Archive for the ‘Chianti’ Category

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

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

trebicchieri-2017

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

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

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

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red-wine

 

From Basilicata

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

From Piedmont

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Sicily

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

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

From Tuscany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

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

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

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

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

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

white-wines

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From Alto Adige

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

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

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

From Campania

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

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

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

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

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

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

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

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

From Lazio

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

From the Marches

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

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

From Sardinia

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

From Sicily

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

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

From the Veneto

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

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

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

 

 

Terminal Toscanità

August 11, 2016

Like Michael Corleone, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. In my case, I keep trying to break away from Tuscan wine for a while – after all, I love lots of Italian wines, and even French, Spanish, and German wines too – but I keep discovering important items about Tuscany that I really ought to comment on right now, while they’re timely.

Tom tasting

Case in point: I’ve done some articles for QRW.com about recent releases of Brunello and Chianti Classico, but I haven’t said a word about them here. That’s a bad oversight, omitting a lot of important wines, and it needs fixing. So here goes.

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Brunello di Montalcino

Brunello seal

The 2011 Brunello di Montalcino is now being released. Some of the earliest bottles are already here, and more will be arriving by fall. This is an iffy vintage: The weather was, to put it very mildly, not great, and a lot of not-great wine was made. But some of the best producers in this prestigious zone more than justified their reputations by making some very fine wines – not big, tough, wait-ten-years-to-drink’em Brunellos, but atypically accessible and charming wines that are a joy to drink now, have lovely Sangiovese character, partner well with all sorts of food, and should last nicely for five to (at the outside) ten years. In short, delightful wines, typically Tuscan in taste and style, available for enjoying while you’re waiting for Brunello’s 2010s and (probably) 2012s to soften up and become drinkable.

I didn’t get to taste all the key producers, but of the ones I did taste, these are my top baker’s dozen:

  • Altesino Montosoli. Delicate and elegant, with charming fruit. A little licorice in the finish.
  • Canalicchio di Sopra. Fresh and very structured, with dark, woodsy fruit. Intensity without heaviness. May age well.
  • Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona. Lovely cherry/berry fruit, lively acidity, great poise; an excellent wine already.
  • Col d’Orcia. Slighter fuller and bigger than the preceding wine, but every bit as fresh and charming.
  • Costanti. One of the biggest wines of this batch, but still fresh, fruity, and vivid. A long fruit salad of a finish.
  • Donatella Cinelli Colombini. Slightly smaller scale than the Costanti wine, but still excellent.
  • Donatelli Cinelli Colombini Prime Donne. Very balanced, very elegant. Its fresh woodsy fruit hides its substantial muscularity. Quite fine.
  • Fuligni. Its balance and structure strike you first, then its already-mellowing fruit and acidity. May age very well.
  • Lisini. Beautiful fruit, all cherry and sotto bosco. Medium body, nice balance.
  • Padeletti. Very similar to the Lisini, with a long licorice and cherry finish. Nice.
  • Poggio di Sotto. Very fine. Live and fresh. Good fruit, fine balance. Very composed and welcoming.
  • Le Potazzine. A good wine with some heft; nice dark fruit, very persistent.
  • Talenti. A biggish wine with a lot of evident structure; may age very well.

 

Chianti Classico

seal

In Chianti Classico, the situation is much more complicated, because the zone is much more varied than Montalcino’s and producers often hold their wines before release for longer than the minimum aging requirement, so that several different vintages from different producers can appear on the market at the same time. Consequently I tasted a very mixed bag of vintages and producers, which makes it hard to offer any useful generalizations – mostly, I can just tell you what I liked.

I tasted a lot of just-bottled 2014 basic Chianti Classicos  (even some barrel samples) and almost as many 2013s – the “simple” Chianti Classico DOCG designation.

The Consorzio tactfully calls ’14 “a quite unusual year.”  It was a very wet year that made all sorts of problems in the vineyards. Only late-arriving decent weather – mid-September into October – enabled growers who had had patience and fortitude to salvage a crop. I don’t think these are wines for keeping but for drinking in the near term. The ones I most enjoyed are:

  • Badia a Coltibuono RS
  • Bibbiano
  • Castellare
  • Terre di Prenzano
  • Vignamaggio
  • Villa Cerna
  • Volpaia

The Castellare particularly was elegant, round, and long-finishing, already composed for so young a wine. The other wine that tied for my top spot in this vintage was Volpaia, which opened with a beautiful light woodsy/cherry nose, and a palate that followed suit – a fresh and charming wine with rich, satisfying fruit.

The 2013 weather was drier and warmer, with a perfect September. It gave wines with much greater balance and charm and a lot of true Sangiovese character. They can be drunk with pleasure now and will hold nicely for at least five years, perhaps more. In this group, my top wines were Borgo Scopeto, nice and soft and relatively full-bodied; Carobbio, with nice cherry-mulberry-chocolate nuances; the nicely balanced San Giusto a Rentennano; and Poggiopiano, the best wine of the group, which was rich with lovely Sangiovese fruit and perfectly balanced.

2012 reversed the weather pattern of ’14: Dry with blazing heat all summer long, it broke in late August and early September with cooler temperatures, much-needed rainfall, and perfect day-night temperature variations, resulting in a small crop of really fine Sangiovese. The great majority of the wines of this vintage that I tasted were fine examples of their breed. The ones I liked best were Castello di Meleto and Castello Monterinaldi, both finely fruited and well balanced; the always elegant Castello di Volpaia; Clemente VII, from the exceptionally good co-op Castelli de Grevepesa, Lamole di Lamole, from vineyards on mineral-rich soils near Greve, and the outstanding Fontodi, from Giovanni Manetti’s meticulously maintained vineyards in the Conca d’Oro of Panzano.

I tasted only two 2011s, one, Peppoli, from Antinori, which was quite satisfying on the palate but with a (for me) slightly annoying woody nose, and the other from Castello di Cacchiano, which has become a cult wine in Italy, at least in part because it holds its wines so long before release. This was truly lovely, with an enchanting Sangiovese nose and wonderful fruit and elegance.

And from 2010, I tasted only Poggiopiano’s La Tradizione, which was also wonderful – still young and live, with beautiful Sangiovese fruit and excellent acid/tannin balance. This is not a cru, but a selection of the best grapes from several vineyards, and it is a wine to look for in any vintage.

And then there are a few wines from Chianti Classico’s new Gran Selezione designation. The best of the 2012s I tasted was clearly Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo — probably my favorite wine of the whole tasting. It will improve for several years yet, and should last many years beyond that.

Among a handful of 2011s, the standout was Bibbiano’s Capennina, very structured and very elegant, a very fine wine at a very reasonable price point. Also impressive was Lamole di Lamole’s Vigneto di Campolungo. In 2010, Castello di Volpaia’s Il Puro, a 100% Sangiovese, really impressed me with its heft and structure: It seems built to last decades. The sole 2009 example I tasted was Castello di Cacchiano’s Millennio, and it was just lovely: soft fruit, fine balance, great mouth feel. These are all the kind of wine that make me hope this new Chianti Classico category may truly be a triumph.

A Name to Remember: Bibbiano Chianti Classico

June 27, 2016

To use a cliché no wine journalist can resist, Tuscany is always in ferment – which is partly why I’ve given Tuscan wines so much attention recently. But also, many of the wines are just plain good, and, while many of those are already well known, others deserve more attention than they’ve been getting. A case that fits all those points is Bibbiano, a 150-year-old, family-owned estate that is making excellent Chianti Classico and conducting some very interesting experiments, as well.

I recently had lunch with Tommaso Marzi, the just-turned-50 proprietor (with his younger brother Federico) of Bibbiano and its very peripatetic face in the world. He is an enthusiast, which in my book is the prime quality needed in anyone working in any capacity in the wine world, and he is very knowledgeable about his vineyards and their qualities. Bibbiano’s fields lie in the western reach of the Chianti Classico zone’s fabled Conca d’Oro, a ridge of splendid soils and exposures that arcs west from Castellina in Chianti toward Val d’Elsa. The Bibbiano estate contains two large swatches of vineyards, Montornello in the northeast and Capannino in the southwest. These are often bottled as separate crus, and Capannino provides the source of Bibbiano’s Gran Selezione.

Marzi at his vineyard

Foreground, Tommaso Marzi; background, Capannino vineyard

For many years, Bibbiano’s vineyards and cellar were under the care of Tuscan doyen Giulio Gambelli, for decades the most respected nose and palate in the whole region. He is credited with keeping Bibbiano in the forefront of traditional Chianti winemaking, and in particular with planting in its field clones of Sangiovese grosso ultimately derived from his days of working with Tancredi Biondi Santi.

Over a light lunch at Il Buco Alimentaria, we tasted an astutely chosen array of Bibbiano’s bottles, which showed both the charms of the young wines and what their older siblings are capable of.

First, Chianti Classico 2014. This was a very pretty wine, blended from all the estate’s vineyards and totally untouched by wood. Fermentation on the skins started in stainless steel and finished in cement vats. All native grapes: 97% Sangiovese, 3% Colorino. Nicely balanced, fresh and lively (excellent acidity), with gentle plum flavors emerging as it opened in the glass. And a good buy, at a suggested retail price of $22.

Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2013 was next. That emerging plum flavor in the basic Chianti was much more pronounced in this wine, which also shared the fine balance of the first. This was vinified entirely from Sangiovese from the 13-hectare northeast vineyards and aged in barriques and tonneaux for 18 months. I didn’t inquire, but I’d guess they were well-used barrels, because I detected no wood or vanilla or espresso – just fine fruit and underbrush scents and flavors in this substantial, very young wine. Also nicely priced: SRP $27.

Then we tasted Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2000, just to see how these wines develop. The answer is, beautifully. 2000 was a very warm year, and the wine, though very much alive, did show signs of the heat in its slightly elevated alcohol. But the key fact is that the wine was live and lithe and enjoyable, which a lot of 2000s aren’t, and it grew more pleasing as it opened in the glass. It loved Il Buco’s fried rabbit, a dish whose paradoxical delicacy and strength could challenge many another wine.

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tdb100x95vignaf.ai

Next up was Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 2011. Made entirely from Sangiovese grosso grapes, this wine originates on a soil rich in limestone in the vineyard that Signor Marzi regards as having the best exposure and microclimate on the estate. Harvested in the second week of October; 25-day maceration and fermentation on the skins; partly aged in French tonneaux and partly in Slavonian oak barrels. This wine seemed very young but already strikingly elegant. An excellent wine, with classic Sangiovese flavors, it has great structure: It needs and will take lots of time. At an SRP of $40, I think it’s a bargain for a wine of this degree of cellar-worthiness. It was probably the wine of the day for me.

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 1995 followed, to make clear just what the potential of this vineyard is. I’ve been lucky enough over recent months to have drunk a lot of 1995 Chianti Classico Riservas (which is technically what this wine is, the Gran Selezione category not having been in existence in 1995), and they have been uniformly wonderful: It was a great vintage, and it is maturing beautifully.This wine was easily one of the best I’ve tasted: a gorgeous tobacco/funghi/cherry nose, lively on the palate, with a similar medley of flavors supported by great acidity – no sign of tiredness at all. Simply a very, very fine Chianti Classico, showing, at 21 years of age, just what a choice vineyard can do.

 

bibbianacccio label

The final red wine of the day was Bibbianaccio 2011. This is an experimental blend, vinified from grapes drawn from all over the estate: 50% Sangiovese, 44% Colorino, and 6% Trebbiano and Malvasia. That’s correct: there are some white grapes in there, alongside that huge amount of Colorino. Fermentation took place in open barrels and included some of the woody stalks. After that, malolactic fermentation and 12 months’ aging in French oak tonneaux, then another 12 months in Slavonian oak botti, and finally 6 months in bottles before release.

I found this wine intriguing: Its fruit was complex, on both the nose and the palate – an improbable combination of berries and apples, tobacco and mushrooms, finishing long and leathery. It had perfect acidity to lighten the weight of all that Colorino. An interesting and different wine, which was all the more haunting because it was also familiar. Here Bibbanaccio is returning in several respects to what Chianti Classico used to be, when the old formula based on the 19th century Baron Ricasoli’s researches was the norm. That formula mandated some white grapes in the blend. Now they are forbidden, and wine using them cannot label itself Chianti Classico: How the world changes! But anyone nostalgic for what Chianti Classico at its best used to taste like will love this wine. I know I did.

 

 

Birthday and Burgundy

June 17, 2016

D-Day has saved me from many domestic embarrassments, because the day before it is Diane’s birthday and the day after it our anniversary, and because of it I’ve never been able to forget either. This year, even though none of that trio amounted to an intrinsically important number, we decided to make a big deal of our family occasions, with Diane cooking some special dishes and me digging out some special wines. And since we’d been lately on a pretty steady diet of Italian – indeed, mostly Tuscan – wines, I opted for something completely different, to switch countries and styles entirely: ergo, France, specifically Burgundy.

You can read about the meals in Diane’s blog: I’ll just say we ate very well indeed, and probably a bit too copiously, but it was an unmitigated pleasure. I want to talk about the wines, which matched wonderfully with Diane’s dishes and were wonderful in their own right. This is what we drank.

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Bollinger Champagne 2004

bollinger

We drank this on both birthday and anniversary, as apéritif with some tiny gougère puffs. That may show a lack of imagination, but those airy little cheese clouds tasted marvelous with that big, full-bodied, austere and elegant Champagne, so – especially since we knew there was much more wine ahead and didn’t want to finish the whole bottle of Bolly the first night – we just reprised the combination 48 hours later on our anniversary. I assure you, nothing hurt. This was a great vintage, and a perfect example of Bollinger’s reliable linking of power and grace.

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Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2004

clos des mouches

This accompanied sea scallops nantaise, a surprisingly rich dish that needed to be partnered with a white wine of the authority of Clos des Mouches. Drouhin’s Clos des Mouches has for decades been one of my favorite white Burgundies, and I think that even with all the respect it customarily receives, it is still underestimated. I would rank it right up in the top tier of white Burgundies, and this 12-year-old showed its breed beautifully with those succulent scallops. It was big, and smooth, and deep, round and complex, with layers of flavor showing themselves in successive waves of nuttiness and butteriness and dried pear. Once upon a time, I could afford to buy this wine by the case: Those days, alas, are long gone, but I have some glorious memories of them. We deliberately stopped ourselves from finishing the bottle, thinking ahead to the rest of this meal and to what Diane had planned for our anniversary dinner.

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Bouchard Beaune Clos des Mousses 1998

clos de la mousse

Bouchard has a monopole of this vineyard, the red-wine twin of Drouhin’s white. We matched it with a pheasant stewed with morels. This was just a glorious combination, cemented by the morels, which mediated between the earthy flavors of the wine and the near-gaminess of the pheasant. This is classic red Burgundy, just mature at 18 years, and showing all the complexity that Pinot noir at its best is capable of. This bottle we finished, with no trouble at all.

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San Felice Vinsanto del Chianti Classico 2006

vin santo

As a small concession to Italy, and also because we didn’t want anything as sweet as Sauternes with the rustic apricot tart Diane had made for dessert, we finished with this lovely not-quite-sweet-not-fully-dry Vin Santo. Vin Santo may be an acquired taste, because it doesn’t fall neatly into the dessert-wine category, but it served ideally here as a refreshing yet far from simple conclusion to our dinner.

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For our anniversary dinner, we repeated the Bollinger and gougère puffs as apéritif, and drank again the Drouhin Clos des Mouches, this time with plates of Bosole oysters on the half shell. Once again, the match was perfect, the mature white Burgundy playing beautifully off the briny sweetness of those small oysters – two of my favorite things. With our entrée, a handsome rib of beef, we drank this lovely red.

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru 2004

chambolle musigny

For me, Musigny is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or, where Pinot noir shows its greatest elegance and nuance. These are rarely big wines, but they are always fascinating, and this one was no exception. We finished it with a little goat cheese and a bit of Brie, and we were very happy that we had long ago committed matrimony.

Chianti Classico’s Gran Selezione

March 17, 2016

Almost three years ago, the Chianti Classico growers and producers created a new top classification for their wines. It’s called Gran Selezione, and until now I have maintained a studied silence about it. Some recent tastings that I’ve been doing, however, have persuaded me that I do have something to say about Gran Selezione, and, while it will hardly be news, I think it may be useful for Chianti fans and general consumers to read.

Gran-selezione

I have long been a partisan of Chianti Classico, extolling its many pleasures, sympathizing with its unending skirmishes with the satellite Chianti denominations that so often ride on its coattails, and appreciating the public relations campaigns that its producers have had to wage for decades as its regulations have time and again been revised. The road of Chianti Classico has not been smooth: Its evolution has been marked by successive waves of seeming modernizations, as the 19th century formula for the wine’s blend, devised by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, was gradually and repeatedly modified.

First came the reduction, then the elimination, of white grapes from the official DOC blend. Later, growers were given permission to make a Chianti Classico of nothing but Sangiovese, and still later, permission to use – at different times, different percentages of – “international varieties.” Somewhere in there the DOCG happened, as well as the introduction of regulations about Riserva status that were supposed to guarantee not only quality but also a certain consumer-reassuring consistency. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and Riserva became a very iffy category – at its best, splendid, but too often just the basic wine aged for an extra year. Now, on top of Riserva, we have Gran Selezione.

Chianti Classico’s heart is Sangiovese, and I love Sangiovese. I think it is one of Italy’s noblest red grapes. When Sangiovese vines are properly cared for on one of the Classico zone’s distinguished terroirs, I think they are capable of enological greatness. I just wish the Tuscans could stop tinkering with Sangiovese and let it be itself, without the intrusion of French grapes or French oak or “international” styling. For the uninitiated, in this context “international” style means a wine designed for what many Tuscans still wrongly perceive as “the American market.” This phantom they understand to be a single entity, thirsty for fruit bombs and with lots of oak sweetness disfiguring them even further. What damage such emphases have done to a wine as elegant in its nature as Chianti Classico I leave to your judgment, but you can easily guess that the “international style” wines are not the Chianti Classicos I love.

When I first heard about Gran Selezione, my initial reaction was “Oh no! Not again! Not another classification change that really won’t change anything but will leave consumers – American consumers, at least – further confused about what is in the bottle they might be interested in buying if they could figure out what it is.” Remember, I love the wine, I’ve been following it for years, I have great admiration for many Chianti Classico producers and nothing but good will for all of them – but my fear was this just might be the last straw for many consumers. So I decided to keep my mouth shut and wait and see.

I’m happy to say that what I have seen lately is encouraging. In the past, many of Chianti Classico’s most distinguished wines were cru wines. Even though that is not an official category, Chianti Classico labels often sport a cru designation – Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo, or Felsina’s Colonia, or Castello di Volpaia’s Coltassala, for example. When such truly top crus were vinified as Riservas they made extraordinary wines, deep and complex and capable of long aging, all the while preserving Chianti Classico’s characteristic elegance.

What I am seeing now is that wines like these are migrating to the Gran Selezione category, whose requirements go far beyond simple extra aging and include quality and typicity tests, as well as strict control of things like acidity and extract. This is right and just, and it is where top-flight wines like these belong.

pyramid

If the producers and the consorzio can maintain the quality level they have thus far established, Gran Selezione may finally give consumers the kind of confidence in the name Chianti Classico that they have until now hoped for. If they do that, Gran Selezione could be the most important of all the changes Chianti Classico has undergone. If, however, the producers and the Consorzio fail to maintain that level of quality, if Gran Selezione is allowed to become a promiscuous designation, then it could be the final nail in the coffin of consumer confidence in the Chianti Classico name.

Chianti Rufina … Villa Selvapiana … Riserva Bucerchiale … Glorious!

January 21, 2016

About a week back, I opened a bottle of a ten-year-old red wine, and I was immediately overwhelmed by how wonderful it smelled and tasted. You might not think that unusual, but for reasons I’ll explain below, my wine-and-food intake has been drastically curtailed through most of December and January, my palate hasn’t been all that stellar, and we’ve consequently been dining on­ — and drinking ­– fairly simple stuff. So this was for me a truly grand moment, an Aha! There Is Life After All! experience.

bucerchialeThe wine was of a kind and producer I’ve not paid enough attention to in this blog, a Chianti Rufina from the zone’s premier producer, Villa Selvapiana: its Riserva Bucerchiale 2006 (boo chair k’YAH lay), to be precise. From the first swirl of my glass, the scent enticed me: rich cherry-based fruits, with woodsy, underbrushy overtones that cut right through my pain-pill-and-antibiotic fog. And the taste! Pure velvet on the palate, with a whole congeries of black cherry/frutta del bosco/funghi porcini flavors, all supported by an elegant earthiness – not minerality, mind you, but real earthiness. It was just lovely. It was attention-grabbing. It was a wine for even me, in my debilitated state, to pay serious attention to.

All that is exactly what I had expected, why I had chosen the wine in the first place. I needed to be reminded of some of the joys of living, and I knew Bucerchiale – a wine reliable in its greatness – could do that.

Let’s get down to basics. Chianti Rufina is the smallest (750 hectares in vines) of all the Chianti denominations, and by far the most different from the others – so different that many people think it should simply be called Rufina and not linked to Chianti at all. I’ve visited the zone, and I can tell you it’s a very different world from the zones of the Classico and the other Chiantis. It lies northeast of Florence, not really contiguous with any part of the Classico, and it has a totally different geology and therefore a distinctive wine terroir.

No cypresses and bay bushes here: It’s higher, hillier, wilder, more rugged, with pine trees and mountain laurel as its characteristic vegetation. It’s very easy to get lost here (I speak from experience) as what you thought was a highway dwindles to a road to a track to an end. There are castles here, to be sure – this is still Tuscany – but they look a lot more businesslike than any in the Classico, as if they might not too long ago have been working propositions. The whole feel of Rufina is of another age.

What Rufina does share with the Chiantis, and with most of the rest of Tuscany, is Sangiovese, but Rufina’s Sangiovese differs widely from the Tuscan norm. It has an underlying base of earth and clay that grounds the wine foursquare, so that, as beautifully soprano as the fruit may get in its best vintages, it never lacks a complementary bass to round it. In my mind, this is a great, great terroir whose potential has not yet been fully exploited, save by a few producers, most notably the Frescobaldi, whose Castello di Nippozano is probably their best wine, and Villa Selvapiana.

Villa Selvapiana

Villa Selvapiana is an ancient property that has been in the hands of the Giuntini family since 1827. There are 58 hectares of vines, and many more of carefully tended olive trees, as well as a large tract of forest. The cru riserva Bucerchiale was born in 1979, under the watchful eye of consulting enologist Franco Bernabei, then a young man and now one of Tuscany’s pre-eminent consulting enologists, who still oversees the production of Villa Selvapiana’s wines.

Franco BernabeiI’ve visited Selvapiana a few times, and Bernabei has given me several verticals of Bucerchiale, so I can honestly say I know this wine well. It has vintage variations, to be sure – some years are lighter, some heavier, some with bigger fruit, others more earthy – but part of the greatness of Bucerchiale is its consistency, its recognizability from year to year, even as it ages and evolves. It starts out drinkable and just gets better and better, more and more interesting. I truly think it one of Italy’s finest red wines. I know I’m heaping on a lot of praise here, but for all the years I’ve loved this wine, to me it feels as if I am finally paying a debt I’ve owed for a long, long time.

*   *   *

Now for something completely different. I’ve been essentially out of commission for most of December and January because of a hip replacement that ran into some nasty complications, requiring a second surgery, hospital time, and a battery of painkillers and antibiotics that I seriously think could paralyze an ox. (Perhaps I flatter myself.) Anyhow, I am only now slowly returning to normal human functioning, and for some time yet I’m not going to be up to attending the wine events where I make many of the new discoveries that I tell you about here. Consequently, there will be longer than usual intervals between new posts on this blog, and I may have to outright take a few weeks off for R&R. So bear with me please: I promise you my usual irascible self will be back as soon as possible.

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4

 

What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

two books

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

A Modest Proposal for Chianti Classico

July 4, 2012

A few weeks back, the Chianti Classico Consorzio reported that its members had approved a new category for Chianti Classico, in addition to the existing ones, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva. This new, yet-to-be-named category will “exclusively denote the Chianti Classico wines made from grapes grown solely by the pertinent winery. So there will be no percentage of grapes grown by or wines made from other wineries.”

One possible response to that is “Huh? Why hasn’t that been a basic requirement of the denomination all along?” Another and far more serious one, I think, is “Oh no! Not one more name to deal with.” Chianti Classico is already not one thing but a collection, as the name of its annual new-release presentation – which I attend each year – implies – and that is probably the root of its market identity problem, which another new category and name can only intensify.

This year’s new-release presentation: The Chianti Classico Collection

To begin with, the soils and expositions of the Chianti Classico zone are extraordinarily varied. This would make the wines of different estates markedly different from each other, even if they were made from the same grapes in the same style – but they are not. Classico Chianti can range from 100% Sangiovese (from many quite various clones) down to 80%, and the remaining 20% can be from varieties as diverse as the native Canaiolo and Colorino to the international Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot.

Additionally, fermentation and aging can take place in everything from multi-hectoliter casks of unassertive Slavonian oak down through the whole range of sizes and woods to the extreme of French or American oak barriques – and those can be new or used (one, two, or three prior times), raw or toasted. Many, many of the 2006 Riserva Chianti Classicos that I tasted last February at the Chianti Classico Collection presentation, for instance, were marked by an assertive (too assertive for my palate) aroma and taste of toasted oak – espresso on the nose and char on the palate.

But that is by the way: The real point is that all these variations produce very different versions of the wine, so that the name Chianti Classico on the label actually tells you very little, unless you know the style of the individual producer – and with 350 of them bottling their own wine, that’s asking a lot from consumers.

Compound that big number by the fact that many of these producers make several versions of Chianti Classico – a normal bottling, a cru or a special selection, a riserva, maybe a cru or special selection riserva – and now maybe one more label, indicating that these are all their own grapes.

Then add to all that the fact that several other zones are entitled to call themselves Chianti (without the Classico of course, but already-dazed consumers don’t always notice that) – well, you’re left with a situation where many consumers will simply shrug off the whole scene and buy something else; or buy on price alone; and, if they’ve made a poor choice, conclude that Chianti just isn’t very good.

It’s a horror story for consumers and serious producers alike, and something drastic ought to be done about it – but not, I think, what the Consorzio has just done: its opposite, rather.

So here’s my not-so-very-modest-after-all proposal for clarifying the Chianti situation. It hasn’t got the chance of a snowball in hell of happening, but it’s the direction that I believe the Consorzio and its members ought to be pursuing for the sake of market clarity, consumer sanity, and – ultimately – producers’ profits.

Step 1: Restrict the use of the name Chianti only to what is now the Classico zone. All the other pseudo-Chiantis should be obliged to use their region’s name, as is pretty much normal elsewhere in Italy – so we would see wines clearly labeled Rosso dei Colli Fiorentini, or Rosso Senese, and not large-print CHIANTI with all the other information hidden in tiny typefaces. Even though I would suggest that these wines retain their present DOC or DOCG status, I’m sure this idea will be greeted with cries of pain and outrage from all the regions that surround the present Classico zone. Nevertheless, it would remove one large area of market confusion for all the wines.

Step 2: Within the reduced Chianti zone, the use of the name should be further restricted to estate-grown wines made with Sangiovese alone or Sangiovese blended with other native Tuscan varieties (e.g., Colorino or Canaiolo or Mammolo) to 20% maximum. All other blends should be categorized as IGT wines, along with all the other so-called Supertuscans. This suggestion will also certainly be greeted with cries of pain and outrage – this time from producers all over the present Classico zone – but it removes the other large area of market confusion.

Step 3: Because nostalgia (aka, often, respect for tradition) remains strong in producers and in consumers, create a DOC (as opposed the DOCG for the wine described in Step 2) for a wine that uses something like the old Ricasoli formula that not too long ago was normative for Chianti, which would permit (not require) the use of native white grapes in the blend. A nice example of this kind of wine is Casa Sola’s Pergliamici, now an IGT. Many people loved that old Chianti and would happily make it again and drink it if it were available. And hey! If blending white grapes with red is good enough for Côte Rôtie, it’s nothing to be ashamed of in Chianti. This wine could be called something easily distinguished, like Chianti Antico or Chianti dei Giorni Passati – all in large print, to be sure.

What I’m suggesting here is largely driven by a perception of the problems Chianti Classico faces in the American market. That is, after all, the one I know best. Significantly, however, the US is the largest single market for Chianti Classico wines – larger even than Italy, larger than Canada, Germany, and the UK combined. I make no claims to seer status – but just plain common sense tells me that ideas like these are worth exploring, if Italian producers want to keep recruiting more and more American consumers, and not frustrating them with compounded labeling confusions.

Soaring Sangiovese, Sort-of Breaking News

March 22, 2012

I spent a chilly late-February week in Tuscany, sipping and spitting an enormous amount of first-rate Sangiovese. The occasions were the annual presentation of new releases at the Chianti Classico Collection in Florence and the Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino. An odd week it was, with a swirl of news and rumor and a huge, highly varied battery of wines – some 430 in all – to be experienced. This post, I’ll focus on Chianti Classico and deal with Brunello in a later post. There’s no hurry: These wines are all new releases, and most of them won’t be arriving on these shores for some months yet.

In Florence, the featured wines were Chianti Classico of 2010 and 2009, plus riservas of 2009 and 2008 and a sprinkling of 2007s.

In both vintages, the regular bottlings – Chianti Classico DOCG, the normale – showed very well indeed, with excellent Sangiovese character. The ’09 seemed more structured and more fit for cellaring than the ’10, which impressed me less, even though readier and lighter, more suitable for present drinking.

Giovanni Manetti

However: Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, a producer whose wines and opinions I take seriously, advised me that 2010 is a very forceful, concentrated vintage and that only the lightest wines of that vintage have been released – his, for instance, are still in barrel. In confirmation of that, only half as many 2010s were offered as 2009s – so there is still a lot of that vintage to be released, and it may be very different in character from these earliest bottlings. That should not deter anyone from enjoying the ones now entering the market: they are thoroughly drinkable, very characteristic middle-weight Chianti.

Here are the wines that impressed me most (alphabetical order):

• Badia a Coltibuono Riserva 2008

• Casaloste 2009

• Castell’in Villa 2008

• Castello di Bossi 2009

• Castello di Bossi Riserva 2007

• Castello di Fonterutoli, Castello Fonterutoli 2008

• Castello di Verrazzano Riserva 2008

• Chianti Geografico, Contessa di Radda 2009

• Concadoro 2009

• Dievole, La Vendemmia 2009

• Fattoria di Lamole, Castello delle Stinche 2008

• Fattoria La Ripa 2009

• Fontodi 2009

• Fontodi, Vigna del Sorbo Riserva 2008

• Isole e Olena 2009

• Lamole di Lamole 2009

• Melini, Granaio 2009

• Poggiopiano 2009

• Principe Corsini Fattoria Le Corti, Le Corti 2009

• Rocca delle Maciè, Sant’Alfonso 2009

• Tenuta di Lilliano 2009

• Villa Cafaggio 2009

• Villa Cafaggio Riserva 2008

You will note that there are very few riservas listed. That is because many of the riservas really put me off with heavy oak influences that were largely absent from the normale bottlings. For my palate, that is totally negative: I want to taste Sangiovese, not new-oak vanilla or toasted-oak espresso, and there was just too much of both of those in evidence among the riservas of all vintages. To me, that makes the regular bottles of Chianti Classico much better buys.

Don’t assume, by the way, that just because they aren’t riserva they don’t have staying power: Many of those ‘09s have 10 or 15 years of life ahead of them. I judge that on the basis of years of tasting these kinds of wines as new releases and at every stage of their subsequent development. After enough years of that experience, you begin to discern what balance of fruit and mineral, acid and tannin and alcohol, will mesh sufficiently to sustain the wines at a (sometimes increasingly) pleasurable level for (at least roughly) how many years. It isn’t an exact science by any means – more like what Nero Wolfe used to tell Archie Goodwin to use: “intelligence guided by experience” – but it works more often than not.

And now for something completely different.

The news and rumor in Florence was all about Antinori. Officially, Antinori announced that, after having seceded from the Consorzio 35 years ago, it was now rejoining. Consorzio officials and Chianti producers were excited about this, viewing it as a confirmation of their efforts and an augmentation of their prestige. It probably will function so for the general public (if the general public notices at all), but those of us who have been tracking Tuscan wine view it a bit more skeptically.

My sense is that Antinori’s leadership position in Tuscany generally and in Chianti Classico particularly has been eroding for the past two decades. The firm’s too-frequent changes of labels and appellations have caused market confusion: Can anyone guess what kind of wine the white-label Marchesi Antinori, once an iconic Chianti Classico Riserva, now is?

And Piero Antinori’s now-dated opinions – for instance, about the role of Cabernet sauvignon in Tuscan wine, and about blending other grapes into Rosso di Montalcino – have pushed the Antinori firm to the point where it needs the Consorzio more than the Consorzio needs it. Maybe I’m just cynical, but cynicism isn’t always wrong.

Finally: as a confirmation of Giovanni Manetti’s description of the 2010 vintage, it was semi-officially announced (officially rumored?) that Antinori’s 2010 Tignanello would consist of 100% Sangiovese – no Cabernet at all. Piero Antinori was said to have said that the 2010 Sangiovese was so good that there was no need for Cabernet. If true, this would represent a total about-face in Antinori’s thinking: If my memory serves, he once pronounced such a thing impossible.

The Feast of St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna

January 1, 2012

St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna is the patron of naps, endings, the last days, and ruins, of which I am rapidly becoming one – the latter not merely a function of age and slow time but also the direct result of far too much holiday eating and drinking. Like a volunteer Strasbourg goose, I have been reporting regularly for some first-rate gavage – so here is a roundup of the best of that: my Twelve Wines of Christmas.

 * * *

As a preliminary, much bubbly found its way into my glass and thence into my gullet this season. I’ve already given my account of the Wine Media Guild’s Champagne luncheon. The New York Wine Press’s fête at the Brasserie was only slightly less spectacular. It featured rosé Champagnes – eleven of them, so they don’t count in my Christmas dozen – around a nicely balanced luncheon that concluded with a positively sinful dose of triform chocolate.

Rosé is the hottest category of Champagne these days – why, no one is quite sure, though Ed McCarthy opines that rosé makes an ideal dinner Champagne, because of its slightly fuller body and slightly greater complexity. Pinot noir always seems to make a difference, and its greater presence in rosé Champagnes could be the factor behind their current popularity.

All the wines tasted that day would rank as excellent on any scale, but my favorites all bunched up in the middle luncheon flight: two prestige Champagnes, 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque (approximately $300) and 2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (about $250), plus 2006 Louis Roederer, the youngest and least expensive wine of the flight ($75), and finally my favorite, 2002 Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve ($100), a great wine from a great Champagne vintage.

 * * *

The Twelve Wines of Christmas all came from my own so-called cellar, over multiple dinners for Diane and myself and family and friends. Inevitably, these included some more bubbles: my old reliable Pol Roger NV Brut, a consistently pleasing, medium-bodied, mineral-driven Champagne, and Roederer Estate, vinified by the French Grande Marque in California’s Anderson Valley, and for my palate the best and most persuasively Champagne-tasting of California sparkling wines. Pommery Brut NV made a fine aperitif, working equally well with some duck rillettes and with Diane’s version of Torino aperitivi.

For my palate, the red wines formed the pièce de résistance. Despite that piece of French, they were a varied lot: some French, many Italians, and even some Californians. The latter included my last (sob!) bottle of Ridge’s 1993 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, as lovely – and as European-styled – a wine as California produces. It gorgeously accompanied a rack of lamb and garlicky rissolé potatoes, as well as a subsequent cheese course, where it fell in love with a ripe pont l’éveque only to jilt it in favor of a creamy gorgonzola dolce. As you can see, this was a wine of many faces and facets, and I’m only sorry I don’t have any more. I said this very loudly several times, but Santa did not take the hint. Another win for St. Apoconarcoleptis.

One of the most enjoyable Italian reds was an almost archetypal Chianti Classico, 1997 La Selvanella Riserva from Melini. This is a very traditionally made wine from a fine vineyard near Panzano, in the Classico zone’s prized Conca d’Oro. It also has special resonances for me, in that I participated, way back in 1998, in the process of choosing the blend for this wine. This occurred at the estate, in a session led by the very able winemaker, Nunzio Capurso, and attended by Italian and North American wine journalists. Aside from the astounding quality of each component wine that we tasted, my major memory of the session is of an idiot from Rome loudly and persistently declaiming that the wine wouldn’t be any good unless it was aged in barriques. He couldn’t have been more wrong, then or now.

We enjoyed another fine wine of this type – i.e., primarily Sangiovese blended with other native grapes – Lungarotti’s 2001 Rubesco. Although from Umbria, this wine is a kissing cousin of Chianti Classico and fully matches the very best of them in suavity and depth: a lovely wine, from an equally lovely vintage.

Of course I could not long stay away from the wonderful wines of the Piedmont, so I took the opportunity to test a few Barolos of the 2003 vintage, a hot, forward year that, frankly, I feared might already be over the hill – some bottles I’d tasted over the past year were. Well, in these two cases, no worries: Both Conterno-Fantino’s Barolo Sorì Ginestra and Einaudi’s Barolo Costa Grimaldi were live and, in the most complimentary sense of the word, typical. The Sorì Ginestra showed the merest trace of the vintage’s too-ripe fruit and green tannins, the Costa Grimaldi none at all – a nice tribute to careful grape selection and restraint in the cellar.

Equally lovely, by the way, and much less expensive, was an in-theory lesser wine, a simple Nebbiolo, but from a fine maker in an excellent vintage. Poderi Colla’s 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba was fully ready to drink, with excellent Nebbiolo character (black fruit, leather, tobacco, miles of depth) and no sign that it might not last another five years. All “simple” Nebbiolo should be so good.

Our French selections played up very gamely as well. For me, Musigny is the red-wine sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Its wines have a velvetiness and an elegance of fruit and mineral that for my palate define red Burgundy. Drouhin’s 2002 Chambolle Musigny didn’t let me down: it was a soft, luxurious wine whose flavor persisted long in the mouth. More forceful and in a leaner style – mineral to the fore, fruit after – Moillard’s 2005 Beaune Premier Cru Grèves matched quite beautifully with our Pintadeau Jean Cocteau. The wine we drank with the cheese course that evening was in a very different style, being a Bordeaux. 1989 Chateau Brane Cantenac showed the wonderful elegance of Margaux combined with the kind of structure and heft I more often associate with Pauillac: It worked beautifully with a challenging set of cheeses.

* * *

Those are my top twelve, but I’ve also got a few Honorable Mentions. Amidst this red tide, we did manage to fit in a few lighter meals that leant themselves better to white wines. Pieropan’s 2005 Soave La Rocca shone with some shrimp. This single-vineyard wine has always been in the forefront of this too-long-abused appellation, and it remains a standard-bearer even now that the Soave Classico denomination is undergoing a tremendous resurgence. In a totally different style, but equally fine, Umani Ronchi’s 2002 Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi Classico Superiore offered a mouthful of wine almost as big as its name. Still at nine years old showing a light touch of barriques, its biggish body and rich fruit very nicely accompanied a creamy veal and mushroom stew. Both these wines showed very dramatically, for those who may still be skeptical, that well-made Italian whites can age very well indeed.

Finally, lest anyone think that my holidays were just one triumphant sip after another, honesty compels me to record my great disappointment. I had reserved a place for one potentially excellent white wine to serve alongside the oeufs en cocotte and Alsace onion tarts that were part of our Christmas dinner. I was really looking forward to Labouré-Roi’s 2003 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, so you can imagine the depth of my chagrin when my only bottle turned out to be totally oxidized – just plain dead.

There has been a great deal of buzz in wine circles about the problem of premature oxidation in white Burgundies. Apparently the vintages between 1996 and 2006 are involved, and the blight strikes randomly, at every quality level. Some bottles pour brown and dead, while others even from the same case remain sound. No one knows what causes it, and the producers are loath to talk about it – not only because it’s embarrassing to them, but also because (I strongly suspect) they don’t have a clue. So since St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna looks after ruins as well as endings, I’ll conclude on this note: There is nothing like white Burgundy at its best – but be warned: that bottle you’re so keenly anticipating might be pinin’ for the fjords, and might already have joined the Norwegian Blue in the choir invisible.

From that comic note to a serious one: May your 2012 be happy, and both your New Year and your old wines healthy and enjoyable!