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:



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.



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.



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


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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:



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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!



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!



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.

A Dark Sparkler For Fall

25 September 2013

Villa di Corlo LambruscoIf the word “Lambrusco” means anything to you, it likely connotes the sweet, one-dimensional sparkling wines epitomized by Riunite. Now, I can enjoy Riunite as much as the next guy (it’s great paired with beef jerky), but most of the time I’m looking for something with more balance and more depth of flavor. And oddly enough, there are Lambruscos out there that offer just such a thing.

In fact, I found one just the other day at my favorite neighborhood wine shop in Chicago, In Fine Spirits, and it proved to be just the thing for a cool autumn evening. Right away, I had a feeling it would be a better-than-average Lambrusco. First, there was the not insubstantial price tag of $18.50. In Fine Spirits wouldn’t sell a sugar-bomb Lambrusco for that price.

And then there was the label. Many people half-joke that they buy wine because they like the label, but there are far worse ways to select wine than that. I liked this label’s elegant simplicity, and I also liked that it had a lot of words. This wasn’t just a Lambrusco — it was a Villa di Corlo Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro. Those last three words added specificity, which led me to believe this would be better than basic Lambrusco. And below that I found “Denominazione di Origine Controllata,” which theoretically guarantees at least some sort of acceptable level of quality.

What I didn’t see on the label was “Metodo Classico,” which would have indicated that the second fermentation took place in the bottle, in the manner of Champagne. Steel-tank fermentation used to be a deal breaker for me, but I’ve mellowed in my dotage. More important, I trust the taste of In Fine Spirits. Knowing that the store’s taste tends to align with mine means that I can be fearless about venturing outside my comfort zone. I bought the Lambrusco.

It turns out that there are at least 60 known subvarieties of the Lambrusco grape, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, including Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Salamino… Look for Lambrusco followed by names like these, rather than just “Lambrusco.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia flatly states that “non-DOC Lambrusco is not interesting,” and I would have to agree.

The Grasparossa di Castelvetro comes from Emilia-Romagna in central Italy (near Modena and Bologna), and it draws somewhat mixed reviews from the publications noted above. Although large cooperative producers blur the distinctions nowadays, “In theory, Lambrusco Grasparossa is the fullest and most alcoholic” of the various subvarieties, according to the Oxford Companion. A more tepid Sotheby’s allows that DOC Grasparossas are “usually better than non-DOC versions,” but argues that they don’t quite match the quality of Lambrusco di Sorbara.

But really, this is splitting Lambrusco hairs. Get a DOC Lambrusco and have some fun. The Villa di Corlo had an appealingly dark purple color, which makes a nice change from the pale sparklers we usually drink. It had an invitingly grapey aroma, and small, sharp bubbles which felt more like a mass of foam than a group of individuals. Lemony acids balanced out the dark fruit and smokey notes quite well. But what I remember most about this wine was its almost rasping dryness — a sharp contrast to the stereotypically sweet Lambrusco.

For the fall, a dark but lively sparkling wine like this is ideal — it pairs wonderfully with all sorts of hearty foods. And at $18.50 a bottle, you’re not paying much more than you would for a decent bottle of Prosecco. Serve this wine well chilled, and have fun surprising your guests with a deep-purple bubbly.


Villa di Corlo Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro: Deep, deep purple in color, with a grapey aroma, dark fruit, bright acids and a rasping dryness. Serve well chilled, and pair it with just about any hearty autumnal meal.

Grade: B+

Find It: I bought this wine at In Fine Spirits for $18.50.

Bonus: Check out this melodramatic 1977 Riunite commercial starring none other than Susan Lucci.

An Ancient Delight Rediscovered

10 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unusual Reds At Tangley Oaks

7 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unusual Italian Sparklers At Tangley Oaks

31 July 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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