Italy

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.

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.

Top White Wines Of 2014

31 December 2014
An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

For this idiosyncratic list, I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

The wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets.

You won’t find all of these particular wines with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2014:

 

2013 ANSELMI CAPITEL CROCE

In 2000, Roberto Anselmi very publicly withdrew his wines from the Soave DOC, writing in an open letter, “I’m walking out of Soave and leaving it to its fate. Let it wear out its vital cycle, good luck to it, I want my freedom…”

Now bottling his whites under the broader Veneto IGT, Anselmi has used his freedom to the fullest. This 100% Garganega comes from a choice hillside vineyard rich with limestone. It had a sweet aroma with some spice, and a wonderfully refined texture on the palate. I loved its creamy fruit, focused ginger spice and long finish dusted with subtle minerals. Very classy.

 

2008 BARTA PINCE ÖREG KIRÁLY DŰLŐ 6 PUTTONYOS TOKAJI ASZÚ

The courtyard of Barta Pince

The courtyard of Barta Pince

Hungary’s Tokaj region became famous in the courts of Europe for its sweet aszú (botrytized) wines, such as this one by Barta Pince. This extraordinary wine from the Öreg Király vineyard has a whopping 257 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to, say, Dr. Loosen’s 2006 Beerenauslese from Germany’s Mosel Valley, which has a mere 142 grams per liter.

With all that sugar, could it possibly be balanced? The aroma seemed promising — rich honey underlined by fresh mint. It tasted very, very rich, with honeyed fruit and dusky orange. Acids felt relaxed and slow, gracefully balancing out all the sweetness. Wow. I wrote in my notebook that this wine “feels wise beyond its years.”

 

2012 BRUNO TRAPAN ISTRIAN MALVAZIJA “PONENTE”

Istria, a triangular peninsula jutting off the northwest of Croatia, used to belong to Italy, and its food and wine has started to rival that of its former owner. This Istrian Malvasia (known locally as Malvazija Istarska)  had a memorably rich aroma which almost moved into caramel territory. Savory and a bit floral, this beautifully balanced wine had notably focused acids and an underlying note of salinity.

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Unusual and very, very tasty.

 

2011 CHÂTEAU BASTOR-LAMONTAGNE SAUTERNES

The 2011 vintage happened to be a particularly good year for Sauternes, as well as dry white Bordeaux wines (it was uneven for reds). This assertion was strongly supported by a Bordeaux tasting I attended, where the Sauternes ranged from memorable to absolutely astounding.

My favorite was the dazzling Bastor-Lamontagne. It had a fresh and fruity honeysuckle aroma with nothing heavy about it. There was the rich and opulent character one expects from a fine Sauternes, but here, a rocket of minerality and acids shot right through the middle with electrifying focus. It rang like a bell; it was a taut violin string plucked in a clear pool of nectar. This château may not be Sauternes’ most famous or highly classed, but in 2011 at least, Bastor-Lamontagne crafted a thing of invigorating beauty.

 

Winemaker Gabriel Mustakis, with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

2013 COUSIÑO-MACUL “ISADORA” SAUVIGNON GRIS

A pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris varietal smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted this Chilean wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

 

2011 ERZSÉBET PINCE LATE HARVEST KÖVÉRSZŐLŐ

Unpronounceable Kövérszőlő, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like family-owned Erzsébet Pince produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine.

 

2012 GRABEN GRITSCH SCHÖN GRÜNER VELTLINER SMARAGD

Inside Vienna's Palmenhaus

Inside Vienna’s Palmenhaus

“Schön,” which means pretty, is not an adjective in this case but the name of a vineyard on the far western edge of the Wachau Valley near the town of Spitz in Austria.

I loved this wine, which clocks in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol. It had a complex aroma of dried herbs, green fruit and even a hint of smoke. But when I tasted the wine, it burst with rich fruit, leavened by cedar and some focused gingery spice. It felt very decadent and exotic — perfect for sipping on the terrace of Palmenhaus, a regal café and restaurant occupying what was once the imperial palm house of the Habsburgs.

 

2012 JURAJ ZÁPRAŽNÝ PINOT GRIS

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

What a delightful surprise. This wine comes from Slovakia’s Južnoslovenská region, which is apparently “warm and sunny,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It had an enticingly spicy, stony aroma and lush, full fruit on the palate. A shaft of gingery spice kept things well in balance.

I could easily imagine buying this by the case, if it were actually available somewhere (I tasted it at Bratislava’s Národný Salón Vín, a cellar in a rococo palace which assembles the top 100 wines of Slovakia, culled from a selection of some 8,000 bottlings).

 

2010 JUVÉ Y CAMPS RESERVA DE LA FAMILIA CAVA

You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky. As Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.”

Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

 

Next up: The top reds.

Anselmi’s Super Soave

5 December 2014

Anselmi Capitel CroceThe word “Soave” does not tend to stir the heart of the oenophile. This white-wine country in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region started out well, when vineyards were confined mostly to hillsides. But after Soave received DOC status in 1968, it enjoyed  “an export boom, so production flowed off the small hilly zone onto the alluvial plain of the Adige river,” explains The Oxford Companion to Wine. Plains tend to produce far less interesting grapes than hills. Yields increased, leading to less-concentrated wines, and productive (but bland) Trebbiano Toscano began to invade the vineyards.

The World Atlas of Wine illuminates yet another important problem in Soave: “Almost 80% of the vineyards are cultivated by growers who deliver their grapes straight to the local co-op with no personal reputation for quality to uphold.” And, in its usual laconic style, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia flatly states that “Most Soave is still overcropped, thin and acidic.”

It makes sense that producers devoted to quality would want to distance themselves from the Soave DOC, “…and in 2000,” as Sotheby’s explains, “Roberto Anselmi took his greatly admired wines out of the Soave appellation in protest.” He had tried for years to reform the Soave DOC without success, and he finally had enough. He wrote an open letter to Soave announcing his break:

I’m walking out of Soave and leaving it to its fate. Let it wear out its vital cycle, good luck to it, I want my freedom. Freedom to improve, to make a great wine without inhibitions, to fly onto outstanding varieties, with better training systems, to relate to world viticulture with no boundaries, rules, bureaucracy, to create an honest market for a great white wine from my terroir, from a terroir after my own heart, where passion and imagination will no longer be obstructed. –Roberto Anselmi, as translated on the Terlato website.

Now, Anselmi classifies his wines under the much broader Veneto IGT, making his wines akin to the Super Tuscans, which also don’t necessarily follow DOC rules.

Liz Barrett, vice president of corporate communications and PR at Terlato Wines, brought two of Anselmi’s single-vineyard Super Soaves to a BYOB dinner at Tango Sur in Chicago. Both vineyards, Capitel Croce and Capitel Foscarino, are high on south-facing hillsides, far from the alluvial plains disparaged in The Oxford Companion. And the wines are entirely or almost entirely Garganega, with no bland Trebbiano to intrude.

Garganega, according to The Oxford Companion, “can produce fine, delicate whites redolent of lemon and almonds which give Soave a good name.” But Garganega reaches its potential only in the Soave Classico zone (in hillside vineyards), “with yields kept well in check, and where it is allowed to ripen fully.” Anselmi is doing everything right, by the sound of things, and his care is reflected in his compelling wines.

We started with the 2013 Anselmi Capitel Foscarino, a blend of 90% Garganega and 10% Chardonnay from a vineyard composed mostly of volcanic tuff. The aroma had notes of grapefruit and minerals, and Barrett detected some peach. It tasted tart, but the smooth fruit and ample minerality kept things well in balance — a delicious combination. The acids ensured that this wine paired well with our appetizer.

Barrett liked the Foscarino best, but my favorite was the 2013 Anselmi Capitel Croce. This 100% Garganega comes from a vineyard with more limestone in the soil, which clearly affected the flavor. It had a sweeter aroma with some spice, and a wonderfully refined texture on the palate. I loved its creamy fruit, focused ginger spice and long finish dusted with subtle minerals. Very classy.

A quick internet search revealed that the Foscarino costs around $19-$22, and the Croce runs for $21-$25 (Barrett provided the samples to me free of charge). At these prices, such perfectly balanced and carefully crafted wines are an excellent value. I rarely pay more than $20 for a bottle, but these single-vineyard Super Soaves are now on my short list.

Top Red Wines Of 2013

30 December 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

You’ll note that nary a wine from France made the list below, for example. Everyone knows top Bordeaux and Burgundy taste great, and the prices reflect that fame. Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better, whether we’re in California, Italy, Uruguay or British Columbia.  Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2013, in alphabetical order:

 

ART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” RED WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #612):

This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different Californian wines made their way into the mix, including Cabernets from Lake County and Napa, Merlots from Napa and Sonoma, Malbecs from Napa and Dry Creek, Cabernet Franc from Napa and Montepulciano from the Shenandoah Valley.

After reading the list above, you might be wondering what a Montepulciano is doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties. According to winemaker Kat McDonald, just 12% of Montepulciano “completely changes the texture and color of this wine. As one of my fellow tasters astutely noted, “It’s dark, but not heavy.” I loved the aromas of mocha and dark fruit, and indeed, it tasted dark and dusky but lively as well, with well-balanced black-pepper spice. Paired with some dried blueberries, additional floral notes came to the fore, and the tannins became even more pronounced. This is one sexy blend, and a fantastic value at $18.

 

Cantele2009 CANTELE SALICE SALENTINO RISERVA:

According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in Italy’s Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the Cantele certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

 

2008 D.H. LESCOMBES CABERNET FRANC:

This wine was crafted by viticulturalist Emmanuel Lescombes and winemakers Florent and Herve Lescombes under the umbrella of St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. I sampled their Cabernet Franc in St. Clair’s Albuquerque tasting room and bistro, but the grapes were grown near Deming along the border with Mexico, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. What a delight — it had an aroma of rich raspberry jam, and dark fruit balanced by bright, broad acids. The wine resolved into some tannins and focused spice on the finish, without a hint of anything vegetal. This wine has the richness and power to justify its rather steep $36 price tag.

 

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

2007 D’ANGELO SETTE COPPA:

This British Columbian blend contains all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties, grown on just eight acres of vineyards. It smells red and surprisingly minerally, and wow, that flavor. It has bright red fruit, focused acids, well-finessed tannins and some metallic earth on the finish. It’s a delight to drink, and a very fine value for $25.

 

2012 DOMAINE TERLATO & CHAPOUTIER SHIRAZ-VIOGNIER:

An appellation of the northern Rhône which never fails to quicken my heart is Côte Rôtie, which produces 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.

 

2007 GEISEL WEINBAU BRENTANO “R” MARKELSHEIMER PROBSTBERG MERLOT TROCKEN:

I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard Merlot (Markelsheimer Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier, Stephane Thuriot, selected this wine from northern Württemberg in Germany to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.

 

2009 PALUMBO FAMILY VINEYARDS SANGIOVESE “DUE FIGLI” VINEYARD:

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

On a quiet side road away from the big wineries in Temecula, this winery was recommended by almost every local I spoke with. All the fruit for its wines comes from Palumbo’s 13 acres of vineyards, because owner Nicholas Palumbo “believes in producing only what he grows himself,” according to the winery website.

This single-vineyard Sangiovese was brick-red, with an earthy, jammy nose that had me itching to give this wine a taste. I was not disappointed. It was wonderfully lush, with jammy fruit, a luxurious mouthfeel and a tannic finish. Temecula is on few people’s fine-wine radar, but if it can produce wines like this Sangiovese, it’s a region worth keeping an eye on.

 

2005 PISANO “ETXE ONEKO” LICOR DE TANNAT:

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia speaks very highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” I also discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed, as you might expect, by a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.

 

2010 RUST EN VREDE ESTATE:

Three South African Bordeaux BlendsThis Stellenbosch estate in the shadow of the Helderberg has produced wine off and on for three centuries, though it took its present form only after 1977, when the Engelbrecht family purchased and restored it. The Rust en Vrede Estate wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in a “hermitaged” style of wine popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century, when producers would sometimes beef up their blends with Syrah from the Rhône’s Hermitage region.

The deep red-fruit aroma was very enticing, marked by additional meaty and floral notes (a fellow taster at the table also detected “man musk,” which led Jean Engelbrecht to half-joke that she was forbidden from sampling any more of his wines). I loved the wine’s silky texture, rich red fruit, firmly controlled white-pepper spice and raisiny finish. The Estate felt very supple, yet it still cut right through the richness of my beef filet. I lamented that I hadn’t tried it with my appetizer of mussels, but Engelbrecht assured me I hadn’t missed anything: “I’m more of a main course kind of wine,” he quipped. But I was rather startled to discover that the Estate also paired well with a side of roasted asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to match.

 

2007 SKOURAS GRAND CUVÉE NEMEA:

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Greece’s Nemea appellation “relatively reliable,” and the Skouros Agiorgitiko I tasted at the Wine Bloggers Conference more than supports that rather tepid assertion. It was memorably delicious, with a beautiful aroma of tobacco and cherries, plenty of bright acids, ample fruit and luscious notes of mocha. Anyone who still thinks Greece is nothing but a sea of Retsina should taste this.

 

And this concludes my awards for 2013! You can read about my picks for top white wines here, and my favorite spirits and cocktails here. Happy New Year, everyone!

Top White Wines Of 2013

27 December 2013

White WineLast year, I assembled all my favorites into one list, but because 2013 brought so many memorable wines I wanted to highlight, I had to separate them into top whites and top reds. Many of my favorite white wines of 2013 cost less than $20, and one can be had for less than $10 — yet more evidence that taking a risk on an unusual bottle can really pay off.

The 10 wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets. 

I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in balance, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply sweet and innocuous. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

You may not find all the wines below with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine shop will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2013:

 

Art+Farm's Messenger winesART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” WHITE WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #412):

I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

 

2012 BOUZA ALBARINO:

The family-owned Bodega Bouza in Uruguay focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. Powerful and exciting.

 

2012 LAPOSTOLLE “CASA GRAND SELECTION” SAUVIGNON BLANC:

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Andrea León Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night, to help preserve freshness in the fruit.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded. This Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

 

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 couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine. 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.

 

Hainle Gewurztraminer Ice Wine2010 HAINLE VINEYARDS ESTATE WINERY GEWÜRZTRAMINER ICE WINE

It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this British Columbian ice wine, Hainle hit a smashing home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get your hands on a bottle of this wine, for God’s sake, do it.

 

2011 MAZZONI PINOT GRIGIO:

Mazzoni Pinot GrigioI had never sampled, to my knowledge, a Tuscan Pinot Grigio. All the quality Italian Pinot Grigios I knew of came from the mountainous north, from Alto Adige or Friuli. A Tuscan Pinot Grigio varietal — a white Super Tuscan — is extremely unusual.

Many of us associate Pinot Grigio with light, inoffensive and bland flavors; it’s a wine for a hot summer pool party or a beach picnic. But this golden-hued beauty had some oomph. After pressing, the juice sits for 24 hours on the skins, giving the wine additional body, followed by 25 days of cold fermentation, increasing the wine’s acidity. The craftsmanship is readily apparent in both the aroma and flavor.

The wine smelled fresh and lively, like a green whiff of spring. On the palate, it exhibited focused and controlled fruit, prickly acids, some aromatic qualities, and a surprisingly lush finish. It was light but complex, and a fine value for the price. Sampled with a white pizza topped with arugula and parmesan, the food-friendly acids kicked into high gear, and the wine became juicier and rounder. A delight.

 

2010 PLANETA CARRICANTE:

Planeta CarricanteThe Carricante variety is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” according to the Wine Searcher website. The Planeta expression of this ancient variety has a wonderfully seductive aroma with 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 racier.

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.

 

2011 SCHNAITMANN “GRAU WEISS”:

A surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay, the Grau Weiss sounds a little crazy to me, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

 

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris2012 SIMONNET-FEBVRE SAINT-BRIS SAUVIGNON BLANC:

On its label, this Sauvignon Blanc declares itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I turned to my trusty reference library for some answers as to what a Sauvignon Blanc was doing in Burgundy. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. The AOC has only about 250 acres of vineyards located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis.

The Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What an incredible value for $12!

 

2012 WEINGUT DR. VON BASSERMAN-JORDAN ÖLBERG

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-JordanThis single-vineyard Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region is a Grosses Gewächs, a “Great Growth,” indicated by the “GG” on the label. Find those GGs if you can — they designate a vineyard of top quality, and grapes of at least Spätlese ripeness. “Spätlese” often connotes a sweet wine, but GG wines are classified as “trocken” (dry). This remarkable wine had a green, honeyed aroma, rather like a light Sauternes. I loved the rich, peachy fruit; the dry, white-peppercorn spice; and the forcefully driving acids keeping everything in taught balance.

Frank Cornelissen’s Volcanic Reds

20 November 2013

Munjebel 8MCAs I wrote in this post, “non-interventionist” winemaker Frank Cornelissen isn’t afraid to break a few rules. He refuses to add preservative sulfur to his wines, he refuses to filter them, and he even ferments the juice of white grapes with the skins, resulting in the startlingly tannic Munjebel 9. It is a wine I’ll never forget.

After tasting that incredible oddity, I couldn’t wait to wrap my palate around some of Cornelissen’s reds. All his grapes come from the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano in eastern Sicily. But “It’s a good volcano,” Cornelissen contended, and about as ancient as wine regions get. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “this is the wine that Ulysses used to intoxicate the Cyclops,” in Homer’s Odyssey.

On the higher elevations, where The Oxford Companion to Wine says vineyards “show great promise,” Cornelissen asserted it’s not the stereotypical southern Italian landscape. “We’ve got lizards, we’ve got snow — it’s completely different from people’s idea of Sicily,” he explained. And he’s convinced it’s one of the world’s great wine regions. “To be honest, I think the greatest terroirs are in Italy,” Cornelissen confided, “but people don’t necessarily understand it.”

He certainly has worked to understand his terroir, altering the environment as little as possible as he tends to his vineyards, eschewing even organic additives and biodynamic preparations in all but the direst circumstances. And as noted above, his hands-off philosophy continues into the winery, resulting in unusual and controversial wines absolutely packed with flavor. In addition to the Munjebel 9, we tasted three of Cornelissen’s exciting reds at Autre Monde‘s Sicilian themed-dinner:

Pasta al FornoRosso del Contadino 10: This big, barely-in-control wine blends several white and red Sicilian varieties, including Nerello Mascalese and Carricante. It smelled of enticingly of violets and tight, dark-red fruit, and my goodness, what a slap in the face of flavor: big, red, aromatic fruit; big, tart, mouth-puckering acids; big tannins. Kabam! It made for a seriously gutsy pairing with some perfectly tender octopus with potatoes, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. The touch of brininess in the dish brought out a little something extra in the wine.

MUNJEBEL 8 MC: The “MC” stands for “Monte Colla,” the name of the recently acquired vineyard from which this wine comes. According to distributor Cream Wine, the steep, sandy-clay vineyard dates to 1946, and the vines produce very low yields of Nerello Mascalese (a centuries-old crossing of Sangiovese and an as-yet unknown variety). Vineyard sites are of paramount importance at Etna, according to Cornelissen, who likens the area to Burgundy. This single-vineyard Nerello Mascalese had a dark cherry aroma and appealing flavors of tight red fruit and smooth, dark chocolate, followed by a very tannic finish. We tried the Munjebel 8 MC with some savory pasta al forno (baked pasta, photo above) with tomato sauce enriched by various cheeses and mortadella. It became noticeably more powerful and intense. My dining companion remarked that “the dusty-musty Parmesan goes really well with the dusty-musty aspects of the wine.”

Caponata and pickled onionsMUNJEBEL 8 VA: Another 100% Nerello Mascalese, this wine comes from four different vineyards averaging 80 years in age, according to Cream Wine. Even more unusual is that approximately 90% of the vines are ungrafted, meaning that they grow on their own rootstocks. Almost all European vines were regrafted onto American rootstocks in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic, but because of the high altitude of these vineyards, regrafting was unnecessary. This expression of Nerello Mascalese had a more subtle aroma of dark fruit, and my dining companion noted a floral quality as well. It tasted less tannic than the MC, with dark fruit, notes of mocha and big, bold acids. First we sampled it with some delicious caponata and pickled onions (photo right). “This is just what the wine needed,” my dining companion remarked. “Pickled onions. It’s just so much more calm.” Paired with an exquisite dish of fork-tender braised lamb and pearl cous-cous, the wine became even bigger and spicier. A magnificent match.

Cornelissen’s wines can be difficult to find because of the small production. Restaurants are apparently your best bet. Those in Chicago should check with Autre Monde to see if they have any in stock (or just go to Autre Monde regardless, because the food was superb). Alternatively, pizzeria Spacca Napoli is a good bet, along with Spiaggia, Trencherman and Telegraph.

If you see one of his wines on a menu, it might be a pricey by-the-glass option, but don’t hesitate to order it. It’s sure to be worth every penny.

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Tossing Out The Rulebook

16 November 2013

Frank Cornelissen Munjebel 9Writing a blog about unusual wines and spirits has led me to all sorts of obscure grape varieties and unexpected wine-growing regions. Even so, almost all the wines — whether they came from the Balkans or British Columbia — tasted as we have come to expect wine should, because though a variety may be obscure, it was most likely vinified in one of the ways that tradition indicates is optimal. Regardless of the wide differences in terroir and grapes varieties and vinification techniques, the wines have all tasted, in a very broad sense, like wine.

So as unusual as a wine may be, it is rare indeed for it to completely throw me off; to move in such startling directions that, when first tasted, it leads me to laugh with delight and exclaim, “What? What? What just happened?”

But that is exactly what I did after taking my first sip of Frank Cornelissen’s Munjebel #9, the most unusual white wine I can recall tasting. Because this blend of  unfiltered, it looked like artisanal honey in the glass, or maybe Basque sidra. It sat on our table, tantalizing us, as Mr. Cornelissen addressed the patrons of restaurant Autre Monde, all assembled to try his small-production wines.

Frank CornelissenBorn in Belgium but now based on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, Cornelissen was “raised very classically” in terms of wine, regularly tasting great Bordeaux wines before they became wildly expensive. I found this declaration reassuring — I don’t trust people who want to break the rules unless they’re very familiar with the rules in the first place.

And break the rules he does. Cornelissen works organically, but “organic” only tells part of the story. “I prefer the non-interventionist way of winemaking,” Cornelissen explained. “I don’t like the term ‘natural’ because it hasn’t really been defined.” Legally, the term “natural” is indeed pretty loosey-goosey in this country, whereas Cornelissen holds himself to a very strict rule of doing as little to the vineyard as possible. “I am trying to understand nature, not oppress or change it,” he continued.

What happens in the vineyard happens in the vineyard, and the juice is also handled as little as possible in the winery. The white before us was cloudy, Cornelissen explained, because “I refuse to filter it — you take too much away from the wine.” On the other side of the coin, nothing is added to the wine. “You add sulfur or other things,” Cornelissen argued, “and it takes away from the territory,” from the expression of the terroir. I was therefore surprised to see the Munjebel 9’s label say that it contains sulfites. But perhaps that alert refers to sulfur compounds which naturally occur in fermented foods, or perhaps it’s just to placate fussy U.S. alcohol bureaucrats.

Cornelissen bucks common wisdom with his non-interventionist philosophy, but he really goes against tradition by fermenting the juice for the Munjebel 9 with the grape skins — for three or four months. Most white wines don’t even see three or four hours of skin contact during fermentation. Skin contact results in tannins, the mouth-drying element of many red wines, usually tasted/felt near the finish. Tannins sometimes make a wine feel “tough,” an adjective you’ll almost never see in a description of a white wine.

Munjebel 9I knew the tannins were coming, but that didn’t mean I was prepared. A blend of Sicilian varieties Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe, the Munjebel 9 took off in so many fascinating directions, I already felt completely bamboozled by the time the tannins rolled around. The cloudy honey-colored wine had an exceedingly enticing aroma of orange blossoms, and my dining companion also rightly noted a shade of yeast. I took a sip, and felt immediately seduced by the richly floral, orangey fruit. A tart, hard cider-like midsection kept things in balance, and the tannins at the end made for a thrillingly unique finish.

Autre Monde designed the menu to fit Cornelissen’s wines, and what a wonderful job the chef did. With the Munjebel 9, they paired an appetizer of smoked tuna and smoked swordfish topped with fennel, arugula, orange segments and carta di musica, a type of very thin flatbread native to Sardinia. The lightly smoked fish tasted perfectly fresh and brought out some intriguing dusky notes in the wine. My dining companion also detected black pepper, a note enhanced most likely by the arugula. It was a gorgeous pairing.

What a joy, to taste something as thoroughly unique and unexpected as the Munjebel 9, particularly when paired with such a delightful appetizer! I couldn’t wait to see what would happen with the reds that were coming…

An Unusual Super Latin

6 November 2013

Santa Benedetta Tre VecchieWines from Italy’s Lazio region, also known as Latium, haven’t been celebrated since Roman times, when Falernian was all the rage. In more recent times, this swath of land around Rome has been “oddly inert in terms of wine,” according to The World Atlas of Wine. Never one to mince words, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia has much less patience for Lazio: “One of Italy’s largest regions, Latium appropriately boasts one of its largest-selling wines, Frascati, the Latin Liebfraumilch, and Est! Est!! Est!!!, probably the blandest tourist wine in existence.” Ouch.

What gave me some hope for the 2007 Santa Benedetta “Tre Vecchie” Rosso di Lazio that a colleague brought back for me from Italy was that — unusually for a Lazio bottling — it was a red wine. The Oxford Companion to Wine asserts that “an occasional Cabernet-Merlot blend of significant quality… suggests that the soil and climate are well suited to red wine production, even if no real tradition exists in the region.” And even Sotheby’s concedes that Lazio boasts two “innovative Cabernet-Merlot blends, which are very good.”

The Santa Benedetta Rosso di Lazio follows in the footsteps of the Cabernet-Merlot blends noted above, blending Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Because this wine makes use of international varieties and doesn’t conform to the traditions of the region, it’s classed as an IGT rather than a DOC, in the manner of a Super Tuscan.  So that makes this wine a sort of Super Latin, for lack of a better term.

According to the Santa Benedetta website — one of the most irritating sites I’ve ever encountered (it insists on playing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria every time you move to a new page) — the famed Sassicaia inspired this Rosso di Lazio (red of Lazio). Though this wine from the Castelli Romani section of Lazio (south of Rome) doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of that most coveted of Super Tuscans, it certainly was no bland tourist wine.

Santa Benedetta with polentaAn opaque brick-red, the Santa Benedetta smelled of jammy raspberry fruit and earth. It started softly on the palate, with an opening of ripe, dark strawberries, followed quickly by some rustic acids and tannins and then a quick perk of spice. The finish moved into more earthy/irony notes. It tasted like an older wine, with undertones of wine-soaked wood — not yet over the hill, but I’m glad I opened the wine when I did.

I tried the Rosso di Lazio with some basil- and tomato-studded frittata leftover from breakfast, and it was not a good match. Neither the acids nor the spice in the wine could compete. But I opened this wine to drink with some thyme-infused polenta topped with spicy Italian sausage, cannellini beans, wilted chard, red peppers, onions and mushrooms. That pairing proved to be delicious. The wine’s acids felt livelier, and the spice got an extra lift from the sausage.

It’s still a big gamble to buy any random wine from Italy’s Lazio region, but should you happen to see a red Lazio wine incorporating international varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot, there’s a good chance you found yourself a good value. This example didn’t have as much concentration or focus as I would have liked, but it was a pleasant red all the same, and a very fine pairing for some spicy Italian cuisine.

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