Bah! Humbug! Let’s Have Some Champagne

January 9, 2015

Regular readers of this blog probably noticed a one-hundred-percent absence of any mention of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, or any other  opportunity for retail recently loudly proffered by what seems to have been the entire universe. This was not an accident, but deeply felt revulsion against a commercialism to which I don’t want to contribute any more than absolutely necessary.

However, contribute I must. I love wine – drinking it, talking about it, writing about it – and wine is of necessity as much a commercial venture as it is a craft, and so unfortunately is wine writing. Alas, that two and two make four!  This makes me something of a commercial quisling or fifth columnist (I guess as a writer the latter is all too appropriate) and I’m stuck with it: As the Borg told Picard, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

So: I give up. Here – belatedly – is all the stuff about Champagne that I held back during the frenzied shopping/holiday season. If you love Champagne, you don’t need holidays to justify drinking it.

Ed___Vietti__Dec_08_400x400The first major event I want to talk about was the Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon, held at Felidia Ristorante. The wines for the day – all Blanc de Blancs Champagnes – were selected and commented on by Champagne connoisseur extraordinaire Ed McCarthy, who probably loves the fizz more than any other human being I know. Here is the full slate of the day’s wines:

  • NV Marion-Bosser Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
  • NV A. R. Lenoble Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • 2007 Ayala Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Bruno Paillard Réserve Privée Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Mumm de Cramant
  • NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Henriot Blanc de Blancs
  • 2002 Pascal Doquet Le Mesnil sur Oger Grand Cru
  • 2007 Deutz Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Lanson Extra Age Blanc de Blancs
  • 2004 Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs
  • 2005 Taittinger Comptes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs
  • 2002 Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Gosset Célébris Blanc de Blancs
  • 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires

There were also two non-Blanc de Blancs wines: NV Leclerc Briant Les Chèvres Pierreuses 1er Cru, a producer new to this market, and an unscheduled but very welcome magnum of 1999 Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs.

An impressive lineup indeed, especially since, as Ed pointed out, Blanc de Blancs constitutes in volume by far the smallest fraction of Champagne production. He explained that that is because of Champagne’s three main grape varieties, Chardonnay is the most expensive and least widely planted, because, in turn, of the variety’s demands about soil, exposure, and care. Some large houses just don’t have enough Chardonnay to spare from their blends to make a Blanc de Blancs, and others – because of its cost – simply opt not to. Consequently, many of the most interesting Blanc de Blancs Champagnes on the market come from small grower-producers, who don’t face the volume demands of the grandes marques.

This is not to imply that all Blanc de Blancs Champagne is great. Far from it: A lot of it can be pretty ordinary fizz, though “ordinary” in the rarefied world of Champagne can still be very good. In fact, several of these Blanc de Blancs struck me as run-of-the-mill – bearing in mind that the mill in question is a fine one. Blanc de Blancs all tend toward greater dryness than most other Champagnes, and most also have a comparative lightness of body and liveliness on the palate that make them, for many drinkers, the ideal aperitif Champagnes. A few have the heft and authority of the red-grape-blended Champagnes, but they are exceptions to the usual Blanc de Blancs style.

I’ll confine my remarks here to the wines that I enjoyed most and that the others at my table cast their votes for – the latter by emptying the bottles, the surest sign that a wine has been enjoyed.

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These included both Henriot wines, the NV Blanc de Blancs and the 1999 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs. Henriot is not as well known here in the states as many other of the grandes marques, but it is much esteemed in France, and consistently produces Champagnes of great elegance, as were both these examples.

Henriots

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The 2007 Deutz was relished with the largely fish menu:  Ed says the 2008 will be even better, and no more expensive. The 2004 Pol Roger and the 1995 Charles Heidsieck were among the fullest-bodied of all these wines, as well as among the earliest bottles to be finished – which tells you a great deal about the palates of the WMG members and guests.

deutz pol henriot

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For me, the stand-out wine of the day was the Gosset Célébris, a Champagne that combined Blanc de Blancs suppleness with both great muscularity and great elegance. I admit I’m partial: Gosset and Pol Roger are probably my two favorite Champagne houses. Neither has ever let me down.

gosset 2

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This post is already long enough: My next one will take up the season’s other key Champagne event, The New York Wine Press’s annual Champagne lunch, this year featuring Rosé Champagne.

A New Generation of Fellugas to the Fore

December 26, 2014

Another generation of Fellugas is attracting attention in Friulian wine production. Marco Felluga has been famous for decades for the quality wines he has created at his two estates, Villa Russiz and Marco Felluga. Now, his grandchildren, Antonio and Caterina Zanon, and their mother, Patrizia Felluga, have established a new winery in Collio. It is called Zuani. That is the ancient place name of the 30-acre hillside vineyard in Giasbana, in the heart of the Collio zone, where this latest generation of Fellugas has set up shop.

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Family

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Patrizia learned winemaking at her father’s knee, and she has passed that family lore on to her children, both of whom remember growing up in the Felluga vineyards. For all practical purposes, winemaking is embedded in their DNA, so this new venture is hardly a surprise. What may be a bit of a surprise is their choice to treat their horseshoe-shaped hillside site as a single cru, and to produce from it only one wine, a DOC Collio Bianco that blends – in more or less equal parts, depending on the harvest – Friulano, Pinot grigio, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc.

Collio, of course, excels in white wine production, consistently turning out many of Italy’s absolutely top-flight whites. For decades after World War II, the vast majority of those wines were monovarietal – Friulano, Pinot grigio, Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the region’s lovely, endangered Picolit. Just about 30 years ago, some bolder spirits began experimenting with an older tradition, a pre-World War I tradition, of blending varieties. What followed was a succession of truly great wines – Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, Livio Felluga’s Terre Alte, Marco Felluga’s Molamatta and Col Disôre. Few, if any, of those wines are field blends. Rather, their grapes are selected from different sites and meet for the first time in the cellar. So, while it is clear where the notion of a Friulian blended wine comes from, what seems unusual about Zuani is that it is a single-site wine.

What lies behind that choice seems to be a quirk of Friulian, or more specifically, Collian geography. Open-ended U- or horseshoe-shaped valleys, locally called ronchi, are a fairly common feature of the terrain in this part of northeastern Italy.

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Collio map

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The Zuani hillside seems to be one of the more compact ones, but it has the same advantage as larger ones: The inward-facing slopes of its U afford a whole range of different exposures, all within the protected confines of the valley. The soils throughout the hillsides are what Friulians call ponca, a mix of marl and sandstone. For viniculture, that’s a great combination: Different varieties, with different requirements of sunlight and maturation, can be accommodated at different sites around the valley, all enjoying the same soils and general growing conditions. Ergo, a ready-made cru site for a blended wine: nature cooperating with wine making – or winemakers taking clever advantage of what nature offers. Antonio, the winemaker, says that this allows them “to express the character of this place” rather than the character of the varieties.

I said above that Zuani makes only one wine. That’s not entirely correct: Patrizia and her offspring make one blend but in two versions: Zuani Vigne and Zuani Zuani – the latter in essence a riserva. In both cases, each grape variety is harvested separately and kept separate and cold-macerated before fermentation. The Zuani Vigne grapes are fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel and never see any wood. The Zuani Zuani grapes are harvested about two weeks later than the Vigne grapes and are aged on their lees in small French barrels, resulting in a fuller wine of very different style from Zuani Vigne.

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zuani wines

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I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to taste an intriguing small vertical of both styles.

Zuani Vigne 2013:  Nice mineral nose and nice acidity on the palate. White fruit showing up front – apples and pears – and also in the finish, along with slate/mineral notes. Very enjoyable already. Antonio says this is the best harvest of the last ten years.

Zuani Vigne 2012:  A warm vintage and an early harvest. Very ripe-apple nose. Fat and round on the palate, with less acid than the preceding wine, and stronger fruit presence. Slightly leathery finish.

Zuani Vigne 2011:  A very elegant aroma, counterpoising earth and fruit. On the palate, lovely balance and the beginnings of complexity. A very long apple/mineral finish. This was a lovely wine, and my unequivocal favorite of the tasting.

Zuani Vigne 2010:  The harvest conditions were similar to 2013, Antonio says. The wine is nicely evolving into complexity and elegance, but it needs a little more time: Right now it’s at a slightly awkward in-between stage. All these wines have fine structure and should last quite well: I wouldn’t hesitate to cellar any of them for a while.

Zuani Riserva 2012:  Very deep, ripe-fruit nose, an almost Alsace-Pinot-gris quality to its intensity. On the palate, the wine is round and fat, with lots of mineral notes and ripe-berry-ish fruits. Antonio grins broadly as he calls it “our red wine.”  It does not taste markedly of oak. This is a very interesting wine, especially for a not-great vintage.

Zuani Riserva 2011:  This wine has a much more mature aroma than the ’12, with less Pinot gris quality and more balance. The palate is slightly closed now but already shows balance and complexity. A very intriguing wine, with a long, pleasing finish.

Generally speaking, I preferred the Zuani Vigne wines to the Zuani Riserva (or Zuani Zuani: the family really must make up its mind how it’s going to label them). I like the clean taste of the fruit and the soil, un-adjusted by oak. Even when the taste of oak isn’t obvious, it still alters the wine. Those who like that shift will love the Riservas; those who don’t will definitely prefer the Zuani Vigne.

Principe Pallavicini: Roman Wine Nobility

December 12, 2014

Back at the end of October, while lazing in Lazio, I did take one day out from vacation for what my friends and relations usually refer to – ironically, of course – as “Tom’s work.” With the help of the good people at Vias, the American importer, I arranged a visit to the Principe Pallavicini estate near Frascati – now almost a suburb of Rome and for centuries its closest source of refreshing white wines.

The Pallavicini estate is one of the oldest in that antique landscape. Still in the hands of the same noble family, owners since the beginning of the 18th century (before that the property had belonged to the Colonna, one of the most powerful families of medieval and renaissance Rome), the vineyards roll back bucolically from behind a plain, massive palazzo now fronting on a heavily trafficked road.

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On the grounds themselves, among vine rows and old buildings, occasional smooth, black stones had pushed up through the soil — two-millennia-old remnants of Roman roads, once heavily trafficked themselves, now silently and patiently reposing. A very evocative place to visit, with suggestions of a vinous history running farther back than records or memories extend. The site alone prepares the visitor to be impressed. I was not disappointed.

Mauro di Angelis

Mauro di Angelis

Mauro de Angelis, the resident winemaker and factotum, conducted my visit, and we were later joined by Claudio Latagliata, the CEO of the winery. After the usual tour of the cellars and the winemaking facilities, and just a glimpse of the extensive vineyards rolling over gentle hills to the horizon – unfortunately this was the only cloudy day of my whole week-and-a-half in Rome and Lazio – we adjourned to the tasting room.

Pallavicini’s main production is, of course, Frascati, which used to be the white wine of Rome, served in every caffe and trattoria and the object of weekend excursions to the countryside by every Roman family that could manage them. Pallavicini’s Frascati has always been excellent, even during the period when – as with so many other white wines all around the world – the appellation’s popularity stimulated overproduction and subsequent decline in reputation and sales. Now that Frascati producers are attempting to reclaim their Roman and international markets, Pallavicini is doubling down on quality, as quickly became evident in my tasting.

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The first wine I tasted was Pallavicini’s basic DOC Frascati 2011, a thoroughly enjoyable light wine, with lovely white fruit character, slight overlays of a sort of volcanic minerality, and a long delicate finish – exactly what my memory says the ideal Frascati was in its glory days. An auspicious beginning, to be sure.

Poggio Verde, a Frascati Superiore DOCG 2011, followed. This wine spends a good deal of time on its yeasts and consequently develops more body and roundness. It showed a fine, floral nose, nice medium body with good white fruit and minerality, and a long, pronouncedly mineral finish – again suggestive of the volcanic nature of the Frascati zone soils. Much more a dinner wine than a cocktail wine, unquestionably. By the way, it just won Tre Bicchieri.

The third white wine was Roma, Malvasia Puntinata DOC 2013 (made from the grape of the same name, also known as Malvasia del Lazio). I found this wine intriguing – a fully dry Malvasia, with tangerine skin and mineral aroma and palate, big-bodied and round, with, under all the variety’s characteristic notes, the distinctive mineral-and-white-fruit tang of the Frascati terroir. It was very long-finishing, and had the kind of structure that suggests longevity and interesting bottle development. I wouldn’t mind having a half a dozen bottles of this to put away for four or five years, just to see how it matured. I think it would make a great companion to roast chicken or turkey or roasted fresh ham.

Then we switched to red wines, starting with Rubillo 2013, an IGT Lazio Cesanese. Virtually unknown in this country, and indeed not well known even in Italy, Cesanese is Lazio’s indigenous red variety. Not much information is available about its origins or affiliations: Even Jancis Robinson has very little to say about it, other than that it can be a difficult variety. Lazio producers have recently begun to take a lot more interest in working with it, which in my opinion is a very good development, because it tastes to me like a variety of very great potential. Even the simplest versions of it, like this basic Pallavicini example, characteristically show a pleasing softness and roundness (some call it a Merlot-like quality, but aside from the softness, I don’t see that comparison) and inviting blackberry/mulberry fruit notes.

We made a considerable jump up in quality and intensity with the next wine, Amarasco 2012, IGT Lazio Cesanese. This is a selection made from 50-year-old vines, whose juices undergo long maceration on the skins and are then aged for 12 months in tonneaux. It had excellent bitter cherry fruit, deep and dark, and an almost chewy texture – all on top of an evident structure and fine balance. This is an estimable wine, of beginning complexity: I would very much like to taste it again in a few years’ time.

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While I was most interested in what Pallavicini was accomplishing with Lazio’s native grapes, I shouldn’t neglect to mention that the estate also produces several bottlings of non-local and international varieties. I particularly enjoyed Moroello 2011, IGT Lazio, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, grown in the Lazio portion of the Maremma, a soft, pleasing, fruity wine that would be a perfect accompaniment to simple trattoria meals. Soleggio 2012, IGT Lazio, a Cabernet sauvignon from 21-year-old vines, shared the same soft fruit that seems to be almost a hallmark of the Pallavicini red wines. Mauro de Angelis attributes that to the soil: Along with the slight mineral tang, it’s what the Frascati zone gives the wine, he says.

La Fiorita: A Fine Terroirist Brunello

November 28, 2014

Roberto Cipresso is a very highly reputed consulting enologist in several parts of the world (e.g., Italy, Brazil). Originally from the Veneto, he first made his name in Tuscany and his heart lies there, at the Brunello di Montalcino estate La Fiorita, of which he is co-owner with Natalie Oliveros.

cipresso

A devoted terroirist, he speaks with passion of the soils of the Montalcino zone and his desire to express them in his wines. A few weeks back, over a tasting lunch at La Masseria restaurant in New York, he explained his stance. “There are two main styles of winemaking,” he said. “You can choose to express the variety or you can choose to express the terroir. Montalcino is the perfect place to do the latter. My ideal wine is like a glass – transparent, so the soil shines through.”

To that end, Cipresso does what he regards as minimal work in the cellar, opting instead to cleave to what the vineyards give him. He has three of them to work with: Poggio al Sole, between the hamlets of Castenuova dell’Abbate and Sant’Angelo; Pian Bossolino, slightly further north; and a new vineyard, not yet fully on line, Podere Giardinello, west of the town of Montalcino. The latter has completely different soils and exposure from those of the other two vineyards, and Cipresso is very excited by what it will add to his basic Brunello – so much so that he is contemplating the possibility of bottling it as a cru.

At present, the grapes from each vineyard are fermented separately for 25 days in large Slavonian oak vats and then drawn off into tonneaux, one-third of which are new each year, one-third of second passage, and one-third of third passage. The wines stay in the tonneaux for just eight months, then finish their two years of wood aging together in large Slavonian vats again. All La Fiorita Brunello then receives extra bottle aging beyond the DOCG requirements: Cipresso prefers to do this so the wine will integrate more fully and be readier to drink on release. La Fiorita’s 2008 vintage, for instance, is just coming onto the market now.

Over lunch, Cipresso showed four of his wines: the two most recent Brunellos and his first two Brunello riservas.

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Brunello 2008: The first things that struck me about this wine were its balance and elegance. This is the antithesis of fruit-bomb, in-your-face Brunellos. It starts light and grows on the palate, finishing big and persuasive. Dark cherry and tobacco in nose and mouth, with excellent acidity to keep it supple, and a long cherry finish. A thoroughly enjoyable wine with what tastes to me like true Brunello depth.

Brunello 2007: More tannic and tobacco-y than the 2008 but with equally fine balance. This wine shows a bit less fruit and a lot more structure than the preceding one, though this may simply be part of the normal evolution of the wine. Unquestionably as fine and elegant as the ’08, though the vintage difference is apparent.

Brunello Riserva 2006: This was La Fiorita’s second riserva bottling, and I found it initially still slightly closed, though it opened gradually and steadily in the glass. For sure, it will reward at least a few more years’ cellaring. It’s a big wine, balanced, and tasting emphatically more of earth and gravel than of Sangiovese fruit (though that is still abundantly present). An excellent example of the best that Montalcino can do, in my opinion.

Brunello Riserva 2004: This was La Fiorita’s first riserva. The vines, which had been planted in the 1990s, had just really come of age. It isn’t a huge wine, but it has great elegance and balance. It shows classic Montalcino dark cherry flavors and prominent acidity, with a very lively, long finish and overall great structure.

For all that, Cipresso doesn’t think this ’04 will live as long as the ’06 Riserva – and I’ve got to say, I kept going back to that 2006 all through the lunch, because it kept opening and changing in the glass in fascinating ways. All four wines were marked by the kind of great elegance and balance that Cipresso strives for, but each differed from the others in intriguing ways, expressing different aspects of Sangiovese, Montalcino climate, and Montalcino soil. What else can you ask of a great Brunello?

Properly Cellared For Long Life: Livio Felluga

November 14, 2014
livio  felluga

Livio Felluga in 2003

Since I’m one of the last berries on the grapevine, I’m only now catching up with the fact that, back in September, Livio Felluga, a pioneer of quality Friulian wine, celebrated his 100th birthday, an accomplishment he attributed to regularly consuming fine wine. Who am I to disagree?  I hope he’s right, since I’m doing my best to follow his example – in consumption, that is, not in production.

I first met Signor Felluga more years ago than I care to accurately count, when he was just a young pup of 60-something and I was a fledgling wine journalist, writing for the still-lamented (it folded owing me money) Attenzione. I’m pretty sure that my article about Felluga and Friulian wines was among the ones I never got paid for. Such is life: I long ago decided that coming to know these wines was payment enough.

Meeting Livio Felluga was an important and, as it turned out, a delightful event for me. I was travelling with a few other wine journalists, all of us on our first visit to Friuli, and we could have hoped for no better introduction to the zone and its wines than a day with Signor Felluga. He was already back then a fount of information about the soils and districts and grape varieties of Friuli. Tasting with him through his line of wines – he worked with all the important white varieties and even, if I remember correctly, a few reds – amounted to a graduate seminar in Friulian wine, and we were all eager students.

Later, sitting around the fire in the traditional fogolar and drinking those wines while he grilled sausages and veal chops, we also discovered that had he not chosen to be a winemaker, he probably could have been a successful stand-up comedian. I have never heard anybody tell a seemingly endless succession of carabinieri jokes as well as Livio Felluga. A belated Cent’ anni di piu, to you, Signor Felluga!

Nowadays, of course, younger members of the Felluga clan are running the vineyards and winery. But the quality of the wines and the intensity of the family’s devotion to Friuli’s patrimony seem not to have wavered in the slightest. Just last week I tasted a small selection of Felluga’s new releases, and they conformed in every respect – quality, varietal typicity, balance, and elegance – to the high standards the senior Felluga established decades ago.

felluga wines

Pinot Grigio 2013
Medium-bodied, smooth and round, with marked floral and mineral scents and flavors. Long finishing. Elegant and, by the standards of the mass of contemporary Pinot grigios, quite substantial. In short, a real wine.

Friulano 2013
Almond and mineral nose; medium body. Lovely balance of acid and fruit, with a long dry finish. This is the wine we used to know as Tocai. In Friuli, it is a wine of all uses and is particularly popular with the salty sweetness of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Often drunk here in the States as an aperitif, for my palate it’s far better as a dinner wine, where it really shines alongside preparations of fowl, veal, or pork, and even savory dishes such as Szekely Goulash, – to which I can testify because that’s what I just drank it with. For years, Livio Felluga’s Friulano has been an informal benchmark for the breed.

Terre Alte 2011
This is Felluga’s chef d’oeuvre, a masterly blend of (usually and approximately) one-third each of Friulano, Pinot bianco, and Sauvignon. The Pinot and Sauvignon are fermented and aged in stainless steel, the Friulano in small French oak. This is one of Italy’s great white wines and is always better for at least a few years of aging. In the best vintages, it rewards much more. The 2011 is very young and still tastes a bit closed, but it already shows the substantial body, elegance and balance that earned it Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli, among numerous other awards. This 2011 Terre Alte may not live as long as Livio has, but it surely has a lot time before it. A great wine.

Campania on Display

October 31, 2014

At the beginning of October, the Wine Media Guild presented the most complete tasting of the whole range of Campanian wines ever organized in the US. At its lunch meeting at Felidia Ristorante, members tasted 27 wines, representing most of the provincial appellations and almost the whole spectrum of Campanian grape varieties now in serious production – a long-overdue display of the amazing variety and quality of a region that rivals Italy’s most famous and highly reputed wines both red and white.

campania map

The event would not have been possible without the cooperation of numerous producers and the strenuous efforts of Miriade & Partners SRL, an Italian firm that every year organizes the two Campania Stories tastings that I have several times reported on (here, here, and here). While only two of the producers (Manuela Piancastelli of Terre del Principe and Ferrante di Somma of Cantine Di Marzo) were able to attend the WMG luncheon in person, the assembled wines spoke eloquently for all of them. Here’s the complete list of what we tasted:

White Wines

La Rivolta. Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2013

La Sibilla. Falanghina dei Campi Flegrei Cruna Delago 2012

Donnachiara. Irpinia Coda di Volpe 2013

Sorrentino. Coda di Volpe Pompeiano Natì 2011

Di Marzo. Greco di Tufo Franciscus 2013

I Favati. Fiano di Avellino Etichetta Nera 2013

Tenuta Sarno 1860. Fiano di Avellino Sarno 1860 2013

Picariello Ciro. Fiano di Avellino 2012

Villa Raiano. Fiano di Avellino Ventidue 2009

Feudi di San Gregorio. Irpinia Bianco Campanaro 2012

Terre del Principe. Fontanavigna – Pallagrello Bianco 2013

Tenuta San Francesco. Costa d’Amalfi Bianco Per Eva 2008

Cantine Marisa Cuomo. Costa d’Amalfi Fiorduva Furore Bianco 2012

 

Greco di Tufo vineyards at di Marzo estate

Greco di Tufo vineyards at Di Marzo estate

 Red Wines

Cantine Astroni. Tenuta Camaldoli 2011

Mastroberardino. Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso 2013

Masseria Felicia. Falerno del Massico Etichetta Bronzo 2006

Villa Matilde. Falerno del Massico Rosso Camarato 2006

La Guardiense. Aglianico Sannio Janare 2012

Mastroberardino. Redimore Irpinia Aglianico 2012

Antico Castello. Taurasi 2010

Contrade di Taurasi. Taurasi 2009

Tenuta Cavalier Pepe. Taurasi Opera Mia 2008

Tecce Luigi. Taurasi Poliphemo 2008

Terre del Principe. Centomoggia – Casavecchia 2010

Nanni Copé. Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco 2012

Vestini Campagnano. Pallagrello Nero 2011

Montevetrano. Montevetrano Colle di Salerno IGT 2011

 

Some of Mastroberardino's Aglianico vineyards

Some of Mastroberardino’s Aglianico vineyards

While many of those names – producers or appellations – will be familiar to many of my readers, many more probably won’t. Take my word: that is a stunning array of top-flight wines, and all the attendees agreed that every single bottle showed well. The reactions I overheard during the tasting and the luncheon that followed – murmurs of pleasure and small exclamations of happy surprise – showed clearly that the quality of the wines was accurately perceived and deeply appreciated.

At the time, I was asked by several colleagues which wines were my favorites, and – frankly – in response I just dithered: I really couldn’t narrow it down to just a few. Nanni Cope’s Pallagrello nero? Terre del Principe’s Casavecchia? Tecce’s Taurasi? Contrade del Taurasi’s Taurasi? And that’s just the big reds. I may be an enthusiast, but I defy anyone to select just one of those wines as a favorite or best. Non è possible. I can tell you that I was very pleased several times that afternoon when colleagues whose knowledge and palates I greatly respect approached me glass in hand to say “This is a great wine!”  I truthfully agreed every time.

But the coin has another side, and lest any reader think that a tasting like this for a group of professionals like this was a work of supererogation (I’ve been waiting a long time for a chance to use that word), I’ll report that I overheard one taster remark “I didn’t know that Campania even had white wines.” Needless to say, that person was quickly and strenuously corrected – but the remark itself indicates how little-known Campanian wine still is here in the US. I only hope that Campanian producers can manage to cooperate again, as they did so splendidly here, to put on more such displays in New York and other key US markets. Campania makes wonderful wines of every kind, from simply enjoyable sippers to true vins de garde, and wine lovers here need to know all of them better.

 

 

A New Book on Barolo & Barbaresco … plus a Related Item

October 17, 2014

The University of California Press has just published Kerin O’Keefe’s Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wines (346 pp, maps, photos, index: $39.95). I’ve been wanting to announce this ever since, over a year ago, I read the manuscript for the Press and enthusiastically recommended publication: To my mind, this is the most important book on these two great wines yet published.

O'Keefe

O’Keefe is a wine colleague and friend. I’ve tasted with her on many occasions, not least of which have been the Nebbiolo Prima sessions in Alba, during which we and a small army of other wine journalists have each year worked our way through several hundred new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco. I have great respect for her palate and even more for the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of her research. She and her husband Paolo Tenti (who did the photographs for her book) have spent innumerable weekends in the Alba area over many years, visiting vineyards and talking to producers large and small. (She lives within easy driving distance of Alba.)

O'KeefeThe depth of her knowledge of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones is unequalled by any other English-language journalist, and perhaps matched by only a small handful of native Italians. Despite the fact that I’ve been covering the great Nebbiolos for various publications for about 30 years (thoroughly, I thought), she has still managed to introduce me to some fine producers that I had simply never encountered. To put it briefly: The lady knows what she’s talking about.

What she’s talking about is all of Barolo and Barbaresco, its history, its development, its soils and varieties and makers. Barolo and Barbaresco has more complete information – and very accurate, revisionist information it is – about the mid-19th century creation of a dry Nebbiolo wine than any other source. The presentation of the soil variations throughout the two zones is equally complete.

What will probably be most pertinent for Nebbiolo aficionados, however, are her profiles of producers of both denominations. She does these village by village, detailing vineyards, field and cellar workings, house styles and their different bottlings. She doesn’t list every single producer, which would be almost impossible. But the wealth of information in her book is unmatched anywhere else – which is exactly why I was so enthusiastic in recommending it to the University of California Press. Now that it has been published, all I can add is this: If you love Barolo and Barbaresco, this book is indispensible.

And now for something completely – well, slightly – different.

Ceretto is one of the great Nebbiolo houses, and I have long admired its wines. Originally classic Piedmontese producers who bought grapes from all over both zones to make traditional Barolo and Barbaresco, brothers Bruno and Marcello Ceretto gradually acquired top-flight vineyards in some of the best crus of both appellations and used them to make some superb wines, in both the traditional mixed-communes style and in single-cru bottlings.

Bruno and Marcello Ceretto

Marcello and Bruno Ceretto

Since roughly the turn of the century, Bruno and Marcello have turned the operation over to their children, and initially at least the results were not, for my palate, completely happy. It was an almost stereotypical story in Alba: The younger generation turned to using a forest of new French oak (just how many oak trees, one wonders, does France have left?) to make their wines modern and stylish (and different from their parents’?) and for my palate not really either enjoyable or true to the region.

Then came vintage 2008. I will quote O’Keefe here, because we are in total agreement: “I was surprised by the graceful, pure Nebbiolo aromas and elegance of the firm’s 2008 Barbaresco Asij.” She goes on to explain this wine’s “graceful style, unfettered by obvious oak” as due to winemaker Alessandro Ceretto’s decision to turn away from new oak “to make wines,” she quotes him as saying, “that express terroir, that taste like they could only be from here.”  For me, this is wonderful news: it’s great to have an estimable house like Ceretto rediscovering the true distinction of its region.

I also had one other reassurance about Ceretto recently. I had been tasting a lot of old Barolo over the past year, and I’d had a few bottles of Ceretto that troubled me. They weren’t bad – far from it – but they tasted older than they should have, a little tired and fading when I thought that, given the fine vintages they were from, they should have been a lot more vigorous. I know that with older wines, bottle variation is inescapable, but even so, they worried me.

brunate 4My reassurance came a few weeks ago from a very unlikely source – a bottle of Ceretto’s Barolo Brunate, a lovely cru but a very unpromising vintage: 1993. O’Keefe rates 1993 as two stars (out of five) and describes it as “a middling and variable vintage . . . to drink early while waiting for the 1989s and 1990s to come round.” I remember the vintage as pretty much below average across the board. So my expectations were low when I discovered that I’d somehow stored away a bottle of ’93 – maybe by accident, maybe with some thought of discovering just how well off-year Barolo could age.

Well, if I had been disappointed by bottle variation with those other older Ceretto wines, in this case it seemed to work to my advantage. Either that, or the Cerettos really made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with the 1993 vintage, because my now 21-year-old bottle of Brunate was just lovely. Light-bodied for a Barolo, to be sure, and I’d never call it vigorous – but elegant it certainly was, and smelling and tasting classically if lightly of the truffle, tar, and dried roses for which the Nebbiolo of the Alba area is renowned. Diane and I enjoyed it thoroughly, and gave mental tribute to the good work of Marcello and Bruno.

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4

 

What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

two books

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

Aia Vecchia and the International Maremma

September 19, 2014

If there is any part of Italy that has a true vocation for French grape varieties, it has to be the Tuscan Maremma, that range of hills and scrub that lies just behind the Tyrrhenean coast. Cabernet and Merlot had already achieved fame there almost 40 years ago with Sassicaia and Ornellaia, before Angelo Gaja (for reasons other than rhyming) chose to make a major land purchase and build his monumental new Eliowinery there. Only gradually did native Maremmana grape growers join in the party, though in the past 20 years more and more of them have realized that the outsiders were on to a good thing. The latest entry, and a very promising one it is, is Aia Vecchia, whose young scion, Elia Pellegrini, describes his family as “the last of the real Bolgheri blood.”

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Bolgheri, of course, is where Sassicaia originates, a small country town with a pretty centro storico and a famous avenue of cypress trees leading up to it. There is a poem about them by Giosuè Carducci that almost every Italian schoolchild at some point has to memorize, so the spot was well imbedded in the Italian consciousness before Sassicaia called the wine world’s attention to it. The Pellegrini family has been growing grapes there for generations, and when they decided to produce their own wine they obtained the advice of the near-legendary Tibor Gal, a Hungarian, in selecting sites and varieties. After Gal’s shockingly early death in an auto accident, they worked with agronomist Daniel Schuster, a New Zealander. They produced their first commercial bottling (of Lagone, of which more below) in 1998. The name Aia Vecchia is not, as may appear, an attempt to ride on Sassicaia’s coattails, but the name of a tiny town that lies between Bolgheri and Castagneto Carducci.

Like the consultants they opted to work with, the grapes the Pellegrinis chose to grow show a distinctly international bent. In the Aia Vecchia vineyards, most of which lie within the Bolgheri DOC zone, they planted Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Petit verdot, and – oh yes – Sangiovese. On their acreage in Grosseto province, they grow Merlot and Viognier in addition to Sangiovese and Vermentino.

vineyards

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The preeminent figure in Pellegrini family history is Elio’s great-grandfather Ugo, who was known locally as Sor Ugo. Sor is local dialect for Sir, an honorific bestowed by popular acclaim because of his local importance, and now the name of the family’s top-of-the-line red wine.

Sor Ugo, back in the day

Sor Ugo, back in the day

The latest generation, Elia, hadn’t planned to join the family business just yet: He hoped to play professional soccer, which in Italy is rock-, movie-, and TV-stardom all rolled in one. And he did: he was playing for Livorno until just a few years ago, when, as he says, “I broke my knee and my heart.” Now he throws himself into wine with as much enthusiasm as he did soccer. Happily, the wines his family makes give him plenty to be enthusiastic about.

vermentinoOver a very pleasant recent lunch at Craft Bar, Elia poured three of the family’s most important wines. (A fourth, Morellino di Scansano from the Grosseto property, is not imported at this time.) We started with Vermentino, a lovely white wine from the grape of the same name. Most of the Vermentino coming to the US originates in Sardinia, but the Tuscan Maremma also shows a real aptitude for it. The bottle we tasted was a 2013, entirely handled in stainless steel and containing 5% Viognier, which contributed to its herbal/mineral aroma. The round, fruity palate seemed all Vermentino, however, especially the mineral/slaty finish. All in all, a very enjoyable white wine to drink as aperitif or with light antipasti, and an excellent value at a suggested retail price of $12.

lagoneWe then proceeded to the first red wine, Lagone, which is the mainstay of Aia Vecchia’s line. It too is an unquestionable value (suggested retail price: $15). Here the Bolgheri internationalism comes to the fore. Merlot (60%), Cabernet sauvignon (30%), and Cabernet franc (10%) make up the blend, which spends some time in American oak. The result is a very easy drinking, almost soft wine. A few tough tannins still showed, but this 2011 was still a very young wine, and those will no doubt soften, perhaps within the year. Lagone showed itself a fine companion to several different dishes and gives every sign that it can be a versatile dinner wine, its slightly California-inflected palate led by that soft Merlot and structured by the two Cabernets. And you can’t beat the price.

sorugoThe final wine we tasted was Aia Vecchia’s top-of-the-line Sor Ugo. All the grapes for Sor Ugo come from the estate’s best Bolgheri vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon (50%), Merlot (30%), Cabernet franc (15%) and Petit verdot (5%) spend a lot of time – 18 months minimum – in new Allier oak to produce a wine that surprised me completely by how much I enjoyed it. Regular readers of this post will know that (a) I’m not at all fond of using international grapes in Italian wines, and (b) I can’t stand an oak-dominated wine. Well, Sor Ugo isn’t oak-dominated, despite all that time in barriques. Its style is international in the precise sense that it balances France and Italy quite beautifully. Sor Ugo’s aroma is very elegant, in a distinctly Bordelaise manner. On the palate, its Bordelaise cassis is harmonized with Mediterranean macchia, Italian minerality, and bright acidity. The whole is very fine and quite elegant, and the 2010 we tasted gave every indication that it would age nicely for easily another 10 years. The Pellegrinis’ goal has been to make a wine of Bolgheri quality at a less-than-Bolgheri price. With Sor Ugo’s suggested retail price of $35, I’d say they have come very close indeed to achieving that goal.

 

Gloria in Excelsis

September 8, 2014

Château Gloria and I go back a long way together. It was one of the first serious Bordeaux I tasted when I was just learning wine, somewhere back in the early Cretaceous, and it is still a favorite of mine and Diane’s.

The way I went about learning wine was by going to a knowledgeable, friendly wine shop and asking the owner to put together a case of wines that would show me the kinds of wines that were available. The Cretaceous-era giveaway is that when he asked how much I wanted to pay, he didn’t bat an eye when I said my ceiling was a hundred dollars for the whole case. No problem: He just selected a dozen wines– almost all French, because that’s what wine was back then – that included, from Burgundy, a Corton Charlemagne and a Nuits St. Georges (Les Boudots, from Henri Gouges: I can still taste that amazing elixir), and from Bordeaux a Château Brane Cantenac and a Château Gloria.

Once hooked on Gloria (which was from the first sip), we drank a lot of it – most of it too young, but I was still learning. In those days, the great 1966 vintage of Gloria was available for $3 a bottle in Macy’s excellent wine shop (yes, Macy’s had a wine shop back then, and a butcher shop too, and both were fine) with a 10% case discount, which made it affordable even on a meager academic salary. How I wish now I still had some of those ‘66s, or could get a young Gloria at those prices!  Où sont les neiges d’antan, eh?

Chateau Gloria

Ave atque vale

A few nights ago, to match some succulent braised short ribs that Diane had made, I pulled our last bottle of Château Gloria out of my wine closet – which is what started this nostalgic riff. It was the last bottle not because we’ve lost our taste for it – far from it – but because it no longer costs $3 a bottle, or even 10 times that amount. More like 20 times, and Gloria has never been a price leader in Bordeaux. Our incomes, like most people’s, have not increased anything near 20 times since our youth, so Château Gloria along with the rest of Bordeaux has just sailed out of sight for us. Which is sad, since there are still some lovely wines there, even though I don’t like a lot of the changes that have taken place in Bordeaux over the years. But that’s a subject for another post, another time.

What I want to do here is not lament but celebrate, and particularly I want to celebrate the persistence and consistency of Gloria’s identity and character. When we first made its acquaintance, Château Gloria was a new kid on the block in Bordeaux, an estate only a little more than 20 years old, an unclassified growth of St. Julien that had been cobbled together out of bits and pieces of other estates (including some illustrious ones – Gruaud Larose, the Leovilles, Ducru-Beaucaillou). All those were classified growths, but that didn’t help Gloria’s status, and without the luster of history or high ranking, all it could rely on was its quality.

Fortunately it had that in abundance. Its creator, Henri Martin, the long-time mayor of St. Julien, wanted to make a wine that could stand with the Médoc’s greatest. He fought all his life to have the 1855 classification redone, and everyone in the wine world agreed that if it were redone his Gloria would be at very least a Fourth Growth, if not a Third – but of course that never happened, and Gloria continued to bump along, much beloved by many, but selling always at prices, compared to other Médoc wines, well below its standing. Which, of course, was fine for impecunious me, if not for M. Martin.

Which brings me to that final bottle, a 1990. Gloria has always been for me a classic St. Julien, elegant rather than big, suave and persistent rather than powerful. When I pulled the cork – carefully, because at 24 years old it was a little fragile – and poured our first glasses, many years (a few decades, to be honest) just evaporated. The aroma was exactly the same as those long-gone but fondly remembered ‘66s, and so was the taste and the mouth feel, the latter satiny and the former a rush of cedar and cassis edged with tobacco. It stayed that way through the whole meal, from a starter of cream of celery soup, through the unctuous braised short ribs, to the end of three very different cheeses (a nutty Brebis, a fine Wisconsin blue, and an assertive Grayson). Finished alone, even the last of the wine remained true to itself – poised, vital, elegant.

A lot of British wine wankers, including several who should know better, claim that Gloria isn’t the wine it used to be; that the house style changed in the 70s to a lighter, sweeter wine that wouldn’t age as well as the wines of the 50s and 60s. Somewhere between 10 and 15 years is often given as its life span. Well, my lovely final bottle, kept for years in my less-than-optimum storage conditions, just flat out gave the lie to that. Gloria remains what it always was – glorious.


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