Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Le Tour de France: Getting Down to the Minutes

As Saturday's open invitation to participate in the upcoming coverage of the Tour de France here at MFWT fell on mostly deaf ears, I thought I'd kick it up a notch. You know, provide a little more detail so that you don't have to do quite as much leg work to figure out what's going on. And maybe post in the middle of the week, when everyone's reading their favorite blogs from the comfort of their workplace, rather than on a Saturday in the summertime.

If you have your own blog, that's great. But it's not a requirement by any means.

If you're into cycling, wonderful. If not, no worries. I'll help fill in the blanks.

And most importantly, have at it... and follow along. The action starts here this Saturday, July 3.

To get you started thinking about it, here's a list of all 20 stages of this year's Tour, along with the region(s) through which each stage passes (clicking on the stage number will take you to a map of each day's course) and the most obvious (to me...) topic(s) applicable to each. I'm certainly open to other ideas, so don't hold back.
  • Prologue, Saturday, July 3: Rotterdam > Rotterdam (8.9 km)
    No wine in Holland, but Gouda is less than 30K away....
    Status: It's probably appropriate for me to get things started myself, but if anyone out there is based in Rotterdam, I'd be open to reconsidering....

  • Stage 1, Sunday, July 4: Rotterdam, Netherlands > Brussels, Belgium (223.5 km)
    Belgian beer country, baby.
    Status: taken

  • Stage 2, Monday, July 5: Brussels, Belgium > Spa, Belgium (201 km)
    More beer, you say?
    Status: taken, I think

  • Stage 3, Tuesday, July 6: Wanze, Belgium > Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, France (213 km)
    Beer again, or perhaps a surprise.
    Status: spoken for

  • Stage 4, Wednesday, July 7: Cambrai > Reims (153.5 km)
    Champagne, anyone?
    Status: I'll be handling this one.

  • Stage 5, Thursday, July 8: Épernay > Montargis (187.5 km)
    Yesterday finished with Champagne, why not start today with more?
    Status: reserved.

  • Stage 6, Friday, July 9: Montargis > Gueugnon (227.5 km)
    The longest day of this year's Tour passes midway between the Pouilly-sur-Loire/Sancerre and the Yonne Department (Chablis, etc.)
    Status: taken.

  • Stage 7, Saturday, July 10: Tournus > Station des Rousses (165.5 km)
    The mountains approach. Anyone up for a Tour de Jura?
    Status: spoken for.

  • Stage 8, Sunday, July 11: Station des Rousses > Morzine-Avoriaz (189 km)
    The first day in the high Alps, starting in the Jura and ending in the Haut-Savoie, all the while within a stone's throw (or two) of Lake Geneva. Lots of good mountain wines and cheeses....
    Status: MFWT's taking a field trip for Sunday's stage... stay tuned.

From here on out it's wide open. At this point, I'm gonna have to start chasing people down. But if you're reading and up for contributing, just let me know. (I'll update this list with status changes as needed.)
  • Rest Day, Monday, July 12: Morzine-Avoriaz
    The first of two rest days. I'm thinking this might be a good time for a recap. But then, the racers will still ride on the rest days to make sure their bodies stay in rhythm. In other words, I'm open to proposals.

  • Stage 9, Tuesday, July 13: Morzine-Avoriaz > Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne (204.5 km)
    A second day in the high Alps, passing through the heart of the Savoie and, though never crossing the border into Italy, the Val d'Aoste will never be far from hand.
    Status: taken.

  • Stage 10, Wednesday, July 14: Chambéry > Gap (179 km)
    It's Bastille Day and the riders will bid adieu to the Alps. Beginning in Savoie, the riders will also leave wine country, skirting the mountains to their east on a path through the Val d'Isère (Rhône Alps). Sorry, no l'Alpe d'Huez this year. A good day for cheese, perhaps?
    Status: spoken for.

  • Stage 11, Thursday, July 15: Sisteron > Bourg-lès-Valence (184.5 km)
    Another stage that skirts both the mountains and, largely, wine country. The last third of the stage, however, will bring the riders within distant sight of Mont Ventoux (no ascent of Mont V this year, either) and the northeastern portions of the Côtes du Rhône.
    Status: reserved.

  • Stage 12, Friday, July 16: Bourg-de-Péage > Mende (210.5 km)
    A tough day, most likely one for the hard men of the Tour rather than the pure climbers, that will see the peloton travers the Rhône, passing very close to the Northern Rhône towns of Cornas and Saint-Péray.

  • Stage 13, Saturday, July 17: Rodez > Revel (196 km)
    Perhaps a day for an unknown rider to take his chance, or for a small breakaway to succeed, Stage 13 begins in Rodez, minutes away from Marcillac, and will pass through the Aveyron and Tarn (quite close to Gaillac) — the eastern core of Southwest France.
    Status: taken.

  • Stage 14, Sunday, July 18: Revel > Ax 3 Domaines (184.5 km)
    The first of several hard days in the French Pyrenées, Stage 14 runs through the interior portions of the Languedoc and Roussillon, passing quite close to Limoux en route. Anyone care to make an argument for sparkling wine primacy?

  • Stage 15, Monday, July 19: Pamiers > Bagnères-de-Luchon (187.5 km)
    Day two in the French Pyrenées runs through a bit of a vinous no-man's-land. Check out the map and give it your geekiest best.

  • Stage 16, Tuesday, July 20: Bagnères-de-Luchon > Pau (199.5 km)
    More of the Pyrenées. After two 1st Category climbs and two Beyond Category climbs, including the first of two passes of the Col de Tourmalet, the day ends with a descent into Pau, at the heart of Jurançon country.
    Status: covered.

  • Rest Day, Wednesday, July 21: Pau
    Rest day number two most likely means recap number two, unless someone has a brighter idea (see rest day one, above).

  • Stage 17, Thursday, July 22: Pau > Col du Tourmalet (174 km)
    The final day in the Pyrenées, finishing atop the feared Col du Tourmalet, more or less doubles back along the path of Stage 16. Even more Jurançon? We're not terribly far from Madiran. For that matter, you can be sure plenty citizens of the Basque country will be border hopping to catch the day's action.
    Status: locked.

  • Stage 18, Friday, July 23: Salies-de-Béarn > Bordeaux (198 km)
    A classic stage for the sprinters. The action begins in the Béarn, passes not terribly far east of Irouléguy and, or course, ends you know where....

  • Stage 19, Saturday, July 24: Bordeaux > Pauillac (52 km)
    The only long time trial stage in this year's Tour. The race of truth. Starting in the big city center of France's most trumpeted wine region and ending in the tiny but most important village of Pauillac.
    Status: Robert Parker's already signed on for this one but I'll happily bump him from his spot if someone else is interested.

  • Stage 20, Sunday, July 25: Longjumeau > Paris Champs-Élysées (102.5 km)
    The grand spectacle of the final day's finish on the cobbled streets in the shadow of l'Arc de Triomphe. Who'll be watching on the big screen TV from their favorite Paris wine bar?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

There's a Method in the Orangeness

Using Paris wine bar culture as his mise-en-scène, Thor has written a forceful piece on the encroaching, seemingly self-imposed ghettoization of the natural wine movement. It's his contribution to 32 Days of Natural Wine, and it's a dense and weighty one, so make sure to allow yourself a meaningful chunk of time to work through it (if you haven't done so already). It'll be time well spent.

In a much lighter sense, my friend Jeremy and I seem to have formed our own little accidental ghetto, drinking and writing about (or around) the same wines at roughly the same time with pleasantly surprising yet entirely random frequency. In yesterday's post about a new sushi spot in Austin, TX, he poured the very same wine I'd hoped to write about yesterday. Time got away from me then, so here ya go....

One of these days, we'll actually have to open a bottle together, pal.

Umbria Bianco IGT "Santa Chiara," Paolo Bea 2008
$45. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York, NY.
Bea's "Santa Chiara" makes for a fantastic introduction (initiation, if you prefer) to the world of so-called orange wine. It's a blend of six twenties — 20% Grechetto, 20% Malvasia, 20% Sauvignon, 20% Garganega and 20% Chardonnay, all fermented on their skins for 20 days. The end result is a wine both bracingly tannic and immensely savory. A perfect choice for inclusion in a course on white wine and structure. One could make an argument that it's also an example of technique trumping terroir, but a case could just as easily be made to the contrary.

In either case, the results speak for themselves, as the wine is not just intensely structured but also downright delicious. Sticking my nose in the glass conjured up one of those unmistakable if distant scent-triggered memories — of a gas station at the sea shore, with diesel/feusal scents offering counterpoint to aromas of fresh, salty sea air. Compelling juice, indeed.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Notes from a Sunday: A Wicked Pair of 2005s

Just some thoughts on a couple of great reds for today, enjoyed among friends with supper on a recent Sunday.

Arbois Pupillin (Ploussard), Maison Pierre Overnoy (Emmanuel Houillon) 2005
~$35. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
There are a good deal of differing opinions in the thread on this one at Wine Disorder (no surprise there), with some finding Houillon's '05 Poulsard spot on, others too young, and yet others oxidized or simply not happening. The winemaker himself was apparently less than thrilled with the 2005 vintage for his red, which went through an uncommonly long fermentation (don't know exactly how long). Even so, it sounds to me like there's a rash of bottle variation and/or poorly handled bottles floating around.

On the night in question, this particular bottle was a pure joy to drink. Insanely direct, tangy and full of mouthwatering red sour patch fruit. This is not about complexity at the moment; rather, it's all about the moment itself. Shining its usual, beautiful green-tinged rose petal color, I could have drunk it all night and been very happy. There were other things waiting, though...

Morey Saint Denis "Vieilles Vignes," Jacky Truchot 2005
~$45 on release. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA
This was rich by Truchot's standards of delicacy and transparency, showing the concentration of the 2005 vintage as well as plenty of promise. Here, though, was the painful youth. It was hard not to like, with its finely detailed fruit and balance, but this one's really needing and deserving several more years of cool, dark slumber. Luckily (for him and occasionally for me), my friend Bill seems to have a near endless stash of Truchot lurking about his various wine nooks. And no, I won't tell you where he lives.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

One Week 'til Le Tour... and You're All Invited

Just one week from today, the professional cyclists participating in the 97th edition of Le Tour de France will begin their trek, clockwise this year, around the French hexagon.

As quietly threatened not long ago, I intend to do my utmost to deliver daily coverage of the race (not too much detail, there are cycling-specific sites out there for that), centered around the wine, beverage and/or food culture of the area through which each of the 21 stages (plus two rest days) of the race passes.

I'm fully primed to carry the lion's share of the workload myself. However, knowing my own weaknesses, and based on past attempts — always failed — to post every day for a month, I'd be more than glad to hear from any of my readers, wine bloggers or not, who would be interested in guest posting for a stage. It'll certainly be a plus if you're a cycling fan but it's not a prerequisite for participation.

While this may seem a rather straightforward endeavor, bear in mind that, as important a wine producing country as France is, there are fairly large portions of the country where viticulture is either nonexistent or relatively marginal. Making matters more challenging, the first four days of the 2010 edition of Le Tour are being staged not in France but in the Netherlands and Belgium (beer buddies and cheese heads, heed the call). In some cases, creativity will be necessary.

Before I get too deep into suggesting (or even doling out) assignments, I'll give the die hards out there a day or two to ante up on their own. If you'd like to do a little research, here's a link to the map and basic details of this year's course. And if you need a little inspiration, by all means check out Robert Camuto's guest post from last year's edition of Le Tour.

If you have questions or would like to sign-on, feel free to hit the comments or to write to me via the email address you'll find under the "Contact" heading in the left sidebar on the blog. Here's hoping at least a few folks will jump in the saddle without me having to chase them down.

And here's a re-conceptualization of an old classic from Kraftwerk to get you all in the mood.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

One Minerally Little Rascal

During my recent trip to Piemonte, I spent a lovely Sunday afternoon with three generations of the Almondo family at their estate in Montà d'Alba, at the heart of the Roero. (Full details to come somewhere further down the pipeline.)

One of the revelations of that visit was the opportunity to drink one of the Almondo's examples of Roero Arneis with some bottle age. There was a 2005 that, regrettably, showed a very subtle trace of TCA-taint but in which fresh fruit and structure could still be detected. Putting that bottle aside, then realizing upon a return trip to the family cellar that there were few if any bottles of it left, a 2007 emerged, was uncorked and proved to be absolutely vibrant.

Obviously, we're not talking about anything crazy old here. Arneis, though, is one of those varieties where common wisdom dictates that you should always look for the freshest possible bottle from the youngest possible of current vintages. For Almondo, at the moment, that would be 2009. But here were two bottles at two+ and four+ years of age: one that showed great and one, in the unlucky case, that seemed like it would have showed great. A perfect example of how a talented farmer and producer, with solid terroir, can rise above the norm. I took that example as inspiration to partake of a bottle earlier this week.

Roero Arneis "Bricco delle Ciliegie," Giovanni Almondo 2008
$25. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
The most mineral intense white I've had in quite some time. And no, I'm not suddenly sneaking a Muscadet, a Saar Riesling, a Savennières or Chablis into a post about Piedmont. I'm talking about Giovanni and Domenico Almondo's Roero Arneis from the single vineyard called "Bricco delle Ciliegie" (hillside of the cherries).

Funny I should list all those names, though, because on the nose this Arneis was quite reminiscent of good Muscadet — a little leesy, very mineral and delectably saline. Yes, I know salt in and of itself has no aroma, but this was definitely and distinctly salty. Margarita with lime salty, and mouthwateringly tasty. With food, its inner marrow emerged, as did a clearer glimpse of its delicate pear and apple fruitiness. Three or four days later, what was left in the bottle had taken on greater fruit, rounder texture, a kind of bitter lemon finish. Less salty but still distinctly mineral and refreshing.

The 2008 may be tough to come by at this point but the 2009 should be reasonably widely available. Grab a bottle or three should the above detail grab you (or check out the Almondo props from Old World Joe should you need further convincing). And don't be afraid to hold onto some for a wee while. I'm glad I did.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Modern, Post-Fluxus, Alto Pig

The drive to New York from Philadelphia takes about two hours, traffic demons willing. Amtrak makes it a tad quicker and a load more relaxing but, as with most things that are too good to be true, it's special occasion or expense account pricey. The SEPTA/NJ Transit combo should be the ticket, but from outside the city it involves multiple connections — and SEPTA's late night service is all but nonexistent. There's always the option of driving from Philly to, say, Trenton, then taking NJ Transit into Manhattan....

The invitation came just a few days ahead of time. It took me the better part of those few days but finally, tired of letting myself find excuses, justifications, reasons not to go, I went. To New York. For a pig roast. Does there really need to be a more "important" impetus?

With the pig as primal calling, and given that the pig in question was to be found just around the corner from 53rd and 5th Avenue, I figured I'd head straight off the train for Midtown, even if I was five hours early. Just enough time to do a couple of things I'd been meaning to do for far too long.

First up: lunch at the bar in the loosely Alsatian-themed restaurant The Modern, set adjacent to the lower corner of the no-longer-new home of the MOMA. My first and last visit to The Modern, several years back, not long after its opening, had showed a good deal of potential but had been marred by awkward service — very much not a Danny Meyer hallmark — and a couple of dishes that were less than inspiring.

This time around, the food — not that it's entirely reasonable to judge based on only a couple of dishes — seemed to have found more solid footing. A seasonal salad of shaved asparagus, fava beans and Westfield Farm goat cheese provided a refreshing kick to the appetite, while a slightly larger plate of grilled yellowfin tuna, served with a wedge of preserved lemon and a couple of crispy veal sweetbread nuggets, was cooked perfectly and quite flavorful, even if a little heavy-handed on the seasoning front.

Last trip, I'd visited for dinner and ordered a bottle — of Riesling from Albert Mann, if memory serves — from The Modern's fairly formidable list of Alsace offerings. Lunchtime called for something more modest, though, which regrettably had to be culled from a far less inspired list of wines by the glass. Only one option really jumped out at me, the Crémant d'Alsace "Émotion" NV from Domaine l'Agapé, which turned out to be imported by Savio Soares Selections, a factoid that was unbeknown to me at the time of ordering. It also turned out to be quite delicious: generously creamy, direct yet elegant, concentrated yet lithe, bready and amply fruity, with just a touch of earthy funk on the finish. Not a bad start.

Next up: a walk out the front door of The Modern, twenty paces to the right, and a turn in through the front door of the MOMA. I find it hard to believe of myself that I had yet to visit the Museum of Modern Art since it took up its new residence just west of 53rd and 5th back in 2004. That definitely needed to be rectified.

I went to the MOMA and all I got was this lousy photograph.

Seriously, though, I took a picture of this seemingly innocuous poster because I liked the way the neon Picasso sculpture, hanging on the opposite wall within the current Fluxus exhibit, was reflected in its glass, and the fact that it featured saxophonist Peter Brötzmann who, 47 years later, still plays regularly in the Philadelphia area, courtesy of the Ars Nova Workshop.

I took a fairly random approach to my visit, simply winding my way from room to room, floor to floor. As good a way as any to get a feel for the new digs, I figured, which turned out to be very much to my liking. Nice flow, yet not without some peculiar nooks and crannies; good feel and space; very much in keeping with the scope of oeuvres within its walls.

Untitled #153, Cindy Sherman.
Image courtesy of Masters of Photography.

I was reminded of how naturally amazing were the works of Picasso. I was turned on in a thoughtfully provocative sense by Louise Bourgeois' textile collage called "Ode à l'Oubli." Looking at a single piece in the installation "The Modern Myth," I had to ask myself why I like Joseph Beuys, then I walked into a whole room of his work, contained within the Museum's permanent collection, and remembered. I remembered how much I like the works of Mark Rothko, and of how no one ever seems to remember him for the works he did aside from his large color-block canvases. I was struck by how important and influential are the works of Jasper Johns, even though they don't really move me; I remembered that I plain don't enjoy the works of his contemporary, Frank Stella. And I was reminded of just how startlingly beautiful the photography of Cindy Sherman can be, how her work intentionally manipulates lighting, setting, subject matter and exposure to create jarring surrealism from what is actually extreme realism. Most of all, I was reminded that I really do need to see art more often.

Last stop: the pig.

The pig roast in question was at Alto, where I'd been invited by Sommelier Levi Dalton. Levi had called together a group of friends from the trade to help him drink some wine, eat some friggin' amazingly good roast pork, and have an all around good time.

Silvia Altare was the guest of honor, the de facto impetus behind the night's gathering. Given the constant entourage of Skurnik-ites that surrounded her throughout the evening, the old make eye contact and give a nod was about as close as I ever got to hello how are you. That and drinking a glass or two of her Dolcetto and Barbera, which flowed fairly freely throughout the party. (De-incriminated photo courtesy of Levi D.)

If you want the scoop on the rest of the wines being passed 'round the patio, head on over to Brooklynguy's report of the proceedings. While I can concur that the 1989 Sancerre "Les Monts Damnés" from François Cotat was indeed a most excellent expression of honey-coated mineral goodness, I was so engrossed in conversation and that pig — oh, that pig — that I missed out on most of the other goodies. The pig doesn't appear to be on Alto's regular menu but I'm guessing it runs as a special from time to time or could be ordered in advance for a reasonably sized party.

I must have taken somewhere on the order of 173 photos of Levi Dalton (pictured at left above, along with Chris Hallowell of Wine & Spirits Magazine) but this is as close as I could get to capturing him with his eyes open. The guy in the upper right corner was obviously wondering what the #%*& I was doing....

I already knew what a good guy Levi was. Heck, last time I saw him he bought me a root beer. And now roast pork and Piemontese vino.... I had no idea, though, at least not until yesterday, that he's also a gifted writer. You won't want to miss his contribution, entitled Geraldine's, to 32 Days of Natural Wine.

It's something I really should do more often. Take the day trip to New York, I mean, pig roast and Barolo or no.

The Modern
9 W 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 333-1220
The Modern on Urbanspoon

11 E 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022
(212) 308-1099
Alto on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 21, 2010

Diebolt-Vallois Brut "Tradition"

When last I wrote about one of the wines of Jacques Diebolt, I brought attention to something I'd only recently taken notice of: a lot number of sorts that now appears in the lower right corner of the front label on all of the cuvées sans années that Jacques produces at his Cramant-based estate, Diebolt-Vallois. (You'll find another example in the picture at right.) At the time, I hypothesized that the code was most likely a reference either to the primary vintage included in the blend or to the year in which the bottle was disgorged.

This time around I didn't want to take a guess, so I went straight to the source. Not to Monsieur Diebolt, no my French just isn't that good and I hate to rely on Google Translate unless I really have to, but rather to Peter Liem.

In addition to authoring the invaluable site, Peter is a big fan of Diebolt-Vallois and, I believe, a good friend of Jacques. My gut didn't let me down (even though both of my guesses turned out to be wrong), as Peter responded to my query post-haste, letting me know that the code in fact refers to the date of tirage — when the finished still wine is placed in bottle, along with the addition of the liqueur de tirage, for commencement of its in-bottle second fermentation. Using just a year for the code may seem a bit vague but, in this case, it's enough to indicate that the wine in the bottle is most likely based primarily on the previous year's vintage. I'd still love to see a disgorgement date printed on the label as well, but the tirage info is certainly better than none at all.

Champagne Brut "Tradition," Diebolt-Vallois NV
$43. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Delicately creamy and bursting with fresh red fruits (cherry, raspberry and plum). As with all of the wines from Diebolt-Vallois, this bottle was defined by its elegance, focus and, above all, drinkability. Even though its price has crept into the $40s in the last few years, it still represents excellent value.

My notes from a 2004 visit at Diebolt-Vallois indicate that the cuvée "Tradition" we tasted from vat at that time was a black fruit dominated blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay. The wine had a distinct richness and creaminess of texture, perhaps unsurprising given that the wine we tasted from tank on that trip was based largely on the hot, dry 2003 growing season. That creaminess has been a continuous hallmark of the wine, even in many of the subsequent releases that contained a more "typical" blend featuring a higher percentage of Chardonnay and lower quantity of Meunier.

As it happens, the '07 tirage that I enjoyed recently actually marked a return of sorts to a blend like that I'd tasted in 2004, as it is only 25% Chardonnay against 75% Pinots N and M. Thanks to Peter's site (Thanks, Peter!), I can also tell you that the '07 tirage was based entirely on wine from the 2006 vintage. The '08 tirage, which is already available on the European market, apparently marks a return to a more typical blend of grapes (approximately 50PN/40C/10PM) and utilization of reserve wines from vintages in addition to the 2007 base.

The real reason I'm loading you up with all of this technical detail and incantation of encépagement is to point out that I was wrong. And that I am happy to have found myself wrong. When I wrote up that 2004 trip to see Diebolt (it was among the first posts I wrote here at MFWT), I had this to say:
Like at the big Champagne houses, the non-vintage cuvées at Diebolt are made according to a house style. Consistency of flavor is sought from year to year, from bottling to bottling, making the job of the master blender – Jacques himself in this case – of utmost importance.

I'd already been a wine connoisseur for the better part of two decades, and worked in the trade for the better part of one, and I still believed in this widely held principle, one that I now know to be very much not the case. Producers like Diebolt may and do indeed strive to maintain consistency of quality and expression of terroir, but there's no question that their non-vintage cuvées change and morph over time in respect to their unspoken contents.

One of the great joys of wine is that its exploration represents a continuous learning process. There's always a beginning to the journey but, unless you choose to stop it intentionally, there's never an end, at least not short of the grave. One of my coworkers likes to say, and I heartily concur, "There's no such thing as a wine expert. Only beginners and amateurs."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sulfur Says What?

We'd opened a bottle earlier in the day, after some customers had apparently complained of the wine "getting weird." Sure enough, it had gone into a reductive state, even after well over a year under pseudo-cork, and showing just fine through most of that time. Now the fruit and pepperiness was still there, but masked by a top layer of smoked rubber. I tried an old test, dropping an old penny -- one that actually had some copper in it -- into the glass. Sure enough, the fruit came more to the fore, the smoky funk receded. The pseudo-scientist in me (with all due respect to JDH at Rational Denial, HK) just had to open another bottle, one that had been hangin' in my cellar for a little while, at home that night....

Côtes du Rhône "Bout d'Zan," Mas de Libian 2008
$15. 14.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
This bottle was reductive, too; less so, but still reductive. I found it pleasant enough on night one; slightly peppery, as suggested above, and firm in its brambly, berry fruit. Over the course of a glass, it opened and continued to show better. It was a light night, so I jammed the stopper back in the bottle with plenty left to go. Left it on the kitchen counter, ambient room temperature. Nothing more.

It was a rather hectic week, so I didn't get back to it until three days later. No more signs of reducto-funk, just bright red fruit. Snappy, spicy and juicy. Another long day had led to another short pour of a night, so back went the foamy plug and back went the wine to its same place on the counter top. The week continued in course. Last minute, spur of the moment trips; double-shift tasting events....

Three days later, I pulled that stopper again. My hopes weren't high. Few wines will stand up to a near week's worth of air in a decreasingly full bottle. I pulled the plug and sniffed the aperture. The more than half expected whiff of salad dressing met my nose. I poured anyway, knowing that -- in that pseudo-scientific way -- the more volatile nature of airspace aromas can sometimes belie what lurks beneath. Lo and behold, the wine was still bordering on delicious, certainly far more than drinkable, by any standard.

Who cares, you say? What's the point? Well, Hélène Thibon, along with the rest of her family at the Mas de Libian, produced "Bout d'Zan," a co-fermented Grenache/Syrah blend from the Ardèche, using no sulfur, neither in the vineyard nor during vinification. If you want more tech notes than that, you'll find them at Mas de Libian's website. Conventional wisdom would have it that this wine should have stood little chance of showing as it did, even three days after being opened, much less after a week.

The reduction? That's another issue, and I can't help but wonder if the closure choice (Nomacorc) might have something to do with it. As it emerged only after a fairly significant amount of time in the bottle, I'll be curious to see if it doesn't also recede given a little more time. Problem is, though, I'm not sure I have another bottle....

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A First Look at La Clarine Farm

Between Eric Asimov's recent post describing his personal take on just what desbribes "natural wine," yesterday's post at Do Bianchi and any number of other recent mentions around the vInternet, there's a whole lotta lovin' going on right now for the wines being produced by Hank Beckmeyer at La Clarine Farm.

I finally had my first chance to sit down with a couple of Hank's wines over dinner this past weekend. By night's end, I eventually pushed myself back from the table both pleased (quite, I might add) and intrigued.

The artwork for the La Clarine Farm label was done by Jad Fair, co-founder (with brother David Fair) of the band Half Japanese.

Sierra Foothills White Wine, La Clarine Farm 2009
$18. 13.6% alcohol. Vinolok (Vino-seal).
La Clarine's 2009 Rhône-style blend turned out to be one of the hits of a pretty formidable lineup. It displayed a rich texture without any of the overt creaminess or heaviness that often define such blends. Though it might not be a sure turn-on for the acid freaks out there, it does have just enough balance of underlying acidity to provide lift to the density of its fruit. Over the course of our enjoyment of the wine, my notes included descriptors such as beeswax coated apples, pear tarte tatin, mint and orange blossoms.... Suffice it to say it was friggin' delicious, especially alongside a plate of courtbouillon-poached cod served with a salad of sliced cherry tomatoes and roasted corn.

The wine is a co-fermented blend of Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne (49/48/3%, respectively, for those who fixate on such things), produced from fruit that Hank sources from two vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley district of Amador County, California. You'll find the rest of the tech specs on the La Clarine website.

Normally, were I browsing the shelves in search of something new or unfamiliar to me, the "Vinted and Bottled by" nomenclature that appears on this wine's label would send me running, as it tends to suggest a lack of direct involvement by the person or entity whose name appears on the label. In this case, I purchased the wine sight unseen, so the "Vinted" stuff ("vinted" is not even a real word, dammit) came as a surprise. I reached out to Hank for an explanation and he let me know that, in this case, it's simply a legal labeling requirement as the wine was not only made from purchased fruit but also "vinted," by Hank himself, at a winery other than his own.

Hank also produced, for the first time in 2009, a white wine that underwent extended skin contact during fermentation and maceration. His Viognier "Orange" shows intrigue and promise; full details, though, will have to wait 'til a later date.

It should be noted that La Clarine Farm is not only a winery but also a full, functioning farm, situated on a total of ten acres. In addition to their vines (red wine grapes only), they raise goats for the production of goat's milk cheese.

Hank's approach in both the vineyards and winery is quite natural-leaning; it also seems highly intuitive, tied closely to the sense of aesthetics and energies that inform his overall interests, not just his wine. In an e-mail exchange yesterday (which reminded me very much of a recent post from Brooklynguy), Hank described his approach like this:
In a sense, all of my winemaking is like a musical improvisation. In the case of my syrah and mourvedre, it's a collaborative improv with another grower's grapes. For my home vineyard, it's like I get to choose the musicians and they get to choose the tune. In all cases, the vintage season dictates the form. [Of course,] some improvs are more successful than others.

As John Lennon said, "I'm a musician. Give me a tuba and I'll get something interesting from it."

The whole musical comparison is entirely apt, especially given Hank's musical past, something that I wasn't even aware of until another separate and distinct conversation (via Twitter, of all things) that preceded all of the above interchanges. Turns out Hank played for a short while with Half Japanese, a band I saw regularly during my formative years in the DC area. His stint with the group came after my time, but the band's approach always closely mirrored that which Hank pursues in his own current endeavors.

For more on Hank Beckmeyer and La Clarine Farm, be sure to tune into Saignée this Saturday, when Cory Cartwright's piece on La Clarine will be the lead-off for 32 Days of Natural Wine.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Elvio Cogno, Novello

Each afternoon throughout Nebbiolo Prima, following the big morning tastings and a quick lunch, attendees had the opportunity to visit one winery, selected from amongst a number of regional producers participating in the daily event program. From the options for day one, I selected the Novello-based estate of Elvio Cogno, a producer whose wines I'd been wanting to get to know better. What better way than going straight to the source?

It was a beautifully warm, sunny day in the Langhe. As we pulled into the driveway at the Elvio Cogno estate, a couple of us were quite tempted to forgo the customary tasting in favor of a dip in the family's infinity pool.

Any thoughts of a dip in the pool were quickly put aside as current winemaker Valter Fissore and his wife Nadia Cogno (Elvio's daughter) emerged and talked to us a bit about the general lay of the land surrounding their winery. With eleven hectares under vine, the winery sits atop the Bricco Ravera hill, just outside of Novello. The Cogno family has been making wine in the Langhe for four generations. The history of the estate itself, though, is relatively recent, going back just to 1990, when Elvio Cogno left his partnership position at Marcarini to purchase land and establish his own estate.

The hilltop town of Novello, with the Maritime Alps in the background — the view to the south from Cogno's patio.

After the quick geography lesson, it was straight to the winery tasting room, where Valter Fissore led us through the entire slate of wines he produces.

  1. Langhe Bianco "Anas-Cëtta," Elvio Cogno 2009
    I think it's fair to say that Cogno's example of Nascetta, a relatively obscure vine indigenous to the Langhe, is one of the best known. Of the 4.5 hectares of Nascetta planted in Novello, 1.5 belong to Cogno, and they've produced this bottling, called "Anas-Cëtta," every year since 1994. Varietal examples of Nascetta such as this were admitted to the DOC discipline under the umbrella Langhe Bianco designation beginning in 2004. As of the 2010 vintage, Nascetta will have its own DOC: Langhe Nascetta.

    After a one-day cold maceration, Cogno's Nascetta begins its fermentation on native yeasts in steel tanks. After a short period, 30% of the wine is moved to old barriques for completion of its primary fermentation. After six months on the lees, including batonnage, the two batches are remarried and allowed to integrate in tank prior to bottling. In the 2009 vintage, about 30-40% of the wine went through malolactic fermentation. The end result is a wine of medium body and medium acidity, full of pear fruit and a dash of white pepper, and with a very distinct nose of mustard seed, goldenrod and freshly baked whole wheat bread.

    Valter Fissore in the tasting room.

  2. Barbera d'Alba "Bricco dei Merli," Elvio Cogno 2007
    The Bricco dei Merli (vineyard of the blackbird) is a 1.8 hectare parcel located just down the hill from the winery. Amazingly, 30-40% of the fruit comes from 150 year-old, pre-phylloxera "pied franco" vines. The wine is aged for one year in a mixture of new, large casks (new casks here always see Barbera first, before being used for Nebbiolo) and older barriques (which are currently being phased out at the estate).

    When first poured, the '07 showed very ripe, slightly pruned fruit. As it opened, though, the wine became fresher and, for this taster, much more delicious. Rich yet nervous, full of fresh blueberry and boysenberry fruit.

  3. Langhe Rosso "Montegrilli," Elvio Cogno 2007
    Speaking with Valter, it's clear that "Montegrilli" is his wine — "mio vino," in his words. It is a 50/50 blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo, co-fermented in steel then aged for about a year in 2nd, 3rd and 4th passage barriques. The Nebbiolo in the blend comes from the best of Valter's young Barolo vines where the fruit ripens early enough to be picked simultaneously and co-fermented with the generally earlier ripening Barbera. The wine shows lovely, opulent aromas, brimming with 2007 character (ripe and forward). It drinks much like the Barbera "Bricco dei Merli" but with sterner aromas, firmer structure and more evident minerality.

  4. Langhe Rosso "Montegrilli," Elvio Cogno 2008
    If the 2007 version was Valter's wine, the 2008 is clearly Valter's joy. He calls it his Gevrey-Chambertin. The '08 was produced with the same general disciplines as the '07 but saw a less intensive oak treatment, being aged in botti rather than barriques. Bottled only one month prior to our visit, it was already showing beautifully, with very elegant structure and red-fruited and floral aromatics. Fantastically drinkable.

  5. Barbaresco, Elvio Cogno 2006
    Barbaresco is a new venture at Cogno, produced from a leased 0.6 hectare vineyard of 20-30 year-old Nebbiolo vines in the Montesommo cru of Neive. After a 20-day maceration and fermentation with a submerged cap, the wine spent a little over a year in casks of Slovenian oak before bottling. Very nice if somewhat simple in character, this, like the preceding "Montegrilli," was defined primarily by its elegance, putting it in stark contrast with the majority of 2007 Barbaresci I'd tasted earlier in the morning.

  6. Barolo "Cascina Nuova," Elvio Cogno 2006
    Yielding from young vines (6-12 years) in Novello, "Cascina Nuova" is the most approachable and value-oriented of the four Baroli produced at Cogno. Quite elegant, delicate and fresh in style. It ages for two years in large casks, followed by six months of bottle age.

    The squared-off inox tanks used at Elvio Cogno were designed not only to optimize use of space (think about the shape of boxed wine vs. bottled wine in a shipping container or on the shelf) but also to facilitate the submerged cap method of maceration that Valter favors.

  7. Barolo "Ravera," Elvio Cogno 2006
    "Ravera" is a south-facing single vineyard cru of 4.8 hectares situated in Novello. Cogno's 2006, produced specifically from the michet and lampia clones of Nebbiolo, underwent approximately 40 days of maceration, with pump-over for the first 10-12 days followed by 25-30 days with a submerged cap. It was then finished with 24 months aging in botti. Very young, forceful and somewhat closed at present, but very promising.

  8. Barolo "Bricco Pernice," Elvio Cogno 2005
    Another new wine at the estate, "Bricco Pernice" is a two-hectare plot within the cru of Ravera that is planted entirely to the lampia sub-variety of Nebbiolo, with vines ranging from 10-50 years of age. Its name refers to the prevalence of partridges in the area. After a 30-day submerged cap maceration, it spent 30 months in new-to-Nebbiolo casks (used once previously for Barbera, which takes more kindly to entirely new oak per Valter) and another 12 months in bottle prior to release. Riper and with a more baked-fruit aromatic profile than "Ravera" or "Cascina Nuova." Very well done.

  9. Barolo "Vigna Elena," Elvio Cogno 1999
    First produced in the 1997 vintage, "Vigna Elena" is named after Valter's daughter who, at age three, drew the picture that has since become the label art for this cuvée. Now nineteen, Elena is a graphic artist whose more recent work includes the label art for "Bricco Pernice."

    The wine comes from a one-hectare vineyard of 29 year-old vines. It's produced entirely from the rosé clone of Nebbiolo, of which Valter is a particular champion in spite of it fairly widely being considered an "inferior" sub-variety. As Valter explains, for this cuvée, which he produces only in exceptional vintages, he's looking for a Burgundian sense of elegance, not power. At eleven years of age, it's showing the encroachment of some maturity along with lovely aromatic development yet is still very, very young tasting. There's a whiff of brett but just enough to add some sauvage interest to the wine's overall character. Oh yeah, the technical stuff: 30-day submerged cap maceration, 36 months in 40 hectoliter casks of Slavonian oak and 12 months of bottle age prior to commercialization.

  10. Barolo "Ravera," Elvio Cogno 2001
    Valter was particularly keen to show us his 2001 "Ravera" as it had been selected as the top wine out of twelve 2001 Baroli tasted as part of a Decanter master class on the day prior to our visit. The 2001, aged for one year in tonneaux followed by another in botti, showed a more overt wood influence than its younger counterpart from 2006. It handled that wood with no problem, though, exuding a ripe, dark and beautiful nose full of menthol, teak and dark, spicy fruit. Firm, dusty tannins brought it all together on the palate. Very fresh in color and aroma, this should have a long life ahead of it.

After our tasting, Valter led our small group on a quick tour of the family's recently expanded and renovated winery. Undertaking such work in Piedmont, in Italy in general, takes patience beyond the realm of virtue and into that of absolute requirement. Obtaining the necessary work permits and designing all exterior aspects according to historical specifications often makes such projects take years.

At Cogno, that combination of patience and diligent work have paid dividends in the form of a lovely winery space, not overly large but with enough space to allow for plenty of bottle storage and to facilitate comfortable and efficient work flow, from vinification through barrel aging and on to bottling.

As you'll have surmised if you made it through the technical aspects of the above tasting notes, a variety of shapes, sizes and sources of oak wine vessels are utilized at Cogno, ranging from barriques through the foudres and large casks shown in the above picture above. As it seems is the case at so many producers throughout the Langhe at the moment, Valter is moving more and more away from the use of barriques and more toward medium- to large-scale wood.

Valter has come up with a pretty tidy solution for dealing with those small barrels as they rotate out of the production cycle. Barrique stave fencing, anyone?

Some might view that shift as a step away from modernism and more toward the centrist position on the Piemontese stylistic spectrum. More cynical minds might look at it as following fashion. To me, having visited and gotten a closer understanding of the wines, it seems first and foremost a natural step in the ongoing and ever changing, ever cyclical efforts of a man trying to make the best wine possible from what nature has provided.

In closing, this shot goes out to all the friends and associates I've annoyed (and have yet to annoy) by publishing photos of them here at MFWT over the years. That's me with Valter, the Langhe hills rolling to the horizon.

Elvio Cogno
Località Ravera, 2
12060 Novello (CN)
Tel. +39 0173 744006

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pinot Noir de la Loire

I trust you'll all forgive me for taking a short break from Piedmont coverage. Since I returned home, I've been mixing things up a good bit (not a drop of Nebbiolo yet!) and thought I'd put in a good word for a truly pretty red from the Upper Loire that crossed my table earlier this week.

With apologies to the label designer and M. Boulay, those blasted oversized bottles (this isn't one of them) really do a number on other bottles' labels when they're squeezed into cellar bins that were never meant to accommodate their impressive girth.

Sancerre Rouge, Gérard Boulay 2007
$27. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Thomas Calder Selection, Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
When last I wrote about Gérard Boulay, I mentioned that startlingly little information is available on the web regarding the man and his wines. Given that, perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that my write-up of his '06 Sancerre rouge has proven to be one of the most frequently stumbled upon posts here at MFWT over the last year. I popped a bottle of his '07 Sancerre rouge a few days back and, though it may not have been quite so vividly fine as the '06, it was immensely pleasurable. Full of oh-so-pretty red fruit (sweet, with just the slightest suggestion of tart) and lively acidity, surprisingly forward yet finishing with a delectable nuance of bright minerality. Very food friendly and very, very approachable, it's hard to pass up right now though I suspect it will also prove interesting with a few years of rest in the cellar.

The title of today's post includes an intentional play on words on my part. Rhyming aside, it's meant to evoke the name of what's arguably the Loire's greatest wine grape, Chenin Blanc, which is locally known as Pineau de la Loire.

Though it will come as no surprise to many of you that are well versed in the lore of the Loire, as a wine retailer, I meet wine lovers everyday, at a variety of interest and knowledge levels, who are stunned to find that such a thing as red (and/or rosé) Sancerre exists. When, in answer to the inevitable question, I tell them it's produced from Pinot Noir, the response is most often one of pleasant surprise. And the most common question: what's it like?

Well, I don't sell this one but, if I did, my response should be obvious from the quick description above. Delicious. While it's considerably more expensive here on the east coast than on the west, Gérard Boulay's version is still a sound value at its price point in the $30 range, and very much worth seeking out.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Carne Cruda and Movia Puro at Enoclub in Alba

After three straight days of plodding through buffet lunches in a subterranean cafeteria following the morning tastings at Nebbiolo Prima, time for the post-tasting repast on the ultimate day of the event absolutely called for a break-out. With one of Alba's main squares only a short walk from the event headquarters and with the sun shining brightly on a late spring afternoon, al fresco dining seemed like just the thing. And my co-conspirators and I knew just the place.

We'd already stopped at Enoclub, located on the south side of Alba's Piazza Savona along with its sister restaurant/enoteca Caffè Umberto, for late night refreshments earlier in the trip. Enoclub's cafe tables, its eclectic, reasonably priced wine list and the promise of a satisfying lunch beckoned our return. Boy, am I glad we heeded the call.

And on the fourth day...
someone at Enoclub made the best damn carne cruda I've ever eaten.

As I've mentioned here before, I'm a fan of the traditional Piemontese dish, carne cruda. The rendition served at Enoclub is off-the-charts good. The full name of the dish on the menu at Enoclub is Carne cruda di vitello Fassone (macelleria Oberto di Alba). That's raw veal — Fassone is the famed Piemontese breed of cattle — from the butcher Oberto. I don't doubt that there are others, but Enoclub is the only restaurant I've visited in Piedmont that identifies the source of the meat they serve directly on their menu. I take that as a point of pride, pride that showed through in the incredible freshness and succulence of their carne cruda.

If you haven't tried carne cruda you might expect it to be rich and heavy. When done right, though, it's actually refreshingly bright and easy on the constitution. A little squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of good olive oil and man was it good. Writing about it now, I can't help dreaming of going back for seconds.

But what to drink? As much as I love Nebbiolo, I must say that after four days spent tasting 320+ examples of Nebbiolo from Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo (and that's just the morning tastings), I was ready for something of a different nature. When my companions and I spotted Movia's 2001 Puro Rosé on the list, we needed look no further.

Mauro Repetto, the talented and affable young sommelier at Enoclub, didn't flinch when we ordered a bottle of Puro to accompany our lunch. Nor did he miss a beat in disgorging our bottle — Puro is sold with the lees from its second fermentation still in the bottle — in the classic-to-Movia underwater method.

At nine years of age, the pinkness of this bottle of Puro Rosé was much more apparent in its disgorgement bath (see the third shot in the series above) than in the glass, but it was still fresh as a daisy on the palate. Its medium sparkle and crunchy texture proved a fantastic foil to the meaty savor of the carne cruda and seemed to work quite well with the rest of the plates on our table, too.

Those other plates were no slouches. The Tartare di Baccalà (at left) and Tajarin served at Enoclub were both fantastic.

While I started with carne cruda then moved on to a theoretically lighter plate of pasta with pesto and shrimp, my buddy and fellow Nebbiolo Prima attendee, Wolfgang Weber, took the opposite approach. That's him above, caught munching on a piece of focaccia (even the bread was good). Wolfgang's starter of salt cod tartare was right on, a very nice opener to his second act, an absolutely killer plate of Tajarin. A fresh, thin-cut, egg yolk-rich pasta, Tajarin is another Piemontese specialty. The rendition at Enoclub, dressed with just the right proportion of meat ragu, had me wishing I'd gone the meat and more meat route when ordering.

The new bar and ground-floor dining room at Umberto/Enoclub is quite nice, contemporary in design, bright and inviting. I'm told the original restaurant, located downstairs, is stunning, but it was closed on both of my visits. No matter, though. On this visit, eating and drinking under the sun and sky was just right.

Caffè Umberto Enoteca Ristorante
Enoclub Ristorante
Piazza Savona, 4
+39 0173 33994

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On 2006 in Barolo

After spending the first morning-and-a-half of Nebbiolo Prima surveying the 2007 vintage in Roero and Barbaresco, the final two-and-a-half days worth of big blind tasting sessions were devoted to the various communes of Barolo, largely to the 2006 growing season along with a handful of 2004 Riservas. Relative to our Barbaresco days, the challenges presented in the move to Barolo were no less daunting, the pain even more pronounced given the ever increasing muscle of the wines as we moved from the municipality of Barolo on day two through to Serralunga d'Alba on day four. Yet the overall outcome was more satisfying, more complete, more to my liking. 2006 does indeed seem poised to become a classic vintage for Barolo... but let me not get ahead of myself.

As is to be expected, some patterns did emerge over the course of the three days, especially in terms of general qualities and consistency from municipality to municipality. As in my report on Roero and Barbaresco, let's start with a list — yes, the dreaded list — of the wines that most appealed to my senses.

Barolo by Commune (and number of "normale" 2006s tasted):

Novello (7):

Barolo (43):
  • Barolo, Bartolo Mascarello 2006 (Barolo and La Morra) – wild and quite tannic, bright fruit
  • Barolo, Giorgio Scarzello e Figli 2006 – tar, dark flowers, classic color and nose
  • Barolo "Preda Sarmassa," Virna Borgogno 2006 – natty aromas, savory touch of brett, good structure and energy

La Morra (42):
  • Barolo "Rocchettevino," Gianfranco Bovio 2006 – classic color, pretty nose, sweet fruit
  • Barolo "Rocche dell'Annunziata," Rocche Costamagna 2006 – modern style, open, very well done
  • Barolo "La Serra," Bosco Agostino 2006 – ripe nose but balanced, long and textured
  • Barolo "La Serra," Eugenio Bocchino 2006 – perfumed, forward, fine structure

Verduno (6):

Castiglione Falletto (17):
  • Barolo "Rocche," Monchiero 2006 – rose, violet, tar... classic wine, cool texture
  • Barolo "Enrico VI," Cordero di Montezemolo 2006 – integrated tannins, high acid, elegant

Monforte d'Alba (36):
  • Barolo "San Pietro," Tenuta Rocca 2006 – masculine style, sweet mid-palate, grippy
  • Barolo "Bussia," Giacomo Fenocchio 2006 – compelling aromatics; long, tannic finish
  • Barolo "Big d'Big," Podere Rocche dei Manzoni 2006 – rich, modern style; good oak/fruit integration

Serralunga d'Alba (31):
  • Barolo "Serralunga," Palladino 2006 – masculine and a touch sauvage, classic Serralunga
  • Barolo "Margheria," Massolino 2006 – big and brawny but balanced, well done
  • Barolo "Cerretta," Ettore (Sergio) Germano 2006 – woody but integrated, well balanced, promising

Barolo Riserva (27 overall):
  • Barolo Riserva "Preda Sarmassa," Virna Borgogno 2004 (Barolo) – classic color and aromas, surprisingly soft, becoming
  • Barolo Riserva "Preve," Gianni Gagliardo 2004 (Monforte and Serralunga) – serious matter, rich fruit, long finish

Virna Borgogno was the only producer to have more than one wine emerge as a stand-out in my notes from the blind tastings at Nebbiolo Prima. In both cases, it was their Barolo "Preda Sarmassa," a blending of fruit from the crus of Preda and Sarmassa that is aged in a mixture of botti and barriques. Both the 2006 "normale" and the 2004 Riserva stood out for their character and expression, displaying fine balance along with a natural aromatic profile that appealed directly to my senses.

In simple terms, I was left with the impression that 2006 appears to have been a ripe but otherwise classic vintage in Barolo, producing a solid number and wide spread of wines that show elegance, power, and potential longevity yet with the possibility of pleasure for those wishing to drink in the near- to mid-term. I never recommend shopping by vintage but, for those for whom that's the easiest approach, you could certainly pick worse years in which to do so.

Digging deeper, the numbers and results above could easily be misleading if taken at face value. The communes of Barolo and La Morra, the largest in the Barolo zone, anted up with the highest number of bottlings so had statistics working in their favor. Indeed, of the 42 wines tasted hailing from La Morra, four of them were compelling enough to be included in my short list of favorites. Aside from those four, however, I found La Morra to be the least consistent of the major communes, the most prone to wines that showed over-ripeness, jamminess, over-extraction and/or a heavy hand in the oak department. The stuffing was there but, in far too many cases, the upholstery was just too flashy.

Over-ripeness seems to have been a common issue in Barolo itself in 2006, as well. While the majority of wines we tasted from the commune of Barolo seemed to be more comfortable in their own skins than did the wines of La Morra, looking back on my notes I find just as many references to alcoholic heat, stewed or over-ripe flavors, and overtly lush, opulent fruit. What was lacking in far too many cases was exactly what this commune is most know for: elegance. That said, the best wines, in particular the three highlighted above, were very, very fine and true to their origins.

Cutting to the chase, if I were forced under duress to pick a commune in which the 2006 vintage found its clearest, most complete voice, my gut reaction would have to be Castiglione Falletto, with Monforte d'Alba running it very close. In both of these sub-zones of Barolo, I found the greatest consistency of expression, along with the finest balance between elegance and power. Stylistically, as can be expected, the wines ran the gamut from old school to centrist to modernist in terms of oak treatment and extraction, but with a high level of success in all categories. Many producers I had the chance to speak with, particularly in Monforte, spoke of 2006 as a great vintage, among if not at the top of their "favorite vintage" list for recent years. I can see why.

Serralunga d'Alba was no slouch in 2006, either. This commune is known for producing the most muscular, masculine expressions of Barolo and that was in clear evidence throughout our tastings. If there's a downside to that, it's that some of the wines struggled to find a balance for all that power. Also, that masculine expression seems to draw to it a high percentage of modernist approaches in the cellar, with many producers trying to tame savage tannins by coddling the wines in newish or smallish oak. Happily, more producers in Serralunga seem to have gotten that balance right in 2006, and the best wines (see the short list above for a few examples) were truly delicious, and just a little more complete from my perspective than in 2004 and 2005.

* * *

Over the course of our four days of blind tastings, human nature inevitably led most tasters back to the same seat each day. That wasn't a bad thing, in this case, as finding a spot that's peaceful and comfortable goes a long way to helping you get through the tough task of tasting 75-85 Nebbioli at a sitting. I was lucky enough to find my spot (the empty chair in the pic above) at a table right next to Kyle Phillips and Tom Hyland, two well-respected journalists and two of the quietest, easiest neighbors in the room. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone take such thorough, intensive notes in this kind of tasting format as did Kyle. Tom was no slouch, either, and was also good for an occasional update on hockey scores as the Philadelphia Flyers (my home team) and Chicago Blackhawks (his) both made their ways through the NHL playoffs.

Underpinning the innate fallibility and minimal utility of the large blind tasting format when it comes to appreciating or understanding single wines, I should point out (just as an example, not to single out any one producer) that as much as I enjoyed the Baroli of Virna Borgogno in the blind tastings, I liked the other wines from same producer's lineup less when tasted non-blinded at that evening's walk around tasting in the Castello di Barolo. Conversely yet to the same point, there were many cases where wines that I normally enjoy — from producers such as G.D. Vajra, Elio Grasso and Giuseppe Rinaldi in Barolo, and Cantina del Pino and Produttori del Barbaresco in Barbaresco, just to name a few — simply did not show well in the blind tastings. Some of those same wines showed beautifully, though, when tasted in situ during other portions of my trip.

Painful as was the experience of tasting all those wines in such quick succession, and as futile as it may seem in the context of true wine appreciation, I do think that the insight provided in this context in terms of the big picture understanding of vintage and commune serves a crucial function and was one of the most important aspects of Nebbiolo Prima. Personally, I'm happy to have seen some old favorites emerge among the highlights, and to have discovered some new producers — and opportunities for further exploration — along the way.
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