Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Marc de Grazia Grand Tour 2008 Tasting

I’ve been struggling for several days now as to whether or not to post this. As you’re now reading it, my decision should be obvious. However, it wasn’t reached easily. It took encouragement and inspiration from a few friends. Really, it wasn’t until I saw Jeremy Parzen’s video of his recent visit to the Gambero Rosso tasting in San Diego and, subsequently, Brooklynguy’s reluctant report on the Gambero Rosso event in New York that I made up my mind. Even then, coming to a decision took a little more self-inflicted torture. The reasons are many. First and foremost, the tasting occurred in the middle of a busy workday. I tasted fairly but did not have the time to sample all of the wines present or to take notes in as much detail as I’d usually like. Second, I found little to like among what I did manage to taste. Even after years in the trade and a year-plus of blogging, I still feel a tug of self-conflict when griping about something for which I didn’t pay.

It’s time to get over it, McDuff.

The whites:
The only producer whose wines I enjoyed across the board, white or red, was Gini, an estate located in Monforte d’Alpone at the heart of the Soave Classico zone. Their 2006 Soave Classico “normale,” done all in stainless and unusual in its claim of being 100% Garganega, was pure and well-balanced, with golden pear fruit and mouth watering acidity. The 2004 Recioto di Soave Classico “Col Foscarin” was simple but lovely for its honeyed fruit and, again, good acidity. More compelling was their botrytis affected cuvée, Recioto di Soave Classico “Renobilis” 2003. The extra concentration provided by the noble rot lent the wine more aromatic depth and a longer, spice-tinged finish.

Overall, the whites in the de Grazia portfolio fared better than the reds, though mainly by dubious virtue of falling in the neutral zone, that undistinguished, middle of the road, neither bad nor characterful part of spectrum. This, of course, is an issue that many critics have pointed out with all too many Italian white wines in general. One such pundit, Terry Hughes at Mondosapore, has been digging for the exceptions to that rule lately (see here and here). Along with him, I’ve been looking to Campania in search of some of those exceptions. The wines I tasted today, though, didn’t quite raise the bar.

The 2006 Falanghina from Cantina del Taburno was corked, so I’ll withhold judgment (aside from the fact that they were pouring it). Their Greco from the same vintage was perfectly acceptable for its fruitiness yet was boring. But then, I’ve yet to find a Greco I have liked much… any recommendations out there? On the flipside of the simple yet fruity coin was the 2006 Fiano di Avellino from Collio di Lapio; it showed intense structure, with both acidity and apparent extract on the palate, yet it was nearly bereft of fruit.

Moving up the boot to Umbria, the Orvieto-based estate Palazzone was showing three of their whites. Their 2006 Orvieto Classico Superiore “Terre Vineate” fell very much into the same camp as the Greco from Cantina del Taburno, perfectly nice yet ultimately uninspiring. More interesting and soundly up there in the “wines I liked” category was their vineyard designated 2004 Orvieto Classico Superiore “Campo del Guardiano.” Fourteen months of bottle aging prior to release, along with what would appear to be better quality fruit, had give it firmer texture and a savory, herbaceous and nutty character. Falling totally flat, however, was Palazzone’s 2005 Umbria Bianco IGT “L’Ultima Spiaggia,” a barrel fermented, varietal Viognier. De Grazia’s signature barrique stamp had robbed the wine of any varietal character, with wood dominating the fruit profile, aroma and texture of the wine. The idea of a “de Grazia signature” moves me right along to…

The reds:
As mentioned earlier, I was a touch pressed for time. So rather than letting my brain lead me to the southern Italian reds with which I’m slightly less familiar, I let my heart lead me right to the region of Italy to which I feel the strongest affinity – Piemonte.

I so wanted to like the wines from Cavallotto Fratelli. I’ve enjoyed their Freisa on occasion and have particularly fond memories of drinking a bottle of their 1996 Barolo “Bricco Boschis” Riserva more or less in situ, over lunch at the fantastic restaurant Le Torri in the town center of Castiglione Falletto. Relatively speaking, I did find at least a little to like. A 2004 Barbera d’Alba “Bricco Boschis Vigna del Cuculo” was still tightly wound and loaded with plump yet structured Barbera fruit. The 2003 version of their Barolo “Bricco Boschis” showed some character, especially for the vintage, on both the nose and palate. Both wines, however, were marred by an overzealous use of oak and were lacking, respectively, in juiciness and nerve.

It was with the line-up from Domenico Clerico that I really hit the wall. Across the board, the wines were over-extracted, over-oaked, inky black and lacking in a clear expression of place. Their 2005 Dolcetto d’Alba “Visadi” was missing both the aromatic nuance and fruity charm of which Dolcetto is capable, instead clamping down on the palate with aggressive tannins and closed, over-saturated fruit. One de Grazia rep called it “not your father’s Dolcetto” (I doubt my father ever drank Dolcetto but that’s beside the point). Another boasted that the wine had somehow gained nuance by being aged in barriques formerly inhabited by the estate’s Barolo…. Ahem. Next. A similar fate befell the Barbera d’Alba “Trevigne” from 2004 that was just plain overblown. Worst of all was the estate’s 2004 Langhe Rosso “Arte,” a blend of 90% Nebbiolo and 10% Barbera done in 100% new barriques. I look to Nebbiolo for nuance, for structure, for delicacy intertwined with sinew; this was loaded with oak and tannins but had nothing else to say.

Clerico’s 2002 Barolo smelled great, with lots of spice, tar and wild red fruits. Yet it turned out to be unpalatable, marred by an apparently dogmatic insistence on using all new barrels in spite of the difficult, slightly dilute nature of the 2002 vintage. Only in the 2003 Barolo “Ginestra Ciabot Mentin” was there enough natural substance for the resulting wine to stand up to the oak and vinification techniques that were thrown at it. Even then, this is Barolo designed for lovers of the overtly modernist style – big fruit, dark color and lavish oak.

A couple of my coworkers who ventured over to the tasting later in the day assured me that I hadn’t missed much with the Tuscan and southern Italian reds. Their essential summation: “Everything tasted the same.”

It may seem unfair to judge de Grazia’s portfolio after going through only a subset of his producers. But my experience at the tasting is backed up by similar past experiences with wines from other estates in his Piemonte cadre alone, such as Paolo Scavino and, in particular, La Spinetta. Like them or not, it’s hard to argue that they don’t fall into a very narrow extreme of the stylistic spectrum.

This brings me full circle to the main message and inspiration of the posts from my fellow bloggers. The Gambero Rosso awards, as with most of the points-based systems used by major print critics, have come to favor high alcohol, high extract, in your face, drink me now wines. That’s just too many extremes to balance, even if a real, honest and truly good wine does occasionally sneak into the fray.

It also brings me to my final discomfit. The dominant trend over the last 15-odd years to reward high alcohol, overtly modern wines that end up lacking a sense of place – fueled by the Gambero Rosso and similar systems – is irksome enough. A portfolio of wines from an importer that, from what I’m given to understand, pushes its producers to make wines to appeal directly to those systems – via the promotion of roto-fermenters and required new barrel aging regimes, for instance – is even harder for me to swallow.

* * *

Related links, aka, flame off:

For a very thoughtful essay on the topic of modernist vs. traditionalist Barolo, see Craig Camp’s 2003 article on the Barolo wars.

A fair-handed piece on the pros and cons of roto-fermenters:
Fast and furious: rotary fermenters have fans and skeptics
from Wines & Vines, April, 2005, by Tim Teichgraeber


Anonymous said...

Agreed. Try the Pietracupa Greco di Tufo. Producer Sabino Loffredo loves acidity; this example of Greco shows more freshness, balance and minerality than most.

David McDuff said...

Welcome, Scott. Thanks for reading and for the recommendation.

Unknown said...

Good post. I confess I feel very uneasy when a fine enologo I know tells me he's doing a project with De Grazia.

David McDuff said...

Thanks, T. I obviously understand your discomfort.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mastroberardino's Falanghina (Sannio DOC) and Greco di Tufo (Nova Serra DOCG). Fresh, refined, mineral tastes. Both are available in PA via special order. First encountered them at Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay, CA, a small, elegant Italian restaurant ... with terrific service to boot. Had to find the wines when we got back.

David McDuff said...

Hello, Martin. It's always good to get a fresh comment on an older post. Campania is blessed with two large producers -- Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio -- that both crank out reliably good wines.

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