Monday, March 21, 2011

Producer Spotlight: G.D. Vajra

A couple of terms I’ve often heard in Italian wine circles, “Buy the producer, not the vintage.” or “If you want to find a good Barbera or Dolcetto, look to the producer of a good Barolo.” In this case, G.D. Vajra applies to both. Only a year ago, the name G.D. Vajra was nothing more to me than another producer of Barolo making wine in the Langhe with a single vineyard bottle coming from Bricco Viole vineyard.

However, since that time, my head has been turned. It started with a review from Antonio Galloni (Wine Advocate), of the 2006 G.D. Vajra Freisa, which he scored 95 points. To me, it was the challenge of tasting a Freisa (a generally good red that remains obscure outside of Italophile circles) that could possibly score 95 points. In the end, the bottle was open, glasses poured and emptied--and I sat speechless, thinking about how utterly enjoyable the wine was. Following this experience, I realized that I had to taste more wines from this producer.

G.D. Vajra is no newcomer to Barolo; in fact, Aldo and Milena Vaira have been making notable wines since the early eighties. However, it has only been in the last few years that these wines have truly started to catch on here in the States. They are admittedly traditional in style, yet each of their wines seem to have such purity of fruit and notable elegance that it’s hard to imagine exactly how they’ve achieved such a unique style. Whatever it may be, it’s obvious to me that the fruits that go into these wines are of the highest quality, and that great attention is paid in making sure it’s transparent to the taster.

What’s more, after speaking with Giuseppe Vaira, Aldo’s son, the most apparent thing to me is that, this family of winemakers has a level of intense passion that is infectious. It’s a passion for the vines, the soil and the wine that shines through as Giuseppe speaks about this beautiful set of releases. I would recommend each of the wines below as perfect examples of their kind.

On to the notes:

2009 G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d'Alba – The nose showed focused blackberry fruit with spice, floral notes and wood tones. On the palate, this showed vibrant acidity with more blackberry and hints of citrus, leading to a clean fruity finish that provided those token Dolcetto bitters that I have grown to love. (89 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2008 G.D. Vajra Barbera d'Alba – The nose showed gorgeous red fruits, earth and stems. On the palate, I experienced intense ripe red berries with hints of cedar, turning to sour cherry on the finish. This wine was so pure and honest, as the quality of the fruit showed through more than anything else. (91 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2009 G.D. Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo – The nose showed bright florals and cranberry with menthol and hints of wood. On the palate, this wine’s feminine structure and zesty acidity made for a lifting, airy expression with pure sour cherry. The finish was fresh and palate-cleansing. This is a beautiful, young Nebbiolo that can be sipped for enjoyment but also the perfect companion for food. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2007 G.D. Vajra Langhe Freisa Kyè - The nose showed blueberries and cherries dusted in confectioners sugar with forest notes and holiday spice. On the palate, a wave of concentration was washed down by vibrant acidity, leaving a slightly bitter finish. Rich blackberry flavors and tealeaves filled out the palate, and the finish showed an interesting spiced orange note. This may need time to integrate a little, but there's serious potential in the bottle and should be on the list of any serious Italian wine lover. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2006 G.D. Vajra Barolo Albe - The nose showed dusty black cherry, allspice, rock dust and hints on menthol. On the palate, I found wild red berries, earth, green olive and crushed flower petals with teaming acidity and a slight sour profile. The finish showed cedar and leather, but unlike most Barolo of its age, no overwhelming tannin was present. This may not be a Barolo for the ages, but it is very enjoyable now. (90 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher 

2005 G.D. Vajra Barolo Bricco delle Viole – The nose of the Bricco delle Viole was elegant and classy, as red wild berries, roses, wood and spice aromas wafted up from the glass. On the palate, I found enveloping red fruit restrained behind a firm feminine structure. The finish coated the palate in silky tannin. From the nose alone, this bottle shows a bright future. (94 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2009 G.D. Vajra Moscato d'Asti – The nose showed pear, honeydew and hints of citrus. On the palate, I found plush, sweet apple in a mouth-filling yet beautifully fresh expression of Moscato. The finish showed hints of lime and a lingering refreshing sweetness. (89 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

Monday, March 14, 2011

Values in Barolo & Barbaresco? Absolutely.

Is there value in Barolo and Barbaresco? It’s a very good question and one that I’ve been asked often. My immediate answer is… It depends on your definition of value. Why? Because Barolo has become the victim of its own marketing. The wine that’s been touted “The wine of kings, the king of wine” is something that many people seek out when they know they love Italian wine and would like to know what the “king of wines” tastes like. The problem is that the average consumer considers anything over $25 to have left the realm of value, and the average Barolo costs $45 and up into $100+.

Baroli from $25 - $40 a bottle.
Does this mean that you can’t find good bottles under that price range? Absolutely not. However, if you are looking for value in Barolo and Barbaresco, then it’s imperative that you make educated decisions because there are many bottles of cheap ($25-$35) Barolo littering the shelves of your average Wine and Liquor store that are not worth your time. However, all the notes below are from bottles costing between $25 and $45, and yes, they are very good, and yes, they are a value.

I can also assure you that it is truly worth seeking out a good bottle of affordable Barolo or Barbaresco. I’m a perfect example, as I’m truly infatuated with all wine made from Nebbiolo (the grape that makes Barolo and Barbaresco), and I would have never known how much I love these wines if I didn’t go through the process of exploration and sometimes paying a little more than average for a bottle of wine. The worst part is that I didn’t have anyone to guide me through this exploration.

So read these notes and pick a bottle to search for. Open it one night and let it breath in the bottle for a couple of hours before you pour the first glass. Enjoy it over dinner or over the course of an evening. Your first glass may be wonderful and your last glass may be amazing; that’s the magic of Nebbiolo.

On to the notes:

2005 Giovanni Viberti Barolo Buon Padre - The nose showed classic notes of cherry, roses, forest floor and tar, with a whiff of truffle. On the palate, this was savory with cherry and leather on a light, elegant frame. The finish was dry and youthful with a hint of old wood. This affordable Barolo is easily worth the tariff, and the nose alone is a gorgeous, feminine expression of Nebbiolo. (90+ points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2006 Vietti Barolo Castiglione - The nose showed strawberry, anise, coconut and vanilla with a hint of lead pencil. On the palate, I found dusty cranberry and a hint of wood. The palate was rich with tones of darker fruit as it worked its way across the tongue. The finish showed a little rough tannin with dry red fruits. This wine is young, but not painfully so, and with a little air, it showed the darker and richer tones of Nebbiolo. (91 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2006 G.D. Vajra Barolo Albe - The nose showed dusty black cherry, allspice, rock dust and hints on menthol. On the palate, I found wild red berries, earth, green olive and crushed flower petals with teaming acidity and a slight sour profile. The finish showed cedar and leather, but unlike most Barolo of its age, no overwhelming tannin was present. This may not be a Barolo for the ages, but it is very enjoyable now. (90 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2007 Paitin di Pasquero-Elia Barbaresco Serra - Upon first pour, the nose showed roasted chestnut, which blew off quickly to reveal a gorgeous bouquet of cherry, roses, animal musk and blood orange. On the palate, I found red berries and cedar that turned spicy with time in the glass. This wine was full-bodied and incredibly silky but turned very tannic on the young medium-long finish. I'll look forward to checking in on this Barbaresco in eight to ten years’ time. (93 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2006 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco - The 2006 Produttori del Barbaresco Normale was fantastic for a young Nebbiolo. It was a textbook example with elegant red fruits, roses and tobacco on the nose. There was black cherry on the palate, as this showed to be very young, yet highly enjoyable, with a fresh balance of acidity and a big tannic shutdown on the finish. I will buy this wine by the case. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

Okay, okay, okay, so this is not Barolo or Barbaresco, but it is made from Nebbiolo in Piedmont, and it is a great bottle of wine. I didn’t even intend to include it here but was so thoroughly impressed by it that I felt it was my duty to share it with my readers... Also, I notice Wine-Searcher doesn't list it, but this next bottle can also be found at Grapes: The Wine Company

2006 Cantina dei Produttori Carema Nebbiolo di Carema Riserva - On the nose, this wine showed strawberry, musk and earth with hints of cinnamon and ginger in a beautiful feminine expression of Nebbiolo. On the palate, I found focused red berry fruit with savory mushroom and hints of salinity. The palate started tight and focused but turned full and expansive with air. The finish was long with berry fruit and wonderfully fresh. This wine is a great early-drinking Carema. (91 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Wines of Willi Schaefer

My exploration of German wines and Riesling in particular has led me to a number of exciting experiences. The more I taste these wines, submerge myself in the history of the producers and geography of the vineyards, the more I come to realize that Riesling will always find a place in my cellar. The idea that I have never taken the time to explore this region before seems ludicrous to me now. I am a convert to the love of Riesling.

As I continue my journey, poking and prodding willing retailers and reading the work of great bloggers and writers, certain standards emerge. Such as, while A.J. Adams is often referred to as the exciting newcomer of German Riesling, Willi Schaefer is the gold standard and offers well-priced, consistently excellent Rieslings.

Willi Schaefer is a small estate located in the commune of Bernkasel-Graach, of the Middle-Mosel. Willi, and his son Christof, have holdings in the Graacher Domprobst and Himmelreich vineyards, as well as Wehlener Sonnenuhr. The wines are known to be highly enjoyable in their youth, as well as aging beautifully in the cellar. They are also known for disappearing quickly off retailer’s shelves, as this is a producer who’s been turning out stellar wines longer than most of us have been old enough to drink them. That’s not to say it’s impossible, especially in today’s world of the Internet.

A great selection of Riesling at: Crush
Each of the wines below are of exceptional quality and provide great value. These are wines that will excite your palate and wow your guests. Further, if it’s mature Riesling that you love, the Kabinett and the Spätlese will do fine in your cellar. Lastly, keep your eyes open for the 2009 Mosel Himmelreich Grosses Gewachs from Willi Schaefer. This is one of Schaefer’s dry Rieslings, which my sources tell me, is amazing.

On to the notes:

2009 Willi Schaefer Riesling – The nose showed honeysuckle, white cherries, wax and a light citrus spritz. On the palate, I found pineapple, which went from sweet to sour as it washed across the tongue into a slightly short yet highly enjoyable finish. (88 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

2009 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett – The nose on the Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett was less ripe but much more finessed than the regular Riesling. It showed pear, lemon custard and slate stone. On the palate, I found peach and pineapple with tongue-curling acidity balanced by a hint of sweetness. The finish was elegant and long with citrus notes. (90 points) Find it: Wine Searcher

2009 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese – The nose showed grapefruit, slate dust, floral stems and hints of coconut. On the palate, I found a gorgeous balance of sweet verse acid with honey, minerals and light yet mouth-filling lemon. The finish was long and mouthwatering with intense citrus on the mid-palate. This is a nice step up from the Kabinett and an amazing value. (91 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

1990: Barolo Retrospective

Those who know and love mature Barolo sometimes wait decades to finally open a bottle from their cellar. We patiently watch as the producers we know and single vineyard bottling we adore slowly collect dust until the day that someone gives us an excuse to pull that cork. Usually it’s a good, trusted friend or a professional critic that waxes poetic on how a vintage has started to drink well. Whatever the reason may be, what I know is this: when a vintage of Barolo reaches maturity, a small part inside of each Barolo collector blossoms with joy.

Paprika Restaurant, 110 St. Marks Place
The perfect location for our tasting.
Warm, inviting, and specializing in
traditional Italian cuisine.
Paprika Website
However, not every Barolo enthusiast agrees on what vintages are excellent or just good. The two most often heard vintage descriptions are classic and ripe. Classic describes, a vintage where temperate swings of hot and cold have found that perfect yin yang that gave the grapes great concentration mixed with a perfect level of acidity and well-defined aromatics. Where ripe, refers to an abundant year where the heat of the vintage sped the grapes to maturity too fast and often results in high concentration, low acid and often, high alcohol. Many often wonder about the aging potential of ripe vintages (the 2000 Barolo vintage comes to mind). The reality is, when taking global warming into consideration, that most vintages today would have been considered ripe twenty years ago. I guess we can argue that today’s producers are better skilled when dealing with today’s climate… but then again, 1990 was a ripe vintage.

Barolo from 1990 is certainly not as classic as 1989. It’s nowhere near as structured as 1996. However, 1990 Barolo is drinking beautifully and you may be able to argue that it’s not classic, but no one can convince me that isn’t an absolutely wonderful vintage that’s full of gorgeous bottles of Barolo that will give many more years of ageability and drinking. It’s a dark and mysterious vintage for Barolo that’s seductive on the nose with its rich fruit mixed with stunning aromatics. Most of these are like velvet on the palate with spicy dark wood tones and an array of forest and earth notes. In the end, it’s a vintage to seek out that will not disappoint.

On to the notes:

1990 Conterno Fantino Barolo Sori Ginestra - The nose showed honeyed tea, cocoa and dusty spiced cherries. On the palate, I found rich, ripe strawberry with earth and minerals. This wine was elegant and beautifully resolved but showed a bit more of its age than I had expected. The finish was long and fresh. (90 points)

1990 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate Riserva - Deep, dark red fruit wafted up from the glass, followed by roses and undergrowth. As I explored further, the dark fruit turned to dusty black cherry as floral notes and a bit of iodine filled out the nose. To breath this in was like lying in a bed of spring flowers after a sun shower with fingers stained in sweet cherry juice. On the palate, the fruit was focused, as sour strawberry led to minerals and green pepper, driven by vibrant, coursing acidity that balanced out the massive structure of this wine. The finish showed like a fresh young wine with earth and red fruits against silky tannin. (96 points)

1990 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo - In a word, classic. The nose of the Barolo Mascarello showed focused red fruit with tobacco, florist shop, old parchment and hints of faded cinnamon. On the palate, this was silky smooth with crushed red berries and vibrant acidity that lent a cool, linger airiness that was almost menthol but not quite. The finish played a sweet and sour fruit act on the tongue and red fruit slowly faded from perception. Classic. (93 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

1990 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia - The nose was utterly explosive and captivating as earthy tobacco and tar with raspberry wafted up from the glass. With further exploration, musky notes with roses and a hint of black olive tempted the senses. On the palate, this wine showed its rich yet massive structure with dark ripe strawberry, tar, savory broth, graphite and lead fading to a long staying finish. This wine is drinking beautifully yet should continue to improve for many years. It’s absolutely stunning. (96 points)

1990 Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonnello (from magnum) - On the nose, I found overripe red fruits with musk, dark chocolate, licorice and tobacco. On the palate this wine was at first lean but gained massive amounts of volume in the mouth, showing tea leaf and spiced dried cherry but turning slightly chewy into the sweet finish. (90 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Villero - The nose showed a very feminine expression of elegant, dark red fruit, spices, roses and plum skin. On the palate, I found sweet, round cherry that somehow came across as light on its feet but structured. This wine lacked some of the stuffing that was found through most of the wines tasted on this night, yet it was appealing in a very restrained and feminine manner. (92 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

1990 Vietti Barolo Villero Riserva - The Vietti Villero Riserva was a beast of a wine that successfully walked the tightrope between rich concentrated fruit and an earthy, animal expression. The nose show honeyed herbal tea and ripe sliced fig, earthy mushrooms and tar. On the palate, this wine was bursting at the seams with massive dark red fruits, followed by honey, earth and tealeaf. It showed an amazing concentration of fruit without ever becoming tiring or chewy; instead it finished elegant and long. (94 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

1990 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato - The Monprivato was earthy in a way that only a true Barolo or Burgundy lover can understand. The nose showed fresh turned soil with roses and savory brown sauce. On the palate, I found sour red fruit, verging on cranberry, with leather and tealeaf, but as the wine matured in the glass, the fruit turned darker and sweeter with hints of violet candy and spice. The finish was long with red fruits and minerals. (93 points)

1990 Brovia Monprivato – The nose showed very closed with hints of red fruit pushing to the fore but little else. On the palate, I found sour cream and red fruits but with a turbulent level of acidity that ultimately left me wondering if this bottle was somehow flawed. (No Score) Find it: Wine-Searcher

1990 Bruno Giacosa Falletto Riserva – The nose showed dark red fruits with clay, earth, roasted nuts and hints of green peas. On the palate, I found sweet raspberry with spice, wood and a remarkable balance of elegance and concentration. This wine showed young yet still highly enjoyable. If it wasn’t paired against the Vigna Rionda, its qualities may have shown brighter. (93 points)

1990 Bruno Giacosa Collina Rionda Barolo Riserva (My wine of the night)

What a wine, a wine that you spend years thinking about when reading other tasters’ notes. You stare at the pictures and read through their experiences. You wonder if there's any chance that the wine could really be worth all the hype and poetry waxed upon it. How could a bottle really be worth such a price, you ask. Then the day comes that you finally taste it…and it's magical. It's a paradigm shift of sorts. I've had this happen with Quintarelli and now, I've added Bruno Giacosa's 1990 Collina Rionda Barolo Riserva to that list.

The 1990 Bruno Giacosa Collina Rionda Barolo Riserva was everything I ever wanted in a glass of Barolo. It was sweet yet sour, earthy yet fruity and rich yet with razor-like focus. The nose showed masses of ripe red berries with hot dried spices, gravelly moist earth, mushroom and hints of green stems. On the palate, this showed silky, sweet, ripe strawberry yet it also had a savory warmth, full with earth, menthol and leather strap on a beautifully structured frame. It was amazing how young the Collina Rionda seemed as silky tannin washed across the palate and soothed me into a long, seductive finish that begged for the next sip. (98 points) Find it: Wine-Searcher

Related Links:
For a great Italian meal or vino: Paprika Restaurant
For another take on this fine evening: Greg dal Piaz on Snooth & The Fine Wine Geek