Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

One Fine Wine: Monsecco Ghemme 2011

October 10, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

As I’ve remarked several times in recent months, I’m getting more and more interested in the wines of Alta Piemonte – the high Piedmont, that arc of Nebbiolo-based appellations that lie on sub-Alpine hills in the shadow of Monte Rossa. There is a very good reason for my increasing interest: those wines are getting better and better, and – happily – are becoming more available in the market here.
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Once upon a time, Spanna – as Nebbiolo is called throughout Alta Piemonte – was a name at least as famous and prestigious as Barolo and Barbaresco, maybe more so. Then came phylloxera, and the region’s viniculture was essentially wiped out. As in several other formerly important wine-producing areas, recovery was very slow, and only a few makers in Gattinara or Boca or Ghemme managed to hold on through the lean years. In the past 25 years or so, however, as Italian wines generally have earned more respect – and better prices – interest in the great tradition of Alta Piemonte Spanna has revived, production has increased, and, most important of all, quality has become paramount.

The wine I’m focusing on in this post – Monsecco Ghemme 2011 – is a perfect case in point. Monsecco was at one time a very important name in Alta Piemonte, famous for structured, long-aging wines. Then the winery went extinct, the wines disappeared, and Monsecco became one more memory of glories past. Now it’s coming back, the name revived by the Zanetta family, long-time Alta Piemonte negociants and now vignerons, as a signal of the kinds of wine they want to make: structured, polished wines of great longevity.

That immediately catches my interest, and the wines themselves hold it. I’ve mentioned this particular wine once before in this blog, when it showed beautifully at a dinner party we gave. This time it did just as well at a middle-of-the-week dinner for the two of us. First came the nice, berry-ish nose. The same congeries of flavors followed on the palate – very persistent, with excellent acidity and minerality and very soft tannins. The flavors in the cherry range that I associate with Nebbiolo were screened by the cascade of strawberry, blackberry, and even blueberry notes, with slate and salt, all carried by gentle tannins and bright acidity. At eight years old, the wine showed as very fresh, very balanced, and totally enjoyable.

With a sirloin steak, it got rounder and richer, and cheeses – especially a goat cheese — kicked the fruit up even further, making it big, deep, and complex. It’s clearly still young, and I think has minimally a decade of development before it. The Zanettas are equally clearly succeeding in their goal of reviving the grandeur of Monsecco’s name and reputation. This was indeed one fine wine. I’ll be keeping an eye out for other examples of their craft.

Travaglini Gattinara

September 30, 2019

I have been getting increasingly interested in the wines of Alta Piemonte, that northern stretch of Piedmontese Nebbiolo vineyards that lie quite literally in the foothills of the Alps. Of the cluster of denominations strung out along that shallow arc, Gattinara has long been highly reputed as the most elegant and longest lived.

Travaglini is one of oldest and largest producers in Gattinara and in most critics’ estimation one of the two best winemakers in the zone. So you can imagine how quickly I said yes to an invitation to meet Cinzia Travaglini and her daughter Alessia to taste their new releases and some library wines. This wasn’t going to be work: this would be a treat.

Up there in the north, Nebbiolo is known as Spanna, and in most of the appellations (for example, Boca, Ghemme, Lessona) it is commonly blended with significant amounts of Bonarda and/or Vespolina. About 10% of those two grapes is permitted in Gattinara, but producers of Travaglini’s quality don’t use them. The pure character of Nebbiolo – Nebbiolo in purezza – is what Travaglini strives for: a wine that reflects both the complex character of the grape and the intense minerality of the rocky Alpine soils it grows in.

Those are very traditional winemaking goals in the Piedmont, and most of Travaglini’s working methods are equally traditional. That doesn’t prevent a little experimentation, however: the welcoming glass offered on this occasion was a champagne-method sparkler vinified au blanc from early-harvested Nebbiolo – and I assure you it wasn’t an oddity, but a lovely, complex, and satisfying sparkling wine. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale yet outside Italy, but the importer – Taub Family Selections — is hoping to bring some in soon.

From that point on, the tasting focused on conventionally vinified — and conventionally colored — Nebbiolos. It led off with Nebbiolo Costa della Sesia 2017: 100% Nebbiolo, stainless steel fermented under controlled temperatures. The wine stayed in stainless for another four months and then spent 10 months more in big Slavonian oak casks. The result is a wine very pleasing and fresh, a little light for a Nebbiolo wine but of definite varietal character and enjoyable drinking – hard to beat at a suggested retail price of $21.

After that, the tasting was all Gattinara – 2015, Riserva 2013 and 2009, Tre Vigne 2013 and 2006. These were all excellent wines, both the classic Gattinara and the cru selection Gattinara Tre Vigne showing the characteristic Gattinara silkiness, mineral complexity, and elegance.

The Gattinara Riserva comes from Travaglini’s oldest vineyards, the Tre Vigne from three separate vineyards reserved for it. The principal vinicultural difference between them is that 20% of the Tre Vigne wine is aged for a year in barrique. Having them side by side, I could discern the scent and taste of the barrique in the Tre Vigne: It wasn’t powerful, but it was noticeable, and for me – I admit to being a bit nutty on this subject – that was a distraction.

This was true of even the oldest Tre Vigne, the 2006: those barrique odors and flavors just don’t go away or level out. In all other respects, the two Tre Vigne vintages were model Gattinaras, and I strongly suspect that most consumers, tasting a Tre Vigne by itself, will not notice or be in any way bothered by the barrique notes. Which is good, because there is a lot of fine Nebbiolo in those bottles.

For me, the wine of the day was the Gattinara Riserva 2009, a classic wine in every sense, developing beautifully but still young (it probably has two decades in front of it), with a truly lovely, long finish.

It’s hard to give Gattinaras of this quality the cellaring they deserve, so enjoyable are they young. But you should definitely make the effort. These are great Nebbiolo wines, just as capable of bottle development and maturation as Barolo and Barbaresco, but – if you need another incentive — usually at substantially lower cost.

Freisa: An Uncommon Wine Worth Seeking Out

September 9, 2019

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Wine lovers have a role to play in this sporadically dawning age of eco-consciousness. The large, messy vitis vinifera family includes a good many endangered subspecies, and the ecologically worthy task of preserving them is a boon not only for biological diversity but for our own ever-curious palates: some of these near vanishing varieties make very fine wine. One such is Freisa, a very old Piedmontese grape, once extremely popular, now reduced to a few vineyards and a mere fraction of its former acreage.
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In this map of the Cavallotto vineyards, Freisa is the tiny piece in blue.

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No, you won’t find it everywhere, though I wish you could. Not even in Italy, where outside its northern stronghold it is close to totally unknown – and even in its heartland, the Piedmont, it is scarce and threatened. So why am I telling you about a wine you probably won’t be able to get? Because I think it’s worth an effort to save. Because if asked, local retailers will ask their distributors, who will pass the question up to corporate and – who knows? – somewhere along the line someone may actually do something that will eventually result in a potentially very great wine surviving to give pleasure for a few more centuries. I think that’s worth making a fuss about, don’t you?

What makes Freisa special is its relationships:  It is either the parent or the child of Nebbiolo, and that is special indeed. DNA studies have established the  relationship but not which is which. What is clear is that approximately 80% of Freisa’s DNA is identical to Nebbiolo’s, and that certainly gives it a head start on greatness.

Freisa has been grown in the Piedmont for centuries, and at one point in its long history it formed a part of almost every blended wine made there – and in the past they were almost all blended. Farmers loved it because it was hearty and disease-resistant, grew where many other varieties wouldn’t, and bore prolifically. Some of those characteristics can be the kiss of death for a wine of quality, inviting overplanting and exploitation. In addition, Freisa grapes are packed with tannins, which unless handled properly can be cruel on the palate. Many of you will remember that very similar things used to be said until quite recently about young Nebbiolo-based wines, Barolo in particular.

Right now, Freisa seems to be one of the varieties that is benefitting from global warming. The Piedmont’s lengthening growing season is giving the grapes the opportunity to achieve complete phenolic ripeness, and that – as with Nebbiolo – is the key to taming those rambunctious tannins, and even to lowering the variety’s very high malic acid content, resulting in a more balanced and drinkable wine right from fermentation.

The result, for the consumer, is a wine with an aroma that commentators describe as “haunting and complex” (that particular formulation is Ian D’Agata’s) and a fascinating flavor profile that features always the strawberry from which its name apparently derives and several other fruits, especially wild cherries. I recently enjoyed a bottle of Freisa from the Langhe, a young one from Cavalotto, a very traditional Barolo house that hasn’t abandoned the other traditional grapes of the region.
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This 2015 was deeply colored and deeply flavorful, redolent of cherry and earth, with a soft mouth feel – the tannins were totally under control – and an enlivening touch of acidity.  It combined beautifully with a simple, tasty weekday dinner of oven-roasted sausages, potatoes, bell peppers, and red onions, which we followed up with a few odds and ends of cheese. The Freisa loved every single component and adapted seamlessly to them all. That, in my never very humble opinion, defines a really good and useful wine. This was a young wine, but because of the tannins it shares with Nebbiolo, Freisa should age very well – if any of us could ever get hold of enough of it to cellar.

Let us hope for the future: There seem to be signs of a small revival of interest in the variety, both among producers and in the press:  Eric Asimov recently discussed it prominently in The New York Times, and that can’t hurt. By all means, try it if you can: It may give a welcome new palatal experience. Perhaps a new day is dawning for Freisa. Who knows? If global warming keeps increasing at its present pace, they may soon be growing Freisa in Burgundy.

 

Smiles of a Summer Night

August 8, 2019

Midsummer dinner parties always present problems. You want to keep things simple and light, but you also don’t want to treat your guests as if they were fashion silhouettes who make a meal on a single lettuce leaf and a martini olive. Plus, if your guests have palates, you want to offer them the bounty of the season and also wines appropriate to that bounty: light, but not insubstantial; fresh, but not without complexity. And all the while, you have to offer placatory sacrifices to the gods of the electric grid, so that the power doesn’t go off in the middle of prep or the middle of dinner. Oh, first-world worry worry worry!

Those of you who follow Diane’s blog already know how she recently pulled off this trick. My part involved less work but – I flatter myself – more tact: matching the appropriate wines to those tasty dishes. Hors d’oeuvres are always easy: you can’t go wrong with a Prosecco or a Champagne. This time I opted for Champagne, because . . . well, mostly because I’ve already drunk my lifetime quota of Prosecco this hot summer.

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I’ve been tinkering with grower Champagnes lately – because they vary interestingly from the Grands Marques norms – and the one I opted for this time didn’t disappoint. Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Cuis Premier Cru, Brut NV was an intriguingly mineral-and-white-fruit blanc de blancs: 100% Chardonnay, vintages 2010-2015; disgorged March 16, 2019; dosage 6g/l.For my palatal preferences, blanc de blancs is the ideal summertime Champagne, light enough to titillate, complex enough to hold your interest. This one provided exactly that combination.

Our first course at table was classic summer fare from Naples: zucchini a scapece and a platter of just sliced, never refrigerated heirloom tomatoes surrounding a still-moist-from-its-whey mozzarella di bufala. Naples dictated the wine choice here: a sapid and lovely Greco di Tufo, tasting of its volcanic soils and bittersweet fruit. Ours was from Benito Ferrara, his cru Cicogna, a perennial – and entirely deserving – Tre Bicchieri winner.
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With the pasta, we switched to red wines, and I got a surprise. Fresh fettuccine pointed me to northern Italy, so I chose a Ghemme, one of Piedmont’s subalpine denominations that blends upwards of 65% Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) with the indigenous Bonarda and sometimes a little admixture of other, very localized grapes. These northern wines emphasize elegance rather than power, and are usually lighter-bodied than more southerly Piedmont Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco.
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My wine, a 2011 Monsecco, perfectly supplied the lighter body and elegance, but it also offered much greater fruit intensity – cherries! – and depth than I had expected. It got everybody’s attention from the first taste, and kept it. Ghemme and Boca and Lessona, but especially Ghemme, are staging a real comeback, and you should know about them:  they are fine wines, and considerably less expensive than the better known Barolo and Barbaresco.

Diane’s summertime secondo directed me back to Naples, so with it we drank a lovely 2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva from Guastaferro.
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Gorgeous and big and deep, this wine – vinified exclusively from very old Aglianico vines still on their own roots, a rarity even in Campania’s often sandy, sulfur-laced soils – will last for decades more with no loss of vigor or flavor. This too is a winemaker to know about.

For our cheese course, I went back north again, for Barolo this time: a 1999 Barolo Colonnello from Aldo Conterno. I wanted to finish with a crescendo, and this great cru in a great vintage from a great producer provided it.

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The wine was lush: big in the mouth, round and deep, with dark, brooding, still fresh-tasting fruit understrapped by abundant now-soft tannins and generous acidity, it was ready for anything the cheeses threw at it.

Smiles this summer night were abundant, though they bore no resemblance to the ones induced by the Ingmar Bergman movie from which I shamelessly lifted my title.

In Memoriam: Lucio Caputo

July 29, 2019

Earlier this month, Lucio Caputo died at the age of 84. His passing didn’t attract a lot of attention outside the wine world, but within that micro-universe it reverberated enormously.

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From 1974 to 1982, Caputo was the Italian Trade Commissioner in New York, at that time a position of incredible importance for Italian products in the United States, and most especially for Italian wine. He left the Italian civil service in 1983 (declining a fat government pension) to stay on in New York to found the Italian Wine and Food Institute, an agency he successfully headed for the next 30 years. The IWFI did a tremendous job over that period of promoting the best of Italian wines and food products. Its annual tastings and awards dinners were always highlights of the season for wine professionals.

But for those of us who remember what the situation of Italian wine was in this country before Lucio Caputo, his greatest accomplishments came in his years as Italian Trade Commissioner.  Before then, Italian wine in America was largely “Soavebolla” – the popular portmanteau term for what was often pale, watery, nearly flavorless, overcropped, and overproduced plonk. After Caputo’s stint as trade commissioner, Italian wine in America had become a broad spectrum of many kinds of wine from many sorts of grapes from all over Italy. Caputo didn’t simply promote Italian wine – though he did, actively and passionately: But in terms of the American market, he could be said to have invented it.

Big claim, eh? But here are the stats: Before his campaign, Italy was exporting 362,000 hectoliters of wine a year to the United States. In 1983, the annual export reached 2,400,000 hectoliters, an almost sextupling in volume. Initially, as I recall, the big increase was in inexpensive wines, but as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, higher-quality wines increasingly made their mark.

By the end of Caputo’s term as trade commissioner,  Italian wine imports to the US had surpassed French wines – the market leader for decades before – first in quantity and then in value.  These were the years when many now-famous Italian wines, then small-market cult wines even in Italy, began appearing on shelves in New York, Boston, and Washington; then in Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. The great wines you now can get easily and regularly first showed up then.

This all came about because of Caputo’s tireless efforts. Wine journalist old-timers will remember as fondly as I do the regular tastings at Italian Trade Commission headquarters on Park Avenue. This was a spacious, stylish venue, sporting an extensive wine library and a museum-quality Di Chirico oil painting.
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The tastings, which occurred every week (and sometimes twice a week), were every bit as stylish and extensive. They were also thorough, informative, and often quite intensive. You could always sit and taste comfortably, often at your own pace, and you had ample space to take notes – luxuries not always available today to the assiduous taster.

The Trade Commission tastings might be of a wine type, or a region, or a grape variety. Whichever they were, you were sure to taste and learn about some grape varieties and wines that were new to the American market or still hoping to get there, because not just journalists attended these tastings: retailers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, distributors, and importers also came. Those sessions opened the door to this country for many of the wines we can now take for granted, and they were Lucio Caputo’s finest achievement.

In the past few years, we have lost a lot of the pioneers and masters of Italian wine. Lucio Caputo was not a great winemaker like Bruno Giacosa or Beppe Colla or Antonio Mastroberardino, but his contributions to Italian wine stand in the same range of importance. One more giant is no longer with us.

Wine in Venice: Not as Great as It Should Be

June 17, 2019

Granted, my expectations were probably too high. Granted, I was only in Venice for a week, and probably missed a lot of good shops and restaurants. And granted, there was an abundance of drinkable, enjoyable wine in most restaurants.

But – and this is a very big but – given what Venice has to draw upon from the land to supplement the treasures offered by its lagoon and the Adriatic, there should have been an abundance of great wine too. All the resources of the Veneto, Friuli, and Alto Adige lie at Venice’s doorstep, and those three regions contain dozens of fine white varieties and hundreds of great producers – most of which you will have to search pretty hard to find any trace of in Venice. It ought to be a capital of great white wines, and it’s not.

Not that Venice doesn’t drink white wine. Prosecco is ubiquitous, both as a wine in its own right and as a principal ingredient in La Serenissima’s beloved spritz, an aperitif of Prosecco, sparkling water, and a splash of Campari or Aperol. It’s almost compulsorily the first thing you’re offered when you enter a restaurant or sit down at a café. A spritz is cool and very refreshing and unquestionably charming, but in many of those cafés and restaurants, Prosecco may well be the best there is on the wine list.

Most lists are very short and not at all deep: maybe a Soave or a Lugana from the Veneto, maybe a Sauvignon or – rarely – a Friulano from Friuli, maybe a Chardonnay or Pinot blanc from Alto Adige. That’s about it. I don’t know why there isn’t more and better wine: Perhaps this is another sad result of Venice’s hyper-tourism, the consequence of a daily influx of hordes of once-only customers who neither know nor want any better. But it’s a sad situation for the serious wino, in a place where the seafood can be wonderful.

I’m not saying there is no good wine in Venice, just that you have to search hard to find it. Out in Burano, one of the smaller islands near Venice, the restaurant Venissa provided a lovely bottle of Pietracupa’s Fiano di Avellino, one of my favorite Campanian wines, which I was delighted to find so far off its own turf – and especially because it was one of the more reasonably priced wines on what was predominantly a very costly list.

And in Venice itself, at the fine Osteria da Fiori, which offered the best wine list I encountered in my week of seeking, Diane and I enjoyed a 2016 Vintage Tunina, Silvio Jermann’s masterly blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Picolit. Although very young, this wine was so fine that I was tempted to make this whole post an ode to it – but that would have conveyed a very false impression of Venice’s wine scene.

I can’t pass it over in silence, however. Vintage Tunina – a fantasy name, invented by the then-young Silvio Jermann back in 1975, when he produced his first bottles of it – is one of Italy’s greatest white wines. It was iconoclastic, back then: The norm in Friuli was monovarietal wines, which were held to be traditional. Jermann pointed out to anyone who would listen that that was a new tradition: His grandfather had told him that, before WWI, all Friulian wine was blended, usually a field mix. So he began experimenting, liked the results he obtained, and so persisted, for which we should all be grateful. Vintage Tunina and other of his “inventions” (e.g., W…Dreams…, Capo Martino) rapidly became stars, winning prizes and markets and drawing attention to Friuli’s great potential.

Back in 1996 (I think it was ’96), at the Salone del Gusto in Torino, Jermann conducted a vertical tasting of two decades of Vintage Tunina, back to the 1976 vintage – his second – thereby demonstrating another of Vintage Tunina’s excellences. It ages beautifully, growing deeper and more intense with increasing years. I remember the ’76 was transcendent, like velvet in texture, dry, mouth-filling, tasting richly of dried fruits and earth.

So, here in 2019 Diane and I were drinking with great pleasure the fortieth descendant of that 1976, and our only regret was that it wasn’t 20 years old. And maybe that we weren’t either.

A New (to Me) Grappa Maestro: Capovilla

April 15, 2019

This post is about a grappa distillery that I haven’t had the opportunity to visit, much as I would like to: Capovilla, located in Bassano, near Monte Grappa, in Vicenza province. I had been hearing for some time about Gianni Capovilla, the proprietor, as a sort of grappa-and-distillates genius.

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In this age of hype, I had taken the reports with a grain of salt. Especially since one of the major praises of Capovilla’s genius came from a Wine Spectator article written by someone who, before tasting Capovilla’s distillates, had been unaware that grappa was capable of “nuanced aromas.” Enough said, I think: You will understand my skepticism. (If you don’t, take a look at some of my earlier posts about grappa and its splendors – this one, for instance.)

More recently, I’ve had the opportunity – in Italy – to taste several Capovilla grappas in social circumstances, and I was very favorably impressed by their purity, and so slowly began to suspend my skepticism. Even more recently, a friend here in New York served me Capovilla’s grappa di Bassano, which I found impressive indeed. And more important, that same good friend told me that at least some Capovilla grappas were now available stateside. The hunt was on.

I’ll spare the tedious details: I’ve acquired a few of Capovilla’s products and have tasted them analytically, as well as appreciatively, and my verdict is in: This is a first-rate producer – maybe a bit pricey for some items, but clearly a top-tier distiller.
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From left: grappa di Lugana, grappa di Bassano, distillato di pere Williams, grappa Triple A

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Gianni Capovilla, now in his 70s, began professional life as an engineer, working with agricultural and enological machinery. Like so many Italians in the wine and food world, he had to go abroad to learn to appreciate what he had at home. Experiences with quality distillates in France and Germany hooked him, and thirty-some years ago he began making wine, grappa, and fruit brandies. Shortly after he moved entirely into distillation, whose complexities – and the complexity of its results – fascinated him. He quickly attracted attention in Italy, which was itself finally beginning to esteem its home-grown spirits. He is now regarded as one of the maestros, turning out small quantities of almost hand-crafted grappas and fruit brandies – close to two dozen kinds.
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Of the latter, the ones I’ve tasted are right up there in quality with the far more famous clear fruit distillates of Alsace, and in some cases Capovilla’s are even better. His pear Williams distllato (he makes three different ones, from different kinds of pears) in particular stands out for the delicacy and clarity of its aroma and flavor. He spends much time and attention on his fruit distillates, in some cases cultivating and/or gathering the fruit himself. He even has people bringing in wild fruit for him to distill – though that, as you can easily imagine, is a very small production.

Grape pomace, happily, is much more readily available, though even about that, Capovilla is very picky. In grappa making as in Italian cookery, the prima materia is crucial to the quality of the finished product, and Capovilla works with carefully selected pomace from specific regions and vineyards. He makes, for instance, a beautiful grappa di Lugana, clear, aromatic, and deeply flavorful, from the pomace of the Ottella estate near Lake Garda, a first-rate vigneron in the heart of the Lugana zone.

Another example, which I’ve not yet had but am eager to try, is a grappa di Ribolla, distilled from the legendary winemaker Gravner’s pomace. The list goes on: grappa di Cabernet, di Merlot, di Amarone, di Barolo, di Brunello. You get the picture, I’m sure: Gianni Capovilla is a passionate, dedicated craftsman, working intensely to produce grappas and brandies of the highest quality he and his land are capable of. And now I’ve acquired a vocation too: finding and tasting as many of them as I can.

Donatella, Prima Donna del Vino

April 1, 2019

 

 

Donatella Cinelli Colombini has lived and worked in the wine world all her life. Her family owns the Barbi vineyards and winery. They have lived in Montalcino since at least the 16th century, and the properties that Donatella now cultivates have passed down the female line for many generations. The most important one, a Montalcino vineyard, used to be called simply Casato; for reasons that will come clear shortly, Donatella has renamed it Casato Prime Donne.

The Cinelli Colombini family and the Barbi vineyards played a key role in the invention of Brunello. In the 19th century, one of their ancestors, along with a Biondi-Santi ancestor and a few other individuals in Montalcino, began experimenting with vinifying the local clone of Sangiovese by itself – a heresy of sorts in Tuscany, where blending several varieties had been the traditional way of vinification for centuries. That tradition was powerful enough by itself, and it had only recently been reinforced by the influential precepts of Barone Ricasoli about the way to make Chianti. Nevertheless, the Montalcino pioneers persisted, and so the wine we now know as Brunello di Montalcino was born.

For many years, Donatella was generally in charge of affairs at Barbi, running everything from the cheese- and salume-making to the winemaking (Barbi was and still is a complete farm operation), but in the late 1990s she claimed her share of the family properties and set up on her own – “in keeping,” as Kerin O’Keefe dryly puts in her book Brunello di Montalcino, “with the unwritten but solid tradition of most of Italy’s great wine families of not being able to work alongside parents or siblings.” My own sense of the matter is that it was not willfulness on Donatella’s part that led to her departure. But that isn’t important: What does count is what she proceeded to do at Casato, which is to create a winery completely staffed by women – hence Casato Prime Donne.
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This would be significant anywhere, but in the Italian wine world it was close to revolutionary, and it was compounded by the fact that from the very beginning, she made wonderful wine. I think it’s getting better all the time, as the house’s emphasis is shifting from power to elegance, but even some of the earliest bottles have matured very well.

That isn’t all Donatella did. For as long as I’ve known her (Full disclosure: I’ve known Donatella – as well as her mother Francesca and her brother Stefano – for decades now), she has been engaged on many fronts, all linked by her love of the wine, nature, history, and traditions of Montalcino. She has compiled and published collections of local food lore. She even campaigned to save the local species of donkeys. Most important, she created a whole organization for wine tourism in Montalcino and invented Cantine Aperte, an annual event during harvest time when Italian winemakers – who by and large are the antithesis of Napa Valley, totally unequipped to deal with visitors – open their cellars to the wine-loving public. Cantine Aperte has spread from Montalcino all through Italy.
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Donatella now teaches wine tourism in the graduate programs of three universities. It’s hard to imagine a more complete and more successful life in wine.

What spurred this whole lucubration for me was an exquisite bottle of her 1999 Riserva that Diane and I drank about a week ago. I had brought home a gorgeously marbled T-bone steak from Ottomanelli’s, which we simply broiled; and we had found at a sub-astronomical price at Eataly some fresh porcini mushrooms, which we seethed in olive oil along with some sliced fingerling potatoes; and we both felt that a properly aged wine of some real complexity was called for. Donatella to the rescue:  The wine was perfect, with all the deep, dark prune-plum-grape-earth elements that Brunello is famed for in perfect balance, and wrapped in a velvet envelope of soft tannins and still-fresh acidity – simply put, at 20 years old, as good as Brunello gets. Savoring it, we reminisced about Donatella and realized how much she had accomplished and how infrequently it is acknowledged. Hence this long overdue tribute to one of wine’s great women.

Casato Prime Donne makes all the classic Montalcino wines: Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello, and Brunello Riserva. In addition it produces a special-selection Brunello Prime Donne, which is blended according to the input of a group of prestigious female tasters. The bottles I’ve sampled have been pretty heavy on the fruit, but all showed the kind of structure necessary for good maturation – so I’m hoping to taste some of them again with a little age on them.

More power to the women, I say, and I’m pretty sure that’s coming: I have no statistics, but a great many of the Italian wine families I’ve visited in recent years seem to have a large number of very capable daughters.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines II

March 21, 2019

I’m posting now about the inexpensive case of mixed, everyday red wines I put together as a complement to the dozen everyday white wines I talked about two posts back.

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We drink a lot of white wine at Casa Maresca, but we consume even more red. I’d guess that two out every three, maybe three out of four, dinners we make call for red wines – and since I care strongly about making the wine and food play happily together, it means I like to keep a good variety of red wines on hand. And that means, of course, reasonably priced wines, for all the obvious reasons.

Enough prologue: Here’s the list.

  • Barale Barbera d’Alba 2017 Castlé
  • Barale Dolcetto d’Alba 2017 Le Rose
  • Bodegas Olarra Rioja Reserva 2010 Cerro Anon
  • Cà Lustra di Zanovelli Marzemino 2017 Belvedere
  • Centopassi Nero d’Avola 2016 Argille di Tagghia Via
  • Château de Plaisance Anjou Rouge 2017 Entre Copains
  • Cuvée des Galets (Côtes du Rhône) 2016
  • Filipa Pato (Vinho Tinto Bairrada DOC) Baga 2017
  • Oreste Buzio Freisa del Monferrato 2017
  • Oreste Buzio, Grignolino del Monferrato 2017 Casalese
  • Villa Sant’Anna Chianti Colli Senese 2015
  • Viña Real Rioja Crianza 2015

In selecting this batch of wines, I was not trying to be experimental, to try new wines or kinds of wines I’m not familiar with. Food compatibility was the goal, and compatibility with the kinds of food we cook every day was the guiding principle of selection. Hence the preponderance of Italian wines on the list, and especially the large presence of Piedmontese wines, which I think are particularly food-friendly, and which – happily – are available in good variety in the New York area.

Barbera and Dolcetto I find are especially useful. Barbera’s medium body and high acidity make it compatible with an extraordinary range of foods, from – to choose a few random examples – asparagus frittata to tomato-based sauces to grilled sausages or even steaks, especially gamy cuts like skirt steak or hanger steak. Dolcetto is softer-bodied and far less acid, and it loves buttery sauces, mushrooms, more delicate meat – especially veal in any form.

Nero d’Avola is also medium-bodied, and on the palate feels and tastes Merlot-ish. Its strong suits are stews and brown-sauced casseroles – really any dish that isn’t aggressively sauced or spiced.

Even more useful – the utility infielder of red wines – is that perfectly named Anjou red, Entre Copains – “among pals,” which is how I envision large quantities of this wine must be drunk on its home turf. It’s 100% Cabernet franc, which is a Loire valley specialty, and this is one of most welcoming versions of it I’ve encountered. Its pleasing, soft, generic red fruit would match with anything from a good pizza on up the culinary scale to simple roasts and grilled meats. It’s practically the definition of an enjoyable everyday wine.

The Côtes du Rhône wasn’t quite that all-niches useful: By itself, it was a fairly light, high-acid Rhône, with cherryish fruit and a good finish, but it rounded nicely and gained some flesh with food, especially with cheese.

The Baga from Filipa Pato was also surprisingly soft on the palate and versatile with food. It stood up well, for instance, to mideastern spiced lamb meatballs and to Indian chutneys and pickles. Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato, the acknowledged master of this grape in Portugal, and with this particular wine she has chosen a different path from that of her father’s formidable bottles.

The Grignolino and Freisa are more specialized wines that I couldn’t resist buying, since I don’t encounter them that often. Both are light-bodied, light-fruited reds ideal for warm weather quaffing, which is exactly what I’m saving them for. I should have done that too with the Colli Senese Chianti: These are always at-most-medium-bodied and fruity, with a touch of Sangiovese elegance, but this bottle was a tad too light for matching with cold weather dinners.

The Marzemino was another wine I selected simply because I don’t get many chances to taste it. This one turned out to be a big, not entirely balanced wine, black-plum fruited and a touch hot: It loved steak and mushrooms, but wasn’t too happy with anything else.

The two Riojas – Crianza and Reserva, at opposite ends of the aging spectrum – were both a bit disappointing. I love Rioja and find it very useful as a dinner wine, but of these two bottles the Reserva was too young of its kind and yet still too important for everyday utility, while the Crianza had been exposed to too much oak, which diminished its freshness and charm. I won’t give up on Rioja, however: I’ll just have to sample some others.

And there’s my necessary excuse to order some more wine. Diane, look away.

The Wine Version of March Madness

March 11, 2019

By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

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And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.