Grape Varieties

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.

Cahors: A Lot To Love #Winophiles

13 September 2018

Château Lagrézette

In her sanctimonious book, For the Love of Wine, Alice Feiring relates how a Georgian traveling companion felt “dismayed by the weak wines” of France, and natural-wine-advocate Feiring seems to agree. I don’t know what they were drinking on their trip to Paris, but it must not have been Cahors.

Cahors (pronounced CAH-or) is a not-especially-famous region to the southeast of Bordeaux, stretched out along both banks of the picturesquely tortured course of the Lot River. Its lack of fame makes sense when you consider how unkind history has been to the region. The Oxford Companion to Wine notes how although the Lot, which empties into the Garonne River and eventually the sea, is an ideal trading route, winemakers “long suffered from the protectionist measures… inflicted on Cahors by the merchants of Bordeaux,” who controlled the mouth of the river. Phylloxera reduced the vineyard area in Cahors by more than 90%, and the hybrid vines planted thereafter produced wines of dubious quality.

The Oxford Companion goes on to argue that the 1956 winter freeze “provided a clean slate at an appropriate moment in the appellation’s history.” Vignerons once again replanted, and this time, they returned to the roots of Cahors: Malbec.

Nowadays we associate Malbec with Argentina, but the grape was born in France, likely in Cahors. The dark, forceful wines Malbec produces in its birthplace are a joy to drink, though they feel more serious than their Argentine brothers. Argentine Malbecs are often sexy party boys, whereas Cahors Malbecs are handsome gentlemen who hang out in whiskey bars smoking cigars.

Lagrézette Cru d’Exception Malbec at Château de la Treyne

It’s possible to find lightweight Cahors, but almost all the wines I had on a visit last year had real stuffing and density. Weak wines these were not, even by Georgian standards. Consider the 2008 Château Lagrézette “Cru d’Exception,” a 100% Malbec (AOC rules require at least 70% Malbec in Cahors, which may be blended with Tannat or Merlot). It had an enticing deep, plummy aroma marked with a note of fresh tobacco. And the flavor! Sensationally rich, almost chewy dark-plum fruit, big but velvety tannins, and some tobacco on the finish. It was gorgeous paired with a lamb dish I had at Château de la Treyne.

I liked the wine so much I later visited Château Lagrézette, one of the few wineries in Cahors with an actual castle. Its gravity-flow winery is new, however, carefully inserted beneath one of the winery’s top vineyards, La Pigeonnier. In fact, they kept the soil layers separate as they excavated for the winery, so that the layers could be replaced in order, maintaining the integrity of the terroir.

I tasted the 2014 Château Lagrézette (85% Malbec, 15% Merlot) just before its release, and already, its big tannins had a velvety quality. It’s drinkable now, but like most good Cahors, it will benefit from a few years of aging. The winery’s top single-vineyard bottlings, the 2014 Paragon Massaut and the 2014 Le Pigeonnier, both had deeply concentrated fruit, well-integrated tannins and notes of purple flowers. I hope I have a chance to taste them again in a few years!

While in Cahors, I stayed in one of the region’s other notable castles, the 13th-century Château de Mercuès, perched on a tall bluff over the Lot. Beneath its gardens hides one of the first design wineries (i.e. designed with wine tourism in mind) built in France. Owner Georges Vigouroux makes wine under Château de Mercuès as well as Château de Haut-Serre and his own name, among other labels. The hotel manager of Château de Mercuès led me on a tour of the winery just below my room, followed by a tasting. He proved extremely knowledgeable about the winery’s history and terroir, as well as Cahors in general. I learned, for example, that 2013 wasn’t such a great vintage in Cahors. “Don’t write that down!” he said. Whoops!

General Manager of the Château de Mercuès hotel, Yann Potet

The 2014 Château de Mercuès Malbec de Cahors (88% Malbec, 12% Merlot), full of purple fruit, already had a velvety quality to it, with impressively well-integrated tannins considering its youth. That was good, but yowza, the 2011 Château de Mercuès “Cuvée Malbec 6666” (100% Malbec) was out of this world. It smelled rich, almost porty, and the aroma practically leapt from the glass. Complex and lengthy, it kept driving steadily forward, developing and unfolding at its own pace. It reminded me of that guy who doesn’t need to shout to show he owns the room because he’s confident and knows he’s in control. And then there was the 2009 Château de Mercuès “Icône,” the winery’s “icon” bottling, created in consultation with Paul Hobbs, who’s something of an icon himself. I wrote a page of notes about this super rich, dense wine. What insistence, what driving force! Good God. Have a sip of this one, Alice!

Down the river stands one of Cahors’ most famous wineries, Clos Triguedina. A new, sleek tasting room was under construction when I visited, evidence of Cahors’ increasing popularity. Cahors doesn’t seem to rank near the top of most wine travelers’ bucket lists, but it should. The countryside is nothing short of sensational, with rolling hills and steep bluffs interspersed with unspoiled riverside market towns, set in an intoxicatingly beautiful patchwork of vineyards, orchards and pastures. Clos Triguedina occupies a particularly lovely spot, not far from the steep little town of Puy l’Évêque.

What a tasting! After trying the fruity and spicy entry-level 2014 Malbec du Clos and the earthy, surprisingly graceful 2012 Petit Clos, (Clos Triguedina’s second wine), we moved on to some really serious stuff.

Puy l’Évêque

The 2012 Clos Triguedina (80% Malbec, 18% Merlot, 2% Tannat) already felt elegant, with dark, almost raisiny fruit, focused spice, a note of earth and well-integrated tannins that ended with some mocha. Lovely. The 2010 “Les Galets” had a big, spicy aroma that opened my sinuses in the manner of wasabi. It seemed to last forever, its black fruit given a lift by spice and minerality, keeping it from being ponderous. The similarly lengthy 2010 “Petites Cailles” had even more earth to it, contrasting the dark fruit.

And we tried two of Cahors greatest wines. The 2007 Probus, the current release at the time, still felt young and intense, like a cooped-up teenager. It smelled of plum and leather, and in the mouth, it rang with tautness, like a plucked string. Mouth-filling fruit kept things in balance. Then there was the 2000 Prince Probus, with its brooding aroma of dark jam and sweet cherries. It tasted rich and open, with huge fruit, focused black-pepper spice and tannins that were so big, I could feel them coating my teeth, and yet they somehow were graceful. Magnificent.

The author and Sabine Baldès at her winery, Clos Triguedina

At the end of the tasting, I remarked to winery employee Olga, who had led my tasting, and winery owner Sabine Baldès, who had joined us, “Wow, what an opportunity, to taste a whole range of your wines!” They had poured several others in addition to the ones described above, including memorable whites and rosés. I continued, “Thank you for sharing them with me, just a blogger, not Wine Spectator or anything.”

Olga’s unexpected response really touched me. “Yes, but you came to us,” she said. “Wine Spectator, we must go to them. They tell us what wines to send. You, you took the time to come here and visit us.”

And then Madame Baldès herself took me into the vineyards. It was a splendid day.

Read about the delicious white wines made in Cahors here.


And for more about Cahors, check out these delightful posts by my #Winophiles friends:

Liz from What’s In That Bottle paints the place Red Wine & Black All Over

Wendy from A Day In The Life On The Farm tempts the crowd with Basque Chicken Stew paired with Black Wine

Payal from Keep the Peas gives us a bit of everything we want with White Wine, Red Wine, Black Wine, Cahors!

Camilla from Culinary Adventures With Camilla gets the party going with Grilled Lamb Sirloin with Cedre Heritage 2015

Rupal from Journeys Of A Syrah Queen inspires and delights with Crocus Wines – Exploring Cahors With Paul Hobbs

Jeff from Food Wine Click may be getting us in trouble with Forbidden Foods and Stinky Cahors

Robin from Crushed Grape Chronicles gets out the map and takes us to Cahors – Malbec from along the winding river Lot

And on L’Occasion, Jill and Jason share Cahors: Your Favorite Wine For Fall

Inexpensive Pinot Noir That’s Actually Good

29 August 2018

Thrift is rarely a virtue when it comes to buying Pinot Noir. The oldest of the various Pinot varieties (such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier) and the grape responsible for red Burgundy, Pinot Noir is notoriously fickle. As The Oxford Companion to Wine says, “Pinot Noir is very much more difficult to vinify than Chardonnay,” Burgundy’s most important white, “needing constant monitoring and fine tuning of technique according to the demands of each particular vintage.”

And that’s not just true in Burgundy. Wherever it’s grown, Pinot Noir requires a lot of attention if it’s going to be any good. That means if you purchase a cheap Pinot, you’re taking a much bigger risk on quality than you would be on, say, cheap Malbec. There’s a reason the wine choices at weddings tend to be Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but rarely Pinot Noir.

Because good Pinot Noir is so difficult to make, I feel skeptical of Pinots that cost less than $20 a bottle, and I abhor those that cost less than $15. But there are exceptions to every rule.

On a recent Name That Wine episode, I asked the owner of one of my favorite Chicago wine shops, In Fine Spirits, to select a Pinot Noir for us to blind-taste in honor of International Pinot Noir Day. It was quite a surprise when we discovered where it came from, and an even bigger shock when we learned the price!

Delicious Pinot Noir can be found in quite a range of countries nowadays. In the video below (spoiler alert!), I present Liz with another Pinot Noir of indeterminate origin. She knows nothing about the wine other than that I acquired it during my travels. Watching her try to figure out what the grape is and where it’s from is great fun. But more important, this video illustrates yet again that talented winemakers around the world are producing all sorts of unexpected delights, often for extraordinarily reasonable prices:

If you enjoyed these videos, please do subscribe to our YouTube channel! We have a fantastic time bantering about the wines, while trying to avoid spilling on ourselves after filming too many episodes in a row.

Sulphur Bath Masseur Wine

11 August 2018

A private room at Chreli Abano

I didn’t plan on ending up drunk in a grotty Tbilisi locker room, making toasts to the glories of Georgia. But then, I suppose one never does.

I ended up in that locker room because what I thought would be a two-hour river cruise through the center of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, turned out to be just 30 minutes. What to do with that extra time? Exhausted from the previous day’s hiking in the Caucasus Mountains, I decided that a sulphur bath soak would be just the thing. I’d had a lovely experience at the freshly renovated Chreli Abano, a historic sulphur bath sparkling with mosaics, but it was expensive and a little tame.

Instead, I sought out a bath still frequented by local people. A sulphur bath with public pools. A bath that doesn’t take credit cards. A bath that was a little more of an adventure.

The Abanotubani neighborhood, including the blue façade of Chreli Abano

Most of the bathhouses in the Abanotubani neighborhood cater almost exclusively to tourists nowadays, and I had trouble finding one with public facilities. Front desk clerks kept pointing me farther and farther up the street, until there it was, exactly what I was looking for: The Queen’s Bath, housed in a once-grand Persian-style building with crumbling stucco. A bald gentleman sitting outside the entrance greeted me. I later learned his name was GaGa (no relation to Lady).

I said that I wanted a scrub and massage — Tbilisi’s sulphur baths are reminiscent of Turkey’s hammams — and he understood, despite my almost total lack of Georgian. After taking me to the counter to pay, he escorted me to the locker room, which hasn’t seen an update since before I was born. But no matter — a massive attendant of about 70 opened a locker for me, and I undressed and put on my flip-flops (always bring flip-flops when you travel). I was about to wrap the sheet-like towel I’d received around my waist, but the attendant took it from me, tossed it in my locker and locked the door. Towels, it seems, were not allowed in the bath!

GaGa, who was to be my masseur, led me to the showers, a row of narrow-gauge PVC pipes mounted on the wall, and I had a rinse. He pointed to the turbid sulphur bath, indicating I should have a soak before my scrub. In the pool were two more gentlemen. One rested his arms on the edge and faced away from the center, and another, a zaftig 60-something, sat facing me. He spoke.

Queen’s Bath

“I don’t understand,” I said, raising my hands in the universal gesture of confusion. He pointed to himself and said his name, Rahib, and I did the same.

“Amerikani!” he exclaimed. I nodded. “Azeri, Azeri,” he said pointing to himself, indicating that he came from neighboring Azerbaijan.

“Ah, very nice.” I said, smiling and nodding. That was an error.

Rahib scooted across the pool and sat next to me. He then took my hand and attempted to place it… in an inappropriate place. I withdrew, saying politely but firmly, “No, no. No thank you.” And I scooted myself to the other side of the pool.

Unfortunately, Rahib did not wish to take no for an answer, and he followed me. I moved towards the pool’s exit — all the while, mind you, the other man in the pool hasn’t moved a muscle — and Rahib continued his pursuit. “Muslim! Muslim!” he said, pointing to himself, with a tone that seemed to suggest that because he was a Muslim, it was great idea for me to touch his junk. I felt unpersuaded.

Fortunately, GaGa was ready to give me my scrub, and I escaped the randy Azeri. I laid down on a marble plinth topped with a slimy piece of black rubber matting. I felt concerned about what might be living on/in the mat, but GaGa got to work and gave me the scrub to end all scrubs, followed by a thorough soaping with a fluffy mitt and an ocean of suds. I arose from the plinth feeling thoroughly restored, refreshed, and sparkling clean. GaGa suggested another soak, but I decided a nice cool shower was a better idea. I’d had enough of the sulphur pool.

I returned to the locker room, thirsty but fully relaxed. I had just finished dressing when GaGa approached holding a small tumbler of a dark red liquid. “Drink,” he said. I took a big gulp, relishing the idea of some cool cherry juice — cherries were in season — and nearly gagged. It was most definitely not cherry juice.

Three men at a table in the corner of the locker room laughed. “Ha ha! No like wine! Ha ha ha!”

I composed myself after the initial surprise, and said, “Ha! I like! I like! I like wine very much.” I pointed to the glass. “Saperavi?” Saperavi, Georgia’s signature red grape, is unusual in that both its flesh and its skin are dark. Most red wine grapes have dark skins but light-colored flesh. It has the capability to make rich, structured wines full of fruit and sour-cherry acids. Some Saperavis can be absolutely sensational. It’s even started to catch on in New York’s Finger Lakes.

From left to right: Ilia, Giorgi and GaGa

“Yes! Saperavi!” they exclaimed, surprised I knew what it was. “Come. Come! Sit!” They graciously invited me to join them at their table, where GaGa had just set out a jug of Saperavi, a salad of tomato, cucumber and basil, and a skillet with an egg dish resembling a Spanish tortilla. How could I refuse? GaGa refilled my glass.

“Thank you! It’s very good,” I said, feeling rather out of place in that little old locker room, at a table with people who spoke little to no English.

GaGa looked pleased. “I make,” he responded. Many Georgians make their own wine, because commercial wine is simply too expensive to drink in any quantity. And Georgians like to drink in quantity.

“You made this?” He nodded. I took another sip. “Wow! I mean, it’s really very, very good. It’s got lots of dark fruit, with plenty of juicy acids to balance, and there’s focus! The white pepper spice has great focus to it, and the tannins are big but really well-integrated. Fantastic!” In my enthusiasm, I had forgotten about his limited English, but he seemed to understand.

“Eat, eat. I also make,” he said, pointing to the salad and skillet. The richness of the eggs with potatoes worked beautifully with the forceful wine.

The two other gentlemen sitting with us, Giorgi and Ilia, also smiled at my description of the wine. As GaGa refilled my glass again, Giorgi, the younger of the two, brought out a clay bowl. I had an idea of what was happening. At a supra, a traditional Georgian feast, a tamada takes the role of toastmaster, who gets the ball rolling by saying something heartfelt or funny or poetic and drinking a hearty draught from a glass, bowl or drinking horn. He or she then passes the bowl on, so that  other guests can make their own toasts. We may have been in a poorly maintained locker room at a little table with just bread, salad and eggs, and naked men periodically squeezed by, but Giorgi had just turned our gathering into a little supra.

The author, out of focus in more ways than one, holding the toasting bowl

GaGa poured some Rkatsiteli — which he had also made himself — into the bowl for Giorgi. Rather touchingly, he toasted to America and to friendship, and downed the wine. The bowl came to me, and I toasted (as I had once before) to the beauty of Georgia and the joy of its hospitality. The Rkatsiteli had ample stone fruit flavor, a zip of green apple acid and no shortage of tannins, but the clay bowl helped tame them. If you have a wine that’s too tannic, you might try drinking it out of a clay bowl instead of decanting! GaGa and Ilia also made toasts, and once again the bowl came to me.

“Many Americans don’t know much about Georgia, but this country is absolutely amazing,” I said, probably a little too loudly. “I mean, look at this. GaGa just met me. Giorgi and Ilia, you didn’t know me at all, and yet you invited me to sit at this table to share your food and wine. This is… this is something that could only happen here in Georgia. Georgia is amazing, and you guys are amazing, and I love this place,” I said, with most of my vocabulary lost to the wine. GaGa, Giorgi and Ilia smiled and raised their glasses, and I downed a mercifully half-filled bowl of GaGa’s thoroughly delicious homemade Rkatsiteli.

I may have slurred a bit when I said it, but I meant every word. Georgia is amazing, and I do love that place. Thank you, GaGa, Giorgi and Ilia, for an afternoon I’ll never forget.

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