Friday, December 7, 2012

The Best Wine Glasses in the World?

I'm probably like a lot of wine journalists that attend tastings several times a year in that I often (but not always) look at the type of wine glasses that are being used. The wines are the most important thing of course, but when you sample wines from just the right glasses, there's an ease to your work.

It's almost like a great actor when they're at the top of their game - you don't see them acting. It's the same here - you don't notice any flaws in the glasses - they're not too heavy, they're not bulky, they fit your hand just right, etc. Then you pick up the glasses and see who manufactured them.

That's what happened recently when I was part of a tasting of Pinot Nero from Alto Adige. I was invited by the editors of Fine, an upscale wine magazine in Germany to attend, as my host, Martin Foradori Hofstatter, proprietor of J. Hofstatter winery in Tramin in Alto Adige, had let the editors know I was available to sit in at the tasting. I thank these individuals for this courtesy, as the tasting was first rate.

The wines were excellent, but right away, I noticed how delicate the glasses were. I took a look at the logo and discovered these were crafted by the glassmaker Zalto from Austria. These glasses were attractive to look at, were as light as a feather and were superb vessels for releasing the aromatics of the examples of Pinot Nero.

I met Martin Hinterleitner of the Zalto firm, who sat in on the tasting. He mentioned that the company had been receiving a great deal of positive comments on their products and gave me a brochure with testimonials from such respected wine authorities as Jancis Robinson and Aldo Sohm, sommelier at Le Bernadin in New York City. Robinson spoke of the glasses being the "thinnest and most delicate" she has come across and that was certainly the situation for me as well.

You can tell from the first photo here how thin the stems are; what you may not be able to tell is that the stems are various sizes, as these are hand-blown glasses. I can't say that much more about them, except to say that based simply on these glasses, Zalto is one of the finest producers of wine glasses in the world and deserve your attention!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Un disastro!

Let me say at the outset that the purpose of writing posts for this blog and for my Learn Italian Wines blog is to share information and at times, educate readers about wine. I have been in the wine business for 31 years and have been writing professionally about wine for more than 13 years. I specialize in Italian wines, having made more than 50 trips to that country, visiting wine regions from north to south. I have written dozens of articles for major wine publications and recently wrote my first book about Italian wines, which will be released soon.

Clearly, I love Italian wines and believe that they are among the best of the world. So when a respected voice in the industry writes mistruths and mistakes about Italian wines, I'm not exactly thrilled.

A few months ago, I was asked by a publisher rep if I would like a copy of the latest edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course for review purposes. I replied that I would and having read a good deal of the book, I was ready to pass along a positive judgment. There is a good amount of worthwhile information in this book, especially toward the end, where there is a chapter on how to taste. This is something that everyone should think about more often, no matter whether you are a beginner or someone with decades of tasting experience.

But any good that is presented in this book is overshadowed by his section on Italian wines. I won’t go into everything that is wrong here, as I don’t have the space available, but let me say it now – this is a disaster!

I want readers to know that this essay of mine is not a knee jerk reaction. I read Zraly’s text more than a month ago and made up my mind then to write about this. But I thought I would speak with other people in the wine industry first. I then spoke about this to several producers and other individuals in Italy who also work with Italian wines for a living. I wanted to discover their thoughts about this and see if my opinions were something that they shared.

A few people who know of Kevin told me that he is a Francophile. There’s nothing wrong with that. I love French wines as well and drink them whenever I get the opportunity. But the point here is that Zraly has written a book about wines of the world. In reality, his bias toward French wines clearly shines through in this book. It’s subtitled a Complete Wine Course, but a better title would have been a French Wine Course along with sections on other wines of the world.

There is a separate chapter on the white wines of France, but there isn’t even a separate chapter on the wines of Italy; rather Italy shares a chapter in this book with Spain. Furthermore, the section on Italy deals almost exclusively with a few famous red wines, as the country’s white wines are largely ignored (more on that later). Look, I don’t have a problem with the author devoting a separate chapter to French white wines, but not even a separate chapter on Italy? He decided to write so little on Italian wines (especially in comparison with the wines of France) that this subject became merely part of a chapter. Again, if Zraly prefers French wines that’s fine, but he’s clearly not giving Italian wines their fair due in this book.

As for the section on Italian red wines, there are several key mistakes. He writes that Chianti must be 80% minimum Sangiovese. Actually, it’s 75% for most versions of Chianti, such as Chianti normale or a Chianti from one of the seven districts, such as Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Senesi, etc. The 80% requirement for Sangiovese is only for Chianti Classico. This is something that’s been in effect for several years; all Zraly had to do was look this up on the internet.

Then he writes about a change to regulations for aging Barolo in wood. He writes that Barolo now has to be aged for only one year in wood. This is simply incorrect. I emailed a winemaker in the Barolo zone and also checked the Barolo disciplinare to learn the correct information; the minimum aging in wood for a Barolo is eighteen months, not one year. Now I realize that Italian wine laws change quite often, but the simple fact remains that the minimum aging is not one year now and never has been. It used to be 24 months, which was changed to 18 months. Zraly does mention that it was 24 months several years ago, so if that was what he listed in the book, one could forgive him, as one could say he hadn’t updated this information. But to list one year as the figure, when it is not that period of time today and never has been, well, that’s simply incorrect and a sign of not doing the proper work. For a book that is supposed to be one of the finest available about wine education (we read that on the inside front as well as the back cover), this is a careless mistake.

Then there are a few really stupid or strange things he writes. Under the heading “easy-to-find Veneto producers”, he lists Quintarelli. Wait a minute! Quintarelli, easy to find? Where does this guy shop for wines?

Even worse is his note on Amarone, which he writes derives from the Italian words amar, meaning bitter and one, meaning big. Huh? I mentioned this to a few producers in Italy and their reaction ranged from laughter to outright disbelief. This guy is a leading wine educator?

I mentioned that the Italian section is primarily about red wines; Zraly concentrates on Amarone, the big reds of Piedmont (Barolo and Barbaresco) and four famous wines of Tuscany: Chianti, Vino Noblie di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino and Carmignano. However, there is not one word – not a word! – about Bolgheri. How did Zraly decide to leave this out? It certainly couldn’t be because the wines are too expensive, as he writes a great deal about classified growths of Bordeaux that retail for hundreds of dollars per bottle. He also writes a good amount about the premier and grand cru bottlings from Burgundy. I can understand in a book such as this that there isn’t room for everything, so some wines are deleted. But we’re not talking about an obscure red wine from Basilicata or Calabria here, we’re talking about Bolgheri. Even if you only know two wines from here – namely Sassicaia and Ornellaia – you know about Bolgheri. Given that there are two full pages on the wines of the Loire Valley in France, couldn’t Zraly at least written a paragraph about Bolgheri? Especially given the fame of these wines? Again, his bias toward French wines while ignoring many distinguished Italian wines, is striking (also, there is no mention Morellino di Scansano, one of Tuscany’s most successful red wines of the past decade).

While this is bad enough, this doesn’t even come close to the outrage I feel about his few brief paragraphs about Italian white wines. Zraly writes that he doesn’t teach classes about these wines as the leading examples of these products imported into America, such as Soave, Frascati and Pinot Grigio, tend to retail for about $15. So what? Doesn’t it stand to reason that the leading wines in terms of sales from anywhere – Italy, France, Chile, Australia, Spain, etc – sell for $15-20? Yet he has an entire chapter on French white wines, most of which are much more expensive than $15. It’s quite an illogical argument. It seems clear that he doesn’t taste many examples of Italian white wine.

Kevin, have you tried this?

Or this? These are two outstanding Italian white wines.

Also, by writing what he does about these wines being $15, he tends to dismiss then singlehandedly, as though they’re not worth his – or anyone’s - time. Yet I wonder if he’s tasted the Pieropan Soave Classico lately or other examples of Soave Classico, such as Cantina del Castello, Ca’ Rugate, Gini and Pra. They all retail for about $14-16 dollars and they are excellent values. If Zraly means this book as a text for beginning and intermediate wine drinkers, he’s doing them a disservice by not highlighting these wines.

Of course there are single vineyard offerings of Soave in the $18-25 range (not a great deal of money and certainly on par with white wines from the Loire and Bordeaux that he praises in the book) that are marvelous wines. Soave has become relevant again and these cru offerings are first-rate wines, yet there’s nothing about them in this book. Apparently Zraly doesn’t care much for these wines, if he samples them at all.

Zraly has brief lists of varieties and wines from several Italian regions; he admits that he doesn’t have the space to cover all twenty wine regions. That’s fine, but take a look at his list of grapes in Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. That’s it! Has he ever heard of Friulano, the signature grape of the region? How can he leave this out? Wouldn’t you think that it would be easy to remember Friulano when writing about Friuli?

But all of this doesn’t even hold a candle to his most outrageous statement in the book, which happens to deal with Italian white wines. Continuing his reasoning about why he doesn’t teach a class on Italian white wines, he writes:

“The Italians do not traditionally put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds – in terms of style and complexity and they are the first to admit it.” (page 187).

Can you believe he actually wrote that? I had to read the sentence several times to make certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Yes, I’m quite certain that great vintners such as Leonildo Pieropan, Roberto Anselmi, Silvio Jermann, Sabino Loffredo and Ciro Picariello would admit they don’t put much effort into their white wines. What a truly outrageous statement!

Again, does Zraly even drink Italian white wines? I mentioned this statement to a producer in Alto Adige and told him that it seemed as if the author wrote this some forty years ago. His reply to me was that, yes, some four decades ago, one could say this about Italian white wines, but certainly not today. For anyone who has been paying attention, the amazing level of quality of the best Italian white wines has been one of the major developments in the wine industry over the past fifteen to twenty years. Has Zraly even noticed?

Zraly, by the way, also writes that recent plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in Italy have “elevated” the quality of Italian white wines. How can he say this? The best white wines in Italy, the ones that have truly been among the country’s best over the past twenty years are largely not produced from these two varieties, but rather from Verdicchio, Friulano, Vermentino, Garganega, Cortese, Greco, Fiano, Falanghina and several dozen more. It’s these indigenous varieties that are at the core of greatness of Italian white wines.

While I’m angry and terribly disappointed with Zraly’s take on Italian wines, there’s a bigger problem here. It’s the mere fact that he could write this and get away with it. Can you imagine the reaction he would have received if he had written mistruths and had as many incorrect facts about the wines of France or California? He would have been tarred and feathered and run out of town. Yet, I’ve not read any other criticism of his text on Italian wines. Where is the outcry? Where are the Italian producers and importers on this? To me, this entire situation shows the lack of respect for Italian wines in this country.

I applaud Zraly for being a positive source for wine in this country and also for writing this book. But once you decide to take on such a venture, there is a professional responsibility that must emerge. You cannot write mistruths as he has about Italian white wines and represent yourself as a leading wine educator. If he doesn’t care for Italian white wines or doesn’t keep up with these wines, then admit it. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s being honest. But don’t write something that is a slap in the face to hundreds of excellent white wine producers in Italy.

If Italian wines – white, red and sparkling (there is barely any mention of Prosecco or Franciacorta in this book) are to be taken seriously in America, then individuals who write and teach about wine need to treat them with the proper respect. Like other wines more if you will, but give Italian wines their proper due.

By the way, Kevin, I invite you to pay a visit to Melissa Sutherland Amadowhite wine buyer at 67 Wine and Spirits in New York City. She adores Italian white wines and can give you a great education on this topic. She will introduce you to several great wines that are proof of the excellent work being done by white wine makers in Italy today.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Judging at VinItaly

A few weeks ago, I was one of 105 individuals who served as a judge for the VinItaly Wine Competition, held at Veronfiere in Verona, the same building where the annual VinItaly wine far is held in late March/early April.

I was invited several months ago by Carlo Alberto Delaini, director of the VeronaFiere Press Office; I accepted at once, as I was happy to be invited and also curious about how this event would work. Now having participated as a judge, I can tell you that this experience was first-rate and exceeded my expectations.

Whenever I head to Italy (this was my 54th trip there), I see many long-time friends I've come to know over the past decade. Of course, I always make new friends as well and what a great experience to meet journalists from around the world. This time, I met new friends from countries such as Maylasia, Slovenia, Germany, France, China and Argentina. How nice it is to sit down with these people over lunch and dinner and talk to them about their experiences and thoughts on Italian wine!

A great thing about this event was that I was also able to meet winemakers (enologists, if you will) from all over the world as well. As a foreign journalist, I was part of a five person commission to judge wines. Each commission was comprised of three journalists - two foreign and one Italian - as well as two winemakers, one from Italy and one foreign. It made for a nice mix of expertise and stylistic decisions and assured that each wine would be fairly judged.

This was the 20th anniversary year for this competition and it's obviously grown over the years; more than 3000 wines were entered in the competition. Each commission over five days would taste approximately 160-180 wines (40 wines on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with a few less on Monday and Friday). Wines were entered from seemingly everywhere on the planet - name a country and you could pretty much be assured that there was a wine from that nation. Of course, Italian wines made up most of the entries, but there were also wines from Romania, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France and dozens of other lands. Wine styles ranged from the lightest sparkling wines and rosés to the most full-bodied red wines, some of which were decanted by the ultra professional staff of Italian sommeliers.

This was a great experience for me, being able to judge wines as varied as Lambrusco, Prosecco, lush dessert wines and numerous vibrant whites and full-bodied reds. We were given a category number for the wines we were tasting, so we only knew for example that the sparkling wines were from 2011 for one category, while for another the reds were from either 2010 or 2009. You could make educated guesses as to what you were tasting, but you really didn't know, which I thought was a good thing, as it made you focus your attention on judging each wine individually. I've since learned a few of the wines I tasted and liked and there were some pleasant surprises.

Here is a complete list of the winning wines.

I want to thank the sommeliers for the professionalism, my fellow judges and the organizers for a wonderful week in Verona!

Monday, October 29, 2012

You say Garnacha, I say Grenache

Given that so many people want to learn a great deal about new types of wines these days, it can be frustrating when the marketing people want to dumb things down and continue to tell us about the same products again and again. So it was nice to receive an email from a wine company, asking me if I was interested in tasting three examples of Grenache; even better was the fact that they were from three different countries: Spain, France and the United States. Naturally, I said yes to the offer; it was a nice way to learn about this lovely variety.

Grenache - or Garnacha - as it is known in Spain - is a variety that delivers wines with moderate tannins, good acidity and often a nice assemblage of brown and red spices. It's not the big, super ripe style of red you might be used to from Cabernet Sauvignon or a Shiraz from Australia, so prepare for that. Wines made from this grape tend to be subdued with a nice earthiness that makes them wonderful partners for stews, lighter games, certain preparations of duck and other similar dishes.

The majority of plantings of Grenache is in Spain (Garnacha Tinta is the official name here) and the version I tasted was the 2010 offering called The Show from Calatayud in the northeastern sector of the country. Bright crimson in color, this has inviting aromas of raspberry, clove, mulberry and nutmeg - there's a group of aromatics you won't find in most red wines!. Medium bodied, this has tart acidity, modest tannins and good persistence, while the finish has a pleasing subtle spiciness. While I'd like a bit more punch at the end, a bit of food, such as a pork chop or meat stew will help complete this wine. Also I can't criticize a wine as well made as this for $13. This is a delighful version of Grenache and it certainly offers a lot of character for the money (especially when compared with most examples of Malbec at the same price).

The second Grenache I tried was the 2010 Shatter from the France's Roussillon area in far southern France. This wine is a collaboration between California winemakers Joel Gott and Dave Phinney. It's medium-full with intriguing aromas of cooked meat, myrtle, plum and Queen Anne cherry; this has slightly richer tannins along with more obvious oak. This nicely displays the sensual, earthy side of Grenache; it's also a bit bold and has a bit too much oak influence. This can be enjoyed now, but it will be better in 3-5 years. It's priced at $30 and while the price is not extravagant, I'd would have liked to see this come in some $5-$7 less, which would make this wine more appealing to a lot more people.

Finally there is the 2010 Joel Gott "Alakai" from California. Gott has been producing wines under his own label since 1996 and has a nice array of products, ranging from Pinot Gris to Pinot Noir to Riesling from Washington State. This wine is a Rhone blend with Grenache representing 77% of the blend, while varieties such as Syrah, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah make up the remainder of the mix. Bright ruby red, this has lovely aromas of red raspberry, vanilla and a hint of bacon fat. Medium-full, this is nicely structured with very good depth of fruit, good acidity and notable complexity. This is a nicely balanced wine to enjoy over the next 5-7 years; this would be excellent paired with duck breast or many bistro dishes. ($30)

Fall is here and cold weather is coming, so why not try Grenache for something different with the heartier meals you'll be enjoying?

These wines are represented by Trinchero Family Estates of St. Helena, CA.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Back Home to Pine Ridge

Whenever I taste the wines of Pine Ridge Vineyards, it's like old home week for me. I recall tasting the initial release of their 1978 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon and throughly enjoying the classic style of this wine, one that displayed admirable balance along with a nice sense of place. Here was a new Napa Valley estate that could stand alongside some of its more famous neighbors.

Over the past twenty years, I've enjoyed many wonderful wines - white and red - that were crafted under the leadership of founder Gary Andrus. A former Olympic skier, Andrus was a kind-hearted man who was always a positive thinker, one who foresaw greatness - and realized it. Gary befriended me early on and I recall him giving me a big bear hug at a restaurant in Napa Valley one evening, this after not seeing him for a couple years.

I loved this guy like a brother, so I was shocked to hear the news a few years ago that he had passed away. I don't recall the circumstances, but he was much too young and had too much untapped energy to devote to his winery.

Thankfully the winery has maintained their high level of quality after Andrus' death, as Stacy Clark continued to fine tune and improve on these wines, especially the district series of Cabernet Sauvignons. These wines, from Pine Ridge estate vineyards in Rutherford, on Howell Mountain and at their winery plantings in the Stags Leap District in southern Napa Valley, are the signature offerings of the company; they're classy wines that really speak of their origins. Balance has always been the key with these wines, which is one big reason why I have always loved these offerings so much. For me, bigger isn't necessarily better - in fact, it generally isn't better at all. What impresses me is varietal character and elegance, two characteristics that define the Cabernet Sauvignons of Pine Ridge.

Today, Pine Ridge is guided by Michael Beaulac, who serves as general manager and winemaker; he joined the winery in 2009 after working in the California wine industry since 1989. The recent 2012 harvest was his 23rd in northern California.

Beaulac's first efforts with Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon have been released over the past several months of 2012. I'll get to these shortly, but let me first tell you about the 2011 Chenin Blanc / Viognier, a delightful dry white that has been a bit of an innovation for the winery. Early on, Andrus produced a Chenin Blanc from a top grower in Napa Valley, but when that fruit became unavailable, he sourced Chenin Blanc from the Clarksburg area. This was always a nice effort, off-dry with tasty melon, apple and lime fruit. But soon, Viognier was added to the blend (the fruit comes from the Lodi district in central California) and the wine took on an added dimension. The 2011, a melange of 79% Chenin Blanc and 21% Viognier, is a lovely wine with an appearance of straw and just a hint of copper; the aromas are quite inviting with perfumes of lime, honeysuckle (clearly from the Viognier) and magnolia blossoms. Medium-bodied with very good concentration, this has beautiful ripeness, very good acidity and a flavorful, nicely balanced finish.

This is a delicious wine that was given no oak treatment, so as to heighten the aromatics and varietal charms of the two varieties. This is refreshing and very appealing; the winery recommends this with a flavorful Thai curry or a sushi dish such as a spicy tuna roll and I'd be hard pressed to think of a better pairing. Best of all, this retails for $14, which makes this a notable value, given not only the complexity and elegance, but also the amount of character in this bottle for not much money. Congratulations, Michael!

Now on to the bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from Pine Ridge. There is a Napa Valley bottling that is a blend of fruit from several districts, primarily Rutherford and Stags Leap; there is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon with 14% Malbec, 6% Merlot and 4% Petit Verdot. The 2009 is the current release and it's a handsome, well-balanced wine with inviting aromas of black cherry, black plum and cocoa powder; medium-full, this has good ripeness, polished young tannins and good acidity. It is approachable now, but it will be better in another two to three years as the fruit tones down; it's meant for peak drinking in 7-10 years. This has nice varietal purity and it is unmistakably Napa Valley in its flavor profile. ($54)

As for the district Cabernet Sauvignons from 2009, I've tasted two releases, each representing their origins well, meaning they are two very different wines. The Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon is comprised of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Malbec and the remainder a mix of Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This has a beautiful bright ruby red appearance with a light crimson edge; the aromas are of black cherry, clove, damson plum, red licorice and cumin. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration, this is beautifully balanced with lovely complexity, very good acidity and impressive persistence. This definitely has rich tannins, yet they are held in check; this is a wine to cellar, as it is structured for peak drinking in 10-15 years. ($80)

I've saved the best for last. The winery's Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon has always been a favorite of mine and in reality, this wine expresses this producer's concept of Napa regionality as well as any of their products. This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is somewhat typical of the Stags Leap District, which yields wines of softer tannins than those from Howell Mountain or Rutherford; there are textbook aromas of morel cherry, raspberry, purple iris and a touch of vanilla. This has a generous mid-palate, excellent persistence, silky tannins, good acidity and notes of sweet chocolate in the finish. This is a beautifully balanced wine (I know, this sounds like a broken record with this producer's Cabernet Sauvignons) with signature supple tannins as well as notable varietal purity.

I love this wine, not only for its elegance and precision, but also because the winemaker has crafted a wine that speaks of its origins; there's no statement to be big, bold or super ripe, just in order to attain a higher rating. This is a very classy wine that is approachable now, but is clearly structured for peak enjoyment in 10-12 years, perhaps longer. I give this wine my highest rating of 5 stars - outstanding! ($80)

Up in heaven, I'm sure Gary Andrus is proud of what the proprietors of his winery have accomplished; that is, if Pine Ridge wines are served in heaven. If not, God is missing out on some great wine!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Simply Italian Returns

One of the finest Italian wine events is returning soon to New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It will be held in those cities on October 15, 17 and 18, respectively and if you're an Italian wine lover living in or near those cities, you need to be there for an unparalleled day of Italian wine tasting and education.

I've been involved in moderating a seminar for this event for the past three years and I'm excited about the seminar on the wines of Collio I'll be leading in Chicago. There will also be a seminar on the wines of the Veneto that day in Chicago, as well as a seminar on Federdoc, the agency that oversees DOC, DOCG and DOP regulations; things are changing rapidly with these designations and this seminar, taught by Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, will be of invaluable assistance to anyone who wants to better understand today's Italian wine.

That same seminar will also be offered in New York City along with a special presentation on "The Legends of Italian Wine," featuring such Italian wine producers as Masi, Pio Cesare, Antinori, Argiolas, Mastroberardino and Michele Chiarlo along with another five great producers; Gloria Maroti Frazee of the Wine Spectator will moderate this seminar. After this, the seminars on Collio and Veneto will be offered.

There will be a gala tasting of hundreds of the finest Italian wine estates from the breadth and width of the country that will be held in the afternoon at all three cities.

Information on the Simply Italian events can be found here.

Please note that seating at each seminar is limited and you must register to assure your spot. To do so, contact Jessica Celona at 305-937-2488 or info@ieem.usa.

Looking forward to seeing you at Simply Italian in mid-October!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Italian Wine Dinner - Past and Present

My next Italian wine dinner will take a look at how Italian wines - white, red and dessert - age. We will taste current and older vintages of some very special Italian wines, which will be paired with the excellent cuisine of Chef Robert Reynaud at Vivere at The Italian Village in Chicago.

Here is the menu:

1st course: Almond and Lychee Sformato with Apple and Fennel Salad

2009 Pieropan Soave Classico "La Rocca"
2004 Pieropan Soave Classico "La Rocca"

2nd course: Quail "Ballantine" with Mushroom Tortelli, Tuscan Kale and Pickled Beets
2006 Le Chiuse Brunello di Montalcino Riserva
2001 Le Chiuse Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

3rd course: Slow Braised Short Ribs with Polenta and Root Vegetables
2007 Masi Amarone Classico "Costasera"
1990 Masi Amarone Classico

4th course: Toasted Pumpkin Seed Créme Brulée
2005 Brolio Vin Santo del Chianti Classico
1998 Brolio Vin Santo del Chianti Classico

The price for this dinner will be $130 per person, which includes tax and gratuity. Considering that the cost of the Le Chiuse Brunello Riserva is approximately the same price for one bottle, the total charge for this dinner is quite reasonable. 

Please note that this dinner will be at a single table in Vivere and will be limited to ten people. Thus it is important that you need to contact me as soon as possible to reserve your seat, as this will no doubt fill up very quickly.

If you are interested in attending, contact me, Tom Hyland, by email at and I will let you know about payment options. You will be required to pay me before the dinner to reserve your seat. Please do not contact Vivere or The Italian Village - you need to contact me.

Tuesday, October 9
Vivere at The Italian Village
71 W. Monroe, Chicago
7:00 PM

I look forward to seeing you at this special dinner, one we will all remember for quite some time, as we celebrate the best in Italian food and wine over the past twenty plus years!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Treasure Trove of Great Wine Writing

Not too many years ago, dozens - perhaps hundreds - of daily newspapers across America featured a wine column. Most papers hired a writer to compose a column that would inform the public about the latest trends in wine or perhaps offer a few suggestions about what wines would be perfect for an upcoming holiday meal.

Some papers with large circulations even hired freelancers to write an occasional piece that would give readers a different take on their primary wine writer's viewpoint. I know this for a fact, because for a little more than seven years, I was a freelance wine writer for the Chicago Tribune. It was at the time a highlight in my career and I still think of it that way.

Well, what a difference a few years make! Today of course, dozens of newspapers in America have folded. Others that have survived the digital age have had to tighten their belts in order to stay in business. That meant that the "fat" was trimmed and for most of these print publications, the reality was that the wine column - or at least their own wine columnist - had to go.

Thankfully, a few papers still do have an original wine (and spirits) column and a few even feature exceptional writing. You'd be hard pressed to find a better wine writer in America today than Eric Asimov at The New York Times, but given the Times' track record with wine writing, maybe that shouldn't come as a surprise. For forty years, this paper has been the one that tens and hundreds of thousands of wine lovers have turned to for the latest on the world of wine. That Asimov's work is still widely read today amidst the vast wasteland of wine blogs and online articles speaks well not only to his talent, but also the journalistic standards of his employer.

So it is with great excitement that we can now enjoy a brief history of some of America's best wine writing in the just-published The New York Times Book of Wine: More than Thirty Years of Vintage Wine Writing (Sterling Epicure, New York, NY; 592 pages, $24.95). This is a book that anyone - beginner or thirty-year wine lover - should study. For me, reading just a few of these articles felt like sitting by the fireside with a comfortable sweater on a cold winter's night - this has that same relaxed feel. But of course, reading this book is a great deal more stimulating!

We get a total of 125 articles from 29 different authors; the articles take us around the world of wine, from California to continental Europe and South America; there are also pieces about wine hardware (the first article in the book is a clever piece by Eric Asimov entitled "The $410 Corkscrew"), the language of describing wines and of course, some excellent articles about pairing wine with food.

Campania vineyard scene (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

What I love about the book is the tone taken by the writers, all of whom are well versed in wine, yet never take themselves too seriously. There are some marvelous pieces by Frank Prial, the paper's first regularly featured wine writer, about winespeak. In one column, he writes about the need by some people to describe a just-opened bottle and how impossible it is to avoid that individual's ramblings ("the stuff is inescapable, it's right there on the table in front of you..."). In a companion piece, he writes of an imaginary cliché expert who talks of how winemakers "craft" wines and how full-bodied wines are described as "mammoth" and "be-hemoths." Other writes are featured with their take on the specific language of wine.

While there is technical information in the book, that largely remains in the background, as the writers constantly keep things engaging. Read the pieces by the late R.W. (Johnny) Apple, one of the paper's most beloved writers; he paints pictures of the places he visits as well as the people he meets. His articles about Nicolas Catena of Argentina and two partners that became remarkably successful in Puglia a few years back are beautifully written and charming. Reading these, one doesn't think of points or high ratings in a wine publication, but rather, the unique qualities of these individuals. In today's world of instant recognition where a wine's acceptance is too often based on a sound bite, this quality of wine writing is sorely missing.

There are several short pieces by Florence Fabricant, who devises food pairings for the wines written about in any particular week. These are nicely organized and as an added bonus, also feature the recipes. One of her pieces deals with choosing just the right wine for the bitterness of radicchio in a dish. It's probably not something many of us think about too often; her thoughts on the subject are quite valuable. What a nice touch by editor Howard Goldberg (who wrote about wine for the paper in the 1980s) to include these brief articles!

Earlier, I mentioned that I thought Eric Asimov is the best wine writer in America today; there is sufficient evidence in this book to support my claim. What I admire about Asimov is that he writes not only with great knowledge, but he tends to use a matter-of-fact approach. He can discuss the most famous, most in-demand wines of the world and talk about them without fawning over them. In his job, he is invited to some pretty dazzling affairs, yet he never treats them as monumental tastings or moments that changed his life. This approach helps the average reader - whether wine novice or professional - connect with Asimov, as his common sense attitude helps everyone better understand that we are, in the final analysis, merely discussing a bottle of wine.

Personally, I love Asimov's work as he is a lover of traditional wines; the super ripe, international style favored by a few influential wine publications, is not a quality the author seeks out. This is evident in several articles in the book, most noticeably in a piece entitled "Finessed and Light: California Pinot Noirs with a Manifesto." The subject of this article from 2009 is about several winemakers who were (and are still) making Pinot Noirs that reflect lower alcohols, are aged for a shorter time in wood and display finesse; this approach a 180-degree turn from some of the most highly decorated examples of this variety in California. "Food and wine's role at the table is seemingly what divides these stylistic camps," Asimov writes. He goes on to ask if wine is meant to be a partner with food or if it should be enjoyed on its own; Asimov includes quotes from some of these producers on this topic as well. It's a brilliant summary of an important subject in today's wine world, not just regarding California Pinot Noir, but any number of wines from various parts of the globe. What is the real role of wine?

As with any good writer, Asimov admits his outlook may not be what another person believes. It's not a question of right and wrong, as one person may love a particular wine that someone else passes on. But how nice that Asimov can clearly think for himself and take this approach. After reading this article, you wonder if a wine journalist living in California would have had the honesty to write a similar piece.

There are all sorts of people today who call themselves "wine writers." No need to dwell on this subject - enough said. So especially for these individuals, but in reality, for everyone that wants to learn more about the wines and spirits of the world and recall what excellence in wine writing was all about - and still is in small doses these days - I strongly recommend purchasing a copy of The New York Times Book of Wine. For me, this is one of the most important wine books of the last thirty years - it's that good.

P.S. I've only read a couple dozen of the articles in the book so far. I'm going to take my time, because like a great bottle of wine - I don't want it to end!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Loss of Romance - and Emotion

Detail of Lazzarito Vineyard, Serralunga d'Alba with snow-capped peaks of the Alps in the distance (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

"Fewer things are as unromatic or as unpoetic as wine ratings." - Richard Elia,

At, Richard Elia has written an essay entitled "Wine's Decline" that is certain to stimulate a great deal of conversation (read here), given that he is critical of the way wine is being viewed in today's society. It's a no-nonsense, highly opinionated piece of writing that will anger some people, but it contains a lot of things that need to be said.

A few introductory words about Elia and Elia was the publisher of Quarterly Review of Wines, a magazine aimed at savvy wine consumers; it was published for 35 years and featured articles by several Masters of Wine from various places around the globe as well as some of the leading wine journalists of the past few decades (full disclosure - I wrote for the magazine for 13 years). Elia and his editor Randy Sheahan maintained a sophisticated magazine, one that dealt with the leading personalities of wine. You could read an article about a winemaker in California, Italy or France (or many other places) and learn what made him or her tick. This was a magazine that wanted to go beyond technical information - although there was a good amount of that when necessary for any particular article - and get straight to the human side of wine. 

Perhaps best of all about QRW was that while there were wine reviews - there would have to be in any wine publication - these were judgments such as "outstanding," "excellent" or "very good" or something similar, depending on how the author of a piece wanted to let the readers know how special a wine was. Elia never went down the points path; his quote that kicks off this post gives you an idea of how he felt about such things. This was Elia being consistent with a philosophy of dealing with wine as an extension of a particular place and/or individual. For Elia, wine was - and is - the result of many things, some of them technical, but many of them emotional or even ethereal and how do you score that? More simply put, as wine is a sensory experience, my experience is going to be different from yours, so how can a point value sum up what that experience was about?

I mentioned that Quarterly Review of Wines was in business for thirty-five years; the final issue was that of Autumn 2011. In this online essay, Elia briefly deals with the reasons why he ceased publication - advertising revenues weren't what they used to be and of course, more people today are eschewing magazines for online sites. "With the web, anybody can be a wine writer, regardless of expertise," Elia writes in this essay. 

Elia tackles several subjects in his piece, ranging from wine bloggers to the way large corporations market wine, treating it as a commodity. But his main theme is about how the romance of wine has been lost in today's world. Technology has a lot to do with that as do ratings, of course. Wine can be a wonderful experience for us - think about a bottle of wine you enjoyed during a visit to Napa Valley or to a small producer in Burgundy, Champagne, Piedmont or Tuscany. That wine was something special because of a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you were tasting it close to where it was made; indeed you may have tasted it with the person that made it.

Early morning, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

But you can enjoy a special experience without traveling to a wine region. We've all tasted some pretty remarkable wines at restaurants and of course, the wine was notable not only for what was in the bottle, but for several other reasons, be it the food that accompanied the wine or simply, the people we enjoyed it with. In his essay, Elia tells the story of how he saw a couple at a restaurant ask the wine steward about a particular wine. The sommelier, instead of telling the diners a story about where the wine came from or the flavors it displayed, merely took out his cel phone and showed them the points the wine had received in a recent print review.

Now certainly most wine stewards do not act in this fashion; most are very personable individuals who are eager and willing to share their knowledge about wine and help make a diner's experience a more valuable one. But the mere fact that this happened is a clear sign of the times.

This technical approach to wine in the digital age is what has Elia upset. Certainly he is not surprised by this new way of informing the public about wine, but for the ease of technology, we lose out on the romance of wine. Think about the work of writers such as Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald; they were not considered great writers because they used proper grammar. Rather these four are remembered as the most celebrated American authors of the 20th century because they wrote from the heart about their life's experiences. They told stories that we treasure. That same approach needs to return to wine is what Elia is saying in his piece.

But in this day of rating wines by points and in today's market where wine is too often treated as a sales unit, will the notion of romance return? I'd like to think so and I'm certain Elia does as well, but the reality is that you can't put a numerical value on emotion. As we all hear far too often in our everyday lives, everyone's busy, everybody's pressed for time. Thus a quick check on the smartphone is a hell of a lot quicker than listening to someone teach us a few things about wine. That takes time and who's got enough of that?

In the end, Elia seems to be saying, we lose out on any notion of wine speaking directly to us. And that's a shame. 

P.S. I wrote that Elia's essay is certain to stimulate a great deal of conversation. But of course, that can only happen if enough people read it! I mention this because when Elia decided to cease publication of QRW in print form, the news was met with very little publicity. Another unfortunate sign of these digital times, sad to say.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Champagne Lover's Fantasy

On a magnificent 84-degree August day in Chicago - clearly the most beautiful we have enjoyed during this routinely oppressive summer - I celebrated the variety and brilliance of Champagne along with a few dozen friends at a special outdoor tasting in a private park. Entitled Champagne in the Second City, this was a tasting that combined dazzling wines with great food in a relaxed atmosphere that reminded all of us who attended that Champagne - and life - is not just good, it's great!

This event was the idea of Craig Cooper, wine director for Pop's for Champagne in Chicago, one of the country's finest venues for everything sparkling. Pop's, under the leadership of founder Tom Verhey and his wife Linda, was founded 30 years ago on the north side of Chicago; in 2006, the Verheys moved to their current location in downtown Chicago, where business dramatically grew and has stayed relatively strong ever since.

I wrote about Pop's and Verhey in a post last December (read here), in which he described Cooper as "probably the most Champagne-savvy person in America." High praise, especially if you know Verhey, someone who is down to earth and not given to hyperbole.

Flash forward to this past spring when Cooper invited me to a special tasting celebrating the 30th anniversary of Pop's that was to have been held at the wine bar back in May. To make a long story short, not everything came together as the support from certain individuals did not materialize.

Yet several friends of Cooper and Verhey did come through with a variety of special bottles, many of them very limited production releases, so Cooper did the next best thing and scheduled this event for a summer afternoon when our small group could enjoy these wines amidst the beauty of the Chicago skyline.

Craig Cooper getting ready to pour the 1983 Delamotte at Champagne in the City

Cooper assembled two dozen Champagnes from various small producers, most of them recoltant- manipulant. For most wines, there were two or three bottles of a specific cuvée, while in some instances, we enjoyed the wine from a magnum. The selection was magnificent, ranging from the 1995 Krug (in magnum) to the 1999 Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs along with some sought-after selections such as the 1998 and 1999 Jacques Selosse Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, the 1999 and 2002 Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru and the 2000 Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru. As I said, what a magnificent group of Champagnes!

An Afternoon Taste Sensation Awaits!

When you've got this many great Champagnes together, how do you choose the best? Well, you don't - what you do is taste and discover the differences in the wines according to a number of reasons, be it the cuvée itself, the time spent on the yeasts or the personal philosophy of the producer. As Cooper told me when he opened the bottles of Jacques Selosse, he admired these wines because of their distinctiveness. "I always find something different with Jacques Selosse as compared with other champagnes."

Those two wines were among my very favorites this day as well; both are deeply concentrated wines with outstanding structure and persistence; the two wines perfectly displayed the vintage differences, with the 1999 being more powerful as compared to the 1998. I preferred the elegance and finesse of the relatively lighter 1998, although there is little doubt that the 1999 will in five to ten years' time become a more subtle wine.

I'm a huge fan of Rosé Champagne and while there were only a few available for tasting, they were first-rate. The 1996 Cuvée William Deutz had lost much of its color, but the wine was full-bodied with a big finish with excellent acidity. I absolutely loved the 1997 Laurent Perrier "Cuvée Alexandra" Rosé (served from magnum), which had a deep copper color, excellent freshness and beautiful finesse. This is a terrific rosé Champagne.

l. to r. Jill Joyce, Illinois Sparkling Company, Tom and Linda Verhey

Other favorites poured this day included the 1995 Krug, an exquisitely balanced, deeply concentrated wine, the 1999 Bruno Paillard, a wine I loved for its focus and balance and the 1983 Delamotte, a wine of great freshness, even after 29 years.

I couldn't stay all five hours, so I missed several glorious wines such as the 2002 Agrapart Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, the 1999 and 2000 Pierre Peters "Les Chétillons Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru and the 2002 Paul Bara Special Club Grand Cru, but I enjoyed the amazing selection of wines I sampled that day. Thank you to Craig Cooper for his hard work organizing and running this event and thank you to Tom and Linda Verhey for giving us Chicagoans 30 years of sparkling bliss!

Text and photos ©Tom Hyland, 2012

Monday, July 30, 2012

Summer Relief

Well it's summer and it's been hot - what do you say we look at a few lighter-bodied whites to beat the heat? Hardly original, so hopefully, I can put together a nice mix of wines for your enjoyment.

2010 Terlato Family Vineyards (Russian River Valley) - We associate the Russian River Valley in Sonoma with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but how about Pinot Grigio? Well, judging by this wine from the Terlato family of Lake Bluff, IL that owns several properties in California, the variety works beautifully in this cool zone. Head winemaker Doug Fletcher made a wide decision fermenting 35% of the wine in neutral oak barrels to add more texture; this is medium-full with inviting apple and dried pear aromas and a flavorful finish with very good acidity. I've tasted this wine from several vintages and have always been delighted with the balance, richness and varietal character it displays; it's one of the most consistently excellent versions of Pinot Grigio in California. ($24)

2009 Tangley Oaks Chardonnay "Lot #6" (Sonoma Coast) - Here's a Chardonnay from the highly regarded Sonoma Coast zone that is a nice find for those not looking to spend a lot of money. This one has aromas of almonds, spiced pear and baked apples, is medium-bodied and has a rich, earthy finish that has a slight bitterness on its own, but becomes much more appealing when paired with the ideal food, such as grilled chicken or shrimp. This delivers a lot of flavor for the $16 price tag. (Both this wine and the Terlato Pinot Grigio are represented by the Terlato Wine Group of Lake Bluff, IL).

2011 William Cole Sauvignon Blanc "Columbine Special Reserve" (Casablanca Valley, Chile) - There are so many excellent examples of Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, as I've noted in these pages over the past few years; most of them are from cool growing areas such as Leyda or Casablanca Valley. This one is from the latter area and it's always a pleasure to taste this wine from this ultra consistent producer.  One smell and you instantly know you're dealing with Sauvignon Blanc, given the spearmint, chervil and freshly cut hay aromas. Medium-bodied, this has a pleasing finish with very good persistence, distinct herbal notes and tangy acidity. What a nice wine on its own or paired with just about any type of shellfish. A very nice value at $16 (Imported by Global Imports, Berkeley, CA).

2010 Vigne Surrau Vermentino di Gallura Supriore "Sciala" - What a pleasure to drink a well made Vermentino any time of the year, but especially in the summer. Many of the finest examples originate from the Gallura area of northeastern Sardinia; the wines here have excellent character with a touch of saltiness, derived from the vineyards being so close to the sea. This bottling from Vigne Surrau has sumptuous aromas of honeydew melon, Bosc pear and jasmine, is medium-full on the palate and has the lively acidity you expect from this variety, very good persistence and just a touch of saltiness in the finish. Enjoy this now or over the next year and a half; this is especially good with mussels or clams. $25 (Imported by A.I. Selections, New York City, NY).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

D for Doyard - D for Delicious!

The small town of Vertus in the Cote des Blancs zone of Champagne is becoming one of my favorite go-to areas for first-rate bubblies. I recently wrote about the Terre de Vertus cuvée from the renowned biodynamic producer Larmandier-Bernier. Today, I'm featuring another notable Champagne from this small town.

Doyard is a Récoltant-Manipulant, meaning this firm grows their own grapes and then makes their wines from these same grapes. As this is the Cote des Blancs, this is a Chardonnay zone; this particular wine, the Cuvée Vendémaire Brut non-vintage, is a Blanc de Blancs. While many examples of Blanc de Blancs are delicate and sleek, Yannick Doyard has taken a slightly different approach with this cuvée, as he vinifies 40% of the wine in barriques, giving the wine greater complexity and toning down the fruit-driven nature of the Chardonnay.

Light yellow in appearance with a very persistent bead, this has lovely aromas of pear and lemon with a distinct yeastiness. Medium-bodied, this has a rich finish with very good acidity and a slight bready quality that is often found in similar Champagnes. As this is a Blanc de Blancs, this is not a powerful Champagne, but one that offers more finesse and subtlety; this would be wonderful paired with many types of river fish or lighter seafood, especially with a cream sauce. Enjoy this over the next 3-5 years.

At a suggested retail price of $45, this is a notable value.

Imported by A.I. Selections, New York, NY

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Red, Fizzy, Sweet and Tasty!

This is the time of year when the obligatory "summer white wines" post appears on so many blogs. I'm in Chicago, where we've really been blasted over the past ten days with oppressive heat, so summer whites have definitely been part of my routine as of late; I'll post on a few of these wines very soon.

But first, how about some summer reds? Yes, you read that right - summer reds! I tried two examples of Lambrusco Dolce this past week and enjoyed both of them very much. Lambrusco from the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna has been making a bit of a comeback lately, as there are numerous producers that take a lot of care in producing this lightly sparkling (frizzante) red.

The first was from the noted producer Cavicchioli. Their Lambrusco Dolce, fitted with a screw cap, is a delight - highlighted by black raspberry and cranberry aromas and flavors. Lightly sparkling with a delicate sweetness, this is cleanly- made, quite tasty and very delicate, as the alcohol is only 7.5%. At a suggested retail price of only $7.99, it's hard to go wrong with a glass of this on a hot summer night.

(Imported by Frederick Wildman, New York City)

Another excellent example of Lambrusco Dolce is from Medici Ermete. This version is drier than the Cavicchioli and has a touch more alcohol (8.5%). This one will probably surprise you with its complexities, from the Queen Anne cherry, black raspberry aromas and flavors to the rich finish with notes of cocoa powder and nutmeg in the finish. I'd love to try this with pizza on a hot summer night! While both of these wines are for immediate drinking, the Medici Ermete will probably be fine in another year or so. It's a lovely wine, especially priced at $11.

(Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York City)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

An Historical Barolo Dinner - 2008 to 1961

I will be hosting a remarkable Barolo dinner at Vivere Ristorante at The Italian Village in Chicago on Tuesday, July 17. The focus of the dinner will be cru Barolo from the last fifty years, as we will taste ten wines, ranging from the newly released 2008s back to the Fontanafredda 1961, one of the 20th century's greatest Barolo vintages.

These are wines that I have taken from my cellar, bottles that I have been bringing back from the Barolo area over the past decade. I have put together a mix of the finest producers, such as Elio Grasso, Vietti, Marcarini, Roberto Voerzio and Fontanafredda, to name only a few, representing various Barolo communes as well as winemaking styles.

Here is the menu and list of wines for the evening:

Welcome wine: Bruno Giacosa Brut

1st course: Vitello Tonnato with Caper Berry
2008 Ceretto "Brunate"
2008 Elio Grasso "Gavarini Chiniera"

2nd course: Tajarin pasta with Albese Sauce
2007 Elvio Cogno "Ravera"
2007 Marcarini "La Serra"

3rd course: Barolo risotto with Figs
2004 Fratelli Barale "Cannubi"
2004 Roberto Voerzio "Brunate"

4th course: Hazelnut Encrusted Ribeye with Fontina Fonduta
2001 Vietti "Brunate"
2001 Fontanafredda "Lazzarito"

5th course: Selection of Piemontese Cheeses
1996 Poderi Colla "Bussia Dardi Le Rose"
1961 Fontanafredda

The price for this dinner will be $175 per person, which includes tax and gratuity. Considering that a single bottle of the 2004 Voerzio Barolo will cost you more than that (if you could find it), the total charge for this dinner is quite reasonable. 

Please note that this dinner will be at a single table in Vivere and will be limited to ten people. Thus it is important that you need to contact me as soon as possible to reserve your seat, as this will no doubt fill up very quickly.

If you are interested in attending, contact me, Tom Hyland, by email at and I will let you know about payment options. You will be required to pay me before the dinner to reserve your seat. Please do not contact Vivere or The Italian Village - you need to contact me.

Tuesday, July 17
Vivere at The Italian Village
71 W. Monroe, Chicago
7:00 PM

I look forward to seeing you at this special dinner, one we will all remember for quite some time, as we celebrate the best in Piemontese food and wine!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tradition Wins Out - Again

Last week at Via Carducci, a wonderfully authentic trattoria on Chicago's north side, I hosted a Brunello di Montalcino dinner. The featured wines were new releases from Montalcino, namely the 2007 vintage of Brunello, the 2006 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino Riserva and the 2010 vintage of Rosso di Montalcino; there was a total of nine wines for the evening.

These wines are brand new and while a few of them have entered select markets in America, many of them will not be available here for another few months. So this was a great opportunity to try the latest examples of these celebrated wines, sort of a miniature anteprima tasting, somewhat like the one I attend at Benvenuto Brunello in the town of Montalcino in February. The difference in this case being that while the tasting in Montalcino offered a lot more wines (more than 250), this evening in Chicago featured the wines with food, a nice plus! Especially when you pair Brunello with wild boar ragu and filet!

This was also a rare opportunity to taste three vintages rated as outstanding (5-star) by the Brunello consorzio. To my knowledge, this situation of three outstanding vintages in a five year period has never happened before, so this only added to the enjoyment of the evening. (I've written some initial thoughts on these new releases of Brunello di Montalcino at my other blog, LearnItalianWines, which you can read here.)

We had an excellent turnout of 25 people. I knew a few friends who were there, but for the most part, I wasn't familar with those who attended. This was exactly the group of wine lovers I wanted at this dinner, as each individual wanted to try these wines for themselves, being lovers of Brunello. No one asked how many points these wines were awarded. No one cared what certain famous (or infamous) journalists thought of these wines. They tried the wines themselves and made up their own mind - how refeshing!

I introduced a variety of styles from modern (Banfi "Poggio alle Mura") to ultra traditional (Lisini Rosso di Montalcino, Tiezzi "Vigna Soccorso") as well as an in-between style (Citille di Sopra). As with any good-sized group, tastes and opinions varied. For the middle course with the 2007 Brunellos, a few people loved the richness and power of the Banfi "Poggio alle Mura", while others opted for the elegance of the Ciacci Piccolomini "Pianrosso" (this is a particularly lovely wine) or the spice of the Citille. All well made wines, all representing Brunello beautifully in 2007, yet reminding us that these wines are the products of their terroir - both in the vineyard and in the cellar.

The next flight of wines was the 2006 Brunello Riserva and while I served three traditionally made wines, they were quite different. One was the "Gualto" Riserva from Camigliano, a wine that clearly showed the power of the 2006 vintage. This was a classic Brunello vintage, but one that is tightly wound and clearly needs a great deal of time to display its finest qualities. This is a beautifully made Brunello that will reward 12-15 years of patience and will drink well for at least another 7-10 years after that (I hope I'll be around then!). (By the way, the 2004 Camigliano "Gualto" Riserva, which I tasted at the winery last month and is available in the US, is a marevlous wine with beautiful floral aromatics and silky tannins. Buy this wine if you can find it and enjoy it while you cellar the 2006.)

The Tiezzi "Vigna Soccorso" Riserva, a marvelous, ultra traditional wine, was clearly a hit with this audience.  This is not a fruit forward, toasty wine, but rather a graceful, subdued wine with beautiful structure and ideal balance; this is a nice reminder of what many Brunellos tasted like some thirty years ago, before a few producers introduced barriques to the mix. I had not had the privilege of tasting this wine previously and after making my initial notes, I thought the wine might be too low-key for consumers, but I was clearly wrong, as they loved it!

Fabio Tassi (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

If there was a clear favorite at this dinner, it was the Tassi Riserva "Franci," another beautifully made traditional Brunello. Fabio Tassi operates a wine shop/tasting bar/ in the town of Montalcino and also manages the enoteca in the fortezza, where you can find virtually every Brunello label in existence. In his spare time, he even manages to find time to make a little bit of wine under his own label!

And what a wine this is. Of course, the greatness of any wine comes from the vineyards - Tassi has some outstanding plantings in Castelnuovo dell'Abate - but the final touches come in the cellar, in this case under the direction of enologist Alberto Antonini, one of Tuscany's most highly regarded winemakers, who ages this wine solely in grandi botti. This is a marvelously complex Brunello with impressive depth of fruit, excellent persistence, very good acidity and silky tannins. Above all, this is a wine of great breeding and finesse. You don't communicate the local terroir with heavy doses of oak, something both Tassi and Antonini understand quite well. Instead, you take a minimalist approach in the cellar and let the wine reveal itself, as it displays the sensual character of the Sangiovese grape about as well as any Brunello I have tasted this year. While this has the stuffing to drink well in another 20 years, you don't have to wait that long to enjoy this wine, given its elegance.

One final note on this dinner and why so many people there loved the traditional wines, be they Rosso, Brunello or Brunello Riserva. I can't speak for everyone, but I can wager a guess, which is that these wines were being enjoyed in the best fashion possible - with food! Modern, oaky wines may get high scores from certain so-called "influential" magazines, but I'm positive the tide has turned, as many consumers are turning away from the decision makers at these publications and look instead to what they prefer. I've always favored the more elegant, subtle approach of traditional Brunello (as well as Barolo, Amarone, Taurasi and just about any Italian red wine, no matter how humble or famous), as I can drink the wine, not just take one sip for the purpose of a review.

We all enjoy great wines paired with the proper food and the consumers at this dinner reaffirmed my belief in this as well as in the fact that traditional wines that play up to the food and do not overpower it are the most enjoyable of all. And isn't enjoyment why we pair wine and food together?

P.S. One final note. The 2006 Tassi "Franci Riserva" is not in this country and may not be brought in by the importer, especially as this is a very limited production wine. So you may have to order this from Montalcino. The price on the shelf at the enoteca at the fortezza is 120 Euro. That makes this wine one of the most expensive of all Brunello. The 2006 Tassi Brunello "Selezione Franci" (not a riserva) is imported in America and is less expensive; it's also a lovely wine in a similar style and one I highly recommend.

So if you need to try the Tassi Franci Riserva from 2006, it will cost you a fair amount of money. But this wine is something special - for me, one word perfectly describes it. It is a revelation!

P.P.S. I ended the evening with a bottle of 2001 Banfi Florus, a Moscadello di Montalcino, a sweet dessert wine of the area, made from Moscato. I normally don't care for this wine when it is young, at it seems a bit heavy as well as a bit simple. But I let this bottle sit in my cellar for about six years and when I discovered I still had it a few days before the dinner, I decided this was the perfect occasion to open it. What a pleasant surprise was in store for all of us, as the wine had rounded out and displayed remarkable complexity, tasting like an older Vin Santo or sherry, with just a trace of sweetness. Maybe that's the key with Moscadello - letting it age for five years or so before enjoying it.