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

Wine Writing Again: Born Yesterday

September 28, 2017

Nobody complains more about wine writing than wine writers, and I admit that I am not the least complainer of the lot. But this time it’s personal: My ox is being gored.

For the New York Times food section of September 13th, Eric Asimov wrote a nice, informative essay about the wine of Cahors. Asimov is one of the best wine writers the Times has had, and he did a good professional story about his discovery of the revival of the traditional, Malbec-based, “Black Wine” of this historic region. The problem is, the story has been written before – probably several times, because this news isn’t new; but the time that concerns me most is the article on this subject Diane and I wrote for Food & Wine magazine 35 years ago.
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The resurrection of the fabled wines of Cahors apparently is an often-repeated – or continuous – process. Our article reported then the same facts that the Times story does now: In the Middle Ages, the wines of Cahors rivalled those of Bordeaux, particularly in the English market. They lost ground as the English armies that had occupied much of central France – including Cahors – gradually retreated to the coast, enabling Bordeaux to establish its ascendancy. That dominance was completed when the phylloxera devastated the Cahors vineyards. In the aftermath, it proved too difficult and too expensive to replant the vineyards on the steep slopes that had provided the Black Wine’s greatness, and viticulture largely retreated to the valley floor and viniculture to mediocrity. But lo! a new generation of winemakers is now arising, and they are reclaiming those difficult slopes and with them are restoring Cahors’ historic greatness.

The hero of the Times story is Jean Marie Sigaud, who is credited with, in 1975, having the “brilliant idea” of planting grapes again on the hillsides. Well, our article’s paladin was Georges Vigouroux of the reclaimed hillside vineyards of Château Haute-Serre, who since 1976 had been making big, powerful, elegant wines there, which, by the time of our visit in ’82, were being hailed in France as reviving the glories of Cahors.

I’m not complaining here simply that Diane’s and my work has been ignored (though obviously that irks me, and if the Times didn’t maintain its stupid policy of isolating its wine writers from their peers and colleagues, it could easily have been avoided), but about a common fault of the wine writing profession that I think is far more serious – the total failure to acknowledge, or, in many cases, even be aware of, the work of predecessors. In almost every other discipline, writers are expected to recognize previous efforts, especially those substantially in agreement with them. In wine writing, articles are written as if history began yesterday – and that’s deplorable.

I realize that most writers can’t afford the luxury of a research staff – but surely a Google search is within reach? Some reading around in the area you’re writing about? And publications the size and authority of the Times could afford to pay someone for an hour or two of archival work? Or am I just being an old pedant, and demanding something no one is really interested in?

Probably the latter, I suspect.

Two Uncommon White Wines: Erbaluce and Timorasso

September 18, 2017

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of my readers, even those conversant with Italian wines, are scratching their heads about these two names. They’re not exactly common currency. Nevertheless, they’re worth knowing about: They are both intriguing wines, and I think their moment may be coming.
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Erbaluce and Timorasso are natives of the Alta Piemonte, grown nowhere else. Both used to be much more widespread before phylloxera destroyed many vineyards. In the subsequent replanting, both varieties lost ground to the hardier, more generously bearing variety Cortese, to the point that Timorasso in particular was on the verge of extinction.

Erbaluce is now the more widely planted variety, particularly around the town of Caluso, northeast of Turin. There it seems to have found an ideal location, and in the best hands it produces a lovely white wine that benefits from modest aging. Tom Hyland thinks it “one of Italy’s most prized indigenous varieties” (The Wines and Foods of Piemonte).

It’s probably more accurate to say that it deserves to be such, since very little Erbaluce is now in commercial production – perhaps around 100 hectares?  But those who know Erbaluce di Caluso esteem it, both in its dry version and its sweet. The dry is my preference: Light on the palate but far from insubstantial, with rich aromas of fruits and herbs – everything from mint to lemon to sage – and an equally complex and fascinating palate, it makes a lovely wine to sip with aperitifs and carry on with right through dinner.

Some good producers are Antoniolo, Cariola, Cieck, Ferrando, and Orsolani. A quick check on Wine Searcher showed a good half dozen kinds (sweet, dry, still, sparkling) and producers of Erbaluce available within 20 miles of Manhattan, so it’s worth a look around out there.

Timorasso has an even smaller production than Erbaluce: Perhaps up to 50 hectares are in commercial production, and that many exist almost solely because of the efforts of Walter Massa. A grower in Monleale, near Tortona in eastern Piemonte, he took the variety under his wing and began planting and propagating it in the 1990s. Such prominence as it has achieved today is solely due to him. Anyone lucky enough to have tasted a well made Timorasso loves it. I’ll quote Jancis Robinson (Wine Grapes), not usually a huge fan of Italian white wines, to give you some idea of Timorasso’s appeal:

Timorasso is definitely too interesting a variety to be hidden in a blend. Even in youth, varietal wines have complex aromas of light honey and spice as well as floral, citrus, and nutty characteristics and a creamy texture – they sometimes taste as if they are lightly oaked even when they are not. The acidity is fresh and well-made wines have excellent length, delicate minerality and surprising longevity. Producers of such wines include Luigi Boveri, Franco Martinetti, Walter Massa and Morgassi.

Other good producers are Bava, di Marchi, La Columbara, Orsolani, and Vigne Marina Coppi. Most of these bottle under the name Derthona – Derthona is the old name for Tortona, the town that seems to be the epicenter for Timorasso production – but some use the Colli Tortonesi designation. Another quick look at Wine Searcher showed Timorasso from a half a dozen producers (including two I haven’t tried yet) available within 20 miles of Manhattan. And, like the Erbaluce in this respect too, at very reasonable prices for white wine of this quality and interest.

These two wines are already becoming far less rare in Italy, and I think their intriguing characters will soon win them a serious following here in the States.

Castello di Radda Chianti Classico

September 7, 2017

To indulge in my favorite sort of overgeneralization: In California, it seems, dentists and proctologists buy boutique vineyards; in Italy, insurance companies and machinery manufacturers set up whole agricultural divisions. So the Beretta company, for instance (manufacturers of, among many other things, James Bond’s favorite tool), has an agricultural arm, Agricole Gussalli Beretta, which owns and operates vineyards in several parts of Italy – Franciacorta, Piemonte, Alto Adige, Abruzzo. In Tuscany, its holding is Castello di Radda, a Chianti Classico estate in the heart of the traditional zone.
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The idea of corporate ownership of vineyards may cause a reflexive shudder or two, but it is not necessarily the character-eviscerating phenomenon you may suppose: Everything depends on the choices and aims of the owners. To use an example close to home: Corporate ownership of Ridge Vineyards has in no way compromised the character of its wines. So too in Italy, many corporately owned vineyards produce wines of high quality and solid reputation, and Castello di Radda is certainly one of these, with two Tre Bicchieri awards already in its young history. Besides – let’s get real about this – what is Antinori, or Frescobaldi, or for that matter Mouton Rothschild, but a corporation, and a sizable one at that?

The Beretta family – yes, it’s a family, just like Antinori, Frescobaldi, and Rothschild – started Castello di Radda in 2003, working literally from the ground up, with vineyard choices and a largely subterranean winemaking facility, an anything but old-fashioned cellar. The great Tuscan master Maurizio Castelli has served as the guiding spirit and chief enologist for some years now. The man and the location – Radda is about as central to traditional Chianti as one can get – are clearly spot on.

So are the wines. The estate specializes in 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico. Its Chianti Classico Riserva has twice won Tre Bicchieri, and its other wines, especially its Gran Selezione, are beginning to attract critical attention. In 2017, Castello di Radda began converting all its vineyards to 100% organic production. This is certainly an estate to watch: As its new vineyard practices settle in, and as its vines mature, Castello di Radda seems poised to move into the upper echelon of Chianti estates.

Courtesy of the Wellcom Agency of Alba, I last week tasted a selection of Castello di Radda’s wines.  Here they are:
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2014 Chianti Classico

Dry earth and dried berry aroma. Lightish palate, with lots of bright acidity, very typical of the Radda area. Good tannins and light cherry/berry fruit. Long leather/dried cherry finish. Very pleasing drinking.

2013 Chianti Classico Riserva
Biggish berry and tobacco nose. Fresher fruit than the 2014 vintage (this is the wine that was recently awarded Tre Bicchieri). Good balance. Some complexity already beginning to show. Very long finish. A distinct step up from the 2014, which is the proper relation of a Riserva to the normal bottling.

2012 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Dried berry, tobacco, and earth scents. Fuller body and darker fruit than the preceding two wines. Fine acid/tannin balance sustaining complex fruit flavors. Very persistent finish. Again, another notch up, as it should be.

2006 Chianti Classico Riserva Poggio Selvale
Similar aroma to the Gran Selezione. A touch mute on the palate. Subdued (just coming out of mute phase?). Elegant and round, but not very forthcoming. This single-vineyard wine dates from the estate’s earliest days, so at first I didn’t know whether its reticence showed some tentativeness in the winemaking or just a stage in the wine’s evolution. Later, after it had time to breathe, the wine showed much more flavor and structure.

The key thing for me was that the three wines from the 20-teens provided plenty of interest now and point a good way for the future of Castello di Radda.

 

Caparone Vineyards: Great Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – from California!

August 28, 2017

This is a post I never thought I’d write: I’m about to go bananas over a California winery that isn’t Ridge, and over wines other than Zinfandel. Surely the Rapture is upon us, and we are entering the end of days.

I’ve known about Caparone Vineyards for a long time, and I’ve always thought that it made the most successful versions I’d ever tasted of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo from California, which many of my readers will probably identify as pretty qualified praise. I visited the vineyards in Paso Robles back in the late ’80s, when Dave Caparone was not only a pioneer in the Paso Robles area but a voice crying in the wilderness about the potential of Italy’s great red grapes there.
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I was impressed both by what he had already accomplished and by what the future might bring, but Dave Caparone wasn’t in it for fame or fortune (neither of which I could have provided, in any case) but for the love of the land, the grapes, and the wines. So when he asked me not to write about him or his wines, I complied – reluctantly. One more item entered my already bulging files, and I shamefacedly confess I then forgot about Caparone.

Somewhere in the early years of this century, a friend put me back in touch with Caparone, and Dave’s son Marc, now active in the company, sent me a batch of samples. I tasted, liked, remembered how I had been impressed by my visit, and resolved this time to write up the winery. No such luck: I couldn’t rouse any editorial interest anywhere. Antinori was then conspicuously failing in its attempt to produce Sangiovese-based wine at Atlas Peak, and the feeling seemed to be that if Antinori couldn’t do it, then Italian grapes probably had no future in California – so once again the data went back into the files and out of my memory.

Until this month. I was scrabbling through my wines, looking for something for dinner, when, in a remote bin, I found three Caparone bottles that I had totally forgotten I had: an Aglianico, a Nebbiolo, and a Sangiovese, all of the 2002 vintage. I more than half suspected that at 15 years old they would be over the hill, but I had to try them – and I assure you, I am very, very happy I did.

All three are superb examples of their variety, although not Tuscan, not Piedmontese, not Campanian, and not what I normally think of as the brash California style either. But richly fruited, balanced, restrained, and elegant wines they emphatically were. They remained extraordinarily fresh despite their almost 15 years of very mediocre storage with me. These were thoroughly enjoyable wines of a kind and quality I could happily drink every day, if California would make more of it. There is gold in them there hills, and Caparone is vinifying it.

Wine making in Paso Robles has exploded since I long ago visited Dave Caparone. There are now several named American Viticultural Area subdivisions within the Paso Robles appellation, and – I believe – upwards of 200 producers working there. The zone has become a homeland for what are by Napa standards maverick varieties: More than 40 different wine grapes are grown there. Only a few growers are trying the three great Italian red varieties, and that’s because, even in Paso Robles’ highly varied soils, they are difficult. Think about it: They thrive in Italy in three very different parts of the country, with widely different soils and microclimates, and even within their home turfs these are cantankerous varieties. The challenge to grow all three within the confines of a single California AVA is impressive, to say the least. Think how much more so in a single small estate!

I remember that in my long-ago visit, Dave Caparone stressed how crucial it was to site each variety appropriately, to fit the grape to the soil and the microclimate as perfectly as possible. No one who knows how cranky Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese can be will be surprised to hear that, and from what I’ve tasted, it seems he’s done that job spectacularly well.

I tasted the Sangiovese first, with a simple dinner of good grilled meat and fresh Greenmarket vegetables.
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From my first sniff, the wine had my attention: a rich, complex aroma of sottobosco and mint, raspberry and red currants. The color showed as lovely pale garnet, looking properly but not excessively aged. In the mouth, it was delightful – light, balanced, and round, tasting of berries and red fruits, still fresh and vigorous, but well-bred and restrained. It loved food, all sorts of food. What struck me above all was that it showed excellent Sangiovese character without being in the slightest respect Tuscan. That fruit was pure California in its vitality, but without any of the bold, jammy style that I dislike in so many California wines.

A few days later I tried the Aglianico.
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If anything, this wine was even better than the Sangiovese. It sported a lovely deep garnet color, very live looking. The nose was powerful, deeply vinous, slightly acetone, but mostly black fruit. On the palate, deep dry plum, leather, tobacco, and more fresh fruit – all very live. It finished long and complex – licorice, plum, and leather. This was a big, mouth-filling wine, very elegant and extremely persistent: The flavor went on and on. It loved food: It just sang alongside a soft, young Gorgonzola dolce – in fact, at that point, it tasted a lot like a great Piedmont Nebbiolo. I have noticed before that Taurasi and Barolo grow to resemble each other as they mature, so that didn’t completely surprise me – but it is a great testimony to how completely the Caparones have captured the essence of this great, tricky variety.

Finally, a day or so later, I tried the Nebbiolo.
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I was not disappointed of my by now-high hopes. A properly orangey-garnet color, slightly paler than the preceding two wines. A huge nose of blackberry, cherry, and roses. In the mouth, big, round, and soft, with elegant tannins and fruit following through on the promise of the aroma. Raspberry and leather in the long finish. All in all, an elegant and restrained wine of lovely, pure varietal character.

These three wines to me represent the best sort of winemaking, where nothing has intervened to alter or disguise what the grapes have to say. Wines like this give me great hope for the future of California winemaking: They set what I consider a benchmark for other California wines to aspire to.

And, as far as I can tell, they are very reasonably priced – at last look, under $20 for new releases. You’ll just have to be patient and let them mature. Believe me, it’s worth it.

 

Portugal: Paradigms and Paradoxes

August 17, 2017

Portugal is, vinously speaking, an odd place. A small country, squeezed into the extreme southwestern corner of Europe, its language is nevertheless one of the most widely spread and widely spoken in the world. And it has a history of wine making as long and as important as any in Europe. But for all the intensity of its viticulture, Portuguese wine is not that well known – though that may be changing.

For one thing – one very big thing – it’s not all Port. Portugal possesses a great number of indigenous grape varieties with long histories of cultivation and high-quality vinification. In addition, the native varieties have been supplemented, post-phylloxera, by a selection of French grapes, some the usual suspects but also some surprises. This is true of all Portugal’s provinces, but nowhere more so than in the Alentejo, a large province that encloses some of the country’s most important wine-growing zones.
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About two weeks back I attended a morning-long presentation of many Alentejo wines. The format opened first with a 12-bottle tasting of the wide range of the area’s wines, followed by a second, more focused 12-bottle tasting.  Evan Goldstein was the leader of the seminar. (He was joined at lunch by Josh Greene, the publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, a long-time partisan of Portugal’s wines. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the lunch and so missed Greene’s remarks, but he published a very interesting article about vineyards in a special part of Alentejo in the April 2017 issue of W&S – “Marble Terroir.”)
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The second tasting/presentation concerned not simply the wines of Alentejo – that’s still a pretty broad field – but focused exclusively on wines made with the Alicante Bouschet grape. Here’s a major Portuguese puzzle:  Alicante Bouschet, though the most important red grape in the entire Alentejo – probably the most important grape, period, in the Alentejo province – is not native to Portugal. In fact, it’s not a naturally occurring grape anywhere. It was invented in 1866 by Henri Bouschet, who produced it by crossing Grenache with Petit Bouschet, itself a hybrid devised by Henri’s father from Aramon noir and Teinturier. It was widely planted in France after the devastations of phylloxera when growers needed a vigorous, heavy-bearing vine to rebuild production quickly. For the same reasons, Alicante was brought into Portugal, where it has thrived, even though it is now declining in France.

Nowadays in France, Alicante Bouschet is generally regarded as a rather rustic grape, and out of favor for that reason. In Portugal, on the other hand, that hearty rusticity seems to be prized, and some growers also contend that older Alicante vines can yield very elegant wines. And some enthusiasts are backing up their opinions by making 100% Alicante wines. These are still not common in Portugal (though we had several for the Alentejo tasting) and are certainly a great rarity anywhere else.

So, in some respects, is Alicante Bouschet itself, and not simply in the sense that it isn’t as widely planted outside Portugal as once it was. Its greatest distinction is that it’s one of the very few red-fleshed grapes in cultivation, and as such it gives deeply flavored and deeply colored juices – sure indications of its Teinturier descent.
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What Alicante contributes to most blends is color, body, and a generous dose of tannins. Young Alicante vines in particular show real vigor, both in the amount of grapes they bear – so serious green harvesting is an absolute necessity – and in the vivacity and intensity of flavor of the grapes. For all those reasons, Alicante Bouschet is highly prized in Alentejo blends.

The tasting portion of the seminar encompassed a good selection of both monovarietal and blended Alicante wines. None of the wines was older than six years, which I thought was a real shame, because I sensed that most of the selected wines had significant aging potential. I would have liked to taste what a really mature specimen had grown into, to help me understand what I should be looking for and paying attention to in younger specimens. Without that, and especially with a group of wines I’m not familiar with, I’m really flying blind. So my reactions to the wines at the tasting may be way off base – for good or for ill. Be that as it may, here are the wines (in the order they were presented) and my thoughts about them.

2011 Grande Riserva Tinto from Adega de Borba
Berry-ish nose; soft palate of a vaguely blackberry flavor, with good acidity and a long, slightly sweet finish. Evidently capable of much greater life and development. A blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira, a native grape of great potential and importance throughout Alentejo. This wine is made only in top-notch vintages.

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2014 Alicante Bouschet
from Terras de Alter

Less aromatic than the preceding wine, but much richer in the mouth, with more pronounced berry fruit. Long licorice/black fruit finish.

2011 Dona Maria Grande Reserva Tinto from Julio Bastos
Vinified half from Alicante, half from a mix of Syrah, Petit Verdot, and the native Touriga Nacional. Palatally somewhat like the preceding wine, with a drier, more austere finish. This wine is a perfect emblem of the cross-currents of Portuguese winemaking, both in its blend of native and foreign grapes and in its cellar treatment: The grapes are crushed by foot in ancient marble troughs, then aged in new oak barriques.

2011 Grande Escolha Joaquim Cerejo from Herdade Fonte Paredes
30% each of Alicante and Touriga Nacional, plus 20% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Light berry nose, berry and light plum palate, with a medium-length licorice-y finish. High alcohol (16˚), but not at all hot.

2014 Monte do Zambujeiro from Quinta do Zambujeiro
35% Alicante, the rest predominantly native grape varieties. Stainless-steel fermented, French-oak aged. Mulberry/licorice nose and palate, with some leather on palate and in finish. Very young: definitely wants some time to develop.

2012 AB Alicante Bouschet from Esporão
A seemingly very young 100% Alicante, still quite closed. It seems promising, but needs lots of time to develop.

2012 Monsaraz Alicante Bouschet from Carmim
Another 100% Alicante of the same vintage, but this one seems much more open: high acid/herbal nose; herbs and berries in the mouth; licorice and leather in the finish. This was one of the most interesting wines of the tasting, from an obviously high-achieving co-op.

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2013 Alicante Bouschet
from Tiago Cabaço

Another interesting 100% Alicante, a little closed in the nose, but showing nice black fruits and walnuts on the palate, with a robust, leathery, tannic finish. Very obviously structured for the long haul.

2014 Grande Escolha from Solar do Lobos
A blend of Alicante, Touriga Nacional, and Syrah. Earthy aroma. On the palate, nuts – walnuts especially – and mineral notes. Black fruit/leather finish. Already rounding nicely into shape.

2014 Menino António from Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
A 100% Alicante wine marked by black fruits and earth aromas and flavors, with abundant soft tannins. Leather and dried plum finish. 15˚ alcohol but not at all hot. (Many of these wines have been high alcohol, but all have been sufficiently balanced so that it was not an assertive characteristic.)

2014 Herdade São Miguel Alicante Bouschet from Alexandre Relvas
100% Alicante. The sheets provided at the tasting said this was a 2014, but the vintage information provided by the producer said 2015. I am inclined to believe the latter, because this wine tasted to me so young and closed that I find it impossible to say anything at all about it.

2015 Moon Harvested Alicante Bouschet from Herdade do Grous
Another very young 100% Alicante, this one a little less closed than the preceding, giving a little mulberry on the palate and a little nut-and-fruit-leather in the finish, but still really impossible to say anything definitive about.

The morning’s first tasting, the broad survey of Alentejo wines, had presented two other wines containing significant amounts of Alicante Bouschet, a 2012 Tinto from Adega do Monte Branco and 2012 Vinhas da Ira Tinto from Herdade da Mingorra. The latter was a very promising mix of old-vine Alicante and Touriga Nacional that seemed to be just hitting its stride at five years of age. The former blended 70% Alicante with 30% Aragonez (the local name for Tempranillo) to produce an attractive wine with subdued mulberry aromas (that seems to be an Alicante trademark, at least in Portugal) and a soft, merlot-like palate. It finished slightly short, but was nevertheless quite pleasing.

All in all, it was a very instructive morning for me.