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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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This is my first post of the new year, and it’s really not so much a post as a preview of posts to come. Late in 2020 (a year that will live in infamy), Diane asked a provocative question: “If you could only ever drink a dozen of all the wines we have in storage, which would you choose?” She followed with an even more provocative statement: “After all, we’re not kids any more; it could come to that.”

Needless to say, in the middle of a Covid pandemic and in the face of the approaching new year – hell, new decade, which it is extremely unlikely that I’ll see the end of – this set me to thinking about which of my wines I would absolutely want to be sure of tasting. It also got me brooding about how long it would take, with regular consumption, to drink my cellar dry, but that is an entirely separate problem for me and my liver to work out. The immediate question was which 12 would I choose – and, of course, why those?

Let me cut to the chase. Here are the dozen bottles I selected. They are in no particular order, because there was none to their choosing.

2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja
2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)
1981 Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico DOC, Giuseppe Quintarelli
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach
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Eight Italian wines, four French, one of each nation white, the rest all red. I wonder what that says about me? Or does it say anything at all? I’ll leave that for you to answer as you will: Just keep in mind what your answer will say about you.

Well after the fact, I realized that the principle of selection behind these 12 wines was simple, even obvious. There was an aspect of each one that I wanted to check on: the vintage, or the grape(s), or the maker, or some unusual viticultural element, or simply how well the wine was aging. Maybe a little personal projection and concern behind that last bit of curiosity, but nevertheless a subject of genuine interest. I’ve got a lot of ’01 Barolo and Barbaresco squirreled away, and it’s now almost 20 years since that vintage was harvested — though, truth to tell, I keep thinking of it as still a young, recent vintage, so all the more reason for a reality check.

Anyhow, there they are. It’s my intention to taste and write up one of them a month as a sort of continuing thread through whatever else 2021 may bring. I hope it will sustain your interest as much as it already piques mine.

And – lest I forget – Happy (I hope truly happy, prosperous, and healthy) New Year to you all!

 

 

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For any devoted Barolista, Alessandro Masnaghetti’s name is one to conjure with. Most people know him primarily for his amazing maps of the Piedmont wine zones (and other zones, both in Italy and elsewhere). These are not only visually stunning, detailed, and minutely accurate, but they incorporate as well a wealth of information about vineyard soils, exposures, ownership, and plantings. Each map amounts almost to a mini gazeteer of its zone – a treasure house of information for the thirsty Barolophile.

Masnaghetti has carved a very special place for himself in the Piedmontese wine world. Of all the wine writers I know or have dealt with, he is far and away the most deeply knowledgeable about Barolo in all its aspects – so the fact that he is now publishing a website devoted to Barolo should be exciting and welcome news to every fan of that great wine.

Barolomga360 it’s called, and you should have a look at your first opportunity. MGA, you remember, is the abbreviation of Authorized Geographic Mentions – the place names – whose use the Italian authorities permit on wine labels. Masnaghetti and his maps have been intimately involved with them from the very beginnings of the legislation. This website is a sort of culmination of that.

Like his maps, the site is handsome and filled with information – amazing information in some cases, such as two excellent winemakers making Barolo from the same vineyard and slope who have totally different views of the character of its grapes and consequently make two very different Barolos from it. Any other wine writer (and I include myself in this) would have made a major article about something like that: Masnaghetti just tucks it into his information about the vineyard. (I am deliberately not telling you which one, so you’ll read Masnaghetti’s notes attentively, as they deserve.) The excellent English translation is by the famed pioneer wine journalist Burton Anderson.

The most important features of the site are the multiple images of each commune, with its MGAs and other vineyard sites identified, so that you are able not just to read about but actually see the lay of the land – each different crease and fold of the hills that affects altitude and exposure, the proximity of each vineyard to others of equal or greater repute, or higher or lower altitude, or more easterly or westerly facing – all the kinds of information that real Barolo nuts (of which club I am a proud member) prize. Moreover, the images can be rotated and zoomed in or out, most with accompanying thumbnails focusing on views from different directions.

Here, with Masnaghetti’s permission, is a good example, one of his images of the Serralunga vineyards. Click on the image see a full-screen version.

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There’s really no need for me to go on, except to tell you that only some parts of the site are available free. For full access to the whole site, you’ll have to subscribe.

It’s Masnaghetti, it’s maps, it’s Barolo: What more do you need to know? Enjoy. Esteem. Relish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barolo Vineyards, Winter 2015

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

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

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

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

Produttori di Barbaresco Vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Barolo del Commune di Serralunga d’Alba

2015 Barolo Fontanafredda

2011 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

1996 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

2010 Barolo Riserva

2000 Barolo Riserva

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

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

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

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

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

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Midsummer dinner parties always present problems. You want to keep things simple and light, but you also don’t want to treat your guests as if they were fashion silhouettes who make a meal on a single lettuce leaf and a martini olive. Plus, if your guests have palates, you want to offer them the bounty of the season and also wines appropriate to that bounty: light, but not insubstantial; fresh, but not without complexity. And all the while, you have to offer placatory sacrifices to the gods of the electric grid, so that the power doesn’t go off in the middle of prep or the middle of dinner. Oh, first-world worry worry worry!

Those of you who follow Diane’s blog already know how she recently pulled off this trick. My part involved less work but – I flatter myself – more tact: matching the appropriate wines to those tasty dishes. Hors d’oeuvres are always easy: you can’t go wrong with a Prosecco or a Champagne. This time I opted for Champagne, because . . . well, mostly because I’ve already drunk my lifetime quota of Prosecco this hot summer.

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I’ve been tinkering with grower Champagnes lately – because they vary interestingly from the Grands Marques norms – and the one I opted for this time didn’t disappoint. Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Cuis Premier Cru, Brut NV was an intriguingly mineral-and-white-fruit blanc de blancs: 100% Chardonnay, vintages 2010-2015; disgorged March 16, 2019; dosage 6g/l.For my palatal preferences, blanc de blancs is the ideal summertime Champagne, light enough to titillate, complex enough to hold your interest. This one provided exactly that combination.

Our first course at table was classic summer fare from Naples: zucchini a scapece and a platter of just sliced, never refrigerated heirloom tomatoes surrounding a still-moist-from-its-whey mozzarella di bufala. Naples dictated the wine choice here: a sapid and lovely Greco di Tufo, tasting of its volcanic soils and bittersweet fruit. Ours was from Benito Ferrara, his cru Cicogna, a perennial – and entirely deserving – Tre Bicchieri winner.
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With the pasta, we switched to red wines, and I got a surprise. Fresh fettuccine pointed me to northern Italy, so I chose a Ghemme, one of Piedmont’s subalpine denominations that blends upwards of 65% Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) with the indigenous Bonarda and sometimes a little admixture of other, very localized grapes. These northern wines emphasize elegance rather than power, and are usually lighter-bodied than more southerly Piedmont Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco.
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My wine, a 2011 Monsecco, perfectly supplied the lighter body and elegance, but it also offered much greater fruit intensity – cherries! – and depth than I had expected. It got everybody’s attention from the first taste, and kept it. Ghemme and Boca and Lessona, but especially Ghemme, are staging a real comeback, and you should know about them:  they are fine wines, and considerably less expensive than the better known Barolo and Barbaresco.

Diane’s summertime secondo directed me back to Naples, so with it we drank a lovely 2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva from Guastaferro.
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Gorgeous and big and deep, this wine – vinified exclusively from very old Aglianico vines still on their own roots, a rarity even in Campania’s often sandy, sulfur-laced soils – will last for decades more with no loss of vigor or flavor. This too is a winemaker to know about.

For our cheese course, I went back north again, for Barolo this time: a 1999 Barolo Colonnello from Aldo Conterno. I wanted to finish with a crescendo, and this great cru in a great vintage from a great producer provided it.

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The wine was lush: big in the mouth, round and deep, with dark, brooding, still fresh-tasting fruit understrapped by abundant now-soft tannins and generous acidity, it was ready for anything the cheeses threw at it.

Smiles this summer night were abundant, though they bore no resemblance to the ones induced by the Ingmar Bergman movie from which I shamelessly lifted my title.

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By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

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And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.

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Beppe Colla died on January 15. Beppe was the patriarch of the Colla clan: Although mostly retired, he continued to advise his much younger brother Tino and his daughter Federica at their jointly owned estate, Poderi Colla. Before that, he had been the owner of the Prunotto winery and the winemaker who in the ‘70s and ‘80s guided Prunotto Barolo and Barbaresco to the heights of accomplishment and acclaim. He was 88 and, had he lived, would have enjoyed his 70th harvest this year.

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It is hard to overestimate Colla’s contribution to Alban winemaking, indeed to the whole Piedmontese wine world.

  • He was one of the pioneers who opened the way for Barolo and Barbaresco to achieve the kind of fame they now enjoy.
  • He made great wines before there was a single stainless steel tank or a notion of temperature-controlled fermentation anywhere in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.
  • He welcomed the new technology when it became available: At Prunotto, he used the first stainless steel fermenters ever seen in the Alba area.
  • He made the first cru Barolos and Barbarescos, a then-heretical act for which he was at the time severely criticized by the local establishment.

Along with Renato Ratti and a few other like-minded individuals, he founded the Ordine dei Cavalieri de Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba, a group that is widely credited with having spurred the modern revival of Piedmontese gastronomy, which immensely benefited the whole zone and every hungry tourist who has ever visited it.

At heart, for all his innovations and all the ways he altered the Piedmontese wine universe, Colla remained devoted to the traditional ideals of Barolo and Barbaresco: The wines had to taste first of the fruit and the soil, and of the technology never. At Prunotto, he crafted wines that became benchmarks of Barolo and Barbaresco. Even, I would add, of humbler varieties: I remember the incredible balance, intensity, juiciness, and encompassing elegance of the Barbera d’Alba that he drew from the Pian Romualdo site – Barbera that for my palate has not been equaled since, anywhere in the zone.

Throughout his career, he remained an uncomplicated person, devoted to his craft and his family, plain-spoken and shy of personal publicity. I had the pleasure of talking with Beppe Colla many times, over a good many years, and I always learned something from him: He was a trove of wine lore and viti/vinicultural information. But my characteristic memory of him will always be a simple one:  his shy smile of pleasure at the sight of someone enjoying his wines.

We have lost many fine winemakers in recent years – Bruno Giacosa, Beppe Rinaldi, Leonildo Pieropan, Antonio Mastroberardino, and now Beppe Colla. We are witnessing the end of the heroic era of Italian wine. A generation of giants is passing.

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A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar led by Kevin Zraly at the New York presentation of the importer Kobrand’s annual Tour d’Italia. This showing of Kobrand’s line of Italian brands was open to the wine trade and media. The seminar was available only to wine media members, and organized around a selection of Kobrand’s major Italian producers – Pighin (Friuli), Silvio Nardi (Tuscany), Michele Chiarlo (Piedmont), Nozzole (Tuscany), Sette Ponte (Tuscany), Masi (Veneto), and Medici Ermete (Emilia Romagna).

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Have you noticed that nothing is selected or organized any longer, but everything is curated? Well, the wine world isn’t exempt from that kind of verbal hyperventilation. What is called a seminar these days (and not just by Kobrand: It’s universal) is simply a panel of producers talking a bit about their estates and the representative wine they’re showing. And the wines at this event and the larger portfolio tasting of which it was part aren’t just fine wines or even great ones: These were “The Icons of Italian Wine.”  Icons is a vastly overworked word, but what puts this phrase over the top for me is the definite article: The icons – there can be no others. Give me a break, please.

OK, so I’m tilting at windmills again: I’ll dismount and get back to the wines. Which weren’t bad at all. Some not my style, but well made of their kind, true to their varieties and to the winemaker’s vision. Some very good, drinkable young and worthy of some aging. And at least one just remarkable: This was Masi’s Costasera Amarone Riserva 2009, which already tasted lush and lovely and which promises to be off-the-charts gorgeous in 20 years.
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The presentation of these wines was very honest and straightforward, lacking the kind of hyper-seriousness foreboded by “icons” and “seminar.” Kevin Zraly is an old pro at events like this: He kept things lively, interesting, and moving at a good pace; and he allowed plenty of time for questions – of which there were almost none. The few there were could have come from civilians, not wine professionals.

So my big disappointment at this event was not with the wines or their presentation, but with what we used to call the press corps and now have to denominate the media. They seemed totally content with the basic information being offered: no questions, no remarks on what they were tasting, no burrowing for technical data. That’s like writing an article entirely from the press handouts. It made me nostalgic for the guy who always used to ask about pH and reverse osmosis and then endlessly argue with the winemaker about the truth/accuracy of what he was saying. At least that guy cared, and he had some core of knowledge against which to weigh the winemaker’s claims. I got no sense of any of that in this session – which is seriously too bad, in many respects.

OK, I mounted my horse again. Apologies. In addition to the Amarone that I loved, I also particularly enjoyed

  • Pighin’s 2017 Collio Pinot grigio, a totally unwooded wine that tasted richly of oyster shells and pears, the way Pinot grigio used to,
  • Medici Ermete’s 2017 Concerto, a single-vineyard dry Lambrusco sparkler of seductive raspberry/strawberry charm,
  • and Chiarlo’s 2013 Barolo Cerequio, a very elegant, balanced wine that the maker compared to the outstanding 2004 vintage.
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Also quite interesting was Sette Ponte’s 2016 Oreno, a Tuscan IGT Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Petit verdot), a wine big in the mouth, rich and fat, with splendid Italian acidity, bigger than the Bordeaux wines it’s modeled on, with more fruit and more enlivening acid. I’m no fan of Bordeaux grapes in Italy, but this is a good wine.

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