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Archive for the ‘New World’ Category

During a short, purely escapist trip to California’s central coast, Diane and I enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner at Passionfish, in Pacific Grove, just outside of Monterey. Fine as the food was, the wine list was even better, a real departure from the almost standardized California list of Chardonnay-Merlot-Cabernet-Pinot noir. Passionfish has those wines, of course, but it focuses on the 7% of California wines that aren’t made from those grapes, and on wines that reflect a more European – i.e., food-friendly – style. It offers a very nice selection of French and Italian wines as well, and it prices all its wines at a reasonable 50-80% above cost, compared to the 200-300% (and sometimes more!) that has become the customary markup almost everywhere else. For all of which, I say Hooray!

Being there for only one meal, and having to drive some unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar rental car after dinner, we weren’t able to do any in-depth sampling of the list. But one section really caught my eye: “Orange Wine,” it was headed, and it didn’t mean wines made from oranges.

orange wine list

ribolla-406-1-1That’s where I spotted Ryme Cellars’ version of Ribolla Gialla, a grape I know well from Friuli. There it makes a very pleasant, light-to-medium-bodied white wine that works nicely with most relatively simple foods. In Friuli it’s usually made in a bright, acid style, but the description in Passionfish’s wine list showed clearly that this California version was vinified very differently for a markedly different effect, for a roundness and fullness that promised to match well with Diane’s king salmon and my sturgeon. It did indeed, and that prompted some basic research.

Ryme Cellars sourced the grapes for the 2010 Ribolla Gialla that we drank from the Vare Vineyard in Napa. As Ryme’s website explains,

We traveled a long way to find this vineyard. Our fascination with Ribolla Gialla took us to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy. Visiting one of our favorite producers, Sasha Radikon told us that there was one guy in the US with Ribolla planted. George Vare has about 2.5 acres planted at the base of Mount Veeder in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. We contacted George and were lucky enough to score a single ton from his now coveted vineyard.

Clearly, this is no big commercial project but a labor of love. Ryme Cellars – from the names of the owner/winemakers, RYan and MEgan Glaab – specializes in off-beat-for-California grapes: at present, Ribolla Gialla, two versions of Vermentino, and Aglianico. Why?

Most of our wines are made from Italian varieties simply because of the great diversity and unique character of the wines of that culture. . . . We love wines with distinctive character. They should taste great on their own, but really shine alongside good food. We love wines with ample tannin and acidity, especially if they are expected to age. We always value a great wine’s idiosyncrasies over a polished supple sameness that is so common in the wine world.

More specifically, as Ryan Glaab told me by email, he had his eyes opened by bottles of Ribolla Gialla from Gravner and Radikon at a dinner party back in 2006. “It was the most challenging, surprising, and deeply pleasurable wine experience I have had,” Ryan says. “And these wines vastly overshadowed all the grand cru Burgundy and Côte Rôtie we had that night. I knew then that I wanted to seriously pursue skin-fermented white wines. My wife and I love many orange wines, and we also make a Vermentino, but I think Ribolla Gialla is the noblest of orange wines. I sometimes think of it as the Nebbiolo of white grapes. It demands patience. It has a quiet nature and a powerful structure. There are not many grapes like it. We only make about 50 cases each year. We are very lucky to have access to the small vineyard. In the near future I hope to plant more elsewhere.”

I very much respect passion and commitment like that, and I think happening upon it anywhere is a cause for celebration. Clearly, these are two people I would like to meet, and whose kind I would like to find more of in the wine world. I hope they have a huge success without having to compromise the kinds of things they’re doing now, because what they’re doing now is very simple and very special:

The wines are produced according to simple methods. The wines are always encouraged, never controlled. We use no cultured yeast, no temperature control, no enzymes or other adulterants. We do not fine or filter. The wines are raised in used French oak barriques between 2 and 10 years old. Many of the reds are fermented on the stems. Many of the whites are fermented on the skins.

The 2010 Ribolla was all destemmed and fermented inside 2 old oak puncheons. The cap was manipulated lightly a few times throughout the fermentation. The puncheons were then sealed and the wine saw a total of about one month maceration. It was then pressed and spent two years in barrel and 9 months in bottle.

???????????????????????????????The result of that was a light-orange-colored wine with a smooth, almost waxy mouth-feel, chalky/floral aromas and a range of floral and mineral flavors that recalled without replicating Friuli Ribolla – a sort of Ribolla Plus, if you will. It made a thoroughly enjoyable drink on its own and an even better one with our two very different fish dishes. Had we been walking home, we probably would have had a second bottle, and I can’t give a wine a higher compliment than that. This wasn’t the kind of wine I expected to find on the central coast – or anywhere in California, for that matter – but I’m very happy about the serendipitous encounter. I can only hope that California continues to produce more such individualist winemakers as Ryan and Megan to make more such intriguing wines.

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Many, many years ago, back in Mastering Wine, I described the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc as Marilyn TwiggyMonroe compared to Twiggy. That comparison is pretty dated now, for a lot of reasons. Most run-of-the-mill Chardonnays have gotten a lot more zaftig – not to say flabby – than they used to be, moving closer to Roseanne and Melissa McCarthy than Marilyn. Some Sauvignons have gone the opposite direction and become positively anorexic, grassy and herbal as a ruminant’s lunch. And some – especially New World Sauvignons – have plumped up (to put it kindly) and become fruit cocktails.

Once upon that long-ago time, I was quite fond of Sauvignon blanc. When its grass and herbaceousness and cat’s pee flavors were moderated by some grapiness and the occasional taste of terroir, as was common then in Sancerre and other Loire valley Sauvignons, it could be a very elegant wine, useful in many dinner situations.

From Jancis Robinson's Vines, Grapes, and Wines

From Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes, and Wines

I’m not sure, as time has passed, whether my palate has changed or the wine has, but the fact is that I haven’t these days enjoyed most Sauvignons. I found many of them extremely grassy and herbal, or at the other extreme so fat with oak and vanilla, that I simply couldn’t drink them. This may be just poor viticulture and viniculture – bad work in the field and worse in the cellar – but its consequences are that I had even begun to think of the grape variety as distinctly second tier, if not third.

I hate to lose a wine: The world’s repertory of truly noble wine grapes is not so vast that we can spare any. So I set out, in a modest, home-tasting way, to explore contemporary Sauvignon blanc. I tried a sort-of representative sample of Sauvignons from key parts of the winemaking world to see what, my prejudices and memories set aside, the present state of Sauvignon blanc truly is.

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The most obvious thing about Sauvignon blanc nowadays is that it’s grown and vinified just about everywhere: Name an important or burgeoning wine area, and Sauvignon blanc will be there. That’s pretty surprising for a variety whose northern European origins – all the DNA evidence points to the Loire valley, which was its epicenter for most of its history – make it unsuitable for growing in particularly warm areas. On its home ground, it became a notable wine as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé and later spread from the Loire to Bordeaux where it became an important component of both dry white Bordeaux and Sauternes.

???????????????????????????????In the past 50 years or so, Sauvignon blanc has become the paradigm international variety: It successfully marched around the world, colonizing California, where Robert Mondavi first made it famous as Fumé blanc, then Australia and New Zealand, South America and South Africa. In New Zealand it scored spectacular success: It became the main motor of the New Zealand wine industry, after Cloudy Bay’s version set an international standard for the breed – richly aromatic, racy, and intensely herbal/grassy. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, in the popular imagination at least, the international style of Sauvignon blanc has largely pushed the traditional Loire valley style to the margins. For my palate – and that’s the only one I can judge with – Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon blanc (I tasted the 2012 vintage) is way over the top. Here’s my tasting note (with all my usual caveats about tasting notes):

Pale straw. On the nose, Grass!!! and cat’s pee. Some mineral on palate, but very herbal/citrus. Long grass-and-something finish – gooseberry? Lean-bodied, but big with alcohol. Gets more citrus-y as it opens, but still for my palate an extreme wine – not unbalanced in the conventional wine-speak sense, but almost freakishly top-heavy with exaggerated fruit.

Unfortunately for me, that kind of wine has become the model for most non-European Sauvignon, and probably is what most consumers now think Sauvignon is all about. But since that traditional style of Sauvignon blanc is the one I used to love, I tried to find out if anyone is still making it.

So I turned back to France. Again this wasn’t a systematic tasting, nor a wide one – but it was quite satisfying. The handful of wines I tasted – 2012 Francois Crochet Sancerre Les Perrois, 2011 Domaine Reverdy-Ducroux Sancerre, 2012 Pointe d’agrumes Touraine Sauvignon Blanc – all shared a restraint and balance that made them very successful dinner wines. None was strongly grassy – in fact I had to hunt hard in most to smell and taste grass – and all showed elements of terroir in their flavor – flint and wet stones, riding along with occasional citrus (grapefruit) notes. Home at last.

Loire wines

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Given my great passion for Italian wines, I naturally had to see what happened to Sauvignon blanc there. I tried several Sauvignons from northern Italy – Alto Adige, Venezia-Giulia, Friuli – all with some pleasure. The grassiness that I dislike was never as prominent as in New World wines – but I did find that the further west I went from Friuli the more it showed in the aroma, though rarely on the palate. So the 2011 Tiefenbrunner Kerchleiten Sauvignon and the 2012 Tramin Sauvignon (both Alto Adige) both gave a little grass on the nose while having more mineral-inflected notes on the palate. Both were fine with food. Bortoluzzi’s 2011 from Venezia Giulia showed much more mineral all through, and conveyed a nice hint of terroir.

Northern Italy wines

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Once into Friuli proper, I found that Sauvignon blanc seems to have discovered a whole new home for itself. Producers like Villa Russiz and Vie di Romans are turning out balanced, restrained Sauvignons marked by strong minerality and gout de terroir, medium-bodied and conveying a round mouth-feel despite bright acidity. You would never confuse them with Sancerre or its kin – they offer a completely different style and flavor range – but these are wines that equally convincingly convey a sense of place, that they have found their place. Normally I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but in Friuli Sauvignon blanc turns out to be a variety I can get enthusiastic about.

Friuli wines

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For a dinner at home, we recently had the pleasure of entertaining Valter Fissore, the winemaker at Elvio Cogno, and his public relations rep, our good friend Marta Sobrino from the Wellcom agency in Alba. At Marta’s request – this was only her second time in NY and the States – Diane prepared una cena vera Americana, a real American meal. We kept it as local and seasonal as possible (you can read the whole account of it on Diane’s blog) and I sought out good American wines to match the foods – but not too many, because I expected (rightly) that Valter would have some of his own beautiful bottles for us to taste.

We began over hors d’oeuvre with Gruet New Mexico sparkling wine. The Gruet family are the real thing, champagne makers from France, and they have very successfully transplanted their expertise. They can’t, by law, call any of their wines Champagne, but they make all of them by the traditional Champagne method, and the results are as authentic-tasting as any sparkling wine from anywhere. We drank their Blanc des Noirs, which I like because of its fine body and excellent, bone-dry fruit. Not to mention its versatility: it partnered very well with very diverse tidbits. Not entirely by the way, it is also very reasonably priced, which makes it very well worth seeking out.

The next wine, served with the fish course, was Castello di Borghese Chardonnay 2009. This wine originates on the North Fork of Long Island: The vineyards are those of the original Hargrave estate, the first of Long Island’s serious wine producers. This Chardonnay had never been in wood; that was one of my requirements, and you cannot imagine how difficult it is in New York City to find an unoaked domestic Chardonnay. I didn’t have time run out to the North Fork and visit the wineries to look for one – though given the time it took me to find one in town, perhaps I should have. In any case, I came up with this Borghese wine, American-made and Italian-named, and hoped this was a portent that it would be the perfect wine for my occasion.

Well, not really, though it certainly was interesting. It struck everybody with its huge, forward fruit, all of it tropical: pineapple and lichee flooding out of the glass in the nose and on the palate. No evident wood, and decent acidity – Long Island does that – made it more companionable with the fish than I at first feared it would be. Valter seemed fascinated by it, though I wasn’t sure whether that was from pleasure at something so different from the white wine he normally gets or from the strangeness of it. It’s not really my kind of Chardonnay – I like more restraint and more structure – but I can readily see that many people would find it very attractive. And it was certainly genuinely American.

When we moved on to meat, we switched to red. I tried a Ridge Zinfandel I’d never come across before – Buchignani Ranch 2007. Normally I’m very fond of Ridge Zinfandels. I like to drink them when they’re ten years old or so, by which point all the California and Primitivo-kin exuberance of the wine has calmed down and come into balance. They usually remind me, at that stage, of classic clarets – very harmonious and deep, even serene. Well, this one wasn’t serene. It was all forward fruit and tannins, a big push in the face of not-yet-integrated flavors. Like the Chardonnay, it wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but it was unquestionably American – and I think a bit of a shock to Italian palates.

Which were quickly soothed – as was my own – by the wines Valter had brought. From meat through cheeses (yes, they were American too, and excellent), we drank Cogno Barolo Ravera 2008 and Marcarini Barolo Brunate 1986. These were two lovely, very different wines.

The ’08 Ravera, as Valter pointed out and everyone’s tasting confirmed, showed the affinity of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. It had definite Pinot Noir flavors and some of the middle-weight suppleness of that variety. It was surprisingly easy to drink for a young Barolo, with clean outlines and beautifully soft, welcoming tannins. For all its readiness to drink, however, it still shows every sign of ageability: it will be a keeper, I think. This is a great wine for anyone coming to Barolo for the first time, particularly for someone making the transition from French to Italian wines.

About the ’86 Brunate, it’s hard to say anything beyond Wow! This was an absolutely classic mature Barolo, elegant, long, totally composed. It had dark, mushroomy/earthy aromas, dark flavors – leather/tobacco/dry black fruits – on the palate, all offering themselves willingly but not brashly: accessible yet restrained, full-flavored yet light on the palate – a short course in what Barolo is all about. This was a wine made by Valter’s father-in-law Elvio Cogno, when he was winemaker at Marcarini before he left to produce his own wines, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to drink it.

After all that intense palatal play, the evening ended diminuendo – coffee, grappa, and good night. Which it was.

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Burton Anderson has started a blog. If you are below a certain age threshold, that announcement may not make you sit up and take notice, but for seriously ancient winos like myself, that news is electric. For those who love Italian wines, Burt Anderson is the maestro, the pioneer, the guy who got there first and first pulled it all together so that it made sense to the rest of us. His book Vino was the eye-opener, and is still an enjoyable and useful read, after 30 years. Everyone who has written about Italian wine since owes Burton an enormous debt, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. And very few who have written about Italian wine since have done so with the style, thoroughness, and total honesty that Burt brought to the task. And now he is bringing the same qualities to a blog.

As his title indicates, this blog is about more than wine: he is turning out some his best writing yet on a whole range of subjects, Italian, cultural, and topical. In my not-especially-humble opinion, the blogosphere needs more good writing like Burt’s and more of his kind of directness.

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And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different. Every now and again I taste anew a wine I thought I was familiar with or a wine I’ve never encountered before. I’ve rounded up a few of those “Aha!” experiences to share with you.

Villa Matilde Falanghina 2006.  I drank this five-year-old in late November 2011, with smoked sturgeon toasts and shrimps creole. Falanghina is a grape and a wine I love, but I usually drink it in its second or third year. So I was nervous about the age: I seemed to have lost sight of the bottle and forgotten that I had it. Although the nose seemed fine – maybe a little sherry hint, but nothing off-putting – the color when poured terrified me. It was not just gold, but orangey gold, more than a little strange. The flavor, however, was just perfect: definitely Falanghina, but past its initial freshness and into dried-fruit sensations – apricot, Diane says; some dried fig too, I thought, but minus the sugar. It worked beautifully with both dishes, and drank just fine by itself as well. Who knew the grape took any age at all? Much less that it took it so gracefully? Yet one more proof that well-made Italian white wines can last.

Li Veli Verdeca 2010. A white from an endangered grape in Puglia. Lovely stuff: medium to full body, earthy, with mushroomy notes: a real food wine – vaguely Burgundian in its bulk on the palate, but emphatically Italian in its flavors and minerality. Made by the Falvo brothers, who achieved fame for many years at Avignonesi in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano zone. In 1999 they acquired an old vineyard property in one of the most historic wine areas of Puglia, the Val d’Itria. They have sold their interest in Avignonesi and moved themselves to Puglia, where, among other things, they began the Askos project, an attempt to revive some of the most ancient varieties of the zone. On the basis of this wine, I’d say they seem to be about to do great things. We drank this Verdeca with a Basque hake with green sauce (predominantly garlic-flavored) which it took perfectly in stride.

Chave Celeste St. Joseph blanc 2007.  Enjoyed with a good lunch at brasserie Artisanal, this was not only a reminder of how good the white wines of the Rhône can be, but also a revelation of just how skilled a winemaker is the house of Chave. I think of Chave, first of all – and up until this point perhaps exclusively – as a red wine producer. The house is most famous – and rightly so – for its Hermitage, which is one of the greatest red wines of the Rhône. Some consider it the supreme rendition of that appellation, a wine of great depth and age-worthiness. This four-year-old white gave every indication of the same kind of age-worthiness – it was still fresh and vital – along with amazing nuance. It showed the kind of slate-and-wet-stones-with-dry-apricot that some connoisseurs associate primarily with Condrieu, which it more and more reminded me of with every sip. And at a small fraction of the cost! I should be surprised like this every day.

Formentini Pinot Grigio 2010. I used to know this wine as another one of the faceless “cocktail-style” Pinot grigios that Italy has been pouring out for decades now. Well, there have been big changes at Formentini, and this is no longer an airhead Pinot grigio to gulp at the bar. Now vinified from high-altitude plantings of low yield, and gingerly handled in the cellar, it has become a very interesting, medium-bodied wine to serve with dinner. Sure, you can still drink it enjoyably as an aperitif – but it now has complexity and character enough to be far more enjoyable with a good roast chicken or a delicate veal scallop. It’s a nice reminder of what Pinot grigio is capable of when some care is taken with it.

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And one after-dinner drink:

Clear Creek Grappa. Color me flabbergasted. An American grappa that tastes like the real thing! Who knew? It fooled me completely: I thought I had been handed a rather fine Italian distillate. This Oregon distillery uses local fruits and distills them in a very traditional manner to make a whole range of grappas and eaux de vie. On the basis of the single example of its work I’ve so far tasted, I have a lot of pleasant exploration ahead of me.

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St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna is the patron of naps, endings, the last days, and ruins, of which I am rapidly becoming one – the latter not merely a function of age and slow time but also the direct result of far too much holiday eating and drinking. Like a volunteer Strasbourg goose, I have been reporting regularly for some first-rate gavage – so here is a roundup of the best of that: my Twelve Wines of Christmas.

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As a preliminary, much bubbly found its way into my glass and thence into my gullet this season. I’ve already given my account of the Wine Media Guild’s Champagne luncheon. The New York Wine Press’s fête at the Brasserie was only slightly less spectacular. It featured rosé Champagnes – eleven of them, so they don’t count in my Christmas dozen – around a nicely balanced luncheon that concluded with a positively sinful dose of triform chocolate.

Rosé is the hottest category of Champagne these days – why, no one is quite sure, though Ed McCarthy opines that rosé makes an ideal dinner Champagne, because of its slightly fuller body and slightly greater complexity. Pinot noir always seems to make a difference, and its greater presence in rosé Champagnes could be the factor behind their current popularity.

All the wines tasted that day would rank as excellent on any scale, but my favorites all bunched up in the middle luncheon flight: two prestige Champagnes, 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque (approximately $300) and 2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (about $250), plus 2006 Louis Roederer, the youngest and least expensive wine of the flight ($75), and finally my favorite, 2002 Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve ($100), a great wine from a great Champagne vintage.

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The Twelve Wines of Christmas all came from my own so-called cellar, over multiple dinners for Diane and myself and family and friends. Inevitably, these included some more bubbles: my old reliable Pol Roger NV Brut, a consistently pleasing, medium-bodied, mineral-driven Champagne, and Roederer Estate, vinified by the French Grande Marque in California’s Anderson Valley, and for my palate the best and most persuasively Champagne-tasting of California sparkling wines. Pommery Brut NV made a fine aperitif, working equally well with some duck rillettes and with Diane’s version of Torino aperitivi.

For my palate, the red wines formed the pièce de résistance. Despite that piece of French, they were a varied lot: some French, many Italians, and even some Californians. The latter included my last (sob!) bottle of Ridge’s 1993 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, as lovely – and as European-styled – a wine as California produces. It gorgeously accompanied a rack of lamb and garlicky rissolé potatoes, as well as a subsequent cheese course, where it fell in love with a ripe pont l’éveque only to jilt it in favor of a creamy gorgonzola dolce. As you can see, this was a wine of many faces and facets, and I’m only sorry I don’t have any more. I said this very loudly several times, but Santa did not take the hint. Another win for St. Apoconarcoleptis.

One of the most enjoyable Italian reds was an almost archetypal Chianti Classico, 1997 La Selvanella Riserva from Melini. This is a very traditionally made wine from a fine vineyard near Panzano, in the Classico zone’s prized Conca d’Oro. It also has special resonances for me, in that I participated, way back in 1998, in the process of choosing the blend for this wine. This occurred at the estate, in a session led by the very able winemaker, Nunzio Capurso, and attended by Italian and North American wine journalists. Aside from the astounding quality of each component wine that we tasted, my major memory of the session is of an idiot from Rome loudly and persistently declaiming that the wine wouldn’t be any good unless it was aged in barriques. He couldn’t have been more wrong, then or now.

We enjoyed another fine wine of this type – i.e., primarily Sangiovese blended with other native grapes – Lungarotti’s 2001 Rubesco. Although from Umbria, this wine is a kissing cousin of Chianti Classico and fully matches the very best of them in suavity and depth: a lovely wine, from an equally lovely vintage.

Of course I could not long stay away from the wonderful wines of the Piedmont, so I took the opportunity to test a few Barolos of the 2003 vintage, a hot, forward year that, frankly, I feared might already be over the hill – some bottles I’d tasted over the past year were. Well, in these two cases, no worries: Both Conterno-Fantino’s Barolo Sorì Ginestra and Einaudi’s Barolo Costa Grimaldi were live and, in the most complimentary sense of the word, typical. The Sorì Ginestra showed the merest trace of the vintage’s too-ripe fruit and green tannins, the Costa Grimaldi none at all – a nice tribute to careful grape selection and restraint in the cellar.

Equally lovely, by the way, and much less expensive, was an in-theory lesser wine, a simple Nebbiolo, but from a fine maker in an excellent vintage. Poderi Colla’s 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba was fully ready to drink, with excellent Nebbiolo character (black fruit, leather, tobacco, miles of depth) and no sign that it might not last another five years. All “simple” Nebbiolo should be so good.

Our French selections played up very gamely as well. For me, Musigny is the red-wine sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Its wines have a velvetiness and an elegance of fruit and mineral that for my palate define red Burgundy. Drouhin’s 2002 Chambolle Musigny didn’t let me down: it was a soft, luxurious wine whose flavor persisted long in the mouth. More forceful and in a leaner style – mineral to the fore, fruit after – Moillard’s 2005 Beaune Premier Cru Grèves matched quite beautifully with our Pintadeau Jean Cocteau. The wine we drank with the cheese course that evening was in a very different style, being a Bordeaux. 1989 Chateau Brane Cantenac showed the wonderful elegance of Margaux combined with the kind of structure and heft I more often associate with Pauillac: It worked beautifully with a challenging set of cheeses.

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Those are my top twelve, but I’ve also got a few Honorable Mentions. Amidst this red tide, we did manage to fit in a few lighter meals that leant themselves better to white wines. Pieropan’s 2005 Soave La Rocca shone with some shrimp. This single-vineyard wine has always been in the forefront of this too-long-abused appellation, and it remains a standard-bearer even now that the Soave Classico denomination is undergoing a tremendous resurgence. In a totally different style, but equally fine, Umani Ronchi’s 2002 Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi Classico Superiore offered a mouthful of wine almost as big as its name. Still at nine years old showing a light touch of barriques, its biggish body and rich fruit very nicely accompanied a creamy veal and mushroom stew. Both these wines showed very dramatically, for those who may still be skeptical, that well-made Italian whites can age very well indeed.

Finally, lest anyone think that my holidays were just one triumphant sip after another, honesty compels me to record my great disappointment. I had reserved a place for one potentially excellent white wine to serve alongside the oeufs en cocotte and Alsace onion tarts that were part of our Christmas dinner. I was really looking forward to Labouré-Roi’s 2003 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, so you can imagine the depth of my chagrin when my only bottle turned out to be totally oxidized – just plain dead.

There has been a great deal of buzz in wine circles about the problem of premature oxidation in white Burgundies. Apparently the vintages between 1996 and 2006 are involved, and the blight strikes randomly, at every quality level. Some bottles pour brown and dead, while others even from the same case remain sound. No one knows what causes it, and the producers are loath to talk about it – not only because it’s embarrassing to them, but also because (I strongly suspect) they don’t have a clue. So since St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna looks after ruins as well as endings, I’ll conclude on this note: There is nothing like white Burgundy at its best – but be warned: that bottle you’re so keenly anticipating might be pinin’ for the fjords, and might already have joined the Norwegian Blue in the choir invisible.

From that comic note to a serious one: May your 2012 be happy, and both your New Year and your old wines healthy and enjoyable!

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Wine Is Where You Find It

It’s one thing to know that all 50 states (yes, even Alaska, now) have working wineries. It’s quite another actually to come upon a neatly manicured vineyard among the marshes and tall white pines of near-coastal New Hampshire.

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Which I did, while enjoying a brief break from wine (hah!) in old New England. A drizzly day pushed shorebirding or woods-walking into the uncomfortable-to-impossible range, so we – myself, Diane, and Jennifer, the friend we were visiting – decided to investigate the local wine situation. Our first (and, as it turned out, only) stop was Zorvino Vineyards in Sandown, NH, not far from the university town of Durham and the coastal town of Portsmouth.

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Zorvino proved to be special in several respects, in my admittedly limited experience of east-coast vineyards. It has a lovely location, “on 80 beautiful acres in the middle of a New England hardwood forest” (that’s from its brochure: I was more struck by the pine trees). Zorvino is set up as a “function” place: It does many weddings and receptions in its “beautiful rustic post and beam manor house” (the brochure again), and that activity seems to be a large component of its economy. But it certainly makes wines – lots of them, from many different varieties of grapes and from all sorts of other fruits.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that the latter category didn’t much interest us. We politely – I hope it was politely – declined to taste the Pearz or Cherriez or Cranzeeno, and we were relieved to hear that the supply of pumpkin wine – “sort of like a port,” and apparently very popular – was exhausted. We tried the Niagara, a monovarietal wine made from native North American grapes grown there on the estate, and, while it was good of its kind, I’ve always found non-vinifera grape wines to be borderline drinkable at best. I don’t think it’s snobbery – it’s just my palate.

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But, happily, there were plenty of vinifera-based wines on offer, most of them made from purchased grapes, with origins spread over California, Chile, and Italy. The whites include Chardonnay, Pinot grigio, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer. The reds run from Lambrusco. Sangiovese, and Montepulciano (sourced from Italy); to Cabernet, Malbec, and Carmenere (from Chile); to Pinot Noir, Alicante, and old-vine Zinfandel (from California).

A quick glance around the tasting room (essentially an extension of the vinification area) confirmed that Zorvino is set up for multiple small-batch fermentations, which that proliferation of varieties certainly necessitates. And a few minutes of conversation with the pleasant woman who does the tastings established that the owner/winemaker, Jim Zanello, is an enthusiast – which that proliferation of varieties certainly necessitates.

If anyone doubts that we are living in a golden age of winemaking, a visit to a winery like Zorvino should turn on the light. We tasted about ten wines, and there really wasn’t a bad one in the lot. All were drinkable, some with more pleasure and complexity than others. Among the whites, we liked best the Chardonnay, fresh and unoaked and tasting very nicely of its grape. Among the reds, the Zin and the Alicante impressed us most, the former all brambly, intense Zinfandel fruit (with nice acidity to enliven it) and the latter showing a fine Mediterranean-wine profile – a real surprise deep in the piney woods.

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Obviously, I’m not writing this up as a scoop about the newest winery discovery or to send you all haring off to New Hampshire. I’m far from saying these were the best wines I’ve ever had. What I want to celebrate here is the wonderful explosion, in these United States, of small, experimental wineries like Zorvino and enthusiast owners and winemakers like Jim Zanello. He’s bringing decent wine to an area well outside the pale of the fashionable Bo-Wash corridor, an area not terribly well served by sophisticated retail outlets. And he’s doing it at a price most people can afford – and even more important, with a welcoming attitude that most people, even the most timid wine newbie, can feel comfortable with.

Zorvino’s most expensive wines are $15 a bottle, and the tasting – most days, of about a dozen different bottles – is free. This is important; this is major. If the US is ever going to become a true wine-drinking country, wineries like Zorvino – and I believe there are many of them everywhere in the states – will be the reason why. Zorvino will never be named any glossy magazine’s Winery of the Year, but there is a real and important sense in which it and wineries like it are the Wineries of Every Year.

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The September issue of Decanter comes to subscribers with a supplement entitled California 2011. This represents a gallant effort by numerous British wine writers to come to honorable terms with California wine. Unfortunately, they can’t.

Oz Clarke tries hard. He confronts the problem head on. He wonders “if it’s a British disease, this need to go to other people’s countries and tell them what style of wine they should be making.” Margaret Rand is just as direct: “one simply has to accept that while Napa winemakers have adopted the language of the Old World, and can talk about finesse and terroir expression with great conviction, what they mean by these terms is not what we Brits mean.” As an example of this, she cites Tim Mondavi’s saying to her, “I never want to taste alcohol,” while she can taste alcohol all through his wines.

These articles and others like them prompted Guy Woodward to an editorial deploring the cultural divide – “Wine, after all, is about democracy, not dictatorship” – even as he honestly reaffirms its existence: “what to a British palate can seem elegant and refined can seem thin and weedy to a US taster.”

Woodward’s assertion that wine is a democracy seems contradicted by Clarke’s emphasis on the dominance of Robert Parker’s scores as the definer of success for California winemakers. Put aside the British wine press’s obsession with Parker, who for most of them is the bête noire of wine: If Clarke is reporting accurately what he was told and what he inferred from his California tour, then indeed California wine producers have elected Parker king and allowed themselves to be buffaloed or bullied into making the big, high-alcohol fruit bombs we think of as, depending on our palates, the epitome or the extreme of California winemaking.

And not just California winemaking either. I have been told by more winemakers than I can count, in Italy and in France, that the undrinkable, high-alcohol, over-wooded concoction I just spat out was not what they drank themselves but “what the market wants.” More specifically, “what the international market wants.” Most specifically, “what Americans want.” My pointing out that I am American and I hate that kind of wine never so much as ruffled an eyebrow: In every case, the winemakers remained supremely confident that they were on the right track and, by clear implication, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I wish I could believe that their serenity was the result of deep and thorough market research – but I really think it was nothing more than the complacency conferred by retaining a high-profile consulting enologist who promised them high scores in the Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator in return for a free hand in the cellar and a large budget for barriques.

That’s not all: comparable to Margaret Rand’s experience with Tim Mondavi, I’ve also had the displeasure of tasting with a producer who assured me that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – taste oak in his wines, an assurance he imperturbably repeated several times as I tried to tell him oak was all that I could taste in his wines.

What do I conclude from all this? First, that to cast the problem as British palate vs. California palate is an oversimplification – in fact, a distortion of the problem. For one thing, the British palate isn’t a single thing, nor is it infallible. For example, many Brits are by my lights way off the mark when it comes to Italian wines. It’s not just that a lot of Brits automatically classify all Italian wine as plonk, though many still do. But even MWs often find Italian wines hyper-acidic or too tannic or unbalanced: They don’t fit the pattern of the French and German wines that have been for so long “Britain’s own,” as it were, and which are the norm by which they consciously or unconsciously judge all other wines. Not a bad norm, I’ll concede – but hardly universal or exhaustive. For another thing, there are European producers and consumers, including a fair fraction of Brits, who like fruit bombs and new oak.

Then too, the US palate isn’t a single thing either. There are California producers and American consumers who have much more Europe-oriented palates than the mass-market or cult-market in the States would indicate. The US is not a single market, and the sooner producers begin dealing seriously with that fact, the better off we will all be. Just in the broadest terms, the Bo-Wash corridor (itself a string of separate markets with differing individual preferences) is radically different from, again in the broadest terms, the West Coast or the Southeast.

It makes more sense to me to see this whole palatal knot as, at least in metaphoric terms, a “generational” problem – and in these terms the so-called American palate serves as an illuminating example. It’s not that long ago – a generation back, let us say – that the US thought of itself as a beer-and-whiskey country, and wine was a very isolated affectation. In fact, the US then was, and to a large extent still remains, a milk and soft drink country, and the palatal learning curve to ascend from those two drinks to what Bordeaux and Barolo used to be is steep indeed. Another generation has been riding that road for some years now: Some folks got off at the Boone Farms station, some at Lambrusco, some went on to Napa Cabernet in the hugely fruited, soft tannin style (Parkersville or Spectatortown), while a few even worked their way in a different direction and ended up with traditional-style Rioja and Taurasi and Hermitage and Ridge Montebello Cabernet.

People drink what they are comfortable with, and what they’re comfortable with is, in most cases, what they’re used to (just like the British sailors in the Aubrey-Maturin novels). A better wine will eventually change most people’s palates – if they have a palate to start with (face it: most people don’t actually taste what they put in their mouths), and if we can get producers to make it and consumers to try it.

Big ifs – but Ridge and some other estates that break the California stereotype have been showing for years that it can be done profitably. Now is the time for those producers who currently tell us – or themselves – that they’re making the wine the market wants to drink to start making the wines that they themselves like to drink. (Believe me, I’m not speaking here just of California, by any means.) That, my friends, would indeed be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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It’s been a long, hard summer, and Ubriaco needs a nap. Look for my next post after the middle of the month — say around the 22nd/23rd. Thanks for your attention all through the heat, the earthquake, and the hurricane.

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June brings a high concentration of private and public occasions to Casa Maresca.  I’ve never been able to forget either Diane’s birthday or our wedding anniversary because they are separated only by D-Day, a date impossible to ignore.  From our earliest time together, this concatenation has led us into several-day-long fits of cooking and dining – pushed into glorious excess, of course, by the final departure of winter gloom and the arrival of sunshine, fresh vegetables, and the first sweet fruits of the year.

This year was no exception, except that, out of respect for our own increasing age, I substantially raised the age of the wines we drank with our Hail to Sunshine! Hail to Us! dinners – thus, three 1988s and one 1996, and every one of them high grade indeed.

The First Fit: Warm-up. This pre-festivity dinner consisted of the Balthazar-inspired short ribs that Diane has blogged about. They were rich, lush, and filling. Luckily, I had chosen a wine that stood up to them very well. In fact, the wine collaborated with them to enhance their richness and to plump itself up in the process. What we drank with that beef protein-and-calorie bomb was Caparone Vineyards Paso Robles Nebbiolo 1988, and a thoroughly gorgeous wine it was.

As near as I can gather, 1988 was not a great year for Napa and Sonoma. It appears to have been the second of two drought years, and produced some fearsomely alcoholic, harsh-tannined Cabernets. Further south, the harvest fared better, because ’88 was highly esteemed for Rhone varietals. Of course, no one was tracking what the harvest was like for Nebbiolo: Far too little of it had been planted, and most of the growers who tried it were struggling. Nobody ever said Nebbiolo was an easy grape.

Dave Caparone set in his first Nebbiolo in the mid-Seventies (and Sangiovese and Aglianico too), and he tended it like a first-born child, an attitude now continued by his son Mark. As Dave wryly says, Nebbiolo is a grape for those who have mastered Pinot noir and are looking for a challenge. His ’88 answered the challenge, and then some. It was, as you would expect, fully mature, with the classic Nebbiolo pale garnet color and orange edge – but, as I didn’t entirely expect, it was still fresh and live, filled with classic, mature Nebbiolo flavors with a fascinating overlay of bittersweet dark chocolate – unmistakably Nebbiolo, even though equally unmistakably not Piedmont Nebbiolo.

This is just plain classy winemaking, to produce a wine that tastes of both its variety and its terroir. Wine like this reflects a lifetime of labor devoted to what is in California an unfashionable variety: more’s the pity for California. I only wish that more winemakers showed this kind of passion and dedication.

The Second Fit: Aperitif. For special occasions nothing serves better as an aperitif than Champagne, and few things are better than a top-flight vintage Champagne from a great producer. So we started Diane’s birthday celebration with a glass of Gosset Celebris 1996. ’96, as Champagne buffs know, made a great vintage year for Champagne, and the Gosset firm, one of the very oldest in the Champagne region, did a beautiful job with it. This wine exhibited a golden color, minute perlage, and all the classic Champagne wheaty/toasty aromas and flavors, with just the slightest edge of oxidation, which rather than detracting from the wine lent an attractive touch of le gout anglais (as the French call it).

So enjoyable was this Champagne, and so hefty, that we were strongly tempted to keep drinking it through dinner, which it could have handled very nicely. But we had already made up our minds to drink the other half of the bottle for our anniversary aperitif, so we proceeded to . . .

The Third Fit: Birthday dinner, in this case asparagus mimosa followed by sweetbreads prepared in puff pastry packets, as at Chez Pauline, one of our favorite Parisian restaurants back in the days when we got to Paris often. (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) The asparagus were fresh from the Greenmarket, as were the luscious, first-of-the-season shell peas we served alongside the sweetbreads.

The wine I picked to match with all this was a 1988 Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru. For me, Musigny is the sweet spot in the Cote d’Or: I just love those wines for their delicacy and grace. Rarely do they show power: Though they have it, they’re just too suave to flaunt it. Most vintage charts will tell you that 1988 was a good but not outstanding vintage in Burgundy, and for all I know they may be right. All I can swear to is that this bottle was outstanding – pale garnet in color (looking remarkably like a mature Nebbiolo, in fact), enticingly floral/herbal/mineral in aroma, on the palate elegant and restrained, yet live and persistent. Understated elegance is as close as I can come to summing up this Chambole Musigny. It meshed beautifully with the sweetbreads, whose presentation in puff pastry created a paradoxical combination of elegance and earthiness (no matter how you wrap them, sweetbreads are an organ meat). A lovely dinner matched with a lovely wine.

We took a breather on D-Day, and dined lightly on the season’s early radishes (the Greenmarket again) and simple omelettes, to make room for

The Fourth Fit: Our anniversary dinner started with the second half of the Gosset Celebris, and I thought it was even better than the first day. I’m not sure Diane agreed, but it was not something we would argue about, especially not before our anniversary dinner: tagliarini dressed with mushrooms and white truffle (both the egg pasta and the truffle paste carried back from my last excursion to Alba), followed by a dish that was a throwback to the ’60s, Steak Diane from Craig Claiborne’s old New York Times Cookbook. The wine I chose this time was a 1988 Barbaresco Bricco Asili from Ceretto. By pure luck, I think this one was the wine of them all.

The 1988 harvest was the first of modern times in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. I mean that in two senses: that it was the first of the warmer (climate-change induced?) growing seasons that the zones have since enjoyed, as well as the first of an unprecedented trio of top-flight vintages – 1988, 1989, 1990 – that heralded good times for Piemonte winemakers. Growers and Nebbiolo fans alike still argue about which is the best of those three.

Our ’88 showed a lovely crystalline color, a live, bright garnet, with a narrower orange edge than I expected. The aroma was classic – white truffle, tar, dried roses, leather, underbrush – complex and intriguing. On the palate, it gave lovely sweet black cherry fruit, with soft, soft tannins and great, lively acidity, everything finishing in a long-lasting burst of dried cherry. It tasted wonderful with the pasta, in which it recognized a kindred spirit, and almost equally good with the Steak Diane. The last few sips of it, by themselves, practically eliminated the need for dessert. (We ate it nevertheless: the season’s first local strawberries. How could we not?) A gorgeous, gorgeous wine, and a fitting conclusion to our few days of feasting.

After that, it was compensatory salads and Barbera and Beaujolais for a few days, to get us back to normal. Sigh! Who wants to be normal?

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Cape May, New Jersey, is famous among fishermen, birdwatchers, beachgoers, and Victorian architecture enthusiasts. Its chief agricultural product used to be lima beans. Now, improbably, the area has become wine country.

It’s amazing the places you can make decent wine nowadays. I knew that every single one of the contiguous 48 states now had working wineries, and that New Jersey accommodates several quite respectable ones. But Cape May?  Down there at the state’s nethermost toe of land, between the roaring Atlantic on one side and the broad stretches of Delaware Bay on the other, with no elevation higher than – I swear – 15 feet above sea level?  Cape May?

Well, yes, Cape May too.

Looking for birds, finding vines

We were there for birding, trying to catch the spring migration, in which we did not wholly succeed. We knew we could eat some good, fresh seafood: Cape May Salts are among the finest oysters on this planet, and the local scallops are almost as good. As for wine, we hoped for the best. We had brought a few simple bottles with us for when we were eating in, but when it came to restaurant dining, we knew we would be at the mercy of some pretty pedestrian wine lists: great opportunities wasted, but that’s life.

Then serendipity came calling. After a frustrating morning of stalking the wily warbler in weather about 15 degrees chillier than it ought to have been, we returned to our rental apartment for lunch and consideration of where to spend the hours until the birds would become active again in late afternoon. Diane the Ever-Resourceful said, “Let’s go visit the Cape May Winery.”

Need I say that Tom the Wino (wine professional, that is) greeted this idea with some skepticism?  We’d known of the winery’s existence for some time, but – given the location – I expected something like Blueberry Champagne to be its specialty. This did not exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, considering the weather, the absence of much else to do, and the prospect of being thought a curmudgeon, I gracefully acceded to the bride of my bosom’s desire, and we went.

Well, I was ‘way wrong, especially about the Blueberry Champagne.

It turns out that Cape May Winery is the region’s oldest – there are several others now – and New Jersey’s fourth largest, and it produces an impressive array of wines, from a large number of varieties. Maybe too many, but that’s to be expected, since the owners are still in the process of finding out what grows best on their 150 acres of vineyards. No blueberry or cranberry concoctions,  but they do make several wines from purchased (out of state?) grapes, and one blend with a non-vinifera variety: Their Cape May Red uses 40% Chambourcin, a hybrid variety fairly widely grown in New Jersey and the Hudson River region of New York. The winery uses two labels: Isaac Smith, for wines that contain purchased grapes; and Cape May, for wines made entirely from its own harvests. Those include, unsurprisingly, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet sauvignon, and the less predictable Cabernet franc.

Several of these provided very enjoyable drinking.

The Cape May Red (40% Chambourcin, 20% Syrah, 15% Cabernet, 15% Merlot, 10% Cabernet franc) made a nice everyday red wine, mouthfilling and berry-ish ($16 a bottle at the winery).

The Isaac Smith Pinot noir had nice northwestern character, which seems appropriate, since the grapes originate in Washington ($19).

The Cape May Merlot (also $19) was pleasing, with soft Merlot fruit and a touch of toasted oak to accent it.

The Isaac Smith Syrah ($20) struck me as atypical for Syrah, very soft and not peppery.

Cape May’s banner wine is the Isaac Smith Red Reserve (40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet, 22% Syrah, 8% Cabernet franc; $24). The winery describes it as Bordeaux style, but that dose of Syrah makes it most definitely a New World blend, as well as an interesting and enjoyable wine.

For me, however, the stand-out wine was the Cape May Cabernet Franc ($18). This showed an intriguing leather, black pepper, and dried-flower nose and soft, black, berry/plum fruit on the palate, with tobacco and pepper in the finish. As you may gather, it was a good bit more complex than I had been expecting, and it showed me a really enjoyable Loire-ish character. Back home, we drank a bottle of it with chicken and morels in cream sauce, and it performed handsomely with that classic spring dinner.

I’m not saying these wines gave a stop-the-presses, world-class wine experience – but the whole gamut did offer some very drinkable, very pleasant, more-than-competently made wines. And they did make me once again question my smug assumptions about just how much I knew about where decent wine can be made. Seemingly, a determined winemaker can turn out good, drinkable wine just about anywhere the climate will allow.

The whole experience made me think: How different is Cape May, a triangle of land surrounded by Delaware Bay and the sea, from the North Shore of Long Island, a triangle of land surrounded by Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound? Or, to take the analogy to its logical conclusion, how different is it physically from the Medoc, home of what are regarded as some of the world’s greatest wines, a triangle of land surrounded by the sea and the Gironde?  No one has ever noticed any dramatic hillside exposures in the Medoc, whose highest elevation isn’t much more than Cape May’s. So the physical circumstances, at least in their roughest form, aren’t that dissimilar. And Cape May, because of the sheer size of bodies of water around it, is blessed with a great wine-growing climate – long, cool springs, warm summers, and long, warm autumns, all ventilated by almost constant shore breezes. In theory, that’s perfect for bringing even difficult varieties to textbook ripeness.

Its soils, of course, are different from other regions, and in the past Cape May’s major crops seem to have been berries and lima beans – but Long Island had potatoes before it had grapes, and no one thinks the worse of it for that. It will be interesting to see, as time goes by, what grape varieties show best down there at the bottom of New Jersey. Right now, I’d put my money on Cabernet franc – and I sure hope a winery comes up with a bright, acidic, vibrant white to partner with those fantastic Cape May Salts.

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Every year around this time, The Wine Spectator publishes its list of the year’s 100 most exciting wines. This year’s list has duly (you may read that with two “l”s) appeared, and it disappoints as deeply as ever. For years now, for me the most exciting thing about the Spectator’s Hundred Best List has been its omissions.

If the Spectator was as insignificant as this blog, I would have no quarrel with its listing anything it wanted. But the Spectator is influential, if only because retailers and public relations people keep citing its numbers – its numerical scores, based as near as I can tell, on a 20-point scale of 80 to 100 – as if they were engraved on stone by the finger of the Almighty. In my opinion, they are written on water by very fallible human beings, and I often find the Spectator’s evaluations and comments on wines wildly off the mark. For me, the Spectator’s Hundred Best List concentrates all its quintessential off-the-mark-ness in one splendid spot.

Let’s start with some numbers, since the Spectator is so fond of numbers. Of any given year’s hundred best wines, how many would you reasonably expect would come from the Old World, the homeland of Vitis vinifera? Just think of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal: Let’s not complicate things with Germany or Austria, Greece or Hungary. Would you say fifty percent? Maybe even two-thirds? Dream on: Those four great, historic wine-producing nations get fewer citations among them than does the American west coast. California, Washington, and Oregon, according to the Spectator, last year produced a full third of the world’s one hundred finest wines. California by itself gave the world one-quarter of them – 25 listings to France’s puny 17, Italy’s weakling 9, and Spain and Portugal’s near-insignificant 6.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

If you count in the Spectator’s other New World listings – Australia and New Zealand, Chile and Argentina – the US and the rest of the New World last year gifted us with a full fifty percent of the top wines in the world. Oh: I almost forgot – fifty-one percent if you throw in the list’s one New York wine.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

Some inferences are fair from these numbers. Given the preponderance of New World wines and the strong presence in the European listings of international-style or “auteur” wines, it’s obvious that the Spectator’s tasters have markedly California palates. That makes it very difficult for them to appreciate wines that aren’t strongly fruit forward, that opt for elegance, balance, and restraint over vigor, or that show a marked acidity. Those three characteristics describe most of the estimable wines of Europe, which means the Spectator is largely groping in the dark when it comes to evaluating them.

This was very vividly demonstrated for me a few years back, when the Spectator’s then Italian stringer James Suckling (more about Mr. Suckling below) pronounced 2000 Barolo a perfect, 100-point vintage. When most of the rest of us who regularly cover Italian wines stopped laughing, we wept. That corps of journalists of many nations (in whose company, by the way, neither Mr. Suckling nor anyone else from the Spectator has ever been seen) pretty unanimously considered 2000 at best a middling, not to say mediocre, Barolo vintage. It had been marred by excessive heat, so that at harvest many grapes were over-ripe while the tannins were green and harsh.

To hide these defects (though you really can’t hide them, if a taster is paying attention), a lot of producers aged the wines in new or heavily charred barriques. The result: wines with plenty of fruit up front, with a layer of oaky vanilla or espresso from the barriques, and harsh, biting tannins behind – essentially unbalanced wines, with little prospect of cellar development. (Most 2000 Barolos are already dead, bitter tannic corpses.) That’s not exactly what anyone but the Spectator would call a classic Barolo vintage – but hey! It had lots of fruit. Pity the poor souls who bought it on the Spectator’s recommendation with the thought that they had acquired a classic, long-lived Barolo.

The Italian selections on this year’s list merit some closer attention. One is an Amarone (Zenato ’06; good but very, very young) and one is a Pinot Grigio (Atems ’08: a nice wine, but one of the world’s top 100?). The other seven are all Tuscan wines. Think about that: not a single Barolo or Barbaresco or Gattinara or Ghemme. No Barbera or Dolcetto. Not a wine from the Marches or Abruzzo, Puglia or Sicily. Not a single bottle from Campania – no Taurasi, no Fiano, no Greco. Not a white from Jermann or Gravner or the whole of Alto Adige.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

I am not one of those who think that the Spectator is just the journalistic arm of the California Chamber of Commerce. But I am certainly one of those who wish that the Spectator would either learn European wines or just leave them alone. As matters now stand, I really believe its pronouncements do far more harm than good: They misdirect people rather than enlighten them.

Postscript: It gave me some hope a little while back when James Suckling left the Spectator. I thought that just maybe the Spectator had gotten embarrassed about the Vintage 2000 fiasco and that we would hear no more such gross misjudgments from Mr. Suckling. Alas, I was wrong. He’s back. What his PR agent calls “the wine world’s most important voice” – so much for Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates, Parker and Spurrier, Broadbent and Sutcliffe, and all the rest of the world’s apparently-Suckling-wannabees – is starting up a website. I looked at the trailer for it (no, I’m not going to give you the URL) and I would certainly rate it at or near 100 on the pretention meter. If nothing else, I will check it regularly in the future for its inadvertent comedy content. If you can’t beat ‘em, you can at least laugh at them.

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