Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Old and new cohabitate in Rioja

I'm visiting Rioja, Spain, and digging the similarities -- not the contrast -- between old- and new-style wineries.

Today we met the owners of Bodegas Artadi, one of two Rioja wineries to get 100 points from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. A couple hours later, we visited Lopez de Heredia, a place where you can see generations worth of mold on the cellar walls.

What struck me was this: The extremes of innovation and tradition both rely on a "who cares what people think?" attitude.

At Artadi, they ignore the Rioja tradition of blending wines from around the region (Tempranillo from the hills with Garnacha from the lowlands) as well as the rigid Spanish classification system based on how long the wine spends in barrels. Instead, Artadi makes three levels of wine based on vineyards: one from high-altitude vines, one from old vines and one from a single vineyard, Vina el Pison (this was the 100 pointer).

All three wines we tasted were from 2006, so they only qualify as the least-respected category of "joven" (young) under Rioja's system because they haven't spent the minimum required time in oak to be "crianza" or "reserva." But in fact, the Vina el Pison is one of the most sought-after, expensive wines from the region. It's lovely, too: a complex, aromatic wine with fruit that switches between raspberry and black currant from sip to sip, floral notes and potent but well-managed tannins.

Artadi owner Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle bristled when someone suggested his winery was "new wave." In fact, while he does use two sorting tables, men still stomp the grapes with their bare feet. Lopez just hates regulations.

“I like Rioja. I like Tempranillo," Lopez says. "But I don't like crianza, reserva, these classifications. For me it's important to make good wines, not to make classified wines.”

Meanwhile, a trip to Lopez de Heredia could be like a trip back in time -- cobwebbed cellars full of bottles from the 1940s that are still for sale -- save for the glass, decanter-shaped tasting room designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. That, and the fact that the winery is run by two sisters.

Co-owner/winemaker Mercedes Lopez de Heredia does put “Reserva” on her current release, but since the current Vina Tondonia was harvested in 2000, she could call it “Gran Reserva” if she chose. She's just too modest for what she considers a young wine. Her current Gran Reserva was harvested in 1991, and you can buy a current-release Tondonia white wine from 1987.

I was taking a photo in the cellar of some mold-covered, unlabeled bottles, when I realized (only after my flash illuminated them) that they were white wines, and the wine was still a pale gold. “That's the 1976,” Mercedes said, and it's still available to any distributor who wants to order it. I wanted to try it, so she opened a bottle.

Wow, that was a great wine: The aroma started off floral, with some pear and dried apple, and the wine got nuttier with more air: walnut bread, macadamia nuts, cashews, but still very fresh. The mouthfeel was sensual, like light honey, but completely dry. Most white wines are undrinkable at age 33, but this one was wonderful and probably still improving.

Lopez de Heredia ferments everything in ancient oak tanks, some of them 80 years old. The fermentation room would look like a wine museum if it were cleaner. The winery keeps carpenters on staff to repair barrels and oak tanks, even though buying new ones would be cheaper.

“Maybe because we are a family-owned winery, we are able to maintain our tradition,” Mercedes says. “If we were owned by a big company, they would have changed everything.”

In Rioja, ultra-modern wineries like Artadi and the ultra-throwback winery Lopez de Heredia actually share an attitude – they follow their own muse.

Monday, March 16, 2009

How the other half lives

What's it like to have more money than your family could spend in a lifetime? Here's a pretty good anecdote, courtesy of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Gordon Getty, heir to the Getty Oil fortune, lives mostly in San Francisco but has an apartment in New York. For years he had a wine buyer who stocked his wine cellar there.

"The buyer bought wines he thought were appropriate for someone of Mr. Getty's means in New York. They were all French wines," said Newsom, a partner with Getty on several wine ventures, most notably PlumpJack. "Gordon didn't really enjoy many of them. He liked American wines."

One day Getty decided to clear out his New York cellar of all these bottles he didn't really want. Newsom, who ran a wine shop in San Francisco, traded him some domestic wines and reaped a bounty.

"We got 13 bottles of 1947 Cheval Blanc," Newsom said.

Some of the scores of top vintage wines sold in the shop, but others were slow movers -- now that they were the property of a shopkeeper who knew what they were worth. But eventually the collection was mostly a memory.

And then ... "Ironically, after that Gordon started developing a taste for French wines," Newsom said.

Fortunately, with a net worth of $2.5 billion, Gordon can pretty much drink whatever he wants. And you know what? He's only the 163rd richest American, according to Forbes magazine.

Moral of the story: if you want to try a 1961 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, hang out around the service exit at a luxury condo and hope that somebody up there was expecting something more fruit-forward.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tre Bicchieri tasting notes

I did my best to taste everything at the Tre Bicchieri event last week in San Francisco, but some wines ran out before I got there. Pity, because there were some great wines, as there should be for the best of Italia.

A few themes:
* Reds and whites were equally good. A decade ago Italy's reds were the stars, and the whites were cheerful dinner wines at best. Not anymore.
* The great acidity of almost every wine was really noticeable here in California. These are wines for dinner, not for navel-gazing.
* Italian bubbly is still not on the level of French, but if you're willing to spend too much money on them, there are some very good ones.
* Verdicchio -- a very foresty white wine, with pine needle notes -- is an underappreciated grape.
* Don't give up on Nero d'Avola if the aroma is dull. I tasted a number of them that really came alive on the palate.
* More Sagrantino, please! Very complex, with good fruit.

I have posted my ratings for each wine below. A couple notes on the ratings: I'm not a huge fan of the 85-to-100 point scale as practiced by Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, but it is the industry standard so I'm adopting it. I'm a little more Spectator than Parker because I still like wine rated at 87 or 88 points, and I don't think big, opulent and overpowering automatically equals 98.

I included my unedited tasting notes for the wines that I gave 90 or above. Wines in the 84 to 89 range were perfectly good, and I would enjoy a bottle of them, but this was tough competition.

Excellent (90 points or more)

2005 Podere Grattamacco Bolgheri Rosso Superiore 91
Fresh herb, cherry, raspberry, hint of mild citrus. Well balanced
2005 Umani Ronchi Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Plenio Riserva 90
Pine needle, lime, minerality, nicely balanced
2005 Villa Vignamaggio 90
100% Cab Franc, very typical. Lots of fresh herb, cherry, some red currant. Med. body but tannic
2004 Fontanafredda Barolo Serraluga d'Alba 92
Raspberry, cherry, floral notes, good acidity
2005 Il Molino di Grace Il Margone Riserva Chianti Classico 90
Very New World -- lots of ripe fruit, strong tannins
2004 Vigna Rionda-Massolino Parafada Barolo 90
Bright cherry, an oaky note, tannic but med. body
2007 Elena Walch Kastelaz Alto Adige Gewurztraminer 90
Complex: rose petal, lychee, earthy note, gripping mouthfeel. A little dirt in the aroma (sulfur?)
2007 Sergio Mottura Poggio della Costa Grechetto 90
Lime, chalk, some pine needle. Well-balanced
2004 Torraccia del Piantavigna Ghemme 90
Cherry, some allspice, a little blood orange. Nice balance
2005 Nino Negri Valtellina Sfursat 91
Raspberry, a fruit sweetness, chewy tannins
2005 Santi Proemio Amarone della Valpolicella 92
Intense cherry, blackberry, black pepper. Long finish
2005 Masciarelli Marina Cvetic Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 90
Ripe blackberry -- juicy. It's as if you can taste the skins. Good acidity.
2005 Fattoria Le Corti Cortevecchia Riserva Chianti Classico 95
Very fresh, cherry, lots of acidity, some cherry tobacco on very, very long, nice finish
2005 Fattoria Le Corti Riserva Cortevecchia Chianti Classico 93
Cherry, good acidity, some earth, sandy tannins, nice spiciness on finish
2005 Perticaia Montefalco Sagrantino 90
Savory and complex, black plum, cherry, Parma ham. Savory on finish
2007 Abbazia di Novacella Praepositus Valle Isarco Alto Adige Sylvaner 91
Very floral, taut mouthfeel, a little lychee
2004 Colpetrone Gold Montefalco Sagrantino 98
Blackberry, sea salt, herbes de Provence, tannic backbone but not heavy, light-med body, lavender on finish. Lovely.
2005 Colpetrone Montefalco Sagrantino 90
Blackberry, very tannic but light-med body, some blueberry on finish
2004 Elvio Cogno Ravera Barolo 92
Cherry, cherry tobacco, leather. Very nice light body but firm tannins
2006 Rocca di Frassinello 92
Joint venture betw. Lafite-Rothschild and Castellare. Cherry, earth, nice acidity, good balance, very long finish
2007 Mastroberardino Novaserra Greco di Tufo 91
Lime, some peach, crisp, good minerality on midpalate. Well-balanced
2005 Tasca d'Almerita Contea di Sclafani Rosso del Conte 90
Raspberry, earth, lots of acidity, light body, long finish
2005 Feudo Principi di Butera Deliella 92
Sweet raspberry, pretty fruit, surprising how bright and beautiful the flavor is because the aroma is overpowered by sulfur
2003 Biondi Santi -- Tenuta Il Greppo Brunello di Montalcino 93
Raspberry, cherry, good acidity, floral notes on finish
2007 Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano St. Valentin Alto Adige Sauvignon 92
Green melon, floral notes. Juicy. Fresh herbs also -- more fruity than NZ, but a nice mix
2005 Terre degli Svevi Aglianico del Vulture Re Manfredi 94
Spicy -- allspice, clove, cranberry, cherry. Some earthiness. Light-med body, has a light feel.
NV Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvee Prestige Rose 94
Strong sherry, raspberry, gentle mouthfeel, raspberry on finish with oloroso sherry. $90 SRP
2005 Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 90
Cherry, tight red currant, some Christmas spice, persistent acidity, cherry tobacco
2006 Mamete Prevostini Valtellina Sforzato Albareda 91
Nebbiolo. Cherry, minty note, cherry tobacco, light body, good acidity
2005 Frecciarossa OP Giorgio Odero Pinot Nero 92
Bright cherry, a floral note, hint of cinnamon, medium body, nice mouthfeel
2006 Hilberg-Pasquero Nebbiolo d'Alba 90
Cherry, strongly tannic, not ready to drink now. Floral on long, long finish. Dense. Wait for it.
2006 Cavalchina-La Prendina Custoza Amedeo Superiore 93
Lemon, fresh herb & celery, lime, lime pith. Very fresh tasting, like a garden.
2006 Cusumano Sagana 90
Nero d'Avola. Cranberry, raspberry, Christmas spice, very fruity. New World, admire it more than love it.
2006 Palari Faro Palari 93
Complex & pretty: cherry, raspberry, earth, violet notes; earthy on finish. Light body.
2006 Volpe Pasini Zuc di Volpe Sauvignon Blanc 90
Gooseberry, passion fruit, very tropical. Intense.
2004 Ettore Germano Prapo Barolo 92
Cherry, stones, flowers, a citrusy note. Pretty.
2004 Sella Lessona S. Sebastiano allo Zoppo 90
80% Nebbiolo, 20% Vespolino. Cherry, orange peel, leather. Light body, aromatic, pretty.
NV Sorelle Bronca Particella Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 91
Lychee, floral, Muscat-like. One of the best Proseccos I've had.
2006 Gioacchino Garofoli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiroe Podium 95
Delicious -- cantaloupe, floral, lychee, rose petal, a fresh green herb note on finish. Very ripe, medium-full body, all finish
2006 Poggio Bonelli Poggiassai 90
Cherry, raspberry, earth, leather
2007 Zuani Collio Bianco Zuani Vigne 92
Lychee, rose, nice blend. Tocai dominates (also Chard, PG, Sauv Blanc) but nice
2006 Tormaresca Masseria Maime 90
Ripe cherry, lots of acidity, red plum, spice
2007 Pietracupa Greco di Tufo 91
Potent -- lime, very ripe peach, chalk, a real intensity. Light-med body
2006 Pra Staforte Soave Classico 92
Lime, a little peach & wildflower, very well-balanced, great mouthfeel. All fruit, med-long finish
2005 Fattoria di Felsina Rancia Riserva Chianti Classico 91
Very spicy, nice cherry fruit, gentle, well-balanced
2005 Fattoria di Felsina Fontalloro 91
Cherry, raspberry, subtle, good fruit & balance
2004 Monfalletto-Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo Enrico VI 93
Cherry, raspberry -- lots of fruit. A tobacco note on finish. Light-medium body.
2007 Venica & Venica Collio Sauvignon Ronco delle Mele 95
Very intense tropical fruit -- mango, papaya, hint of herb. Delicious
1999 Ferrari Trento Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore Brut 95
Sherry, buttered toast, some red fruit (berries), long, long sherried finish
2004 Giancarlo Travaglini Tre Vigne Gattinara 92
Bright cherry fruit, delicate light body but noticeable tannins, violet notes; pretty with backbone
2006 Planeta Santa Cecilia 91
Lots of raspberry, red currant, Jolly Rancher, a little floral. Light-med body. Surprisingly nice on palate after dull, earthy aroma
2005 Poliziano Asinone Nobile di Montepulciano 91
Nice initial rush of acidity, cherry fruit, some leather
2005 San Patrignano Avi Riserva Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore 93
Cherry tobacco, a strong gamy note, savory with good acidity on finish
2003 Tenute Sella & Mosca Alghero Marchese di Villamarina 91
Cherry, fresh herb, dark cherry, a cherry cola note. Very nice fruit, a little oak on finish
2007 Tenute Sella & Mosca Alghero Torbato Terre Bianche Cuvee "161" 90
The only winery in the world that makes this grape, which is only found in Sardinia. Very floral, the suggestion of sweetness but no RS. Some lime, brown sugar. Score boost for species preservation

Good (84 to 89)
2005 Argentiera Bolgheri Superiore 89
2005 Umani Ronchi Conero Cumaro Riserva 88
2005 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 87
2006 Ampeleia Kepos 87
2005 Ampelaia 89
2004 Fontanafredda Barolo V. LaRosa 89
2006 Sergio Mottura Latour a Civitella Grechetto 87
2006 Elena Walch Beyond the Clouds Alto Adige Bianco 84
2006 Bucci Villa Bucci Riserva Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 89
2006 Jermann W ... Dreams 84
2007 Provenza Lugana Fabio Contato Superiore Selezione 85
He also poured me a sample of his basic Lugana, and I preferred it, as well as a nice Chiaratto rose
2006 Castello Monaci Artas 89
2005 Masciarelli Villa Gemma Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 89
2005 Querciabella Camartina 88
2005 Agricoltori del Chianti Geografico Montegiachi Riserva Chianti Classico 88
2005 Tenuta di Capezzana Villa di Capezzana Carmignano 88
2007 Gian Piero Broglia Gavi del Comune di Gavi Bruno Broglia 88
2007 Bisceglia Bosco delle Rose 89
2007 Cantina Termeno Nussbaumer Alto Adige Gewurztraminer 87
2005 Librandi Ciro Rosso Classico Duca Sanfelice Riserva 88
2007 Isidoro Polencic Collio Pinot Bianco 88
2007 Eugenio Collavini Collio Bianco Broy 89
2005 Fattoria Colle Allodole Montefalco Colle delle Allodole Sagrantino 88
2004 Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta Dosage Zero 88
2001 Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 89
NV Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvee Prestige 87
2007 Cusumano Cubia 88
2005 Sorelle Bronca Colli di Conegliano Rosso Ser Bele 87
2006 Accademia dei Racemi Sinfarosa Primitivo di Manduria Zinfandel 88
2007 Ca' Rugate Monte Fiorentine Soave Classico 89
2007 Ca' Viola Bric di Luv Langhe Rosso 89
2006 Tenute Ambrogio e Giovanni Folonari Cabreo Il Borgo 85
2006 Castello della Sala Cervaro della Sala 89
2004 Tormaresca Castel del Monte Rosso Bocca di Lupo 89
2005 Castello di Cigognola OP Poggio Della Maga Barbera 86
2005 Castello di Fonterutoli Siepi 87
2001 Cav. G. B. Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 89

No thanks (I wouldn't drink it or recommend it)
2005 Cantina Terlano Riserva Alto Adige Pinot Bianco
2004 Colle Massari Montecucco Riserva Lombrone Sangiovese
2006 Colle Massari Montecucco Riserva
2004 Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva Monticchio Rosso Vigna
2006 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico
2005 Casanova di Neri Pietradonice
2007 Russiz Superiore Collio Pinot Bianco
2004 Tenuta Sant'Antonio Campo dei Gigli Amarone della Valpolicella
2005 Velenosi Rosso Piceno Superiore Poggio del Filare
2005 Donnafugata Contessa Entellina Milleunanotte
2005 Fattoria Le Pupille Saffredi
2007 Agostino Vincentini Il Casale Soave Superiore
2006 Di Majo Norante Molise Don Luigi Riserva
2006 Librandi Gravello
2007 La Tunella COF BiancoSesto
2007 Giordano Sirch COF Friulano
2005 Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Abtei Riserva Alto Adige Lagrein
2006 Giordano Emo Capodilista Colli Euganei Ireneo Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Marisa Cuomo Costa d'Amalfi Fiorduva
2007 Volpe Pasini COF Zuc di Volpe COF Pinot Bianco
2006 Castello di Cigognola OP Barbera "dodici dodici"
2007 Feudi di San Gregorio Cutizzi Greco di Tufo

Friday, March 6, 2009

Everyone loves Pinot Grigio but critics

Imagine a group of the top 148 U.S. wines with no Chardonnays, or the top 148 New Zealand wines with no Sauvignon Blancs.

That's what the Tre Bicchieri tasting this week in San Francisco was like: great wines, but an odd, self-conscious omission.

Tre Bicchieri means "three glasses." It's the top rating given by Gambero Rosso, a well-meaning Italian wine organization that is loosely affiliated with Slow Food. The organization prizes heritage varietals and traditional techniques; very few super Tuscans score well, despite their popularity with Robert Parker and Wine Spectator.

Some wine critics have called the annual Tre Bicchieri tasting the best group of wines assembled in one room. It is a fabulous collection, particularly because so many of the wines are not the Italian wines you normally encounter. I loved the Verdicchios and Sagrantinos and Greco di Tufos and some grapes I hadn't heard of before.

That said -- there was not one Pinot Grigio. How can that be? This grape makes up more than half of all Italian wine exports, and they couldn't find even one worthy of inclusion?

I'm not saying I'm a big fan of Italian Pinot Grigio. Most of them are characterless, and I believe it sells for exactly that reason -- many people want to drink wine that doesn't have a strong flavor. It's the greatest thing since sliced bread, which I also never buy, but consider that there's no cliche saying, "It's the greatest thing since crusty misshapen bread with seeds in the dough."

There are rumors that all is not well with Gambero Rosso, a well-meaning group that publishes a magazine and guidebook in addition to running these tastings. The organization's tasting in Los Angeles was a disaster, as the wines arrived hours after the tasting was supposed to start. The San Francisco tasting was poorly publicized, but those who came early were rewarded: the doors opened to the general public more than 2 1/2 hours before the scheduled start. The downside of this was that many of the wines were emptied shortly after the original general-public opening.

Perhaps Gambero Rosso has taken a philosophical stand against the inclusion of Pinot Grigio in its awards. Such a stance would be popular with the wine intelligentsia. But to reach the wider public, you need to acknowledge the preferences of the general audience. Robert Parker and Wine Spectator wouldn't have the power they wield if either had said at some point, "We will no longer recommend U.S. Chardonnay, it's entirely too popular."

Next year, I hope Gambero Rosso works harder to find us an outstanding example of what Pinot Grigio can be. There's got to be at least one.