Posted by: tomciocco | September 21, 2014

MY OH MAYOLET!

More often than not, the old saw that says that “good things come in small packages” is true, and when it comes to Italy’s smallest region Valle d’Aosta, it’s true in spades.

To be most accurate, Valle d’Aosta is an “Italian” region rather than an “italian” one. That is to say, the valdostani (as they are called by their fellow “italians”) are ethicnically and culturally part of an Alpine Gallic culture that has little to no connection with most of the rest of the populations of the Italian peninsula.

The people of valle d’aosta are linguistically part of the “Franco-Provencal” continuum of tongues that are together sometimes referred to as “Arpitan” which are spoken in Valle d’Aosta, southwestern Switzerland, and greater Alpine France. Despite the relatively limited extension of the Arpitan language, there are literally scores of quite divergent dialects that developed and survived due to the region’s remoteness and percipitously steep and heavily forested mountain terrain.

And, at least here, what goes for language also goes for vines. Valle d’Aosta is smaller than the state of Rhode Island, but within this diminutive region there are far more authocthonous vine varieties than any similarly sized area can show for itself. In addition to the more widely grown and famous “foreign” varieties like Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir and Merlot, Valle d’Aosta boasts such exclusive endemic varieities like Neyret, Cornalin, Vien de Nus, Premette, Petite Rouge, Fumin, and the variety that is the subject of this post, Neyret, and that’s not even a complete list, and all those listed are just the red grapes; there are almost as many exclusively Valdostan white varieties too. What biological wonders can be created from extreme isolation in an extreme climate at high altitudes, eh?

In terms of what Mayolet is like in the glass on your table, it tends to a bright acidity with a very smooth tannic structure and fine and pretty flavors/aromas of Marasca cherry, purple flowers and often a softly bitter finish. Not surprisingly, nothing matches better with wines like this than the dishes native to the region, so in keeping, I paired this pretty Alpine maiden of a wine with a Savoy cabbage, Fontina valdostana cheese and bread soup followed by a classic and quite refined Valdostan stew called carbonade with soft polenta (what else?).

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Coenfer “Vin des Seigneurs” Vallee` d’Aoste Mayloet 2012

Slightly pinkish purple/garnet color. Complex nose of black raspberry, myrtle, blackberry, dry leaves, violet, dark caramel, dark spices, and minerals. In the mouth the wine is medium weight with tart and spunky acidity and softly dry tannins that reveal sweet and sour flavors of underripe red currants, black cherry, wild blueberry, black pepper, roasted walnuts, and mocha. Lightly dusty bitter almond finish.

Posted by: tomciocco | September 18, 2014

CIRO` – A WINE FOR HEROS AND CHAMPIONS

In terms of wine, and frankly, in terms of lots of other things too, the Calabria region (which makes up the “toe” of the “boot”) is under-represented and often just flat out ignored. That said, this situation has its causes. Calabria, being a thinnish peninsula and very mountainous, is geographically quite isolated from the rest of Italy, not to mention the rest of Europe or the world, so to a large degree, what happens in Calabria stays in Calabria if you will. Further, taken as a whole, it is one of Italy’s poorest regions, so achieving any sort of economic “escape velocity” to launch its produce into the wider market is not easy. And in a sort of combination of the first two factors, Calabria’s coasts are rocky and therefore not blessed with any real deep-water ports so shipping is that much harder, and the lack of mass trade as a result helps to reduce Calabria’s economic footprint.

This is a region and people however, that delights in their isolation. There are pockets of Calabria where people still speak what would be considered to be a contemporary version of ancient Greek – a true linguistic artifact from Greek colonization that ended well over 2,000 years ago. And unbeknownst to most non-Italians, Calabria has its own ancient organized crime syndicate called the ‘Ndrangheta that is far more secretive and self-effacing than either Sicily’s Mafia or Campania’s Camorra. Traditionally, Calabria was THE place to hide for any of these three gangs when the heat of the law was on because there are many blind valleys and completely uninhabited mountain regions. In almost every sense of the term, Calabria is “provincial”…

There is, however, at least one vivticultural product of renown, and that is the wine that goes by name of Ciro`. Made from the unequivocally noble red grape Gaglioppo (which genetically appears to be the “son” of Sangiovese, and more distantly related to other Italian red varieties like Ciliegiolo, Frappato and Nerello Mascalese) that as far as I’m concerned is the “Barolo of the South” despite the fact that that distinction is often granted to Aglianico, which for me is a serious mis-characterization. All this understood, Galioppo has no genetic connection whatsoever with Nebbiolo.

The history of this variety is very long. It was mentioned by name as early as the 13th century, and there are references to a grape that closely matches the description of Gaglioppo in ancient Greek texts outlining its close association with the ancient Greek Olympics where it was given to competing athletes both as a purported boost to performance before the events as well as a prize to the champions after. As a result of this legend the contemporary Italian Olympic team is always served Ciro` wine with their meals at the games.

Despite all of this association with Greece and the notion that the Hellenic lands were the origin of this great variety, the latest genetic tests done show no kinship whatsoever with any Greek grape variety. In terms of physical characteristics, Gaglioppo (which grows all over Calabria, but reaches its fullest potential in the Ciro` zone) is quite hardy, it being resistent to both cold temperatures and lack of percipitation with its only Achilles Heel being powdery mildews resulting from too much rain. Gaglioppo thrives in clay and/or soils high in silica, and ripens on the later side of the season. Not surprisngly, Calabria’s long, dry, and sunny growing season is perfectly suited to growing Gaglioppo. Go figure…

As I mentioned above, Ciro` Gaglioppo, despite the rugged and rustic landscape from whence it comes, is almost shockingly fine and sophisticated, with elegant, dry tannins, wild berry flavors and frequent aromas of dried flowers. And though Ciro` can do a pretty good impression of Barolo, it has a robustness and a friendly character that Barolo/Nebbiolo doesn’t which makes it a great match for the bold, rustic and often spicy cuisine of Calabria. As a result, I matched this wine with a first course of toasts topped with a hash of black olives, olive oil, red pepper flakes, onion and basil followed by a main course of pork tenderloin medallions browned and then braised with tomato, red pepper, mushrooms, oregano and white wine.

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‘A Vita Ciro` 2008

Transparent brownish/brick ruby color. Complex nose of raspberry preserves, watermelon, red currant, earthy underbrush, dried flowers, cocoa, plastic bandages, sage, licorice and brown spices. In the mouth the wine is medium light with wiry, dry and smooth tannic frame and a tart acidity and an overall balanced and elegantly austere mouthfeel with flavors of black cherry, mulberry, strawberry, roasted chestnut, seaweed, and toasted almond. Long, warm and complex finish.

Posted by: tomciocco | September 12, 2014

BAGA: A PORTUGUESE CHAMPION (THAT CAN BE A DUD)

The worldwide range of wine grapes is full of cultivars that, for one (or many) reason(s) are notoriously difficult to cultivate, and therefore make great wine from. This dubious distinction can be associated with such celebrated varieties like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Monastrell to name just a few. These are grapes that, if the season is cooperative, the site is right and the skill of the winemaker is high, can make truly sublime wine, but should any of these or any number of other factors be too far out of true – look out – baaaad drinking on the horizon. Not surprisingly, most vine varieties that make good to great wine are NOT particularly fussy, and most that are are not particularly well known because few growers have the guts or the money to continually risk making sub-standard wine, or even no wine at all.

The Portuguese grape named Baga falls clearly into the camp of “fine but fussy and unknown”. Baga (which means “berry” in Portuguese) likely originates in the Dao region in north-central Portugal where it still grows, but over the centuries, the vine has seen its acreage in Dao diminish and increase in Dao’s immediately neighboring region to the south, Bairrada. The major issue with Baga is that it ripens very late, both in terms of sugars as well as phenolics, and it is also very susceptible to bunch rot, especially botrytis. This dichotomy often forces growers to harvest Baga before it is fully ripened to avoid losing the crop to rot. Couple these issues with the fact that Baga, even when it has reached its full potential, makes a highly structured and often somewhat austere wine, causes less than perfectly mature Baga fruit to yield, thin, hard, green wines that never soften even though as a rule Baga is excpetionally ageworthy.

Knowing all this, it becomes easier to understand why much more Baga is raised in the somewhat drier and sunnier Bairrada than in its cloudier and damper homeland of Dao. Attemps have been made to plant Baga in the very dry and often hellaciously hot Douro, but this doesn’t seem to agree with the vine either; too much of “good” thing so to speak – all that extra heat and lack of rain replaces Baga’s almost Nebbiolo-like noble and elegant complexity with a quite thick, clumsy and ham-fisted character. Like I said, fussy….

Thankfully, this example of Baga comes from one of Bairrada’s most best and most reliable producers and from an exceptionally great vintage too, so there’s nary a trace of any of the flaws that the grape is often heir too. Maybe more than most Portuguese wines, Baga matches especially well with traditional Portuguese fare, so to make the most of this propensity I put this very bold and muscular wine with a first course of a partially pureed soup of chick peas, potatoes, spinach, et al. flavored with marjoram and cilantro followed by a casserole of bacalhau (salt cod) with cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, chourico sausage and soft-set eggs.

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Sidonio DeSousa Bairrada Baga 2008 

Deep, slightly blackish garnet color. Super elegant and decisive nose blackberry, black currant, strawberry preserves, dried red flowers, wet stones, mixed brown spices, black truffle, and cigar tobacco. In the mouth the wine is medium-full bodied with fine, sophisticated, and wonderful slightly austere tannins and crunchy acidity that beautifully frame balanced flavors of red plums, dried cranberry, myrtle, juniper, coffee, black pepper, and tar. Fantastically dry/tart finish. Really great stuff.


Let’s face facts, Tuscany, maybe more than any other Italian region, is known for the production of red wine, and mostly from the many permutations of the great Sangiovese variety under such well known appellation names like Chianti (Classico, Colli Senesi, Rufina etc.), Brunello, Morellino di Scansano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to name just a few. But when it comes to white wines, the (good) examples are few and far between.

 Unfortunately, all too many Tuscan white wine appellations rely heavily on the Trebbiano Toscano grape which even at its best, is rarely more than just a crisp and pleasant quaffer. In the Maremma, along the southern Tuscan coast, there is a fair amount of Vementino and Ansonica grown, both of which are quite characterful grapes but unfortunately their cultivation is confined only to this region, and neither variety is made by every Maremma producer, and by those who do vinify them, typically only in small quantities.

 And then there is Vernaccia di San Gimignano. As the name indicates, Vernaccia (which comes from the same root as the word “vernacular” and which in this case refers to it being a “local” cultivar) di San Gimignano is native to the very beautiful medieval but altogether too touristy city of the same name. Grape science scholars have determined that Vernaccia di San Gimignano is quite an ancient variety that as several old sources have testified to, was once one of the most sought after white wines in Italy as well as in markets abroad.

Sadly, the town of San Gimignano’s heavy tourist trade has become the central reason for Vernaccia’s fall from its once lofty perch. As the buses disgorge thousands of hungry and thisty tourists from all corners of the globe into the town’s main piazza, all too many of them are herded into less than optimal touristic restaurants whose tables are invariably filled with carafes of less than carefully made Vernaccia. As a variety, Vernaccia is easy to grow, is not especially susceptible to the most virulent vine diseases, and consistently produces large yields. So even though Vernaccia can make a really interesting and distinctive wine, its prolific and hardy nature make it the perfect candidate for overproduction with a view toward ringing the registers rather than utilizing its considerable organoleptic charms to make truly interesting wine.

 Tonight we drank an example of Vernaccia di San Gimignano that actually lives up to its potential. As a rule, good Vernaccia can be just a touch bubbly, with a great freshness and minerality and an intense range of notes of yellow and green fruits paired with a savory, nutty richness. Once upon a time, Vernaccia di San Gimignano was something like Italy’s white Burgundy, and producers like this show that it has the chance to return to its former glory.

 I matched this really great example of Vernaccia with a first course of tagliatelle with yellow peppers, celery and pancetta followed by a main course of battered (that is pan-fried in a batter, not physically abused)chicken breasts in a lemon and wine sauce with a side of peas with fried sage.

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Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2011

Quite deep golden color with a greenish tint. Sophisticated and elegant aromas of lemon rind, lime juice, peach nectar, aromatic white spices, almond, hay, cocoa butter and sour cream. In the mouth the wine is medium full-bodied with fresh but still deep and intense flavors of gooseberry, apricot, apple butter, ginger, mixed dried herbs, and light-colored honey. Very complex, very long, warm and bitterish finish. Top notch.

Posted by: tomciocco | September 5, 2014

IN PRAISE OF VINS DE PAYS

The great wine nation of France is positively brimming with super prestigious (and super expensive) wines: grand cru Burgundy, classed growth Bordeaux, Sauternes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Montlouis to just hit the highlights. There is another vast world of more basic though often very expressive and terroir-driven wines that are made all over France, many of which are not exported, but that can provide another view of wine, and they go by the name of vins de pays ( pronounced “van deh payee”).

The name vin de pays translates as “country wine” and that’s precisely what they are – bottlings that are not held to as many rules and standards as are the prestigious A.O.C. are, but wines which, because of their rusticity, often better capture the places from which they come. Once upon a time, many if not most vins de pays were sold locally, often in large demijons, and intended for everyday consumption. But as the demand for the more prestigious wines like the ones outlined above began to rise globally, many winemakers saw the opportunities for more sales, and a trend to make vins de pays with a little more polish and consistency was born.

 And so we come to this particular wine which is a vin de pays d’oc (country wine from the so-called Languedoc) from the Aude department in the Mediterranean southwestern corner of France. This area is a very dry and sun-drenched part of the country that contains landmarks such as the Carcassonne castle and the ancient Roman city of Narbonne. The land in this region is quite rugged and rocky and the wines that come from it reflect this character: deep, burly, powerful and intensely and rustically fruity.

 This cuvee` is a blend of 80% Cinsault and 20% Syrah grown on blocks facing the Mediterranean Sea on chalky silt and decomposing sandstone which brings to the wine an elegance not typically found in most vins de pays. Cinsault is typically red fruited and a touch spicy, but always with good alcohol levels, so to preserve the lighter purity of this variety, this portion of the blend is aged for just 5 months in stainless steel tanks. Syrah, which is chewy and dark, stands up beautifully to oak aging, indeed to increase the body and complexity in the final product, the Syrah musts age in oak. But this is after all still a “country wine” so the yeast used in fermentation is wild and local, and after blending, the wine is only lightly filtered.

 Don’t be confused – this is not a supremely refined and elegant wine, but what it lacks in sophistication it makes up in gutsy, hearty earthiness and the ability to really paint a picture of its native land. Not all vins de pays are this good, but the ones that are can be as satisfying an experience as many an A.O.C.

 To match this wine’s strapping muscularity, I served toasts with Cantal cheese, roasted red peppers and mint, followed by a main course of monkfish braised with tomatos, potatoes and olives with rosemary, oregano, and bay leaf.

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Domaine De Boede Le Pavillon Pays D’Oc 2012

Bright, dark purple color with pink at the rim. Earthy and ever so slightly funky aromas of plum, black currant, cranberry sauce, chalk, underbrush, red flowers, licorice and allspice. In the mouth the wine is full-bodied and perfectly balanced with a fresh and vivacious acidity and smooth tannins and crunchy fruit flavors of cherry, boysenberry, strawberry preserves, and notes of bacon and roasted chestnut. Long sweet and sour finish. A great value.

There are few grapes that elicit the reverence and the accolades that Pinot Noir does, and deservedly so. Likewise, there are few wine drinkers, winemakers or wine critics that will deny that Pinot Noir is one of the greatest grape variety ever husbanded by humankind, white, pink, red or black.

 As most folks know, Pinot Noir’s homeland is in Burgundy, France and there is also little controversy surrounding the common wisdom that the very finest Pinot Noir wines are produced there. That said, they can also be the most variable vintage to vintage, the most expensive, and all too often the ones that don’t live up to their elevated reputation.

 Beginning about 40 or so years ago it was discovered that certain areas of Oregon (like the now celebrated Willamette Valley) were the ideal alternative terroirs to grow Pinot Noir (almost?) as good as had been done in the grape’s motherland in France. And now there is my beloved and native New Jersey. No snickering. Really.

It comes as a huge shock to most wine people that New Jersey makes wine at all, much less some really good wine, and least of all some really fine Pinot Noir, but like it or not, that’s the way it is. In fact, New Jersey boasts over 50 wineries, and more are in the works. Now not all of these producers are turning out world-class wines, but there are a couple of handfuls that are, and tonight we drank one of them.

Established in 1982 in the little village of Finesville in Warren County about 7 or 8 miles from the Delaware River, Alba Vineyards has long been considered one of New Jersey’s top producers. Alba is nestled in beautiful, verdant patch of land in the Musconetcong River Valley (it’s a small, fast-running tributary of the Delaware) and more particularly, it rests on a swath of loose limestone soil which is a great rarity in any east coast wine region (even the great viticultural wine state of California has very little of this great vinophilic material) and which does wonderful things for Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, not to mention Riesling which arguably excels here more than any other place in the New World. 

Western New Jersey’s winters can be quite long and harsh which led to many producers all over the state to plant so called “French/American hybrid” varieties like the red Chambourcin and the white Traminette (both of which are grown at Alba) but as more and more is understood about the terroir and which clones work best in it, the percentages of pure vitis vinifera continues to rise. In addition to the cold in this region which is contained in a bona fide A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area) that goes by the name of Warren Hills, is the issue of water. In the perfect scenario, vineyards should get less percipitation than New Jersey wineries typically receive, and they’re more comfortable getting it in the winter rather than in the form of summer downpours than inevitably fall in the area. But all that said, Alba’s rough, limestone soils, the steady winds flowing down the Delaware Valley and fairly steeply pitched vineyard sites allow them to drain and dry rapidly, dramtically minimizing problems of dilution and moisture-based vine diseases.

 All of these site factors make for a truly fine, no-apologies-necessary home for Pinot Noir and the other cool climate varieties mentioned above, and Alba is also showing great early results with plantings of varieties like Pinot Gris and even Barbera. Now I wouldn’t say that Burgundy or Willamette or the The Langhe are yet quaking in their muddy boots considering the threat coming out of The Warren Hills, but like Plainfield, N.J. native George Clinton of Parliament says in his song Chocolate City: “GAININ’ ON YA!”

To keep this whole thing as much of a New Jersey affair as possible I made a cream of tomato (from my neighbor’s garden) soup with locally grown mint, followed by a main course of cornmeal (best corn in the USA! – especially sweet white corn) crusted chicken breasts stuffed with Taylor ham (“Trenton makes, the world takes”) and scamorza cheese made just up the street here in Jersey City, and a side of kale grown at a farm in Wyckoff…You got a problem with that?

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Alba Vineyards Warren Hills Pinot Noir 2010

Brownish/blackish medium garnet color. Rustically elegant and minerally aromas of blackberry, plum, currant syrup, mocha, briar, gingerbread, pickling spices, and dried flowers. The palate is medium-weight with a tart and juicy acidity and dry tannins with flavors of black cherry, myrtle, wild blueberry, juniper, dried herbs and ground cloves. Complex and savory finish.

 

Posted by: tomciocco | August 30, 2014

CAREMA THE CROP

The Piedmont region in northwestern Italy is positively riddled with D.O.C. and D.O.C.G.-level appellations that highlight if not exclusively prescribe Nebbiolo as their grape variety: Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Ghemme, Faro, Lessona et al. And though the latter two are fairly obscure regions, Carema has got them all beat both in terms of obscurity as well as geographical remoteness.

Located directly next to Italy’s smallest (and largely Francophone) region Valle D’Aosta, the Carema zone is MINISCULE. There are only TWO – count ‘em, TWO – producers in the tiny town of Carema: a private winery by the name of Ferrando and the producer of this wine, Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, a co-operative concern with almost 80 member/growers that farm a total of just 42 acres of vineyards. That’s it. 

As you might expect from its location, Carema sports the highest altitude vineyards in Piedmont, and some of the highest in all of Italy, with some vineyard sites located close to 2,000 feet above sea level. Most of the vines are grown on precipitously steep slopes that are terraced to make working them a little more manageable. Not surprisingly, this area is quite cold and snowy in the winter time, so most if not all of Carema’s vines are trained high to prevent them from being completely snowed under and to also allow the strong sun found at this altitude to warm the more sensitive business ends of the vines which serves to maximally promote spring budding and foliage development in this harsh environment.

And though Carema is just as much a Nebbiolo wine as Barolo for example, when all is said and done, the two wines could hardly be more different. First, in Carema, as in many of the more northerly Piedmontese Nebbiolo-heavy appelations, the so-called Picutener and Pugnet clones of Nebbiolo populate the vineyards rather than the Michet and Lampia types that inhabit more southerly growing zones like Barolo. Then there is the soil. The Barolo region is largely composed of either calcareous marls or dense sandstone while Carema’s soil is rocky limestone. And as previously mentioned, Carema is considerably cooler year-round then any part of the Langhe.

Not surprisingly, all of these factors conspire to produce much lighter-colored, feminine, and etherally scented wines with lower alcohol levels. In fact, the clonal differences and the radically different terroirs ultimately produce such divergent results that many a drinker would be hard-pressed to believe that these two wines were produced in the same region from the same grape variety. And though it might be heresy to say, more times than not I’d take the Carema over the Barolo: it’s a better value economically, it matures more quickly (though it is still quite ageworthy), and it’s far more versatile at the table. Carema is not something you’re likely to turn up at your corner liquor store, but if and/or when you do run across a bottle, grab it and see just how easy-going and pretty Nebbiolo can be.

I mated this very elegant wine with a first course of mushroom risotto, followed by a pork tenderloin roasted with prunes, apricots, herbs, shallots and wine with a side of roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

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Cantina Produttori dei Nebbiolo di Carema 2010

Slightly browned pale brick red color. Very elegant and evocative nose of wild blueberry and strawberry, dried roses, pine sap, cinnamon, mocha and wood smoke. The palate is medium light in body with a beautiful balance between fine, smooth but wiry tannins and a juicy, nervy acidity that conveys fine and complex flavors of cranberry, black cherry, raspberry, roasted chestnut, licorice, and minerals. Long and slightly austere sweetly earthy finish. A tremendous value.

Posted by: tomciocco | August 27, 2014

ALBILLA FAN FOR LIFE

The endeavor of ampelography (the identification and classification of grape vine cultivars) is as fascinating task as it is a slippery one. At its inception, this work was based mainly on readily identifiable physiological characteristics such as leaf shape and size, berry color and shape, bunch structure and form among other characteristics. And until the advent of DNA testing, this sort of taxonomic system served viticulturalists fairly well, but it’s not difficult to imagine how it can and did also lead to false results – the world is full of plants and animals that share many, many physical traits, but turn out to be completely unrelated. And indeed even DNA analysis, though it is far more reliable than traditional ampelography, can lead to inconclusive results depending on which and how many data points are tested.

 But let’s refocus down to the level of a singular example of this as yet imperfect system of classification in the form of the grape variety (vareities in reality – sort of…) known as “Albilla” or just as often, “Albillo”. Without getting too deeply into the weeds of ampelographic DNA research, there are at least 7 varieties that carry the name Albilla (usually with some modifier such as “Real”, “Mayor”, “Blanco” etc. stuck on at the end ), that have been determined to be either varieties that are known by other more commonly accepted names, but most of which turn out to be completely unrelated varieties that simply bear the Albilla name, and this evening’s wine falls firmly in the latter category.

Hailing from the southeasternmost region of Castilla-La Mancha in the area around the cities of Albacete and Cuenca ( hence its (un)official name “Albilla de Albacete”), tonight’s wine is made from a white grape variety that is almost certainly unrelated to its other namesake varieties. Further, Albilla de Albacete is perhaps the rarest variety to carry the name. Most of the other “Albillas” can be found under this name (and others as well), in multiple regions of Spain as well as in North Africa, Sardinia and a few other places too. But as far as anyone knows thus far, Albilla de Albacete is a unique cultivar that is absolutely peculiar to the area around Albacete/Cuenca.

So, you might ask, how does all of this pop science apply to the average wine drinker? Well, in a way not at all, and in another, it’s critical. Focusing on the latter distinction, of all of the “Albillas/Albillos”, Albilla de Albacete is likely the rarest as well as the “noblest” and most complete, which unlike most of the others, enables it to be bottled unblended. Albilla de Albacete tends to have a muscular structure that can easily carry the higher alcohol levels that it typically produces, and which can also greatly benefit from some oak aging (this particular wine is fermented in oak barrels and then aged in medium-sized French oak barrels for eight months). In terms of general flavor and aroma profile, Albillo de Albacete is big and mouth-filling but never lacking a sassy acidity, and with rich sweet and sour citrus and green fruit flavors. It’s not the sort of wine that you’d soon forget, and I for one have made a new friend in this southeastern Spaniard, and one for which I’ll keep an eye out for in my oenological travels.

To go with this bold bottle, I served toasts with a spread not too dissimilar from Sicily’s caponata, composed of eggplant, yellow squash, green olives, celery, onions, cilantro and tomatoes followed by grilled chicken tenderloin skewers marinated in a almond, garlic, pimenton, oregano, cumin, ground coriander, oil and sherry vinegar paste with carrot, pea and spinach white rice on the side.

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Bodegas y Vinedos Ponce Manchuela Blanco “Reto” 2013

Pale, “white gold” color. Subtle aromas of green melon, peach, tree sap, ground pine nuts, dried ginger, candied fennel, broom and lilac. The palate is quite expansive, well structured and slightly austere with a deep, zippy acidity with flavors of tangerine, gooseberry, white currants and very subtle cream and vanilla flavors, all underpinned by a fine, chalky minerality. The wine finishes with a long, warm and clean bitterish finish.

Posted by: tomciocco | August 22, 2014

COMING FROM SOME FUNNY PLACES…

 …and it’s a good thing too. This is definitely not the first semi-rant I’ve launched on this topic and it almost certainly won’t be the last, but here goes. Europe is the original home to vitis vinifera and its thousands of cultivars, as well as “wine culture” in general. Places from Georgia all the way to Portugal have had literally millennia to develop all manner of grape varieties (work done by human hands as well as spontaneously by nature) and wine styles. The value of a long patrimonies like Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Chianti Classico cannot be underestimated.

 But this evening’s wine, which hails from California (El Dorado County in the northeastern part of the state not far from Lake Tahoe, to be specific) which has a winemaking tradition that is barely 150 years old at best. Initially, it was easy to understand the reliance on producing the “Meritage” blend (read “Bordeaux”) or the Rhone blend: these are great traditions in winemaking and if folks 150 or 100 or even 50 years ago knew anything at all about wine, these are the styles of wines that had notoriety and therefore also had traction in the market, but at a lower prices.

 But flashing forward to the 21st century, why have so few producers moved away from these Old World styles,which were all developed for their home terroirs, and not developed the blends or varietal wines that work for their regions? Let’s face it, growing and bottling Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in hot and sunny Napa Valley when these types of wines originate and thrive in cool, damp, and often cloudy Burgundy. Well, they did it and still do it this way for basically the same reason they always have – it’s the most reliable path to steady sales; it’s for the same reason that early premium Japanese cars looked like Mercedes Benzes and Ferraris.

 A change in this approach is long overdue, and thankfully more and more New World winemakers have realized that the terroirs in which they work are now fully understood and that they also need feel no shame about the potential of their growing zones. This is one such wine.

What we have in this evening’s wine is a blend of 72% Vermentino and 28% Grenache Blanc grown in some of the highest (over 2,000 feet in elevation) and coolest wine regions in The Golden State. Both of these varieties are endemic to crescent of the Riviera (Liguria in Italy and coastal Provence in France as well as the islands of Corsica and Sardegna) in the northern Mediterranean, but you’d be looking a long time in this area to find these two varieties blended in tandem and in these proportions. Further, El Dorado County is 200 miles from the sea and the areas of the Riviera that has traditionally hosted these varieties has no elevations that even approach the heights at which these vines are cultivated to produce this wine.

Often, taking grape varieties out of their cultivational comfort zones and planting them in radically different ones yields consistently questionable results (see above) but sometimes it works, and this is one of those cases. The overarching ideals of the United States have always been based on the expansion of freedoms as well as the exaltation of experimentation, and that is precisely what we’ve got here, which is a conception of winemaking that everyone in the New World should emulate.

So in keeping within the American tradition (but not too closely) I served this fun and fresh wine with a southern American classic plate of floured and fried catfish flavored with Old Bay seasoning with tandem sides of collard greens cooked with a little bacon fat and grits with a nice little of bottle of hot sauce to squirt onto the fish.

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Edmunds St. John “Heart of Gold” El Dorado County 2010

Quite deep golden color. Bold nose of apricot, papaya, yellow flowers, mixed nuts, anise seed, cocoa butter, and a salty minerality. In the mouth the wine is quite full-bodied, with juicy acidity that frames big flavors of lemon curd, peaches in syrup, honey, white spices, and butterscotch. Fresh, bitter almond finish.

Posted by: tomciocco | August 19, 2014

IN AUSTRIA, GRUNER VELTLINER IS “NUMMER EINS”

So many casual wine drinkers are entirely uninitiated into the fantastic world of Austrian wine, and indeed for some, the very mention of “Austrian wine” produces blank and/or quizzical looks. In short, Austrian wine rocks, and if you aren’t drinking Austrian, you should be.

One thing that makes Austria such a great wine-making nation is its wealth of native grapes, both red and white, but even with such an abundant collection of home-grown vines, no grape variety is more emblematic and representative of Austrian wine than Gruner Veltliner (GROO-ner velt-LEE-ner). And though Austria does raise this bevy of native grapes, Gruner Veltliner occupies nearly one third of the total land under vine which speaks loudly about how really fine Gruner Veltliner can be, and how much the Austrians truly love it.

 And with all of this acreage of Gruner vines being tended, it might lead one to think that Gruner grows like a weed, but to a large degree the opposite is true. Gruner Veltliner is quite prone to diseases associated with a surplus of water in the soil as well as in the air, and it matures late enough in the season that not all of Austria’s vine-growing regions can reliable ripen it and maintain vine health simultaneously. Because of this, most of the country’s Gruner is planted on the hills leading down to the Danube in eastern Austria, particularly in the regions of Wachau, Kremstal (the source of this evening’s wine) and Kamptal. Because of their geographical positioning in the Danube basin, these areas receive continual warm winds from the hot Hungarian plains to the east, a factor that diminishes the chances for moisture-reliant diseases that simultaneously promotes full fruit ripening.

 Interestingly, despite the “Veltliner” part of its name, recent DNA analysis has established that it has no relation to any other grape in the “Veltliner” family like Fruhroter Veltliner, Roter Veltliner, Rotgipfler et al. In truth, Gruner Veltliner’s lineage has one foot in the Traminer branch of vines, with the other planted in a line of a very obscure vine from the area around St. Georgen.

 Along with two other great Northern European varieties – Riesling and Chenin Blanc – there is nothing that well-bred Gruner Veltliner cannot do stylistically. It is as comfortable as a bone dry wine as it is as a thick, sticky dessert wine and every gradation sweetness there between, and because of its popping acidity and bold flavors, it makes great sparkling wines to boot. And though for me all wines are (or should be) “food wines”, Gruner Veltliner’s solid structure, crispness and gregarious flavor profile makes it a perfect and perennial companion at the table all over Austria. Would that this were the case all over the world…

And speaking of food, the grub I matched with this vivacious example of Gruner consisted of a traditional Viennese appetizer of battered and fried celery stalks followed by a main course of stuffed cabbage rolls (pork, rice, onion, garlic, paprika, dill) baked in a simple tomato sauce with a nice dollop of sour cream and slices of good rye bread to keep them company.

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Forstreiter Gruner Veltliner Kremser Kogl 2013

Bright, light gold/green color. Piercing nose of gooseberry, pear, white currant, and minerally aromas of yellow pollen flower and nutmeg. The palate is medium weight, with a sharp and etched acidity that frames flavors of grapefruit, yellow cherry, green apple, peas, white pepper, and fresh herbs. Finishes with a dynamic fresh bitter/tart character.

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