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Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines (University of California Press; $39.95) is a must-have book for lovers of Brunello and, in fact, for anyone at all serious about Italian wine.

Brunello has burgeoned in my wine-drinking lifetime from a few more than half a dozen producers, mostly clustered around the medieval hill town of Montalcino, to well over two hundred, scattered all over the very diverse territories of the Brunello zone. Keeping track of that highly differentiated production – much more making sense of it – is a monumental task. O’Keefe has managed to do it by dint of persistence and equally monumental effort. As she puts it, “Rather than merely sit in my office and taste thousands of wines every year, I’ve visited all the Brunello estates profiled in the following chapters, some several times, and many more that are not in the book. I’ve spent years researching Brunello di Montalcino. . . . I’ve walked producers’ vineyards, visited their cellars, and talked for hours with the winemakers and their families. . . . I take [lengthy trips] to Montalcino every year.”

That kind of leg work produces the detailed and accurate information that makes O’Keefe’s book a milestone in our grasp of Brunello. I know first-hand the kind of terrier-like persistence it takes to extract that information from even the most candid winemakers. Most are not trying to hide anything: they just don’t at first understand what you’re after. The majority of the wine journalists they encounter have about three questions: what grape (s) is it made from? Is it a good vintage? What does it cost?

(Let’s be honest here, folks; most wine writing doesn’t qualify as Pulitzer-level journalism. It usually runs from pedestrian down to dismal – and at least half the reason for that is that most readers’ curiosity doesn’t extend beyond those three questions, and sometimes doesn’t even include the first one. For readers like that, Brunello di Montalcino will be only a big yawn.)

Back to O’Keefe’s research: The tough first step is getting the producers’ attention – making them aware you are serious and really want to know about why they chose to use botti rather than barriques and how that affects their wines, or why they adopted or gave up on organic cultivation, and what exactly it is about their clones or soils or exposures that distinguishes their wines. Most wine producers have been conditioned to talk about what they think the press wants to hear, and it takes intelligence and persistence and evident sincerity – the quality Italians mean by calling someone simpatico – to break through that to the deep well of knowledge that the best producers possess, and which they willingly share once they understand your seriousness, your willingness to work as hard at your craft as they do at theirs.

Brunello di Montalcino has successfully tapped that well. The discussion of Brunello’s astonishingly short (by Italian standards) history is very complete, and its consideration of wine-making styles very thorough, as are all the portraits and evaluations of individual producers. But the book’s greatest single contribution is almost certainly its detailed presentation of the variety of the Brunello zone’s soil types and the subsequent case O’Keefe makes for the necessity of some kind of subzoning of the territory. This is bound to be controversial: nothing more upsets winemakers anywhere than the thought that someone might entertain the remotest possibility that their vineyards are not the heart of the heart of whatever wine zone they’re in. But for consumers, her breakdown of the areas with soils favorable to great Sangiovese production and those with less likely terroirs, and her later discussion of individual producers within those areas, will be invaluable. It’s not an infallible guide – high achievers in less fine areas can often make first-rate wines, while underachievers in great areas can always produce plonk – but it is an extremely helpful and illuminating one, the best tool I know for sorting out the great diversity of Brunello styles and qualities on the market.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with everything O’Keefe says about individual estates. A few she has, for my palate, been too kind to, and a few too strict with. I think, for instance, she is unduly harsh on Banfi and mis-estimates its wines – but these are minor problems in what is overall an excellent book.

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Full disclosure: I’ve known Kerin O’Keefe for a few years now as a colleague and friend. I was one of the readers for the University of California Press who recommended publication of her book. For both those reasons I’ve hung back from reviewing the book here (it appeared in February). But I urged UC Press to publish Brunello di Montalcino because I thought it was a good book, not because I knew Kerin – and if I think it a good book, why shouldn’t I call it to my readers’ attention? Conscience eased, problem solved: ergo this review.

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A special announcement this week: After a 20-odd-year lapse, Diane and I have published a new cookbook. More specifically, a mini ebook, Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce, a collection of 10 tomato-based sauces for pasta, published by Hang Time Press and available on Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s iTunes. In addition to the recipes, the book has all sorts of useful prefatory information and contains wine recommendations for each recipe, so at $2.99 it’s a genuine bargain. Those of you unequipped with Kindle or Nook can download the software to your own computer, free, from the sites.

Here’s an example of that prefatory prose: the headnote to our recipe for Ziti with Fennel Tomato Sauce:

We first met this sauce 10 years ago, during a memorable visit to the dean of Campanian winemakers, Antonio Mastroberardino. For several generations the Mastroberardino family have been making – and in some cases, saving from extinction – the traditional wines of Naples. At that time, they had recently been charged by the Italian government with the prestigious task of replanting vineyards in the ruins of Pompeii with as close as they could get to the ancient Roman grape varieties, using the ancient Roman forms of cultivation.

We were given a private tour of this fascinating task – imagine the contrast of new vine shoots within 2,000-year-old Roman brick walls – before heading inland to the hills that hold Mastro’s main vineyards and winery. There we had an astounding lunch of local specialties, catered by the chef of Ristorante Il Gastronomo. We remember vividly our first encounter with buffalo-milk ricotta, a flavor impossible to describe or match. After several more excellent antipasti, this pasta appeared. Its lively fennel scent immediately focused our attention and from the first taste we were addicted. That sauce was probably made with wild fennel to attain its special pungency, and if you’re lucky enough to get wild fennel by all means use it here. We’ve done our best with the farm-grown version to recreate the pleasure of this simple, elegant dish.

Wine: This nubbly, genteelly flavored dish wants a mellow sort of wine, something on the soft side. We like Dolcetto with it, but there’s no reason a less-than-powerhouse Merlot shouldn’t work well too, or even a Cabernet franc, whether from the Loire, Friuli or California. If you want regional fidelity, try a youngish (three- to five-year old) Aglianico, or – simpler yet – a Lacryma Christi rosso.

And here’s a link to the whole recipe, if you’re curious about it.

We had a really good time creating the book: choosing our recipes, fine-tuning them, retesting them — especially the retesting, when I got to try out wines to recommend for each dish.

The Authors at Work in the Test Laboratory

We have no illusions that we will make our fortune – or fame – with Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce. We’d like the venture to be successful enough to warrant publishing some more little ebooks, because we’ve been accumulating recipes for years now and we think a good number of them deserve to be better known. So we hope that many of our blog readers will try the book, make its recipes, and be enthusiastic enough to write a review for Amazon or B&N. All praise, extravagant or modest, will be gratefully accepted.

But mostly we hope you’ll like the recipes and make them often. They’re easy enough and flavorful enough to supplement or even replace that same old spaghetti sauce you may have been making all these years.

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I just received a copy of a new book by an old friend, Teresa Severini Zaganelli. Grapes in the Glass is a wine primer intended for teenage readers. I can already hear neo-Prohibitionists shrieking in chorus from coast to coast. But relax – the subtitle is “Wine: Know-how, Fun and Responsibility,” and it’s a very common-sense introduction to the world of wine not as exotica or narcotica but as a simple part of everyday life, maybe even as a career path.

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Teresa, a trained enologist in her own right, is the stepdaughter of the near-legendary Giorgio Lungarotti, the father of serious winemaking in Umbria. So she quite literally learned everything there is to know about winemaking at the feet of a master, and one who was around every day. She is also the mother of three, so she can be considered a master of that trade too. Which will lead me – eventually: I like to work up to things logically – to what surprised and pleased me most about her book.

What isn’t at all surprising is how good a wine primer it is. Its discussions of the progress of wine from vine in the field to juices in the cellar to nectar in the bottle is detailed, clear, and complete. Anything you want to know about the winemaking process is in there, in a very user-friendly fashion, in clear, direct language, and illustrated by many amusing drawings.

The framework of Teresa’s book – maybe fictional, maybe factual – is that her teenage son Francesco has volunteered his mother and her workplace for a class outing. What will surprise many Americans and outrage some is that the teacher and school OK the project, and Francesco and his peers visit Cantina Lungarotti for a lesson in viticulture and viniculture, conducted by Teresa.

The presentation is straightforward and light-handed but never condescending. The information conveyed – and there is a lot of it – is presented clearly, in language scaled to an intelligent beginner’s comprehension. And it isn’t just about Italian wine; almost all of the book’s explanations apply equally to winemaking anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of wine lore in Grapes in a Glass that many serious wine fans will be happy to have in so concise and clear a form. Their teenagers may well have to wait until Mom and Dad have finished reading Grapes in a Glass before they get their chance at it.

Which brings me to what really surprised me about this little book: its level of literacy, and the corresponding level of comprehension, it presumes in its intended teenage audience. As I said, Teresa is raising three children, and the frame narrative of her book sounds very much as if it is based on an actual occurrence. Anyone who has visited tourist sites in Italy knows that Italian children seem to be always trotting about on one field trip or another – so that aspect of the book is completely plausible. And if Teresa is right about the reading skills and attention levels of the young people she’s aiming her book at – and I have to presume she knows ragazzi as well as she knows vino – then that is plausible too.

And that means that Italian teenagers are simply far better readers and much more serious-minded than their American coevals. I remember with great pain that I’ve taught many college students who didn’t have the reading skills or attention span that this short book presumes. That’s sad. It makes no difference whether students are reading Marx or the Bible, wine lore or the Rapture, if they can’t understand what the words mean.

It’s bracing and encouraging to me to see evidence of a school system that is working. All we ever seem to hear about Italian education in this country is about student unrest and the crisis of the Italian universities. On the evidence of this splendid little tome, Italian schools are definitely doing something – maybe many things – right.

Grapes in the Glass was originally published in Italian and has been very well translated into English, in a British idiom, by Valeria Cazzola. It’s odd, therefore, that Amazon UK sells only the Italian-language version. Amazon US doesn’t (at the time of this writing) carry the book at all, but the English-language version is available from FdF Marketing PR Consultancy for $14.99. E-mail defalco94@aol.com.

Grapes in the Glass. Wine: Know-how, Fun and Responsibility (Edizione Gribaudo, Milano, 2011), 72 pp., many illustrations, useful index.

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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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Breathing Exercises

I don’t know whether it’s seasonal, or cyclical, or a function of the heat, but lately I’ve been reading more and hearing more about “breathing” wines than I have in a long time. Whatever: If this is a sign of a shift from wines of in-your-face simplicity to wines of some complexity, I’m all for it.

Breathing, of course, is not a yoga exercise for wines or winedrinkers, but the process of opening a bottle and allowing the wine to oxygenate – breathe – for a period of time. What gets people all worked up and confused are the numerous complications that seemingly simple exercise entails: first, the question of whether and/or which wines should be allowed to breathe at all, then whether they should be allowed to breathe in the bottle or should be decanted, and then for how long.

Some people even pour the wine back and forth between decanter and bottle a few times. I’m not kidding: The late Martin Gersh, for some years a wine writer for Vogue, was a serious advocate of that procedure. He argued that the accelerated exposure to oxygen it afforded allowed wines to open more rapidly and improved their flavor.

Everyone, I think, would agree that the whole point of letting a wine breathe is to improve its flavor by allowing it to “open.” And most winedrinkers know what “closed” means in a wine: You pull the cork, you sniff, you sniff again, you sip, and you’re getting nothing, or next to nothing, in nose and mouth. But what people mean by “open” is not always clear.

I’ve generally found two schools of thought. One says you breathe wines in order to allow them to show their mature flavor: The exposure to oxygen is a super-speed version of what happens over years in the bottle, with the slow penetration of oxygen through the cork. This was Martin Gersh’s theory, that he could by rapid but controlled oxygenation effectually advance the age of a young wine until its flavor approximated that of a mature bottle. The other school holds the seeming opposite: that when you allow a wine to breathe, it becomes fresher, the fruit comes forward, and you get more of its youthful charm.

It’s just possible that both could be true, that different kinds of wine respond to breathing in different ways. But The Oxford Companion to Wine would say rather emphatically that neither is true. Of breathing in the bottle, this authoritative tome says “the wine can take only the most minimal of ‘breaths’, and any change is bound to be imperceptible.” On the authority of Émile Peynaud, The Oxford Companion is equally skeptical of decanting: “the longer it is prolonged – i.e., the longer before serving a wine is decanted – the more diffuse its aroma and the less marked its sensory attributes.” In other words, breathing is a lot of hot air.

That should settle the issue, but it doesn’t. My own experience directly and strongly contradicts those opinions. Whatever the authorities may say, breathing does in fact make a difference, often a big one, and almost always for the better. (Fragile older wines are the exception: they can be killed by overlong breathing, and in extreme cases by any breathing at all.)

When I was considerably younger than I am now, just starting out in wine writing and still feeling my way into wine’s intricacies, Diane and I spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly what breathing did for a wine. In the best scientific, controlled-experiment fashion, we would take two bottles of the same wine and open one several hours before dinner and the other just at dinnertime, or decant one (sometimes immediately before dinner, sometimes at a predetermined length of time earlier) and pour the other from the bottle. We did this with many different types of wine, for different lengths of time. It was fun, and it was very, very informative.

In almost every case, the wine that had been more exposed to air tasted better to us: richer, fuller, more polished, more generous, sometimes even more developed – that is, tasting more like what we knew an older specimen of the same wine with more evolved flavors would taste like. To be sure, we were using young wines – we were young ourselves and correspondingly impecunious – but they were good wines: small Bordeaux chateaux, Burgundy village wines, Antoniolo Gattinara, Mastroberardino Taurasi, Poggio alle Mure Brunello – all affordable wines in that now-long-gone day.

Occasionally, to verify that we weren’t deluding ourselves, we had other tasters join us. The results were always the same: everyone agreed that the wine that had breathed was better – richer, more complex, a more intense version of what its sibling bottle tasted like. Even with simpler wines, like Beaujolais and Valpolicella, there was a difference: The fruit might not be any more complex, but it was more vibrant. With wines capable of bottle age, like those I mentioned above, often some of the complexities started to show – nothing like what you would get with a properly aged wine, but more than a simple pop-the-cork-and-pour would give you.

You can easily try this yourself. Take two bottles of the same wine, one opened for one, two, or three hours or decanted for whatever length of time piques your interest, the other opened and served immediately. As I’ve said in this blog many times already, you only taste with your own mouth. See if breathing the wine makes any difference to you. If it doesn’t, you saved yourself a lot of future fuss. But if you do detect a pleasurable difference, you have added a new dimension to your enjoyment of wine.

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Alessandro Masnaghetti, publisher of the newsletter Enogea and probably the foremost authority on Piedmont terroir, has released two new maps of Barolo and Barbaresco, showing all the recently approved cru names and sites in each appellation.

Like Masnaghetti’s other Piedmont maps, these two are handsome to look at, easy to read, and packed front and back with the kind of information a Nebbiolo lover otherwise finds difficult to locate – not just the physical where-is-it of a particular cru, but elevation, exposure, who owns it, and who bottles it. It is exactly that identification and location of each individual cru within both the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG appellations, along with the information about who bottles a wine from it and under what name, that distinguishes these two new maps from Masnaghetti’s earlier maps.

Each of those charted the vineyards of an individual township, provided information about  their altitude and exposure, and listed all the grape varieties  cultivated in those fields (not just the Nebbiolo). Nor did any cru names appear, as they then had no legal standing, or, for that matter, any agreed-upon boundaries – all of which has been resolved in the now-officially-named sites. Used together, the new cru maps and the earlier township maps answer almost any question the most trivia-obsessed Nebbiolo junkie could come up with. In short, the man I think of as the Mercator of the vineyards has raised the bar even higher for vineyard maps, outdoing even his own previous accomplishments.

I’m not the only one who thinks that these maps will one day be (if they aren’t already) collectors’ items, and not just for wine lovers (see Alfonso Cevola’s acute appreciation).

The maps and the information on them are systematically rendered in both Italian and English, so everything on them is easily accessible. In addition these two new maps are also available in digital format, making them usable on all sorts of handheld devices, and enabling such users to zoom in or out on whatever features interest them. I don’t know if Masnaghetti plans to issue his earlier maps digitally, but everything is available through almasnag@tin.it or info@enogea.it or, in the US, www.rarewineco.com.

This detail from the Barolo map shows some of the crus around Barolo township itself:

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You can readily identify the number and size of the different vineyards falling within each cru. And here is some of the kind of information about them that the reverse of the map provides:

Finally, just to give one more example of how good and useful these maps are, here’s a detail from the Barolo map of part of the township of Serralunga and some of its crus:

With Barolo and Barbaresco, it is just as important to know precisely where a wine comes from as it is in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Not just the village matters, but where in the village? Which hill? How high up that hill?  It all makes a difference to the wine and to the passionate wine drinker. For me as a wine professional these maps are indispensible, but I know that even as a just plain Nebbiolo-nut, I would want to have them to consult.

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Readers of this blog know I contribute frequently to Decanter, a magazine for which I have a lot of respect.  This doesn’t mean I agree with every opinion expressed in it, however, and I was particularly troubled to see James Suckling, for whose opinions I have very little respect, featured prominently in the current edition (Decanter, May 2011).

The Suckling’s article strikes me as a textbook example of the worst kind of wine writing.   It’s an opinion piece (rightly so-called because there is hardly a useful or accurate fact in it) about whether the so-called “SuperTuscans” are a fading star.  The cover promises more:  “James Suckling on the Rise and Fall of SuperTuscans,” it says, but that isn’t what the Suckling delivers.  Strange, because this is an issue on which consumers and producers have already voted with their dollars and their efforts.  Since almost all SuperTuscans are now covered either by the IGT category or the many Tuscan DOC and DOCG designations, many producers have moved their formerly maverick wines into the more spacious conventional categories.  And from everything I’ve been able to gather from importers and retailers, with the exception of the greatest stars of the SuperTuscan cast, sales of the whole category have been declining steadily in favor of classifications like Chianti Classico and Brunello.

But this article is a typical Suckling performance.  Let me walk you through it.

Step 1:  Immediately remind your readers how important you are: “People ask me if I invented the term SuperTuscan.” Gracefully concede that you didn’t, and you don’t know who did. Also admit that you don’t know whether these wines have “as much resonance with consumers” as they used to. So much for the “fading star” question, ostensibly the point of the article. Don’t trouble yourself to look up any production, sales, or distribution figures that might suggest an answer. That’s not your style.

Step 2:  Provide an extensive quote from one of your winemaking friends who is, incidentally, a participant in your upcoming, for-profit event, Divino Tuscany (see below for the skinny on this).  Don’t worry that the quotation has nothing to do with the subject of your article: the point is publicity, not relevance. Thus, Lamberto Frescobaldi opines that people “may not have a clear understanding” of the term SuperTuscan, goes on about how they don’t know what a Chianti or a Brunello is either, and concludes that prices for these various wines vary.

Now, as author, don’t use that as an opportunity to explain to your readers what a SuperTuscan is or how it may differ from a Chianti or a Brunello; that would just be information, and too boring.

Step 3: Do talk a bit about the DOC and DOCG wine appellations, which allows you to mention your favorite wines in those categories – none of which costs less than $100 a bottle, which seems to be the lower limit of the Suckling’s interest in wine.  Then admiringly recount the stories of two of the most prestigious (and expensive) SuperTuscans, Tignanello and Sassicaia.

Step 4:  Introduce another of your friends who makes an expensive SuperTuscan  (and is also a sponsor of Divino Tuscany) and have him pronounce a ridiculous opinion on this whole group of (still undefined, unidentified) wines. Here’s Luca Sanjust, who produces the $100+ SuperTuscan Galatrona: “These wines introduced people to drinking wines for pleasure, not just in an intellectual way, like old Barolos and Brunellos.”  (Well, that opened my eyes: I never knew I wasn’t enjoying wine before the SuperTuscans came along.  Just think of all those years and years in which nobody ever drank wine for pleasure!)

Step 5:  Conclude your article by letting your buddy do the heavy lifting of pointing out how stupid all other wine writers are.  Signor Sanjust does that nicely for the Suckling.  He starts sensibly enough by observing that “we can’t become Burgundy or some other region like that.” But then he denounces “all those idiot wine critics and bloggers” who say that Italians should stick with native Italian varieties.  “They don’t understand that there are microclimates and soils that are perfect for other grapes, and that they make great wines.”  Final word, right?  Says everything there is to say on the subject?

Well, no; I think that those idiot wine critics and bloggers know perfectly well about the diversity of Italy’s terroirs, and they have serious reservations about the greatness of the wines in question.  Does the world truly need another $100 Tuscan Merlot?  I have problems with brand-new estates in California offering their first vintage at more than $100 a bottle, and by the same token I have doubts when Signor Sanjust tells me “we are simply trying to give the maximum pleasure to wine drinkers.”  If he really means that, let him lower his price to around $25 – and then we can talk.

A question of propriety:

Almost all the wines the Suckling mentions in this article, and the only two individuals he quotes, are sponsors/participants in Divino Tuscany, a barbarously named four-day event the Suckling is presenting in Florence in June – featuring “the best wineries in the region – all personally selected by me.”  He is charging consumers €1,600 for the event, and that doesn’t include travel or lodging.  This is clearly not a penny-ante matter.

For him to be writing now about only participating wineries, and in particular, giving such inordinate space to self-serving personal promotion by Luca Sanjust, seems a blatant conflict of interest.  This isn’t wine journalism: this is public relations.  Those are two different activities and should be carried out by different people.  The ethics of the wine business can often be murky, but journalistic ethics are pretty clear-cut: you’re not supposed to have any pecuniary relationship with individuals or firms about which you’re ostensibly objectively reporting.  It’s not so long ago that journalists were released from magazines and newspapers for considerably slighter involvements than the Suckling’s with the people he writes of.

Persistent rumors in Italy – admittedly unverifiable: nobody is talking for attribution – claim that the Suckling is charging wineries heavily to be represented in Divino Tuscany.   One figure I have heard is €10,000 per winery.  Should these rumors turn out to be true, would this be the same as what the pop music industry used to call payola, and what politicians now know as “pay to play?”   You tell me.  Even if untrue, it still seems to me a glaring breach of journalistic ethics to write a purportedly unbiased article that hardly mentions a single wine that isn’t a part of your own clearly for-profit venture.  That isn’t journalism: it’s advertising.

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Recently, Diane and I had some friends over for dinner. This isn’t an unusual event for us: We both like to cook, and we like to share our best wines with people who’ll enjoy and appreciate them.

Also, truth to tell, we don’t enjoy restaurant dining very much anymore. That’s for a number of reasons. The chief one is noise: The number of restaurants where it’s impossible to have a civilized conversation over dinner increases every year, and conversation is one of the pleasures of a good meal. Diane and I have simply stopped going to several places whose food we like very much, because we had to lean across the table and shout in each other’s face to be heard.

Prices, of course, are another factor: The number of restaurants where the cost of dinner for two represents a respectable fraction of one’s weekly income has also increased dramatically – especially if one likes wine, since restaurants continue their unenlightened policy of rack-rent mark-ups on wines.

The third major reason is the food itself: In many places, you can’t get a dish that tastes of a recognizable ingredient because there are so many of them, subjected to so much chef’s-fantasy tweaking. More and more, we find ourselves appreciating the classic French cuisine bourgeoise (which you can hardly find anywhere) and the Italian ideal of excellent prima materia treated respectfully and allowed to taste of itself. So we shop carefully and cook simply – and often, since eating is a pleasure we like to indulge on a regular basis. I read somewhere that it’s good for you.

Which loops me back to my starting point, with this further note: Another reason we like to dine at home is the added fun of matching our wines to our food – and the other way around too.  So we asked some friends to a simple dinner that would accompany a few enjoyable wines. Here’s the menu we devised:

Gougères, mixed olives
Pommery Brut nv

Salad of Celery, Dates, Almonds and Pecorino
Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino 2007

Cannelloni alla Napoletana
Marisa Cuomo Costa Amalfitana Furore 2004

Casserole-roasted Stuffed Leg of Lamb; Green Beans and Mushrooms
Chateau Talbot 1998, in magnum

Cheeses:  Brebis; Robiola; Gorgonzola cremificata

Almost flour-less Chocolate Cake, Arte del Gelato Vaniglia di Madagascar
Ceretto San Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv

Espresso; grappa

 

Almost all the dishes could be prepared before guests arrived and only needed to be warmed, leaving us both free to enjoy our company. As it turned out, we didn’t use the Mastro Fiano: Everyone was content to continue with the Champagne through the light, palate-refreshing antipasto salad. The marriage of the cannelloni (recipe from our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana) and the Furore was truly made in heaven; since both the dish and the wine originate in seaside Campania, they can be said to have been childhood sweethearts who grew up together. The Marisa Cuomo estate deserves to be much better known: the quality of its wines is always excellent, and the Furore – a blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso – is particularly fine.

The main course lamb Diane has described on her own blog, so I’ll content myself with saying that it was rich and succulent. The pairing of almost any lamb dish with almost any Cabernet-based wine is a no-brainer, and the Talbot – that rarity in Bordeaux, a still-moderately-priced classified growth – performed admirably both with the meat and the subsequent cheese course. It also followed very nicely on the elegance and understated power of the Furore. Neither of these was an in-your-face wine: they were chosen for restraint and complexity and a willingness to play well with others. In my opinion, nothing destroys the harmony of a meal more thoroughly than a sandbox bully of a wine, a big fruit bomb that won’t let you taste anything but itself. No danger of that with either Furore or Talbot.

From that complexity we came down lightly, with a not-very-sweet but richly chocolaty cake and a dab of ice cream, accompanied by the gentlest of dessert wines, a Moscato d’Asti from Ceretto, a Piedmont master – a kiss-on-the-cheek of a wine, the perfect finish for a comfortable dinner.

Next morning, finishing the clean-up (it was a two-dishwasher-load dinner), we amused ourselves by trying to calculate what such a meal would have cost us in a restaurant, (if we could get it), but gave up in despair of the convolute math calculations involved. Suffice it to say that the whole evening was why we cook in the first place, and why we buy young wines and store them, even if our “cellar” is far from ideal. If you love the sensations provided by mature wines, it’s the only sensible course of action. Unless of course you have unlimited wealth – in which case you don’t need a cellar, or even a kitchen: you can buy your meal, and maybe even the quiet to enjoy it in.

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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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Tasting new releases, as anyone in the wine business knows, is a rarely a pleasure – more of a necessary evil. Especially in these days of intense market pressure, most new releases aren’t ready to drink, and the best of them – wines of texture and complexity – may be years or even decades from their peaks. But science is a cruel mistress, and to keep abreast of the flow, to have an empirical base from which to make judgments and reasonable predictions, a writer has to taste a lot of young wines – many hundreds of them, every season.

That’s why it’s crucially important to drink mature wines at every available opportunity, to remind yourself of what this whole process is all about. It sure isn’t about discriminating between an 88.5 and an 89 point infant Cabernet, whatever the blurbsters may lead one to think: It’s about sipping nectar and being transported, not spitting raw grape juice until they carry you out.

So my cunning plan (as Black Adder used to say) for avoiding that fate consists  partially of trotting out to Brooklyn for dinner at Tommaso’s, which is one of the few places in New York where I can afford to order older wines. (During a recent visit for his seasonal-special white truffle dinner, Diane and I drank his last bottle of Dessilani’s lovely 1970 Gattinara, a dream of silk and subtlety.)  But mostly it consists of raiding my own oldest stock and serving selected bottles to friends who appreciate them as much as I do, partnered with the fine dinners orchestrated by my partner Diane. This fall, we did two such morale-and-palate-saving evenings, extravaganzas approaching caloric megadeath (you can always eat salad tomorrow, or all next week if it comes to that).  The food was wonderful, and the wines played up to the dishes.

For the first dinner, Diane prepared a Piemontese feast for four friends – Charles and Michele, Ernie and Louise – who were about to visit that white-truffle-blest paradise. We didn’t have any truffles, but we tried to give them dishes that would ring true to what lay in store in Italy. I pulled out of my “cellar” (euphemism or metaphor at best) Deutz Champagne brut nv, 1989 Prunotto Barbaresco Montestefano, 1989 Vietti Barolo Lazzarito, 1982 Ceretto Barbaresco Bricco Asili, and Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Ernie, bless his soul, provided a 1990 Aldo Conterno Barolo Gran Bussia and a 1958 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino.

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All the wines were in excellent condition – not a cork problem or bad bottle in the lot – and each showed the elegant depth and heft and complexity that uniquely belongs to mature Nebbiolo of fine vintages. We didn’t drink them in order of age but as I felt their body and power and relative vigor or fragility matched with the food.

The Champagne accompanied some light hors d’oeuvre (toasted hazelnuts, some salume) and continued with an antipasto of fennel spears wrapped with prosciutto and roasted.

Tagliarini with a sauce of wild mushrooms and veal called for first the 1990 Gran Bussia, then the lovely ‘58 Monfortino, both of which provided the elegance and restraint that sauce wanted. The two ‘89s, both big-bodied and vigorous wines, and the 1982 Bricco Asili, fully evolved and very complex, accompanied roasted squabs stuffed with chestnut puree and afterward a plate of cheeses.  Finally the light and charming Moscato, a refreshing palate-cleanser after all that impressive Nebbiolo, paired beautifully with a pear timballo topped with mascarpone cream.

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Opinions were pretty evenly divided as to whether the wine of the day was the ’89 Vietti for its concentrated power or the ’58 Conterno for its elegance, but the entire group of wines counted as champions. Truth to tell, it was really one wine too many. They were all so good that they began to interfere with each other. They gave my palate and aging brain almost too much to deal with. I think less would have been more: One fewer bottle – though which of those gems I would omit I can’t imagine – would have focused us better.  A valuable lesson, that, and one I will bear in mind in the future.

In fact, I did bear it in mind for our second dinner. This was less tightly regional, though largely Italian again, for four Italophile friends, Livio and Betty, and John and Vicky.

Here are the wines for that dinner: Roederer Estate Brut nv; 1997 Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva; 1982 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva; 1991 Serego Alighieri Amarone Vaio Armaron; Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Unquestionably, fewer wines worked better: the matches of food and wine just sang.

Once again our sparkling wine went from hors d’oeuvre through roasted prosciutto-wrapped fennel (when you find a good thing, stick with it). The characteristically Rufina earthiness of the Nipozzano played beautifully with bucatini all’amatriciana (made with la vera cosa, real Italian guanciale). The ’82 Brunello – in that vintage, this wine would have been made from Banfi’s oldest vines, the former Poggio alle Mura vineyards – showed its lively Sangiovese acidity and freshness with a pork loin roast that had been lacquered with Dijon mustard, brown sugar, and chopped pistachios.  At the same time, the wine displayed its velvety Sangiovese tannins with the vegetal bite of the contorno of braised Swiss chard and mustard greens.

With the cheese, that glorious Amarone gave us not an aria but the whole opera, opening different facets of its enormously complex personality with the different cheeses – Gorgonzola dolce, Chabichou, Brunet, aged Gouda. This wine demonstrated conclusively what nonsense is the belief that Amarone can’t accompany a meal. Nothing could have completed the substantial courses of this dinner better.

Finally, the same lovely Moscato as in the previous dinner worked just as effectively with a featherweight pumpkin chiffon pie.

Readers of my earlier rants know just how deeply I love older wines. Dinners like this are the reasons why. If anyone thinks it’s too much trouble to lay wines down and wait for them, I have only one thing to say to you: You’re wrong. It is hardly any trouble at all: the biggest difficulty is to keep your hands off them long enough for the wines to evolve.  The times we live in aren’t conducive to patience. But it is worth acquiring the discipline, because the pleasures properly aged wines afford – as I’ve tried to give some inkling above – are of a wholly different order from, and light years beyond, the best that young wines can do.

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