Madeira, The Methuselah of Wines

November 23, 2015

Asked to name some of the world’s great dessert wines, casual wine drinkers would probably have a hard time remembering Madeira. Sauternes, sure, plus a handful of other French specialties. Port, almost certainly, and probably Sherry. Maybe even trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings. But that lonely little island in the deeps of the Atlantic, a few hundred miles off the coast of Morocco,

. island.

where they speak Portuguese and grow Portuguese varieties and age their wines forever? That is more often than not forgotten. Which is a plain shame, since well-aged Madeira is almost certainly the greatest dessert wine of them all. Certainly, it is the longest lived of all wines.

A few weeks back, Rui Falcão of the Madeira Institute presented a seminar in New York on Madeira. It was a fascinating event, filled with the kind of information and lore that we winos love. Falcão started by saying simply that everything that kills every other kind of wine is exactly what makes Madeira great. After that, things started to get interesting.

It turns out he wasn’t joking. The two great enemies of most wines are heat and oxygen. Madeira couldn’t begin to exist without prolonged exposure to both of them. When we describe another wine as maderized, we mean it’s dead – oxidized, perhaps even cooked-tasting. That’s where Madeira’s distinctiveness starts. All Madeira, of whatever type (more about that later), Falcão said, is kept for years before it’s bottled, sometimes for decades, in large barrels in above-ground storage without temperature controls.

This on an island off the coast of Morocco. Granted, the Atlantic moderates the temperatures somewhat – but still we’re in the tropics, where the first wonder is that they can make wine at all, and the second is how they treat it.



Throw out the rule book: Madeira plays a different game. Its wines are driven neither by variety nor terroir: like Champagne, Madeiras are wines that are shaped by the process of their making more than by any other factor. Even fermentation does not proceed “naturally.” It is always stopped, at the moment of the maker’s choosing (according to the grapes he’s working with and the degree of sweetness he wants in the wine), by the addition of neutral alcohol (originally derived from grapes).

In the days of sailing ships, Madeira producers used to send their wines on trips around the world in barrels stored below decks in unheated, uncooled holds, in order to expose them to the kind of temperature extremes and the kind of motion that would turn other wines into undrinkable bilge. Now makers accomplish the same thing more quickly and more economically by repeatedly heating the wines and allowing them to cool down over a period of months. After that, the wines selected for the best grade of Madeira are stored in casks stacked on the warmest level of the winery for any number of years. Literally so: they lie there for minimally three years, with no maximum other than the maker’s hopes.




Madeira can take it: Falcão told us that he once tasted a 300-year-old Madeira. “Was it OK?” he asked rhetorically. “No: It was great.” I can’t affirm or dispute that from my own experience, but I’ve been lucky enough to have several times tasted 75-year old Bual, and I can assure you that that wine was nectar – probably the most elegant, complex, fortified wine I have ever drunk. It had so much acidity, and so many different flavor elements playing through it, that I hardly noticed that it was lightly sweet. In its evolution, the sugars had become very minor players in the wine’s character.

Bual is one of the grape varieties used in Madeira, and each is associated with a sweetness level. Sercial is the driest, then Verdelho, then Bual (sometimes Boal), and Malvasia – Shakespeare’s Malmsey – always the sweetest. These are all white grapes: They are the most prized and are always mentioned on the label. Tinta negra, the only red grape used, can be produced at any sweetness level – the label will say – and until recently was never named.

There are between six and eight producers; the number is unclear because some consolidation may be taking place. But there are 1,200 growers, who own a total of 1,200 hectares, and each of them has long-standing, sometimes generation-spanning, ties to a specific producer. Falcão said that the smallest grower was a lady who cultivated three vines, and every year sold their grapes to the same house. That kind of quirky charm seems almost to epitomize Madeira.

Barolo, Maps, Masnaghetti – A Winning Triple Play

November 12, 2015

Alessandro Masnaghetti has created some of the finest wine maps ever, and his detailed chartings of the Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards stand as landmarks – in every conceivable sense – of those great zones. Now he has published a book, called Barolo MGA: L’Enciclopedia delle Grandi Vigne del Barolo; in English (the book is completely bilingual), The Barolo Great Vineyards Encyclopedia.


Barolo MGA image


As befits its title, its aims, and the almost eight years of labor Masnaghetti put into it, this is a very big book: 12 by 8½ inches, 407 pages, hundreds of maps, all entries in both Italian and fluent English (Daniel Thomases is responsible for the English translation). It has to be big: It locates, maps, and describes every single one of the 177 geographic sites that have been approved for use on labels. That is what the Italian acronym MGA stands for: Additional Geographic Mentions. Over and above that, it contains the first-ever list of every site name, real or invented, that has appeared on Barolo labels since the 1980s.

For the casual wine drinker, all this is no doubt overkill, but for the deep-dyed Barolo lover, it is fascinating information. Here, for example, is the map of the Cannubi MGA, showing clearly its relation to all the sub-sites that are entitled to use of the Cannubi name, which subsequent pages will describe in detail.


cannubi map


On the page facing this map, Masnaghetti gives all the physical data about the site – dimensions, elevations, exposures, varieties planted – plus there is a lengthy paragraph listing all of the producers (and their appropriate labels) entitled to claim the cru. Between those two entries sits a concise and extremely informative description of Cannubi:

Considered by many the heart of the Cannubi hill and the whole sub-zone in fact with the exclusive right to utilize this renowned name, this MGA consists of various sectors within its confines. Unquestionably the most famous is the one which looms over the town of Barolo itself and, in general, enjoys an excellent southeastern exposure and equally positive contours and overall layout (at least in the upper-middle part of the hill). The other two sectors, smaller in size, have decidedly cooler exposures where Nebbiolo expresses its full potential only in warmer vintages. At their best, the wines of Cannubi are distinguished, above all in their youth, by elegant and, at the same time, austere tannins.

Readers familiar with Masnaghetti’s maps of the various townships of the Barolo zone already know how precise and useful they and the information they contain can be. There are very few people who know as much about Barolo – both the wine and the zone – as Alessandro Masnaghetti, and none who are so devotedly making that knowledge available to the wine public. For information about this and his other projects, look to

Barolo MGA is available in the US from The Rare Wine Company. It costs $85 – an excellent Christmas present for a Barolo-loving friend or your utterly deserving self.

Old World/New World: Cahors/Malbec

November 2, 2015

I have never been a great fan of New World wines. For my palate, they are – generally – too fruit-forward and simplistic, lacking in depth and complexity, and often too tannic and insufficiently acidic to match well with food.

I recognize, however, that what I call deficiencies many wine lovers regard as plusses, and that that style has many admirers. Just read the tasting notes in any issue of The Wine Spectator to see what I mean. More important, New World wines are evolving (so are Old World wines, for that matter, but that is a topic for another post). Many of them have been, by my standards, steadily improving, becoming more food-friendly, which I think is crucial. Almost as important, many have dropped the almost confrontational, fruit-forward style in favor of an increase in elegance and complexity that makes them for me much more interesting to drink.


Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background

Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background


I had this change underlined recently when I had the opportunity to taste a few Malbecs from Bodega Trivento in Argentina’s Mendoza Valley. I don’t attend many of these occasions, anticipating disappointment, but it seemed about time I opened my mind and my palate to see what was going on below the Equator. I’m glad I did.

Malbec first entered my consciousness decades ago as the major grape variety in Cahors. The town from which the wine takes its name is deep in the heart of La France profonde, situated picturesquely within a horseshoe bend of the river Lot in Quercy – truffle, chestnut, foie gras, and game country, well worth a gastronomically minded traveller’s attention.

City of Cahors


Its wine, hearty, deep, a bit rustic but capable of long aging, was once almost legendary in England as “the black wine of Cahors” for its depth of color and flavor. I loved it. Diane and I even made a pilgrimage there back in the Seventies, when Cahors was just beginning to reclaim the importance it had lost with the devastations of the phylloxera, and I still recall with great pleasure some of the meals we ate and wines we drank there.

Malbec was once a very important variety in France, grown in almost every significant wine region, even Bordeaux. It was almost always used in blends, rarely as a monovarietal wine. In South America, where it has established a new homeland in Chile and especially in Argentina, it is used both ways. In Argentina the monovarietal version seems to be both the most esteemed and – for my very European palate – the most successful.

Germán di CesareTasting with Trivento’s winemaker Germán di Cesare, I tried the red blend Amado Sur (70% Malbec, 20% Bonarda, 10% Syrah) and three vintages (2011, 2012, 2013) of its 100% Malbec Golden Reserve. (Charles Scicolone gives a full account of this tasting on his blog). These all derive from high-altitude vines, and they are grown on their own roots from pre-phylloxera stock. I was impressed by the wines, both for their intrinsic drinkability – no overpowering tannins, good structural acidity, prominent but not palate-drowning fruit – and because they reminded me of old-style Cahors.

In my book, that is very definitely a compliment, and it’s what prompted me to try re-tasting the Golden Reserve Malbec at home, side by side with a respectable Cahors, Le Petit Clos from Triguedina, a long-established Cahors producer.

two malbecs

Both wines were from the 2011 vintage (that made the Trivento about six months older than the Petit Clos). The Golden Reserve was 100% Malbec, the Petit Clos 80% Malbec and 20% Merlot. We tasted them both by themselves and with food (a broiled steak) and finished them up over the next several days. Both held well and were still pleasantly drinkable a few days on.

Both wines showed the deep, dark coloration that gave Cahors its traditional name. The Cahors had an earthy, grapey aroma, strong and assertive. So too did the Golden Reserve Malbec, with a slightly more evident berry note.

On the palate, some differences began to show. Le Petit Clos felt smooth and soft, with good underlying tannins and decent acidity. It offered blackberry/mulberry flavors, with a hint of black pepper, and a long, slightly tobacco-y finish. It impressed me as a somewhat rustic wine, hearty and enjoyable.

The Trivento Malbec showed its New World origins clearly in its fruit-forwardness, which was the initial palatal impression it made – all dark berries and plums. To my surprise, however, that ostensibly big fruit attack was mollified and balanced by its acidity, more perceptible than that of the Cahors, making it lighter in the mouth. It too finished long, with berries and leather. Overall, despite the differences it was quite comparable to the Petit Clos: The family resemblance of the two wines’ fruit stood out clearly. I found the Trivento thoroughly enjoyable though perhaps a bit simpler, at least at this age.

Both wines are definitely capable of a good amount of bottle-aging and development. And both seemed a tad more sophisticated when tasted alongside that juicy steak, which may seem like no news at all – except that in the not far distant past it used not to be the case with many New World wines. As far as I am concerned, that is very good news, as is the fact that you can buy an almost-Cahors-equivalent wine at a very reasonable price (around $22).

Great Grappa: Marolo

October 22, 2015

It’s no news to any of my regular readers that I love grappa. I have always loved it. Even before it was fashionable, even before what was available here in the US was really good, even when all one could get was thought of as Truckers’ Breakfast, even when some of it gave white lightning a good name, I loved grappa.


And now that the Italian national distillate has become a fashionable object of pride and connoisseurship, when it has become available from every region and every wine zone and practically every grape variety, I love it all the more. I feel as if my fidelity and devotion are being rewarded, and the grappa gods are smiling on me.

So you can imagine the sense of beatitude I felt when I found out recently that Marolo grappas are going to become more readily available here. Marolo is one of my favorite distillers: I’ve not tasted all of its products, because it produces a great number of different grappas, but I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like – a lot. So this news was elating for me: I had to find out which grappas would be coming to the US, where they would be available, how soon I could get some. Gimme gimme, gimme.

Those of you who don’t know grappa have of course no idea what all this fuss is about. After all, in essence grappa is just another distillate, and in some respects one of the simplest of them, especially since a lot of us grappa tifosi think the clear, unaged ones are the best. Grappas are distilled not from wine or from fruit but from pomace, the solids left after the fermentation of the grapes, what is called in Italian vinaccia.

The Marolo Distillery

The Marolo Distillery

The best of them are made from the vinaccia of a single grape variety, and they are distilled while the vinaccia is still very fresh. Barolo-maker Bruno Ceretto, who knows his grappa, told me many years ago that grappa should be made the way the moonshiners do: quick, quick, quick. Done that way, the varietal aromas and even some of the varietal flavor make it through the distillation process and into the crystalline liquid that flows slowly out of the still after hours of boiling and refining and condensation. That’s why, during the harvest season, devoted still masters don’t sleep, or if they do, it’s alongside their carefully tended copper vessels. Their wives may complain (and they do: I’ve heard them), but grappa, like science, is a demanding mistress.

Barolo grappaMy mention of a Barolo maker wasn’t incidental or accidental. The Marolo distillery is located just outside of Alba, in the heart of Barolo/Barbaresco country, and one of the firm’s ambitions is to become the Nebbiolo distiller. So the initial consignment of Marolo grappas to this country focuses mostly on Nebbiolo and Barolo grappas. The list includes a clear, young Barolo grappa as well as Barolo grappas aged 9, 12, 15, and 20 years. The latter, as you might expect, looks inky dark from the color leached into it in its years of aging in barriques that had previously been used to age Marsala.

Marolo is also sending other Piedmont specialties: a clear Moscato grappa and a slightly aged one (five years in barrels that previously aged passiti from Pantelleria) called Dopo Moscato.

3 marolo grappas

The importer, Premium Brands (distributed by Martin Scott), is bringing in as well Marolo’s Brunello grappa, which I believe is, or used to be, distilled from the vinaccia of Angelo Gaja’s Montalcino vineyard, Santa Restituta, plus an intriguing Gewurztraminer grappa from vinaccia from the Alto Adige, plus the Marolo firm’s only blended, non-monovarietal grappa, a very pleasing Amarone grappa, lightly aged in small used Amarone barrels, as is the Veneto tradition.

Lovely as these are, they represent only a fraction of Marolo’s line. Really, the firm is a Piedmont-varieties specialist, not just a Nebbiolo master, and it makes sterling grappas from all the important Piedmont grapes. I particularly love its clear, fragrant Barbera grappa, and I hope to see it on the market here soon.

barbera grappa

Riders of the Purple Prose

October 15, 2015

I plead guilty to terminal naiveté. I keep thinking that wine writing is getting better, that the now decades-old campaign to de-mystify wine drinking and de-snobbify wine writing is actually taking hold. And then I read something like what follows, appearing originally in a prestigious wine review publication and forwarded to me by an appalled colleague and friend:

Featured New Arrival
Jacques Lassaigne Millesime Brut Nature 2006 750ML ($119.95) $99 special
Wine Advocate 93 points. “Sourced from Le Cotet, La Grande Cote and Les Paluets – which last-named is southeast-facing and arguably the top site in Montgueux, opines Lassaigne – his 2006 Brut Nature is intriguingly and alluringly scented with fresh lemon and apricot, peony and narcissus, rowan and pistachio, along with sea breeze intimations and a pungency of struck flint. Startlingly silken and creamy, yet focused and vibrantly juicy, this adds a sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness to an almost kaleidoscopically interactive finish. It ought to merit following for 6-8 years. Incidentally, Lassaigne believes that a purer expression of vintage character will always be achieved by maturing this cuvee in tank.” DS

There’s more: It goes on from here, but I already don’t know where to start on this stylistic and logical atrocity. Any teacher of Freshman English would cut it to ribbons for verbosity, pomposity, and redundancy, not to mention near-fatal infatuation with adverbs. “Intriguingly and alluringly”? What’s the difference, pray tell? Startlingly, vibrantly, kaleidoscopically? A light show for sure. This Champagne is credited with smelling of six not particularly compatible floral and vegetal scents, plus sea breeze (“intimations” thereof) and “struck flint” – struck, mind you, not merely inert – (“a pungency” thereof). Those last two amount to Manzanilla plus Chablis, while the former six are a whole farmer’s market. And we haven’t even gotten to what the wine tastes like. Can anyone tell me what a “kaleidoscopically interactive finish” means, much less tastes like? And what, please, is the “this” that adds the “sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness” to that finish?

You see why I inveigh so often about the uselessness of tasting notes? The only thing a farrago like this wants to accomplish is establish the exquisite sensitivity of the writer’s palate – that, and make every reader who has never perceived any of those components in a wine feel hopelessly inadequate and desperately in need of expert guidance. Members of the jury, we seem to have made no progress at all from the days when gentlemen reviewers (there were all gentlemen back then) would solemnly tell us that wine A reminded them of Mozart, while wine B suggested Beethoven.

Until consumers work up their gumption to denounce such purple prose for the impressionistic twaddle it is, we seem to be fated to endure it. I don’t think what Truman Capote said — “That’s not writing, it’s typing” — was true of Jack Kerouac’s prose, but I sure think it fits here. It appalls me to think that subscribers to any publication shell out good money to be so swanked, but apparently the con works. As one of P.T. Barnum’s critics remarked, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

And, by the way, this inconceivably fabulous bottle is available elsewhere for $20 less than the “special” price quoted above.



Another Name to Remember: Montcalm

October 8, 2015

Autumn weather and the autumn wine season have arrived, and a busy time it’s being. Among the flurry of events I’ve been attending, I particularly enjoyed the tasting offered by Montcalm Wine Importers, a smallish New York-based firm that, despite the vaguely French-sounding name, is building a significant portfolio of first-rate Italian wines.


That, I found out, is not accidental, because Montcalm turns out to be the wine importing arm of Genagricola, which in turn is the agricultural arm – including, of course, viti- and viniculture – of one of the largest Italian insurance firms. Originally Montcalm seems to have been set up to distribute Genagricola’s own products here in the States, but it has grown well beyond that mission by acquiring some excellent small estates from all over Italy. One lovely fall afternoon in mid-September, I – along with several other wine journalists and a good many knowledgeable retailers and sommeliers – had the chance to taste through Montcalm’s line.

For sure, someone with an excellent palate is choosing its wines. Their range is pretty much geographically complete, from Sicily right up to Piemonte and the Veneto, with a fine roster of estates all along the trail. Some names will be very familiar to the US market – Poderi Colla, for instance, about which I posted just a while back. Some are not as well known here as they deserve to be: Cennatoio, for instance, is a first-rate Chianti Classico maker.

A good many of Genagricola’s own wines fall into the latter category. They come from properties all over Italy and each bears its own name, so you may well have already tasted some of these without realizing they were part of a larger enterprise. These include far too many wines for me to comment on in this post, but here are a few I found above-average interesting:

3 labels


Solonio Cesanese Lazio IGP Ponte Loreto
Cesanese is the Lazio region’s native red grape, and vintners there are finally starting to exploit its potential. Examples remain all too scarce here in the States.

Poggiobello Friuli Ribolla Gialla
Ribolla gialla is another variety that remains relatively rare here. It makes a substantial and distinctive dinner wine – definitely not a cocktail sipper.

Tenuta Sant’Anna Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso
I don’t want to give the impression that Genagricola specializes in only esoteric varieties, but the firm’s growers do make conscious efforts to preserve and propagate native varieties. Refosco is a Friulian native – one of the few native red varieties cultivated there – and another wine deserving of a much wider audience.

Among the independent wineries that Montcalm imports, a few really stood out for me, so I’ll just briefly tally them here.

RucheA Piedmont estate, producing good Barbera d’Asti and the much less common Ruché, a red variety of potential distinction. I tasted both the 2013 Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato “Na’ Vota” and the 2010 “Pronobis.” Both were very fine, rich, and intense, characteristically smelling and tasting of chestnuts – excellent examples of yet another grape variety that deserves more attention.

Poderi Colla
A classic Alba-area estate, making all the zone’s classic wines: Dolcetto, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barbaresco, Barolo, and the superb blend of Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, “Bricco del Drago.”

Another Piedmont estate, making pretty examples of Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, and Nebbiolo Langhe. The stars of its show are three Barolo crus: Bricat, Castelletto, and Gramolere.

LunaeThis is a Ligurian winery that produces really lovely Vermentino, especially its Black Label. It also makes a very interesting and unusual red wine, Colli di Luni Rosso DOC “Niccoló V.” A blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot, and 15% of the local Pollera Nera, the 2010 I tasted drank all too easily and was just beginning to show what promises to be interesting complexity.

A certified organic winery headquartered in Montepulciano. Its Rosso di Montepulciano was delightful, soft, with a deeply Sangiovese character. The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was an excellent example of the breed, elegant and pleasing.

Il Marroneto 
madonnaThis is a brilliant Brunello estate, which seems never to make a wine less than fine. All I tasted were even better than that – the 2011 Rosso di Montalcino, the 2009, 2010, and 2011 Brunellos, and most of all the infant but already intense 2011 Brunello di Montalcino “Madonna delle Grazie.”


I didn’t get to taste everything that afternoon, and a few wineries that I missed I very much regret. Le Caniette, for instance, a Marche winery, makes whites from the indigenous (and reviving) grapes Passerina and Pecorino that I would have liked to have tasted. So too the Pecorino from the fine Abruzzo estate Illuminati, the red Negroamaro from the Puglia winery Apollonio, and the Etna red and white from the Sicilian Vivera. But you can’t – or at least I can’t – do everything. As the man says, Ars longa, vita brevis.

Everyday Pleasures III: Dolcetto

September 24, 2015

Even in the Piedmont, no one drinks Barolo and Barbaresco, or even Carema or Gattinara, every day. There on their home territory, those are regarded – rightly, I think – as wines for the best dinners and special occasions. What the Piedmontese drink every day, with great pleasure and no sense of deprivation, are their two “easier” wines: Dolcetto, the common lunch wine, and Barbera, the more frequent dinner wine – though those roles are by no means ironclad. As more than one Piedmontese winemaker has told me, you can drink Dolcetto and still go back to work, a quality much appreciated in its hard-working homeland.

Both Barbera and Dolcetto are delightful wines, though very different, and each partners wonderfully with all sorts of foods. I’ll probably write about Barbera in the future, but I want in this post to talk about Dolcetto, which is the undeservedly lesser known of the two.




Ampelography hasn’t been very informative about the Dolcetto grape. It appears to be native to the Italian Piedmont, which is certainly the zone of its most intense cultivation. Some experts believe that the variety originated in the Dogliani zone (about an hour’s drive south and slightly west of Alba), where in the opinion of many, me included, it achieves its greatest elegance and complexity – perhaps because it is treated more seriously there than in its other zones, where it often plays second and sometimes third fiddle to Nebbiolo and Barbera.

For what it’s worth, Italian officialdom agrees, and has conferred on Dogliani Dolcetto’s only DOCG and the right to call the wine simply Dogliani, if the maker so wishes. There are also several “simple” Dolcetto DOCs: Acqui, Alba, Asti, Diano d’Alba, Langhe, Monferrato, and Ovada. Of those, Diano d’Alba and Ovada are probably the most prized in Italy. Dolcetto d’Alba is the kind most widely available in the US, both because it is the largest zone of cultivation and because its Dolcetto piggybacks on the reputation and distribution of Barolo and Barbaresco.

Despite its name, which means “little sweet one,” Dolcetto always makes a dry dinner wine. It’s a dark grape, with intense color and and abundant tannins that require care in the cellar. Most producers carefully control skin contact to hold the tannins in check. This also reduces the depth of the wine’s color, so Dolcettos occasionally appear with light, almost strawberry-ish tints, but this is not common: Most are dark wines, whose deep color belies their usual lightness on the palate. In sharp distinction to Barbera, Dolcetto is low in acid, so it will never make the kind of spritely aperitif wines that Barbera can yield. Rather, it yields soft, round, friendly wines of potential elegance – good sipping wines and great dinner companions.

As a conscientious wine writer, I of course had to test that last statement, so my amiable spouse joined me in a tasting of several Dolcettos; after which we again tasted and drank them with dinners over the following days. (One incidental aspect of Dolcetto thus revealed: Recorked, partially filled bottles last very well for 5 to 10 days, with no loss of aromatics or flavor.) Here are the wines and our reactions to them.


De Forville Dolcetto d’Alba 2013

This is a fifth-generation family winery, headquartered in Barbaresco. Its Dolcetto grapes all come from the Barbaresco zone. The 2013 had a pleasing raspberry/strawberry/clay nose – quite nice. On the palate it showed similar components, but overall was just a bit rustic, with some still-abrasive tannins peeking through. This isn’t necessarily negative: The wine blossomed with food, which masked the tannins completely. Not a cocktail, but a dinner wine.


Poderi Colla Dolcetto d’Alba Pian Balbo 2013

This is a cru wine from the hands of an almost iconic Alban winemaking family, and it showed its pedigree from the get-go. The aroma was similar to the De Forville, but finer. On the palate, it felt light and round, with tasty berry fruit over soft tannins. Very nice, and incipiently elegant. A superior wine for everyday meals.


Pecchenino San Luigi Dogliani 2013

Another long-time, family-run estate. Like many in the Dogliani zone, the Pecheninos can be considered Dolcetto specialists. This wine clearly showed its origins: A lovely nose of earth, herbs, blackberries, and cherries preceded a mouthful of light, berry-ish fruit, very soft tannins and pleasant, light acidity, all culminating in a long, berry finish. Very enjoyable.


Abbona Dogliani Papà Celso 2013

This one’s aroma was finer and lighter than the preceding Pecchenino, but in the mouth the wine was considerably heavier and not as elegant. It seemed a little simple – decent, rather generic fruit and not too much more. Went well and unobtrusively with food.


Chionetti Dogliani Briccolero 2012

Quinto Chionetti is the grand old man of Dogliani Dolcetto, and this wine is from one of his best crus, and in a fine year. Its aroma was all berries, and in the mouth it gave sapid, juicy berries and plums, round, soft, and pretty, already showing complexity and sophistication. It finished still with a little tannin, so the wine has some evolution yet before it – but it demonstrated clearly why Dogliani deserved the DOCG.

Qunito ChionettiSignor Chionetti is a great winemaker and an encyclopedia of Dogliani lore. He thinks that the Dolcettos of Alba and its surrounding townships have been, in his word, “Barolized.” Tasting his wine alongside some Alba Dolcettos, it’s easy to understand his point. Try the experiment yourself: It’s really illuminating. But whatever else you do, do try some Dolcetto: It’s a fun wine, and a fine one – a nice combination for any occasion.

Pre-Phylloxera Vines: Rare But Not Extinct

September 10, 2015

Along with the potato and the tomato, one of the New World’s most significant gifts to Old World agriculture was the vine louse phylloxera. Every wine lover knows that those tiny root-sucking aphids devastated European vineyards, starting in the late 19th century.

Phylloxera louse


Most wine lovers also know that all European vines now grow grafted onto largely phylloxera-resistant American root stocks. That, however, is wrong: Most European vines are so grafted, but not all. The spread of phylloxera through Europe was gradual and uneven, and pockets of phylloxera-free vines have survived in a number of areas, notably Italy and Portugal. The intermittently authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine mentions Hungary (the plain), Listel on the French Mediterranean coast, only one region of Portugal, and Italy not at all – that last an omission all too common in British writings on wine, and one of its most serious flaws.

You may be wondering two things: How did those vines survive? And, does it make a difference?

I’ll answer the second question first: You bet it does! The Oxford Companion observes, in its most condescending manner, that “the uneducated even today” worry that grafting European vinifera vines onto the roots of American vines will affect the taste of the wines produced. That uneducated class includes me for sure, and some substantially more authoritative souls as well – André Tchelistcheff for one.

TchelistcheffYears ago, I had the opportunity to ask Tchelistcheff that very question, and he assured me that the grafting made a very big difference. He cited as an example pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, which he said was very different from what Bordeaux wines are now. For his palate – and that is a palate I would not lightly disagree with – vines on their own roots always showed greater varietal intensity and a more firmly distinguishable varietal character than the same grapes on foreign root stocks.

Common sense of course suggests that that the vine’s root should influence its fruit, but I am even more persuaded by the experience of my own tastings of wines vinified from vines never affected by phylloxera and cultivated on their own roots. Most recently, at a dinner with some friends I tasted Cogno’s Pre-Phylloxera Barbera, and an extraordinary experience it was.

Cogno BarberaBarbera is always a fruit-forward, acid-driven wine, but this bottle of 2011 was fatter, rounder, more intensely fruity, with a vivid berry-like character far more marked than I had ever experienced in a Barbera before. And we all agreed that at four years old, this bottle was still too young to really show what it had: There were depths still to develop. It was just an amazing bottle of wine; no wonder winemaker Valter Fissore dedicated it to his father-in-law, Elvio Cogno.

The Alba area, where the Cogno vineyards are located, is a bit far north in Italy to find phylloxera-free vineyards, though Marcarini also produces one, a Dolcetto, Boschi di Berri. It was first vinified by Elvio Cogno when he was the winemaker at Marcarini (now you see the point of Fissore’s dedication of his wine). The great majority of such sites (at least so far as I know now) occur in Campania, where Feudi di San Gregorio has undertaken a project called I Patriarchi to identify those vineyards and hopefully have them registered as some sort of national treasure or agricultural patrimony.

guastaferroGuastaferro, whose wines I have written about several times here, cultivates 2½ hectares of over-150-year-old Aglianico vines, all pre-phylloxera and all still on their own roots; I find the Taurasi he makes from them outstanding for its intensity and purity of line.

In the Benevento area, Pallagrello Nero, Palagrello Bianco, and Casavecchia have been re-established from a few surviving pre-phylloxera plantations. Many of the wines from the Campo Flegrei zone near Naples are vinified from the abundant pre-phylloxera vines surviving in that area. That includes, by the way, both whites (usually Falanghina or Coda di Volpe) and reds (usually Piedirosso). Local growers don’t make a big fuss about it, because for them it’s a fact of life, the way things have always been.

How these vines have survived is relatively easy to explain: sand. The phylloxera louse can’t survive in sandy soils, and fortunately vines can. (Tough critters, vines, and highly adaptable; and so, often, are their progeny: Remember that the next time someone tells you that wines are living things, and therefore delicate. Wines, like vines, can be tougher and more durable than many people think.) Phylloxera lice also don’t like many volcanic soils, especially those rich in sulfur – and Italy has a lot of those, in some cases even overlapping with or interwoven with sandy soils, especially in Campania. The result is exactly what you might expect: many areas of vineyard, some small, some quite extensive, that have never been touched by phylloxera.

Why haven’t we heard about these vines before now, if – as they had to be – they were sitting there all along? That’s a very difficult question to answer, and I can only hypothesize. I can tell you this: Over 30 years ago, I had an assignment to write about old vines in Italy, and I couldn’t do it, because winemakers were unwilling to talk about them.

This was a time when Italian winemaking was undergoing tremendous changes, with many regions scrambling to adopt modern equipment and modern viticulture. There was a widespread frenzy of re-planting “on modern principles.” And I can only shudder at the number of priceless old vines – of who knows what grapes? – that may have been torn up in those years. People with old vineyards, I think, were reluctant to talk about them because they didn’t want to be thought old-fashioned and behind the times. When all your neighbors are ripping out those old peasant varieties and replanting densely with Cabernet and Chardonnay, only a dumb cafone would keep them, right?

It has taken Italian winemakers a long time to overcome a sense of inferiority in the face of the reputation of France and the technology of California. Now an awareness of the richness of Italy’s vinous patrimony has arrived, and with it a new pride in the hardy surviving vines that form so valuable a part of that patrimony. I only hope it keeps on growing, and that we will hear about yet more precious old vines surviving in yet more parts of the vast vineyard that is Italy.

Older White Wines

August 31, 2015

I recently received a solicitation, from an enterprise I will not shame by naming, that included an online article presenting the brilliant aperçu that, yes indeed, white wines can age. After a lip-service concession that whites from Rioja, Burgundy, and the Jura (?!), plus German Riesling and Australian Semillon, are known to last for decades, it went on to list 15 “favorite” cellar-worthy whites from other regions.

This perspicacious enumeration omitted all of Spain and Italy, and recommended Bordeaux – all of it, including apparently the notably long-lived wines of the fabled Entre-Deux-Mers – as well as Alsace – I guess all of its varieties too. It also listed individual varieties from Greece, South Africa, Napa, Oregon, and Washington, all of these too in their entirety, with no qualifications about maker, style, region, or anything else.

I pity the poor souls trying to shop for white wines to cellar on the basis of those recommendations.

Really, it should not be news to anyone that all sorts of white wines from all sorts of places are capable of wonderful and rewarding bottle-aging.


White wine colors


Serious wine journalists of every palatal persuasion have been trumpeting that information for decades now, and while a newbie can be forgiven for not knowing it, anyone halfway serious about wine should already have experienced it.

The important point to be made is not that some white wines can age well, but which ones, and how you are to know them. Great as white Burgundy can be, not every bottle that emanates from that small stretch of France will survive beyond five years – and that is equally true of white Graves, of Fiano di Avellino, of Rioja whites, of Rhine and Moselle Rieslings, of Alsace Riesling and Pinot Gris.

Who made the wine, in what vintage? Is it from the best sites, or some outlying parcel just barely entitled to a prestigious appellation? Those facts matter: They constitute the difference between buying yourself a potential treasure and throwing your money away.

What I’ve just said implies that repute – of the zone, the maker, the vintage – should be the key determinant for a canny white wine shopper. By and large, that is true, but like so many such truths, it’s hardly absolute. As with any other category of wine, any one of those elements could outweigh the others. A vintage may be so fine in a particular zone – some recent vintages of Chablis, for instance – that you’re safe with almost any purchase. Or a producer may be well known for turning out great wines in off-years. Or some producers may be so exceptional that their wines, from an otherwise middling area, are always age-worthy.

ValentiniI can give you a fine example of the last: Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from the late, great Edoardo Valentini. A more unlikely great white wine is hard to imagine: Trebbiano is the blessing and the curse of Italian viticulture. Hardy and prolific, it grows everywhere and bears heavily, usually producing very ordinary wine that is used predominantly in blends. It has many different clones, though few of them are prized. Trebbiano di Soave is one, and another (I’m tempted to say the other) is Valentini’s distinctive Trebbiano d’Abruzzo.

It’s fair to say that the vast majority of Trebbiano-based wines made in Abruzzo (or anywhere else, for that matter) is meant to be consumed as young and fresh as possible, because such charm as these wines possess fades quickly. Valentini’s wine is utterly different – round, full-fleshed, deeply mineral and fruity, with enough tannin from skin contact and enough natural acidity to sustain it for the long haul. How long? Well, I’ve drunk 25-year-olds that were still fresh and lively, so much so that I kicked myself for pouring them prematurely.

98 TrebbianoI quite recently opened my last bottle of Valentini’s 1998 Trebbiano for a dinner with friends I knew would recognize its allure. None of us was disappointed, even though the wine was only 17 years mature. What was it like? I’ll quote Burton Anderson’s landmark book, Vino, about his experience of a younger specimen:

[T]he Trebbiano is in a class by itself, unquestionably the finest wine of that name I have tasted. The 1974 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, drunk in 1979, had everything a dry white wine should have plus the elegance, breed and strength of character that even some of the finest lack. I would not hesitate to compare it to the white wines of Puligny Montrachet.

The comparison with great white Burgundy is one that many tasters have repeated since. In fact, it is probably even truer now than it was in ’79: As Valentini’s hand got surer and his vines aged, that round, mouth-filling Burgundian quality only intensified. My ’98 displayed it beautifully, even the next day when I finished the little left in the bottle.

Edoardo Valentini was not a lovable man. He could be as hard and exacting with people as he was in his winemaking. Every year he sold off most of his harvest, keeping only the very finest grapes for his deliberately small production. In the years since he has passed on, his son has very successfully maintained the quality level he so arduously pursued, and the Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo remains a monument to what can be achieved by individual effort.

And that brings me back to the original point of this post. Of course white wines can age, sometimes magnificently. It all depends on the What and the Who and the Where and the When, and there are many well-informed journalists out there who have been trying to preach this gospel for some time now. Go read Ed McCarthy and Mary Mulligan, go read Kerin O’Keefe, Tom Hyland, Michael Apstein, Charles Scicolone – even some of my previous posts and articles. The information you need to shop intelligently and fruitfully is there for the gleaning.

Barolo and Taurasi: Separated at Birth?

August 20, 2015

This post is for the really serious winos. Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by the many broad similarities and the few subtle differences between Nebbiolo and Aglianico, especially in their premier expressions, Barolo and Taurasi, and especially as those wines mature. Both varieties need very long growing seasons. Both can take heat but enjoy cool, not to say cold, weather.

Nebbiolo is obviously a northern grape, but even though Aglianico grows in the south, it grows high – above 400 meters – in the hills. Oldtimers in Campania can still remember harvesting Taurasi in the snow. Both grapes are rich in tannins and acidity. They have fairly similar flavor profiles, and they both obviously age long and well. You could say some of these things of other varieties as well, but not all of them, and it’s the weight of all those factors that urges the comparison upon me.

Most wine drinkers know Barolo well and Taurasi hardly at all, so many readers may be surprised by the juxtaposition. But Southern Italians have been irked for years by hearing Taurasi referred to as “the Barolo of the South,” whereas they feel that Barolo by rights should be called the Taurasi of the North. I’ve spoken to many Italian scientists of the grape, and more than one has told me that there may well be some Aglianico in Nebbiolo’s DNA – which is historically likely, given how the traffic flowed on ancient Italy’s trade routes and legionary roads.

Recently, it occurred to me there was a simple way to test the two wines’ similarities and differences as they play out on the palate: Taste a sample of each side by side, take notes, think, and enjoy. That, after all, was the basic structure of my first book, Mastering Wine: tasting two wines together tells you far more about each than any number of solitary tastings will reveal.

So, with the collaboration of wife, webmistress, and cook (that’s Diane: one person, not three), I set up two dinners around two chosen wines: a Barolo Parafada Riserva from Massolino, and a Taurasi Radici Riserva from Mastroberardino. Both wines were 1999, a very good but not spectacular vintage in both zones, and both had been kept in my usual far-from-perfect storage, so that made a pretty level playing field.


two wines


The dinners were designed to test different aspects of the wines. The first evening, we skipped an appetizer course and started with a plain broiled steak, baked eggplant slices, and sautéed zucchini; then went on to an assortment of cheeses, including a pungent, American-made Reblochon type that should test any wine’s mettle. The second dinner started with pâté de foie gras on toast and went on to pork chops braised with a shallot-and-mushroom gravy, flat Roman green beans, and boiled fingerling potatoes. Whatever else happened, we were going to eat well.

For the first meal, the wines had been uncorked just about an hour before drinking. For the second, the wine bottles had stood, recorked and half-full, in the refrigerator until about an hour before dinner. This was done by design, to see how they reacted to such long aeration. My hunch was they would be the better for it, and this comparison provided an opportunity to test that too.

And eat well we did, and very interestingly did the wines respond to the various dishes. At first opening, the Barolo was redolent of earth, dried roses, dried figs, and tobacco, while the Taurasi smelled of pine duff and underbrush, funghi porcini, and dried plums – quite clearly different, but hardly opposites. On the palate, the Parafada felt big and round and soft. It had some perceptible wood tannins, but mostly tasted of black fruit – a lot of it, powerful and deep. It finished long and tobacco-y/leathery. Elegant, it seemed to me. The Radici felt leaner and more muscular, lithe like a dancer. It also tasted predominantly of black fruits, along with mushrooms, and leather, with a finish similar to the Barolo’s: leathery and elegant. Both very fine wines, clearly, and clearly with some overlap of their flavor components.

Then on to taste them with the first dinner’s foods.


First dinner


The steak softened the Parafada’s evident tannins and brought up an abundance of black cherry flavors with sufficient acidity to support them. For the Radici, the steak likewise emphasized the richness of its fruit and the freshness and relative abundance of its acidity. Both wines handled the vegetables well but without a lot of enthusiasm, though the Taurasi seemed to pick up some bulk alongside them, while the Barolo got a touch austere.

The cheeses really fattened both wines – even the evil Reblochon-type, but especially a Bleu d’Auvergne. The Taurasi just loved the third cheese, Idiazabal, a Spanish sheep-milk wedge. By the time we were finished with food, the wines were moving in different directions, the Barolo growing more austere and powerful, while the fruit kept coming forward in the Taurasi.

Twenty-four hours later, the differences seemed much sharper. The Barolo’s aroma had grown much deeper and more mushroomy, while the Taurasi was showing more and deeper blackberry character. They seemed almost to have traded places from the first evening.


Second dinner 2


But on the palate, they were beginning to converge, both smooth and elegant and composed, both playing quite happily with the foie gras, both showing nice complexity. The only perceptible difference was that the apparently greater acidity of the Radici really made its fruit shine. Then the pork-and-mushroom dish bumped up the Parafada’s fruit too, just as it turned the Taurasi’s yet another notch higher, making both wines taste fresher and more lively.

By this point it was clear that while the flavor spectra of the two wines overlapped in many places, there was one sharp difference between them, and that hinged on acidity. Both wines were actually better – richer and more complex – the second day, with what most people would regard as a preposterous amount of aeration. But the generous and lively acidity of Aglianico kept the Taurasi vital, while the Nebbiolo wine needed a little help. Still a great wine, make no mistake; but by the end of dinner the Barolo wanted a little cheese, while the Taurasi wanted only to be sipped.

Let me urge you to try some matches like this on your own. As I learned many years ago in doing the research for Mastering Wine, any paired tastings are fun, and carefully selected pairs are informative as no other kind of tasting can be. If you try any of your own, I’d love to hear your results.


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