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Archive for the ‘Aglianico’ Category

Initially, the event that most drew me to Campania, back at the beginning of March, was the tasting of new releases of Taurasi and Taurasi riserva. This has for decades been one of my favorite wines, though it has suffered the fate of most southern Italian wines: It just doesn’t get the attention or respect it deserves. As I’ve said before, I rank the Aglianico grape from which it’s made right up with, and in some vintages above, Nebbiolo. While most of Italy is content to think of Taurasi – when it thinks of it at all – as the Barolo of the South, in Campania they are more likely – and more correctly, given the historical diffusion of viti- and viniculture in Italy – to think of Barolo as the Taurasi of the north.

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All that prologue is to explain the excitement with which I approached the blind tasting of 48 examples of Taurasi and Taurasi riserva of the 2006, ’07, ’08, and ’09 vintages, plus 16 more bottles of Aglianico of the 2008, ’09, ’10, and ’11 vintages. I hoped this broad swathe of Aglianico production from its heartland, Irpinia, would give me a good picture of exactly what was happening in this important zone. For sure, it did, and for sure it made me one happy camper. I found many wines to enjoy and not a few to relish.

That wasn’t the only Taurasi vertical I was fortunate enough to squeeze into my hyperactive week in Campania: I talked about one last month, and I’ll talk about another further along in this post. But first I want to focus on the new releases, which I tasted blind (I always opt to do that when I can: it cuts out all the prejudices of familiarity and label-consciousness and gives me as close as a single taster can get to an objective assessment of the wines).

Villa RaianoThe tasting was very intelligently and helpfully organized. We started with four vintages of Aglianicos from areas outside the Taurasi DOCG: Campi Taurasina, Irpinia, and Campania IGTs: 16 wines in all. The 2011s were very pleasant, the 2010s very tight right now, the 2009s a mixed bag, and the 2008s really fine. Among the wines I thought showed best were several names that will be familiar on the US market: Mastroberardino, Donna Chiara, Villa Raiano. But smaller producers less widely distributed also performed very well: Antico Castello, Antichi Coloni, Caggiano, Di Marzo, and especially Luigi Tecce, whose Campi Taurasini Satyricon was outstanding.

All these wines exhibited excellent Aglianico character – black cherry fruit and tobacco and marked minerality, along with lovely balance and, in the 2008s especially, some real elegance. These IGT wines tend to be quite reasonably priced, and you don’t have to be in a hurry to drink them: They will take some bottle age nicely – even the already-five-year-old 2008s. They are the quality equivalent of village Burgundies, at the price of Borgogne Rouge.

Urciuolo TaurasiThe tasting then moved on to the Taurasi DOCG wines: first the 2009s, then 2008 riservas, then 2007 and 2006 riservas. Within each vintage the presentation was divided into geographic sections: first wines blended from grapes originating in two or more subzones, then wines made in the northern quadrant of the Taurasi zone, then the western zone (which overlaps with the Fiano di Avellino zone), then the central valley (bearing no resemblance at all to the similarly named site in California), and finally the southern zone, indicated as alta valle – high valley. I confess that I couldn’t consistently discriminate between these subzones. There may well be specific characteristics that identify the wines of each, but I’d need more experience to be able to spot them.

One thing I did notice: in the ’09 vintage, I really enjoyed the Versante sud/alta valle wines: They had a juiciness and freshness that really set them apart. These are the examples I tasted:

  • Masseria Murrata Passione
  • Fratelli Urciuolo
  • Tecce Poliphemo
  • Amarano Principe Lagonessa
  • Villa Raiano
  • Colli di Castelfranci Alta Valle
  • Bambinuto

Overall, the 2009 vintage at this early stage of its development is quite pleasing, whatever subzone it’s from – more accessible and less austere than young Taurasi can often be, with nice fruit, good balance, and classic Taurasi elegance.

matilde taurasiThe 2008 vintage on the other hand showed the powerful side of Taurasi, both in regular bottlings and in riservas. Dark flavors dominated – deep black cherry, earth and mineral elements, tobacco, leather. Big, full-bodied wines with still-firm tannins, they will greatly reward cellaring for even a few years. In short, textbook Taurasi, which is no mean compliment. I liked many of the 48 I tasted, but since many of the small producers aren’t available on the US market, I won’t tantalize you with them here. Of the widely distributed producers, I particularly admired these:

  • Donna Chiara riserva
  • Feudi di San Gregorio Piano di Montevergine riserva
  • Terredora Pago dei Fusi 2008 and Fatica Contadina
  • Villa Matilde.

Among the older riservas, I would single out both Mastroberardino’s Radici 2007 and its Naturalis Historia 2007.

tecci poliphemoI’ve posted earlier about Mastroberardino’s magnificent, six-decade vertical of Taurasi, but I was also lucky enough while I was in the Irpinia zone to experience one other impressive vertical. Sabino Loffredo, owner of Pietracupa and a fine winemaker in his own right (his 2009 Taurasi stands among the best of that vintage, and his white wines – Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino – are top-notch) organized a vertical tasting of his friend Luigi Tecce’s Taurasi Poliphemo. This covered the vintages 2008, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’03, and 2001, all of which were absolutely classic Taurasis, with clearly delineated dark fruits (I kept tasting mulberries in addition to blackberry and sour cherry) and tobacco flavors, lovely soft tannins, and admirable earth-and-mineral notes.

Luigi Teccephoto © Tom Hyland

Luigi Tecci
photo © Tom Hyland

Tecce describes himself as a “less than minimalist” winemaker, insisting that he does nothing to the grapes. “Soils are everything,” he says, and his are high – at or above 500 meters – and a mix of volcanic and marine layers. He ferments his Taurasi in chestnut before moving it for some months to used barriques and then finally to botti to repose for some time before bottling. He harvests late – in ’07, in the snow; in ’06 he finished harvest on November 26th – and he doesn’t even use temperature-controlled fermentation: in short, winemaking the way it used to be in Italy before the impact of California technology, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies. In Tecce’s case, his meticulous attention to his five hectares of vines makes it work magnificently. These very limited production wines are worth searching for. (For another enthusiastic review of this tasting, go here.)

But so are many – probably most – of the wines I tasted all week long. In all honesty, I didn’t taste a bad bottle the whole week I was there, so you should be willing to at least try any Taurasi of these recent vintages that you come across. The market is in some flux: Italy seems finally to becoming conscious of the vinous treasures it has in the south, especially in Campania, and my guess is that the US market will not be far behind in awareness. So with a little luck, we will start seeing more examples of Taurasi here, soon. Speriamo, eh?

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I recently attended a fascinating day-long seminar in Avellino, the heart of Taurasi country. The subject was old vines – everything about old vines: the ways they were cultivated; the character of the grapes they bear, as different from those of younger vines; the wines those grapes make; and how, in turn, those wines differ from the wines young vines produce.

A patriarch of Taurasi vines. Ph.lemonstudio.it

Part of a project called (aptly) I Patriarchi, and sponsored by the Campanian winery Feudi di San Gregorio in collaboration with two major Italian universities, the event included a visit to a pre-phylloxera vineyard, presentations by some of Italy’s foremost grape scientists – Professors Scienza and Failla of Milan and Moio of Naples – and a comparative tasting of Aglianicos from 60-year-old vineyards in three different zones, Taurasi, Taburno, and Vulture. To say I learned a lot is understatement, as it also is to say I had a great time: This was an experience that appealed to the old scholar in me as much as to the wino.

It’s hard to say which was the best part. We seminarians (I’ve always liked that secularized usage for its ability to shock the pious) started the day – bright and cool, with high clouds scudding across a Mediterranean-blue sky – in the somewhat rain-sodden fields, tromping around in boots that Feudi thoughtfully provided. (That, by the way, indicates in its small way how thorough was the preparation for and organization of this event: My compliments to everyone involved.)  That visit provided eye-opener number one: I was standing in the middle of pre-phylloxera vines in a zone where I hadn’t known any such existed.

It turns out that pockets of sandy soil – alluvial deposits from ancient, now-vanished rivers – lie here and there among southern Italy’s otherwise volcanic terroir. The phylloxera louse, America’s great gift to the Old World and the scourge of its vines, can’t survive in sandy soils. Ergo, small caches of ancient vines still survive on their own roots. In this particular Aglianico vineyard, the vines, gnarled and twisted to a fare-thee-well, were minimally 60 years old. To my (not particularly expert) eye, what I thought of as the parent vine looked even older. I refer to it as the parent vine because of its size and its central position in a vineyard planted in the antique manner, with vines trained high – eight to ten feet – and clinging to trees and large poles.

A "parent vine." Ph.lemonstudio.it

I’ve known for a long time that training vines to trees was one of the most ancient methods of vineyard management, but I’d never thought much about it. If I ever did, it was to dismiss it as primitive and probably inefficient vineyard management, the product of peasant ignorance and laziness. There’s nothing quite like the condescension of a modern know-it-all, is there?  I couldn’t have been more wrong, and actually seeing an example of a properly cared for old-style vineyard made that clear at once.

Prof. Scienza. Ph:winenews.it

First of all, the vineyard was very carefully planned, with the vines located about ten feet apart either at the corners of checkerboard squares or on a diagonal plan, in quincunxes. My parent vine was gripping a meticulously pollarded tree at the center of one quincunx, its lower limbs cut away decades ago, its middle limbs trimmed or trained to the four directions to support the vines, and its canopy held well above the growing grapevine. It was, Professor Scienza explained, a sort of combination of a high cordon speronata training system and a pergola.

That system worked beautifully for the needs of the people who invented it. The grapes were held high, still easy to harvest but well out of the reach of boar or deer or roving goats. They hung below their foliage, shaded by it from the intense southern sun and open to the drying mountain breezes – the latter the best insurance against any kind of mold or mildew. Thus situated, they could ripen slowly and thoroughly through the long growing season Aglianico requires. And underneath those high vines, there was ample room to cultivate other crops, of kinds that would feed both the farmers and the soil, thereby preventing famine, erosion, and soil depletion at the same time. So much for peasant ignorance and laziness. Realizing just how complex this seemingly artless system was, I was simultaneously humbled, stimulated, and ready for more information. What else was  going on here that I didn’t know? or had all wrong?

Another post – probably not the next, but the one after that – will continue the saga of my enlightenment.

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The far south of Italy is a treasury of native grape varieties, especially noble reds. Puglia offers Primitivo, now famous as a kissing cousin of Zinfandel, as well as the still relatively unknown Negroamaro. Basilicata presents the long-aging, structured Aglianico del Vulture, a very close relative of the grape that makes the deservedly much-honored Taurasi of Campania.

As guests of the American importer Frederick Wildman and the Italian company GIV (Gruppo Italiano Vini) earlier this month, five American journalists and sommeliers made a trip as much in time as in space, from the baroque urbanity of Lecce in Puglia to the rural beauty of the countryside outside Venosa in Basilicata. Both places are time-stopped: Lecce is a jewel of 17th-century architecture, and Basilicata possesses an archetypal rural landscape. It is still referred to by its residents as Lucania, its name since pre-Roman times. That’s what the Roman poet Horace, who was born there, called it, and if Lucania was good enough for Horace, it’s good enough for me. I suspect the rolling, vineyard-dotted landscape of its high, volcanic plateau still looks much as it did to his eyes, and I’m certain that the roads are no better – maybe worse – than they were under imperial Roman rule.

Basilicata: autumnal vineyards in the foreground; evergreen olives behind (Photos courtesy of Odila Galer-Noel)

But I’m getting ahead of myself: Puglia first.

An easy drive out of Lecce on the road to Taranto lies the sprawling Castello Monaci estate, approximately 375 acres of vineyards and ancient olive trees. It’s a real castle, and a big one. It started life as a monastery – hence “Castle of the Monks” – became a serious castle, and is now reincarnating itself as a glamorous agriturismo and event space. Its line of basic wines, however, is anything but upscale in price, even though all offer a very respectable level of quality. If you’re looking for value wines, wines that are as easy on your wallet as they are on your palate, Castello Monaci gives you a whole spectrum of choices, all priced at a very comfortable $13.

  • Simera (Salento IGT) is a nice blend of Chardonnay and the native Verdeca – good fruit, a little heavy on Chardonnay-tropical-fruit flavors (this is a warm, sunny land) but soft and pleasing and a fine companion to fish and spicy antipasti. All the Castello Monaci wines in fact showed as very food-friendly, so you can take that as a given.
  • Kreos (Salento IGT) blends mostly Negroamaro with a bit of Malvasia nera to make a surprisingly successful dry and elegant rosé. I hadn’t expected such delicacy from grapes that are normally power hitters.
  • Maru (Salento IGT) highlights Negroamaro (100%) in its dark guise – black cherry and tobacco in the aroma and the mouth, with good structure. The 2008 tasted very young – drinkable, but sure to improve with a little age.
  • Liante (Salice Salentino DOC) mixes 80% Negroamaro with 20% Malvasia nera to make a slightly fuller and rounder wine than the Maru, one that will take to stronger foods with equanimity.
  • Pilùna (Salento IGT) is all Primitivo, with a very Zinfandel-like brambly nose, juicy blackberry/mulberry fruit, and a slight, enjoyable prickle in the mouth – straightforward, good, and fun.

Over in Basilicata – not very far as the crow flies but a few hours as the road curves – the Re Manfredi estate is presided over by the affable and accomplished Nunzio Capurso, who was for years managing director of Melini, GIV’s Chianti giant, as well as directly responsible for its top Tuscan wine, the splendid Chianti Classico Riserva Selvanella. Now, in addition to winemaking at Re Manfredi, he is still president of the Chianti Consorzio and vice president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio – so this is a significant, experienced Northern winemaker who is now indulging his deep passion for Aglianico, a wine he refers to as “the Barolo of the south.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. Aglianico – the vine dispersed northward by Roman legions – may well be the ancestor of both Nebbiolo and Syrah, though the evidence is far from complete. I’ve loved Aglianico for years, both in its Campanian versions (Taurasi, Falerno rosso) and as Aglianico del Vulture. In both guises, I believe it’s one of the greatest of the noble red grapes, capable of wines of the amazing depth, complexity, and longevity – so for me it was a delight to find a northern winemaker whose work I deeply respect so excited by Aglianico.

Nunzio Capurso at the ready

We were visiting on November 13, and the harvest had finished only a few days before – “Here we have always the latest harvest in Italy, because of our very cool nights,” Capurso said. That very long growing season, with its great day-to-night temperature shifts, is what lets the Aglianico grape reach its richest, most aromatic maturity. Capurso had prepared half a dozen wines to demonstrate that.

  • Aglianico del Vulture DOC 2005, from 20- to 30-year-old vines. A stemmy and earthy nose; on the palate, good dark fruit with abundant soft tannins, and a long, tobacco finish. Very good but very young: You can drink it now, but it will be even better in three or four years. “In a minimum of ten years, this wine will be at its best,” Capurso says.
  • Aglianico del Vulture DOC Serpara 2001. Serpara originates from a small, high vineyard of older vines, always hand-harvested and vinified and aged separately. Although still evolving, the 2001 is already quite complex, its dry plum fruit marked with significant minerality – very, very fine. This will easily be a 20-year wine.
  • Serpara 2003: showing more fruit in the nose and the palate, also more tannin and less acid. More forward and readier than 2001.
  • Serpara 2004: excellent dark fruit and tobacco flavors – a lovely, complex vintage. This one can evolve and improve for another decade and easily last a decade beyond that.
  • Serpara 2005: tobacco/mineral/blackberry nose; good soft fruit, a trifle closed; nice acid/tannin balance. Still fine, though not as complex as ’04, and easier to drink now.
  • Serpara 2006: In the aroma, tobacco first, then black fruit. On the palate, dark, berry-ish fruit, soft and round; well balanced and gentle but still big – another wine to cellar.

Cellaring is the key to Aglianico. It’s a grape that really reflects harvest differences and that needs time to bring all its components into balance – not a wine for the casual quaffer, but one for the serious wine drinker who prizes excellence and has the patience to wait for it. For their quality, these wines are also bargains – $39 for the basic Aglianico, $42 for the single-vineyard Serpara.

These are what I think of as true collectable wines – not for investment (much as I revere Aglianico, I doubt it will ever attract the big-money boys: thank whatever gods may be!) but for the kind of appreciation that only your palate can collect. Put some bottles of ’01 or ’04 or ’06 Serpara away and forget you have them for ten years: then open one with dinner and congratulate yourself on how shrewd you are and what a great investment you made.

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