The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina

July 17, 2017

Out grocery shopping one scorching hot day last week, Diane and I overheard a guy explaining to his obviously out-of-town friend, “Every year we have two nice days here in New York. We call them spring and fall.” It’s true: We endured an endless, dismal winter, had one lovely day, and all of a sudden it was blazing summer.

Just as suddenly, I found myself craving well-chilled white wine, and lots of it. No news there – except that I just realized that I have never really talked about my favorite white wine for all-purpose summer drinking, Falanghina. Definitely time to do it!

Falanghina has become quite popular in Italy and has had some success here in New York, but I don’t know that it has penetrated very deeply into the collective wine consciousness beyond that, so I’ll start at the beginning.

Falanghina is the name of the grape and of the wine made from it. It’s native to Campania, and once was the white wine of Naples, until it fell victim to the two catastrophes of phylloxera and World War II. Most people don’t realize how belatedly – compared to France – phylloxera entered Italy: It wasn’t until the late 1920s and early 1930s that it reached Campania. Shortly after that, many of the men who would have replanted the vineyards were called into the army. Many didn’t come back, and those who did found devastated and overgrown fields and no money available to revitalize them.

Many farms and vineyards were abandoned, and those that continued were faced with steady pressure to grow a lot of grapes, quality be damned, and to replant with international varieties rather than indigenous ones. We still don’t know how many ancient varieties disappeared forever during those years, but fortunately many survived. One of those hearty natives was Falanghina.

It fell to one far-sighted grower to revive Falanghina. Leonardo Mustilli has to be numbered among the handful of devoted winemakers who, like the Mastroberardino family, stood against the flood tide of international grape varieties to champion Campania’s native wines. Starting in the late sixties/early seventies, he made Falanghina his project, working with a few other growers and the support of several Neapolitan government departments to locate and propagate the vines and to promote the wine they made. Thanks to his efforts and the grape’s own vivacity, Falanghina once again became the ubiquitous quaff of Campanian restaurants and homes.

The reason is not far to seek. Almost everyone who tastes Falanghina enjoys it: It combines light, white-fruit flavors (some say stone fruits) with a touch of citrus and mineral, the latter often intriguingly forward because of Campania’s mineral-laced soils. It drinks delightfully, whether lightly or heavily chilled, and it’s enjoyable young but can take a few years of bottle age with no loss of character. On top of all that, Falanghina is inexpensive: Prices range between a bottom of $10 or $11 and an absolute top of $30, with the vast majority of bottles – including some of the best – clustered at the bottom of that range, between $10 and $20. So with all that, what’s not to like?

There are now many producers of quality wines in Campania, and the great majority of them produce at least some Falanghina. I can’t claim to have tasted them all, but I have tried many, and I’ve been struck by how many of them turned out to be perfect textbook Falanghina. I don’t know whether the grape is just very compliant or whether the growers just like working with it, but from the consumer’s point of view, that’s a win-win situation. Here are some of my favorite producers, starting with

Mustilli, the progenitor of modern Falanghina, then

Villa Matilde, whose founder, Francesco Paolo Avallone, was also a pioneer of Falanghina in the Monte Massico zone, and then

Mastroberardino, patriarchs of traditional-varietal winemaking in Campania, and

Terredora di Paolo, the other branch of the Mastroberardino family, and just as deeply embedded in the whole history of Campanian wine.

After these – alphabetically, not qualitatively – many other producers have turned their attention to Falanghina, often with wonderful results:

Astroni
Di Meo
Donnachiara
Feudi di San Gregorio
Fontanavecchia
Grotta del Sole
La Guardiense
La Rivolta
La Sibilla
Masseria Felicia
Ocone
Sorrentino
Venditti
Villa Raiano

These producers are scattered over several of Campania’s wine zones, and their labels may not all say “Falanghina.” For instance, Villa Matilde’s and several other producers’ labels may say “Falerno del Massico Bianco” – but it will still be Falanghina, and very satisfying drinking.

.

A Geekish Digression

There is one complication in the saga of Falanghina’s success, and I think it’s a minor one. Falanghina has turned out to be not one variety but two distinct ones. That’s ampelographically distinct, not palatally: Both species have always been called by the same name and grown in neighboring provinces of Campania, where no one realized they were different grapes, and where they have been drunk more or less interchangeably for years.

Some people claim to be able to perceive a difference between the recently differentiated Falanghina beneventana and the far more widespread Falanghina flegrea – the beneventana is supposed to be a little fatter and fruitier than the more acidic flegrea – but I’m not one of them. Too many variations of soils and cultivation and winemaker’s choices make consistent identification of the two grapes on the palate next to impossible. So here we have a classic distinction without a difference – but probably some day meat for a good argument among geeks and wine snobs.

France’s Least Known Great White Wine

July 6, 2017

Unique is probably the most overworked word in the whole wine lexicon, but if there is any wine it really fits, that’s Savennières. If you don’t know this Loire rarity, it’s time you made its acquaintance. This is an intriguingly paradoxical wine: both austere and opulent, with a set of aromas and flavors that instantly separate it from all the Chardonnay- and Sauvignon-based white wines you’ve ever tasted. Those flavors grow more intense and more distinctive as it ages, and it is a white wine that can age very long indeed.

I had promised Long-Suffering Spouse no wine visits on our Loire vacation, but one of our shore excursions included one. Ironically, we went off to this visit not even expecting it: The description of the morning’s attractions didn’t mention what for us turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip, a visit to the Domaine du Closel/Chateau des Vaults, a premier estate in the tiny Savennières appellation.

.
The Savennieres zones lies just southwest of Angers, on the north bank of the Loire – one of the most precarious places in France to grow grapes. Most of the zone is hilly, affording lovely views of the Loire valley from the tops of the vineyards, the best of which lie on south-facing slopes about 100 meters above the river. It’s the soils that give Savennières its character. At Domaine du Closel, for instance, the best sites have a thin layer of topsoil over bedrock of slate and quartz, which forces the vines to send their roots very deep into cracks and runnels seeking nourishment. That kind of stress can make great wines, and in Savennières it does so quite often.

Evelyne de Pontbriand, the proprietor and winemaker at Domaine du Closel, walked us up the steep slopes to view the vineyards. These immediately adjoin those of Nicolas Joly, for some years now the most famous name in Savennières. It was breezy up there, and the vines grew fairly close to the ground – not more than two-and-a-half to three feet tall, as I recall.

A biodynamic grower, Mme. de Pontbriand in her brochure describes her soils in loving detail: “They are shallow, very warm and consist of purple and green schist, purple sandstone enriched with volcanic rocks (quartz, phtanites and organic matter).” I’ve visited many vineyards, and I can vouch that that qualifies as a very complex bed for vines.

.
I should say vine, not vines: In Savennières, there is only one: Chenin blanc. This is not a variety highly regarded in most of the wine world, but on the banks of the Loire – most usually the south bank, I grant you – it yields lovely wines, ranging from dry and charming to sweet and magnificent. Most of those come under the Vouvray appellation. Savennières forms Chenin blanc’s greatest dry expression, a wine of tremendous complexity and great aging potential. I have been lucky enough to drink a few twenty-year-olds that still live in my memory for their vibrancy and depth.

The tasting that Mme. de Pontbriand provided after the vineyard tour didn’t extend to older wines, unfortunately, but it did include all three of her bottlings:

La Jalousie 2014, her base wine, a relatively early-harvested (to preserve the fruit and acidity) wine with a greenish-gold hue, dry and light with a touch of elegance. This shows a muted version of Savennières’ distinctive flavor spectrum. It is a drink-every-day wine, with – Mme. de Pontbriand insists – an extraordinary aptitude to marry with asparagus and artichokes, which certainly shows just how different a white wine this is.

Les Caillardières 2013, a wine of deeper gold coloration and deeper aromas and flavors. I sniffed pears and baked apples and mineral notes, with similar elements emerging on the palate. Already somewhat complex and elegant, this wine seemed to want a few more years to develop further.

Clos du Papillon 2015, the top cru, which Mme. de Pontbriand regards as “one of the most beautiful expressions of Savennières.” I won’t argue with that: Even this young, I found it very elegant and complex, with unduplicatable floral and vegetal aromas and flavors – almonds and apricots, lemons and nuts and flint – a whole potpourri. De Pontbriand says “The Clos du Papillon is harvested in two selections: The first selection during the « fresh fruit aroma » period and the second one later with some botrytis during the « cooked fruit, quince and smoked aromas » period. Both selections are put in barrels and assembled 16 months later. The wine then remains a few months in vats.”

We purchased two bottles of the 2006 Clos du Papillon on the spot, and last week opened one to accompany a dinner of turbot in the sauce beurre blanc that the Loire had failed to give us. The wine was so good that I seriously regret not throwing away half our clothes and filling the suitcase with bottles of it.

It tasted indefinably spicy on the palate – woodruff and star anise, maybe – with a vigorous herbal/vegetal attack and with minerals present but secondary; a wine totally different from the Chablis one might be tempted to compare it to. It had clay and earth aromas in there too, but not stone, and as it warmed, dry honey came up, even distinctly acacia honey; I think that’s the touch of botrytis speaking. It was a very big wine, but not at all fat: the finish in fact was very long and lean. As I said at the start, Savennières is paradoxically austere and opulent, and this bottle fit that description perfectly. I plan to get more of it, and hope to live long enough to drink it when it matures.

Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines

June 26, 2017

I’ve just enjoyed eight days of lazily cruising up and down the Loire between its mouth at St. Nazaire and Bouchemaine, the river’s farthest navigable point for a vessel the size of our paddlewheeler, MS Loire Princesse. In wine terms, that’s a journey through the winebibbing home of Rabelais. We journeyed upriver, into the heart of vinous lightness – from the land of the Melon de Bourgogne, which makes Muscadet, and into the realm of the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. These, usually alone but sometimes with other grapes, make a whole range of light to medium-bodied wines, mostly named for the places they’re grown – Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur, Vouvray, etc.
.

.
This was not, however, a wine trip. It was a vacation. I had promised my Long-Suffering Spouse no wine tastings, no vineyard visits, a complete break from all that. I hadn’t promised not to drink wine, however, an activity LSS heartily approves of, so we enjoyed the Loire Princesse’s plenty throughout our long sunny days and protracted evenings on board. I hadn’t really registered how far north the Loire lies: Daylight lasted until around 10 pm every day.

Now, the Loire Princesse isn’t one of those floating apartment buildings that ply the Med or the Caribbean: It’s a small – 90 passengers – shallow-draft sidewheeler specially designed to navigate the difficult waters of the Loire, which is often wide and shallow, with multiple channels, all prone to flooding at some seasons and going almost dry at others.
.

.
So the ship doesn’t have huge storage space, and its wine offerings were consequently distinctly limited. They were, however, reflective of the region we were sailing through, and the simpler ones were included in the basic trip amenities and always generously poured. Some better labels were available for purchase at very reasonable prices. Moreover, they matched very well with the cuisine of the cruise. Best of all, in the true Rabelaisian spirit, they were enjoyable wines in themselves and very efficient reminders of the affability and adaptability of Loire wines.

I confess that I often forget about Loire wines. That is really unfortunate, because they are, by and large, genuinely enjoyable and very affordable. There are only a handful of really great ones, but there is an abundance of delightful wines that tend to get lost in the frantic search for Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator 90-pointers. Most days, with most meals, I would much rather drink a superior Chinon for $30 or less than an inferior Bordeaux for the same price or more.

The Muscadet appellation has several regional subdivisions. The one we most often encounter in the US is Muscadet Sèvres et Maine, which is what the Princesse was offering: 2015 Château Cassemichère Muscadet Sèvres et Maine sur lie. “Sur lie” means the wine was allowed to remain on its lees until bottling, a practice that gives normally lean Muscadet a bit of depth and roundness. The Cassemichere was a typical Muscadet, a light white wine with small citrus and mineral notes, very clean and fresh.
.

.
There is a lot of Muscadet on the US market, and most of it is like this wine, simple and enjoyable but in no way distinguished. There are, however, a handful of outstanding Muscadets, either because of the character of their soil and microclimate or the care of their producers, or both. Some I have enjoyed include Domaine de la Pepière, Domaine de l‘Ecu, Bregeon, and Louvetrie. Bear Muscadet in mind the next time you’re serving any shellfish: It’s usually inexpensive, and the crustaceans and the wine seem to love each other.

The Muscadet zone is very consumer-friendly: There is essentially one appellation and one grape variety. The red wine zone of the middle Loire, upstream from Nantes and the Muscadet country, is only a little more complicated. There are several appellations, but just one dominant variety, Cabernet franc. Forget anything you may know about this grape from its appearances in Bordeaux: the Cabernet franc of the Loire is a completely different animal – softer, fruitier, with more enlivening acidity and fewer abrasive tannins. In very good harvests it can age for a decade or more, but most years it makes a much more accessible wine to drink relatively young. Loire reds show elegance and gentleness more than power or depth: They are for me perfect summertime red wines, companionable with all sorts of food, intensely satisfying and accessible, never confrontational. If you’ve forgotten that a red wine doesn’t have to be up in your face to be impressive, you need to try some Loire reds.

The main appellations for them are Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, and Saumur. Of these my favorite tends to be Chinon, which I find slightly more elegant, slightly more intensely varietal, and slightly more age-worthy. On shipboard, we drank 2015 Domaine Olivier Bourgueil, 2014 Clos de Perou Saumur Champigny, and 2015 Clos de la Lysardière Chinon.
.


.
I grew quite fond of the Chinon, which had delightful fresh fruit and enough depth to match well with the chef’s fondness for wild mushrooms and complex sauces. Other good Chinon producers include Domaine Couly-Dutheil and Domaine Philippe Alliet.

The Loire Princesse didn’t stock any Vouvray, which disappointed me, because this charming white wine, vinified from the Chenin blanc grape in the middle Loire, in its driest forms makes an excellent dinner wine. I can recommend Domaine Huet and Domaine des Aubusières and the Cuvee Silex of Vigneau-Chevreau.
.

.
All in all, the valley of the Loire remains still what it was for Rabelais, a soft and pleasant land teeming with palatal pleasures. It served as a healthy reminder to this wine journalist that a wine doesn’t have to be profound to be estimable or powerful to be enjoyable. I hope all your vacations are as delightful as mine was.

Next post: France’s least known great white wine.

The Lure and Lore of the Loire: Vacation Time

June 8, 2017

By the time you see this, oh courteous and bibulous reader, I will – airlines and computer systems and terrorists permitting – be cruising up the Loire from Nantes to the château country, through Muscadet land and into Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur, and Vouvray land.
.

.
With any luck, I’ll have some insights and discoveries to pass on to you in about two weeks. Ainsi nous esperons, eh?

Cork Dorks and Big Lunchers: Wine and Words

May 29, 2017

It’s fascinating how things converge. I’m reading two very different books, written by people who couldn’t be more different, with very different aims and styles, and yet both arrive at a point of agreement – that of the inability of language to express what exactly it is we taste and experience when we drink wine. Needless to say, for me as a wine writer this subject is endlessly fascinating, but I’d guess it’s also of serious interest to anyone who enjoys wine and has ever tried to explain to civilians what it’s all about.

One book is Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork, her account of how wanting to find out if there was any real content behind wine pros’ descriptions of wines led her from an established career in journalism to one as a sommelier at Paul Grieco’s Terroir, a New York City wine bar/bistro/restaurant.

The other book is Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch, the poet and novelist’s posthumously collected writings on eating, drinking, excess, his love of hunting and fishing, his dislike of Dubya, his dislike of book tours, his fondness for Bandol, and just about anything else that occurred to him.

.
Both are well written – Bosker’s straightforward, rigorous, disciplined, Harrison’s the opposite: like his novels often lyrical and moving but equally often unorganized and self-indulgent. The style really is the man, and apparently in this case the woman too. (Disclosure: I knew Harrison very briefly, decades ago, when he was a young poet who had not yet published a novel. I liked him. I have never met Bosker, but I suspect I’d like her too.)

Bosker’s book is top-flight journalism, an almost-relentless investigation – by way of her rigorous preparation for the Master Sommelier’s Exam – of the folklore and science of wine knowledge and wine tasting. She trains herself to discern different scents (yes, you can do it, with sufficient devotion) and tastes. She travels to UC Davis to find out what is known scientifically of the different chemicals that contribute to wine aromas and tastes and how we perceive them. She even has a brain scan to find out how a professional’s brain responds to a wine as opposed to the way a civilian’s does.

And all the time she’s doing these things, she’s tasting wines – which doesn’t mean just drinking them. It means paying attention to what is in one’s mouth. Just as any athlete’s training of his or her set of necessary skills makes them better, stronger, and surer, attentive tasting makes one taste more – more elements, more complexly, more intensely. As she puts it at the close of her book, “Feeling something for wine and unleashing your senses begins by just paying attention. And applying yourself with gusto.”

I felt a great personal vindication in reading Cork Dork, because that is exactly what I (and not just I, to be sure) have been preaching for lo! these many decades. You taste only with your own mouth, so pay attention to what’s going on in it. And certainly do so with gusto.

Harrison arrives at that knowledge intuitively, not through methodical training or rigorous investigation but by immersion, by diving into the sheer pleasure of the moment and relishing every scent and taste that a meal and its wines allow. He is as suspicious of wine criticism as he is of art criticism, and very sensitive to the way wine is written about.

There are marvelous semi-comic aspects to the problem. Wine magazines and the wine press in general offer tip sheets like those you buy when entering the grounds of Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, or Santa Anita. . . . The furthest thing from my own aesthetic judgments is the world of numbers, let alone price. I am admittedly an outsider, a mere consumer, but wine simply can’t be graded like a teacher grades term papers.

Need I say, Amen!

Harrison’s treatment of wine is anything but systematic. Most of his comments occur in the course of accounts of meals that range from wonderful to awesomely gluttonous. Probably the best way to give the flavor of his remarks is simply to quote a few:

We drink wine with our entire beings, not just our mouths and gullets. Temperaments vary…. I have it on good authority that both Dionysius and Beethoven drank only red wine while Bill Gates and a hundred thousand proctologists stick to the white.

I’m fairly sure that the numerical system of rating wines was not devised as a marketing tool but that’s what it has become. The truly great Russian writer Dostoevsky insisted, ‘Two plus two is the beginning of death.’ Aesthetic values are decidedly non-digital and can no more be fairly applied to wines than to a thousand or so ‘top’ books a year.

How can humble grapes produce something so delicious with the cooperation of human alchemy? Drinking wine is beyond the vagaries of language and numbers and finds its essence, like sex, totally within the realm of the senses.

Those last two sentences, intellectual and at the same time repudiating the intellect, are pure Harrison, apparently miles away from Bosker’s rigorous intellectual pursuit of the what-ness of wine, but that too led her past the mind and into the intense sensuality of the wine experience. Fascinating, isn’t it?

I think I’ll give Harrison the last word here, because he has a single sentence that sums up a lot of what all we winos feel: “Wine crawls in the window of your life and never leaves.” It’s a good idea to always leave a window open.

 

 

 

 

 

Domaine Antonin Guyon: 50-Year-Old Newcomer

May 18, 2017

Not all the quality wine houses in Burgundy are centuries-old firms: There are a few relative newbies who have made it into the upper echelon. One such – one impressive such – is the family firm Domaine Antonin Guyon, a good portion of whose lineup of wines I had the pleasure of tasting just a few weeks ago.  Guyon is a 50-year-old firm, which by Burgundian standards makes it the new kid on the block.

As I’ve been growing older (wiser and more knowledgeable, I’d like to say, but let honesty prevail: older), my youthful passion for Burgundy has been steadily reviving, and I’ve found myself playing catch-up with all that has happened in that appellation while my attention has been elsewhere. Much indeed has happened there: Perhaps most significantly for wine lovers, global warming has been doing wonders for Burgundy’s ripeness at harvests.  While by no means yet an earthly paradise of reliable sunshine and moderate precipitation, Burgundy in recent years has been celebrating more good harvests than had ever been the norm before.

Other changes too have occurred: More small growers now bottle their own wine than ever before, and more small, relatively specialized (in subzones, or organic wines, or other esoteric criteria), high-quality négociants have found a niche in Burgundy’s business landscape. And a few newcomers have even been able to break into the winemakers’ winners circle by patiently  and carefully acquiring small parcels of land, one at a time, to eventually assemble a sizable domaine of top-quality sites.  Domaine Antonin Guyon is a perfect example of this.

Dominique Guyon

Founded in the 1960s by the eponymous Antonin (who was himself, in his mid-fifties, a wine newcomer), with vineyards in two of the prestigious Côte d’Or appellations, Meursault and Gevrey, the estate grew substantially in the 1970s with his son Dominique’s small-piece-by-small-piece acquisition of what amounted to a substantial stretch of vineyards in the Hautes Côtes de Nuit. Continuation of that policy has brought Domaine Guyon to its present extent: 47 hectares of vineyards in 27 Burgundy appellations.  The caliber of those vineyard sites will be apparent in the list of wines presented at the tasting I enjoyed.
.

2014 Bourgogne Blanc
A very nice basic Burgundy, typical and pleasing. An excellent entry-level wine.

2012, 2013, and 2014 Pernand-Vergelesses 1e Cru Sous Frétille
Lovely wines. The 2012 is approaching readiness – nicely aromatic, soft and round in the mouth, tasting of white fruits and wet stones. The ’13 is similar to that, but appropriately younger and not fully formed, while the ’14 is an infant, discernably like the other two but still developing and even a bit closed.

2011 and 2014 Meursault-Charmes 1e Cru Les Charmes Dessus
Big wines, but even the 2011 is still somewhat mute and unready, though it does show a good strong finish, which promises very well for its maturation. The ’14 is very young, pleasing but still unformed.

2012 and 2013 Puligny-Montrachet 1e Cru Les Pucelles
I’ve always been fond of Puligny-Montrachet, and these two did not disappoint me. The ’13 was fine, with a firm body and mineral-laced pear and apple flavors, finishing long.  The ’12 showed even stronger: In fact, it was my favorite white of the tasting – big and elegant and very long-finishing.

2011 and 2012 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru
In theory, these were the biggest, most structured whites of the tasting. They probably are, but as such they also need the most time to develop.  The ’11 was just opening and giving hints of greatness, while the ’12 was almost totally closed.  On the basis of what Guyon is accomplishing with “lesser” crus, I would trust these wines to develop beautifully, but they will need time.
.

2012 and 2013 Hautes Côtes de Nuits “Les Dames de Vergy”
The 2012 was quite typical of the zone – a little rustic, very soft and drinkable. The ’13 showed higher acid than the ’12, and tasted richer and more lively – a very nice wine indeed for simple dinners.

2012 Chambolle-Musigny Les Cras
Regular readers of this blog will know my fondness and respect for the wines of Musigny. I enjoyed this example very much: Rich and soft, it was already starting to develop some complexity and elegance. Quite good, I’d call it.

2011 Gevrey-Chambertin La Justice
A very different wine from the preceding Chambolle. Slightly sharper and more angular, more acidic and more assertive.  It needs time to round out and compose itself.

2012 and 2013 Volnay 1e Cru Clos des Chȇnes
Terroir triumphed over vintage variation in these two wines – their similarities are remarkably strong. Although still young, both are developing nicely, already round and composed and very enjoyable.

2012 Corton Bressandes Grand Cru
A lovely wine, with typical Corton heft, and already complex. It needs time to pull together further, but it will be very fine.

2011 Corton Clos du Roy Grand Cru
A thoroughly admirable wine, already almost fully in balance. Big, smooth, and deep – in short, very fine indeed.

2011 Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru
Not as big as the preceding Corton, but strikingly elegant. In five years, this will be a memorable wine.

.
For me, this tasting served as bracing reminder of just how much there is to love in Burgundy. As one of my fellow tasters remarked about half-way through the lineup – with very heavy irony – “This is brutal work.”

 

 

 

 

Two Great Grappas

May 8, 2017

Anyone who has ever had a meal with me knows I am an unrelenting grappista. I long ago stopped being embarrassed by it. Now, if a grappa hasn’t been offered, I just unashamedly ask for one at the end of meal – sometimes before the end, if the meal is an exceptionally ample or long one. My fellow diners variously display interested looks or skeptically lifted eyebrows – until the first aroma of the grappa reaches them. Then, many join me in the sybaritic pleasure of one of the world’s great digestifs.

Most readers of this blog have heard – read? – me say this before. What prompted this outburst was my tasting and immediate acquisition, back in March, of two splendid grappas that I had not known before: Venegazzù Grappa di Capo di Stato and Albino Armani’s Grappa di Amarone. I would go so far as to say these are two of the best grappas I have come upon in a long time. But let me start at the beginning.

.

A group of New York wine journalists, arriving in Verona the day before this year’s Amarone Anteprima opened, and knowing there would not be much time for relaxing once the event started, got together for dinner that evening. Guided by Charles Scicolone’s familiarity with Verona restaurants (he is a veteran of many a Vinitaly), we found our way to Ristorante Al Pompiere, just a short way from the Piazza Brà.

The restaurant was comfortable, the food was excellent, and at the end of the meal I asked our waiter for a grappa chiara e con fuoco – clear and fiery. He complied splendidly with a bottle of the Venegazzù estate’s Grappa Capo di Stato, of which we all partook with considerable pleasure. It was not merely clear and fiery, but also elegant and complex. So fine was it that I persuaded the restaurant to sell me a bottle, since I didn’t want to take any chance of not finding it elsewhere.

I was wise to do so – Charles is still kicking himself that he didn’t – since it doesn’t seem to be widely distributed outside of Europe. I try not to write about items that you can’t get in the US, but sometimes something is so good I feel I should just let people know about it. Besides, enough of my readers travel to Europe, and so could acquire a bottle there. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

The wines of Venegazzù used to be more widely available in the States than they seem to be at present, but they are still as distinguished as they ever were. The estate, in the Treviso region of the Veneto, was originally founded by descendants of Conte Loredan Gasparini, a Doge of Venice.

It has now been acquired by the Palla family, who have continued the high standards set by the original owners. The red wines in particular have always been models of terroir-driven elegance, even though the grapes were and still are French: Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Malbec. They are what make Venegazzù’s banner wine, Capo di Stato, and its vinaccia in turn makes the wonderful grappa I’ve been raving about.

.

My second great grappa came at lunch the next day. How’s that for an auspicious start to a trip?! My second winery visit of that morning was to the Albino Armani vineyards, one of the highest in the Valpolicella/Amarone zone. It’s also one of the newest, a beautifully stylish, efficient, and eco-friendly installation run by a scion of a family that has been making wine in northern Italy since 1607.

After leading us through a tasting of his whole line of wines – all impressive – Signor Armani served us a mercifully light and tasty lunch, which he followed by pouring small snifters of his Grappa di Amarone. Bliss! Clear as ice water – it was lightly chilled, which enhanced its heady aroma – smooth, elegant, with warmth in its long, long finish, this grappa was every bit as stylish as a name like Armani might suggest, and just as welcome and soothing a digestif as the previous night’s revelation. I floated on a cloud of well-being through the rest of the day’s winery visits. Needless to say, I acquired a bottle of this grappa too before moving on.

Armani’s Grappa di Amarone is, I am very happy to say, available here in the US. Total Wine & More, a multi-state chain, carries it: I don’t know whether that is an exclusive, but like the Venegazzù grappa, this is a bottle worth searching for. I believe it retails for around $50, which I regard as a bargain for a brandy of this quality.

MMMM! More Magnificent Masnaghetti Maps

April 27, 2017

Alessandro Masnaghetti is rapidly becoming the Mercator of the wine world, crafting maps that in their detail and precision have reset the standards for that whole segment of wine lore. The almost incidental fact that his maps all have a good share of abstract beauty makes them even more estimable: Not just wine lovers, but map fanciers too have noticed. He has now released what are – to my mind – his most impressive printings to date: two large maps of all the geographical and cru sites of Barolo and Barbaresco.
.

.
These maps are almost Audubon-elephant-folio size, roughly 24 by 34 inches each, printed on heavier than usual paper. They are, as the cliché has it, suitable for framing – especially for double-sided framing, if you can get it, since the data on the back of each is abundant and important. Each map is rich in detail, presenting all the appellation information Masnaghetti has accumulated in his years of charting the evolution of those two zones as they gradually granted official approval to an abundance of geographical and cru designations. Anyone familiar with Masnaghetti’s earlier maps knows how precise – and how very useful – is the information he provides.

Here I can only give a hint of that wealth of data and the maps’ richness of detail. The image above is the whole of his new Barolo map, and here is a small section of it, showing the town of Barolo and some of its great sites – Bussia and Cannubi:
.

,
This is the whole of the Barbaresco map:
.

.
And this a small section of it, showing the closeness of several of Barbaresco’s great crus, Asili, Martinenga, Montestefano, Muncagota (formerly Moccagotta), Paje, and Rabaja.
.

.
The back of each map lists all the sites depicted and names the wines vinified from it, and their producers. More of my words are superfluous: Masnaghetti’s maps say everything there is to say. They are available in this country through The Rare Wine Company, in Europe directly from Masnaghetti’s publication, Enogea.

.
Postscript: Just after I had written all the above, I found out that Masnaghetti has also just released a three-dimensional map of the Chianti Classico zone. I am not even going to attempt to describe it – especially since I have thus far seen only a photo of it and not the map itself – except to say that it seems to show all of his usual accuracy and detail.
.

.
I confess I’m very impressed. As my mother used to say, Will wonders never cease?

My History with Nuits-Saint-Georges

April 17, 2017

Quite recently, and for no special reasons beyond a nowadays almost constant nostalgia and a lovely looking piece of beef scheduled for our dinner, I opened for just the two of us a bottle of 2002 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Les Boudots.

This is a wine that has a long history with us, almost as long as our marriage. Way back at the end of the Sixties, we decided we wanted to really get to know wine. We had been enjoying it for some time, but haphazardly: now, we felt, it was time to learn it systematically. We were both academics, so what would you expect? There were, in those days, very few wine books and even fewer wine courses, and of course no online resources because there was no line to be on. So during one of our then fairly frequent visits to Baltimore, we went to Harry’s, a wine shop that I knew had been patronized by the most esteemed of my graduate-school mentors, and we asked the proprietor to put together a mixed case that would allow us to familiarize ourselves with a range of wines.

He asked us only how much we wanted to spend. I’m pretty sure we said a hundred dollars, gulping at the enormous expense. Harry then put together for us a dozen wines that Diane and I drank with dinners over the next few weeks, paying as much attention as we could to what was going on in our mouths. That was one of the most pleasurable educational experiences of a life that has been blessed with many wonderful educational experiences of all sorts. It not only taught us a great deal about wine and its many guises, it also provided us with a battery of what became life-long favorites – one of which was Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Boudots.

Henri Gouges

That first bottle, as I recall, was a 1964 vintage from the (I later learned) important Burgundy producer Henri Gouges. My most recent one was from Jadot, a name familiar to most wine lovers. There have been many other Nuits-Saint-Georges between those two, not all Les Boudots, not all Premier Cru, indeed not even all cru, but our fondness for the commune’s combination of earthiness and grace, rusticity and elegance, has never wavered. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is our growing preference for older wines: I don’t think we would now drink a Nuits as young as that ’64 then was, if we had any choice at all.

I’ve also learned since then a great deal more about the wine that so impressed us. Just like almost everything else connected with wine, what I learned involved a little geography, a little history, and a lot of nomenclature: grape names, place names, wine names (sometimes the same as one of those first two, sometimes not), yet more specific place names, producers’ names, negociants’ names, and names of a lot of practices and procedures in the vineyards and the cellar. I take a lot of that for granted now, but it was initially very humbling to realize just how many elements and how many people contributed to the making of that glass of wine I was so casually swirling, sniffing, and savoring – and it’s a very healthy exercise to remind myself of all their efforts now.

So: Nuits-Saint-Georges. The wine takes its name from a small town/large village about halfway between Dijon and Beaune, in northeastern France, not too far from the Swiss border. The town lies at the very southern terminus of the Côte de Nuits, to which it also lends its name. That piece of earth is the northern half of the fabled – in wine lore at least – Côte d’Or, a stretch of vineyards that in its entirety runs from just south of Dijon down past Beaune (for which its southern half is named) to Santenay – about 30 miles or so of vineyards, never more than a few miles wide. Collectively, this is the domain of Pinot noir and Chardonnay, and the wines vinified from those two varieties in the various townships of the Côtes are some of the most prized and sought after in the whole world of wine geekery: Gevrey Chambertin, Morey Saint Denis, Chambolle Musigny, Vougeot, Échezeaux, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges – and so on, through Beaune and Pommard and Volnay right down to all the Montrachets.

Nuits-Saint-Georges has been famous for its wines for centuries – just how many is hard to determine. Not far to its east lies the Cistercian abbey of Citeaux, a site from which, in the high Middle Ages, knowledge of viticulture and viniculture spread out to the rest of Europe – so for at least that long. In the modern ranking of Burgundy crus, Nuits-Saint-Georges was awarded 38 Premiers Crus – more than any other Burgundy commune – but no Grands Crus. Some Burgundy experts – of which I am certainly not one – say this was a sound judgment, others say that it was primarily due to the modesty of Henri Gouges, at the time the region’s most important personality and a member of the commission determining those rankings. Be that as it may, Les Boudots – sometimes Aux Boudots – has always been esteemed among the most significant sites of the appellation.

Les Boudots Vineyard

The Boudots vines grow in the northernmost piece of Nuits-Saint-Georges, right up against Vosne-Romanée, of whose terroir Boudots’ slopes are a continuation. That creates one of the first nomenclatorial problems the aspiring Burgundy-bibber encounters: According to the Burgundy experts, Boudots’ wines are the least typical of Nuits-Saint-Georges – not earthy enough, not rustic enough, and so on – and this, apparently, is not good.

.
I just don’t get that. What difference does that name make? Just because Boudots lies in the Nuits-Saint-Georges appellation, do the qualities that make a fine Vosne-Romanée make a bad Nuits? This doesn’t make sense. In my experience of Boudots and other wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges – not all of them, by any means – Boudots has its full share of the rusticity, the solidness, the substantiality that for the experts seems to be the hallmark of this commune. But to that it adds an elegance, a polish, that lifts it above the rest. So for me, if Boudots is atypical of the wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges, it is atypically better and more elegant, and I love it.

It is entirely possible that my experience of Nuits-Saint-Georges is not extensive enough to make this judgment, but I can only go by what I have tasted. If any good soul wants to set up an appellation-wide Nuits-Saint-Georges tasting for me, I will be happy to participate with open mind and open mouth. In the meanwhile, I intend to continue reveling in Burgundy’s recent succession of fine vintages by enjoying my Boudots whenever I can afford it.

A Princely Wine: Corsini’s Don Tommaso

April 6, 2017

In the Tuscan wine world, barons and marquises – scions of old land-owning families – abound, but among all those titles there are very few princes or princesses. Principessa Coralia Pignatelli produces Castell’in Villa, an almost cult wine among Sangiovese admirers, but the only other of princely rank I am aware of is Duccio Corsini, the Principe Corsini of the Le Corti estate. That lofty title, however, is far from the winery’s only distinction, as I and a few other journalists had the opportunity to discover over a recent dinner at the restaurant Babbo. Duccio Corsini wears his distinguished heritage lightly, and he speaks with genuine passion of the wines his distinctive Tuscan terroir yields.

Le Corti lies in San Casciano in the Val di Pesa, about halfway between Florence and Greve, so in the northwest of the Chianti Classico zone. Its soils consist of much less of the marl and clay that mark most of the Classico zone, but are largely alluvial, filled with what Duccio refers to as “river pebbles,” many much closer in size to what we would call cobblestones. If my memory of a long-ago visit serves, several of the vineyards resemble hilly versions of Châteauneuf du Pape, with more stone showing than soil. That terroir yields wines that show real differences from many Chianti Classicos.
.

.
That evening at Babbo we tasted through a six-vintage vertical of the estate’s flagship wine, Don Tommaso Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (now Gran Selezione): 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2010, and 2013. Over those years, the composition of the wine gradually evolved from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot to 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot, which it has been for about 10 years now. It used to age for 15 months in new oak barriques, now it rests in tonneaux (70% new, 30% used) for 18 months, plus at least a year in bottle before release.
.

.
This was a striking tasting. Don Tommaso’s consistency in style from vintage to vintage was admirable: All the wines were of medium weight, all were elegant, balanced, and complete. None smelled or tasted at all of new wood. On the palate, they were squeaky clean, with wonderful Sangiovese black-cherry flavors and acidity, undergirded by an intriguing set of earth tones – not quite what we usually call minerality, but not clay, or mushrooms, or anything underbrushy either. Quite fascinating, and quite impressive: These are top-flight Chianti Classicos, with tremendous aging potential. The three oldest wines were still fresh and vital: In fact, the ’99 was my favorite wine of the evening, and I suspect it probably has a good 10 years at this plateau of quality in front of it. As enjoyable as they all were to taste – even the very young 2013 – these were very clearly dinner wines that would grow in dimensions and pleasure with food.

With dinner, we happy few tasted a different selection of wines. After a glass of a sparkling rosé made from 100% Sangiovese that served brilliantly as a palate cleanser and apéritif, we sat to an abundance of far-too-tasty-for-anyone’s-good antipasti and pastas, accompanied first by Le Corti Chianti Classico 2014 and then by Cortevecchia Chianti Classico Riserva 2014.

The Chiantis were both thoroughly enjoyable, classically Tuscan wines, sapid and juicy – the kind of wines whose appeal is so clear and direct that even non-winedrinkers would instantly realize that what was in their glass was something special. Both wines were vinified from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Colorino, the latter an ancient Tuscan variety. The main difference between them stemmed from their aging: The Classico spent 12 months in either cement or large wooden casks, while the Riserva aged for 20 months, partly in big oak casks and partly in tonneaux. The Riserva of course showed more depth and complexity, but neither wine tasted of anything other than the purest Sangiovese flavors – cherry and a hint of tar, that intriguing, un-namable goût de terroir, and a long aftertaste of drying fruit and – just maybe – a little leather.

With the main course, we were offered a very special wine called Fico, which Corsini believes represents the shape of the future for the Le Corti estate and perhaps for all of Tuscan wine. This project was initiated by his son, who died last fall in a tragic accident. The wine is 100% organically grown and organically vinified Sangiovese. We tasted the 2015 pilot vintage, of which only 280 bottles were made, so this was a rare privilege. Even beyond its rarity, it was one of the most striking Tuscan wines I have ever tasted. Every one of us journalists had the same reaction to our first sip: Pinot noir! Excellent Pinot noir!  And yet it was all unmanipulated Sangiovese. That was the front and middle of the mouth. The back of the mouth and the finish were pure Sangiovese, but that opening taste – and this persisted as we drank our way through the bottle – showed us all a dimension of Sangiovese that we had not known existed. I’m sorry to get so geeky about where-on-my-palate-I-tasted-what, but something like this doesn’t happen every day, and I found it pretty exciting. It is going to be very interesting indeed to see where Principe Corsini goes with this.

Dinner concluded more conventionally (for Tuscany) – but no less deliciously – with an over-abundance of desserts and very welcome glasses of Sant’Andrea Corsini 2004, a Vin Santo made from Malvasia and Trebbiano. In Tuscany, an elegant Vin Santo like this one would be served to a guest as a welcoming toast. Outside Tuscany Vin Santo is most often used as a dessert wine or digestive, which role it on this occasion played admirably, sending us all off into the chilly, slushy New York night warm and content.