Monday, March 29, 2010

A Sublime Italian White Wine

I needed a wine to accompany some take-out Chinese food the other evening and as I usually can’t go wrong with an aromatic white from Italy, I selected the 2008 Colli di Lapio Fiano di Avellino .

While I looked forward to seeing how this wine would pair with my Pork Subgum Chow Mein (subgum is with almonds and broccoli and it’s become my one of my favorites), I was especially curious about this particular wine, as the Italian wine publication Gambero Rosso had named this the “White Wine of the Year” in their recently published 2010 Italian Wines guide. Pretty daunting stuff!

Now in reality, how can you select one wine as the best white (or red or sparkling or dessert) of the year? You can argue for a dozen, perhaps even two dozen bottlings that could also earn that title. So while honoring one wine as the best isn’t a perfect situation, all you can ask is that the wine is truly something special.

This one really is. I love Campanian whites and I have to admit that over the past few years, I’ve been more enamored with Greco di Tufo than Fiano di Avellino, as the former tends to offer more subtleties, at least in the bottlings I’ve had. So it was nice to taste a Fiano that wasn’t overly ripe or lush, but still had plenty of varietal character as well as wonderful complexity.

Here are my tasting notes, as they will appear in the next issue of my Guide to Italian Wines:

Bright, light yellow with beautiful aromas of melon, Bosc pear, acaica honey and chamomile. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich, layered finish with outstanding persistence – almost fat. Vibrant acidity with prounced minerality in the finish. Outstanding fruit and superb winemaking combine to make this a first-rate Fiano di Avellino that is delicious now and will only improve for 3-5 years.

For such a wonderful white wine, I think the $26 retail price tag is very reasonable. This is a Marc de Grazia selection and there are various importers across the country. Needless to say, it may not be easy to find the wine, given the Gambero Rosso praise, but if it’s gone, wait a few months for the 2009 bottling.

In case you’re looking for something other than take-out Chinese food to pair with this or other bottlings of Fiano di Avellino, pasta with clams and/or mussels would be ideal as would cod, grouper or sea bass.

As well as a review of this wine, as well as some other whites from Campania (and Friuli), I'll also list my selections for the Best Italian Wines and Best Italian Producers of the Year. The subscription fee for one year of the guide is $30. If you only want this issue, the price is $10. For information on how to subscribe, click here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

We'll Miss You, Fess

Fess Parker passed away last week at the age of 85; here was a man who truly lived a wonderful life. I remember watching him on television in the 1960s as I was growing up; Parker was famous for wearing his trademark coonskin cap portraying Davy Crockett (“Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”) as well as Daniel Boone.

Parker later went on to establish his own winery in Los Olivos, California in the heart of the Santa Barbara wine country. What I loved about Parker was that this was not a publicity scam; he adored this area and liked making wines from this land. He was not a celebrity who was cashing in on his fame, as others have done. Rather, this was something he did because he loved doing it.

His early specialties were a beautiful off-dry Riesling and a wonderfully complex, layered Syrah. Over a decade ago, I did get the opportunity to meet Fess at the winery and he was kind enough to say hello, even though I didn’t have an appointment; he also signed a bottle of Syrah for me – a wonderful gesture. I remember how big he was in person; I recalled his television roles, but had no idea how truly larger than life he really was.

His son Eli is the current winemaker and has turned his attention to Viognier – one of the best I’ve had from California – as well as several small lot Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara County. These are lovely Pinot Noirs, especially the Pommard Clone bottling and the one from Ashley’s Vineyard. Both are quite rich and complex and Eli has been intelligent enough not to load up on the oak in either wine.

Many people will miss Fess Parker – I’m glad I had the chance to meet him that one day. By the way, I still have that bottle of Syrah he autographed for me. I think I’ll keep it just a little longer.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Barbera: The Good, The Bad and The Oaky

I recently returned from a strange week in Asti to taste hundreds of examples of Barbera from several appellations. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to taste as many wines as I would have liked, as I caught a terrible cold and throat infection and was forced to spend three days in my hotel room (the weather was very, very cold and windy with no shortage of snow). I did get to taste several dozen Barbera d’Asti the first day, so I was able to get a bit of a feeling for the wines.

From what I tasted that first day, I seem to be in agreement with several other American journalists and bloggers who also attended. Several reports have been published over the last few days, including those from Tom Maresca, Jeremy Parzen and Whitney Adams, with a common theme being that too many examples of Barbera were imbued with way too much oak. As Maresca says in his blog, this is an example of vintners trying to craft a “serious” wine. That’s unfortunate, as Barbera is such a pleasant wine in its own right. But today, with so many countries producing so many types of wine, more and more producers believe they need an edge when it comes to selling their wine. Thus the thought process behind shifting Barbera from its simple pleasures to a more ageworthy, full-throttle wine.

Besides too much oak, I also found that many of the bottlings were far too ripe with a distinct jamminess. This trait appeared regularly in the newly released 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore bottlings. The Superiore designation refers to a wine aged longer before release, meaning it is a bigger, richer wine to begin with, as compared to the regular bottling. So the decision often comes before the grapes are harvested – leave them on the vine longer and the vintner can make a riper, more powerful wine. That in turns leads to more time in oak and ultimately a wine that is quite often, not well balanced.

2007 was a year with excellent ripeness and too many vintners pushed their wines towards the ripe, blockbuster style. I guess these vintners have read too many wine articles and truly believe that consumers in America (a large export market) love these inky black, candy-like wines. Some people do, but try enough of these wines and I think even the most ardent fan will start to back off a bit. The wines aren’t balanced and they’re tiring to drink. They’re wines for tasting, not for drinking, meaning they don’t pair that well with food. If that’s the case, what’s the point?

To be fair, I did enjoy quite a few bottlings of Barbera the one day I did taste. I found several from 2008 that I enjoyed. This was a more subdued vintage and the wines are fresh and drinkable. Why we can’t get more wines like this is a mystery to me, but then again I probably answered the question above. We could get low-key, elegant wines all the time, but too many producers go for the obvious, as they think that’s what consumers want.

Here are the wines I recommend. At this point, there’s no reason for me to name the wines I don’t:

2008 BARBERA D’ASTI (recommended)
Cantina Sociale di Mombercelli “Terre Astesane”
Caudrina “La Solista”
Marco Crivelli “Colline La Mora” (hightly recommended)
Fratelli Trinchero “La Trincherina”
Montalbera “La Ribelle”
Prunotto “Fiulot” (highly recommended)
Giacomo & Figlio Scagliola

2007 BARBERA D’ASTI (recommended)
Bersano “Ca d’Galdin”
Ca dei Mandorli “La Bellaida”
Cantina Vignasone “Selezione”
Cantina Vignasone

2007 BARBERA D’ASTI SUPERIORE (recommended)
Pavia Agostino “Moliss”
Cantina Sociale Barbera dei Sei Castelli “Le Vignole”
La Ghersa “Muscae”
La Ghersa “Vignassa” (very highly recommended – my top scoring wine)
Tenuta dei Fiori “Rusticardi 1933”
Tenuta La Flammenga “Paion” (highly recommended)
Tenuta La Pergola “Vigne Vecchie della Cappelleta”
Marchesi di Gresy “Monte Colombo” (highly recommended)
La Ballerina “Ajé”

One final point: I've always enjoyed Barbera d'Alba and Barbera Monferrato, as these wines tend to me more restrained. I'll post again when I taste some excellent examples of these wines.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tre Bicchieri in Chicago

Text and photos ©Tom Hyland

Gambero Rosso wrapped up their annual Tre Bicchieri tastings last week with a glorious event in Chicago, the first such occurrence of its kind for my hometown. The organizers wisely selected the historic Union Station, just west of the Loop, and the old train station never looked so beautiful. Most vintners I spoke with that had participated in the two previous tastings in New York and San Francisco earlier in the week, offered their opinions that this was the best venue of the three.

This is an exciting tasting for the obvious reason that many of the best wines in Italy are available for tasting; Sassicaia, Bruno Giacosa Barolo and Barbaresco and Planeta Cometa are only a few examples of this. But going beyond the most famous offerings, this is an opportunity to sample wines that the magazine’s staff rated on an equal level (Tre Bicchieri) with those famous bottlings. These included wines made from Vermentino, Sylvaner and Grechetto for white and Corvina, Garganega and Pugnitello for red. Being able to taste a selection such as this is quite special and it gives one a sense of the variety of the Italian wine scene. The vintners of Italy have always prided themselves on the singularity of their products, so while a tasting of only Brunello, Barolo and Amarone would be thrilling, it wouldn’t give one a proper overview of contemporary Italian viticulture. Gambero Rosso is to be congratulated not only for organizing these tastings in the United States (and other countries), but also for including wines made from dozens of different varieties from every corner of the Italian peninsula.

Here is a brief list of a few of my favorites I tasted last Friday:


Sergio Mottura
2008 Poggio della Costa

I get few opportunites to taste wines from Lazio – honestly, how many of us do – so when I finally had the opportunity to meet Sergio Mottura and samples his latest releases, I was delighted. Mottura specializes in Grechetto; this particular wine is aged only in stainless steel and offers lovely fragrances of melon and dried pear and has a distinct juiciness to it. Mottura also poured the 2007 Latour a Civitella, another pure Grechetto, which was aged in oak. This had mango and white spice notes with very good acidity. I actually preferred this wine, as has Gambero Rosso in previous vintages.

Sergio Mottura

Abbazzia di Novacella
2008 Sylvaner Praepositus

This historic estate in Alto Adige never disappoints and often surprises – how often do we classify a Sylvaner as a first-rate wine? Yet this 2008 offering is just that, given its peach, pear and apricot aromas, excellent persistence and lively acidity.

Cantina Lunae Bosoni
2008 Vermentino Colli di Luni “Etichetta Nera”

Vermentino is one of those wines that few consumers know, yet everyone seems to love once they try it. This is a splendid rendition with acacia and yellow apple aromas bursting out of the glass. This is a serious Vermentino I think will be enjoyable for another five years – or perhaps even longer.

2008 Broy

This is one of the more famous “Super Whites” from Friuli and ir’s easy to see why, as this blend of Chardonnay, Friulano and Sauvignon is a seamless bottling that offers plenty of fruit (pear, apple) as well as spice (saffron, ginger). Rich with a lengthy finish, yet quite elegant and never overpowering – truly one of the more subtle botlings of its type.

2007 Braide Alte

While the Collvini Broy is low-key, this wine is more outgoing. A blend primarily of Chardonnay and Sauvignon (Blanc), this oak-aged white has great depth of fruit to back up the lovely aromas of spiced pear, chamomile and hyacinth. The well-structured finish is quite lengthy and the wine overall is quite sensual. This should age for at least a decade.

Elena Walch
2008 Gewurztraminer “Kastelaz”

No surprise here, as each year this wine captures the exotic fragrances of this variety as well as any other example in Italy. One whiff of the piercing lychee aromas and you’re captivated by this wine! Dry, full-bodied and quite complex, this is just a baby – check back on this in about five years.


Olim Bauda
2006 Barbera d’Asti Nizza

A producer that is hardly known in this country, although that might change with this wine. Deep ruby red with black plum and mocha aromas, this is rich, ripe and delicious! There are so many excellent offerings of Barbera from the strict Nizza appellation; this is prime evidence of how ideal this zone is for this variety.

2006 Coevo

For anyone who knows Cecchi merely for their humble Chianti Classico, I offer this wine as evidence of how good the wines are at this large estate in Castellina. A blend of Sangiovese from the Chianti Classico zone and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot from the Maremma (an intriguing concept), this has notes of red raspberry and black cherry fruit along with a touch of dill, elegant tannins and excellent persistence. A nicely balanced and stylish Super Tuscan.

Tenuta di Valgiano
2006 Tenuta di Valgiano

This Tuscan estate, located near Lucca, has been improving its reds for some time now and this 2006 bottling, a blend of Sangiovese, Syrah and Merlot is a beautifully textured wine with ideal ripness, elegantly styled tannins and ideal acidity. I am enjoying the 2006 reds from Tuscany immensely; this is one of my favorites to date.

2004 Sagrantino di Montefalco Chiusa di Pannone

This is the first bottling of this cru and Filippo Antonelli is off to a brilliant start with this wine. Always one of the area's most traditional producers, Antonelli has delivered a deeply concentrated effort with lovely perfumes and beautiful acidity; he has also managed to tame the aggressive tannins of Sagrantino. This Umbrian red is one of Italy's most underrated wines; perhaps this will bring the area's offerings greater attention.

Filippo Antonelli

2005 Barolo “Bricco delle Viole”

The 2005 Barolos are beautifully balanced wines and now that the wines have been in the bottle for some time, their fruit is emerging quite gracefully. Aldo Vajra always crafts his wines in an elegant style and this bottling is as graceful as you could hope for with Barolo. It also has pinpoint acidity, subtle spice and refined tannins – in short, a superb Barolo.

2004 Barolo Lazzarito La Delizia

This particular cru Barolo is always released later than the other crus from this estate, due to its higher level of tannins. 2004 was a great year in Barolo and this bottling has the power of that vintage combined with plenty of spice and fruit. Look for this to be at its best in 20 years or so.

Bruno Giacosa
2005 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto

One of Piemonte’s giants, Bruno Giacosa seems incapable of producing anything less than a superb wine when it comes to Barolo and Barbaresco. Full-bodied, with aromas of currants and truffles, this grabs hold of you and never lets go. A rich mid-palate and a lengthy finish with outstanding concentration, this is a memorable 2005 Barolo.

Elvio Cogno
2004 Barolo Vigna Elena

This is a special Barolo from Cogno produced solely from the rosé clone that few producers bother with anymore. As the clone’s name might suggest, this is a perfumed offering with sensual notes of red roses and red cherrieS with a long, graceful finish, excellent concentration and lively acidity. If a wine is to age for decades, it must be in equilibrium when it is released; this is a textbook example of perfect balance.


Ca’ Rugate
2006 Recioto di Soave La Perlara

Let’s end with a sweet wine – e che un vino dolce! Made exclusively from Garganega grapes that were naturally dried for several months, this is lightly sweet with notes of honey, apricot and pear and finishes with cleansing acidity. Michele Tessari has always managed to make a rich Recioto di Soave that is always elegant without being too fat or lush. I am glad to see that Gambero Rosso finally decided to give their highest award to a Recioto di Soave.

All in all, this was a wonderful event that was well-attended. I do hope the organizers will return to Chicago as this event will only grow in popularity.

I want to thank everyone from Gambero Rosso who worked on this event for their efforts, especially Tiina Eriksson and Marco Sabellico, who were especially gracious.