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Diane’s Rant

When you go to a medical doctor these days, no matter what you’re suffering from, one solution is always offered: cut out alcohol. If you won’t do that, you’ll be told the least harmful number of ounces you should consume a day. Doesn’t matter if you take it in whisky, beer, or wine – it’s all basically poison.
I have no particular brief for whisky or beer, but on wine I beg to differ. Wine is not alcohol. Wine is a complicated chemical substance that contains alcohol. It’s not a drink you take in order to get a buzz. Wine has many components and characteristics that make it an object for appreciation that is as much intellectual as physiological. Moreover, it is nourishing.
Every evening, Tom chooses from our storage one bottle that he thinks will go well with what we’re having for dinner. We drink it slowly and thoughtfully, with the meal of which it is an important component, and we unwind, review the day, babble to each other, and relax.

The above rant is something Diane knocked out on her computer, and then shared with me, after coming home from an annoying medical appointment. My wife, colleague, cook, editor, and web mistress is finding her patience with certain kinds of medical mumbo-jumbo is, as you read, wearing thin. Indeed, it can be no secret that alcohol is the American medical establishment’s great white whale. Whether you’re seeing a doctor for a hangnail or for terminal cancer, you’re always asked – sometimes bluntly: Do you drink? – and sometimes really offensively: Do you use alcohol? As if it were a power drill or a bandsaw.

There is a transparent error in the question itself: No one I know drinks alcohol, just as no one I know questions the danger of the pure spirit. But as the most elementary knowledge of chemistry should tell you, compounds alter their ingredients as surely as frying alters an egg, and wine is a complex compound, of which alcohol is only a part, and far from the greatest one. Compound that yet further with the interplay of a wine with the foods you drink it with, and your dreaded poison has been quite nicely domesticated.

None of this may seem like any big deal, but Diane and I find ourselves these days spending far more time with MDs than we ever thought possible in the carefree days of our callow youth, back when we were in our sixties and seventies. The sheer repetition and persistence of the question grows wearing, and its unintended offensiveness increases every time it’s asked. We aren’t stupid, and we haven’t gotten to be this old by making dramatically bad choices.

That so-called toxin has made and continues to make major contributions to our happiness, to our sense of well-being, and to our well-being itself.
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Nobody sits down at a neatly set table to a hearty meal of chemicals and a nice glass of poison, and the sooner medical authorities acknowledge those facts and deal with them responsibly, the sooner one needless point of friction in some old geezers’ lives will be removed. “Be not righteous overmuch, but take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.”

End of sermon. Ite, missa est.

Indeed, surprised and pleased were exactly what I felt from my first taste of this relatively obscure bottle from Selvapiana.
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Selvapiana is a fine Chianti estate, probably the finest not in the Classico zone. It lies within the Rufina zone, northeast of Florence, and that area is totally different, climatically and geographically, from the Classico. It is hillier, and its hills are steeper and rougher than the long-domesticated ones that lie between Florence and Siena, the historical Chianti Classico zone.
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The Rufina zone is more heavily forested, and its forests are pines, not the decorous cypresses of Tuscan postcards. What grow beneath those pines are mountain laurels, clearly indicating a more acidic soil and a very different climate from that of the Classico zone. Needless to say, the wines that Sangiovese produces here are also different from the Classicos: they are bigger, fuller, with darker-toned fruit. Some call them rustic, but the best of them show no rusticity. Rather, they are graceful country folk, with all the strength and natural elegance that implies.
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For obvious reasons, I’ve always admired Selvapiana’s Chiantis. The estate’s decades-long relationship with consulting enologist Franco Bernabei, one of the acknowledged masters of Tuscan wine, has always coaxed the best from its Sangiovese. The wine Selvapiana calls Fornace (from the vineyard where it originates) has always been for me another matter, however.

Fornace is Selvapiana’s Supertuscan, a blend of non-Italian grape varieties that was originally concocted back when Supertuscan was a hot category and every serious wine estate had to make one to show that it was au courant. I acquired my bottle long ago, when I was preparing an article about Selvapiana and the Rufina zone for some magazine or other. I’ve never really approved of the Supertuscans – I hated the name – so for the article I focused on the zone’s Italian varieties, put my bottle of Fornace away, and completely forgot about it. Until, just recently, Diane was making a recipe that originated at Selvapiana, and I wanted to serve a Selvapiana wine with it. Imagine my distress when I discovered I had none of the wonderful Chiantis on hand, and just this dusty bottle of a wine I distrusted. Arrgh!

Well, no choice: I wanted a Selvapiana wine and this was what I had, so off went its dust and out came its cork. Two hours of breathing, and then into the glass alongside Diane’s delightful pasta dish. As I said before, color me surprised and pleased: It was a wonderful wine. Vinified entirely from French varieties – 40% Cabernet sauvignon, 40% Merlot, and 20% Petit verdot, I believe – though I could swear I tasted a little Syrah pepper in it. No matter. At 18 years old it was a complete wine, big, round, harmonious, and deep. It didn’t taste typically Tuscan, but it didn’t taste Bordelaise either: It was a third thing, entirely its own category, and completely enjoyable. It has given me something to think about, in terms of my distaste for French varieties in Italy – and it has certainly deepened my already immense respect for Selvapiana.
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When I think about shipboard dining, I tend to time-warp fantasize about a first-class table – and wine list – on a transatlantic crossing on the old Normandie or Île de France. Glamor and great bottles!  Alas, those days are gone forever, and the kind of shipboard dining I actually do is far more quotidian, aboard river boats cruising French rivers. The wines there amount to sort of a cross between the wine list of a decent resort hotel and what’s available on the Jersey Shore – long on utility, but very short on glamor.

All this is prologue to telling you about the casual imbibings of Diane’s and my recent stint in France – three days in Paris, plus a week cruising on the Seine. Very relaxing, even charming, but in no way glamorous.
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The dining room on the MS Seine Princess

 

Of course we drank wine every day: Being in France, and on vacation, twice a day, lunch and dinner, which is something we almost never do at home. A lot of the wine was quite enjoyable, simple stuff for easy drinking, which, when you think about it, is what a river cruise line ought to offer. Certainly none of the other 136 passengers on the Seine Princess seemed at all unhappy with any of it. Me, I’m a crank, a wine snob, and/or a fussbudget, as most of my readers already know, so I kept looking around for more or better. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Croisieurope line, with which we were sailing, routinely offers a short list of wines at lunch, dinner, and the ship’s bar, from which it pours generously and at no charge. It has a reserve list of somewhat better wines at low fees for the special occasion or the more demanding client. That was us: We hit the reserve list almost every dinner. We hadn’t gone on vacation to save money.

Given the chef’s heavy leanings toward fish, fowl, and white meats, with most lunches we drank the basic list’s decent unoaked Languedoc Chardonnay, which made a pleasant lubricant for most of the kitchen’s fare.
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Dinner was not quite as white-wine exclusive, but even there, whites were often called for. The reserve list accommodated: There too, white wines – some nice older ones included – preponderated. The most interesting of those wines for us was a very nicely aged 2010 Alsace Riesling from Roland Petterman, which showed a good structure and still-interesting fruit – a nice, mature white wine.
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Not as old but still quite interesting – and red! – were two 2016 wines from Chapoutier: a Crôzes Hermitage, Petite Ruche, and a St. Joseph, Deschants.
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Both were very fine and representative of their kinds, even though I would have liked them just a few years older. I’ve always been fond of Rhône wines, white and red, and I find that most of them age exceptionally well. These two fit that bill very nicely and were certainly the most enjoyable wines we drank onboard.

I should add that for our three dinners in Paris, we most happily drank red: a very nice 2020 Chinon from Marc Brédif at Père Louis (see Diane’s post), a fine but young 2014 Brane Cantenac at Benôit, and a very nice 2008 Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil, Busardières at our beloved Au Petit Riche. I’ve always loved those Loire reds also, and Au Petit Riche has a Loire-based kitchen and cellar.
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See?  It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy.

Sometimes the success of a dinner party depends not just on your planning and execution but also on your good luck. In the case I have in mind, a quite nice dinner was kicked up to another dimension of pleasure by the wines we served with it – wines from a mixed case that we had lost track of and had brought home from storage just a week or so before this occasion.

The dinner, arranged on necessarily short notice, was for two visiting out-of-town friends. We wanted to give them a good meal, of course, but one with familiar dishes that we could put together within the time and culinary resources we had available. We settled on a first course of pasta alla carbonara, which prepares and cooks easily; a main course of osso buco, which we could make up entirely in advance; a cheese course, which requires no work at all; and for dessert a simple apple tart, which Diane is always happy to toss together. A nice meal, but not extraordinary.

What made this dinner distinctive was its wine and food pairings. The first of these was made possible by Champagne originally bought for long-past holidays and the rest by that mixed case of wines that had luckily wended its way home just a week before.

Of course, I can and will claim that it wasn’t just luck that I had long ago purchased those wines. But I have to admit that their meshing so perfectly with the courses of this dinner was serendipity, far beyond the reach of cunning. From the 12 available wines, I’d chosen the 3 that I thought would work best with our dishes, but I couldn’t know how perfectly they would match up. I don’t have a super palate, and we all need a little luck sometimes.

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Our first piece of good luck: For aperitifs, a fine grower Champagne, an NV “Élégance” from Vincent Couche. This mouth-filling, aptly named wine was biodynamically grown:  84% Pinot noir, 16% Chardonnay, with 3 years on the lees. It started our evening off on a properly savory and substantial note that relaxed all four of us from the week’s busy pace. Memo to self: Keep some of this around.

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To give our first course a little distinction, we made the pasta alla carbonara with some duck bacon we had on hand (luck again) instead of the usual pancetta. This made for a richer but less assertively flavored dish that paired beautifully with a bottle of 2008 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva. Volpaia’s high-altitude vineyards characteristically yield wines of great elegance and restraint, and this bottle proved to be a perfect, almost interlocking match with this more restrained version of carbonara.
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Osso buco is always richly flavored: long-cooked veal shank on the bone creates a wonderful sauce around itself. But this is still veal, so it’s not an aggressive flavor but a mild, insinuating one. To my mind, this dish wants the gentle suaveness of Barbaresco, so I opted to match it with a 2004 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga, a beautiful wine from one of the greatest crus of the appellation, just – at 17 years – reaching its peak of mature, woodsy flavors.
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With the cheeses, I went a different direction, with a slightly more assertive wine: a 2004 Château Lafon-Rochet, still from that case. Equally as old as the Barbaresco, this Saint Estèphe (55% Cabernet sauvignon, 5% Cabernet franc, 40% Merlot) had also evolved to a perfectly balanced state of maturity, which played splendidly with the somewhat battered-looking but still delicious remnants of goat, cow, and sheep cheeses we had on hand. Lafon-Rochet covers 100 acres in a single plot that lies between Lafite Rothschild and Cos d’Estournel. That’s a very nice neighborhood, as the excellent evolution of this wine amply showed.
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The result of not-too-demanding cookery and wonderfully compatible wines was a dinner both guests and hosts loved. Because the interplay between the wines and the dishes brought out the best of both, the whole meal stood out as something special and memorable, making us very happy indeed. As Italian winemakers and chefs have drilled into my head, abbinamento – the matching of the food and the wine you serve with it – is everything. And if you love mature wines as much as I do, you need the luck or cleverness to have squirrelled a batch of them away years ago.

For all regular newspaper and magazine columnists, a big feature about white and rosé wines for summer comes up routinely about this time of year. I always found such a story, when I was obliged to churn it out, burdensome and boring – and also misleading. What’s so different about the white wines one drinks in hot weather that marks them off from the whites one drinks all year round? And I think there is an underlying assumption here, that when the temperature rises one simply stops drinking red wine. This one doesn’t, especially not in these days of ubiquitous air conditioning.

Now, I grant that one’s eating habits change in summer – though even that is less so than ever, because of that same ubiquitous air conditioning. But they do change – more fresh fruits and vegetables, smaller, lighter meat portions, maybe more fresh fish, and so on. With those changes, the wines you drink should alter to maintain a pleasing match. So, for reasons of compatibility rather than temperature, you will probably move away from big, high-alcohol red wines and drink more light, modest-alcohol whites: that’s only common sense.

I guess the problem is that when it comes to wine, otherwise competent people lose all their common sense. Apparently, matching wine with food can come near to provoking a nervous breakdown, to judge from the number of crisis-toned articles devoted to the issue.

That, for example, was the premise of a recent big spread in the New York Times that tried hard to reassure the nervous that they could deal with this agonizing set of decisions. While I understand that Eric Asimov (a writer whose judgment and palate I respect) was trying to remove roadblocks to enjoying wine for many of his readers, I can’t help but feel that in the process he oversimplified somewhat.

I thoroughly agree that people shouldn’t worry about any so-called rules and may drink whatever they like, but I am very far from thinking that procedure will very often give you the best flavor combination of your wine and food. If maximizing your dining/drinking pleasure is what you’re after, you’re going to have to give your dinner wine a little more thought than by simply reaching for another bottle of old faithful or by making trial-and-error selections.

There most definitely are sound and useful principles that will help you make good choices. Asimov goes into some of these; I wish he had done so more forcefully. Most are – once again – common sense.

  • Balance fatty foods with acidic wines, which will cut through the fats and clean your palate.
  • Avoid heavily tannic wines with most foods: The tannins will obscure almost any other taste sensation.
  • And remember: Dinners are like boxing bouts. Don’t put lightweights against heavyweights. Balance is crucial if you don’t want either your wine or your food to wipe out its match mate.

None of these ideas is particularly esoteric, and they can help you with the kind of wine choices you make at any time of year, spring, summer, fall, or winter. No season holds any special problems, except for editors who want a “timely” story, whether it’s new or useful or not.

There are more such almost self-evident notions that will help guide your wine and food pairings. They’re not rules, just useful guidelines – a few principles to keep in mind while you’re thinking about whether your chicken cacciatore will match better with a Soave or a Chianti Classico. I even wrote a book about this “problem” many years ago, if anyone is curious. The Right Wine, I ironically called it (which taught me never to trust a reviewer’s ability to grasp irony.)

The Right Wine was a project that taught me a great deal about matching food and wine, and I’ve been working on that skill ever since. I’m happy to say that on looking at the book recently, I’ve found its principles still valid and useful, even if some of the particular examples it treats are dated. These handy little white and red wine wheels that I designed to illustrate some of those principles will give you a sense of what’s in it. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Neat, huh? As one of my favorite authors immodestly said on rereading his earlier works, “Gad, what a genius I had then!”

Cornas is probably the least known of all the Rhône wines. Yes, you pronounce the final S. Its zone is tiny, close to the smallest in France – 155 hectares, I think. There are single Bordeaux estates larger than that; Margaux, for instance, has 250 hectares. But if you love Rhône wines, and especially if you love the wines of the northern Rhône, you know – or should know – Cornas. The 100% Syrah wines made there stand among the great red wines of France. And this tiny appellation has a roster containing an extraordinarily high percentage of top-flight producers.
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Despite that, Cornas is a classic case of “no one’s paying attention.” André Dominé’s authoritative tome Wine scarcely mentions Cornas. Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes (while tying itself into ampelographical and etymological knots over the ancestry of Syrah and the origin of the grape’s name), in its almost exhaustive roster of where the variety is grown, doesn’t mention Cornas at all.

Conspiracy theorists can undoubtably discover a deep, dark plot here, but I don’t think it’s anything more sinister than the overwhelming reputation of Cornas’s nearest neighbors and rivals in Syrah: Hermitage and Cote Rôtie. Even Crôzes-Hermitage, sharing as it does the magic name, gets much more attention than Cornas. Those appellations simply use up all the space that writers and critics can allot to the northern Rhône.

(Most readers would be shocked to know how much the tyranny of page count and column inches affects the information that gets to them. I won’t go into the misinformation conveyed by fresh-out-of-college editors who know more about everything than writers who have many years of specialized expertise. Good editors are a treasure, bad ones a disaster, for both writers and readers.) But my focus here is the wines of Cornas, not the tribulations of wine writing.

The vineyards of Cornas are all steep and rocky. There’s nothing but granite on those slopes, and nothing but Syrah in the vineyards. This is a grape that can in other places make very peppery, very aggressive, sometimes even coarse wines. But here along the Rhône river, on the hillsides just south of the town of Vienne, Syrah often shows its best, giving wines with their fruit moderated into suavity and complexity, with a capacity for great bottle age and concomitant evolution.
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A Clape Cornas Vineyard

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I had the good fortune, many years ago, to make my first serious acquaintance with Cornas on a wine trip to the Rhône sponsored by Sopexa. We happy few journalists visited the then-already-legendary Auguste Clape. His wines were the pace-setters for Cornas quality, a position they continue to hold under his son and grandson, who now manage the vineyards and cellar with the same passion and precision he did. I have loved the wines of Cornas ever since that visit.

The major change that has occurred in Cornas in the decades since – besides the fact that I can no longer afford Clape’s wines – is that his example has stirred emulation in many other producers, so that now there is a whole cadre of excellent winemakers in this small appellation. That includes not only negociants like Jaboulet but also small producers such as Allemand, Verset, Balthazar, and of course Clape.

It was a Jaboulet Cornas – a 2006 – that we enjoyed the other evening with a dinner of a Poulet Marengo (recipe from Robert Courtine’s classic The Hundred Glories of French Cooking). This is a dish whose simplicity belies its delicious complexity, and it elicited the best from our mature bottle. A nose of blackberry, prune, and bramble preceded a palate of similar but more mature flavors. The wine was completely smooth in the mouth – none of the pestiferous Syrah aggression – thoroughly balanced and restrained. It finished very long indeed, all leather and plum.
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Lovely as that match was, the Cornas had been even better with the warm, cheese-rich gougère that preceded the chicken. There the wine showed itself even deeper and more velvety, so pleasurable that we almost hesitated to go on to the main course. There was even a tiny taste of pepper in the finish, just to remind us that this elegant wine really was a Syrah.

Over the years that I’ve been writing about wines, the red wines of Italy have gradually assumed their rightful place among the world’s great wines. It’s pretty generally acknowledged now that Italy has three noble red varieties – Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico – and one great red wine of process, Amarone. There are probably more than that: Italy is a cornucopia of indigenous varieties, but for the moment, those three grapes and Amarone stand as Italy’s contenders for the crown of greatness. Of them all, Aglianico is probably the least known inside and outside Italy, though that is changing steadily as its finest avatar, Taurasi, claims more and more respect with every harvest.

 

Taurasi Grapes

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It’s almost certainly not news to even casual readers of this blog that I have long admired the Taurasi produced by the Mastroberardino family. For me, every bottle of their Taurasi I open is a time trip, a summary review of the history of Campania’s greatest red wine, and Campanian wine generally, since WW II.

Those wines have a much longer history than that, of course. The vineyards of Campania felix – Campania the blessed – were the Côte d’Or of the Roman Empire, and many an emperor and senator thought as highly of them as Napoleon ever did of Gevrey Chambertin. More than a millennium after the fall of Rome, under the Bourbon kings, the wines of Campania were still famed. It was only with the Bourbon kingdom’s defeat by the Savoy dynasty – an event known to history as the Risorgimento – that the south and its wines went into decline, a process that was for all practical purposes finished off by the phylloxera and WW II.

That’s where the modern history of Aglianico and Taurasi begin. For many years, that history has centered on the work of the Mastroberardino family. Their winery in Atripaldi was the largest and most up-to-date in southern Italy, and the family held the line on quality, resisting both the pressure to make lots of wine fast, and the pressure to plant “international” varieties. Indeed, because of the Mastroberardinos, Campania was saved for native Italian varieties. It now has the smallest acreage of French grapes, and the highest percentage of indigenous varieties, of any Italian wine region. Whether it be Taurasi you’re savoring, or a regional Aglianico, or a Greco or Fiano or Falanghina, it was the Mastroberardinos, under the leadership of the now almost legendary patriarch Antonio, working side by side with his brother Walter, who ultimately made that possible.
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Mastroberardino Vineyards

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As the family made a success of this enterprise, others took notice. Not only did new investment begin to flow into the Campanian wine sector, but also many growers who had previously been content to sell off their grapes (often to Mastroberardino) began to vinify and bottle under their own names. A rising tide floats all boats, and for a few decades now the tide of profit and prestige has been steadily rising for the wines of Campania. I think that the wines now emerging from Campania felix are the best they have ever been – though, obviously, I am not quite old enough to personally verify that.

I can, however, vouch for the quality of the bottle of Mastro’s 2006 Taurasi Radici that I opened with dinner a few nights ago. 2006 was a good vintage in Campania – a substantial touch above average, let us say, but not a great, off-the-charts vintage to set critics agog. This bottle was not a riserva or a cru: Rather, it was the kind of wine that Mastroberardino regularly produces.
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Would that every winery everywhere worked to such standards! It was gorgeous. Ravishing. Velvet in the mouth, with scents and tastes of dark berries and forest undergrowth, with lovely minerality, and an exquisite balance of acids and tannins and alcohol, and still an underlying freshness that indicated it would have had years of life before it if I hadn’t greedily drunk it now.

Call it infanticide: I don’t regret a single droplet of it. Who knows how many amphorae of their beloved Falernum the winos of the classical ages drank too young? Posterity hasn’t indicted them, and I can hope to get off with as little pain, and as much – or more – pleasure.

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Livio Felluga is a highly respected name in Friulian wine, and rightly so. Since the middle of the last century, at least, the family firm has been at the forefront of quality wine production in Friuli and a leader in raising the quality of — and calling worldwide attention to – the varietal wines of Friuli, especially the white varieties...

Tocai – now called Friulano – was the native variety that first drew the wine world’s attention to Friuli. The Felluga family championed it, and I can still recall my pleasure at sipping its almond-inflected goodness, way back when I first encountered it, longer ago than any of us would care to recall.

Livio Felluga

I remember with equally deep pleasure my first press visit to the Felluga estate, tasting the whole range of its white varieties while listening to Livio, the principal winemaker, delivering a non-stop monologue of carabinieri jokes that had us all – even those who spoke no Italian – in stitches. I briefly wondered whether anyone so funny could possibly make great wine. He could, and he did. The Italian wine world was rich in such multi-faceted characters in those days.
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Terre Alte was Livio Felluga’s great invention. First produced in 1981, it was from the start – and still remains – a blend of three white varieties in pretty much equal proportions: Friulano, Pinot bianco, and Sauvignon. All are grown in some of the best and highest fields – thus the wine’s name – of the firm’s great Rosazzo property, where the soils are a complex of marl and decomposing sandstone.
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Felluga’s Rosazzo Vineyards

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While there is obviously some slight variation from vintage to vintage, Terre Alte has maintained a pretty consistent character right from its start: It’s a big wine, round and full in the mouth, with great aromatics – minerals and flowers, white fruits and forest scents – and a highly complex, mineral-inflected palate marked by notes of apricot and tropical fruits. With all that, Terre Alte also ages very well, growing subtler and deeper as it does. This is a world-class white wine, from one of the best sites and best producers in one of the world’s great white wine regions.

Just recently I opened a bottle of the 2007 Terre Alte to match with Diane’s beautiful dish of braised chicken and morel mushrooms in cream. I am not a great chicken aficionado, but I thought this combination of flavors and textures was wonderful – and the Terre Alte thought so too.

The wine was a lovely copper-gold color. I don’t know whether it was the power of that visual suggestion, or whether this vintage was an example of the ramato style that used to be more common in Friulian whites, but the very floral nose was marked by a distinct coppery edge that I found very attractive. In the mouth, the wine was big and round, balanced, with fine acid. Minerals and flowers and dry white fruits dominated the palate, with dried apricot notes becoming more and more prominent as the wine opened.

This was a very nuanced wine: nothing blatant, but lots of intriguing flavor hintlets and that persistent coppery edge. And it had one final surprise: with cheese, it suddenly felt very clean and fresh, as if it had shed years of aging.

If only wine writers could do the same. Sigh.

Portugal has as long a history of winemaking as any country in Europe. Unfortunately, most modern wine drinkers know it for only one wine, Port – a special niche wine if there ever was one. The best Ports have an almost cult following, but most winos consider them as heavy, super-sweet, and old-fashioned – think quaint pictures of vineyard workers still crushing grapes by foot, and Victorian vicars passing carafes of old Port along with their cigars.

While the foot-stomping for Port still occurs, many other aspects of Portuguese winemaking are much more up-to-date. This tiny country may harbor as many indigenous grape varieties as Italy, and many of its producers are moving as fast as they can to reclaim its once sizable share of world wine markets. In rural districts, you can still see the occasional oxcart on the road, but nowadays you’re just as likely around the next bend to happen on large, temperature-controlled, stainless-steel fermenters and wineries with well-equipped, up-to-the-minute testing and laboratory equipment.

Portugal’s wine output is tremendously varied, and I haven’t the space – or the current knowledge – to survey it all. What I want to talk about is one great producer, the acknowledged master of Bairrada – which is both the name of a district and the Portuguese equivalent of its DOC. That’s Luis Pato, and the grape that makes his wines is Portugal’s indigenous Baga.
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Baga is a difficult variety: Some producers say impossible. In Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson’s brief entry on Baga describes it as a “controversial, demanding Portuguese variety capable of making great, ageworthy wines.” It can, she says, “make the best of wines and the worst of wines.” Much depends on whether the growing season stays dry long enough for Baga to reach full ripeness. Short of complete ripeness, its tannins can be brutal. But in the best vintages, Baga makes a wine that may be austere in youth but matures into a rich, fascinatingly complex mouthful of flavors that range from forest floor through a whole bowl of fruits to tobacco and smoke. These are amazingly long-lived wines, and can go on for years at their peak of flavor.
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A Baga vineyard in Bairrada

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Luis Pato is the master of this kind of Baga. A no-nonsense kind of guy, he recently withdrew from the Bairrada DOC because he couldn’t stand all the politicking it involved, so his newest releases no longer say Bairrada anywhere on the label. I was lucky enough just a few months ago to be able to buy, at a quite reasonable price (don’t ask), a small cache of 2000 and 2001 vintages of some of Pato’s bottlings. He does several, each representing a different vineyard: He even bottles one, called Quinto do Ribeirinho Pé, with grapes from a pre-phylloxera vineyard. I had the good fortune to taste this 30 or so years ago, when I visited Luis Pato – its intensity is still vivid in my memory – but I have never seen a bottle of it here in the US (and probably couldn’t afford it if I did).

What I did recently acquire was his 2001 Vinha Barrio and 2000 Quinta do Moinho, both for me rarities and treasures.
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As my regular readers will know, I’m very skeptical of the value of tasting notes (they’re true for one person, one time, under a set of peculiar circumstances), but I can’t resist giving you my reaction to the Quinta do Moinho:

Big big big!  Lots of semi-soft tannins. Black currants, berries and coffee in the mouth (coffee in the nose). Only 12.5% alcohol, but it feels much bigger – not hot, but mouth-filling and complex. Long coffee/berry finish. A fine, quite distinctive wine. Served with a risotto of mushrooms, onions, and Spanish chorizo. The cheese course (Pont l’Eveque and Taleggio) brought up all the wine’s sweet fruit – cherry/berry, quite fresh. This wine seems to have decades yet to go.

In discussions of Pato’s wines, you sometimes run across very esoteric comments comparing his Bagas to Bordeaux wines, with finely nuanced arguments for their more greatly resembling Cabernet-based left-bank wines or fruitier right-bank wines. I don’t see that at all: these Baga wines seem to me distinctive, quite different in character and flavor from French, or Spanish or Italian reds.

That distinctiveness was reinforced for me on an evening when we paired lamb chops and chanterelles with Pato’s 2001 Vinha Barrio. That vineyard has been since replanted, but when this wine was vinified, the Barrio vineyard was Pato’s oldest: head-trained vines, ranging between 80 and 100 years of age.

They yielded another extraordinary wine. It felt huge in the mouth despite a modest 13% of alcohol, and it had a heady aroma – tobacco, coffee, pine duff, multiple forest and forest floor scents. All these also showed up on the palate, plus – to my total surprise – apple and other white fruits!  With the lamb, it was all polish and depth: dark fruits, tobacco, dried berries, especially black raspberry.

Old vines can almost always surprise: here, a mature nose combined with a very fresh palate – in all, a wine of intriguing paradoxes, tasting to me nothing like any Bordeaux wine, much less any Barolo, to which it is also often compared. Pato’s wines are sui generis, and a very distinguished genus it is. I think you can see why, despite my distrust of tasting notes, I needed to present these to give you some sense of the complexity and caliber of Pato’s wines.

Gilbert and Sullivan said it best, if ironically: “There is beauty in extreme old age”* – both mine and wine’s. Well, maybe my beauty is arguable, but the beauty of old wine is certain. I offer in evidence the bottle of 1979 Caparone Cabernet that Diane and I drank at home one evening recently, alongside a French-style dinner of salade de géziers confit followed by squabs crapaudine.

This wine – 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Maria Valley, Tepusquet Vineyard – was a marvel. The winemaker, David Caparone, sent me the bottle some years ago, and I put it aside for an occasion or a dinner appropriate for it. This one seemed right.
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When I first pulled the cork, the faintness and delicacy of the aroma worried me a little, even though it was very pleasing. Might it not have lasted as long as 43 years? The worry disappeared as soon as I poured the wine. Its aroma opened, and even more striking, its color was grand! Still a crystalline garnet, with scarcely any visible orange edge, despite being, as its label says, “unfined and unfiltered.” It looked like a wine half its age.

I won’t give you a mouthful-by-mouthful account of our dinner: It’s enough to say that that Cabernet gracefully accompanied every dish. (See Diane’s account of the squab dish here). On the palate, it showed mature California Cabernet fruit – no youthful boisterousness, of course, and nothing “in your face,” but also none of the pruniness of mature Bordeaux Cabernet.
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Santa Maria Valley vineyards

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The best description I can say is that it was vinous in the richest and most profound senses – medium-bodied but mouth-filling, composed and serene, seemingly open and self-evident, yet rewarding the slightest attention with constantly shifting nuances. Near the end of the bottle, it grew sweeter, as if its fruit were intensifying – a very lovely ending for a memorable bottle. Need I say that this is great winemaking? Thank you, Dave.

Now, I admit that I may not be aging as splendidly as that wine did, but I had the inestimable advantage of being able to drink it. No small pleasure of age is that I can now consume, at leisure and thoughtfully, the wines I accumulated when they were young and affordable, and I was still toting that barge and lifting that bale.

Way back then, when I was bit by bit picking up the knowledge and experience to start making sense of wine and my life, my palate ran to young wines, fresh, lively, up-front. Those are fine, and I can still enjoy them, but only gradually did I learn how much more there was to wine, not to mention to life.

Now I savor wine more slowly, more contemplatively, with far greater sense of its nuances than my younger self perceived. That’s true too of my life, now that I understand what my younger self was working toward. Without any real awareness of it, I was buying time, and it’s the best investment I ever made. That’s what age gives you: the ability to appreciate one’s own hard-earned savvy and a wine’s slow-matured savor. We old geezers know things our younger selves never imagined, and we enjoy things that still lie outside the scope of young wine drinkers (and I mean both young drinkers of wine and drinkers of young wine).

That’s the beauty of extreme old age – both mine and the wine’s. It’s a preternatural youth who knows at 18 everything s/he might know at 80 – but there are an awful lot of young people (of every generation, to be sure) who know at 18 all they’re ever going to know: “wine spritzer” people, not capable of long keeping or contemplation. I wish all my readers very long keeping and deep contemplation, and the wines to go with them.

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*  There is beauty in extreme old age.
….Do you fancy you are elderly enough?
….Information I’m requesting
….On a subject interesting:
….Is a maiden all the better when she’s tough?
…………………………..The Mikado