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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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Everybody needs everyday wines, especially at this time of year. But make no mistake: My emphasis is on good everyday wines, not just anything because it’s cheap. Obviously, inexpensiveness is an added attraction, but goodness comes first. I long ago decided that life is too short to ever drink mediocre wine, so even though I could never afford those legendary, crème de la crème bottles that headline so many ads, I’ve worked hard to ensure that the wines that accompany my daily bread are pleasurable, respectably made, and honorable examples of their breed.

What I’m going to talk about now are some wines that I can pretty reliably find in my vicinity. Let me offer a caveat about that: With the vagaries of importation and distribution, the variations of harvests, both qualitatively and quantitatively, compounded by the impact that Covid has had all around the world, none of us can ever be sure that the wine that is in shops this week will be available anywhere next month. That said, here are some wines that I have been enjoying for a few months now and hope to continue drinking for a good while yet.

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Whites

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A staple white wine that I can almost always get because it’s from close to home is Paumanok Vineyards’ Festival Chardonnay. If worse comes to worst, I can drive out to Long Island’s North Fork and carry some home from the vineyard. This wine is everything that basic, unoaked Chardonnay ought to be. Fresh and vigorous, with lovely, clean fruit and a sound structure, it will serve as an aperitif wine as pleasantly as it accompanies dinner. True to its Long Island heritage, it especially loves fish and shellfish.

Another equally versatile white wine is Pra’s beautiful Soave Classico Otto. Many people underestimate Soave. This wine shines with an intense minerality that will remind those drinkers of a really nice Chablis. The ones who already know Soave’s many virtues will appreciate the fruit and life and balance of this fine example of the breed. It may be my favorite Soave of them all, and I don’t exclude Pieropan from that consideration. Certainly, for everyday drinking, and in its price range, it’s matchless.

One more Italian white wine has recently become available in my area: the charmingly and appropriately named Il Gentiluomo, a 100% Cortese wine from Paolo Pizzorni, in the Monferrato zone of the Piedmont. I’m hoping this one stays in the market for a while, because it is a lovely, simple wine, medium-bodied and deliciously fruity, with excellent balance. It works with all sorts of light dishes from meat antipasti to roasted chicken. It particularly loves veal in all forms, from scallops to roasts.

We used to keep a lot of basic white Burgundies around for everyday use: They have a combination of fuller body and terroir character that makes them quite distinctive and intriguing. But Burgundy prices have begun another of their periodic ascents into the stratosphere. While there are still a good number of wines suitable for everyday use, their price now makes that inadvisable for most people. Your best hope, if you must have a Burgundy (and who, occasionally, does not?), will be to look for wines from Mâcon or Mâcon-Villages, but you will have to shop sharply.

You would be better advised to shift your attention northward to Alsace, where almost every producer offers a basic blended wine at an attractive price. Hugel’s Gentil is an excellent example of the breed, enjoyable in itself and extremely versatile with food.

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Reds

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Red wines offer more questions and more choices. After all, the wines range from light and understated to formidable, and the foods they’re asked to accompany are similarly varied in intensity and spicing. Especially in warm weather, I like to keep some Beaujolais on hand. The crus are my favorites – Fleurie, Juliénas, Chiroubles, Morgon, Chénas – but I also have a fondness for Jean-Paul Brun’s Terre Dorée basic Beaujolais, L’Ancien, which has plenty of character to pair with its charm and vivacity. His cru wines are also fine, but there are now many good producers of those available, so it is worth trying several to see whose style pleases you.

Still in the French range, Côtes du Rhône wines are always useful. The named villages are best, though they can get pricy – but careful shopping will almost always net you a Gigondas or Vacqueyras at a decent price. There are many makers, some quite small operations, so it’s impossible to predict what will be in any particular market, but IMO they’re all worth a try.

We drink a lot of Italian reds at casa Maresca, and it’s a frequently changing cast of characters, depending on what’s available. Distributors seem to have synchronized cycles: One season the shops will be filled with Tuscan wines, another it will be Piedmonts, with other regions’ reds getting whatever shelf space is left. That’s a shame, because there are fine, inexpensive red wines pouring out of every part of Italy, and a high percentage of them are well worth a taste.

I like to keep a lot of basic Chianti Classico around because of Sangiovese’s versatility with food, and there are many good ones available at quite decent prices, particularly the best wines of the best co-ops, which lack the prestige and therefore the market clout of the best estate wines. Lately I’ve been drinking with great pleasure a lot of Clemente VII and Panzano, both produced by Castelli del Grevepesa.

Equally adaptable with a whole range of foods is Barbera. This is a grape that, because of its naturally high acidity, can happily match with almost anything. For my palate, the greater body and more restrained acidity of Barbera d’Alba works best, but Barbera d’Asti, often accurately described as “racy,” has many partisans. There are many makers of both kinds, ranging from some of the most famous names in the zone (Ceretto, Gaja, Vietti) to some of the smaller growers (Oddero, Barale), and prices can consequently be all over the place, but patient shopping can usually reward with a really pretty wine at an attractive price.

When it comes to softer, less acidic everyday reds, you’ve got good choices from all over Italy. Here are my current favorites.
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  • Dolcetto, from the same zones as Barbera and from many of the same makers – but look for Dogliani, a subzone so distinguished that it has won the right to use its own name rather than Dolcetto.
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  • Valpolicella Classico, not Superiore, and definitely not Ripasso. The Classico has rediscovered the simple charm that once made Valpolicella one of Italy’s most popular wines. Brigaldara makes a nice one.
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  • Lacryma Christi, from the slopes of Vesuvius, a soft-bodied, round, and mineral-inflected wine that matches wonderfully with pasta and pizza and sauced or braised meats. There are now a fair number of producers intermittently available in the US, but you will never go wrong with a bottle from Mastroberardino, the once – and maybe future – king of Campanian wines.
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Let us hope that the new year brings us whole tides of enjoyable, affordable wines like these. Covid and its consequences aside – this too shall pass – we are blessed to live in a golden age of winemaking, and there is no reason not to enjoy this abundance while it and we last.

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In a recent post, I wrote about a fine California Charbono from The Wine Trust’s portfolio, and this time I intend to talk about some of its French and Italian wines.

The name, The Wine Trust, will probably not resonate much with most wine drinkers, who rarely pay any attention to who imports or distributes the wines they love. That’s not a grave error, though the information can be useful. Among other reasons, it’s worth knowing about an importer’s other wines, since different importers’ portfolios reflect different interests and preferences and styles of wine. If a particular importer brings in a wine you really like, you might very well find other gems in its lineup. Obviously, this is particularly true of smaller, more specialized importers.

The Wine Trust, for instance, shows great strength in Bordeaux: Its collection features many of the famous châteaux. What is of special interest to me, since most of those more famous wines have moved well beyond my economic range, is that The Wine Trust also has an impressive array of the smaller, less celebrated châteaux, which increasingly represent the real values in Bordeaux. I mean estates like Cantemerle, Cantenac Brown, Giscours, Clinet and my special favorite, Ormes de Pez. I think a selection like that is an excellent sign that the importer in question is using real discernment. Anyone can go after the famous names: It takes some knowledge and taste to find the real beauties in the ranks of the many less famed.

But the firm’s portfolio ranges farther afield than Bordeaux, and many of its less costly French and non-French selections seem to reflect an interesting palate at work. With that in mind, I sampled two French whites and two Italian reds from its portfolio. The results were interesting indeed.
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The whites were two classic French appellations from very different zones along the Loire river: a 2017 Muscadet Monnières-Saint Fiacre from Menard-Gaborit and a 2016 Chenin blanc from Idiart.
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The Menard-Gaborit was classic clean, lean Muscadet, crisp, mineral, and slaty, with dry floral notes and a long finish. We drank it very happily with fried scallops, which fattened it up somewhat. It all but screamed for fresh shellfish, making it absolutely clear why Muscadet is generally conceded to be the oyster wine par excellence. This bottling would be fine with any selection of oysters or clams on the half shell, or with any selection of sushi and sashimi, for that matter.
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The Idiart Chenin blanc derives totally from its eponymous grape variety, a specialty of the middle Loire valley, where it has been cultivated for centuries. Compared to Muscadet, this is a bigger-bodied wine, rounder and deeper and less edgy: the acid is held more in check by other fruit and mineral elements. This particular example rested ten months on its fine lees, which gives it a touch more richness. I thought it a nice, chalky young Chenin, with fine potential for drinking over the next few years. (Loire Chenin blanc can take bottle age quite nicely.)
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The two red wines I tasted from The Wine Trust’s portfolio were a Valpolicella and a Barbera, both from the 2017 vintage.
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The Valpolicella, a Classico from Monte Santoccio, sported an intriguing nose of dry grapes and volcanic soil. (The Valpolicella and Soave zones have the northernmost volcanic soils in Italy.)  Dried cherry and peach appeared on the palate. It seemed a bit austere for a Valpolicella, but fine, beautifully balanced and enjoyable drinking – especially with its easy-to-take 12 degrees of alcohol, a rarity these days. By the way: cheese brought up this wine’s fruit very delightfully.
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The other Italian red, a Barbera d’Alba from Giacomo Vico, showed a lovely black cherry nose and palate, exactly as one would hope for in its kind. This was an intriguing wine, less “barolized” than many Alba Barberas. It felt light on the palate, and long-finishing, with fine balance and more obvious bright acid (which is absolutely characteristic of the Barbera grape) than many Alba specimens. In short, it was completely true to its variety but in a way slightly different from most of the examples from its zone.
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That too was true of the Valpolicella, with its little extra touch of austerity and restraint. So we have an importer who chooses paradigm French wines and very fine Italian wines with a bit of a twist. I call that interesting.

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I’ve rceently had the opportunity to taste some very enjoyable Barberas – Barbera d’Asti – from Cascina Castlet. This is a fine producer of wines from the Asti and Monferrato zones that has only recently returned to the American market. After a too-long absence, the wines are now being brought in by Romano Brands. For warm weather drinking, I found the brand’s basic Barbera just perfect – filled with fruit and that brilliant acidity that distinguishes Asti Barbera from its Alba cousin.

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I had intended to do a full column about them, but my friend Charles Scicolone beat me to the punch and wrote about them in such informative detail, and with so much familiarity and knowledge of the wines, that I decided that the simplest thing for me to do is just direct you to his post. Thanks, Charles.

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After this post, I’ll be taking a vacation from wine blogging, in the hopes that by the time I return – in a month or so – more of the covid-19 restrictions will begin to relax here in New York and we may actually have a wine season, complete with tastings and seminars and new release presentations, which would give me something new to write about – and not coincidentally ideas for reversing some of the depletion of my much-called upon “cellar.”

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To any readers who may be addicted to regular infusions of my prose, and of a perverse enough turn of mind to enjoy literary criticism: I am publishing in digital form the long book on allegory that destroyed so much of my mind, back when I was an academic. Welcome, if you dare chance it, to The Strangeness of Allegory.
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Talk to you in the fall!

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For any devoted Barolista, Alessandro Masnaghetti’s name is one to conjure with. Most people know him primarily for his amazing maps of the Piedmont wine zones (and other zones, both in Italy and elsewhere). These are not only visually stunning, detailed, and minutely accurate, but they incorporate as well a wealth of information about vineyard soils, exposures, ownership, and plantings. Each map amounts almost to a mini gazeteer of its zone – a treasure house of information for the thirsty Barolophile.

Masnaghetti has carved a very special place for himself in the Piedmontese wine world. Of all the wine writers I know or have dealt with, he is far and away the most deeply knowledgeable about Barolo in all its aspects – so the fact that he is now publishing a website devoted to Barolo should be exciting and welcome news to every fan of that great wine.

Barolomga360 it’s called, and you should have a look at your first opportunity. MGA, you remember, is the abbreviation of Authorized Geographic Mentions – the place names – whose use the Italian authorities permit on wine labels. Masnaghetti and his maps have been intimately involved with them from the very beginnings of the legislation. This website is a sort of culmination of that.

Like his maps, the site is handsome and filled with information – amazing information in some cases, such as two excellent winemakers making Barolo from the same vineyard and slope who have totally different views of the character of its grapes and consequently make two very different Barolos from it. Any other wine writer (and I include myself in this) would have made a major article about something like that: Masnaghetti just tucks it into his information about the vineyard. (I am deliberately not telling you which one, so you’ll read Masnaghetti’s notes attentively, as they deserve.) The excellent English translation is by the famed pioneer wine journalist Burton Anderson.

The most important features of the site are the multiple images of each commune, with its MGAs and other vineyard sites identified, so that you are able not just to read about but actually see the lay of the land – each different crease and fold of the hills that affects altitude and exposure, the proximity of each vineyard to others of equal or greater repute, or higher or lower altitude, or more easterly or westerly facing – all the kinds of information that real Barolo nuts (of which club I am a proud member) prize. Moreover, the images can be rotated and zoomed in or out, most with accompanying thumbnails focusing on views from different directions.

Here, with Masnaghetti’s permission, is a good example, one of his images of the Serralunga vineyards. Click on the image see a full-screen version.

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There’s really no need for me to go on, except to tell you that only some parts of the site are available free. For full access to the whole site, you’ll have to subscribe.

It’s Masnaghetti, it’s maps, it’s Barolo: What more do you need to know? Enjoy. Esteem. Relish.

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Climate change has been very kind to the winemakers of Italy’s Piedmont, giving them a succession of beautiful growing seasons. And they have made the most of nature’s bounty, turning out a series of wines of the quality level we used to get only once or at most twice a decade. This is truly a golden age for Barolo and Barbaresco lovers.

The proof of that was everywhere at the Barolo Barbaresco World Opening, a huge showing of new releases of both wines held in New York during the first week of February.

As if in confirmation of what has been going on in Piedmont, weather in New York that week was unnaturally warm, and the crowd at the event large indeed. 148 producers showed about twice that number of wines from 2015 and 2016, and many luminaries had traveled from Italy to personally pour their wines and to greet old friends.

I did my best, but there was no way that I was going to be able to taste 148 young Nebbiolo wines in a single afternoon, much less nearly 300. In the old days, when I was a young snip, and when the father of this event was held annually in Alba, I would taste far more wines than that over its week-long duration, but non sum qualis eram sub regno Cynarae – and in just one afternoon, standing up, struggling for spitting space at the buckets (too few and far between), and trying to take legible notes: no way.

So I tasted as many as I could, chatted with some producers I haven’t seen in years, and was totally impressed by the quality of the wines on offer. I didn’t taste a single bad one, nor even a middling one, all afternoon.

That goes for both vintages, despite their differences. And the differences are many and striking. The 2015 wines benefited from a deep winter snow cover, which provided ample ground water reserves to carry the vines through the six torrid, rainless weeks that followed the mild spring.

Barolo Vineyards, Winter 2015

The rest of the summer and fall were as fine as could be hoped for, carrying the vines in almost perfect condition to the harvest. One producer remarked to me that 2015 had a hot growing season, “but we’ve learned now how to deal with them.”  Here is the Consortium’s evaluation:

The Nebbiolo ripened perfectly, though slightly earlier than over the last few years. In particular, climatic conditions were seen in the second part of the summer that allowed for an impressive accumulation of polyphenols. The excellent quality of the tannins emerging on analysis will certainly ensure elegant, long-lasting wines with good structure…. The sugar content settled at average potential values of around 14–14.5% vol., while the acidity is perfect for Nebbiolo (6.5 g/l). With the ripening data at hand, the great balance that clearly emerges in the technical parameters goes well beyond the numbers, promising big wines. In general, considering the great balance shown in the ripening data we can say without any shadow of doubt that all the conditions are in place for a truly great vintage: one to remember, like few others in history.

Now, I’ve got to put some of that statement up to hope and/or hype, because I found the 2015s charming and intensely enjoyable – beautiful, with wonderful fruit and freshness – but not big. I may be wrong about that, but most of the producers I spoke to seemed to agree, indicating that for them 2016 was the great, structured vintage, not 2015. That doesn’t mean 2015 won’t age – just that it’s probably a 15- to 20-year wine rather than 50 to 100.

2016, on the other hand, just may be a 50-year vintage: Certainly, most of the producers I spoke with seemed to feel that way, referring to it almost unanimously as a “superb” vintage. The wines I tasted – mostly Barbarescos, which are bottled a year before Barolos – supported that judgement. They were big and balanced, with the kind of tannic ripeness and live acidity that in both Barolo and Barbaresco usually portends very long life and development in the bottle.

Produttori di Barbaresco Vineyards

Here, for the record, is the Consortium’s evaluation of that harvest:

The late development seen in the early part of the year was made up for during the months of August and September. In particular, the second half of September was crucial for the components which will go into determining the structure of the wines, above all as regards the accumulation of phenolic substances. While waiting to be able to assess the real quality of the 2016 wines, as far as can be evaluated analytically we can look forward to wines with excellent balance, big bouquets and great structure, although in some cases lower alcohol contents will be recorded than in 2015. We can therefore expect a vintage featuring significant qualities which will be talked about for a long time to come.

That is surprisingly guarded for a Consortium statement: They usually veer toward over-optimism rather than caution. All I can tell you is that I loved the ‘16s I tasted, even though I think they really shouldn’t be drunk for a decade yet.

I’ll just list here, in alphabetical order, my best wines of the tasting. All were absolutely characteristic both of Nebbiolo and of the vintages as I’ve already described them, so I’ll keep my comments to a minimum.

Aurelio Settimo, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2015 – forward, light, and well-structured: fine.

_____________, Barolo Riserva Rocche dell’Annunziata 2012 – another lovely keeping wine, classically structured.

Brezza, Barolo Cannubi 2015 – nice indeed: wild fennel in the nose, wild cherry and herbs on the palate.

Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco Tre Stelle 2016 – a big wine, yet welcoming, with great structure and balance.

Colla, Barolo Bussia Dardi le Rose 2015 – Excellent: classic Colla style and structure (if you don’t know what that means, you owe it to yourself to find out).

Conterno, Barolo Francia 2015 – very lovely, very young: cellar for ten years before you start them.

Gaja, Barolo Sperss 2015 – gorgeous, in that deceptively light, very structured Gaja style.

Giacomo Fenocchio, Barolo Bussia 2016 – a lovely wine, all raspberry and fennel and wild cherry.

Livia Fontana, Barolo Villero 2016 – beautiful acid/tannin balance, great over-all.

Marcarini, Barolo Brunate 2015 – lovely and accessible: drink this and the other 15s until the 16s come ready.

Massolino, Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva 2013 – a great wine for long keeping.

Oddero, Barolo Riserva Bussia Vigna Mondoca 2013 – an extraordinary wine right through to its dark-chocolate finish.

Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco Riserva Ovello 2015 – light and intensely wild cherry and, as with all Produttori wines, a bargain.

_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Muncagota 2015 – big, fine, and structured: another great Produttori cru.

_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Paje 2015 – Slightly bigger and more elegant than the Muncagota: very deep for a 2015.

Renato Ratti, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2016 – fine, fine, fine! With the great structure characteristic of the ‘16s.

Schiavenza, Barolo Prapo 2015 – very big, old-style Barolo: needs time to soften its tannins; very good indeed.

As you can see from all the above, the teens of this still new century are creating wonders in Barolo and Barbaresco. We have to hope that the warming trend can be brought under control before all we can get in the future becomes a fine crop of Nebbiolo raisins.

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Few wineries in Barolo are as historic and as highly respected by wine professionals and consumers alike as Fontanafredda. The 300-hectare property was first organized in 1858 by Victor Emanuel, the second King of Italy, as a love gift to his then-mistress, later wife, “La Bella Rosin.” Victor Emanuel’s son, Count Emanuele Alberto di Mirafiore, inherited the property in 1878 and began developing it into one of the largest and most progressive wine producers in the Piedmont, an eminence it has never lost.

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Not that Fontanafredda hasn’t endured vicissitudes. The most daunting of these was the late arrival (1928) in the Piedmont of the phylloxera, the root louse – an unintended import from America – that came close to wiping out European wine production. Immediately on its heels came the international depression of 1929, another unwanted import from America. Those two blows forced the sale of the property in 1931 to a bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which owned Fontanafredda until 2009. The present owner is Oscar Farinetti, a native Piedmontese, better known to the world now as the owner of Eataly.

Fontanafredda has always been a predominantly traditionalist winemaker, devoted to local grape varieties – especially Nebbiolo – vinified in traditional ways: long, slow fermentations with lots of skin contact, aging in big botti. There were some experiments in the past with barriques and new French oak, but under Farinetti’s aegis, those have been largely phased out, and Fontanafredda has moved steadily in the direction of organic farming and vinification. Its status as an organic producer has recently been officially recognized: 2018 marked its first organic-certified harvest.

Sorry about the history lesson: Fontanafredda does that to you. Now to talk about the wines.

As a long-time Barolo lover, I’ve been tracking Fontanafredda Barolos, in my haphazard fashion, for many years, and I’ve had the distinct impression that they have always maintained excellent typicity and quality. In different harvests there have been frequent blips upward to a truly exalted level of Barolo winemaking, especially with the La Rosa cru, which is Fontanafredda’s crown jewel. In this century, those upward blips have been becoming more frequent, both under winemaker Danilo Drocco and under his friend and successor Giorgio Lavagna, who was wooed away from his position at Bruno Giacosa’s estate (a credential that will rightfully impress most Barolo lovers) to take over in 2018 as chief winemaker at Fontanafredda.

My apologies: You just can’t get away from history when you talk about Fontanafredda. Back to the wines.

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Fontanafredda’s importer, Taub Family Selections, recently sponsored a luncheon tasting session of six of its Barolos at the Manhattan Eataly, a highly appropriate venue for what proved to be a very interesting tasting. Here are the six wines:

2015 Barolo del Commune di Serralunga d’Alba

2015 Barolo Fontanafredda

2011 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

1996 Barolo Vigna La Rosa

2010 Barolo Riserva

2000 Barolo Riserva

This was a fascinating progression of wines. The first wine comes from various locations – some Fontanafredda’s own vineyards, some growers with whom Fontanafredda has had long-term relationships – within the commune of Serralunga, which is one of the most esteemed in the Barolo zone. You could make a loose analogy with Burgundy village wines, and Fontanafredda is the first and – so far as I have been able to find out – the only Barolo producer to attempt such a wine. In theory, it should give a true taste of what locals believe to be the core characteristics of this commune. No suspense: Despite being very young and still a bit closed, it did so, showing complex aromas, dark wild cherry fruit, decent body, ample tannins (which will soften pretty quickly) and good acidity and nervous energy.

The second wine’s grapes all came exclusively from Fontanafredda, which is not only the largest contiguous vineyard in Barolo but also an MGA cru in itself – the only monopole cru in Barolo. (FYI:  Just a few years back, a lengthy and exhaustive study concluded with an approved list of menzioni geografiche aggiuntive: additional geographic names that may be used on labels to identify wines. The entirety of the Fontanafredda estate qualified as its own cru.). This 2015 was also very young and still not fully open, but it showed better and more intensely the same Serralunga characteristics as the first wine.
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Vigna La Rosa amounts to a cru within a cru, a prized plot of approximately 20 acres that Fontanafredda vinifies and bottles separately in good harvests. The 2011 was lovely and surprisingly forward, already drinking very enjoyably. More elegant than big, it’s beautiful now and will probably continue to taste as good or better for the next ten years.

The 1996 Vigna La Rosa, on the other hand, is still far from mature, with big, firm tannins and a ton of still-evolving fruit. Winemaker Lavagna reminded us that at harvest nobody thought much of the ‘96s. It had been a difficult growing season, and most producers thought it wouldn’t amount to much. It reminded me of the 1978 Barolo, a notoriously hard vintage that took decades to fully mature but was absolutely glorious when it finally did. This is the kind of wine that can give you a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if you have the patience to wait for it.

.Next came the Riservas, wines chosen for their expected ability to age long and well, and consequently given extra time in barrel and in bottle before their commercial release. The aroma and flavor spectrum that appeared in all the preceding wines showed also in these two, with to my palate an extra layer of elegance superimposed. The 2010 had a lovely nose, and was surprisingly soft on the palate, forward, and accessible. A wine of this caliber may very well close down for a few years – a dumb phase. That’s normal, so don’t despair – just wait it out. The wine will come back better than ever, having evolved to a different stage. The Riserva 2000 showed that: It was still slightly closed, as if it was just emerging from its dumb phase and still needed time to regain its balance.

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NB: Both these Riserva wines just blossomed alongside the cheese course, giving a nice foretaste of what they will be like at their maturity. It will be worth waiting for, if you don’t want to drink them exclusively with cheese for the next ten or twenty years.

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“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

As I’ve remarked several times in recent months, I’m getting more and more interested in the wines of Alta Piemonte – the high Piedmont, that arc of Nebbiolo-based appellations that lie on sub-Alpine hills in the shadow of Monte Rossa. There is a very good reason for my increasing interest: those wines are getting better and better, and – happily – are becoming more available in the market here.
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Once upon a time, Spanna – as Nebbiolo is called throughout Alta Piemonte – was a name at least as famous and prestigious as Barolo and Barbaresco, maybe more so. Then came phylloxera, and the region’s viniculture was essentially wiped out. As in several other formerly important wine-producing areas, recovery was very slow, and only a few makers in Gattinara or Boca or Ghemme managed to hold on through the lean years. In the past 25 years or so, however, as Italian wines generally have earned more respect – and better prices – interest in the great tradition of Alta Piemonte Spanna has revived, production has increased, and, most important of all, quality has become paramount.

The wine I’m focusing on in this post – Monsecco Ghemme 2011 – is a perfect case in point. Monsecco was at one time a very important name in Alta Piemonte, famous for structured, long-aging wines. Then the winery went extinct, the wines disappeared, and Monsecco became one more memory of glories past. Now it’s coming back, the name revived by the Zanetta family, long-time Alta Piemonte negociants and now vignerons, as a signal of the kinds of wine they want to make: structured, polished wines of great longevity.

That immediately catches my interest, and the wines themselves hold it. I’ve mentioned this particular wine once before in this blog, when it showed beautifully at a dinner party we gave. This time it did just as well at a middle-of-the-week dinner for the two of us. First came the nice, berry-ish nose. The same congeries of flavors followed on the palate – very persistent, with excellent acidity and minerality and very soft tannins. The flavors in the cherry range that I associate with Nebbiolo were screened by the cascade of strawberry, blackberry, and even blueberry notes, with slate and salt, all carried by gentle tannins and bright acidity. At eight years old, the wine showed as very fresh, very balanced, and totally enjoyable.

With a sirloin steak, it got rounder and richer, and cheeses – especially a goat cheese — kicked the fruit up even further, making it big, deep, and complex. It’s clearly still young, and I think has minimally a decade of development before it. The Zanettas are equally clearly succeeding in their goal of reviving the grandeur of Monsecco’s name and reputation. This was indeed one fine wine. I’ll be keeping an eye out for other examples of their craft.

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Travaglini Gattinara

I have been getting increasingly interested in the wines of Alta Piemonte, that northern stretch of Piedmontese Nebbiolo vineyards that lie quite literally in the foothills of the Alps. Of the cluster of denominations strung out along that shallow arc, Gattinara has long been highly reputed as the most elegant and longest lived.

Travaglini is one of oldest and largest producers in Gattinara and in most critics’ estimation one of the two best winemakers in the zone. So you can imagine how quickly I said yes to an invitation to meet Cinzia Travaglini and her daughter Alessia to taste their new releases and some library wines. This wasn’t going to be work: this would be a treat.

Up there in the north, Nebbiolo is known as Spanna, and in most of the appellations (for example, Boca, Ghemme, Lessona) it is commonly blended with significant amounts of Bonarda and/or Vespolina. About 10% of those two grapes is permitted in Gattinara, but producers of Travaglini’s quality don’t use them. The pure character of Nebbiolo – Nebbiolo in purezza – is what Travaglini strives for: a wine that reflects both the complex character of the grape and the intense minerality of the rocky Alpine soils it grows in.

Those are very traditional winemaking goals in the Piedmont, and most of Travaglini’s working methods are equally traditional. That doesn’t prevent a little experimentation, however: the welcoming glass offered on this occasion was a champagne-method sparkler vinified au blanc from early-harvested Nebbiolo – and I assure you it wasn’t an oddity, but a lovely, complex, and satisfying sparkling wine. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale yet outside Italy, but the importer – Taub Family Selections — is hoping to bring some in soon.

From that point on, the tasting focused on conventionally vinified — and conventionally colored — Nebbiolos. It led off with Nebbiolo Costa della Sesia 2017: 100% Nebbiolo, stainless steel fermented under controlled temperatures. The wine stayed in stainless for another four months and then spent 10 months more in big Slavonian oak casks. The result is a wine very pleasing and fresh, a little light for a Nebbiolo wine but of definite varietal character and enjoyable drinking – hard to beat at a suggested retail price of $21.

After that, the tasting was all Gattinara – 2015, Riserva 2013 and 2009, Tre Vigne 2013 and 2006. These were all excellent wines, both the classic Gattinara and the cru selection Gattinara Tre Vigne showing the characteristic Gattinara silkiness, mineral complexity, and elegance.

The Gattinara Riserva comes from Travaglini’s oldest vineyards, the Tre Vigne from three separate vineyards reserved for it. The principal vinicultural difference between them is that 20% of the Tre Vigne wine is aged for a year in barrique. Having them side by side, I could discern the scent and taste of the barrique in the Tre Vigne: It wasn’t powerful, but it was noticeable, and for me – I admit to being a bit nutty on this subject – that was a distraction.

This was true of even the oldest Tre Vigne, the 2006: those barrique odors and flavors just don’t go away or level out. In all other respects, the two Tre Vigne vintages were model Gattinaras, and I strongly suspect that most consumers, tasting a Tre Vigne by itself, will not notice or be in any way bothered by the barrique notes. Which is good, because there is a lot of fine Nebbiolo in those bottles.

For me, the wine of the day was the Gattinara Riserva 2009, a classic wine in every sense, developing beautifully but still young (it probably has two decades in front of it), with a truly lovely, long finish.

It’s hard to give Gattinaras of this quality the cellaring they deserve, so enjoyable are they young. But you should definitely make the effort. These are great Nebbiolo wines, just as capable of bottle development and maturation as Barolo and Barbaresco, but – if you need another incentive — usually at substantially lower cost.

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Wine lovers have a role to play in this sporadically dawning age of eco-consciousness. The large, messy vitis vinifera family includes a good many endangered subspecies, and the ecologically worthy task of preserving them is a boon not only for biological diversity but for our own ever-curious palates: some of these near vanishing varieties make very fine wine. One such is Freisa, a very old Piedmontese grape, once extremely popular, now reduced to a few vineyards and a mere fraction of its former acreage.
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In this map of the Cavallotto vineyards, Freisa is the tiny piece in blue.

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No, you won’t find it everywhere, though I wish you could. Not even in Italy, where outside its northern stronghold it is close to totally unknown – and even in its heartland, the Piedmont, it is scarce and threatened. So why am I telling you about a wine you probably won’t be able to get? Because I think it’s worth an effort to save. Because if asked, local retailers will ask their distributors, who will pass the question up to corporate and – who knows? – somewhere along the line someone may actually do something that will eventually result in a potentially very great wine surviving to give pleasure for a few more centuries. I think that’s worth making a fuss about, don’t you?

What makes Freisa special is its relationships:  It is either the parent or the child of Nebbiolo, and that is special indeed. DNA studies have established the  relationship but not which is which. What is clear is that approximately 80% of Freisa’s DNA is identical to Nebbiolo’s, and that certainly gives it a head start on greatness.

Freisa has been grown in the Piedmont for centuries, and at one point in its long history it formed a part of almost every blended wine made there – and in the past they were almost all blended. Farmers loved it because it was hearty and disease-resistant, grew where many other varieties wouldn’t, and bore prolifically. Some of those characteristics can be the kiss of death for a wine of quality, inviting overplanting and exploitation. In addition, Freisa grapes are packed with tannins, which unless handled properly can be cruel on the palate. Many of you will remember that very similar things used to be said until quite recently about young Nebbiolo-based wines, Barolo in particular.

Right now, Freisa seems to be one of the varieties that is benefitting from global warming. The Piedmont’s lengthening growing season is giving the grapes the opportunity to achieve complete phenolic ripeness, and that – as with Nebbiolo – is the key to taming those rambunctious tannins, and even to lowering the variety’s very high malic acid content, resulting in a more balanced and drinkable wine right from fermentation.

The result, for the consumer, is a wine with an aroma that commentators describe as “haunting and complex” (that particular formulation is Ian D’Agata’s) and a fascinating flavor profile that features always the strawberry from which its name apparently derives and several other fruits, especially wild cherries. I recently enjoyed a bottle of Freisa from the Langhe, a young one from Cavalotto, a very traditional Barolo house that hasn’t abandoned the other traditional grapes of the region.
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This 2015 was deeply colored and deeply flavorful, redolent of cherry and earth, with a soft mouth feel – the tannins were totally under control – and an enlivening touch of acidity.  It combined beautifully with a simple, tasty weekday dinner of oven-roasted sausages, potatoes, bell peppers, and red onions, which we followed up with a few odds and ends of cheese. The Freisa loved every single component and adapted seamlessly to them all. That, in my never very humble opinion, defines a really good and useful wine. This was a young wine, but because of the tannins it shares with Nebbiolo, Freisa should age very well – if any of us could ever get hold of enough of it to cellar.

Let us hope for the future: There seem to be signs of a small revival of interest in the variety, both among producers and in the press:  Eric Asimov recently discussed it prominently in The New York Times, and that can’t hurt. By all means, try it if you can: It may give a welcome new palatal experience. Perhaps a new day is dawning for Freisa. Who knows? If global warming keeps increasing at its present pace, they may soon be growing Freisa in Burgundy.

 

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