Friday, November 30, 2018

Lugana captures the imagination of wine lovers seeking a different kind of white

“What was a weakness has become an opportunity.”

So said Luca Formentini, President of the Consorzio of Lugana, at the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla Washington. Luca was joined by Carlo Veronese, Director of the Consorzio of Lugana, in presenting an educational wine tasting session for wine media about this small DOC region in the picturesque area near Lake Garda, Italy.

So -- what was this weakness that Luca admitted to in Lugana wines?  Quite simply, not being Chardonnay – probably the world’s most recognized white grape.  There was a time when off-grid wines like this one would spur buyers to move on as they browsed the shelf.  All Lugana must be at least 90% Turbiana – a grape few consumers have heard of – and any additional grapes added must not be aromatic.

But today, there is greater open-mindedness among sommeliers and consumers both.  Today, being “anything but Chardonnay” is a plus.

It doesn’t hurt that Lugana wines are well-crafted and balanced, with a bright acidity as well as round fruit and mineral flavors.   A variety of wine-making styles is also producing more serious Lugana wines that can pair with elegant cuisine -  in addition to lighter style ones that hit the spot on a hot day.  

Here are some of the more memorable wines from the tasting:

  • Lugana DOC Selva, Selva Capuzza 2017 –  Bright flavors of white peaches and almonds and a refreshing acidity make this wine a delightful white with a round mouthfeel and good finish.
  • Lugana DOC Molin Ca Maiol 2017 – Rich, almost oily, mouthfeel, dense flavor with bitter almonds, salinity, and white peaches plus a long finish. A wine to contemplate.
  • Lugana DOC Riserva Vigne di Catullo Tenuta Roveglia 2015 – Crushed almond and chamomile nose, on the palate there was round, mouthfilling fruit including white peaches and kiwi, finished with a bit of minerality.  This riserva is fermented in steel tank, and (surprisingly for a wine so complex) it sees no wood.
  • Lugana DOC Back to Silence Ottella 2017 – The only orange wine from Lugana, this wine had a rich mouthfeel, with complex layers of fruit and nutty flavors and high acidity. It is yet another style and presentation of what wines from Lugana can be.

I’ve had the privilege of tasting wines from this beautiful region a number of times over the years, and I see a uniform rise in quality and courage – with winemakers expressing their individual visions for the Turbiana grape.  I look forward to tasting an even broader expression of these wines in the future.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Veteran California winemaker George Bursick takes Maxville in delicious direction

If you’re starting a new winery project in Napa Valley, it helps to have a winemaker experienced in the region take the reins.  That’s what happened at Maxville Winery, and the results so far are delicious.

When it comes to California winemaking, George Bursick has an impressive resume. After receiving a master’s in Enology from UC Davis, he spent nine years in Mendocino at McDowell Valley.  There, he oversaw the first commercial release of California Syrah.  That auspicious start was followed by being Director of Winemaking at Ferrari-Carano, where his 1985 Chardonnay was named “wine of the year” by Wine Spectator.  His success there was followed by work with Judy Jordan’s J Vineyards and then consulting work. 

Now George is Executive Winemaker at Maxville.  In this role, George has been charged with taking the winery in a new direction, including replanting some of the vineyards.  I met George at a media dinner at Avra Estiatorio in New York where he shared his current releases.  I was surprised they included a Cabernet Franc – a grape I think of more for cooler climates.  When some people suggested scrapping the grape, George said “Let’s just give it a little love, and a little nitrogen.” 

One of the unique aspects of these wines is where they’re grown. The Maxville Winery estate lies in Chiles Valley, 900 feet higher than the Napa Valley floor.  Elevation is part of the “secret sauce” to Maxville wines. The cooler weather retains grapes’ acidity, and the longer growing season gives grapes time to develop complexity.  In addition, their careful viticulture practices include dry farming to stress the vines to limit vine productivity and increase quality.

-       -   Maxville 2016 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley – Crisp and fresh wine with aromatic citrus nose and citron on palate with good acidity.
-      -    Maxville 2015 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley -  This was a Cabernet Franc that made me re-think what a Cab Franc could be.  There was such plushness to the wine, it made me think of the Merlots of St. Emilion.  In addition to the velvety mouthfeel, there was mouth-filling fruit, including red currents and ripe raspberries plus a sprinkle of cloves.  This is a round wine which delivers richer flavor than most Cab Francs.
-      -     Maxville 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – So much going on with this wine: blackberries and chocolate, great ripeness, fine grained tannins, full-mouthfeel, and good acidity.  This is a wine to drink or keep, and it was delicious with orzo with seafood in tomato sauce.

-     -     Maxville 2015 Petite Sirah Napa Valley – Blueberry jam nose, blueberry/blackberry pie palate, inky purple color, rich, dense, gorgeous fruit.  George told us that the “tannins are resolved in the vineyard” suggesting that the normally big tannins of this grape are modulated by the cooler microclimate.

While Maxville Winery is a relative newcomer in Napa, the Chiles Valley has been growing grapes since the mid 19th century.  All in all, this is strong portfolio of wines from a slightly offbeat – and elevated – Napa Valley location.  Any lover of elegant wines with bold fruit character should seek out Maxville.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Colomé’s Thibaut Delmotte works Malbec magic at world’s highest vineyard

It was 2004 when Thibaut Delmotte, a young French winemaker living in Argentina, got the invitation to visit the remote mountain winery of Colomé.  It was supposed to be a four-hour drive, and Thibaut took to the road in a small, economy rental car – which he later learned was clearly the wrong vehicle for the trek.  After an hour of driving, the paved road ended.  After several more hours driving unpaved switchbacks into the mountains, he arrived at the remote destination where he met Donald Hess – Swiss bottled-water entrepreneur, avid art-collector, philanthropist, and winery owner.

I had the chance to meet Thibaut recently in New York, where he discussed how he came to the winery and stayed to shape the distinctive Malbecs from the sites in the Upper Calchaqui Valley, a highly elevated area in the Salta region in the country’s northwest. 

Colomé is the oldest continually-operating winery in Argentina.  After the winery joined the Hess Family Wine Estates in 2001, a new energy came to the area.  Donald’s philanthropic efforts brought better living conditions, education, and cultural development to the remote wine region – as well as sustainability in the vineyards.

Here are tasting notes on current vintages of Colomé’s wines which I received as media samples:

Colomé Estate Malbec 2015, Salta, Argentina – Inky purple in color, the wine offers blackberries on the nose and palate, with additional cranberry notes and spice, with a long finish.  The wine has lots of body and mouth-filling dark fruit with an energetic acidity keeping the wine in balance.  The wine retails for $30 – an excellent quality wine for this price range.

Colomé Auténtico Malbec 2016, Salta, Argentina – This wine is from 90-year-old vines growing at 2,300 meters.  It is produced in a way that honors the traditions of wine-making in this region.  This wine was very aromatic with vivid aromas of blackberries and floral notes. On the palate, the wine offers plush black fruit and hint of spice with soft tannins and a long finish.  This wine is sold in the $24.99 range – again, a well-structured, fruit-forward wine that offers very good quality at this price point.

Colomé Altura Maxima Malbec, 2014, Salta Argentina – The label denotes that only 24 barrels of this special wine are made from the world’s highest estate.  The name of this wine means “maximum height,” and it was a passion-project of winery owner Donald Hess, who hailed from the land of the Alps, to plant the world’s highest elevation vineyard.  At the height of 10,200 feet the vines are exposed to more UV rays, which results in grapes with thicker skins to protect the fruit from the sun’s rays.  The thicker skins offer deeper flavors and bigger structure in the wine. In addition, the dramatic diurnal shift from day to night ensures good acidity.  The wine spends 24 months in used barrels and a year in bottle before release.  The fresh, inviting nose offers floral and blackberry aromas. On the palate, the wine is hugely expressive, a bold Malbec with layers of flavor that include black and red fruits, balsamic, and spice -- all against the backdrop of fine-grained tannins.  This special wine retails in the price range of $119. 

For a uniquely bold, full-bodied expression of Malbec – that’s also sustainably farmed at staggering elevations – explore the wines of Colomé. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Wines of Portugal visit NYC with delicious variety on display

If you only think of Port when you think of Portugal's wine - you're sorely missing out!

Don't get me wrong - Port (which is only made in Portugal) is wonderful.  It's actually a fortified wine, i.e., has the addition of a neutral spirit added to it which amps the alcohol and adds to the longevity. The creation was made to better preserve the wine on ship voyages.  I am a huge lover of port and partial to tawny - which, like its name implies is a rich amber color.  There are also wonderful ruby ports available.  At the recent Wines of Portugal tasting in New York, I had the good fortune to try a number of 10 and 20 year old Tawny ports. 
The best-kept secret at the tasting was a special vintage Port from Kopke, the oldest Port wine house established in 1638 -- their Coheita port from 1978.  

But Portugal has so much more to offer. From the far north, white wines of sizzling acidity: Vinho Verde.  From the Douro Valley, fantastic dry red wines made from mixes of indigenous grapes including the distinctly aromatic Touriga Nacional.

As one looks further south, big red wines of bold character are found in regions such as Alentejo - where Esporao is one of my favorite producers. But this hot climate also makes fine white wines.  Their reserve-level white is a wine of great richness and length at an outstanding price point.

Look for wines of Portugal for reds and whites that will wow your palate at a very agreeable price. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Donnachiara Campania wines please with structured reds, satisfying whites

The wines of Campania, Italy, are not well known by most Americans, but that seems destined to change, thanks, in part, to efforts by winery owners such as Ilaria Pettito of Donnachiara winery.  Ilaria passionately extols the virtues of Campania's indigenous grapes, and she's committed to improving the quality of the native wines of the region.  Donnachiara was established in 2005 and is named for Ilaria's grandmother.  

I had the great pleasure of meeting lovely Ilaria and tasting through her current releases at a media event at Il Gattopardo

Falanghina Beneventano IGT 2017 - The event began with a crisp, white wine of high acidity with notes of lemon and minerality. A refreshing pour with assorted stuzzichini sul tavolo. 

Greco di Tufo DOCG 2017 -  This white's freshness can be attributed to its creation in stainless steel tanks and the fact that it does not undergo malolactic fermentation.  This limited production wine has depth of flavor and richness from twice weekly battonage. Lime on the attack gave way to herbs such as dill -- with a mouthwatering salinity rounding out the flavor profile. Tufo is a porous volcanic stone found in the region. 

Fiano di Avellino DOCG 2017 - Fiano is Ilaria's favorite white grape. This DOCG wine is structured, offering acidity, ripe pear, and a backbone of minerality.  It was a great match with the first course of clams with buckwheat pasta. 

Beneventano Falanghina IGT "Resilienza" 2016 - This wine represents a new project aimed at building the reputation of Falanghina -- considered a less important grape from the region.  The idea of resilience came to Ilaria from her father's work in the steel business. This wine was aged on lees and then spent a year in bottle.  The fruit was allowed longer hang time to develop more intense flavor.  With a deep gold color, this wine offered rich fruit including apricot and pear along with typical crisp acidity of wines from this hilly region. 

After the first course of seafood pasta, we were served the spectacular Colorado lamb and a quartet of reds from the region. 

Campania Aglianico IGT 2016 - This wine won a prestigious Tre Bicchieri award and it's no wonder.  I found it to have a wonderful nose of ripe plum. On the palate, there were black and red fruits supported by a firm tannic structure and good finish.  The fruit retains liveliness from stainless steel fermentation followed by malolactic in barriques. 

Irpinia Aglianico DOC 2015 - A Wine Spectator Top 100 Wine of 2017, this red was rounder with fresh cranberry and blackberry notes, and good grip. While many people consider that young Aglianico is too tannic and rustic, winemaking is improving and now these wines have far greater balance than 20 years ago.  According to Ilaria, "We believe it's important to wait, but also to enjoy." She aims to make wines that can be pleasurable when released - or when aged. 

Taurasi DOCG 2013 - This 100% Aglianico was an elegant red that has matured into a lovely wine. It has an intensely perfumed nose of violets and blackberries with a round mouthfeel and rich blackberry and sour cherry on the palate.  I gave this wine four stars.  

Taurasi Riserva DOCG 2012 - This 100% Aglianico grown on clay soil was more subdued than the 2013, with fruit profile of pomegranate and cranberry and minerality. It had an elegant balance of acidity and fruit and had a long satisfying finish. The Taurasi Riserva is only produced in best vintages. 

The take-away from this lunch is that the wines of Campania are improving in quality with careful winemaking, vineyard selection, and grape growing.  More specifically, the team at Donnachiara has proven that they are serious about creating top quality white and red wines from the hilltop vineyards of this southern Italian region.  Get them while they're still affordably priced! 


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The state of wine blogging examined at 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference

Wine bloggers hard at work at the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference
At the 11th annual Wine Bloggers Conference (this year in Walla Walla, Washington,) a question was posed to a panel of experts: should the name of the conference be changed? On the panel was Tom Wark, the man who created one of the first wine blogs, Fermentation - which he continues to publish today. Tom answered, “Yes.”

In the 2018 online landscape, is “blogger” a qualifier that’s no longer necessary among wine writers?

Tom traced the early development of blogging, when it was looked upon as either “cute” or “annoying” by members of the wine industry. At that point there was a sharp divide between bloggers and journalists. As wine blogging grew, it enabled many voices to compete inexpensively with traditional media. For example, consumers could choose between reading blogger Alder Yarrow or New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov. By 2009-2010, interest in wine blogging hit its peak.    

I started my first blog in 2006, soon followed by this one in 2007.  I recall the "us versus them" dynamic of the aughts. Print journalists declared they had legitimacy (and fact-checking and copyediting) on their side, and bloggers insisted on .... well, our right to exist. We had an alternative viewpoint that made the conversation about wine richer. But even as we attended the same media tastings, wine dinners, and press trips as traditional journalists, we were aware that there were some who questioned our right to be there.  Underdog status pushed many of us to try harder, strive to write better stories, and look for fresh angles. In my own life, the urge to prove myself prompted me to pursue the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) level three certification -- which I was proud to pass with distinction. 

But now, according to Tom, “We’re all members of the wine media.” For him the word “bloggers” in the conference name is a distinction that no longer needs to be made. I’ve been in the blogger community as long as we’ve been having conferences, and I recall when the European Wine Bloggers Conference shifted to the Digital Wine Communications  Conference. It felt right to me, because there always seemed to be a mix of traditional writers and bloggers at that event.

As for this Wine Bloggers Conference -- I can see both sides. I like to be considered as part of a larger group of wine communicators that includes journalists, podcasters, vloggers, and more. But, in my heart, I still embrace the word. There is something bold in it – the fact that no one gave us permission to do this, the very chutzpah it takes to create your own platform for opining about wine. 

Part of me wonders, isn’t being a blogger enough?

Then again, maybe it’s not the word, but the spirit of blogging that I hope is preserved. Because it implies boldness, creativity, and a commitment to sharing one’s vision. As I looked around the crowded ballroom, where many new bloggers had joined the ranks of more seasoned writers, one thing was sure: the passionate drive to write about wine online – no matter what the name -- is alive and well.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Cecchi wines showcase heritage of Chianti with a fresh approach

"We believe in Sangiovese for Chianti Classico."  It was a declaration of commitment, passion, and heritage from fourth-generation Tuscan winery owner Andrea Cecchi.  The gregarious Italian was in New York City to commemorate his winery's 125th anniversary by showcasing current vintages of his Cecchi wines at a media dinner at Casa Nonna.

But first, there was the winery's very fine Vermentino from their La Mora line, from an estate in Maremma, a wine-making region on the rise in Italy.  This crisp, medium-bodied white with lemons and almonds on the palate had refreshing acidity that washed down our starter of cheese flatbread.   

And then, the range of Chianti was presented. We began with the 2015 Storia de Famiglia Chianti Classico.  All of the Chianti names remind us that "famiglia," i.e. family, is essential to Cecchi wine production.  Created from 95 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Colorino, it is fermented in stainless steel instead of the traditional oak to retain freshness.  This wine had a black cherry nose, while on the palate there was mouth-filling dried cherries and baking spices lifted by fresh acidity. 

We then moved on to the 2014 Riserva di Famiglia Chianti Classico Riserva, comprised of 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.  This was a bigger wine redolent of cherry and blackberry with a medium-long finish.  This wine struck a good balance between depth of flavor and freshness. 

And then there was the top offering, a 2015 Valore di Famiglia Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which is brand new to the U.S. market.  This top level of Chianti must come from estate fruit.  The Cecchi Gran Selezione offered ripe black cherries on the nose, while the palate echoed juicy cherry flavors drizzled with balsamic vinegar.  The wine had a long finish and still offered the refreshing acidity of the other levels of Chianti from Cecchi.  I gave this vibrant pour four stars. 

Throughout the meal, Andrea discussed the trends that had shaped the Chianti region in the last few decades.  While some winery owners had gone in the direction of building their own brands in the Super Tuscan space (abandoning the great Sangiovese traditions along the way), he advocated investing in the region as a whole.  A member of the Consorzio Chianti Classico, Andrea said he wants to "reclaim the greatness of Sangiovese" in the Chianti area.  His range of wines, culminating in his Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, do just that.