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In a recent post, I wrote about a fine California Charbono from The Wine Trust’s portfolio, and this time I intend to talk about some of its French and Italian wines.

The name, The Wine Trust, will probably not resonate much with most wine drinkers, who rarely pay any attention to who imports or distributes the wines they love. That’s not a grave error, though the information can be useful. Among other reasons, it’s worth knowing about an importer’s other wines, since different importers’ portfolios reflect different interests and preferences and styles of wine. If a particular importer brings in a wine you really like, you might very well find other gems in its lineup. Obviously, this is particularly true of smaller, more specialized importers.

The Wine Trust, for instance, shows great strength in Bordeaux: Its collection features many of the famous châteaux. What is of special interest to me, since most of those more famous wines have moved well beyond my economic range, is that The Wine Trust also has an impressive array of the smaller, less celebrated châteaux, which increasingly represent the real values in Bordeaux. I mean estates like Cantemerle, Cantenac Brown, Giscours, Clinet and my special favorite, Ormes de Pez. I think a selection like that is an excellent sign that the importer in question is using real discernment. Anyone can go after the famous names: It takes some knowledge and taste to find the real beauties in the ranks of the many less famed.

But the firm’s portfolio ranges farther afield than Bordeaux, and many of its less costly French and non-French selections seem to reflect an interesting palate at work. With that in mind, I sampled two French whites and two Italian reds from its portfolio. The results were interesting indeed.
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The whites were two classic French appellations from very different zones along the Loire river: a 2017 Muscadet Monnières-Saint Fiacre from Menard-Gaborit and a 2016 Chenin blanc from Idiart.
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The Menard-Gaborit was classic clean, lean Muscadet, crisp, mineral, and slaty, with dry floral notes and a long finish. We drank it very happily with fried scallops, which fattened it up somewhat. It all but screamed for fresh shellfish, making it absolutely clear why Muscadet is generally conceded to be the oyster wine par excellence. This bottling would be fine with any selection of oysters or clams on the half shell, or with any selection of sushi and sashimi, for that matter.
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The Idiart Chenin blanc derives totally from its eponymous grape variety, a specialty of the middle Loire valley, where it has been cultivated for centuries. Compared to Muscadet, this is a bigger-bodied wine, rounder and deeper and less edgy: the acid is held more in check by other fruit and mineral elements. This particular example rested ten months on its fine lees, which gives it a touch more richness. I thought it a nice, chalky young Chenin, with fine potential for drinking over the next few years. (Loire Chenin blanc can take bottle age quite nicely.)
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The two red wines I tasted from The Wine Trust’s portfolio were a Valpolicella and a Barbera, both from the 2017 vintage.
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The Valpolicella, a Classico from Monte Santoccio, sported an intriguing nose of dry grapes and volcanic soil. (The Valpolicella and Soave zones have the northernmost volcanic soils in Italy.)  Dried cherry and peach appeared on the palate. It seemed a bit austere for a Valpolicella, but fine, beautifully balanced and enjoyable drinking – especially with its easy-to-take 12 degrees of alcohol, a rarity these days. By the way: cheese brought up this wine’s fruit very delightfully.
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The other Italian red, a Barbera d’Alba from Giacomo Vico, showed a lovely black cherry nose and palate, exactly as one would hope for in its kind. This was an intriguing wine, less “barolized” than many Alba Barberas. It felt light on the palate, and long-finishing, with fine balance and more obvious bright acid (which is absolutely characteristic of the Barbera grape) than many Alba specimens. In short, it was completely true to its variety but in a way slightly different from most of the examples from its zone.
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That too was true of the Valpolicella, with its little extra touch of austerity and restraint. So we have an importer who chooses paradigm French wines and very fine Italian wines with a bit of a twist. I call that interesting.

When, for a recent and rare-during-Covid dinner with friends, Diane cooked up a Rabelaisian cassoulet out of Julia Child, I decided the occasion required some good southern French wines. We’ve been drinking a preponderance of Italian wines lately, and a little change of pace was in order. The austerity of Bordeaux seemed to me just wrong for the dish, as did the delicacy of Burgundy. The Rhône definitely provided the place to go.

Châteauneuf du Pape was my wine of choice, supplemented by a Cornas, a wine from a little further up the Rhône than Avignon, city of the “new château” of the 14th Century popes. To start things off, alongside a light celery, date, and almond salad, I decided to open the drinking with a white Châteauneuf, a wine of real character that I’ve always enjoyed, but that I find few people are familiar with. That unfamiliarity, from my point of view, is a real advantage, because I love to surprise my friends with a wine new to them. In this case, that gambit really paid off: Our 2015 Domaine de Beaurenard Châteauneuf du Pape blanc may well have been the wine of the evening.
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This 32-hectare, 7th-generation estate cultivates all 13 of the traditional Châteauneuf grape varieties. It is biodynamically certified, and the vines average about 45 years of age. The white is blended from Clairette, Rousanne, Bourboulenc, Grenache blanc, Picardan, and Picpoul, none of which varieties are very common outside the Rhône valley, and several of which have become rarities even within the Châteauneuf zone.

This five-year-old showed remarkable composure and complexity, having already knit its grapes together to create a rich, generous white wine that matched deliciously with everything we tasted it with. (Several of us saved some to taste alongside the cassoulet and cheese courses, where it continued to show very well indeed.) I’m partial to older white Châteauneuf, and I would guess that this wine has years, perhaps decades, of life in front of it. I hope I do too, because I’d really like to taste it again somewhere down the line.

Then we moved on to the main course. Cassoulet can be a tricky dish to match a wine with. From one point of view, it’s nothing more than a gussied up pot of pork and beans. From another, it’s one of the elaborate glories of French cuisine. And depending on the ingredient choices you make and the cooking techniques you use, the final dish can range anywhere from rustic heavy to robust elegant. It’s never a lightweight, but it isn’t necessarily ponderous either.

Thus my choice of Rhône red wines, which in themselves span the same range. Actually, Châteauneuf du Pape by itself covers that spectrum, with the number of grape varieties grown in the zone, and the many different wine styles pursued by its many makers.

Diane’s cassoulet was what I would call succulent mid-range: Julia Child’s classic technique undergirding a mélange of lamb, duck, pork, smoked sausage, and old-fashionedly flavorful marrow beans.
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A dish like that needs wines that won’t back down but are complex enough and giving enough to match nuances with each varied mouthful of the food. So the legacy of the popes’ French exile came into play to accompany a dish that I’m sure those old popes and all their attendant courtiers would have happily devoured.

We modulated to our red Châteauneuf by way of a lovely Cornas, a 2010 Domaine de Saint Pierre from Jaboulet. This comes from an almost five-hectare site at the highest point of the Cornas appellation, which Jaboulet has owned since 1993. The vines are 30 to 40 years old, and the wine is 100% Syrah, a monovarietal wine that in my mind set up a nice contrast with the multi-faceted blend of Châteauneuf.
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Contrary to this vintage’s reputation when first bottled – several critics referred to the 2010 as “savage” or “wild” – this one was positively civilized. Mouth-filling, to be sure, but smooth and gentle on the palate, with its typical Syrah pepperiness nicely balanced with sweeter wild cherry flavors. We may have drunk this bottle a bit young, but we enjoyed it thoroughly, and it set our palates up for the more complex wine to follow.

That was a 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape Vieilles Vignes – red, of course – from Domaine La Millière.
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This estate lies in the northern part of the Châteauneuf zone and has been for some years certified biodynamic. The cellar works on very traditional lines, with long barrel rest for its Châteauneufs, which are blended from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Counoise. The house’s stylistic emphasis is on finesse and longevity, both of which our bottle achieved. In fact, it may have a little overachieved: With that rich cassoulet, it seemed a little lacking in power – a delicious wine, but a touch overshadowed by the food, maybe even a bit of an anti-climax, following the impressive white Châteauneuf and the delightful Cornas. But it still showed plenty of freshness and depth, and it perked up considerably when confronted with an array of cheeses.

Those pre-Renaissance popes may not have been models of piety, but they certainly had a good eye for a vineyard.

Recently, The Wine Trust, an East-coast based wine importer and distributor, offered me the chance to taste a selection of bottles from its portfolio. This is an offer that would under normal circumstances be hard to resist, made doubly so by Covid 19’s deletion of the usual wine new-release events. I replied with an instant and enthusiastic yes when I spotted in the lineup a Charbono from Kivelstadt Vineyards in Mendocino.

Take my word for it: This is a rarity.

Now almost disappeared, Charbono was once a staple grape in California vineyards, usually used in blends but occasionally showing up in distinguished monovarietal bottlings. Inglenook, I recall, and Louis Martini, made nice ones. In the dim recesses of my mind, I think I remember a Wine Writers Circle lunch at the old Four Seasons at which Louis Martini was the guest speaker. He had brought with him from California some library bottles, including an old Charbono. How old I can’t honestly recall. It had lost a lot of color, but no flavor or aroma, and still imparted an impression of restrained power. Details have now faded from my mind as much as the initial deep garnet color had faded from the wine, but I remember it as classically lovely – balanced, complex, and supple, hinting at reserves of strength.

It’s been years now since I’ve seen a Charbono on retail shelves – hence my excitement to try this rare example: Kivelstadt Native Son Charbono 2017. It did not disappoint.

The wine opened with a rush of intense, sweet cherry fruit in a fresh, lightly acid package with no obvious tannins. Our dinner meat and potatoes tamed the fruit somewhat, broadening the wine, bringing up its balance and elegance, along with hints of greater depths and force lurking behind. A small cheese course to follow brought the fruit back to the fore and also made it clear that this Charbono had excellent structure. To my mind, this is a wine that while totally enjoyable now, could really be something special in ten years.

Kivelstadt’s home vineyard is in Sonoma, but this wine is sourced from a two-acre block of 70-year-old vines in the Venturi vineyard in Mendocino. That yielded only 225 cases of Charbono – rare enough in these days of mass production. The grapes are hand-harvested and processed very gently – the fermentation is semi-carbonic, with naturally occurring yeasts – to produce a wine with a wonderfully old-fashioned, gentle alcohol level of 12.2%. Which, for California, makes this a double rarity. The winery describes it as combining “brooding strength” with “a light and fun style.”  I’d change “brooding” to “imposing, latent” strength, but the gist of that description is right on target.

Except for my let-us-say “mature” readers, most of you are probably wondering what Charbono is, so thoroughly has it disappeared from the American wine landscape. There may now be fewer than 80 acres planted anywhere on the West coast. Like many grape varieties that were planted both in devoted plots and as part of field mixes, it has been rooted out or grafted over to more popular varieties. Old-timers will remember what wonderful wines some of those old field mixes gave, with varieties like Grenache and Zinfandel and Barbera and Petite Syrah and Charbono all contributing to a composite that, to my mind, resembled Rhone wines and Châteauneuf du Pape blends more than anything New Worldly.

Even back then, Charbono’s identity was a puzzler. At various times it was thought to be a kind of Barbera, or maybe related to Dolcetto. To add to the confusion, there was a Piedmontese variety called Charbono, which now has seemingly gone extinct. And there is yet another grape in the French Savoie (contiguous, of course, with the Italian Savoia, the home base of the former kings of Italy) called Charbonneau.

Just about 15 years ago, this was all clarified when thorough ampelographic studies established that the grape we know as Charbono is in fact Douce Noire. According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, “until the end of the nineteenth century, Douce Noire was one of the most widespread red varieties of Savoie.” On its home ground, Douce Noire has suffered the same fate as Charbono in California: There are now very few acres of it under cultivation in France.

We’re not out of the nomenclatorial woods yet: In France the grape is officially called Corbeau, except – again according to Robinson – by its few growers, who still stubbornly call it Douce Noire. I believe that I will just as stubbornly stick with Charbono, whenever I can get it.

An unpromising sounding title for a post, isn’t it? You wouldn’t think there would be much to say about bottles’ back labels, would you? After all, the vast majority of back labels lack both style and substance. The surgeon general’s warning about alcohol, the importer’s name, sometimes a promotional blurb about the estate, sometimes the vintage, sometimes the alcohol level – the latter a number I think is often pure whimsy – but that’s about it, all laid out with about as much flair as a lamppost “Have you seen this dog?” bulletin.

Then again, there’s Ridge. As the winery is in so many other ways, Ridge’s labels are exceptional. They are clean. They are uncluttered. And above all, they are informative. Wow, are they informative! Here’s an example:
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This is from a bottle that I opened to accompany one of my better pots of chili and subsequently wished I had saved for something like Tournedos Rossini. Not because the wine was unhappy with the chili: far from it. This Zinfandel grooved on that meaty, spicy, beany, brothy concoction. But because it was so good in itself, so complex, so totally sapid that I wanted to give it something that would tease out even more of its seemingly endless range of flavors.

It was the complexity and sheer goodness of the wine that led me to a careful reading of its label. Ridge has always given a lot of information about its wines on their back labels. Under Paul Draper’s hands, those labels turned into brief but comprehensive essays about the wine’s origin and probable development, and I’m very happy to see that under Draper’s successors that tradition is being healthily perpetuated.

So what did this label tell me? Plenty, and all of it relevant to understanding the wine I was enjoying. First, it was a near-drought growing season, with apparently no rain all summer long. That means it took some tough old vines with deep roots to set a crop in the first place, much less bring it to ripeness. And ripeness it certainly achieved: I could tell that from the persistence in this now eleven-year-old Zin of an extraordinary strain of dark, fresh fruit flavors alongside a battery of even darker, deeper mature flavors of mineral and forest floor and wild mushrooms.

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The front label tells me this is 95% Zin and 5% Petite Syrah. My palate tells me that it is a seamless stream of flavors from fresh berry through dried plum and pear. The front label tells me it has 14.8° alcohol. My palate tells me that could be anything from 12°, so smooth is it, to 15°, so big and robust it is. That heft-with-elegance was probably achieved by, as the back label notes, a five-week-long spontaneous malolactic fermentation that occurred, apparently, right along with a slow, ongoing alcoholic fermentation. The latter seems to have been long enough and active enough to persist right through and after the wine’s transfer, still on its lees, from tank to barrels. My thought at this point was “Wow! Those grapes were loaded!” (Please forgive the technical winespeak.)

So there I was, gobbling good chili and reverently sipping a fine wine, reading the winemaker’s final appraisal of this Zin. That was written in July 2010, just a few months before the wine was bottled in September, which we know because the back label tells us that too. It will be, the label says, most enjoyable over the next five years – which would have meant, up to 2015.

I find it very hard to imagine that this wine was better earlier: it is so nearly over-the-top great right now, with no sign anywhere that it is even thinking about declining. I’ve found that Ridge is almost always very modest about estimating the longevity of its wines, especially – it seems to me – of its Zinfandels. Consequently, I usually drink my Zins a few years after Ridge’s back labels suggest they will peak, and I’ve never yet hit a bottle that was past its prime. But this ‘09 Paso Robles set a new record: not only was I drinking it five years past its recommended limit, but the wine itself had evolved into something extraordinary, something that showed no sign it would give up the ghost anytime soon.

For all its explicitness and straightforwardness, this particular Ridge back label is a masterpiece of the art of understatement.

An Ode to Ordinary

Well, I’m back from my vacation. Covid 19 hasn’t gone away, and there definitely won’t be anything like a normal autumn wine season, with its crowded portfolio shows and densely packed seated tastings of new releases. There have to be new releases, I guess, but how a working-from-home wine journalist is supposed to find them and taste them is beyond my imagination. Like so much else, the wine world that emerges from this corona-virus cocoon is going to be far different – perhaps unrecognizably different — from what it was before.

Facing up to that fact started me on a nostalgic yearning for the good old ordinary wine world I used to know. But thinking a bit more about that lost world made me realize that (a) it wasn’t uniformly good; (b) it wasn’t that old; and (c) ordinary was the wrong word to apply to it: There was actually very little ordinary about it.

What I’m talking about is the fact that since at least the 1960s, the wine world has undergone several seismic shifts: The world immediately pre-Covid was already a very different place – had in fact been several different places – from the one I had come to know way back when I first seriously engaged wine. Even more important, the concept of ordinary, as it applied to wine, had completely shifted its meaning from what vin ordinaire – a phrase one rarely hears nowadays – had meant for several generations. We are now well into Ordinary Wine 2.0 – or maybe 3.0 or 4.0.

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Let me explain – and I hope this doesn’t sound like ancient history, but you really do have to know where we’ve been to appreciate where we are now – or, I should say, where we were a few months ago. I’ll start with a case in point.

The other evening, for our dinner wine, I had opened a bottle of Castello di Meleto Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2010. I don’t even know how I happened to have a ten-year-old Castello di Meleto: It’s not a wine I seek out, and usually not one I would lay down.
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Castello di Meleto is a real castle, located in the heart of the heart of the Chianti Classico zone, not far from Gaiole and a little further from Radda. That makes it a serious piece of Sangiovese terroir. In the late 1960s, it and its surrounding fields were acquired by a large Italian firm seeking to diversify into an agricultural component, as many firms did then, at the start of the Italian wine boom. For years it was a negligible producer of large quantities of wine. In the late 1990s, Castello di Meleto began – as almost every Tuscan estate had by then – moving toward smaller-quantity, higher-quality production, and by the end of the first decade of the present century it was producing quite respectable Chianti Classico.
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However the bottle wound up in my cellar, there it was, and we drank it with an ordinary meal on an ordinary day. It was very enjoyable: quite correct Chianti Classico, aging nicely, with charming Sangiovese fruit and character, delightfully adaptable with the main course and then with a little selection of cheese – all quite typical. This was by no means a great wine, but a thoroughly pleasing one, reflecting a level of field work and cellar care that now is almost universal – that is to say, ordinary.

The winemakers at Castello di Meleto are not going to be thrilled to be praised for being ordinary, but that’s precisely my point. The caliber of most of the wines entering the international market today – the ordinary level of wines that we can all buy and drink – is what back in the day used to be considered unusually good, ranging up to great. And that is because of the widespread shift from making wine in quantity, as simply a beverage to moisten food, to making wine of quality, as a fine drink to enhance meals of all kinds.

That, the most profound of the wine world’s earthquakes, began very slowly, perhaps as early as the 1955 vintage in Germany and France, and gathered strength all through the 1960s, until in the early 1970s it simply exploded. Bordeaux and Burgundy winemakers and negociants, riding an economic wave and dominating the international wine market, got greedy and demanded then-preposterous prices for their miserable 1973 vintage. The expanding American market resisted. California winemakers, who had been waiting for their moment, saw their chance and grabbed it, as did Italian and Spanish winemakers, and the wine world, which until that point had exclusively spoken French, began to learn other languages.
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That was the second step toward the polyglot market we now have. Wine & Spirits Magazine has just announced its Top 100 Wineries of 2020. The countries represented, in addition to France and the United States, include Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Uruguay. Such a list was unthinkable in, say, 1975. Now the questions it is likely to raise are more of the order of “What about South Africa?  What about Britain? Canada?  Croatia?”

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And it’s not just geographical change this Wine & Spirits list indicates: These are top wineries, wineries judged to be on a par with, just to pick two, Bollinger and Bouchard. Back in 1975, those worthies would have been shocked to be named in the same sentence with, for example, Mastroberardino or Stag’s leap.

The third of the wine world’s great transformations, and the one that made so much else possible, was the vast leap forward in wine technology. Both in the field and in the cellar, new knowledge and new methods improved the health and quality of the grapes that came into the presses, as well as what happened to them between that step and bottling. In the course of a few decades, winemaking around the world made a great leap from the Late Stone Age to the Twentieth (as it then was) Century.

And then, of course, came global warming, which among its very alarming effects had the lovely one of almost every year gifting with gloriously ripe grapes regions that used to see good harvests once every five or ten years. In between those good harvests, they used to endure many mediocre ones – which was then ordinary – with some real stinkers generously interspersed.

People who have come to wine only since the 1990s can’t realize what a golden age of wine they’re living in. Piedmont and Burgundy particularly have been enjoying fine harvest after fine harvest, one excellent vintage on top of another. Consumers have forgotten that there can be rotten harvests, because there’s always a good one somewhere in the greatly expanded wine world. Memories of truly undrinkable green, weedy wines – sometimes from the most reputable houses – have simply vanished.

(Of course, if global warming continues, we may start seeing bad wines for the opposite reason. Burnt, scorched, desiccated grapes could loom in our future.)

Anyhow, that’s all history, and my point is just this: What we now think of as ordinary in wine, like my thoroughly enjoyable Castello di Meleto, is the extraordinary result of a concatenation of causes working together over the last fifty years to lift the quantity, quality, and availability of good wine to the very high plateau we are now enjoying. There is real reason to fear the world may not be able to sustain this uniform, reliable “ordinary” level very much longer. So revel in our amazing ordinary while it is still ordinary and available. Remember the wisdom of Zero Mostel in The Producers: “Flaunt it while you got it!”

I’ve rceently had the opportunity to taste some very enjoyable Barberas – Barbera d’Asti – from Cascina Castlet. This is a fine producer of wines from the Asti and Monferrato zones that has only recently returned to the American market. After a too-long absence, the wines are now being brought in by Romano Brands. For warm weather drinking, I found the brand’s basic Barbera just perfect – filled with fruit and that brilliant acidity that distinguishes Asti Barbera from its Alba cousin.

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I had intended to do a full column about them, but my friend Charles Scicolone beat me to the punch and wrote about them in such informative detail, and with so much familiarity and knowledge of the wines, that I decided that the simplest thing for me to do is just direct you to his post. Thanks, Charles.

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After this post, I’ll be taking a vacation from wine blogging, in the hopes that by the time I return – in a month or so – more of the covid-19 restrictions will begin to relax here in New York and we may actually have a wine season, complete with tastings and seminars and new release presentations, which would give me something new to write about – and not coincidentally ideas for reversing some of the depletion of my much-called upon “cellar.”

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To any readers who may be addicted to regular infusions of my prose, and of a perverse enough turn of mind to enjoy literary criticism: I am publishing in digital form the long book on allegory that destroyed so much of my mind, back when I was an academic. Welcome, if you dare chance it, to The Strangeness of Allegory.
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Talk to you in the fall!

For any devoted Barolista, Alessandro Masnaghetti’s name is one to conjure with. Most people know him primarily for his amazing maps of the Piedmont wine zones (and other zones, both in Italy and elsewhere). These are not only visually stunning, detailed, and minutely accurate, but they incorporate as well a wealth of information about vineyard soils, exposures, ownership, and plantings. Each map amounts almost to a mini gazeteer of its zone – a treasure house of information for the thirsty Barolophile.

Masnaghetti has carved a very special place for himself in the Piedmontese wine world. Of all the wine writers I know or have dealt with, he is far and away the most deeply knowledgeable about Barolo in all its aspects – so the fact that he is now publishing a website devoted to Barolo should be exciting and welcome news to every fan of that great wine.

Barolomga360 it’s called, and you should have a look at your first opportunity. MGA, you remember, is the abbreviation of Authorized Geographic Mentions – the place names – whose use the Italian authorities permit on wine labels. Masnaghetti and his maps have been intimately involved with them from the very beginnings of the legislation. This website is a sort of culmination of that.

Like his maps, the site is handsome and filled with information – amazing information in some cases, such as two excellent winemakers making Barolo from the same vineyard and slope who have totally different views of the character of its grapes and consequently make two very different Barolos from it. Any other wine writer (and I include myself in this) would have made a major article about something like that: Masnaghetti just tucks it into his information about the vineyard. (I am deliberately not telling you which one, so you’ll read Masnaghetti’s notes attentively, as they deserve.) The excellent English translation is by the famed pioneer wine journalist Burton Anderson.

The most important features of the site are the multiple images of each commune, with its MGAs and other vineyard sites identified, so that you are able not just to read about but actually see the lay of the land – each different crease and fold of the hills that affects altitude and exposure, the proximity of each vineyard to others of equal or greater repute, or higher or lower altitude, or more easterly or westerly facing – all the kinds of information that real Barolo nuts (of which club I am a proud member) prize. Moreover, the images can be rotated and zoomed in or out, most with accompanying thumbnails focusing on views from different directions.

Here, with Masnaghetti’s permission, is a good example, one of his images of the Serralunga vineyards. Click on the image see a full-screen version.

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There’s really no need for me to go on, except to tell you that only some parts of the site are available free. For full access to the whole site, you’ll have to subscribe.

It’s Masnaghetti, it’s maps, it’s Barolo: What more do you need to know? Enjoy. Esteem. Relish.

Do You Riesel?

I’m sure you know the old groaner: “Do you like Riesling?” “I don’t know: I’ve never Rieseled.” Unfortunately, that seems to be true of many wine lovers. While most wine experts rank the Riesling grape right up with Chardonnay for quality and versatility (putting aside for a moment the claims of more southerly white varieties), you would never know that from its sales in these United States: They amount at best to a slight fraction of Chardonnay’s.
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Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Clos Saint Urbain

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Nobody knows for sure why that is. Wine professionals regularly sing the praises of Riesling, but the wine-buying public just doesn’t seem interested. I myself for many years didn’t Riesel, but I know why that was. And now that I do Riesel, I have a theory about why many wine drinkers don’t. But one thing at a time.

For a long time, I avoided Riesling because very cheap, very simple, and quite sweet German Riesling had been one of the earliest wines I tasted when I was young (probably too young to drink legally, but we won’t go there). I pretty quickly found that there were ‘better – better for my developing palate, at least — wines available that accompanied food more sympathetically and were not much more expensive. As my palate moved more markedly in the direction of drier and drier wines, the memory of Riesling’s sugars – coupled with German Riesling’s reputation, then as now, as one of the world’s great sweet wines – effectively ended any interest I might have developed in the variety.

It was only many years later, when I began seriously exploring the white wines of Alsace, that I started to appreciate Riesling. It was a slow process, with a lot of preconceptions and prejudices to overcome, but the producers of Alsace have a deft hand with aromatic white grapes, vinifying them into substantial, fully dry, and still wonderfully scented wines. Those characterful white wines gradually wore down my resistance, and I began paying attention to Riesling.
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Muré Riesling Clos Saint-Landelin

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Over the years, I came to admire a great many of Alsace’s fine large and small producers, all of whom share the goal of vinifying dry white wines that show both varietal intensity and the character of individual terroirs. Here are some of the ones I’ve most enjoyed. All these producers make good-to-fine basic Rieslings, and all produce superb Grand Cru wines.

  • Beyer: A small but highly reputed producer. Top of the line: Riesling Comtes d’Eguisheim.
  • Boxler: Basic Riesling Vieilles Vignes, Grands Crus Riesling Sommerberg and Brand.
  • Deiss: Riesling Altenberg and Riesling Schoenenbourg.
  • Hugel: A centuries-old firm, one of the stalwarts of Alsace, Riesling Jubilee. (Hugel no longer names its vineyards, though they are some of the best in Alsace)
  • Josmeyer: Riesling Hengst, Riesling Le Kottabe.
  • Muré: Riesling Clos Saint-Landelin.
  • Trimbach: Another Alsace stalwart, Riesling Frédéric Emile, The Riesling Clos Sainte Hune is probably the most highly reputed – and most expensive of Alsace wines.
  • Zind-Humbrecht:  By Alsace terms, a brash newcomer making superb wines, Riesling Clos Saint-Urbain, Riesling Clos Windsbuhl, Riesling Herrenweg.

Now, here’s where my theory enters: I have come to believe that Riesling is what I would call a geezer’s wine. That has become an honorific in my vocabulary. To enjoy such a wine fully, to realize its greatness, you need to know a fair amount about wine and about your own palate. A dry Riesling demands that you pay attention to it – sip it slowly, roll it around on your tongue, think about what you’re tasting and feeling there – and that’s probably the greatest deterrent to its popularity in this country. As a people, we pay very little attention to what we put in our mouths. Even wine drinkers eat the majority of their meals mindlessly. In an environment like ours, a grape that requires you to think seriously about what’s in your mouth – not its calories but its flavors — just doesn’t have a chance.
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Riesling Clos Hengst

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Riesling is worth the effort. The floral aromas, the variety of vegetal and mineral flavors it presents, the way it translates the different terroirs and climates in which it grows, its remarkable ability to broaden and deepen with age — in all these ways it far surpasses its chief rival Chardonnay. Make no mistake: I love the great white Burgundies and drink them happily when I can afford them, But I can afford a great Riesling more often, so that’s a no-brainer.

In a purely selfish way, I’m glad more Americans don’t share my enthusiasm. If a few millions of us started seriously to Riesel – well, you know what will happen to its price: bye bye, bargain greatness.
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Riesling Clos Windsbuhl

“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently

Every now and again, when our home supply of wine dips below a level I consider crucial for human life, Diane and I trot over to our off-premises storage unit and bring home a case to bolster our resources. Most of the cases I’ve squirreled away are mixed lots, and I’m never quite sure what’s going to turn up in them. That was how I found today’s star, a lovely Sangiovese-based wine from the Tuscan Maremma.

Diane had prepared a Neapolitan tinged dinner, in deference to my almost withdrawal-symptom need for tomato sauce and good mozzarella – and by the latter I emphatically mean fresh buffalo mozzarella, not cow’s milk fior di latte. Buon Italia provided both the cheese and some good potato gnocchi, which we had in a transcendent dish of gnocchi alla Sorrentina.

So it was a very happy Ubriaco who sipped and swallowed his way through Mazzei’s Belguardo. This is a Toscana IGT from the Maremma region, and the 2007 version of it contained 80% Sangiovese grapes, 20% Alicante. In Tuscany, Alicante can be a crapshoot, and most of it often turns out to be Grenache (Garnaccia), so what I was expecting from this wine was exuberant fruit – the hallmark of Maremma-zone Sangiovese – perhaps reined in somewhat by barriques and age, now almost 13 years old.

I got that and then some! Despite its age, this Belguardo tasted intensely fruity and fresh with an antipasto of Italian salume: finocchiana, coppa dolce, and schiacciata picante. The fatty meats softened the wine’s tannins even more than age had, and they all but nullified any lingering barrique notes, making it taste youthful and lively and perfectly companionable with all the differing flavors those meats presented.

With our lovely gnocchi alla Sorrentina, the wine changed completely. With the sweet/acid tomato sauce and the lush, melting mozzarella surrounding the delicate gnocchi, the Belguardo became more austere and complex and deep – almost a different style of wine, yet still firmly rooted in the character of Sangiovese. This was simply a lovely wine, incredibly pleasing in radically different ways with those very different courses, and clearly nowhere near old age. It showed terrific structure and balance: an estimable wine from a great wine family.

The Mazzei wine pedigree is impeccable: They have been in the Chianti wine business since 1435, rooted in the same small town, Fonterutoli, in the heart of what is now the Chianti Classico zone. Brothers Filippo and Francesco now head the firm, with another generation of Mazzei in the wings. Since the beginning of Italy’s wine renaissance in the last century, they have been in the forefront of Tuscan wine making in both style and quality.

Mazzei’s Belguardo Estate

Their flagship wine is Castello di Fonterutoli, a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. If there is any serious wine person who still does not know how great Chianti can be, this is a wine to learn on. Their Siepi, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, likewise sets the bar for supertuscan wines. They make as well a monovarietal Sangiovese called Mix36, which is a blend of 36 different clones of Sangiovese: It recently won Tre Bicchieri. And finally, they farm their Maremma property Belguardo, which produces the lovely Serrata that sent me over the moon and prompted this post. In short, the Mazzei are Sangiovese royalty, and every one of their wines attests to it.

Readers of Diane’s blog will already know that we recently had two important-to-us occasions to celebrate under Covid-19 restrictions. Indomitably, we rose to the occasions and celebrated quite satisfactorily, with both foods and wines.

1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin

Since Diane had originally planned to cook French for her birthday dinner – she had to cook, since dining out was impossible under Covid 19 conditions – I opted for an old Burgundy to celebrate the feast and the cook, and I stuck with that choice even as her dinner plans evolved.

My 1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin wasn’t a really antique wine, alas, just 30 years, but then this also wasn’t one of those landmark birthdays. Nevertheless, at our ages no birthday is insignificant, and I had high hopes for this relatively humble village wine. Not a premier or grand cru, but from an esteemed commune – some people think Gevrey Chambertin the best of the Côte d’Or – of a fine vintage, from a négociant-éleveur who at that time was at the top of his game. Some people considered Faiveley the best large producer in the Côte d’Or.

Well, Monsieur Faiveley delivered beautifully with this wine: It was velvet, it was harmonious, it was deep and delicate simultaneously. Mature Pinot noir – great mature Pinot noir – has the ability to be many things at once, as this one was, and which is why we cellar it in the first place.

Young wines, no matter how great, just can’t bring the battery of complex flavor elements that make a wine like the 1990 Chambertin so memorable. With a light, savory cheese custard it was all restraint, with the assertive flavors of a well-spiced casserole-roasted chicken, it showed that it could play that game too, throwing up a shower of notes that picked up on all the nuances of the bird and its sauce. Chef and sommelier traded compliments all evening.

2006 Ridge Montebello

While the birthday dinner was elegant, as befitted its celebrant, our anniversary dinner was earthy, as suited our years together, and the 2006 Ridge Montebello wine on which Diane had long had an eye for it proved a perfect match for both the literal earthiness of morels à la crème in puff pastry cases and the heartiness of a rib of beef.

Ridge Montebello is one of California’s greatest wines, if not flat-out its greatest. It combines the complexity of Bordeaux, which is its great model, with the incredible lushness of California fruit, which the terroir of the Montebello Ridge provides in abundance.

Together, the two create a wine bigger, richer, and more balanced than most of its models. It is based on the classic Bordeaux blend of about 60-65% Cabernet sauvignon, with the remainder made of Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Petit verdot. For my palate, Montebello stands right up there in heft and beauty with the biggest Pauillacs, and perhaps can exceed them in longevity.

In style, this Ridge was the complete opposite of our twice-as-old Chambertin. This bottle of ’06 was only slightly evolved. Its flavors – the whole great wonderful rush of them – were still primarily youthful flavors, a congeries of lightly dried cherries and peaches, pears and figs and plums – plums, not prunes – all sustained by abundant, softening tannins, brisk acidity, and that characteristic Montebello underlying minerality.

This wine clearly had years of life before it, but it was so thoroughly enjoyable that any regrets we had about the infanticide we were committing were shallowly felt at best.

These two dinners were not at all bad for sheltering-in-place celebrations. In fact, their only downside was that, after all the fun was over, we still had to do the clean-up!