Red Wine Bonanza

June 4, 2018


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Campania Stories 2018 climaxed with a blind tasting of 111 red wines. By the standards of the Nebbiolo Prima or the Chianti Classico and Brunello anteprima, at either of which professionals taste 100 or more wines a day over multiple days, that’s not a lot of wines – but judged against what Campania’s production was in the past, that is a tremendous leap forward. That same progress is evident in the quality of the wines as in the proliferation of appellations and producers: Every year, the most authoritative Italian experts – Daniele Cernilli, Gambero Rosso, the Italian Sommeliers Association – give Campania more and more of their top awards, and list more and more Campanian wines in their annual guides.

Not all of those wines are available here in the US, of course, but many are – enough to create some confusion for American consumers. The region’s many appellations result not from Italian whimsicality or parochialism, but from Campanian geography. Campania is broken up by hills and mountains, divided by valleys and rivers, with soils volcanic and alluvial and sedimentary, and climates modified by altitude and/or proximity to the sea. These necessitate differing appellations to reflect the many varied growing circumstances, which in turn affect the kind of wine produced – even when the grape varieties are the same.
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A misty morning in the hills near Avellino

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That is one of the underlying simplicities of Campanian red wine: Campania has largely resisted the importation of foreign grapes, and almost all Campanian reds are made with a small handful of indigenous grape varieties. At the top of the heap stands Aglianico, in its pinnacle expression Taurasi and in many other regionally named wines. Right behind is Piedirosso – the Per’e Palummo beloved of traditional growers – sort of a Merlot to Aglianico’s Cabernet, which blends wonderfully with Aglianico and also makes a very nice wine on its own. And distantly behind Piedirosso (in volume, not in quality) follow Casavecchia, Pallagrello nero, Tintore, and a handful of other ancient red varieties just now being rediscovered and re-cultivated.

Thus, understanding Campanian reds isn’t all that complex, once you’ve familiarized your palate with what Aglianico and Piedirosso can do. (If you haven’t, you’re depriving yourself of some great pleasures: Aglianico in particular is a truly noble red variety, easily on the same plane as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo or, for that matter, Pinot noir.)

For me, as a wine lover and an I-hope-useful journalist, this plenitude of fine wines and their appellations makes a major problem. For instance: at the blind tasting, 71 of the wines presented were either 100% Aglianico or largely Aglianico-based. None of them was a wine I couldn’t drink with pleasure. Fifty-six of them scored 3.75 to 4.5 on the 5-point scale I use for my own ratings, and I’m a stingy scorer. Fifty-six! I can’t in conscience just turn this post into a gigantic list: I came too close to that for my own comfort (or yours, I am sure) in my post on the white wines of Campania Stories. But I also can’t omit the names of these wonderful wines and their hard-working producers – so here’s a link that will connect those of you curious or masochistic enough to want to know them to the complete list of Tom’s Very Pleasurable Fifty-six.

What impressed me consistently about the Taurasis especially, but all the less famous Aglianico wines as well, was the wonderful Aglianico fruit – wild cherry, black raspberry, forest underbrush, walnuts and earth – in the aromas and flavors. In the Taurasis, it tends to be a bit more austere and structured, in the other wines a little softer and more giving, but in all it is sustained by a structure that promises long life and development. Not that they have to be kept forever – many were already pleasant drinking and almost all will be thoroughly enjoyable very soon – but for anyone seeking mature flavors and style in a red wine, these Campanian beauties can provide it, if you’re patient enough. Galardi’s Terra di Lavoro, Villa Matilde’s Falerno Rosso, La Rivolta, Mustille, Fontanavecchia, Benito Ferrara, Donnachiara, Di Meo, Luigi Tecce’s Campi Taurasini Satyricon – all these “non-Taurasis” are splendid wines, with a good chunk of Taurasi’s virtues.

As for the Taurasis themselves: There was an impressive, almost universal level of excellence from producers large and small. Clearly the level of winemaking in Campania has taken a major step upward. Familiar larger producers like Feudi di San Gregorio and Villa Raiano showed lovely wines, as did medium-sized houses like Donnachiara and Di Meo and small producers such as Luigi Tecce – and so too did a raft of producers previously unknown to me, some of them quite small, such as Vigne Guadagno or Regina Collis. In the 2012 and 2013 vintages especially, throwing darts at a list of Taurasi makers would probably get you a fine wine nine times out of ten.

Finally, I can’t close this post without praising the wines vinified – in most cases, 100% – from Casavecchia or Pallagrello Nero. Two ancient and indigenous Campanian varieties now undergoing serious revivals, both make an intense, dark wine, brooding and elegant, and seemingly capable of graceful aging. Top-flight producers include, for Casavecchia, Aia delle Monache, Alois, Sclavia, and Viticoltori del Casavecchia; and for Pallagrello nero, Alois, Cantina di Lisandro, Nanni Copè, Sclavia, Tempio di Diana, and Vestini Campagnano.

As my enthusiasm should show, I found the whole Naples event pleasurable and exciting. I would urge any young enophile to start paying serious attention to Campanian wine, while it is still modestly priced and not yet well known. This is an opportunity to fill your cellar with beautifully structured, long-lasting wines that you will enjoy for many years.

Four Fine Bordeaux Estates

May 21, 2018

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Bordeaux tasting as thoroughly as I did this season’s final Wine Media Guild lunch. For more than a few years now, I’ve been unhappy with a lot of the biggest names in Bordeaux because the wines have been tasting – how to put this? – more and more industrial to me, as if they were the end-result of a large-scale commercial production. Whatever the truth of that, there were no such problems with the WMG’s tasting of Château Latour Martillac (Pessac Leognan), Château Beychevelle (Saint Julien), Château Kirwan (Margaux), and Château Guiraud (Sauternes).

All were classic examples of what their appellations ought to be – or what my memory tells me their appellations used to be before The Sacred Quest for Parker Scores homogenized Bordeaux. If these wines are bellwethers of a wave of post-Parkerism . . . well, let’s just say it’s about time.

What I was impressed by in these four estates was their balance, elegance, restraint, fidelity to variety and terroir, and vitality – all qualities likely to escape the notice of the wine newbie or wannabe interested only in bold fruit, but ultimately the characteristics that separate fine wine from fermented grape juice.

  • The Latour Martillac reds all showed the lovely cedary-ness and sinewy-ness, the whites the roundness and vigor of the Graves.
  • The Beychevelles had all the balance and appeal, the cushioned Cabernet flavors, that one hopes for in Saint Julien.
  • The Kirwan wines were simply classic Margaux, enticing in the nose and opulent in the mouth.
  • And the Guiraud wines presented a symphony of botrytis and mineral flavors, amazing sweetnesses counterbalanced by vivid acidity, that amount to almost a definition of Sauternes.

These were Bordeaux wines as I haven’t experienced them in a long, long time, and I loved every minute of it.

Any of these wines, even the oldest, could mature further. The ’98 Guiraud, for instance, still needs ten years to reach its peak, and none of 2000 reds showed any sign of fading. The 2000 Kirwan, in fact, was one of the top two wines of the day for me. The younger wines all seemed to be developing quite nicely, with the 2005 Beychevelle in particular (my other top-two wine) already tasting splendid and promising years of further development. Were I several decades younger than I am, I would be cellaring these wines and trying to keep my hands off them for at least a few years more.

Here are the wines presented at the luncheon:

Château Latour Martillac Blanc 2011, 2013, 2015
Château Latour Martillac Rouge 2000, 2010, 2015

Châateau Beychevelle 2000, 2005, 2009, 2014, 2015
Château Beychevelle Amiral de Beychevelle 2015

Château Kirwan 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015
Charmes de Kirwan 2010

Château Guiraud Sec 2015
Château Guiraud 1998, 2009, 2010, 2015
Petit Guiraud 2015

That last wine is a rather charming demi-sec. The two second-labels presented, Amiral de Beychevelle and Charmes de Kirwan, both showed as smaller but still elegant versions of the primary wines. One last noteworthy quality of all the wines shown was the consistency of style each house demonstrated over several quite different vintages, which is no small accomplishment. It would be a wonderful thing if a great Bordeaux revival was a-borning.

One Fine Wine: Ridge Geyserville 2010

May 10, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I don’t enjoy much California wine. I’m not crazy about many New World wines, for that matter, but I’ve always made an exception for Zinfandel, a grape that has acclimatized itself so thoroughly as to be legitimately considered a native variety, especially in California. And for my money, nobody in California makes it better than Ridge.

All that being so, when, a little while back, two successive days of sunshine and no rain prompted hopes of spring in me and thoughts of an American spring-ish dinner in Diane, the idea of drinking a Ridge Zinfandel followed hard on their heels. Of the several Zinfandels Ridge makes, Geyserville has always been one of my favorites.

It’s an old-fashioned field mix of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro – the kind of mixed grapes from all over Europe that used to be the staple of many small California vineyards before the homogenizing blight of Cabernet hit. In fact, since there is only 64% Zinfandel in this bottle (that’s roughly normal for Ridge’s Geyserville), it can’t be labelled Zinfandel, so it’s just Geyserville. For those of us who love it, ‘nuff said.

Our American-ish, spring-ish dinner started with a few crackers topped with fresh cream cheese and wasabi-infused flying fish roe. The main course was a thick, bloody-rare NY strip steak,  fried shoestring potatoes, asparagus (still not local, alas) and – especially – the first morels of the year. After that, two cheeses with which to finish the wine: Podda and Boucheron.

We were very, very happy. The Geyserville enjoyed everything, even the wasabi fish roe; and with the steak and morels, it opened wide and tasted like a berry-filled forest, all brushy and dark-fruited with over- and undertones of leather and tobacco and even a little juniper.

This is where I have to stress the vintage, 2010. This is not a newly released wine, but a seven-year-old. Not ancient, by any means, but anyone who thinks that Zinfandel is all about big, in-your-face, youthful fruit would have been surprised/shocked/distressed/bowled over by what Ridge made of it. Even though this Geyserville is still in the process of maturing, its fruit has evolved into a complex blend of restrained flavors. It’s an intensely civilized wine, very claret-y (does anyone still remember claret?) in style and texture, flavors and attack. On the bottle’s back label, the winemaker says “Rich, elegant, and structured, this fine zinfandel will provide enjoyment over the next decade.” That’s not hype: That’s understatement.

All Ridge Zins evolve roughly this same way, and I think they’re at their best around 10 years old, if you can hide them from yourself for that long. They just keep getting more and more elegant, demonstrating just how much power and fruit they have by the grace with which they rein it in.

White Wine Wonderland

April 30, 2018

It may be news to the casual wine buyer, but it’s certainly no secret to wine lovers that these days Campanian white wines are among the most exciting in the world. My second day of tastings at Campania Stories in Naples covered 109 samples of them from 86 producers over vintages stretching from 2017 back to 2003. I make no secret of the fact that I am a major fan of these wines, so no one should be surprised when I say that I was wowed.

The producers ranged in size from very large to very small, some white wine specialists but most making at least some reds as well. I’ll talk about the red wines (another day’s tasting) in a later post: for now I want to focus on the enormous diversity of white wines Campania makes.

Top of the list, of course, stand the two white DOCGs, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, but they are followed by a host of wines vinified from Fiano or Greco in other parts of Campania. And beyond those two varieties comes a whole gazetteer of other white grapes, many localized and only recently acquiring any reputation outside their zone, others long-standing staples of production in wines that aren’t varietally named, such as Lacryma Christi. Most prominent of these varieties are Asprinio, Caprettone, Catalanesca, Coda di Volpe, Falanghina (now very well known), and Pallagrello bianco (now an emerging star) – to name just some.

The hardest problem for me in tasting so many and such diverse wines is staying focused on what is actually in the glass, not what I hope or expect it to be. It’s hard to say which tires first, the palate or the brain, but the task is to bring the same attention to wine #109 as to wine #1. It helps a great deal when the wines are well-made examples of interesting varieties, and the good news from Campania Stories is that that was true in 90% of the cases. As a veteran of many a hard slog through a slate of mediocre wines, I can assure you that 90% is a terrific average, whatever the country or appellations you’re dealing with.

So: down to details. First, the “lesser” breeds, which many of us have been drinking happily for years in blends such as Lacryma Christi bianco or Costa Amalfitana. Most wines so labelled were for years relatively simple wines for everyday meals, but now, as the winemaking improves steadily throughout Campania, they are rapidly ascending the scale of quality and interest.

I was particularly charmed by Marisa Cuomo’s 2016 Fiorduva, a blend of Ripoli, Fenile, and Ginestra, and a wine that is a perennial prize winner, but then I’m impressed by Cuomo’s entire line of wines. The humble Lacryma Christi bianco appellation produced two striking wines, Sorrentino’s 2016 Vigna Lapillo and Matrone’s 2015 Territorio de’ Matroni. The appellation that showed strongest among these lesser-known wines was unquestionably Pallagrello bianco, an IGP wine from Terre del Volturno in the province of Caserta. Every sample in this category showed the complexity of which this variety is capable: the nose and palate are marked by assertive, almost red, fruit and strong minerality, and they were biggish (especially for a white wine), round in the mouth, and long in the finish. Pallagrello bianco takes quite well to at least a few years’ aging, and often more. This is definitely a dinner wine, not a cocktail.

Falanghina is one of Campania’s success stories, a wine that went from obscurity only a few years ago to vinous stardom. Its light body and refreshing minerality make it an ideal wine for everything from sipping at parties to drinking throughout light meals. There are several appellations: Falerno del Massico bianco, Falanghina del Sannio, Campania Falanghina, and Campi Flegrei Falanghina. Each is good, and each differs slightly from the others.

The Falanghina from the Flegrean fields is probably the most “volcanic” tasting of them all, the Sannio Falanghina the roundest and best suited to dinner service. There are excellent producers in all the appellations: in the Massico zone, Villa Matilde; in Sannio, Fattoria La Rivolta, Feudi di San Gregorio, Fontanavecchia, and especially Mustilli, who rescued the variety and pioneered its re-introduction; and in the Campi Flegrei, Aganum, Cantine Carputo, and La Sibilla.

The group of Fiano and Fiano-based wines ran to 40 samples ranging from vintage 2017 back to 2003. Of them, 29 were Fiano di Avellino. This was a sensational bunch of wines: There is no other way to put it. I had been impressed by the level of winemaking that the white wines had been showing, but with these Fianos, it really shone. No rusticities, no overpowering oak, no off bottles: just clean, pure Fiano flavors throughout, in a range of styles from delicate to forceful.

Fiano is a great grape, as noble as Chardonnay or Riesling, and these 40 samples both demonstrated what has been accomplished with it thus far and indicated what it is capable of. Aromas of forest floor, pears, hazelnuts, almonds, with mineral inflections; palates of white fruits and nuts and mineral interlacings, with long, dried-pear and nut finishes, all varying with vintage and age, and gradually – with age – rounding and plumping into a more mature hazelnut-and-sottobosco complex of scents and tastes: for my palate, as lovely a white wine as can be found anywhere. Here is a highly selected list of the samples that impressed me most, in the order I tasted them:

  • 2017 De Conciliis, Paestum Fiano Bacioilcielo
  • 2017 De Conciliis Paestum Fiano Donnaluna
  • 2017 Casebianche Cilento Fiano Cumalé
  • 2017 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Colli di Lapio Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Feudi di San Gregorio Pietracalda
  • 2017 Petilia Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017  Donnachiara Fiano di Avellino
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  • 2016 Nanni Copé Terre del Volturno Bianco Polveri della Scarrupata
  • 2016 Tenuta Sarno 1860 Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Pietracupa Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino
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  • 2015 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino Ventidue
  • 2015 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino Tognano
  • 2015 Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino Feudi Studi Arianello
  • 2015 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino Alimata
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  • 2014 Ciro Picariello Fiano di Avellino Ciro
  • 2012 Tenuta Sarno 1860 Fiano di Avellino
  • 2007 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Colle dei Cerri
  • 2003 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Erminia di Meo

And finally came Greco: 26 wines, the great majority of them Greco di Tufo. Greco is also a great variety, of much nobler status than the wine world seems aware of, but I think for most wine lovers less immediately accessible than Fiano. Its wines show the greatest minerality of any Campanian wines, and that is saying a lot. The soils of the Tufo zone are richly volcanic and mineral-laced: A sulfur mine on the di Marzo estate just outside the town of Tufo was for many years the major employer in the region. But Greco – especially Greco di Tufo – rewards the small effort it takes to get to know it: It is a big wine for a white, and capable of matching with many foods, from seafood (it loves shellfish) through white meats and even smoked meats (try it with a ham steak). And it ages complexly and well, the palate rounding and softening, the nose deepening and acquiring intriguing forest-floor aromas. Here are the best of the best I tasted in Naples:

  • 2017 Villa Raiano Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Ferrara Benito Greco di Tufo Vigna Cicogna
  • 2017 Di Meo Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Petilia Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo Cutizzi
  • 2017 Donnachiara Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Colli di Lapio Greco di Tufo
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  • 2016 Di Marzo Greco di Tufo Serrone
  • 2016 Di Prisco Greco di Tufo
  • 2016 Pietracupa Greco di Tufo
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  • 2015 Villa Raiano Greco di Tufo Contrada Marotta

In addition to all these at the formal tasting, I managed to taste a few more on visits to individual producers. Almost all of them took the opportunity to show their experimental wines, the directions they want to go with their Fiano and Greco. Almost all of those – especially Di Marzo, Petilia, and Sarno 1860 – seemed to be moving in the direction of making their wines more Burgundian in style – rounder, fuller, more complex, still more expressive of their terroir. As you can imagine, these wines are still in the developmental stages and not commercially available – but they gave a very exciting indication of the sophistication and quality that lies in store for us in years to come. I left Campania a very happy camper.

Unknown Italy: The Wines of Basilicata

April 19, 2018

Every April, the increasingly important Campania Stories, an event presenting new releases of a great many Campanian winemakers, convenes in Naples. This year, it grew a new appendage, a day devoted to Basilicata Stories.

This is to my mind a very promising development: I think the south of Italy is making some of the most exciting wines in the whole realm of wine, and it needs to find a way to make its case to the world. An event like this, which could bring together all the wonderful produce of Italia meridionale, may be just the venue it needs.

Basilicata, for those unfamiliar with Italian geography, is the province at the bottom of the Italian peninsula, jammed in between Puglia to the east, Campania to the northwest, and Calabria to the southwest. If Puglia is the shank and heel of the Italian boot, and Calabria the toe, then Basilicata is the instep – and like insteps everywhere, it doesn’t get much attention. I hope that will be changing soon.

The event in Naples presented 45 wines from 18 producers in its blind tasting. Almost three-quarters of the wines were red, vinified in large part from Primitivo and Aglianico, with a very small admixture of Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon. Most of the Primitivo wines originated in the eastern end of Basilicata, where the terroir and the grapes seem to be almost a continuation of Puglia. Aglianico is far and away the most important and most widely planted variety in the region, with Aglianico del Vulture Superiore, Basilicata’s only DOCG, pre-eminent.

This has been so for a long time. I remember visiting Rionero in Vulture decades ago, when it was a sleepy country town,* and the only winemakers of note in the area were Donato d’Angelo and, to a lesser extent, Paternoster; and the only wine of distinction in Basilicata was Aglianico del Vulture. The Monte Vulture that lends its name to the zone and appellation is a long-dormant, probably extinct, volcano, high and windy – so windy, that, as I recall, Aglianico vines were grown very close to the ground and surrounded by little teepees of reeds around which the vines could twine and shelter the grapes.

I haven’t been back, but I suspect that is probably no longer the case. There are certainly many more producers now than there were then, and many more Aglianico appellations. Much has no doubt changed about the fieldwork with Aglianico, and this Naples tasting certainly showed that the wine, already fine back then, has gotten even better.

Basilicato Aglianico differs greatly from Campanian versions of the wine. Different clones and different soils yield a softer version of this great red wine: the same luscious black-cherryish fruit, and the same fine acid/tannin balance, but in its youth Aglianico from Basilicata is gentler on the palate, a little softer and more welcoming. It lacks the austerity of Taurasi, and it may – I’m not sure – lack Taurasi’s aging ability, but it retains all its complexity and interest. I found the samples I tasted delightful, especially those of the 2011 vintage, which were remarkably fresh and pleasing. Here is a short list of the Basilicata Aglianicos that pleased me most:

  • Cantina di Venosa Aglianico del Vulture Verbo 2015
  • Cantine del Notaio Aglianico del Vulture La Firma 2013
  • Cantine del Notaio Aglianico del Vulture Il Sigillo 2011
  • Colli Cerentino Aglianico del Vulture Masqito 2011
  • D’Angelo Casa Vinicola Aglianico del Vulture Caselle 2012
  • Elena Fucci Aglianico del Vulture Titolo 2016
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Aquila del Vulture 2011
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Massaron Riserva 2009
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Nero degli Orsini 2011
  • Lagala Basilicata Rosso Maddalena 2016
  • Carmelitano Musto Aglianico del Vulture Pian del Moro 2013
  • Ripanera Basilicata Rosso Sansavino 2016

Only some of these wines – those in red – are at present imported into the US, but I suspect that will be changing as attention begins to be paid to this important variety and to the whole zone.

I’m not sure I can say the same about Basilicata’s Primitivo wines. Although I found many of them charming, these wines are so overshadowed by the better-known and better-distributed Primitivi coming from Puglia that I fear it will take them a good while to break into the American market. For their sake, and for the consumer’s sake, I hope I’m wrong.

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*  Purely personal history: It was around 1980 when Diane and I visited Donato d’Angelo, and Diane was gawked at along the whole length of the main street of Rionero as probably the tallest woman ever seen there. She then created what seemed to be the scandal of the year by entering the café with us boys and having an espresso at the bar. The times they have a-changed, especially in the Italian south.

One Fine Wine: Lopez de Heredia Rioja Viña Bosconia 2005

April 9, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about individual wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I love traditional-style Rioja. At its best, it combines a pleasing rusticity and directness with subtlety and sophistication, a pairing as hard to resist as its characteristic balance of tannin and acidity, dark berry-ish fruit and earthy, forest duff aromas and flavors. In addition, traditionally made Riojas seem to have the capacity to age effortlessly, a trait that, for someone who enjoys the character of mature wine as much as I do, makes Rioja a constant pleasure.

All those qualities seem to be the gift of the Tempranillo grape, the variety that is Rioja’s main component – in the case of this 2005 Viña Bosconia probably around 80%. Bosconia is one of Lopez de Heredia’s two reserva wines (the other is Viña Tondonia). It tends toward a fullness, almost a lushness, of style and mouth-feel. This bottle was perceptibly soft, and it accommodated itself beautifully to the dishes we rather unconventionally matched it with.

Viña Bosconia – indeed, most Rioja reservas – are usually paired with roast meats and assertive cheeses. We drank ours with an onion-sweet Spanish tortilla and with a luscious, rich braise of octopus, potato, and red bell pepper whose sauce was its own juices deepened in color and flavor by a generous infusion of pimentòn agridulce. That was a whole spectrum of flavors, yet every component of those dishes meshed wonderfully with this big, yet restrained red wine, and the interplay of all the flavors remained vivid and attention-grabbing from first bite to last.

Lopez de Heredia has been a pillar of Rioja wines from its foundation in 1877, and it still makes its wines in the time-honored Rioja manner. That means very long aging in large oak tanks – five years for Viña Bosconia – and then several years of bottle aging before release.

Reservas like Bosconia are made only in the best years: The vintage of Bosconia currently on the market is, I believe, 2006. Our bottle of ’05, although delightful, was nowhere near its full maturity, which I would guess is still 10 years in the future. I hope I can keep my hands off a few bottles long enough to taste them then. For that matter, I hope I’m still around to taste them then – and, oh yes: you too.

Radical Simplicity: The Caparone Way with Italian Grapes

March 28, 2018

I’ve marveled here before about Dave and Marc Caparone’s unmatched success with the three great Italian red grape varieties – Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – in California. It made me wonder what they know and do that other California growers seemingly don’t. Dave Caparone is essentially publicity-shy. He is passionately committed to his craft, however, and when his son Marc suggested he write down some of what he has learned about growing those grapes, he complied.

Marc gave me a preview of Dave’s remarks, which are now available on the winery’s website.

Aglianico *

I was bowled over by the simplicity and directness of Dave’s approach to the three varieties, all which have a reputation, even in Italy, for being difficult to cultivate. He doesn’t go into the arcana of soil analysis and root stocks – though obviously he paid attention to those issues, since he was scrupulously careful about choosing his vineyard sites and about the sources and origins of the vines he chose to plant. (See his earlier-written remarks about his winemaking history.)

Rather, he cuts through the whole thicket of issues the concept of terroir has become entangled with. His working premise starts with the most critical element of microclimate: the amount of heat each geographical area provides for vines – which determines whether a particular variety will mature properly or not.

Some varieties such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon seem to work well over a wider range of microclimates. Others, such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico do not. In the Paso Robles region, Zinfandel will mature properly in places where Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo do. Zinfandel will also mature properly where there is not enough heat for Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo…. Heat requirements are inherent in the grape and are the same whether the grape is grown in California or Europe.

It’s difficult for me to make clear the radical directness of those seemingly simple statements. The Caparones’ experience in Paso Robles has shown them that many different varieties will do well in their soils and climates. If the soil and exposures are suitable for growing grapes, the microclimate seems to them to be the key determinant of what varieties will do well there. The Caparones’ remarkable several decades of success with Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese amply demonstrate that their position in one of the warmest stretches of the Paso Robles appellation provides the proper microclimate for all three varieties.

Nebbiolo *

Not entirely by the way: That accomplishment – that a single locus could succeed with all three of those great red grapes – would, in Italy, be a priori deemed impossible, and I think in most of California it would be judged improbable.

Quoting Dave again, “If a grape variety is grown in an area that is too warm for it, the wines produced will lack balance and proper varietal character. If the area is too cool, it may not reach full maturity at all.” This seems to him to be the major source of difficulty in growing and vinifying grapes of almost any variety in California – or almost anywhere else, for that matter.

In California with its lack of rain during a long growing season, there is very little annual variation. In all my years of winemaking I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature. In Europe, the situation is much more variable and grape maturity is an ongoing problem. No grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky, although weather and climate often are. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico are as easy to grow in our vineyard as Zinfandel.

Let me underline that. Dave’s saying “no grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky” amounts to a major heresy in terms of wine-growing orthodoxy. I can’t count the number of times, over my journalistic career, that I’ve been told this or that variety is very difficult and requires lots of special attention. What Dave is saying is that the problem isn’t the variety but where you’ve planted it. If he’s right about that – and he certainly has the field experience to back up that contention – then a lot of professional enologists have been talking through their hats for the last 50 years.

Sangiovese *

The other thing that strikes me about Dave’s words is his saying “I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature.” First, that’s amazing in itself, and second, look at the alcohol levels of Caparone wines in that light. They almost never exceed 13.5 degrees, and often fall as low as 13 – this at a time when alcohol levels of red wines all over the world, but especially in California, are soaring. So full ripeness doesn’t have to mean huge sugar levels and consequently huge alcohol levels?  This ought to be big, big news to a lot of people – growers, winemakers, and consumers alike. It means that balance and restraint are intrinsically compatible with the fullest expression of fruit. The runaway train that was rushing all red wines in the direction of Port just got derailed, and I for one am dancing with joy on top of the wreckage.

Dave Caparone’s conclusions about his experience growing Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese for 40 years in Paso Robles are among the most important reflections on the cultivation of those varieties that I have ever encountered. His experience ought to be a wake-up call for winemakers everywhere. His remarks deserve further publication in a journal of note – which my blog certainly isn’t – and the widest possible circulation. I hope they may receive that, and soon.

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* Grape images: Aglianico from Jancis Robinson et al., Wine Grapes, Ecco, 2012; Nebbiolo from Atlante delle grandi vigne di Langa, Arcigola 1990; Sangiovese from Il Chianti Classico, Vianello Libre e Fulvio Roiter, 1987.

Bordeaux Blancs: Silver Threads in a Sea of Reds

March 16, 2018

Once upon a time, the Bordeaux region produced more white wine than red. Unless you are well over 50 or of a scholarly bent, I suspect that statement comes as a surprise. Nevertheless, it’s true: It wasn’t until the 1970s that red wine production surpassed white in Bordeaux, and it hasn’t looked back since. Now white varieties account for less than 10% of the total Bordeaux vineyards – though that still amounts to over 42 million bottles of white wine a year.

Numbers like that seriously challenge our notions of winemaking as an artisanal activity, but wine has long been big business in Bordeaux. Back in the heyday of white Bordeaux, dry wines like the white Haut Brion and sweet wines like Château Yquem were the style- and price-leaders of the region. Good Sauternes have held onto a diminished market share and an undiminished reputation, and no one questions the greatness of Haut Brion blanc, but most producers of dry white Bordeaux have to scrabble hard for shelf space these days.
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Image from The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Click to enlarge.

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To cast some light on this neglected sector of the wine universe, the Wine Media Guild devoted its March meeting to exploring a broad spectrum of whites from throughout the entire Bordeaux zone: That is, from both sides of the river Gironde and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne, as well as from the northern tip of the Medoc peninsula to about 50 miles south of the city of Bordeaux. This covered a lot of ground and many different wines, all of which were thoroughly explained by the WMG member-organizer of the event, Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW.

The appellations involved included the largest, Bordeaux Blanc, representing roughly 60% of the production, and from anywhere in the zone, and the next largest, Entre-Deux-Mers. The latter is an exclusively white-wine-producing zone lying between the Garonne and Dordogne: It accounts for about 20% of the production. Also included were representatives of much smaller appellations, including several Côtes, for example, Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg: All the Côtes together account for about 3% of the white wine production. The most prestigious zones remain Graves (5%) and Pessac-Leognan (3%). The latter used to be comprehended within the Graves, and its wines have always been among the very best of all the appellations.

The Wine Media Guild tasting ran to 30 wines, none older than the 2013 vintage and the majority from 2016. The complete tasting sheets, showing each wine, its vintage, its grape mix, importer, and suggested retail price, is appended to the end of this post. A quick look at it will show that the predominant grape varieties in Bordeaux blanc are Sauvignon blanc – the heavy favorite, with even a few 100% Sauvignon blanc wines – and Semillon, with a small amount of Muscadelle and/or Sauvignon gris occasionally used.

Most suggested retail prices are very reasonable, which is appropriate, because the great majority of these wines are pleasing companions to everyday meals. That is emphatically not damning with faint praise: The world needs more well-made, simple wines like many of these, at prices that ordinary human beings can afford; and the recent up-tick in American consumption of white Bordeaux may very well reflect a growing perception of their value-for-dollar ratio.

I am not a super-fan of Sauvignon blanc, not even in its Old-World manifestations, which tend to be more subdued (less cat’s pee) and more elegant than the New World versions. But I do think that blending Sauvignon with Semillon makes a wine that is better than the sum of its parts, so most of the wines at this tasting easily passed muster, and a few really spoke to me. Enthusiasts for Sauvignon will probably rate all these wines even higher.

Château Carbonnieux has long been a favorite of mine, and the 2015 vintage in this tasting did not disappoint. It had a combination of depth and elegance and balance that seemed to indicate it would be gorgeous in two or three more years.

Right up there with it was Château Brown, an unmemorably named wine that, as a colleague remarked, usually flies under the radar. This 2014 vintage was just lovely and kept opening in the glass, showing more and more fruit and structure.

I’d give the bronze for this tasting to the 2015 Clos Floridene, a balanced and gentle wine of real charm. These three – and a few others – are more than just everyday-dinner wines – though, come to think of it, they would do just fine with a good chicken, or a turkey thigh.

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You can see the complete Wine Media Guild list here.

One Fine Wine: Di Meo Fiano di Avellino 2012

March 5, 2018

This is the first of what I intend to be an intermittent series of short posts about individual wines I’ve recently enjoyed. Diane and I drank the bottle named above, a Di Meo Fiano di Avellino 2012, with a relatively simple dinner of snapper soup (brought home from a trip to Cape May) and filets of John Dory (brought home from our local Citarella). The nutty, mineral scent of the wine tempted from the first pour – and then the wine itself stood up and kissed the soup and danced with the fish and kept growing more interesting as it opened in the glass. We finished the bottle easily and looked around for more.

Fiano is, without qualification, a great white variety, as fine as Riesling or Chardonnay, and in the vineyards around Avellino, high up – 550 meters up for Di Meo – in the complex volcanic soils of those hills, it achieves its maximum expression.

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Writing some time ago about the wines of Campania, I said that some day wine lovers would regard the Avellino zone with the same reverence they accord Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Every time I open a bottle like this Fiano, I feel that even more strongly:  This simply is a world-class white wine.

Fiano is never as fat on the palate as a white Burgundy: It’s linear, and often more subtly elegant, with a fine nut (hazelnut and almond) and mineral-inflected complexity that grows more intriguing with every year of bottle age. About a year ago, Diane and I drank (with friends to help) a magnum of Di Meo’s 2000 Fiano di Avellino, and it was spectacular, showing not the slightest sign of senility and all the signs of depth and all the layered flavors that mineral-laced soils and mature fruit (lots of dry pear and hazelnut) can convey.

Di Meo is becoming something of an aged Fiano specialist, but the natural structure of the Fiano variety is such that almost any well-made Fiano di Avellino will mature beautifully, if you can keep yourself from enjoying it while it’s still young.

In addition to all its natural advantages of soil, site, altitude, and climate, the Avellino zone is blessed with a throng of passionate and knowledgeable winemakers. In addition to Di Meo’s, you can find excellent Fiano di Avellino from Cantina del Barone, Ciro Picariello, Donnachiara, Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Pietracupa, Tenuta Sarno, Terredora, Urciuolo, Villa Diamante, Villa Matilde, Villa Raiano and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

When next you buy some, try squirreling a few bottles away in some corner where you can forget them for a few years: They’re worth the wait.

 

Cucco: A Great Barolo Cru Lost and Found Again

February 22, 2018

In as intensively cultivated a wine zone as Barolo it’s rare for an important cru to drop out of sight for a couple of decades, but one did. Cascina Cucco, as it was traditionally known, was long regarded as a major site for fine Barolo. Renato Ratti’s pioneering 1976 Carta del Barolo ranked it just below the top crus of Serralunga, and Slow Food’s 1990 Wine Atlas of the Langhe continued to esteem it, albeit mostly in the past tense, with nary a word about its then owners or produce:

Below and alongside the village of Cerrati lie the vineyards of Cucco and Posteirone.… Cucco used to belong to Dottor Giuseppe Cappellano, a celebrated figure in the world of Barolo, who was quick to acquire this superb plot when the opportunity arose. It is on the eastern flank of Serralunga and Nebbiolo has always been at home on its white, tufaceous soil. The grapes yield a Barolo with outstanding structure, capable of aging in the cellar for many years.
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Barolo crus near Serralunga, from Wine Atlas of the Langhe

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In the more recent and highly detailed Masnaghetti maps of the crus of Barolo, the cellars of Cascina Cucco are listed, but the cru designation Cucco has disappeared from the map. As successive owners of the vineyards ignored the Barolo boom and essentially neglected their vineyards, the reputation of its wines faded and it apparently slipped from the collective wine consciousness, a classic instance of sic transit gloria mundi.

Fast forward to 2012, when the Rossi Cairo family acquired the property. The Rossi Cairos had for more than a decade been producing excellent Gavi on their biodynamic, Demeter-certified vineyard La Raia, and they saw a wealth of potential in the splendidly located Cucco site. From what I know of the land situation in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, properties like this are very rarely available, so the family was wise indeed to leap at the opportunity.

Realizing the need for direct involvement in anything as complex as a Barolo-producing estate, Piero Rossi Cairo, the son of the new owner, gave up his legal career, began educating himself about enology and vineyard management, and assumed responsibility for beginning the newly renamed Tenuta Cucco’s conversion to organic and eventually biodynamic production.

Two weeks ago, Piero and his importer, Vinifera, hosted a tasting and luncheon here in New York to introduce the family’s wines. It was clear from the start that Piero was no dilettante winemaker. He is passionate and knowledgeable about the organic approach to grape-growing, both its virtues and its limitations. And he spoke warmly of his neighbors, particularly of Franco Massolino of the bordering Massolino estate. I know from my own experience that in addition to the excellence of the wine he makes, Franco knows as much about Barolo as any grower in the zone, and he is as open and generous with his knowledge as any newcomer to the zone could possibly hope for. The Rossi Cairo family bought far more luckily than they realized when they acquired Cucco.

Piero showed seven wines that day, starting with two Gavi: La Raia 2015 and La Raia Riserva 2015. These were two fine whites, the regular bottling light, soft, and fresh, with light citrus and melon fruit, and the Riserva strikingly different. It seemed much more intense, with a fat, buttery, white fruit nose and a palate that followed through point for point: very smooth and buttery in the mouth, with a very long finish. Neither wine saw any wood – stainless steel throughout – but the Riserva came from 60- to 70-year-old vines, and its must stayed on the lees for a year, hence that pronounced butteriness. I thought them both impressive.

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The basic Cucco Barolo 2013 came next, and it showed very characteristically of Serralunga Nebbiolo – black cherry, tar, and tobacco on the nose, in the mouth abundant but soft tannins riding alongside black cherry, earth and mineral notes, with another very long finish. This wine received a prolonged maceration on the skins – 25 days – which may account both for the softness of its tannins and the richness of its flavor.

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Piero and his family had little role in the growing of Cucco Barolo 2012, but were largely responsible for its handling in the cellar. This was an impressive wine, similar in general to the 2013, I thought, but markedly more intense, especially in the aroma. On the palate, I found it soft and accessible, beautifully balanced, and already drinking very enjoyably, with a long licorice-and-black-cherry finish. In short, a lovely wine.

The cru wine, 2012 Barolo Cerrati, spent some time in French barriques, but I detected no oakiness in the wine – just the classic Barolo black cherry, earth, mineral, and underbrush. It was smooth on the palate, with evident tannin that needs a little time to soften. But the flavor package was classic: black cherry, earth, and mushroom, with a long, rich, black fruit finish. This is an excellent wine that will evolve and open for years yet, maybe decades.

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Piero also showed two older wines, vinified well before the Rossi Cairo family’s acquisition of the estate, to show us what had attracted them to it. The 2007 Cucco seemed a good, sound middle-range Barolo in both heft and quality, while the 1995 was very elegant, very graceful and balanced, while still in no way big. Lovely wines on a sort of smallish Barolo scale. But heft and authority will come, I think, with more attentive field work of the sort the family has already begun, so the future for this once-famed site seems bright indeed. For an old Barolo lover, it is a pleasure indeed to witness this sort of resurrection in progress.