Archive for the ‘Nebbiolo’ Category

Caparone Wines Among Friends

August 9, 2018

People who really love wine enjoy sharing their best bottles with others who understand and appreciate them. I’m certainly one of those: I hate opening a good bottle for people who would prefer a white Zinfandel or a cola, but I relish the chance to pour some of my best stuff for knowledgeable friends. So when I had the chance recently to introduce some fellow winos to the Caparone family’s Italian varietal wines, I jumped at it...

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Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone, and Michele Scicolone are in my opinion among the small handful of “experts” in this country who truly understand Italian wine, both in what it does well and why, and what it doesn’t succeed at and why. I thought a Caparone tasting would be as interesting and enjoyable for them as it would be for me.

Mary is an MW and head of a wine school here in New York, and she and Ed are co-authors of the Wines for Dummies series of books. Michele and Charles are experts on Italian wines and foods. A few years back Ed had tasted and liked Caparone’s Sangiovese, which impressed him at the time as the only moderately successful California version of an Italian variety, but that was all he knew of the wines. Charles and Michele had never had the opportunity to taste the Caparone wines at all, and Charles was deeply skeptical about what California does to Italian grapes – as indeed I had been until I tasted Caparone’s.
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We all convened at the restaurant La Pizza Fresca, which provides a very welcoming space for such an event, with excellent service, fine and appropriate glassware, and good food to sustain the hungry winebibber. Ed brought a lovely bottle of Clouet’s Pinot noir-heavy NV Champagne and a bottle of Benanti’s 2010 Pietra Marina, probably Sicily’s finest white wine, to start us off.

The we got down to the business of the day: Caparone Italian varietal wines.

2014 Sangiovese
2014 Nebbiolo
2014 Aglianico
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1996 Sangiovese
1996 Aglianico

That was the service order, the Sangiovese being the lightest-bodied and the Aglianico the fullest. We talked a lot about freshness and varietal character, and we agreed that all the wines showed the unique qualities of each variety very well. There was also universal agreement that these were the most successful California versions of Italian grapes that any of us was aware of. The disagreements concerned nuances and precise comparisons: Charles, for instance, thought the young Sangiovese slightly over-oaked, like a Super Tuscan, while I wasn’t bothered by oak flavors at all.
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I’ve written about my admiration of these three 2014s before, and both Charles and Ed have published admiring accounts of the whole tasting, so I’ll spare you most of the details – except to emphasize that both 96s, at 22 years old, still tasted fresh, with mature and developed flavors playing side by side with still-young fruit flavors. Both seemingly have years of life ahead of them – and that would be no mean accomplishment for any of those grapes in their home territory.
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An informal vote for the wine of the day ended in a toss-up between the young Nebbiolo and the old Aglianico. I could see the reasons for both, but when push comes to shove I am a person of mature years, and I like my wines the same way.


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Postscript:

A few days after this tasting, I opened at home a bottle of Caparone’s 2012 Zinfandel, the first of Caparone’s non-Italian varietal wines I’ve tried. It was lovely, full of classic Zinfandel brambly, berry-ish flavors, but restrained and polished rather than exuberant and in-your-face. The bottle’s back label describes it accurately as a “rich, complex Zinfandel,” “aged for 24 months in small oak barrels” and “racked rather than fined or filtered.”  It further claims that the wine “will continue to develop in the bottle for 25 years or more” – and I believe every word of that.

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The Caparones, father and son, are clearly New World producers with a wonderfully Old World technique and style. The comparisons that spring to my mind are masterful family producers like the Chave family in Hermitage, or the Clape family of Cornas. If Paso Robles had the prestige of the northern Rhone, a lot more attention would be being paid to what’s happening at Caparone.

More Splendid Caparone Cal-Itals

January 15, 2018

Caparone Vineyards, in Paso Robles, continues to impress me mightily. Some time back I wrote in praise of its 2002 Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, the most delicious and elegant California versions of those varieties I’ve ever tasted. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to taste bottles of the same grapes from the 2014 vintage, and I was almost reduced to a barely articulate Oh wow!  (Be assured: My normal verbosity quickly reasserted itself.)

Naturally, these younger wines were not as complex or developed as their older relatives – but the vines are older too, and that adds dimension to even a newly released wine. These were all beautiful specimens of their varieties. They seemed perfectly worthy of standing on the table with the best young examples of their kinds I’ve had in Italy, though patently different from them in the character of their fruit and their balance.
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Sangiovese

The Sangiovese showed a brilliant light garnet, very pleasing to the eye. The nose came across as all underbrush and fresh red fruit. The palate tasted youthful – bright cherry – with medium body and a lively acid/tannin balance. The overall impression was freshness and elegance, spot-on for young Sangiovese. This wine differed from a young Chianti, for instance, in being not so markedly acid-forward: It was also slightly fuller-bodied, with more generous fruit. The latter quality I think of as quintessential California.

It’s worth noting, since this is a young wine, that it got better and more interesting as it opened in the glass. What it will do with some years of maturity makes for very pleasant speculation. The Caparones aren’t given to exaggeration or over-hyping their wines, but their back label claims that this wine (and its sibling Aglianico and Nebbiolo) “will continue to age for 25 years or more.”  I’m not likely to be able to test that statement, but I sure hope some of you will.

It’s also worth noting that the alcohol level of this wine is a modest 13.3 degrees — by current California standards, almost a soft drink.
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Nebbiolo

I enjoyed the Nebbiolo just as much, but it was an animal of different stripe. Its color was a pale garnet, with a thin orange edge, perhaps to an eye unused to Nebbiolo suggesting it’s already old and fading. Far from it: this wine was an infant, tasting of fresh berries (strawberries kept peeping out) and earth. It had good acidity and very soft tannins, with low – by California standards, very low – alcohol: 13 degrees – and a long licorice and leather finish. But what really grabbed my attention right from the start was the aroma: Damned if it didn’t smell delicately of tar and dried roses and earth. That’s textbook Alba Nebbiolo, folks, and I am in awe of a New World wine capturing that quality of this great, cantankerous grape.

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One major difference between Caparone’s Nebbiolo and any young Barolo or Barbaresco I’ve experienced: No Piedmont Nebbiolo would be as pleasant drinking as this wine at first release. In many vintages, a Piedmont Nebbiolo’s tannins would rip your throat out. Even 2004, which was – and is – a great vintage and a very forward one, was much sterner and more sharply tannic at a comparable age. We’ve all always assumed that such early toughness was a necessary concomitant to the structure that made long aging possible – but if David and Marc Caparone are right about the aging potential of their wine, then received wisdom has been dead wrong about that. And that should give us all – consumer, critics, and producers alike – a lot to think about.
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Aglianico

The 2014 Aglianico certainly gave me a lot to think about. The darkest, most deeply colored of the three varieties, it also had the most intense aroma: earth, toasted nuts (hazel? almond?), and rich, black, plummy fruit. The earth and black plum flavors emphatically followed through on the palate – just huge fruit flavors, understrapped by lovely acid/tannin balance. The tannins were abundant, but soft, making a well-structured and long-finishing wine, but also a very accessible, enjoyably drinking wine, even so young.

With food, the flavor components rounded and broadened and deepened remarkably, revealing an extraordinary balance and structure, yet still soft and open. Diane and I were bowled over: We thought this a wine destined for greatness. And, oh, by the way, it was only 13 degrees of alcohol, which ought to be a slap in the face of all those overblown California wines that substitute big alcohol for any real winemaking quality.
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I’ve never particularly wanted to live to any great age, but the way the Caparones make wine is causing me to think again about that. .

Dave Caparone at his tasting room, with Tom’s whilom student and old friend Magda Gilewicz. Photo by Mike Chen

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Boca and His Brothers

February 6, 2017

Boca is a sub-Alpine Nebbiolo wine from the village of that name in Italy’s northern Piedmont. His “brothers” (with apologies to Luchino Visconti) are the wines of the villages of Bramaterra, Carema, and Lessona to the southwest, and Fara, Gattinara, Ghemme, and Sizzano to the south and east.

boca-map

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These are lovely wines of elegance and grace, wonderful to drink young and even better to savor at their maturity. Even among Nebbiolo fans, they are not well known, partially because their production zones are small, their producers few, and their distribution in these United States spotty – and all that results from the simple fact that, as a wine-producing zone, the northern Piedmont never really recovered from the devastations of the late arrival of phylloxera and two subsequent world wars. Far, far fewer hectares are now planted to vines than there were before 1910, which was when phylloxera hit.

1985-bocaI start this post with Boca because I’ve recently enjoyed a few lovely ones, most especially a 1985 Campo delle Piane from the Le Piane estate, a wine of Burgundian elegance and polish. This wasn’t a wine I’d carefully laid away and forgotten about for a few decades (I wish I had, and more of it!). Rather, I bought this bottle recently, and at a price that was a bargain for a 30-year-old anything, much less a Nebbiolo blend (a very small amount of Vespolina and maybe some Croatina) from a zone once of the highest repute.

In the 19th century, Spanna – the northern Piedmontese name for Nebbiolo – was more highly regarded than Barolo, and particularly prized for its aging ability. Old winos here in New York will probably remember the great aged Spannas from Vallana that we used to be able to get at wonderful prices back in the 70s. Nowadays, older vintages of the Campo delle Piane Boca from the 90s and even 80s are appearing in dribs and drabs on the local market. My advice is simple: If you see them, grab them.

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Christoph Kuenzli

The Boca appellation is undergoing a real revival, of which it is fair to say Le Piane is the protagonist. Le Piane is in itself a fascinating story. A small estate of about 14 hectares – roughly 35 acres – Le Piane is owned and operated in a thoroughly hands-on manner by Christoph Kuenzli, a Swiss who almost 30 years ago succumbed to the charms of the area and befriended Antonio Cerri, one of the last winemakers in what was then an appellation on the verge of disappearing.

The already 80-year-old Cerri turned the operation of his vineyards and cellar over to Kuenzli and his enologist friend Alexander Trolf, and on Cerri’s death a few years later Kuenzli acquired the vineyards, cellar, and stock. These became the core of what is today Le Piane, an estate generally regarded by Italian cognoscenti as one of the best in the Alta Piemonte. The older vintages occasionally released by Kuenzli are drawn from Cerri’s cellars and are distinguished by being labeled Campo delle Piane, which was the name of Cerri’s vineyards. Kuenzli’s current enterprise and its releases are called Le Piane in Cerri’s honor.

vallana-bocaThere still aren’t a lot of Boca producers, and not many of those few find their way to these shores. One of the best is Vallana, which I mentioned earlier in connection with Spanna, an estate that makes a very elegant and age-worthy Boca. Now operated by Francis and Marina Fogarty, Vallana originally made its mark here in the days of their grandfather, Bernardo Vallana, whose Spannas became the stuff of legend.

Grandfather, his son, and then his son-in-law all died prematurely, leaving Bernardo’s daughter Giuseppina to raise three children and manage the vineyards, cellar, and wine business. That she managed to discharge all six responsibilities well is a great tribute to an intelligent and resourceful woman.

three-fogartys

Giuseppina, Marina, and Francis Fogarty

In her children’s hands, Vallana has returned to the American market and is currently producing wines that grandfather Bernardo would be proud of. And – since none of the sub-Alpine wines has the PR clout of Barolo or Barbaresco – they are generally available at very fair prices for their very high quality.

A future post will speak of Gattinara and Carema.

Wining in Rome

November 3, 2016

Rome has many charms, but an abundance of great wine is not one of them. Once upon a time – my brother and I first visited Rome in 1964, so this is history, not fable – your wine options in most trattorias were rosso or bianco, both vino sfuso – that is, drawn from a barrel or demijohn, not from a bottle. The red was usually some form of Chianti and the white was almost always brown (from rapid oxidation, then a serious problem for Italian white wine) and usually some form of Frascati.

Much has changed for the better since then. The white wine now really is white, and almost invariably young and fresh and charming. And although now-much-improved Frascati is still ubiquitous, most trattorias – and certainly anything calling itself a ristorante – will also offer several other options from other parts of Italy. Red wine lists seem to have grown even more, now providing good choices of many varieties from all over Italy – including, at long last, a growing representation of indigenous Lazio (Rome’s region) bottlings.

 The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

Nevertheless, really deep wine lists are still few and far between, and the lover of older wines has to search pretty hard to find a mature bottle of almost anything. So when Diane and I went recently to Rome for a week of pure vacation – I promised no winery visits, no tasting sessions – we contented ourselves mostly with the kinds of wines that provide plenty of pleasure without needing long cellaring. Rome offered many of those.

We tried many young Frascatis, of course, and all were genuinely charming, with the light floral/mineral nose and palate characteristic of the breed. One of the most interesting, which we tasted at the Trimani wine bar, was in fact not a Frascati but an IGT Lazio wine from Casale alborea-2Certosa. It was a 2014 (almost all the whites were 2014, a very few 2015) Alborea, a rich, lightly golden wine of greater than usual intensity. It was blended from Grecchetto and Malvasia Puntinata, the latter grape a Lazio specialty and usually an important component of Frascati. I don’t think this wine is imported to the US.  One of the advantages (and limitations, from a wine journalist’s point of view) of drinking in Rome is the opportunity to taste wines, both kinds and producers, that don’t always make it across the pond.

falanghina-1Other whites that we enjoyed included a lovely light, refreshing 2015 Pigato from Liguria (Pigato is the regional name for Vermentino), a characteristic Falanghina from Benevento by Vinicola del Sannio, and a 2015 Mastroberardino Fiano – the latter, of course, in a distinctly different weight and quality class from the lighter more apéritif style of the preceding wines.

BTW, we tasted a lot of these wines by the glass at two of our favorite places in Rome to get a light lunch: the wine bars Cul de Sac and Angolo Divino. Both offer a splendid array of cheeses and salume and light dishes, though at both you can order more substantially if you wish. Either way, you can taste glasses of as many wines as you have time and capacity for, from a well-chosen list, with many, many more wines available by the bottle, should you opt to make an afternoon of it.

taurasiEverywhere we dined in Rome, our choices for red wine seemed much richer than for whites. The red wine situation, it’s fair to say, is happily more complex than the white. We drank a number of familiar standbys, of course – a 2009 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi, for instance, though that turned out to be infanticide: That bottle had years of development before it.

montevetrano-2We also drank a 2007 Montevetrano, which was a lovely representative of this unusual (for Campania) blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Aglianico. It was evolving beautifully, but it too had years of maturation to go. The slightly disappointing restaurant at which we drank it provided a wonderful instance of just how thin wine knowledge is even in seemingly better places. When I asked for a bottle of Montevetrano, our waiter didn’t recognize the name, and didn’t know it was on his wine list. I pointed it out and explained it was a Campanian wine. He  looked and said “No; this says it’s from Salerno.” – He didn’t even know Salerno is in Campania. After that he disappeared for a while and, apparently after consultation with someone more knowledgeable, returned bearing the bottle and self-importantly informed me that this was one of Italy’s greatest wines – which, of course, was why I had ordered it in the first place.

Most of the reds we enjoyed were younger than those two, however. One stand-out was a 2013 Villa Simone Cesanese – a native Lazio grape – that was soft, fresh, and fruity, with some real depth and excellent varietal character. We liked that so much we ordered a second bottle and made that dinner last. 4-spineAnother very distinctive regional wine, this one from the Amalfi coast, was 2012 Quattro Spine Costa d’Amalfi Rosso from Tenuta San Francesco. Again, I don’t know if this wine is available in the US, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, whether at home or abroad. It was an intriguing blend of Aglianico, Tintore, and Piedirosso, very dark, rich and deep, powerful and elegant. I’d love the chance to taste an older bottle.

zanella-1The oldest bottles we had on this trip we enjoyed at Fortunato del Pantheon, and at Checchino dal 1887. At the former, our waiter walked me into the attached enoteca (a new development since we’d last dined there), where the sommelier unearthed a 2007 (not so old, but hey! we’re in Rome) bottle of Maurizio Zanella Rosso del Sebino. A blend of 50% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 25% Cabernet franc, and almost inky dark, it was big, round, and soft, with very soft tannins, and tasted of mature black fruits. It proved an excellent companion to our dishes of tagliarini with white and black truffles.

picchioni-2By far the most interesting red wine of our trip was the sommelier’s suggestion at Checchino. This was no surprise, because it has one of the best wine lists in Rome, and when asked for a more mature wine, Francesco Mariani (one of the brothers who own Checchino) suggested a 1983 Colle Picchioni Rosso (as it turned out, the same wine he had served my friend and colleague Charles Scicolone just a week before ).

This is a Lazio wine, grown and vinified not many miles outside of Rome. It’s probably – firm data is hard to come by – a blend of the native Cesanese with Merlot and maybe Sangiovese, maybe Aglianico, maybe Cabernet; in 1983 things were still pretty loose in Lazio (Charles thinks it’s all international varieties; I’m not so sure). Francesco knows his stock: Whatever grapes are in it, this wine turned out to be perfect choice with our food, initially delicate but growing in strength as it opened. Pale garnet with an orange edge, it looked and smelled like a mature wine, the nose almost delicate. On the palate, very balanced, and even lively, with still fresh fruit suggesting dark berries that lingered into the elegant finish: a really lovely bottle of wine.

Diane has blogged about the meals we ate in Rome, so the palatally curious can see what kinds of food went with the wines I’ve been talking about by clicking here.

One final word: None of these wines was expensive, especially not by New York standards. The older wines cost far less than new vintages sell for at retail here, which gives you some sense of just how outrageous the price-gouging is in American restaurants. And in even the busiest, most touristed Roman restaurants, the sound levels were such that the two of us were able to speak in normal tones, which gives you some idea of what a deliberately manipulated environment most American restaurants are providing. As one of my old teachers used to say, verb. sap. sat. Save your money, and dine out in Europe.

Great Nebbiolo and a Possible Pretender

September 12, 2016

nebbiolo-update

Nebbiolo grapeAs most wine fanciers know, the Nebbiolo grape achieves its greatest expression in Barolo and Barbaresco, with serious runner-ups in the wines of sub-Alpine Piedmont – e.g., Carema, Gattinara, Boca, and a few others. But in that same Barolo/Barbaresco heartland, there are two other DOCs for the grape: Nebbiolo d’Alba and Nebbiolo delle Langhe. These wines deserve more publicity than they usually get, because they offer not just true Nebbiolo flavors but also the nuances provided by that very special terroir – and usually at a price considerably lower than any Barolo or Barbaresco.

nebbiolo colla bottleI was reminded of this just a few nights ago when I opened a bottle of 2013 Nebbiolo d’Alba and spent a happy dinner hour enjoying bright cherry/berry fruit laced with hints of tobacco, mushroom, and forest floor – very much the young-Barolo range of flavors. The wine was not as big as a Barolo, of course, nor as substantially structured for aging, but it was nevertheless a real wine that interacted happily with all parts of my meal, as well as with me. This particular bottle was from a fine maker – Colla, a family that produces the whole gamut of red Alba wines at the top level. Their winemaking style allowed the grape and the local soil to speak, and what the two had to say was unequivocally lovely. The whole dining experience was a welcome reminder that you don’t need to wait for a great occasion, nor go to great expense, to enjoy some of the best that a great grape variety can offer.

That happy state, of course, depends on things continuing as they now stand, with the Nebbiolo DOC confined to those two appellations and zones, Alba and Langhe, the grape’s unquestionably best growing area. Apparently, as alertly reported by Kerin O’Keefe, there is a proposal afoot, originating in the Asti and Monferrato Barbera zones, to create a Nebbiolo Piemonte DOC, covering the whole of Piedmont. This is causing serious concern among Barolo and Barbaresco growers for a number of reasons.

First, it is an obvious attempt to ride on the coattails of their great wines, which have begun commanding impressive prices. Moreover, Barolo and Barbaresco producers fear – rightly, it seems to me – that such a potentially huge-volume appellation as Nebbiolo Piemonte would undermine the prestige of their wines by churning out large amounts of low-priced and mediocre Nebbiolo, which would confuse consumers about the true character of the variety and destroy the reputation that Barolo and Barbaresco makers have worked decades to achieve.

Piemonte map

That’s not just snobbishness on their part, nor is it a purely commercial consideration. Any great wine results from a special, often unique, conjunction of grape and soil – and a look at the map will show you just how small the present Nebbiolo DOC zones (in lavender) are in comparison to the Barbera zones to the north and east, not to mention the rest of Piedmont.

There is already a related cause for concern in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. The market success of those wines over recent decades has pushed a good number of only marginally suitable vineyards to be replanted to Nebbiolo – vineyards that used to grow Barbera and Dolcetto and even Freisa and Grignolino. And that doesn’t even figure in all the acres of forests and woods that, over that same period, I have watched being turned into Nebbiolo vineyards. (This is one of the reasons the Alba area now produces far fewer white truffles than it once did.)

The proposed legislation would allow Nebbiolo to be grown almost anywhere in Piedmont – and no matter how you figure it, that would be a disaster. Nebbiolo is a very finicky variety, extremely site-sensitive. You can’t plant it just anywhere and expect to produce a quality wine, as anyone familiar with the vast majority of attempts to grow Nebbiolo in California can testify. It needs just the right soil. Around Alba, it does its best in calcareous, tufa-based soils.

colla vineyard edited

A Colla Nebbiolo Vineyard

It wants south-facing slopes, at altitudes of between 200 and 450 meters, with a substantial day-night temperature change – and it especially needs a very long growing season, since it usually buds around the middle of April and ripens around the middle of October. Not too many places, even in Piedmont, can fill that bill.

Support for the new Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC seems mostly to be coming from growers in Barbera-growing areas – especially larger ones whose abundant hectares could be converted from modestly priced Barbera to better-paying Nebbiolo. But those are the areas that have always, for sound agricultural reasons, been regarded as completely inappropriate for growing Nebbiolo – thus my fear that if this new proposal is adopted, long-suffering consumers will be subjected to a flood of inferior Nebbiolo wines. Absit omen, as the Romans used to say: Let’s hope it’s not so.

The Death Throes of Nebbiolo Prima?

July 7, 2016

In the not too distant past, when it was known as The Alba Wine Event, the annual week-long presentation of new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco to a group of international wine journalists was probably the premier Italian wine occasion after Vinitaly. It was certainly the best organized and most informative of any of them, an excellent opportunity for knowledgeable wine writers to learn in depth the character of each new vintage, as well as to assess what individual producers had made of it.

many bottles

It was always a grueling event: Young Nebbiolo is not an easy wine to evaluate, and its tannins build up over a morning’s tasting to really punish the tongue and cheeks. But 65 to 75 wines, though a lot, were still doable, and the Wellcom agency, which ran the event for Albeisa, the organization of Alba wineries, worked comfortably with journalists to organize visits to individual producers and facilitate the flow of information from winemakers to press.

Then Albeisa changed agencies, the event’s name – now Nebbiolo Prima – and, seemingly, its direction. The first obvious signs were when some long-established journalists, representing traditional markets for Barolo and Barbaresco, weren’t there any more – they hadn’t been invited. Instead, there were many more Asian journalists, representing the hoped-for markets of the future – an understandable strategy, but crudely handled.

More alarmingly, there was also a whole new tone in the  event coordinators’ relations with the press, a tone of almost suspicion, almost hostility. I remember being treated like a delinquent schoolboy trying to get away with something because I declined to attend a dinner – after a whole day of tasting wines and facing more of the same next morning – that I knew was going to involve far too many more wines and would run very late. (I was correct on both counts.)

tasting room

Then Albeisa decided that the future lay not with print journalism but with electronic media – again, probably a correct assessment, but again crudely handled. More of the serious journalists disappeared, and in their stead a host of bloggers began the tastings. Few finished: I’ve reported on this fiasco here. By now, the hostility to print journalists was becoming quite overt: People working on books about Barolo and Barbaresco were given little help, and I know of at least one case where a writer was told that books weren’t that important. O tempora, o mores, eh?

I haven’t attended Nebbiolo Prima in a few years now, but I just read an account by someone who was at this year’s event that makes clear that all the deplorable tendencies I’d been observing have continued, and in fact accelerated. Writing in Jancis Robinson’s Newsletter, Walter Speller describes an event that I would say has careened out of control.

We always tasted blind in Alba, but blind in controlled blocks. Barolos and Barbarescos were presented by commune, with cru wines separated from blended wines. Commune and cru were identified for you, so you knew what rational expectations you might have, though you never learned producers’ names until after the tasting. Now, apparently you taste totally blind, with the wines not arranged in anything other than random order. Why? That cripples any serious journalist trying to sort out the differences or similarities of the wines of the different communes and crus. It simply makes no sense.

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Tasting under those circumstances would be difficult enough, but now the poor attendees start at eight a.m., and they now must taste over a hundred wines before noon – which is as unfair to the wines as it is hideously difficult for the tasters – and then confront a series of afternoon visits and evening dinners that usually don’t return them to their hotels until after midnight, to start the whole round again next morning. I don’t know what Albeisa thinks it’s doing, but this is not hospitality – it’s brutality.

Even more seriously, the random presentation of the wines destroys the validity of the tastings themselves, as far as I can see. If you can’t taste in a group the wines of, say, Bussia cru, or Serralunga commune, how can you possibly form any valid opinion about the vintage or its character?  This is stupidity, and it has destroyed what used to be a great, informative event and turned it into a mere endurance contest, lacking any real point. O tempora, o mores indeed.

nebbiolo prima

 

 

Endings, and Maybe Some Beginnings

January 8, 2016

2016 snuck in on little cat’s feet in my neighborhood, shrouded by soft mist and a rising fog from the Hudson that, along with some pain pills for my outraged hip, had me asleep well before the canonical New Year’s Eve moment of rooting and tooting. This holiday season has been an ambivalent one for me, with unanticipated post-operative pain vying with the unnaturally warm weather to keep most thoughts of seasonally appropriate celebration at a distance. Plus – a side effect of my medications – my appetite and capacity have fallen to next to nothing. So there have been no big, year-end whoop-di-dos here, though Diane and I have managed a few low-key relishings of our survival and mutual company – probably the best way of all to mark the holidays in any event.

For you, o faithful reader, the consequence of all that is that there will be no connected narrative to hold this post together – just a series of musings, prompted by a few of the bottles with which we measured the end of 2015. Milestones, of a vinous and vital sort.

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champagneAndre Clouet Champagne Brut Rose Numero 5 nv. This year, this lovely bubbly has become my go-to Champagne for serving to guests who drink Champagne and not labels. It has body, it has elegance, it has compatibility with all sorts of canapés and more substantial dishes, and most of all it has the kind of palate-caressing flavor that makes you stop mid-sip and just enjoy. I am usually a fan of rosé Champagne primarily as a dinner companion, but I like this one everywhere. Something about the complexity of its flavor, the paradoxical lightness and weight of its body, reminds me each time I drink it of the excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first seriously began exploring Champagne and discovering, with some naïve amazement, the variety of its pleasures beyond just bubbles. Snows of yesteryear, eh?  A very appropriate sensation for the end of one year and the start of another.

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villa bucciVilla Bucci Verdicchio riserva 2006. No point beating around the bush here: This is flat-out a great white wine and a textbook example of how white wines can age. I am constantly amazed that Verdicchio hasn’t really caught on in this country. It is an excellent grape variety, and the best examples from its homeland, Italy’s Adriatic-facing Appenine slopes in the Marche, show not only the variety’s intriguing flavors but also the land’s distinctive minerality. This bottle partnered brilliantly with Diane’s sea scallops Nantais to create one of the best wine and food matches of our holiday season. Ampelio Bucci, the genial and devoted caretaker of his family’s ancestral properties, consistently produces what is always one of the best (very often, the best) Verdicchio of them all. His wines have been constantly reliable over years and years, always big, elegant, and distinctive. One of the New Year’s resolutions that I know I’m going to keep is that our home will never be without some.

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ormes de pezChateau Les Ormes de Pez 1989. What memories this wine evokes!  This was one of the first small chateaux I tasted back when I first began learning there was more to Bordeaux than shippers’ Medocs and out-of-my-financial-league premiers crus. Les Ormes de Pez was and remains a classic, even though only a cru bourgeois. Every time I drink it, it reminds me why I love St. Estephe. It has all the elegance and balance that the great wines of Bordeaux specialize in, and on top of that the lovely little rasp of the (to my mind and palate) utterly distinctive St. Estephe terroir. I still don’t understand why no St. Estephe wine was ever named a premier cru. What are Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – chopped liver? They cost, of course, many times what Les Ormes de Pez does, which is still a bargain in current releases. We used to buy the ‘66 for $3 a bottle; now that’s around $100 if you can find it – and if I could find it, I’d happily pay the fee. $100 is cheap these days for Bordeaux. Pity what’s happened to Bordeaux prices.

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brunelloBarbi Brunello Riserva 1977. This part of this post, alas, is a funeral service. This bottle was dead, deeply, profoundly dead, though remembered with great fondness. The bottle had been recorked at the winery several decades ago, but it couldn’t survive in my less-than optimal storage. Or perhaps it had just reached the end of its natural span. It’s always hard to tell with a wine of this age.

This was the last bottle of a case of Barbi 1977 Riserva that I received somewhere back in the mid-to-late ‘80s as part of my winning the Barbi Prize for journalism about Brunello di Montalcino. It was a great honor and a grand occasion: Francesca Colombini Cinelli herself, the grande dame of Montalcino winemaking, travelled to New York to make the presentation. 

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The wines drank wonderfully for years, with all the paradoxical muscle and grace, smoothness and asperity of classic Brunello. I guess I kept this one just a bit too long. They will all be remembered – and missed.

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Les ClosI had a similar experience a few days earlier with a 2002 Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, a wine that by all rights should have been splendid. But no: this bottle was as oxidized as a wine can get. A lesson to me for 2016: Drink my older wines while they and I both survive.

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Let me finish up this hail-and-farewell with two producers whose wines will be around for a long time to come, Vallana and Produttori di Barbaresco. Both are Piedmont producers who have long been important in their zones and increasingly so on the American market. Both are some of the finest bargains in the entire wine field, offering top-flight examples of their denominations at what are very affordable prices.

spannaFirst up: we drank a Vallana Spanna 2011, a mostly Nebbiolo wine from the northern Piedmont, still in its youth. Back when Vallana made its first entry in the US market, in the 1960s and 70s, its Spannas were famous for their ageability, and many 10- to 20-year-old bottles were available. Such is not the case now, but the wine still shows all the capacity to age that it ever had. And if palatal memory doesn’t deceive me, the Vallana fruit, as cultivated by the Vallana grandchildren, Francis and Marina, now is even more ample and more refined, with a mouth-flooding juiciness that makes the wines supremely drinkable at any age. This particular bottle of Spanna was the last I had on hand, but my top New Year’s resolution is to fix that ASAP.

barbarescoFinally, a bottle of Produttori di Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 1999 rounded off our holidays – in a literal sense, since it was the wine that we drank with a New Year’s Day dinner. By now, everybody who knows Piedmont wine should know that the Produttori di Barbaresco consistently offers the unquestioned best value in the Alba zone. Its many cooperating growers between them control huge swathes of Barbaresco’s best vineyards and crus, and under the direction of Aldo Vaca, as knowledgable and understated a winemaker as any in Piedmont, the results are always worth drinking – in difficult years, sound and durable, in great years, off-the-charts wonderful.

Most wine journalists would agree with that assessment, just as most wine journalists have a kind of mental reservation that limits the praise they confer – maybe because it’s a co-op, and there is all the glamor of the single grower/artisan as opposed to the supposed “industrial” operation of a co-op. Let me start 2016 by saying that’s nonsense: The individual growers of Produttori di Barbaresco, and the winemaking skills of Aldo Vaca, between them make wines that stand on a par with any from the Barbaresco zone. These are simply great wines at great prices. My intention is to get more of them.

And so we turn the page from 2015 to 2016 – a look back, and a peek forward. Good luck and good wine to all of us! I have a feeling we’re going to need both.

Celebrating Colla

July 9, 2015

That’s Colla with two Ls, as in Poderi Colla, Beppe Colla, Colla Barolo, Colla Barbaresco, Colla Bricco del Drago – emphatically not to be confused with cola of any brand or flavor. Bricco del Drago is the immediate occasion of this post: The Colla family has just acquired ownership of the property whose vines they have tended and whose wines they have vinified for decades. But the underlying reason for this post is to celebrate a great winery and a great wine.

For all that greatness, the family members are extraordinarily modest. Patriarch Beppe Colla may be the quietest, most self-effacing of all of Piedmont’s grandmaster winemakers, and the rest of the family – his daughter Federica, his younger brother Tino, and Tino’s son Pietro – follow suit.

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Part of the reason for the modesty may be that the Collas have just always been there: Like the Empire State Building, they have become part of the landscape. Beppe was already a quiet legend as the winemaker at Prunotto back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a pioneer of things like the cru concept and a student of phenolic ripeness back before either was much talked about in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.

I first met him around 1984/5, just a few years after the wonder vintage of 1982, a year of record-breaking heat and until-that-time-unseen levels of ripeness in the grapes. (There have been many since.) The Italian Trade Commission had sent a group of wine journalists to visit some key producers in northern Italy, and Prunotto was one of our Piedmont destinations.

Beppe received us almost shyly and poured his wines for us with many informative remarks about the growing seasons and the cellar treatments, but nary a syllable of praise or evaluation. Please believe me when I tell you that that kind of restraint, that willingness to let us form our own opinion of his wines, is very, very rare.

Two moments of that long-ago tasting I still remember vividly.

Colla had poured his 1982 Dolcetto, explaining the while how very unusual the weather and consequently the harvest had been. We tasted, tasted again, looked at each other, and all started babbling and exclaiming. We had never tasted a Dolcetto like that – big, round, with enormous fruit and depth and an underlying complexity that we would have taken for Nebbiolo had he not told us otherwise. We congratulated him on his achievement: This was unquestionably a great wine. Colla smiled politely. “Yes,” he said, “yes, it is a great wine – but you mustn’t think of it as Dolcetto.” All I have ever learned since about the importance of fidelity to varietal standards I trace to that moment.

At the end of our tasting, after we had all expressed our gratitude and admiration and were reluctantly preparing to get back into the van and go on to our next port of call, Colla diffidently asked our organizer if we could possibly return later that day, because he had something special he would like us to taste. By that point, we would have driven two days out of our way to taste anything Colla considered special, so some six or seven hours later we were all sitting around the same table, while he pulled the cork on a 25-year-old magnum of Barolo, that, he explained, had been an experiment – his first (unlabeled) cru bottling.

Magic!  As soon as the cork came out, that small tasting room filled with the rich aroma of white truffles. The elixir that followed the aroma was no less magical – classic Barolo, with all the dried roses, tar, and truffle, leather and cherry and tobacco, that any wine writer in his finest frenzy of prose or palate could ever ask for. No one spat. No one even spoke – and for wine writers, that’s amazing. Everyone just sipped, swallowed, and made small, inarticulate pleasure noises. As I said, magic.

Eventually, the Prunotto firm was sold to Antinori, which still runs it and does its best to emulate Colla’s style of winemaking. Beppe left to form Poderi Colla with his family, and he has been there since. Day-to-day operations at the three principal vineyards – Dardi Le Rose in the Barolo zone, Roncaglia in Barbaresco, and Bricco del Drago, near Alba – are handled by Federica and Tino, but Beppe is always there to be consulted, and that is a priceless resource.

LabelThe wines all reflect his basic style – elegance, and restraint, and fidelity to the soil and to the variety. When I first tasted the 2010 Colla Barolo Dardi le Rose two years ago at Nebbiolo Prima, when it had just been bottled, I thought it lovely and rated it four stars. Tasting it again recently, I’d call it absolutely classic and give it a full five stars. I expect it will probably mature beautifully for decades. It certainly has the structure for very long life.

The Bricco del Drago estate that the Collas have just bought has long been very special to the family. It started as a joint project of Beppe Colla and his friend Luciano Degiacomi, who owned the property – 26 hectares, of which 12 are in vines: 4 Nebbiolo, 4 Dolcetto, 3 Pinot nero, and 1 Riesling renano. Degiacomi was a great partisan of the Langhe and especially its wine and foodways. Along with Colla and Renato Ratti, he founded the Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba – the Order of the Knights of the Truffles and Wines of Alba – which in turn organized the creation of the regional enoteca in the castle at Grinzane Cavour (now housing as well a fine small museum and an excellent regional restaurant).

The eponymous wine vinified from Bricco del Drago’s grapes was probably the earliest and is still one of the best of Piedmont’s handful of non-traditional wines  – a small irony for two such thoughtful traditionalists as Colla and Degiacomi. It’s always made from a blend of Dolcetto and Nebbiolo: proportions are usually around 85% Dolcetto to 15% Nebbiolo, but that is not ironclad – much depends on the harvest.

label 1I recently drank a beautiful ’07 of those proportions, which just loved a broiled steak and mushrooms. It was a classic Piedmontese red wine for meats and mushrooms, fats and earthy flavors – big and full in the mouth, with lots of Dolcetto fruit strengthened by a Nebbiolo spine. The aroma and flavor were cherry and underbrush, with a long finish of strawberry and tobacco, all classic Piedmont flavors in a slightly unusual combination. This was, as has been every Bricco del Drago I’ve ever had, a very, very fine wine, drinking beautifully at eight years old and showing no sign of fading at all.

By the way: never call it a Super Piedmont. The growers all hate that term. As far as they’re concerned, the wines their families have been making for generations are the true Super Piedmonts – and for the Colla wines, I would totally agree.

Wine Pros(e) and Cons

March 9, 2015

There is probably more writing about wine available to consumers now than ever before. That is due, of course, to the great democracy of the internet and its multiple channels for conveying opinions and information: blogs, social media, tweets, comments, consumer evaluation forums, and so on. The problem is, who checks the accuracy of the information? How do you judge the value of Person X’s opinion? The great democracy of the internet really culminates in a grand indeterminacy, in which – all too often – the more you can find written about a subject, the less you confidently know about it.

Just a few examples:

blog collage

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The blogosphere is enormously heterogeneous. It contains many serious wine writers who post useful information that could otherwise not easily be dug out – about, for instance, wineries in the American Midwest, unusual grape varieties, distribution patterns and consumption patterns – but it also hosts naïve enthusiasts and egoists who present their momentary reactions and crackpot theories as eternal truths. Nobody fact-checks the internet the way editors – a dying breed – used to check articles submitted for publication, and no one verifies authors’ credibility. I know this sounds like an old geezer’s lament, but it is true: Nowadays, having an opinion is sufficient warrant to publish it.

Well, I taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for several decades, and I can assure you of one great undemocratic truth: Not all opinions are equal. Your opinion is only as good as the data you can gather to support it and the intelligence and insight you can bring to understanding both the subject and the data. Beyond that, there are valid and invalid ways of using both, and knowing which is which takes experience: You have to learn it over time, and exercise it until you’re comfortable with it. Think of good judgment – or a good palate, if you prefer – as a muscle that can be developed by use and atrophied by idleness. So – speaking again as one who’s been doing this for a long while – writing about wine should involve a lot more than simply voicing your likes and dislikes as if they were fundamental truths.

I can understand why many people might not think so. Lots of terms that wine writers use generate confusion in readers. It’s hard, after all, to find objective language for what are largely subjective reactions. Moreover, since drinking wine is a greatly pleasurable activity, it’s understandable why many consumers assume that learning about it and writing about it must be equally subjective and enjoyable. While nobody in his/her right mind would undertake wine writing – or winemaking, for that matter – without a passion for it, the nasty little secret of professional wine tasting and writing is that they are rarely fun: They are work – hard, plodding work.

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hard plodding work

Is this the fun part?

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The civilian world – wine consumers – by and large think of tastings as enjoyable occasions, where they’ll sample six or eight wines, usually with some food, often with a full dinner, and with a professional – perhaps the winemaker – leading them through the tasting, essentially telling them what they’re experiencing and how excellent it is. There are various degrees of intensity and seriousness to these events, but they are rarely analytic or evaluative exercises. Essentially, their purpose is publicity or sales.

That may be a bit harsh. Some commentators at such events do try to convey real information – but I’ve got to say, at the risk of offending some of my colleagues, that most presenters at tastings designed for consumers try much harder to entertain than to inform. It’s not a choice I can fully respect: I think it sells at least some of the paying customers short and underestimates their intelligence and seriousness. (Perhaps I’m being naïve; perhaps the entertainers are right. If so, so much the worse – for me, I guess.)

Obviously, many consumers are quite content to enjoy wines without needing to know all about them – and who can fault that?  Many, many wine blog posts – the kind I think of as “What I Drank with Dinner Last Night” (a type I have been guilty of myself ) – deal almost exclusively with enjoyment, not analysis – and, unless they’re offered as analysis or eternal verity, who can fault that?

Nevertheless, there remains a gulf between the writing that results from serious wine tasting and the writing of even the most acute uninformed opinions. An occurrence a few years ago at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual week-long, for-professionals-only tasting of newly released Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba) summed that up for me.

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many bottles

Yes, you have to taste them all

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The organizers of the event, in a laudable attempt to “get with it,” had not invited many of the print journalists who had been their customary clientele and instead had asked a large number of bloggers to attend. So at the start of the week, bloggers of every stripe and several languages were present in force in Alba.

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tasting room

At work in the lab

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On the first day of the event, every place in the three tasting rooms was filled, and the tastings began in silence, just as austerely and rigorously as ever, with somewhere between 65 and 80 young Nebbiolo wines to be gotten through before lunch.

The next morning, there were conspicuous empty spaces. By the third morning, the tasting rooms were half empty. I don’t think a single blogger made it to the end of the week. Who can fault that?  There’s no question that it was brutally hard work, both physically and intellectually: Staying focused through repeated flights of young, tannic wines day after day requires real effort, and not everybody is capable of it. More than one winemaker I visited that week said “I couldn’t do what you do” – meaning not me personally but the whole cadre of tasters.

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tom tasting

Focus, focus, focus!

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But the point is that those who abandoned the tastings after a day or two thereby lost the whole point of the event: gaining knowledge of the character and quality of a whole vintage for an entire major wine zone. That’s knowledge and experience that can never be made up in any other way, and no amount of enthusiasm or personal certainty can equal it. How many of those disappearing bloggers, I wonder, went on to write “authoritatively” about that Barolo vintage?

In a later post, I may return to the differences between professional tastings and consumer tastings, because I think it’s an important topic and an all-too-often misunderstood one.

Escape from Winter with Bartolo Mascarello and Ciro Picariello

February 16, 2015

On a recent evening, Diane and I enjoyed a very bright moment in the middle of this dreary winter. To accompany some braised short ribs, and to give us a treat and alleviate a bit of the depression that this seemingly endless grey, chill weather induces, I opened a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello’s 1998 Barolo.

barolo labelI expected an enjoyable bottle of a traditionally made Barolo: What we got was a marvel. By a great serendipity of timing, the bottle was absolutely at its peak, poised beautifully at the precise balance point of freshness and maturity. It was suave, it was elegant, it was complex, it was linear and structured, fleshy and fruity and voluptuous all at once. In trying to articulate what we found so wonderful about it, we both fell back on the image of our favorite Modigliani nude – linear and round at the same time, abstract and carnal, immediately accessible to the mind and the senses. Barolo just doesn’t get any better than this.

As most Barolo lovers know, Bartolo Mascarello was for decades an icon of traditional Piemontese winemaking, a model of integrity and consistency in his craft and in his life. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with him a few short years before he died, and his recollections were fascinating. He spoke quite modestly, even reluctantly, about his experiences in the Resistance, but he waxed eloquent and enthusiastic about his first experience, after Liberation, of American cigarettes: “Oh that aroma! That taste! I still remember it. So rich. We had been smoking straw, and those American cigarettes were intoxicating.”  Given his subsequent career in wine, it’s not surprising that aromas and flavors should stay fixed in his memory.

As he had resisted Fascists, he resisted fads in wine and fools in politics. He hated barriques, and he hated Berlusconi. One of his wines was once banned for sale in Italy because its label – he designed his own – proudly proclaimed “No Barrique  No Berlusconi.” Another said “We should make not barriques but barricades.”

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He even refused to make cru wines. Even though he owned vineyards in prime areas (two in La Morra – Rocche and Ruè – and a piece of Cannubi in Barolo), he continued the traditional practice of blending their unique characters to achieve the balance and harmony he and many other Barolistas consider the hallmark of fine Barolo.

In his last years, his daughter Maria Teresa had largely taken over the actual winemaking, and the recent vintages of Mascarello wine I’ve tasted indicate that she is following firmly in her father’s footsteps, both in style and in quality. Even though climate change in Piedmont has made all Barolos much more drinker-friendly much earlier than they used to be, these remain wines to cellar. Sure, you can drink them young – but given the amazing grace with which they mature, you’d be a fool to do so.

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???????????????????????????????On another such serendipitous evening as our Mascarello experience (yes, I’ve been dining well this winter), I opened a bottle of Picariello’s 2012 Fiano di Avellino to drink with some simple but excellent broiled chicken legs from a great poultry farm on Long Island. Ciro Picariello is first and foremost a classic Campanian grape grower, honest, hardworking, unpretentious, passionate about his wines and justifiably proud of their quality. He farms about 7 hectares – roughly 18 acres – high in the hills of Irpinia, and he oversees his lovely Fiano from blossom to barrel. Though, in fact, he doesn’t use barrels: His Fiano ferments and ages entirely in stainless steel. He and his wife started their winery in 1997, but he didn’t bottle anything under his own name until 2004 – and he attracted attention right from the start. Now he is a frequent winner of Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association.

2012 was a lovely white wine vintage in Campania, and Picariello has made the most of it. His wine is medium-bodied – almost full-bodied for a white – and round and soft in the mouth, with abundant but totally unobtrusive acidity to keep it vivacious. This wine struck us immediately by its purity and intensity: White flower and hazelnut scents, and apple/pear toned fruit, with hazelnut undertones and the generous minerality of its volcanic soils. It was an intriguing, complex wine from the very first taste, and one that constantly grew and changed in the glass. For all its immediate pleasure, it also hinted an ability to age and mature in very interesting ways. I’ve not tasted any bottles of Picariello’s more than five years old, but they all seemed still very fresh, with years before them. For anyone with a taste for fine, mature white wines, I’d suggest that Picariello’s Fiano is a name to add to your cellar list.

It’s being a long, hard winter, but happily there are ways to escape it that don’t involve long plane trips.