Château Margaux: Is It Worth It?

14 April 2017

Corinne Menztelopoulos and the author (photo by Lisa Denning)

“I don’t know! Do I like Rob?” asked Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux, while considering the seating arrangement for lunch. We all laughed, because she was almost certainly joking. Against her better judgment, she placed me next to her at the dining table. Immediately I was smitten by this woman, with her easy elegance and wicked sense of humor.

Already I had been feeling a little overwhelmed. The schedule, arranged by Millésima for the six of us who had won its wine blog competition, said only this about the visit: “Private tasting & lunch at Château Margaux with Aurélien Valance, Managing Director and member of the Blog Awards jury.”

I had anticipated a lunch in the airy new Norman Foster-designed winery with Valance and perhaps a PR person for Margaux. But our group paused before the tall gates leading to the neo-Palladian château itself, and they proceeded to swing open. The building looked familiar — it appears on the château’s wine labels, which I had seen reproduced in my World Atlas of Wine. But the drawing didn’t prepare me for the experience of standing in front of the château itself.

Château Margaux

It has a startling and imposing verticality, with four ionic columns and a pediment rising from a base that itself is 22 steps above ground level (I counted). Château Margaux’s General Director Philippe Bascaules descended to meet us, accompanied by what appeared to be a foxhound. I have been witness to few tableaux more aristocratic than this.

He led us inside to the entry hall and an adjacent salon, both decorated in high French Empire style, with spindly-legged chairs upholstered in jewel-tone silk damask and marble-topped tables supported by winged caryatid figures. In my hand was a flute of Krug Champagne. I stared at it and my surroundings for a moment, feeling a sort of elated confusion.

“I don’t want to see any blog posts about Krug at Château Margaux!” someone joked. I refrained from taking tasting notes.*

Instead, I fell into conversation with Monsieur Bascaules. He had loved his time at Inglenook, he told me, but he was pleased to be back in France, at Margaux, where he had worked for 20 years before his time in California. I asked what food he most craved when he returned to France. “The bread,” he replied, without hesitation. “A crusty baguette… it’s just different here.” I told him I agreed, and that I felt the same way about chocolate chip cookies. It’s impossible to find good ones outside the U.S, I explained. Just as I realized that I was using my time with Philippe Bascaules to discuss baked goods, we were summoned to lunch.

We descended to the former kitchen. The formal dining room is too stuffy, Mentzelopoulos told us, and doesn’t promote relaxed conversation. A fire blazed in the giant hearth, complete with a spit for roasting entire lambs or pigs. In the center of the vaulted room of golden stone was a round table, laid with crystal wine glasses, tightly packed flower arrangements and delicate china of green, gold and white, all atop a pristine tablecloth embroidered with silk leaves. This room may be the more casual, relaxed dining space, but it dazzled nevertheless.

I took my place at the table between Madame Mentzelopoulos and her son, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos (he goes by Alexi). His sister, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos sat across from us. Because the two of them were young, beautiful, thin and rich, I hoped just a little bit that they would be haughty or in some other way unpleasant. Instead, they proved to be quite down-to-earth and charming, and as fluent in English as in French (and goodness knows what other languages). Alexandra later asked me for my card. “I want to know the best place in Chicago for deep-dish pizza,” she told me, to my astonishment.

Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos and Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos

I looked at the hand-lettered menu (which did not mention pizza, for better or worse) and discovered that we would be starting with the 2011 Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc classed as a humble Bordeaux AOC (the Margaux appellation has no room for whites). Château Margaux has produced a white for three centuries, Madame Mentzelopoulos explained to us, starting when the château’s winemaker decided to separate the white and red grapes during vinification. Until then, most Bordeaux wines had been field blends of both red and white grapes.

It smelled spicy, with an undertone of tropical fruit. The wine felt lush and round, with creamy stone-fruit and tropical-fruit flavors, leavened with some focused green-peppercorn spice. A forceful but graceful wine, with a finish that was long and fresh. It worked beautifully with some crab salad topped with mango gelée. If you tasted this side by side with a Sauvignon Blanc from, say, New Zealand, you would never guess that the wines came from the same grape. Binny’s currently sells the 2015 Pavillon Blanc as a future for $140 a bottle. It’s steep, but if you have the funds, the wine is worth the money for a special occasion.

Foie gras stuffed chicken and 1996 Château Margaux

To pair with some foie gras-stuffed chicken, waiters poured us glasses of 1996 Château Margaux. Of this vintage, wine writer Jancis Robinson wrote, “You might call the 1996s classic, so long as you were sure that this would not be interpreted as skinny.” All the other sources I consulted also regarded 1996 as a very fine vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc, the left bank region where Margaux is located.

Aurélian Valance held up his glass and said simply, “This is Château Margaux.” He went on to tell us how this particular bottling was the first to give him a “wine emotion.” He loved it so much, in fact, that it inspired him to approach Madame Mentzelopoulos and ask if he could work at Château Margaux. She appreciated his enthusiasm and chutzpah, and gave him a job.

Madame Mentzelopoulos told us that “The tannins of Château Margaux are always very soft — you almost forget them.” That’s no mean feat for a wine composed of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 100% new oak (the rest of the blend in this vintage is 12% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc). “Sometimes people confuse the tannins of wood with the tannins of grapes,” she explained.

Wine.com currently sells the 1996 for $850 a bottle. What on earth do you get for that price?

I smelled the wine, redolent of dark cherries but with a wonderful freshness buoying them up. I braced myself — it’s not every day I try an $850 wine — and took a sip. The fruit flavors of dark berries and cherries felt pure and rich, and the wine positively vibrated in my mouth. The fruit rang like a bell, such was its clarity. The wine hummed on my palate, developing with great evenness and confidence. It moved with consistency, grace and firmness from one note to the next, and it still felt young, in spite of its age and in spite of it having been decanted.

Millésima’s photographer Frederic Lot in the Château Margaux winery

Involuntarily, I groaned and sighed. Madame Mentzelopoulos turned to me and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

I wish I could say that I responded with something like, “Madame, I am shameless!” or “Au contraire, Madame, it is you who should be ashamed!” But my mind was still aglow with the wonder of the wine, and witticisms were temporarily beyond my capacity.

It’s hard to believe that a wine that costs $850 a bottle could possibly be worth it. After all, there are perfectly lovely wines that cost $12. If you are one of the fortunate few with $850 to blow on a bottle, are you getting anything for your money other than hype and prestige? What makes Château Margaux so special that it can charge such a price?

It’s the finesse. The wine shifts gears in the mouth like an expert driver handling a finely tuned stick-shift racing car. That kind of experience comes at a price. Château Margaux is wildly expensive, yes, but it has the stuffing to back up the price. You can bet that if I were a millionaire, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a case.

Philippe Bascaules, General Director of Château Margaux, discussing 2016

The 2016 vintage looks just as promising, should you be interested in investing in futures. The aroma of the château’s second wine, Pavillon Rouge, leapt from the glass, and I loved its cherry-pie fruit and sneaky tannins. The 2016 Château Margaux already felt lush and integrated, with rich fruit, focused acids and graceful tannins, capped with a fresh note of mint. And the 2016 Pavillon Blanc had all the tropical fruit and creamy stone fruit I loved in the 2011, plus an enticing note of popcorn and juicy green-apple acids. What a joy.

On our way to the winery to taste the 2016 vintage, Madame Mentzelopoulos drew our attention to a mosaic mounted on the wall. “This is a Roman mosaic, but it has the Greek name,” she told us. “I like that it’s Dionysus, and not Bacchus,” she continued. A few people, aware of the title of my blog, glanced nervously in my direction. “Dionysus is elegant, you see here,” she said, pointing to the lithe figure in the center. “Bacchus is fat and drunk and vulgar.” And very, very happy, I’d add.

The allée leading away from Château Margaux

Whether Madame Mentzelopoulos liked me or not is an open question, but my feelings about her and her wines are not in doubt.

Note: The lunch and wines at Château Margaux were provided free of charge, as part of the program for the Millésima Wine Blog Competition winners.

*Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that the Krug somehow managed to feel crisp and rich at the same time, and that its bubbles were sublimely elegant. But for my money, I’ll stick with a lesser-known Grower Champagne.

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Taming Aglianico: Campania’s Noble, Underrated Red

1 April 2017

Certain beasts inhabit the world of Italian wine. Intense Barolo from Piedmont is perhaps the most famous example, with its high acidity and powerful tannins which often benefit from long bottle aging. But southern Italy has its own wonderful beast with big acids and forceful tannins: Aglianico.

Pronounced approximately “ahl-lee-AH-nee-coh,” this “dark-skinned, top-quality” grape, as The Oxford Companion to Wine describes it, doesn’t have the name recognition or cachet of Barolo. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Aglianico “underrated,” and The World Atlas of Wine describes it as “one of Italy’s greatest dark-skinned grapes, making wines with a powerful, obviously noble, brooding character.”

One of my very favorite things is an obviously noble but underrated grape.

The Oxford Companion explains that Aglianico “seems to prefer soils of volcanic origin” and that it’s quite late-ripening, which means that the warm vineyards of Campania, notably in the Irpina and Taurasi regions west of Mount Vesuvius, provide an ideal home. And what a home — in Roman times, Campania produced the most sought-after wines in the empire, notably Falernian.

One of the best and largest wineries now producing Aglianico in Campania is, oddly enough, one of the region’s newest, founded in 1986: Feudi di San Gregorio. Founder Enzo Ercolino grew up in Campania but had moved to Rome. After the devastating 1980 Irpina earthquake, he decided he wanted to help his home region recover by investing in it, and he started a winery.

Antonio Capaldo

His son, Antonio Capaldo, has since taken over and now serves as Feudi’s president. Like his father, he didn’t start out in the business of wine. “I come from a dark past,” he confided over lunch in the Birreria of Chicago’s Eataly. “I come from finance.” He always had felt close to the family business, however, and he has since made up for lost time, taking his sommelier exam. “And I drink a lot. That helps. My wife drinks even more, so that helps the industry.” I kind of love a guy willing to throw his wife under the bus if it makes for a good joke.

Feudi completed a new winery in 2004, but in 2009 it needed a family member to take over (Feudi was and is a family business, like many companies in Italy). So Capaldo returned, and devoted his ample energy to winemaking. “But I left the winemaking to the winemakers. I tried to explain to them that perfection doesn’t exist, that we should try to produce the best wine possible, that is the most important thing,” he said, with refreshing candor. “But also other things are important. We want to communicate the beauty of our terroir.” That’s a philosophy I can get behind.

Over a lunch, we sampled four Aglianicos, as well as two whites: a rich and spicy Falanghina and a fruity, well-balanced Greco di Tufo (the Falanghina was particularly compelling — seek it out). The tasting made an Aglianico lover out of me.

2016 “Ros’Aura” Aglianico Rosé: “I didn’t think it would be so challenging to make a rosé,” Capaldo exclaimed. Feudi brought in a Provençal winemaker to consult. “In terms of rosé, the French are ahead of us [Italians],” he continued. “I hate to admit it, because I have a French wife.” Well, this Italian rosé (with French assistance) certainly turned out well, with its fresh strawberry aroma, bright berry fruit and juicy, lemony acids, as well as an appealing undertone of richness.

2014 Rubrato Aglianico: This Irpino DOC Aglianico ages 8-10 months in stainless steel, with no time in oak. It felt big and bold, with ample dark-cherry fruit, forceful acids, medium tannins and some black pepper spice. Some mushroom ravioli enhanced the spice, and smoothed out the texture of the wine. Like many Italian bottlings, this one was at its best with food.

2011 Serpico Aglianico: Also officially an Irpino DOC, this Aglianico comes from the Dal Re vineyard near the village of Sorbo Serpico. It sees 18 months in barriques as well as larger wood barrels, evident in the aromatic notes of vanilla and a touch of oak in addition to dark fruit. The Serpico tasted dark and rich, with loads of fruit, significant oak and plenty of acidity. With some meatballs in marinara, it became extra spicy delicious.

2011 Taurasi Aglianico: All my resources love Aglianico from the Taurasi DOCG. According to  The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Taurasi] is one of the country’s greatest wines from this underrated grape variety.” The Oxford Companion to Wine agrees: “Taurasi demonstrates the heights which Aglianico can reach in the volcanic soil which it favours.” And from The World Atlas of Wine: “In the volcanic hills of the Taurasi DOCG zone, where [Aglianico] finds its finest expression, it can ripen as late as November…”

This particular Taurasi sees 18 months in wood, like the Serpico, but all the wood is barriques (smaller barrels enhance the effect of the wood and are more expensive to use). I loved its enticing aroma of deep, dark fruit and toasted wood with a touch of meatiness. As you might by now expect, it tasted rich and dark. The acids felt big but focused, and the tannins were brawny but not over-aggressive. There was spiciness, too, and a rather raisiny finish. Big and beautiful. If this wine were a person, he would be my ideal dinner party guest.

2012 Caparone Aglianico: Antonio Capaldo mentioned, with a tone of some amazement, that he knew of at least one winery growing Aglianico in California. As it happens, I had a bottle of Aglianico from California in my wine rack. I’d found a 2012 Caparone Aglianico from Paso Robles (between San Francisco and Los Angeles) at my favorite local wine shop, In Fine Spirits. Now seemed like an ideal moment to try it, to compare its character with that of Feudi’s Aglianicos.

Sotheby’s notes that in Paso Robles, coastal winds and fog do not penetrate, meaning that temperatures are high and sunny days are numerous. That’s important when you have a late-ripening grape like Aglianico. Caparone grows it along with two other noble Italian varieties, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Caparone ages its wines “several years” in barrels, though it can’t be too many years, since I bought the 2012 at least a year or two ago. In any case, its Aglianico was also delicious. It had a ripe and dusty dark-cherry aroma, with a bit of earth as well. The flavor was lusty and gutsy, with bold dark-red fruit, big acids, hefty but not clumsy tannins, a note of wood and some iron on the finish. The tannins softened with a slice of pepperoni pizza, and the food brought a vanilla note out from the background. Another fine Aglianico.

Of Italy’s noble red grapes, Aglianico is arguably the least famous. That means it’s also frequently the best value. It offers a lot of brawn for the buck.

Note: The glasses of Feudi wines were provided free of charge, but I purchased the Caparone Aglianico.

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Terroir, Schmerroir: Dave Phinney’s “Locations” Wines

21 March 2017

Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

I can think of no buzzier buzz word in the wine world than “terroir.” How often do we read something about how a wine reflects its terroir or expresses its terroir? The phrases describe a wine that represents where it was made, with clear influences from the local climate and soil in its aroma and flavor. Americans are relative newcomers to the concept — we tend to think in terms of grape varieties. It’s the French who have developed the potential of terroir to its fullest extent, as evidenced by regions like Burgundy, where vineyard site is everything.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the terroir bandwagon. You can find single-vineyard wines everywhere from the Okanagan Valley to Central Otago. And the fashion for “terroir-driven wines” only continues to grow.

It takes some guts, therefore, to say screw it, I’m going to make a really delicious wine from Portugal or Argentina or wherever, but about 35,000 thousand square miles is as far as I’m going to narrow it down in terms of terroir. Even in California, most respectable winemakers restrict their bottlings to at least a single region, like Napa or Sonoma. A label that simply says “California” doesn’t ordinarily inspire confidence. Unless, that is, that label is on a wine made by master blender Dave Phinney.

California-based Phinney founded a wildly popular and critically acclaimed red blend called The Prisoner (a brand he sold in 2010), as well as the highly regarded Orin Swift Cellars. Blends from both companies have appeared in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists (and even Top 10 lists), indicating that Phinney “has a knack for mixing and matching vineyards and grapes,” as Wine Spectator puts it.

His new venture, Locations, would seem to be all about terroir, given the name, as well as the first sentence of the winery’s Philosophy statement: “In the world of wine there are compelling Locations that exist where soil, climate and vines interact to produce grapes that uniquely express their Location through wine.” But Phinney goes on to lament that “laws and restrictions [discouraging cross-appellation blending] make it near impossible to express true winemaking freedom.” The goal of Locations is to combine grapes from top vineyards across several different regions in, say, Italy, to create a new and entirely unique blend that represents the country as a whole. So in a sense, these wines simultaneously celebrate and obliterate the concept of terroir.

With a collection of nine bottles of Locations, sent to me by the winery’s PR company, I decided it was time to host a blind tasting. I lined the bottles up, turned them around, mixed them up and bagged them, so that not even I knew which bottle was which. My group, a mix of wine professionals and amateurs, had a spirited debate about which wine came from where. We only occasionally all agreed, but there was general consensus that this was one of the most consistently enjoyable tastings I’ve ever held.

All the wines were red except one, a French rosé, which I left unbagged and served as an aperitif. This 100% Grenache from the South of France tasted full and fruity, with plenty of watermelon and strawberry notes, ample acids, a pleasingly bitter note and some minerality on the finish. My friends called it “delightful,” “surprising” and “f*cking good.” Its weight, one taster noted, makes it an ideal rosé for winter. In America, we think of rosé exclusively as a summer wine, but why shouldn’t we drink it when it’s cold outside? Rosé is delicious any time of year, and if I were in the mood to splurge just a bit, I would certainly pay the $19 price for this example.

Of the bagged wines, there was only one that everyone in the group guessed correctly: Oregon, the very last bottle we tried. Oregon made it easy because it was a varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, and because it came from just one region, the Willamette Valley. I got taut cherry fruit, baking spice and a tart, rather austerely elegant finish, but others noted some cough syrup in the aroma and even a touch of Kraft caramels. “It wants fat,” one taster said, and indeed, it worked quite well with some pizza topped with bacon, onion and mushroom.

All the other wines provoked disagreement, and sometimes disbelief when the country was revealed. In the order we tasted them:

Wine #1: Big and dark, with rich black-cherry fruit, soft tannins, a meaty note and some mocha on the finish. Again, there was a touch of pleasing bitterness. “It tastes way better than it smells,” one friend remarked, though I rather liked its plummy aroma with vanilla overtones. I guessed Italy, thinking of grapes like Negroamaro. Others guessed Argentina and France, but it was, in fact, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah from various vineyards in Washington. Oops!

Wine #2: “Leather!” and “Cigar box!” were shouts I heard about the aroma, which also had lots of jammy red fruit.  The wine moved from ripe, ripe dark-red fruit to a big pop of spice and some rather chewy tannins. “They’re flirting with my cheeks, in a good way,” one taster said of the tannins. And what a fantastic pairing with that bacon/onion/mushroom pizza — big, bold and beautiful. With that kind of flavor, I guessed California, as did everyone else, except for one Argentina holdout. And California it was! A blend of Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills.

Wine #3: “Oh, that’s a big boy,” a taster exclaimed. I got a lot of purple from this wine — dark fruit and a tone of violets in the aroma, and on the palate, some more dark fruit (people called it everything from fresh plums to grape candy), leavened with white pepper spice and a dry, rather tannic finish. We all convinced each other that this wine was from Spain, but it was actually a blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Touriga Franca, sourced mostly from the Douro (with a little Alentejo thrown in). So we were close: It was from Portugal.

Wine #4: A transparent garnet color, this wine had a taut red-fruit aroma marked with something savory, something meaty. “Pinot can taste like blood,” one guest suggested. But the flavor made me not so sure: red fruit followed by black olive and black pepper spice, with very few tannins. Olive plus black pepper made me think of the South of France, but everyone else guessed Italy. Sometimes it pays to go against the consensus — it was indeed France! A blend of Grenache, Syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varieties” from the Rhône Valley, Roussillon (near Languedoc) and Bordeaux.

Wine #5: “Son of a bitch!” We all had trouble figuring out this one, with its hooded dark-fruit aroma, ripe dark-red cherry fruit, ample acids, pop of spice and clear, supple tannins. “Zinfandel?” one person guessed. “There’s a squeaky finish on this one. On my teeth!” said another, providing one of the evening’s more enigmatic tasting notes. Somewhat at a loss, we all went for Washington. The wine was from the New World, but in fact it was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina.

Wine #6: We felt some relief when we got to this wine, with its raisiny aroma, raisiny fruit, ample spice and serious tannins on the finish. Everyone loved it, and everyone thought it was from Portugal (except for one obstinate guest who insisted on California). The raisins and tannins reminded us of Port, but unfortunately, no one was reminded of passito. Passito wines, such as Amarone, make use of partially raisinated grapes. And indeed, #6 was not from Portugal but from Italy. Argh! It was a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia as well as Barbera from Piedmont. (I can find no evidence of passito-style drying of the grapes.)

Wine #7: “This has biting tannins, but it like it — rrrrr — it hurts so good,” said one taster. “It’s hot hot hot!” another exclaimed, referring to what felt like a rather high alcohol content. I got lots of dark-red fruit, black pepper, an olive note and a bit of mocha at the back of the throat. I guessed that this delicious wine came from Argentina, and others went with Portugal or France. But of course, you know that it was none of these. Instead, it was a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan) from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain.

All these wines retail for about $17 to $19, making them an affordable indulgence and an excellent value for the money. Different as they were, the Locations wines each had finely tuned balance and a sense of depth, enhanced by fruit that tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, sometimes leavened with something savory or briny. That’s a profile I can get behind.

Dave Phinney asks, “The question is – do you break the rules, and thousands of years of history and tradition, in pursuit of expressing freedom?” There’s a lot to be said for rules when it comes to wine — they’re doing something right in Burgundy, after all — but Locations makes a compelling case that sometimes you should just toss the rule book into the destemming machine and go for it.

Note: These wines were provided for review free of charge.

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Grappa: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

10 March 2017

Pork belly eggs Benedict and Nonino grappa

Tell people that you’re going to a grappa tasting, and the response will likely be “Ugh.” Go on to say that the tasting is at 9 a.m. over breakfast, and the response will likely be some sort of attempt at an intervention. In my defense, there is, in fact, a long tradition of drinking grappa at breakfast (or at least with espresso), as evidenced by Caffè Corretto, or “Corrected Coffee.”

Actually, no one I talked to expressed any concern whatsoever about my tasting spirits at breakfast (I’m not sure if that’s good or bad). But grappa… that concerned everyone. This northern Italian spirit distilled from grape pomace — the stems, seeds, skins and pulp — has a reputation for rusticity, to put it kindly. Indeed, for a long time, it was a spirit of the poor, created from the leftovers of winemaking. A “refined grappa” was an oxymoron.

I was lucky. The first time I tried grappa was in Venice at a bar just off the Fondamente Nove, about 15 years ago. It was a Grappa di Amarone — even then I knew that Amarone was something special. The bartender approved of my choice, and I still remember its rich raisiny quality mixed with alcoholic fire. I also purchased a slender bottle of delightfully floral Moscato grappa to bring home.

At the time, I didn’t know that varietal grappas were a relatively new creation, invented by the estimable Nonino distillery (traditionally grappas are blends of various grapes). Nonino first distilled a single-varietal grappa in 1967, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the distillery created “the first Cru single varietal Grappa: not by chance this time but as the result of their love for their work, study, research and experimentation,” according to the company’s website.

“We go against the rules for grappa,” Elisabetta Nonino told me over a breakfast of avocado toast. “The rules are very bad. They are all against quality.” Grappa is not Cognac. You really have to choose your producer carefully. And I can’t imagine that there are many producers which take more care with their grappa than Nonino.

Elisabetta Nonino

First, there are the stills. The distillery contains no fewer than 66 pot stills (12 for each member of the family, plus one for each niece and nephew, Elisabetta explained). Why so many? Nonino produces numerous single-variety grappas as well as various fruit brandies, and all the fruit is distilled fresh, making a big difference in terms of flavor. That means the stills are in use only nine or 10 weeks each year, during the harvest season, but during that time, each is required.

Second, Nonino removes the grape stems from the pomace, distilling only the pulp, skins and seeds. This extra step adds to the refinement of the grappa.

Elisabetta grew up in the distillery, learning the art of grappa production from observing her family at work. Her parents told her, “First learn to distill, then study whatever you want.” But her heart was always with the family business, even as she studied Political Science at the university. “It took longer than usual to graduate,” Elisabetta said. “‘I can’t take my exams in April,’ I told my professors. ‘No no, that’s Vinitaly!'” If the grappas I tasted are any indication, she made the right choice for her profession.

The traditional Nonino Vendemmia grappa, made from a blend of Prosecco, Malvasia and Pinot Noir, has a fresh, slightly raisiny aroma and ample raisiny flavor. It remains smooth on the tongue for quite some time, delaying the alcoholic power until the last moment. It’s spicy, but classy. I noticed that when I smelled this grappa, it didn’t burn my nostrils at all — nor did any of the others I tried.

Even more interesting was Il Merlot di Nonino grappa, which started with a lush texture and lots of raisiny fruit before moving to clean, alcoholic spice. But I really fell for Il Moscato di Nonino grappa, which brought back memories of that trip to Venice. I loved its aroma, reminiscent of lily of the valley, as well as its slow development on the palate. It moved gracefully from smooth and perfumed to powerful and spicy. It cut right through the fat of my pork belly eggs Benedict.

On Elisabetta’s recommendation, I tried making some cocktails with the Moscato grappa later at home. You can find plenty of interesting grappa cocktail recipes on the Nonino site, but in order to really let the grappa come to the fore, I wanted as simple a cocktail as possible. First I tried the Moscato grappa with some fresh lime, but I preferred the roundness of fresh lemon juice. Two parts Moscato grappa, one part fresh lemon and a healthy dash of simple syrup (or a couple of teaspoons of sugar) makes for an exceedingly delicious drink: round, citrusy and just a touch floral, with a pleasantly raisiny aftertaste.

I also sampled some barrel-aged grappas, akin to French Marc. The Noninos take no shortcuts here, either, keeping their aging cellars under lock and key, controlled by a government official who records each entry into the facility. When the Noninos tell you that your grappa was aged, say, a minimum of three years, there is no question that it was. The distillery has documentation to prove the fact.

Aged one year in barriques, Il Chardonnay di Nonino grappa had the classic raisiny aroma, but there was a vanilla note in there, too. It tasted rich and balanced, starting almost sweet, with a touch of cream and a bit of wood, moving to a spicy build-up followed by a freshly herbaceous finish. What a delight.

Made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Schioppettino grape pomace, the Riserva grappa is aged between three and 18 years in barriques. Its aroma had more wood to it, underneath notes of dark fruit. After a rich start, a note of fresh tobacco took over followed by a spicy midsection and a lift of green herbs. The finish, marked by notes of wood, vanilla and caramel, seemed to go on and on.

Italy has a knack for turning food and drink that was originally popular with peasants into something fit for royalty. Nonino’s grappa happily fits right into that tradition. Next time you’re out to eat at a nice restaurant, check the spirits list to see if the bar offers a Nonino grappa. It makes for a surprisingly elegant digestif, and not just at breakfast.

Note: The grappa tastes and my pork belly eggs Benedict were provided free of charge.

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Carcavelos: Portugal’s Most Endangered DOC

23 February 2017

The Casal da Manteiga

“It’s she-wolf,” my driver said, referring to the fur collar on his caped Inverness-style overcoat. “I don’t follow international fashions.” He has that in common with Portuguese wine, which, to a large extent, is still made with the country’s wonderful array of indigenous grape varieties, many of which are grown nowhere else. That’s not to say, however, that Portugal’s wines aren’t of international caliber. In fact, they offer some of the best quality-to-price ratios in the world.

We drove down an allée leading to a winery, with vineyards on one side and a crumbling stone wall on the other. “I can’t believe it. I’ve never been here,” he exclaimed. “How an American discovered this place, I don’t know.” The wonderful thing about traveling as an American in Europe is that it’s incredibly easy to impress the locals, many of whom expect people from the U.S. to be ignorant, monolingual barbarians.

But discovering this winery, Villa Oeiras, was not so easy. My journey there started with a rather distressing entry in The Oxford Companion to Wine about Carcavelos, a “tiny [DOC], renowned in its heyday for fortified wines. However, its vineyards have almost been obliterated by the westward expansion of the capital city Lisbon along the Tagus Estuary.” The entry went on to mention a winery, Conde de Oeiras, which was still making Carcavelos. I knew I had to find it, this, the very last winery in a DOC which is dangerously close to disappearing entirely, forever.

Galego Dourado vines

I found myself in Lisbon in January, and I was determined to do whatever it took to visit Villa Oeiras. Finally, the day before my last chance to visit, my hotel concierge was able to confirm an appointment.

The winery’s vivacious guide, Sara, met me in the courtyard of the pentagonal Casal da Manteiga, a building which once served as a dairy (now it houses fermentation tanks and an aging room). We walked into the vineyards just outside, growing on an ideal south-facing hillside sloping gently down towards the estuary. Blocky apartment buildings loomed not far from where we stood, built, no doubt, on what had also been vineyards at one point.

Only about 31 acres of vineyards are now devoted to producing proper Carcavelos. These vineyards were preserved from development only through an unusual partnership between the municipality of Oeiras and Portugal’s Ministry of Agriculture, and Villa Oeiras is the only publicly owned winery in Portugal. It encompasses part of the original 615-acre estate of the Marques de Pombal, the prime minister responsible for reconstructing Lisbon after the devastating 1755 earthquake, and for creating Carcavelos (“…he had to do something with the grapes from his country residence at nearby Oeiras,” according to the Oxford Companion).

The exterior of the barrel room in the palace of the Marques de Pombal

In addition to preserving these Carcavelos vineyards, the partnership restored the 18th-century aging facility in the Marques de Pombal’s palace, which had been converted into offices. The original architect cleverly built the barrel room atop a natural spring, ensuring that humidity constantly suffuses the space, and its design also fosters natural air circulation. The austere, vaulted room is beautiful, too, and I only wish I had been able to help tear out the cubicles which once cluttered it.

But what is Carcavelos? The Villa Oeiras estate produces several bottlings, in fact, including table wines. But traditional Carcavelos, like Port, is fortified. The winemaker allows fermentation to go only so far before killing the yeast with the addition of strong brandy. The wine retains its sweetness, because the yeast didn’t have the chance to consume too much sugar, and it has plenty of power because of the higher alcoholic content. Barrel-aging provides additional complexity.

The dashing winemaker, Tiago Correia (to whom Sara recently became engaged), met us in the vineyards and escorted us into the fermentation room. There we tried tank samples of the three component parts of white Carcavelos: Galego Dourado and Ratinho, grown almost exclusively in Carcavelos, and Arinto, which is also found just to the north in Bucelas.

Sara and Tiago

Each grape offered something exciting and different. The Arinto had pleasing honeysuckle notes, a pop of spice and an “elegance of acidity,” as Correia put it. The more mellow Galego Dourao tasted sweet and orangey. “Galego is nothing in the beginning,” Correia explained, “but with aging, it is the glue that holds the wine together.” And I won’t soon forget the amazingly bright and zesty Ratinho, full of lemon oil and white flowers.

Correia also gave me samples of young Carcavelos straight from the tank. The 2016 already felt balanced, with plenty of fruit and acidity along with some smoothing salinity, and the previous vintage had started to develop some richness. The 2014, though still quite young, felt more mature, with weight and calm leavening the spiciness.

The Carcavelos then ages in oak barrels for several years. Correia continues to experiment with different kinds of oak (French, Portuguese) as well as different “toasts,” meaning how much the interior of a barrel is charred. Villa Oeiras’s flagship Carcavelos sees 10 years in oak and a year in the bottle before its release.

And what a joy it is to drink. The rich, nutty aroma sucked me right in. It tasted big and powerful, with flavors of nuts, honey, raisins and well-balanced wood, with ample spice and a long, rather saline finish. The Carcavelos is quite sweet, certainly, but its acids are so lively that they practically prickle. I brought a bottle home and opened it at a tasting I recently hosted. My friend Liz described the Carcavelos this way: “It’s a gingerbread man with raisins for eyes who had a little cardamom for breakfast.”

I also tried the red Carcavelos, aged eight years in oak (so far) and not yet bottled. This wine, made from Castelão, Trincadeira and Amostrinha, was nothing short of extraordinary. Big and zesty, it tasted of deep, sweet berries buried in nuts. It was powerful, but it moved with such grace, and the finish rang with salinity and eucalyptus freshness.

Then there was the 2004 white Carcavelos (the flagship white is non-vintage), with its shockingly fresh spice, bright wood and seemingly endless finish, and the 1997, to be released in 2017 as a 20-year Carcavelos. (1997 is the year when the municipality of Oeiras and the Ministry of Agriculture first created the Carcavelos partnership.) It had similar power and richness as its younger siblings, but the ’97 displayed an elegance worthy of Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire. Sublime.

The story of Carcavelos, the wine that almost went extinct, is a wonderfully romantic one. But even if I had known nothing of the wine’s historic pedigree and near demise, its richness, complexity and power would have deeply impressed me. This wine is a cultural treasure. If you plan on visiting Lisbon, seek it out (it’s pronounced “Vee-la oh-I-rahsh car-ca-VEL-ohsh”). The excellent Garrafeira Nacional wine shop in the Baxia carries it, and some restaurants (Alma, for example) have it on their wine lists.

Bring home some beautiful Port and Madeira, by all means, but leave some room in your luggage for a bottle of Villa Oeiras Carcavelos, a sumptuous and elegant wine barely rescued from oblivion.

“You should buy this winery,” my driver told me, as we departed the palace. “I don’t like that the state owns it. Nothing good happens when the state owns things.”

Ordinarily I might agree, but Villa Oeiras is something very good indeed.

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