Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Pelaverga: Another Cause for Celebration

December 6, 2018

Among the many reasons I had for giving thanks this year, I count Pelaverga high among my vinous blessings. It’s yet another of those Italian grape varieties (of which, happily, there are now many) that was teetering on the edge of extinction when a handful of growers rescued it, lest another fragment of their youth and their heritage should disappear forever.
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© MIPAAF – National Vine Certification Service

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The Burlotto family in Verduno, a town in Piedmont’s Cuneo province, appears to have been the first to make a serious commitment to Pelaverga. Long-time Barolo producers, they did this back in the 1970s, when it was beginning to appear that the whole Alba area was about to be engulfed by the most restricted form of monoculture – not just of grape vines, but of Nebbiolo exclusively. Forests that once yielded truffles gave way to vineyards, and vineyards that once grew Dolcetto and Barbera gave way to Nebbiolo. At that time, to devote a fine vineyard to Pelaverga, a grape unfashionably light-bodied and “unserious,” must have looked like lunacy.

Now that I think about it, I should have reserved the top spot on my Thanksgiving list this year for all such lunatics: May they increase and multiply and replenish the earth.

At any rate, the Burlotto family works both their eponymous estate and their Castello di Verduno estate. They gave over the latter’s Basadone vineyard to Pelaverga, and they have never regretted it. They still produce that wine today, and it is regarded by their colleagues and by the (still not enormous) corps of Pelaverga fanciers as the pace-setter for the variety.
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It has been joined over the years by more producers, almost always drawn from the ranks of traditional growers and those reluctant to see the best of the past slide away. In addition to Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, these include Fratelli Alessandria, Ascheri, and Bel Colle. Reverdito and Terre del Barolo also make Pelaverga, but I haven’t had the chance to taste theirs. The very best I’ve had are Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, both of which I know are available in the US, albeit of limited supply.

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Let me be clear about this: Pelaverga is no mere nostalgia trip. Growers are cultivating Pelaverga because it makes a wonderful wine, bright and acid and charming, yet still substantial, still a true Piedmont wine. But Pelaverga is a difficult grape to manage: Let it hang too long or get too ripe (an increasing problem in these days of global warming) and its acidity drops like a rock, and with it the charm and fresh fruit that distinguish the variety.

First-time tasters of Pelaverga almost always think of Beaujolais, because, like many Beaujolais it’s light in color, it almost always tastes lightly but distinctly of strawberry, and it has marked acidity. But there the resemblance ends: Pelaverga is an altogether guttier wine. It reflects a terroir with a horizon of Alps, not the gentle hills of smiling, sunny Beaujeux. The wine weighs in as a middleweight, not a lightweight, and its fruit is almost always brightened by spiciness and pepper.

Its low, soft tannins and bracing acidity make Pelaverga a versatile companion to many kinds of food: In the Piedmont, they love it with carne cruda and with local salume, as well as with pastas and risotto of all sorts. It seems to have a special affinity with mushroom dishes. In short, it’s happy with everything short of the biggest roasts – and I myself can certainly imagine enjoying it alongside a rare roast beef, even if it might, in that company, taste a little light.

One caveat: The grape I’m describing here is Pelaverga piccolo, grown around the town of Verduno in the Barolo zone (hence often called Pelaverga di Verduno). There is an unrelated Piedmont grape that shares the name, Pelaverga grosso, grown around Turin. This is more often blended than vinified monovarietally, and indeed is often made into a rosé. Until quite recently, these two were thought to be identical, even though they yield very different wines. Pelaverga grosso is still of very localized production around Turin, and has not caught the attention of Italian enophiles the way Verduno’s Pelaverga piccolo has. For my palate, Pelaverga piccolo makes by far the more interesting and pleasurable wine, a wine distinctly different from Piedmont’s heavyweights, yet clearly still a child of the same soils and weather.

Lugana: A White Wine Worth Discovering

November 15, 2018

Even for lovers of Italian wines, Lugana remains fairly unknown. If consumers recognize the name at all, they usually think of it as a kind of poor relative of Soave. That may be about to change, however: The Consorzio of Lugana has begun actively promoting the wines of the zone as a distinct and distinctive entity well worth attention in its own right.

I heartily agree. The recent Consorzio-sponsored tasting of Lugana wines I attended just a few weeks ago here in New York City confirmed the serious introduction to Lugana I’d had a year or so ago, when I visited wineries – primarily in the Veneto – on the southern and eastern shores of Lake Garda. The Lugana zone straddles the Lombardy-Veneto border on the southern end of that beautiful lake, more or less around the fascinating historical town Sirmione, which every poetry freak knows as the birthplace of the great Catullus.

It’s a relatively small zone, but it profits mightily from the beneficent influence of the lake, which creates a sort of Mediterranean microclimate despite the zone’s inland location. Palm trees grow in Sirmione and other sheltered spots along the lake’s southern shore. The soils tend to be sandy and morainic, and the hills are gentle and undulating, with an abundance of fine exposures for the vines that for the past 500 years have covered them.
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Those vines bear the Turbiana grape, a variety unknown elsewhere in Italy. For a long while it was thought to be yet one more of Italy’s endless assortment of regional Trebbianos, but that now seems not to be so, though the situation is still far from clear. The most recent DNA studies show that Turbiana does have some connection – precisely what connection remains unknown – with the prized Soave clone of Trebbiano, but it also has some connection – precisely what is equally unresolved – with the prestigious Verdicchio of the Marche.

Whatever the specifics of the matter may turn out to be, those are two good relatives for a grape to have. Both varieties produce white wines of great distinction and terrific ability to age – and Lugana rivals them in both respects.

To demonstrate the aging ability of the variety, the Consorzio tasting offered a few older samples (almost all the wines on display were from the 2017 vintage), all of which I found quite impressive – very fresh, with lovely floral aromas and generous, strongly mineral palates. Consumers new to Italian white wines would probably think of very good Chablis, which is a valid comparison. I tasted three – Marangona Lugana Vendemmia Tardiva Rabbiosa 2015, Montonale Lugana Orestilla 2012, and Perla del Garda Lugana Riserva Madre Perla 2011 – and liked them all, especially the 2012 Montonale, a beautiful wine that seemed to have enormous cellar potential.

Here are a few notes (with all my usual caveats about the intensely subjective nature of all tasting notes) on the wines presented in the main part of the tasting.

 

Ca’ Maiol

  • Lugana 2017: this first wine up set the bar with its fine typicity – pleasing floral aroma, delicious minerality on the palate, long-persisting finish.
  • Lugana Molin 2017: an old-vine selection; quite nice indeed – bigger and a tad fatter than the basic wine.

 

 

Cantina Bulgarini

  • Lugana 2017: Vinified entirely in stainless steel; very fresh and fine, with great aromatics.
  • Lugana 2017 “010”: From older vines than the wine above, with a touch of wood aging; bigger in the mouth, and firmer.
  • Lugana Superiore Ca’ Vaibo: crisp, fruity, mineral; very enjoyable, and structured for at least a few years’ aging.

 

Le Morette

  •  Lugana Mandolara 2017: A very classic – you could call it textbook – floral and mineral Lugana from a vineyard very near the shores of Lake Garda. I visited this estate on my earlier trip to the lake area. I was impressed with its wines at that time, and I still am.
  • Lugana Riserva 2015: Bigger and softer than the basic wine, and still quite fresh; will go for years yet.
  • Lugana 2017 Benedictus: A selection from the estate’s sunniest exposures, vinified with long (for a white wine) skin contact. The result is a fine, big wine that will take – and in my opinion needs – lots of time.

 

Monte Cicogna

  • Lugana Santa Caterina 2017: A lovely, biggish, very mineral wine from 35-year-old vines: quite nice.
  • Lugana Imperiale 2017: This one is from young vines, and tastes lighter and brisker than the Santa Caterina. Very enjoyable.

 

Pilandro

  • Lugana 2017: A touch closed in the mouth, but with a lovely, long finish that promises very well for its development.
  • Lugana Terecrea 2017: A completely characteristic Lugana of great elegance.
  • Lugana Arilica 2016: This wine has seen some oak aging, of which there is a slight hint on the palate; slightly rounder in the mouth than the two 2017s, and very fine.

 

Sgreva

  • Lugana 2017 Eufrasia: This wine stays on its lees for three months before bottling. Very nice indeed, and quite typical, with a very long finish.
  • Lugana 2017 Sirmio: This wine originates in sandier soil than the preceding, and it gets five months on its lees before bottling. A bigger, almost fatter wine, of slightly more intense character: quite enjoyable.

 

So there you have it: a very good set of tastings, of high quality and excellent typicity across the board. Lugana seems to me to have a great future in the American market, where the crisp freshness of the young wines should make them very appealing as aperitifs, and the round, mouth-filling appeal of the older ones ought to make them very popular as dinner wines. I don’t think there is much more you can ask of a white wine, especially an essentially inexpensive one like Lugana.

Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods? – Part Two

November 5, 2018

Last post, I gave a rundown of developing trends in grappa distilling that are clouding the clear spirit that I have long enjoyed. Despite my loyalty to traditional, unaged grappa, I don’t think all these changes, especially producers’ exploration of the effects of different sorts of wood and different periods of aging, are necessarily bad. Some in fact are quite successful. Evidently, much depends on the individual distiller’s goals and the skill he or she (a surprising number of grappa makers are young women, which in itself marks a whole new age in grappa) brings to the task.
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Here’s a quick rundown of what our group of journalists and mixologists tasted over six distillery visits on the trip sponsored by Hello Grappa last month.

 

Bonollo

Grappa “Of” is the trademark name, produced in several versions.


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  • Prosecco, nice and light, with a slightly aromatic nose, clean and lightly spicy on the palate
  • Amarone Barrique, a brandy-ish nose and palate, with slight sweetness: well made, but a touch too wooded for me
  • Amarone, a cherry nose and a complex palate, dry, cherry-ish, and long finishing: my favorite

 

Bottega

The makers of Alexander grappa, now more of a sparkling winery than a distillery, though they also make gin, vermouth, etc. Nevertheless, Bottega produces several fine grappas.


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  • Alexander Nera (black bottle), a blend of Glera, Chardonnay, and Merlot pomace, a nice basic grappa with a floral nose and a smooth, fiery palate
  • Prosecco, lightly aromatic and long finishing
  • Cabernet, typical strong red-pomace aroma and palate
  • Aldo Bottega, a blend similar to the Nera, but more aromatic and elegant, quite good in the modern (i.e., post Nonino and Poli), softer style

 

Bepi Tosolini

Tosolini was among the smallest distillers we visited, and for me one of the most interesting. A third-generation Friulian distillery near Udine that produces both grappa and “Most,” essentially a classic wine-based brandy made from local grapes.


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  • Uve Moscato, a clear grappa with a delicate Moscat nose and palate, very pleasing
  • Most Barrique Ciliegio, a blend of Cabernet franc and Refosco, aged 12 months in cherry wood and tasting pleasantly of it
  • Grappa Agricola, which I thought a classic grappa from red grape pomace – complex and deep, very clean and persistent
  • Most Picolit, sporting a great aroma of this scarce and difficult grape and feeling smooth and elegant in the mouth
  • Grappa Ramondolo Barrique, with delicate, pale gold coloration, the classic nose of this exquisite Friulian variety, and a true grappa fire softened charmingly by the wood aging – for me one of the most successful of the barrique-aged grappas

 

Castagner

A very large producer, making perhaps half of Italy’s grappa, and very interested in long aging of its grappas.


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  • Casta, which is a five-times-distilled, light, floral grappa, designed for cocktails
  • Prosecco, closer to traditional grappa
  • Amarone Riserva, which shows its 18 months of aging in cherry and oak in its woody nose and vanilla-tinted palate
  • Brunello, which receives 12 months’ aging in used Brunello barrels – for me one of the best of the wooded grappas because of the strong Brunello character
  • a 7-year-old, blended of Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot nero, quite decent, with fruit and wood nearly in balance, especially in the peach, apricot, and wood finish

At the end of dinner we tasted a 14-year-old, a smooth, elegant, cognac-y brandy, very fine, but no longer grappa.

 

Marzadro

Another third-generation distiller, with a very modern facility in Trentino.

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  • Anforo, blended of 70% red varieties and 30% white, aged 18 months in large clay jars: interesting – a basic grappa with earth overtones
  • Moscato: very rich of the variety in nose and palate
  • La Trentina Morbida, from white grapes with slight aging; traditional grappa character
  • Giare Gewurztraminer, aged 36 months in 1,000-liter oak barrels: pale blond, delicate Gewurz nose and palate; nice
  • Dic’otto Botte Porte: aged 18 months in barrique, 18 months in Port casks; amber color, spicy-sweet nose – a pleasing sip, but for me in no sense grappa
  • Espressioni: from Merlot and Cabernet pomace, aged 6 months in American oak; dark amber and very good of its kind
  • Affina Ciliegio: from pomace of Lagrein and Pinot nero, aged 10 years in cherry wood; very nicely balanced between wood notes and grappa in nose and palate – a very pleasing combination

There are also (which we didn’t taste) Affina Rovere, from Teroldego and Marzemino, and Affina Acacia, from Muller Thurgau and Moscato. Marzadro struck me as a very thoughtful and painstaking producer.

 

Bertagnolli

The oldest distillery in Italy, located near Mezzacorona, and making many grappas, both traditional and aged. While experimenting with new styles in grappa, Bertagnolli hasn’t lost sight of its roots.


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  • Grappino bianco: grappa as my palate thinks it ought to be, of 100% Moscato giallo
  • Grappino Barrique: 85% Teroldego pomace, 12 months in barrique; still tastes like grappa, with some vanilla overtones
  • 1870 Grappa Riserva: Teroldego and Cabernet sauvignon, 5 years in barrique; slightly brassy color, pungent dried grape and wood aromas; smooth and predominantly grappa, not wood, in character, very nice – one of the most true-to-grappa characters of the aged grappas we tasted.
  • Teroldego: a lovely grappa with a nice varietal aroma and taste
  • Gewurztraminer: a slightly late harvest gave great aromatics and a classic palate – very fine

 

As you can see from all this, grappa has become a very diverse distillate. Given the many different grapes grown in Italy, traditional grappa was already quite a variable drink, and I’m afraid the tremendous variety now available is only going to overwhelm and alienate the new audience it’s meant to attract. I hope I’m wrong: Certainly, some Cognac and Armagnac drinkers should find aged grappas an attractive path into the grappa forest. But will cocktail drinkers be persuaded to wander in those woods? I guess only time will tell.

Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods?

October 25, 2018

My recent tour of grappa distilleries, sponsored by Hello Grappa, and in the company of a collegial group of writers and mixologists, was just as pleasurable as I had anticipated, and far more informative than I had expected.

 

 

I’m one of those smart alecs who thought he knew all about grappa; after all, I’ve been drinking it with relish since most of it was thought of as a long-haul trucker’s breakfast drink, and I’ve continued right through its transformation by up-scale Alpine and Dolomite skiers into the fashionable after-dinner drink and after-ski warmer it now is. What could there possibly be for me to learn?

Much, as it turns out.

Not only is there more to the art of distilling than I had realized – there is in fact far more art to it than the relatively straightforward process of distillation would seem to allow, for one thing – but, like so much else, the world of grappa itself is changing.

 

 

Traditional grappa is a clear spirit, aromatic of whatever pomace serves as its base, and fiery or elegant as its maker chooses.But those makers have come to realize, as Alessandro Marzadro, the latest generation of his family-owned distillery (almost all grappa distilleries are family-owned) put it, 90% of the spirits that are drunk neat, as grappa traditionally is, are what the trade calls “brown goods,” and 90% of the clear spirits in the world are used in mixed drinks.

So grappa, it seems, is an anomaly, a clear spirit in a brown-spirit niche; and to increase its market grappa would have to become both a clear spirit and something else – a sipping whisky, so to speak, and a base for cocktails.

I was struck by the obvious truth of his remarks. Grappa, in effect, has been the wrong color for the niche it occupies. I have always loved – and emphatically still do – the sensuously scented, clear, traditional grappas, but they do stand apart from the Cognacs, Armagnacs, and malt whiskies they are customarily shelved with. (Not unlike tequila and mezcal, of course, but that’s another story, not involving grapes at all, and I won’t go there now.)

All the grappa makers our band of merry pranksters visited seemed to be grappling with this dilemma. A few were trying to create a lighter-bodied, less fiery, clear grappa that would appeal in cocktails and mixed drinks. We tasted several of those, some of which were very successful, most of which seemed to me indistinguishable from mixed drinks made with who-knows-what. But I am not a cocktail drinker, and defer to the opinion of those who are: Several of our comitatus were quite excited by many more of these drinks than I.

All the producers we visited were investigating aging their grappas, using different sorts of wood and different periods of time. The experimentation is ongoing, and there are many, many options available for distillers to explore. This is undoubtedly making matters very complicated, not to mention costly, for them: Tracking numerous different micro-distillations, and tying up salable grappa in short- or long-term aging experiments present all too many opportunities for both producers and their grappas to literally get lost in the woods.

 

 

The aging durations most frequently used are 12 and 18 months, and an 18-month-aged grappa may be labeled Riserva. All grappa runs clear from the still: Barrel-aging imparts, among other things, color, which may range from pale yellow to dark brown, depending on the type of wood used and the length of the time in barrel. Oak is the most common wood employed, but ash, chestnut, cherry, and acacia can also come into play. And aging can extend well beyond 18 months: several distillers – Bonollo and Castagner, for example – were experimenting with multiple-year spans, up to 14 years.

The condition of the wood used for aging makes an even greater impact on the finished grappa than does the kind of wood. New oak, or any fresh, unused wood barrel, will impart more sweetness – that vanilla taste – than will a used one, and a lightly charred (toasted) barrel can give coffee and even chocolate notes to a grappa, just as it can to a wine.

Barrels in which wines were previously matured also contribute a whole other range of flavors to grappas. It seems fairly common for grappa makers to age Amarone-derived spirits in old Amarone barrels, for instance: This is in fact something of a long-standing tradition in the Veneto. And we also encountered grappas distilled from Brunello pomace being aged in used Brunello barrels. But individual producers all had their own preferences, according to the style they were seeking for their grappas. Castagner, for instance, the largest distiller we visited, rests all the grappas it intends for aging for six months in cherry wood first, to soften them some, before passing them into barriques to finish their maturation.

This was intriguing to me, though I am far too old and cranky ever to surrender my preference for traditional, clear grappa, whether it be made in the fiery style or what Italians call morbida – soft, and often lightly fruity. For my palate, the most successful aged grappas were those that, along with the acquired quasi-Cognac quality that wood aging imparts, retained a recognizable grappa heart – the firmer spine and tiny hint of fire that bespeaks grappa.

We tasted many grappas, of varying ages, that were very nice brandies, but weren’t grappas any more. A few of these, like the 14-year-old we tasted from Castagner, although no longer recognizable as grappa, had become very fine brandies in their own right: They’d metamorphosed into some third thing that wasn’t grappa or cognac, but nevertheless an excellent drink.

I’ve already written long enough, and presented complications enough, for one post. Next time, I’ll follow up with an account of the distilleries we visited and the grappas – and their variants – we tasted.

Kobrand’s Tour d’Italia

October 11, 2018

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar led by Kevin Zraly at the New York presentation of the importer Kobrand’s annual Tour d’Italia. This showing of Kobrand’s line of Italian brands was open to the wine trade and media. The seminar was available only to wine media members, and organized around a selection of Kobrand’s major Italian producers – Pighin (Friuli), Silvio Nardi (Tuscany), Michele Chiarlo (Piedmont), Nozzole (Tuscany), Sette Ponte (Tuscany), Masi (Veneto), and Medici Ermete (Emilia Romagna).

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Have you noticed that nothing is selected or organized any longer, but everything is curated? Well, the wine world isn’t exempt from that kind of verbal hyperventilation. What is called a seminar these days (and not just by Kobrand: It’s universal) is simply a panel of producers talking a bit about their estates and the representative wine they’re showing. And the wines at this event and the larger portfolio tasting of which it was part aren’t just fine wines or even great ones: These were “The Icons of Italian Wine.”  Icons is a vastly overworked word, but what puts this phrase over the top for me is the definite article: The icons – there can be no others. Give me a break, please.

OK, so I’m tilting at windmills again: I’ll dismount and get back to the wines. Which weren’t bad at all. Some not my style, but well made of their kind, true to their varieties and to the winemaker’s vision. Some very good, drinkable young and worthy of some aging. And at least one just remarkable: This was Masi’s Costasera Amarone Riserva 2009, which already tasted lush and lovely and which promises to be off-the-charts gorgeous in 20 years.
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The presentation of these wines was very honest and straightforward, lacking the kind of hyper-seriousness foreboded by “icons” and “seminar.” Kevin Zraly is an old pro at events like this: He kept things lively, interesting, and moving at a good pace; and he allowed plenty of time for questions – of which there were almost none. The few there were could have come from civilians, not wine professionals.

So my big disappointment at this event was not with the wines or their presentation, but with what we used to call the press corps and now have to denominate the media. They seemed totally content with the basic information being offered: no questions, no remarks on what they were tasting, no burrowing for technical data. That’s like writing an article entirely from the press handouts. It made me nostalgic for the guy who always used to ask about pH and reverse osmosis and then endlessly argue with the winemaker about the truth/accuracy of what he was saying. At least that guy cared, and he had some core of knowledge against which to weigh the winemaker’s claims. I got no sense of any of that in this session – which is seriously too bad, in many respects.

OK, I mounted my horse again. Apologies. In addition to the Amarone that I loved, I also particularly enjoyed

  • Pighin’s 2017 Collio Pinot grigio, a totally unwooded wine that tasted richly of oyster shells and pears, the way Pinot grigio used to,
  • Medici Ermete’s 2017 Concerto, a single-vineyard dry Lambrusco sparkler of seductive raspberry/strawberry charm,
  • and Chiarlo’s 2013 Barolo Cerequio, a very elegant, balanced wine that the maker compared to the outstanding 2004 vintage.
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Also quite interesting was Sette Ponte’s 2016 Oreno, a Tuscan IGT Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Petit verdot), a wine big in the mouth, rich and fat, with splendid Italian acidity, bigger than the Bordeaux wines it’s modeled on, with more fruit and more enlivening acid. I’m no fan of Bordeaux grapes in Italy, but this is a good wine.

Grappa Collection

October 1, 2018

The 10 bottles pictured below are the sad remnants of a once formidable collection of grappas. Once upon a time, I had 40 different kinds. How the mighty have fallen! And just look at the low fill levels in these survivor bottles: I have a terrific ullage problem, as you can clearly see.

 

 

I trust you can also clearly see why it’s imperative for me to spend the next 10 days in Italy visiting grappa distilleries and – speriamo – replenishing my sadly diminished supply. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. If you’re a praying person, it would be thoughtful of you to drop in a mention of my liver.

The Case of Cases

September 20, 2018

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

Barbera: A Wine for All Purposes

September 10, 2018

Barbera is a wonderful wine, versatile and enjoyable and affordable. Perhaps the wine’s greatest virtue is how well it plays with all sorts of dishes, so when Diane and I find ourselves trying a new recipe – a pretty frequent occurrence here, given Diane’s weekly food posts – and uncertain what wine will pair with it, Barbera is often our go-to grape.

 

Lots of people, both consumers and growers, love Barbera: It’s one of the most widely planted varieties in the world and stands third among red grapes in vineyard space in Italy. From the grower’s point of view, Barbera has many virtues: It thrives in all sorts of conditions, bears heavily – sometimes too heavily – and almost invariably yields a wine that is at worst quaffable and usually much better than that. From the wine drinker’s point of view, Barbera’s rich, dark color, its bright fruitiness – usually described as some variety of cherry – and its zingy, lively acidity make it a delight at dinner. And it hardly hurts that most Barberas are inexpensive: It rates very high on the pleasure-for-dollar scale.

Outside of the Italian Piedmont, Barbera has become a workhorse variety, used frequently to blend with other varieties that need a splash of color and a jolt of acidity to brighten them. It was even customary to use it that way with the austere Nebbiolo grapes in prestigious Barolo and Barbera. But the workhorse can turn into a thoroughbred when it’s planted in the right places and treated with respect.

Giacomo Bologna was the first to make that clear in 1985, when he released the first vintage of his then-iconoclastic, now-iconic Bricco dell’Uccellone, a monovarietal Barbera aged in barriques. That wine, still made by his family on their Braida estate, showed for the first time how much breed and finesse Barbera possessed and began the trend toward treating Barbera as the noble grape it apparently is capable of being.

Naturally, many winemakers immediately went too far with this process – siamo in Italia!  They over-extracted and over-oaked their grapes and worked very hard to diminish, if not entirely remove, Barbera’s acidity, which for many wine lovers was and is the defining characteristic of the variety. So for some years in the 80s and 90s, it became far too easy to find bad Barberas, wines wherein the grape’s lovely cherry flavors were submerged in a sea of oak-derived vanilla or toast or even coffee, and the wine de-acidified to the point of flabbiness. There are still a few of those around, but sanity has returned to most Barbera producers, and the vast majority of Barberas are once again bright, fruit-enlivened wines of charm and grace.

For all that Barbera is planted so widely, I have been talking here primarily of the Piedmontese wine. That’s because around Alba and in the province of Asti and the Monferrato hills, Barbera attains its best flavors and highest levels of quality.

 

 

This a little odd, because Barbera is entirely unrelated to any other Piedmontese variety. In fact, no one really knows where it came from. The earliest reference to what seems to be the grape we know occurs in the very late 18th century in the Monferrato area, but even that reference is uncertain.

What is sure is that Barbera came into its own after the devastations of phylloxera, when the great majority of Piedmont’s vineyards had to be replanted, and it hasn’t looked back since. Alba, Asti, and Monferrato can now be considered its heartland, and all three produce outstanding wines. Asti’s are the brightest, lightest, most acidic, and at their best the most elegant. Alba’s Barberas are fuller-bodied and more intense, with a bit more tannin showing. Asti makers think Alba’s wines are a bit rustic and “nebbiolized,” and they may be right – though both those qualities can be virtues. The Monferrato versions tend to combine the best traits of both other areas, and they can, at their best, be stunning wines, but they are the hardest to find on this market.

Over the years, I have drunk excellent Barberas from many great producers. Here is a very short list of the best. Please bear in mind that most of them make several versions of Barbera – multi-vineyard, single vineyard, selected vineyards, old vine, barriqued and not barriqued, et cetera – and their varying price levels usually indicate how the makers regard them. You may or may not agree: I find with Barbera that simpler is often better.

  • Braida: Asti, in several versions, including the famous Bricco dell’ Uccellone
  • Burlotto: Alba
  • Cascina delle Rose: Alba, two versions, textbook Barbera
  • Cerreto: Alba
  • Chiarlo: Asti; several levels, all good
  • Cogno: Alba, plus a superb wine from an ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vineyard
  • Iuli: from Monferrato, in several versions, and excellent
  • Marchesi di Barolo: both Alba and Monferrato, both fine
  • Renato Ratti: Alba
  • Roccheviberti: Alba; small producer, but well worth seeking out
  • Scavino: two versions of Alba, both very good
  • Vietti: several versions of both Alba and Asti, all very good

Any bottle from this array of star producers ought to provide a Barbera novice with a fine introduction to the breed; a tasting of several of them should show the range of styles and nuances the grape and its zones are capable of. Go to it, and enjoy!

One Fine Wine: Castellare Chianti Classico 2014

August 20, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’m lucky enough to drink a lot of good wine often, which is fine by me: Its downside is that I get lulled into thinking that high quality is just ordinary. Wrong, but I hope understandable. Every now and again, I rouse out of my trance and realize that this “ordinary” wine I’ve been sipping at is, really, one fine wine, and I ought to be paying more attention to it. My latest instance of this was a very youthful bottle of Castellare Chianti Classico, the 2014 vintage – an infant, to be sure, but what a beautiful baby!

Whatever nastiness is going on in the greater world, we live in a golden age of wine. There is more good, sound, drinkable wine being made now in more places than ever before in human history. True as that is, the number of master winemakers – individuals who have the skill and insight and touch to rise with the best vintages but not fall with the worst, and who can navigate the zigs and zags of our increasingly quirky weather – that number remains very small, and one of those rare individuals is Alessandro Cellai, for many years now the winemaker at Castellare di Castellina.

The town of Castellina is almost dead center in the Chianti Classico zone, and many of its vineyards are esteemed for producing textbook Chianti: sapid and juicy when young, and maturing into elegant, long-lived, delicious nectars. Castellare’s wines share the soils and styles and many of the qualities of the zone. The Italian wine critic Daniele Cernilli says that all the Castellare Chianti Classicos have “the most noble characteristics of Castellina wines, including their drinkability and ability to charm and seduce from the first sip.”

Castellare’s most sought-after wine is I Sodi di San Niccolò, a single-vineyard blend of Sangiovese and up to 15% Malvasia nera, aged in barriques – a lovely, complex wine for long cellaring. It is a perennial Tre Bicchieri winner, and correspondingly expensive. I Sodi is a great wine, and I drink it whenever it comes my way. But I think that Alessandro Cellai’s greatest accomplishment isn’t I Sodi, fine as it may be, but what so many of us wine dorks tend to overlook (and even to dismiss): his base wine, his year-in, year-out, drink-every-day Chianti Classico.

No elaborate winespeak here; this is simply a lovely wine, juicy and drinkable from its release, easily capable of a few years of aging, and perfectly happy to match with almost any food you can name. 95% Sangiovese (of very carefully selected clones) and 5% Canaiolo, aged in big barrels, this is traditionally made and traditionally styled Chianti of the highest order, and to produce it at this level, vintage after vintage, is an accomplishment any winemaker anywhere should be proud of. One fine wine indeed!

Let me beat this particular horse for a few sentences more: Most of us who write about wine get caught up in the search for excellence, the pursuit of rarity, the quest for a new flavor, a startling new experience. That’s understandable and forgivable, I hope, and great if and when we find it – but how many people in this galaxy are ever going to have the chance to taste one of those rarities?  Galahads (we wish!) on our quest for that grail, we forget that far more important for the happiness and pleasure of a much greater number of people are really excellent wines made in decent quantities and available almost everywhere (at least with a bit of effort). That is exactly what this delightful Castellare Chianti Classico brought home to me: that I and my colleagues should write more for real people and less for collectors – who, as far as I can tell, don’t read us anyway.

Caparone Wines Among Friends

August 9, 2018

People who really love wine enjoy sharing their best bottles with others who understand and appreciate them. I’m certainly one of those: I hate opening a good bottle for people who would prefer a white Zinfandel or a cola, but I relish the chance to pour some of my best stuff for knowledgeable friends. So when I had the chance recently to introduce some fellow winos to the Caparone family’s Italian varietal wines, I jumped at it...

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Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone, and Michele Scicolone are in my opinion among the small handful of “experts” in this country who truly understand Italian wine, both in what it does well and why, and what it doesn’t succeed at and why. I thought a Caparone tasting would be as interesting and enjoyable for them as it would be for me.

Mary is an MW and head of a wine school here in New York, and she and Ed are co-authors of the Wines for Dummies series of books. Michele and Charles are experts on Italian wines and foods. A few years back Ed had tasted and liked Caparone’s Sangiovese, which impressed him at the time as the only moderately successful California version of an Italian variety, but that was all he knew of the wines. Charles and Michele had never had the opportunity to taste the Caparone wines at all, and Charles was deeply skeptical about what California does to Italian grapes – as indeed I had been until I tasted Caparone’s.
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We all convened at the restaurant La Pizza Fresca, which provides a very welcoming space for such an event, with excellent service, fine and appropriate glassware, and good food to sustain the hungry winebibber. Ed brought a lovely bottle of Clouet’s Pinot noir-heavy NV Champagne and a bottle of Benanti’s 2010 Pietra Marina, probably Sicily’s finest white wine, to start us off.

The we got down to the business of the day: Caparone Italian varietal wines.

2014 Sangiovese
2014 Nebbiolo
2014 Aglianico
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1996 Sangiovese
1996 Aglianico

That was the service order, the Sangiovese being the lightest-bodied and the Aglianico the fullest. We talked a lot about freshness and varietal character, and we agreed that all the wines showed the unique qualities of each variety very well. There was also universal agreement that these were the most successful California versions of Italian grapes that any of us was aware of. The disagreements concerned nuances and precise comparisons: Charles, for instance, thought the young Sangiovese slightly over-oaked, like a Super Tuscan, while I wasn’t bothered by oak flavors at all.
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I’ve written about my admiration of these three 2014s before, and both Charles and Ed have published admiring accounts of the whole tasting, so I’ll spare you most of the details – except to emphasize that both 96s, at 22 years old, still tasted fresh, with mature and developed flavors playing side by side with still-young fruit flavors. Both seemingly have years of life ahead of them – and that would be no mean accomplishment for any of those grapes in their home territory.
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An informal vote for the wine of the day ended in a toss-up between the young Nebbiolo and the old Aglianico. I could see the reasons for both, but when push comes to shove I am a person of mature years, and I like my wines the same way.


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Postscript:

A few days after this tasting, I opened at home a bottle of Caparone’s 2012 Zinfandel, the first of Caparone’s non-Italian varietal wines I’ve tried. It was lovely, full of classic Zinfandel brambly, berry-ish flavors, but restrained and polished rather than exuberant and in-your-face. The bottle’s back label describes it accurately as a “rich, complex Zinfandel,” “aged for 24 months in small oak barrels” and “racked rather than fined or filtered.”  It further claims that the wine “will continue to develop in the bottle for 25 years or more” – and I believe every word of that.

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The Caparones, father and son, are clearly New World producers with a wonderfully Old World technique and style. The comparisons that spring to my mind are masterful family producers like the Chave family in Hermitage, or the Clape family of Cornas. If Paso Robles had the prestige of the northern Rhone, a lot more attention would be being paid to what’s happening at Caparone.