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I’ve always been partial to underdogs. When I was a kid, I was the lone Brooklyn (yes, Brooklyn) Dodger fan in a very large family of Yankee fans – and even the misery that that entailed couldn’t cure me of my fondness for long-suffering hind runners.

It was almost inevitable, then, that when I started getting seriously interested in wine (which back then always meant French wine), I found myself drawn to the seemingly least estimable of the famous Bordeaux wines. Of the five great Médoc appellations – Graves (as it then was), Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estèphe – only Saint Estèphe doesn’t have a Premier Cru estate. In fact, despite being the second largest of the crus, it has only five classified growths: one fifth growth, one fourth, one third, and two seconds. That’s a paltry showing compared to neighboring Pauillac’s three firsts, two seconds, and large handful of lesser growths.

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Saint Estèphe’s wines were often condescendingly referred to as slightly rustic and inelegant, and usually compared, to their disadvantage, to the wines of Pauillac. One could come across even esthetic sniffing about the “false orientalism” of Cos d’Estournel’s pagoda towers. I always thought there was a sort of double standard at work here. It is probably true that the wines from many of Saint Estèphe’s small estates have a less polished, more artisanal character – which I regard as an attraction – than those from the great Premier Crus, which are pretty great in size as well as reputation and price. But no one ever said a word about the scale of winemaking at Château Margaux or Château Lafite, whose respective 81 hectares and 103 hectares bring their winemaking close to industrial-scale production.

But that’s really beside the point. Even those who belittle Saint Estèphe as an appellation usually make an honorable exception for Cos d’Estournel and for Montrose, both quite evidently superb wines. I love them, of course, but I am also very fond of many lesser names from the commune: Calon Ségur, Cos Labory, Lafon-Rochet (this now becoming very fashionable), Meyney, Phélan Ségur, and especially Châteaux de Pez and Les Ormes de Pez. The last two are among my favorite wines, and I’ve written about my enjoyment of them before (here and here). But they are classified only as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, below even Fifth Growth – a lowly enough designation to keep the wines’ prices well below their true worth. Tough luck for them, fine for me. Sometimes supporting the underdog pays off.

 

Saint Estèphe is the northernmost of the five great appellations, and its soils are supposedly more varied than those of the other zones – though anyone visiting the peninsula on which they all (except Graves) lie will be hard put to see any very significant variation in soils or altitudes or exposures. We are far from the mountains here. The major variations from estate to estate are due to the field mix – just what quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted and fermented – and to the winemaker’s aims and skills.

Decades of being dismissed as negligible wines kept the prices of almost all Saint Estèphes very low and discouraged any serious investment of time, effort, or cash in the vineyards and cellars – all of which, of course, contributed to the perpetuation of their low reputation. The wine boom of the past 40 or 50 years has changed all that, and more and more good wine is being produced everywhere. That is emphatically true in Saint Estèphe, where I find the quality of the wine being turned out by many formerly neglected properties is steadily rising. This underdog may not yet be ready to take Best in Show, but it is clearly showing better and better all the time.

Another melancholy post, another great loss to the Italian wine world.  Just a few weeks ago, Pio Boffa, the owner and driving force of the Pio Cesare winery, died of Covid. He was a very young and lively 66, and his totally unexpected death came as a great shock to everyone who knew him.

Some of my colleagues have already posted fine memorials of Pio, notably Alfonso Cevola and Tom Hyland, but I needed a little time to adjust to his departure. I will keep this contribution short and personal.

Pio was one of those people you couldn’t imagine ill, much less deathly ill. It had never occurred to me that I might outlive him.  He seemed to have inexhaustible founts of energy. He ran the winery with constant attention to seemingly everything. He travelled frequently (some of us thought continuously) non-stop to all parts of the world, creating or strengthening markets for Piedmont wines wherever he went. He would step off a plane from Hong Kong one evening, return to Alba in the morning, and host a tasting dinner for journalists and retailers that day, all with apparently undiminished energy and a genuine and infectious enthusiasm.
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I’ve known Pio for more than 40 years. We regarded each other as friends – but then, almost everyone who dealt with Pio for more than ten minutes regarded him as a friend: he was simply that kind of guy.  He was deeply Piedmontese in character, so much so that, for instance, the Pio Cesare winery remained faithful to some no-longer-fashionable wines, like Grignolino, of which it must be the last important producer. (If you don’t know Grignolino, you should: It’s a whole other face of the Piedmont, and Pio’s version of it is lovely.)

For all that, I thought of Pio as one of the most Americanized of all the Italian producers I knew. He had a kind of directness that isn’t all that common among winemakers (or anyone else with a product to sell). I loved to interview him about vintages and cellar techniques and the sorts of things that the Consorzio and other winemakers usually gave you very careful, very guarded answers to. Pio just told you the truth as he saw it: he was a no-bullshit guy. Whether that’s typically American, typically Piedmontese, or atypical of both, I’m not sure.

Some early, formative years in California – I believe working with Robert Mondavi – influenced him importantly. He retained from that experience a life-long love of oak, which shows most clearly, I think, in his cru Barolo Ornato, of which he was very proud. For me, with my aversion for wood flavors in wine, it was a subject of frequent disagreement with Pio. He would listen to my objections patiently, and equally patiently explain to me why I was wrong. He knew exactly what he was doing with Ornato, and he believed in it passionately, and I usually saw reason (as he phrased it) enough to grant that, except for the oak notes, Ornato was indeed a superb Barolo.

For all his pride in Ornato, Pio was traditionally Piedmontese enough that the wine he probably lavished the most attention on was his classic Barolo – what others were starting to refer to as their base wine, the traditional blending of Nebbiolos from different vineyards and different communes. Not Pio, though: If you click on the label image to enlarge it, you’ll see the bottom line says e non chiamatelo “base” – and don’t call it “base.” He always insisted that it was a classic – as was he.

Addio, Pio.

Giuseppe Mascarello’s Monprivato is one of a distinguished handful of Italian wines that are rightly spoken of as legendary. Bottled as a separate cru since the early 1970s, Monprivato is easily the most renowned vineyard of the Castiglione Falletto commune, and it is for all practical purposes a Mascarello family monopoly.

To give you some sense of its importance, I can do no better than to quote Kerin O’Keefe, from her authoritative Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine:

The name Giuseppe Mascarello is practically synonymous with that of Monprivato, indisputably one of the very best crus not just in Castiglione Falletto, but in all of Barolo. . . . Mascarello now owns 93 percent of the entire surface area, and they are the only ones to use the Monprivato name on their labels. . . . The vineyard area was already referred to in land registries in 1666, and [Renato] Ratti gave it his equivalent of Grand Cru status on his vineyard classification map [1975].

The Mascarello family have obviously long recognized the outstanding character of the Monprivato site, and they treat its grapes with the attention they so amply reward. The wine is fermented for more than three weeks, with musts constantly and gently pumped over the cap to obtain thorough extraction of color and aromas. Aging is in large Slavonian oak. Monprivato is a very traditionally made Barolo, which in my opinion contributes mightily to its extraordinary depth and longevity.

Its near-legendary longevity was one of the key reasons I wanted to look in and see how my single bottle of 2004 was doing. 2004 was a very fine, in some hands great, vintage in Barolo, but – for my palate – a very forward one. The wines were soft and drinkable from the get-go, with – again, for my palate – extraordinarily approachable tannins, and I wondered how such wines would age. Would they mature at an accelerated pace?  Or would they go dumb for some years, and then resume a normal Barolo pattern of maturation? This inquiring mind wanted to know.

So I stood the bottle up for about a week to allow its sediments to settle; Diane spit-roasted a duck; and we pulled the cork, poured, sniffed, sipped – and smiled. Monprivato lived up to its reputation. Lucky us! It loved the duck: the crisp skin and unctuous fats, the moist, dark meat – all played right into its metaphoric hands.

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The tannins remained soft, but had no trouble dealing with either the duck’s fat or its flesh, and the wine’s fruit just soared, an octave higher than the rich duck flavors.

As many readers of this blog know, I distrust tasting notes (they’re good for one person, one time, under a usually unreproducible set of circumstances), but I do want to give you some sense of what this ’04 Monprivato offered. First, the nose was a classic Barolo mélange of tar, cherry, and roses – just lovely and enticing. The palate was soft, the fruit almost sweet: black cherry interlaced with tar and earth and little hints of strawberry. The overall attack was elegant and the flavor very long-lasting. I’d call it a five-star wine, beautifully structured and still fresh. It’s clearly going to last for a long, long time.

Did it have any flaws? Well, that depends on what you call a flaw. This is a 15-year-old Barolo that gave no hint of white truffle at all. I think I remember that once upon a time, when the world and I were young, 15-year-old Barolos used to give at least small whiffs of the rich scent of white Piedmont truffles, a scent that in its fullness I and many others back then regarded as characteristic of fully mature Barolo. Has climate change so altered the vines’ development that that heady pleasure is now and forever a thing of the past? I sincerely hope not, and not just for my own sake: All wine lovers deserve a sniff of that intoxicating aroma. I hope that all climate change has done is protract Barolo’s maturation, so the white truffle scent will yet come, if we are only patient enough. Speriamo.

I have long been an admirer of the wines of Castello di Volpaia, because Volpaia specializes in what I love most in a wine: elegance. Elegance is easy to say but hard to attain: It’s that taut balance between, on the one hand, fidelity to the nature and intensity of the variety – in this case, Sangiovese – and on the other, lightness on the palate, with a graceful interplay of acid, tannin, and alcohol that makes the wine dance on your tongue.

A few evenings ago, a damp, chilly one (It was March in New York: What do you expect?), Diane and I had made a homely lamb stew – meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans, a pair of small onions, homemade broth for the ingredients to swelter in, not an herb in sight – and to drink with it I opened a bottle of Volpaia’s basic offering, a Chianti Classico 2018.

I expected it to be good, but it way exceeded my expectations. That simple young Chianti was marvelous with the stew and even better with the little taste of cheese with which we finished the meal. It tasted richly of Sangiovese and even more of Volpaia’s high altitude and sandy soils. It was packed with cherry-like Sangiovese fruit, at the same time delightfully light in the mouth, feeling and tasting highly refined and gracious. I was reminded how many times Daniele Cernilli uses the words “refined” or “refinement” in his reviews of Volpaia. If I had to describe this wine briefly, I’d call it classic high-altitude Sangiovese.

Being brief about Castello di Volpaia is difficult, however, because there is so much to say about it. First of all, it’s not a castello, but a formerly walled, hilltop medieval village. Once upon a time it served as a Florentine defensive outpost against Florence’s perennial enemy, Siena. After the 16th century, when peace invaded Tuscany, the walls started tumbling down and the vineyards growing up.

After the abolition of the mezzadria, the sharecropping system that had dominated Italian rural life and kept Italy green and poor for centuries, Volpaia almost became a ghost town, as its population fled the hard country life for better opportunities elsewhere. This is not ancient history: It happened in the 1950s and 1960s. That was a time when houses and vineyards and sometimes – as was the case of Volpaia – whole villages could be bought for very, very little. Not all the sites that then changed hands were so lucky in their new owners as Volpaia.
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Giovanna Stianti received it as a bridal gift when she married Carlo Mascheroni, an architect. The two have made Volpaia, both the town and its vineyards, their life work. They have lavished on both the buildings and the fields the kind of meticulous, loving attention that has earned Volpaia widespread recognition as the best and most beautifully preserved medieval village in Tuscany. The wines are just as highly esteemed: Their Chianti Classico Riserva Coltassella has frequently won Tre Bicchieri since its introduction in the 1980s. Its high rank has remained unchanged even as its legal status, following the evolution of Tuscan wine regulations, has grown from Vino da Tavola to Gran Selezione.

Aside from the careful attention that Stianti has given to the clonal selections, field work, and cellar procedures, there are two other reasons for the distinction of Volpaia’s wines. The vineyards are among the highest in Tuscany: Indeed, the very highest fields lie above 600 meters. And the soil of those fields differs markedly from the Classico zone’s predominant terroirs: It is made up of a lot less clay and a lot more sand and degenerating sandstone. With care in the field and the cellar, that translates into a far less rustic or heavy wine, a wine with a fine structure for immediate drinking, as well as for long life – a happy combination for any wine.

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The felicitous combination of so many special qualities has made Castello di Volpaia a benchmark for me, vinously and esthetically. If travel to Italy ever becomes possible again in my lifetime (!), Volpaia stands very high on the list of places I want to revisit.

I have always been ambivalent about Syrah, but I’ve never had any doubts about Hermitage. The appellation is tiny: Its total acreage is only slightly larger than the largest of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru estates (yes, estates, not appellations). But the wines of Hermitage deserve every syllable of the praise that is lavished upon them.

Syrah, on the other hand, the sole grape variety of Hermitage, is a first-class crank. Grown anywhere but the northern Rhône, it occasionally produces fine wines, but more often than not it gives hard, high-alcohol, aggressive and over-assertive bottles marked by an almost exaggerated spiciness, as if the chef had simply lost it when peppering the stew.

Hermitage is the antithesis of that, holding all those dangerous tendencies of the grape on a tight rein. Balance is what Hermitage excels at. What you expect would produce tension, even discord, instead yields grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.

There used to be a word in French, hermitagiser, to describe the practice of adding some wine from the Rhône to (especially) Bordeaux, to give it more body and color – all before the AOC regulations, of course. And almost every wine lover is familiar with Saintsbury’s description of Hermitage as “the manliest of wines,” a description that would still be useful if it weren’t so sexist.

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All this wind-up should tell you why I chose a 20-year-old Hermitage as one of my cellar explorations for 2021. As almost any reference book makes clear, Hermitage and its cousin Côte Rotie are both Syrah-based wines, Hermitage completely so, Côte Rotie allowing (but not always using) a small admixture of Viognier.* And as all the textbooks emphasize, both are wines that demand and brilliantly reward aging.

Now, 20 years is not what Saintsbury and other connoisseurs of his generation would have considered long aging, but for me, it’s quite long enough – especially considering that my un-cellar-like storage facilities have probably expedited the wine’s maturation, so that my 20-year-old might be the equivalent of a 25- or 30- year-old bottle from the winery. So it’s about time I looked in to see how the kid is doing.

Not to keep you in suspense: The answer was Very well indeed. All my worries about my poor storage conditions blew away at the first sniff from the bottle after I pulled the cork: The wine was sound – just how sound wouldn’t come clear until later when, after giving it a few hours’ breathing, I poured it at dinner.

That was when my Hermitage, in no sense an aperitif wine, really showed its stuff. A paragraph or so back, I described Hermitage as displaying “grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.”  That was spot on.

First, the aroma. Here’s my note exactly as dashed off at the moment: “Rich, rich nose – dark plums and blackberries and black cherries, then black pepper and leather.”

Then, the palate: “Velvet in the mouth, almost feeling weightless, even though it is a big, mouth-filling wine. Tastes of leather and meat and black dried fruit, then cherry. A very long, cherry-leather finish.”  That was just tasting the wine by itself.

After a few forkfuls of lamb and lentils, the Hermitage broadened and sweetened and got even bigger – and, if possible, even more supple and graceful. This was truly a memorable wine, and an absolute justification of all the encomiums that Hermitage from makers like Guigal and Jaboulet and Chave regularly receive. When you read praise like that, it isn’t hype: You’re reading honest reporting.

 


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Special note for grape nuts:  Recent ampelographical studies, especially DNA studies, of Syrah have uncovered a web of relationships with some famous and some negligible varieties. Viognier is probably a genetic brother/sister/cousin of Syrah, whose family tree is amazingly complex. Syrah itself is probably the grandchild of Pinot by way of a field cross of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche (neither a very distinguished wine grape), and it is in all likelihood a cousin of Teroldego, which can yield some wonderful red wines in the Italian north. This makes it part of a family of grape varieties strung along high mountain trails that cross the national boundaries of Switzerland, France, and Italy.

Some years back, I risked prophecy in a Decanter article and asserted my conviction that in the not-too-far future, wine lovers would hold Campania, and particularly Irpinia, in the same esteem they now give Burgundy and the Côte d’Or. Well, I’m ready to reaffirm that prediction, because I’m seeing more and more reasons for it every year.

A case in point is the subject of this post: Feudi di San Gregorio’s project of producing very limited editions (about 2,000 bottles) of carefully selected single-vineyard Taurasis. This is part of a study Feudi has undertaken of terroirs and clones in the Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo zones. These three prized wine zones abut and in part overlap each other in Campania’s upland Avellino province, the ancient territory of Irpinia, which has been producing estimable wines since the heyday of the Roman Empire.
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I had the opportunity to taste the 2016 bottling of the two Taurasi vineyards Feudi has so far chosen for this study, Candriano and Rosamilia. Both vineyards are located in the commune of Castelfranchi, in the extreme southeast corner of the Taurasi zone. The tasting made clear that, despite their youth, these are already very fine wines, with the capacity for long aging and significant growth. They showed the kind of character and potential that wine lovers expect, and are used to finding, in young Burgundies of important Premier Cru appellations. Let me point out  that wines of this quality have been coming out of Irpinia for some years now. It’s long past time for the wine world to start paying more serious attention.

Before I preach my sermon (again), let me talk about the two wines that prompted it.

2016 Taurasi Rosamilia. The nose was strong and striking, deep and dark, redolent of very dark fruits. The palate seemed a touch lighter though still big. Though so young, the wine was very composed, already smooth and complex, with a whole medley of dark fruit and woodland flavors competing for attention. Food brought up a big, dark plummy component. This was a lovely Taurasi, already impressive and drinkable.

2016  Taurasi Candriano. This wine’s aroma was not as assertive as the Rosamilia’s – more gentle and insinuating than forceful. Its palate, however, struck me as richer, rounder, and more fruity: perhaps not as dark-toned, but every bit as pleasing. It stayed soft, even with food. Even though very well structured, it did not yet seem as coherent as Rosamilia. I think it needs – and clearly will reward – more time in bottle.

Both wines, by the way, showed surprisingly soft tannins, despite originating in a part of the Taurasi zone reputed for tough young wines that need plenty of time to come around.

Much as I admire these two wines, let me stress that for this zone, they are not atypical in their quality. Those high Apennine slopes produce many top-quality Taurasis, as well as noble Fianos and Grecos. Most bottlings in the zone are not, I grant you, single-vineyard, but I think we will be seeing more and more of that as the producers begin to realize and exploit the riches they have.
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Wine lovers should recognize this process: They saw it first in Burgundy in the years after World War II, and then in Piedmont, starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Campania is still playing a little catch-up in that regard, but the grapes are there, the soils are there, and the talent and enthusiasm are now most definitely there. Taurasi’s – and Campania’s — glory days may be only a little way ahead of us.

Ever since the advent of Covid-induced social restrictions, magnums have become a big problem for me. Most of the time, I simply cannot get enough people together to make serving the big bottles at all practical. So when, recently, we were actually able to gather six people (including ourselves, and all conscientious about precautions) for a multi-course dinner, I leaped at the chance to open a magnum to span two courses of the meal. I had a specific bottle in mind, one I was getting little nervous about, given my less-than-ideal storage conditions: a Vietti Barbera d’Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia, vintage 2004.
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Yes, you read that right: a 16-year-old Barbera. I know that, because of the variety’s naturally high acidity, Barberas are capable of long life, especially if left resting in their home cellars – but this particular magnum had been kicking around too many years in uncellarlike conditions and moved too many times from one set of such to another to encourage much optimism. I feared it was a wine on the edge if not outright over it.

Well, I was wrong to worry. It turns out that nature and wine are stronger than human abuse. This should not be read as my saying that you can mistreat your best wines and hope to get away with it – but it does mean that grape vines are survivors, and so, very often, are their progeny. This bottle of Barbera, far from being at the edge of the precipice, was just plain gorgeous, and it stole the show from the equally old bottles of very fine Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva and Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino that accompanied subsequent courses. My judgment was humbled, but my palate was delighted.

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The aroma of that Vietti Barbera amounted to a whole fruit salad – intense scents of blackberry, mulberry, and black cherry, all carried on a substrate of tobacco and forest notes. The palate was equally rich and intense, medium-bodied, with soft tannins and still a lot of live acidity (though much toned down from the vigorous norm of young Barberas). But the dominant notes were all those berries and cherries and their understrapping of tobacco (back in my pipe-smoking days I would have said Kentucky Burley), everything culminating in a huge finish of leather and black cherry. All these aromas and flavors, be it noted, were not brash and young, but matured and harmonious and nevertheless still fresh – an amazing balancing act that we lucky few diners caught at a moment of perfect equilibrium.

A good part of the explanation of the high quality of this wine lies in its maker and its vineyard. The Scarrone vineyard is a very large one, on a hillside circling around almost all of the center of the town of Castiglione Falleto. The best exposures on its slopes yield fine Barolos, the less favorable ones give great Barberas. Among the very best of these is Vietti’s bottling of old vines from its extensive Scarrone holdings, all of which lie practically at the winery’s doorstep.
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Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s map of the vineyards of Castiglione Falletto. Circled number 12 marks Vietti’s cantina.

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The other factor that accounted for this wine’s quality was the very thing that presented problems for its service: the size of the bottle. The undeniable fact is that that the larger the quantity of wine that can be aged in a single container, the better it matures, the richer and more complex it gets, the sturdier it seems to be. That’s the lure and the danger of magnums: big risks, big rewards.

I have a precious few Gaja Barbarescos put away, and I have been very curious about how they are developing. I don’t drink Gaja wines often: That is just too expensive a proposition, but I chose one, Costa Russi 2001, for my second monthly cellar special for 2021.

Anyone who loves Italian wines has heard of Angelo Gaja. He has been one of the most prominent figures in the Italian wine world. At one point a few decades back he seemed to be everywhere. Europe, Asia, North America: wherever there was an opportunity to promote his wines, the wines of Piedmont, or the wines of Italy, you could count on seeing Angelo Gaja, tirelessly recounting their virtues. He was, and is, the most successful public relations firm Italian wine has ever had.

Back to his own wines. Angelo Gaja brought an unusual perspective to the winery he inherited from his father and grandfather. I believe that as an undergraduate he was what we call in the US a double major: oenology, which was hardly unusual in Alba, and economics. He brought an uncommon understanding of the business of prestige wine to the management of his vineyards. From the beginning he had his eye on the French, as both a business and a vinous model. At a time when most Italian wine regions and makers were pursuing quantity, he wanted his wines on the same tables as Chateau Lafite. So, from the start, he walked a different road.

He reduced yields. He acquired barriques – which, by the way, he still uses, as he did 40 years ago. Just one year in barriques for his best wines, then the rest of their aging in the traditional large Piedmontese botti. Then came temperature-controlled fermentation and stainless-steel tanks. At the same time, he was visiting markets around the world to present his wines and represent the passion and expertise that justified the prices he asked for them. Gaja understood pricing as a marketing tool for quality, and he used it to build a prestige brand ultimately resting on the character and quality of the wines.

Which is exactly why I wanted to taste this 20-year-old specimen from one of his Barbaresco crus, Costa Russi. You’ll notice that the label doesn’t say Barbaresco, simply Langhe. That’s because for several years, Gaja experimented by reverting to an old Piedmontese tradition of mixing a little Barbera with his Nebbiolo. Before the DOC and DOCG, Barbaresco and Barolo had mostly been a field mix. A small part of each Nebbiolo vineyard was reserved for Barbera, and the two varieties were harvested and fermented together. In theory, the Barbera intensified Nebbiolo’s color, and its big fruit and acid gave young Nebbiolo an often-needed lift and vitality.

By reverting to that practice, for a few years Gaja essentially declassified his three crus. They weren’t officially Barbaresco but just Costa Russi, Sori Tilden, and Sori San Lorenzo from the Langhe zone. I was very curious to see how this “just Costa Russi” was developing after 20 years.

As I said before, I don’t drink Gaja wines every day, so I made this special bottle my birthday wine. (My age will be revealed only on a need-to-know basis.)  Diane made a special dinner for it, a timbale filled with Finanziera, a dish that – as I had learned long ago in Piedmont – loves Barbaresco. La Finanziera is a braise featuring parts of calves and chickens that in the US are usually used in pet food – e.g., cockscombs, livers, gizzards, marrow. People of America, you have no idea how well your pets are dining!

My 20-year-old Costa Russi played its role flawlessly. Its aroma was huge, all brambles, cherries, blackberries and undergrowth, lovely and enticing. The palate followed with all those flavors, big and round. It was, I thought, almost Bordeaux-like in style, in its harmony. The wine was still slightly tannic, whether from the vintage – 2001 was a big vintage all through the Piedmont – or from those barriques, I couldn’t tell. It finished very long, with dark fruits and leather. A masterpiece of winemaking, with no sense of age or fading.

For me, this was a wonderful wine not completely Piedmontese in character: In its particular polish and elegance, its model was to my palate clearly French – and it is in that respect an amazing wine, to have achieved so successfully, with two native Piedmont varieties, the kind of complex and intricate harmony Bordeaux at its best teases out of three or four very different ones. Perhaps it is the idiosyncracy of my palate, or my hyper-awareness of how important the model of French winemaking was to Angelo Gaja, but I swear I can taste the French influence in this wine. And even though I almost always deplore the use of French grape varieties in Italian wines, I love this amalgamation of French style to Italian winemaking. Bravo, Angelo – and thank you for a birthday treat.

A few convergences that look as if they ought to be significant are occurring here. This, my first post about one of the special 12 wines I’ve chosen from my hoard for this year’s consumption, focuses on a new wine from an ancient grape variety, Pallagrello nero, that had all but disappeared. It was produced by a new winery that has in fact just disappeared. Not quite a year ago, Giovanni Ascione – Nanni Copé is his alter ego — announced that he would no longer produce wine. So this bottle that I selected to start off my chosen 12 for 2021 is indeed a rarity, and will never be joined by any new vintages.
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The full name of the wine in question, Nanni Copé 2011 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, probably packs too much information in too concentrated a form for most non-Italian (and no doubt many Italian) consumers to grasp, so let me open it up.

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First, what is it?

This wine is composed of approximately 90 percent Pallagrello nero and 10 percent Aglianico and Casavecchia grapes. Both, like the better known Aglianico, are very old varieties indigenous to Campania and nowhere else, and both varieties had almost died out until rescued and re-propagated in quite recent years. The Pallagrello comes from vines that originated as cuttings from the few surviving very old – perhaps 150-year-old – plants that are today the parents of all the Pallagrello nero grown in Campania.
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(FYI: There is also a Pallagrello bianco, but – despite the names – they are totally unrelated varieties. There is not a lot of information around about Pallagrello, red or white. Short entries in Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes are the sum of what’s known about them. For some reason, Ian d’Agata’s supposedly comprehensive Native Wine Grapes of Italy doesn’t even mention Pallagrello.)

The Casavecchia variety in this wine comes from a tiny, less-than-half-hectare vineyard of hundred-year-old, pre-phylloxera vines. Campania preserves a surprising number of pre-phylloxera vines, of many different varieties, not all of them identified or identifiable.

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Second, where does it come from?

This IGT wine is from the Terre del Volturno, which is the denomination that covers approximately the southern half of the province of Caserta, which, in its turn, forms the northernmost province of Campania.
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The name Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco is that of a particular vineyard, The Sandy Fields Above the Woods. I visited it a few years ago, and I can tell you that it’s a small triangle of gently sloping land formed by a bend of the Volturno River, very rural and picturesque, and a perfect site for a vineyard. (Unfortunately, I have no photos. I don’t do cameras anymore: The technology passed me by when they stopped using film.)
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Third, how did it taste?

This 2011 bottle was a Tre Bicchieri winner, one of a steady series of such that began with the second vintage (2009) from the tiny Nanni Copé winery and ran until its most recent releases. My bottle was a marvel: I had planned to uncork it several hours before dinner, to give it time to breathe and open, but when I pulled the cork, its aroma was already so rich and heady that I immediately closed it up again so as not to lose any of that loveliness.

When I finally poured it, a huge burst of dried fig and dried peach scents, followed by scents of sottobosco and funghi porcini, preceded the palate of, initially, peaches, which were quickly enveloped by dark berries and those basso profundo undergrowth flavors. The wine was very big in the mouth, and smooth, with particularly elegant tannins (Giovanni Ascione was always enthusiastic about the smoothness and nobility of Pallagrello’s tannins). All this concluded with a long, dried fig finish.

All in all, this was a ravishing wine, a joy to drink, and all the more so for the way it partnered with a sapid and richly savory stuffed breast of veal Diane had made to accompany it. The complex flavors of the prosciutto-and porcini-stuffed veal, with its white wine and broth sauce, evoked a corresponding complexity in the wine, whose smooth tannins welcomed the unctuousness of the veal breast. It was hard to say whether the food was showcasing the wine or vice versa.
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Fourth, who is the maker?

Giovanni Ascione is – was – among a handful of producers in Caserta cultivating Pallagrello. They are led by Peppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli, who were the original rescuers of Pallagrello – both the red variety and the white – and Casavecchia. Their estate, Terre del Principe, is today the largest producer of Pallagrello wines. Their ranks were joined in recent years by several others, including Castello Ducale and Alois. Giovanni Ascione began his Nanni Copé winery in 2007 and ceased production just about a year ago, in 2019, after a critically acclaimed and all-too-short run.
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I think I’ve tasted every vintage of Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco except the most recent, and they have all been splendid. I’ve admired them from my very first encounter with them. For the record, here is my account of that, at a ten-year-ago Campania Stories tasting:

Giovanni Ascione followed with Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, his traditional field blend of roughly 90% Pallagrello nero, almost 10% Aglianico, and a sprinkling of Casavecchia. He showed 2008, 2009, and 2010 – his first three vintages, of which the ’09 and the ’10 both got Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association. This Pallagrello nero is the only wine he makes, from slightly more than three hand-tended (mostly by him) hectares. He has every single vine entered on an Excel spreadsheet, and he follows each one as if it were his only child. His production is tiny – 620 cases – and exquisite.

Here are my notes on the 2008: “Nose: chocolate, tobacco, black cherry jam. Dry chocolate/cherry on the palate; round, with soft tannins and bright acidity. A meaty finish, with leather undertones. Overall, intense and fine, with seemingly a long life in front of it. The aroma opens over time to leather and dried beef. A chewable wine, textured and rich.” I’ll spare you the rest of my notes on the ’09 and ’10: They’re in the same vein. My final comment says it all: “These are amazingly complex wines – intense, complicated, and quite wonderful.”

Just like Peppe Mancini, Giovanni Ascione is passionate about Pallagrello nero, believing wholeheartedly in its capacity to make great wine, a task he devoted himself to for a dozen years. As noted, his production was always small: My 2011 was one of only 6100 bottles and 120 magnums he made that year. The French wouldn’t have hesitated to label him a garagiste, and he brought the obsessiveness of that breed to bear on his vines and wines.

Given his intensity, I find it hard to fathom why he has stopped making wine. All he has said is that, in effect, he has accomplished what he wanted to and now he’s moving on. Possibly, of course, that is all that there is to it, but I can’t help but hear his impish sense of humor and self-irony, and I can’t help but wonder what other reasons remain unstated. Well, let them stay that way: Everyone, even a winemaker, is entitled to his privacy. I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to acquire a few more bottles of his marvelous elixir before the fountain dried up.

Every ending is the beginning of something else. I’m just wondering what Nanni Copé may be up to next.

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Europeans say Bordeaux and Burgundy, Americans say Cabernet sauvignon and Pinot noir. That difference isn’t merely cultural – though no cultural difference is really mere – but in a sense ideological. It points to two different orientations to wine and the wine world.

I was reminded of this recently by an online article of Daniele Cernilli’s called “Beyond the Varietal.” This was not another rehash of stories about the meaning of terroir, but a reasoned argument about what matters in a wine besides its grape variety. Essentially, Cernilli argues that to speak of, say, Richebourg, as Pinot noir is to completely miss what is distinctive about that wine; and to talk only about, say, Nebbiolo, is to fail to understand what makes Barolo Cannubi great. Here, I’m less interested in that than in why the US makes so much of varietals.

There are complex reasons why Americans think of variety first, many of them deeply rooted in the brevity of our history with wine. As a nation, we have no tradition of wine drinking, save for a few exceptional individuals like Thomas Jefferson, who championed it. But such examples only tended to push wine drinking and wine knowledge further out of the mainstream and to isolate it as an aristocratic interest of the landed and wealthy.

This of course was intensified by the whole area of wine being so completely dominated, for so long, in the consciousness of English speakers, by French wines, all of which bore place names that conveyed no information, in a language that many Americans continue to find impenetrable and unpronounceable.

I think it is safe to say that wine in the US did not begin to take hold among the general population until non-aristocratic Italians and other southern Europeans began arriving here in significant numbers. We Americans who now love wine owe a huge debt to those once-looked-down-upon spaghetti joints, with their checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles. Those were probably the first wine bottles many Americans had ever seen. And drinking what had been in those flasks to accompany their “exotic” spaghetti and meatballs was probably the first experience of wine many of them had ever had. It’s important to remember that that world doesn’t lie very far in our past: It’s still relatively recent history.

The biggest part of American wine history of course belongs to California. How many of us remember when California produced Chablis, Chianti, Burgundy, and Rhine Wine – even Champagne? For a good many years, California marketed wines that way, until the fledgling European Union made ending that commercial appropriation of historic and important place names one of its chief goals.

That was when naming wines for the grape varieties that made them started to be the norm in America. It succeeded not just because it was the ethical thing to do, but largely because for a tyro wine drinking nation it was easier to learn and remember the names of a few grape varieties than all those European regional and town names. Varietal naming told you something about what was in the bottle that, unless you already knew a fair amount about wine, names like St. Julien or Chambolle-Musigny didn’t. And popular wisdom had it that connoisseur claptrap didn’t matter. Who cared who made the wine or where it was made? It was all Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir or Chardonnay, wasn’t it? (No prizes will be given for the correct answer to that question.)

That simplicity also greatly aided marketing, and it’s safe to say that marketing is king in America. You could order a glass of Chardonnay with your dinner, and for most people that was the end of it. You didn’t think about it, you had no opinion of it: It was safe and you hadn’t embarrassed yourself. Why complicate things by considering whether the wine was a good example of Chardonnay or not? What does that mean anyway? Besides, those who worried about whether they had gotten a good Chardonnay needed only to check its 100-point-scale score: Over 90 and you were gold.

You certainly didn’t want to complicate things further by worrying about where your Chardonnay was made: Napa? Sonoma? Paso Robles? Mendocino? North Fork? Finger Lakes? Where are those places? Who cares? My wine got 92 points from the Spectator and a whole paragraph of soft-core palatal porn from Parker:  I’m good. So what if it’s from a plot of land that until a few years ago grew scrub oaks and mesquite, and from a producer who until a few years ago was a roofing contractor? This is a brave new world, that has such markets in it.

And that of course is the point: Marketing is what it’s all about. Americans are not challenged to go beyond varietal in evaluating a wine because varietal is marketable, and knowledge and taste and judgement are not – unless you can articulate them numerically. How do you assign numerical value for 800 years of continuous grape cultivation in a single spot, dating back to Cistercian monks, or for generations of family winemaking? How many points is it worth for an Emperor to have had his troops salute a vineyard as they marched by? (There will be no prizes for the correct answers to these questions either.)

I know this sounds snobbish, but the inescapable fact is that anything that involves knowledge, let alone knowledge and taste, is snobbish. Oh, it’s true that in this country, some kinds of snobbery aren’t snobbish: We’ve all been bored to tears by a baseball or football super-statistician, or a micro-brewery maven, or by the person who knows everything that can be known about the Grateful Dead. Those lore lodes don’t involve too many foreign names, so they sound comfortably American – and they certainly don’t seem to imply that “you think you’re better than me,” which is what wine snobbery is considered to imply.

At bottom, I think it is that implicit non-egalitarian threat that has kept Americans wedded to grape varieties as their passport to wine, despite all the limitations of that approach. This may be changing, as more Americans do become more seriously engaged with wine, and as Europe, despite the best efforts of the EU, succumbs more and more to the attractions of mass marketing. Small European cheese makers have already felt the chilling effects of this process. Can wine makers be far behind? Probably not, so be a snob and enjoy it, while you still can. We may live to see the day when, to be sold in the US, St. Julien and Chambolle-Musigny and Barolo Cannubi will all have to be pasteurized. Absit omen.