I Need a Vacation . . .

May 16, 2019

. . . from my vacation, and that’s why there’s no new post today.

Diane and I fled to southern France to escape the unnaturally cold, grey, rainy season that substituted for spring in New York this year, and guess what? We found the same miserable weather afflicting Europe too. What should have been a glorious, vineyard-visit-punctuated cruise down the Rhône turned into a soldiering-on and making-the-best-of-it slog, culminating in our both coming down with killer colds.

Diane is made of sterner stuff than I am: She managed to get a short post up this week. I’ll catch up next post. Meanwhile, here’s the view from our cabin windows when the ship was moored across the river from Tain-l’Hermitage. Ah, what might have been!

 

Chapoutier vineyards, with the Hermitage itself at the crest of the hill.

One Fine Wine: Chante Cigale Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1989

May 6, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

For reasons too trivial to go into, and mostly for sheer self-indulgence, I recently felt the strong need of a wine with some significant age. Diligent searching through my dwindling supply of such came up with this treasure, a fully mature Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I wish I could say I had more of it, but alas, it is now only a memory.

But what a memory!  Big and authoritative and round, as the best Châteauneufs are, this bottle – at 30 years old still perfectly sound, with no ullage – had mellowed into a deep, graceful, dark-flavored nectar. It was virtually impossible to isolate individual flavor elements, so perfectly wedded to each other did they seem. Harmony and – a word I know I use too often – elegance dominated the impressions the wine made.

For its companion dinner, Diane had chosen to make a quasi-classic innard dish from the best of France’s cuisine bourgeois: tripes à l’espagnole. We love organ meats generally and tripe especially, and this dish played admirably with the mature Châteauneuf. It tasted marvelous all through dinner, but above all, this Châteauneuf embraced cheese. It interacted beautifully with the warm cheese tarts Diane created for a first course, and the half firm, half buttery, young Parmigiano-like cheese we ended the dinner with actually seemed to expand the wine – that is, the combination made all its complex flavors bigger and deeper and longer-lasting on the palate. And this for a Châteauneuf that had already been showing a monumentally long finish. I was impressed.
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Domaine Chante Cigale is a long-time, family-owned producer, now farming some 40 hectares of vines spread over 45 plots in the Châteauneuf appellation. That’s not unusual: Because of the tremendous variety of soil substrates, most producers try to work with multiple plots to incorporate the differing characteristics into their final blend.

Blend is the most significant concept when it comes to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Producers in this zone pioneered France’s modern wine regulations. Back in the 1930s, they created the first Appellation Controlée, and the discipline they proposed then largely still holds. It allows a staggering 13 grape varieties to be used to make Châteauneuf. The principal one was then and still is Grenache, usually aided and abetted by various percentages of Mourvedre and/or Syrah (though that is far less important here than it is further north in the Rhone valley) and/or Picpoul, Counoise, and other local indigenous varieties.

Back in 1989, Chante Cigale made one sort of Châteauneuf. Now the domaine produces at least two bottlings, and one of those uses only the estate’s oldest vineyards to make a blend of selected vieilles vignes. How that affects the aging ability of the basic Châteauneuf I can’t guess, but in 1989 it wasn’t a problem: The fruit of the oldest vineyards was part of the domaine’s basic blend, and I would think that those grapes contributed importantly to the beautiful maturation of the bottle I enjoyed.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is usually described as a “rich, spicy, full-bodied” wine. That’s fair, if a bit generic, and mainly applicable to young wines – and that’s fair too, since that’s the way most Châteauneuf is consumed. Producers are even taking that into account in their cellars, striving to make wines that can be drunk at the age of five or six. Me, I’m old-fashioned, and I love the deep, dark, leather-and-cherry-and-black-pepper flavors in a velvet envelope that really mature Châteauneuf, such as my lovely bottle of Chante Cigale, can develop. They are worth the wait, and I’m only sorry that I didn’t show more restraint with this last bottle’s siblings.

The Grinch Strikes Again: Lament for Lost California Field Blends

April 25, 2019

I try to like California wines, I really do. On the face of it, they have so much going for them – multiple microclimates and terroirs, amazing variations of elevation and exposure, some of most advanced wine science and technology in the world, and access to just about any grape variety from anywhere in the world to work with. The Golden State’s winemakers should be able to produce at-very-least-drinkable wines in every conceivable style and price range. But no, it isn’t so. With a few very honorable exceptions, almost every new California wine I try is the same disappointing, brashly fruited, over-alcoholic monster.

Once upon a time I loved California field mixes – old-fashioned, everyday wines from before the monovarietal-Cabernet and -Chardonnay craze. Most of these came from old vineyards that had been planted in the European farmer tradition of several varieties together – a precaution so that if one failed, you could still make wine. The grapes came from all over: a field might grow Zinfandel and Barbera and Syrah or Petite Sirah (what California called Durif) or any number of other Rhone or Italian or Spanish varieties. From any given vineyard, the proportions of each variety might change from year to year, but the character and style of the wine remained reasonably consistent – easy, pleasurable drinkability being its most prominent quality.

I remember I used particularly to enjoy Trentadue’s Old Patch Red, which was exactly the unpretentious drink the name described. For some years, I haven’t seen any on the shelves here in New York, but recently I received an offer for it over the internet. My initial excitement faded quickly as I read the wine’s description: Now it’s predominantly Zin, with a mix of two other grapes, neither of which is the Barbera I remember as being a large portion of the wine I loved. It’s not the dry wine I remember either: It’s now described as semi-sweet. (Ugh!) And it’s up to 14.5 degrees of alcohol. That’s no longer a quaffing wine – it’s a getting-high wine, and no longer my tipple.
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This is not to say that there are no field-mix wines coming out of California. There are still some – probably more than I’m aware of – but the ones I know best have moved up several notches in elegance and price, so that they no longer qualify on my budget as everyday wines. Many of Ridge’s collection of Zinfandels, most of which I love, would qualify as field mixes. In fact, several of them contain too little Zinfandel in their blend (California law mandates minimally 75%) to bear the name Zinfandel on their labels.

Hence wines like the place-named Geyserville, my favorite, which is always a blend, from Ridge’s Geyserville vineyard, of a major proportion of Zinfandel with reciprocally varying percentages of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro (aka Mourvedre). This is an elegant wine, claret-like in its attack and aging ability as well as price, but I’m not aware of any California field-blend wines at an everyday-drinking price point that the word elegant could even remotely be attached to. Rather, their emphasis now seems to be big fruit and big alcohol and that’s all. It’s a great loss.

This whole fulmination came about because I recently ate lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, where I was offered a list of about 30 Mexican wines, mostly from Baja and all unknown to me. (I clearly have a big research project in front of me.) The one I chose, in consultation with the barman, turned out to be exactly the kind of genial, food-friendly, inexpensive field blend that California used to produce abundantly, but now seemingly can’t.

I have only one question: Why?  Of course I know the answer: The big monster wine sells. But wouldn’t a better balanced wine at the same price point sell too?  Has anyone tried?  I guess I had three questions.

A New (to Me) Grappa Maestro: Capovilla

April 15, 2019

This post is about a grappa distillery that I haven’t had the opportunity to visit, much as I would like to: Capovilla, located in Bassano, near Monte Grappa, in Vicenza province. I had been hearing for some time about Gianni Capovilla, the proprietor, as a sort of grappa-and-distillates genius.

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In this age of hype, I had taken the reports with a grain of salt. Especially since one of the major praises of Capovilla’s genius came from a Wine Spectator article written by someone who, before tasting Capovilla’s distillates, had been unaware that grappa was capable of “nuanced aromas.” Enough said, I think: You will understand my skepticism. (If you don’t, take a look at some of my earlier posts about grappa and its splendors – this one, for instance.)

More recently, I’ve had the opportunity – in Italy – to taste several Capovilla grappas in social circumstances, and I was very favorably impressed by their purity, and so slowly began to suspend my skepticism. Even more recently, a friend here in New York served me Capovilla’s grappa di Bassano, which I found impressive indeed. And more important, that same good friend told me that at least some Capovilla grappas were now available stateside. The hunt was on.

I’ll spare the tedious details: I’ve acquired a few of Capovilla’s products and have tasted them analytically, as well as appreciatively, and my verdict is in: This is a first-rate producer – maybe a bit pricey for some items, but clearly a top-tier distiller.
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From left: grappa di Lugana, grappa di Bassano, distillato di pere Williams, grappa Triple A

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Gianni Capovilla, now in his 70s, began professional life as an engineer, working with agricultural and enological machinery. Like so many Italians in the wine and food world, he had to go abroad to learn to appreciate what he had at home. Experiences with quality distillates in France and Germany hooked him, and thirty-some years ago he began making wine, grappa, and fruit brandies. Shortly after he moved entirely into distillation, whose complexities – and the complexity of its results – fascinated him. He quickly attracted attention in Italy, which was itself finally beginning to esteem its home-grown spirits. He is now regarded as one of the maestros, turning out small quantities of almost hand-crafted grappas and fruit brandies – close to two dozen kinds.
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Of the latter, the ones I’ve tasted are right up there in quality with the far more famous clear fruit distillates of Alsace, and in some cases Capovilla’s are even better. His pear Williams distllato (he makes three different ones, from different kinds of pears) in particular stands out for the delicacy and clarity of its aroma and flavor. He spends much time and attention on his fruit distillates, in some cases cultivating and/or gathering the fruit himself. He even has people bringing in wild fruit for him to distill – though that, as you can easily imagine, is a very small production.

Grape pomace, happily, is much more readily available, though even about that, Capovilla is very picky. In grappa making as in Italian cookery, the prima materia is crucial to the quality of the finished product, and Capovilla works with carefully selected pomace from specific regions and vineyards. He makes, for instance, a beautiful grappa di Lugana, clear, aromatic, and deeply flavorful, from the pomace of the Ottella estate near Lake Garda, a first-rate vigneron in the heart of the Lugana zone.

Another example, which I’ve not yet had but am eager to try, is a grappa di Ribolla, distilled from the legendary winemaker Gravner’s pomace. The list goes on: grappa di Cabernet, di Merlot, di Amarone, di Barolo, di Brunello. You get the picture, I’m sure: Gianni Capovilla is a passionate, dedicated craftsman, working intensely to produce grappas and brandies of the highest quality he and his land are capable of. And now I’ve acquired a vocation too: finding and tasting as many of them as I can.

Donatella, Prima Donna del Vino

April 1, 2019

 

 

Donatella Cinelli Colombini has lived and worked in the wine world all her life. Her family owns the Barbi vineyards and winery. They have lived in Montalcino since at least the 16th century, and the properties that Donatella now cultivates have passed down the female line for many generations. The most important one, a Montalcino vineyard, used to be called simply Casato; for reasons that will come clear shortly, Donatella has renamed it Casato Prime Donne.

The Cinelli Colombini family and the Barbi vineyards played a key role in the invention of Brunello. In the 19th century, one of their ancestors, along with a Biondi-Santi ancestor and a few other individuals in Montalcino, began experimenting with vinifying the local clone of Sangiovese by itself – a heresy of sorts in Tuscany, where blending several varieties had been the traditional way of vinification for centuries. That tradition was powerful enough by itself, and it had only recently been reinforced by the influential precepts of Barone Ricasoli about the way to make Chianti. Nevertheless, the Montalcino pioneers persisted, and so the wine we now know as Brunello di Montalcino was born.

For many years, Donatella was generally in charge of affairs at Barbi, running everything from the cheese- and salume-making to the winemaking (Barbi was and still is a complete farm operation), but in the late 1990s she claimed her share of the family properties and set up on her own – “in keeping,” as Kerin O’Keefe dryly puts in her book Brunello di Montalcino, “with the unwritten but solid tradition of most of Italy’s great wine families of not being able to work alongside parents or siblings.” My own sense of the matter is that it was not willfulness on Donatella’s part that led to her departure. But that isn’t important: What does count is what she proceeded to do at Casato, which is to create a winery completely staffed by women – hence Casato Prime Donne.
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This would be significant anywhere, but in the Italian wine world it was close to revolutionary, and it was compounded by the fact that from the very beginning, she made wonderful wine. I think it’s getting better all the time, as the house’s emphasis is shifting from power to elegance, but even some of the earliest bottles have matured very well.

That isn’t all Donatella did. For as long as I’ve known her (Full disclosure: I’ve known Donatella – as well as her mother Francesca and her brother Stefano – for decades now), she has been engaged on many fronts, all linked by her love of the wine, nature, history, and traditions of Montalcino. She has compiled and published collections of local food lore. She even campaigned to save the local species of donkeys. Most important, she created a whole organization for wine tourism in Montalcino and invented Cantine Aperte, an annual event during harvest time when Italian winemakers – who by and large are the antithesis of Napa Valley, totally unequipped to deal with visitors – open their cellars to the wine-loving public. Cantine Aperte has spread from Montalcino all through Italy.
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Donatella now teaches wine tourism in the graduate programs of three universities. It’s hard to imagine a more complete and more successful life in wine.

What spurred this whole lucubration for me was an exquisite bottle of her 1999 Riserva that Diane and I drank about a week ago. I had brought home a gorgeously marbled T-bone steak from Ottomanelli’s, which we simply broiled; and we had found at a sub-astronomical price at Eataly some fresh porcini mushrooms, which we seethed in olive oil along with some sliced fingerling potatoes; and we both felt that a properly aged wine of some real complexity was called for. Donatella to the rescue:  The wine was perfect, with all the deep, dark prune-plum-grape-earth elements that Brunello is famed for in perfect balance, and wrapped in a velvet envelope of soft tannins and still-fresh acidity – simply put, at 20 years old, as good as Brunello gets. Savoring it, we reminisced about Donatella and realized how much she had accomplished and how infrequently it is acknowledged. Hence this long overdue tribute to one of wine’s great women.

Casato Prime Donne makes all the classic Montalcino wines: Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello, and Brunello Riserva. In addition it produces a special-selection Brunello Prime Donne, which is blended according to the input of a group of prestigious female tasters. The bottles I’ve sampled have been pretty heavy on the fruit, but all showed the kind of structure necessary for good maturation – so I’m hoping to taste some of them again with a little age on them.

More power to the women, I say, and I’m pretty sure that’s coming: I have no statistics, but a great many of the Italian wine families I’ve visited in recent years seem to have a large number of very capable daughters.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines II

March 21, 2019

I’m posting now about the inexpensive case of mixed, everyday red wines I put together as a complement to the dozen everyday white wines I talked about two posts back.

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We drink a lot of white wine at Casa Maresca, but we consume even more red. I’d guess that two out every three, maybe three out of four, dinners we make call for red wines – and since I care strongly about making the wine and food play happily together, it means I like to keep a good variety of red wines on hand. And that means, of course, reasonably priced wines, for all the obvious reasons.

Enough prologue: Here’s the list.

  • Barale Barbera d’Alba 2017 Castlé
  • Barale Dolcetto d’Alba 2017 Le Rose
  • Bodegas Olarra Rioja Reserva 2010 Cerro Anon
  • Cà Lustra di Zanovelli Marzemino 2017 Belvedere
  • Centopassi Nero d’Avola 2016 Argille di Tagghia Via
  • Château de Plaisance Anjou Rouge 2017 Entre Copains
  • Cuvée des Galets (Côtes du Rhône) 2016
  • Filipa Pato (Vinho Tinto Bairrada DOC) Baga 2017
  • Oreste Buzio Freisa del Monferrato 2017
  • Oreste Buzio, Grignolino del Monferrato 2017 Casalese
  • Villa Sant’Anna Chianti Colli Senese 2015
  • Viña Real Rioja Crianza 2015

In selecting this batch of wines, I was not trying to be experimental, to try new wines or kinds of wines I’m not familiar with. Food compatibility was the goal, and compatibility with the kinds of food we cook every day was the guiding principle of selection. Hence the preponderance of Italian wines on the list, and especially the large presence of Piedmontese wines, which I think are particularly food-friendly, and which – happily – are available in good variety in the New York area.

Barbera and Dolcetto I find are especially useful. Barbera’s medium body and high acidity make it compatible with an extraordinary range of foods, from – to choose a few random examples – asparagus frittata to tomato-based sauces to grilled sausages or even steaks, especially gamy cuts like skirt steak or hanger steak. Dolcetto is softer-bodied and far less acid, and it loves buttery sauces, mushrooms, more delicate meat – especially veal in any form.

Nero d’Avola is also medium-bodied, and on the palate feels and tastes Merlot-ish. Its strong suits are stews and brown-sauced casseroles – really any dish that isn’t aggressively sauced or spiced.

Even more useful – the utility infielder of red wines – is that perfectly named Anjou red, Entre Copains – “among pals,” which is how I envision large quantities of this wine must be drunk on its home turf. It’s 100% Cabernet franc, which is a Loire valley specialty, and this is one of most welcoming versions of it I’ve encountered. Its pleasing, soft, generic red fruit would match with anything from a good pizza on up the culinary scale to simple roasts and grilled meats. It’s practically the definition of an enjoyable everyday wine.

The Côtes du Rhône wasn’t quite that all-niches useful: By itself, it was a fairly light, high-acid Rhône, with cherryish fruit and a good finish, but it rounded nicely and gained some flesh with food, especially with cheese.

The Baga from Filipa Pato was also surprisingly soft on the palate and versatile with food. It stood up well, for instance, to mideastern spiced lamb meatballs and to Indian chutneys and pickles. Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato, the acknowledged master of this grape in Portugal, and with this particular wine she has chosen a different path from that of her father’s formidable bottles.

The Grignolino and Freisa are more specialized wines that I couldn’t resist buying, since I don’t encounter them that often. Both are light-bodied, light-fruited reds ideal for warm weather quaffing, which is exactly what I’m saving them for. I should have done that too with the Colli Senese Chianti: These are always at-most-medium-bodied and fruity, with a touch of Sangiovese elegance, but this bottle was a tad too light for matching with cold weather dinners.

The Marzemino was another wine I selected simply because I don’t get many chances to taste it. This one turned out to be a big, not entirely balanced wine, black-plum fruited and a touch hot: It loved steak and mushrooms, but wasn’t too happy with anything else.

The two Riojas – Crianza and Reserva, at opposite ends of the aging spectrum – were both a bit disappointing. I love Rioja and find it very useful as a dinner wine, but of these two bottles the Reserva was too young of its kind and yet still too important for everyday utility, while the Crianza had been exposed to too much oak, which diminished its freshness and charm. I won’t give up on Rioja, however: I’ll just have to sample some others.

And there’s my necessary excuse to order some more wine. Diane, look away.

The Wine Version of March Madness

March 11, 2019

By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

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And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines I

February 28, 2019

If you’re a committed wine lover and need your fix every day, it’s a great advantage to live in New York City. The variety of fine wine available is unmatched anywhere in the world, and shopping is a snap. Let it sleet and storm outside: You can sit at your desk – perhaps sipping a glass of wine – and let your search engine (Wine-Searcher is a good one) investigate for you. That’s especially handy if you know more or less the kind of wine you’re seeking.

Even handier is the search service provided by several of the larger retail shops in New York, which allows you to rummage through their entire inventory by any of several different criteria.
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I’m especially fond of one that Astor Wine and Spirits offers: searching by price range. That’s useful for any number of reasons, but I especially like that it offers me things I might not have thought of, wines outside my usual Italian and French go-to categories. We all get into ruts: This helps push me out of them. Twenty minutes of online browsing and I can put together a case of 12 different whites and another of 12 different reds at prices I like – say between $10 and $20 for everyday wines – and they will probably be delivered within 24 hours. For an aging wino, it doesn’t get much easier.
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Let me be clear: When I say everyday wines, I mean every day. Diane and I have wine with dinner every night. All right, maybe once or twice a year we have beer, but 99 times out of 100 we opt for wine – and like most people in this galaxy, we can’t afford to drink great wine every time. Not that I haven’t done my best to raise the level of our daily bottle by, for decades now, buying wines young and unready but at reasonable prices and squirreling them away for as long as I could.

Besides, it’s not just wine we care about: It’s also and especially what Italians call the abbinamento – coordinating the wine with the food it accompanies. That’s crucial to making an everyday dinner something to relish. You have to pay attention to the way the wine and the food mesh. Much as I love mature Barolo and Barbaresco, I don’t want to drink them with a dish of frankfurters and beans. It’s disproportionate – and besides, good franks and beans are estimable in their own right and deserve a decent wine that works well with them. Don’t send a Brunello to do what a Bardolino can do better, don’t open a Beaune Premier Cru where a Beaujolais Villages is what’s needed.

(Incidentally, the above examples illustrate the first principle I laid out centuries ago in The Right Wine, my book about wine and food matching: Scale is crucial. I feel even more strongly about the second principle declared in that book: Acidity is what makes a wine food-friendly. But that’s a topic for a different post. End of digression.)

Now, just what sort of everyday wines am I talking about? Well, here’s the case of white wines, all under $20, that I recently purchased, most of which I tasted first as an aperitif (we all need to keep up our strength while cooking) and then with dinner.

 

Alsace Auxerrois Leon Manbach 2017 – Very pleasant, light, but substantial enough to handle a choucroute. Nice white-flower and mineral nose, round, but with enough acidity to work with food. Quite decent.

Alvarinho Couto de Mazedo 2016 (Vinho Verde) – Very nice Albariño, crisp, fresh, aromatic: Good aperitif, fine with fish.

Alvarinho Regueiro 2016 (Vinho Verde) – quite fine: rounder and fuller than the preceding wine, more dinner wine than aperitif. Excellent with a roasted orata (sea bream).

Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc 2017 – excellent Beaujolais producer. Nice unwooded Chardonnay, with round fruit and great freshness. Very enjoyable.

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Classic Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet 2016 – This is a Muscadet producer I normally like very much, but this bottle was a bit of a disappointment. Drunk by itself, it tasted too much of oak. Food wiped that out to some extent, but it never rose to the level of crispness and sharpness I had hoped for.

De Cranne Bordeaux Sec 2016 – Should have been really interesting (the blend is 40% Sauvignon gris, 25% Muscadelle, and 35% Semillon), but turned out to be somewhat coarse and disappointing.

Gavi di Gavi Podere Merlina 2017 – Not a big, round Gavi, but a lighter-bodied, mineral-inflected example, with a marked and enjoyable citrus bite. Fine as aperitif and with lighter fare.

Meyer-Fonné Alsace Gentil 2016 – A lovely Alsace wine, so floral that the initial taste seemed German, but it rounded beautifully with a pheasant pâté and roasted chicken thighs.

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Ribolla Gialla Ronchi di Cialla 2017 (Friuli Colli Orientali) – quite fine and characteristic. Stood up beautifully to a choucroute garnie, and I don’t know how much more you can ask of a white wine.

Rioja Blanca Real Rubio 2017 – A bit disappointing: old-fashioned, slightly oxidized white, not unpleasant but with no charm.

Timorasso Colli del Timorasso Ricci 2014 – A lovely light Timorasso, soft-bodied but with sufficient acid; floral aroma and delicate palate of dry pear and apricot. Very enjoyable.

Weszeli Grüner Veltliner Langenlois 2017 – Very good and characteristic Grüner, with nice balance, body, and minerality. Partnered quite nicely with Chinese dumplings and home-made egg foo young. Bright, light on palate.

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I grant you that this is not an earthshakingly exotic list of wines: Had I wished, I could have cast a much wider net. But these are the kind of wines I like, so this time around I stuck with them. Others, of course are free to be as experimental as they wish: There were 88 other wines on the list I was choosing from. Have fun!

One Fine Wine: Benito Ferrara’s Greco di Tufo

February 18, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

This is a post I should have written years ago. Greco di Tufo is a wine I love, drink often, and always enjoy deeply on the palate and in the mind. It reverberates with me, and no Greco di Tufo does so more than Benito Ferrara’s, especially his cru, Vigna Cicogna – the Stork Vineyard. It would be nice is there actually was one, nesting or feeding nearby, but the name is memorable enough even without the leggy bird itself.

I had a bottle of Ferrara’s 2016 Cicogna just a few weeks ago, to accompany an improvised dish of fresh cod and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. It was serendipitous in every respect, and the Greco just sang, even after the main dish was done and we had started cracking a few toasted hazelnuts and walnuts to finish the wine with: the Greco improvised a few notes to harmonize with them too.

I’ve admired Greco di Tufo for years, from back when Mastroberardino’s was almost the only example of the variety and appellation to be found on the American market. Mastro still makes one of the best examples of the breed, but many fine small growers in the Tufo zone have begun bottling their own wines, and Ferrara is one of the finest of the lot.

Just for clarity: Greco is the grape variety, Tufo the town in the center of the DOCG zone in Campania, in the province of Avellino. So all Greco di Tufo originates in a small, high and hilly area, where the soils are largely volcanic and richly laced with minerals, especially sulfur. Benito Ferrara’s vineyards, in fact, lie very close to the old Di Marzo sulfur mine, which for decades was the major employer in the area

It makes an odd picture: beautifully tended vineyards, hillsides thickly forested – still – with chestnut trees and hazelnuts, and a distinct whiff of sulfur in the clear air. The scent is often present in the wines of the zone also, sweetened and made welcoming by the other scents of fruit and forest that the grapes convey.

Greco can be a tough variety to work with. It ripens late – October – and that can be dicey for any grape, but especially for one that grows as high in the hills as Greco does. And it is quite thick-skinned, so a lot of coloring agents leach out in fermentation, making the new wine occasionally brownish, often dark gold, as if old and oxidized. This is a bit ironic, since Greco di Tufo, while thoroughly delightful to drink young, no matter what its color, is one of those remarkable white wines that ages quite well and continues to drink enjoyably for years – no matter what its color.

Benito Ferrara is a fourth-generation family estate, currently operated by Gabriella Ferrara and her husband Sergio Ambrosino. It’s not huge: 8 hectares of Greco di Tufo, 1 of Fiano di Avelino, and 3.5 of Taurasi. The Cicogna vineyard, at 1.5 hectares, forms a sizable fraction of it, and it is high, nearly 600 meters up.

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Several years ago, when I visited, Gabriella and Sergio let me taste, in addition to their prized Cicogna, wines from three other sites that went into their basic Greco di Tufo. I understate when I say I was impressed: I thought each of the three was delicious enough and distinctive enough to be bottled separately as a cru in its own right. This is first-rate terroir, and the Ferraras are making the most of it.

Incidentally, in the important reference book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, author Ian d’Agata calls Vigna Cicogna one of Italy’s ten best white wines, and I can’t say I disagree: This is just one fine wine, plain and simple.

 

Postscript: A DNA study has claimed that the Greco grape is the same variety as Asprinio. Jancis Robinson’s influential Wine Grapes accepts this claim, rather uncritically I think, since it is based on a very small sampling of both grapes. Allowing for all possible differences caused by soils, cultivation, and vinification, my palate can’t discern any similarity between the wines of the two, so I conclude that this study is flawed and more work needs to be done. I’m happy that Ian d’Agata is of the same opinion, for much the same reasons.

An Oenological Linguistic Trifecta

February 7, 2019

The recent publication of Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy (ArteVino, 2018) achieves a new high in the internationalization of wine, as well as being a serious accomplishment in wine criticism: It’s a fine English translation of a truly interesting Italian book about some wonderful French wine.

This attractive, informative volume by Camillo Favaro and Giampaolo Gravina was translated and edited by Burton Anderson in collaboration with Joanie Bonfiglio. Anderson also contributed a preface. The book has handsome photos by Maurizio Gjivovich, as well as a suite of clear and useful maps.

Italians have a different take on French wine than most Anglophone winos, a fact that made this book very interesting to me as a cultural or cross-cultural document. An inferiority complex about French wines used to color almost all my conversations with Italians about foreign wines, leading to the most preposterous overcompensations – for example, a young winemaker in Venezia-Giulia, many years ago, who had never travelled farther than Venice but who solemnly assured me that his indifferent white wine was as good as Chablis, which he had never tasted.

Fortunately, such episodes are now a thing of the rapidly receding past, and Italian winemakers these days are a lot more sophisticated. Most are much travelled, not just to their markets but also to their international colleagues and competitors. For many, that means what amounts to a pilgrimage to Burgundy, with which they often feel a deep affinity.

Most Italians even remotely professionally connected with wine – especially Piedmontese – are thinking about Burgundy when they talk about French wine. (The big exception to that gross generalization is Tuscany, where the ties to Bordeaux hold strong.)  Favaro and Gravina are typical in their passion for Burgundy, though far above average in the extent of their enthusiasm and their qualifications for writing about it.
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Camillo Favaro (left, above) runs both his family winery in the Piedmont and ArteVinoStudio, an agency devoted to creative communication and design work for wineries.

Giampaolo Gravina (right) is a professor of philosophy who has also had a long career as a wine journalist, most notably as one of the editors of L’Espresso’s annual Vini d’Italia.

Both have written books on wine, separately and in collaboration: This present work is an expansion and updating of their earlier Vini e Terre di Borgogna.

Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy has little to say about the large négociant firms. Its focus is on the smaller, largely family-owned domaines – some 200 of them. The authors know their business: Just as one example, their presentation of the Chablis of Dauvissat makes a point of praising the firm’s Petit Chablis, a lovely and often overlooked wine whose “aromatics and articulation are much superior to the appellation’s standards.”

They are similarly well informed about all the domaines they feature. I was impressed, for instance, with their discussion of the soil differences and consequent differing styles of Chambolle-Musigny, a wine that is one of my favorites and a Burgundy area I thought I knew well: I learned some new things in reading through this section – as I did also in reading about Nuits-Saint-Georges, another of my favorites.

I think that Favaro and Gravina are spot-on in their characterization of the producers they discuss: The better I know the wines in question, the more I agree with. For instance, their description of Henri Gouges’s 2015s: “despite their typical internal density, our tastings have brought to light a general fusion of fleshiness with surprisingly accessible, delicious juice.”  Absolutely right, for my palate.

The two writers often manage to convey a lot of information in a direct, no-words-wasted manner. To loop back to Chablis, they very concisely describe the near austerity of Dauvissat’s cellar regime (“fermentations in used barrels, no battonage, decantation and tartrate precipitation due to natural cold, no new barrels for the élevages”) before summarizing succinctly and gracefully the character of Dauvissat’s wines – to wit: “wines of rare transparency and expressive purity, but always vibrant and sincere, never lacking tension, and capable of aging very well while expressing with nonchalance extreme precision and stylistic self-awareness.”

Nonchalance may be a bit over the top, but by and large I wish I’d said that. The writing throughout is of that high level, beautifully conveyed by the translators. Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy was for me a very enjoyable, very informative, and very personal excursion to Burgundy, and I think it will be so for any lover of Burgundy’s wines.