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I don’t have much 25-year-old-Barolo stored away. I like Barolo too much, and I tend, despite my best judgment, to drink it too young – just to see how it’s getting along, you know. This bottle I was hoping would be very special: It’s from one of the most traditional growers and winemakers in the whole zone.

I don’t suppose either of those – producer or appellation – need much comment from me. Barolo is one of the most famous of Italian wines. It’s vinified entirely from Nebbiolo grapes grown in a very tight zone just southwest of the city of Alba in the eastern Piedmont. Borgogno is one of the longest-established and best-known firms in the area. Headquartered in the town of Barolo, Borgogno was run by the same family from 1761 until 2008. In that year, it was acquired by the Farinetti family, who have dedicated themselves to perpetuating the house techniques and style. So: still cement tanks for fermentation, still big – and I do mean big – Slavonic oak barrels for aging, still meticulous, increasingly organic techniques in the fields and the grape handling, still minimal intervention in the cellar. Borgogno’s character and reputation seem secure.
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In most vintage charts of Barolo, the years 1996 through 2001 are a series of exclamation points, each of them given whatever is the top rating in that particular chart. On Poderi Colla’s chart, which is one I trust, those vintages are all five-star. 1995 doesn’t quite make that level: it’s only given four stars, which is normally pretty impressive, but looks puny compared to the string of vintages that followed it. Nevertheless, I’ve often gotten great pleasure out of such overshadowed vintages. (Economy-conscious buyers take note: many such under-rated vintages make excellent buys, whether for immediate drinking or long-term aging.)  As for my 1995 – if Borgogno thought enough of the vintage to make a riserva, my bottle might be a treasure indeed.

Since we don’t drink a bottle this potentially precious every day, Diane and I thought long and hard about a meal to set it off properly. We finally opted for forward flavors and simple preparations:  For a first course, Diane would make a classic gougère; for a main course, a hanger steak – a very gamey, juicy cut – simply grilled and accompanied by a sauté of leeks and Marconi peppers, and some cremini mushrooms in a little bit of a spicy sauce. Dessert, if we and the wine made it that far, would be pears and gorgonzola al cucchaio – well blued ‘zola so creamy and runny that it’s scooped rather than cut.

Not to keep you in suspense, we got a winner. From the moment I pulled the cork, I knew we were in for a treat: beautiful fruity aromas – raspberry and cherry especially – popped right out.

I let the wine breathe about two hours in the bottle before pouring it alongside the warm gougère. Lovely, just lovely: balanced and serene, velvet on the tongue, with a whole palate of fruit and forest flavors.

Chestnut and mushroom notes emerged as it developed in the glass: these became especially prominent with the beef and its accompanying mushrooms.

The wine tasted wonderful with everything: seemingly, nothing could disturb its perfect equilibrium. This was probably the most prominent and important characteristic of this 26-year-old Barolo: its harmoniousness, what I meant earlier by calling it serene. It conveyed an amazing and almost reassuring sense of completeness, as if it could not be anything other than the velvet nectar it was.

.Neither we nor the Barolo made it to the cheese course.

Even by my own leisurely standards, I’m late getting a new post in place. That’s because Diane and I just managed ten marvelous days in Rome, a trip long overdue, thanks to Covid.

We revisited many of our favorite Roman sites, and as many as we could manage of our favorite restaurants and wine bars. Some of the latter have not survived the plague-related closures: We especially missed Angolo Divino*, a stand-by spot for a simple, light lunch and a great selection of wines by the glass, as well as in bottles. Happily, many others were still in business, and we were able to visit enough of them to taste a nice selection of local wines, my particular interest being the Lazio red variety Cesanese.

Cesanese seemed to be widely available this trip, so much so that a few waiters even spoke of it as a typical Roman red. You would think that would be the case, since it’s grown in the hills not far from Rome, but its availability is actually a recent development, one of the many results of modern Italy’s rediscovery of its own culinary and viticultural traditions.

When I first started traveling to Italy, Rome’s red wine was Chianti – not necessarily Classico (it was rarely so specified) and often sfuso – drawn from a tank or barrel. In those days – the late 1970s and early ‘80s – Rome’s white wine was rarely identified by any other name than bianco, and it was usually verging on brown. Much has changed for the better since then, and Rome’s current pride in Cesanese counts heavily in that score.

Perhaps there was a golden age of Cesanese in Rome’s more distant past. Ian d’Agata, in Native Wine Grapes of Italy, lists several popes as fans of the wine, and it seems to have always been popular with the growers, as the vine’s presence all through the Lazio region indicates. Currently there are three DOCs: the relatively minor and rare Cesanese di Affile, and two more important ones, Cesanese di Olevana Romano, actually produced quite close to Rome, and Cesanese del Piglio, now a DOCG and grown in the hills around towns like Agnani and Acuto. This area is what you could call deep Lazio, where traditions die hard and “Forz’ Azzura!” always means the Lazio soccer team and never the hated Roma club.

Cesanese is not an easy grape to grow: It ripens late and unreliably, but many winemakers – and increasing numbers of consumers – think it is worth the effort. Ian d’Agata waxes rhapsodic about it:

[T]here really are many fine cesaneses made today. The better wines are ripe red-cherry fruit bombs, with aromas of delicate sweet spices (a hint of cinnamon and of white pepper) and red rose petals, and come across as luscious and creamy. I can’t stress enough the wonderful, delicately aromatic nose that a well-made cesanese is endowed with: one whiff and you’ll be hooked for life.

In Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson speaks of Cesanese’s “velvety tannins and a distinctive perfume reminiscent of mulberries and pimento.”

I tasted a good number of Cesaneses in my all-too-few days in Rome – those are the label photos that punctuate this post – and I was in fact uniformly struck by the wine’s softness: It really coddles your tongue and palate. And I did find their aromas attractive, though elusive and difficult to pin down, and definitely not uniform: They seemed to me to vary greatly from producer to producer.

Most important, Cesanese proved to be a fine food wine, matching very happily with a wide variety of dishes, from antipasti both cold and hot, through a range of Roman pastas, to meats and fowl grilled or cooked moist, usually in sweet/acid tomato sauces. I found Cesaneses to be thoroughly enjoyable wines, whether with food or by themselves. The ones I tasted were nowhere near the caliber of the great Barolos and Amarones – perhaps someday they will be – but they are also nowhere near the price of such wines. In Roman restaurants, Cesaneses went for a third to a quarter of the price asked for Barolo. For their actual quality and great enjoyability, that is bargain-basement pricing.

The biggest problem Cesanese presents the American wine lover is finding it. Some are coming into this country, but not in great volume – a problem that the Covid-caused shipping delays have only exacerbated. You will have to search for a bottle of Cesanese, that’s certain. But I assure you, from my experience of them, they’re worth the effort, whether you root for Lazio or Roma or even Tom Brady.

 

* The very week after we left Rome, Angolo Divino apparently reopened. See Charles Scicolone’s post about it.

 

This, the antepenultimate bottle of my 12 cellar selections for 2021, Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Émile 1989 Vendange Tardive, qualifies as a rarity for me: a late-harvest wine with more than 30 years of age.

You can think of vendange tardive as a rough French equivalent of German Auslese or even Beerenauslese wines. These are often exquisite nectars of lovely sweetness enlivened by good acidity – at their best among the world’s finest dessert wines. I’m not a great fan of dessert wines but I was hoping that Alsace’s reliably assertive acidity would balance out the wine’s residual sugar to create an intense and rarified dinner wine.

The Trimbach family has been making wine in Alsace for nearly five centuries, so they are obviously doing many things right. Chief among them is their Riesling expertise, shown most conspicuously in their single-vineyard Clos Sainte Hune, probably Alsace’s most esteemed wine. But all Trimbach’s Rieslings are excellent, and I am especially fond of its Cuvée Frédéric Émile, a fully dry wine that – at a very fair price for its quality – always balances intense minerality with fine Riesling fruit and typical Alsace acidity. Those are the qualities I was hoping to enjoy in my 30-year-old bottle of the Vendange Tardive.

Trimbach makes vendanges tardives only in exceptional years, using Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling or Muscat grapes, generally affected by noble rot, from its best vineyards. It characterizes the wines as intense and with exceptional finish: suited to foie gras, rich creamy dishes, blue cheeses, washed-rind cheeses, and velvety desserts. It calls its Cuvée Frédéric Émile Riesling, rare even among Trimbach’s vendanges tardives, “the treasure that Riesling lovers dream of having in their cellars.”

Well, with this 1989 bottle, this Riesling lover hit the jackpot.

Initially, I had been a bit worried about the condition of the wine. The bottle showed some ullage, the capsule was domed, and the foil showed some staining, as if it might have leaked. I feared I might have a dead wine on my hands. But the cork came out clean, and a quick sniff of the bottle was very reassuring: an intense and remarkably fresh whiff of classic Riesling.

In the glass, the wine showed the dark amber color that one expects of a long-aged white wine, and it still smelled and tasted fresh, despite its 32 years of age. I even tasted hints of that “diesel” flavor that Riesling appassionati speak of, which they consider a signal of highly desirable varietal typicity.

There were the merest hints of sweetness on the palate, all beautifully balanced by enlivening acidity and fine minerality; with a smooth, mouth-filling medium-to-full body: in all, a truly impressive and totally distinctive wine. It harmoniously accompanied a bloc of mi-cuit foie gras, which further emphasized its sapidity – a word I know sounds pretentious, but is the only adequate one for this remarkable wine.

Vendages tardives are not wines for every day, but they can make any day special indeed. I am very happy this bottle survived my far-less-than-perfect storage conditions so well.

To put you out of no-doubt-intolerable suspense, my answer to that question is yes.

I’ve been drinking some Brunellos lately that are getting positively burly – and that, to my mind, is definitely the wrong way for a Sangiovese wine to go. Sangiovese is a grape whose character is gracile, not muscular, like a sculpture rather than a quarry. Sangiovese makes a wine of elegance and suppleness, even delicacy, a wine of nuance and complexity, not a push in the face.
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It’s been a few years now since I’ve been able to attend the Brunello Consortium’s annual new release event in Montalcino, so I can’t claim to be fully up to date on the broad spectrum of Brunellos. This opinion piece is based on my recent experience of some young and youngish Brunellos, bottles from solid if not stellar producers, who represent to my mind a fair sampling of what the large middle ground of Montalcino winemakers have been up to in recent years – and I’m not happy with it.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying these are bad wines. Far from it. Many of the bottles I’ve tasted lately, wines like Val di Cava 2010 and Le Gode 2012 and Mastrojanni 2015, have been very enjoyable. But they have been big, and high alcohol, and they seem to be pursuing a model of winemaking that I think is a misdirection for Brunello, one that if followed to its logical conclusion will result in a wine that I for one will no longer recognize as Brunello di Montalcino.

Just the other evening, to test my palatal memory and to make sure I wasn’t imagining this whole problem, I opened a bottle of Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s Brunello Riserva 1999.

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(Believe me when I say I’m very aware of the difference between a mature wine and a young one. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know how to taste a young wine to discern what its aging and maturation potential is. Almost all the reports I’ve ever written about Brunello new releases – and they have been many – have demanded that kind of palatal knowledge.)

Donatella’s wine was lovely, everything I think a Brunello should be: Balanced and mouth-filling, without being in any way heavy, rich with mature fruit flavors while still subtle and nuanced, complex and changing with every dish, from a spicy rabbit pâté to poulet Marengo (the whole deal, with fried bread and poached eggs), to a gorgeous ripe pont l’éveque. Never aggressive but always responsive, not insisting on its own primacy but establishing its greatness by its gracefulness.

That is exactly what I am not tasting in the younger Brunellos I’ve recently drunk, and that is what worries me. Maybe it’s resulting from global warming and the steadily increasing heat in many wine zones, with consequent super-ripeness. Or maybe it’s resulting from young winemakers playing their version of who’s the toughest kid on the block. I can’t answer that, and I’d be very interested to hear from other Brunello lovers about whether their experience tallies with mine and how they account for it.

All I’m really sure of is this: that I feel very strongly that the Brunello I have loved for many decades now is slipping away.

Kerin O’Keefe, in her landmark book, Brunello di Montalcino, describes her early experiences learning Italy’s great wines: “While I relished discovering those glorious Barolos, it was Brunello, exceedingly elegant and vibrant, with more complexity than muscle, that won my heart.” That’s an assessment that’s hard to better: lively, vibrant elegance, complexity and nuance foregrounded over power. I couldn’t agree more. What I’m worried about is that muscle – always easier to achieve than elegance, especially in warmer and warmer vintages – is pushing elegance out the door.

Wine lovers are obsessed with places, and no place is more renowned than the hill of Corton, in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits.

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Geography, geology, and microclimate are only the start of its near-legendary status. Add in over 1400 years of continuous viniculture, started by the direct intervention of Charlemagne and followed by centuries of labor by laymen and monks, to culminate in secular fame in the 19th Century and an explosion of celebrity in the 20th. Bottles of this hill’s best wines now sell for prices that probably would have purchased an entire hamlet in the 19th century.

From the beginning, Corton was famous for red wines, which still account for the bulk of its production. Its one great white is only a small part of the AOC, and a surprisingly late addition: Chardonnay doesn’t seem to have arrived there until the middle of the 19th century. Almost all the white comes to the market bearing the name of Corton’s great progenitor: hence Corton Charlemagne, grown on the western slope of the hill (an unusual siting in Burgundy).

These days, a huge percentage of that single contiguous vineyard is farmed, vinified, and bottled by Bonneau du Martray, the family that has owned the vineyards for more than 150 years. Its Corton Charlemagne is a benchmark for white Burgundy, but it does also farm a small amount – about one hectare – of Pinot noir to make red Corton Grand Cru, the wine I am celebrating today. Its 2001 edition, now a ripe 20 years old, is my September Cellar Selection.
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Most Burgundy buffs will think this more than a little perverse, since Bonneau du Martray’s red wine is usually regarded as considerably inferior to its white. But, as my wife and many friends will probably happily testify, I am nothing if not perverse.

Besides, whether or not Bonneau du Martray’s red is in fact inferior to its white, the red is still a Grand Cru from a site famous for red wine and a bargain compared to its white sibling; and – perhaps most important – I’ve been cellaring this 2001 bottle for a long time and I really wanted to find out just how good it is. I may be perverse, but I am neither patient nor immortal, and this inquiring mind wants to know.

I don’t drink Burgundy Grand Cru every day – nor every year, for that matter – so I asked Diane to prepare a meal that would give it a real chance to show its best. She opted to make an elaborate steak au poivre with a creamy mustard sauce, gratin dauphinois potatoes, and peas braised with shallots and butter: a complex set of dishes that should put any red wine on its mettle.
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First course would be simple, a few tortellini in brodo, and after the steak we would finish with some cheese – a slab of young Brebis, a nice sheep milk cheese, and a round of a good, ripe, stinky Camembert. That, I thought with real anticipation, is a fine test-your-red-wine dinner.

Well, then reality raised its ugly head, as it always does. When I nonchalantly started to pull the cork, it crumbled to pieces. I would have to strain and decant the wine. And the condition of that cork was worrisome: Would the wine be sound?  Keen anticipation gave way to anxious worrying. I hate reality.

I needn’t have worried. The wine was wonderful, and it performed equally gracefully with every dish of the meal. In retrospect, I would say that the condition of the wine was directly inverse to the condition of the cork. That Corton was plain and simply great. It didn’t send me into the kind of lengthy-catalog-of-fruit-flavors-and-multiple-strained-metaphors rhapsody that I have heard and read far too often from passionate Burgundy buffs, but I loved it from the first sniff of the glass to the last sip of the nectar.

The nose was rich and elegant, redolent of forest floor and mushrooms: a fully mature aroma, I would call it. On the palate, it was graceful, mouth-filling without being heavy, and long, with flavors of dried plum and cherries, mushrooms and leather, and overall great polish. The fine finish lingered long in the mouth.

This was not a powerful wine but a wine of supreme . . . sophistication, in its best sense, is almost the only word. It was together, it was complete, it was serene. It has been a very long while since I’ve drunk a Corton Charlemagne, but I find it hard to believe this red Corton could have been very far inferior to it, no matter what the conventional opinion holds.

In my not very often very humble opinion, Châteauneuf du Pape blanc is one of the most consistently under-rated and under-celebrated wines in the whole often-over-rated French wine pantheon. At its least, white Châteauneuf makes an unusual, gutsy glassful of flavors uncommon in white wines. At its best, it can offer a remarkable experience of depth and complexity that, to my mind and palate, are far more profound than that provided by most Chardonnay-based wines.

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I’m not trying to be polemical here, I just call them as I see them. I really love these wines, and I really love many fine white Burgundies as well, but it seems to me that a lot of reflex genuflection before hallowed Burgundian idols has replaced actually tasting the wines and making your own comparisons. Be honest with yourself: when was the last time you – thoughtfully – drank a Châteauneuf du Pape blanc?  One with ten or more years of cellaring?  I’m willing to bet that for most readers of this post, and for most wine lovers generally, the answer is something on the order of “Gosh, I can’t remember.”

What prompted this outburst was a gorgeous bottle of Vieux Télégraphe blanc 2016 that Diane and I and two good friends recently enjoyed. It accompanied – flawlessly – a New Orleanian sausage and oyster gumbo, a tricky dish of complex flavors and assertive spicing that the Châteauneuf seemed to love as if it were a long-lost friend. The wine adapted to every nuance of the gumbo without losing any of its own strong character, without sacrificing any of its depth and complexity. We all loved it, and I wish I had more of it: That, alas, was my last bottle. I had only had a few, and I drank them all too soon: Lovely as they were, they had years of development still in front of them.

That is another characteristic of these great wines:  They are enjoyable and distinctive at almost any age. In their youth, multiple fresh fruit flavors will dominate the palate. As they age, those flavors will darken and deepen, surrendering some freshness and acquiring a battery of mature flavors, meaty, leathery, mushroomy flavors that will open more and more in the glass and alter with the food that accompanies them.

Make no mistake: at any age, white Châteauneuf is a food wine par excellence. It will match with anything from a simply grilled fish – I think it’s terrific with boned shad – to a spicy mélange like our gumbo to any imaginable white meat presentation, from Wiener schnitzel to poulet à l’ancienne and beyond. For the life of me, I can’t understand why a wine this versatile and enjoyable isn’t better known and more popular. Selfishly, I’m also happy about that: There isn’t a lot of white Châteauneuf, and it’s pricey enough already. Not Burgundy pricey, nor at all priced above the quality it delivers, but pricey enough that I don’t drink it every day – alas.

Almost every Châteauneuf estate of any merit produces a small quantity of white wine, and because of the large variety of grapes permitted by the AOC regulations, there can be many intriguing differences among them. Trying a few of them is interesting in itself, as well as is measuring their differing responses to the foods you pair with them. The principal white grape varieties used are Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Bourboulenc, and Counoise. Despite the prestige of Viognier, the most frequently used grapes are Roussanne and Marsanne, probably followed by Grenache blanc. All the growers have their own preferred blend, usually – not surprisingly – reflecting what grows most successfully in their own fields. It makes for a richly various range of wines that are always fun to explore.
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Just for the record: some of my favorite Châteauneuf du Pape whites come from Beaucastel, Mont Olivet, Mont Redon, La Nerthe, and of course my lovely Vieux Télégraphe.

 

This, my eighth cellar selection for 2021, is a wine that in theory I ought to completely disapprove of, but in fact I love. I ought to disapprove of Montevetrano because its blend of French and Italian grapes doesn’t taste very Italian. But I love it because it’s simply a magnificent wine: The older it gets the more it reminds me of Chateau Lafite. And that, as every wino knows, is nothing to sneeze at.

Montevetrano is the love child of Silvia Imparato, who brought it forth with the help of her friend Riccardo Cotarella, who at the time (the early 1990s) was not quite the monumental presence he has since become in Italian wine.

Imparato brought to her family property in the hills behind Salerno a love of Campania’s indigenous grapes. Cotarella brought an eye for the land’s potential and a fondness for Cabernet and Merlot. Imparato wanted to do something that would provide decent work for the region’s young people and that would serve as a benchmark for the quality and potential of southern Italian winemaking. Cotarella agreed and felt that the way to achieve all their aims was to make a world-class wine.

They succeeded almost from the start:

  • Daniele Cernilli routinely refers to Montevetrano as “a kind of Campanian Sassicaia,” which should make clear the kind of stature it holds among Italian cognoscenti.
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  • Bibenda, the annual guide of the Association of Italian Sommeliers, regularly awards it Cinque Grappoli, its highest ranking, and usually describes it in a long paragraph of rhapsodic Italian that credits it with, among other qualities, an aroma that embraces blueberries, mulberries, and black raspberries as well as “pale tobacco,” not to mention an equally rich and complex palate and tremendous aging ability.
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  • The prose of Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines tends to be a bit more restrained, but it also routinely awards Montevetrano its highest rating, Tre Bicchieri – which, incidentally, it gave this 2003 vintage.
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  • And I’ve been mildly rhapsodical about the wine myself in the past, here and here.

Montevetrano began its career very Cabernet-heavy – maybe 90% of the blend the first year or two – but under Signora Imparato’s pressure – and Cotarella’s increasing appreciation of Campanian grapes – the percentage of Aglianico has grown steadily. The wine still has no DOC, only the humble Colli di Salerno IGT appellation.

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To my palate, in Montevetrano the Aglianico restrains the Cabernet, reins it in and potentiates its elegance rather than the raw power it often shows in other Italian blends. That raw character of Cabernet is one of the major reasons I strongly oppose its use in Tuscan wines: There, even a small amount of Cabernet can completely override the native Sangiovese, almost obliterating its presence in the blend. Aglianico seems to have enough strength of its own to withstand the Cabernet onslaught and to bend it into a far more interesting and very drinkable wine.

By the way, two new wines have been added to the Montevetrano line: Core red and white, the red a 100% Aglianico and the white a blend of Greco and Fiano. Both are fine. The name is a bilingual pun, on the Campanian dialect word for heart and the English word core – so an international name for the native-grape wine and a local place name for the internationalized wine. Italians love paradoxes.

Which, perhaps, explains why I so love this elegant Franco-Campanian bastard. General principles are fine and noble things. Any wine critic – any critic of anything – has to have ‘em. But they can’t override the data, and the evidence of my senses tells me every time that Montevetrano is a ravishing wine.

For this bottle this time, Diane roasted a duck – bronzed and crispy skinned and beautiful—and prepared a potato gallette and some seasonal vegetables: all fine foils for the richness of the wine. I opened the bottle about two hours before dinner time. Even with that head start, my Montevetrano kept changing all dinner long, opening further and adapting to the food, as a really fine wine always will.

The color was a beautiful deep, almost impenetrable garnet. The nose was deep and winey – very Bordeaux-like, with dark, mature fruit-and-leather notes. In the mouth, it was very smooth, with still-fresh notes of blackberry, plum and leather. “Rich and velvety” Diane called it, “plums turning into prunes,” but at the same time “extremely grapey.”  Fruit and leather, youth and age, all in lovely balance all through the wine.

The Aglianico’s acidity kept it supple, but it is unmistakably big, bigger than its 13.5 degrees of alcohol would seem to warrant. At the same time, the depth of Aglianico’s varietal character served to mollify the assertiveness of Cabernet. Together the two amalgamated into a harmonious third thing – very balanced, very big, very elegant, very powerful, but withal very restrained. Just a gorgeous wine, well worthy of all its accolades.

One final note: there was no hint that this wine was anywhere near the end of its run. It tasted as if it could easily have another ten or twenty tears of enjoyable life in it. Would that we all did!

The protagonist of Martin Walker’s mystery series, chief of police in a small Périgord town, is known to me as “Bruno, Chef de Cuisine,” because he spends as much time cooking as he does detecting. My beloved spouse, who consumes mystery novels the way other people eat candy, has needless to say noted this aspect of the stories and has in fact re-created for her blog several of Bruno’s feasts.

Most recently, she and her co-conspirator Hope put together one such dinner that required serious white wine accompaniment. That, of course, became my problem, and problem it was. Neither my household supply nor my local retail shops provided the sort of very localized Périgord wines that Bruno delights to serve. I had to be creative and find some that I hoped would be equivalent wines to match with Bruno’s – and Diane’s and Hope’s – dishes. You can see the details of the dinner in Diane’s blog. The wines I chose to accompany it were a Mâcon blanc, a Condrieu, and a Savennières.
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My first problem was that the author was not entirely helpful in talking about Bruno’s wines. He described only two bottles, which I can’t imagine would have been sufficient in kind or quantity for the variety of dishes and number of guests. His first wine was a Château du Rooy Bergerac blanc, a blend of to-me-unknown-percentages of Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Insofar as this was served as an apéritif with a splash of cassis – a kir – it presented no difficulties. All I needed for that was a good basic white wine, not too fruit-forward and with decent acidity, so almost any well-made simple white Burgundy would serve well. I had on hand a nice 2019 Mâcon-Villages from Michel Barraud that fit the bill perfectly, and made a beautifully refreshing kir to accompany a warm summer afternoon’s cooking.

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The same wine, minus the cassis, seems to have served Bruno as the first dinner wine, and this presented a bit more of a challenge. Bruno’s wine would have had a distinctive, spicy character, with – I’m guessing because he was serving it with foie gras – suggestions of sweetness without any actual sugar presence. Condrieu, with its rich Viognier character, suggested itself, and I was lucky enough to have lurking in my “cellar” a bottle of 2016 Condrieu La Chambée from Les Vins de Vienne.

Condrieu is a tiny appellation, and this wine is sourced from just two hectares of vineyards at different spots within it. It’s 100% Viognier, laboriously farmed on steep and rocky slopes above the Rhône by three devotees who make up the winery.

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The wines of Condrieu are famed for their complexity, depth, and distinctive combination of minerality and spicy fruit in the nose and on the palate. All that makes it a natural choice to accompany foie gras, exactly the sort of wine I think Bruno (or Martin Walker) would have chosen. Ours did not disappoint: Indeed, it made us aware how far short of foie gras our otherwise fine pâté de campagne fell. Memo to self: get more Condrieu, and above all, find some foie gras.

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Our third wine presented the greatest challenge of all: The only other wine mentioned at Bruno’s dinner (a gift from his guest the Baron) was from Vignobles Les Verdots, again a white Bergerac, vinified from approximately two-thirds Muscadelle and one-third Sauvignon gris. The producer’s website, not very modestly, says of it:

This wine figures among the great white wines of France. Rich, spicy, with mineral and fruit notes on the nose, a whiff of smoke and lightly toasted too. The palate is generous in aromas and flavor, with good body, minerality, well-balanced and exceptionally long. It is also elegantly packaged.

This bottle would have been served with Bruno’s main course of braised chicken in a wine, tarragon, and cream sauce. Now there’s a challenge!

I had a wine that, mutatis mutandis, might fit that description, but I’ve had it around for a while and I was beginning to worry about its soundness: a 2003 Coulée de Serrant Savennières from Nicolas Joly. I decided to give it a shot.

All Savennières wines are special: They originate only in a tight little zone of steep hills in the middle Loire, where the Chenin blanc from which they are exclusively vinified reaches heights of flavor and depths of character attainable nowhere else.
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Coulée de Serrant Vineyard

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Also, Savennières ages remarkably well, growing deeper and more profound for many years – though I was more than a little nervous, given the deficiencies of my storage, whether I might have gone too long with this particular bottle.

Another also: The winemaker, Nicolas Joly, is a bit of a wild man. The most famous grower of the zone, he was the first there to go biodynamic, and he did so with a vengeance: natural fertilizers spread by hand from cow horns on nights of the full moon – that sort of thing.

Nicolas Joly

So my bottle of Savennières was sure to be memorable: the question was whether that would be for good or for ill.

Appearances didn’t answer that: a very dark, old gold color didn’t tell us anything. The nose, however did, and the news was good: exotic aromas, of earth and mineral and woodruff and dried cranberry (yes!) indicated the wine was very much alive. The first taste confirmed it, the same elements as in the nose wrapped in a silken package, smooth on the palate, leaving an impression of great suavity and a finish that went on and on.

A totally distinctive wine, that not only went beautifully with our version of Bruno’s chicken dish but also made me wonder how it would taste with good bloc foie gras. Must get some foie gras! Bruno is a very lucky man, with his seemingly endless local supply.

 

Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, the seventh selection of my 12 special wines for 2021, has been a spectacular wine from the get-go. Back in 1975, the then-21-year-old winemaker created it outside the existing Friulian wine categories, from his own imagination and what his grandfather had told him about older Friulian ways of making wine.

Post-World War II, Friulian winemaking had become resolutely monovarietal. Many grape varieties were grown – especially white varieties – but they were always harvested and vinified separately to make 100% varietal wines: indigenous varieties like Tocai (now called Friulano) and Verduzzo and Picolit, as well as international (read French) varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. Friuli was a paradise of single-variety white wines.

Jermann’s grandfather told him about an earlier tradition: field mixes of several varieties and blended wines. Jermann was intrigued: He had visions of wines of greater complexity and far greater longevity than most of what he saw around him. With brashness and luck – and talent – he followed his own instincts, and in 1975 gave the Italian wine world what may well be, after over 40 years, its finest white wine: Vintage Tunina.
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This was and is a harmonious blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc (usually close to 80%), with the balance composed of Malvasia, Ribolla gialla, and Picolit. The exact percentage of each variety may vary from vintage to vintage, but those five have remained all along. And all along, Vintage Tunina has probably garnered more Tre Bicchieri, Cinque Grappoli, and paeans of praise than any other white wine in Italian history.
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Jermann Vineyards

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Back in November of 1998, at my first Salone Del Gusto in Torino, I attended a nine-vintage vertical tasting of Vintage Tunina: 1997, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1990, 1989, and 1987, ending with 1982. That last was a wonder vintage all across Europe, an opening salvo of global warming, bringing amazing ripeness to the grapes and major problems to farmers and vintners, who had never dealt with such heat before. I think of it as the first harvest of the new weather patterns, and hence a highly significant vintage to close a significant vertical tasting.

Because Vintage Tunina is both so important a wine and probably the least well known to wine drinkers of my chosen 12, I’d like to present a synopsis of my notes on that tasting, as a way of demonstrating what Vintage Tunina is all about.

1997.  Recently bottled and so fresh it seemed almost frizzante, but round and mouth-filling, with generous apple-and-orange fruit and a very long finish. An impressive, substantial wine.
1995.  Same as the ‘97, just a bit older and more emphatic. Medium gold color.
1994.  Color deepening to dark gold with green highlights – very attractive. Nose more earthy, with dried apricot scents appearing. Bigger and more mouth-filling on the palate, with apricot and mango fruit flavors. The finish seemed endless.
1993.  Slightly different one. Abundant spice – cinnamon and woodruff especially – over dried pear, in the aroma and on the palate. A lovely wine, still youthful and fresh. They get nicer and nicer!
1991.  Gorgeous: Dried pear on the nose, rich and spicy; dried pears and cinnamon on the palate. Big, yet light-feeling, mouth-filling but not cloying; still fresh and invigorating, with its muscular structure becoming evident.
1990 and 1989.  Vintages firmly announcing the arrival of climate change in northern Italian vineyards. Wonderful spicy aromas – dark dried pear tones prominent – and mature deep fruit flavors. Sapid, with exceptionally long, drying finishes.
1987.  Had developed further in the direction of ‘89 and ‘90, with the big structure coming more to the fore.
1982.  That first hot-weather vintage that caught so many winemakers off guard, and a wonder. So many green highlights in its dark gold that it almost looked electric. Still fresh and livelily acidic, with white fruits dancing on the palate. Only the smallest traces of really evolved flavors: could easily mature for another decade.

Which brings me, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, to my present wine, a 14-year-old Vintage Tunina of the 2007 harvest. It hardly makes sense any more to talk about vintage quality with Silvio Jermann’s wines: Whatever the growing conditions, he makes great wine, and the very hot 2007 growing season seems to be no exception. Why I have put this wine away and not tasted it until now should need no explanation: It’s just a wonder that I’ve been able to keep my hands off it this long.
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So: Diane prepared a simple, luxurious dinner to taste my wine against – a foie gras mousse (bought, not made) to start, an elegant braise of veal with morels and cream for the main course, and just a taste of cheese to finish. Each course brought out a different facet of the incredibly complex wine.

But first things first. Color: This ’07 Vintage Tunina was dark amber gold, with only a few scattered green highlights. This might lead you to think the wine was oxidized, but one whiff of its intriguing deep and complex aroma would dispel that thought. On the palate, it was delicious and profound. Not a big rush of fruit, but very fresh and youthfully vigorous: It tasted as if it had years to go yet. Many layers of many flavors – honey and dried peaches or apricots, with underlying mineral and even metallic elements, copper for instance.

The mousse emphasized the wine’s harmony and depth. The veal and mushrooms minimized its minerality but foregrounded its honey and fruit components. The cheese brought back its minerality. Overall, as it opened in the glass, the distinctive taste of its small amount of Picolit – the peculiar smoky tang of grapes lightly touched with pourriture noble – came to the fore and persisted right into its very long finish. What a complex wine! What a pleasure to drink!

White Wine Weather

By now it’s news to no one that white wine weather has arrived. Heat and humidity reign here in the Northeast, and in other parts of the US the weather is much worse, running from extreme drought to extreme storms. The last are probably not alleviated by white wine, but otherwise, summer heat can always be countered with a chill, pale glass of a dry, lightly fruity, refreshing white. Today, I’m celebrating two that help me through the dog days: one from the north of Italy, Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner, and one from the south, Salvo Foti’s Etna Bianco Aurora.
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Abbazia di Novacella Kerner
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The Abbazia di Novacella may be the northernmost winery in Italy, seated up at the top of the Adige Valley in what used to be the German Sud Tirol. It is also a working monastery and a tourist site of some repute, with gorgeous baroque buildings and libraries, and lovely mountain views. My geography is a little weak, so I’m not sure whether those mountains count as eastern Alps or western Dolomites, but they are impressively high, and the Abbey’s vineyards lie on their lower slopes.

The grape Kerner is hardly a household name, even among ampelographers. The variety was created in Germany in 1929 from a deliberate cross between Riesling and the variety known in Italy as Schiava grossa (Vernatsch in German). At one time Kerner was widely planted in Germany, but those acres have dwindled, and the German-speaking territories of what is now Italy seem to be its last stronghold. It has never had a large presence on the American market, but I can speak from sorry experience when I tell you that there currently seem to be several very mediocre bottlings of Kerner available, so watch out.

The Abbazia’s version is a very long way from mediocre: Light-bodied and charming, with a little zing of Riesling fruit and plenty of minerality from those mountain soils, it’s a reliably refreshing warm weather drink, versatile with any number of foods. For instance, it dotes – as do I – on prosciutto and figs, and works just as happily with shellfish and white-fleshed fish – the kind of foods we all eat more and more of as the solstice passes and the warm weather stays.

Incidentally – and because it would be criminal of me not to mention this – the Abbazia’s premium version of Kerner, Kerner Praepositus, is one of Italy’s great white wines. It has more heft than the “simple” bottling, but no less charm. Neither version is expensive, especially not for their quality: Careful shopping can find you Kerner for around $20, Kerner Praepositus sometimes under $40.
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Salvo Foti Etna Bianco Aurora
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Aurora presents a very different story. It grows on mountain slopes too, but those of an active volcano, Etna, in Sicily, just about as far south as you can get within Italy’s borders. It’s made by Salvo Foti, one of Etna’s leading exponents. For years, he was the head winemaker for Benanti, a pioneer of Etna viticulture and champion of its indigenous varieties. Aurora is his fantasy name for a blend of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella, both traditional varieties in that corner of Sicily but neither very widely grown – Minella hardly at all – anywhere else.

Aurora is a bigger wine than Kerner, and a touch more expensive – but it is every bit as fruit-and-mineral-propelled. Its flavor is complex and its fuller body indicates a primary role as a dinner wine. As such, it is superb, adapting to everything from fish and shellfish through chicken, pork, and veal.

I have also found that slowly sipping a glass of Aurora while cooling down after too much time in the sun is an intensely pleasurable experience, so I wouldn’t hesitate to rank it also in that exalted Italian category of vino da meditazione. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it’s always worth your attention, and I’m happy to drink it anywhere, anytime.
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Let the heat waves come: I’m ready for them.