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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is my first post of the new year, and it’s really not so much a post as a preview of posts to come. Late in 2020 (a year that will live in infamy), Diane asked a provocative question: “If you could only ever drink a dozen of all the wines we have in storage, which would you choose?” She followed with an even more provocative statement: “After all, we’re not kids any more; it could come to that.”

Needless to say, in the middle of a Covid pandemic and in the face of the approaching new year – hell, new decade, which it is extremely unlikely that I’ll see the end of – this set me to thinking about which of my wines I would absolutely want to be sure of tasting. It also got me brooding about how long it would take, with regular consumption, to drink my cellar dry, but that is an entirely separate problem for me and my liver to work out. The immediate question was which 12 would I choose – and, of course, why those?

Let me cut to the chase. Here are the dozen bottles I selected. They are in no particular order, because there was none to their choosing.

2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja
2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)
1981 Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico DOC, Giuseppe Quintarelli
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach
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Eight Italian wines, four French, one of each nation white, the rest all red. I wonder what that says about me? Or does it say anything at all? I’ll leave that for you to answer as you will: Just keep in mind what your answer will say about you.

Well after the fact, I realized that the principle of selection behind these 12 wines was simple, even obvious. There was an aspect of each one that I wanted to check on: the vintage, or the grape(s), or the maker, or some unusual viticultural element, or simply how well the wine was aging. Maybe a little personal projection and concern behind that last bit of curiosity, but nevertheless a subject of genuine interest. I’ve got a lot of ’01 Barolo and Barbaresco squirreled away, and it’s now almost 20 years since that vintage was harvested — though, truth to tell, I keep thinking of it as still a young, recent vintage, so all the more reason for a reality check.

Anyhow, there they are. It’s my intention to taste and write up one of them a month as a sort of continuing thread through whatever else 2021 may bring. I hope it will sustain your interest as much as it already piques mine.

And – lest I forget – Happy (I hope truly happy, prosperous, and healthy) New Year to you all!

 

 

Who says I’m too old to believe in Santa Claus? Taub Family Selections just provided four samples of Fonterutoli’s newly released best wines for me to try, and that’s one of the nicest Christmas packages I’ve received in a long time. Vicoregio 36, Castello Fonterutoli, Badiòla – all 2017 vintage, all Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – and 2018 Siepi IGT are the bottles in question, and opening them was a big holiday treat.

Fonterutoli is the Mazzei family. That tiny hamlet in the heart of the Chianti Classico country has been the family seat since the middle of the 15th century, and the Mazzei have been deeply involved in Tuscan wine since at least 1435.

That adds up to many generations of wine know-how and experience, which the present generations have used to keep their wines at the forefront of Tuscan production. The Mazzei have steadily pushed for the improvement of Chianti Classico: They were deeply involved in the Chianti Consortium’s Chianti 2000 project for instance, one of whose results shows in the 36 clones of Sangiovese that make up Vicoregio. And Siepi was one of the earliest – for my palate one of the most successful – of what used to be known as supertuscans, the wines that are credited with pushing Tuscan (and subsequently all Italian) winemaking into the modern age.

(A necessary aside: I’m very happy that “supertuscan” as a phrase is fading from use. I’ve always thought that the real supertuscans are the wines made with indigenous varieties, chief of them Sangiovese: Brunello, Carmignano, Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Wines made from “international” varieties can be very fine, but they are rarely truly Tuscan in character. I would rate Siepi as one of the few exceptions to that, insofar as Merlot – its “international” component – has shown itself to be one of those varieties that have adapted best to the soils and climates of the Chianti Classico zone.)

I have been a steady admirer of Fonterutoli wines for several decades now, and there was nothing in these four bottles to change my opinion. With the proviso that all are very young and showing a small touch of bottle shock, they all impressed with their separate but equal expressions of their grapes and terroirs, and all promised interesting evolutions as they age.
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Vicoregio 36, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

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This wine originates in the Mazzei’s southernmost vineyards, in the commune of Castelnuovo Berardenga, and it reflects the huskiness of the wines of that area. It shows a rich, grapey nose, earthy, and a touch smoky (that may be the barrels), with a hint of dried figs. These elements all follow through on the palate. A smooth, round, mid-weight wine, with excellent Sangiovese character and a big, dry-fruit finish. Very fine for immediate drinking or keeping for five or more years.
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Castello Fonterutoli, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

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This is the family’s flagship wine, sourced entirely from the home vineyards surrounding the village of Fonterutoli. It displays the same aroma and flavor characteristics as the Vicoregio but feels lighter in body and higher in tone, simply more elegant overall – very typical of the best Chiantis from the heart of the zone. I tasted a wonderful zing of wild cherry in the mouth and the finish. An excellent wine, for immediate drinking or keeping for five to ten years.
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Badiòla, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

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The vines that make this wine grow in Radda at 570 meters, the highest altitude of any of the Fonterutoli wines. They are 100% Sangiovese, and they fill the wine with wild cherry notes from aroma through palate to finish. The other aroma and flavor components are like those of the two preceding wines, only more so, with an extremely long finish. This is about as elegant as a Chianti gets. Very, very fine: good drinking now but structured, I would guess, for a much longer haul.
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Siepi, IGT Toscana 2018

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Composed of 50% Sangiovese and 50% Merlot, this is a darker wine in all respects than the Chianti Classicos. It’s rounder and softer – smells and tastes of mulberry. On the palate, that mulberry merges nicely with the Sangiovese cherry. The wine is big and soft in the mouth (the Merlot showing its stuff), very composed and balanced. For all the Merlot, it shows some genuine Tuscan character in its fine acid balance. Truly, a one-of-a-kind wine, unique and fine.
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To sum up:  Siepi is a kind of wine I admire, but the three Chiantis are the kind of wines I love. Can’t help it: I’m old-fashioned – so let me wish you an old-fashioned Merry Christmas and a very Happy post-Covid New Year!

Everybody needs everyday wines, especially at this time of year. But make no mistake: My emphasis is on good everyday wines, not just anything because it’s cheap. Obviously, inexpensiveness is an added attraction, but goodness comes first. I long ago decided that life is too short to ever drink mediocre wine, so even though I could never afford those legendary, crème de la crème bottles that headline so many ads, I’ve worked hard to ensure that the wines that accompany my daily bread are pleasurable, respectably made, and honorable examples of their breed.

What I’m going to talk about now are some wines that I can pretty reliably find in my vicinity. Let me offer a caveat about that: With the vagaries of importation and distribution, the variations of harvests, both qualitatively and quantitatively, compounded by the impact that Covid has had all around the world, none of us can ever be sure that the wine that is in shops this week will be available anywhere next month. That said, here are some wines that I have been enjoying for a few months now and hope to continue drinking for a good while yet.

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Whites

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A staple white wine that I can almost always get because it’s from close to home is Paumanok Vineyards’ Festival Chardonnay. If worse comes to worst, I can drive out to Long Island’s North Fork and carry some home from the vineyard. This wine is everything that basic, unoaked Chardonnay ought to be. Fresh and vigorous, with lovely, clean fruit and a sound structure, it will serve as an aperitif wine as pleasantly as it accompanies dinner. True to its Long Island heritage, it especially loves fish and shellfish.

Another equally versatile white wine is Pra’s beautiful Soave Classico Otto. Many people underestimate Soave. This wine shines with an intense minerality that will remind those drinkers of a really nice Chablis. The ones who already know Soave’s many virtues will appreciate the fruit and life and balance of this fine example of the breed. It may be my favorite Soave of them all, and I don’t exclude Pieropan from that consideration. Certainly, for everyday drinking, and in its price range, it’s matchless.

One more Italian white wine has recently become available in my area: the charmingly and appropriately named Il Gentiluomo, a 100% Cortese wine from Paolo Pizzorni, in the Monferrato zone of the Piedmont. I’m hoping this one stays in the market for a while, because it is a lovely, simple wine, medium-bodied and deliciously fruity, with excellent balance. It works with all sorts of light dishes from meat antipasti to roasted chicken. It particularly loves veal in all forms, from scallops to roasts.

We used to keep a lot of basic white Burgundies around for everyday use: They have a combination of fuller body and terroir character that makes them quite distinctive and intriguing. But Burgundy prices have begun another of their periodic ascents into the stratosphere. While there are still a good number of wines suitable for everyday use, their price now makes that inadvisable for most people. Your best hope, if you must have a Burgundy (and who, occasionally, does not?), will be to look for wines from Mâcon or Mâcon-Villages, but you will have to shop sharply.

You would be better advised to shift your attention northward to Alsace, where almost every producer offers a basic blended wine at an attractive price. Hugel’s Gentil is an excellent example of the breed, enjoyable in itself and extremely versatile with food.

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Reds

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Red wines offer more questions and more choices. After all, the wines range from light and understated to formidable, and the foods they’re asked to accompany are similarly varied in intensity and spicing. Especially in warm weather, I like to keep some Beaujolais on hand. The crus are my favorites – Fleurie, Juliénas, Chiroubles, Morgon, Chénas – but I also have a fondness for Jean-Paul Brun’s Terre Dorée basic Beaujolais, L’Ancien, which has plenty of character to pair with its charm and vivacity. His cru wines are also fine, but there are now many good producers of those available, so it is worth trying several to see whose style pleases you.

Still in the French range, Côtes du Rhône wines are always useful. The named villages are best, though they can get pricy – but careful shopping will almost always net you a Gigondas or Vacqueyras at a decent price. There are many makers, some quite small operations, so it’s impossible to predict what will be in any particular market, but IMO they’re all worth a try.

We drink a lot of Italian reds at casa Maresca, and it’s a frequently changing cast of characters, depending on what’s available. Distributors seem to have synchronized cycles: One season the shops will be filled with Tuscan wines, another it will be Piedmonts, with other regions’ reds getting whatever shelf space is left. That’s a shame, because there are fine, inexpensive red wines pouring out of every part of Italy, and a high percentage of them are well worth a taste.

I like to keep a lot of basic Chianti Classico around because of Sangiovese’s versatility with food, and there are many good ones available at quite decent prices, particularly the best wines of the best co-ops, which lack the prestige and therefore the market clout of the best estate wines. Lately I’ve been drinking with great pleasure a lot of Clemente VII and Panzano, both produced by Castelli del Grevepesa.

Equally adaptable with a whole range of foods is Barbera. This is a grape that, because of its naturally high acidity, can happily match with almost anything. For my palate, the greater body and more restrained acidity of Barbera d’Alba works best, but Barbera d’Asti, often accurately described as “racy,” has many partisans. There are many makers of both kinds, ranging from some of the most famous names in the zone (Ceretto, Gaja, Vietti) to some of the smaller growers (Oddero, Barale), and prices can consequently be all over the place, but patient shopping can usually reward with a really pretty wine at an attractive price.

When it comes to softer, less acidic everyday reds, you’ve got good choices from all over Italy. Here are my current favorites.
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  • Dolcetto, from the same zones as Barbera and from many of the same makers – but look for Dogliani, a subzone so distinguished that it has won the right to use its own name rather than Dolcetto.
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  • Valpolicella Classico, not Superiore, and definitely not Ripasso. The Classico has rediscovered the simple charm that once made Valpolicella one of Italy’s most popular wines. Brigaldara makes a nice one.
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  • Lacryma Christi, from the slopes of Vesuvius, a soft-bodied, round, and mineral-inflected wine that matches wonderfully with pasta and pizza and sauced or braised meats. There are now a fair number of producers intermittently available in the US, but you will never go wrong with a bottle from Mastroberardino, the once – and maybe future – king of Campanian wines.
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Let us hope that the new year brings us whole tides of enjoyable, affordable wines like these. Covid and its consequences aside – this too shall pass – we are blessed to live in a golden age of winemaking, and there is no reason not to enjoy this abundance while it and we last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take my word for it: This is a rarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ode to Ordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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