Pinot Noir

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.

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.

Germany? Ja! Riesling? Nein!

16 August 2017

On my recent 12-day trip to Germany, I decided to try an experiment. Would I be able to have high-quality German wine(s) every night with dinner — and sometimes with lunch — and never drink a single Riesling?

One could be forgiven for thinking that such an experiment was misguided at best, or quite simply impossible. I suspect that few casual wine consumers can name a single other top grape variety grown in Germany off the top of their heads. For better or worse, Germany and Riesling are inextricably linked.

But Germany has far more to offer than beautiful Rieslings. Any guesses as to how much vineyard area in the country is devoted to other grapes? Maybe 20%? Maybe 40%?

In fact, Riesling composes just 23% of Germany’s vineyards as of 2013, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Second place goes to the unglamorous but productive Müller-Thurgau at 13%, followed by Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) at 12% and Dornfelder at 8%. Indeed, red wine grapes represent a whopping 36% of Germany’s vineyards.

I love well-made Riesling, both sweet and bone-dry, but it’s time to give the other 77% of German wines some attention. Here are some of the discoveries I made.

WEISSBURGUNDER (Pinot Blanc)

Pinot Blanc barely registers in its birthplace of Burgundy nowadays. You might have seen a bottle or two from the Alsace, but there, too, it’s on the wane. But it’s one of my very favorite German whites. The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to agree: “Under the fashionable name Weissburgunder, it is now Germany’s fifth most planted white wine cultivar, with vinous personalities ranging from the full, rich, oaked examples of Baden and the Pfalz to relatively delicate, mineral-inflected variations along the Nahe and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and with quality aspirations ranging from workaday norm to occasional brilliance.”

Consider the following two examples I tried side-by-side at Hamburg’s Louis C. Jacob restaurant:

2014 Weingut Dreissigacker “Louis C. Jacob Edition” Weissburgunder, Rheinhessen

This less-expensive example had a spicy aroma marked with a note of burnt popcorn. Its lively acids worked well with food, and I very much enjoyed its clean pear fruit, green peppercorn spice and dry finish. Later at Heldenplatz, a restaurant in central Hamburg, I tried Dreissigacker’s top Weissburgunder, called “Einzigacker.” Wow. It tasted rich, balanced, focused and elegant, truly earning the name Weissburgunder, which literally translates as “white Burgundy.” Sublime.

2015 Weingut Franz Keller “Oberbergener Pulverbuck” Weissburgunder, Baden

The Franz Keller Weissburgunder (pictured with the Dreissigacker above) is more expensive than the Louis C. Jacob Dreissigacker, but its quality is unimpeachable. The aroma was more buttered popcorn, and though the lively acids were here too, they felt more refined and more focused. The arc of polished spice lasted ages. From the start to the lengthy finish, the wine developed and built with gradual determination. Oo, I love when that happens.

*****

GRAUBURGUNDER (Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio)

The total vineyard area of this grape has increased 90% in Germany since 2000, “[making] it the country’s fourth most planted white wine grape and far more popular than Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc),” according to The Oxford Companion. I can understand why people love Grauburgunder, which typically has ample fruit and zesty spice, but my heart remains with Weissburgunder. Even so, many dishes call for a spicier wine, and Grauburgunder can stand up to all sorts of recipes.

2016 Weingut Klumpp Grauburgunder, Baden

In the cozy bistro restaurant of Ole Liese near Germany’s Baltic Coast, I paired this Grauburgunder with a rich cod appetizer. It had a melony, spicy aroma, and flavors of ripe apple and honeydew. Peppery spice kept things well in balance, and the wine finished clean and dry.

2016 Weingut Bercher Grauburgunder, Baden

Back in Hamburg at traditional Casse Croute, the Bercher Grauburgunder had a more citrusy aroma along with the telltale spicy note. It tasted mouthwateringly juicy, with almost prickly lemon-lime acids, reminding me of a full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc. Just the thing to pair with some veal-and-black truffle Labskaus.

*****

SILVANER

In the first half of the 20th century, this variety was the most widely planted in Germany, but after World War II, it was overtaken by Müller-Thurgau and now, Riesling. I remember drinking a few Silvaners when I lived in Germany in the late 90s, and I don’t have fond memories of the stuff. It probably didn’t help matters that the bottles I bought cost less than $5. I know this, because all the bottles I bought that year in Germany cost less than $5. The Oxford Companion to Wine gives the grape tepid praise, calling it a “suitable neutral canvas” on which to display terroir, and noting that “encouraging examples” can be found. So don’t buy just any Silvaner you come across.

2015 Weingut Bickel Stumpf “Kapellenberg Frickenhausen” Silvaner, Franken

The sommelier of Michelin-starred Courtier recommended this Silvaner to me, and I have to think it’s one of the best out there. It’s got a mouthful of a name, and it certainly worked well with food. The wine had a slightly burnt, spicy aroma, and its most notable characteristic was its big, lemony acids. Unexpectedly, the finish went on and on. If you like juicy Sauvignon Blancs — or zippy Grüner Veltliners — a well-made Silvaner should be on your list.

*****

SAUVIGNON GRIS

This little-known grape is the “non-aromatic version of Gewürztraminer,” according to The Oxford Companion, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc.” I’ve tasted a few of these over the years, and I can’t recall a single disappointment. Should you encounter a bottle, particularly the bottle below, I highly recommend snapping it up.

2015 Weingut Lichti Sauvignon Gris “Royal,” Pfalz

For a “non-aromatic” grape, this wine certainly had an enticingly spicy and buttery nose. Ripe pear flavor moved to butter and taut spice, as the wine sharpened to a point. Rich but amply balanced, and tense with excitement. I loved it.

*****

ROSÉ

Like just about anywhere with red wine grape vines, Germany also makes rosé. I had a couple of charming examples, including the one below.

2014 Weingut Geisser “Strawberry Fields” Rosé Trocken, Pfalz

 

A blend of 90% Spätburgunder, 5% Merlot and 5% Dornfelder, this rosé was ideal for my beachside seafood dinner at Bootshaus. Its spicy, watermelon-candy aroma sucked me right in. I loved its ripe watermelon fruit (and yes, the touch of strawberry), lively limey acids and clean, dry finish. Simple, refreshing and delicious.

*****

SPÄTBURGUNDER (Pinot Noir)

It’s not just Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon that make superlative Pinot Noir. Germany’s Spätburgunder can achieve sublime clarity of fruit and refinement of spice, and sometimes even some richness. But don’t just take my word for it. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Today [Spätburgunder] is at least as deep coloured, dry, alcoholic, and well structured as red burgundy…”. Because of Spätburgunder’s popularity within Germany, all too little is exported.

2013 Weingut Friedrich Becker “Schweigener” Spätburgunder, Pfalz

This Spätburgunder had a wonderful aroma of spiced dark cherries, and flavors of dark cherries and cough syrup. Light-bodied but not a lightweight, this wine held its focus for quite some time, with polished spice serving as a backbone. Superb with some Poltinger lamb at Hamburg’s Heldenplatz restaurant.

2007 Weingut Stigler “Freiburg Schlossberg” Spätburgunder GG, Baden

The “GG” stands for “Grosses Gewächs,” indicating that this wine comes from a vineyard classified as a “Great Growth,” or “Grand Cru,” one could say. There was no way for me to resist this wine, made as it was in Freiburg from a vineyard on the Schlossberg. I spent many happy evenings at the beer garden on top of the steep Schlossberg hill when I was a student in Freiburg, and I remember seeing the vineyards there, rising from the edge of the exquisite old center.

Considering my heavy nostalgia, the wine could have easily let me down, but it did not disappoint. It smelled of dark cherries, with a savory/meaty undertone. It started quite light — it seemed like nothing at first — but dark cherry fruit firmed up, and white pepper spice focused the wine into a laser. With time in the glass, it became richer and earthier.

When I tried this beautiful wine, it brought me to tears for a moment. I never drank a wine like this when I lived in Freiburg, but it took me right back there all the same.

For more about unusual German wines, read about tasting Elbing, Goldriesling and Weissburgunder with German royalty here, and discovering the delights of Kerner here.

The Not Shiraz Of Australia

10 June 2017

The wild success of Australian Shiraz caused its own undoing. Like Santa Margherita did with Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail made Shiraz first ubiquitous and then reviled. Fortunately for Italy, few regard the insipid and overpriced Santa Margherita as representative of all Italian wines. I’m not sure the same can be said of Yellow Tail and its fellow critter quaffers (wines with cute animals or animal parts on the labels). Insta-hangover Yellow Tail put me off of all Australian wine for years, and only after I visited the continent a few years ago did I start dipping my toe in again.

Australia’s unjust reputation as a lake of rustic, chemically-tinged Shiraz lingers, despite the country’s vast variety of wine grapes and wine styles, made in an array of vastly varying terroirs. It’s not all sun-baked cooked fruit Down Under. The cool-climate Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and even Rieslings are pure delight: fresh, vivacious and well-balanced.

Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re unaware of these wines. A large part of the responsibility for Australia’s ongoing reputation as a Shiraz monolith lies with distributors. At a recent Australian wine tasting in Chicago, I tasted some superlative not-Shiraz, and I wondered aloud to a gentleman pouring why we don’t see more of that sort of wine on store shelves. “It’s the distributors,” he remarked. “This is really hard to sell to them — they just don’t buy it.”

Most distributors must think that we’re not interested in interesting Australian wines. Let’s give them a reason to change their minds. I found all sorts of beautifully crafted wines at this tasting, and I didn’t have the time to try even half the ones I wanted to.

First, what to avoid: About 60% of Australia’s wine grape crop comes from hot interior regions, according to The World Atlas of Wine, and much of this is sold in bulk, often without indicating its place of origin. Skip any wine that doesn’t come from a specific region. Look in particular for bottlings from the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Tasmania. Of course, this list is not exhaustive — Australia makes high-quality wines in numerous other locations — but I find examples from these regions consistently compelling.

You might not see the specific labels below on a wine list or in a local shop, but this at least gives you an idea of the sort of thing that’s happening right now in Australia. My goodness, they’re making some exciting stuff!

WHITES:

Assyrtiko: I can’t recall trying an Assyrtiko produced outside of its home in Greece (the grape originated in Santorini). The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “its ability to retain acidity in a hot climate has encouraged successful experimentation with it elsewhere,” notably in Australia. This 2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko comes from the Clare Valley, north of the Barossa Valley which is north of Adelaide. Its higher altitude gives it cooler nights than Barossa, and cool nights help grapes retain acidity. I loved this wine. Its apple-inflected fruit had a touch of creaminess to it, and its lemon-lime acids were so lively as to verge on pétillance. The wine felt juicy, but it ended clean and dry. Not inexpensive at $35, but it has the chops to back up the price.

Chardonnay: I’m sure that like California, Australia makes its share of flabby, over-oaked and over-buttered Chardonnays. And like California, it can also make Chardonnay with focus and elegance, rivaling those of Burgundy. For example, the 2014 Tolpuddle Chardonnay from Tasmania, an island off the south coast that is Australia’s coolest wine-growing region, had a wonderful aroma of slightly burnt buttered popcorn. It tasted a little of butter too, it’s true, but juicy lemon-orange acids and refined white-pepper spice kept the wine perfectly in balance, and it finished on a refreshing tart note. Superb, but expensive at $60.

Marsanne: This grape variety may be from the Rhône, but the world’s largest Marsanne vineyard is in Australia’s Nagambie Lakes region, north of Melbourne, as are the world’s oldest Marsanne vines. Both belong to Tahbilk, a winery founded by a Frenchman in 1860 (the oldest vines date to 1926). The 2015 Tahbilk Marsanne had the appealing aroma of a fresh caramel apple, overlayed with a hint of roses. It starts with clean, clear, pure fruit, which promptly gets roughed up by some rowdy orangey acids. The wine tastes fresh, juicy and round, and worth every penny of its $18 price tag.

Rebecca Loewy of importer Old Bridge Cellars with some Brokewood Semillon

Riesling: Riesling fear still runs rampant. Just as many think of all Chardonnay as oaky butter bombs, there are those who regard all Riesling as insufferably sweet. There is sweet Riesling, yes, but there are also bone-dry versions like the ones presented at this tasting, a 2016 Jim Barry “Lodge Hill” Riesling ($19) and a 2010 Kilikanoon “Mort’s Reserve” Riesling ($35). They both came from the Clare Valley, a region which produces “some of Australia’s finest Riesling,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. And both had classic aroma aromas of shower curtain (more often called “petrol”) and white fruit, flavors like apples and pears, tart and juicy acids, and dry finishes. The impressive liveliness of the 2010 Kilkanoon served as a reminder of Riesling’s capacity to age with great grace.

Semillon: The most important grape in Sauternes can also produce dry wine of great distinction, as evidenced by the 2009 Brokenwood “Oakey Creek” Hunter Valley Semillon ($32). This wine is an exception to my cool-climate recommendation — it’s far to the north of the other regions noted above and as such, it’s subtropical — but according to The World Atlas of Wine, “Hunter Semillon is one of Australia’s classic, if underappreciated, wine styles.” I loved the Brokenwood’s juicy freshness, balanced with a touch of creaminess to the fruit. It was the wine equivalent of a margarita, in the best possible way. I’d buy this wine any day.

Vermentino: Traditionally grown in northern Italy and Southern France, this grape also does quite well in the McClaren Vale, a region just south of Adelaide with thin topsoil and a climate that “could hardly be better for the vine,” according to the World Atlas. The 2016 Mitolo “Jester” McClaren Vale Vermentino had aromas of shower curtain and tart orange, and deliciously light and clean fruit on the palate, followed by orangey acids and a dry finish that verged on tannic. Very well-integrated, and a steal at $16.

REDS:

Grenache: I tried two examples of this very fruity variety, known as Garnacha in Spain, from regions on either side of Adelaide: the McClaren Vale to the (cooler) south and the Barossa Valley just to the north. The 2014 Yaldara “Ruban” Barossa Grenache tasted ripe and richly fruity, with ample white pepper spice and a savory, almost bacony note underneath. An excellent value for $23. The 2013 Woodstock “OCTOgenerian” from McClaren Vale blends 15% Tempranillo with the Grenache, resulting in a cherry-tinged wine with a cough-syrup note, leavened by bright acids, focused spice and a eucalyptus freshness. A bottle of this would be $27 well spent.

Pinot Noir: Perhaps the ultimate cool-climate red grape, known for its success in places like Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Noir also shows beautifully in Australia. Consider the 2016 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, which exhibited classic aromas of dark cherry and earth. I loved its clear tart-cherry fruit, lively acidity and notable spice, as well as its surprisingly long finish. It would surely pair well with a range of foods. More power to you if you can find a Pinot of similar quality for $20. I also tried the 2016 Giant Steps Pinot Noir, also from the Yarra Valley, which costs twice as much. For that additional $20, you get more depth and ripeness of fruit, more polished acids and spice, and more-than-usually graceful shifts from note to note.

Shiraz: Well, I couldn’t escape an Australia tasting without trying at least one Shiraz, so I made it count. I sampled the 2012 Jim Barry “The Armagh” Clare Valley Shiraz, and I knew immediately that I would love it. I could smell the wine three inches away from the rim of the glass! The aroma exploded with big, jammy red fruit, along with a touch of wood. Woo! And what a luscious flavor: huge fruit, like fresh raspberry jam, and no small amount of wood. Yet both flavors were beautifully balanced, and ample acids kept the wine from feeling ponderous — it felt startlingly light on its feet, though certainly not light-bodied. Immense, but elegant. And that’s what you get if you plunk down $245 for a bottle of Shiraz!

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