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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

© MIPAAF – National Vine Certification Service

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.

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.

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.

Malta:  Mid-Mediterranean Vines

November 26, 2018

While it’s doubtful that anyone ever travelled to Malta exclusively for its wines, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any good ones there. After all, winemaking began on Malta with the Phoenicians (roughly 500 BC) and perhaps even earlier. Even though it never grew into a major factor in the Maltese islands – too many interruptions in Malta’s much-checkered history – winemaking remained a steady presence on the island, and in the late twentieth century began growing in seriousness and importance. So when Diane and I ventured to Malta and its sister islands for a brief vacation, we found plenty of enjoyable bottles to accompany the interesting native cuisine.

Ghajn Tuffieha cliffs on Gozo, an island in the Malta archepelago

There are indigenous grape varieties – in such a long island culture, how could there not be? – but they are not greatly important, at least not yet, in Malta’s wine production. That is largely dominated by international varieties, mostly French plus a few Italian. Given the importance of seafood in Malta’s cuisine – again, how could it not be? – Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, in monovarietal wines or various blends, are ubiquitous. Chenin blanc, Viognier, and Vermentino also appear frequently, with Vermentino in particular seeming to be emerging as the island’s future star player. The best bottles of it that we tasted matched beautifully with Malta’s traditional fish soup and with grilled fish and calamari. (You can see some of those dishes depicted on Diane’s recent blog post about our trip.)

Red wines are pretty much what you would expect from such a southern locale: Syrah, Grenache, Carignane appear frequently, individually or blended, and there is also a lot of the Cabernets and Merlot, though for my palate they are less adapted to the often spicy Maltese meat menu than the Rhône valley varieties.

We found it difficult to find examples of the indigenous varieties. Most of the wine encyclopedias that I’ve checked claim there are three: the white grapes Girgentina and Gennarua and the red Gellewza. Only a few traditionalists seem to have any faith in these varieties’ ability to produce quality wine, and we were unable to locate monovarietal bottlings of any of them, hence can say little about their individual character and quality. We did taste Girgentina and Gellewza in interesting blends, however. From our experience (admittedly far from thorough), we’d have to conclude that Gennarua has completely dropped out of commercial production.

As for producers, Malta has three major ones, all relatively small by continental standards. Marsovin, the biggest, works exclusively with continental varieties. Delicata draws its grapes from a network of small local growers and from Italian imports. Meridiana, the newest player, was established in 1994 on the grounds of a former British airbase. It too works mostly with international varieties.

That’s the basic situation of Maltese wine. Here are a few sensory impressions of the wines we were able to taste. None of these is very likely to make it to US shores in the foreseeable future, but who knows?!


Delicata Medina 2017

A Rhône-ish blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignane. Nose and palate reminiscent of Châteauneuf du Pape, with limestone notes. Medium-bodied and very young; quite pleasant, but really needs some time.


Marsovin La Torre 2017

Gellewza and Shiraz. Very sprightly and youthful, suggesting a Beaujolais, but rounder, more tannic, and less acidic. Quite enjoyable.


Marsovin 1919 White 2017

A blend of Girgentina, Chardonnay, and Moscato. Full-bodied, dry and crisp, with some depth. Very interesting wine, excellent with Maltese seafood soup and grilled calamari.


Marsovin Grand Maitre, Fra Gregorio Caraffa 2016

A numbered, limited release of selected Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc, aged in oak – Marsovin’s elite production. Despite its youth and oak-aging, this 2016 was quite drinkable, with the wood sweetness well under control and the varietal flavors beginning to emerge.


Marsovin Ulysses 2017

Chenin blanc and Chardonnay, from the island of Gozo. Big-bodied, round, dinner wine, showing a lot of Chenin chalky flavor.


Meridiana Fenice White 2017

A blend of Vermentino, Viognier, and Chardonnay. Light-to-medium body, bone dry. A pleasant, aperitif-style white.


San Niklaw Neptunus 2017

A single-vineyard Vermentino, one of the best wines we drank on Malta. Big and powerful, with a wonderful nose, rich on the palate, fine acidity, and plenty of Vermentino character; great with the local seafood. At a special luncheon on Gozo, we enjoyed a 2014 bottle with much more developed flavors, maturing quite nicely.


San Niklaw Despatch Sangiovese Riserva 2010

The best red wine we had on Malta, with lovely Sangiovese character, maturing beautifully. We enjoyed it at that same special luncheon on Gozo, whose two wines furnished clear proof that Malta is capable of first-class wines – though, of course, the supply will always be intensely limited, given the tiny size of the islands.

Lugana: A White Wine Worth Discovering

November 15, 2018

Even for lovers of Italian wines, Lugana remains fairly unknown. If consumers recognize the name at all, they usually think of it as a kind of poor relative of Soave. That may be about to change, however: The Consorzio of Lugana has begun actively promoting the wines of the zone as a distinct and distinctive entity well worth attention in its own right.

I heartily agree. The recent Consorzio-sponsored tasting of Lugana wines I attended just a few weeks ago here in New York City confirmed the serious introduction to Lugana I’d had a year or so ago, when I visited wineries – primarily in the Veneto – on the southern and eastern shores of Lake Garda. The Lugana zone straddles the Lombardy-Veneto border on the southern end of that beautiful lake, more or less around the fascinating historical town Sirmione, which every poetry freak knows as the birthplace of the great Catullus.

It’s a relatively small zone, but it profits mightily from the beneficent influence of the lake, which creates a sort of Mediterranean microclimate despite the zone’s inland location. Palm trees grow in Sirmione and other sheltered spots along the lake’s southern shore. The soils tend to be sandy and morainic, and the hills are gentle and undulating, with an abundance of fine exposures for the vines that for the past 500 years have covered them.


Those vines bear the Turbiana grape, a variety unknown elsewhere in Italy. For a long while it was thought to be yet one more of Italy’s endless assortment of regional Trebbianos, but that now seems not to be so, though the situation is still far from clear. The most recent DNA studies show that Turbiana does have some connection – precisely what connection remains unknown – with the prized Soave clone of Trebbiano, but it also has some connection – precisely what is equally unresolved – with the prestigious Verdicchio of the Marche.

Whatever the specifics of the matter may turn out to be, those are two good relatives for a grape to have. Both varieties produce white wines of great distinction and terrific ability to age – and Lugana rivals them in both respects.

To demonstrate the aging ability of the variety, the Consorzio tasting offered a few older samples (almost all the wines on display were from the 2017 vintage), all of which I found quite impressive – very fresh, with lovely floral aromas and generous, strongly mineral palates. Consumers new to Italian white wines would probably think of very good Chablis, which is a valid comparison. I tasted three – Marangona Lugana Vendemmia Tardiva Rabbiosa 2015, Montonale Lugana Orestilla 2012, and Perla del Garda Lugana Riserva Madre Perla 2011 – and liked them all, especially the 2012 Montonale, a beautiful wine that seemed to have enormous cellar potential.

Here are a few notes (with all my usual caveats about the intensely subjective nature of all tasting notes) on the wines presented in the main part of the tasting.


Ca’ Maiol

  • Lugana 2017: this first wine up set the bar with its fine typicity – pleasing floral aroma, delicious minerality on the palate, long-persisting finish.
  • Lugana Molin 2017: an old-vine selection; quite nice indeed – bigger and a tad fatter than the basic wine.



Cantina Bulgarini

  • Lugana 2017: Vinified entirely in stainless steel; very fresh and fine, with great aromatics.
  • Lugana 2017 “010”: From older vines than the wine above, with a touch of wood aging; bigger in the mouth, and firmer.
  • Lugana Superiore Ca’ Vaibo: crisp, fruity, mineral; very enjoyable, and structured for at least a few years’ aging.


Le Morette

  •  Lugana Mandolara 2017: A very classic – you could call it textbook – floral and mineral Lugana from a vineyard very near the shores of Lake Garda. I visited this estate on my earlier trip to the lake area. I was impressed with its wines at that time, and I still am.
  • Lugana Riserva 2015: Bigger and softer than the basic wine, and still quite fresh; will go for years yet.
  • Lugana 2017 Benedictus: A selection from the estate’s sunniest exposures, vinified with long (for a white wine) skin contact. The result is a fine, big wine that will take – and in my opinion needs – lots of time.


Monte Cicogna

  • Lugana Santa Caterina 2017: A lovely, biggish, very mineral wine from 35-year-old vines: quite nice.
  • Lugana Imperiale 2017: This one is from young vines, and tastes lighter and brisker than the Santa Caterina. Very enjoyable.



  • Lugana 2017: A touch closed in the mouth, but with a lovely, long finish that promises very well for its development.
  • Lugana Terecrea 2017: A completely characteristic Lugana of great elegance.
  • Lugana Arilica 2016: This wine has seen some oak aging, of which there is a slight hint on the palate; slightly rounder in the mouth than the two 2017s, and very fine.



  • Lugana 2017 Eufrasia: This wine stays on its lees for three months before bottling. Very nice indeed, and quite typical, with a very long finish.
  • Lugana 2017 Sirmio: This wine originates in sandier soil than the preceding, and it gets five months on its lees before bottling. A bigger, almost fatter wine, of slightly more intense character: quite enjoyable.


So there you have it: a very good set of tastings, of high quality and excellent typicity across the board. Lugana seems to me to have a great future in the American market, where the crisp freshness of the young wines should make them very appealing as aperitifs, and the round, mouth-filling appeal of the older ones ought to make them very popular as dinner wines. I don’t think there is much more you can ask of a white wine, especially an essentially inexpensive one like Lugana.

Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods? – Part Two

November 5, 2018

Last post, I gave a rundown of developing trends in grappa distilling that are clouding the clear spirit that I have long enjoyed. Despite my loyalty to traditional, unaged grappa, I don’t think all these changes, especially producers’ exploration of the effects of different sorts of wood and different periods of aging, are necessarily bad. Some in fact are quite successful. Evidently, much depends on the individual distiller’s goals and the skill he or she (a surprising number of grappa makers are young women, which in itself marks a whole new age in grappa) brings to the task.


Here’s a quick rundown of what our group of journalists and mixologists tasted over six distillery visits on the trip sponsored by Hello Grappa last month.



Grappa “Of” is the trademark name, produced in several versions.


  • Prosecco, nice and light, with a slightly aromatic nose, clean and lightly spicy on the palate
  • Amarone Barrique, a brandy-ish nose and palate, with slight sweetness: well made, but a touch too wooded for me
  • Amarone, a cherry nose and a complex palate, dry, cherry-ish, and long finishing: my favorite



The makers of Alexander grappa, now more of a sparkling winery than a distillery, though they also make gin, vermouth, etc. Nevertheless, Bottega produces several fine grappas.


  • Alexander Nera (black bottle), a blend of Glera, Chardonnay, and Merlot pomace, a nice basic grappa with a floral nose and a smooth, fiery palate
  • Prosecco, lightly aromatic and long finishing
  • Cabernet, typical strong red-pomace aroma and palate
  • Aldo Bottega, a blend similar to the Nera, but more aromatic and elegant, quite good in the modern (i.e., post Nonino and Poli), softer style


Bepi Tosolini

Tosolini was among the smallest distillers we visited, and for me one of the most interesting. A third-generation Friulian distillery near Udine that produces both grappa and “Most,” essentially a classic wine-based brandy made from local grapes.


  • Uve Moscato, a clear grappa with a delicate Moscat nose and palate, very pleasing
  • Most Barrique Ciliegio, a blend of Cabernet franc and Refosco, aged 12 months in cherry wood and tasting pleasantly of it
  • Grappa Agricola, which I thought a classic grappa from red grape pomace – complex and deep, very clean and persistent
  • Most Picolit, sporting a great aroma of this scarce and difficult grape and feeling smooth and elegant in the mouth
  • Grappa Ramondolo Barrique, with delicate, pale gold coloration, the classic nose of this exquisite Friulian variety, and a true grappa fire softened charmingly by the wood aging – for me one of the most successful of the barrique-aged grappas



A very large producer, making perhaps half of Italy’s grappa, and very interested in long aging of its grappas.


  • Casta, which is a five-times-distilled, light, floral grappa, designed for cocktails
  • Prosecco, closer to traditional grappa
  • Amarone Riserva, which shows its 18 months of aging in cherry and oak in its woody nose and vanilla-tinted palate
  • Brunello, which receives 12 months’ aging in used Brunello barrels – for me one of the best of the wooded grappas because of the strong Brunello character
  • a 7-year-old, blended of Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot nero, quite decent, with fruit and wood nearly in balance, especially in the peach, apricot, and wood finish

At the end of dinner we tasted a 14-year-old, a smooth, elegant, cognac-y brandy, very fine, but no longer grappa.



Another third-generation distiller, with a very modern facility in Trentino.


  • Anforo, blended of 70% red varieties and 30% white, aged 18 months in large clay jars: interesting – a basic grappa with earth overtones
  • Moscato: very rich of the variety in nose and palate
  • La Trentina Morbida, from white grapes with slight aging; traditional grappa character
  • Giare Gewurztraminer, aged 36 months in 1,000-liter oak barrels: pale blond, delicate Gewurz nose and palate; nice
  • Dic’otto Botte Porte: aged 18 months in barrique, 18 months in Port casks; amber color, spicy-sweet nose – a pleasing sip, but for me in no sense grappa
  • Espressioni: from Merlot and Cabernet pomace, aged 6 months in American oak; dark amber and very good of its kind
  • Affina Ciliegio: from pomace of Lagrein and Pinot nero, aged 10 years in cherry wood; very nicely balanced between wood notes and grappa in nose and palate – a very pleasing combination

There are also (which we didn’t taste) Affina Rovere, from Teroldego and Marzemino, and Affina Acacia, from Muller Thurgau and Moscato. Marzadro struck me as a very thoughtful and painstaking producer.



The oldest distillery in Italy, located near Mezzacorona, and making many grappas, both traditional and aged. While experimenting with new styles in grappa, Bertagnolli hasn’t lost sight of its roots.


  • Grappino bianco: grappa as my palate thinks it ought to be, of 100% Moscato giallo
  • Grappino Barrique: 85% Teroldego pomace, 12 months in barrique; still tastes like grappa, with some vanilla overtones
  • 1870 Grappa Riserva: Teroldego and Cabernet sauvignon, 5 years in barrique; slightly brassy color, pungent dried grape and wood aromas; smooth and predominantly grappa, not wood, in character, very nice – one of the most true-to-grappa characters of the aged grappas we tasted.
  • Teroldego: a lovely grappa with a nice varietal aroma and taste
  • Gewurztraminer: a slightly late harvest gave great aromatics and a classic palate – very fine


As you can see from all this, grappa has become a very diverse distillate. Given the many different grapes grown in Italy, traditional grappa was already quite a variable drink, and I’m afraid the tremendous variety now available is only going to overwhelm and alienate the new audience it’s meant to attract. I hope I’m wrong: Certainly, some Cognac and Armagnac drinkers should find aged grappas an attractive path into the grappa forest. But will cocktail drinkers be persuaded to wander in those woods? I guess only time will tell.

Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods?

October 25, 2018

My recent tour of grappa distilleries, sponsored by Hello Grappa, and in the company of a collegial group of writers and mixologists, was just as pleasurable as I had anticipated, and far more informative than I had expected.



I’m one of those smart alecs who thought he knew all about grappa; after all, I’ve been drinking it with relish since most of it was thought of as a long-haul trucker’s breakfast drink, and I’ve continued right through its transformation by up-scale Alpine and Dolomite skiers into the fashionable after-dinner drink and after-ski warmer it now is. What could there possibly be for me to learn?

Much, as it turns out.

Not only is there more to the art of distilling than I had realized – there is in fact far more art to it than the relatively straightforward process of distillation would seem to allow, for one thing – but, like so much else, the world of grappa itself is changing.



Traditional grappa is a clear spirit, aromatic of whatever pomace serves as its base, and fiery or elegant as its maker chooses.But those makers have come to realize, as Alessandro Marzadro, the latest generation of his family-owned distillery (almost all grappa distilleries are family-owned) put it, 90% of the spirits that are drunk neat, as grappa traditionally is, are what the trade calls “brown goods,” and 90% of the clear spirits in the world are used in mixed drinks.

So grappa, it seems, is an anomaly, a clear spirit in a brown-spirit niche; and to increase its market grappa would have to become both a clear spirit and something else – a sipping whisky, so to speak, and a base for cocktails.

I was struck by the obvious truth of his remarks. Grappa, in effect, has been the wrong color for the niche it occupies. I have always loved – and emphatically still do – the sensuously scented, clear, traditional grappas, but they do stand apart from the Cognacs, Armagnacs, and malt whiskies they are customarily shelved with. (Not unlike tequila and mezcal, of course, but that’s another story, not involving grapes at all, and I won’t go there now.)

All the grappa makers our band of merry pranksters visited seemed to be grappling with this dilemma. A few were trying to create a lighter-bodied, less fiery, clear grappa that would appeal in cocktails and mixed drinks. We tasted several of those, some of which were very successful, most of which seemed to me indistinguishable from mixed drinks made with who-knows-what. But I am not a cocktail drinker, and defer to the opinion of those who are: Several of our comitatus were quite excited by many more of these drinks than I.

All the producers we visited were investigating aging their grappas, using different sorts of wood and different periods of time. The experimentation is ongoing, and there are many, many options available for distillers to explore. This is undoubtedly making matters very complicated, not to mention costly, for them: Tracking numerous different micro-distillations, and tying up salable grappa in short- or long-term aging experiments present all too many opportunities for both producers and their grappas to literally get lost in the woods.



The aging durations most frequently used are 12 and 18 months, and an 18-month-aged grappa may be labeled Riserva. All grappa runs clear from the still: Barrel-aging imparts, among other things, color, which may range from pale yellow to dark brown, depending on the type of wood used and the length of the time in barrel. Oak is the most common wood employed, but ash, chestnut, cherry, and acacia can also come into play. And aging can extend well beyond 18 months: several distillers – Bonollo and Castagner, for example – were experimenting with multiple-year spans, up to 14 years.

The condition of the wood used for aging makes an even greater impact on the finished grappa than does the kind of wood. New oak, or any fresh, unused wood barrel, will impart more sweetness – that vanilla taste – than will a used one, and a lightly charred (toasted) barrel can give coffee and even chocolate notes to a grappa, just as it can to a wine.

Barrels in which wines were previously matured also contribute a whole other range of flavors to grappas. It seems fairly common for grappa makers to age Amarone-derived spirits in old Amarone barrels, for instance: This is in fact something of a long-standing tradition in the Veneto. And we also encountered grappas distilled from Brunello pomace being aged in used Brunello barrels. But individual producers all had their own preferences, according to the style they were seeking for their grappas. Castagner, for instance, the largest distiller we visited, rests all the grappas it intends for aging for six months in cherry wood first, to soften them some, before passing them into barriques to finish their maturation.

This was intriguing to me, though I am far too old and cranky ever to surrender my preference for traditional, clear grappa, whether it be made in the fiery style or what Italians call morbida – soft, and often lightly fruity. For my palate, the most successful aged grappas were those that, along with the acquired quasi-Cognac quality that wood aging imparts, retained a recognizable grappa heart – the firmer spine and tiny hint of fire that bespeaks grappa.

We tasted many grappas, of varying ages, that were very nice brandies, but weren’t grappas any more. A few of these, like the 14-year-old we tasted from Castagner, although no longer recognizable as grappa, had become very fine brandies in their own right: They’d metamorphosed into some third thing that wasn’t grappa or cognac, but nevertheless an excellent drink.

I’ve already written long enough, and presented complications enough, for one post. Next time, I’ll follow up with an account of the distilleries we visited and the grappas – and their variants – we tasted.

Kobrand’s Tour d’Italia

October 11, 2018

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar led by Kevin Zraly at the New York presentation of the importer Kobrand’s annual Tour d’Italia. This showing of Kobrand’s line of Italian brands was open to the wine trade and media. The seminar was available only to wine media members, and organized around a selection of Kobrand’s major Italian producers – Pighin (Friuli), Silvio Nardi (Tuscany), Michele Chiarlo (Piedmont), Nozzole (Tuscany), Sette Ponte (Tuscany), Masi (Veneto), and Medici Ermete (Emilia Romagna).

Have you noticed that nothing is selected or organized any longer, but everything is curated? Well, the wine world isn’t exempt from that kind of verbal hyperventilation. What is called a seminar these days (and not just by Kobrand: It’s universal) is simply a panel of producers talking a bit about their estates and the representative wine they’re showing. And the wines at this event and the larger portfolio tasting of which it was part aren’t just fine wines or even great ones: These were “The Icons of Italian Wine.”  Icons is a vastly overworked word, but what puts this phrase over the top for me is the definite article: The icons – there can be no others. Give me a break, please.

OK, so I’m tilting at windmills again: I’ll dismount and get back to the wines. Which weren’t bad at all. Some not my style, but well made of their kind, true to their varieties and to the winemaker’s vision. Some very good, drinkable young and worthy of some aging. And at least one just remarkable: This was Masi’s Costasera Amarone Riserva 2009, which already tasted lush and lovely and which promises to be off-the-charts gorgeous in 20 years.

The presentation of these wines was very honest and straightforward, lacking the kind of hyper-seriousness foreboded by “icons” and “seminar.” Kevin Zraly is an old pro at events like this: He kept things lively, interesting, and moving at a good pace; and he allowed plenty of time for questions – of which there were almost none. The few there were could have come from civilians, not wine professionals.

So my big disappointment at this event was not with the wines or their presentation, but with what we used to call the press corps and now have to denominate the media. They seemed totally content with the basic information being offered: no questions, no remarks on what they were tasting, no burrowing for technical data. That’s like writing an article entirely from the press handouts. It made me nostalgic for the guy who always used to ask about pH and reverse osmosis and then endlessly argue with the winemaker about the truth/accuracy of what he was saying. At least that guy cared, and he had some core of knowledge against which to weigh the winemaker’s claims. I got no sense of any of that in this session – which is seriously too bad, in many respects.

OK, I mounted my horse again. Apologies. In addition to the Amarone that I loved, I also particularly enjoyed

  • Pighin’s 2017 Collio Pinot grigio, a totally unwooded wine that tasted richly of oyster shells and pears, the way Pinot grigio used to,
  • Medici Ermete’s 2017 Concerto, a single-vineyard dry Lambrusco sparkler of seductive raspberry/strawberry charm,
  • and Chiarlo’s 2013 Barolo Cerequio, a very elegant, balanced wine that the maker compared to the outstanding 2004 vintage.

Also quite interesting was Sette Ponte’s 2016 Oreno, a Tuscan IGT Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Petit verdot), a wine big in the mouth, rich and fat, with splendid Italian acidity, bigger than the Bordeaux wines it’s modeled on, with more fruit and more enlivening acid. I’m no fan of Bordeaux grapes in Italy, but this is a good wine.

Grappa Collection

October 1, 2018

The 10 bottles pictured below are the sad remnants of a once formidable collection of grappas. Once upon a time, I had 40 different kinds. How the mighty have fallen! And just look at the low fill levels in these survivor bottles: I have a terrific ullage problem, as you can clearly see.



I trust you can also clearly see why it’s imperative for me to spend the next 10 days in Italy visiting grappa distilleries and – speriamo – replenishing my sadly diminished supply. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. If you’re a praying person, it would be thoughtful of you to drop in a mention of my liver.

The Case of Cases

September 20, 2018

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

Barbera: A Wine for All Purposes

September 10, 2018

Barbera is a wonderful wine, versatile and enjoyable and affordable. Perhaps the wine’s greatest virtue is how well it plays with all sorts of dishes, so when Diane and I find ourselves trying a new recipe – a pretty frequent occurrence here, given Diane’s weekly food posts – and uncertain what wine will pair with it, Barbera is often our go-to grape.


Lots of people, both consumers and growers, love Barbera: It’s one of the most widely planted varieties in the world and stands third among red grapes in vineyard space in Italy. From the grower’s point of view, Barbera has many virtues: It thrives in all sorts of conditions, bears heavily – sometimes too heavily – and almost invariably yields a wine that is at worst quaffable and usually much better than that. From the wine drinker’s point of view, Barbera’s rich, dark color, its bright fruitiness – usually described as some variety of cherry – and its zingy, lively acidity make it a delight at dinner. And it hardly hurts that most Barberas are inexpensive: It rates very high on the pleasure-for-dollar scale.

Outside of the Italian Piedmont, Barbera has become a workhorse variety, used frequently to blend with other varieties that need a splash of color and a jolt of acidity to brighten them. It was even customary to use it that way with the austere Nebbiolo grapes in prestigious Barolo and Barbera. But the workhorse can turn into a thoroughbred when it’s planted in the right places and treated with respect.

Giacomo Bologna was the first to make that clear in 1985, when he released the first vintage of his then-iconoclastic, now-iconic Bricco dell’Uccellone, a monovarietal Barbera aged in barriques. That wine, still made by his family on their Braida estate, showed for the first time how much breed and finesse Barbera possessed and began the trend toward treating Barbera as the noble grape it apparently is capable of being.

Naturally, many winemakers immediately went too far with this process – siamo in Italia!  They over-extracted and over-oaked their grapes and worked very hard to diminish, if not entirely remove, Barbera’s acidity, which for many wine lovers was and is the defining characteristic of the variety. So for some years in the 80s and 90s, it became far too easy to find bad Barberas, wines wherein the grape’s lovely cherry flavors were submerged in a sea of oak-derived vanilla or toast or even coffee, and the wine de-acidified to the point of flabbiness. There are still a few of those around, but sanity has returned to most Barbera producers, and the vast majority of Barberas are once again bright, fruit-enlivened wines of charm and grace.

For all that Barbera is planted so widely, I have been talking here primarily of the Piedmontese wine. That’s because around Alba and in the province of Asti and the Monferrato hills, Barbera attains its best flavors and highest levels of quality.



This a little odd, because Barbera is entirely unrelated to any other Piedmontese variety. In fact, no one really knows where it came from. The earliest reference to what seems to be the grape we know occurs in the very late 18th century in the Monferrato area, but even that reference is uncertain.

What is sure is that Barbera came into its own after the devastations of phylloxera, when the great majority of Piedmont’s vineyards had to be replanted, and it hasn’t looked back since. Alba, Asti, and Monferrato can now be considered its heartland, and all three produce outstanding wines. Asti’s are the brightest, lightest, most acidic, and at their best the most elegant. Alba’s Barberas are fuller-bodied and more intense, with a bit more tannin showing. Asti makers think Alba’s wines are a bit rustic and “nebbiolized,” and they may be right – though both those qualities can be virtues. The Monferrato versions tend to combine the best traits of both other areas, and they can, at their best, be stunning wines, but they are the hardest to find on this market.

Over the years, I have drunk excellent Barberas from many great producers. Here is a very short list of the best. Please bear in mind that most of them make several versions of Barbera – multi-vineyard, single vineyard, selected vineyards, old vine, barriqued and not barriqued, et cetera – and their varying price levels usually indicate how the makers regard them. You may or may not agree: I find with Barbera that simpler is often better.

  • Braida: Asti, in several versions, including the famous Bricco dell’ Uccellone
  • Burlotto: Alba
  • Cascina delle Rose: Alba, two versions, textbook Barbera
  • Cerreto: Alba
  • Chiarlo: Asti; several levels, all good
  • Cogno: Alba, plus a superb wine from an ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vineyard
  • Iuli: from Monferrato, in several versions, and excellent
  • Marchesi di Barolo: both Alba and Monferrato, both fine
  • Renato Ratti: Alba
  • Roccheviberti: Alba; small producer, but well worth seeking out
  • Scavino: two versions of Alba, both very good
  • Vietti: several versions of both Alba and Asti, all very good

Any bottle from this array of star producers ought to provide a Barbera novice with a fine introduction to the breed; a tasting of several of them should show the range of styles and nuances the grape and its zones are capable of. Go to it, and enjoy!