Everyday Pleasures III: Dolcetto

September 24, 2015

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

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




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

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

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

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


De Forville Dolcetto d’Alba 2013

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


Poderi Colla Dolcetto d’Alba Pian Balbo 2013

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


Pecchenino San Luigi Dogliani 2013

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


Abbona Dogliani Papà Celso 2013

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


Chionetti Dogliani Briccolero 2012

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

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

Pre-Phylloxera Vines: Rare But Not Extinct

September 10, 2015

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

Phylloxera louse


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older White Wines

August 31, 2015

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

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

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

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


White wine colors


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barolo and Taurasi: Separated at Birth?

August 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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


two wines


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

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

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

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


First dinner


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

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

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


Second dinner 2


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

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

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

A Name to Know: Vinifera Imports

August 10, 2015

For lovers of Italian wine, there are a few key importers who really shape the American market. One such, one of the very best, is Vinifera Imports, which over the years has been a steady source of top-quality wines from all over Italy.

Vinifera logo

One recent, steamy July evening, I had a dinner with Vinifera’s founder and director, Dominic Nocerino, at which we tasted four of his new releases.




Dominic was born and raised near Naples, and like almost every other Neapolitan boy (except the few who want to be operatic tenors), his first ambition was to play professional soccer. Fortunately for us winebibbers, that didn’t work out, and in his twenties Dominic emigrated to America – Chicago, specifically – where he found his calling in the wine business. He founded Vinifera Imports in 1979, and by dint of a soccer player’s energy and an amazing work ethic has grown it into a premier company – not the largest, but certainly one of the most important and most influential.

Dominic personally selected every wine in Vinifera’s portfolio and has made a personal friend of every one of his producers (38 of them at the moment). What you really need to know about Dominic is that he has an excellent palate and a total commitment to quality: The fact that he was for a long while Angelo Gaja’s American importer, and for an astonishing 22 years, Bruno Giacosa’s, tells you everything. Dominic continues to bring in amazing wines. The newest addition to his portfolio is the Taurasi of Guastaferro (about which I’ve raved here), whose maker, young Raffaele Guastaferro, is a passionate artisan with an appetite for work equal to Dominic’s. I think he will almost certainly soon be known as a producer very much in the mold of a Giacosa or a Bartolo Mascarello.

In fact, his 2007 Taurasi Riserva was one of the wines that Dominic poured at dinner back in July, happily announcing that his first guastaferroshipment of Guastaferro’s wines would be arriving soon. This opportunity to retaste the ‘07 completely confirmed my enthusiasm for the Guastaferro wines. Vinified from a two-hectare block of Aglianico vines more than 175 years old, on their own pre-phylloxera roots, this Taurasi riserva brims with dark, berry-ish fruit and iron and earth and funghi and other underbrush scents and tastes. An excellent acid/tannin balance keeps it restrained and elegant, though you can sense the massive power just under the surface. Raffaele thinks this ’07 the best wine he’s made yet – and enjoyable as it is to drink now, I think it’s a wine to cellar for as long as you can keep your hands off it: It’s only going to get better.

This was an evening of reconfirmations: The addition of this wine to Vinifera’s portfolio showed once again the high level of selection exercised all through the line. Piedmont wines like Rinaldi’s Barolos and Chionetti’s Dolcettos; Veneto bottles such as Pra’s superb Soaves and Amarone; the Tuscans of Fontodi, Poggiopiano, Valdicava, San Giusto, and Canalicchio di Sopra – those would make an impressive lineup of imports for any firm, and they are just a fraction of the producers Dominic brings in.

At our dinner, before we got to the Taurasi, we tasted one of his fine Falanghinas, I Pentri; then an unusual – because of its rarity – 2008 Pignolo from his own vineyards in Friuli. Then followed Cascina Chicco’s newest release, a 2008 Barolo Riserva Ginestra, one of the most prized crus of the Monforte commune.


Three Vinifera wines


The two reds provided a study in contrasts, one famous, the other virtually unknown, one a red variety of proven quality, the other of impressive potential for those with the patience to cultivate it and to wait for it. Where the Barolo showed elegance and restraint, the Pignolo showed heft and power. Where the Ginestra seemed already balanced and giving, the Pignolo felt tight and austere, maybe even a little rustic. Both are wines that will reward cellaring, but while we can pretty safely predict the way the Barolo will develop (because of so many years and bottles of past experience with Nebbiolo), the Pignolo’s future is an unknown. It has the structure to endure long and well – but how it will develop, chissà?

That kind of mystery is part of the fun of wine. The willingness to take a chance, to learn something new, to seek out a different sensation – that’s what makes a (I hate the word, but nothing else says it) connoisseur. It’s also what makes a superior importer.

Campania in New York

July 30, 2015


Quite recently, a group of nine Campanian wine producers, some whose wines are already available in the US, some seeking importers, presented a selection of their wines at a tasting-seminar-luncheon event at Ristorante Gattopardo.




Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a great partisan of the wines of Campania: I think they offer an array of indigenous varieties of a distinctiveness and quality that is unmatchable by any other Italian region or by any wine-producing region anywhere. This tasting confirmed my opinion.

The nine producers and their wines were, in the order presented:

  • Cantine di Marzo Anni Venti Greco di Tufo Spumante DOCG NV
  • Cantine Rao Silva Aura Pallagrello Bianco Terre del Volturno IGP 2013
  • Tenuta Scuotto Oi Ni Campania Fiano DOCG 2011
  • Contea de Altavilla Greco di Tufo DOCG 2013
  • Tenute Bianchino Le Tre Rose di Gió Falanghina IGT 2014
  • Tenuta Cavalier Pepe La Loggia del Cavaliere Taurasi DOCG Riserva 2008
  • Terre di Valter Ventidue Marzo Irpinia Aglianico 2013
  • Macchie S. Maria Taurasi DOCG 2010
  • Donnachiara Taurasi DOCG 2011

Now, I have some quibbles with the order of the presentation: In the whites I would have tasted the Falanghina right after the spumante, then the Greco before the Fiano, and the Pallagrello after that; and in the reds I would have tasted the Aglianico first and the Taurasis in order of age, culminating in the 2008 riserva. But I’m a purist, and that is only a quibble. All the wines showed well, displaying in every case a fidelity to type that I find admirable. And since the primary purpose of the luncheon was to reveal to those unfamiliar with Campania the wide range of its wines, they served that purpose very well.

Individually, each wine also had particular, noteworthy qualities. The ones that registered most strongly with me were as follows:

anni-ventiThe di Marzo spumante. Vinified from 100% Greco di Tufo, this is an uncommon style for this variety, and it worked uncommonly well. The di Marzo vineyards, located right in the heart of Tufo, are the most historic in the appellation. In fact, the di Marzo family brought the Greco grape into this zone in the 16th century, when they shifted their home base from Benevento to the Avellino area. Long neglected, the vineyards are enjoying a rebirth under the direction of the di Somma family, descendants of the di Marzo, and this relatively innovative wine is an example of the new vitality they have brought to bear. Lovely and lively perlage serves as a splendid vehicle for characteristic Greco minerality and acidity, making this fully dry sparkler thoroughly Oi nienjoyable as either an aperitif or a dinner wine.

The Scuotto Oi Ni Fiano. Scuotto is a small, relatively new producer in Avellino province, whose vineyards sit at a lofty 550 meters above sea level – not unusual for this area, but necessitating a long growing season, which both Aglianico and Fiano like. This lovely Fiano spent almost a year in contact with its lees, which gave it a very pleasing roundness and richness.

ventidueThe Terre di Valter Aglianico. This too is a new, smallish property, a family enterprise. It has the good volcanic soils typical of Irpinia, which gift the wines with a fascinating earthiness and minerality. This Aglianico is made from younger vines and shows a delightful freshness and fruit, riding on a medium body with finely balanced tannins and acidity – thoroughly enjoyable.


The Taurasis as a group, but especially the 2011 Donnachiara, were all wonderfully characteristic, showing in varying combinations the Aglianico grape’s richness of tannin and acid and dark, berry-ish fruit interlaced with tobacco and walnut and leather. All needed more aging, even – perhaps especially – Cavalier Pepe’s 2008 Riserva, which is a very big wine. The 2010 from Macchie S. Maria showed fine Aglianico character and is a very promising offering from another small grower, quite new to commercial production.


Donnachiara is probably better known for its excellent Campanian white wines, which stand at the top of their class, but this 2011 Taurasi seems to me to represent a big jump up in the elegance of its red wine. It has always been better than respectable, but it now seems to be becoming really polished.

Of these producers, Cavalier Pepe, di Marzo, and Donnachiara are already available in the US. The others are seeking importers, and I hope they succeed in finding them quickly. These are all highly pleasurable wines that deserve a place on the shelves and on our tables.

Revisiting Vintage 2000 Barolo

July 20, 2015

I had an unexpected encounter with the millennial vintage of Barolo recently. For reasons too annoying to go into here, I had to move and rearrange all the wines in my off-premises storage. In doing so, I came across a whole case of vintage 2000 wines – miscellaneous Tuscans and Barolos – that I had completely forgotten I had.

We’re in flabbergast city here, folks: Despite the Wine Spectator’s notoriously dubbing it the vintage of the century, I was never very fond of 2000 Barolo and thought it – and most of the vintage 2000 Italian crop – mediocre at best, with Piedmont wines in particular often marred by a deadly combination of over-ripe fruit and green tannins. I said at the time that for Barolo it was with few exceptions a vintage for near-term drinking (if at all), with little likelihood of any sort of long life, except for a handful of wines from top-notch producers. So you can imagine just how mixed my emotions were when I happened on this case. Treasure?  Not very likely. Trash? Could well be. Oh for my old, defunct vinegar barrel.

Well, of course I couldn’t just dump the wines, even though part of my brain told me that would be smart. So I started drinking them, beginning with the ones I thought had the best chance of showing some life. Luckily, I had four bottles of Oddero in there, one bottle of its basic Barolo and three crus. They may have been the reason I stored the case in the first place.

The Oddero family constitutes a significant landmark in Barolo winemaking history. From their primary location in La Morra – they have top-tier properties in several other communes as well – they have been making wine for about two centuries. They were among the very first producer/bottlers in the zone: They issued their first bottled wines in 1878, and they are still working the same vineyards.


oddero family

Giacomo, Mariacristina, and the Next Generation


The patriarchal Giacomo Oddero, a local monument in his own right, has turned the operation of the vineyards and cellar over to his daughters, Mariacristina (primarily) and Mariavittoria and, increasingly, their children. Under their guidance, cellar techniques have been slightly modernized – the cru Barolos, for instance, spend some time in barriques – but the house’s quality has never faltered.

CastiglioneThe three crus I rediscovered were Rocche di Castiglione, Mondoca di Bussia, and Rivera di Castiglione. We tried first the Rocche de Castiglione and the Mondoca, both through several courses at dinner at the home of friends. The Rocche met the challenges handsomely: still live, with some freshness and no evident harsh tannins, a decent amount of fruit and developed flavors, just enough acidity to keep it in balance – in short, one of the best bottles of 2000 Barolo I’ve tasted.

MondocaThe Mondoca, though fine for the vintage, was less pleasing: a little tired, less fresh, less complex – drinkable but clearly already past its peak. Nevertheless, I was happily surprised that both wines were definitely not inert – a nice proof that really fine winemakers can occasionally turn a sow’s ear of a vintage into a silk purse of a wine.

Thus encouraged, Diane and I went on to drink the remaining Odderos at home. Results were similar.

RiveraInitially, both the basic Barolo and the Rivera di Castiglione smelled and tasted old, seemingly well past their prime. But both opened in the glass, and once food arrived, they developed even further. The Rivera seemed fresher and fleshier and, especially with the food, showed a very nice acidity. Clearly, that was what was animating it. The – one hesitates to say “simple” – Barolo didn’t have as much acidity, so though it did show some complex, mature flavors and was quite drinkable, it just wasn’t as enjoyable as the cru wine.

There are other Barolos in that re-found case, all vintage 2000. These remaining bottles all come from producers much less accomplished than Oddero, so my hopes aren’t high. But we will taste them over the next week or two – I don’t want to drink even great Barolo every day, and these almost certainly will be far from great. But if I should happen upon a really pleasant surprise among them, you will hear about it.

Just to summarize: All four of these Oddero wines gave proof of superior selection at harvest and careful work in the cellar. 2000 was a hot, hot vintage, and the whole Alba zone was cursed with a crop wherein fruit ripeness far outstripped phenolic ripeness, resulting in high-alcohol, hot wines tasting of overripe grapes laced through and through with a bitter greenness. Most of the Barolos made that year were seriously unbalanced, flawed wines that died several years ago, and even these Odderos might have been better if I had drunk them five years earlier. Or maybe they then would have tasted green and unharmonious?  Maybe they needed all these almost 15 years since harvest to achieve even the fragile equilibrium they were now showing?  I can’t really say – but I can tell you this: If you still have any 2000 Barolo in your cellar, drink it yesterday.


Celebrating Colla

July 9, 2015

That’s Colla with two Ls, as in Poderi Colla, Beppe Colla, Colla Barolo, Colla Barbaresco, Colla Bricco del Drago – emphatically not to be confused with cola of any brand or flavor. Bricco del Drago is the immediate occasion of this post: The Colla family has just acquired ownership of the property whose vines they have tended and whose wines they have vinified for decades. But the underlying reason for this post is to celebrate a great winery and a great wine.

For all that greatness, the family members are extraordinarily modest. Patriarch Beppe Colla may be the quietest, most self-effacing of all of Piedmont’s grandmaster winemakers, and the rest of the family – his daughter Federica, his younger brother Tino, and Tino’s son Pietro – follow suit.


Part of the reason for the modesty may be that the Collas have just always been there: Like the Empire State Building, they have become part of the landscape. Beppe was already a quiet legend as the winemaker at Prunotto back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a pioneer of things like the cru concept and a student of phenolic ripeness back before either was much talked about in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.

I first met him around 1984/5, just a few years after the wonder vintage of 1982, a year of record-breaking heat and until-that-time-unseen levels of ripeness in the grapes. (There have been many since.) The Italian Trade Commission had sent a group of wine journalists to visit some key producers in northern Italy, and Prunotto was one of our Piedmont destinations.

Beppe received us almost shyly and poured his wines for us with many informative remarks about the growing seasons and the cellar treatments, but nary a syllable of praise or evaluation. Please believe me when I tell you that that kind of restraint, that willingness to let us form our own opinion of his wines, is very, very rare.

Two moments of that long-ago tasting I still remember vividly.

Colla had poured his 1982 Dolcetto, explaining the while how very unusual the weather and consequently the harvest had been. We tasted, tasted again, looked at each other, and all started babbling and exclaiming. We had never tasted a Dolcetto like that – big, round, with enormous fruit and depth and an underlying complexity that we would have taken for Nebbiolo had he not told us otherwise. We congratulated him on his achievement: This was unquestionably a great wine. Colla smiled politely. “Yes,” he said, “yes, it is a great wine – but you mustn’t think of it as Dolcetto.” All I have ever learned since about the importance of fidelity to varietal standards I trace to that moment.

At the end of our tasting, after we had all expressed our gratitude and admiration and were reluctantly preparing to get back into the van and go on to our next port of call, Colla diffidently asked our organizer if we could possibly return later that day, because he had something special he would like us to taste. By that point, we would have driven two days out of our way to taste anything Colla considered special, so some six or seven hours later we were all sitting around the same table, while he pulled the cork on a 25-year-old magnum of Barolo, that, he explained, had been an experiment – his first (unlabeled) cru bottling.

Magic!  As soon as the cork came out, that small tasting room filled with the rich aroma of white truffles. The elixir that followed the aroma was no less magical – classic Barolo, with all the dried roses, tar, and truffle, leather and cherry and tobacco, that any wine writer in his finest frenzy of prose or palate could ever ask for. No one spat. No one even spoke – and for wine writers, that’s amazing. Everyone just sipped, swallowed, and made small, inarticulate pleasure noises. As I said, magic.

Eventually, the Prunotto firm was sold to Antinori, which still runs it and does its best to emulate Colla’s style of winemaking. Beppe left to form Poderi Colla with his family, and he has been there since. Day-to-day operations at the three principal vineyards – Dardi Le Rose in the Barolo zone, Roncaglia in Barbaresco, and Bricco del Drago, near Alba – are handled by Federica and Tino, but Beppe is always there to be consulted, and that is a priceless resource.

LabelThe wines all reflect his basic style – elegance, and restraint, and fidelity to the soil and to the variety. When I first tasted the 2010 Colla Barolo Dardi le Rose two years ago at Nebbiolo Prima, when it had just been bottled, I thought it lovely and rated it four stars. Tasting it again recently, I’d call it absolutely classic and give it a full five stars. I expect it will probably mature beautifully for decades. It certainly has the structure for very long life.

The Bricco del Drago estate that the Collas have just bought has long been very special to the family. It started as a joint project of Beppe Colla and his friend Luciano Degiacomi, who owned the property – 26 hectares, of which 12 are in vines: 4 Nebbiolo, 4 Dolcetto, 3 Pinot nero, and 1 Riesling renano. Degiacomi was a great partisan of the Langhe and especially its wine and foodways. Along with Colla and Renato Ratti, he founded the Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba – the Order of the Knights of the Truffles and Wines of Alba – which in turn organized the creation of the regional enoteca in the castle at Grinzane Cavour (now housing as well a fine small museum and an excellent regional restaurant).

The eponymous wine vinified from Bricco del Drago’s grapes was probably the earliest and is still one of the best of Piedmont’s handful of non-traditional wines  – a small irony for two such thoughtful traditionalists as Colla and Degiacomi. It’s always made from a blend of Dolcetto and Nebbiolo: proportions are usually around 85% Dolcetto to 15% Nebbiolo, but that is not ironclad – much depends on the harvest.

label 1I recently drank a beautiful ’07 of those proportions, which just loved a broiled steak and mushrooms. It was a classic Piedmontese red wine for meats and mushrooms, fats and earthy flavors – big and full in the mouth, with lots of Dolcetto fruit strengthened by a Nebbiolo spine. The aroma and flavor were cherry and underbrush, with a long finish of strawberry and tobacco, all classic Piedmont flavors in a slightly unusual combination. This was, as has been every Bricco del Drago I’ve ever had, a very, very fine wine, drinking beautifully at eight years old and showing no sign of fading at all.

By the way: never call it a Super Piedmont. The growers all hate that term. As far as they’re concerned, the wines their families have been making for generations are the true Super Piedmonts – and for the Colla wines, I would totally agree.

Bordeaux Second Labels

June 29, 2015

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a small tasting of second-label Bordeaux wines organized by the importer/retailer Millesima. They were the red Connétable de Talbot 2008, La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet 2008, Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine 2008, La Fugue de Nénin 2002, and the white L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc 2011. It was a very pleasant affair, low key, no pressure, just a chance to taste and evaluate a handful of wines – a very welcome haven on a drizzly, chilly New York afternoon.

Millesima_L'Esprit Chevalier Blanc_2011_PackshotThe L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc and the Talbot Connétable especially stood out, while La Fugue de Nénin seemed tired: 2002 was not a very great vintage, and 13 years is pushing the envelope for second-label wines, especially a Pomerol. But all in all, the wines were what I’ve come to expect sound second-label wines to be: good without being overwhelming, true to type without being definitive of the type. In short, pleasant wines pegged at a price point to give a nice lift of palatal pleasure and sophistication to otherwise everyday dinners.

Millesima_ConnetableTalbot_2008_PackshotBut the occasion also started me thinking: When did second labels start becoming important? When I first got hooked on wine and began seriously exploring it, I learned on French wines. In those now long past days, wine was French, and the way into it was primarily through Bordeaux and Burgundy. I can’t recall any ready availability of second labels from Bordeaux back then – and there still aren’t any from Burgundy: So where did they come from?

Millesima_Demoiselles Mallet_2008_PackshotWine estates in Bordeaux – by which I mean that cluster of Médoc communes that contain the wines ranked in the famous 1855 listing and their satellites – have long occupied an enviable position in the wine world, whether you focus on the palatal/esthetic/craftsmanly aspect of that world or its commercial aspect. The prestige of Bordeaux may now be fading somewhat, as younger drinkers seem less and less impressed by it and more and more willing to try wines “outside the canon,” but commercially there’s no question that Bordeaux still sets the pace.

Millesima_Fugue de Nenin_2002_PackshotTraditionally, very few of even the most prestigious Bordeaux estates had second wines. Because their emphasis was on quality, and because many Bordeaux estates are very large (Château Margaux, for instance, has 80 hectares – that’s almost 200 acres – of vines), they often had grapes that were not judged of high enough quality to be part of the wine that would bear the château’s name. In most cases, back then, those grapes were sold off, usually to négociants who blended the grapes of several estates to make either village wines – a shipper’s Margaux or St. Julien – or, a step down the scale, a Médoc rouge, or lower still, a Bordeaux rouge.

Millesima_Confidences PrieureLichine_2008_PackshotAs wine boomed in the last quarter of the 20th century, winemakers realized that they didn’t have to sell those rejected grapes on the bulk market. They could instead exploit the prestige of their estate’s reputation by making them into another wine – not the same quality as the flagship wine, to be sure, but similar to it, and offering some of the pleasures of their great wine at a lower price.

You can view this in either of two ways:

  • as an enlightened gesture to make at least the shadow of a great wine available to drinkers who might otherwise never be able to afford to taste it, or
  • as a crass piece of commercialism that generates a lot more income from something of otherwise little value.

I suspect the motivation is in almost every case mixed, though I doubt altruism was ever the dominant engine. Forgive my cynicism, please.

At any rate, as long as all the grapes in the lesser wine originate on the property, a second-label wine is entitled to the same appellation as the château wine. Only when those grapes are mixed with others from other properties does a wine get demoted to village, Médoc, or Bordeaux status. That declension is what happened, for instance, to Mouton Cadet. That wine began its life as a second label of the famous Château Mouton Rothschild (more than 82 hectares of vines, for the record), and has since become a separate enterprise with only a nominal connection to the great estate, whose second label is now Le Petit Mouton.

So what then does all this imply about second labels, for the canny wine lover? As prices of the Bordeaux great growths have soared into the stratosphere, some second labels can be relative bargains, a chance to taste decent Bordeaux at fairly reasonable prices. But they can all too often fall to mediocrity. Usually they are vinified from an estate’s youngest vines or poorest-performing parcels, so their potential is limited from the start. All they’ve got going for them is the location of those vines and parcels – the whole Médoc, after all, is essentially a single terroir – and the fact (or the hope) that they received the same attention as the rest of the estate’s wines. Only by accident, and in a truly exceptional vintage (of which there are fewer than the Bordeaux hype machine would have you believe), will these wines ever approach greatness. Still, in a good year, you should be able to find a number of winners in their ranks. If you love Bordeaux, it’s certainly worth the hunt.

Verdicchio: A Seriously Underesteemed Wine

June 17, 2015

Not a name that’s likely to set bells pealing in a wino’s brain, for sure, Verdicchio nevertheless deserves to be more highly valued than a good many other white wines of whatever origin. I’m not alone in thinking that Verdicchio ranks among Italy’s noblest white varieties.

verdicchioVerdicchio – the name of both the grape and the appellation – flourishes in the Marches, a region on Italy’s Adriatic coast bordered on the north by Emilia, on the south by Abruzzo, and on the west by Umbria. The grape is pretty much a Marches specialty: not much cultivated elsewhere, which may account for its lack of a larger reputation. That’s a real loss, because Verdicchio yields not only a very enjoyable everyday dinner wine but also a first-class, long-aging white of great subtlety and distinction.

According to Jancis Robinson’s authoritative book, Wine Grapes, Verdicchio probably originated in the Veneto but made its way into the Marches by the later Middle Ages. Recent studies have shown that it is the same as the variety now known in the Veneto as Trebbiano di Soave, which growers there prize as a component of the best Soave Classico – some indeed esteeming it above Garganega.

In the Marches, it appears in two distinct appellations, Verdicchio di Castelli di Iesi and Verdicchio Matelica, the former and larger zone more coastal, and the smaller Matelica zone more inland, near the border with Umbria. Both zones turn out a lot of simple, everyday Verdicchio, and both also produce much more important examples of delicious, structured dinner wines, with special reserve bottlings capable of impressive bottle age.

fazi bThe simple, everyday Verdicchio was once upon a time enormously popular in the US, at least on the east coast. Fazi-Battaglia’s version, packaged in a distinctive fish-shaped bottle (now only a stylized version of the original), was practically ubiquitous in Italian restaurants and made an unfailingly reliable accompaniment to seafood of all sorts – especially fried calamari. I still have fond memories of that enjoyable and inexpensive wine, as I do of those enjoyable and inexpensive restaurants. But as Heraclitus observed, panta rei – all things flow, and you can never step in the same river twice.

Nowadays, most Verdicchio that we see here is made to be more serious, which is really a great gain, no matter what I feel about the loss of the simpler wine. Contemporary Verdicchio belongs in the ranks of superior dinner wines, wines that bring not just citric or tropical fruit freshness to the table but also a complex minerality, round body, depth, and persistence. These are estimable wines, and they companion well with white meats and the best fish dishes. John Dory and sole, trout and sea trout, lobster and crab – all would shine alongside a good Verdicchio.

villa bucciFortunately, good ones abound. I recently enjoyed my last bottle of Villa Bucci Riserva 2007, which was a stunningly fine wine, reminiscent of top-quality white Burgundy in its structure and roundness, but unmistakably Italian in its racy acidity and distinctive slateyness. Bucci stands, in my estimation, at the top of the mountain in Verdicchio, and also has the distinction of being among the few wineries that still use the talents of the eccentric enologist Giorgio Grai, once a name to be conjured with in Italian wine circles.

But many other firms produce top-flight basic Verdicchio and Verdicchio Riserva: Fazi-Battaglia still ranks among the zone’s leaders, with its basic Titulus and its cru Le Moie. Equally highly reputed is Umani Ronchi, whose Riserva Casal di Serra is always among the Marches’s finest, long-aging Verdicchios. Garofoli makes a fine basic Verdicchio, Macrina, and several cru and riserva bottlings. Moncaro (a fine co-op very much in demand throughout Europe, but currently – and lamentably – lacking an importer in the US) produces the basic Le Vele and the distinguished Riserva Vigna Novali. These are all Castelli di Iesi wineries; the best Verdicchios of the smaller Matelica zone are the fine examples from La Monacesca.

What else can I add? If you already know Verdicchio well, this has been yesterday’s news for you – but if you don’t, you owe it to yourself to try some right away, especially now that warm weather and lighter meals are here, and preferably an older Riserva, so you can see right off the potential of this intriguing variety.


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