Sat 21 Jun 2008
The primary villain of Alice Feiring’s recently published book The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (Harcourt, $23) is, naturally, Robert M. Parker Jr., whose critical voice, 100-point rating scale and penchant for big, jammy, toasty red wines (expressed in his bi-monthly journal The Wine Advocate) dominates the world of winemaking to an alarming extent. Toward the end of the book, which is cast in the form of a polemical memoir, the outspoken Feiring comes to a sort of uneasy truce with the famous man, whom she allows to have his say.
Not given a voice in the book is a secondary villain, the importer of Italian wines Marc de Grazia, who has made a career of encouraging the producers he handles, especially in Piedmont, to use small French oak barrels, or barriques, for aging their wines instead of the traditional large casks made of Slovenian oak or chestnut wood. Why did the producers of Barolo and Barbaresco and Barbera wines go along with this device? To sell wines in American, where wine drinkers dote on the smell and flavor of toasty new oak. Feiring takes this change in the values and traditions of Piedmont personally, because the first wine she tried that savored of being not just a real wine but a great one, was a Barolo 1968 from the producer Scanavino; it changed her life. I’ll admit that I sympathize with Feiring’s sense of loss. In the early 1990s, I had the chance to taste Barbarescos from the early 1960s and late 1950s made by Angelo Gaja’s father; they were superb, ethereal yet full-bodied, wonderfully pure and intense.
Here’s what Feiring says about Marc de Grazia:
… de Grazia, an American living in Florence, is attributed with aiding in [Piedmont's] modernization. He encouraged many growers who supplied large producers … to make their own wines, and make them according to his guidance. Most of that stable of winemakers — Scavino, Sandrone, Seghesio — became Parker superstars. They made their wines with barriques, specialty yeasts, and fermenters that beat up the grapes to make the wine fruitier. By 1990, those new techniques and French barrels had become pandemic. Barbera is a low-tannin grape, and the extra wood did indeed give the wine more structure. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, has high tannin and its wines can have bones. To me, new wood on Barolo gives the wine hard-edged tannins that feel raspy, as if steel bristles were brushing the back of my throat, ruining the gorgeous wine.
Now it happens that a few months ago, I tasted about 45 wines, mainly red, from the portfolio of Marc de Grazia Selections. My reaction was that many of the wines were frankly, to borrow Feiring’s word, gorgeous; on the other hand, many of them were ferociously tannic, as in the Cavallotto Barolo “Vignolo” Riserva 2001 (about $100), the Cantina de Taburno “Bue Apis” Aglianico 2003 (about $145), and the Fratelli Pardi Rosso di Montefalco 2005 (about $24).
Some of the wines seemed more definitely of a place than others, which, while well-made, did not feel regionally or varietally characteristic. Several wines made from aglianico grapes, from Campania and other regions, could have been nothing but themselves. Oddly enough, the one wine that revealed a ludicrous, manipulative amount of oak was a white, the Vie di Romans Pinot Grigio “Dessimis” 2005, a clear attempt to force a wine above its proper station in life (about $44!); I found it undrinkable.
The website for Marc de Grazia is one of the most comprehensive that I have seen from an importer; you can find all the details of the winemaking process for each of the hundreds of wines the company imports. Reading about the wines that I offer brief reviews of below, I learned that de Grazia does not require or encourage new French barriques of all his producers. Several, you will see, adhere, almost strenuously, to traditional methods; other wines receive no oak at all, maturing in stainless steel tanks or concrete vats. I try to mention the wood regimen or lack thereof for these 24 wines. Marc de Grazia Selections wines are imported to the U.S. by Vin DiVino in Chicago.
*Alario Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba “Costa Fiore” 2006. Lovely wine, intense and concentrated, deep purple color, deeply spicy, vivid black fruit flavors, chewy texture, dense tannins, vibrant with acid. This wine in made in stainless steel; no oak. Excellent. About $22, Great Value.
*Elio Altare “Arborina” Barolo 2003. Exotic, ravishing bouquet of potpourri, sandalwood, baking spice, powdered orange rind and dried cherries, but a huge wine, vigorously tannin, formidably earthy and minerally. Ages two years in French barriques, 30 percent new. Don’t touch before 2010; should age beautifully through 2018 or ’20. Excellent (potential). About $155.
*Cavallotto Dolcetto d’Alba “Scot” 2006. No winsome little Dolcetto here. Incredibly deep and dark, very spicy, tightly wound and concentrated, packed with grainy, velvety tannins, some astringency on the finish. No oak; matures six months in stainless steel. Needs a year or two to unfurl. Very good+. About $22.
*Cavallotto Barbera d’Asti Bricco Boschis “Cuculo” 2004. Ripe, warm, fleshy and roasted, sleek and muscular, has that core of minerals, spice, dried flowers and fruit as if ground in a mortar, soft finely-milled tannins, but an austere finish. Ages two years in casks, that is, barrels that are larger than barriques. Needs a year or two. Excellent. About $39.
*Cavallotto Barolo Bricco Boschis 2004. God, that’s huge, impenetrable, a monument and megalith. One reserves judgment. Try from 2010 or ’12 and see how it goes. Ages 40 months in Slavonian oak casks of various sizes. About $76.
*Cavallotto Riserva Barolo San Giuseppe Bricco Boschis 2001. You could swim in the bouquet, sleep in it, wear it around your shoulders, it’s that ravishing and seductive, but in the mouth the wine is monumentally powerful, resolutely tannic, intense, concentrated and, finally, austere and astringent. Ages four years in Slavonian casks of various sizes. Excellent potential, I think, but needs long slumbering in the deep, delv’d earth. From a great year in Piedmont. About $100.
*Moccagatta Barbaresco “Bric Balin” 2003. Color is light, burnished garnet; bouquet of dried fruit and spices with a touch of fruit cake; old-fashion muscular and sinewy Barbaresco, yet it matured 18 months in barriques. Needs three or four years. Very good+ About $62.
*Mauro Molino Barolo 2003. Very deep, resonant, dense and chewy, packed with spice and tannin, almost forbidding in its austerity. Two years in oak. Try after 2010 or ’12. Perhaps the potential is there. About $50.
*Fratelli Revello Barolo 2003. Purple upon purple; smoky and spicy, potpourri, warm, ripe and roasted black fruit, but depths of structure, earthy, tannic and minerally. 18 months, new French oak. Feels like a keeper with great rewards after 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $55.
*Potazzine Rosso di Montalcino 2006. Lovely wine, full-bodied, dense and chewy, but quite tasty, a mixture of fresh and dried currants and cherries, very spicy, earthy and minerally, great presence. Matures one year partly in Solvenian oal casks, partly in French barriques. Excellent. Best from 2009 to 2015 or ’16. About $42. (Remember when Rosso di Montalcino was supposed to be the more accessible and less expensive alternative to Brunello? Now both the senior and the cadet versions are expensive.)
*Potazzine Brunello di Montalcino 2003. Whoa, massive, huge influence of tannin and wood, boundlessly earthy and minerally. Needs a decade. Difficult to judge. About $82. The winemaking here is very traditional. No selected yeasts are used for fermentation, and the wine matures in 30 to 50 hectoliter oak casks. How large are those things? 792 to 1,320 U.S. gallons; a barrique holds about 59 gallons.
*Magliano “Heba” Morellino di Scansano 2005. Lovely deep purple color; big, ripe and roasted red and black fruit, fleshy, meaty; dense and chewy tannins in the form of briers and brambles, leather; austere finish. 10 months in new French oak. Now (with food) through 2012 or ’14. Very good+. About $22.
*Giacomo Mori Chianti “Castelrotto” 2004. First note: “So great!” Generous and expansive, large-framed, lots of stuffing, drenched with spicy, tea-like black fruit flavors yielding to vigorous tannins and a long, dusty, leathery finish. 12 to 14 months in French oak, 40 percent new. Now through 2012 or ’14. Excellent. About $44.
*Pertimali Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2001. Absolutely beautiful and absolutely huge; exquisitely balanced between the brute austere power of tannins, earth and minerals and the elegant enticement of ripe, smoky, spicy black fruit. The power takes over in the end. Ages 42 months in 35-hectoliter Slavonian casks. Try 2010 or ’11 through 2018 or ’20/’21. Excellent. About $145.
*Piaggia Carmignano Riserva 2004. Well, gosh, incredibly deep, dark and wild, like drinking the earth and underlying minerals, very lively and spicy, tremendous elements of bark, leather, walnut shell and underbrush. This is a blend of sangiovese (70%), cabernet sauvignon (20%) and merlot (10%); the wine ages two years in French oak. Needs until 2010 or ’11 to mellow a bit. Excellent. About $62.
*Piazzano Chianti “Rio Camerata” 2005. Amazing character for the price; deep layers of dark, ripe fruit, spice and dried fruit and flowers, root-like tea; vibrant acid; brooding tannins; tremendous structure. No oak; this matures in concrete vats, eight to nine months. Try 2009 through 2012 or ’14. Excellent. About $17 and a freakin’ bargain. Buy this by the case.
*Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2001. Classic cherry color with a garnet rim; incredible bouquet with plum dust, dried spice and flowers, fresh and dried black fruit; then massive in the mouth, punishing tannins, earth, minerals, leather, yet winsomely spicy. Three years in wood, part Slavonian casks, part French barrique. Try 2010 or ’11 through 2018 to ’21. Wonderful potential.
*Le Terrazze Rosso Conero 2005. 100% montepulciano grapes. Deep, dark purple color; seductive bouquet, smoky, minerally, floral; a deep, dark and robust wine, smoky, gritty, intense and concentrated, earthy and minerally, with the essence of red and black currant and red and black raspberry with something wild and rich and strange. Ages one year in “medium” oak casks. A terrific wine, and Great Value at about $23.
*Caggiano “Tari” Irpina Aglianico 2005. Black, deep, rich, like the earth itself, boldly spicy, boldly dark and fruity, wild and woolly, very intense and concentrated, yet broad and generous in texture; immutably tannic but well balanced. Sic to eight months in French barriques. Now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $29.
*Cantina del Taburno “Fidelis” 2004. Also made from the aglianico grape; just lovely, seductive and enticing, ripe, meaty and fleshy, black raspberry and black currant; feels so clean and pure and intense, wild blueberry and current, plenty of structure. Matures in large casks and small barrels, but no new oak. Excellent, and a bargain at about $20.
*Masserie Pisari Salento Rosso 2005. The grape is negroamaro. Very pretty wine, delicate and attractive, bursting with raspberry, blueberry and cranberry scents and flavors, touches of dried herbs, a hint of wild berry; very pleasant but with plenty of heft and body. No oak. An ideal summer red wine. Very good+ and a bargain at about $16.
*Cantrine del Notaio “Il Repertorio” Aglianico Vulture 2005. Well, this is one tough son-of-a-bitch; big, rustic, rugged, tannic, but intriguing and fairly exotic black fruit flavors that walk on the wild side; smoky, briery, brambly. Did I say tannic? Ages 12 months in used French oak. Very good+ but only with the boldest, most robust red meat and game dishes, preferably that you have killed with your bare hands. Try now (guardedly) through 2012 to ’15. About $42.
*Terre Nere “Calderara” Etna Rosso Sottana 2006. The grapes are nerello mascalese (98%) and nerello cappaccio (2%). The wine ages 18 months in barrique, 25 percent new. Yikes, this is tremendously earthy, fleshy and meaty, ripe and roasted; an irresistible bouquet of raspberry, cranberry and blueberry permeated by dried spice and dried flowers balances (sort of) a very tannic, robust, austere and astringent wine. It needs years. A tentative Very Good+/Excellent, depending on what it’s like from 2011 to 2015 or ’16. About $32.
*Terre Nere “Guardiola” Etna Rosso 2006. I was told that this wine is made from “90 percent old, old vines.” The blend of grapes and the oak treatment are the same as for the preceding wine from this producer. There’s that same lovely fruity, spicy, floral bouquet, but in the mouth the wine is massive, tannic, minerally, impenetrable. Try from 2012 to 2016 or ’18. Wait and see. About $36.