Donnachiara: A Fiano Vertical

September 22, 2016

Donnachiara, the Campanian wine estate, celebrated its 10th anniversary recently by presenting a vertical tasting of its elegant Fiano di Avellino during a classic Neapolitan lunch at Il Gattopardo restaurant in New York. The food was great, and the wines were even better. I only wish that anyone who still subscribes to the myth that Italian white wines can’t age would have the same sort of opportunity to experience just how beautifully Fiano matures.

Ilaria Petitto, now the managing director of the family-owned firm (established by her mother and named for her grandmother), hosted the event and presented the wines, with additional commentary from wine journalist John Gilman.

Photo by Charles Scicolone

Photo by Charles Scicolone

The wines appeared in flights of two, each pair accompanying a different course of the meal:

  • 2015 and 2013 Fiano alongside some mini arancini and mozzarella in carrozza
  • 2011 Fiano and Fiano Esoterica alongside a savory dish of freshly made pasta in a seafood sauce
  • 2009 and 2007 Fiano paired with a lovely fillet of sea bream in a light broth of tomato with tiny clams and mussels

The matches were perfect in every case, and the wines remarkable for their consistently high level of quality and elegance, right from the firm’s beginnings.

To my mind, Donnachiara has done amazing things for so young a firm and promises much more for the future. Indeed, Ilaria made a surprise announcement at the lunch that Donnachiara has just retained the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella as its winemaker. Several of the journalists at the lunch expressed the hope that Cotarella doesn’t change the estate’s white wines (Fiano, Greco, Falanghina) which we all felt are already great because they are so beautifully faithful to their varieties and terroirs.

donnachiara-vineyard

But we all agreed he could help substantially with the red Taurasi, which has not yet caught up to the level of the whites. Speriamo!
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Here are some details of the wines we tasted.

2015
Donnachiara’s vintage notes call this “a wine with great potential for aging,” and I agree. It’s already balanced and lovely, with a long mineral finish, promising fine development. It resulted from a very wet winter, a “scorching” July, and then gradually moderating temperatures that “allowed for optimum ripeness of the fruit.” Everyone with room in their cellar should put away a case of this for 10 years.

2013
Very similar to 2015, only more so in every respect – bigger, fuller, fatter, more aromatic. That partially results from two additional years of maturation, partially from a long, hot, dry growing season that produced concentrated, structured grapes. It lacks a bit of the freshness of 2015, but it adds tremendous presence.

2011
This was – and is – a favorite white wine vintage for Campanian growers. Donnachiara describes it as “a balanced vintage par excellence” and thinks the wine is at an “optimal current aging phase.” I have to disagree: This lovely, aromatic wine is maturing beautifully, but for my palate – and from many years’ experience with Fianos of all ages – I’d say it was still quite young, with years of development still before it. If I had to choose one wine from this line-up to put in my cellar (and hope to live long enough to taste at maturity), 2011 would be the one.

2011 Esoterico
All Donnachiara’s white wines except this one are fermented and aged only in stainless steel, so as not to impose any other flavors on what the grapes and the vineyards give. Esoterica was a one-shot experiment, with part of the wines fermented and aged for 12 months in French oak. For me, this is the only wine that didn’t work with the food and where I felt that the true character of Fiano was obscured. It would probably taste great with foie gras, but it just didn’t work with seafood pasta.

2009
This was a difficult harvest, Donnachiara says, with too much rain early on, but the wine “has good balance and pleasant minerality, with beautiful aromatic complexity.”  I found it very fine – lean and elegant, with complex almondy/mineral flavors and a very long finish: in all, quite a lovely wine, still with remarkable freshness.

2007
A hot, dry summer yielded “a large, powerful wine, with great structure and good acidity – one of the best vintages for the aging of Fiano.” I found this Fiano just plain big – huge nose, big fruit on the palate, opulent and still quite fresh, and with a commensurate long, forceful finish. I can’t guess how much longer this wine will mature, because it is such a different vintage, but right now it is absolutely voluptuous drinking.

fianoI hope I will be around to celebrate Donnachiara’s 20th anniversary. The potential of this winery – and in fact the potential of the whole Irpinia area, the heartland of Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi – is only now beginning to be realized. Before it started making its own wines, Donnachiara sold its grapes to Mastroberardino, and I have drunk 20- and 30 year-old Fianos from Mastro that were simply gorgeous. For Campania, Fiano could be only the tip of the iceberg: As Ilaria almost casually remarked, one of the reasons Campania doesn’t do international grapes is because it has over a hundred native white varieties. If even a few of them approach the stature of Fiano and Greco, wine lovers will have found a treasure trove.

Great Nebbiolo and a Possible Pretender

September 12, 2016

nebbiolo-update

Nebbiolo grapeAs most wine fanciers know, the Nebbiolo grape achieves its greatest expression in Barolo and Barbaresco, with serious runner-ups in the wines of sub-Alpine Piedmont – e.g., Carema, Gattinara, Boca, and a few others. But in that same Barolo/Barbaresco heartland, there are two other DOCs for the grape: Nebbiolo d’Alba and Nebbiolo delle Langhe. These wines deserve more publicity than they usually get, because they offer not just true Nebbiolo flavors but also the nuances provided by that very special terroir – and usually at a price considerably lower than any Barolo or Barbaresco.

nebbiolo colla bottleI was reminded of this just a few nights ago when I opened a bottle of 2013 Nebbiolo d’Alba and spent a happy dinner hour enjoying bright cherry/berry fruit laced with hints of tobacco, mushroom, and forest floor – very much the young-Barolo range of flavors. The wine was not as big as a Barolo, of course, nor as substantially structured for aging, but it was nevertheless a real wine that interacted happily with all parts of my meal, as well as with me. This particular bottle was from a fine maker – Colla, a family that produces the whole gamut of red Alba wines at the top level. Their winemaking style allowed the grape and the local soil to speak, and what the two had to say was unequivocally lovely. The whole dining experience was a welcome reminder that you don’t need to wait for a great occasion, nor go to great expense, to enjoy some of the best that a great grape variety can offer.

That happy state, of course, depends on things continuing as they now stand, with the Nebbiolo DOC confined to those two appellations and zones, Alba and Langhe, the grape’s unquestionably best growing area. Apparently, as alertly reported by Kerin O’Keefe, there is a proposal afoot, originating in the Asti and Monferrato Barbera zones, to create a Nebbiolo Piemonte DOC, covering the whole of Piedmont. This is causing serious concern among Barolo and Barbaresco growers for a number of reasons.

First, it is an obvious attempt to ride on the coattails of their great wines, which have begun commanding impressive prices. Moreover, Barolo and Barbaresco producers fear – rightly, it seems to me – that such a potentially huge-volume appellation as Nebbiolo Piemonte would undermine the prestige of their wines by churning out large amounts of low-priced and mediocre Nebbiolo, which would confuse consumers about the true character of the variety and destroy the reputation that Barolo and Barbaresco makers have worked decades to achieve.

Piemonte map

That’s not just snobbishness on their part, nor is it a purely commercial consideration. Any great wine results from a special, often unique, conjunction of grape and soil – and a look at the map will show you just how small the present Nebbiolo DOC zones (in lavender) are in comparison to the Barbera zones to the north and east, not to mention the rest of Piedmont.

There is already a related cause for concern in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. The market success of those wines over recent decades has pushed a good number of only marginally suitable vineyards to be replanted to Nebbiolo – vineyards that used to grow Barbera and Dolcetto and even Freisa and Grignolino. And that doesn’t even figure in all the acres of forests and woods that, over that same period, I have watched being turned into Nebbiolo vineyards. (This is one of the reasons the Alba area now produces far fewer white truffles than it once did.)

The proposed legislation would allow Nebbiolo to be grown almost anywhere in Piedmont – and no matter how you figure it, that would be a disaster. Nebbiolo is a very finicky variety, extremely site-sensitive. You can’t plant it just anywhere and expect to produce a quality wine, as anyone familiar with the vast majority of attempts to grow Nebbiolo in California can testify. It needs just the right soil. Around Alba, it does its best in calcareous, tufa-based soils.

colla vineyard edited

A Colla Nebbiolo Vineyard

It wants south-facing slopes, at altitudes of between 200 and 450 meters, with a substantial day-night temperature change – and it especially needs a very long growing season, since it usually buds around the middle of April and ripens around the middle of October. Not too many places, even in Piedmont, can fill that bill.

Support for the new Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC seems mostly to be coming from growers in Barbera-growing areas – especially larger ones whose abundant hectares could be converted from modestly priced Barbera to better-paying Nebbiolo. But those are the areas that have always, for sound agricultural reasons, been regarded as completely inappropriate for growing Nebbiolo – thus my fear that if this new proposal is adopted, long-suffering consumers will be subjected to a flood of inferior Nebbiolo wines. Absit omen, as the Romans used to say: Let’s hope it’s not so.

Vermentino and its Aliases

September 1, 2016

Like Falanghina and Carricante, Vermentino is yet one more Italian grape that has been emerging from the relative obscurity of its local importance to start staking a claim to international attention. The variety either is indigenous to Italy or emigrated centuries ago from Corsica. It has become a significant white wine along the Tuscan and Ligurian coastline under the name Vermentino, most especially in Sardinia.

sardinian vineyard

 

Sometimes in Liguria it is called Pigato, and it has an inland identity in the Barolo/Barbaresco zone of Piedmont as Favorita, where the late Alfredo Currado of Vietti was its great rescuer and champion. But Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes emphatically says that rock-solid research has proven all three are the same variety.

In some respects, and not just that the vines seem to like to be near water, Vermentino makes an ideal seashore wine. Light and crisp, brisk and acidic, with refreshing herbal, citric, mineral notes, it serves beautifully as a warm-weather, fresh-air apéritif as well as a year-round companion to seafood of all sorts. It is the most important white grape in Sardinia, especially in the northeastern province of Gallura, where 20 years ago it had already achieved DOCG classification, Sardinia’s only such to date.

map of sardinia

Note that there is also a “simple” DOC Vermentino, vinified from grapes grown in other parts of Sardinia. It too can be quite good.

Most Sardinian Vermentino is harvested slightly early to preserve its high acidity, which is the characteristic – coupled of course with its pleasing mineral/herbal/citrus flavors – that makes it so pleasing an apéritif and light dinner wine. All the most famous Sardinian producers – Argiolas, Santadi, Sella & Mosca – offer well-made DOC Vermentino.

BranuUsually the DOCG Vermentino di Gallura stands a cut above these, with more intense fruit and sharper focus. Recently I tasted some bottles from Vigne Surrau, whose vineyards lie in the valley of the same name, just inland from the beautiful Costa Smeralda. Its 2015 Branu had a beautifully characteristic herbal nose that may remind some tasters of Sauvignon blanc at its best. On the palate, it was bright, acid, and lightly herbal, mixed with suggestions of Mediterranean macchia (juniper and such). This is classic apéritif wine, and equally classic companion to clams on the half shell and all their crustacean cousins.

ScialaSurrau’s 2015 Sciala, a DOCG Superiore (that means slightly higher alcohol), had a similar aroma and flavor spectrum, but was bigger and rounder, showing more white fruits on the palate, and finishing longer. This makes a lovely dinner wine with broiled scallops – that’s what I tried it with – and probably with any fin- or shellfish or chicken and veal as well. Nice wines, both of them, and fine examples of a variety well worth exploring.

A Wino’s Torture: One More Lament About Restaurant Dining

August 22, 2016

Diane and I don’t dine much in restaurants any more, for a variety of reasons. They’re too noisy for conversation; by and large, they’re overpriced for what you get – at least if you know how to boil water; and the wine lists are usually an affront, with wines both too young and vastly overpriced. I hate to pay more in a restaurant for a three-year-old bottle than I paid for the now-almost-twenty-year-old bottle of the same estate that I have at home. Shameless markups of 200% and 300% (and often even more) are restaurateurs’ way of making winelovers subsidize everybody else’s dinner, and I hate it.

Stressfully Seeking an Affordable Wine

We and two good friends ate at a really fine Manhattan restaurant about a month ago. The food was wonderful – as flavorful and authentic Neapolitan cuisine as I can remember eating anywhere – but the noise level was abominable. Even without the usual “background” music, we couldn’t hear each other, and what should have been pleasant dinner conversation became a very forced shouting and hearing match: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” “Did you say…?” “What?”

It reminded us all too painfully of our last sustained restaurant excursion. A few months back we spent a weekend in New Orleans visiting a dear friend. This of course necessitated dining out, which we had in fact looked forward to: This was New Orleans after all, where food and drink are a way of life. So we walked energetically all day so as to be able to dine generously each night: Compère Lapin, Cochon, and our old favorite, Galatoire’s – this should be pure pleasure. What could possibly hurt?

Cochon dining room

A lot, it turned out. Start with noise. If you think New York restaurants are noisy (I live there, so it’s my standard of comparison), New Orleans restaurants are off the charts. Loud background music – make that foreground music – and hordes of tourists, freed from the restrictions of their home turf, who shriek and bellow their entire evening’s conversation, as loudly in the dining room as on the street. We were six at table: If we wanted to talk to our companions, we all had to lean our faces in toward the center of the table and shout – and we still couldn’t reliably hear each other.

The food at both Compère Lapin and Cochon was good, but we’ll never go back. The noise level was intolerable. Even our beloved Galatoire’s was much more noisy than we remembered it: In that temple of New Orleans cuisine, many patrons seemed to feel compelled to talk over the ambient noise, not under it, and the room itself is very bright. In the past, conversations at Galatoire’s took place at a subdued pitch – but these days the backward-baseball-cap crowd has invaded even there.

galatoires

Since seafood is expensive everywhere, and Gulf fish and shellfish are New Orleans staples, the food prices didn’t seem excessive – though dining out every night quickly turns into a fairly costly proposition. But the wine prices were the cruelest part. As the appointed one-man Consorzio del Vino for our group, I had the task of finding wines that would (a) partner with four to six different dishes per course, and (b) not break anyone’s budget. Forget about anything under $100: There were very few of those on any list I saw, and the ones there were did not impress.

Galatoire’s was the greatest shocker. It has always had an extensive and very fine list, unsurprisingly strong in great French wines. But there has always in the past been a decent sprinkling of reasonably priced fine bottles interlaced with the expense-account budget-busters. Well, not so much anymore. Over half the bottles on Galatoire’s multipage wine list now have a comma in their price, and in over half of those, the number before the comma isn’t one. After assiduous study I did find a few items we could all drink with pleasure and without financial ruin, but I pity the non-wine-professional trying to navigate that list without taking out a second mortgage. Below is one page from the 27-page list. Prices removed to prevent apoplexy.

Galatoire wines

It just shouldn’t be that hard – or that financially painful – to drink a decent bottle of wine in a restaurant. But until restaurants dramatically change their pricing policy – and their noise levels – Diane and I will mostly continue to dine at home, thank you.

Terminal Toscanità

August 11, 2016

Like Michael Corleone, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. In my case, I keep trying to break away from Tuscan wine for a while – after all, I love lots of Italian wines, and even French, Spanish, and German wines too – but I keep discovering important items about Tuscany that I really ought to comment on right now, while they’re timely.

Tom tasting

Case in point: I’ve done some articles for QRW.com about recent releases of Brunello and Chianti Classico, but I haven’t said a word about them here. That’s a bad oversight, omitting a lot of important wines, and it needs fixing. So here goes.

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Brunello di Montalcino

Brunello seal

The 2011 Brunello di Montalcino is now being released. Some of the earliest bottles are already here, and more will be arriving by fall. This is an iffy vintage: The weather was, to put it very mildly, not great, and a lot of not-great wine was made. But some of the best producers in this prestigious zone more than justified their reputations by making some very fine wines – not big, tough, wait-ten-years-to-drink’em Brunellos, but atypically accessible and charming wines that are a joy to drink now, have lovely Sangiovese character, partner well with all sorts of food, and should last nicely for five to (at the outside) ten years. In short, delightful wines, typically Tuscan in taste and style, available for enjoying while you’re waiting for Brunello’s 2010s and (probably) 2012s to soften up and become drinkable.

I didn’t get to taste all the key producers, but of the ones I did taste, these are my top baker’s dozen:

  • Altesino Montosoli. Delicate and elegant, with charming fruit. A little licorice in the finish.
  • Canalicchio di Sopra. Fresh and very structured, with dark, woodsy fruit. Intensity without heaviness. May age well.
  • Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona. Lovely cherry/berry fruit, lively acidity, great poise; an excellent wine already.
  • Col d’Orcia. Slighter fuller and bigger than the preceding wine, but every bit as fresh and charming.
  • Costanti. One of the biggest wines of this batch, but still fresh, fruity, and vivid. A long fruit salad of a finish.
  • Donatella Cinelli Colombini. Slightly smaller scale than the Costanti wine, but still excellent.
  • Donatelli Cinelli Colombini Prime Donne. Very balanced, very elegant. Its fresh woodsy fruit hides its substantial muscularity. Quite fine.
  • Fuligni. Its balance and structure strike you first, then its already-mellowing fruit and acidity. May age very well.
  • Lisini. Beautiful fruit, all cherry and sotto bosco. Medium body, nice balance.
  • Padeletti. Very similar to the Lisini, with a long licorice and cherry finish. Nice.
  • Poggio di Sotto. Very fine. Live and fresh. Good fruit, fine balance. Very composed and welcoming.
  • Le Potazzine. A good wine with some heft; nice dark fruit, very persistent.
  • Talenti. A biggish wine with a lot of evident structure; may age very well.

 

Chianti Classico

seal

In Chianti Classico, the situation is much more complicated, because the zone is much more varied than Montalcino’s and producers often hold their wines before release for longer than the minimum aging requirement, so that several different vintages from different producers can appear on the market at the same time. Consequently I tasted a very mixed bag of vintages and producers, which makes it hard to offer any useful generalizations – mostly, I can just tell you what I liked.

I tasted a lot of just-bottled 2014 basic Chianti Classicos  (even some barrel samples) and almost as many 2013s – the “simple” Chianti Classico DOCG designation.

The Consorzio tactfully calls ’14 “a quite unusual year.”  It was a very wet year that made all sorts of problems in the vineyards. Only late-arriving decent weather – mid-September into October – enabled growers who had had patience and fortitude to salvage a crop. I don’t think these are wines for keeping but for drinking in the near term. The ones I most enjoyed are:

  • Badia a Coltibuono RS
  • Bibbiano
  • Castellare
  • Terre di Prenzano
  • Vignamaggio
  • Villa Cerna
  • Volpaia

The Castellare particularly was elegant, round, and long-finishing, already composed for so young a wine. The other wine that tied for my top spot in this vintage was Volpaia, which opened with a beautiful light woodsy/cherry nose, and a palate that followed suit – a fresh and charming wine with rich, satisfying fruit.

The 2013 weather was drier and warmer, with a perfect September. It gave wines with much greater balance and charm and a lot of true Sangiovese character. They can be drunk with pleasure now and will hold nicely for at least five years, perhaps more. In this group, my top wines were Borgo Scopeto, nice and soft and relatively full-bodied; Carobbio, with nice cherry-mulberry-chocolate nuances; the nicely balanced San Giusto a Rentennano; and Poggiopiano, the best wine of the group, which was rich with lovely Sangiovese fruit and perfectly balanced.

2012 reversed the weather pattern of ’14: Dry with blazing heat all summer long, it broke in late August and early September with cooler temperatures, much-needed rainfall, and perfect day-night temperature variations, resulting in a small crop of really fine Sangiovese. The great majority of the wines of this vintage that I tasted were fine examples of their breed. The ones I liked best were Castello di Meleto and Castello Monterinaldi, both finely fruited and well balanced; the always elegant Castello di Volpaia; Clemente VII, from the exceptionally good co-op Castelli de Grevepesa, Lamole di Lamole, from vineyards on mineral-rich soils near Greve, and the outstanding Fontodi, from Giovanni Manetti’s meticulously maintained vineyards in the Conca d’Oro of Panzano.

I tasted only two 2011s, one, Peppoli, from Antinori, which was quite satisfying on the palate but with a (for me) slightly annoying woody nose, and the other from Castello di Cacchiano, which has become a cult wine in Italy, at least in part because it holds its wines so long before release. This was truly lovely, with an enchanting Sangiovese nose and wonderful fruit and elegance.

And from 2010, I tasted only Poggiopiano’s La Tradizione, which was also wonderful – still young and live, with beautiful Sangiovese fruit and excellent acid/tannin balance. This is not a cru, but a selection of the best grapes from several vineyards, and it is a wine to look for in any vintage.

And then there are a few wines from Chianti Classico’s new Gran Selezione designation. The best of the 2012s I tasted was clearly Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo — probably my favorite wine of the whole tasting. It will improve for several years yet, and should last many years beyond that.

Among a handful of 2011s, the standout was Bibbiano’s Capennina, very structured and very elegant, a very fine wine at a very reasonable price point. Also impressive was Lamole di Lamole’s Vigneto di Campolungo. In 2010, Castello di Volpaia’s Il Puro, a 100% Sangiovese, really impressed me with its heft and structure: It seems built to last decades. The sole 2009 example I tasted was Castello di Cacchiano’s Millennio, and it was just lovely: soft fruit, fine balance, great mouth feel. These are all the kind of wine that make me hope this new Chianti Classico category may truly be a triumph.

Midsummer Miscellany

August 1, 2016

A few smallish items of interest have been accumulating over these balmy days, so I will depart from my usual format and try to bring you up to date, as well as clear off my desk – the latter, of course, a hopeless endeavor.

2015 Beaujolais

All the reports I’ve read and heard about the 2015 vintage of Beaujolais have been ecstatic. Almost everyone agrees that, especially for the Beaujolais crus, 2015 is the best vintage in living memory, and the excitement is mounting as the wines have begun arriving – very slowly, it seems to me – on these shores.

beaujolais vineyard

I haven’t seen many of them in the shops yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open. For more detailed information, I heartily recommend Michael Apstein’s very authoritative account in Winereviewonline.com.

Great Dolcetto

Dolcetto is an excellent wine too little loved in this country. It has wonderful refreshing fruit, usually moderate alcohol, and lovely Piemontese structure. Though a little light in acidity compared to other Piemontese red wines, it companions beautifully with most meats and vegetables, and it especially makes a great summer lunch and dinner wine. I’ve written about Dolcetto before, but it bears repeating that the very best of them are quite distinguished wines indeed, so much so that a few years ago, those from the Dogliani zone were granted the DOCG, and the right to call themselves simply Dogliani – though no one in the US seems to have paid much attention.

The best of these that I have so far tasted have come from two producers, Chionetti and Pecchenino, and they are truly lovely wines. I’ve been reminded of this very forcefully by two bottles of Pecchenino’s best crus that I recently tasted: San Luigi and Sirì d’Jermu (deep Piemontese dialect here).

2 pecchinino

Pecchenino describes San Luigi as “ruby red, fruity, with good acidity and a slightly almond aftertaste.” Sirì d’Jermu is described as having “intense ruby red color, hints of small red fruit, good acidity, and well balanced with silky tannins.” I’d describe them both as delicious, and very convincing proof that Dogliani deserves the DOCG.

The Vietti Sale

The most surprising news of the summer surely was the recent announcement of the sale of the Vietti winery and vineyards – the whole operation – to an American firm not in the wine business. Piemontese winemakers – especially those in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, where the Vietti firm is almost a landmark – do not lightly part with land, and a sale to an outsider is almost unheard of.

 A Vietti Vineyard

A Vietti Vineyard

The aftershocks of the deal were very reminiscent of a few decades back, when California’s pioneering Ridge Vineyards was sold to a Japanese firm. Happily, when the dust cleared on that deal, nothing terribly substantial seemed to have changed: Paul Draper was still in charge, and many excellent Ridge vintages continued to be produced. It looks as if the outcome will be similar with the Vietti sale, once all the fluttered pulses return to normal. For a very clear account of this important transaction, see Tom Hyland’s two key interviews, one with Luca Currado, the now former owner of Vietti, and the other with Tanner Krause, the new owner.

Cahors/Malbec

Given the current popularity of South American Malbec, it is really a shame that more consumers don’t know or appreciate the once famous “black wine of Cahors” – which is Malbec, all Malbec, and nothing but Malbec, from the patch of France where Malbec originated. Cahors is a charming little city located in a loop of the river Lot in south-central France. It is the capital of the hilly, stony region that produces the wine that bears its name. And it is an almost black wine, deeply colored and full-flavored. Once upon a time, it was very tannic and aggressive and needed plenty of aging to soften and become palatable, but that’s not so anymore, as both climate change and new viticultural techniques have rendered the wine gentler on the palate and approachable much sooner.

Cahors labelThere are many good producers, most family-owned estates such as Domaine du Théron, now owned by three brothers who work some very old vines, and whose 2011 Cahors Malbec Prestige, tasted at dinner just a few nights ago, prompted this note. The 2011 Prestige had positively velvety tannins and drank very well already, just five years after harvest – which for a red wine of structure and interest aint bad at all. Malbec fanciers owe it to themselves to explore Cahors:  All the fruit flavor they love is there, plus some real finesse.

Some Fine Beaujolais Crus, Including Drouhin’s New Ones

July 18, 2016

Nobody needs to be told that deep summer is Beaujolais weather. I’ve been enjoying some old favorites for two months now, and I’ve also had the pleasure of discovering Drouhin’s new selection of three excellent Beaujolais crus, a Brouilly, a Fleurie, and a Morgon.

For me, the cru wines of Beaujolais are the quintessence of Beaujolais. Call me a snob (I probably am), but I never drink Beaujolais Nouveau: When I want candy, I will walk over to Li-Lac Chocolates and get some good stuff, thank you. And I only occasionally drink simple Beaujolais, from the larger zone that surrounds the heartland of the 10 crus. More often, I opt for a Beaujolais Villages, a smaller, better zone, and then usually from a producer I know and respect, such as Roland Pignard. But most often, my Beaujolais of choice comes from one of the named and quite distinctive crus – Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint Amour.
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beaujolais map

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There are many excellent producers in these appellations, some quite small, some quite sizable. Probably the best known in this country – and certainly the most widely available – is Georges Duboeuf, who produces Beaujolais in every category from the simplest to the most rarefied. Obviously, he is a big producer, and a pretty good one, though I usually find his wines ho-hum: They just taste too industrial to me, too made-to-a-formula.

Among the big producers, I think Jadot does a better job: I like particularly its well-structured Château des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent. Indeed, I have strong memories of visiting this cru years ago, when the iconic windmill had just been restored and was set to turn again for the first time in many decades. Jadot, I believe, was a major supporter of the restoration, and most Beaujolais old-timers saw the event as a kind of rebirth for the whole zone. It may be just post hoc, but in fact the wines of all the Beaujolais crus have been steadily improving ever since.
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windmill

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Moulin-a-Vent is popularly supposed to be the longest-aging Beaujolais, and it is certainly true that in a good vintage it will age beautifully for sometimes up to 20 years – but so will Morgon and Chénas, and I’ve tasted (admittedly ideally stored) 20- and 30-year-old bottles from several other crus that drank beautifully, with an almost Burgundian grace. But ageworthiness is only an added attraction of a good Beaujolais: What really counts in all the crus are their youthful charm and exuberance, their lightness of touch and sheer refreshing enjoyability.

The bottles I like best almost always come from smaller growers who cultivate very particular terroirs and microclimates. They won’t all be available everywhere, but they are worth the trouble of seeking out. Just because a wine offers light and pleasurable warm-weather drinking doesn’t mean it has to be anything less than a real and interesting wine. Some really fine ones include Jean-Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées Côte de Brouilly, Julien Guillot’s Ultimatum Climat Chénas, and Coudert’s Clos de la Roillette Fleurie.

I have made no secret of my admiration of the house of Drouhin’s fine Burgundies, so I was more than a little interested to find that three Beaujolais crus have been added to its portfolio. The Brouilly, Fleurie, and Morgon are all grown and vinified in the Domaine des Hospices de Belleville properties – 34 acres in all – under an exclusive partnership agreement that gives the Hospice the advantage of Drouhin’s viticultural know-how and distribution while still retaining the concentration of the small grower’s familiarity with the vineyards and its commitment to them. I tasted three samples – all 2014 vintage – and found each classically true to its appellation.
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drouhins

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The Brouilly smelled of cherries and blackberries and tasted lightly of strawberry. It was characteristically dry and acidic, even a touch austere, with a long spice and leather finish – thoroughly enjoyable.

The Fleurie, a slightly bigger wine, showed scents of blackberry, earth, and black pepper. It was rounder in the mouth and less obviously acid, with dark berry flavors up front and a berry/pepper finish. Again, completely enjoyable, and a seemingly fine companion for any summer meal.

The Morgon, finally, was the biggest and most structured of the three, with an earthy, almost meaty nose with undertones of tar and bramble, an almost zinfandelish character (top quality zinfandel, to be sure). In the mouth, it was completely dry and sapid, rich with notes of blackberry, bramble, and earth, and with a long berry finish. Because of flavors like that, Morgon has always been one of my favorite Beaujolais crus, and this example instantly moved to the top of my short list.

All three will probably hold well, with no loss of youthful charm or vigor, for three to five years before any tastes of maturity set in – so, while these Beaujolais don’t need cellaring, you don’t have to fear putting a few of them away in a quiet corner for future enjoyment. If the stories I’ve heard about the horrific hailstorms in Fleurie this spring are half true, that may not be a bad idea.

The Death Throes of Nebbiolo Prima?

July 7, 2016

In the not too distant past, when it was known as The Alba Wine Event, the annual week-long presentation of new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco to a group of international wine journalists was probably the premier Italian wine occasion after Vinitaly. It was certainly the best organized and most informative of any of them, an excellent opportunity for knowledgeable wine writers to learn in depth the character of each new vintage, as well as to assess what individual producers had made of it.

many bottles

It was always a grueling event: Young Nebbiolo is not an easy wine to evaluate, and its tannins build up over a morning’s tasting to really punish the tongue and cheeks. But 65 to 75 wines, though a lot, were still doable, and the Wellcom agency, which ran the event for Albeisa, the organization of Alba wineries, worked comfortably with journalists to organize visits to individual producers and facilitate the flow of information from winemakers to press.

Then Albeisa changed agencies, the event’s name – now Nebbiolo Prima – and, seemingly, its direction. The first obvious signs were when some long-established journalists, representing traditional markets for Barolo and Barbaresco, weren’t there any more – they hadn’t been invited. Instead, there were many more Asian journalists, representing the hoped-for markets of the future – an understandable strategy, but crudely handled.

More alarmingly, there was also a whole new tone in the  event coordinators’ relations with the press, a tone of almost suspicion, almost hostility. I remember being treated like a delinquent schoolboy trying to get away with something because I declined to attend a dinner – after a whole day of tasting wines and facing more of the same next morning – that I knew was going to involve far too many more wines and would run very late. (I was correct on both counts.)

tasting room

Then Albeisa decided that the future lay not with print journalism but with electronic media – again, probably a correct assessment, but again crudely handled. More of the serious journalists disappeared, and in their stead a host of bloggers began the tastings. Few finished: I’ve reported on this fiasco here. By now, the hostility to print journalists was becoming quite overt: People working on books about Barolo and Barbaresco were given little help, and I know of at least one case where a writer was told that books weren’t that important. O tempora, o mores, eh?

I haven’t attended Nebbiolo Prima in a few years now, but I just read an account by someone who was at this year’s event that makes clear that all the deplorable tendencies I’d been observing have continued, and in fact accelerated. Writing in Jancis Robinson’s Newsletter, Walter Speller describes an event that I would say has careened out of control.

We always tasted blind in Alba, but blind in controlled blocks. Barolos and Barbarescos were presented by commune, with cru wines separated from blended wines. Commune and cru were identified for you, so you knew what rational expectations you might have, though you never learned producers’ names until after the tasting. Now, apparently you taste totally blind, with the wines not arranged in anything other than random order. Why? That cripples any serious journalist trying to sort out the differences or similarities of the wines of the different communes and crus. It simply makes no sense.

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Tasting under those circumstances would be difficult enough, but now the poor attendees start at eight a.m., and they now must taste over a hundred wines before noon – which is as unfair to the wines as it is hideously difficult for the tasters – and then confront a series of afternoon visits and evening dinners that usually don’t return them to their hotels until after midnight, to start the whole round again next morning. I don’t know what Albeisa thinks it’s doing, but this is not hospitality – it’s brutality.

Even more seriously, the random presentation of the wines destroys the validity of the tastings themselves, as far as I can see. If you can’t taste in a group the wines of, say, Bussia cru, or Serralunga commune, how can you possibly form any valid opinion about the vintage or its character?  This is stupidity, and it has destroyed what used to be a great, informative event and turned it into a mere endurance contest, lacking any real point. O tempora, o mores indeed.

nebbiolo prima

 

 

A Name to Remember: Bibbiano Chianti Classico

June 27, 2016

To use a cliché no wine journalist can resist, Tuscany is always in ferment – which is partly why I’ve given Tuscan wines so much attention recently. But also, many of the wines are just plain good, and, while many of those are already well known, others deserve more attention than they’ve been getting. A case that fits all those points is Bibbiano, a 150-year-old, family-owned estate that is making excellent Chianti Classico and conducting some very interesting experiments, as well.

I recently had lunch with Tommaso Marzi, the just-turned-50 proprietor (with his younger brother Federico) of Bibbiano and its very peripatetic face in the world. He is an enthusiast, which in my book is the prime quality needed in anyone working in any capacity in the wine world, and he is very knowledgeable about his vineyards and their qualities. Bibbiano’s fields lie in the western reach of the Chianti Classico zone’s fabled Conca d’Oro, a ridge of splendid soils and exposures that arcs west from Castellina in Chianti toward Val d’Elsa. The Bibbiano estate contains two large swatches of vineyards, Montornello in the northeast and Capannino in the southwest. These are often bottled as separate crus, and Capannino provides the source of Bibbiano’s Gran Selezione.

Marzi at his vineyard

Foreground, Tommaso Marzi; background, Capannino vineyard

For many years, Bibbiano’s vineyards and cellar were under the care of Tuscan doyen Giulio Gambelli, for decades the most respected nose and palate in the whole region. He is credited with keeping Bibbiano in the forefront of traditional Chianti winemaking, and in particular with planting in its field clones of Sangiovese grosso ultimately derived from his days of working with Tancredi Biondi Santi.

Over a light lunch at Il Buco Alimentaria, we tasted an astutely chosen array of Bibbiano’s bottles, which showed both the charms of the young wines and what their older siblings are capable of.

First, Chianti Classico 2014. This was a very pretty wine, blended from all the estate’s vineyards and totally untouched by wood. Fermentation on the skins started in stainless steel and finished in cement vats. All native grapes: 97% Sangiovese, 3% Colorino. Nicely balanced, fresh and lively (excellent acidity), with gentle plum flavors emerging as it opened in the glass. And a good buy, at a suggested retail price of $22.

Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2013 was next. That emerging plum flavor in the basic Chianti was much more pronounced in this wine, which also shared the fine balance of the first. This was vinified entirely from Sangiovese from the 13-hectare northeast vineyards and aged in barriques and tonneaux for 18 months. I didn’t inquire, but I’d guess they were well-used barrels, because I detected no wood or vanilla or espresso – just fine fruit and underbrush scents and flavors in this substantial, very young wine. Also nicely priced: SRP $27.

Then we tasted Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2000, just to see how these wines develop. The answer is, beautifully. 2000 was a very warm year, and the wine, though very much alive, did show signs of the heat in its slightly elevated alcohol. But the key fact is that the wine was live and lithe and enjoyable, which a lot of 2000s aren’t, and it grew more pleasing as it opened in the glass. It loved Il Buco’s fried rabbit, a dish whose paradoxical delicacy and strength could challenge many another wine.

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tdb100x95vignaf.ai

Next up was Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 2011. Made entirely from Sangiovese grosso grapes, this wine originates on a soil rich in limestone in the vineyard that Signor Marzi regards as having the best exposure and microclimate on the estate. Harvested in the second week of October; 25-day maceration and fermentation on the skins; partly aged in French tonneaux and partly in Slavonian oak barrels. This wine seemed very young but already strikingly elegant. An excellent wine, with classic Sangiovese flavors, it has great structure: It needs and will take lots of time. At an SRP of $40, I think it’s a bargain for a wine of this degree of cellar-worthiness. It was probably the wine of the day for me.

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 1995 followed, to make clear just what the potential of this vineyard is. I’ve been lucky enough over recent months to have drunk a lot of 1995 Chianti Classico Riservas (which is technically what this wine is, the Gran Selezione category not having been in existence in 1995), and they have been uniformly wonderful: It was a great vintage, and it is maturing beautifully.This wine was easily one of the best I’ve tasted: a gorgeous tobacco/funghi/cherry nose, lively on the palate, with a similar medley of flavors supported by great acidity – no sign of tiredness at all. Simply a very, very fine Chianti Classico, showing, at 21 years of age, just what a choice vineyard can do.

 

bibbianacccio label

The final red wine of the day was Bibbianaccio 2011. This is an experimental blend, vinified from grapes drawn from all over the estate: 50% Sangiovese, 44% Colorino, and 6% Trebbiano and Malvasia. That’s correct: there are some white grapes in there, alongside that huge amount of Colorino. Fermentation took place in open barrels and included some of the woody stalks. After that, malolactic fermentation and 12 months’ aging in French oak tonneaux, then another 12 months in Slavonian oak botti, and finally 6 months in bottles before release.

I found this wine intriguing: Its fruit was complex, on both the nose and the palate – an improbable combination of berries and apples, tobacco and mushrooms, finishing long and leathery. It had perfect acidity to lighten the weight of all that Colorino. An interesting and different wine, which was all the more haunting because it was also familiar. Here Bibbanaccio is returning in several respects to what Chianti Classico used to be, when the old formula based on the 19th century Baron Ricasoli’s researches was the norm. That formula mandated some white grapes in the blend. Now they are forbidden, and wine using them cannot label itself Chianti Classico: How the world changes! But anyone nostalgic for what Chianti Classico at its best used to taste like will love this wine. I know I did.

 

 

Birthday and Burgundy

June 17, 2016

D-Day has saved me from many domestic embarrassments, because the day before it is Diane’s birthday and the day after it our anniversary, and because of it I’ve never been able to forget either. This year, even though none of that trio amounted to an intrinsically important number, we decided to make a big deal of our family occasions, with Diane cooking some special dishes and me digging out some special wines. And since we’d been lately on a pretty steady diet of Italian – indeed, mostly Tuscan – wines, I opted for something completely different, to switch countries and styles entirely: ergo, France, specifically Burgundy.

You can read about the meals in Diane’s blog: I’ll just say we ate very well indeed, and probably a bit too copiously, but it was an unmitigated pleasure. I want to talk about the wines, which matched wonderfully with Diane’s dishes and were wonderful in their own right. This is what we drank.

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Bollinger Champagne 2004

bollinger

We drank this on both birthday and anniversary, as apéritif with some tiny gougère puffs. That may show a lack of imagination, but those airy little cheese clouds tasted marvelous with that big, full-bodied, austere and elegant Champagne, so – especially since we knew there was much more wine ahead and didn’t want to finish the whole bottle of Bolly the first night – we just reprised the combination 48 hours later on our anniversary. I assure you, nothing hurt. This was a great vintage, and a perfect example of Bollinger’s reliable linking of power and grace.

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Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2004

clos des mouches

This accompanied sea scallops nantaise, a surprisingly rich dish that needed to be partnered with a white wine of the authority of Clos des Mouches. Drouhin’s Clos des Mouches has for decades been one of my favorite white Burgundies, and I think that even with all the respect it customarily receives, it is still underestimated. I would rank it right up in the top tier of white Burgundies, and this 12-year-old showed its breed beautifully with those succulent scallops. It was big, and smooth, and deep, round and complex, with layers of flavor showing themselves in successive waves of nuttiness and butteriness and dried pear. Once upon a time, I could afford to buy this wine by the case: Those days, alas, are long gone, but I have some glorious memories of them. We deliberately stopped ourselves from finishing the bottle, thinking ahead to the rest of this meal and to what Diane had planned for our anniversary dinner.

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Bouchard Beaune Clos des Mousses 1998

clos de la mousse

Bouchard has a monopole of this vineyard, the red-wine twin of Drouhin’s white. We matched it with a pheasant stewed with morels. This was just a glorious combination, cemented by the morels, which mediated between the earthy flavors of the wine and the near-gaminess of the pheasant. This is classic red Burgundy, just mature at 18 years, and showing all the complexity that Pinot noir at its best is capable of. This bottle we finished, with no trouble at all.

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San Felice Vinsanto del Chianti Classico 2006

vin santo

As a small concession to Italy, and also because we didn’t want anything as sweet as Sauternes with the rustic apricot tart Diane had made for dessert, we finished with this lovely not-quite-sweet-not-fully-dry Vin Santo. Vin Santo may be an acquired taste, because it doesn’t fall neatly into the dessert-wine category, but it served ideally here as a refreshing yet far from simple conclusion to our dinner.

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For our anniversary dinner, we repeated the Bollinger and gougère puffs as apéritif, and drank again the Drouhin Clos des Mouches, this time with plates of Bosole oysters on the half shell. Once again, the match was perfect, the mature white Burgundy playing beautifully off the briny sweetness of those small oysters – two of my favorite things. With our entrée, a handsome rib of beef, we drank this lovely red.

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru 2004

chambolle musigny

For me, Musigny is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or, where Pinot noir shows its greatest elegance and nuance. These are rarely big wines, but they are always fascinating, and this one was no exception. We finished it with a little goat cheese and a bit of Brie, and we were very happy that we had long ago committed matrimony.