Monthly Archives: March 2015

Vernaccia Di San Gimignano Reassessed

25 March 2015

Tuscan Wine TastingWhat I read about Vernaccia di San Gimignano was not especially encouraging. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia says, in its usual pull-no-punches style, that “most are bland.” A more diplomatic Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “the wine has attained only modest quality and price levels.”

Both sources agree that the best versions of Vernaccia di San Gimignano are “crisp,” with Sotheby’s praising its “vibrant fruit” and the Oxford Companion extolling its “refreshing quality,” “attractively bitter finish” and “unquestioned superiority over the standard bland Tuscan white blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia.” That’s better, but even these positive comments seem to be a case of damning with faint praise.

Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San GimignanoNevertheless, because Vernaccia di San Gimignano ranked as one of the most unusual options at a recent tasting of Tuscan wines, I dutifully gave a few a try. Each producer I visited offered at least two versions, an unoaked wine and a wine that had spent some time in barriques (oak barrels). The Oxford Companion takes a vaguely dismissive attitude towards “attempts to give it additional complexity with small barrel maturation,” but the technique worked for me. Each of the barrel-aged versions I tried, as indicated by the word “Riserva” on the label, was delicious.

The unoaked Vernaccias di San Gimignano I sampled tended to have cheerful fruit, limey acids, some white-pepper spiciness and often a hint of salinity. They tasted refreshing, and with their tartly bright acids, I suspect they’re at their best with food.

The barrel-aged wines achieved another level entirely, mellowing the texture and adding additional layers of flavor. The 2012 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Le Mandorle”, aged in new French oak, was more brooding than the unoaked Vernaccias, with notes of dark orange and cream and broader, rounder acids. I also enjoyed the 2012 Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Aurea”, with its aroma of creamy white fruit and roasted grapes. It tasted rich, but it had a delightful green freshness and distinct focus, with a zap of spice.

Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San GimignanoAs tasty as these wines were, my personal favorite was the 2013 Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “La Luna e Le Torri”, which translates to “The Moon and the Towers,” referencing the amount of time the wine ferments — one lunar month — and the famous medieval towers of the city of San Gimignano. A blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, this wine spends a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to the complexity of the wine. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

Unfortunately, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines can be difficult to find. But keep that name in the back of your mind, because at some point, you’ll likely encounter a shop or a wine list that has one. I highly recommend trying it. A scan of Wine Searcher revealed that most Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines retail between $15 and $30, and that’s a steal, even towards the higher end of that scale.

Vin Santo: Tuscany’s Forgotten Luxury

18 March 2015
Tasting wines from Montepulciano and San Gimignano

Tasting wines from Montepulciano and San Gimignano

I had the fortune to first try Vin Santo on a trip to Tuscany. A colleague and I spent a few days in Florence in 2002, and even then I had an interest in unusual wines. Tired of gorging on tiramisu, my go-to dessert from 1992-2003, I opted instead for a glass of Vin Santo and some cantuccini biscuits (like biscotti). I had read about the dessert pairing in my Frommer’s guidebook. The waitress seemed impressed by my order, and I remember the resulting feeling of pride more than the Vin Santo itself. But even now, I can still taste its nutty goodness. It was just the thing for that cool January evening.

Presenting Falchini's "Podere Casale I" Vin Santo

Presenting Falchini’s “Podere Casale I” Vin Santo

I’ve tried Vin Santo only a handful of times since then. Unfortunately, Tuscany rarely figures in my travels, and the wine isn’t exactly all the rage anywhere else. Sweet and sherry-like wines just aren’t popular these days, which is a shame. They can be a superb value, and as I discovered at a recent wine tasting at Chicago’s Allerton Hotel, Vin Santo is no exception to that rule.

The World Atlas of Wine calls Vin Santo “the forgotten luxury of many parts of Italy, Tuscany above all.” My sources agree that the quality of Vin Santo varies widely, but when it’s good, it’s really, really good.

Most Vin Santos blend the white varieties Trebbiano and Malvasia, though Occhio di Pernice is made with red Sangiovese. In all cases, the grapes are dried for about two or three months, traditionally on straw mats, to concentrate the sugars. The grapes are fermented in small, sealed barrels for years. DOC regulations require at least three, but “the better producers rarely release their Vin Santo before five years,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. During this period, the barrels are never topped up. Slow evaporation concentrates the contents, and oxidation turns the wine tawny and imparts a nutty sherry-like note.

The three Vin Santos I sampled at the tasting each delighted with appealing nuttiness and lively acids, ensuring that the wines never felt syrupy or cloying. I look forward to trying each of these again sometime soon:

2009 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vin Santo del ChiantiIMG_0693

A blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia and San Colombano (hopefully a synonym for Verdea, not Besgano Bianco), this Vin Santo was aged six years under the winery’s roof, exposing it to summer’s heat and winter’s chill, an aging method akin to Madeira’s estufagem process.

The result had an appealing aroma of slightly burnt caramel, honey and nuts, with a distinct tang of oxidation. It tasted very rich and nutty — I wrote “pecan pie in a glass” in my notes — but remarkably zesty acids kept the sweetness well in balance. A really great deal at about $33 for 0.75 liters.

2008 Falchini “Podere Casale I” Vin Santo

Falchini doesn’t mention its Vin Santo on its website, which is odd, because it’s thoroughly delicious. According to this review I found on Snooth, the wine is a traditional blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia, but it’s aged in cherry wood as well as oak casks.

It smelled of wood and honey and dates, and it tasted round and rich. Flavors of dried apricots and nuts were supported by relaxed, orangey acids. It felt elegant and languid, rather than taut. Another excellent value for about $26 for 500 ml.

Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano

Susanna Crociani and her Vin Santo di Montepulciano

2009 Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano

The World Atlas of Wine reserves special praise for the Vin Santo of Montepulciano, and I can certainly see why. I met Susanna Crociani at the tasting, and she explained that 100 kilos of grapes (about 220 pounds) yields only 10 to 12 liters of Crociani Vin Santo. That amount of grapes, she went on, usually translates to about 65 liters of table wine.

The concentration in the Crociani was evident. The wine had an enticing aroma of taut, dark honey and wonderfully complex flavors: dates, figs, orange peel, walnuts. It felt rich until the finish, which took a wonderfully surprising turn towards dry, bright freshness. I can’t find many places selling this wine in the U.S., but the Crociani website has it listed for €21 ($23) for 500 ml, which strikes me as hugely underpriced.

Vin Santo’s lack of popularity is our gain. All three of these wines offered impressive flavor and balance for the money. But not every Vin Santo will be a home run, making it important to ask a trusted wine shop for a recommendation. Quality Vin Santo producers like the ones above are crafting wines of character deserving much bigger price tags than the market will currently bear.

Serious Wines From Seneca Lake

11 March 2015

Villa Bellangelo WinesAlthough New York makes more wine than any other state except for California, it’s far easier to find bottles from Washington and Oregon than the Empire State. A characteristically grumpy Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia explains why:

As New York has just one-tenth of Washington’s vinifera area, yet makes twice as much wine, the bulk of New York’s production can only be from native grapes. Only a bigot believes it impossible for native grapes to ever make a fine wine, but they are few and far between — certainly not even half of one per cent; it is the 99.5 per cent of New York’s native grape wines that are ruining the efforts of this state’s best vinifera wineries to create an international reputation for New York wine.

One might reasonably wonder how vinifera grape varieties (classics such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling) could even survive — let alone thrive — in New York, a northern state subject to harsh winters. In the case of the Finger Lakes region, the answer lies in a lucky stroke of geography.

Glaciers carved deep lake beds with steep banks of slate-rich soil. The lakes, notably Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka, store heat and help warm the surrounding landscape. “…Cold air sliding down the steep slopes is warmed by the lake and rises,” as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “permitting more cold air to drain from the hillside.” This satellite photo, also found in The World Atlas of Wine, shows how the land adjacent to the larger lakes has less frost than land farther away. The steep banks also drain water well, important for healthy vine roots.

Villa Bellangelo Seyval BlancWine growing in the Finger Lakes region dates back to the 1820s, according to the Oxford Companion, and one of its newest fine vinifera wineries is Villa Bellangelo, set in a prime location on the west shore of Seneca Lake. The current owners of the winery, the Missick family, discovered the property on a wine-tasting tour following a 2009 wedding nearby. When it went up for sale in 2011, the Missicks acquired it and initiated extensive renovations, including installing new stainless steel fermentation tanks and a new crush pad.

Christopher Missick recently sent me free samples of six Villa Bellangelo wines, mostly from the 2013 vintage. I assembled a small group of friends to try them, and we were all impressed by the quality, especially considering that these wines represent the Missick’s third vintage ever. Here’s what we discovered:

2013 Seyval Blanc: This variety is a French hybrid well-suited to cool climates, according to the Oxford Companion. Although this hybrid has some non-vinifera genes, it can make a very pleasing wine, as evidenced by this example. We noted aromas of green apple, dried herbs and light honeysuckle, and tasters liked its “Rieslingly flavor.” It had taut white fruit, smooth white-pepper spice, a hint of sweetness and enough acids to keep it balanced. The acids became more prominent and orangey with some caramelized onion and Parmesan crostini. Not too shabby for $16.

Fellow Taster Cornelia

Fellow wine taster Cornelia

2012 Gewürztraminer: A “very perfumy” wine, as one tasting companion noted, this Gewürztraminer had a delightful aroma of honeysuckle. It feinted briefly towards honeyed fruit, but moved almost immediately to warm, gingery spice and some hay. The finish had a not-unpleasant bitter note, punctuating the dryness of this floral and fruity wine. One fellow taster remarked, rather distressingly, that this wine “tastes like [his] grandmother’s neck.” Now there’s a tasting note you don’t hear every day. $20.

2013 Chardonnay: The grapes for this wine come from the Sawmill Creek vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake, opposite the winery. I smelled a light caramel aroma, and another taster detected “something burnt — but in a nice way.” Others smelled wet stone and dried pasta, and I would concur. It had a buttered popcorn flavor, but this was no butter bomb. The wine was quite lively and balanced, with judicious oak, notable spice and a long finish. It worked especially well with olives, which brought out more of a vanilla note. An excellent value for $20.

2013 Dry Riesling: The soil composition came through clearly in this wine, which had a slatey aroma with something rich underneath (some also described the nose, not unfavorably, as “shower curtain” and “Band-Aid”). It tasted very juicy, with green-apple fruit, lemony acids and a very dry finish. Paired with bleu cheese, it felt richer and rounder. I liked its austerity, as did about half the group, but one taster called it “the least compelling so far.” $19.

Villa Bellangelo Cabernet Franc2013 Semi-Dry Riesling: The surprise hit of the evening, this wine had appealing aromas of honeyed red apple overlayed with some bright freshness. I liked its appley fruit and orangey acids, which balanced out the light sweetness. The entire group was enthusiastic about this wine, exclaiming, “This is by far the best,” and, “I don’t usually like Riesling, and I like this,” and even, “This is the wine I would like to go home with.” Very fun, and a very good value for $18.

2013 Cabernet Franc: As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “some very fine Cabernet Franc is made in the most benign years” in the Finger Lakes. This example smelled of ripe red fruit and vanilla, and on the palate it had cherry fruit, black pepper spice and an aromatic almond note. “Maraschino cherry pits!” exclaimed a fellow taster. I liked its ample fruit and rustic texture, but the wine again divided the group. $18.

Although some of these wines were controversial, each was clearly crafted with care. I especially loved the floral but dry Gewürztraminer, the rich Chardonnay and the well-balanced Semi-Dry Riesling. These wines leave no doubt in my mind that exciting things are happening in the Finger Lakes.

I can’t wait to discover more of what the region has to offer when I head there in August to attend this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. I have a feeling we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by what we’ll find.

Zenato’s Super Veronese

4 March 2015

Zenato "Alanera" Rosso VeroneseMany of you might be familiar with wines nicknamed “Super Tuscans,” high-quality but rule-breaking bottlings which originally had to be labeled as lowly vino da tavola. The great expense of these “table wines” made the dysfunction of Italian wine regulations all too clear, and they shamed the bureaucracy into action. In 1992, Italy created the new Indicazione Geografica Tipica category, or IGT, which alleviated the embarrassment and gave innovative winemakers a new home in which to experiment.

And experiment they have. This inspired (if forced) act of deregulation paved the way for a host of exciting new wines produced up and down the boot of Italy, not just in Tuscany. I’ve written about several delicious IGT wines in the recent past, including examples from Soave, Maremma and Lazio. Now, thanks to a free sample provided by importer Winebow, I had the chance to try a “Super Veronese.” This wine offered yet more evidence of the great success of the IGT category.

At first glance, the 2012 Zenato “Alanera” Rosso Veronese looks rather like an Amarone, the famous red blend made from partially dried grapes. Drying the grapes concentrates the sugars and chemically alters the grapes’ acids and the tannins, “something that explains the richness yet balance of a good Amarone,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Botrytis, the fungus which beneficially desiccates grapes in Sauternes and Tokaj, is undesirable in this case. Only healthy grapes are used, and they are loosely packed in order to prevent fungal growth. As the Oxford Companion explains, “anything like botrytis that degrades the skins diminishes the intensity and purity of the wine,” because unlike a white Sauternes or a Tokaji wine, red Amarone depends on grape skins for color, flavor and tannins.

The Alanera blend contains the three classic Amarone grapes, with 55% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 10% Corvinone. Corvina, according to the Oxford Companion, has the capability to make “serious, barrel-aged reds,” as long as yields are low. “Particularly suited to drying” because of its “loose bunches and large berries,” Corvinone was long thought to be a clone of Corvina, but ampelographers showed it to be a different variety altogether. The black sheep of the blend, Rondinella is allowed in Amarone DOCG wines, but “its produce is rarely sufficiently flavorsome to please consumers,” the Oxford Companion argues. But Rondinella dries well, according to Wikipedia, and Wine Searcher notes that it adds roundness and herbal notes to Corvina-based blends.

The Zenato Alanera differs quite dramatically from Amarone, however, in two important respects. It includes 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot in the blend, and only half the grapes are dried for any length of time. By not drying half the grapes, the Zenato Alanera would seem to combine the best of both worlds: concentration and intensity together with bright, fresh fruit. Or is it just Amarone lite?

I opened the bottle last weekend to find out. The deep, almost opaque garnet color looked immediately enticing, and the aromas of dusky red fruit and earth were quite encouraging. The first sip revealed very taut red fruit, broadly generous acids and a raisiny, earthy finish, with a top note of something floral — roses perhaps.

The Alanera was clearly well made, but it didn’t seduce me until about an hour later. By then, the fruit opened up and integrated beautifully with the rest of the wine. Some spicier notes came to the fore, particularly when paired with some rigatoni Bolognese. The wine felt big but controlled, with a focus that went above and beyond its $20 price tag. It’s a great value for the money.

The Zenato Alanera may be innovative, but it builds on a centuries-old tradition. Veronese dried-grape wines “are the direct descendants of the Greek wines shipped by the Venetians in the Middle Ages,” The World Atlas of Wine explains. The Alanera represents the next generation in this storied lineage, and it is without question a worthy successor.