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June is a special month for us, containing Diane’s birthday and our anniversary, separated only by D-Day. (Make of that what you will.) And Gruaud Larose is a special wine for us, holding long associations with celebrations past and friends we shared them with.

Just one example: Eons ago, our friends Pat and Fernand had us to stay with them for a week at their apartment in Paris, and to repay their hospitality Diane and I took over their kitchen and made a dinner featuring the first bécasse (woodcock) any of us had ever cooked or eaten. The wine we drank with this brave endeavor was a 1953 Gruaud Larose, one of many memorable tastes during that altogether memorable evening.

You can see why it was easy to choose the June wine from among my special cellar selections for 2021. After more than a year of having our spirits depressed by Covid, I wanted a wine that would remind us of joyful times and help us start renewing them. So Gruaud Larose it had to be.

Those are the sentiments that lay behind my choice. Behind them lies a very estimable wine, a second growth Saint Julien, a property that, although it has had many different owners over the years, still occupies almost exactly the same fields it did when it was classified in 1855. It’s a substantial property, even by Bordeaux standards: 87 hectares in vines. That’s well over 200 acres, divided into roughly 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, about 8% Cabernet Franc, plus a small amount of Petit Verdot and a smidgeon of Malbec. Those vines yield a formidable wine, which some critics describe as rough and even rustic in its youth, but capable of fine aging and development.

My previous experience of older Gruaud Larose vintages gave me great hopes for this 1975 bottle. So too did the eminent Clive Coates’s assessment of the vintage, in his classic book The Wines of Bordeaux: Vintages and Tasting Notes 1952-2003.

Very good color. Rich, full, fat and ample on the nose. This is very promising. Fullish body. Vigorous. Very good tannins and grip. No astringency. A meaty, quite solid wine. Long, rich and satisfactory. Plenty of life ahead. Very good indeed.

At that time, Coates rated the ’75 Gruaud 17 out of 20 and suggested its drinking window ranged from “now” to “2008+.”  Diane’s birthday dinner would test just how much beyond 2008 that plus sign would allow.

For the meal itself, we recapitulated one of the best dinner main courses we’d ever made for ourselves: fabulously lush Tournedos Rossini. Our first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise, another big, rich dish, so we matched it with a big, rich Champagne, Pierre Brigandat’s brut NV. This grower’s blanc de noirs loved the intensity of the scallops, enveloping them in a complex web of dry, dark berry-and-mineral flavors – a delicious match of food and wine.

The stage was thus set for the Gruaud Larose to strut its stuff – and strut it did. Coates was very right about the wine’s having “plenty of life ahead.”  The color was dark and even, and the first whiff of the aroma gave a generous rush of ripe, dark, mature berry, followed by mushroom and leather. The flavor followed suit: not quite meaty, but mouth-filling and multi-layered. Lovely in itself as the wine was, each bite of food – whether the beef, the foie gras, or the Madeira-reduction sauce – called out another element in it. And for all its complex, mature flavors, this 1975 Gruaud Larose still felt fresh and live. It showed no sign of tiredness or of approaching the end of its life – which is always an excellent thing for a wine at a birthday celebration.

We don’t have many bottles of Gruaud Larose left – certainly no more ‘75s – but you can be sure that what we have will be reserved for very special occasions, moments when Diane and I need to be reminded that, as Gilbert and Sullivan so wryly put it, “there is beauty in extreme old age.”

Just a few days back, Diane and I prepared a nearly-down-home dinner for two friends who share our tastes for simpler foods and nicely aged wines. The evening’s secondo was a giant braciole – a butterflied flank steak stuffed with prosciutto, parsley, garlic, raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, egg, and grated cheese; browned in olive oil with onion, celery, and carrot; then braised in wine, broth, and its own good juices.
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That’s a lovely, homey dish, and the wine I matched with it shared those qualities: a 2004 Barbaresco from the Produttori del Barbaresco. Not a cru wine, not even a riserva: just the basic Produttori bottling, which had been living in my far-less-than-perfect storage for lo! these many years.

It was ambrosial.

Here’s what its back label — back labels are generally the abode of medical warnings and wine misinformation – says:

Made entirely from Nebbiolo grapes, Barbaresco is a wine of great complexity and elegance that is well suited for long ageing. Aromas of black cherry and violet combine with spicy notes to create its distinct taste, supported by firm tannins and a long finish.

Not a syllable of misinformation there: That description is spot on.

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It was not simply the multiplex flavors of the wine and the way they meshed with our meal that was so impressive, but also its perfect balance and maturity. It wasn’t huge and forceful, but medium-bodied and supple, ready and willing to engage any food we might match with it. Those are to my mind and palate classic Nebbiolo characteristics, beautifully expressed in the impressive 2004 vintage, and captured perfectly by the many growers of the Produttori.

 

Produttori del Barbaresco is probably the best wine co-op in any wine zone in the world. It has the advantage, of course, of its zone and its native variety:  It would be hard for some other chunk of the wine world to equal the quality of either Barbaresco or Nebbiolo. But the success of Produttori is the result of more than that. It’s a combination of the devotion and care of its growers and the canny direction provided by its long-time manager, Aldo Vacca.

Vintage after vintage, for over 20 years now, Vacca has with great discernment channeled the grapes the growers bring in through all the stages from fermentation to bottling, making the choices of which should be separated for cru bottling and which for classic Barbaresco, and which should be put aside for extra aging and riserva designation.

You can appreciate the difficulty of that task, and the palatal acuity and enological knowledge it demands, when you realize that Produttori’s growers work vineyards in every one of Barbaresco’s nine prized subzones – Asili, Montefico, Montestefano, Muncagotta, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo – each of which possesses a different character that yields a different wine. I’ve found it impossible to think which I like best (though if absolutely pushed I might lean towards Rabajà in the greatest years and Montestefano in merely excellent ones).
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I’ve been lucky enough, at varying times, to taste several different vintages of all these wines with Aldo Vacca, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic distinctions among them are fascinating. I can only admire the kind of knowledge Vacca has, to distinguish the characteristics of very young wines so as to judge which should be blended with which, or which will reward the solitary splendor of a cru designation.

That’s the kind of expertise that created my simple ’04 Produttori Barbaresco and all the pleasure it gave us. That’s the kind of expertise, exercised on the wonderful Nebbiolo fruit of the Barbaresco zone, that makes every bottle of the Produttori line a fine wine bargain. That’s not a statement I would be willing to make about many other wineries, however esteemed.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Vallana’s wines, and I was very much looking forward to tasting this bottle of the 2009 Campi Raudii, which I’d selected as one of my 12 special wines for 2021. There are many reasons for that.
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For one, I find the zone from which the wine originates a fascinating one. It is literally sub-Alpine: It lies in the shadow of Monte Rossa, a peak in the Italian Alps. Its high altitudes and varied soils and exposures produce a Nebbiolo grape very different from that grown in the more famous, more southerly, Barolo and Barbaresco zones. Up near Lake Maggiore, the variety is known as Spanna, and the wine it yields, while less robust than its southern cousins, seems even more elegant, more beautifully structured, and more delicately fruity. It’s usually quite enjoyable from its youth, but most Spanna-derived wines are capable of long aging and intriguing development. I’d like to call it a natural connoisseur’s wine, but that once-honorific word is probably the kiss of death in these fake populist times.

Another reason for my interest in this bottle is that I’m curious to see how the Vallana wines are developing, now that they are crafted by a team of young folk, the siblings Francis, Marina, and Miriam, guided always by their mother Giuseppina.

Giuseppina, Marina, Francis, and Miriam (a few years ago)

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When I first encountered Vallana wines, decades ago, they were made by the present generation’s grandfather, Bernardo, who was famous for the quality and longevity his bottles achieved. Burton Anderson, in his landmark book Vino, waxed ecstatic about the man and his wines, emphasizing the uniqueness of both. That is a formidable heritage to live up to, and I really wanted to see how well the new generation now responsible for cultivation and vinification was measuring up.

And for one more reason: Unlike all the family’s other wines, which carry various DOC appellations (e. g., Gattinara, Boca, Colline Novarese), Campi Raudii is called only Vino Rosso, a designation the family opted for so they could have one wine with which to tinker and experiment, free of strict variety regulation. Not that they appear thus far to have done anything very radical – but more of that later.

For this highly anticipated bottle, Diane prepared an imposing Porterhouse steak, and our Greenmarket conveniently provided the first of the season’s local spinach and, even better, the first of the season’s morels.

The latter are always a special treat, and stand in my estimation as high in the fungus world as Nebbiolo in the grape universe. Morels, chanterelles, porcini, and truffles: That’s the seasonal fungus calendar. All delicious, and at least three of them still within a human price range – as are, it is important to note, all of Vallana’s wines.

So: That, with a few good cheeses to finish, made up the simple, tasty, and substantial meal for my almost-12-year-old Campi Raudii to accompany. Which it did, very felicitously. Diane and I were struck by how very gentle the wine seemed as it interacted perfectly with the meat-sweetness of that succulent piece of beef, the herbal sweetness and acidity of the fresh spinach, and the woodsy savoriness of the mushrooms.

We were also struck very strongly by the wine’s freshness, which Diane perceived as tasting of currants and I of raspberry: a wave of light, delightful fruit atop a mature wine’s acid/tannin balance. This Campi Raudii was an extraordinary wine, clearly with years, perhaps decades, of life still before it.
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In an email, Marina informed me that 2009 was a classic vintage in her area, with no extremes for the vines to deal with (unlike the hot 2011 vintage or the cold 2014). Vallana usually vinifies Campi Raudii in a very traditional manner for the Alto Piemonte, as a Nebbiolo and Vespolina blend – about 20% Vespolina, Marina says – fermented in cement. Most of it was bottled without ever seeing any oak, and released young. Some was held back and aged briefly in old oak, and then bottled and labelled as a library release.

I’ve had my bottle stashed away for some years, and it’s not called a library release, so I presume that it’s a sample of the cement-fermented, unoaked wine – which makes its balance and freshness and vitality all the more impressive. This is minimal-intervention winemaking at its best. It just seems that Nebbiolo grown in the Alto Piemonte has an aptitude for long and graceful life, and Marina and her family have an aptitude for expressing it.

And that answers in a strong affirmative all the questions I had about Vallana’s wines. They’re still great, and the kids are doing just fine. Bernardo would be proud.

Marina and Francis (now)

I’ve always been partial to underdogs. When I was a kid, I was the lone Brooklyn (yes, Brooklyn) Dodger fan in a very large family of Yankee fans – and even the misery that that entailed couldn’t cure me of my fondness for long-suffering hind runners.

It was almost inevitable, then, that when I started getting seriously interested in wine (which back then always meant French wine), I found myself drawn to the seemingly least estimable of the famous Bordeaux wines. Of the five great Médoc appellations – Graves (as it then was), Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estèphe – only Saint Estèphe doesn’t have a Premier Cru estate. In fact, despite being the second largest of the crus, it has only five classified growths: one fifth growth, one fourth, one third, and two seconds. That’s a paltry showing compared to neighboring Pauillac’s three firsts, two seconds, and large handful of lesser growths.

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Saint Estèphe’s wines were often condescendingly referred to as slightly rustic and inelegant, and usually compared, to their disadvantage, to the wines of Pauillac. One could come across even esthetic sniffing about the “false orientalism” of Cos d’Estournel’s pagoda towers. I always thought there was a sort of double standard at work here. It is probably true that the wines from many of Saint Estèphe’s small estates have a less polished, more artisanal character – which I regard as an attraction – than those from the great Premier Crus, which are pretty great in size as well as reputation and price. But no one ever said a word about the scale of winemaking at Château Margaux or Château Lafite, whose respective 81 hectares and 103 hectares bring their winemaking close to industrial-scale production.

But that’s really beside the point. Even those who belittle Saint Estèphe as an appellation usually make an honorable exception for Cos d’Estournel and for Montrose, both quite evidently superb wines. I love them, of course, but I am also very fond of many lesser names from the commune: Calon Ségur, Cos Labory, Lafon-Rochet (this now becoming very fashionable), Meyney, Phélan Ségur, and especially Châteaux de Pez and Les Ormes de Pez. The last two are among my favorite wines, and I’ve written about my enjoyment of them before (here and here). But they are classified only as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, below even Fifth Growth – a lowly enough designation to keep the wines’ prices well below their true worth. Tough luck for them, fine for me. Sometimes supporting the underdog pays off.

 

Saint Estèphe is the northernmost of the five great appellations, and its soils are supposedly more varied than those of the other zones – though anyone visiting the peninsula on which they all (except Graves) lie will be hard put to see any very significant variation in soils or altitudes or exposures. We are far from the mountains here. The major variations from estate to estate are due to the field mix – just what quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted and fermented – and to the winemaker’s aims and skills.

Decades of being dismissed as negligible wines kept the prices of almost all Saint Estèphes very low and discouraged any serious investment of time, effort, or cash in the vineyards and cellars – all of which, of course, contributed to the perpetuation of their low reputation. The wine boom of the past 40 or 50 years has changed all that, and more and more good wine is being produced everywhere. That is emphatically true in Saint Estèphe, where I find the quality of the wine being turned out by many formerly neglected properties is steadily rising. This underdog may not yet be ready to take Best in Show, but it is clearly showing better and better all the time.

Another melancholy post, another great loss to the Italian wine world.  Just a few weeks ago, Pio Boffa, the owner and driving force of the Pio Cesare winery, died of Covid. He was a very young and lively 66, and his totally unexpected death came as a great shock to everyone who knew him.

Some of my colleagues have already posted fine memorials of Pio, notably Alfonso Cevola and Tom Hyland, but I needed a little time to adjust to his departure. I will keep this contribution short and personal.

Pio was one of those people you couldn’t imagine ill, much less deathly ill. It had never occurred to me that I might outlive him.  He seemed to have inexhaustible founts of energy. He ran the winery with constant attention to seemingly everything. He travelled frequently (some of us thought continuously) non-stop to all parts of the world, creating or strengthening markets for Piedmont wines wherever he went. He would step off a plane from Hong Kong one evening, return to Alba in the morning, and host a tasting dinner for journalists and retailers that day, all with apparently undiminished energy and a genuine and infectious enthusiasm.
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I’ve known Pio for more than 40 years. We regarded each other as friends – but then, almost everyone who dealt with Pio for more than ten minutes regarded him as a friend: he was simply that kind of guy.  He was deeply Piedmontese in character, so much so that, for instance, the Pio Cesare winery remained faithful to some no-longer-fashionable wines, like Grignolino, of which it must be the last important producer. (If you don’t know Grignolino, you should: It’s a whole other face of the Piedmont, and Pio’s version of it is lovely.)

For all that, I thought of Pio as one of the most Americanized of all the Italian producers I knew. He had a kind of directness that isn’t all that common among winemakers (or anyone else with a product to sell). I loved to interview him about vintages and cellar techniques and the sorts of things that the Consorzio and other winemakers usually gave you very careful, very guarded answers to. Pio just told you the truth as he saw it: he was a no-bullshit guy. Whether that’s typically American, typically Piedmontese, or atypical of both, I’m not sure.

Some early, formative years in California – I believe working with Robert Mondavi – influenced him importantly. He retained from that experience a life-long love of oak, which shows most clearly, I think, in his cru Barolo Ornato, of which he was very proud. For me, with my aversion for wood flavors in wine, it was a subject of frequent disagreement with Pio. He would listen to my objections patiently, and equally patiently explain to me why I was wrong. He knew exactly what he was doing with Ornato, and he believed in it passionately, and I usually saw reason (as he phrased it) enough to grant that, except for the oak notes, Ornato was indeed a superb Barolo.

For all his pride in Ornato, Pio was traditionally Piedmontese enough that the wine he probably lavished the most attention on was his classic Barolo – what others were starting to refer to as their base wine, the traditional blending of Nebbiolos from different vineyards and different communes. Not Pio, though: If you click on the label image to enlarge it, you’ll see the bottom line says e non chiamatelo “base” – and don’t call it “base.” He always insisted that it was a classic – as was he.

Addio, Pio.

Giuseppe Mascarello’s Monprivato is one of a distinguished handful of Italian wines that are rightly spoken of as legendary. Bottled as a separate cru since the early 1970s, Monprivato is easily the most renowned vineyard of the Castiglione Falletto commune, and it is for all practical purposes a Mascarello family monopoly.

To give you some sense of its importance, I can do no better than to quote Kerin O’Keefe, from her authoritative Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine:

The name Giuseppe Mascarello is practically synonymous with that of Monprivato, indisputably one of the very best crus not just in Castiglione Falletto, but in all of Barolo. . . . Mascarello now owns 93 percent of the entire surface area, and they are the only ones to use the Monprivato name on their labels. . . . The vineyard area was already referred to in land registries in 1666, and [Renato] Ratti gave it his equivalent of Grand Cru status on his vineyard classification map [1975].

The Mascarello family have obviously long recognized the outstanding character of the Monprivato site, and they treat its grapes with the attention they so amply reward. The wine is fermented for more than three weeks, with musts constantly and gently pumped over the cap to obtain thorough extraction of color and aromas. Aging is in large Slavonian oak. Monprivato is a very traditionally made Barolo, which in my opinion contributes mightily to its extraordinary depth and longevity.

Its near-legendary longevity was one of the key reasons I wanted to look in and see how my single bottle of 2004 was doing. 2004 was a very fine, in some hands great, vintage in Barolo, but – for my palate – a very forward one. The wines were soft and drinkable from the get-go, with – again, for my palate – extraordinarily approachable tannins, and I wondered how such wines would age. Would they mature at an accelerated pace?  Or would they go dumb for some years, and then resume a normal Barolo pattern of maturation? This inquiring mind wanted to know.

So I stood the bottle up for about a week to allow its sediments to settle; Diane spit-roasted a duck; and we pulled the cork, poured, sniffed, sipped – and smiled. Monprivato lived up to its reputation. Lucky us! It loved the duck: the crisp skin and unctuous fats, the moist, dark meat – all played right into its metaphoric hands.

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The tannins remained soft, but had no trouble dealing with either the duck’s fat or its flesh, and the wine’s fruit just soared, an octave higher than the rich duck flavors.

As many readers of this blog know, I distrust tasting notes (they’re good for one person, one time, under a usually unreproducible set of circumstances), but I do want to give you some sense of what this ’04 Monprivato offered. First, the nose was a classic Barolo mélange of tar, cherry, and roses – just lovely and enticing. The palate was soft, the fruit almost sweet: black cherry interlaced with tar and earth and little hints of strawberry. The overall attack was elegant and the flavor very long-lasting. I’d call it a five-star wine, beautifully structured and still fresh. It’s clearly going to last for a long, long time.

Did it have any flaws? Well, that depends on what you call a flaw. This is a 15-year-old Barolo that gave no hint of white truffle at all. I think I remember that once upon a time, when the world and I were young, 15-year-old Barolos used to give at least small whiffs of the rich scent of white Piedmont truffles, a scent that in its fullness I and many others back then regarded as characteristic of fully mature Barolo. Has climate change so altered the vines’ development that that heady pleasure is now and forever a thing of the past? I sincerely hope not, and not just for my own sake: All wine lovers deserve a sniff of that intoxicating aroma. I hope that all climate change has done is protract Barolo’s maturation, so the white truffle scent will yet come, if we are only patient enough. Speriamo.

I have long been an admirer of the wines of Castello di Volpaia, because Volpaia specializes in what I love most in a wine: elegance. Elegance is easy to say but hard to attain: It’s that taut balance between, on the one hand, fidelity to the nature and intensity of the variety – in this case, Sangiovese – and on the other, lightness on the palate, with a graceful interplay of acid, tannin, and alcohol that makes the wine dance on your tongue.

A few evenings ago, a damp, chilly one (It was March in New York: What do you expect?), Diane and I had made a homely lamb stew – meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans, a pair of small onions, homemade broth for the ingredients to swelter in, not an herb in sight – and to drink with it I opened a bottle of Volpaia’s basic offering, a Chianti Classico 2018.

I expected it to be good, but it way exceeded my expectations. That simple young Chianti was marvelous with the stew and even better with the little taste of cheese with which we finished the meal. It tasted richly of Sangiovese and even more of Volpaia’s high altitude and sandy soils. It was packed with cherry-like Sangiovese fruit, at the same time delightfully light in the mouth, feeling and tasting highly refined and gracious. I was reminded how many times Daniele Cernilli uses the words “refined” or “refinement” in his reviews of Volpaia. If I had to describe this wine briefly, I’d call it classic high-altitude Sangiovese.

Being brief about Castello di Volpaia is difficult, however, because there is so much to say about it. First of all, it’s not a castello, but a formerly walled, hilltop medieval village. Once upon a time it served as a Florentine defensive outpost against Florence’s perennial enemy, Siena. After the 16th century, when peace invaded Tuscany, the walls started tumbling down and the vineyards growing up.

After the abolition of the mezzadria, the sharecropping system that had dominated Italian rural life and kept Italy green and poor for centuries, Volpaia almost became a ghost town, as its population fled the hard country life for better opportunities elsewhere. This is not ancient history: It happened in the 1950s and 1960s. That was a time when houses and vineyards and sometimes – as was the case of Volpaia – whole villages could be bought for very, very little. Not all the sites that then changed hands were so lucky in their new owners as Volpaia.
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Giovanna Stianti received it as a bridal gift when she married Carlo Mascheroni, an architect. The two have made Volpaia, both the town and its vineyards, their life work. They have lavished on both the buildings and the fields the kind of meticulous, loving attention that has earned Volpaia widespread recognition as the best and most beautifully preserved medieval village in Tuscany. The wines are just as highly esteemed: Their Chianti Classico Riserva Coltassella has frequently won Tre Bicchieri since its introduction in the 1980s. Its high rank has remained unchanged even as its legal status, following the evolution of Tuscan wine regulations, has grown from Vino da Tavola to Gran Selezione.

Aside from the careful attention that Stianti has given to the clonal selections, field work, and cellar procedures, there are two other reasons for the distinction of Volpaia’s wines. The vineyards are among the highest in Tuscany: Indeed, the very highest fields lie above 600 meters. And the soil of those fields differs markedly from the Classico zone’s predominant terroirs: It is made up of a lot less clay and a lot more sand and degenerating sandstone. With care in the field and the cellar, that translates into a far less rustic or heavy wine, a wine with a fine structure for immediate drinking, as well as for long life – a happy combination for any wine.

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The felicitous combination of so many special qualities has made Castello di Volpaia a benchmark for me, vinously and esthetically. If travel to Italy ever becomes possible again in my lifetime (!), Volpaia stands very high on the list of places I want to revisit.

I have always been ambivalent about Syrah, but I’ve never had any doubts about Hermitage. The appellation is tiny: Its total acreage is only slightly larger than the largest of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru estates (yes, estates, not appellations). But the wines of Hermitage deserve every syllable of the praise that is lavished upon them.

Syrah, on the other hand, the sole grape variety of Hermitage, is a first-class crank. Grown anywhere but the northern Rhône, it occasionally produces fine wines, but more often than not it gives hard, high-alcohol, aggressive and over-assertive bottles marked by an almost exaggerated spiciness, as if the chef had simply lost it when peppering the stew.

Hermitage is the antithesis of that, holding all those dangerous tendencies of the grape on a tight rein. Balance is what Hermitage excels at. What you expect would produce tension, even discord, instead yields grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.

There used to be a word in French, hermitagiser, to describe the practice of adding some wine from the Rhône to (especially) Bordeaux, to give it more body and color – all before the AOC regulations, of course. And almost every wine lover is familiar with Saintsbury’s description of Hermitage as “the manliest of wines,” a description that would still be useful if it weren’t so sexist.

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All this wind-up should tell you why I chose a 20-year-old Hermitage as one of my cellar explorations for 2021. As almost any reference book makes clear, Hermitage and its cousin Côte Rotie are both Syrah-based wines, Hermitage completely so, Côte Rotie allowing (but not always using) a small admixture of Viognier.* And as all the textbooks emphasize, both are wines that demand and brilliantly reward aging.

Now, 20 years is not what Saintsbury and other connoisseurs of his generation would have considered long aging, but for me, it’s quite long enough – especially considering that my un-cellar-like storage facilities have probably expedited the wine’s maturation, so that my 20-year-old might be the equivalent of a 25- or 30- year-old bottle from the winery. So it’s about time I looked in to see how the kid is doing.

Not to keep you in suspense: The answer was Very well indeed. All my worries about my poor storage conditions blew away at the first sniff from the bottle after I pulled the cork: The wine was sound – just how sound wouldn’t come clear until later when, after giving it a few hours’ breathing, I poured it at dinner.

That was when my Hermitage, in no sense an aperitif wine, really showed its stuff. A paragraph or so back, I described Hermitage as displaying “grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.”  That was spot on.

First, the aroma. Here’s my note exactly as dashed off at the moment: “Rich, rich nose – dark plums and blackberries and black cherries, then black pepper and leather.”

Then, the palate: “Velvet in the mouth, almost feeling weightless, even though it is a big, mouth-filling wine. Tastes of leather and meat and black dried fruit, then cherry. A very long, cherry-leather finish.”  That was just tasting the wine by itself.

After a few forkfuls of lamb and lentils, the Hermitage broadened and sweetened and got even bigger – and, if possible, even more supple and graceful. This was truly a memorable wine, and an absolute justification of all the encomiums that Hermitage from makers like Guigal and Jaboulet and Chave regularly receive. When you read praise like that, it isn’t hype: You’re reading honest reporting.

 


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Special note for grape nuts:  Recent ampelographical studies, especially DNA studies, of Syrah have uncovered a web of relationships with some famous and some negligible varieties. Viognier is probably a genetic brother/sister/cousin of Syrah, whose family tree is amazingly complex. Syrah itself is probably the grandchild of Pinot by way of a field cross of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche (neither a very distinguished wine grape), and it is in all likelihood a cousin of Teroldego, which can yield some wonderful red wines in the Italian north. This makes it part of a family of grape varieties strung along high mountain trails that cross the national boundaries of Switzerland, France, and Italy.

Some years back, I risked prophecy in a Decanter article and asserted my conviction that in the not-too-far future, wine lovers would hold Campania, and particularly Irpinia, in the same esteem they now give Burgundy and the Côte d’Or. Well, I’m ready to reaffirm that prediction, because I’m seeing more and more reasons for it every year.

A case in point is the subject of this post: Feudi di San Gregorio’s project of producing very limited editions (about 2,000 bottles) of carefully selected single-vineyard Taurasis. This is part of a study Feudi has undertaken of terroirs and clones in the Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo zones. These three prized wine zones abut and in part overlap each other in Campania’s upland Avellino province, the ancient territory of Irpinia, which has been producing estimable wines since the heyday of the Roman Empire.
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I had the opportunity to taste the 2016 bottling of the two Taurasi vineyards Feudi has so far chosen for this study, Candriano and Rosamilia. Both vineyards are located in the commune of Castelfranchi, in the extreme southeast corner of the Taurasi zone. The tasting made clear that, despite their youth, these are already very fine wines, with the capacity for long aging and significant growth. They showed the kind of character and potential that wine lovers expect, and are used to finding, in young Burgundies of important Premier Cru appellations. Let me point out  that wines of this quality have been coming out of Irpinia for some years now. It’s long past time for the wine world to start paying more serious attention.

Before I preach my sermon (again), let me talk about the two wines that prompted it.

2016 Taurasi Rosamilia. The nose was strong and striking, deep and dark, redolent of very dark fruits. The palate seemed a touch lighter though still big. Though so young, the wine was very composed, already smooth and complex, with a whole medley of dark fruit and woodland flavors competing for attention. Food brought up a big, dark plummy component. This was a lovely Taurasi, already impressive and drinkable.

2016  Taurasi Candriano. This wine’s aroma was not as assertive as the Rosamilia’s – more gentle and insinuating than forceful. Its palate, however, struck me as richer, rounder, and more fruity: perhaps not as dark-toned, but every bit as pleasing. It stayed soft, even with food. Even though very well structured, it did not yet seem as coherent as Rosamilia. I think it needs – and clearly will reward – more time in bottle.

Both wines, by the way, showed surprisingly soft tannins, despite originating in a part of the Taurasi zone reputed for tough young wines that need plenty of time to come around.

Much as I admire these two wines, let me stress that for this zone, they are not atypical in their quality. Those high Apennine slopes produce many top-quality Taurasis, as well as noble Fianos and Grecos. Most bottlings in the zone are not, I grant you, single-vineyard, but I think we will be seeing more and more of that as the producers begin to realize and exploit the riches they have.
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Wine lovers should recognize this process: They saw it first in Burgundy in the years after World War II, and then in Piedmont, starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Campania is still playing a little catch-up in that regard, but the grapes are there, the soils are there, and the talent and enthusiasm are now most definitely there. Taurasi’s – and Campania’s — glory days may be only a little way ahead of us.

Ever since the advent of Covid-induced social restrictions, magnums have become a big problem for me. Most of the time, I simply cannot get enough people together to make serving the big bottles at all practical. So when, recently, we were actually able to gather six people (including ourselves, and all conscientious about precautions) for a multi-course dinner, I leaped at the chance to open a magnum to span two courses of the meal. I had a specific bottle in mind, one I was getting little nervous about, given my less-than-ideal storage conditions: a Vietti Barbera d’Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia, vintage 2004.
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Yes, you read that right: a 16-year-old Barbera. I know that, because of the variety’s naturally high acidity, Barberas are capable of long life, especially if left resting in their home cellars – but this particular magnum had been kicking around too many years in uncellarlike conditions and moved too many times from one set of such to another to encourage much optimism. I feared it was a wine on the edge if not outright over it.

Well, I was wrong to worry. It turns out that nature and wine are stronger than human abuse. This should not be read as my saying that you can mistreat your best wines and hope to get away with it – but it does mean that grape vines are survivors, and so, very often, are their progeny. This bottle of Barbera, far from being at the edge of the precipice, was just plain gorgeous, and it stole the show from the equally old bottles of very fine Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva and Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino that accompanied subsequent courses. My judgment was humbled, but my palate was delighted.

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The aroma of that Vietti Barbera amounted to a whole fruit salad – intense scents of blackberry, mulberry, and black cherry, all carried on a substrate of tobacco and forest notes. The palate was equally rich and intense, medium-bodied, with soft tannins and still a lot of live acidity (though much toned down from the vigorous norm of young Barberas). But the dominant notes were all those berries and cherries and their understrapping of tobacco (back in my pipe-smoking days I would have said Kentucky Burley), everything culminating in a huge finish of leather and black cherry. All these aromas and flavors, be it noted, were not brash and young, but matured and harmonious and nevertheless still fresh – an amazing balancing act that we lucky few diners caught at a moment of perfect equilibrium.

A good part of the explanation of the high quality of this wine lies in its maker and its vineyard. The Scarrone vineyard is a very large one, on a hillside circling around almost all of the center of the town of Castiglione Falleto. The best exposures on its slopes yield fine Barolos, the less favorable ones give great Barberas. Among the very best of these is Vietti’s bottling of old vines from its extensive Scarrone holdings, all of which lie practically at the winery’s doorstep.
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Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s map of the vineyards of Castiglione Falletto. Circled number 12 marks Vietti’s cantina.

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The other factor that accounted for this wine’s quality was the very thing that presented problems for its service: the size of the bottle. The undeniable fact is that that the larger the quantity of wine that can be aged in a single container, the better it matures, the richer and more complex it gets, the sturdier it seems to be. That’s the lure and the danger of magnums: big risks, big rewards.