A Wino Confronts a Virus

March 26, 2020

The corona virus has definitely closed down the wine season: no tastings, no lunches, no new-release launches, no winemaker presentations – what Li’l Abner would have called a double-whammy for sure. For a few years now, I haven’t been too happy with most of what has been going on in the world outside of wine. Wine is altogether a pleasanter topic, and I would much rather spread some cheer than increase anyone’s gloom, so usually in these posts, I just focus on a wine or wines, and try to ignore everything else. But the coronavirus has created a whole new ballgame, and it would fatuous of me to try to pretend otherwise.

Here in New York we have entered a kind of lockdown. The streets of Greenwich Village, where I live, are now blessedly clear of the roving bands of gawping tourists who used to make it impossible to walk around my neighborhood – but that’s the only upside. The streets are clear of everyone else too – deserted, lifeless, shops closed. Every day looks like early Sunday morning in the Village of the Fifties, before the tourist boom, before the Folkie invasion, when in the evening only Village old-timers and a few Beats hung out in a few old bars – White Horse, Kettle of Fish – or a few small jazz clubs – Five Spot, Half Note. Charming memories of another time, but most of those are long gone, and their successors – all the new bars and restaurants – are now closed “for the duration,” as they said during WWII.

It’s difficult to imagine the degree of hardship that’s being inflicted on all the people who worked in the entertainment and hospitality industries, all the kitchen- and wait staff, somms and baristas, actors and musicians, stagehands and designers, all the support people in how many different fields, who are suddenly without salaries or without prospects. Not to mention all the thousands of others in countless other fields who now have to figure out how to work at home and tend their kids or – worse yet – were simply laid off without any severance or help.

And that’s only what things look like in this country. It doesn’t begin to measure the misery in the rest of the world, especially right now in Italy, where I have many friends, and where the coffins are beginning to pile up faster than they can be buried. These are grim times.

But enough of that: Nobody needs me to tell them how dire the situation can be or how to help those who need it, and I’m confident that readers of this post partake fully of the compassion and fellow-feeling that the community of wine exemplifies even in normal times.

Diane and I have been lucky: “Sheltering in place” hasn’t been too hard for us, since it fits our age and lifestyle. We still go out as early in the day as we can to do our necessary grocery shopping, and we years ago decided that most restaurants were either too noisy or too expensive or just plain not good enough to go to, so we continue to cook and eat at home pretty much as we always have. And drink at home, of course: Unless this quasi-lockdown goes on much longer than anyone expects, we’ve got enough wine stashed here to see us through.

As is widely acknowledged, it’s the psychic and emotional toll that’s most telling – no theater, no movies, no live music, and worst of all for us, not being able to see our friends, to break bread and sip wine with them while excoriating the clowns in the White House who have so screwed this thing up. The absence of that whole social dimension, plus the steadily increasing anger at how all this could have been and wasn’t prepared for, combined with the daily flow of confusing, self-serving disinformation coming from Washington – all that just plain wears one down.

I never thought I’d say this, but thank god for Andrew Cuomo: Here in New York, our governor at least is speaking honestly and acting seriously. The world will get through this in some shape or other, but my world is never going to be right again until we can again gather people at our table for dinner and wine and companionship – what Alexander Pope, describing dinners with his best friend, called “the feast of reason and the flow of soul.” As far as this wino is concerned, all the rest is window-dressing. That’s what life is for, and the loss of those human moments is the greatest loss the virus has – so far – inflicted on us. Call that superficial: It may well be – but it’s also true. In vino veritas, eh?

 

Diane and Betty at our Last Dinner Party Until . . . ?

Is Wine a White Whale?

March 12, 2020

Having reached an age where I spend far too much of my life in doctors’ offices, I notice that every time I go to a new one, whether it might be for a cold, or a sprain, or the plague, I am always asked “Do you drink?”

On the face of it, an innocuous question, perhaps even an idiotic one: Of course I drink. Everybody drinks, or we couldn’t survive. But that, obviously, isn’t what the question means: It means do you drink beer or wine or spirits, and it is patently a biased question, implying that it’s wrong to do so.

I’ve noticed that I’m never asked about my consumption of soft drinks, whose to-my-mind tooth-rotting amounts of sugar would seem to constitute a real health hazard. No, the question is only ever about consumption of liquids containing alcohol. “Ahoy! Have you seen a white whale?” Alcohol is clearly the Great White Whale of American medicine.

I have occasionally heard the question put more bluntly, in a way that exposes the underlying bias: Do you use alcohol? I try not to snicker at that: I don’t know anyone who uses alcohol. No, I do not use alcohol; I drink wine – a complex liquid, of which alcohol is usually just about 13 or 14%. Alcohol in its pure form I never touch, so the question is stupid and misleading. No one ever sits down to a nice dinner and a cheering glass of alcohol, and to imply that the alcohol in wine is its center and point is fatuous.

The concentration on alcohol is a perfect example of science run amuck, in which a single element is so abstracted from everything else that it can become a universal villain. Nobody asks flu sufferers if they breathe or if they “use” air – though that may be coming, may it not?

What is left out in that annoying question is the basic fact that the alcohol we wine lovers consume never comes to us as a neat little jigger of pure alcohol. Taking only chemistry into consideration for the moment, it comes bonded to the 86 or 87% of wine that isn’t alcohol. Most of that is water, and the rest is color and flavor elements derived from grapes, plus such trace elements – chemical or mineral – that the vines have sucked out of the soil and transmitted to their fruit.

“Even after the process of fermentation, wine conserves different organic compounds from grapes, such as polysaccharides, acids, and phenolic compounds, such as flavonoids and nonflavonoids. These substances have known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities, and are considered as regulatory agents in cardiometabolic process.” In plain English, there are things in wine that are good for you.

That whole package, of which the alcohol is an integral part, composes what we relish in the wines we drink – the body, the mouth feel, the aromas, the spectrum of flavors that each wine gifts us with. Are we to suppose that the alcohol in a wine is not modified in some way by its integration into such an amalgam?

Drinking wine with a meal is not like pouring neat alcohol down your throat, all by itself. Sure, it can be a poison that way. But in wine, the alcohol goes into a stewpot of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and minerals from the foods, and they’re all acted on by the digestive enzymes as they’re absorbed into your bloodstream. I think there’s more complexity to that process than typical medical explanations provide — maybe even more subtlety than modern-day chemistry admits of.

And that, of course, focuses only on physiology and ignores the psychological, social, and cultural aspect of our “use” of wine. I believe the effects of alcohol on the body are modified or altered not only by the things we eat with it but also by the way we share it with other people and the occasions on which we do so. Measuring alcohol only in the abstract as a chemical falsifies everything about drinking wine.

We must remember: Science is a way of looking at and understanding the world, an often effective and useful way of so doing, especially when judged by its own standards. But they are not the only standards, and science is not the only way of seeing and understanding the world. The questions science answers are only the questions that science asks, and there are rafts of questions that are never asked because they aren’t “scientific.” Other ways of seeing the world can be just as effective and useful, and we need to remind ourselves of them.

One small example: How different a world, how different a set of assumptions would be implied, if your doctor ever asked “Do you enjoy wine?” – and that is a perfectly sensible question. Cheers!

 

Barbi Brunello 1977

February 27, 2020

There are some wines, objectively great in their own right, that hold a special place in your heart. The 1977 Barbi is one such wine for me. The product of a fine growing season, some years after its creation a small stash of it, newly recorked on the estate, was part of my award for winning the Barbi Colombini Prize for articles about Brunello.
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Tom receiving Barbi prize from Francesca Colombini Cinelli, owner of Fattoria dei Barbi

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Not only was the prize a great balm to my ego and my palate, but it also included a week in a modernized casa colonica – what nowadays would be an agriturismo – on the Barbi estate, and thereby initiated my now-many-years-standing friendship with the Barbi family. The bottle that is the subject of this post was the last of that supply, carefully hoarded for a special occasion.

Well, the occasion finally arrived: my 82nd birthday, when it dawned on me that neither I nor that bottle could count on surviving all that much longer (just the odds, folks, no serious ailments in either me or the wine), and there would be few better times to drink it. So we did: Diane made a wonderful braised duck in the Romagnola style (from our first cookbook), which we followed up with some excellent cheeses from Murray’s, and that Brunello sang its aria. Not a swan song, mind you, but an aria. The wine was wonderful, rich with mature, woodsy, mushroomy Sangiovese fruit, beautifully balanced and still alive – a little delicate perhaps, but lively and above all elegant and complex, changing with every bite of duck or taste of cheese.

Back in the day when this 1977 was just a-borning, some people claimed to find the Barbi wines rustic. If that was true, they were rustic in the way Italians call rustico elegante, meaning with the manners and unpretentiousness of a country gentleman – which, never let us forget, is what Brunello is: a country cousin of the more urbane Chianti Classicos. Anyone who ever met Franco Biondi-Santi and experienced his unaffected courtesy will understand completely what I mean. And my prized bottle of Barbi Brunello was, happily for me, precisely like that.

The Barbi family is as deeply entwined in the development of Brunello as the Biondi-Santi. Winelovers tend to forget, in the glow of Brunello’s present fame, that it is a newcomer to the table in terms of Italian wines. A 100% Sangiovese wine in a region famed for blending, made from very localized clones of Sangiovese grosso in a remote country zone far from urban centers like Florence or Siena, Brunello was virtually unknown even within Italy until well after WW II.

Then the impact of the beginning international wine boom; the end of the mezzadria, the medieval share-cropping system that had kept Italy green and poor for centuries; and the arrival, by way of California, of up-to-the-minute wine technology all worked together to bring attention to a wine that, for the few who knew it, was remarkable for its quality and longevity.

In the 1960s, the Barbi were one of the six families producing Brunello di Montalcino, and their estate was one of the largest and its wines perhaps the best distributed of them all. Now, of course, there are close to? more than? 300 producers. The number keeps growing as the Brunello name draws more and more producers to try their hand. But old-timers like the Barbi got there first (by about 100 years) and got most of the best sites, and their wines remain quintessentially what Brunello di Montalcino was meant to be – a wine big for Sangiovese, of great depth and aging potential, and redolent of its hilly, (formerly) forested countryside.

My 1977 Barbi Brunello was all that: Like a perfect gentleman, it wished me a happy birthday and went on to make it so, without once ever suggesting that either of us was too old for such frippery.

Piedmont’s Parade of Fine Vintages Continues

February 13, 2020

Climate change has been very kind to the winemakers of Italy’s Piedmont, giving them a succession of beautiful growing seasons. And they have made the most of nature’s bounty, turning out a series of wines of the quality level we used to get only once or at most twice a decade. This is truly a golden age for Barolo and Barbaresco lovers.

The proof of that was everywhere at the Barolo Barbaresco World Opening, a huge showing of new releases of both wines held in New York during the first week of February.

As if in confirmation of what has been going on in Piedmont, weather in New York that week was unnaturally warm, and the crowd at the event large indeed. 148 producers showed about twice that number of wines from 2015 and 2016, and many luminaries had traveled from Italy to personally pour their wines and to greet old friends.

I did my best, but there was no way that I was going to be able to taste 148 young Nebbiolo wines in a single afternoon, much less nearly 300. In the old days, when I was a young snip, and when the father of this event was held annually in Alba, I would taste far more wines than that over its week-long duration, but non sum qualis eram sub regno Cynarae – and in just one afternoon, standing up, struggling for spitting space at the buckets (too few and far between), and trying to take legible notes: no way.

So I tasted as many as I could, chatted with some producers I haven’t seen in years, and was totally impressed by the quality of the wines on offer. I didn’t taste a single bad one, nor even a middling one, all afternoon.

That goes for both vintages, despite their differences. And the differences are many and striking. The 2015 wines benefited from a deep winter snow cover, which provided ample ground water reserves to carry the vines through the six torrid, rainless weeks that followed the mild spring.

Barolo Vineyards, Winter 2015

The rest of the summer and fall were as fine as could be hoped for, carrying the vines in almost perfect condition to the harvest. One producer remarked to me that 2015 had a hot growing season, “but we’ve learned now how to deal with them.”  Here is the Consortium’s evaluation:

The Nebbiolo ripened perfectly, though slightly earlier than over the last few years. In particular, climatic conditions were seen in the second part of the summer that allowed for an impressive accumulation of polyphenols. The excellent quality of the tannins emerging on analysis will certainly ensure elegant, long-lasting wines with good structure…. The sugar content settled at average potential values of around 14–14.5% vol., while the acidity is perfect for Nebbiolo (6.5 g/l). With the ripening data at hand, the great balance that clearly emerges in the technical parameters goes well beyond the numbers, promising big wines. In general, considering the great balance shown in the ripening data we can say without any shadow of doubt that all the conditions are in place for a truly great vintage: one to remember, like few others in history.

Now, I’ve got to put some of that statement up to hope and/or hype, because I found the 2015s charming and intensely enjoyable – beautiful, with wonderful fruit and freshness – but not big. I may be wrong about that, but most of the producers I spoke to seemed to agree, indicating that for them 2016 was the great, structured vintage, not 2015. That doesn’t mean 2015 won’t age – just that it’s probably a 15- to 20-year wine rather than 50 to 100.

2016, on the other hand, just may be a 50-year vintage: Certainly, most of the producers I spoke with seemed to feel that way, referring to it almost unanimously as a “superb” vintage. The wines I tasted – mostly Barbarescos, which are bottled a year before Barolos – supported that judgement. They were big and balanced, with the kind of tannic ripeness and live acidity that in both Barolo and Barbaresco usually portends very long life and development in the bottle.

Produttori di Barbaresco Vineyards

Here, for the record, is the Consortium’s evaluation of that harvest:

The late development seen in the early part of the year was made up for during the months of August and September. In particular, the second half of September was crucial for the components which will go into determining the structure of the wines, above all as regards the accumulation of phenolic substances. While waiting to be able to assess the real quality of the 2016 wines, as far as can be evaluated analytically we can look forward to wines with excellent balance, big bouquets and great structure, although in some cases lower alcohol contents will be recorded than in 2015. We can therefore expect a vintage featuring significant qualities which will be talked about for a long time to come.

That is surprisingly guarded for a Consortium statement: They usually veer toward over-optimism rather than caution. All I can tell you is that I loved the ‘16s I tasted, even though I think they really shouldn’t be drunk for a decade yet.

I’ll just list here, in alphabetical order, my best wines of the tasting. All were absolutely characteristic both of Nebbiolo and of the vintages as I’ve already described them, so I’ll keep my comments to a minimum.

Aurelio Settimo, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2015 – forward, light, and well-structured: fine.

_____________, Barolo Riserva Rocche dell’Annunziata 2012 – another lovely keeping wine, classically structured.

Brezza, Barolo Cannubi 2015 – nice indeed: wild fennel in the nose, wild cherry and herbs on the palate.

Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco Tre Stelle 2016 – a big wine, yet welcoming, with great structure and balance.

Colla, Barolo Bussia Dardi le Rose 2015 – Excellent: classic Colla style and structure (if you don’t know what that means, you owe it to yourself to find out).

Conterno, Barolo Francia 2015 – very lovely, very young: cellar for ten years before you start them.

Gaja, Barolo Sperss 2015 – gorgeous, in that deceptively light, very structured Gaja style.

Giacomo Fenocchio, Barolo Bussia 2016 – a lovely wine, all raspberry and fennel and wild cherry.

Livia Fontana, Barolo Villero 2016 – beautiful acid/tannin balance, great over-all.

Marcarini, Barolo Brunate 2015 – lovely and accessible: drink this and the other 15s until the 16s come ready.

Massolino, Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva 2013 – a great wine for long keeping.

Oddero, Barolo Riserva Bussia Vigna Mondoca 2013 – an extraordinary wine right through to its dark-chocolate finish.

Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco Riserva Ovello 2015 – light and intensely wild cherry and, as with all Produttori wines, a bargain.

_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Muncagota 2015 – big, fine, and structured: another great Produttori cru.

_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Paje 2015 – Slightly bigger and more elegant than the Muncagota: very deep for a 2015.

Renato Ratti, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2016 – fine, fine, fine! With the great structure characteristic of the ‘16s.

Schiavenza, Barolo Prapo 2015 – very big, old-style Barolo: needs time to soften its tannins; very good indeed.

As you can see from all the above, the teens of this still new century are creating wonders in Barolo and Barbaresco. We have to hope that the warming trend can be brought under control before all we can get in the future becomes a fine crop of Nebbiolo raisins.

Fontanafredda: Barolo History in a Bottle

January 30, 2020

Few wineries in Barolo are as historic and as highly respected by wine professionals and consumers alike as Fontanafredda. The 300-hectare property was first organized in 1858 by Victor Emanuel, the second King of Italy, as a love gift to his then-mistress, later wife, “La Bella Rosin.” Victor Emanuel’s son, Count Emanuele Alberto di Mirafiore, inherited the property in 1878 and began developing it into one of the largest and most progressive wine producers in the Piedmont, an eminence it has never lost.

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Not that Fontanafredda hasn’t endured vicissitudes. The most daunting of these was the late arrival (1928) in the Piedmont of the phylloxera, the root louse – an unintended import from America – that came close to wiping out European wine production. Immediately on its heels came the international depression of 1929, another unwanted import from America. Those two blows forced the sale of the property in 1931 to a bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which owned Fontanafredda until 2009. The present owner is Oscar Farinetti, a native Piedmontese, better known to the world now as the owner of Eataly.

Fontanafredda has always been a predominantly traditionalist winemaker, devoted to local grape varieties – especially Nebbiolo – vinified in traditional ways: long, slow fermentations with lots of skin contact, aging in big botti. There were some experiments in the past with barriques and new French oak, but under Farinetti’s aegis, those have been largely phased out, and Fontanafredda has moved steadily in the direction of organic farming and vinification. Its status as an organic producer has recently been officially recognized: 2018 marked its first organic-certified harvest.

Sorry about the history lesson: Fontanafredda does that to you. Now to talk about the wines.

As a long-time Barolo lover, I’ve been tracking Fontanafredda Barolos, in my haphazard fashion, for many years, and I’ve had the distinct impression that they have always maintained excellent typicity and quality. In different harvests there have been frequent blips upward to a truly exalted level of Barolo winemaking, especially with the La Rosa cru, which is Fontanafredda’s crown jewel. In this century, those upward blips have been becoming more frequent, both under winemaker Danilo Drocco and under his friend and successor Giorgio Lavagna, who was wooed away from his position at Bruno Giacosa’s estate (a credential that will rightfully impress most Barolo lovers) to take over in 2018 as chief winemaker at Fontanafredda.

My apologies: You just can’t get away from history when you talk about Fontanafredda. Back to the wines.

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Fontanafredda’s importer, Taub Family Selections, recently sponsored a luncheon tasting session of six of its Barolos at the Manhattan Eataly, a highly appropriate venue for what proved to be a very interesting tasting. Here are the six wines:

2015 Barolo del Commune di Serralunga d’Alba

2015 Barolo Fontanafredda

2011 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

1996 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

2010 Barolo Riserva

2000 Barolo Riserva

This was a fascinating progression of wines. The first wine comes from various locations – some Fontanafredda’s own vineyards, some growers with whom Fontanafredda has had long-term relationships – within the commune of Serralunga, which is one of the most esteemed in the Barolo zone. You could make a loose analogy with Burgundy village wines, and Fontanafredda is the first and – so far as I have been able to find out – the only Barolo producer to attempt such a wine. In theory, it should give a true taste of what locals believe to be the core characteristics of this commune. No suspense: Despite being very young and still a bit closed, it did so, showing complex aromas, dark wild cherry fruit, decent body, ample tannins (which will soften pretty quickly) and good acidity and nervous energy.

The second wine’s grapes all came exclusively from Fontanafredda, which is not only the largest contiguous vineyard in Barolo but also an MGA cru in itself – the only monopole cru in Barolo. (FYI:  Just a few years back, a lengthy and exhaustive study concluded with an approved list of menzioni geografiche aggiuntive: additional geographic names that may be used on labels to identify wines. The entirety of the Fontanafredda estate qualified as its own cru.). This 2015 was also very young and still not fully open, but it showed better and more intensely the same Serralunga characteristics as the first wine.
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Vigna La Rosa amounts to a cru within a cru, a prized plot of approximately 20 acres that Fontanafredda vinifies and bottles separately in good harvests. The 2011 was lovely and surprisingly forward, already drinking very enjoyably. More elegant than big, it’s beautiful now and will probably continue to taste as good or better for the next ten years.

The 1996 Vigna La Rosa, on the other hand, is still far from mature, with big, firm tannins and a ton of still-evolving fruit. Winemaker Lavagna reminded us that at harvest nobody thought much of the ‘96s. It had been a difficult growing season, and most producers thought it wouldn’t amount to much. It reminded me of the 1978 Barolo, a notoriously hard vintage that took decades to fully mature but was absolutely glorious when it finally did. This is the kind of wine that can give you a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if you have the patience to wait for it.

.Next came the Riservas, wines chosen for their expected ability to age long and well, and consequently given extra time in barrel and in bottle before their commercial release. The aroma and flavor spectrum that appeared in all the preceding wines showed also in these two, with to my palate an extra layer of elegance superimposed. The 2010 had a lovely nose, and was surprisingly soft on the palate, forward, and accessible. A wine of this caliber may very well close down for a few years – a dumb phase. That’s normal, so don’t despair – just wait it out. The wine will come back better than ever, having evolved to a different stage. The Riserva 2000 showed that: It was still slightly closed, as if it was just emerging from its dumb phase and still needed time to regain its balance.

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NB: Both these Riserva wines just blossomed alongside the cheese course, giving a nice foretaste of what they will be like at their maturity. It will be worth waiting for, if you don’t want to drink them exclusively with cheese for the next ten or twenty years.

One Fine Wine: Château Les Ormes de Pez 2001        

January 16, 2020
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Château Les Ormes de Pez (you pronounce the z, so it unfortunately sounds like a tiny candy) is a long-time favorite of Diane’s and mine: It’s one of the wines we learned on, so to speak. This 2001 is from a half case that I squirreled away years ago and have managed to keep my hands off until now. And boy, am I happy I did!

The estate is an ancient one, now owned (since WW II) by the Cazes family, proprietors of the far more prestigious Lynch Bages. Les Ormes de Pez is classified as a cru bourgeois, and still occupies pretty much the same land it did when the famous 1855 classification relegated it to that lowly rank. As a consequence, it has never had the cachet – or the price – of the collector’s darling premiers crus Bordeaux. So much the better for us simple drinkers: de Pez has consistently produced fine wines, completely characteristic of the St. Estèphe appellation.

Especially in the hands of the Cazes family, the wine routinely achieves a quality level that, in my opinion, deserves a much higher ranking. (If de Pez got it, that would probably drive its price up, so let it continue to under-rank and overachieve, I say.) Its name no longer suits it either: The glorious grove of elm trees – les ormes — that identified it has long since gone the way of the buffalo – or, more accurately, the way of all European (and a good many American) elm trees, wiped out by a blight.

The wine endures the passage of time better than the estate’s rank and name. My bottle of 2001, after suffering in my far-less-than-ideal storage conditions, was nevertheless just lovely. A very deep garnet color; an earthy, black currant nose; deep, evolved flavors of underbrush, mushrooms, and black fruits; soft but still perceptible tannins; big and round (surprisingly big: I had not expected so substantial a mouthful); long, long finishing: To my palate this was classic St. Estèphe, mature and elegant and still very much alive, a wine of great equipoise and balance. That’s what I go to the great Bordeaux for, and that’s what Les Ormes de Pez of 15-25 years of age always gives me.

Feret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines (known as the Bible of Bordeaux: my edition is the 13th) says that the winemaking at Les Ormes de Pez is handled by the team that oversees Lynch-Bages with “the same attentive care which helps produce wines with bouquet, mellow and rich in flavor, consistent with the traditional quality of great Saint-Estèphes.”  Amen.

Romano Brands’ Small Producers

January 2, 2020

Romano Brands is an interesting small importer that specializes in interesting small producers – which, of course, is very interesting to me because the wines of so many small regional vintners never make it out of their local markets and to these shores.

So when Michael Romano invited me to a tasting of four of his producers’ best wines, I quickly said yes – especially when I heard that the tasting and lunch would take place at The Leopard at Des Artistes, one of the very best Italian restaurants in New York. Good wine and good food will get me every time. I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

The four producers present were, from north to south, Giusti, Corte Quaiara, Cerulli Spinozzi, and Cavalier Pepe, the first two representing different zones of the Veneto, the third Abruzzo, and the fourth Campania. That covers a lot of important wine areas, and the distinctions among them made for a lively and informative tasting.

The stand-up, pre-lunch portion of the tasting surveyed that geographic spread with some lovely, fresh, young, mostly white wines. The notes I take at stand-up tastings grow less and less legible, and sometimes less coherent, with every event and every year. In this case, that didn’t become too great a problem because my notes – usually just memos to myself rather than full-blown tasting notes or descriptions – all said practically the same thing: very fine; very typical; good varietal character; quite enjoyable.

That covered a Pecorino from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Falanghina from Cavalier Pepe, a Greco also from Pepe, Pepe’s Aglianico rosé (the latter particularly fine, fully dry with a lovely Aglianico finish), a Cerasuolo from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Chardonnay and a Prosecco from Giusti, and 2015 Erbaluce di Calusa from KIN, a producer not present at the tasting, who is so small that he makes only this one wine and so interesting that he keeps getting awards for it.

The wines served with the subsequent lunch got more varied and distinctive. That is no way intended to belittle the stand-up tasting wines: It just means that we moved up a category and into greater complexity.

Four wines, all produced by Giovanni Montresor at Corte Quaiara, were served to accompany a delicious bowl of cavatelli with seafood ragu:

  • A fascinating 2018 ramato (coppery) style Pinot Grigio Amfora. Aged in amphora, this wine more resembled Pinot gris than it did the average Pinot grigio, showing pronounced varietal character and real intensity.
  • A 2013 100% Garganega Campo al Salice, a very lovely, old-vine wine with deep Soave character and amazing freshness for a six-year-old white. Soave, despite the fact that most people drink it young, can be very long-lived and all the more interesting for its bottle-age. Its acidity keeps it alive and its minerality keeps it attractive.
  • 2013 Monte delle Saette, a blend of a grape that is itself a cross between Gewürztraminer and Trebbiano, called Goldtraminer because that is the color of its juice, and another Veneto white grape whose name in my note remains illegible. My bad, but the wine wasn’t: very aromatic and again quite fresh for its age.
  • A classic Italian Pinot noir 2016, sturdy and deeply fruity, with fine acidity that served it beautifully with the seafood cavatelli.

All told, a nice suite of wines.

Lamb chops Scottadito accompanied a single wine, Cerulli Spinozzi’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva Torre Migliore. This was a totally enjoyable wine, with great intensity of black cherry fruit, on both the nose and the palate, and great acid/tannin balance that made it an ideal accompaniment to the lamb. A single vineyard wine from old vines, at nine years old it still tasted very fresh and young, the kind of welcoming red wine you could happily drink all through a meal.

Two more reds joined the Montepulciano on the table for the final course, delicious veal braciole with prosciutto and caciocavallo: Giusti’s 2016 Ripasso della Valpolicella and 2014 Amarone. These were both lovely wines, both fully dry, and both with fruit so intense that it kept suggesting sweetness. The Valpolicella Ripasso was in the currently very popular – with both winemakers and consumers – style that makes the wine into a baby Amarone, which is exactly what this fine example was: smooth on the palate, big and lovely, with sufficient acidity to keep it supple. The Amarone smelled profoundly of dried fruit – especially cherry – and felt positively velvety in the mouth, with great balance: This will be a very long-lived wine.

Before this tasting, I had had very limited exposure to any of these producers, a fact I now seriously regret. Romano Brands has put together an excellent selection of top-notch small producers which otherwise wouldn’t ever make it onto the American market – not because they don’t have the quality, but because they don’t have the large production that the big, nationwide importers and distributors need. So much the worse for the big distributors, so much the better for us, who can badger or beg our local retailers to stock wines like this from producers like these. Globalization brings many advantages, but so too does thinking small and local.

Champagne Extravaganza

December 19, 2019

Once again, as he has for the past 20-some-odd years, friend and colleague Ed McCarthy organized the Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon, this year held in the special-event space at restaurant Il Gattopardo. Ed, the author of Champagne for Dummies, has the finest Champagne palate and deepest store of Champagne knowledge of anyone I’ve met in wine journalism, and the lineup of wines he collected for this occasion exceeded impressive: 20 specimens of the best bubblies around. Here is the whole festive list:

Pol Roger Valentine Leflaive NV Blanc de Blancs
H. Mumm NV Blanc de Blancs
Collet “Collection Privée” 2006
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2012
Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis 2009
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV
Piper-Heidsieck “Rare” 2006
Boizel Joyau de France 2000
Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2005
Palmer & Co. 2003 (magnum)
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2007
Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004
Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Rosé 2007
Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2004
Louis Roederer Cristal 2008
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2006
Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2008
Bollinger La Grande Année 2008
Krug Grande Cuvée 168ème édition

Lists like that are what make Wine Media Guild events important. The chance to taste a battery of wines of this caliber (and cost!) happens only rarely, and for a wine professional the opportunity to taste so many such wines side by side, both by themselves and then with a good lunch, in congenial company and comfortable circumstances – that’s simply incomparable.
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One of the Two Tasting Tables

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It hardly counts as a spoiler alert to say at the outset that there wasn’t a single bottle of those 20 Champagnes that I would not happily drink for Christmas or New Year’s Eve or my birthday – or tomorrow’s breakfast, for that matter.

The Champagne guru did have a reservation, however: Ed thought that almost all the wines were too young. For example: of Champagne Collet’s 2006 Collection Privée, he said “it still needs time”; of Boizel’s 2000 Joyau de France, he said it was “still quite young” at almost 20 years of age; of Champagne Palmer & Co’s 2003, poured from magnum, he said it was “a bit young still – amazing”; and of Louis Roederer’s 2008 Cristal, he said it was “a great Champagne that needs 20 years to develop.”  Do you sense a theme?

Ed likes his Champagne mature, and I can fully sympathize with that. That this Cristal can develop fascinatingly over the next 20 years, and then stay at a beautiful plateau for 20 more, I have no doubt – but I would certainly want to dispel any notion that it wasn’t pleasurable drinking any time before then. Ditto for all the other “too young” wines in this lineup. Yes, they will all get better, more complex, more nuanced, with more age, but none of them was in any way not enjoyable right now.

They may give you more later in their life, but then as now, whether they show their best or not will depend on what food you pair them with. It is true of all wines, but, I think, especially of Champagnes, that the food pairing can make or break the wines. “Buy on apples, sell on cheese” is a universal wine maxim. For example: Our lunch ended with a lovely, light, refreshing dessert, an orange and Grand Marnier custard on pan di Spagna, with which not a single one of these fine Champagnes matched well – not even the lightest entry in the field, Pol Roger’s Valentine Leflaive NV Blanc de Blancs. The light sweetness of the custard made all the Champagnes taste too big, too austere, even bordering on harsh; whereas simple dry chocolate biscotti matched with most of the Champagnes quite decently, and certainly more pleasurably.

So the lesson is, if you’re going to invest in any of these fine and costly specimens, think very carefully about what to serve them with, lest you just throw your money away – or worse yet, decide that you just don’t understand Champagne and give up on the whole genre, which would be a terrible triumph for the Christmas Grinch.

For the sake of those who always ask such questions, I tried to come up with my five favorite Champagnes of the day, but I couldn’t do it. By the most rigorous process of elimination, I came up with eight favorites – and I hasten to stress, favorites on this day, in these circumstances. Here they are, in the order in which I tasted them.

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Pol Roger Valentine Leflaive NV Blanc de Blancs: New in the US, light-bodied and charming. Ed called it a “fresh, vibrant baby.”


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Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis 2009: As I am, Ed is a fan of Gratien, a Champagne house not as well known in the US as it deserves to be. My quick note on this wine says simply “meaty and very, very good.”

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Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2006: “Something special – outstanding,” Ed said of this wine, and I agree completely.

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Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2005: Another Champagne house better known and more esteemed in France than here, and another long-time favorite of both mine and Ed’s. I found it very elegant; he said it was “drinking beautifully.”

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Louis Roederer Cristal 2008: What more can one say of Cristal?  This is a great wine that deserves all the praise it gets.

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Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2006
:  Yet one more of my long-time favorites, always big and elegant. Ed called it “outstanding,” and I agree.

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Bollinger La Grande Année 2008
: One of the biggest, deepest wines in the whole lineup. Classic Bollinger, structured and complex, this is definitely a wine that will last for decades.

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Krug Grande Cuvée 168ème édition:  Krug achieves with its NV the kind of distinction that other houses match only with their tête de cuvée, and it does it year after year, here for the 168th time. How’s that for consistency?

 

So there you have it, in all its sparkling splendor. The only thing I can add is to wish you all a joyous Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Yule, or all of the above, as suits your seasonal inclination: May your days be merry and bright, and only half of your wines be white.

 

Mortes pour la France

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Drinking in Portugal

December 9, 2019

Last month, Diane and I spent a tourist week in Portugal – a few days in Lisbon and almost a week cruising up and down the Douro river, best known to most winos as the pathway of Port to the world. Those who know me will find this perverse, because I never drink Port: It’s a palatal blind spot for me. I just can’t get past the sugar, in even the driest specimens. Fortunately, Portugal in general and the Douro valley in particular produce a great many other wines.
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Wine production in Portugal is really amazing. For a small country, it produces an astonishing variety of wines, from a truly enormous number of mostly native grapes, almost 500 of them by some counts. The best known – and that is not saying much – of the varieties cultivated and vinified are probably Touriga nacional and Touriga franca, which are very roughly comparable in character and vinicultural roles to Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc, though I wouldn’t push that analogy very far.

Other widely grown varieties include Baga, Periquita, Tempranillo, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Francisca – and those are just the reds. The even more varied whites include Alvarinho, Arinto, Codega do Larinho, Moscatel, Rabigato, Verdelho, and Viosinho, and their roles range from light-hearted Vinho Verde to serious-minded dinner wines.

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The shipboard wines tended strongly to the lighter, easy-drinking end of the spectrum. That’s understandable, from CroisiEurope’s (our cruise line) point of view: We’re all there to have fun, after all, and very few of our fellow travellers’ ideas of fun included serious wine. Besides, most of the line’s clientele are French, and I am constantly surprised by how little many French people actually know or care about wine, especially that of other nations.

Here is the list of the ship’s endlessly pourable at-no-cost wines:
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And here is the for-a-fee list:
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We found nothing on either list that would change anyone’s life. Mostly, they were simple, agreeable wines that adapted well to the ship’s good French-hotel cuisine.

The single exception, which we chose to match with the cruise’s special gala dinner, was one of only four French wines on the list, a Château Carbonnieux rouge, which turned out to be a 2003 vintage. This had been a bit of a shot in the dark, since no vintage was named on the list, but 2003 was a better-than-respectable vintage and is just about at a ripe drinking age now – so we lucked in, and enjoyed a classic red Graves with our gala foie gras and roasted veal.

For all my disappointment with CroisiEurope’s wine lists, I give it credit for (a) trying to expose its clientele to the range of Portuguese wine and (b) stocking a wine of the quality of this good Bordeaux and selling it at such a reasonable price (€42).

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Our brief stay in Lisbon was vinously much more rewarding. As Diane has reported in her blog, we happened on a tapas bar named Bebedouro, where over two lunches we enjoyed flights of red and white Douro wines. These provided a tasty and informative introduction to Portuguese wine, at least that of the Douro.

Montes Ermos 2017 DOC Douro, Vale de Cavalos 2016 DOC Douro, and Carm 2016 DOC Douro Reserva were the reds, all substantial wines worthy of attention, and all fine companions for BebeDouro’s tasty tapas.
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The whites included Porrais 2018 Douro DOC, Lacrau 2018 DOC Douro (100% Moscatel Galego Branco, almost totally dry: very intriguing), and Quinta Seara d’Ordens 2017 Douro DOC, a substantial wine blended from several native varieties – Rabigato, Malvasia Fina, and Fernão Pires. This restaurant was a serendipitous find for a pair of foot-weary, wine-curious tourists.
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The vinous highlight of Lisbon for us, however, was unquestionably the lovely bottle of 1970 Dão Reserva we drank with dinner at La Varanda, one of Lisbon’s best restaurants. The bottle provided little information other than the maker’s name – Vinicola do Vale do Dão – and the wine list none at all, other than a price so low (€55) that I seriously asked the sommelier whether the bottle was sound.
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La Varanda is a restaurant that sports a wine list with many very pricey bottles – if you could afford it, you could arrange a lengthy vertical of Portugal’s legendary Barca Velha here – so the cherry-picker in me couldn’t ignore a nearly 50-year-old wine at a bargain price. And very happy we were with it: The wine was in perfect condition, and kept getting better and better, deeper and more nuanced, as it breathed. Part of the fun of it, by the way, was the elaborate – and we gathered, traditional Portuguese – way of opening the bottle by cutting its neck with red-hot tongs and pulling the still-attached cork out along with the neck piece.
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After Port, Dão used to be the most famous name in Portuguese wine, way back in the Salazar days, before Portugal joined the EU and started modernizing its wine industry. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any reader of this post that modernization is always a mixed blessing. Back then, wine makers’ fortunes rose and fell with the quality of their product, and even though Dão is the name of a now prestigious region, the producer’s reputation was always the key consideration. This was especially so because Dão wine was then an unregulated blend of varieties at the choice of the makers, so everything rode on their skill and consistency. Dãos could be wonderful wines, with all the qualities of depth, complexity, character, and longevity that we wine lovers prize – so when I have a chance to taste an old one, made back in those now legendary days, I leap at it and, as in this case, I love it.

Another Tuscan Triumph: Rocca della Macie

November 28, 2019

I seem to be on a Chianti Classico binge: My last post was about Cecchi’s lovely Chiantis, this one is about Rocca della Macie’s. All of which is just fine with me, because Sangiovese, the grape that is the heart and soul of Chianti Classico, is one of the world’s finest wine varieties, capable of innumerable different manifestations and styles. Simply stated: I don’t get tired of it.

Just a few weeks ago, Sergio Zingarelli, the owner of Rocca della Macie and a former president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, presented to a very appreciative group of wine journalists a vertical tasting of six library samples of his Riserva di Fizzano, the estate’s flagship wine. They were 1995, 1999, 2005, 2011, 2013, and 2015.

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Riserva di Fizzano has been Rocca della Macie’s most important cru ever since the Zingarelli family acquired the vineyard in the mid-1980s. From the start, its wine blended 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet sauvignon, and 5% Merlot to make a beautifully balanced wine, austere in youth but maturing to a smooth, round, structured wine redolent on nose and palate of dark berries and earth, as poised and elegant as any Tuscan wine. The 1995 seems completely mature now, but the ’99 – a very great vintage – is still evolving, and I can’t guess how many years it still has in front of it. The 2005 also promises greatness, though it is right now reticent.
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A great change came with the 2011 vintage. Zingarelli and his enologist Lorenzo Landi (a Tuscan of the Tuscans, I have heard him called) dropped the Cabernet sauvignon from the blend and made it 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot. The 2013 vintage followed suit, while the 2015 blended 93% Sangiovese with 7% Colorino, an indigenous Tuscan variety: this seems to be the direction of the future for this important wine.

Let me stress how significant I think this is. First, omitting the Cabernet is an addition, not a subtraction. The beauty of the multifaceted Sangiovese fruit shows through immeasurably more clearly without the mask of Cabernet. The young wine is no longer so austere, but now feels softer and fresher on the palate, with a greater richness and intensity of fruit. It simply has more and purer Sangiovese character. The clonal research of the massive Chianti Classico 2000 project that the Consorzio undertook almost three decades back is clearly bearing fruit (all possible puns intended), and Riserva di Fizzano – now designated as Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – is showing quite evidently just how marvelous its results can be.

During the lunch that followed this vertical, Zingarelli showed some newer vintages that highlighted the continuing evolution of his Chianti Classico. First up was the basic Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico 2017, 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot, a fine wine displaying excellent fruit even though very young. I’d wait a year or so to drink this one, when I think it will be lovely.
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Next came the 2016 Rocca della Macie Riserva, 90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought this wine both lovely and a bargain (suggested retail price of $26.99: wow!) Terrific rich fruit, great balance, long, dry, cherry finish, drinkable now and structured for some years of life: As the current cliché has it, what’s not to like?

The third wine was Rocca della Macie’s second Gran Selezione, Sergio Zingarelli 2013, 100% Sangiovese. For my palate, this wine was a champion, elegant and structured, with decades of enjoyable life before it, and already showing complex, multifaceted Sangiovese character. Were I 20 years younger, I’d buy cases of it and stash it away where I couldn’t get my hands on it for at least a few years.
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The 2014 vintage of the same wine – a difficult vintage because of summer heat and humidity – tasted bigger and very ripe. This a very good wine, and very forceful and authoritative, but for me it lacks the elegance of the 2013. Lovers of big Chianti will no doubt prefer this bottling. That is a matter of taste: Both are fine Chianti Classico, as is almost everything from this progressive, increasingly important estate.