Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Cucco: A Great Barolo Cru Lost and Found Again

February 22, 2018

In as intensively cultivated a wine zone as Barolo it’s rare for an important cru to drop out of sight for a couple of decades, but one did. Cascina Cucco, as it was traditionally known, was long regarded as a major site for fine Barolo. Renato Ratti’s pioneering 1976 Carta del Barolo ranked it just below the top crus of Serralunga, and Slow Food’s 1990 Wine Atlas of the Langhe continued to esteem it, albeit mostly in the past tense, with nary a word about its then owners or produce:

Below and alongside the village of Cerrati lie the vineyards of Cucco and Posteirone.… Cucco used to belong to Dottor Giuseppe Cappellano, a celebrated figure in the world of Barolo, who was quick to acquire this superb plot when the opportunity arose. It is on the eastern flank of Serralunga and Nebbiolo has always been at home on its white, tufaceous soil. The grapes yield a Barolo with outstanding structure, capable of aging in the cellar for many years.
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Barolo crus near Serralunga, from Wine Atlas of the Langhe

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In the more recent and highly detailed Masnaghetti maps of the crus of Barolo, the cellars of Cascina Cucco are listed, but the cru designation Cucco has disappeared from the map. As successive owners of the vineyards ignored the Barolo boom and essentially neglected their vineyards, the reputation of its wines faded and it apparently slipped from the collective wine consciousness, a classic instance of sic transit gloria mundi.

Fast forward to 2012, when the Rossi Cairo family acquired the property. The Rossi Cairos had for more than a decade been producing excellent Gavi on their biodynamic, Demeter-certified vineyard La Raia, and they saw a wealth of potential in the splendidly located Cucco site. From what I know of the land situation in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, properties like this are very rarely available, so the family was wise indeed to leap at the opportunity.

Realizing the need for direct involvement in anything as complex as a Barolo-producing estate, Piero Rossi Cairo, the son of the new owner, gave up his legal career, began educating himself about enology and vineyard management, and assumed responsibility for beginning the newly renamed Tenuta Cucco’s conversion to organic and eventually biodynamic production.

Two weeks ago, Piero and his importer, Vinifera, hosted a tasting and luncheon here in New York to introduce the family’s wines. It was clear from the start that Piero was no dilettante winemaker. He is passionate and knowledgeable about the organic approach to grape-growing, both its virtues and its limitations. And he spoke warmly of his neighbors, particularly of Franco Massolino of the bordering Massolino estate. I know from my own experience that in addition to the excellence of the wine he makes, Franco knows as much about Barolo as any grower in the zone, and he is as open and generous with his knowledge as any newcomer to the zone could possibly hope for. The Rossi Cairo family bought far more luckily than they realized when they acquired Cucco.

Piero showed seven wines that day, starting with two Gavi: La Raia 2015 and La Raia Riserva 2015. These were two fine whites, the regular bottling light, soft, and fresh, with light citrus and melon fruit, and the Riserva strikingly different. It seemed much more intense, with a fat, buttery, white fruit nose and a palate that followed through point for point: very smooth and buttery in the mouth, with a very long finish. Neither wine saw any wood – stainless steel throughout – but the Riserva came from 60- to 70-year-old vines, and its must stayed on the lees for a year, hence that pronounced butteriness. I thought them both impressive.

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The basic Cucco Barolo 2013 came next, and it showed very characteristically of Serralunga Nebbiolo – black cherry, tar, and tobacco on the nose, in the mouth abundant but soft tannins riding alongside black cherry, earth and mineral notes, with another very long finish. This wine received a prolonged maceration on the skins – 25 days – which may account both for the softness of its tannins and the richness of its flavor.

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Piero and his family had little role in the growing of Cucco Barolo 2012, but were largely responsible for its handling in the cellar. This was an impressive wine, similar in general to the 2013, I thought, but markedly more intense, especially in the aroma. On the palate, I found it soft and accessible, beautifully balanced, and already drinking very enjoyably, with a long licorice-and-black-cherry finish. In short, a lovely wine.

The cru wine, 2012 Barolo Cerrati, spent some time in French barriques, but I detected no oakiness in the wine – just the classic Barolo black cherry, earth, mineral, and underbrush. It was smooth on the palate, with evident tannin that needs a little time to soften. But the flavor package was classic: black cherry, earth, and mushroom, with a long, rich, black fruit finish. This is an excellent wine that will evolve and open for years yet, maybe decades.

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Piero also showed two older wines, vinified well before the Rossi Cairo family’s acquisition of the estate, to show us what had attracted them to it. The 2007 Cucco seemed a good, sound middle-range Barolo in both heft and quality, while the 1995 was very elegant, very graceful and balanced, while still in no way big. Lovely wines on a sort of smallish Barolo scale. But heft and authority will come, I think, with more attentive field work of the sort the family has already begun, so the future for this once-famed site seems bright indeed. For an old Barolo lover, it is a pleasure indeed to witness this sort of resurrection in progress.

2013 Brunello: Classic Elegance

February 8, 2018

The yearly exposition of new releases from a representative selection of producers of Brunello di Montalcino recently visited New York. For journalists and members of the wine trades, this is an important and much-anticipated event: Most of us can’t get to Montalcino for the full-scale showing of the current vintage, so this is our only chance to taste a broad spectrum of what has become one of Italy’s most important wines.

Manhattan’s Gotham Hall, where the event takes place, becomes the site of an up-scale scrum as at each producer’s table we press first for a taste and then for the spit bucket. It’s not an elegant scene – but fortunately the wine is, and this year’s new release, the 2013 vintage, was especially elegant.
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That wasn’t entirely a surprise: The best Brunellos have always shown great elegance and restraint. But in the past, as new releases and young wines, they were never as accessible as this vintage showed itself to be. Across the board, the wines I tasted that late January morning all felt soft on the palate and were very pleasantly drinkable.

This is a remarkable change from young Brunellos of yore: Tasting them was a penitential exercise, a lot like chewing a nice mouthful of toothpicks, so prickly and tannic were they. You looked for signs that they would evolve over the years into wines of elegance and breed: you never expected to taste those qualities then and there. That I was able to do so on this occasion provides a sharp reminder of how much Brunello, and Italian wine in general, has evolved in the years since its first irruption into commercial importance in this country and the world market.

Forty years ago, there were only a handful of producers in the whole Brunello di Montalcino zone, and the wine, though prestigious, was not well known or widely available even in Italy. Today, the Brunello Consorzio has 208 members, representing 98% of the growers and producers in the zone.
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They cultivate about 2100 hectares (roughly, 5300 acres) of Sangiovese vines to make a wine that is now sold all around the world: 70% of all Brunello is exported, a very large chunk of it to the United States, which is probably its largest single market (if you think of the US as a single market).

That explosion of production came about because Brunello is a great wine that has been steadily improving. How those improvements came about was the subject of some (largely pointless) discussion at the seminar session that preceded the Gotham Hall scrum.
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There are some obvious answers, of course: temperature-controlled fermentation, improved field treatment, better clones of Sangiovese to work with, and so on. I was struck that no one mentioned phenolic ripeness, which is crucial to a wine’s success, so I asked about it. I didn’t really get an answer that told me anything: From all that was said, Brunello producers could be achieving phenolic ripeness – as they obviously most beautifully did in the 2013 vintage – by accident. I most certainly do not believe that, but I received no enlightenment on the subject.

By that as it may, the answer to all important questions is always in the bottle. Here are the 2013 Brunellos I tasted at the seminar, along with my personal ratings of them:

Talenti * * * * *
A long-time high-achiever among Brunello producers, Talenti (whose consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini is one of the most respected names in Tuscan wine) continues to rank among the top few every year. This bottle sported scents of dark fruit and earth and a little tannic woodiness. In the mouth it was big (despite an alcohol level of 14 degrees, low among the wines in this tasting), round, and soft, with classic Brunello flavors and a long, long finish. An excellent wine, and surprisingly accessible – as all would show themselves to be.

Val di Suga * * * * ½
A largish estate, with 55 hectares of Sangiovese in 3 different exposures around the zone. They are fermented separately, some to be bottled as cru and some to be blended to produce a very fine “basic” Brunello. This example had a deeply herbal and black-fruit nose and seemed mid-weight on the palate, very harmonious and elegant.

Barbi * * * *
A Montalcino old-timer, Barbi was among the pioneers of Brunello and still remains one of its most important and most traditional producers. This wine was lovely: black cherry, mint, and earth on the nose; soft tannins and subdued acidity on the palate, with very persistent, restrained fruit. The style of Barbi’s wines is consistently what is called in Italian rustico-elegante, which could probably be accurately rendered in English as “country elegant.”

Le Chiuse * * * *

From vineyards on the northeast (300 meters above sea level) and southeast (500 meters) slopes of the Montalcino hill. Similar on the nose to the Barbi wine, with sweet black cherry fruit on the palate. Soft, restrained, and elegant, with a fine, long finish.

Il Palazzone * * * *

The grapes for this wine originate in three different vineyards, one in the north of the Brunello zone and two in the south – very different soils, exposures, and microclimates. The nose gives black cherry and a little earth. It’s biggish in the mouth, but balanced, soft, and elegant, with a long dark-fruit finish. Quite fine.

La Magia * * * ½

A smallish estate, with a 15-hectare block of Sangiovese at 400-450 meters above sea level. The wine seemed in all respects quite similar to Il Palazzone, but not quite as refined.

San Polo Brunello Riserva 2012
This lone 2012 served nicely to point up the differences between the two vintages. This estate is owned by the Allegrini family of Valpolicella and Amarone fame, and the wine was very well made, as all Allegrini wines are. But the very warm 2012 weather showed through in a slightly baked aroma and some biting tannins, which contrasted sharply with the smoothness, softness, and elegance of the 2013s. The 2012s are probably more powerful, so if you like big wines, 2012 is probably your vintage. But if you like your Brunellos balanced and harmonious, the cooler growing season of 2013 has made your wine.

In addition to the above-named wines, I was also able, at the scrum, to get quick tastes of the 2013s of Altesino, Banfi and its Poggio alle Mura, Castello Romitorio and its Filo di Seta, Col d’Orcia, Il Paradiso di Frassina, Il Poggione, La Fiorita, and Uccelliero. While I wasn’t able to give these wines the attention I gave the seminar wines, it was nevertheless clear that they were of the same quality (my ratings fell between 3.5 and 4.5 stars) and – even more important – of the same style: accessible, enjoyable, and elegant. Very, very classic Brunello, and a delight to drink.

Chiarlo Double Anniversary

January 29, 2018

Some formal dinners are memorable because of the food, some because of the wine, and some because of the occasion. The recent Chiarlo Double Anniversary Dinner sponsored by Kobrand at Casa Apicii in New York’s Greenwich Village did the hat trick and scored on all three counts. Michele Chiarlo, one of the trailblazing generation of Piedmontese winemakers, celebrated his 60th harvest and his 40th year of being imported to the US by Kobrand by presenting a fine tasting of the Barbera and Barolo for which he is famous.

He capped that with a dinner in which the chef Vincenzo La Corte from Chiarlo’s estate hotel, Palas Cerequio, teamed with chef Andrew Bosi of Casa Apicii. Together, they presented a classic Piedmontese meal adorned with Alba white truffles and culminating with braised veal cheeks accompanied by a glorious and utterly appropriate on several counts 1978 Chiarlo Barolo. I count myself very fortunate to have been among the handful of journalists present.

 

In his preliminary remarks, Michele Chiarlo surveyed the many changes he has seen since he took over from his father in 1958. As he rightly said, Italian wine the late 50s and early 60s was a very different world. Emphasis everywhere – even in the Piedmont, now seen as the pinnacle of Italian quality wine production – was on quantity: making a lot of wine to sell fast and cheap. Only gradually did the situation evolve, as attention turned to reducing yields and raising quality, and only gradually did the technology that is now taken for granted enter the Piedmont: stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation, establishing phenolic ripeness before harvesting, crop thinning.

That last was the most difficult. It was initially regarded as scandalous to throw away good grapes. But Chiarlo and others like him persisted. His fellow attendees at the University of Torino’s enological school are a roll call of the pioneers of quality Italian wine; e.g.,Renato Ratti, Ezio Rivella, and Giacomo Tachis.

In addition to his early emphasis on quality, Chiarlo’s great technical innovation was the achievement of malolactic fermentation in Barbera, which had long been considered impossible. But with the help of the enology faculty in Beaune (it was a visit to Burgundy that prompted him to try this), he found a reliable method for inducing malo with Barbera – and this, as Chiarlo rightly said, created a renaissance for Barbera, making it the satisfying wine for all foods that it is today.

After his remarks, attention turned to tasting the wines.

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First, three Barberas: Nizza DOCG Cipressi 2015, Nizza DOCG La Court 2013, and Nizza DOCG La Court 2011. The youngest showed a grapey, blackberry nose: It was smooth and velvety in the mouth, with pleasing blackberry fruit and excellent acidity, with fine balance – a thoroughly enjoyable wine. Stylistically, the other two wines followed suit, while displaying deeper flavors and greater elegance. The 2013, a year of fabulous weather, may have been the best: It certainly seems to promise long life at a peak of drinkability.

 

Then came three vintages of Barolo Cerequio – 2013, 2001, 1997. All three were superb vintages, and Cerequio is one of the great crus, lying midway between La Morra and Barolo. Chiarlo farms nine hectares of it, but uses only two parcels for the cru bottling. The 2013 had a deep, earthy, woody, black fruit nose and tasted cherry/berry on the palate, with lovely acid/tannin balance – an elegant middleweight. Though 12 years older, the 2001 seemed lighter, brighter, and fresher, beautifully balanced and elegant. Chiarlo has always striven for elegance, and these Barolos showed how well he has achieved it.

The 1997 stood midway between the other two wines in all respects. This vintage at the time was trumpeted as a wonder, but recently I’ve tasted a lot of 97s from other producers that have already begun to fade. Not this one, however: it’s still lively and seems to have many years before it.

After a small pause – a chance to refresh our palates with a glass of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne – we arrived at dinner and its much-awaited white truffles. No disappointment there, and none with the wines, which played up splendidly to the truffles’ intense aromas.

The Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2015 Le Orme was simply splendid, for my palate the best Barbera of the evening, and in its clarity of Barbera character a benchmark for the breed. The Barolo DOCG 2013 Tortoniano worked beautifully with one of the best risottos I’ve eaten: The harmony of this match was excellent.

 

Finally, the 1978 matched perfectly with the richness of the veal cheek. This was the wine of the night, and it deserved its climactic position. I remember (I know I’m dating myself) when the ‘78s were first released, it seemed as if they would never be ready to drink, so hard and closed were they. Well, they are at last ready, and this one at least was glorious, with all the character, complexity, and depth one looks for in Barolo, and with – apparently – years, if not decades, of life still before it. A fantastic accomplishment, and a fitting cap to Michele Chiarlo’s anniversary feast.

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A far less joyous note: Another Piedmont pioneer has passed away. Bruno Giacosa, famed for his Barolo and Barbaresco, especially his cru riservas, died peacefully on January 22. Sit terra levis tibi, Bruno.

More Splendid Caparone Cal-Itals

January 15, 2018

Caparone Vineyards, in Paso Robles, continues to impress me mightily. Some time back I wrote in praise of its 2002 Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, the most delicious and elegant California versions of those varieties I’ve ever tasted. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to taste bottles of the same grapes from the 2014 vintage, and I was almost reduced to a barely articulate Oh wow!  (Be assured: My normal verbosity quickly reasserted itself.)

Naturally, these younger wines were not as complex or developed as their older relatives – but the vines are older too, and that adds dimension to even a newly released wine. These were all beautiful specimens of their varieties. They seemed perfectly worthy of standing on the table with the best young examples of their kinds I’ve had in Italy, though patently different from them in the character of their fruit and their balance.
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Sangiovese

The Sangiovese showed a brilliant light garnet, very pleasing to the eye. The nose came across as all underbrush and fresh red fruit. The palate tasted youthful – bright cherry – with medium body and a lively acid/tannin balance. The overall impression was freshness and elegance, spot-on for young Sangiovese. This wine differed from a young Chianti, for instance, in being not so markedly acid-forward: It was also slightly fuller-bodied, with more generous fruit. The latter quality I think of as quintessential California.

It’s worth noting, since this is a young wine, that it got better and more interesting as it opened in the glass. What it will do with some years of maturity makes for very pleasant speculation. The Caparones aren’t given to exaggeration or over-hyping their wines, but their back label claims that this wine (and its sibling Aglianico and Nebbiolo) “will continue to age for 25 years or more.”  I’m not likely to be able to test that statement, but I sure hope some of you will.

It’s also worth noting that the alcohol level of this wine is a modest 13.3 degrees — by current California standards, almost a soft drink.
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Nebbiolo

I enjoyed the Nebbiolo just as much, but it was an animal of different stripe. Its color was a pale garnet, with a thin orange edge, perhaps to an eye unused to Nebbiolo suggesting it’s already old and fading. Far from it: this wine was an infant, tasting of fresh berries (strawberries kept peeping out) and earth. It had good acidity and very soft tannins, with low – by California standards, very low – alcohol: 13 degrees – and a long licorice and leather finish. But what really grabbed my attention right from the start was the aroma: Damned if it didn’t smell delicately of tar and dried roses and earth. That’s textbook Alba Nebbiolo, folks, and I am in awe of a New World wine capturing that quality of this great, cantankerous grape.

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One major difference between Caparone’s Nebbiolo and any young Barolo or Barbaresco I’ve experienced: No Piedmont Nebbiolo would be as pleasant drinking as this wine at first release. In many vintages, a Piedmont Nebbiolo’s tannins would rip your throat out. Even 2004, which was – and is – a great vintage and a very forward one, was much sterner and more sharply tannic at a comparable age. We’ve all always assumed that such early toughness was a necessary concomitant to the structure that made long aging possible – but if David and Marc Caparone are right about the aging potential of their wine, then received wisdom has been dead wrong about that. And that should give us all – consumer, critics, and producers alike – a lot to think about.
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Aglianico

The 2014 Aglianico certainly gave me a lot to think about. The darkest, most deeply colored of the three varieties, it also had the most intense aroma: earth, toasted nuts (hazel? almond?), and rich, black, plummy fruit. The earth and black plum flavors emphatically followed through on the palate – just huge fruit flavors, understrapped by lovely acid/tannin balance. The tannins were abundant, but soft, making a well-structured and long-finishing wine, but also a very accessible, enjoyably drinking wine, even so young.

With food, the flavor components rounded and broadened and deepened remarkably, revealing an extraordinary balance and structure, yet still soft and open. Diane and I were bowled over: We thought this a wine destined for greatness. And, oh, by the way, it was only 13 degrees of alcohol, which ought to be a slap in the face of all those overblown California wines that substitute big alcohol for any real winemaking quality.
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I’ve never particularly wanted to live to any great age, but the way the Caparones make wine is causing me to think again about that. .

Dave Caparone at his tasting room, with Tom’s whilom student and old friend Magda Gilewicz. Photo by Mike Chen

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All I Want For Christmas . . .

December 21, 2017

. . . is that we bury, finally and for all time, the fiction that Italian white wines can’t age. Enough knowledgeable writers have tried, for at least the last decade, to tell consumers otherwise, that I would have thought by now that this piece of misinformation had died a natural death, but nevertheless I keep hearing it, and often enough from people who ought to know better.

So, as what I hope will be one more nail in its coffin, my Christmas gift for all worthy winos will be an account of my recent experience with two very different Italian white wines, both of the 2000 vintage.
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I have long had in my “cellar” (regular readers will understand the quotation marks) a single bottle of Bucci Verdicchio 2000. Too long, in fact: This is a wine that was meant to be drunk years ago, but somehow it kept getting passed over.
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Ampelio Bucci

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Bucci is, in my opinion, the best producer of Verdicchio in the Marches, and Verdicchio is probably one of the most underestimated and underesteemed of all the Italian white wines – at least in this country. Ampelio Bucci is a charming and patient man: That patience sustained him for many years in dealing with his enologist, the brilliant but difficult and quirky Giorgio Grai.

Grai is – or was – nearly legendary in northern Italy for his skill in crafting long-aging white wines, and he guided the yield of Bucci’s vineyards into two forms, a “simple” Verdicchio, designed for youthful drinking, and a more complex Villa Bucci Verdicchio Riserva, designed for longer aging. I have drunk many 10-year-olds of the riserva, and they were uniformly lovely – fresh and deep, with Verdicchio’s characteristic pear, apple, and mineral flavors beautifully balanced against a restrained acidity.

But the wine I am talking about now isn’t that one: It’s the basic Verdicchio, the wine meant for being drunk young. Somehow it hadn’t been, and once its “use by” date had in my mind passed, I kept leaving it behind on the assumption that it was probably already dead or dying. So, recently, when Diane and I were having an unusually fancy first course (American Osetra caviar) with a light dinner of omelets, I decided to dispose of the bottle once and for all. Carefully chilling a back-up bottle of white Burgundy, I poured the 17-year-old Bucci, fully expecting to taste it and dump it.

Boy, was I wrong! The wine looked old, but pretty – golden amber and translucent. Its aroma was intriguing – very lively, with some floral notes but mostly complex mineral scents, like flint and chalk and slate. In the mouth, it felt light, balanced, and live – still that restrained acidity so typical of Bucci, sustaining complex flavors of unripe pears, untoasted almonds, and the ever-present mineral notes, with a pleasing butteriness in the finish. We were amazed, and our pleasure only grew as the wine opened further in the glass and responded beautifully to the very different challenges of caviar and omelets. This was not just a great Verdicchio, it was a great white wine from anywhere, of any age.

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That was my instance of unplanned-for glorious longevity. My second wine story, a Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Selezione Erminia 2000, is the very opposite – in terms of planning, not quality. This is a wine that was designated for long aging right from the start, and only quite recently acquired by me.
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The Di Meo family tends high-altitude vineyards (around 550 meters) in the most prized wine-making part of Campania, the Fiano, Greco, and Taurasi zones surrounding Avellino.

Generoso, Erminia, and Roberto Di Meo

The harvest of 2000 in most of Italy was a good one: in some places too hot, but in most bringing the grapes to a perfect point of ripeness, with fruit, sugar, acid, and tannins in excellent balance. That year, as an experiment in aging their indigenous white wines, the Di Meos selected a particular plot of Fiano within one of their best vineyards for special treatment to test how well a traditionally made white wine could age.

The grapes of this plot stayed on the vines longer than others of that harvest, not to super-ripeness, but definitely beyond the hang time for ordinary vinification. Then they underwent a long maceration period before soft pressing and low-temperature fermentation in steel. After that, the wine rested on its fine lees for a whole year, still in steel, before being racked off to repose in more steel and then bottle for a total of 13 more years before release.

This wine never saw a piece of wood, and its purity showed clearly in every sip. Fiano is a great grape, and the Avellino zone its heartland. My bottle was a magnum, but even allowing for that, its freshness was astonishing. Lovely aromas of underbrush and soil, a harmonious palate of white fruits and nuts – hazelnut especially – and long, lingering finish of dried fruit, mostly pear, all encased in an elegant package. Just a gorgeous wine, with years, maybe decades of life still before it. (WTSO – Wines Til’ Sold Out – has twice recently offered this wine in this vintage, and may do so again.)

I hope everyone reading this gets the chance to taste wines similar to these – often. That’s my Christmas wish for you. If you haven’t enjoyed it yet, it’s the kind of experience that will completely revise your notion of what white wine is all about.

Buone Feste, tutti!

Castello di Volpaia: A Tuscan Classic

November 30, 2017

Everyone knows that there are many fine Chianti Classico producers who, vintage after vintage, offer well-made wines redolent of lovely Sangiovese fruit and undertones of their various soils, wines that show what Italians call, most honorifically, tipicità. “Typicity,” in English, doesn’t quite capture it: Authenticity might be closer. One of the best of these lovely Chiantis, one of the most authentic and typical and, at the same time, most distinctive, is Castello di Volpaia.

If I had to choose just one place in the Chianti Classico to show a visitor what Tuscany once looked like, and what its enduring charm is, that place would be Castello di Volpaia. Its beauty, its serenity, immediately captures the imagination. It certainly holds a very special place in my heart as a quintessence of Tuscany. It’s not a castle in the same way Brolio is. Rather, it was in the Middle Ages a fortified village, a small walled town perched on a ridge in the commune of Radda, a bastion of Florence against its eternal enemy Siena.
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Its serenity and tranquility came centuries later, as local warfare died down and peace and prosperity grew in the countryside. Over the years, portions of its walls and battlements were removed (a few remain), more houses were built, and the vineyards extended.

Since taking possession of the village in 1972, Giovanella Stianti and her architect husband Carlo Mascheroni have devoted their best efforts to preserving it and steadily improving the vineyards.  Signora Stianti’s father had acquired the property in the mid-60s and gave it to the couple as a wedding present. It has become their life-long passion.

Of the village, more later: Let’s speak now of the vineyards.

They were in pretty good shape to start with, since for some centuries the wine of Volpaia had been prized, but the family has systematically experimented with clones and root stocks and training systems to bring them among the best cultivated in the Classico zone, and they are what form the heart of Volpaia’s distinctiveness. First of all, they are high for this part of Tuscany, probably in fact the highest in the Classico zone, ranging from a low of about 450 meters to a high of about 650. That makes for a very long growing season, with big day-to-night temperature differentials, which in turn produces great aromatics in the wine.

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Additionally, the soils in Volpaia’s vineyards contain much less clay and more sand than most other parts of the Classico. These contribute a distinctive set of trace elements to the wine. So the characteristic Volpaia wine is less full-bodied and forceful than many other Chiantis, but it is also and always more elegant, more nuanced, and – according to my experience – even in merely middling vintages more structured and capable of graceful bottle aging.

You can see why I love it: I’ll opt for elegance over power every time. Power impresses on the first taste, but over the course of a bottle it wears you out: It’s the same with every swallow. Elegance impresses on every taste. Over the course of a meal it adapts to and changes with each dish, becoming slightly different with each. For me, that’s fascinating, and that’s what Volpaia consistently delivers.

The estate produces several wines of note: Chianti Classico and Classico Riserva, of course, and several crus – notably Coltassala and Balefico. Balefico is Volpaia’s supertuscan, blending roughly one-third Cabernet and Merlot with its lovely Sangiovese. The other wines are all 90 to 100 percent Sangiovese, with, depending on the harvest, a small amount of Mammolo or Merlot blended in. (Riccardo Cottarella is the consulting enologist, well known for his passion for Merlot, which – I guess –is how it arrived on this proudly traditional property.)

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For me and many other Tuscan wine fans, the Coltassala and the Chianti Classico Riserva are the superstars, wines of depth and nuance and, always, elegance. Over the past month, I’ve been drinking bottles of those two from several vintages – 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006 – and they have been without exception beautiful examples of what Sangiovese and great Tuscan winemaking are all about. They are all perfectly alive and vigorous, with years of bottle life before them – but about 15 years of age is when I like to drink them. It’s a sweet spot, where fresh fruit subsists beside the beginnings of more mature flavors and neither dominates. For me, that is pure pleasure.

Now the village of Volpaia. Signora Stianti and her husband built Volpaia’s modern winery, sheltering its components within existing medieval buildings and structures of the ancient town. Since this is a protected historic site, that meant that when, for instance, the piping for the winery was laid beneath the streets of Volpaia, every single cobble of each street had to be removed, numbered, and replaced in its exact location. The same care was exercised on the facades of every single building in the town, and the original appearance of the ancient streets was scrupulously preserved in its entirety. That is what has made Volpaia one of the most evocative spots in an area filled with fragments of ancient towns and castles.
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Naples and Rome: Love and a Lament

November 20, 2017

I’m just back from a not-long-enough 10 days in Naples and Rome, Diane’s and my favorite cities in the world, after New York. Rome is amazingly beautiful and endlessly fascinating, Naples vibrant, live, and gritty – gritty in that heart- and mind-grabbing way New York used to be before the developers ate its guts. Jeremiah Moss would love Naples, for all the right reasons.

We ate well in both cities, though it has to be confessed that mass tourism is taking its toll. In Rome’s centro storico it is now not too hard to get a mediocre meal, and it is even possible to get a lousy pizza in Naples. Even a few classic places have lost their edge – though we still enjoyed some marvelous dishes – pasta alle vongole, tagliatelle with black truffles (it’s a terrible year for white ones), osso buco, and trippa.
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Wine in Italian restaurants is attractively inexpensive, especially by New York City standards, Here, we’ve become used to restaurant markups of two, three, and four hundred percent. In Italy, even in the capital, restaurant wine usually costs just a bit more than it does at retail, and very often much less than the same bottle would cost us at retail here. That is fine, and it encourages wine drinking and experimentation, which is exactly what a restaurant should do.

But in neither Rome nor Naples, alas, has the overall wine situation changed much. Wine lists have gotten broad, covering many of Italy’s important wine regions, but almost never are they deep. Italian wine journalists have told me that the Italian public drinks only young wines, and almost every restaurant wine list shows that. The oldest wine I was able to drink on this trip was a 2006 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a Vigna d’Alfiero Riserva from Valdipiatta – a lovely wine, to be sure, but almost the only example of a wine from before 2012 that I found the whole trip. Even the one marvelous discovery of this trip – in Naples, a glorious Fiano previously unknown to me, called Exultet, from Quintodecimo – was a 2016.
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That’s sad. Even wines from zones that pride themselves on the longevity they can achieve were offered only in three-, four-, or at most five-year-old examples. For wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Taurasi, that’s infancy, and drinking them that young is infanticide. I don’t like feeling like a criminal, but of course I drank them, the only alternative being to forgo wine entirely, which is clearly preposterous.

I do wish Italian restaurants would find a way to offer a few older bottles of some of their glorious reds and wonderful whites. Naples, are you listening? Ten-year-old Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino are great wines, and would spectacularly accompany your world-class seafood. Rome, your unctuous coda alla vaccinara needs – needs! – an old Gattinara or an authoritative old Taurasi. I’m sure I’m not the only American who travels to Italy in hopes of tasting fine, mature wines.

Vignaioli Veneti 3: Some Really Fine Uncomplicated Red Wines

November 9, 2017

I’m looping back this week to the trip I took to the shores of Lake Garda in October. I found a lot of white wines there that afforded me many new pleasures (see here and here). Among the region’s red wines, I also rediscovered some old wines – especially, the deep satisfactions of “simple” (so loaded a word in winespeak!) Valpolicella and Bardolino.

I’ve long been a fan of Veneto reds, especially Amarone, whose huge, muscular velvetiness I’ve been touting for about 40 years now, since long before its current wave of popularity, and probably will be praising long after its fad has passed. But what this recent trip forcefully reminded me was just how splendid and how uncomplicatedly pleasurable humble Valpolicella and Bardolino are, when they are made right. Not too many are these days, having been almost flooded out by the surge of production of the heavy hitters, Ripasso and Amarone. High-quality light red wines are now almost an endangered species, and their scarcity is a real loss for those who delight in the infinite variety of wine.
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The southeastern shores of Lake Garda and the hills behind them have been for centuries the homeland of Corvina and Rondinella, the grapes that yield both Bardolino and Valpolicella. They are also the principal varieties for Amarone, which, like Champagne, is a wine that derives from process and technique rather than simply from the grapes. When Rondinella and Corvina are grown carefully, crushed fresh, and vinified with minimal manipulation, the wines they make are light and fresh, rich in the aromas of soils and fruit.

The world has almost lost its palate for such wines in these days of jammy fruit and big alcohol, but my all-too-brief stay in the Garda area reacquainted me with the invigorating delights of zesty Bardolino and silken Valpolicella, and I am deeply grateful to the Vignaioli Veneti for making that happen.

Our group of (nearly) indefatigable tasters enjoyed many Amarones from both Amarone experts and primarily white-wine producers: Allegrini, Brigaldara (among the Amarone specialists, a model of elegance and restraint), Ca’ Rugate, Cavalchina, Monte del Fra, and even Pieropan and Pra.

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But even though we all relished Amarone, what seemed me most excited us individually and as a group was the quality and sheer enjoyability of the lighter reds, Bardolino and Valpolicella Classico. Most of us had fond memories of what those wines had been decades ago, before overproduction and the popularity breakthrough of Amarone and Ripasso killed their market. Now, Bardolino and Valpolicella are Lazarus returned from the dead – and better than ever.

Bardolino

The Bardolino zone lies between the Adige river to the east and Lake Garda to the west. Its soils are a mix of volcanic and morainic, spread over mostly rolling low hills.

Cavalchina produces lovely, cherry-scented, medium-bodied Bardolino Superiore and a particularly appealing, cherry-permeated Bardolino Chiaretto that seems built for all-day sipping. Chiaretto, by the way, designates a rosé-style Bardolino, traditionally made by the saignée method.

Monte del Fra also produces a fine Chiaretto Bardolino, but here I preferred the basic Bardolino, which opened with an elegant, light bouquet of cherry and berries and spices and continued the same way right through to its long finish: very enjoyable.

Le Morette produces a typically lovely Bardolino Chiaretto, a charming wine with gentle red-grape character. I thought it very refreshing.

Le Fraghe proved to be the star of the appellation. Owner/winemaker Matilde Poggi brings passion to every aspect of her craft, and the wines show it. Her Bardolino Chiaretto Rodon sports a translucent eye-of-partridge color, a light, herbal nose, beautiful, fresh, light fruit, fully dry, sapid, and salty – a just plain wonderful wine. Her Bardolino DOC is classic, as thoroughly enjoyable and as fine as Bardolino gets. I wish she could make more of it. Le Fraghe also produces a cru Bardolino, Brol Grande, which I found quite impressive, if somewhat atypical – a bit more heft than I expected, but very elegant. A 2011 we tasted was at a perfect point for drinking, showing great balance and lively fruit freshness.

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Valpolicella

The Valpolicella zone lies to the east of Bardolino and the Adige, on mostly higher hills north of Verona.

Allegrini’s Valpolicella Classico was indeed classic: light and fruity, with intriguing strawberry nuances throughout – the way Valpolicella used to be.

Brigaldara’s 2015 Valpolicella Classico smelled of cherry and earth and tasted of cherry – another fine, satisfying wine. The 2000 vintage Valpolicella we were served next said everything that needed to be said about and for Valpolicella: an aroma of prunes and walnuts, a palate of matured Valpolicella flavors – especially deep, dark cherry fruit – tremendous balance. In short, a gorgeous wine, and still fresh, evidently ready to go for a few more years yet. If anyone thinks Valpolicella is a glug-it-young-and-forget-it wine, think again: Made right, as it is at Brigaldara, Valpolicella can maintain and even embellish its charm for a long, long time.

Pra produces a small amount of red wine from seven hectares of organically farmed vineyards in Val d’Illasi. I thought its Valpolicella Morandina very fine, with the characteristic fresh, cherry-inflected aromas and flavors that define the wine. It will, unfortunately, be hard to find because production is so small.

Pieropan has 20 organically farmed hectares in the Valpolicella zone. The family brings to its red wines the same exacting devotion that animates its whites. The 2014 Valpolicella Superiore Ruberpan showed what I think of as the old, classic Valpolicella color, a light, clear garnet. The wine was light and fresh, redolent of cherry, with vibrant acidity – a perfect light dinner wine.

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All in all, this visit to Vignaioli Veneti member wineries in the Garda area was a pleasure from beginning to end. Serious, knowledgeable colleagues visiting serious, accomplished wine makers on a well-planned itinerary – believe me, for a working wine journalist, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Grappa Confronts the New World – At Last

October 30, 2017

I attended an event about two weeks ago of great interest to me: An Italy-wide association of distillers is – finally! – taking organized steps to present grappa to America. As a long-time grappa appassionato, I have been hoping for some sort of action like this for decades. I sincerely believe that, when properly introduced to it, many Americans will enjoy grappa. I know that the great majority of those for whom I’ve poured it found themselves very pleasantly surprised that grappa is far from the “jet fuel” they had always been told it was.

That it never really was anything like that is beside the point now, when grappa distillation has soared in terms of quality and sophistication all through Italy. More popular than ever in its homeland, grappa has escalated and diversified enormously since the days of its first “discovery” by the sophisticated skiers of Italy’s Dolomite and Alpine slopes. Now, monovarietal grappas, rather than those made of blended pomace (vinaccia, in Italian), have become the norm, and the charm of the gentle ghost of each of Italy’s many fine wine grape varieties contributes to the allure of one of the world’s great after-dinner drinks.

Assodistil, the distillery organization, kicked off its “Hello Grappa” campaign in New York with a presentation of grappas from a group of representative grappa producers. Each offered two grappas, a traditional clear bottling and an example of the increasingly popular aged variety. The association is very cannily using the aged grappa – usually more expensive than the clear – as its entry point for American consumers, because in color (pale gold to brilliant amber) and scent (wood accents from its barrel aging) such grappas are reminiscent of cognac, which is the distillate that most American wine drinkers will be familiar with. This should provide those unused to grappa with an easy introduction that will hopefully lead them on to the pleasures of the clear, straight-from-the-still spirit, wherein the nuances of the varietal vinaccia are more pronounced. At least, so hope grappa old-timers like me, whose grappa order is always “chiara, forte – non morbida! – e con fuoco.”

I won’t give tasting notes here for the different grappas I tasted at the Hello Grappa event because they were all excellent examples of their kind, with shades of difference that would take more space to explain than anyone would have the patience to read. That huge range of subtle differences in scent and flavor is for me a major part of grappa’s appeal. To give you some idea of that, here are the kinds that are currently in my liquor cabinet:
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Words and photos can never fully convey the pleasures of grappa. Taste some and enjoy them yourself: It’s really the only way to learn anything about wine or grappa.

Here are the distillers who presented at this event:

  • Acquavita (Castagner)
  • Banfi
  • Bepi Tosolini
  • Bertagnolli
  • Bonollo
  • Borgo Antico San Vitale
  • Bottega (Alexander)
  • Caffo
  • Faled
  • Franciacorta
  • Marzadro
  • Mazetti di Altavilla
  • Spirito Verdiano

All were fine, and I especially relished their monovarietal, unaged grappas – true spirits of the vine.

Vignaioli Veneti 2: Custoza, Lugana, Soave

October 19, 2017

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Almost everyone who tastes Custoza, Lugana, and Soave regards them as charming and enjoyable wines. What isn’t immediately evident is that they aren’t simply drink’em-quick-and-young types but are capable of aging – Custoza for minimally three years; Lugana for five, six, or more; and Soave for ten, or considerably more. I don’t mean just survival here, but serious bottle development: All three grow deeper, more intense, and more complex with age. Remaining charming and enjoyable, they become much more impressive. Despite the dismissive myths, Italy has many white wines that can age as well and gracefully as Burgundies, and it’s time people started talking about them.
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Custoza

The Custoza zone lies on both banks of the Mincio river, at the southeastern corner of Lake Garda. It’s a small DOC zone, about 1500 hectares, with a nevertheless varied production – Bianco, Bianco Superiore, Spumante (Metodo Classico or Charmat method), and Passito. All are popular in Italy. I’m mostly concerned with the Bianco and Superiore, which are the bulk of the production.

On a recent visit to the region hosted by the Vignaioli Veneti (see preceding post), our group visited two Custoza producers, Cavalchina and Monte del Fra, quite different from each other. That’s because the DOC regulations are generous: The wine may include Trebbiano Toscano, Garganega, Trebbianello (a clone of Friulano), Fernanda (a clone of Cortese), and even some Chardonnay, Malvasia, Incrocia Manzoni, Pinot Bianco, and/or Riesling Italico.

Both wineries make a very sound basic Custoza and a more complex Superiore. Cavalchina’s Superiore, called Amadeo, blends 40% Garganega with 30% Fernanda, 15% Trebbianello, and 15% Trebbiano Toscano to produce a wine of marked minerality and lively acidity wedded to a palate-pleasing softness. The 2009 bottle with which the tasting opened gave ample proof of Custoza’s ability to age: It had a beautiful aroma of mace and nutmeg and May Wine spices, followed by an equally lovely spice-and-white-fruits palate, all still fresh and live.

Monte del Fra’s Superiore, called Ca del Magro, started from the same 40% Garganega, then went a different direction with 20% Trebbiano Toscano, 10% Fernanda, 10% Chardonnay/Riesling Italico/Malvasia, and 20% Incrocia Manzoni. This blend, in the 2014 vintage, yielded a wine of great roundness and balance, with the slightest suggestion of sweetness within its minerality. These flavors intensified and dried in 2013 and 2012 bottles, culminating in an utterly voluptuous 2009, seemingly just reaching its peak.

Lugana

The Lugana zone borders Custoza to the west, at the foot of Lake Garda. Not much bigger than Custoza – about 1800 hectares of vines –it presents a very different varietal situation. Turbiano (related to Verdichio) accounts for 90% – often 100% – of the finished wine.

The Otella winery, owned by Michele Montresor and his brother Francesco, produces three labels of Lugana, all 100% Turbiano. The basic bottling, simply labeled Lugana, has a pleasing white fruit and flower nose with a delightful herby/flinty palate, distinctive and enjoyable. The cru wine, Le Crete, is named for its white clay soils, and presents as leaner and more muscular, while sharing the same marked flavor profile.
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Francesco (left) and Michele Montresor

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Otella’s Riserva, Molceo, ages for 16 months on the lees and intensifies the characteristics of its siblings. The oldest bottle we tasted, a 2007, was quite impressive – beautifully structured, with all the herbal/flinty notes heightened, and still at 10 years old fresh and lively. Again, a beautiful example of how well these too-little-known and vastly undervalued wines mature.

The other Lugana estate we visited, Le Morette, began life 60 years ago as a nursery for vines, and cultivating its own was an almost inevitable offshoot (sorry!) of that. Le Morette also produces three different bottlings: We tasted the current vintage and an older vintage of each. The basic wine, called Lugana Mandolara 2016, had a very Soave-like nose and palate, strongly mineral and very pleasant. Its older sibling, a 2012, showed more herbal scents and palate, suggesting Vermentino – quite intriguing.

Lugana Benedictus 2015 showed a bit more intensity and complexity, while still as easy drinking and enjoyable. It is a selection from older vines, harvested slightly later than Mandolara. The 2007 bottling showed dramatic evolution, with a slightly smoky, slightly botrytis nose, and on the palate a merging of Riesling and Sauvignon-ish characteristics – very, very interesting.

Le Morette’s Riserva  2013 is vinified from the fruits of its highest white-clay-concentration vineyards and is aged long on the lees. It shows a continuity of aromas and flavors with the two preceding wines, overlaid with a developing complexity of character and the promise of longevity. (No older bottle, because the estate only recently began making a Riserva.)

Soave Classico

The Soave Classico zone lies east and upland of Lake Garda, with its vineyards at usually higher elevations than either Custoza or Lugana. All three of these zones have soils of volcanic origin, but these are most prominent in the Soave Classico. We visited Ca Rugate, Pra, and Pieropan, all highly esteemed – indeed, among the most prestigious – producers of Soave Classico.

The Soave Classico DOCG requires a minimum of 70% Garganega, with the balance made up of Chardonnay and/or Trebbiano di Soave. Most of the best producers use 100% Garganega for at least one of their wines, but all prize the native Trebbiano di Soave, and none of the best producers use Chardonnay at all.

Ca Rugate’s basic bottling, San Michele, vinified entirely in stainless steel, showed great typicity and modest minerality, a completely enjoyable everyday wine. Monte Fiorentine, a cru bottling from 50-year-old vines, and also 100% Garganega, had a fine chalky, mineral nose and a palate of white fruits and dry stones in the 2016 vintage, while the 2010 showed a beautifully evolved metallic/mineral nose and a palate of apples, pears, chalk, and flint. This seven-year-old was our first indication of just how well Soave Classico can age.

Ca Rugate also makes an IGT wine, Studio, from 60% Trebbiano di Soave and 40% Garganega, a very interesting wine. The 2016 we tasted is, I think, still at the experimental stage – but it may develop very well with more bottle aging.

Pra has long been one of my favorite Soave producers: Its basic bottling, Otto, is more or less my house Soave. The 2016 we tasted was quite classic, fresh and fine with racy minerality, vinified from 100% Garganega. The 2015 Staforte showed extremely well, with great intensity and vivacity. Again 100% Garganega, Staforte is a selection of grapes from the best crus, with long maceration on the lees. Just a beautiful wine. 2014 Colle Sant’Antonio was vinified from slightly dried grapes to yield a wine slightly rounder and fuller than conventional Soave: I enjoyed it, but thought it needed a good deal more bottle age.
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Epicurus and Brillat-Savarin Hard at Work

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We then tasted the wine from Pra’s Monte Grande, a very steep vineyard planted roughly in  70% Garganega and 30% Trebbiano di Soave. This was a stunning vertical – 2001, 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2016. These were lovely wines, mouth-filling and persistent, all fresh and vigorous, with classic minerality and white fruits on the palate. I like mature wines, so for me the 2001 was outstanding, a wine that can stand on the table with any Chablis Grand Cru of the same age. The murmurs of appreciation around the table for each of these wines were very audible, and deservedly so.

Good as these wines were, our final Soave visit – to Pieropan – was undoubtedly the highlight of this portion of our Veneto visit. Four generations of the Pieropan family have been producing pace-setting wines from their 1470s building, both home and winery, within the town walls of Soave. Their production is small – they have 40 hectares of Soave Classico vines, a mere drop in the sea of Soave, as Andrea, great-grandson of the founder of the winery, told us: 95% of Soave is produced by a co-op, itself one of the largest wine firms in Europe. Pieropan does everything within the family, from growing the grapes to selling the wine – no consultants, no outside enologists. Their wines reflect their devotion: Each one stands at that exquisite balance point where passionate craftsmanship elides into sheer artistry.

Andrea Pieropan

Andrea first gave us the current releases: 2016 Soave Classico (his father’s 50th vintage), 2015 Calvarino, and 2015 La Rocca. The basic wine showed brilliant acidity and lovely minerality, with a fine, beguiling – and seemingly endless – finish. The two crus – Calvarino 70% Garganega and 30% Trebbiano di Soave, La Rocca all Garganega – showed very clearly the differences of their sites. Calvarino was seductive, with wonderful balance and a persistent, mineral-inflected finish. La Rocca was more forceful, lean and muscular, with amazing elegance. Both are unquestionably world-class wines.

Andrea then did a little tour de force, pouring two wines and not telling us what they were. Knowing how well Soave can age, I guessed they were of the 2006 vintage. Wrong! They turned out to be 1995 Soave Classico and 1992 Calvarino, from bottles that had been opened three days before, and they were both amazingly young and fresh, with beautiful acidity and that distinctive volcanic minerality that marks the best Soaves. These were simply extraordinary wines in every respect, and a perfect punctuation mark for our lesson in the age-worthiness of these remarkable white wines.