An Ancient Delight Rediscovered

10 August 2013

Planeta CarricanteOver the years of writing this blog, I’ve tasted a lot of unusual wines and spirits, but I can’t recall ever finding a wine made from a variety which does not appear in my 2006 edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine. If a grape isn’t listed in that weighty tome, it must be seriously obscure.

But I can’t really take the credit for “finding” this wine — it found me. A colleague was traveling through Sicily, and while drinking wine with the general manager of Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort on the southern coast, she brought up my blog. The thoughtful manager gave her a special bottle of Sicilian wine to bring back for me to taste, which she packed in her bags and presented to me upon her return. I finally opened it over dinner last Sunday. It made me want to jump on a plane then and there to thank that hotel manager personally.

The 2010 Planeta Carricante blew me away, but what is it? I was at least familiar with its homeland of Sicily, an island celebrated for its wines since ancient times. But between 1960 and 1987, the Oxford Companion notes, misguided governmental subsidies encouraged producers to focus on quantity over quality, leading to overproduction and declining prices. Things began to turn around in the last 20 years thanks in no small part to the very winery responsible for this Carricante.

According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, after Planeta established its winery in 1995, “the wines started to attract attention and growing respect in the  early 2000s, and Planeta is now not only the island’s top producer, but also one of Italy’s greatest.” The World Atlas of Wine agrees with this history, noting that “The regional wine institute, under the direction of Diego Planeta and through the innovative and savvy Planeta family winery, has put modern Sicilian wine on the world map.” If anyone could make a good Carricante, then, it would surely be Planeta.

But what is Carricante, this mysterious variety absent from the Oxford Companion? The World Atlas of Wine at least mentions Carricante, calling it Sicily’s “tartest” variety and noting its capability to “age gracefully for up to 10 years.” The Wine Searcher website delves further, noting that this grape is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” going on to describe the growing conditions and vinification techniques ideal for this “ancient” variety. Wine Searcher also warns us not to mistake Carricante for its common blending partner Catarratto, “a variety for which (somewhat confusingly) Carricante is often confused.”

If you can make it past this confusing confusion, I highly recommend seeking out a bottle of the Planeta Carricante (the 2010 was 100% Carricante, but the current vintage contains 5% Riesling). Its wonderfully seductive aroma had notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and zestier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.

The Planeta Carricante might be hard to come by, but it’s certainly not unlikely that you’ll run into another wine by Planeta. If this Carricante is any indication, it’s a winery worth remembering.

Note: This wine was provided free of charge by Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort.

Unusual Reds At Tangley Oaks

7 August 2013

Red wines at Tangley OaksOf course, the tasting at Tangley Oaks with Anthony Terlato didn’t stop with the white wines. We tasted quite a few delicious reds as well, including an earthy and richly fruity Rutherford Hill Bordeaux-style blend from Napa, an elegant and forcefully focused Terlato Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, and a powerful Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap in Napa.

But you don’t need me to tell you how good a Napa Valley Cabernet can be. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely looking for some new discoveries, and I certainly made some. These are the reds we tried that were not only delicious but unusual:

2012 Cusumano “Benuara”: This Sicilian blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Syrah comes from Presti e Pegni, a set of hilly vineyards west of Palermo near the town of Alcamo (see a beautiful photo of the vineyards here). Nero d’Avola is an “increasingly reputable red grape,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, never a book to shy away from a back-handed compliment. This variety indigenous to southern Italy (originating centuries ago in either southeastern Sicily or Calabria — its history is murky) has taken Sicily by storm, and it is now the island’s most widely planted red grape. I love it — I think Nero d’Avola tends to be an excellent value for the money.

Readers of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia might shy away from a Nero d’Avola from Alcamo, a region it dismisses as unable to produce wines “of any real quality or character” due to fertile soils and high yields. But the Cusumano “Benuara” blend proves that assertion false. It had a mysterious aroma of dark fruit along with something aromatic — fellow taster Liz Barrett (Terlato’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR) detected an underlying salinity in the nose. It tasted big and beefy, with plenty of ripe, dark fruit and big spice, yet it managed to not overheat, avoiding a problem I’ve noticed with the occasional Sicilian. I can see why Mr. Terlato called Cusumano “the most important producer of quality wines of Sicily right now.”

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: Founded in 1994 by the well-funded owners of Grand Marnier, Lapostolle has rapidly become one of Chile’s top wineries. Admirably, all of its vineyards have been certified as organic and biodynamic since 2011, making Lapostolle wines a good choice for eco-conscious drinkers. The Oxford Companion notes that Apalta “has a reputation for fine Merlot, Carmenère and Syrah” due in large part to the efforts of Casa Lapostolle. And wouldn’t you know it, the Canto de Apalta is a blend of all three, with the addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon. As such, this wine resembles the much sought-after “hermitaged” Bordeaux wines of the 19th century, which blended local varieties (such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère) with powerful Syrah from Hermitage in the northern Rhône. It’s still a winning combination. This wine from the Rapel Valley had gorgeous color and a subtle, deep red-fruit aroma. With big fruit, big tannins and spicy acids, it struck me as a fantastic value for a $20 wine.

2012 Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier: Another appellation of the northern Rhône which quickens my heart is Côte Rôtie, a 555-acre region producing some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish. This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.

Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco2007 Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco: Indigenous to Umbria, Italy, the Sagrantino variety almost died out at one point, but it’s gained ground in recent years, especially since Sagrantino di Montefalco gained DOCG status in the 1990s (Montefalco is an Umbrian hill town). Now, I wouldn’t buy just any Sagrantino di Montefalco — the Oxford Companion complains that “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication in the production zone is not high…” But the family-owned Goretti winery proves to be a notable exception, if this wine is any indication. It tasted darkly fruity, with a rustic texture, a fun zing of spice and a satisfyingly raisiny finish. It had no trouble standing up to a plate of Piave, English Cheddar and aged Gouda.

2009 GALAXY: At first glance, it doesn’t seem there’s anything all that unusual about this blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah and 15% Merlot from California. But the process used to arrive at this combination is unorthodox indeed. Each component of the blend is produced by a different winemaker (Elizabeth Vianna, Bryan Parker and Marisa Huffaker, respectively). The three of them gather each year in a hotel room, where essentially they’re locked in until they agree on a blend. It would be fun to be a fly on that wall, I have to think! Whatever happened in that hotel room, this year’s blend tastes huge. It’s a big, spicy wine with dark fruit and some meaty notes. Lusty, gutsy, and altogether delicious.

Note: These wines were sampled free of charge as part of a complimentary tasting organized by Terlato Wines.

Unusual Whites At Tangley Oaks

3 August 2013

This is the way to start a Friday afternoon.After a sparkling introduction to the mansion at Tangley Oaks, we moved on to tasting some delicious whites imported and/or distributed by Terlato Wines. I very much enjoyed the grassy but well-balanced Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc, the rich and minerally Chateau de Sancerre Sancerre and the flinty, creamy and spicy Lapostolle “Casa Grand Selection” Chardonnay, but of course what I really want to talk about are odd ducks of the tasting. And there were some mighty tasty odd ducks.

2011 Cuarto Dominio “Tolentino” Pinot Grigio: I tend to avoid Pinot Grigios unless they come from the far northern Italian provinces of Friuli or maybe Trentino-Alto Adige. Too often, Pinot Grigios from elsewhere can be insipid and wan. But how could I resist a Pinot Grigio from the Uco Valley in Argentina? The World Atlas of Wine calls the high-altitude vineyards in this valley “the most exciting part of Mendoza,” and if the Tolentino is any indication, Pinot Grigio does just as well in the Uco Valley as Malbec. It had a rich but very fresh aroma, and a lush texture leavened with focused, almost pointy acids. Fruity, but with a dry finish. Delightfully refreshing.

2012 Protea Chenin Blanc: As Lettie Teague recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Chenin Blanc “may be the world’s most noble yet most discredited grape.” Chenin Blanc has been “responsible for a great deal of plonk,” she rightly notes, but it also “can produce wines of depth and complexity.” This Chenin Blanc from South Africa certainly fits the latter description — in fact, it’s “made by a genius,” remarked Anthony Terlato during the tasting. Crafted by winemaker Johann Rupert, the Chenin Blanc had an enticingly perfumed aroma with a bit of a grassy note. It tasted full and plump, but a dry backbone and some zesty spice kept it well-balanced and thoroughly charming.

2007 Boutari Kallisti Reserve Assyrtiko: This remarkable wine comes from Santorini, which The World Atlas of Wine calls “the most original and compelling” of the Greek islands. On this unusually scenic speck in the Aegean, most vines are trained in little bushy balls close to the ground, to protect them from the wind. Assyrtiko originated on Santorini, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, which calls it a “top-quality white grape variety” with a “severe mineral profile.” This particular Assyrtiko certainly struck me as top quality. It had a sweet and smokey aroma which reminded fellow taster Liz Barrett (Terlato’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR) of toasted oak. It felt rich and almost buttery, but quite taut and fruity as well. There was something exotic about it too — a certain spicy, aromatic quality which I loved. Delicious.

2008 Chimney Rock “Elevage Blanc”: I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I can’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge as part of a wine tasting at the Tangley Oaks estate.

Up next: The Reds.

Unusual Italian Sparklers At Tangley Oaks

31 July 2013

When people think of sparkling wine, the first thing that comes to mind is usually Champagne, but the French certainly don’t have a monopoly on delicious bubbly. As noted in The Oxford Companion to Wine, vast numbers of sparkling wines are crafted in Italy “from a bewildering range of grape varieties, in a dazzling array of colors, alcoholic strengths, and residual sugar levels.”

Prosecco, which has taken America by storm, is surely the most well-known, and perhaps rightly so — it usually delivers elegantly small bubbles, fresh fruit and well-balanced acids. It can be an excellent value for the money. But with so many Italian sparklers, why stop there?

The Oxford Companion counts some 30 Italian DOCs which permit sparkling wine, but The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia claims that there are “‘may be spumante’ clauses littering over 100 of [Italy’s] DOCs.” No country in the world makes so many different kinds of sparkling wine. Yet, the Encyclopedia continues, only one of Italy’s appellations insists on metodo classico (using bottle fermentation in the style of Champagne): Franciacorta.

While at a tasting in the Tudor-style Tangley Oaks mansion which serves as the headquarters for Terlato Wines, I had a chance to sample a sparkling wine from this region in north-central Italy. The very first wine we tasted was a flute of non-vintage Berlucchi “Cuvée 61” Rosé. Terlato chose a wine by one of the most venerable of Franciacorta’s producers — the World Atlas of Wine notes that Franciacorta makes Italy’s best metodo classico wines, and goes on to say that “Italy’s great sparkling success story began in the 1970s on the Berlucchi family estate in direct imitation of Champagne.” The metodo classico wines we enjoy from Italy today all started with Berlucchi.

The Cuvée 61 “celebrates the magical decade of the 60s,” according to the Berlucchi website, “a time of optimism and experimentation.” I suppose in the 1960s, it must have seemed wildly optimistic to think that Franciacorta could produce fine metodo classico wines, and attempting to do so was surely a very experimental undertaking fraught with risk.

We are lucky Berlucchi decided to go for it — the Cuvée 61 Rosé was pretty, fragrant and flavorful. A blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir (traditional Champagne varieties), this salmon-orange sparkler had aromas of berries and dusky citrus. Zippy, pointy bubbles and juicy, orangey acids kept things very lively through to the finish, which had a touch of aromatic berries and yeast. At about $25 a bottle, it’s less expensive than most Champagnes and deeper than most Proseccos, making it a fine value and a romantic choice for a date night.

For those of us going to parties instead of on dates, non-vintage Fizz56 Brachetto Spumante would be a good alternative. This 100% Brachetto is from Piemonte (Piedmont) in Italy’s northeast, and it is the first DOC Brachetto I’ve ever sampled (as opposed to DOCG Brachetto d’Aqui). Finding information about this wine proved to be rather difficult — the winery’s website is but a single page with a photo — and the fact sheet I received from Terlato was hardly more forthcoming. It says Fizz56 comes from a “small winery nestled in the heart of Piemonte, known for their outstanding Brachetto.” But who are they? Apparently the winemaker is also quite shy — the Terlato website notes only that he or she is “a secret genius.”

Well, whoever made this wine at whichever winery in Piemonte, it’s very fun to drink. A strawberry red, this Brachetto had a candied floral nose, as someone at the lunch table astutely observed, and it tasted pleasantly bright, fruity, juicy and floral. If the idea of a berry-infused Moscato d’Asti sounds appealing, this wine is for you. And with its relatively low alcohol content, it makes an ideal summer aperitif. It’s not inexpensive at about $20, but it’s a fine example of Brachetto, and the beautiful color is sure to enliven a party.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge as part of a complimentary tasting at the Terlato estate.

Up next: A non-Italian Pinot Grigio, an exotic Greek delight, and a Sauvignon what?

Tasting With Tony

27 July 2013
The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

Some people envy wine writers because of all the delicious wines they get to taste, and I certainly love that part of the job. But just as much, if not more, I love the people who I meet along the way. People who love wine, I find, tend to love life, and spending time with them is invariably a pleasure.

I recently made my way to Tangley Oaks, a Tudor-style mansion that serves as the headquarters of Terlato Wines, a major importer and winemaker. According to its website, one in ten bottles of wine over $14 in the U.S. is marketed by Terlato. This company became so influential due in large part to the efforts of Anthony Terlato, who Wine Enthusiast named “Man of the Year” in 2003, noting that he changed the way Americans drink.

And so he did, importing one of the very first Pinot Grigios on the market (Santa Margherita) and introducing American wine drinkers to the joys of Sicilian wines. Now also an owner of wineries, Terlato never compromises on quality, choosing to raise prices when necessary rather than market an inferior product. This philosophy helped increase the sophistication of the American wine palate, which in turn lead to the generally wine-savvy culture we enjoy today.

It was fascinating to meet such an important figure in American wine history, but what made tasting this tasting such a delight was the obvious enthusiasm Terlato had for these wines. Here is a person who has tasted thousands upon thousands of fine wines over the course of his career, and yet each wine we tried excited him. “This is a beautiful wine,” he would say, or “This I love, love, love.” Other bottles brought up memories of the winemakers: “M____ is brilliant, but he’s a brat — he’s an adult delinquent!”

As delicious as the wines we tasted were (more on them in a future post), it was the company that made this tasting truly memorable. The afternoon with Anthony Terlato reminded me of why I love wine in the first place. However many you drink over the years, quality wines don’t become boring. The evocative aromas and flavors of a well-crafted wine somehow never lose the power to stir the emotions.

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