Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Red Wines of Verona II: Amarone

March 16, 2017

Amarone is enjoying a surprising degree of popularity in the United States – surprising especially for a wine that many wine experts think is too big, too austere, too overpowering to match comfortably with any part of a meal except a course of strong, old cheeses. I strongly disagree. I’ve long been a proponent of Amarone: I love its heft and complexity, and I think it partners beautifully with equally hefty meats – unctuous prime rib roasts to be sure, and almost any game dish you can name, but also lamb roasts, or long-cooked braises of all sorts, as well as any number of cheeses. A well-made, well-balanced Amarone has no problems with any dish that can match it in scale.

We winos don’t talk very much about scale, but its importance can’t be overestimated – and it’s almost self-evident, as soon as you stop to think about it. A light wine can be as elegant, or complex, or balanced, as acidic or as tannic, as a big, full-bodied wine, but you would match it with different foods because of its size, its scale. It’s not just the meshing or counterpoint of flavors that makes a good wine-and-food match: It’s also important that, like boxers, the wine and the food belong to the same weight class. With as authoritative a wine as a great Amarone, that element of the match is crucial, lest the wine appear bullying and brutal.
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We’ve been very lucky here in the US in that we have for years been receiving steady supplies of some of the very best Amarones, largely from a group of producers who were not represented in the blind tasting of 2013 Amarones that climaxed my week in Verona last month. (The producers who call themselves the Amarone Families withdrew from the Consorzio a few years ago. Allegrini, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Masi, Speri, Tedeschi, Tommasi, and Zenato are the best known here.) Consequently, I had what was initially the very welcome opportunity to taste wines from more than 80 producers, most of whom were unknown to me.

It quickly became clear that this was a mixed blessing. The 2013 vintage was sound but not great – a wet spring, followed by a hot, dry summer, followed by colder than normal weather during Amarone’s crucial drying period, resulted in wines with high acidity (normally good for Amarone) but also lots of tannins. (For what makes Amarone different from other wines, see here.)
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Additionally, many of the wines in the tasting were barrel samples, and many of those that were in bottle had either been specially bottled for this tasting or bottled only a few weeks ago. A good many simply hadn’t pulled themselves together yet. Trying to judge wines this young is always an exercise in crystal ball gazing, and it is particularly difficult to judge anything definitively about a wine as long- and slow-maturing as Amarone. We tasters weren’t even dealing with infants but, for the most part, with premature births.

That said, and my expectations tempered to that reality, I was still very distressed by a lot of the wines I tasted. To put it bluntly, far too many wines tasted far too sweet to suit my expectations of Amarone. A few samples had so much sugar that I thought I had mistakenly been given a Recioto to taste.

This is a serious problem. The DOCG regulations for Amarone specify that the finished wine can contain a maximum of 12 grams of residual sugar per liter. For my palate, that is already high. I checked with a few of my wine colleagues (Michael Apstein, Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone) about sugar levels in Champagne, just to provide a baseline for comparison. They all agreed: 5 g/l is above the detectable level of sweetness: 12 g/l is the highest limit of Brut Champagne. So 12 g/l is moderately sweet, but a drinker’s perception of that sweetness will depend both on other factors in the wine (acids, tannins, alcohol, etc.) and subjective factors (personal tolerance of sugar, e.g.). I’m not very fond of most sweet wines, and I can’t tolerate a sweet dinner wine, so 12 g/l is really pushing the envelope for me, and I consequently found many of the Amarones in the blind tasting well above my threshold for sweetness. I don’t think I’m way off base on this, so if my palate is any reflection of what the market for Amarone wants, there are serious problems here.

Having said all that, I have to stress that the total picture was not all negative. Even in the blind tasting of these unformed embryos, I found some wines that showed real Amarone character – and of course I tasted yet more mature examples on my round of winery visits. Here are the ones I liked best from both venues (unless otherwise noted, all are 2013 vintage):

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Amarone Acinatico. A forceful, grapey nose, followed by a big mouthful of fresh fruit. Very young but well structured. Will be excellent.
  • Amarone Acinatico 1981. The winemaker poured this to make a point, which he did indeed. A big, soft, delicious wine, marked by mushroom and earth flavors and great depth. It kept changing in the glass, getting even richer as it opened – as great Amarone always does.

From Albino Armani:

  • Amarone Cusianus. Good dry Amarone nose, slight sweetness on palate, with just softening tannins; should develop well. (Barrel sample)
  • Amarone Cusianus 2011. A big, well-balanced wine, with excellent fruit, maturing exactly as it should.

From Bennati:

  • Amarone. Tobacco, black pepper, and dark fruit in the nose and on the palate, coming together in a fairly classic way.

From Bertani:

  • Amarone Valpantena. Very closed on the palate, but the absolutely classic aromas and finish indicate it will be fine. Bertani is, of course, one of the pioneers of Amarone, and its older vintages are benchmarks for Amarone ageability.

From Carlo Boscaino:

  • Amarone San Giorgio. A still closed barrel sample, but like the Bertani wine, the nose and finish promise excellent future development.
  • Amarone 2012. An almost smoky, grapey nose; tobacco and berry palate; balanced, while still forceful and elegant. Aged 30 months in big old barrels (botti). Very traditional, very fine.

From Ca’ Botta:

  • Amarone Tenuta Cajò. Classic, dry Amarone nose, big fruity finish. Another fairly tight sample, but showing the proper signs: should pull together and start opening in a year.

From Ca’ Rugate:

  • Amarone Punta Tolotti. Needs lots of time to pull together its rich components – tobacco, tar, mushrooms, mineral, black fruits – but in a year it should start to be wonderful.

From La Collina dei Ciliegi:

  • Amarone L’Amarone. Tobacco, pepper, and earth, both in the aromas and on the palate; long finishing. Very characteristic and promising.

From Corte Sant’Alda:

  • Amarone Valmezzane. Fruity, peppery nose, lightish on palate. Still coming together, but should be fine.

From Corte Rugolin:

  • Amarone Monte Danieli. Despite being a barrel sample, this wine impressed me as very correctly made and properly developing. It needs time, but should be fine.

From Corte San Benedetto:

  • Amarone. Very like the preceding wine. Still slightly closed, but showing all the right signs in nose and finish.

From Fumanelli:

  • Amarone. Cherry and tannin all through. Big, fresh, and structured. It seems likely to develop very well.
  • Amarone 2011. A classic Amarone – very soft on the palate, with lots of fruit and lots of structure. The tail is still tannic, but it will soften in a year or so.
  • Amarone Riserva Octavius 2010. A huge wine, with an intense stemmy/tobacco nose; round in the mouth, with loads of soft tannins, smoky cherry, tobacco, and hints of chocolate. Still young, but balanced, on a big scale.

From San Cassiano:

  • Amarone 2012. Very young, with tons of fruit and tannins, plus excellent minerality and nice acidity. Needs lots of time: The producer says to give it five years.

From Santa Sofia:

  • Amarone 2011. Just lovely – austere and rich at the same time. Structured to go on for years. A fine traditional Amarone.

From Sartori:

  • Amarone Corte Bra 2006. At 10 years old, this classic Amarone was just entering maturity. Perfectly balanced, it felt light on the palate despite its rich fruit and impressive structure. Just fine.

 

Red Wines of Verona I: Valpolicella

March 9, 2017

Several weeks ago, courtesy of the Consorzio di Valpolicella, I was able to spend most of a week in beautiful, sunny-but-cold Verona, visiting producers of Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone, and Recioto di Valpolicella.

Valpolicella vineyards

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It was an informative and illuminating series of visits. Even after all these years, it’s still something of a wonder to me that the same grape varieties, grown in the same fields, can produce wines as different as the light and charming Valpolicella and the full-bodied and impressive Amarone – to say nothing of the intensely fruit-sweet Recioto.

Those grape varieties remain local specialties, cultivated almost nowhere outside the Verona area; Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella are now the essential ones. In the past, Molinara was often included, but it’s now hardly used because it seems to contribute little beyond bulk. Some growers have become interested in reviving the indigenous Oseleta, which is also permitted within the Valpolicella Classico DOCG, but its use is not widespread, at least not yet.

Valpolicella was once one of the most popular Italian wines here in the States, but like many another wine, its own success almost destroyed it. To meet demand, more and more was bottled from grapes that were grown for quantity, not quality, and successive vintages of over-cropped grapes reduced an already light red wine to almost watery rosé. Its market collapsed, and that was all we heard of Valpolicella for quite a few years.

As the wine has improved on its home turf, with a renewed quest for quality, it has recently begun reviving on the market, but its problems aren’t over yet.

After a week of visiting, tasting, and talking, it seems to me that names and categories now form the nub of Valpolicella’s difficulties. This is a widely varied zone: In its five parallel valleys, some soils are volcanic, others are morainic, others rich in limestone – so wines bearing the same appellation may be very different from one valley to the next, making generalizations about the appellation iffy at best.
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valpolicella-map

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But in terms of nomenclature, that’s far from the worst of it. At even at the most basic level, simple Valpolicella, you have to start with the broad distinction, which many consumers seem not to grasp, between Valpolicella and Valpolicella Classico.

The latter wine originates in vineyards within the hilly traditional heartland of the appellation, the former comes from fields in the plains, to which the name Valpolicella was extended when the DOC designation was first granted, back in the days when Italy’s emphasis was on making a lot of wine, not on crafting quality wine. Wines from stony hillsides and higher altitudes are almost invariably much better that those from the usually warmer, wetter, more fertile plains. In the case of Valpolicella Classico, that is emphatically true.
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With the next category, Valpolicella Superiore, possibilities for consumer confusion increase further. The Valpolicella Superiore appellation requires that the wine reach a higher alcoholic level – 12° – and be aged for an additional year. That’s all. And that’s all that most producers do. But some are experimenting with drying some selected grapes (usually about 40% of the blend) for 40 days, an approach similar to what they do to the entire crop and for much longer to make Amarone.

For the special Superiore, they ferment these slightly dried grapes separately and then, before bottling, blend them in with their regularly harvested and fermented Valpolicella grapes. The resulting wine is still labeled Valpolicella Superiore, but it’s a whole other animal from the mass of Superiores: deeper, richer, more complex, and much more interesting. But the consumer can only know what sort of wine it is by carefully reading the back label – and how many of us actually ever do that?

Then we come to Ripasso, which consists of basic Valpolicella grapes, re-fermented on the lees of Amarone or Recioto, to produce a wine more robust and substantially higher in alcohol. This sort of wine was introduced – or reintroduced – by Masi back in 1964, and it still engenders serious disagreement in the zone. Some defend it as the revival of a traditional practice, others loathe it as a pure invention and a perversion of Valpolicella. Whatever the truth of that, it has proven popular on the export market, though locals still seem to prefer to drink Valpolicella pure and simple.

Among these three categories, I found a lot of well-made and enjoyable wines. But I can’t honestly describe everything I tasted that way: I was very surprised by how varied producers’ styles were and how uneven the level of quality was. I guess I’ve been spoiled by Piedmont, where – in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones at least – hardly anyone makes a bad wine any more. That said, the top level of winemaking in the Veneto is quite impressive, and the resulting wines totally pleasurable. Here are some of the ones I liked best.

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional grapes from high altitude vineyards, fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. An excellent example of classic Valpolicella, light and pleasing.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2014. Sapid and round in the mouth; another excellent example of its kind.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2008. Still live and fresh, with some mature flavors just emerging – proof, if any is needed, how well a good Ripasso can age. Accordini uses used tonneaux for his Ripasso, new ones for his Amarone, but not barriques, which he says are too strong for his wine.

From Albino Armani:

  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. A very nice wine from a very difficult vintage. It needed a little time to open in the glass, but the wait was worth it. The winemaker says his 2016 is brilliant.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big and round, with excellent cherry fruit and a long licorice/tobacco finish. Very enjoyable.

From Boscaini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. A very pretty nose, followed by a soft, almost strawberry-ish wine, with bright acidity. All stainless steel. Simply a great everyday wine from a very traditional producer whose whole line impressed me.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. “Old style,” the maker says: It spends nine months in used Slavonian oak botti. Big tobacco-inflected nose, rich fruit on the palate, tobacco/cherry finish.
  • Ripasso 2013. Two years in oak botti. This is an excellent example of Ripasso, but my heart is really with Boscaini’s Superiore.

From Ca Rugate:

  • Valpolicella Classico Ripasso 2014. Biggish – 14.5° alcohol – and deeply flavored, but very easy on the palate, with a long tobacco-and-tar finish. Quite fine. In the States, this producer is best known for its fine Soaves (the vineyards straddle both zones), but its Valpolicella was very stylish and pleasing.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Campo Lavis. A cru wine, with some of the grapes reserved and dried, then fermented and blended in with the rest of the harvest. The process yielded a smoky, dried grape nose and a big round wine, rich with cherry fruit and ribbed with tar and tobacco, as well as a long black cherry finish. A really intriguing wine.

From Fumanelli:

  • Valpolicella Classsico Superiore 2014. This wine spent 8 to 10 months in tonneaux, so it showed a slightly woody nose but the palate was just fine – classic Valpolicella cherry flavors. This is a small producer who has no desire to get bigger: “We make the wine we like to drink,” the young winemaker says. They sell off half their grapes, keeping the best half for themselves.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Squarano. This Superiore is made with 40% of the grapes dried for 8 to 10 weeks before fermentation. The house doesn’t make a Ripasso, preferring the richness of this Superiore, which struck me as very polished, very balanced, and very structured – and therefore probably very ageworthy, if you don’t drink it all up right away.

From San Cassiano:

  • Valpolicella 2015. Vivid proof that there is good wine outside the Classico zone, this small winery turns out excellent, basic Valpolicella.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big tobacco/berry nose; round on the palate, with soft tannins, savory and well balanced.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2012 Alene. Part of the harvest was separated and dried for 40 days before fermentation. Some of the wine also had barrique aging. The result is a big wine that could legitimately be called a baby Amarone.

From Santa Sofia:

  •  Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional varieties, in stainless steel – that adds up to textbook Valpolicella. This producer has been on the American market for decades and has always offered a top-quality wine.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2014 Montegradella. A wonderful example of the depth and complexity that results from blending the juices of 40-days-dried grapes into the juices of conventionally fermented grapes. A delightful wine, and great with food.

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Part Two of this post, concerning Amarone, will be online in about a week.

 

Carmignano: Pedigreed and Pioneering

February 27, 2017

Carmignano is probably the least known of the great, traditional Tuscan appellations. Its territory was originally delineated in 1716 by the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici. The Carmignano DOCG zone still occupies that same territory, about 16 kilometers northwest of Florence, and some of its wine-making estates – notably Capezzana – originated as Medici villas. In the case of Capezzana, now the property of the Contini Buonacossi family, the present villa was originally a Medici hunting lodge. This was and is a small zone: All of Carmignano contains just 110 hectares of vineyards. There are some individual Bordeaux estates that are larger than that.

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Capezzana unquestionably leads the Carmignano pack in terms of quality and fidelity to tradition, though the local winemaking tradition may strike many wine fanciers as amazingly modern. In the course of the 18th century, it became customary in the Carmignano zone to blend Cabernet sauvignon into the base Sangiovese, a practice that sharply distinguished the zone’s wines from the Chianti-style wines of the rest of Tuscany. History buffs will remember that a Medici – Caterina – had become Queen of France (she is popularly supposed to have taught the French how to cook peas and eat with forks), so the introduction of French varieties into Medici properties was certainly no accident.

the-capezzana-villa

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However the French grapes got there, Carmignano was producing SuperTuscans about 200 years before they became fashionable, and the zone continued doing so, virtually unnoticed by Tuscans and foreign consumers alike, all through the SuperTuscan fad. That was a real shame, because all those Chianti-zone winemakers who destroyed vintage after vintage of good Sangiovese by clumsily dosing it with Cabernet could have learned how to handle Cabernet well by simply consulting the producers of Carmignano, who had so many years of experience with it. I love Sangiovese, and it hurt me deeply to see so much of it transformed into tannic monsters and rendered undrinkable for so many years. The irony of there being a close-to-home example of how to do it right seems even now not to have dawned on many Tuscan producers.

Present DOCG regulations for Carmignano mandate minimally 50% Sangiovese to be blended with maximally 10-20% Cabernet sauvignon or Cabernet franc, maximally 20% Canaiolo nero, maximally 5% Mammolo and Colorino, and maximally 10% Trebbiano and Malvasia. Another irony: One of the most pioneering appellations in Tuscany also contains one of the region’s most traditional blends – Sangiovese, plus the indigenous varieties Canaiolo, Mammolo, Colorino, and even some white grapes, just as in the old, old Chianti formula, all joining hands with Cabernet sauvignon and/or Cabernet franc.

I love the idea, and I love its results. At its best – and it is often at its best from Capezzana – that blend makes a wine savory and harmonious, companionable with all sorts of meals, enjoyable young villa-capezzanaand still capable of great and graceful aging. I recently opened a bottle of Villa Capezzana 2000. I didn’t decant it, though I should have – not because it needed aeration but because of the heavy sediment it threw. When I pulled the cork, a great rush of plum and blackberry greeted me and persisted all through the meal. On the palate, the wine was rich with ripe fruit – black fruits – and soft, elegant tannins, with an almost endless finish. A lovely wine, especially in what was a hot vintage, in many parts of Tuscany yielding unbalanced wines tasting of over-ripe fruit. They do things right at Capezzana.

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

trebicchieri-2017

So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

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From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

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I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

white-wines

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

Boca and His Brothers

February 6, 2017

Boca is a sub-Alpine Nebbiolo wine from the village of that name in Italy’s northern Piedmont. His “brothers” (with apologies to Luchino Visconti) are the wines of the villages of Bramaterra, Carema, and Lessona to the southwest, and Fara, Gattinara, Ghemme, and Sizzano to the south and east.

boca-map

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These are lovely wines of elegance and grace, wonderful to drink young and even better to savor at their maturity. Even among Nebbiolo fans, they are not well known, partially because their production zones are small, their producers few, and their distribution in these United States spotty – and all that results from the simple fact that, as a wine-producing zone, the northern Piedmont never really recovered from the devastations of the late arrival of phylloxera and two subsequent world wars. Far, far fewer hectares are now planted to vines than there were before 1910, which was when phylloxera hit.

1985-bocaI start this post with Boca because I’ve recently enjoyed a few lovely ones, most especially a 1985 Campo delle Piane from the Le Piane estate, a wine of Burgundian elegance and polish. This wasn’t a wine I’d carefully laid away and forgotten about for a few decades (I wish I had, and more of it!). Rather, I bought this bottle recently, and at a price that was a bargain for a 30-year-old anything, much less a Nebbiolo blend (a very small amount of Vespolina and maybe some Croatina) from a zone once of the highest repute.

In the 19th century, Spanna – the northern Piedmontese name for Nebbiolo – was more highly regarded than Barolo, and particularly prized for its aging ability. Old winos here in New York will probably remember the great aged Spannas from Vallana that we used to be able to get at wonderful prices back in the 70s. Nowadays, older vintages of the Campo delle Piane Boca from the 90s and even 80s are appearing in dribs and drabs on the local market. My advice is simple: If you see them, grab them.

christoph-kuenzli

Christoph Kuenzli

The Boca appellation is undergoing a real revival, of which it is fair to say Le Piane is the protagonist. Le Piane is in itself a fascinating story. A small estate of about 14 hectares – roughly 35 acres – Le Piane is owned and operated in a thoroughly hands-on manner by Christoph Kuenzli, a Swiss who almost 30 years ago succumbed to the charms of the area and befriended Antonio Cerri, one of the last winemakers in what was then an appellation on the verge of disappearing.

The already 80-year-old Cerri turned the operation of his vineyards and cellar over to Kuenzli and his enologist friend Alexander Trolf, and on Cerri’s death a few years later Kuenzli acquired the vineyards, cellar, and stock. These became the core of what is today Le Piane, an estate generally regarded by Italian cognoscenti as one of the best in the Alta Piemonte. The older vintages occasionally released by Kuenzli are drawn from Cerri’s cellars and are distinguished by being labeled Campo delle Piane, which was the name of Cerri’s vineyards. Kuenzli’s current enterprise and its releases are called Le Piane in Cerri’s honor.

vallana-bocaThere still aren’t a lot of Boca producers, and not many of those few find their way to these shores. One of the best is Vallana, which I mentioned earlier in connection with Spanna, an estate that makes a very elegant and age-worthy Boca. Now operated by Francis and Marina Fogarty, Vallana originally made its mark here in the days of their grandfather, Bernardo Vallana, whose Spannas became the stuff of legend.

Grandfather, his son, and then his son-in-law all died prematurely, leaving Bernardo’s daughter Giuseppina to raise three children and manage the vineyards, cellar, and wine business. That she managed to discharge all six responsibilities well is a great tribute to an intelligent and resourceful woman.

three-fogartys

Giuseppina, Marina, and Francis Fogarty

In her children’s hands, Vallana has returned to the American market and is currently producing wines that grandfather Bernardo would be proud of. And – since none of the sub-Alpine wines has the PR clout of Barolo or Barbaresco – they are generally available at very fair prices for their very high quality.

A future post will speak of Gattinara and Carema.

Benvenuto, 2012 Brunello

January 26, 2017

I was unable to go to Montalcino this year for Benvenuto Brunello, the annual event showcasing Brunello’s new releases – this time around, the 2012 vintage. But I was lucky enough to have at least a truncated version of the event come to me: Approximately 50 producers (out of about 225) brought their wines to New York last week for a very illuminating presentation.
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signage

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The major part of the event consisted of stand-up tastings at tables set up on the broad ground floor of Gotham Hall, plus two upstairs seminar-style presentations – the earlier one of older Brunello vintages and the later a presentation of the 2012 vintage as exemplified by wineries from differing parts of the zone. I was very curious about that aspect of the vintage, because the Brunello zone, though relatively compact (a rough square bounded by three rivers) possesses highly diverse soils and at least two distinct climate zones, sharply separated by the ridge that divides the square into northwestern and southeastern triangles.

So I booked myself into the second seminar and arrived well in advance of it so I could do some serious tasting at the tables before the event got crowded and turned into a rugby scrum, which it almost always does.
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the-scrum

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I’m getting a little old for those sorts of contact sports, and I find it difficult enough to hold a wine in one hand and take notes with the other while standing up and trying to get access to the spit bucket (why does someone always plant him/herself right in front of the spit bucket?) and ask the attending producer some intelligent (I hope) questions about the vintage.

I tasted what I could – about 10 wines – before heading upstairs to the seminar. Preliminary conclusion: a good vintage, but probably not a great one, though with a long-aging wine like Brunello, that has got to be a very provisional judgment. The Brunello consorzio has awarded 2012 five stars (out of five), but the consorzio is always – let us say, optimistic – about the caliber of its vintages.

Certainly, one characteristic that leaped out at me from all the wines I had thus far tasted: 2012 was a very high-acid vintage. That has two consequences: These Brunellos would really need food to show their best, and they might live forever, since acidity is what keeps a wine – especially a Sangiovese wine – alive. Acidity is the element that makes a wine food-friendly and structures it for long life.

Thus provisionally enlightened, I made my way to the seminar, which featured examples of 2012 Brunello from Castelgiocondo, Collosorbo, La Magia, Le Macioche, Loacker Corte Pavone, Pian delle Querci, and Talenti, plus one 2011 Brunello Riserva Poggio alle Mura from Banfi. The areas represented included the center-west of the Brunello zone (Castelgiocondo), the extreme north of the zone (Pian delle Querci), the center-east (Le Macioche), and several spots in the south, ranging from near Castelnuovo dell’Abate (Collosorbo) westward past Sant’Angelo in Colle (Talenti) and southward toward Sant’Angelo Scalo (Banfi). Just for a reference point for Brunello buffs, the fabled Biondi Santi is located fairly centrally, just a short distance southeast of Montalcino.
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brunello-map

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2012 seems to have been an agronomist’s and winemaker’s nightmare for most of the growing season. The Brunello zone, south of Siena, is normally drier and hotter than the Chianti Classico zone north of Siena. I can vouch from personal experience that hot in Montalcino can be really torrid. The zone depends on water reserves built up in the soil by winter snows, and the winter of 2011-12 didn’t provide many of those. There was some rain while the vines were flowering, which wound up reducing the crop by about a third of average size. Then it got dry again, with a very hot July and August. In late August, very good weather arrived and saved the season, so after a great deal of anxiety, the growers wound up pretty happy with the grapes they picked.

Though the selection of wines at this seminar was intended to show some of the differences of Brunello’s several soils and microclimates, that wasn’t the thing that struck me most forcefully about the tasting. There was a pretty good level of quality in all the wines, with a lot of fruit, all marked by very high acidity – but after that, what stood out for me was the extraordinary diversity of styles. A few wines were very traditional and tasted like classic Brunello, but most were all over the place, with differing degrees of international inflection, mostly shown by the use of new barriques, or with a market-appeal emphasis on big, up-front fruit and heavy extraction.
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seminar-1a

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Each of these styles will have its fans, of course, but my regular readers can guess where my heart is: I loved the classic Brunellos. Talenti for me was the stand-out wine of the seminar, followed by Pian delle Querci. In the broader tasting, I was struck by Col d’Orcia – always elegant – and by Banfi’s basic 2012 and especially its Poggio alle Mura 2012. It’s pleasantly ironic that Banfi, once seen as the disruptive modernist in the zone, now seems a pillar of traditional Brunello.

Probably in more climatically ideal vintages, like 2010, soils and microclimates loom larger in Brunello, but in vintages like 2012, where active field and cellar work seemed absolutely necessary, the agronomists’ and winemakers’ choices seem to create the greatest distinctions among the wines. What that means is that buyers have to taste at least a few Brunellos to find the style they like: Critics’ judgments and generalizations – and I include mine – will be no help.

Aging Gracefully: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux

January 5, 2017

Over the holidays, what with Christmas and New Year dinners, both Days and Eves, plus interstitial (I love the chance to use that word) gatherings with family and old friends, we tend to pour a fair amount of mature wine at casa Maresca. This year’s sacrificial lambs included a 10-year-old Barolo, a 15-year-old Barbaresco, and (sob!) a 50-year-old Bordeaux. These wines of course gave me great pleasure in the moment but also intense pangs afterward, as I realized that none of those wonderful bottles was replaceable, much less replicable. But that’s what family, friends, and holidays – and wines! – are for: celebration of all those fleeting moments.

Of course I just exaggerated a bit: Some of the wines I’m celebrating today are replaceable, at least if you move fast.
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baroloLet me start with the infant of the group: a 2006 Barolo Riserva Vignarionda from Oddero. I regard a 10-year-old as a young Barolo, so I decanted this and let it breathe for about 2 hours before pouring. At that point, it showed a rich, deep, earthy nose dominated by black fruits and tobacco. On the palate it tasted of those two components, with some still-emerging nutty and mineral flavors sliding in and out. If I had to be precise, I’d say black plums and black cherry, with clay notes, funghi porcini, and walnuts. It felt round and soft in the mouth with an abundance of fine but still firm tannins, and it finished very long. With food, and especially with cheese, the tannins softened and the flavors deepened.

This is an excellent Barolo, ready to drink but still far from its mature peak – and the best news is that it’s a new release. Oddero has adopted a policy of, in very good vintages, holding back some wines for release later, when they are more ready to drink and show more of what Barolo is all about. I think this is an excellent way for wine lovers new to Barolo to get a good sense of why dotty old winos like me make such a fuss about Barolo. This particular example is from a very good year and an excellent cru, so it has the structure and the components to go another 20 years, if you have the patience to wait for it. If not, just enjoy it now.

I hope this strategy of releasing some wine when it’s more mature catches on in Piedmont: I know that Massolino, a very fine winery, tried it a few years ago, and I hope it continues the practice. In these days when not every wine lover has the space or the budget for a well-stocked cellar, it’s a real service to the consumer.
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barbarescoTasting that ’06 made me very curious about how the 2001s are progressing. 2001 remains my favorite Piedmont vintage of this new century, and I thought it was time I should look in and see how the kids were doing. So I dug out a 2001 Barbaresco Bernadot from Ceretto, a long-time favorite producer of the whole range of Alba wines. This is a wine from a fine cru in a very great year, which I fully expected to have a substantial structure and great depth, and at 15 years old might yet be very closed, so I decanted it and gave it 2 hours of aeration. As it turned out, it probably could have taken more.

This was a taut wine, showing elegance over power, with great depth and complexity, and a pure pleasure in the mouth. The predominant flavors were black cherry and roasted walnut, but what struck me most was its beautiful balance, composure, and suavity – there really is no other word. And enjoyable as it was, it’s probably 15 years yet from its peak. So the kids are doing OK: I only hope I can live – and taste – long enough to enjoy them.

There may well be some 2001 Barolos and Barbarescos still available in shops here: If you see some, you should probably grab them.
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gruaud-larose-66This brings me to the truly mature wine of this group, a wine in every sense worth waiting for, a 1966 Chateau Gruaud Larose. Most wine lovers know that Gruaud Larose is a classic Bordeaux estate, categorized as a second growth in the famous 1855 ranking. It consists of some 85 hectares in the commune of St. Julien, planted predominantly to Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, with small amounts of Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec – a very traditional Bordeaux blend. Back in 1966 – which, by the way, was a very great vintage in Bordeaux – Gruaud Larose was owned by the Cordier family, who had by that time been its proprietors for more than half a century.

Gruaud Larose has personal meaning for Diane and me, since it is closely linked to a very long-standing friendship that we were able this December to commemorate with one old friend and several new ones. So I won’t even try to describe the wine, save to say that it was amazingly live and fresh and classically St. Julien – that is to say, mid-weight and polished, with wonderful balance and restraint. The best St. Juliens always charm and seduce rather than overpower, and this 50-year-old did just that. I only wish I had some more of it! But as I said at the start, occasions like this are exactly what wines like this are for.

Happy New Year to all!

 

Geography Lessons: Planeta’s Sicilian Vineyards

December 5, 2016

Alessio Planeta, who visits the United States often on behalf of his family’s winery, tried valiantly to explain Sicily’s multitude of terroirs alessio-planeta-2to a group of journalists gathered at Del Posto for a tasting of a selection of Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties. Planeta has a deep interest in this, since the family firm (headed by Alessio and his cousin Francesca, with knowledgeable input from her father/his uncle Diego) has been at the forefront of exploring and exploiting those diverse terroirs and their native grapes. Currently, the Planetas have vineyards in at least six different parts of Sicily, so Alessio had a good deal of information to impart.

That was no easy task, since there is a great deal of confusion about Sicily’s geography/geology, even among its residents. Because of its great variety of landscapes, Alessio remarked, people sometimes speak of Sicily as “not an island but a small continent,” and sometimes they refer to the Etna area – the eastern third of Sicily, roughly – as “an island within an island.” No wonder outsiders can find it all confusing.

As Professor Attilio Scienza of the Universita di Milano once explained it to me, Sicily really has two totally different geologies. The eastern third of the island is purely volcanic: Etna is the southernmost of a series of volcanoes that once ran down the length of Italy. Long ago, it rose above the sea and formed that chunk of land. The western two-thirds of Sicily consist of a very variegated piece of the North African karst that drifted north and got caught on or by the volcanic piece. So on the eastern part of Sicily you find volcanic soils of different ages and varying mineral traces, and on the western you have the whole variety of soils that can be found on continental North Africa.
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sicily-map-2

It all matters greatly, because different grape varieties do well – and the same grape variety performs differently – on the different soils in different parts of the island. That is exactly what the Planetas have set about investigating, so Alessio led us on a tasting tour of some of the family’s vineyards, focusing primarily on what happens to Nero d’Avola, one of Sicily’s most important red grapes, in those different locales – to wit, Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna, and Milazzo. Well, we skipped Etna, for the simple reason that Nero d’Avola doesn’t do well there at all – Nerello Mascalese is the red variety that excels there – but we palatally visited all the other areas.
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menfi-etc

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Alessio’s photos show the difference of the soils at the Planeta’s four vineyard sites, and his text ticks off the prime distinctive characteristics of the Nero d’Avola grown and vinified at each. Here are the wines we tasted and my reactions to them. We started in Vittoria, with

Frappato DOC Vittoria 2015. This wine is vinified from 100% Frappato, a very localized indigenous red variety, that makes a light, agile, and refreshing wine. Bitter almond and cherry nose and palate, medium-length dry finish – in all, unusual and intriguing. Then we went on to

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2014. Sicily’s only DOCG, this wine is vinified from 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato. It has a rich cherry/tobacco nose and a cherry/berry/tobacco palate and it finishes long and rich. The next wine was

Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2014. A cru wine made from 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato. All these wines so far saw no wood: all stainless steel fermentation and aging. This particular bottle was slightly closed on the nose, but showed lush cherry and chocolate notes on the palate: very nice indeed. Alessio said that Vittoria’s marine/calcareous soils yielded Nero d’Avola marked by strawberry and cherry aromas and tastes, showing great freshness. I didn’t pick up much strawberry, but about the cherry and the marked freshness I emphatically agree.

Then, to demonstrate that this seemingly ephemeral light wine could age well, Alessio showed a Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2007. This nine-year-old perfectly proved his point: It had an intense cherry/strawberry nose and palate, with a very long finish. Despite its age, it still felt light and agile. This was a completely enjoyable wine that I would go so far as to call distinguished. Any wine drinker would love this with the ritual holiday turkey.

We then moved to Planeta’s La Baronia vineyards in Milazzo, near Messina on Sicily’s northeast coast, for Nocera Sicilia DOC 2015. Nocera is another localized indigenous red variety that is undergoing a revival of interest – deservedly so, I would say. This example had a wonderful grapey/stemmy nose, strikingly fresh, before a delightful plum and black pepper palate that made me want to find out more about the variety and its potential. We then progressed to

Nero d’Avola Nocera Sicilia DOC 2014. 70% Nero d’Avola, 30% Nocera. Fermented in stainless steel, with 14 days’ maceration on the skins, and four months’ aging in used barriques before bottling. This wine had a very nice cherry and anise nose and palate and finished long – very good drinking. Alessio described the Nero d’Avola of this area as showing cherry and citrus flavors, with great freshness and a velvety mouth feel. I got more anise than citrus, but otherwise his comments tally very well with my tasting notes.

He then zigzagged us, geographically, to the Noto area, near Siracusa on Sicily’s southeast coast, to taste Noto Nero d’Avola DOC 2012. This wine is fermented and macerated in stainless steel, then racked and aged for ten months in second- and third-use Allier barriques. Alessio says that the features of Nero d’Avola from this area are incense aromas, as well as aromas and flavors of currants and carob, plus balsamic notes – quite a complex medley, in fact. And that was indeed what I tasted, though I think some of those more exotic notes may have come from the barriques rather than the grapes.

Next came Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2011, 100% Nero d’Avola and vinified in exactly the same way as the preceding wine. This example was intense and deeply characteristic in both the nose and the mouth, with the black currant flavors especially prominent – a very elegant and very long-finishing wine. Incidentally, 2011 is Alessio’s favorite of all the recent vintages. Drunk again with the lunch following the formal tasting, this wine showed very, very well – elegant, with dried cherry notes and hints of chocolate and tobacco, and an almost sweet finish.

The final wine of the formal tasting was Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2010, once again 100% Nero d’Avola, steel-fermented and oak-aged. I found this wine very aromatic and edgy, though round in the mouth, soft and deep, with the elegance that seems to be a hallmark of the Noto zone. I thought it fine, though I feel it really wants more aging.

With the lunch, we drank the 2011 again, as I mentioned above, as well as 2007 and 2005 Santa Cecilia Noto DOC. I found the ’07 slightly closed, needing time in the glass to open at all. It should be wonderful in a few years: This may merely be that dumb phase that so many substantial red wines go through. The ’05 was excellent, still fresh, though maturing beautifully, with lots of years still in front of it. As it opened in the glass, it just got fresher and fresher – very impressive indeed.

Thus ended the geography lesson, which gave me a greater understanding of how much more there is to learn about Sicilian varieties and their regional characters and just how much more than we have yet seen they may be capable of. That’s what’s most exciting for me about Italian wine: no region of Italy has hit its limit yet.

Valpolicella: Of the People, By the People, For the People

November 14, 2016

Valpolicella is a simple wine, a wine for pleasure, not for analysis. Grown over a wide zone by more than 2,000 farmers, vinified by who knows how many winemakers, bottled by more than 200 firms for commercial sale, and happily drunk in 85 countries by many thousands of people, of whom probably only a tiny fraction would consider themselves connoisseurs for doing so, Valpolicella is the most democratic of wines, a true wine of the people. It goes with everything, from hors d’oeuvres to meats to cheeses. It even partners decently with fish, because it has the brisk acidity necessary for the job.

What prompted this post was the Wine Media Guild’s November tasting luncheon, which consisted of a presentation by the Valpolicella consortium of a dozen representative examples of the breed – all charming, all thoroughly enjoyable by themselves or with food, and most retailing for under $20. For a reliably quaffable wine with everyday meals, that just can’t be beat.

Valpolicella originates in a fairly large zone – 7,600 hectares under cultivation – in the western part of the Veneto region, just north of the lovely city of Verona, and not far from Lake Garda.

Valpolicella vineyards

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The lake has a great moderating effect on what would otherwise be a continental climate, since the vineyards lie along a series of sub-Alpine hills, with north-south running valleys. Even though the zone is large, it is relatively homogeneous, with vineyards planted on south-facing slopes and relatively uniform soils. The greatest variable is altitude: The best wines always come from the hills, which top out at about 700 meters above sea level.

valpolicella-altitudes

Valpolicella is blended from three native grape varieties: Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. The once ubiquitous Molinara has all but disappeared from the blend, and international varieties have never made much headway in this zone – simply because the indigenous varieties have so much character and charm and are naturally capable of elegance. The latter quality shows best in the more sophisticated wines made in the zone – Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone – but in good vintages even the simplest Valpolicella has its share of it.

And that is what I’m talking about here: the most basic wine of the region. Most of it is made at a very respectable level of quality. Sure, you can get a bad bottle now and again, from a producer more interested in quantity than quality – but as the Italian and international wine market has changed over the last 20 years, most producers have seen the handwriting on the wall and have opted for quality over quantity. Particularly with wines from Valpolicella’s two labeled sub-zones – Classico and Valpantena, the historic heartlands of the Valpolicella appellation – even the most naïve shopper can buy with confidence of getting an enjoyable bottle of wine.

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Certainly there are variations from producer to producer and vintage to vintage – but to my palate, they are very slight. Valpolicella is a pretty uniform product. That may detract from a wine’s status for alberto-brunelliconnoisseurs, but it’s a distinct advantage for a wine that is quintessentially a companion for everyday meals. The WMG’s tasting included wines of the 2014 and 2015 vintages, which were very different from each other. As the consortium enologist Alberto Brunelli reported, 2014 was cold and rainy and yielded wines of low alcohol and high acidity, while 2015 was hot and dry and produced rounder, warmer, more balanced wines.

I tasted reasonably carefully, and I’ve got to report that yes, by concentrating I could discern differences, but they were very slight from producer to producer and vintage to vintage. All the wines were enjoyably drinkable, and part of their charm was that I could drink them without having to pay a lot of attention to them. If even an old wino like me can take pleasure in a wine like that, how much more so the large numbers of people who only want a nice glass of wine with their dinner and not a workout for their palate?

For your information, here are the wines the Valpolicella consortium showed us at the tasting that prompted this post.

  • Buglioni Valpolicella Classico 2015 Il Valpo
  • Cantina Valpolicella Negrar Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Gerardo Cesare Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Fattoria Valpolicella DOC 2015 Col de la Bastia
  • Massimago Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • Monte Zovo Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • San Cassiano Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • Santa Sofia Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Scriani Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Vigneti di Ettore Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Vigneti Villabella Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Villa San Carlo Valpolicella DOC 2015

 

Wining in Rome

November 3, 2016

Rome has many charms, but an abundance of great wine is not one of them. Once upon a time – my brother and I first visited Rome in 1964, so this is history, not fable – your wine options in most trattorias were rosso or bianco, both vino sfuso – that is, drawn from a barrel or demijohn, not from a bottle. The red was usually some form of Chianti and the white was almost always brown (from rapid oxidation, then a serious problem for Italan white wine) and usually some form of Frascati.

Much has changed for the better since then. The white wine now really is white, and almost invariably young and fresh and charming. And although now-much-improved Frascati is still ubiquitous, most trattorias – and certainly anything calling itself a ristorante – will also offer several other options from other parts of Italy. Red wine lists seem to have grown even more, now providing good choices of many varieties from all over Italy – including, at long last, a growing representation of indigenous Lazio (Rome’s region) bottlings.

 The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

Nevertheless, really deep wine lists are still few and far between, and the lover of older wines has to search pretty hard to find a mature bottle of almost anything. So when Diane and I went recently to Rome for a week of pure vacation – I promised no winery visits, no tasting sessions – we contented ourselves mostly with the kinds of wines that provide plenty of pleasure without needing long cellaring. Rome offered many of those.

We tried many young Frascatis, of course, and all were genuinely charming, with the light floral/mineral nose and palate characteristic of the breed. One of the most interesting, which we tasted at the Trimani wine bar, was in fact not a Frascati but an IGT Lazio wine from Casale alborea-2Certosa. It was a 2014 (almost all the whites were 2014, a very few 2015) Alborea, a rich, lightly golden wine of greater than usual intensity. It was blended from Grecchetto and Malvasia Puntinata, the latter grape a Lazio specialty and usually an important component of Frascati. I don’t think this wine is imported to the US.  One of the advantages (and limitations, from a wine journalist’s point of view) of drinking in Rome is the opportunity to taste wines, both kinds and producers, that don’t always make it across the pond.

falanghina-1Other whites that we enjoyed included a lovely light, refreshing 2015 Pigato from Liguria (Pigato is the regional name for Vermentino), a characteristic Falanghina from Benevento by Vinicola del Sannio, and a 2015 Mastroberardino Fiano – the latter, of course, in a distinctly different weight and quality class from the lighter more apéritif style of the preceding wines.

BTW, we tasted a lot of these wines by the glass at two of our favorite places in Rome to get a light lunch: the wine bars Cul de Sac and Angolo Divino. Both offer a splendid array of cheeses and salume and light dishes, though at both you can order more substantially if you wish. Either way, you can taste glasses of as many wines as you have time and capacity for, from a well-chosen list, with many, many more wines available by the bottle, should you opt to make an afternoon of it.

taurasiEverywhere we dined in Rome, our choices for red wine seemed much richer than for whites. The red wine situation, it’s fair to say, is happily more complex than the white. We drank a number of familiar standbys, of course – a 2009 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi, for instance, though that turned out to be infanticide: That bottle had years of development before it.

montevetrano-2We also drank a 2007 Montevetrano, which was a lovely representative of this unusual (for Campania) blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Aglianico. It was evolving beautifully, but it too had years of maturation to go. The slightly disappointing restaurant at which we drank it provided a wonderful instance of just how thin wine knowledge is even in seemingly better places. When I asked for a bottle of Montevetrano, our waiter didn’t recognize the name, and didn’t know it was on his wine list. I pointed it out and explained it was a Campanian wine. He  looked and said “No; this says it’s from Salerno.” – He didn’t even know Salerno is in Campania. After that he disappeared for a while and, apparently after consultation with someone more knowledgeable, returned bearing the bottle and self-importantly informed me that this was one of Italy’s greatest wines – which, of course, was why I had ordered it in the first place.

Most of the reds we enjoyed were younger than those two, however. One stand-out was a 2013 Villa Simone Cesanese – a native Lazio grape – that was soft, fresh, and fruity, with some real depth and excellent varietal character. We liked that so much we ordered a second bottle and made that dinner last. 4-spineAnother very distinctive regional wine, this one from the Amalfi coast, was 2012 Quattro Spine Costa d’Amalfi Rosso from Tenuta San Francesco. Again, I don’t know if this wine is available in the US, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, whether at home or abroad. It was an intriguing blend of Aglianico, Tintore, and Piedirosso, very dark, rich and deep, powerful and elegant. I’d love the chance to taste an older bottle.

zanella-1The oldest bottles we had on this trip we enjoyed at Fortunato del Pantheon, and at Checchino dal 1887. At the former, our waiter walked me into the attached enoteca (a new development since we’d last dined there), where the sommelier unearthed a 2007 (not so old, but hey! we’re in Rome) bottle of Maurizio Zanella Rosso del Sebino. A blend of 50% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 25% Cabernet franc, and almost inky dark, it was big, round, and soft, with very soft tannins, and tasted of mature black fruits. It proved an excellent companion to our dishes of tagliarini with white and black truffles.

picchioni-2By far the most interesting red wine of our trip was the sommelier’s suggestion at Checchino. This was no surprise, because it has one of the best wine lists in Rome, and when asked for a more mature wine, Francesco Mariani (one of the brothers who own Checchino) suggested a 1983 Colle Picchioni Rosso (as it turned out, the same wine he had served my friend and colleague Charles Scicolone just a week before ).

This is a Lazio wine, grown and vinified not many miles outside of Rome. It’s probably – firm data is hard to come by – a blend of the native Cesanese with Merlot and maybe Sangiovese, maybe Aglianico, maybe Cabernet; in 1983 things were still pretty loose in Lazio (Charles thinks it’s all international varieties; I’m not so sure). Francesco knows his stock: Whatever grapes are in it, this wine turned out to be perfect choice with our food, initially delicate but growing in strength as it opened. Pale garnet with an orange edge, it looked and smelled like a mature wine, the nose almost delicate. On the palate, very balanced, and even lively, with still fresh fruit suggesting dark berries that lingered into the elegant finish: a really lovely bottle of wine.

Diane has blogged about the meals we ate in Rome, so the palatally curious can see what kinds of food went with the wines I’ve been talking about by clicking here.

One final word: None of these wines was expensive, especially not by New York standards. The older wines cost far less than new vintages sell for at retail here, which gives you some sense of just how outrageous the price-gouging is in American restaurants. And in even the busiest, most touristed Roman restaurants, the sound levels were such that the two of us were able to speak in normal tones, which gives you some idea of what a deliberately manipulated environment most American restaurants are providing. As one of my old teachers used to say, verb. sap. sat. Save your money, and dine out in Europe.