Posts tagged ‘spiaggia’
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.
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.
There is a part of Sicily where the wines are made almost solely by producers that style the wines primarily for themselves. This is important, as these bottlings are not market-driven, the vintners can truly make hand-crafted wines that represent the local terroir. These are wines that have a soul; these are the wines from Etna.
I was reminded of that fact earlier this week when Steven Alexander, wine director of Spiaggia Restaurant in Chicago (one of the country’s most ambitious Italian wine programs), invited me to a seminar with two producers from Etna: Alberto Graci and Frank Cornelissen. Each producer makes small lots of regional wines based on local varieties such as Carricante (white) and Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, which give them their unique identity.
Alberto Graci presented two bottllngs of Etna Rosso DOC that by law contain 80% Nerello Cappuccio and 20% Nerello Cappuccio. The 2008 Etna Rosso from Graci has beautiful young garnet color with lovely aromas of roses and cranberries. Medium-full with very good acidity, the wine has moderate tannins and very subtle wood. Graci commented that he ages this wine solely in large casks, which he believes is the best way to produce a wine that represents what Etna is all about. This wine sells for around $32-$35, which I think is a fair price, given the quality and style of this wine. This is not about making a powerhouse wine, rather it’s about finesse and elegance.
His second wine, Quota 600 – named for the elevation in meters of this vineyard – has the same varietal mix, but has riper bing cherry fruit and more distinct spice; the wine finishes with a nice hint of clove. Again the acidity is quite lively and the wood notes are very subtle. This wine will have a longer life; I expect this to be at its best in 7-10 years versus 5-7 for the regular bottling. The $70-$75 price tag reflects the work that went into this wine as well as limited availability.
Graci pointed out how different the Etna district is from the rest of Sicily. While much of the island is quite warm (or hot) and harvest starts in August, the surroundings at 600 to 1000 meters (1970 to 3280 feet) in Etna mean conditions vary more dramatically here, with some years cold and rainy (2009) and some, such as 2006, extremely hot with drought conditions. Thus harvests vary from August to November, acidity levels are different and the resulting wines have a more marked identity with a specific year. This is clearly one of the secrets of Etna wines.
We then moved on to the wines of Cornelissen; these bottlings are a marriage of Etna varieties and terroir along with the personal philosophy of the winemaker himself. Frank Cornelissen is from Belgium and produced his first Etna wines in 2001. He is a vintner that believes he will never quite understand all the complexities of nature, so he does his best to observe and learn the hidden mysteries provided by Mother Nature; he also thinks that he must respect these enigmas.
Frank tasted out four wines, starting with his white, named Munjebel Bianco. The word Munjebel is a variation of two words – one Italian and one Arabic – that combined are a variation themselves of the word mongibello (“beautiful mountain”), the ancient name for Mount Etna. His Bianco, labeled as non-vintage, but essentially a 2007 wine, is deep amber color or what many refer to today as an “orange wine.” It is made from several varieties, incuding Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe. Frank noted that while Coda di Volpe is best-known in Campania, it is planted in good quantity in Etna; the variety adds finesse as well as backbone to this wine (these vines, incidentally, are on their own roots).
Cornelissen does not use any wood, nor does he use stainless steel, which makes his winemaking practice different from Graci (and just about anyone else!); he uses both anforae (clay pots) as well as demi-johns. I asked him if this wine had been aged in anforae and he replied that it indeed had, but promptly added, “I am not an anforae producer, I am a wine producer.” Clearly he wants to be known for his wines and not as someone who is following a trend. He also commented that “I am not a biodynamic producer. I am a natural winemaker. I add nothing.” In fact, Cornelissen does not even add sulfur dioxide.
His Contadino Rosso is a charming red made from 70% Nerello Mascalese with the additional 30% comprised of Alicante Bouchet, Nerello Cappuccio and even a small amount of white grapes. Loaded with fresh Queen Anne cherry aromas, tart acidity and extremely soft tannins, the wine displays remarkable concentration and a lengthy finish. This sells for anywhere between $35-40 and is a gorgeous wine that charms you instead of hitting you over the head.
His Munjebel Rosso (from 2006 and 2007, though labeled as non-vintage) is 100% Nerello Mascalese with aromas of dried cranberries, sherry, sundried tomato, rhubarb and turmeric. Medium-full, the wine has refined tannins, excellent concentration and outstanding complexity. This wine should drink well for 10-12 years – perhaps longer – and sells for around $50 per bottle.
The ultimate Cornelissen wine is Magma5 Riserva, a 100% Nerello Mascalese from a single cru, planted in 1893. Deep garnet with a light edge, this has unique aromas of soy, dried cherry and sundried tomato and offers remarkable concentration. The tannins are subtle, the acidity is quite lively and overall there is a delicate spice throughout with a great deal of finesse. This should be at its best in 10-12 years and I can best describe it as a singular, almost mysterious wine. It’s well made with impeccable balance, so it’s certainly not an experiment, yet it is a meticulous wine. I’m afraid at $300 a bottle (or more), it’s a bit rich for my blood, but what a wonderful experience to taste this rarity.
“My winemaking is about expressing the terroir of Etna. I go about it the easiest way, the simplest way,” Cornelissen explains. Like a great artist, he makes brilliance seem easy, even though we know it is not. Here’s to Alberto Graci, Frank Cornelissen and many other vintners from Etna for staying the course.