Punching Above Its Weight Class: Chateau Pontet Canet

July 9, 2018

Technically, Pontet Canet is a “mere” cinquième cru, a chateau placed in the lowly fifth rank of the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines – but you’d never know that from the way the wines taste. From the powerhouse Pauillac commune, Pontet Canet fully delivers the appellation’s characteristic force, combined with great elegance and a fine ability to age gracefully and long.

A Muhammad Ali listed among lightweights, this is an estate that indeed punches above its supposed class. A few weeks ago, Diane and I belatedly celebrated her birthday with a dinner bottle of Pontet Canet 1997, a 21-year-old from what is usually regarded as at best a middling year in Bordeaux.

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Well, there was nothing middling about this bottle: big wafts of wood smoke, prunes, and dried flowers in the aroma; velvety and balanced in the mouth, redolent of dried red fruits and underbrush, with a long, smooth finish, almost a slow glide into silence. Our cheese course brought up in it waves of fresh fruit sweetness, black, plummy fruit sweetness. It was simply lovely, and as we experienced it, we couldn’t imagine any way it could have been better without being a different wine entirely. That, I think, is all you can ask of any wine.

Pontet Canet stands apart from most other Médoc châteaux in two non-trivial respects. In its long history, it has had only three owners, and its cellars are underground. The latter is a true rarity in Bordeaux, and I do think it makes – or maybe more accurately in these days of ubiquitous air conditioning, it made – a difference in the wine.
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The estate was founded in 1725 by Jean-Francois de Pontet, an important figure in Bordeaux. In 1852 Pontet Canet was sold to the Cruse family, major Bordeaux négociants, who owned it until 1975 when it was bought by the Tesseron family, who have spent many years and francs and euros steadily improving the property and its wines. As Feret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines (the unofficial bible of Bordeaux) puts it, “At present, better than its classification…. In the 1855 classification, it was listed top of the fifth growths, but today the wine sells like a top second growth.”

Pontet Canet is a large estate, even by Médoc standards. It has 80 hectares in vines: that’s about 200 acres. They are planted 60% to Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% to Merlot, 5% to Cabernet franc, and a token 1% to Petit Verdot. Except for the tiny amount of Petit Verdot, that’s pretty much a standard Bordeaux blend.

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I have very pleasant memories of a visit to Pontet Canet not very many years after its acquisition by the Tesserons. After a dusty, warm tour of the vineyards and a tasting of recent vintages, we adjourned to the comfortably cool cellar where genial Alfred Tesseron presided over a very enjoyable dinner accompanied by several older vintages of Pontet Canet, each showing a different stage of the maturation of classic Pauillac, and each demonstrating the elegance he prized so highly in the wine.

He ended the meal with a little bit of Bordeaux theatre: An unidentified wine was served from decanter, and it really capped the evening. Headily fragrant and deeply flavorful, it was different from Pontet Canet yet similar to it in style, intriguing all of us. It turned out to be a 1945 Lafon Rochet, the fourth growth St. Estèphe estate the Tesserons had acquired at the same time as Pontet Canet. Alfred Tesseron’s point was to show us that the rankings really, finally meant very little: Almost every patch of the Médoc, he thought, was capable of greatness when it was treated properly. He made his point very well, and the lesson has stayed with me all these years.

Good as Pontet Canet already was in those years, it has been growing steadily better, and has now embarked on the whole biodynamic enterprise, one of the few major Bordeaux estates to undertake what some growers consider a very risky gamble. On the basis of too few tastings of recent Pontet Canet vintages, my palate says it’s working. The wines I’ve tasted have been pleasing and accessible, but still seem to have the structure to age as well as the vintages of the past. Given the care with which the Tesserons have managed Pontet Canet, I would expect no less.

Tales from the Crypt: A Cellar Story

June 28, 2018

My wine “cellar” is in fact a rented mini-storage unit in a big, thick-walled warehouse alongside the Hudson River, not too cold in winter and not too hot in summer. Most collectors would scream with horror at such an uncontrolled repository for their wines, but I’m not a collector and never have been.

(cover illustration © Mort Todd)

The wines I’ve stored over the years have been a hodge-podge: some bottles I wanted to give more maturity before drinking, and some samples – from back in the days when I was a more active wine journalist and samples came in over the transom – that I didn’t have time to taste at the moment but thought I might need for future articles. So if less-than-perfect storage conditions meant speeding up their maturation – in effect adding a few years to their calendrical age – that was and is no problem for me. In fact, it’s an advantage, since I have no plans to bequeath a cellar to my heirs and assigns, and I’d like to taste these wines while I still have functioning taste buds.

This is a long preamble to the fact that, now that I’m plodding my way through the Vale of Years, I’ve stopped adding wines to my hoard and started bringing home cases for tasting and drinking. Most of the time, these cases form a pretty mixed lot: My most recent one consisted mostly of 2007 and 2008 wines – some Burgundies and Chateauneufs and some Tuscan and Piedmontese bottles – all red, and all potentially pretty nice drinking, even if still a bit young by strict standards.

But this also furnished an opportunity to test just how quickly my less-than-perfect storage was aging these wines: Would I be able to taste properly maturing flavors, and would they be appropriate ones for 10- or 11-year-old wines?  Interesting questions, and just the kind to tempt an old wine-bibber to make a test.

So test I did, choosing 3 wines of the 2007 vintage from the case, a Chanson Clos des Fèves Beaune Premier Cru, a Selvapiana Bucerchiale, and a Cogno Barolo Ravera. I opted for those three wines because I know them well and am familiar with the pattern of their development. And I picked 2007 because it was a good, solid vintage in all three zones and because, at 10-11 years old, these wines ought to be on the cusp, passing from youth to maturity. So for my test purposes, these wines would be perfect subjects, able to answer the questions I’m asking.

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I allowed all the wines three hours breathing in bottle, not decanted. First wine up was the Chanson Clos des Fèves, which showed clear garnet with a definite orange edge – in a French wine, a definite sign of aging. It had a good nose of dark berries and dried fruit, with underbrush notes and a slight hint of wood. On the palate, the taste confirmed the aroma: dried cherry, medium body, fine balance, graceful and elegant, with a long, dry, fruit-and-leather finish. A little less substantial than I would have hoped, and a little further along its evolutionary path than I expected, but still not fully mature. In an ideal cellar, I would expect this wine to peak at about 20 years old or a little bit more. This bottle I would think would have needed only two or three more years to develop fully: to put on a little more flesh and open more forceful mature aromas.

Next came the Selvapiana Bucerchiale, a slightly darker wine with a bit more orange at the edge, which is quite characteristic of many Italian wines and not necessarily a sign of aging. It had a biggish aroma of dried fruits – a suggestion of prune – and earth notes. In the mouth, it was big and soft, with dark flavors – dried berries and a little tobacco – with fine balance and persistence. Not a huge wine, but mouth-filling. Though it showed no fresh fruit tastes, it still seemed some years from full maturity. I’d say that it’s on a proper path of maturing though a bit accelerated: From what I know of Bucerchiale, I would expect it to peak at about 25 years old in an ideal cellar; in mine, I think it will top off at about 20, which can’t come soon enough for me.

Then I tasted the Cogno Barolo Ravera, which showed the most orange of all the wines, and which I regard as perfectly normal for developing Nebbiolo-based wine. The nose offered a whole mélange of elements – dried cherry/berry, wet stones, mushroom, with similar notes in the mouth, where it showed as big and slightly tannic. On the palate this wine displayed no fresh fruit, but not all the mature Nebbiolo flavors that I look for were yet in place. So it is still evolving, and still needs some years before it will be fully mature. In a good cellar, this wine will go for 30 or 40 years: good Nebbiolo wines do that. In my storage, I expect it to be drinking best at 20 to 25 years old – which is a lot better for those of us not building heritage collections, but for a person of my age is still seriously pushing the envelope.

My Tasting Workshop

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This for me was a really interesting experiment, and it confirmed a lot of what I’ve thought about “cellaring” wines – principally that a lot of what have been thought to be absolutes about how wine is to be stored are far from absolute. Rather, they’re based ultimately on the evolution of wines in their makers’ caves or in the cellars of 19th century English great houses, cellars that are meant to be steadily drawn on and augmented over a lifetime and left as an inheritance for one’s heirs.

That doesn’t speak to the needs of people of more limited means and lacking anything approaching a great house, who want mature wine to enjoy in their lifetime. So as regards the “rules” of wine storage, I’d borrow a phrase from Martin Luther: Sin bravely. Just think about what you want from your wine and how to get it, then go and do it.

One Fine Wine: Deiss Alsace Pinot Gris 2011

June 18, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Among Alsace white wines, Riesling seems to get the lion’s share of attention from the press and the public. That’s understandable: there are many great ones. But if any grape variety deserves to be Alsace’s poster child, in my opinion it should be Pinot gris, for its uniqueness, its intensity, and its outstanding quality. Nowhere but Alsace does the grey Pinot give wines of such power and grace and, at the same time, such extraordinary versatility with food.

Alsace vineyards do very well with several varieties that elsewhere get only secondary interest from growers and consumers – Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Gewürztraminer to name a few. All, in Alsace, yield wines of greater interest and surprising adaptability with food of all sorts. My usual go-to wine with Indian dishes, for instance, is Gewürztraminer, whose combination of dryness and spicy fruit answers well to the intricate spicings of Indian cooking. So, when Diane decided to make us an Indian dinner, I went into my stash looking for a Gewürz – and came up empty-handed. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I decided to try a bottle of 2011 Deiss Pinot gris. It was not as old as I really like my Pinot gris, but it’s well known by now that I’m a nut on the subject of mature wines. In any event, with Indian flavors, all the usual rules are off, so I thought I’d take a flier with that barely-seven-year-old.

Well, the Pinot gris worked out beautifully, starting right with the appetizer samosas and the garlic-and-lime pickle that accompanied them, and right on through a rich goat curry, butter-smothered cabbage, mung dal, and a refreshing chilled cucumber raita (all out of Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking). The wine either tasted totally dry or suggested some fruit sweetness according to the peculiarities of each dish, but its own unusual quince-and-mango fruitiness meshed very well with them all – and its typically Alsace firm structure meant that it never became flabby or in any way negligible. It was never just a liquid but became itself an important component of the flavor symphony of the meal.

Deiss is a prestigious family firm, headquartered in Bergheim, which is as close as you can get to dead center of the Alsace wine zone. Deiss biodynamically farms 26 hectares of vines, spread over several villages and including at least three Grand Cru sites. This Pinot gris is one of Deiss’s basic and least expensive bottlings, so its very high quality should tell you what you need to know about the family’s more rarified selections.

Deiss’s Grand Cru Altenberg Vineyard

Red Wine Bonanza

June 4, 2018


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Campania Stories 2018 climaxed with a blind tasting of 111 red wines. By the standards of the Nebbiolo Prima or the Chianti Classico and Brunello anteprima, at either of which professionals taste 100 or more wines a day over multiple days, that’s not a lot of wines – but judged against what Campania’s production was in the past, that is a tremendous leap forward. That same progress is evident in the quality of the wines as in the proliferation of appellations and producers: Every year, the most authoritative Italian experts – Daniele Cernilli, Gambero Rosso, the Italian Sommeliers Association – give Campania more and more of their top awards, and list more and more Campanian wines in their annual guides.

Not all of those wines are available here in the US, of course, but many are – enough to create some confusion for American consumers. The region’s many appellations result not from Italian whimsicality or parochialism, but from Campanian geography. Campania is broken up by hills and mountains, divided by valleys and rivers, with soils volcanic and alluvial and sedimentary, and climates modified by altitude and/or proximity to the sea. These necessitate differing appellations to reflect the many varied growing circumstances, which in turn affect the kind of wine produced – even when the grape varieties are the same.
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A misty morning in the hills near Avellino

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That is one of the underlying simplicities of Campanian red wine: Campania has largely resisted the importation of foreign grapes, and almost all Campanian reds are made with a small handful of indigenous grape varieties. At the top of the heap stands Aglianico, in its pinnacle expression Taurasi and in many other regionally named wines. Right behind is Piedirosso – the Per’e Palummo beloved of traditional growers – sort of a Merlot to Aglianico’s Cabernet, which blends wonderfully with Aglianico and also makes a very nice wine on its own. And distantly behind Piedirosso (in volume, not in quality) follow Casavecchia, Pallagrello nero, Tintore, and a handful of other ancient red varieties just now being rediscovered and re-cultivated.

Thus, understanding Campanian reds isn’t all that complex, once you’ve familiarized your palate with what Aglianico and Piedirosso can do. (If you haven’t, you’re depriving yourself of some great pleasures: Aglianico in particular is a truly noble red variety, easily on the same plane as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo or, for that matter, Pinot noir.)

For me, as a wine lover and an I-hope-useful journalist, this plenitude of fine wines and their appellations makes a major problem. For instance: at the blind tasting, 71 of the wines presented were either 100% Aglianico or largely Aglianico-based. None of them was a wine I couldn’t drink with pleasure. Fifty-six of them scored 3.75 to 4.5 on the 5-point scale I use for my own ratings, and I’m a stingy scorer. Fifty-six! I can’t in conscience just turn this post into a gigantic list: I came too close to that for my own comfort (or yours, I am sure) in my post on the white wines of Campania Stories. But I also can’t omit the names of these wonderful wines and their hard-working producers – so here’s a link that will connect those of you curious or masochistic enough to want to know them to the complete list of Tom’s Very Pleasurable Fifty-six.

What impressed me consistently about the Taurasis especially, but all the less famous Aglianico wines as well, was the wonderful Aglianico fruit – wild cherry, black raspberry, forest underbrush, walnuts and earth – in the aromas and flavors. In the Taurasis, it tends to be a bit more austere and structured, in the other wines a little softer and more giving, but in all it is sustained by a structure that promises long life and development. Not that they have to be kept forever – many were already pleasant drinking and almost all will be thoroughly enjoyable very soon – but for anyone seeking mature flavors and style in a red wine, these Campanian beauties can provide it, if you’re patient enough. Galardi’s Terra di Lavoro, Villa Matilde’s Falerno Rosso, La Rivolta, Mustille, Fontanavecchia, Benito Ferrara, Donnachiara, Di Meo, Luigi Tecce’s Campi Taurasini Satyricon – all these “non-Taurasis” are splendid wines, with a good chunk of Taurasi’s virtues.

As for the Taurasis themselves: There was an impressive, almost universal level of excellence from producers large and small. Clearly the level of winemaking in Campania has taken a major step upward. Familiar larger producers like Feudi di San Gregorio and Villa Raiano showed lovely wines, as did medium-sized houses like Donnachiara and Di Meo and small producers such as Luigi Tecce – and so too did a raft of producers previously unknown to me, some of them quite small, such as Vigne Guadagno or Regina Collis. In the 2012 and 2013 vintages especially, throwing darts at a list of Taurasi makers would probably get you a fine wine nine times out of ten.

Finally, I can’t close this post without praising the wines vinified – in most cases, 100% – from Casavecchia or Pallagrello Nero. Two ancient and indigenous Campanian varieties now undergoing serious revivals, both make an intense, dark wine, brooding and elegant, and seemingly capable of graceful aging. Top-flight producers include, for Casavecchia, Aia delle Monache, Alois, Sclavia, and Viticoltori del Casavecchia; and for Pallagrello nero, Alois, Cantina di Lisandro, Nanni Copè, Sclavia, Tempio di Diana, and Vestini Campagnano.

As my enthusiasm should show, I found the whole Naples event pleasurable and exciting. I would urge any young enophile to start paying serious attention to Campanian wine, while it is still modestly priced and not yet well known. This is an opportunity to fill your cellar with beautifully structured, long-lasting wines that you will enjoy for many years.

Four Fine Bordeaux Estates

May 21, 2018

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Bordeaux tasting as thoroughly as I did this season’s final Wine Media Guild lunch. For more than a few years now, I’ve been unhappy with a lot of the biggest names in Bordeaux because the wines have been tasting – how to put this? – more and more industrial to me, as if they were the end-result of a large-scale commercial production. Whatever the truth of that, there were no such problems with the WMG’s tasting of Château Latour Martillac (Pessac Leognan), Château Beychevelle (Saint Julien), Château Kirwan (Margaux), and Château Guiraud (Sauternes).

All were classic examples of what their appellations ought to be – or what my memory tells me their appellations used to be before The Sacred Quest for Parker Scores homogenized Bordeaux. If these wines are bellwethers of a wave of post-Parkerism . . . well, let’s just say it’s about time.

What I was impressed by in these four estates was their balance, elegance, restraint, fidelity to variety and terroir, and vitality – all qualities likely to escape the notice of the wine newbie or wannabe interested only in bold fruit, but ultimately the characteristics that separate fine wine from fermented grape juice.

  • The Latour Martillac reds all showed the lovely cedary-ness and sinewy-ness, the whites the roundness and vigor of the Graves.
  • The Beychevelles had all the balance and appeal, the cushioned Cabernet flavors, that one hopes for in Saint Julien.
  • The Kirwan wines were simply classic Margaux, enticing in the nose and opulent in the mouth.
  • And the Guiraud wines presented a symphony of botrytis and mineral flavors, amazing sweetnesses counterbalanced by vivid acidity, that amount to almost a definition of Sauternes.

These were Bordeaux wines as I haven’t experienced them in a long, long time, and I loved every minute of it.

Any of these wines, even the oldest, could mature further. The ’98 Guiraud, for instance, still needs ten years to reach its peak, and none of 2000 reds showed any sign of fading. The 2000 Kirwan, in fact, was one of the top two wines of the day for me. The younger wines all seemed to be developing quite nicely, with the 2005 Beychevelle in particular (my other top-two wine) already tasting splendid and promising years of further development. Were I several decades younger than I am, I would be cellaring these wines and trying to keep my hands off them for at least a few years more.

Here are the wines presented at the luncheon:

Château Latour Martillac Blanc 2011, 2013, 2015
Château Latour Martillac Rouge 2000, 2010, 2015

Châateau Beychevelle 2000, 2005, 2009, 2014, 2015
Château Beychevelle Amiral de Beychevelle 2015

Château Kirwan 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015
Charmes de Kirwan 2010

Château Guiraud Sec 2015
Château Guiraud 1998, 2009, 2010, 2015
Petit Guiraud 2015

That last wine is a rather charming demi-sec. The two second-labels presented, Amiral de Beychevelle and Charmes de Kirwan, both showed as smaller but still elegant versions of the primary wines. One last noteworthy quality of all the wines shown was the consistency of style each house demonstrated over several quite different vintages, which is no small accomplishment. It would be a wonderful thing if a great Bordeaux revival was a-borning.

One Fine Wine: Ridge Geyserville 2010

May 10, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I don’t enjoy much California wine. I’m not crazy about many New World wines, for that matter, but I’ve always made an exception for Zinfandel, a grape that has acclimatized itself so thoroughly as to be legitimately considered a native variety, especially in California. And for my money, nobody in California makes it better than Ridge.

All that being so, when, a little while back, two successive days of sunshine and no rain prompted hopes of spring in me and thoughts of an American spring-ish dinner in Diane, the idea of drinking a Ridge Zinfandel followed hard on their heels. Of the several Zinfandels Ridge makes, Geyserville has always been one of my favorites.

It’s an old-fashioned field mix of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro – the kind of mixed grapes from all over Europe that used to be the staple of many small California vineyards before the homogenizing blight of Cabernet hit. In fact, since there is only 64% Zinfandel in this bottle (that’s roughly normal for Ridge’s Geyserville), it can’t be labelled Zinfandel, so it’s just Geyserville. For those of us who love it, ‘nuff said.

Our American-ish, spring-ish dinner started with a few crackers topped with fresh cream cheese and wasabi-infused flying fish roe. The main course was a thick, bloody-rare NY strip steak,  fried shoestring potatoes, asparagus (still not local, alas) and – especially – the first morels of the year. After that, two cheeses with which to finish the wine: Podda and Boucheron.

We were very, very happy. The Geyserville enjoyed everything, even the wasabi fish roe; and with the steak and morels, it opened wide and tasted like a berry-filled forest, all brushy and dark-fruited with over- and undertones of leather and tobacco and even a little juniper.

This is where I have to stress the vintage, 2010. This is not a newly released wine, but a seven-year-old. Not ancient, by any means, but anyone who thinks that Zinfandel is all about big, in-your-face, youthful fruit would have been surprised/shocked/distressed/bowled over by what Ridge made of it. Even though this Geyserville is still in the process of maturing, its fruit has evolved into a complex blend of restrained flavors. It’s an intensely civilized wine, very claret-y (does anyone still remember claret?) in style and texture, flavors and attack. On the bottle’s back label, the winemaker says “Rich, elegant, and structured, this fine zinfandel will provide enjoyment over the next decade.” That’s not hype: That’s understatement.

All Ridge Zins evolve roughly this same way, and I think they’re at their best around 10 years old, if you can hide them from yourself for that long. They just keep getting more and more elegant, demonstrating just how much power and fruit they have by the grace with which they rein it in.

White Wine Wonderland

April 30, 2018

It may be news to the casual wine buyer, but it’s certainly no secret to wine lovers that these days Campanian white wines are among the most exciting in the world. My second day of tastings at Campania Stories in Naples covered 109 samples of them from 86 producers over vintages stretching from 2017 back to 2003. I make no secret of the fact that I am a major fan of these wines, so no one should be surprised when I say that I was wowed.

The producers ranged in size from very large to very small, some white wine specialists but most making at least some reds as well. I’ll talk about the red wines (another day’s tasting) in a later post: for now I want to focus on the enormous diversity of white wines Campania makes.

Top of the list, of course, stand the two white DOCGs, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, but they are followed by a host of wines vinified from Fiano or Greco in other parts of Campania. And beyond those two varieties comes a whole gazetteer of other white grapes, many localized and only recently acquiring any reputation outside their zone, others long-standing staples of production in wines that aren’t varietally named, such as Lacryma Christi. Most prominent of these varieties are Asprinio, Caprettone, Catalanesca, Coda di Volpe, Falanghina (now very well known), and Pallagrello bianco (now an emerging star) – to name just some.

The hardest problem for me in tasting so many and such diverse wines is staying focused on what is actually in the glass, not what I hope or expect it to be. It’s hard to say which tires first, the palate or the brain, but the task is to bring the same attention to wine #109 as to wine #1. It helps a great deal when the wines are well-made examples of interesting varieties, and the good news from Campania Stories is that that was true in 90% of the cases. As a veteran of many a hard slog through a slate of mediocre wines, I can assure you that 90% is a terrific average, whatever the country or appellations you’re dealing with.

So: down to details. First, the “lesser” breeds, which many of us have been drinking happily for years in blends such as Lacryma Christi bianco or Costa Amalfitana. Most wines so labelled were for years relatively simple wines for everyday meals, but now, as the winemaking improves steadily throughout Campania, they are rapidly ascending the scale of quality and interest.

I was particularly charmed by Marisa Cuomo’s 2016 Fiorduva, a blend of Ripoli, Fenile, and Ginestra, and a wine that is a perennial prize winner, but then I’m impressed by Cuomo’s entire line of wines. The humble Lacryma Christi bianco appellation produced two striking wines, Sorrentino’s 2016 Vigna Lapillo and Matrone’s 2015 Territorio de’ Matroni. The appellation that showed strongest among these lesser-known wines was unquestionably Pallagrello bianco, an IGP wine from Terre del Volturno in the province of Caserta. Every sample in this category showed the complexity of which this variety is capable: the nose and palate are marked by assertive, almost red, fruit and strong minerality, and they were biggish (especially for a white wine), round in the mouth, and long in the finish. Pallagrello bianco takes quite well to at least a few years’ aging, and often more. This is definitely a dinner wine, not a cocktail.

Falanghina is one of Campania’s success stories, a wine that went from obscurity only a few years ago to vinous stardom. Its light body and refreshing minerality make it an ideal wine for everything from sipping at parties to drinking throughout light meals. There are several appellations: Falerno del Massico bianco, Falanghina del Sannio, Campania Falanghina, and Campi Flegrei Falanghina. Each is good, and each differs slightly from the others.

The Falanghina from the Flegrean fields is probably the most “volcanic” tasting of them all, the Sannio Falanghina the roundest and best suited to dinner service. There are excellent producers in all the appellations: in the Massico zone, Villa Matilde; in Sannio, Fattoria La Rivolta, Feudi di San Gregorio, Fontanavecchia, and especially Mustilli, who rescued the variety and pioneered its re-introduction; and in the Campi Flegrei, Aganum, Cantine Carputo, and La Sibilla.

The group of Fiano and Fiano-based wines ran to 40 samples ranging from vintage 2017 back to 2003. Of them, 29 were Fiano di Avellino. This was a sensational bunch of wines: There is no other way to put it. I had been impressed by the level of winemaking that the white wines had been showing, but with these Fianos, it really shone. No rusticities, no overpowering oak, no off bottles: just clean, pure Fiano flavors throughout, in a range of styles from delicate to forceful.

Fiano is a great grape, as noble as Chardonnay or Riesling, and these 40 samples both demonstrated what has been accomplished with it thus far and indicated what it is capable of. Aromas of forest floor, pears, hazelnuts, almonds, with mineral inflections; palates of white fruits and nuts and mineral interlacings, with long, dried-pear and nut finishes, all varying with vintage and age, and gradually – with age – rounding and plumping into a more mature hazelnut-and-sottobosco complex of scents and tastes: for my palate, as lovely a white wine as can be found anywhere. Here is a highly selected list of the samples that impressed me most, in the order I tasted them:

  • 2017 De Conciliis, Paestum Fiano Bacioilcielo
  • 2017 De Conciliis Paestum Fiano Donnaluna
  • 2017 Casebianche Cilento Fiano Cumalé
  • 2017 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Colli di Lapio Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Feudi di San Gregorio Pietracalda
  • 2017 Petilia Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017  Donnachiara Fiano di Avellino
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  • 2016 Nanni Copé Terre del Volturno Bianco Polveri della Scarrupata
  • 2016 Tenuta Sarno 1860 Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Pietracupa Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino
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  • 2015 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino Ventidue
  • 2015 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino Tognano
  • 2015 Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino Feudi Studi Arianello
  • 2015 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino Alimata
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  • 2014 Ciro Picariello Fiano di Avellino Ciro
  • 2012 Tenuta Sarno 1860 Fiano di Avellino
  • 2007 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Colle dei Cerri
  • 2003 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Erminia di Meo

And finally came Greco: 26 wines, the great majority of them Greco di Tufo. Greco is also a great variety, of much nobler status than the wine world seems aware of, but I think for most wine lovers less immediately accessible than Fiano. Its wines show the greatest minerality of any Campanian wines, and that is saying a lot. The soils of the Tufo zone are richly volcanic and mineral-laced: A sulfur mine on the di Marzo estate just outside the town of Tufo was for many years the major employer in the region. But Greco – especially Greco di Tufo – rewards the small effort it takes to get to know it: It is a big wine for a white, and capable of matching with many foods, from seafood (it loves shellfish) through white meats and even smoked meats (try it with a ham steak). And it ages complexly and well, the palate rounding and softening, the nose deepening and acquiring intriguing forest-floor aromas. Here are the best of the best I tasted in Naples:

  • 2017 Villa Raiano Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Ferrara Benito Greco di Tufo Vigna Cicogna
  • 2017 Di Meo Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Petilia Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo Cutizzi
  • 2017 Donnachiara Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Colli di Lapio Greco di Tufo
    .
  • 2016 Di Marzo Greco di Tufo Serrone
  • 2016 Di Prisco Greco di Tufo
  • 2016 Pietracupa Greco di Tufo
    .
  • 2015 Villa Raiano Greco di Tufo Contrada Marotta

In addition to all these at the formal tasting, I managed to taste a few more on visits to individual producers. Almost all of them took the opportunity to show their experimental wines, the directions they want to go with their Fiano and Greco. Almost all of those – especially Di Marzo, Petilia, and Sarno 1860 – seemed to be moving in the direction of making their wines more Burgundian in style – rounder, fuller, more complex, still more expressive of their terroir. As you can imagine, these wines are still in the developmental stages and not commercially available – but they gave a very exciting indication of the sophistication and quality that lies in store for us in years to come. I left Campania a very happy camper.

Unknown Italy: The Wines of Basilicata

April 19, 2018

Every April, the increasingly important Campania Stories, an event presenting new releases of a great many Campanian winemakers, convenes in Naples. This year, it grew a new appendage, a day devoted to Basilicata Stories.

This is to my mind a very promising development: I think the south of Italy is making some of the most exciting wines in the whole realm of wine, and it needs to find a way to make its case to the world. An event like this, which could bring together all the wonderful produce of Italia meridionale, may be just the venue it needs.

Basilicata, for those unfamiliar with Italian geography, is the province at the bottom of the Italian peninsula, jammed in between Puglia to the east, Campania to the northwest, and Calabria to the southwest. If Puglia is the shank and heel of the Italian boot, and Calabria the toe, then Basilicata is the instep – and like insteps everywhere, it doesn’t get much attention. I hope that will be changing soon.

The event in Naples presented 45 wines from 18 producers in its blind tasting. Almost three-quarters of the wines were red, vinified in large part from Primitivo and Aglianico, with a very small admixture of Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon. Most of the Primitivo wines originated in the eastern end of Basilicata, where the terroir and the grapes seem to be almost a continuation of Puglia. Aglianico is far and away the most important and most widely planted variety in the region, with Aglianico del Vulture Superiore, Basilicata’s only DOCG, pre-eminent.

This has been so for a long time. I remember visiting Rionero in Vulture decades ago, when it was a sleepy country town,* and the only winemakers of note in the area were Donato d’Angelo and, to a lesser extent, Paternoster; and the only wine of distinction in Basilicata was Aglianico del Vulture. The Monte Vulture that lends its name to the zone and appellation is a long-dormant, probably extinct, volcano, high and windy – so windy, that, as I recall, Aglianico vines were grown very close to the ground and surrounded by little teepees of reeds around which the vines could twine and shelter the grapes.

I haven’t been back, but I suspect that is probably no longer the case. There are certainly many more producers now than there were then, and many more Aglianico appellations. Much has no doubt changed about the fieldwork with Aglianico, and this Naples tasting certainly showed that the wine, already fine back then, has gotten even better.

Basilicato Aglianico differs greatly from Campanian versions of the wine. Different clones and different soils yield a softer version of this great red wine: the same luscious black-cherryish fruit, and the same fine acid/tannin balance, but in its youth Aglianico from Basilicata is gentler on the palate, a little softer and more welcoming. It lacks the austerity of Taurasi, and it may – I’m not sure – lack Taurasi’s aging ability, but it retains all its complexity and interest. I found the samples I tasted delightful, especially those of the 2011 vintage, which were remarkably fresh and pleasing. Here is a short list of the Basilicata Aglianicos that pleased me most:

  • Cantina di Venosa Aglianico del Vulture Verbo 2015
  • Cantine del Notaio Aglianico del Vulture La Firma 2013
  • Cantine del Notaio Aglianico del Vulture Il Sigillo 2011
  • Colli Cerentino Aglianico del Vulture Masqito 2011
  • D’Angelo Casa Vinicola Aglianico del Vulture Caselle 2012
  • Elena Fucci Aglianico del Vulture Titolo 2016
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Aquila del Vulture 2011
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Massaron Riserva 2009
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Nero degli Orsini 2011
  • Lagala Basilicata Rosso Maddalena 2016
  • Carmelitano Musto Aglianico del Vulture Pian del Moro 2013
  • Ripanera Basilicata Rosso Sansavino 2016

Only some of these wines – those in red – are at present imported into the US, but I suspect that will be changing as attention begins to be paid to this important variety and to the whole zone.

I’m not sure I can say the same about Basilicata’s Primitivo wines. Although I found many of them charming, these wines are so overshadowed by the better-known and better-distributed Primitivi coming from Puglia that I fear it will take them a good while to break into the American market. For their sake, and for the consumer’s sake, I hope I’m wrong.

* * *

*  Purely personal history: It was around 1980 when Diane and I visited Donato d’Angelo, and Diane was gawked at along the whole length of the main street of Rionero as probably the tallest woman ever seen there. She then created what seemed to be the scandal of the year by entering the café with us boys and having an espresso at the bar. The times they have a-changed, especially in the Italian south.

One Fine Wine: Lopez de Heredia Rioja Viña Bosconia 2005

April 9, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about individual wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I love traditional-style Rioja. At its best, it combines a pleasing rusticity and directness with subtlety and sophistication, a pairing as hard to resist as its characteristic balance of tannin and acidity, dark berry-ish fruit and earthy, forest duff aromas and flavors. In addition, traditionally made Riojas seem to have the capacity to age effortlessly, a trait that, for someone who enjoys the character of mature wine as much as I do, makes Rioja a constant pleasure.

All those qualities seem to be the gift of the Tempranillo grape, the variety that is Rioja’s main component – in the case of this 2005 Viña Bosconia probably around 80%. Bosconia is one of Lopez de Heredia’s two reserva wines (the other is Viña Tondonia). It tends toward a fullness, almost a lushness, of style and mouth-feel. This bottle was perceptibly soft, and it accommodated itself beautifully to the dishes we rather unconventionally matched it with.

Viña Bosconia – indeed, most Rioja reservas – are usually paired with roast meats and assertive cheeses. We drank ours with an onion-sweet Spanish tortilla and with a luscious, rich braise of octopus, potato, and red bell pepper whose sauce was its own juices deepened in color and flavor by a generous infusion of pimentòn agridulce. That was a whole spectrum of flavors, yet every component of those dishes meshed wonderfully with this big, yet restrained red wine, and the interplay of all the flavors remained vivid and attention-grabbing from first bite to last.

Lopez de Heredia has been a pillar of Rioja wines from its foundation in 1877, and it still makes its wines in the time-honored Rioja manner. That means very long aging in large oak tanks – five years for Viña Bosconia – and then several years of bottle aging before release.

Reservas like Bosconia are made only in the best years: The vintage of Bosconia currently on the market is, I believe, 2006. Our bottle of ’05, although delightful, was nowhere near its full maturity, which I would guess is still 10 years in the future. I hope I can keep my hands off a few bottles long enough to taste them then. For that matter, I hope I’m still around to taste them then – and, oh yes: you too.

Radical Simplicity: The Caparone Way with Italian Grapes

March 28, 2018

I’ve marveled here before about Dave and Marc Caparone’s unmatched success with the three great Italian red grape varieties – Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – in California. It made me wonder what they know and do that other California growers seemingly don’t. Dave Caparone is essentially publicity-shy. He is passionately committed to his craft, however, and when his son Marc suggested he write down some of what he has learned about growing those grapes, he complied.

Marc gave me a preview of Dave’s remarks, which are now available on the winery’s website.

Aglianico *

I was bowled over by the simplicity and directness of Dave’s approach to the three varieties, all which have a reputation, even in Italy, for being difficult to cultivate. He doesn’t go into the arcana of soil analysis and root stocks – though obviously he paid attention to those issues, since he was scrupulously careful about choosing his vineyard sites and about the sources and origins of the vines he chose to plant. (See his earlier-written remarks about his winemaking history.)

Rather, he cuts through the whole thicket of issues the concept of terroir has become entangled with. His working premise starts with the most critical element of microclimate: the amount of heat each geographical area provides for vines – which determines whether a particular variety will mature properly or not.

Some varieties such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon seem to work well over a wider range of microclimates. Others, such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico do not. In the Paso Robles region, Zinfandel will mature properly in places where Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo do. Zinfandel will also mature properly where there is not enough heat for Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo…. Heat requirements are inherent in the grape and are the same whether the grape is grown in California or Europe.

It’s difficult for me to make clear the radical directness of those seemingly simple statements. The Caparones’ experience in Paso Robles has shown them that many different varieties will do well in their soils and climates. If the soil and exposures are suitable for growing grapes, the microclimate seems to them to be the key determinant of what varieties will do well there. The Caparones’ remarkable several decades of success with Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese amply demonstrate that their position in one of the warmest stretches of the Paso Robles appellation provides the proper microclimate for all three varieties.

Nebbiolo *

Not entirely by the way: That accomplishment – that a single locus could succeed with all three of those great red grapes – would, in Italy, be a priori deemed impossible, and I think in most of California it would be judged improbable.

Quoting Dave again, “If a grape variety is grown in an area that is too warm for it, the wines produced will lack balance and proper varietal character. If the area is too cool, it may not reach full maturity at all.” This seems to him to be the major source of difficulty in growing and vinifying grapes of almost any variety in California – or almost anywhere else, for that matter.

In California with its lack of rain during a long growing season, there is very little annual variation. In all my years of winemaking I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature. In Europe, the situation is much more variable and grape maturity is an ongoing problem. No grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky, although weather and climate often are. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico are as easy to grow in our vineyard as Zinfandel.

Let me underline that. Dave’s saying “no grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky” amounts to a major heresy in terms of wine-growing orthodoxy. I can’t count the number of times, over my journalistic career, that I’ve been told this or that variety is very difficult and requires lots of special attention. What Dave is saying is that the problem isn’t the variety but where you’ve planted it. If he’s right about that – and he certainly has the field experience to back up that contention – then a lot of professional enologists have been talking through their hats for the last 50 years.

Sangiovese *

The other thing that strikes me about Dave’s words is his saying “I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature.” First, that’s amazing in itself, and second, look at the alcohol levels of Caparone wines in that light. They almost never exceed 13.5 degrees, and often fall as low as 13 – this at a time when alcohol levels of red wines all over the world, but especially in California, are soaring. So full ripeness doesn’t have to mean huge sugar levels and consequently huge alcohol levels?  This ought to be big, big news to a lot of people – growers, winemakers, and consumers alike. It means that balance and restraint are intrinsically compatible with the fullest expression of fruit. The runaway train that was rushing all red wines in the direction of Port just got derailed, and I for one am dancing with joy on top of the wreckage.

Dave Caparone’s conclusions about his experience growing Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese for 40 years in Paso Robles are among the most important reflections on the cultivation of those varieties that I have ever encountered. His experience ought to be a wake-up call for winemakers everywhere. His remarks deserve further publication in a journal of note – which my blog certainly isn’t – and the widest possible circulation. I hope they may receive that, and soon.

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* Grape images: Aglianico from Jancis Robinson et al., Wine Grapes, Ecco, 2012; Nebbiolo from Atlante delle grandi vigne di Langa, Arcigola 1990; Sangiovese from Il Chianti Classico, Vianello Libre e Fulvio Roiter, 1987.