Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Prosecco and Champagne: Tasting Beyond the Bubbles

August 7, 2017

I have been enjoying both Champagne and Prosecco for many years now without ever thinking of making a direct comparison between them. I had, without a lot of thought about it, consigned them each to its own niche: Prosecco light and pleasing and sort of frivolous, Champagne a more serious wine for more important occasions. But I was brought up short recently by an innocent question from a wine civilian about what really was the difference between the two.

I had started giving the stock answer about the different grapes that each is made from, when I realized that in fact I had never drunk them side by side so as to be able to give the answer that my civilian friend was really seeking – the differences in how they taste and how that affects what one ought to drink them with. Not a glaring omission, you might think, except that that kind of side-by-side comparison is exactly what my first book, Mastering Wine, is based on and is what I have always believed is the best basic method of learning about wines. Color me embarrassed.
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To make up for that slip, and with Long-Suffering Spouse as a willing collaborator, I put together a tasting of a representative Prosecco and a representative Champagne designed to explore the two thoroughly: first, tasting alone in the classic clinical way; then with two stages of a dinner – first as apéritif alongside caviar, then alongside a main course of sautéed soft-shell crabs. (No one says a wine tasting can’t be a little self-indulgent.) It would be understatement to say the experiment was very interesting. You can read Diane’s account of the foods here.
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To keep the playing field as level as possible, I wanted to use readily available wines. Ideally, I would have liked them to be similar in price, but that proved impossible. No Prosecco in my local markets came anywhere near the price of most Champagnes, so I availed myself of an Astor Wines sale on sparklers to buy Nino Franco’s Rustico at about $15 and Pol Roger’s Brut NV at about $38. That’s close to standard price for the Prosecco and a very reasonable price for the Champagne. Rustico is a DOCG Prosecco Valdobbiadene, which is one the best zones for Prosecco, but it’s Nino Franco’s basic bottling. (The firm makes others, including a brilliant vintage bottling that is capable of great aging, but none was available locally.)  The Brut NV is Pol Roger’s most basic Champagne, so in that respect there was no tilt in the playing field, but I’m afraid the difference in price between the two wines definitely provided one.

So what did the tasting show me? Visually, there’s not much difference between them, both a pale gold, the Champagne a shade darker. Both had lovely fine and persistent perlage, despite the fact that the Rustico was made by the Charmat method and the Pol Roger had the benefit of the full méthode champenoise (not topics that I can go into here).
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The aromas showed more differences. The Rustico was yeasty smelling, hinting of fresh bread, while the Pol Roger was a tad more intensely bready, hinting of toast. Both were pleasing and inviting.

In the mouth, the Rustico tasted light and fresh, with floral and fruity notes, and specific suggestions of apple, while the Pol Roger showed more wheat and less fruit (though hints of pear popped up), by comparison seeming even a little austere on the palate and in the finish. The Rustico finished long, with a touch of elegance polishing its freshness.

This direct comparison was very instructive. Of the two wines, the Prosecco seemed the more direct and – I considered two words here – simple or honest. It was more obviously fruity, though we’re talking about nuanced fruit here, not in-your-face jam. It struck me as more immediately enjoyable, less demanding of attention or analysis. The Champagne seemed less direct or accessible – more intellectual, so to speak. It seemed weightier, more imposing. (The Prosecco had 11 degrees of alcohol, the Champagne 12.5.)

I deliberately used white wine glasses, not flutes, because I wanted to taste the wines and not just the effervescence. As the two wines sat for a while in the glasses and their sparkle faded, the fruit of the Prosecco showed better, while in the Champagne the winemaking came to the fore.

I would say that with neither of these wines is fruit the point. It’s an attraction, of course, but sparkling wines are a contrivance, and the point of the contrivance – at least in my opinion – is lightness and pleasure first and everything else after. Obviously there are outer limits of how much lightness and how much or little of anything else is desirable, and every winemaker and every drinker has to decide what those are for themselves.

Nothing I tasted in this match-up pushed me to prefer one wine over the other. Both offered high levels of pleasure of slightly different kinds, but in fact the two wines surprised me by how similar they were. And those similarities persisted with different foods, both wines tasting equally satisfactory in their own ways with caviar and blini and soft-shell crabs on toast.
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Each dish called up the Prosecco’s light, fresh fruit and the Champagne’s relatively greater weight and depth (the latter, I am certain, the result of being vinified from a blend of grape varieties rather than a single one). So there were no knock-outs or TKOs, just two excellent contenders of very slightly different weight classes, each performing in character in a variety of circumstances. As old carnival barkers used to say, ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice.

I could certainly have gotten more dramatically different results by choosing different wines – Nino Franco’s impressive vintage Primo, for instance, or Pol Roger’s always wonderful Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill – but I wanted to get as near parity in my selections as I could. Likewise, other palates making the same comparisons might come to different conclusions or perceive greater differences than I did. All I can tell you is what I tasted, and urge you, if you’re curious, to make the comparison for yourself.

The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina

July 17, 2017

Out grocery shopping one scorching hot day last week, Diane and I overheard a guy explaining to his obviously out-of-town friend, “Every year we have two nice days here in New York. We call them spring and fall.” It’s true: We endured an endless, dismal winter, had one lovely day, and all of a sudden it was blazing summer.

Just as suddenly, I found myself craving well-chilled white wine, and lots of it. No news there – except that I just realized that I have never really talked about my favorite white wine for all-purpose summer drinking, Falanghina. Definitely time to do it!

Falanghina has become quite popular in Italy and has had some success here in New York, but I don’t know that it has penetrated very deeply into the collective wine consciousness beyond that, so I’ll start at the beginning.

Falanghina is the name of the grape and of the wine made from it. It’s native to Campania, and once was the white wine of Naples, until it fell victim to the two catastrophes of phylloxera and World War II. Most people don’t realize how belatedly – compared to France – phylloxera entered Italy: It wasn’t until the late 1920s and early 1930s that it reached Campania. Shortly after that, many of the men who would have replanted the vineyards were called into the army. Many didn’t come back, and those who did found devastated and overgrown fields and no money available to revitalize them.

Many farms and vineyards were abandoned, and those that continued were faced with steady pressure to grow a lot of grapes, quality be damned, and to replant with international varieties rather than indigenous ones. We still don’t know how many ancient varieties disappeared forever during those years, but fortunately many survived. One of those hearty natives was Falanghina.

It fell to one far-sighted grower to revive Falanghina. Leonardo Mustilli has to be numbered among the handful of devoted winemakers who, like the Mastroberardino family, stood against the flood tide of international grape varieties to champion Campania’s native wines. Starting in the late sixties/early seventies, he made Falanghina his project, working with a few other growers and the support of several Neapolitan government departments to locate and propagate the vines and to promote the wine they made. Thanks to his efforts and the grape’s own vivacity, Falanghina once again became the ubiquitous quaff of Campanian restaurants and homes.

The reason is not far to seek. Almost everyone who tastes Falanghina enjoys it: It combines light, white-fruit flavors (some say stone fruits) with a touch of citrus and mineral, the latter often intriguingly forward because of Campania’s mineral-laced soils. It drinks delightfully, whether lightly or heavily chilled, and it’s enjoyable young but can take a few years of bottle age with no loss of character. On top of all that, Falanghina is inexpensive: Prices range between a bottom of $10 or $11 and an absolute top of $30, with the vast majority of bottles – including some of the best – clustered at the bottom of that range, between $10 and $20. So with all that, what’s not to like?

There are now many producers of quality wines in Campania, and the great majority of them produce at least some Falanghina. I can’t claim to have tasted them all, but I have tried many, and I’ve been struck by how many of them turned out to be perfect textbook Falanghina. I don’t know whether the grape is just very compliant or whether the growers just like working with it, but from the consumer’s point of view, that’s a win-win situation. Here are some of my favorite producers, starting with

Mustilli, the progenitor of modern Falanghina, then

Villa Matilde, whose founder, Francesco Paolo Avallone, was also a pioneer of Falanghina in the Monte Massico zone, and then

Mastroberardino, patriarchs of traditional-varietal winemaking in Campania, and

Terredora di Paolo, the other branch of the Mastroberardino family, and just as deeply embedded in the whole history of Campanian wine.

After these – alphabetically, not qualitatively – many other producers have turned their attention to Falanghina, often with wonderful results:

Astroni
Di Meo
Donnachiara
Feudi di San Gregorio
Fontanavecchia
Grotta del Sole
La Guardiense
La Rivolta
La Sibilla
Masseria Felicia
Ocone
Sorrentino
Venditti
Villa Raiano

These producers are scattered over several of Campania’s wine zones, and their labels may not all say “Falanghina.” For instance, Villa Matilde’s and several other producers’ labels may say “Falerno del Massico Bianco” – but it will still be Falanghina, and very satisfying drinking.

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A Geekish Digression

There is one complication in the saga of Falanghina’s success, and I think it’s a minor one. Falanghina has turned out to be not one variety but two distinct ones. That’s ampelographically distinct, not palatally: Both species have always been called by the same name and grown in neighboring provinces of Campania, where no one realized they were different grapes, and where they have been drunk more or less interchangeably for years.

Some people claim to be able to perceive a difference between the recently differentiated Falanghina beneventana and the far more widespread Falanghina flegrea – the beneventana is supposed to be a little fatter and fruitier than the more acidic flegrea – but I’m not one of them. Too many variations of soils and cultivation and winemaker’s choices make consistent identification of the two grapes on the palate next to impossible. So here we have a classic distinction without a difference – but probably some day meat for a good argument among geeks and wine snobs.

Two Great Grappas

May 8, 2017

Anyone who has ever had a meal with me knows I am an unrelenting grappista. I long ago stopped being embarrassed by it. Now, if a grappa hasn’t been offered, I just unashamedly ask for one at the end of meal – sometimes before the end, if the meal is an exceptionally ample or long one. My fellow diners variously display interested looks or skeptically lifted eyebrows – until the first aroma of the grappa reaches them. Then, many join me in the sybaritic pleasure of one of the world’s great digestifs.

Most readers of this blog have heard – read? – me say this before. What prompted this outburst was my tasting and immediate acquisition, back in March, of two splendid grappas that I had not known before: Venegazzù Grappa di Capo di Stato and Albino Armani’s Grappa di Amarone. I would go so far as to say these are two of the best grappas I have come upon in a long time. But let me start at the beginning.

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A group of New York wine journalists, arriving in Verona the day before this year’s Amarone Anteprima opened, and knowing there would not be much time for relaxing once the event started, got together for dinner that evening. Guided by Charles Scicolone’s familiarity with Verona restaurants (he is a veteran of many a Vinitaly), we found our way to Ristorante Al Pompiere, just a short way from the Piazza Brà.

The restaurant was comfortable, the food was excellent, and at the end of the meal I asked our waiter for a grappa chiara e con fuoco – clear and fiery. He complied splendidly with a bottle of the Venegazzù estate’s Grappa Capo di Stato, of which we all partook with considerable pleasure. It was not merely clear and fiery, but also elegant and complex. So fine was it that I persuaded the restaurant to sell me a bottle, since I didn’t want to take any chance of not finding it elsewhere.

I was wise to do so – Charles is still kicking himself that he didn’t – since it doesn’t seem to be widely distributed outside of Europe. I try not to write about items that you can’t get in the US, but sometimes something is so good I feel I should just let people know about it. Besides, enough of my readers travel to Europe, and so could acquire a bottle there. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

The wines of Venegazzù used to be more widely available in the States than they seem to be at present, but they are still as distinguished as they ever were. The estate, in the Treviso region of the Veneto, was originally founded by descendants of Conte Loredan Gasparini, a Doge of Venice.

It has now been acquired by the Palla family, who have continued the high standards set by the original owners. The red wines in particular have always been models of terroir-driven elegance, even though the grapes were and still are French: Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Malbec. They are what make Venegazzù’s banner wine, Capo di Stato, and its vinaccia in turn makes the wonderful grappa I’ve been raving about.

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My second great grappa came at lunch the next day. How’s that for an auspicious start to a trip?! My second winery visit of that morning was to the Albino Armani vineyards, one of the highest in the Valpolicella/Amarone zone. It’s also one of the newest, a beautifully stylish, efficient, and eco-friendly installation run by a scion of a family that has been making wine in northern Italy since 1607.

After leading us through a tasting of his whole line of wines – all impressive – Signor Armani served us a mercifully light and tasty lunch, which he followed by pouring small snifters of his Grappa di Amarone. Bliss! Clear as ice water – it was lightly chilled, which enhanced its heady aroma – smooth, elegant, with warmth in its long, long finish, this grappa was every bit as stylish as a name like Armani might suggest, and just as welcome and soothing a digestif as the previous night’s revelation. I floated on a cloud of well-being through the rest of the day’s winery visits. Needless to say, I acquired a bottle of this grappa too before moving on.

Armani’s Grappa di Amarone is, I am very happy to say, available here in the US. Total Wine & More, a multi-state chain, carries it: I don’t know whether that is an exclusive, but like the Venegazzù grappa, this is a bottle worth searching for. I believe it retails for around $50, which I regard as a bargain for a brandy of this quality.

MMMM! More Magnificent Masnaghetti Maps

April 27, 2017

Alessandro Masnaghetti is rapidly becoming the Mercator of the wine world, crafting maps that in their detail and precision have reset the standards for that whole segment of wine lore. The almost incidental fact that his maps all have a good share of abstract beauty makes them even more estimable: Not just wine lovers, but map fanciers too have noticed. He has now released what are – to my mind – his most impressive printings to date: two large maps of all the geographical and cru sites of Barolo and Barbaresco.
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These maps are almost Audubon-elephant-folio size, roughly 24 by 34 inches each, printed on heavier than usual paper. They are, as the cliché has it, suitable for framing – especially for double-sided framing, if you can get it, since the data on the back of each is abundant and important. Each map is rich in detail, presenting all the appellation information Masnaghetti has accumulated in his years of charting the evolution of those two zones as they gradually granted official approval to an abundance of geographical and cru designations. Anyone familiar with Masnaghetti’s earlier maps knows how precise – and how very useful – is the information he provides.

Here I can only give a hint of that wealth of data and the maps’ richness of detail. The image above is the whole of his new Barolo map, and here is a small section of it, showing the town of Barolo and some of its great sites – Bussia and Cannubi:
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This is the whole of the Barbaresco map:
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And this a small section of it, showing the closeness of several of Barbaresco’s great crus, Asili, Martinenga, Montestefano, Muncagota (formerly Moccagotta), Paje, and Rabaja.
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The back of each map lists all the sites depicted and names the wines vinified from it, and their producers. More of my words are superfluous: Masnaghetti’s maps say everything there is to say. They are available in this country through The Rare Wine Company, in Europe directly from Masnaghetti’s publication, Enogea.

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Postscript: Just after I had written all the above, I found out that Masnaghetti has also just released a three-dimensional map of the Chianti Classico zone. I am not even going to attempt to describe it – especially since I have thus far seen only a photo of it and not the map itself – except to say that it seems to show all of his usual accuracy and detail.
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I confess I’m very impressed. As my mother used to say, Will wonders never cease?

A Princely Wine: Corsini’s Don Tommaso

April 6, 2017

In the Tuscan wine world, barons and marquises – scions of old land-owning families – abound, but among all those titles there are very few princes or princesses. Principessa Coralia Pignatelli produces Castell’in Villa, an almost cult wine among Sangiovese admirers, but the only other of princely rank I am aware of is Duccio Corsini, the Principe Corsini of the Le Corti estate. That lofty title, however, is far from the winery’s only distinction, as I and a few other journalists had the opportunity to discover over a recent dinner at the restaurant Babbo. Duccio Corsini wears his distinguished heritage lightly, and he speaks with genuine passion of the wines his distinctive Tuscan terroir yields.

Le Corti lies in San Casciano in the Val di Pesa, about halfway between Florence and Greve, so in the northwest of the Chianti Classico zone. Its soils consist of much less of the marl and clay that mark most of the Classico zone, but are largely alluvial, filled with what Duccio refers to as “river pebbles,” many much closer in size to what we would call cobblestones. If my memory of a long-ago visit serves, several of the vineyards resemble hilly versions of Châteauneuf du Pape, with more stone showing than soil. That terroir yields wines that show real differences from many Chianti Classicos.
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That evening at Babbo we tasted through a six-vintage vertical of the estate’s flagship wine, Don Tommaso Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (now Gran Selezione): 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2010, and 2013. Over those years, the composition of the wine gradually evolved from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot to 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot, which it has been for about 10 years now. It used to age for 15 months in new oak barriques, now it rests in tonneaux (70% new, 30% used) for 18 months, plus at least a year in bottle before release.
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This was a striking tasting. Don Tommaso’s consistency in style from vintage to vintage was admirable: All the wines were of medium weight, all were elegant, balanced, and complete. None smelled or tasted at all of new wood. On the palate, they were squeaky clean, with wonderful Sangiovese black-cherry flavors and acidity, undergirded by an intriguing set of earth tones – not quite what we usually call minerality, but not clay, or mushrooms, or anything underbrushy either. Quite fascinating, and quite impressive: These are top-flight Chianti Classicos, with tremendous aging potential. The three oldest wines were still fresh and vital: In fact, the ’99 was my favorite wine of the evening, and I suspect it probably has a good 10 years at this plateau of quality in front of it. As enjoyable as they all were to taste – even the very young 2013 – these were very clearly dinner wines that would grow in dimensions and pleasure with food.

With dinner, we happy few tasted a different selection of wines. After a glass of a sparkling rosé made from 100% Sangiovese that served brilliantly as a palate cleanser and apéritif, we sat to an abundance of far-too-tasty-for-anyone’s-good antipasti and pastas, accompanied first by Le Corti Chianti Classico 2014 and then by Cortevecchia Chianti Classico Riserva 2014.

The Chiantis were both thoroughly enjoyable, classically Tuscan wines, sapid and juicy – the kind of wines whose appeal is so clear and direct that even non-winedrinkers would instantly realize that what was in their glass was something special. Both wines were vinified from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Colorino, the latter an ancient Tuscan variety. The main difference between them stemmed from their aging: The Classico spent 12 months in either cement or large wooden casks, while the Riserva aged for 20 months, partly in big oak casks and partly in tonneaux. The Riserva of course showed more depth and complexity, but neither wine tasted of anything other than the purest Sangiovese flavors – cherry and a hint of tar, that intriguing, un-namable goût de terroir, and a long aftertaste of drying fruit and – just maybe – a little leather.

With the main course, we were offered a very special wine called Fico, which Corsini believes represents the shape of the future for the Le Corti estate and perhaps for all of Tuscan wine. This project was initiated by his son, who died last fall in a tragic accident. The wine is 100% organically grown and organically vinified Sangiovese. We tasted the 2015 pilot vintage, of which only 280 bottles were made, so this was a rare privilege. Even beyond its rarity, it was one of the most striking Tuscan wines I have ever tasted. Every one of us journalists had the same reaction to our first sip: Pinot noir! Excellent Pinot noir!  And yet it was all unmanipulated Sangiovese. That was the front and middle of the mouth. The back of the mouth and the finish were pure Sangiovese, but that opening taste – and this persisted as we drank our way through the bottle – showed us all a dimension of Sangiovese that we had not known existed. I’m sorry to get so geeky about where-on-my-palate-I-tasted-what, but something like this doesn’t happen every day, and I found it pretty exciting. It is going to be very interesting indeed to see where Principe Corsini goes with this.

Dinner concluded more conventionally (for Tuscany) – but no less deliciously – with an over-abundance of desserts and very welcome glasses of Sant’Andrea Corsini 2004, a Vin Santo made from Malvasia and Trebbiano. In Tuscany, an elegant Vin Santo like this one would be served to a guest as a welcoming toast. Outside Tuscany Vin Santo is most often used as a dessert wine or digestive, which role it on this occasion played admirably, sending us all off into the chilly, slushy New York night warm and content.

Red Wines of Verona, Postscript: the Amarone Families

March 27, 2017

Some weeks after my return from Verona, the March meeting of the Wine Media Guild featured the wines of the Amarone Families, the breakaway group whose wines had not been shown at the Valpolicella Anteprima in Italy.
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As Sabrina Tedeschi, the president of the Amarone Families, explained, these producers left the Consorzio because they felt that it has to represent the differing interests of all the sorts of growers and producers in the extended Valpolicella zone, all 8,000 hectares of it: small growers and big industrial producers, old-timers and newcomers, growers in the hills and growers in the plain. For the Amarone Families’ 12 members, all of them family firms with a history of Amarone production, this meant that the standards being set for Amarone were not sufficiently stringent, so in 2009 they formed their own association with stricter requirements for Amarone: longer aging, higher alcohol levels, higher extract, and – to my mind the most important requirement – that the wine must be dry, with high acidity.

As I said in my last post, many of the Consorzio’s producers are making fine Amarone – but many are not. The Amarone Families’ approach seems to have eliminated the negatives and provided a set of guidelines that – to judge by the dozen samples I tasted at the meeting – has turned out wines of uniformly high quality. Even more important, all 12 wines, though very, very young by Amarone standards, tasted exactly as this long-time fancier of the breed believes Amarone should: aromatic, velvety on the palate, big in the mouth, with rich but fully dry, sometimes even austere, fruit; hinting and promising the complexity that will come with age, and very long-finishing. This far-from-dirty-dozen all tasted like infant and incipient octogenarians.

Here are the wines, in the order tasted:

  • Tedeschi Capitel Monte Olmi Amarone DOCG Classico Riserva 2009
  • Venturini Campomasua Amarone DOCG Classico 2009
  • Guerrieri Rizzardi Villa Rizzardi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Musella Amarone DOCG Riserva 2010
  • Tommasi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Masi Costasera Amarone DOCG Classico 2011
  • Brigaldara Casa Vecie Amarone DOCG 2011
  • Allegrini Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Begali Monte Ca’ Bianca Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Speri Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano DOCG Classico 2012
  • Zenato Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Tenuta Sant’Antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi Amarone DOCG 2013

All were surprisingly drinkable for extremely young Amarone. (Normally, I don’t drink Amarone before it is at least 10-15 years old.) The ones I most enjoyed (this particular day, with this particular lunch) were Tommasi, Masi, Speri, Zenato, and Sant’Antonio – the latter the youngest wine of the day, and consequently a real surprise to me.

Red Wines of Verona II: Amarone

March 16, 2017

Amarone is enjoying a surprising degree of popularity in the United States – surprising especially for a wine that many wine experts think is too big, too austere, too overpowering to match comfortably with any part of a meal except a course of strong, old cheeses. I strongly disagree. I’ve long been a proponent of Amarone: I love its heft and complexity, and I think it partners beautifully with equally hefty meats – unctuous prime rib roasts to be sure, and almost any game dish you can name, but also lamb roasts, or long-cooked braises of all sorts, as well as any number of cheeses. A well-made, well-balanced Amarone has no problems with any dish that can match it in scale.

We winos don’t talk very much about scale, but its importance can’t be overestimated – and it’s almost self-evident, as soon as you stop to think about it. A light wine can be as elegant, or complex, or balanced, as acidic or as tannic, as a big, full-bodied wine, but you would match it with different foods because of its size, its scale. It’s not just the meshing or counterpoint of flavors that makes a good wine-and-food match: It’s also important that, like boxers, the wine and the food belong to the same weight class. With as authoritative a wine as a great Amarone, that element of the match is crucial, lest the wine appear bullying and brutal.
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We’ve been very lucky here in the US in that we have for years been receiving steady supplies of some of the very best Amarones, largely from a group of producers who were not represented in the blind tasting of 2013 Amarones that climaxed my week in Verona last month. (The producers who call themselves the Amarone Families withdrew from the Consorzio a few years ago. Allegrini, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Masi, Speri, Tedeschi, Tommasi, and Zenato are the best known here.) Consequently, I had what was initially the very welcome opportunity to taste wines from more than 80 producers, most of whom were unknown to me.

It quickly became clear that this was a mixed blessing. The 2013 vintage was sound but not great – a wet spring, followed by a hot, dry summer, followed by colder than normal weather during Amarone’s crucial drying period, resulted in wines with high acidity (normally good for Amarone) but also lots of tannins. (For what makes Amarone different from other wines, see here.)
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Additionally, many of the wines in the tasting were barrel samples, and many of those that were in bottle had either been specially bottled for this tasting or bottled only a few weeks ago. A good many simply hadn’t pulled themselves together yet. Trying to judge wines this young is always an exercise in crystal ball gazing, and it is particularly difficult to judge anything definitively about a wine as long- and slow-maturing as Amarone. We tasters weren’t even dealing with infants but, for the most part, with premature births.

That said, and my expectations tempered to that reality, I was still very distressed by a lot of the wines I tasted. To put it bluntly, far too many wines tasted far too sweet to suit my expectations of Amarone. A few samples had so much sugar that I thought I had mistakenly been given a Recioto to taste.

This is a serious problem. The DOCG regulations for Amarone specify that the finished wine can contain a maximum of 12 grams of residual sugar per liter. For my palate, that is already high. I checked with a few of my wine colleagues (Michael Apstein, Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone) about sugar levels in Champagne, just to provide a baseline for comparison. They all agreed: 5 g/l is above the detectable level of sweetness: 12 g/l is the highest limit of Brut Champagne. So 12 g/l is moderately sweet, but a drinker’s perception of that sweetness will depend both on other factors in the wine (acids, tannins, alcohol, etc.) and subjective factors (personal tolerance of sugar, e.g.). I’m not very fond of most sweet wines, and I can’t tolerate a sweet dinner wine, so 12 g/l is really pushing the envelope for me, and I consequently found many of the Amarones in the blind tasting well above my threshold for sweetness. I don’t think I’m way off base on this, so if my palate is any reflection of what the market for Amarone wants, there are serious problems here.

Having said all that, I have to stress that the total picture was not all negative. Even in the blind tasting of these unformed embryos, I found some wines that showed real Amarone character – and of course I tasted yet more mature examples on my round of winery visits. Here are the ones I liked best from both venues (unless otherwise noted, all are 2013 vintage):

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Amarone Acinatico. A forceful, grapey nose, followed by a big mouthful of fresh fruit. Very young but well structured. Will be excellent.
  • Amarone Acinatico 1981. The winemaker poured this to make a point, which he did indeed. A big, soft, delicious wine, marked by mushroom and earth flavors and great depth. It kept changing in the glass, getting even richer as it opened – as great Amarone always does.

From Albino Armani:

  • Amarone Cusianus. Good dry Amarone nose, slight sweetness on palate, with just softening tannins; should develop well. (Barrel sample)
  • Amarone Cusianus 2011. A big, well-balanced wine, with excellent fruit, maturing exactly as it should.

From Bennati:

  • Amarone. Tobacco, black pepper, and dark fruit in the nose and on the palate, coming together in a fairly classic way.

From Bertani:

  • Amarone Valpantena. Very closed on the palate, but the absolutely classic aromas and finish indicate it will be fine. Bertani is, of course, one of the pioneers of Amarone, and its older vintages are benchmarks for Amarone ageability.

From Carlo Boscaino:

  • Amarone San Giorgio. A still closed barrel sample, but like the Bertani wine, the nose and finish promise excellent future development.
  • Amarone 2012. An almost smoky, grapey nose; tobacco and berry palate; balanced, while still forceful and elegant. Aged 30 months in big old barrels (botti). Very traditional, very fine.

From Ca’ Botta:

  • Amarone Tenuta Cajò. Classic, dry Amarone nose, big fruity finish. Another fairly tight sample, but showing the proper signs: should pull together and start opening in a year.

From Ca’ Rugate:

  • Amarone Punta Tolotti. Needs lots of time to pull together its rich components – tobacco, tar, mushrooms, mineral, black fruits – but in a year it should start to be wonderful.

From La Collina dei Ciliegi:

  • Amarone L’Amarone. Tobacco, pepper, and earth, both in the aromas and on the palate; long finishing. Very characteristic and promising.

From Corte Sant’Alda:

  • Amarone Valmezzane. Fruity, peppery nose, lightish on palate. Still coming together, but should be fine.

From Corte Rugolin:

  • Amarone Monte Danieli. Despite being a barrel sample, this wine impressed me as very correctly made and properly developing. It needs time, but should be fine.

From Corte San Benedetto:

  • Amarone. Very like the preceding wine. Still slightly closed, but showing all the right signs in nose and finish.

From Fumanelli:

  • Amarone. Cherry and tannin all through. Big, fresh, and structured. It seems likely to develop very well.
  • Amarone 2011. A classic Amarone – very soft on the palate, with lots of fruit and lots of structure. The tail is still tannic, but it will soften in a year or so.
  • Amarone Riserva Octavius 2010. A huge wine, with an intense stemmy/tobacco nose; round in the mouth, with loads of soft tannins, smoky cherry, tobacco, and hints of chocolate. Still young, but balanced, on a big scale.

From San Cassiano:

  • Amarone 2012. Very young, with tons of fruit and tannins, plus excellent minerality and nice acidity. Needs lots of time: The producer says to give it five years.

From Santa Sofia:

  • Amarone 2011. Just lovely – austere and rich at the same time. Structured to go on for years. A fine traditional Amarone.

From Sartori:

  • Amarone Corte Bra 2006. At 10 years old, this classic Amarone was just entering maturity. Perfectly balanced, it felt light on the palate despite its rich fruit and impressive structure. Just fine.

 

Red Wines of Verona I: Valpolicella

March 9, 2017

Several weeks ago, courtesy of the Consorzio di Valpolicella, I was able to spend most of a week in beautiful, sunny-but-cold Verona, visiting producers of Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone, and Recioto di Valpolicella.

Valpolicella vineyards

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It was an informative and illuminating series of visits. Even after all these years, it’s still something of a wonder to me that the same grape varieties, grown in the same fields, can produce wines as different as the light and charming Valpolicella and the full-bodied and impressive Amarone – to say nothing of the intensely fruit-sweet Recioto.

Those grape varieties remain local specialties, cultivated almost nowhere outside the Verona area; Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella are now the essential ones. In the past, Molinara was often included, but it’s now hardly used because it seems to contribute little beyond bulk. Some growers have become interested in reviving the indigenous Oseleta, which is also permitted within the Valpolicella Classico DOCG, but its use is not widespread, at least not yet.

Valpolicella was once one of the most popular Italian wines here in the States, but like many another wine, its own success almost destroyed it. To meet demand, more and more was bottled from grapes that were grown for quantity, not quality, and successive vintages of over-cropped grapes reduced an already light red wine to almost watery rosé. Its market collapsed, and that was all we heard of Valpolicella for quite a few years.

As the wine has improved on its home turf, with a renewed quest for quality, it has recently begun reviving on the market, but its problems aren’t over yet.

After a week of visiting, tasting, and talking, it seems to me that names and categories now form the nub of Valpolicella’s difficulties. This is a widely varied zone: In its five parallel valleys, some soils are volcanic, others are morainic, others rich in limestone – so wines bearing the same appellation may be very different from one valley to the next, making generalizations about the appellation iffy at best.
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valpolicella-map

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But in terms of nomenclature, that’s far from the worst of it. At even at the most basic level, simple Valpolicella, you have to start with the broad distinction, which many consumers seem not to grasp, between Valpolicella and Valpolicella Classico.

The latter wine originates in vineyards within the hilly traditional heartland of the appellation, the former comes from fields in the plains, to which the name Valpolicella was extended when the DOC designation was first granted, back in the days when Italy’s emphasis was on making a lot of wine, not on crafting quality wine. Wines from stony hillsides and higher altitudes are almost invariably much better that those from the usually warmer, wetter, more fertile plains. In the case of Valpolicella Classico, that is emphatically true.
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With the next category, Valpolicella Superiore, possibilities for consumer confusion increase further. The Valpolicella Superiore appellation requires that the wine reach a higher alcoholic level – 12° – and be aged for an additional year. That’s all. And that’s all that most producers do. But some are experimenting with drying some selected grapes (usually about 40% of the blend) for 40 days, an approach similar to what they do to the entire crop and for much longer to make Amarone.

For the special Superiore, they ferment these slightly dried grapes separately and then, before bottling, blend them in with their regularly harvested and fermented Valpolicella grapes. The resulting wine is still labeled Valpolicella Superiore, but it’s a whole other animal from the mass of Superiores: deeper, richer, more complex, and much more interesting. But the consumer can only know what sort of wine it is by carefully reading the back label – and how many of us actually ever do that?

Then we come to Ripasso, which consists of basic Valpolicella grapes, re-fermented on the lees of Amarone or Recioto, to produce a wine more robust and substantially higher in alcohol. This sort of wine was introduced – or reintroduced – by Masi back in 1964, and it still engenders serious disagreement in the zone. Some defend it as the revival of a traditional practice, others loathe it as a pure invention and a perversion of Valpolicella. Whatever the truth of that, it has proven popular on the export market, though locals still seem to prefer to drink Valpolicella pure and simple.

Among these three categories, I found a lot of well-made and enjoyable wines. But I can’t honestly describe everything I tasted that way: I was very surprised by how varied producers’ styles were and how uneven the level of quality was. I guess I’ve been spoiled by Piedmont, where – in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones at least – hardly anyone makes a bad wine any more. That said, the top level of winemaking in the Veneto is quite impressive, and the resulting wines totally pleasurable. Here are some of the ones I liked best.

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional grapes from high altitude vineyards, fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. An excellent example of classic Valpolicella, light and pleasing.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2014. Sapid and round in the mouth; another excellent example of its kind.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2008. Still live and fresh, with some mature flavors just emerging – proof, if any is needed, how well a good Ripasso can age. Accordini uses used tonneaux for his Ripasso, new ones for his Amarone, but not barriques, which he says are too strong for his wine.

From Albino Armani:

  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. A very nice wine from a very difficult vintage. It needed a little time to open in the glass, but the wait was worth it. The winemaker says his 2016 is brilliant.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big and round, with excellent cherry fruit and a long licorice/tobacco finish. Very enjoyable.

From Boscaini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. A very pretty nose, followed by a soft, almost strawberry-ish wine, with bright acidity. All stainless steel. Simply a great everyday wine from a very traditional producer whose whole line impressed me.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. “Old style,” the maker says: It spends nine months in used Slavonian oak botti. Big tobacco-inflected nose, rich fruit on the palate, tobacco/cherry finish.
  • Ripasso 2013. Two years in oak botti. This is an excellent example of Ripasso, but my heart is really with Boscaini’s Superiore.

From Ca Rugate:

  • Valpolicella Classico Ripasso 2014. Biggish – 14.5° alcohol – and deeply flavored, but very easy on the palate, with a long tobacco-and-tar finish. Quite fine. In the States, this producer is best known for its fine Soaves (the vineyards straddle both zones), but its Valpolicella was very stylish and pleasing.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Campo Lavis. A cru wine, with some of the grapes reserved and dried, then fermented and blended in with the rest of the harvest. The process yielded a smoky, dried grape nose and a big round wine, rich with cherry fruit and ribbed with tar and tobacco, as well as a long black cherry finish. A really intriguing wine.

From Fumanelli:

  • Valpolicella Classsico Superiore 2014. This wine spent 8 to 10 months in tonneaux, so it showed a slightly woody nose but the palate was just fine – classic Valpolicella cherry flavors. This is a small producer who has no desire to get bigger: “We make the wine we like to drink,” the young winemaker says. They sell off half their grapes, keeping the best half for themselves.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Squarano. This Superiore is made with 40% of the grapes dried for 8 to 10 weeks before fermentation. The house doesn’t make a Ripasso, preferring the richness of this Superiore, which struck me as very polished, very balanced, and very structured – and therefore probably very ageworthy, if you don’t drink it all up right away.

From San Cassiano:

  • Valpolicella 2015. Vivid proof that there is good wine outside the Classico zone, this small winery turns out excellent, basic Valpolicella.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big tobacco/berry nose; round on the palate, with soft tannins, savory and well balanced.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2012 Alene. Part of the harvest was separated and dried for 40 days before fermentation. Some of the wine also had barrique aging. The result is a big wine that could legitimately be called a baby Amarone.

From Santa Sofia:

  •  Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional varieties, in stainless steel – that adds up to textbook Valpolicella. This producer has been on the American market for decades and has always offered a top-quality wine.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2014 Montegradella. A wonderful example of the depth and complexity that results from blending the juices of 40-days-dried grapes into the juices of conventionally fermented grapes. A delightful wine, and great with food.

santa-sofia-vineyard

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Part Two of this post, concerning Amarone, will be online in about a week.

 

Carmignano: Pedigreed and Pioneering

February 27, 2017

Carmignano is probably the least known of the great, traditional Tuscan appellations. Its territory was originally delineated in 1716 by the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici. The Carmignano DOCG zone still occupies that same territory, about 16 kilometers northwest of Florence, and some of its wine-making estates – notably Capezzana – originated as Medici villas. In the case of Capezzana, now the property of the Contini Buonacossi family, the present villa was originally a Medici hunting lodge. This was and is a small zone: All of Carmignano contains just 110 hectares of vineyards. There are some individual Bordeaux estates that are larger than that.

qs-tuscany-map-2011-final

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Capezzana unquestionably leads the Carmignano pack in terms of quality and fidelity to tradition, though the local winemaking tradition may strike many wine fanciers as amazingly modern. In the course of the 18th century, it became customary in the Carmignano zone to blend Cabernet sauvignon into the base Sangiovese, a practice that sharply distinguished the zone’s wines from the Chianti-style wines of the rest of Tuscany. History buffs will remember that a Medici – Caterina – had become Queen of France (she is popularly supposed to have taught the French how to cook peas and eat with forks), so the introduction of French varieties into Medici properties was certainly no accident.

the-capezzana-villa

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However the French grapes got there, Carmignano was producing SuperTuscans about 200 years before they became fashionable, and the zone continued doing so, virtually unnoticed by Tuscans and foreign consumers alike, all through the SuperTuscan fad. That was a real shame, because all those Chianti-zone winemakers who destroyed vintage after vintage of good Sangiovese by clumsily dosing it with Cabernet could have learned how to handle Cabernet well by simply consulting the producers of Carmignano, who had so many years of experience with it. I love Sangiovese, and it hurt me deeply to see so much of it transformed into tannic monsters and rendered undrinkable for so many years. The irony of there being a close-to-home example of how to do it right seems even now not to have dawned on many Tuscan producers.

Present DOCG regulations for Carmignano mandate minimally 50% Sangiovese to be blended with maximally 10-20% Cabernet sauvignon or Cabernet franc, maximally 20% Canaiolo nero, maximally 5% Mammolo and Colorino, and maximally 10% Trebbiano and Malvasia. Another irony: One of the most pioneering appellations in Tuscany also contains one of the region’s most traditional blends – Sangiovese, plus the indigenous varieties Canaiolo, Mammolo, Colorino, and even some white grapes, just as in the old, old Chianti formula, all joining hands with Cabernet sauvignon and/or Cabernet franc.

I love the idea, and I love its results. At its best – and it is often at its best from Capezzana – that blend makes a wine savory and harmonious, companionable with all sorts of meals, enjoyable young villa-capezzanaand still capable of great and graceful aging. I recently opened a bottle of Villa Capezzana 2000. I didn’t decant it, though I should have – not because it needed aeration but because of the heavy sediment it threw. When I pulled the cork, a great rush of plum and blackberry greeted me and persisted all through the meal. On the palate, the wine was rich with ripe fruit – black fruits – and soft, elegant tannins, with an almost endless finish. A lovely wine, especially in what was a hot vintage, in many parts of Tuscany yielding unbalanced wines tasting of over-ripe fruit. They do things right at Capezzana.

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

trebicchieri-2017

So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

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red-wine

 

From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

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I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

white-wines

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .