A New Book About the Italian Piedmont

October 24, 2016

tom-hylandBack during the summer, my colleague and friend Tom Hyland published an important and useful new book, The Wines and Foods of Piemonte.  It covers just about everything a wine lover could want to know about this blessed region, but of course – since the subject is the Piedmont – it gives pride of place to red wines.  For that reason, I thought I’d wait to say anything about it until the weather cooled down, and an oenophile’s fancy lightly turns to vino rosso.

Well, the moment has come: There is a nip in the air and an uptick in the appetite and a little more time being spent in the kitchen; some of the more organized among us are probably already thinking ahead to holiday feasts and even shopping for Christmas presents. When better to introduce you to a book that lays out all the palatal pleasures of the Piedmont?


The Wines and Foods of Piemonte
crams a huge amount of content into the space of a relatively small book.  Its less-than-200 pages cover not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the other Nebbiolo-based wines of the northern Piedmont, as well as the region’s other important red varieties, Barbera and Dolcetto, and even beyond them the less familiar but very, very interesting Ruché, Grignolino, Freisa, and – a particular favorite of mine – the delightful Pelaverga.

And that’s just the reds: Hyland also treats sparkling wines, white wines, and sweet wines. Granted, Piedmont is not famous for its whites, but it does possess several very tasty indigenous varieties, to all of which Hyland does justice: Arneis, Gavi, Erbaluce di Caluso, Timorasso, Favorita, and Nascetta.  These wines deserve to be better known, and some of them – I’m thinking particularly of Nascetta and Timorasso – are capable of great nuance (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).

The book provides useful lists of the best Barolo and Barbaresco crus and their producers, as well as recommendations for the best makers of other wines. It features very informative interviews with winemakers in all the Piedmont zones and also with some of the region’s most interesting chefs.  In fact, for anyone planning travel in Piedmont, the book’s most useful feature may be its several-pages-long list of recommended restaurants – many of which I can personally and happily vouch for.

Piedmont is a gustatory promised land, flowing with wine and truffles, and in Tom Hyland it has found an enthusiastic chronicler.

To order The Wines and Foods of Piemonte, contact the author at thomas2022@comcast.net.

Terenzi: Wines of the Maremma

October 13, 2016

I had a lucky September. I attended a series of wine lunches that featured top-flight restaurants and – and – top-flight wines. Believe me, the two don’t always coincide, and I count myself very fortunate indeed. This post, I want to tell you about Terenzi wines from the Tuscan Maremma. That’s the wine zone that lies just behind the Mediterranean seacoast.


Once upon a time, it was unhealthy country, with spurs of hills running down into malarial marshes, over which Italian cowboys – I’m not kidding – ran cattle, and every autumn Italian hunters pursued boar. Well, the cowboys are gone and most of the marshes have been drained and replaced by vineyards, but the boar are still there and still hunted: Pasta with a rich, dark sauce of tomato, red wine, and minced-up boar seems to be a delicious staple of the local diet.

When I met Federico Terenzi for lunch at New York’s Marea, boar wasn’t on the menu, but does pasta with a red-wine-reduction tomato sauce with octopus and beef marrow count? It should: It was delicious, and it brought out some of the best of his complex and elegant wines. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to who, what, and where.

federico-terenzi-2Who: Federico Terenzi, who with his brother Balbino and sister Francesca Romana owns the eponymous estate. What: a luncheon tasting of five of the family’s wines. Where: Marea, a top-flight Italian restaurant with a pronounced flair for seafood, in the space that once housed San Domenico, across from Central Park.

The who, what, and where of the winery is a bit more complex.

The Terenzi family established the winery in 2001 in the Morellino di Scansano zone of the Maremma with the aim of raising Morellino to the highest level of quality and elegance. Now, since Morellino is the local name for Sangiovese and we’re definitely in Tuscany, that shouldn’t seem an extravagant ambition, though many have tried it in this area, and the results have been mixed. Sangiovese almost always gives a drinkable wine, but wringing a really fine one from that tricky grape in newly planted fields in a terroir and microclimate different from other parts of Tuscany: that has not been easy, even for experienced Tuscan winemakers.

A Terenzi Vineyard

Just for clarity’s sake, here’s a bit more about the where of this whole enterprise. The Tuscan Maremma (there’s a Maremma in Lazio too, though it gets little attention except from weekending Romans) stretches the length of the province, from near Volterra in the north down to Orbetello in the south. For wine lovers, the northern end is the most famous, since it includes Sassichaia and the other vineyards around Bolgheri. As a wine zone, that northern end is dominated by international varieties. Further south, inland from Grosseto and around the town of Scansano, Sangiovese holds sway, under the local name of Morellino.

.Starting in the ‘90s of what is now the last century, there was a bit of a land rush here as winemakers in other parts of Tuscany discovered (a) that Sangiovese cultivated here had a distinctive freshness and fruitiness that greatly excited them, and (b) that land was available at, for Tuscany, very reasonable prices. The registers for Morellino di Scansano have since been closed: The total amount of land that can be planted to grapes has been filled up. The only way anyone can create a new winery now is to buy an existing one, and the price of land has gone up quite substantially. So the Terenzis chose an auspicious place and time to put down their and their vines’ roots.

That they have done so successfully is amply attested by the fact that their cru Morellino, Riserva Madrechiesa, has already, in the winery’s short history, become a multiple Tre Bicchieri winner. But I’m getting ahead of myself again: Let me take the wines in the order I tasted them.


We opened with a lovely 2015 Vermentino called Balbino, for the winemaker brother, accompanying an equally lovely plate of crudi (raw fish). Vermentino is a great seafood wine, and this light and aromatic specimen played that role perfectly. Two weeks on the skins creates that pleasing fruity aroma and gives the wine a little hint of complexity, very intriguing in what is normally a simple aperitif wine. Federico says that Tuscan Vermentino always smells more intensely of the Mediterranean scrub, especially of rosemary, than does Sardinian.

terenzi-morellino-de-scansane-flasche_52668de3645ebWe went on to Terenzi’s 2015 Morellino, vinified from 100% Sangiovese. For my palate, this is a perfect luncheon wine – medium-bodied and not overpoweringly alcoholic, with appealing fresh cherry fruit, excellent acidity and good balance. At a suggested retail price of around $15, you’d be hard put to find a better wine.

2013 Morellino Riserva Purosangue came next. This wine showed all the characteristic aromas and flavor of the basic Morellino, kicked up a substantial notch in intensity and refinement. It is a selection of the best grapes from several vineyards, not a cru, but that makes no difference to its very high quality.

The next wine broke the traditional mold with a pronounced nod to the Scansano zone’s northern neighbors. Francesca Romana, named for Federico’s sister, blends Merlot, Petit verdot, and Cabernet sauvignon to create a (for me and my prejudices against international grape varieties in Italy) surprisingly successful wine, very bordelaise in style but because of its emphatic Tuscan acidity very Italian in total effect. It’s barrique-aged – another usual no-no for me – but I found the oak very controlled, and the wine as a whole very pleasing. I especially liked the olivaceous scents, which I’m pretty sure derive directly from the Petit verdot.

madrechiesa_600x600For our final wine, we tasted the 2013 Madrechiesa, a Morellino Riserva and a cru wine from Terenzi’s oldest vineyard. As I remarked above, this has been a pretty consistent Tre Bicchieri winner, and the reasons for that were immediately apparent. This is a big wine, and a touch austere – it’s young yet – with refined fruit and excellent balance. Above all, it is elegant – very, very elegant, a wine of poise and restrained power. Need I add I liked it a lot?

Overall, I thought that elegance was a hallmark of these wines all through the line. At least one reason for that, beyond the good terroir and the appropriate clonal selection, lies with the winemaker. The Terenzis made a canny choice there too: they engaged Giuseppe Caviola, a Piedmontese winemaker who has established himself as a premier enologist throughout Italy. It’s no wonder this Maremma estate is regarded as one of Tuscany’s rising stars.

Velenosi: Wines of Le Marche

October 3, 2016

angela-velenosiA few days ago, I enjoyed a delightful lunch with Angela Velenosi at Del Posto, an oasis of fine food and blessed quiet in the thunder of New York’s restaurant scene. Signora Velenosi owns the second largest family-run winery in Le Marche, a region to which wise winos should pay a lot more attention, for the variety and the quality of its wines and for the significant fact that the great majority of them are very reasonably priced.

If you’re unfamiliar with Italian geography and Italian regions, Le Marche lies on the Adriatic (eastern) coast of central Italy, bordered from north to south by Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, and Abruzzi. Its name derives from that fact: It means the marches, i.e., the borderlands. Le Marche epitomizes the geography of Italy: Its western border is all mountains – the spine of the Apennines – and its eastern all beaches. Locals like to say that you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, with, depending on your taste, a bracing mountain lunch or a light seafood repast in between. Clearly, Le Marche is a region that needs wines for every occasion.

The Velenosi winery seeks to respond to all those needs. The 32-year-old firm makes more than 20 wines, working primarily with the traditional grapes of the region. That means primarily Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Sangiovese for the reds, and Verdicchio, Pecorino, and Passerina for the whites, all vinified in a variety of ways.

We tasted eight of them at lunch, and they all showed a very high level of winemaking, as well as admirable varietal character.


We started with Passerina Brut, a non-vintage charmat-method sparkler. Passerina is the name of the grape that constitutes 100% of this wine, a native variety that had almost been lost until a few enterprising producers undertook its resurrection about 20 years ago. It makes a lovely aperitif, light and refreshing, with a dried-lemon-rind nose and a palate of lemon peel and minerals.

We went on to a 2015 Querciantica Verdicchio DOC. This is another indigenous Marche variety, unquestionably the most important white grape of the region. Verdicchio seems destined for greatness – if it can ever grab the attention of wine drinkers outside the Marche. Think of the minerality of Chablis understrapped by a really bracing Italian acidity, and you’re getting close to a well-made Verdicchio. This young Verdicchio, from the Castelli di Jesi DOC zone, was well made indeed, with the classic bracing minerality. I stress its youth, because among Verdicchio’s many virtues is an ability to age and mature. Riserva bottlings especially can easily please after a decade, and the best vintages can go longer still.

For our third wine, we tasted yet another Marche specialty variety, a 2015 Villa Angela Pecorino, an Offida DOCG. Where the grape name comes from is something of a mystery: Pecorino means sheep in Italian, but there is nothing in any sense sheepish about this grape or the wine it yields. This fine example was intense and concentrated, with a complex palate that tasted of salt and mineral and grapefruit peel – very, very intriguing.

Then we switched over to reds, but we didn’t abandon indigenous varieties.


Our first red was 2015 Querciantica Lacrima di Morra DOC. The grape is so called because its skins are so tender that just touching them can produce a small drop of juice – its tear (lacrima). This is a light-bodied red wine, often drunk in the Marche with antipasti or light lunches. This bottle showed the characteristic black cherry nose and palate, very fresh and appealing. You could happily drink lots of this, ever so lightly chilled, on a warm afternoon.

Next came 2014 Brecciarolo, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC. Rosso Piceno is the traditional red wine blend of the Marche, 70% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and 30% Sangiovese. Note that – despite the name – Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo has nothing to do with the Tuscan town Montepulciano. It is its own variety, long cultivated in the Marche: How it got its confusing name nobody knows for sure. Wherever the grape’s name comes from, Brecciarolo is a fine wine, with the Sangiovese bracing the softness of the Montepulciano, and the two harmonizing into a pleasing, almost elegant red wine for all occasions.

Then Signora Velenosi poured 2011 Roggio del Filare, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC, which raised the stakes. The blend is the same as Brecciarolo, but the harvest comes from super-ripe grapes on 50-year-old vines. They are given a long maceration on the skins to yield a deeply colored, intense wine of very great elegance. This 2011 already showed maturing, earthy/mushroomy notes on the nose, and the palate followed suit. Still lively and beautifully structured, this seems a wine that will deepen and improve for some years yet.

As you can tell, this was a wet lunch: We still had two red wines to go.


The one next up changed tack completely. A 2012 Ludi – the word means games – an Offida DOCG. It was vinified from 50% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 30% of the very non-indigenous Cabernet sauvignon, and 20% of the equally non-native Merlot. My regular readers will know I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but this wine may make me re-think my absolutism. It was excellent – very fine and elegant, with lovely fruit and soft tannins. It didn’t taste at all international: Rather it had a distinctive Italian accent. The Montepulciano and the Merlot (which does grow well in central Italy, I have to admit) definitely tamed the asperities of the usually aggressive Cabernet and folded it into a harmonious blend.

For our final wine, we reverted to Le Marche tradition: Visciole, a non-vintage red dessert wine made from 80% Lacrima di Morra and 20% fresh-squeezed syrup of wild cherries (visciole). The fully fermented Lacrima gets the infusion of visciole syrup, which causes a second fermentation that raises the alcohol to 14 degrees or above and intensifies the fruit sweetness of the wine. I’m not a big fan of dessert wines, but this is a lovely one, with that wonderful fruit stealing all the attention from the alcohol.

As this luncheon tasting clearly demonstrated, there is a lot to interest serious wine lovers in Le Marche: great native grapes, interesting experimentation and an extremely high level of winemaking, of which Velenosi is a fine example. For anyone seriously interested in wine – or indeed, for anyone simply looking for enjoyable wines at decent prices – Le Marche is well worth a look and a taste. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Donnachiara: A Fiano Vertical

September 22, 2016

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

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

Photo by Charles Scicolone

Photo by Charles Scicolone

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

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

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

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


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

Here are some details of the wines we tasted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Nebbiolo and a Possible Pretender

September 12, 2016


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

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

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

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

Piemonte map

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

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

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

colla vineyard edited

A Colla Nebbiolo Vineyard

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

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

Vermentino and its Aliases

September 1, 2016

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

sardinian vineyard


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

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

map of sardinia

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

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

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

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

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

August 22, 2016

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

Stressfully Seeking an Affordable Wine

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

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

Cochon dining room

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

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


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

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

Galatoire wines

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

Terminal Toscanità

August 11, 2016

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

Tom tasting

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


Brunello di Montalcino

Brunello seal

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

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

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


Chianti Classico


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midsummer Miscellany

August 1, 2016

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

2015 Beaujolais

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

beaujolais vineyard

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

Great Dolcetto

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

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

2 pecchinino

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

The Vietti Sale

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

 A Vietti Vineyard

A Vietti Vineyard

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


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

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

Some Fine Beaujolais Crus, Including Drouhin’s New Ones

July 18, 2016

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

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

beaujolais map

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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