Seasonal Affective Disorder, Part One

In New York, two extraordinary things usually take place after Labor Day: The weather miraculously breaks, leaving the near-death experience of August in Manhattan only an unpleasant memory, and the wine season starts. This year it didn’t so much start as explode, with importers’ and distributors’ portfolio tastings and visiting winemakers’ lunches almost every working day of the month. That adds up to a lot of wine poured and spit every day, and a lot of conscientiously scribbled notes declining into indecipherability by the end of each day.

I’m not immune to the seasonal contagion: I swirled and spit and noted to the best of my capacity. What follows here is a selection of the wines that impressed me most out of the flood that passed over my palate. As a last prefatory note, it’s worth pointing out that, while I encountered a handful of flawed or unpleasant wines, the vast majority of the wines I tasted fell into the good to very good range. We live in an extraordinary time for winemakers and winelovers. The available technology has made sound, drinkable wine a regular phenomenon rather than the exception. The ceiling stands at exactly the same height it always had, but the floor has risen a good bit higher.

Vias Imports specializes in Italian wines, so its portfolio tasting constituted a must stop for me. The firm brings in several of my favorite Piedmont producers, including Cogno and the Produttori del Barbaresco, all of which I have written about and praised highly in previous postings.

I was pleased to see the firm is now bringing in Cogno’s Anas-Cetta, an unusual white wine I had not expected to find on the market here. It’s vinified from Nascetta, an indigenous and nearly extinct white grape that has become a rescue project for Valtor Fissore and the Cogno family. For my palate, this variety deserves preservation at least as much as Arneis. It is very distinctively flavored, with lovely minerality and racy acidity – a really refreshing entry in the Alternative-to-Chardonnay Universe.

Alto-Adige produces some of Italy’s premier white wines, and Vias represents a fair share of them. The esteemed Istituto di San Michele vinifies several major varieties, including a lovely Riesling, but the wine that captures my heart is a simple Nosiola, from a local grape of that name. It’s light, floral, instantly refreshing, and utterly charming. I was first introduced to it decades ago by the still-lamented Lou Iaccucci, and that may color my fondness for it, but I can assure you that it’s a wine that won me from the first taste – not big, not impressive, but just plain pleasurable.

In much the same vein is the Abbazia di Novacella’s basic Kerner. This northernmost Italian vineyard makes a whole range of charming white wines, and some imposing ones: I’ve written before about Praepositus, also from the Kerner grape, which ranks among Italy’s best whites. But at half the price, the simple Kerner offers exceptional value and pleasure.

From slightly to much further south in Italy, Vias imports several other estimable white wines: Suavia’s beautiful Soaves from the Veneto, and from Campania, Terredora di Paolo’s pitch-perfect Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, and Fiano di Avellino. Terredora’s reds are by no means shabby – Lacryma Christi Rosso (mostly Piedirosso), Aglianico, Taurasi, and the single-vineyard Taurasi Pago dei Fusi – but at this tasting the whites really sang.

One other entry for Vias: Cataldi Madonna, an Abruzzo estate, makes a surprisingly delicious Trebbiano (those last two words rarely appear together anywhere) in addition to its very fine Cerasuolo and Montelpulciano. This is a top-quality producer who deserves to be better known.

DSWE – Domaine Select Wine Estates – offered a more extensive and varied portfolio, with wines from over a dozen countries represented. Because of the large number of producers pouring samples, I had to taste very, very selectively here: Inclusiveness was totally out of the question. Two of my favorite Piedmont estates were there, Massolino and Fontanfredda, both presenting a whole range of Piedmont wines, from (what I regard as token) whites through Barbera and Dolcetto up to their distinguished Barolos. Also present, and the deserved object of a lot of attention, was the great Friulian eccentric Gravner, whose amphora-in-the-earth-vinified Ribolla Gialla is always unlike any white wine you’ve ever tasted.

Nicolas Joly

The two wines that drew most of my attention at this event probably qualify as cult wines: Nicolas Joly’s Savennières and Principessa Coralia Pignatelli’s Castell’in Villa.

Joly is proprietor and winemaker of Coulée de Serrant, a vineyard that is its own appellation in the heart of the Savennières zone. He is also probably the leading exponent, world-wide, of the biodynamic farming movement.

In the face of his wines, I’m perfectly willing to suspend any and all disbelief about the role of the phases of the moon or the efficacy of spreading (completely natural) fertilizers from bull horns.

Biodynamic farming at Joly

Whatever he’s doing, it works perfectly for him, and all his wines are at very least impressive and often simply off the charts. His star, Coulée de Serrant itself, is unquestionably one the world’s great, long-aging white wines. Nowhere else in the world does the Chenin blanc grape reach these heights.

Principessa Pignatelli

Among Chianti Classicos, Castell’in Villa occupies a niche all its own. Under Signora Pignatelli’s vigilant eye, the wine is vinified slowly and kept long in the cellar, to be released only when she deems it ready to drink. The current release, for instance, of the basic Chianti Classico – 100% Sangiovese, by the way – is the 2006, not the 2008, which is the offering from most estates in the Classico zone. The Riserva bottling now entering the market is an unusually fine 2003. Castell’in Villa specializes, as it were, in making silk purses out of sow’s ears, and in most parts of Italy 2003 was a large sow’s ear of a vintage. The single-vintage Poggio delle Rose that Castell’in Villa is now offering is the 1998, and it is first-rate: simultaneously elegant and restrained, rustic and polished, with quiet authority and great staying power – not unlike, in fact, the woman who makes it.

Next post: Seasonal Affective Disorder, Part Two

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