Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chianti Classico and the SuperTuscans

Recently there have been a few bloggers that have reported about the inclusion of SuperTuscans at the Chianti Classico tasting organized by the Chianti Classico Consorzio in Florence. This is an annual tasting that is held in February and plans are to include SuperTuscans along with the bottlings of Chianti Classico from the Consorzio producers.

Early information had noted the inclusion of the SuperTuscans, but then a few days later, there was a report of a vote to exclude these wines. I thought I would go to the source to learn what is really happening. I emailed Silvia Fiorentini, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Chianti Classico Consorzio, asking her what will and will not be sampled at the event. Here is her response from an email I received this morning:

"Everything remains unchanged. SuperTuscans (only one per estate and only coming from the Chianti territory) will be presented at the producers' desks."

Hopefully, this clears everything up.

It seems that some wine journalists and bloggers were upset that SuperTuscans would be included in this event, believing that Chianti Classico should not have to share the spotlight with these more hyped wines. The decision as it stands now, seems like a very good solution to what could be a problem. Only allowing one SuperTuscan per producer means that these wines will not dominate. Personally, I believe this will make for a more interesting tasting, as it will give the journalists a chance to compare and contrast.

To me, this is all about common sense; it's not about drawing a line in the sand. As regulations stand now, the difference between a Chianti Classico and a SuperTuscan can be minimal; in fact there are some SuperTuscans that could today be identified as a Chianti Classico, given the changes over the past 15 years in regulations. (Kyle Phillips recently wrote an excellent post on the meaning of SuperTuscans. Read it here and read my followup post here.)

I respect the opinions of those who argue for the purity of Chianti Classico and who are against this decision. But I am in favor of this new pronouncement, as it gives a journalist such as myself the option of trying what I want and organizing a tasting that is best suited to my needs. Trying the various wine types against each other provides an invaluable education and to me learning about Italian wines at events such as these are what makes my job so fascinating; discovering all the wines of this territory is truly an ongoing learning process.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Gem from Francis Ford Coppola

Rubicon Estate, Rutherford, Napa Valley (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Everyone knows the name of Francis Ford Coppola, most likely as the director of such outstanding films as Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and The Godfather Trilogy, but also as the owner of one of Napa Valley's finest wine estates. Located in the heart of Rutherford, just west of Highway 29, this farm has been one of Napa's most famous Cabernet Sauvignon estates, ever since its founding in 1880 by Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain.

Niebaum named the estate Inglenook and with an eye on producing reds that could challenge the world's best, received such praise from several corners in Europe. Prohibition slowed things in Napa, but upon repeal, Niebaum's wife's grand-nephew John Daniel, Jr. took over the estate and elevated the wines to even greater heights, which continued through the 1940s, '50s and early '60s. In 1975, Coppola purchased this glorious estate, which had lost much of its glamor and aimed to make great wines again; he named it Niebaum-Coppola.

His first great wine - and one that he continues to produce today - was called Rubicon, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon from a clone Niebaum brought over from France. The first vintage, the 1978, was released in 1985 and immediately brought Coppola new fame as a vintner as well as movie icon. Several vintages later, the wine was hailed as one of Napa Valley's most distinguished, a status it maintains to this day.

While Rubicon has always been the most recognized wine from this estate - indeed, Coppola used this nomenclature as the new name for the estate - there is another outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon produced from these certified organic estate vineyards. Named Cask Cabernet, in honor of the famous Cask wines produced by John Daniel, the wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged not in small French barrels, a la Rubicon, but in mid-size (500 liter) American puncheons.

The first vintage, the 1995, debuted in 1998; I've tried a handful of vintages since and have always been impressed with the balance and polish of this wine as well as its terroir. Any discussion of terroir with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has always been a trick thing, in for no other reason that many of the vineyards are quite young and have yet to develop specific characteristics. But with the Cask Cabernet, we are talking about vineyards that are decades old on soils that yielded some of California's finest Cabernet Sauvignons during the 1940s and '50s.

I tasted the 2006 the other night and greatly enjoyed the wine for several reasons. This is medium-full - 2006 was not a powerful vintage - with a generous mid-palate that offers tightly packed fruit, balanced acidity and firm, but balanced tannins. There is also a distinct earthiness in the finish - what Napa Valley Cabernet lovers refer to as "Rutherford Dust." The oak is admirably subdued and there is excellent persistence. While it is balanced enough for big red meats now, this wine needs time to show its best qualities. It should round out nicely in another 5-7 years and drink well for another 7-10 after that. Given that, the $75 tag for a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from one of Napa Valley's most historic plots is a reasonable price. Bravo to Francis Ford Coppola and his viticultural and winemaking team on this marvelous accomplishment!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

Regarding my constant look at the coverage of Italian wine by The Wine Spectator, it seems there is some good news and some not-so-good news. Let's start with the good.

Bruce Sanderson took over the job of writing about Italian wines for the magazine recently and from what I've seen so far (admittedly a small sample), I have to congratulate him on his views. In the November 30 edition, Sanderson rewarded the small estate of Cascina Roccalini in the town of Barbaresco with some very high scores, with the highest rating being a 93 for the winery's 2008 Barbera d'Alba.

I tasted this offering at the winery this past May, thanks to the US importer Terence Hughes, who set up my appointment after I expressed interest in trying these wines, which I had read about on his blog. I loved all the wines from Cascina Roccalini, especially this Barbera, which is an amazing wine (see the post from my other blog). The wines have great varietal purity, impeccable balance and beautiful structure. This is certainly a combination of several factors, including the viticulture of owner Paolo Veglio as well as the superb winemaking of Dante Scaglione, best known to Italian wine lovers as the former winemaker for Bruno Giacosa.

Dante Scaglione, Winemaker, Cascina Roccalini (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

As you might imagine from his previous work, Scaglione makes wines in a traditional style; that is to say, wines aged in grandi botti, large casks as opposed to the small French oak barriques. Many wine writers have joined me in my preference for traditionally aged wines from Piemonte, as they best express a sense of place instead of emphasizing a dark color or a the obvious sweet and spicy notes of small oak.

Readers of this blog know of my disdain for the previous individual who covered Italian wines at the Spectator. Suffice it to say that he clearly preferred modern wines made in an international style. Like what you want, but do your job and give credit to those vintners that continue to make wines that represent their heritage. There are just too many internationally-styled wines out there today. We all expect a different style of cuisine when we go to Italy - we don't go there to have a hamburger (or foie gras, for that matter), so is it too much to ask that producers in Italy continue to be honored for their traditional views? That they should be rewarded for making wines that are singular and not aimed at following a trend?

So thanks to Sanderson for his glowing reviews of the Cascina Roccalini wines. Maybe we will see a shift in the publication's Italian wine coverage, but I'll wait a while before I'm fully satisfied. (By the way, here is a link to Terence Hughes' blog with a mention of Sanderson's reviews. Thanks again to Terence for letting me know about these wines. Production is rather small, so the wines are only in a few markets.)

That's the good news. Now for the bad and I'll keep it brief. The Spectator has recently announced its Top 100 wines for the year, what the publication labels as the "year's most exciting wines." There are exactly nine wines from Italy that made the list.

Now while I think there should me more than nine, I won't criticize them for this; let's face it, there are impressive wines being produced in many countries these days, so they need to let their readers know about them. But it's the choice of wines that irks me. Of the nine wines, seven are from Tuscany. Seven of nine! You'd think this was the only region in Italy that produced notable wines (the other wines - one each - are from the Friuli and Veneto regions). Nothing from Piedmont? Nothing, especially given the new releases of 2006 Barolo and 2007 Barbaresco? Nothing from Sicily, Campania, Alto Adige, Lombardia or Umbria? This proves to me the lack of balanced coverage of Italian wines by the magazine.

Of the nine wines, eight are red. While I expected a significantly larger proportion of Italian reds to whites on this list, this balance is highly questionable. But even if you only have one white wine to represent Italy on your Top 100 list, you select a Pinot Grigio? This is one of the year's most "exciting" wines? Have the writer (or writers) not tried any white wines from Alto Adige or Campania recently? Or other producers from Friuli? There are dozens of impressive wines from these regions, especially from the outstanding 2009 vintage. Just to name a few producers who have made gorgeous Italian whites over the past year, I'd go with Cantina Tramin, Cantina Terlano, Elena Walch, J. Hofstatter (Alto Adige); Edi Keber, Zuani, Livio Felluga, Marco Felluga, Livon (Friuli) and finally Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Vadiaperti and Luigi Maffini from Campania. (One final note on this: the Pinot Grigio is from Attems, a nicely made wine, but one that is hardly exciting, especially when compared to the whites listed above. To make matters worse, the 2008 bottling is the one that made the list, even though the 2009 has been on American retail shelves for several months now, which means that the 2008 is probably gone.)

It seems as though the old administration at the magazine may have had a lot to do with this list, as a few of the wines that made the Top 100 from Italy have been represented before. Yes, there are some new entries here, but again, the list is just a dull one. Let's hope this year is the last time the publication selects such a poor representation of Italian wines. I hope that's the case, but I'm not betting on it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Great Tour of some Grand Wines

Reading through Joseph Bastianich's latest book, Grandi Vini: A Opinionated Tour of Italy's Finest 89 Wines (Clarkson Potter, New York, $24.99), is almost as rewarding as sitting down with a winemaker at his cellar or home in Italy and tasting one of his finest releases. You're not in Italy, but you might as well be, given the author's insights combined with his mixture of history, personality and elegantly simple wine descriptions.

Bastianich is one of America's foremost authorities on Italian wines and only someone who has studied this subject for so long could write a book as valuable as this. He currently owns more than a dozen Italian restaurants in New York City and also owns wine estates in Friuli and Toscana in Italy. He grew up working for his parents (everyone knows his mother Lidia) at their Buonavia Resaturant in Queens and then moved on to embrace Italian wines with the help of a nearby wine retailer.

Bastianich was able to travel to Italy, at first with his parents and then on his own and it's clear from this book how enamored he became with the country, its wines and foods. Grandi Vini is more than just a listing of dozens of great wines (though it's an impressive list), it also serves as a travelogue across the Italian peninsula, giving the reader a look into the complex and fascinating world of Italian viticulture.

The famous wines and producers, such as Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Biondi-Santi and Gaja are listed as you would imagine. But what I'm most impressed with are the lesser-known wines the author has included, wines that deserve much more attention than they currently receive. These include such outstanding wines as the Giuseppe Rinaldi "Brunate -Le Coste" Barolo, the Fontanafredda "Lazzarito -La Delizia" Barolo, the "Monte Fiorentine" Soave Classico from Ca' Rugate and the "Vorberg Riserva" Pinot Bianco from Cantina Terlano in Alto Adige (I must admit that I'm thrilled to see these wines in the book, as the are all personal favorites of mine as well).

In case you're one of those wine lovers that only thinks of Italy for its big reds, such as Barolo, Brunello and Amarone, you'll love learning about its notable whites from Friuli, Marche and Campania among others as well as gorgeous reds such as Taurasi, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Gattinara, to name only a few. Of course, there have been many fine books that have documented the story of Italian wines, so this is not groundbreaking material, but perhaps only someone as familiar with Italian wines and as passionate as Bastianich could have told this tale so eloquently.

The book is titled as "an opinionated tour" and there are many valuable observations on specific wines and producers. Basianich notes how Edi Keber changed the history of Collio with the introduction of his Collio Bianco, a blend of several local varieties. He writes, "Edi and 80 out of 120 producers in Collio believe that a wine named Collio, crafted from historic and native varietals (sic), is the only future for this tiny border wine region making the best white wines in Italy and perhaps in the world."

An even stronger opinion is revealed in the author's text on Bruno Giacosa, the famed producer of Barbaresco and Barolo. "Bruno Giacosa," the author writes, "has remained almost the only winemaker in Piemonte who is still able to make great wines with other people's grapes." Where else would you read a comment such as that?

As for the chosen wines themselves, Bastianich has opted for a balancing act, as is the proper course for a book on the best Italian wines. Of course, Barolo, Amarone and Brunello are well represented, but there are also several examples of Taurasi, Soave and Chianti Classico as well as classical made sparkling wines from Lombardia and Trentino along with notable reds such as Nero d'Avola and Aglianico del Vulture. The style of the wines vary as well, from traditional to the more modern; writing about Barolo, the author confesses his love for traditional wines, yet also praises the ultra-modern approach taken by Roberto Voerzio.

Finally, I love the writing style Bastianich uses for the descriptions of his wines. This is not a book filled with words such as "opulent", "austere" or "dramatic", but rather words that make these wines easy to understand. For example, discussing the Ca' Rugate "Monte Fiorentine" Soave, he writes, "In the mouth, the wine is round, juicy and elegant. Despite never having seen wood, this wine has body, well-balanced acidity and structure." This is a summary everyone can understand and given the enormous range of Italian wines in general, the author's decision to simplify things and not talk down to the reader is a welcome one.

The combination of history, opinions and insights into particular producers Bastianich has met over the years makes this book a valuable entry in the Italian wine world. Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Ins and Outs of Supertuscans

Over at Kyle Phillips's Italian Wine Review, the author has contributed an excellent post on the subject of Supertuscans (read here). Phillips, an American who has been living in Tuscany for several years, discusses a recent tasting of ten Supertuscans he attended and gives his typically thorough notes on the wines.

He also lends a valuable lesson on the history as well as the meaning of these wines. Phillips points out the vagaries of Italian wine laws over the past 30 or so years, mentioning how some wines originally identified as Supertuscans - basically red blends that did not adhere to the strict denomination laws - could now be labeled as a DOC or DOCG wine, thanks to the changes in these categories (such as allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot in a Chianti Classico).

So what is a Supertuscan, the author asks? It is an important question, if not for quality's sake, then certainly for the sake of prestige and marketing. The answer is not as easy as you might imagine, especially when you consider the various approaches that individual wineries in Tuscany take when it comes to labeling their wines. For some the Supertuscan term is a helpful one, as it is a category they can use when they produce a wine that does not fit the DOC or DOCG requirements. A great example of this is Camartina from Querciabella, one of my favorite Supertuscans from one of my favorite Chianti Classico producers. As this wine is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Sangiovese, this cannot be labeled as a Chianti Classico, as that wine type must contain a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. Thus the wine is legally labeled as IGT Toscana Rosso (a big improvement over the old labeling of Vino da Tavola or "table wine."); IGT may be its legal identity, but in reality, the wine is a Supertuscan.

This is great for Querciabella, as the Supertuscan term denotes a special wine, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of importance and limited availability. It's as though the winery is saying, this is our best wine (it is, along with their monovarietal Merlot called Palafreno) and we can take special care to make this a wine of the highest quality (and quite often a wine of the highest price range for any particular estate). As Querciabella also makes an excellent Chianti Classico, the winery offers both a DOCG wine as well as Supertuscans and the consumers have a choice.

Then you have the case of Tignanello from Antinori, which was one of the first Supertuscans, as Piero Antinori used Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (along with omitting white grapes such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, which were required until changes in the 1990s); at the time (early 1970s), Cabernet Sauvignon was not allowed in a Chianti Classico, so Antinori could not label it as such. Yet recent changes in DOCG laws now permit small percentages of Cabernet Sauvugnon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc to be part of the blend, so Tignanello can today be labeled as a Chianti Classico, should Antinori choose that option (a typical blend for Tignanello these days is 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc). So why does Antinori not label the wine as a Chianti Classico? In Phillips's words, "Tignanello is quite well enough known as it is, and calling it Chianti Classico would likely have no positive impact on its sales."

I agree completely and think the author is on to something when he writes that "a Supertuscan is what a winemaker wants it to be." That may not fit neatly into wine laws, but it represents reality. These wines represent a philosophy, which is generally a winery telling us that this is a special wine that they believe doesn't fit neatly into one category or if it does, exceeds the typical quality of that category.

Of course, some wines are by necessity categorized as Supertuscans, as they may contain less Sangiovese than is required; this may be a winemaking decision based on the weather, when the Sangiovese did not ripen properly due to cool weather or late season rains (perhaps a blend, let's say of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Merlot, thus not legally a Chianti Classico). In these instances, the Supertuscan category is necessary (though the category is in reality, IGT Toscana Rosso, as mentioned above).

Then you have wineries that believe that they can produce better DOC and DOCG wines and eschew the Supertuscan category. These producers believe that Supertuscans are confusing for consumers, who better understand the historical importance of the Chianti Classico or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano name (among others in Tuscany). Thus their marketing and wine production revolves around a given and not a fleeting category.

In the end, it's an interesting debate. Phillips has written an excellent post (which includes a brief history of Chianti Classico laws); it certainly gave me valuable insight as well as an incentive to express my own thoughts on this category. I'm certain this debate will continue for many years to come.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Argentina - on the rise

A straightforward post today about some new wines I've tasted from Argentina lately. Malbec is still king of course, although Torrontes is starting to become a more important variety. Overall, quality is improving, as the mentality among many producers has shifted from mass production to a more limited scope, based on smaller production. I hope we will soon see more varieties take hold in Argentina, as I believe they will need more than Malbec if they truly want to complete in the world market. Syrah, as evidenced by the Sietefincas bottling below, may be the answer.


2009 Finca Las Yeguas “Gozzo” Torrontes (Mendoza)
Light yellow with aromas of tangerine and golden apple. Medium-bodied, this has good freshness and acidity as well as elegance and drinkability. Good weight on the palate. Enjoy over the next 1-2 years. ($13)

2007 Secreto Patagonia Chardonnay (Patagonia)
Light yellow with pleasant aromas of ripe pear, apple and citrus. Medium-bodied, this has good persistence, lively acidity and even a light hint of minerality. Nicely styled for this price . Enjoy over the next 12-18 months. ($18)

2009 Tamari Torrontes Riserva (I.P. La Rioja)
Light yellow with enticing aromas of mandarin orange, jasmine and a hint of caneloupe. Medium-bodied, this has excellent freshness and balance with a flavorful finish with nice delicacy. A throughly enjoyable wine with very good complexity. Pair with Oriental cuisine, especially with shrimp. Enjoy over the next 12-15 months. ($15)

2008 Vasija Secreta “VAS” Torrontes (Valle de Cafayate)
While most examples of Torrontes are reminiscent of a fruit cocktail in their aromatics (and I mean that in a positive sense), this bottling offers much greater complexity. Straw color with aromas of dried yellow flowers, Bosc pear and spearmint. Medium-bodied with very good concentration. Beautiful texture, rich finish with very good persistence and lively acidity. Drinking beautifully now – enjoy over the next 2 years. This is as good and as multi-dimensional a Torrontes as I've ever tasted. Excellent ($22)


2008 Tercos Bonarda (Mendoza)
Although not planted in large numbers, Bonarda is being seen more often these days in Argentina; the grape was brought over to Argentina from Piedmont in northern Italy. Bright garnet, pleasing aromas of Queen Anne cherries and sage; medium-bodied with pleasing cherry fruit on the palate, soft tannins and tart acidity. An enjoyable quaffing red meant for lighter dishes (ideal with empanadas) - enjoy over the next 10-12 months. Nicely priced at $12.

2006 El Rosal Reserve Malbec (Mendoza)
Deep ruby red with aromas of red cherry, sage and turmeric. Medium-full with good concentration. Round tannins, balanced acidity and nicely integrated oak. Light herbal notes in the finish. Enjoy this subdued wine over the next 2-3 years. ($18)

2008 Sietefincas Malbec (Mendoza)
Deep ruby red with aromas of black plum, tar and menthol. Medium-bodied with good ripeness, moderate tannins, balanced acidity and pleasing black spice in the finish. There is subtle oak that tones down the ripe fruit and adds complexity and overall, this is a nicely balanced offering that is a step up from the numerous one-dimensional Malbecs in this price range. Enjoy over the next 1-2 years. ($16)

Las Piedras di Luis Pannunzio "Giovanni Vincenzo" Malbec 2008 (Mendoza)
There is a strong Italian influence with this wine, which is fitting as the winery was founded in 1952 by Giovanni Vincenzo Pannunzio, an Italian immigrant. Bright ruby red with aromas of blackberry, plum and tar. Medium-bodied with rich spice and nicely balanced tannins and notes of dried brown herbs in the finish. This is quite reminiscent of a young Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Enjoy over the next 1-2 years. Nice complexity for $17.

2006 El Porvenir "Amauta lll" (Cafayate Valley, Salta)
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Deep ruby red, aromas of black cherry, sage and oregano. Medium-full with good ripeness, rich tannins and a notable herbal finish with balanced acidity. This needs time to settle down and round out; best to pair this with grilled meats and game. Best in 3-5 years. ($22)

2008 Sietefincas Syrah (Mendoza)
Deep ruby red with aromas of sage, cinnamon and currant. Medium-bodied with very good concentration, this has an elegant entry on the palate. The finish offers very good persistence, bright acidity and subtle notes of dried orange peel, clove and Charismas spice. This is a beautifully made Syrah that goes for subtlety and finesse instead of taking the super ripe, powerhouse approach. If you prefer jammy Syrahs with deep purple color, look elsewhere – I’ll go for this style almost every time. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years, especially with lighter game, stews and aged cheeses. Lovely value at $16.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Treasures from Croatia

Ivica Matosevic, Matosevic Wines
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The world's a big place and it seems that in most countries that offer a hospitable climate, wine is produced. Given that, it seems that every six months or so, we're hearing about a new wine region that has become an overnight success, despite the fact the growers and producers have been at this for a few decades (or centuries, in some cases).

The latest collection of wines I was introduced to quite recently were those from Croatia. This country, located near the Adriatic Sea, a bit east of Italy and west of Serbia, enjoys a continental climate where summers are warm and winters are cold, much like certain wine zones of northern Italy as well as parts of France. To date, the best known thing about the wines of Croatia has been the Plavac Mali grape, originally thought to be a descendant of the Zinfandel grape, but is in reality a cross between Zinfandel and the Croatian indigenous variety Dobričić.

Despite this, the white wines were the ones that most impressed me at the tasting of the newest releases from two of the country's best producers, Matosevic and Saints Hills. The mix here was both indigenous and international varieties, but the stylings were very European in their manner, with an eye on the latest technology in the cellar.

First, the wines of Matosevic, who specializes in Malvasia and Chardonnay. He has two lines, one labeled Aura, which refers to wines aged in stainless steel and the other labeled Alba, which are wines that have been fermented and aged in oak. My favorites here were the Malvasia, especially the 2009 Aura ($24), with its perfumes of pear and peony, lively acidity and finesse; this is showing beautifully now (as is the 2008, also tasted this day) and will drink well over the next 2-3 years. (I love non-oak aromatic whites such as this with Thai or Oriental cuisine, but there are a variety of options for these bottlings.)

While I normally prefer steel-aged versions of Malvasia, I was quite impressed with the barrique-aged rendering produced by Matosevic. The 2008 displays a light nuttiness in the aromas along with notes of dried pear and caramel. The mid-palate is quite rich and there is a long finish with lively acidity. This is an excellent wine with beautiful complexity; I'd love to try this wine with seafood or even poultry or lighter veal; it should drink well over the next 3-5 years. (The $25 retail price makes this a fine value.)

Matosevic also has a white blend known as Grimalda ($28), a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia. The wine was aged for one year in barrique and one year in stainless steel and displays aromas of spiced pear and anise and is quite rich on the palate. Nicely balanced, this has good acidity and a full finish; enjoy this over the next 2-3 years with most pork or most seafood.

Ernest Tolj, Saints Hills
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The finest white at this tasting was from Ernest Tolj of Saints Hills, who showed his 2009 Nevina, a blend of Malvasia and Chardonnay. Sporting aromas of chamomile tea and dried pear, this is a powerful white that explodes on the palate and has a long, long finish with distinct minerality. This is an impressive wine that compares to the finest blended whites of Friuli and is nicely priced between $30-$35. This needs strong seafood with a rich sauce - perhaps scallops with ginger or swordfish with rosemary.

There were two reds sampled at this event: the Matosevic Grimalda Red and the Saints Hills Dingac. The former, a blend of Merlot and Terano, has aromas of black plum and anise and is medium-full with good acidity and elegant tannins. There is delicate spice, but this is a fruit-driven wine with subdued wood notes. Enjoy this over the next 5-7 years with most red meats ($30).

The latter is made from Plavac Mali and is a more powerful red with big spice (somewhat reminiscent of a Barbera from Piemonte), good acidity and plenty of black plum fruit. This definitely needs game or grilled red meat to accompany it and it will have its fans. I enjoyed the wine and think it will drink well over the next 5-7 years - it will need a few years to settle down - but I found it lacked some finesse and elegance. Perhaps with time, that will come. The suggested retail price of $54-$60 seems a bit high to me and will make this a difficult sell.

So my first encounter with the wines of Croatia was quite enjoyable. The wines are not only well made, but offer beautiful complexity and best of all, a sense of place; these are clearly not made to garner points in a wine magazine, but are meant to be enjoyed at the table with food. These producers have their priorities straight and I look forward to sampling more wines from Croatia very soon.

P.S. One final note. This was a small event at Tru Restaurant in Chicago with lovely foodstuffs to accompany the wines. I was able to meet the two vintners and ask them questions. They were very helpful in helping me learn about their particular wines, so overall I was happy with the event. But I'd love to learn a lot more about Croatia and I think all of us would. Many people don't know where the country is, much less the wine zones, so a bit more information, such as maps or a guide to the varieties used in Croatia would have been of great value.

Hopefully Wines of Croatia will be able to organize some bigger tastings in the future with more producers and perhaps even a seminar on this country's viticulture. The wines are the first step in education and they were wonderful this day. Now there needs to be more input on the part of Wines of Croatia if they are to get a foothold in the country. As I wrote at the outset, there are wines from all over the world, so to sell your products, you have to tell people about them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Success on the Links and at the Table

Recently some of the top golfers of the past 25 years have decided to come out with their own label of premium wines. While there have been a few ordinary wines, most of these projects have been quite impressive, especially the wines from South African Ernie Els (one of the nicest guys in the game) and his partner Jean Englebrecht.

I'd like to recommend the wines from two relatively new projects: Jack Nicklaus Wines and the Luke Donald Collection. As anyone who knows an inkling about golf realizes, Jack Nicklaus was arguably the most successful golfer of all time, winning a record 18 majors. He certainly has one of the three of four most recognizable names in the history of golf and was truly one of the great athletes of the 20th century.

Donald has enjoyed some wonderful success as well on the links and finished 2nd in the 2010 FedEx Cup, just missing out on a $10 million bonus (though he'll be in good shape with the $3 millon runner-up award). At 32 years of age (33 in December), he's #8 in the world golf rankings and has made a tremendous comeback after a serious wrist injury just two years ago. The future, needless to say, looks bright for Donald on the course.

He's done pretty well also with his wines and the story of how his label originated is a fascinating one. A native Brit, Donald went to Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago and enjoyed great success there, winning the NCAA Championship individual honors in 1999. His coach was Pat Goss, who also was friends with Bill Terlato of the Terlato Wine Group in north suburban Lake Bluff. Terlato owned two Napa Valley wineries at the time, so after the Donald-Terlato friendship was formed, the golfer (Donald, that is!) was able to work with the Terlato family on producing a wine from Napa grapes. As Donald played in a lot of events in Europe, he had acquired a taste for great wines and he was allowed to sample blends and put his approval stamp on the finished product.

I recently tasted the two newest releases of the Luke Donald Collection: the 2008 Chardonnay from Carneros and the 2006 Claret. Briefly, the Chardonnay is quite rich with aromas of baked apples, saffron and orange and has good weight on the palate and very good persistence in the finish. The oak is admirably handled and as the grapes were sourced from the cool Carneros zone in southern Napa, the acidity keeps everything in balance. I'd love to taste this over the next 2-3 years with lobster, swordfish or most rich seafood or even pork or veal. At $30, this is worth every penny (this is very limited - only 900 cases produced) and if I had a seafood restaurant or was buying wine for a country club, it would be on my list.

Back to Luke Donald in a bit, but a few words on the Jack Nicklaus Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Napa Valley. This wine along with the Private Reserve, which I didn't get a chance to try (next time, my friends at Terlato?), was first sampled at St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland earlier this spring and then in this country in May at the Memorial Tournament, run by Nicklaus in Columbus, Ohio.

The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is instantly recognizable as Napa Valley Cab with its black cherry and plum aromas; add to that the medium-rich palate, round tannins and balanced acidity and you've got a real crowd pleaser. This is a wine that will drink well for the next 3-5 years, but it's instantly appealing now and would be a natural partner with any red meat. Again, if I were buying wines for a steakhouse list, this would be a no-brainer - how could you miss with an elegant Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with the Jack Nicklaus name? This 100% Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is value priced at $35 and based on this wine, I can't wait to taste the next offering of the Reserve Cabernet.

Saving the best for last, we have the 2006 Luke Donald Collection Claret. This is a blend of 44% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. It's quite rich on the palate and features enticing aromas of currant, cassis and crushed rose petals. This is a beautifully balanced wine with very good acidity, which is not always the case with too many of today's Napa Valley reds. The oak is very well integrated and the wine has the stuffing to age gracefully for 7-10 years, perhaps even longer. The price on this is a very fair $40 (almost a steal for a Napa Valley wine of this quality these days) and while it would pair beautifully with steak, this would also work well with game birds and brisket, as this has more spice and earthiness as compared to the Nicklaus bottling.

How nice to taste a complex Napa Valley red that is more in a Bordeaux style than the super ripe international approach so prevalent these days! How nice also that this wine is styled with the thought of cellaring in mind.

As a closing thought, I'm not sure what I'd treasure more, a mixed case of the Luke Donald wines or a putting tip from Luke himself! Luke, I do live in Chicago, so I'm not far away!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Simply Italian

Photo ©Tom Hyland

Next week, the Simply Italian event will be held in three cities: New York on October 25, Chicago on October 27 and Boston on October 28. For New York and Chicago, there will be two morning seminars as well as a walk around tasting in the afternoon, while Boston will only have the tasting.

I will be moderating the two seminars in Chicago: one on Protecting DOC and DOCG Wines and the second will be on wines fom the seven Chianti districts. Joining me on these seminars will be Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, head of Federdoc; Steven Alexander, wine director for Chicago's Spiaggia Ristorante and members of the Chianti Consorzio.

These events are for the trade only - to RSVP for any of the Simply Italian events, the email is: events@balzac.com

I hope to see you in Chicago on the 27th for Simply Italian!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Vintage 2010 Italy

Vineyard worker in Campania
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Here are a few thoughts on the 2010 harvest in Italy, which has been completed in some areas and is still continuing in others:

Antonio Capaldo - Feudi di San Gregorio - Campania
"We are quite advanced on the Falanghina and are starting Greco. Fiano and Aglianico still need another week. We were very worried about quality after the weird year in terms of weather but the last few weeks - with wonderful warm weather - have significantly improved the situation. The Falanghina harvest was excellent and so we expect it to be also with Greco and Fiano. There was significant reduction in quantity (-20%) but quality is very good.

Aglianico - delicate grape - is a different matter and we still don't know how it will be. It appears a difficult year with a low quantity...

The next two weeks however will be critical to assess the quality of the aglianico vintage. In any case, for Aglianico it will not be one of the best vintages. The Serpico vineyard however - with old vines - appears to be producing high quality grapes, so we keep our fingers crossed."

Piero Mastroberardino - Mastroberardino - Campania
"A cold and rainy Winter delayed a bit the start of the vegetative cycle, bringing the maturation timing process back to the traditional periods of the area. Spring and Summer were more rainy than usual. Summer was not very hot and the temperature excursions were significant already in August.

So maturation processes slowed down a bit, and this was helpful for the aromas and the freshness of grapes.

Harvest is one week late, compared to last year. We are going back to the traditional harvests of late October and November, with a positive contribution of the terroir distinctive characters on the grapes. More than other years, vineyard management has been strategic, mainly keeping the yield low during August, in order to select the best grapes.

With the white grapes we already can see excellent aromatic expressions and good acidity. About the reds, it’s too early to say: at the moment the process of maturation is regular, but of course we have to wait for the weather evolution of the next weeks. For now we are still in a nice and warm summer, having temperatures around 24-25 Celsius degrees during the day."

Stefania Rocche - Castelvecchio - Tuscany
"This year harvest was late and not so easy - we started around 22th September with the merlot grapes - we did a lot of selection in every vineyards so the crop is little less than normal but the wines are in fermentation right now and seem to have an interesting evolution."

Andrea Felluga - Livio Felluga - Friuli
"A cool vintage and one in which the quality of the wine has repaid all the efforts in the vineyard.

Vini dai profumi molto intensi. Carattere aromatico elegante."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Keeping it Cool

Over the past year, I've received numerous emails from people that want me to write about the services or goods they offer. It could be about tours to wine regions or it might be about a product especially designed for the wine industry. But as this blog is about wines I've tasted as well as issues in the wine industry, I've decided not to spend time promoting tours or products.

Well, there's almost always an exception to the rule and today is the day. I recently acquired a wine cooler that is as nicely designed and as functional as I've seen. It's made by a company called Air and Water and it's a beautiful unit designed to hold 21 bottles of wine. While there's nothing particularly earth shattering about that, it's the way this cooler was designed and how it works that makes this worth talking about.

The unit is black with two compartments; it stands 32 inches tall and is 13" wide and has a depth of 20". Both compartments are behind glass doors; the upper holds six bottles, while the lower holds 15. Each compartment can be set to a specific temperature and it's done with great ease by the touch of a finger, as there is an LED readout in deep blue that lets you know the exact temperature (in F or C, for that matter). All you do is touch the down arrows to lower the temperature and hit the up arrows to raise the temperature. I've used wine coolers such as this model before, but few have the feature of setting an exact temperature.

There's also a touch control for a small light to go on in each compartment to allow you to see what wine you have on each shelf. That's a nice feature, especially if you have this set up in a small corner in your kitchen or dining room, where there might not be that much light. It has silent operation and it's vibration free and all you really need to make this work is an outlet for a three-pronged plug (along with your wine, of course!). Also the racks are chrome-plated, which add a nice look to the unit.

I've had this for about two weeks now and can report that it works beautifully I'm very happy with it.

The cost is around $220 and for a long-term investment for storing a few choice bottles you plan on serving soon, it's worth the price tag. The particular model is New Air AW-210ED and more information can be found here.

(If you look at the site, you can also read about other wine coolers from this manufacturer that come in various sizes, from 12 to 32 bottles.)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Beautiful Tuscan White

The Tuscan wine district of Bolgheri, named for a quaint hamlet located some 60 miles southwest of Florence, has been one of the most celebrated in all of Italy over the past two decades. The vineyards, planted primarily to Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (with a scattering of Petit Verdot) - as well as a moderate amount of Tuscany's signature red variety, Sangiovese - are located only a few miles from the ocean. Though quite different in nature than this region's other famous reds (such as Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico), the Bolgheri reds have been acclaimed as among the most distinctive in a country noted for its singular vinous offerings. You only need to know the names of a few of these wines, such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Grattamacco to know the quality of this wine zone.

But Bolgheri is also home to some vary special whites. Sauvignon (Blanc) is grown at a few estates and the cool climate here gives these wines a distinct edge, with grassy notes and bell pepper flavors. However, as Sauvignon (as it is generally referred to in Italy) is more greatly associated with the northern Italian regions of Friuli and Alto Adige, only a handful of producers in Bolgheri work with this variety.

Rather it is Vermentino that is the leading white variety of Bolgheri. Also grown on the island of Sardinia, where it can express its special qualities exceptionally well, Vermentino is at home in Bolgheri's maritime climate. This is a variety that needs a long, cool growing season to realize its aromatics of pine and pear which are backed by vibrant acidity. This is a wonderful aromatic white that is usually best served by fermentation and aging in stainless steel or cement tanks instead of wooden casks, which would rob the wine of its perfumes. There is often a pleasant minerality in the finish and often, as these grapes are planted so close to the sea, a light saltiness in the wine, which makes it ideal for pairing with shellfish.

I recently tasted the 2009 Guado al Tasso Vermentino and I'm happy to report what a delight this wine truly is! I've enjoyed this wine from several vintages and frankly the current 2009 bottling is as fine as I've tasted. This was a special vintage in Bolgheri (and in reality for white wines in many areas throughout Italy), as the wines have excellent depth of fruit, rich aromatics and ideal structure. These whites, while pleasant now, are just rounding out and will be better with another 6 months in the bottle, with the finest drinking well for another three to seven years.

Guado al Tasso is owned, incidentally by Piero Antinori, so you know his commitment to quality; my notes on the 2009 Vermentino focus on the honeydew melon, pear and mango flavors, the light minerality and the richness on the palate. I've tried this with Oriental food and it's a great match (especially with shrimp or pork), but I'd also love it with a vegetable risotto or pasta with clams. The suggested retail price is $25 and for me, it's worth every penny.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Syrah - Chile's Latest Success Story

The Chilean wine industry has a lot of positives going for it these days, even if most of us don't hear much about it. I've stated before that the people who market these wines - both in Chile and in America and other countries - need to do a better job letting consumers know what classy wines are emerging from the country's wine regions these days.

Thankfully, the vintners are doing the necessary work, as they finding the best sites that are well suited to particular varieties. The days of Chile being most associated with $8-$10 Central Valley wines are long gone, as the producers have learned to realize the beauty of their climate when working with a variety of wine grapes. I think most of us are familiar with the gorgeous Cabernets - especially those from the Maipo Valley- that run anywhere from $18-$60 (or even slightly higher), but over the past decade, the country's wine industry has developed into a complex one, capable of producing beautifully crafted wines from Carmenere, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

These last two are of course, cool climate varieties and while Pinot Noir is still largely a work in progress throughout Chile, there have been dazzling bottlings of Sauvignon Blancs from cool zones such as Casablanca Valley, Leyda and San Antonio Valleys near the ocean as well as Limarí and a few select sites in Colchagua. A few of the finest bottlings from producers such as Casa Marin, Garces-Silva (Amayna), Maycas del Limarí, Matetic (EQ) and Leyda Vineyards have made Chile into one of the world's finest Sauvignon Blanc territories.

Now Syrah is starting to become an important variety in Chile as well. I recently tasted two bottlings that are proof that this country can do more than produce ripe, forward reds; these wines also display excellent complexity as well as beautiful structure. I am referring to the 2008 Maycas del Limarí and the 2008 Casa Marin "Miramar Vineyard."

The Maycas wines are a relatively new project from Concha y Toro, Chile's largest winery. They have committed to the Limarí valley, located very close to the Pacific Ocean, quite a ways north of Santiago. The winery is working with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and each variety is displaying the acidity you would expect in a cool climate. This acidity is the focal point for me, as it not only cleanses the palate (especially beneficial with the tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon), it also preserves the freshness and brightness of the fruit and helps achieve an overall harmony.

To date, the Sauvignon Blanc from Maycas has been my favorite; this wine in the two vintages I have tasted to date (2007 and 2008) has the vibrancy and concentration of the best examples of Sauvignon Blanc; I would rate this as one of the three or four best examples of this variety in all of Chile. I am also quite pleased with the Maycas Cabernet Sauvignon, which comes off quite a bit different than the wonderful bottlings from the Maipo Valley. The Maycas cool climate Cab has lively acidity and bright fruit and while not as soft and as approachable as its Maipo counterparts, it has impeccable balance.

The Syrah is again defined largely by its acidity. The sunshine is plentiful in Chile, so Syrah is not a difficult grape to ripen in most regions of the country. This has lead to some pretty lush, unctious versions that are pleasing upon first taste, but often don't drink well afterwards. That's not a problem with the Maycas wine; my notes for the current 2008 bottling focus on the cassis, black plum and anise flavors along with its ideal ripeness and acidity as well as its nicely integrated oak. This is approachable now, but it really needs a bit of time to settle down- try it in 3-5 years. (At $22 retail, this is a fine value.)

Maria Luz Marin, Casa Marin, San Antonio Valley
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

At Casa Marin, Maria Luz Marin was one of the first producers to work with grapes from the tiny sub-zone of the San Antonio Valley, part of the Leyda Valley appellation. Marin's estate is very close to the Pacific Ocean, with the vineyards located anywhere from two to four miles from the coast, meaning very cool temperatures, which in turn, provide proper acidity and structure to the wines.

To date, Marin has earned much of her acclaim for her two briiliant single vineyard releases of Sauvignon Blanc: Cipresses and Laurel (I recently tasted the newly released 2009 Laurel, which is a rich and as complex as any bottling she has made to date). Now her Syrah from the Miramar Vineyard has reached new heights as well, not only for her but for the Chilean wine industry.

The 2008 has dried cherry fruit and a nice earthiness throughout; this is definitely more in a Rhone-style. Medium-full with a generous mid-palate and beautiful texture, the wine has very good acidity and round, gentle tannins. Overall, the wine is impeccably balanced with outstanding complexity. This is an outstanding wine and a reminder that Chile can produce elegant, seductive reds - it's not all about power and ripeness. (Look for this wine to drink well for 5-7 years; the price is $50.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Classy Champagnes from Alfred Gratien

I love Champagne, so when the opportunity to taste four or more cuvées from one producers comes up, I jump at the chance. Last week, at the Domaine Select Portfolio tasting in New York City, I was able to taste through much of the lineup of Alfred Gratien.

Founded in 1864, the firm of Alfred Gratien is located in Epernay, one of the most famous of all Champagne towns. They produce wines from vineyards in the finest districts, such as the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne. Production is limited and fermentation takes place in wooden casks, assuring greater complexity and giving the wines a nice edge. The overall style to me is one of elegance over power, though these wines are quite rich in their own right. Freshness is another factor in their wines, especially with the bottings of rosé. Overall, the quality of Alfred Gratien Champagnes is very high; each cuvée has beautiful complexity, notable concentration and impressive length and structure.

Below are notes on the wines:

Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru (non-vintage)
White peach, pear and chamomile aromas; quite rich on the palate for a Blanc de Blancs; lengthy finish with good acidity; overall very flavorful and quite elegant. Excellent ($80)

Brut Rosé (non-vintage)
Fresh strawberry and cherry aromas; excellent persistence; quite dry with lively acidity and good persistence. Very Good ($70)

1999 Brut
Lemon peel and peach aromas; medium-full, very good persistence and freshness; excellent complexity; enjoy over the next 3-5 years - perhaps longer. Excellent ($75)

Cuvée Paradis Brut (non-vintage)
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, primarily from Grand Cru vineyards; lemon, pear and biscuit aromas. very fine bubbles; medium-full, quite rich on the palate; excellent persistence; great finesse. Enjoy over the next 5-7 years. Excellent ($135)

Cuvée Paradis Rosé (non-vintage)
Dried strawberry and dried cherry aromas; medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Lively acidity and a wonderful freshness; very good persistence and fine bubbles. Delicious - enjoy over the next 5-7 years. Excellent ($135)

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Thoroughly Enjoyable Cabernet Sauvignon

Hanna Winery, Alexander Valley

Given the flavor profiles of most Cabernet Sauvignons from California, it's easy to see their appeal. Imbued with ripe black currant, cassis and plum aromas along with flavors of mocha and clove and offering lush fruit, the wines have been the state's finest vinous ambassadors for some time now.

However, sometimes good things go too far. The beautiful California sunshine makes it easy to ripen these grapes and as a result, too many bottlings, at least for me, have become overripe fruit bombs that are more about showing off power and intensity than honest varietal character or elegance. Wine for me, whether it's California Cabernet Sauvignon or a Brunello di Montalcino from Italy has never been a case of "bigger is better."

So how nice to taste a balanced, elegantly styled California Cabernet Sauvignon again! The wine in question here is the newly released 2007 Hanna Cabernet Sauvignon from their Red Ranch vineyard in Alexander Valley. What I love about this wine is the beautiful varietal character - pure black currant fruit - along with pleasing notes of mint in the aroma; this is a rich, supple wine that is beautifully balanced. Apparently winemaker Jeff Hinchliffe got the memo about keeping oak in the background, as the wood notes here are quite subdued. The wine also displays very good acidity, a trait not seen often enough in California Cabernet Sauvignons these days. This acidity not only holds the tannins in check, it also gives the wine a nice freshness and keeps everything in harmony.

The price for all this is a very fair $30 a bottle, which I'm happy to note; you don't have to spend $50 or more for a top-flight wine from California. This is a wine not meant for tasting (though it's fine in that purpose), but rather for pairing at the dinner table with a variety of entrées from New York Strip Steak to duck breast with currants. You might also try two of Christine Hanna's recommendations: Pan-Seared Hangar Steak with Porcini-Merlot Reduction or a Rosemary-Crusted Standing Rib Roast with Bordeaux Gravy. The recipes for both of these dishes can be found in Christine's book, The Winemaker Cooks, which can be ordered via the winery's website (link).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Enough already!

Text and photos ©Tom Hyland

Interesting article in the New York Times on Wednesday about restaurants now offering to their customers iPads that contain the wine list; there is now an app that can list a particular restaurant's wine offerings along with ratings. The idea here, as best as I can tell, is that a customer will have another option when he or she selects a wine off the list.

I for one think this is technology gone wild. Do customers at a restaurant really need this information? Isn't that what a sommelier is for? One woman in the article is quoted as saying that clients "like to make their own decisions." How's that? How is reading a collection of ratings for a group of wines making your own decision?

The article does cover a number of opinions and apparently there are many in the business who see this as a plus. If it works for them, fine. I certainly don't blame Apple for creating this app. They've got a huge audience out there who is endorsing all sorts of apps, from choosing a restaurant to reading specific magazines or watching a particular TV show. (I myself am waiting for the app that lists the best bathrooms in big cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, so the well-to-do can be choosy about where they do their business. Hey, people like to make their own decision, don't they?)

The article mentions that one customer chose a wine as it had received a high score from Robert Parker. There is no mention in the article if other ratings are listed for the wines. I certainly hope so; the last thing wine lovers need is more slant toward the international, super ripe wines favored by Mr. Parker. It's the bigger is better philosophy, which unfortunately is probably what prevails at a business wine dinner. Don't order a wine if it works with the food, buy it because it's a powerhouse. If you're happy with that, then I guess you deserve this new play toy.

But the crux of the problem, it seems to me, is technology being used as a crutch. Don't know what restaurant to go to? Don't know what wine to select? No problem, just take out your iPhone or iPad (or other similar devices) and check out that app. Is this what technology has done to us? What happened to our sense of adventure? Isn't life more than a set of numbers and statistics, especially when we're dealing with a sensory experience as tasting wine?

Wine at its best reflects a sense of place; a wine made from Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills in California has a particular flavor profile, one that is markedly different from a Burgundy from Nuits-Saint-Georges. Does this iPad app with its numerical ratings cover that? When it does, I'll be all for it, but for now, this is another argument against rating wines with points.

A friend of mine tells me often that "the internet is the worst invention in history." I don't exactly share his sentiments, but I understand his thoughts, as he thinks a lot of people have lost their jobs because of it. If I were a sommelier at a restaurant that offered an iPad to help customers choose wine, I wouldn't be worried just yet, but I'd have to think that my services weren't as necessary as they were before this tool. And let's face it, technology is only going to get bigger and more out of control.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Albariño at its Best

I spent Tuesday in New York City, attending the annual Portfolio tasting of Domaine Select Wine Estates, one of the country's finest wine importers. My main interest is with the Italian estates they represent, which includes names such as J. Hofstatter; Massolino; Fontanafredda; Gravner; Vodopivec; Corte Sant'Alda and Il Palazzone, to name only a few. Given this stellar lineup, I try and make sure my calendar is clear each year so I can attend this tasting.

But as they also represent some great small estates in France, Spain, Chile and Germany (as well as a few other countries), the Domaine Select tasting becomes for me almost an embarrassment of riches. Here was my opportunity to taste some artisan wines from around the world, so I did my best to sample as many products as I could. I'll write about a few of these producers in upcoming posts; today, I am sharing my thoughts on Zarate, an amazing producer of Albariño.

Bodegas Zarate, is among the oldest of family growers of Albariño grapes in Galicia in the Rías Baixas district in far northwestern region of Galicia in Spain. The examples of Albariño from this district, along with some excellent examples from Portugal (where the grape is known as Alvarinho) have elevated this variety into one of the finest in the world, capable of producing a wine that can be anything from a delightful aromatic white, ideal for early consumption to that of a mouth-filling white wine that is capable of improving with 5-7 years of age. The wines from Zarate are, as a group, not only the finest collection of Albariños I have tasted, but one of the most impressive groupings of white wine I've found from anywhere. These are white wines that have brilliant varietal purity, but even more importantly, possess a certain personality that I'd have to best describe as "soul". These wines are the result of meticulously farmed hillside vineyards along with exceptional work in the cellar from a team led by winemaker Eulogio Pomares.

Here are notes on the four bottlings of Zarate Albariño that I tasted:

2009 Albariño
Bright pear and lemon fruit; medium-full, with snappy acidity and a light minerality. Very good complexity and structure- enjoy over the next 2-3 years; pair with shellfish or lighter poultry dishes. ($24)

2007 Albariño "Tras de Viña"
Hints of almond in the aromas along with fresh pears; medium-full, this has vibrant acidity, distinct minerality and excellent persistence. This should drink well for 5-7 years and as it has more weight than this regular bottling, can stand up to roast pork or lighter veal preparations. ($30)

2007 Albariño "Palomar"
This wine is quite unique for several reasons. First, the vineyard used to source the grapes for this wine is 120 years old, which makes it the oldest vineyard in Rías Baixas. Secondly, the wine is barrel fermented, an unusual practice for Albariño.

I prefer no oak aging for this variety, so I was delighted to note that the wood was a supporting player in this wine; the aromatics continued to dazzle along with the outstanding depth of fruit. This is a massive Albariño, but never over the top or heavy. There are notes of dried pear along with chervil and the finish is quite long. The wine has vibrant acidity and superb structure and freshness and should drink well for another 7-10 years. Truly an exceptional wine! ($45)

2009 Albariño "Balado"
This is a barrel sample of a wine that is from a "clos", a walled vineyard. This wine is made only in the finest years; the 2009 is the first since the 2006 and only 1000 bottles were produced. Along with fresh pear and mango aromas, there is a note of saffron; quite rich on the palate, this has an exotic oiliness and lushness. Vibrant acidity and excellent persistence. Delicious now, but wait on this wine- probably best in 5-7 years, although it may drink well for a few additional years. ($45)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who Doesn't Love Raspberries?

I've been pleased with the reception to my recent post about Values from Piemonte. I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming post, but for now, notes on another fine value from this region.

This concerns a lovely sparkling wine called Rosa Regale produced by Banfi. Most consumers know Banfi for their wines from their gorgous estate in Montalcino in Tuscany, but they also produce wines from Piemonte, including Dolcetto and Gavi. The Rosa Regale is my favorite of their Piemontese wines and it's a bottling I look forward to trying each year.

This is a Brachetto d'Acqui, meaning it's made from the Brachetto grape, a specialty of the Acqui area near the town of Acqui Terme in the province of Asti. The Brachetto grape is all about fresh raspberries as well as strawberries and cranberries. The Rosa Regale from Banfi is made in a lightly sweet sparkling style, as is typical for this wine and it's delicious. I've loved every vintage of this wine I've tried for more than a decade now and the current 2009 is as flavorful and delicious as I've tasted. The $20 retail price is more than fair.

This is a wine that you don't need to take too seriously. It's a fun celebration wine and it's quite tasty - it's a real crowd pleaser. You don't age this wine - instead, drink it tonight or over the next 12 months by itself or with a simple pound cake or with fresh strawberries, as the locals do. This is also one of the few wines that is ideal with chocolate.

If you've never tried this wine, don't wait - you can thank me later!

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Malbec That Shines

Malbec, as every wine lover knows, has become THE calling card for Argentina's red wines. Producers in the Mendoza district, as well as a few other districts in the country, have planted this variety in large numbers and make hundreds of thousands of cases which are being consumed at ever-increasing numbers in the United States and other large wine markets.

Inevitably, whenever a wine such as Malbec becomes a phenomenon, there are dozens of producers that make as inexpensive a bottling as they possibly can. Forget complexity with these wines, just look at them as throwaway bottlings, ones that can be consumed quickly and are pleasant enough, though hardly memorable. There are so many of these Malbecs on sale for $8-$12 in America and while they serve their purpose of helping consumers become aware of the variety, these are not wines that have any lasting qualities except for simple black fruit and a hint of spice. Still, the country's wine promoters rave about how the category of Argentinian wines is growing.

Of course, there are $35-$50 bottles of Malbec that are glorious and show the potential of this variety. Made in small quantities from the finest vineyard sites and treated with the utmost care in the cellar, these wines are grand successes. I realize that these wines are not in demand, yet it is important for a few of Argentina's vintners to make wines such as these, if only to show the world that first-class Malbec is a reality.

So Malbec can be an important wine or it can be - as it is too often these days - a one dimensional wine mass-produced for the market. So how nice to find a Malbec with complexity and a reasonable price; I discovered one last week - the 2008 Novus Ordo from Mendoza.

Novus Ordo is a new winery located in the town of Tupungato in the Uco Valley in the Mendoza province. I tasted the winery's first release last week in Chicago with one of the winery's partners, R. Cary Capparelli, who serves as the company's President and Chief Operating Officer (Capparelli is from Chicago). The wine, I am happy to report, offers excellent ripeness and balance along with beautiful structure. Too many Malbecs lack this structure, meaning they will offer little pleasure after initial release. The 2008 Novus Ordo however, has ideal acidity which keeps everything in check as well as offering a nice freshness to the wine. There is some new French oak evident, but it is appropriate and does not overwhelm the appealing fruit. While the wine is approachable now, I think that this will be at its best in 3-5 years and I wouldn't be surprised to see this drink well for another year or two after that.

I asked Capparelli the price, expecting him to tell me it was $22-$24 dollars, which would have been worth it. To my surprise however, he told me the retail price is $17. For me, this makes the 2008 Novus Ordo Malbec an excellent value. For just two to three dollars more than hundreds of other rather ordinary bottlings of Malbec out there, I'd recommend to just about everyone that they seek out this wine if they want to discover what a complex, layered, ideally structured Malbec is all about.

Capparelli told me that other Novus Ordo wines will be released in the near future, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and even Tempranillo. Based on this initial release, Novus Ordo will be an Argentinian winery to watch.

Note: the wine is currently available in a few markets, including Chicago and Atlanta with Phoenix in the works.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Values from Piemonte

I'm fortunate that in my travels, I have the opportunity to try so many excellent wines from Italy and other countries. Many of these wines are limited and priced above $50, so believe me, I appreciate the chance to sample these wines.

But I'm always excited to try wines that combine excellence with an honest price. I'm even more excited when these wines are from a region where values are not commonplace. Evidence of that are two new bottlings from Giacosa Fratelli, a small producer in Neive in the province of Cuneo in Piemonte.

Giacosa is known most of all for their bottlings of Barbaresco, as the town of Neive is one of three where this Nebbiolo-based wine can be produced. I tasted two bottlings of theirs from the newly released 2007 vintage: the "Basarin" and the "Basarin Vigna Gianmate", both of which I have rated as excellent (4 out of 5 stars). Each offers impressive depth of fruit, lovely aromatics and gentle, silky tannins (especially the Gianmate bottling). These are among the finest bottlings of Barbaresco from the notable 2007 vintage; both should be at their best in 10-12 years.

Like most producers, Giacosa Fratelli also produces other local wines and these are the ones I'd like to focus on in this post. The 2009 Roero Arneis is a lovely dry white made from grapes grown in the Roero zone, across the Tanaro River from the Barbaresco zone. This is medium-full with typical pine and pear aromas with a nicely balanced finish with very good acidity. This is a tasty, refreshing dry white that is ideal with risotto with vegetables or lighter seafood. 2009 was a brilliant vintage in Piemonte, so there's a bit more depth of fruit than in other years, meaning this wine could hold for another two years (though it's so appealing now, so why wait?). Best of all, it's priced at $17 retail; as Arneis has become quite a sensation in America over the past few years, this is quite a value.

The winery's 2007 Barbera d'Alba from the Bussia vineyard in Monforte d'Alba is another wonderful success. Rich with the spice so typical of the Barbera grape, this has a nice zesty, tangy quality to it that makes it perfect for grilled chicken, ribs or pork or pastas such as tajarin with beef and tomatoes. Barbera has very light tannins for a red wine, so that makes this wine quite drinkable now, even though 2007 was a year that resulted in deeply concentrated red wines in this area. Stylistically, I love this bottling as the winemaker decided to age this wine in large oak casks instead of barriques, thus keeping the focus on the tantalizing black cherry and blackberry fruit. It's a real pleasure to taste this wine, especially when you consider that you are getting a Barbera from a single vineyard from an excellent vintage and you only have to shell out $17 for the wine - a remarkable value!

For me, there is no other region in Italy that produces as many outstanding wines as does Piemonte, but let's face it, you usually have to pay for that quality. So how nice that these two wines, from a very consistent, quality driven producer such as Giacosa Fratelli are so good and so affordable! Here's hoping that more producers from this area follow suit!

The wines of Giacosa Fratelli are imported by Wines from Bedford, Larchmont, NY

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Understanding Italian Wine

Vineyards in Campania
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

An open letter to Matt Kramer at The Wine Spectator:

Dear Matt:

I just read your online post "Are You Afraid of Italian Wines?" at winespectator.com and frankly, I'm disappointed you would write such a column. You are one of the most engaging and intelligent wine writers in the country, so I don't quite understand why you wrote what you did. Was it a slow news week for you?

You mention that at a a restaurant you ordered a Pecorino Colline Pescaresi from Tiberio, while admitting that you hadn't heard of the Pecorino grape, the Colline Pescaresi zone or the producer Tiberio. Let's look at your claims. I can appreciate the fact that you weren't familiar with the Pecorino grape, as it's planted in small numbers primarily in Abruzzo and Marche. Ok, Chardonnay it's not. But you admit to enjoying the wine, calling it "dazzling stuff." Pretty nice compliment, so I'm thinking you're glad you tried this bottling. It's a nice thing when you discover something new, isn't it?

As for not being familiar with the Colline Pescaresi district, alright, join the club. It's a small district in Abruzzo, named for the Pescara province. You apparently have a problem with this designation simply because it's not a household name. Yet how many wine drinkers know where the Ben Lomond or High Valley AVAs are located in California? Should wineries in these areas not use these terms simply because they're not as famous as Napa or Sonoma?

As for not knowing Tiberio, so what? You must realize that there are thousands of artisan producers from Italy whose wines are imported into the United States. You said that you loved the wine, so now you know Tiberio and now you know about the Pecorino grape. And the next time you see a Pecorino from Colline Pescaresi, I'll bet you'll think about ordering it.

Two major things here. Yes, there are hundreds of varieties used in Italy that are seen nowhere else in the world. Thank goodness for that! Do you really want a world where we drink wines made from the same 10 or 12 varieties? I would hope not! If you don't know the variety, you can always ask your server, sommelier or manager at the restaurant. If they have decided to carry particular wines - obscure or not - you would hope they would have learned about these offerings and would have trained their staff. If that's a problem, write about that, but don't write about the fact that you never heard of the Pecorino or Biancolella grape (as you did with another wine).

Are Italian wines confusing? To some degree, yes. For some people, the names are too long and as they don't want to stumble over the pronunciation or order something they're not familiar with, they stick to the tried and true such as Pinot Grigio and Chianti. How unexciting is that? Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry will always be the best-selling flavors of ice cream, but isn't it great that you can also order pistachio almond or nutty coconut at Baskin-Robbins? Thank goodness that A-16 in San Francisco as well as hundreds of Italian restaurants in New York City, Chicago, Houston, Miami and other cities offer such a wide variety of Italian wines.

Back to my question about Italian wines being confusing. There are hundreds of tiny DOC areas that few people know about; frankly people want to know how a wine will taste and what grapes are used. Education of Italian wines in this country has not been given the same emphasis that wines from France and California have enjoyed. But does that mean the Italians have to dumb things down? How did you want Tiberio to label its Pecorino Colline Pescaresi? As Bianco d'Abruzzo? That might have been easier for you and others to understand, but what would that have told you, except for the fact that it's a white wine from Abruzzo? The best wines the world over come from specific varieties and places. I think we all learn a great deal more when we are given more information to process. You may label it as confusing, but I prefer to think of it as valuable data.

So Matt, please help your readers understand more about Italian wines. I realize that in an off-handed way, you did just that with this column, as you sang the praises of an excellent Pecorino and Biancolella. But as a respected wine writer, you should do more than complain. Write about the glories of these singular wines from the Italian peninsula. Your readers will thank you for it, believe me! If you'd like, please also pay a visit to my blog Learn Italian Wines. I think you'll enjoy it - and you might even learn a few things!

By the way, I think I'll enjoy a La Sibilla Falanghina Campi Flegrei tonight. It's a gorgeous white wine made from the Falanghina variety in the Campi Flegrei district, located a little ways out of Napoli; La Sibilla is one of the area's finest producers. But I'm guessing you already knew that!

Tom Hyland

Friday, August 6, 2010

Long Live Brunello Tradition

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

There has been a lot of teeth gnashing lately over the recent election of Ezio Rivella as President of the Brunello Consorzio. It seems that some journalists believe this is a disastrous sign that could lead to all sorts of changes for this great Tuscan red wine. There may indeed be changes in store, but I for one, think a more measured response would be appropriate.

Let me state that I am a traditionalist when it comes to Italian wines in general and Brunello di Montalcino in specific. More than anything else, that means aging the wine in botti grandi, large wooden casks that don't overwhelm the wine with notes of wood. There have been dozens of producers over the past 20 years or so that have decided to depart from this practice, opting to age their wine in barriques, small French oak barrels that deepen the color of the wine and add spicy, toasty notes to the final product. These producers also tend to pick their grapes a bit later than usual (when this is feasible - autumn rains can spoil these plans). meaning the acidity is a bit lower. That means the wine is softer in the finish, a style these producers believe will win them more customers world wide.

Botti Grandi, traditional casks for aging Brunello
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

While I do think that some of the modernists do produce very good to excellent Brunello (such as Valdicava and Fossacolle), I will almost always choose a traditional Brunello. These wines have a garnet and not a ruby red color, tend to offer higher levels of acidity (which make them better at accompanying a wider variety of foods) and most importantly, display the local terroir. This last point is important, as the modern wines that are aged in barriques tend to lose their sense of place, as the spice notes from the small barrels often cover up the charms of the Sangiovese grape.

Ezio Rivella is someone who has espoused a modernist style for Brunello to be sure. He was oposed by Fabrizio Bindocci, winemaker at Il Poggione, one of Montalcino's greatest traditional producers. I clearly would have preferred that Bindocci win the election, but it didn't happen. So now many journalists who favor traditional wines are sounding the panic button.

Could there be dramatic changes for Brunello under Rivella's watch? It's possible and it's interesting to ruminate about such things. But too many people are sounding like politicians here in our country as when the opposite party takes office. Things rarely turn out as badly as they think.

I tend to believe that the future for Brunello will be bright. I may be wrong, who can tell? But I do know that there are many traditional producers that have enjoyed great success making wines that reflect the local terroir and stress finesse and elegance over power and ripeness. Here is a brief list of these producers in no particular order:

Il Poggione
Le Chiuse
Pian del'Orino
Il Palazzone
Col d'Orcia
Sesta di Sopra
Tenuta di Sesta
Tenuta Oliveto

I've left a few names out, but you get the point. Those are some of the great producers of Brunello di Montalcino, so as long as they're around and continue to craft traditional wines, the future of this iconic Tuscan red will be sunny. It's only natural for some people to worry about what lies ahead, but there's no need for alarm. Instead, communicate to lovers of Brunello that traditional wines are alive and doing quite well in Montalcino today!