Archive for the ‘Sparkling’ Category

This year’s Fourth of July frolic made a bit of a challenge for me. I’m happy to say that I – and the wine resources of the USA – rose to it.

Diane’s blog has already recounted the saga of the all-American dinner that we put together for the good friends who guided us around Venice. My role in the festivities was to arrange wines to match with those dishes: not a simple task, especially for one whose palate and whose cellar (I use the word loosely) run more in the direction of Europe than toward the great continent that lies just across the Hudson. That’s right: I don’t even live in continental United States, so you can see the depth of the challenge.

What solved the problem for me and made our Fourth of July drinking great was, once I realized it, quite simple: immigration. Just about every single wine grape in the United States is an immigrant, naturalized against the native plagues of this continent by being grafted onto the roots of indigenous American varieties. And many of the people who convert those once-foreign grapes into American wine are immigrants too, first- and second-generation citizens adapting an Old World skill set to American circumstances, producing wines with discernible European ancestries and unmistakable American accents. Is that a fable for our times?  You tell me.

We started with a wine that is a Champagne in everything but name: Gruet Brut, a lovely sparkler made in New Mexico (yes!) from the traditional Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot meunier – by the traditional méthode champenoise. Gruet is a family-owned and -operated winery, founded in 1983 by the late Gilbert Gruet, whose family made Champagne in his native France. The original vineyard (it has since been joined by two others, all now run by Gilbert’s son and daughter) lay over 4,000 feet up in the windy hills near Elephant Butte Reservoir.

All the Gruet wines show the classic Champagne characteristics, so this is the wine to use if you want to have some fun with a know-it-all friend. The one we drank with hors d’oeuvres launched our evening perfectly – cool, brisk, elegant, and refreshing on a warm and humid July Fourth evening. The thing that will really astound your know-it-all friend is that all the Gruet sparklers, even their brilliant Blanc de Noirs, retail for about $20.

With a delicious and almost stultifyingly rich Crabmeat Maison, we drank a wine a bit more local (and not from mainland America either), the 2016 Minimalist Chenin blanc from Paumanok Vineyards, on Long Island’s North Fork. Also founded in 1983, and family-owned by Ursula and Charles Massoud, Paumanok specializes in several French varieties. Long Island has no hills to speak of, but it does have breezes from both ocean and sound, and those, combined with dense plantings of 1,100 to 1,400 vines per acre, give Paumanok’s wines all the concentration and character they need.

For my palate, its greatest successes are two Loire valley varieties, the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. In France, the latter grape makes Vouvray and the great Savennières, which the chalky minerality of Paumanok’s Minimalist Chenin suggests to me. This is a lovely wine – made, alas, in limited quantities – that worked wonderfully with the crabmeat, its complex leanness playing beautifully against the sweetness of the crab.

With our lordly rib roast and profusion of farm-fresh salads, we turned to the west coast and Ridge Vineyards, perched 2,300 feet up in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. By American winemaking standards, Ridge is practically an old-timer:  It got started in the 1960s, and from 1969 onwards, for more than 40 years, its winemaker was the masterly Paul Draper, a genius of what Ridge now proudly calls “pre-industrial winemaking.”

Ridge is famous for its great Monte Bello Cabernet, but what it does with Zinfandel and other less regarded varieties is equally remarkable. Our 2010 Petite sirah (actually probably Durif, a variety now not much grown in California and almost entirely neglected in its native France) showed amazing complexity and subtlety, with many different elements emerging from its basso profundo of bitter chocolate to mesh with the varying flavors of our main course.

With four very distinctive cheeses, we drank a 2010 Ridge Geyserville – a blended wine named for its vineyard because no one of its several varieties is present in sufficient quantity to justify a varietal name under California law. This lovely bottle contained 64% Zinfandel, 20% Carignane, 12% Petite sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 2% Mataro (as Mourvèdre is commonly called in California).

This was a big wine – 14.3% alcohol – but nevertheless supple and elegant. It played wonderfully with the cheeses, which differed widely in texture, flavor, and intensity, adapting itself quite comfortably to each. I’ve always loved Ridge’s Zinfandels, and I prefer to drink them at around ten years of age. This gorgeous example was a perfect illustration of why.

Zinfandel has become so established in California that many people think of it as a native American grape. This capstone wine of our Fourth of July feast is a perfect example of an Old World variety (it’s closely related to Italian Primitivo and allied Croatian and Slovenian grapes) transformed into a classic New World wine. Happy Fourth of July indeed! Thomas Jefferson would have enthusiastically approved.

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Granted, my expectations were probably too high. Granted, I was only in Venice for a week, and probably missed a lot of good shops and restaurants. And granted, there was an abundance of drinkable, enjoyable wine in most restaurants.

But – and this is a very big but – given what Venice has to draw upon from the land to supplement the treasures offered by its lagoon and the Adriatic, there should have been an abundance of great wine too. All the resources of the Veneto, Friuli, and Alto Adige lie at Venice’s doorstep, and those three regions contain dozens of fine white varieties and hundreds of great producers – most of which you will have to search pretty hard to find any trace of in Venice. It ought to be a capital of great white wines, and it’s not.

Not that Venice doesn’t drink white wine. Prosecco is ubiquitous, both as a wine in its own right and as a principal ingredient in La Serenissima’s beloved spritz, an aperitif of Prosecco, sparkling water, and a splash of Campari or Aperol. It’s almost compulsorily the first thing you’re offered when you enter a restaurant or sit down at a café. A spritz is cool and very refreshing and unquestionably charming, but in many of those cafés and restaurants, Prosecco may well be the best there is on the wine list.

Most lists are very short and not at all deep: maybe a Soave or a Lugana from the Veneto, maybe a Sauvignon or – rarely – a Friulano from Friuli, maybe a Chardonnay or Pinot blanc from Alto Adige. That’s about it. I don’t know why there isn’t more and better wine: Perhaps this is another sad result of Venice’s hyper-tourism, the consequence of a daily influx of hordes of once-only customers who neither know nor want any better. But it’s a sad situation for the serious wino, in a place where the seafood can be wonderful.

I’m not saying there is no good wine in Venice, just that you have to search hard to find it. Out in Burano, one of the smaller islands near Venice, the restaurant Venissa provided a lovely bottle of Pietracupa’s Fiano di Avellino, one of my favorite Campanian wines, which I was delighted to find so far off its own turf – and especially because it was one of the more reasonably priced wines on what was predominantly a very costly list.

And in Venice itself, at the fine Osteria da Fiori, which offered the best wine list I encountered in my week of seeking, Diane and I enjoyed a 2016 Vintage Tunina, Silvio Jermann’s masterly blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Picolit. Although very young, this wine was so fine that I was tempted to make this whole post an ode to it – but that would have conveyed a very false impression of Venice’s wine scene.

I can’t pass it over in silence, however. Vintage Tunina – a fantasy name, invented by the then-young Silvio Jermann back in 1975, when he produced his first bottles of it – is one of Italy’s greatest white wines. It was iconoclastic, back then: The norm in Friuli was monovarietal wines, which were held to be traditional. Jermann pointed out to anyone who would listen that that was a new tradition: His grandfather had told him that, before WWI, all Friulian wine was blended, usually a field mix. So he began experimenting, liked the results he obtained, and so persisted, for which we should all be grateful. Vintage Tunina and other of his “inventions” (e.g., Was Dreams…, Capo Martino) rapidly became stars, winning prizes and markets and drawing attention to Friuli’s great potential.

Back in 1996 (I think it was ’96), at the Salone del Gusto in Torino, Jermann conducted a vertical tasting of two decades of Vintage Tunina, back to the 1976 vintage – his second – thereby demonstrating another of Vintage Tunina’s excellences. It ages beautifully, growing deeper and more intense with increasing years. I remember the ’76 was transcendent, like velvet in texture, dry, mouth-filling, tasting richly of dried fruits and earth.

So, here in 2019 Diane and I were drinking with great pleasure the fortieth descendant of that 1976, and our only regret was that it wasn’t 20 years old. And maybe that we weren’t either.

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What I think of as The Official Champagne Season always starts for me with the Wine Media Guild’s December luncheon, the first Wednesday of the month. Always held at Felidia Restaurant, and always organized brilliantly by Ed McCarthy, the author of the thorough and authoritative Champagne for Dummies, this WMG gathering always presents an in-depth look at a single aspect of Champagne. This year’s theme was rosé.

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Rosé Champagne, as Ed pointed out, was once an unfashionable item in the United States, treated with respect only by wine professionals. Not any more: rosé has become just about the hottest category of Champagne, with sales rising and more and more producers sending us examples of the kind. They are now available at every level of Champagne production, from basic non-vintage bottlings, through vintage and up to special cuvées.

The popularity of rosé seems to be more than just a fad: Behind it lies the very good reason that rosé Champagne is very adaptable to all sorts of food, and consequently is one of the easiest of the Champagne types to drink all through a meal, even with red meat courses. At Felidia we pretty much stuck with fish – the pièce de résistance was a 26-pound salmon, roasted on a bed of salt – but no one doubted that at least a half dozen of the fuller-bodied wines we tasted could have stood up to a nice juicy steak.

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Here are the 15 Champagnes we tasted, with Ed’s comments, a few of my own, and the suggested retail price range for each. (NB: The wines were arranged pretty much in order of their heft, from the lightest to the fullest-bodied.)

NV Bruno Paillard Brut Rosé Premier Cuvée ($70-$75) “Subtle and delicate,” Ed said, “the driest Champagne we tasted – less than two or three grams of residual sugar. My kind of Champagne: I love it.” I did too: this was one of my favorites of the day – a nice way to start.

NV Ayala Brut Rosé ($48-$54) Ed: “A sister brand of Bollinger, who purchased a major share in it ten years ago, but exactly opposite Bollinger in style – light, delicate, low in dosage – and probably the best buy in our whole tasting.” Another of my favorites – I like the light, elegant style – but then I’m a fan of Ayala’s Champagnes generally.

NV Henriot Brut Rosé ($58-$62) “Another firm with a long history, but not well-known in the United States because they were off the US market for a long time. Henriot is quality: Their tête de cuvée Les Enchanteleurs is probably the best buy among that class of Champagnes – an outstanding wine.” I loved this wine too, another in that light, elegant style, like the first two.

NV Mumm Brut Rosé ($70-$75) Ed liked this one much more than I did: “surprisingly very good. This wine really stood out.”

NV Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Brut Rosé ($70-$80) “For many years, the biggest selling rosé Champagne in the world: Laurent-Perrier specializes in rosé. One of the few that is 100% Pinot noir, with skin contact to obtain the color.”

NV Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé ($60-$65) “A much improved wine: Used to be 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot meunier. Now they’ve dropped the Pinot meunier and put 30% Chardonnay in its place – very definitely a good move!”

NV Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé ($62-$75) “An old name, a traditional maker, very much like Krug in their procedures – they age their Champagnes in old barrels, they’re very strong on Chardonnay. I was very impressed with this wine today.”

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NV Gosset Brut Rosé ($70-$80) “An old favorite, an old name, showing beautifully today. Again, a house that emphasizes Chardonnay – 58% in this rosé – which is nevertheless a powerful Champagne.” Gosset is one of my favorite producers too: I find it absolutely reliable at every level, and its special cuvées are usually extraordinary.

2007 Louis Roederer Brut Rosé ($65-$70) Another of my favorite houses, and Ed’s too: “A Louis Roederer Champagne is always going to be a good Champagne,” he says. “They specialize in Pinot noir, with skin contact. I love it, and not a bad price at all for a vintage Champagne.”

NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Réserve ($62-$70) Ed: “A great, undervalued Champagne that always comes through. An outstanding Champagne at a very good price.”

2004 Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Rosé ($180-$200) “A prestige cuvee, 100% Pinot noir. Even though it’s eight years old, this is a wine that really needs time to develop. I would hold onto this for a couple of years yet.”

2004 Perrier-Jouët Cuvée Belle Epoque Rosé ($300) “Chardonnay-dominated. Always has Chardonnay grand cru grapes in its blend. The epitome of elegance.”

2002 Moët & Chandon Brut Rosé ($80) “The largest producer of all. 2002 is a great vintage for Champagne, and this is a big, austere example. It needs time.”

2004 Pol Roger Brut Rosé ($110) “This too needs time. It’s Pinot noir-dominated, has very low dosage, and is really not yet ready to drink.” While I agree it will get better with time, I thought it was already pretty fine. Pol Roger also numbers among the producers I always trust.

NV Bollinger Brut Rosé ($85) “Always a big Champagne, always a great Champagne. 64% Pinot noir, low dosage, firm, austere, and just lovely.” I can only agree: I can’t remember ever having a mediocre – much less a bad – bottle of Bolly.

This was an impressive lineup of wines. Ed thought it one of the best the WMG had had, and once again I agree. He is also in the process of organizing the wines for the New York Wine Press’s annual Champagne Gala, scheduled for the week before Christmas at The Brasserie. He says that this year’s focus will be vintage Champagnes, to which I look forward and about which I plan to report here. Stay tuned: I’m keeping an informal count of the number of Champagnes Ed says he loves, and it’s already clear that he’s the Don Juan of sparkling 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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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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We are now deep in December, which means deep in the holidays, which means deep, deep, deep in the contemplation and purchase, gifting and consuming, of Champagnes. The two wine-journalist groups I belong to, the Wine Media Guild and the New York Wine Press, always sponsor Champagne lunches this month. My friend and colleague in both organizations, Ed McCarthy, who is the author of Champagne for Dummies and the American authority on Champagne, selects and arranges the wines for both events. The NYWP event, coming up soon, this year features rosé Champagnes. For the WMG event, which occurred two weeks ago, Ed chose têtes de cuvées – the top-tier wine of each Champagne house.

All the grandes marques – the great Champagne houses – and most of the smaller producers have a tête de cuvée. This will typically be the best wine they offer, blended from the best vats from the best vineyards in the most prized areas. It may be a blanc de blancs or a blanc de noirs, it may be a single-vineyard wine – but more often it is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot noir from many different vineyards in Champagne, analogous to each house’s basic non-vintage brut but selected – commonly from a single fine vintage – and fine-tuned to reach an altitude of quality – and price, alas – well above that of the house’s basic wine.

Each house intends its tête de cuvée as the ultimate holiday gift, the peak holiday drink, the perfect, inevitable special-occasion toast. The wondrous thing is that they most often succeed, producing nectars so lovely, so attention-grabbing, that the most novice winos immediately realize that whatever that is that they have just put in their mouths is something special indeed.

It’s even harder to describe the taste of têtes de cuvées than it is regular Champagnes, because you are dealing with a degree of refinement, almost rarefaction, that operates for most palates in a realm of nuance and complication. Don’t look for frontal assaults: these are wines that appeal primarily by insinuation, intrigue, intimacy. Sure, the basic elements of Champagne are there – the enlivening sparkle, the wheaty, toasty flavors, the gentle taste of berries, the hints of mineral – but they are there simultaneously both vivid and subtilized, forward yet etherealized. Têtes de cuvée Champagnes have to be tasted with attention: They deserve it and reward it.

And note well: Têtes de cuvées always reward and often demand cellaring. They improve with age, integrating their many flavor components and growing in complexity and depth. The best of them get even better with the passing of time.

The 14 wines presented at the WMG luncheon at Felidia challenged ranking and discrimination. There were of course differences in each house’s style and differences of vintages, but the quality level was so high as to render any sort of standard assignment of points futile, if not fictional. So I’ve simply divided them into three groups: those that pleased me most; those that pleased me slightly less; and those that pleased me less than that. I add the emphatic caveat that those that pleased least (on this one day, in these special and unusual circumstances) still pleased me a great deal: There wasn’t a single wine here I couldn’t happily drink.

The wines in each group are listed in alphabetical order, along with their suggested retail prices.

Group 1

Deutz, 1999, Cuvée William Deutz, $175. “A star,” Ed said; “one of my favorites.”

Gosset, Celebris 1998, $150-$160. Ed pronounced this one young and needing time, but “Celebris is always good.”

Alfred Gratien, Cuvée Paradis nv; $130. A rare non-vintage wine at this level: Krug is another major house to do similarly – but Krug of course does not make an ordinary Champagne (if there is any such thing).

Henriot, Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1995; $140-$150. This wine was Ed’s favorite of the day: he called it, simply, “outstanding.”

Group 2

Ayala, La Perle d’Ayala Nature 2002; $145-$150. This wine steadily opened in the glass, getting better and better with breathing. “Light and elegant,” Ed called it.

Mumm, Cuvée René Lalou; $160-$175. “Drinking perfectly now” was Ed’s judgment.

Pol Roger, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999; $190-200. Normally one of my very favorite Champagnes, this day it tasted closed: needs time.

Roederer, Cristal, 2004; $190-$200. Ed: “The magic of Cristal comes out with age; this one needs 15 years.”

Group 3

Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millénaires 1995; $179-$190.

Laurent-Perrier, Grand Siecle NV; $110-$120.

Paillard, N.P.U. 1995; $240

Perrier-Jouët, Fleur de Champagne 2002; $150-$165.

Piper-Heidsieck, Rare 2002; $168-$188. Ed described 2002 as “a great vintage in Champagne.”

Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 2000; $130-$135.

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Many years ago, an astute critic described Ferrari spumante as the Rolls Royce of Italian sparkling wines. It still is. Crafted only from Pinot noir and Chardonnay, grown on very restricted soils, and given the full metodo classico cellar treatment, these wines are champagnes in all but name.

And that is as it should be – champagne should come only from Champagne, in France: It’s a regional name, not a wine type, whatever common usage makes of it. Besides that, it really makes no difference what you call Ferrari – spumante, sparkling wine, Italian sparkler – because whatever you call it, it’s excellent.

Marcello Lunelli

Ferrari is no johnny-come-lately Champagne wannabe. At a recent tasting in New York, lead winemaker Marcello Lunelli, a member of the family that has owned Ferrari for three generations, explained how over a century ago founder Giulio Ferrari went to France and undertook a careful investigation of the whole Champagne production process. Knowing the long-established Italian fondness for sparkling wines – all of them to that point made by what has come to be called the charmat method – he reasoned there would be a substantial place for a more painstakingly made, higher-quality product. He also thought that the high slopes and hillsides near Trento, with their sparse and strongly mineral-laced soils, would be an ideal place to plant the Pinot noir and Chardonnay necessary to make the kind of wine he envisioned. He was right on target with both ideas. They resulted, 90 years later, in Italy’s first DOC for sparkling wines, Metodo Classico Trento. Ferrari still leads the production of this category, both in volume and in quality.

Lunelli also pointed out one major unforeseen advantage of Ferrari’s choice of location for his vineyards – protection from global warming. The Trento area has endured a temperature increase of 1° Celsius over the past 10 years. Higher temperatures in wine zones translate into higher sugar levels and riper grapes, which in turn produce higher alcohol levels and fatter, less acid wines – not what you want in a sparkling wine. As Lunelli put it, “For a winemaker, 1° means planting grapes 150 meters higher, and our hillsides will allow that.” (That last remark is a small dig at Champagne producers, who by and large do not have the same altitudes available to them.)

Lunelli guided a group of wine journalists through a five-bottle vertical tasting of Ferrari’s top-tier wine, Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore. The firm produces this wine only in the best vintages, of which there have been 19 to date – and every single one of them has won the prestigious Tre Bicchieri rating from Gambero Rosso. I wouldn’t claim for a moment that Gambero Rosso is infallible, but no matter how you regard it, that amounts to an impressive accomplishment and a striking testimony to the quality of this wine.

The Giulio Ferrari is a single-vineyard, 100% Chardonnay wine: in other words, a blanc de blancs (Ferrari uses its Pinot noir in its rosé). That category among Champagnes usually offers a somewhat lighter-bodied, aperitif-style sparkler. Not so in Italy: All five wines on show displayed medium to full bodies, with ample substance to serve splendidly as dinner wines rather than cocktail quaffs. These were the vintages shown:

2001: This led off with a lovely, deep, wheaty nose. It was very rich on the palate, suggesting pears and apples in addition to that wheat. Fine lively acidity and a very long finish completed the package. Unmistakably an Italian wine – something about the quality of the acidity is the giveaway – from an excellent vintage.

2000: I confess to having been dubious about this wine from the outset, because 2000 was such a hot year and troublesome vintage all over Italy. Initially the wine was very attractive, a sort of fleshier version of the 2001, with a slight but very pretty almond taste in the finish – quite enjoyable. But an unpleasant sulfur scent came up as the wine opened – “burnt match,” as the person seated to my left accurately described it. This was the one in-any-way flawed wine of the group.

1997: The almond presence became even more pronounced in this excellent vintage. The wine was very fresh and balanced, with a slight peach flavor developing alongside the almond in its finish. Lunelli said he thinks this wine “needs ten years yet.”

1995: All peach leather and almonds, especially in the finish, this wine was still quite live and very, very pleasing, tied with the next one for the best wine of the day. A long growing season developed the depth of this wine. The harvest was a full three weeks later than normal, Lunelli said.

1986: To my surprise, this 25-year-old was even more live than the 1995. Its fruit flavors are just starting to mature, moving more into the fruit leather range than fresh fruit. The very long-lasting finish had the richness of fresh toast slathered with butter. Very Chardonnay, very Champagne-like.

This would have been an impressive showing for any sparkling wine, but when you remember that these wines are all 100% Chardonnay, it raises the accomplishment even higher. This isn’t bubbly for pouring on the heads of the winning team: This is a superb wine to grace your most ambitious holiday dinner.

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Campania Felix

Add one more name to the growing roster of distinguished wineries in southern Italy: Donnachiara. This family-owned enterprise vinifies all the classic grape varieties of Campania – the whites Falanghina, Fiano, and Greco, and the noble red Aglianico.

A Donna Chiara Aglianico Vineyard

I’ve been singing praises of those varieties for 30 years now, and nothing makes me happier than to see a new winery enter the scene with a line of elegant and totally characteristic wines. This raises the bar for everyone, producers and consumers alike, and that can only be good.

Unfortunately, it is still news to too much of the wine public that those four varieties are among the finest in Italy. Aglianico in particular I firmly believe to have the potential to become the noblest red variety in the whole vine-laden peninsula. When the time comes that producers and consumers accord Aglianico the respect that the Piedmontese now give Nebbiolo and the Burgundians have long granted Pinot noir, I’m persuaded this ancient southern variety will give them both a run for the money. The grape yields a wine capable of extraordinary depth, complexity, and longevity, as Mastroberardino’s fabled 1968 Taurasi Riserva has been showing for four decades now.

Ilaria Petitto is the fifth and newest generation of the family behind Donnachiara and the latest in a long line of dedicated and capable women to head the enterprise. They have been grape growers for five generations, making wine for their own consumption. It was the drive of Ilaria’s mother – the Donna Chiara for whom the winery is named – to fulfill the dream of her mother and grandmother (Marchesa Donna Chiara Mazzarelli Petitto) to produce pure and elegant versions of Campania’s most characteristic indigenous varieties. The family had for some time been accumulating vineyards in Irpinia’s prized zones – Taurasi for Aglianico, Tufo for Greco, and so on. 2005 saw the birth of the commercial winery.

Irpinia isn’t a familiar name to most American consumers, but it deserves to be as famous as Napa, or – dare it be said? – the Côte d’Or. Its hills and valleys lie about 30 kilometers (more by twisting local roads) east of Naples. Its high, cool slopes and rich volcanic soils support a vigorous agriculture – Irpinia is famous for its hazelnuts, among other crops – and its microclimates provide the prolonged growing season that Aglianico in particular demands. That fecundity was one of the main reasons the ancient Romans called the whole region Campania felix — Campania the blessed. Irpinia is the home, the center, for southern Italy’s most prestigious DOCG wines, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi. In short, Irpinia is a formidable wine zone, with a potential for quality on a par with more famous zones in Italy and the world – so the Petitto family’s choice of locations for their vineyards was canny in the extreme.

I had the opportunity to taste the whole line of Donnachiara wines last week in Ilaria’s company. We started with a seemingly modern take on an old grape: a Falanghina spumante. Dry and refreshing, with nice Falanghina minerality and acidity, this charmat-method sparkler might well hearken back to a very old tradition. In the south, they used to make sparkling wines out of all sorts of grapes, even the austere Aglianico, so the only real surprise about this wine is how enjoyable it is.

Donnachiara’s still Falanghina showed equally well, with even more of the characteristic minerality and acidity in evidence. It even displayed a touch of elegance. While that is not a common trait in Falanghina, which usually relies on a sort of straightforward friendliness and liveliness, I soon found out that elegance is a hallmark of all the Donnachiara wines – most markedly the whites, but also the Aglianico-based wines as well.

The 2010 Fiano di Avellino (all the whites were of the 2010 vintage) seemed the stand-out white wine to me. Medium-bodied and exquisitely balanced, with classic Fiano fruit – a distinct taste of almonds and hazelnuts in the long finish – and a pronounced elegance, already showing signs of depth and complexity, this is a wine that is impossible to fault. Given the Fiano grape’s well-known (at least it is well-known in Campania) ability to age, it would be a good idea to cellar some bottles of it for 5 to 10 years – if you can keep your hands off it. At a suggested retail price (SRP) of around $18, that may be difficult.

I liked the Greco di Tufo too: It showed perfectly the wonderful, slightly oily, almost olive-y, distinctly earthy flavors of its variety and zone. More robust than the Fiano, and not its match in elegance, Greco to my mind and palate makes the perfect wine for shellfish and grilled finfish, while I’d rather keep the Fiano for fowl and veal and even pork – but that’s very subjective: Other folks may well prefer the match the other way around. For the record, I drank both with a salmon carpaccio garnished with flying fish roe, and both were delightful. SRP for the Greco is also around $18, Falanghina around $16.

The red wines formed a handsome suite of increasing refinement: Campania Aglianico IGT ($18), Irpinia Aglianico DOC ($20), and Taurasi DOCG ($35). The IGT wine sees no wood at all, the DOC 4-6 months in barriques, and the DOCG 24 months – but only a small fraction of the barriques are new, so the wines show no striking oak flavors. Instead, they all reveal increasingly vivid characteristics of Aglianico, ranging from a deep, black fruit flavor that resembles intense sour cherry, to a compound of mineral-and-earth-and-mushroom that runs through them all like the bass support in a Charles Mingus number. Above all, they strike the palate as elegant – poised, complex, big enough to be assertive but polished enough to be inviting. These are very welcoming – and very welcome – wines.

Donnachiara wines are imported by a division of Charmer Imports.

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1: A Green Thought in a Green Shade

Vinho Verde doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s one of those wines that nobody thinks of until confronted with it as The Only Possible Choice – typically on a hot summer day, off your home turf – when you desperately need something cooling. Ta-da!  Vinho Verde to the rescue. Light-bodied, low in alcohol, slightly sparkling, crisp, clean, and refreshing: It’s perfect as a cooler in the summer or an aperitif all year long. It likes party nibbles and it loves seafood. So what’s not to like?

At the huge annual tasting of Portuguese wines, held this year in the airy promenade of Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theatre, I tasted several Vinho Verdes in a couple of different styles – all quite enjoyable.

The Vinho Verde zone is Portugal’s largest, and there are some significant variations in the wines produced there, even though they all share the same name. The major distinction is between the light-bodied, low-alcohol style most of us are familiar with, and a slightly bigger, slightly more imposing dinner-wine style. The latter is usually vinified from the Alvarinho grape, while the former comes from the Loureira and Trajadura varieties. Many growers are also now producing Vinho Verde from 100% Loureira.

Among the most enjoyable aperitif-style Vinho Verdes I tasted, I would give top ratings to Alianca’s 2010, Aveleda’s Fonte 2010 and Casal Garcia, and Quinta di Santa Maria’s Quinta do Tamariz 2010. All are great values – as indeed are many Portuguese white wines. Among the fuller-bodied Vinho Verdes and their kin, I especially liked Aveleda’s Quinta da Aveleda 2010 and its Alvarinho 2010, as well as Quinta de Santa Maria’s Alvarinho 2009.









2: Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?

I had lunch recently with a Wine Media Guild colleague, Jonathan Levine, and a few of his friends who regularly get together to enjoy good wines. Nice people and a pleasant, low-key occasion, with some very nice bottles. There were two Vallana Spannas, a 2007 and a 1964. Bringing the 64 was a very generous gesture on the part of one of the regulars, since this was his very last bottle of that great vintage. It gave everyone a chance to taste why those of us who remember Vallana are so excited by the winery’s return to the US market.

I’ve written about Vallana before, and the young Spanna we drank on this occasion justified every word of praise I gave it. For those who didn’t believe it the first time, let me repeat that at a retail price of about $13, this wine is a steal!  The sommelier at Trattoria del Arte (the site of the lunch) joined us for a taste and pronounced it as good as wines three times the price. Everyone at the table agreed. The 1964 showed what this wine might become when it grows up: lovely mature fruit, beautiful structure, gentle tannins, and an overall elegance. And with all that, the wine was still fresh-tasting: there was nothing tired or over-the-hill about it.

By contrast, a 2005 Travaglini Gattinara tasted too young and undeveloped. It just wasn’t fully together yet, even though it was eminently drinkable and already showed Gattinara’s characteristic well-bred elegance. In fact, the Spannas and the Gattinara together put on a first-class show of just how much elegance sub-Alpine Nebbiolo is capable of. Really, these wines of the northern Piedmont are an under-appreciated resource, and not just for Nebbiolo devotees.

I brought to the table a 1991 Borgogno Barbaresco. ’91 wasn’t a great year, and certainly has been overshadowed by the majestic 1990s, but Borgogno is one of the great traditional makers of Barolo and Barbaresco, and the Boschis siblings (until the quite recent sale the hereditary owners of Borgogno) knew how to blend the harvest of different parts of the zone to produce a good wine even in a merely average vintage. This one showed that quite clearly: not big, but beautifully balanced and – after some time in the glasses (I should have decanted it) – very velvety. Yet one more demonstration that Nebbiolo is more often graceful than muscular.


3: Sleep Well, America

This has nothing to do with wine, but it is a true story and I feel compelled to share it.

As I was walking south on Sixth Avenue a few days ago, I encountered an archetypically American group trooping toward me across Eleventh Street. They all looked somewhat alike, a touch walk-weary, fair-haired and fair-fleshed (a little too much of that all around), eyes front or on guidebooks, striding gamely northward, and noticing nothing of the interesting (not to say bizarre) urban juxtapositions they were marching through – the Jefferson Market Library, French Roast Restaurant and Cafe; The Second Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue; Little Igor and Johnnie Be Good Hair Stylists and Barber Shop; P.S. 41; Patchin Place (former home to Djuna Barnes and e. e. cummings); Famous Ray’s Pizza.

As I passed the group, the woman at their center looked up from her map and smiled encouragement at them:  “Just a few more blocks now and we’ll be in Soho.”


(For those unfamiliar with the local geography, Soho lies a good half-mile south of 11th Street.)

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I just spent almost two weeks in balmy Belize, which is why this post is a little later than it should be. Picture this: Diane and I are deep in the tropical rain forest, getting as far from the wintry tundra of New York as we can. We’re staying in what Italians would describe as a rustico elegante lodge, Chan Chich, built into the plaza of an unexcavated Mayan temple complex in the middle of almost 300,000 acres of unspoiled jungle.

Cabana and unexcavated temple mound at Chan Chich

We’ve been out birding all day – and what birds! Red-lored parrots and Ornate hawk-eagles, Tody motmots and Violet-crowned hummingbirds – in the steamy heat; still dripping sweat, we’ve taken refuge in Chan Chich’s cool, comfortable bar, scanning the drinks list for something that will lower our body temperature and that wouldn’t, in New York, be served with a tiny umbrella. The wine list is a sea of Chilean and Argentinian Cabernets and Malbecs – definitely not the drinks for the tropics – and the prospects don’t look bright, when what to our wondering eyes should appear but a truly rare bird, a solitary Prosecco. Not from a producer we’ve ever heard of, but a recent vintage, and definitely the wine for the moment.

A few of those moments later – well, probably more than that: everyone moves at island tempo in the heat – a well-iced bottle appears, two frothy glasses are poured, two eager hands lift them, two eager mouths taste, and four lips almost simultaneously exhale a satisfied “Ahhh.” That Prosecco was good – Say “gooood,” the way the Latino soccer broadcasters say “gooooal!” Light, mildly citrusy, just a touch mineral, absolutely cleansing to the palate, and totally, totally refreshing. It was simply, uncomplicatedly enjoyable in a way that, in those circumstances, not even Champagne could be: The perfect wine in that place and time.

Now I’m not saying that you have to hie yourself to the rain forest to enjoy Prosecco. One of that wine’s chief charms is that you enjoy it any time, any place: It defines informality. Yes, it is still real wine, and sufficiently complicated that you can subject it to a thorough organoleptic analysis, if you’re so minded. But why would you be?  If ever a wine invited to immediate enjoyment – analysis later, if at all – it’s Prosecco.

Like all seemingly casual things, that ease and informality results from hard work and great care. Italian winemakers at their best never forget that the highest art is to hide art, to make it all look and taste easy, as if it were inevitable. Prosecco is a perfect example of that.

Glera (a.k.a. Prosecco) grapes

The best Proseccos come from a very small zone in north-eastern Italy with a jaw-breaking name: Valdobbiadene. (val-do-BYA-de-nay.) It’s a DOCG, indicating the nation’s highest wine classification. As so often in the great treasure house of wine varieties that is Italy, Prosecco’s grapes are specialized and local: a minimum of 85% of Glera (a grape that until recently was called Prosecco: more about this below) and a maximum 15% of a handful or other regional specialties – Verdiso, Bianchetta, Perrera or, for the Spumante, Pinot or Chardonnay. As “for the Spumante” implies, Prosecco can be made as a still wine, but the vast majority of it, some 90%, is vinified as a dry or nearly dry Spumante. A little reminder: Don’t confuse that with Asti Spumante, a bubbly wine vinified from Moscato in a completely different zone, and always sweet. Spumante simply means sparkling; it says nothing about dryness or sweetness, much less about the grapes the wine is made from.

Because until recently the grape variety was called Prosecco, you can get wines labeled Prosecco from several other places than Valdobbiadene – the Veneto for instance. There’s nothing wrong with them – many are quite nice, in fact – but the best sparkling Proseccos originate in Valdobbiadene. Indeed, within that small island of an appellation there is an even smaller islet that is regarded as the crème de la crème of the zone: Cartizze.

Pyramid of quality for Prosecco

Thoughout the whole zone, the Glera grapes can be cultivated between 50 and 500 meters above sea level, and only on south-facing hillsides, often with severe slopes that mandate hand-cultivation and harvest. Yield and vinification are tightly controlled, and the effervescence is produced not by the individual-bottle Champagne method but by a modernized version of the Charmat method. The larger volumes permitted by that procedure contribute significantly to keeping Prosecco’s prices substantially below Champagne’s.

Aside from the fact that they’re both sparkling wines, comparing Champagne and Prosecco is a case of apples vs. oranges. They are two completely different entities. Champagne, for all its festive associations, is often austere, its fruit secondary to its minerality and structure. I’ve never yet tasted an austere Prosecco, nor do I ever hope to: It tends to softness, a gentle fruit-forwardness, seductive rather than confrontational, with some minerality after, and plenty of structure if you look for it. But Prosecco doesn’t demand you look for anything, just that you enjoy what’s in your mouth. If ever a wine says “Like me!” it’s Prosecco.

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