Archive for the ‘Marche’ 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.

.

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

.

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

.
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

.

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 . . .

 

 

Velenosi: Wines of Le Marche

October 3, 2016

angela-velenosiA few days ago, I enjoyed a delightful lunch with Angela Velenosi at Del Posto, an oasis of fine food and blessed quiet in the thunder of New York’s restaurant scene. Signora Velenosi owns the second largest family-run winery in Le Marche, a region to which wise winos should pay a lot more attention, for the variety and the quality of its wines and for the significant fact that the great majority of them are very reasonably priced.

If you’re unfamiliar with Italian geography and Italian regions, Le Marche lies on the Adriatic (eastern) coast of central Italy, bordered from north to south by Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, and Abruzzi. Its name derives from that fact: It means the marches, i.e., the borderlands. Le Marche epitomizes the geography of Italy: Its western border is all mountains – the spine of the Apennines – and its eastern all beaches. Locals like to say that you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, with, depending on your taste, a bracing mountain lunch or a light seafood repast in between. Clearly, Le Marche is a region that needs wines for every occasion.

The Velenosi winery seeks to respond to all those needs. The 32-year-old firm makes more than 20 wines, working primarily with the traditional grapes of the region. That means primarily Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Sangiovese for the reds, and Verdicchio, Pecorino, and Passerina for the whites, all vinified in a variety of ways.

We tasted eight of them at lunch, and they all showed a very high level of winemaking, as well as admirable varietal character.

three-whites

We started with Passerina Brut, a non-vintage charmat-method sparkler. Passerina is the name of the grape that constitutes 100% of this wine, a native variety that had almost been lost until a few enterprising producers undertook its resurrection about 20 years ago. It makes a lovely aperitif, light and refreshing, with a dried-lemon-rind nose and a palate of lemon peel and minerals.

We went on to a 2015 Querciantica Verdicchio DOC. This is another indigenous Marche variety, unquestionably the most important white grape of the region. Verdicchio seems destined for greatness – if it can ever grab the attention of wine drinkers outside the Marche. Think of the minerality of Chablis understrapped by a really bracing Italian acidity, and you’re getting close to a well-made Verdicchio. This young Verdicchio, from the Castelli di Jesi DOC zone, was well made indeed, with the classic bracing minerality. I stress its youth, because among Verdicchio’s many virtues is an ability to age and mature. Riserva bottlings especially can easily please after a decade, and the best vintages can go longer still.

For our third wine, we tasted yet another Marche specialty variety, a 2015 Villa Angela Pecorino, an Offida DOCG. Where the grape name comes from is something of a mystery: Pecorino means sheep in Italian, but there is nothing in any sense sheepish about this grape or the wine it yields. This fine example was intense and concentrated, with a complex palate that tasted of salt and mineral and grapefruit peel – very, very intriguing.

Then we switched over to reds, but we didn’t abandon indigenous varieties.

three-reds

Our first red was 2015 Querciantica Lacrima di Morra DOC. The grape is so called because its skins are so tender that just touching them can produce a small drop of juice – its tear (lacrima). This is a light-bodied red wine, often drunk in the Marche with antipasti or light lunches. This bottle showed the characteristic black cherry nose and palate, very fresh and appealing. You could happily drink lots of this, ever so lightly chilled, on a warm afternoon.

Next came 2014 Brecciarolo, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC. Rosso Piceno is the traditional red wine blend of the Marche, 70% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and 30% Sangiovese. Note that – despite the name – Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo has nothing to do with the Tuscan town Montepulciano. It is its own variety, long cultivated in the Marche: How it got its confusing name nobody knows for sure. Wherever the grape’s name comes from, Brecciarolo is a fine wine, with the Sangiovese bracing the softness of the Montepulciano, and the two harmonizing into a pleasing, almost elegant red wine for all occasions.

Then Signora Velenosi poured 2011 Roggio del Filare, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC, which raised the stakes. The blend is the same as Brecciarolo, but the harvest comes from super-ripe grapes on 50-year-old vines. They are given a long maceration on the skins to yield a deeply colored, intense wine of very great elegance. This 2011 already showed maturing, earthy/mushroomy notes on the nose, and the palate followed suit. Still lively and beautifully structured, this seems a wine that will deepen and improve for some years yet.

As you can tell, this was a wet lunch: We still had two red wines to go.

last-2

The one next up changed tack completely. A 2012 Ludi – the word means games – an Offida DOCG. It was vinified from 50% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 30% of the very non-indigenous Cabernet sauvignon, and 20% of the equally non-native Merlot. My regular readers will know I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but this wine may make me re-think my absolutism. It was excellent – very fine and elegant, with lovely fruit and soft tannins. It didn’t taste at all international: Rather it had a distinctive Italian accent. The Montepulciano and the Merlot (which does grow well in central Italy, I have to admit) definitely tamed the asperities of the usually aggressive Cabernet and folded it into a harmonious blend.

For our final wine, we reverted to Le Marche tradition: Visciole, a non-vintage red dessert wine made from 80% Lacrima di Morra and 20% fresh-squeezed syrup of wild cherries (visciole). The fully fermented Lacrima gets the infusion of visciole syrup, which causes a second fermentation that raises the alcohol to 14 degrees or above and intensifies the fruit sweetness of the wine. I’m not a big fan of dessert wines, but this is a lovely one, with that wonderful fruit stealing all the attention from the alcohol.

As this luncheon tasting clearly demonstrated, there is a lot to interest serious wine lovers in Le Marche: great native grapes, interesting experimentation and an extremely high level of winemaking, of which Velenosi is a fine example. For anyone seriously interested in wine – or indeed, for anyone simply looking for enjoyable wines at decent prices – Le Marche is well worth a look and a taste. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Verdicchio: A Seriously Underesteemed Wine

June 17, 2015

Not a name that’s likely to set bells pealing in a wino’s brain, for sure, Verdicchio nevertheless deserves to be more highly valued than a good many other white wines of whatever origin. I’m not alone in thinking that Verdicchio ranks among Italy’s noblest white varieties.

verdicchioVerdicchio – the name of both the grape and the appellation – flourishes in the Marches, a region on Italy’s Adriatic coast bordered on the north by Emilia, on the south by Abruzzo, and on the west by Umbria. The grape is pretty much a Marches specialty: not much cultivated elsewhere, which may account for its lack of a larger reputation. That’s a real loss, because Verdicchio yields not only a very enjoyable everyday dinner wine but also a first-class, long-aging white of great subtlety and distinction.

According to Jancis Robinson’s authoritative book, Wine Grapes, Verdicchio probably originated in the Veneto but made its way into the Marches by the later Middle Ages. Recent studies have shown that it is the same as the variety now known in the Veneto as Trebbiano di Soave, which growers there prize as a component of the best Soave Classico – some indeed esteeming it above Garganega.

In the Marches, it appears in two distinct appellations, Verdicchio di Castelli di Iesi and Verdicchio Matelica, the former and larger zone more coastal, and the smaller Matelica zone more inland, near the border with Umbria. Both zones turn out a lot of simple, everyday Verdicchio, and both also produce much more important examples of delicious, structured dinner wines, with special reserve bottlings capable of impressive bottle age.

fazi bThe simple, everyday Verdicchio was once upon a time enormously popular in the US, at least on the east coast. Fazi-Battaglia’s version, packaged in a distinctive fish-shaped bottle (now only a stylized version of the original), was practically ubiquitous in Italian restaurants and made an unfailingly reliable accompaniment to seafood of all sorts – especially fried calamari. I still have fond memories of that enjoyable and inexpensive wine, as I do of those enjoyable and inexpensive restaurants. But as Heraclitus observed, panta rei – all things flow, and you can never step in the same river twice.

Nowadays, most Verdicchio that we see here is made to be more serious, which is really a great gain, no matter what I feel about the loss of the simpler wine. Contemporary Verdicchio belongs in the ranks of superior dinner wines, wines that bring not just citric or tropical fruit freshness to the table but also a complex minerality, round body, depth, and persistence. These are estimable wines, and they companion well with white meats and the best fish dishes. John Dory and sole, trout and sea trout, lobster and crab – all would shine alongside a good Verdicchio.

villa bucciFortunately, good ones abound. I recently enjoyed my last bottle of Villa Bucci Riserva 2007, which was a stunningly fine wine, reminiscent of top-quality white Burgundy in its structure and roundness, but unmistakably Italian in its racy acidity and distinctive slateyness. Bucci stands, in my estimation, at the top of the mountain in Verdicchio, and also has the distinction of being among the few wineries that still use the talents of the eccentric enologist Giorgio Grai, once a name to be conjured with in Italian wine circles.

But many other firms produce top-flight basic Verdicchio and Verdicchio Riserva: Fazi-Battaglia still ranks among the zone’s leaders, with its basic Titulus and its cru Le Moie. Equally highly reputed is Umani Ronchi, whose Riserva Casal di Serra is always among the Marches’s finest, long-aging Verdicchios. Garofoli makes a fine basic Verdicchio, Macrina, and several cru and riserva bottlings. Moncaro (a fine co-op very much in demand throughout Europe, but currently – and lamentably – lacking an importer in the US) produces the basic Le Vele and the distinguished Riserva Vigna Novali. These are all Castelli di Iesi wineries; the best Verdicchios of the smaller Matelica zone are the fine examples from La Monacesca.

What else can I add? If you already know Verdicchio well, this has been yesterday’s news for you – but if you don’t, you owe it to yourself to try some right away, especially now that warm weather and lighter meals are here, and preferably an older Riserva, so you can see right off the potential of this intriguing variety.

Umani Ronchi: The Marches March On

September 22, 2012

The restaurant Del Posto is so far on the West Side that it’s practically in the Hudson River, but it’s one of the better places in Manhattan to taste wine, I thought, as I seated myself behind an impressive array of glasses and listened to Mario Belardino, President of Bedford Imports and for decades the US importer of Umani Ronchi wines, introduce the winery’s third-generation owner, Michele Bernetti.

Mario Belardino at the tasting

.

The occasion was a luncheon to mark Michele’s visit to the US and to introduce Umani Ronchi’s new releases, including the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore Vecchie Vigne 2009 – Vecchie Vigne for short – which had the enviable distinction this year of being designated not just Tre Bicchieri – honor enough for a white wine from the central Italy’s Adriatic coast – but also being named White Wine of the Year by Gambero Rosso.

Such a huge award – there is an abundance of prestigious white wines in Italy, after all – will no doubt come as a surprise to most American wine lovers. We are more used to thinking of Verdicchio (if we think of it at all) as a light quaffing wine, to drink at the seashore with a plate of clams on the half shell. Reputations for good or for ill die hard in the wine world, and many wine lovers no doubt still recall the heyday of Verdicchio, almost 30 years past now, when the fish-shaped bottle (Fazi-Battaglia’s specialty) was a ubiquitous sight in Italian restaurants. Verdicchio in those days established itself here as a light-bodied, crisp, and acidic white, perfect, served icy cold, for aperitifs and alongside those raw clams or fried calamari. That peak of popularity passed – they are not long, the days of wine and clams – and Verdicchio-as-aperitif was replaced by other wines, notably Pinot grigio, which became in its turn just as popular.

In the meanwhile, in Le Marche, Verdicchio was evolving. The vineyards were getting older, for one thing (vecchie vigne, for instance, means old vines), and delivering richer grapes that were in turn yielding a rounder, fuller wine. And producers were experimenting with aging the wine, in large wood and small, with and without lees. Verdicchio riservas began appearing more and more often. It was a riserva bottle of Umani Ronchi’s Verdicchio Casal di Serra, for instance, that ten or so years ago first impressed me that Verdicchio could be a serious, more full-bodied dinner wine.

Casal di Serra bottles at the tasting

.

Michele Bernetti

This intensification or expansion of the wine occurred with no loss of acidity: As the wines got plumper, they still remained lively and supple, which is what good acidity does for a wine. “We practice quite minimal winemaking,” Michele said; “we try to avoid inducing malolactic fermentation in order to preserve all of the grape’s natural acidity and flavors. Verdicchio really shows minerality better than any grape in Italy.”

Indeed, the play of acidity and minerality in the 2009 Vecchie Vigne was quite evident and thoroughly pleasurable both in the bare tasting and at lunch. Combined with Verdicchio’s distinctive fruitiness – an improbable combination of pear and banana flavors (please take that as an approximation, not an exact description) – it made a medium-bodied white wine that could, at a stretch, serve as an aperitif, but really wanted food of a substantial sort alongside it. Del Posto accompanied it – delightfully, for my palate – with a brilliantly spicy Lobster Fra Diavolo. The interplay of the lushness of lobster, the spicy bite of the sauce, and the acid bite of the wine made a perfect combination.

And the Vecchie Vigne behaved equally well with the next course, Garganelli Verdi with Ragù Bolognese. This pasta was intended to accompany Umani Ronchi’s red wines, Rosso Conero and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (good wines both: perhaps more about them in a later post), but I found that the delicacy of the thinly rolled pasta and the succulence of its meat sauce played as well if not better with the parallel richness and leanness of the Vecchie Vigne.

In short, the Gambero Rosso people made no mistake: This ’09 Vecchie Vigne is a versatile dinner wine of a complex and highly adaptable character. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this wine (and a few other Verdicchios I have tasted, notably Bucci’s) makes a real case for Verdicchio’s admission to the exalted category of “noble grape.” It’s a variety that makes a wine of pleasurable complexity and depth, showing a great capacity for aging gracefully and interestingly. It would be worth laying down a dozen bottles of this 2009 and tasting one a year just to see how they develop. A few years down the road, the results could be sensational.

*

P.S.  In response to innumerable inquiries (well, one: from my wife), I’ll explain that the name Umani Ronchi does not mean “raunchy humans” but is the family name of the founder of the winery, Gino Umani Ronchi, whom Michele Bernetti’s father joined originally as a partner. The Bernetti family, now sole owners of the firm, have kept the name to honor his work and because he had successfully established a brand identity in the Italian market.

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!

There Is Beauty in Extreme Old Age

August 25, 2010

With a nod to the sagacity of Gilbert & Sullivan – neither of whom, I think, would have minded being linked with wine – the sheer pleasure of really mature wine is probably the most underappreciated aspect of that noble beverage in our time. Saintsbury and other tipplers of his and G&S’s era routinely drank their wines older than we are for the most part accustomed to. They assumed that laying down a few dozen bottles was what you routinely did with a wine you liked in a vintage of merit, and you didn’t disturb their rest until they had pulled themselves together.

I’ve made no secret of my liking for mature wines,  but I was reminded of the wonderful truth of just how beautiful old age can be in a wine, on two very different occasions recently.

The first involved a wine that always rewards aging, despite the current fad for drinking it young: Amarone. This is a wine that is deliberately built for aging: very ripe grapes are placed on mats or hung in cool, drafty halls high in the Veronese hills and allowed to dry for months before pressing, after which they ferment very, very slowly at low temperatures all winter long until all their sugars have been converted to alcohol (Amarones run almost the strength of fortified wines) and all the possible flavor has been soaked from their skins. At that point, Amarones are fruit bombs – thus the current passion for drinking them young – and like all such wines one-dimensional: alcoholic grape juice, and apparently very appealing to the chocolate-martini crowd. Let them rest in your cellar, however, and the brashness of the fruit subsides and a host of secondary flavors – fruity, nutty, earthy – start coming to the fore. The longer you leave a properly made Amarone alone, the more complex and velvety it gets.

A few weeks ago, in the course of trying to squeeze a few more bottles into my storage space, I came upon a bottle of 1986 Masi Amarone whose cork had been leaking. The level of the wine was dipping down the shoulder of the bottle, and my first thought was that the wine was probably dead, oxidized beyond drinkability. My second thought was Hold on: It’s Amarone, and they are tough to kill. I remember, back when I was researching and writing Mastering Wine, I found several times that half-empty bottles of Amarone tasted better even after a week. So I thought I would give this bottle at least a chance with that night’s dinner: it might be still drinkable.

Well, it wasn’t just drinkable: it was wonderful. Not oxidized at all. The fruit was still alive, though much matured (as indeed it should have been at 24 years old) and interlaced with delightful earth and forest floor and mushroom and cooked meat notes. On the palate, it felt soft and smooth with just a hint of chewiness, and the finish went on and on. It was a glorious wine, and if the leaky cork had done anything at all, it seemed to have advanced the wine’s maturation a few years, for which in fact I was grateful – a lucky accident for me. O felix culpa!

The second occasion was an assembly – maybe I should say a feeding frenzy – of the group of  wineloving friends fondly known as the Gang of Six at La Pizza Fresca restaurant in Manhattan. As is our custom, we all brought wines, and it was no shabby collection that we enjoyed with our lunch – a superb 1996 Henriot Champagne, a ’96 Corton Grand Cru, a 1990 Borgogno Barolo (gorgeous!), a 1988 Grato di Grati 100% Sangiovese.

My own more modest contribution was a 2000 Bucci Verdicchio, to honor a special request for an aged example of that wine and grape. Ampelio Bucci makes what I think is the most distinctive Verdicchio in the Iesi zone, maybe in all of Italy’s Marche region. Deeply flavored, always balanced and beautifully structured, his wines regularly take Tre Bicchieri and really set the benchmark for the kind. I was a bit distressed to discover that I had finished up my older Bucci riserva bottles and all I had left were a few of his basic Verdicchio – wines I really should have drunk a few years ago, since they weren’t vinified, as the riserva is, for long aging. But a promise is a promise, so I chilled the 2000 and brought it along.

When we opened and poured, its deep gold color seemed to show that it was too old – oxidized and probably dead. It didn’t have much aroma, and its flavor seemed tired. So I just set it aside. I kept going back to it as we ate and tasted our way through the long lunch – and it kept getting better and better. Its flavor kept opening and its aroma expanding, especially in the mineral flavor range. After two hours, it was tasting positively Burgundian, to my and Ed McCarthy’s and Charles Scicolone’s delight. Valuable lesson here: never underestimate what well-made Verdicchio (this had seen no new oak, only large, old botti) is capable of. This is a variety, and the Marche is a zone, that have not yet realized all their potential.

What both these instances showed me was that many Italian wines have an aging-and-enduring capacity that I haven’t yet fully explored. Clearly, there’s still a lot to learn. My hunch is that it’s the marked acidity of many Italian wines that keeps them alive beyond the life span of many seemingly similar sorts of wine. That’s a project for investigation that I hope will keep me happily busy for many years yet.