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 and 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 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 to 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 longer pressings, coupled with softer pressure, to maintain the 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, representing 22% of the coop’s plantings, as compared to just under 11% 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 Tre Bicchieri, 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 from 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, but deliberately harvested without any botrytis.

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. With only 1200 bottles made, this wine is available for 50 Euros per bottle.

To launch the release of the Epokale, we were provided with an opportunity to blind taste a selection of Gewürztraminer s from around the world. We were told only the vintage of each wine and that the wines were being presented in order of residual sugar, from driest to sweetest. Upon reveal, the wines were predominantly from Alsace, but with a German Spatlese 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: Nussbaumer Gew, 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, Gewurztraminer 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 also notes that this is a wine that best interprets the 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 lovely!

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.

 

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.


Moscato d’Asti: A sparkling wine for the times

2016-11-15-11-20-05Back in the day (1966), Dionne Warwick sang that, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.” Such words are particularly true today. While not quite love in a bottle, Moscato d’Asti isn’t too far from it with its floral and fruit notes, effervescence and beautifully balanced sweetness. Plus, the Moscato grape has high levels of terpenes, including linalool, a naturally occurring chemical, which is widely used in aromatherapy to reduce stress.

The Moscato (aka Muscat) grape has become quite popular recently, but the denomination of Moscato d’Asti is more than just a grape name and has a history that significantly precedes the current craze. Produced exclusively from the Moscato Bianco de Canelli variety, this grape arrived in the region over 800 years ago. Here, in Piedmont, the same region known for Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera, 52 municipalities are granted the right to craft these special wines.

First designated in 1932, the denomination is carefully controlled with only the best sites planted; planting on damp or shaded slopes is forbidden. Specifically, this means that the vines are grown on steep vineyards and picked by hand. Moreover, the area itself has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.

High in terpenes, the Moscato Bianco grape results in wines with distinct floral and fruit aromas and flavors of apricot, peach and white flowers, tasting nearly the same on the vine as it does in the glass. Thanks to its low alcohol (~5% abv) and softer pressure (2 bars of pressure compared to 5 to 6 atmospheres of many other sparklers), its frothy creaminess lends itself to food pairing and second (and third) glasses.

Lightly sweet, these are the perfect companion to a wedding toast, especially when wedding cake is involved. Yet, due to the diurnal shift and fog, the grapes keep their acidity and freshness, resulting in balanced wines that pair equally well with savory and salty foods.

A recent seminar and tasting included representation from Michele Chiarlo, Saracco, Coppo, Marenco, Ceretto and Caudrina to highlight the characteristics of these wines. At retail, consumers should expect to pay $13.00-$25.00 per bottle for high quality Moscato d’Asti.

While all of the wines showed well, my favorite were:
Marenco Scrapona Moscato d’Asti 2015, Piedmont, Italy
Pronounced apricot on the nose, with pear, apricot and slightly candied note on the palate, yet finishing cleanly

Coppo, Moncalvina Moscato d’Asti 2015, Piedmont, Italy
With distinct floral aromas, this wine displays great acidity, a creamy mousse and lovely flavors of apricot and white flowers. It culminates with a zingy sweetness throughout its long length.

Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti 2015, Piedmont, Italy Intense floral, pear and cotton candy aromas greet the nose, giving way to citrus and lemon candy on the medium sweet palate. Good acidity and a nice mousse, with long length.

Valpolicella: One Gentle Wine from Verona

2016-11-08-09-23-01Looking for a low tannin, high quality red wine? Look no further than Valpolicella!

This fruity, yet elegant, red wine hails from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy.

We tasted a selection of these wines at a recent Wine Media Guild luncheon and, while I had my favorites, there wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch. Even more impressive, most the wines were priced under $20.00.

While Verona is famous for its balcony, the valley (val), just north of the city, is known for its many (poli) cellars (cella). This amalgamated name has been attributed to the wine since the mid-12th century.

The region relies on indigenous grape varieties, with most wines produced as a blend of Corvina and Corvinone and, to a lesser extent, Rondinella (making up 5% to 30% of the total), supplemented with other authorized, red varieties. The resulting wines have aromas and flavors of berries, cherries and flowers, although I did find some herbaceous notes in a few of the wines we tasted.

Unlike its vinous siblings – Amarone and Ripasso – these wines are not aged nor are they influenced by dried grapes. Consequently, they are wines that are honest about their origins. Looking at the vineyards themselves, the focus has been on reducing chemicals through the Consorzio’s “Reduce Respect Retrench” Project. To date, low impact pest control measures have been implemented for 2,000 ha (approximately 25% of current plantings) and growing.

Wines produced from grapes grown within the most historic (aka classic) area are called Valpolicella Classico DOC, while those from the broader designation are simply, Valpolicella DOC.

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All in all, we tasted 12 wines; these were my top selections:
* Buglioni “Il Valpo” Valpolicella DOC Classico 2015, Veneto, Italy, $19.00
* Scriani Valpolicella DOC Classico 2015, Veneto, Italy, $17.00
* San Cassiano Valpolicella DOC 2014, Veneto, Italy, $N/A
* Fattori “Col de la Bastia” Valpolicella DOC 2015, Veneto, Italy, $N/A
* Massimago Valpolicella DOC 2014, Veneto, Italy, $17.00
* Villa San Carlo Valpolicella DOC 2015, Veneto, Italy, $N/A

The 2014 wines tended to be more acidic in style due to the cooler weather conditions of that vintage, while the 2015 wines were more generous. The Consorzio has very high hopes of the 2016 harvest being even better than 2015.

The wines paired quite well with pasta as well as with a pork dish and are a nice option for this transitional period of late autumn with its crisp, sunny days and cooler nights.

NB: Prices are listed when available on Wine-Searcher.com  All other wines are available in the U.S. somewhere, but not somewhere associated with Wine Searcher.

Domaine Katsaros and Ricossa offer up modern wines for modern times

Although the world of wine has a long and storied history, two recent events – dinner with Evripidis Katsaros of Domaine Katsaros and lunch with Andrea Marazia of Ricossa winery – underscored the ever-evolving nature of the industry.

Domaine Katsaros, modernity in ancient Greece

KatsarosThinking about Greece, images of the Acropolis and other ancient temples might spring to mind –  crumbling pillars as a testament to a bygone civilization. But, despite this legacy of antiquity, there is a very modern bent to the winemaking currently taking place in Greece and Italy.

Instead of meeting Katsaros’ winemaker at a Greek establishment, the invitation promised pizza at Marta, the resident restaurant at the Martha Washington Hotel. Part of Danny Meyer’s empire (aka Union Square Hospitality Group), Marta is known for its wood-burning ovens, which turn out beautiful thin-crust pizzas and tempting grilled meats.

But, before the food was served, the journalists were given the opportunity to blind taste two wines and guess which one was the Katsaros 2015 Xinomavro barrel sample and which… was a Barolo. Like Nebbiolo — the grape responsible for Barolo (among others) — Xinomavro needs a lengthy time to fully ripen and has similarly high acidity and firm tannins. Evripidis further described Xinomavro wines as showing aromas of black fruit, rose petals, olive and tomato.

Interestingly, while the blind comparison didn’t seem to stump the participants, it did illustrate the shared characteristics of the two varieties. Yet, in the end, the Barolo’s significantly more tannic structure and less overt fruit aromas gave itself away. Meanwhile, despite its youth, the Xinomavro was rather enjoyable with its pronounced floral nose, brighter acidity and softer tannins.

For many of the guests, this was a first introduction to both Xinomavro and to Domaine Katsaros. The Domaine got its start in the early 1980s, when Evripidis’ father, Dr. Dimitrios Katsaros, purchased a small estate on the slopes of Mount Olympus. The property was initially intended as a family vacation home, but the area beckoned to him and soon he was buying additional land and planting grapevines on the 2500-foot elevation plots.

At the time, technical information on Greek grapes was non-existent, so Dimitrios looked to a grape with a proven track record: Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet was followed by Merlot, which was originally intended solely as a blending partner for the estate blend. However, they quickly discovered that the grapes were of significant quality to be crafted into a single variety Merlot.

In the early days, Dimitrios made wine only for friends and family, but, by 1985, the winery became official, coinciding with Evripidis’ childhood and adolescence. Having spent his summers watching his father build up the estate, it was a natural fit for him to study bio-chemistry at Bordeaux University, followed by a degree in Viticulture and Oenology from Burgundy University.

Consequently, Evripidis knows his way around French grapes and his contribution in this regard has been the addition of Chardonnay, thanks to his belief that they would get good results from this variety. While many areas of Greece would be too hot for a grape that thrives in Burgundy’s cool climate, the northerly position of Domaine Katsaros’ provides a suitable home with a latitude and weather akin to that of Tuscany. In true French fashion, the Chardonnay is aged in French oak for several months, although Evripidis, who took over as head winemaker in 2008, admits that he prefers less wood than his father, especially in white wines.

However, despite the heavy reliance on French varieties, a subtle shift seems to be taking place, with a new interest in indigenous grapes, as evidenced by the planting of Xinomavro grapes in 2010. And, soon, they will add Robola Kefalonia, a white grape that originated on the island of Cephalonia.

Today, the family-owned winery is still the only one within Thessally’s PGI Krania, and maintains its dedication to using only estate grown fruit even though the vineyards are dispersed among 21 separate parcels. In recognition of their good stewardship of the land, the vineyards received organic certification in 1998.

Overall, the wines were very well made and showed off Evripidis’ skill as a French-trained winemaker. In this regard, although the Xinomavro/Barolo comparison was quite fun, it would be equally fascinating to taste his Merlot beside a glass of Right Bank Bordeaux.

Unfortunately, not only do people really like the Domaine Katsaros’ wines, but they (or at least the grapes that go into them) are a big hit with wild boars; nearly all of the 2014 crop was eaten by the pigs. Thus, it was with some sense of poetic justice that we eagerly devoured the meat-heavy Macellaio pizza (Sopressata, Guanciale, Pork Sausage, Mozzarella and Grana Padano) and the grilled pork loin with the wines. Thankfully, the boar were less destructive in 2015, ensuring that there will be more wine to go around for this latest vintage.

Ricossa wine, co-opting old traditions to create new trends

RicossaAlthough not nearly as ancient as ancient Greece, winemaking in Italy’s Piedmont region – home to the aforementioned Nebbiolo and hence, Barolo – dates back several centuries. Here, traditional winemaking has primarily centered on producing powerful, long-lived reds that take decades to reach their full potential. And, it seemed that such traditions were firmly entrenched.

But, even here, things are shifting. For one, classic wine styles have been evolving since the 1980s as a decidedly different view of Barolo winemaking came to the fore, splitting producers into one of two camps — Traditionalist vs. Modernist.

More recently, in another blending of old and new, the region has co-opted the age-old tradition of drying grapes in service of a new, modern style of Barbera. The newly minted Barbera Appassimento DOC owes a debt of gratitude to Ricossa Winery, which was the brainchild behind the creation of this wine.

The company, part of the MGM Mondo del Vino group, felt that there was something missing from the Piedmontese winescape – wines made in the appasimento style – and specifically targeted the Barbera grape as the beneficiary of this process. And, after only a year of discussions with the Consorzio, this new wine was approved as of the 2014 vintage.

The appasimento style is most closely associated with Italy’s Veneto region – think Amarone della Valpolicella, but, essentially, these wines are produced from grapes that are dried in humidity-controlled, ventilated room, thereby reducing water content and concentrating aromas and flavors in the grape.

Moreover, the specific rules for the Barbera Appassimento DOC are vastly different than those of Amarone. Of note, the drying process for this new wine is limited to four to six weeks, a much shorter time frame than the four months required for Amarone production. Further, there is no wood aging permitted compared to the minimum two years of oak aging for Amarone.

Yet, despite the obvious comparison to the Veneto, the true intent was to express the Barbera grape in a alternate way rather than mimic Amarone, as evidenced by the resulting style of wine. The group was pleasantly surprised at how fresh and light the wine was, finding it to be a great expression of the grape with softer acidity and fuller body than more traditional Barbera wines. Lunch guests also tasted Ricossa’s Gavi as well as its Barbaresco 2011 and Barolo Riserva 2008, which provided a broader introduction to the winery’s portfolio.

Velenosi: Wines of Poise and Passion

VelenosiWhen I was first invited to meet with Angela Velenosi, owner of Velenosi Winery in Le Marche, I was intrigued by her name. Having studied Italian, the word velenosi struck an immediate cord; we had read stories in class about a character named Valentino Valentini who had first gone on a walk through the forest collecting mushrooms and making a tasty risotto with them. Unfortunately, as the tale went, “Ma…spesso i funghi sono velenosi” – but…often mushrooms are poisonous – so Valentino was brought to the Emergency Room. After leaving the hospital a few days later, our dear friend Valentino was treated to a dinner of oysters, but, as was pointed out: “Ma…spesso le ostriche sono velenose” (but…often oysters are poisonous), so Valentino was again rushed off for emergency care.

After meeting Angela Velenosi in person, I am pleased to note that, while Valentino Valentini was quite unlucky, Angela has had a much better track record with her life. This poised and passionate Italian woman has been the driving force behind her family’s wine label, which she founded in 1984 with then husband, Ercole, when she was only 20 years old. The two saw the opportunity, had a good relationship with the local wine community and, perhaps most importantly, a passion for wine. Angela admits that she had very limited knowledge and experience, but clearly had an abundance of conviction, confidence and courage.

Thirty-plus years later, it is evident that her gamble and dedication has paid off. An award winning winery (listed among Wine Spectator’s top 100 wineries in both 2012 and 2013), Velenosi is firmly established in the region today and is the second largest, family-owned estate, with 100 hectares planted in the south of the region and another 48 hectares located closer to the sea in the province of Ancona.

This same fearlessness seems to pervade everything she does. During dinner she revealed that she has run a total of 11 marathons – three of them in New York. Unfortunately, her knees have kept her from continuing this particular passion, but while, marathons are not a part of her life anymore she is still extremely active.

In addition to being a staunch supporter for her own brand, Angela is equally heartfelt about the region and currently serves as President of the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Piceni, a post she has held since 2014.

Admittedly, among Italian wines, at least in the U.S., Le Marche is much less well known, but this region, situated along Italy’s Eastern coast along the Adriatic Sea, has a lengthy history. The only plural among Italy’s 20 regions, Le Marche got its name in 1105 when three border regions were joined by the Roman Emperor Henry IV. (And, perhaps it’s a bit like New York City’s The Bronx in that it is the only region to possess an article.) Within Le Marche, the town of Ascoli dates back to 1000 BCE and was established by the Piceni tribe of warriors. It pre-dates the Romans’ rise to prominence and was known for its iron works and jewels.

Today, Le Marche is home to 5 DOCGs and 16 DOCs, featuring a diverse range of climates, depending upon topography and distance from the coast. The area features various hills and mountains; there are no flat lands to be found. The relatively small region is primarily known for its crisp, refreshing whites and its Montepulciano-based reds. Although Sangiovese features heavily in many of Le Marche’s wines, the Sangiovese in the Le Marche is a different clone than that found in Tuscany. Consequently, these wines share more similarity to those produced in Abruzzo than in Tuscany.

Velenosi produces 20 different wines, from a combination of indigenous varieties (such as Pecorino, Passerina, Verdicchio, Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Lacrima) and international grapes. In general, Angela likes wines that are both ready to drink, but also have good aging potential, a philosophy she applies to all of the wines she produces. With this mind, many of her wines are bottled in dark, heavy glass to keep the light out during the lengthy aging process. Additionally, Angela looks for clarity and purity in all of her wines. As a result, Angela’s wines are anything but poisonous. – they are elegant, well made expressions of the Le Marche terroir.

Eight of the Velenosi wines are exported to the U.S., covering a range of styles and providing an excellent introduction to the wines of Le Marche!

TASTING NOTES
Passerina Brut NV, Marche, Italy
A Charmat Method sparkling wine produced from 100% Passerina grapes, this slightly off-dry sparkler presents light aromas of peach and pear on the nose and palate. It has nice acidity, with a lovely mousse, finishing cleanly and pairing well with food.

Pecorino Villa Angela Falerio DOC Pecorino 2014, Marche, Italy
Named for the tradition of grazing sheep in the mountains, this variety stems from the Italian word pecora, which translates as sheep. The wine has notes of anise, citrus and apple on the nose. The light to medium-bodied palate offers up savory, herbal and vegetal flavors with high acidity and a slight, textural grip.

Verdicchio Querciantica Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico 2014, Marche, Italy
This wine has fresh fruit aromas of peach and almond and is more fruit-forward than the Pecorino, although it is still dry and balanced. There is bright acidity on the medium to full-bodied palate, with flavors of pear, peach and almond.

Lacrima Querciantica Lacrima di Morro d’Alba DOC 2014, Marche, Italy
An aromatic red variety, Lacrima has thins skins, resulting in a lighter-bodied red, with little to no tannins. The grape’s freshness is deliberately preserved through the use of stainless steel and no wood contact. This wine expresses its fresh raspberry, cherry and plum fruit so vibrantly with bright acidity and beautiful balance.

Brecciarolo Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore 2013, Marche, Italy
Falling within the Rosso Piceno DOC rules, the specific blend is up to the producer, with this wine being a blend of 70% Montepulciano/ 30% Sangiovese, aged in older oak for 10-12 months. The heavy reliance on Montepulciano produces a stronger, darker wine than other Rosso Piceno wines.

Ludi, Offida DOCG Rosso 2011, Marche, Italy
One of Angela’s top wines, Ludi was first produced in 1998, named for the Latin root for play – ludo – a reminder that wine is meant to be enjoyed. It is a blend of 50% Montepulciano, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot, which is aged in new French oak for 24 months. This wine offers up ripe, yet elegant, black fruit with cedar, vanilla and a hint of anise, with finely grained tannins and long length.

Roggio del Filare 2010, Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore, Marche, Italy
Velenosi’s flagship is the Roggio del Filare, literally “fire in the vineyard,” whose name stems from a poem by the Italian poet Carducci, recalling the way that the sun looks on the vines as it sets in the vineyards. This 70% Montepulciano – 30% Sangiovese blend is produced from 50+ year old vines with a long maceration on the skins and then aged in new French oak for 18 months. It is intense, powerful and structured, with beautiful, concentrated black fruit, wood and minerality on the full-bodied palate with very long length.

Visciole Selezione Cherry Wine NV, Marche, Italy
This fresh and delicate dessert wine is produced from a combination of fully-fermented Lacrima grapes to which a wild cherry syrup, known as visciole, is added, causing a second fermentation and ultimately resulting in a wine with remaining sweetness. Redolent of ripe cherries on the nose and palate, the wine is nicely balanced, with enough sugar to marry well with dessert without being cloying.

Marche

The DOCGs and DOCs of Le Marche