Posts tagged ‘brunate’

Mauro Sebaste – Elegant wines from Piemonte

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Mauro Sebaste and his daughter Sylla (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Let me start with an analogy. Many of us love dreaming about flashy sports cars, but the truth is that most of us will never own one; they’re too expensive and they really don’t fit our lifestyle. The same holds true for watches that cost several thousand dollars or mansions that run into the millions.

The same thinking often comes to being with wine; people love to read about the most expensive, longest-lived red wines, ones of great breeding and class. The editors at the most influential wine publications know that, which is why the 100-point scale is in use these days. Hey, wouldn’t you prefer a 95 or 97-point wine as compared to a 91 or 92-point wine? The editors are betting you will – as are the producers that receive the higher scores.

But let’s wait a bit. What do those scores really mean? I could go off on this at great length, but basically, this is a case of “bigger being better.” Whatever you think about a particular wine or group of wines, you have to admit there’s not right or wrong at play. If you like a bigger wine, fine. But there are many of us that would rather have a more delicate wine, especially if we are trying to find the ideal match with food.


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All of this brings me to the wines of Mauro Sebaste in Piemonte. I first met him in Chicago more than a decade ago and recently visited him at his winery near Alba, in the heart of the Barolo zone. I find him to be a gentleman, one who goes about his business in a professional, thoughtful and relatively quiet manner. It’s a bit of a cliché, I suppose, but he prefers that the wines speak for themselves.

It’s the same understated qualities of the man that are on display in his wines. These are not powerhouse, showy wines meant to “wow” you, but rather, they are beautifully balanced wines that display excellent varietal character; for me, that’s what I seek and I think it’s what a lot of wine drinkers prefer.

In their 2013 Guide, Gambero Rosso, the Bible of Italian wine publications, mentions that these wines “are not overly extracted and faithfully reflect the character of their individual terroirs.” This is a valuable assessment of Sebaste’s wines and it’s that first part of the sentence I want to focus on, as those wines that get the high point ratings I referred to earlier are generally deeply extracted to obtain the deepest colors and get every fruit essence they can from the grapes. The results are often like jam, not wine; if that’s what you like, fine. But upon further examination, the best wines are about balance and expression of the site where the grapes are grown. That’s what Sebaste brings to all his wines.

Briefly then, don’t look for the highest scores or the most precious descriptors for the wines of Mauro Sebaste. But be prepared for elegant, flavorful wines that are well made and a pleasure at the dinner table. Here are notes on wines I tried with Mauro earlier this year at his winery:

2012 Roero Arneis - Appealing Anjou pear and melon aromas; medium-bodied, very appealing, with excellent varietal character. Very good acidity, this is sleek and beautifully balanced. This would be a wonderful partner with a vegetable risotto. (Very good to excellent)

2011 Barbera d’Alba “Santa Rosalia” – Bright purple; black cherry and black plum aromas. Medium-bodied, good acidity with a slightly tart finish. Nicely balanced with very light tannins and notable varietal character. A bit of an old-fashioned Barbera, one that’s not over-oaked or tricked up, but nicely made for food, be it pizza or roast veal. (Very good)

2009 Barolo Prapò – This is from the famed cru in Serralunga d’Alba. Lovely delicate garnet color (again, not overextracted); expressive aromas of cedar, dried cherry, orange peel, rose petals and a hint of tar – just lovely! Medium-full with elegant tannins, good acidity and a clean finish of good length. While not as complex as recent vintages (especially the 2008), this is a well made wine and a notable example of the understated style of the Mauro Sebaste Barolos. Best in 12-15 years.  (Very good to excellent)

Incidentally, I wrote about this wine, the Mauro Sebaste Barolo Prapò, in my book, Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distincitve Wines. Here is an excerpt from that text:

“This is a classy Barolo that expresses its terroir in a graceful manner. It’s made in a style that offers approachability upon release, as it’s not a tightly wrapped wine, yet it will clearly offer greater complexity at twelve years of age and older; the best vintages will drink well for as long as 25 years.”

(Clearly, I enjoyed writing about this wine almost as much as I loved drinking it! I always wish to find wines like this – ones that are true to their variety as well as heritage.)

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2007 Barolo “Brunate” Riserva – The Brunate cru, situated in La Morra, is one of the famous in the entire Barolo zone. Deep garnet; aromas of dried cherry, dried currant, orange peel and a note of tobacco. Medium-full with a generous mid-palate. Long finish, excellent persistence, good acidity and nicely balanced tannins. Best in 12-15 years – perhaps a bit longer. (Excellent to outstanding)

September 5, 2013 at 10:51 am Leave a 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

The Brilliance of Barolo – An Unforgettable Dinner

1961 Fontanafredda Barolo

On Tuesday night in Chicago, on a day where the high temperature reached a tick or two above 100 degrees, I hosted a Barolo dinner at Vivere Restaurant at The Italian Village. The fact that the dinner was sold out is not only testimony of the passion of the wonderful people who attended, but also primary evidence of the everlasting allure of Barolo. This would turn out to be a magnificent evening!

The dinner featured ten different Barolos from my own cellar; these were wines I had brought back from my frequent trips to the Barolo zone over the past decade. Wine director Ian Louisignau and I whittled down my original list of 15 wines to ten, focusing primarily on vintage comparisons, as we would have two Barolos from vintages such as 2008, 2007, 2006, 2004 and 2001 and then finish with one from 1996 and finally a 1961. Each of these vintages was excellent, some outstanding and one (1961), legendary.

I mentioned to the group that what made Barolo so special for me is its uniqueness. We can taste a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and compare it to a classified growth from Bordeaux. We can sample a Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey or from Central Otago in New Zealand and note the similarities or differences to a Burgundy from the Cote d’Or. But we can’t do that with Barolo, unless we were to compare it with Barbaresco, another great 100% Nebbiolo wine produced not far away. Barolo then, is its own reference point and the finest examples reflect both a singular varietal identity as well a particular sense of place.

Detail of Lazzarito Vineyard, Serralunga d’Alba, with snow-capped Alps in the background (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The notion of terroir is an important aspect for understanding Barolo. There are two major soil types found throughout the eleven communes that comprise the Barolo zone and knowing what these soils are and where they are found can help one learn about a sense of place with these wines. The older soils, known as Helvetian, are found in Monforte d’Alba, Serralunga d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto, while the younger soils, known as Tortonian, are found in communes such as La Morra, Verduno and Novello. As the older soils are thinner, the resulting wines have firmer, more intense tannins as compared with wines from the younger soils, which have more pronounced floral aromatics. Thus a wine from La Morra with younger soils is generally a more approachable Barolo upon release in comparison to one from Monforte or Serralunga, where the heavy duty tannins (in most years) mandate several years of aging before the wine starts to settle down.

This contrast was clear in the first pair of wines, both from 2008: the Ceretto “Brunate” and the Elio Grasso “Gavarini Chiniera.” The Ceretto, from one of the most highly regarded crus in all of Barolo, is a lovely wine with beautiful fresh cherry perfumes and flavors and elegantly styled tannins, while the Grasso from a site on this family’s own estate in Monforte, was more tightly wound with a stronger backbone and firmer tannins. Both wines are beautifully made and perfectly illustrate the terroir of Barolo. Each wine should peak in 12-20 years, with the Grasso probably going a few years beyond that.

Before I move on to the next wines, I want to talk about the meal at Vivere. I have dined here more than a dozen times, always knowing I would enjoy a first-rate meal. What was great about the special menu for this Barolo dinner was that Chef Robert Reynaud assembled a menu as you would find in a trattoria or osteria in the Barolo area; this was not just any old meal put together at the last minute. A lot of thought went into this, as we enjoyed vitello tonnato with caper berry for the first two wines, tajarin with albese sauce with the next two wines, risotto al Barolo with figs with the third pairing of wines, hazelnut crusted ribeye with fontina fonduta with the 2001 Barolos and finally a selection of Piemontese cheeses with the 1996 and 1961 Barolos. Eveything was excellent, with much great praise for the outstanding risotto dish. How wonderful to show off these wines with great Piemontese cuisine!

The next wines were from 2007, the Elvio Cogno “Ravera” from Novello and the Attilio Ghoslfi “Brunate Bricco Visette” from Monforte. These wines displayed not only differences as far as terroir, but also in winemaking philosophy, as the Cogno is a traditional wine, quite lovely with a sensual edge, while the Ghisolfi is aged in barriques; indeed there was more evident oak with this wine, yet there was also very impressive depth of fruit. I enjoyed both wines, but gave the edge to the Cogno, especially as this wine displayed better overall balance as well as finesse.

Roberto Voerzio Barolo Brunate

Next came the 2004 Barolos. As I prepared my notes for this dinner, I took a look at my text about this vintage, which I wrote in the summer of 2008, when these wines were released. I asked if 2004 was the finest Barolo vintage of the last fifteen years and while 1996, 1999 and 2001 were all great vintages, I mentioned that “I’d never had such a collection of Barolos that were this good this young.”

The wines we tasted from 2004 were the Barale Fratelli “Canubi” and the Roberto Voerzio “Brunate”; this pairing an excellent contrast in style as well as weight. The Barale was a medium-full wine with lovely plum fruit that seemed a bit simple at first, but became more complex as it sat in the glass. The Voerzio was a powerhouse wine that offered tremendous depth of fruit, as well as having a great backbone. Voerzio, who uses barriques for his Barolo, has stated that after six to eight years in the bottle, the sensation of the smaller oak vessels fades and you’re not able to tell the difference between small or large oak barrel-aged wines. This did still have a touch of new oak sensation in the nose, but it was slight and not obtrusive; meanwhile the nose was still a bit closed, with hints of cherry and currant fruit emerging. But given the structure and impressive complexity, this is clearly a superb wine, one that can aged for another 25-30 years, when it will truly become great.

The next two wines were from 2001, a great vintage that produced powerful wines with excellent depth of fruit and firm tannins. The Vietti “Brunate” was a superior effort, especially in its elegance and polish; this was a wine that spoke of its origins with its gorgeous aromas of plum, cherry and roses. There are medium-weight, ultra smooth tannins and precise acidity. This is a wine of great finesse that a few of the diners thought was the wine of the evening (at least to that point, see the notes on the 1961 Fontanafredda below).

The other 2001 was the Fontanafredda “Lazzarito”; this a favorite Barolo of mine for many years. Medium-full, this offered power and impressive structure with firm, balanced tannins. This was not as supple as the Vietti, but again, consider terroir in this instance, as this is from a superb site in Serralunga d’Alba that results in wines of very rich tannins, so rich that the winery releases this wine almost a year after their other offerings of Barolo from the same vintage. What I loved about this wine was not only the balance, but also the freshness. This is a wine that should peak in another 15-20 years. 2001 was a great vintage and these two wines were memorable proof of that!

Our last two wines were from stellar vintages. The 1996 Poderi Colla “Dardi Le Rose Bussia” is a stunning wine with intense aromas, a powerful mid-palate and still youthful tannins and a finish with outstanding persistence. 1996 was a great, great year, a vintage that was a classic for Barolo, yielding wines that were truly Piemontese in style – that is, tightly wound and not as immediately approachable as international years such as 1997, 2000 or 2007. This Colla offering from Monforte d’Alba is a great wine now and one that will only improve for another 25-40 years. It’s that special.

Finally we came around to the wine everyone was waiting for, the 1961 Fontanafredda. While this was not a cru Barolo in the technical sense – single vineyard Barolos were not common until the late 1970 and early 1980s – this was a wine of exceptional breeding, sourced from the winery’s finest vineyards. 1961 was not just a great year for Barolo, it was a monumental year – Renato Ratti in his rating of Barolo vintages called it “majestic” at the time – and without doubt one of the ten finest vintages of the 20th century. What made this growing season so special was the notable warmth in the summer, as temperatures approached 100 degrees F. While this has been happening more often during the past fifteen years due to climate change, such hot temperatures were not normal back then. Combine that with the traditional winemaking style throughout Barolo at that time where wines were rather closed and a bit backwards upon release, and you have the makings of a wine that would improve slowly over the course of its life, a time span that would last for at least four or five decades.

Well, here we were, 51 years later and the wine was stunning! I had acquired the one and only bottle I had of this wine at the winery some five or six years ago. I placed the wine immediately in my cellar upon returning home and had only moved it twice in five years: once, a few months ago as I was planning this dinner to see if the wine was still in good condition (it was, as the fill was excellent) and once, last week, when I took all the wines to the restaurant to let them rest for a week.

Wine Director Ian Louisignau waited until the last minute to open this wine and when he showed me the cork, I had a huge smile on my face, as the cork was in one piece and offered lovely aromas of fruit. The wine had the color of a five year old Barolo – deep garnet – not one that was 51 years old. The aromas were unbelievably fresh with notes of red cherry, tar and currant with some delicate spice and the mid-palate was quite generous and well developed. The tannins were still quite evident and unbelievably polished and the finish, as graceful as one could imagine, seemed to go on forever. This was a wine I had kept for years for just this occasion and it not only met my lofty expectations, it exceeded them (and I believe everyone else’s, judging from the comments I heard.) I would wager a guess that this wine has at least 12-15 years of life ahead of it- perhaps longer.

Tasting a wine such as this lets you know that great bottles of Barolo have been produced for fifty years and more; great Barolo – indeed, great Italian wine – did not start in the 1970s, despite what certain wine publications may tell us. My how the farmers and winemakers throughout Barolo knew what they were doing back in 1961 and that era! My final thoughts on the 1961 Fontanafredda Barolo are these: I have tasted several thousand bottles of Barolo over the past decade; simply put, this was one of the three or four best examples I have ever experienced.

I touched the tip of the iceberg of my Barolo collection for this and I hope to organize another dinner such as this in the near future. Here’s hoping that next one comes close to the wonderful experience this one offered!

P.S. One final shout out to everyone at Vivere for their help, from manager Fred Ashtari for his organizational skills to Chef Reynaud for his superb menu, to our excellent waiter Ryan and of course, for all of his work, wine director Ian Louisignau. He decanted most of the wines about 90 minutes ahead of time and even more importantly, served them at the proper temperature. He also served various shapes ands sizes of stemware, which made it easy for all of us to remember which wine was which. Having great wines is one thing, but if they’re not treated properly, something is lost in the translation. Thanks, Ian, for your help and professional service!

July 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm 6 comments

2008 Barolo – First Thoughts

I’ve recently tasted a dozen examples of Barolo from the 2008 vintage and while only 12 wines is hardly overwhelming evidence, it’s enough for me to offer my first thoughts on wines from this year. I’d say right now, this should shape up as an excellent Barolo vintage – not powerful, but beautifully balanced, with lovely aromas and fine structure.

2008 was not as warm as 2007 or 2009 in the Barolo zone, so this gives the wines a more subdued character when compared to those vintages. 2007 was certainly somewhat of an “international” vintage, with its forward fruit and approachability upon release. There were plenty of cool nights during 2007 to offset the warm days, so the wines are nicely balanced and if not a classic vintage, certainly a very successful one. 2009 may shape up in much the similar way, but this is only a guess, as these wines won’t be released for another 15-18 months.

As 2008 was cooler than 2007 or 2009, the wines are more classically oriented, meaning this is more of a Piemontese vintage. That means the wines are a bit shy upon release, but offer excellent structure as well as a greater notion of sense of place or terroir. Now 2006 was also more of a Piemontese vintage, but the Barolos from that year are bigger wines, ones that need more time to come around and show their best qualities. The best 2006 Barolos are destined for optimum drinking some 25 years or more down the road. I’d say that the time frame for the 2008s is a bit less – perhaps 15-20 for most. Again, I’ve only tasted a dozen and though that hasn’t included some of the most renowned bottlings, I’ve certainly tasted some impressive offerings.

So the 2008s are middle weight Barolos with beautiful balance, very good acidity and impressive complexity. To me, they’re somewhat reminiscent of 2005, which are among the most beautifully balanced of the decade. Those wines, like the 2008s may not win the award for the longest-lived Barolos, but they certainly are beautifully styled.

Here are a few notes on my favorite 2008 Barolos to date:

Luigi Einaudi Costa Grimaldi- Costa Grimaldi is a selezione of the finest grapes from the Terlo cru in the Barolo commune. Beautiful aromas of dried cherry, thyme and cedar. Elegant entry; generous mid-palate. Lovely finesse and balance- best in 15-20 years.

Mauro Sebaste Prapo (Serralunga d’Alba) – Lovely aromas of dried cherry, currant, cedar and a touch of balsamic. Wonderful complexity and balance, this is a subtle, beautifully made Barolo with a nice sense of finesse. A traditionally made Barolo with classic overtones. Best in 15-20 years.

Marcarini La Serra - This great traditional producer makes two cru Barolos from La Morra. Floral aromas of red roses, carnation, dried cherry, coriander and nutmeg. Very good concentration and acidity with silky tannins and precise acidity. Best in 12-15 years.

Marcarini Brunate - Aromas of red cherry, cumin and cedar. Medium-full; very good acidity and persistence; subtle wood notes and polished tannins. A bit richer on the palate than the La Serra; best in 15-20 years.

Conterno Fantino Sori Ginestra (Monforte d’Alba) – Classic aromas of red cherry, orange peel, currant and cedar. Excellent concentration; rich mid-palate with layers of fruit.  Beautifully structured wine; very good acidity, excellent persistence with wood notes that are nicely integrated. A touch of modernity; beautiful complexity and varietal character. Best in 20 years plus.

Ca’ Rome Cerretta (Serralunga d’Alba) – Aromas of cedar, dried cherry, orange peel and sandalwood. Rich mid-palate, lovely balance, excellent persistence, very good acidity and refined tannins. Nice expression of Serralunga terroir. Best in 15-20 years.

Luigi Einaudi Cannubi (Barolo) – Red cherry, red rose and cedar aromas; medium-full with very good concentration. Tightly wound, this is rich with young balanced tannins, good acidity and persistence. Best in 15-20 years.

Cascina Bongiovanni Pernanno (Castiglione Falletto) – Currant, dried orange peel, dried cherry and cedar aromas – very classy! Medium-full, very good acidity and persistence with balanced tannins and nicely integrated oak. Best in 12-15 years.

April 11, 2012 at 8:47 pm 2 comments


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