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Chianti Classico – Restoring Some Luster

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I’ve addressed this situation in the past, but it bears repeating. Chianti Classico has lost a lot of luster and that’s a shame, as there are some outstanding examples. But the truth is that the consumer thinks of Chianti Classico as an ordinary wine, one that’s overpriced and too often, merely a red wine meant for quaffing or for the most basic food pairings.

I write this as I tasted a brilliant example of Chianti Classico the other day, the Felsina “Vigneto Rancia” Riserva 2008. In my recently published book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines I wrote this about the wine:

“This estate has become one of the unmistakable reference points for Chianti Classico… It is with the single vineyard “Rancia” Chianti Classico that Felsina displays its best winemaking… this is a wine of outstanding complexity and breeding. When you find a young vintage, lay it away for a few years in the cellar, as peak consumption is generally at age 10-12.”

The 2008 release of this wine certainly fits this description, as there is excellent depth of fruit, notable persistence, lively acidity and outstanding structure. 2008 was an excellent year in Chianti Classico (and throughout most of Italy, for that matter), as this was a growing season that yielded wines that were classic (no pun attended) in nature, with excellent structure and a sense of place; brilliant producers such as Felsina made stunning wines from 2008. (Of course what makes Felsina so great is that even in years that aren’t considered classic, they still craft marvelous wines.)

Felsina of course, is not the only great producer in Chianti Classico. Fontodi is another as is Querciabella and there are another six to eight estates such as La Porta di VertineRocca di Montegrossi, Castello di Volpaia and Villa Calcinaia that routinely produce excellent wines. Producers such as these make wines that show the rest of the world what Chianti Classico can and should be. But there are not enough examples.

The problem is a big one and there are many reasons; yes, Sangiovese is a grape that has a high yield, so there are still too many producers that do not oversee the proper work in the vineyard, resulting in wines that are thin with modest fruit and high acidity. Certainly the producers of today do take more care in the vineyards than those of 30 or 40 years ago (generally speaking), but there are still too many examples of ordinary wines and the disciplinare allows vintners to make wines such as these.

But a bigger problem is that Chianti Classico is a rather large area, basically from Florence to Siena and given as vast a territory as this, not every vineyard is sited in the best spot. So while we hear all about the beauty of Tuscany and Chianti Classico, it doesn’t always translate into special wines.

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Vineyard in Panzano, one of the most prized sites of Chianti Classico (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

So how to fix this? Well there’s a logical solution, but it’s one that I truly think will never come about (I know that you’re never supposed to say never, but in this case, I believe I’m safe). The answer is zonation – allowing labels to list their zone of origin. This would mean that Felsina can list Castelnuovo Berandenga not just as the winery’s address in small print, but in larger print as a denomination of origin. The same would be true for Fontodi, as their estate vineyards are situated in Panzano, also known as the Conca d’Oro (“the golden hill”); other fine estates located here, such as Panzanello and Il Molino di Grace could also label their wines as being from Panzano grapes. As Panzano is recognized by everyone who is familiar with Chianti Classico as one of its very best sub-zones, listing this geographical name on a label would certainly add a dimension of prestige to the wine, which would help sales of those specific wines and perhaps Chianti Classico in general.

There are several sub-zones in Chianti Classico, from Greve to Castellina in Chianti to Radda and Gaiole; the wines vary in terms of aromatics, weight and acidity, as you might imagine; after all these areas are micro-climates. When speaking about Barolo in Piemonte, dozens of crus (single vineyards) have been officially recognized and we talk about the differences in wines from La Morra with their floral perfumes and gentle tannins as opposed to the more muscular style of Barolo from Monforte d’Alba or Serralunga d’Alba.

So why not in Chianti Classico? Well maybe it’s a Tuscan mentality; the same problem exists with Brunello di Montalcino, as has been documented by Kerin O’Keefe in her excellent book about this wine. Maybe it’s a larger problem, especially when you consider the old joke about getting more than five Italians to agree on anything. But kidding aside, it’s politics, plain and simple, as least as it seems to me. Tuscany, unlike Piemonte, is represented by both farmers and wealthy businessmen, many of whom made their fortunes in other businesses, often in foreign countries. There’s nothing wrong with these people owning estates in Chianti Classico and other wine districts of Tuscany, especially as new blood can infuse a tired corpse, but in reality, do these people have the same sense of pride about their land as farmers in Piemonte whose families have been working their land for more than 100 years in many cases?

Then you have the problem of Chianti Classico being a victim of its own success. This is such a recognizable name around the world – indeed it may be the world’s most beloved and recognizable red wine – so that producers do all they can to attract as many new drinkers as possible around the globe. This means producing an international wine – really, was it a smart decision to allow producers to include Cabernet Sauvignon in Chianti Classico? – one that too often loses its expression of local terroir. If it’s a success in Italy and the United States and Scandanvia, why change? Let’s try and make it appealing to everyone, from Russia and China to Japan and Hong Kong. Try and please everyone and you wind up pleasing no one.

This problem does not exist only in Chianti Classico; there are international wines made in other part of Italy as well. But few wines are as well known as Chianti Classico and few have lost as much market share (at least in the United States, a very important market, without question) as this wine. Price has something to do with this and it’s not the fault of the local producers that the US dollar isn’t as strong against the Euro as it used to be (although admittedly, it’s better today than four or five years ago). But for a wine that was routinely $14 on retail shelves about five or six years ago, it’s now $18-$20 and that’s for the basic Chianti Classico, not riserva. For $14, tens and hundreds of thousands of American wine drinkers are purchasing Malbec from Argentina. What does this have to do with Italy? Nothing of course, but these consumers are looking for a wine they like at a price that they’re comfortable with. If Chianti Classico can’t come in at that price, so be it, Malbec can.

Back to Felsina and Fontodi and a few dozen Chianti Classico estates that really deliver the goods. As I wrote above, these producers show the world that Chianti Classico can be a very special wine. It’s just that too many producers in Chianti Classico take the easy way out, cashing in on the success of the Chianti Classico marque. The bottom line is average quality, which drags down the overall image of this wine. As it stands now, Felsina and Fontodi will sell every bottle of wine they make, as they continue to push themselves to make the best wines possible and enough people realize that. It’s a shame that too many Chianti Classico producers don’t make similar efforts. Resting on your laurels – if one can call it that – is never a good thing and Chianti Classico sales – and the image of this wine  – are taking a beating.

June 8, 2013 at 6:19 pm 10 comments

Orange Wines from Oslavia – Outstanding!

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La Castellada Ribolla Gialla 2007 – an outstanding orange wine (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Studying the wonderful world of Italian wines is an exercise in discovering something very new and distinct at every step of the journey. If you’re someone who prefers a few select wines, you probably don’t understand the charm and the allure of Italian wines. But if you want to move beyond the ordinary, Italian wines are for you.

That said, the orange wines from the Friuli region in far northeastern Italy are truly unique wines, even for Italy. Few people have tried them and fewer still understand them. So what an honor it was for me to moderate a special seminar on the orange wines made from the Ribolla Gialla grape in the small Oslavia zone of the Collio wine district.

This event was held in Chicago and was the creation of six producers from Oslavia that have united to produce and promote the orange wines made from the Ribolla Gialla grape. The vintners that were in Chicago – and then Los Angeles a few days later for a similar event – were primarily the younger generation who are working with their parents in the vineyards and cellars in their small community. The list: Marko Primosic (Primosic); Stefano Bensa (La Castellada); Marco Princic (Dario Princic); Saša Radikon (Radikon); Martin Figelj (Fiegl) and Naike Sosol (Il Carpino).

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Marko Primosic (Photo © Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)

A few notes about Ribolla Gialla in Collio and Oslavia. This is an indigenous variety and it is especially tied in with Oslavia, as these grapes have always been prized in this zone; indeed, when this land was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, merchants would sell the best bunches to the wealthy class, while leaving the other grapes on the vines. Vintners here recall eating these grapes when they were young and in some instances, two liters of Ribolla Gialla per day would serve as partial payment for the laborers in the fields.

While Ribolla Gialla can be made as a typical white, fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks and then released some six months after the harvest, these producers believe that because of the thick skin of this grape, they can craft a more complex wine by macerating on the skins for an extended period, ranging from 30 to 45 to even 90 or 120 days, as in the case of Radikon. This gives these wines tannins, which allows the producers to limit the amount of sulfur added to the wine; for Radikon, they have been making this wine without the addition of any sulfur since 2002 (much of the orange hue, incidentally, is natural, as the grapes change to this color with late summer and early autumn sunshine – this is a variety that is routinely harvested in the first or second week of October).

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Radikon Ribolla (Photo ©Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)

I asked several of Chicago’s top sommeliers, who were in attendance, their thoughts about the wines. All were quite praiseworthy of the wines, noting their extremely high level of quality; Charles Schneider of Binny’s Chop House, mentioned that in his notes on these wines, he was writing much more descriptors than he does for most red wines – that’s some praise, indeed! I agreed with him, finding notes not only of mandarin orange and tangerine, but also honey, marzipan and almond. The wines ranged in vintages from 2011 back to 2007 (Radikon and La Castellada) and the colors ranged from light orange for the youngest wine to deep orange/amber gold for the oldest wines.

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Chef Mauro Mafrici telling the producers and guests about his food pairings with the Ribolla Gialla wines (Photo ©Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)

Viktorija Todorovska, a Chicago-based writer and chef, who specializes in Italian food and wine, mentioned that as the wines are so unique, yet so unknown, they really need to be paired with food, in order to get the message across. Boy, were we treated to some marvelous food from Chef Mauro Mafrici of Pelago Ristorante as well as Masaki Restaurant, who prepared both sushi/sashimi with the wines as well as traditional Italian dishes from pasta to roast veal. The acidity in these wines is not searing, so they can accompany a wide range of foods and Mafrici- who is clearly one of the city’s finest and most inventive chefs – performed brilliantly.

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Foods paired with the Ribolla Gialla ranged from sushi… (Photo ©Eric Benjamin Kleinberg)

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… to roast veal (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

This was truly one of the most fascinating wine seminars I have ever been involved in and it was indeed an honor to moderate the discussion. It seems clear that the mainstream wine publications in America are not going to devote much space to these wines; the reasons most likely range from their limited production to the fact that they may indeed not “get” these wines. Make no mistake, these wines are individualistic and not for the general public. But how fortunate are we that these six producers – almost every vintner in Oslavia – go to the trouble to make these wines not only to show the world what orange wines are all about, but also to make a statement that here is the wine – Ribolla Gialla with an orange hue, aged often for several years in large casks, wines that can age for more than a decade – here are wines that represent Oslavia to the world. Just as Montalcino is a cradle for Sangiovese and the Barolo zone is home to the world’s greatest examples of Nebbiolo, so too, this little district in southern Collio, very close to the border with Slovenia, is home to one of the world’s most remarkable wines.

That’s something to celebrate!

 

A special thank you to Alessandra Gruppi from Collio for asking me to organize and speak at this event. Also a special thank you to Marko Primosic for his cooperation in putting this event together and my gratitude as well to Eric Benjamin Kleinberg for letting me use his first-rate images in this post.

And finally, a big thank you to Chef Mauro Mafrici for his efforts as well as the six producers for coming to Chicago and for making these brilliant wines that truly reflect a sense of place!

June 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

Some Favorite Wines from Piemonte not named Barolo or Barbaresco

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Lucrezia Carrega, Malabaila di Canale (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I’ve just returned from eleven busy days in Piemonte and as usual, enjoyed a great time. The food was especially awesome this time, being able to dine at so many special places (Felicin in Monforte, Tota Virginia in Serralunga and Trattoria La Libera in Alba – this last one twice). Of course, there were a good number of excellent wines as well – is there a better red wine region in Italy than Piemonte?

Barolo and Barbaresco were the primary reasons I was there and I’ll report on the new vintages – 2009 for the former and 2010 for the latter – soon. But for this post, I’d like to note some other Piemontese wines I enjoyed this visit that were excellent.

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I’ll bet you don’t think about sparkling wines when you consider Piemonte, but there are some excellent examples and I’m not referring to Asti Spumante. No, I’m talking about a category of sparkling wines known as Alta Langa. As the name suggests, the vineyard used for these wines are located at a higher elevation than most in the region, making them ideal for sparking wines, which require higher acidity for proper structure and balance.

What’s nice about Alta Langa is the purity of flavors in these wines. I’m not about to write that these are better sparkling wines than those coming from Franciacorta – both are metodo classico, by the way – as the Franciacorta wines tend to offer greater complexity as well as richness in the mouth. But what the Alta Langa wines lack in power, they more than make up for in finesse and varietal character. The best examples – I’ve tasted some lovely bottles from both Fontanafredda and Ettore Germano – are clean, ideally balanced and charming. Not a bad combination!

But now on this trip, I enjoyed the crowning achievement in Alta Langa to date – not only for my tastes, but also for many other Italian wine authorities. That wine is the Enrico Serafino Alta Langa “Zero” – in this case, the 2005 vintage. This is a wine that spent six years on the yeasts before disgorgement and that extra aging time has given this wine some added dimensions you don’t find in most examples of Alta Langa. There is a light touch of yeastiness in the aromas, although this is not a toasty, biscuity style in the mode of many similarly aged Champagnes. Rather, there are lovely pear and fig flavors, a rich mid-palate and an ultra-long, round, clean finish with excellent acidity. This wine really cleans your mouth and is especially marvelous paired with seafood.

By the way, I mentioned that other Italian wine authorities have also raved about this wine. Primary evidence of that is Gambero Rosso, the Italian wine bible, having awarded this 2005 its highest rating of tre bicchieri; they did the same for the 2006 bottling, which I have yet to try, but certainly will. Here’s hoping that Palm Bay, the US importer for Serafino, will start to bring in at least a small amount of this wine soon so that American consumers won’t have to travel to Piemonte to taste this enchanting sparkler.

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As for white wines, there are a surprising number of excellent types made in Piemonte, such as Gavi, Timorasso and Favorita and of course, Arneis. This last wine, the most famous of which are from the Roero district, situated across from the Langhe on the opposite side of the Tanaro River, has become a great success not only in Italy and throughout much of Europe, but also in the United States, both by the bottle and the glass. Most examples are tank fermented and aged to highlight the lovely fruit aromas and flavors, but there are few examples that are aged for a short time in wood.

I enjoyed two excellent Arneis from the beautiful, but underrated Roero estate, Malabaila di Canale. situated in that charming town. Both were from the 2012 vintage, a warm year that yielded forward, but more complex wines than in 2011. The entry level bottling has those beautiful pear and melon flavors so typical of the variety and is very refreshing, with impressive richness. The “Pradvaj” offering, from a lovely sloping hillside planting at the winery, is an outstanding Arneis, with a touch of honey in the aromas to accompany the classic varietal flavors; the mid-palate is quite generous and the finish is very long. This is a first-rate white wine that I’d prefer to pair with white meats (even veal) as well as most seafood. These wines are imported in the US, as they are Marc de Grazia selections and there are various distributors, such as Skurnik in the New York/New Jersey area as well as Robert Houde in Chicago. (The retail price on the Pradvaj is betwen $20 and $22 in the US; to me, the wine is worth every penny.)

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Finally, a few lovely reds. First there was the Cappellano Barbera d’Alba “Gabutti” 2008. My companion and I had been through the ringer tasting so many examples of Barolo and Barbaresco, so for dinner we wanted a red with very modest tannins. Barbera was the perfect choice and with this offering from Cappellano, we found the ideal Barbera. Teobaldo Cappellano, who passed away a few years ago, was a strict traditionalist with all his wines and made some celebrated examples of Barolo over the past few decades. What you had to admire about him – and this is stated in Italian on the back label – is that he did not want his wines to be rated with numerical scores, preferring that any particular journalist or critic merely write about the wine itself, its special flavors and its pleasure. What a great man and what a wonderful philosophy. Wouldn’t it be nice if this attitude were more in the norm of what wine would be about today?

Anyway, this Barbera, proved that Cappellano cared a lot about all his wines, not just the famous ones (Note: Teobaldo’s son Augusto now makes the wines and has continued his father’s memorable work). This wine, from the Gabutti cru in Serralunga, was steel aged with fresh blackberry and myrtle flavors, backed by good richness on the palate and a juicy, flavorful, very elegant finish with a clean, round note. What an ideal wine for just about any food, from simple pasta to sautéed duck breast or lumache (snails). This is imported in the US by Rosenthal Wine Merchants.

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Finally, a few words about a marvelous Dolcetto, the Chionetti Dogliani “San Luigi” 2011. I love Dolcetto and as I hadn’t tasted a single example during my trip as of the final evening in Alba, I was eager to taste one. This one was everything I expected. Chionetti, established in 1912, has been one of the standard bearers for Dolcetto in the lovely town of Dogliani, a little bit south of the town of Barolo. The producers here pride themselves on the power and complexity of their offerings of Dolcetto, believing that other versions, such as those labeled as Dolcetto d’Alba or Diano d’Alba, are relatively minor league by comparison (this is their opinion, not necessarily mine).

Given that, some offerings of Dolcetto from Dogliani (the DOCG versions are now identified simply as Dogliani – the grape name is omitted from the label), can be a bit overdone, sometimes in ripeness, other times in terms of cellar work to attempt to produce a more powerful wine. Thankfully, that was not a problem with this single vineyard offering from Chionetti (San Luigi is one of the producer’s best and most consistent offerings). This newly released 2011 – appropriate as this wine has only modest tannins – is a sheer delight with black plum and raspberry flavors, very good acidity and an elegant, supple finish. This is a textbook example of Dogliani and if more examples were made in this fashion, perhaps Dolcetto from Dogliani – as well as other examples of the variety – would enjoy greater sales success.

It was a perfect accompaniment to the dish of seppie nere (“black” octopus, if you will) I enjoyed at Trattoria La Libera. I’d also love to pair it with rabbit, lighter game birds and delicate pastas. The wine in imported in the US by Vinifera Imports.

So there you have it, a selection of wonderful Piemontese wines, all meant for the dinner table and not a single one named Barolo or Barbaresco. Sometimes, the greatest pleasures are indeed the simplest!

May 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm 1 comment

Roberto Voerzio – Memorable Wines and Words

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Roberto Voerzio (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Roberto Voerzio was in Chicago yesterday. That may not seem like a earth-shattering statement, but when you consider that this celebrated Barolo producer was making his first visit to Chicago during only his second-ever trip to the United States, then you realize this was a very special day.

There are several famous wine personalities from Italy that regularly travel to the US and other countries around the world to promote their wines; Piero Antinori has been doing it for decades, whlie Angelo Gaja makes it a point to visit America often (and he has the suntan to prove it!). But Voerzio isn’t someone that does this sort of thing much, so needless to say when I was invited to join a few of Chicago’s top sommeliers for lunch at Spiaggia Ristorante to taste a selection of his Barolos – plus one Barbera – I said yes in a second.

If you know much about Voerzio, you might think that he hardly needs to do much along the lines of promotion for his wines; he was, after all, one of the first producers to receive 100 points from both The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator, for his various offerings of Barolo from the late 1990s and early 2000s. You can imagine the clamor for his wines at that point and his wines are just as famous and about as highly regarded today.

I met him once before at his winery in La Morra and the experience was quite remarkable. For someone as famous as he is, he doesn’t act like someone who’s in great demand. He had his vineyard manager give me a tour of his plantings throughout La Morra and then welcomed me back in his cellars with a tasting of his current releases of Barolo – he produces as many as seven different cru bottlings in a single year. He answered all of my questions in great detail and was in a wonderful mood, posing for numerous photos. After trying for years to meet him, I realized that here was an individual who was being pushed in many directions, as journalists from all over the world wanted a piece of his time. Yet here he was, a gracoius host, more than happy to talk with me and get my thoughts on his wines. How nice that Voerzio is such a down to earth person!

That same generosity and humility was on display yesterday at lunch. Voerzio talked about his roots in La Morra, as his ancestors have been grape growers for 200 years in this commune. It was in 1970 that his brother Gianni and he decided to produce Barolo from the grapes they grew and then in 1986, the two brothers went their separate ways, releasing wines under their own labels (Gianni produces a beautiful Barolo from the La Serra cru as well as deeply concentrated examples of Arneis, Barbera and Nebbiolo d’Alba, while Roberto has stayed with Barolo and a small amount of Barbera).

Voerzio spoke about his farming and how he green harvests at least twice during the summer to come in with incredibly small yields, at 50 quintals per hectare, about half of the limit allowed in Barolo. The final cuts in the Nebbiolo vineyards trim half the amount of grapes on the vine at the time, reslulsting in miniscule yields. This of course means less wines produced and of course, higher production costs, but the finished wines show tremendous intensity and weight on the palate.

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Yet despite their obvious power, the wines are supremely elegant. Voerzio has been labeled a “modernist” among Barolo producers, yet he scoffs at that characterization and clearly wanted us to know that the modernity of his work has much to do with temperature control in the cellar; this technology has allowed him to make more elegant wines, so in this case, modern is a good thing.

When asked by a sommelier at the lunch about his being a modern producer, he replied that when comparing traditional Barolo versus the modern style, the differences have a great deal to do with the aging vessels. “Traditional Barolos are aged in botti, while modern Barolos are aged in barrique; the truth lies somewhere in between,” was his answer.

He emphasized that while he does produce two examples of Barolo that are aged solely in barrique – namely the Sarmassa and the Capalot e Brunate “Vecchie Vigne” – most of his wines are aged in a combination of large and small oak for a period of two years. After that, the wines are then returned to large stainless steel tanks before bottling, so as not to let the wood notes dominate the fruit characteristics.

Having tasted a very few examples of Robeto Voerzio Barolos previously, I can attest to the fact that his newest releases from 2008 and 2009 display less obvious wood notes than before, while maintaining remarkable concentration. These wines, especially the 2009 Brunate and 2008 Rocche Annunziata/Torriglione Barolo – the latter, a particuarly, sublime, outstanding effort – are elegant wines with very fine tannins and marvelous persistence; they are wines that indeed display superb varietal character as well as a sense of place.  These are wines that are rightly celebrated as among the very finest in the entire Barolo landscape and upon tasting them, you don’t think of these as modern wines, but rather ones that captivate you with their excellence and honesty.

In an interview after lunch, Voerzio told me that he is proud to have been born in La Morra and clearly his affection for his commune shines through in his wines. High density planting and a perfectionist attitude in his farming and in the cellar are keys to the success of his wines, but after meeting with Roberto Voerzio and listening to him talk about his land, maybe it’s romance that’s the most important ingredient in his offerings of Barolo. If you believe that’s a bit much, well, see what you think when you taste one of his Barolos –it’s bound to be love at first sip!

My thanks to Marilyn Krieger and Maria Megna of Winebow for their assistance with this event.

April 26, 2013 at 11:31 am 4 comments

Little-Known Italian Wine Surprises

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Numerous people have asked me how I selected the specific wines for my book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines. I think some of them want to know if these wines received a particular high rating or award in a certain wine publication; the easy answer is that the book is my guide to the amazing variety of Italian wines. Some of these bottles may have found favor with other reviewers, but this is my selection and mine alone, as I write in the introduction.

The bottom line as to why I included a wine can be found in the title of the book – this is a look at Italy’s most distinctive wines. That means wines that have something to say, wines that reveal lovely varietal character, charm and harmony, ones that ultimately display a sense of place. That’s what I’m looking for with Italian wines, be it an expensive Amarone, Barolo or Brunello or a lesser-known, more humble (but no less excellent) wine such as Soave, Dolcetto, Verdicchio, Fiano di Avellino or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, just to name a few.

Here then are a few words on some of the more unique and distinctive wines I selected for my book:

DACAPO Ruchè di Castagnole di Monferrato “Majoli” - Piemonte is known for its full-bodied red wines with the Nebbiolo-based Barolo and Barbaresco being the most renowned. Yet there are many other lighter reds that deliver a great deal of character; this Ruchè from DaCapo, named for the hill where the vineyards are planted, is a great example. Aged only in stainless steel tanks, this has intriguing aromas of rhubarb, strawberry and nutmeg; medium-bodied, this is quite elegant, although the tannins sneak up on you in the finish. This is meant for consumption within two to five years of the vintage and would be lovely with a local pasta such as agnolotti al plin. (Imported in the US by A.I. Selections)

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FONTANAFREDDA Dolcetto Diano d’Alba “La Lepre” – I love Dolcetto, one of the big three red varieties of the Langhe (Nebbiolo and Barbera being the other two), so I’ve included several examples in the book. But while Dolcetto di Dogliani (referred to simply as Dogliani for the DOCG versions) is more highly praised and Dolcetto d’Alba is more widely available, Dolcetto from the small village of Diano d’Alba, not far from Serralunga d’Alba, is not well known. This version from Fontanafredda, named for the wild hare that runs through the vineyards, is a real delight. Made from old vines that give this wine a bit more body and character, this has an appealing dark purple color and intense aromas of black raspberry and black cherry preserves along with notes of licorice. Medium-full, it’s approachable at an early age (one to two years), but there are some medium weight tannins that give this wine some ageability. But for  me, the best thing about this wine is that you don’t have to think about it too much – just pour yourself a glass and enjoy as it’s absolutely delicious! (Imported in the US by Palm Bay)

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LO TRIOLET Pinot Gris - There are hundreds of ordinary examples of Pinot Grigio (sometimes labeled as Pinot Gris) produced throughout Italy. Then there are a few dozen examples from cool climate regions in the north such as Alto Adige and Friuli that have vitality and complexity. Then there is this wine, from a small estate in Valle d’Aosta, in the far northwestern reaches of Italy, that may be the finest version of this variety in the entire country. As with any distinctive wine, the grape source is often the key; here proprietor Marco Martin is dealing with 15-25 year old vines situated some 2900 feet above sea level! (this may be the highest PInot Gris vineyard in the world). At this elevation, temperatures are quite cool, ensuring a long hang time for the grapes so they can accumulate proper ripeness as well as dazzling aromatics. This is a vibrant white of outstanding complexity, a Pinot Gris that is completely dry, one with excellent depth of fruit and a distinct minerality. While it’s not meant for long term cellaring, it is ideal at three to four years of age and it’s rich enough to accompany river fish or lighter poultry. (Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines)

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ETTORE GERMANO Riesling “Hérzu”- Think Piemonte and you think red wine. So what a pleasant surprise to discover such a lovely dry Riesling from this region, as this Hérzu from Ettore Germano. Proprietor/winemaker Sergio Germano produces a very rich version from his vineyards not far from Dogliani; the oldest plantings date back to 1995. This has beautiful aromas of apricots and peaches as you would expect, so your world won’t be turned upside down by enjoying this sleek, beautifully balanced Riesling. I love this wine when it is between five and seven years of age, although the examples from the finest vintages drink for as long as a decade. (Various US importers including Oliver McCrum Wines and Beivuma Distributors).

Here is the link for ordering my book.

thylandbookcover

April 12, 2013 at 9:18 am 2 comments

Franco Biondi Santi, R.I.P.

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Franco Biondi Santi (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Franco Biondi-Santi, proprietor of his family’s world-renowned Brunello estate, passed away today at the age of 91. Grandson of Ferruccio Biondi Santi, who is credited with “inventing” Brunello di Montalcino in the 1870s, Franco devoted his life to maintaning the traditions of his grandfather and father Tancredi, by producing traditional Brunello in the strictest sense. His wines over the past six decades were sublime, heralded as among the world’s finest.

I met Franco for the first time a little more than ten years ago, as I was with a group of international journalists visiting a number of estates in Montalcino. We were all impressed to be able to tour this “temple” of Brunello and even more excited to briefly meet Franco. He displayed his playful side, as he took a business card from each of us, held them in his hand and then spread them out like a deck of cards. I suppose you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it was nice to see someone so famous who didn’t take himself too seriously.

I met him again about six years later at a wine fair and how nice that he remembered me; after all, here was a man who rubbed shoulders with many famous people, so for him to take time to say hello and invite me to a tasting later that day was very gracious of him.

But my most memorable meeting with Franco was last May at the Tenuta Greppo estate, situated just outside the town of Montalcino. I sat down with an employee who assisted me with my interview; afterwards the three of us sat down in the cellars to taste the new releases. It’s a pretty special occasion to merely sample Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino, but to be able to do it at the estate with Franco Biondi Santi was a day I’ll never forget. It was especially nice to hear the proud tone of his voice as he told me the story of his family and their wines. It was also quite a treat to see him standing next to some of the botti in the cellars and talking about these casks used to mature the Brunello; a few of these had been in operation for over 100 years!

In my book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, I wrote the following about the Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva:

“This is one of the few wines from Montalcino – or anywhere in the world – that I would call ethereal.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has several definitions for the word “ethereal,” among them “heavenly,” “intangible,” “marked by unusual delicacy or refinement” and finally, “suggesting the heavens or heaven.” We don’t usually refer to a person as ethereal, but it’s clear that the reference to heaven is fitting for Franco Biondi Santi; surely he is there now, looking down on his beloved estate.

April 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm 4 comments

Taurasi – Three Marvelous Verticals – (Part Three- Mastroberardino)

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Opening the 1961 Mastroberardino Taurasi (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

In my previous two posts (here and here), I wrote about marvelous vertical tastings of Taurasi from two first-rate producers: Feudi di San Gregorio and Luigi Tecce. As Taurasi is a significant red that does not receive the attention it deserves, it’s a pleasure experiencing the beautiful work that these two producers – as well as another few dozen estates – have accomplished over the past 10-15 years; perhaps now Taurasi will be a more important part of the discussion about Italy’s greatest red wines.

But if you have to single out one producer who has carried the torch for Taurasi for more than 70 years, it is clearly Mastroberardino. Indeed, this family estate, situated in the small town of Atripalda in the province of Avellino, is indeed synonymous with this wine. Anyone who knows even a little bit about Taurasi has probably read about some journalist’s amazing experience with the 1968 bottling, a wine that has become a watershed for Taurasi. I am one of those lucky souls who has tasted this wine ; that one occasion being at VinItaly in Verona about six or seven years ago with Piero Mastroberardino, the managing director of the winery. I was pleased to note at the time that this legendary wine – almost forty years of age when I sampled it that day – deserved its celebrated status. It seemed to me that the wine had plenty of life ahead of it – I estimated that it would still be in fine shape in 2016-2020, meaning it would be a pleasure to drink even at 50 years of age! I recall that I tasted the 1971 as well that day and told Piero that while I believed that wine was outstanding, it was the 1968 that was fresher. Piero’s sheepish reply was, “well, 1968 was a better vintage.”

So it was a great pleasure to be invited along with a small group of international journalists in March to a tasting of six decades of Mastroberardino Taurasi at the winery. Piero and his team – along with his father Antonio, who guided the firm through many of its greatest successes since the 1940s – selected one wine from each decade, starting with the 1952 and continuing up to the 2006 bottling. Piero gave a brief talk about how his ancestors started selling their Taurasi around Italy; he then let us taste the wines in silence, without any additional words about each bottle.

Here are my notes on the six wines:

1952- Pale garnet; still lovely fruit aromas with notes of strawberry along with balsamic, oregano, thyme and cedar. Medium-full, with a beautifully elegant entry on the palate, this is a remarkably fresh wine, one of stunning grace and harmony. There is notable acidity along with a very subtle spiciness. Absolutely amazing now, this wine has at least another 10-12 years ahead of it, but I will admit that this is an educated guess; who knows, perhaps this will will be in fine shape some 20-25 years from now, as the balance is that impressive. A great, great wine.

1961 Riserva - Deep garnet; aromas of dried currant, dried cherry, sage and balsamic. Medium-full with excellent concentration; generous mid-palate. Outstanding freshness and balance; amazing persistence – the finish goes on and on. As flavorful and rich as this wine is, it is undeniably light as a feather. A sublime wine, one of great pleasure that will be drinking well for another 15-20 years, perhaps even longer. A great, great wine.

1970 Riserva – Deep garnet; aromas of truffle, balsamic, dried currant, oregano and cedar. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Long, long finish with very fine tannins. Outstanding complexity, very good acidity and remarkable freshness. What a wine – one of great typicity, balance, freshness and harmony. This has at least 15-20 years of life ahead of it. Another great, great wine and the one that I selected as my favorite, although I admit that if I could taste these wines together again, my choice as the favorite – an incredibly difficult selection – might be either the 1952 or the 1961, as they are all of immeasurable quality, class and breeding.

(At this point, I need to let you know that I did not spit any of these first three wines. Of course at any tasting, you spit or else you wouldn’t be able to walk straight after a few minutes. But how could I spit the 1952, 1961 or 1970? Not only were they amazing to taste, who knows if I’ll ever get a chance to try them again? During this first part of the tasting, I turned to my colleague Tom Maresca from New York City, who confirmed to me that he wasn’t spitting any of these either!)

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(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

1985 - Deep garnet; aromas of fresh red cherry, hint of orange peel, balsamic, truffle and cedar. Very good persistence, very good acidity, round tannins. Impressive persistence and notable length in the finish. Excellent complexity and wonderful varietal character. Best in 10-12 years, although it will undoubtedly drink well for another 7-10 years after that. Excellent.

1996 Riserva “Radici” Radici means “roots,” an appropriate designation for a Campanian firm that has been producing their own wines since 1878; the “Radici” project for Mastroberardino Taurasi was initiated with the 1986 vintage. Lovely deep garnet; aromas of fresh red cherry, strawberry, cedar and a hint of brown spice. Medium-full with very good concentration. Elegant mid-palate, very good acidity, very fine tannins and impressive length. Very harmonious with beautiful typicity. Best in 12-15 years. Excellent.

2006 Riserva “Radici” - Bright, deep ruby red; aromas of black cherry, along with hints of tar and dark chocolate. Generous mid-palate; very good acidity, rich, balanced tannins, excellent persistence and typicity. Notes of black spice in the finish that add to the complexity of this wine. A lovely, somewhat powerful wine, albeit one with beautiful charm. Best in 15-20 years. Outstanding.

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Anotnio and Piero Mastroberardino (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Just as we were finishing the tasting, Antonio Mastroberardino, patriarch of the firm, entered the room – what a pleasure to see this man again! I had met him about eight or nine years ago at the winery, but had only seen him briefly one time since. I always made it a point to ask Piero how his father was doing over the past few years and he replied that he was just fine. I had heard that he was slowing down a bit recently and perhaps not in the best health, but here he was, some 84 years young, looking just great! He must be drinking a good amount of Taurasi!

Antonio, along with Piero, then told us brief remembrances of their work in the vineyards and cellars over the past six decades. “There was no technological revolution in the 1950s,” Antonio said, reminding us that these great wines were the result of hard work as well as good fortune in any particular growing season. Wines as special as we enjoyed this day are truly one-of-a-kind bottles, ones that are unique and have their own identity. In that respect, they were just like this tasting!

My heartfelt thanks to Piero and Antonio Mastroberardino and the entire team at the winery for inviting me to this once-in-a-lifetime event.

April 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm Leave a comment

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