Saturday, October 28, 2006

Avanà From The Alta Val di Susa: A New Ice Wine

The Austrians have always made it, and the Canadians are gaining considerable acclaim from theirs, so it seems only natural that Italians should also decide to try their hands at making an Ice Wine, a sweet wine made from grapes that are allowed to dry, not from being heated the way the bunches laid out to dry in a hot area might be, but rather by freezing cold, which is just as effective at removing moisture from the grapes, but doesn’t produce some of the changes in flavor that come with hot drying. Quite simply, one starts with mountain vineyards, and leaves the grapes on the vines until January, by which time there’s snow on the ground and the grapes are close to freeze dried.

Two winemakers in the Alta Val Di Suza north of Torino have begun to make ice wine from Avanà, an autochthonous red grape that also gives interesting red wines, though they are racking the must off the skins when it is still the barest of apricot hues. The bouquet was a little less intense than I might have expected, though swishing brought up scents of honeydew melon and regina Claudia plum mingled with alcohol, sugars, and some bitterness that provides definition. On the palate it’s rich and quite elegant, with powerful sugar-laced regina Claudia plum fruit supported by deft acidity that flows into a clean sweet mineral finish with plum overtones.

It’s quite interesting, and deft, with considerable concentration and sweetness but none of the heat that comes through in a Passito from, say, Pantelleria. Quite a different register, and if you like sweet wines it will be something to keep an eye out for.

Alas, not this year, because they are using what few bottles they have – production was in the low hundreds of 350 ml bottles – to present the wine at trade fairs. However, next year production should exceed a thousand bottles, and it will be sold. Locally, I expect, but this isn’t quite so dire as it sounds: the Val di Susa is quite beautiful and well worth a visit. So if you come to Italy next summer, here’s another reason to head north from Torino!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gaja Vs. Barbaresco

Folks, I am reviving Cosa Bolle in Pentola, and the below is drawn from the latest issue. To subscribe to Cosa Bolle, please visit the Cosa Bolle site, at

Returning to this post, this week L'Espresso presented its annual wine guide, which is assembled under the able direction of Ernesto Gentili and Fabio Rizzari. In introducing the volume, Ernesto said that while there aren't as many great wines as there have been in past years, mostly because many producers are now presenting the 2002 and 2003 vintages of their flagship wines, he has noted a significant increase in the quality level of what's known as "vino base," or the basic inexpensive day-to-day wines. More good bottles with excellent quality-to-price ratios, and this is a good thing.

The reason for going to the presentation of a wine guide is of course to taste the wines that won the awards, and after Ernesto finished speaking we all trooped into the adjacent hall, where sommeliers were awaiting us. Just about everyone lined up to taste Giacomo Conterno's 1999 Barolo Riserva Monfortino, the only wine to achieve a perfect score of 20/20 (it's the second wine to achieve a perfect score in the 7 years L'Espresso has been publishing the guide), and though I'm certain it was superb, I was drawn to Gaja's 2003 Sorì Tildin Langhe DOC.

Why? Because it was one of the Barbarescos with which Angelo Gaja forged his reputation as one of the best and most innovative winemakers in Italy, if not the world. However, in 1997 he declassified it and his other single vineyard Barbarescos -- Sorì San Lorenzo and Costa Russi -- to Langhe Nebbiolo DOC for reasons that have never been clear to me; there were rumors that he was cutting his Barbaresco with something other than Nebbiolo -- the malicious said Cabernet -- a practice strictly forbidden by the Disciplinare governing the production of Barbaresco, and some people suggested that he decided to declassify because Langhe Nebbiolo can contain up to 15% other varietals, at which point he no longer had to worry about being nailed for fraud. It is possible, because he does now say that he adds 5% Barbera to all three wines -- in the past adding a little Barbera to raise the acidity of a Nebbiolo was common practice in Piemonte -- but he has always denied adding Cabernet to the wines, and to be frank his decision to declassify still makes little sense to me. One usually steps up -- and Barbaresco is Barbaresco's top wine -- not down a level to the catch-all appellation.

In any case, I tasted it: The 2003 Sorì Tildin is deep ruby, with a clean, rich, fruit driven nose that has jammy black currant fruit laced with cherries and deft oak and underlying spice. Enticing and elegant in an extremely international key; it shows great polish but I wouldn't necessarily associate it with Barbaresco. The palate reflects the nose, with rich, surprisingly vegetal berry fruit -- Nebbiolo can be quite vegetal, especially if it's a hot vintage (like 2003) and the vines were stressed, so vegetal doesn't mean Cabernet -- supported by cedar-laced tannins that flow into a long green tannic finish. It's woefully young, and needs at least 2-3 years to get its bearings. It's also very good, though I'd have to say in an anonymous oak-driven way: It could be from anywhere. In short, it's a wine that you will buy if you want to drink a wine by Angelo Gaja, and if you do you will like it, because it's good; even if you are a traditionalist you will find things to enjoy.

Score: 2 stars; it's a very good wine. However, if you want to enjoy an expression of the hills of Barbaresco, there are other options I would choose first. Which? Since I was at the presentation of the Guida De L'Espresso, I tasted the other Barbareschi Ernesto and Fabio chose to recognize.

Azienda Agricola Falletto Barbaresco Asili 2001
This is made by Bruno Giacosa, one of the Grand Old Men of the Langhe; it's a pale garnet hue that's much more in keeping with Nebbiolo than Sorì Tildin's ruby, with almandine rim and black reflections, and has a considerably more rustic bouquet with balsam and animal tang mingled with spice and wet underbrush and underlying berry fruit. Considerable backbone to it, and its animal nature is something I have found in Giacosa's wines before. On the palate it's rich, and elegant, with powerful berry fruit supported by clean sweet tannins that still have a youthful splintery burr, and flow into a clean berry fruit finish with tannic underpinning. It's elegant but very young, and needs 3-4 years to really come into its own, though it will already be nice with a rich stew or a porterhouse steak.
Score: 92

Castello di Neive Santo Stefano Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Pale almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is delicate, with rosa canina and some sea salt mingling with spice and slight tar. Quite a bit going on in a lacy key. On the palate it's graceful, with elegant slightly tobacco laced red berry fruit supported by tannins that are just about velvety and flow into a clean savory finish. Quite deft in a very traditional key, and will drink nicely with roasts or stews, though I would give it another year to develop. If you like the style, it's well worth seeking out.
Score: 90

Produttori del Barbaresco Vigneti Rabajà Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Pale almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is rich, with deft herbal notes mingled with spice, warmth, red berry fruit and some sea salt. Quite a bit going on, and it feels quite young. On the palate it's rich, with full, powerful berry fruit supported by steely tannins that are becoming velvety, though there is again a feeling of youthful skittishness to them, and it all flows into a clean slightly tannic finish. Great depth, but underaged; it needs another year or two, and if you have the patience to give it a decade or more it will be extraordinary.
Score: 91

Produttori del Barbaresco Vigneti in Pora Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Lively cherry ruby with almandine highlights and rim. It's much readier than the Rabajà on the nose, with rich red berry fruit supported by some herbal notes and underlying tar, with fresh mint as well. On the palate it's full and smooth, and again much readier than the Rabajà, with ample red berry fruit supported by fairly sweet supple tannins that do reveal youth in the finish. By comparison with the Rabajà its tannins are laxer and less steely, and this difference will become more apparent with time; it's more approachable now, and I think will be less long-lived. Lest you think I'm saying don't buy it, it is also pleasant, and will contribute greatly to a meal featuring a hearty roast or a rich stew.
Score: 2 stars

With the exception of Produttori del Barbaresco's Vigneti in Pora, I found all of the other wines, and especially Giacosa's Asili and the Produttori's Rabajà, to be much more in keeping with what I expect from Barbaresco, displaying great elegance, backbone, and a certain slightly lofty distance of the sort I associate with Grace Kelly somehow. Continuing with the great actress similes, Sorì Tildin is more in the direction of Marylin Monroe. Beautiful, but more immediate and with less depth. I know some will say that the differences are in large part vintage derived -- 2003 is fleshier and softer than 2001 -- but I'm not so certain they're not attributable to philosophical differences. Barbaresco is Barbaresco, and Sori Tildin is going in another direction. We will find out when the 2003 Barbareschi are released.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ranuccio Neri's Campriano: A Couple of Chiantis the way they used to be

I'm usually wary when someone hands me a wine and says "this is the way it used to be," because all too often what I get are the unpleasant smells of overly old wood and poor cellar technique, problems that were much more common in the past than they are now.

However, you occasionally get something that makes you sit up and take notice: Deft, clean fruit, with acidity sufficient to keep the wine on its toes, and what wood there is keeping a low profile, rather than trying to hog the limelight. In other words, the old style done well.

This is what you'll find in Ranuccio Neri's wines, which he makes at Campriano, a pretty estate located between Siena and Montalcino; it's far enough from Siena to be outside Chianti Classico, and therefore Ranuccio bottles his wines as Chianti Colli Senesi. He used to have a white too, but stopped calling it Bianco Val D'Arbia when the local Consortium decreed that Bianco Val D'Arbia should also contain some Chardonnay to give it grace -- "I don't have any, and I'm not planting it," was his reply.

His wines:

Campriano Chianti Colli Senesi 2004
Lot 13/06
Delicate ruby with ruby rim. The bouquet is deft, with bright berry fruit supported by clean slightly greenish spice and some brambly underbrush. Pleasant. On the palate it's light, and deft, with bright red berry fruit supported by lively raspberry acidity, and by bright sweet tannins that flow into a long clean raspberry finish. Quite pleasant and will drink very well with succulent grilled meats or light stews. Well worth seeking out, and a second bottle will come in handy.
2 stars

Campriano Chianti Colli Senesi 2003
Lot 16.04
Deep ruby. The bouquet is fairly intense, with bright berry fruit laced with underbrush, floral notes, menthol, and some spice; by comparison with a cooler vintage it's bigger and not as deft, but it isn't at all cooked, and that's nice given the year. On the palate it's full and rich, with powerful berry fruit supported by moderate acidity -- less than in a normal year -- and very smooth sweet tannins whose softness again reveals heat. It's bigger and softer than normal, but not unpleasant, and will drink well with drier meats. Ranuccio says he had a heavy rain in July, and it made a world of difference.
2 stars

Campriano Chianti Colli Senesi Riserva 2001
Lot 52.03
Lively cherry ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with strong berry fruit supported by cedar and berry fruit jam with moderate underlying acidity. On the palate it's full, and fairly rich, with plum-laced berry fruit supported by clean acidity and deft tannins that display a slight splintery burr and flow into a clean finish with tannic underpinning. It's pleasant, and graceful, though I'd have liked it a little lighter on its feet. It will work well with succulent red meats.
2 stars.

Want to know more? Campriano's Website
Ranuccio's US agent is Marc De Grazia

Monday, October 02, 2006

Goodbye Tocai Friulano, and Hello... Friulano Bianco?

Yes, you read right. Tocai Friulano, one of Friuli Venezia Giulia's most important white wines, will be changing its name as of March 2007.

Why? Because in 1993 the European Economic Union agreed with Hungary that only Hungary had the right to put the word Tocaj, or any alternative spelling thereof, on a wine label. That the Hungarian and Italian wines have little in common except color -- Hungarian Tokaj is a sweet dessert wine, whereas Tocai Friulano is a dry mealtime wine -- made no difference to the legislators intent on making a deal with Hungary.

Friuli's winemakers protested the agreement vigorously and not without merit -- Tocai the vine is mentioned in Friulian documents dating beck to the 13th century, and there are records of a Countess taking Tocai vines with her as part of her dowry when she married a Hungarian noble, but the protests fell on completely deaf ears from the get-go.

Anyone with an ounce of realism would have realized he was fighting a lost cause, and begun to think about a new name for the wine years ago -- the French, who made a Tokay in Alsace, added the words Pinot Gris to their labels and then gradually phased out the Tokay over a number of years -- but not Friuli's winemakers, who were supported by local politicians in their decision to stand firm against the EEU.

A vain stand; now the cards are down, and the name will be going -- some especially stubborn producers have announced that they will continue to call their wine Tocai Friulano, but the fines the EEU will levy will likely make them change their minds -- and what do we have to replace it?

Bianco Friulano, which is frankly lame: Tocai had a certain ring to it that the new alternative simply lacks. But Bianco it is, at least for now, though I hope that the Friulani will come up with something better: One wine writer has suggested Tai, which means "glass" (of the kind one drinks out of) in Friulano, and has as much of a ring to it as Tocai does. Perhaps even more.

But that is (alas) for the future. The present reality is that the Friulani have frittered away an opportunity to gradually introduce a new name for one of their flagship wines, and consumers who visit their wine shops in search of Tocai Friulano after this spring won't find it. What they will find is Bianco Friulano, which sounds a lot less exciting, but will be just as good.

Franco Ziliani's take on the controversy (in Italian).