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This is my final post for 2021. It presents the last of my 12 special cellar selections for the year, Quintarelli’s 1981 Amarone. What a spectacular series it turned out to be!

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When I got this Amarone, somewhere back in the middle ‘80s, I remember thinking that I would have to put it away for a while. I’m pretty sure that I was thinking that the “while” in question would be about 5 years, or maybe, since this was a Quintarelli, 10. I’m sure I had nothing like 40 years in mind. That just happened, as year after year I considered tasting the wine and decided to give it a little time yet, until this particular Amarone got pushed back into the Do Not Disturb portion of my brain, and there it stayed for a few decades.

At last its moment came round, and I was worried alternatively that I had waited too long and that I was still rushing it.

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That’s a legitimate worry when Amarone is concerned. These are notoriously long-lived wines, and in some vintages they can be very slow maturing. 1981 is, I suspect, one of those vintages. In the Veneto that year, the grapes matured very slowly on the vines, so in some spots the harvest was late, and required several passes through the vineyards to bring in the grapes as they came ready. Fermentation was also long and slow. So ‘81 showed itself early as a wine that would demand patience.

You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking 40 years was enough, but I couldn’t be absolutely certain. I’ve opened 20- and 25-year-old Amarones only to find they were years, perhaps decades, away from full maturity: drinkable, of course, because of their intense fruit, but still tasting and feeling like young wines, and lacking the mature, complex flavor I hoped for, as well as the balance, depth, and, above all, the velvet mouth-feel of fully mature Amarone.

To this point, the oldest Amarone I’d drunk was a 47-or 48-year-old Bertani that celebrated my 75th birthday, and I remember it vividly as one of the most profound wines I’ve ever tasted, with flavors and aromas so deep and concentrated they seemed endless. The empty bottle still smelled wonderful two days later: I could hardly bring myself to throw it out.

Quintarelli doesn’t have the history with Amarone that Bertani does, but Giuseppe Quintarelli in his lifetime became an acknowledged master of the wine: A colleague once quipped that Quintarelli was a black belt in Amarone. Some knowledgeable critics still regard him as the greatest winemaker in the history of Amarone, and I find it hard to argue with that. The “lesser” wines of his that I’ve tasted — Valpolicella and a handful of IGT wines – have always been impressive, big and rich and deep, with a thoroughly craftsmanlike character: superbly made wines.

That latter characteristic is crucial, I think, because Amarone, like Champagne, is an oddity in the universe of wine: It is a wine that owes more to technique than to terroir, more to art than to nature. You start with the late harvest and the number of passes through the vines the winemaker chooses to make. Compound that with the degree of noble rot the winemaker encourages/discourages/prohibits. Then add in the timing of drying and pressing the grapes, and the choice of vehicle in which fermentation occurs. Then whether he does or doesn’t permit malolactic fermentation, plus all the subsequent decisions about handling and aging the wine.

All these craftsmanly decisions affect the wine in more profound ways than its terroir does. All are the techniques of an artist whose chosen medium is the juice of grapes and the wood of barrels. Those appassionati who pursue Amarone are winemakers in the most profound sense, and the resulting wine reflects their skill and artistry more significantly than it does the character of the grapes that go into it. Champagne is the only other wine I know of which you can say that.

Well, the moment of truth arrived, the cork was pulled, the wine was poured, swirled, sniffed, and tasted. The immediate results: two simultaneous, totally unrehearsed “Wow!”s. No kidding: off the scale.

Here are my first five words about its aroma: honey; raisins; prunes; chocolate; chestnut. Here is my first tasting note: “all of the above in velvet!”  This was simply an amazing wine, of elegant power, depth, and duration. It rolled right over foie gras and barely noticed a rich, fruity, pan-roasted duck. I find it hard to imagine a dish that would challenge it – perhaps high-mountain game, like chamois?  This wine was wonderful, still fresh and rich, and simultaneously complex and deep. It is unlike any other Italian or French wine I know, and made a powerhouse conclusion to my 12 cellar selections for the year.

For those who may be curious, here the other 11, in the order tasted, each name linked to my post about it. There is a lot of fine drinking here. In all honesty, I’m not sure what I learned from the whole endeavor, except confirmation that I love mature wine, and that it is well worth the effort of putting some bottles away for your own and their old age.

Happy New Year to all my readers, and many of them to come!

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January

2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé

February
2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja

March
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal

April
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio

May
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana 

June
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)

July
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann

August
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato

September
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray

October
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach 

November
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli

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It is no secret that I love grappa. I’ve been a devotee for years, and I’ve witnessed – and to some extent chronicled – grappa’s rise from near embarrassment when reluctantly served in serious restaurants (it was thought of then as transalpine truckers’ breakfast) to ultra-fashionable sip (the period when, as one fellow devotee put it, many grappas seemed to be more about glass blowing than drinking) to, finally, settle down as a fine brandy to be routinely served and consumed in restaurants of any scale anywhere (well, almost anywhere).

A selection of grappas at a restaurant in Italy now

Along that trail, I’ve tasted many different grappas, made from many different grape varieties, since the distillation of grappa has spread from its northern homeland all throughout Italy. I’ve tasted grappas right from the still, and grappas aged for years in barrels of various kinds of wood. I’ve even tasted a few grappas not made from grapes, a trend I hope died quietly and quickly. Through it all, I’ve always preferred somewhat old-fashioned grappas. When I ask for one in an Italian restaurant, I describe my preference as chiara, forte – non morbida – e con fuoco: clear, strong, and with a little fire.

I don’t mind if it’s made from blended vinaccia or from single-grape pomace, as long as it isn’t sweet. I have even been known to request a grappa in the middle of a meal – it was a very big meal – to clear a little space for the food yet to come. If Normans and Bretons can do that with their p’tite calva, I don’t see why it should be scandalous for Italians to do so with their native brandy. And I can report that after a few minutes of buzz, everyone else at my table also ordered one. It was a very big meal.

These days, when I want a grappa that tastes of the old days – the best of the old days, to be sure – I pour a glass of Marolo’s Dedicata al Padre, a mixed vinaccia grappa of great intensity and a little touch of – what to call it? – funkiness, odor of the farm, goût de terroir, just basic earthiness?  All are true, and all part of the rich character of this fine grappa.

Marolo is a serious grappa distiller, and its line includes all the principal grapes of the Barolo area and then some, almost all of which it distills monovarietally. Of that large range of single-grape grappas, my hands-down favorite is Marolo’s Grappa di Barbera, a grappa chiara, forte, e con fuoco if there ever was one.

Some of Marolo’s grappas are available here in the States – Dedicata al Padre, for instance – but the Grappa di Barbera is not, to my dismay. I nursed my last bottle of it for almost two years, through all the Covid travel restrictions and interruptions, until I could get to Italy and replace it. I did so at my first opportunity, walking from my Rome hotel to the holy sanctuary of Enoteca Costantini and cradling my prize until I got it home intact.

I cannot tell you the pleasure of my first sip – the wonderful fruity aroma, the little tingle on the tongue, the big mouth-filling flavor, the long aftertaste, the genial warmth spreading throughout my whole body, the comforting feeling of completeness that little glass gives me. It’s just a beautiful grappa, and I’m sorry – really, genuinely sorry – if that means nothing to you.

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I don’t have much 25-year-old-Barolo stored away. I like Barolo too much, and I tend, despite my best judgment, to drink it too young – just to see how it’s getting along, you know. This bottle I was hoping would be very special: It’s from one of the most traditional growers and winemakers in the whole zone.

I don’t suppose either of those – producer or appellation – need much comment from me. Barolo is one of the most famous of Italian wines. It’s vinified entirely from Nebbiolo grapes grown in a very tight zone just southwest of the city of Alba in the eastern Piedmont. Borgogno is one of the longest-established and best-known firms in the area. Headquartered in the town of Barolo, Borgogno was run by the same family from 1761 until 2008. In that year, it was acquired by the Farinetti family, who have dedicated themselves to perpetuating the house techniques and style. So: still cement tanks for fermentation, still big – and I do mean big – Slavonic oak barrels for aging, still meticulous, increasingly organic techniques in the fields and the grape handling, still minimal intervention in the cellar. Borgogno’s character and reputation seem secure.
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In most vintage charts of Barolo, the years 1996 through 2001 are a series of exclamation points, each of them given whatever is the top rating in that particular chart. On Poderi Colla’s chart, which is one I trust, those vintages are all five-star. 1995 doesn’t quite make that level: it’s only given four stars, which is normally pretty impressive, but looks puny compared to the string of vintages that followed it. Nevertheless, I’ve often gotten great pleasure out of such overshadowed vintages. (Economy-conscious buyers take note: many such under-rated vintages make excellent buys, whether for immediate drinking or long-term aging.)  As for my 1995 – if Borgogno thought enough of the vintage to make a riserva, my bottle might be a treasure indeed.

Since we don’t drink a bottle this potentially precious every day, Diane and I thought long and hard about a meal to set it off properly. We finally opted for forward flavors and simple preparations:  For a first course, Diane would make a classic gougère; for a main course, a hanger steak – a very gamey, juicy cut – simply grilled and accompanied by a sauté of leeks and Marconi peppers, and some cremini mushrooms in a little bit of a spicy sauce. Dessert, if we and the wine made it that far, would be pears and gorgonzola al cucchaio – well blued ‘zola so creamy and runny that it’s scooped rather than cut.

Not to keep you in suspense, we got a winner. From the moment I pulled the cork, I knew we were in for a treat: beautiful fruity aromas – raspberry and cherry especially – popped right out.

I let the wine breathe about two hours in the bottle before pouring it alongside the warm gougère. Lovely, just lovely: balanced and serene, velvet on the tongue, with a whole palate of fruit and forest flavors.

Chestnut and mushroom notes emerged as it developed in the glass: these became especially prominent with the beef and its accompanying mushrooms.

The wine tasted wonderful with everything: seemingly, nothing could disturb its perfect equilibrium. This was probably the most prominent and important characteristic of this 26-year-old Barolo: its harmoniousness, what I meant earlier by calling it serene. It conveyed an amazing and almost reassuring sense of completeness, as if it could not be anything other than the velvet nectar it was.

.Neither we nor the Barolo made it to the cheese course.

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Even by my own leisurely standards, I’m late getting a new post in place. That’s because Diane and I just managed ten marvelous days in Rome, a trip long overdue, thanks to Covid.

We revisited many of our favorite Roman sites, and as many as we could manage of our favorite restaurants and wine bars. Some of the latter have not survived the plague-related closures: We especially missed Angolo Divino*, a stand-by spot for a simple, light lunch and a great selection of wines by the glass, as well as in bottles. Happily, many others were still in business, and we were able to visit enough of them to taste a nice selection of local wines, my particular interest being the Lazio red variety Cesanese.

Cesanese seemed to be widely available this trip, so much so that a few waiters even spoke of it as a typical Roman red. You would think that would be the case, since it’s grown in the hills not far from Rome, but its availability is actually a recent development, one of the many results of modern Italy’s rediscovery of its own culinary and viticultural traditions.

When I first started traveling to Italy, Rome’s red wine was Chianti – not necessarily Classico (it was rarely so specified) and often sfuso – drawn from a tank or barrel. In those days – the late 1970s and early ‘80s – Rome’s white wine was rarely identified by any other name than bianco, and it was usually verging on brown. Much has changed for the better since then, and Rome’s current pride in Cesanese counts heavily in that score.

Perhaps there was a golden age of Cesanese in Rome’s more distant past. Ian d’Agata, in Native Wine Grapes of Italy, lists several popes as fans of the wine, and it seems to have always been popular with the growers, as the vine’s presence all through the Lazio region indicates. Currently there are three DOCs: the relatively minor and rare Cesanese di Affile, and two more important ones, Cesanese di Olevana Romano, actually produced quite close to Rome, and Cesanese del Piglio, now a DOCG and grown in the hills around towns like Agnani and Acuto. This area is what you could call deep Lazio, where traditions die hard and “Forz’ Azzura!” always means the Lazio soccer team and never the hated Roma club.

Cesanese is not an easy grape to grow: It ripens late and unreliably, but many winemakers – and increasing numbers of consumers – think it is worth the effort. Ian d’Agata waxes rhapsodic about it:

[T]here really are many fine cesaneses made today. The better wines are ripe red-cherry fruit bombs, with aromas of delicate sweet spices (a hint of cinnamon and of white pepper) and red rose petals, and come across as luscious and creamy. I can’t stress enough the wonderful, delicately aromatic nose that a well-made cesanese is endowed with: one whiff and you’ll be hooked for life.

In Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson speaks of Cesanese’s “velvety tannins and a distinctive perfume reminiscent of mulberries and pimento.”

I tasted a good number of Cesaneses in my all-too-few days in Rome – those are the label photos that punctuate this post – and I was in fact uniformly struck by the wine’s softness: It really coddles your tongue and palate. And I did find their aromas attractive, though elusive and difficult to pin down, and definitely not uniform: They seemed to me to vary greatly from producer to producer.

Most important, Cesanese proved to be a fine food wine, matching very happily with a wide variety of dishes, from antipasti both cold and hot, through a range of Roman pastas, to meats and fowl grilled or cooked moist, usually in sweet/acid tomato sauces. I found Cesaneses to be thoroughly enjoyable wines, whether with food or by themselves. The ones I tasted were nowhere near the caliber of the great Barolos and Amarones – perhaps someday they will be – but they are also nowhere near the price of such wines. In Roman restaurants, Cesaneses went for a third to a quarter of the price asked for Barolo. For their actual quality and great enjoyability, that is bargain-basement pricing.

The biggest problem Cesanese presents the American wine lover is finding it. Some are coming into this country, but not in great volume – a problem that the Covid-caused shipping delays have only exacerbated. You will have to search for a bottle of Cesanese, that’s certain. But I assure you, from my experience of them, they’re worth the effort, whether you root for Lazio or Roma or even Tom Brady.

 

* The very week after we left Rome, Angolo Divino apparently reopened. See Charles Scicolone’s post about it.

 

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To put you out of no-doubt-intolerable suspense, my answer to that question is yes.

I’ve been drinking some Brunellos lately that are getting positively burly – and that, to my mind, is definitely the wrong way for a Sangiovese wine to go. Sangiovese is a grape whose character is gracile, not muscular, like a sculpture rather than a quarry. Sangiovese makes a wine of elegance and suppleness, even delicacy, a wine of nuance and complexity, not a push in the face.
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It’s been a few years now since I’ve been able to attend the Brunello Consortium’s annual new release event in Montalcino, so I can’t claim to be fully up to date on the broad spectrum of Brunellos. This opinion piece is based on my recent experience of some young and youngish Brunellos, bottles from solid if not stellar producers, who represent to my mind a fair sampling of what the large middle ground of Montalcino winemakers have been up to in recent years – and I’m not happy with it.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying these are bad wines. Far from it. Many of the bottles I’ve tasted lately, wines like Val di Cava 2010 and Le Gode 2012 and Mastrojanni 2015, have been very enjoyable. But they have been big, and high alcohol, and they seem to be pursuing a model of winemaking that I think is a misdirection for Brunello, one that if followed to its logical conclusion will result in a wine that I for one will no longer recognize as Brunello di Montalcino.

Just the other evening, to test my palatal memory and to make sure I wasn’t imagining this whole problem, I opened a bottle of Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s Brunello Riserva 1999.

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(Believe me when I say I’m very aware of the difference between a mature wine and a young one. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know how to taste a young wine to discern what its aging and maturation potential is. Almost all the reports I’ve ever written about Brunello new releases – and they have been many – have demanded that kind of palatal knowledge.)

Donatella’s wine was lovely, everything I think a Brunello should be: Balanced and mouth-filling, without being in any way heavy, rich with mature fruit flavors while still subtle and nuanced, complex and changing with every dish, from a spicy rabbit pâté to poulet Marengo (the whole deal, with fried bread and poached eggs), to a gorgeous ripe pont l’éveque. Never aggressive but always responsive, not insisting on its own primacy but establishing its greatness by its gracefulness.

That is exactly what I am not tasting in the younger Brunellos I’ve recently drunk, and that is what worries me. Maybe it’s resulting from global warming and the steadily increasing heat in many wine zones, with consequent super-ripeness. Or maybe it’s resulting from young winemakers playing their version of who’s the toughest kid on the block. I can’t answer that, and I’d be very interested to hear from other Brunello lovers about whether their experience tallies with mine and how they account for it.

All I’m really sure of is this: that I feel very strongly that the Brunello I have loved for many decades now is slipping away.

Kerin O’Keefe, in her landmark book, Brunello di Montalcino, describes her early experiences learning Italy’s great wines: “While I relished discovering those glorious Barolos, it was Brunello, exceedingly elegant and vibrant, with more complexity than muscle, that won my heart.” That’s an assessment that’s hard to better: lively, vibrant elegance, complexity and nuance foregrounded over power. I couldn’t agree more. What I’m worried about is that muscle – always easier to achieve than elegance, especially in warmer and warmer vintages – is pushing elegance out the door.

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This, my eighth cellar selection for 2021, is a wine that in theory I ought to completely disapprove of, but in fact I love. I ought to disapprove of Montevetrano because its blend of French and Italian grapes doesn’t taste very Italian. But I love it because it’s simply a magnificent wine: The older it gets the more it reminds me of Chateau Lafite. And that, as every wino knows, is nothing to sneeze at.

Montevetrano is the love child of Silvia Imparato, who brought it forth with the help of her friend Riccardo Cotarella, who at the time (the early 1990s) was not quite the monumental presence he has since become in Italian wine.

Imparato brought to her family property in the hills behind Salerno a love of Campania’s indigenous grapes. Cotarella brought an eye for the land’s potential and a fondness for Cabernet and Merlot. Imparato wanted to do something that would provide decent work for the region’s young people and that would serve as a benchmark for the quality and potential of southern Italian winemaking. Cotarella agreed and felt that the way to achieve all their aims was to make a world-class wine.

They succeeded almost from the start:

  • Daniele Cernilli routinely refers to Montevetrano as “a kind of Campanian Sassicaia,” which should make clear the kind of stature it holds among Italian cognoscenti.
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  • Bibenda, the annual guide of the Association of Italian Sommeliers, regularly awards it Cinque Grappoli, its highest ranking, and usually describes it in a long paragraph of rhapsodic Italian that credits it with, among other qualities, an aroma that embraces blueberries, mulberries, and black raspberries as well as “pale tobacco,” not to mention an equally rich and complex palate and tremendous aging ability.
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  • The prose of Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines tends to be a bit more restrained, but it also routinely awards Montevetrano its highest rating, Tre Bicchieri – which, incidentally, it gave this 2003 vintage.
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  • And I’ve been mildly rhapsodical about the wine myself in the past, here and here.

Montevetrano began its career very Cabernet-heavy – maybe 90% of the blend the first year or two – but under Signora Imparato’s pressure – and Cotarella’s increasing appreciation of Campanian grapes – the percentage of Aglianico has grown steadily. The wine still has no DOC, only the humble Colli di Salerno IGT appellation.

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To my palate, in Montevetrano the Aglianico restrains the Cabernet, reins it in and potentiates its elegance rather than the raw power it often shows in other Italian blends. That raw character of Cabernet is one of the major reasons I strongly oppose its use in Tuscan wines: There, even a small amount of Cabernet can completely override the native Sangiovese, almost obliterating its presence in the blend. Aglianico seems to have enough strength of its own to withstand the Cabernet onslaught and to bend it into a far more interesting and very drinkable wine.

By the way, two new wines have been added to the Montevetrano line: Core red and white, the red a 100% Aglianico and the white a blend of Greco and Fiano. Both are fine. The name is a bilingual pun, on the Campanian dialect word for heart and the English word core – so an international name for the native-grape wine and a local place name for the internationalized wine. Italians love paradoxes.

Which, perhaps, explains why I so love this elegant Franco-Campanian bastard. General principles are fine and noble things. Any wine critic – any critic of anything – has to have ‘em. But they can’t override the data, and the evidence of my senses tells me every time that Montevetrano is a ravishing wine.

For this bottle this time, Diane roasted a duck – bronzed and crispy skinned and beautiful—and prepared a potato gallette and some seasonal vegetables: all fine foils for the richness of the wine. I opened the bottle about two hours before dinner time. Even with that head start, my Montevetrano kept changing all dinner long, opening further and adapting to the food, as a really fine wine always will.

The color was a beautiful deep, almost impenetrable garnet. The nose was deep and winey – very Bordeaux-like, with dark, mature fruit-and-leather notes. In the mouth, it was very smooth, with still-fresh notes of blackberry, plum and leather. “Rich and velvety” Diane called it, “plums turning into prunes,” but at the same time “extremely grapey.”  Fruit and leather, youth and age, all in lovely balance all through the wine.

The Aglianico’s acidity kept it supple, but it is unmistakably big, bigger than its 13.5 degrees of alcohol would seem to warrant. At the same time, the depth of Aglianico’s varietal character served to mollify the assertiveness of Cabernet. Together the two amalgamated into a harmonious third thing – very balanced, very big, very elegant, very powerful, but withal very restrained. Just a gorgeous wine, well worthy of all its accolades.

One final note: there was no hint that this wine was anywhere near the end of its run. It tasted as if it could easily have another ten or twenty tears of enjoyable life in it. Would that we all did!

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Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, the seventh selection of my 12 special wines for 2021, has been a spectacular wine from the get-go. Back in 1975, the then-21-year-old winemaker created it outside the existing Friulian wine categories, from his own imagination and what his grandfather had told him about older Friulian ways of making wine.

Post-World War II, Friulian winemaking had become resolutely monovarietal. Many grape varieties were grown – especially white varieties – but they were always harvested and vinified separately to make 100% varietal wines: indigenous varieties like Tocai (now called Friulano) and Verduzzo and Picolit, as well as international (read French) varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. Friuli was a paradise of single-variety white wines.

Jermann’s grandfather told him about an earlier tradition: field mixes of several varieties and blended wines. Jermann was intrigued: He had visions of wines of greater complexity and far greater longevity than most of what he saw around him. With brashness and luck – and talent – he followed his own instincts, and in 1975 gave the Italian wine world what may well be, after over 40 years, its finest white wine: Vintage Tunina.
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This was and is a harmonious blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc (usually close to 80%), with the balance composed of Malvasia, Ribolla gialla, and Picolit. The exact percentage of each variety may vary from vintage to vintage, but those five have remained all along. And all along, Vintage Tunina has probably garnered more Tre Bicchieri, Cinque Grappoli, and paeans of praise than any other white wine in Italian history.
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Jermann Vineyards

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Back in November of 1998, at my first Salone Del Gusto in Torino, I attended a nine-vintage vertical tasting of Vintage Tunina: 1997, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1990, 1989, and 1987, ending with 1982. That last was a wonder vintage all across Europe, an opening salvo of global warming, bringing amazing ripeness to the grapes and major problems to farmers and vintners, who had never dealt with such heat before. I think of it as the first harvest of the new weather patterns, and hence a highly significant vintage to close a significant vertical tasting.

Because Vintage Tunina is both so important a wine and probably the least well known to wine drinkers of my chosen 12, I’d like to present a synopsis of my notes on that tasting, as a way of demonstrating what Vintage Tunina is all about.

1997.  Recently bottled and so fresh it seemed almost frizzante, but round and mouth-filling, with generous apple-and-orange fruit and a very long finish. An impressive, substantial wine.
1995.  Same as the ‘97, just a bit older and more emphatic. Medium gold color.
1994.  Color deepening to dark gold with green highlights – very attractive. Nose more earthy, with dried apricot scents appearing. Bigger and more mouth-filling on the palate, with apricot and mango fruit flavors. The finish seemed endless.
1993.  Slightly different one. Abundant spice – cinnamon and woodruff especially – over dried pear, in the aroma and on the palate. A lovely wine, still youthful and fresh. They get nicer and nicer!
1991.  Gorgeous: Dried pear on the nose, rich and spicy; dried pears and cinnamon on the palate. Big, yet light-feeling, mouth-filling but not cloying; still fresh and invigorating, with its muscular structure becoming evident.
1990 and 1989.  Vintages firmly announcing the arrival of climate change in northern Italian vineyards. Wonderful spicy aromas – dark dried pear tones prominent – and mature deep fruit flavors. Sapid, with exceptionally long, drying finishes.
1987.  Had developed further in the direction of ‘89 and ‘90, with the big structure coming more to the fore.
1982.  That first hot-weather vintage that caught so many winemakers off guard, and a wonder. So many green highlights in its dark gold that it almost looked electric. Still fresh and livelily acidic, with white fruits dancing on the palate. Only the smallest traces of really evolved flavors: could easily mature for another decade.

Which brings me, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, to my present wine, a 14-year-old Vintage Tunina of the 2007 harvest. It hardly makes sense any more to talk about vintage quality with Silvio Jermann’s wines: Whatever the growing conditions, he makes great wine, and the very hot 2007 growing season seems to be no exception. Why I have put this wine away and not tasted it until now should need no explanation: It’s just a wonder that I’ve been able to keep my hands off it this long.
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So: Diane prepared a simple, luxurious dinner to taste my wine against – a foie gras mousse (bought, not made) to start, an elegant braise of veal with morels and cream for the main course, and just a taste of cheese to finish. Each course brought out a different facet of the incredibly complex wine.

But first things first. Color: This ’07 Vintage Tunina was dark amber gold, with only a few scattered green highlights. This might lead you to think the wine was oxidized, but one whiff of its intriguing deep and complex aroma would dispel that thought. On the palate, it was delicious and profound. Not a big rush of fruit, but very fresh and youthfully vigorous: It tasted as if it had years to go yet. Many layers of many flavors – honey and dried peaches or apricots, with underlying mineral and even metallic elements, copper for instance.

The mousse emphasized the wine’s harmony and depth. The veal and mushrooms minimized its minerality but foregrounded its honey and fruit components. The cheese brought back its minerality. Overall, as it opened in the glass, the distinctive taste of its small amount of Picolit – the peculiar smoky tang of grapes lightly touched with pourriture noble – came to the fore and persisted right into its very long finish. What a complex wine! What a pleasure to drink!

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By now it’s news to no one that white wine weather has arrived. Heat and humidity reign here in the Northeast, and in other parts of the US the weather is much worse, running from extreme drought to extreme storms. The last are probably not alleviated by white wine, but otherwise, summer heat can always be countered with a chill, pale glass of a dry, lightly fruity, refreshing white. Today, I’m celebrating two that help me through the dog days: one from the north of Italy, Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner, and one from the south, Salvo Foti’s Etna Bianco Aurora.
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Abbazia di Novacella Kerner
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The Abbazia di Novacella may be the northernmost winery in Italy, seated up at the top of the Adige Valley in what used to be the German Sud Tirol. It is also a working monastery and a tourist site of some repute, with gorgeous baroque buildings and libraries, and lovely mountain views. My geography is a little weak, so I’m not sure whether those mountains count as eastern Alps or western Dolomites, but they are impressively high, and the Abbey’s vineyards lie on their lower slopes.

The grape Kerner is hardly a household name, even among ampelographers. The variety was created in Germany in 1929 from a deliberate cross between Riesling and the variety known in Italy as Schiava grossa (Vernatsch in German). At one time Kerner was widely planted in Germany, but those acres have dwindled, and the German-speaking territories of what is now Italy seem to be its last stronghold. It has never had a large presence on the American market, but I can speak from sorry experience when I tell you that there currently seem to be several very mediocre bottlings of Kerner available, so watch out.

The Abbazia’s version is a very long way from mediocre: Light-bodied and charming, with a little zing of Riesling fruit and plenty of minerality from those mountain soils, it’s a reliably refreshing warm weather drink, versatile with any number of foods. For instance, it dotes – as do I – on prosciutto and figs, and works just as happily with shellfish and white-fleshed fish – the kind of foods we all eat more and more of as the solstice passes and the warm weather stays.

Incidentally – and because it would be criminal of me not to mention this – the Abbazia’s premium version of Kerner, Kerner Praepositus, is one of Italy’s great white wines. It has more heft than the “simple” bottling, but no less charm. Neither version is expensive, especially not for their quality: Careful shopping can find you Kerner for around $20, Kerner Praepositus sometimes under $40.
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Salvo Foti Etna Bianco Aurora
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Aurora presents a very different story. It grows on mountain slopes too, but those of an active volcano, Etna, in Sicily, just about as far south as you can get within Italy’s borders. It’s made by Salvo Foti, one of Etna’s leading exponents. For years, he was the head winemaker for Benanti, a pioneer of Etna viticulture and champion of its indigenous varieties. Aurora is his fantasy name for a blend of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella, both traditional varieties in that corner of Sicily but neither very widely grown – Minella hardly at all – anywhere else.

Aurora is a bigger wine than Kerner, and a touch more expensive – but it is every bit as fruit-and-mineral-propelled. Its flavor is complex and its fuller body indicates a primary role as a dinner wine. As such, it is superb, adapting to everything from fish and shellfish through chicken, pork, and veal.

I have also found that slowly sipping a glass of Aurora while cooling down after too much time in the sun is an intensely pleasurable experience, so I wouldn’t hesitate to rank it also in that exalted Italian category of vino da meditazione. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it’s always worth your attention, and I’m happy to drink it anywhere, anytime.
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Let the heat waves come: I’m ready for them.

 

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Just a few days back, Diane and I prepared a nearly-down-home dinner for two friends who share our tastes for simpler foods and nicely aged wines. The evening’s secondo was a giant braciole – a butterflied flank steak stuffed with prosciutto, parsley, garlic, raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, egg, and grated cheese; browned in olive oil with onion, celery, and carrot; then braised in wine, broth, and its own good juices.
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That’s a lovely, homey dish, and the wine I matched with it shared those qualities: a 2004 Barbaresco from the Produttori del Barbaresco. Not a cru wine, not even a riserva: just the basic Produttori bottling, which had been living in my far-less-than-perfect storage for lo! these many years.

It was ambrosial.

Here’s what its back label — back labels are generally the abode of medical warnings and wine misinformation – says:

Made entirely from Nebbiolo grapes, Barbaresco is a wine of great complexity and elegance that is well suited for long ageing. Aromas of black cherry and violet combine with spicy notes to create its distinct taste, supported by firm tannins and a long finish.

Not a syllable of misinformation there: That description is spot on.

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It was not simply the multiplex flavors of the wine and the way they meshed with our meal that was so impressive, but also its perfect balance and maturity. It wasn’t huge and forceful, but medium-bodied and supple, ready and willing to engage any food we might match with it. Those are to my mind and palate classic Nebbiolo characteristics, beautifully expressed in the impressive 2004 vintage, and captured perfectly by the many growers of the Produttori.

 

Produttori del Barbaresco is probably the best wine co-op in any wine zone in the world. It has the advantage, of course, of its zone and its native variety:  It would be hard for some other chunk of the wine world to equal the quality of either Barbaresco or Nebbiolo. But the success of Produttori is the result of more than that. It’s a combination of the devotion and care of its growers and the canny direction provided by its long-time manager, Aldo Vacca.

Vintage after vintage, for over 20 years now, Vacca has with great discernment channeled the grapes the growers bring in through all the stages from fermentation to bottling, making the choices of which should be separated for cru bottling and which for classic Barbaresco, and which should be put aside for extra aging and riserva designation.

You can appreciate the difficulty of that task, and the palatal acuity and enological knowledge it demands, when you realize that Produttori’s growers work vineyards in every one of Barbaresco’s nine prized subzones – Asili, Montefico, Montestefano, Muncagotta, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo – each of which possesses a different character that yields a different wine. I’ve found it impossible to think which I like best (though if absolutely pushed I might lean towards Rabajà in the greatest years and Montestefano in merely excellent ones).
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I’ve been lucky enough, at varying times, to taste several different vintages of all these wines with Aldo Vacca, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic distinctions among them are fascinating. I can only admire the kind of knowledge Vacca has, to distinguish the characteristics of very young wines so as to judge which should be blended with which, or which will reward the solitary splendor of a cru designation.

That’s the kind of expertise that created my simple ’04 Produttori Barbaresco and all the pleasure it gave us. That’s the kind of expertise, exercised on the wonderful Nebbiolo fruit of the Barbaresco zone, that makes every bottle of the Produttori line a fine wine bargain. That’s not a statement I would be willing to make about many other wineries, however esteemed.

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I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Vallana’s wines, and I was very much looking forward to tasting this bottle of the 2009 Campi Raudii, which I’d selected as one of my 12 special wines for 2021. There are many reasons for that.
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For one, I find the zone from which the wine originates a fascinating one. It is literally sub-Alpine: It lies in the shadow of Monte Rossa, a peak in the Italian Alps. Its high altitudes and varied soils and exposures produce a Nebbiolo grape very different from that grown in the more famous, more southerly, Barolo and Barbaresco zones. Up near Lake Maggiore, the variety is known as Spanna, and the wine it yields, while less robust than its southern cousins, seems even more elegant, more beautifully structured, and more delicately fruity. It’s usually quite enjoyable from its youth, but most Spanna-derived wines are capable of long aging and intriguing development. I’d like to call it a natural connoisseur’s wine, but that once-honorific word is probably the kiss of death in these fake populist times.

Another reason for my interest in this bottle is that I’m curious to see how the Vallana wines are developing, now that they are crafted by a team of young folk, the siblings Francis, Marina, and Miriam, guided always by their mother Giuseppina.

Giuseppina, Marina, Francis, and Miriam (a few years ago)

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When I first encountered Vallana wines, decades ago, they were made by the present generation’s grandfather, Bernardo, who was famous for the quality and longevity his bottles achieved. Burton Anderson, in his landmark book Vino, waxed ecstatic about the man and his wines, emphasizing the uniqueness of both. That is a formidable heritage to live up to, and I really wanted to see how well the new generation now responsible for cultivation and vinification was measuring up.

And for one more reason: Unlike all the family’s other wines, which carry various DOC appellations (e. g., Gattinara, Boca, Colline Novarese), Campi Raudii is called only Vino Rosso, a designation the family opted for so they could have one wine with which to tinker and experiment, free of strict variety regulation. Not that they appear thus far to have done anything very radical – but more of that later.

For this highly anticipated bottle, Diane prepared an imposing Porterhouse steak, and our Greenmarket conveniently provided the first of the season’s local spinach and, even better, the first of the season’s morels.

The latter are always a special treat, and stand in my estimation as high in the fungus world as Nebbiolo in the grape universe. Morels, chanterelles, porcini, and truffles: That’s the seasonal fungus calendar. All delicious, and at least three of them still within a human price range – as are, it is important to note, all of Vallana’s wines.

So: That, with a few good cheeses to finish, made up the simple, tasty, and substantial meal for my almost-12-year-old Campi Raudii to accompany. Which it did, very felicitously. Diane and I were struck by how very gentle the wine seemed as it interacted perfectly with the meat-sweetness of that succulent piece of beef, the herbal sweetness and acidity of the fresh spinach, and the woodsy savoriness of the mushrooms.

We were also struck very strongly by the wine’s freshness, which Diane perceived as tasting of currants and I of raspberry: a wave of light, delightful fruit atop a mature wine’s acid/tannin balance. This Campi Raudii was an extraordinary wine, clearly with years, perhaps decades, of life still before it.
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In an email, Marina informed me that 2009 was a classic vintage in her area, with no extremes for the vines to deal with (unlike the hot 2011 vintage or the cold 2014). Vallana usually vinifies Campi Raudii in a very traditional manner for the Alto Piemonte, as a Nebbiolo and Vespolina blend – about 20% Vespolina, Marina says – fermented in cement. Most of it was bottled without ever seeing any oak, and released young. Some was held back and aged briefly in old oak, and then bottled and labelled as a library release.

I’ve had my bottle stashed away for some years, and it’s not called a library release, so I presume that it’s a sample of the cement-fermented, unoaked wine – which makes its balance and freshness and vitality all the more impressive. This is minimal-intervention winemaking at its best. It just seems that Nebbiolo grown in the Alto Piemonte has an aptitude for long and graceful life, and Marina and her family have an aptitude for expressing it.

And that answers in a strong affirmative all the questions I had about Vallana’s wines. They’re still great, and the kids are doing just fine. Bernardo would be proud.

Marina and Francis (now)

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