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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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Giuseppe Mascarello’s Monprivato is one of a distinguished handful of Italian wines that are rightly spoken of as legendary. Bottled as a separate cru since the early 1970s, Monprivato is easily the most renowned vineyard of the Castiglione Falletto commune, and it is for all practical purposes a Mascarello family monopoly.

To give you some sense of its importance, I can do no better than to quote Kerin O’Keefe, from her authoritative Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine:

The name Giuseppe Mascarello is practically synonymous with that of Monprivato, indisputably one of the very best crus not just in Castiglione Falletto, but in all of Barolo. . . . Mascarello now owns 93 percent of the entire surface area, and they are the only ones to use the Monprivato name on their labels. . . . The vineyard area was already referred to in land registries in 1666, and [Renato] Ratti gave it his equivalent of Grand Cru status on his vineyard classification map [1975].

The Mascarello family have obviously long recognized the outstanding character of the Monprivato site, and they treat its grapes with the attention they so amply reward. The wine is fermented for more than three weeks, with musts constantly and gently pumped over the cap to obtain thorough extraction of color and aromas. Aging is in large Slavonian oak. Monprivato is a very traditionally made Barolo, which in my opinion contributes mightily to its extraordinary depth and longevity.

Its near-legendary longevity was one of the key reasons I wanted to look in and see how my single bottle of 2004 was doing. 2004 was a very fine, in some hands great, vintage in Barolo, but – for my palate – a very forward one. The wines were soft and drinkable from the get-go, with – again, for my palate – extraordinarily approachable tannins, and I wondered how such wines would age. Would they mature at an accelerated pace?  Or would they go dumb for some years, and then resume a normal Barolo pattern of maturation? This inquiring mind wanted to know.

So I stood the bottle up for about a week to allow its sediments to settle; Diane spit-roasted a duck; and we pulled the cork, poured, sniffed, sipped – and smiled. Monprivato lived up to its reputation. Lucky us! It loved the duck: the crisp skin and unctuous fats, the moist, dark meat – all played right into its metaphoric hands.

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The tannins remained soft, but had no trouble dealing with either the duck’s fat or its flesh, and the wine’s fruit just soared, an octave higher than the rich duck flavors.

As many readers of this blog know, I distrust tasting notes (they’re good for one person, one time, under a usually unreproducible set of circumstances), but I do want to give you some sense of what this ’04 Monprivato offered. First, the nose was a classic Barolo mélange of tar, cherry, and roses – just lovely and enticing. The palate was soft, the fruit almost sweet: black cherry interlaced with tar and earth and little hints of strawberry. The overall attack was elegant and the flavor very long-lasting. I’d call it a five-star wine, beautifully structured and still fresh. It’s clearly going to last for a long, long time.

Did it have any flaws? Well, that depends on what you call a flaw. This is a 15-year-old Barolo that gave no hint of white truffle at all. I think I remember that once upon a time, when the world and I were young, 15-year-old Barolos used to give at least small whiffs of the rich scent of white Piedmont truffles, a scent that in its fullness I and many others back then regarded as characteristic of fully mature Barolo. Has climate change so altered the vines’ development that that heady pleasure is now and forever a thing of the past? I sincerely hope not, and not just for my own sake: All wine lovers deserve a sniff of that intoxicating aroma. I hope that all climate change has done is protract Barolo’s maturation, so the white truffle scent will yet come, if we are only patient enough. Speriamo.

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Ever since the advent of Covid-induced social restrictions, magnums have become a big problem for me. Most of the time, I simply cannot get enough people together to make serving the big bottles at all practical. So when, recently, we were actually able to gather six people (including ourselves, and all conscientious about precautions) for a multi-course dinner, I leaped at the chance to open a magnum to span two courses of the meal. I had a specific bottle in mind, one I was getting little nervous about, given my less-than-ideal storage conditions: a Vietti Barbera d’Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia, vintage 2004.
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Yes, you read that right: a 16-year-old Barbera. I know that, because of the variety’s naturally high acidity, Barberas are capable of long life, especially if left resting in their home cellars – but this particular magnum had been kicking around too many years in uncellarlike conditions and moved too many times from one set of such to another to encourage much optimism. I feared it was a wine on the edge if not outright over it.

Well, I was wrong to worry. It turns out that nature and wine are stronger than human abuse. This should not be read as my saying that you can mistreat your best wines and hope to get away with it – but it does mean that grape vines are survivors, and so, very often, are their progeny. This bottle of Barbera, far from being at the edge of the precipice, was just plain gorgeous, and it stole the show from the equally old bottles of very fine Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva and Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino that accompanied subsequent courses. My judgment was humbled, but my palate was delighted.

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The aroma of that Vietti Barbera amounted to a whole fruit salad – intense scents of blackberry, mulberry, and black cherry, all carried on a substrate of tobacco and forest notes. The palate was equally rich and intense, medium-bodied, with soft tannins and still a lot of live acidity (though much toned down from the vigorous norm of young Barberas). But the dominant notes were all those berries and cherries and their understrapping of tobacco (back in my pipe-smoking days I would have said Kentucky Burley), everything culminating in a huge finish of leather and black cherry. All these aromas and flavors, be it noted, were not brash and young, but matured and harmonious and nevertheless still fresh – an amazing balancing act that we lucky few diners caught at a moment of perfect equilibrium.

A good part of the explanation of the high quality of this wine lies in its maker and its vineyard. The Scarrone vineyard is a very large one, on a hillside circling around almost all of the center of the town of Castiglione Falleto. The best exposures on its slopes yield fine Barolos, the less favorable ones give great Barberas. Among the very best of these is Vietti’s bottling of old vines from its extensive Scarrone holdings, all of which lie practically at the winery’s doorstep.
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Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s map of the vineyards of Castiglione Falletto. Circled number 12 marks Vietti’s cantina.

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The other factor that accounted for this wine’s quality was the very thing that presented problems for its service: the size of the bottle. The undeniable fact is that that the larger the quantity of wine that can be aged in a single container, the better it matures, the richer and more complex it gets, the sturdier it seems to be. That’s the lure and the danger of magnums: big risks, big rewards.

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I have a precious few Gaja Barbarescos put away, and I have been very curious about how they are developing. I don’t drink Gaja wines often: That is just too expensive a proposition, but I chose one, Costa Russi 2001, for my second monthly cellar special for 2021.

Anyone who loves Italian wines has heard of Angelo Gaja. He has been one of the most prominent figures in the Italian wine world. At one point a few decades back he seemed to be everywhere. Europe, Asia, North America: wherever there was an opportunity to promote his wines, the wines of Piedmont, or the wines of Italy, you could count on seeing Angelo Gaja, tirelessly recounting their virtues. He was, and is, the most successful public relations firm Italian wine has ever had.

Back to his own wines. Angelo Gaja brought an unusual perspective to the winery he inherited from his father and grandfather. I believe that as an undergraduate he was what we call in the US a double major: oenology, which was hardly unusual in Alba, and economics. He brought an uncommon understanding of the business of prestige wine to the management of his vineyards. From the beginning he had his eye on the French, as both a business and a vinous model. At a time when most Italian wine regions and makers were pursuing quantity, he wanted his wines on the same tables as Chateau Lafite. So, from the start, he walked a different road.

He reduced yields. He acquired barriques – which, by the way, he still uses, as he did 40 years ago. Just one year in barriques for his best wines, then the rest of their aging in the traditional large Piedmontese botti. Then came temperature-controlled fermentation and stainless-steel tanks. At the same time, he was visiting markets around the world to present his wines and represent the passion and expertise that justified the prices he asked for them. Gaja understood pricing as a marketing tool for quality, and he used it to build a prestige brand ultimately resting on the character and quality of the wines.

Which is exactly why I wanted to taste this 20-year-old specimen from one of his Barbaresco crus, Costa Russi. You’ll notice that the label doesn’t say Barbaresco, simply Langhe. That’s because for several years, Gaja experimented by reverting to an old Piedmontese tradition of mixing a little Barbera with his Nebbiolo. Before the DOC and DOCG, Barbaresco and Barolo had mostly been a field mix. A small part of each Nebbiolo vineyard was reserved for Barbera, and the two varieties were harvested and fermented together. In theory, the Barbera intensified Nebbiolo’s color, and its big fruit and acid gave young Nebbiolo an often-needed lift and vitality.

By reverting to that practice, for a few years Gaja essentially declassified his three crus. They weren’t officially Barbaresco but just Costa Russi, Sori Tilden, and Sori San Lorenzo from the Langhe zone. I was very curious to see how this “just Costa Russi” was developing after 20 years.

As I said before, I don’t drink Gaja wines every day, so I made this special bottle my birthday wine. (My age will be revealed only on a need-to-know basis.)  Diane made a special dinner for it, a timbale filled with Finanziera, a dish that – as I had learned long ago in Piedmont – loves Barbaresco. La Finanziera is a braise featuring parts of calves and chickens that in the US are usually used in pet food – e.g., cockscombs, livers, gizzards, marrow. People of America, you have no idea how well your pets are dining!

My 20-year-old Costa Russi played its role flawlessly. Its aroma was huge, all brambles, cherries, blackberries and undergrowth, lovely and enticing. The palate followed with all those flavors, big and round. It was, I thought, almost Bordeaux-like in style, in its harmony. The wine was still slightly tannic, whether from the vintage – 2001 was a big vintage all through the Piedmont – or from those barriques, I couldn’t tell. It finished very long, with dark fruits and leather. A masterpiece of winemaking, with no sense of age or fading.

For me, this was a wonderful wine not completely Piedmontese in character: In its particular polish and elegance, its model was to my palate clearly French – and it is in that respect an amazing wine, to have achieved so successfully, with two native Piedmont varieties, the kind of complex and intricate harmony Bordeaux at its best teases out of three or four very different ones. Perhaps it is the idiosyncracy of my palate, or my hyper-awareness of how important the model of French winemaking was to Angelo Gaja, but I swear I can taste the French influence in this wine. And even though I almost always deplore the use of French grape varieties in Italian wines, I love this amalgamation of French style to Italian winemaking. Bravo, Angelo – and thank you for a birthday treat.

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This is my first post of the new year, and it’s really not so much a post as a preview of posts to come. Late in 2020 (a year that will live in infamy), Diane asked a provocative question: “If you could only ever drink a dozen of all the wines we have in storage, which would you choose?” She followed with an even more provocative statement: “After all, we’re not kids any more; it could come to that.”

Needless to say, in the middle of a Covid pandemic and in the face of the approaching new year – hell, new decade, which it is extremely unlikely that I’ll see the end of – this set me to thinking about which of my wines I would absolutely want to be sure of tasting. It also got me brooding about how long it would take, with regular consumption, to drink my cellar dry, but that is an entirely separate problem for me and my liver to work out. The immediate question was which 12 would I choose – and, of course, why those?

Let me cut to the chase. Here are the dozen bottles I selected. They are in no particular order, because there was none to their choosing.

2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja
2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)
1981 Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico DOC, Giuseppe Quintarelli
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach
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Eight Italian wines, four French, one of each nation white, the rest all red. I wonder what that says about me? Or does it say anything at all? I’ll leave that for you to answer as you will: Just keep in mind what your answer will say about you.

Well after the fact, I realized that the principle of selection behind these 12 wines was simple, even obvious. There was an aspect of each one that I wanted to check on: the vintage, or the grape(s), or the maker, or some unusual viticultural element, or simply how well the wine was aging. Maybe a little personal projection and concern behind that last bit of curiosity, but nevertheless a subject of genuine interest. I’ve got a lot of ’01 Barolo and Barbaresco squirreled away, and it’s now almost 20 years since that vintage was harvested — though, truth to tell, I keep thinking of it as still a young, recent vintage, so all the more reason for a reality check.

Anyhow, there they are. It’s my intention to taste and write up one of them a month as a sort of continuing thread through whatever else 2021 may bring. I hope it will sustain your interest as much as it already piques mine.

And – lest I forget – Happy (I hope truly happy, prosperous, and healthy) New Year to you all!

 

 

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