Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Romano Brands’ Small Producers

January 2, 2020

Romano Brands is an interesting small importer that specializes in interesting small producers – which, of course, is very interesting to me because the wines of so many small regional vintners never make it out of their local markets and to these shores.

So when Michael Romano invited me to a tasting of four of his producers’ best wines, I quickly said yes – especially when I heard that the tasting and lunch would take place at The Leopard at Des Artistes, one of the very best Italian restaurants in New York. Good wine and good food will get me every time. I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

The four producers present were, from north to south, Giusti, Corte Quaiara, Cerulli Spinozzi, and Cavalier Pepe, the first two representing different zones of the Veneto, the third Abruzzo, and the fourth Campania. That covers a lot of important wine areas, and the distinctions among them made for a lively and informative tasting.

The stand-up, pre-lunch portion of the tasting surveyed that geographic spread with some lovely, fresh, young, mostly white wines. The notes I take at stand-up tastings grow less and less legible, and sometimes less coherent, with every event and every year. In this case, that didn’t become too great a problem because my notes – usually just memos to myself rather than full-blown tasting notes or descriptions – all said practically the same thing: very fine; very typical; good varietal character; quite enjoyable.

That covered a Pecorino from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Falanghina from Cavalier Pepe, a Greco also from Pepe, Pepe’s Aglianico rosé (the latter particularly fine, fully dry with a lovely Aglianico finish), a Cerasuolo from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Chardonnay and a Prosecco from Giusti, and 2015 Erbaluce di Calusa from KIN, a producer not present at the tasting, who is so small that he makes only this one wine and so interesting that he keeps getting awards for it.

The wines served with the subsequent lunch got more varied and distinctive. That is no way intended to belittle the stand-up tasting wines: It just means that we moved up a category and into greater complexity.

Four wines, all produced by Giovanni Montresor at Corte Quaiara, were served to accompany a delicious bowl of cavatelli with seafood ragu:

  • A fascinating 2018 ramato (coppery) style Pinot Grigio Amfora. Aged in amphora, this wine more resembled Pinot gris than it did the average Pinot grigio, showing pronounced varietal character and real intensity.
  • A 2013 100% Garganega Campo al Salice, a very lovely, old-vine wine with deep Soave character and amazing freshness for a six-year-old white. Soave, despite the fact that most people drink it young, can be very long-lived and all the more interesting for its bottle-age. Its acidity keeps it alive and its minerality keeps it attractive.
  • 2013 Monte delle Saette, a blend of a grape that is itself a cross between Gewürztraminer and Trebbiano, called Goldtraminer because that is the color of its juice, and another Veneto white grape whose name in my note remains illegible. My bad, but the wine wasn’t: very aromatic and again quite fresh for its age.
  • A classic Italian Pinot noir 2016, sturdy and deeply fruity, with fine acidity that served it beautifully with the seafood cavatelli.

All told, a nice suite of wines.

Lamb chops Scottadito accompanied a single wine, Cerulli Spinozzi’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva Torre Migliore. This was a totally enjoyable wine, with great intensity of black cherry fruit, on both the nose and the palate, and great acid/tannin balance that made it an ideal accompaniment to the lamb. A single vineyard wine from old vines, at nine years old it still tasted very fresh and young, the kind of welcoming red wine you could happily drink all through a meal.

Two more reds joined the Montepulciano on the table for the final course, delicious veal braciole with prosciutto and caciocavallo: Giusti’s 2016 Ripasso della Valpolicella and 2014 Amarone. These were both lovely wines, both fully dry, and both with fruit so intense that it kept suggesting sweetness. The Valpolicella Ripasso was in the currently very popular – with both winemakers and consumers – style that makes the wine into a baby Amarone, which is exactly what this fine example was: smooth on the palate, big and lovely, with sufficient acidity to keep it supple. The Amarone smelled profoundly of dried fruit – especially cherry – and felt positively velvety in the mouth, with great balance: This will be a very long-lived wine.

Before this tasting, I had had very limited exposure to any of these producers, a fact I now seriously regret. Romano Brands has put together an excellent selection of top-notch small producers which otherwise wouldn’t ever make it onto the American market – not because they don’t have the quality, but because they don’t have the large production that the big, nationwide importers and distributors need. So much the worse for the big distributors, so much the better for us, who can badger or beg our local retailers to stock wines like this from producers like these. Globalization brings many advantages, but so too does thinking small and local.

Another Tuscan Triumph: Rocca della Macie

November 28, 2019

I seem to be on a Chianti Classico binge: My last post was about Cecchi’s lovely Chiantis, this one is about Rocca della Macie’s. All of which is just fine with me, because Sangiovese, the grape that is the heart and soul of Chianti Classico, is one of the world’s finest wine varieties, capable of innumerable different manifestations and styles. Simply stated: I don’t get tired of it.

Just a few weeks ago, Sergio Zingarelli, the owner of Rocca della Macie and a former president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, presented to a very appreciative group of wine journalists a vertical tasting of six library samples of his Riserva di Fizzano, the estate’s flagship wine. They were 1995, 1999, 2005, 2011, 2013, and 2015.

.
Riserva di Fizzano has been Rocca della Macie’s most important cru ever since the Zingarelli family acquired the vineyard in the mid-1980s. From the start, its wine blended 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet sauvignon, and 5% Merlot to make a beautifully balanced wine, austere in youth but maturing to a smooth, round, structured wine redolent on nose and palate of dark berries and earth, as poised and elegant as any Tuscan wine. The 1995 seems completely mature now, but the ’99 – a very great vintage – is still evolving, and I can’t guess how many years it still has in front of it. The 2005 also promises greatness, though it is right now reticent.
.

.
A great change came with the 2011 vintage. Zingarelli and his enologist Lorenzo Landi (a Tuscan of the Tuscans, I have heard him called) dropped the Cabernet sauvignon from the blend and made it 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot. The 2013 vintage followed suit, while the 2015 blended 93% Sangiovese with 7% Colorino, an indigenous Tuscan variety: this seems to be the direction of the future for this important wine.

Let me stress how significant I think this is. First, omitting the Cabernet is an addition, not a subtraction. The beauty of the multifaceted Sangiovese fruit shows through immeasurably more clearly without the mask of Cabernet. The young wine is no longer so austere, but now feels softer and fresher on the palate, with a greater richness and intensity of fruit. It simply has more and purer Sangiovese character. The clonal research of the massive Chianti Classico 2000 project that the Consorzio undertook almost three decades back is clearly bearing fruit (all possible puns intended), and Riserva di Fizzano – now designated as Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – is showing quite evidently just how marvelous its results can be.

During the lunch that followed this vertical, Zingarelli showed some newer vintages that highlighted the continuing evolution of his Chianti Classico. First up was the basic Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico 2017, 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot, a fine wine displaying excellent fruit even though very young. I’d wait a year or so to drink this one, when I think it will be lovely.
,

.
Next came the 2016 Rocca della Macie Riserva, 90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought this wine both lovely and a bargain (suggested retail price of $26.99: wow!) Terrific rich fruit, great balance, long, dry, cherry finish, drinkable now and structured for some years of life: As the current cliché has it, what’s not to like?

The third wine was Rocca della Macie’s second Gran Selezione, Sergio Zingarelli 2013, 100% Sangiovese. For my palate, this wine was a champion, elegant and structured, with decades of enjoyable life before it, and already showing complex, multifaceted Sangiovese character. Were I 20 years younger, I’d buy cases of it and stash it away where I couldn’t get my hands on it for at least a few years.
.

.
The 2014 vintage of the same wine – a difficult vintage because of summer heat and humidity – tasted bigger and very ripe. This a very good wine, and very forceful and authoritative, but for me it lacks the elegance of the 2013. Lovers of big Chianti will no doubt prefer this bottling. That is a matter of taste: Both are fine Chianti Classico, as is almost everything from this progressive, increasingly important estate.

Cecchi: Toscanissimo

November 18, 2019

When talking about Tuscan wines, and especially Chianti Classico, it’s easy to forget the Cecchi wines, just as, when you’re trying to negotiate the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, it’s easy not to notice the Empire State Building. In their own way, both are monumental – and you have to step back a bit from both to put them in the proper perspective and see their dimensions clear.

I think it was Daniele Cernilli, the Italian wine guru, who said that in Tuscany, anyone who puts his mind to it can make a good bottle of Chianti – but to make 100,000 good bottles of Chianti, year after year, is a magnificent accomplishment. The Cecchi family has been doing just that for decades now. I do think it’s time we all started noticing.
.

Cesare Cecchi, left; Andrea Cecchi, right

.
Cecchi is a large firm, but it’s still family-owned and family-run. A lot of family wineries have grown substantially during the continuing wine boom of the past 40 years, but very few have grown as intelligently, with as consistent a level of quality, as has Cecchi. These days, brothers Cesare and Andrea are in charge of several vineyards in the Chianti Classico, the family’s home base, in the Tuscan Maremma, and in the Sagrantino growing area of Umbria.

For all the varied production that necessitates, the Sangiovese grape and Chianti Classico remain where Cecchi’s heart is: Those were the core from which it started, and where its best efforts still go.

I tasted recently a trio of Cecchi’s new releases, all Chianti Classicos: 2016 Storia di Famiglia; 2015 Riserva di Famiglia; and the 2015 Gran Selezione, Valore di Famiglia. Each one was a fine example of its level of Chianti Classico.

.

The basic Storia di Famiglia serves as the fundamental Chianti, a wine meant to be drunk young, usually within five years of its harvest, though in good vintages it can easily go longer. This bottle had a really nice aroma of currants, berries, and dried flowers. On the palate it tasted of gentle cherry fruit. It was lightly acidic, live and pleasing, with a slightly tannic finish tasting of dried cherries. I consider this an excellent example of what Chianti Classico ought to be.

.

The Riserva di Famiglia resembled the Storia bottling, but more so, from its nose of dried cherries, dried flowers, and wet stone to its long finish. On the palate, it tasted meatier and showed more structure, with its tannins appearing earlier. I would put this one away for at least a year or two, probably more, and serve it with roast meats, good cheeses, and such. It gives every indication that it will mature nicely for a decade at least.

.

The Gran Selezione Valore di Famiglia appropriately topped off this progression of Sangiovese quality. It opened with a distinctive, high-pitched aroma of tar, warm earth, and dried roses – almost Nebbiolo-like. In the mouth, it was all big fresh fruit (it’s very young, after all) and an impressive underlying structure, with a very long, juicy finish. I thought it fairly reticent now (if you’re going to drink it young, give it lots of time to breathe), but it’s clearly a big wine with a great aging capacity. This is a wine you should try hide away for a good while: It will be worth the wait.

..

In my experience, wines of this caliber and this fidelity to Tuscan character are typical of Cecchi’s production. You can count on Cecchi, year in and year out, to deliver real quality and the true taste of Chianti Classico. That is an achievement the family can be proud of and that lovers of Tuscan wine ought to enjoy frequently.

The Pleasures of BYOB

November 4, 2019

Diane and I don’t dine out much anymore, for three key reasons. First, we can’t stand the noise levels: In most New York City restaurants, the din reaches a volume so painful that conversation is impossible. Second, the cuisine has become too californicated – too fussy, too many incompatible ingredients, too many fantasy creations. And finally, the clincher: Prices for the kind of wine we enjoy are stratospheric, so much so that I could buy a case of enjoyable wine for the cost of a single meal out.

And of course, restaurant wines are never old enough to have developed the kind of mature flavors we love, or if they have, the prices have shifted from stratospheric to astronomical.

Thus, we mostly stay home, do our own cooking, and drink our own wines. But recently some friends told us about Temple Court, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant at Manhattan’s Beekman hotel. Colicchio is a cook who respects the great culinary traditions, lightening and modernizing them, but preserving their integrity and depth. So Diane and I tried a lunch at Temple Court and loved it – all except for the wine prices, which verged on terrifying. The ambiance was lovely, very old-New Yorkish. No loud music, ambient noise at a comfortable level. And the food was excellent.
.

.
Just recently we learned that on Sunday evenings, the restaurant allows patrons to bring their own wine, with no corkage fee. Oh frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! An expedition was rapidly organized, and five of us descended on Temple Court with five bottles in hand and palates honed. Spoiler alert:  It was all wonderful, so brace yourself for a lot of superlatives.

So compatible was this group in terms of taste that all but one of us ordered the same meal: Lobster Thermidor to start and Venison Wellington for entree. Clearly, classic palates ready to work on gently modified classic dishes.

The Thermidor was a lightened and more elegant version of the very rich traditional preparation. With it we drank two white Burgundies, a 2008 Drouhin Puligny Montrachet and a 1995 Ampeau Meursault. The older bottle still showed fresh and light on the palate, with lovely Chardonnay floral and mineral accents.
.

.
The Drouhin wine showed those same sorts of flavors, but bigger, with more flesh – probably the result of longer time for the wine on its lees. Both were lovely wines, the Ampeau probably better as an aperitif and the Drouhin better matched with the Thermidor.
.

.
While we rested our forks for a few minutes before the venison, we started on a bottle of 2010 Aloxe-Corton red from Michel Mallard, a small Burgundy producer who sells most of his wine locally, which one of our group bought right there at the winery. This bottle gave all the pleasures of Pinot Noir from prime Burgundian terroir and served as a beautiful modulation to the more aggressive flavors to come.
.

.
With the arrival of the venison, our immensely helpful and attentive sommelier Lise poured us glasses of our ’03 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle and 1999 Fontodi Flaccianello. Both of these were wines to which I could easily have devoted a One Fine Wine post.

The Tuscan wine was simply gorgeous, a great wine from a great vintage. Flaccianello is 100% Sangiovese, classified as an IGT wine back then and still proudly continued as such by maker Giovanni Manetti, even though it could now call itself Chianti Classico DOCG. This ’99 showed all the bright red fruit and liveliness on the palate that Sangiovese is capable of – and that’s a great deal.
.

.
A beautiful wine, but bettered with the venison by the Hermitage, a lesser vintage from a more aggressive, less nuanced grape. This bottle showed the classic Syrah force, depth, and pepperiness — and though for my palate it lacked subtlety, its character matched better with the venison, foie gras, chestnuts, and wild mushrooms of the Wellington than did the lighter and more agile Flaccianello.
.

.
An important lesson there, it seems to me: A lesser wine can be a better choice, depending on what you’re drinking it with. It’s not just the quality of the vintage that’s at stake, but the nature of the combination. As Italian winemakers are often acutely aware, the abbinamento – the match between the food and the wine – is crucial. The flavors of the venison Wellington preparation needed not a nuanced wine but a bold one. The lobster Thermidor, on the other hand, was all about nuance, which is why the more complex Puligny worked better with it.

After this Lucullan feast, five magnificently satisfied diners made their various ways home, blissfully smiling all the way. No dessert had been needed or desired: no wonder.

Campania Panorama

October 21, 2019

The Wine Media Guild opened this season’s series of tasting lunches with a fine survey of the varied output of the Campania region of south-central Italy, probably the most exciting region of Italy for winemaking today. I’ve long been a major fan of Campania because of the richness of its viticultural traditions and the amazing variety of its fine indigenous grapes.

Several years back, in Decanter, I predicted that wine lovers would someday speak of Campania with the same reverence they now reserve for Burgundy. That hasn’t happened yet, but the extremely high level of the Media Guild’s array of wines – 31 wines, of at least 8 indigenous red and white varieties, from several different Campanian regions – showed why to my mind that conversion is still inevitable.

Ilaria Petitto, the head of the Donnachiara winery, was the event’s guest of honor. Five of Donnachiara’s wines were represented: the whites Resilienza 2017 (Falanghina), Empatia 2018 (Fiano di Avellino), and Alethia 2017 (Greco di Tufo), and the reds Aglianico 2017 and Taurasi 2015. All were fine and in themselves a fair example of Campania’s variety and quality, but I was particularly impressed by the reds.

Donnachiara’s white wines have always been textbook examples of the great Irpinian varieties, but in the past, the estate’s red wines lagged them. A few years back, Signora Petitto engaged the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella, and the reds have been getting better and better ever since. Donnachiara is a small estate by the standards of the region’s largest, like Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio, but it is rapidly joining them in prestige.

Because of the diversity of their grape varieties and vinicultural zones, I can’t generalize about the other 26 wines, except to say that all were fine – which is in itself pretty remarkable.

  • The stand-out among the Falanghina and Falanghina-based wines was Marisa Cuomo’s Furore Bianco 2018 (Costa d’Amalfi), a great wine of complexity, depth, and suavity.
  • Among the Fiano di Avellino wines, I particularly liked Tenuta Sarno 1860’s two bottles (2016 and 2017), both of which displayed an admirable varietal character.
  • Among the Greco di Tufo, Benito Ferraro’s Terra d’Uva 2018 just shone – but then Ferraro’s Grecos always do: This is a top-flight Greco producer.
  • Among the reds, I loved Villa Raiano’s Aglianico Costa Baiano 2015 and the Contrade di Taurasi (aka Cantine Lonardo) Taurasi 2013: Both were really fine, elegant and fresh, complex and totally enjoyable.

Teresa Bruno, co-owner of the Petilia winery with her brother Roberto, who is the winemaker, had gotten caught in New York traffic, arrived late during lunch, and dashed from table to table tirelessly pouring samples from two very welcome bottles: Petilia’s 2017 Ape, a Fiano di Avellino fermented on the skins, and 2015 Quattro Venti, a Greco di Tufo. The Fiano was lovely, with its almondy perfumes and nut and wildflower flavors enhanced by the long skin contact, and the Greco was what I think of as classic Petilia – big and fruity and balanced, just great Greco.

Except to Italian wine nuts like me, none of these wines has the name recognition of the famous Bordeaux or Burgundy estates. It’s useful to remind ourselves that the Romans of the Empire regarded Campanian wines as the best of the best. The Romans weren’t stupid: They recognized and exploited the variety of Campania’s soils and exposures to produce their versions of Chateau Lafite and Richebourg.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing whether the grapes being grown in Campania today are the same varieties the Romans cultivated, but we do know that all of them are natives – international varieties have made almost no headway in Campania – and many of them are very old indeed. And more and more indigenes are being rescued all the time. Not two decades back, Falanghina was endangered. Even more recently, Pallagrella bianco and Pallagrello rosso and Casavecchia have been brought back from the brink of extinction and are now producing award-winning wines.

A few years ago I met a winemaker who told me that on his roughly 30 hectares near Naples he grows 30 or more grape varieties, half of which, he said – and I believe him – “are not in the catalog.”  This is why, for me, Campania is endlessly fascinating: It’s going to be presenting us with new old wines for years to come. To paraphrase an old Roman line: Ex Campania, semper aliquid novum.

One Fine Wine: Monsecco Ghemme 2011

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

As I’ve remarked several times in recent months, I’m getting more and more interested in the wines of Alta Piemonte – the high Piedmont, that arc of Nebbiolo-based appellations that lie on sub-Alpine hills in the shadow of Monte Rossa. There is a very good reason for my increasing interest: those wines are getting better and better, and – happily – are becoming more available in the market here.
.

.
Once upon a time, Spanna – as Nebbiolo is called throughout Alta Piemonte – was a name at least as famous and prestigious as Barolo and Barbaresco, maybe more so. Then came phylloxera, and the region’s viniculture was essentially wiped out. As in several other formerly important wine-producing areas, recovery was very slow, and only a few makers in Gattinara or Boca or Ghemme managed to hold on through the lean years. In the past 25 years or so, however, as Italian wines generally have earned more respect – and better prices – interest in the great tradition of Alta Piemonte Spanna has revived, production has increased, and, most important of all, quality has become paramount.

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

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

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

Travaglini Gattinara

September 30, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freisa: An Uncommon Wine Worth Seeking Out

September 9, 2019

.

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

In this map of the Cavallotto vineyards, Freisa is the tiny piece in blue.

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

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

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

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

The result, for the consumer, is a wine with an aroma that commentators describe as “haunting and complex” (that particular formulation is Ian D’Agata’s) and a fascinating flavor profile that features always the strawberry from which its name apparently derives and several other fruits, especially wild cherries. I recently enjoyed a bottle of Freisa from the Langhe, a young one from Cavalotto, a very traditional Barolo house that hasn’t abandoned the other traditional grapes of the region.
.

.
This 2015 was deeply colored and deeply flavorful, redolent of cherry and earth, with a soft mouth feel – the tannins were totally under control – and an enlivening touch of acidity.  It combined beautifully with a simple, tasty weekday dinner of oven-roasted sausages, potatoes, bell peppers, and red onions, which we followed up with a few odds and ends of cheese. The Freisa loved every single component and adapted seamlessly to them all. That, in my never very humble opinion, defines a really good and useful wine. This was a young wine, but because of the tannins it shares with Nebbiolo, Freisa should age very well – if any of us could ever get hold of enough of it to cellar.

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

 

Smiles of a Summer Night

August 8, 2019

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

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

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

Our first course at table was classic summer fare from Naples: zucchini a scapece and a platter of just sliced, never refrigerated heirloom tomatoes surrounding a still-moist-from-its-whey mozzarella di bufala. Naples dictated the wine choice here: a sapid and lovely Greco di Tufo, tasting of its volcanic soils and bittersweet fruit. Ours was from Benito Ferrara, his cru Cicogna, a perennial – and entirely deserving – Tre Bicchieri winner.
.

.
With the pasta, we switched to red wines, and I got a surprise. Fresh fettuccine pointed me to northern Italy, so I chose a Ghemme, one of Piedmont’s subalpine denominations that blends upwards of 65% Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) with the indigenous Bonarda and sometimes a little admixture of other, very localized grapes. These northern wines emphasize elegance rather than power, and are usually lighter-bodied than more southerly Piedmont Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco.
.

.
My wine, a 2011 Monsecco, perfectly supplied the lighter body and elegance, but it also offered much greater fruit intensity – cherries! – and depth than I had expected. It got everybody’s attention from the first taste, and kept it. Ghemme and Boca and Lessona, but especially Ghemme, are staging a real comeback, and you should know about them:  they are fine wines, and considerably less expensive than the better known Barolo and Barbaresco.

Diane’s summertime secondo directed me back to Naples, so with it we drank a lovely 2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva from Guastaferro.
.

.
Gorgeous and big and deep, this wine – vinified exclusively from very old Aglianico vines still on their own roots, a rarity even in Campania’s often sandy, sulfur-laced soils – will last for decades more with no loss of vigor or flavor. This too is a winemaker to know about.

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

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

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

In Memoriam: Lucio Caputo

July 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

This all came about because of Caputo’s tireless efforts. Wine journalist old-timers will remember as fondly as I do the regular tastings at Italian Trade Commission headquarters on Park Avenue. This was a spacious, stylish venue, sporting an extensive wine library and a museum-quality Di Chirico oil painting.
.

.
The tastings, which occurred every week (and sometimes twice a week), were every bit as stylish and extensive. They were also thorough, informative, and often quite intensive. You could always sit and taste comfortably, often at your own pace, and you had ample space to take notes – luxuries not always available today to the assiduous taster.

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

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