Archive for the ‘Taurasi’ Category

Who’s Afraid of a Vintage Chart?

May 7, 2020

It always gives me a perverse pleasure, when I have just enjoyed an exquisite bottle of wine, to check some authoritative vintage chart and be told that my bottle was over the hill, should have been drunk years ago, and was only a mediocre vintage to begin with. Call me anti-authoritarian (I am), but it doubles my enjoyment to find out once again that the emperor has no clothes on.

My most recent instance of this was my last bottle of the 2003 vintage of Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Radici, and the naked potentate this time was Robert Parker, or at least his vintage chart, which rated all 2003 Taurasi a very humble 75 out of 100, a number so low it is rarely seen in any vintage chart for any wine: Mostly they fall in the range of 85 to 100. It was also designated “C: past its prime, should have been drunk already.” What do you know?  I had just rhapsodized over a wine I should have been embarrassed to have at my table.

Well, call me shameless as well as anti-authoritarian: I loved that wine. It was big, and rich, lush with dark-toned Aglianico fruit and laced with gorgeous Campanian earth and minerals, its complex, balanced flavors still maturing and clearly with years of development still in front of them – classic Mastroberardino Taurasi, which is to say classic Taurasi. I’m not sure that Mastroberardino is capable of making a bad Taurasi.

So how do you explain Parker’s far different take on 2003?  Well, to be fair, his rating is of the vintage as an entity in itself, not what any individual producer made of it, so it’s sort of an average, as any vintage rating must be. Also – IMHO, as is now the usage – Parker has never been very sound on Italian wines. In my in fact not-at-all-humble opinion, he has never really understood them, so that I’ve always found his evaluation of individual wines as well as whole vintages skewed. It’s a little bit like the Michelin Guide’s ratings of Italian restaurants: The more highly praised they are, the less characteristically Italian they are, and the more they resemble French restaurants, in both appearance and cooking styles.

That works for a lot of the buying public, which is quite content with that state of affairs, but it doesn’t work for me, nor should it work for any wino who wants different and authentic wines with their own character and style, not international wannabes tasting only of the same old same old. Real Taurasi is emphatically its own creature: It is made from Aglianico, one of Italy’s three noblest red varieties, and it is often the biggest and longest-lived of them all. I have tasted 70-year-old Taurasis – from Mastroberardino, of course – that were still going strong, with little loss of color or body or flavor.

Aglianico is simply a great grape, one of the noblest red grapes of them all. The Mastroberardino family has been its guardians through the many dark decades when Italian wines in general got little respect, and southern Italian wines in particular got none at all. Now that Italian wine is in the ascendant, there are many other producers, and a good number of them are making first-rate Taurasi. This is an unmitigated blessing for all of us who love this wine and the unique volcanic hills that nourish it and shape its character.

 

Aglianico grows in several zones in Campania and in nearby Basilicata, and it can make a very fine wine in those places. But its masterpiece is Taurasi, and that comes only from a small area in the province of Avellino, high in the windy hills inland and east of Naples. This isn’t tourist Italy: This is and has always been hard-working Italy, where the strength of the back and arms and the sharpness of the eye and mind can produce wonders. Not the least of those wonders is a glorious wine, like my ’03 Mastro, from a – so it would seem – mediocre vintage. I leave it to your imagination what can be done with a good one.

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If you don’t know Taurasi, I’d urge you to try a Mastro bottle to learn its classic dimensions. If you’re already familiar with Taurasi, explore some of the small producers who are now making the wine and its region one of the most exciting in Italy – for example, producers like Luigi Tecce, Urciuolo, Lonardi, Caggiano, Guastaferro, Di Meo, Molettieri, and last but very far indeed from least, Terredora, which is the property of a branch of the Mastroberardinos, who produce Taurasi marked by decades of familial expertise.

Where Are the Wines of Yesteryear? Safely Locked in Memory

April 23, 2020

In the enforced inactivity that Covid 19 has imposed – the virtual tastings that now seem to be all over the internet are not the same as tasting real wine – Diane and I have been cooking determinedly and raiding the cellar frequently. No new young wines, no trade tastings, no lunches or dinners with winemakers – just our own kitchen skills and our own wines on hand.

It lacks a bit in variety from the wine point of view: I don’t get to try new vintages nor any wines or producers that are new to me. But it’s not what I could really call the same-old same-old. Whether by luck or cunning, I’ve got some nice wines stashed away, which we’ve been enjoying to soften our isolation from friends and colleagues. Not all of them are antiques (would that I had more of those!), but even the youngish ones can evoke memories: Wines, we are finding, are very good for that.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Just a dinner or so back, Diane and I opened our last bottle of Mastroberardino’s 2003 Taurasi, which led us into fond reminiscences of Antonio Mastroberardino, for many decades the head of the family firm and one our favorite wine people. We first met Antonio in the late ‘70s and had been friends ever since, until his death in 2014. I’ve come to think that Neapolitan men of a certain age begin to converge on a common face: My first thought, when I met Antonio, was that he looked like all my uncles.

My favorite memory of Antonio, among the many, is of the time he and his wife Teresa picked up Diane and me in Vietri to drive together to Naples. Antonio was of a pronouncedly scholarly, almost professorial turn of mind, and, instead of focusing his attention on the hair-raising autostrada traffic, he turned to broader issues – much to the consternation of our two wives in the back seat.

At one point he was trying to explain to me in English a complex idea about Italy’s political scene, the state of wine producing, and the attitudes and circumstances of Campania’s small growers. He finally gave up English and – mostly looking at me and only occasionally glancing at the road – laid out his thoughts in flowing Italian. After his peroration, he asked if I had understood it all. “Si, si,” I said, “ho capito in senso metaforico.” Yes, I understood it in a metaphoric sense.

That fixed Antonio’s attention on me even more. I thought Diane was ready to clamber into the front of the car and grab the steering wheel. “In senso metaforico,” he said thoughtfully, as if relishing the phrase. He looked ever so briefly at the traffic around us – and repeated “senso metaforico” a few more times, almost chewing the words. Then he turned again to me and said, in his most serious, professorial voice, “I congratulate you on your culture.” Finally, to the incredible relief of the two ladies in the back, he turned his thoughts to driving, as if that had successfully closed the matter.

I knew that the whole concept of culture was centrally important to Antonio, so I realized this was a tremendous compliment. But I have always thought that the episode said more about him and the character of his mind than it does about mine. There were very few like him in the wine world and it feels very good to remember him not just as a winemaker but as the thoughtful, humane person he was.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

A very different set of memories was triggered on an evening when Diane and I were drinking a 2010 La Selvanella, a pitch-perfect Chianti Classico Riserva from Melini. Selvanella is sort of Melini’s home estate, a largish vineyard in the Classico zone, and Melini has been producing very traditional Chianti Classico there for many decades. Sipping this one alongside a modest home version of bistecca fiorentina, I found myself recounting to Diane an extraordinary visit there many years ago.

The Frederick Wildman firm, Melini’s importer, had organized a visit for a large group of wine journalists to several of the estates Wildman represented in northern and central Italy. This culminated in Tuscany, and climaxed at Selvanella. You could not imagine a more picture-perfect rustic Tuscan setting: brilliant sunshine on rows of neatly pruned vines, surrounded by the deep green of forest, and a spacious, shaded patio to shelter us from that very hot sunshine – and also to house a huge, wood-fired spit.

On that spit revolved skewer after skewer of cooking animals, ranging in size from thrushes through several other birds (the quail were particularly delicious, I recall) up to pheasants, then rabbits; and finally, on another even larger spit, cinghiale – a whole wild boar. There was not a single farm-bred creature in that whole intensely gamey and succulent lot: Every one of them had been shot by Nunzio Capurso, then the head of Melini, the winemaker at Selvanella, a generous host, and a passionate hunter. We tasted through several vintages of Selvanella at that feast, and now, enjoying this bottle of 2010, at home in not-quite-rustic Greenwich Village, with a fine but comparatively tiny steak, I vividly recalled the flavors and pleasures of that now far-distant, thoroughly Rabelaisian day. I can’t believe now how much I could – and did – eat then.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

At another recent home dinner, Diane and I shared a bottle of Barbi’s 2013 Brusco dei Barbi, a lovely 100% Sangiovese from one of the oldest, most highly reputed producers in Montalcino (I wrote about Barbi Brunello recently here). This bottle, at not quite seven years old, was still a touch tannic but nevertheless tasted deeply of dense, dark, fully ripe Sangiovese grosso. It promised years of development yet.

That tannin, which we both remarked on almost simultaneously, triggered our memory of the evening – again many years ago – when Francesca Colombini Cinelli, proprietor of the Barbi estate, treated us to a vertical tasting of about a dozen Bruscos, the oldest twenty years old. At the aroma of the fourteen-year-old Brusco, Diane and I both exclaimed, “white truffle!” A broadly smiling Signora Cinelli explained that the Barbi family too had been pleasantly surprised by that. They had originally formulated Brusco to be a young, early-drinking wine, as opposed to the many years of aging needed by their Brunello, and they had not really expected the Brusco to have great aging potential. But good fruit, good soils, and great care in the cellar will not be denied, any more than will good memories – and Diane and I only regret that we don’t have more and older Brusco dei Barbi salted away.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

“Sheltering in place” – or maybe it’s just age and garrulity – has triggered the flow of memories of decades of encounters with much-loved wines and even more fondly remembered people. These are probably a lot more fun for me to write about than for others to read, so I’ll try to moderate the flow – but I can’t guarantee that I won’t succumb again to the allure of wine and memory.

 

Campania Panorama

October 21, 2019

The Wine Media Guild opened this season’s series of tasting lunches with a fine survey of the varied output of the Campania region of south-central Italy, probably the most exciting region of Italy for winemaking today. I’ve long been a major fan of Campania because of the richness of its viticultural traditions and the amazing variety of its fine indigenous grapes.

Several years back, in Decanter, I predicted that wine lovers would someday speak of Campania with the same reverence they now reserve for Burgundy. That hasn’t happened yet, but the extremely high level of the Media Guild’s array of wines – 31 wines, of at least 8 indigenous red and white varieties, from several different Campanian regions – showed why to my mind that conversion is still inevitable.

Ilaria Petitto, the head of the Donnachiara winery, was the event’s guest of honor. Five of Donnachiara’s wines were represented: the whites Resilienza 2017 (Falanghina), Empatia 2018 (Fiano di Avellino), and Alethia 2017 (Greco di Tufo), and the reds Aglianico 2017 and Taurasi 2015. All were fine and in themselves a fair example of Campania’s variety and quality, but I was particularly impressed by the reds.

Donnachiara’s white wines have always been textbook examples of the great Irpinian varieties, but in the past, the estate’s red wines lagged them. A few years back, Signora Petitto engaged the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella, and the reds have been getting better and better ever since. Donnachiara is a small estate by the standards of the region’s largest, like Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio, but it is rapidly joining them in prestige.

Because of the diversity of their grape varieties and vinicultural zones, I can’t generalize about the other 26 wines, except to say that all were fine – which is in itself pretty remarkable.

  • The stand-out among the Falanghina and Falanghina-based wines was Marisa Cuomo’s Furore Bianco 2018 (Costa d’Amalfi), a great wine of complexity, depth, and suavity.
  • Among the Fiano di Avellino wines, I particularly liked Tenuta Sarno 1860’s two bottles (2016 and 2017), both of which displayed an admirable varietal character.
  • Among the Greco di Tufo, Benito Ferraro’s Terra d’Uva 2018 just shone – but then Ferraro’s Grecos always do: This is a top-flight Greco producer.
  • Among the reds, I loved Villa Raiano’s Aglianico Costa Baiano 2015 and the Contrade di Taurasi (aka Cantine Lonardo) Taurasi 2013: Both were really fine, elegant and fresh, complex and totally enjoyable.

Teresa Bruno, co-owner of the Petilia winery with her brother Roberto, who is the winemaker, had gotten caught in New York traffic, arrived late during lunch, and dashed from table to table tirelessly pouring samples from two very welcome bottles: Petilia’s 2017 Ape, a Fiano di Avellino fermented on the skins, and 2015 Quattro Venti, a Greco di Tufo. The Fiano was lovely, with its almondy perfumes and nut and wildflower flavors enhanced by the long skin contact, and the Greco was what I think of as classic Petilia – big and fruity and balanced, just great Greco.

Except to Italian wine nuts like me, none of these wines has the name recognition of the famous Bordeaux or Burgundy estates. It’s useful to remind ourselves that the Romans of the Empire regarded Campanian wines as the best of the best. The Romans weren’t stupid: They recognized and exploited the variety of Campania’s soils and exposures to produce their versions of Chateau Lafite and Richebourg.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing whether the grapes being grown in Campania today are the same varieties the Romans cultivated, but we do know that all of them are natives – international varieties have made almost no headway in Campania – and many of them are very old indeed. And more and more indigenes are being rescued all the time. Not two decades back, Falanghina was endangered. Even more recently, Pallagrella bianco and Pallagrello rosso and Casavecchia have been brought back from the brink of extinction and are now producing award-winning wines.

A few years ago I met a winemaker who told me that on his roughly 30 hectares near Naples he grows 30 or more grape varieties, half of which, he said – and I believe him – “are not in the catalog.”  This is why, for me, Campania is endlessly fascinating: It’s going to be presenting us with new old wines for years to come. To paraphrase an old Roman line: Ex Campania, semper aliquid novum.

Smiles of a Summer Night

August 8, 2019

Midsummer dinner parties always present problems. You want to keep things simple and light, but you also don’t want to treat your guests as if they were fashion silhouettes who make a meal on a single lettuce leaf and a martini olive. Plus, if your guests have palates, you want to offer them the bounty of the season and also wines appropriate to that bounty: light, but not insubstantial; fresh, but not without complexity. And all the while, you have to offer placatory sacrifices to the gods of the electric grid, so that the power doesn’t go off in the middle of prep or the middle of dinner. Oh, first-world worry worry worry!

Those of you who follow Diane’s blog already know how she recently pulled off this trick. My part involved less work but – I flatter myself – more tact: matching the appropriate wines to those tasty dishes. Hors d’oeuvres are always easy: you can’t go wrong with a Prosecco or a Champagne. This time I opted for Champagne, because . . . well, mostly because I’ve already drunk my lifetime quota of Prosecco this hot summer.

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I’ve been tinkering with grower Champagnes lately – because they vary interestingly from the Grands Marques norms – and the one I opted for this time didn’t disappoint. Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Cuis Premier Cru, Brut NV was an intriguingly mineral-and-white-fruit blanc de blancs: 100% Chardonnay, vintages 2010-2015; disgorged March 16, 2019; dosage 6g/l.For my palatal preferences, blanc de blancs is the ideal summertime Champagne, light enough to titillate, complex enough to hold your interest. This one provided exactly that combination.

Our first course at table was classic summer fare from Naples: zucchini a scapece and a platter of just sliced, never refrigerated heirloom tomatoes surrounding a still-moist-from-its-whey mozzarella di bufala. Naples dictated the wine choice here: a sapid and lovely Greco di Tufo, tasting of its volcanic soils and bittersweet fruit. Ours was from Benito Ferrara, his cru Cicogna, a perennial – and entirely deserving – Tre Bicchieri winner.
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With the pasta, we switched to red wines, and I got a surprise. Fresh fettuccine pointed me to northern Italy, so I chose a Ghemme, one of Piedmont’s subalpine denominations that blends upwards of 65% Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) with the indigenous Bonarda and sometimes a little admixture of other, very localized grapes. These northern wines emphasize elegance rather than power, and are usually lighter-bodied than more southerly Piedmont Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco.
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My wine, a 2011 Monsecco, perfectly supplied the lighter body and elegance, but it also offered much greater fruit intensity – cherries! – and depth than I had expected. It got everybody’s attention from the first taste, and kept it. Ghemme and Boca and Lessona, but especially Ghemme, are staging a real comeback, and you should know about them:  they are fine wines, and considerably less expensive than the better known Barolo and Barbaresco.

Diane’s summertime secondo directed me back to Naples, so with it we drank a lovely 2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva from Guastaferro.
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Gorgeous and big and deep, this wine – vinified exclusively from very old Aglianico vines still on their own roots, a rarity even in Campania’s often sandy, sulfur-laced soils – will last for decades more with no loss of vigor or flavor. This too is a winemaker to know about.

For our cheese course, I went back north again, for Barolo this time: a 1999 Barolo Colonnello from Aldo Conterno. I wanted to finish with a crescendo, and this great cru in a great vintage from a great producer provided it.

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The wine was lush: big in the mouth, round and deep, with dark, brooding, still fresh-tasting fruit understrapped by abundant now-soft tannins and generous acidity, it was ready for anything the cheeses threw at it.

Smiles this summer night were abundant, though they bore no resemblance to the ones induced by the Ingmar Bergman movie from which I shamelessly lifted my title.

Red Wine Bonanza

June 4, 2018


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Campania Stories 2018 climaxed with a blind tasting of 111 red wines. By the standards of the Nebbiolo Prima or the Chianti Classico and Brunello anteprima, at either of which professionals taste 100 or more wines a day over multiple days, that’s not a lot of wines – but judged against what Campania’s production was in the past, that is a tremendous leap forward. That same progress is evident in the quality of the wines as in the proliferation of appellations and producers: Every year, the most authoritative Italian experts – Daniele Cernilli, Gambero Rosso, the Italian Sommeliers Association – give Campania more and more of their top awards, and list more and more Campanian wines in their annual guides.

Not all of those wines are available here in the US, of course, but many are – enough to create some confusion for American consumers. The region’s many appellations result not from Italian whimsicality or parochialism, but from Campanian geography. Campania is broken up by hills and mountains, divided by valleys and rivers, with soils volcanic and alluvial and sedimentary, and climates modified by altitude and/or proximity to the sea. These necessitate differing appellations to reflect the many varied growing circumstances, which in turn affect the kind of wine produced – even when the grape varieties are the same.
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A misty morning in the hills near Avellino

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That is one of the underlying simplicities of Campanian red wine: Campania has largely resisted the importation of foreign grapes, and almost all Campanian reds are made with a small handful of indigenous grape varieties. At the top of the heap stands Aglianico, in its pinnacle expression Taurasi and in many other regionally named wines. Right behind is Piedirosso – the Per’e Palummo beloved of traditional growers – sort of a Merlot to Aglianico’s Cabernet, which blends wonderfully with Aglianico and also makes a very nice wine on its own. And distantly behind Piedirosso (in volume, not in quality) follow Casavecchia, Pallagrello nero, Tintore, and a handful of other ancient red varieties just now being rediscovered and re-cultivated.

Thus, understanding Campanian reds isn’t all that complex, once you’ve familiarized your palate with what Aglianico and Piedirosso can do. (If you haven’t, you’re depriving yourself of some great pleasures: Aglianico in particular is a truly noble red variety, easily on the same plane as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo or, for that matter, Pinot noir.)

For me, as a wine lover and an I-hope-useful journalist, this plenitude of fine wines and their appellations makes a major problem. For instance: at the blind tasting, 71 of the wines presented were either 100% Aglianico or largely Aglianico-based. None of them was a wine I couldn’t drink with pleasure. Fifty-six of them scored 3.75 to 4.5 on the 5-point scale I use for my own ratings, and I’m a stingy scorer. Fifty-six! I can’t in conscience just turn this post into a gigantic list: I came too close to that for my own comfort (or yours, I am sure) in my post on the white wines of Campania Stories. But I also can’t omit the names of these wonderful wines and their hard-working producers – so here’s a link that will connect those of you curious or masochistic enough to want to know them to the complete list of Tom’s Very Pleasurable Fifty-six.

What impressed me consistently about the Taurasis especially, but all the less famous Aglianico wines as well, was the wonderful Aglianico fruit – wild cherry, black raspberry, forest underbrush, walnuts and earth – in the aromas and flavors. In the Taurasis, it tends to be a bit more austere and structured, in the other wines a little softer and more giving, but in all it is sustained by a structure that promises long life and development. Not that they have to be kept forever – many were already pleasant drinking and almost all will be thoroughly enjoyable very soon – but for anyone seeking mature flavors and style in a red wine, these Campanian beauties can provide it, if you’re patient enough. Galardi’s Terra di Lavoro, Villa Matilde’s Falerno Rosso, La Rivolta, Mustille, Fontanavecchia, Benito Ferrara, Donnachiara, Di Meo, Luigi Tecce’s Campi Taurasini Satyricon – all these “non-Taurasis” are splendid wines, with a good chunk of Taurasi’s virtues.

As for the Taurasis themselves: There was an impressive, almost universal level of excellence from producers large and small. Clearly the level of winemaking in Campania has taken a major step upward. Familiar larger producers like Feudi di San Gregorio and Villa Raiano showed lovely wines, as did medium-sized houses like Donnachiara and Di Meo and small producers such as Luigi Tecce – and so too did a raft of producers previously unknown to me, some of them quite small, such as Vigne Guadagno or Regina Collis. In the 2012 and 2013 vintages especially, throwing darts at a list of Taurasi makers would probably get you a fine wine nine times out of ten.

Finally, I can’t close this post without praising the wines vinified – in most cases, 100% – from Casavecchia or Pallagrello Nero. Two ancient and indigenous Campanian varieties now undergoing serious revivals, both make an intense, dark wine, brooding and elegant, and seemingly capable of graceful aging. Top-flight producers include, for Casavecchia, Aia delle Monache, Alois, Sclavia, and Viticoltori del Casavecchia; and for Pallagrello nero, Alois, Cantina di Lisandro, Nanni Copè, Sclavia, Tempio di Diana, and Vestini Campagnano.

As my enthusiasm should show, I found the whole Naples event pleasurable and exciting. I would urge any young enophile to start paying serious attention to Campanian wine, while it is still modestly priced and not yet well known. This is an opportunity to fill your cellar with beautifully structured, long-lasting wines that you will enjoy for many years.

Wining in Rome

November 3, 2016

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

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

 The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collectible Italian Reds

December 3, 2015

In the December 1 issue of the Wine Enthusiast, Kerin O’Keefe published an article called Italy’s Most Collectible Wines. Focusing exclusively on red wines, she surveyed the last approximately 20 years, singling out the best vintages and producers for each of her chosen great denominations – Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, Brunello, Bolgheri, and Taurasi – and offering a single exemplary bottle for each vintage.

okeefe page

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Given the ever-irksome space limitations of print publication, which are immensely burdensome to any writer with something to say, she did a great job with so potentially huge and shapeless a subject. Very few American wine writers – very few writers in English, in fact – know Italian wines as well as KO’K, and she nailed the important vintages exactly for each of her wines. No one – not even a notorious carper like me – could find fault with her chosen examples either. I wish she had had room for more individual producers’ names, and I’d bet KO’K does too – that’s where those space limitations really hurt. “Here’s your assignment: Tell us all about the great vintages and producers of Barolo (don’t forget to explain what Barolo is) in 250 words.” As the immortal Alfred E. Neuman was wont to say, Aaaarrrrggghhh!

For those who don’t follow WE, here’s a brief summary of what O’Keefe fitted in:

Barolo
Vintages:  1999, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2010
Producers:   Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Mascarello, Brezza, Massolino, Paolo Scavino

Barbaresco
Vintages:
  2001, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Produttori del Barbaresco, Cascina delle Rose, Giuseppe Cortese, Roagna, Gaja

Amarone
Vintages:
 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Giuseppe Quintarelli, Tommasi, Cesari, Tedeschi, Masi

Brunello
Vintages:  1995, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2010
Producers: Col d’Orcia, Lisini, Costanti, Biondi Santi, Il Marroneto

Bolgheri
Vintages:
 2001, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012
Producers:  Le Macchiole, Michele Satta, Antinori, Ornellaia, Tenuto San Guido (Sassicaia)

Taurasi
Vintages:
 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Mastroberardino, Contrade di Taurasi (Lonardi), Guastaferro, Terredora di Paolo, Feudi di San Gregorio
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My only serious quibble with this list is with Bolgheri and its profusion of French varieties, of all of which I am far less a fan than the vast majority of wine journalists – though I am pleased to see the inclusion of the first-rate winemaker Michele Satta. I would rather have used the limited space available for a few off-the-beaten-track great wines – some Gattinaras or Caremas, for example, or Chianti Rufina, especially Selvapiana, or Sicily’s Palari or some Etna wines. But this is a small area of disagreement with a very authoritative listing of Italy’s red crème de la crème – if that isn’t too repulsive a metaphor for what is meant to be high praise.

Barolo and Taurasi: Separated at Birth?

August 20, 2015

This post is for the really serious winos. Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by the many broad similarities and the few subtle differences between Nebbiolo and Aglianico, especially in their premier expressions, Barolo and Taurasi, and especially as those wines mature. Both varieties need very long growing seasons. Both can take heat but enjoy cool, not to say cold, weather.

Nebbiolo is obviously a northern grape, but even though Aglianico grows in the south, it grows high – above 400 meters – in the hills. Oldtimers in Campania can still remember harvesting Taurasi in the snow. Both grapes are rich in tannins and acidity. They have fairly similar flavor profiles, and they both obviously age long and well. You could say some of these things of other varieties as well, but not all of them, and it’s the weight of all those factors that urges the comparison upon me.

Most wine drinkers know Barolo well and Taurasi hardly at all, so many readers may be surprised by the juxtaposition. But Southern Italians have been irked for years by hearing Taurasi referred to as “the Barolo of the South,” whereas they feel that Barolo by rights should be called the Taurasi of the North. I’ve spoken to many Italian scientists of the grape, and more than one has told me that there may well be some Aglianico in Nebbiolo’s DNA – which is historically likely, given how the traffic flowed on ancient Italy’s trade routes and legionary roads.

Recently, it occurred to me there was a simple way to test the two wines’ similarities and differences as they play out on the palate: Taste a sample of each side by side, take notes, think, and enjoy. That, after all, was the basic structure of my first book, Mastering Wine: tasting two wines together tells you far more about each than any number of solitary tastings will reveal.

So, with the collaboration of wife, webmistress, and cook (that’s Diane: one person, not three), I set up two dinners around two chosen wines: a Barolo Parafada Riserva from Massolino, and a Taurasi Radici Riserva from Mastroberardino. Both wines were 1999, a very good but not spectacular vintage in both zones, and both had been kept in my usual far-from-perfect storage, so that made a pretty level playing field.

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two wines

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The dinners were designed to test different aspects of the wines. The first evening, we skipped an appetizer course and started with a plain broiled steak, baked eggplant slices, and sautéed zucchini; then went on to an assortment of cheeses, including a pungent, American-made Reblochon type that should test any wine’s mettle. The second dinner started with pâté de foie gras on toast and went on to pork chops braised with a shallot-and-mushroom gravy, flat Roman green beans, and boiled fingerling potatoes. Whatever else happened, we were going to eat well.

For the first meal, the wines had been uncorked just about an hour before drinking. For the second, the wine bottles had stood, recorked and half-full, in the refrigerator until about an hour before dinner. This was done by design, to see how they reacted to such long aeration. My hunch was they would be the better for it, and this comparison provided an opportunity to test that too.

And eat well we did, and very interestingly did the wines respond to the various dishes. At first opening, the Barolo was redolent of earth, dried roses, dried figs, and tobacco, while the Taurasi smelled of pine duff and underbrush, funghi porcini, and dried plums – quite clearly different, but hardly opposites. On the palate, the Parafada felt big and round and soft. It had some perceptible wood tannins, but mostly tasted of black fruit – a lot of it, powerful and deep. It finished long and tobacco-y/leathery. Elegant, it seemed to me. The Radici felt leaner and more muscular, lithe like a dancer. It also tasted predominantly of black fruits, along with mushrooms, and leather, with a finish similar to the Barolo’s: leathery and elegant. Both very fine wines, clearly, and clearly with some overlap of their flavor components.

Then on to taste them with the first dinner’s foods.

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First dinner

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The steak softened the Parafada’s evident tannins and brought up an abundance of black cherry flavors with sufficient acidity to support them. For the Radici, the steak likewise emphasized the richness of its fruit and the freshness and relative abundance of its acidity. Both wines handled the vegetables well but without a lot of enthusiasm, though the Taurasi seemed to pick up some bulk alongside them, while the Barolo got a touch austere.

The cheeses really fattened both wines – even the evil Reblochon-type, but especially a Bleu d’Auvergne. The Taurasi just loved the third cheese, Idiazabal, a Spanish sheep-milk wedge. By the time we were finished with food, the wines were moving in different directions, the Barolo growing more austere and powerful, while the fruit kept coming forward in the Taurasi.

Twenty-four hours later, the differences seemed much sharper. The Barolo’s aroma had grown much deeper and more mushroomy, while the Taurasi was showing more and deeper blackberry character. They seemed almost to have traded places from the first evening.

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Second dinner 2

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But on the palate, they were beginning to converge, both smooth and elegant and composed, both playing quite happily with the foie gras, both showing nice complexity. The only perceptible difference was that the apparently greater acidity of the Radici really made its fruit shine. Then the pork-and-mushroom dish bumped up the Parafada’s fruit too, just as it turned the Taurasi’s yet another notch higher, making both wines taste fresher and more lively.

By this point it was clear that while the flavor spectra of the two wines overlapped in many places, there was one sharp difference between them, and that hinged on acidity. Both wines were actually better – richer and more complex – the second day, with what most people would regard as a preposterous amount of aeration. But the generous and lively acidity of Aglianico kept the Taurasi vital, while the Nebbiolo wine needed a little help. Still a great wine, make no mistake; but by the end of dinner the Barolo wanted a little cheese, while the Taurasi wanted only to be sipped.

Let me urge you to try some matches like this on your own. As I learned many years ago in doing the research for Mastering Wine, any paired tastings are fun, and carefully selected pairs are informative as no other kind of tasting can be. If you try any of your own, I’d love to hear your results.

A Name to Know: Vinifera Imports

August 10, 2015

For lovers of Italian wine, there are a few key importers who really shape the American market. One such, one of the very best, is Vinifera Imports, which over the years has been a steady source of top-quality wines from all over Italy.

Vinifera logo

One recent, steamy July evening, I had a dinner with Vinifera’s founder and director, Dominic Nocerino, at which we tasted four of his new releases.

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Dominic

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Dominic was born and raised near Naples, and like almost every other Neapolitan boy (except the few who want to be operatic tenors), his first ambition was to play professional soccer. Fortunately for us winebibbers, that didn’t work out, and in his twenties Dominic emigrated to America – Chicago, specifically – where he found his calling in the wine business. He founded Vinifera Imports in 1979, and by dint of a soccer player’s energy and an amazing work ethic has grown it into a premier company – not the largest, but certainly one of the most important and most influential.

Dominic personally selected every wine in Vinifera’s portfolio and has made a personal friend of every one of his producers (38 of them at the moment). What you really need to know about Dominic is that he has an excellent palate and a total commitment to quality: The fact that he was for a long while Angelo Gaja’s American importer, and for an astonishing 22 years, Bruno Giacosa’s, tells you everything. Dominic continues to bring in amazing wines. The newest addition to his portfolio is the Taurasi of Guastaferro (about which I’ve raved here), whose maker, young Raffaele Guastaferro, is a passionate artisan with an appetite for work equal to Dominic’s. I think he will almost certainly soon be known as a producer very much in the mold of a Giacosa or a Bartolo Mascarello.

In fact, his 2007 Taurasi Riserva was one of the wines that Dominic poured at dinner back in July, happily announcing that his first guastaferroshipment of Guastaferro’s wines would be arriving soon. This opportunity to retaste the ‘07 completely confirmed my enthusiasm for the Guastaferro wines. Vinified from a two-hectare block of Aglianico vines more than 175 years old, on their own pre-phylloxera roots, this Taurasi riserva brims with dark, berry-ish fruit and iron and earth and funghi and other underbrush scents and tastes. An excellent acid/tannin balance keeps it restrained and elegant, though you can sense the massive power just under the surface. Raffaele thinks this ’07 the best wine he’s made yet – and enjoyable as it is to drink now, I think it’s a wine to cellar for as long as you can keep your hands off it: It’s only going to get better.

This was an evening of reconfirmations: The addition of this wine to Vinifera’s portfolio showed once again the high level of selection exercised all through the line. Piedmont wines like Rinaldi’s Barolos and Chionetti’s Dolcettos; Veneto bottles such as Pra’s superb Soaves and Amarone; the Tuscans of Fontodi, Poggiopiano, Valdicava, San Giusto, and Canalicchio di Sopra – those would make an impressive lineup of imports for any firm, and they are just a fraction of the producers Dominic brings in.

At our dinner, before we got to the Taurasi, we tasted one of his fine Falanghinas, I Pentri; then an unusual – because of its rarity – 2008 Pignolo from his own vineyards in Friuli. Then followed Cascina Chicco’s newest release, a 2008 Barolo Riserva Ginestra, one of the most prized crus of the Monforte commune.

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Three Vinifera wines

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The two reds provided a study in contrasts, one famous, the other virtually unknown, one a red variety of proven quality, the other of impressive potential for those with the patience to cultivate it and to wait for it. Where the Barolo showed elegance and restraint, the Pignolo showed heft and power. Where the Ginestra seemed already balanced and giving, the Pignolo felt tight and austere, maybe even a little rustic. Both are wines that will reward cellaring, but while we can pretty safely predict the way the Barolo will develop (because of so many years and bottles of past experience with Nebbiolo), the Pignolo’s future is an unknown. It has the structure to endure long and well – but how it will develop, chissà?

That kind of mystery is part of the fun of wine. The willingness to take a chance, to learn something new, to seek out a different sensation – that’s what makes a (I hate the word, but nothing else says it) connoisseur. It’s also what makes a superior importer.

Campania in New York

July 30, 2015

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Quite recently, a group of nine Campanian wine producers, some whose wines are already available in the US, some seeking importers, presented a selection of their wines at a tasting-seminar-luncheon event at Ristorante Gattopardo.

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tasting

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Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a great partisan of the wines of Campania: I think they offer an array of indigenous varieties of a distinctiveness and quality that is unmatchable by any other Italian region or by any wine-producing region anywhere. This tasting confirmed my opinion.

The nine producers and their wines were, in the order presented:

  • Cantine di Marzo Anni Venti Greco di Tufo Spumante DOCG NV
  • Cantine Rao Silva Aura Pallagrello Bianco Terre del Volturno IGP 2013
  • Tenuta Scuotto Oi Ni Campania Fiano DOCG 2011
  • Contea de Altavilla Greco di Tufo DOCG 2013
  • Tenute Bianchino Le Tre Rose di Gió Falanghina IGT 2014
  • Tenuta Cavalier Pepe La Loggia del Cavaliere Taurasi DOCG Riserva 2008
  • Terre di Valter Ventidue Marzo Irpinia Aglianico 2013
  • Macchie S. Maria Taurasi DOCG 2010
  • Donnachiara Taurasi DOCG 2011

Now, I have some quibbles with the order of the presentation: In the whites I would have tasted the Falanghina right after the spumante, then the Greco before the Fiano, and the Pallagrello after that; and in the reds I would have tasted the Aglianico first and the Taurasis in order of age, culminating in the 2008 riserva. But I’m a purist, and that is only a quibble. All the wines showed well, displaying in every case a fidelity to type that I find admirable. And since the primary purpose of the luncheon was to reveal to those unfamiliar with Campania the wide range of its wines, they served that purpose very well.

Individually, each wine also had particular, noteworthy qualities. The ones that registered most strongly with me were as follows:

anni-ventiThe di Marzo spumante. Vinified from 100% Greco di Tufo, this is an uncommon style for this variety, and it worked uncommonly well. The di Marzo vineyards, located right in the heart of Tufo, are the most historic in the appellation. In fact, the di Marzo family brought the Greco grape into this zone in the 16th century, when they shifted their home base from Benevento to the Avellino area. Long neglected, the vineyards are enjoying a rebirth under the direction of the di Somma family, descendants of the di Marzo, and this relatively innovative wine is an example of the new vitality they have brought to bear. Lovely and lively perlage serves as a splendid vehicle for characteristic Greco minerality and acidity, making this fully dry sparkler thoroughly Oi nienjoyable as either an aperitif or a dinner wine.

The Scuotto Oi Ni Fiano. Scuotto is a small, relatively new producer in Avellino province, whose vineyards sit at a lofty 550 meters above sea level – not unusual for this area, but necessitating a long growing season, which both Aglianico and Fiano like. This lovely Fiano spent almost a year in contact with its lees, which gave it a very pleasing roundness and richness.

ventidueThe Terre di Valter Aglianico. This too is a new, smallish property, a family enterprise. It has the good volcanic soils typical of Irpinia, which gift the wines with a fascinating earthiness and minerality. This Aglianico is made from younger vines and shows a delightful freshness and fruit, riding on a medium body with finely balanced tannins and acidity – thoroughly enjoyable.

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The Taurasis as a group, but especially the 2011 Donnachiara, were all wonderfully characteristic, showing in varying combinations the Aglianico grape’s richness of tannin and acid and dark, berry-ish fruit interlaced with tobacco and walnut and leather. All needed more aging, even – perhaps especially – Cavalier Pepe’s 2008 Riserva, which is a very big wine. The 2010 from Macchie S. Maria showed fine Aglianico character and is a very promising offering from another small grower, quite new to commercial production.

Taurasis

Donnachiara is probably better known for its excellent Campanian white wines, which stand at the top of their class, but this 2011 Taurasi seems to me to represent a big jump up in the elegance of its red wine. It has always been better than respectable, but it now seems to be becoming really polished.

Of these producers, Cavalier Pepe, di Marzo, and Donnachiara are already available in the US. The others are seeking importers, and I hope they succeed in finding them quickly. These are all highly pleasurable wines that deserve a place on the shelves and on our tables.