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.

Prosecco and Champagne: Tasting Beyond the Bubbles

August 7, 2017

I have been enjoying both Champagne and Prosecco for many years now without ever thinking of making a direct comparison between them. I had, without a lot of thought about it, consigned them each to its own niche: Prosecco light and pleasing and sort of frivolous, Champagne a more serious wine for more important occasions. But I was brought up short recently by an innocent question from a wine civilian about what really was the difference between the two.

I had started giving the stock answer about the different grapes that each is made from, when I realized that in fact I had never drunk them side by side so as to be able to give the answer that my civilian friend was really seeking – the differences in how they taste and how that affects what one ought to drink them with. Not a glaring omission, you might think, except that that kind of side-by-side comparison is exactly what my first book, Mastering Wine, is based on and is what I have always believed is the best basic method of learning about wines. Color me embarrassed.
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To make up for that slip, and with Long-Suffering Spouse as a willing collaborator, I put together a tasting of a representative Prosecco and a representative Champagne designed to explore the two thoroughly: first, tasting alone in the classic clinical way; then with two stages of a dinner – first as apéritif alongside caviar, then alongside a main course of sautéed soft-shell crabs. (No one says a wine tasting can’t be a little self-indulgent.) It would be understatement to say the experiment was very interesting. You can read Diane’s account of the foods here.
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To keep the playing field as level as possible, I wanted to use readily available wines. Ideally, I would have liked them to be similar in price, but that proved impossible. No Prosecco in my local markets came anywhere near the price of most Champagnes, so I availed myself of an Astor Wines sale on sparklers to buy Nino Franco’s Rustico at about $15 and Pol Roger’s Brut NV at about $38. That’s close to standard price for the Prosecco and a very reasonable price for the Champagne. Rustico is a DOCG Prosecco Valdobbiadene, which is one the best zones for Prosecco, but it’s Nino Franco’s basic bottling. (The firm makes others, including a brilliant vintage bottling that is capable of great aging, but none was available locally.)  The Brut NV is Pol Roger’s most basic Champagne, so in that respect there was no tilt in the playing field, but I’m afraid the difference in price between the two wines definitely provided one.

So what did the tasting show me? Visually, there’s not much difference between them, both a pale gold, the Champagne a shade darker. Both had lovely fine and persistent perlage, despite the fact that the Rustico was made by the Charmat method and the Pol Roger had the benefit of the full méthode champenoise (not topics that I can go into here).
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The aromas showed more differences. The Rustico was yeasty smelling, hinting of fresh bread, while the Pol Roger was a tad more intensely bready, hinting of toast. Both were pleasing and inviting.

In the mouth, the Rustico tasted light and fresh, with floral and fruity notes, and specific suggestions of apple, while the Pol Roger showed more wheat and less fruit (though hints of pear popped up), by comparison seeming even a little austere on the palate and in the finish. The Rustico finished long, with a touch of elegance polishing its freshness.

This direct comparison was very instructive. Of the two wines, the Prosecco seemed the more direct and – I considered two words here – simple or honest. It was more obviously fruity, though we’re talking about nuanced fruit here, not in-your-face jam. It struck me as more immediately enjoyable, less demanding of attention or analysis. The Champagne seemed less direct or accessible – more intellectual, so to speak. It seemed weightier, more imposing. (The Prosecco had 11 degrees of alcohol, the Champagne 12.5.)

I deliberately used white wine glasses, not flutes, because I wanted to taste the wines and not just the effervescence. As the two wines sat for a while in the glasses and their sparkle faded, the fruit of the Prosecco showed better, while in the Champagne the winemaking came to the fore.

I would say that with neither of these wines is fruit the point. It’s an attraction, of course, but sparkling wines are a contrivance, and the point of the contrivance – at least in my opinion – is lightness and pleasure first and everything else after. Obviously there are outer limits of how much lightness and how much or little of anything else is desirable, and every winemaker and every drinker has to decide what those are for themselves.

Nothing I tasted in this match-up pushed me to prefer one wine over the other. Both offered high levels of pleasure of slightly different kinds, but in fact the two wines surprised me by how similar they were. And those similarities persisted with different foods, both wines tasting equally satisfactory in their own ways with caviar and blini and soft-shell crabs on toast.
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Each dish called up the Prosecco’s light, fresh fruit and the Champagne’s relatively greater weight and depth (the latter, I am certain, the result of being vinified from a blend of grape varieties rather than a single one). So there were no knock-outs or TKOs, just two excellent contenders of very slightly different weight classes, each performing in character in a variety of circumstances. As old carnival barkers used to say, ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice.

I could certainly have gotten more dramatically different results by choosing different wines – Nino Franco’s impressive vintage Primo, for instance, or Pol Roger’s always wonderful Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill – but I wanted to get as near parity in my selections as I could. Likewise, other palates making the same comparisons might come to different conclusions or perceive greater differences than I did. All I can tell you is what I tasted, and urge you, if you’re curious, to make the comparison for yourself.

Wine and Health, Wine and Happiness

July 27, 2017

My current physician says that the definition of an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor does. A friend of mine – a wine lover, of course – told me of his encounter with a French doctor some years ago when he lived briefly in France. At his check-up, he was asked, “Do you drink?” and he answered “Yes, wine with meals.” The French doctor impatiently brushed that answer off: “No, no,” he said; “I mean, do you drink?”

I know many American doctors who drink, and more than a few who love wine. Nevertheless, the overall attitude of our medical establishment toward drinking anything seems decidedly negative. The past few years have seen a spate of mostly contradictory news stories about the effects of wine drinking on health. I’m not sure the research behind those stories was fully understood or accurately reported in the first place, and I have serious questions about the validity of a lot of it, but the general take-away seems to be “red wine may be good for your heart, but all drinking is bad for you.” Ergo, abstinence is best.

Over 40 years ago, when I briefly belonged to an HMO, and before my activity as a wine journalist dramatically increased my everyday wine consumption, a newly minted MD told me that I had to stop drinking immediately, that alcohol was a poison, and that I was already showing signs of liver disease. Well, I’m still here, and whenever a new physician asks whether I drink, I’ve taken to answering “Yes, a lot,” because by what seem to be the standard measures I should have perished of cirrhosis long ago.

Alcohol as poison acts as an embracing category that makes no distinction between wine and spirits, or between beer and spirits, or between any of the above and pure alcohol. This, of course, fails to take into account the circumstances of consumption, and it totally disregards differences in individual capacities and reactions to alcohol: The ounces of alcohol you swallow are the only thing that matters. To that, I can only say: Piffle! – which is as scientific an answer as it deserves.

This is inescapably a very subjective topic, because I can speak with authority only about what I know first-hand, and that is largely myself, so bear with me, please.

I never drink alcohol, ever. I drink wine, the best wine I can lay my hands on, and I drink it with food, the best food I can find, and I take great, great pleasure in it. I don’t get drunk, but wine with my meals enhances my life enormously – and I personally believe quite firmly that being happy is very good for my health.

Have you ever wondered why happiness is never mentioned in medical conversations?  That absence points to a blind spot in the scientific literature, because happiness is not (at least not yet) a scientific category, not yet a subject of medical research. Let’s hope its moment will come soon, because talking about the medical implications/repercussions of wine drinking (and many other things, to be sure) is totally incomplete without it. The individual, the subjective, the idiosyncratic – everything that generalizing science dismisses as anecdotal – is crucially important in talking about drinking (especially drinking wine, I would say) and its effects.

Beyond that: Drinking wine with food is not at all the same phenomenon as consuming alcohol. We all know that cookery is a sophisticated form of chemistry – humble rice and humble beans in combination create a complete, nutritious protein – and serious winos know that wine changes food and food changes wine – but are there any scientific studies of the chemistry there and what healthful consequences it may have? Not that I know of, though I’d be happy to hear about them. But those wonders won’t be found until somebody looks for them. From a lifetime of literary and historical research, one thing I know for sure: Answers precede questions. People find what they’re looking for – and if all they’re looking for is poison, that’s all they’ll find.

Most of the medical advice that I’ve read about drinking seems to me equally blind. The US government’s current guidelines recommend a daily maximum of 10 ounces of wine for men and 5 for women. This distinction is bolstered by an array of allegedly blanket biological differences between the sexes. How valid can that possibly be, given the vast difference in individuals’ (of either sex) metabolisms and capacity for food and drink? That’s stupid on many counts: My wife is as tall as I am, and loves wine as much, so I should give her half a glass of wine for every one I take? That’s the road to divorce for sure. Ten ounces/five ounces is a gross generalization, a one-size-fits-all formula that ignores everything about wine drinking except its possible harm.

In my opinion, the happiness that wine can create should at very least be weighed against any harm it may cause, and individuals have to decide for themselves where their balance lies. I know that if I had to choose between a possible extra year or two of life with no wine and boring food (please pass the fiber, dear) and, on the other hand, a possibly sooner death, with wine and food pleasures and all that flows from them intact, I have no doubt what I would choose, and I think I would have so chosen any time these past 40 years. Until medicine can factor the happiness quotient in its diagnoses, I will remain a skeptic and what dour old St. Paul (“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake”) called a winebibber. Long live (I hope) the winebibbers!

Cartoons from Le Vin, © HA ! Humoristes Associés, 1980

 

The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina

July 17, 2017

Out grocery shopping one scorching hot day last week, Diane and I overheard a guy explaining to his obviously out-of-town friend, “Every year we have two nice days here in New York. We call them spring and fall.” It’s true: We endured an endless, dismal winter, had one lovely day, and all of a sudden it was blazing summer.

Just as suddenly, I found myself craving well-chilled white wine, and lots of it. No news there – except that I just realized that I have never really talked about my favorite white wine for all-purpose summer drinking, Falanghina. Definitely time to do it!

Falanghina has become quite popular in Italy and has had some success here in New York, but I don’t know that it has penetrated very deeply into the collective wine consciousness beyond that, so I’ll start at the beginning.

Falanghina is the name of the grape and of the wine made from it. It’s native to Campania, and once was the white wine of Naples, until it fell victim to the two catastrophes of phylloxera and World War II. Most people don’t realize how belatedly – compared to France – phylloxera entered Italy: It wasn’t until the late 1920s and early 1930s that it reached Campania. Shortly after that, many of the men who would have replanted the vineyards were called into the army. Many didn’t come back, and those who did found devastated and overgrown fields and no money available to revitalize them.

Many farms and vineyards were abandoned, and those that continued were faced with steady pressure to grow a lot of grapes, quality be damned, and to replant with international varieties rather than indigenous ones. We still don’t know how many ancient varieties disappeared forever during those years, but fortunately many survived. One of those hearty natives was Falanghina.

It fell to one far-sighted grower to revive Falanghina. Leonardo Mustilli has to be numbered among the handful of devoted winemakers who, like the Mastroberardino family, stood against the flood tide of international grape varieties to champion Campania’s native wines. Starting in the late sixties/early seventies, he made Falanghina his project, working with a few other growers and the support of several Neapolitan government departments to locate and propagate the vines and to promote the wine they made. Thanks to his efforts and the grape’s own vivacity, Falanghina once again became the ubiquitous quaff of Campanian restaurants and homes.

The reason is not far to seek. Almost everyone who tastes Falanghina enjoys it: It combines light, white-fruit flavors (some say stone fruits) with a touch of citrus and mineral, the latter often intriguingly forward because of Campania’s mineral-laced soils. It drinks delightfully, whether lightly or heavily chilled, and it’s enjoyable young but can take a few years of bottle age with no loss of character. On top of all that, Falanghina is inexpensive: Prices range between a bottom of $10 or $11 and an absolute top of $30, with the vast majority of bottles – including some of the best – clustered at the bottom of that range, between $10 and $20. So with all that, what’s not to like?

There are now many producers of quality wines in Campania, and the great majority of them produce at least some Falanghina. I can’t claim to have tasted them all, but I have tried many, and I’ve been struck by how many of them turned out to be perfect textbook Falanghina. I don’t know whether the grape is just very compliant or whether the growers just like working with it, but from the consumer’s point of view, that’s a win-win situation. Here are some of my favorite producers, starting with

Mustilli, the progenitor of modern Falanghina, then

Villa Matilde, whose founder, Francesco Paolo Avallone, was also a pioneer of Falanghina in the Monte Massico zone, and then

Mastroberardino, patriarchs of traditional-varietal winemaking in Campania, and

Terredora di Paolo, the other branch of the Mastroberardino family, and just as deeply embedded in the whole history of Campanian wine.

After these – alphabetically, not qualitatively – many other producers have turned their attention to Falanghina, often with wonderful results:

Astroni
Di Meo
Donnachiara
Feudi di San Gregorio
Fontanavecchia
Grotta del Sole
La Guardiense
La Rivolta
La Sibilla
Masseria Felicia
Ocone
Sorrentino
Venditti
Villa Raiano

These producers are scattered over several of Campania’s wine zones, and their labels may not all say “Falanghina.” For instance, Villa Matilde’s and several other producers’ labels may say “Falerno del Massico Bianco” – but it will still be Falanghina, and very satisfying drinking.

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A Geekish Digression

There is one complication in the saga of Falanghina’s success, and I think it’s a minor one. Falanghina has turned out to be not one variety but two distinct ones. That’s ampelographically distinct, not palatally: Both species have always been called by the same name and grown in neighboring provinces of Campania, where no one realized they were different grapes, and where they have been drunk more or less interchangeably for years.

Some people claim to be able to perceive a difference between the recently differentiated Falanghina beneventana and the far more widespread Falanghina flegrea – the beneventana is supposed to be a little fatter and fruitier than the more acidic flegrea – but I’m not one of them. Too many variations of soils and cultivation and winemaker’s choices make consistent identification of the two grapes on the palate next to impossible. So here we have a classic distinction without a difference – but probably some day meat for a good argument among geeks and wine snobs.

France’s Least Known Great White Wine

July 6, 2017

Unique is probably the most overworked word in the whole wine lexicon, but if there is any wine it really fits, that’s Savennières. If you don’t know this Loire rarity, it’s time you made its acquaintance. This is an intriguingly paradoxical wine: both austere and opulent, with a set of aromas and flavors that instantly separate it from all the Chardonnay- and Sauvignon-based white wines you’ve ever tasted. Those flavors grow more intense and more distinctive as it ages, and it is a white wine that can age very long indeed.

I had promised Long-Suffering Spouse no wine visits on our Loire vacation, but one of our shore excursions included one. Ironically, we went off to this visit not even expecting it: The description of the morning’s attractions didn’t mention what for us turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip, a visit to the Domaine du Closel/Chateau des Vaults, a premier estate in the tiny Savennières appellation.

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The Savennieres zones lies just southwest of Angers, on the north bank of the Loire – one of the most precarious places in France to grow grapes. Most of the zone is hilly, affording lovely views of the Loire valley from the tops of the vineyards, the best of which lie on south-facing slopes about 100 meters above the river. It’s the soils that give Savennières its character. At Domaine du Closel, for instance, the best sites have a thin layer of topsoil over bedrock of slate and quartz, which forces the vines to send their roots very deep into cracks and runnels seeking nourishment. That kind of stress can make great wines, and in Savennières it does so quite often.

Evelyne de Pontbriand, the proprietor and winemaker at Domaine du Closel, walked us up the steep slopes to view the vineyards. These immediately adjoin those of Nicolas Joly, for some years now the most famous name in Savennières. It was breezy up there, and the vines grew fairly close to the ground – not more than two-and-a-half to three feet tall, as I recall.

A biodynamic grower, Mme. de Pontbriand in her brochure describes her soils in loving detail: “They are shallow, very warm and consist of purple and green schist, purple sandstone enriched with volcanic rocks (quartz, phtanites and organic matter).” I’ve visited many vineyards, and I can vouch that that qualifies as a very complex bed for vines.

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I should say vine, not vines: In Savennières, there is only one: Chenin blanc. This is not a variety highly regarded in most of the wine world, but on the banks of the Loire – most usually the south bank, I grant you – it yields lovely wines, ranging from dry and charming to sweet and magnificent. Most of those come under the Vouvray appellation. Savennières forms Chenin blanc’s greatest dry expression, a wine of tremendous complexity and great aging potential. I have been lucky enough to drink a few twenty-year-olds that still live in my memory for their vibrancy and depth.

The tasting that Mme. de Pontbriand provided after the vineyard tour didn’t extend to older wines, unfortunately, but it did include all three of her bottlings:

La Jalousie 2014, her base wine, a relatively early-harvested (to preserve the fruit and acidity) wine with a greenish-gold hue, dry and light with a touch of elegance. This shows a muted version of Savennières’ distinctive flavor spectrum. It is a drink-every-day wine, with – Mme. de Pontbriand insists – an extraordinary aptitude to marry with asparagus and artichokes, which certainly shows just how different a white wine this is.

Les Caillardières 2013, a wine of deeper gold coloration and deeper aromas and flavors. I sniffed pears and baked apples and mineral notes, with similar elements emerging on the palate. Already somewhat complex and elegant, this wine seemed to want a few more years to develop further.

Clos du Papillon 2015, the top cru, which Mme. de Pontbriand regards as “one of the most beautiful expressions of Savennières.” I won’t argue with that: Even this young, I found it very elegant and complex, with unduplicatable floral and vegetal aromas and flavors – almonds and apricots, lemons and nuts and flint – a whole potpourri. De Pontbriand says “The Clos du Papillon is harvested in two selections: The first selection during the « fresh fruit aroma » period and the second one later with some botrytis during the « cooked fruit, quince and smoked aromas » period. Both selections are put in barrels and assembled 16 months later. The wine then remains a few months in vats.”

We purchased two bottles of the 2006 Clos du Papillon on the spot, and last week opened one to accompany a dinner of turbot in the sauce beurre blanc that the Loire had failed to give us. The wine was so good that I seriously regret not throwing away half our clothes and filling the suitcase with bottles of it.

It tasted indefinably spicy on the palate – woodruff and star anise, maybe – with a vigorous herbal/vegetal attack and with minerals present but secondary; a wine totally different from the Chablis one might be tempted to compare it to. It had clay and earth aromas in there too, but not stone, and as it warmed, dry honey came up, even distinctly acacia honey; I think that’s the touch of botrytis speaking. It was a very big wine, but not at all fat: the finish in fact was very long and lean. As I said at the start, Savennières is paradoxically austere and opulent, and this bottle fit that description perfectly. I plan to get more of it, and hope to live long enough to drink it when it matures.

Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines

June 26, 2017

I’ve just enjoyed eight days of lazily cruising up and down the Loire between its mouth at St. Nazaire and Bouchemaine, the river’s farthest navigable point for a vessel the size of our paddlewheeler, MS Loire Princesse. In wine terms, that’s a journey through the winebibbing home of Rabelais. We journeyed upriver, into the heart of vinous lightness – from the land of the Melon de Bourgogne, which makes Muscadet, and into the realm of the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. These, usually alone but sometimes with other grapes, make a whole range of light to medium-bodied wines, mostly named for the places they’re grown – Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur, Vouvray, etc.
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This was not, however, a wine trip. It was a vacation. I had promised my Long-Suffering Spouse no wine tastings, no vineyard visits, a complete break from all that. I hadn’t promised not to drink wine, however, an activity LSS heartily approves of, so we enjoyed the Loire Princesse’s plenty throughout our long sunny days and protracted evenings on board. I hadn’t really registered how far north the Loire lies: Daylight lasted until around 10 pm every day.

Now, the Loire Princesse isn’t one of those floating apartment buildings that ply the Med or the Caribbean: It’s a small – 90 passengers – shallow-draft sidewheeler specially designed to navigate the difficult waters of the Loire, which is often wide and shallow, with multiple channels, all prone to flooding at some seasons and going almost dry at others.
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So the ship doesn’t have huge storage space, and its wine offerings were consequently distinctly limited. They were, however, reflective of the region we were sailing through, and the simpler ones were included in the basic trip amenities and always generously poured. Some better labels were available for purchase at very reasonable prices. Moreover, they matched very well with the cuisine of the cruise. Best of all, in the true Rabelaisian spirit, they were enjoyable wines in themselves and very efficient reminders of the affability and adaptability of Loire wines.

I confess that I often forget about Loire wines. That is really unfortunate, because they are, by and large, genuinely enjoyable and very affordable. There are only a handful of really great ones, but there is an abundance of delightful wines that tend to get lost in the frantic search for Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator 90-pointers. Most days, with most meals, I would much rather drink a superior Chinon for $30 or less than an inferior Bordeaux for the same price or more.

The Muscadet appellation has several regional subdivisions. The one we most often encounter in the US is Muscadet Sèvres et Maine, which is what the Princesse was offering: 2015 Château Cassemichère Muscadet Sèvres et Maine sur lie. “Sur lie” means the wine was allowed to remain on its lees until bottling, a practice that gives normally lean Muscadet a bit of depth and roundness. The Cassemichere was a typical Muscadet, a light white wine with small citrus and mineral notes, very clean and fresh.
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There is a lot of Muscadet on the US market, and most of it is like this wine, simple and enjoyable but in no way distinguished. There are, however, a handful of outstanding Muscadets, either because of the character of their soil and microclimate or the care of their producers, or both. Some I have enjoyed include Domaine de la Pepière, Domaine de l‘Ecu, Bregeon, and Louvetrie. Bear Muscadet in mind the next time you’re serving any shellfish: It’s usually inexpensive, and the crustaceans and the wine seem to love each other.

The Muscadet zone is very consumer-friendly: There is essentially one appellation and one grape variety. The red wine zone of the middle Loire, upstream from Nantes and the Muscadet country, is only a little more complicated. There are several appellations, but just one dominant variety, Cabernet franc. Forget anything you may know about this grape from its appearances in Bordeaux: the Cabernet franc of the Loire is a completely different animal – softer, fruitier, with more enlivening acidity and fewer abrasive tannins. In very good harvests it can age for a decade or more, but most years it makes a much more accessible wine to drink relatively young. Loire reds show elegance and gentleness more than power or depth: They are for me perfect summertime red wines, companionable with all sorts of food, intensely satisfying and accessible, never confrontational. If you’ve forgotten that a red wine doesn’t have to be up in your face to be impressive, you need to try some Loire reds.

The main appellations for them are Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, and Saumur. Of these my favorite tends to be Chinon, which I find slightly more elegant, slightly more intensely varietal, and slightly more age-worthy. On shipboard, we drank 2015 Domaine Olivier Bourgueil, 2014 Clos de Perou Saumur Champigny, and 2015 Clos de la Lysardière Chinon.
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I grew quite fond of the Chinon, which had delightful fresh fruit and enough depth to match well with the chef’s fondness for wild mushrooms and complex sauces. Other good Chinon producers include Domaine Couly-Dutheil and Domaine Philippe Alliet.

The Loire Princesse didn’t stock any Vouvray, which disappointed me, because this charming white wine, vinified from the Chenin blanc grape in the middle Loire, in its driest forms makes an excellent dinner wine. I can recommend Domaine Huet and Domaine des Aubusières and the Cuvee Silex of Vigneau-Chevreau.
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All in all, the valley of the Loire remains still what it was for Rabelais, a soft and pleasant land teeming with palatal pleasures. It served as a healthy reminder to this wine journalist that a wine doesn’t have to be profound to be estimable or powerful to be enjoyable. I hope all your vacations are as delightful as mine was.

Next post: France’s least known great white wine.

The Lure and Lore of the Loire: Vacation Time

June 8, 2017

By the time you see this, oh courteous and bibulous reader, I will – airlines and computer systems and terrorists permitting – be cruising up the Loire from Nantes to the château country, through Muscadet land and into Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur, and Vouvray land.
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With any luck, I’ll have some insights and discoveries to pass on to you in about two weeks. Ainsi nous esperons, eh?