Kobrand’s Tour d’Italia

October 11, 2018

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar led by Kevin Zraly at the New York presentation of the importer Kobrand’s annual Tour d’Italia. This showing of Kobrand’s line of Italian brands was open to the wine trade and media. The seminar was available only to wine media members, and organized around a selection of Kobrand’s major Italian producers – Pighin (Friuli), Silvio Nardi (Tuscany), Michele Chiarlo (Piedmont), Nozzole (Tuscany), Sette Ponte (Tuscany), Masi (Veneto), and Medici Ermete (Emilia Romagna).

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Have you noticed that nothing is selected or organized any longer, but everything is curated? Well, the wine world isn’t exempt from that kind of verbal hyperventilation. What is called a seminar these days (and not just by Kobrand: It’s universal) is simply a panel of producers talking a bit about their estates and the representative wine they’re showing. And the wines at this event and the larger portfolio tasting of which it was part aren’t just fine wines or even great ones: These were “The Icons of Italian Wine.”  Icons is a vastly overworked word, but what puts this phrase over the top for me is the definite article: The icons – there can be no others. Give me a break, please.

OK, so I’m tilting at windmills again: I’ll dismount and get back to the wines. Which weren’t bad at all. Some not my style, but well made of their kind, true to their varieties and to the winemaker’s vision. Some very good, drinkable young and worthy of some aging. And at least one just remarkable: This was Masi’s Costasera Amarone Riserva 2009, which already tasted lush and lovely and which promises to be off-the-charts gorgeous in 20 years.
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The presentation of these wines was very honest and straightforward, lacking the kind of hyper-seriousness foreboded by “icons” and “seminar.” Kevin Zraly is an old pro at events like this: He kept things lively, interesting, and moving at a good pace; and he allowed plenty of time for questions – of which there were almost none. The few there were could have come from civilians, not wine professionals.

So my big disappointment at this event was not with the wines or their presentation, but with what we used to call the press corps and now have to denominate the media. They seemed totally content with the basic information being offered: no questions, no remarks on what they were tasting, no burrowing for technical data. That’s like writing an article entirely from the press handouts. It made me nostalgic for the guy who always used to ask about pH and reverse osmosis and then endlessly argue with the winemaker about the truth/accuracy of what he was saying. At least that guy cared, and he had some core of knowledge against which to weigh the winemaker’s claims. I got no sense of any of that in this session – which is seriously too bad, in many respects.

OK, I mounted my horse again. Apologies. In addition to the Amarone that I loved, I also particularly enjoyed

  • Pighin’s 2017 Collio Pinot grigio, a totally unwooded wine that tasted richly of oyster shells and pears, the way Pinot grigio used to,
  • Medici Ermete’s 2017 Concerto, a single-vineyard dry Lambrusco sparkler of seductive raspberry/strawberry charm,
  • and Chiarlo’s 2013 Barolo Cerequio, a very elegant, balanced wine that the maker compared to the outstanding 2004 vintage.
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Also quite interesting was Sette Ponte’s 2016 Oreno, a Tuscan IGT Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Petit verdot), a wine big in the mouth, rich and fat, with splendid Italian acidity, bigger than the Bordeaux wines it’s modeled on, with more fruit and more enlivening acid. I’m no fan of Bordeaux grapes in Italy, but this is a good wine.

Grappa Collection

October 1, 2018

The 10 bottles pictured below are the sad remnants of a once formidable collection of grappas. Once upon a time, I had 40 different kinds. How the mighty have fallen! And just look at the low fill levels in these survivor bottles: I have a terrific ullage problem, as you can clearly see.

 

 

I trust you can also clearly see why it’s imperative for me to spend the next 10 days in Italy visiting grappa distilleries and – speriamo – replenishing my sadly diminished supply. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. If you’re a praying person, it would be thoughtful of you to drop in a mention of my liver.

The Case of Cases

September 20, 2018

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

Barbera: A Wine for All Purposes

September 10, 2018

Barbera is a wonderful wine, versatile and enjoyable and affordable. Perhaps the wine’s greatest virtue is how well it plays with all sorts of dishes, so when Diane and I find ourselves trying a new recipe – a pretty frequent occurrence here, given Diane’s weekly food posts – and uncertain what wine will pair with it, Barbera is often our go-to grape.

 

Lots of people, both consumers and growers, love Barbera: It’s one of the most widely planted varieties in the world and stands third among red grapes in vineyard space in Italy. From the grower’s point of view, Barbera has many virtues: It thrives in all sorts of conditions, bears heavily – sometimes too heavily – and almost invariably yields a wine that is at worst quaffable and usually much better than that. From the wine drinker’s point of view, Barbera’s rich, dark color, its bright fruitiness – usually described as some variety of cherry – and its zingy, lively acidity make it a delight at dinner. And it hardly hurts that most Barberas are inexpensive: It rates very high on the pleasure-for-dollar scale.

Outside of the Italian Piedmont, Barbera has become a workhorse variety, used frequently to blend with other varieties that need a splash of color and a jolt of acidity to brighten them. It was even customary to use it that way with the austere Nebbiolo grapes in prestigious Barolo and Barbera. But the workhorse can turn into a thoroughbred when it’s planted in the right places and treated with respect.

Giacomo Bologna was the first to make that clear in 1985, when he released the first vintage of his then-iconoclastic, now-iconic Bricco dell’Uccellone, a monovarietal Barbera aged in barriques. That wine, still made by his family on their Braida estate, showed for the first time how much breed and finesse Barbera possessed and began the trend toward treating Barbera as the noble grape it apparently is capable of being.

Naturally, many winemakers immediately went too far with this process – siamo in Italia!  They over-extracted and over-oaked their grapes and worked very hard to diminish, if not entirely remove, Barbera’s acidity, which for many wine lovers was and is the defining characteristic of the variety. So for some years in the 80s and 90s, it became far too easy to find bad Barberas, wines wherein the grape’s lovely cherry flavors were submerged in a sea of oak-derived vanilla or toast or even coffee, and the wine de-acidified to the point of flabbiness. There are still a few of those around, but sanity has returned to most Barbera producers, and the vast majority of Barberas are once again bright, fruit-enlivened wines of charm and grace.

For all that Barbera is planted so widely, I have been talking here primarily of the Piedmontese wine. That’s because around Alba and in the province of Asti and the Monferrato hills, Barbera attains its best flavors and highest levels of quality.

 

 

This a little odd, because Barbera is entirely unrelated to any other Piedmontese variety. In fact, no one really knows where it came from. The earliest reference to what seems to be the grape we know occurs in the very late 18th century in the Monferrato area, but even that reference is uncertain.

What is sure is that Barbera came into its own after the devastations of phylloxera, when the great majority of Piedmont’s vineyards had to be replanted, and it hasn’t looked back since. Alba, Asti, and Monferrato can now be considered its heartland, and all three produce outstanding wines. Asti’s are the brightest, lightest, most acidic, and at their best the most elegant. Alba’s Barberas are fuller-bodied and more intense, with a bit more tannin showing. Asti makers think Alba’s wines are a bit rustic and “nebbiolized,” and they may be right – though both those qualities can be virtues. The Monferrato versions tend to combine the best traits of both other areas, and they can, at their best, be stunning wines, but they are the hardest to find on this market.

Over the years, I have drunk excellent Barberas from many great producers. Here is a very short list of the best. Please bear in mind that most of them make several versions of Barbera – multi-vineyard, single vineyard, selected vineyards, old vine, barriqued and not barriqued, et cetera – and their varying price levels usually indicate how the makers regard them. You may or may not agree: I find with Barbera that simpler is often better.

  • Braida: Asti, in several versions, including the famous Bricco dell’ Uccellone
  • Burlotto: Alba
  • Cascina delle Rose: Alba, two versions, textbook Barbera
  • Cerreto: Alba
  • Chiarlo: Asti; several levels, all good
  • Cogno: Alba, plus a superb wine from an ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vineyard
  • Iuli: from Monferrato, in several versions, and excellent
  • Marchesi di Barolo: both Alba and Monferrato, both fine
  • Renato Ratti: Alba
  • Roccheviberti: Alba; small producer, but well worth seeking out
  • Scavino: two versions of Alba, both very good
  • Vietti: several versions of both Alba and Asti, all very good

Any bottle from this array of star producers ought to provide a Barbera novice with a fine introduction to the breed; a tasting of several of them should show the range of styles and nuances the grape and its zones are capable of. Go to it, and enjoy!

A Cabernet Franc Face-off

August 30, 2018

When it comes to scenery, Long Island is no match for the Loire Valley. The flat former potato fields of the North Fork bear no resemblance to the steep vineyards and castellated towns that punctuate the shores of the Loire and its tributaries. Moreover, the soils of Long Island’s vineyards differ greatly from those of the middle Loire, home territory of Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc: If anything, the North Fork soils come closest to the low-lying, sandy gravels and clays of Bordeaux, where Cabernet sauvignon is king..

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Loire Vineyard

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Paumanok Vineyard

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But despite all those differences, Loire grapes do very well on the North Fork. White varieties particularly thrive: Almost every grower on Long Island cultivates Sauvignon blanc, the star of the upper Loire, and Paumanok Vineyards particularly has had startling success with Chenin blanc, the prized white grape of the middle Loire.

Given that, I wondered how well Cabernet franc, the chief red grape of the middle Loire, which makes such charming dinner wines as Chinon and Bourgueil, would fare on the North Fork. To find out, I decided to taste a representative Loire Cab franc from a classic appellation against Paumanok’s Cab franc – Paumanok because of its achievement with the middle Loire’s Chenin – and check out the similarities and differences. Easy and fun: my ideal combination for all chores. And made all the more fun when Beloved Spouse opted to make a classic Loire dish for us to taste the wines with: the perfect way to spend a rainy Sunday, eating and drinking our own personal sunshine.

For this experiment I had on hand a 2016 Domaine de la Haute Olive Chinon and a 2014 Paumanok. It turned out to be just as interesting and enjoyable as I had hoped. Both wines smelled and tasted authentically of the variety – light fruit aromas, perhaps a little raspberry, with earthy, herbaceous notes and even a hint of smoke, soft on the palate, with moderate acidity and subdued black fruit: not powerhouses but charmers. Those are classic Cabernet franc characteristics.

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Tasted by themselves, in the sort of isolation that so often marks professional tastings and judgings, they seemed unexciting, but sound and well made. A hint of what they were capable of as dinner wines showed in the way both got the digestive juices flowing. They wanted food, and made the tasters want it too.

As a textbook illustration of everything that’s wrong with formal wine tastings and their resulting scores, these wines changed dramatically when dinner appeared: Both just blossomed, opening complex, soft flavors that interplayed differently and beautifully with each dish. Their differences from each other, almost invisible in the formal tasting, showed more clearly with food, the Chinon slightly lighter bodied and more elegant, the Paumanok fuller, earthier – but both interacted splendidly with the dinner. (You can read about our dinner dishes on Diane’s blog, here.) It’s no wonder Rabelais loved the wines of Chinon: They played his game.
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It was abundantly clear from this little experiment that Paumanok Vineyards has gotten Cabernet franc right, verifying in my mind that it has a vocation for Loire grapes. The question it raises for me is, how much of the North Fork shares that vocation? The predominant red grapes planted there are, unsurprisingly, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, just as in California. The prestige of Bordeaux wines has largely straightjacketed American winemaking since the 1960s, and the small amount of Cabernet franc grown here is almost always used only in Meritage wines and other replications of the orthodox Médoc blend – so Paumanok deserves praise for having the courage to bottle a monovarietal Cab franc, and even more praise for getting it so right.

The Cabernet franc red wines of the middle Loire make wonderful drinking, without being overly expensive: Sunday dinner wines you could call them, if families still made Sunday dinner a weekly special occasion. They don’t demand long aging, though they can take it, and they don’t require reverence or ceremony in their consumption. Though, come to think of it, they can probably take that too: I am just remembering that humble Cabernet franc constitutes about two-thirds of the blend of the fabled Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines. I do hope some Long Island grape growers will also remember that.

One Fine Wine: Castellare Chianti Classico 2014

August 20, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’m lucky enough to drink a lot of good wine often, which is fine by me: Its downside is that I get lulled into thinking that high quality is just ordinary. Wrong, but I hope understandable. Every now and again, I rouse out of my trance and realize that this “ordinary” wine I’ve been sipping at is, really, one fine wine, and I ought to be paying more attention to it. My latest instance of this was a very youthful bottle of Castellare Chianti Classico, the 2014 vintage – an infant, to be sure, but what a beautiful baby!

Whatever nastiness is going on in the greater world, we live in a golden age of wine. There is more good, sound, drinkable wine being made now in more places than ever before in human history. True as that is, the number of master winemakers – individuals who have the skill and insight and touch to rise with the best vintages but not fall with the worst, and who can navigate the zigs and zags of our increasingly quirky weather – that number remains very small, and one of those rare individuals is Alessandro Cellai, for many years now the winemaker at Castellare di Castellina.

The town of Castellina is almost dead center in the Chianti Classico zone, and many of its vineyards are esteemed for producing textbook Chianti: sapid and juicy when young, and maturing into elegant, long-lived, delicious nectars. Castellare’s wines share the soils and styles and many of the qualities of the zone. The Italian wine critic Daniele Cernilli says that all the Castellare Chianti Classicos have “the most noble characteristics of Castellina wines, including their drinkability and ability to charm and seduce from the first sip.”

Castellare’s most sought-after wine is I Sodi di San Niccolò, a single-vineyard blend of Sangiovese and up to 15% Malvasia nera, aged in barriques – a lovely, complex wine for long cellaring. It is a perennial Tre Bicchieri winner, and correspondingly expensive. I Sodi is a great wine, and I drink it whenever it comes my way. But I think that Alessandro Cellai’s greatest accomplishment isn’t I Sodi, fine as it may be, but what so many of us wine dorks tend to overlook (and even to dismiss): his base wine, his year-in, year-out, drink-every-day Chianti Classico.

No elaborate winespeak here; this is simply a lovely wine, juicy and drinkable from its release, easily capable of a few years of aging, and perfectly happy to match with almost any food you can name. 95% Sangiovese (of very carefully selected clones) and 5% Canaiolo, aged in big barrels, this is traditionally made and traditionally styled Chianti of the highest order, and to produce it at this level, vintage after vintage, is an accomplishment any winemaker anywhere should be proud of. One fine wine indeed!

Let me beat this particular horse for a few sentences more: Most of us who write about wine get caught up in the search for excellence, the pursuit of rarity, the quest for a new flavor, a startling new experience. That’s understandable and forgivable, I hope, and great if and when we find it – but how many people in this galaxy are ever going to have the chance to taste one of those rarities?  Galahads (we wish!) on our quest for that grail, we forget that far more important for the happiness and pleasure of a much greater number of people are really excellent wines made in decent quantities and available almost everywhere (at least with a bit of effort). That is exactly what this delightful Castellare Chianti Classico brought home to me: that I and my colleagues should write more for real people and less for collectors – who, as far as I can tell, don’t read us anyway.

Caparone Wines Among Friends

August 9, 2018

People who really love wine enjoy sharing their best bottles with others who understand and appreciate them. I’m certainly one of those: I hate opening a good bottle for people who would prefer a white Zinfandel or a cola, but I relish the chance to pour some of my best stuff for knowledgeable friends. So when I had the chance recently to introduce some fellow winos to the Caparone family’s Italian varietal wines, I jumped at it...

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Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone, and Michele Scicolone are in my opinion among the small handful of “experts” in this country who truly understand Italian wine, both in what it does well and why, and what it doesn’t succeed at and why. I thought a Caparone tasting would be as interesting and enjoyable for them as it would be for me.

Mary is an MW and head of a wine school here in New York, and she and Ed are co-authors of the Wines for Dummies series of books. Michele and Charles are experts on Italian wines and foods. A few years back Ed had tasted and liked Caparone’s Sangiovese, which impressed him at the time as the only moderately successful California version of an Italian variety, but that was all he knew of the wines. Charles and Michele had never had the opportunity to taste the Caparone wines at all, and Charles was deeply skeptical about what California does to Italian grapes – as indeed I had been until I tasted Caparone’s.
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We all convened at the restaurant La Pizza Fresca, which provides a very welcoming space for such an event, with excellent service, fine and appropriate glassware, and good food to sustain the hungry winebibber. Ed brought a lovely bottle of Clouet’s Pinot noir-heavy NV Champagne and a bottle of Benanti’s 2010 Pietra Marina, probably Sicily’s finest white wine, to start us off.

The we got down to the business of the day: Caparone Italian varietal wines.

2014 Sangiovese
2014 Nebbiolo
2014 Aglianico
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1996 Sangiovese
1996 Aglianico

That was the service order, the Sangiovese being the lightest-bodied and the Aglianico the fullest. We talked a lot about freshness and varietal character, and we agreed that all the wines showed the unique qualities of each variety very well. There was also universal agreement that these were the most successful California versions of Italian grapes that any of us was aware of. The disagreements concerned nuances and precise comparisons: Charles, for instance, thought the young Sangiovese slightly over-oaked, like a Super Tuscan, while I wasn’t bothered by oak flavors at all.
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I’ve written about my admiration of these three 2014s before, and both Charles and Ed have published admiring accounts of the whole tasting, so I’ll spare you most of the details – except to emphasize that both 96s, at 22 years old, still tasted fresh, with mature and developed flavors playing side by side with still-young fruit flavors. Both seemingly have years of life ahead of them – and that would be no mean accomplishment for any of those grapes in their home territory.
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An informal vote for the wine of the day ended in a toss-up between the young Nebbiolo and the old Aglianico. I could see the reasons for both, but when push comes to shove I am a person of mature years, and I like my wines the same way.


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Postscript:

A few days after this tasting, I opened at home a bottle of Caparone’s 2012 Zinfandel, the first of Caparone’s non-Italian varietal wines I’ve tried. It was lovely, full of classic Zinfandel brambly, berry-ish flavors, but restrained and polished rather than exuberant and in-your-face. The bottle’s back label describes it accurately as a “rich, complex Zinfandel,” “aged for 24 months in small oak barrels” and “racked rather than fined or filtered.”  It further claims that the wine “will continue to develop in the bottle for 25 years or more” – and I believe every word of that.

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The Caparones, father and son, are clearly New World producers with a wonderfully Old World technique and style. The comparisons that spring to my mind are masterful family producers like the Chave family in Hermitage, or the Clape family of Cornas. If Paso Robles had the prestige of the northern Rhone, a lot more attention would be being paid to what’s happening at Caparone.

Gamay Glorified: Cru Beaujolais

July 30, 2018

Summer’s here, and the time is right – for drinking Beaujolais, whatever else the Rolling Stones may have thought.

Of course, you can enjoy Beaujolais all year round, but it does seem to be the quintessential summertime red wine – light and fresh, good drinking with all sorts of food (yes, even fish and shellfish), and yet a real wine, with subtlety and nuance enough for the most demanding palate. The Beaujolais that best supply that kind of pleasure are the cru wines – bottles from the ten named districts that constitute the heart of Beaujolais country. There, they don’t just grow Gamay: They apotheosize it.
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Right now, crus Beaujolais are probably finer than they have ever been. Producers and consumers have outgrown the obsession with Beaujolais nouveau, a to-my-mind-inexplicable phenomenon of what seems the distant past (though in fact not that many years ago). But Beaujolais’ past is checkered like that.

The Gamay grape first enters history – written history, that is – in 1395, when Duc Philippe le Hardi of the then-powerful Duchy of Burgundy ordered it to be extirpated from all his territories as a variety “tres-mauvaiz et tres-desloyaulx” and producing a wine unfit for human consumption.

Obviously, Duc Philippe, like the hero of the movie Sideways, was Pinot noir man, though it still seems more than a little bit odd to accuse a grape of disloyalty. Whatever the truth of the matter, Gamay was banished from most of Burgundy, leaving the Côte d’Or free for Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Gamay migrated a bit south, where it was welcomed by the dukes of Beaujeu and where it thrived, continuing its history under the name of Beaujolais and producing wines quite fine for human consumption.

Today, as more and more producers (both traditional firms and winemakers new to the region) give Gamay respectful treatment in field and cellar, the variety is, to quote Jancis Robinson, “showing more purely its fine, refreshing, sometimes peppery, red fruit – and surprising longevity, in the case of some wines from the ten crus of Beaujolais.”

Those ten crus form the heartland of the Beaujolais growing zone, which can be thought of as a concentric (if irregular) ring: outermost, simple Beaujolais appellation; then Beaujolais Villages; then, at the core, the crus – Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour. The soil in these vineyards is quite different from the clay-laced soils of the other Beaujolais zones: Dominated by granite and slate, it confers much greater mineral character and complexity to its wines.
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Each of those crus has a character at least slightly distinct – and in the best vintages, markedly so – from the others. Noted British wine writer Jancis Robinson rates Chiroubles as the lightest, and then in ascending order of heft, Saint-Amour, Fleurie, Régnié, Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. I don’t fully agree with that: I usually find Côtes de Brouilly and Brouilly among the lightest-bodied of the crus, and Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, and Chénas among the fullest, with all the others strung out between them. But that may be a function of which wines by which producers find their way to New York, where I drink most of my Beaujolais, and what Ms Robinson has access to in Britain and France.

The key thing to remember is that all these crus share intense Gamay fruit, decent tannins, and lovely acidity – all of which place them among the most versatile of French wines for matching with foods of all sorts. Lyon, which lies to the south of the Beaujolais, is rightly regarded as one of the gastronomic capitals of France, and the Lyonnaise drink prodigious amounts of Beaujolais – so much so that Lyon is often said to be watered by three rivers: the Saône, the Rhône, and the Beaujolais. ‘Nuf said?

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I don’t want to leave this ode to Gamay too general or impersonal: I love cru Beaujolais and I wish it got more respect among wine lovers. My favorites are Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, and Morgon. I would drink a lot more Chénas if I could get hold of it: It’s the smallest of the crus, and very little Chénas ever seems to make it to these shores. If you can find any, be sure to try it: It has a marked mineral character and a distinctive, round, dry fruit.

So far this summer, I’ve been enjoying:

Chiroubles 2016, from D. Coquelet, a young grower who learned from an old master (his stepfather is Georges Descombes, a top-tier producer). If you can imagine a whole chorus of basso profundo strawberries singing in unison, then you’ve got a good idea of what this bright, zesty wine is like.
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Fleurie Les Moriers 2016
, from Domaine Chignard, where fifth-generation winemaker Cedric Chignard a few years ago took over from his father Michel. Fleurie Les Moriers is their prized vineyard, generally regarded as one of the best in the appellation. This wine seduces with lovely, brambly, black raspberry and cherry flavors, with intriguing notes of black currant. At the upper end of the medium-bodied range.
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Juliénas Beauvernay 2016
, also from Domaine Chignard, represents a new undertaking for the family. The vineyard’s old vines (average 60 years) yield a wine very much in the Chignard style: full-bodied and a symphony of fruit – black cherry shading into plum, with black berry overtones, thoroughly enjoyable.
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Morgon Javernières 2015
, from Louis Claude Desvignes, a fat, juicy, purple-hued wine, one of several fine single-vineyards Morgons from this eighth-generation producer.
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Masnaghetti, Maestro of Maps – and of Barolo

July 19, 2018

Alessandro Masnaghetti has probably devoted more time and attention to Barolo – both the wine and the territory – than any living human being. His maps of the vineyards of Barolo (and Barbaresco, to be sure) are matchless in their detail and information, as well as in their visual appeal. Now he has released volume II of his magnum opus, Barolo MGA.

Volume I appeared a few years ago, in 2015. The MGA of the title refers to the menzioni geografiche aggiuntive, the additional geographic names that may now be added to Barolo wine labels. The book is very accurately subtitled “The Barolo Great Vineyards Encyclopedia.” Volume II, equally accurately subtitled “Harvests, Recent History, Rarities, and Much More,” has just joined it.
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Both are large, substantial books – 12” by 8.5”, about 4 pounds apiece, a total of about 700 fact-, map-, and graph-filled pages – in every sense of the words, hefty tomes. (Daniel Thomases has done a splendid job of translating both volumes.) These books are not meant for the casual wine sipper, but for those passionate enough about Barolo to want to know as much as can be known about it.

If it’s factual and relevant to Barolo, it’s in one or the other of these two volumes. No subjective tasting notes, no myths or public relations prose: just the facts of vineyard locations and plantings and weather, growth patterns and harvests, for vintage after vintage. There are comparisons of what the Barolo communes were like in 1970 and what they are now, how much that used to be forest – or Dolcetto vineyards – is now Nebbiolo, or hazelnut groves.

There are reprintings and translations of crucial historical documents: Lorenzo Fantini’s Monograph on the Enology of the Province of Cuneo (1879), the Guida Vinicola per la Provincia di Cuneo (1903), and Ferdinando Vignolo-Lutati’s On the Delimitation of Typical Wine Zones (1929), for example. And there are maps and charts without number: for example, these from Volume II, showing the Bussia and Gramolere MGAs as they were in 1970 and as they were in 2015:.
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Or these from Volume I, showing the Monforte d’Alba MGA as it looks in a flat map and then as it looks in three dimensions:

 

It’s all like that, filled with the kind of detail and information that I wish had been available to us decades ago, when I was beginning my own explorations of the landscapes and wines of Alba. If Masnaghetti had done nothing in his life but these two volumes, they would constitute a magnificent career.

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.