March 2010

Help! I’m trapped in Barberaland and can’t get out! Wait, wait, yes, I can do it! I can squeeze through this Sicilian nero d’Avola and save my sanity!

Whew, that was close.

Truth is, I’ll get back to wines made from the barbera grape and other Piedmontese varieties because I have so much to write about, but for today’s Wine of the Week — and sorry that I skipped last week — let’s turn to the sunny south and the largest island in the Mediterranean.

Nature created the nero d’Avola grape to make wine that’s gorgeously drinkable but not profoundly important, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with that; if all creatures on earth could fulfill a function so handily, how happy we would be, n’est-ce pas? The Feudo Principi di Butera Nero d’Avola 2007, Sicilia, is, in five words, big, dark, spicy, ripe and wild. Black currant and plum flavors tinged with blueberry are packed with plush, dusty tannins and graphite-like minerality. Tingling acidity keeps the wine lively and vibrant. Though undeniably dry and even a little austere on the finish, this Principi di Butera Nero d’Avola 2007 benefits from an entrancing core of crushed violets, smoke, potpourri and a slightly Amarone-like roasted raisin quality. Altogether a wine of marked individuality that seems inevitable with braised meats and robust pastas and pizzas. Very Good+. About $14.

Imported by Zonin USA, Charlottesville, Va. A review sample.

As readers of this blog and of the collective “Barbera Meeting 2010” blog know, we seven blogging writers were deeply dissatisfied with the oaky arrogance and heavily extracted self-importance of many of the Barbera wines that we tasted over four days last week.

Let us not, however, be completely negative. We were exposed to many splendid wines, primarily in the pre-dinner walk-around tastings and in the winery visits we made when not strapped to our chairs in the tasting hall at the handsome mid-14th Century Palazzo Zoya in Asti.

Our leader, Jeremy Parzen, finagled a visit for us to Brovia, a producer founded in 1863 in the town of Castiglione Falletto in the Langhe region. The winery is operated by the fourth generation, sisters Elena and Cristina Brovia and Elena’s husband Àlex Sánchez, a Spaniard who moved to Piedmont in 2001. Sánchez gave us a tour of the winery and selected the wines for us to taste.

Half of Brovia’s 5,000-case production is Barolo, and we’ll talk about those wines another time. What I particularly want to mention today, because of our disappointment with so many other Barbera wines last week, is Brovia’s Sori’ del Drago 2007, Barbera d’Alba.

Made all in stainless steel, from vineyards planted in 1970 and 1993, Sori’ del Drago 2007 offers a bouquet teeming with smoke and tobacco, bacon fat and spice and roasted and macerated black fruit with a tinge of mulberry. About halfway through my notes I wrote, “wow, this knocks everything else out of the water.” All aspects of this wine feel inevitable, its pinpoint balance among acidity, fruit and structure; its vibrancy and resonance; its almost unearthly purity and intensity; its soft, grainy chewy tannins and crushed-gravel minerality. I said to the assembled bloggers: “I could drink this every day,” and I wasn’t kidding. No, this is not an “important” wine, but it superbly fulfills Sanchez’s requirement for “identity and pleasingness.”

Brovia also makes a Barbera d’Alba 2007 called Brea, which ages half in stainless steel and half in one-, two- and three-year-old French barriques. I found the wine rich, almost jammy, obvious and uncharacteristic. As an expression of the barbera grape, Sori’ del Drago beats Brea by a mile.

The wines of Brovia are imported to the U.S. by Neal Rosenthal. Prices for Sori’ del Drago 2007 range from about $20 to $28.

If readers have been following these posts from Asti and Barbera 2010, you know that we have been at the limits of despair and patience over the quality of the Barbera d’Asti wines, many of which we have found to be stridently oaked and punishingly tannic. Not that we doubt for an instant the sincerity of the producers and winemakers; these are honest and hard-working people. What we question is the misguided nature of the techniques in the winery and the errant vision these winemakers and producers have for their wines and their region.

Yesterday (Wednesday) morning we tasted blind about 40 Barbera d’Asti wines from the sub-region of Monferrato. My previous entry was posted while we went through these Monferrato wines, and as I mentioned, they seemed not so tannic and woody though, as I have asserted during the past few days, there were problems of consistency. Still, one felt a glimmer of hope.

After the tasting we headed out, as we had done on Monday and Tuesday, to the countryside — now picturesquely buried in snow — to visit a few producers from the region featured in the morning’s tasting. Naturally, yesterday was devoted to several wineries in the Monferrato area.

Let me describe two of those visits.

At Danilo Spinoglio, Cascina Narzo, near the village of Sala Monferrato, we gathered in the comfortable tasting room where a welcome fire burned on the hearth. A rustic table held platters of local cheeses and salamis — one does not often apply the adjective “sublime” to salami — and bread sticks so fresh and crisp that Adam and Eve probably snacked on them in Paradise. Spinoglio does not make profound wines and apparently has no desire to do so, and therein lie their real and, to me, irresistible virtues. Wines of delight and satisfaction are completely as legitimate as wines of supposed profundity, and since the attempts at profound wines so far this week had us beating our heads futilely against walls of wood and tannin, it felt like a respite to sip Spinoglio’s direct, authentic efforts.

From his 33 hectares of vines, Spinoglio makes a crisp, fresh, lively Cortese 2008, that carries the general Piemonte designation, and a refreshing Grignolino di Monferrato Casalese 2008 that features lovely dried cherry and cherry pit notes. His Monferrato 2008, made from freisa grapes, offers a hint of spritz, along with dried cherries and red currants, with a surprisingly dense tannic structure and a trace of bracing bitterness of the finish. Both the Monferrato Dolcetto 2008 and the Piemonte Barbera 2008 are clean, flavorful and charming, with the sort of lively acidity that keeps us coming back for another sip. Spinoglio’s Barbera del Monferrato 2008 is uncomplicated, nicely balanced and integrated and downright tasty with flavors of spiced and macerated black cherry, red currant and plum.

Spinoglio’s most serious wine is his Barbera d’Asti Superiori 2007, made every other year. The wine is “raised” in barriques, small barrels of French oak, but Spinoglio cycles the barrels through three-year sequences, so only about 25 percent of the oak is new with each designated vintage. This B. d’A. S. ’07 is all dried spice and flowers, an amalgam of red fruit both dried and fresh, a little sweet ripeness balanced by a little bitterness and the swingeing acidity necessary to the grape. Tannins are fairly dense yet kept to the background, where subtle oak lends the wine shape and a bit of woody spice. This is not the most serious or profound Barbera d’Asti Superiori, but it delivers lovely tone and character, and unlike many examples we have tried this week, it’s pleasingly drinkable.

Our next visit, and the longest of the day, was to La Casaccia, in the village of Cella Monte, where the lively and engaging Giovanni Rava happily showed us around the vaulted 18th Century cellars dug into the sandy, crumbly tufa soil that characterizes the region. Befitting his technical or engineering background — Rava told me later at dinner that he spent 15 years “cooped up behind factory walls” — he explained the history of brick-making 200 years ago, the composition of the soil, the uses of obsolete winemaking equipment and more things than are dreamt in your philosophy. We tasted La Casaccia’s wines in the dining room above the cellars, a room made homey with old family portraits, antique furniture and shelves of books. Giovanni’s wife Elena, as quiet as he is voluble, had prepared a simple yet delicious lunch — especially the kale and leek quiche and the polenta with tomato sauce and sausage — to match the wines.

For someone who started making wine less than a decade ago, Rava shows the instinct combined with craft of a great winemaker. His red wines epitomize the nature of detail and dimension that we require of interesting and complex wines as well as the combination of power and elegance that makes the best impression on the palate. We tried six vintages of Rava’s Vigna San Pietro Barbera d’Asti Superiori, from 2003 to 2008 and were struck by the consistency of the wine, even accounting for vintage variations, and not just the consistency across the curve of development but the remarkable sense of expansiveness and generosity, of balance and integration that these wines evince, qualities we have not see much this week. We also tried three vintages of the Caliché B. d’A. S. — 2001, ’03 and ’04 — aged in French barriques yet smooth and harmonious and all delivering wonderful weight, tone and presence.

The vines of La Casaccia are cultivated along organic principles; 2008 was the first year that the labels were allowed to carry the organic designation.

Later that evening, at a tasting of wines by many producers in Monferrato, we encountered other wines that were equally impressive. I’ll mention those when I can get to them in a few days, but pay attention when I write about an incredible pinot nero (pinot noir) from Cantina Iuli, the Nino 2007, that aged — get this — 27 months in one-year old barriques and yet manages to capture the essential delicacy and purity of the grape. You have to love that sense of integrity married to individuality.

This morning we’re tasting Barbera d’Asti from the Monferrato sub-region.

Here we go.

It’s snowing, and the roof of the building across the street wears a thick slope of pure white snow. A woman in a yellow house-dress just opened the double glass doors to her little balcony and used a broom to brush the snow off the plants in the box hanging from the wrought-iron balustrade.

I’m finding the Monferrato wines not stridently oaky, certainly not as much wood as the wines from Days One & Two. The acidity is certainly there; a couple of these so far have fairly screamed with acid, yet several examples strike me as being wholly satisfying. Of course my colleagues may disagreed; they’re a feisty bunch!

Again, though, the problem is inconsistency. One wine will brim with purity and intensity of fruit and penetrating mineral qualities; it’s the breath of fresh air syndrome. The next wine, however, smells so earthy that it feels unclean, so macerated that it’s sweetishyly cloying. And another will feature the whole box of dried spices and flowers and I think, “Very attractive,” until the acidity sears my palate. (After 25 years, my palate should get combat pay and Purple Hearts.) And I just wrote of another wine that’s it’s “so middle-of-the-road that it’s comforting.”

And I just wrote of another wine: “Dried spices, flowers and fruit, very attractive; v. intense, dense and concentrated, but fairly well-balanced, but very dry, now increasingly austere, does it need all this tannin?”

You, see? These wines are all over the map, and the map itself is not very large.

The most consistent aspect of this morning seems to be the snow.

I’m sure My Readers understand that this trip by seven bloggers to “Barbera Meeting 2010” is a press excursion paid for by the event’s myriad sponsors. Our airplane flights and hotel accommodations were paid for, and we are provided with a number of lunches and dinners that are also attended by members of the trade and the Barbera d’Asti producers and winemakers. We gain experience and perspective; the organization’s entities and the wine producers receive our ideas and opinions and (potentially) valuable exposure. Have tasted about 220 wines in two days, I’ll say that I have gained considerable experience and perspective on a wine region which I had never visited.

Don’t worry that we can’t be objective. If you check the official blog — — you’ll see that we bloggers have been critical about the punishing and debilitating amount of oak and tannin in many of the wines, and that we have questioned the motivations and the techniques of the winemakers who overload their wines on the front end and diminish the pleasure of their wine’s fruit and vibrant acidity, an essential feature of the barbera grape.

In fact, yesterday morning the local newspaper in Asti carried a story the gist of which was that the bloggers were being critical of the wines tasted the first day (Monday) and that the principal criticism is the issue of wood. Yours truly is the first person, or first blog, quoted in the story. And we heard this evening that today (I’m writing this at 12:44 a.m.) there will be a similar piece in a national paper. We’re called “Barbera Boys,” a bit of nomenclature that does not sit well with Whitney, the lone woman of our group. (I would not dream of suggesting a correction to “Barbera Boys and Their Mascot Whitney.”)

Anyway, we encountered more wood and more tannin and a surprising amount of controversy yesterday afternoon and evening in Nizza, a town that’s the center of a Barbera d’Asti sub-region, with cheeky journalists and offended producers both expressing passionate beliefs in the wrongness or rightness of their winemaking techniques. I think that all of us bloggers will be posting about this strenuous and very important debate, since it has to do, ultimately, with the survival of Barbera d’Asti as a viable representative of a grape and region.

Obviously, there’s more to come.

Snow lies on the hillsides of Piedmont, blanketing the dormant vines. The weather is chilly, but the clouds cleared away and the sun shone all day. The wineries we visited yesterday afternoon were chillier, as they always are, with their cellars dug into the ground and their tank rooms paved in concrete. As one estate owner said, though, with unerring truth, “You have seen many steel tanks and wooden barrels. I won’t detain you here.” These are not fancy or elaborate wineries; no celebrity architects designed these facilities. All is simplicity, family tradition and concentration on a singular purpose.

Yesterday morning, at the Barbera Meeting, we tasted 68 or 70 examples of Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Asti Superiore from 2008 and 2007, with a few from 2006. After a light lunch, mostly roasted vegetables, our group boarded a small bus and drove into the countryside, where in the course of the afternoon we visited three small family-owned properties, each with its unique — O.K., eccentric in some cases — philosophy and emphasis. I think our favorite of these properties was Tenuto Il Falchetto, where the Bricco Paradiso 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, was one of those wines that makes you go, “Oh, right, this is what we’ve been looking for.” (There were also dawgs outside. which I liked.) At each estate we were welcomed and provided with spreads of focaccia and other wonderful breads, salamis and local cheeses, delicious and intriguing, some of which I would like to find at a cheese shop in Asti, if possible.

We got back to Asti about 7:30 and were taken — after our driver run a stop sign and got into an altercation with a man whose little delivery truck he almost ran over — to Villa Basinetto for another tasting at which many of the producers from the morning event presented their full roster of wines. I tasted through the lines of Giacomo Bologna “Braida” — unusually for the region, they make a riesling — and Tentuta La Pergola (they make an untypical blend of nebbiolo, bonarda and barbera in the Bric du Siva 2004, Monferrato Rosso, a wine of great dignity and character) and was pleased to discover the eccentric and entirely lovable wines (like a rollicking blend of syrah and ruché!) of Bricco La Morra, presented by the highly eyewear-conscious Marco Maria, whose photo you see here.

This tasting was followed by a pretty damned splendid dinner catered by Ristorante Il Cascinanuovo, about which I will have more to say in a follow-up post. Our group was joined by two winemakers, Massimo Pastura, of Cascina La Ghersa, and Franco Cavallero, of Cantine Sant’ Agata, who of course went and obtained bottles of all their wines for us to try with the meal. I was particularly taken with two of Pastura’s white wines, his Il Poggio Gavi 2009 and the Timian 2007, made from the timorossa grape, and I thought that his La Ghersa Viguassa 2005, a Barbera d’Asti Superiore from the Nizza sub-region, was one of the best of the whole day. Not to get too far ahead of the dining post, but Viguassa ’05 was terrific with a shallow bowl of Zuppa di patate e fagioli borlotti con maltagliati all’uovo, that is a soup of potatoes and beans with egg pasta, a prosaic description of a modest but rich and mellow dish I thought about with pleasure long into the night.

That whole day added up to tasting about 120 wines. And now it’s another day, and the waiters are starting to pour the first flight.

There was a power outage at the venue about 10:00 and I lost my internet connection and never got it back, so I’m continuing this post later.

The tasting was set up v. well, in the way that in Italy details are looked after. Only two tasters to a table mean that there’s plenty of room to spread out your gear. Bread sticks, separate bottles of water, separate pour buckets, though they could be larger which would save on constant emptying them. And we need one more waiter; pouring 68 wines to 15 tasters in complicated. The waiters, or pourers, are from the Italian Association of Sommeliers; they’re wearing long black aprons, short black jackets over black vests, white shirts and black bow ties, all as it should be in the uniform department.

My first impression, which I will expand upon later, is that Barbera d’Asti lacks consistency; the aroma and flavor profiles of these wines were all over the map. There’s nothing wrong with individuality; we wine writers are always praising it. There needs to be some varietal recognition though, because many of these wines felt as if they were made from different grapes. There’s a lot of wood in some of the wines too.

We’re about to embark on a tour of several properties this afternoon and then there’s dinner and we’ll get back to the hotel late. Still, I’ll try to post before falling gratefully into the arms of Morpheus.

Readers, I’m sitting in a sala at the Barbera Meeting 2010 in Asti, waiting for the first blind tasting to begin. There’s a hush of anticipation, or are we just all fagged out by jet lag? This is an interesting experiment, to post to the blog at an actual event as it occurs. The organizers set this up intentionally, and perhaps the situation is a testimony to the importance, or growing importance, of the collective blog voice for the world of wine making, marketing and buying.

Ah, now we’re getting a welcome from a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture. He’s thanking the journalists but especially the bloggers, “for putting the Barbera Meeting in touch with the world.” We’re being video-taped, so maybe we’ll end up on television. There was already an article about “us” — the bloggers — in the local paper on Saturday.

And now they’re starting to pour the wines.

I’ll be back.

Dear Readers, beginning Monday — or Sunday if I can manage — I’ll be posting from Asti, a central city in Piedmont, where I will
be attending the Barbera Meeting 2010 with a group of American wine bloggers. In addition to the festival or conference, we’ll be visiting prominent estates that produce the three “B” wines of Piedmont — Barbera, Barolo and Barbaresco — and eating some fine meals. There’s an official blog, of course.

I’ve traveled and tasted and dined in Tuscany, Umbria and the Veneto, but not Piedmont, so I’m looking forward to this trip a great deal, for the landscape, history and culture, for the wine and food, and for the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas, as well as japes, jests and jabs to the arm, with some fellow bloggers.

Until Monday, then, or Sunday, after a long flight to Amsterdam and then to Milan.

Previously in this saga, I related the story of buying three bottles of wine at a silent auction to benefit a non-profit dog and cat spay and neuter group, thinking I was boosting the bidding but ending up purchasing the wine to the tune of $245. Almost immediately, we opened one bottle for dinner, and it tuirned out to be wonderful. This was the Cakebread Cellars Merlot 2002, Napa Valley.

Next, I opened Napa Valley wine, the Hartwell Misté Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Stags Leap District. We drank with my last excellent pizza — I mean the last pizza I made that was excellent; the next one was a (rare) dismal failure –and it was terrific.

The winery was founded in 1986 by Bob Hartwell, a veteran of the aerospace industry, and his wife Blanca. The first wine they produced was a cabernet from 1990 that spent 22 months in all-new French oak, giving you some idea of the seriousness of the enterprise.

The Hartwell Misté Hill Cabernet 2003 is no longer on the winery’s website, and retailers that carry it on the internet don’t describe the blend, but based on later bottlings the 2003 must be primarily cabernet sauvignon with some merlot and a dollop of petit verdot put through considerable oak. This is a grand effort, a wine that’s deep and broad and generous, dense, intense and concentrated. The color is dark ruby-purple through and through. Classic notes of cassis, cedar, dust, black pepper and crushed gravel define the seductive nose, while in the mouth the wine is succulent, almost plush, yet tempered and cooled by clean acidity and a towering mineral element. Flavors of ripe, spicy and slightly macerated black cherries and black currants are supported by sleek tannins and oak surprisingly unobtrusive for the usual Hartwell barrel treatment. Altogether, the wine is both engaging and dynamic, elegant and profound, a sort of amalgam of personality and character, and it should drink beautifully until 2015 or ’16. Excellent. The suggested retail price for this wine was about $60, which is what I paid for it at the silent auction, but it’s available on the internet from prices ranging from $42 to $72.

Next in the roster of three silent auction purchases: Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley.

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