Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines

June 26, 2017

I’ve just enjoyed eight days of lazily cruising up and down the Loire between its mouth at St. Nazaire and Bouchemaine, the river’s farthest navigable point for a vessel the size of our paddlewheeler, MS Loire Princesse. In wine terms, that’s a journey through the winebibbing home of Rabelais. We journeyed upriver, into the heart of vinous lightness – from the land of the Melon de Bourgogne, which makes Muscadet, and into the realm of the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. These, usually alone but sometimes with other grapes, make a whole range of light to medium-bodied wines, mostly named for the places they’re grown – Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur, Vouvray, etc.
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This was not, however, a wine trip. It was a vacation. I had promised my Long-Suffering Spouse no wine tastings, no vineyard visits, a complete break from all that. I hadn’t promised not to drink wine, however, an activity LSS heartily approves of, so we enjoyed the Loire Princesse’s plenty throughout our long sunny days and protracted evenings on board. I hadn’t really registered how far north the Loire lies: Daylight lasted until around 10 pm every day.

Now, the Loire Princesse isn’t one of those floating apartment buildings that ply the Med or the Caribbean: It’s a small – 90 passengers – shallow-draft sidewheeler specially designed to navigate the difficult waters of the Loire, which is often wide and shallow, with multiple channels, all prone to flooding at some seasons and going almost dry at others.
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So the ship doesn’t have huge storage space, and its wine offerings were consequently distinctly limited. They were, however, reflective of the region we were sailing through, and the simpler ones were included in the basic trip amenities and always generously poured. Some better labels were available for purchase at very reasonable prices. Moreover, they matched very well with the cuisine of the cruise. Best of all, in the true Rabelaisian spirit, they were enjoyable wines in themselves and very efficient reminders of the affability and adaptability of Loire wines.

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

The Muscadet appellation has several regional subdivisions. The one we most often encounter in the US is Muscadet Sèvres et Maine, which is what the Princesse was offering: 2015 Château Cassemichère Muscadet Sèvres et Maine sur lie. “Sur lie” means the wine was allowed to remain on its lees until bottling, a practice that gives normally lean Muscadet a bit of depth and roundness. The Cassemichere was a typical Muscadet, a light white wine with small citrus and mineral notes, very clean and fresh.
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There is a lot of Muscadet on the US market, and most of it is like this wine, simple and enjoyable but in no way distinguished. There are, however, a handful of outstanding Muscadets, either because of the character of their soil and microclimate or the care of their producers, or both. Some I have enjoyed include Domaine de la Pepière, Domaine de l‘Ecu, Bregeon, and Louvetrie. Bear Muscadet in mind the next time you’re serving any shellfish: It’s usually inexpensive, and the crustaceans and the wine seem to love each other.

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

The main appellations for them are Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, and Saumur. Of these my favorite tends to be Chinon, which I find slightly more elegant, slightly more intensely varietal, and slightly more age-worthy. On shipboard, we drank 2015 Domaine Olivier Bourgueil, 2014 Clos de Perou Saumur Champigny, and 2015 Clos de la Lysardière Chinon.
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I grew quite fond of the Chinon, which had delightful fresh fruit and enough depth to match well with the chef’s fondness for wild mushrooms and complex sauces. Other good Chinon producers include Domaine Couly-Dutheil and Domaine Philippe Alliet.

The Loire Princesse didn’t stock any Vouvray, which disappointed me, because this charming white wine, vinified from the Chenin blanc grape in the middle Loire, in its driest forms makes an excellent dinner wine. I can recommend Domaine Huet and Domaine des Aubusières and the Cuvee Silex of Vigneau-Chevreau.
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All in all, the valley of the Loire remains still what it was for Rabelais, a soft and pleasant land teeming with palatal pleasures. It served as a healthy reminder to this wine journalist that a wine doesn’t have to be profound to be estimable or powerful to be enjoyable. I hope all your vacations are as delightful as mine was.

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

The Lure and Lore of the Loire: Vacation Time

June 8, 2017

By the time you see this, oh courteous and bibulous reader, I will – airlines and computer systems and terrorists permitting – be cruising up the Loire from Nantes to the château country, through Muscadet land and into Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur, and Vouvray land.
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With any luck, I’ll have some insights and discoveries to pass on to you in about two weeks. Ainsi nous esperons, eh?

Cork Dorks and Big Lunchers: Wine and Words

May 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need I say, Amen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Domaine Antonin Guyon: 50-Year-Old Newcomer

May 18, 2017

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

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

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

Dominique Guyon

Founded in the 1960s by the eponymous Antonin (who was himself, in his mid-fifties, a wine newcomer), with vineyards in two of the prestigious Côte d’Or appellations, Meursault and Gevrey, the estate grew substantially in the 1970s with his son Dominique’s small-piece-by-small-piece acquisition of what amounted to a substantial stretch of vineyards in the Hautes Côtes de Nuit. Continuation of that policy has brought Domaine Guyon to its present extent: 47 hectares of vineyards in 27 Burgundy appellations.  The caliber of those vineyard sites will be apparent in the list of wines presented at the tasting I enjoyed.
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2014 Bourgogne Blanc
A very nice basic Burgundy, typical and pleasing. An excellent entry-level wine.

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

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

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

2011 and 2012 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru
In theory, these were the biggest, most structured whites of the tasting. They probably are, but as such they also need the most time to develop.  The ’11 was just opening and giving hints of greatness, while the ’12 was almost totally closed.  On the basis of what Guyon is accomplishing with “lesser” crus, I would trust these wines to develop beautifully, but they will need time.
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2012 and 2013 Hautes Côtes de Nuits “Les Dames de Vergy”
The 2012 was quite typical of the zone – a little rustic, very soft and drinkable. The ’13 showed higher acid than the ’12, and tasted richer and more lively – a very nice wine indeed for simple dinners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Two Great Grappas

May 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MMMM! More Magnificent Masnaghetti Maps

April 27, 2017

Alessandro Masnaghetti is rapidly becoming the Mercator of the wine world, crafting maps that in their detail and precision have reset the standards for that whole segment of wine lore. The almost incidental fact that his maps all have a good share of abstract beauty makes them even more estimable: Not just wine lovers, but map fanciers too have noticed. He has now released what are – to my mind – his most impressive printings to date: two large maps of all the geographical and cru sites of Barolo and Barbaresco.
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These maps are almost Audubon-elephant-folio size, roughly 24 by 34 inches each, printed on heavier than usual paper. They are, as the cliché has it, suitable for framing – especially for double-sided framing, if you can get it, since the data on the back of each is abundant and important. Each map is rich in detail, presenting all the appellation information Masnaghetti has accumulated in his years of charting the evolution of those two zones as they gradually granted official approval to an abundance of geographical and cru designations. Anyone familiar with Masnaghetti’s earlier maps knows how precise – and how very useful – is the information he provides.

Here I can only give a hint of that wealth of data and the maps’ richness of detail. The image above is the whole of his new Barolo map, and here is a small section of it, showing the town of Barolo and some of its great sites – Bussia and Cannubi:
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This is the whole of the Barbaresco map:
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And this a small section of it, showing the closeness of several of Barbaresco’s great crus, Asili, Martinenga, Montestefano, Muncagota (formerly Moccagotta), Paje, and Rabaja.
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The back of each map lists all the sites depicted and names the wines vinified from it, and their producers. More of my words are superfluous: Masnaghetti’s maps say everything there is to say. They are available in this country through The Rare Wine Company, in Europe directly from Masnaghetti’s publication, Enogea.

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Postscript: Just after I had written all the above, I found out that Masnaghetti has also just released a three-dimensional map of the Chianti Classico zone. I am not even going to attempt to describe it – especially since I have thus far seen only a photo of it and not the map itself – except to say that it seems to show all of his usual accuracy and detail.
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I confess I’m very impressed. As my mother used to say, Will wonders never cease?

My History with Nuits-Saint-Georges

April 17, 2017

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

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

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

Henri Gouges

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

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

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

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

Les Boudots Vineyard

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

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

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

A Princely Wine: Corsini’s Don Tommaso

April 6, 2017

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

Le Corti lies in San Casciano in the Val di Pesa, about halfway between Florence and Greve, so in the northwest of the Chianti Classico zone. Its soils consist of much less of the marl and clay that mark most of the Classico zone, but are largely alluvial, filled with what Duccio refers to as “river pebbles,” many much closer in size to what we would call cobblestones. If my memory of a long-ago visit serves, several of the vineyards resemble hilly versions of Châteauneuf du Pape, with more stone showing than soil. That terroir yields wines that show real differences from many Chianti Classicos.
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That evening at Babbo we tasted through a six-vintage vertical of the estate’s flagship wine, Don Tommaso Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (now Gran Selezione): 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2010, and 2013. Over those years, the composition of the wine gradually evolved from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot to 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot, which it has been for about 10 years now. It used to age for 15 months in new oak barriques, now it rests in tonneaux (70% new, 30% used) for 18 months, plus at least a year in bottle before release.
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This was a striking tasting. Don Tommaso’s consistency in style from vintage to vintage was admirable: All the wines were of medium weight, all were elegant, balanced, and complete. None smelled or tasted at all of new wood. On the palate, they were squeaky clean, with wonderful Sangiovese black-cherry flavors and acidity, undergirded by an intriguing set of earth tones – not quite what we usually call minerality, but not clay, or mushrooms, or anything underbrushy either. Quite fascinating, and quite impressive: These are top-flight Chianti Classicos, with tremendous aging potential. The three oldest wines were still fresh and vital: In fact, the ’99 was my favorite wine of the evening, and I suspect it probably has a good 10 years at this plateau of quality in front of it. As enjoyable as they all were to taste – even the very young 2013 – these were very clearly dinner wines that would grow in dimensions and pleasure with food.

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

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

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

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

Red Wines of Verona, Postscript: the Amarone Families

March 27, 2017

Some weeks after my return from Verona, the March meeting of the Wine Media Guild featured the wines of the Amarone Families, the breakaway group whose wines had not been shown at the Valpolicella Anteprima in Italy.
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As Sabrina Tedeschi, the president of the Amarone Families, explained, these producers left the Consorzio because they felt that it has to represent the differing interests of all the sorts of growers and producers in the extended Valpolicella zone, all 8,000 hectares of it: small growers and big industrial producers, old-timers and newcomers, growers in the hills and growers in the plain. For the Amarone Families’ 12 members, all of them family firms with a history of Amarone production, this meant that the standards being set for Amarone were not sufficiently stringent, so in 2009 they formed their own association with stricter requirements for Amarone: longer aging, higher alcohol levels, higher extract, and – to my mind the most important requirement – that the wine must be dry, with high acidity.

As I said in my last post, many of the Consorzio’s producers are making fine Amarone – but many are not. The Amarone Families’ approach seems to have eliminated the negatives and provided a set of guidelines that – to judge by the dozen samples I tasted at the meeting – has turned out wines of uniformly high quality. Even more important, all 12 wines, though very, very young by Amarone standards, tasted exactly as this long-time fancier of the breed believes Amarone should: aromatic, velvety on the palate, big in the mouth, with rich but fully dry, sometimes even austere, fruit; hinting and promising the complexity that will come with age, and very long-finishing. This far-from-dirty-dozen all tasted like infant and incipient octogenarians.

Here are the wines, in the order tasted:

  • Tedeschi Capitel Monte Olmi Amarone DOCG Classico Riserva 2009
  • Venturini Campomasua Amarone DOCG Classico 2009
  • Guerrieri Rizzardi Villa Rizzardi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Musella Amarone DOCG Riserva 2010
  • Tommasi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Masi Costasera Amarone DOCG Classico 2011
  • Brigaldara Casa Vecie Amarone DOCG 2011
  • Allegrini Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Begali Monte Ca’ Bianca Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Speri Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano DOCG Classico 2012
  • Zenato Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Tenuta Sant’Antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi Amarone DOCG 2013

All were surprisingly drinkable for extremely young Amarone. (Normally, I don’t drink Amarone before it is at least 10-15 years old.) The ones I most enjoyed (this particular day, with this particular lunch) were Tommasi, Masi, Speri, Zenato, and Sant’Antonio – the latter the youngest wine of the day, and consequently a real surprise to me.

Red Wines of Verona II: Amarone

March 16, 2017

Amarone is enjoying a surprising degree of popularity in the United States – surprising especially for a wine that many wine experts think is too big, too austere, too overpowering to match comfortably with any part of a meal except a course of strong, old cheeses. I strongly disagree. I’ve long been a proponent of Amarone: I love its heft and complexity, and I think it partners beautifully with equally hefty meats – unctuous prime rib roasts to be sure, and almost any game dish you can name, but also lamb roasts, or long-cooked braises of all sorts, as well as any number of cheeses. A well-made, well-balanced Amarone has no problems with any dish that can match it in scale.

We winos don’t talk very much about scale, but its importance can’t be overestimated – and it’s almost self-evident, as soon as you stop to think about it. A light wine can be as elegant, or complex, or balanced, as acidic or as tannic, as a big, full-bodied wine, but you would match it with different foods because of its size, its scale. It’s not just the meshing or counterpoint of flavors that makes a good wine-and-food match: It’s also important that, like boxers, the wine and the food belong to the same weight class. With as authoritative a wine as a great Amarone, that element of the match is crucial, lest the wine appear bullying and brutal.
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We’ve been very lucky here in the US in that we have for years been receiving steady supplies of some of the very best Amarones, largely from a group of producers who were not represented in the blind tasting of 2013 Amarones that climaxed my week in Verona last month. (The producers who call themselves the Amarone Families withdrew from the Consorzio a few years ago. Allegrini, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Masi, Speri, Tedeschi, Tommasi, and Zenato are the best known here.) Consequently, I had what was initially the very welcome opportunity to taste wines from more than 80 producers, most of whom were unknown to me.

It quickly became clear that this was a mixed blessing. The 2013 vintage was sound but not great – a wet spring, followed by a hot, dry summer, followed by colder than normal weather during Amarone’s crucial drying period, resulted in wines with high acidity (normally good for Amarone) but also lots of tannins. (For what makes Amarone different from other wines, see here.)
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Additionally, many of the wines in the tasting were barrel samples, and many of those that were in bottle had either been specially bottled for this tasting or bottled only a few weeks ago. A good many simply hadn’t pulled themselves together yet. Trying to judge wines this young is always an exercise in crystal ball gazing, and it is particularly difficult to judge anything definitively about a wine as long- and slow-maturing as Amarone. We tasters weren’t even dealing with infants but, for the most part, with premature births.

That said, and my expectations tempered to that reality, I was still very distressed by a lot of the wines I tasted. To put it bluntly, far too many wines tasted far too sweet to suit my expectations of Amarone. A few samples had so much sugar that I thought I had mistakenly been given a Recioto to taste.

This is a serious problem. The DOCG regulations for Amarone specify that the finished wine can contain a maximum of 12 grams of residual sugar per liter. For my palate, that is already high. I checked with a few of my wine colleagues (Michael Apstein, Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone) about sugar levels in Champagne, just to provide a baseline for comparison. They all agreed: 5 g/l is above the detectable level of sweetness: 12 g/l is the highest limit of Brut Champagne. So 12 g/l is moderately sweet, but a drinker’s perception of that sweetness will depend both on other factors in the wine (acids, tannins, alcohol, etc.) and subjective factors (personal tolerance of sugar, e.g.). I’m not very fond of most sweet wines, and I can’t tolerate a sweet dinner wine, so 12 g/l is really pushing the envelope for me, and I consequently found many of the Amarones in the blind tasting well above my threshold for sweetness. I don’t think I’m way off base on this, so if my palate is any reflection of what the market for Amarone wants, there are serious problems here.

Having said all that, I have to stress that the total picture was not all negative. Even in the blind tasting of these unformed embryos, I found some wines that showed real Amarone character – and of course I tasted yet more mature examples on my round of winery visits. Here are the ones I liked best from both venues (unless otherwise noted, all are 2013 vintage):

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Amarone Acinatico. A forceful, grapey nose, followed by a big mouthful of fresh fruit. Very young but well structured. Will be excellent.
  • Amarone Acinatico 1981. The winemaker poured this to make a point, which he did indeed. A big, soft, delicious wine, marked by mushroom and earth flavors and great depth. It kept changing in the glass, getting even richer as it opened – as great Amarone always does.

From Albino Armani:

  • Amarone Cusianus. Good dry Amarone nose, slight sweetness on palate, with just softening tannins; should develop well. (Barrel sample)
  • Amarone Cusianus 2011. A big, well-balanced wine, with excellent fruit, maturing exactly as it should.

From Bennati:

  • Amarone. Tobacco, black pepper, and dark fruit in the nose and on the palate, coming together in a fairly classic way.

From Bertani:

  • Amarone Valpantena. Very closed on the palate, but the absolutely classic aromas and finish indicate it will be fine. Bertani is, of course, one of the pioneers of Amarone, and its older vintages are benchmarks for Amarone ageability.

From Carlo Boscaino:

  • Amarone San Giorgio. A still closed barrel sample, but like the Bertani wine, the nose and finish promise excellent future development.
  • Amarone 2012. An almost smoky, grapey nose; tobacco and berry palate; balanced, while still forceful and elegant. Aged 30 months in big old barrels (botti). Very traditional, very fine.

From Ca’ Botta:

  • Amarone Tenuta Cajò. Classic, dry Amarone nose, big fruity finish. Another fairly tight sample, but showing the proper signs: should pull together and start opening in a year.

From Ca’ Rugate:

  • Amarone Punta Tolotti. Needs lots of time to pull together its rich components – tobacco, tar, mushrooms, mineral, black fruits – but in a year it should start to be wonderful.

From La Collina dei Ciliegi:

  • Amarone L’Amarone. Tobacco, pepper, and earth, both in the aromas and on the palate; long finishing. Very characteristic and promising.

From Corte Sant’Alda:

  • Amarone Valmezzane. Fruity, peppery nose, lightish on palate. Still coming together, but should be fine.

From Corte Rugolin:

  • Amarone Monte Danieli. Despite being a barrel sample, this wine impressed me as very correctly made and properly developing. It needs time, but should be fine.

From Corte San Benedetto:

  • Amarone. Very like the preceding wine. Still slightly closed, but showing all the right signs in nose and finish.

From Fumanelli:

  • Amarone. Cherry and tannin all through. Big, fresh, and structured. It seems likely to develop very well.
  • Amarone 2011. A classic Amarone – very soft on the palate, with lots of fruit and lots of structure. The tail is still tannic, but it will soften in a year or so.
  • Amarone Riserva Octavius 2010. A huge wine, with an intense stemmy/tobacco nose; round in the mouth, with loads of soft tannins, smoky cherry, tobacco, and hints of chocolate. Still young, but balanced, on a big scale.

From San Cassiano:

  • Amarone 2012. Very young, with tons of fruit and tannins, plus excellent minerality and nice acidity. Needs lots of time: The producer says to give it five years.

From Santa Sofia:

  • Amarone 2011. Just lovely – austere and rich at the same time. Structured to go on for years. A fine traditional Amarone.

From Sartori:

  • Amarone Corte Bra 2006. At 10 years old, this classic Amarone was just entering maturity. Perfectly balanced, it felt light on the palate despite its rich fruit and impressive structure. Just fine.