Italy

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:

 

2011 BARONE PIZZINI SATÈN FRANCIACORTA

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

2009 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.

 

2011 DOMAINE CHRISTIAN MOREAU PÈRE ET FILS VALMUR GRAND CRU

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

2013 FULKERSON ESTATE SEMI-DRY RIESLING

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.

 

2012 MITCHELTON CENTRAL VICTORIA MARSANNE

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.

 

NV PIPER HEIDSIECK BRUT

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.

 

2013 PODERE CANNETA VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO RISERVA “LA LUNA E LE TORRE”

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.

 

2014 QUINTA DO CASAL MONTEIRO “MARGARIDE’S”

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

2013 SCHLOSS PROSCHWITZ WEISSBURGUNDER GROSSES GEWÄCHS

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.

 

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutNV SZIGETI GRÜNER VELTLINER BRUT

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.

 

2012 TERLANER VORBERG PINOT BIANCO

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

2013 VIÑA COBOS “BRAMARE” MARCHIORI VINEYARD CHARDONNAY

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.

 

2013 WAGNER VINEYARDS RIESLING ICE WINE

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.

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