About this Blog

The blog focuses on the essence of wine and food, not how many points or stars it receives. The opinions are mine and should be taken only as that, an opinion not gospel.

Like many collectors, initially I was very much influenced by wine ratings. I purchased wines based on points, even if I had never tasted the wine. And it was much worse than that. I would drink a wine with a high rating, not like it, yet since it was highly rated I’d rationalize that I did not yet appreciate the wine, or that my palate was not sophisticated enough to understand the wine. How’s that for lunacy? As a result my cellar grew in all directions while my palate narrowed. By the time I realized the style of wine that I enjoyed, my cellar abounded with wines whose styles I did not enjoy. All of these wines were very highly rated, just not my cup of tea, or glass of wine to be more accurate. Fortunately I was able to sell many of these wines to those who either enjoyed them or wanted highly rated wines. Don’t misunderstand, I am not against wines with high ratings, in fact I own many. It is just that I now purchase wines based on the producer, the style and my palate, not the rating. Nor do I shun reading reviews. I very much respect Antonio Galloni, Alan Meadows, Eric Asimov and John Gilman and read their reviews routinely. I pay attention to what they write, not the points they award.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Memorable Barolo Tasting

Our Vinous group met recently at Morrell Wine Bar and Café for a fantastic Barolo tasting.  I don’t recall exactly who’s idea it was (brilliant as it was) but it was decided we would taste the wines of Giacomo Conterno and Luciano Sandrone.  Eric Guido, who organized the flights for the evening, entitled the tasting “The Icon vs. The Iconoclast: An Epic Barolo Tasting”. What a perfect title for it captures the essence of the differences and approaches of these two different, but incredible wine makers.  Giacomo Conterno is at or near the top of just about everyone’s list of traditional wine makers.  Sandrone on the other hand respects tradition but incorporates aspects of modern technology and technique in his winemaking.  To characterize him as a modernist would be a mistake.  To characterize him, as Eric does, as an Iconoclast who makes fantastic wine would be much more appropriate.  Eric’s write up, complete with photos can be found here at The Cellar Table.

There were 10 of us who participated and brought along the wine (14 bottles) for the evening. Most of the bottles were opened and given some aeration prior to the event.  The tasting was both blind and non-blind.  For those of us, like myself, who preferred non-blind we knew the wines we were drinking in each flight.  Those in the blind group knew the wines in the flight, but not the order.  My preference for non-blind revolves around the fact that since I usually have had previous experience with the wine maker, I am able to obtain a much better assessment and appreciation of the wine compared to other bottles or vintages I have had.  In lieu of guessing (blind) I’d rather assess (non-blind) the wine. It came as no surprise to me that while each participant is an experienced Barolo drinker, opinions varied on many of the wines.  Since our palates are different, our experience with each wine is different.  IMO that is the beauty of wine and events like this, sharing wine and opinions.  At the end of the day no one is more right than anyone else.  Everyone wins.

Executive Chef Juan Carlos Mendoza prepared a wonderful meal to compliment the tasting.

Spiced Walnuts, Olives, Artisanal Cheese Selection, Domestic and Imported Charcuterie.  

Gnocchi, Wine Reduction, Herbs, Tomato Sauce with Melted Pecorino & Crispy Potato Straws.

Herb Marinated Beef Tenderloin, Oven Roasted Potatoes & Brussels Sprouts with Barolo Sauce.

Chocolate Truffles.

Eric organized the wines into 5 flights, with each flight containing at least one wine from each producer.

Before diving into the flights we prepped our palates with a bottle of 1990 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Vintage Cave Privée, that Tony brought along.  A wonderful yeasty bubbly to begin the evening with.  Wonderful balance on the palate and a lengthy elegant finish.

Flight 1

1997 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia. The 1997 Barolo vintage was originally acclaimed to be one of the best ever.  Alas that did not turn out to be true.  With a few exceptions, I found that the wines began to fall apart a few years ago.  Tonight’s wine was no exception.  The wine had a dark brown hue and a musty bouquet.  It had a palate of old dried raisins and nothing more.  IMO, this wine has passed on.  Some felt differently.  Hey that’s why there is chocolate and vanilla.

2000 Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis. This was the only wine opened at the tasting.  While not a knock-out, I liked it a lot.  While it took some time to open, I felt it was a round and delicious wine, with an enticing bouquet, vibrant fruit and a wonderful finish. I Wish I had some in my cellar.

Flight 2

While I have not had many Baroli from the 1998 vintage, what I have had I liked.  All three wines in this flight all drank beautifully.  

1998 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne.  This bottling is made from a blend of fruit from four vineyards, Vignane (Barolo), Merli (Novello), Conterni & Ceretta  (Monforte d’Alba).  The wine exhibited a nice expression of the terroir of Piedmont, with and earthy bouquet, round fruit, complexity, focus and finesse on the palate and a soft finish.  

1998 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia.   This was stunning, and my favorite of the flight.  A round and delicious wine with fantastic purity, balance, finesse and focus.  The finish was lengthy and elegant.  A wine with soul!  

1998 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis.  A nice wine, however it lacked the depth of the other two and finished rather short.  

Flight 3

1999 was a fantastic vintage in Barolo.  It produced some of the most vibrant and energetic wines I have tasted from Piedomont.  These are wines that for the most part are drinking gloriously now and will for many years to come.  IMO, the flight of the evening.

1999 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva. A stunning wine with an intense, fruity bouquet that seduced the palate for what lied ahead.  Full-bodied, balanced and complex with impeccable purity and a very lengthy, elegant finish.  One of the best Monfortinos I have ever tasted.  This has the stuff to last for decades.  Truly a wine with soul!

1999 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia.  Surprisingly this was tighter than the Monfortino. The wine had a lovely earthy bouquet like the Monfortino, but the fruit was not as prominent at this stage of its life.  While it did drink well I think its best years are still ahead.  I will definitely decant my next bottle for at least 4 hours prior to drinking.  

1999 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne.  Another stunning wine that was a few short steps behind the Monfortino.  The wine danced on the palate with the fruit and tannins in wonderful harmony before finishing with a velvety elegance.  Lots of soul here also. 

Flight 4

The 1996 Barolo vintage is one of my favorite vintages.  The wines show great promise and pedigree.  While I have enjoyed a number of bottles over the past few years, the wines are still very much in their infancy and really should be given another 3 to 5 years in the cellar.

1996 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis.  More approachable than the Conternos in this flight at this stage.  I like the purity of fruit, but it sort of sat rather than danced on the palate. Finish was a bit short.

1996 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia.  Aside from a gorgeous fruity bouquet , like the Monfortino the wine is still quite tight and will require patience to unmask the pedigree locked within. 

1996 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva.  Gorgeous red hue, but still very tight on the palate.  There is great pedigree here, but it is going to take a few years for it to emerge.

Flight 5

This flight rivaled the ’99 flight.  All three of the wines were in impeccable condition and displayed how good aged Nebbiolo can be when crafted by a master, or in this case a couple of them.

1985 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia.  Wow!  The seductive earthy bouquet is the drum roll prior to the flawless performance this beautiful wine performs on the palate.  Soft, refined, elegant, inviting…oh hell this was simply a round a delicious wine.

1990 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia.  I was amazed at how youthful this wine was.  It had a tantalizing aroma and seemed to simply soar from the glass with each sip.  This wine underscores how great mature Nebbiolo can be.  I wish I had some in my cellar.

1990 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis.  I think most of us were in agreement that this was the best Sandrone of the evening.   If found it to be soft and elegant with wonderfully pure fruit and a lengthy finish.

Conclusion:  While styles may vary some, great wine makers make great wines that provide extraordinary drinking experiences, especially as their wines age and mature.  My thanks to all who shared their wines and participated in this remarkable evening.  Special thanks to Anthony for orchestrating the event, to Eric for organizing the flights and the dinner and to Ignatius for bringing along a couple of stellar dessert wines to end the evening with. 

1998 Chateau Coutet Sauternes.  My first experience with this producer and it was quite good. Floral bouquet and tropical fruit palate that finished with length and finesse.  The wine is a blend of 75% Sémillon, 23% Sauvignon Blanc, 2% Muscadelle.  The wine is aged for 18 months in 70% to100% new oak barrels. 

2001 Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito.  Delicious dessert wine.  The balanced palate is alive with dried figs and finishes with a lush and refined sweetness.

Photo courtesy of Eric Guido


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Alto Piemonte

Our wine group met this week at Divina Ristorante, Caldwell, NJ.  It was my turn to choose and bring the wine.  I stayed in Piedmont, Italy as we did last month, only this time I took us up north to the Northern Piedmont region known as Alto Piemonte.   The major red grape here is also Nebbiolo, although it is often called by the local names, Spanna or Chiavennasca.  The region is about an hour from Milan, in the foothills of the Alps. It is home to one of the most interesting terroirs in Italy.  It lies on the borderline between the Mediterranean climate, typical of the rest of Italy, and the temperate climate of continental Europe. The soil is rich in iron and other microelements essential to the growth of the grapevine. Viticulture goes back to the ancient Roman Empire and it is said to be one of the best wine and food paradises in Italy.

I find these wines to be beautiful and inexpensive expressions of Nebbiolo. While they age gracefully, they also can be enjoyed early in their life while the bigger Barolo and Barbaresco wines mature in the cellar.

Chef/owner Mario Carlino prepared a fantastic dinner for us to enjoy with the wines.

Soft Polenta with Wild Mushroom Ragu.  I love this rustic peasant dish.  The creamy Polenta is the perfect setting for the tender mushrooms that lie atop it.  Nary a morsel was left on anyone’s plate.

Rigatoni Al Forno.  This is the traditional pasta dish made in Italy for La Pasquetta, the Monday after Easter.  Rigatoni pasta is mixed with tiny meatballs, salami, hard-boiled eggs and tomato sauce and then topped with bits of fresh Mozzarella and baked in the oven.  Mario’s preparation of this classic is spectacular.

While German in origin, Mario’s version of Veal Holstein had all of us licking our chops.  The combination of the runny egg yolks atop the fried Veal Cutlet is a remarkable combination.

We began the evening with two wines from the Carema.  Although not technically in Alto Piemonte, Carema is in the Canavese, bordering the Vallee d’Aoste. Its close proximity is apparent in the stylistic similarities of the wines, which are bright, acidic and wonderful to drink early on and yet have the ability to age effortlessly for decades.

All the wines I served tonight were opened at least 90 minutes prior to serving and double decanted.

2009 Produttori dei Carema Riserva DOC (Carema).  I have written about this terrific wine in a previous post, Wines of Cooperation.  This wine is aged for not less than 4 years of which at least 30 months is in large oak barrels and one year in bottle before release.  The initial sip displayed remarkable freshness and elegance with each subsequent sip taking on depth and focus.  It was a wonderful wine to begin the tasting with and at $27 a bottle is an incredible value.  Be sure and allow this wine at least an hour to breathe before drinking to really appreciate it.  56º Wine.

1964 Rosotto Carema Riserva DOC (Carema).  I found two bottles of this wine at Chambers Street Wines a couple of months ago.  I thought it would be a good addition to the tasting, especially to verify how well wines from the Carema age.  I am happy to report that they age very well.  At 51 years of age this is doing just fine.  While the wine has browned a bit, it had a nice translucency and the fruit was still apparent.  Bouquet and palate of worn leather and smoke that I find in many old Nebbiolo wines.  The wine improved over the evening and was quite enjoyable.  Unfortunately, I could not find out any information on the estate and am fairly certain that it no longer exists, which is a shame given the quality here.  

2008 Proprieta Sperino "Lessona" DOC (Lessona).  While Paolo de Marchi’s family origins are from Northern Piedmont, Paolo founded Isole é Olena in the 1970s in Tuscany. The estate produces some of Italy’s most exciting Chiantis.  His single vineyard Chianti, Cepparello, is one of Italy’s most widely regarded wines.

In 1999, along with his son Luca, he decided to return to Lessona and make wines from Nebbiolo. Lessona is located just to the west of Gattinara, in soils that are much more iron-rich and gravelly. Here he took the reins of the historic family estate, at the Castle of Lessona that was originally owned by de Marchi relatives, the Sperino family.  The estate stopped producing wine in the 1960’s for a number of economic & labor reasons.  The first vintage of Proprieta Sperino "Lessona" was 2004.  The 2008 we drank tonight was gorgeous.  On the palate it was pure with wonderfully ripe fruit, smooth and well integrated tannins, lending energy and finesse to each sip.  The wine finished with great length and elegance.  A wine with lots of soul.  It vied for wine of the evening. $74.  Wine-Searcher.

2004 Vallana Gattinara DOCG (Gattinara).  Gattinara is the best known of the Alto Piemonte wines.  Its warmer climate than the other Alto Piemonte areas produces bigger wines.  It is often called the “Barolo” of Alto Piemonte.  It is more accessible than Barolo when young, yet it is capable of long and graceful aging.  Previous bottles of the 2004 that I have had displayed a beautiful expression of fruit and soil with great complexity, acidity and elegance.  Unfortunately that was not the case tonight, as the wine was extremely tight. It began to wake up after an hour in the glass suggesting the wine, at least at the moment, needs 3+ hours in the decanter to really appreciate.   The grapes are handpicked and vinified in large cement tanks. The wine is then aged for at least 2 years in large oak barrels. It takes a few years in the bottle to fully develop its potential. At $30 a bottle this is a stunning bargain for lovers of old-world Nebbiolo wines.  Wine-Searcher.

2006 Ar.Pe.Pe. Grumello Rocca De Piro DOCG (Valtellina/Grumello). Ar.Pe.Pe is an historic and well-regarded traditional cooperative estate in the Valtellina, a mountainous region of northwestern Italy that borders Switzerland. A beautifully restrained style of Nebbiolo, the wine is fermented in stainless steel and aged in old chestnut barrels for 2 years, followed by 6 months in the bottle before release.  While more open than the Vallana, a bit more breathing time would have helped this also.   After 30 minutes in the glass, this medium-bodied Nebbiolo began to exhibit a delicate, earthy and graceful palate. $50.  Wine-Searcher.

The evening’s final wine, 2005 Ferrando Carema Etichetta Nera DOC (Carema) is one of the most sought after wines in Carema.   Luigi Ferrando has long been the leading winemaker of the Canvese, where his family's winemaking tradition goes back to 1900. His Nebbiolo wines, Etichetta Bianca (white label) and Etichetta Nera (black label), are renown for their finesse, complexity and longevity. The wines are aged for a minimum of four years, of which at least two are spent in barrel (a combination of large and small). The Carema "Etichetta Nera" is vinified and aged in similar fashion, but is only produced in exceptional years, and is exposed to a touch more small barrel aging (some new).

Tonight’s wine lived up to its reputation in spades.  It was clearly the WON for all of us.  It was a superb expression of Nebbiolo on the nose and the palate.  It was harmony in a glass with pure and focused fruit, impeccable finish and a monster finish. A simply a round and delicious wine with a long life ahead.  As production is small, the wine is highly allocated and very difficult to find.  $98.  Wine-Searcher.