April 2010

It’s almost time to start cooking outside. I’ll have to clean the old Weber, lay in a supply of charcoal — not briquettes — and fire the thing up under a steak or a brace of pork chops. When I do that, I wouldn’t mind opening a bottle of the Dry Creek Vineyards Heritage Zinfandel 2007, Sonoma County. The grapes for this wine — 87 percent zinfandel, 13 percent petite sirah — come from vineyards in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley. The wine ages nine months in American and French oak, 39 percent new barrels. The dark ruby-colored wine, almost violet-black at the center, is immediately attractive, throwing off scents of smoky black currant, blackberry and boysenberry wreathed with cloves, lilac and lavender, all laced with slate-like minerality. Yes, this zinfandel treads a bit on the exotic side, but it’s not overblown or flamboyant, maintaining balance with vivid acidity, dusty tannins and polished, spicy oak. Flavors of blackberries and plums unfurl around a core of wild berries, bitter chocolate, black pepper and, finally, briers and brambles for a slightly serious finish to a luscious yet soberly structured wine. In contrast to the soaring, sweet, hot alcohol levels of many blockbuster zinfandels, the degree here is a sensible and palatable 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $19.

Legitimately laying claim to the adjective “venerable,” Dry Creek Vineyard was founded in 1972 by David Stare. It was the first winery built in Dry Creek Valley after Prohibition.

A sample for review.

I discussed in previous posts the circumstances and conditions that prevailed at Barbera Week 2010 in Asti — I returned to the U.S. a month ago today! — so I won’t go back over those details now. The conference was, as I have implied, hectic and exhausting and yet (as I hope I have made clear) exhilarating and educational, and we ate mounds of great Piedmontese cuisine.

In the the first part of “Cutting to the Chase,” I listed the best and worst wines we tasted in the area of Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Asti Superiore. Now it’s the turn of Barbera d’Asti wines from the Nizza sub-region and for Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Alba. The latter two have their own official DOC status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) but Nizza does not, being attached to Barbera d’Asti. These wines were experienced at blind tasting on the mornings of March 9, 10 and 11, at the Palazzo Zoya, at afternoon visits to wineries, at walk-around tastings in the evening and at dinner. Going back through my notebook and the tasting sheets, I count 140 wines from Nizza, Monferrato and Alba, several of them tasted two or three times in different situations. Generally, the wines from Monferrato and Alba rate better than the wines of Nizza, though there were clearly superior wines — and inferior examples — from all three regions.

I checked my notes carefully — seeing who was naughty and who was nice — to choose the wines listed today, because some of them, in multiple tastings, produced different reactions, and I wanted to weigh those reactions judiciously. For example, the Cascina Garitina “Neuvsent” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, that I tasted blind the morning of March 9 was, frankly, roiling with tannin but showed a lovely bouquet of smoke, minerals, dried spice and mint. That night, at another blind tasting of Nizza wines, all from 2006, the wine was “vegetal, off.” Which was the “real” Neuvsent?

On the other hand, I tasted the Villa Giada Bricco Dani, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, from 2007, 2006 and 2005 on the same day and admired the wine for consistent shapeliness, purity and intensity on each occasion.

So, let’s cut to the chase here and list the Best Wines of Barbera d’Asti Nizza, Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Alba; an asterisk indicates superior quality. Again, I make no distinction between “modern” versions of these wines, which aged in small
French barrels, and traditional wines that aged in stainless steel tanks and large old casks.

<1> Bersano 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<2> Bosco Agostino Azienda Agricole 2007, Barbera d’Alba*
<3> Bottazza Azienda Agricola “Rubia” 2008, Barbera del Monferrato
<4> Bric Cenciurio “Naunda” 2007, Barbera d’Alba*
<5> Bricco dei Guazzi 2007, Barbera del Monferrato
<6> Brovia Sori’ de Drago 2007, Barbera d’Alba* (I thought this was one of the best Barbera wines we tasted during Barbera 2010, and I devoted a separate post to it a few weeks ago)
<7> Cantina Iuli “Umberto” 2007, Babera del Monferrato (I didn’t care for this wine at the morning blind tasting but liked it very much at the evening event.)
<8> Cascina Chicco “Ganera Alta” 2008, Barbera d’Alba
<9> Casetta F.illi “Suri” 2007, Barbera d’Alba
<10> Cascina Lana 2007, Barbera d’Asti Nizza
<11> Castello di Uviglie “Pico Gonzaga” 2006, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore*
<12 Costa di Bussia Azienda Agricola “Campo del Gatto” 2008, Barbera d’Alba
<13> Elvio Cogno “Bricco dei Merli” 2007, Barbera d’Alba*
<14> La Casaccia “Bricco de Bosco” 2007, Barbera del Monferrato*
<15> La Scamuzza “Vigneto della Amoroso” 2008, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore (Also 2006)
<16> L’Armangia Azienda Argicola 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<17> Montalbera “La Briosa” 2008, Barbera del Monferrato
<18> Parusso Armando 2007, Barbera d’Alba Superiore
<19> Scarzello Giorgio Azienda Agricola 2007, Barbera d’Alba*
<20> Spinoglio Danilo 2008, Barbera del Monferrato
<21> Villa Giada “Bricco Dani” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza*

“Worst” is a harsh word — perhaps we should say “wrong-headed” or “deeply insufficient” — but the following wines seemed completely unsuitable because of astringent levels of oak, tannin and acidity or for other flaws, mainly “off” and funky odors. No wine, certainly not red, should smell like “plastic flowers and Evening in Paris,” as one of my notes recorded.

<1> Bava Azienda Agricola “Pianoalto” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<2> Cascina Guido Berta “Canto di Luna” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Tasted twice; much better was the Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore, not from Nizza)
<3> Cascina La Barbatella “La Vigna dell’Angelo” 2006 & 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Another case of liking a winery’s “regular” Barbera d’Asti more than the Nizza version)
<4> Dacapo SA “Vigna Dacapo” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<5> Erede di Chiappone Armando Azienda Vitivinicola “Ru” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Yet again, this winery’s “Brentura” 2007, Barbera d’Asti, was superior to the Nizza bottling)
<6> Francone “I Patriarchi” 2007, Barbera d’Alba Superiore 2007
<7> Franco Mondo “Vigna delle Rose” 2006, Barber d’Asti Superiore Nizza (I did like Franco Mondo’s “Vigna del Salice” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore)
<8> La Bruciata di Oscar Bosio 2007, Barbera d’Alba
<9> La Girona di Galandrino “Le Nicchie 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<10> Noceto Michelotti Azienda Agricola “Montecanta” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<11> Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani “Bricco Preje” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<12> Prunotto SRL “Costamiole” 2007, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
<13> Rivetto “Zio Nando” 2007, Barbera d’Alba (I wrote about Rivetto’s Barolos in a previous post)
<14> Scrimaglio “Acse” 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Once more, a case of finding a winery’s Barbera d’Asti wines more attractive than its Nizza wines)
<15> Tenuta La Tenaglia “1930 — Una Buona Annata” 2007, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore (I quite liked this property’s “Giorgio Tenaglia” 2007, Barbera d’Asti)
<16> Tenuta Olim Bauda 2006, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza

This post concludes my coverage of Barbera Week 2010. You may read my contributions and those of my “Barbera 7” colleagues on the collective blog, Barbera2010.com. I have more to write about my sojourn in Piedmont — a visit to Gaja; the whites wines of Piedmont — but those do not come under the purview of Barbera Week 2010.

Yes, friends there’s the eternal battle between Good and Evil, and then there’s the martini, dispensing its chilly balm with the chaste aplomb of a wordless nun. Here’s the end of the workweek and the end of a day on which nothing bad or embarrassing happened (not speaking of the world at large), and obviously it was the perfect time for a dose of the purest, most radiant of cocktails. The formula is five parts Tanqueray gin to one part Noilly-Prat vermouth. What you see floating in the drink is neither twist of orange rind nor goldfish but a sliver of kumquat skin.

We have been enamored of the kumquat, smallest of citrus fruit, for several days. Thursday night, LL made a sauce for seared tuna with sliced kumquats and jalapeno peppers, and I tell you, that made the taste-buds jump and jive. And last night, in addition to the kumquat twist in the martinis, I squeezed about 10 of the little suckers to get enough juice for a vinaigrette, by-passing the usual lemon.

I had taken a grass-fed, organic ribeye from the freezer, thawed it and then marinated it in soy sauce, Worcester, red wine, salt and pepper for a few hours. I cooked it in the simplest manner possible, in olive oil and butter is an ungodly hot cast-iron skillet, about four minutes per side, so it came out a rosy-colored medium rare. I had also sliced fingerling potatoes fairly thinly, doused them with olive oil, salt, pepper and minced rosemary and put them under the broiler, and guess what I discovered, guess what revelation was granted unto my grateful spirit? If you use parchment paper under a broiler, it will catch on fire! No harm done, though these tiny moments of drama do spark up a life, so to speak.

I opened a bottle of the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Oakville District. This is available at retail for a range of about $30 to $48; I paid $60 at a silent auction to benefit a dog rescue group. (A different silent auction than the one I’ve been writing about recently.)

Many wine consumers know the story of the Robert Mondavi Winery, how Robert Mondavi quarreled with his brother Peter about the operation and goals of the family’s Charles Krug winery, and Robert split away from the family and started his own winery in 1966; how he achieved remarkable success, building Robert Mondavi into one of the Napa Valley’s great wineries and brands; how he collaborated with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, in the creation of Opus One; how lofty ambitions and lavish spending began to chip away at the family’s wine empire, forcing the family to take the private company public; of conflicts among the father and his sons, Tim and Michael; how the winery, at the end of 2004, was sold to Constellation (which still uses the image and words of the late Robert Mondavi himself in advertising and on the website). This chronicle is related in sometimes brutal detail in Julia Flynn Siler’s highly readable and cautionary The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.

While the winery produces often excellent wines in a variety of genres — the Fume Blanc 1 Block is one of the best in sauvignon blancs in California — the reputation mainly rests on its Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon blends, especially the reserve bottlings. This “regular” Oakville cabernet is a blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 6 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent petit verdot and 1 percent each malbec and merlot. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels.

At a bit over four years old, the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Oakville, rests in a state of perfect equilibrium among all qualities and functions. This is a sleek, polished wine, smooth and savory and packed with spice, black currant and black cherry flavors, graphite-like minerals and the dry, slightly briery character of dense, chewy tannins. A few minutes in the glass bring up classic notes of cedar and tobacco, black olive, potpourri and bitter dark chocolate, finishing with a beguiling hint of mint and iodine. The wine embodies a gratifying sense of unassailable vitality and unshakable purpose. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. It was wonderful with the steak. Excellent. About $30 to $48.

Jordan cabernet sauvignons are habitually dismissed by critics and reviewers as “food wines” and “restaurant wines,” as if the primary reason for the existence of wine were not to drink with food and often at restaurants. While it’s true that Jordan cabernets don’t benefit from extended aging, beyond, say, five to six years, the way that “real” cabernets might, the wines have generally been very well-made and exhibit plenty of structure with the fruit to stand up to it. No, Jordan’s cabernets don’t rank with the best of California; they’re not in the league with Ridge Monte Bello, Caymus Special Selection or Joseph Phelps Insignia. That level of achievement was never, I think, the goal; for Jordan, elegance and accessibility trump power and longevity.

The winery was founded by Tom Jordan, a geologist who made a fortune in oil exploration, in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, close to the Russian River. As a signal of his intentions, he constructed a showplace facility to rival many a chateau in Bordeaux and brought on legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who essentially invented the concept of cabernet sauvignon as a varietal wine in California, as consultant. The first vintage released was 1976. From that vintage to today, the winemaker has been Rob Davis. The winery is now operated by Tom Jordan’s son, John.

My first impression on sniffing the Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Alexander Valley, was “classic Leoville-Barton,” because the wine expresses that cedar, tobacco, lead pencil, black currant bouquet typical of the chateau that is one of the stars of Bordeaux’s commune of St.-Julien. In fact, not having tried a cabernet from Jordan in a vintage of the 21st Century, I was surprised at how much structure the wine showed. It’s a blend of 76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 19 percent merlot and 5 percent petit verdot, aged 12 months in a combination of French (64 percent) and American (36 percent) oak barrels. While the nose picks up beguiling notes of bell pepper, black olive and plum, one also detects a background of walnut shell and wheatmeal and shale-like minerality, qualities that persist on the palate and through the finish. This is, in other words, a wine that is not shy about wood and tannins, though the wood feels polished and burnished, and the tannins are sleek and fine-tuned. The wine unfurls slightly macerated and fleshy black fruit flavors that avoid the spicy aspect in favor of purity and intensity — there’s a careful balance between coolness and warmth — though as the moments pass the wine’s earthy and minerally character expands, with a final touch of foresty briers and brambles. Elegant and seamless, but with unexpected dimension. Drink now through 2014 or ’15, at home or at a restaurant; great with rosemary-crusted lamb chops. Excellent. About $52.

The 2006 version of this wine will be released in May.

A sample for review.

I’m always on the look-out for champagnes from small producers as alternatives to the familiar labels from the highly marketed houses. Sometimes, because of their high production and total ubiquity, these champagnes seem more anonymous than if they emerged from obscure family-owned vineyards.

Well worth a search are the impeccably-made champagnes from the small house of François Billion Pére et Fils, located in the village of Le Mesnil sur Oger (pop. 1,258), officially designated a Grand Cru vineyard area for chardonnay; this region of Champagne is called Côte de Blancs because of its chalky white soil. Le Mesnil sur Oger is home to a number of small and medium-size producers, including Pierre Peters, Guy Charlemagne, Bardy-Chauffert and the luxury house of Salon.

The François Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Réserve Brut, Cépage Chardonnay, is, in a word, magnificent, with all that term implies of presence, tone and allure. Spending three years in the bottle before release, this sizable champagne — the color of palest gold, flecked with an infinity of surging bubbles — offers powerful notes of fresh-baked bread, cinnamon toast and smoke wreathed with roasted pears, acacia and honeysuckle. It’s a substantial champagne yet light on its feet, a seemingly effortless amalgam of energy and elegance, like a blond cauldron of boundless acidity married to the delicacy of pinpoint citrus flavors. A few minutes in the glass bring out nuances of toasted hazelnuts, a hint of crystallized ginger and candied grapefruit and then, far more than a nuance, a tide of chalk and shale that adds depth and weight to the long finish. Excellent. About $60.

The ruddy copper-salmon colored François Billion Spécial Rosé Brut is a blend of 70 percent Grand Cru chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir. The bouquet — fitting word! — teems with strawberries and raspberries and dried red currants with backnotes of fresh-baked biscuits, cloves and rose petals. This champagne is very dry and crisp, quite toasty, in fact almost briery in its (paradoxically) expanding spareness and rigor; it’s a wine with great ligatures and bones, the essence of liquid limestone and lithe, plangent acidity. A hint of smoke develops and a touch of orange rind, but mainly the red fruit stays true from beginning to end. Excellent. About $66.
William Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va. Samples for review. Map of Champagne from cafe-calva.com

A few nights ago, for dinner, I cooked the Salmon with Sweet Chili Glaze and Sugar Snap Peas that’s on the cover of the April issue of Bon Appétit. The recipe calls for pea tendrils or shoots as the final touch, but visits to our two usual grocery stores did not produce such a thing, so I substituted broccoli sprouts, which didn’t provide exactly the required note but did add a nice crunch and earthy flavor. You have to know when to improvise when cooking, n’est-ce pas? This dish was a hit! There’s a lovely combination of flavors and textures, with that Asian sweet-and-sour contrast going on. It will become a standard item in my repertory. Here’s a link to the recipe. I didn’t take this photograph, but it represents mainly what my result looked like too, minus the pea shoots or tendrils. Image by Craig Cutler.

For the wine, I wanted something that would bridge these various sensations — sweet and sour, spicy and earthy — so I opened a bottle of the Hahn Estate SLH Pinot Gris 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. The original winery of this enterprise, owned by Swiss-American Nicky Hahn, was Smith and Hook — first vintage 1980 — named for adjacent ranches in the Highlands. Hahn Estates, which owns 650 acres, now encompasses Cycles Gladiator, Bin 36, Lucienne, Copa del Rey (from Chile) and Huntington, which benefits a scholarship fund for higher education of children in Kenya. The SLH label is the newest effort.

The Hahn SLH Pinot Gris 2008 is made all in stainless steel to retain freshness, delicacy and clarity. Aromas of roasted lemon, lime peel and spiced pear are entwined with a gorgeous floral element in the form of honeysuckle and jasmine, infused with a hint of something spare and almost astringent. In the mouth, lemon and lime flavors offer nuances of peach and tangerine, along with, after a few minutes in the glass, slightly herbal qualities of celery seed and fennel. The appealing texture nicely balances soft, moderate lushness with vivacious acidity, while a trace of bracing bitterness enlivens the finish. Great with our salmon, or try with other spicy Asian dishes, or sushi or ceviche. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review.

The history of Rochioli Vineyards goes back to the late 1930s, when Joe Rochioli Sr, began buying land in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. He began planting vines in 1959; now the family owns about 118 acres, concentrating on sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir. The winery is run by Joe Rochioli Jr., with his son Tom as winemaker. Production is about 10,000 cases annually. Besides the estate wines, Rochioli makes a number of highly coveted limited edition single-vineyard wines available through a mailing list that has a five-year wait.

Rochioli wines have a tremendous reputation, one that must be the envy of many wineries in the Russian River Valley, not to say the entire state. I have tasted the sauvignon blanc in the past, but not the chardonnay or pinot noir. While I found the pinot completely wonderful, in fact one of the supreme examples of the grape made in California, I was dismayed by the oak influence and lack of integration in the sauvignon blanc, particularly, and the chardonnay. I am distinctly in the minority in this evaluation; these wines receive ecstatic reviews. According to my palate, however, there’s an unaccountable issue of balance.

Let’s start with the “No.”

You wouldn’t think that the oak treatment for the Rochioli Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Russian River Valley, was heavy-handed. Indeed, only 20 percent of the wine was fermented in French oak and then spent 50 days, a hair over four months, in barrel; the rest was in stainless steel. Yet the oak kills the wine. Here are my notes, verbatim: “Such class & breeding — lots of structure — v. spicy — supple oak — definitely enclosed in oak — roasted lemon & lemon curd –just has more oak than the fruit can carry”. I stayed with this wine for an hour or so, and then wrote, in a different color ink, below my initial notes, “too much oak, robs the wine of charm & appeal”.

Indeed, my first impression was of suavity, elegance and smoothness, but that optimism was quickly tempered and then eradicated by the oak that masked what would have been the wine’s virtues. This is a shame; 40 percent of the grapes came from a 50-year-old vineyard and another 26 percent from a 24-year-old hillside vineyard. Obviously a great deal of thought went into the wine’s composition, but the “intense, complex and richly flavored wine” I should have encountered, according to the technical sheet, could not be felt through the barrier of wood. I expected more balance and integration. 1,300 cases. A disappointment. About $35.

Here’s the “Maybe.”

The Rochioli Estate Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley, begins with a radiant mild gold color. Scents of classic grapefruit and pineapple are woven with hints of clove and ginger, with a touch of candied grapefruit (tantalizing and bright) and limestone in the background; the subtlest whiff of oak provides interest. So far, so good, but in the back of your month you feel the oak, and it expands forward, filling the mouth, and after a few minutes this chardonnay smells like oak too, woody and spicy and blond. “Too much,” say my notes, but the wine calms down in 30 to 45 minutes, and perhaps all is not lost, as it begins to smooth out. There’s taut authority here, vibrant acidity and some Chablis-like gunflint and earthiness, and a welcome sense of generosity in the spicy stone-fruit flavors. Yet a Burgundian chardonnay, the obvious model, would display its oak more judiciously, which is to say that oak would not be on display at all. This is, then, a multifaceted wine, a few of whose facets seem muted because of wood. Some of you may say, “FK, this is a stylistic argument. There are those who like to smell and taste wood in their chardonnays.” I think those people are wrong. Very Good+. About $50.

Now, the “Yes.”

Having been Bad Cop so far in this post, I magically become Good Cop, because the Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, may serve as a pertinent example of what the pinot noir grape may accomplish at the highest level of purity, authenticity and balance. The color is an entrancing cerise with a hint of magenta at the rim; the bouquet teems with a remarkably intense melange of slightly macerated black cherry, mulberry and cranberry enhanced by penetrating elements of spice and shale-like minerality. It takes a few moments in the glass for the spiciness to resolve into cloves and white pepper, and indeed, the wine unfolds in leisurely fashion, revealing, after 30 minutes or so, a subtle note of dried lavender and rose petals. There’s nothing deeply extracted or forced here; one feels, instead, a nuanced marriage of power and elegance, a tissue of delicacies woven into a fabric of chaste animation. Oak — 15 months in French barrels, 35 percent new –gently lends the wine shape and gravity, allowing resonant acidity to enliven a lovely, satiny texture. Satiny, yet spare; this is not one of those opulent California pinots that drugs the palate with epic allure; not a full-blown concerto but a nocturne, played with commanding restraint. Toward the finish, this pinot noir’s black cherry and plum flavors take on the slightly roughed edges of briers and brambles, and the wine concludes with a touch of mossy, mushroomy earthiness. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $60.
Since I received these samples for review from Rochioli, the Sauvignon Blanc 2009 and the Pinot Noir 2008 have been released.

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