Nil Nisi Bonum?

February 22, 2016

By now, every wine lover of any pretentions has heard of the death of Giacomo Tachis, a figure of central importance in the 20th century Italian wine scene. The homages have been unstinting and the praise unqualified. (See for instance the New York Times’s reverential obituary.) I have even seen him credited with introducing temperature-controlled fermentation – a decisively important development for Italian wine, to be sure, but the credit for it belongs to many individuals in many countries, not to Tachis alone.

I know we are supposed to speak only good of the dead, but I feel strongly that Tachis’s influence, though crucial for the commercial success of Tuscan wines in the sixties, seventies, and eighties of the last century (god, saying that makes me feel ancient!), has been in the long run baneful for the development of Italy’s wine culture. That’s the reason behind this contrarian take on his enological legacy.

Tachis of course achieved fame and prominence first for his work with the Antinori firm, primarily in the development of Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia. Tachis did not, as many people seem to believe, invent Sassicaia. Rather, he lucked into it. The Antinori’s cousins, the Incisa della Rocchetta family, had – back in the forties, I believe – planted an unlikely stretch of their property in the Tuscan Maremma (a very untraditional area for serious winemaking then and even much later) in the two Cabernets, sauvignon and franc, which their patriarch loved. The family had for years been vinifying them for their own consumption.

It is unclear – I have heard several versions of the story – whether the Incisa della Rocchetta approached the Antinori or the Antinori approached their cousins about commercializing the wine. But the Antinori did successfully accomplish that, and Sassicaia began winning prizes and gathering attention from press and public and wine lovers generally.

Many people speak of Tachis as a student of Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist and teacher. That is not literally true, though Tachis was an intense admirer of Peynaud’s work and writings. His own talent was for blending, a skill that fits very nicely into the traditions of both Tuscany and Bordeaux. With Piero Antinori’s backing, reinforced by the commercial and prestige success of Sassicaia, he soon developed Tignanello, which, except for its first vintage, has been a blend of predominantly Sangiovese with about 20% Cabernet sauvignon. Tachis then followed that with Solaia, a blend of mostly Cabernet sauvignon with about 20% Sangiovese and a little Cabernet franc.

These were immensely successful wines, soon spoken of in the press as Super Tuscans, a nom de guerre that, as the practice of using “international varieties” spread within Tuscany and Italy at large, almost pushed native Tuscan wines into economic oblivion. And there is why I think Tachis’s influence has been in the long run harmful, not just for Tuscan wine but for Italian wine generally.

I don’t drink Tignanello and Solaia. I just don’t like ‘em. They don’t taste Tuscan to me, and they don’t taste French. They taste commercial, as if they could have been grown and vinified anywhere, of almost any grapes. They’re sleek, and polished, and hollow at the heart, as most of the now-happily-fading-into-oblivion Super Tuscans all were. But their 20-year run of commercial success left vineyards of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, and Syrah dotted all over Italy, while perfectly worthy but untrumpeted native varieties have been allowed to languish.

Rucché, anyone? Pignolo? Pallagrello? Nerello?  These are varieties capable of making great wine, and there are many more such indigenous vines all through Italy. Their development has been slowed, and even their survival threatened, by the to-my-mind undeserved and unwarranted attention to international varieties. Beyond that, many Italian wines have been denatured – homogenized – by the continued admixture of international varieties. Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah particularly – even in small quantities – take over a blend and drown the distinctive characters of the native grapes.

For both these effects, it seems to me that Tachis and the Antinori must take primary responsibility. I’m not a forgiving sort: I will hold that grudge as long as a single Italian winemaker muddies the character of Sangiovese with Cabernet. And I every day bless the Piemontese and Campanian winemakers who resisted the lure of such varieties and stuck faithfully to their native grapes. Nebbiolo and Aglianico are powerful consolations in a world elsewhere gone awry.

Pinot Gris Is Not Pinot Grigio

February 8, 2016

Mention Alsace to a wine aficionado, and 9 times out of 10 the next word that pops out is Riesling. There’s nothing wrong with that: Alsace makes some of the best Rieslings in the world. What is wrong is if the conversation stops there, because Alsace also produces a perhaps even more distinctive wine from another grape variety, a variety that elsewhere produces largely simpler, everyday-enjoyable wines. There’s nothing wrong with that either, except that, as Alsace demonstrates, Pinot gris (yes, same grape as Pinot grigio) can be stunning – rich, complex, fully dry and at the same time luscious – a very different creature from the vast majority of its incarnations in other parts of the world.

Because of the physical limitations forced on me by my recent hip replacement and its subsequent complications, I haven’t been able to get out and around to taste all the newly released wines that normally I write about at this time of year, the heart of the New York wine season. Confined to home, I’ve been drinking a lot of simple, pleasant wines – or, more honestly, drinking a little simple wine as my digestion repairs itself from the ravages of some massive doses of antibiotics.

Boxler Brand 2004Every now and then, however, I’ve had to break out, especially when my Devoted Caregiver has provided an excellent meal that calls out to be matched with a better-than-average wine. This has meant delving ever deeper into neglected corners of my wine storage, with occasionally wonderful results. In this particular case, a delicious choucroute garnie (sauerkraut is wonderful for restoring the intestinal flora) accompanied by a superlative 2004 Pinot gris, Grand Cru Brand, from Albert Boxler, a wine so distinctive, so idiosyncratic, that I simply have no comparisons for it.

Let me be upfront here. A lot of people don’t like Alsace Pinot gris. They find it too rich, too assertive, with heavy, complex fruit so lush that it still tastes sweet even when fully dry. If I were pushed, I’d say it’s the white wine equivalent of Amarone – big and full and powerful, not for every meal, but incomparable when you find its slot. I love Amarone, and I love Alsace Pinot gris, especially with about 10 years of age on it. It will take more: The variety ages very well, but for me 10 to 15 years is the real sweet spot, where in a decent vintage the wine will still show youthful freshness while it has already started fleshing out its mature flavors.

Albert Boxler has been for years one of my favorite producers. This remains a small, family firm, working only about 13 hectares of vines – but what hectares! The family home and winery in Niedermorschwihr sits right at the foot of the Sommerberg, one of the finest Riesling grands crus in all of Alsace, and other vineyards lie in Brand, another excellent grand cru site. Both sites are on granite soils, which contribute to the mighty structure of the wines they produce.

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Boxler vineyards

Boxler’s Brand vineyard

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The proudly old-fashioned label on Boxler bottles tells you everything you need to know about fidelity to tradition in this great house.

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My bottle of ’04 offered all the paradoxical pleasures one hopes for in a great, complex white wine: freshness with maturity, power with finesse, austerity with lush abundance. Never mind that most people think of choucroute garnie as a simple brasserie dish: That Boxler Pinot gris made love to it, coaxing every nuance of flavor out of the meats and answering them with its own battery of flavors. In the eloquent words of the immortal Brillat-Savarin, Yum!

Chianti Rufina … Villa Selvapiana … Riserva Bucerchiale … Glorious!

January 21, 2016

About a week back, I opened a bottle of a ten-year-old red wine, and I was immediately overwhelmed by how wonderful it smelled and tasted. You might not think that unusual, but for reasons I’ll explain below, my wine-and-food intake has been drastically curtailed through most of December and January, my palate hasn’t been all that stellar, and we’ve consequently been dining on­ — and drinking ­– fairly simple stuff. So this was for me a truly grand moment, an Aha! There Is Life After All! experience.

bucerchialeThe wine was of a kind and producer I’ve not paid enough attention to in this blog, a Chianti Rufina from the zone’s premier producer, Villa Selvapiana: its Riserva Bucerchiale 2006 (boo chair k’YAH lay), to be precise. From the first swirl of my glass, the scent enticed me: rich cherry-based fruits, with woodsy, underbrushy overtones that cut right through my pain-pill-and-antibiotic fog. And the taste! Pure velvet on the palate, with a whole congeries of black cherry/frutta del bosco/funghi porcini flavors, all supported by an elegant earthiness – not minerality, mind you, but real earthiness. It was just lovely. It was attention-grabbing. It was a wine for even me, in my debilitated state, to pay serious attention to.

All that is exactly what I had expected, why I had chosen the wine in the first place. I needed to be reminded of some of the joys of living, and I knew Bucerchiale – a wine reliable in its greatness – could do that.

Let’s get down to basics. Chianti Rufina is the smallest (750 hectares in vines) of all the Chianti denominations, and by far the most different from the others – so different that many people think it should simply be called Rufina and not linked to Chianti at all. I’ve visited the zone, and I can tell you it’s a very different world from the zones of the Classico and the other Chiantis. It lies northeast of Florence, not really contiguous with any part of the Classico, and it has a totally different geology and therefore a distinctive wine terroir.

No cypresses and bay bushes here: It’s higher, hillier, wilder, more rugged, with pine trees and mountain laurel as its characteristic vegetation. It’s very easy to get lost here (I speak from experience) as what you thought was a highway dwindles to a road to a track to an end. There are castles here, to be sure – this is still Tuscany – but they look a lot more businesslike than any in the Classico, as if they might not too long ago have been working propositions. The whole feel of Rufina is of another age.

What Rufina does share with the Chiantis, and with most of the rest of Tuscany, is Sangiovese, but Rufina’s Sangiovese differs widely from the Tuscan norm. It has an underlying base of earth and clay that grounds the wine foursquare, so that, as beautifully soprano as the fruit may get in its best vintages, it never lacks a complementary bass to round it. In my mind, this is a great, great terroir whose potential has not yet been fully exploited, save by a few producers, most notably the Frescobaldi, whose Castello di Nippozano is probably their best wine, and Villa Selvapiana.

Villa Selvapiana

Villa Selvapiana is an ancient property that has been in the hands of the Giuntini family since 1827. There are 58 hectares of vines, and many more of carefully tended olive trees, as well as a large tract of forest. The cru riserva Bucerchiale was born in 1979, under the watchful eye of consulting enologist Franco Bernabei, then a young man and now one of Tuscany’s pre-eminent consulting enologists, who still oversees the production of Villa Selvapiana’s wines.

Franco BernabeiI’ve visited Selvapiana a few times, and Bernabei has given me several verticals of Bucerchiale, so I can honestly say I know this wine well. It has vintage variations, to be sure – some years are lighter, some heavier, some with bigger fruit, others more earthy – but part of the greatness of Bucerchiale is its consistency, its recognizability from year to year, even as it ages and evolves. It starts out drinkable and just gets better and better, more and more interesting. I truly think it one of Italy’s finest red wines. I know I’m heaping on a lot of praise here, but for all the years I’ve loved this wine, to me it feels as if I am finally paying a debt I’ve owed for a long, long time.

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Now for something completely different. I’ve been essentially out of commission for most of December and January because of a hip replacement that ran into some nasty complications, requiring a second surgery, hospital time, and a battery of painkillers and antibiotics that I seriously think could paralyze an ox. (Perhaps I flatter myself.) Anyhow, I am only now slowly returning to normal human functioning, and for some time yet I’m not going to be up to attending the wine events where I make many of the new discoveries that I tell you about here. Consequently, there will be longer than usual intervals between new posts on this blog, and I may have to outright take a few weeks off for R&R. So bear with me please: I promise you my usual irascible self will be back as soon as possible.

Endings, and Maybe Some Beginnings

January 8, 2016

2016 snuck in on little cat’s feet in my neighborhood, shrouded by soft mist and a rising fog from the Hudson that, along with some pain pills for my outraged hip, had me asleep well before the canonical New Year’s Eve moment of rooting and tooting. This holiday season has been an ambivalent one for me, with unanticipated post-operative pain vying with the unnaturally warm weather to keep most thoughts of seasonally appropriate celebration at a distance. Plus – a side effect of my medications – my appetite and capacity have fallen to next to nothing. So there have been no big, year-end whoop-di-dos here, though Diane and I have managed a few low-key relishings of our survival and mutual company – probably the best way of all to mark the holidays in any event.

For you, o faithful reader, the consequence of all that is that there will be no connected narrative to hold this post together – just a series of musings, prompted by a few of the bottles with which we measured the end of 2015. Milestones, of a vinous and vital sort.

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champagneAndre Clouet Champagne Brut Rose Numero 5 nv. This year, this lovely bubbly has become my go-to Champagne for serving to guests who drink Champagne and not labels. It has body, it has elegance, it has compatibility with all sorts of canapés and more substantial dishes, and most of all it has the kind of palate-caressing flavor that makes you stop mid-sip and just enjoy. I am usually a fan of rosé Champagne primarily as a dinner companion, but I like this one everywhere. Something about the complexity of its flavor, the paradoxical lightness and weight of its body, reminds me each time I drink it of the excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first seriously began exploring Champagne and discovering, with some naïve amazement, the variety of its pleasures beyond just bubbles. Snows of yesteryear, eh?  A very appropriate sensation for the end of one year and the start of another.

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villa bucciVilla Bucci Verdicchio riserva 2006. No point beating around the bush here: This is flat-out a great white wine and a textbook example of how white wines can age. I am constantly amazed that Verdicchio hasn’t really caught on in this country. It is an excellent grape variety, and the best examples from its homeland, Italy’s Adriatic-facing Appenine slopes in the Marche, show not only the variety’s intriguing flavors but also the land’s distinctive minerality. This bottle partnered brilliantly with Diane’s sea scallops Nantais to create one of the best wine and food matches of our holiday season. Ampelio Bucci, the genial and devoted caretaker of his family’s ancestral properties, consistently produces what is always one of the best (very often, the best) Verdicchio of them all. His wines have been constantly reliable over years and years, always big, elegant, and distinctive. One of the New Year’s resolutions that I know I’m going to keep is that our home will never be without some.

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ormes de pezChateau Les Ormes de Pez 1989. What memories this wine evokes!  This was one of the first small chateaux I tasted back when I first began learning there was more to Bordeaux than shippers’ Medocs and out-of-my-financial-league premiers crus. Les Ormes de Pez was and remains a classic, even though only a cru bourgeois. Every time I drink it, it reminds me why I love St. Estephe. It has all the elegance and balance that the great wines of Bordeaux specialize in, and on top of that the lovely little rasp of the (to my mind and palate) utterly distinctive St. Estephe terroir. I still don’t understand why no St. Estephe wine was ever named a premier cru. What are Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – chopped liver? They cost, of course, many times what Les Ormes de Pez does, which is still a bargain in current releases. We used to buy the ‘66 for $3 a bottle; now that’s around $100 if you can find it – and if I could find it, I’d happily pay the fee. $100 is cheap these days for Bordeaux. Pity what’s happened to Bordeaux prices.

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brunelloBarbi Brunello Riserva 1977. This part of this post, alas, is a funeral service. This bottle was dead, deeply, profoundly dead, though remembered with great fondness. The bottle had been recorked at the winery several decades ago, but it couldn’t survive in my less-than optimal storage. Or perhaps it had just reached the end of its natural span. It’s always hard to tell with a wine of this age.

This was the last bottle of a case of Barbi 1977 Riserva that I received somewhere back in the mid-to-late ‘80s as part of my winning the Barbi Prize for journalism about Brunello di Montalcino. It was a great honor and a grand occasion: Francesca Colombini Cinelli herself, the grande dame of Montalcino winemaking, travelled to New York to make the presentation. 

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The wines drank wonderfully for years, with all the paradoxical muscle and grace, smoothness and asperity of classic Brunello. I guess I kept this one just a bit too long. They will all be remembered – and missed.

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Les ClosI had a similar experience a few days earlier with a 2002 Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, a wine that by all rights should have been splendid. But no: this bottle was as oxidized as a wine can get. A lesson to me for 2016: Drink my older wines while they and I both survive.

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Let me finish up this hail-and-farewell with two producers whose wines will be around for a long time to come, Vallana and Produttori di Barbaresco. Both are Piedmont producers who have long been important in their zones and increasingly so on the American market. Both are some of the finest bargains in the entire wine field, offering top-flight examples of their denominations at what are very affordable prices.

spannaFirst up: we drank a Vallana Spanna 2011, a mostly Nebbiolo wine from the northern Piedmont, still in its youth. Back when Vallana made its first entry in the US market, in the 1960s and 70s, its Spannas were famous for their ageability, and many 10- to 20-year-old bottles were available. Such is not the case now, but the wine still shows all the capacity to age that it ever had. And if palatal memory doesn’t deceive me, the Vallana fruit, as cultivated by the Vallana grandchildren, Francis and Marina, now is even more ample and more refined, with a mouth-flooding juiciness that makes the wines supremely drinkable at any age. This particular bottle of Spanna was the last I had on hand, but my top New Year’s resolution is to fix that ASAP.

barbarescoFinally, a bottle of Produttori di Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 1999 rounded off our holidays – in a literal sense, since it was the wine that we drank with a New Year’s Day dinner. By now, everybody who knows Piedmont wine should know that the Produttori di Barbaresco consistently offers the unquestioned best value in the Alba zone. Its many cooperating growers between them control huge swathes of Barbaresco’s best vineyards and crus, and under the direction of Aldo Vaca, as knowledgable and understated a winemaker as any in Piedmont, the results are always worth drinking – in difficult years, sound and durable, in great years, off-the-charts wonderful.

Most wine journalists would agree with that assessment, just as most wine journalists have a kind of mental reservation that limits the praise they confer – maybe because it’s a co-op, and there is all the glamor of the single grower/artisan as opposed to the supposed “industrial” operation of a co-op. Let me start 2016 by saying that’s nonsense: The individual growers of Produttori di Barbaresco, and the winemaking skills of Aldo Vaca, between them make wines that stand on a par with any from the Barbaresco zone. These are simply great wines at great prices. My intention is to get more of them.

And so we turn the page from 2015 to 2016 – a look back, and a peek forward. Good luck and good wine to all of us! I have a feeling we’re going to need both.

No, I Haven’t Forgotten Champagne

December 24, 2015

The holidays were already upon us, and I hadn’t done any of my obligatory wine-journalist holiday Champagne stories. But there it was: The day of the New York Wine Press Holiday Champagne Luncheon had arrived. Sixteen prestige cuvée Champagnes were served. The Brasserie made special efforts this year to present a lunch even better and more elegant than usual, because this – our 13th such feast – was our last at this near-historic location: The Brasserie will close after Christmas.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how extraordinary an event this was, with so many examples of such high-caliber Champagnes over several courses of dishes chosen to show them at their best. And I – poor I – had had hip replacement surgery just 2½ weeks previously, and at that moment was taking strong painkillers as well as antibiotics, with which I had been strictly cautioned not to drink alcohol. So what did I do?

Sip and spit, my friends. Sip and spit. And occasionally swallow, when I just couldn’t stand abstinence any longer.

So here I am, keyboard in hand once again, heroically beating down my post-operative pain so as to altruistically – I do it all for you, my loyal readers, all for you – and conscientiously report on the best of these best bottles. Believe me, this was hard work. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Honest.

Wine Press Menu

A lovely menu, as you can see, and an imposing array of wines. Bargain hunters might as well stop reading now: All these wines are expensive, some almost prohibitively so. The Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 – a brilliant wine from a superb vintage – topped the scale at a suggested retail price of $367 a bottle, and the Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill was next at $250. Clearly, these are not quaffing or clambake wines, but the most special bottles for the most special occasions.

To a certain extent, tasting wines of this caliber becomes an exercise in looking for flaws, so you can find a reason, after allowing for the differences of vintage and house style, to prefer one wine to another. I can’t say these were all flawless wines, but I couldn’t find one that I didn’t like. Most were big, but their heft was uniformly worn gracefully, so all seemed supple and live on the palate. In fact, the oldest wine in the set – the Henriot Cuvee des Enchanteleurs Brut 2000 – seemed among the freshest of them all, a big, elegant, complex wine, with years of life seemingly left in it. Henriot has long been among my favorite producers, and this particular wine was probably my favorite of the day.

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Flight One

Flight 1-a

In the first flight, I ever so slightly preferred the Lamiable Les Meslaines Grand Cru 2008, though Ed McCarthy, who selected the wines for the occasion and commented on all of them, thought it a bit too young – which it no doubt is.

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Flight Two

Flight 2-a

The second flight was more challenging. These wines were all a touch fuller and more complex than the first flight. I couldn’t name a clear favorite and dithered back and forth between the exhilarating Piper-Heidsieck Rare Brut 2002 and the forceful Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2006.

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Flight Three

Flight 3-a

The next course and flight again ratcheted the heft and complexity stakes up a bit higher, each of these four wines being so distinct from the others as to make comparisons pretty pointless. I found the Cristal surprisingly light (for Cristal), the Comtes de Champagnes funky in the nose though lovely on the palate, the Belle Epoque complex and intriguing but not as full as I would have wished for, and the Mesnil sur Oger marked by very unusual – and a little unsettling – fresh hay and wheat scents. I’d love to have another go at this flight on a medication-free day.

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Flight Four

Flight 4-a

Of the final five wines, there is very little I can say. They are all great Champagnes, all classic, and all showed superbly with the rare duck breast. Bollinger, Pol Roger, and Krug are the heaviest hitters of a line-up of heavy hitters, while the Dom Perignon and the Cuvee des Enchanteleurs showed overwhelming elegance and complexity. As I said before, my palate tilts toward the Henriot house style, but there isn’t a one of these wines that I wouldn’t happily drink at any opportunity. Maybe to celebrate when I finally finish rehab . . .

I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t acknowledge here the splendid work done this year, as every preceding year, by Harriet Lembeck, chair of the New York Wine Press, and Ed McCarthy, its “Champagne Procurer General,” and Sharon Colabello, the Brasserie’s Director of Catering. That team did a wonderful job in putting together this seamless, informative, enjoyable, and thoroughly impressive occasion.

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“Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”

Morellino and Montecucco: Two More Ways To Say Sangiovese

December 14, 2015

sangioveseSangiovese is the great red wine grape of central Italy, just as Nebbiolo is that of the north and Aglianico of the south. And just like those other two, Sangiovese is grown all throughout its area in many different soil and climate conditions. It has its already-famous avatars – Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino – and many other incarnations that haven’t yet broken through into consumer awareness. In the cases of Morellino di Scansano and Montecucco, that is to the consumers’ advantage: Neither of these fine Sangiovese-based wines yet commands the prices that their quality deserves.

I doubt either appellation is instantly recognizable to most American wine lovers, but they’re easy enough to localize. Both sit in the southwest corner of Tuscany, between the western edge of the Brunello zone and the sea, in the broad area known as the Tuscan Maremma (home also to such famous non-Sangiovese wines as Sassicaia). Montecucco is the more inland of two appellations, butting right up against the southwest corner of the Brunello zone, which lies just across the Orcia river. Scansano – the name of the major town of the Morellino appellation – lies further west, and the Morellino zone (Morellino is the local name for Sangiovese) extends almost to the sea, taking in even parts of the coastal Grosseto township.

This is hill country throughout, still quite wild in spots. Boar are ubiquitous and can be a problem in the vineyards. Both zones are cooled by winds from the sea and protected from Apennine cold by the extinct volcano Mount Amiata, on whose slopes some of Montecucco’s vineyards spread. So exposures and elevations, and opportunities to make great wine, are as varied and as distinctive as are those of the Chianti or Brunello zones.

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mt amiata

Mount Amiata

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I had a chance last month to taste some representative bottles of recent vintages of both Morellino and Montecucco side by side, which was as revealing and informative as it was pleasurable. The event was sponsored by the consortia of Morellino and Montecucco and designed to show another face – or faces – of Sangiovese, an aim that succeeded admirably. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited both zones some years ago, so this wasn’t news to me, though I gather it was to some of the journalists present, which only indicates the absolute necessity for Italian producers to keep reintroducing themselves in the US: Both press corps and consumers are changing all the time, and they need steady reinforcements of this kind of information and experience.

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morellino 4

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In general, I could say that the Morellino wines resembled Chiantis in their style and food-friendly acidity, while the Montecucco wines seemed more like Brunellos in their generally greater body and structure. Here are the individual wines presented and my very brief comments on each:

Fattoria Montellassi “Mentore” Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2014 – Very soft and mulberry tasting; excellent fruit, good acidity.

Terre di Fiori Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2014 – Similar in flavor to the preceding wine, but a touch sturdier and slightly more structured. Quite nice.

San Gabriele Arcangelo “Pavone” Montecucco Rosso DOC 2013 – Very much more Brunello-like than the preceding two wines; biggish, with good fruit and abundant soft tannins.

Vignaioli Morellino di Scansano “Vigna Benefizio” Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2014 – Lovely underbrush aroma, excellent fruit and balance, fine Sangiovese character. A very nice wine, ideal for drinking young and fresh.

Campinuovi Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG 2013 – Pitch-perfect Sangiovese character and balance, with delightful freshness. Some firm tannins show in the finish; very Montecucco in style.

Val di Toro Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2013 – Again, a lovely fresh nose with some slightly raspy tannins (from barriques?) in the finish; on the palate, very soft and enjoyable.

Collemassari Montecucco Rosso Riserva DOC 2012 – Big and soft despite abundant tannins. Very fine now, but clearly can age for some time.

Ferdinando Guicciardini Massi di Mandorlaia “I Massi” Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2013 – The extended Guicciardini clan has ancient roots in Tuscany, and different branches of it have been landowners and wine makers for centuries. This wine reflects that long experience: Beautifully fruited and structured, it is now a touch austere and needs a bit of time to soften. A very fine wine.

Il Boschetto “Botte N° 11” Montecucco Rosso Riserva DOC 2011 – Rather simple and soft for a Montecucco wine, but showing beautiful fruit.

Erik Banti “Ciabatta” Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2012 – Erik Banti is a true pioneer of quality wine-making in Scansano: He has been at it, garnering numerous Tre Bicchieri and other Italian awards, for nearly 40 years. Ciabatta is his flagship wine, and it’s a beauty. This bottle was just lovely, with excellent fruit and an unobtrusive but very big structure that promises excellent bottle evolution. For me, this was the best wine of the day.

Basile “Ad Agio” Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva DOCG 2011 – Giovan Battista Basile not only makes wine but is also serving as president of the Montecucco Consortium. He said he vinified this wine just like a Brunello (his vineyards lie just across the river from the Brunello zone), and it showed: Still firm tannins partially mask enormous, fine fruit and a big structure. The wine needs time, but promises to reward it.

The Montecucco Consortium also presented the day’s lone white wine, Ribusieri Chiaranotte Vermentino DOC 2014. In addition to having a lovely name, Clear Night, this was a textbook Vermentino, clean and crisp, with wonderful herbal and mineral notes. I found it completely enjoyable and went back to it several times during the tasting as it opened in the glass. Very nice indeed. And a good showing by both Consortia.

Collectible Italian Reds

December 3, 2015

In the December 1 issue of the Wine Enthusiast, Kerin O’Keefe published an article called Italy’s Most Collectible Wines. Focusing exclusively on red wines, she surveyed the last approximately 20 years, singling out the best vintages and producers for each of her chosen great denominations – Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, Brunello, Bolgheri, and Taurasi – and offering a single exemplary bottle for each vintage.

okeefe page

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Given the ever-irksome space limitations of print publication, which are immensely burdensome to any writer with something to say, she did a great job with so potentially huge and shapeless a subject. Very few American wine writers – very few writers in English, in fact – know Italian wines as well as KO’K, and she nailed the important vintages exactly for each of her wines. No one – not even a notorious carper like me – could find fault with her chosen examples either. I wish she had had room for more individual producers’ names, and I’d bet KO’K does too – that’s where those space limitations really hurt. “Here’s your assignment: Tell us all about the great vintages and producers of Barolo (don’t forget to explain what Barolo is) in 250 words.” As the immortal Alfred E. Neuman was wont to say, Aaaarrrrggghhh!

For those who don’t follow WE, here’s a brief summary of what O’Keefe fitted in:

Barolo
Vintages:  1999, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2010
Producers:   Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Mascarello, Brezza, Massolino, Paolo Scavino

Barbaresco
Vintages:
  2001, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Produttori del Barbaresco, Cascina delle Rose, Giuseppe Cortese, Roagna, Gaja

Amarone
Vintages:
 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Giuseppe Quintarelli, Tommasi, Cesari, Tedeschi, Masi

Brunello
Vintages:  1995, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2010
Producers: Col d’Orcia, Lisini, Costanti, Biondi Santi, Il Marroneto

Bolgheri
Vintages:
 2001, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012
Producers:  Le Macchiole, Michele Satta, Antinori, Ornellaia, Tenuto San Guido (Sassicaia)

Taurasi
Vintages:
 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Mastroberardino, Contrade di Taurasi (Lonardi), Guastaferro, Terredora di Paolo, Feudi di San Gregorio
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My only serious quibble with this list is with Bolgheri and its profusion of French varieties, of all of which I am far less a fan than the vast majority of wine journalists – though I am pleased to see the inclusion of the first-rate winemaker Michele Satta. I would rather have used the limited space available for a few off-the-beaten-track great wines – some Gattinaras or Caremas, for example, or Chianti Rufina, especially Selvapiana, or Sicily’s Palari or some Etna wines. But this is a small area of disagreement with a very authoritative listing of Italy’s red crème de la crème – if that isn’t too repulsive a metaphor for what is meant to be high praise.

Madeira, The Methuselah of Wines

November 23, 2015

Asked to name some of the world’s great dessert wines, casual wine drinkers would probably have a hard time remembering Madeira. Sauternes, sure, plus a handful of other French specialties. Port, almost certainly, and probably Sherry. Maybe even trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings. But that lonely little island in the deeps of the Atlantic, a few hundred miles off the coast of Morocco,

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where they speak Portuguese and grow Portuguese varieties and age their wines forever? That is more often than not forgotten. Which is a plain shame, since well-aged Madeira is almost certainly the greatest dessert wine of them all. Certainly, it is the longest lived of all wines.

A few weeks back, Rui Falcão of the Madeira Institute presented a seminar in New York on Madeira. It was a fascinating event, filled with the kind of information and lore that we winos love. Falcão started by saying simply that everything that kills every other kind of wine is exactly what makes Madeira great. After that, things started to get interesting.

It turns out he wasn’t joking. The two great enemies of most wines are heat and oxygen. Madeira couldn’t begin to exist without prolonged exposure to both of them. When we describe another wine as maderized, we mean it’s dead – oxidized, perhaps even cooked-tasting. That’s where Madeira’s distinctiveness starts. All Madeira, of whatever type (more about that later), Falcão said, is kept for years before it’s bottled, sometimes for decades, in large barrels in above-ground storage without temperature controls.

This on an island off the coast of Morocco. Granted, the Atlantic moderates the temperatures somewhat – but still we’re in the tropics, where the first wonder is that they can make wine at all, and the second is how they treat it.

vineyards

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Throw out the rule book: Madeira plays a different game. Its wines are driven neither by variety nor terroir: like Champagne, Madeiras are wines that are shaped by the process of their making more than by any other factor. Even fermentation does not proceed “naturally.” It is always stopped, at the moment of the maker’s choosing (according to the grapes he’s working with and the degree of sweetness he wants in the wine), by the addition of neutral alcohol (originally derived from grapes).

In the days of sailing ships, Madeira producers used to send their wines on trips around the world in barrels stored below decks in unheated, uncooled holds, in order to expose them to the kind of temperature extremes and the kind of motion that would turn other wines into undrinkable bilge. Now makers accomplish the same thing more quickly and more economically by repeatedly heating the wines and allowing them to cool down over a period of months. After that, the wines selected for the best grade of Madeira are stored in casks stacked on the warmest level of the winery for any number of years. Literally so: they lie there for minimally three years, with no maximum other than the maker’s hopes.

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barrels

 

Madeira can take it: Falcão told us that he once tasted a 300-year-old Madeira. “Was it OK?” he asked rhetorically. “No: It was great.” I can’t affirm or dispute that from my own experience, but I’ve been lucky enough to have several times tasted 75-year old Bual, and I can assure you that that wine was nectar – probably the most elegant, complex, fortified wine I have ever drunk. It had so much acidity, and so many different flavor elements playing through it, that I hardly noticed that it was lightly sweet. In its evolution, the sugars had become very minor players in the wine’s character.

Bual is one of the grape varieties used in Madeira, and each is associated with a sweetness level. Sercial is the driest, then Verdelho, then Bual (sometimes Boal), and Malvasia – Shakespeare’s Malmsey – always the sweetest. These are all white grapes: They are the most prized and are always mentioned on the label. Tinta negra, the only red grape used, can be produced at any sweetness level – the label will say – and until recently was never named.

There are between six and eight producers; the number is unclear because some consolidation may be taking place. But there are 1,200 growers, who own a total of 1,200 hectares, and each of them has long-standing, sometimes generation-spanning, ties to a specific producer. Falcão said that the smallest grower was a lady who cultivated three vines, and every year sold their grapes to the same house. That kind of quirky charm seems almost to epitomize Madeira.

Barolo, Maps, Masnaghetti – A Winning Triple Play

November 12, 2015

Alessandro Masnaghetti has created some of the finest wine maps ever, and his detailed chartings of the Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards stand as landmarks – in every conceivable sense – of those great zones. Now he has published a book, called Barolo MGA: L’Enciclopedia delle Grandi Vigne del Barolo; in English (the book is completely bilingual), The Barolo Great Vineyards Encyclopedia.

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Barolo MGA image

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As befits its title, its aims, and the almost eight years of labor Masnaghetti put into it, this is a very big book: 12 by 8½ inches, 407 pages, hundreds of maps, all entries in both Italian and fluent English (Daniel Thomases is responsible for the English translation). It has to be big: It locates, maps, and describes every single one of the 177 geographic sites that have been approved for use on labels. That is what the Italian acronym MGA stands for: Additional Geographic Mentions. Over and above that, it contains the first-ever list of every site name, real or invented, that has appeared on Barolo labels since the 1980s.

For the casual wine drinker, all this is no doubt overkill, but for the deep-dyed Barolo lover, it is fascinating information. Here, for example, is the map of the Cannubi MGA, showing clearly its relation to all the sub-sites that are entitled to use of the Cannubi name, which subsequent pages will describe in detail.

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cannubi map

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On the page facing this map, Masnaghetti gives all the physical data about the site – dimensions, elevations, exposures, varieties planted – plus there is a lengthy paragraph listing all of the producers (and their appropriate labels) entitled to claim the cru. Between those two entries sits a concise and extremely informative description of Cannubi:

Considered by many the heart of the Cannubi hill and the whole sub-zone in fact with the exclusive right to utilize this renowned name, this MGA consists of various sectors within its confines. Unquestionably the most famous is the one which looms over the town of Barolo itself and, in general, enjoys an excellent southeastern exposure and equally positive contours and overall layout (at least in the upper-middle part of the hill). The other two sectors, smaller in size, have decidedly cooler exposures where Nebbiolo expresses its full potential only in warmer vintages. At their best, the wines of Cannubi are distinguished, above all in their youth, by elegant and, at the same time, austere tannins.

Readers familiar with Masnaghetti’s maps of the various townships of the Barolo zone already know how precise and useful they and the information they contain can be. There are very few people who know as much about Barolo – both the wine and the zone – as Alessandro Masnaghetti, and none who are so devotedly making that knowledge available to the wine public. For information about this and his other projects, look to enogea.it.

Barolo MGA is available in the US from The Rare Wine Company. It costs $85 – an excellent Christmas present for a Barolo-loving friend or your utterly deserving self.

Old World/New World: Cahors/Malbec

November 2, 2015

I have never been a great fan of New World wines. For my palate, they are – generally – too fruit-forward and simplistic, lacking in depth and complexity, and often too tannic and insufficiently acidic to match well with food.

I recognize, however, that what I call deficiencies many wine lovers regard as plusses, and that that style has many admirers. Just read the tasting notes in any issue of The Wine Spectator to see what I mean. More important, New World wines are evolving (so are Old World wines, for that matter, but that is a topic for another post). Many of them have been, by my standards, steadily improving, becoming more food-friendly, which I think is crucial. Almost as important, many have dropped the almost confrontational, fruit-forward style in favor of an increase in elegance and complexity that makes them for me much more interesting to drink.

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Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background

Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background

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I had this change underlined recently when I had the opportunity to taste a few Malbecs from Bodega Trivento in Argentina’s Mendoza Valley. I don’t attend many of these occasions, anticipating disappointment, but it seemed about time I opened my mind and my palate to see what was going on below the Equator. I’m glad I did.

Malbec first entered my consciousness decades ago as the major grape variety in Cahors. The town from which the wine takes its name is deep in the heart of La France profonde, situated picturesquely within a horseshoe bend of the river Lot in Quercy – truffle, chestnut, foie gras, and game country, well worth a gastronomically minded traveller’s attention.

City of Cahors

 

Its wine, hearty, deep, a bit rustic but capable of long aging, was once almost legendary in England as “the black wine of Cahors” for its depth of color and flavor. I loved it. Diane and I even made a pilgrimage there back in the Seventies, when Cahors was just beginning to reclaim the importance it had lost with the devastations of the phylloxera, and I still recall with great pleasure some of the meals we ate and wines we drank there.

Malbec was once a very important variety in France, grown in almost every significant wine region, even Bordeaux. It was almost always used in blends, rarely as a monovarietal wine. In South America, where it has established a new homeland in Chile and especially in Argentina, it is used both ways. In Argentina the monovarietal version seems to be both the most esteemed and – for my very European palate – the most successful.

Germán di CesareTasting with Trivento’s winemaker Germán di Cesare, I tried the red blend Amado Sur (70% Malbec, 20% Bonarda, 10% Syrah) and three vintages (2011, 2012, 2013) of its 100% Malbec Golden Reserve. (Charles Scicolone gives a full account of this tasting on his blog). These all derive from high-altitude vines, and they are grown on their own roots from pre-phylloxera stock. I was impressed by the wines, both for their intrinsic drinkability – no overpowering tannins, good structural acidity, prominent but not palate-drowning fruit – and because they reminded me of old-style Cahors.

In my book, that is very definitely a compliment, and it’s what prompted me to try re-tasting the Golden Reserve Malbec at home, side by side with a respectable Cahors, Le Petit Clos from Triguedina, a long-established Cahors producer.

two malbecs

Both wines were from the 2011 vintage (that made the Trivento about six months older than the Petit Clos). The Golden Reserve was 100% Malbec, the Petit Clos 80% Malbec and 20% Merlot. We tasted them both by themselves and with food (a broiled steak) and finished them up over the next several days. Both held well and were still pleasantly drinkable a few days on.

Both wines showed the deep, dark coloration that gave Cahors its traditional name. The Cahors had an earthy, grapey aroma, strong and assertive. So too did the Golden Reserve Malbec, with a slightly more evident berry note.

On the palate, some differences began to show. Le Petit Clos felt smooth and soft, with good underlying tannins and decent acidity. It offered blackberry/mulberry flavors, with a hint of black pepper, and a long, slightly tobacco-y finish. It impressed me as a somewhat rustic wine, hearty and enjoyable.

The Trivento Malbec showed its New World origins clearly in its fruit-forwardness, which was the initial palatal impression it made – all dark berries and plums. To my surprise, however, that ostensibly big fruit attack was mollified and balanced by its acidity, more perceptible than that of the Cahors, making it lighter in the mouth. It too finished long, with berries and leather. Overall, despite the differences it was quite comparable to the Petit Clos: The family resemblance of the two wines’ fruit stood out clearly. I found the Trivento thoroughly enjoyable though perhaps a bit simpler, at least at this age.

Both wines are definitely capable of a good amount of bottle-aging and development. And both seemed a tad more sophisticated when tasted alongside that juicy steak, which may seem like no news at all – except that in the not far distant past it used not to be the case with many New World wines. As far as I am concerned, that is very good news, as is the fact that you can buy an almost-Cahors-equivalent wine at a very reasonable price (around $22).