More on Campania’s Golden Triangle

May 12, 2015

This is the promised continuation of my post about three great Campanian wines. I apologize for writing so lengthily about them. It’s the curse and blessing of the enthusiast: Confront me with wines of this caliber, and I do go on. So on I will go. This time it’s on to the two remaining points of what I’ve dubbed the Golden Triangle: Tufo and Taurasi.

golden triangle map

Taurasi, top right; Tufo, high middle left

The town of Tufo lies about 20 kilometers north of Avellino, more or less on the road to Benevento. There, this spring, I visited the Benito Ferrara estate. This is very hilly country, and the soils are intensely volcanic, rich with all sorts of mineral traces. In fact, the old Di Marzo sulfur mine – for decades the area’s major employer – faces the main road of the town. Benito Ferrara’s eight hectares of vines are situated high among those hills, between 450 and 600 meters.

??????????

All the steep vineyards face south – ideal location and ideal exposition for producing great Greco di Tufo. In fact, the winery makes all three of Irpinia’s DOCG wines, and at a very high level, but its Greco di Tufo, and especially the cru Vigna Cicogna, is its flagship wine. Vigna Cicogna pretty regularly wins Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli, which tells you all you need to know about its standing in Italy.

Here I was offered a horizontal tasting of the estate’s range, which is quite extensive despite its relatively small size.

2013 Greco di Tufo
Intensely mineral, slightly sulfurous nose. On the palate, great white fruit, recalling, without quite being, pears, with tons of mineral behind. Mineral/dried white flowers finish. Excellent: classic Greco di Tufo. If you don’t know Greco, this is the wine to teach you.

2013 Greco di Tufo Vigna Cicogna
Like the preceding wine, only more so. Nose and palate even more intense, already showing complexity – hazelnuts, herbs, thyme, and sage are among the many elements to be found. The wine has a slightly olive-y, faintly oily feel in the mouth that I consistently find in the best Greco di Tufo. This is simply a lovely wine, as true to type as it can possibly be.

2013 Fiano di Avellino
Lovely aroma of hazelnuts, white flowers, and mineral, with the same components showing up on the palate. Very different from the Greco: not as mineral, lighter in body and a bit more elegant/restrained, but still a lovely example of its kind.

All three of these whites opened and changed in the glass as they sat and I tasted and re-tasted them. That for me is also one of the hallmarks of a great wine:  It is alive and mutable, not inert. All three are vinified entirely in stainless steel, with no wood contact at all, so what one tastes in them is unmediated grapes and soil – the variety and the terroir, which, as far as I am concerned, is exactly as wine ought to be.

Benito Ferrara’s red wines – an Irpinia Aglianico Vigna Quattro Confini and a Taurasi of the same name – are also quite good, but for my Taurasi focus here I’ve chosen the remarkable Guastaferro estate, so I’ll head along there.

Located right in the commune of Taurasi are about seven and a half hectares of prime Aglianico vineyards that young Raffaele Guastaferro has had the good fortune to take over from his father. Two and a half of these consist of pre-phylloxera vines of between 175 and 200 years of age. Yes, you read that correctly: 175 to 200 years old, on their own roots.

Guastaferro vineyard 1

The remaining vineyards have been planted with cuttings from those old vines – so Guastaferro has all pre-phylloxera stock even though not all pre-phylloxera era. That, quite obviously, is a patrimony of enormous potential and very great responsibility. Raffaele has risen to the challenge handsomely. I was lucky enough to taste with him a selection of his Taurasi and Taurasi Riserva – the latter vinified exclusively from those two and a half hectares of ancient vines – starting with 2004, when he took over winemaking from his father.

2004 Taurasi Primum
This wine spent one year in barriques and six months in botti (huge barrels holding 10,000 liters or more) before being bottled. It is a lovely wine, of pure Aglianico character – dark, cherry-like fruit, firm tannins, supple acidity, with great depth, and maturing beautifully – but you can still taste the barriques in it. “My father is in love with barriques,” he says, “but I have gotten rid of them. I now use only botti. That’s what my generation does.”  I will pray on my knees, fasting, for a month, that he may be right.

2008 Taurasi Primum
This wine spent a year in large botti before bottling. At seven years old, it is still remarkably fresh, even slightly grapey in the nose and on the palate as well, but with wonderful Aglianico fruit and character. Its tannins are just starting to soften, and it evidently has years, if not decades, in front of it

2006 Taurasi Primum Riserva
Vinified entirely from the oldest vines, which naturally restrict yield, and aged in botti for one or two years, this wine had an amazing nose, huge and intensely fruity and mineral. On the palate, the tannins are only beginning to soften, but the enormous fruit and bright acidity are quite evident. Clearly, a wine still young, but structured to last very long indeed. For my taste, this was a truly great Taurasi, which is to say that it can stand with finest red wines from anywhere. But then I tasted . . .

2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva
Raffaele says this is his best wine so far: three years in botti, two years in bottle. Again, an amazing nose, live and rich, almost lush with dark fruits and minerality. The same elements in the mouth. Big and smooth on the palate, even though the tannins are still very firm. Here are my summary notes: “Huge structure, great fruit, great length – will go on forever. Even better than the ’06. This is a great vineyard.”

Small producers like the three I’ve just written about – there are many more I could have chosen – illustrate the exciting progress of Campanian winemaking. Small growers throughout the zone have started making their own wine and have begun a swift and steep learning process as they master the ability to express the nature of their vines and soil. They have wonderful specimens of both to work with, so for wine lovers, the prospect ahead is for years of excitement and discovery. Oh frabjous day!  Calloo!  Callay!

Mañana! Mañana!

May 1, 2015

I’m away from my desk now, for what I at least consider a well-earned (opinions on this differ) vacation. Diane and I are birding in Spain, hoping to see a Great Bustard (as opposed the many specimens of a slightly differently spelled species that one sees all too often), and hoping as well to drink some fine Riojas while we’re at it.

.

spain trip map

.

I’ll report on our success in about a week or ten days. In the meanwhile, be well, eat well, and drink well.

 

Campania’s Golden Triangle

April 20, 2015

I’ve been celebrating the wines of Campania quite a bit lately, and I’m not yet tiring of doing so. Every time I think I’ve said all I have to say on the subject, a new wine or a new slant appears, and off I go. That’s what stirred up this post. A conversation with a puzzled wine lover, confused by the many wine and place names of Campania, prodded me to conceptualize a simpler way to understand some key wine geography. Ergo: Campania’s Golden Triangle, the points of which are Avellino (to the south), Taurasi (to the northeast), and Tufo (to the northwest) – each of which towns is the epicenter for one of Campania’s three greatest wines, Fiano di Avellino, Taurasi, and Greco di Tufo.

 golden triangle map

Taurasi, top right; Tufo, high middle left; Avellino, lower left

.Let me start, at the risk of boring everyone who knows this already, with some basic geopolitical information. Campania is the region – that’s Italy’s largest geopolitical designation, the equivalent of the regions of Piedmont or the Veneto or Tuscany, for instance – and Naples is its capital. Campania fronts on the Mediterranean, which is the only part of it most tourists know, and backs on the Apennine mountains, with borders on Lazio in the north, Basilicata and Calabria in the south, and Molise and Puglia in the east. A very short way back from its seacoast, Campania rises – often quite high – into beautiful and in some places still quite wild hills, where winters feature snow and cold that belie the travel-poster fictions of palm trees and sunshine.

Here, some 30 kilometers east of Naples, starts the province – that’s the second largest geopolitical designation – of Avellino, at whose heart lies an ancient zone known as Irpinia. In pre-classical times, this area was the home of the tribe or nation the Romans called Sabines, against whom they warred for years and whose territory they eventually absorbed. Winemaking traditions here date from at least that time, if not earlier, and nowadays Irpinia counts as one of Campania’s premier wine-producing zones – if not the premier zone.

What I’m calling Campania’s Golden Triangle sits in the heart of Irpinia, and it contains some of the most distinctive terroirs in all Italy. These are volcanic soils, old and decayed, and they are laced with alluvial deposits and sea sands, in some places stratified, in others mixed together, so that terroirs can vary tremendously within a short distance. The altitude of the land makes for colder winters than Naples and the coast ever see, but the same hills that create that altitude also make many different exposures for vineyards, which here are cultivated quite high. In some parts of the Taurasi zone, vines grow above 600 meters, and – since Aglianico requires a long growing season – harvests in the snow are not unheard of. Those same altitudes and soils, with their attendant day/night temperature differentials, give the white grapes Greco and Fiano their wonderful aromatics.

Irpinia holds the greatest concentration of top-flight wineries to be found in Campania. They range in size from almost boutique to very large indeed: Some make only one wine, and some make the whole gamut of regional wines. To begin with (in many senses), Irpinia is home to the Mastroberardino firm. The Mastroberardinos are widely and justly regarded not only as the pioneer of quality winemaking in the region – the family was already exporting around the world in the 19th century – but, even more important, as the savior of serious Campanian viticulture. In Italy’s deep economic and psychological depression after World War II, when many winemakers throughout the country had decided that the only way to survive was to plant French varieties, Mastroberardino made the crucial and highly influential decision to trust Campania’s indigenous varieties – a choice for which anyone who relishes difference and distinctiveness in wines reveres the whole family. They fought for the recognition of Irpinia’s now famous three, first as DOC and later as DOCG wines, and they still make some of the best bottles of them all.

They have been joined since those days by many more producers who now make the Golden Triangle the most lively locale in the Campania wine universe. Notable among the more large firms are Terredora, owned by a split-off branch of the Mastroberardinos, and Feudi di San Gregorio, an ambitious and steadily improving – from a very good base level – maker of all of the Campanian specialties. But the greatest growth and, for the wine aficionado, the greatest opportunity for discovery come from smaller producers, who have multiplied in the past 20 years.

I want to call special attention here to three that I happened upon only recently, though all three are already well known and highly regarded in Irpinia. Each stands as a fair representative of the exciting wines to be found in their appellations: Rocca del Principe for Fiano di Avellino, Benito Ferrara for Greco di Tufo, and Guastaferro for Taurasi. R del P Fiano

Rocca del Principe, owned and worked by Aurelia Fabrizio and her husband Ercole Zarella, comprises about five hectares divided among three separate hillside vineyards in the township of Lapio, about 15 kilometers northeast of Avellino. All are over 500 meters high, some parts almost 600. The land was worked by two generations of their family and the grapes were sold off before Aurelia and Ercole in 2004 began vinifying on their own. They are clearly quick learners: Their Fiano di Avellino has already been awarded Tre Bicchieri four times. I tasted with them barrel samples of the separate vineyards, which are only blended at the final assemblage of the wine. Each was strikingly distinctive, with its own gout de terroir – so much so that I thought any of them could have been bottled as a first-rate cru. Clearly, Rocca del Principe’s vineyards yield fine basic material. The eight-year vertical to which I was next treated emphatically verified that.

2013: Lovely, intense Fiano nose: volcanic soil, apples, and almonds. The same elements on the palate, with an ever-so-slightly buttery finish. Excellent.

2012: A warmer vintage, consequently richer and riper on the nose, with hints of peach. Again, the palate shows exactly the same elements, with a long, lovely peach-and-mineral finish.

2011: A big, pungent, lees-y nose. On the palate, round and soft, yet still acidic, with excellent fruit, and a long, sapid finish. This wine is maturing beautifully.

2010: All superlatives here: a step more mature than the ’11, the nose and palate pervaded by dried peaches. Very fine.

2009:  Aroma similar to 2011, plus dried peaches and orange skins. The palate follows suit. A superb wine, intense and elegant, round and acid, and very long-finishing. The stylistic consistency from year to year, despite harvest differences, is totally impressive.

2008:  On the nose and the palate, the dried peach elements are now going mushroomy – another stage of the wine’s maturation. The mineral elements are beginning to deepen, and the finish has a taste of forest underbrush. Intriguing and lovely.

2007:  This wine tastes less advanced, still peachy on the nose and fruity and acid on the palate. This was a hot vintage, with lots of fruit and glycerin. Could live years yet.

2006:  Deep, earthy, dried peach and orange peel aroma. In the mouth, round, slightly smoky, slightly sweet, a little less complex than the preceding wines – perhaps beginning to be a bit tired. This post is already running longer than I had planned, so I’ll break it here and in a future post talk about my similarly exciting tastings of Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo and Guastaferro Taurasi.

Col d’Orcia Brunello: Elegance and Staying Power

April 9, 2015

Among the 2010 Brunellos I was able to taste here in New York a few months back, Col d’Orcia’s stood out for its finesse. It had all the fruit and structure that showed well in the best examples of that very fine vintage, but over and above that, the Col d’Orcia sample showed an elegance that very few Brunellos ever achieve – an impressive accomplishment in a Sangiovese-based wine that is usually more noted for power than for polish.

Consequently, no one will be surprised to learn that when I was invited to taste that 2010 again, along with some older bottles of Col d’Orcia’s very fine cru Poggio al Vento, over lunch at Del Posto, I very rapidly accepted. I anticipated a good lunch and good-to-superb wines, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Col d’Orcia is an exceptional property in many ways. In a zone where small – even boutique – producers are almost the rule, Col d’Orcia is large, the third largest estate in the denomination, after Banfi and Castelgiocondo.

Col dOrcia vineyard

And it lies in the far south of the zone, nearer to Sant’Angelo Scalo than Sant’Angelo in Colle. This is by far the hottest, driest part of the Brunello zone, a set of growing conditions that has only been exacerbated by climate change. So winemaking here is no dance with benign nature; it is more often a challenging and labor-intensive wrestling with the demon of drought.

Francesco Marone Cinzano

Francesco Marone Cinzano

Col d’Orcia’s proprietor – Count Francesco Marone Cinzano, whose father bought the extensive property in 1973 – has responded to these conditions with the kind of scrupulous attention to the vineyards that is usually the mark of smaller, more easily workable estates. A long-time estate manager, Edoardo Virano, and consulting enologist Maurizio Castelli – the latter practically an institution in Tuscany – between them ensure that most vineyard and cellar operations are carried out in a craftsmanly rather than an industrial manner. The whole management team has worked with scientists at both the University of Florence and the University of Milan in researching matters such as the suitability of different rootstocks to different soils, and even more fundamental, the suitability of different clones to their sites.

The results of such care show, as they always do, in the wines. Col d’Orcia’s basic Brunello (if that isn’t an oxymoron) is almost always a textbook example of the breed: deep black cherry fruit, soft (or softening) tannins, sufficient acidity and alcohol to guarantee decent longevity – not as much as the prized cru Poggio al Vento, which is often a wine for the ages – but a good five to fifteen years from release, in sound vintages. Poggio al Vento is vinified from a 300-meter-high vineyard near Sant’Angelo in Colle, and only in the best years.

Poggio al Vento Vineyard

Poggio al Vento Vineyard

All the examples of this wine I’ve drunk have been memorable, and I’ve not yet experienced one that was tired or over the hill – my good luck, I’m sure: all wines eventually reach the end of the road. Some, like Poggio al Vento, just take a long time getting there.

Here are the wines I tasted at the Del Posto lunch:

2012 Rosso di Montalcino
Very characteristic and enjoyable. Fresh black cherry fruit, good acidity. Very drinkable and a good companion to food, and a nice introduction to the taste of Montalcino’s version of Sangiovese, for anyone not familiar with it.

2010 Brunello di Montalcino
As good as I remembered it. A very lovely wine, with perfect balance – one of the best 2010s I’ve tasted. This was a serious drought year, so the harvest was small and concentrated, and it took careful cellar work to avoid a tannic, alcoholic monster.

2006 Brunello Riserva Poggio al Vento
Mellow and round, with lovely fruit and acid and its tannins already softening. A very elegant wine that is maturing beautifully and clearly will continue to do so for many years yet.

2004 Brunello Riserva Poggio al Vento
Simply a great wine, maturing slowly and serenely, with years or decades to go before it peaks. I wish I had a case of this in my cellar, and the assurance that I’d live long enough to drink it at its mature best. Oh the humanity!

2001 Brunello Riserva Poggio al Vento
Another masterful wine, thoroughly classic Brunello, but for my palate just a slight step below the 2004. I’m probably really splitting hairs here: ’01 was also a spectacularly good harvest, and this wine is an excellent reflection of it.

Fine Wines from Off the Beaten Path

March 30, 2015

Neither the province of Cortona nor the calanchi country where Umbria and Lazio collide figures largely in the notional map of the wine world that most of us carry in our heads. Yet excellent wines flow from both of them, though seldom encountered here – a situation importer/distributor Tony di Dio is hoping to change. Over a lunch at Gotham restaurant, he introduced me to his newest protégés, Baracchi, from Cortona, and D’Amico, from the UNESCO-protected calanchi district. Both make very drinkable and enjoyable wines, from quite different grapes but in similarly elegant styles.

brut roseThe Cortona DOC territory lies in extreme eastern Tuscany, just south of Arezzo. Its western end butts right up against the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano vineyards. Not far from the city of Cortona, the Baracchi family runs a total Tuscan enterprise: vineyards and winery; olive groves; a Relais and Chateau Hotel with a Michelin one-star restaurant and spa. Their wines reflect an emphasis on elegance, which started with a surprising-to-me brut spumante made from 100% Sangiovese, Brut Rosé Metodo Classico 2012. This was crisp and fresh and, yes, elegant on the palate, with excellent perlage and delightful wild berry and sottobosco scents and tastes – a lovely aperitif.

The other Baracchi wines we tasted:

O’Lillo 2012:  The Cortona zone was originally designed as a home for international varieties, and that remains its primary vocation. This balanced, elegant, and fine wine results from the blending of equal parts of four varieties: Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet sauvignon, and the native Sangiovese. No wood at all here: The wine is fermented and aged six months in stainless steel.

Smeriglio Sangiovese 2012:  By contrast, this wine is aged 12 months in new barriques. The good news for me was that I and it weren’t overwhelmed by wood. In fact, it was quite lovely on the palate, with good Sangiovese character and fine structure.

Ardito 2010:  The Baracchi family regard this wine as their masterpiece. It is a 50/50 blend of Syrah and Cabernet sauvignon, aged for 24 months in barriques. The latter fact caused me some serious – but as it turned out,groundless – apprehension before I tasted. The Syrah was evident in the peppery nose; the barriques weren’t, nor were they on the palate, which was fine and deep, with complex fruit and earth flavors. Surprisingly restrained and fine.

Baracchi wines

.

The D’Amico properties lie in extreme northern Lazio, right near the border with Umbria and the Orvieto DOC zone. As I noted above, the vineyards lie with within the UNESCO-designated zone of calanchi, stark vertical hillsides of eroded lava and tufa, both of which form large components of the soil throughout the area. That’s not ideal for many other crops, but it can be wonderful for grapes, because of the intense mineral/earth traces that the vines absorb and transmit to their fruit.

calanchi scene

.

The four D’Amico wines I tasted all showed that marked minerality and an easy, elegant palate that matched well with our various luncheon dishes. These are truly food-friendly wines.

Seiano Bianco 2013:  This is a blend of Grechetto and Sauvignon blanc, a round wine, soft on the palate, with excellent white fruit and – happily – none of the too-often-encountered extreme grassiness and cat’s pee that Sauvignon can be guilty of. Here the Sauvignon is under control, so the Grechetto’s fruit and the vineyard’s minerality predominate.

Calanchi Chardonnay 2012:  An interesting wine, and it’s been a long time since I’ve said that about a Chardonnay. Here, while there are some tropical fruit notes in the nose, the flavor is dominated by intriguing mineral flavors – limestone and slate, for instance. Medium body, round, and companionable with food. It kept opening in the glass, getting richer as the lunch went on.

Seiano Rosso 2013:  Another interesting wine that continued to open and change in the glass. A blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, very fresh in the nose and on the palate, with soft tannins and a good acid balance to keep it supple.

Atlante 2011:  This was the most unexpected wine of the day for me, a 100% Cabernet franc. Great nose, with tobacco and cedar predominating. The palate followed suit, and although that may sound as if this was a thoroughly French wine, it wasn’t: Its bright acidity and equally evident minerality marked it as totally Italian. A quite successful adaption of a French grape to an Italian zone.

damico wines

.

This was for me an eye-opening sequence of wines, showing some of the best adaptations of international grape varieties to authentically Italian styles of winemaking that I have encountered in a long while. Don’t you just hate it when someone challenges your prejudices?

“Campania Stories” and My Campania Story

March 28, 2015
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend Campania Stories, a week-long event held this year in Naples and Avellino. These days of intensive tastings and seminars allowed me organize and think through all the data I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years about the great changes going on in Campania. The upshot of it all is my large article that Quarterly Review of Wines has just posted online. Please go have a look. I’d love to hear your reactions.

Prosecco Can Age. Who Knew?

March 19, 2015

With a lot of curiosity and an only slightly smaller amount of skepticism, I last month accepted an invitation to a vertical tasting of Prosecco, a wine that is usually drunk young and fresh. The producer so bravely putting himself and his wine on the line was Primo Franco, owner of the Nino Franco winery (Nino was his grandfather) in Valdobbiadene, the heart of the heart of classic Prosecco country.

imagesI knew his wines to be excellent examples of the breed, with charm and elegance and fruit and an ever-so-slight hint of sweetness in the finish – lovely Proseccos, all of them, and I and a lot of other wine professionals regard his Prosecco Rustico as one of the best bargains in sparkling wine of any kind from anywhere.

And since I also knew him to be a serious winemaker, devoted to the highest standards of quality in the field, the cellar, and the bottle, my curiosity easily trumped my skepticism, so there I sat waiting to taste library samples of his Prosecco Primo Franco DOCG 2013, 2003, 2000, 1997, 1995, 1992, and 1989.

Seeing the projected lineup of wines, my skepticism had a little resurgence. 2003 was a wet, wet year all over Italy, and disastrously so in some regions. 2000 was hot, very hot, everywhere, producing a lot of wines that feature both over-ripe fruit and under-ripe tannins – not the best combination for a sparkling wine of elegance and charm. 1997 was superb in Tuscany, OK in Piedmont, and not so good further to the northeast. ’95 I couldn’t really recall, but I was pretty sure that ’92 hadn’t made distinguished wine anywhere.

???????????????????????????????

All these forebodings were reinforced by Primo himself, who in his preliminary remarks said that all the vintages he was showing had been very difficult – too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry – and (this confounded me) they had been chosen to be shown after he had tasted through some 30 consecutive vintages in his own cellar. We have got here, I thought to myself, either a brave man and a master winemaker or a complete lunatic. An hour later, it was very clear he wasn’t even a partial lunatic.

So here’s the short story: The 1989 was a little disappointing, showing a perceptible tad of oxidation – not a bad wine by any means, but a come-down from the superb standard that had been set by the other six vintages. Primo felt this was bottle variation: “Not the best bottle of this vintage” he had tasted recently, he said.

.

???????????????????????????????

.

Those other six bottles were across the board textbook top-of-the-line Prosecco, delightful to drink and fresh even at over 20 years old. Indeed, I was amazed at how consistently, through the whole lineup, aromas of honey, smoke, and acacia flowers persisted, how the palate deepened and intensified ever so slightly from vintage to vintage, how it preserved always the hints of spice and dried apricot and slate, the elegance and appealing effervescence of the youngest sample. (For more detailed tasting notes on these wines, see Charles Scicolone’s comments here.)

This is first-class winemaking, and a superb demonstration of the potential of the Glera grape (it used to be called Prosecco) in the right soils under the right hands. Several of the tasters, and Primo Franco himself, noted similarities between Glera and the great Chenin blanc wines of the Loire. There, Chenin yields wines dry and sweet, still and sparkling and capable of great age, as does Glera in Valdobbiadene.

Alas, the comparison doesn’t end there, because both varieties and regions are esteemed by experts but largely underappreciated by the general public. More makers of Primo Franco’s quality, offering more such graphic demonstrations of their wine’s greatness, should change that.

Wine Pros(e) and Cons

March 9, 2015

There is probably more writing about wine available to consumers now than ever before. That is due, of course, to the great democracy of the internet and its multiple channels for conveying opinions and information: blogs, social media, tweets, comments, consumer evaluation forums, and so on. The problem is, who checks the accuracy of the information? How do you judge the value of Person X’s opinion? The great democracy of the internet really culminates in a grand indeterminacy, in which – all too often – the more you can find written about a subject, the less you confidently know about it.

Just a few examples:

blog collage

.

The blogosphere is enormously heterogeneous. It contains many serious wine writers who post useful information that could otherwise not easily be dug out – about, for instance, wineries in the American Midwest, unusual grape varieties, distribution patterns and consumption patterns – but it also hosts naïve enthusiasts and egoists who present their momentary reactions and crackpot theories as eternal truths. Nobody fact-checks the internet the way editors – a dying breed – used to check articles submitted for publication, and no one verifies authors’ credibility. I know this sounds like an old geezer’s lament, but it is true: Nowadays, having an opinion is sufficient warrant to publish it.

Well, I taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for several decades, and I can assure you of one great undemocratic truth: Not all opinions are equal. Your opinion is only as good as the data you can gather to support it and the intelligence and insight you can bring to understanding both the subject and the data. Beyond that, there are valid and invalid ways of using both, and knowing which is which takes experience: You have to learn it over time, and exercise it until you’re comfortable with it. Think of good judgment – or a good palate, if you prefer – as a muscle that can be developed by use and atrophied by idleness. So – speaking again as one who’s been doing this for a long while – writing about wine should involve a lot more than simply voicing your likes and dislikes as if they were fundamental truths.

I can understand why many people might not think so. Lots of terms that wine writers use generate confusion in readers. It’s hard, after all, to find objective language for what are largely subjective reactions. Moreover, since drinking wine is a greatly pleasurable activity, it’s understandable why many consumers assume that learning about it and writing about it must be equally subjective and enjoyable. While nobody in his/her right mind would undertake wine writing – or winemaking, for that matter – without a passion for it, the nasty little secret of professional wine tasting and writing is that they are rarely fun: They are work – hard, plodding work.

.

hard plodding work

Is this the fun part?

.

The civilian world – wine consumers – by and large think of tastings as enjoyable occasions, where they’ll sample six or eight wines, usually with some food, often with a full dinner, and with a professional – perhaps the winemaker – leading them through the tasting, essentially telling them what they’re experiencing and how excellent it is. There are various degrees of intensity and seriousness to these events, but they are rarely analytic or evaluative exercises. Essentially, their purpose is publicity or sales.

That may be a bit harsh. Some commentators at such events do try to convey real information – but I’ve got to say, at the risk of offending some of my colleagues, that most presenters at tastings designed for consumers try much harder to entertain than to inform. It’s not a choice I can fully respect: I think it sells at least some of the paying customers short and underestimates their intelligence and seriousness. (Perhaps I’m being naïve; perhaps the entertainers are right. If so, so much the worse – for me, I guess.)

Obviously, many consumers are quite content to enjoy wines without needing to know all about them – and who can fault that?  Many, many wine blog posts – the kind I think of as “What I Drank with Dinner Last Night” (a type I have been guilty of myself ) – deal almost exclusively with enjoyment, not analysis – and, unless they’re offered as analysis or eternal verity, who can fault that?

Nevertheless, there remains a gulf between the writing that results from serious wine tasting and the writing of even the most acute uninformed opinions. An occurrence a few years ago at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual week-long, for-professionals-only tasting of newly released Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba) summed that up for me.

.

many bottles

Yes, you have to taste them all

.

The organizers of the event, in a laudable attempt to “get with it,” had not invited many of the print journalists who had been their customary clientele and instead had asked a large number of bloggers to attend. So at the start of the week, bloggers of every stripe and several languages were present in force in Alba.

.

tasting room

At work in the lab

.

On the first day of the event, every place in the three tasting rooms was filled, and the tastings began in silence, just as austerely and rigorously as ever, with somewhere between 65 and 80 young Nebbiolo wines to be gotten through before lunch.

The next morning, there were conspicuous empty spaces. By the third morning, the tasting rooms were half empty. I don’t think a single blogger made it to the end of the week. Who can fault that?  There’s no question that it was brutally hard work, both physically and intellectually: Staying focused through repeated flights of young, tannic wines day after day requires real effort, and not everybody is capable of it. More than one winemaker I visited that week said “I couldn’t do what you do” – meaning not me personally but the whole cadre of tasters.

.

tom tasting

Focus, focus, focus!

.

But the point is that those who abandoned the tastings after a day or two thereby lost the whole point of the event: gaining knowledge of the character and quality of a whole vintage for an entire major wine zone. That’s knowledge and experience that can never be made up in any other way, and no amount of enthusiasm or personal certainty can equal it. How many of those disappearing bloggers, I wonder, went on to write “authoritatively” about that Barolo vintage?

In a later post, I may return to the differences between professional tastings and consumer tastings, because I think it’s an important topic and an all-too-often misunderstood one.

Bolla’s Back!

February 26, 2015

Long ago, when I was young and serving my time deep in the heart of Woody Hayes country, I used to revere the Bolla company. Bolla’s wines were then the best-known and best-distributed Italian wines in the US, and in the Midwest were often the only drinkable wines I could get. So I blessed their makers and drank a lot of them – Bardolino and Valpolicella and occasionally Amarone (I wasn’t earning much money back then) and of course the firm’s Soave, so well-known, so popular, and so reliably good that it practically became one word: Soavebolla.

That, of course, eventually became its undoing: Popularity led to increased demand led to overproduction led to decline in quality led to, eventually, a watery, characterless Soave and red wines that, if not following down the same road, at very least shared a fallen reputation. Sic transit gloria mundi, and Bolla went from being a dominant figure in the American wine market to playing a very marginal role in the Italian wine boom of the 70s and 80s.

Well, Bolla’s back, and that is welcome news. The source of the firm’s original quality lay in the fine vineyards it held in the heart of the Veneto’s prized wine zones. Those are still in place but under new management, so to speak.

.

Vineyards

.

ScrinziIn 2008, Bolla was taken over by a joint venture of the Italian GIV group and the American Banfi firm. Christian Scrinzi, who had been winemaker with Bolla since 2001 and in 2006 had been appointed director of oenology, then began a complete renewal of Bolla’s winemaking – everything from vineyard management to cellar equipment and procedures – with the goal of restoring Bolla’s premium quality and consequent reputation.

Lots of firms announce goals like that. With its new ownership, Bolla seems to be achieving them. My interest – and that opening fit of nostalgia – was originally kindled by drinking a bottle of its Amarone Le Origini 2006 some weeks back, as the holiday season dwindled down to its end. That bottle of Amarone provided closure for the holidays and opening for my curiosity. It was lovely and thoroughly classic: suave and deep and velvety, and drinking beautifully despite its – for Amarone – extreme youth. If Bolla was making wine that good again, I had to find out more.

To that end, I tasted through half a dozen of Bolla’s line. Here are the wines and my reactions to them, with all my usual caveats about the limitations of tasting notes.

.

Bottle lineup

.

2012 Soave Classico DOC
Light floral/mineral nose, medium body, showing nice white fruit (mostly undifferentiated, in the apple/pear range) and some minerality: The Soave zone is Italy’s northernmost volcanic terroir. The same generalized white-fruit finish. A very pleasant, enjoyable wine, with no sign of fragility or fading.

2013 Bardolino DOC
Here’s an old friend back after a long absence. Bardolino for some years just about disappeared from the American market, which was a shame, because it’s a charming wine with a real niche of its own. This one is a fine example of a lovely, slightly old-fashioned (thank god!) style of wine: light garnet in color; raspberry/blackberry notes in the nose; light body with berry-ish flavors and just a hint of tobacco (toasted oak?); good acidity; and a pleasant almost blackberry finish. Thoroughly enjoyable, and a perfect light lunch wine.

2013 Valpolicella DOC
In style, this simple Valpolicella is similar to the Bardolino. Berry/tobacco nose again, and the same notes on the palate. Slightly heavier in body than the Bardolino, with good acidity, and a longer, dried-fruit finish. Not complex, but very enjoyable.

2011 Le Poiane, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC
The ripasso technique referments Valpolicella on the lees of Amarone: It’s like giving the wine a dose of steroids. Very dark in color and in style. Earth, black plums, and tobacco (definitely toasted oak) aromas. Obvious tannicity, tasting of grape skins, earth, and black fruit, with a long, drying finish. For my palate, too much evidence of wood throughout makes this wine a little clumsy.

2009 Amarone Classico DOC
Very dark garnet. Mostly wood on the nose, with black, plummy fruit well underneath. The same dark fruit shows through on the palate, but there is still an abundance of tannins. Good black fruit again in the very long finish, which bodes well for this wine, but it needs years yet. As it opened, however, the up-front fruit got very sweet and even more forward, so it will please greatly those who drink Amarone young (fruit nuts, I say).

2011 Creso IGT
Markedly different aromas here from the rest of the wines. I smelled wood and Cabernet and Merlot as almost separate strands, but I was wrong about the Merlot. This wine is vinified from 65% Corvina (both fresh grapes and some partially dried ones) and 35% Cabernet sauvignon, and it sees a lot of barriques. On the palate, Creso shows sweetish black fruit (plum from the Corvina, I suppose): It’s big, soft, and slightly tannic, with a long, tannic, black-fruit finish. This wine is very well done of its kind, though this international style is far from my favorite in Italian wines.

All in all, coupled with that classic Amarone Le Origini, this lineup of wines shows that Bolla has terrific versatility and is turning out very enjoyable wines in a variety of styles. I’m a traditionalist, so I like best the wines that hew closest to the tastes of yesteryear – which is probably why I’m so inordinately pleased by the return of Bolla Bardolino.

 

Escape from Winter with Bartolo Mascarello and Ciro Picariello

February 16, 2015

On a recent evening, Diane and I enjoyed a very bright moment in the middle of this dreary winter. To accompany some braised short ribs, and to give us a treat and alleviate a bit of the depression that this seemingly endless grey, chill weather induces, I opened a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello’s 1998 Barolo.

barolo labelI expected an enjoyable bottle of a traditionally made Barolo: What we got was a marvel. By a great serendipity of timing, the bottle was absolutely at its peak, poised beautifully at the precise balance point of freshness and maturity. It was suave, it was elegant, it was complex, it was linear and structured, fleshy and fruity and voluptuous all at once. In trying to articulate what we found so wonderful about it, we both fell back on the image of our favorite Modigliani nude – linear and round at the same time, abstract and carnal, immediately accessible to the mind and the senses. Barolo just doesn’t get any better than this.

As most Barolo lovers know, Bartolo Mascarello was for decades an icon of traditional Piemontese winemaking, a model of integrity and consistency in his craft and in his life. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with him a few short years before he died, and his recollections were fascinating. He spoke quite modestly, even reluctantly, about his experiences in the Resistance, but he waxed eloquent and enthusiastic about his first experience, after Liberation, of American cigarettes: “Oh that aroma! That taste! I still remember it. So rich. We had been smoking straw, and those American cigarettes were intoxicating.”  Given his subsequent career in wine, it’s not surprising that aromas and flavors should stay fixed in his memory.

As he had resisted Fascists, he resisted fads in wine and fools in politics. He hated barriques, and he hated Berlusconi. One of his wines was once banned for sale in Italy because its label – he designed his own – proudly proclaimed “No Barrique  No Berlusconi.” Another said “We should make not barriques but barricades.”

???????????????????????????????

.

He even refused to make cru wines. Even though he owned vineyards in prime areas (two in La Morra – Rocche and Ruè – and a piece of Cannubi in Barolo), he continued the traditional practice of blending their unique characters to achieve the balance and harmony he and many other Barolistas consider the hallmark of fine Barolo.

In his last years, his daughter Maria Teresa had largely taken over the actual winemaking, and the recent vintages of Mascarello wine I’ve tasted indicate that she is following firmly in her father’s footsteps, both in style and in quality. Even though climate change in Piedmont has made all Barolos much more drinker-friendly much earlier than they used to be, these remain wines to cellar. Sure, you can drink them young – but given the amazing grace with which they mature, you’d be a fool to do so.

.

???????????????????????????????On another such serendipitous evening as our Mascarello experience (yes, I’ve been dining well this winter), I opened a bottle of Picariello’s 2012 Fiano di Avellino to drink with some simple but excellent broiled chicken legs from a great poultry farm on Long Island. Ciro Picariello is first and foremost a classic Campanian grape grower, honest, hardworking, unpretentious, passionate about his wines and justifiably proud of their quality. He farms about 7 hectares – roughly 18 acres – high in the hills of Irpinia, and he oversees his lovely Fiano from blossom to barrel. Though, in fact, he doesn’t use barrels: His Fiano ferments and ages entirely in stainless steel. He and his wife started their winery in 1997, but he didn’t bottle anything under his own name until 2004 – and he attracted attention right from the start. Now he is a frequent winner of Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association.

2012 was a lovely white wine vintage in Campania, and Picariello has made the most of it. His wine is medium-bodied – almost full-bodied for a white – and round and soft in the mouth, with abundant but totally unobtrusive acidity to keep it vivacious. This wine struck us immediately by its purity and intensity: White flower and hazelnut scents, and apple/pear toned fruit, with hazelnut undertones and the generous minerality of its volcanic soils. It was an intriguing, complex wine from the very first taste, and one that constantly grew and changed in the glass. For all its immediate pleasure, it also hinted an ability to age and mature in very interesting ways. I’ve not tasted any bottles of Picariello’s more than five years old, but they all seemed still very fresh, with years before them. For anyone with a taste for fine, mature white wines, I’d suggest that Picariello’s Fiano is a name to add to your cellar list.

It’s being a long, hard winter, but happily there are ways to escape it that don’t involve long plane trips.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 230 other followers