Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

One Fine Wine: Mazzei Belguardo Serrata 2007

July 2, 2020
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently

Every now and again, when our home supply of wine dips below a level I consider crucial for human life, Diane and I trot over to our off-premises storage unit and bring home a case to bolster our resources. Most of the cases I’ve squirreled away are mixed lots, and I’m never quite sure what’s going to turn up in them. That was how I found today’s star, a lovely Sangiovese-based wine from the Tuscan Maremma.

Diane had prepared a Neapolitan tinged dinner, in deference to my almost withdrawal-symptom need for tomato sauce and good mozzarella – and by the latter I emphatically mean fresh buffalo mozzarella, not cow’s milk fior di latte. Buon Italia provided both the cheese and some good potato gnocchi, which we had in a transcendent dish of gnocchi alla Sorrentina.

So it was a very happy Ubriaco who sipped and swallowed his way through Mazzei’s Belguardo. This is a Toscana IGT from the Maremma region, and the 2007 version of it contained 80% Sangiovese grapes, 20% Alicante. In Tuscany, Alicante can be a crapshoot, and most of it often turns out to be Grenache (Garnaccia), so what I was expecting from this wine was exuberant fruit – the hallmark of Maremma-zone Sangiovese – perhaps reined in somewhat by barriques and age, now almost 13 years old.

I got that and then some! Despite its age, this Belguardo tasted intensely fruity and fresh with an antipasto of Italian salume: finocchiana, coppa dolce, and schiacciata picante. The fatty meats softened the wine’s tannins even more than age had, and they all but nullified any lingering barrique notes, making it taste youthful and lively and perfectly companionable with all the differing flavors those meats presented.

With our lovely gnocchi alla Sorrentina, the wine changed completely. With the sweet/acid tomato sauce and the lush, melting mozzarella surrounding the delicate gnocchi, the Belguardo became more austere and complex and deep – almost a different style of wine, yet still firmly rooted in the character of Sangiovese. This was simply a lovely wine, incredibly pleasing in radically different ways with those very different courses, and clearly nowhere near old age. It showed terrific structure and balance: an estimable wine from a great wine family.

The Mazzei wine pedigree is impeccable: They have been in the Chianti wine business since 1435, rooted in the same small town, Fonterutoli, in the heart of what is now the Chianti Classico zone. Brothers Filippo and Francesco now head the firm, with another generation of Mazzei in the wings. Since the beginning of Italy’s wine renaissance in the last century, they have been in the forefront of Tuscan wine making in both style and quality.

Mazzei’s Belguardo Estate

Their flagship wine is Castello di Fonterutoli, a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. If there is any serious wine person who still does not know how great Chianti can be, this is a wine to learn on. Their Siepi, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, likewise sets the bar for supertuscan wines. They make as well a monovarietal Sangiovese called Mix36, which is a blend of 36 different clones of Sangiovese: It recently won Tre Bicchieri. And finally, they farm their Maremma property Belguardo, which produces the lovely Serrata that sent me over the moon and prompted this post. In short, the Mazzei are Sangiovese royalty, and every one of their wines attests to it.

Unlikely Greatness: Palari Faro

June 4, 2020

Greatness, like lightning, can strike anywhere, but, still like lightning, some places are more likely than others. No one is surprised to hear about a great wine from Barolo or from Corton, but twenty years or so ago, when I first wrote about Palari, the east coast of Sicily was probably one of the least likely places in the world for connoisseurs to expect a great wine. And if location wasn’t the worst thing working against it, the unknown indigenous grapes its regulations called for – Nerello mascalese, Nerello cappuccio, Nocera, and two others even more obscure – should have finished the job.

So maybe it was just a stray lightning bolt that smacked those hills near Messina – but if it was, it’s been striking them regularly for 25 years now, as the Palari estate keeps turning out gorgeous wines vintage after vintage, racking up Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli awards from Italian critics, and establishing itself firmly as one of Italy’s truly great red wines. Perhaps, because of its small size – 7 hectares, 50,000 bottles – it is fated to never be more than a cult wine. If that’s the case, I’d urge you to join the cult: Palari is something worth believing in.
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To begin at the beginning: Palari is the estate name. The wine’s DOC is Faro, for the lighthouse that marks this stretch of Messina’s coastline. Back in the late ‘80s of what has too rapidly become the last century, that DOC was on the verge of being not stricken by the lightning of greatness but stricken from the books: It was about to be deleted because no one was making the wine any more.

Enter Luigi Veronelli, one of Italy’s finest wine journalists and connoisseurs. He felt passionately about preserving Italy’s oenological traditions, and he knew that his friend Salvatore Geraci had inherited his grandfather’s 18th century villa and old vineyards within the Faro DOC zone. Since Geraci had earned his reputation as an architect by his meticulous restoration of old buildings, what more fitting project for him than restoring an old vineyard and rescuing an endangered DOC?

Salvatore Geraci

Geraci took on the job, and the rest really is history. Determined from the start to make a great wine or no wine at all, Geraci got his brother, an agronomist, to revitalize the vineyards, consulted with one of Italy’s best enologists, and started making wine. His first vintage was 1995, and Veronelli hailed his ’96 as “Italy’s Clos de Vougeot.” Bam! The lightning had struck, and it hasn’t stopped striking since.

So what is Palari all about? Here is Gambero Rosso’s description of the 2014 vintage, which it awarded – no surprise – Tre Bicchieri: “From the outset, with its charmingly complex and elegant nose, it delivers. On the palate, it’s just as sophisticated, proving rich in silky tannins, plush and extremely long.” And here is Daniele Cernilli on the 2013, which he awarded 92 points: “Intense garnet ruby color. More evolved than other versions, aromas of strawberry jam, cassis, hints of tamarind then ethereal notes of kirsch. Powerful taste, warm, evident and velvety tannins. Great persistence.”

I just recently – and very happily – matched a bottle of Palari 2005 with a very authentic Sicilian dinner, and I can testify that the wine is all that and more. The longer aging of my bottle only made the wine more smooth and elegant and composed, more complete in itself and harder to separate into individual taste sensations than are younger examples. In short, this is a very great wine, and a very special one.
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It has been joined for some years now by a “second” wine, Rosso del Soprano, vinified from the same grapes. The quotation marks around “second” are advisable, because, according to whom you read, Rosso del Soprano is almost as good as/better than Palari. What do you know?  A second lightning strike in the very same place? Or Zeus just hit a twofer? It hardly matters which. We should just revel in our good fortune: Greatness is where you find it.

Who’s Afraid of a Vintage Chart?

May 7, 2020

It always gives me a perverse pleasure, when I have just enjoyed an exquisite bottle of wine, to check some authoritative vintage chart and be told that my bottle was over the hill, should have been drunk years ago, and was only a mediocre vintage to begin with. Call me anti-authoritarian (I am), but it doubles my enjoyment to find out once again that the emperor has no clothes on.

My most recent instance of this was my last bottle of the 2003 vintage of Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Radici, and the naked potentate this time was Robert Parker, or at least his vintage chart, which rated all 2003 Taurasi a very humble 75 out of 100, a number so low it is rarely seen in any vintage chart for any wine: Mostly they fall in the range of 85 to 100. It was also designated “C: past its prime, should have been drunk already.” What do you know?  I had just rhapsodized over a wine I should have been embarrassed to have at my table.

Well, call me shameless as well as anti-authoritarian: I loved that wine. It was big, and rich, lush with dark-toned Aglianico fruit and laced with gorgeous Campanian earth and minerals, its complex, balanced flavors still maturing and clearly with years of development still in front of them – classic Mastroberardino Taurasi, which is to say classic Taurasi. I’m not sure that Mastroberardino is capable of making a bad Taurasi.

So how do you explain Parker’s far different take on 2003?  Well, to be fair, his rating is of the vintage as an entity in itself, not what any individual producer made of it, so it’s sort of an average, as any vintage rating must be. Also – IMHO, as is now the usage – Parker has never been very sound on Italian wines. In my in fact not-at-all-humble opinion, he has never really understood them, so that I’ve always found his evaluation of individual wines as well as whole vintages skewed. It’s a little bit like the Michelin Guide’s ratings of Italian restaurants: The more highly praised they are, the less characteristically Italian they are, and the more they resemble French restaurants, in both appearance and cooking styles.

That works for a lot of the buying public, which is quite content with that state of affairs, but it doesn’t work for me, nor should it work for any wino who wants different and authentic wines with their own character and style, not international wannabes tasting only of the same old same old. Real Taurasi is emphatically its own creature: It is made from Aglianico, one of Italy’s three noblest red varieties, and it is often the biggest and longest-lived of them all. I have tasted 70-year-old Taurasis – from Mastroberardino, of course – that were still going strong, with little loss of color or body or flavor.

Aglianico is simply a great grape, one of the noblest red grapes of them all. The Mastroberardino family has been its guardians through the many dark decades when Italian wines in general got little respect, and southern Italian wines in particular got none at all. Now that Italian wine is in the ascendant, there are many other producers, and a good number of them are making first-rate Taurasi. This is an unmitigated blessing for all of us who love this wine and the unique volcanic hills that nourish it and shape its character.

 

Aglianico grows in several zones in Campania and in nearby Basilicata, and it can make a very fine wine in those places. But its masterpiece is Taurasi, and that comes only from a small area in the province of Avellino, high in the windy hills inland and east of Naples. This isn’t tourist Italy: This is and has always been hard-working Italy, where the strength of the back and arms and the sharpness of the eye and mind can produce wonders. Not the least of those wonders is a glorious wine, like my ’03 Mastro, from a – so it would seem – mediocre vintage. I leave it to your imagination what can be done with a good one.

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If you don’t know Taurasi, I’d urge you to try a Mastro bottle to learn its classic dimensions. If you’re already familiar with Taurasi, explore some of the small producers who are now making the wine and its region one of the most exciting in Italy – for example, producers like Luigi Tecce, Urciuolo, Lonardi, Caggiano, Guastaferro, Di Meo, Molettieri, and last but very far indeed from least, Terredora, which is the property of a branch of the Mastroberardinos, who produce Taurasi marked by decades of familial expertise.

Where Are the Wines of Yesteryear? Safely Locked in Memory

April 23, 2020

In the enforced inactivity that Covid 19 has imposed – the virtual tastings that now seem to be all over the internet are not the same as tasting real wine – Diane and I have been cooking determinedly and raiding the cellar frequently. No new young wines, no trade tastings, no lunches or dinners with winemakers – just our own kitchen skills and our own wines on hand.

It lacks a bit in variety from the wine point of view: I don’t get to try new vintages nor any wines or producers that are new to me. But it’s not what I could really call the same-old same-old. Whether by luck or cunning, I’ve got some nice wines stashed away, which we’ve been enjoying to soften our isolation from friends and colleagues. Not all of them are antiques (would that I had more of those!), but even the youngish ones can evoke memories: Wines, we are finding, are very good for that.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Just a dinner or so back, Diane and I opened our last bottle of Mastroberardino’s 2003 Taurasi, which led us into fond reminiscences of Antonio Mastroberardino, for many decades the head of the family firm and one our favorite wine people. We first met Antonio in the late ‘70s and had been friends ever since, until his death in 2014. I’ve come to think that Neapolitan men of a certain age begin to converge on a common face: My first thought, when I met Antonio, was that he looked like all my uncles.

My favorite memory of Antonio, among the many, is of the time he and his wife Teresa picked up Diane and me in Vietri to drive together to Naples. Antonio was of a pronouncedly scholarly, almost professorial turn of mind, and, instead of focusing his attention on the hair-raising autostrada traffic, he turned to broader issues – much to the consternation of our two wives in the back seat.

At one point he was trying to explain to me in English a complex idea about Italy’s political scene, the state of wine producing, and the attitudes and circumstances of Campania’s small growers. He finally gave up English and – mostly looking at me and only occasionally glancing at the road – laid out his thoughts in flowing Italian. After his peroration, he asked if I had understood it all. “Si, si,” I said, “ho capito in senso metaforico.” Yes, I understood it in a metaphoric sense.

That fixed Antonio’s attention on me even more. I thought Diane was ready to clamber into the front of the car and grab the steering wheel. “In senso metaforico,” he said thoughtfully, as if relishing the phrase. He looked ever so briefly at the traffic around us – and repeated “senso metaforico” a few more times, almost chewing the words. Then he turned again to me and said, in his most serious, professorial voice, “I congratulate you on your culture.” Finally, to the incredible relief of the two ladies in the back, he turned his thoughts to driving, as if that had successfully closed the matter.

I knew that the whole concept of culture was centrally important to Antonio, so I realized this was a tremendous compliment. But I have always thought that the episode said more about him and the character of his mind than it does about mine. There were very few like him in the wine world and it feels very good to remember him not just as a winemaker but as the thoughtful, humane person he was.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

A very different set of memories was triggered on an evening when Diane and I were drinking a 2010 La Selvanella, a pitch-perfect Chianti Classico Riserva from Melini. Selvanella is sort of Melini’s home estate, a largish vineyard in the Classico zone, and Melini has been producing very traditional Chianti Classico there for many decades. Sipping this one alongside a modest home version of bistecca fiorentina, I found myself recounting to Diane an extraordinary visit there many years ago.

The Frederick Wildman firm, Melini’s importer, had organized a visit for a large group of wine journalists to several of the estates Wildman represented in northern and central Italy. This culminated in Tuscany, and climaxed at Selvanella. You could not imagine a more picture-perfect rustic Tuscan setting: brilliant sunshine on rows of neatly pruned vines, surrounded by the deep green of forest, and a spacious, shaded patio to shelter us from that very hot sunshine – and also to house a huge, wood-fired spit.

On that spit revolved skewer after skewer of cooking animals, ranging in size from thrushes through several other birds (the quail were particularly delicious, I recall) up to pheasants, then rabbits; and finally, on another even larger spit, cinghiale – a whole wild boar. There was not a single farm-bred creature in that whole intensely gamey and succulent lot: Every one of them had been shot by Nunzio Capurso, then the head of Melini, the winemaker at Selvanella, a generous host, and a passionate hunter. We tasted through several vintages of Selvanella at that feast, and now, enjoying this bottle of 2010, at home in not-quite-rustic Greenwich Village, with a fine but comparatively tiny steak, I vividly recalled the flavors and pleasures of that now far-distant, thoroughly Rabelaisian day. I can’t believe now how much I could – and did – eat then.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

At another recent home dinner, Diane and I shared a bottle of Barbi’s 2013 Brusco dei Barbi, a lovely 100% Sangiovese from one of the oldest, most highly reputed producers in Montalcino (I wrote about Barbi Brunello recently here). This bottle, at not quite seven years old, was still a touch tannic but nevertheless tasted deeply of dense, dark, fully ripe Sangiovese grosso. It promised years of development yet.

That tannin, which we both remarked on almost simultaneously, triggered our memory of the evening – again many years ago – when Francesca Colombini Cinelli, proprietor of the Barbi estate, treated us to a vertical tasting of about a dozen Bruscos, the oldest twenty years old. At the aroma of the fourteen-year-old Brusco, Diane and I both exclaimed, “white truffle!” A broadly smiling Signora Cinelli explained that the Barbi family too had been pleasantly surprised by that. They had originally formulated Brusco to be a young, early-drinking wine, as opposed to the many years of aging needed by their Brunello, and they had not really expected the Brusco to have great aging potential. But good fruit, good soils, and great care in the cellar will not be denied, any more than will good memories – and Diane and I only regret that we don’t have more and older Brusco dei Barbi salted away.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

“Sheltering in place” – or maybe it’s just age and garrulity – has triggered the flow of memories of decades of encounters with much-loved wines and even more fondly remembered people. These are probably a lot more fun for me to write about than for others to read, so I’ll try to moderate the flow – but I can’t guarantee that I won’t succumb again to the allure of wine and memory.

 

Barbi Brunello 1977

February 27, 2020

There are some wines, objectively great in their own right, that hold a special place in your heart. The 1977 Barbi is one such wine for me. The product of a fine growing season, some years after its creation a small stash of it, newly recorked on the estate, was part of my award for winning the Barbi Colombini Prize for articles about Brunello.
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Tom receiving Barbi prize from Francesca Colombini Cinelli, owner of Fattoria dei Barbi

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Not only was the prize a great balm to my ego and my palate, but it also included a week in a modernized casa colonica – what nowadays would be an agriturismo – on the Barbi estate, and thereby initiated my now-many-years-standing friendship with the Barbi family. The bottle that is the subject of this post was the last of that supply, carefully hoarded for a special occasion.

Well, the occasion finally arrived: my 82nd birthday, when it dawned on me that neither I nor that bottle could count on surviving all that much longer (just the odds, folks, no serious ailments in either me or the wine), and there would be few better times to drink it. So we did: Diane made a wonderful braised duck in the Romagnola style (from our first cookbook), which we followed up with some excellent cheeses from Murray’s, and that Brunello sang its aria. Not a swan song, mind you, but an aria. The wine was wonderful, rich with mature, woodsy, mushroomy Sangiovese fruit, beautifully balanced and still alive – a little delicate perhaps, but lively and above all elegant and complex, changing with every bite of duck or taste of cheese.

Back in the day when this 1977 was just a-borning, some people claimed to find the Barbi wines rustic. If that was true, they were rustic in the way Italians call rustico elegante, meaning with the manners and unpretentiousness of a country gentleman – which, never let us forget, is what Brunello is: a country cousin of the more urbane Chianti Classicos. Anyone who ever met Franco Biondi-Santi and experienced his unaffected courtesy will understand completely what I mean. And my prized bottle of Barbi Brunello was, happily for me, precisely like that.

The Barbi family is as deeply entwined in the development of Brunello as the Biondi-Santi. Winelovers tend to forget, in the glow of Brunello’s present fame, that it is a newcomer to the table in terms of Italian wines. A 100% Sangiovese wine in a region famed for blending, made from very localized clones of Sangiovese grosso in a remote country zone far from urban centers like Florence or Siena, Brunello was virtually unknown even within Italy until well after WW II.

Then the impact of the beginning international wine boom; the end of the mezzadria, the medieval share-cropping system that had kept Italy green and poor for centuries; and the arrival, by way of California, of up-to-the-minute wine technology all worked together to bring attention to a wine that, for the few who knew it, was remarkable for its quality and longevity.

In the 1960s, the Barbi were one of the six families producing Brunello di Montalcino, and their estate was one of the largest and its wines perhaps the best distributed of them all. Now, of course, there are close to? more than? 300 producers. The number keeps growing as the Brunello name draws more and more producers to try their hand. But old-timers like the Barbi got there first (by about 100 years) and got most of the best sites, and their wines remain quintessentially what Brunello di Montalcino was meant to be – a wine big for Sangiovese, of great depth and aging potential, and redolent of its hilly, (formerly) forested countryside.

My 1977 Barbi Brunello was all that: Like a perfect gentleman, it wished me a happy birthday and went on to make it so, without once ever suggesting that either of us was too old for such frippery.

Piedmont’s Parade of Fine Vintages Continues

February 13, 2020

Climate change has been very kind to the winemakers of Italy’s Piedmont, giving them a succession of beautiful growing seasons. And they have made the most of nature’s bounty, turning out a series of wines of the quality level we used to get only once or at most twice a decade. This is truly a golden age for Barolo and Barbaresco lovers.

The proof of that was everywhere at the Barolo Barbaresco World Opening, a huge showing of new releases of both wines held in New York during the first week of February.

As if in confirmation of what has been going on in Piedmont, weather in New York that week was unnaturally warm, and the crowd at the event large indeed. 148 producers showed about twice that number of wines from 2015 and 2016, and many luminaries had traveled from Italy to personally pour their wines and to greet old friends.

I did my best, but there was no way that I was going to be able to taste 148 young Nebbiolo wines in a single afternoon, much less nearly 300. In the old days, when I was a young snip, and when the father of this event was held annually in Alba, I would taste far more wines than that over its week-long duration, but non sum qualis eram sub regno Cynarae – and in just one afternoon, standing up, struggling for spitting space at the buckets (too few and far between), and trying to take legible notes: no way.

So I tasted as many as I could, chatted with some producers I haven’t seen in years, and was totally impressed by the quality of the wines on offer. I didn’t taste a single bad one, nor even a middling one, all afternoon.

That goes for both vintages, despite their differences. And the differences are many and striking. The 2015 wines benefited from a deep winter snow cover, which provided ample ground water reserves to carry the vines through the six torrid, rainless weeks that followed the mild spring.

Barolo Vineyards, Winter 2015

The rest of the summer and fall were as fine as could be hoped for, carrying the vines in almost perfect condition to the harvest. One producer remarked to me that 2015 had a hot growing season, “but we’ve learned now how to deal with them.”  Here is the Consortium’s evaluation:

The Nebbiolo ripened perfectly, though slightly earlier than over the last few years. In particular, climatic conditions were seen in the second part of the summer that allowed for an impressive accumulation of polyphenols. The excellent quality of the tannins emerging on analysis will certainly ensure elegant, long-lasting wines with good structure…. The sugar content settled at average potential values of around 14–14.5% vol., while the acidity is perfect for Nebbiolo (6.5 g/l). With the ripening data at hand, the great balance that clearly emerges in the technical parameters goes well beyond the numbers, promising big wines. In general, considering the great balance shown in the ripening data we can say without any shadow of doubt that all the conditions are in place for a truly great vintage: one to remember, like few others in history.

Now, I’ve got to put some of that statement up to hope and/or hype, because I found the 2015s charming and intensely enjoyable – beautiful, with wonderful fruit and freshness – but not big. I may be wrong about that, but most of the producers I spoke to seemed to agree, indicating that for them 2016 was the great, structured vintage, not 2015. That doesn’t mean 2015 won’t age – just that it’s probably a 15- to 20-year wine rather than 50 to 100.

2016, on the other hand, just may be a 50-year vintage: Certainly, most of the producers I spoke with seemed to feel that way, referring to it almost unanimously as a “superb” vintage. The wines I tasted – mostly Barbarescos, which are bottled a year before Barolos – supported that judgement. They were big and balanced, with the kind of tannic ripeness and live acidity that in both Barolo and Barbaresco usually portends very long life and development in the bottle.

Produttori di Barbaresco Vineyards

Here, for the record, is the Consortium’s evaluation of that harvest:

The late development seen in the early part of the year was made up for during the months of August and September. In particular, the second half of September was crucial for the components which will go into determining the structure of the wines, above all as regards the accumulation of phenolic substances. While waiting to be able to assess the real quality of the 2016 wines, as far as can be evaluated analytically we can look forward to wines with excellent balance, big bouquets and great structure, although in some cases lower alcohol contents will be recorded than in 2015. We can therefore expect a vintage featuring significant qualities which will be talked about for a long time to come.

That is surprisingly guarded for a Consortium statement: They usually veer toward over-optimism rather than caution. All I can tell you is that I loved the ‘16s I tasted, even though I think they really shouldn’t be drunk for a decade yet.

I’ll just list here, in alphabetical order, my best wines of the tasting. All were absolutely characteristic both of Nebbiolo and of the vintages as I’ve already described them, so I’ll keep my comments to a minimum.

Aurelio Settimo, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2015 – forward, light, and well-structured: fine.

_____________, Barolo Riserva Rocche dell’Annunziata 2012 – another lovely keeping wine, classically structured.

Brezza, Barolo Cannubi 2015 – nice indeed: wild fennel in the nose, wild cherry and herbs on the palate.

Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco Tre Stelle 2016 – a big wine, yet welcoming, with great structure and balance.

Colla, Barolo Bussia Dardi le Rose 2015 – Excellent: classic Colla style and structure (if you don’t know what that means, you owe it to yourself to find out).

Conterno, Barolo Francia 2015 – very lovely, very young: cellar for ten years before you start them.

Gaja, Barolo Sperss 2015 – gorgeous, in that deceptively light, very structured Gaja style.

Giacomo Fenocchio, Barolo Bussia 2016 – a lovely wine, all raspberry and fennel and wild cherry.

Livia Fontana, Barolo Villero 2016 – beautiful acid/tannin balance, great over-all.

Marcarini, Barolo Brunate 2015 – lovely and accessible: drink this and the other 15s until the 16s come ready.

Massolino, Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva 2013 – a great wine for long keeping.

Oddero, Barolo Riserva Bussia Vigna Mondoca 2013 – an extraordinary wine right through to its dark-chocolate finish.

Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco Riserva Ovello 2015 – light and intensely wild cherry and, as with all Produttori wines, a bargain.

_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Muncagota 2015 – big, fine, and structured: another great Produttori cru.

_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Paje 2015 – Slightly bigger and more elegant than the Muncagota: very deep for a 2015.

Renato Ratti, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2016 – fine, fine, fine! With the great structure characteristic of the ‘16s.

Schiavenza, Barolo Prapo 2015 – very big, old-style Barolo: needs time to soften its tannins; very good indeed.

As you can see from all the above, the teens of this still new century are creating wonders in Barolo and Barbaresco. We have to hope that the warming trend can be brought under control before all we can get in the future becomes a fine crop of Nebbiolo raisins.

Fontanafredda: Barolo History in a Bottle

January 30, 2020

Few wineries in Barolo are as historic and as highly respected by wine professionals and consumers alike as Fontanafredda. The 300-hectare property was first organized in 1858 by Victor Emanuel, the second King of Italy, as a love gift to his then-mistress, later wife, “La Bella Rosin.” Victor Emanuel’s son, Count Emanuele Alberto di Mirafiore, inherited the property in 1878 and began developing it into one of the largest and most progressive wine producers in the Piedmont, an eminence it has never lost.

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Not that Fontanafredda hasn’t endured vicissitudes. The most daunting of these was the late arrival (1928) in the Piedmont of the phylloxera, the root louse – an unintended import from America – that came close to wiping out European wine production. Immediately on its heels came the international depression of 1929, another unwanted import from America. Those two blows forced the sale of the property in 1931 to a bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which owned Fontanafredda until 2009. The present owner is Oscar Farinetti, a native Piedmontese, better known to the world now as the owner of Eataly.

Fontanafredda has always been a predominantly traditionalist winemaker, devoted to local grape varieties – especially Nebbiolo – vinified in traditional ways: long, slow fermentations with lots of skin contact, aging in big botti. There were some experiments in the past with barriques and new French oak, but under Farinetti’s aegis, those have been largely phased out, and Fontanafredda has moved steadily in the direction of organic farming and vinification. Its status as an organic producer has recently been officially recognized: 2018 marked its first organic-certified harvest.

Sorry about the history lesson: Fontanafredda does that to you. Now to talk about the wines.

As a long-time Barolo lover, I’ve been tracking Fontanafredda Barolos, in my haphazard fashion, for many years, and I’ve had the distinct impression that they have always maintained excellent typicity and quality. In different harvests there have been frequent blips upward to a truly exalted level of Barolo winemaking, especially with the La Rosa cru, which is Fontanafredda’s crown jewel. In this century, those upward blips have been becoming more frequent, both under winemaker Danilo Drocco and under his friend and successor Giorgio Lavagna, who was wooed away from his position at Bruno Giacosa’s estate (a credential that will rightfully impress most Barolo lovers) to take over in 2018 as chief winemaker at Fontanafredda.

My apologies: You just can’t get away from history when you talk about Fontanafredda. Back to the wines.

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Fontanafredda’s importer, Taub Family Selections, recently sponsored a luncheon tasting session of six of its Barolos at the Manhattan Eataly, a highly appropriate venue for what proved to be a very interesting tasting. Here are the six wines:

2015 Barolo del Commune di Serralunga d’Alba

2015 Barolo Fontanafredda

2011 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

1996 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

2010 Barolo Riserva

2000 Barolo Riserva

This was a fascinating progression of wines. The first wine comes from various locations – some Fontanafredda’s own vineyards, some growers with whom Fontanafredda has had long-term relationships – within the commune of Serralunga, which is one of the most esteemed in the Barolo zone. You could make a loose analogy with Burgundy village wines, and Fontanafredda is the first and – so far as I have been able to find out – the only Barolo producer to attempt such a wine. In theory, it should give a true taste of what locals believe to be the core characteristics of this commune. No suspense: Despite being very young and still a bit closed, it did so, showing complex aromas, dark wild cherry fruit, decent body, ample tannins (which will soften pretty quickly) and good acidity and nervous energy.

The second wine’s grapes all came exclusively from Fontanafredda, which is not only the largest contiguous vineyard in Barolo but also an MGA cru in itself – the only monopole cru in Barolo. (FYI:  Just a few years back, a lengthy and exhaustive study concluded with an approved list of menzioni geografiche aggiuntive: additional geographic names that may be used on labels to identify wines. The entirety of the Fontanafredda estate qualified as its own cru.). This 2015 was also very young and still not fully open, but it showed better and more intensely the same Serralunga characteristics as the first wine.
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Vigna La Rosa amounts to a cru within a cru, a prized plot of approximately 20 acres that Fontanafredda vinifies and bottles separately in good harvests. The 2011 was lovely and surprisingly forward, already drinking very enjoyably. More elegant than big, it’s beautiful now and will probably continue to taste as good or better for the next ten years.

The 1996 Vigna La Rosa, on the other hand, is still far from mature, with big, firm tannins and a ton of still-evolving fruit. Winemaker Lavagna reminded us that at harvest nobody thought much of the ‘96s. It had been a difficult growing season, and most producers thought it wouldn’t amount to much. It reminded me of the 1978 Barolo, a notoriously hard vintage that took decades to fully mature but was absolutely glorious when it finally did. This is the kind of wine that can give you a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if you have the patience to wait for it.

.Next came the Riservas, wines chosen for their expected ability to age long and well, and consequently given extra time in barrel and in bottle before their commercial release. The aroma and flavor spectrum that appeared in all the preceding wines showed also in these two, with to my palate an extra layer of elegance superimposed. The 2010 had a lovely nose, and was surprisingly soft on the palate, forward, and accessible. A wine of this caliber may very well close down for a few years – a dumb phase. That’s normal, so don’t despair – just wait it out. The wine will come back better than ever, having evolved to a different stage. The Riserva 2000 showed that: It was still slightly closed, as if it was just emerging from its dumb phase and still needed time to regain its balance.

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NB: Both these Riserva wines just blossomed alongside the cheese course, giving a nice foretaste of what they will be like at their maturity. It will be worth waiting for, if you don’t want to drink them exclusively with cheese for the next ten or twenty years.

Romano Brands’ Small Producers

January 2, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All told, a nice suite of wines.

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

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

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

Another Tuscan Triumph: Rocca della Macie

November 28, 2019

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

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

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Riserva di Fizzano has been Rocca della Macie’s most important cru ever since the Zingarelli family acquired the vineyard in the mid-1980s. From the start, its wine blended 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet sauvignon, and 5% Merlot to make a beautifully balanced wine, austere in youth but maturing to a smooth, round, structured wine redolent on nose and palate of dark berries and earth, as poised and elegant as any Tuscan wine. The 1995 seems completely mature now, but the ’99 – a very great vintage – is still evolving, and I can’t guess how many years it still has in front of it. The 2005 also promises greatness, though it is right now reticent.
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A great change came with the 2011 vintage. Zingarelli and his enologist Lorenzo Landi (a Tuscan of the Tuscans, I have heard him called) dropped the Cabernet sauvignon from the blend and made it 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot. The 2013 vintage followed suit, while the 2015 blended 93% Sangiovese with 7% Colorino, an indigenous Tuscan variety: this seems to be the direction of the future for this important wine.

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

During the lunch that followed this vertical, Zingarelli showed some newer vintages that highlighted the continuing evolution of his Chianti Classico. First up was the basic Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico 2017, 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot, a fine wine displaying excellent fruit even though very young. I’d wait a year or so to drink this one, when I think it will be lovely.
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Next came the 2016 Rocca della Macie Riserva, 90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought this wine both lovely and a bargain (suggested retail price of $26.99: wow!) Terrific rich fruit, great balance, long, dry, cherry finish, drinkable now and structured for some years of life: As the current cliché has it, what’s not to like?

The third wine was Rocca della Macie’s second Gran Selezione, Sergio Zingarelli 2013, 100% Sangiovese. For my palate, this wine was a champion, elegant and structured, with decades of enjoyable life before it, and already showing complex, multifaceted Sangiovese character. Were I 20 years younger, I’d buy cases of it and stash it away where I couldn’t get my hands on it for at least a few years.
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The 2014 vintage of the same wine – a difficult vintage because of summer heat and humidity – tasted bigger and very ripe. This a very good wine, and very forceful and authoritative, but for me it lacks the elegance of the 2013. Lovers of big Chianti will no doubt prefer this bottling. That is a matter of taste: Both are fine Chianti Classico, as is almost everything from this progressive, increasingly important estate.

Cecchi: Toscanissimo

November 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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