March 31, 2007
VERONA, Italy -- I could make the argument that Italy produces the world's greatest winemakers, but enophiles fond of the wines of the French, the Spanish, the United States and Australia would certainly argue the point.
None of those countries has elevated the winemaker to the status of rock star, however, quite like Italy. While making my rounds yesterday I bumped into a couple of Italy's most famous winemakers and tasted a number of extraordinary wines at the same time.
Not a bad day's work.
I remember the first time I met Roberto Cipresso. He rode up on a motorcycle in Montalcino and we tasted his wines, then went to lunch at a modest restaurant just outside of town. Cipresso at the time was making Brunello under his own label, La Fiorita, and also had become a partner in a new winery (at the time) in Mendoza, Argentina -- Achaval Ferrer -- that I believed was making the finest Malbec in the world.
Cipresso had a few other consulting gigs, but I was little prepared for my encounter at Vinitaly 2007. I made my way to the tiny La Fiorita stand for my appointment with Roberto only to learn that he had another stand -- a much larger stand -- in another pavilion.
I arrived at "Winemaking Roberto Cipresso" full of wonder. Cool jazz was playing and the booth was abuzz with visitors there to taste wines from the more than 25 labels Cipresso now produces.
I went through about 15 remarkable wines before I had to leave for other appointments, but I couldn't help but marvel at how Roberto's stock had grown.
"I used to like big, heavily extracted wines," Roberto told me. "Now I am more interested in balance and finesse, aroma ..."
Perhaps that is the secret to his success. It certainly works for Carlo Ferrini, who made the wines I tasted on my next two stops -- at Castello del Terriccio and Sette Ponti. Those are certainly among Italy's greatest wineries, but Ferrini's list of clients goes on. It's a veritable who's who of wine in Italy, including La Massa (Giorgio Primo) and Poliziano.
Ferrini, along with other winemaking giants such as Franco Bernabei and Riccardo Cotarella, has done more to change the face of Italian wine than anyone else in the business, including Angelo Gaja and Piero Antinori.
Suffice it to say, this was a very good tasting day for me at Vinitaly. I don't believe I tasted a bad wine all day, which could be some kind of record.
Photos: Top, the entrance to Winemaking Roberto Cipresso; middle, winemaker Roberto Cipresso; bottom, Dr. Antonio Moretti (left) of Sette Ponti with winemaker Carlo Ferrini.
March 30, 2007
VERONA, Italy -- Opening day at Vinitaly was all about discovery for me, although I considered myself reasonably familiar with two of the three producers in my appointment book.
I kicked it off by visiting with Chianti Classico's Castello di Gabbiano, which has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. Both Gabbiano's simple Chianti and estate-grown Chianti Classico are more impressive wines than they were a decade ago, and the Chianti Classico Riserva 2004 was quite good and an exceptional value.
"It's one of the few Chianti Classico Riservas that's closer to $20 than $30 at retail," noted Gabbiano Managing Director Ivano Reali.
What really caught my eye, however, was the most recent vintage of the "Super Tuscan" Alleanza, from the '04 vintage. They've played with the blend since the wine's inception in 1997 but with this vintage completely abandoned the estate's Cabernet Sauvignon in favor of a blend that is 95% Merlot and 5% Sangiovese.
I've long held that the Chianti region is one of the world's best spots for Merlot, and Gabbiano's 2004 Alleanza will help make that point. This is a lush, supple Tuscan red that's absolutely going to turn heads.
My next stop was in Campania, at the stand of the stellar producer Feudi di San Gregorio. I can report with utter confidence that the 2006 Greco di Tufo and 2006 Fiano di Avellino are stunning wines, but I was most taken by an old-vine Primitivo they're making from vines in neighboring Basilicata.
The 2004 Ognissole "Vigne Canuddi" is exceptional, with a lovely nose of black fruits and anise and a full, rich, supple mouthfeel. Luscious doesn't begin to describe it.
My final stop of the day was in the Friuli region, where I was blown away by the wines of La Tunella, particularly the indigenous Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla, both from the '06 vintage. Both wines exhibited exceptional intensity, balance and minerality.
In a clever marketing ploy, co-owner Massimo Zorzettig has labeled his Ribolla Gialla "Rjgialla" because he believes Ribolla Gialla is too much for most folks to spit out, pun intended. No matter how you say it, these wines from the Colli Orientali area of Friuli are remarkably good.
It was one of those "where have these wines been all my life" moments, but at least now I know!
Photos: Top, Gabbiano Managing Director Ivano Reali shows off a bottle of the 2004 Alleanza; bottom, La Tunella owner Massimo Zorzettig raises a glass of Tocai Friulano.
March 29, 2007
PARIS - I have been hearing for several months now that Willi's Wine Bar has some serious competition. So I decided to stop overnight in Paris on my way to Vinitaly and check out the buzz.
The newcomer (relatively speaking) is right around the corner from Willi's, at 47 rue de Richelieu, just a few blocks from the Lourve on Paris' right bank. It's called Juveniles and its reputation has gained momentum over the past six months with locals and visitors alike.
So I was somewhat surprised as I made my way through the front door. I had thought Willi's was tucked into a tiny space, but Juveniles could fit into Willi's twice. And there's really no bar in this wine bar; just a dozen or so bistro tables crammed together, one wall with wines stacked floor to ceiling and a small kitchen.
Juveniles won't dazzle, but it does have charm. The staff is young and friendly, the food simple but fresh, and the wines are well chosen and modestly priced. I noticed the wines on the wall all had two prices - one for takeaway, the other for consumption on the premises.
But what I liked most was the carafe concept. If you've ever visited Paris, you know every bistro offers carafes of wine. Usually in quantities of 25cl, 50cl and 75cl. The rub is usually the quality in the carafe. Bistro wines disappoint more often than they please.
Juveniles offers excellent wines from its nightly 'degustation' menu in these varying amounts, which is great for a person dining alone or even for two people who might want to start with a 25cl carafe of white as an aperitif and move on to a 50cl carafe of red with the main course.
I did precisely that, enjoying a Spanish cava as sort of a pre-dinner cocktail before washing down dinner with a 50cl carafe of red, a delicious Vacqueyras. And there was plenty left to have with cheese at the end of the meal.
All in all it was a good experience and I would certainly return, though I felt the tug of Willi's as I left Juveniles. So I walked around the corner to 13 rue des Petits-Champs, the location Willi's has been holding down behind the Palais Royal since 1980.
As I soaked up the atmosphere (as well as a glass of Cote-Rotie) I couldn't help but marvel at Willi's long run as a Paris icon, almost without challenge. The food at Willi's is a good as ever (and more elegant, I must say, than the faire at Juveniles) and the wine list is deep and well chosen.
And Willi's does have a bar, albeit a small one with only about ten stools. And it has style, as well as those famous, or infamous if you prefer, Willi's Wine Bar posters.
Yet Willi's has had the field to itself for far too long for a city the size of Paris. Oh, there is wine by the glass everywhere. But a bistro on every corner hardly guarantees good wine at every stop. So I applaud Juveniles. Willi's is still the benchmark for Paris wine bars, but Juveniles has expanded the options for Parisian wine enthusiasts and thirsty travelers weary of tired and lackluster bistro wines.
March 25, 2007
I'm endlessly fascinated by the intricacies of pairing wine and food. And I love arguing over the merits of particular pairings. As a subject for a friendly dispute around the table, food pairings are right up there with politics and cinema. Naturally, however, there are limits to such arguments, as certain assertions are simply, indisputably wrong.
Heading this list are the notions that beer or spirits can seriously challenge wine as a food enhancer. There's no point in dignifying this sort of world-is-flat proposition with a serious response. I spent years leading a live, interactive show discussing wine on washingtonpost.com before leaving to help start Wine Review Online, and I could always get along with everyone. Everyone, that is, except the occasional guy (invariably, a guy) who would contend indignantly that beer can be as interesting at the table as wine. I found it best to dismiss such contentions summarily, as in, "thank you for your post, sir, but aside from partnering with pastrami sandwiches, your claim is idiotic."
So it is with considerable alarm and contrition that I now confess to having been wrong. My eureka moment arose last weekend, while dining with friends at the Veranda Bar at Elbow Beach, Bermuda. Operated by the high-end Mandarin Oriental Group, the Veranda is Bermuda's only rum bar, with over 100 different rums to work in concert with the offerings of Chef Terence Clark. Audaciously billed as the "Ultimate Rum Dinner," each course was paired with a rum-based cocktail.
Yes, this sounded implausible to me, too. But it worked, and in one case it worked spectacularly well. Bermuda Fish Chowder was very good with a Traditional Mojito, and Baked Black Grouper Filet went remarkably well with a Dark n' Stormy. The dessert course, Coconut Espuma with Pineapple Chutney, tasted great with a Piña Colada. But the real eye-opener was the pairing of Grilled Scallops with Scallions & Lemongrass Stock with--get this--a Daiquiri. The light sweetness of the drink picked up the fresh sweetness of the scallops, and was perfectly counterbalanced by the acidity from lime juice and the lemongrass in the dish. Even the texture of the match was just right.
If given enough chances, I might have come up with a wine that could produce an equally excellent match. But I very much doubt that I could have surpassed that Daiquiri with a glass of wine. So, I stand corrected on my former conviction that no other beverage can compete with wine in providing magical synergies with top-notch foods.
A concluding note for those who may try this on their own: I have been fiddling around with different mixes for the past few days to figure out how Michael Schmidt of the Veranda concocted that killer drink, and part of the secret appears to be the rum he used. It is a new product called "10 Cane," and it is quite unusual in being a light rum with real delicacy but nevertheless a lot of subtle flavor. Made in Trinidad from pure sugarcane juice (rather than molasses), it is priced at $36 and is a terrific spirit.
March 13, 2007
Winemaker Adam LaZarre of Hahn Estates and Smith & Hook Winery seems to have the magic touch when it comes to wine competition sweepstakes.
LaZarre wines won Best of Show awards at four major wine competitions last year -- remarkably, with four different wines.
He captured the Best of Show red wine category over the weekend at the Monterey Wine Competition with a 2005 Hahn Estate Cabernet Franc ($22), marking the second consecutive Best of Show red title at that competition.
Last year he took the same honor with the 2004 Hahn Estate Merlot. The kicker? LaZarre was a judge at this year's Monterey competition and didn't even vote for his own wine in the sweepstakes.
I should note that Hahn's 2005 Merlot also made it to the sweepstakes round and finished third.
Wine Review Online will link to the full results of the MWC within a week or so, but in the meantime anyone who would like an email version of the excel spreadsheet should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 8, 2007
KING CITY, Calif. -- I'm slogging away today in the wine cellar at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds, getting ready for this weekend's 14th annual Monterey International Wine Competition.
One of the quaint aspects of California's wine competition landscape is that many of them are staged at regional fairgrounds. The Monterey competition, which I've run since its inception in 1994, is held here in the heart of the Salinas Valley.
I've spent many a Spring afternoon tending my cellar chores while listening to the squeal of pigs being walked past our wine storage building by local members of the 4H Club.
Today the fairgrounds are awash with school children from the area. This is "Farm Day" and the local kids are getting an up-close look at farm equipment and livestock and all of the other tappings of farm life in an agricultural community.
Of course, wine grapes are part of the culture, along with garlic, onions, broccoli, aspargus and all manner of lettuce greens. I'm proud of the fact that proceeds from the Monterey competition help support the Salinas Valley Fair's efforts to provide a valuable resource for this community.
I'm reminded of that every time I see the local kids come to the fairgrounds to ready their animals for the fair (in mid-May) and learn about their agricultural heritage here in this bountiful valley.
Yep, they still shoe horses the old fashioned way, the best looking swine always wins a blue ribbon, and you can pig out on cotton candy and corn dogs until you're about to explode at the Fair, right here in Americana . . . King City, California.
March 6, 2007
MONTALCINO, Italy -- Much as I feel right at home in this cozy Tuscan hill town, I welcome the addition of a Relais & Chateau caliber accommodation in the countryside.
The stone streets of Montalcino are full of history, from the Fortezza that guards the city from its highest point to the outside walls that kept enemies at bay through centuries of war and civil turbulence.
On a warm summer evening the aroma of the local pasta, pinci, covered in a cinghale-based meat sauce, wafts from nearly every small taverna. It is a great place to kill a lazy night or two. But there are no top-notch hotels.
A couple of small three-star hotels, Vecchia Oliviera and Dei Capitani, serve in a pinch and both provide spectacular views toward Montepulciano and Siena to the east, but neither would be considered luxurious in even the most stretched of imaginations.
There is an alternative, the newly opened Il Borgo Banfi, an accomodation of a dozen or so rooms and small cottages within the gates of the Castello Banfi wine estate. Adjacent to the castle itself, in fact.
I toured Borgo Banfi briefly during the Benvenuto Brunello in February and was impressed with the physical space, including large bedrooms and bathrooms (rare for the Italian countryside, much less in a 15th century building).
The rooms are beautifully appointed, modestly lavish on a par with such exceptional wine country properties as the Napa Valley's Meadowood resort and Bordeaux's lovely Les Sources de Caudalie.
What you also get at Borgo Banfi is the serenity of the countryside accompanied by a Michelin one-star restaurant; the more modestly priced Taverna, which specializes in regional Tuscan cuisine; and the surroundings of the spectacular Castello Banfi, including a working Balsameria and a comfortable tasting room.
Rates are not inexpensive, beginning at more than 300 euro per night, but in line with similar accomodations in the world's other great wine regions. For more information, visit www.castellobanfiilborgo.com.
PHOTOS: Top, one of the small cottages at Borgo Banfi on the Castello Banfi estate near Montalcino; center, a frontal view of the castle; bottom, a bird's-eye view of the Banfi balsameria.
March 3, 2007
BLENHEIM, New Zealand: It was 8:45 on my first morning in Marlborough, New Zealand, where I'd just arrived on a trip to serve as Chief Judge for a new wine competition here later this week. And what's on the docket? A tasting of 23 wines. At 8:45 a.m.
Gulp. I never, ever get sick of wine. But that isn't quite the same as saying that I've always got exactly the same level of attraction to it, and this is a little early for my taste. Nevertheless, my host is very eager to get at it, and Jeremy McKenzie, a new member of the winemaking team at Villa Maria Estate, actually arrives early at my lodging to get us underway as quickly as possible.
Jeremy seems to bounce with energy as he trots up to the sliding glass door to my room, whereas I saunter to greet him with only one sock on. This isn't exactly the image I wish to project for a first impression, but he's early and I'm jet-lagged out of my gourd, so that's the way it goes.
On the drive to Villa Maria, Jeremy explains why we're starting so early. Get this: He's got to conclude the tasting by 10:30 to make it to the noon start of a race in which he and a partner need to cover 60 miles over 24 hours, including running during nighttime hours, working only with a rudimentary map. Yikes!
So, I ask, you've been training for this, right? Jeremy explains that no, he hasn't really been able to train much during the past two weeks, as he's been working a lot and spending most of his discretionary time hunting wild boar in the outback with his three pig dogs.
You run into some pretty hard core characters in this part of the world, and I've obviously just run into one of them. This gets my pulse rate up to an adequate level, and arrival at the winery helps with that also, since Villa Maria is a terrific company that can measure up to any producer in the world. That is proved once again by those 23 wines, many of which I'll review on WRO in the next few weeks.
We wind things up at 10:30 on the dot, and Jeremy is out the door like a shot, flashing the winning smile of a guy who just might win that race.
I spent the balance of the day checking out some gorgeous vineyards with Vanessa Barker, a very interesting viticulturalist for Villa Maria. And in retrospect, even if I wouldn't have chosen that 8:45 start if left to my own devices, I wouldn't have wanted to miss a minute of the day.