All Dried Up: The Wines of Mister Amarone

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Image courtesy of Masi Agricola.

Some people might address Masi Agricola’s president as Signor Boscaini, but a recent book profiling the well-known Venetian wine producer refers to him as “Mister Amarone.” A leader in the Amarone denomination, it is likely that Sandro appreciates the moniker, having tirelessly worked to improve the quality of this wine since the 1950s.

Of course, some might even say that the man is all dried up. Well, not him exactly, but most of his grapes. While the process of drying grapes is de rigor for Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, this practice is found in few other places, but Masi’s president has exported the technique both far and near. In fact, many of his wines feature a special logo, Appaxximento, Masi Expertise® coupled with Sandro’s signature, further emphasizing the winery’s commitment to this wine production style.

Boscaini’s initial efforts focused on maintaining the concentration for which Amarone has always been known, while losing the oxidized character. In this regard, he aimed to preserve Venetian tradition, while improving the wine’s quality, introducing new yeast strains that could work at higher alcohol levels and adjusting the fermentation period from 60 days to 45 days. In the 1950s, fermentations often took as long as 18 months. As a result, today’s wines are much fresher than their predecessors.

But despite technological embraces, other aspects of production remain quite traditional such as the use of wood mats on which to dry the Amarone-bound grapes. For this purpose, Masi prefers bamboo, the spherical surface of which reduces the contact between the mats and the grape skins and ensures good air flow. Whereas some producers have shifted away from this traditional approach

This delicate balance between tradition and modern practices further comes into play when controlling the environment in the drying facilities. When possible, the room’s temperature and humidity are regulated naturally, with vents opened and closed to create the ideal conditions for drying. However, when necessary, a computer takes over to provide the ideal climatic parameters. Designed by the Masi Technical Group in the 1990s, this complex system is referred to as NASA (Natural Appassimento Super Assisted).

In neighboring Friuli, Boscaini has brought the appassimento procedure to bear on the Verduzzo grape. Harvested rather late to achieve full ripeness, the grapes are then dried on racks for three weeks to concentrate the fruit and permit evaporation of the water content. These raisined grapes are fermented  on their own before being briefly aged in barriques. They are then blended with Pinot Grigio, which has been picked much earlier to retain its acidity and fermented in stainless steel. When brought together, the result is Masianco, a complex wine with full body, depth and richness.

Conversely, the appassimento process is eschewed when producing Bonacosta, a Valpolicella Classico DOC made from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Intended to be a fruity, young red wine, the simple production process, using non-dried grapes, retains this freshness.

Building in complexity among their Venetian reds, is Masi’s Campofiorin. Initially created in 1964, this wine had previously been called a ripasso, but Boscaini feels that this term has become corrupted and opts instead to label it as a Rosso del Veronese IGT and refers to it instead as a Supervenetian.  Instead of conducting a more common technique of using the wine equivalent of an old tea bag, Masi dries grapes specifically for inclusion in the Campfiorin. Regardless of its name or label, the wine falls somewhere in between the fruity character of the Bonacosta and the big, Baroque style of an Amarone.

Masi also produces several different Amarone wines, including its entry-level, Costasera and Costaserva Riserva, as well as several different single-vineyard wines. However, the single-vineyard wines are only produced in excellent vintages, when conditions are right not only during harvest, but also once the grapes have been picked.

Farther afield, Boscaini’s imprint can be found in Argentina, where Masi launched a partnership with Norton in 1995. Here, Corvina grapes receive the same royal, dried-grape treatment and are then blended with Malbec. Appropriately named Passo Doble, this is a decidedly unusual and modern wine.  All dried up? Maybe. But, all washed up? Never! Mister Amarone strikes again!

Grand Cru Grapevine: France’s Southwest ~ The United Nations in a Glass (November 2012)

Just a proverbial stone’s throw from Bordeaux, the wines of southwest France offer an interesting perspective. Located south of Bordeaux and north of Languedoc, winemaking in this region is not new; it dates to 125 BCE. Yet, while Bordeaux has held fame and fortune for centuries, these smaller appellations cover a vast area, but have been largely ignored…until now.

Despite the area’s relative obscurity, many of France’s heralded grapes are given space in these vineyards. Bordeaux’s key grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France and Merlot – are joined by the Rhône Valley’s Syrah and Beaujolais’ Gamay. Even more remarkable, these same grapes come together in a single glass, proving that, at least viticulturally, we can all learn to get along.

Meanwhile, other varieties grown in the region are found nowhere else – Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Mauzac and Arrufiac are among the top whites, with Fer Servadou, Prunelard and Négrette leading the reds. And the vast diversity is impressive; wines range from dry whites and sweet whites to tannic reds and softer, easy-drinking reds to sparkling wines produced in ancient methods that predate Champagne’s rise to prominence.

Those appellations which might draw some recognition include: Cahors, Madiran, Gaillac and Jurançon (not to be confused with the Jura, located in northeast France). However, names like Marcillac, Brulhois and Fronton are likely known to only to a few die-hard, franco-oenophiles. But, these are all names you should consider getting to know.

Why? Well, for starters, the reputation may not precede them, but the quality is certainly there. And, as the land of gastronomy – foie gras, duck cassoulet and delicious cheeses – you can be sure that these folks know their food and wine, meaning that the wines are extremely food-friendly. Moreover, as already mentioned, there is a wealth of wine styles from which to choose. But, if that’s not enough, perhaps their price tags will convince you. Of the six tasting notes included below, all are under $25.00, most are $12.00 or less and one even has a suggested retail price of $5.00.

So, truly, there is no reason not to embrace these magnanimous wines.

Domaine Tariquet Classic 2011, Côtes de Gasgogne IGP, France, $9.00
45% Ugni Blanc, 35% Colombard, 10% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Gros Manseng
Family-run since 1912, Domaine Tariquet also produces the local spirit, Armagnac. Melon and citrus aromas greet the nose. Dry with medium+ acidity, this wine shows flavors of apple and melon with a leesy character lingering in the long finish. 

Domaine de la Chanade La Coste Blanche 2011, Gaillac AOP, France, $5.00
80% Loin de l’Oeil, 20% Mauzac
Among the newer producers, Domaine de la Chanade was established in 1997. With citrus and pronounced floral notes, this wine displays piercing acidity on the dry, light-bodied palate, with honey, apple and almond flavors.

Domaine Le Roc Le Roc la Saignée 2011, Fronton AOP, France, $12.00
Located near Toulouse, Domaine Le Roc has created a rosé that can stand up to steak! A blend of Négrette and Syrah, this wine spends four to five months on the lees. It has a red wine nose with black fruit, slight herbs and meat, all of which persist on the palate. Dry with a fruity attack, the medium tannins are especially perceptible on the finish.

Domaine du Moulin Méthode Gaillacoise 2011, Gaillac AOP, France, $18.00
The Hirissou family has been making wine for three centuries. This sparkling wine is produced from 100% Mauzac and offers up yeasty, floral and apple aromas. On the palate, it is slightly off-dry, but finishes very cleanly with yeast and apple flavors and a nice, creamy mousse.

Vignobles Arbeau Château Coutinel Tradition 2009, Fronton AOP, France, $9.00
60% Négrette, 20% Gamay, 10% Syrah, 10% Malbec
Vignobles Arbeau was created in 1878. A fruity nose displays aromas of black berries, floral and herbs. The palate is dry with bright acidity, cherry flavors and ripe, medium tannins.

Plaimont Producteurs Saint Albert 2011, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOP, France, $24.00
Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Petit Corbu, Arrufiac (percentages not stated)
Plaimont Producteurs was established when three co-ops came together in 1979. This dessert wine shows notes of peach, yeast and honey on the nose. Its medium sweet palate is decidedly a dessert wine, but, with medium+ to high acidity, it is not cloying. Peaches, honey and yeast all persist on the palate throughout the wine’s long length.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano’s Medieval Magic

I first discovered the wines of Vernaccia di San Gimignano when on vacation in Florence back in 2001. This crisp, white wine was a perfect accompaniment to the wonderful food we ate. And, on a day trip to Siena, we made a brief stop in the “medieval Manhattan” before returning to Florence. The one hour in which we scampered around the walled town, with its imposing towers, and stumbled upon an olive oil festival, reinforced our fascination with this tiny village and cemented its image into my memory. Ten years later, I found myself back in Tuscany wondering if the magic would still be there.

On our first evening in Siena, the first course of zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese was paired with two Vernaccias. In tasting them, I discovered something interesting – the second of the two wines was showing some development. I enjoyed the aged characteristics of this wine, pleasantly surprised that these wines had the ability to mature with time in the bottle. This was a new side to this wine, further capturing my attention.

When we finally arrived in San Gimignano a few days later, I held my breath, convinced that my fond memories of this town had been overblown in my mind with the passage of time. Yet, as we rounded the corner, I could see the city walls and its towers overhead and my heart leapt. I was still in awe.

After a guided tour through the city, we arrived at the Museo de Vino where we were given a proper introduction to the wine, complete with a visit from San Gimignano’s mayor. The indigenous Vernaccia grape is quite ancient, with historical evidence of its existence dating to the 13th century with literary mentions of it found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. However, despite this illustrious past, the grape fell out of favor until after the World War II.

But, the grape and its wine were soon resurrected with the Vernaccia di San Gimignano appellation becoming the first to earn Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1966 with a promotion to DOCG in 1993. It holds the additional distinction of being one of the only white wines within Italy to include a Riserva designation. Wines labeled as such have undergone an aging period of at least 24 months, of which a portion must be spent in oak.

While many tourists become familiar with this wine on holiday in the area (as did I), this has served as a double-edged sword for the appellation in that much of the wine consumed in this manner was of lesser quality, marring the reputation of Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Today, this is changing as producers have shifted their focus toward improving the quality of their wines, which was evident in the tasting conducted at the Museo. And, lest you think that the tasting was fixed, we were given the opportunity to taste through over 40 wines. Moreover, the Consorzio is giving careful consideration to its appellation laws, having recently developed a list of forbidden grapes for the 10% or less of the blend that is permitted (a minimum of 90% Vernaccia is required).

On its own, Vernaccia di San Gimignano characteristically offers up notes of alomnd, mineral and earth, which can evolve with bottle age. Also, similarly to Chardonnay, the grape’s non-aromatic nature takes well to oak treatment, yielding additional complexity to the resulting wines. The best examples showed a range of aromas and flavors from floral and herbal tea to lime, minerality and spice.

Within the region, there are a wide range of producers, most of which are family run and relatively small in size. The exception to this rule is Teruzzi & Puthod, which was initially established by Mr. Teruzzi, but is now owned by Gruppo Campari and is among the largest and most modern in the area. Here, the vast size of the production has permitted the winery to make significant investments in state-of-the-art technology from unique fermentation vats to an extremely sophisticated bottling line.

At Montenidoli, Maria Elisabetta Fagiuoli is at the helm, having bought the land with money from her grandmother, an unusually independent move at the time.  Whereas Maria Elizabetta’s husband Sergio is a poet by profession, Maria herself is a bit of a philosopher. She was quick to advise us that, “I am not a winemaker. I am a nurse of the land; the earth is the winemaker,” and also quipped, “Wine and people are the same; they get better with age or become vinegar.” Her wines are deserving of such meditative thoughts as they too give the taster pause in their depth and elegance.

The region is not without its royalty, with Tenute Guicciardini Strozzi owned by Count Robert Guicciardini and Prince Girolamo Strozzi. Prince Strozzi’s daughters, Princesses Natalia and Irina, are the 15th generation direct descendants to Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the actual Mona Lisa. Although the company owns several estates, its Vernaccia production takes place at the 530 ha estate at Villa Cusona, which dates to 994 and has been home to winemaking since the 1200s.

Although less regal in its heritage, a visit to Poderi del Paradiso is truly a visit to paradise with its sweeping vistas of beautiful vineyards presided over by San Gimignano’s towers. Owned by the Cetti family, who originally came to San Gimignano as serfs in the Middle Ages, the family rose to prominence and wealth in only two generations. The current generation acquired Poderi del Paradiso in 1973.

With its storied history, Vernaccia di San Gimignano is steeped in Italy’s tradition, but, with producers’ renewed emphasis on quality, the appellation is also poised to produce great wines now and in the future…with hard work, dedication and perhaps, a bit of medieval magic.

TASTING NOTES

Montenidoli Carato Riserva 2007, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Italy
A complex nose of floral, chamomile tea, tidal pool and a hint of butterscotch gives way to spice, mineral and savory characteristics on the full-bodied, dry palate and culminates in long length.

Poderi del Paradiso Biscondola 2010, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Italy
Produced from a single vineyard, the grapes were picked two weeks later than those for its base wine. Almond, floral, lime greeted the nose and persisted on the dry palate, joined by concentrated flavors of apple peel and minerality.

Tenute Guicciardini Strozzi 2010, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Italy
With floral, mineral and citrus pith aromas, this wine has a dry palate and offered typical bitter almond notes in its long finish.

Tenuta Le Calcinaie 2010, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Italy
From an organic producer, this wine has floral, tidal pool, mineral and lime aromas, with juicy lime and minerality on the dry palate. The rush to pick early after a rainy summer resulted in brighter acidity than usual, adding to the austerity of this wine and its clean finish.

Teruzzi & Puthod Rondolino 2010, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Italy
Notes of floral, almond and citrus showed on both the nose and palate, with a slight nuttiness lingering in the long length.

NB: Although not strictly of the Vernaccia di San Gimignano appellation, Montenidoli’s Il Templar and Teruzzi & Puthod’s Terre di Tufi (both Vernaccia blends, labeled as IGT Toscana) are worth seeking out as well. The former wine has significant staying power with a tasting of the 1999 not belying its age. In a mini-vertical tasting of Terre di Tufi 2007, 2008 and 2009, my preference was for the 2008.

I’m Down with DAC (Grand Cru Grapevine: November 2011)

At 26, Roman Pfaffl, Jr. is a not only a handsome, young man and a winning athlete (his all-winemaker soccer team recently won in Munich), but, most importantly, he is quite charming. OK, even more importantly than that, he makes great wine. The Austrian winemaker is now at the helm of his family’s winery, having been passed the reigns (or perhaps more correctly, the refractometer) at a ceremony in August of this year. Although Roman has started to implement some changes (i.e. new pruning techniques and experimentation with different types of oak), he does admit that his parents are “still the bosses.” Joined by his sister Heidemarie, who handles marketing, the business is truly a family affair.

Established in 1978, Pfaffl Winery was created when Roman (Sr.) and wife Adelheid converted the family farm in Weinviertel (which translates as “wine quarter”), near Austria’s capital of Vienna, from potatoes to grape vines. Today, the Pfaffls have 80 hectares in total under vine, 65% of which is planted to white grapes.

Among the Pfaffl’s holdings are several highly prized parcels – Haidviertel (in the town of Stetten) and Hundsleiten (situated on a mountain range near Vienna), both of which prominently feature Grüner Veltliner, where the loess soils impart great minerality to the wines. The equally vaunted Altenberg vineyard highlights the red, St. Laurent grape. The grapes from Haidviertel and Hundsleiten are generally sourced for the Pfaffl’s best wines, which qualify for DAC status.

While Austria’s wines have historically followed a similar approach to that of Germany – using must weight (sugar content) as a designation of quality – the same concern with broad-brushing all Austrian wines as being sweet emerged. Accordingly, Austria sought to further define quality for its dry wines, instituting the terms Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd to indicate increasing levels of ripeness (still equated with quality) for Wachau wines that were dry on the palate. However, many in the industry felt that a more appellation-based system was needed. Enter the DAC.

Austria’s DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) system was launched in 2001, with Weinviertel defined as the first in 2003 (taking effect with the 2002 vintage). To qualify for the DAC designation, the wines must be produced from specified grape varieties, which in the case of Weinviertel is 100% Grüner Veltliner. The Leithaberg DAC, which came on line with the 2008 vintage, is specified for both red (minimum of 85% Blaufränkisch, blended with up to 15% St. Laurent, Zweigelt or Pinot Noir) and white (single variety or blends of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Neuburger and/or Grüner Veltliner). Wines that are produced within these DAC areas, but that don’t meet the DAC requirements must be labeled as Qualitätswein. Five other DACs presently exist, with a few more additions expected down the road.

In speaking about the effect of the DACs, Roman, Jr. indicated that the system has not only improved wine quality, but also has encouraged more young winemakers to get involved in the industry.

In addition to the more general Klassik (classic) level, the Weinviertel DAC also allows for a Reserve level, as of the 2009 vintage, which represents the top wines of the region. While the requirements for Reserve include an increased degree of alcohol, more emphasis is placed on the taste profile expected for these wines. Specifically, Reserve wines should be fuller bodied, with “subtle botrytis notes” and oak aging is permitted (it sn’t for Klassik). A further qualification for all DAC levels is that a six-person tasting panel must unanimously agree that the wine meets the expected caliber for the respective level; without their approval, wines cannot be labeled as DAC.

Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s signature white variety known for citrus, white pepper and mineral characteristics on both the nose and palate. Young examples provide fresh fruit characteristics and vibrant acidity. However, wines produced from older vines and better vineyards are capable of aging for 3-10 years. In this regard, a vertical tasting of wines from the steep, sandstone Hundsleiten vineyard showed off the development of the variety, while also highlighting vintage differences.

Wines produced from Hundsleiten’s 30-year-old vines are fermented in large casks and then aged for 5-6 months in a combination of large, wooden barrels (80%) and stainless steel tanks (20%).

Pfaffl Grüner Veltliner 2010, Hundsleiten Weinviertel DAC Reserve, Weinviertel, Austria, $31.00
Produced from the challenging 2010 vintage, Roman described this wine as being Burgundian in style, which was reinforced by the wine’s aromas and flavors of minerality, wet earth, citrus and restrained, but still noticeable, use of wood. The full-bodied palate was creamy, with long length.

Pfaffl Grüner Veltliner 2006, Hundsleiten Weinviertel DAC Reserve, Weinviertel, Austria, $31.00
While 2006 was a hot year, spring had arrived later than usual, preventing problems with overripe fruit as was seen in 2003. A less intense nose than the 2010, but with more pronounced notes of pepper, orange, wood and yeast.

Pfaffl Grüner Veltliner 2004, Hundsleiten Weinviertel DAC Reserve, Weinviertel, Austria, $31.00
Lots of rain plagued June, which was followed by a cool August, but a dry September and October saved the vintage. This wine showed some development with damp earth, wood and mineral notes, and just a hint of citrus aromas, which were repeated on the dry palate with the addition of a bit of pepper.

Pfaffl Grüner Veltliner 2000, Hundsleiten Weinviertel DAC Reserve, Weinviertel, Austria, $31.00
Near perfect conditions resulted in a great vintage and ideal ripeness. A spicy nose with concentrated orange fruit gave way to rich, ripe orange and tropical fruit on the creamy palate, joined by flavors of spice and wood, throughout the wine’s long length.

Although St. Laurent doesn’t qualify for DAC status, Pfaffl’s wines from this variety were also quite noteworthy.

Pfaffl St. Laurent 2009, Altenberg Estate Qualitätswein, Weinviertel, Austria, $44.00
From a good vintage, this younger wine showed earthy aromas, with a fuller body and more fruit than the 2004, with flavors of cherry, herbs, mint and oak.

Pfaffl St. Laurent 2004, Altenberg Estate Qualitätswein, Weinviertel, Austria, $44.00
This wine offered aromas of spice, earth and concentrated notes of cherry and mulberry. Its dry palate gave way to plum and spice flavors and, in sum, was gorgeous and complex with long length.

 

DiamAndes – A Diamond in the Argentine Rough

Bruno LaPlane is at home and ensconced in the Bordeaux wine industry having married into the Bonnie family, producers of Château Malartic-Lagravière and Chateau Gazin-Rocquencourt. However, with the increasing popularity of Argentina, he and the Bonnie family were eager to expand their interests. So, when the opportunity to join the Clos de los Siete project in Mendoza arose, they jumped at it. Accordingly, in 2005, the family purchased 130 hectares and built their own winery on the property, completed in 2009. Named for nearby Diamond Lake, in which the reflection of a volcano appears as a diamond, and the imposing Andes mountain range, DiamAndes was born.

DiamAndes released its Gran Reserva wine in New York earlier this year. This flagship wine is a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The company is now ready to introduce additional wines to the market under the name of DiamAndes de Uco, which includes: Chardonnay, Viognier, Malbec and Syrah. Another new wine is the entry-level Perlita by DiamAndes, which blends Malbec and Syrah and retails for $10.00/bottle.  Like LePlane, the Malbec grape, which does so well in Argentina’s high altitude vineyards, is also from Bordeaux. Not surprisingly, it accounts for 66% of the DiamAndes plantings.

Although these wines are priced at the value end of the market, they are still produced with the same careful attention to detail as those used in Bordeaux. More specifically, there is a keen emphasis on terroir, self-imposed strict yields (45 hl/ha) and hand harvesting, with a focus on crafting elegant wines. Aside from being located a world away from one another, the difference is that the cost of land and labor makes these Argentina exports much less expensive to produce, while still retaining the high quality for which the Bonnie family is known.

Chardonnay 2010
This grape variety represents 72% of the white plantings at DiamAndes. With a nose of slight spice, pear, some citrus and vanilla, the aromas repeat on the typically full-bodied palate, joined with some slight minerality.

Viognier 2010
Spice, apricot and tangerine aromas persist on the palate, along with floral notes. The full-bodied wine has medium acidity.

Malbec 2010
This wine presents with mostly black fruits and a slight floral character. It has nice acidity, with firm, yet ripe, tannins, becoming more complex on the palate with its flavors of blackberry, spice, vanilla and oak.

Gran Reserva 2007 (70% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon)
A structured and elegant wine with spice, oak, blackberry, bramble fruit and slight eucalyptus notes, the tannins are quite firm, but should mellow with bottle age.

Also see my previous article on the Gran Reserva.

Lovable, but Lesser-known Lombardy and its Lago di Garda Wines

When asked to name an Italian wine region, most people will probably answer Tuscany or Piedmont, while Lombardy is less likely to come to mind. Yet, this northwestern region boasts many high quality wines such as Franciacorta and Valtellina. Known much more for its lake district and its capital city of Milan, Lombardy has attracted U.S. visitors for decades, but its wines generally remain unknown even though its viticultural history dates back to the 1300s.

The sizeable Lago di Garda (Lake Garda) not only adds to the beauty of the area, but also serves as an important climatic influence. Formed by glacial activity, the lake is at the center of concentric hills, which flow westward and is responsible for the area’s Mediterranean climate despite its northerly locale (it shares a border with Switzerland). In addition to grapes, capers, lemon trees and olive groves flourish, marking the northernmost point for these plant species.

Among the red grapes, many indigenous varieties are planted here. Known for its spicy aromatic character, Gropello is the most planted variety with its plantings limited to the slopes of Valtènesi. The local rosé is called Chiaretto and shares the same recipe as the red wine Rosso Garda Classico: Gropello (30% minimum), Marzemino (5% minimum), Barbera (5% minimum) and Sangiovese (5% minimum). The difference between the two wines is in the winemaking. The Chiaretto, produced since the 15th century, has its must separated from the grape skins after a single night’s maceration,. The Classico moniker in Rosso Garda Classico denotes the wine’s origin from the traditional/original viticultural area.

The region’s white grapes are less obscure – Riesling, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay – with the exception of Tocai, which is also known as San Martino. Denominations for white wines include Lugana DOC, San Martino DOC and Benaco Bresciano Bianco IGT. The Chardonnay is also used to make sparkling wines, often blended with Pinot Noir, produced in both the Traditional and Charmat Methods.

That being said, Peri’s Peri Talento Brut IGT 2007 is 100% Chardonnay. Produced using the Traditional Method, the wine showed some yeasty notes along with citrus and apple, finishing cleanly on the palate.

Lugana DOC Perla 2008 from Perla del Garda, blends 90% Trebbiano di Lugana and 10% Chardonnay for a wine with high acidity, citrus notes and minerality.

The indigenous Lugana grape makes its appearance in the Lugana DOC although other white grapes are permitted. Marangona’s Lugana DOC Tre Campane 2008 made solely from this variety has nutty and herbal aromas along with citrus on the dry palate. The Lugana DOC 2008 from Monte Cicogna is 100% Trebbiano di Lugana with aromas of stone and hay joined by citrus, honey, herbal, and bitter almond notes.

The rosé Chiaretto Garda Classico DOC Giovanni Aranzi 2009 is comprised of 60% Gropello, 10% Barbera, 15% Sangiovese and 15% Marzemino and greets the nose with fresh strawberry and cherry. The dry wine shows off its fresh fruit and floral flavors on the palate finishing with a bitter almond note.

Among the reds tasted, the Benaco Bresciano Rosso IGT 2005 Nepomucceno from Cantrina (70% Merlot, 15% Rebo and 10% Marzemino) displays deep, rich black fruit and chocolate. The Cascina Spia d’Italia’s Garda Classico DOC Rosso Superiore 2007 includes the required grapes (percentages unspecified) as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine offers aromas of black fruits, floral and vanilla while berries and bitter almond dominate the palate.

Speaking to a group of press and trade members, Santi Bonhomme, President of the Lago di Garda Consorzio, explained that a project to group all of the red wines under a single denomination – Valenèsi – was underway. This move may help to simplify these wines in the U.S. marketplace, but will not go far enough in demystifying them. I would suggest that Lago di Garda may be a better choice because perhaps it will be a fond reminder of vacations past for the American buyer.

Italy by the Glass

On a hot, humid day in June, I headed to the Hudson Hotel for an Italian wine tasting. After ascertaining the exact location of the event from the hotel staff, I took the elevator to the top floor. After I walked down the long corridor, I checked in and proceeded to begin tasting. The winery representatives were at tables arranged on the perimeter of the room, while open doors at the end of the room beckoned. Unfortunately, the heat was just too oppressive to take advantage of the view afforded by the rooftop terrace, so I turned my attention to the wines.

The assembled group of producers was a bit of a hodgepodge, representing a diverse set of regions including: Abruzzo, Umbria, Lombardy, Sicily, Trentino and Tuscany. Despite the lack of an overtly cohesive theme, the wine line-up provided an opportunity to taste lesser-known varieties and appellations.

From the Tuscan seaside – the Maremma – Casal di Pari produces wines in the Montecucco DOC. Sandwiched between Brunello and Morellino, the hillside vineyards benefit from cooling sea breezes and are planted to Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot. The two wines available for tasting were the Montecucco Rosso DOC 2007 and the Montecucco Rosso DOC Ciarlone 2009, the latter of which was more expressive even though the blends were precisely the same.

Italy’s northern region of Trentino is home to Marco Donati, whose family has been growing grapes in the area since 1863. The appellation wine, Teroldego Rotaliano DOC consists entirely of the indigenous Teroldego and was full of dark fruit with noticeable oak, smoke and vanilla. The Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT Situla Rosso 2009 is a mix of Lagrein, Teroldego and Marzemino and displayed notes of plums, berries and smoke.

The wine that stole the show was Terre de Trinci’s Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG 2004. As I walked through the room, I was constantly greeted by colleagues and friends who kept asking if I had tasted it yet. Continually waylaid by the aforementioned friends, I didn’t reach the producer’s table until much later. However, when I finally did, I was in agreement with their favorable assessment. Produced from 100% Sagrantino, previously only used to create sweet wines, Terre de Trinci was the first to make a dry version of Umbria’s native grape back in the 1960s. The wine’s complex aromas included Port, licorice, vanilla, berries and spice coupled with full body, medium+ tannins and long length. The producer’s Umbria IGT Rosso Trinci 2009 is a blend of 80% Sagrantino and 20% Merlot and, while not as complex, showed much of the same characteristics.

Another highlight was the wine from Cantina di Villa, based in the Valtellina denomination of the Lombardy region. Here, the Nebbiolo grape, made famous by Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco, sometimes travels under the pseudonym of Chiavennasca. Of course, file that under the adage “a rose by any other name,” because these wines deliver on Nebbiolo’s promise. The Cantina had four separate wines available to taste starting with the basic Valtellina Rosso DOC 2006 (90% Nebbiolo and 10% Pignolo) which offered dried flowers and sour cherry. Moving up to the Valtellina Rosso Superiore DOC Incontri 2003 (95% Nebbiolo and 5% local varieties), these aromas and flavors were joined by dried cherries, dried herbs, rose and slight earth. The younger Valtellina Rosso Superiore Grumello 2006 was earthier with fuller body, but less developed. At the top of the range, the Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG Tinaia 2006 (100% Nebbiolo) was, in a word, gorgeous! (yes, my tasting notes include the exclamation point). More floral than the Grumello, the intricate production process of drying the grapes for several months prior to pressing, then repassing the must through the skins multiple times and aging the wine in large casks for a minimum of three years, showed in its richer, more concentrated palate. Notes of dried cherries and plums remained throughout the wine’s long length.

The preponderance of reds was unfortunate since the high temperatures really called for whites, but those to be found were less interesting – a typical Pinot Grigio from the Veneto, a Trebbiano-Chardonnay blend (untasted) and a Müller-Thurgau (also untasted because I had already assaulted my palate with powerful reds). However, all in all, the tasting offered a great selection of wines.

Alto Adige’s White Wines Hit A High Note

Introducing a seminar on Italy’s Alto Adige region, Cornerstone Communication’s CEO Marsha Palanci explained that, “This is the only part of Italy where you can hear yodeling in one window and arias in another.” Not surprisingly, in looking at regional photos, you would half expect Julie Andrews to suddenly appear and belt out songs from the Sound of Music.

Marsha further added that both Mediterranean and Alpine botany could found growing side by side in the region, before turning the presentation over to the panel moderator Mary Ewing-Mulligan. Mary stressed the homogeneity across the region and underscored the ageability of these wines due the high mineral content in the soil.

Alto Adige, the northernmost region of Italy, was under Austrian rule until 1919, hence the yodeling. And, to this day, both German and Italian are the official languages. 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. This protection also extends to the limited rainfall with the region seeing 300 sunny days per year. (Although with my luck, I’d be liable to visit on one of the other 65 days.)

When considered separate from Trentino, Alto Adige is the smallest of Italy’s 20 regions. To put its size in perspective, Mary explained that the land was 50% larger than New Jersey, but that the population was just 6% of New York City. Yet, despite its limited size, 98% of its production is at the Protected Designation of Origin level – the most of any Italian region. In fact, three times as many of Alto Adige’s wines win Tre Biccheri awards compared to Tuscany.

The area’s steep slopes are given over to white grapes while the lower, rolling hills are planted to reds. The core varieties seen in the U.S. market are Pinot Bianco (aka Pinot Blanc), Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero and Lagrein, which highlight the region’s Germanic and French influences. Regardless of the specific variety, white plantings account for 55% and are on the rise.

The seminar’s tasting was a varied set of grape varieties and vintages, with the oldest wine dating to 2002.

 

Franz Haas Cuvée Manna 2004, IGT Dolomiti, Italy, ($40.00, 2009 vintage)

In 1988, the winemaker attended a 7-course tasting dinner and was inspired to create a wine that would pair well with a broad range of foods/courses. This wine, a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay, late harvest Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, is the result of that inspiration. The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are both barrel-fermented, which add complexity to this unusual wine. With six years of age, the wine was showing some development with notes of honey, spice, pear and floral. The high acidity and medium+ body provided nice structure to the complex and concentrated flavors, which culminated in long length throughout the mineral finish. The wine is IGT as opposed to DOC designated due to its unorthodox blend.

Nals Margreid Pinot Grigio Punggl 2007, Alto Adige DOC, Italy, ($24.00, 2009 vintage)

In an old German dialect, the word Punggl means hill, which, in this case, refers to the name of this hilltop, single vineyard located in the southern part of the region. Earth, mineral, green apple and a hint of citrus aromas gave way to a palate of high acidity, medium body, mineral, citrus, orange peel and long length. Aromatic with crisp acidity, Mary described the wine as having one leg in Alsace and another in Italy, while Klaus Gasser, oenologist at Terlan, suggested that it had great tension now, but could age up to 10 years.

Terlan Nova Domus Terlaner Riserva 2005, Alto Adige DOC, Italy, ($55.00, 2007 vintage)

The reason for the apparent duplication is that Terlan is both the town and the name of the appellation. Intertwined in the region for ages, this Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend has been made by Terlan for 100 years. Floral aromas with slight honey, spice, stone and pear greet the nose while citrus, floral, yeast and mineral notes persist on the youthful palate. Klaus attributed the mineral character to the Pinot Bianco. Mary remarked that the Sauvignon Blanc was speaking, but further admitted that the wine could age beautifully and that, “great Pinot Bianco is from Alto Adige.”

Alois Lageder, Chardonnay Löwengang 2002, Alto Adige DOC, Italy, ($40.00, 2007 vintage)

Löwengang refers to the 400 year old Manor House known as Lion’s Gate at the winery. Here, these 40-60 year old vines are grown on southeast facing vineyards, which receive good sun exposure. The long growing season permits the grapes to develop concentrated wines. At fours years old, the wine was showing some development with earth, slight oak, mineral, apple and citrus aromas. The palate was still quite youthful with high acidity, full body and an undercurrent of spice and oak throughout its long length. Mary advised that the wine’s strong acidity masked the fact that it had undergone malolactic fermentation.

Peter Zemmer Gewürztraminer Reserve 2006, Alto Adige DOC, Italy, ($29.00, 2009 vintage)

The winery’s stated goal to capture grapes at their natural freshness comes through on this pungent, but balanced wine. Both beautiful and elegant, the wine showed pronounced notes of floral, tropical fruit, spice, smoke and mineral. The medium+ body, medium+ acidity and oily texture provided a backdrop for the spicy, honey, tropical fruit flavors with good concentration and ripeness in the finish. Mary noted that while there was some noticeable residual sugar on the palate, it came across more as richness than sweetness due to the wine’s high acidity.

HARVEST East End Wine Salon – Mad about Merlot

The second annual HARVEST East End – wine auction and celebration of Long Island’s wines – took place this month (September 2011). Kicking off on September 3, wine salons were held at various wineries and other locations for three Saturdays, culminating in the Festival Tasting on the evening of September 17, immediately followed by the Havest Moon Gala at The Ludlow Farm.

As we neared our destination, signage directed us not only to Ludlow Farm, but also to the corn maze. We thought that was an interesting idea, but, in fact, the festival walk-around tasting took place under several tents, away from husks of corn. While the wineries were not hidden among the maize, we did manage to miss a few.

Prior to the main festivities, Grand Cru Classes was pleased to sponsor this year’s event once again by hosting one of the wine salons. Accordingly, on September 10, I presented my Mad about Merlot class, with a twist. The class is usually comprised of 5 or 6 Merlots from around the world, permitting attendees to compare and contrast the aromas, flavors and structure of Merlot wines from a wide range of terroirs. However, given that the salon was part of a celebration of Long Island, the wine selection was restricted to Merlots from the East End. Of course, the term “restricted” is quite a misnomer as the line-up proved to be even more diverse than usual.

Starting with Pugliese’s deep red-hued sparkling wine, the session presented participants with an overview of this much-maligned grape, while lauding its virtues both on Long Island and elsewhere. Next, attention shifted to a blanc de noirs — a white wine crafted from a red grape — with Lieb’s Merlot Blanc. If tasted under different circumstances (i.e. you didn’t know you were only drinking Merlots), it would be easy to mistake it for a Sauvignon Blanc. Adding back some color, attendees then tasted Croteaux’s rosé produced from Merlot clone #314 from St. Emilion. The rosé was followed by a wine created by members of the L.I. Merlot Alliance, all of whom provide a barrel of their Merlot for the annual project. While the Merliance wine was from a recent vintage (2008), the other straight Merlot (from Lenz Winery) hailed from the 2001 vintage, showed some beautiful development and inspired a McCall beef dinner later that night. Finally, guests were treated to Channing Daughters’ Madeira-style Merlot called Pazzo (which translates as mad or crazy in Italian).

Who knew Merlot, and Long Island Merlot at that, could be so varied? If anyone says they don’t like Merlot, they have to be kidding. With five completely different styles of wine, one would be hard pressed not to find at least one to their liking.

  • Pugliese Vineyards, Sparkling Merlot 2003, North Fork of Long Island (NY), USA
  • Lieb Family Cellars, Merlot Blanc 2010, North Fork of Long Island (NY), USA*
  • Croteaux, Merlot 314 Rosé 2010, North Fork of Long Island (NY), USA
  • Long Island Merlot Alliance, Merliance 2008, Long Island (NY), USA*
  • Lenz Winery, Estate Merlot 2001, North Fork of Long Island (NY), USA
  • Channing Daughters, Pazzo 2004, The Hamptons (NY), USA *

*With gratitude to the producers for their gracious generosity.

New Wines from Old Vines – Ravenswood’s Single-vineyard Zins

“There’s a lot of Zin’ because that’s what I do.” So began Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker of Ravenswood, as he welcomed us to dinner at Blue Hill in mid-June. Concerned that one might jump to the conclusion that these are monster wines, Peterson was quick to describe his Zins as being “in proportion” with “lovely character”. He further advised that he grew up drinking European wines, which informs his winemaking to this day. The winemaker also insists that Zinfandel is expressive with regard to terroir. And, in that vein, he proceeded to show us his single-vineyard Zinfandels from low yielding, old vines as proof.

A founding member of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers), Peterson is intimately familiar with Zinfandel’s history. As modern DNA analysis has shown, the variety dates back to Croatia as a descendent of Crljenak Kaštelanski (I don’t know how to pronounce it either). However, Zinfandel arrived on America’s shores in 1824, landing first in the Ravenswood section of Queens then making its way to California in the 1850s. By 1884, there were 30,000 acres planted there.

Yet despite this heritage, Peterson’s choice of company name is unrelated and simply coincidence. Rather, in 1976, when Peterson harvested his first crop of grapes, it began to rain. He hastened to pick all the grapes before the precipitation could ruin them and noticed during his work that two, large ravens watched him throughout the entire day. These black birds became his totem and, along with an operatic connection to Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera he favors, cemented the moniker. With its purported hypnotic design, the three entwined birds of his logo have become a much-requested tattoo.

Although he initially began his career in clinical research, Peterson was drawn to winemaking, serving first as an apprentice and then obtaining money to go out on his own. And, while many adults might credit their parents for sparking their curiosity in wine, few children can say that their arrival was the catalyst for a similar pursuit by their parents. Peterson can say both – that his parents influenced his interest in wine and that he is partly responsible for them ever getting involved in wine in the first place.

When Joel was born in 1947, his mother, a nuclear chemist, chose to leave the workforce and become a stay-at-home mom. Spending time in the kitchen instead of the laboratory, she taught herself to cook. Among her food-related reading, she noted that the French drank wine with their meals, a novel concept in U.S. culture at the time. Intrigued, she set out to buy a bottle of French wine for Thanksgiving; it took two weeks to find one in California, but her search was rewarded with a bottle of 1945 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The next purchase was a mixed case, which cost $15.00 and included Haut Brion and Château d’Yquem.

From this simple introduction, Joel’s dad went on to found the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club (now known as the San Francisco Vintners Club) and called upon his 10-year old son to smell, taste (and spit) the wines in order to identify simpler terms for describing the wines in his newsletter. To this day, Peterson says, “You can tell everything about a wine just by smelling.” Joel’s more formal education includes a degree in microbiology from Oregon State University.

Given his exposure to French wines, Peterson selected Zinfandel as his grape of choice because, to him, it was the most European variety in California at the time. While the Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend is much better known, Peterson actually began crafting single-vineyard designated wines from Sonoma County with that first, rainy vintage. His current range includes six, single-vineyard designated wines.

Having commented that he, “…like[d] acid and tannin; these are my friends,” during dinner, it was not surprising that both were evident as we tasted through the wines.

The Dickerson Vineyard, in Napa Valley, dates to 1920. Infected with the leaf-roll virus, the vines do not photosynthesize well, which leads to higher acidity in the grapes and the resulting wines. The 2008 is angular with bright red fruit.

Situated at the south end of the Alexander Valley, Big River Vineyard is comprised of volcanic soil. The wines it produces are “perfume-y and pretty” and the 2008 was no different with its elegance and long length.

Owned by the Belloni family, Ricardo (now deceased) used to make wine from his own grapes as well as sell them until he tasted Joel’s Belloni Zinfandel, feeling that the grapes were better in Joel’s hands than his own. Referred to as a “big bruiser” by Peterson, this Zinfandel is co-fermented as a field blend with Alicante Bouschet, Carignane and Petite Sirah. The 2008 showed rich, jammy fruit with soft tannins.

Named for BARbara and PatRICA, the Barrica Vineyard is located in the Sonoma Valley appellation. Originally established in 1860, this historic vineyard was owned by George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst, and, in 1885, was the first vineyard in California to be planted on American rootstock. The 2008 displays distinct structure and weight with blueberry, vanilla and floral aromas.

The certified organic, Old Hill Ranch was the first non-Mission vineyard and contains roughly half Zinfandel and half “mixed blacks,” some of which that have yet to be identified. The wine itself is composed of 75% Zinfandel and 25% mixed blacks and is the spiciest of the 2008 line up.

From Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, Teldeschi’s vines include Zinfandel, Carignane and Petite Sirah, which are fermented separately. Peterson described this wine as “big,” “beautiful” and with “rich cherry and vanilla.” In addition to the usual bramble fruit, the 2008 had smoky aromas along with dried herbs.

Shifting attention somewhat away from Zinfandel toward the end of the night, Peterson presented us with two more wines –the ICON Mixed Blacks, a field blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet and his proprietary red blend, Pickberry Red.

The former is the “once and future wine of California” representing grape varieties that were planted prior to 1920, while the latter, from Sonoma Mountain, is a Bordeaux-style wine. The 2007 Pickberry is a blend of 58% Merlot and 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, without the usual Cabernet Franc he usually adds, due to vintage conditions.

Regardless of which vineyard’s grapes were in the glass, none of the wines had what Peterson refers to as the “three sins of Zin – too much sugar, alcohol and/or oak.” They were all beautifully balanced and did, indeed express the individual terroirs.