Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Vignaioli Veneti 2: Custoza, Lugana, Soave

October 19, 2017

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

Custoza

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

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

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

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

Lugana

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

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

Francesco (left) and Michele Montresor

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

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

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

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

Soave Classico

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurus and Brillat-Savarin Hard at Work

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

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

Andrea Pieropan

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

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

Vignaioli Veneti: Wine Lessons in a Lovely Land

October 9, 2017

No one knows everything there is to know about wine, or even a small section of it. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the Veneto, and I thought I knew it pretty well, but a recent trip there taught me that there was much more to learn.
.

.
I went as the guest of a group called Vignaioli Veneti, which brings together mostly small to midsized grower/producers from the whole of the region: Lake Garda to the Adriatic, the Dolomites to the Po. That covers a lot of varied ground – forest and plain and castellated hills, small and large lakes and mountains and valleys – and even more varied grape varieties and kinds of wine. Thankfully, our hosts didn’t death-march us through all of it but let us concentrate on its westernmost section, around the southern shore of Lake Garda and into the nearby Soave and Valpolicella hills. It was ample, and then some.

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

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

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

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

The last two wines were from the Adriatic end of the Veneto, to illustrate the scope of Vignaioli Veneti; the first eight represented appellations and, in some cases, producers we would be visiting.
.

.
This was already an instructive set of wines. The first and simplest, a Verona IGT, was blended of Italy’s ubiquitous and mostly undistinguished 25% Trebbiano, 25% Garganega (the principal grape of Soave), and 50% Cortese – this last a total surprise to me, who had thought it was a Piedmont monopoly, where it makes Gavi. Apparently there is around Lake Garda a widely grown clone of Cortese, known locally as Fernanda. Who knew? Second lesson.

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

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

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

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

Next post: our white wine visits and tastings

O’Keefe photo courtesy of Charles Scicolone

Two Uncommon White Wines: Erbaluce and Timorasso

September 18, 2017

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of my readers, even those conversant with Italian wines, are scratching their heads about these two names. They’re not exactly common currency. Nevertheless, they’re worth knowing about: They are both intriguing wines, and I think their moment may be coming.
.

Erbaluce and Timorasso are natives of the Alta Piemonte, grown nowhere else. Both used to be much more widespread before phylloxera destroyed many vineyards. In the subsequent replanting, both varieties lost ground to the hardier, more generously bearing variety Cortese, to the point that Timorasso in particular was on the verge of extinction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castello di Radda Chianti Classico

September 7, 2017

To indulge in my favorite sort of overgeneralization: In California, it seems, dentists and proctologists buy boutique vineyards; in Italy, insurance companies and machinery manufacturers set up whole agricultural divisions. So the Beretta company, for instance (manufacturers of, among many other things, James Bond’s favorite tool), has an agricultural arm, Agricole Gussalli Beretta, which owns and operates vineyards in several parts of Italy – Franciacorta, Piemonte, Alto Adige, Abruzzo. In Tuscany, its holding is Castello di Radda, a Chianti Classico estate in the heart of the traditional zone.
.

.
The idea of corporate ownership of vineyards may cause a reflexive shudder or two, but it is not necessarily the character-eviscerating phenomenon you may suppose: Everything depends on the choices and aims of the owners. To use an example close to home: Corporate ownership of Ridge Vineyards has in no way compromised the character of its wines. So too in Italy, many corporately owned vineyards produce wines of high quality and solid reputation, and Castello di Radda is certainly one of these, with two Tre Bicchieri awards already in its young history. Besides – let’s get real about this – what is Antinori, or Frescobaldi, or for that matter Mouton Rothschild, but a corporation, and a sizable one at that?

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

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

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

.
2014 Chianti Classico

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prosecco and Champagne: Tasting Beyond the Bubbles

August 7, 2017

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

I had started giving the stock answer about the different grapes that each is made from, when I realized that in fact I had never drunk them side by side so as to be able to give the answer that my civilian friend was really seeking – the differences in how they taste and how that affects what one ought to drink them with. Not a glaring omission, you might think, except that that kind of side-by-side comparison is exactly what my first book, Mastering Wine, is based on and is what I have always believed is the best basic method of learning about wines. Color me embarrassed.
.

.
To make up for that slip, and with Long-Suffering Spouse as a willing collaborator, I put together a tasting of a representative Prosecco and a representative Champagne designed to explore the two thoroughly: first, tasting alone in the classic clinical way; then with two stages of a dinner – first as apéritif alongside caviar, then alongside a main course of sautéed soft-shell crabs. (No one says a wine tasting can’t be a little self-indulgent.) It would be understatement to say the experiment was very interesting. You can read Diane’s account of the foods here.
.

.
To keep the playing field as level as possible, I wanted to use readily available wines. Ideally, I would have liked them to be similar in price, but that proved impossible. No Prosecco in my local markets came anywhere near the price of most Champagnes, so I availed myself of an Astor Wines sale on sparklers to buy Nino Franco’s Rustico at about $15 and Pol Roger’s Brut NV at about $38. That’s close to standard price for the Prosecco and a very reasonable price for the Champagne. Rustico is a DOCG Prosecco Valdobbiadene, which is one the best zones for Prosecco, but it’s Nino Franco’s basic bottling. (The firm makes others, including a brilliant vintage bottling that is capable of great aging, but none was available locally.)  The Brut NV is Pol Roger’s most basic Champagne, so in that respect there was no tilt in the playing field, but I’m afraid the difference in price between the two wines definitely provided one.

So what did the tasting show me? Visually, there’s not much difference between them, both a pale gold, the Champagne a shade darker. Both had lovely fine and persistent perlage, despite the fact that the Rustico was made by the Charmat method and the Pol Roger had the benefit of the full méthode champenoise (not topics that I can go into here).
.

.
The aromas showed more differences. The Rustico was yeasty smelling, hinting of fresh bread, while the Pol Roger was a tad more intensely bready, hinting of toast. Both were pleasing and inviting.

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

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

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

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

Nothing I tasted in this match-up pushed me to prefer one wine over the other. Both offered high levels of pleasure of slightly different kinds, but in fact the two wines surprised me by how similar they were. And those similarities persisted with different foods, both wines tasting equally satisfactory in their own ways with caviar and blini and soft-shell crabs on toast.
.

.
Each dish called up the Prosecco’s light, fresh fruit and the Champagne’s relatively greater weight and depth (the latter, I am certain, the result of being vinified from a blend of grape varieties rather than a single one). So there were no knock-outs or TKOs, just two excellent contenders of very slightly different weight classes, each performing in character in a variety of circumstances. As old carnival barkers used to say, ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice.

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

The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina

July 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mustilli, the progenitor of modern Falanghina, then

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

A Geekish Digression

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

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

Two Great Grappas

May 8, 2017

Anyone who has ever had a meal with me knows I am an unrelenting grappista. I long ago stopped being embarrassed by it. Now, if a grappa hasn’t been offered, I just unashamedly ask for one at the end of meal – sometimes before the end, if the meal is an exceptionally ample or long one. My fellow diners variously display interested looks or skeptically lifted eyebrows – until the first aroma of the grappa reaches them. Then, many join me in the sybaritic pleasure of one of the world’s great digestifs.

Most readers of this blog have heard – read? – me say this before. What prompted this outburst was my tasting and immediate acquisition, back in March, of two splendid grappas that I had not known before: Venegazzù Grappa di Capo di Stato and Albino Armani’s Grappa di Amarone. I would go so far as to say these are two of the best grappas I have come upon in a long time. But let me start at the beginning.

.

A group of New York wine journalists, arriving in Verona the day before this year’s Amarone Anteprima opened, and knowing there would not be much time for relaxing once the event started, got together for dinner that evening. Guided by Charles Scicolone’s familiarity with Verona restaurants (he is a veteran of many a Vinitaly), we found our way to Ristorante Al Pompiere, just a short way from the Piazza Brà.

The restaurant was comfortable, the food was excellent, and at the end of the meal I asked our waiter for a grappa chiara e con fuoco – clear and fiery. He complied splendidly with a bottle of the Venegazzù estate’s Grappa Capo di Stato, of which we all partook with considerable pleasure. It was not merely clear and fiery, but also elegant and complex. So fine was it that I persuaded the restaurant to sell me a bottle, since I didn’t want to take any chance of not finding it elsewhere.

I was wise to do so – Charles is still kicking himself that he didn’t – since it doesn’t seem to be widely distributed outside of Europe. I try not to write about items that you can’t get in the US, but sometimes something is so good I feel I should just let people know about it. Besides, enough of my readers travel to Europe, and so could acquire a bottle there. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

The wines of Venegazzù used to be more widely available in the States than they seem to be at present, but they are still as distinguished as they ever were. The estate, in the Treviso region of the Veneto, was originally founded by descendants of Conte Loredan Gasparini, a Doge of Venice.

It has now been acquired by the Palla family, who have continued the high standards set by the original owners. The red wines in particular have always been models of terroir-driven elegance, even though the grapes were and still are French: Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Malbec. They are what make Venegazzù’s banner wine, Capo di Stato, and its vinaccia in turn makes the wonderful grappa I’ve been raving about.

.

My second great grappa came at lunch the next day. How’s that for an auspicious start to a trip?! My second winery visit of that morning was to the Albino Armani vineyards, one of the highest in the Valpolicella/Amarone zone. It’s also one of the newest, a beautifully stylish, efficient, and eco-friendly installation run by a scion of a family that has been making wine in northern Italy since 1607.

After leading us through a tasting of his whole line of wines – all impressive – Signor Armani served us a mercifully light and tasty lunch, which he followed by pouring small snifters of his Grappa di Amarone. Bliss! Clear as ice water – it was lightly chilled, which enhanced its heady aroma – smooth, elegant, with warmth in its long, long finish, this grappa was every bit as stylish as a name like Armani might suggest, and just as welcome and soothing a digestif as the previous night’s revelation. I floated on a cloud of well-being through the rest of the day’s winery visits. Needless to say, I acquired a bottle of this grappa too before moving on.

Armani’s Grappa di Amarone is, I am very happy to say, available here in the US. Total Wine & More, a multi-state chain, carries it: I don’t know whether that is an exclusive, but like the Venegazzù grappa, this is a bottle worth searching for. I believe it retails for around $50, which I regard as a bargain for a brandy of this quality.

MMMM! More Magnificent Masnaghetti Maps

April 27, 2017

Alessandro Masnaghetti is rapidly becoming the Mercator of the wine world, crafting maps that in their detail and precision have reset the standards for that whole segment of wine lore. The almost incidental fact that his maps all have a good share of abstract beauty makes them even more estimable: Not just wine lovers, but map fanciers too have noticed. He has now released what are – to my mind – his most impressive printings to date: two large maps of all the geographical and cru sites of Barolo and Barbaresco.
.

.
These maps are almost Audubon-elephant-folio size, roughly 24 by 34 inches each, printed on heavier than usual paper. They are, as the cliché has it, suitable for framing – especially for double-sided framing, if you can get it, since the data on the back of each is abundant and important. Each map is rich in detail, presenting all the appellation information Masnaghetti has accumulated in his years of charting the evolution of those two zones as they gradually granted official approval to an abundance of geographical and cru designations. Anyone familiar with Masnaghetti’s earlier maps knows how precise – and how very useful – is the information he provides.

Here I can only give a hint of that wealth of data and the maps’ richness of detail. The image above is the whole of his new Barolo map, and here is a small section of it, showing the town of Barolo and some of its great sites – Bussia and Cannubi:
.

,
This is the whole of the Barbaresco map:
.

.
And this a small section of it, showing the closeness of several of Barbaresco’s great crus, Asili, Martinenga, Montestefano, Muncagota (formerly Moccagotta), Paje, and Rabaja.
.

.
The back of each map lists all the sites depicted and names the wines vinified from it, and their producers. More of my words are superfluous: Masnaghetti’s maps say everything there is to say. They are available in this country through The Rare Wine Company, in Europe directly from Masnaghetti’s publication, Enogea.

.
Postscript: Just after I had written all the above, I found out that Masnaghetti has also just released a three-dimensional map of the Chianti Classico zone. I am not even going to attempt to describe it – especially since I have thus far seen only a photo of it and not the map itself – except to say that it seems to show all of his usual accuracy and detail.
.

.
I confess I’m very impressed. As my mother used to say, Will wonders never cease?

A Princely Wine: Corsini’s Don Tommaso

April 6, 2017

In the Tuscan wine world, barons and marquises – scions of old land-owning families – abound, but among all those titles there are very few princes or princesses. Principessa Coralia Pignatelli produces Castell’in Villa, an almost cult wine among Sangiovese admirers, but the only other of princely rank I am aware of is Duccio Corsini, the Principe Corsini of the Le Corti estate. That lofty title, however, is far from the winery’s only distinction, as I and a few other journalists had the opportunity to discover over a recent dinner at the restaurant Babbo. Duccio Corsini wears his distinguished heritage lightly, and he speaks with genuine passion of the wines his distinctive Tuscan terroir yields.

Le Corti lies in San Casciano in the Val di Pesa, about halfway between Florence and Greve, so in the northwest of the Chianti Classico zone. Its soils consist of much less of the marl and clay that mark most of the Classico zone, but are largely alluvial, filled with what Duccio refers to as “river pebbles,” many much closer in size to what we would call cobblestones. If my memory of a long-ago visit serves, several of the vineyards resemble hilly versions of Châteauneuf du Pape, with more stone showing than soil. That terroir yields wines that show real differences from many Chianti Classicos.
.

.
That evening at Babbo we tasted through a six-vintage vertical of the estate’s flagship wine, Don Tommaso Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (now Gran Selezione): 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2010, and 2013. Over those years, the composition of the wine gradually evolved from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot to 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot, which it has been for about 10 years now. It used to age for 15 months in new oak barriques, now it rests in tonneaux (70% new, 30% used) for 18 months, plus at least a year in bottle before release.
.

.
This was a striking tasting. Don Tommaso’s consistency in style from vintage to vintage was admirable: All the wines were of medium weight, all were elegant, balanced, and complete. None smelled or tasted at all of new wood. On the palate, they were squeaky clean, with wonderful Sangiovese black-cherry flavors and acidity, undergirded by an intriguing set of earth tones – not quite what we usually call minerality, but not clay, or mushrooms, or anything underbrushy either. Quite fascinating, and quite impressive: These are top-flight Chianti Classicos, with tremendous aging potential. The three oldest wines were still fresh and vital: In fact, the ’99 was my favorite wine of the evening, and I suspect it probably has a good 10 years at this plateau of quality in front of it. As enjoyable as they all were to taste – even the very young 2013 – these were very clearly dinner wines that would grow in dimensions and pleasure with food.

With dinner, we happy few tasted a different selection of wines. After a glass of a sparkling rosé made from 100% Sangiovese that served brilliantly as a palate cleanser and apéritif, we sat to an abundance of far-too-tasty-for-anyone’s-good antipasti and pastas, accompanied first by Le Corti Chianti Classico 2014 and then by Cortevecchia Chianti Classico Riserva 2014.

The Chiantis were both thoroughly enjoyable, classically Tuscan wines, sapid and juicy – the kind of wines whose appeal is so clear and direct that even non-winedrinkers would instantly realize that what was in their glass was something special. Both wines were vinified from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Colorino, the latter an ancient Tuscan variety. The main difference between them stemmed from their aging: The Classico spent 12 months in either cement or large wooden casks, while the Riserva aged for 20 months, partly in big oak casks and partly in tonneaux. The Riserva of course showed more depth and complexity, but neither wine tasted of anything other than the purest Sangiovese flavors – cherry and a hint of tar, that intriguing, un-namable goût de terroir, and a long aftertaste of drying fruit and – just maybe – a little leather.

With the main course, we were offered a very special wine called Fico, which Corsini believes represents the shape of the future for the Le Corti estate and perhaps for all of Tuscan wine. This project was initiated by his son, who died last fall in a tragic accident. The wine is 100% organically grown and organically vinified Sangiovese. We tasted the 2015 pilot vintage, of which only 280 bottles were made, so this was a rare privilege. Even beyond its rarity, it was one of the most striking Tuscan wines I have ever tasted. Every one of us journalists had the same reaction to our first sip: Pinot noir! Excellent Pinot noir!  And yet it was all unmanipulated Sangiovese. That was the front and middle of the mouth. The back of the mouth and the finish were pure Sangiovese, but that opening taste – and this persisted as we drank our way through the bottle – showed us all a dimension of Sangiovese that we had not known existed. I’m sorry to get so geeky about where-on-my-palate-I-tasted-what, but something like this doesn’t happen every day, and I found it pretty exciting. It is going to be very interesting indeed to see where Principe Corsini goes with this.

Dinner concluded more conventionally (for Tuscany) – but no less deliciously – with an over-abundance of desserts and very welcome glasses of Sant’Andrea Corsini 2004, a Vin Santo made from Malvasia and Trebbiano. In Tuscany, an elegant Vin Santo like this one would be served to a guest as a welcoming toast. Outside Tuscany Vin Santo is most often used as a dessert wine or digestive, which role it on this occasion played admirably, sending us all off into the chilly, slushy New York night warm and content.

Red Wines of Verona, Postscript: the Amarone Families

March 27, 2017

Some weeks after my return from Verona, the March meeting of the Wine Media Guild featured the wines of the Amarone Families, the breakaway group whose wines had not been shown at the Valpolicella Anteprima in Italy.
.

.
As Sabrina Tedeschi, the president of the Amarone Families, explained, these producers left the Consorzio because they felt that it has to represent the differing interests of all the sorts of growers and producers in the extended Valpolicella zone, all 8,000 hectares of it: small growers and big industrial producers, old-timers and newcomers, growers in the hills and growers in the plain. For the Amarone Families’ 12 members, all of them family firms with a history of Amarone production, this meant that the standards being set for Amarone were not sufficiently stringent, so in 2009 they formed their own association with stricter requirements for Amarone: longer aging, higher alcohol levels, higher extract, and – to my mind the most important requirement – that the wine must be dry, with high acidity.

As I said in my last post, many of the Consorzio’s producers are making fine Amarone – but many are not. The Amarone Families’ approach seems to have eliminated the negatives and provided a set of guidelines that – to judge by the dozen samples I tasted at the meeting – has turned out wines of uniformly high quality. Even more important, all 12 wines, though very, very young by Amarone standards, tasted exactly as this long-time fancier of the breed believes Amarone should: aromatic, velvety on the palate, big in the mouth, with rich but fully dry, sometimes even austere, fruit; hinting and promising the complexity that will come with age, and very long-finishing. This far-from-dirty-dozen all tasted like infant and incipient octogenarians.

Here are the wines, in the order tasted:

  • Tedeschi Capitel Monte Olmi Amarone DOCG Classico Riserva 2009
  • Venturini Campomasua Amarone DOCG Classico 2009
  • Guerrieri Rizzardi Villa Rizzardi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Musella Amarone DOCG Riserva 2010
  • Tommasi Amarone DOCG Classico 2010
  • Masi Costasera Amarone DOCG Classico 2011
  • Brigaldara Casa Vecie Amarone DOCG 2011
  • Allegrini Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Begali Monte Ca’ Bianca Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Speri Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano DOCG Classico 2012
  • Zenato Amarone DOCG Classico 2012
  • Tenuta Sant’Antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi Amarone DOCG 2013

All were surprisingly drinkable for extremely young Amarone. (Normally, I don’t drink Amarone before it is at least 10-15 years old.) The ones I most enjoyed (this particular day, with this particular lunch) were Tommasi, Masi, Speri, Zenato, and Sant’Antonio – the latter the youngest wine of the day, and consequently a real surprise to me.