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The protagonist of Martin Walker’s mystery series, chief of police in a small Périgord town, is known to me as “Bruno, Chef de Cuisine,” because he spends as much time cooking as he does detecting. My beloved spouse, who consumes mystery novels the way other people eat candy, has needless to say noted this aspect of the stories and has in fact re-created for her blog several of Bruno’s feasts.

Most recently, she and her co-conspirator Hope put together one such dinner that required serious white wine accompaniment. That, of course, became my problem, and problem it was. Neither my household supply nor my local retail shops provided the sort of very localized Périgord wines that Bruno delights to serve. I had to be creative and find some that I hoped would be equivalent wines to match with Bruno’s – and Diane’s and Hope’s – dishes. You can see the details of the dinner in Diane’s blog. The wines I chose to accompany it were a Mâcon blanc, a Condrieu, and a Savennières.
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My first problem was that the author was not entirely helpful in talking about Bruno’s wines. He described only two bottles, which I can’t imagine would have been sufficient in kind or quantity for the variety of dishes and number of guests. His first wine was a Château du Rooy Bergerac blanc, a blend of to-me-unknown-percentages of Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Insofar as this was served as an apéritif with a splash of cassis – a kir – it presented no difficulties. All I needed for that was a good basic white wine, not too fruit-forward and with decent acidity, so almost any well-made simple white Burgundy would serve well. I had on hand a nice 2019 Mâcon-Villages from Michel Barraud that fit the bill perfectly, and made a beautifully refreshing kir to accompany a warm summer afternoon’s cooking.

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The same wine, minus the cassis, seems to have served Bruno as the first dinner wine, and this presented a bit more of a challenge. Bruno’s wine would have had a distinctive, spicy character, with – I’m guessing because he was serving it with foie gras – suggestions of sweetness without any actual sugar presence. Condrieu, with its rich Viognier character, suggested itself, and I was lucky enough to have lurking in my “cellar” a bottle of 2016 Condrieu La Chambée from Les Vins de Vienne.

Condrieu is a tiny appellation, and this wine is sourced from just two hectares of vineyards at different spots within it. It’s 100% Viognier, laboriously farmed on steep and rocky slopes above the Rhône by three devotees who make up the winery.

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The wines of Condrieu are famed for their complexity, depth, and distinctive combination of minerality and spicy fruit in the nose and on the palate. All that makes it a natural choice to accompany foie gras, exactly the sort of wine I think Bruno (or Martin Walker) would have chosen. Ours did not disappoint: Indeed, it made us aware how far short of foie gras our otherwise fine pâté de campagne fell. Memo to self: get more Condrieu, and above all, find some foie gras.

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Our third wine presented the greatest challenge of all: The only other wine mentioned at Bruno’s dinner (a gift from his guest the Baron) was from Vignobles Les Verdots, again a white Bergerac, vinified from approximately two-thirds Muscadelle and one-third Sauvignon gris. The producer’s website, not very modestly, says of it:

This wine figures among the great white wines of France. Rich, spicy, with mineral and fruit notes on the nose, a whiff of smoke and lightly toasted too. The palate is generous in aromas and flavor, with good body, minerality, well-balanced and exceptionally long. It is also elegantly packaged.

This bottle would have been served with Bruno’s main course of braised chicken in a wine, tarragon, and cream sauce. Now there’s a challenge!

I had a wine that, mutatis mutandis, might fit that description, but I’ve had it around for a while and I was beginning to worry about its soundness: a 2003 Coulée de Serrant Savennières from Nicolas Joly. I decided to give it a shot.

All Savennières wines are special: They originate only in a tight little zone of steep hills in the middle Loire, where the Chenin blanc from which they are exclusively vinified reaches heights of flavor and depths of character attainable nowhere else.
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Coulée de Serrant Vineyard

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Also, Savennières ages remarkably well, growing deeper and more profound for many years – though I was more than a little nervous, given the deficiencies of my storage, whether I might have gone too long with this particular bottle.

Another also: The winemaker, Nicolas Joly, is a bit of a wild man. The most famous grower of the zone, he was the first there to go biodynamic, and he did so with a vengeance: natural fertilizers spread by hand from cow horns on nights of the full moon – that sort of thing.

Nicolas Joly

So my bottle of Savennières was sure to be memorable: the question was whether that would be for good or for ill.

Appearances didn’t answer that: a very dark, old gold color didn’t tell us anything. The nose, however did, and the news was good: exotic aromas, of earth and mineral and woodruff and dried cranberry (yes!) indicated the wine was very much alive. The first taste confirmed it, the same elements as in the nose wrapped in a silken package, smooth on the palate, leaving an impression of great suavity and a finish that went on and on.

A totally distinctive wine, that not only went beautifully with our version of Bruno’s chicken dish but also made me wonder how it would taste with good bloc foie gras. Must get some foie gras! Bruno is a very lucky man, with his seemingly endless local supply.

 

Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, the seventh selection of my 12 special wines for 2021, has been a spectacular wine from the get-go. Back in 1975, the then-21-year-old winemaker created it outside the existing Friulian wine categories, from his own imagination and what his grandfather had told him about older Friulian ways of making wine.

Post-World War II, Friulian winemaking had become resolutely monovarietal. Many grape varieties were grown – especially white varieties – but they were always harvested and vinified separately to make 100% varietal wines: indigenous varieties like Tocai (now called Friulano) and Verduzzo and Picolit, as well as international (read French) varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. Friuli was a paradise of single-variety white wines.

Jermann’s grandfather told him about an earlier tradition: field mixes of several varieties and blended wines. Jermann was intrigued: He had visions of wines of greater complexity and far greater longevity than most of what he saw around him. With brashness and luck – and talent – he followed his own instincts, and in 1975 gave the Italian wine world what may well be, after over 40 years, its finest white wine: Vintage Tunina.
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This was and is a harmonious blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc (usually close to 80%), with the balance composed of Malvasia, Ribolla gialla, and Picolit. The exact percentage of each variety may vary from vintage to vintage, but those five have remained all along. And all along, Vintage Tunina has probably garnered more Tre Bicchieri, Cinque Grappoli, and paeans of praise than any other white wine in Italian history.
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Jermann Vineyards

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Back in November of 1998, at my first Salone Del Gusto in Torino, I attended a nine-vintage vertical tasting of Vintage Tunina: 1997, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1990, 1989, and 1987, ending with 1982. That last was a wonder vintage all across Europe, an opening salvo of global warming, bringing amazing ripeness to the grapes and major problems to farmers and vintners, who had never dealt with such heat before. I think of it as the first harvest of the new weather patterns, and hence a highly significant vintage to close a significant vertical tasting.

Because Vintage Tunina is both so important a wine and probably the least well known to wine drinkers of my chosen 12, I’d like to present a synopsis of my notes on that tasting, as a way of demonstrating what Vintage Tunina is all about.

1997.  Recently bottled and so fresh it seemed almost frizzante, but round and mouth-filling, with generous apple-and-orange fruit and a very long finish. An impressive, substantial wine.
1995.  Same as the ‘97, just a bit older and more emphatic. Medium gold color.
1994.  Color deepening to dark gold with green highlights – very attractive. Nose more earthy, with dried apricot scents appearing. Bigger and more mouth-filling on the palate, with apricot and mango fruit flavors. The finish seemed endless.
1993.  Slightly different one. Abundant spice – cinnamon and woodruff especially – over dried pear, in the aroma and on the palate. A lovely wine, still youthful and fresh. They get nicer and nicer!
1991.  Gorgeous: Dried pear on the nose, rich and spicy; dried pears and cinnamon on the palate. Big, yet light-feeling, mouth-filling but not cloying; still fresh and invigorating, with its muscular structure becoming evident.
1990 and 1989.  Vintages firmly announcing the arrival of climate change in northern Italian vineyards. Wonderful spicy aromas – dark dried pear tones prominent – and mature deep fruit flavors. Sapid, with exceptionally long, drying finishes.
1987.  Had developed further in the direction of ‘89 and ‘90, with the big structure coming more to the fore.
1982.  That first hot-weather vintage that caught so many winemakers off guard, and a wonder. So many green highlights in its dark gold that it almost looked electric. Still fresh and livelily acidic, with white fruits dancing on the palate. Only the smallest traces of really evolved flavors: could easily mature for another decade.

Which brings me, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, to my present wine, a 14-year-old Vintage Tunina of the 2007 harvest. It hardly makes sense any more to talk about vintage quality with Silvio Jermann’s wines: Whatever the growing conditions, he makes great wine, and the very hot 2007 growing season seems to be no exception. Why I have put this wine away and not tasted it until now should need no explanation: It’s just a wonder that I’ve been able to keep my hands off it this long.
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So: Diane prepared a simple, luxurious dinner to taste my wine against – a foie gras mousse (bought, not made) to start, an elegant braise of veal with morels and cream for the main course, and just a taste of cheese to finish. Each course brought out a different facet of the incredibly complex wine.

But first things first. Color: This ’07 Vintage Tunina was dark amber gold, with only a few scattered green highlights. This might lead you to think the wine was oxidized, but one whiff of its intriguing deep and complex aroma would dispel that thought. On the palate, it was delicious and profound. Not a big rush of fruit, but very fresh and youthfully vigorous: It tasted as if it had years to go yet. Many layers of many flavors – honey and dried peaches or apricots, with underlying mineral and even metallic elements, copper for instance.

The mousse emphasized the wine’s harmony and depth. The veal and mushrooms minimized its minerality but foregrounded its honey and fruit components. The cheese brought back its minerality. Overall, as it opened in the glass, the distinctive taste of its small amount of Picolit – the peculiar smoky tang of grapes lightly touched with pourriture noble – came to the fore and persisted right into its very long finish. What a complex wine! What a pleasure to drink!

White Wine Weather

By now it’s news to no one that white wine weather has arrived. Heat and humidity reign here in the Northeast, and in other parts of the US the weather is much worse, running from extreme drought to extreme storms. The last are probably not alleviated by white wine, but otherwise, summer heat can always be countered with a chill, pale glass of a dry, lightly fruity, refreshing white. Today, I’m celebrating two that help me through the dog days: one from the north of Italy, Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner, and one from the south, Salvo Foti’s Etna Bianco Aurora.
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Abbazia di Novacella Kerner
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The Abbazia di Novacella may be the northernmost winery in Italy, seated up at the top of the Adige Valley in what used to be the German Sud Tirol. It is also a working monastery and a tourist site of some repute, with gorgeous baroque buildings and libraries, and lovely mountain views. My geography is a little weak, so I’m not sure whether those mountains count as eastern Alps or western Dolomites, but they are impressively high, and the Abbey’s vineyards lie on their lower slopes.

The grape Kerner is hardly a household name, even among ampelographers. The variety was created in Germany in 1929 from a deliberate cross between Riesling and the variety known in Italy as Schiava grossa (Vernatsch in German). At one time Kerner was widely planted in Germany, but those acres have dwindled, and the German-speaking territories of what is now Italy seem to be its last stronghold. It has never had a large presence on the American market, but I can speak from sorry experience when I tell you that there currently seem to be several very mediocre bottlings of Kerner available, so watch out.

The Abbazia’s version is a very long way from mediocre: Light-bodied and charming, with a little zing of Riesling fruit and plenty of minerality from those mountain soils, it’s a reliably refreshing warm weather drink, versatile with any number of foods. For instance, it dotes – as do I – on prosciutto and figs, and works just as happily with shellfish and white-fleshed fish – the kind of foods we all eat more and more of as the solstice passes and the warm weather stays.

Incidentally – and because it would be criminal of me not to mention this – the Abbazia’s premium version of Kerner, Kerner Praepositus, is one of Italy’s great white wines. It has more heft than the “simple” bottling, but no less charm. Neither version is expensive, especially not for their quality: Careful shopping can find you Kerner for around $20, Kerner Praepositus sometimes under $40.
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Salvo Foti Etna Bianco Aurora
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Aurora presents a very different story. It grows on mountain slopes too, but those of an active volcano, Etna, in Sicily, just about as far south as you can get within Italy’s borders. It’s made by Salvo Foti, one of Etna’s leading exponents. For years, he was the head winemaker for Benanti, a pioneer of Etna viticulture and champion of its indigenous varieties. Aurora is his fantasy name for a blend of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella, both traditional varieties in that corner of Sicily but neither very widely grown – Minella hardly at all – anywhere else.

Aurora is a bigger wine than Kerner, and a touch more expensive – but it is every bit as fruit-and-mineral-propelled. Its flavor is complex and its fuller body indicates a primary role as a dinner wine. As such, it is superb, adapting to everything from fish and shellfish through chicken, pork, and veal.

I have also found that slowly sipping a glass of Aurora while cooling down after too much time in the sun is an intensely pleasurable experience, so I wouldn’t hesitate to rank it also in that exalted Italian category of vino da meditazione. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it’s always worth your attention, and I’m happy to drink it anywhere, anytime.
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Let the heat waves come: I’m ready for them.

 

June is a special month for us, containing Diane’s birthday and our anniversary, separated only by D-Day. (Make of that what you will.) And Gruaud Larose is a special wine for us, holding long associations with celebrations past and friends we shared them with.

Just one example: Eons ago, our friends Pat and Fernand had us to stay with them for a week at their apartment in Paris, and to repay their hospitality Diane and I took over their kitchen and made a dinner featuring the first bécasse (woodcock) any of us had ever cooked or eaten. The wine we drank with this brave endeavor was a 1953 Gruaud Larose, one of many memorable tastes during that altogether memorable evening.

You can see why it was easy to choose the June wine from among my special cellar selections for 2021. After more than a year of having our spirits depressed by Covid, I wanted a wine that would remind us of joyful times and help us start renewing them. So Gruaud Larose it had to be.

Those are the sentiments that lay behind my choice. Behind them lies a very estimable wine, a second growth Saint Julien, a property that, although it has had many different owners over the years, still occupies almost exactly the same fields it did when it was classified in 1855. It’s a substantial property, even by Bordeaux standards: 87 hectares in vines. That’s well over 200 acres, divided into roughly 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, about 8% Cabernet Franc, plus a small amount of Petit Verdot and a smidgeon of Malbec. Those vines yield a formidable wine, which some critics describe as rough and even rustic in its youth, but capable of fine aging and development.

My previous experience of older Gruaud Larose vintages gave me great hopes for this 1975 bottle. So too did the eminent Clive Coates’s assessment of the vintage, in his classic book The Wines of Bordeaux: Vintages and Tasting Notes 1952-2003.

Very good color. Rich, full, fat and ample on the nose. This is very promising. Fullish body. Vigorous. Very good tannins and grip. No astringency. A meaty, quite solid wine. Long, rich and satisfactory. Plenty of life ahead. Very good indeed.

At that time, Coates rated the ’75 Gruaud 17 out of 20 and suggested its drinking window ranged from “now” to “2008+.”  Diane’s birthday dinner would test just how much beyond 2008 that plus sign would allow.

For the meal itself, we recapitulated one of the best dinner main courses we’d ever made for ourselves: fabulously lush Tournedos Rossini. Our first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise, another big, rich dish, so we matched it with a big, rich Champagne, Pierre Brigandat’s brut NV. This grower’s blanc de noirs loved the intensity of the scallops, enveloping them in a complex web of dry, dark berry-and-mineral flavors – a delicious match of food and wine.

The stage was thus set for the Gruaud Larose to strut its stuff – and strut it did. Coates was very right about the wine’s having “plenty of life ahead.”  The color was dark and even, and the first whiff of the aroma gave a generous rush of ripe, dark, mature berry, followed by mushroom and leather. The flavor followed suit: not quite meaty, but mouth-filling and multi-layered. Lovely in itself as the wine was, each bite of food – whether the beef, the foie gras, or the Madeira-reduction sauce – called out another element in it. And for all its complex, mature flavors, this 1975 Gruaud Larose still felt fresh and live. It showed no sign of tiredness or of approaching the end of its life – which is always an excellent thing for a wine at a birthday celebration.

We don’t have many bottles of Gruaud Larose left – certainly no more ‘75s – but you can be sure that what we have will be reserved for very special occasions, moments when Diane and I need to be reminded that, as Gilbert and Sullivan so wryly put it, “there is beauty in extreme old age.”

Just a few days back, Diane and I prepared a nearly-down-home dinner for two friends who share our tastes for simpler foods and nicely aged wines. The evening’s secondo was a giant braciole – a butterflied flank steak stuffed with prosciutto, parsley, garlic, raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, egg, and grated cheese; browned in olive oil with onion, celery, and carrot; then braised in wine, broth, and its own good juices.
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That’s a lovely, homey dish, and the wine I matched with it shared those qualities: a 2004 Barbaresco from the Produttori del Barbaresco. Not a cru wine, not even a riserva: just the basic Produttori bottling, which had been living in my far-less-than-perfect storage for lo! these many years.

It was ambrosial.

Here’s what its back label — back labels are generally the abode of medical warnings and wine misinformation – says:

Made entirely from Nebbiolo grapes, Barbaresco is a wine of great complexity and elegance that is well suited for long ageing. Aromas of black cherry and violet combine with spicy notes to create its distinct taste, supported by firm tannins and a long finish.

Not a syllable of misinformation there: That description is spot on.

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It was not simply the multiplex flavors of the wine and the way they meshed with our meal that was so impressive, but also its perfect balance and maturity. It wasn’t huge and forceful, but medium-bodied and supple, ready and willing to engage any food we might match with it. Those are to my mind and palate classic Nebbiolo characteristics, beautifully expressed in the impressive 2004 vintage, and captured perfectly by the many growers of the Produttori.

 

Produttori del Barbaresco is probably the best wine co-op in any wine zone in the world. It has the advantage, of course, of its zone and its native variety:  It would be hard for some other chunk of the wine world to equal the quality of either Barbaresco or Nebbiolo. But the success of Produttori is the result of more than that. It’s a combination of the devotion and care of its growers and the canny direction provided by its long-time manager, Aldo Vacca.

Vintage after vintage, for over 20 years now, Vacca has with great discernment channeled the grapes the growers bring in through all the stages from fermentation to bottling, making the choices of which should be separated for cru bottling and which for classic Barbaresco, and which should be put aside for extra aging and riserva designation.

You can appreciate the difficulty of that task, and the palatal acuity and enological knowledge it demands, when you realize that Produttori’s growers work vineyards in every one of Barbaresco’s nine prized subzones – Asili, Montefico, Montestefano, Muncagotta, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo – each of which possesses a different character that yields a different wine. I’ve found it impossible to think which I like best (though if absolutely pushed I might lean towards Rabajà in the greatest years and Montestefano in merely excellent ones).
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I’ve been lucky enough, at varying times, to taste several different vintages of all these wines with Aldo Vacca, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic distinctions among them are fascinating. I can only admire the kind of knowledge Vacca has, to distinguish the characteristics of very young wines so as to judge which should be blended with which, or which will reward the solitary splendor of a cru designation.

That’s the kind of expertise that created my simple ’04 Produttori Barbaresco and all the pleasure it gave us. That’s the kind of expertise, exercised on the wonderful Nebbiolo fruit of the Barbaresco zone, that makes every bottle of the Produttori line a fine wine bargain. That’s not a statement I would be willing to make about many other wineries, however esteemed.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Vallana’s wines, and I was very much looking forward to tasting this bottle of the 2009 Campi Raudii, which I’d selected as one of my 12 special wines for 2021. There are many reasons for that.
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For one, I find the zone from which the wine originates a fascinating one. It is literally sub-Alpine: It lies in the shadow of Monte Rossa, a peak in the Italian Alps. Its high altitudes and varied soils and exposures produce a Nebbiolo grape very different from that grown in the more famous, more southerly, Barolo and Barbaresco zones. Up near Lake Maggiore, the variety is known as Spanna, and the wine it yields, while less robust than its southern cousins, seems even more elegant, more beautifully structured, and more delicately fruity. It’s usually quite enjoyable from its youth, but most Spanna-derived wines are capable of long aging and intriguing development. I’d like to call it a natural connoisseur’s wine, but that once-honorific word is probably the kiss of death in these fake populist times.

Another reason for my interest in this bottle is that I’m curious to see how the Vallana wines are developing, now that they are crafted by a team of young folk, the siblings Francis, Marina, and Miriam, guided always by their mother Giuseppina.

Giuseppina, Marina, Francis, and Miriam (a few years ago)

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When I first encountered Vallana wines, decades ago, they were made by the present generation’s grandfather, Bernardo, who was famous for the quality and longevity his bottles achieved. Burton Anderson, in his landmark book Vino, waxed ecstatic about the man and his wines, emphasizing the uniqueness of both. That is a formidable heritage to live up to, and I really wanted to see how well the new generation now responsible for cultivation and vinification was measuring up.

And for one more reason: Unlike all the family’s other wines, which carry various DOC appellations (e. g., Gattinara, Boca, Colline Novarese), Campi Raudii is called only Vino Rosso, a designation the family opted for so they could have one wine with which to tinker and experiment, free of strict variety regulation. Not that they appear thus far to have done anything very radical – but more of that later.

For this highly anticipated bottle, Diane prepared an imposing Porterhouse steak, and our Greenmarket conveniently provided the first of the season’s local spinach and, even better, the first of the season’s morels.

The latter are always a special treat, and stand in my estimation as high in the fungus world as Nebbiolo in the grape universe. Morels, chanterelles, porcini, and truffles: That’s the seasonal fungus calendar. All delicious, and at least three of them still within a human price range – as are, it is important to note, all of Vallana’s wines.

So: That, with a few good cheeses to finish, made up the simple, tasty, and substantial meal for my almost-12-year-old Campi Raudii to accompany. Which it did, very felicitously. Diane and I were struck by how very gentle the wine seemed as it interacted perfectly with the meat-sweetness of that succulent piece of beef, the herbal sweetness and acidity of the fresh spinach, and the woodsy savoriness of the mushrooms.

We were also struck very strongly by the wine’s freshness, which Diane perceived as tasting of currants and I of raspberry: a wave of light, delightful fruit atop a mature wine’s acid/tannin balance. This Campi Raudii was an extraordinary wine, clearly with years, perhaps decades, of life still before it.
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In an email, Marina informed me that 2009 was a classic vintage in her area, with no extremes for the vines to deal with (unlike the hot 2011 vintage or the cold 2014). Vallana usually vinifies Campi Raudii in a very traditional manner for the Alto Piemonte, as a Nebbiolo and Vespolina blend – about 20% Vespolina, Marina says – fermented in cement. Most of it was bottled without ever seeing any oak, and released young. Some was held back and aged briefly in old oak, and then bottled and labelled as a library release.

I’ve had my bottle stashed away for some years, and it’s not called a library release, so I presume that it’s a sample of the cement-fermented, unoaked wine – which makes its balance and freshness and vitality all the more impressive. This is minimal-intervention winemaking at its best. It just seems that Nebbiolo grown in the Alto Piemonte has an aptitude for long and graceful life, and Marina and her family have an aptitude for expressing it.

And that answers in a strong affirmative all the questions I had about Vallana’s wines. They’re still great, and the kids are doing just fine. Bernardo would be proud.

Marina and Francis (now)

I’ve always been partial to underdogs. When I was a kid, I was the lone Brooklyn (yes, Brooklyn) Dodger fan in a very large family of Yankee fans – and even the misery that that entailed couldn’t cure me of my fondness for long-suffering hind runners.

It was almost inevitable, then, that when I started getting seriously interested in wine (which back then always meant French wine), I found myself drawn to the seemingly least estimable of the famous Bordeaux wines. Of the five great Médoc appellations – Graves (as it then was), Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estèphe – only Saint Estèphe doesn’t have a Premier Cru estate. In fact, despite being the second largest of the crus, it has only five classified growths: one fifth growth, one fourth, one third, and two seconds. That’s a paltry showing compared to neighboring Pauillac’s three firsts, two seconds, and large handful of lesser growths.

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Saint Estèphe’s wines were often condescendingly referred to as slightly rustic and inelegant, and usually compared, to their disadvantage, to the wines of Pauillac. One could come across even esthetic sniffing about the “false orientalism” of Cos d’Estournel’s pagoda towers. I always thought there was a sort of double standard at work here. It is probably true that the wines from many of Saint Estèphe’s small estates have a less polished, more artisanal character – which I regard as an attraction – than those from the great Premier Crus, which are pretty great in size as well as reputation and price. But no one ever said a word about the scale of winemaking at Château Margaux or Château Lafite, whose respective 81 hectares and 103 hectares bring their winemaking close to industrial-scale production.

But that’s really beside the point. Even those who belittle Saint Estèphe as an appellation usually make an honorable exception for Cos d’Estournel and for Montrose, both quite evidently superb wines. I love them, of course, but I am also very fond of many lesser names from the commune: Calon Ségur, Cos Labory, Lafon-Rochet (this now becoming very fashionable), Meyney, Phélan Ségur, and especially Châteaux de Pez and Les Ormes de Pez. The last two are among my favorite wines, and I’ve written about my enjoyment of them before (here and here). But they are classified only as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, below even Fifth Growth – a lowly enough designation to keep the wines’ prices well below their true worth. Tough luck for them, fine for me. Sometimes supporting the underdog pays off.

 

Saint Estèphe is the northernmost of the five great appellations, and its soils are supposedly more varied than those of the other zones – though anyone visiting the peninsula on which they all (except Graves) lie will be hard put to see any very significant variation in soils or altitudes or exposures. We are far from the mountains here. The major variations from estate to estate are due to the field mix – just what quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted and fermented – and to the winemaker’s aims and skills.

Decades of being dismissed as negligible wines kept the prices of almost all Saint Estèphes very low and discouraged any serious investment of time, effort, or cash in the vineyards and cellars – all of which, of course, contributed to the perpetuation of their low reputation. The wine boom of the past 40 or 50 years has changed all that, and more and more good wine is being produced everywhere. That is emphatically true in Saint Estèphe, where I find the quality of the wine being turned out by many formerly neglected properties is steadily rising. This underdog may not yet be ready to take Best in Show, but it is clearly showing better and better all the time.

Another melancholy post, another great loss to the Italian wine world.  Just a few weeks ago, Pio Boffa, the owner and driving force of the Pio Cesare winery, died of Covid. He was a very young and lively 66, and his totally unexpected death came as a great shock to everyone who knew him.

Some of my colleagues have already posted fine memorials of Pio, notably Alfonso Cevola and Tom Hyland, but I needed a little time to adjust to his departure. I will keep this contribution short and personal.

Pio was one of those people you couldn’t imagine ill, much less deathly ill. It had never occurred to me that I might outlive him.  He seemed to have inexhaustible founts of energy. He ran the winery with constant attention to seemingly everything. He travelled frequently (some of us thought continuously) non-stop to all parts of the world, creating or strengthening markets for Piedmont wines wherever he went. He would step off a plane from Hong Kong one evening, return to Alba in the morning, and host a tasting dinner for journalists and retailers that day, all with apparently undiminished energy and a genuine and infectious enthusiasm.
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I’ve known Pio for more than 40 years. We regarded each other as friends – but then, almost everyone who dealt with Pio for more than ten minutes regarded him as a friend: he was simply that kind of guy.  He was deeply Piedmontese in character, so much so that, for instance, the Pio Cesare winery remained faithful to some no-longer-fashionable wines, like Grignolino, of which it must be the last important producer. (If you don’t know Grignolino, you should: It’s a whole other face of the Piedmont, and Pio’s version of it is lovely.)

For all that, I thought of Pio as one of the most Americanized of all the Italian producers I knew. He had a kind of directness that isn’t all that common among winemakers (or anyone else with a product to sell). I loved to interview him about vintages and cellar techniques and the sorts of things that the Consorzio and other winemakers usually gave you very careful, very guarded answers to. Pio just told you the truth as he saw it: he was a no-bullshit guy. Whether that’s typically American, typically Piedmontese, or atypical of both, I’m not sure.

Some early, formative years in California – I believe working with Robert Mondavi – influenced him importantly. He retained from that experience a life-long love of oak, which shows most clearly, I think, in his cru Barolo Ornato, of which he was very proud. For me, with my aversion for wood flavors in wine, it was a subject of frequent disagreement with Pio. He would listen to my objections patiently, and equally patiently explain to me why I was wrong. He knew exactly what he was doing with Ornato, and he believed in it passionately, and I usually saw reason (as he phrased it) enough to grant that, except for the oak notes, Ornato was indeed a superb Barolo.

For all his pride in Ornato, Pio was traditionally Piedmontese enough that the wine he probably lavished the most attention on was his classic Barolo – what others were starting to refer to as their base wine, the traditional blending of Nebbiolos from different vineyards and different communes. Not Pio, though: If you click on the label image to enlarge it, you’ll see the bottom line says e non chiamatelo “base” – and don’t call it “base.” He always insisted that it was a classic – as was he.

Addio, Pio.

Giuseppe Mascarello’s Monprivato is one of a distinguished handful of Italian wines that are rightly spoken of as legendary. Bottled as a separate cru since the early 1970s, Monprivato is easily the most renowned vineyard of the Castiglione Falletto commune, and it is for all practical purposes a Mascarello family monopoly.

To give you some sense of its importance, I can do no better than to quote Kerin O’Keefe, from her authoritative Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine:

The name Giuseppe Mascarello is practically synonymous with that of Monprivato, indisputably one of the very best crus not just in Castiglione Falletto, but in all of Barolo. . . . Mascarello now owns 93 percent of the entire surface area, and they are the only ones to use the Monprivato name on their labels. . . . The vineyard area was already referred to in land registries in 1666, and [Renato] Ratti gave it his equivalent of Grand Cru status on his vineyard classification map [1975].

The Mascarello family have obviously long recognized the outstanding character of the Monprivato site, and they treat its grapes with the attention they so amply reward. The wine is fermented for more than three weeks, with musts constantly and gently pumped over the cap to obtain thorough extraction of color and aromas. Aging is in large Slavonian oak. Monprivato is a very traditionally made Barolo, which in my opinion contributes mightily to its extraordinary depth and longevity.

Its near-legendary longevity was one of the key reasons I wanted to look in and see how my single bottle of 2004 was doing. 2004 was a very fine, in some hands great, vintage in Barolo, but – for my palate – a very forward one. The wines were soft and drinkable from the get-go, with – again, for my palate – extraordinarily approachable tannins, and I wondered how such wines would age. Would they mature at an accelerated pace?  Or would they go dumb for some years, and then resume a normal Barolo pattern of maturation? This inquiring mind wanted to know.

So I stood the bottle up for about a week to allow its sediments to settle; Diane spit-roasted a duck; and we pulled the cork, poured, sniffed, sipped – and smiled. Monprivato lived up to its reputation. Lucky us! It loved the duck: the crisp skin and unctuous fats, the moist, dark meat – all played right into its metaphoric hands.

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The tannins remained soft, but had no trouble dealing with either the duck’s fat or its flesh, and the wine’s fruit just soared, an octave higher than the rich duck flavors.

As many readers of this blog know, I distrust tasting notes (they’re good for one person, one time, under a usually unreproducible set of circumstances), but I do want to give you some sense of what this ’04 Monprivato offered. First, the nose was a classic Barolo mélange of tar, cherry, and roses – just lovely and enticing. The palate was soft, the fruit almost sweet: black cherry interlaced with tar and earth and little hints of strawberry. The overall attack was elegant and the flavor very long-lasting. I’d call it a five-star wine, beautifully structured and still fresh. It’s clearly going to last for a long, long time.

Did it have any flaws? Well, that depends on what you call a flaw. This is a 15-year-old Barolo that gave no hint of white truffle at all. I think I remember that once upon a time, when the world and I were young, 15-year-old Barolos used to give at least small whiffs of the rich scent of white Piedmont truffles, a scent that in its fullness I and many others back then regarded as characteristic of fully mature Barolo. Has climate change so altered the vines’ development that that heady pleasure is now and forever a thing of the past? I sincerely hope not, and not just for my own sake: All wine lovers deserve a sniff of that intoxicating aroma. I hope that all climate change has done is protract Barolo’s maturation, so the white truffle scent will yet come, if we are only patient enough. Speriamo.

I have long been an admirer of the wines of Castello di Volpaia, because Volpaia specializes in what I love most in a wine: elegance. Elegance is easy to say but hard to attain: It’s that taut balance between, on the one hand, fidelity to the nature and intensity of the variety – in this case, Sangiovese – and on the other, lightness on the palate, with a graceful interplay of acid, tannin, and alcohol that makes the wine dance on your tongue.

A few evenings ago, a damp, chilly one (It was March in New York: What do you expect?), Diane and I had made a homely lamb stew – meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans, a pair of small onions, homemade broth for the ingredients to swelter in, not an herb in sight – and to drink with it I opened a bottle of Volpaia’s basic offering, a Chianti Classico 2018.

I expected it to be good, but it way exceeded my expectations. That simple young Chianti was marvelous with the stew and even better with the little taste of cheese with which we finished the meal. It tasted richly of Sangiovese and even more of Volpaia’s high altitude and sandy soils. It was packed with cherry-like Sangiovese fruit, at the same time delightfully light in the mouth, feeling and tasting highly refined and gracious. I was reminded how many times Daniele Cernilli uses the words “refined” or “refinement” in his reviews of Volpaia. If I had to describe this wine briefly, I’d call it classic high-altitude Sangiovese.

Being brief about Castello di Volpaia is difficult, however, because there is so much to say about it. First of all, it’s not a castello, but a formerly walled, hilltop medieval village. Once upon a time it served as a Florentine defensive outpost against Florence’s perennial enemy, Siena. After the 16th century, when peace invaded Tuscany, the walls started tumbling down and the vineyards growing up.

After the abolition of the mezzadria, the sharecropping system that had dominated Italian rural life and kept Italy green and poor for centuries, Volpaia almost became a ghost town, as its population fled the hard country life for better opportunities elsewhere. This is not ancient history: It happened in the 1950s and 1960s. That was a time when houses and vineyards and sometimes – as was the case of Volpaia – whole villages could be bought for very, very little. Not all the sites that then changed hands were so lucky in their new owners as Volpaia.
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Giovanna Stianti received it as a bridal gift when she married Carlo Mascheroni, an architect. The two have made Volpaia, both the town and its vineyards, their life work. They have lavished on both the buildings and the fields the kind of meticulous, loving attention that has earned Volpaia widespread recognition as the best and most beautifully preserved medieval village in Tuscany. The wines are just as highly esteemed: Their Chianti Classico Riserva Coltassella has frequently won Tre Bicchieri since its introduction in the 1980s. Its high rank has remained unchanged even as its legal status, following the evolution of Tuscan wine regulations, has grown from Vino da Tavola to Gran Selezione.

Aside from the careful attention that Stianti has given to the clonal selections, field work, and cellar procedures, there are two other reasons for the distinction of Volpaia’s wines. The vineyards are among the highest in Tuscany: Indeed, the very highest fields lie above 600 meters. And the soil of those fields differs markedly from the Classico zone’s predominant terroirs: It is made up of a lot less clay and a lot more sand and degenerating sandstone. With care in the field and the cellar, that translates into a far less rustic or heavy wine, a wine with a fine structure for immediate drinking, as well as for long life – a happy combination for any wine.

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The felicitous combination of so many special qualities has made Castello di Volpaia a benchmark for me, vinously and esthetically. If travel to Italy ever becomes possible again in my lifetime (!), Volpaia stands very high on the list of places I want to revisit.