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I Beni di Batasiolo is the name of a family firm of Barolo producers, and a very accurate name it is. Beni are what we would call estates or properties, in this case specifically cru vineyards, and the Batasiolo family operates several of them, which it vinifies separately as quite distinctive single-vineyard bottlings. These include Vigneto Bofani in Bussia; the equally well known Brunate in La Morra; Cerequio, also in La Morra; Boscareto in Serralunga; and Briccolina, also in Serralunga.

That’s a nice family of wines indeed, so when Fiorenzo Dogliani, the proprietor and president of the firm, and Palm Bay, its American importer, held a comparative tasting of all these crus I was very happy to attend. That was one of the best decisions I’ve made lately: The event was both enjoyable and illuminating.

That was not only because of the crus involved but also because of the vintage to be shown: 2013. This was a great Nebbiolo vintage, and Batasiolo, which likes to hold back its wines until they are readier to drink than most Barolo new releases (before Covid, it sold primarily to restaurants), was just now releasing 2013s. Lucky me.

Not entirely by the way, Mr. Dogliani, who was presenting the wines, mentioned that his 2022 vintage is “fantastic,” though he couldn’t predict when it will be market-ready. Nebbiolo, he said, is greatly benefitting from Piedmont’s warming climate. That’s at least one spot where global warming is doing us some good.

Before we began the red wine tasting, we sipped a lovely Gavi di Gavi, Batasiolo’s 2021 Granée, a really fine Cortese – saline, mineral-inflected, and sapid, and a great palate-bracer to prepare us for the battery of red wines. Then to work.
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First up was Barolo Bussia Vigneto Bofani (unless I mention otherwise, all the reds I tasted were 2013 vintage).

This was an auspicious beginning, a lovely Barolo, with a deep, dark-cherry aroma, medium-weight in the mouth, with flavors of cherries and undergrowth, beautifully balanced. Abundant tannins, nicely softened by time and held in check by a lively acidity.
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The next wine was from Brunate, perhaps the most celebrated site in La Morra.

It was markedly different from the preceding Monforte d’Alba wine – higher-toned in both aroma and taste, and showing more basic black cherry flavors. It too was beautifully balanced – that would turn out to be almost a Batasiolo signature – even though it felt bigger in the mouth than the Bofani.
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The third bottle was Cerequio, another La Morra wine. Despite Cerequio’s great reputation, I’ve never been a big fan of its wines. They have always seemed to me a little lacking, almost a bit hollow at the core. Well, this bottle changed my mind about that: It was the best Cerequio I’ve ever had, excellent Barolo in every respect, from its cherry and cedar nose through to its very long, fresh finish.

Batasiolo’s own note says “the Barolos from this vineyard are a lighter style, perfumed and velvety, with exceptionally long ageability.” That seems quite right to me.
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The next example was Boscareto, from Serralunga d’Alba. Batasiolo says this vineyard “produces a bold style of Barolo that is elegant with great body.”  Dogliani described it as “our most traditional Barolo.”

I found it lovely on the palate, but I would describe it more as restrained and, as Dogliani rightly said, very elegant rather than bold, with a beautifully long finish, still quite fresh, and promising very long life. I agree that this is classic Barolo, and of a very high order.
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The last bottle was Briccolina, which Batasiolo describes as a “well-structured, full-bodied wine that can age for 15 to 20 years.”

It is the only one of Batasiolo’s Barolos that spends any time in barriques, which I hasten to say I could not taste in the wine – so much the better!  While this is not a vineyard I am at all familiar with, this seemed to me quite a classic Barolo, sprightly and balanced, with a lovely nose and palate.

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The final wine of the tasting was one that contravened Batasiolo’s estimate of a 15- to 20-year life span for Briccolina: It was a Briccolina 1996, and it was a great wine. Lively, elegant, and fine, with an ethereal nose, a beautiful Barolo palate, and an incredibly long finish, this was the first wine of the day that I, with my fondness for mature wine, regarded as really ready to drink, with years of life still before it. There couldn’t have been a better way to end the tasting, or to show what Batasiolo’s wines are capable of.

For those of you who might want to try this experience for yourself: Batasiolo will be shipping six-packs of this tasting (the five 2013s and the 2021 Gavi) to the US very soon.

 

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The Cogno winery is probably not as familiar to most Barolo fans as names like Mascarello or Conterno, but in my opinion, it’s in the same league, right up there with the best of Alba’s elite. The name it bears, Elvio Cogno, is the name of its founder, a top-notch winemaker who many decades ago left his position at Marcarini, where he had been responsible for some of its finest vintages, to establish his own winery on a prime hilltop in Novello. That’s probably the least known of Barolo’s communes, but the Cogno winery has put it on the map.
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Cogno’s winemaker, for some time now, has been Valter Fissore, Elvio’s son-in-law. With his wife Nadia, they have kept Elvio’s spirit alive, and if anything have raised the quality of the wines. This is a winery that stands in the top tier of Piedmont accomplishment.

I don’t say that lightly, but every time I pour a Cogno wine, I taste the truth of it. These are wines of grace and elegance wrapped around depth and power. Classic Barolo aromas and flavors, to be sure, but also layers of them, so each sip seems to open up a new vista. That’s good grapes, good terroir, and masterly winemaking.

Cogno has many claims to fame, but not the least is that it produces the only 100% Nebbiolo Rosé in the Piedmont. That’s not the color of the wine: it’s the name of the grape. The Nebbiolo clone situation is beyond complex and bordering on bewildering, with the possibilities of numerous sub-varieties compounded by a jumble of regional names for each of them.

For years, orthodoxy held that there were three main clones: Nebbiolo Lampia, Nebbiolo Michet, and Nebbiolo Rosé.

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That apple cart was thoroughly upset about ten years ago, when ampelographical research established that Nebbiolo Rosé was definitely not a clone of Nebbiolo but a whole separate variety, perhaps even a parent of Lampia (of which Michet now seems to be a genetic variant). This is a situation that most wine journalists have simply chosen to ignore – as have, apparently, all the official wine bodies, as no Barolo containing Rosé has yet to be declassified.

Cogno’s Vigna Elena still sports its Barolo DOCG, so I guess the tacit agreement is that Rosé still counts as Nebbiolo. Except for Vigna Elena, Rosé, though beautifully fragrant, has only ever been a small fraction of most producers’ Barolo. That’s because of its lighter color, long regarded as a serious flaw in a red wine. We are happily over that particular fetish and can now appreciate the special beauty of a wine like Vigna Elena.

I had the pleasure of verifying that for myself just a few nights ago, when Diane prepared a special dinner as a setting for an – as it turned out to be – equally special bottle of Cogno’s Barolo Vigna Elena 2004.
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I was just bowled over by this wine. Its aroma popped out the second I started pouring it, a rich, intense fragrance of black cherry and black raspberry. Those flavors and that intensity continued on the palate. There, it felt light-bodied, but at the same time mouth-filling and deep, with a long, long finish of dried fruits. The black cherry component became more and more prominent as the wine opened in the glass.

This Vigna Elena was perfectly at home with our first course, a country paté, and it loved the rare beef that followed. With the cheese course – a very young Tuscan Pecorino and a mature Taleggio – it got all fat and sassy. At no point did I get the impression that this wine had yet reached its peak:  There was just so much freshness to its fruit that I would guess that it is still at least ten years away from full maturity, maybe more. This was simply a great bottle of Barolo. Hats off to Valter and Nadia.

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The Elvio Cogno winery is no one-trick pony: It makes the whole line of Langhe wines – several different Barolos beyond Vigna Elena, a Barbaresco, an estimable Langhe Nebbiolo Montegrilli*, a Dolcetto, and an eye-opening Barbera from pre-phylloxera vines, a real rarity in this part of the wine world. Valter Fissore has even embarked on an effort to save one of Piedmont’s rare, endangered white grapes of quality, Nascetta, which Cogno bottles as Anas-Cëtta. It’s a bit of an oddity in this land of red wines, but quite intriguing, and well worth trying. As is, in my opinion, anything under the Cogno label.

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Shortly after I finished drafting this post, I discovered a bottle of Cogno’s 2005 Montegrilli Nebbiolo that I had inadvertently stored away – inadvertently because I usually think of the ideal drinking window for Langhe Nebbiolo as being 4 to 8 years from harvest. I don’t think of it as a wine for long keeping and maturation. Boy, was I wrong. I have seriously underestimated Nebbiolo, or Cogno, or both. I opened this bottle – without any great expectations – for a simple weekday dinner, and it was wonderful. At 17 years of age, it was still quite live and enjoyable, very elegant on the palate and just brimming with characteristic Nebbiolo flavors. If I had been tasting it blind, I would have thought it a good Barolo just beginning to mature. Another tip of the hat to Valter and Nadia!

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Grignolino Rising

Grignolino is the name of an uncommon indigenous Italian grape variety and the wine it makes. Both, obscure for many years, are starting to cause a bit of a stir in wine circles.

It’s an ancient variety, with solid documentation of its presence and importance back to the Middle Ages: In all probability, it’s much older than that. Native to the Monferrato zone in the Piedmont, it is now almost rare, though it was once one of the most widely grown varieties and most prestigious wines of that whole area of Italy – a zone that now includes the far more famous Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera. Indeed, many of the fields that now grow Barbera were once the home of Grignolino, which has been steadily ousted by that heartier and more prolifically bearing variety.

Grignolino grape clusters

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It’s a wonder to me that any Grignolino is cultivated at all. Everything I read about makes it sound like a horror of a grape to grow. In her Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, who shows almost no regard for the variety, notes that it ripens unevenly and is “susceptible to powdery mildew and especially to botrytis bunch rot and sour rot.”

Ian d’Agata, who likes Grignolino’s wines, gives more details about its problems in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy, saying:

  • it needs very sunny sites, which puts it in direct competition with more profitable varieties like Nebbiolo, and “it also needs well-ventilated sites, to ward off the risk of rot due to its compact bunch;”
  • it “has a huge amount of intravarietal variability;”
  • “many of the older grapevines are also virus-affected, and the cultivars suffer from millerandage;”
  • it “succumbs easily to common grapevine diseases and yields generally very little juice.”

Given all that, you might wonder why anyone goes to the trouble of growing it.

Yet many winemakers I’ve spoken to have a real fondness for the variety. Bartolo Mascarello and Pio Boffa, I remember, had an affection for the wine, and both made splendid examples of it. Boffa felt strongly that it formed an important element in Pio Cesare’s identity as an authentic and traditional Piedmontese winery.

Because of growers like Mascarello and Pio Cesare, small but significant pockets of Grignolino still survive, principally in the Monferrato zone, and there is now a small but significant revival of interest in the grape. That’s because the wine it makes is, at its best, distinctive and distinguished. A good majority of the wine lovers who get a chance to taste it love it.

Ian d’Agata, for instance, rhapsodizes about it. He calls it “a lovely variety, one of the prettiest in Italy” and says it exudes “a lovely aroma of fresh flowers, small red berries . . . and spices” and “it is blessed with high, refreshing acidity and crisp tannins that leave the palate feeling fresh and clean.”

That touches some of the important bases for Grignolino’s virtues, but to my mind it also leaves out some important considerations. It makes Grignolino seem too simply pretty, too frail. For sure, Grignolino is the very opposite of a powerhouse wine: grace and nuance are what it is about. But it doesn’t lack guts.

A bottle of Oreste Buzio’s 2020 Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese that I opened last week showed a lovely light strawberry-ish color and aroma. In the mouth, it was strawberry-ish too: light and refreshing, but still with evident depth and complexity. It made a delightful dinner companion to a grilled scamorza first course and was equally at home with a dish of pasta all’amatriciana.
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It would be easy to describe Grignolino as a perfect summer wine, but that would underestimate it severely: Its big acidity and equally big tannin make it adaptable to all sorts of food, as I found when opening another Grignolino, a bottle of La Casaccia’s Poggeto, also Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese, also 2020.

Visually, aromatically, and palatally, this was a perfect example of the breed. Though not an optimum companion to a rare steak, it dealt reasonably with the meat, and then bloomed with the cheese course. It almost made love to a delicious, runny Robiola. And it even matched comfortably with the plum cake that followed. This is a fine, versatile wine, not only at home with dishes of all sorts, but also completely enjoyable all by itself.
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You may happen on a bottle of Grignolino that is very dark, perhaps even with high alcohol, but that is an aberration. The classic Grignolino is light in color, just around 13 degrees of alcohol, and easy and refreshing on the palate, yet structured and substantial with all that acidity and tannin. It’s an odd red wine, an outlier, a maverick – maybe even a paradox. That’s all part of its considerable charm.

Despite the growing interest in Grignolino, there is still not a lot of it even in Italy, so it won’t be easy to find in the US. If you come across one, do try it. It’s very different from most of the red wines you’re used to – and we know what a great pleasure it is to find a new wine to add to our repertory.

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How many times have I walked up Fifth Avenue in the shadow of the Empire State Building and never even noticed it was there? Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it sure fosters inattention. I was made acutely aware of that this week, when I pulled out a bottle of Fontanafredda’s Vigna La Rosa for dinner with some friends.
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It was a 2004, and it was just lovely – not huge (Fontanafredda never is), but velvety in the mouth, with restrained dried cherry/berry and sottobosco flavors, and a long, polished finish. It struck me, as I was telling our guests a little about the wine, how much I take Fontanafredda for granted, and how little attention I pay it. It’s more than time that I made up for that sin of omission.

Fontanafredda is one of Piedmont’s largest and most historic wineries. It’s sited on prime land in the commune of Serralunga, which gives it some major advantages to start with: That is serious Barolo country. Wine people love a good story, and Fontanafredda has one of the best: It was founded by the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele – he of the huge wedding-cake monument in Rome – himself. In 1858 he bought the property and set up a villa on it for the love of his life, his then mistress and later second wife, Rosa Vercellana, La Bella Rosina, she for whom the firm’s home – and best – vineyard is now named.
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Serious wine production on the estate was instituted by their son, Emanuele Alberto, Count of Mirafiore. He pioneered in promoting Barolo and insisted on quality in his wines. Both the pioneering and the pursuit of quality have marked Fontanafredda ever since, through all the vicissitudes of phylloxera and the great depression, two world wars, and several changes of ownership. The estate is now firmly in Piedmontese hands, having been taken over by Oscar Farinetti, the proprietor of Eataly, and a very serious promoter of all gustatory things Piedmontese.

Fontanafredda now consists of 120 acres of vineyards, all certified organic, though not all on the home property. There are parcels in Dogliani and other places for the production of Barbaresco, Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo Langhe, and other typical Piedmontese wines both red and white. But the main focus of Fontanafredda – especially in the home vineyards – is Barolo..

The firm bottles several different Barolos, ranging from its classic blend, from several vineyards; through a commune wine, Serralunga d’Alba; to the individual crus, Vigneti Pararfada, La Delizia, La Villa, Lazzarito, and La Rosa. La Rosa should be considered the flagship wine, though Lazzarito can run it a very close second. All are very traditional Barolos, very well tended in the fields and the cellars, and each aged in a different regimen of skin contact, malolactic fermentation, and selection of woods for different periods. Despite its size, this is a very hands-on operation, as the consistently high quality of all the wines shows.
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Anyone trying to learn the classic contours of Barolo will find a few bottles of Fontanafredda a very valuable lesson: a short course in history and connoisseurship.

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Burton Anderson has a new independently published anthology/memoir, Vino II. It is available on Amazon, and if you love Italian wine, you should get it, read it, and prepare for the exam: It will certainly be on any test I administer.

Sorry: that’s just the old teacher in me asserting himself.

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Vino II
is a time trip back to what I more and more think of as the heroic age of Italian winemaking, when the sleeping giant finally awakened and shrugged off the rust and dust of centuries. Back in the 1960s, names like Sassicaia and Tignanello were scarcely known in Italy outside of Tuscany, and you could search for days in the best wine shops to find a Barolo or Barbaresco with a vineyard name on the label. All such stuff was in the future, and that future is what Anderson’s book is all about.

Anderson was not only an eyewitness but also, if you will, a catalytic figure, who by his interactions with winemakers and by his publications helped shape that future. The original Vino, published in 1980, was brilliant, nearly prophetic, in its selection of makers and wines and regions to present and explain. For most readers, it opened a whole new view of an Italian wine world that stretched far beyond Chianti in a straw flask and Verdicchio in a fish-shaped bottle.
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Vino II
chronicles the great renaissance of Italian wine that followed. Anderson and I are just about the same age, but there is no question that, for English-speaking persons who love Italian wine, he is the father of us all.

How to talk about Vino II? It’s in part an anthology of articles that Anderson has written over the decades, all of them timely at the moment of writing and almost all of them just as relevant and telling today. These are woven into a chronological account of the revival of Italian wine and Anderson’s engagement with and too-often unrequited love for it. No: scratch that. Italian wine rarely let Anderson down; it was the commercial world of wine publishing that often did.

Anderson as a young man took tremendous financial risks to follow his love of the wines and the people who make them. You would think the importance of his work – the original Vino was and is a landmark book is the history of Italian wine – would have assured him a comfortable income from which to carry on, but that was never the case. Even the “raters” – the 100-point-score wine writers whom he despises — probably are better known today than he is; and he – who writes only in English – is probably better known in Italy than in either the US or the UK. Anderson is mordantly aware of the ironies here. Nevertheless, though he may have made some unfortunate financial decisions, he has also made some brilliant life choices, and we are the beneficiaries of those.

His stories, in Vino II, of conversations and dinners with the likes of Giacomo Bologna and Costantino Rozzi, with almost mythical winemakers like Giorgio Grai, owners and winemakers like Sergio Manetti, Angelo Gaja, and many, many more, all read like excerpts from the journals of Rabelais in Italy. Moreover, they illustrate very clearly how wide-open and wild-westish the world of Italian wine had become in the sixties and seventies of what is now the last century. Everything lay in the future: The present was all flux and change, with no surety about what would happen next. There were giants in those day, and Anderson ate and drank with them.

This book was a major nostalgia trip for me, but I know that for many people it will serve as an excellent – and vivid – introduction to the story of how Italian wine achieved the prestige it now has, and even more importantly how and why it has become so complex. The most amateur of wine drinkers knows to expect complexity from Burgundy and knows that there is a long tradition behind the most seemingly arcane of distinctions in French wine, but most wine lovers – and I include here the great majority of wine “professionals” – remain basically clueless about the great diversity of Italy’s noble varieties and the incredibly diverse geography and geology of the country that created and preserved them. As was true of Vino in 1980, Vino II is a great place to start pleasurably learning about them. Not to mention savoring the tales of the great individualists – and I emphatically include Burton Anderson among them – who created the marvelous cornucopia of fine Italian wine we enjoy today.

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This is my final post for 2021. It presents the last of my 12 special cellar selections for the year, Quintarelli’s 1981 Amarone. What a spectacular series it turned out to be!

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When I got this Amarone, somewhere back in the middle ‘80s, I remember thinking that I would have to put it away for a while. I’m pretty sure that I was thinking that the “while” in question would be about 5 years, or maybe, since this was a Quintarelli, 10. I’m sure I had nothing like 40 years in mind. That just happened, as year after year I considered tasting the wine and decided to give it a little time yet, until this particular Amarone got pushed back into the Do Not Disturb portion of my brain, and there it stayed for a few decades.

At last its moment came round, and I was worried alternatively that I had waited too long and that I was still rushing it.

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That’s a legitimate worry when Amarone is concerned. These are notoriously long-lived wines, and in some vintages they can be very slow maturing. 1981 is, I suspect, one of those vintages. In the Veneto that year, the grapes matured very slowly on the vines, so in some spots the harvest was late, and required several passes through the vineyards to bring in the grapes as they came ready. Fermentation was also long and slow. So ‘81 showed itself early as a wine that would demand patience.

You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking 40 years was enough, but I couldn’t be absolutely certain. I’ve opened 20- and 25-year-old Amarones only to find they were years, perhaps decades, away from full maturity: drinkable, of course, because of their intense fruit, but still tasting and feeling like young wines, and lacking the mature, complex flavor I hoped for, as well as the balance, depth, and, above all, the velvet mouth-feel of fully mature Amarone.

To this point, the oldest Amarone I’d drunk was a 47-or 48-year-old Bertani that celebrated my 75th birthday, and I remember it vividly as one of the most profound wines I’ve ever tasted, with flavors and aromas so deep and concentrated they seemed endless. The empty bottle still smelled wonderful two days later: I could hardly bring myself to throw it out.

Quintarelli doesn’t have the history with Amarone that Bertani does, but Giuseppe Quintarelli in his lifetime became an acknowledged master of the wine: A colleague once quipped that Quintarelli was a black belt in Amarone. Some knowledgeable critics still regard him as the greatest winemaker in the history of Amarone, and I find it hard to argue with that. The “lesser” wines of his that I’ve tasted — Valpolicella and a handful of IGT wines – have always been impressive, big and rich and deep, with a thoroughly craftsmanlike character: superbly made wines.

That latter characteristic is crucial, I think, because Amarone, like Champagne, is an oddity in the universe of wine: It is a wine that owes more to technique than to terroir, more to art than to nature. You start with the late harvest and the number of passes through the vines the winemaker chooses to make. Compound that with the degree of noble rot the winemaker encourages/discourages/prohibits. Then add in the timing of drying and pressing the grapes, and the choice of vehicle in which fermentation occurs. Then whether he does or doesn’t permit malolactic fermentation, plus all the subsequent decisions about handling and aging the wine.

All these craftsmanly decisions affect the wine in more profound ways than its terroir does. All are the techniques of an artist whose chosen medium is the juice of grapes and the wood of barrels. Those appassionati who pursue Amarone are winemakers in the most profound sense, and the resulting wine reflects their skill and artistry more significantly than it does the character of the grapes that go into it. Champagne is the only other wine I know of which you can say that.

Well, the moment of truth arrived, the cork was pulled, the wine was poured, swirled, sniffed, and tasted. The immediate results: two simultaneous, totally unrehearsed “Wow!”s. No kidding: off the scale.

Here are my first five words about its aroma: honey; raisins; prunes; chocolate; chestnut. Here is my first tasting note: “all of the above in velvet!”  This was simply an amazing wine, of elegant power, depth, and duration. It rolled right over foie gras and barely noticed a rich, fruity, pan-roasted duck. I find it hard to imagine a dish that would challenge it – perhaps high-mountain game, like chamois?  This wine was wonderful, still fresh and rich, and simultaneously complex and deep. It is unlike any other Italian or French wine I know, and made a powerhouse conclusion to my 12 cellar selections for the year.

For those who may be curious, here the other 11, in the order tasted, each name linked to my post about it. There is a lot of fine drinking here. In all honesty, I’m not sure what I learned from the whole endeavor, except confirmation that I love mature wine, and that it is well worth the effort of putting some bottles away for your own and their old age.

Happy New Year to all my readers, and many of them to come!

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January

2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé

February
2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja

March
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal

April
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio

May
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana 

June
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)

July
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann

August
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato

September
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray

October
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach 

November
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli

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It is no secret that I love grappa. I’ve been a devotee for years, and I’ve witnessed – and to some extent chronicled – grappa’s rise from near embarrassment when reluctantly served in serious restaurants (it was thought of then as transalpine truckers’ breakfast) to ultra-fashionable sip (the period when, as one fellow devotee put it, many grappas seemed to be more about glass blowing than drinking) to, finally, settle down as a fine brandy to be routinely served and consumed in restaurants of any scale anywhere (well, almost anywhere).

A selection of grappas at a restaurant in Italy now

Along that trail, I’ve tasted many different grappas, made from many different grape varieties, since the distillation of grappa has spread from its northern homeland all throughout Italy. I’ve tasted grappas right from the still, and grappas aged for years in barrels of various kinds of wood. I’ve even tasted a few grappas not made from grapes, a trend I hope died quietly and quickly. Through it all, I’ve always preferred somewhat old-fashioned grappas. When I ask for one in an Italian restaurant, I describe my preference as chiara, forte – non morbida – e con fuoco: clear, strong, and with a little fire.

I don’t mind if it’s made from blended vinaccia or from single-grape pomace, as long as it isn’t sweet. I have even been known to request a grappa in the middle of a meal – it was a very big meal – to clear a little space for the food yet to come. If Normans and Bretons can do that with their p’tite calva, I don’t see why it should be scandalous for Italians to do so with their native brandy. And I can report that after a few minutes of buzz, everyone else at my table also ordered one. It was a very big meal.

These days, when I want a grappa that tastes of the old days – the best of the old days, to be sure – I pour a glass of Marolo’s Dedicata al Padre, a mixed vinaccia grappa of great intensity and a little touch of – what to call it? – funkiness, odor of the farm, goût de terroir, just basic earthiness?  All are true, and all part of the rich character of this fine grappa.

Marolo is a serious grappa distiller, and its line includes all the principal grapes of the Barolo area and then some, almost all of which it distills monovarietally. Of that large range of single-grape grappas, my hands-down favorite is Marolo’s Grappa di Barbera, a grappa chiara, forte, e con fuoco if there ever was one.

Some of Marolo’s grappas are available here in the States – Dedicata al Padre, for instance – but the Grappa di Barbera is not, to my dismay. I nursed my last bottle of it for almost two years, through all the Covid travel restrictions and interruptions, until I could get to Italy and replace it. I did so at my first opportunity, walking from my Rome hotel to the holy sanctuary of Enoteca Costantini and cradling my prize until I got it home intact.

I cannot tell you the pleasure of my first sip – the wonderful fruity aroma, the little tingle on the tongue, the big mouth-filling flavor, the long aftertaste, the genial warmth spreading throughout my whole body, the comforting feeling of completeness that little glass gives me. It’s just a beautiful grappa, and I’m sorry – really, genuinely sorry – if that means nothing to you.

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I don’t have much 25-year-old-Barolo stored away. I like Barolo too much, and I tend, despite my best judgment, to drink it too young – just to see how it’s getting along, you know. This bottle I was hoping would be very special: It’s from one of the most traditional growers and winemakers in the whole zone.

I don’t suppose either of those – producer or appellation – need much comment from me. Barolo is one of the most famous of Italian wines. It’s vinified entirely from Nebbiolo grapes grown in a very tight zone just southwest of the city of Alba in the eastern Piedmont. Borgogno is one of the longest-established and best-known firms in the area. Headquartered in the town of Barolo, Borgogno was run by the same family from 1761 until 2008. In that year, it was acquired by the Farinetti family, who have dedicated themselves to perpetuating the house techniques and style. So: still cement tanks for fermentation, still big – and I do mean big – Slavonic oak barrels for aging, still meticulous, increasingly organic techniques in the fields and the grape handling, still minimal intervention in the cellar. Borgogno’s character and reputation seem secure.
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In most vintage charts of Barolo, the years 1996 through 2001 are a series of exclamation points, each of them given whatever is the top rating in that particular chart. On Poderi Colla’s chart, which is one I trust, those vintages are all five-star. 1995 doesn’t quite make that level: it’s only given four stars, which is normally pretty impressive, but looks puny compared to the string of vintages that followed it. Nevertheless, I’ve often gotten great pleasure out of such overshadowed vintages. (Economy-conscious buyers take note: many such under-rated vintages make excellent buys, whether for immediate drinking or long-term aging.)  As for my 1995 – if Borgogno thought enough of the vintage to make a riserva, my bottle might be a treasure indeed.

Since we don’t drink a bottle this potentially precious every day, Diane and I thought long and hard about a meal to set it off properly. We finally opted for forward flavors and simple preparations:  For a first course, Diane would make a classic gougère; for a main course, a hanger steak – a very gamey, juicy cut – simply grilled and accompanied by a sauté of leeks and Marconi peppers, and some cremini mushrooms in a little bit of a spicy sauce. Dessert, if we and the wine made it that far, would be pears and gorgonzola al cucchaio – well blued ‘zola so creamy and runny that it’s scooped rather than cut.

Not to keep you in suspense, we got a winner. From the moment I pulled the cork, I knew we were in for a treat: beautiful fruity aromas – raspberry and cherry especially – popped right out.

I let the wine breathe about two hours in the bottle before pouring it alongside the warm gougère. Lovely, just lovely: balanced and serene, velvet on the tongue, with a whole palate of fruit and forest flavors.

Chestnut and mushroom notes emerged as it developed in the glass: these became especially prominent with the beef and its accompanying mushrooms.

The wine tasted wonderful with everything: seemingly, nothing could disturb its perfect equilibrium. This was probably the most prominent and important characteristic of this 26-year-old Barolo: its harmoniousness, what I meant earlier by calling it serene. It conveyed an amazing and almost reassuring sense of completeness, as if it could not be anything other than the velvet nectar it was.

.Neither we nor the Barolo made it to the cheese course.

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Just a few days back, Diane and I prepared a nearly-down-home dinner for two friends who share our tastes for simpler foods and nicely aged wines. The evening’s secondo was a giant braciole – a butterflied flank steak stuffed with prosciutto, parsley, garlic, raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, egg, and grated cheese; browned in olive oil with onion, celery, and carrot; then braised in wine, broth, and its own good juices.
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That’s a lovely, homey dish, and the wine I matched with it shared those qualities: a 2004 Barbaresco from the Produttori del Barbaresco. Not a cru wine, not even a riserva: just the basic Produttori bottling, which had been living in my far-less-than-perfect storage for lo! these many years.

It was ambrosial.

Here’s what its back label — back labels are generally the abode of medical warnings and wine misinformation – says:

Made entirely from Nebbiolo grapes, Barbaresco is a wine of great complexity and elegance that is well suited for long ageing. Aromas of black cherry and violet combine with spicy notes to create its distinct taste, supported by firm tannins and a long finish.

Not a syllable of misinformation there: That description is spot on.

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It was not simply the multiplex flavors of the wine and the way they meshed with our meal that was so impressive, but also its perfect balance and maturity. It wasn’t huge and forceful, but medium-bodied and supple, ready and willing to engage any food we might match with it. Those are to my mind and palate classic Nebbiolo characteristics, beautifully expressed in the impressive 2004 vintage, and captured perfectly by the many growers of the Produttori.

 

Produttori del Barbaresco is probably the best wine co-op in any wine zone in the world. It has the advantage, of course, of its zone and its native variety:  It would be hard for some other chunk of the wine world to equal the quality of either Barbaresco or Nebbiolo. But the success of Produttori is the result of more than that. It’s a combination of the devotion and care of its growers and the canny direction provided by its long-time manager, Aldo Vacca.

Vintage after vintage, for over 20 years now, Vacca has with great discernment channeled the grapes the growers bring in through all the stages from fermentation to bottling, making the choices of which should be separated for cru bottling and which for classic Barbaresco, and which should be put aside for extra aging and riserva designation.

You can appreciate the difficulty of that task, and the palatal acuity and enological knowledge it demands, when you realize that Produttori’s growers work vineyards in every one of Barbaresco’s nine prized subzones – Asili, Montefico, Montestefano, Muncagotta, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo – each of which possesses a different character that yields a different wine. I’ve found it impossible to think which I like best (though if absolutely pushed I might lean towards Rabajà in the greatest years and Montestefano in merely excellent ones).
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I’ve been lucky enough, at varying times, to taste several different vintages of all these wines with Aldo Vacca, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic distinctions among them are fascinating. I can only admire the kind of knowledge Vacca has, to distinguish the characteristics of very young wines so as to judge which should be blended with which, or which will reward the solitary splendor of a cru designation.

That’s the kind of expertise that created my simple ’04 Produttori Barbaresco and all the pleasure it gave us. That’s the kind of expertise, exercised on the wonderful Nebbiolo fruit of the Barbaresco zone, that makes every bottle of the Produttori line a fine wine bargain. That’s not a statement I would be willing to make about many other wineries, however esteemed.

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I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Vallana’s wines, and I was very much looking forward to tasting this bottle of the 2009 Campi Raudii, which I’d selected as one of my 12 special wines for 2021. There are many reasons for that.
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For one, I find the zone from which the wine originates a fascinating one. It is literally sub-Alpine: It lies in the shadow of Monte Rossa, a peak in the Italian Alps. Its high altitudes and varied soils and exposures produce a Nebbiolo grape very different from that grown in the more famous, more southerly, Barolo and Barbaresco zones. Up near Lake Maggiore, the variety is known as Spanna, and the wine it yields, while less robust than its southern cousins, seems even more elegant, more beautifully structured, and more delicately fruity. It’s usually quite enjoyable from its youth, but most Spanna-derived wines are capable of long aging and intriguing development. I’d like to call it a natural connoisseur’s wine, but that once-honorific word is probably the kiss of death in these fake populist times.

Another reason for my interest in this bottle is that I’m curious to see how the Vallana wines are developing, now that they are crafted by a team of young folk, the siblings Francis, Marina, and Miriam, guided always by their mother Giuseppina.

Giuseppina, Marina, Francis, and Miriam (a few years ago)

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When I first encountered Vallana wines, decades ago, they were made by the present generation’s grandfather, Bernardo, who was famous for the quality and longevity his bottles achieved. Burton Anderson, in his landmark book Vino, waxed ecstatic about the man and his wines, emphasizing the uniqueness of both. That is a formidable heritage to live up to, and I really wanted to see how well the new generation now responsible for cultivation and vinification was measuring up.

And for one more reason: Unlike all the family’s other wines, which carry various DOC appellations (e. g., Gattinara, Boca, Colline Novarese), Campi Raudii is called only Vino Rosso, a designation the family opted for so they could have one wine with which to tinker and experiment, free of strict variety regulation. Not that they appear thus far to have done anything very radical – but more of that later.

For this highly anticipated bottle, Diane prepared an imposing Porterhouse steak, and our Greenmarket conveniently provided the first of the season’s local spinach and, even better, the first of the season’s morels.

The latter are always a special treat, and stand in my estimation as high in the fungus world as Nebbiolo in the grape universe. Morels, chanterelles, porcini, and truffles: That’s the seasonal fungus calendar. All delicious, and at least three of them still within a human price range – as are, it is important to note, all of Vallana’s wines.

So: That, with a few good cheeses to finish, made up the simple, tasty, and substantial meal for my almost-12-year-old Campi Raudii to accompany. Which it did, very felicitously. Diane and I were struck by how very gentle the wine seemed as it interacted perfectly with the meat-sweetness of that succulent piece of beef, the herbal sweetness and acidity of the fresh spinach, and the woodsy savoriness of the mushrooms.

We were also struck very strongly by the wine’s freshness, which Diane perceived as tasting of currants and I of raspberry: a wave of light, delightful fruit atop a mature wine’s acid/tannin balance. This Campi Raudii was an extraordinary wine, clearly with years, perhaps decades, of life still before it.
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In an email, Marina informed me that 2009 was a classic vintage in her area, with no extremes for the vines to deal with (unlike the hot 2011 vintage or the cold 2014). Vallana usually vinifies Campi Raudii in a very traditional manner for the Alto Piemonte, as a Nebbiolo and Vespolina blend – about 20% Vespolina, Marina says – fermented in cement. Most of it was bottled without ever seeing any oak, and released young. Some was held back and aged briefly in old oak, and then bottled and labelled as a library release.

I’ve had my bottle stashed away for some years, and it’s not called a library release, so I presume that it’s a sample of the cement-fermented, unoaked wine – which makes its balance and freshness and vitality all the more impressive. This is minimal-intervention winemaking at its best. It just seems that Nebbiolo grown in the Alto Piemonte has an aptitude for long and graceful life, and Marina and her family have an aptitude for expressing it.

And that answers in a strong affirmative all the questions I had about Vallana’s wines. They’re still great, and the kids are doing just fine. Bernardo would be proud.

Marina and Francis (now)

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