Chardonnay

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.

A Man, A Plan, A Shiraz, Australia!

12 July 2018

Neil McGuigan

One country I routinely avoid in both wine shops and on wine lists is Australia. It’s a flaw of mine. I’m still scarred from insta-hangover Yellowtail and the ark of critter quaffers that followed in its wake. An all-too-brief visit to Australia a couple of years ago helped set me on the road to recovery, however. I loved the wines, especially from the continent’s cool-climate regions. And my recovery continues apace after a sensational lunch at Chicago’s Wollensky’s Grill hosted by McGuigan Wines.

This much-decorated winery stands in Australia’s Hunter Valley, a region just north of Sydney that The World Atlas of Wine calls “a far from ideal place to grow grapes” because of its subtropical climate. Nevertheless, the book praises “a strip of weathered basalt” in the foothills of the Brokenback Range, as well as “red volcanic soils on higher ground, such as those of Pokolbin…” McGuigan stands in the heart of that region, just east of the Brokenback Range. It has vineyards there, but the winery also sources fruit from a number of other regions, including some of Australia’s fashionable cool-climate spots.

Although popular in Britain, McGuigan has only recently become available in the United States. Look for McGuigan’s black “The Plan” label, which can be Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux-style blend. What sets these wines apart is the the company’s dedication to cleanness and freshness in the wine, according to CEO Neil McGuigan. He’s not interested in making jam bombs:

Food culture [in the U.S.] has grown logarithmically, and where there’s a food culture, a wine culture follows. To go with the food, you need wines that are bright, flavorsome and fresh.

When I hear the words “Australian wine,” the first word that comes to mind is not “fresh.” I love that McGuigan is working on changing that.

We started our lunch with the 2016 “The Plan” Chardonnay, and it certainly got things going on the right foot. It had firm, juicy acids balanced by a touch of creaminess, and some refined Sichuan peppercorn-like spice. It’s a fantastic value for about $12 a bottle. I have trouble thinking of too many other Chardonnays at that price that have the balance of The Plan.

The red McGuigan “The Plan” wines also punched above their weight. The 2016 Red Blend had cheerful notes of vanilla and dark cherries balanced with a spicy lift on the finish. I felt momentarily skeptical of the 2016 Shiraz, which started with jammy fruit and plenty of sweet vanilla, but it maintained balance by finishing fresh and dry. It went in a totally different direction than I was expecting. And I quite liked the plush and plummy 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, which moved slowly from fruit to vanilla to black pepper spice. Each of The Plan wines ranges in alcohol content between 12.5% and 13.5%, which shows admirable restraint in an era when 15% is not uncommon.

The Hand Made Shirazes paired beautifully with steak

We also sampled several vintages of McGuigan “Hand Made” Shiraz, made from grapes grown “just outside Langhorne Creek” in South Australia, not far from Adelaide. Much farther south than the Hunter Valley, and therefore cooler, Langhorne Creek is known for “soft, gentle, mouth-filling Shiraz and succulent Cabernet Sauvignon, according to The World Atlas of Wine. A nearby lake helps keep things fresh: “The so-called Lake Doctor, a reliable afternoon breeze off the lake, slows ripening here so that grapes are usually picked two weeks later than those of McLaren Vale.”

The 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2008 vintages were all delicious, and all different. The 2014 is still young and brash, but the 2012 has settled in, with a more obviously fruity aroma marked by an additional savory note. Its tannins felt more fine-grained and the wine moved from moment to moment more slowly. My favorite was the 2010, which had developed even more of a savory quality in its aroma. The wine had excellent balance and control, with big fruit and big, refined, slow-moving spice. Because it was a drought year, 2008 is something of an anomaly, but it too had wonderfully integrated flavors of dark fruit, oak and spice.

The star of the tasting was the 2013 McGuigan “The Philosophy,” a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon and 44% Shiraz that costs about $125 a bottle. McGuigan has a smart managerial reason for producing this sort of flagship wine. “When you make a $150 bottle,” he explained, “it creates a culture of excellence at the winery, so that a $10 bottle starts to taste like a $12 bottle.”

Is a $125 bottle 10 times as good as a $12 bottle? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that a $125 bottle (ideally) offers something different from a $12 bottle — it offers control, refinement and elegance that require a lot of expensive winemaking technique to achieve. For most of us, a $125 wine won’t be worth the money. But if you want to splurge on such a bottle, “The Philosophy” would be a beautiful choice. It had a dark fruit aroma with a savory undertone, and it developed with confident evenness on the palate. The wine moved with grace from opulent fruit to big oak (the fruit was rich enough to take it) to refined spice to very fine-grained tannins.

It was a joy to drink.

Note: This lunch and the accompanying wines were provided free of charge.

Value In Bourgogne: Burgundy You Can Afford

21 June 2018

When I hear the word “Burgundy,” it sets my heart a bit aflutter. It’s one of my all-time favorite wine regions to visit — I’ve been four times — and it’s the home of some of the world’s most coveted wines. Burgundy, or Bourgogne to the locals, is the home of Romanée-Conti, Montrachet and La Tâche. The names send shivers down my spine, and I haven’t even tasted any of them! But the Grand Cru Burgundy I have tasted gives me some notion of what these wines must be like. I know I write about the unusual and the obscure, but fine Burgundy, white Burgundy in particular, ranks among my very favorite wines, famous though it may be.

Unfortunately, prices for Grand Cru Burgundies are stratospheric — the names I listed above can fetch four figures a bottle — and Premier Cru Burgundy is only somewhat more affordable. (Although I do vividly remember the time I stumbled upon a bar in Dijon’s food market offering glasses of Les Maranges for 7 euro!)

But Burgundy is more than these famous names. It ranges from cool Chablis in the north through the Côte d’Or heartland down to warm(ish) Mâcon. It’s a big region, and there are numerous values to be had there.

In search of value, Liz Barrett and I interviewed Anne Moreau of Domaine Louis Moreau in Chablis and the Bourgogne Wine Board. She joined us on an episode of Name That Wine to present four different white Burgundies that offer incredible value for the money:

We try one Champagne-like Crémant de Bourgogne and three gorgeous whites, all very different from one another. And best of all, these wines ranged in price from $18 to $35 a bottle. The $35 wine was a Chablis Premier Cru! Good luck finding a Premier Cru from the Côte d’Or at that price.

What a joy these wines were, and what fun to learn about them with an expert like Anne Moreau! I only wish that when we were blind-tasting the wines, I had taken her hint about #2 a little more to heart. Whoops!

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Malagousia And Other Greek Wine (Re)Discoveries

1 April 2018

At a recent tasting of Greek wines, I had expected the bottlings from Santorini to be some of the biggest stars. I’ve long loved the sunny whites from this volcanic Aegean Island, where most vines are trained into unusual basket shapes to protect them from the wind. Accompanied by Liz Barrett, who cohosts Name That Wine with me, I made a beeline for the Santorini table.

Indeed, I quite liked some of the Santorini wines — I’m always up for a good Assyrtiko, which often has ripe fruit, brightly lemony acids and a minerally finish. But the biggest surprise came at a table on the opposite side of the room, where winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou was pouring.

Gerovassiliou’s winery stands near the coast south of Thessaloniki, in the north of mainland Greece. My World Atlas of Wine considers this general region to be “red wine country,” but Gerovassiliou is famous for rescuing what is now one of Greece’s best-known white grape varieties: Malagousia. As he poured us tastes of his 2016 Single-Vineyard Malagousia, he told us how in the 1970s, he had been working with a University of Thessaloniki ampelographer, Professor Vassilis Logothetis. Logothetis found some Malagousia vines, planted them in his experimental vineyard and showed them to Gerovassiliou, who was working at a nearby winery as an oenologist.

Evangelos Gerovassiliou

Gerovassiliou recognized the vines’ potential, and his success with the nearly extinct grape drew the attention of other winemakers. Now numerous wineries in Greece work with Malagousia, which “yields full-bodied, perfumed wines in many Greek regions,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Gerovassiliou’s Malagousia certainly fit that description, with notes of ripe stone fruit, honey, orange flower and mango in the aroma. Yet it tasted spicy, clean and fresh, enhanced by zesty acids. A delight.

But Gerovassiliou is no one-trick pony. Each of the wines he poured us proved delicious:

2016 Gerovassiliou Fumé Sauvignon Blanc: Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs slap you in the face with grass and grapefruit. Those notes were in this wine too, but it had a lighter, subtler touch. Well-integrated and well-balanced. Retsina this is not! ~$30

2016 Gerovassiliou Viognier: Viogniers can sometimes feel ponderous, but this version had a bright, almost soapy aroma with a hint of cream, and a mouthfeel that seemed almost ethereal. A hint of butter kept the exotic fruit flavors and light spice grounded. ~$21

2015 Gerovassiliou Chardonnay: I loved the aroma of fresh butter and light wood. The fruit felt rich and lush but not heavy, lifted up by focused acids and spice. And whenever there’s a note of buttered popcorn in a Chardonnay, as in this one, I end up thoroughly seduced. ~$32

2015 Gerovassiliou Estate Red: This blend of 70% Syrah, 15% Merlot and 15% Limnio smelled of currants and vanilla. Rich, ripe fruit was blasted aside by an explosion of spice, followed by some cleansing (and not unpleasant) bitterness on the finish. Bracing and lively. ~$20

2013 Gerovassiliou “Avaton”: Here’s a blend I suspect you haven’t tried before: 50% Limnio, 25% Mavrotragano and 20% Mavroudi. Limnio, Gerovassiliou told us, is the oldest documented Greek grape variety, mentioned by Aristophanes in the 5th century B.C. Mavrotragano is an “increasingly appreciated” red grape indigenous to Santorini, according to an unusually brief description in the Oxford Companion to Wine. The book is even more laconic about Mavroudi: “generic name for several Greek grape varieties,” is the entirety of the entry. (You can read more about Mavrotragano here and Maroudi here.) I wrote in my notes that this blend “smells expensive,” with rich red fruit and some oak. Full of sumptuously ripe fruit, the wine was so graceful and delicate, it felt as if it hovered just above my palate, like some sort of wine ghost (quite surprising, considering the 14% alcohol content). I rather loved it. ~$40

2013 Gerovassiliou “Evangelo”: A Rhône-style blend of 92% Syrah and 8% Viognier, this dark beauty had a dusky, plummy aroma with notes of raisins and chocolate. I tasted it, and wow. It felt lithe and elegant, moving with slow power from prune-like fruit to focused spice to fine-grained tannins. Absolutely gorgeous. ~$65

2012 Gerovassiliou Late-Harvest Malagousia: Gerovassiliou makes this wine only in vintages when the conditions are right. I really loved it. It smelled enticingly of peach crumble and honeysuckle, and though it had sweet honey notes, the wine was quite light on its feet, leavened by green peppercorn spice, cardamom and lively acids. What a joy. ~$30

Too often in wine shops, Greek wines are shunted off in a corner along with various Eastern European oddities (and many of those deserve better as well). Yet Greece’s winemaking traditions go back thousands of years, and contemporary winemakers are making world-class wines that any sommelier should be proud to pour. Ask your wineshop for a recommendation. And if you happen to find a bottle by Ktima Gerovassiliou, don’t hesitate to snap it up. Anything by that winery is sure to be a pleasure.

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