When To Decant, When To Aerate, And When To Just Back Off

15 October 2016
My empty, dusty decanter

My empty, dusty decanter

Dinner last week at my parents’ house got me thinking about decanting. I brought a 2009 Brunello di Montalcino, to pair with the beef tenderloin my father was whipping up. We opened it and poured ourselves small tastes, not only because of the wine’s youth (seven years, while old for most wines, is fairly young for a Brunello), but because wine streaked the cork from top to bottom. Air might have come into contact with the wine, oxidizing it.

Fortunately, the wine remained intact, but the tannins still felt tough and the fruit tasted tightly wound. Because we planned on eating in about 15 minutes, I decided it was time to decant. Or, more accurately, since my parents don’t own a decanter, we decided it was time to attach a little plastic nozzle to the bottle which helped aerate the wine as it was poured.

The wine unwound a little faster than it would have just standing in the bottle, and it ended up pairing beautifully with the beef in mushroom gravy. The ample but taut red fruit combined with lively spice and somewhat softened tannins to clear the palate after each rich, beefy bite.

I follow this procedure — tasting a little bit first — with any wine that I suspect might still be in the throes of youth. There is no other way to determine whether a wine needs to be decanted or not. You may very well find other wine writers who tell you that such-and-such wine always needs to be decanted, but don’t believe them. Even if they have an authoritative-sounding book.

Wine Folly CoverLast year, for example, when I reviewed the otherwise commendable book “Wine Folly” by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, I discovered, in large font and all capital letters at the top of page 27, the title, “AERATING WINE TO IMPROVE FLAVOR.” The introductory paragraph described decanting as “magic,” and farther down the page, there was this criminally misleading assertion: “All red wines can be aerated.”

This is nothing short of absolute nonsense. Decanting an old wine is the vinous equivalent of asphyxiating your grandmother with a pillow. I still smart at the memory of a foolish waiter at a Chicago BYOB restaurant breaking the cork on a 1986 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the remaining cork piece into the bottle, and then decanting it through a coffee filter. When I saw what he was doing at the waiter station, I stopped him in his tracks, but the damage to the half of the wine he decanted was done. It fell flat, lacking the liveliness of the portion remaining in the bottle.

But it’s not just old wines that will suffer from decanting. Try decanting this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau, and you’ll get an even nastier surprise than usual when you taste it. In the unlikely event that it had some structure in the first place, you’ll have aerated it into oblivion. You also won’t do yourself any favors by decanting an expensive but delicate Pinot Noir, nor that unoaked red that precisely maintains its balance.

Taste first. If the wine tastes unpleasantly tight — if it makes you pucker a bit and/or the tannins rasp the buds right off your tongue — decant if you’re in a hurry, or simply let it stand open a bit. If you automatically decant, you’ll miss how the wine develops and changes in the glass over time, and that’s one of wine’s great joys.

VelvThe decant-first-ask-questions-later philosophy is so insidious that entire companies have devoted themselves to finding ways to introduce ever more oxygen into your wine, as I discovered at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California. The latest aeration contraption, demonstrated for us at the conference, is called Velv™.

(Full disclosure: Velv™ sponsored a lunch for conference attendees.)

As the Velv™ website describes, “Unlike decanting and aeration methods that rely on ambient air, Velv™ Wine Oxygenator uses 99.5% pure oxygen to bring wine to its flavor peak in just minutes.”

It’s not actually air that changes a wine’s flavor profile. Oxygen, specifically, is what causes the chemical reaction in the wine. But air is only 20.95% oxygen, which suddenly makes a decanter seem wildly inefficient compared with the pure and ruthless Velv™.

This wand-shaped device has a canister of oxygen in the handle, and at the tip, a “micro-diffuser” that you stab into your glass or bottle of wine. The machine forces tiny bubbles through the diffuser, ensuring that the wine has maximum contact with the oxygen.

I observed the Velv™ in action at the conference, and as I watched, I heard the sales representative say the most remarkable thing to one of my fellow bloggers: “After six minutes, [the Velv™] took all the gravel and the dirt and the ugliness out of a Bordeaux.” I stood there, mouth agape, as I transcribed the conversation in my notebook. I wonder what that Bordeaux winemaker would think about all that “ugliness” — some might call it character or complexity — being removed from his or her wine.

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

I later related the conversation to a friend at the conference, who asked, “Why would you want to turn a Bordeaux into a California Merlot?”

California wines, incidentally, did not escape the violent bubbles of the Velv™. The sales representative went on to enthusiastically describe how the machine “…can also blow the oak and butter out of a big Chardonnay.”

Of course, the other way to avoid oak and butter flavors, which some people legitimately dislike, is to purchase an unoaked Chardonnay. Most wine shops carry at least one these days. Then you’ll be able to taste the wine as the winemaker intended it to taste, and you’ll have saved yourself $250 to $300.

The Velv in action, inserted into a Menage a Trois

The Velv in action, inserted into a Ménage à Trois

Distressing sales pitches aside, the only way for me to determine the effect of the Velv™ was to experience it for myself. The sales representative poured me two tastes of a 2013 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, one velved and one not.

He recommended trying the velved version first. It still had lots of dark fruit to it, and more surprisingly, the tannins still dried my tongue right up. I thought they might feel a bit softer after all that oxygen.

Then I tried the non-velved Cabernet. Wow. The fruit was all there and the tannins felt similar, but the wine tasted spicier. The Velv™ had removed that key component of the Cab — the spicy quality in the middle — and with the spice intact, the wine felt more balanced. I much preferred the Mondavi with its midsection not blown to bits with the Velv™ blunderbuss.

In short, should you decant your wine? Probably not. Should you spend $250 on a device to literally gas your wine? In the name of all that’s good and holy, no.

I’m sorry, Velv™ sales representative. I guess I owe you lunch.

Chianti Reconsidered

22 February 2016

Andrea Cecchi Chianti ClassicoFor many of us of a certain age, the word “Chianti” evokes fat bottles in straw baskets, bought not for the cheap wine inside so much as for the bottle, which made a great candle holder. Even today, that stereotype has yet to entirely disappear. Those in search of a great wine might pick up a Super Tuscan, perhaps, but I suspect fewer would look to a wine labeled Chianti Classico. Chianti may be Italy’s most famous wine region, but its name is not necessarily synonymous with fine wine.

The Italians have only themselves to blame for that, I’m afraid. In the 1960s, the government updated the DOC regulations for Chianti Classico, the traditional heart of Chianti and the source of most of the region’s best wines. The bureaucrats of the time decided that the best way to promote the economic health of Chianti Classico was to increase the quantity of wine produced and sold. Quality was of secondary concern. Whereas regulations previously allowed a certain percentage of the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes in the Sangiovese-based blend, now the rules required that the blend include 10 to 30 percent of the white grape juice. Fortunately, a number of growers decided to focus on quality instead, planting international varieties and selling what proved to be critically acclaimed (and expensive) wines as lowly Vino da Tavola.

The topsy-turvy situation was a bit of an embarrassment to regulators, of course, and finally in 1996, Chianti Classico became its own DOCG region as opposed to just a sub-region of Chianti. Yields were restricted, the required percentage of Sangiovese was increased, and the white-grape requirement was scrapped. But it wasn’t until 2006 — just ten years ago — that white grapes were banned from Chianti Classico, as the World Atlas of Wine explains.

Andrea Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di FamigliaI relate all this at length because I suspect that many people remain unaware of the recent changes in Chianti Classico. The wines now coming out of this region merit serious attention, a point that was driven home to me at a recent tasting with winemaker Andrea Cecchi.

I had expected to write only about his wines from Maremma, a region with far less fame than Chianti Classico, and therefore more appropriate for this blog dedicated to the unusual (you can read that post here). But the Chianti Classicos Andrea poured proved so surprisingly delicious, I felt bound to write about them.

His Chianti Classico is his winery’s best-seller in the United States, and after trying it, I can see why. A blend of 90% Sangiovese with the remainder composed of the traditional Colorino and Canaiolo varieties, the 2012 Cecchi Chianti Classico ($21) had a bright and cheerful aroma of red fruit, notably strawberries and cherries, and a hint of star anise. The wine filled my mouth with dark-red fruit, but like the other Cecchi wines I’d already tried, this Chianti Classico had distinct dryness to it. Some light spice in the middle led to some supple tannins on the finish. This was no rough-and-tumble Chianti. The wine had real elegance.

Those who prefer their wine with some oak should instead consider the 2009 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia ($41), which is produced only in favorable vintages. This wine, composed of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, sees 12 months of aging in barriques (small oak barrels). It smelled of fresh red fruit, but I also detected a raisin note in the aroma. The fruit felt really rich on my tongue, and thank goodness it did, because it had to balance the ample oak that followed. The tannins were wonderfully round, in spite of all that wood, and overall effect was quite refined. The oak notes made it an excellent pairing with some savory prosciutto, which also gave the fruit an extra shine.

Andrea Cecchi COEVOLast, Andrea poured the 2011 vintage of his Super Tuscan, a blend of 60% Sangiovese from Chianti and 20% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot from Maremma. The name, COEVO, which translates as “contemporary,” was chosen “because it conveys the value of time,” according to the tech sheet I received. I could tell from the aroma that this was a wine to be reckoned with. The deep, dark-fruit aroma had a striking freshness underneath, conveyed by a tobacco note.

I took a sip of the wine, and Andrea started saying something or other about it that was probably important, but I didn’t hear a word he said. It was just me and this absolutely gorgeous wine. The fruit was positively sumptuous — rich and round — and just enough spice perked up to keep it in balance. The wine moved seamlessly from one flavor to the next, culminating in the slow and steady development of exquisitely fine-grained tannins.

I can just picture it now, as I write this. What a shame I only had a small glass! I’ve never really considered spending $106 on a bottle of wine, but the 2011 COEVO might convince me to do just that.

The Dark Horse Of Italy’s Cowboy Country

9 February 2016
Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

I recently returned from a trip blessedly free from internet access to discover an aging invitation to have dinner and taste wines with Andrea Cecchi. My recent lack of connectivity suddenly seemed more like a curse. I scrambled to arrange a meeting, because Mr. Cecchi makes highly regarded wines in an obscure but very exciting region of Italy: Maremma.

Until the mid-20th century, Tuscany’s coast was better known for malaria and buttero (cowboys) than fine wine. But Mussolini drained the swamps, the cattle herds dwindled and the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Bolgheri. Now, Bolgheri is its own DOC and the home of Sassicaia, one of Italy’s most coveted wines.

But I don’t have $200 to spend on a bottle of Sassicaia. Instead, I focus instead on what ranks as one of Italy’s best red-wine values: Morellino di Scansano. The hill town of Scansano sits on high ground in Maremma, and the vineyards of Morellino (the local synonym for Sangiovese) reach as high as 1,500 feet above the nearby sea. “This is the Maremma’s classic Sangiovese zone,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and Italy seems to agree. In 2009, Morellino di Scansano was elevated from its DOC classification to DOCG, the most most restrictive and (theoretically) highest-quality designation in Italy’s wine classification system.

Cecchi La Mora Morellino di Scansano RiservaIn 1996, Andrea Cecchi’s father bought 360 acres of Maremma vineyards, expanding his wine company out of Chianti Classico, its home base since the late 19th century. He called his new wines “La Mora,” in honor of the black-skinned horses for which Maremma was once famous, Andrea explained, indicating the horse-head silhouettes on the labels.

We talked about measures the winery takes to improve sustainability and how they continue to innovate, working to make even the most incremental of improvements, knowing that enough small steps forward eventually lead to great leaps in quality. In the not-so-distant past, the fashion was to amp up the extraction and oak flavors. Now, the pendulum has swung the other direction, and Andrea, like many other top winemakers these days, seeks to emphasize the quality and purity of the fruit. It all sounded good, but did it translate into delicious wine?

I smelled the 2013 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano. It had a lovely rich aroma of red cherry fruit and violets. This wine sees no oak. “I want it to be very perfect, clean, into the bottle,” Andrea explained, and he succeeded in that effort. The wine started with ample dark cherry fruit before moving to a brief perk of white-pepper spice, admirably round tannins and a clean, dry finish. It worked well with some tomato and basil bruschetta, becoming a bit bigger and spicier. A very good value for $23 a bottle.

Cecchi La Mora Maremma VermentinoWe also tried the 2011 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano Riserva, aged 12 to 14 months in French oak barriques composed of 40% new wood (older barrels impart less oak flavor). I felt especially excited to try this wine, because only 10% of Morellino di Scansano is riserva. I loved its rich dark-chocolate and cherry aroma overlaid with a note of black licorice. On my palate, the cherry fruit felt cool and ripe, undergirded by mocha notes and well-integrated tannins. Like with the first Morellino, this example exhibited a general undertone of dryness — the wine didn’t feel juicy or jammy. This wine is pricier at $40 a bottle, but if you have that money to spend, you won’t regret spending it on this absolutely delightful riserva.

Maremma can produce notable whites as well, as demonstrated by the 2014 “La Mora” Maremma Vermentino Andrea presented. Demand for wines made from this indigenous grape far outstrips supply, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and I can understand why. This Vermentino smelled fresh and green, with just a touch of creaminess to it. A lengthy amount of time in contact with the yeast gave this wine a wonderfully even keel and elegant mouthfeel. Ripe fruit expanded on the palate, but taut acids underneath buoyed it up without becoming intrusive or overly tart. I also liked the dry, mineral finish. Many Italian whites require food to really appreciate them, but this wine worked just as beautifully all on its own. Very classy, and very well-priced at $20 a bottle.

Honestly, I had expected to end my writing about Andrea Cecchi’s wines here, because though he planned on presenting some Chiantis, they hardly qualified as obscure. But these Chiantis did turn out to be unusual, and well-deserving of an upcoming post all their own.

Note: The tastes of these wines were provided free of charge.

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: White & Sparkling

14 January 2016

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisFor 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 13 most memorable white wines I tried in 2015:



Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees. Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, giving this organic wine time to develop additional complexity. It had a nose of green apple and vanilla with a bit of toast, and I loved its classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit.


Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano


The World Atlas of Wine calls Vin Santo “the forgotten luxury of many parts of Italy, Tuscany above all,” and with good reason. This example had an enticing aroma of taut, dark honey and wonderfully complex flavors: dates, figs, orange peel, walnuts. It had evident concentration, feeling rich until the finish, which took a wonderfully surprising turn towards dry, bright freshness.



TheWorld Atlas of Wine also has high praise for Chablis from the Valmur vineyard, calling it “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute joy. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. With sublime balance, it started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice.


The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé


The words “semi-dry” strike fear into the hearts of many a sugar-phobic wine drinker, but there’s nothing to be afraid of in this case. An attractive green-gold color, this Finger Lakes Riesling had a ripe and full aroma, and lush fruit perfectly balanced by orangey acids and gingery spice. Languid and very pretty.



Marsanne, a traditional Rhône white grape variety, doesn’t ordinarily spring to mind when one thinks of Australian wine. But perhaps it should — this example from Central Victoria, Australia’s southeasternmost state aside from Tasmania, had a delightfully fresh aroma of pear, and it tasted rather sexy, I must say. Delicious roasted peach fruit moved to a little wood and some dusky spice, and the finish lasted quite some time. A most pleasant surprise.



Piper-Heidsieck BrutThis Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles. You may not feel very surprised to learn that a Champagne is delicious, especially one coming from a relatively well-known brand. What is surprising is the huge disparity between this richly flavorful Champagne (priced at about $40 a bottle) and the underwhelming but nevertheless ubiquitous Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (priced at about $37  bottle). Those three extra dollars buy you a giant leap in character.



Most Vernaccia di San Gimignano (a Tuscan white) doesn’t see any time in oak, resulting in cheerful, fruity and spicy wines that tend to go well with food. But the “riserva” wines, which age for a spell in new oak barrels, achieve another level entirely. This example, a blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, spent a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to its complexity. 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.



This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto from Portugal’s Tejo region paired wonderfully with some savory Parmesan crisps. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. A fellow taster also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and it’s a sensational value at $12.


The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen


I had already tasted a number of excellent wines with the Prinzessin zur Lippe, owner of Schloss Proschwitz in Germany’s little-known Sachsen region. But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned. When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk (I was not). This wine, quite simply, was great. I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. What a gorgeous, elegant wine.



I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes during the vacation when I tried this sparkling wine from Austria, but it proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s successful use of bottle fermentation. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to some turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.



As I tasted this wine, Casey Squire, division manager of Banville Wine Merchants, told me that “The hallmark of Terlano wines is their ageability,” and went on to relate how he once tried a 1955 Terlaner Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) that still retained some acidity and freshness. I’m not sure I’d hold this wine from the Vorberg section of Italy’s Alto Adige region that long, but who knows? It smelled of subtle spice and herbs and mellow white fruit, and the mouthfeel felt rich and full. Voluptuous fruit quickly gave way to tight, limey acids which moved into paprika-like spice. The wine was big and lively, but it held together firmly and exhibited great balance.


The tasting room at Vina Cobos

The tasting room at Viña Cobos


This single-vineyard Chardonnay from Mendoza had a very spicy aroma marked by dried herbs, belying the rich fruit I tasted. I also detected some vanilla and even a note of light caramel, but in spite of all this richness, bright acids kept the wine perfectly in balance. I liked it so much, I ended up buying a bottle for my boss for Christmas.



When I tasted this beautiful Finger Lakes wine, I wrote in my notebook, “If you think you don’t like sweet wines, try this!!” I loved it from start to finish. It had an enticingly spicy and rich aroma, and sumptuously rich fruit leavened by surprisingly zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice. Sheer delight.

Up Next: My favorite reds of 2015.

Franciacorta: Italy’s Answer To Champagne

28 December 2015

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisAs we approach New Year’s Eve, thoughts turn inevitably to sparkling wine. The holiday is practically synonymous with Champagne, and it’s the only holiday, alas, during which you’re virtually guaranteed to have plenty of bubbly with which to celebrate. (If you’re looking for a good New Year’s Resolution, I suggest vowing to celebrate every holiday with sparkling wine. Those who truly care about the environment, for example, would surely agree that Arbor Day merits a glass of Champagne as much as New Year’s Eve.)

Recently I was offered a sample of high-end Franciacorta, Italy’s best sparkling wine, crafted in a method similar to Champagne. I hesitated at first, since I had written a post about Franciacorta not so long ago. But I reconsidered and accepted the samples, because the offer came to me just after one of my favorite wine-tasting friends shared a beautiful bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut. This Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles.

Piper-Heidsieck BrutI loved this wine, which can be had for $40 a bottle (it’s a far better value than the ubiquitous and rather underwhelming Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label at $37 a bottle). After feeling so thoroughly seduced by the Piper-Heidsieck, I wondered if these Franciacorta sparklers, which ranged from $45 to $55 a bottle, would compete in the same league. At that price point, they should display sharp focus, perfect balance, notable character and elegant bubbles. I invited five friends over, whipped up some Käsespätzle with melted leeks, and got to the happy work of tasting the wines.

1) 2011 Barone Pizzini Satèn: Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees (dead yeast cells, grape skin fragments and other solid bits left over from winemaking). Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, theoretically developing even more complexity. This organic wine proved very popular with the group. “This is delicious and very easy to drink,” remarked Adam, who also liked its crispness. Patti astutely noted, “It’s like when you bite into a granny smith apple.” I also got some green apple on the nose, along with vanilla and a bit of toast. I loved the very classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit. ($45)

La Valle Brut Rose2) 2011 La Valle Rosé Brut: The vintage on this bottle inexplicably appears only in small font on the back label. If I had a vintage sparkling rosé, I’d want to shout it from the rooftops. This very pretty wine also delighted the group, including me. In order to preserve the character of the grapes as much as possible, this blend of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) fermented in stainless steel and again in the bottle, without spending any time in oak. Like the Barone Pizzini Satèn, this wine spent a significant time aging on the lees, a minimum of 24 months in this case. It had a fresh and light (some in the group argued “undetectable”) strawberry aroma. It had ample watermelony fruit but it felt dry, with rich orangey acids and some chalk on the finish. The bubbles were tiny but forceful, with a “more celebratory feel” according to one fellow taster. A very romantic sparkling rosé that paired deliciously with some asparagus wrapped in crisped prosciutto. ($55)

La Valle Rose and Barone Pizzini Rose3) 2011 Barone Pizzini Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir comes from organic vineyards abutting a forest, which “maintains cool temperatures throughout hotter days of the growing season,” according to the distributor’s fact sheet. It, too, spends 30 to 40 months aging on the lees, but the character of its bubbles made it feel less serious and more fun than La Valle’s rosé. “It’s so bubbly that it melts in my mouth,” Scott reported. “It turns to air!” He was right — on the finish, the ethereal bubbles frothed and evaporated, leaving the palate clean for the next sip. It was a surprising end for a wine that started with ripe berry flavors and dusky orange acids. “I feel like #3 is more extroverted,” Cornelia noted, “but it’s kind of garrulous.” I found this wine to be charming, but then I have no shortage of garrulous friends. ($45)

4) 2009 La Valle “Naturalis” Extra Brut: I saved the most sophisticated wine for last, which was perhaps an error, since the other wines had more residual sugar. La Valle gives this blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir nowhere to hide, aging it in stainless steel (wood can smooth over certain problems) and adding minimal sugar in the dosage (sweetness also helps cover flaws). The winemaking has to be just about perfect if you’re going to attempt a wine like “Naturalis.” And such a wine won’t be popular with everyone; one taster complained of a slight bitter undertone, and she wasn’t wrong. I found this wine exciting to drink, with its zesty acids, pin-prick bubbles and flavors of tart apple and unripe pear. It mellowed when paired with the Käsespätzle, becoming rounder and less austere. If you’re meeting up with some wine geeks and need something to pair with dinner, this is your bottle. But Cornelia said it best: “This is the wine I should be dating — it’s the most emotionally healthy — but I’ll probably end up with #1.” ($55)

This tasting was a pleasure, to be sure. The rosé Franciacortas both could compete with a fine rosé Champagne, and if you seek a romantic sparkler to impress a date — especially a date who knows something about wine — a rosé Franciacorta would be an excellent choice.

The Satèn impressed me with its beautiful balance and perfect bubbles, and the “Naturalis” excited me in the manner of a tightrope walker performing without a net. If I have $45 to $55 to spend on a sparkler, will I purchase one of them? They’re certainly worth the money. But I’m such a sucker for toasty richness, it’s still the Piper-Heidsieck that has me in its grip.

Note: All the wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

Franciacorta: Prosecco’s Upscale Neighbor

10 July 2015

Cavalleri Franciacorta

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, but it tastes especially good in summer. It’s refreshing, it’s light and it works well with everything from potato salad to ribs. Champagne continues to set the standard for sparkling wine, but because of its price, I more often reach for a nice Prosecco or Cava which can be had for as little as $12 a bottle (I tend to avoid those costing less). When I’m feeling a little fancier — but not quite ready to drop $35 on Champagne — I opt instead for a Franciacorta.

Few people outside Italy had heard of this region bordering Lake Iseo in north-central Italy until the 1970s. That’s when, as The World Atlas of Wine explains, the Berlucchi family started to directly imitate the methods of Champagne, methods “subsequently taken up by farm after farm” in the area. The Berlucchis sparked a sparkling wine revolution, bottle fermentation became the norm, and now, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia asserts, “Franciacorta is currently the only Italian dry sparkling-wine appellation that can demand respect from the rest of the world.”

What about Prosecco, you may reasonably wonder. Never one to mince words, Sotheby’s complains that most Prosecco is “boring.” The Oxford Companion to Wine goes even further, arguing that “The finished wines are light and frothing, their neutrality and defects too often masked by over-generous additions of sugar.” Ouch.

Contemplating the CavalleriWell, I have no problem with Prosecco. Its price doesn’t lead me to expect too much of it, and despite its lack of bottle fermentation, it usually has small bubbles and enough flavor to be fun, if not truly interesting. And if you just need something for mimosas, Prosecco won’t let you down.

Franciacorta, on the other hand, aspires to some elegance, as indicated by price tags ranging from about $20 to $40, and occasionally more. Not inexpensive, but certainly not reaching into the lofty heights of Champagne prices, either. That makes it a perfect wine to open over a casual weekend dinner with your loved one. It’s exactly the sort of thing I might bring to my parents’ house to drink at a family barbecue before the rest of the family arrives.

I recently received three free sample bottles of Franciacorta to try, and I managed to twist a few friends’ arms into trying them with me:

La Montina BrutCavalleri Blanc de Blancs: This 100% Chardonnay tasted fine, with notes of wood, round fruit and lemony acids. Unfortunately, the aroma smelled distinctly of varnish (one friend described it as “rancid plastic”). I suspect something happened to this bottle. A notable varnish odor indicates an overabundance of ethyl acetate, which, as Wikipedia describes, can smell sweet in small quantities but like nail polish remover in larger amounts. Average Retail: $20

Ronco Calino Brut: A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, the Ronco Calino smelled ever so much better than the Cavalleri: like green apples with a touch of minerality. The bubbles felt small, fizzy and very prickly, ensuring that this wine would pair with all sorts of foods. I liked its rather heady flavors of fermented apples and honeysuckle. It would surely be a hit at a party. Average Retail: $27

La Montina Brut: This Franciacorta exuded elegance. It smelled very enticing with notes of red apple and dusky orange, and even a touch of caramel. The tiny bubbles were very classy. It felt fruity, zesty and rich all at once, making for quite a bright and beautiful bubbly, and my favorite Franciacorta of the evening. Average Retail: $25

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:



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.



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.”



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.



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


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!



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.



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.



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).



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.

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