Terlato launches next chapter in Pinot Grigio story with Italy’s Simonit & Sirch

They wear plaid and are forced to check their pint-sized chainsaws in their luggage when they travel. They are the SVU – Special Vine Unit – not the investigators of crimes, but rather the investigators and proponents of healthy grapevines.

The Friuli-born Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch met in high school, having spent their childhoods running around their respective village farms, both clearly at home in the outdoors. After attending viticultural school, they worked at the Istituto Agrario, went on to other posts and then renewed their acquaintance several years later when they noted that what they had been taught in school wasn’t actually working in the vineyard.

The duo spent considerable time researching and observing what was going on and ultimately developed their trademarked Simonit & Sirch pruning strategies, which seek to promote sap flow and reduce pruning wounds (which are susceptible to disease).

Interestingly, in an age when the words “natural” and “organic” are bandied about as being superior, we tend to forget about the importance of the role of humans in the vineyard. Vineyard pruning practices have not been a major focus; however, as Simonit and Sirch discovered, these practices can limit the health and life expectancy of a vine.

Accordingly, their intervention techniques improve the overall health of the vine, eliminate potential weakness and, when necessary, they eradicate disease with the aforementioned mini-chainsaws. Further, their approach concentrates on saving prized, older vines, which have the capacity to extract the characteristics of the soil, as opposed to the more common alternative of grubbing up diseased vines and replacing them with new plants that will take years to develop quality grapes.

Now they have become celebrity pruners, traveling the globe to save the world’s greatest vineyards and preserve their longevity. As a result, they have a robust client roster that reads like a wine list at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Sometimes they can’t believe it themselves. When famed Sauternes producer, Chateau d’Yquem, came calling, they initially thought it was a prank call!

Several years ago, the pair were introduced to Bill Terlato through a mutual friend, kicking off what was to become a fruitful partnership. At the time, Terlato was ready to write the next chapter of his company’s Pinot Grigio story and was looking for great grapes.

Terlato’s father, Anthony Terlato, was responsible for launching the Santa Margherita brand in the U.S. back in the 1970s, but, despite the profitability of the lengthy Terlato-Santa Margherita partnership (now dissolved), Terlato had become disillusioned with the product. A victim of its own success, Terlato felt that the wine’s quality had diminished over time as quantity was increased to accommodate growing demand. He believes that a product becomes commercial, rather than artisanal, when you make hundreds of thousands of cases.

While the original intent was for Simonit & Sirch to simply supply the contacts for Terlato’s project, they saw the opportunity for their hometown region – Friuli’s Colli Orientali – to gain the global exposure they felt it deserved. Colli Orientali is known for crafting some of the best Pinot Grigio in the world, but, since the region is made up of many, small growers who produce many wines with limited production, it is very difficult for them to get traction in the market.

Thus, the viticulturists decided to participate as full collaborators with Terlato. They underscore that what makes this particular wine project different from others is that not only is the quality of the wine evident, but it is scalable. a situation which Terlato describes as “1 + 1 = 3; We [Terlato] bring the marketability on a global basis.”

Overall, the goal is to produce “Grand Cru quality” Pinot Grigio that is evocative of its place, with both character and ageability. Speaking highly of this much-maligned grape – thanks to the glut of insipid Pinot Grigio on lists and shelves – Simonit stresses that, as a relative of Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio has good genetics and has the capacity to produce excellent wines.

In general, the fruit is sourced and hand harvested at low yields from 20-to-40-year-old vines grown on marl and schist soils on hillside plots. Recognizing the subtle differences among various soil types and microclimates, grapes from different plots are vinified separately and then blended together to produce a balanced and complex wine. As Terlato explains, “We want something distinctive, with complexity, salinity, minerality and length.”

Vintage variation is evident and, while they hope Mother Nature will be kind to them each year, such variation is not discouraged or covered up. The first vintage of the project was 2014 (although they produced Friulano in 2013), which proved to be a challenging harvest. The 2015 vintage was more bountiful, permitting them to expand their reach, which they are growing cautiously, primarily targeting on-premise accounts.

Present production stands at 40,000 cases and Terlato believes that a maximum output of 150,000 cases is feasible before the quality is compromised – a far cry from the current Santa Margherita case production of 700,000 annually.

Time will tell how this newest Pinot Grigio chapter will end, but so far the wine has been well received in the market.

Summer sippers (and others) from Feudi di San Gregorio

Southern Italy beckons tourists to its rocky beaches and winding coast line. Just south of Naples, the famed Amalfi Coast runs from Sorrento in the north to Salento in the south, encompassing tony towns in between such as Positano and Ravello. But, the local wines crafted further inland are less familiar, which is an unfortunate oversight.

About an hour’s drive from the coast, Campania’s wine growing is centered in the north-central area of the region, near the towns of Avellino and Benevento. Here, the climate is vastly different from the Mediterranean feel of the coast, receiving over 200 days of rain, due to its location in the mountains. Home to Pompeii and Vesuvius, the region offers up volcanic soils.

The emphasis is on indigenous varieties with the main white grapes being the floral Falanghina; the structured Greco; and Fiano, which displays a little of each of the characteristics of the two. Fiano and Greco are both long ripening grapes, usually not picked until October, that keep their freshness despite the long hang time. The best examples of the Greco grape are those from the Greco di Tufo DOCG, so named for being grown in volcanic, chalk soil called tufo. Interestingly, the Greco vines were traditionally planted in separate vineyards (and consequently, on different soil types) from the Fiano vines, with early recognition of their unique terroir affinities, rather than being planted within the same field as was often done in the past.

Among the red varieties, the most prized grape is the indigenous Aglianico, which is best known for the Taurasi DOCG wines produced in the region. By law, Taurasi wines must be aged for a minimum of three years, including one year in barrel (and 4 years with 18 months in barrel for the Riserva wines). While this wine was frequently aged in small barriques, the more recent trend has been toward the use of larger-sized oak vessels.

With its reputation for producing full-bodied, powerful, concentrated, tannic wines, it is said that Taurasi is often called the Barolo of the South. But, when asked about this point when I met him several years ago, Antonio Capaldo, whose family owns Feudi di San Gregorio, suggested that, “Perhaps Barolo is the Taurasi of the North.”

More recently, I had the chance to catch up with Feudi’s young chairman and commercial head. One of the better-known names in the region, the winery just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Established in 1986 in Sorbo Serpico, within the Irpina region, Feudi di San Gregorio is named for Gregory the Great, reflecting the Roman, Greek and papal history of the area.

Among Feudi’s most highly acclaimed wines is its Serpico, crafted solely with Aglianico grapes and produced in limited quantities (only 10,000-12,000 bottles produced annually). Rather than use the Taurasi Riserva DOCG, in a nod to the Supertuscan movement, which saw the birth of fantasy names for many wineries’ top wines, Serpico, takes its name from the town in which Feudi di San Gregorio is situated. The grapes for the wine, harvested over a period of 20 days, come from a single, three-hectare vineyard of pre-phylloxera vines that range in age from 120 to 180 years. Antonio stresses that the pre-phylloxera nature of the vines is as important to the quality of the wine as is the vines’ old age. There are 80 to 90 different clones within this vineyard and the winery has selected 40 of these clones to use in propagating other vineyards.

Now that Feudi has built a strong reputation for its Campanian wines, the company has begun to look elsewhere for expansion. As a staunch proponent of Italy’s southern wine regions, the winery has recently made investments in Basilicata (having purchased Basilisco in 2010), Puglia (with two properties here) and Sicily, with five hectares planted on Mount Etna.

While Antonio is focused on building the business and promoting its wines, the agricultural aspects of Feudi are handled by Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch. Pierpaolo has been actively involved with the company since 2003 and became managing director in 2009, a post he still holds today.

Having first visited Feudi in 2010, it was a pleasure to reconnect with Antonio and his wines on the first summery day of the season in New York. The two stainless-steel whites and rosé are perfect summer sippers that offer up freshness, complexity and the opportunity to savor some lesser-known varieties, although they work well all-year round. And, while the reds can be enjoyed now, I would suggest you hold them for the fall and winter seasons, since they need time in the cellar anyway.

TASTING NOTES
Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo 2015, Greco di Tufo DOCG, Italy, SRP $25.00
This is an angular wine, with excellent structure and lots of complexity. It offers up good acidity, a full body and concentrated flavors of apricots, peaches, a hint of nuttiness and a lovely salinity that remains in the long finish.

Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino 2015, Fiano di Avellino DOCG, Italy, SRP $25.00 The more feminine of the two, this wine is richer and rounder on the palate, with floral, pear and ripe melon aromas and flavors, culminating in long length. Antonio remarked that it is the more flexible wine with regard to pairing options.

Feudi di San Gregorio Ros’Aura 2016 Rosato, Irpina IGT, Italy, $14.00
Produced from Aglianico grapes, this is a medium-deep hued rose. It is very fresh with aromas and flavors of apricot and citrus, with long length.

Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi 2011, Taurasi DOCG, Italy, SRP $48.00
This wine is released five years after harvest, having spent at least 24 months in bottle before release. It is quite powerful, with red and black fruit notes, joined by oak, toast and minerality. The palate is structural with good acidity and dusty, yet ripe tannins and long length.

Feudi di San Gregorio Serpico 2011, Irpinia IGT, Italy, SRP $99.00
Complex aromas of smoke, oak, meatiness, red fruits and black fruits greet the nose. On the palate, the wine is powerful with lots of ripe, red fruit, and notes of smoke, toast, oak and minerality. It also manages to be quite elegant and pretty despite its power and firm tannins. Needs time to develop; Hold.

Cantina Tramin: Soaring to Great Heights

Driving north from the Venice airport to the Italian region of Alto Adige, the scenery and topography abruptly shift as we arrive in the river valley. Greeted by snow-topped peaks, verdant mountains and Swiss chalet-style architecture, you would half expect Julie Andrews to suddenly appear and belt out songs from the Sound of Music. While there was no sign of Julie or the von Trapp family, this northern-most province borders both Austria and Switzerland and was under Austrian rule until 1919. And, to this day, both Italian and a dialect of German are the official languages.

Instead, the hills of South Tyrol (Südtirol) are alive with the sound of viticulture. When considered separate from Trentino, Alto Adige is the smallest of Italy’s 20 regions. Yet, despite its limited size, 98% of its production is at the Protected Designation of Origin level – the most of any Italian region – and the region is highly regarded for its white wines, which account for 60% of regional production.

With the Dolomites to the East and the Alps to the north, these mountain ranges shelter the area from the cold forces of the North, trap air from the lakes and limit the annual rainfall, resulting in 300 sunny days per year. Conversely, the strong Ora winds coming off nearby Lake Garda help to temper the summer heat. Given this duality of cooling and warming influences, Alto Adige is home to both Mediterranean and Alpine botany along with vineyards and apple orchards.

In fact, the steep slopes at the highest elevations (820 to 2800 feet) are given over to white varieties such as Pinot Bianco (aka Pinot Blanc), Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, while the lower, rolling hills are planted to reds (predominantly Schiava, Pinot Nero and Lagrein). The high-altitude vineyards benefit especially from the area’s wide diurnal shift, permitting the grapes to ripen fully, while retaining high levels of acidity. The region’s diverse soils include limestone, quartz and volcanic porphyry, which further retain acidity in, and add minerality to, the wines.

Despite the region’s diminutive size, it is divided among seven different subregions, with the largest and southernmost being Bassa Atesina. Here, within the small town of Tramin is the home of Cantina Tramin.

With deep roots in the Tramin community, this cooperative was originally founded in 1898 at the suggestion of the local priest. It later merged with the coop of Neumarkt in 1971, growing in size. But, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that things got interesting. At that time, the members of the cooperative made the conscious decision to pursue a quality agenda and, as a result, made significant changes in the vineyard and in the winery. More recently, Cantina Tramin undertook an extensive remodel of its winery and offices, which were designed by a prestigious, local architect, Werner Tscholl.

Coincident with the shift toward quality, Willi Stürz has been Cantina Tramin’s guiding light for 25 years. The local native joined the cooperative in 1995 and serves as both winemaker and Technical Director. His efforts were rewarded with the title of “Winemaker of the Year” in 2004 by Italian wine guide, Gambero Rosso. The affable man is clearly passionate about the territory and winemaking. He is allied in his endeavors by a small team, permitting them to work collaboratively with their 300 member-growers in crafting well-made wines.

One of the unique aspects of Cantina Tramin as a cooperative is that they are relatively small, with only 260 hectares under vine, representing 35% of local vineyards. Many of Cantina Tramin’s members hold only one hectare each, earning the majority of their income from apples rather than grapes; only 5% of members sustain themselves entirely on their vineyards. Throughout the year, Willi and his colleagues advise members on various viticultural decisions such as which vines to replant, when to harvest and how best to combat disease. Quality is continually the watchword with yields set at 30% lower than that permitted by DOC law.

Once the grapes reach the winery, the emphasis is on softer, but lengthier pressing, to maintain their intense aromatics. Although the oldest tanks are made from concrete lined with stainless steel, more recent tank purchases favored stainless steel tanks that can be divided as needed to accommodate various-sized fermentation lots. Meanwhile, red wines are fermented in large casks, with a preference for punch downs rather than pump-overs. The top reds – Pinot Noir and Lagrein – are aged in barriques, with all red wines now being matured for a minimum of two years, qualifying for Riserva level. Despite Schiava being the most widely planted red variety in the region, Cantina Tramin is less bullish on this grape. Today, the winery has become well regarded for its wines and, in particular, for its Gewürztraminer (see below). The wines are marketed in two ranges: Selection and Classic, with the best wines being those in the Selection range.

The Spice of Life
Viticulture in the region dates back as far as 500 BCE, thanks to the ingenuity of the indigenous Rhaetian people. Their precociousness shocked the Romans who arrived on the scene in 15 BCE finding evidence of wine stored in wooden vessels, while the Romans were still using amphorae. As a result of this Roman influence, the village of Tramin took its name from the Latin word for border and later gave its name to an indigenous variety grown in the area for centuries. With the German “er” suffix indicating origin from Tramin the grape was first called Traminer, and later earned the prefix of gewürz, which is German for spice.

As the area’s most historic and important variety, Cantina Tramin is keen to preserve and promote Gewürztraminer. Along these lines, the winery manages 57 hectares of Gewürztraminer vines, which represent 22% of the coop’s total plantings, more than double the percentage for the region as a whole. In general, the Gewürztraminer grape is known for its powerful aromas of spice, floral and exotic notes such as jasmine and herbal tea, along with tropical fruit and lychee. Given its name, the variety is frequently associated with Germany, but it also grows well in Alsace. Yet, despite these more well-known links with the grape, the variety understandably performs well in its birthplace. Specifically, the extensive sunshine results in higher spice notes, while the volcanic porphyry subsoil and calcareous topsoil promote perfume aromas.

Not surprisingly, Cantina Tramin knows how to handle this variety and produces several different wines that feature it, from its Classic Gewürztraminer to its Terminum late harvest dessert wine. But, the jewel in Cantina Tramin’s crown is its Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer.

As evidence of the success and acclaim of this wine, it has received more awards for its Gewürztraminer than any other winery in Italy and was awarded the Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) rating, not once or twice, but 23 times. And it was named by Gambero Rosso “as one of the 50 wines which have fundamentally changed the Italian wine scene.”

While the grapes bound for the Selida Gewürztraminer hail from steep slopes and honor the small-holdings nature of Cantina Tramin’s members, grapes for the Nussbaumer provide an opportunity for an elegant expression of an individual vineyard. Of note, Willi advised us that as a young wine, the Gewürztraminer grape is charming, but its elegance increases with age as it loses some of its spice, yet gains freshness.

Accordingly, a vertical tasting of the Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer provided a fascinating look at both vintage variation as well as aging potential of this wine. My favorites were the 2015, 2009 and 2003, but all of the wines were consistently good, with dry palates, nice acidity levels and beautiful fruit. Moreover, they all favorably lacked the soapiness that some Gewürztraminers have for me.

How Sweet It Is
In pursuit of its passion for Gewürztraminer, Cantina Tramin has recently expanded its Gewürztraminer range with Epokale. From the root of epoch – a period – the intent was to create a wine similar in style to those produced in the past, but have been lost with time. This traditional, semi-sweet wine was made from grapes from the same vineyard of Nussbaumer and is a late harvest wine.

First produced in 2009, this wine made its debut during our visit, after having spent seven years aging in an abandoned silver mine, which provided perfect conditions: correct and consistent temperature and humidity, which ensured that no tartrates were formed. Only 1,200 bottles were made.

To launch the release of the Epokale, we were provided with an opportunity to blind taste a selection of Gewürztraminers from around the world. We were told only the vintage of each wine and that the wines were being presented in ascending order of residual sugar, from driest to sweetest. Upon reveal, the wines were predominantly from Alsace, but with a German Spätlese thrown in for good measure. The Cantina Tramin wines were in good company with the likes of Zind Humbrecht Hengst Grand Cru and Trimbach. Four of the wines were the winery’s own: two vintages of the Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, Epokale and Terminum.

Although I didn’t know the identity of the wines, I was immediately impressed with the 2009 Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, which displayed brighter acidity than the 2015 Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer tasted immediately prior to it. Similarly, during the blind portion of the tasting, I really enjoyed the Epokale 2009. Another blind favorite was the Zind Humbrecht Hengst Grand Cru Late Harvest Gewürztraminer 2006, with its amber color, slight oxidative note, along with intense aromas and flavors of honey, burnt orange and orange marmalade. ™

TASTING NOTES

WHITES
Moriz Pinot Bianco 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $12.00
The Pinot Bianco grape variety has grown in the area for over 150 years. Aromas of pear and flowers. Slightly off-dry, bright and fresh, nice texture, long length.

Pepi Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $13.00
This wine takes its name from the two different micro-zones of the valley from which the grapes are sourced: Pezone and Pinon. Vinified for six to seven months entirely in large oak casks, this wine has a pronounced nose of herbs, citrus and smoke. The dry palate has high acidity, an oily texture and long length.

Stoan 2012, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $30.00
First produced in 2002, this white blend brings together a minimum of 60% Chardonnay, with Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Bianco as supporting players. At five years of age, this wine displayed some development, with a deeper gold color, honeyed, spice and tree fruit aromas. Dry, with high acidity, medium+ body, gorgeous and rich, complex, slight woodiness in finish, long length

Since 2014, white wines are given more time in large casks. Stoan is matured for a minimum of fifteen months, with additional time in bottle. This change was challenging at first since the winery didn’t have the wines available in the market, but now that the 2014s are ready, they are back on track.

Stoan 2015, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $28.00
According to Willi, this is one of the best vintages of this wine and he further noted that it provides a strong interpretation of the given vintage. With the lengthier aging protocol now in place, this wine was on the lees until August. It is woodier on the nose than the 2012, but the oak is not overpowering. Notes of floral, citrus peel, orange greet the nose with a dry, full-bodied palate that shows floral, apple, citrus and minerality, with medium+ acidity and long length. Can age for 10-15 years.

Selida Gewürztraminer 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $16.00
From an ancient, local word for barn, the Selida Gewürztraminer offers up pronounced floral and exotic musk aromas. It is dry, with medium acidity, and flavors of floral, tropical fruit, lychee and spice.

Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $36.00
*2015: Rich and complex with spice, tropical fruit and lychee, this was one of the best vintages in the past ten years, with very dry conditions during the ripening season.

*2012: Showing smoky notes with depth and spice, this was a less sunny year, but provided good freshness to the wines as a result.

*2011: Aromas and flavors of honey, wax, spice and roses with long length from what was a very hot year.

*2009: Pronounced nose of honey, perfume and lychee, with vibrant acidity and intensity on the palate; considered to be a balanced vintage.

*2005: With floral, tropical fruit and honey aromas, this wine was a bit light on the palate.

*2003: As the oldest, this wine was the deepest in color, with an intense and concentrated nose of spice, perfume and honey, all of which linger in long finish; it was a hot vintage, yet the wine is still quite fresh.

ROSÉ
Lagrein Rosé 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $8.00
We kicked off the trip with a light lunch in Verona, paired with the winery’s rosé, which was perfect with a range of dishes. This medium-deep pink offers up cherry and slight herbal notes. On the palate, it is dry, with a fruity attack, medium+ body and long length. A nice, food-friendly rosé.

REDS
Pinot Noir 2014, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $17.00
This wine is very earthy and herbaceous on the nose. On the palate, it is dry, with high acidity, flavors of cherries and herbs, culminating in long length.

Maglen Pinot Noir 2012, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $23.00
Showing slight development, with pronounced earthy notes, this wine offers up earth, ripe cherry and spice, along with medium acidity and long length.

Urban Lagrein 2011, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $22.00
A nose of dark red fruits, almost brooding in nature, with some vanilla and oak aromas. Dry, with medium acidity and firm tannins, the full-bodied palate displays dark red fruit and wet leaves, reminiscent of Cabernet Franc.

SWEET
Epokale 2009, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, 50.00 €
Beautiful aromas of honey, spice and lemon peel persist on the viscous, medium-sweet palate, with balanced acidity and very long length.

Terminum, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $80.00 (half bottle)
Another late harvest Gewürztraminer, this wine was among the winery’s first forays into high quality wines. Admittedly, I neglected to take formal tasting notes on this wine, but I assure you that it was delicious!

Red, White and Rose for Memorial Day

Images courtesy of K Vintners/Charles Smith Wines

Although it doesn’t quite feel like summer just yet, the arrival of Memorial Day weekend heralds the unofficial start of the summer season as well as the remembrance of those who died in service to our country. While it is admittedly not a proper recognition of these fallen heroes, we might start by raising a glass in their memory, with wines made right here in the USA.

Given the American flag-inspired graphic that adorns the Charles & Charles Rose label, this is as good a place to start as any and has always been a go-to rosé for me. This Columbia Valley (WA) wine frequently finds its way to the top of the Best Value lists (SRP $14.00) and offers great taste as well!

With his market-savvy, well-monikered wines, Charles Smith (one of the Charles of Charles & Charles) truly knows how to pack a punch in a glass. The self-taught winemaker has made a name for himself and his wines, earning recognition such as “Winery of the Year” (Wine & Spirits magazine) and “Winemaker of the Year” (Food & Wine magazine).

Smith makes his home in Walla Walla, Washington and showcases the varied terroirs of the state through a variety of wine ventures. His K Vintners range, launched in late 2001, focuses on single vineyard Syrahs and other small lot wines, while his other projects are aimed at a broader audience. Specifically, in 2006, he debuted his Charles Smith Wines brand with the goal of crafting ready to drink wines that still retain the typicity of the respective grape variety.

Similarly, the aforementioned Charles & Charles wine, a collaboration with Charles Bieler, whom I first met in association with his Bieler Père et Fils Provencal rosé, arrived on the wine scene in 2008, bringing dry rosé to the masses. But, high production hasn’t meant low quality; these are well-made wines that are decidedly uncomplicated; not a surprising coming from the man who says, “It’s wine, just drink it.”

If you are looking for a white or red instead this weekend, check out these other options from Charles Smith Wines:

Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2015, Ancient Lakes (WA), USA, $13.00
With floral, peach and citrus aromas, this wine is slightly off-dry, but with bright acidity that balances the sweetness. Notes of lime, lemon and grapefruit persist on the palate with good length. A lean and fresh wine perfect for pairing or simply sipping on its own.

Boom Boom Syrah 2014, Columbia Valley (WA), USA, $18.00
This deeply colored red offers up notes of black fruit, earth and dried herbs on the nose, with ripe, robust and juicy black fruit flavors dominating the palate. Good acidity and low tannins round out the wine, with its undercurrent of earth and herbs that linger in the medium+ length.

Rediscovering botanical libations for Spring

Spring has finally sprung in the northeast, bringing the season’s first flowers – cherry blossoms and tulips – and reminding me of our connection to the earth and its bounty. While regular wines are certainly among this bounty, aromatized wines might be an even better reflection of this bond, with their unique blend of botanicals. Fortified wines like Vermouth and Chinato, which are infused with local plants, both of which originated in Italy’s Piedmont region, were initially used for medicinal purposes before becoming an aperitif and digestif, respectively.

Although such wines had fallen out of fashion, they are re-emerging as hand-crafted products, bringing a fresh perspective to an old beverage category. On Long Island, Channing Daughters now produces six, different seasonally-centered Vermouth variations with herbs foraged from area farms. And, closer to their point of origin, these wines are being rediscovered as well, as evidenced by the duo launched in New York by Pio Cesare this week.

As one of the older producers in Alba, Pio Cesare has been making Barolos and Barbarescos since 1881. Today, the winery is in the capable hands of Pio Boffa, a member of the fourth generation, who is also joined by his nephew, Cesare Benvenuto, and daughter, Federica Boffa.

Like many traditional producers, the founders of Pio Cesare used to produce their own Vermouth and Chinato. However, by the 1950s, the market was flooded with poor quality Vermouth and Chinato making it a challenge for the Pio Cesare products to succeed, given their artisanal quality and thus, higher price. Not willing to compromise the quality of their product, Cesare’s great grandfather chose to stop production of them altogether.

But, now, as a demonstration of the winery’s flexibility and talent, Cesare and his cousin, Federica, have decided to relaunch these two classic wines. They have returned to their grandmother’s original recipe, faithfully following her directions in crafting them. They worked closely with a nearby grower friend to find the necessary ingredients. The Vermouth has Chardonnay as its base, sourced from their Piodilei vineyard. The wine is then flavored with 26 varieties of herbs, including Vermouth’s hallmark, wormwood, all of which have been macerated in alcohol for 15 days.

Similarly, the Chinato is based on Barolo from the 2012 vintage and is also made from grandma’s recipe. While it, too, is flavored with aromatic herbs, it’s primary flavor component is chinchona bark, from which quinine is derived, giving it its digestive properties.

These limited production (1,000 bottles each) wines hit the New York market this week, with the arrival of Cesare and Federica and their bottles, which sport updated versions of the historic labels.

The Vermouth, naturally colored with burnt sugar (as is traditional), is amber in hue, with a pronounced nose of orange, anise, dried herbs and spices. The medium-sweet palate is beautifully balanced by the lively acidity, resulting in a complex wine with good depth and long length. As an aperitif, it is a lovely alternative to a pre-dinner cocktail or one’s usual glass of wine given the bright acidity, which wakes up your palate. Moreover, the complexity of aromas and flavors presents a wonderful reminder to slow down and savor what’s in the glass, as you prepare yourself for the meal to come.

As a bookend to the same meal, the Chinato is a perfect after-dinner-drink and would pair well with chocolate desserts, but, of course, can be enjoyed on its own. With aromas and flavors of cocoa, berries, blood orange and dried spices, the Chinato is also medium sweet on the palate, with good acidity and long length.

Should you be in need of a good wine to drink with the meal, the Pio Cesare Barolo 2012, with grapes sourced from five single vineyards, is an excellent choice, given the vintage’s approachability and the wine’s beautiful cherry, mushroom and floral notes.

With its association as a key ingredient in Martinis and Manhattans, there is a tendency to want to use the Vermouth (and the Chinato) as a mixer, but I think that is a bit of a mistake. We had the opportunity to taste two cocktails using the newly launched wines, but their complexity and elegance got lost in translation as they competed against the other ingredients in the glass.

Yes, for many, the pleasures of Vermouth and Chinato are unknown and untried, but they are worthy of discovery (or rediscovery) as we welcome the warmer weather and its promise of abundance in the months ahead.

 

Fullerton Wines, from Scandinavia to Portlandia

Admittedly, when I first received the invitation, I was hesitant. I had never heard of the winery before and the idea of schlepping out to Brooklyn on a cold winter’s night was not very appealing…until I Googled the restaurant. With its two Michelin stars and stellar reviews, Aska was very intriguing and seemed well worth the trip to the outer borough.

As we would discover, this Scandinavian restaurant is run by Swedish chef Fredrik Berselius, who truly redefined our notions of a Swedish chef (especially if the Muppet Show is firmly ensconced in one’s brains) and instilled a wonderful appreciation for this cuisine in us.

Getting off the M train at Marcy Street, we walked toward Manhattan, in the shadows of the Williamsburg bridge. After several blocks, we wondered if we were indeed walking all the way back to Manhattan, but finally we arrived at our destination and were ushered to a private room, which was immaculately set for our group.

Once we were all seated, our winery hosts immediately poured us a glass of their rosé and then provided us with an introduction to themselves: The Fullerton’s. It turned out that there was a method to the madness; the Fullerton’s have a direct connection to Scandinavia, which was why they had chosen this vaunted restaurant for the event, coincident with the winery’s debut in the New York and New Jersey markets.

Patriarch of the family, Eric Fullerton was raised in a Danish family and married a Swedish woman. The couple lived in Scandinavia with son, Alex, born in Denmark. A few years later, the Fullerton’s returned to the U.S. and settled in Oregon. Eric held C-level positions within the communications and security industries, but always had a passion for quality wine.

As a young child, Alex watched his parents enjoying wine at home and carried these observations to school – swirling and spitting out his milk, much to the chagrin of his kindergarten teacher – eventually developing his own vinous interest, which was cemented on a father-son trip to Champagne and Burgundy when Alex graduated high school.

In 2010, Alex was graduating from college with a degree in economics, but with no specific plan for a career or his future. He and dad visited Penner-Ash Wine Cellars together and discussed the idea of Alex entering the wine industry. Alex was keen on the idea and before the day was out, he had secured a harvest intern position at Penner-Ash. Dad sweetened the deal, offering to back Alex’s personal wine venture, if he pursued a degree in viticulture and enology, to which he readily agreed.

Alex followed his time at Penner-Ash with a harvest in New Zealand, before returning to the Willamette Valley and Penner-Ash and, later, a position at Bergstrom Wines. During this time, the two Fullerton men began making wine in the garage and scouting for vineyard blocks throughout the Valley. They also planted 400 vines in their backyard.

In 2012, Fullerton Wines was launched as a commercial venture with two separate lines: Three Otters and Fullerton. The Three Otters brand owes its origins to the three otters depicted in the Fullerton family coat of arms and a portion of the proceeds from each bottle helps to support the return of sea otters to the Oregon coast. The Fullerton brand includes its Five FACES line, named for all members of the Fullerton family: Filip, Alex, Caroline, Eric and Suzanne, as well as several single vineyard Pinot Noirs. To date, the winery produces 4,500 cases annually, but the goal is to reach 20,000 cases in the future.

Alex currently sources Pinot Noir fruit from several vineyards in the Willamette Valley. Both the Three Otters and Five FACES Pinots are the products of blending grapes from various vineyards (and appellations) to craft a consistent wine that marries the favorable characteristics from throughout the region. However, he has also identified a number of distinct vineyards that appeal to him as single vineyard wines. These wines are more expressive of an individual terroir and provide nice diversity within the Fullerton portfolio. As the family seeks to expand its production, they will need to identify other vineyards. Looking ahead, Alex noted that he hopes to focus on Eola-Amity Hills in sourcing additional fruit as he is particularly enamored with this micro-climate and the quality of grapes it produces.

As the meal progressed, we got to know Eric and Alex better, both their histories and their philosophies. There was a genuine warmth to this father and son’s relationship as they bantered back and forth, making jokes and good-naturedly teasing one another. In the end, it was clear that Eric has made a huge investment in his son, not just for their mutual love of wine, but because he is extremely proud of him.

While the wine was understandably the focal point of the evening, the 10-course meal was not to be overlooked. Each course was a stunning presentation of food, plate and flatware. Despite the lengthy evening, the food was engaging and not too heavy; only one course included meat and many were vegetarian. Among the more unique offerings were a crunchy snack of bladderwrack seaweed with a blue mussel emulsion; an earthy bowl of lichen served with chanterelles and a mushroom broth; and an intense pig’s blood pancake with rose petals and rosehip jam.

With the wonderful selection of Willamette Valley wines and the expertise of Aska’s kitchen, it was the perfect way to spend a New York night and definitely merited the journey to Brooklyn. It was certainly much easier to get to than Noma!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NB: Food images courtesy of Jared Skolnick.

TASTING NOTES

Three Otters Rosé 2015, Willamette Valley, OR, $18.00
First conceived in 2012, the Three Otters rosé began as a friendly competition between dad and son over which method to use to produce the wine. Afterward, they decided that a blend of the two methods was best and they have continued to follow this format ever since. The wine is refreshing and dry with bright strawberry aromas and flavors along with a hint of fresh herbs, culminating in long length.

Three Otters Chardonnay 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $20.00
An all stainless-steel Chard, this wine lets the fruit shine through unimpeded by oak. The wine is high in acidity, with citrus and yellow apple notes, as well as a nice richness on the palate due to extended lees contact.

Fullerton Five FACES Chardonnay 2015, Willamette Valley, OR, $33.00
This barrel-fermented wine has only a small (9%) percentage of oak and thus the oak is very integrated, resulting in an elegant and beautiful Chardonnay with good acidity and long length.

Three Otters Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $20.00
A really nice entry-level Pinot Noir, this has no new oak, with the wine spending time in tanks and neutral barrels. Sourced and blended from eight different area vineyards, this wine offers up cherry and berry aromas and flavors with a slightly earthy undercurrent. Overall, it is light-bodied, fresh and approachable.

Fullerton Five FACES Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $33.00
This is the winery’s flagship wine with fruit sourced from several key vineyards. A beautiful wine with an intense and concentrated fruit nose of dark cherry, which persists on the palate and is joined by a hint of herbaceousness. It is rich, yet elegant with long length. Among the diners at our table, this seemed to be a fan favorite given the complexity of the wine and its reasonable price point.

Fullerton Croft Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $45.00
The organically certified Croft Vineyard generates less of a diurnal shift yielding ripe grapes, with slightly less acidity than cooler sites. The result is a plushy, sensual Pinot with good black cherry and spice notes as well as some wet leaves in the long finish.

Fullerton Croft Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Willamette Valley, OR, $45.00
While sourced from the same grapes as the 2014 wine, 2013 was a more challenging vintage, marked with rains during harvest. Consequently, this wine has higher acidity than usual and more herbal character than the 2014.

Fullerton Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Willamette Valley, OR, $60.00
The Momtazi Vineyard is situated within the McMinnville AVA. With its bright acidity, ripe red cherry fruit, lush herbs and spice, and lovely long length, this was my favorite single vineyard wine of the evening.

Fullerton Fir Crest Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Yamhill-Carlton, OR, $75.00
Hailing from the old vines in the Fir Crest Vineyard, this wine possesses an extremely intense, heavy and concentrated nose and palate. It displayed some volatile acidity, along with dark red fruit and firm tannins; a steak-eater’s Pinot Noir. This wine provoked an interesting discussion among Alex and Eric since it is a style that Alex doesn’t enjoy, but that Eric would like to replicate for market purposes.

A Dark Knight on a Dark Night: Castello di Gabbiano

It might sound ominous, but meeting Tuscan winemaker, Federico Cerelli of Castelli di Gabbiano, on a cold winter’s night to taste his new wine was actually quite a warm and welcoming experience.

Its vinous heritage spreads back as far as the Etruscans, but Castello di Gabbiano’s physical history dates to 1124 when its castle was built in San Casciano Val de Pesa. This medieval fortress was among many that were established to fortify the area between Siena and Florence as the two kingdoms fought for control of a region widely known for its wine and olive oil.

With its castle still standing tall nearly 900 centuries later, it is not surprising that the winery takes such pride in its noble estate and has adopted Il Cavaliere – the knight who protected the castle from invaders – as its mascot.

Firmly ensconced within the Chianti Classico wine region, the estate boasts 360 acres of vineyard, planted predominantly to Sangiovese, supplemented with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and several local varieties such as Colorino and Canaiolo. The castle itself has now been converted into a beautiful hotel with 11 traditional guest rooms and five apartments. Adding to the estate’s hospitality, an upscale restaurant featuring local cuisine opened a few years ago.

Although Castello di Gabbiano is presently managed by Treasury Wine Estates, the winery’s previous owner was responsible for making Gabbiano’s American debut in the early 1980s with its Chianti wine.

The winery’s current winemaker, Federico Cerelli, joined Castello di Gabbiano in early 2011. Prior to coming on board, the Tuscan native served as a consultant winemaker to numerous local wineries building a decade of experience. Federico maintains a distinct philosophy when approaching his wines, placing an emphasis on elegance, drinkability and the ability to pair with food over power and polyphenols. Accordingly, the wines spend less time aging in wood and more time in the bottle before release, with the conviction that wines in the past were overly rustic with their tannins and over-extracted.

Moreover, Federico enjoys experimenting with wood and uses a mix of French and Hungarian oak to season his wines. More recently, he conducted some trials with local oak from forests near Florence and has been pleased with the results: more pepper and floral notes. Consequently, he hopes to increase its use in the future.

As the second largest winery in the Chianti Clssico region, Castello di Gabbiano has significant resources to invest in the latest technology and apply it to producing great wines. For example, Federico notes that it is better to pick by machine on time (thanks to sophisticated mechanical harvesters) than to wait and harvest manually, especially with Sangiovese, which could develop rot or mold during a delay. Additionally, he relies on a vibration sorting system to maintain more whole berries and has adopted a more gentle approach to winemaking.

Among its portfolio, Castello di Gabbiano produces a Pinot Grigio with grapes sourced from northeastern Italy. The Promessa Pinot Grigio 2015, IGT delle Venezie (SRP $10.00) sprinkles in a small percentage of Chardonnay to overcome some of the bitterness associated with Pinot Grigio and also adds body and weight to the palate. Yet, it is still fresh with citrus and apple notes, culminating in medium+ length.

The Chianti Classico line-up includes a basic Chianti Classico and a Riserva-level wine as well as the latest addition to the Chianti Classico pyramid – Gran Selezione – with a wine called Bellezza, which was my favorite of the three. Moving up the hierarchy, the wines are aged for longer periods of time, generally with more time in oak, but also time in bottle.

From a cool vintage, the Chianti Classico 2014 (SRP $10.00) was bright and fresh with light tannins, along with an undercurrent of wet leaves and a slight hint of oak. The flagship Riserva 2013 (SRP $25.00) hailed from a warm and dry vintage and displayed darker cherry fruit, firmer tannins as well as woody and leafy notes with long length. The second Gran Selezione vintage is the Bellezza 2012 (SRP $40.00), so called for the beautiful view afforded by the small (less than 20 acres), high elevation vineyard block from which the grapes are sourced. The resulting wine is fuller bodied, with more concentrated fruit and more structure, but is still fresh and lively even though it is five years old.

And, of course, there is the “hero” of our story. The winery’s newest offering is its Dark Knight 2015, IGT Toscana (SRP $17.00), featuring its beloved Il Cavaliere on horseback on the striking label. With the belief that traditional Sangiovese is a difficult wine for nascent drinkers, this red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese was crafted as an introductory wine for these newer consumers. Taking a modern approach and style, the wine is partially produced with some carbonic maceration with the aim of creating a soft and easy-drinking wine that can be enjoyed with food or on its own.

While it is clearly targeted at a less experienced wine drinker, it is not a fruit bomb or overly high in residual sugar. Rather, it was still elegant and offered up black fruit, vanilla and a hint of floral on the nose, with light tannins, slight vanilla and spice on the medium+-bodied palate.

We concluded with the Alleanza 2010, another IGT Toscana (SRP $35.00), this time a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Of all the wines tasted, this had the most noticeable oak, along with lush red and black fruit, intensity and power.

Two Tuscan Gems

Synonymous with quality, both Il Poggione and Brunello di Montalcino are well known names in wine, the first a highly-regarded producer of the second, a wine often cited as Italy’s best expressions of the Sangiovese grape.

Hailing from the region of Tuscany, production of these long-lived wines center near the hilltop (monte) town of Montalcino, which takes its name from the oak trees (leccio) found growing there. Brunello’s roots date back to 1869 when Clemente Santi defined the wine as being one produced from 100% Sangiovese and aged for a long period of time in oak. His grandson, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, built upon Clemente’s initial work, establishing strict production standards and isolating a particular clone of Sangiovese, known locally as Brunello.

Initially established in 1966 (and promoted to DOCG status in 1980), today, the Brunello denomination is home to 250 producers and, while the delimited area itself comprises 60,000 acres, only about 5,200 acres are planted to Brunello vineyards. Other wines produced within this same delimited area, but from younger vines and without the lengthy aging requirements, are made under the appellation of Rosso di Montalcino, often referred to as a “Baby Brunello.”

With an even lengthier history, Il Poggione predates Brunello and was founded by the Francesci family in the 1800s, when Lavinio Francesci, a wealthy Florentine landowner, purchased property near Montalcino after hearing of the land’s potential from a local shepherd. Today, the fifth generation of the Francesci family is currently at the company’s helm.

In an unusual symbiotic relationship, the Bindocci family has been instrumental in the winery’s recent history. Fabrizio Bindocci took over as winemaker at Il Poggione in the late 1970s and was later joined in his endeavors by his son, Alessandro. The duo presently work side by side in crafting Il Poggione’s wines.

I first became acquainted with Il Poggione when I visited Montalcino in 2011. More recently, I had the opportunity to taste a selection of current Il Poggione wines with Alessandro at L’Amico in New York. We kicked off the tasting with the Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino.

Such wines offer a win-win scenario since their shorter production process (there is no aging requirement) permits the wineries to get these wines into the market earlier than their Brunellos and at a much lower cost. In contrast, Brunellos are required to have five years of aging by law (two of which must be in oak) and, while this time and effort results in more complex wines, such complexity and elegance come at a price.

During lunch, Alesandro called his Rosso, a younger brother and was quick to point out that it is a wine with its own identity and not a poor cousin. Produced from vineyards that are less than 15 years in age, the hallmark of Rosso di Montalcinos is their bright red fruit.

“Rosso’s are always about the fruit and the freshness. We make them very clean,” he said. Alessandro added that such wines are still capable of bottle aging 15 years resulting in leather and floral notes with time and occasionally sneaks in an older vintage Rosso wine in vertical tastings with the more vaunted Brunellos to illustrate their quality and aging potential.

Despite the lack of aging requirement, Il Poggione’s Rosso di Montalcino 2014 (SRP $29.99) spent 12 months in oak barrels and barriques, along with an additional 8 months in bottle, before its release. This beautiful wine showed good depth of cherry fruit, with bright, vibrant acidity and a slight woody undercurrent, with long length.

The Rosso wines are also a barometer of the vintage. In 2014, climatic conditions forced producers to cut their Brunello production since it was an okay, not great, vintage. Accordingly, many Brunello grapes were declassified and found their way into Rosso production instead, thereby improving the quality of such wines.

Il Poggione also exceeds the aging requirements for its Brunellos. Their current vintage Brunello 2011 was produced from vines 25 years of age or older and spent three years in oak. However, this longer aging period does not result in an overly oaked wine because their use of oak is actually quite limited given their reliance on larger oak vessels (5000 L in size).

Aged in French oak barrels for 36 months, the Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2011 (SRP $84.99) displayed dark cherry notes, with some dried fruit character and spiciness. In spite of the wine’s full body, it still offered an elegance and finesse along with long length.

At the top of the pyramid, Brunello Riserva wines must be aged for a total of six years. The single-vineyard Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Vigna Paganelli 2010 (SRP $125.00) comes from the oldest vineyard on the Il Poggione estate (planted in 1964) and spent four years aging in large oak vessels, resulting in a powerful wine with cherry, leather and woodiness on the nose and palate, culminating in long length.

The winery’s careful oak management extends to its decision to season its own oak and then assemble the barrels themselves, rather than sourcing them directly from a cooper. Further, in an effort in be sustainable, the barrels are kept for 20 years and shaved every five years. After that, the wood is recycled into floor boards and other non-wine uses. Moreover, the winery has been fully solar-powered for the past three years.

Green efforts also apply outside the winery as Il Poggione propagates its own vines with its own unique clones of Sangiovese and practices sustainable agriculture. Beyond its 300 acres of vineyards, Il Poggione’s 1300-acre property also boasts extensive olive groves, grain fields and livestock, all of which are tended to by hand.

Such attention to detail is labor-intensive and costly, but certainly befitting a jewel in Brunello’s crown.