Archive for the ‘Friuli’ Category

Wine in Venice: Not as Great as It Should Be

June 17, 2019

Granted, my expectations were probably too high. Granted, I was only in Venice for a week, and probably missed a lot of good shops and restaurants. And granted, there was an abundance of drinkable, enjoyable wine in most restaurants.

But – and this is a very big but – given what Venice has to draw upon from the land to supplement the treasures offered by its lagoon and the Adriatic, there should have been an abundance of great wine too. All the resources of the Veneto, Friuli, and Alto Adige lie at Venice’s doorstep, and those three regions contain dozens of fine white varieties and hundreds of great producers – most of which you will have to search pretty hard to find any trace of in Venice. It ought to be a capital of great white wines, and it’s not.

Not that Venice doesn’t drink white wine. Prosecco is ubiquitous, both as a wine in its own right and as a principal ingredient in La Serenissima’s beloved spritz, an aperitif of Prosecco, sparkling water, and a splash of Campari or Aperol. It’s almost compulsorily the first thing you’re offered when you enter a restaurant or sit down at a café. A spritz is cool and very refreshing and unquestionably charming, but in many of those cafés and restaurants, Prosecco may well be the best there is on the wine list.

Most lists are very short and not at all deep: maybe a Soave or a Lugana from the Veneto, maybe a Sauvignon or – rarely – a Friulano from Friuli, maybe a Chardonnay or Pinot blanc from Alto Adige. That’s about it. I don’t know why there isn’t more and better wine: Perhaps this is another sad result of Venice’s hyper-tourism, the consequence of a daily influx of hordes of once-only customers who neither know nor want any better. But it’s a sad situation for the serious wino, in a place where the seafood can be wonderful.

I’m not saying there is no good wine in Venice, just that you have to search hard to find it. Out in Burano, one of the smaller islands near Venice, the restaurant Venissa provided a lovely bottle of Pietracupa’s Fiano di Avellino, one of my favorite Campanian wines, which I was delighted to find so far off its own turf – and especially because it was one of the more reasonably priced wines on what was predominantly a very costly list.

And in Venice itself, at the fine Osteria da Fiori, which offered the best wine list I encountered in my week of seeking, Diane and I enjoyed a 2016 Vintage Tunina, Silvio Jermann’s masterly blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Picolit. Although very young, this wine was so fine that I was tempted to make this whole post an ode to it – but that would have conveyed a very false impression of Venice’s wine scene.

I can’t pass it over in silence, however. Vintage Tunina – a fantasy name, invented by the then-young Silvio Jermann back in 1975, when he produced his first bottles of it – is one of Italy’s greatest white wines. It was iconoclastic, back then: The norm in Friuli was monovarietal wines, which were held to be traditional. Jermann pointed out to anyone who would listen that that was a new tradition: His grandfather had told him that, before WWI, all Friulian wine was blended, usually a field mix. So he began experimenting, liked the results he obtained, and so persisted, for which we should all be grateful. Vintage Tunina and other of his “inventions” (e.g., W…Dreams…, Capo Martino) rapidly became stars, winning prizes and markets and drawing attention to Friuli’s great potential.

Back in 1996 (I think it was ’96), at the Salone del Gusto in Torino, Jermann conducted a vertical tasting of two decades of Vintage Tunina, back to the 1976 vintage – his second – thereby demonstrating another of Vintage Tunina’s excellences. It ages beautifully, growing deeper and more intense with increasing years. I remember the ’76 was transcendent, like velvet in texture, dry, mouth-filling, tasting richly of dried fruits and earth.

So, here in 2019 Diane and I were drinking with great pleasure the fortieth descendant of that 1976, and our only regret was that it wasn’t 20 years old. And maybe that we weren’t either.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines I

February 28, 2019

If you’re a committed wine lover and need your fix every day, it’s a great advantage to live in New York City. The variety of fine wine available is unmatched anywhere in the world, and shopping is a snap. Let it sleet and storm outside: You can sit at your desk – perhaps sipping a glass of wine – and let your search engine (Wine-Searcher is a good one) investigate for you. That’s especially handy if you know more or less the kind of wine you’re seeking.

Even handier is the search service provided by several of the larger retail shops in New York, which allows you to rummage through their entire inventory by any of several different criteria.
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I’m especially fond of one that Astor Wine and Spirits offers: searching by price range. That’s useful for any number of reasons, but I especially like that it offers me things I might not have thought of, wines outside my usual Italian and French go-to categories. We all get into ruts: This helps push me out of them. Twenty minutes of online browsing and I can put together a case of 12 different whites and another of 12 different reds at prices I like – say between $10 and $20 for everyday wines – and they will probably be delivered within 24 hours. For an aging wino, it doesn’t get much easier.
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Let me be clear: When I say everyday wines, I mean every day. Diane and I have wine with dinner every night. All right, maybe once or twice a year we have beer, but 99 times out of 100 we opt for wine – and like most people in this galaxy, we can’t afford to drink great wine every time. Not that I haven’t done my best to raise the level of our daily bottle by, for decades now, buying wines young and unready but at reasonable prices and squirreling them away for as long as I could.

Besides, it’s not just wine we care about: It’s also and especially what Italians call the abbinamento – coordinating the wine with the food it accompanies. That’s crucial to making an everyday dinner something to relish. You have to pay attention to the way the wine and the food mesh. Much as I love mature Barolo and Barbaresco, I don’t want to drink them with a dish of frankfurters and beans. It’s disproportionate – and besides, good franks and beans are estimable in their own right and deserve a decent wine that works well with them. Don’t send a Brunello to do what a Bardolino can do better, don’t open a Beaune Premier Cru where a Beaujolais Villages is what’s needed.

(Incidentally, the above examples illustrate the first principle I laid out centuries ago in The Right Wine, my book about wine and food matching: Scale is crucial. I feel even more strongly about the second principle declared in that book: Acidity is what makes a wine food-friendly. But that’s a topic for a different post. End of digression.)

Now, just what sort of everyday wines am I talking about? Well, here’s the case of white wines, all under $20, that I recently purchased, most of which I tasted first as an aperitif (we all need to keep up our strength while cooking) and then with dinner.

 

Alsace Auxerrois Leon Manbach 2017 – Very pleasant, light, but substantial enough to handle a choucroute. Nice white-flower and mineral nose, round, but with enough acidity to work with food. Quite decent.

Alvarinho Couto de Mazedo 2016 (Vinho Verde) – Very nice Albariño, crisp, fresh, aromatic: Good aperitif, fine with fish.

Alvarinho Regueiro 2016 (Vinho Verde) – quite fine: rounder and fuller than the preceding wine, more dinner wine than aperitif. Excellent with a roasted orata (sea bream).

Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc 2017 – excellent Beaujolais producer. Nice unwooded Chardonnay, with round fruit and great freshness. Very enjoyable.

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Classic Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet 2016 – This is a Muscadet producer I normally like very much, but this bottle was a bit of a disappointment. Drunk by itself, it tasted too much of oak. Food wiped that out to some extent, but it never rose to the level of crispness and sharpness I had hoped for.

De Cranne Bordeaux Sec 2016 – Should have been really interesting (the blend is 40% Sauvignon gris, 25% Muscadelle, and 35% Semillon), but turned out to be somewhat coarse and disappointing.

Gavi di Gavi Podere Merlina 2017 – Not a big, round Gavi, but a lighter-bodied, mineral-inflected example, with a marked and enjoyable citrus bite. Fine as aperitif and with lighter fare.

Meyer-Fonné Alsace Gentil 2016 – A lovely Alsace wine, so floral that the initial taste seemed German, but it rounded beautifully with a pheasant pâté and roasted chicken thighs.

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Ribolla Gialla Ronchi di Cialla 2017 (Friuli Colli Orientali) – quite fine and characteristic. Stood up beautifully to a choucroute garnie, and I don’t know how much more you can ask of a white wine.

Rioja Blanca Real Rubio 2017 – A bit disappointing: old-fashioned, slightly oxidized white, not unpleasant but with no charm.

Timorasso Colli del Timorasso Ricci 2014 – A lovely light Timorasso, soft-bodied but with sufficient acid; floral aroma and delicate palate of dry pear and apricot. Very enjoyable.

Weszeli Grüner Veltliner Langenlois 2017 – Very good and characteristic Grüner, with nice balance, body, and minerality. Partnered quite nicely with Chinese dumplings and home-made egg foo young. Bright, light on palate.

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I grant you that this is not an earthshakingly exotic list of wines: Had I wished, I could have cast a much wider net. But these are the kind of wines I like, so this time around I stuck with them. Others, of course are free to be as experimental as they wish: There were 88 other wines on the list I was choosing from. Have fun!

The Essential Guide to Italian Wine? Very Possibly

December 27, 2018

With its recently released 2019 edition, its fifth, Daniele Cernilli’s Essential Guide to Italian Wine has come of age. Published now in Italian, English, and German editions, well over 600 pages long (and well indexed), and reviewing 1,134 estates and 2,809 wines, the Essential Guide certainly covers the Italian wines that a North American consumer needs to know about – in fact, many more than are currently available in this hemisphere. But one can always hope.

Cernilli’s Guide is organized in the classic way, region by region, the producers listed alphabetically and awarded zero, one, two, or three stars based on their total production and track record; and selected individual wines scored on the now standard, to me infamous 100-point scale and their price range indicated – all useful information, handily presented.

For those who may not recognize his name, Daniele Cernilli is a central figure in the Italian wine world, a critic of major importance and great knowledge. He was one of the founders of Gambero Rosso and was deeply involved not only in its editing but also in the whole process of its evaluations, which by way of their one-, two-, and three-bicchieri awards became the most prestigious of all of Italy’s ranking systems.

When he and Gambero Rosso parted ways several years back, Cernilli reinvented himself as Doctor Wine and began creating his Essential Guide.

I shudder to think of the amount of work it took to bring it to its present condition, especially since Cernilli and his co-workers do not solicit samples or accept advertising from individual wineries. Instead they visit wineries, participate in regional and consorzio tastings, and even buy wines from the same sort of shops Italian consumers patronize. That last practice will send chills up the spines of wine magazine publishers on several continents.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Daniele Cernilli for at least two decades. Even fuller disclosure: We don’t always agree – in fact, we have sometimes been on opposite sides of a wine, a winery, or a wine style. But I don’t know anyone who knows the wines of Italy – all of Italy – in greater depth than he does, so I always take his evaluations seriously.

Here’s a representative example of both his knowledge and our occasional disagreements: The 2019 Guide’s White Wine of the Year award is shared by two wines:

  • Fiano di Avellino Stilèma 2015, Mastroberardino, Campania
  • Solo MM 15 2015, Vodopivec, Friuli Venezia Giulia.

Now, Fiano di Avellino is a justly esteemed grape variety, and Mastroberardino has long been one of its finest producers. Additionally, I happen to have tasted the Stilèma, and I agree totally with Cernilli’s judgment of its greatness. Here’s what he says of it in his entry:

Typical notes of flint, then fresh almond, wild herbs, elegant and extremely clear aromas. Agile and savory taste dominated by a magical freshness that gives elegance and drinkability to the wine. Smooth and long persistence. Great wine.

Stilèma is the first fruit of an experiment initiated by the late Antonio Mastroberardino to use materials derived from old and especially from pre-phylloxera vineyards (of which there are several in the Fiano zone) to back-engineer Fiano di Avellino to the sort of prime vines and field and cellar techniques that yielded the greatest wines of what we can call the “pre-industrial years” of Italian winemaking. As Antonio’s son Piero puts it:

We intend to evoke the style of vinification of the native vines of Irpinia (Greco, Fiano and Aglianico) as it took place between the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 70s of the twentieth century for Taurasi, and between the years 70 and 80 for the two noblest whites of Irpinia. It is, then, the style (or the Stilèma) of a family that interprets, over generations, the natural heritage of its territory, which makes it specific, as predestined to play a role in that land.

Noble purposes, and already producing noble results.

But what of Cernilli’s other choice for White Wine of the Year? Solo MM 15 2015 is a wine and Vodopivec a maker unknown to me. Cernilli describes winemaker Paolo Vodopivec as a meticulous and devoted craftsman, committed to the very localized traditions of the Friulian Carso and to experimentation with vinifying wines in amphorae. Of this wine, he says:

100% Vitovska grapes. Fermented in amphora for 6 months then aged in large casks. Unfiltered. Bright straw yellow color. Austere nose offering notes of sea breeze and aromatic herbs. The palate is expressive, briny and citrusy; powerful and fresh, vibrant, and with a unique personality. Wonderful wine.

That’s certainly detailed enough to prompt me to look for a bottle next time I’m in Italy, since I infer that it comes to this hemisphere only occasionally, in small quantities and at fairly high prices. A little research told me that Vitovska grapes are very localized within Friuli, had almost disappeared until rescued a decade or so ago by some devoted winemakers, and are now enjoying a small vogue in Italy. Worth a try? For sure. One of the year’s great white wines? Given my very uneven experiences with amphora-aged wines, I’d say that’s far less certain.

But the surprising (to me at least) award pairing gives evidence, if any is needed, of just how unconventional and eclectic Cernilli’s palate is, how plugged in to the Italian wine scene he is, and how informative and useful – indeed, what a simply interesting read – his Essential Guide is. You can count on one finger the number of annual wine guides I enjoy picking up and just browsing in: This is it.
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Since this will be my final post of 2018, there can be no better time to wish you all a very happy and a very vinous New Year – which I do, most heartily.  Cheers!

Kobrand’s Tour d’Italia

October 11, 2018

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.

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.

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

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

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

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From Basilicata

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

From Piedmont

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Sicily

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

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

From Tuscany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

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

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

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

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

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

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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 . . .

 

 

Another Name to Remember: Montcalm

October 8, 2015

Autumn weather and the autumn wine season have arrived, and a busy time it’s being. Among the flurry of events I’ve been attending, I particularly enjoyed the tasting offered by Montcalm Wine Importers, a smallish New York-based firm that, despite the vaguely French-sounding name, is building a significant portfolio of first-rate Italian wines.

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That, I found out, is not accidental, because Montcalm turns out to be the wine importing arm of Genagricola, which in turn is the agricultural arm – including, of course, viti- and viniculture – of one of the largest Italian insurance firms. Originally Montcalm seems to have been set up to distribute Genagricola’s own products here in the States, but it has grown well beyond that mission by acquiring some excellent small estates from all over Italy. One lovely fall afternoon in mid-September, I – along with several other wine journalists and a good many knowledgeable retailers and sommeliers – had the chance to taste through Montcalm’s line.

For sure, someone with an excellent palate is choosing its wines. Their range is pretty much geographically complete, from Sicily right up to Piemonte and the Veneto, with a fine roster of estates all along the trail. Some names will be very familiar to the US market – Poderi Colla, for instance, about which I posted just a while back. Some are not as well known here as they deserve to be: Cennatoio, for instance, is a first-rate Chianti Classico maker.

A good many of Genagricola’s own wines fall into the latter category. They come from properties all over Italy and each bears its own name, so you may well have already tasted some of these without realizing they were part of a larger enterprise. These include far too many wines for me to comment on in this post, but here are a few I found above-average interesting:

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Solonio Cesanese Lazio IGP Ponte Loreto
Cesanese is the Lazio region’s native red grape, and vintners there are finally starting to exploit its potential. Examples remain all too scarce here in the States.

Poggiobello Friuli Ribolla Gialla
Ribolla gialla is another variety that remains relatively rare here. It makes a substantial and distinctive dinner wine – definitely not a cocktail sipper.

Tenuta Sant’Anna Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso
I don’t want to give the impression that Genagricola specializes in only esoteric varieties, but the firm’s growers do make conscious efforts to preserve and propagate native varieties. Refosco is a Friulian native – one of the few native red varieties cultivated there – and another wine deserving of a much wider audience.
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Among the independent wineries that Montcalm imports, a few really stood out for me, so I’ll just briefly tally them here.

Sant’Agata
RucheA Piedmont estate, producing good Barbera d’Asti and the much less common Ruché, a red variety of potential distinction. I tasted both the 2013 Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato “Na’ Vota” and the 2010 “Pronobis.” Both were very fine, rich, and intense, characteristically smelling and tasting of chestnuts – excellent examples of yet another grape variety that deserves more attention.

Poderi Colla
A classic Alba-area estate, making all the zone’s classic wines: Dolcetto, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barbaresco, Barolo, and the superb blend of Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, “Bricco del Drago.”

Manzone
Another Piedmont estate, making pretty examples of Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, and Nebbiolo Langhe. The stars of its show are three Barolo crus: Bricat, Castelletto, and Gramolere.

Lunae
LunaeThis is a Ligurian winery that produces really lovely Vermentino, especially its Black Label. It also makes a very interesting and unusual red wine, Colli di Luni Rosso DOC “Niccoló V.” A blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot, and 15% of the local Pollera Nera, the 2010 I tasted drank all too easily and was just beginning to show what promises to be interesting complexity.

Cavalierino
A certified organic winery headquartered in Montepulciano. Its Rosso di Montepulciano was delightful, soft, with a deeply Sangiovese character. The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was an excellent example of the breed, elegant and pleasing.

Il Marroneto 
madonnaThis is a brilliant Brunello estate, which seems never to make a wine less than fine. All I tasted were even better than that – the 2011 Rosso di Montalcino, the 2009, 2010, and 2011 Brunellos, and most of all the infant but already intense 2011 Brunello di Montalcino “Madonna delle Grazie.”

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I didn’t get to taste everything that afternoon, and a few wineries that I missed I very much regret. Le Caniette, for instance, a Marche winery, makes whites from the indigenous (and reviving) grapes Passerina and Pecorino that I would have liked to have tasted. So too the Pecorino from the fine Abruzzo estate Illuminati, the red Negroamaro from the Puglia winery Apollonio, and the Etna red and white from the Sicilian Vivera. But you can’t – or at least I can’t – do everything. As the man says, Ars longa, vita brevis.

A New Generation of Fellugas to the Fore

December 26, 2014

Another generation of Fellugas is attracting attention in Friulian wine production. Marco Felluga has been famous for decades for the quality wines he has created at his two estates, Villa Russiz and Marco Felluga. Now, his grandchildren, Antonio and Caterina Zanon, and their mother, Patrizia Felluga, have established a new winery in Collio. It is called Zuani. That is the ancient place name of the 30-acre hillside vineyard in Giasbana, in the heart of the Collio zone, where this latest generation of Fellugas has set up shop.

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Family

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Patrizia learned winemaking at her father’s knee, and she has passed that family lore on to her children, both of whom remember growing up in the Felluga vineyards. For all practical purposes, winemaking is embedded in their DNA, so this new venture is hardly a surprise. What may be a bit of a surprise is their choice to treat their horseshoe-shaped hillside site as a single cru, and to produce from it only one wine, a DOC Collio Bianco that blends – in more or less equal parts, depending on the harvest – Friulano, Pinot grigio, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc.

Collio, of course, excels in white wine production, consistently turning out many of Italy’s absolutely top-flight whites. For decades after World War II, the vast majority of those wines were monovarietal – Friulano, Pinot grigio, Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the region’s lovely, endangered Picolit. Just about 30 years ago, some bolder spirits began experimenting with an older tradition, a pre-World War I tradition, of blending varieties. What followed was a succession of truly great wines – Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, Livio Felluga’s Terre Alte, Marco Felluga’s Molamatta and Col Disôre. Few, if any, of those wines are field blends. Rather, their grapes are selected from different sites and meet for the first time in the cellar. So, while it is clear where the notion of a Friulian blended wine comes from, what seems unusual about Zuani is that it is a single-site wine.

What lies behind that choice seems to be a quirk of Friulian, or more specifically, Collian geography. Open-ended U- or horseshoe-shaped valleys, locally called ronchi, are a fairly common feature of the terrain in this part of northeastern Italy.

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Collio map

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The Zuani hillside seems to be one of the more compact ones, but it has the same advantage as larger ones: The inward-facing slopes of its U afford a whole range of different exposures, all within the protected confines of the valley. The soils throughout the hillsides are what Friulians call ponca, a mix of marl and sandstone. For viniculture, that’s a great combination: Different varieties, with different requirements of sunlight and maturation, can be accommodated at different sites around the valley, all enjoying the same soils and general growing conditions. Ergo, a ready-made cru site for a blended wine: nature cooperating with wine making – or winemakers taking clever advantage of what nature offers. Antonio, the winemaker, says that this allows them “to express the character of this place” rather than the character of the varieties.

I said above that Zuani makes only one wine. That’s not entirely correct: Patrizia and her offspring make one blend but in two versions: Zuani Vigne and Zuani Zuani – the latter in essence a riserva. In both cases, each grape variety is harvested separately and kept separate and cold-macerated before fermentation. The Zuani Vigne grapes are fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel and never see any wood. The Zuani Zuani grapes are harvested about two weeks later than the Vigne grapes and are aged on their lees in small French barrels, resulting in a fuller wine of very different style from Zuani Vigne.

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zuani wines

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I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to taste an intriguing small vertical of both styles.

Zuani Vigne 2013:  Nice mineral nose and nice acidity on the palate. White fruit showing up front – apples and pears – and also in the finish, along with slate/mineral notes. Very enjoyable already. Antonio says this is the best harvest of the last ten years.

Zuani Vigne 2012:  A warm vintage and an early harvest. Very ripe-apple nose. Fat and round on the palate, with less acid than the preceding wine, and stronger fruit presence. Slightly leathery finish.

Zuani Vigne 2011:  A very elegant aroma, counterpoising earth and fruit. On the palate, lovely balance and the beginnings of complexity. A very long apple/mineral finish. This was a lovely wine, and my unequivocal favorite of the tasting.

Zuani Vigne 2010:  The harvest conditions were similar to 2013, Antonio says. The wine is nicely evolving into complexity and elegance, but it needs a little more time: Right now it’s at a slightly awkward in-between stage. All these wines have fine structure and should last quite well: I wouldn’t hesitate to cellar any of them for a while.

Zuani Riserva 2012:  Very deep, ripe-fruit nose, an almost Alsace-Pinot-gris quality to its intensity. On the palate, the wine is round and fat, with lots of mineral notes and ripe-berry-ish fruits. Antonio grins broadly as he calls it “our red wine.”  It does not taste markedly of oak. This is a very interesting wine, especially for a not-great vintage.

Zuani Riserva 2011:  This wine has a much more mature aroma than the ’12, with less Pinot gris quality and more balance. The palate is slightly closed now but already shows balance and complexity. A very intriguing wine, with a long, pleasing finish.

Generally speaking, I preferred the Zuani Vigne wines to the Zuani Riserva (or Zuani Zuani: the family really must make up its mind how it’s going to label them). I like the clean taste of the fruit and the soil, un-adjusted by oak. Even when the taste of oak isn’t obvious, it still alters the wine. Those who like that shift will love the Riservas; those who don’t will definitely prefer the Zuani Vigne.

Properly Cellared For Long Life: Livio Felluga

November 14, 2014
livio  felluga

Livio Felluga in 2003

Since I’m one of the last berries on the grapevine, I’m only now catching up with the fact that, back in September, Livio Felluga, a pioneer of quality Friulian wine, celebrated his 100th birthday, an accomplishment he attributed to regularly consuming fine wine. Who am I to disagree?  I hope he’s right, since I’m doing my best to follow his example – in consumption, that is, not in production.

I first met Signor Felluga more years ago than I care to accurately count, when he was just a young pup of 60-something and I was a fledgling wine journalist, writing for the still-lamented (it folded owing me money) Attenzione. I’m pretty sure that my article about Felluga and Friulian wines was among the ones I never got paid for. Such is life: I long ago decided that coming to know these wines was payment enough.

Meeting Livio Felluga was an important and, as it turned out, a delightful event for me. I was travelling with a few other wine journalists, all of us on our first visit to Friuli, and we could have hoped for no better introduction to the zone and its wines than a day with Signor Felluga. He was already back then a fount of information about the soils and districts and grape varieties of Friuli. Tasting with him through his line of wines – he worked with all the important white varieties and even, if I remember correctly, a few reds – amounted to a graduate seminar in Friulian wine, and we were all eager students.

Later, sitting around the fire in the traditional fogolar and drinking those wines while he grilled sausages and veal chops, we also discovered that had he not chosen to be a winemaker, he probably could have been a successful stand-up comedian. I have never heard anybody tell a seemingly endless succession of carabinieri jokes as well as Livio Felluga. A belated Cent’ anni di piu, to you, Signor Felluga!

Nowadays, of course, younger members of the Felluga clan are running the vineyards and winery. But the quality of the wines and the intensity of the family’s devotion to Friuli’s patrimony seem not to have wavered in the slightest. Just last week I tasted a small selection of Felluga’s new releases, and they conformed in every respect – quality, varietal typicity, balance, and elegance – to the high standards the senior Felluga established decades ago.

felluga wines

Pinot Grigio 2013
Medium-bodied, smooth and round, with marked floral and mineral scents and flavors. Long finishing. Elegant and, by the standards of the mass of contemporary Pinot grigios, quite substantial. In short, a real wine.

Friulano 2013
Almond and mineral nose; medium body. Lovely balance of acid and fruit, with a long dry finish. This is the wine we used to know as Tocai. In Friuli, it is a wine of all uses and is particularly popular with the salty sweetness of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Often drunk here in the States as an aperitif, for my palate it’s far better as a dinner wine, where it really shines alongside preparations of fowl, veal, or pork, and even savory dishes such as Szekely Goulash, – to which I can testify because that’s what I just drank it with. For years, Livio Felluga’s Friulano has been an informal benchmark for the breed.

Terre Alte 2011
This is Felluga’s chef d’oeuvre, a masterly blend of (usually and approximately) one-third each of Friulano, Pinot bianco, and Sauvignon. The Pinot and Sauvignon are fermented and aged in stainless steel, the Friulano in small French oak. This is one of Italy’s great white wines and is always better for at least a few years of aging. In the best vintages, it rewards much more. The 2011 is very young and still tastes a bit closed, but it already shows the substantial body, elegance and balance that earned it Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli, among numerous other awards. This 2011 Terre Alte may not live as long as Livio has, but it surely has a lot time before it. A great wine.

A Miscellany of White Wines

February 28, 2014

The shad have started running, one of the earliest signs that maybe this winter really will eventually end. And our neighborhood Citarella has been stocking beautifully fresh John Dory (Saint Pierre or San Pietro to those of you who speak Mediterranean, along the shores of which sea we first tasted it). It’s one of tastiest fish around, and between it and the shad, Diane and I have been hitting the white wines hard.

Both shad and John Dory are fish that are so rich and flavorful that we tend to cook them very simply, the former broiled because shad is very oily, the latter lightly floured and sautéed in butter or olive oil. With either fish, we want a wine to complement its intensity, not compete with it – so no big-bodied assertive wines, but rather medium- to light-bodied whites with plenty of minerality and acidity: ideally, a wine that could serve as aperitif or appetizer companion and segue gracefully into its place alongside the entrée.

Happily, there are many such, both French and Italian. Some of my French favorites I will treat in a later post. Right now, I want to focus on a handful of Italian producers whose wines have been giving us a lot of pleasure lately.

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Poggiobello

Poggiobello

This is a large estate – it has grown to 90 hectares under vines – owned by Genagricola, which as the name implies is a corporate entity. There are several such that in Italy have entered the wine world, and – to the surprise of most of us who are suspicious of big corporations playing in what we think of as an artisan’s field – most of them do a very nice job. They have the deep pockets to acquire good sites and good people and to do the things necessary to attain quality.

In the case of Poggiobello, this involved not just the acquisition of land, though that was important: Poggiobello’s vineyards lie in and near Rosazzo in the Colli Orientali del Friuli, one of the best zones for Friulian wines. Beyond that, Genagricola invested heavily in terracing, canalization, and drainage – large expenditures and generally unaesthetic projects that make a huge difference to wine production.

Poggiobello makes the whole line of Friulian wines, including some, like Sauvignon and Merlot, that would elsewhere be classified as international varieties but that have been cultivated here for centuries. My favorites are the whites, especially Ribolla Gialla, a wine that doesn’t get enough attention and that pleases my palate immensely: It marries particularly well with firm-fleshed, distinctive fish like John Dory. My other favorites include Friulano, which used to be called Tocai – despite the changed name its pleasing, almondy character remains intact – and Pinot bianco, a variety that seems to make interesting wine wherever it’s planted.

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Peter Zemmer

Peter Zemmer vineyards

This is a family-owned winery in the southernmost part of the province of Alto Adige, near the tiny, mostly German-speaking town of Cortina. This is a beautiful stretch of country, with fruit orchards lining the bottom lands alongside the Adige river and vineyards stretching up the slopes that frame the lush valley. Despite being so far north in Italy, the climate is more Mediterranean than continental, and a tremendous variety of grapes grow well here at different altitudes and on different soils. The latter differ quite sharply from one side of the river to the other and as you move up slope from the valley floor.

All that good fish my good wife has been preparing gave me an ideal chance to catch up with some of Zemmer’s latest vintages (I’ve written about his wine before, here). The new releases quite easily live up to the fine impression that earlier ones made. I particularly liked both the 2012 Pinot bianco, which showed excellent varietal character, and the very interesting blend called Cortinie Bianco (2010). The latter is composed of Chardonnay, Pinot grigio, Sauvignon, and Gewurztraminer. Two-thirds of the grapes are fermented in stainless steel, one-third in barriques, which conveyed no perceptible oak flavor to the wine but did give it a lovely roundness and some depth. Very pleasing wines, both.

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Cusumano

Cusumano vineyards

This winery, with vineyards in several parts of northwest Sicily, is quite a large and committedly Sicilian firm. It has a deep faith in the native Sicilian Insolia (white) and Nero d’Avola (red) grapes, but it also cultivates Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, which it vinifies as 100% varietal wines and also blends with indigenous Sicilian grapes.

Minor point: I’ve always seen the native white grape spelled with a Z – Inzolia – but Cusumano spells it with an S. Who am I to argue? The major point is that the 2012 Insolia that I drank with shad was lovely: nice varietal character – white fruits, a little peachy, with excellent minerality – and good medium body to match with but neither conquer nor surrender to the shad. Purist that I am, I prefer this 100% Insolia to Cusumano’s 2012 Angimbé, a 70/30 blend of Insolia and Chardonnay. This probably more because I am totally bored with non-Burgundian Chardonnay than because of anything wrong with the wine – which was emphatically not the case. Angimbé is a well-done blend, mixing the minerality of the Insolia and the tropical fruit character of warm-climate Chardonnay. I just preferred the distinctiveness of the native grape in purezza, as the telling Italian phrase has it.

So there you have it: a run of shad, a run of white wines, and the prospect of a few more of both as spring gradually (hurry, please!) moves north.

Ribolla Gialla: An Unusual Grape Found in an Unexpected Place

August 5, 2013

During a short, purely escapist trip to California’s central coast, Diane and I enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner at Passionfish, in Pacific Grove, just outside of Monterey. Fine as the food was, the wine list was even better, a real departure from the almost standardized California list of Chardonnay-Merlot-Cabernet-Pinot noir. Passionfish has those wines, of course, but it focuses on the 7% of California wines that aren’t made from those grapes, and on wines that reflect a more European – i.e., food-friendly – style. It offers a very nice selection of French and Italian wines as well, and it prices all its wines at a reasonable 50-80% above cost, compared to the 200-300% (and sometimes more!) that has become the customary markup almost everywhere else. For all of which, I say Hooray!

Being there for only one meal, and having to drive some unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar rental car after dinner, we weren’t able to do any in-depth sampling of the list. But one section really caught my eye: “Orange Wine,” it was headed, and it didn’t mean wines made from oranges.

orange wine list

ribolla-406-1-1That’s where I spotted Ryme Cellars’ version of Ribolla Gialla, a grape I know well from Friuli. There it makes a very pleasant, light-to-medium-bodied white wine that works nicely with most relatively simple foods. In Friuli it’s usually made in a bright, acid style, but the description in Passionfish’s wine list showed clearly that this California version was vinified very differently for a markedly different effect, for a roundness and fullness that promised to match well with Diane’s king salmon and my sturgeon. It did indeed, and that prompted some basic research.

Ryme Cellars sourced the grapes for the 2010 Ribolla Gialla that we drank from the Vare Vineyard in Napa. As Ryme’s website explains,

We traveled a long way to find this vineyard. Our fascination with Ribolla Gialla took us to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy. Visiting one of our favorite producers, Sasha Radikon told us that there was one guy in the US with Ribolla planted. George Vare has about 2.5 acres planted at the base of Mount Veeder in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. We contacted George and were lucky enough to score a single ton from his now coveted vineyard.

Clearly, this is no big commercial project but a labor of love. Ryme Cellars – from the names of the owner/winemakers, RYan and MEgan Glaab – specializes in off-beat-for-California grapes: at present, Ribolla Gialla, two versions of Vermentino, and Aglianico. Why?

Most of our wines are made from Italian varieties simply because of the great diversity and unique character of the wines of that culture. . . . We love wines with distinctive character. They should taste great on their own, but really shine alongside good food. We love wines with ample tannin and acidity, especially if they are expected to age. We always value a great wine’s idiosyncrasies over a polished supple sameness that is so common in the wine world.

More specifically, as Ryan Glaab told me by email, he had his eyes opened by bottles of Ribolla Gialla from Gravner and Radikon at a dinner party back in 2006. “It was the most challenging, surprising, and deeply pleasurable wine experience I have had,” Ryan says. “And these wines vastly overshadowed all the grand cru Burgundy and Côte Rôtie we had that night. I knew then that I wanted to seriously pursue skin-fermented white wines. My wife and I love many orange wines, and we also make a Vermentino, but I think Ribolla Gialla is the noblest of orange wines. I sometimes think of it as the Nebbiolo of white grapes. It demands patience. It has a quiet nature and a powerful structure. There are not many grapes like it. We only make about 50 cases each year. We are very lucky to have access to the small vineyard. In the near future I hope to plant more elsewhere.”

I very much respect passion and commitment like that, and I think happening upon it anywhere is a cause for celebration. Clearly, these are two people I would like to meet, and whose kind I would like to find more of in the wine world. I hope they have a huge success without having to compromise the kinds of things they’re doing now, because what they’re doing now is very simple and very special:

The wines are produced according to simple methods. The wines are always encouraged, never controlled. We use no cultured yeast, no temperature control, no enzymes or other adulterants. We do not fine or filter. The wines are raised in used French oak barriques between 2 and 10 years old. Many of the reds are fermented on the stems. Many of the whites are fermented on the skins.

The 2010 Ribolla was all destemmed and fermented inside 2 old oak puncheons. The cap was manipulated lightly a few times throughout the fermentation. The puncheons were then sealed and the wine saw a total of about one month maceration. It was then pressed and spent two years in barrel and 9 months in bottle.

???????????????????????????????The result of that was a light-orange-colored wine with a smooth, almost waxy mouth-feel, chalky/floral aromas and a range of floral and mineral flavors that recalled without replicating Friuli Ribolla – a sort of Ribolla Plus, if you will. It made a thoroughly enjoyable drink on its own and an even better one with our two very different fish dishes. Had we been walking home, we probably would have had a second bottle, and I can’t give a wine a higher compliment than that. This wasn’t the kind of wine I expected to find on the central coast – or anywhere in California, for that matter – but I’m very happy about the serendipitous encounter. I can only hope that California continues to produce more such individualist winemakers as Ryan and Megan to make more such intriguing wines.