More Splendid Caparone Cal-Itals

January 15, 2018

Caparone Vineyards, in Paso Robles, continues to impress me mightily. Some time back I wrote in praise of its 2002 Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, the most delicious and elegant California versions of those varieties I’ve ever tasted. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to taste bottles of the same grapes from the 2014 vintage, and I was almost reduced to a barely articulate Oh wow!  (Be assured: My normal verbosity quickly reasserted itself.)

Naturally, these younger wines were not as complex or developed as their older relatives – but the vines are older too, and that adds dimension to even a newly released wine. These were all beautiful specimens of their varieties. They seemed perfectly worthy of standing on the table with the best young examples of their kinds I’ve had in Italy, though patently different from them in the character of their fruit and their balance.
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Sangiovese

The Sangiovese showed a brilliant light garnet, very pleasing to the eye. The nose came across as all underbrush and fresh red fruit. The palate tasted youthful – bright cherry – with medium body and a lively acid/tannin balance. The overall impression was freshness and elegance, spot-on for young Sangiovese. This wine differed from a young Chianti, for instance, in being not so markedly acid-forward: It was also slightly fuller-bodied, with more generous fruit. The latter quality I think of as quintessential California.

It’s worth noting, since this is a young wine, that it got better and more interesting as it opened in the glass. What it will do with some years of maturity makes for very pleasant speculation. The Caparones aren’t given to exaggeration or over-hyping their wines, but their back label claims that this wine (and its sibling Aglianico and Nebbiolo) “will continue to age for 25 years or more.”  I’m not likely to be able to test that statement, but I sure hope some of you will.

It’s also worth noting that the alcohol level of this wine is a modest 13.3 degrees — by current California standards, almost a soft drink.
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Nebbiolo

I enjoyed the Nebbiolo just as much, but it was an animal of different stripe. Its color was a pale garnet, with a thin orange edge, perhaps to an eye unused to Nebbiolo suggesting it’s already old and fading. Far from it: this wine was an infant, tasting of fresh berries (strawberries kept peeping out) and earth. It had good acidity and very soft tannins, with low – by California standards, very low – alcohol: 13 degrees – and a long licorice and leather finish. But what really grabbed my attention right from the start was the aroma: Damned if it didn’t smell delicately of tar and dried roses and earth. That’s textbook Alba Nebbiolo, folks, and I am in awe of a New World wine capturing that quality of this great, cantankerous grape.

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One major difference between Caparone’s Nebbiolo and any young Barolo or Barbaresco I’ve experienced: No Piedmont Nebbiolo would be as pleasant drinking as this wine at first release. In many vintages, a Piedmont Nebbiolo’s tannins would rip your throat out. Even 2004, which was – and is – a great vintage and a very forward one, was much sterner and more sharply tannic at a comparable age. We’ve all always assumed that such early toughness was a necessary concomitant to the structure that made long aging possible – but if David and Marc Caparone are right about the aging potential of their wine, then received wisdom has been dead wrong about that. And that should give us all – consumer, critics, and producers alike – a lot to think about.
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Aglianico

The 2014 Aglianico certainly gave me a lot to think about. The darkest, most deeply colored of the three varieties, it also had the most intense aroma: earth, toasted nuts (hazel? almond?), and rich, black, plummy fruit. The earth and black plum flavors emphatically followed through on the palate – just huge fruit flavors, understrapped by lovely acid/tannin balance. The tannins were abundant, but soft, making a well-structured and long-finishing wine, but also a very accessible, enjoyably drinking wine, even so young.

With food, the flavor components rounded and broadened and deepened remarkably, revealing an extraordinary balance and structure, yet still soft and open. Diane and I were bowled over: We thought this a wine destined for greatness. And, oh, by the way, it was only 13 degrees of alcohol, which ought to be a slap in the face of all those overblown California wines that substitute big alcohol for any real winemaking quality.
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I’ve never particularly wanted to live to any great age, but the way the Caparones make wine is causing me to think again about that. .

Dave Caparone at his tasting room, with Tom’s whilom student and old friend Magda Gilewicz. Photo by Mike Chen

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A Paler Shade of Bubble: Blanc de Blancs Champagne

January 1, 2018

This year’s New York Wine Press annual Champagne luncheon went to the opposite end of the Champagne color spectrum from the Wine Media Guild’s Rosé event in the preceding week. It presented ten Blanc de Blancs Champagnes and one stray-but-interesting English sparkling wine, all surrounding an unusual menu executed by Café Centro’s chef Christina Towers.

This was, quite evidently, an enjoyable and delicious affair, and each of the wines interacted handsomely with the slightly-off-the-beaten-track dishes. Naturally, I had my favorites: I’m nothing if not judgmental, and half the pleasure of an event like this for me is the chance to draw fine distinctions in character and pleasingness.

I insist on “pleasingness,” and not “quality,” because the quality of all these wines was very high, and what I am really talking about is how well, on this one special occasion, each wine seemed to my palate. As I’ve said many times in this blog, that’s all any tasting note really is: None is the sacred scripture engraved on stone that so many consumers take them for. End of sermon.
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Of the two fine aperitif Champagnes, I preferred the Deutz – but then I often prefer Deutz, a house much esteemed in Europe but not so well known here. This 2007 showed splendidly, with all the nimbleness you hope for in a blanc de blancs, plus the impressive austerity and subtle power so characteristic of Deutz.

The diverse flavors of the first course could have proven a serious challenge for many wines, but they integrated quite harmoniously in themselves and worked surprisingly well with all three wines. Gusbourne, the English sparkler (for those who may not have gotten the memo, English sparkling wine has been making great advances in recent years), was the lightest-bodied of the three, with juicy wheat-and-yeast flavors on the palate and good minerality.

The Collet also showed as light and wheaty, lean, lithe, and fresh on the palate, with a very long finish – quite enjoyable. The Henriot, a non-vintage Champagne, tasted just gorgeous. Vinified from Grands Crus vineyards, it was classic Henriot – big and structured and graceful. For me, it was the wine of the day. In the New York area, it seems to average between $55 and $65 a bottle, a very decent price for a Champagne of this quality.

The second course again could have presented serious challenges to wine matches, with its pastis-flavored-and-colored risotto, but all three Champagnes responded very well. The nice, substantial Drappier was a touch unusual in that it contained 4% Pinot blanc (not at all discernible  to the taste). The Pol Roger 2009 made the strongest showing of the three, partially because of the good vintage and partially because of its Pol Roger character, suave and authoritative.

The final beef course should have been the most difficult for any blanc de blancs wine to deal with, but once again the Champagnes rose to the challenge. All drank well with the filet steak and the delicious short ribs in crust, though – truth to tell – both the Taitinger ’95 and the Heidsieck ’95 tasted a tad too old. Whether they were in fact beginning to fade, or whether beef just didn’t bring out their best, I couldn’t really tell.

The slightly younger – vintage 2000 – Perrier-Jouet on the other hand was a lovely, floral, elegant Christmas gift, the most enjoyable wine of the flight. Which it ought to be, given its stratospheric price (around $250). And that makes a suitably high note on which to end this report.

A Happy New Year to all!

 

 

 

 

 

All I Want For Christmas . . .

December 21, 2017

. . . is that we bury, finally and for all time, the fiction that Italian white wines can’t age. Enough knowledgeable writers have tried, for at least the last decade, to tell consumers otherwise, that I would have thought by now that this piece of misinformation had died a natural death, but nevertheless I keep hearing it, and often enough from people who ought to know better.

So, as what I hope will be one more nail in its coffin, my Christmas gift for all worthy winos will be an account of my recent experience with two very different Italian white wines, both of the 2000 vintage.
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I have long had in my “cellar” (regular readers will understand the quotation marks) a single bottle of Bucci Verdicchio 2000. Too long, in fact: This is a wine that was meant to be drunk years ago, but somehow it kept getting passed over.
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Ampelio Bucci

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Bucci is, in my opinion, the best producer of Verdicchio in the Marches, and Verdicchio is probably one of the most underestimated and underesteemed of all the Italian white wines – at least in this country. Ampelio Bucci is a charming and patient man: That patience sustained him for many years in dealing with his enologist, the brilliant but difficult and quirky Giorgio Grai.

Grai is – or was – nearly legendary in northern Italy for his skill in crafting long-aging white wines, and he guided the yield of Bucci’s vineyards into two forms, a “simple” Verdicchio, designed for youthful drinking, and a more complex Villa Bucci Verdicchio Riserva, designed for longer aging. I have drunk many 10-year-olds of the riserva, and they were uniformly lovely – fresh and deep, with Verdicchio’s characteristic pear, apple, and mineral flavors beautifully balanced against a restrained acidity.

But the wine I am talking about now isn’t that one: It’s the basic Verdicchio, the wine meant for being drunk young. Somehow it hadn’t been, and once its “use by” date had in my mind passed, I kept leaving it behind on the assumption that it was probably already dead or dying. So, recently, when Diane and I were having an unusually fancy first course (American Osetra caviar) with a light dinner of omelets, I decided to dispose of the bottle once and for all. Carefully chilling a back-up bottle of white Burgundy, I poured the 17-year-old Bucci, fully expecting to taste it and dump it.

Boy, was I wrong! The wine looked old, but pretty – golden amber and translucent. Its aroma was intriguing – very lively, with some floral notes but mostly complex mineral scents, like flint and chalk and slate. In the mouth, it felt light, balanced, and live – still that restrained acidity so typical of Bucci, sustaining complex flavors of unripe pears, untoasted almonds, and the ever-present mineral notes, with a pleasing butteriness in the finish. We were amazed, and our pleasure only grew as the wine opened further in the glass and responded beautifully to the very different challenges of caviar and omelets. This was not just a great Verdicchio, it was a great white wine from anywhere, of any age.

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That was my instance of unplanned-for glorious longevity. My second wine story, a Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Selezione Erminia 2000, is the very opposite – in terms of planning, not quality. This is a wine that was designated for long aging right from the start, and only quite recently acquired by me.
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The Di Meo family tends high-altitude vineyards (around 550 meters) in the most prized wine-making part of Campania, the Fiano, Greco, and Taurasi zones surrounding Avellino.

Generoso, Erminia, and Roberto Di Meo

The harvest of 2000 in most of Italy was a good one: in some places too hot, but in most bringing the grapes to a perfect point of ripeness, with fruit, sugar, acid, and tannins in excellent balance. That year, as an experiment in aging their indigenous white wines, the Di Meos selected a particular plot of Fiano within one of their best vineyards for special treatment to test how well a traditionally made white wine could age.

The grapes of this plot stayed on the vines longer than others of that harvest, not to super-ripeness, but definitely beyond the hang time for ordinary vinification. Then they underwent a long maceration period before soft pressing and low-temperature fermentation in steel. After that, the wine rested on its fine lees for a whole year, still in steel, before being racked off to repose in more steel and then bottle for a total of 13 more years before release.

This wine never saw a piece of wood, and its purity showed clearly in every sip. Fiano is a great grape, and the Avellino zone its heartland. My bottle was a magnum, but even allowing for that, its freshness was astonishing. Lovely aromas of underbrush and soil, a harmonious palate of white fruits and nuts – hazelnut especially – and long, lingering finish of dried fruit, mostly pear, all encased in an elegant package. Just a gorgeous wine, with years, maybe decades of life still before it. (WTSO – Wines Til’ Sold Out – has twice recently offered this wine in this vintage, and may do so again.)

I hope everyone reading this gets the chance to taste wines similar to these – often. That’s my Christmas wish for you. If you haven’t enjoyed it yet, it’s the kind of experience that will completely revise your notion of what white wine is all about.

Buone Feste, tutti!

I’m Blushing

December 11, 2017

By and large, I am not a great fan of blush wines, but I do make a large exception for rosé Champagne. It’s not just that it looks attractive: Contrary to still rosé wines, rosé Champagnes tend to be a little bigger, a little fuller, and to taste more of the grapes they’re made from than do the basic Champagne blends, or even Blanc de blancs.

That’s because Champagne is a wine of process and only secondarily – in most cases, a far distant secondarily – of the grapes or their terroir. I guess it’s because of the greater assertiveness of red grapes, or maybe because of the necessary fact of skin contact with the musts in the making of rosé, that rosé Champagnes show more of both their grapes and their terroir than does any other kind of Champagne. And there’s no question that – again, by and large – rosé Champagne is the most adaptable with food: It is for me the dinner Champagne.

All of this was forcefully and very enjoyably brought home for me at this year’s Wine Media Guild Champagne lunch, which spotlighted 22 examples of rosé Champagnes.
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The annual event occurred this year at mid-Manhattan’s Gattopardo restaurant, where the excellent cooking has a decidedly Sicilian bent. Not a very natural fit for Champagne, you might think, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but the afternoon’s rosés took it nicely in stride, drinking very pleasantly alongside everything from mini-arancini through rigatoni with eggplant to juicy, tender slices of veal filet, fingerling potatoes, and broccoli rape. Every wine I tasted showed well with these to-them-very-foreign foods. There aren’t many other – probably none, in fact – such characteristically French wines I would try that with.

As he has for the past decade, Ed McCarthy, who has become almost a patron saint of Champagne, gathered and presented the wines, 15 nonvintage and 7 vintage, ranging in price from a low of around $45 to a high of around $300. (In computing prices, Ed didn’t take the distributors’ suggested retail prices but an average of the actual prices he found in local retail shops.)

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The highest was Perrier-Jouet’s Belle Epoque Rosé 2006, a lovely wine and always among the most costly at these events. Definitely out of my price range, but unquestionably an excellent example of the breed. The best buy of the day was Lenoble Brut Rosé NV, a fresh and enjoyable wine from a small producer – which means that bargain hunters are going to have to work to find it. (Note: All the wines at this lunch are available on the American market, but distribution – especially for those of small production – can be very spotty.)

The vintage Champagnes of course were more expensive than most of the NV, the great majority of which fell into the $50-$60 range. One exception was Moet & Chandon’s Extra Brut Rosé 2009, which retails for about $65, and which Ed admired greatly, calling it “a very special wine,” even though he thought it still too young. At that price, it is a very special wine indeed.

Here is the whole list of the Champagnes in the order of their presentation, starting with the lightest:

 

Ayala Rosé Brut Majeur NV
Henri Giraud “Fut de Chene” Brut Rosé NV
Lamiable Grand Cru Brut Rosé NV
Phillipe Gonet Brut Rosé NV
Boizel Brut Rosé NV
Collet Brut Rosé NV
Duval-Leroy 1e Cru Brut Rosé NV

Mumm Brut Rosé NV
Henriot Brut Rosé NV
Piper-Heidsieck Sauvage Rosé NV
Lenoble Brut Rosé NV
Deutz Brut Rosé NV
Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé NV
Louis Roederer Brut Rosé 2011
Bollinger Brut Rosé NV
Moet & Chandon Extra Brut Rosé 2009
Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Reserve NV

Pol Roger Brut Rosé 2008
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Rosé 2006
Taittinger Comtes Brut Rosé 2006
Ruinart Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé 2004
Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Rosé 2006

 

These wines all showed very well: There wasn’t one I wouldn’t be happy to drink, especially with classic French cuisine. My favorite wines of the day were – predictably: I’m a creature of habit – all old reliables: Henriot, Gratien, and Roederer, followed closely by Moet & Chandon and Pol Roger.
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Ed deserves the last word: His favorites (I infer from his audible enthusiasm: He tried his best to be impartial in his presentation) included Ayala, Mumm, Henriot, Gratien, Moet & Chandon, Charles Heidsieck, Pol Roger, and Ruinart. That may seem like a lot, but Ed really loves Champagne, and the truth of the matter is that he enjoyed every single one we tasted. He is an amateur of Champagne in the most literal sense of the word: Would that every wine lover could experience Champagne as passionately as he does.

Castello di Volpaia: A Tuscan Classic

November 30, 2017

Everyone knows that there are many fine Chianti Classico producers who, vintage after vintage, offer well-made wines redolent of lovely Sangiovese fruit and undertones of their various soils, wines that show what Italians call, most honorifically, tipicità. “Typicity,” in English, doesn’t quite capture it: Authenticity might be closer. One of the best of these lovely Chiantis, one of the most authentic and typical and, at the same time, most distinctive, is Castello di Volpaia.

If I had to choose just one place in the Chianti Classico to show a visitor what Tuscany once looked like, and what its enduring charm is, that place would be Castello di Volpaia. Its beauty, its serenity, immediately captures the imagination. It certainly holds a very special place in my heart as a quintessence of Tuscany. It’s not a castle in the same way Brolio is. Rather, it was in the Middle Ages a fortified village, a small walled town perched on a ridge in the commune of Radda, a bastion of Florence against its eternal enemy Siena.
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Its serenity and tranquility came centuries later, as local warfare died down and peace and prosperity grew in the countryside. Over the years, portions of its walls and battlements were removed (a few remain), more houses were built, and the vineyards extended.

Since taking possession of the village in 1972, Giovanella Stianti and her architect husband Carlo Mascheroni have devoted their best efforts to preserving it and steadily improving the vineyards.  Signora Stianti’s father had acquired the property in the mid-60s and gave it to the couple as a wedding present. It has become their life-long passion.

Of the village, more later: Let’s speak now of the vineyards.

They were in pretty good shape to start with, since for some centuries the wine of Volpaia had been prized, but the family has systematically experimented with clones and root stocks and training systems to bring them among the best cultivated in the Classico zone, and they are what form the heart of Volpaia’s distinctiveness. First of all, they are high for this part of Tuscany, probably in fact the highest in the Classico zone, ranging from a low of about 450 meters to a high of about 650. That makes for a very long growing season, with big day-to-night temperature differentials, which in turn produces great aromatics in the wine.

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Additionally, the soils in Volpaia’s vineyards contain much less clay and more sand than most other parts of the Classico. These contribute a distinctive set of trace elements to the wine. So the characteristic Volpaia wine is less full-bodied and forceful than many other Chiantis, but it is also and always more elegant, more nuanced, and – according to my experience – even in merely middling vintages more structured and capable of graceful bottle aging.

You can see why I love it: I’ll opt for elegance over power every time. Power impresses on the first taste, but over the course of a bottle it wears you out: It’s the same with every swallow. Elegance impresses on every taste. Over the course of a meal it adapts to and changes with each dish, becoming slightly different with each. For me, that’s fascinating, and that’s what Volpaia consistently delivers.

The estate produces several wines of note: Chianti Classico and Classico Riserva, of course, and several crus – notably Coltassala and Balefico. Balefico is Volpaia’s supertuscan, blending roughly one-third Cabernet and Merlot with its lovely Sangiovese. The other wines are all 90 to 100 percent Sangiovese, with, depending on the harvest, a small amount of Mammolo or Merlot blended in. (Riccardo Cottarella is the consulting enologist, well known for his passion for Merlot, which – I guess –is how it arrived on this proudly traditional property.)

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For me and many other Tuscan wine fans, the Coltassala and the Chianti Classico Riserva are the superstars, wines of depth and nuance and, always, elegance. Over the past month, I’ve been drinking bottles of those two from several vintages – 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006 – and they have been without exception beautiful examples of what Sangiovese and great Tuscan winemaking are all about. They are all perfectly alive and vigorous, with years of bottle life before them – but about 15 years of age is when I like to drink them. It’s a sweet spot, where fresh fruit subsists beside the beginnings of more mature flavors and neither dominates. For me, that is pure pleasure.

Now the village of Volpaia. Signora Stianti and her husband built Volpaia’s modern winery, sheltering its components within existing medieval buildings and structures of the ancient town. Since this is a protected historic site, that meant that when, for instance, the piping for the winery was laid beneath the streets of Volpaia, every single cobble of each street had to be removed, numbered, and replaced in its exact location. The same care was exercised on the facades of every single building in the town, and the original appearance of the ancient streets was scrupulously preserved in its entirety. That is what has made Volpaia one of the most evocative spots in an area filled with fragments of ancient towns and castles.
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Naples and Rome: Love and a Lament

November 20, 2017

I’m just back from a not-long-enough 10 days in Naples and Rome, Diane’s and my favorite cities in the world, after New York. Rome is amazingly beautiful and endlessly fascinating, Naples vibrant, live, and gritty – gritty in that heart- and mind-grabbing way New York used to be before the developers ate its guts. Jeremiah Moss would love Naples, for all the right reasons.

We ate well in both cities, though it has to be confessed that mass tourism is taking its toll. In Rome’s centro storico it is now not too hard to get a mediocre meal, and it is even possible to get a lousy pizza in Naples. Even a few classic places have lost their edge – though we still enjoyed some marvelous dishes – pasta alle vongole, tagliatelle with black truffles (it’s a terrible year for white ones), osso buco, and trippa.
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Wine in Italian restaurants is attractively inexpensive, especially by New York City standards, Here, we’ve become used to restaurant markups of two, three, and four hundred percent. In Italy, even in the capital, restaurant wine usually costs just a bit more than it does at retail, and very often much less than the same bottle would cost us at retail here. That is fine, and it encourages wine drinking and experimentation, which is exactly what a restaurant should do.

But in neither Rome nor Naples, alas, has the overall wine situation changed much. Wine lists have gotten broad, covering many of Italy’s important wine regions, but almost never are they deep. Italian wine journalists have told me that the Italian public drinks only young wines, and almost every restaurant wine list shows that. The oldest wine I was able to drink on this trip was a 2006 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a Vigna d’Alfiero Riserva from Valdipiatta – a lovely wine, to be sure, but almost the only example of a wine from before 2012 that I found the whole trip. Even the one marvelous discovery of this trip – in Naples, a glorious Fiano previously unknown to me, called Exultet, from Quintodecimo – was a 2016.
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That’s sad. Even wines from zones that pride themselves on the longevity they can achieve were offered only in three-, four-, or at most five-year-old examples. For wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Taurasi, that’s infancy, and drinking them that young is infanticide. I don’t like feeling like a criminal, but of course I drank them, the only alternative being to forgo wine entirely, which is clearly preposterous.

I do wish Italian restaurants would find a way to offer a few older bottles of some of their glorious reds and wonderful whites. Naples, are you listening? Ten-year-old Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino are great wines, and would spectacularly accompany your world-class seafood. Rome, your unctuous coda alla vaccinara needs – needs! – an old Gattinara or an authoritative old Taurasi. I’m sure I’m not the only American who travels to Italy in hopes of tasting fine, mature wines.

Vignaioli Veneti 3: Some Really Fine Uncomplicated Red Wines

November 9, 2017

I’m looping back this week to the trip I took to the shores of Lake Garda in October. I found a lot of white wines there that afforded me many new pleasures (see here and here). Among the region’s red wines, I also rediscovered some old wines – especially, the deep satisfactions of “simple” (so loaded a word in winespeak!) Valpolicella and Bardolino.

I’ve long been a fan of Veneto reds, especially Amarone, whose huge, muscular velvetiness I’ve been touting for about 40 years now, since long before its current wave of popularity, and probably will be praising long after its fad has passed. But what this recent trip forcefully reminded me was just how splendid and how uncomplicatedly pleasurable humble Valpolicella and Bardolino are, when they are made right. Not too many are these days, having been almost flooded out by the surge of production of the heavy hitters, Ripasso and Amarone. High-quality light red wines are now almost an endangered species, and their scarcity is a real loss for those who delight in the infinite variety of wine.
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The southeastern shores of Lake Garda and the hills behind them have been for centuries the homeland of Corvina and Rondinella, the grapes that yield both Bardolino and Valpolicella. They are also the principal varieties for Amarone, which, like Champagne, is a wine that derives from process and technique rather than simply from the grapes. When Rondinella and Corvina are grown carefully, crushed fresh, and vinified with minimal manipulation, the wines they make are light and fresh, rich in the aromas of soils and fruit.

The world has almost lost its palate for such wines in these days of jammy fruit and big alcohol, but my all-too-brief stay in the Garda area reacquainted me with the invigorating delights of zesty Bardolino and silken Valpolicella, and I am deeply grateful to the Vignaioli Veneti for making that happen.

Our group of (nearly) indefatigable tasters enjoyed many Amarones from both Amarone experts and primarily white-wine producers: Allegrini, Brigaldara (among the Amarone specialists, a model of elegance and restraint), Ca’ Rugate, Cavalchina, Monte del Fra, and even Pieropan and Pra.

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But even though we all relished Amarone, what seemed me most excited us individually and as a group was the quality and sheer enjoyability of the lighter reds, Bardolino and Valpolicella Classico. Most of us had fond memories of what those wines had been decades ago, before overproduction and the popularity breakthrough of Amarone and Ripasso killed their market. Now, Bardolino and Valpolicella are Lazarus returned from the dead – and better than ever.

Bardolino

The Bardolino zone lies between the Adige river to the east and Lake Garda to the west. Its soils are a mix of volcanic and morainic, spread over mostly rolling low hills.

Cavalchina produces lovely, cherry-scented, medium-bodied Bardolino Superiore and a particularly appealing, cherry-permeated Bardolino Chiaretto that seems built for all-day sipping. Chiaretto, by the way, designates a rosé-style Bardolino, traditionally made by the saignée method.

Monte del Fra also produces a fine Chiaretto Bardolino, but here I preferred the basic Bardolino, which opened with an elegant, light bouquet of cherry and berries and spices and continued the same way right through to its long finish: very enjoyable.

Le Morette produces a typically lovely Bardolino Chiaretto, a charming wine with gentle red-grape character. I thought it very refreshing.

Le Fraghe proved to be the star of the appellation. Owner/winemaker Matilde Poggi brings passion to every aspect of her craft, and the wines show it. Her Bardolino Chiaretto Rodon sports a translucent eye-of-partridge color, a light, herbal nose, beautiful, fresh, light fruit, fully dry, sapid, and salty – a just plain wonderful wine. Her Bardolino DOC is classic, as thoroughly enjoyable and as fine as Bardolino gets. I wish she could make more of it. Le Fraghe also produces a cru Bardolino, Brol Grande, which I found quite impressive, if somewhat atypical – a bit more heft than I expected, but very elegant. A 2011 we tasted was at a perfect point for drinking, showing great balance and lively fruit freshness.

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Valpolicella

The Valpolicella zone lies to the east of Bardolino and the Adige, on mostly higher hills north of Verona.

Allegrini’s Valpolicella Classico was indeed classic: light and fruity, with intriguing strawberry nuances throughout – the way Valpolicella used to be.

Brigaldara’s 2015 Valpolicella Classico smelled of cherry and earth and tasted of cherry – another fine, satisfying wine. The 2000 vintage Valpolicella we were served next said everything that needed to be said about and for Valpolicella: an aroma of prunes and walnuts, a palate of matured Valpolicella flavors – especially deep, dark cherry fruit – tremendous balance. In short, a gorgeous wine, and still fresh, evidently ready to go for a few more years yet. If anyone thinks Valpolicella is a glug-it-young-and-forget-it wine, think again: Made right, as it is at Brigaldara, Valpolicella can maintain and even embellish its charm for a long, long time.

Pra produces a small amount of red wine from seven hectares of organically farmed vineyards in Val d’Illasi. I thought its Valpolicella Morandina very fine, with the characteristic fresh, cherry-inflected aromas and flavors that define the wine. It will, unfortunately, be hard to find because production is so small.

Pieropan has 20 organically farmed hectares in the Valpolicella zone. The family brings to its red wines the same exacting devotion that animates its whites. The 2014 Valpolicella Superiore Ruberpan showed what I think of as the old, classic Valpolicella color, a light, clear garnet. The wine was light and fresh, redolent of cherry, with vibrant acidity – a perfect light dinner wine.

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All in all, this visit to Vignaioli Veneti member wineries in the Garda area was a pleasure from beginning to end. Serious, knowledgeable colleagues visiting serious, accomplished wine makers on a well-planned itinerary – believe me, for a working wine journalist, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Grappa Confronts the New World – At Last

October 30, 2017

I attended an event about two weeks ago of great interest to me: An Italy-wide association of distillers is – finally! – taking organized steps to present grappa to America. As a long-time grappa appassionato, I have been hoping for some sort of action like this for decades. I sincerely believe that, when properly introduced to it, many Americans will enjoy grappa. I know that the great majority of those for whom I’ve poured it found themselves very pleasantly surprised that grappa is far from the “jet fuel” they had always been told it was.

That it never really was anything like that is beside the point now, when grappa distillation has soared in terms of quality and sophistication all through Italy. More popular than ever in its homeland, grappa has escalated and diversified enormously since the days of its first “discovery” by the sophisticated skiers of Italy’s Dolomite and Alpine slopes. Now, monovarietal grappas, rather than those made of blended pomace (vinaccia, in Italian), have become the norm, and the charm of the gentle ghost of each of Italy’s many fine wine grape varieties contributes to the allure of one of the world’s great after-dinner drinks.

Assodistil, the distillery organization, kicked off its “Hello Grappa” campaign in New York with a presentation of grappas from a group of representative grappa producers. Each offered two grappas, a traditional clear bottling and an example of the increasingly popular aged variety. The association is very cannily using the aged grappa – usually more expensive than the clear – as its entry point for American consumers, because in color (pale gold to brilliant amber) and scent (wood accents from its barrel aging) such grappas are reminiscent of cognac, which is the distillate that most American wine drinkers will be familiar with. This should provide those unused to grappa with an easy introduction that will hopefully lead them on to the pleasures of the clear, straight-from-the-still spirit, wherein the nuances of the varietal vinaccia are more pronounced. At least, so hope grappa old-timers like me, whose grappa order is always “chiara, forte – non morbida! – e con fuoco.”

I won’t give tasting notes here for the different grappas I tasted at the Hello Grappa event because they were all excellent examples of their kind, with shades of difference that would take more space to explain than anyone would have the patience to read. That huge range of subtle differences in scent and flavor is for me a major part of grappa’s appeal. To give you some idea of that, here are the kinds that are currently in my liquor cabinet:
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Words and photos can never fully convey the pleasures of grappa. Taste some and enjoy them yourself: It’s really the only way to learn anything about wine or grappa.

Here are the distillers who presented at this event:

  • Acquavita (Castagner)
  • Banfi
  • Bepi Tosolini
  • Bertagnolli
  • Bonollo
  • Borgo Antico San Vitale
  • Bottega (Alexander)
  • Caffo
  • Faled
  • Franciacorta
  • Marzadro
  • Mazetti di Altavilla
  • Spirito Verdiano

All were fine, and I especially relished their monovarietal, unaged grappas – true spirits of the vine.

Vignaioli Veneti 2: Custoza, Lugana, Soave

October 19, 2017

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Almost everyone who tastes Custoza, Lugana, and Soave regards them as charming and enjoyable wines. What isn’t immediately evident is that they aren’t simply drink’em-quick-and-young types but are capable of aging – Custoza for minimally three years; Lugana for five, six, or more; and Soave for ten, or considerably more. I don’t mean just survival here, but serious bottle development: All three grow deeper, more intense, and more complex with age. Remaining charming and enjoyable, they become much more impressive. Despite the dismissive myths, Italy has many white wines that can age as well and gracefully as Burgundies, and it’s time people started talking about them.
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Custoza

The Custoza zone lies on both banks of the Mincio river, at the southeastern corner of Lake Garda. It’s a small DOC zone, about 1500 hectares, with a nevertheless varied production – Bianco, Bianco Superiore, Spumante (Metodo Classico or Charmat method), and Passito. All are popular in Italy. I’m mostly concerned with the Bianco and Superiore, which are the bulk of the production.

On a recent visit to the region hosted by the Vignaioli Veneti (see preceding post), our group visited two Custoza producers, Cavalchina and Monte del Fra, quite different from each other. That’s because the DOC regulations are generous: The wine may include Trebbiano Toscano, Garganega, Trebbianello (a clone of Friulano), Fernanda (a clone of Cortese), and even some Chardonnay, Malvasia, Incrocia Manzoni, Pinot Bianco, and/or Riesling Italico.

Both wineries make a very sound basic Custoza and a more complex Superiore. Cavalchina’s Superiore, called Amadeo, blends 40% Garganega with 30% Fernanda, 15% Trebbianello, and 15% Trebbiano Toscano to produce a wine of marked minerality and lively acidity wedded to a palate-pleasing softness. The 2009 bottle with which the tasting opened gave ample proof of Custoza’s ability to age: It had a beautiful aroma of mace and nutmeg and May Wine spices, followed by an equally lovely spice-and-white-fruits palate, all still fresh and live.

Monte del Fra’s Superiore, called Ca del Magro, started from the same 40% Garganega, then went a different direction with 20% Trebbiano Toscano, 10% Fernanda, 10% Chardonnay/Riesling Italico/Malvasia, and 20% Incrocia Manzoni. This blend, in the 2014 vintage, yielded a wine of great roundness and balance, with the slightest suggestion of sweetness within its minerality. These flavors intensified and dried in 2013 and 2012 bottles, culminating in an utterly voluptuous 2009, seemingly just reaching its peak.

Lugana

The Lugana zone borders Custoza to the west, at the foot of Lake Garda. Not much bigger than Custoza – about 1800 hectares of vines –it presents a very different varietal situation. Turbiano (related to Verdichio) accounts for 90% – often 100% – of the finished wine.

The Otella winery, owned by Michele Montresor and his brother Francesco, produces three labels of Lugana, all 100% Turbiano. The basic bottling, simply labeled Lugana, has a pleasing white fruit and flower nose with a delightful herby/flinty palate, distinctive and enjoyable. The cru wine, Le Crete, is named for its white clay soils, and presents as leaner and more muscular, while sharing the same marked flavor profile.
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Francesco (left) and Michele Montresor

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Otella’s Riserva, Molceo, ages for 16 months on the lees and intensifies the characteristics of its siblings. The oldest bottle we tasted, a 2007, was quite impressive – beautifully structured, with all the herbal/flinty notes heightened, and still at 10 years old fresh and lively. Again, a beautiful example of how well these too-little-known and vastly undervalued wines mature.

The other Lugana estate we visited, Le Morette, began life 60 years ago as a nursery for vines, and cultivating its own was an almost inevitable offshoot (sorry!) of that. Le Morette also produces three different bottlings: We tasted the current vintage and an older vintage of each. The basic wine, called Lugana Mandolara 2016, had a very Soave-like nose and palate, strongly mineral and very pleasant. Its older sibling, a 2012, showed more herbal scents and palate, suggesting Vermentino – quite intriguing.

Lugana Benedictus 2015 showed a bit more intensity and complexity, while still as easy drinking and enjoyable. It is a selection from older vines, harvested slightly later than Mandolara. The 2007 bottling showed dramatic evolution, with a slightly smoky, slightly botrytis nose, and on the palate a merging of Riesling and Sauvignon-ish characteristics – very, very interesting.

Le Morette’s Riserva  2013 is vinified from the fruits of its highest white-clay-concentration vineyards and is aged long on the lees. It shows a continuity of aromas and flavors with the two preceding wines, overlaid with a developing complexity of character and the promise of longevity. (No older bottle, because the estate only recently began making a Riserva.)

Soave Classico

The Soave Classico zone lies east and upland of Lake Garda, with its vineyards at usually higher elevations than either Custoza or Lugana. All three of these zones have soils of volcanic origin, but these are most prominent in the Soave Classico. We visited Ca Rugate, Pra, and Pieropan, all highly esteemed – indeed, among the most prestigious – producers of Soave Classico.

The Soave Classico DOCG requires a minimum of 70% Garganega, with the balance made up of Chardonnay and/or Trebbiano di Soave. Most of the best producers use 100% Garganega for at least one of their wines, but all prize the native Trebbiano di Soave, and none of the best producers use Chardonnay at all.

Ca Rugate’s basic bottling, San Michele, vinified entirely in stainless steel, showed great typicity and modest minerality, a completely enjoyable everyday wine. Monte Fiorentine, a cru bottling from 50-year-old vines, and also 100% Garganega, had a fine chalky, mineral nose and a palate of white fruits and dry stones in the 2016 vintage, while the 2010 showed a beautifully evolved metallic/mineral nose and a palate of apples, pears, chalk, and flint. This seven-year-old was our first indication of just how well Soave Classico can age.

Ca Rugate also makes an IGT wine, Studio, from 60% Trebbiano di Soave and 40% Garganega, a very interesting wine. The 2016 we tasted is, I think, still at the experimental stage – but it may develop very well with more bottle aging.

Pra has long been one of my favorite Soave producers: Its basic bottling, Otto, is more or less my house Soave. The 2016 we tasted was quite classic, fresh and fine with racy minerality, vinified from 100% Garganega. The 2015 Staforte showed extremely well, with great intensity and vivacity. Again 100% Garganega, Staforte is a selection of grapes from the best crus, with long maceration on the lees. Just a beautiful wine. 2014 Colle Sant’Antonio was vinified from slightly dried grapes to yield a wine slightly rounder and fuller than conventional Soave: I enjoyed it, but thought it needed a good deal more bottle age.
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Epicurus and Brillat-Savarin Hard at Work

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We then tasted the wine from Pra’s Monte Grande, a very steep vineyard planted roughly in  70% Garganega and 30% Trebbiano di Soave. This was a stunning vertical – 2001, 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2016. These were lovely wines, mouth-filling and persistent, all fresh and vigorous, with classic minerality and white fruits on the palate. I like mature wines, so for me the 2001 was outstanding, a wine that can stand on the table with any Chablis Grand Cru of the same age. The murmurs of appreciation around the table for each of these wines were very audible, and deservedly so.

Good as these wines were, our final Soave visit – to Pieropan – was undoubtedly the highlight of this portion of our Veneto visit. Four generations of the Pieropan family have been producing pace-setting wines from their 1470s building, both home and winery, within the town walls of Soave. Their production is small – they have 40 hectares of Soave Classico vines, a mere drop in the sea of Soave, as Andrea, great-grandson of the founder of the winery, told us: 95% of Soave is produced by a co-op, itself one of the largest wine firms in Europe. Pieropan does everything within the family, from growing the grapes to selling the wine – no consultants, no outside enologists. Their wines reflect their devotion: Each one stands at that exquisite balance point where passionate craftsmanship elides into sheer artistry.

Andrea Pieropan

Andrea first gave us the current releases: 2016 Soave Classico (his father’s 50th vintage), 2015 Calvarino, and 2015 La Rocca. The basic wine showed brilliant acidity and lovely minerality, with a fine, beguiling – and seemingly endless – finish. The two crus – Calvarino 70% Garganega and 30% Trebbiano di Soave, La Rocca all Garganega – showed very clearly the differences of their sites. Calvarino was seductive, with wonderful balance and a persistent, mineral-inflected finish. La Rocca was more forceful, lean and muscular, with amazing elegance. Both are unquestionably world-class wines.

Andrea then did a little tour de force, pouring two wines and not telling us what they were. Knowing how well Soave can age, I guessed they were of the 2006 vintage. Wrong! They turned out to be 1995 Soave Classico and 1992 Calvarino, from bottles that had been opened three days before, and they were both amazingly young and fresh, with beautiful acidity and that distinctive volcanic minerality that marks the best Soaves. These were simply extraordinary wines in every respect, and a perfect punctuation mark for our lesson in the age-worthiness of these remarkable white wines.

Vignaioli Veneti: Wine Lessons in a Lovely Land

October 9, 2017

No one knows everything there is to know about wine, or even a small section of it. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the Veneto, and I thought I knew it pretty well, but a recent trip there taught me that there was much more to learn.
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I went as the guest of a group called Vignaioli Veneti, which brings together mostly small to midsized grower/producers from the whole of the region: Lake Garda to the Adriatic, the Dolomites to the Po. That covers a lot of varied ground – forest and plain and castellated hills, small and large lakes and mountains and valleys – and even more varied grape varieties and kinds of wine. Thankfully, our hosts didn’t death-march us through all of it but let us concentrate on its westernmost section, around the southern shore of Lake Garda and into the nearby Soave and Valpolicella hills. It was ample, and then some.

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Vignaioli Veneti emphasizes quality and typicity. As Michele Montresor, its president, put it, Vignaioli Veneti is not a democratic organization: joining it requires certain standards and a vote of approval. Its members control their own entire winemaking process, from field to cellar to distribution, with the aim of establishing a benchmark for Veneto wines and enhancing not only their own reputations but the reputation of the whole region. That’s shrewd: The higher the status of the region as a whole, the better for each individual producer.

On the basis of what I saw and tasted, I’d say the organization is definitely going in the right direction. I found a lot of very good wines and some outstanding ones – and most of them came from appellations that are generally regarded as pretty humdrum. For instance: Custoza. Lugana. Bardolino. First lesson: great wine can be made almost anywhere one finds the right combination of soil, climate, grape variety, and dedicated human beings. The Veneto obviously holds many such conjunctions.

To kick off the visit, our group of eight writers and importers was primed with a master class on the white wines of the Veneto, with an appropriate emphasis on the Garda area, by Kerin O’Keefe. O’Keefe covers Italian wine for The Wine Enthusiast and is the author of two fine books on the Italian “Killer Bs,” Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco. During her remarks we tasted 10 of the Vignaioli Veneti’s whites:

  • Villa Medici Bianco Provincia di Verona IGT “Primizia” 2016
  • Gorgo Custoza San Michelin 2016
  • Cavalchina Custoza Superiore “Amedeo” 2015
  • Le Morette Lugana Mandolara 2016
  • Ottella Lugana Riserva “Molceo” 2014
  • Cà Rugate Soave Classico “Monte Fiorentine” 2015
  • Pieropan Soave Classico DOC “Calvarino” 2015
  • Pra Soave Classico “Monte Grande” 2009
  • Bonotto delle Tezze Col Real Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG
  • Cà di Rajo Prosecco Superiore Millesimato Brut “Cuvee del Fondatore” DOCG Valdobbiadene 2016

The last two wines were from the Adriatic end of the Veneto, to illustrate the scope of Vignaioli Veneti; the first eight represented appellations and, in some cases, producers we would be visiting.
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This was already an instructive set of wines. The first and simplest, a Verona IGT, was blended of Italy’s ubiquitous and mostly undistinguished 25% Trebbiano, 25% Garganega (the principal grape of Soave), and 50% Cortese – this last a total surprise to me, who had thought it was a Piedmont monopoly, where it makes Gavi. Apparently there is around Lake Garda a widely grown clone of Cortese, known locally as Fernanda. Who knew? Second lesson.

The second wine, a Custoza DOC, included in its blend a grape known locally as Trebbianello, which despite the similarity of names bears no relation to Trebbiano: It’s a clone of what we used to know as Tocai (now Friulano). To this wine and the next, a Custoza Superiore, it contributed distinctive almond notes, and to my palate that gave a sure indication of its relation to Tocai. Another variety I had not been aware of: lesson three.

Wines four and five, DOC Luganas, were monovarietals, and their variety was my lesson four: they were 100% Turbiana, another local grape, this one related to Verdicchio – which is no shabby relation to have. It yields a wine distinctive and unusual, with good body – especially for a white wine – and very capable of graceful aging.

We entered slightly more familiar territory with the Soaves, which are certainly to most wine lovers the most familiar wines of the region. O’Keefe emphasized the great difference between most Soave and Soave Classico, which flows from the traditional heartland of Soave, on the steep hillsides rather than down in the valleys. Its principal grape is Garganega, but the Trebbiano di Soave, a separate clone from Trebbiano di Toscana, which is no longer allowed in Soave Classico, is highly prized. On our subsequent visits several producers said they would use more of it if they could get it.

By this point, I’d almost lost track of which unusual grape and which lesson this was, but the thrust of it all should be clear: We weren’t even out the door yet, and a trove of useful and important information had already accumulated.

Next post: our white wine visits and tastings

O’Keefe photo courtesy of Charles Scicolone