be in no way alike. Unfortunately, there is an ocean of boring Pinot grigio being produced and only a trickle of really fine bottles, from a handful of serious makers like Albino Armani (more about this in a later post).

In Alsace, for at least the last decade – and for some producers much longer than that – the choice has been to target a different market segment, to opt for less quantity and more quality. I can only wish that more winemakers would choose this direction – and I’m pretty sure that no one who has tasted a Pinot gris from a good Alsace producer – Hugel, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, to name just the most prominent examples – will disagree.
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Vineyard image from internationalwinechallenge.com

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Jancis Robinson’s authoritative Wine Grapes says “Alsace Pinot Gris can be as luscious as a ripe peach or apricot, with a hint of smoke, developing biscuity, buttery flavours with age.” That’s true, but there is more to the variety than that: Bottles I’ve drunk, especially older ones, have also had a wealth of earthy, sometimes even metallic, notes: a little copper among the limestone. A few posts back I mentioned a 2013 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris that was emphatically in the range Robinson describes, but also with a little of that metallic zing. It was a lovely wine, and its departures from the “orthodox” flavor pattern didn’t disturb me at all. Pinot gris is a fascinating grape, and quite variable from producer to producer and harvest to harvest – all of which is part of why I like it so much: there can be a little surprise in every bottle.

That variability is probably traceable to Pinot gris’s origins. The Pinots in general present a huge ampelographical puzzle. The whole family is noted for its inclination to mutate, which makes working with any branch of the group – but especially one like Pinot gris, itself already a mutant – a tricky business. Our grape originated centuries ago as a field mutation of Pinot noir, and it remains one of the darkest of white grapes. Robinson describes Pinot gris berries as ranging in color from “pinky purple” to “almost as dark as Pinot Noir.”  That color range mirrors the range of styles that winemakers can coax from those grapes.
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Image from joyofwine.org

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To test and taste a really mature Pinot gris, a Trimbach Reserve Personelle of the excellent 2001 vintage (yes, this is a white wine that will age 20 years), Diane and I made a small Alsace feast. Foie gras to start; then a choucroute garnie with spareribs, knackwurst, slab bacon, and kielbasa; and a sweet apple pancake as dessert. It was a long, slow dinner, and this 21-year-old bottle performed beautifully.

The wine was a lovely light amber-gold, with occasional green glints as the light changed. The aroma was just as pleasing: hay, and honey, and strawberries first, then undertones of forest and earth.

On the palate, the same flavor spectrum showed strongly, and the wine felt smooth, mellow, and deep, but not at all heavy. It was lovely, balanced and restrained, with that youthfully brash Pinot Gris fruit relaxed by age into a graceful symphony of flavors, marked on the palate and in the finish by that intriguing, almost coppery edge. It accompanied all three courses very happily, and it especially liked the choucroute, which highlighted the Pinot gris’s acidity, making absolutely clear what structures this wine and gives it its longevity.
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For me this was a great indulgence, both because I love choucroute – it’s a great winter dish – and because I also love mature wines, especially when they confirm my beliefs about their character and merit, as this gorgeous Pinot gris certainly did.

Burton Anderson has a new independently published anthology/memoir, Vino II. It is available on Amazon, and if you love Italian wine, you should get it, read it, and prepare for the exam: It will certainly be on any test I administer.

Sorry: that’s just the old teacher in me asserting himself.

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Vino II
is a time trip back to what I more and more think of as the heroic age of Italian winemaking, when the sleeping giant finally awakened and shrugged off the rust and dust of centuries. Back in the 1960s, names like Sassicaia and Tignanello were scarcely known in Italy outside of Tuscany, and you could search for days in the best wine shops to find a Barolo or Barbaresco with a vineyard name on the label. All such stuff was in the future, and that future is what Anderson’s book is all about.

Anderson was not only an eyewitness but also, if you will, a catalytic figure, who by his interactions with winemakers and by his publications helped shape that future. The original Vino, published in 1980, was brilliant, nearly prophetic, in its selection of makers and wines and regions to present and explain. For most readers, it opened a whole new view of an Italian wine world that stretched far beyond Chianti in a straw flask and Verdicchio in a fish-shaped bottle.
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Vino II
chronicles the great renaissance of Italian wine that followed. Anderson and I are just about the same age, but there is no question that, for English-speaking persons who love Italian wine, he is the father of us all.

How to talk about Vino II? It’s in part an anthology of articles that Anderson has written over the decades, all of them timely at the moment of writing and almost all of them just as relevant and telling today. These are woven into a chronological account of the revival of Italian wine and Anderson’s engagement with and too-often unrequited love for it. No: scratch that. Italian wine rarely let Anderson down; it was the commercial world of wine publishing that often did.

Anderson as a young man took tremendous financial risks to follow his love of the wines and the people who make them. You would think the importance of his work – the original Vino was and is a landmark book is the history of Italian wine – would have assured him a comfortable income from which to carry on, but that was never the case. Even the “raters” – the 100-point-score wine writers whom he despises — probably are better known today than he is; and he – who writes only in English – is probably better known in Italy than in either the US or the UK. Anderson is mordantly aware of the ironies here. Nevertheless, though he may have made some unfortunate financial decisions, he has also made some brilliant life choices, and we are the beneficiaries of those.

His stories, in Vino II, of conversations and dinners with the likes of Giacomo Bologna and Costantino Rozzi, with almost mythical winemakers like Giorgio Grai, owners and winemakers like Sergio Manetti, Angelo Gaja, and many, many more, all read like excerpts from the journals of Rabelais in Italy. Moreover, they illustrate very clearly how wide-open and wild-westish the world of Italian wine had become in the sixties and seventies of what is now the last century. Everything lay in the future: The present was all flux and change, with no surety about what would happen next. There were giants in those day, and Anderson ate and drank with them.

This book was a major nostalgia trip for me, but I know that for many people it will serve as an excellent – and vivid – introduction to the story of how Italian wine achieved the prestige it now has, and even more importantly how and why it has become so complex. The most amateur of wine drinkers knows to expect complexity from Burgundy and knows that there is a long tradition behind the most seemingly arcane of distinctions in French wine, but most wine lovers – and I include here the great majority of wine “professionals” – remain basically clueless about the great diversity of Italy’s noble varieties and the incredibly diverse geography and geology of the country that created and preserved them. As was true of Vino in 1980, Vino II is a great place to start pleasurably learning about them. Not to mention savoring the tales of the great individualists – and I emphatically include Burton Anderson among them – who created the marvelous cornucopia of fine Italian wine we enjoy today.

A Tale of Two Bottles

Over the course of many, many meals at home during this long siege of Covid, I’ve been winnowing down my collection of older wines. Over the years, I’ve tried to keep some sort of track of what wines I have, but I am not really a very orderly type, and some things just got away from me. Occasionally this has produced a nasty shock, when I’d discover that a wine I really wanted to drink now had apparently been drunk long ago by an unremembering me.

Very occasionally, the shock has been a pleasant one, as when, recently, looking for a wine for a belated holiday dinner with friends, at the bottom of a nearly depleted bin I discovered two dusty bottles of Bonneau du Martray Grand Cru Corton 2000 – perfect accompaniments for the boned and rolled fresh ham Diane was roasting for that fête. Serendipity!
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Some of my regular readers may recall that back in September 2021 I opened a bottle of 2001 Bonneau du Martray Corton for that month’s cellar selection. Really attentive readers may even recall there was a bit of drama about the condition of the cork and whether the wine would be sound. (It was.)

Well, those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it, so I once again had my bit of drama. After I wiped a healthy layer of dust from the two bottles, I began carefully drawing the corks. The first bottle cooperated beautifully: the cork came out smoothly, and the wine smelled wonderfully fresh, still fruity and live. The second bottle, which had lain in identical conditions by the first one’s side for all these years, was a very different story. Its cork looked sound, but when I began to try to ease it out, the top quarter-inch pulled away from the rest of the cork, which proceeded to crumble to pieces. What I could sniff of the wine in the bottle was no more reassuring than the condition of the cork. No serendipity this time.

A combination of curiosity and parsimony made me not discard that bottle but set it aside, lightly covered. I also kept a decanter and filtering wine funnel handy, though I selected a backup bottle should that second Corton prove as dead as I feared it was. I would leave it up to our guests whether, for science (science is a stern mistress) they wanted to try a taste of it or not.

Well, dinnertime came, and we six started with a pureed cauliflower-and-leek soup – a nice wintry dish – accompanied by an absolutely gorgeous bottle of 2013 Zind Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Hunawhir Pinot Gris. I really must do a post about Alsace Pinot Gris sometime soon: the characteristically rich aroma and the complex, deep fruit of this wine set a very high bar for my 21-year-old Corton to match.

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Well, the first bottle of Corton cleared that hurdle easily. It was wonderfully smooth and elegant in the mouth, with delightful fresh berryish scents, and a palate of similar fresh fruit flavors, mingled with more mature meaty sweetnesses and foresty notes. Just a fine wine, which was very quickly consumed by the assembled multitude.

This of course led to the question of Bottle #2, which, given how fine #1 had been, was no question at all: Curiosity prevailed. I filtered and decanted it, poured it around, and awaited judgment as we all judiciously swirled, sniffed, and sipped. No one spat.

It wasn’t dead. It wasn’t corked. Weakened, yes. Paler in color, much lighter in aroma, and more delicate in taste than the first Corton, but definitely still alive. To me, it tasted at least ten years older than its sibling, but if we had drunk it first we wouldn’t have been disappointed. We would probably have called it charming – not overwhelming, but in no way bad.

This was a very, very illuminating demonstration of just how much difference a cork can make in a potentially superb wine. How long the world’s supply of first-rate cork will last is yet one more environmental problem. Worry, worry, worry.

Loomings

Yesterday was the last day of 2021, and it was appropriately grey and gloomy, as much of the year has been. Covid’s grip doesn’t seem to be loosening, on my personal life, on my social life, on my professional life. I’m not sure how much I can continue to write about wine when I have access to so little news about it. I seriously doubt that very many people want to hear any more about bottles brought out of my cellar: Certainly, I won’t do another 12 cellar selections.

It’s all, as the King of Siam used to say, a puzzlement.

A paradox too. For me personally, wine has been the one steady consolation and joy available every day, no matter what. OK, that’s dumb: Diane and our life together is the first and foremost of those, and the many domestic pleasures we share – friends, food, books, music – come next. But at my now seriously advanced age, with the number of chronic aches and infirmities that sap my joie de vivre, wine looms very large among my pleasures. It’s probably literally true to say that wine is my surest physical pleasure. Certainly, I look forward all day every day to the bottle Diane and I will share with dinner – always a treat, always a little bit of a surprise, even to me who chooses it.

And that is one of the greatest joys of wine: It can always surprise you. No matter how well you think you know it, it can still catch you off guard, even with something as simple as the way this particular bottle of one of your everyday wines meshes with this simple pasta sauce that you make all the time. Things like that are a great everyday joy, and as long as they continue to be so, and as long as my palate holds out, I guess I’ll continue to celebrate them on this blog. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy them. Here’s to a Happier New Year!
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