What is a Super-Tuscan?

A selection of some of my favorite Super-Tuscans, L-R: Masseto, Le Pergola Torte, Ornellaia, Le Pergole Torte, Le Serre Nuove ell Ornellaia, Gabro, Isola e Elena Cepparello

I get asked this question a lot when the subject of Italian wines comes up. Someone always comes up to me and asks, “So, what’s the deal with Super-Tuscans?”. It’s not as easy to answer this question as you may think. First let’s look at how wines are categorized in Italy and then we’ll see where Super-Tuscans fit in.

Italy adopted the appellation system for wines from France in the 1960’s, about 30 years after France initiated theirs and which all other appellation systems are based on. In France it is called the Appellation d’Origine Controlee or AOC. It is used not only for wines but for cheese, butter and other agricultural products all based on the idea of terroir or place. The origins of the modern French AOC system date back to the early 1400’s when Roquefort cheese was regulated by parliament to protect the name. In essence an AOC is a controlled place-name. In Italy the equivalent is called Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

In order for wines to qualify for the DOC(G) designation the producer must grow, or source, the grapes from the designated geographic region, make the wines in the region and follow strict rules regarding grape variety or varieties, yields, production methods, aging requirements which may include the size and type of vessel, and other things. In addition the wines must pass a blind tasting and chemical analysis before being awarded a seal of approval for the neck of the bottle. Some of these DOC(G)’s are very rigorous and demanding for the producer. This is all done to protect the name and reputation of the DOC(G) and give a wine that shows typicity of the place where it is produced (terroir).

An example wine would be Chianti and Chianti Classico, both DOCG’s. In order for the wine to be called Chianti it must come from the geographic area designated as Chianti, in the heart of Tuscany. This area has been expanded over the years to accommodate increased production and is now very large. Chianti Classico on the other hand is a smaller, better DOCG which is in the historic heart of the Chianti region. It lies in the hills between Florence and Siena. Both wines must contain Sangiovese. Chianti must contain a minimum of 70% Sangiovese and the balance can be made up of traditional and international red grapes and a 10% maximum of white grapes. The wine can be 100% Sangiovese. Chianti Classico must be made from a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The producer can then round out the wine with traditional and international red grapes. White grapes are no longer allowed in Chianti Classico and the wine can be 100% Sangiovese. Producers must then follow all of the other rules pertaining to yields, alcohol levels, aging, etc. These are just 2 of the over 300 DOC(G) wines in Italy today.

So, what if you are a producer in Tuscany who doesn’t want to follow all the rules and regulations of the DOC(G)? Maybe you are a producer in the Chianti zone but want to make a wine using only international grapes like Cabernet and Merlot. That’s perfectly legal but you cannot call your wine Chianti. It does not adhere to the rules of the DOCG. Or, maybe back in the 1960’s and 70’s, you are on the coast of Tuscany, in no-man’s land, and want to produce a Bordeaux blend. That was, and still is, legal but what did you call your wine? There were no DOC or DOCG wines that these would fall under so your wine was just a table wine or Vino da Tavola. This is where the Super-Tuscan’s come in.

Super-Tuscans came about in the 1960’s and 70’s. They were high-priced, high-quality red wines that did not fit into any of the new official categories or DOC(G)’s. The wines were something not seen before in Italy. They were made with international grapes or non-traditional blends and aged in small, new French oak barrels. The bottles had fancy labels with fantasy or proprietary names. Since these wines did not fit into the DOC(G) system they had to be labeled as lowly table wines or Vino da Tavola. This was considered scandalous due to the high prices these wines were fetching. How could a lowly table wine cost more than a classic DOC(G) wine?!

Sassicaia

The first of the Super-Tuscans was Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia produced in the town of Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. Tenuta San Guido was established by marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. The wine  was first produced in 1948 from Cabernet Sauvignon and intended for the family’s consumption only. In 1968 the machese’s son Nicolò and nephew Piero Antinori convinced him to release it commercially. The first vintage was in 1971. Demand soon skyrocketed and the marchese hired the famous consulting enologist Giacomo Tachis to further refine the wine while production increased. Today the wine is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc. It is extremely expensive and in very high demand.

The idea behind Sassicaia was to produce a wine that would rival that of Bordeaux from an area that was relatively unknown but had great potential with Bordeaux grapes. Others followed. Since this was a part of Tuscany not covered by any of the newly formed appellations or DOC(G)’s, the wines were labeled as simple Vino da Tavola. But Sassicaia and the other coastal wines were just the beginning. In the early 1970’s a revolution was about to begin in the Chianti Classico region that would turn the appellation on its’ head and change it forever.

At this point in time Chianti was synonymous with mass-produced, watered down versions of the original. Many producers were dissatisfied with the tired, old rules and regulations of the appellation. Back then white grapes were mandatory not only in Chianti but Chianti Classico. The inclusion of international grapes was forbidden as was making a wine solely from Sangiovese. Some producers took matters into their own hands and started to make the wines they wanted to make. Antinori introduced Tignanello and Solaia and others were not far behind. These were all wines based on Bordeaux varieties with or without the addition of Sangiovese. But it wasn’t all about Bordeaux varieties.

In 1981 Sergio Manetti of the Montevertine estate, in the middle of the Chianti Classico region, was fed up. He felt that not only the mandatory addition of white grapes (white grapes are no longer allowed in Chianti Classico) but the addition of international grapes to make a more broadly appealing wine was doing a disservice to the noble Sangiovese. He was to become the champion of Sangiovese. So much so that in 1981 he produced his last vintage of Chianti Classico vowing to never again include any other grapes with his beloved Sangiovese. He produced the first 100% Sangiovese Super-Tuscan under the name Le Pergole Torte from the Montevertine estate 6 miles south of Radda in Chianti. This wine, like the other Super-Tuscans of the day fell out of the DOCG regulations and was labeled a Vino da Tavola. But Sergio didn’t care. Even after Chianti Classico changed the rules to allow a 100% Sangiovese based wine he refused to join the appellation.

The success of the original Super-Tuscans eventually led to major changes in the Chianti and Chianti Classico DOCG’s. No longer were white grapes permitted in Chianti Classico, international grapes were now allowed in limited quantities and a 100% Sangiovese wine was now permitted. It also led to a new category of wine being approved in 1992, Indicazione Geographica Tipica or IGT. This is a category that is less strict than DOC(G). It is the equivalent of France’s Vin de Pays. It provides the winemaker more choice in terms of grapes and production methods. Sassicaia would eventually be awarded its’ own DOC (Sasscicaia Bolgheri) in 1994 and other DOC’s for Super-Tuscans would follow.

Today the term Super-Tuscan is a bit overused and misunderstood. To some, a Super-Tuscan is any wine produced in Tuscany that is not DOC(G). But, as we have seen, some Super-Tuscans are now DOC wines! Super-Tuscans also used to be very expensive but today not all are. There are some that are quite reasonable.

I think what those original Super-Tuscans did was to shake up the establishment and force the governing bodies and producers to take a hard look at the what was going on at the time. Quality was suffering and experimentation was stifled by outdated rules and regulations. Not all of these new wines were good and many were criticized for not being typical of Italy. Some producers even abandoned using international grapes and winemaking and returned to more traditional practices. But these ground breaking wines were instrumental in moving Italian wine from quantity to quality based and today Italy is making better wines than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2007 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte

The Montevertine estate is comprised of about 50 acres at an elevation of 425 meters in the town of Radda in Chianti. The vineyards are 90% Sangiovese and they make 3 wines with Le Pergole Torte being the flagship. The oldest vines, from 1968, are used for this wine exclusively. The grapes are hand-harvested and fermentation takes place in cement cuves for at least 25 days. The wine is then racked into large, Slovenian oak for about 12 months before being transferred to small French oak for another 12 months. The wine is never filtered and sees an additional 6 months in bottle. Everything at the winery is done by gravity with no mechanical pumping of the wine.

Wow! This was a stunning wine. It’s starting to show its’ age in the glass with a pale ruby/garnet color and pronounced, watery rim with some brickish highlights. The nose was phenomenal though. Still fresh and vibrant with red cherry, red fruits, game, dried rose petal, savory herbs, underbrush and a touch of cedar. This is soft and appealing on the palate. It has a velvety texture that is fuller than you might expect. The tannins sneak up on you but are ripe and well-balanced with bright acidity that keeps everything fresh. This has another 5-10 years at least.

 

Why you should be trying sweet wines.

I just started teaching a WSET Level 2 Award in Wine & Spirits class the other night. I love the first day of a new class. It’s exciting not only for the students but for me as well. On the first night we taste a variety of wines to get the students used to using the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting. We taste 6 wines each with a different attribute to calibrate the students’ palates. The last wine tasted is always a sweet wine and I always choose a good Sauternes.

Believe or not, even in a WSET Level 2 course, there are many people who have never tasted a sweet wine. Yes, they’ve tried a white zinfandel or a moscato but not a truly sweet wine. When they do, it’s a revelation for them. Almost every single person is absolutely blown away by how good they are. A well-made sweet wine is ethereal and can be a life-changing experience.  So, why don’t we drink more of these?

Before we start discussing the various types of sweets lets look at the wine making process and what part sugar plays.

In order to make wine there needs to be two things present. These are sugar in the grape juice and yeasts that can occur naturally or be added to the juice. The yeasts eat the sugar and produce alcohol along with some other byproducts we won’t concern ourselves with now. After fermentation is complete there is, usually, very little sugar left in the wine. This is what we would call a dry or off-dry wine. The perception of sweetness is non-existent or barely perceptible. Most wines we drink fall into this category. So how do we make the wine sweet?

Adding a sweet component to the finished wine.

This is the easiest, and least desirable, way to make a wine sweet. This process involves adding sugar or a sweet concentrate to the finished wine after fermentation is complete. In most regions this is considered cheating and is illegal. (With the exception of Champagne where it is considered part of the process). The wines usually taste very sweet like candy and are a bit cloying or thick on the palate. These are usually very cheap, mass-produced products.

Addition of Sulfur to kill the yeasts

This is not illegal but not the best method to use. There are some German Rieslings that are made this way. Sulfur is added to wine that is fermenting in order to kill off the yeasts when the desired sweetness level is reached. The wine is then filtered and bottled usually at a low alcohol level like 9%. The winemaker must be very careful to ensure all of the yeasts are filtered out or there is a risk of a refermentation in the bottle causing some bubbles in the wine. During the filtering process some desirable components may also be lost. Some of these wines from good producers can be quite good if handled with care.

Fortification

Fortification is the process of adding a neutral grape spirit (brandy) to wine that has not finished fermentation. The spirit kills the yeasts leaving sugar in the wine. The wines are noticeably sweet and high in alcohol, usually 18% and up. Fortified wines are very popular in Spain, Portugal and Southern France. Some examples of fortified wines are Port, Madeira and Banyuls and Muscats from southern France.

Fortified wines can be very complex. In the case of Port the aging process will determine the style and whether or not the wine is suitable for aging. Vintage Ports can, and should, age for decades. Madeira can age indefinitely. The flavors of fortifieds range from fruity and fresh to oxidised, nutty and chocolate.

One note. Not all fortified wines are sweet. Sherry is a fortified wine that is dry. The brandy is added after the fermentation is complete giving us a dry, fortified wine. In order to make a sweet Sherry, a sweet wine is added to the dry Sherry at the time of bottling. This is called a Cream Sherry.

Grapes affected by Noble Rot. Courtesy WSET.

Concentrating the sugars in the grapes.

This is the best but most difficult way to make a sweet wine. There are several different methods one can use to get extremely sweet grapes. You first must start with healthy, very ripe grapes. All of the methods concentrate the sugars in the grapes giving very sweet juice. There is so much sugar in the juice that the yeasts die before they have the chance to convert them all into alcohol. We are left with a very sweet, complex wine at about 15% alcohol.

Noble Rot or Botrytis Cinerea

Botrytis is a fungus that attacks healthy, ripe grapes. This results in two types of infections. In damp, humid conditions the fungus turns to grey rot and the bunches will have to be discarded. But under the right conditions magic happens. In some places such as Sauternes, Tokaij and parts of Germany and Austria, the conditions are just right for the formation of Noble Rot. Cool, humid mornings are followed by sunny, dry afternoons.  The mold dessicates the grapes drawing out moisture causing them to shrivel. This leaves a very thick, sweet juice. The mold also adds complexity through the interaction with the grape.

The individual grapes are harvested by hand during multiple passes through the vineyard. They are then pressed and made into wine. Eventually all of the lots or vats of wine will be blended to make the final product. This is a very labor intensive process which adds to the final price of the wine.

These are special wines that are very complex. They have flavors of honey, dried apricot, orange marmalade, caraway seed, orange zest, quince, mango, pineapple, almonds and hazlenut. They are also very long-lived due to the high acidity of the grapes used. This high acid also keeps the wines fresh and vibrant and not sticky and syrupy on the palate. Look for Sauternes, Tokaji, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese on labels.

Grapes drying on racks for Amarone, Courtesy WSET

Drying grapes

A second method of concentrating the sugars is to dry the grapes after they have been harvested. This is how many of  the famous sweet wines of Italy are made. The process is called passito.

Healthy, ripe grapes are harvested by hand and then laid out in a single layer on mats to dry. They are left either in the sun or under cover. The conditions must be dry so as the grapes do not rot. In some cases where there is humidity Noble Rot may form adding complexity to the finished wine.

These wines are similar to those produced with Noble Rot. The are very concentrated in flavors and are long-lived. Some names to look for are Recioto della Valpolicella, Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, Sciachetrà from the Cinque Terre east of Genoa and Erbaluce di Caluso Passito.

Harvesting Ice Wine, Courtesy WSET

Ice Wine

Ice wine is made from frozen grapes. The grapes must be healthy and ripe and then must freeze on the vine. Only the water in the juice freezes leaving the sugar and other solids. This allows a more concentrated, sweet must to be pulled from the pressed grapes. The resulting wine is very sweet. These wines are not as complex as the wines above. What Ice Wine gives us is the pure expression of the grape in very concentrated form. Look for Ice Wines from Canada, Vermont, Germany, Austria.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on sweet wines and that it inspires you to go out and grab a bottle to try. Remember that when pairing sweet wines you should eat something sweet, most of the time. There are savory pairings as well. A classic pairing is Sauternes with Foie Gras. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Christophe Buisson 2014 St. Romain Blanc

Christophe Buisson, photo courtesy of Kermit Lynch website

As I sit here in Vermont there is a Nor’easter raging outside. Well, not raging but it’s pretty nasty out there. We got a lot of ice and then snow on top of that and then more ice. As I’m holed up in the house I thought a glass or two of wine was in order. I should be reaching for a big, bold red but instead I found myself in the mood for a white. Chardonnay is what I felt like. White Burgundy to be more specific. I looked in the cellar and found a wine from a very good producer from a lessor-known, to most, appellation. The 2014 Christophe Buisson St. Romain Blanc.

There are a lot of big names in Burgundy. These are the producers that command high-prices for their, often, extraordinary wines. Unfortunately, most of us can’t afford them. But then there are a lot of producers who fly under the radar. Sort of under the radar. It’s hard not to get noticed if you are making great wine in Burgundy, no matter the appellation. And that brings us to Christophe. If you are a fan of Burgundy he should be on your radar.

Christophe is meticulous in both the vineyard and winery. His dedication and passion are evident in his wines. He can coax ripeness from his vineyards virtually every year and does not use chapitalization (the addition of sugar before fermentation to boost the alcohol level of the finished wine). He ferments in cement, ages in medium-aged barrels, racks minimally and does not fine or filter his reds. His wines, both red and white, show a consistent depth of fruit and concentration. There is always a streak of minerality, particularly in the whites. His wines have a great texture and show consistent balance and intensity. They are incredible values.

St. Romain is an under-appreciated appellation tucked behind Auxey-Duresse and the famous village of Meursault. The vineyards here are higher, at 300-400 meters, than the average for the Cote de Beaune. There is also more diversity in terms of aspect compared to the rest of the Cote as vineyards are planted to south-southeast and north-northeast aspects. In cooler years it is more difficult to get proper ripeness which makes Christophe’s wines even more appreciated.

St. Romain is one of the first places where Celts cultivated the vine in Burgundy. The amphitheater like stony slopes with limestone outcroppings overlook a wide stretch of the Cote de Beaune. There are no Grand or Premier Cru in St. Romain but there are 16 climat or superior vineyard plots that may appear on labels. Christophe owns land in some of the best of these.

2014 was a very good but challenging vintage in Burgundy. In late June a hailstorm tore through the Cote de Beaune. Particularly hard hit were the towns of Volnay, Beaune and Meursault where huge amounts of damage were reported. St. Romain was spared.

The St. Romain Blanc is Christophes entry-level bottling made from 18 year-old vines from a tiny plot in the village. The wine is fermented in cement. 70% is aged in used French oak barrels and the remaining 30% in stainless steel. The nose has lemon and ripe apple, just a touch of oak with some yeasty notes. The palate is rich and generous with ripe fruits, lemon curd, and that fresh lees that’s on the nose. A streak of minerality that manifests itself as an exciting energy in the mouth brings it all together. The finish is clean and long. This is a very good value village Burgundy at $39.

5 TUSCAN TOWNS THAT YOU SHOULD BE ON YOUR LIST

 

Tuscan landscape

Tuscany is on a lot of folk’s bucket list and for good reason. It is a beautiful place that offers it all. Great food, wine, history, art and landscapes are all at your fingertips when visiting this central Italian region which is home to just under 4 million people. Florence, the region’s capital, receives almost 2 million visitors each year making it one of the top 100 cities visited worldwide. No wonder it always seems crowded!

Tuscany is where the Renaissance started, dragging itself and the rest of Europe out of the Middle Ages. The region is home to seven Unesco World Heritage Sites. These include the centers of Siena, Florence, San Gimignano and Pienza, the Cathedral of Pisa, the Val d’Orcia and the Medici Villas and Gardens. It also has over 100 protected nature reserves.

There are thousands of wineries and vines are planted virtually everywhere you look. Tuscany boasts the second highest number of DOC/G wines in Italy, right behind Piemonte. These are considered the top of the quality pyramid. Some of them are the most famous wines in the world and include Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the Super Tuscans. If you are a wine lover, than Tuscany is a great place to visit and get your wine on.

I’ve visited Tuscany many times. In fact, I spent two months living and working in a small hamlet called Rendola which is in the hills just outside of a town called Montevarchi. (Tip: the Prada outlet is just outside of town) When someone comes to me for advice on visiting, the first thing I ask is where they are staying. Almost, but not always, I am told somewhere in or near Florence. Next, I ask how long they will be in the area. Almost, but not always, I am told 2 or 3 days. Then they will be on to Rome or Venice. I get it. For many it’s a trip of a lifetime and they want to pack in as much of Italy as possible. That’s fine. But, it’s well worth it to spend just a bit more time in Tuscany and seek out the not-so-touristy places.

First, I would suggest a more central location than Florence. Florence is fine but getting in and out is a nightmare most of the time and the hotels and apartments are expensive. Just outside Florence is better and less expensive. But there are better options. I like the area around the town of Poggibonsi. It’s near the main autostrada (highway) linking Florence and Siena. It’s also easy to get to the coast (Pisa, Lucca) and it’s on the edge of the Chianti region. There is no need to go into Poggibonsi itself except to use the market to stock your pantry.

A Tuscan Villa

I like to rent a villa. I know it sounds expensive but most are now chopped up into apartments so they are manageable. Also, if you have a large group, renting a whole villa is very affordable and tons of fun. We’ve done that several times. You can find them on Airbnb, Homeaway and my favorite Parker Villas. We’ve used them many times in the past and have always been happy.

Within Tuscany there are some must-see’s and do’s. Let’s get them out-of-the-way first. Go to Florence for the day. Go to the museums, the Boboli Gardens, the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and Baptistry. Then go to Pisa and see the leaning tower. On the way to Pisa visit San Gimignano with its’ medieval towers. See the walled town of  Monteriggioni, just down the road from Poggibonsi. And go to the Chianti hills for a half-day of wine tasting before heading back to the villa or apartment. You could do all of this in two and a half days. That leaves you plenty of time, if you’re staying put for 5 or six days, to see some other cool places.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of places to visit. There is so much to see and do in Tuscany. Ideally spending a month would be the thing to do. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that luxury. So here are some of my favorites. Most of these visits are half-day affairs so you can do more than one town per day.

Siena from above

Siena

A lot of people skip Siena. Big mistake. It’s my favorite town in Tuscany. Think Florence without the crowds and, more importantly, the cars. Siena is a pedestrian city, no cars allowed in most of the city so you can leisurely stroll without the fear of being run over by a Fiat.

I could spend days in Siena. In fact, I have. The more time you have, the better. It’s the largest of the five I’m recommending and there are lots of things to see and do. Here are the highlights:

Piazza del Campo – This is one of the world’s most celebrated squares and certainly one of the most famous in Italy. Twice each summer the piazza is transformed into a racetrack for the famous horse race Il Palio. Crowds squeeze into every corner to see the action. Riders are chosen from 10 of the 17 contrada, or neighborhoods. Horses are then drawn randomly and the race begins. It is a spectacle. It happens once in July and then again in August. If you plan to attend book your tickets and a place to stay well in advance.

Piazza del Campo is a great way to spend a few hours just taking in the town and people watching. There are many cafes that line the square where you can get a coffee, glass of wine or something to eat. I prefer to grab something from one of the many salumeria that occupy the side streets that feed into the piazza. I always head straight to Pizzicheria de Miccoli for some salumi and formaggi and, if they have it that day, a porchetta sandwich. I then go to Il Campo and spend a leisurely couple of hours with my treats.

Fortezza Medicea (Medici Castle) – This is the old Medici fortress that guards the northwestern portion of town. It’s as interesting as any other old Medici fort but it has something the others don’t. The Enoteca Italiana is in the fortress. This is like a wine museum or library. You can visit the cellars and then taste wines from all over Italy. You can even buy some to take out. This is a must see for wine lovers.

Duomo – Visit Siena’s Gothic Cathedral above the Piazza del Campo. The exterior is magnificent. Inside there are works by Michaelangelo, Donatello, Pisano and Pinturicchio.

Piazza dei Salimbeni – This is not only a beautiful piazza but also home to the oldest bank on the planet, Monte dei Paschi di Siena. The bank was founded in 1472 and has been in the news lately. It may not survive much longer in its’ current form so you may just want to make a visit while it’s still around.

Mangia Tower – This tower, over 100 meters high, sits next to the town hall in Piazza del Campo. Construction was begun in 1325 and completed in 1348. The climb is well worth it. You will be rewarded with a commanding view of the city and surrounding countryside.

There is more to Siena but that should get you started. It’s one of my favorite European towns for just wandering around and getting lost. And if you do get lost, just make your way back to Il Campo and start all over again.

Volterra high on its’ perch

Volterra

The most underrated Tuscan town in my opinion. This Etruscan town dates to at least the 7th century BC. In fact, it is believed that the surrounding area has been continuously inhabited since the 8th century BC. It was one of the most important Etruscan settlements and largest with almost 25,000 inhabitants. The whole town stands perched on a hill 1700 feet above sea level. The area is rich in alabaster and the local artists do wonders with this translucent mineral.

Volterra is a treasure trove of riches from both the Etruscan and Roman periods. There is  an unparalleled collection of Etruscan antiquities from this ancient civilization on display in the Guarnacci Museum. The Porto all’Arco is still intact after 2,000 years. Its’ 3 badly eroded heads keep watch on all who enter the city. The Roman theater just outside the walls dates to the 1st century BC.

I like to just take my time and stroll through the narrow streets and take in as much of the atmosphere as possible. Visit the Duomo (Cathedral), enlarged after an earthquake in the 13th century, to see its’ many paintings, wood carvings and statues from some of the best artists of the time. For a unique experience visit the Fortezza Medicea or Medici Fortress. Part of it is now a prison. At certain times of the year you can have a meal cooked by famous chefs helped by the inmates. Enoteca Scali is a great place to stop for lunch. Very friendly staff and great food and wine.

Montalcino

This hilltop town is a must-see for all wine lovers. It was hard to choose between here and Montepulciano due east on another hill. For pure charm this wins out. The town is small and can be done in half a day. I would  combine this with a visit to one of the wineries that surround the hill. I cannot guarantee which take visitors and which charge for tastings but some of my favorites are: Biondi-Santi; Siro Pacenti; Ucceliera; Pian dell’Orino; Il Palazzone; Carpazo and Sassetti. Here is a handy reference for the producers with a map.

Stroll the narrow streets and take in the view of Val d’Orcia. Try and have lunch at Osticcio. This is an enoteca in the true sense. It’s a wine shop, wine bar and restaurant serving small plates, sandwiches, cheese and salumi. Sit in the back room for stunning views of the valley below.

Sant’Antimo Abbey

Time permitting visit the Sant’Antimo Abbey just south of town. It is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany. It was a powerful monastery in the middle ages. The abbey fell into disrepair and remained that way until the 1980’s when efforts were started to restore it. Today there are about a dozen monks who call Sant’Antimo home.

Panzano

Panzano is a small town located on a ridge along the Chiantigiana (Chianti road) exactly halfway between Florence and Siena. This is one of the smaller Chianti towns that is often overlooked but it should not be. There is not much to see and do but stroll the town and look at the remains of a Roman road here and there. It’s a great way to really see and appreciate the small towns of Chianti.

Try to go on a Sunday as you will be in for a treat. Sunday is market day so the piazza is humming with activity. Before you go make a reservation for lunch at Solociccia. Lunch starts at 1PM sharp and the seating is communal. For 30 Euro, you get a 7-course meal. Each course consists of meat from various parts of the cow, cooked using various methods. There is even a tartare version called Tuscan Sushi. And you can bring your own wine. The world’s most famous butcher Dario Cecchini owns the restaurant. His butcher shop is just across the street where it has been for several hundred years. Visit the shop and you’ll be welcomed with a glass of wine, some bruschetta with lardo and other bites to whet your appetite before heading over for lunch.

Talamone, Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano – Yes, I know that’s three towns but they are all worth visiting and are within a couple of minutes drive of each other.

Many people skip the coast. This is another big mistake. In the warmer months the coast is a cool respite from the hot interior of Tuscany. Why not take a day trip and spend some time in a small fishing village or seaside resort town?

Porto Ercole by Petitverdot: Matteo Vinattieri

Talamone is small. It’s really small. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm. It’s located on the very southern edge of the Maremma regional park. Park your car and take a walk up to the main piazza which overlooks the Mediterranean and the rest of the town. Wander through the marina with its mix of fishing boats and mega-yachts. There are two hotels and a handful of cafes in the town. An hour or two is more than enough time to see everything there is to see.

Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano are both located on the Monte Argentario promontory on southeastern Tuscany. It is linked to the mainland by a few causeways. The area has been a vacation spot for wealthy Italians since Roman times.

Pass through the town of Orbetello on your way to Porto Santo Stefano. Park the car and walk along the harbor where fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries are coming and going. Have lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the water. It’s a great spot for super-fresh seafood and a bottle of Vermentino.

After lunch drive around the promontory to Porto Ercole. It was here in 1610 that the famous Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio died of malaria on his way back to Rome after being exiled by the Pope. He is buried in the Cathedral.

There you have it. 5 Tuscan towns that a lot of tourists don’t visit but should. If you have any other hidden gems in Tuscany or beyond I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Happy travels!

 

 

 

 

Piemonte is not all about red wines. Here are 5 whites from Piemonte you should be drinking.

The hilltop town of Serralunga D’Alba with its’ vineyards.

Piemonte, tucked into the northwest corner of Italy, is a stunningly beautiful place. During the growing season one cannot help but notice that vines are almost everywhere, particularly in the heart of the region in the Roero, Langhe and Monferatto hills. In the fall, during truffle season, the patchwork of red and gold hues from the changing leaves on the vines will leave you breathless. In winter, the hills are often covered with blankets of snow. This is wine country. To be more precise, this is red wine country.

The powerful Nebbiolo based wines shine here and take the spotlight. Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Piemonte wines respectively but wines made from Barbera and Dolcetto are also highly regarded. The whites, although also well-regarded, are not nearly as popular outside of the region as they should be. Although it’s winter time and the temperature is not screaming white, I thought a primer on these very good wines was overdue. So, here are some grapes and the wines made from them that you should seek out now and when the weather starts to turn a bit warmer. But first a bit of history.

Piemonte played a key role in the unification of Italy in the 19th century. It was also where the nation’s industrial revolution took place which shaped the new nation’s economy. The region is the second largest behind Sicily and the largest producer of fine wines in the country. It is also home to some of the best cuisine and ingredients, such as white truffles, in a country that is known for its exceptional food. To say Piemonte is important to the wines, economy and culture of Italy is an understatement.

The region has been inhabited since around 1,000 BC by several tribes who settled here. Wine has been produced here since that time. It was the Etruscans who helped the locals with grape growing and winemaking as they did throughout central and northern Italy.  This proud band of people stood in strong opposition against the might of the Romans until they finally capitulated in about 100 BC.

Fast-forward to the 18th century when the House of Savoy acquired all of modern-day Piemonte and set the groundwork for the unification of Italy. The House of Savoy set up shop not in France but in Torino, Italy. Eventually it would acquire the island of Sardegna and become the Kingdom of Sardegna, one of the most powerful in all of Italy. Piemonte then became the central region in the unification movement. In 1861 most of the independent entities of the peninsula were united as the Kingdom of Italy.

Piemonte’s vineyards cover about 110,000 acres. There are almost two dozen grape varieties planted that are unique to the region. The 42 DOC/G’s of the region ranks it as #1 in that category in terms of the number of appellations and the quantity of wine produced at this highest level. In fact, all of Piemonte’s vineyards, except a scant 10%, fall under the DOC/G category. This is the only region in Italy to hold this distinction.

No other region can challenge Piemonte for fine wine production. The region has the lowest average yields each year. All of the vineyards are planted on superior hillside locations and there are many single-vineyard wines produced within each appellation. Piemonte wins more wine awards than other region each year. Piemonte is the King of Italian Wine. And reds get the vast majority of the respect.

But there are some unique, fantastic whites produced here as well. I’ve picked 5 grapes and the wines made from them that you should try.

Moscato

Moscato vineyards
Ripe Moscato grapes

This is the most widely planted white grape and second overall, behind Barbera, in Piemonte. Most of these are used for the sparkling wines of Asti: Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. These are both DOCG wines that share the same geographic boundaries. They are different in style though. This is the largest DOCG in terms of production in the region. Together they account for over 100 million bottles per year.

Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling, slightly sweet wine produced from the Moscato grape exclusively. It was created in the 19th century by Carlo Gancia. Gancia had grown up in the region and traveled to Champagne where he learned the technique of traditionally made sparkling wines. He brought his knowledge back to Piemonte and made a sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. But Gancia’s wine was sweet. It was a big hit.

Eventually, an easier way of making wine sparkle was introduced called the Martinotti method. This involved making the wine sparkle in a tank instead of the bottle it was going to be served from as in Champagne. This, known as the Tank Method, was much easier and less labor intensive. Gancia adopted this method which better preserved the fruit of the Moscato grape. The wine has been recognized by the Italian government as Asti Spumante since the 1930’s.

Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling wine that has a finer mousse (bubbles) than one might imagine from a Tank Method wine. Aromas are pronounced with the telltale grapey notes along with white flowers, orange zest, acacia, stone fruit and rose petals. The acidity is usually moderate as is the alcohol which rarely exceeds 9 or 10%. You can find a good Asti Spumante for around $10.

Moscato d’Asti is also produced from Moscato exclusively but it is a decidedly sweeter version with less sparkle. These wines are frizzante, meaning slightly sparkling. These are perfect wines to pair with desserts due to the high residual sugar. The wines are usually around 5% alcohol and must have the vintage on the label. Due to the low amount of carbonation these wines have a traditional cork unlike the mushroom cork and cage that Asti Spumante has. The aromas are more pronounced. There is much less Moscato d’Asti made and the producers are smaller often making red and white wines from other grapes as well.

Erbaluce

This is an ancient, native grape grown in northern Piemonte near the border with Valle d’Aosta around the town of Caluso. The wines made from it vary in style from bone-dry to ultra-sweet and even sparkling. The reason for the variety is due to its’ thick skins and high natural acidity. Both are required for wines made in the appassimento method. This involves picking ripe grapes and then drying them on mats to concentrate the sugars. Thick skins are beneficial as they are less likely to be affected by rot. The high acidity keeps the sugar in the wine from tasting too cloying or thick.

Erbaluce harvest at Ferrando. Photo, Madrose.
View of vineyards near Caluso. Photo, Madrose.

The wine made from Erbaluce is called Erbaluce di Caluso or Caluso DOCG. All of the styles are permitted under the regulations. It is up to the producer to decide what style he or she wants to make. It is possible and often common for a producer to make dry, sweet and sparkling. The still, dry style is becoming more popular. The dry wines hint of apple, white flowers and citrus. The sweet versions will have more stone fruit, honey and spice. These are not easy to find but well worth the effort. One of the best producers is Liugi Ferrando.

Arneis

Arneis in the local dialect refers to a difficult personality. It fits as the grape is difficult to grow with its’ naturally low acidity and inclination to become overripe if harvested too late. It is also prone to mildew, has low yields and oxidizes rather easily. For these reasons the grape, and its’ wines, fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century. If it were not for two producers, Giacosa and Vietti, the grape may have remained in obscurity and disappeared altogether.

These and other growers found that the chalky, sandy soils of its’ home, the Roero hills, added structure and acidity to the wines. Now, there are several outstanding producers of Roero Arneis DOCG including Giacosa, Vietti, Ceretto and Malvira to name just a few. The wines are on the fuller side with aromas of nuts, peaches, apricot, honey, ripe red apple, pear and orange blossom. There is also an excellent sparkling wine made under the Roero DOCG if you can find it.

Cortese

The Crotese grape with its’ restrained character has been documented as far back as 1659. In 1870 it was noted that the grape was widely planted in the Alessandria province of southeastern Piemonte. The grape was particularly valued for its’ resistance to disease and its’ ability to deliver large crops while producing quality wines. It is still considered a vigorous variety and yields must be curtailed to tame the naturally high acidity. Ripe fruit from lower yields produces wines with ripe apple, pear and citrus with refreshing acidity.

Although Cortese is grown outside of Piemonte in Lombardia and the Veneto it performs best around the town of Gavi in southeastern Piemonte. Wine has been made in Gavi since at least 972 AD. The wines gained popularity in the 1960’s and 70’s in Italy and abroad.

The Gavi DOCG encompasses 11 communes. The wines must be made exclusively from Cortese grown on hillside vineyards. In cooler years when the grapes don’t ripen fully the wines can be rather austere. Ripe grapes from low yields have good body with plenty of acidity and minerality. Producers can also make a sparkling version. If all the grapes come from one of 18 communes and hamlets the producer may label the wine with the name of the commune as in Gavi del Comune di Gavi is the grapes are all from the commune of Gavi.

Timorasso

Timorasso vineyards in Colli Tortonesi.
La Colombera Colli Tortonesi

 

 

 

 

 

Timorasso is an ancient variety that was once widely planted in Piemonte and Liguria. Its’ home is in the hills of Tortona in southeastern Piemonte. The grape fell out of favor after the arrival of phylloxera when it was not re-planted in favor of other grapes that were easier to grow and more commercially viable. If it were not for the efforts of one man, Walter Massa, the grape would have disappeared forever. Today there are several producers producing excellent wines from this high-quality grape.

The wines made from Timorasso, labeled under the Colli Tortonesi DOC, are some of the most exciting wines coming out of Piemonte today, red or white. I love them. They are high in acidity with good body. The aromatics are intense with floral and citrus notes along with apple, pear and a tinge of honey. The palate is on the full side but the acid keeps everything fresh. Although there is not a lot of oak being used on the wines they have a beautiful texture and creaminess that comes solely from the grape. Most of these retail in the mid to high twenties but they are worth it. Look for the wine of Walter Massa and La Colombera.

I hope you can find these in your local retail shop or a restaurant as they are well worth the hunt.

 

Stunning 2005 Barolo from La Spinetta

 

2005 La Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe

Back in 1999 we opened our first restaurant, L’Amante, in the picturesque fishing town of Gloucester, MA. Gloucester was, and still is, a fishing village. Back then the town wasn’t as gentrified as it is now. The downtown waterfront wasn’t developed (although it is starting to be it still has a long way to go) and main street was a mix of casual places and rowdy bars. We opened in East Gloucester away from the hustle of downtown. It was more of a neighborhood with some higher-end homes on the water and the Rocky Neck Arts Colony and theater down the street.

We were definitely something new to the town. L’Amante was the high-end place but we still kept a casual feel to our small, 41 seater with windows overlooking the East Gloucester square. We were successful from the first night and reservations were hard to come by. What does this have to do with the above wine?

Every time I open a bottle of La Spinetta I think of our first restaurant in Gloucester. We were doing upscale, creative Italian and everyone loved it. To go with the food we knew we wanted a great wine list with lots of big names like Gaja, Ornellaia, Paitin, Biondi-Santi, Conterno and others. Problem was that we didn’t have a lot of money when we opened. That, and we were new and most of those wines were, and still are, highly allocated. A sales rep actually told us: 1. You’ll never get any of those wines because you’re in Gloucester and 2. Forget about any ‘great’ wines from Italy and focus on the cheaper stuff as that is all that will sell in Gloucester. Yes, that did happen. We never called him back.

Another salesman came in with an alternative to Gaja. It was La Spinetta. He told us that the winery started producing Barbaresco in 1995 and that they were special and were going to be the next big thing so we better hop on the wagon early. So, we tasted the wine and were blown away. That was the 1997 Barbaresco Gallina. We loved everything about it including the label. We bought as much as we could afford and put it on the list. For $50! The wines now sell for over $150 retail! I wish I had a couple of bottles left but they’ve all been drunk.

Now, the wine. 2005 La Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe

The Rivetti family purchased the Campe vineyard in 2000. At the time it was not known for exceptional grapes. In fact, the owner was selling them in bulk at very high yields. The vines were not very healthy but the south-facing vineyard had great terroir and potential. Yields were cut, vines were nursed back to health by using only natural fertilizers and manual labor in the vineyard. The vineyard in now full of healthy, 50 year-old vines.

La Spinetta is a proponent of oak. More specifically, new French oak. After a manual harvest and fermentation in stainless steel the wine is transferred into new French barriques for 24 months. The wine is then transferred back to stainless steel for 9 months and sees another  12 months in bottle before release. Fortunately the fruit can handle the oak as it does not mask the Nebbiolo grape or the terroir of the vineyard.

This is still a big wine 12 years later. The color is a bit more ruby than garnet but still pale and starting show just a bit of age at the rim. It jumps from the glass with dark red and black fruits, rose, violet, vanilla, caramel, underbrush, tobacco and mushroom. There is also the faintest hint of menthol and spicy licorice. The palate is full and plush with big, chewy tannins. Plenty of acidity keeps it form being too cloying. This has tons of concentration and depth of fruit. The oak is so well-integrated that it really contributes to the overall harmony and balance of the wine. It has great length as the finish goes on and on. This is outstanding and I wish I had more. I traded some patio furniture for this. It was a really nice set but I think I made out in the deal. $199.

Oh, remember that salesman who said we would never get those allocated wines in Gloucester. We did. I still have a wine list floating around somewhere with the 1998 Ornellaia on it. It was the most expensive wine on the list at $55!

 

It’s happening and I predicted it years ago! Just sayin’

If you haven’t read this article series about what’s going on in the national restaurant scene, you should. Make sure you read all three parts. For years I’ve been saying exactly the same things that Mr. Alexander writes about in this piece for Thrillist. I saw, and am still seeing it, play out for the past decade. There are so many things restaurant owners have to deal with today that they didn’t have to just a few years ago. And it’s finally coming to a head. That’s not to say that the restaurant scene or business is going up in flames. Yet. But there are some major changes headed our way for multiple reasons.

Higher Minimum Wages and Healthcare Costs

I’m all for higher wages. But…. someone has to pay for them. There are a lot of people talking about paying all workers a fair wage and making sure everyone can earn a decent living on minimum wage. I’m for it. But I just hope that these same people will be willing to pay the real cost of a dinner out. “$28 for a steak? That’s expensive!” Well, if you think it’s expensive now, wait until the owner has to pay the dishwasher $15 an hour. That steak will have to cost closer to $35 or 38 for the restaurant to make it. Because on top of the $15 an hour are employer payroll taxes.

The same goes for healthcare. Most restaurant owners are good people. They are just trying to make a living like everyone else. They are not out to screw people over whether the public or their employees. If they could afford it they would make sure everyone had health care coverage at minimal cost to the worker. But it’s just not possible for most small restaurant owners. The cost is too high.

Tipping

Many feel that the restaurant owner should be paying the server a fair wage, above minimum and that tips should go away. That’s great. But what is a fair wage? How is a fair wage for a server determined? In a high-end restaurant in my town servers probably make $25-35 per hour which includes the server minimum wage of $5 per hour plus tips. Is $25-35 per hour fair? Should an owner now have to pay the server $32 per hour? Of course not these people say. Just pay them a fair wage. So, what? $12 per hour? $15 per hour? What do you think is going to happen when an owner tells his servers that they are going to a no tipping policy and that they will be paid a flat rate of $12 per hour to start? That’s a $20 per hour cut in pay. The servers are gone. Why? Because they can make $12 per hour at a clothing or convenience store and not have to work as hard.

And how is the owner going to afford to pay servers $12 per hour? By raising prices which will drive people away. No matter how good the customers feel about the server getting a ‘fair’ wage most will not be willing to pay the extra money for a dinner out. Sure, they’ll go out on special occasions but not enough to keep many places in business. Getting rid of tipping will take a cultural shift that could take a generation.

Shortage of workers, mostly in the kitchen

I went to culinary school here in Vermont. I started in February of 1995. My tuition was about $14,000 a year. For six months of school! We went to campus, in this case a hotel, for 6 months and then went on a paid internship for 6 months. Fortunately, I landed a great internship that turned into a full-time job and then an extended internship in Italy. So, I never completed my formal culinary education at school. And I think it turned out well for me.

One reason I didn’t go back was because I learned too much in my first 6 months at school. They did too good a job. We were cooking every day. By the time I got to my internship I had already learned so much at school that I fit right in and excelled on the line. I was a bit older than my fellow students but others had the same experience as I did and many of them didn’t go back either.

The other reason I skipped out on my second year was financial. I could not justify paying another $15,000 or so when I could have an actual job making money and learning the same things I would have learned at school. And you know what? None of the sous chefs or the chef de cuisine had culinary degrees. That was eye-opening. After my internship was up I was offered a full-time job with the understanding that if I stayed another 6 months I would be hooked up with a couple of stages in Italy. A no-brainer.

The same thing is happening now all over the country. Culinary schools exploded in popularity in the last decade or so. Right as the Food Network was becoming popular. People saw celebrity chefs on TV and wanted in. Once in though, they saw the reality of $11 or 12 per hour, working in a hot kitchen on your feet for 10 hours with minimal breaks and being yelled at by a crazy sous or chef. So, saddled with upwards of $40,000 in debt a lot of cooks are leaving the business for greener pastures with better wages and ‘normal’ hours and conditions.

This means not as many cooks to fill all the positions in all the restaurants that have opened in the past decade. And a lot of restaurants have opened up. Too many.

Too many restaurants

There are too many restaurants. There, I just said it 3 times in a row. There are not enough customers to support them all and not enough skilled cooks to staff them all.

I know, the cream will rise to the top. Well, that’s not always the case. You know: location, location, location. There are a lot of bad restaurants out there that do rather well because of their location. And there are a lot of really good restaurants that don’t do so well because of their location. But it’s more than that.

With so many restaurants it’s really hard to find good help both in the front and back of house. Sure, you can find bodies most of the time but that’s not enough. The public expects more now. So finding good help is hard and keeping them is just as hard. That means higher wages to keep someone around which cuts into the bottom line which means higher prices. See the circle.

Evan if all the restaurants are good some are going to suffer because they can’t fill their seats enough. If a restaurant is making a 5-6% profit they are doing well. Add some higher wages and a slight downturn in business and that is almost wiped out completely. The business is really, really hard. It gets even harder when you’re not making money.

There is also the fact the small, independent operators are competing with large chains that can beat them up on price. Have you seen the ad for Chili’s $10 3-course meal? How about Applebee’s where two people can eat for $20. That’s really hard to compete with when you’re an independent. The chains are packing them in by giving food away. They have the purchasing power to offer such low-priced fare. Independents don’t.

So, where are we headed?

I have a prediction. The restaurant landscape will change in the next decade. Mr. Alexander talks about it in the article. A whole category of restaurants will mostly go away.

Very high-end dining will stick around. I’m not talking just about the $200 and up prix-fixe meal kind of places. I mean the upscale, white tablecloth, special occasion places. The regular clientele will still go because they can afford it and others will go because it will be a special event.

A lot of the more casually upscale  places will go away. These will be the places in the middle that suffer the most. These fall somewhere between the really upscale and the chains. The neighborhood, place with a good wine list, inventive food, nicely appointed. The price point is one that makes the place a bit of money but is always three bad weeks from going under. If they have to pay higher wages they’re done because they can’t raise prices enough to pay for it. It will be harder to keep skilled cooks and servers. They also will not be able to compete with the chains and the new breed of restaurant that will be opening up in the near future.

The new breed will basically be food trucks in a brick and mortar location. No more table service. No more table linen and fine glassware. These will be upscale, quick serve places. You’ll go in and place your order at a counter, you’ll pay for everything up front, get your beverage and sit down at an open table (if/when one is available). Your food, cooked to order, will be brought to you. You’ll eat and then leave. Simple. The space will be cool and comfortable. The food will be inventive, fresh and great. And prices will be reasonable. There will be no need to tip. Staff and overhead will be kept at a minimum. And the owner can pay everyone a fair wage and still make a reasonable profit.

And then there will be the chains.

This is not going to happen overnight but instead may take a decade. But, we already see it happening in larger cities where the higher minimum wage has already kicked in. There are many fast-casual places, even chains, popping up all over the place. Chipotle was the forerunner but it was just a model. The new ones will be nicer and the food will be better, more inventive and cooked to order. Maybe you already have a place, or places, like this where you live.

I hope you found this interesting and thought-provoking. I don’t want to sound like I’m predicting doomsday for the restaurant industry. I just wanted to point out some realities that owners of smaller, independent restaurants are facing and will be facing in the coming years.

I have spent over 25 years in the industry. I have done it all: dishwasher, busboy, waiter, host, manager, sous-chef, executive chef and chef/owner. I love the industry and it’s been good to me. But I do feel that big change is coming. I also hope that it’s for the best. I would like to see better wages for all, better working conditions and access to health care. I would like to see people look at all restaurant positions as professions and not just part-time gigs. How many times have you heard someone ask a server what they really did for a living? I think it will take some getting used to but I’m positive that good things will come.

 

 

 

Quick and Easy Turkey and Sausage Chili and a Wine to Match

Now that winter is in full swing we are turning to heartier fare up here in Vermont. And what better cold-night dinner than chili? And let’s keep it healthy by using, mostly, turkey. This is a super-simple to make, one dish meal that only takes about 25 minutes.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 small Spanish onion, medium dice

1 yellow pepper, medium dice

1 green pepper, medium dice

1 red pepper, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 pound ground turkey

1 pound bulk hot Italian sausage

1 32 ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 16 ounce can crushed tomatoes

2 tablespoons chili powder (or you can use equal parts ground garlic, cayenne, cumin, coriander, pepper flakes)

In a large saucepan heat the oil over medium heat and add the onion, peppers and garlic. Saute until translucent, about 4 minutes.

Add the ground turkey and sausage and cook for additional 5-7 minutes.

Add the beans, tomatoes and chili powder. Turn heat to med-high and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10-15 minutes. You may need to add a bit of water if it gets too thick.

Serve in bowls with some crusty French bread. You can also shred some cheddar on top.

Serves 4-8 depending on size and you’ll have some leftover.

With something hearty and a bit spicy like this chili I like a wine that is a little rustic but also has some fruit to stand up to the spice. I reached for a Syrah/Grenache blend from southern France.

2012 Chateau Cadenette Costieres de Nimes, about $12

This is a juicy, rustic wine from a region that straddles the border of the Rhone Valley and Languedoc. The wines here are blends of several grapes, this being mostly Syrah with a smattering of Grenache. The nose is very aromatic with ripe red and black fruits, prune, cooked plums and tomato skin. The palate is fresh and clean with soft, ripe tannins. This, or something very similar, is a perfect match to this hearty, spicy chili.

New Year’s Resolutions for the Wine Lover

Sparkling wines in New Zealand

It’s a new year which is always exciting. It’s a clean slate. An opportunity to try new things, get better at something, be a better you. So, why shouldn’t wine be a part of that? After all, you’re a wine lover. Right?

So, here are some suggestions for improving the wine lover in you for the upcoming year. These don’t take a lot of effort so no excuses and no quitting half way through.

Forget about ‘Dry January’.

Don’t deprive yourself. I know, I know. The health benefits of taking a month off. All the weight you are going to lose because you aren’t drinking anymore. Blah, blah, blah! Instead, why not just cut down your wine consumption by half. It will save you some money, you’ll lose a few pounds and maybe you’ll be able to stick to your newly purchased gym membership. But by drinking a little you will still be supporting your local wine merchant and/or restaurant when they need you the most. And just think of how good that glass of wine will taste on Friday after work when you have been abstaining all week.

Napa Valley

Visit a winery. Or, better yet, plan a vacation to wine country.

There is a winery in every state which means that you can find one, or more, within a couple hours drive. Wineries are fun places. The people are  always really nice, you get to learn something and you get to taste a bunch of wines. Some of which you may have never tasted before. And wine country vacations are the best, IMHO! One, they are located in beautiful places. Think of Napa, Chianti, Burgundy, Argentina. I could go on but you get the point. Two, the restaurants in wine country are usually really good. At the least you’ll be able to find one or two outstanding restaurants some of which may be at a winery. Three, hot air ballooning. Yes! I know this is on a lot of people’s bucket list and most wine regions have someone giving hot air balloon rides. Why not combine them?! If you need any help in planning your getaway, I’m here to help.

Step out of your comfort zone.

Always drink New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc when you go out to eat? Try something different. Even if it’s Chardonnay. Drinking the same wine over and over again must get really old. I know. I do it and have to stop myself sometimes. Branch out and try something you’ve never tried before. How about a Gruner Veltliner or an Arneis instead of that SB? Instead of reaching for a Malbec (the new Merlot, sorry Miles!) try a red from the Languedoc or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. There’s too much wine out there to be drinking the same thing all the time.

Open that bottle you’ve been saving for the last 15 years.

You know that bottle of Champagne you got as an anniversary gift 12 years ago? You know, the one sitting on the bottom shelf of your fridge. Open it!! It’s probably past its’ due date but what the hell. It’s not going to get any better. Unless it’s Krug or maybe Dom. Hey, most wines are meant to be drunk within the first two years of release. So what are you waiting for. Go to your cellar and look at what you’ve got, pick something and open it. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion. I’ve had phenomenal wines with pizza. Remember the Scavino Barolo I talked about in my last post? That’s a $95 bottle of wine that we drank with a burger. There’s even a night called ‘Open That Bottle Night’.

Getting ready for a Languedoc-Roussillon tasting.

Take a wine class or attend a tasting hosted by a professional.

Yes, I’m being a bit selfish here as I teach classes and host tastings. But, if I had a buck for each time someone told me they wanted to take a class I wouldn’t have to teach classes anymore. Ironic, huh? So just take the class. Most formal classes are not inexpensive but they are well worth it. You’ll be able to wax poetically about malolactic fermentation and rotofermenters at the water cooler or your bosses holiday party. (If you don’t know what those two terms are contact me to sign up for a class). But seriously, you’ll learn a lot. Even at the informal tastings I host everyone learns something. The easiest way to do this is to have a wine professional like me come to your house and host a tasting. They are a ton of fun. Going to your local wine shop’s Saturday tastings don’t count. I’m talking about a sit-down tasting hosted by a wine geek.

So there you have it. That’s your homework for the year. If you have a particular wine resolution that you are committing to this year I’d love to hear about it.

Happy New Year!

A couple of great Barolo’s for my birthday.

Two stunning Barolos

Last week was my birthday and I always treat myself to some good wine on my birthday. This year I decided to make it a multi-day event and opened a couple of stunners from the cellar: 2004 Domenico Clerico Barolo Ciabot Mentin Ginestra and 2008 Paulo Scavino Barolo Carobric. I’m glad I pulled them as they were both delicious, not too old and not too young, just right.

Barolo is made in the Langhe region in Piemonte from the Nebbiolo grape exclusively. It is considered the king of Italian wines due to its’ age-worthiness, complexity and long-standing reputation. Nebbiolo only does well in a few places on the planet, all in Italy, but it reaches its’ zenith in the Langhe hills near Alba. The wines are tannic when young but reward time in the cellar if you can resist them.

Domenico Clerico and Enrico Scavino are contemporaries. They are considered two of the iconic producers of the region who followed similar paths in the vineyard and cellar over the last 4 decades or so. There was a time when both men were considered ‘modernistas’ of Barolo in that they used small French oak and made wines which were more fruit driven and laden with vanilla and toast from the oak. These wines were sometimes criticized for abandoning the traditions of the appellation and making wines that did not fit with the history.

Some of this is true. These modern wines were a bit overblown. The oak masked the characteristics of the Nebbiolo grape and the terroir of the region. But they also introduced other practices that have since been adopted by almost every producer. Some of these like the use of stainless steel, rotofermenters, shorter maceration times and better practices in the vineyard are taken for granted now. And the wines are better for them.

2004 Domenico Clerico Barolo ‘Ciabot Mentin Ginestra’

Clerico’s estate is in the heart of the Barolo appellation in the town of Monforte d’Alba. He crafts outstanding wines which express the exceptional terroir from his vineyard holdings in some of the top vineyards: Ginestra, Bussia, Pajana and Mosconi.

He was a key proponent of the modern Barolo movement making wines with more power and more rounded fruit. There was a time when new French barriques were employed for all of his Barolo. Now, the percentage of new oak is down. He is a believer that the grape is more important than the production method and is an advocate for the land in the winemaking process. This may explain his focus on single vineyard wines.

This wine comes from his 5.5 hectare plot in the Ginestra vineyard from vines planted between 1965 and 1970. Rotofermenters are used and the wine sees 24 months in French barriques, 80% of which is new.

2004 was an exceptional vintage in Barolo and this is an exceptional wine. It is ready now but can still be aged for another decade or so. That’s good because I still have a couple of bottles left. This is a great example of an aged Barolo. The fruit is still there with aromas of red cherry and red fruits but they are overshadowed by dried rose petal, underbrush, mushroom truffle, turned earth, iron and a touch of cocoa and cigar wrapper. The tannins have really mellowed but still have some grip. The acidity keeps everything lively. This took a few minutes in the glass to really come around but when it did it was special. The finish lasted for minutes. The only downside was the amount of sediment. I would say that at least a half a glass was undrinkable due to it. See above.

2008 Paolo Scavino Barolo ‘Carobric’

Scavino has always been one of my favorite producers. The wines are always good no matter the vintage. The wine making is exceptional. The attention to detail unmatched. Enrico Scavino’s winemaking philosophy has change over time but one thing has remained constant: his dedication  to hygiene in the cellars and the health of the grapes. This is something he inherited from his father Paolo and his grandfather. The estate has been in the family since 1921. In the 1950’s brothers Paolo and Alfonzo split the holdings and Enrico and his cousin Luigi took possession of prized holdings on the famed Fiasco hill. (Luigi is the owner of Azelia, another great producer)

Enrico employs the same winemaking for all of his Barolo. Exceptional care is taken in the vineyard to ensure the healthiest of grapes at low yields. The grapes are sorted and each plot is vinified separately, using only indigenous yeasts, in stainless steel tanks. The wines are aged in a combination of old French oak and large Slovenian oak before a time in stainless and then bottle before release. After the first year of ageing the wines are evaluated. Under performing lots are sold off in bulk and not included in the final blends.

2008 was a very good vintage that was cooler than average. A late warm spell saved the wines. They are still young and could do with a bit more time in the cellar but I thought this was drinking really well with some time in the glass. I would decant for about an hour or so.

This is a blend of three of Scavino’s best vineayrds: Rocche di Castiglioni, Cannubi and Fiasco. It offers a great interpretation of Barolo that is still evolving. The tannins are more present than the Clerico but well-integrated. There is more fruit on the nose with dark, black cherry, and stewed plums. Violets, rose and lilac fill the glass along with chalky earth, tar and cocoa. For a fairly young Barolo it was round and pleasant to drink. Actually it was delicious and kept getting better and better with time.

It was a good birthday for wine!