The Wine Version of March Madness

March 11, 2019

By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

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And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines I

February 28, 2019

If you’re a committed wine lover and need your fix every day, it’s a great advantage to live in New York City. The variety of fine wine available is unmatched anywhere in the world, and shopping is a snap. Let it sleet and storm outside: You can sit at your desk – perhaps sipping a glass of wine – and let your search engine (Wine-Searcher is a good one) investigate for you. That’s especially handy if you know more or less the kind of wine you’re seeking.

Even handier is the search service provided by several of the larger retail shops in New York, which allows you to rummage through their entire inventory by any of several different criteria.
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I’m especially fond of one that Astor Wine and Spirits offers: searching by price range. That’s useful for any number of reasons, but I especially like that it offers me things I might not have thought of, wines outside my usual Italian and French go-to categories. We all get into ruts: This helps push me out of them. Twenty minutes of online browsing and I can put together a case of 12 different whites and another of 12 different reds at prices I like – say between $10 and $20 for everyday wines – and they will probably be delivered within 24 hours. For an aging wino, it doesn’t get much easier.
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Let me be clear: When I say everyday wines, I mean every day. Diane and I have wine with dinner every night. All right, maybe once or twice a year we have beer, but 99 times out of 100 we opt for wine – and like most people in this galaxy, we can’t afford to drink great wine every time. Not that I haven’t done my best to raise the level of our daily bottle by, for decades now, buying wines young and unready but at reasonable prices and squirreling them away for as long as I could.

Besides, it’s not just wine we care about: It’s also and especially what Italians call the abbinamento – coordinating the wine with the food it accompanies. That’s crucial to making an everyday dinner something to relish. You have to pay attention to the way the wine and the food mesh. Much as I love mature Barolo and Barbaresco, I don’t want to drink them with a dish of frankfurters and beans. It’s disproportionate – and besides, good franks and beans are estimable in their own right and deserve a decent wine that works well with them. Don’t send a Brunello to do what a Bardolino can do better, don’t open a Beaune Premier Cru where a Beaujolais Villages is what’s needed.

(Incidentally, the above examples illustrate the first principle I laid out centuries ago in The Right Wine, my book about wine and food matching: Scale is crucial. I feel even more strongly about the second principle declared in that book: Acidity is what makes a wine food-friendly. But that’s a topic for a different post. End of digression.)

Now, just what sort of everyday wines am I talking about? Well, here’s the case of white wines, all under $20, that I recently purchased, most of which I tasted first as an aperitif (we all need to keep up our strength while cooking) and then with dinner.

 

Alsace Auxerrois Leon Manbach 2017 – Very pleasant, light, but substantial enough to handle a choucroute. Nice white-flower and mineral nose, round, but with enough acidity to work with food. Quite decent.

Alvarinho Couto de Mazedo 2016 (Vinho Verde) – Very nice Albariño, crisp, fresh, aromatic: Good aperitif, fine with fish.

Alvarinho Regueiro 2016 (Vinho Verde) – quite fine: rounder and fuller than the preceding wine, more dinner wine than aperitif. Excellent with a roasted orata (sea bream).

Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc 2017 – excellent Beaujolais producer. Nice unwooded Chardonnay, with round fruit and great freshness. Very enjoyable.

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Classic Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet 2016 – This is a Muscadet producer I normally like very much, but this bottle was a bit of a disappointment. Drunk by itself, it tasted too much of oak. Food wiped that out to some extent, but it never rose to the level of crispness and sharpness I had hoped for.

De Cranne Bordeaux Sec 2016 – Should have been really interesting (the blend is 40% Sauvignon gris, 25% Muscadelle, and 35% Semillon), but turned out to be somewhat coarse and disappointing.

Gavi di Gavi Podere Merlina 2017 – Not a big, round Gavi, but a lighter-bodied, mineral-inflected example, with a marked and enjoyable citrus bite. Fine as aperitif and with lighter fare.

Meyer-Fonné Alsace Gentil 2016 – A lovely Alsace wine, so floral that the initial taste seemed German, but it rounded beautifully with a pheasant pâté and roasted chicken thighs.

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Ribolla Gialla Ronchi di Cialla 2017 (Friuli Colli Orientali) – quite fine and characteristic. Stood up beautifully to a choucroute garnie, and I don’t know how much more you can ask of a white wine.

Rioja Blanca Real Rubio 2017 – A bit disappointing: old-fashioned, slightly oxidized white, not unpleasant but with no charm.

Timorasso Colli del Timorasso Ricci 2014 – A lovely light Timorasso, soft-bodied but with sufficient acid; floral aroma and delicate palate of dry pear and apricot. Very enjoyable.

Weszeli Grüner Veltliner Langenlois 2017 – Very good and characteristic Grüner, with nice balance, body, and minerality. Partnered quite nicely with Chinese dumplings and home-made egg foo young. Bright, light on palate.

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I grant you that this is not an earthshakingly exotic list of wines: Had I wished, I could have cast a much wider net. But these are the kind of wines I like, so this time around I stuck with them. Others, of course are free to be as experimental as they wish: There were 88 other wines on the list I was choosing from. Have fun!

One Fine Wine: Benito Ferrara’s Greco di Tufo

February 18, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

This is a post I should have written years ago. Greco di Tufo is a wine I love, drink often, and always enjoy deeply on the palate and in the mind. It reverberates with me, and no Greco di Tufo does so more than Benito Ferrara’s, especially his cru, Vigna Cicogna – the Stork Vineyard. It would be nice is there actually was one, nesting or feeding nearby, but the name is memorable enough even without the leggy bird itself.

I had a bottle of Ferrara’s 2016 Cicogna just a few weeks ago, to accompany an improvised dish of fresh cod and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. It was serendipitous in every respect, and the Greco just sang, even after the main dish was done and we had started cracking a few toasted hazelnuts and walnuts to finish the wine with: the Greco improvised a few notes to harmonize with them too.

I’ve admired Greco di Tufo for years, from back when Mastroberardino’s was almost the only example of the variety and appellation to be found on the American market. Mastro still makes one of the best examples of the breed, but many fine small growers in the Tufo zone have begun bottling their own wines, and Ferrara is one of the finest of the lot.

Just for clarity: Greco is the grape variety, Tufo the town in the center of the DOCG zone in Campania, in the province of Avellino. So all Greco di Tufo originates in a small, high and hilly area, where the soils are largely volcanic and richly laced with minerals, especially sulfur. Benito Ferrara’s vineyards, in fact, lie very close to the old Di Marzo sulfur mine, which for decades was the major employer in the area

It makes an odd picture: beautifully tended vineyards, hillsides thickly forested – still – with chestnut trees and hazelnuts, and a distinct whiff of sulfur in the clear air. The scent is often present in the wines of the zone also, sweetened and made welcoming by the other scents of fruit and forest that the grapes convey.

Greco can be a tough variety to work with. It ripens late – October – and that can be dicey for any grape, but especially for one that grows as high in the hills as Greco does. And it is quite thick-skinned, so a lot of coloring agents leach out in fermentation, making the new wine occasionally brownish, often dark gold, as if old and oxidized. This is a bit ironic, since Greco di Tufo, while thoroughly delightful to drink young, no matter what its color, is one of those remarkable white wines that ages quite well and continues to drink enjoyably for years – no matter what its color.

Benito Ferrara is a fourth-generation family estate, currently operated by Gabriella Ferrara and her husband Sergio Ambrosino. It’s not huge: 8 hectares of Greco di Tufo, 1 of Fiano di Avelino, and 3.5 of Taurasi. The Cicogna vineyard, at 1.5 hectares, forms a sizable fraction of it, and it is high, nearly 600 meters up.

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Several years ago, when I visited, Gabriella and Sergio let me taste, in addition to their prized Cicogna, wines from three other sites that went into their basic Greco di Tufo. I understate when I say I was impressed: I thought each of the three was delicious enough and distinctive enough to be bottled separately as a cru in its own right. This is first-rate terroir, and the Ferraras are making the most of it.

Incidentally, in the important reference book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, author Ian d’Agata calls Vigna Cicogna one of Italy’s ten best white wines, and I can’t say I disagree: This is just one fine wine, plain and simple.

 

Postscript: A DNA study has claimed that the Greco grape is the same variety as Asprinio. Jancis Robinson’s influential Wine Grapes accepts this claim, rather uncritically I think, since it is based on a very small sampling of both grapes. Allowing for all possible differences caused by soils, cultivation, and vinification, my palate can’t discern any similarity between the wines of the two, so I conclude that this study is flawed and more work needs to be done. I’m happy that Ian d’Agata is of the same opinion, for much the same reasons.

An Oenological Linguistic Trifecta

February 7, 2019

The recent publication of Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy (ArteVino, 2018) achieves a new high in the internationalization of wine, as well as being a serious accomplishment in wine criticism: It’s a fine English translation of a truly interesting Italian book about some wonderful French wine.

This attractive, informative volume by Camillo Favaro and Giampaolo Gravina was translated and edited by Burton Anderson in collaboration with Joanie Bonfiglio. Anderson also contributed a preface. The book has handsome photos by Maurizio Gjivovich, as well as a suite of clear and useful maps.

Italians have a different take on French wine than most Anglophone winos, a fact that made this book very interesting to me as a cultural or cross-cultural document. An inferiority complex about French wines used to color almost all my conversations with Italians about foreign wines, leading to the most preposterous overcompensations – for example, a young winemaker in Venezia-Giulia, many years ago, who had never travelled farther than Venice but who solemnly assured me that his indifferent white wine was as good as Chablis, which he had never tasted.

Fortunately, such episodes are now a thing of the rapidly receding past, and Italian winemakers these days are a lot more sophisticated. Most are much travelled, not just to their markets but also to their international colleagues and competitors. For many, that means what amounts to a pilgrimage to Burgundy, with which they often feel a deep affinity.

Most Italians even remotely professionally connected with wine – especially Piedmontese – are thinking about Burgundy when they talk about French wine. (The big exception to that gross generalization is Tuscany, where the ties to Bordeaux hold strong.)  Favaro and Gravina are typical in their passion for Burgundy, though far above average in the extent of their enthusiasm and their qualifications for writing about it.
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Camillo Favaro (left, above) runs both his family winery in the Piedmont and ArteVinoStudio, an agency devoted to creative communication and design work for wineries.

Giampaolo Gravina (right) is a professor of philosophy who has also had a long career as a wine journalist, most notably as one of the editors of L’Espresso’s annual Vini d’Italia.

Both have written books on wine, separately and in collaboration: This present work is an expansion and updating of their earlier Vini e Terre di Borgogna.

Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy has little to say about the large négociant firms. Its focus is on the smaller, largely family-owned domaines – some 200 of them. The authors know their business: Just as one example, their presentation of the Chablis of Dauvissat makes a point of praising the firm’s Petit Chablis, a lovely and often overlooked wine whose “aromatics and articulation are much superior to the appellation’s standards.”

They are similarly well informed about all the domaines they feature. I was impressed, for instance, with their discussion of the soil differences and consequent differing styles of Chambolle-Musigny, a wine that is one of my favorites and a Burgundy area I thought I knew well: I learned some new things in reading through this section – as I did also in reading about Nuits-Saint-Georges, another of my favorites.

I think that Favaro and Gravina are spot-on in their characterization of the producers they discuss: The better I know the wines in question, the more I agree with. For instance, their description of Henri Gouges’s 2015s: “despite their typical internal density, our tastings have brought to light a general fusion of fleshiness with surprisingly accessible, delicious juice.”  Absolutely right, for my palate.

The two writers often manage to convey a lot of information in a direct, no-words-wasted manner. To loop back to Chablis, they very concisely describe the near austerity of Dauvissat’s cellar regime (“fermentations in used barrels, no battonage, decantation and tartrate precipitation due to natural cold, no new barrels for the élevages”) before summarizing succinctly and gracefully the character of Dauvissat’s wines – to wit: “wines of rare transparency and expressive purity, but always vibrant and sincere, never lacking tension, and capable of aging very well while expressing with nonchalance extreme precision and stylistic self-awareness.”

Nonchalance may be a bit over the top, but by and large I wish I’d said that. The writing throughout is of that high level, beautifully conveyed by the translators. Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy was for me a very enjoyable, very informative, and very personal excursion to Burgundy, and I think it will be so for any lover of Burgundy’s wines.

In Memoriam: Beppe Colla

January 28, 2019

Beppe Colla died on January 15. Beppe was the patriarch of the Colla clan: Although mostly retired, he continued to advise his much younger brother Tino and his daughter Federica at their jointly owned estate, Poderi Colla. Before that, he had been the owner of the Prunotto winery and the winemaker who in the ‘70s and ‘80s guided Prunotto Barolo and Barbaresco to the heights of accomplishment and acclaim. He was 88 and, had he lived, would have enjoyed his 70th harvest this year.

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It is hard to overestimate Colla’s contribution to Alban winemaking, indeed to the whole Piedmontese wine world.

  • He was one of the pioneers who opened the way for Barolo and Barbaresco to achieve the kind of fame they now enjoy.
  • He made great wines before there was a single stainless steel tank or a notion of temperature-controlled fermentation anywhere in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.
  • He welcomed the new technology when it became available: At Prunotto, he used the first stainless steel fermenters ever seen in the Alba area.
  • He made the first cru Barolos and Barbarescos, a then-heretical act for which he was at the time severely criticized by the local establishment.

Along with Renato Ratti and a few other like-minded individuals, he founded the Ordine dei Cavalieri de Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba, a group that is widely credited with having spurred the modern revival of Piedmontese gastronomy, which immensely benefited the whole zone and every hungry tourist who has ever visited it.

At heart, for all his innovations and all the ways he altered the Piedmontese wine universe, Colla remained devoted to the traditional ideals of Barolo and Barbaresco: The wines had to taste first of the fruit and the soil, and of the technology never. At Prunotto, he crafted wines that became benchmarks of Barolo and Barbaresco. Even, I would add, of humbler varieties: I remember the incredible balance, intensity, juiciness, and encompassing elegance of the Barbera d’Alba that he drew from the Pian Romualdo site – Barbera that for my palate has not been equaled since, anywhere in the zone.

Throughout his career, he remained an uncomplicated person, devoted to his craft and his family, plain-spoken and shy of personal publicity. I had the pleasure of talking with Beppe Colla many times, over a good many years, and I always learned something from him: He was a trove of wine lore and viti/vinicultural information. But my characteristic memory of him will always be a simple one:  his shy smile of pleasure at the sight of someone enjoying his wines.

We have lost many fine winemakers in recent years – Bruno Giacosa, Beppe Rinaldi, Leonildo Pieropan, Antonio Mastroberardino, and now Beppe Colla. We are witnessing the end of the heroic era of Italian wine. A generation of giants is passing.

Snows of Yesteryear: Four Great French Wines

January 17, 2019

Around the holidays, and especially if friends are joining us for dinner, Diane sometimes elaborates our usually delicious, mostly Italianate dinners by undertaking a few complex French dishes, and I try to select wines to play up to them. This year – this past year, I must now remember to say – consciousness of the passing of time pushed me to open a battery of French beauties, the youngest a 14-year-old Burgundy and the most venerable a 52-year-old Bordeaux.

They were gorgeous, every one of them, and coordinated beautifully with the food. They were also a nostalgia trip, reminders of the kinds of flavors that got us hooked on wines in the first place, way back when newly minted assistant professors could afford serious Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Where are the snows of yesteryear indeed? Those days are gone forever, and so I fear are the kind of refined, restrained wines that were then the French norm. That incredibly elegant 1966 red Bordeaux was still live and lithe, though it had just 12 degrees of alcohol. We shall not see its like again.

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Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru 2004
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For our Christmas Eve dinner à deux, I opened this Drouhin Chambolle Musigny. Drouhin is my favorite Burgundy négociant, a house of the highest standards and impeccable reputation, for some years now committed to biodynamic production. Musigny for me is the quintessence of Burgundy, the small, sweet spot where all the magic of the Côte d’Or concentrates. If I could begin to afford it, I would drink its wines often; as my finances stand, they are rare special occasion wines. This one did not let me down.

This wine originates in several tiny parcels of Premier Cru vineyards that Drouhin owns, harvests, and vinifies together. (Tiny parcels, often only a few rows of vines, are quite common in Burgundy, where a hillside site may be divided among many owners.) After fermentation, the wine spent between 14 and 18 months in barrels. Of those, only 20% were new oak, so the Musigny Pinot noir’s rich cherry and earth flavors, and its scents of game and truffle, all showed through unmasked by any woodiness. The wine’s velvetiness results from the interplay of the grapes and wood, and shows all the customary elegance of the Drouhin style.

In the Côte d’Or, 2004 is remembered as the vintage of the marvelous September, whose sunshine and warmth transformed what had been shaping up as an iffy harvest into a splendid one. This wine showed just how splendid: its poise and grace and vitality promised years of life yet to come. A simply wonderful wine.
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Then came Christmas day, with good friends Charles and Michele joining us for dinner. To accompany a salade de confit de geziers, a roast duck, and a cheese platter, we progressed through three red Bordeaux: Les Ormes de Pez 2000, Pichon Baron de Longueville 1978, and Gruaud Larose 1966. They all seemed to make each other better, each solo helping to form a lovely concert.
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Château Les Ormes de Pez 2000
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Les Ormes de Pez is an old family favorite, one of the first Medoc wines that Diane and I ever drank together, and one we’ve loved ever since. A humble Cru Bourgeois St. Estèphe, it has always seemed to us superior to its ranking, with a distinctive taste of its commune’s gravelly soil and dark fruit, paradoxically light on the palate.

2000 was a brilliant vintage for all the Bordeaux appellations, and this bottle was a fine example of it, supple and live and graceful. These days, when so many of the grands crus have grown big, heavy, and powerful, I think more and more that the so-called “lesser wines” are now the champions of what was once the universal Bordeaux style.
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Château Pichon Baron de Longueville  1978
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Our second red had nothing humble about: Pichon Baron was ranked a second growth in the original 1855 classification, and it has maintained that place in quality and esteem. It’s a big estate, with over 70 hectares in vines, of which Cabernet sauvignon is about two-thirds, Merlot most of the balance, with tiny amounts of Cabernet franc and Petit verdot – the classic Bordeaux blend. It’s a Pauillac and so now usually counted among Bordeaux’s heavy hitters, though – perhaps because it lies so close to the vineyards of St. Julien – I’ve always found it inclining more toward elegance and restraint than toward big fruit and power.

Certainly this 1978 fit that description, its mature fruit showing beautifully in a wonderful balance of acid and alcohol and soft tannins. Some vintage charts I’ve looked at would have it that the ’78 Bordeaux are over the hill, but my – admittedly limited – experience of them shows rather that like this wine they are just now really coming into stride, with years before them yet.
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Château Gruaud Larose 1966
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Our third wine, a Gruaud Larose, really brought back past times for Diane and me. The wine is one that has figured importantly over the years at wonderful dinners with some of our oldest friends, and this specimen is – was – my oldest bottle of it. In addition, 1966 was a wonderful vintage, genuinely one of the vintages of the century, before Bordeaux learned the retail value of declaring them so every two or three years.

Classified a second growth St. Julien in 1855, Gruaud Larose has passed through many owners since then but still occupies almost the identical territory it had in 1855. A large estate of almost 85 hectares in vines, it’s planted roughly 60% in Cabernet sauvignon, 30% in Merlot, and the remaining 10% divided among Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec. Oddly, to my mind, Gruaud Larose has a reputation for inconsistency. That has not been my experience of it: I’ve never had a less than fine bottle, and some, like this lovely 1966, have been just plain wonderful.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but this ’66 had all the elegance that St. Julien is noted for, and all the charm and warmth and life that that great vintage showed right from the start. It was probably at its peak, but it showed no sign of faltering, unless you count a substantial layer of sediment as a sign of impending doom. (I don’t.) A great wine, and it sealed a great meal with old friends – which is exactly where a great old wine belongs.

 

Return of the Wine Grinch

January 7, 2019

Many, many Christmases back, for reasons too many to enumerate, I became a grinch. These days, the total triumph of commercialism over any other aspect of the holidays aggravates me more than anything else about the season. And in the ever-growing lump in my craw, the Thanksgiving-Hanukah-Christmas-New Year’s Eve superabundance of wine hype and what comes very close to wine scamming holds an uncomfortably large place.

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As I’m sure no one reading this post needs to be told, wine appropriately forms a part of any festive occasion, and the conjunction of those occasions at this time of year rightly makes us aware of wine’s important role at the table. Wine advertising and wine publicity are prone to – shall we say lushness? (pun intended) – at all times, but for the past month-and-a-half to two months they have run amok. The gullible consumer – and that includes all of us, at one time or another – could be excused for thinking there is no such thing on the American market as an ordinary wine, or a wine unbemedalled or less than 95-pointed.

For me, the most outrageous of these hypes are those that try to snare the unwary and seasonally-softened-up shopper into not just a single holiday purchase or two but a long-term commitment: wine clubs.

Wine clubs should be a good deal for consumers. Their purchasing power ought to give them some leverage in keeping prices down, and their numbers ought to enable them to thin their margins and still show a profit. Their access to expertise ought to enable them to select really interesting wines that would allow their members to experience many different types. The whole enterprise ought to be helpful, enjoyable, and educational for novice wine drinkers and for those who enjoy good wine but don’t – understandably – want to undertake a whole apprenticeship in it.

The reality, it seems to me, is far from that. Prices are fixed at an arbitrary level, and choices seem pitched to wines and names that consumers will already feel comfortable with. I see no evidence that the selections ever go any further. I might be wrong about that – I don’t have a research team to investigate all wine clubs – but so far I’ve seen no evidence of serious educational, palate-broadening focus.
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I offer WSJWine as an example of all this. I’ve pilloried it once before, and nevertheless it persisted. I have no particular onus against it. But it’s important. First of all, it bears the name of The Wall Street Journal, with all the prestige that carries – though a moment’s thought will tell you that WSJ’s business acumen doesn’t guarantee expertise in any other areas: I find many of its editorial positions deplorable, for instance. But when you discover, as I did, a fancy gold-paper, special offer of “The Wines of the Year for readers of The New York Times” tucked into one of the pre-Christmas issues of your daily newspaper, it kinda catches your eye.

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times: that’s pretty big league, isn’t it? They should know about wine, shouldn’t they? Well, no: Their wine columnists may know a great deal about wine, but there is no indication that those people have anything to do with the wine club or its selections. Thus appeareth the first – and a major – misdirection.

After that, they come thick and fast – not outright lies, but imprecisions and fuzzy associations designed to make the gullible or inattentive think they’re getting access to really superior wines at bargain prices. (If you believe that, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.) “Wines of the year.” “Our best reds of the year.”  And then the individual bottles: “94-point”; “Gold-Medal”; “Double-Gold”; “94-point”; “Winemaker of the Year”; “93-point”; “94-point”; “Double-Gold.” As for the few unfortunate specimens that just didn’t gather enough points or medals to match the others: they become merely “Mighty”; “Mature”; “Hand-Crafted”; “Superstar.”
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Overwhelmed?  You’re supposed to be – so much so that you don’t ask who or what awarded all those points and medals. Good thing too, ‘cause they don’t tell you. Would you invest in a stock on the basis of hype like that? I doubt it.

And what exactly are these eminent wines being offered for such extraordinarily low prices?  Good question: you’re learning fast. There’s:

  • A Bordeaux: just that, simply Bordeaux, which is the lowest common denominator of all of the Bordeaux region’s many appellations, made by the tank-truck-full from grapes from all over the very large zone.
  • A so-called Super Tuscan, an IGT wine of no particular distinction (it retails for about $19) made from unspecified grapes (probably some Sangiovese, plus ?) from anywhere in Tuscany.
  • A “Portuguese Gem” that retails for $10 or $11, from a maker of box wines.
  • A “Spanish Blockbuster” that retails in the $10-$11 dollar range.

Those last two items ought to make clear that these are not bargain prices the wine club is offering – in many cases, far from it. In fact, the leaflet’s claim that its $70 special offer represents a real value of $260 is an assertion worthy of the present US president.

I could go on through every single one of these wines, with similar sorts of deflation of their descriptions, but you get the point. These are the “Best Reds of the Year”? Once again, far from it. What I fear most is that the poor deluded souls who taste these wines believing that claim will simply conclude that, if this is great stuff, then they just don’t get wine: End of story. And that’s perhaps even worse than the deceitfulness of the claims themselves: the potential wine lovers lost, and their loss of lifetime of pleasure.

My apologies for the negative cast of this post, but I find this kind of thing offensive. I’ve written about things like this before; as I said above, nevertheless, they persisted. I try to sit on my grinchitude during the holiday season so as not to spoil everybody else’s fun, but the holidays are behind us now, and I need to vent about some of the vinous irritations of the past . . . is it only a few weeks? Seems like an eternity to me. Bah Humbug!

The Essential Guide to Italian Wine? Very Possibly

December 27, 2018

With its recently released 2019 edition, its fifth, Daniele Cernilli’s Essential Guide to Italian Wine has come of age. Published now in Italian, English, and German editions, well over 600 pages long (and well indexed), and reviewing 1,134 estates and 2,809 wines, the Essential Guide certainly covers the Italian wines that a North American consumer needs to know about – in fact, many more than are currently available in this hemisphere. But one can always hope.

Cernilli’s Guide is organized in the classic way, region by region, the producers listed alphabetically and awarded zero, one, two, or three stars based on their total production and track record; and selected individual wines scored on the now standard, to me infamous 100-point scale and their price range indicated – all useful information, handily presented.

For those who may not recognize his name, Daniele Cernilli is a central figure in the Italian wine world, a critic of major importance and great knowledge. He was one of the founders of Gambero Rosso and was deeply involved not only in its editing but also in the whole process of its evaluations, which by way of their one-, two-, and three-bicchieri awards became the most prestigious of all of Italy’s ranking systems.

When he and Gambero Rosso parted ways several years back, Cernilli reinvented himself as Doctor Wine and began creating his Essential Guide.

I shudder to think of the amount of work it took to bring it to its present condition, especially since Cernilli and his co-workers do not solicit samples or accept advertising from individual wineries. Instead they visit wineries, participate in regional and consorzio tastings, and even buy wines from the same sort of shops Italian consumers patronize. That last practice will send chills up the spines of wine magazine publishers on several continents.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Daniele Cernilli for at least two decades. Even fuller disclosure: We don’t always agree – in fact, we have sometimes been on opposite sides of a wine, a winery, or a wine style. But I don’t know anyone who knows the wines of Italy – all of Italy – in greater depth than he does, so I always take his evaluations seriously.

Here’s a representative example of both his knowledge and our occasional disagreements: The 2019 Guide’s White Wine of the Year award is shared by two wines:

  • Fiano di Avellino Stilèma 2015, Mastroberardino, Campania
  • Solo MM 15 2015, Vodopivec, Friuli Venezia Giulia.

Now, Fiano di Avellino is a justly esteemed grape variety, and Mastroberardino has long been one of its finest producers. Additionally, I happen to have tasted the Stilèma, and I agree totally with Cernilli’s judgment of its greatness. Here’s what he says of it in his entry:

Typical notes of flint, then fresh almond, wild herbs, elegant and extremely clear aromas. Agile and savory taste dominated by a magical freshness that gives elegance and drinkability to the wine. Smooth and long persistence. Great wine.

Stilèma is the first fruit of an experiment initiated by the late Antonio Mastroberardino to use materials derived from old and especially from pre-phylloxera vineyards (of which there are several in the Fiano zone) to back-engineer Fiano di Avellino to the sort of prime vines and field and cellar techniques that yielded the greatest wines of what we can call the “pre-industrial years” of Italian winemaking. As Antonio’s son Piero puts it:

We intend to evoke the style of vinification of the native vines of Irpinia (Greco, Fiano and Aglianico) as it took place between the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 70s of the twentieth century for Taurasi, and between the years 70 and 80 for the two noblest whites of Irpinia. It is, then, the style (or the Stilèma) of a family that interprets, over generations, the natural heritage of its territory, which makes it specific, as predestined to play a role in that land.

Noble purposes, and already producing noble results.

But what of Cernilli’s other choice for White Wine of the Year? Solo MM 15 2015 is a wine and Vodopivec a maker unknown to me. Cernilli describes winemaker Paolo Vodopivec as a meticulous and devoted craftsman, committed to the very localized traditions of the Friulian Carso and to experimentation with vinifying wines in amphorae. Of this wine, he says:

100% Vitovska grapes. Fermented in amphora for 6 months then aged in large casks. Unfiltered. Bright straw yellow color. Austere nose offering notes of sea breeze and aromatic herbs. The palate is expressive, briny and citrusy; powerful and fresh, vibrant, and with a unique personality. Wonderful wine.

That’s certainly detailed enough to prompt me to look for a bottle next time I’m in Italy, since I infer that it comes to this hemisphere only occasionally, in small quantities and at fairly high prices. A little research told me that Vitovska grapes are very localized within Friuli, had almost disappeared until rescued a decade or so ago by some devoted winemakers, and are now enjoying a small vogue in Italy. Worth a try? For sure. One of the year’s great white wines? Given my very uneven experiences with amphora-aged wines, I’d say that’s far less certain.

But the surprising (to me at least) award pairing gives evidence, if any is needed, of just how unconventional and eclectic Cernilli’s palate is, how plugged in to the Italian wine scene he is, and how informative and useful – indeed, what a simply interesting read – his Essential Guide is. You can count on one finger the number of annual wine guides I enjoy picking up and just browsing in: This is it.
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Since this will be my final post of 2018, there can be no better time to wish you all a very happy and a very vinous New Year – which I do, most heartily.  Cheers!

Encountering Some of Portugal’s Red Wines

December 17, 2018

In land mass, Portugal is one of the smallest countries in western Europe, but in terms of the number of grape varieties grown and kinds of wine produced, it’s right up there with its larger neighbors. The Wine Media Guild November meeting featured a generous selection of its wines – two dozen, to be precise – organized by WMG member David Ransom.

For a very pleasant and auspicious change from tastings of Portuguese wines I have attended in the past, these wines all had importers and hence are available on these shores, even if not in all stores. That eases my writerly conscience considerably, since I hate to write about wines that my readers can’t get hold of, even if sometimes there is just no avoiding it.

This time, that wasn’t a problem. However, I found the wines a very mixed bag, with most of the whites tasting – to my palate, that day – just ho-hum. So I’m going to focus here on the reds, which my palate that day found much more enjoyable and interesting. With very few exceptions, they were also quite reasonably priced, which is always welcome news.

Among Portugal’s many red varieties, three stand out, as much for their quality as their ubiquity across the country’s multiple wine zones: Touriga nacional, Touriga franca, and Baga. All three are first-rate wine grapes, the latter two most important in the Douro Valley and in north-central Portugal respectively, while Touriga nacional, as its name implies, seems to be grown everywhere. Once it was used only to make Port, but its rich aromas and flavors have long outgrown that restriction.

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These all seem to be truly indigenous varieties, until quite recently planted nowhere outside Portugal, but how little is truly known about them is reflected in the brevity of the comments on them in Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), where all three are recognized as of very high quality, but awarded only a few paragraphs each. Wine Grapes distinguishes Baga as probably the variety with the greatest drinking and aging potential, though also, because it needs a long ripening season and Portugal’s Atlantic climate does not always allow that, the variety that can make the most disappointing wines – so worth seeking out, but find out all you can about vintages before buying.

There was only one wine at the tasting identified as a Baga (though I suspect Baga was at least a component in several others), and that was from the acknowledged master of the variety, Luis Pato: Luis Pato Bairrhada Tinto Vinhas Velhas 2015.
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Even though young – Baga really needs time – this showed everything I expect of Baga and of Luis Pato. It was dark and brooding and deep, smelling of underbrush and black berries, smooth, almost velvety on the palate, and very long finishing. I’d want to drink this wine when it’s 20, if I could last that long. Not so by-the-way, Pato has a pre-phylloxera Baga vineyard that produces just extraordinary wine: Quinto do Ribeirinho Pé Franco. If you ever see it at anything resembling a reasonable price, by all means try it.

Two other wines really caught my attention that day: Julia Kemper Touriga Nacional 2011 and Chocapalha Castelão 2015.
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The latter wine is vinified from the Castelão grape, which is sort of the Barbera of Portugal. It’s widely grown and yields a medium-bodied wine that in the best examples, of which this bottle is one, is delightfully fruity – berries and underbrush – and well-structured and makes just plain enjoyable drinking. Touriga nacional more resembles Sangiovese or, for Spanish wine fans, Tempranillo: good fruit, often intense and nervous, with fine structure and breed, that rewards cellaring. I found this Julia Kemper example quite classic – still vivacious at seven years of age and promising a much longer lifetime.

There were other red wines I enjoyed – Quinto do ValladoTouriga Nacional 2015, Quinto do Crasto Reserva Old Vines 2014, Wine & Soul Quinta da Manoella 2015, Joao Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Reserva 2013 – but the other real stand-out of the day for me was a lovely Madeira, Broadbent 10 Year Old Boal.
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Madeira is a sadly underappreciated wine these days, and no matter how often publicists cite Thomas Jefferson’s love for it, it just never seems to catch on in this country. I’ll simply say this: If I were restricted to only one dessert wine for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Madeira. This Boal was perfect: the color a brilliant tawny amber, the nose big and rich, redolent of dried figs and apples, the palate balanced and harmonious, with the same flavors riding an undercurrent of tea and cacao, the finish long, long, long. It was a perfect way to end the tasting and the lunch.

I’m about to commit the biggest sin of omission available to wine journalists at this time of year: I’m not going to write about Champagne or sparkling wine. There are good reasons for this – the exalted price of so many of them, for one – but the compelling reason is that I’m bored with the endlessly repeated insistence that sparklers are an indispensable accompaniment to holiday festivities. Nonsense: There are plenty of fine, celebratory wines out there that will make your holidays just as enjoyable as any sparkler.

So, with that little bit of Bah Humbug! out of the way, let me wish you all a very Merry – and still – Christmas!

 

Pelaverga: Another Cause for Celebration

December 6, 2018

Among the many reasons I had for giving thanks this year, I count Pelaverga high among my vinous blessings. It’s yet another of those Italian grape varieties (of which, happily, there are now many) that was teetering on the edge of extinction when a handful of growers rescued it, lest another fragment of their youth and their heritage should disappear forever.
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© MIPAAF – National Vine Certification Service

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The Burlotto family in Verduno, a town in Piedmont’s Cuneo province, appears to have been the first to make a serious commitment to Pelaverga. Long-time Barolo producers, they did this back in the 1970s, when it was beginning to appear that the whole Alba area was about to be engulfed by the most restricted form of monoculture – not just of grape vines, but of Nebbiolo exclusively. Forests that once yielded truffles gave way to vineyards, and vineyards that once grew Dolcetto and Barbera gave way to Nebbiolo. At that time, to devote a fine vineyard to Pelaverga, a grape unfashionably light-bodied and “unserious,” must have looked like lunacy.

Now that I think about it, I should have reserved the top spot on my Thanksgiving list this year for all such lunatics: May they increase and multiply and replenish the earth.

At any rate, the Burlotto family works both their eponymous estate and their Castello di Verduno estate. They gave over the latter’s Basadone vineyard to Pelaverga, and they have never regretted it. They still produce that wine today, and it is regarded by their colleagues and by the (still not enormous) corps of Pelaverga fanciers as the pace-setter for the variety.
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It has been joined over the years by more producers, almost always drawn from the ranks of traditional growers and those reluctant to see the best of the past slide away. In addition to Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, these include Fratelli Alessandria, Ascheri, and Bel Colle. Reverdito and Terre del Barolo also make Pelaverga, but I haven’t had the chance to taste theirs. The very best I’ve had are Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, both of which I know are available in the US, albeit of limited supply.

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Let me be clear about this: Pelaverga is no mere nostalgia trip. Growers are cultivating Pelaverga because it makes a wonderful wine, bright and acid and charming, yet still substantial, still a true Piedmont wine. But Pelaverga is a difficult grape to manage: Let it hang too long or get too ripe (an increasing problem in these days of global warming) and its acidity drops like a rock, and with it the charm and fresh fruit that distinguish the variety.

First-time tasters of Pelaverga almost always think of Beaujolais, because, like many Beaujolais it’s light in color, it almost always tastes lightly but distinctly of strawberry, and it has marked acidity. But there the resemblance ends: Pelaverga is an altogether guttier wine. It reflects a terroir with a horizon of Alps, not the gentle hills of smiling, sunny Beaujeux. The wine weighs in as a middleweight, not a lightweight, and its fruit is almost always brightened by spiciness and pepper.

Its low, soft tannins and bracing acidity make Pelaverga a versatile companion to many kinds of food: In the Piedmont, they love it with carne cruda and with local salume, as well as with pastas and risotto of all sorts. It seems to have a special affinity with mushroom dishes. In short, it’s happy with everything short of the biggest roasts – and I myself can certainly imagine enjoying it alongside a rare roast beef, even if it might, in that company, taste a little light.

One caveat: The grape I’m describing here is Pelaverga piccolo, grown around the town of Verduno in the Barolo zone (hence often called Pelaverga di Verduno). There is an unrelated Piedmont grape that shares the name, Pelaverga grosso, grown around Turin. This is more often blended than vinified monovarietally, and indeed is often made into a rosé. Until quite recently, these two were thought to be identical, even though they yield very different wines. Pelaverga grosso is still of very localized production around Turin, and has not caught the attention of Italian enophiles the way Verduno’s Pelaverga piccolo has. For my palate, Pelaverga piccolo makes by far the more interesting and pleasurable wine, a wine distinctly different from Piedmont’s heavyweights, yet clearly still a child of the same soils and weather.