One Fine Wine: Mazzei Belguardo Serrata 2007

July 2, 2020
“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.

Two Celebratory Wines

June 18, 2020

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!

 

Unlikely Greatness: Palari Faro

June 4, 2020

Greatness, like lightning, can strike anywhere, but, still like lightning, some places are more likely than others. No one is surprised to hear about a great wine from Barolo or from Corton, but twenty years or so ago, when I first wrote about Palari, the east coast of Sicily was probably one of the least likely places in the world for connoisseurs to expect a great wine. And if location wasn’t the worst thing working against it, the unknown indigenous grapes its regulations called for – Nerello mascalese, Nerello cappuccio, Nocera, and two others even more obscure – should have finished the job.

So maybe it was just a stray lightning bolt that smacked those hills near Messina – but if it was, it’s been striking them regularly for 25 years now, as the Palari estate keeps turning out gorgeous wines vintage after vintage, racking up Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli awards from Italian critics, and establishing itself firmly as one of Italy’s truly great red wines. Perhaps, because of its small size – 7 hectares, 50,000 bottles – it is fated to never be more than a cult wine. If that’s the case, I’d urge you to join the cult: Palari is something worth believing in.
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To begin at the beginning: Palari is the estate name. The wine’s DOC is Faro, for the lighthouse that marks this stretch of Messina’s coastline. Back in the late ‘80s of what has too rapidly become the last century, that DOC was on the verge of being not stricken by the lightning of greatness but stricken from the books: It was about to be deleted because no one was making the wine any more.

Enter Luigi Veronelli, one of Italy’s finest wine journalists and connoisseurs. He felt passionately about preserving Italy’s oenological traditions, and he knew that his friend Salvatore Geraci had inherited his grandfather’s 18th century villa and old vineyards within the Faro DOC zone. Since Geraci had earned his reputation as an architect by his meticulous restoration of old buildings, what more fitting project for him than restoring an old vineyard and rescuing an endangered DOC?

Salvatore Geraci

Geraci took on the job, and the rest really is history. Determined from the start to make a great wine or no wine at all, Geraci got his brother, an agronomist, to revitalize the vineyards, consulted with one of Italy’s best enologists, and started making wine. His first vintage was 1995, and Veronelli hailed his ’96 as “Italy’s Clos de Vougeot.” Bam! The lightning had struck, and it hasn’t stopped striking since.

So what is Palari all about? Here is Gambero Rosso’s description of the 2014 vintage, which it awarded – no surprise – Tre Bicchieri: “From the outset, with its charmingly complex and elegant nose, it delivers. On the palate, it’s just as sophisticated, proving rich in silky tannins, plush and extremely long.” And here is Daniele Cernilli on the 2013, which he awarded 92 points: “Intense garnet ruby color. More evolved than other versions, aromas of strawberry jam, cassis, hints of tamarind then ethereal notes of kirsch. Powerful taste, warm, evident and velvety tannins. Great persistence.”

I just recently – and very happily – matched a bottle of Palari 2005 with a very authentic Sicilian dinner, and I can testify that the wine is all that and more. The longer aging of my bottle only made the wine more smooth and elegant and composed, more complete in itself and harder to separate into individual taste sensations than are younger examples. In short, this is a very great wine, and a very special one.
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It has been joined for some years now by a “second” wine, Rosso del Soprano, vinified from the same grapes. The quotation marks around “second” are advisable, because, according to whom you read, Rosso del Soprano is almost as good as/better than Palari. What do you know?  A second lightning strike in the very same place? Or Zeus just hit a twofer? It hardly matters which. We should just revel in our good fortune: Greatness is where you find it.

More Wines of Yesteryear: French Edition

May 21, 2020

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In this post I’m toasting some marvelous vins perdus, bygone French wines, stirred to reminiscence by Covid-sheltering time. This usually happens after a leisurely dinner, when I’m sitting at the table and sipping the last of the day’s wine. When that wine happens to be French, so, usually, are the memories. Remember, I’m a geezer, and like almost all of my generation, the wines I learned on almost all spoke French.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

One recent dinner of not-quite boeuf bourguignon featured a lovely bottle of Bouchard Côte de Beaune 1er cru, a blend of wines from several of Bouchard’s vineyards. Bouchard is one of the great négociant houses, and in my youth was internationally famed as a prime source for fine Burgundies. So back then I didn’t hesitate for a second when I was invited to join a group of journalists to visit Bouchard’s cellars and vineyards in celebration of – if my memory is accurate – Bouchard’s 175th harvest or year of bottling or something significant like that. Senior moment: I can recall the wines, but not the reason.

This was a stellar trip, kicked off by a spectacular dinner and equally fine brandy in a soigné rooftop restaurant overlooking the panorama of Paris. I have no idea how the neophyte journalist I then was got invited to join that small group of otherwise distinguished wine writers, but I knew I was happy.

And I continued so for the rest of the trip. It rapidly became clear to me that this junket was not the usual fare for wine journalists. As we meandered around Burgundy, visiting and tasting in cellar after cellar, talking to growers and wine makers, and dining extremely well night after night, we noticed that at each dinner, among the many good wines that were poured, there was always one very special one, either an older bottle, or a special vintage, or a particularly prized cru. No one grew blasé, and we looked forward with real eagerness to each night’s revelation.

At our farewell dinner, the pièce de resistance turned out to be a forty-year-old bottle of Bouchard’s Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus, a monopole and one of Bouchard’s most esteemed wines. You can guess our anticipation as the wine was poured and we swirled and sniffed – heaven! – and finally sipped. The entire table, until then babbling noisily, was awed to silence for a few moments. Until one of my colleagues, with characteristsic New York irreverence, broke the silence with “I’m drinking the baby Jesus’s velvet pants!” Crude, but in its way quite accurate, and much appreciated by our French hosts.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Back in the present, that dinner table conversation about Burgundy led Diane and me to talk about our favorite Burgundy firm, Drouhin. Drouhin, I think, doesn’t get enough respect: Its wines are so consistently good that many critics just take them for granted. Drouhin is still a family-owned concern, and the whole family works single-mindedly to achieve the elegance that has become the hallmark of their wines.

About ten years ago, I was invited to spend a long weekend in Beaune visiting their cellars and vineyards. This was a very different experience from the Bouchard trip, much more en famille. I was the only guest, for one thing, and each day a different Drouhin ferried me around to vineyards and through cellars and answered, with great patience, my endless supply of questions.

I remember particularly a conversation with Veronique Drouhin, who is in charge of most of the winemaking in Burgundy and in Oregon as well. There she works with many young interns, mostly students from UC Davis, and when I asked her about the differences between working in Oregon and in France, she provided a book’s worth of information, which I still wish she would write up and publish. What I remember most strongly of that long conversation was her account of the greatest difficulty she had encountered in working with young American winemakers.

“The hardest thing,” she said, “is teaching them to do nothing. Whenever an instrument says that something – sugar, acidity, alcohol – is a little abnormal, they want to intervene, to do something to correct the reading. I try to teach them to be a little patient, to wait a bit and whatever it is will probably correct itself, whereas whatever correction you make can only be corrected by another correction.

“They are all very strongly technologically trained, and it is very difficult to persuade them to trust the wine. But you must trust the wine!” That remark, for me, summed up in a nutshell the whole difference between Old World and New World approaches to winemaking.

My last dinner on this trip was literally en famille, with the patriarch Robert Drouhin and the whole family. Now, this was a great honor, and when I realized the wine that was being poured with no fuss was a 1966 Bonnes Mares, I was flabbergasted! I had mentioned casually to Veronique that Musigny was for me the sweet spot of all the Côte d’Or, and now the family was giving me one of France’s ne plus ultra wines. I have never forgotten its depth and savor and elegance: a wine and an experience of a lifetime. With no fuss made.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

The French, of course, are capable of very great fusses when the occasion warrants. One such was the restoration of their emblematic windmill at Moulin-à-Vent, an event I attended that was called to mind by a bottle of this year’s Beaujolais that we’d enjoyed recently with another dinner at home.

In 1999, the citizens of Beaujolais had been working on restoring the long-defunct mill’s machinery all winter. A fête had been scheduled for a day in normally windy March to mount the sails and operate the mill again, for the first time in decades. Journalists from all over Europe and the US had been invited.

France’s most prominent yachtsman and his racing crew had been asked to mount the sails on the mill’s great arms, and we all watched as they swarmed over the rigging and expertly spread the sails – just in time to receive, in a small Burgundian miracle, the first breath of wind in five days. A huge cheer went up from press and locals alike as the great arms began slowly to turn and the old mill came back to life.

A raucous afternoon of picnicking, eating, drinking, singing, and general jollity followed. Much fine Beaujolais was consumed that day, especially Jadot’s great Moulin-à-Vent, Château des Jacques, and along with it many slabs of jambon persillé and slices of saucisson rosette de Lyon. Nowhere near as glamorous as a Parisian restaurant, of course, but perhaps even more authentically French.

Who’s Afraid of a Vintage Chart?

May 7, 2020

It always gives me a perverse pleasure, when I have just enjoyed an exquisite bottle of wine, to check some authoritative vintage chart and be told that my bottle was over the hill, should have been drunk years ago, and was only a mediocre vintage to begin with. Call me anti-authoritarian (I am), but it doubles my enjoyment to find out once again that the emperor has no clothes on.

My most recent instance of this was my last bottle of the 2003 vintage of Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Radici, and the naked potentate this time was Robert Parker, or at least his vintage chart, which rated all 2003 Taurasi a very humble 75 out of 100, a number so low it is rarely seen in any vintage chart for any wine: Mostly they fall in the range of 85 to 100. It was also designated “C: past its prime, should have been drunk already.” What do you know?  I had just rhapsodized over a wine I should have been embarrassed to have at my table.

Well, call me shameless as well as anti-authoritarian: I loved that wine. It was big, and rich, lush with dark-toned Aglianico fruit and laced with gorgeous Campanian earth and minerals, its complex, balanced flavors still maturing and clearly with years of development still in front of them – classic Mastroberardino Taurasi, which is to say classic Taurasi. I’m not sure that Mastroberardino is capable of making a bad Taurasi.

So how do you explain Parker’s far different take on 2003?  Well, to be fair, his rating is of the vintage as an entity in itself, not what any individual producer made of it, so it’s sort of an average, as any vintage rating must be. Also – IMHO, as is now the usage – Parker has never been very sound on Italian wines. In my in fact not-at-all-humble opinion, he has never really understood them, so that I’ve always found his evaluation of individual wines as well as whole vintages skewed. It’s a little bit like the Michelin Guide’s ratings of Italian restaurants: The more highly praised they are, the less characteristically Italian they are, and the more they resemble French restaurants, in both appearance and cooking styles.

That works for a lot of the buying public, which is quite content with that state of affairs, but it doesn’t work for me, nor should it work for any wino who wants different and authentic wines with their own character and style, not international wannabes tasting only of the same old same old. Real Taurasi is emphatically its own creature: It is made from Aglianico, one of Italy’s three noblest red varieties, and it is often the biggest and longest-lived of them all. I have tasted 70-year-old Taurasis – from Mastroberardino, of course – that were still going strong, with little loss of color or body or flavor.

Aglianico is simply a great grape, one of the noblest red grapes of them all. The Mastroberardino family has been its guardians through the many dark decades when Italian wines in general got little respect, and southern Italian wines in particular got none at all. Now that Italian wine is in the ascendant, there are many other producers, and a good number of them are making first-rate Taurasi. This is an unmitigated blessing for all of us who love this wine and the unique volcanic hills that nourish it and shape its character.

 

Aglianico grows in several zones in Campania and in nearby Basilicata, and it can make a very fine wine in those places. But its masterpiece is Taurasi, and that comes only from a small area in the province of Avellino, high in the windy hills inland and east of Naples. This isn’t tourist Italy: This is and has always been hard-working Italy, where the strength of the back and arms and the sharpness of the eye and mind can produce wonders. Not the least of those wonders is a glorious wine, like my ’03 Mastro, from a – so it would seem – mediocre vintage. I leave it to your imagination what can be done with a good one.

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If you don’t know Taurasi, I’d urge you to try a Mastro bottle to learn its classic dimensions. If you’re already familiar with Taurasi, explore some of the small producers who are now making the wine and its region one of the most exciting in Italy – for example, producers like Luigi Tecce, Urciuolo, Lonardi, Caggiano, Guastaferro, Di Meo, Molettieri, and last but very far indeed from least, Terredora, which is the property of a branch of the Mastroberardinos, who produce Taurasi marked by decades of familial expertise.

Where Are the Wines of Yesteryear? Safely Locked in Memory

April 23, 2020

In the enforced inactivity that Covid 19 has imposed – the virtual tastings that now seem to be all over the internet are not the same as tasting real wine – Diane and I have been cooking determinedly and raiding the cellar frequently. No new young wines, no trade tastings, no lunches or dinners with winemakers – just our own kitchen skills and our own wines on hand.

It lacks a bit in variety from the wine point of view: I don’t get to try new vintages nor any wines or producers that are new to me. But it’s not what I could really call the same-old same-old. Whether by luck or cunning, I’ve got some nice wines stashed away, which we’ve been enjoying to soften our isolation from friends and colleagues. Not all of them are antiques (would that I had more of those!), but even the youngish ones can evoke memories: Wines, we are finding, are very good for that.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Just a dinner or so back, Diane and I opened our last bottle of Mastroberardino’s 2003 Taurasi, which led us into fond reminiscences of Antonio Mastroberardino, for many decades the head of the family firm and one our favorite wine people. We first met Antonio in the late ‘70s and had been friends ever since, until his death in 2014. I’ve come to think that Neapolitan men of a certain age begin to converge on a common face: My first thought, when I met Antonio, was that he looked like all my uncles.

My favorite memory of Antonio, among the many, is of the time he and his wife Teresa picked up Diane and me in Vietri to drive together to Naples. Antonio was of a pronouncedly scholarly, almost professorial turn of mind, and, instead of focusing his attention on the hair-raising autostrada traffic, he turned to broader issues – much to the consternation of our two wives in the back seat.

At one point he was trying to explain to me in English a complex idea about Italy’s political scene, the state of wine producing, and the attitudes and circumstances of Campania’s small growers. He finally gave up English and – mostly looking at me and only occasionally glancing at the road – laid out his thoughts in flowing Italian. After his peroration, he asked if I had understood it all. “Si, si,” I said, “ho capito in senso metaforico.” Yes, I understood it in a metaphoric sense.

That fixed Antonio’s attention on me even more. I thought Diane was ready to clamber into the front of the car and grab the steering wheel. “In senso metaforico,” he said thoughtfully, as if relishing the phrase. He looked ever so briefly at the traffic around us – and repeated “senso metaforico” a few more times, almost chewing the words. Then he turned again to me and said, in his most serious, professorial voice, “I congratulate you on your culture.” Finally, to the incredible relief of the two ladies in the back, he turned his thoughts to driving, as if that had successfully closed the matter.

I knew that the whole concept of culture was centrally important to Antonio, so I realized this was a tremendous compliment. But I have always thought that the episode said more about him and the character of his mind than it does about mine. There were very few like him in the wine world and it feels very good to remember him not just as a winemaker but as the thoughtful, humane person he was.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

A very different set of memories was triggered on an evening when Diane and I were drinking a 2010 La Selvanella, a pitch-perfect Chianti Classico Riserva from Melini. Selvanella is sort of Melini’s home estate, a largish vineyard in the Classico zone, and Melini has been producing very traditional Chianti Classico there for many decades. Sipping this one alongside a modest home version of bistecca fiorentina, I found myself recounting to Diane an extraordinary visit there many years ago.

The Frederick Wildman firm, Melini’s importer, had organized a visit for a large group of wine journalists to several of the estates Wildman represented in northern and central Italy. This culminated in Tuscany, and climaxed at Selvanella. You could not imagine a more picture-perfect rustic Tuscan setting: brilliant sunshine on rows of neatly pruned vines, surrounded by the deep green of forest, and a spacious, shaded patio to shelter us from that very hot sunshine – and also to house a huge, wood-fired spit.

On that spit revolved skewer after skewer of cooking animals, ranging in size from thrushes through several other birds (the quail were particularly delicious, I recall) up to pheasants, then rabbits; and finally, on another even larger spit, cinghiale – a whole wild boar. There was not a single farm-bred creature in that whole intensely gamey and succulent lot: Every one of them had been shot by Nunzio Capurso, then the head of Melini, the winemaker at Selvanella, a generous host, and a passionate hunter. We tasted through several vintages of Selvanella at that feast, and now, enjoying this bottle of 2010, at home in not-quite-rustic Greenwich Village, with a fine but comparatively tiny steak, I vividly recalled the flavors and pleasures of that now far-distant, thoroughly Rabelaisian day. I can’t believe now how much I could – and did – eat then.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

At another recent home dinner, Diane and I shared a bottle of Barbi’s 2013 Brusco dei Barbi, a lovely 100% Sangiovese from one of the oldest, most highly reputed producers in Montalcino (I wrote about Barbi Brunello recently here). This bottle, at not quite seven years old, was still a touch tannic but nevertheless tasted deeply of dense, dark, fully ripe Sangiovese grosso. It promised years of development yet.

That tannin, which we both remarked on almost simultaneously, triggered our memory of the evening – again many years ago – when Francesca Colombini Cinelli, proprietor of the Barbi estate, treated us to a vertical tasting of about a dozen Bruscos, the oldest twenty years old. At the aroma of the fourteen-year-old Brusco, Diane and I both exclaimed, “white truffle!” A broadly smiling Signora Cinelli explained that the Barbi family too had been pleasantly surprised by that. They had originally formulated Brusco to be a young, early-drinking wine, as opposed to the many years of aging needed by their Brunello, and they had not really expected the Brusco to have great aging potential. But good fruit, good soils, and great care in the cellar will not be denied, any more than will good memories – and Diane and I only regret that we don’t have more and older Brusco dei Barbi salted away.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

“Sheltering in place” – or maybe it’s just age and garrulity – has triggered the flow of memories of decades of encounters with much-loved wines and even more fondly remembered people. These are probably a lot more fun for me to write about than for others to read, so I’ll try to moderate the flow – but I can’t guarantee that I won’t succumb again to the allure of wine and memory.

 

Ridge Surprises Me Twice: Jimsomare Zinfandel 2008

April 9, 2020

Anyone who follows this blog probably knows that I’m a great admirer of Ridge Zinfandels. What I love best are the Ridge Zins that blend in goodly proportions of other grape varieties – sometimes so much that Ridge can’t label them Zinfandel. California law requires a minimum of 75% of a single variety for a wine to be so designated, so Ridge’s Geyserville, for instance, which is one of my favorites, is simply called Geyserville for the vineyards’ location, because it always has less Zinfandel than that.

In my experience, young monovarietal Zinfandel wines are big, often highly alcoholic, and frequently (to my taste) over-fruited and jammy, whatever part of California they come from. I know for many winelovers those qualities are pluses. Not so for me, for whom they constitute the essence of obvious or coarse or even vulgar wines. Color me, in this respect at least, a wine snob.

So imagine my surprise – not to say distress – when, browsing through my I-thought-carefully-selected trove of Ridge Zinfandels a few weeks ago, I came across a bottle of 2008 Jimsomare Zin that I hadn’t realized I had. How did that get in there?  It’s 100% Zinfandel, and I normally don’t buy those, much less store them beyond what I consider their optimum drinking time.

I usually like my Zins 8 or at most 9 years old, which I have found over the years is their sweet spot: They still have freshness and vitality, coupled with the complex, developed flavors of maturity. So now I found myself confronted with a wine of a type I usually avoid, and one perhaps too old as well: the back label and my own experience suggested drinking this bottle 3, 4, or 5 years ago.

For all my surprise, this was hardly a catastrophe. After all, the wine was from Ridge, which always produces well-structured, long-lived wines. At its worst, it wasn’t my favorite style, but neither was it likely to be dead: Fading maybe, but probably still drinkable. Which I decided to do right away, before it the inevitable befell it.

Which led to my second surprise: My fears were totally off the mark. This ’08 Jimsomare was wonderful, with no sign whatever that it was beginning to decline. It had mature flavors – mushroomy and earthy – to be sure, but also plenty of freshness and brambly fruitiness. It had a lively, up-front acidity that isn’t typical of Zinfandel, as well as a pervasive minerality of a sort my palate associates more often with white wines than reds – though it worked beautifully in this irrefutably red wine.

I was intrigued: How could this wine be so different from my previous experience of monovarietal Zinfandels?  One answer was obvious: This was no new release, no stripling of a wine, but a bottle that had had a good while to pull itself together. But even with that, there were elements I couldn’t account for – that very unusual acidity, the undertone of minerality. Where did those not normally Zinfandelish characteristics come from?   The Jimsomare vineyard, evidently, but just what and where was that?

It took very little research to answer those questions. The Jimsomare Ranch is the lowest-lying – and that’s still high – of four properties that Ridge works on the Monte Bello ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains. It contains some of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in the region. They were started in the 1890s, and along with younger vines (30-40 years old) on the same property, they make Ridge’s Jimsomare Zin. So really mature vines from a high-altitude, cool climate vineyard are one part of this wine’s distinction.

Ridge’s Jimsomare ranch was formerly known as the Klein ranch

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The other key part is the ridge itself. Here is Ridge’s own description of Monte Bello’s terroir:

Composed of unique green stone and clay soils layered over decomposing limestone. Limestone is not found in the well-known Cabernet producing areas of Napa and Sonoma Valleys, making the soil composition at Monte Bello a unique and important contributor to the wine’s distinctive character. The combination of elevation, cool climate, and soil produces a wine that is impeccably balanced and destined for long-term aging, with firm acidity and a consistent streak of minerality.

That is meant to explain the distinction of Ridge’s famous Monte Bello Cabernet, but it also describes exactly what so surprised me in my ‘08 Jimsomare Zinfandel.

I confess that I had not thought Zinfandel, as a variety, was so sensitive to its terroir, so this was a real learning experience for me. Who knows what Zinfandel might be capable of, if more thought was given to its siting? California could have some more pleasant surprises in store for us yet.

A Wino Confronts a Virus

March 26, 2020

The corona virus has definitely closed down the wine season: no tastings, no lunches, no new-release launches, no winemaker presentations – what Li’l Abner would have called a double-whammy for sure. For a few years now, I haven’t been too happy with most of what has been going on in the world outside of wine. Wine is altogether a pleasanter topic, and I would much rather spread some cheer than increase anyone’s gloom, so usually in these posts, I just focus on a wine or wines, and try to ignore everything else. But the coronavirus has created a whole new ballgame, and it would fatuous of me to try to pretend otherwise.

Here in New York we have entered a kind of lockdown. The streets of Greenwich Village, where I live, are now blessedly clear of the roving bands of gawping tourists who used to make it impossible to walk around my neighborhood – but that’s the only upside. The streets are clear of everyone else too – deserted, lifeless, shops closed. Every day looks like early Sunday morning in the Village of the Fifties, before the tourist boom, before the Folkie invasion, when in the evening only Village old-timers and a few Beats hung out in a few old bars – White Horse, Kettle of Fish – or a few small jazz clubs – Five Spot, Half Note. Charming memories of another time, but most of those are long gone, and their successors – all the new bars and restaurants – are now closed “for the duration,” as they said during WWII.

It’s difficult to imagine the degree of hardship that’s being inflicted on all the people who worked in the entertainment and hospitality industries, all the kitchen- and wait staff, somms and baristas, actors and musicians, stagehands and designers, all the support people in how many different fields, who are suddenly without salaries or without prospects. Not to mention all the thousands of others in countless other fields who now have to figure out how to work at home and tend their kids or – worse yet – were simply laid off without any severance or help.

And that’s only what things look like in this country. It doesn’t begin to measure the misery in the rest of the world, especially right now in Italy, where I have many friends, and where the coffins are beginning to pile up faster than they can be buried. These are grim times.

But enough of that: Nobody needs me to tell them how dire the situation can be or how to help those who need it, and I’m confident that readers of this post partake fully of the compassion and fellow-feeling that the community of wine exemplifies even in normal times.

Diane and I have been lucky: “Sheltering in place” hasn’t been too hard for us, since it fits our age and lifestyle. We still go out as early in the day as we can to do our necessary grocery shopping, and we years ago decided that most restaurants were either too noisy or too expensive or just plain not good enough to go to, so we continue to cook and eat at home pretty much as we always have. And drink at home, of course: Unless this quasi-lockdown goes on much longer than anyone expects, we’ve got enough wine stashed here to see us through.

As is widely acknowledged, it’s the psychic and emotional toll that’s most telling – no theater, no movies, no live music, and worst of all for us, not being able to see our friends, to break bread and sip wine with them while excoriating the clowns in the White House who have so screwed this thing up. The absence of that whole social dimension, plus the steadily increasing anger at how all this could have been and wasn’t prepared for, combined with the daily flow of confusing, self-serving disinformation coming from Washington – all that just plain wears one down.

I never thought I’d say this, but thank god for Andrew Cuomo: Here in New York, our governor at least is speaking honestly and acting seriously. The world will get through this in some shape or other, but my world is never going to be right again until we can again gather people at our table for dinner and wine and companionship – what Alexander Pope, describing dinners with his best friend, called “the feast of reason and the flow of soul.” As far as this wino is concerned, all the rest is window-dressing. That’s what life is for, and the loss of those human moments is the greatest loss the virus has – so far – inflicted on us. Call that superficial: It may well be – but it’s also true. In vino veritas, eh?

 

Diane and Betty at our Last Dinner Party Until . . . ?

Is Wine a White Whale?

March 12, 2020

Having reached an age where I spend far too much of my life in doctors’ offices, I notice that every time I go to a new one, whether it might be for a cold, or a sprain, or the plague, I am always asked “Do you drink?”

On the face of it, an innocuous question, perhaps even an idiotic one: Of course I drink. Everybody drinks, or we couldn’t survive. But that, obviously, isn’t what the question means: It means do you drink beer or wine or spirits, and it is patently a biased question, implying that it’s wrong to do so.

I’ve noticed that I’m never asked about my consumption of soft drinks, whose to-my-mind tooth-rotting amounts of sugar would seem to constitute a real health hazard. No, the question is only ever about consumption of liquids containing alcohol. “Ahoy! Have you seen a white whale?” Alcohol is clearly the Great White Whale of American medicine.

I have occasionally heard the question put more bluntly, in a way that exposes the underlying bias: Do you use alcohol? I try not to snicker at that: I don’t know anyone who uses alcohol. No, I do not use alcohol; I drink wine – a complex liquid, of which alcohol is usually just about 13 or 14%. Alcohol in its pure form I never touch, so the question is stupid and misleading. No one ever sits down to a nice dinner and a cheering glass of alcohol, and to imply that the alcohol in wine is its center and point is fatuous.

The concentration on alcohol is a perfect example of science run amuck, in which a single element is so abstracted from everything else that it can become a universal villain. Nobody asks flu sufferers if they breathe or if they “use” air – though that may be coming, may it not?

What is left out in that annoying question is the basic fact that the alcohol we wine lovers consume never comes to us as a neat little jigger of pure alcohol. Taking only chemistry into consideration for the moment, it comes bonded to the 86 or 87% of wine that isn’t alcohol. Most of that is water, and the rest is color and flavor elements derived from grapes, plus such trace elements – chemical or mineral – that the vines have sucked out of the soil and transmitted to their fruit.

“Even after the process of fermentation, wine conserves different organic compounds from grapes, such as polysaccharides, acids, and phenolic compounds, such as flavonoids and nonflavonoids. These substances have known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities, and are considered as regulatory agents in cardiometabolic process.” In plain English, there are things in wine that are good for you.

That whole package, of which the alcohol is an integral part, composes what we relish in the wines we drink – the body, the mouth feel, the aromas, the spectrum of flavors that each wine gifts us with. Are we to suppose that the alcohol in a wine is not modified in some way by its integration into such an amalgam?

Drinking wine with a meal is not like pouring neat alcohol down your throat, all by itself. Sure, it can be a poison that way. But in wine, the alcohol goes into a stewpot of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and minerals from the foods, and they’re all acted on by the digestive enzymes as they’re absorbed into your bloodstream. I think there’s more complexity to that process than typical medical explanations provide — maybe even more subtlety than modern-day chemistry admits of.

And that, of course, focuses only on physiology and ignores the psychological, social, and cultural aspect of our “use” of wine. I believe the effects of alcohol on the body are modified or altered not only by the things we eat with it but also by the way we share it with other people and the occasions on which we do so. Measuring alcohol only in the abstract as a chemical falsifies everything about drinking wine.

We must remember: Science is a way of looking at and understanding the world, an often effective and useful way of so doing, especially when judged by its own standards. But they are not the only standards, and science is not the only way of seeing and understanding the world. The questions science answers are only the questions that science asks, and there are rafts of questions that are never asked because they aren’t “scientific.” Other ways of seeing the world can be just as effective and useful, and we need to remind ourselves of them.

One small example: How different a world, how different a set of assumptions would be implied, if your doctor ever asked “Do you enjoy wine?” – and that is a perfectly sensible question. Cheers!

 

Barbi Brunello 1977

February 27, 2020

There are some wines, objectively great in their own right, that hold a special place in your heart. The 1977 Barbi is one such wine for me. The product of a fine growing season, some years after its creation a small stash of it, newly recorked on the estate, was part of my award for winning the Barbi Colombini Prize for articles about Brunello.
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Tom receiving Barbi prize from Francesca Colombini Cinelli, owner of Fattoria dei Barbi

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Not only was the prize a great balm to my ego and my palate, but it also included a week in a modernized casa colonica – what nowadays would be an agriturismo – on the Barbi estate, and thereby initiated my now-many-years-standing friendship with the Barbi family. The bottle that is the subject of this post was the last of that supply, carefully hoarded for a special occasion.

Well, the occasion finally arrived: my 82nd birthday, when it dawned on me that neither I nor that bottle could count on surviving all that much longer (just the odds, folks, no serious ailments in either me or the wine), and there would be few better times to drink it. So we did: Diane made a wonderful braised duck in the Romagnola style (from our first cookbook), which we followed up with some excellent cheeses from Murray’s, and that Brunello sang its aria. Not a swan song, mind you, but an aria. The wine was wonderful, rich with mature, woodsy, mushroomy Sangiovese fruit, beautifully balanced and still alive – a little delicate perhaps, but lively and above all elegant and complex, changing with every bite of duck or taste of cheese.

Back in the day when this 1977 was just a-borning, some people claimed to find the Barbi wines rustic. If that was true, they were rustic in the way Italians call rustico elegante, meaning with the manners and unpretentiousness of a country gentleman – which, never let us forget, is what Brunello is: a country cousin of the more urbane Chianti Classicos. Anyone who ever met Franco Biondi-Santi and experienced his unaffected courtesy will understand completely what I mean. And my prized bottle of Barbi Brunello was, happily for me, precisely like that.

The Barbi family is as deeply entwined in the development of Brunello as the Biondi-Santi. Winelovers tend to forget, in the glow of Brunello’s present fame, that it is a newcomer to the table in terms of Italian wines. A 100% Sangiovese wine in a region famed for blending, made from very localized clones of Sangiovese grosso in a remote country zone far from urban centers like Florence or Siena, Brunello was virtually unknown even within Italy until well after WW II.

Then the impact of the beginning international wine boom; the end of the mezzadria, the medieval share-cropping system that had kept Italy green and poor for centuries; and the arrival, by way of California, of up-to-the-minute wine technology all worked together to bring attention to a wine that, for the few who knew it, was remarkable for its quality and longevity.

In the 1960s, the Barbi were one of the six families producing Brunello di Montalcino, and their estate was one of the largest and its wines perhaps the best distributed of them all. Now, of course, there are close to? more than? 300 producers. The number keeps growing as the Brunello name draws more and more producers to try their hand. But old-timers like the Barbi got there first (by about 100 years) and got most of the best sites, and their wines remain quintessentially what Brunello di Montalcino was meant to be – a wine big for Sangiovese, of great depth and aging potential, and redolent of its hilly, (formerly) forested countryside.

My 1977 Barbi Brunello was all that: Like a perfect gentleman, it wished me a happy birthday and went on to make it so, without once ever suggesting that either of us was too old for such frippery.