Archive for the ‘Verdicchio’ Category

By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.

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. . . is that we bury, finally and for all time, the fiction that Italian white wines can’t age. Enough knowledgeable writers have tried, for at least the last decade, to tell consumers otherwise, that I would have thought by now that this piece of misinformation had died a natural death, but nevertheless I keep hearing it, and often enough from people who ought to know better.

So, as what I hope will be one more nail in its coffin, my Christmas gift for all worthy winos will be an account of my recent experience with two very different Italian white wines, both of the 2000 vintage.

I have long had in my “cellar” (regular readers will understand the quotation marks) a single bottle of Bucci Verdicchio 2000. Too long, in fact: This is a wine that was meant to be drunk years ago, but somehow it kept getting passed over.

Ampelio Bucci

Bucci is, in my opinion, the best producer of Verdicchio in the Marches, and Verdicchio is probably one of the most underestimated and underesteemed of all the Italian white wines – at least in this country. Ampelio Bucci is a charming and patient man: That patience sustained him for many years in dealing with his enologist, the brilliant but difficult and quirky Giorgio Grai.

Grai is – or was – nearly legendary in northern Italy for his skill in crafting long-aging white wines, and he guided the yield of Bucci’s vineyards into two forms, a “simple” Verdicchio, designed for youthful drinking, and a more complex Villa Bucci Verdicchio Riserva, designed for longer aging. I have drunk many 10-year-olds of the riserva, and they were uniformly lovely – fresh and deep, with Verdicchio’s characteristic pear, apple, and mineral flavors beautifully balanced against a restrained acidity.

But the wine I am talking about now isn’t that one: It’s the basic Verdicchio, the wine meant for being drunk young. Somehow it hadn’t been, and once its “use by” date had in my mind passed, I kept leaving it behind on the assumption that it was probably already dead or dying. So, recently, when Diane and I were having an unusually fancy first course (American Osetra caviar) with a light dinner of omelets, I decided to dispose of the bottle once and for all. Carefully chilling a back-up bottle of white Burgundy, I poured the 17-year-old Bucci, fully expecting to taste it and dump it.

Boy, was I wrong! The wine looked old, but pretty – golden amber and translucent. Its aroma was intriguing – very lively, with some floral notes but mostly complex mineral scents, like flint and chalk and slate. In the mouth, it felt light, balanced, and live – still that restrained acidity so typical of Bucci, sustaining complex flavors of unripe pears, untoasted almonds, and the ever-present mineral notes, with a pleasing butteriness in the finish. We were amazed, and our pleasure only grew as the wine opened further in the glass and responded beautifully to the very different challenges of caviar and omelets. This was not just a great Verdicchio, it was a great white wine from anywhere, of any age.

That was my instance of unplanned-for glorious longevity. My second wine story, a Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Selezione Erminia 2000, is the very opposite – in terms of planning, not quality. This is a wine that was designated for long aging right from the start, and only quite recently acquired by me.

The Di Meo family tends high-altitude vineyards (around 550 meters) in the most prized wine-making part of Campania, the Fiano, Greco, and Taurasi zones surrounding Avellino.

Generoso, Erminia, and Roberto Di Meo

The harvest of 2000 in most of Italy was a good one: in some places too hot, but in most bringing the grapes to a perfect point of ripeness, with fruit, sugar, acid, and tannins in excellent balance. That year, as an experiment in aging their indigenous white wines, the Di Meos selected a particular plot of Fiano within one of their best vineyards for special treatment to test how well a traditionally made white wine could age.

The grapes of this plot stayed on the vines longer than others of that harvest, not to super-ripeness, but definitely beyond the hang time for ordinary vinification. Then they underwent a long maceration period before soft pressing and low-temperature fermentation in steel. After that, the wine rested on its fine lees for a whole year, still in steel, before being racked off to repose in more steel and then bottle for a total of 13 more years before release.

This wine never saw a piece of wood, and its purity showed clearly in every sip. Fiano is a great grape, and the Avellino zone its heartland. My bottle was a magnum, but even allowing for that, its freshness was astonishing. Lovely aromas of underbrush and soil, a harmonious palate of white fruits and nuts – hazelnut especially – and long, lingering finish of dried fruit, mostly pear, all encased in an elegant package. Just a gorgeous wine, with years, maybe decades of life still before it. (WTSO – Wines Til’ Sold Out – has twice recently offered this wine in this vintage, and may do so again.)

I hope everyone reading this gets the chance to taste wines similar to these – often. That’s my Christmas wish for you. If you haven’t enjoyed it yet, it’s the kind of experience that will completely revise your notion of what white wine is all about.

Buone Feste, tutti!

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The restaurant Del Posto is so far on the West Side that it’s practically in the Hudson River, but it’s one of the better places in Manhattan to taste wine, I thought, as I seated myself behind an impressive array of glasses and listened to Mario Belardino, President of Bedford Imports and for decades the US importer of Umani Ronchi wines, introduce the winery’s third-generation owner, Michele Bernetti.

Mario Belardino at the tasting


The occasion was a luncheon to mark Michele’s visit to the US and to introduce Umani Ronchi’s new releases, including the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore Vecchie Vigne 2009 – Vecchie Vigne for short – which had the enviable distinction this year of being designated not just Tre Bicchieri – honor enough for a white wine from the central Italy’s Adriatic coast – but also being named White Wine of the Year by Gambero Rosso.

Such a huge award – there is an abundance of prestigious white wines in Italy, after all – will no doubt come as a surprise to most American wine lovers. We are more used to thinking of Verdicchio (if we think of it at all) as a light quaffing wine, to drink at the seashore with a plate of clams on the half shell. Reputations for good or for ill die hard in the wine world, and many wine lovers no doubt still recall the heyday of Verdicchio, almost 30 years past now, when the fish-shaped bottle (Fazi-Battaglia’s specialty) was a ubiquitous sight in Italian restaurants. Verdicchio in those days established itself here as a light-bodied, crisp, and acidic white, perfect, served icy cold, for aperitifs and alongside those raw clams or fried calamari. That peak of popularity passed – they are not long, the days of wine and clams – and Verdicchio-as-aperitif was replaced by other wines, notably Pinot grigio, which became in its turn just as popular.

In the meanwhile, in Le Marche, Verdicchio was evolving. The vineyards were getting older, for one thing (vecchie vigne, for instance, means old vines), and delivering richer grapes that were in turn yielding a rounder, fuller wine. And producers were experimenting with aging the wine, in large wood and small, with and without lees. Verdicchio riservas began appearing more and more often. It was a riserva bottle of Umani Ronchi’s Verdicchio Casal di Serra, for instance, that ten or so years ago first impressed me that Verdicchio could be a serious, more full-bodied dinner wine.

Casal di Serra bottles at the tasting


Michele Bernetti

This intensification or expansion of the wine occurred with no loss of acidity: As the wines got plumper, they still remained lively and supple, which is what good acidity does for a wine. “We practice quite minimal winemaking,” Michele said; “we try to avoid inducing malolactic fermentation in order to preserve all of the grape’s natural acidity and flavors. Verdicchio really shows minerality better than any grape in Italy.”

Indeed, the play of acidity and minerality in the 2009 Vecchie Vigne was quite evident and thoroughly pleasurable both in the bare tasting and at lunch. Combined with Verdicchio’s distinctive fruitiness – an improbable combination of pear and banana flavors (please take that as an approximation, not an exact description) – it made a medium-bodied white wine that could, at a stretch, serve as an aperitif, but really wanted food of a substantial sort alongside it. Del Posto accompanied it – delightfully, for my palate – with a brilliantly spicy Lobster Fra Diavolo. The interplay of the lushness of lobster, the spicy bite of the sauce, and the acid bite of the wine made a perfect combination.

And the Vecchie Vigne behaved equally well with the next course, Garganelli Verdi with Ragù Bolognese. This pasta was intended to accompany Umani Ronchi’s red wines, Rosso Conero and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (good wines both: perhaps more about them in a later post), but I found that the delicacy of the thinly rolled pasta and the succulence of its meat sauce played as well if not better with the parallel richness and leanness of the Vecchie Vigne.

In short, the Gambero Rosso people made no mistake: This ’09 Vecchie Vigne is a versatile dinner wine of a complex and highly adaptable character. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this wine (and a few other Verdicchios I have tasted, notably Bucci’s) makes a real case for Verdicchio’s admission to the exalted category of “noble grape.” It’s a variety that makes a wine of pleasurable complexity and depth, showing a great capacity for aging gracefully and interestingly. It would be worth laying down a dozen bottles of this 2009 and tasting one a year just to see how they develop. A few years down the road, the results could be sensational.


P.S.  In response to innumerable inquiries (well, one: from my wife), I’ll explain that the name Umani Ronchi does not mean “raunchy humans” but is the family name of the founder of the winery, Gino Umani Ronchi, whom Michele Bernetti’s father joined originally as a partner. The Bernetti family, now sole owners of the firm, have kept the name to honor his work and because he had successfully established a brand identity in the Italian market.

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