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.

 

One Fine Wine: Drouhin’s Puligny Montrachet Les Folatières 2010

August 19, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Most Burgundian experts – I do not pretend to be one – agree that the Puligny appellation stands at the peak of Burgundy’s white wine mountain.  Clive Coates flat out calls it “the greatest white wine commune on earth,” and I’m not prepared to argue with him.  Within the confines of the Puligny commune (not a big one, by the way: 230 hectares of vineyards by Coates’s count) lie the Grands Crus Chevalier-Montrachet and Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, as well as parts of Bâtard-Montrachet and the glorious Le Montrachet, plus 23 premiers crus (all or parts thereof).  Just statistically, that’s impressive.

Tasting the wines is all the more impressive.  These wines strike the palate as big but not heavy, with the bright, mineral attack of lighter-bodied wines and the persistence and depth of more full-bodied ones: a classic Burgundian balancing act, in fact.  Coates describes the wines of the Folatières vineyards, which are my specific focus here, as “fullish, meaty, mineral wine with plenty of weight of fruit and good grip – a typical Puligny premier cru in fact.”  I’m not sure I understand or agree with all that, but I recognize it’s meant as high praise – and that I emphatically agree with.

A week or so ago, Diane indulged my nostalgia for one of the best dishes of my youth by making for us a lovely dinner centered on veal francese, a simple, succulent dish that I thought worthy of a better wine than had ever been available for it in the local restaurants of Jersey City (in those days a dying industrial town of declining prosperity and population).  Especially since we were preceding it with some lovely Scotch smoked salmon, I thought I’d follow the hint of its name and match it with a good French white.  I was lucky enough to have on hand a modestly aged single-vineyard Puligny Montrachet, a 2010 from Drouhin, one of the producer-negociants that I rely on for consistent quality and a house style that emphasizes elegance rather than brute force.  Drouhin didn’t let me down: That golden-in-the-glass Folatières just sang with every aspect of that meal, from the smoke and salt of the salmon to the delicate meat sweetness and succulence of the veal.

Most people think of the wines of Burgundy as historic, originating on sites first farmed by Medieval monks, if not before that by Celts and Romans.  But Folatières is of more recent development: The village of Puligny and the fame of Montrachet may be many centuries old, but the high-hillside, rocky vineyards of Folatières are only about a hundred years old.
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Their quality was evident from their earliest yields, and the appellation quickly assumed the importance and commanded the respect it is now routinely and deservedly given.  My 2010 Drouhin was, by the standards of great Burgundian whites, still very young, and it evidently had many more years before it than was at all likely that I could wait.  Be that as it may: By my standards, it was one fine wine.

Smiles of a Summer Night

August 8, 2019

Midsummer dinner parties always present problems. You want to keep things simple and light, but you also don’t want to treat your guests as if they were fashion silhouettes who make a meal on a single lettuce leaf and a martini olive. Plus, if your guests have palates, you want to offer them the bounty of the season and also wines appropriate to that bounty: light, but not insubstantial; fresh, but not without complexity. And all the while, you have to offer placatory sacrifices to the gods of the electric grid, so that the power doesn’t go off in the middle of prep or the middle of dinner. Oh, first-world worry worry worry!

Those of you who follow Diane’s blog already know how she recently pulled off this trick. My part involved less work but – I flatter myself – more tact: matching the appropriate wines to those tasty dishes. Hors d’oeuvres are always easy: you can’t go wrong with a Prosecco or a Champagne. This time I opted for Champagne, because . . . well, mostly because I’ve already drunk my lifetime quota of Prosecco this hot summer.

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I’ve been tinkering with grower Champagnes lately – because they vary interestingly from the Grands Marques norms – and the one I opted for this time didn’t disappoint. Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Cuis Premier Cru, Brut NV was an intriguingly mineral-and-white-fruit blanc de blancs: 100% Chardonnay, vintages 2010-2015; disgorged March 16, 2019; dosage 6g/l.For my palatal preferences, blanc de blancs is the ideal summertime Champagne, light enough to titillate, complex enough to hold your interest. This one provided exactly that combination.

Our first course at table was classic summer fare from Naples: zucchini a scapece and a platter of just sliced, never refrigerated heirloom tomatoes surrounding a still-moist-from-its-whey mozzarella di bufala. Naples dictated the wine choice here: a sapid and lovely Greco di Tufo, tasting of its volcanic soils and bittersweet fruit. Ours was from Benito Ferrara, his cru Cicogna, a perennial – and entirely deserving – Tre Bicchieri winner.
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With the pasta, we switched to red wines, and I got a surprise. Fresh fettuccine pointed me to northern Italy, so I chose a Ghemme, one of Piedmont’s subalpine denominations that blends upwards of 65% Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) with the indigenous Bonarda and sometimes a little admixture of other, very localized grapes. These northern wines emphasize elegance rather than power, and are usually lighter-bodied than more southerly Piedmont Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco.
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My wine, a 2011 Monsecco, perfectly supplied the lighter body and elegance, but it also offered much greater fruit intensity – cherries! – and depth than I had expected. It got everybody’s attention from the first taste, and kept it. Ghemme and Boca and Lessona, but especially Ghemme, are staging a real comeback, and you should know about them:  they are fine wines, and considerably less expensive than the better known Barolo and Barbaresco.

Diane’s summertime secondo directed me back to Naples, so with it we drank a lovely 2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva from Guastaferro.
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Gorgeous and big and deep, this wine – vinified exclusively from very old Aglianico vines still on their own roots, a rarity even in Campania’s often sandy, sulfur-laced soils – will last for decades more with no loss of vigor or flavor. This too is a winemaker to know about.

For our cheese course, I went back north again, for Barolo this time: a 1999 Barolo Colonnello from Aldo Conterno. I wanted to finish with a crescendo, and this great cru in a great vintage from a great producer provided it.

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The wine was lush: big in the mouth, round and deep, with dark, brooding, still fresh-tasting fruit understrapped by abundant now-soft tannins and generous acidity, it was ready for anything the cheeses threw at it.

Smiles this summer night were abundant, though they bore no resemblance to the ones induced by the Ingmar Bergman movie from which I shamelessly lifted my title.

In Memoriam: Lucio Caputo

July 29, 2019

Earlier this month, Lucio Caputo died at the age of 84. His passing didn’t attract a lot of attention outside the wine world, but within that micro-universe it reverberated enormously.

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From 1974 to 1982, Caputo was the Italian Trade Commissioner in New York, at that time a position of incredible importance for Italian products in the United States, and most especially for Italian wine. He left the Italian civil service in 1983 (declining a fat government pension) to stay on in New York to found the Italian Wine and Food Institute, an agency he successfully headed for the next 30 years. The IWFI did a tremendous job over that period of promoting the best of Italian wines and food products. Its annual tastings and awards dinners were always highlights of the season for wine professionals.

But for those of us who remember what the situation of Italian wine was in this country before Lucio Caputo, his greatest accomplishments came in his years as Italian Trade Commissioner.  Before then, Italian wine in America was largely “Soavebolla” – the popular portmanteau term for what was often pale, watery, nearly flavorless, overcropped, and overproduced plonk. After Caputo’s stint as trade commissioner, Italian wine in America had become a broad spectrum of many kinds of wine from many sorts of grapes from all over Italy. Caputo didn’t simply promote Italian wine – though he did, actively and passionately: But in terms of the American market, he could be said to have invented it.

Big claim, eh? But here are the stats: Before his campaign, Italy was exporting 362,000 hectoliters of wine a year to the United States. In 1983, the annual export reached 2,400,000 hectoliters, an almost sextupling in volume. Initially, as I recall, the big increase was in inexpensive wines, but as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, higher-quality wines increasingly made their mark.

By the end of Caputo’s term as trade commissioner,  Italian wine imports to the US had surpassed French wines – the market leader for decades before – first in quantity and then in value.  These were the years when many now-famous Italian wines, then small-market cult wines even in Italy, began appearing on shelves in New York, Boston, and Washington; then in Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. The great wines you now can get easily and regularly first showed up then.

This all came about because of Caputo’s tireless efforts. Wine journalist old-timers will remember as fondly as I do the regular tastings at Italian Trade Commission headquarters on Park Avenue. This was a spacious, stylish venue, sporting an extensive wine library and a museum-quality Di Chirico oil painting.
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The tastings, which occurred every week (and sometimes twice a week), were every bit as stylish and extensive. They were also thorough, informative, and often quite intensive. You could always sit and taste comfortably, often at your own pace, and you had ample space to take notes – luxuries not always available today to the assiduous taster.

The Trade Commission tastings might be of a wine type, or a region, or a grape variety. Whichever they were, you were sure to taste and learn about some grape varieties and wines that were new to the American market or still hoping to get there, because not just journalists attended these tastings: retailers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, distributors, and importers also came. Those sessions opened the door to this country for many of the wines we can now take for granted, and they were Lucio Caputo’s finest achievement.

In the past few years, we have lost a lot of the pioneers and masters of Italian wine. Lucio Caputo was not a great winemaker like Bruno Giacosa or Beppe Colla or Antonio Mastroberardino, but his contributions to Italian wine stand in the same range of importance. One more giant is no longer with us.

On the Fourth of July, We Drank America Great

July 18, 2019

This year’s Fourth of July frolic made a bit of a challenge for me. I’m happy to say that I – and the wine resources of the USA – rose to it.

Diane’s blog has already recounted the saga of the all-American dinner that we put together for the good friends who guided us around Venice. My role in the festivities was to arrange wines to match with those dishes: not a simple task, especially for one whose palate and whose cellar (I use the word loosely) run more in the direction of Europe than toward the great continent that lies just across the Hudson. That’s right: I don’t even live in continental United States, so you can see the depth of the challenge.

What solved the problem for me and made our Fourth of July drinking great was, once I realized it, quite simple: immigration. Just about every single wine grape in the United States is an immigrant, naturalized against the native plagues of this continent by being grafted onto the roots of indigenous American varieties. And many of the people who convert those once-foreign grapes into American wine are immigrants too, first- and second-generation citizens adapting an Old World skill set to American circumstances, producing wines with discernible European ancestries and unmistakable American accents. Is that a fable for our times?  You tell me.
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We started with a wine that is a Champagne in everything but name: Gruet Brut, a lovely sparkler made in New Mexico (yes!) from the traditional Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot meunier – by the traditional méthode champenoise. Gruet is a family-owned and -operated winery, founded in 1983 by the late Gilbert Gruet, whose family made Champagne in his native France. The original vineyard (it has since been joined by two others, all now run by Gilbert’s son and daughter) lay over 4,000 feet up in the windy hills near Elephant Butte Reservoir.

All the Gruet wines show the classic Champagne characteristics, so this is the wine to use if you want to have some fun with a know-it-all friend. The one we drank with hors d’oeuvres launched our evening perfectly – cool, brisk, elegant, and refreshing on a warm and humid July Fourth evening. The thing that will really astound your know-it-all friend is that all the Gruet sparklers, even their brilliant Blanc de Noirs, retail for about $20.
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With a delicious and almost stultifyingly rich Crabmeat Maison, we drank a wine a bit more local (and not from mainland America either), the 2016 Minimalist Chenin blanc from Paumanok Vineyards, on Long Island’s North Fork. Also founded in 1983, and family-owned by Ursula and Charles Massoud, Paumanok specializes in several French varieties. Long Island has no hills to speak of, but it does have breezes from both ocean and sound, and those, combined with dense plantings of 1,100 to 1,400 vines per acre, give Paumanok’s wines all the concentration and character they need.

For my palate, its greatest successes are two Loire valley varieties, the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. In France, the latter grape makes Vouvray and the great Savennières, which the chalky minerality of Paumanok’s Minimalist Chenin suggests to me. This is a lovely wine – made, alas, in limited quantities – that worked wonderfully with the crabmeat, its complex leanness playing beautifully against the sweetness of the crab.
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With our lordly rib roast and profusion of farm-fresh salads, we turned to the west coast and Ridge Vineyards, perched 2,300 feet up in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. By American winemaking standards, Ridge is practically an old-timer:  It got started in the 1960s, and from 1969 onwards, for more than 40 years, its winemaker was the masterly Paul Draper, a genius of what Ridge now proudly calls “pre-industrial winemaking.”

Ridge is famous for its great Monte Bello Cabernet, but what it does with Zinfandel and other less regarded varieties is equally remarkable. Our 2010 Petite sirah (actually probably Durif, a variety now not much grown in California and almost entirely neglected in its native France) showed amazing complexity and subtlety, with many different elements emerging from its basso profundo of bitter chocolate to mesh with the varying flavors of our main course.
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With four very distinctive cheeses, we drank a 2010 Ridge Geyserville – a blended wine named for its vineyard because no one of its several varieties is present in sufficient quantity to justify a varietal name under California law. This lovely bottle contained 64% Zinfandel, 20% Carignane, 12% Petite sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 2% Mataro (as Mourvèdre is commonly called in California).

This was a big wine – 14.3% alcohol – but nevertheless supple and elegant. It played wonderfully with the cheeses, which differed widely in texture, flavor, and intensity, adapting itself quite comfortably to each. I’ve always loved Ridge’s Zinfandels, and I prefer to drink them at around ten years of age. This gorgeous example was a perfect illustration of why.

Zinfandel has become so established in California that many people think of it as a native American grape. This capstone wine of our Fourth of July feast is a perfect example of an Old World variety (it’s closely related to Italian Primitivo and allied Croatian and Slovenian grapes) transformed into a classic New World wine. Happy Fourth of July indeed! Thomas Jefferson would have enthusiastically approved.

Wine Tastes, Wine Tastings, and Tasting Wines

July 8, 2019

Back in the days when I used to lead occasional tasting sessions, I every now and again conducted one for total wine beginners. These were always the most challenging, just like Introduction to Literature courses for college undergrads. On one hand, as experienced teachers wryly used to say, “Everything you tell ‘em is news.” On the other hand, there’s so much to tell, how do you cover it all? Or if you give up any notion of covering it all, how do you select what to include and what to leave out? Above all, how do you convey the excitement of it? the pleasure of it? How do you make the students or attendees themselves share that pleasure?

With wine, one widely practiced way is to describe the character of the wine during, or right after, people taste it – in effect, tell ‘em what they’re tasting. I hate that. I hate it when people do it to me, and I hate to do it to others. It’s too easy to suggest what they should be tasting and consequently make them taste it. I want to taste for myself and register my own impressions before I hear anyone else’s, and when I conduct a tasting I want the participants to do that too.

The one thing I’ve always stressed, in any session I’ve ever led or attended, is that you only taste with your own mouth. (Which, by the way, is why I think tasting notes are at best useless and at worst harmful or misleading.)
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Tasting with my own mouth

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But – and this is one of those distressingly huge buts – you can stress the importance of tasting for yourself as forcefully as possible, but that doesn’t mean it will sink in. Some people seem to lack the self-confidence – or maybe the taste buds – to do so. I remember that after one such introductory tasting session – for management consultants, who as a group don’t seem to lack self-confidence – one very seemingly poised young woman timorously approached me with a glass of wine and said “Please taste this and tell me if I like it.” This loquacious wino was for once speechless.
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Say what?

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The point, of course, was that I could probably have told her a good deal about the wine, and whether I liked it or not – but not whether she liked it. That was a matter of personal taste, which is a whole other matter from what she was tasting in her mouth. I have occasionally served what I thought was a beautiful, mature wine to guests who turned out to much prefer the flavor and character of younger, more obviously fresh-fruity, wines. That’s also a matter of personal taste, and you only discover what your personal taste is by trying different kinds and ages of wine.

You can certainly sharpen your taste by experiencing more wines of different grape varieties and educating yourself about them. That way, you can begin to discern just what it is about them that creates pleasure for you, and knowing that means you can buy and drink better and smarter and more enjoyably.
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But taste is not a constant: Your palate and your preferences evolve over time. I used to enjoy Sauvignon blanc much more than I do now. I remember once comparing it to Chardonnay as Twiggy to Marilyn Monroe, meaning both terms as compliments. Over the years, I’ve become less and less pleased by the herbaceous qualities of Sauvignon: The grass and the cats’ pee have, for my palate, taken over and largely submerged the qualities of the grape that I used to like. In effect, I’m still tasting pretty much what the textbooks tell me I ought to taste in this grape, but I just don’t like it anymore.

Things like that happen all the time, even to tasters far more acute than I am. The important thing is to keep track of your preferences – and above all, never apologize for them. What you taste is what you taste, and no one can argue with that, even if it’s not what you’re “supposed to” taste.
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