March 2010

During the four days of Barbera Week 2010, my fellow bloggers and I tasted 174 wines at the supervised blind tastings in the mornings plus more at walk-around tastings before dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and visits to wineries over three afternoons. Say, conservatively, 200 wines from Barbera d’Asti, Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Alba, primarily from 2008 and 2007 and a few from 2006.

We made our concerns known from the first day: Too many of the wines were dominated by new oak from small French barrels; too many of the wines were dominated by hard tannins; too many of the wines were dominated by highly extracted jammy fruit, as if they were competing with Amador County zinfandel. In short, these were modern New World-style wines. Where were the lighter, more refreshing Barberas of yesterday, wines that perfectly matched the region’s traditional cuisine? Certainly there many of those too, but we bloggers, and the other journalists at the conference, were dismayed to see this rush toward modernity in the belief that the (presumably) American market prefers oaky, jammy red wines. On the other hand, producers have to sell their wines or they’ll go out of business; who are we to dictate how they make their wines?

That philosophical and economic debate is for another post. My purpose today is simpler: To name the Barbera d’Asti wines that struck me as the best on March 8, the first day of the event, and the first half of the morning blind tasting on Tuesday, March 9. At that point we went into a line-up of Barbera d’Asti wines from the Nizza sub-region.

Already, however, there’s a caveat, because during Barbera Week 2010, the wines were encountered under different conditions. At the blind tastings in the morning, we averaged 20 wines an hour, meaning that we devoted about three minutes to each wine. At the walk-around tastings, where circumstances were a bit more relaxed (though there’s always that crowded feeling at the most popular tables), we could take more time with the wines that we wanted to think about.

Tasting at the properties is another affair altogether: You sit in a tasting room, before a spread of breads, cheeses and salamis; the pours are more generous and you can ask for more if necessary; you can chat about the wines with colleagues and the winemaker. In the first two situations, notes are telegraphic, almost coded; in the third, notes are more detailed and thorough. Compiling the lists that follow here, I tried to take these different circumstances into account. The organizational principle is day by day, and I will indicate in what setting the wine was tasted. An asterisk designates superior quality. (The designation Superiore in Barbera wines may hypothetically though not necessarily imply qualitative achievement but means, literally, that the wines must be aged in wood for at least a year and attain a half-percent higher degree of alcohol.) The Barbera 7 bloggers talked frequently among ourselves about how reactions to the wines varied due to the situation in which we tasted them, not to mention personal preference, a different issue entirely.

I make no distinction here about differences in style or winemaking. The Boeri Alfonso “Martinette” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, for examples, ages 12 months in French oak barriques (small barrels), while the Franco Mondo “Vigna del Salice” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, ages 7 to 8 months in large vats and 6 months in bottle and the Scagliola Giacomo & Figlio “Vigna del Mandorli” 2008, Barbera d’Asti, sees both barriques and tonneaux (large barrels) for two years. I liked all three.

The best Barbera d’Asti wines of Monday, March 8, and part of Tuesday, March 9, from 115 that I tasted.

1. Agostina Pavia e Figli “Moliss” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore. (Blind tasting)
2. Bersano Cav. Dario “Ca d’Galdin” 2007, Barbera d’Asti. (Blind tasting)
3. Boeri Alfonso S.S. “Martinette” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore. (Blind tasting)
4. Ca’ dei Mandorli “La Bellalda” 2007, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
5. Cantina Alice Bel Colle SCA “Al Caso” 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting; all stainless steel, no oak)*
6. Cantina di Nizza “50 Vendemmie” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)*
7. Cantina Sociale di Mombercelli “Terre Astesane” 2007, Barbera d’asti Superiore (Blind tasting)*
8. Cascina La Ghersa “Vignassa” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting and at dinner)
9. Costa Olmo Azienda Vitivinicola 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2006 (Blind tasting)
10. Crivelli Marco Maria Azienda Agricola “La Mora” 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)*
11. Damilano 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
12. Franco Mondo “Vigna del Salice” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)*
13. Guasti Clemente “Boschetto Vecchio” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)*
14. Marcaurelio Vini Azienda Argicola “Terranuda” 2007, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting & at the winery)
15. Scagliola Giacomo & Figlio “Vigna dei Mandorli” 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
16. Tenuta Il Falchetto Azienda Agricola “Lurëi” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (I was unimpressed with this at the blind tasting but loved it when I tasted it at the winery)*
17. Tenuta La Fiammenga 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)
18. Tenuta La Pergola “Vigne Vecchie della Cappelletta” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting and walk-around tasting; at the latter also the version from 2006, which was excellent.)
19. Tenute dei Vallarino Azienda Agricola “La Ladra” 2008, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)

And the ones that seemed beyond the pale because of excessive oak and tannins and daunting austerity (or other flaws):

1. Agostino Pavia e Figli “La Marescialla” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)
2. Antica Casa Vinicola Scarpa “Casascarpa” 2006, Barbera d’Asti. (Blind tasting)
3. Borgo Isolabella S.S. “Maria Teresa” 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
4. Braida di Giacomo Bologna “Bricco della Bigotta” 2007, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting and walk-around tasting)
5. Cantina Vignasone “Selezione” 2007, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
6. Cantine Sant-Agata “Cavale” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)
7. Casa Vinicola Dogliotti SNC 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
8. Cascina Galarin “Le Querce” 2007 & 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
9. Cascina Garitina “Caranti” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting; controversial, some tasters thought this was corked)
10. Castello di Razzano SSA “Vigna Valentino Caligaris” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)
11. Cocito Dario Azienda Agricola “Violanda” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)
12. Franco Mondo 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
13. Il Cascinone Gruppo Araldica “Rive” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting)
14. La Gironda di Galadrino “La Gena” 2007, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
15. L’Armangia Azienda Agricola “Sopra Berruti” 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting & at the winery, where I liked it a bit better, though as the winemaker told us, he “likes an austere style”)
16. Tenuta La Fiammenga “Paion” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Blind tasting; I truly admired La Fiammenga’s “regular” Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2007, but the Paion bottling was earthy, leathery, dry and austere)
17. Tenuta Olim Bauda “La Villa” 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)
18. Villa Giada “Ajan” 2008, Barbera d’Asti (Blind tasting)

In a few days, I’ll be posting about the best wines of the Nizza sub-region and of Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Alba, and then we’ll say adios to Barbera Week 2010, though I have a separate story coming about a visit to Gaja in Barbaresco.

If I can keep up with such matters as when quarters of the year start and end, I’ll launch this “Two Great Wines” as a new feature on BTYH. The idea is that in the first three months of 2010 — or the end of each three-month period — these are the best wines, or, to be fair, really great wines, one red and one white, that I have tasted but not yet written about or reviewed.

The august Burgundian firm of Joseph Drouhin owns 1.4 hectares (3.598 acres) of the Chablis Grand Cru vineyard Vaudésir; the total is about 36 acres. Drouhin, headquartered in Beaune, Burgundy’s iconic medieval city, at least the well-preserved center, maintains its own facility in Chablis. The chardonnay grapes are pressed there and the must immediately transported to Beaune, where it is fermented, and then the wine is placed in mostly older oak barrels to age eight or nine months.

The Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru 2007 is incredibly intense and concentrated yet generous and expansive; part of the thrill of drinking this wine — and it’s distinctly a thrill — lies in that slight sense of tension and exuberance in the presentation and resolution of these opposite tendencies. Aromas of white peach, tangerine, camellia and honeysuckle seduce the nose; in a moment come drifts of roasted lemon and lemon curd, and, under all this, penetrating scents of gunflint and damp shale for a bracing effect. The texture is such stuff as dreams are made on, a seamless marriage of cloud-like, dusty, talc-y roundness and electrifying acidity, bright as a star, taut as a wire. Flavors of roasted lemon and lime peel are deeply imbued with dried baking spice and a hint of some foresty, leafy element; the finish, which is dry and brings up limestone and earth, is long and satisfying. We drank this with seared swordfish that had been marinated in soy sauce, mirin, lime juice, garlic and fresh ginger. 130 six-bottle cases imported. Drink now through 2015 or ’17. Exceptional. About $72. I didn’t say that these wines were cheap or widely available, just that they’re great.

Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York. A sample for review.
The Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend is close enough to being the best cabernet franc wine made in California that the others should just line up behind it. For 2005, the Robert’s Blend contains 90 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. After tasting so many over-oaked Barbera wines in Piedmont a couple of weeks ago and coming home to racks of over-oaked chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons from California, it was a relief to perceive how carefully Ashley Heisey, winemaker at Oakville Ranch, managed the oak in this effort. While the wine spent 18 months in French barrels, 50 percent new, the oak is completely integrated into the structure, just as that structure is completely integrated with the fruit.

As a cabernet franc wine that tips a hat to the Loire Valley tradition, the Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend 2005, Napa Valley, teems with scents of black currant and blueberry with undertones of black olive, dried thyme, a hint of blackberry jam — revealing a toehold in the Golden State, and that’s just fine — and a whiff of damp, dusty slate-like minerality. Pretty heady stuff, all right, but grounded in the sober earthiness of the winery’s hillside property where vineyards rise to 1,400 feet. The wine is invigorated by smooth, supple tannins and lithe acidity; juicy black fruit flavors are wrapped around a deep core of smoke and bitter chocolate. The tannins assert themselves more insistently in the finish, bringing in a grown-up note of spareness and austerity. A suave performance and not what one usually thinks of as a pizza wine, but that’s how we employed it, with immense pleasure. Production was 393 six-bottle cases. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $90.

A sample for review.

This hit the spot while I was cooking dinner last night: a couple of glasses of Bortolomiol Bandarossa, Valdobbiadene Prosecco. Bandarossa means, basically, “red strip,” usually taken as a sign of distinction, and it’s no misnomer for this ethereal sparkling wine. The color is pale gold; the bubbles are smaller and finer than is typical for prosecco, which must be made by the Charmat process of second fermentation in tank. First impression: refreshing scents of roasted lemon, lime peel and steel, then come almond and almond blossom. In the mouth, there’s a touch of green apple, followed by lemon-lime and a hint of orange zest and dusty lime leaf enlivened with a swag of ginger and cloves. The wine, slightly sweet on entry, is deftly balanced between limestone crispness and moderately lushness, and it finishes with scintillating dryness and steely delicacy. I don’t often award proseccos an Excellent rating, but I will in the case of this beautifully-knit example. About $24.

Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York. A sample for review.

The Barbera 7 were busy on Thursday, March 11. In the morning we arrived at Palazzo Zoya at 9 for a blind tasting of 40 red wines of Barbera d’Alba, followed by a walk-around tasting of many of the other, non-Barbera wines of the same producers, which, on the fourth day of the conference started to feel a lot like work. Then we were allowed to eat lunch.

The conference, basically, was over, and we were heading out of Asti to visit nebbiolo properties that our leader, Jeremy Parzen, had set up, but the organizers arranged for us to have a van (adorned with the “Barbera Meeting 2010” logo) for us to use in trundling around the countryside. It took longer than expected for Jeremy to pick up the van, though, and we didn’t get away from the square near the Palazzo Zoya until almost 2:30, headed, well, I didn’t exactly know where. It turns out that a young man hanging around with us was Enrico Rivetto, the proprietor of his family-run winery high in the hills of Loirano, near Alba. In his car, he led us through narrow winding roads, up and up, twisting and turning, until we reached a summit on which the winery perched, surrounded by a stunning landscape of snow-covered hillsides and vineyards and distant villages. Across the valley stood the hamlet of Sinio and the haunting Castello Serralunga d’Alba, dim and shadowy.

The heritage of winemaking in the Rivetto family goes back to 1902, but it wasn’t until 1939 that the family purchased the Loirano estate from the Counts of Vassallo. The winery is now surrounded by 89 acres of vines.

After a tour of the cellars, we assembled in the cozy Rivetto tasting room to try three vintages of the Rivetto Barolo Leon, made from vineyards planted in 1990 and 1975. Depending on the year, 10 to 30 percent of the wine is aged in small French barriques, the rest going into 3000-liter Slavonian oak casks. These were followed by the Barolo Riserva 1997.

Rivetto Barolo Leon 2001. The first impression is of amazing structure; the wine is sturdy and substantial but with a sense of fleetness and lightness from keen acidity. The color is medium ruby with a hint of brick-red at the rim; the nose teems with macerated black cherries and plums supported by roasted walnuts and walnut shell, somehow like a warm piece of toast. The wine is quite dry, dense and chewy, permeated by slightly metallic tannins and fairly austere on the finish. Try from 2011 to 2015 or ’16.

Rivetto Barolo Leon 2000. The color is brick-red with a touch of garnet at the rim; the bouquet is sedate, a sweet amalgam of dried spice and flowers and a heaping portion of dusty minerality like crushed slate and granite, slightly dampened by rain. One is, however, on the receiving end of a mouthful of soaring tannins, finely milled, perhaps, well-grained and integrated but almost impenetrable. Will they subside and become more tolerable in three or four years?

Rivetto Barolo Leon 1999. A ruddy brick-red/garnet color seems at one with aromas of spiced red currants, plum dust, potpourri and lavender with, as a sort of bonus, a fillip of dried orange rind. Flavors of macerated and slightly stewed red and black currants and black cherries are enveloped in deeply rooted tannins and granite-like minerality that feel ageless. This is an ecclesiastical wine, packed with the elements of old wood, incense and ancient dust that we associate with silent country churches. If it didn’t possess such dignity, the Rivetto Barolo Leon ’99 would beg, on hands and knees. for a roasted pheasant. Through 2016 to ’20.

Rivetta Barolo Riserva 1997. At 12 and a half years old, this nebbiolo-based wine is warm, rich and spicy, very attractive indeed, but the structure of the wine is tremendous, with expanding tannins and swingeing acidity. One wishes it were a bit more generous.

When our visit to Rivetto concluded, the Barbera 7 piled back in the van and headed to Neive, a town that I’m certain has its charms, but the most we saw of it was a flat section of light industry, warehouses and railroad tracks at dusk; we could have been in Newark. We were looking for the office and tasting room of Bruno Giacosa, a renowned, indeed revered producer of Barolo and Barbaresco. Read what Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman write in the second edition of Italy’s Noble Red Wines (Macmillan, 1992): “Bruno Giacosa is without question one of Italy’s — make that the world’s — finest winemakers. A man of few words but eloquent talent, Giacosa has the ability to bring out a richness of flavor and intensity of character in his wines, to produce wines of meditation. The man is an artist.”

We didn’t meet the elderly Bruno Giacosa; he had a stroke in 2006. For an account of Jeremy’s visit to Giacosa in February to taste wines with the man himself (and Jeremy’s bride, Tracie P), see this post on Do Bianchi.

Unlike most of the winery tasting rooms we visited while we were in Piedmont — comfortable, homey, welcoming –the tasting room at Bruno Giacosa is about as amenable as a doctor’s office. Winemaker Giorgio Lavagna didn’t provide an array of cheeses, salamis and bread sticks; it was just us and four glasses of superb nebbiolo wines.

“Twenty years ago, Giacosa decided not to follow fashion,” said Lavagna, a man so modest and sincere that the thought of taking his picture seemed to me to be a violation. (Not so fellow Barbera-blogger Whitney, who posted this image of Lavagna on Brunellos Have More Fun.) “He doesn’t like modern wines. He’s a traditionalist and a classicist. He makes the wines he wants to make. The style of Giacosa is to have very clean wines with as little intervention as possible to show the grape variety and the terroir.”

Bruno Giacosa was born in 1929, but his family had been making wine since 1871. He went to work for his father and grandfather at the age of 13 and took over the business when he was 20. Since 1996, the company is divided into two parts. Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa makes wine only from the property’s estate vineyards; Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa makes wines from purchased grapes, benefiting from long-term relationships with excellent growers and vineyards. In fact, until 1982, when Bruno Giacosa purchased the Falletto vineyard, the firm owned no vines; now it owns 37 acres.

Here are my notes on the wines we tasted:

Bruno Giacosa Valmaggie Nebbiolo d’Alba 2008. This is a Casa Vinicola wine; it had been in the bottle three months. The color is moderate ruby with a slight garnet rim; an intoxicating bouquet of leaves and moss permeated by dried red currants and plums is laced with minerality akin to crushed gravel. The wine offers quietly spicy red and black fruit flavors, more spare than obvious, and is substantial without being weighty or ponderous; it is, in fact, quite lively, with terrific tone and presence, an engaging (yet serious) combination of personality and character. Still, after a few minutes Valmaggie ’08 is awash with dusty, grainy, chewy tannins that dictate a couple of years in bottle. Drink through 2018 to ’20.

Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007. This is an Az. Agr. Falletto wine, from one of Piedmont’s greatest nebbiolo vineyards. Seductive aromas of dried spice and flowers are wreathed with smoke and tobacco, spiced and macerated strawberries and raspberries and deeper notes of briers and brambles. The wine is very young yet not awkward or adolescent; it delivers too much in the way of austere tannins and staggering acidity for any such foolishness. Sip by sip, it feels geological, as if it were moving at the speed of the vineyard or the pace of geography. Despite the tannic structure, though, the wine is lively, lithe and agile, a testimony to the marriage of detail and dimension. Drink from 2012 or ’14 through 2024 to ’27.

Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santa Stefano 2007. The Wassermans write of Bruno Giacosa’s Santa Stefano: “It is, for us, simply the single finest example of Barbaresco today,” their “today” being some 20 years ago. Would there be any reason to alter that assessment now? Fanatics of nebbiolo could no doubt go to the barricades in defense of Asili or Santa Stefano; cooler imaginations might say that each is great and that they are different. Bruno Giacosa’s Santa Stefano ’07 is notably earthier and more girt with granite-like minerality than his Asili ’07; even the aromas, from depths of warm tar to elevations of spiced and macerated red fruit, seem layered in geological strata, with, at the top, an almost winsome filigree of dried rose petals, and that perceivable only after 30 minutes of coaxing. The wine is quite dry, leaning toward austerity, and with bastions and buttresses of tannins, though, as is the case with the wines of Bruno Giacosa generally, there’s also a quality of vivacity and transparency to the structure. Try from 2014 or ’16 through 2025 to ’30.

Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Rocche del Falletto 2004. This wine spends 30 months in casks and two years in bottles; it has just been released. As a reserve wine, it gets what is usually called the “red label,” though the hue is more distinctively maroon. The color is brick red infused with glowing garnet; the bouquet, reticent at first, is warm and spicy, a little fleshy; macerated red currants, cherries and plums peel away to reveal licorice and mossy earthiness. And then, in the mouth, the tannins take over, not hard, woody, parched tannins — oh, poor Barbera! — but tannins that feel natural, authentic and essential to the character of the wine; nonetheless, they also feel unassailable. The paradoxical quality is that whatever the monumentality of this wine — and it possesses immense size and scope — it exerts a sense of ineffable delicacy and decorum, a presaging of its future.

Great wines destined for aging are balanced from the beginning of their existence in the bottle, through development into the accomplishment of maturity and into slow decline. The point is that the intention of the balance shifts, the wine’s gravity and focus are transformed through the cool, dark years into different aspects of inevitability; in a great wine’s beginning lies its end. If you manifested the fiduciary prowess to afford a case of this wine — $3,000 to $3,600 — and the appropriate cellar and the necessary patience, you could have a fine old time testing this theory for the next few decades, that is, through 2030 or ’35.

These four wines from Bruno Giacosa brought another impression, that they are not heavily extracted to produce deep colors or jammy flavors, that they are not induced or coerced into performing beyond the purposefulness of the grapes or the character of the vineyard. I don’t mean that the examples of Rivetto Barolo Leon we tried earlier in the afternoon fall into the manipulated category. I enjoyed those well-made wines, particularly 2001 (guardedly) and the irresistible ’99. There is, however, a degree of extra achievement, both in the vineyard and the winery, that lends to the Bruno Giacosa wines aspects of elegance and finesse as well as power that most wines do not reach.

The wines of Bruno Giacosa are imported in the U.S. by Winebow; they are expensive. The website for Rivetto indicates that their wines are available in a handful of states, but I cannot find who the importer or importers might be.

… and not being tremendously happy that I did. I’m referring specifically to the winery’s “Hummingbird Series” of moderately priced wines, the whites about $15, the reds about $18.

The winery, located about 20 miles south of San Jose in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, was founded by backyard grape-growing enthusiasts Bill and Brenda Murphy, who released their first commercially available wines in 1992. Eighteen years later, there are a winery, a hospitality center and tasting room, wedding and reception facilities, and a bocce court.

Clos LaChance offers wines at three levels: the Special Selections Series, priced at $35 to $50; the Estate Series, $19 to $40; and the Hummingbird Series, $14 to $18.

I recently tried five wines from the Hummingbird Series. Each wine in the series is named for a different species of hummingbird, though the labels for all the wines in the series carry the same picture of the same bird. The labels pictured here are one vintage behind the wines under review.

There’s no doubt that my favorite of this group is the White-Tufted Sunbeam Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Central Coast. A blend of 82 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon and 3 percent muscat blanc, the wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks except for 16 percent that goes into neutral French oak barrels. This is a stupendously lively and refreshing sauvignon blanc that bursts with a flurry of grapefruit and lime peel, dried thyme and fennel and hints of grass and hay. Flavors lean toward juicy pear infused with tangerine and hay and a touch of leafy fig, all ensconced in an attractive texture that neatly balances crisp acidity with moderate lushness. A trace of grapefruit bitterness makes for a bracing finish. Here’s a clean, bright, tasty sauvignon blanc that will make pleasant quaffing this Spring and Summer, either as aperitif or with such dishes as grilled shrimp or ceviche. Very Good+. About $15, a Great Bargain.

The Clos LaChance Glittering-Throated Emerald Chardonnay 2009, Monterey County, sees no oak and does not go through the malolactic process, so it’s not surprising that it offers, if not glittering, than certainly sprightly acidity and slick-as-a-whistle minerality in the damp shale range. This is a charming, easy-drinking chardonnay that delivers, first, green apple, and then spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors in a package of moderate richness. The major lack here is an engaging personality. Very Good. About $15.

The problem with these three red wines is that toasty oak renders them almost indistinguishable.

The Violet Crowned Merlot 2007, Central Coast, for example, a blend of 76 percent merlot, 22 percent cabernet franc, 1.5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 0.5 percent malbec, displays a nose of smoke, mint and minerals, blueberry and boysenberry tart, woody spices and toasty oak, and in the mouth it’s dense, chewy and dusty, almost powdery, and in effect feels like a merlot in zinfandel clothing. The Buff-Bellied Zinfandel 2007, Central Coast, for its part, presents mint, minerals and toasty oak in the nose — my final note says “very toasty” — and could easily be mistaken for its merlot stablemate. (The blend is 77 percent zinfandel, 16 percent petite sirah and 7 percent alicante bouschet.) And the Ruby-Throated Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Central Coast (76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent merlot, 6 percent petit verdot, 4 percent malbec) is so toasty that my notes conclude with the question, “Where’s the cab?” I kept these three red wines going all afternoon, going back and sniffing and tasting, and my notes are consistent with what I have recorded here.

Not that the oak regimen is rigorous or excessive. Winemaker Stephen Tebb carefully calibrates these matters, using no more than 30 percent new oak (for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel) and 15 percent (for the Merlot), and usually in a mixture of French and American barrels, yet the result swamps the wines and detracts from their individuality and authority. If you like oak, you’ll like these red wines, but I don’t. Each about $18.

Samples for review.

Philippine de Rothschild was going to be in town for the opening, at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, of an exhibition of the labels and label art that adorn bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, the great property in the Pauillac commune of Bordeaux. Though I contributed my weekly wine column to The Commercial Appeal newspaper on a free-lance basis, and had been doing so for not quite a year, my editor asked me to cover the event and conduct an interview with the daughter of chateau owner Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The Baron died in 1988, and his daughter inherited the title and the estate, along with other chateaux and the family business in Bordeaux. The chateau, whose roots go back to the 1720s and the de Brane family (their name survives in Chateau Brane-Cantenac), was acquired by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in 1853. Philippe de Rothschild took charge in 1922, when he was 20; even then he was a powerful and transforming figure.

Early in June, “Big John” Grisanti, who had been generous with his time and his wine, asked me if I had ever tasted wine from Mouton-Rothschild.

“Uh, no.”

“Well, hell, boy, how are you gonna write about the wine if you’ve never tasted the wine? Get over to my house Sunday afternoon and let’s try some.”

Would you have refused?

So, on a brilliant Sunday afternoon I drove to Grisanti’s house in East Memphis and presented myself to him for tutelage. It was just the two of us. Grisanti’s underground cellar, reached by spiral stairs from a hallway off the kitchen, held thousands of bottles of wine and could easily accommodate eight or 10 people, standing. First, on this occasion, to whet (and perhaps wet) our palates, he opened a bottle of the Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc 1979, Napa Valley, which I recorded in my notes as “one of the absolutely best white wines I have ever tasted.”

Then, he picked five vintages of Mouton for us to try: 1981, ’79, ’78, ’76 and ’73, in that order. Now the decade of the 1970s was not the best for Mouton; the wines lacked the typical Mouton opulence, nervosity and pinpoint minerality, qualities regained in abundance in 1982. Still, tasting these wines, my first encounter with Mouton-Rothschild, was a privilege, and I will forever be grateful to Big John for opening his cellar to me on this and other occasions. Here are my notes from that day.

1981: “Deep purple; wonderful flowery spicy cedar nose; expanding tannin, deep intense flavor with fruit waiting to emerge. Mouth-filling with a long finish. Decades of life ahead.” This is #32 of my Chronicle of 100 Wines.

1979: “Dark ruby; witch-hazel, earthy, fruit, less cedar; still tannic as hell, fruit is there somewhere — a big wine.”

Clive Coates, who in October 1990 tasted 38 vintages of Mouton, from 1987 back to 1900, found in the ’79 “a suggestion of swimming baths, tanks,” which I assume corresponds to the touch of witch-hazel I noted five years earlier. This is in his majestic Grands Vins; The Finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines (University of California Press, 1995).

1978: “Still deep purple; deep and complex nose — spice, blossoming fragrance, cedar, lead pencil; mellowing tannin but still tons of it; slightly astringent, though well-balanced as levels of fruit emerge.”

1976: “Still keeping the color, medium ruby; milder tannins — fruity and maturing nose; beautiful balance, smooth but still tannic — color just beginning to fade; depth on depth of fruit and spicy layers slowly emerging — years to go.”

1973: “medium ruby fading to mahogany; slightly sharp on the nose but smooth, soft fruity flavor; a pretty good wine from an off-year, in fact better than many others made in good years, but not quite Mouton — still quite respectable, lacking the usual Mouton depth.”

Baron Philippe de Rothschild campaigned tirelessly to have Mouton elevated from a Second Growth wine in the 1855 Classification to First Growth, a task at which he succeeded — no other wine on the roster has changed position — to be greeted, in the year of official recognition, with the mediocre vintage of 1973. Undaunted, the Baron designed a special label that commemorated, as well as his victory, the death that year of another great man and force of nature, Picasso, and he composed a new motto for the estate: Premier Je Suis Second Je Fus Mouton Ne Change. “First I am, second I was, Mouton does not change.”

Big John was pretty much a force of nature himself. Certainly his excitement about wine and and his pedagogical bent were boundless and infectious, and once he started opening bottles in his cellar, it was difficult for him to stop. After the Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc ’79 and the five vintages of Mouton, Grisanti started plucking other bottles from the shelves, and we went on to a succulent Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 1982, Santa Barbara County; a stunningly subtle, supple and sweetly autumnal Clos-Vougeot 1971, from Bernard Grivelet (actually the greatest wine of the afternoon and still one of the greatest Burgundies I have ever tasted — and #33 of this Chronicle of 100 Wines); and — still acknowledged as one of the best wines of the vintage –a Heitz Cellars Bella Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Napa Valley.

Earlier, as we sat in the cellar tasting Mouton, Grisanti’s wife came down the stairs, measuring cup in hand, and said that she needed some red wine for the spaghetti gravy. “Sure, honey,” said Big John, pouring out a cup of whatever Mouton he had in his hand, “this’ll do just fine.”


Good news: Not only does the Morgan Cotes du Crow’s 2008, Monterey County, continue in the robust tradition of its predecessors, but it’s cheaper than it was in the last few vintages. Byron writes of “all that’s best of dark and bright” — he’s speaking of a woman, of course — and certainly this Rhone-inspired blend of 55 percent syrah and 45 percent grenache balances a clarity and brightness of fresh, ripe black cherries, black currants and plums with the smoky darkness of briers, new leather and mossy earthiness etched with gravel-like minerality. This is an appealing, spunky wine, robust, as I said, but not rustic; there are no rough edges here. A few minutes in the glass bring up notes of dried cherry, potpourri, lavender and licorice with an undercurrent of bitter chocolate; then rose petals, dried thyme and a scent and taste of black olive. Cotes du Crow’s 2008 aged 10 months in French oak, only 18 percent of the barrels new, so the influence of wood gently shapes and spices the wine, spreading its aura amongst ample yet deftly managed tannins. A twinge of austerity on the finish reminds us that these are serious grapes. 3,600 cases produced. Perfectly appropriate with grilled and braised meats, hearty soups and pasta dishes. Excellent. About $16.

A review sample.

Few are the wine regions of the world that don’t have a festival or conference devoted to their traditions, geography and wines. From Paso Robles to the Loire Valley, trade groups and vinters’ associations mount annual meetings to showcase current and upcoming vintages, with attendant lectures and discussions about marketing, technical matters and consumer perceptions. Some of these festivals are relatively ancient and steeped in ritual, while others expound the spirit of “wine country lifestyle” and gourmet food competitions. Some are international in scope (VinExpo), some are national (VinItaly and Wine Australia), and some are devoted to the elucidation, not to say the worship, of a single grape, as the West Coast of the United States treats pinot noir, zinfandel and petite sirah.

The annual Barbera Meeting in the Piedmontese town of Asti centers on a region and a grape, that is, the zone where Barbera d’Asti, Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Alba are produced. The four-day tasting event, March 8 to 11, was sponsored this year by the Province of Asti and the Assessorato all’Agricoltura, and the cities of Casale Monferrato, Asti, Nizza Monferrato and the Consorzio di Tutela Vini d’Asti e del Monferrato, with further support from Cassa di Risparmio di Torino. It was organized and promoted by Well Com, a publicity firm based in Alba.

Barbera Meeting 2010 was highly structured. Each morning there was a blind tasting, from 9 until noon (on Monday) and 9 to 11 (Tuesday through Thursday), that focused on a particular segment of Barbera production: Barbera d’Asti DOC 2007 and DOCG 2008 on Monday; the same vintages with emphasis on the Nizza sub-zone on Tuesday; Barbera del Monferrato DOC and DOCG 2007 and ’08 on Wednesday; and Barbera d’Alba DOC 2007 and ’08 on Thursday. These tastings, 177 (or so) wines altogether, occurred at the 14th Century Palazzo Zoya in Asti.

Following lunch, the journalists and members of the trade were divided into groups and bussed into the countryside for visits to three wineries selected by the organizers. Reconvening at some usually grand venue, the writers and trade representatives along with producers, winemakers and local officials would attend a large walk-around tasting of many of the other wines made by the producers from that morning’s tasting, followed on a catered multi-course dinner with more wines on the tables. Dinner didn’t conclude until 11 most nights, so arrival back at the hotel in Asti was often at midnight or later. (And did we need a banquet three nights in a row? By Wednesday night, we were giddy with exhaustion.) This was the schedule Monday through Wednesday; on Thursday, the meeting concluded with lunch, though we bloggers kept up a busy round of winery visits and late nights through Saturday.

The innovation for Barbera Meeting 2010 was the introduction of six American wine bloggers and one British blogger, a group organized by Jeremy Parzen (image at right) of Do Bianchi, that was intended to lend an air of immediacy and accessibility to the proceedings, or, as the material prepared for the meeting put it: “to [spread] at a global level the knowledge of Barbera and its birthplace, through the influent contents published by the bloggers.” This content was posted on the bloggers’ individual platforms and gathered on the group site, Barbera2010. How successful, effective or influential this attempt at Internet innovation was remains to be seen. The fact that the bloggers’ largely negative reactions to the wines made the print and television news in Italy and that the controversy was picked up in America testifies to some perceivable yet indefinable level of impact.

Tasting together, eating meals together, traveling on vans from town to town together allowed the bloggers periods of reflection and discussion (if not naps) on the purpose and structure of Barbera Meeting 2010 and its generally hectic and crowded activity and rather elusive purpose. As one of the participating bloggers, I have suggestions that might improve the flow, the logistics and the effectiveness of the enterprise. (And let me say first that we could not have gotten along without the care and organizing principles of Marinella Minetti and her staff at Well Com, whose every concern was our comfort. Thanks too to the members of the Association of Italian Sommeliers who poured the many wines for us each morning.)

1. Get a new graphic designer and logo. This is pretty cheesy.
(To be fair, I just heard from Jeremy Parzen that he designed this logo specifically for the group Barbera 7 blog, in “the spirit of punk rock blogginess” — he’s also a guitarist — and that it’s not connected to the official Barbera Meeting print or online material. Sorry, Jar!)

2. Define more clearly the purpose and scope of Barbera Meeting. At no point were we informed about the selection process for the blind tastings in the morning and the walk-around tastings in the evening, nor was it made clear how the wineries for the afternoon visits were chosen. I would have been far more comfortable as a taster and blogger if I had known why I was tasting the wines put in front of me. Was there a preliminary competitive stage? A juried tasting? Do the producers simply alternate every year? Do they belong to a club? Is participation by invitation? If by invitation, what are the criteria? And what’s the motivation for all of this tasting anyway? If there was a discernible or desired result, other than to give us the experience of encountering so many wines, it eluded me. I felt a bit as if I were tasting in a vacuum.

3. Exert control over the wines presented by the producers. This suggestion is controversial, and I offer it tentatively. Naturally, the producers that provided the wines for the blind tastings wanted to offer their best products, which it turned out, in their interpretation, were the Barbera wines, the “important” wines, aged in barriques of which we were most critical. Often when we visited a winery, we discovered non-barrique Barbera wines, of whatever category, that we liked better for their integrity and authenticity. Perhaps producers selected for inclusion in the blind tastings should be required to present both “old style” and “modern” Barberas that would offer a glimpse of their range of technical philosophy. Or perhaps that requirement would result in too much complication.

4. Give us time to do what we were invited for. For most of the week that we were in Asti, our group of bloggers left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and returned at midnight. At no time during the day was there an opportunity to perform our assigned task, so most of us ended up writing and posting from midnight until 2 a.m. or so and then getting up a few hours later to sit at the breakfast table doing the same. Tasting wines and blogging simultaneously, which we also tried, detracts from both efforts. What we needed was an hour after lunch and an earlier return to the hotel at night to write and post.

5. Limit the winery visits to two each afternoon. This suggestion is a corollary of number 4. If bloggers were given more time to write, the hours allotted to visiting producers, however educational those visits may be (and were), would necessarily be truncated.

Having said all this, I must add that I learned a tremendous amount about Barbera wines and the nuances of their production at Barbera Meeting 2010. Visiting various wineries in the afternoon offered a great deal of insight not only into how the wines get made but into a whole heritage of concerns and values. In addition, the hospitality we received at the properties was superb, and even if I never meet some of those owners and winemakers again, I will think of them with gratitude and affection.

Map from vinonyc.

As I mentioned recently, LL works on Tuesday nights during the Spring semester, and I try to have dinner ready for her when she arrives at our door about 9 p.m. Last Tuesday, I chopped or sliced a beet, a parsnip, a red onion, a sweet potato, a carrot and a hunk of knobbly celery root, doused them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them at 425 degrees for about 45 minutes. I got the idea from the March Food & Wine magazine; the intention in the recipe is to make a salad. Instead, I cooked some wholewheat fuselli, tossed it with the roasted vegetables, shaved feta cheese and a dollop of a thyme-mustard vinaigrette I had on hand, and, Voila! a really delicious and healthy pasta dish. I didn’t take a picture because I thought the thing was going to be unphotogenic, but actually the roasted vegetables looked like little glowing jewels nestled amongst the corkscrew-shaped pasta.

I opened a bottle of the Craggy Range Fletcher Family Vineyard Riesling 2009, from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, and was glad that I did. Made completely in stainless steel, this riesling is dry, crisp and juicy, a bundle of lime, roasted lemon and spiced peach twined with the requisite pungency of petrol/rubber eraser. A reticent touch of pear and lanolin (and a hint of jasmine) lend sleekness and suavity, while a seductive texture neatly balances keen acidity with moderate lushness. An intense tide of limestone rises from the finish, moving forward as the moments pass and preparing the palate for a final squinge of bracing bitterness, like the tang of grapefruit skin. A very attractive and tasty riesling, yet with a strain of seriousness. Excellent. About $22.

The wine served as a refreshing complement to the sweetness and earthiness of the roasted root vegetable pasta.

The next night, following the trail of The New York Times food section from that morning, LL prepared fillets of cod — the recipe called for halibut, but the stores I tried had none — topped with rosemary, black olives and thin slices of lemon and roasted in the oven. For all its simplicity, this was a terrific dish, deeply tinged with the Mediterranean spirit of freshness and savory, herbal qualities. Those thin slices of lemon were browned and crisped by the oven and brought a touch of citric nerviness to the dish, all of whose elements worked together in fine style. We’ll cook this one often.

The Craggy Range Fletcher Family Riesling ’09, closed with a screw-cap, was still in the refrigerator, so I brought it out and tried it with the cod. This was an even better match than with the roasted root vegetable pasta. Something about the combination of the dusty herbal quality of the rosemary married with the lemon and the earthiness of the black olives brought out both the juiciness and the mineral structure of the wine. It also acted as a foil to the slight bitterness of the sauteed broccoli rabe on the plate.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A review sample.

Last Tuesday — that would be March 9 — our group of bloggers, aka The Barbera 7, along with other journalists and people in the trade, were bussed to the town of Canelli in the Nizza sub-region of Barbera d’Asti winemaking. First there was a presentation about trellis methods and then a discussion that went on too long for people who had been up since 6:30 (me, anyway) and had already been simultaneously tasting and posting to our blogs all morning, and finally we got to sit down to lunch in the charming Ristorante Enoteca Regionale di Canelli, where the chef is Riccardo e Diego Crippa. The multi-course lunch he offered illustrated, generally, all that’s great about how eating gets done in Italy, with simplicity and freshness.

First, to whet our appetites, little dishes of breaded and fried anchovies and green olives, salty, briny and savory. With these nuggets we sipped glasses of Michele Chiarlo’s Pietro Chiarlo Brut Blanc de Blancs, made from 50 percent cortese grapes and 50 percent chardonnay, in the champagne method. This immensely appealing and spicy sparkling wine featured notes of pears and peaches, smoky almond and almond blossom, with hints of quince and ginger and candied lime peel. It made a fine accompaniment to the bracing effect of the anchovies and olives.

Next up, a sort of deconstructed Nicoise salad with tuna and marinated vegetables and fresh herbs served in — your eyes do not deceive you — a plastic globe. Yes, we had to take the top off the contrivance to eat the salad, a device that must had seemed to the kitchen, what?, clever, witty, innovative, who knows? I think I may safely speak for the Barbera 7 when I say that I would have been happy to eschew the Snow-Globe in favor of an honest salad plate. Hence the title of this post, “An Almost Perfect Lunch.” (Actually, though, I suppose this course is a visual pun on the phrase “salad bowl” or maybe “salad bowling.” Would that work in Italian?)

The following course was a beautiful little vegetable terrine with a green pea sauce. The waiters were fairly short on food explanations, and there wasn’t a written menu, so I can’t tell you what vegetables went into the terrine, but the dish was lovely: mildly flavored, slightly earthy, fresh and remarkably Spring-like on a day when it began to snow at about 3 in the afternoon and didn’t stop for 24 hours. This was a warm terrine, by the way; notice that the top is crusty from the broiler, a nice touch.

A triumph of the Italian sensibility — nothing fancy, nothing wasted — the next course brought a plate with about 10 small ravioli stuffed with (probably) veal and a touch of (perhaps) ricotta or some other soft, slightly tangy cheese. That was it, and you could not have asked for anything more satisfying or complete. Well, a scant sprinkling of Parmesan was helpful in this spare landscape.

Naturally we indulged in a cheese course, and if I had been industrious, I would have tracked down a waiter or manager and recorded the name of all four cheeses and spelled them correctly, but lunches like these tend to go on for about two hours, and by this time my primary consideration was a nap. Suffice to say that the cheeses were excellent and that they provided the proper contrasts in scent, flavor and texture. In fact all the regional cheeses we sampled last week — and most wineries we visited put out a glorious spread of cheeses and local salamis — were intriguing and delicious in their different ways. The smidgeon of La Brea Tar-Pits in the middle of the plate is cogná, a sort of mustard made from grape must. Its effect is appropriately primordial.

Finally, dessert. There it is. A scoop of chocolate gelato and a scoop of something bright yellow and half a pear that tasted not altogether ripe (or too processed). Again, an almost perfect but not quite perfect lunch. I would have been happy with a plate of cookies to go with the powerful espresso — like a train engine in a tiny cup — that followed.

Were we allowed the nap we all desperately needed? No, friends, we were trundled off to another venue for a tasting of 26 Nizza Barberas that concluded in the acrimonious dust-up about Barbera philosophy and techniques that several of my colleagues have (or are) posting about, followed by another grand dinner and more wines and arrival back at the hotel in Asti around midnight.

When the group sat down to lunch, the tables held four bottles of Quorum, a Barbera d’Asti made in collaboration among the houses of Michele Chiarlo, Prunotto, Braida, Coppo and Vietti. Launched in 1997, the consortium is called HASTAE, after the Roman name of the city of Asti. The wine is produced only in the best vintages from a hectare of each of the five members’ best vineyards, and the winemaker is always someone from outside Piedmont who has not worked with the barbera grape before, an interesting if slightly bizarre (and surely unnecessary) concept designed to level the playing field, so that none of the five producers dominates the others. Profits from Quorum are donated to charity.

We sampled Quorum from 2005, 2004, 2001 and 1999. (Not the ’03 of the image here.)

The 2005 and ’04 make an immediate impression of what the wine’s American importer, Folio Fine Wine Partners, calls “star power.” The wines are indeed incredibly seductive, rich, resonant, vibrant and lively, with deep black fruit flavors, deeply-rooted spicy elements and the soft, cushiony oak and soft velvety tannins that we associate with so-called “icon wines” from around the world. The ’04 brings out more smoke and tobacco and black olive, as if it were a cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend from St. Julien. The 2001 did not show well; the color is already ruddy garnet with a brick-red rim, and its primary features are brown sugar, baking spice and old leather. The ’99 was much better than the 2001, firmly-knit, smooth and mellow.

So that’s fine, but where’s the juicy, flinty, vivid barbera grape in all of this international styling? The problem with collaborations and wines pepped up with oak is a certain sleek and polished sameness, a “seen-it-all-before quality” that precludes regional integrity and authenticity. In one sense, the Quorum wines are impeccable; in another sense, they’re boring. They offer character but lack personality. And they were too “important” for our lunch. We really needed something lighter; a young, delicate, bright-cherry, acid-powered and thirst-quenching Grignolino would have been ideal.

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