October 25, 2012
There is a long standing theory that the truly noble grapes of this world are transplantable to other countries: that their basic, identifiable characteristics will manifest themselves in the wines produced at these new locations. Pundits point to Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Riesling as proof of success around the globe. Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir are generally included in this hierarchy, although more than one dissenter has quibbled with Pinot Noir, saying it simply belongs to the Côte d’Or, Burgundy, France. The lines get fuzzier as the list progresses, but the ultimate counter-argument persists: if a grape truly flourishes in only one area and produces a wine that is remarkable, unique in flavor, and sought after all over the world–well, then, isn’t this a noble grape, too?
Our subject goes by the name of Chiavenasca and Picutener, also known as Spanna. Its classical name is Nebbiolo. Those of you still “in the mist” will certainly recognize the names of the two greatest wines made from this inimitable grape: Barolo and Barbaresco.
Nebbiolo, which literally means “from the fog”, flourishes on the steep hillsides among the Apennine Mountains, south of the Alps. The grape thrives on the moist, misty air these fogs are infamous for producing. England does not have exclusive rights to pea soup fog! I remember riding in a car in this area with my grandfather, and there was literally no visibility ahead of us. It made a lasting impression. Some of the hillside regions among the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco are Monferrat, Langhe, Serralunga, Alba, Nieve, and Cuneo. These are classic growing areas with a long history.
In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his journal from Turin: “There is a red wine called Nebiule [sic] made in the neighborhood, which is very singular. It is about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux, and as brisk as Champagne. It is a pleasing wine.”
These words are certainly wise counsel, and the Nebbiolo of 200 years later continues to please. True, it is astringent, tannic, and nature harsh in the raw. Barrel age is essential even in the lighter wines. A year is mandatory for all; two years is optimal for lighter vintages, and three years is best for great years. Some producers (especially of Barolo) age for four or more years, yielding the “Riserva Speciale”, but this can be too much of a good thing. These wines are very full bodied and often benefit from a few hours of breathing between opening and drinking.
Barbaresco is generally the less enormous of the two. Styles vary greatly, but on occasion the Barbaresco can achieve the better balance of fruit and size. Barolo simply attacks! Another two stars of the Piedmont are Gattinara and Ghemme. These wines, also from Nebbiolo grapes, come from 40 miles further north in the hills of Novarra, close to the city of Vercelli. Gattinara is 100% Nebbiolo, and a bruiser of a wine it is. It has an illustrious history. Its sister village produces Ghemme, a blended wine including 70% Nebbiolo for a more graceful punch. Both are hard to find in the US, but worth a trip to Italy to experience.
February 22, 2012
We recently had our kitchen remodeled: three months of demolition, reconstruction, missing and damaged parts, floods, and blown-out electronics. Mealtimes were microwave delicacies. One saving grace was a weekly Wednesday supper at the home of dear neighbors, a pleasant reminder of the wonders that stovetops and ovens can produce.
Finally, we had the chance to return the favor. That evening coincided with the surprise appearance of a West Coast friend, so, naturally, good wine was served. I then pulled out a 1986 Barsac from Chateau Doisy-Dubroca for dessert. Enjoyed by all and thrilling to some, it was a reminder of what these unique wines are all about.
In the very southerly reaches of Bordeaux, limestone soil and a tiny brook named the Ciron provide a perfect breeding ground for the wines of Barsac, Sauternes, and three surrounding villages. The foggy conditions that occur there in October and November allow for the fully ripened grapes on the vine to experience a transformation, grotesquely named noble rot. The white grapes–semillon, sauvignon blanc, and occasionally muscadelle–are infected and penetrated by a mold that feeds on the grape sugar and tartaric acid. The grapes shrivel, and what remains are intense, succulent and concentrated drops inside a hideous-looking skin resembling an iguana’s hide. If all goes perfectly, the wine produced is heady, glycerin-filled, and of heavenly sweetness. Unlike many sweet fortified wines, the alcohol here is naturally high (13%-14%), producing firm backbone, energy, and refreshment despite the elevated sugar.
Barsac, grown further north, is generally more minerally, crisp and a little less sweet than its southern neighbors. A velvety crème caramel delight emerges, especially after 15 years in the bottle. such was the Doisy-Dubroca we drank, along with its warm, golden-to-amber color that bottle age imparted.
Sauternes are generally softer, sweeter, and more voluptuous than Barsacs while still containing the high alcohol level that gives energy. The established “greats” share more in common than not. Quality, above all, rules such vineyards as Coutet and Climens in Barsac and Rieussec and Suduiraut in Sauternes. Then, there is the peerless d’Yquem, recognized as the most famous dessert wine in the world. For more than a century this title was shared, if not surpassed, by Tokai Eszencia from Hungary and Klein Costantia from South Africa. Today, the meticulous, fanatical, and not to mention expensive, care d’Yquem requires puts it alone at the vinous pinnacle.
Unfortunately, the noble rot does not occur all at once. At d’Yquem, 160 pickers examine and pick the grapes on as many as a dozen separate days. Bunch by bunch or even grape by grape, the fruit is picked. Costly? You bet. But the price of d’Yquem allows for it. Other fine properties may pick three to five times, still a very expensive proposition. The everyday estate, however, usually picks only once, and makes the best of it. After their harvest, by carefully culling and selecting the best grapes, they can still produce a good wine in a climate-friendly year. It’s not a Ferrari, but it’s not $250/bottle either.
However, just as in Beaujolais or Burgundy, sugar is added to help the wines achieve the required alcohol level and make a passable drink. In poor years, even highbrow estates will do this in Sauternes. These adulterated wines are never too good, lacking noble rot, but still expensive. Count on a good wine shop to steer you toward to top vintages and the un-doctored products.
February 18, 2012
Off Zinfandel Lane, in the heart of Napa Valley, lies Raymond Vineyard and Cellar. The Raymond family’s lineage intertwines with that of the Beringers, Germans who established their California roots in the 1870s. Roy Raymond Sr. began working at the Beringer property in 1933. By 1971, using his share of the profits from the sale of Beringer Vineyards, Roy and his family established a new winery on a 90-acre parcel three miles down the road.
After many vintages, the Raymond name is well-established and known for making exemplary regional wines. My tasting notes constantly repeat the theme of balance and approachability. However, is there a special trait, a spark of electricity, or something “pinpointable” that makes these wines stand out? Here’s the rub: the answer is NO. Dynamism is not the forte at Raymond. I liken the situation to the first time that a person drinks a good, German riesling. “Boy, this is good stuff!” exclaims the novitiate, but a month later, the discovery is forgotten. So it is with Raymond: people forget.
Despite high standards and quality, these wines don’t grab you by the throat and scream “Here’s Raymond!” In tasting their lineup, I could not help but think of how few estates can give you what approaches a written guarantee of quality, as can Raymond. I think you’ll like what’s in their stable.
2000 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Reserve–nice lemon grass nose with crisp, wonderful acid levels. Slight chalkiness on the palate, but a really good finish and ticklish refreshment. It has a direct, lean (in a good way) profile that’s perfect for summer fare. Much better than any of the California sauvignon blancs I’ve tasted recently. Highly recommended for meals of crustaceans and non-0ily fish.
2000 Chardonnay, Napa Reserve–A subtle, almost shy nose of melded fruit and oak. Clean flavors are pleasurable with butterscotch elements. Exemplary balance in an understated but very attractive drink. A fine choice for summer pastas and simple grilled poultry.
1997 Chardonnay “Generations”, Napa Valley–Rather overt style, but not a punch in the nose. Nicely balanced bouquet. “Sweeter” (read: lush) and with more purity than the Napa Reserve. Flavors are also richer with more oak prominence that lingers on the back of the palate. With 100% malolactic fermentation, itcould be too much for some consumers. An intense, concentrated drink that is far from being old, even after four years in the bottle. Only 1000 cases produced.
1998 Merlot, Napa Reserve–A distinctive black cherry nose with depth and virility. A good mouth texture and middle-weight style. Plenty of fruit but a rather tight, tannic finish. This could speak of the toughness of the ’98 vintage. Nonetheless, an excellent effort.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Reserve–Good intensity on the nose with ripe blackberry and a touch of vegetables. Excellent concentration on the palate. Dry, Rutherford bench dustiness with a beautiful grain and flavorful aftertaste. Despite the undercurrent of the veggies, this is a finely etched Cabernet, capable of three years improvement in the bottle.
1997 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Generations”, Napa Valley–The flagship wine of Raymond and a top notch ’97. Very focused and penetrating with a big, but not obvious, bouquet. Dark fruits on the nose, beautifully integrated and still holding much in reserve. A silky, sleek, and “fluid” drink. Superb balance and a delectable finish. Invites a new sip immediately, and again, and again! A pleasure to drink now with at least five years of development ahead.
I had little sympathy for the 2000 Estates Chardonnay, which smelled of strange root vegetables. Nor did I care for the 1998 Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, which had a flat, inexpressive bouquet and a mean, lean flavor profile.
Many of you may know the Amberhill line that Raymond produces as their bread and butter commercial moneymaker. The wines are good values. The samples I reviewed here are the cream off the top. I doubt they will ever be 98-point winners in blind tastings, because Raymond simply doesn’t make wine in a knock-out style. Still, they are textbook examples of their region and heritage, easily overlooked–but that would be a great loss.
December 1, 2003
In the Italian region known as the “Cinque Terre” (“Five Lands”), uniqueness abounds. These fishing villages on the western coast of the province of Liguria were, until this century, approachable only by sea. Now, narrow roads with hairpin turns can be driven, white knuckled, to reach them. Starting form the Appenine Mountains inland, these hillsides descend precipitously until the final peaks hurl themselves into the Ligurian Sea. A few natural harbors are home to color-splashed towns carved right out of the rocks. Each is distinctive due to the varying shapes of the inlet they inhabit. Their beauty is best appreciated from the ocean; from the patchwork quilt of Manarola to the aching, singular wonder of Riomaggiore. Nestled directly behind them, rows of vines and olive trees rise straight up the mountainside. This is certainly back0breaking viticulture.
Liguria produces the second smallest mount of wine of any Italian province. The Valle d’Aosta is last, but that mountainous region (formerly known as Savoy) bordering France and Switzerland is mostly pre-Alpine rock formation. Instead, Liguria has become such a desirable destination for Italians to spend the summer that more and more land, Italy’s most precious commodity, is turning into housing.
The whites of Cinque Terre are perfumed but very dry, astringent, and tough. They beg for fish. The reds are amazingly grapey and fresh, rather Beaujolais-like. Their grace suits seafood as well. However, the prized wine of the area, a wine surrounded by mystery, superstition, and drama, is called Sciacchetrà (shah-keh-TRAH). The rules for how it is to be made have changed little over the years. It is a sweet dessert wine of at least 13.5% alcohol. It is readily available at wine shops as a local specialty, but does this wine have anything to do with the legends of old?
The grapes used are whites named vermentino, bosco, and albarola. I have in past columns mentioned what a unique bouquet and flavor the vermentino has, and I’m convinced it’s a big source of the excitement of this wine. The grapes are de-stemmed and mat-dried for a long period before being pressed. During fermentation, the more the yeast is allowed to consume the grape sugars, the drier the wine becomes. The must is then aged at least one year in small oak barrels.
I tried three commercial bottlings purchased at a local wine shop. They were a 1998 Sassarini ($16.50); a 1997 La Cooperativa delle Cinque Terre ($22.50), and a 1996 Giumin di Arrigoni ($27.00). The Sassarini was the lightest both in color and texture. It was faintly sweet with nice acidity and a pleasant apricot overtone. The co-op wine may have been my favorite. It had a deep yellow color, higher alcohol, and more viscosity with a balance of nuttiness, sweetness, and lilt. The Giumin hinted at grander things: light gold, ample, deep bouquet, and a full flavor that unfortunately had some oxidation and funkiness. Maybe the vintage was troublesome, but it didn’t quite work.
Now comes the kicker: many locals told me that the “real” Sciacchetrà was still being made, but only farmers up in the hills. Most didn’t know–or wouldn’t say–from whom, how, or where it was obtained. But they all agreed total production was around 200 bottles a year. I attempted feverishly to make connections. I let it be known (to the 5,000 population village of Levanto) that a native son, now a wine writer living in America, needed to know. I used my family connection card and tried to find out whether favors might be owed. (So I stretched a little–I was really born in America, but this was a crusade!)
One day, a bright-eyed leprechaun disguised as a 78-year-old fisherman named Mauro showed up in front of our house with a gift. He said he was a good friend of my cousin. He gave me a tall bottle with a cork that looked like a worked-down Champagne stopper and a hand written label which was brief and to the point: Sciacchetrà 1994.
I had read in older reference books that Sciacchetrà could age for decades and that its alcohol level was listed at 17%–unfortified. It had the same cachet as Tokaj Essencia, an elixir of such power, strength, and vitality that it was said to rejuvenate Hungarian kings on their deathbeds. Schiacchetrà was considered just such a rarity. One whiff of this bottle and the old rules and mysteries came gushing out. It had a bouquet of blossoms and honey, like a garden in July, bursting with myriad of scents, and yet with the weight of overwhelming tropical aromas and musk. It was unexpectedly lithe and graceful, not at all syrupy.
To this day I don’t know from whence it came, but this wine of antiquity reared its brilliant head and proclaimed, “Questo è vino!”
October 1, 2002
Calvin Trillin once wrote a mirthful article in The New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/08/19/020819fa_fact) about the difficulty of guessing blindly whether a wine is red or white. Shouldn’t it be easy? I’d like to think so, but some of the results he reported indicated otherwise.
He wrote: “I first heard about the color test given at the University of California Davis, whose department of viticulture and oenology is renowned in the wine world. […] The folks at Davis poured wine that was at room temperature into black glasses, thus removing the temperature and color cues that are a large part of what people assume is taste.” Trillin went on to say that well-known, respected winemakers who have taken the dreaded test got scores such as three of five or three of seven.
In my blissful ignorance and shameless hubris, I decided to meet the challenge right between the glasses. I tried eight wines: three whites, four reds, and one rosé. I didn’t choose a Gewurtztraminer or a zinfandel; both should be easily identifiable by their distinctive, telltale bouquets. I attempted to guess not only red from white, but also which of the eight wines I had just tried. I included wines from three countries, figuring that would make it more difficult. (It did.) I had never tasted six of the wines I had chosen, so I couldn’t identify a style.
I thought the rose, served at room temperature, would be a problem. I included a wine that was syrah-based from Australia, and one from California. Could I tell them apart? How would a warm chardonnay stack up against a similar sauvignon blanc? Not so easily as it turned out.
Since I don’t own black glasses, I was literally blindfolded and led into the room after my wife poured the wines. I used coffee mugs rather than wine stems. This took away from appreciating the bouquet properly, but they were all in mugs so each suffered an equal disadvantage. I took my notes via a tape recorder, and here they are.
2001 Ca’ del Solo Big House Red: Red. Big, rustic fruit bouquet with a definite blended feeling. Deep, warm and rambunctious. Red and good. Recommended. Ca’ del Solo.
2000 Cline Cellars Oakley Vin Gris: Fragrant, sweet fruit. The briskness of a white. Delicious blended flavors. Thought it was a white but the deeper fruit profile and process of elimination made my decision the Cline rosé.
2000 Quivira Sauvignon Blanc, Fig Tree Vineyard: White. Ripe fruit, pears and a lemony bouquet with good oak background. Drinks smoothly with a melony quality and refreshing, balanced finish. After comparisons with the chardonnay and pinot grigio, I finally guessed Yering chardonnay.
2001 Ecco Domani Maso Canali Pinot Grigio: White. This is a wonderful, fruit-laden white. As fresh as spring. A smooth drink with a hint of lemon-lime on the finish. I kept comparing it with the sauvignon blanc, but I decided it was the pinot grigio.
2000 Wolf Blass Red Label Shiraz Cabernet: Red. Warm, chocolatey bouquet with melted oak under ripe, extravagant fruit. Drinks very well, with leathery, smoky flavors and extroverted fruit. It didn’t taste like a blend, but like pure shiraz. I toyed with the Ca’ del Solo red and even the merlot. On the second try, I was sure it was the Wolf Blass.
20001 Ca’ del Solo White: The most fragrant and fruity example of the day, it should have been easy. But was it the Ca’ white or the rosé? On second taste, musky fruit and the tropical qualities came through. I guessed the Ca’ del Solo white.
1999 Lockwood Merlot, Monterey County: Red. Direct, dark bouquet. A refined wine that has a slight herbal overtone that adds character. Plum and cherry flavors with a spicy finish. I toyed with the shiraz before naming it merlot.
2000 Yering Station Chardonnay, Victoria: Rich, rounded bouquet with a nutty and polite oak background. An expansive drink, full of intensity, warmth, and a minerally finish. For a moment, I thought this could be a red. Because of its purity and un-oaky quality, I somehow guessed it was sauvignon blanc.
How did I do? First of all, all the wines were good and recommended. I identified all the reds from the whites and even the tricky rose. According to the University of California Davis, I did great. However, the final tally was six identified correctly and two wrong. To quote Oscar Wilde, I’m not young enough to know everything.
I thought the chardonnay was the sauvignon blanc. How could that be? Try it sometime with unfamiliar wines and see for yourself. Connoisseur and novice alike can have fun playing a similar party game. Why not choose four wines–two whites and two reds–and see how it goes. This may become the Trivial Pursuit of the millennium, or, more likely, a grownup version of pin the tail on the donkey. If you do try, please let me know the results.
January 1, 2002
A quote from the 1983 edition of “Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encyclopedia of Wine” reads, “There can be little doubt that a politically stable Argentina will one day re-establish itself as one of the world’s most important sources of wine.” In 2002, little has changed. Once the most prosperous of South American nations, Argentina has had four straight years of escalating recession. It has recently defaulted on a staggering debt of $141 billion. This nation of 36 million people has experienced looting, riots, and runs on the banks (which are unable to liquidate the deposits of their customers). There have been five new presidents of Argentina in the past several weeks, and recently the national currency, the peso, has been devalued by 30 percent. These are volatile, treacherous times for this nation and, as the unrest affects all manner of commerce, so the wine industry must also scramble to keep its products afloat and not halt the continuous improvement and desirability of its wine selections.
In comparison, the stability of neighboring Chile has allowed a smooth, purring mechanism to promote its wines and reach new customers. The ability to be aggressive in marketing has been a great strength to Chilean exports.
In an across-the-board comparison of the wines from these two giants, I invariable come down on the side of Argentina. The texture, purity of fruit, and the overall distinctive terroir character is much more pleasurable to my palate. Certainly wines from Erazuriz, Almaviva, and Lapostolle, as well as the bargain Veramonte wines, are gems of Chilean provenance, but many of their exports are thin, insipid, and “so what” in nature. Argentina’s quality over the entire range is seldom disappointing.
Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. The land is graced with a warm, dry climate. Irrigation is used frequently. Ninety percent of the wines are grown in the province of Mendoza, which is located in the Midwestern part of the country. Some cooler, more hilly, and mountainous areas are being explored and planted to try and achieve more intensity in their product. In the meantime, Argentina makes excellent cabernet and chardonnay, but it’s the indigenous and long-planted unusual grapes that make some of the most exciting wines. Malbec, Torrontes and Bonarda are among the lesser known but exciting wine grapes in the hands and the soil of Argentina.
Argentina has had major investors giving millions of dollars to improve and replant its vineyards. Among these entrepreneurs are Allied Domecq, Seagram, Moet et Chandon, Pernod, and the Lurton family of Bordeaux. Whether further investment will continue is highly dependent on how Argentina copes with its terrible financial and political problems. If she can ever be calm, solvent, and organized, I predict the money will pour in. The sky’s limit hasn’t come close to being reached in this perfect land for the grape.
October 9, 2000
The recent political unrest in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus would lead most historians to say, “What else is new?” For more than 4,000 years, Cyprus has been a main player in the ancient history and society of the Greek empire, a supplier of copper to the Egyptians, and over the last 800 years, a political soccer ball between the Greeks and the Turks. In fact, the island, which is a mere 90 miles west of Lebanon, is settled and governed by both countries.
One thing that has never changed, however, is the fertility of the land and the blessed agricultural fecundity of its mountainsides and valleys. This is predominantly true in the southern half of the island, where wine has been made without interruption for millennia. Even during the reign of teetotaling Muslims, the enlightened abstainers allowed vineyards to flourish. One gregarious ruler in particular encouraged production, all the while earning and welcoming the indisputable title of “Sultan Selim the Sot”.
From the base of Mount Olympus and the Trodos Mountains to the seaside region around the port city of Limassol, a variety of wines are made using indigenous grapes. They are red Mavron and Opthalmo, and white Xynisteri and Muscat of Alexandria. Around 1500, cuttings of these grapevines were transported to Madeira, Sicily, and Hungary, where they flourish to this very day.
In recent times, new grape varieties such as Grenache have been carefully introduced into the vineyards. I say “carefully” because the disease of Phylloxera has never touched Cyprus, and so all vines are still planted on their own, ungrafted rootstocks. This is a great rarity in our modern world. The vineyards cover 100,000 acres, a significant 10 percent of the island’s total agricultural area.
Cyprus is the legendary birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite and her influence is still felt in the place names, product names, and everyday activities touched by the goddess of love. Its red wines are deep, full colored and textured with a nice tannic grip, so perfect to accompany the strongly flavored, spicy Cypriot food. The whites are also full with special flavors: a combination of the unique native grapes and the wild yeasts that produce a fascinating profile. Most are dry.
The most famous wine was once called Nama, but is now named Commanderia after the 12th century errant knights of Templar. It is a mixture of red Mavron and white Xynisteri grapes that are sun dried and aged in earthenware jugs, or, more recently, cement tanks. This new wines is then added to older vintages where in time it takes on the smoother character of its older teacher. (This, by the way, is called the “Solera” system.) Commanderia is an unfortified, high (16%) alcohol amber wine, dark, velvety, and mellow with a rich, toasty, luscious flavor. Some local, unexported bottlings can be exciting indeed but require a special trip. The exported version is still very tasty if not as saturated and age-worthy.
The city of Limassol has been called “the Bordeaux of Cyprus”. Its port location is home to the four largest blenders, bottlers, and shippers of Cypriot wine. They are the firms of Keo, Sodap, Etco, and Loel. Most wine from Cyprus is a result of the production of hundreds of farmers and the skillful blending procedures of the aforementioned firms. Only in the last few years have estate bottled wines begun to appear, and none are yet available on the international market.
Here are some examples that are available locally:
Be on the lookout for these fascinating wines. They are also readily available in all of our local Greek restaurants.