Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Wild Wines of Sardinia

Sardinia (or Sardegna) is an island in every sense of the word. It’s considered part of Italy yet still holds many ties to its past ruler, Spain. Its location puts it just as close to Italy as it does from the northern tip of Africa and the most northeastern tip of Spain. Because of this, the climate is remarkably different from its Italian neighbors across the Tyrrhenian Sea, as well as its soil. And its wines, as they can be thought of as Italian, are quite different and often made from indigenous grapes that are not found on the mainland. In fact, I find it hard to compare the wines of Sardinia to any other wine-growing region that I’ve experienced.

Up until 25 years ago, the wines of Sardinia were created in mass with the intention of making bulk wines or heavily alcoholic, almost sweet wines that would be shipped to the mainland and used for blending purposes. However, as these vast vineyards were uprooted in the ‘80s and a new perspective on modern winemaking was introduced, the slow revitalizing of Sardinia’s winemaking has been underway.

Most notable, of the Sardinian wine-making revolution, was the entrance of Giacomo Tachis, in a joint venture with the makers of Sassicaia (Tuscany) and Santadi of Sardinia to create Agricola Punica. Tachis had come to believe that the Carignan, or Carinena, grape had found its perfect home in the sandy soils of Sardinia. Carignan is not a grape that’s usually associated with fine wine; yet here, it has been turned into something truly special and is absolutely worth seeking out. My experiences with both of the bottles they produce have been eye-opening. The wines are all at once concentrated, vibrant, spicy… in a way… sexy.

Another notable Sardinian winemaker is Attilio Contini, one of the oldest and most prestigious wine producing establishments in Sardinia, is also the producer who first peaked my interests in Sardinian wine. Located in the mid-western part of the Sardinian island and with a full range of indigenous varietals making a very unique set of wines. Their premier bottle, Barrile, which is made from 85% Nieddera, is a wine that maintains almost electric vibrancy while still delivering masses of spicy fruit, dark nuances and details. Not to mention, in recent tastings, my guests have scored it higher than a number of top Italian wines.

Then there's Alessandro Dettori, on the north west of the island. Dettori can easily be compared to Frank Cornelissen of Sicily in his approach to natural winemaking. Refusing to use chemical fertilizers in the field and only a trace of sulfur in the bottles, Dettori believes that wine itself can be made without human intervention and that it is the “winemaking” that should be removed from the process. Dettori uses a number of indigenous grapes, such as Pascale and Monica, to create truly unique Sardinian wines and suggests that bottles should be opened and left to air for hours or even days before enjoying. These are truly wild wines, and although they may not be for everyone, they are worth trying to expand your palate.

On to the notes:

2007 Agricola Punica Montessu Isola dei Nuraghi IGT (60% Carignano - 10% Syrah - 10% Cabernet Sauvignon - 10% Cabernet F - 10% Merlot) - This wine showed a dark purple core, which faded to ruby red around the rim. The nose showed raspberry jam yet also had a sour berry component. Further exploration brought spicy cola and a dark earthiness to the front. On the palate, I found wild berries, which were sour yet soft with allspice and a hint of vanilla. This wine showed impeccable balance that leans toward acidity, which makes it great with or without food. It is modern yet shows a remarkable finesse and a juicy core of fruit. (91 points)

Find this wine on Wine-Searcher!

2004 Agricola Punica Barrua Isola dei Nuraghi IGT (85% Carignano - 10% Cabernet S. - 5% Merlot) - This was a big and brooding wine with confectioners sugar, rich blackberry jam and star anise on the nose. The palate showed sour wild berries at first but gave way to richness and dusty black cherry over time. It was dry yet juicy all at once with a wall of concentration that’s offset by vibrant acidity and faded into a long berry finish. (92 points)

Find this wine on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Attilio Contini Barrile Isola dei Nuraghi IGT (Nieddera) – The Barrile had a dark ruby red color. The aromas wafting up from the glass were amazing and reminded me of a savory, buttery, veal and herb sauce. Digging deeper, the fruit came forward and showed currants and a bit of vanilla. The palate was racy and, dare I say, sexy with a push and pull of tannin verse acidity waging war and revealing black currant, baking spice and black pepper with a long red licorice finish. (93 points)

To Find the wines of Attilio Contini on Wine-Searcher!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Paolo Bea: A legacy in the making.

I will be the first to admit that when I taste wines that cost more than the average consumer is willing to spend, I often leave the experience feeling that the wine was simply not worth it. In fact, I feel that the collecting of premium bottles is something of a crapshoot. It’s a lot like stocks; you do all the research on the winery, look at their past track record, take into account what they're doing with their product today, TASTE, and THEN decide to buy. What that wine will taste like, 10 years down the road, is the crapshoot of collecting wine. We are all making the best educated guess that we can. With experience, I believe, this becomes easier and I am happy to admit that there are many others out there with much more experience who I listen to intently when they speak on wine.
Today, however, I want to share a producer’s wines with you that are easily worth the price you pay. First, a disclaimer; the most affordable of these bottles averages at $27, but I will go on record that if there is one thing that you take from this article (whether affordable means $50 or $15 to you), it’s that you should go out and find this bottle. It is simply stunning.

The winery is Paolo Bea from Umbria, Italy. Umbria is a land-lock region in the heart of Italy with history dating back before Roman times. The three most interesting grape varieties of the region are Sangiovese, Sangrantino and Grechetto. Sangiovese, which most people associate with Tuscany, is highly regarded in Umbria, and is the primary grape used to make Montefalco rosso. Sagrantino, a truly indigenous grape of Umbria, is a thick-skinned and intensely flavored variety, which is now turning out deep, rich, complex wines that posses the ability to age. Grechetto is a white variety with unique flavors and weight on the palate, which adds complexity and a special sense of place to many of the blends it is added to.

I was first introduced to Paolo Bea through the wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco. My first Sangrantino experience was love at first sight, but not a Bea wine. After tasting this Sagrantino, I immediately called my trusted cellar consultant at Italian Wine Merchants and was told that it gets even better. Enter: Paolo Bea.

Paolo Bea is a family run, fully sustainable farm, which produces wine, olive oil, fruits, and vegetables. Using bio-dynamic principals and the wine-making style taught to them through generations, Paolo Bea turns out some of the most wonderfully unique wines I have ever tasted. The wines are truly Italian in their sly, mesmerizing and almost sexy style. They tempt you to keep sipping as layers unfold and hint at what’s next to come. Sometimes bone-dry with remarkably fresh, mouth-watering acidity, and other times sweet, serious, deep, dark and delicious. Each bottle is an experience that is imprinted in your memory.

On to the wines:

Paolo Bea Bianco Santa Chiara Umbria IGT 2006

The Santa Chiara is a blend of Grechetto, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc, Garganega and Chardonnay. After crushing, the grapes spend over 20 days in contact with the skins which gives the wine a rich, deep golden color. This is a full-bodied white that somehow reminds me of mead in weight and color. However, the nose and palate is all about finesse and complexity. Its price tag can be a bit hard to swallow, but if it’s exploration you’re looking, then you must try this wine.

My notes: A gorgeous golden, amber color. Aromas of fresh strawberries and a hint of lemon rind rises from the glass. Then, fresh cut grass and honeysuckle comes to the fore as the wine warms above cellar temp. It’s a medium-to-full bodied white with flavors of peach, melon and hazelnut. This unique bottle could be mistaken for a red if tasted blind. The wine closes with a beautiful fresh finish. (88 pts.)

Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso SanValentino 2006

This is it, the must try, found for under $30/bottle that continues to haunt my dreams. 2006 was a very different year for this bottle, which is usually released as Vigna San Valentino and for twice the price. In Italy, a wine applying for a DOC or DOCG classification must be submitted to a governing entity and, in this case, that governing entity decided that the color of this wine, as well as the oxidized notes they found in it, disqualified it from the DOC. So, instead, Paolo Bea decided to release it as an Umbria Rosso and drastically reduce the price. Understand that there is nothing wrong with this wine. If anything, it is a perfect example of the depths that can be reached by biodynamic wine-making in Umbria. It is a gorgeous wine that displays a yin yang effect with its bone-dry performance on the front palate, followed by a rush of mouth-watering acidity on the mid-palate and into the finish. The fruit is rich and vibrant with layers of complexity. This is a $65 bottle of wine; which is being sold for under $30. No joke.

My notes: The nose is very floral at first with candied red fruit, ash and undergrowth. On the palate, the first thing I noticed was how initially dry it was, but then my senses were bombarded with sweet cranberry and pepper, along with grape jelly on the velvety mid-palate, which washed away to a tannic yet not too dry finish. This is a gorgeous bottle of wine and, at the price, well worth buying a few to enjoy over time. It plays a balancing act between ripeness and acidity with a kiss of dry extract. I will not forget this bottle for a long time to come. (93 pts.)

Click here to find this wine on Wine-Searcher.

Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco 2003

This is the second time this wine has been covered in these pages. So I won’t go too deeply into it other than to say that this is the most enjoyable bottle of Sagrantino that I have yet tasted. Understand that there are many other producers of Sagrantino worth searching for, Arnaldo Caprai comes to mind. However, Bea manages to achieve something with his Sagrantino that’s hard to put into words. This wine is literally mysterious as it pulls you in and is constantly changing. The balance is remarkable. I’ve heard comparisons between Paolo Bea and Quinatarelli (master of the Veneto); this is the wine that can convince you.

My notes: The 2003 Paolo Bea, Sagrantino di Montefalco showed a gorgeous deep red crimson color in the glass. As I poured, an aroma of candied cherry filled the air. With a little time in the glass, the rich fruit transformed into a Burgundian expression red fruit with earth and clay. Dusty dried flowers filled out the bouquet along with, as a few tasters noted, hints of sausage, which gave the nose a savory edge. The palate followed suit with flavors of raspberry, coffee, chocolate liquor and old cedar. The finish was long with staying dark chocolate and red fruit. (94 pts.)

Click here to find this wine on Wine-Searcher!

1999 Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito

Sagrantino’s roots in Umbria are as a sweet passito wine, which is made by partially drying the grapes before crushing (think reccieto del valpolicella). I will admit that I believe I would have scored this wine higher if I had treated it better prior to serving. When drinking this wine, I would suggest you stand the bottle up at least 24 hours prior to serving and pull the cork at least four hours prior.

My notes: Floral and a bit porty on the nose with hints of cedar and raspberry jam. Medium ruby color and deceptively light, causing you to expect something lean and dry but then, on your first sip, you're hit with intense, sweet fig, candied ginger and chocolate. The sweetness is not overwhelming and perfectly balanced with fruit and acidity, leaving you with a fresh, medium finish. Amazing to think what this will taste like in a decade or two. Decant to remove the large amount of sediment in this bottle (89 pts.)

Click here to find this wine on Wine-Searcher!

These four wines make up only half of this winery’s portfolio, and I’m still working my way through the others, yet to be disappointed. Next up for me is the Arboreus, a wine that is made from vines that are over 100 years old and from a rare varietal named Trebbiano Spoletino.

The word excitement doesn’t do justice to the way I feel before opening a new wine from Paolo Bea, and I hope that this article convinced you too that they are worth a try. I’ll be sure to post more tasting notes soon.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sicily comes to life in Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey

It's not often that a new book on Italian wine hits the shelves and even more irregular for that book to concentrate on a region other than Piedmont or Tuscany. However, I recently found myself with a new addition to my Italian wine library, and it's an addition that I’m very pleased with that focuses on Sicily. Author Robert Camuto successfully transports your imagination to the Island or "continent" (as some Sicilians like to call it) of Sicily in his new book, Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey. There is no useless filler or ego stroking of famous producers found in these pages; instead, this is a book that focuses on Sicily, it's people, its challenges and how it all relates to its wine.

Here we are, standing at the forefront of the rebirth of Sicilian wine. What was pale and disinteresting five years ago has suddenly been reinvigorated by a number of quality-oriented producers who are determined to put Sicily back on the map. Some are hard-line traditionalists or modernists; others are on the frontlines of the biodynamic movement, but all are producing wines that are now worth international attention. Roberts Camuto's Palmento captures it all and gives you not just a sense of place, but an understanding of the struggles that these passionate producers are taking on from day to day.

It's a great read that pulls you in by telling the stories of each colorful producer while masterfully weaving in the facts about the wines, the grapes and the vineyards. It even manages to tell the story of how the Sicilian mafia seriously impacted the forward momentum of all of Sicily and how, even today, its people continue to struggle. I would highly suggest this book as an informative and highly enjoyable reading experience.

You can find Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey at Chamber Street Wines

Lastly, this article wouldn't be complete without a list of wines that I've enjoyed this year from Sicily. The Occhipinti, Nero d'Avola was exceptionally good and truly unique.

The Notes:

2007 Occhipinti Nero d'Avola Siccagno Sicilia IGT - Italy, Sicily, Sicilia IGT (3/25/2010)
The main event for me at a recent tasting as this bottle came to life over the course of four hours. Showing a dark red color in the glass and a nose of undergrowth and earth for the first two hours. As time went by the nose transformed, keeping some of the undergrowth funk but picking up aromas of sweet onion soup, tomato sauce, tar, cinnamon and clove. On the palate this showed great balance between extract and acidity with flavors of black current, cranberry, citrus rind and bitter almond skins. Finished fresh with cranberry fruit. Some of these descriptions may seem odd to some but I assure that this wine was magical.(90 pts.)

Find the Occhipinti on Wine-Searcher!

2008 Valle dell'Acate Frappato Sicilia IGT - Italy, Sicily, Sicilia IGT (3/21/2010)
Best described by one of my guest, like a basket of fresh berries on the nose. It reminded me quite of bit of a lovely wine named La Crima, the Il Frappato showed wonderfully fresh aromas of blueberries and cherries with cedar and a hint of undergrowth. The palate is light bodied and refreshing with strawberry, blackberry and herbal tea with orange blossom following through the finish. A great example of the unique qualities of Italian wines. This bottle could pair easily with a number of different foods and would probably show well with a very slight chill at a summer BBQ. (89 pts.)

Find the 2008 Valle dell'Acate Frappato Sicilia IGT on: Wine-Searcher!

2008 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso - Italy, Sicily, Etna DOC (8/28/2010)After a half hour in decanter, this wine showed wild berries, top soil and rosemary on the nose. On the palate this shows juicy blueberry that turns sour cherry, cinnamon and granite. It was elegant and dazzled the senses as it started sweet, turned dry and then left you with a finish of spicy sour fruit. (89 pts.)

Find the 2008 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso on Wine-Search!