Drinking in Portugal

December 9, 2019

Last month, Diane and I spent a tourist week in Portugal – a few days in Lisbon and almost a week cruising up and down the Douro river, best known to most winos as the pathway of Port to the world. Those who know me will find this perverse, because I never drink Port: It’s a palatal blind spot for me. I just can’t get past the sugar, in even the driest specimens. Fortunately, Portugal in general and the Douro valley in particular produce a great many other wines.
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Wine production in Portugal is really amazing. For a small country, it produces an astonishing variety of wines, from a truly enormous number of mostly native grapes, almost 500 of them by some counts. The best known – and that is not saying much – of the varieties cultivated and vinified are probably Touriga nacional and Touriga franca, which are very roughly comparable in character and vinicultural roles to Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc, though I wouldn’t push that analogy very far.

Other widely grown varieties include Baga, Periquita, Tempranillo, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Francisca – and those are just the reds. The even more varied whites include Alvarinho, Arinto, Codega do Larinho, Moscatel, Rabigato, Verdelho, and Viosinho, and their roles range from light-hearted Vinho Verde to serious-minded dinner wines.

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The shipboard wines tended strongly to the lighter, easy-drinking end of the spectrum. That’s understandable, from CroisiEurope’s (our cruise line) point of view: We’re all there to have fun, after all, and very few of our fellow travellers’ ideas of fun included serious wine. Besides, most of the line’s clientele are French, and I am constantly surprised by how little many French people actually know or care about wine, especially that of other nations.

Here is the list of the ship’s endlessly pourable at-no-cost wines:
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And here is the for-a-fee list:
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We found nothing on either list that would change anyone’s life. Mostly, they were simple, agreeable wines that adapted well to the ship’s good French-hotel cuisine.

The single exception, which we chose to match with the cruise’s special gala dinner, was one of only four French wines on the list, a Château Carbonnieux rouge, which turned out to be a 2003 vintage. This had been a bit of a shot in the dark, since no vintage was named on the list, but 2003 was a better-than-respectable vintage and is just about at a ripe drinking age now – so we lucked in, and enjoyed a classic red Graves with our gala foie gras and roasted veal.

For all my disappointment with CroisiEurope’s wine lists, I give it credit for (a) trying to expose its clientele to the range of Portuguese wine and (b) stocking a wine of the quality of this good Bordeaux and selling it at such a reasonable price (€42).

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Our brief stay in Lisbon was vinously much more rewarding. As Diane has reported in her blog, we happened on a tapas bar named Bebedouro, where over two lunches we enjoyed flights of red and white Douro wines. These provided a tasty and informative introduction to Portuguese wine, at least that of the Douro.

Montes Ermos 2017 DOC Douro, Vale de Cavalos 2016 DOC Douro, and Carm 2016 DOC Douro Reserva were the reds, all substantial wines worthy of attention, and all fine companions for BebeDouro’s tasty tapas.
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The whites included Porrais 2018 Douro DOC, Lacrau 2018 DOC Douro (100% Moscatel Galego Branco, almost totally dry: very intriguing), and Quinta Seara d’Ordens 2017 Douro DOC, a substantial wine blended from several native varieties – Rabigato, Malvasia Fina, and Fernão Pires. This restaurant was a serendipitous find for a pair of foot-weary, wine-curious tourists.
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The vinous highlight of Lisbon for us, however, was unquestionably the lovely bottle of 1970 Dão Reserva we drank with dinner at La Varanda, one of Lisbon’s best restaurants. The bottle provided little information other than the maker’s name – Vinicola do Vale do Dão – and the wine list none at all, other than a price so low (€55) that I seriously asked the sommelier whether the bottle was sound.
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La Varanda is a restaurant that sports a wine list with many very pricey bottles – if you could afford it, you could arrange a lengthy vertical of Portugal’s legendary Barca Velha here – so the cherry-picker in me couldn’t ignore a nearly 50-year-old wine at a bargain price. And very happy we were with it: The wine was in perfect condition, and kept getting better and better, deeper and more nuanced, as it breathed. Part of the fun of it, by the way, was the elaborate – and we gathered, traditional Portuguese – way of opening the bottle by cutting its neck with red-hot tongs and pulling the still-attached cork out along with the neck piece.
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After Port, Dão used to be the most famous name in Portuguese wine, way back in the Salazar days, before Portugal joined the EU and started modernizing its wine industry. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any reader of this post that modernization is always a mixed blessing. Back then, wine makers’ fortunes rose and fell with the quality of their product, and even though Dão is the name of a now prestigious region, the producer’s reputation was always the key consideration. This was especially so because Dão wine was then an unregulated blend of varieties at the choice of the makers, so everything rode on their skill and consistency. Dãos could be wonderful wines, with all the qualities of depth, complexity, character, and longevity that we wine lovers prize – so when I have a chance to taste an old one, made back in those now legendary days, I leap at it and, as in this case, I love it.

Another Tuscan Triumph: Rocca della Macie

November 28, 2019

I seem to be on a Chianti Classico binge: My last post was about Cecchi’s lovely Chiantis, this one is about Rocca della Macie’s. All of which is just fine with me, because Sangiovese, the grape that is the heart and soul of Chianti Classico, is one of the world’s finest wine varieties, capable of innumerable different manifestations and styles. Simply stated: I don’t get tired of it.

Just a few weeks ago, Sergio Zingarelli, the owner of Rocca della Macie and a former president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, presented to a very appreciative group of wine journalists a vertical tasting of six library samples of his Riserva di Fizzano, the estate’s flagship wine. They were 1995, 1999, 2005, 2011, 2013, and 2015.

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Riserva di Fizzano has been Rocca della Macie’s most important cru ever since the Zingarelli family acquired the vineyard in the mid-1980s. From the start, its wine blended 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet sauvignon, and 5% Merlot to make a beautifully balanced wine, austere in youth but maturing to a smooth, round, structured wine redolent on nose and palate of dark berries and earth, as poised and elegant as any Tuscan wine. The 1995 seems completely mature now, but the ’99 – a very great vintage – is still evolving, and I can’t guess how many years it still has in front of it. The 2005 also promises greatness, though it is right now reticent.
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A great change came with the 2011 vintage. Zingarelli and his enologist Lorenzo Landi (a Tuscan of the Tuscans, I have heard him called) dropped the Cabernet sauvignon from the blend and made it 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot. The 2013 vintage followed suit, while the 2015 blended 93% Sangiovese with 7% Colorino, an indigenous Tuscan variety: this seems to be the direction of the future for this important wine.

Let me stress how significant I think this is. First, omitting the Cabernet is an addition, not a subtraction. The beauty of the multifaceted Sangiovese fruit shows through immeasurably more clearly without the mask of Cabernet. The young wine is no longer so austere, but now feels softer and fresher on the palate, with a greater richness and intensity of fruit. It simply has more and purer Sangiovese character. The clonal research of the massive Chianti Classico 2000 project that the Consorzio undertook almost three decades back is clearly bearing fruit (all possible puns intended), and Riserva di Fizzano – now designated as Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – is showing quite evidently just how marvelous its results can be.

During the lunch that followed this vertical, Zingarelli showed some newer vintages that highlighted the continuing evolution of his Chianti Classico. First up was the basic Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico 2017, 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot, a fine wine displaying excellent fruit even though very young. I’d wait a year or so to drink this one, when I think it will be lovely.
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Next came the 2016 Rocca della Macie Riserva, 90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought this wine both lovely and a bargain (suggested retail price of $26.99: wow!) Terrific rich fruit, great balance, long, dry, cherry finish, drinkable now and structured for some years of life: As the current cliché has it, what’s not to like?

The third wine was Rocca della Macie’s second Gran Selezione, Sergio Zingarelli 2013, 100% Sangiovese. For my palate, this wine was a champion, elegant and structured, with decades of enjoyable life before it, and already showing complex, multifaceted Sangiovese character. Were I 20 years younger, I’d buy cases of it and stash it away where I couldn’t get my hands on it for at least a few years.
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The 2014 vintage of the same wine – a difficult vintage because of summer heat and humidity – tasted bigger and very ripe. This a very good wine, and very forceful and authoritative, but for me it lacks the elegance of the 2013. Lovers of big Chianti will no doubt prefer this bottling. That is a matter of taste: Both are fine Chianti Classico, as is almost everything from this progressive, increasingly important estate.

Cecchi: Toscanissimo

November 18, 2019

When talking about Tuscan wines, and especially Chianti Classico, it’s easy to forget the Cecchi wines, just as, when you’re trying to negotiate the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, it’s easy not to notice the Empire State Building. In their own way, both are monumental – and you have to step back a bit from both to put them in the proper perspective and see their dimensions clear.

I think it was Daniele Cernilli, the Italian wine guru, who said that in Tuscany, anyone who puts his mind to it can make a good bottle of Chianti – but to make 100,000 good bottles of Chianti, year after year, is a magnificent accomplishment. The Cecchi family has been doing just that for decades now. I do think it’s time we all started noticing.
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Cesare Cecchi, left; Andrea Cecchi, right

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Cecchi is a large firm, but it’s still family-owned and family-run. A lot of family wineries have grown substantially during the continuing wine boom of the past 40 years, but very few have grown as intelligently, with as consistent a level of quality, as has Cecchi. These days, brothers Cesare and Andrea are in charge of several vineyards in the Chianti Classico, the family’s home base, in the Tuscan Maremma, and in the Sagrantino growing area of Umbria.

For all the varied production that necessitates, the Sangiovese grape and Chianti Classico remain where Cecchi’s heart is: Those were the core from which it started, and where its best efforts still go.

I tasted recently a trio of Cecchi’s new releases, all Chianti Classicos: 2016 Storia di Famiglia; 2015 Riserva di Famiglia; and the 2015 Gran Selezione, Valore di Famiglia. Each one was a fine example of its level of Chianti Classico.

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The basic Storia di Famiglia serves as the fundamental Chianti, a wine meant to be drunk young, usually within five years of its harvest, though in good vintages it can easily go longer. This bottle had a really nice aroma of currants, berries, and dried flowers. On the palate it tasted of gentle cherry fruit. It was lightly acidic, live and pleasing, with a slightly tannic finish tasting of dried cherries. I consider this an excellent example of what Chianti Classico ought to be.

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The Riserva di Famiglia resembled the Storia bottling, but more so, from its nose of dried cherries, dried flowers, and wet stone to its long finish. On the palate, it tasted meatier and showed more structure, with its tannins appearing earlier. I would put this one away for at least a year or two, probably more, and serve it with roast meats, good cheeses, and such. It gives every indication that it will mature nicely for a decade at least.

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The Gran Selezione Valore di Famiglia appropriately topped off this progression of Sangiovese quality. It opened with a distinctive, high-pitched aroma of tar, warm earth, and dried roses – almost Nebbiolo-like. In the mouth, it was all big fresh fruit (it’s very young, after all) and an impressive underlying structure, with a very long, juicy finish. I thought it fairly reticent now (if you’re going to drink it young, give it lots of time to breathe), but it’s clearly a big wine with a great aging capacity. This is a wine you should try hide away for a good while: It will be worth the wait.

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In my experience, wines of this caliber and this fidelity to Tuscan character are typical of Cecchi’s production. You can count on Cecchi, year in and year out, to deliver real quality and the true taste of Chianti Classico. That is an achievement the family can be proud of and that lovers of Tuscan wine ought to enjoy frequently.

The Pleasures of BYOB

November 4, 2019

Diane and I don’t dine out much anymore, for three key reasons. First, we can’t stand the noise levels: In most New York City restaurants, the din reaches a volume so painful that conversation is impossible. Second, the cuisine has become too californicated – too fussy, too many incompatible ingredients, too many fantasy creations. And finally, the clincher: Prices for the kind of wine we enjoy are stratospheric, so much so that I could buy a case of enjoyable wine for the cost of a single meal out.

And of course, restaurant wines are never old enough to have developed the kind of mature flavors we love, or if they have, the prices have shifted from stratospheric to astronomical.

Thus, we mostly stay home, do our own cooking, and drink our own wines. But recently some friends told us about Temple Court, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant at Manhattan’s Beekman hotel. Colicchio is a cook who respects the great culinary traditions, lightening and modernizing them, but preserving their integrity and depth. So Diane and I tried a lunch at Temple Court and loved it – all except for the wine prices, which verged on terrifying. The ambiance was lovely, very old-New Yorkish. No loud music, ambient noise at a comfortable level. And the food was excellent.
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Just recently we learned that on Sunday evenings, the restaurant allows patrons to bring their own wine, with no corkage fee. Oh frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! An expedition was rapidly organized, and five of us descended on Temple Court with five bottles in hand and palates honed. Spoiler alert:  It was all wonderful, so brace yourself for a lot of superlatives.

So compatible was this group in terms of taste that all but one of us ordered the same meal: Lobster Thermidor to start and Venison Wellington for entree. Clearly, classic palates ready to work on gently modified classic dishes.

The Thermidor was a lightened and more elegant version of the very rich traditional preparation. With it we drank two white Burgundies, a 2008 Drouhin Puligny Montrachet and a 1995 Ampeau Meursault. The older bottle still showed fresh and light on the palate, with lovely Chardonnay floral and mineral accents.
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The Drouhin wine showed those same sorts of flavors, but bigger, with more flesh – probably the result of longer time for the wine on its lees. Both were lovely wines, the Ampeau probably better as an aperitif and the Drouhin better matched with the Thermidor.
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While we rested our forks for a few minutes before the venison, we started on a bottle of 2010 Aloxe-Corton red from Michel Mallard, a small Burgundy producer who sells most of his wine locally, which one of our group bought right there at the winery. This bottle gave all the pleasures of Pinot Noir from prime Burgundian terroir and served as a beautiful modulation to the more aggressive flavors to come.
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With the arrival of the venison, our immensely helpful and attentive sommelier Lise poured us glasses of our ’03 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle and 1999 Fontodi Flaccianello. Both of these were wines to which I could easily have devoted a One Fine Wine post.

The Tuscan wine was simply gorgeous, a great wine from a great vintage. Flaccianello is 100% Sangiovese, classified as an IGT wine back then and still proudly continued as such by maker Giovanni Manetti, even though it could now call itself Chianti Classico DOCG. This ’99 showed all the bright red fruit and liveliness on the palate that Sangiovese is capable of – and that’s a great deal.
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A beautiful wine, but bettered with the venison by the Hermitage, a lesser vintage from a more aggressive, less nuanced grape. This bottle showed the classic Syrah force, depth, and pepperiness — and though for my palate it lacked subtlety, its character matched better with the venison, foie gras, chestnuts, and wild mushrooms of the Wellington than did the lighter and more agile Flaccianello.
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An important lesson there, it seems to me: A lesser wine can be a better choice, depending on what you’re drinking it with. It’s not just the quality of the vintage that’s at stake, but the nature of the combination. As Italian winemakers are often acutely aware, the abbinamento – the match between the food and the wine – is crucial. The flavors of the venison Wellington preparation needed not a nuanced wine but a bold one. The lobster Thermidor, on the other hand, was all about nuance, which is why the more complex Puligny worked better with it.

After this Lucullan feast, five magnificently satisfied diners made their various ways home, blissfully smiling all the way. No dessert had been needed or desired: no wonder.

Campania Panorama

October 21, 2019

The Wine Media Guild opened this season’s series of tasting lunches with a fine survey of the varied output of the Campania region of south-central Italy, probably the most exciting region of Italy for winemaking today. I’ve long been a major fan of Campania because of the richness of its viticultural traditions and the amazing variety of its fine indigenous grapes.

Several years back, in Decanter, I predicted that wine lovers would someday speak of Campania with the same reverence they now reserve for Burgundy. That hasn’t happened yet, but the extremely high level of the Media Guild’s array of wines – 31 wines, of at least 8 indigenous red and white varieties, from several different Campanian regions – showed why to my mind that conversion is still inevitable.

Ilaria Petitto, the head of the Donnachiara winery, was the event’s guest of honor. Five of Donnachiara’s wines were represented: the whites Resilienza 2017 (Falanghina), Empatia 2018 (Fiano di Avellino), and Alethia 2017 (Greco di Tufo), and the reds Aglianico 2017 and Taurasi 2015. All were fine and in themselves a fair example of Campania’s variety and quality, but I was particularly impressed by the reds.

Donnachiara’s white wines have always been textbook examples of the great Irpinian varieties, but in the past, the estate’s red wines lagged them. A few years back, Signora Petitto engaged the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella, and the reds have been getting better and better ever since. Donnachiara is a small estate by the standards of the region’s largest, like Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio, but it is rapidly joining them in prestige.

Because of the diversity of their grape varieties and vinicultural zones, I can’t generalize about the other 26 wines, except to say that all were fine – which is in itself pretty remarkable.

  • The stand-out among the Falanghina and Falanghina-based wines was Marisa Cuomo’s Furore Bianco 2018 (Costa d’Amalfi), a great wine of complexity, depth, and suavity.
  • Among the Fiano di Avellino wines, I particularly liked Tenuta Sarno 1860’s two bottles (2016 and 2017), both of which displayed an admirable varietal character.
  • Among the Greco di Tufo, Benito Ferraro’s Terra d’Uva 2018 just shone – but then Ferraro’s Grecos always do: This is a top-flight Greco producer.
  • Among the reds, I loved Villa Raiano’s Aglianico Costa Baiano 2015 and the Contrade di Taurasi (aka Cantine Lonardo) Taurasi 2013: Both were really fine, elegant and fresh, complex and totally enjoyable.

Teresa Bruno, co-owner of the Petilia winery with her brother Roberto, who is the winemaker, had gotten caught in New York traffic, arrived late during lunch, and dashed from table to table tirelessly pouring samples from two very welcome bottles: Petilia’s 2017 Ape, a Fiano di Avellino fermented on the skins, and 2015 Quattro Venti, a Greco di Tufo. The Fiano was lovely, with its almondy perfumes and nut and wildflower flavors enhanced by the long skin contact, and the Greco was what I think of as classic Petilia – big and fruity and balanced, just great Greco.

Except to Italian wine nuts like me, none of these wines has the name recognition of the famous Bordeaux or Burgundy estates. It’s useful to remind ourselves that the Romans of the Empire regarded Campanian wines as the best of the best. The Romans weren’t stupid: They recognized and exploited the variety of Campania’s soils and exposures to produce their versions of Chateau Lafite and Richebourg.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing whether the grapes being grown in Campania today are the same varieties the Romans cultivated, but we do know that all of them are natives – international varieties have made almost no headway in Campania – and many of them are very old indeed. And more and more indigenes are being rescued all the time. Not two decades back, Falanghina was endangered. Even more recently, Pallagrella bianco and Pallagrello rosso and Casavecchia have been brought back from the brink of extinction and are now producing award-winning wines.

A few years ago I met a winemaker who told me that on his roughly 30 hectares near Naples he grows 30 or more grape varieties, half of which, he said – and I believe him – “are not in the catalog.”  This is why, for me, Campania is endlessly fascinating: It’s going to be presenting us with new old wines for years to come. To paraphrase an old Roman line: Ex Campania, semper aliquid novum.

One Fine Wine: Monsecco Ghemme 2011

October 10, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

As I’ve remarked several times in recent months, I’m getting more and more interested in the wines of Alta Piemonte – the high Piedmont, that arc of Nebbiolo-based appellations that lie on sub-Alpine hills in the shadow of Monte Rossa. There is a very good reason for my increasing interest: those wines are getting better and better, and – happily – are becoming more available in the market here.
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Once upon a time, Spanna – as Nebbiolo is called throughout Alta Piemonte – was a name at least as famous and prestigious as Barolo and Barbaresco, maybe more so. Then came phylloxera, and the region’s viniculture was essentially wiped out. As in several other formerly important wine-producing areas, recovery was very slow, and only a few makers in Gattinara or Boca or Ghemme managed to hold on through the lean years. In the past 25 years or so, however, as Italian wines generally have earned more respect – and better prices – interest in the great tradition of Alta Piemonte Spanna has revived, production has increased, and, most important of all, quality has become paramount.

The wine I’m focusing on in this post – Monsecco Ghemme 2011 – is a perfect case in point. Monsecco was at one time a very important name in Alta Piemonte, famous for structured, long-aging wines. Then the winery went extinct, the wines disappeared, and Monsecco became one more memory of glories past. Now it’s coming back, the name revived by the Zanetta family, long-time Alta Piemonte negociants and now vignerons, as a signal of the kinds of wine they want to make: structured, polished wines of great longevity.

That immediately catches my interest, and the wines themselves hold it. I’ve mentioned this particular wine once before in this blog, when it showed beautifully at a dinner party we gave. This time it did just as well at a middle-of-the-week dinner for the two of us. First came the nice, berry-ish nose. The same congeries of flavors followed on the palate – very persistent, with excellent acidity and minerality and very soft tannins. The flavors in the cherry range that I associate with Nebbiolo were screened by the cascade of strawberry, blackberry, and even blueberry notes, with slate and salt, all carried by gentle tannins and bright acidity. At eight years old, the wine showed as very fresh, very balanced, and totally enjoyable.

With a sirloin steak, it got rounder and richer, and cheeses – especially a goat cheese — kicked the fruit up even further, making it big, deep, and complex. It’s clearly still young, and I think has minimally a decade of development before it. The Zanettas are equally clearly succeeding in their goal of reviving the grandeur of Monsecco’s name and reputation. This was indeed one fine wine. I’ll be keeping an eye out for other examples of their craft.

Travaglini Gattinara

September 30, 2019

I have been getting increasingly interested in the wines of Alta Piemonte, that northern stretch of Piedmontese Nebbiolo vineyards that lie quite literally in the foothills of the Alps. Of the cluster of denominations strung out along that shallow arc, Gattinara has long been highly reputed as the most elegant and longest lived.

Travaglini is one of oldest and largest producers in Gattinara and in most critics’ estimation one of the two best winemakers in the zone. So you can imagine how quickly I said yes to an invitation to meet Cinzia Travaglini and her daughter Alessia to taste their new releases and some library wines. This wasn’t going to be work: this would be a treat.

Up there in the north, Nebbiolo is known as Spanna, and in most of the appellations (for example, Boca, Ghemme, Lessona) it is commonly blended with significant amounts of Bonarda and/or Vespolina. About 10% of those two grapes is permitted in Gattinara, but producers of Travaglini’s quality don’t use them. The pure character of Nebbiolo – Nebbiolo in purezza – is what Travaglini strives for: a wine that reflects both the complex character of the grape and the intense minerality of the rocky Alpine soils it grows in.

Those are very traditional winemaking goals in the Piedmont, and most of Travaglini’s working methods are equally traditional. That doesn’t prevent a little experimentation, however: the welcoming glass offered on this occasion was a champagne-method sparkler vinified au blanc from early-harvested Nebbiolo – and I assure you it wasn’t an oddity, but a lovely, complex, and satisfying sparkling wine. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale yet outside Italy, but the importer – Taub Family Selections — is hoping to bring some in soon.

From that point on, the tasting focused on conventionally vinified — and conventionally colored — Nebbiolos. It led off with Nebbiolo Costa della Sesia 2017: 100% Nebbiolo, stainless steel fermented under controlled temperatures. The wine stayed in stainless for another four months and then spent 10 months more in big Slavonian oak casks. The result is a wine very pleasing and fresh, a little light for a Nebbiolo wine but of definite varietal character and enjoyable drinking – hard to beat at a suggested retail price of $21.

After that, the tasting was all Gattinara – 2015, Riserva 2013 and 2009, Tre Vigne 2013 and 2006. These were all excellent wines, both the classic Gattinara and the cru selection Gattinara Tre Vigne showing the characteristic Gattinara silkiness, mineral complexity, and elegance.

The Gattinara Riserva comes from Travaglini’s oldest vineyards, the Tre Vigne from three separate vineyards reserved for it. The principal vinicultural difference between them is that 20% of the Tre Vigne wine is aged for a year in barrique. Having them side by side, I could discern the scent and taste of the barrique in the Tre Vigne: It wasn’t powerful, but it was noticeable, and for me – I admit to being a bit nutty on this subject – that was a distraction.

This was true of even the oldest Tre Vigne, the 2006: those barrique odors and flavors just don’t go away or level out. In all other respects, the two Tre Vigne vintages were model Gattinaras, and I strongly suspect that most consumers, tasting a Tre Vigne by itself, will not notice or be in any way bothered by the barrique notes. Which is good, because there is a lot of fine Nebbiolo in those bottles.

For me, the wine of the day was the Gattinara Riserva 2009, a classic wine in every sense, developing beautifully but still young (it probably has two decades in front of it), with a truly lovely, long finish.

It’s hard to give Gattinaras of this quality the cellaring they deserve, so enjoyable are they young. But you should definitely make the effort. These are great Nebbiolo wines, just as capable of bottle development and maturation as Barolo and Barbaresco, but – if you need another incentive — usually at substantially lower cost.

Mexican Wine

September 19, 2019

A new Mexican restaurant has opened in my neighborhood, an attractive place whose cuisine is miles beyond the franchise taco shops that traduce the good name of Mexican cooking. It’s been a pleasant addition for us, both of whom enjoy the warm spiciness of good Mexican dishes as an occasional change of pace from our own usual repertory. A further attraction of the restaurant is that it has an interesting wine list, exclusively of Mexican wines. In this neck of the woods, that’s a rarity, and I’ve been itching to explore it.

Mexico hosts almost the greatest acreage of vineyards of any of the Latin American countries, but very little of it is for wine; the great majority of Mexico’s grapes wind up either on the table or in brandy. One zone, however has begun developing a serious wine vocation: that is Baja California and specifically the Valle de Guadalupe, near Ensenada.

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Geographically and geologically, Baja is a continuation of California, and it is in the process of becoming so enologically also. Like many of the wine zones in California, the Valle de Guadalupe opens to the Pacific and provides a channel by which moist and cool Pacific breezes flow up the hillsides and moderate the heat of the arid land around them. This, plus some carefully managed drip irrigation, makes viticulture possible.

Since roughly the 1970s there has been a mini-explosion of serious vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe: There are now well more than three dozen wineries in Baja, and most of them are concentrated in that single valley. Most of the winemaking has followed the example of the big, successful neighbor to the north, and the grape varieties that have been planted in Baja will sound very familiar to any drinker of California wine. A few can surprise, however: Chenin blanc is a lot more popular in Baja than it is to the north, and some of the blends will seem to California- or Europe-oriented palates a little strange – Cabernet sauvignon and Barbera, for instance.

The level of winemaking is quite decent in the Valle, but this is still a work in progress, and many of the young producers are willing to try unorthodox experiments. I’m not going to say they’re wrong: No more than grapes do in Napa or Sonoma, they don’t behave here the same way they do in their European homelands. Winemaking in Mexico is evolving in a different climate and on different soils and – I happen to think this is crucial – alongside an utterly different cuisine.

So far I’ve only had the opportunity to try four wines, three from L. A. Cetto, the largest and most important winery in Baja, and the fourth from Casa Magoni, a second-generation estate apparently specializing in combining key French varieties with significant Italian grapes. The three Cetto wines were a Chenin blanc, a Petite Sirah, and a Nebbiolo. Casa Magoni’s wine was an unusual Chardonnay/Vermentino blend. None of these wines is going to change your life, but they are all quite decent and eminently drinkable and quite interesting as examples of what’s happening in Baja. All, tasted by themselves, seemed a bit rustic, the reds even a bit coarse – but that changed completely with food, when each of them softened, mellowed, and showed much greater subtlety and nuance.

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The Chenin was crisp and bright and long-finishing, showing very characteristic varietal flavors. The unusual blend of Chardonnay and Vermentino was dominated by the Chardonnay, but lightened by some Vermentino acidity and brightness.
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Both reds – they were quite young – tasted slightly of wood. Too much wood seems to be a young vintner’s mistake all over the world. The Petite Sirah displayed appropriately rustic Durif character, feeling big and round, if still a bit tannic. The Nebbiolo of course tasted nothing like the Piedmont grape, but was nevertheless far more interesting than all but a handful of California attempts at the same variety. This is definitely New World Nebbiolo, but – like its Piedmontese ancestors – it opened quite markedly with food. It especially liked the carne asada: So did I.

Freisa: An Uncommon Wine Worth Seeking Out

September 9, 2019

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Wine lovers have a role to play in this sporadically dawning age of eco-consciousness. The large, messy vitis vinifera family includes a good many endangered subspecies, and the ecologically worthy task of preserving them is a boon not only for biological diversity but for our own ever-curious palates: some of these near vanishing varieties make very fine wine. One such is Freisa, a very old Piedmontese grape, once extremely popular, now reduced to a few vineyards and a mere fraction of its former acreage.
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In this map of the Cavallotto vineyards, Freisa is the tiny piece in blue.

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No, you won’t find it everywhere, though I wish you could. Not even in Italy, where outside its northern stronghold it is close to totally unknown – and even in its heartland, the Piedmont, it is scarce and threatened. So why am I telling you about a wine you probably won’t be able to get? Because I think it’s worth an effort to save. Because if asked, local retailers will ask their distributors, who will pass the question up to corporate and – who knows? – somewhere along the line someone may actually do something that will eventually result in a potentially very great wine surviving to give pleasure for a few more centuries. I think that’s worth making a fuss about, don’t you?

What makes Freisa special is its relationships:  It is either the parent or the child of Nebbiolo, and that is special indeed. DNA studies have established the  relationship but not which is which. What is clear is that approximately 80% of Freisa’s DNA is identical to Nebbiolo’s, and that certainly gives it a head start on greatness.

Freisa has been grown in the Piedmont for centuries, and at one point in its long history it formed a part of almost every blended wine made there – and in the past they were almost all blended. Farmers loved it because it was hearty and disease-resistant, grew where many other varieties wouldn’t, and bore prolifically. Some of those characteristics can be the kiss of death for a wine of quality, inviting overplanting and exploitation. In addition, Freisa grapes are packed with tannins, which unless handled properly can be cruel on the palate. Many of you will remember that very similar things used to be said until quite recently about young Nebbiolo-based wines, Barolo in particular.

Right now, Freisa seems to be one of the varieties that is benefitting from global warming. The Piedmont’s lengthening growing season is giving the grapes the opportunity to achieve complete phenolic ripeness, and that – as with Nebbiolo – is the key to taming those rambunctious tannins, and even to lowering the variety’s very high malic acid content, resulting in a more balanced and drinkable wine right from fermentation.

The result, for the consumer, is a wine with an aroma that commentators describe as “haunting and complex” (that particular formulation is Ian D’Agata’s) and a fascinating flavor profile that features always the strawberry from which its name apparently derives and several other fruits, especially wild cherries. I recently enjoyed a bottle of Freisa from the Langhe, a young one from Cavalotto, a very traditional Barolo house that hasn’t abandoned the other traditional grapes of the region.
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This 2015 was deeply colored and deeply flavorful, redolent of cherry and earth, with a soft mouth feel – the tannins were totally under control – and an enlivening touch of acidity.  It combined beautifully with a simple, tasty weekday dinner of oven-roasted sausages, potatoes, bell peppers, and red onions, which we followed up with a few odds and ends of cheese. The Freisa loved every single component and adapted seamlessly to them all. That, in my never very humble opinion, defines a really good and useful wine. This was a young wine, but because of the tannins it shares with Nebbiolo, Freisa should age very well – if any of us could ever get hold of enough of it to cellar.

Let us hope for the future: There seem to be signs of a small revival of interest in the variety, both among producers and in the press:  Eric Asimov recently discussed it prominently in The New York Times, and that can’t hurt. By all means, try it if you can: It may give a welcome new palatal experience. Perhaps a new day is dawning for Freisa. Who knows? If global warming keeps increasing at its present pace, they may soon be growing Freisa in Burgundy.

 

Desert Islands, Fantasy Cellars, and Other Such Vinous Misdirections

August 29, 2019

I’d hate to have to calculate the amount of time that many of us waste brooding about the wines we’d love to drink, if only we could afford them, or the indispensable wines we’d want to be stranded on a desert island with (and what about the cuisine there, hmm?), or that magnificent cellar we’re going to put together to drink at its maturity, when we’re 140. Dr. Johnson could have made this a whole other portion of “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”
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I used to be guilty of that kind of mental debility myself, until it finally dawned on me that that whole congeries of imaginings is close kin to the question anyone knowledgeable about wine is constantly asked: What’s your favorite wine?

To which question the only sensible answer is, The one I’m drinking right now. Just so, your dream collection is – or ought to be – the wines you’re already drinking. If you don’t like them or don’t think they’re good enough, then why are you drinking them?  If, on the other hand, you do enjoy them, if they match well with the foods you eat, if they’re not setting you up for debtors’ prison, then your fantasy is irrelevant: You’re already living the dream. Congratulations!

I’m not being facetious. I certainly agree that if you love wine, you ought to form a collection of wines you love, to which you can give a little aging and from which you can draw, down the road a bit, when they will have matured at least a little. But that doesn’t mean you have to scrimp and save and drink plonk now so that when you’re old and feeble you can let a spoonful of Château Pétrus trickle across your debilitated palate. Let me let you in on a nasty little wine world secret: Fabled wines can disappoint just as readily and just as often as more ordinary ones.

As a wine journalist, I’ve been able over the years to taste many highly reputed wines – in effect, the collective Grands Crus of several countries – and in all honesty I can tell you there were a significant number of disappointments among them. Some of the wines were magnificent, to be sure, and there were very few outright stinkers, but there were a good number of wines well past their peak, even a few just plain dead – and, most important of all, there were a good many that, while perfectly nice, in no way lived up to their reputations or my expectations.

The problem there could be me, I grant you: Personal preferences and palatal acuity on any given day always play a role in these experiences. But you must grant me that such factors also affect you. Any single bottle of wine is a crap shoot, though none of us likes to think about that when we’re buying. This is especially true of older wines, which is why serious auction houses and specialty retailers make such a fuss about the provenance and storage history of the wines they handle: A sound history can’t guarantee the quality of every single bottle, but it can reduce some of the risks.

Myself, I don’t like to buy older wines, no matter how impeccable their provenance. Why? Cost, plain and simple. I much prefer to buy my wines young and age them myself. I know my own storage conditions, and I can compute how quickly or slowly my wines will mature in them – and besides, I always have the pleasure of taking out a bottle from time to time, just to see how the kids are doing. You don’t need a desert island for that.

Lest I lose my focus here, let me stress that wine is for pleasure – both future pleasure and pleasure right now. If you have the economic means and the physical facilities, and are young enough to have many years (probably, but who knows?) in front of you, by all means put together a wonder collection of long-aging trophies. And then hope for the best.

But if you’re a person of average resources, focus more realistically on wines that can give you nearer-term pleasure. Winemaking around the world has attained a tremendously high level of quality, and a good many of what have been traditionally thought of as lesser wines can, with just a few years aging, give you an astonishing degree of pleasure. I speak from the experience of many tastings here. That’s been my strategy for a good many years, and – while I might every now and then long for a forty-year-old Bonnes-Mares or some such – it has consistently provided me with lovely, far above average wines for my daily dinners, and even some truly exceptional wines for special occasions. I have never regretted it.

Escaping into fantasy is always fun, but pragmatism pays big dividends here and now.