Italy

Prosecco: The Good Stuff

30 August 2019

A hotsy-totsy bottle also helps differentiate high-end Prosecco from the basic stuff.

How many parties have I attended at which I spotted a bottle of cheap Prosecco, perhaps even served in a red plastic cup? Frankly, it’s usually a relief — I’d much rather sip a $10 Prosecco than a Barefoot Bubbly or some such. Even inexpensive Prosecco is usually cheerful and well-balanced, if not anything worth deep contemplation. Really, though, what more can one ask from a party wine?

But cheap and cheerful is not Prosecco’s only mood, as reaffirmed by a recent lunch I attended that was hosted by the Consorzio Tutela del Vino Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco. (Full disclosure: The lunch and wines were provided free of charge.) We tried seven different Proseccos, all of which exhibited complexity as well as food-friendliness. The trick is that these were all classified as Prosecco Superiore DOCG.

Most Proseccos, and certainly the most inexpensive ones, are classed as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). These wines come from grapes grown anywhere within the DOC zone — Italy’s largest DOC, in fact — an expanse of almost 35,000 acres. Most of this DOC is flat and relatively unexciting, at least in vinous terms.

The vineyards with more potential for high quality are in the smaller DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) zone. The approximately 15,000 acres of the Prosecco DOCG occupy picturesque hills around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, hence the consorzio’s rather unwieldy name. Fortunately for the non-Italian-speaking consumer, there is no need to remember the name of the consorzio or the towns. If you look for Prosecco with the letters DOCG on the label, you’re off to a good start.

Meyer lemon semifreddo with fresh berries and cardamom granola at Sepia

Terroir geeks will want to go one step further and look for the word “Rive,” which indicates that the grapes for the Prosecco were grown on an especially notable site. We tried two such Proseccos at the lunch. The 2018 Sommariva Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Rive di S. Michele Extra Dry had an enticing orangey aroma, sharp and frothy bubbles, and notes of sweet chalk and dark citrus. It was an excellent pairing with some salmon topped with preserved lemon-caper butter. And the 2018 Adami Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Vigneto Giardino Asciutto Rive di Colbertaldo — good gracious, just writing out the names of these wines doubles the word count of this article — felt ripe and lush but pointy, with juicy acids and elegantly sharp bubbles. It was just sweet enough to pair with some Meyer lemon semifreddo.

The drier Proseccos we tried were also delicious (“extra dry” is, confusingly, not as dry as “dry” or “brut”). There was the ethereal NV Bisol Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Jeio Brut, which had notes of melon and citrus; its round, full mouthfeel evaporated into prickly froth. The NV Villa Sandi Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Brut La Riveta smelled of chalk, lime and stone fruit, and though its acids and bubbles were zesty, it felt classy, finishing on a mineral note (the word “Cartizze” on a label is also encouraging; the vineyards there are particularly well-regarded). I also enjoyed the well-balanced and elegant 2018 Col Sandago Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Vigna del Cuc Brut, which we sipped as an aperitif.

Only the 2017 BiancaVigna Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Rive di Soligo Dossagio Zero was not to my taste. This bottle had lots of promising words on its label — Superiore, Rive, DOCG — but two of those words were deal-breakers for me: Dossagio Zero. The equivalent of “Zero Dosage” or “Brut Nature,” Dossagio Zero means, essentially, that the wine is bone-dry (see here for a more in-depth explanation). I like dry wine, up to a point. But sugar in wine can be like salt in food. You need a little bit sometimes, for balance. This wine tasted bracingly tart on its own and was palatable only when paired with food. There surely are some good sparkling wines that are Dossagio Zero, Zero Dosage or Brut Nature, but I have tasted precious few of them.

Prosecco Superiore DOCG costs more than Prosecco DOC, of course, and some of you may well be wondering if it’s really worth the extra money. If the descriptions above don’t convince you, consider watching the video below, in which we blind-taste a Mionetto Prosecco DOC against a Mionetto Prosecco Superiore DOCG. They cost about $10 and $20, respectively, which means that the difference between them ought to be readily apparent. We put that hypothesis to the test:

Note: The lunch and Proseccos described in the post above were provided free of charge. The wines in the video we purchased at full retail price.

Franciacorta: A Lesson For The Rest Of Italy

27 September 2018

Like most European countries, Italy has a wine classification system that, in theory, gives the potential drinker a guarantee of quality. But Italians are stereotypically poor at organization, and so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the system doesn’t always work. Hence the rise of “Super Tuscans,” for example, that transcended their essentially worthless (at the time) regional regulations.

Italy has made headway in fixing lax wine rules, but it still has a ways to go. I mean, how many beautiful examples of  Barbera d’Asti have I had, classified as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and how many examples of boring Moscato d’Asti, classified in the ostensibly superior DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)? Yes, they’re completely different wines, but is there some way that Moscato d’Asti is superior to Barbera d’Asti? I don’t know it.

But at least one region of Italy is getting things right. Franciacorta “is an object lesson for the rest of the Italian wine industry,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The region’s still wines remain classed as DOC, and only the sparkling wines, the region’s true glory, have been elevated to DOCG. Other regions could “restrict production to the original classico area and a reduced yield,” Sotheby’s suggests. “This would result in both a DOC and a DOCG for the same region and… it would ensure that the ‘G’ did guarantee an elevated quality…” Sounds sensible to me.

Windy City Wine Guy Michael Bottigliero

Although the same cannot be said for all Italian wines, at least when you buy a bottle that says Franciacorta DOCG, you know you’re getting something of real quality. Franciacorta produces “Italy’s best metodo classico wine,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and I’m not one to disagree. Like Champagne, Franciacorta has exacting production requirements, and mostly like Champagne, it’s made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir (sorry, Pinot Meunier). Franciacorta is therefore consistently delicious.

But it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bottle. A recent Franciacorta-focused dinner reminded me of how exciting the region’s sparklers can be.

The Windy City Wine Guy, Michael Bottigliero, invited me to attend a dinner at a fine Italian restaurant in Chicago called Nonnina, free of charge, in order to show off Franciacorta. We sampled — sampled? We drank four contrasting Franciacortas, and each was delightful in its own way.

The 2013 Ricci Curbastro Satèn Brut felt lean and wonderfully classy, like a slender Italian guy in a perfectly tailored suit. It certainly started the evening off on the right foot. “Satèn” indicates a Franciacorta that’s 100% Chardonnay, a Blanc de Blancs in Champagne terminology, aged on the lees for at least 24 months. Non-vintage Champagne, incidentally, need age only 12 months on the lees before its release, although many are aged much longer.

But the all-around favorite, as indicated by the room’s applause when Michael mentioned the wine’s name, was the Corte Bianca Extra Brut. “Zowie,” I wrote in my little book, taking my customarily thorough tasting notes. I don’t need notes to remember this wine, however. It had palpable richness in addition to lively lemony acids, along with a hint of white flowers. And there was that yeasty, bready note I covet in a sparkling wine. Zowie indeed. It worked wonderfully with some vegetable fritto misto as well as pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula.

I also deeply enjoyed the 2012 Monte Rossa Cabochon Vintage Brut, which smelled of Granny Smith apples and jasmine. Its zesty juiciness and minerality helped it stand up to some decadent bucatini alla carbonara. I could eat that carbonara and drink that Cabochon every day and be very happy.

We finished with a pale Mosnel Rosé, composed of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It had tight bubbles and plenty of strawberry fruit, but it was the juicy acids that leavened an otherwise bone-dry wine. With the salmon, it was an ideal match.

I’ve praised the virtues of Franciacorta before, here and here, but it never hurts to be reminded just how delicious Franciacorta can be. It’s not necessarily inexpensive, but if you want to celebrate something with someone you want to impress, Franciacorta is a great choice. Champagne is a delight but it’s predictable. Celebrating with Champagne is something of a cliché. But if you open up a bottle of Franciacorta, it shows you’ve got sophistication, as well as the confidence to stand behind something a little out of the ordinary.

I wouldn’t stake your reputation on any old random Italian DOCG, but with Franciacorta, you can feel sure that the “G” in “DOCG” is indeed a guarantee of quality.

Note: The dinner at Nonnina and the glasses of wine that accompanied it were provided free of charge.

Taming Aglianico: Campania’s Noble, Underrated Red

1 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Antonio Capaldo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 March 2017

Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Page »