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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

To put you out of no-doubt-intolerable suspense, my answer to that question is yes.

I’ve been drinking some Brunellos lately that are getting positively burly – and that, to my mind, is definitely the wrong way for a Sangiovese wine to go. Sangiovese is a grape whose character is gracile, not muscular, like a sculpture rather than a quarry. Sangiovese makes a wine of elegance and suppleness, even delicacy, a wine of nuance and complexity, not a push in the face.
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It’s been a few years now since I’ve been able to attend the Brunello Consortium’s annual new release event in Montalcino, so I can’t claim to be fully up to date on the broad spectrum of Brunellos. This opinion piece is based on my recent experience of some young and youngish Brunellos, bottles from solid if not stellar producers, who represent to my mind a fair sampling of what the large middle ground of Montalcino winemakers have been up to in recent years – and I’m not happy with it.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying these are bad wines. Far from it. Many of the bottles I’ve tasted lately, wines like Val di Cava 2010 and Le Gode 2012 and Mastrojanni 2015, have been very enjoyable. But they have been big, and high alcohol, and they seem to be pursuing a model of winemaking that I think is a misdirection for Brunello, one that if followed to its logical conclusion will result in a wine that I for one will no longer recognize as Brunello di Montalcino.

Just the other evening, to test my palatal memory and to make sure I wasn’t imagining this whole problem, I opened a bottle of Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s Brunello Riserva 1999.

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(Believe me when I say I’m very aware of the difference between a mature wine and a young one. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know how to taste a young wine to discern what its aging and maturation potential is. Almost all the reports I’ve ever written about Brunello new releases – and they have been many – have demanded that kind of palatal knowledge.)

Donatella’s wine was lovely, everything I think a Brunello should be: Balanced and mouth-filling, without being in any way heavy, rich with mature fruit flavors while still subtle and nuanced, complex and changing with every dish, from a spicy rabbit pâté to poulet Marengo (the whole deal, with fried bread and poached eggs), to a gorgeous ripe pont l’éveque. Never aggressive but always responsive, not insisting on its own primacy but establishing its greatness by its gracefulness.

That is exactly what I am not tasting in the younger Brunellos I’ve recently drunk, and that is what worries me. Maybe it’s resulting from global warming and the steadily increasing heat in many wine zones, with consequent super-ripeness. Or maybe it’s resulting from young winemakers playing their version of who’s the toughest kid on the block. I can’t answer that, and I’d be very interested to hear from other Brunello lovers about whether their experience tallies with mine and how they account for it.

All I’m really sure of is this: that I feel very strongly that the Brunello I have loved for many decades now is slipping away.

Kerin O’Keefe, in her landmark book, Brunello di Montalcino, describes her early experiences learning Italy’s great wines: “While I relished discovering those glorious Barolos, it was Brunello, exceedingly elegant and vibrant, with more complexity than muscle, that won my heart.” That’s an assessment that’s hard to better: lively, vibrant elegance, complexity and nuance foregrounded over power. I couldn’t agree more. What I’m worried about is that muscle – always easier to achieve than elegance, especially in warmer and warmer vintages – is pushing elegance out the door.

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This, my eighth cellar selection for 2021, is a wine that in theory I ought to completely disapprove of, but in fact I love. I ought to disapprove of Montevetrano because its blend of French and Italian grapes doesn’t taste very Italian. But I love it because it’s simply a magnificent wine: The older it gets the more it reminds me of Chateau Lafite. And that, as every wino knows, is nothing to sneeze at.

Montevetrano is the love child of Silvia Imparato, who brought it forth with the help of her friend Riccardo Cotarella, who at the time (the early 1990s) was not quite the monumental presence he has since become in Italian wine.

Imparato brought to her family property in the hills behind Salerno a love of Campania’s indigenous grapes. Cotarella brought an eye for the land’s potential and a fondness for Cabernet and Merlot. Imparato wanted to do something that would provide decent work for the region’s young people and that would serve as a benchmark for the quality and potential of southern Italian winemaking. Cotarella agreed and felt that the way to achieve all their aims was to make a world-class wine.

They succeeded almost from the start:

  • Daniele Cernilli routinely refers to Montevetrano as “a kind of Campanian Sassicaia,” which should make clear the kind of stature it holds among Italian cognoscenti.
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  • Bibenda, the annual guide of the Association of Italian Sommeliers, regularly awards it Cinque Grappoli, its highest ranking, and usually describes it in a long paragraph of rhapsodic Italian that credits it with, among other qualities, an aroma that embraces blueberries, mulberries, and black raspberries as well as “pale tobacco,” not to mention an equally rich and complex palate and tremendous aging ability.
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  • The prose of Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines tends to be a bit more restrained, but it also routinely awards Montevetrano its highest rating, Tre Bicchieri – which, incidentally, it gave this 2003 vintage.
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  • And I’ve been mildly rhapsodical about the wine myself in the past, here and here.

Montevetrano began its career very Cabernet-heavy – maybe 90% of the blend the first year or two – but under Signora Imparato’s pressure – and Cotarella’s increasing appreciation of Campanian grapes – the percentage of Aglianico has grown steadily. The wine still has no DOC, only the humble Colli di Salerno IGT appellation.

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To my palate, in Montevetrano the Aglianico restrains the Cabernet, reins it in and potentiates its elegance rather than the raw power it often shows in other Italian blends. That raw character of Cabernet is one of the major reasons I strongly oppose its use in Tuscan wines: There, even a small amount of Cabernet can completely override the native Sangiovese, almost obliterating its presence in the blend. Aglianico seems to have enough strength of its own to withstand the Cabernet onslaught and to bend it into a far more interesting and very drinkable wine.

By the way, two new wines have been added to the Montevetrano line: Core red and white, the red a 100% Aglianico and the white a blend of Greco and Fiano. Both are fine. The name is a bilingual pun, on the Campanian dialect word for heart and the English word core – so an international name for the native-grape wine and a local place name for the internationalized wine. Italians love paradoxes.

Which, perhaps, explains why I so love this elegant Franco-Campanian bastard. General principles are fine and noble things. Any wine critic – any critic of anything – has to have ‘em. But they can’t override the data, and the evidence of my senses tells me every time that Montevetrano is a ravishing wine.

For this bottle this time, Diane roasted a duck – bronzed and crispy skinned and beautiful—and prepared a potato gallette and some seasonal vegetables: all fine foils for the richness of the wine. I opened the bottle about two hours before dinner time. Even with that head start, my Montevetrano kept changing all dinner long, opening further and adapting to the food, as a really fine wine always will.

The color was a beautiful deep, almost impenetrable garnet. The nose was deep and winey – very Bordeaux-like, with dark, mature fruit-and-leather notes. In the mouth, it was very smooth, with still-fresh notes of blackberry, plum and leather. “Rich and velvety” Diane called it, “plums turning into prunes,” but at the same time “extremely grapey.”  Fruit and leather, youth and age, all in lovely balance all through the wine.

The Aglianico’s acidity kept it supple, but it is unmistakably big, bigger than its 13.5 degrees of alcohol would seem to warrant. At the same time, the depth of Aglianico’s varietal character served to mollify the assertiveness of Cabernet. Together the two amalgamated into a harmonious third thing – very balanced, very big, very elegant, very powerful, but withal very restrained. Just a gorgeous wine, well worthy of all its accolades.

One final note: there was no hint that this wine was anywhere near the end of its run. It tasted as if it could easily have another ten or twenty tears of enjoyable life in it. Would that we all did!

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Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, the seventh selection of my 12 special wines for 2021, has been a spectacular wine from the get-go. Back in 1975, the then-21-year-old winemaker created it outside the existing Friulian wine categories, from his own imagination and what his grandfather had told him about older Friulian ways of making wine.

Post-World War II, Friulian winemaking had become resolutely monovarietal. Many grape varieties were grown – especially white varieties – but they were always harvested and vinified separately to make 100% varietal wines: indigenous varieties like Tocai (now called Friulano) and Verduzzo and Picolit, as well as international (read French) varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. Friuli was a paradise of single-variety white wines.

Jermann’s grandfather told him about an earlier tradition: field mixes of several varieties and blended wines. Jermann was intrigued: He had visions of wines of greater complexity and far greater longevity than most of what he saw around him. With brashness and luck – and talent – he followed his own instincts, and in 1975 gave the Italian wine world what may well be, after over 40 years, its finest white wine: Vintage Tunina.
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This was and is a harmonious blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc (usually close to 80%), with the balance composed of Malvasia, Ribolla gialla, and Picolit. The exact percentage of each variety may vary from vintage to vintage, but those five have remained all along. And all along, Vintage Tunina has probably garnered more Tre Bicchieri, Cinque Grappoli, and paeans of praise than any other white wine in Italian history.
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Jermann Vineyards

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Back in November of 1998, at my first Salone Del Gusto in Torino, I attended a nine-vintage vertical tasting of Vintage Tunina: 1997, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1990, 1989, and 1987, ending with 1982. That last was a wonder vintage all across Europe, an opening salvo of global warming, bringing amazing ripeness to the grapes and major problems to farmers and vintners, who had never dealt with such heat before. I think of it as the first harvest of the new weather patterns, and hence a highly significant vintage to close a significant vertical tasting.

Because Vintage Tunina is both so important a wine and probably the least well known to wine drinkers of my chosen 12, I’d like to present a synopsis of my notes on that tasting, as a way of demonstrating what Vintage Tunina is all about.

1997.  Recently bottled and so fresh it seemed almost frizzante, but round and mouth-filling, with generous apple-and-orange fruit and a very long finish. An impressive, substantial wine.
1995.  Same as the ‘97, just a bit older and more emphatic. Medium gold color.
1994.  Color deepening to dark gold with green highlights – very attractive. Nose more earthy, with dried apricot scents appearing. Bigger and more mouth-filling on the palate, with apricot and mango fruit flavors. The finish seemed endless.
1993.  Slightly different one. Abundant spice – cinnamon and woodruff especially – over dried pear, in the aroma and on the palate. A lovely wine, still youthful and fresh. They get nicer and nicer!
1991.  Gorgeous: Dried pear on the nose, rich and spicy; dried pears and cinnamon on the palate. Big, yet light-feeling, mouth-filling but not cloying; still fresh and invigorating, with its muscular structure becoming evident.
1990 and 1989.  Vintages firmly announcing the arrival of climate change in northern Italian vineyards. Wonderful spicy aromas – dark dried pear tones prominent – and mature deep fruit flavors. Sapid, with exceptionally long, drying finishes.
1987.  Had developed further in the direction of ‘89 and ‘90, with the big structure coming more to the fore.
1982.  That first hot-weather vintage that caught so many winemakers off guard, and a wonder. So many green highlights in its dark gold that it almost looked electric. Still fresh and livelily acidic, with white fruits dancing on the palate. Only the smallest traces of really evolved flavors: could easily mature for another decade.

Which brings me, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, to my present wine, a 14-year-old Vintage Tunina of the 2007 harvest. It hardly makes sense any more to talk about vintage quality with Silvio Jermann’s wines: Whatever the growing conditions, he makes great wine, and the very hot 2007 growing season seems to be no exception. Why I have put this wine away and not tasted it until now should need no explanation: It’s just a wonder that I’ve been able to keep my hands off it this long.
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So: Diane prepared a simple, luxurious dinner to taste my wine against – a foie gras mousse (bought, not made) to start, an elegant braise of veal with morels and cream for the main course, and just a taste of cheese to finish. Each course brought out a different facet of the incredibly complex wine.

But first things first. Color: This ’07 Vintage Tunina was dark amber gold, with only a few scattered green highlights. This might lead you to think the wine was oxidized, but one whiff of its intriguing deep and complex aroma would dispel that thought. On the palate, it was delicious and profound. Not a big rush of fruit, but very fresh and youthfully vigorous: It tasted as if it had years to go yet. Many layers of many flavors – honey and dried peaches or apricots, with underlying mineral and even metallic elements, copper for instance.

The mousse emphasized the wine’s harmony and depth. The veal and mushrooms minimized its minerality but foregrounded its honey and fruit components. The cheese brought back its minerality. Overall, as it opened in the glass, the distinctive taste of its small amount of Picolit – the peculiar smoky tang of grapes lightly touched with pourriture noble – came to the fore and persisted right into its very long finish. What a complex wine! What a pleasure to drink!

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By now it’s news to no one that white wine weather has arrived. Heat and humidity reign here in the Northeast, and in other parts of the US the weather is much worse, running from extreme drought to extreme storms. The last are probably not alleviated by white wine, but otherwise, summer heat can always be countered with a chill, pale glass of a dry, lightly fruity, refreshing white. Today, I’m celebrating two that help me through the dog days: one from the north of Italy, Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner, and one from the south, Salvo Foti’s Etna Bianco Aurora.
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Abbazia di Novacella Kerner
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The Abbazia di Novacella may be the northernmost winery in Italy, seated up at the top of the Adige Valley in what used to be the German Sud Tirol. It is also a working monastery and a tourist site of some repute, with gorgeous baroque buildings and libraries, and lovely mountain views. My geography is a little weak, so I’m not sure whether those mountains count as eastern Alps or western Dolomites, but they are impressively high, and the Abbey’s vineyards lie on their lower slopes.

The grape Kerner is hardly a household name, even among ampelographers. The variety was created in Germany in 1929 from a deliberate cross between Riesling and the variety known in Italy as Schiava grossa (Vernatsch in German). At one time Kerner was widely planted in Germany, but those acres have dwindled, and the German-speaking territories of what is now Italy seem to be its last stronghold. It has never had a large presence on the American market, but I can speak from sorry experience when I tell you that there currently seem to be several very mediocre bottlings of Kerner available, so watch out.

The Abbazia’s version is a very long way from mediocre: Light-bodied and charming, with a little zing of Riesling fruit and plenty of minerality from those mountain soils, it’s a reliably refreshing warm weather drink, versatile with any number of foods. For instance, it dotes – as do I – on prosciutto and figs, and works just as happily with shellfish and white-fleshed fish – the kind of foods we all eat more and more of as the solstice passes and the warm weather stays.

Incidentally – and because it would be criminal of me not to mention this – the Abbazia’s premium version of Kerner, Kerner Praepositus, is one of Italy’s great white wines. It has more heft than the “simple” bottling, but no less charm. Neither version is expensive, especially not for their quality: Careful shopping can find you Kerner for around $20, Kerner Praepositus sometimes under $40.
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Salvo Foti Etna Bianco Aurora
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Aurora presents a very different story. It grows on mountain slopes too, but those of an active volcano, Etna, in Sicily, just about as far south as you can get within Italy’s borders. It’s made by Salvo Foti, one of Etna’s leading exponents. For years, he was the head winemaker for Benanti, a pioneer of Etna viticulture and champion of its indigenous varieties. Aurora is his fantasy name for a blend of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella, both traditional varieties in that corner of Sicily but neither very widely grown – Minella hardly at all – anywhere else.

Aurora is a bigger wine than Kerner, and a touch more expensive – but it is every bit as fruit-and-mineral-propelled. Its flavor is complex and its fuller body indicates a primary role as a dinner wine. As such, it is superb, adapting to everything from fish and shellfish through chicken, pork, and veal.

I have also found that slowly sipping a glass of Aurora while cooling down after too much time in the sun is an intensely pleasurable experience, so I wouldn’t hesitate to rank it also in that exalted Italian category of vino da meditazione. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it’s always worth your attention, and I’m happy to drink it anywhere, anytime.
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Let the heat waves come: I’m ready for them.

 

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Just a few days back, Diane and I prepared a nearly-down-home dinner for two friends who share our tastes for simpler foods and nicely aged wines. The evening’s secondo was a giant braciole – a butterflied flank steak stuffed with prosciutto, parsley, garlic, raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, egg, and grated cheese; browned in olive oil with onion, celery, and carrot; then braised in wine, broth, and its own good juices.
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That’s a lovely, homey dish, and the wine I matched with it shared those qualities: a 2004 Barbaresco from the Produttori del Barbaresco. Not a cru wine, not even a riserva: just the basic Produttori bottling, which had been living in my far-less-than-perfect storage for lo! these many years.

It was ambrosial.

Here’s what its back label — back labels are generally the abode of medical warnings and wine misinformation – says:

Made entirely from Nebbiolo grapes, Barbaresco is a wine of great complexity and elegance that is well suited for long ageing. Aromas of black cherry and violet combine with spicy notes to create its distinct taste, supported by firm tannins and a long finish.

Not a syllable of misinformation there: That description is spot on.

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It was not simply the multiplex flavors of the wine and the way they meshed with our meal that was so impressive, but also its perfect balance and maturity. It wasn’t huge and forceful, but medium-bodied and supple, ready and willing to engage any food we might match with it. Those are to my mind and palate classic Nebbiolo characteristics, beautifully expressed in the impressive 2004 vintage, and captured perfectly by the many growers of the Produttori.

 

Produttori del Barbaresco is probably the best wine co-op in any wine zone in the world. It has the advantage, of course, of its zone and its native variety:  It would be hard for some other chunk of the wine world to equal the quality of either Barbaresco or Nebbiolo. But the success of Produttori is the result of more than that. It’s a combination of the devotion and care of its growers and the canny direction provided by its long-time manager, Aldo Vacca.

Vintage after vintage, for over 20 years now, Vacca has with great discernment channeled the grapes the growers bring in through all the stages from fermentation to bottling, making the choices of which should be separated for cru bottling and which for classic Barbaresco, and which should be put aside for extra aging and riserva designation.

You can appreciate the difficulty of that task, and the palatal acuity and enological knowledge it demands, when you realize that Produttori’s growers work vineyards in every one of Barbaresco’s nine prized subzones – Asili, Montefico, Montestefano, Muncagotta, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo – each of which possesses a different character that yields a different wine. I’ve found it impossible to think which I like best (though if absolutely pushed I might lean towards Rabajà in the greatest years and Montestefano in merely excellent ones).
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I’ve been lucky enough, at varying times, to taste several different vintages of all these wines with Aldo Vacca, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic distinctions among them are fascinating. I can only admire the kind of knowledge Vacca has, to distinguish the characteristics of very young wines so as to judge which should be blended with which, or which will reward the solitary splendor of a cru designation.

That’s the kind of expertise that created my simple ’04 Produttori Barbaresco and all the pleasure it gave us. That’s the kind of expertise, exercised on the wonderful Nebbiolo fruit of the Barbaresco zone, that makes every bottle of the Produttori line a fine wine bargain. That’s not a statement I would be willing to make about many other wineries, however esteemed.

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I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Vallana’s wines, and I was very much looking forward to tasting this bottle of the 2009 Campi Raudii, which I’d selected as one of my 12 special wines for 2021. There are many reasons for that.
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For one, I find the zone from which the wine originates a fascinating one. It is literally sub-Alpine: It lies in the shadow of Monte Rossa, a peak in the Italian Alps. Its high altitudes and varied soils and exposures produce a Nebbiolo grape very different from that grown in the more famous, more southerly, Barolo and Barbaresco zones. Up near Lake Maggiore, the variety is known as Spanna, and the wine it yields, while less robust than its southern cousins, seems even more elegant, more beautifully structured, and more delicately fruity. It’s usually quite enjoyable from its youth, but most Spanna-derived wines are capable of long aging and intriguing development. I’d like to call it a natural connoisseur’s wine, but that once-honorific word is probably the kiss of death in these fake populist times.

Another reason for my interest in this bottle is that I’m curious to see how the Vallana wines are developing, now that they are crafted by a team of young folk, the siblings Francis, Marina, and Miriam, guided always by their mother Giuseppina.

Giuseppina, Marina, Francis, and Miriam (a few years ago)

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When I first encountered Vallana wines, decades ago, they were made by the present generation’s grandfather, Bernardo, who was famous for the quality and longevity his bottles achieved. Burton Anderson, in his landmark book Vino, waxed ecstatic about the man and his wines, emphasizing the uniqueness of both. That is a formidable heritage to live up to, and I really wanted to see how well the new generation now responsible for cultivation and vinification was measuring up.

And for one more reason: Unlike all the family’s other wines, which carry various DOC appellations (e. g., Gattinara, Boca, Colline Novarese), Campi Raudii is called only Vino Rosso, a designation the family opted for so they could have one wine with which to tinker and experiment, free of strict variety regulation. Not that they appear thus far to have done anything very radical – but more of that later.

For this highly anticipated bottle, Diane prepared an imposing Porterhouse steak, and our Greenmarket conveniently provided the first of the season’s local spinach and, even better, the first of the season’s morels.

The latter are always a special treat, and stand in my estimation as high in the fungus world as Nebbiolo in the grape universe. Morels, chanterelles, porcini, and truffles: That’s the seasonal fungus calendar. All delicious, and at least three of them still within a human price range – as are, it is important to note, all of Vallana’s wines.

So: That, with a few good cheeses to finish, made up the simple, tasty, and substantial meal for my almost-12-year-old Campi Raudii to accompany. Which it did, very felicitously. Diane and I were struck by how very gentle the wine seemed as it interacted perfectly with the meat-sweetness of that succulent piece of beef, the herbal sweetness and acidity of the fresh spinach, and the woodsy savoriness of the mushrooms.

We were also struck very strongly by the wine’s freshness, which Diane perceived as tasting of currants and I of raspberry: a wave of light, delightful fruit atop a mature wine’s acid/tannin balance. This Campi Raudii was an extraordinary wine, clearly with years, perhaps decades, of life still before it.
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In an email, Marina informed me that 2009 was a classic vintage in her area, with no extremes for the vines to deal with (unlike the hot 2011 vintage or the cold 2014). Vallana usually vinifies Campi Raudii in a very traditional manner for the Alto Piemonte, as a Nebbiolo and Vespolina blend – about 20% Vespolina, Marina says – fermented in cement. Most of it was bottled without ever seeing any oak, and released young. Some was held back and aged briefly in old oak, and then bottled and labelled as a library release.

I’ve had my bottle stashed away for some years, and it’s not called a library release, so I presume that it’s a sample of the cement-fermented, unoaked wine – which makes its balance and freshness and vitality all the more impressive. This is minimal-intervention winemaking at its best. It just seems that Nebbiolo grown in the Alto Piemonte has an aptitude for long and graceful life, and Marina and her family have an aptitude for expressing it.

And that answers in a strong affirmative all the questions I had about Vallana’s wines. They’re still great, and the kids are doing just fine. Bernardo would be proud.

Marina and Francis (now)

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In Memoriam: Pio Boffa

Another melancholy post, another great loss to the Italian wine world.  Just a few weeks ago, Pio Boffa, the owner and driving force of the Pio Cesare winery, died of Covid. He was a very young and lively 66, and his totally unexpected death came as a great shock to everyone who knew him.

Some of my colleagues have already posted fine memorials of Pio, notably Alfonso Cevola and Tom Hyland, but I needed a little time to adjust to his departure. I will keep this contribution short and personal.

Pio was one of those people you couldn’t imagine ill, much less deathly ill. It had never occurred to me that I might outlive him.  He seemed to have inexhaustible founts of energy. He ran the winery with constant attention to seemingly everything. He travelled frequently (some of us thought continuously) non-stop to all parts of the world, creating or strengthening markets for Piedmont wines wherever he went. He would step off a plane from Hong Kong one evening, return to Alba in the morning, and host a tasting dinner for journalists and retailers that day, all with apparently undiminished energy and a genuine and infectious enthusiasm.
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I’ve known Pio for more than 40 years. We regarded each other as friends – but then, almost everyone who dealt with Pio for more than ten minutes regarded him as a friend: he was simply that kind of guy.  He was deeply Piedmontese in character, so much so that, for instance, the Pio Cesare winery remained faithful to some no-longer-fashionable wines, like Grignolino, of which it must be the last important producer. (If you don’t know Grignolino, you should: It’s a whole other face of the Piedmont, and Pio’s version of it is lovely.)

For all that, I thought of Pio as one of the most Americanized of all the Italian producers I knew. He had a kind of directness that isn’t all that common among winemakers (or anyone else with a product to sell). I loved to interview him about vintages and cellar techniques and the sorts of things that the Consorzio and other winemakers usually gave you very careful, very guarded answers to. Pio just told you the truth as he saw it: he was a no-bullshit guy. Whether that’s typically American, typically Piedmontese, or atypical of both, I’m not sure.

Some early, formative years in California – I believe working with Robert Mondavi – influenced him importantly. He retained from that experience a life-long love of oak, which shows most clearly, I think, in his cru Barolo Ornato, of which he was very proud. For me, with my aversion for wood flavors in wine, it was a subject of frequent disagreement with Pio. He would listen to my objections patiently, and equally patiently explain to me why I was wrong. He knew exactly what he was doing with Ornato, and he believed in it passionately, and I usually saw reason (as he phrased it) enough to grant that, except for the oak notes, Ornato was indeed a superb Barolo.

For all his pride in Ornato, Pio was traditionally Piedmontese enough that the wine he probably lavished the most attention on was his classic Barolo – what others were starting to refer to as their base wine, the traditional blending of Nebbiolos from different vineyards and different communes. Not Pio, though: If you click on the label image to enlarge it, you’ll see the bottom line says e non chiamatelo “base” – and don’t call it “base.” He always insisted that it was a classic – as was he.

Addio, Pio.

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Giuseppe Mascarello’s Monprivato is one of a distinguished handful of Italian wines that are rightly spoken of as legendary. Bottled as a separate cru since the early 1970s, Monprivato is easily the most renowned vineyard of the Castiglione Falletto commune, and it is for all practical purposes a Mascarello family monopoly.

To give you some sense of its importance, I can do no better than to quote Kerin O’Keefe, from her authoritative Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine:

The name Giuseppe Mascarello is practically synonymous with that of Monprivato, indisputably one of the very best crus not just in Castiglione Falletto, but in all of Barolo. . . . Mascarello now owns 93 percent of the entire surface area, and they are the only ones to use the Monprivato name on their labels. . . . The vineyard area was already referred to in land registries in 1666, and [Renato] Ratti gave it his equivalent of Grand Cru status on his vineyard classification map [1975].

The Mascarello family have obviously long recognized the outstanding character of the Monprivato site, and they treat its grapes with the attention they so amply reward. The wine is fermented for more than three weeks, with musts constantly and gently pumped over the cap to obtain thorough extraction of color and aromas. Aging is in large Slavonian oak. Monprivato is a very traditionally made Barolo, which in my opinion contributes mightily to its extraordinary depth and longevity.

Its near-legendary longevity was one of the key reasons I wanted to look in and see how my single bottle of 2004 was doing. 2004 was a very fine, in some hands great, vintage in Barolo, but – for my palate – a very forward one. The wines were soft and drinkable from the get-go, with – again, for my palate – extraordinarily approachable tannins, and I wondered how such wines would age. Would they mature at an accelerated pace?  Or would they go dumb for some years, and then resume a normal Barolo pattern of maturation? This inquiring mind wanted to know.

So I stood the bottle up for about a week to allow its sediments to settle; Diane spit-roasted a duck; and we pulled the cork, poured, sniffed, sipped – and smiled. Monprivato lived up to its reputation. Lucky us! It loved the duck: the crisp skin and unctuous fats, the moist, dark meat – all played right into its metaphoric hands.

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The tannins remained soft, but had no trouble dealing with either the duck’s fat or its flesh, and the wine’s fruit just soared, an octave higher than the rich duck flavors.

As many readers of this blog know, I distrust tasting notes (they’re good for one person, one time, under a usually unreproducible set of circumstances), but I do want to give you some sense of what this ’04 Monprivato offered. First, the nose was a classic Barolo mélange of tar, cherry, and roses – just lovely and enticing. The palate was soft, the fruit almost sweet: black cherry interlaced with tar and earth and little hints of strawberry. The overall attack was elegant and the flavor very long-lasting. I’d call it a five-star wine, beautifully structured and still fresh. It’s clearly going to last for a long, long time.

Did it have any flaws? Well, that depends on what you call a flaw. This is a 15-year-old Barolo that gave no hint of white truffle at all. I think I remember that once upon a time, when the world and I were young, 15-year-old Barolos used to give at least small whiffs of the rich scent of white Piedmont truffles, a scent that in its fullness I and many others back then regarded as characteristic of fully mature Barolo. Has climate change so altered the vines’ development that that heady pleasure is now and forever a thing of the past? I sincerely hope not, and not just for my own sake: All wine lovers deserve a sniff of that intoxicating aroma. I hope that all climate change has done is protract Barolo’s maturation, so the white truffle scent will yet come, if we are only patient enough. Speriamo.

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I have long been an admirer of the wines of Castello di Volpaia, because Volpaia specializes in what I love most in a wine: elegance. Elegance is easy to say but hard to attain: It’s that taut balance between, on the one hand, fidelity to the nature and intensity of the variety – in this case, Sangiovese – and on the other, lightness on the palate, with a graceful interplay of acid, tannin, and alcohol that makes the wine dance on your tongue.

A few evenings ago, a damp, chilly one (It was March in New York: What do you expect?), Diane and I had made a homely lamb stew – meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans, a pair of small onions, homemade broth for the ingredients to swelter in, not an herb in sight – and to drink with it I opened a bottle of Volpaia’s basic offering, a Chianti Classico 2018.

I expected it to be good, but it way exceeded my expectations. That simple young Chianti was marvelous with the stew and even better with the little taste of cheese with which we finished the meal. It tasted richly of Sangiovese and even more of Volpaia’s high altitude and sandy soils. It was packed with cherry-like Sangiovese fruit, at the same time delightfully light in the mouth, feeling and tasting highly refined and gracious. I was reminded how many times Daniele Cernilli uses the words “refined” or “refinement” in his reviews of Volpaia. If I had to describe this wine briefly, I’d call it classic high-altitude Sangiovese.

Being brief about Castello di Volpaia is difficult, however, because there is so much to say about it. First of all, it’s not a castello, but a formerly walled, hilltop medieval village. Once upon a time it served as a Florentine defensive outpost against Florence’s perennial enemy, Siena. After the 16th century, when peace invaded Tuscany, the walls started tumbling down and the vineyards growing up.

After the abolition of the mezzadria, the sharecropping system that had dominated Italian rural life and kept Italy green and poor for centuries, Volpaia almost became a ghost town, as its population fled the hard country life for better opportunities elsewhere. This is not ancient history: It happened in the 1950s and 1960s. That was a time when houses and vineyards and sometimes – as was the case of Volpaia – whole villages could be bought for very, very little. Not all the sites that then changed hands were so lucky in their new owners as Volpaia.
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Giovanna Stianti received it as a bridal gift when she married Carlo Mascheroni, an architect. The two have made Volpaia, both the town and its vineyards, their life work. They have lavished on both the buildings and the fields the kind of meticulous, loving attention that has earned Volpaia widespread recognition as the best and most beautifully preserved medieval village in Tuscany. The wines are just as highly esteemed: Their Chianti Classico Riserva Coltassella has frequently won Tre Bicchieri since its introduction in the 1980s. Its high rank has remained unchanged even as its legal status, following the evolution of Tuscan wine regulations, has grown from Vino da Tavola to Gran Selezione.

Aside from the careful attention that Stianti has given to the clonal selections, field work, and cellar procedures, there are two other reasons for the distinction of Volpaia’s wines. The vineyards are among the highest in Tuscany: Indeed, the very highest fields lie above 600 meters. And the soil of those fields differs markedly from the Classico zone’s predominant terroirs: It is made up of a lot less clay and a lot more sand and degenerating sandstone. With care in the field and the cellar, that translates into a far less rustic or heavy wine, a wine with a fine structure for immediate drinking, as well as for long life – a happy combination for any wine.

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The felicitous combination of so many special qualities has made Castello di Volpaia a benchmark for me, vinously and esthetically. If travel to Italy ever becomes possible again in my lifetime (!), Volpaia stands very high on the list of places I want to revisit.

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Some years back, I risked prophecy in a Decanter article and asserted my conviction that in the not-too-far future, wine lovers would hold Campania, and particularly Irpinia, in the same esteem they now give Burgundy and the Côte d’Or. Well, I’m ready to reaffirm that prediction, because I’m seeing more and more reasons for it every year.

A case in point is the subject of this post: Feudi di San Gregorio’s project of producing very limited editions (about 2,000 bottles) of carefully selected single-vineyard Taurasis. This is part of a study Feudi has undertaken of terroirs and clones in the Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo zones. These three prized wine zones abut and in part overlap each other in Campania’s upland Avellino province, the ancient territory of Irpinia, which has been producing estimable wines since the heyday of the Roman Empire.
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I had the opportunity to taste the 2016 bottling of the two Taurasi vineyards Feudi has so far chosen for this study, Candriano and Rosamilia. Both vineyards are located in the commune of Castelfranchi, in the extreme southeast corner of the Taurasi zone. The tasting made clear that, despite their youth, these are already very fine wines, with the capacity for long aging and significant growth. They showed the kind of character and potential that wine lovers expect, and are used to finding, in young Burgundies of important Premier Cru appellations. Let me point out  that wines of this quality have been coming out of Irpinia for some years now. It’s long past time for the wine world to start paying more serious attention.

Before I preach my sermon (again), let me talk about the two wines that prompted it.

2016 Taurasi Rosamilia. The nose was strong and striking, deep and dark, redolent of very dark fruits. The palate seemed a touch lighter though still big. Though so young, the wine was very composed, already smooth and complex, with a whole medley of dark fruit and woodland flavors competing for attention. Food brought up a big, dark plummy component. This was a lovely Taurasi, already impressive and drinkable.

2016  Taurasi Candriano. This wine’s aroma was not as assertive as the Rosamilia’s – more gentle and insinuating than forceful. Its palate, however, struck me as richer, rounder, and more fruity: perhaps not as dark-toned, but every bit as pleasing. It stayed soft, even with food. Even though very well structured, it did not yet seem as coherent as Rosamilia. I think it needs – and clearly will reward – more time in bottle.

Both wines, by the way, showed surprisingly soft tannins, despite originating in a part of the Taurasi zone reputed for tough young wines that need plenty of time to come around.

Much as I admire these two wines, let me stress that for this zone, they are not atypical in their quality. Those high Apennine slopes produce many top-quality Taurasis, as well as noble Fianos and Grecos. Most bottlings in the zone are not, I grant you, single-vineyard, but I think we will be seeing more and more of that as the producers begin to realize and exploit the riches they have.
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Wine lovers should recognize this process: They saw it first in Burgundy in the years after World War II, and then in Piedmont, starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Campania is still playing a little catch-up in that regard, but the grapes are there, the soils are there, and the talent and enthusiasm are now most definitely there. Taurasi’s – and Campania’s — glory days may be only a little way ahead of us.

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