Carmignano: Pedigreed and Pioneering

February 27, 2017

Carmignano is probably the least known of the great, traditional Tuscan appellations. Its territory was originally delineated in 1716 by the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici. The Carmignano DOCG zone still occupies that same territory, about 16 kilometers northwest of Florence, and some of its wine-making estates – notably Capezzana – originated as Medici villas. In the case of Capezzana, now the property of the Contini Buonacossi family, the present villa was originally a Medici hunting lodge. This was and is a small zone: All of Carmignano contains just 110 hectares of vineyards. There are some individual Bordeaux estates that are larger than that.

qs-tuscany-map-2011-final

.
Capezzana unquestionably leads the Carmignano pack in terms of quality and fidelity to tradition, though the local winemaking tradition may strike many wine fanciers as amazingly modern. In the course of the 18th century, it became customary in the Carmignano zone to blend Cabernet sauvignon into the base Sangiovese, a practice that sharply distinguished the zone’s wines from the Chianti-style wines of the rest of Tuscany. History buffs will remember that a Medici – Caterina – had become Queen of France (she is popularly supposed to have taught the French how to cook peas and eat with forks), so the introduction of French varieties into Medici properties was certainly no accident.

the-capezzana-villa

.
However the French grapes got there, Carmignano was producing SuperTuscans about 200 years before they became fashionable, and the zone continued doing so, virtually unnoticed by Tuscans and foreign consumers alike, all through the SuperTuscan fad. That was a real shame, because all those Chianti-zone winemakers who destroyed vintage after vintage of good Sangiovese by clumsily dosing it with Cabernet could have learned how to handle Cabernet well by simply consulting the producers of Carmignano, who had so many years of experience with it. I love Sangiovese, and it hurt me deeply to see so much of it transformed into tannic monsters and rendered undrinkable for so many years. The irony of there being a close-to-home example of how to do it right seems even now not to have dawned on many Tuscan producers.

Present DOCG regulations for Carmignano mandate minimally 50% Sangiovese to be blended with maximally 10-20% Cabernet sauvignon or Cabernet franc, maximally 20% Canaiolo nero, maximally 5% Mammolo and Colorino, and maximally 10% Trebbiano and Malvasia. Another irony: One of the most pioneering appellations in Tuscany also contains one of the region’s most traditional blends – Sangiovese, plus the indigenous varieties Canaiolo, Mammolo, Colorino, and even some white grapes, just as in the old, old Chianti formula, all joining hands with Cabernet sauvignon and/or Cabernet franc.

I love the idea, and I love its results. At its best – and it is often at its best from Capezzana – that blend makes a wine savory and harmonious, companionable with all sorts of meals, enjoyable young villa-capezzanaand still capable of great and graceful aging. I recently opened a bottle of Villa Capezzana 2000. I didn’t decant it, though I should have – not because it needed aeration but because of the heavy sediment it threw. When I pulled the cork, a great rush of plum and blackberry greeted me and persisted all through the meal. On the palate, the wine was rich with ripe fruit – black fruits – and soft, elegant tannins, with an almost endless finish. A lovely wine, especially in what was a hot vintage, in many parts of Tuscany yielding unbalanced wines tasting of over-ripe fruit. They do things right at Capezzana.

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

trebicchieri-2017

So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

.

red-wine

 

From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

.

I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

white-wines

.
From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

.

There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

Boca and His Brothers

February 6, 2017

Boca is a sub-Alpine Nebbiolo wine from the village of that name in Italy’s northern Piedmont. His “brothers” (with apologies to Luchino Visconti) are the wines of the villages of Bramaterra, Carema, and Lessona to the southwest, and Fara, Gattinara, Ghemme, and Sizzano to the south and east.

boca-map

.
These are lovely wines of elegance and grace, wonderful to drink young and even better to savor at their maturity. Even among Nebbiolo fans, they are not well known, partially because their production zones are small, their producers few, and their distribution in these United States spotty – and all that results from the simple fact that, as a wine-producing zone, the northern Piedmont never really recovered from the devastations of the late arrival of phylloxera and two subsequent world wars. Far, far fewer hectares are now planted to vines than there were before 1910, which was when phylloxera hit.

1985-bocaI start this post with Boca because I’ve recently enjoyed a few lovely ones, most especially a 1985 Campo delle Piane from the Le Piane estate, a wine of Burgundian elegance and polish. This wasn’t a wine I’d carefully laid away and forgotten about for a few decades (I wish I had, and more of it!). Rather, I bought this bottle recently, and at a price that was a bargain for a 30-year-old anything, much less a Nebbiolo blend (a very small amount of Vespolina and maybe some Croatina) from a zone once of the highest repute.

In the 19th century, Spanna – the northern Piedmontese name for Nebbiolo – was more highly regarded than Barolo, and particularly prized for its aging ability. Old winos here in New York will probably remember the great aged Spannas from Vallana that we used to be able to get at wonderful prices back in the 70s. Nowadays, older vintages of the Campo delle Piane Boca from the 90s and even 80s are appearing in dribs and drabs on the local market. My advice is simple: If you see them, grab them.

christoph-kuenzli

Christoph Kuenzli

The Boca appellation is undergoing a real revival, of which it is fair to say Le Piane is the protagonist. Le Piane is in itself a fascinating story. A small estate of about 14 hectares – roughly 35 acres – Le Piane is owned and operated in a thoroughly hands-on manner by Christoph Kuenzli, a Swiss who almost 30 years ago succumbed to the charms of the area and befriended Antonio Cerri, one of the last winemakers in what was then an appellation on the verge of disappearing.

The already 80-year-old Cerri turned the operation of his vineyards and cellar over to Kuenzli and his enologist friend Alexander Trolf, and on Cerri’s death a few years later Kuenzli acquired the vineyards, cellar, and stock. These became the core of what is today Le Piane, an estate generally regarded by Italian cognoscenti as one of the best in the Alta Piemonte. The older vintages occasionally released by Kuenzli are drawn from Cerri’s cellars and are distinguished by being labeled Campo delle Piane, which was the name of Cerri’s vineyards. Kuenzli’s current enterprise and its releases are called Le Piane in Cerri’s honor.

vallana-bocaThere still aren’t a lot of Boca producers, and not many of those few find their way to these shores. One of the best is Vallana, which I mentioned earlier in connection with Spanna, an estate that makes a very elegant and age-worthy Boca. Now operated by Francis and Marina Fogarty, Vallana originally made its mark here in the days of their grandfather, Bernardo Vallana, whose Spannas became the stuff of legend.

Grandfather, his son, and then his son-in-law all died prematurely, leaving Bernardo’s daughter Giuseppina to raise three children and manage the vineyards, cellar, and wine business. That she managed to discharge all six responsibilities well is a great tribute to an intelligent and resourceful woman.

three-fogartys

Giuseppina, Marina, and Francis Fogarty

In her children’s hands, Vallana has returned to the American market and is currently producing wines that grandfather Bernardo would be proud of. And – since none of the sub-Alpine wines has the PR clout of Barolo or Barbaresco – they are generally available at very fair prices for their very high quality.

A future post will speak of Gattinara and Carema.

Benvenuto, 2012 Brunello

January 26, 2017

I was unable to go to Montalcino this year for Benvenuto Brunello, the annual event showcasing Brunello’s new releases – this time around, the 2012 vintage. But I was lucky enough to have at least a truncated version of the event come to me: Approximately 50 producers (out of about 225) brought their wines to New York last week for a very illuminating presentation.
.

signage

.
The major part of the event consisted of stand-up tastings at tables set up on the broad ground floor of Gotham Hall, plus two upstairs seminar-style presentations – the earlier one of older Brunello vintages and the later a presentation of the 2012 vintage as exemplified by wineries from differing parts of the zone. I was very curious about that aspect of the vintage, because the Brunello zone, though relatively compact (a rough square bounded by three rivers) possesses highly diverse soils and at least two distinct climate zones, sharply separated by the ridge that divides the square into northwestern and southeastern triangles.

So I booked myself into the second seminar and arrived well in advance of it so I could do some serious tasting at the tables before the event got crowded and turned into a rugby scrum, which it almost always does.
.

the-scrum

.
I’m getting a little old for those sorts of contact sports, and I find it difficult enough to hold a wine in one hand and take notes with the other while standing up and trying to get access to the spit bucket (why does someone always plant him/herself right in front of the spit bucket?) and ask the attending producer some intelligent (I hope) questions about the vintage.

I tasted what I could – about 10 wines – before heading upstairs to the seminar. Preliminary conclusion: a good vintage, but probably not a great one, though with a long-aging wine like Brunello, that has got to be a very provisional judgment. The Brunello consorzio has awarded 2012 five stars (out of five), but the consorzio is always – let us say, optimistic – about the caliber of its vintages.

Certainly, one characteristic that leaped out at me from all the wines I had thus far tasted: 2012 was a very high-acid vintage. That has two consequences: These Brunellos would really need food to show their best, and they might live forever, since acidity is what keeps a wine – especially a Sangiovese wine – alive. Acidity is the element that makes a wine food-friendly and structures it for long life.

Thus provisionally enlightened, I made my way to the seminar, which featured examples of 2012 Brunello from Castelgiocondo, Collosorbo, La Magia, Le Macioche, Loacker Corte Pavone, Pian delle Querci, and Talenti, plus one 2011 Brunello Riserva Poggio alle Mura from Banfi. The areas represented included the center-west of the Brunello zone (Castelgiocondo), the extreme north of the zone (Pian delle Querci), the center-east (Le Macioche), and several spots in the south, ranging from near Castelnuovo dell’Abate (Collosorbo) westward past Sant’Angelo in Colle (Talenti) and southward toward Sant’Angelo Scalo (Banfi). Just for a reference point for Brunello buffs, the fabled Biondi Santi is located fairly centrally, just a short distance southeast of Montalcino.
.

brunello-map

.
2012 seems to have been an agronomist’s and winemaker’s nightmare for most of the growing season. The Brunello zone, south of Siena, is normally drier and hotter than the Chianti Classico zone north of Siena. I can vouch from personal experience that hot in Montalcino can be really torrid. The zone depends on water reserves built up in the soil by winter snows, and the winter of 2011-12 didn’t provide many of those. There was some rain while the vines were flowering, which wound up reducing the crop by about a third of average size. Then it got dry again, with a very hot July and August. In late August, very good weather arrived and saved the season, so after a great deal of anxiety, the growers wound up pretty happy with the grapes they picked.

Though the selection of wines at this seminar was intended to show some of the differences of Brunello’s several soils and microclimates, that wasn’t the thing that struck me most forcefully about the tasting. There was a pretty good level of quality in all the wines, with a lot of fruit, all marked by very high acidity – but after that, what stood out for me was the extraordinary diversity of styles. A few wines were very traditional and tasted like classic Brunello, but most were all over the place, with differing degrees of international inflection, mostly shown by the use of new barriques, or with a market-appeal emphasis on big, up-front fruit and heavy extraction.
.

seminar-1a

.
Each of these styles will have its fans, of course, but my regular readers can guess where my heart is: I loved the classic Brunellos. Talenti for me was the stand-out wine of the seminar, followed by Pian delle Querci. In the broader tasting, I was struck by Col d’Orcia – always elegant – and by Banfi’s basic 2012 and especially its Poggio alle Mura 2012. It’s pleasantly ironic that Banfi, once seen as the disruptive modernist in the zone, now seems a pillar of traditional Brunello.

Probably in more climatically ideal vintages, like 2010, soils and microclimates loom larger in Brunello, but in vintages like 2012, where active field and cellar work seemed absolutely necessary, the agronomists’ and winemakers’ choices seem to create the greatest distinctions among the wines. What that means is that buyers have to taste at least a few Brunellos to find the style they like: Critics’ judgments and generalizations – and I include mine – will be no help.

Celebrating Sauternes

January 16, 2017

Far more people know something of Sauternes than have actually drunk it, I fear. Sauternes seems to be one of those wines that resonate in wine lore but are consumed less and less with every passing year. I have to plead guilty to my part in that neglect: I have unconscionably ignored Sauternes for far too long.

bottle-shotNot that that was ever a deliberate plan, mind you: I just sort of fell out of the Sauternes habit. Just what a pity that is I realized over the Christmas holidays when I stumbled on a bottle of Chateau Rieussec 1989 that I had completely forgotten I had. The bottle was only slightly ulled and the cork was sound. The wine had darkened to a deep reddish amber, and as soon as I pulled the cork a rich, sensuous aroma jumped right out at me. That wine was glorious, and it immediately reminded me why Sauternes was once so celebrated. Diane and I drank it with a very fine mousseline of foie gras, and the combination of flavors was perfect, the lush sweetness of the duck livers merging with the smoky/honey flavor of the Sauternes, and both held in lively tension by the wine’s vibrant acidity, which ensured that neither tasted excessive or cloying. On the face of it, an unlikely combination, but the genius who discovered it deserves a monument, as I’m sure Brillat-Savarin would agree.

glass-of-rieussecChateau Rieussec has long been my favorite Sauternes château because it so often achieves that crucial balance of sweetness and acidity – and is so much less expensive than the fabled Chateau d’Yquem. No Sauternes is an everyday wine, though I have read that in the 19th century it was often consumed right through dinner. Tastes obviously ran more pronouncedly to sweetness in those days: Now, it would have to be a very carefully designed dinner that could sustain Sauternes all the way through. These days, when Sauternes appears at all, it usually arrives with or as dessert, with occasional roles alongside foie gras, which as you can tell, I heartily endorse, or with Rocquefort, a combination still honored in France but to my palate problematic.

Wondering about Sauternes and other cheeses, and still having some of that lovely bottle, I tried a glass of it with my favorite simple dessert: a good Bosc pear and a scoop of Gorgonzola cremificato. The combination was wonderful. The harmony of the fruit and the cheese was elaborated and heightened by the complexity of the wine.

So emboldened, another day I tried the Rieussec alongside a first-course cheese tart. Once again, I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the combination worked. The tart and the Sauternes seemed to feed off each other, accentuating the savoriness of the cheese and the sapidity of the wine, to the extent that its sweetness was scarcely noticeable. Who knew? A whole new flavor world is opening for me.

wine-cheese-a

.
Back to Chateaux Rieussec, however. This estate began life as an abbey of Carmelite monks. At the Revolution, the abbey was confiscated and sold at auction, since which time it has passed through the hands of numerous owners. Now it forms an important part of the Domaines de Lafite Rothschild. Classified a premier cru in 1855, Rieussec has always maintained its reputation. Its vineyards and cellar have been thoroughly renovated under the Rothschilds. It now tallies about 95 hectares, twice its original size, and is densely planted to Semillion (almost 90% of the vines), Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle. On the east, Rieussec abuts Chateau d’Yquem and shares a very similar terroir.
.

vineyard

.
The estate produces a second Sauternes, Les Carmes de Rieussec, and a dry white wine, R de Rieussec. I don’t find either of these very exciting, but Chateau Rieussec will always command respect as a great, complex wine. By itself, it’s lovely. With the right food, it can be memorable. I’m going to have to re-cultivate my Sauternes habit.

Aging Gracefully: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux

January 5, 2017

Over the holidays, what with Christmas and New Year dinners, both Days and Eves, plus interstitial (I love the chance to use that word) gatherings with family and old friends, we tend to pour a fair amount of mature wine at casa Maresca. This year’s sacrificial lambs included a 10-year-old Barolo, a 15-year-old Barbaresco, and (sob!) a 50-year-old Bordeaux. These wines of course gave me great pleasure in the moment but also intense pangs afterward, as I realized that none of those wonderful bottles was replaceable, much less replicable. But that’s what family, friends, and holidays – and wines! – are for: celebration of all those fleeting moments.

Of course I just exaggerated a bit: Some of the wines I’m celebrating today are replaceable, at least if you move fast.
.

baroloLet me start with the infant of the group: a 2006 Barolo Riserva Vignarionda from Oddero. I regard a 10-year-old as a young Barolo, so I decanted this and let it breathe for about 2 hours before pouring. At that point, it showed a rich, deep, earthy nose dominated by black fruits and tobacco. On the palate it tasted of those two components, with some still-emerging nutty and mineral flavors sliding in and out. If I had to be precise, I’d say black plums and black cherry, with clay notes, funghi porcini, and walnuts. It felt round and soft in the mouth with an abundance of fine but still firm tannins, and it finished very long. With food, and especially with cheese, the tannins softened and the flavors deepened.

This is an excellent Barolo, ready to drink but still far from its mature peak – and the best news is that it’s a new release. Oddero has adopted a policy of, in very good vintages, holding back some wines for release later, when they are more ready to drink and show more of what Barolo is all about. I think this is an excellent way for wine lovers new to Barolo to get a good sense of why dotty old winos like me make such a fuss about Barolo. This particular example is from a very good year and an excellent cru, so it has the structure and the components to go another 20 years, if you have the patience to wait for it. If not, just enjoy it now.

I hope this strategy of releasing some wine when it’s more mature catches on in Piedmont: I know that Massolino, a very fine winery, tried it a few years ago, and I hope it continues the practice. In these days when not every wine lover has the space or the budget for a well-stocked cellar, it’s a real service to the consumer.
.

barbarescoTasting that ’06 made me very curious about how the 2001s are progressing. 2001 remains my favorite Piedmont vintage of this new century, and I thought it was time I should look in and see how the kids were doing. So I dug out a 2001 Barbaresco Bernadot from Ceretto, a long-time favorite producer of the whole range of Alba wines. This is a wine from a fine cru in a very great year, which I fully expected to have a substantial structure and great depth, and at 15 years old might yet be very closed, so I decanted it and gave it 2 hours of aeration. As it turned out, it probably could have taken more.

This was a taut wine, showing elegance over power, with great depth and complexity, and a pure pleasure in the mouth. The predominant flavors were black cherry and roasted walnut, but what struck me most was its beautiful balance, composure, and suavity – there really is no other word. And enjoyable as it was, it’s probably 15 years yet from its peak. So the kids are doing OK: I only hope I can live – and taste – long enough to enjoy them.

There may well be some 2001 Barolos and Barbarescos still available in shops here: If you see some, you should probably grab them.
.

gruaud-larose-66This brings me to the truly mature wine of this group, a wine in every sense worth waiting for, a 1966 Chateau Gruaud Larose. Most wine lovers know that Gruaud Larose is a classic Bordeaux estate, categorized as a second growth in the famous 1855 ranking. It consists of some 85 hectares in the commune of St. Julien, planted predominantly to Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, with small amounts of Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec – a very traditional Bordeaux blend. Back in 1966 – which, by the way, was a very great vintage in Bordeaux – Gruaud Larose was owned by the Cordier family, who had by that time been its proprietors for more than half a century.

Gruaud Larose has personal meaning for Diane and me, since it is closely linked to a very long-standing friendship that we were able this December to commemorate with one old friend and several new ones. So I won’t even try to describe the wine, save to say that it was amazingly live and fresh and classically St. Julien – that is to say, mid-weight and polished, with wonderful balance and restraint. The best St. Juliens always charm and seduce rather than overpower, and this 50-year-old did just that. I only wish I had some more of it! But as I said at the start, occasions like this are exactly what wines like this are for.

Happy New Year to all!

 

Vintage Champagnes: Not Your Average Pleasure

December 26, 2016

As most sparkling wine fanciers know, blends of several grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot meunier, Pinot noir) and the reserve wines of several harvests constitute the norm for Champagne, and the reputation of the great Champagne houses stands or falls on the consistency of style and quality they can achieve in their non-vintage product. Vintage Champagnes are an aberration, made only when the quality and distinctiveness of a particular harvest justifies separating it from the house’s norm.

So vintage Champagnes are produced only in the best years – and not all Champagne houses may agree on which those are, so this is the class of Champagnes where the greatest differences from house to house show themselves. For Champagne lovers, this class of wines presents some of Champagne’s greatest pleasures and greatest distinctions.

The New York Wine Press kicked off Christmas week this year with its annual Champagne luncheon, as it has done every year for the past 13. Wine doyenne Harriet Lembeck and Champagne guru Ed McCarthy organized a presentation of vintage Champagnes from 12 great houses, covering 5 different vintages. These were all excellent wines, some of them great, and all had their partisans. Here is the slate of wines and the menu they accompanied.

2016-menu

There isn’t a wine there that I would rate lower than very good; several were excellent, and a few I thought outstanding – but (my usual caveat) that’s my palate and my preferences on one particular day with one particular array of foods. Others thought differently, and every wine had its partisans. With that forewarning, here are my reactions to each wine.
.

Apéritif

dehoursDomaine Dehours Brut Rosé “Oeil de Perdrix” 2009
The day’s only rosé wine, and a handsome one: 55% Pinot meunier, 45% old-vine Chardonnay. Lovely color and perlage, distinctive floral/mineral notes on nose and palate. A great start to the day’s “work.”
.

First Flight

flight-1

.
Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2008
A nice, wheaty Champagne with good vintage character. Ed McCarthy thinks 2008, 2002, and 1996 constitute the greatest Champagne vintages of the past 25 years. Most 2008s have not yet reached the US.

Piper-Heidsieck Vintage Brut 2006
Not as big or distinctive as the preceding Moet – that’s the difference of the vintages – but still fine, in the classic mid-weight Heidsieck style

Henriot Millésimé 2006
Robust and fine, with a lot of character – very much the Henriot approach to Champagne.

Louis Roederer et Philippe Starck Brut Nature 2009
This is a lean and muscular wine, not as big as any of the preceding but polished, with a lot of power behind its smiling face. Roederer consistently performs well, and this special bottling is no exception.

.

Second Flight

flight-2

.
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut 2008

Light and bright on the palate, showing clearly the superior character of the ’08 vintage.

Veuve Cliquot 2006 La Grande Dame Brut
Like some other 2006s here, this one showed a little lean (especially in comparison to 2008), but very elegant and fresh.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006
A goodly number of luncheon attendees thought this the wine of the day. Taittinger’s Comtes is certainly one of the pinnacles of Champagne art, and I thought this example – elegant and big for an ’06 – was excellent.

André Jacquart Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
Another blanc de blancs, another ’06, and by the evidence of these two wines I’d have to say that 2006 must have been a great year for Chardonnay. This one was lovely: elegant, distinctive, and very long-finishing. Another great wine.

.

Third Flight

flight-3

.
Pol Roger Brut 2006

A great house, and always consistent in style and quality. This example was huge and classic, with typical initial austerity followed by a rush of flavors.

Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Brut 2006
Like Taitinger’s Comtes, Moet’s Dom represents a pinnacle of Champagne achievement. For the majority of tasters, this was the favorite wine of the day. I too thought it wonderful, though a trifle leaner than the Pol Roger – not a defect, but a difference.

Alfred Gratien Brut Millésimé 2000
By far the oldest wine of the day and proof of how well Champagne ages, if any was needed. A big, excellent wine, high-toned and elegant, from a great house not well enough known in the US.

Bollinger La Grande Année Brut 2005
Bollinger is always big – not huge, but solid – and always lovely. This one, the day’s sole example of the 2005 vintage, was rounded and mouth-filling, with the usual Bollinger richness – yet another exceptionally fine wine.

*šššš

And there you have it: quite an extraordinary collection of wonderful wines, any one of which could be the centerpiece of the most important celebration. My New Year’s wish for you all is that you have the chance, in 2017, to taste them all!

It’s the Champagne Time of Year

December 14, 2016

The Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon signals to me the true start of the holiday season. It always falls on the first Wednesday of December, and it always spotlights between 15 and 20 excellent true Champagnes; this year, all Blanc de blancs. Curated again this year by colleague and friend Ed McCarthy – author of Champagne for Dummies, among several other books – this event for me is the surest sign that whatever winter and the world may do to us, consolation and pleasure are still within reach.

edAs Ed reminded us, Blanc de blancs are the most popular kind of France’s festive bubblies in the United States, even though not all Champagne houses make one. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t: Not every house has enough Chardonnay to supply its basic cuvée and make a Blanc de blancs. Chardonnay is the backbone of all Champagnes (except Blanc de noirs, of course) and there just isn’t enough of it within the Champagne zone.

That stretch of chalky ridges and hills probably constitutes the northernmost outpost of Chardonnay, and Ed believes that, as a northern extension of the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, it produces some of the finest and sturdiest Chardonnay in the world – but not a lot of it. The best lots, from Grand Cru sites like Mesnil, are especially scarce and very expensive, so a good Blanc de blancs is costly from the get-go. Rising demand for Blanc de blancs Champagnes will not make them any cheaper in the future, because there just isn’t much, if any, land available for new plantings within the Champagne appellation. So enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it – which is never bad advice, about anything.

Here, in the order in which they were presented, is the slate of wines Ed and the Media Guild gathered for this occasion, along with their suggested retail prices and selected comments – mostly Ed’s, but a few of mine – about each.

.*

roths-to-mumm

Barons de Rothschild (magnum) NV ($207 for magnum, $99 for 750ml)  An ideal apéritif Champagne, Ed says: My palate agrees.

Collet NV ($55)  New to the New York market: a small house, a cooperative, and not very familiar to Ed or any of the attendees. The wine is made from the top 10%, all Grands Crus, of the co-op’s hectares.

Mumm de Cramant NV ($64)  Once upon a time, Mumm de Cramant was one of my favorite Champagnes, but I was disappointed in this bottle, which I thought distinctly short on charm. Ed liked it better than I did.

.*

henriot-to-gosset

Henriot NV ($55)  This house is one of my current favorites, and I like almost everything it makes. Today’s Blanc de blancs was no exception. Ed didn’t think it was showing well, but the bottle I tasted was absolutely fine.

Ruinart NV ($72)  Always fine, Ed says, even though this isn’t Dom Ruinart, the house’s top-of-the-line Blanc de blancs. I thought it was lovely.

Gosset Grand Blanc NV ($77)  A great Champagne house that people in the US don’t know enough about, Ed rightly says. For me, Gosset is right up with Henriot among my favorite Champagnes. I thought this Blanc de blancs was excellent.

*

ayala-to-dehours

Ayala 2008 ($85)  Another house much more esteemed in France than known in the US: our loss. This was the first vintage Champagne of the lineup. Ed says the three great Champagne vintages of the past 20 years are 1996, 2002, and 2008, and this is one of the best Ayalas he’s had in quite a while.

Philippe Gonet Bellemnita Grand Cru 2005 ($300)  A Blanc de blanc specialist located in Mesnil. This rare bottle, from a single site of old vines, was big and powerful but a little inelegant.

Dehours 2005 ($55)  A Marne Valley grower and passionate Champagne maker: This wine is from a 1.3 hectare site – that’s about three acres – so there isn’t a lot of it.

*

roderer-to-paillard

Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009 ($85)  Another great Champagne house that does everything well, even in California. Brut Nature is relatively new to its line. Big and forceful, it’s a huge wine for a Blanc de blancs.

A.R. Lenoble 2008 ($64)  A small producer in a grand cru village and a great vintage. Ed thinks it a great value.

Bruno Paillard 2006 ($90) Not in New York right now, but coming. Ed thinks it an outstanding wine from a fine house. Its proprietor considers 2006 a Chardonnay year par excellence.

*

jacquart-to-taittinger

André Jacquart Mesnil Brut Nature NV ($70)  An NV Champagne placed among the vintage Champagnes because of its heft. I found it indeed big and fine, classic Blanc de blancs.

Pol Roger 2008 ($110 to $125)  A famous and consistently fine Champagne house, showing a great vintage – “a stellar Champagne,” Ed says.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006, ($199)  Taittinger largely launched Blanc de blancs in modern times, and this bottle showed the house’s expertise. Consistently classic.

*

perrier-to-heidsieck

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 ($300 to $350)  There was some controversy about this wine, because one or two of the bottles were seriously off. Ed thought it excellent (he got one of the good bottles), though he thinks the 2002s are far from their peak. But oh, that price!

Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires 1995 ($190 to $199)  A great, long-lived wine, long-finishing and elegant. Some people thought this the best wine of the day.

*

And there you have it: a delightful slate of Blanc de blancs Champagnes, ranging in heft from apéritif style to substantial dinner wines. For me, a perfect kick-off for the holidays. For you, I hope, a dossier of useful information. Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année !

Geography Lessons: Planeta’s Sicilian Vineyards

December 5, 2016

Alessio Planeta, who visits the United States often on behalf of his family’s winery, tried valiantly to explain Sicily’s multitude of terroirs alessio-planeta-2to a group of journalists gathered at Del Posto for a tasting of a selection of Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties. Planeta has a deep interest in this, since the family firm (headed by Alessio and his cousin Francesca, with knowledgeable input from her father/his uncle Diego) has been at the forefront of exploring and exploiting those diverse terroirs and their native grapes. Currently, the Planetas have vineyards in at least six different parts of Sicily, so Alessio had a good deal of information to impart.

That was no easy task, since there is a great deal of confusion about Sicily’s geography/geology, even among its residents. Because of its great variety of landscapes, Alessio remarked, people sometimes speak of Sicily as “not an island but a small continent,” and sometimes they refer to the Etna area – the eastern third of Sicily, roughly – as “an island within an island.” No wonder outsiders can find it all confusing.

As Professor Attilio Scienza of the Universita di Milano once explained it to me, Sicily really has two totally different geologies. The eastern third of the island is purely volcanic: Etna is the southernmost of a series of volcanoes that once ran down the length of Italy. Long ago, it rose above the sea and formed that chunk of land. The western two-thirds of Sicily consist of a very variegated piece of the North African karst that drifted north and got caught on or by the volcanic piece. So on the eastern part of Sicily you find volcanic soils of different ages and varying mineral traces, and on the western you have the whole variety of soils that can be found on continental North Africa.
.

sicily-map-2

It all matters greatly, because different grape varieties do well – and the same grape variety performs differently – on the different soils in different parts of the island. That is exactly what the Planetas have set about investigating, so Alessio led us on a tasting tour of some of the family’s vineyards, focusing primarily on what happens to Nero d’Avola, one of Sicily’s most important red grapes, in those different locales – to wit, Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna, and Milazzo. Well, we skipped Etna, for the simple reason that Nero d’Avola doesn’t do well there at all – Nerello Mascalese is the red variety that excels there – but we palatally visited all the other areas.
.

menfi-etc

.
Alessio’s photos show the difference of the soils at the Planeta’s four vineyard sites, and his text ticks off the prime distinctive characteristics of the Nero d’Avola grown and vinified at each. Here are the wines we tasted and my reactions to them. We started in Vittoria, with

Frappato DOC Vittoria 2015. This wine is vinified from 100% Frappato, a very localized indigenous red variety, that makes a light, agile, and refreshing wine. Bitter almond and cherry nose and palate, medium-length dry finish – in all, unusual and intriguing. Then we went on to

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2014. Sicily’s only DOCG, this wine is vinified from 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato. It has a rich cherry/tobacco nose and a cherry/berry/tobacco palate and it finishes long and rich. The next wine was

Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2014. A cru wine made from 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato. All these wines so far saw no wood: all stainless steel fermentation and aging. This particular bottle was slightly closed on the nose, but showed lush cherry and chocolate notes on the palate: very nice indeed. Alessio said that Vittoria’s marine/calcareous soils yielded Nero d’Avola marked by strawberry and cherry aromas and tastes, showing great freshness. I didn’t pick up much strawberry, but about the cherry and the marked freshness I emphatically agree.

Then, to demonstrate that this seemingly ephemeral light wine could age well, Alessio showed a Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2007. This nine-year-old perfectly proved his point: It had an intense cherry/strawberry nose and palate, with a very long finish. Despite its age, it still felt light and agile. This was a completely enjoyable wine that I would go so far as to call distinguished. Any wine drinker would love this with the ritual holiday turkey.

We then moved to Planeta’s La Baronia vineyards in Milazzo, near Messina on Sicily’s northeast coast, for Nocera Sicilia DOC 2015. Nocera is another localized indigenous red variety that is undergoing a revival of interest – deservedly so, I would say. This example had a wonderful grapey/stemmy nose, strikingly fresh, before a delightful plum and black pepper palate that made me want to find out more about the variety and its potential. We then progressed to

Nero d’Avola Nocera Sicilia DOC 2014. 70% Nero d’Avola, 30% Nocera. Fermented in stainless steel, with 14 days’ maceration on the skins, and four months’ aging in used barriques before bottling. This wine had a very nice cherry and anise nose and palate and finished long – very good drinking. Alessio described the Nero d’Avola of this area as showing cherry and citrus flavors, with great freshness and a velvety mouth feel. I got more anise than citrus, but otherwise his comments tally very well with my tasting notes.

He then zigzagged us, geographically, to the Noto area, near Siracusa on Sicily’s southeast coast, to taste Noto Nero d’Avola DOC 2012. This wine is fermented and macerated in stainless steel, then racked and aged for ten months in second- and third-use Allier barriques. Alessio says that the features of Nero d’Avola from this area are incense aromas, as well as aromas and flavors of currants and carob, plus balsamic notes – quite a complex medley, in fact. And that was indeed what I tasted, though I think some of those more exotic notes may have come from the barriques rather than the grapes.

Next came Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2011, 100% Nero d’Avola and vinified in exactly the same way as the preceding wine. This example was intense and deeply characteristic in both the nose and the mouth, with the black currant flavors especially prominent – a very elegant and very long-finishing wine. Incidentally, 2011 is Alessio’s favorite of all the recent vintages. Drunk again with the lunch following the formal tasting, this wine showed very, very well – elegant, with dried cherry notes and hints of chocolate and tobacco, and an almost sweet finish.

The final wine of the formal tasting was Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2010, once again 100% Nero d’Avola, steel-fermented and oak-aged. I found this wine very aromatic and edgy, though round in the mouth, soft and deep, with the elegance that seems to be a hallmark of the Noto zone. I thought it fine, though I feel it really wants more aging.

With the lunch, we drank the 2011 again, as I mentioned above, as well as 2007 and 2005 Santa Cecilia Noto DOC. I found the ’07 slightly closed, needing time in the glass to open at all. It should be wonderful in a few years: This may merely be that dumb phase that so many substantial red wines go through. The ’05 was excellent, still fresh, though maturing beautifully, with lots of years still in front of it. As it opened in the glass, it just got fresher and fresher – very impressive indeed.

Thus ended the geography lesson, which gave me a greater understanding of how much more there is to learn about Sicilian varieties and their regional characters and just how much more than we have yet seen they may be capable of. That’s what’s most exciting for me about Italian wine: no region of Italy has hit its limit yet.

Chambolle Musigny

November 24, 2016

Despite being an active partisan of Italian wines, I retain a deep love of French wines, especially the great French red wines. In my youth, I thought Bordeaux was king – and besides, Burgundy was way more expensive then. But now, the situation has completely changed: Bordeaux prices have caught up with or surpassed those of Burgundy, while winemaking in Burgundy is reaching new heights. Moreover, climate change is helping Burgundy achieve more good vintages than ever before, and at the same time many Bordeaux reds are tasting increasingly industrial to me – and yes, I am talking about classified growths. So I have been turning more and more often to the great Burgundy villages when I want a change of taste from my frequent Italian tipples. Ergo, Chambolle Musigny.

For me, the village of Chambolle is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Opinions obviously differ about things like this, but for me Chambolle’s red wines have the greatest finesse, the loveliest, most complex fruit, the subtlest nuance of them all. Its two Grands Crus vineyards, Le Musigny and Bonnes Mares, are normally completely out of my price range, but the few times I’ve tasted either of them persist in my memory as moments of total palatal bliss – most notably, a lunch with the Drouhin family in Beaune a few years ago, at which they poured a 1968 Bonnes Mares. I don’t know which was my dominant feeling: honor at being so treated, or sheer ecstasy from the taste of that great wine.

chambolle-musignyWhile I don’t have any Musigny or Bonnes Mares in my “cellar,” I do have a few bottles of Premier Cru Chambolle Musigny, and since Mortality has been looming over my friends lately, I sought consolation in a bottle just the other evening. I opened a 2004 Drouhin (regular readers will know my long-standing esteem for the house of Drouhin), decanted it and let it stand for about two hours before drinking it with a broiled top-quality strip steak. Bliss again, and a great respite from quotidian cares. The wine’s aroma was heady of bitter chocolate, tobacco, and dark, dry fruits. The palate was that and more, with mushroom and mineral notes interwoven with all that fruit and tobacco and chocolate. Diane and I sipped and savored and made that bottle last as long as we could, despite the temptation to just bathe in it.

I know the village of Chambolle doesn’t loom as large in wine folklore as its neighbors, Vougeot and Morey Saint Denis, or the further distant Vosne Romanée or Corton. I guess that’s the only thing that has kept its prices from passing beyond all human reach. That narrow stretch of Burgundian hillsides that we call the Côte d’Or runs from a little south of Dijon to a little south of Santenay, a distance of only about 30 miles, regularly punctuated by different villages with at least slightly different terroirs. Chambolle lies in the middle of the northern half of the Côte de Nuits, which is the northern half of the Côte d’Or (the southern half is known as the Côte de Beaune).

cote-de-nuits

If you drive south from Dijon on Route Nationale 74, which runs the length of the Côte d’Or, you’ll pass many famous wine towns. Before you reach Chambolle are Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey Chambertin, and Morey St. Denis. Just south of Chambolle lie Vougeot, Vôsne Romanee, and Nuits Saint Georges. This is obviously great wine country, and Chambolle Musigny’s sparse, pebbly, limestony soil is typical of the meager soils on which great wines grow. Plots are characteristically small – Le Musigny totals only a little over 10 hectares, and Bonnes Mares 15 – and are frequently divided among many owners, as is typical in Burgundy. Production is very limited, by law and by the quest for excellence as much as by nature: Hail is frequent here and can be very destructive – thus the always substantial price of good Chambolle Musigny. I can only say that the examples I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy have been worth it.

drouhin-vineyard

Lest you think I’m simply raving, let me close this post with Clive Coates’ summary words about the Grand Cru Le Musigny (Côtes d’Or, p. 105):

At its best the red wine can be quite simply the most delicious wine to be found in Burgundy. Speaking personally, and I am not the only one, it is the summit of achievement. With its vibrant colour, exquisitely harmonious, complex, profound bouquet, the blissful balance between tannin, acidity, and the most intensely flavoured fruit – all the petits fruits rouges you could reasonably imagine – and its incomparable breed, depth, originality and purity on the finish, a great Musigny is heaven in a glass. Would that one could afford to drink it more often.

Now that’s enthusiasm! I’ll only add that the “lesser” wines of Chambolle Musigny are, in proportion, just as profound and moving. It’s a special occasion wine for sure, but one capable of making an occasion special.