Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

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.

Vignaioli Veneti: Wine Lessons in a Lovely Land

October 9, 2017

No one knows everything there is to know about wine, or even a small section of it. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the Veneto, and I thought I knew it pretty well, but a recent trip there taught me that there was much more to learn.
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I went as the guest of a group called Vignaioli Veneti, which brings together mostly small to midsized grower/producers from the whole of the region: Lake Garda to the Adriatic, the Dolomites to the Po. That covers a lot of varied ground – forest and plain and castellated hills, small and large lakes and mountains and valleys – and even more varied grape varieties and kinds of wine. Thankfully, our hosts didn’t death-march us through all of it but let us concentrate on its westernmost section, around the southern shore of Lake Garda and into the nearby Soave and Valpolicella hills. It was ample, and then some.

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Vignaioli Veneti emphasizes quality and typicity. As Michele Montresor, its president, put it, Vignaioli Veneti is not a democratic organization: joining it requires certain standards and a vote of approval. Its members control their own entire winemaking process, from field to cellar to distribution, with the aim of establishing a benchmark for Veneto wines and enhancing not only their own reputations but the reputation of the whole region. That’s shrewd: The higher the status of the region as a whole, the better for each individual producer.

On the basis of what I saw and tasted, I’d say the organization is definitely going in the right direction. I found a lot of very good wines and some outstanding ones – and most of them came from appellations that are generally regarded as pretty humdrum. For instance: Custoza. Lugana. Bardolino. First lesson: great wine can be made almost anywhere one finds the right combination of soil, climate, grape variety, and dedicated human beings. The Veneto obviously holds many such conjunctions.

To kick off the visit, our group of eight writers and importers was primed with a master class on the white wines of the Veneto, with an appropriate emphasis on the Garda area, by Kerin O’Keefe. O’Keefe covers Italian wine for The Wine Enthusiast and is the author of two fine books on the Italian “Killer Bs,” Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco. During her remarks we tasted 10 of the Vignaioli Veneti’s whites:

  • Villa Medici Bianco Provincia di Verona IGT “Primizia” 2016
  • Gorgo Custoza San Michelin 2016
  • Cavalchina Custoza Superiore “Amedeo” 2015
  • Le Morette Lugana Mandolara 2016
  • Ottella Lugana Riserva “Molceo” 2014
  • Cà Rugate Soave Classico “Monte Fiorentine” 2015
  • Pieropan Soave Classico DOC “Calvarino” 2015
  • Pra Soave Classico “Monte Grande” 2009
  • Bonotto delle Tezze Col Real Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG
  • Cà di Rajo Prosecco Superiore Millesimato Brut “Cuvee del Fondatore” DOCG Valdobbiadene 2016

The last two wines were from the Adriatic end of the Veneto, to illustrate the scope of Vignaioli Veneti; the first eight represented appellations and, in some cases, producers we would be visiting.
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This was already an instructive set of wines. The first and simplest, a Verona IGT, was blended of Italy’s ubiquitous and mostly undistinguished 25% Trebbiano, 25% Garganega (the principal grape of Soave), and 50% Cortese – this last a total surprise to me, who had thought it was a Piedmont monopoly, where it makes Gavi. Apparently there is around Lake Garda a widely grown clone of Cortese, known locally as Fernanda. Who knew? Second lesson.

The second wine, a Custoza DOC, included in its blend a grape known locally as Trebbianello, which despite the similarity of names bears no relation to Trebbiano: It’s a clone of what we used to know as Tocai (now Friulano). To this wine and the next, a Custoza Superiore, it contributed distinctive almond notes, and to my palate that gave a sure indication of its relation to Tocai. Another variety I had not been aware of: lesson three.

Wines four and five, DOC Luganas, were monovarietals, and their variety was my lesson four: they were 100% Turbiana, another local grape, this one related to Verdicchio – which is no shabby relation to have. It yields a wine distinctive and unusual, with good body – especially for a white wine – and very capable of graceful aging.

We entered slightly more familiar territory with the Soaves, which are certainly to most wine lovers the most familiar wines of the region. O’Keefe emphasized the great difference between most Soave and Soave Classico, which flows from the traditional heartland of Soave, on the steep hillsides rather than down in the valleys. Its principal grape is Garganega, but the Trebbiano di Soave, a separate clone from Trebbiano di Toscana, which is no longer allowed in Soave Classico, is highly prized. On our subsequent visits several producers said they would use more of it if they could get it.

By this point, I’d almost lost track of which unusual grape and which lesson this was, but the thrust of it all should be clear: We weren’t even out the door yet, and a trove of useful and important information had already accumulated.

Next post: our white wine visits and tastings

O’Keefe photo courtesy of Charles Scicolone

Two Uncommon White Wines: Erbaluce and Timorasso

September 18, 2017

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of my readers, even those conversant with Italian wines, are scratching their heads about these two names. They’re not exactly common currency. Nevertheless, they’re worth knowing about: They are both intriguing wines, and I think their moment may be coming.
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Erbaluce and Timorasso are natives of the Alta Piemonte, grown nowhere else. Both used to be much more widespread before phylloxera destroyed many vineyards. In the subsequent replanting, both varieties lost ground to the hardier, more generously bearing variety Cortese, to the point that Timorasso in particular was on the verge of extinction.

Erbaluce is now the more widely planted variety, particularly around the town of Caluso, northeast of Turin. There it seems to have found an ideal location, and in the best hands it produces a lovely white wine that benefits from modest aging. Tom Hyland thinks it “one of Italy’s most prized indigenous varieties” (The Wines and Foods of Piemonte).

It’s probably more accurate to say that it deserves to be such, since very little Erbaluce is now in commercial production – perhaps around 100 hectares?  But those who know Erbaluce di Caluso esteem it, both in its dry version and its sweet. The dry is my preference: Light on the palate but far from insubstantial, with rich aromas of fruits and herbs – everything from mint to lemon to sage – and an equally complex and fascinating palate, it makes a lovely wine to sip with aperitifs and carry on with right through dinner.

Some good producers are Antoniolo, Cariola, Cieck, Ferrando, and Orsolani. A quick check on Wine Searcher showed a good half dozen kinds (sweet, dry, still, sparkling) and producers of Erbaluce available within 20 miles of Manhattan, so it’s worth a look around out there.

Timorasso has an even smaller production than Erbaluce: Perhaps up to 50 hectares are in commercial production, and that many exist almost solely because of the efforts of Walter Massa. A grower in Monleale, near Tortona in eastern Piemonte, he took the variety under his wing and began planting and propagating it in the 1990s. Such prominence as it has achieved today is solely due to him. Anyone lucky enough to have tasted a well made Timorasso loves it. I’ll quote Jancis Robinson (Wine Grapes), not usually a huge fan of Italian white wines, to give you some idea of Timorasso’s appeal:

Timorasso is definitely too interesting a variety to be hidden in a blend. Even in youth, varietal wines have complex aromas of light honey and spice as well as floral, citrus, and nutty characteristics and a creamy texture – they sometimes taste as if they are lightly oaked even when they are not. The acidity is fresh and well-made wines have excellent length, delicate minerality and surprising longevity. Producers of such wines include Luigi Boveri, Franco Martinetti, Walter Massa and Morgassi.

Other good producers are Bava, di Marchi, La Columbara, Orsolani, and Vigne Marina Coppi. Most of these bottle under the name Derthona – Derthona is the old name for Tortona, the town that seems to be the epicenter for Timorasso production – but some use the Colli Tortonesi designation. Another quick look at Wine Searcher showed Timorasso from a half a dozen producers (including two I haven’t tried yet) available within 20 miles of Manhattan. And, like the Erbaluce in this respect too, at very reasonable prices for white wine of this quality and interest.

These two wines are already becoming far less rare in Italy, and I think their intriguing characters will soon win them a serious following here in the States.

Castello di Radda Chianti Classico

September 7, 2017

To indulge in my favorite sort of overgeneralization: In California, it seems, dentists and proctologists buy boutique vineyards; in Italy, insurance companies and machinery manufacturers set up whole agricultural divisions. So the Beretta company, for instance (manufacturers of, among many other things, James Bond’s favorite tool), has an agricultural arm, Agricole Gussalli Beretta, which owns and operates vineyards in several parts of Italy – Franciacorta, Piemonte, Alto Adige, Abruzzo. In Tuscany, its holding is Castello di Radda, a Chianti Classico estate in the heart of the traditional zone.
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The idea of corporate ownership of vineyards may cause a reflexive shudder or two, but it is not necessarily the character-eviscerating phenomenon you may suppose: Everything depends on the choices and aims of the owners. To use an example close to home: Corporate ownership of Ridge Vineyards has in no way compromised the character of its wines. So too in Italy, many corporately owned vineyards produce wines of high quality and solid reputation, and Castello di Radda is certainly one of these, with two Tre Bicchieri awards already in its young history. Besides – let’s get real about this – what is Antinori, or Frescobaldi, or for that matter Mouton Rothschild, but a corporation, and a sizable one at that?

The Beretta family – yes, it’s a family, just like Antinori, Frescobaldi, and Rothschild – started Castello di Radda in 2003, working literally from the ground up, with vineyard choices and a largely subterranean winemaking facility, an anything but old-fashioned cellar. The great Tuscan master Maurizio Castelli has served as the guiding spirit and chief enologist for some years now. The man and the location – Radda is about as central to traditional Chianti as one can get – are clearly spot on.

So are the wines. The estate specializes in 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico. Its Chianti Classico Riserva has twice won Tre Bicchieri, and its other wines, especially its Gran Selezione, are beginning to attract critical attention. In 2017, Castello di Radda began converting all its vineyards to 100% organic production. This is certainly an estate to watch: As its new vineyard practices settle in, and as its vines mature, Castello di Radda seems poised to move into the upper echelon of Chianti estates.

Courtesy of the Wellcom Agency of Alba, I last week tasted a selection of Castello di Radda’s wines.  Here they are:
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2014 Chianti Classico

Dry earth and dried berry aroma. Lightish palate, with lots of bright acidity, very typical of the Radda area. Good tannins and light cherry/berry fruit. Long leather/dried cherry finish. Very pleasing drinking.

2013 Chianti Classico Riserva
Biggish berry and tobacco nose. Fresher fruit than the 2014 vintage (this is the wine that was recently awarded Tre Bicchieri). Good balance. Some complexity already beginning to show. Very long finish. A distinct step up from the 2014, which is the proper relation of a Riserva to the normal bottling.

2012 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Dried berry, tobacco, and earth scents. Fuller body and darker fruit than the preceding two wines. Fine acid/tannin balance sustaining complex fruit flavors. Very persistent finish. Again, another notch up, as it should be.

2006 Chianti Classico Riserva Poggio Selvale
Similar aroma to the Gran Selezione. A touch mute on the palate. Subdued (just coming out of mute phase?). Elegant and round, but not very forthcoming. This single-vineyard wine dates from the estate’s earliest days, so at first I didn’t know whether its reticence showed some tentativeness in the winemaking or just a stage in the wine’s evolution. Later, after it had time to breathe, the wine showed much more flavor and structure.

The key thing for me was that the three wines from the 20-teens provided plenty of interest now and point a good way for the future of Castello di Radda.

 

Prosecco and Champagne: Tasting Beyond the Bubbles

August 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina

July 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mustilli, the progenitor of modern Falanghina, then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Geekish Digression

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

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