Some Fine Beaujolais Crus, Including Drouhin’s New Ones

July 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death Throes of Nebbiolo Prima?

July 7, 2016

In the not too distant past, when it was known as The Alba Wine Event, the annual week-long presentation of new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco to a group of international wine journalists was probably the premier Italian wine occasion after Vinitaly. It was certainly the best organized and most informative of any of them, an excellent opportunity for knowledgeable wine writers to learn in depth the character of each new vintage, as well as to assess what individual producers had made of it.

many bottles

It was always a grueling event: Young Nebbiolo is not an easy wine to evaluate, and its tannins build up over a morning’s tasting to really punish the tongue and cheeks. But 65 to 75 wines, though a lot, were still doable, and the Wellcom agency, which ran the event for Albeisa, the organization of Alba wineries, worked comfortably with journalists to organize visits to individual producers and facilitate the flow of information from winemakers to press.

Then Albeisa changed agencies, the event’s name – now Nebbiolo Prima – and, seemingly, its direction. The first obvious signs were when some long-established journalists, representing traditional markets for Barolo and Barbaresco, weren’t there any more – they hadn’t been invited. Instead, there were many more Asian journalists, representing the hoped-for markets of the future – an understandable strategy, but crudely handled.

More alarmingly, there was also a whole new tone in the  event coordinators’ relations with the press, a tone of almost suspicion, almost hostility. I remember being treated like a delinquent schoolboy trying to get away with something because I declined to attend a dinner – after a whole day of tasting wines and facing more of the same next morning – that I knew was going to involve far too many more wines and would run very late. (I was correct on both counts.)

tasting room

Then Albeisa decided that the future lay not with print journalism but with electronic media – again, probably a correct assessment, but again crudely handled. More of the serious journalists disappeared, and in their stead a host of bloggers began the tastings. Few finished: I’ve reported on this fiasco here. By now, the hostility to print journalists was becoming quite overt: People working on books about Barolo and Barbaresco were given little help, and I know of at least one case where a writer was told that books weren’t that important. O tempora, o mores, eh?

I haven’t attended Nebbiolo Prima in a few years now, but I just read an account by someone who was at this year’s event that makes clear that all the deplorable tendencies I’d been observing have continued, and in fact accelerated. Writing in Jancis Robinson’s Newsletter, Walter Speller describes an event that I would say has careened out of control.

We always tasted blind in Alba, but blind in controlled blocks. Barolos and Barbarescos were presented by commune, with cru wines separated from blended wines. Commune and cru were identified for you, so you knew what rational expectations you might have, though you never learned producers’ names until after the tasting. Now, apparently you taste totally blind, with the wines not arranged in anything other than random order. Why? That cripples any serious journalist trying to sort out the differences or similarities of the wines of the different communes and crus. It simply makes no sense.

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Tasting under those circumstances would be difficult enough, but now the poor attendees start at eight a.m., and they now must taste over a hundred wines before noon – which is as unfair to the wines as it is hideously difficult for the tasters – and then confront a series of afternoon visits and evening dinners that usually don’t return them to their hotels until after midnight, to start the whole round again next morning. I don’t know what Albeisa thinks it’s doing, but this is not hospitality – it’s brutality.

Even more seriously, the random presentation of the wines destroys the validity of the tastings themselves, as far as I can see. If you can’t taste in a group the wines of, say, Bussia cru, or Serralunga commune, how can you possibly form any valid opinion about the vintage or its character?  This is stupidity, and it has destroyed what used to be a great, informative event and turned it into a mere endurance contest, lacking any real point. O tempora, o mores indeed.

nebbiolo prima

 

 

A Name to Remember: Bibbiano Chianti Classico

June 27, 2016

To use a cliché no wine journalist can resist, Tuscany is always in ferment – which is partly why I’ve given Tuscan wines so much attention recently. But also, many of the wines are just plain good, and, while many of those are already well known, others deserve more attention than they’ve been getting. A case that fits all those points is Bibbiano, a 150-year-old, family-owned estate that is making excellent Chianti Classico and conducting some very interesting experiments, as well.

I recently had lunch with Tommaso Marzi, the just-turned-50 proprietor (with his younger brother Federico) of Bibbiano and its very peripatetic face in the world. He is an enthusiast, which in my book is the prime quality needed in anyone working in any capacity in the wine world, and he is very knowledgeable about his vineyards and their qualities. Bibbiano’s fields lie in the western reach of the Chianti Classico zone’s fabled Conca d’Oro, a ridge of splendid soils and exposures that arcs west from Castellina in Chianti toward Val d’Elsa. The Bibbiano estate contains two large swatches of vineyards, Montornello in the northeast and Capannino in the southwest. These are often bottled as separate crus, and Capannino provides the source of Bibbiano’s Gran Selezione.

Marzi at his vineyard

Foreground, Tommaso Marzi; background, Capannino vineyard

For many years, Bibbiano’s vineyards and cellar were under the care of Tuscan doyen Giulio Gambelli, for decades the most respected nose and palate in the whole region. He is credited with keeping Bibbiano in the forefront of traditional Chianti winemaking, and in particular with planting in its field clones of Sangiovese grosso ultimately derived from his days of working with Tancredi Biondi Santi.

Over a light lunch at Il Buco Alimentaria, we tasted an astutely chosen array of Bibbiano’s bottles, which showed both the charms of the young wines and what their older siblings are capable of.

First, Chianti Classico 2014. This was a very pretty wine, blended from all the estate’s vineyards and totally untouched by wood. Fermentation on the skins started in stainless steel and finished in cement vats. All native grapes: 97% Sangiovese, 3% Colorino. Nicely balanced, fresh and lively (excellent acidity), with gentle plum flavors emerging as it opened in the glass. And a good buy, at a suggested retail price of $22.

Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2013 was next. That emerging plum flavor in the basic Chianti was much more pronounced in this wine, which also shared the fine balance of the first. This was vinified entirely from Sangiovese from the 13-hectare northeast vineyards and aged in barriques and tonneaux for 18 months. I didn’t inquire, but I’d guess they were well-used barrels, because I detected no wood or vanilla or espresso – just fine fruit and underbrush scents and flavors in this substantial, very young wine. Also nicely priced: SRP $27.

Then we tasted Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2000, just to see how these wines develop. The answer is, beautifully. 2000 was a very warm year, and the wine, though very much alive, did show signs of the heat in its slightly elevated alcohol. But the key fact is that the wine was live and lithe and enjoyable, which a lot of 2000s aren’t, and it grew more pleasing as it opened in the glass. It loved Il Buco’s fried rabbit, a dish whose paradoxical delicacy and strength could challenge many another wine.

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tdb100x95vignaf.ai

Next up was Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 2011. Made entirely from Sangiovese grosso grapes, this wine originates on a soil rich in limestone in the vineyard that Signor Marzi regards as having the best exposure and microclimate on the estate. Harvested in the second week of October; 25-day maceration and fermentation on the skins; partly aged in French tonneaux and partly in Slavonian oak barrels. This wine seemed very young but already strikingly elegant. An excellent wine, with classic Sangiovese flavors, it has great structure: It needs and will take lots of time. At an SRP of $40, I think it’s a bargain for a wine of this degree of cellar-worthiness. It was probably the wine of the day for me.

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 1995 followed, to make clear just what the potential of this vineyard is. I’ve been lucky enough over recent months to have drunk a lot of 1995 Chianti Classico Riservas (which is technically what this wine is, the Gran Selezione category not having been in existence in 1995), and they have been uniformly wonderful: It was a great vintage, and it is maturing beautifully.This wine was easily one of the best I’ve tasted: a gorgeous tobacco/funghi/cherry nose, lively on the palate, with a similar medley of flavors supported by great acidity – no sign of tiredness at all. Simply a very, very fine Chianti Classico, showing, at 21 years of age, just what a choice vineyard can do.

 

bibbianacccio label

The final red wine of the day was Bibbianaccio 2011. This is an experimental blend, vinified from grapes drawn from all over the estate: 50% Sangiovese, 44% Colorino, and 6% Trebbiano and Malvasia. That’s correct: there are some white grapes in there, alongside that huge amount of Colorino. Fermentation took place in open barrels and included some of the woody stalks. After that, malolactic fermentation and 12 months’ aging in French oak tonneaux, then another 12 months in Slavonian oak botti, and finally 6 months in bottles before release.

I found this wine intriguing: Its fruit was complex, on both the nose and the palate – an improbable combination of berries and apples, tobacco and mushrooms, finishing long and leathery. It had perfect acidity to lighten the weight of all that Colorino. An interesting and different wine, which was all the more haunting because it was also familiar. Here Bibbanaccio is returning in several respects to what Chianti Classico used to be, when the old formula based on the 19th century Baron Ricasoli’s researches was the norm. That formula mandated some white grapes in the blend. Now they are forbidden, and wine using them cannot label itself Chianti Classico: How the world changes! But anyone nostalgic for what Chianti Classico at its best used to taste like will love this wine. I know I did.

 

 

Birthday and Burgundy

June 17, 2016

D-Day has saved me from many domestic embarrassments, because the day before it is Diane’s birthday and the day after it our anniversary, and because of it I’ve never been able to forget either. This year, even though none of that trio amounted to an intrinsically important number, we decided to make a big deal of our family occasions, with Diane cooking some special dishes and me digging out some special wines. And since we’d been lately on a pretty steady diet of Italian – indeed, mostly Tuscan – wines, I opted for something completely different, to switch countries and styles entirely: ergo, France, specifically Burgundy.

You can read about the meals in Diane’s blog: I’ll just say we ate very well indeed, and probably a bit too copiously, but it was an unmitigated pleasure. I want to talk about the wines, which matched wonderfully with Diane’s dishes and were wonderful in their own right. This is what we drank.

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Bollinger Champagne 2004

bollinger

We drank this on both birthday and anniversary, as apéritif with some tiny gougère puffs. That may show a lack of imagination, but those airy little cheese clouds tasted marvelous with that big, full-bodied, austere and elegant Champagne, so – especially since we knew there was much more wine ahead and didn’t want to finish the whole bottle of Bolly the first night – we just reprised the combination 48 hours later on our anniversary. I assure you, nothing hurt. This was a great vintage, and a perfect example of Bollinger’s reliable linking of power and grace.

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Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2004

clos des mouches

This accompanied sea scallops nantaise, a surprisingly rich dish that needed to be partnered with a white wine of the authority of Clos des Mouches. Drouhin’s Clos des Mouches has for decades been one of my favorite white Burgundies, and I think that even with all the respect it customarily receives, it is still underestimated. I would rank it right up in the top tier of white Burgundies, and this 12-year-old showed its breed beautifully with those succulent scallops. It was big, and smooth, and deep, round and complex, with layers of flavor showing themselves in successive waves of nuttiness and butteriness and dried pear. Once upon a time, I could afford to buy this wine by the case: Those days, alas, are long gone, but I have some glorious memories of them. We deliberately stopped ourselves from finishing the bottle, thinking ahead to the rest of this meal and to what Diane had planned for our anniversary dinner.

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Bouchard Beaune Clos des Mousses 1998

clos de la mousse

Bouchard has a monopole of this vineyard, the red-wine twin of Drouhin’s white. We matched it with a pheasant stewed with morels. This was just a glorious combination, cemented by the morels, which mediated between the earthy flavors of the wine and the near-gaminess of the pheasant. This is classic red Burgundy, just mature at 18 years, and showing all the complexity that Pinot noir at its best is capable of. This bottle we finished, with no trouble at all.

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San Felice Vinsanto del Chianti Classico 2006

vin santo

As a small concession to Italy, and also because we didn’t want anything as sweet as Sauternes with the rustic apricot tart Diane had made for dessert, we finished with this lovely not-quite-sweet-not-fully-dry Vin Santo. Vin Santo may be an acquired taste, because it doesn’t fall neatly into the dessert-wine category, but it served ideally here as a refreshing yet far from simple conclusion to our dinner.

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For our anniversary dinner, we repeated the Bollinger and gougère puffs as apéritif, and drank again the Drouhin Clos des Mouches, this time with plates of Bosole oysters on the half shell. Once again, the match was perfect, the mature white Burgundy playing beautifully off the briny sweetness of those small oysters – two of my favorite things. With our entrée, a handsome rib of beef, we drank this lovely red.

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru 2004

chambolle musigny

For me, Musigny is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or, where Pinot noir shows its greatest elegance and nuance. These are rarely big wines, but they are always fascinating, and this one was no exception. We finished it with a little goat cheese and a bit of Brie, and we were very happy that we had long ago committed matrimony.

Fifteen Syllables of Lovely Mosel Riesling

June 7, 2016

I will be the first to admit that I don’t do justice to German wines. I know that many of them are great, and I love Riesling, but I just never drink many German examples of it. Part of the reason is laziness: If you think there are lots of complications to master in Italian or French wine, learning German wines is the real task: hic opus, hic labor est, as the Sybil warned Aeneas before he entered the underworld. But the greater reason is that most German wines don’t match too well with the foods I usually eat. Those want red wines and bigger whites – more force, less delicacy, and less sweetness.

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juffer label

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Having said all that, I have to admit also that I am occasionally surprised by how unexpectedly well German wines can partner with unusual dishes – at least with dishes not in my regular repertory. Case in point: a 1994 Gunther Steinmetz Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Auslese – all 15 syllables and every luscious drop of it – matched with a Madhur Jaffrey recipe for Sri Lankan Fish Curry, a complex dish of many flavors – fennel seeds, mustard seeds, curry leaves, turmeric, red onions, garlic, tomato, and coconut milk, not to mention a firm-fleshed blackfish filet at the heart of it all. Not my usual fare, and not my usual tipple, but they worked splendidly together.

Our friends Bruce and Joan had us over for dinner. Joan has become an appassionata of Indian cookery and she particularly likes Madhur Jaffrey’s way with spices, so the dinner featured a succession of simple, top-quality primary ingredients enhanced by lively chutneys and sauces. We held the venerable Mosel for the main course.

The wine opened sweet on the palate, its mature apricot and dried peach notes picking up and playing happily with the rich herbal flavors and the coconut sweetness of the sauce. Then, as the wine’s acidity asserted itself and it became progressively drier (the finish was completely dry), the emphasis shifted to Riesling and fish, in another and different harmony. The whole interplay of the wine and the food revealed a depth and complexity that was more than a little surprising. All in all, fascinating and delicious, and all the more impressive in a 24-year-old wine from a not-world-famous producer in a not-particularly-distinguished denomination on the Mosel, itself supposedly a source of lighter wines of a certain fragility.

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Middle Mosel map

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Like almost all Mosel vineyards, Brauneberger Juffer is picturesque and dramatic, and so precipitous that working it should be considered a heroic undertaking.  Brauneberg these days isn’t one of the Mosel’s magic names, though in the 19th century it was very highly esteemed. Now it is overshadowed by other sites on the middle Mosel, places such as Piesport, Bernkastel, Wehlen, and Graach. And Gunther Steinmetz is a small family winery, not a famous old ancestral property. Patriarch Gunther some years ago turned the works over to his son Stefan, who has assiduously been raising its profile. Still: The Juffer vineyard is hardly the Clos de Vougeot of Germany – all of which makes the quality and vivacity of this 22 year-old-Riesling especially striking.
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Brauneberger vineyard

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Clearly, I’m just going to have to make a greater effort to learn German wine – and maybe to vary my usual diet a bit.

Tuscan Greatness: Fonterutoli’s Siepi

May 27, 2016

I thought I had written quite enough about Tuscan wine recently, but when Palm Bay Imports invited me to a vertical tasting of Fonterutoli’s wonderful Siepi, I couldn’t refuse, and I can’t not write about it. Great wine is great wine, even when it contradicts my usual bias against French grapes in Italy (as did the two Syrahs I recently posted about).

Journalistically, Siepi belongs to the class of wines usually referred to as Super Tuscans, a designation I and many Tuscan winemakers hate. Technically, Siepi is classified as IGT Toscano, being a non-traditional and very unusual 50/50 blend of native Sangiovese and foreign Merlot. Historically, Siepi is a single vineyard attached to the Fonterutoli property, a beautifully preserved medieval metropolis now buzzing with some 70 inhabitants.
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Fonterutoli borgo

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It was already in vines when the Mazzei family acquired Fonterutoli 25 generations ago, in 1435, and it was already an important enough site to be mentioned by name in registry documents from 1461. Siepi is certainly one of the most historical viticultural sites in Tuscany and probably one of the region’s very best crus – and so not surprising as the source of one of Tuscany’s very best wines.

Gambero Rosso has called Siepi “one of the fifty wines that changed Italy.” I’m not entirely sure what GR meant by that, or which the other 49 are, but the statement does indicate clearly the esteem in which Siepi is held by Italian connoisseurs. Robert Parker said of one of its vintages, “this wine could easily compete with a first-growth Bordeaux.”  For me, that’s comparing apples and oranges, but clearly in his mind that is meant as the highest praise.

Which brings me logically to what I think of as Siepi’s greatest achievement – precisely that it doesn’t taste French, or even international, for that matter. Siepi is immediately recognizable by its acidity and by its own distinctive harmonics as an Italian wine, and a great one – balanced, lively, deep without being ponderous, elegant without losing vivacity.

Siepi_NVI wrestled for a long time about whether it could be described as authentically Tuscan, until I realized I had to expand my notion of what Tuscan style – toscanità – could embrace. If a winemaker or a vineyard can assimilate a foreign grape well enough to produce native-tasting wine, then even though the grape is new to the region it can be regarded – at least, I can regard it – as typical. Merlot lends itself to this, and often – in the right places – complements Sangiovese beautifully. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, doesn’t. Wherever it’s planted, it stubbornly remains Cabernet, and even in small quantities it dominates rather than complements Sangiovese (which is why I continue to be unimpressed by Tignanello and Solaia).

That’s probably more than enough enological rumination for one post. Here are the vintages I tasted at the vertical:

2005: A good but not a great vintage. Separate stainless steel fermentation for each variety, followed by over a year in largely new oak before the Sangiovese and Merlot were blended (this is the standard winemaking procedure for Siepi). The resulting wine offers pronounced Merlot aromas, plus cedar and dry earth, though the Merlot is far less pronounced on the palate, which shows big, soft, mulberry fruit and a long, dried-cherry-and-leather finish. Very elegant, with years of life before it. Very fine, 5 out of 5.

2006: The Mazzei rate 2006 an outstanding vintage, and the wine supports the claim. A very persistent and elegant mulberry and leather nose precedes an equally elegant and balanced, live and fresh wine, dominated by gorgeous Sangiovese flavors. This is a wonderful wine, probably the best of the tasting. 5

2007: Also rated outstanding, 2007 yielded a wine with aromas quite similar to the 2006 but a very youthful, still evolving palate, not yet fully in balance. The fruit still shows side-by-side elements of Sangiovese and Merlot that haven’t yet knit together – but they will, and when they do, the wine will be sensational. Now 4.5

2008: The Mazzei describe the 2008 growing season as only “very good,” compared to the “outstanding” of the two preceding years, but I gave this wine a 5. Mulberry and cherry in the nose. In the mouth, Sangiovese cherry tones dominate the rich fruit and a fine acid/tannin balance. Long, long cherry finish. Already fine, although very young.

2011: An aroma of mulberry and mushrooms, with rich, lively, and very young Sangiovese fruit on the palate. Balanced and elegant, as all these wines are. Now 4.5, though I think this is a vintage of very great promise that I would love to retaste in a few years.

Siepi 20122012: Serendipitously, “a distinctive vintage” (Mazzei) to mark the 20th anniversary of Siepi, though the cold, dry winter and the hot, dry summer produced only half the normal quantity of grapes and wine. A mere 600 bottles have been allocated to the United States. The still slightly closed nose gives earth, black fruit, and funghi. The palate offers big fruit and still firm tannins. This wine needs lots of time, which it will amply reward. It almost scores 5 points already: Call it minimally 4.5

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Francesco MazzeiFrancesco Mazzei, who presented the wines, explained that he wasn’t showing any 2010 – a very much praised year in Tuscany – simply because they didn’t have any left, a fact that speaks volumes about Fonterutoli’s standing among Tuscan wine fanciers. All these wines were top-flight, marked in every case by elegance and balance, and showing no taste of wood despite the use of new barriques. That, and the impressive continuity of style from vintage to vintage, bespeak masterly winemaking. What else can I say? Here the Merlot works brilliantly in cooperation with excellent Sangiovese to produce a wine unique and yet authentically Tuscan.

Rosso di Montalcino 2014: Some Good Wines from a Bad Year

May 16, 2016

The Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio is usually pretty generous in evaluating the quality of each year’s vintage, so when it gave 2014 only three stars (out of five), you can be pretty sure that year was a real stinker. And indeed it was: Cool, wet weather in the spring delayed bud break and continued essentially all summer long. Low temperatures and too much rain encouraged leaf growth but not grape development, and also provided the perfect environment for all the molds and vine diseases that growers fear. Warmer-than-usual days at the end of September/beginning of October helped improve the situation somewhat, but months of damage couldn’t be undone in a few weeks.

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Fuligni Vineyards

Fuligni Vineyards

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Despite all that, I was very pleased with the samples of Rosso di Montalcino 2014 from a handful of excellent producers that I was recently able to taste, thanks to the good offices of the Consorzio. The 10 wines I tasted came from some of my favorite estates, proving once again that the best winemakers can often do well in the toughest circumstances. It’s highly likely that every one of these rossi benefited from the inclusion of vineyards that in better years would have gone into Brunello – but that doesn’t detract from the winemaking skills needed to spin this straw into gold.

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Altesino Vineyards

Altesino Vineyards

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Here, in alphabetical order and rated on a five-point scale, are the wines:

Altesino Rosso di Montalcino: A bright cherry aroma precedes a good black cherry palate, with excellent acidity and soft tannins. Quite nice. 3.5-4

Canalicchio di Sopra Rosso di Montalcino: Dark cherry with woodsy overtones in the nose, similar components in the mouth. Slightly bigger than the Altesino. Very good. 4

Capanna Rosso di Montalcino: Aromas similar to the Canalicchio, palate like the Altesino. Pleasurable. 3.5-4

Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino: Intense wild cherry and sottobosco nose. In the mouth, fine fruit, some elegance, fine balance. Very nice. 4.25

Donatella Colombini Cinelli Rosso di Montalcino: Doesn’t have all the wild, foresty notes of the Col d’Orcia, but even more elegant. 4.25

Fuligni Rosso di Montalcino Ginestreto: Strong black cherry and underbrush aroma. Excellent fruit, good acidity, soft tannins, nice balance, with a long, juicy finish. 4

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Rosso di Montalcino: Scents of cherry and old wood. In the mouth, pleasing cherry sweetness, fine acid/tannin balance. Round and full. Quite pleasing. 4

Lisini Rosso di Montalcino: Bright cherry aroma. Palate very similar to Ciacci Piccolomini. Enjoyable. 4

Le Potazzine Rosso di Montalcino: Very much in the same style as the preceding two wines. Medium-bodied, fresh and lively. Very nice. 3.5-4

Talenti Rosso di Montalcino: Those lovely Sangiovese cherry scents again. Palate follows through. Very long finish. A very enjoyable Rosso. 4

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As you can judge from my comments, these wines all showed classic Montalcino characteristics, no small accomplishment for the growing season, and an indication of how much the zone is capable of when the conditions are right. My usual caveats about tasting notes still hold: These comments were valid for one tasting one morning, and I might react differently to the same wines in different circumstances. That said, I do think that any of these wines will be very pleasant drinking over the next three or four years, and will accompany any but the most exalted dinners.

Col d'Orcia Vineyards

Col d’Orcia Vineyards

Syrah: The Most International Grape?

May 5, 2016

The Syrah grape has probably achieved more prominence in recent years as Shiraz from Australia than it ever did under its own name in its native Rhône valley. However great the wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, they are overshadowed in the marketplace by the abundance of Aussie versions of the grape, and even by a few California renditions. Well, add two more “foreign” Syrahs to the list of winners: Banfi’s Colvecchio and Fontodi’s Case Via Syrah.

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2 labels

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Long-time followers of this post know that I am usually no friend to French grapes in Italy, but even the most dearly held opinion has to bow to evidence (except in politics, apparently, but that’s a subject for somebody else’s blog). The evidence in this case was provided by two successive at-home dinners that sent me searching through my wine closet for something that would match well with, for the first, a provençal-style eggplant quiche, and, for the second, beef short ribs braised in tomato sauce (red wine reduction, mushrooms, celery) almost in the manner of Roman oxtails.

What I came up with was, first, a 1998 Banfi Colvecchio, a 100% Syrah from Montalcino, and, second, a 1999 Fontodi Case Via, also 100% Syrah. The Colvecchio was grown in vineyards in the hot southeastern corner of the Brunello zone, and the Fontodi grew in the fabled Conca d’Oro in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Both bottles had slumbered many long years in my less-than-stellar storage until, at last, the moment for their star turn approached – and quite a turn it turned out to be.

However little it may be known or appreciated in the States, Syrah from the northern Rhône produces some of the world’s greatest red wines – most notably, Hermitage, which George Saintsbury in his famous cellar book called “the most manly of French wines,” and Côte Rôtie, whose name – the roasted slope – tells you a lot about the kind of growing conditions Syrah likes. It remains a surprise to me, for that reason, that California hasn’t done more and better with the variety, especially in these days of global warming.

syrah grape

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Jancis Robinson, in her huge tome Wine Grapes, describes the taste of Rhône valley Syrah this way:

Syrah’s flavours tend to be in the leather, licorice and tar spectrum with marked black pepper or even burnt-rubber aromas in slightly underripe examples but much sweeter black-fruit flavours in Syrah picked fully ripe in warm climates. Wines made from very ripe to overripe (and therefore thoroughly shriveled) berries can have flavours of dark chocolate and prunes, sometimes with porty overtones.

Those are, of course, the flavors of young wines that Robinson describes, and I have often tasted black pepper and traces of chocolate – dark, bittersweet chocolate – in young Italian Syrahs. But those flavors evolve as wines age, and my two examples, an 18-year-old and a stripling of 17, had mellowed mightily during their years in bottle. Mellow, in fact, was the first word that sprang to mind on tasting them – rich and round, not with “porty overtones” but with a surprising lightness and elegance on the palate. They both seemed very complete, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine any quality I would want added to their flavor spectrum: Their black fruit and lingering hint of black pepper couldn’t be anything but Syrah, but it was Syrah that had been to finishing school.

Neither was showing any sign of tiredness. I really don’t know how many years they had left in them, but it seems to me that I most luckily drank them at an ideal moment in their evolution. I only regret that I didn’t have the foresight to put away more of them. Who knew that this French grape would mature so well in the very different soils and microclimates of Italy? I probably shouldn’t be surprised considering who made these two: The Banfi Colvecchio was the handiwork of Ezio Rivella, who I recall took special pride in making truly textbook Syrah, and the Fontodi Syrah was overseen by the perfectionist Giovanni Manetti, who to my knowledge has never released a merely OK wine.

Lovely wines both, and very satisfying with the two different dishes they accompanied. If Italian Cabernet sauvignon could taste this good or age this gracefully, I wouldn’t be such a Grinch about it, and Bordeaux would quickly lose a lot of its complacency.

Sicily Is Hot!

April 25, 2016

OK, so I can’t resist a bad joke. But it’s true: Sicilian wine is hot right now, especially in Italy, where for the past several years the wines of the three-cornered isle have been getting a lot of press attention and a great deal of consumer demand. In recognition of that, the New York Wine Media Guild dedicated its April tasting and luncheon to surveying Sicily’s highly varied bottlings.Sicily wine map

Organized by co-chairs Pat Savoie and Charles Scicolone, with a little input from yours truly, the WMG tasting focused almost entirely on Sicilian wines vinified from indigenous grape varieties – a decision I heartily applaud. In my opinion, the two impediments to the growth and reputation of Sicilian wine have been the fad for international varieties – think about it: does the world really want a Sicilian Chardonnay or a Sicilian Cabernet? – and the influx of young Australian winemakers, some of whom assume (a) that Sicilians knew nothing about making wine until the Aussies arrived, and (b) that Syrah is the answer to all questions. So a tasting that concentrated on Sicilian wines made from native grapes – 25 wines in all – put the spotlight right where I think it belongs, on the wines that are unique to this beautiful island.

Here are the wines in the order of their presentation that day.

White

  •  Feudo Sartanna 2014 Zirito Grillo
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2014 Grillo Cavallo Delle Fate
  • Spadafora 2013 Dei Principi di Spadafora Grillo
  • Cusumano 2014 Insolia
  • Benanti 2013 Etna Bianco di Caselle (Carricante)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Vigna Casalj (Catarratto)
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2012 Nozze d’Oro Contea di Sclafani (Inzolia & Sauvignon)
  • Planeta 2014 Cometa (Fiano)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Piano Maltese (Grillo & Cataratto)

Rosé

  • Tasca d’Almerita 2015 Le Rose di Regaleali (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Paternò di Vittoria 2013 Frappato
  • Planeta 2014 Frappato
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2014 Frapatto
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2012 Paterno di Vittoria (Frappato & Nero d’Avola)

Red

  • Cusumano 2014 Nero d’Avola
  • Morgante 2011 Don Antonio Nero d’Avola Riserva
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2010 Rosso del Conte Regaleali Contea di Sclafani (Perricone & Nero d’Avola)
  • Vivera 2010 Etna Rosso Martinella
  • Benanti Etna Rosso 2013 Rovitello (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Palari 2011 Rosso del Soprano
  • Palari 2009 Faro
  • Palari 2008 Santa.Nè
  • Alessandro di Camporeale 2012 Kaid Syrah

Dessert

  • Florio Targa Riserva Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco
  • Florio 2009 Malvasia

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That is a pretty exhaustive sampling of Sicily’s native grapes, spread out over 9 whites, 5 rosés, 9 reds (one non-native Syrah slipped in there) and 2 dessert wines. The varieties covered there include the white Grillo, Insolia, and Carricante, widely grown in the western two-thirds of the island, and the white Catarratto, a specialty of the Etna region. The red Frappato is usually used to produce a charming rosé wine, delightful with Sicily’s great seafood cuisine – or just about anything else, for that matter. Nero d’Avola and Perricone are the favorite red grapes of the western chunk of Sicily, though a whole cluster of indigenous red varieties – Nerello mascalese and Nerello Capucci especially – replace them throughout the eastern piece of the island.

That kind of completeness has been characteristic of WMG tastings of Italian wines in recent years, and it is one of the most enjoyable and most useful aspects of those tastings: You come away from them with a good sense of an area’s production, quality, and styles, which is invaluable for a wine journalist and not at all harmful for a collector or consumer.

Needless to say, being the opinionated person I am, I have my favorites: I like especially the wines from Sicily’s eastern hills. It is a not sufficiently appreciated fact that, broadly speaking, Sicily has two distinct geologies. The eastern third of the island – think Messina, Catania, Etna – is part of the Italian geologic plate, a continuation of the same piece of land that is thrusting up into Europe, raising the Alps in the north and causing volcanic activity in the south. The western two-thirds of the island are a portion of North Africa that broke off from the mainland, drifted north, and got snagged by the Etna mass.

That eastern, Etna-anchored portion of Sicily, with its mineral-rich volcanic soils, makes the Sicilian wines that intrigue me most – the reds from Etna and from Palari (the Faro DOC), and the whites of Etna. All taste richly of their native grapes and of their roots in volcanic soil, which may well be a wine grape’s greatest ally.

Etna’s volcanic soils especially nurture richness and subtlety in the vines that grow there, so that red wines vinified from Nerello mascalese (Faro, Rosso del Soprano, Vivera, Benanti’s Rovitello) possess a richness and nuance that remind many fans of the beauties of Burgundy. The whites vinified there from Carricante are in a league of their own: Some of Benanti’s are among the best white wines in Italy, though most of the market hasn’t realized that yet. Your gain, while it lasts, before tastings like this one spread the word.

Paumanok Vineyards’ Chenin Blanc

April 12, 2016

Every now and again, a wine comes out of left field and just bowls me over. This happened last week when I opened a bottle of Paumanok Vineyards’ Minimalist Chenin Blanc. To say the wine impressed me understates the case: I thought it was gorgeous. The dry and sweet white wines of the middle Loire are pretty much the gold standard for Chenin. This Long Island wine tasted fuller and richer than most dry Vouvray, less austere and almost as structured as Savennieres – which, god knows, is about as good as Old World Chenin gets. An eye-opener, an attention-getter of a wine. So I decided to look further into it.

paumonok sign

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Paumanok Vineyards got started in 1983, which makes it an old-timer among Long Island wineries. There were only a few of them then, pioneers excited by the possibilities of the North Fork’s long growing season and well-drained soils, as well as a loose similarity to the climate and terroir of France’s prized Médoc. The basic agriculture that had sustained the region – acres and acres of potatoes, cabbages, and corn – was fading, and land was available. If wine-growing did nothing else for the region, it scored a major triumph in saving the North Fork from developers and their battalions of boxes.

Kareem Massoud

Kareem Massoud

The Massoud family, owners of Paumanok, has roots in Lebanon and Germany, but from the start they planted French varieties: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, even Petit verdot. Kareem Massoud, son of the founder and now winemaker, says that there is nothing distinctive about the terroir of the Chenin vineyards, but that all the Loire varieties – especially Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc – seem to do well on Long Island. Chenin blanc, he says, they found growing on a plot they acquired in the late Eighties – and they almost ripped it out, until they realized how well it was doing.

I lived on Long Island way back when, and find it hard to imagine how Chenin blanc had ever found its way there among the potatoes and pumpkins, but a wonderfully serendipitous find it was. Paumanok’s Chenin blanc every year ranks among the best in the US – and yet it remains the only one made on Long Island. Hello? How can that happen?  Do all the other producers hate Vouvray?

minimalist cheninPaumanok’s Minimalist Chenin blanc stands a whole level higher, in my estimation, than the very fine “ordinary” Chenin, which wins the prizes. The back label of my 2014 bottle tells its story concisely:

This wine was produced using minimalist winemaking techniques. The fruit comes from our vineyard planted in 1982. Select clusters of unblemished Chenin Blanc that had attained total ripeness were carefully hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. The juice was transferred into stainless steel barrels where alcoholic fermentation spontaneously occurred. Only 84 cases were bottled.

As Kareem pointed out to me, this is a purely variety- and terroir-powered wine: Nothing intervenes to modify the expression of the grape and the soil. That purity comes through on the palate with lovely intensity.

Diane and I drank this Minimalist Chenin with some Scotch smoked salmon, followed by simply sauteed filets of John Dory, and it made a wonderful match with both. Its fruit was rich and dry, but hard to pin down: The closest I can come to an accurate descriptor would be half-ripe white figs with an amazing underlayer of minerality and structured by vivid acidity. I would guess that, like many Loire Chenins, this wine could age very well – but I can honestly say that I would be hard put not to drink it all before it had any chance to mature. For me, this is a masterly American wine. I wish there were more of it, and I hope there will be, eventually.


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