Archive for the ‘Piedmont’ Category

Two Uncommon White Wines: Erbaluce and Timorasso

September 18, 2017

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of my readers, even those conversant with Italian wines, are scratching their heads about these two names. They’re not exactly common currency. Nevertheless, they’re worth knowing about: They are both intriguing wines, and I think their moment may be coming.
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Erbaluce and Timorasso are natives of the Alta Piemonte, grown nowhere else. Both used to be much more widespread before phylloxera destroyed many vineyards. In the subsequent replanting, both varieties lost ground to the hardier, more generously bearing variety Cortese, to the point that Timorasso in particular was on the verge of extinction.

Erbaluce is now the more widely planted variety, particularly around the town of Caluso, northeast of Turin. There it seems to have found an ideal location, and in the best hands it produces a lovely white wine that benefits from modest aging. Tom Hyland thinks it “one of Italy’s most prized indigenous varieties” (The Wines and Foods of Piemonte).

It’s probably more accurate to say that it deserves to be such, since very little Erbaluce is now in commercial production – perhaps around 100 hectares?  But those who know Erbaluce di Caluso esteem it, both in its dry version and its sweet. The dry is my preference: Light on the palate but far from insubstantial, with rich aromas of fruits and herbs – everything from mint to lemon to sage – and an equally complex and fascinating palate, it makes a lovely wine to sip with aperitifs and carry on with right through dinner.

Some good producers are Antoniolo, Cariola, Cieck, Ferrando, and Orsolani. A quick check on Wine Searcher showed a good half dozen kinds (sweet, dry, still, sparkling) and producers of Erbaluce available within 20 miles of Manhattan, so it’s worth a look around out there.

Timorasso has an even smaller production than Erbaluce: Perhaps up to 50 hectares are in commercial production, and that many exist almost solely because of the efforts of Walter Massa. A grower in Monleale, near Tortona in eastern Piemonte, he took the variety under his wing and began planting and propagating it in the 1990s. Such prominence as it has achieved today is solely due to him. Anyone lucky enough to have tasted a well made Timorasso loves it. I’ll quote Jancis Robinson (Wine Grapes), not usually a huge fan of Italian white wines, to give you some idea of Timorasso’s appeal:

Timorasso is definitely too interesting a variety to be hidden in a blend. Even in youth, varietal wines have complex aromas of light honey and spice as well as floral, citrus, and nutty characteristics and a creamy texture – they sometimes taste as if they are lightly oaked even when they are not. The acidity is fresh and well-made wines have excellent length, delicate minerality and surprising longevity. Producers of such wines include Luigi Boveri, Franco Martinetti, Walter Massa and Morgassi.

Other good producers are Bava, di Marchi, La Columbara, Orsolani, and Vigne Marina Coppi. Most of these bottle under the name Derthona – Derthona is the old name for Tortona, the town that seems to be the epicenter for Timorasso production – but some use the Colli Tortonesi designation. Another quick look at Wine Searcher showed Timorasso from a half a dozen producers (including two I haven’t tried yet) available within 20 miles of Manhattan. And, like the Erbaluce in this respect too, at very reasonable prices for white wine of this quality and interest.

These two wines are already becoming far less rare in Italy, and I think their intriguing characters will soon win them a serious following here in the States.

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

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

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

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

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red-wine

 

From Basilicata

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

From Piedmont

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Sicily

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

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

From Tuscany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

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

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

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

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

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

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

A New Book About the Italian Piedmont

October 24, 2016

tom-hylandBack during the summer, my colleague and friend Tom Hyland published an important and useful new book, The Wines and Foods of Piemonte.  It covers just about everything a wine lover could want to know about this blessed region, but of course – since the subject is the Piedmont – it gives pride of place to red wines.  For that reason, I thought I’d wait to say anything about it until the weather cooled down, and an oenophile’s fancy lightly turns to vino rosso.

Well, the moment has come: There is a nip in the air and an uptick in the appetite and a little more time being spent in the kitchen; some of the more organized among us are probably already thinking ahead to holiday feasts and even shopping for Christmas presents. When better to introduce you to a book that lays out all the palatal pleasures of the Piedmont?

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The Wines and Foods of Piemonte
crams a huge amount of content into the space of a relatively small book.  Its less-than-200 pages cover not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the other Nebbiolo-based wines of the northern Piedmont, as well as the region’s other important red varieties, Barbera and Dolcetto, and even beyond them the less familiar but very, very interesting Ruché, Grignolino, Freisa, and – a particular favorite of mine – the delightful Pelaverga.

And that’s just the reds: Hyland also treats sparkling wines, white wines, and sweet wines. Granted, Piedmont is not famous for its whites, but it does possess several very tasty indigenous varieties, to all of which Hyland does justice: Arneis, Gavi, Erbaluce di Caluso, Timorasso, Favorita, and Nascetta.  These wines deserve to be better known, and some of them – I’m thinking particularly of Nascetta and Timorasso – are capable of great nuance (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).

The book provides useful lists of the best Barolo and Barbaresco crus and their producers, as well as recommendations for the best makers of other wines. It features very informative interviews with winemakers in all the Piedmont zones and also with some of the region’s most interesting chefs.  In fact, for anyone planning travel in Piedmont, the book’s most useful feature may be its several-pages-long list of recommended restaurants – many of which I can personally and happily vouch for.

Piedmont is a gustatory promised land, flowing with wine and truffles, and in Tom Hyland it has found an enthusiastic chronicler.

To order The Wines and Foods of Piemonte, contact the author at thomas2022@comcast.net.

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.

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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.

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. 

barbi prize 1

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.

Great Grappa: Marolo

October 22, 2015

It’s no news to any of my regular readers that I love grappa. I have always loved it. Even before it was fashionable, even before what was available here in the US was really good, even when all one could get was thought of as Truckers’ Breakfast, even when some of it gave white lightning a good name, I loved grappa.

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And now that the Italian national distillate has become a fashionable object of pride and connoisseurship, when it has become available from every region and every wine zone and practically every grape variety, I love it all the more. I feel as if my fidelity and devotion are being rewarded, and the grappa gods are smiling on me.

So you can imagine the sense of beatitude I felt when I found out recently that Marolo grappas are going to become more readily available here. Marolo is one of my favorite distillers: I’ve not tasted all of its products, because it produces a great number of different grappas, but I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like – a lot. So this news was elating for me: I had to find out which grappas would be coming to the US, where they would be available, how soon I could get some. Gimme gimme, gimme.

Those of you who don’t know grappa have of course no idea what all this fuss is about. After all, in essence grappa is just another distillate, and in some respects one of the simplest of them, especially since a lot of us grappa tifosi think the clear, unaged ones are the best. Grappas are distilled not from wine or from fruit but from pomace, the solids left after the fermentation of the grapes, what is called in Italian vinaccia.

The Marolo Distillery

The Marolo Distillery

The best of them are made from the vinaccia of a single grape variety, and they are distilled while the vinaccia is still very fresh. Barolo-maker Bruno Ceretto, who knows his grappa, told me many years ago that grappa should be made the way the moonshiners do: quick, quick, quick. Done that way, the varietal aromas and even some of the varietal flavor make it through the distillation process and into the crystalline liquid that flows slowly out of the still after hours of boiling and refining and condensation. That’s why, during the harvest season, devoted still masters don’t sleep, or if they do, it’s alongside their carefully tended copper vessels. Their wives may complain (and they do: I’ve heard them), but grappa, like science, is a demanding mistress.

Barolo grappaMy mention of a Barolo maker wasn’t incidental or accidental. The Marolo distillery is located just outside of Alba, in the heart of Barolo/Barbaresco country, and one of the firm’s ambitions is to become the Nebbiolo distiller. So the initial consignment of Marolo grappas to this country focuses mostly on Nebbiolo and Barolo grappas. The list includes a clear, young Barolo grappa as well as Barolo grappas aged 9, 12, 15, and 20 years. The latter, as you might expect, looks inky dark from the color leached into it in its years of aging in barriques that had previously been used to age Marsala.

Marolo is also sending other Piedmont specialties: a clear Moscato grappa and a slightly aged one (five years in barrels that previously aged passiti from Pantelleria) called Dopo Moscato.
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3 marolo grappas

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The importer, Premium Brands (distributed by Martin Scott), is bringing in as well Marolo’s Brunello grappa, which I believe is, or used to be, distilled from the vinaccia of Angelo Gaja’s Montalcino vineyard, Santa Restituta, plus an intriguing Gewurztraminer grappa from vinaccia from the Alto Adige, plus the Marolo firm’s only blended, non-monovarietal grappa, a very pleasing Amarone grappa, lightly aged in small used Amarone barrels, as is the Veneto tradition.

Lovely as these are, they represent only a fraction of Marolo’s line. Really, the firm is a Piedmont-varieties specialist, not just a Nebbiolo master, and it makes sterling grappas from all the important Piedmont grapes. I particularly love its clear, fragrant Barbera grappa, and I hope to see it on the market here soon.

barbera grappa

Another Name to Remember: Montcalm

October 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Pleasures III: Dolcetto

September 24, 2015

Even in the Piedmont, no one drinks Barolo and Barbaresco, or even Carema or Gattinara, every day. There on their home territory, those are regarded – rightly, I think – as wines for the best dinners and special occasions. What the Piedmontese drink every day, with great pleasure and no sense of deprivation, are their two “easier” wines: Dolcetto, the common lunch wine, and Barbera, the more frequent dinner wine – though those roles are by no means ironclad. As more than one Piedmontese winemaker has told me, you can drink Dolcetto and still go back to work, a quality much appreciated in its hard-working homeland.

Both Barbera and Dolcetto are delightful wines, though very different, and each partners wonderfully with all sorts of foods. I’ll probably write about Barbera in the future, but I want in this post to talk about Dolcetto, which is the undeservedly lesser known of the two.

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Ampelography hasn’t been very informative about the Dolcetto grape. It appears to be native to the Italian Piedmont, which is certainly the zone of its most intense cultivation. Some experts believe that the variety originated in the Dogliani zone (about an hour’s drive south and slightly west of Alba), where in the opinion of many, me included, it achieves its greatest elegance and complexity – perhaps because it is treated more seriously there than in its other zones, where it often plays second and sometimes third fiddle to Nebbiolo and Barbera.

For what it’s worth, Italian officialdom agrees, and has conferred on Dogliani Dolcetto’s only DOCG and the right to call the wine simply Dogliani, if the maker so wishes. There are also several “simple” Dolcetto DOCs: Acqui, Alba, Asti, Diano d’Alba, Langhe, Monferrato, and Ovada. Of those, Diano d’Alba and Ovada are probably the most prized in Italy. Dolcetto d’Alba is the kind most widely available in the US, both because it is the largest zone of cultivation and because its Dolcetto piggybacks on the reputation and distribution of Barolo and Barbaresco.

Despite its name, which means “little sweet one,” Dolcetto always makes a dry dinner wine. It’s a dark grape, with intense color and and abundant tannins that require care in the cellar. Most producers carefully control skin contact to hold the tannins in check. This also reduces the depth of the wine’s color, so Dolcettos occasionally appear with light, almost strawberry-ish tints, but this is not common: Most are dark wines, whose deep color belies their usual lightness on the palate. In sharp distinction to Barbera, Dolcetto is low in acid, so it will never make the kind of spritely aperitif wines that Barbera can yield. Rather, it yields soft, round, friendly wines of potential elegance – good sipping wines and great dinner companions.

As a conscientious wine writer, I of course had to test that last statement, so my amiable spouse joined me in a tasting of several Dolcettos; after which we again tasted and drank them with dinners over the following days. (One incidental aspect of Dolcetto thus revealed: Recorked, partially filled bottles last very well for 5 to 10 days, with no loss of aromatics or flavor.) Here are the wines and our reactions to them.

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De Forville Dolcetto d’Alba 2013

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This is a fifth-generation family winery, headquartered in Barbaresco. Its Dolcetto grapes all come from the Barbaresco zone. The 2013 had a pleasing raspberry/strawberry/clay nose – quite nice. On the palate it showed similar components, but overall was just a bit rustic, with some still-abrasive tannins peeking through. This isn’t necessarily negative: The wine blossomed with food, which masked the tannins completely. Not a cocktail, but a dinner wine.

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Poderi Colla Dolcetto d’Alba Pian Balbo 2013

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This is a cru wine from the hands of an almost iconic Alban winemaking family, and it showed its pedigree from the get-go. The aroma was similar to the De Forville, but finer. On the palate, it felt light and round, with tasty berry fruit over soft tannins. Very nice, and incipiently elegant. A superior wine for everyday meals.

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Pecchenino San Luigi Dogliani 2013

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Another long-time, family-run estate. Like many in the Dogliani zone, the Pecheninos can be considered Dolcetto specialists. This wine clearly showed its origins: A lovely nose of earth, herbs, blackberries, and cherries preceded a mouthful of light, berry-ish fruit, very soft tannins and pleasant, light acidity, all culminating in a long, berry finish. Very enjoyable.

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Abbona Dogliani Papà Celso 2013

Abbona
This one’s aroma was finer and lighter than the preceding Pecchenino, but in the mouth the wine was considerably heavier and not as elegant. It seemed a little simple – decent, rather generic fruit and not too much more. Went well and unobtrusively with food.

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Chionetti Dogliani Briccolero 2012

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Quinto Chionetti is the grand old man of Dogliani Dolcetto, and this wine is from one of his best crus, and in a fine year. Its aroma was all berries, and in the mouth it gave sapid, juicy berries and plums, round, soft, and pretty, already showing complexity and sophistication. It finished still with a little tannin, so the wine has some evolution yet before it – but it demonstrated clearly why Dogliani deserved the DOCG.

Qunito ChionettiSignor Chionetti is a great winemaker and an encyclopedia of Dogliani lore. He thinks that the Dolcettos of Alba and its surrounding townships have been, in his word, “Barolized.” Tasting his wine alongside some Alba Dolcettos, it’s easy to understand his point. Try the experiment yourself: It’s really illuminating. But whatever else you do, do try some Dolcetto: It’s a fun wine, and a fine one – a nice combination for any occasion.

Revisiting Vintage 2000 Barolo

July 20, 2015

I had an unexpected encounter with the millennial vintage of Barolo recently. For reasons too annoying to go into here, I had to move and rearrange all the wines in my off-premises storage. In doing so, I came across a whole case of vintage 2000 wines – miscellaneous Tuscans and Barolos – that I had completely forgotten I had.

We’re in flabbergast city here, folks: Despite the Wine Spectator’s notoriously dubbing it the vintage of the century, I was never very fond of 2000 Barolo and thought it – and most of the vintage 2000 Italian crop – mediocre at best, with Piedmont wines in particular often marred by a deadly combination of over-ripe fruit and green tannins. I said at the time that for Barolo it was with few exceptions a vintage for near-term drinking (if at all), with little likelihood of any sort of long life, except for a handful of wines from top-notch producers. So you can imagine just how mixed my emotions were when I happened on this case. Treasure?  Not very likely. Trash? Could well be. Oh for my old, defunct vinegar barrel.

Well, of course I couldn’t just dump the wines, even though part of my brain told me that would be smart. So I started drinking them, beginning with the ones I thought had the best chance of showing some life. Luckily, I had four bottles of Oddero in there, one bottle of its basic Barolo and three crus. They may have been the reason I stored the case in the first place.

The Oddero family constitutes a significant landmark in Barolo winemaking history. From their primary location in La Morra – they have top-tier properties in several other communes as well – they have been making wine for about two centuries. They were among the very first producer/bottlers in the zone: They issued their first bottled wines in 1878, and they are still working the same vineyards.

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oddero family

Giacomo, Mariacristina, and the Next Generation

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The patriarchal Giacomo Oddero, a local monument in his own right, has turned the operation of the vineyards and cellar over to his daughters, Mariacristina (primarily) and Mariavittoria and, increasingly, their children. Under their guidance, cellar techniques have been slightly modernized – the cru Barolos, for instance, spend some time in barriques – but the house’s quality has never faltered.

CastiglioneThe three crus I rediscovered were Rocche di Castiglione, Mondoca di Bussia, and Rivera di Castiglione. We tried first the Rocche de Castiglione and the Mondoca, both through several courses at dinner at the home of friends. The Rocche met the challenges handsomely: still live, with some freshness and no evident harsh tannins, a decent amount of fruit and developed flavors, just enough acidity to keep it in balance – in short, one of the best bottles of 2000 Barolo I’ve tasted.

MondocaThe Mondoca, though fine for the vintage, was less pleasing: a little tired, less fresh, less complex – drinkable but clearly already past its peak. Nevertheless, I was happily surprised that both wines were definitely not inert – a nice proof that really fine winemakers can occasionally turn a sow’s ear of a vintage into a silk purse of a wine.

Thus encouraged, Diane and I went on to drink the remaining Odderos at home. Results were similar.

RiveraInitially, both the basic Barolo and the Rivera di Castiglione smelled and tasted old, seemingly well past their prime. But both opened in the glass, and once food arrived, they developed even further. The Rivera seemed fresher and fleshier and, especially with the food, showed a very nice acidity. Clearly, that was what was animating it. The – one hesitates to say “simple” – Barolo didn’t have as much acidity, so though it did show some complex, mature flavors and was quite drinkable, it just wasn’t as enjoyable as the cru wine.

There are other Barolos in that re-found case, all vintage 2000. These remaining bottles all come from producers much less accomplished than Oddero, so my hopes aren’t high. But we will taste them over the next week or two – I don’t want to drink even great Barolo every day, and these almost certainly will be far from great. But if I should happen upon a really pleasant surprise among them, you will hear about it.

Just to summarize: All four of these Oddero wines gave proof of superior selection at harvest and careful work in the cellar. 2000 was a hot, hot vintage, and the whole Alba zone was cursed with a crop wherein fruit ripeness far outstripped phenolic ripeness, resulting in high-alcohol, hot wines tasting of overripe grapes laced through and through with a bitter greenness. Most of the Barolos made that year were seriously unbalanced, flawed wines that died several years ago, and even these Odderos might have been better if I had drunk them five years earlier. Or maybe they then would have tasted green and unharmonious?  Maybe they needed all these almost 15 years since harvest to achieve even the fragile equilibrium they were now showing?  I can’t really say – but I can tell you this: If you still have any 2000 Barolo in your cellar, drink it yesterday.