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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

I’ve never made any secret of my fondness for the wines of Campania. I think the whites in particular, fermented from indigenous varieties, stand among the best in Italy. And of them – Campania is rich in indigenous grapes – I think those of the Irpinia area of Avellino province – Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo – deserve to rank among world-class wines.

Both these wines are vinified from ancient varieties cultivated high in the hills east of Naples on decayed volcanic soils rich in mineral traces. The combination of soil, variety, and the microclimate of those hills produces wines of a character and quality impossible to duplicate.

A few weeks ago, I and several other journalists enjoyed a tasting of these wines with Ilaria Petitto, the CEO of Donnachiara, a winery located in Montefalcione, right in the heart of this great white wine zone. I’ve known Donnachiara’s wine for years now, and from my very first taste what I’ve admired most about them is their pitch-perfect typicity.

To be sure, Donnachiara’s wines reflect the changes each different growing season brings. But underlying that – or overriding it is perhaps more accurate – the distinct character of Fiano di Avellino and of Greco di Tufo is always apparent in them: the floral and hazelnut scents of the Fiano, its lightness and elegance on the palate; the herbal and mineral aromas of the Greco, its greater weight and hint of oiliness in the mouth.

Only a few Fiano and Greco producers bottle both a classic wine and a cru version, so it was particularly instructive to have them presented side-by-side at this tasting. Its main focus was two pairs of white wines:

  • Fiano di Avellino 2021 and Empatia Fiano di Avellino 2021
  • Greco di Tufo 2021 and Aletheia Greco di Tufo Riserva 2020.

All four wines are DOCG; the second wine of each pair was a single-vineyard selection. All four were superb.

The basic Fiano was spot on: lovely floral nose, smooth body and mouth feel, charming and elegant. This was a Fiano I could happily drink all the time – had I not tasted the Empatia right alongside it. That basic Fiano was fine, but the Empatia was truly exceptional, raising all of Fiano’s virtues to another level. To top it all off, these wines appear on the American market for as little as $18 and $21!

Similarly, the basic Greco di Tufo was classic: a slightly oily mouth feel, scents and tastes of undergrowth and mushrooms and mineral, a very long finish – simply a completely enjoyable white wine. The Aletheia had the same character, only more so, with more intense aromas and more concentrated flavors. I felt it needs a little more time to pull itself together, even though it is evidently a great wine.

If you’re not familiar with these two wines, it’s worth knowing that they are among the Italian white varieties that most reward aging. Fans of each will argue about which ages better.

I don’t have a definitive opinion on that. I’ve had 30-year-old bottles of both, and they were wonderful – still live, with their initial fruit flavors evolved into deeper, more complex harmonies of woodsy, undergrowthy, mushroomy, and mineral elements, all harmoniously merged. But I just find it very hard to keep Fiano and Greco – especially Donnachiara’s – long enough to mature to that stage because they are so good right from the start.

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The Cogno winery is probably not as familiar to most Barolo fans as names like Mascarello or Conterno, but in my opinion, it’s in the same league, right up there with the best of Alba’s elite. The name it bears, Elvio Cogno, is the name of its founder, a top-notch winemaker who many decades ago left his position at Marcarini, where he had been responsible for some of its finest vintages, to establish his own winery on a prime hilltop in Novello. That’s probably the least known of Barolo’s communes, but the Cogno winery has put it on the map.
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Cogno’s winemaker, for some time now, has been Valter Fissore, Elvio’s son-in-law. With his wife Nadia, they have kept Elvio’s spirit alive, and if anything have raised the quality of the wines. This is a winery that stands in the top tier of Piedmont accomplishment.

I don’t say that lightly, but every time I pour a Cogno wine, I taste the truth of it. These are wines of grace and elegance wrapped around depth and power. Classic Barolo aromas and flavors, to be sure, but also layers of them, so each sip seems to open up a new vista. That’s good grapes, good terroir, and masterly winemaking.

Cogno has many claims to fame, but not the least is that it produces the only 100% Nebbiolo Rosé in the Piedmont. That’s not the color of the wine: it’s the name of the grape. The Nebbiolo clone situation is beyond complex and bordering on bewildering, with the possibilities of numerous sub-varieties compounded by a jumble of regional names for each of them.

For years, orthodoxy held that there were three main clones: Nebbiolo Lampia, Nebbiolo Michet, and Nebbiolo Rosé.

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That apple cart was thoroughly upset about ten years ago, when ampelographical research established that Nebbiolo Rosé was definitely not a clone of Nebbiolo but a whole separate variety, perhaps even a parent of Lampia (of which Michet now seems to be a genetic variant). This is a situation that most wine journalists have simply chosen to ignore – as have, apparently, all the official wine bodies, as no Barolo containing Rosé has yet to be declassified.

Cogno’s Vigna Elena still sports its Barolo DOCG, so I guess the tacit agreement is that Rosé still counts as Nebbiolo. Except for Vigna Elena, Rosé, though beautifully fragrant, has only ever been a small fraction of most producers’ Barolo. That’s because of its lighter color, long regarded as a serious flaw in a red wine. We are happily over that particular fetish and can now appreciate the special beauty of a wine like Vigna Elena.

I had the pleasure of verifying that for myself just a few nights ago, when Diane prepared a special dinner as a setting for an – as it turned out to be – equally special bottle of Cogno’s Barolo Vigna Elena 2004.
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I was just bowled over by this wine. Its aroma popped out the second I started pouring it, a rich, intense fragrance of black cherry and black raspberry. Those flavors and that intensity continued on the palate. There, it felt light-bodied, but at the same time mouth-filling and deep, with a long, long finish of dried fruits. The black cherry component became more and more prominent as the wine opened in the glass.

This Vigna Elena was perfectly at home with our first course, a country paté, and it loved the rare beef that followed. With the cheese course – a very young Tuscan Pecorino and a mature Taleggio – it got all fat and sassy. At no point did I get the impression that this wine had yet reached its peak:  There was just so much freshness to its fruit that I would guess that it is still at least ten years away from full maturity, maybe more. This was simply a great bottle of Barolo. Hats off to Valter and Nadia.

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The Elvio Cogno winery is no one-trick pony: It makes the whole line of Langhe wines – several different Barolos beyond Vigna Elena, a Barbaresco, an estimable Langhe Nebbiolo Montegrilli*, a Dolcetto, and an eye-opening Barbera from pre-phylloxera vines, a real rarity in this part of the wine world. Valter Fissore has even embarked on an effort to save one of Piedmont’s rare, endangered white grapes of quality, Nascetta, which Cogno bottles as Anas-Cëtta. It’s a bit of an oddity in this land of red wines, but quite intriguing, and well worth trying. As is, in my opinion, anything under the Cogno label.

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Shortly after I finished drafting this post, I discovered a bottle of Cogno’s 2005 Montegrilli Nebbiolo that I had inadvertently stored away – inadvertently because I usually think of the ideal drinking window for Langhe Nebbiolo as being 4 to 8 years from harvest. I don’t think of it as a wine for long keeping and maturation. Boy, was I wrong. I have seriously underestimated Nebbiolo, or Cogno, or both. I opened this bottle – without any great expectations – for a simple weekday dinner, and it was wonderful. At 17 years of age, it was still quite live and enjoyable, very elegant on the palate and just brimming with characteristic Nebbiolo flavors. If I had been tasting it blind, I would have thought it a good Barolo just beginning to mature. Another tip of the hat to Valter and Nadia!

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The Chianti Classico zone grows titles of nobility as profusely as it does vines, and the two are nowadays closely linked. Hundreds of years ago, marchesi, baroni, even principi may have earned their rank by successful careers as Florentine merchants or Lombard warlords, but nowadays they’re all winemakers, and most of them quite famous and accomplished as such. Which makes it all the more surprising and noteworthy to find that one of the now most prestigious and forward of Chianti Classico wineries is, by the standards of this historic zone, a rank newcomer, founded by an untitled “foreigner” – i.e., a non-Tuscan.

I am referring to Rocca delle Macìe, whose wines I suspect most of my readers have tasted and enjoyed. Founded in 1973 by Italo Zingarelli, a very successful Roman movie producer who had a lifelong dream of vines and wines, Rocca delle Macìe started with 93 run-down hectares, only two of which were in vines. From this less-than-inspiring beginning, the Zingarelli family has built up an estate that now covers over 200 hectares of vines and 54 more of olives spread over six locales, plus an elegant relais hotel.

Italo’s son Sergio, who has just finished a term as president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, is now running the family business, and Rocca delle Macìe has become a fixture of the Chianti Classico landscape.

A little over 20 years ago, the family undertook a major renovation of the vineyards, seeking better microclimate/soil/Sangiovese clone matches for maximum quality in their wines. One result was the designation of the Le Terrazze vineyard in Castellina, which they consider their finest vineyard, as the source of their Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Sergio Zingarelli. Just recently, I was able to taste nine vintages of that wine, courtesy of Rocca delle Macìe’s American importer Palm Bay.

This was a very illuminating as well as enjoyable experience. The wines shown started with the 2010 vintage, followed by 2011, ‘12, ‘13, ‘14, ‘15, ‘16, ‘17, and ’18 – no cherry-picking of only fine vintages, but an honest display of nearly a decade of Gran Selezione wines. That line-up allowed us tasters to trace the evolution of Sangiovese from year to year, as well as to experience the continuity of the vineyard’s and the family’s style. The latter is quite classic. These wines, even in the lesser vintages, all showed beautiful Sangiovese character, with great restraint – no fruit bombs here – and balance. My thought at the time was that these are Chiantis for grown-ups, and I’ll stand by that.

Here are some brief notes on the wines, all Sergio Zingarelli Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG, in the order we tasted them.

2010: Lovely wild cherry aroma; fine, elegant palate. Very nice Sangiovese acidity under-strapped by soft wood tannins. Long finish. A great vintage and a harmonious wine.

2011: A difficult hot, dry summer grudgingly yielded a good but not excellent wine, smooth and round in the mouth, but with a slightly cellar-y aroma. This vintage demanded much care and effort in the field and in the cellar.

2012:  Similar to the 2011, but slightly smoother and softer on the palate. Not great, but good.

2013: A step up from the preceding two vintages. Rounder and fresher both in the nose and on the palate. More pleasing and immediately enjoyable.

2014: Darker and more concentrated than the ’13, with its tannins nicely softened. Enjoyable now, with a good fruity finish. All the preceding vintages had been 90% Sangiovese blended with 10% Colorino; starting with 2014, this Gran Selezione became 100% Sangiovese.

2015: A good growing season makes a good vintage. This wine is very pretty, well-balanced and lively. You could almost call it perky.

2016: Not quite as fine as ’15, but still a lovely Chianti, with fine Sangiovese flavors and character. Opens beautifully in the glass.

2017: Very fresh smelling, with the palate equally fresh – dark cherry-ish flavors. A very young and pretty wine, from a growing season hot and dry, like ’11 and ’12. The vineyard team has clearly learned how to deal with that.

2018:  Smells more tannic, even though you’re not supposed to be able to smell tannin. Must be the new barrels. Big and soft, but still closed. It needs time, but it should be fine. Sergio called it “a classic vintage for Sangiovese.”

All these wines showed well, though 2010, 2015, 2016, and 2018 stood out. It was almost a shame to have started with the 2010, since it was the only one of these vintages that was, for this lover of mature wines, truly ready to drink. But that’s why cellars were invented.

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Grignolino Rising

Grignolino is the name of an uncommon indigenous Italian grape variety and the wine it makes. Both, obscure for many years, are starting to cause a bit of a stir in wine circles.

It’s an ancient variety, with solid documentation of its presence and importance back to the Middle Ages: In all probability, it’s much older than that. Native to the Monferrato zone in the Piedmont, it is now almost rare, though it was once one of the most widely grown varieties and most prestigious wines of that whole area of Italy – a zone that now includes the far more famous Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera. Indeed, many of the fields that now grow Barbera were once the home of Grignolino, which has been steadily ousted by that heartier and more prolifically bearing variety.

Grignolino grape clusters

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It’s a wonder to me that any Grignolino is cultivated at all. Everything I read about makes it sound like a horror of a grape to grow. In her Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, who shows almost no regard for the variety, notes that it ripens unevenly and is “susceptible to powdery mildew and especially to botrytis bunch rot and sour rot.”

Ian d’Agata, who likes Grignolino’s wines, gives more details about its problems in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy, saying:

  • it needs very sunny sites, which puts it in direct competition with more profitable varieties like Nebbiolo, and “it also needs well-ventilated sites, to ward off the risk of rot due to its compact bunch;”
  • it “has a huge amount of intravarietal variability;”
  • “many of the older grapevines are also virus-affected, and the cultivars suffer from millerandage;”
  • it “succumbs easily to common grapevine diseases and yields generally very little juice.”

Given all that, you might wonder why anyone goes to the trouble of growing it.

Yet many winemakers I’ve spoken to have a real fondness for the variety. Bartolo Mascarello and Pio Boffa, I remember, had an affection for the wine, and both made splendid examples of it. Boffa felt strongly that it formed an important element in Pio Cesare’s identity as an authentic and traditional Piedmontese winery.

Because of growers like Mascarello and Pio Cesare, small but significant pockets of Grignolino still survive, principally in the Monferrato zone, and there is now a small but significant revival of interest in the grape. That’s because the wine it makes is, at its best, distinctive and distinguished. A good majority of the wine lovers who get a chance to taste it love it.

Ian d’Agata, for instance, rhapsodizes about it. He calls it “a lovely variety, one of the prettiest in Italy” and says it exudes “a lovely aroma of fresh flowers, small red berries . . . and spices” and “it is blessed with high, refreshing acidity and crisp tannins that leave the palate feeling fresh and clean.”

That touches some of the important bases for Grignolino’s virtues, but to my mind it also leaves out some important considerations. It makes Grignolino seem too simply pretty, too frail. For sure, Grignolino is the very opposite of a powerhouse wine: grace and nuance are what it is about. But it doesn’t lack guts.

A bottle of Oreste Buzio’s 2020 Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese that I opened last week showed a lovely light strawberry-ish color and aroma. In the mouth, it was strawberry-ish too: light and refreshing, but still with evident depth and complexity. It made a delightful dinner companion to a grilled scamorza first course and was equally at home with a dish of pasta all’amatriciana.
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It would be easy to describe Grignolino as a perfect summer wine, but that would underestimate it severely: Its big acidity and equally big tannin make it adaptable to all sorts of food, as I found when opening another Grignolino, a bottle of La Casaccia’s Poggeto, also Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese, also 2020.

Visually, aromatically, and palatally, this was a perfect example of the breed. Though not an optimum companion to a rare steak, it dealt reasonably with the meat, and then bloomed with the cheese course. It almost made love to a delicious, runny Robiola. And it even matched comfortably with the plum cake that followed. This is a fine, versatile wine, not only at home with dishes of all sorts, but also completely enjoyable all by itself.
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You may happen on a bottle of Grignolino that is very dark, perhaps even with high alcohol, but that is an aberration. The classic Grignolino is light in color, just around 13 degrees of alcohol, and easy and refreshing on the palate, yet structured and substantial with all that acidity and tannin. It’s an odd red wine, an outlier, a maverick – maybe even a paradox. That’s all part of its considerable charm.

Despite the growing interest in Grignolino, there is still not a lot of it even in Italy, so it won’t be easy to find in the US. If you come across one, do try it. It’s very different from most of the red wines you’re used to – and we know what a great pleasure it is to find a new wine to add to our repertory.

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Back during the annual ritual known as spring cleaning – misnamed, I think: It should more properly be called spring messing – Diane asked me that question. I was momentarily dumbfounded, and all I managed to say was a lame “37?”

Many years ago, when she asked me a similar question – “Why do we have 44 bottles of grappa?” – I was able to confidently and truthfully say “Because I’m working on a big article on grappa for Decanter.”

That wasn’t the whole truth, as anyone who knows my fondness for grappa understands, but it was at least a plausible cover for my shameless indulgence. Back then, I could honestly claim to be the most important proponent of grappa in the US: I had published the first North American article about grappa back in the 80s, in Attenzione, and written about it in several other magazines as well – so I could, with a straight face, say I had a professional interest in that distillate.

But now that I am no longer an active wine journalist (except for this blog), how could I explain needing so many brandies?

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Had I not been taken by surprise, the answer was easy, really: They all have different uses, different niches that they fill. Just as I am passionate about matching a wine with food that will show it at its best (and vice versa), so am I interested in choosing the digestivo that will best complement the dinner I’ve just enjoyed.

That’s the real key for me: Call them brandies or digestivi or after-dinner drinks, whether it’s grappa or cognac or armagnac or marc, malt whiskies or curaçao or chartreuse, whatever their name, their function for me is to complete my meal, to round off the whole culinary experience. That may sound pompous, but it tends to be delicious – and figuring it all out is sheer fun.

So: Shameless self-indulgence once again, with a slight admixture of self-education. As Brillat-Savarin so well understood, a true gastronaut’s work is never done.

You can be forgiven for wondering what all those bottles are, and what niches I think they fill. A fair enough question, so here’s a broad rundown. For simplicity’s sake, let’s divide them, as those in the liquor trades often do, into “white goods” and “brown goods.”

White goods consist primarily of my beloved grappas, of which I like to keep a goodly selection on hand – grappas of Barbera and Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, Tuscan grappas, even southern Italian grappas, from Campania and Calabria and Sicily, all regions where this originally northern drink has gotten a firm hold.
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Each of these grappas differs from the others in basic ways, having the aromas and characters of the very different grapes from which they are made, and so meshing with very different meals. I take almost as much pleasure in making the right match as I do in actually drinking the grappa.

This category also includes tequilas, a class of drinks that I have been late in coming to appreciate, as well as eaux de vie of mirabelle, poire, and/or framboise, all offering a small explosion of fruit aromas and flavors. Served ice-cold, they can be by themselves a perfect summer dessert.
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Then we come to the brown goods, which will be more familiar to most people than the white. These may include barrel-aged grappas, but mostly they are cognac, armagnac, and an occasional marc. Burgundy and various appellations of the Rhône are my usual sources for marc.

I like to keep on hand a basic cognac and armagnac, as well as better bottle or two – a good vintage of armagnac, and for cognac a reliable producer’s more rarefied selection of vintages or areas of growth, such as Grand Champagne or Borderies. And not to forget Spanish brandies, which are very different in character from their French counterparts.
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Finally, I always need to have a few single malt scotches on hand, and Diane is occasionally fond of an herbal liqueur or plum brandy.
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Those bottles arm me for most contingencies and pretty much any sort of cooking my fair bride may wish to do; and that gives me a great sense of security and comfort, a very desirable condition for the aging wino. Also – I confess to a bit of showmanship – at the end of a dinner party, I like to set out 4 to 6 different bottles for our guests (and ourselves) to sniff and choose from. And that’s why we have 37 – or whatever the number may be now – bottles of brandy.

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P.S. from Diane, who has just counted them: It’s only 29 now. Poor baby!

P.P.S. from Tom: I must do something about that!

 

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How many times have I walked up Fifth Avenue in the shadow of the Empire State Building and never even noticed it was there? Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it sure fosters inattention. I was made acutely aware of that this week, when I pulled out a bottle of Fontanafredda’s Vigna La Rosa for dinner with some friends.
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It was a 2004, and it was just lovely – not huge (Fontanafredda never is), but velvety in the mouth, with restrained dried cherry/berry and sottobosco flavors, and a long, polished finish. It struck me, as I was telling our guests a little about the wine, how much I take Fontanafredda for granted, and how little attention I pay it. It’s more than time that I made up for that sin of omission.

Fontanafredda is one of Piedmont’s largest and most historic wineries. It’s sited on prime land in the commune of Serralunga, which gives it some major advantages to start with: That is serious Barolo country. Wine people love a good story, and Fontanafredda has one of the best: It was founded by the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele – he of the huge wedding-cake monument in Rome – himself. In 1858 he bought the property and set up a villa on it for the love of his life, his then mistress and later second wife, Rosa Vercellana, La Bella Rosina, she for whom the firm’s home – and best – vineyard is now named.
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Serious wine production on the estate was instituted by their son, Emanuele Alberto, Count of Mirafiore. He pioneered in promoting Barolo and insisted on quality in his wines. Both the pioneering and the pursuit of quality have marked Fontanafredda ever since, through all the vicissitudes of phylloxera and the great depression, two world wars, and several changes of ownership. The estate is now firmly in Piedmontese hands, having been taken over by Oscar Farinetti, the proprietor of Eataly, and a very serious promoter of all gustatory things Piedmontese.

Fontanafredda now consists of 120 acres of vineyards, all certified organic, though not all on the home property. There are parcels in Dogliani and other places for the production of Barbaresco, Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo Langhe, and other typical Piedmontese wines both red and white. But the main focus of Fontanafredda – especially in the home vineyards – is Barolo..

The firm bottles several different Barolos, ranging from its classic blend, from several vineyards; through a commune wine, Serralunga d’Alba; to the individual crus, Vigneti Pararfada, La Delizia, La Villa, Lazzarito, and La Rosa. La Rosa should be considered the flagship wine, though Lazzarito can run it a very close second. All are very traditional Barolos, very well tended in the fields and the cellars, and each aged in a different regimen of skin contact, malolactic fermentation, and selection of woods for different periods. Despite its size, this is a very hands-on operation, as the consistently high quality of all the wines shows.
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Anyone trying to learn the classic contours of Barolo will find a few bottles of Fontanafredda a very valuable lesson: a short course in history and connoisseurship.

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Indeed, surprised and pleased were exactly what I felt from my first taste of this relatively obscure bottle from Selvapiana.
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Selvapiana is a fine Chianti estate, probably the finest not in the Classico zone. It lies within the Rufina zone, northeast of Florence, and that area is totally different, climatically and geographically, from the Classico. It is hillier, and its hills are steeper and rougher than the long-domesticated ones that lie between Florence and Siena, the historical Chianti Classico zone.
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The Rufina zone is more heavily forested, and its forests are pines, not the decorous cypresses of Tuscan postcards. What grow beneath those pines are mountain laurels, clearly indicating a more acidic soil and a very different climate from that of the Classico zone. Needless to say, the wines that Sangiovese produces here are also different from the Classicos: they are bigger, fuller, with darker-toned fruit. Some call them rustic, but the best of them show no rusticity. Rather, they are graceful country folk, with all the strength and natural elegance that implies.
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For obvious reasons, I’ve always admired Selvapiana’s Chiantis. The estate’s decades-long relationship with consulting enologist Franco Bernabei, one of the acknowledged masters of Tuscan wine, has always coaxed the best from its Sangiovese. The wine Selvapiana calls Fornace (from the vineyard where it originates) has always been for me another matter, however.

Fornace is Selvapiana’s Supertuscan, a blend of non-Italian grape varieties that was originally concocted back when Supertuscan was a hot category and every serious wine estate had to make one to show that it was au courant. I acquired my bottle long ago, when I was preparing an article about Selvapiana and the Rufina zone for some magazine or other. I’ve never really approved of the Supertuscans – I hated the name – so for the article I focused on the zone’s Italian varieties, put my bottle of Fornace away, and completely forgot about it. Until, just recently, Diane was making a recipe that originated at Selvapiana, and I wanted to serve a Selvapiana wine with it. Imagine my distress when I discovered I had none of the wonderful Chiantis on hand, and just this dusty bottle of a wine I distrusted. Arrgh!

Well, no choice: I wanted a Selvapiana wine and this was what I had, so off went its dust and out came its cork. Two hours of breathing, and then into the glass alongside Diane’s delightful pasta dish. As I said before, color me surprised and pleased: It was a wonderful wine. Vinified entirely from French varieties – 40% Cabernet sauvignon, 40% Merlot, and 20% Petit verdot, I believe – though I could swear I tasted a little Syrah pepper in it. No matter. At 18 years old it was a complete wine, big, round, harmonious, and deep. It didn’t taste typically Tuscan, but it didn’t taste Bordelaise either: It was a third thing, entirely its own category, and completely enjoyable. It has given me something to think about, in terms of my distaste for French varieties in Italy – and it has certainly deepened my already immense respect for Selvapiana.
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Sometimes the success of a dinner party depends not just on your planning and execution but also on your good luck. In the case I have in mind, a quite nice dinner was kicked up to another dimension of pleasure by the wines we served with it – wines from a mixed case that we had lost track of and had brought home from storage just a week or so before this occasion.

The dinner, arranged on necessarily short notice, was for two visiting out-of-town friends. We wanted to give them a good meal, of course, but one with familiar dishes that we could put together within the time and culinary resources we had available. We settled on a first course of pasta alla carbonara, which prepares and cooks easily; a main course of osso buco, which we could make up entirely in advance; a cheese course, which requires no work at all; and for dessert a simple apple tart, which Diane is always happy to toss together. A nice meal, but not extraordinary.

What made this dinner distinctive was its wine and food pairings. The first of these was made possible by Champagne originally bought for long-past holidays and the rest by that mixed case of wines that had luckily wended its way home just a week before.

Of course, I can and will claim that it wasn’t just luck that I had long ago purchased those wines. But I have to admit that their meshing so perfectly with the courses of this dinner was serendipity, far beyond the reach of cunning. From the 12 available wines, I’d chosen the 3 that I thought would work best with our dishes, but I couldn’t know how perfectly they would match up. I don’t have a super palate, and we all need a little luck sometimes.

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Our first piece of good luck: For aperitifs, a fine grower Champagne, an NV “Élégance” from Vincent Couche. This mouth-filling, aptly named wine was biodynamically grown:  84% Pinot noir, 16% Chardonnay, with 3 years on the lees. It started our evening off on a properly savory and substantial note that relaxed all four of us from the week’s busy pace. Memo to self: Keep some of this around.

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To give our first course a little distinction, we made the pasta alla carbonara with some duck bacon we had on hand (luck again) instead of the usual pancetta. This made for a richer but less assertively flavored dish that paired beautifully with a bottle of 2008 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva. Volpaia’s high-altitude vineyards characteristically yield wines of great elegance and restraint, and this bottle proved to be a perfect, almost interlocking match with this more restrained version of carbonara.
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Osso buco is always richly flavored: long-cooked veal shank on the bone creates a wonderful sauce around itself. But this is still veal, so it’s not an aggressive flavor but a mild, insinuating one. To my mind, this dish wants the gentle suaveness of Barbaresco, so I opted to match it with a 2004 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga, a beautiful wine from one of the greatest crus of the appellation, just – at 17 years – reaching its peak of mature, woodsy flavors.
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With the cheeses, I went a different direction, with a slightly more assertive wine: a 2004 Château Lafon-Rochet, still from that case. Equally as old as the Barbaresco, this Saint Estèphe (55% Cabernet sauvignon, 5% Cabernet franc, 40% Merlot) had also evolved to a perfectly balanced state of maturity, which played splendidly with the somewhat battered-looking but still delicious remnants of goat, cow, and sheep cheeses we had on hand. Lafon-Rochet covers 100 acres in a single plot that lies between Lafite Rothschild and Cos d’Estournel. That’s a very nice neighborhood, as the excellent evolution of this wine amply showed.
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The result of not-too-demanding cookery and wonderfully compatible wines was a dinner both guests and hosts loved. Because the interplay between the wines and the dishes brought out the best of both, the whole meal stood out as something special and memorable, making us very happy indeed. As Italian winemakers and chefs have drilled into my head, abbinamento – the matching of the food and the wine you serve with it – is everything. And if you love mature wines as much as I do, you need the luck or cleverness to have squirrelled a batch of them away years ago.

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Over the years that I’ve been writing about wines, the red wines of Italy have gradually assumed their rightful place among the world’s great wines. It’s pretty generally acknowledged now that Italy has three noble red varieties – Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico – and one great red wine of process, Amarone. There are probably more than that: Italy is a cornucopia of indigenous varieties, but for the moment, those three grapes and Amarone stand as Italy’s contenders for the crown of greatness. Of them all, Aglianico is probably the least known inside and outside Italy, though that is changing steadily as its finest avatar, Taurasi, claims more and more respect with every harvest.

 

Taurasi Grapes

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It’s almost certainly not news to even casual readers of this blog that I have long admired the Taurasi produced by the Mastroberardino family. For me, every bottle of their Taurasi I open is a time trip, a summary review of the history of Campania’s greatest red wine, and Campanian wine generally, since WW II.

Those wines have a much longer history than that, of course. The vineyards of Campania felix – Campania the blessed – were the Côte d’Or of the Roman Empire, and many an emperor and senator thought as highly of them as Napoleon ever did of Gevrey Chambertin. More than a millennium after the fall of Rome, under the Bourbon kings, the wines of Campania were still famed. It was only with the Bourbon kingdom’s defeat by the Savoy dynasty – an event known to history as the Risorgimento – that the south and its wines went into decline, a process that was for all practical purposes finished off by the phylloxera and WW II.

That’s where the modern history of Aglianico and Taurasi begin. For many years, that history has centered on the work of the Mastroberardino family. Their winery in Atripaldi was the largest and most up-to-date in southern Italy, and the family held the line on quality, resisting both the pressure to make lots of wine fast, and the pressure to plant “international” varieties. Indeed, because of the Mastroberardinos, Campania was saved for native Italian varieties. It now has the smallest acreage of French grapes, and the highest percentage of indigenous varieties, of any Italian wine region. Whether it be Taurasi you’re savoring, or a regional Aglianico, or a Greco or Fiano or Falanghina, it was the Mastroberardinos, under the leadership of the now almost legendary patriarch Antonio, working side by side with his brother Walter, who ultimately made that possible.
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Mastroberardino Vineyards

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As the family made a success of this enterprise, others took notice. Not only did new investment begin to flow into the Campanian wine sector, but also many growers who had previously been content to sell off their grapes (often to Mastroberardino) began to vinify and bottle under their own names. A rising tide floats all boats, and for a few decades now the tide of profit and prestige has been steadily rising for the wines of Campania. I think that the wines now emerging from Campania felix are the best they have ever been – though, obviously, I am not quite old enough to personally verify that.

I can, however, vouch for the quality of the bottle of Mastro’s 2006 Taurasi Radici that I opened with dinner a few nights ago. 2006 was a good vintage in Campania – a substantial touch above average, let us say, but not a great, off-the-charts vintage to set critics agog. This bottle was not a riserva or a cru: Rather, it was the kind of wine that Mastroberardino regularly produces.
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Would that every winery everywhere worked to such standards! It was gorgeous. Ravishing. Velvet in the mouth, with scents and tastes of dark berries and forest undergrowth, with lovely minerality, and an exquisite balance of acids and tannins and alcohol, and still an underlying freshness that indicated it would have had years of life before it if I hadn’t greedily drunk it now.

Call it infanticide: I don’t regret a single droplet of it. Who knows how many amphorae of their beloved Falernum the winos of the classical ages drank too young? Posterity hasn’t indicted them, and I can hope to get off with as little pain, and as much – or more – pleasure.

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Livio Felluga is a highly respected name in Friulian wine, and rightly so. Since the middle of the last century, at least, the family firm has been at the forefront of quality wine production in Friuli and a leader in raising the quality of — and calling worldwide attention to – the varietal wines of Friuli, especially the white varieties...

Tocai – now called Friulano – was the native variety that first drew the wine world’s attention to Friuli. The Felluga family championed it, and I can still recall my pleasure at sipping its almond-inflected goodness, way back when I first encountered it, longer ago than any of us would care to recall.

Livio Felluga

I remember with equally deep pleasure my first press visit to the Felluga estate, tasting the whole range of its white varieties while listening to Livio, the principal winemaker, delivering a non-stop monologue of carabinieri jokes that had us all – even those who spoke no Italian – in stitches. I briefly wondered whether anyone so funny could possibly make great wine. He could, and he did. The Italian wine world was rich in such multi-faceted characters in those days.
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Terre Alte was Livio Felluga’s great invention. First produced in 1981, it was from the start – and still remains – a blend of three white varieties in pretty much equal proportions: Friulano, Pinot bianco, and Sauvignon. All are grown in some of the best and highest fields – thus the wine’s name – of the firm’s great Rosazzo property, where the soils are a complex of marl and decomposing sandstone.
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Felluga’s Rosazzo Vineyards

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While there is obviously some slight variation from vintage to vintage, Terre Alte has maintained a pretty consistent character right from its start: It’s a big wine, round and full in the mouth, with great aromatics – minerals and flowers, white fruits and forest scents – and a highly complex, mineral-inflected palate marked by notes of apricot and tropical fruits. With all that, Terre Alte also ages very well, growing subtler and deeper as it does. This is a world-class white wine, from one of the best sites and best producers in one of the world’s great white wine regions.

Just recently I opened a bottle of the 2007 Terre Alte to match with Diane’s beautiful dish of braised chicken and morel mushrooms in cream. I am not a great chicken aficionado, but I thought this combination of flavors and textures was wonderful – and the Terre Alte thought so too.

The wine was a lovely copper-gold color. I don’t know whether it was the power of that visual suggestion, or whether this vintage was an example of the ramato style that used to be more common in Friulian whites, but the very floral nose was marked by a distinct coppery edge that I found very attractive. In the mouth, the wine was big and round, balanced, with fine acid. Minerals and flowers and dry white fruits dominated the palate, with dried apricot notes becoming more and more prominent as the wine opened.

This was a very nuanced wine: nothing blatant, but lots of intriguing flavor hintlets and that persistent coppery edge. And it had one final surprise: with cheese, it suddenly felt very clean and fresh, as if it had shed years of aging.

If only wine writers could do the same. Sigh.

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