Seasonal Affective Disorder, Part Two

As I said in my last post, this fall’s wine season started with a rush, and it shows little sign of slowing down. This post, I want to talk about the wines of two large importers: long-established and prestigious Frederick Wildman, and Winebow, once an Italian specialist but now far more encompassing.  I attended both portfolio tastings back in the first fine frenzy of the fall madness.

Once upon a time the name Frederick Wildman was almost synonymous with French wine, but for some years now its portfolio has expanded well beyond that. Some of the most prominent names in France still adorn the portfolio, of course: Hugel, Jaboulet, Jolivet, Leflaive, Moreau, and Champagne Pol Roger, just for starters. But that French repertory has been joined by some excellent Italian wines that Wildman either imports or distributes – La Scolca, La Spinona, Le Ragose, Melini, Nino Negri, Rapitalà, and Re Manfredi, among many others. And this says nothing of the numerous other European, South American, and North American wines that enrich this large, eclectic portfolio.

Needless to say, I was able to sample only a fraction of these wines. My age is making me increasingly aware of my limitations, but even the young and ever-thirsty Ubriaco would have met his match at this tasting. Among the French wines, even though I chose to concentrate on whites, I skipped over Pol Roger. Why?  Because the basic Brut NV is among the most reliable fine wines in the world, always good and always made in the same pleasing house style – medium-to-full body, nutty and wheaty, with great perlage – and because if I had started sipping the superb Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 1999, I would have gotten no further.

Etienne Hugel at the Wildman tasting

So I began with the fine Alsace producer Hugel, whose lovely everyday wine – Gentil, a blend of several Alsace white varieties – showed itself once again as one of the greatest bargains around. The ’08 Riesling and the ’06 Pinot Gris Classic were appropriately more impressive and demanded more attention. Both showed marvelous varietal character and intensity of flavor, and both were beautifully structured to survive and in fact improve over a few more years in bottle. The latter is especially true of the very lovely 2005 Riesling Jubilee, a wine of deep Riesling flavor and massive structure (and a commensurate price, alas).

From much further south in France, Wildman’s Rhone producer Jaboulet was showing three lovely whites, Crozes-Hermitage La Mule Blanche 2008, Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Roure blanc 2007, and Hermitage Blanc Chevalier de Sterimberg 2007. The latter is among France’s greatest white wines. All three are vinified from the Rhone white varieties Marsanne and Rousanne, which do not, elsewhere in the world, produce wines of any great distinction.

Among Wildman’s Italian producers, I was particularly struck by some of the big red wines, especially Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture 2005 and the Riserva Serpara 2003. These are both wines that want more cellar age to show their best, and from past experience with them, I consider them worth whatever wait it takes.

Also impressive were Rapitalà’s  new 2008 Nero d’Avola, Alta, and La Spinona’s 2004 Barbaresco Bricco Faset and 2001 Barolo Sori Gepin. (The latter estate, if I remember correctly, is not a Wildman import but a wine it distributes on the east coast.)

At the Winebow tasting, I focused not just on Italian wines, but even more specifically – given the breadth of Winebow’s selections – on red wines from Tuscany and Campania. Among many pleasurable samples, the most striking were Castellare, from the heart of the Chianti Classico zone, and Tua Rita, from the Suvereto area of the Tuscan Maremma. At Castellare, winemaker Alessandro Cellai crafts beautiful, traditional wines:  friendly, accessible Chianti Classico from both the ’07 and ’08 vintages; a bigger, more imposing 2007 Riserva Il Poggiale; and my favorite, a lovely, perfectly balanced single-vineyard 2005 I Sodi di San Niccolo – this last a deeply Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and a touch of Malvasia nera.

Tua Rita is as innovative as Castellare is classic: not yet 30 years old, and sited on the mineral-laced clay soils of the Maremma – enologically speaking, until yesterday a wilderness – Tua Rita succeeds magnificently with international varieties. Its banner wine, the 100% Merlot Redigaffi, wasn’t available at this tasting, but the ’07 Giusto di Notri and Perlato del Bosco showed very well indeed. These are kinds of wines I normally don’t like – non-native grapes (Merlot and both Cabernets), lots of barriques – but these two displayed impressive restraint, balance and elegance: The winemaking is Tuscan even if the grapes aren’t.

Winebow’s Campanian selections offered the same panorama of tradition and innovation. I tasted the whole range of Mastroberardino’s wines and found nothing I didn’t like: never has the honorific “master” (mastro) been better bestowed than on this classic winemaker. Its best-in-show wines were those you would expect – a deep, complex 2003 Taurasi Naturalis Historia and a still-evolving 1999 Taurasi Riserva – both big, structured wines with years of life before them.

Both Galardi and Montevetrano showed Campanian innovation. Not yet 20 years old, Galardi has already won some of Italy’s highest wine awards with its Terra di Lavoro, a modern treatment of a traditional blend (Aglianico and Piedirosso). The vineyards are high and windy, the soils volcanic and rich in mineral traces. Both the 2008 and 2007 vintages were offered. I found the ’08 so young and dense as to be almost unjudgeable, though it is clearly going to be a big, impressive wine. The more evolved 2007 was just lovely, earthy and ethereal at the same time.

About the same age as Galardi, smaller and even more innovative, the Montevetrano estate sits in the wooded hills south of Salerno. It makes one wine, the namesake Montevetrano, and only 30,000 bottles of that, but it has collected Tre Bicchieri almost every year of its commercial production. Vinified from Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, and Aglianico, Montevetrano tastes – and ages – like a first-growth Bordeaux. I don’t know how long the wine will last, but an eight-year-old that I drank at the estate reminded me of Chateau Lafite; if that comparison is at all accurate, it seems to point to a truly great capacity for aging. I hope I’ll live long enough to find out.

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