Bordeaux Second Labels

June 29, 2015

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a small tasting of second-label Bordeaux wines organized by the importer/retailer Millesima. They were the red Connétable de Talbot 2008, La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet 2008, Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine 2008, La Fugue de Nénin 2002, and the white L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc 2011. It was a very pleasant affair, low key, no pressure, just a chance to taste and evaluate a handful of wines – a very welcome haven on a drizzly, chilly New York afternoon.

Millesima_L'Esprit Chevalier Blanc_2011_PackshotThe L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc and the Talbot Connétable especially stood out, while La Fugue de Nénin seemed tired: 2002 was not a very great vintage, and 13 years is pushing the envelope for second-label wines, especially a Pomerol. But all in all, the wines were what I’ve come to expect sound second-label wines to be: good without being overwhelming, true to type without being definitive of the type. In short, pleasant wines pegged at a price point to give a nice lift of palatal pleasure and sophistication to otherwise everyday dinners.

Millesima_ConnetableTalbot_2008_PackshotBut the occasion also started me thinking: When did second labels start becoming important? When I first got hooked on wine and began seriously exploring it, I learned on French wines. In those now long past days, wine was French, and the way into it was primarily through Bordeaux and Burgundy. I can’t recall any ready availability of second labels from Bordeaux back then – and there still aren’t any from Burgundy: So where did they come from?

Millesima_Demoiselles Mallet_2008_PackshotWine estates in Bordeaux – by which I mean that cluster of Médoc communes that contain the wines ranked in the famous 1855 listing and their satellites – have long occupied an enviable position in the wine world, whether you focus on the palatal/esthetic/craftsmanly aspect of that world or its commercial aspect. The prestige of Bordeaux may now be fading somewhat, as younger drinkers seem less and less impressed by it and more and more willing to try wines “outside the canon,” but commercially there’s no question that Bordeaux still sets the pace.

Millesima_Fugue de Nenin_2002_PackshotTraditionally, very few of even the most prestigious Bordeaux estates had second wines. Because their emphasis was on quality, and because many Bordeaux estates are very large (Château Margaux, for instance, has 80 hectares – that’s almost 200 acres – of vines), they often had grapes that were not judged of high enough quality to be part of the wine that would bear the château’s name. In most cases, back then, those grapes were sold off, usually to négociants who blended the grapes of several estates to make either village wines – a shipper’s Margaux or St. Julien – or, a step down the scale, a Médoc rouge, or lower still, a Bordeaux rouge.

Millesima_Confidences PrieureLichine_2008_PackshotAs wine boomed in the last quarter of the 20th century, winemakers realized that they didn’t have to sell those rejected grapes on the bulk market. They could instead exploit the prestige of their estate’s reputation by making them into another wine – not the same quality as the flagship wine, to be sure, but similar to it, and offering some of the pleasures of their great wine at a lower price.

You can view this in either of two ways:

  • as an enlightened gesture to make at least the shadow of a great wine available to drinkers who might otherwise never be able to afford to taste it, or
  • as a crass piece of commercialism that generates a lot more income from something of otherwise little value.

I suspect the motivation is in almost every case mixed, though I doubt altruism was ever the dominant engine. Forgive my cynicism, please.

At any rate, as long as all the grapes in the lesser wine originate on the property, a second-label wine is entitled to the same appellation as the château wine. Only when those grapes are mixed with others from other properties does a wine get demoted to village, Médoc, or Bordeaux status. That declension is what happened, for instance, to Mouton Cadet. That wine began its life as a second label of the famous Château Mouton Rothschild (more than 82 hectares of vines, for the record), and has since become a separate enterprise with only a nominal connection to the great estate, whose second label is now Le Petit Mouton.

So what then does all this imply about second labels, for the canny wine lover? As prices of the Bordeaux great growths have soared into the stratosphere, some second labels can be relative bargains, a chance to taste decent Bordeaux at fairly reasonable prices. But they can all too often fall to mediocrity. Usually they are vinified from an estate’s youngest vines or poorest-performing parcels, so their potential is limited from the start. All they’ve got going for them is the location of those vines and parcels – the whole Médoc, after all, is essentially a single terroir – and the fact (or the hope) that they received the same attention as the rest of the estate’s wines. Only by accident, and in a truly exceptional vintage (of which there are fewer than the Bordeaux hype machine would have you believe), will these wines ever approach greatness. Still, in a good year, you should be able to find a number of winners in their ranks. If you love Bordeaux, it’s certainly worth the hunt.

Verdicchio: A Seriously Underesteemed Wine

June 17, 2015

Not a name that’s likely to set bells pealing in a wino’s brain, for sure, Verdicchio nevertheless deserves to be more highly valued than a good many other white wines of whatever origin. I’m not alone in thinking that Verdicchio ranks among Italy’s noblest white varieties.

verdicchioVerdicchio – the name of both the grape and the appellation – flourishes in the Marches, a region on Italy’s Adriatic coast bordered on the north by Emilia, on the south by Abruzzo, and on the west by Umbria. The grape is pretty much a Marches specialty: not much cultivated elsewhere, which may account for its lack of a larger reputation. That’s a real loss, because Verdicchio yields not only a very enjoyable everyday dinner wine but also a first-class, long-aging white of great subtlety and distinction.

According to Jancis Robinson’s authoritative book, Wine Grapes, Verdicchio probably originated in the Veneto but made its way into the Marches by the later Middle Ages. Recent studies have shown that it is the same as the variety now known in the Veneto as Trebbiano di Soave, which growers there prize as a component of the best Soave Classico – some indeed esteeming it above Garganega.

In the Marches, it appears in two distinct appellations, Verdicchio di Castelli di Iesi and Verdicchio Matelica, the former and larger zone more coastal, and the smaller Matelica zone more inland, near the border with Umbria. Both zones turn out a lot of simple, everyday Verdicchio, and both also produce much more important examples of delicious, structured dinner wines, with special reserve bottlings capable of impressive bottle age.

fazi bThe simple, everyday Verdicchio was once upon a time enormously popular in the US, at least on the east coast. Fazi-Battaglia’s version, packaged in a distinctive fish-shaped bottle (now only a stylized version of the original), was practically ubiquitous in Italian restaurants and made an unfailingly reliable accompaniment to seafood of all sorts – especially fried calamari. I still have fond memories of that enjoyable and inexpensive wine, as I do of those enjoyable and inexpensive restaurants. But as Heraclitus observed, panta rei – all things flow, and you can never step in the same river twice.

Nowadays, most Verdicchio that we see here is made to be more serious, which is really a great gain, no matter what I feel about the loss of the simpler wine. Contemporary Verdicchio belongs in the ranks of superior dinner wines, wines that bring not just citric or tropical fruit freshness to the table but also a complex minerality, round body, depth, and persistence. These are estimable wines, and they companion well with white meats and the best fish dishes. John Dory and sole, trout and sea trout, lobster and crab – all would shine alongside a good Verdicchio.

villa bucciFortunately, good ones abound. I recently enjoyed my last bottle of Villa Bucci Riserva 2007, which was a stunningly fine wine, reminiscent of top-quality white Burgundy in its structure and roundness, but unmistakably Italian in its racy acidity and distinctive slateyness. Bucci stands, in my estimation, at the top of the mountain in Verdicchio, and also has the distinction of being among the few wineries that still use the talents of the eccentric enologist Giorgio Grai, once a name to be conjured with in Italian wine circles.

But many other firms produce top-flight basic Verdicchio and Verdicchio Riserva: Fazi-Battaglia still ranks among the zone’s leaders, with its basic Titulus and its cru Le Moie. Equally highly reputed is Umani Ronchi, whose Riserva Casal di Serra is always among the Marches’s finest, long-aging Verdicchios. Garofoli makes a fine basic Verdicchio, Macrina, and several cru and riserva bottlings. Moncaro (a fine co-op very much in demand throughout Europe, but currently – and lamentably – lacking an importer in the US) produces the basic Le Vele and the distinguished Riserva Vigna Novali. These are all Castelli di Iesi wineries; the best Verdicchios of the smaller Matelica zone are the fine examples from La Monacesca.

What else can I add? If you already know Verdicchio well, this has been yesterday’s news for you – but if you don’t, you owe it to yourself to try some right away, especially now that warm weather and lighter meals are here, and preferably an older Riserva, so you can see right off the potential of this intriguing variety.

The Wine from the Pope’s New House

June 6, 2015
The pope's house

The 14th Century “new house” built for Pope John XXII, overlooking Chateauneuf du Pape village

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Châteauneuf du Pape doesn’t seem to be a very fashionable wine these days. I don’t know why that is: Name too long? Wine thought to be too big? Too rough? Made with the wrong grapes for current trends? All of the above? Whatever the reasons, it’s a shame, because Châteauneuf is, and has been for a long time, a reliably elegant wine, capable of aging long and gracefully, and wonderfully adaptable with food of all sorts. I have always loved Châteauneuf du Pape for both those qualities: Many decades ago it was a 15-year-old bottle of Château Fortia that first taught me about the glories of sun-toasted southern wines.

This was all brought back to me forcefully about two weeks ago, when Diane indulged ourselves and some friends in a dinner of marcassin, braised young boar, for which occasion I dug out of the deep recesses of my ancient baronial cellar two bottles of 1998 Domaine de la Solitude.

SolitudeDomaine de la Solitude has suffered its vicissitudes. One of the most historic estates in the whole appellation, it has been continuously producing wine since the beginning of the 17th century, and was actually one of the first estates in France to bottle its own wine, before even Lafite, though neither it nor its zone has ever acquired the prestige of the Bordeaux estates.

The whole area of southeastern France was among the earliest to be cursed with the plague of phylloxera, which devastated the local economy and from which it only slowly recovered. For many years, Châteauneuf and neighboring areas were thought of as producing only rough country wines, most of which were consumed locally or shipped north to Burgundy to give some heft to the often pusillanimous red wines of that region. The practice was so common, that hermitagiser became a widespread euphemism for it (and also palliated the adulteration of those wines with less honorific liquors).

Things began to change for Châteauneuf du Pape during the 1920s, when the almost legendary Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié of Château Fortia organized many local vignerons to protect the integrity of their wines – and, not coincidentally, to command more respect and a commensurately better price for them. The group drew up a list of regulations for Châteauneuf du Pape that later became the model for all of France’s subsequent AOC legislation.

Baron_Pierre_Le_Roy_de_Boiseaumarié

Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié

With some small modifications, those regulations still govern the making of Châteauneuf du Pape. Thirteen grape varieties are permitted in the blend. These include Mourvèdre and Syrah, as well as lesser known varieties such as Picpoul, Cinsault, and Counoise; but far and away the most important grape is Grenache, which in the opinion of many achieves its greatest heights in Châteauneuf. Grenache has at times constituted almost 90% of the blend from some estates. More usual is something in the neighborhood of 60%; anything as low as 40% is uncommon, but it does occur. Domaine de la Solitude’s blend has tended to run around 60% Grenache, with the balance being Mourvèdre and Syrah and a small amount of Cinsault.

At the wild boar dinner that triggered this mental excursion to southern France, we opened two bottles of 17-year-old Domaine de la Solitude about two or three hours before serving them. While both were thoroughly enjoyable, the marked differences between the two provided a vivid lesson about bottle variation in older wines. The first bottle we poured had one of the loveliest aromas I’ve encountered in any wine: fresh, with distinct floral notes intermingled with wild berries and forest underbrush, the whole package delicate and persistent – so much so that several of us spent a long time just sniffing before we ever got around to tasting.

When we did, the wine on the palate was not as ethereal as the wine on the nose. It tasted rounder and more robust than the aroma suggested, less nuanced – though to preserve my reputation with our guests, it interacted very well indeed with the richness and savoriness of the boar.

The second bottle lacked the magical aromas of the first: It was more straightforward and more mature-smelling. Nevertheless, on the palate it seemed slightly fresher and a little bigger than the first bottle, and it too matched quite comfortably with the last tastes of boar and the first tastes of the cheeses that followed. The differences between the two bottles and how one could possibly account for them also provided food for a good deal of (fairly farfetched) speculation and amusement. That, of course, is one of the great charms not just of Châteauneuf du Pape, but any good wine.

A Quick Report on Spain

May 26, 2015

While I wasn’t in Spain on a wine trip, I didn’t – of course – stop drinking wine, or at least trying to. Which didn’t turn out to be as easy as you might think, in the nation that boasts the world’s largest acreage of vineyards.

Old head-trained vines in Extremadura

 

We were staying in mostly simple rural hotels and eating at mostly simple rural cafes and restaurants – it was a birding trip, after all – where wine lists were brief (occasionally nonexistent) and concentrated on very local wines. Most of the people around us were drinking beer and soft drinks (Coca Cola seems to have Spain in thrall), even when – as we discovered is quite usual in Spain – wine is included in the price of the meal.

On some occasions, this was completely understandable. We had one or two meals where the local wine on offer gave plonk a good name. We also had two or three occasions when we were able to get quite good wines. But most of the time it was pretty ordinary stuff, drinkable and pleasant but in no way memorable. So there will no great revelations here (I’m at least as disappointed as you are), just a brief recounting of the most interesting bottles we hit upon.

Oh! One surprise, before I get started: Sherry is now next to impossible to find in Spain. I remember that in the past it was ubiquitous, and even simple bars offered a choice of finos, plus a manzanilla and/or an amontillado, with usually a PX lurking somewhere among the bottles. But not now. We hit upon the occasional fino, and once a manzanilla, but that was it for Sherry. We’d gotten better choices on our Iberia flights than we did in the rural parts of the peninsula.

The most widely available wine we found was, not surprisingly, Rioja, and we were pleased to drink it when it was offered. Several producers were not familiar to me (which was predictable), and the most widely available of the bigger, regularly imported producers was the ever-reliable Cune. A Cune 2007 Riserva was the one of the two oldest wines we drank on the trip – very enjoyable, with real elegance and restraint. Most wines were considerably younger, with four- or five-year-old Crianza Rioja serving as the major mature wine on most of the simple wine lists we saw.

 

Three Riojas

.

The Parador de Cervera, in the Castile and Leon region, provided the one significant exception: a lovely bottle of Rioja Riserva 2008 from RemelluriRemelluri. A little post-trip research revealed that this was a truly traditional producer, whose 140 hectares of vineyards straddle the Rioja Alevesa and the Rioja Alta. Its Rioja Riserva contained not just Tempranillo but also Garnacia and Graciano, plus the white grapes Viura and Malvasia. This is – or was – the traditional kind of mixture of grapes that made Rioja, just as Chianti used to contain a mixture of white grapes and local red varieties beyond Sangiovese. I am happy to report that it made a very, very elegant wine, serene and harmonious – the best wine of our trip.

.

White wines presented a much more mixed picture. Where Tempranillo was the ubiquitous, workhorse grape variety among reds, no single variety dominated among the whites. We had some decent and some indifferent Albarinos and Verdejos, as well as a number of whites blended of local varieties either unnamed or indecipherable on the label. Some of these latter showed a touch of fresh citric fruit and minerality, some were just blah.

.

Four white wines

.

The best of the whites, for freshness, pleasing, racy fruit, and consistent enjoyability, were unquestionably those fermented from a grape the labels called Macabeo. This turned out to be another name for the grape most of us know better as Viura. I was familiar with it from Catalonia, where it is blended into Cava, as well as being vinified and bottled solo. It appears to be the most popular white grape in the Rioja region also, which means that, with those strongholds in the northwest and southeast of the country, Viura/Macabeo amounts to the most widely available white wine in Spain – which is a fine thing, since it makes so pleasing a wine.

.

Finally, I need to say a word about Spanish brandy. Spanish brandy looks and tastes very different from French: usually darker and sweeter, often with a slightly caramelized edge. It’s not what I want every day, but it follows a large Spanish dinner very well – and dinners all tend to be large, so we had recourse to it more often than we expected during our stay.

There are two chief kinds, both very fine: Sherry-based brandy – Brandy de Jerez – and brandy from, and based on, Malaga. Sherry is self-explanatory, but Malaga may need some introduction. The Sherry region lies northwest of Gibraltar, while Malaga lies about the same distance northeast. Its rich, dark dessert wine, made from Pedro Ximénez and a variety of Muscat grapes, used to be quite famous, but went even more deeply than most into the eclipse that the world’s great dessert wines endured. Lately, Malaga shows some signs of reviving as a wine, but it has never lost favor as the source of some of Spain’s best brandies. We enjoyed both kinds. Of the Jerez brandies, our favorites were Cardinal Mendoza, Gran Duque d’Alba, and Lepanto. Of the Malaga brandies, our hands-down favorite was 1866, which is a great brandy by any measure.

P.S. Diane’s blog has a post about some of the things we ate in Spain.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 236 other followers