Monday, February 28, 2011

Notes from a Sunday

In case anyone has been wondering, no, I haven't stopped drinking and enjoying wine. Since the beginning of the New Year, journeys in Friuli aside, I've just been struggling to find the time to write about it. With that in mind, I hope you'll forgive me the indulgence of a few quick tasting notes, as dinner with friends last night afforded the opportunity to dive into a few interesting bottles.

We kicked things off with a pair of 2005 Muscadets to accompany a killer pot of salmon rillettes my host had prepared, based on his adaptation of a recipe from Thomas Keller's Bouchon.  I had a hard time not polishing them all of myself -- the rillettes, that is -- and could easily have made a meal of them with nothing other than a baguette and salad for accompaniment.

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Vieilles Vignes "Clos du Poyet," Château les Fromenteaux (Famille Luneau) 2005
$15 on release.  12% alcohol.  Cork.  Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Not what I hoped for or expected when I socked away a few bottles on release.  The flavors are still appealing--fruity even, albeit moving slowly toward the oxidative apple-y end of the spectrum--but the structure has gone slack, losing all nerve and verve.  There's very little left in the way of mineral intensity relative to what I remember, either.  Here's a case where a producer's basic cuvée (which made my list of most inspiring wines drunk in 2010) has outperformed its "big brother."  Guess I'll be finding a reason to pour my remaining bottles sooner rather than later.

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie "Le Fief du Breil," Domaine de la Louvetrie (Jo Landron) 2005
$15 on release.  12% alcohol.  Cork.  Importer: Martin Scott, Lake Success, NY.
After the somewhat disappointing showing from Luneau-Papin's wine, my host pulled this out of his cellar for sake of comparison and in hope of a little redemption for '05 Muscadet.  Regrettably, I can't say that Landron's "Fief du Breil" has fared much better.  Here there was far less fruit, a tad more minerality and a touch more acidity, but only a touch.  The most redeeming factor was an intriguing aroma, to me at least, of black licorice.  Still alive but no longer kicking.

While I could have, as mentioned above, made a meal of the rillettes, that wasn't happening.  Out came a main course of Birchrun Hills Farm veal tenderloins, teeny tiny potatoes, and not so teeny tiny brussels sprouts.  Oh yeah, and a couple of bottles of red...

Rosso di Valtellina, Ar. Pe. Pe. (Arturo Pelizzatti Perego) 2007
$27.  13% alcohol.  Cork.  Importer: Castle Brands Fine Wines, Sausalito, CA.
Varietal Nebbiolo, known locally as Chiavennasca, grown in the steep, terraced vineyards of Valtellina.  This was one of those wines where the hue--light, transparent ruby--is perfectly in sync with the aromas and flavors: rose petals and raspberry tea-lime aromas followed up by lean, red berry fruit and a dash of baking spices.  A really lovely, delicate expression of Nebbiolo, its structure carried almost entirely by a taut wire of acidity, backed up by the laciest of tannins.  Were this $10 less per bottle, it would be a great candidate for everyday enjoyment; however, between the hard-to-farm nature of the Valtelline vineyards and the quiet cult status of Ar. Pe. Pe., quotidian pricing is not feasible.

Sierra Foothills "Home Vineyard" Red, La Clarine Farm 2008
$24.  13.8% alcohol.  Vinoseal.
Check out these background notes from La Clarine Farm vine man, Hank Beckmeyer:
"2008 proved to be one of the most difficult years in recent memory for grape growing.  A severe frost in late April pretty much destroyed our crop.  We lost at least 90% of the young vine shoots, and many younger vines were killed back to ground level.

Amid this carnage, we still managed to harvest a very small crop of exceptional grapes.  This wine, a field blend of 50% tempranillo, 16% tannat, 20% grenache, 10% syrah and 4% cabernet sauvignon, was picked over a four week period, in three passes.  We foot stomped the whole clusters without any sulfur addition and let the fermentation proceed from there.   Our depression over the circumstances lightened as the wine's aromas filled our cellar.  By the time we bottled it, some 18 months later without filtration, we were very happy indeed.... 10 cases made."
I almost felt like I shouldn't be opening it, but that trepidation faded quickly once we pulled the stopper.  The first thing that greeted my nose was big, boisterous, juicy fruit.  Those aromas suggested jamminess but the wine delivered freshness, liveliness and spree on the palate.  Spice and wild berry fruit reign supreme, with soft structure, medium acidity and drink me now appeal.  I don't think we're talking about long-haul stuffing here, though, as Hank's notes suggest, it will surely hold its own for a few more years.  Either way, don't let the fact that there were only 120 bottles made get in your way of drinking and enjoying it with aplomb.

Finally, even though I'm sure it wasn't necessary, dinner at my friend Bill's never seems complete without at least one appearance from Burgundy.

Hautes-Côtes de Nuits "Le Clos du Prieuré," Thibault Liger-Belair 2008
$30.  13% alcohol.  Cork.  Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL.
The stewy, briary, kind of funky aromas that initially rose to my nose suggested the possibility of heat damage with this bottle.  With a little time in the glass, however, those suspicions faded, as the potency remained but greater fruit purity, cleanliness and focus emerged.  Astoundingly sturdy and concentrated for the vintage, especially given its origins on the Hautes-Côtes, with ripe, red fruit and a sense of physiologic intensity in its mouth feel.  (With a good grasp of French, or the help of your favorite translator, it's very much worth reading Thibault's notes on the 2008 vintage.)  Even more time in the glass brought out a slightly sour, olive pit pungency.  Somewhat more intellectual than immediately pleasurable, but nonetheless a cool wine with which to close out the evening.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Intro to Burgundy: What's On Tap for Thursday

I hate to say it but yes, after a week of silence, this is just a teaser post.  This Thursday, February 24, I'll be conducting an Introduction to Burgundy class at Tria Fermentation School in Center City Philadelphia.  The session has been sold out for weeks; nonetheless, I thought I'd share what I'll be pouring for any who might be attending and can't wait to find out, as well as for those who might like to research, shop, drink and/or drool along.

Here's what I'll be pouring.  It's a full slate this time 'round.  Eight wines—read 'em and weep:
  • Bougogne Aligoté "Cuvée des Quatre Terroirs," Domaine Chevrot 2008
  • Mâcon-Charnay "Franclieu," Jean Manciat 2008
  • Puligny-Montrachet, Chavy Martin 2008
  • Chablis "Terroir de Chablis," Patrick Piuze 2009
  • Fleurie, Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) 2009
  • Givry Premier Cru "Cellier aux Moines," Domaine Thenard 2007
  • Pernand-Vergelesses Premier Cru "Île des Vergelesses," Domaine Chandon de Briailles 2001
  • Gevrey-Chambertin "Clos Prieur," Patrice Rion 2007
Okay, so maybe it's not a list to induce tears.  This is an overview class, after all, not a 40-year retrospective of  (name your favorite Grand Cru).  The plan is to touch on all of the major sub-regions of Burgundy, throwing a bone to the Beaujolais along the way, and to cover the last three vintages, sneaking in a slightly older wine because, well, I like to sneak in slightly older wines.

If all goes well, and time and budget allow, this intro course may lead on to more in-depth, Burgundian explorations.  We shall see....  Hope to see some of you there.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Clivi

At the top of a hill in Corno di Rosazzo, just steps across the border from the Collio into the Colli Orientali del Friuli zone, lies the estate known as I Clivi ("the slopes," in ancient Italian).  I Clivi occupies one of the more privileged sites in the COF zone, with vines rooted in a soil base rich in calcareous marl, known locally as ponca (or flysch), an ideal environment for traditional Friulano varieties and a terroir that lends an intensely mineral signature and compact, focused acid structure to the wines grown on the property.

Arriving at sunset on Tuesday, we were greeted on the front terrace of the winery by Mario Zanusso, the current winegrower at I Clivi.  Mario is a handsome guy, at once quiet, intense and somewhat reserved -- not at all unlike the wines we would taste with him a short while later.  Walking and talking with him, I got the sense that he'd be just as much at home taking in a Ramones gig at CBGB (if only we had a time machine) as he seemed in the hills of Rosazzo.

The vineyards at I Clivi, as are much of the high quality sites throughout Colli Orientali del Friuli, are laid out on terraces cut into the hillsides.  The slopes here, though not exactly gentle, are not insanely steep, at least not when compared to more precipitous viticultural areas such as the Mosel or Northern Rhône. While I'm sure that, for some producers, ease of mechanization plays into the maintenance of the terraces, Mario explained that their genesis sprang from a more primal need, as the friable nature of the ponca-rich soils make the landscape highly prone to erosion.  The terraces, at a very practical level, help to keep the vineyards in place in a landscape where heavy rainfall might otherwise, over time, lay bare the roots of the vines.

I was so intent on capturing the beautiful view of the sunset (something for which my camera is not particularly well suited) that I totally neglected to snap a few shots of the old vines on the steeper, terraced vineyards at I Clivi.
The Zanusso family owns a total of twelve hectares of vineyards, eight of them directly surrounding the winery and falling in the Colli Orientali del Friuli zone, and another four situated in the Collio, just over the next line of hills, immediately adjacent to the border between the COF and Collio DOC areas.  Farming at the estate is certified organic and nearly all of the wines are estate bottled, though Mario's keenness for Ribolla Gialla has led him to purchase some fruit from growers in nearby Goriška Brda (Slovenia) while waiting for his own young vines of Ribolla to come of age.

In both the vineyards and the cellar, I think that the approach at I Clivi can best be described as rational.  Respect for nature is maintained, farming is certified organic, but no particular doctrine or credo is followed.  In Mario's own words, "The first thing is that the wine is good.  We don't need to obey some [set of] rules."  Some of his wines are fermented on their native yeasts, others not, depending on the needs and characteristics of the vintage and each cuvée.  Mario uses a light hand with sulfur, adding a bit at crush when the fruit is most susceptible to oxidation, most of which is consumed during fermentation, then adding just a dash at bottling for the sake of stability.

With one technical exception (which I'll explain shortly), all of the white wines at I Clivi are fermented and aged solely in steel and without skin contact.  Though the family does farm some modern varieties (Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon), Mario holds a strong preference for local varieties.  They are also blessed with having a high proportion of old vines on their property, as Mario feels that the old vines draw greater minerality into their wines.  The white wines all undergo extended lees aging, including a practice the Zanussos adopted from Burgundy – and here's that exception to the steel-only rule at the estate – in which the lees, immediately after fermentation, are removed from the wine and "aged" in barriques for one month before being reintroduced to the wine.

Leaving the cellar for the cozier confines of the family's tasting room, we were joined by Mario's father, Ferdinando Zanusso, who slowly but surely took the reins as we sat down to taste and discuss the wines.  One could quickly fathom from where Mario inherited not just his looks but also his intensity, as Ferdinando is the kind of man who imparts as much information and intention with a quick look, gesture or phrase as many people take minutes and paragraphs to convey.  In earlier phases of his life, he spent time in Africa with the United Nations and also worked in the maritime transport field before settling at I Clivi, where he and Mario have been producing wines since the 1996 vintage.

Collectively, the wines at I Clivi are among the most focused, mineral-intense, and, one could argue, tightly wound of any I've encountered during our week long exploration of Colli Orientali del Friuli, Those descriptors carry even greater weight than usual given that we tasted all of the wines at room temperature, where faults or imbalances, if any, are laid bare much more clearly than when chilled.

We tasted from the family's very last bottle of 2009 Ribolla Gialla, all 11.3% alcohol of it, produced from the fruit of 15 year-old vines grown in Brda; a very clean, light and vibrant style, round in feel and lifted by its bright acidity and minerality.

The first of two examples of Friulano came next, the 2009 Colli Orientali del Friuli Friulano "Vecchia Vigna al Clivi," which comes from 60 year-old vines immediately adjacent to the house and spent a year on its lees before being bottled in October 2010. Intensely salty, with a gorgeous balance between fleshiness and racy acidity.  A 2009 Friulano "San Lorenzo," from the Collio DOC, was richer, less mineral, more savory in its flavors, with an attractive vegetal undertone and a classic signature of bitter almond flavor on the finish.

One of my favorite wines of the evening (and in near final retrospect, of the entire trip) was the 2006 Colli Orientali del Friuli "Clivi Galea," a blend dominated by Tocai (about 90%) with small proportions of both Verduzzo and Chardonnay.  It spent two years on the lees in tank.  Galea is a single vineyard on the home/COF side of the property with dry, marl-rich soil -- a mix of chalk clay and limestone.  Relative to the younger wines we'd already tasted, it boasted a higher alcohol level of 14%, a level now much more typical of the region, in this case a direct side effect of the hotter than average 2006 growing season.  The wine was nonetheless perfectly balanced; redolent of fennel and loaded with stony flavors and textures, it was downright fantastic.

A bottle of 2007 Collio Goriziano "Clivi Brazan" was richer, darker and more evolved than the '06 "Galea," a facet influenced more by the rainy 2007 growing season than by the wine's different place of origin, over the hill and into the Collio zone.  Still, the wine was far from without its own charms; much more tropical and zesty on the nose, with aromas of lychee and hothouse flowers, along with a subtle peppermint scent.

Neither Mario nor Ferdinando are particularly fond of sweet wines, so they opt to produce a Verduzzo -- one of the two autochthonous vines of the region, along with Picolit, typically used for sweet, appassimento wines -- in a dry style.  In the words of my traveling companion Wayne, Verduzzo is "a red wine grape with white skin." While that character is generally masked in sweet expressions of Verduzzo, it came through clearly here, with a tannic, grippy, somewhat aggressive texture that called out for food -- roast pork or veal come to mind.

Arguably the most forward wine in the day's lineup was the 2009 Colli Orientali del Friuli "Bianco Degli Arzillari," a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Traminer.  Not at all aromatically overbearing, as the presence of Sauvignon and Traminer in the blend might suggest, it was fleshy and quite pleasant. If forced to pick one wine that didn't particularly call out to me, it would be I Clivi's 2008 Collio Malvasia.  A varietal expression of Malvasia Istriana, it was fat on the palate, from front to rear, creating an initial impression of sweetness yet finishing dry and mineral, with lingering flavors.  Again, it wasn't my fave but is was still a very good expression of Malvasia.

As the evening progressed and our tasting wound down, Ferdinando offered us one last taste, of the only red produced at the estate, the Colli Orientali del Friuli Merlot "Clivi Galea," in this case from the 2003 vintage.  Regardless of country and region, the Merlot vine loves clay and there's clay aplenty in the ponca soils of the Galea vineyard.  Classically red-fruited and elegant at first taste, it took on a smoky character on the finish, where it showed quite a firm spine.  Food came to mind once again, this time roast beef with pesto....

Bidding Signore Zanusso arrivederci under starry skies, I was ready for dinner, dreaming of sleep and, most of all, still savoring the intense, lingering impressions left by the wines and the particular passions of a father and son growing wines in the Friulano hills.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tempietto Longobardo, Cividale del Friuli

Tasting at the Consorzio

As I mentioned yesterday and as many of my colleagues have also reported, each day of our trip thus far has begun, at least in the "official" capacity, with a thematic tasting organized by the staff of the Consorzio dei Colli Orientali del Friuli.  Thus far, we've worked our way through fairly extensive lineups of Friulano (day one), Sauvignon (day two), as well as Schioppettino and Pignolo (on day three).

The 2006 Pignolo from Conte d'Attimis-Maniago was one of the standouts, for me, of yesterday's lineup of Pignolo.  From its savory nose of moist earth, plus an inviting whiff of the barnyard, to its dark, loamy fruit on the palate, and on to its seriously tannic finish, it's the wine I most wanted to sit down to a glass of once our degustazione was complete.

Today, we're in for a change of pace, switching gears from local wine to a representative triad of the local food culture: Prosciutto di San Daniele, Formaggio Montasio, and Gubana.  I'm posting this while the rest of the group is already in the midst of the introductory presentation, so I'd better be on my way....

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Two Dogs and a Shining Sauvignon at Ronco del Gnemiz

The highlight of yesterday's itinerary, for me, was an all too brief visit at Ronco del Gnemiz.  More on that later.... This morning I'll have to let the pictures do most of the talking, as I've just enough time for a quick post before heading off to the Consorzio to taste a lineup of Schioppettino and Pignolo. 

 The dogs were cute; the 2009 Sauvignon "Peri" was gorgeous.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Learning and Lunching at Villa Butussi in Corno di Rosazzo

Our first official winery visit of the COF2011 (this was on Monday, mind you) took us to Azienda Agricola Valentino Butussi, in the hamlet of Corno di Rosazzo neat the southern boundaries of the Colli Orientali del Friuli.  It should come as no surprise that we tasted many a wine over the course of lunch; a welcome surprise, equally as pleasant, came in the form of a lesson on the history of the region that wove its way through the conversations during our midday repast.

The river Judrio, which flows through the cut in the landscape that you can see just beyond the vineyards in the photo above (which was taken from the back steps of the Villa Butussi), once served as the natural border between Italy and the Austrian empire.  Corno di Rosazzo was an early focal point of the First World War and the area is rich with monuments to and memories of that period of modern history, just as the area is rife with historical references to the days of Julius Caesar and the Roman empire, when the village served as a primary gateway between Rome and northeastern Europe.

Angelo Butussi (left), current patriarch of the Valentino Butussi estate, and Francesco Degano, Technical Director of the Consorzio dei Colli Orientali del Friuli warming up around the focolare.
Open hearth fireplaces, called focolare, like this one in the dining room at Villa Butussi, are typical to Friuli and are in fact considered symbolic of the region.  Many major cities in the world now have local branches of the Focolare Friulano, a worldwide network of associations devoted to preserving the Friulano language and the cultural history of the area.

All four of Angelo's children are involved in one aspect or another of work at the family estate.  His son Filippo (at right above, with Dottore Parzen at left) took the lead in presenting the wines during our home cooked lunch.

A 1999 Valentino Butussi Tocai Friulano -- the name Tocai Friulano had not yet been truncated out of legal necessity to Friulano -- was one of the stand outs of the day, still fresh, vibrant and mineral, with a lovely acid profile (though the bottle above is from a more recent vintage).

And there's no question that Mama Butussi is a fantastic cook.  Her salsiccia e cipolle served over polenta bianca was out of this world delicious -- one of those dishes I will absolutely have to attempt to replicate back home.  For me, it paired just as nicely with the Friulano as it did with the Refosco that Angelo chose to accompany it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Easing Into COF2011 at Il Roncal

After a long flight from Philly to Paris, what seemed like twenty laps around Charles de Gaulle airport in a terminal transport bus, and another short flight (which happened to feature some truly stunning views of the Vosges and the Alps as "my" jet passed over Strasbourg and Grenoble before taking the slight bend down toward Italy), I finally got to greet my patiently waiting cast of fellow wine warriors with a big hug for each as we united in the Venice airport.

Another ninety minutes later, I'm pretty sure we were all more than a little happy to jump out of our team van and stretch our legs in the courtyard of our home base for the week, a winery and agriturismo called Il Roncal, located on the outskirts of Cividale del Friuli.

I've yet to ask how old this olive tree is but it's got to have some serious time on those roots.  As its canopy attests, it's still very much alive in spite of that seriously gnarled, hollowed trunk -- a true work of art, sculpted by nature.

Over a plate of crispy fricco and glasses of Friulian bubbly, we all were able to unwind a bit and get to know each other a little better.  That's Alfonso "Ace" Cevola of On the Wine Trail in Italy, enjoying a glass of said sparkler, above; Nicolas Contenta, the prime shredder behind 'na cica de vino, along with Wayne Young, who writes a blog called Old White Wine (and also works at the Bastianich winery), sitting down to our welcome "snack," below.

That aforementioned snack turned out to be quite a lovely lunch, incredibly typical of the hospitality shown by Italian wine growers and industry folk.  I walked in expecting a little antipasto and walked out, four courses later, quite the sated traveler.

Pasta with sausage and winter vegetables let to a family style assortment of antipasti, which led yet again to a cheese course as well as dessert.  Each dish was matched to one of the wines produced at Il Roncal, a 2009 Schioppettino being my personal favorite of the day.

We're really lucky to be staying in such a lovely place.  No, I'm not trying to rub it in, gloat, schmooze, shill, etc.  It's just how I feel right now.  I'm sure you'll see and hear more about our home base at some point in the days to come.  For now, though, I'm off to our first official event of the week (even though where I really want to be off to is slumber land...), so more later.
Some of the vines, still waiting for their winter pruning, situated directly across from the driveway and courtyard at Il Roncal.  I could definitely hang here for a while....

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Here Today, Friuli Tomorrow

In just a few hours, I'll be boarding a plane to Paris, final flight destination Venice, where I'll be meeting up with my friends Jeremy, Wayne, Alfonso, Samantha and Nicolas.  From there, it's on to our digs in Colli Orientali del Friuli, where we'll be spending a week getting better acquainted with the region's vines, wines and some of their growers.

I'm looking forward to meeting our "handlers" from the Consorzio dei Colli Orientali del Friuli tomorrow.  Above, from left: Director Mariano Paladin, Technical Advisor Francesco Degano (who will double as our driver), Media Director Sabrina Constantini, and council member and former president Adriano Gigante.  (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Parzen and the official COF2011 blog.)

I'm truly psyched for the trip.  I know things have been more than quiet around here of late.  Never before have I gone two weeks at a time without posting.  What can I say?  It's a new year with new challenges, even a new job (more on that at some point after my return from Italy).  As much as I love to write, to blog, to stay in touch with all of you via this semi-social forum, I've needed the break in order to focus on other things.

The week to come will see me return with a vengeance.  At least that's the plan.  Expect daily updates, photos, and as much detail as I can squeeze out of my memory banks and onto these pages in the hours of each day's itinerary that have been set aside for our writerly endeavors.

It should go without saying that I hope you all will follow along with the action here at MFWT.  But don't forget that I'm just one part of the overall #COF2011 team.  (That's our Twitter hashtag, for those of you who care about such things.)  So, once you've gotten your daily fix here, please head on over to the Colli Orientali del Friuli 2011 group blog to check in on all the action and the hopefully diverse range of reactions to our shared experiences.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Beauty of Burgundy, at Tria on February 24

Given that I've been maintaining strict radio silence here for well over a week, I figured it's about time to make a little noise... even if it is just to put in a somewhat self-promotional plug.

On Thursday, February 24, I'll be returning to the podium at Philly's Tria Fermentation School to lead an overview of the wines of Burgundy.  Here's the plug for the class (I wrote most of it, so I figured it'd be okay to lift it) taken directly from today's announcement of Tria's February schedule of classes.
Always wanted to explore Burgundy but never knew quite where to start? Here’s a great opportunity to dig in and have fun. In this class, we’ll cover the various regions that constitute Burgundy as a whole, from the Mâconnais in the south to Chablis in the north. We'll focus on the two primary grape varieties of the region—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—but also taste wines made from lesser know Burgundian varieties such as Aligoté. Come see for yourself why so many Francophiles are in love with all of Burgundy! 
I've said it before but it bears repeating: these classes tend to sell out very quickly, so jump on board.  Even if you're an old hand when it comes to Burgundy, I promise I'll be pouring a lineup of wines compelling enough to keep everyone happy.
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