Saturday, February 28, 2009

Two Sides of Soave

Driving into the Veneto from the west on the A4 Autostrada, passing the exits for Verona en route to the turnoff for Soave, it’s not the beauty of the landscape that draws your eye. Rather, it is the massive factory complex belonging to Bolla that dominates the vista. Given the industrial wines being churned out of the region – all too often based on overcropped, dilute fruit – that view serves as a stark symbol of the fact that Soave remains a widely misunderstood wine. Even today, a couple of decades after the company’s huge marketing blasts of the 70s and 80s, the names Soave and Bolla remain inseparable in the minds of many.

When farmed well and cropped to lower yields, though, Garganega, the primary grape of Soave (it must constitute at least 70% of the blend in Soave per DOC regulations), is capable of expressing its inherent nobility. It’s also capable of turning out quite good and, more importantly, very food friendly wines. It’s also a vine, much like Chardonnay for comparison’s sake, that’s quite malleable in a winemaker’s hands.

Soave Classico “Monte de Toni,” i Stefanini 2006
$16. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Domenico Selections, New York, NY.
First things first – a little disclosure: this bottle came my way as a sample from my friend, the man behind Mondosapore and burgeoning importer of Italian wines, Terence Hughes. i Stefanini was one of the first producers to sign-on with Terry’s new company, Domenico Selections. Thanks T. Now, on to the wine….

At first, I found the aromas and texture of “Monte de Toni” a bit off-putting. Dense, lactic scents and waxy mouthfeel both suggested a heavy hand in the winery. Indeed, a look at the winery’s website comfirms that the wine is enzymatically clarified, goes through malolactic fermentation and rests on its lees until bottling in the spring following harvest. Nothing terribly aggressive there… the end result is a wine of low-medium acidity and medium body. With a little time in the glass, it actually gains lightness (I know that sounds contradictory but you’ll have to trust me) and reveals the typical Soave signature of bitter almonds with slightly vegetal accents. Baked apple and dried apricot fruit follow with that unmistakable lacing of blanched almonds shining through again on the finish.

Deterred as I may have been at first sip, in the end I had a hard time putting down my glass. And that’s a much more ringing endorsement than any technical specification can provide.

Soave Classico “Ronchetto,” Umberto Portinari 2005
$15. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Umberto Portinari’s Soave “Ronchetto” shows a crisper, more mineral expression of Soave. I have no scheda tecnica for this, but at a year older than i Stefanini’s Soave, it’s still paler in color and has retained a livelier acid profile, both of which suggest a more reductive wine making regime, certainly in steel and perhaps with a partial suppression of the malolactic. Not nearly as richly flavored either, it’s one of the highest acid examples of Soave that hasn’t achieved its acidity at the expense of ripeness and character. White pepper and lemon zest dominate aromatically, while the palate delivers seashell minerality, lemony fruit and, again, a twist of bitter almond on the finish, all on a slightly angular texture. Very food-friendly, it would be a perfect foil to fresh water fish or vegetable risotto, even if a bit less quaffable than i Stefanini’s “Monte de Toni.”

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hana and von Hövel

Sometimes simple is best.

It’s remarkable how the most authentic restaurants – much like the most expressive or individualistic wines – polarize their audiences. The clearer the voice, the more people seem to either love it or hate it, leaving very little room for the middle ground. So I couldn’t help but chuckle at what I found today when looking up the phone number for Hana, one of my favorite Japanese restaurants on the non-Jersey side of the Philly burbs.

Hana may not easily win your heart. It’s not at the level of the Jersey spots – Fuji and Sagami – I hinted at above. And Hana’s not likely to win awards. It’s a non-descript looking restaurant located in a non-descript strip mall on a busy, commercial stretch of road. There’s nothing flashy about its interior: just a few basic booths and tables, a five-seat sushi bar, a couple of hanging paper lamps and neutral walls decorated with a modicum of traditional Japanese artwork and knickknacks. And there’s nothing flashy about the food. The rolls don’t have cute names and don’t sprout spines or include intentionally international ingredients. There aren’t any sushi “boats” or any strips of plastic grass adorning the plates. No spicy mayo or cream cheese oozing here and there, either.

What you get is simple food – spartan almost – that’s simply prepared. It’s fresh, pure of flavor and clearly made with care. It’s not all about the sushi and sashimi, though they’re very good. The cooked dishes are also excellent, from belly warming tempura udon to handmade pork shumai to perfectly pickled and refreshing vegetable sunomono. The service is quiet – never forward but always attentive. I’ve not been to Japan but something tells me this is the real deal, a notion seconded by old friends who eat at Hana and have spent time in Japan.

I love it. But apparently, lots of people hate it. Citysearch is not a site I ever use intentionally but it appeared at the top of the Google listings recently when I searched for “Hana Japanese restaurant Wayne PA.” All I wanted was a phone number. What I found was a bunch of user reviews that careened from spiteful to glowing then right back to downright awful.

* * *

Sometimes simple can be complicated.

Hana is a BYOB spot. When I go there, I invariably take Riesling. It’s become a stereotypical pairing with all variety of Asian cuisines. In this case, the stereotype delivers substance.

Saar Riesling, von Hövel 2007
$17. 8% alcohol. Screwcap. Importer: Rudi Wiest, Cellars International, San Marcos, CA.
A growing number of respected wineries in Germany are producing simple, value-oriented bottlings for the export market. A quick look at the front label of this example from Weingut von Hövel reveals little other than the producer’s name and the grape in the bottle, Riesling in this case. There’s also a pretty picture, a definite change from the classically prosaic labeling style used by most producers for their higher-level wines. In at least one sense, this simplicity no doubt works in the wine’s favor, as people who have developed a comfort level with Riesling (but perhaps not with the complexities of German labeling syntax) are likely to be drawn to the bottle. That simplicity also works in the winery’s favor, as the lack of any village, vineyard or Pradikat designation leaves the producer free to blend wines from multiple sites and, if deemed necessary, to chaptalize.

That very simplicity, though, is just as likely to be misunderstood, to play right into unjust stereotypes. A savvy Riesling shopper might spot the 8% alcohol level designated in small print on the back label of the bottle and surmise that the presence of residual sugar is a strong likelihood. Given the simplicity of the front label, though, the absence of any equally simple mention of style (dry, off-dry, etc.) is very likely to result in misunderstanding. The same people that dismiss Hana for its lack of flash or its dainty portions – or anyone, for that matter – might be just as likely to write-off von Hövel’s Riesling because it’s light or, more likely, because it’s “sweet.” And that would be a shame.

Von Hövel’s Saar Riesling is simplicity embodied. It’s light, direct and easy to like. And yes, it’s a little sweet. But it’s a classic expression of Saar Riesling, its hint of sweetness balanced by wiry acidity and its finish crackling with pungent, slate-y minerality. That gentle sweetness helps the wine work with the vinegar in sunomono. Its acidity provides lift to the weight of the rice (just a touch gummy and under-seasoned on our most recent visit to Hana) in nigiri and provides more than enough cut for the natural oils of salmon, hamachi and other salt water fish. The wine’s vaguely sour minerality intertwines effortlessly with the flavors of the sea expressed in sushi and sashimi. Its pretty expression of apples, white peaches and lemons does not overwhelm the palate. And its overall delicacy is in fine balance with the grace and harmony of a typical Japanese meal.

It’s a pure, expressive wine. And much like a no-nonsense, traditional Japanese restaurant, it's just as likely to be despised as it is to be embraced.

387 W. Lancaster Avenue [map]
Wayne, PA 19087
Hana Japanese on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vote Besotted, Vote Wicker

The judges have weeded through the hundreds of nominations and selected their finalists for the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards.

The polling place is open now through March 4, so hightail it over there and have at it.

Three Weeks ‘Til WBW 55

As host of last week's edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, it seems only right that I should help spread the word about next month’s meeting of the wines. Rémy Charest will take the reins for WBW 55. He’s selected what looks to be a wide-open but also quite challenging topic: North vs. South.

It’s not meant to have politico-historical overtones. There’s nothing to do with Vietnam, Korea, the Civil War (or roller derby, for that matter). Rather, he’s asking everyone to try two wines made from the same grape or a similar blend, one from a more northerly spot or cooler climate than the other, and to compare and contrast their similarities and differences. It seems pretty straightforward at first glance, but the options are practically limitless and the chosen approaches have the potential to get quite in-depth.

Want to know more? Head on over to Rémy’s blog, The Wine Case, and check out the full details. Reports are due on Wednesday, March 18, 2009.

(Image courtesy of

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Passion for Piedmont – The WBW 54 Recap

It’s been my pleasure to host the 54th edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday – “A Passion for Piedmont” – here at McDuff’s Food & Wine Trail. There truly was a fiery passion for Piedmont expressed throughout the wine blogosphere. And it was no small task to give it all its much-merited attention. I hope you’ll all do the same. But before we get to the detailed roundup, here are a few stats to whet your appetites.

  • Overall participants: 51 53
  • Number of bottles tasted/consumed: 86+ *
  • The red to white ratio: 73 to 13
  • Barolo vs. Barbaresco: 7 to 15
  • Oldest bottle: 1995 (Where were all those Barolos from the 50’s and 60’s, guys?)
  • Most “popular” vintage: 2006 edged out 2007, 17 to 15
  • Most tasted variety: Nebbiolo (in all its iterations) soundly beat Barbera, 30 to 20
  • Instances of bodily harm: 1
  • Number of wines from Tuscany that managed to sneak into the mix: 1

* Not counting the imprecise nature of the 15+ Dolcetti tasted by Doktor Weingolb. Nail that number down, Marcus, and I’ll see what I can do with the stats.

Cory Cartwright’s thumb: injured in the line of duty and giving new meaning to the term Saignée.

Our assignment for this episode was simple: pick any wine from the Piedmont region of Italy, taste it and write about it. However, to keep things interesting in the weeks leading up to WBW 54, I issued two separate bonus point challenges:

  1. Write-up a red wine and a white wine, both from the same producer (and, of course, both from Piedmont).
  2. Write-up two wines, each made from the same variety (or varieties) but hailing from different sub-regions and/or different DOC(G)s within Piedmont.

Only one person managed to score points in both categories:

  • He goes by various monikers – Lab Director, Managing Principal, etc. – but whatever you call him just don’t let it be “blogger.” J. David Harden broke with the usually strict protocol at Rational Denial to host a Piedmont-centric wine tasting with some pals. They didn’t drink too poorly, either: Giacosa Arneis and Barolo, Barbaresco from Produttori…. Not only did he nab both bonus challenges along the way but he also threw in a pinch of pixie dust lest things get too serious.

As I’d predicted, the first challenge also proved fairly tricky. Only two bloggers – both from Québec, oddly enough – anted up for that one:

  • Though he promises an eventual translation, Julien Marchand put my French to the test with his profile of the wines of Michele Chiarlo on his blog, Chez Julien. He rose to the bonus point challenge, including a Moscato d’Asti in the mix with three of the reds produced by Chiarlo, one of his favorite wineries in Piemonte.

  • Clearing the same bonus point hurdle – he apparently found it easier than most – was Joe at Joe’s Wine. He covered a duo from the big house of Pio Cesare: the 2001 Barbera d’Alba “Fides” and a 2007 Piemonte Chardonnay “L’Altro,” finding the Barbera a bit more satisfying than the faultless but uninspiring white entry.

I opened the door more widely with the second bonus point challenge. Not surprisingly, more participants stepped in:

  • Good Grape’s Jeff Lefevere wrote one of the more confounding (and entertaining) posts of the episode, ending up with two Barbera that both, in his words, tasted “like strawberry’s marinated in vinegar-laced dishwater with some loose leaf tobacco floating on top.” Yum. Apparently, he finds little to like in general when it comes to European wines (relative to New World wines) in the under $35/bottle category. Kind of the polar opposite of my experiences but hey, we can all agree to disagree.

  • Kori at Wine Peeps scored points in the second bonus challenge – it fell right into her lap as she’d already done her shopping – by comparing a 2005 Barbera d’Asti from Vietti with a 2007 Barbera d’Alba from Damilano. The Vietti took the cake. No surprises there, as Vietti’s wines are not only widely available but are also consistently good.

  • “Piedmont nebbiolo should demand that I meet it halfway, seduce me with its perfume but not yield easily to a first impression.” Few truer words were written this month. They came from Wicker Parker Mike, who also provided a neat profile of the DeForville estate along with notes on their 2005 Langhe Nebbiolo and 2001 Barbaresco “Vigneto Loreto.”

  • Brooklynguy broke into Piemonte in high style (with a little help from his friend Asher), writing up no less than six wines: two examples each of Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolo. By sheer coincidence, three of his choices came from the same estate – Paitin di Pasquero Elia – that I profiled in my WBW contribution. Nice work, Neil.

  • When Marcus, aka Doktor Weingolb, jumped at my WBW announcement, I thought for sure he was finally going to bring his blog out of retirement. But nope, he’s keeping it Facebook. That didn’t stop him from exploring Dolcetto with a vengeance, though. He lays claim to tasting over 15 examples, mostly from Alba but also including Dolcetti from Dogliani, Acqui, Monferrato and Ovada. Yowza!

  • Rockin’ it Old World Old School, Joe Manekin started out with what sounds like a fantastic bottle of Arneis from Giovanni Almondo. He then explored his love/hate relationship with Dolcetto, splitting 50/50 with wines from Anna Maria Abbona in Dogliani and Luigi Baudana, a very fine producer in Serralunga d’Alba.

  • Finally, Xandria made it two of three for the Brix Chicks (more on that later). She helped make me feel a little less conspicuous, as she too dug back into the archives for her contribution – a profile of the “sexy” reds of Barolo/Barbaresco producer Roagna – which she originally posted back in December. Xandria not only clocked bonus points but also wrote-up the oldest wine – a 1995 Barolo, still a mere youngster – of the entire WBW shebang.

And then there were forty-three…

  • Matt at A Good Time With Wine was pleased that our theme was timed well with an Italian food and wine pairing event he’s working on later this month, but was a little less pleased by his experience with the ’01 Paolo Scavino Barolo that set him back $80.

  • Tim played the Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo triple-play at Cheap Wine Ratings, with wines from Elio Altare, Beni di Batasiolo and Travaglini, respectively. He’s one of the few participants to have selected something from outside Piedmont’s Albese heartland, not only tasting a bottle of Travaglini’s Gattinara but also managing to score it for under $20, a CWR prerequisite.

  • Jim Eastman at Music & Wine checked out a bottle of Fratelli Ferrero’s 2004 Langhe Nebbiolo, finding it a touch short on the finish but a solid pairing with the modern spaghetti western video/music stylings of Vinicio Capossela.

  • Robbin Gheesling scored a double-first: her first WBW entry was also her first ever post at Tawny Times. Along the way, she nabbed a Fat Witch brownie to accompany her bottle of Giacomo Bologna’s 2007 Brachetto d’Acqui “Braida.”

  • Deciding to hold onto his Gaja for another occasion, Jason at Jason’s Wine Blog instead scoured the close-out bins at K&L Wines, sneaking in a Malvasia from Tuscany (oops) along with a Barbera d’Alba from Giacomo Borgogno and an ’03 Dolcetto d’Alba from Mauro Molino.

  • I’m not sure I understand the whole purple monkey thing, but my fellow Philly area blogger Joe, aka 1WineDude, certainly demonstrates a solid understanding of Pio Cesare’s 2007 Dolcetto d’Alba.

  • Michelle Lentz at My Wine Education, who hosted the first WBW in which I ever participated, posted not once but twice. She came up smiling in both cases, with Beni di Batasiolo’s 2006 Barbera d’Alba and the 2007 Gavi “Principessa Gavia” from Banfi.

  • A first time WBW’er, David at Too Many Good Wines enjoyed the 2005 Langhe Nebbiolo of Enzo Boglietti with a very un-Piedmontese dish of spicy Mexican chicken tortilla casserole.

  • Smells Like Grape’s own Taster A apparently likes the B. Barbera, that is. Oddly enough, though, this was her first experience with Italian Barbera (the 2005 Piemonte Barbera from Mattei) as she’d previously tasted Barbera only from Sonoma. How’s that for starting in reverse?

  • I was surprised at how few examples of Moscato found their way into the mix this month. One that did, much to the pleasure of Pamela at EnoBytes, was the 2007 Moscato d’Asti “Vigneti Biancospino” from the modernist producer La Spinetta. “Spoodalicious,” says she.

  • Cory Cartwright at Saignée writes of the 2007 Dolcetto d’Alba “Munfrina” from Pelissero, “This wine is the super popular kid in middle school who ended up copping a junk habit in 11th grade that you thought you saw last week at Safeway. Overall, good workaday stuff.” That’s not how I usually think about my everyday wine, but good on ya, mate! Cory’s entry also takes the unofficial MFWT Photojournalism Prize.

  • Ribbie of Ribbie’s Weblog leapt straight from North Carolina’s Piedmont into our own Piemonte, embracing Ca’ del Baio’s 2007 Dolcetto d’Alba as a perfectly suitable pairing with grilled peppers and onions, steak and a side of fries.

  • Under the Grape Tree’s Kevin Keith professes his love for Piedmont wine, provides a thorough background on the history of Arneis as well as a tasting note for the 2006 Arneis of Valdinera, and then caps it all off with a touching tribute to a friend who is no longer with us.

  • Erika Strum, who has named her blog, Strum Erika, as many a Piedmontese producer names their estate (last name followed by first), compared two wines from Barbaresco, each hitting the market at widely different price points. Not surprisingly in this category, the $20 entry from Negro Giuseppe (that’s Giuseppe Negro to you and me) fell short of the $50 selection she chose from Marchesi di Gresy.

  • RJ at RJ’s Wine Blog, another first time WBW participant, found himself enjoying the company of a bottle from one of my favorite producers. The 2007 Langhe Nebbiolo “Gavarini” of Elio Grasso gave RJ a chance to consider the question of Nebbiolo’s ageworthiness.

  • Undeterred by a quirky bottle shape, Jonathan at Best Drink Ever found plenty to like in the 2007 Gavi di Gavi from Villa Sparina, even if its aromas did remind him of ripe Taleggio.

  • Sharon, aka Bloviatrix, struck a food-friendly fortune, finding a bottle of the latest vintage of G.D. Vajra’s Langhe Rosso (one of the few blended wines to make an appearance in this WBW) for the stunningly low price of $12. She also gets an unofficial MFWT prize for writing the post with the most links back to my site. Right on, Sharon!

  • The always thrifty Dr. Debs at Good Wine Under $20 was one of the few participants to explore the sub-$10 realm in Piemonte, pairing a bottle of 2006 Stefano Farina Barbera d’Alba with a mid-week pasta dinner.

  • One of the few expectations I had going into this WBW was that the wines of Produttori del Barbaresco would be heavily represented. Boy was I wrong. At least Liza, one-third of the team at Brix Chicks, helped Produttori represent, writing up their 2005 Langhe Nebbiolo. She didn’t just love it; she found it “fog-o-menal.”

  • I was pleased to find Wolfgang Weber, Senior Editor at Wine & Spirits Magazine and author of the blog Spume, joining the mix for his first WBW. He dropped a very fine tasting note on the 1999 Barolo “Massara” of Castello di Verduno, a producer that’s new to me, and claims to have done it in less than 15 minutes. Not too shabby, WW.

  • John Witherspoon at Anything Wine jumped on the Barbera train, settling in with the 2005 Barbera d’Alba “Filatura” of Marco Porello. At a modest $17, it left him wanting nothing… other than a slice of pizza to accompany it.

  • Serge the Concierge came out of WBW retirement only to hit a few foul bottles before finally connecting with Cascina Lo Zoccolaio’s 2007 Dolcetto d’Alba “Vigna dij Sagrin.”

  • Hudson Valley Wine Goddess Debbie Lessner-Gioquindo struck out playing the shop by label game. Grabbing a backup bottle of Vietti’s 2006 Barbera d’Asti “Tre Vigne” saved her day.

  • Rémy at The Wine Case ponders the collective works of both Giorgio Pelissero and Bruno Giacosa, as well as a few other fondly remembered wines of Piemonte. He finally decided to focus on Giacosa’s 2003 Nebbiolo d’Alba, only to find it a bit disappointing, perhaps the fault of the extremely hot 2003 growing season.

  • Frank at Drink What You Like nailed one of my favorite food and wine pairings: Dolcetto and pepperoni pizza. His juice of choice was Marco Marengo’s 2007 Dolcetto d’Alba.

  • Ok, so I exaggerated a little (but just a little) about the relative absence of Produttori pieces. Diane Letulle selected the 2005 Barbaresco of Produttori del Barbaresco for her write-up at Wine Lover’s Journal.

  • Doug Cook, data cruncher extraordinaire behind the wine search engine Able Grape, broke out what might be the most eclectic trio of wines represented this month. On top of a Barbaresco from one of his favorite small producers and one of the few examples of Freisa to make it into the mix, he wrote-up a white made from a Piedmontese grape called Timorasso that I’ve yet to try. Thanks for making my to-do list longer, Doug.

  • “As I buried my nose in the glass, I could smell the decaying underbrush along the strada di Rio Sordo as it dips down off the main road and I shivered a little at the thought of the cold fog setting in.” Rachel Black shared a bottle of Cascina delle Rose’s 2001 Barbaresco “Rio Sardo” with her significant other – that’s Doug at Able Grape – and writes about it from her own perspective, one that’s as much personal (she’s spent much time in Piemonte) as it is professional (she’s a food anthropologist and educator by trade).

  • Also taking a more experiential approach, as he so often does at Wine Camp, Craig Camp recounts a dark night’s journey to the warm hearth at Trattoria Nonna Genia, finding along the way that, “There are some traditions that cannot be improved on.”

  • Lyle Fass hated his WBW bottle, the 2006 Langhe Freisa “La Villerina Secca” from Brovia.

  • Greg Dyer, penner of The Cab Franco Files, added to the Produttori del Barbaresco tally with a bottle of their 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo, rating it high on his QPR scale. I only wonder why he didn’t write-up a Piedmontese Cab Franc….

  • John The Cork Dork seems to have enjoyed the 2000 Barbaresco “Vigna Marcarini” from Elvio Pertinace’s Cantina Vignaioli, even if he was a bit wary at first of possible cork taint.

  • Barbera is Rob Bralow’s go-to variety when handed a wine list, so it was an easy step for him to write-up a 2006 Guidobono Barbera D’Alba at his blog, Wine Post.

  • Wannabewino’s own Sonadora took a decidedly old school approach – ordering over the phone from an on-line retailer – to acquiring a decidedly modernist selection, the 2006 Dolcetto d’Alba of Luciano Sandrone. Glad to have nudged you back to Italy, Megan.

  • Richard Auffrey has been exploring Piemonte for some time now at The Passionate Foodie. He came up with one of the more unusual selections in this month’s WBW, a passito method, non-vintage Arneis called “Arcass,” from Cascina Chicco. His post also includes a thoughtful overview of the viticultural history of Arneis.

  • Another double-poster, Edward at WinoSapien didn’t quite make the cut for the bonus point challenges but did find plenty to like in both Ceretto’s 2007 Arneis and Vietti’s 2005 Langne Nebbiolo “Perbacco.” As always, Edward's notes are succinct, poetic and illuminating.

  • Bethany of 2nd Ferment made her WBW premiere, checking out wines from two of Piedmont’s larger wineries, Pio Cesare and Michele Chiarlo. Even though both improved with a little airtime, she didn’t find much to like in Chiarlo’s ’07 Gavi. Welcome, Bethany!

  • Yep, I “cheated,” cracking open the McDuff travel journals to write a winery report based on my visit at Paitin di Pasquero Elia way back in February 2006. If I were glory seeking, I’d award myself double bonus points. But, as host, I think it’s only fair to count myself out of eligibility. The bottles we tasted, however, are included in the overall statistical summary of this month’s event.

  • Proud WBW founding father that he is, Lenn Thompson of LennDevours wanted to participate so badly that he carted a bottle of Ascheri’s 2006 Dolcetto d’Alba from Long Island all the way up to the Finger Lakes (where he was attending Palate), only to find that it was corked or otherwise rendered undrinkable. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

  • Alex of Eating Leeds snuck in under the gun, representing our sole contribution from the UK. She found her palate somewhat at odds with the high acidity in Balbi Soprani’s 2006 Barbera d’Asti. And like me, she’s apparently not a big fan of Barbera with tomato-based pasta sauce.

  • Our final effort (at least at this point in time) comes in courtesy of Mairead at Fill Up On Bread. Her originally well-laid plans for WBW were set harshly and abruptly aside when wildfires spread through her area in Melbourne, Australia, on February 7. Ten days later, she and her family were still helping with the Red Cross’s relief efforts. Somehow, she still found the time not just to remember about WBW but to drink, write and post as well. The fact that she wasn’t able to come up with a Piedmontese wine, given her situation, is entirely beside the point.

That’s all we wrote. My thanks go out to everyone who participated. If I missed anyone, or if anyone feels I cheated him or her out of bonus points, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Addendum (26 February):

A late entry, or rather an entry I've just found out about, has come in from Andrew Barrow, who makes it two from the UK and 52 overall with his post at Spittoon. Andrew liked the simplicity of the 2007 Dolcetto di Diana d'Alba from Via Collina, even if he was turned off by its shiny silver label.

Addendum (3 March):
This just in.... Making up for missing out on the "official" WBW date, and bringing our grand total up to 53 participants, Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi has thrown his hat into the ring by writing a guest post about the current releases from Produttori del Barbaresco, right here at MFWT. Thanks, Jeremy!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

WBW 54 Wrap-Up Coming Tomorrow, and the Passing of a Barolo Maestro

Boy, I can see why some WBW hosts choose to take the big picture approach when writing their wrap-ups. Entries are still trickling in – perhaps the second W should stand for Week – and we’ve just reached 50 participants. Not a bad turnout for a theme that seems to have pushed many a wine blogger into unfamiliar territory.

Encapsulating the work of all those writers is a daunting task. Happily, it’s also a great way to get to know a bunch of new blogs and bloggers, and to explore the myriad of experiences and selections they all shared within the context of the glorious wines of Piedmont.

So, all I ask, on this gloomy Sunday afternoon in February, is for your patience. The summary of WBW 54, “A Passion for Piedmont,” will appear here tomorrow. My thanks go out to all who have already participated. And if there’s anyone out there still procrastinating, get to it! It’s still not too late.

Actually, that's not all that I ask. I hope all of you will also join me in raising a glass to the memory of Barolo traditionalist Teobaldo Cappellano (pictured above), who died this week at the age of 65. Jeremy Parzen has already posted a collection of tributes to "Baldo" at Do Bianchi. A full profile of Mr. Cappellano's life and work will appear later this week at Vino Wire.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Eager to Please, Elbows and Knees

When last I hung out with my friend Bill, he pontificated – briefly… he is a man of few words after all – on the pleasures of Beaujolais at the table and on the purity of its expression of vine and terroir. He must be rubbing off on me, as I’ve found myself turning to Beaujolais more and more often of late.

Beaujolais “Vieilles Vignes – Cuvée Traditionnelle,” Domaine du Vissoux (Pierre-Marie Chermette) 2007
$16. 11.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
It actually doesn’t take prodding at all for me to turn to any of Beaujolais from Pierre-Marie Chermette’s Domaine du Vissoux. I’ve been drinking them for well over ten years now and they consistently deliver. That said, my early memories of his “Cuvée Traditionnelle” are of a round, boldly fruit-driven wine. Perhaps it’s just my memory working tricks on me but assuming/hoping that’s not the case, I’ve noticed a transition toward a lighter, crisper style in the last few vintages.

That’s hardly a bad thing, as this is eminently quaffable yet still has an underlying element of complexity. It’s a complexity that does not demand attention; rather, it’s there, lurking in the background, ready to be embraced though just as happy to be ignored in favor of the wine’s simpler side. Bright, wild raspberry fruit dominates on the nose and palate, driven by crisp acidity and a dash of minerality. The wine is totally transparent, the only evidence of any wine making stamp is shown via what’s not there rather than what is. Chermette ferments using native yeasts, so there are none of the ubiquitous aromas of the cultured yeast strains used in the production of so much Gamay Beaujolais. And there’s no suggestion whatsoever of attempts toward concentration or extraction. Just pure, direct goodness, perfect for a lunch of country ham, crusty bread and a little coarse, whole-grain mustard.

Moulin-à-Vent “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine Diochon (Thomas Patenotre) 2007
$22. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.
Bill’s discourse on Beujolais was inspired, I think, by a very fine bottle of the 2006 Moulin-à-Vent from Domaine Diochon that we shared that night. While enjoying the ’06, he warned me that he’d had some less rewarding experiences with the next vintage. Given that I already had a bottle of the ’07 at home, I took that as an assignment.

Bill was right. On the nose, this showed a strange brew of aromas ranging from washed rind cheese to stewed, muddled black fruit to charcoal, all wrapped around stemmy scents of green plant extract. The palate wasn’t any more pleasurable, with coarse texture on one side fighting with a slight spritziness on the other. I’d be happy to hear from others with experience with this vintage, as this may have been a bad bottle from a bad batch. But unless someone can convince me of that, I won’t be going back for more.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Paitin di Pasquero-Elia and the Question of (Post)Modernism in Piedmont

Today is the 54th installment of Wine Blogging Wednesday. As host of this edition, which I’ve called “A Passion for Piedmont,” I thought it only appropriate to approach things from a bigger perspective than it’s possible to convey via the usual WBW tasting note. Instead, I’m embracing it as a chance to travel back a few years in time….

It’s been too long since my last trip to Piedmont, as part of a wine trade junket in February 2006. During that trip, I formed a quick and lasting bond with the region – with its landscape, its culture, the food, the people and, obviously, the wines. I’ve been dying to get back ever since.

Neive is the prototypical Piedmont town, perched atop a hill and surrounded by vineyards, all within view of the Alps.

One of the estates I had the opportunity to visit on that trip was Paitin di Pasquero-Elia, located in the hills above Neive, the largest town in Piedmont’s Barbaresco zone. Giovanni Pasquero-Elia, with whom we spent an enlightening morning, represents the current generation of a family that’s been working the land and vines in their slice of the Barbaresco landscape since 1796. The recent history of his estate, and Giovanni’s role in its evolution, places him at the crux of the never ending debate that has engaged the minds of so many lovers of Piedmontese wine in recent years: the question of modernism versus traditionalism.

Until just a few years ago, Paitin’s wines were represented on the US market by Marc de Grazia, an importer who, as I’ve detailed here before, is often viewed as bringing a heavy hand to play in influencing the winemaking approaches of the producers in his portfolio. In keeping with that approach, Giovanni and his father Secondo had taken, throughout the 1990s, to the use of rotofermenters – machines that quicken color extraction and shorten traditional maceration periods by two-thirds or more – and to aging nearly all of their wines in French oak barriques.

A look inside the rotofermenter, one of the first views greeting us during our tour of the Paitin winery.

But wait… I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

* * *

The Paitin estate includes 17.5 hectares of vineyard, mostly situated along either side of the Via Serra Boella in Bricco di Neive, with the namesake Sorì Paitin vineyard forming the heart of the property.

The Sorì Paitin vineyard, as seen from atop the hill behind the Pasquero-Elia family's winery.

Barbaresco, not surprisingly, is the family’s most important wine. In good years, they produce three different bottlings: Barbaresco “Serra Boella,” from 1.5 hectares of Nebbiolo planted on the east-facing Serra Boella hillside; Barbaresco “Sorì Paitin,” the flagship wine from four hectares of southern exposed vines in the monopole Sorì Paitin; and their top wine, the “Sorì Paitin Vecchie Vigne,” from a single hectare of 55 year-old vines (planted in 1953) within the greater Sorì Paitin site.

As is typical throughout the region, the Pasquero-Elia family also grows Dolcetto and Barbera, both to provide for the everyday Piedmontese table – Barbaresco (and Barolo) are generally reserved for special occasions – and to take advantage of portions of their property not ideally suited to the finicky Nebbiolo. A single Dolcetto d’Alba is produced from a 1.5 hectare parcel of the Sorì Paitin. And there are two Barberas d’Alba, one from three hectares on Serra Boella, the other, “Campolive,” is a single vineyard bottling named after a one hectare plot at the warmest, sunniest spot on their property.

The family also owns parcels outside of the Barbaresco zone, with three hectares of Nebbiolo and one of Cabernet Sauvignon at a site called “Ca Veja” (Old House) in Alba and, finally, 1.5 hectares of Arneis in the Roero.

* * *

In Making Sense Of Italian Wine, author Matt Kramer paints a clear, up-to-date, opinionated yet level-headed picture of the decades-old clash between modernism and traditionalism in Piedmont. In the introduction to his chapter on Barolo, he describes a paradigm that he clearly feels applies to Barbaresco as well:
“Distinguising among Barolo producers goes beyond just assessing quality. Style now plays a major role. It was easier a decade ago: modernists were then clearly distinguishable from traditionalists. Today, the middle ground is, if anything, the most heavily populated.

These “centrists” take what they believe are most desirable from the modernist camp (small oak barrels; rotofermenters…; short macerations) and apply those techniques with a traditionalist hand – not too much oak, not too short a maceration, not too vigorous a use of the washing machine-like rotofermenter.”

The oldest portions of the Paitin cellars were constructed in the 15th Century, predating the "modern" history of the estate.

In the chapter covering Barbaresco, Kramer includes Paitin di Pasquero Elia among his recommended estates and says, “Although decidedly modern in style, there’s no doubting the seriousness of the wine or the quality of the grapes. This is a producer that shows the possibilities of modernism in pursuit of traditional Barbaresco goodness.”

* * *

Visiting Paitin at the time we did proved very interesting in the context of the above descriptions, as we were able to observe the estate in the midst of flux. In the early part of this decade, growing increasingly unenamored with their importer’s approach, the Pasquero-Elia’s elected to leave the de Grazia camp. Though he continues to work with a rotofermenter and to practice micro-oxygenation (to counteract the extremely reductive environment within the rotofermenter), Giovanni immediately chose to eliminate barriques from the estate’s aging regimen. He also began to move away from the super-ripe, concentrated style that marked the estate’s wines through the 1990s, working instead toward a more elegant expression of his terroir and a fresher, brighter fruit focus.
Hearkening back to an earlier time, an old bottle of Barbaresco, from Secondo Pasquero-Elia's era, is watched over by one of the cellar spiders.

Many of the wines we tasted in the Paitin cellars that day were produced on the cusp of that change. Among them were some of the last wines produced during the de Grazia years and some of the first from the current era. As such, this report should be viewed as a snapshot of that time. I’m sure the approach at Paitin has continued to evolve since. As to how I feel about the new direction then indicated at the estate, which might be described as a step toward “centrism,” I happen to agree with Kramer’s assessment. To paraphrase his words, Paitin is a producer that shows the possibilities of modernism – and post-modernism – in pursuit of Piedmontese goodness.

* * *

If this leaves you hungry for more, you’ll find a detailed accounting of the wines we tasted during our visit below.

Roero Arneis “Vigna Elisa,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2004
Named after Giovanni’s grandmother, “Vigna Elisa” is the only white wine produced at the estate. Arneis, by the way, means “difficult boy” or “rascal” in the old Piedmontese dialect. Paitin’s example, produced from yields of 30 hl/ha, falls into neither the fresh and fruity style nor the broad, oxidative style of Roero Arneis. The wine sees cold maceration on its skins for 24-36 hours, followed by fermentation in steel using selected yeasts. It then remains on its lees in tank until bottling time, about six months after the harvest. Giovanni recommends it be consumed in its first 2-3 years in bottle. The ’04, tasted from bottle, showed richly extracted color accompanied by heady, oily aromatics. Medium acidity carried through to a long finish, full of honeysuckle and almond flavors. (13% alcohol.)

Dolcetto d’Alba “Sorì Paitin,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2004
Giovanni’s 2004 Dolcetto showed a less floral, cherry-driven nose along with a denser palate impact than much of the other Dolcetto tasted on our trip. Following quick rotofermentation on selected yeasts, the wine ages for six months in old botte and tonneaux of Slavonian oak. Though many producers eschew wood for their Dolcetti, Giovanni feels that the naturally oxidative environment in the old casks helps to counter both the reductive aspects of rotofermentation as well as Dolcetto’s natural tendency toward reductivity.

Barbera d’Alba “Serra Boella,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2004
Most of the Barbera on Serra Boella was originally planted in the early 1980s with clones that turned out to be poorly suited to the site. After replanting in 1997 with vine cuttings propagated from the “Campolive” vineyard, Giovanni has found the site to give much better wines. The ’04 is a typical example – maybe my favorite of the last several vintages – of Serra Boella Barbera, full of sweet berry fruit, zingy acidity and fresh, direct aromas. The 2003 version saw a six-day rotofermentation followed by 12 months of aging in 50% new tonneaux and 50% three-year-old barriques. In contrast, the 2004 was aged for 12 months in old botte after a nine-day spell in the rotofermenter.

Not from the archives.... Some of Paitin's current releases.

Barbera d’Alba “Campolive,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2003
Campolive, again, is the warmest spot on the Paitin property. Its name is a reference to Giovanni’s belief that olive trees were planted on the site during the Roman era. The 2003, with its raisiny nose and richer, more opulent flavors, spent nine days in the rotofermenter (fermented on its natural yeasts), followed by about one month in steel to allow for settling and precipitation of solids. After that, it underwent 18 months in a mixture of barriques, 50% new and 50% two-year-old. The ’03 was the last vintage to see any barrique aging; Giovanni planned to switch to aging in new botte beginning with the 2004 vintage.

Nebbiolo d’Alba “Ca Veja,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2003
This is from the family’s three-hectare plot of Nebbiolo near Alba, located outside of the Barbaresco zone and only one mile from the border of Barolo. The site was replanted in the mid-1990s after a flood and subsequent mudslide destroyed much of the original vineyard. The 2003 was arguably the most “traditionalist” wine produced at the estate up to that point, aged in old botte only. It displayed intense tannins on the front palate followed by sweet rhubarb and herb-laced red fruit. The 2001 version, in comparison, was aged in tonneaux, 50% of which were new.

The main barrel cellar at Paitin, circa 2006, showing a mixture of barriques, tonneaux and botte.

Barbaresco “Sorì Paitin,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2001
The 2001 vintage was finished before Paitin ended their import relationship with Marc de Grazia. Here, the power shown in “Ca Veja” continued but with darker fruit and suppler texture, along with a hint of leather. Following nine days in the rotofermenter, it was aged for two years in oak: 30% in new French barriques, 20% in 2-3 year-old barriques and 50% in tonneaux. More recent vintages are aged in botte only, and the elegance hinted at in this 2001 version has come more to the fore in subsequent releases.

Barbaresco “Sorì Paitin Vecchie Vigne,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2001
The top wine of the estate, from a one-hectare parcel of the Sorì Paitin that was planted in 1953. It’s also the most powerful wine of the estate, an easy dispeller of the old “Barolo is masculine, Barbaresco feminine” adage. Darker in color and flavor than the Sorì Paitin “normale” but still well-balanced, with plenty of finesse and complexity. Giovanni’s father, Secondo, formerly bottled this as Barbaresco Riserva, starting with the 1974 vintage. Since then, Giovanni has dropped the Riserva designation, feeling that the term’s meaning has been destroyed by it commercial, international manifestations. The 2001 spent three weeks clarifying in steel after a nine-day spell in the rotofermenter, and was finished with two years aging in a mixture of French oak barrels, 50% new and 50% two years old. It is now aged completely in botte of Slavonian oak, varying from light toast to no toast at all.

Barbaresco “Serra Boella,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2002
The only Barbaresco produced at Paitin in the difficult 2002 vintage. It was surprisingly dark for the vintage, likely an attribute driven by the strong color extraction achieved via rotofermentation, yet it was also more evolved in tone and aromas than the 2001s we’d already tasted. Plummier and rounder than the wines from the Sorì Paitin, it was also a tad reductive when first poured but that quickly resolved with some time in the glass. A solid effort for the vintage. Regrettably, my notes don’t include any technical specs for this bottling.

Langhe Rosso “Paitin,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2003
In 2003 the “Langhe Paitin” was a varietal expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Langhe. Not surprisingly, it was much blacker in color than the Nebbiolo-based wines. Surprisingly low alcohol (13%) given the infamous heat of the 2003 growing season, it led off with a soft, round feel and attractive flavors of blackberry, cassis and licorice but was then marred by astringent, slightly green tannins. The very fact that Paitin had planted Cabernet Sauvignon might be looked at from one perspective as outrageously modern, a move toward internationalization of Piedmontese tradition. Given that Cabernet constitutes only a single hectare of the overall estate and appears in only this wine, it might just as easily be viewed (from a more forgiving perspective) as a natural outlet for a vine grower and winemaker’s curiosity. Earlier experiments with both Pinot Noir and Syrah, in fact, were abandoned after Giovanni found the vines to be unsuited to his terroir. Giovanni continues to farm his plot of Cabernet but now blends the fruit with Nebbiolo and Barbera to produce a slightly more typical, slightly less outrageous Langhe Rosso blend.

My roommate Dale B. and I, pausing for a moment of contemplation after our visit. The family residence is behind us to the right, the old winery building at left.

Azienda Agricola PAITIN di Pasquero Elia
Via Serra Boella 20
12052 Neive (CN)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

One Last WBW Reminder

It's 11:00 PM. Do you know where your Dolcetti are?

See you here tomorrow for WBW 54: A Passion for Piedmont.

Wine Dinner at Bistro on the Brandywine: Twisted French Classics

If you were bummed about missing the wine dinner I hosted at Bistro on the Brandywine at the beginning of this month, don’t despair. You actually didn’t miss anything. That's not me practicing self-deprecation. Rather, dinner was canceled, no thanks to the blizzard of ’09, that whopping five inches of powder that blanketed the Philadelphia area on February 3. So, we’ve decided to give it another whirl, a month later to the day.

I’ll be hosting a wine dinner at Bistro on the Brandywine out in bucolic Chadds Ford, PA, on Tuesday, March 3, 2009. BoB’s chef, Seth Harvey, will put a few twists on otherwise ostensibly classic French bistro dishes, while I’ll be pouring some great value French wines from regions such as Beaujolais, Madiran, Rivesaltes and, you guessed it, the Loire. At $75 all inclusive, it stands to be a great way to fight the recession blues without depriving your soul of the righteous pleasures of food and wine.

Sound good? Then check out the menu or jump on in and make a reservation online.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Burger and a Beer at Local 44

Amateur Night (def):
The purpose of Amateur Night is to provide a platform where amateur performers can showcase and develop their skills. The ultimate goal is to create a cadre of talented, well-trained and well-groomed performance professionals with an effective understanding of the entertainment industry.

– Photo and definition courtesy of the Apollo Theater, where aspiring artists have been putting it all out there just about every Wednesday night since 1934.

The definition of amateur night in the restaurant biz takes on a rather less auspicious tone. It generally focuses on dates such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, two of the busiest dining nights of the year, populated largely by inexperienced diners and people who don’t otherwise eat out with any frequency. True cynics might extend the definition to include any Friday and Saturday, when weekend warriors clamor for reservations and take over the tables at all the hottest spots in town. Applying the above parameters, dining out on the Friday night before Valentine’s Day (which fell on a Saturday this year) packed the distinct possibility of a double-whammy curse.

Everything I’d read about Local 44, the new University City venture (at the corner of 44th and Spruce) opened on the first of the year by Memphis Taproom owners Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida, led me to expect it would be unaffected by the V-Day phenomena. Early reports at The Brew Lounge, Seen Through a Glass and Femme Fermental had all left me thirsting for a good vibe and some great beer.

The bar and tap list at Local 44. (Photo courtesy of The Brew Lounge.)

The place was jammed on Friday the 13th, with throngs of students filling both the bar and dining sides of room. As expected, Valentine’s Day and amateur night dining didn’t seem to pose a problem; rather, I expect that’s the usual Friday night scenario for a “local” based only a few short blocks from UPenn’s campus.

The problem was that it seemed to be amateur night in the kitchen.

If there’s one thing a bar’s kitchen should have dialed in before anything else, it’s a hamburger (or, one might argue, fries). What I was served at Local 44 should never have been put down in front of me. The white bread roll was too stale even for the two-day-old bin at a corner bakery. The burger, which I ordered medium-rare, was just barely warm, bordering on raw yet still somehow greasy, and so loosely packed that clumps of ground beef fell from the bun at almost every bite. A lettuce leaf, unripe tomato slice and wedge of raw onion did little to make up for what they adorned, with a properly melted slice of decent cheddar (a $1 upcharge) providing the only saving grace. Perhaps the fact that it’s called a “Meat Burger” on the menu should have warned me off. The fries, thankfully, had decent, fresh cut potato flavor, even if they were limp and over-salted.

Since the food at Local 44 is clearly taking a back seat to what’s on tap, it’s comforting to find that they’ve at least gotten their core mission right. Don’t go looking for the usual line-up of bottled brews, as Orval is the one and only beer offered in bottle. It’s the draft line-up that’s already made Local 44 a worthy destination for beer geeks, with about two dozen selections at very fair prices. And it’s perfectly drawn offerings such as Coniston Bluebird Bitter and North Coast Brewing Company’s “Old Rasputin” Russian Imperial Stout that’ll keep me coming back for more. Just not on a Friday night. And not, anytime soon at least, for another shot at their burger.

Local 44
4333 Spruce Street [map]
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 222-2337
Local 44 on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wine Blogging Wednesday: The How-To Show

This Wednesday, February 18, 2009, wine lovers and bloggers from far and wide will convene here at MFWT for the 54th edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, “A Passion for Piedmont.” I’m hoping for a great turnout and am also anticipating – based on some inquiries I’ve received – at least a few first time participants. So I thought it prudent to blast everyone with one last reminder (well, maybe not the last reminder but the last full-length one) and to recap the ways in which to participate.

  • Read the complete story of this month’s theme.
  • In short, pick any wine from the Piedmont region of Italy. White, red, rosé, sparkling, sweet, dry, expensive, dirt cheap... it’s all ok.
  • Drink it, enjoy it (hopefully) and write something about the experience.
  • There is no need to have your own blog to participate.

Just in case drinking only one wine seems too easy and you really want to immerse yourself in the venture, I’ve added a couple of bonus point addendums to my original WBW announcement.

  • BP Challenge #1: Write-up a red wine and a white wine, both from the same producer (and, of course, both from Piedmont).
  • BP Challenge #2: Write-up two wines, each made from the same variety (or varieties) but hailing from different sub-regions and/or different DOC(G)s within Piedmont.

Once you’ve done your shopping, drinking and writing (photos are encouraged, too), all that’s left to do is submit your work. Here’s how:

  • If you don’t have your own blog, you can post your write-up as a comment to this or any of the other WBW 54 posts here at MFWT.
  • If you do have your own blog, post away on your own site, then send me a link to your write-up, either in the comments below or via e-mail. Posting on Wednesday is ideal but early submissions are fine and even late submissions are no problem.
  • In either of the above scenarios, you may also send your entire submission to me via e-mail (davidmcduff at verizon dot net). I’ll then post your work for you as a comment or – if you really rock the house – as a guest post here at MFWT.

I hope that’s all clear enough. Go and get your Piedmont on, drink well and have fun with it. I’ll see you all here on Wednesday.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tempering Alsace

Alsace Riesling “Saint-Hippolyte,” Domaine Marc Tempé 2005
$28. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Vintage ’59 Imports, Washington, DC.

For a few reasons, simple and not so simple, I don’t drink wines from Alsace all that often. Simply, there are only so many wines one person can drink and I don’t like to write about wines I’ve only sipped and spit, though I’ll occasionally make an exception in the context of a formal trade tasting. Also, my love for German (and Austrian) Riesling tends to push Alsace wines – Rieslings and all the other specialties of the region – into the back seat. Less simply, more and more of the wines from the region, including those from top producers, have been getting bigger and bigger, richer and richer, over the last several years. Eric Asimov focused on this very trend a few months back at The Pour. While I have no problem with sweetness if it’s balanced by the wine’s other traits, I do have a problem with wines that are over-the-top, and that’s where an awful lot of Alsace juice seems to have headed.

Along with global warming and the global trend toward pushing the boundaries of physiological ripeness, one of the culprits Asimov and others have mentioned is a farming practice that many lovers of natural wine have enthusiastically embraced: biodynamics. The nurturing of the soil and harnessing of energy achieved through biodynamie can actually accelerate vines' growth and production cycles and result, especially in already warm climates like Alsace, in ultra-ripe, concentrated grapes.

Marc Tempé’s Riesling “Saint-Hippolyte” 2005, which is the end product of biodynamic farming, doesn’t buck the trend toward richness but it does take its scale in stride. And it does so with aplomb. On the nose, it’s ripe with scents of spiced pear and melons, with an underlying layer of the kind of dark mineral scents that develop only with the onset of bottle development. It’s on the palate that the wine finds its lift, bursting with lemon and lime fruit driven by a combination of physical extract and acidity that form an extremely invigorating mouthfeel, like a swirl of fine-grained prickles across the palate. That may not sound pleasant, I know, but it was. Though the wine possessed an undeniably honeyed aspect – one that came more strongly to the fore on days two and three – it was kept in check by superb balance and structure. A happy meeting of traditional style and new-found scale.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Coste della Sesia, WBW 54 Reminder #3 (and even more bonus points)

The one-week countdown to WBW 54, “A Passion for Piedmont,” starts today. Just in case you missed it, you can start from the beginning with my original announcement. In last week’s reminder, I issued a little bonus point challenge. As that was a potential toughie, I thought I’d put another extra credit option out there for your WBW enjoyment.

Find, drink and write-up two wines, each made from the same variety (or varieties) but hailing from different areas and/or different DOC(G)s within Piedmont.

From a shopping or cellar raiding perspective, this one should be a little easier than last week’s challenge. Some of the more straightforward options – focusing on the core of Piedmontese wine country, the Langhe district surrounding the city of Alba – might include comparing:
  • Barolo and Barbaresco
  • Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba
  • Dolcetto d’Alba and Dolcetto di Dogliani
  • Nebbiolo d’Alba and Langhe Nebbiolo

The steepest vineyards in Dogliani, like this one belonging to Anna Maria Abbona, are often terraced.

You might also opt to bring geography more clearly into play by comparing wines from more disparate subzones of Piedmont. Choosing two Nebbiolo-based wines, one from the Langhe/Albese district and another from one of the zones in northeastern Piedmont such as Gattinara or Ghemme, would do the trick.

Things could get a bit more complicated if you opt for tasting two blended wines, as the rules governing blending (as well as the list of sanctioned grape varieties) vary widely from zone to zone within Piedmont. It’s doable though, and I might even allow a little bending of the rules. A Nebbiolo-dominated Langhe Rosso, for instance, might be paired up with something like this….

Coste della Sesia Rosso “Uvaggio,” Proprietà Sperino 2005
$36. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Paolo DeMarchi, without question, is best known as a producer of fine Chianti Classico and of the Toscana Rosso IGT “Cepparello.” Both wines are produced at his beautiful estate Isole e Olena, named for the two hamlets his property more or less encompasses in the Tuscan district of Barberino Val d’Elsa.

When he purchased 25 acres of land in the hillsides of Lessona and the Coste della Sesia in northeastern Piedmont in 2000, I imagine he was initially viewed as something of an interloper. Paolo, though, traces his family’s history back to this area; he was simply pursuing his dream of returning to his roots. The fact that his son Luca, who had previously been uncertain as to whether he wanted to join the family business, fell in love with the property must have been icing on the cake. You’ll find both Paolo and Luca’s names on every bottle of wine from their new venture, Proprietà Sperino.

“Uvaggio” simply means “a blend of grapes.” One might ask an Italian producer about their uvaggio just as we might ask a French vigneron of his wine’s encépagement or an American winemaker of her chosen blend. As one of my friends and co-workers likes to say, it’s an utterly pedestrian name for an anything but pedestrian wine. In this case, the blend happens to be Nebbiolo, Croatina and Vespolina, something along the respective percentage lines of 65/25/10. 2005 marks its second vintage release.

One of the things I like and respect most about DeMarchi’s wines is that, even though they show a strong winemaking stamp, they always allow a sense of place to shine through.

On day one with “Uvaggio,” that winemaking stamp took the front seat, with a heady nose of oak-derived cedar and vanillin aromas rising from the first pour. It didn’t take too long for dark red fruited scents of raspberries and mulberries to work their way to the fore. However, the wine also seemed disjointed, like its gears weren’t yet in synch. The occasional whiff of paint and a glossier than anticipated mouthfeel weren’t helping matters.

The wine came more fully into its own on day two, as more characteristic traits of both Nebbiolo and the cool, high elevation Coste della Sesia emerged. Grappling hook tannins and snappy acidity were both clearer and better balanced than on day one, the oak influence much less prevalent and more harmonious. Aromas and flavors, too, were much more appealing, ranging from tar and rose petals to cinnamon and orange peel, along with that classic Nebbiolo stamp of red licorice. Sitting in the glass, the wine continued to become more and more aromatic, eventually bringing to mind sour red plums and cherries.

This definitely needs some time – ideally in the cellar or, if you can’t wait, in a decanter – to reveal its full charms.

By coincidence Sperino’s rosato, a direct descendent of “Uvaggio,” was my selected entry for WBW 47 last summer.

* * *

Whatever you choose from the wide array of options for “A Passion for Piedmont” – and whether or not you take on a bonus challenge – have fun with it. I’ll look forward to reading your reports next week.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Touch the Sound

Just finished watching Touch the Sound, a documentary about percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The 2004 film follows Ms. Glennie in her world travels, centering upon and revolving around an improvised recording session with guitarist Fred Frith. Though I’ve been listening to Frith on and off since I was in high school (many moons ago), this is the first time I’ve ever come across Glennie’s music. Absolutely fantastic stuff – both her playing and the film – almost as lovely to watch as it is to hear. It’ll make you think about the meaning and experience of sound, without ever telling you what to think or how to experience it.

Here’s a clip of a particularly serene piece featured near the end of the film, with Ms. Glennie on the marimba and FF on the guitar. Listen.

Monday, February 9, 2009

French, Italian and Cajun

Another fairly impromptu get-together provided all the inspiration necessary for today’s post. Carryout from Cajun Kate’s, a few interesting things to taste and a little conversation with friends…. Definitely not a bad way to spend an evening.

Touraine Sauvignon “Le Petiot,” Domaine Ricard (Vincent Ricard) 2007
$15. 12.5% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
After reading about the 2008 version of “Le Petiot” at Jim’s Loire a little while back, I figured it was high time to sit down with a bottle of the 2007, which is the current release on American shores. There’s no mistaking this for anything other than a vibrantly pure expression of Sauvignon, from its first aromatic blast of pink grapefruit and spring flowers right down to the tongue twisting, cleansing acidity on the wine’s finish. In between, there’s fine interplay between ripe, peachy fruit, lively citrus overtones and a wee undercurrent of light minerality. A perfect kick-starter of an aperitif, and not too shabby with Cajun Kate’s fried oyster po’ boy.

Venezia Giulia IGT Bianco “Vino Degli Orti,” Terčič (Matijaž Terčič) 2006
$32. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
A 50/50 blend of Tocai Friulano and Malvasia Istriana vinified and aged in tank. Regrettably this was a flawed bottle, robbed of its fruit by either a very low level of TCA (I’m pretty sensitive to cork taint and didn’t pick it up) or some combination of heat/oxygen ingress. Too bad, as the first bottle I’d tasted a couple of weeks earlier (sorry, no note) was quite good.

Collio Sauvignon, Terčič (Matijaž Terčič) 2007
$32. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
That’s more like it… two bad bottles from the same producer and same shipment would have been a bad sign. This was not only very good but also stood in stark, provocative contrast to the style of Ricard’s Touraine Sauvignon. Terčič’s Sauvignon was just as energetic on the palate but much richer and denser in texture, and darker in its minerality. It’s also far less aromatically potent, expressing itself more through feel, structure and depth than high toned fruit and flowers. Like “Vino Degli Orti,” this is done in tank; if I didn’t know that, though, I’d have guessed neutral wood. There’s plenty of stuffing here for richer food pairings.

Moulin-à-Vent “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine Diochon 2006
$19. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.
This might just be the ideal choice to pour for someone who still needs to be convinced that Beaujolais can be serious – and seriously good – wine. It’s got great fruit but also that classic granitic, brooding sensation that seems more common in Moulin-à-Vent than in any of the other Beaujolais Crus. This has great feel and fine balance and delivers waves of crunchy, dark fruit. The nose leads with black raspberries and chalk, follows with white pepper and a sense of black minerals, and ends with scents of ginger and molasses. Lively acid and grip bring it all home. Not too shabby with smoked brisket gumbo, either.

Arbois Pupillin Poulsard, Emmanuel Houillon (Pierre Overnoy) 2007
$32. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
Dinner was over at this point but we all felt like tasting something else. The choice was driven, I expect, as much by anticipated pleasure as it was by a wish for redemption after a rather awkward showing from another Houillon wine a couple of weeks earlier. There was no awkwardness this time around.

Though typical in shade for Arbois Poulard (aka, Ploussard), this might startle many with its pale iridescence in the glass, reflecting hues of green olive and orange peel when held to the light. It’s almost spritzy in its liveliness on the palate, like a winey rendition of raspberry lime seltzer. The aromas were just intoxicating. Scents of pine needle, rose petal potpourri, watermelon, lime and eucalyptus jumped out of the glass, one after the other, seemingly alternating between associations of the mountains and the shore. On the palate, it’s all about freshness of fruit and completely unmuddled flavors. Full of refreshing acidity, devoid of tannic interference and laced with rock-sucking sensations, this was just a joy to drink.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Twestival Comes to Town

In the spirit of thinking globally and acting locally, a number of concerned global citizens are drawing on the strengths and popularity of social networking to try to make a difference in the lives of others. This Thursday, February 12, 2009, over 160 “Twestivals” will be held around the world, bringing together groups of “Twitterers” (yes, I’m on Twitter, though I’m still not sure I totally embrace it…) to have fun while also helping a good cause. And that’s something I think we can all embrace. Check out the main Twestival page for more info and for a list of the worldwide venues.

I would never have heard of the whole Twestival thing in the first place if not for the enthusiastic organizational efforts of Serge Lescouarnec, aka Serge the Concierge, who has quickly put together the New Jersey Metro event in Montclair, NJ. On my own local level, The Philly Twest is happening at The Get Happy Pub (509-511 S 2nd Street).

Food, beer, wine and raffle prizes have been donated by local businesses, and you’ll finally have a chance to meet some of those friends you’ve never really met. Admission costs and all other proceeds will benefit Charity: Water – a global non-profit organization dedicated to providing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wine Traditions

Ed Addiss, owner of the import company Wine Traditions, based in Falls Church, Virginia, stopped in Philly last week to conduct a seminar at Tria Fermentation School. I sat in on class, welcoming the chance to catch up with an old friend and business associate and to taste a few of the current releases from his portfolio.

Ed’s book dabbles in Bordeaux, mostly with a handful of Cru Artisan estates. He also works with a neat handful of producers in Burgundy, primarily in the Yonne Department. He’s even stepped, somewhat begrudgingly, into the Rhône recently, nudged there by the demands of market competition. The heart and soul of his work, though, is split between two areas: Beaujolais and Southwest France.

Mr. Addiss in repose after a well executed class.

On this night, Ed focused solely on the wines of Southwest France, pouring selections that demonstrated the typicity of their AOCs and represented the workhorse entry in each winery’s lineup. There was a time when I sold all of these wines but, alas, that time passed a couple of years back. I’ve also written many of them up here in the past. So, in more than one respect, it was a real pleasure to check back in with them.

The Mauzac-dominated non-vintage Blanquette de Limoux “Le Berceau” from Domaine des Martinolles got things started. A very fresh bottling, brimming with apple fruit, waxy aromas and invigorating texture.

In previous experiences with “Mission La Caminade,” the second wine of Château la Caminade in Cahors, I’d found it to be a little on the rustic (bordering on dirty) side. The 2006 version, in welcome contrast, is showing nicely. Pepper and tanned leather on the nose lead to a medium bodied, gently gripping palate of dried blackberry and raspberry fruit. It’s definitely a solid, quaffable bistro wine.

If there’s a wine I most miss having conveniently at hand, it’s the Marcillac “Lo Sang del Païs” from Philippe Teulier’s Domaine du Cros. It’s made from Fer Servadou (the locals call it Mansois), a vine that joins Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Carmenet family. Ed sometimes describes Marcillac as “Cabernet Franc Sauvage” and as a “nosey wine.” Both descriptions seem perfectly apt. The 2007 is a tad lighter than in most years but is still packed with brambly fruit and the aromas of blood, iron and pepper that so clearly mark its scents.

The most pleasant surprise of the lineup, largely because it’s a wine I’d never really thought much of, was Château Bellevue la Forêt’s Fronton (formerly Côtes du Frontonnais). The estate’s basic red offering in 2005 was much cleaner and deeper than I could recall from past vintages. Charming nose of licorice and fennel seed. It’s 50% Négrette blended with varying proportions of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Gamay – low acid but with just enough grip to support its framework.

Ed's slide show featured some picturesque shots of the farms in his portfulio.

I thought Ed’s last minute decision to throw a white in to the middle of a red-dominated lineup was inspired. A good way to refresh and re-kick the palate. I knew as soon as it hit my mouth that Camin Larredya’s 2007 Jurançon Sec “À L’Esguit” was more generous and honeyed than in past vintages. It was also stunningly good, tasting initially of melon rind and full of grippy acids. It didn’t take much coaxing to find aromas and flavors of honey, lavender, rosemary, orange peel, apple skin…. Ed confirmed that Larredya have stepped up the concentration of their wines, aiming for business with starred restaurants. Oh yeah, it’s a blend of Gros Manseng and the thicker skinned Petit Manseng.

The flow quickly shifted back to red, with the last two dry wines of the night being the tough customers in the crowd.

My first glass of Madiran “Reflet du Terroir” from Château Laffitte-Teston was corked. The second was sound but still showing some musty, damp earth oriented flavors. Very, very tight, redolent of struck iron and macerated bay leaves. Definitely in need of a roast leg of lamb and plenty of air. 80% Tannat with 10% each of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon.

The 2005 edition of “Ohitza,” the entry level Irouléguy rouge from Domaine Brana wasn’t much more giving. If you’ve found Loire Cabernet Franc to be vegetal, you really need to drink this wine in its youth to put things into perspective. This is wild, mountain grown Cab Franc, far from tempered by the Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Skeletal and stalky but with a temptingly spicy core of sinewy red fruit.

We headed back to Jurançon for the finale, served up via Camin Larredya’s 2005 Jurançon “Au Capcèu.” An absolutely delicious finale it was. This is late harvested Petit Manseng. Minty and viscerally herbaceous, it sent waves of fig and clover honey pumping across the palate with a well honed edge of acidity keeping it frisky.

* * *

After Ed's wines more or less disappeared from the Philadelphia area market a couple of years back, they have begun to reappear at a choice handful of restaurants around town, including Tinto, Tria and Royal Tavern. They’re now being cleared into PA via The Wine Merchant, Ltd., and I’m also happy for Ed that some of the core products from the Wine Traditions portfolio are now available at Chambers Street Wines in New York City. They’re characterful wines that deserve a broader audience than they’ve historically reached. And the Wine Traditions marque is one that should be added to your list of trusted importers – see the name on a back label, buy the wine… and enjoy the exploration.

A quick bite to eat and a glass of Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek at Tria's Rittenhouse location put a nice finishing touch on the evening, just as snow began to blanket the streets in downtown Philly.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin