Thursday, September 20, 2012

Barbera: Not Just A Pretty Name

My first food and wine-pairing epiphany was with a bottle of Barbera d’Alba and a plate of penne dressed with a simple tomato sauce. Before that moment, I didn’t put much thought into food with wine. Yet after that moment, my fate was sealed. It was not just how the Barbera lent the sauce a mix of dark woodsy and berry fruit flavors in the aftertaste. What really did it for me was how the Barbera reinforced the tomato flavors and made them taste more “tomato-y.” Add to that a dollop of brisk acidity, which is a textbook calling card of Barbera, and you have an amazing food-pairing wine.

Barbera is a light to medium-bodied red, generally with a low level of tannin yet with acidity to spare. On the nose and palate you can find a mix of bright red berry flavors, spice, floral and woodsy notes. In the right hands, they can be downright sexy. This consummate Italian varietal has also been seeing a good amount of success in California, yet to this taster’s palate, they can often be too ripe, bordering on jammy. Yet if there’s one place outside of Italy where it makes sense for Barbera to succeed, it is in California.

Barbera has also had its challenges. For one thing, it’s a vigorous varietal that tempts some of the less quality-minded producers to opt for quantity over quality wine. Another drawback can be the use of oak, which when applied with a deft hand results in a gorgeous and well balanced wine but when over-used comes across as way to much makeup on a natural beauty. The good news is that most Barbera (juicy, ripe and vibrant) can be found at great prices.

One of my favorite styles of Barbera comes from Alba, with their darker, softer personalities, but there is one drawback. In Alba, Nebbiolo is king (the single grape responsible for making Barolo), and since most of the perfectly exposed parcels are given to Nebbiolo, it leaves Barbera with the less favorable spots. However, there are many producers that put much more emphasis on Barbera, both where it is grown and the attention it sees in the vineyard. Suffice to say, these are wines that are worth seeking out.

In Asti, Barbera takes the spotlight, which also means the best vineyard locations. These are mineral and acid-driven wines, which demand a plate of rich mountain food. I love them for what they are and often crave them with a slice of white pizza, polenta with Parmigiano-Reggiano or just about anything with mushrooms on top.

Then there’s Monferrato, which is considered by many to be the birthplace of Barbera. Producers here have been making good Barbera for quite some time but they are only starting to see good representation in the States. In my recent tasting, I found these wines to be the most exciting with a mix between the richer Alba style and the mineral Asti style, plus an air of Alpine hills. They are fascinating wines that require the attention of anyone looking to better understand Northern Italian reds.

Below, you’ll find my notes on over 20 current release Barberas. Some are from the top names in Piedmont, and some aren’t even from Italy. I think you’ll find the list to be quite useful and I’m pleased to say that many of my favorite bottles, like the Guidobono, can be found for well under $20. Enjoy.

On to the notes:

2009 Elio Grasso Barbera d'Alba Vigna Martina – The nose was modern and ripe but not overdone with notes of toasty oak, plum sauce, spicy black cherry and crushed stone. On the palate, it was smooth as silk and rich with balanced acidity keeping it juicy throughout. Flavors of savory black cherry and saline minerals gave way to dry wood tannins. The long finish was saturating with dark cherry fruit. It’s very good now, but I would give this a few more years in the cellar for the tannin to mellow. (92 points)

2010 Guidobono Barbera d'Alba – The nose showed a mix of ripe crushed berries with cinnamon and spice, floral notes and hints of herbs. On the palate, it had a medium body and filled the senses with silky black and red fruits yet remained juicy and focused throughout. The finish showed tart cherry, which lingered on the palate complemented by a hint of tannin. (92 points)

2009 Vietti Barbera d'Alba Tre Vigne – The nose showed ripe red berries and slight confectionary notes with spice and sawdust. On the palate, it was dark and spicy with a dollop of fresh acidity and soft textures yielding red and black fruits. The finish was dry, showing medicinal cherry and dark chocolate. It was easy to drink and refreshing. (91 points)

2010 La Casaccia Barbera Giuanin Barbera del Monferrato – The nose showed alpine notes of tart red berries, herbs, wild flowers and hints of pepper. On the palate, it was smooth yet intense with focused raspberry fruit and gripping tannin which fleshed out nicely toward the back palate. The finish was medium-long with lingering acidity and tart red berries. (90 points)

2009 Marchesi di Barolo Barbera d'Alba Ruvei – The very attractive nose showed spiced berries, herbs and leather. On the palate, it was intense yet silky, with tart berries and spice, softening acidity, and excellent balance. The finish was lingering with dark fruits, not long but very smooth. (90 points)

2009 Domenico Clerico Barbera d'Alba Trevigne – The nose showed cinnamon spiced red berries, menthol, underbrush and a hint of green stems. On the palate, it was velvety smooth with black cherry, notes of dark chocolate and a bitter twang toward the close. The finish was long with saturating dark red fruits that turned to cranberry over time. (90 points)

2010 Bruno Giacosa Barbera d’alba – The nose showed pretty red berries, hints of herbs and grasses yet somehow subdued. On the palate, it was soft and balanced with great textures, red berries and menthol, as the fruit turned tart. The finish showed fresh cherry. This was an elegant and complete wine, yet nothing stood out to me. (90 points)

2009 Elio Altare Barbera d'Alba – The nose showed red berries, savory spice, tomato leaf and tobacco. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with a zing of acidity, showing intense cranberry, herbs and bitter notes. The finish was medium-long with tart red fruits that saturated the palate. (89 points)

2010 Armando Parusso Barbera d’Alba Ornati – The nose showed red berries, with woodland and pepper notes. On the palate, it was lean yet fresh with red fruits and a savory, smoky quality made refreshing by brisk acidity. (89 points)

2009 Boroli Quatrro Fratelli Barbera d’Alba – The nose showed an attractive mix of wild berries, meaty, savory sauce and pepper. On the palate, it was intense with red berries verses soft cleansing acidity that kept this balanced. It was a nice, simple Barbera, not assuming yet very pleasant. (88 points)

2009 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti Superiore Le Orme – The nose showed ripe, sweet red berries, candle wax and floral hints. On the palate, I found ripe red fruit with a good balance of acidity. The finish showed staying fresh red fruits and earth. This is highly enjoyable, but don’t try to overthink it, and it would make a great accompaniment to a plate of pasta. (88 points)

2009 Tenimenti Ca’Bianca Barbera d’Asti Superior Anté – The nose showed dark red berries, hints of licorice, spice notes and green stems. On the palate, it was soft with medium body, lower than expected acidity and flavors of tart berries that wrapped around the senses. The finish showed hints of cranberry, as tannin crept through slightly on the close. (88 points)

2011 Marchesi di Barolo Maraia Barbera del Monferrato – On the nose, I found wild berries, both red and blue, with hints of stems. On the palate, it was soft with tart berries but turned to cheek-puckering acidity and floral notes (lavender) lingering into the medium-length finish. (88 points)

2008 Tenimenti Ca’Bianca Chersi Barbera d’Asti Superiore – The nose showed dark red fruits, black cherry and tobacco. On the palate, it was rich and soft yet short with notes of red currant and hints of wood. The finish was short and simple yet pleasant. (87 points)

2009 Vietti Scarrone Barbera d’Alba – The nose showed rich, ripe cherry, cinnamon and dark chocolate. On the palate, it showed more dark chocolate, bitter red berries and teeming acidity versus a silky smooth mouth-feel. The finish showed tart red berries yet gave way to a sensation of alcoholic heat. (87 points)

2010 Jacuzzi Family Vineyards Barbera Mendocino Country – The nose reminded me of a cherry tartlet with savory grilled meat notes lingering in the background. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with gripping acidity, showing blackberry jam and pepper. The finish was chocolaty with hints of herbs. (87 points)

2011 McManis Janie Lynn Vineyard Barbera California – The nose showed floral red berries and spice. On the palate, it was smooth with cranberry fruit, yet light and diluted. The finish showed floral red fruits. (87 points)

2010 Marziano Abbona Rinaldi Barbera d’Able – The nose showed tart red fruits but was skunky, sweaty and herbal. On the palate, it was rich and intense with a nice zing of acidity that stayed with you. Intense, concentrated red berries and herbs filled the senses and then finished with staying acidic notes and chewy tannin. (86 points)

2009 Kramer Vineyards Barbera Walla Walla Valley – The nose showed red berries, herbs and notes of coconut. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with red fruits and an easy finish. (86 points)

2010 Bersano Costalunga d’Asti – On the nose, I found round red berries, a dusting of sugar and green stems. On the palate, it showed sweet red berries yet with good balancing acidity and hints of spice. However, the finish was very short and a bit drying. (85 points)

2006 Flavio Roddolo Barbera d'Alba – The nose showed medicinal cherry, cinnamon and hints of undergrowth, yet came across as dry and tired. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with brisk acidity and flavors that reminded me of a cherry Ricola. The finish was dry with lingering tart red berries. (84 points)

2007 Attilio Ghisolfi Maggiora Barbera d’Alba – The nose showed ripe black cherry, raspberry, vanilla, tobacco and spice. On the palate, it showed intense concentrated fruit against teeming acidity and tannin that attacked the palate and stayed through the tart finish. (83 points)

2009 Paolo Manzone Fiorenza Barbera D’alba – The nose showed red berries, herbal notes and medicinal cherry. On the palate, it was silky yet somehow dank, with overripe red berries and low acidity for Barbera. The finish showed tart fruit, but overall this wine came across as a little dirty and diluted. (82 points)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Parusso: A Barolo Pioneer

It’s funny how things change, especially in the wine world. When I first started tasting Barolo, the vanilla sheen of French oak was all the craze in Piedmont. Producers were trading in long macerations for roto fermenters that would extract deep colors from the skins within a matter of days without adding the hard tannins of extended skin contact. I would read reviews from critics that were enamored with “modern-styled” wines. The idea was to take Barolo, a wine that typically requires ten to twenty years for it’s tannins to soften, and make it more approachable earlier in its life. No one really knew how these wines would age or if they would be at all interesting down the road.

At the same time, many consumers were looking down upon “traditional” producers of Barolo. Pure Nebbiolo with its aggressive tannins, light color and lean youthful fruit was considered too painful to drink young. Also, It would be unfair of me to leave out that many producers that were lumped into the traditional camp had gotten lazy. In many cases their practices had become dirty, with lack of proper management in the vineyard and winery. In the end, the modernist approach looked to be the way of the future.

But it wasn’t. Over the course of the last decade, the “traditional” producers began to realize that there were many practices being used by the “modernists” that wouldn’t hurt the integrity of their wines. Better vineyard management, reduced yields and temperature-controlled fermentations were brought to the traditional houses, and quality rose quickly. At the same time, many modern wines were becoming flabby with age or dull with once rich fruit flavors that now fell flat with the ever-present sheen of oak lingering in the aftermath. So what happened? The lines between modern and traditional began to blur.

What’s important to remember is that a wine’s style has more to do with what the producer or the consumer wants than it does with what’s right. This brings me to Marco Parusso of Armando Parusso.

Parusso wines have been labeled modern, mainly due to his use of French oak. However, to just call these wines modern does not do them justice. If the goal of the modernists was to create a Barolo that is enjoyable in it’s youth but can also age, then Marco Parusso may have succeeded.

I recently had a chance to speak briefly with Marco about his techniques, and I must say that some of them are quite unique. The obvious is his intention to use the ripest fruit possible with vigorous attention paid to the vines. However, what was truly amazing to me is that Marco leaves his grapes to rest in a chilled room for 7 – 10 days before fermentation. The reason for this is to allow the stalks or stems to dry, hence allowing the tannins to ripen further. This process is followed by whole cluster fermentation, a practice that is seldom seen in Barolo. Maturation up to 24 months in small barrels follows, yet somehow, these wines do not reek of new oak.

After tasting verticals of his Barolo Mariondino and Bussia, I must say that these are truly seductive wines. They exhibit an exotic spice profile and underlying structure that is but a whisper behind all of the rich (yet focused) fruit. This makes them, not just approachable in their youth, but sensational with masses of depth. You may ask if they can age gracefully. One taste of the 2001 Bussia proves it to me absolutely.

Whether you love Traditional or Modern styled Barolo, Armando Parusso is making wines that should be tasted, if for no other reason than just for the experience.

On to the Notes:

2001 Parusso Barolo Bussia – The nose on the ’01 Parusso Bussia was gorgeous, showing ripe cherry, cola, tobacco, potpourri and cedar spice box. On the palate it was rich yet firm, with black raspberry and hints of wood spice. The finish was remarkably long, showing refined structure and a lingering note of pure cherry. (95 points)

2003 Parusso Barolo Bussia – The nose was dark, sweet and brooding, showing brown sugar, plum, berry tartlet, a hint of herbs and tangerine. On the palate, I found crushed berries and dark chocolate displayed against a broad, almost chewy structure. Tart berry notes lingered on the finish yet dried out quickly, leaving behind hints of rough tannin. (88 points)

2007 Parusso Barolo Bussia – The nose showed beautiful floral notes, sweet spice, nutmeg and cherry jam with a hint of vanilla. On the palate, it was full-bodied and velvety with notes of black cherry, cinnamon and cedar, which lasted through the long finish. (94 points)

2008 Parusso Barolo Bussia – The nose was massive, showing dark red fruits, mint, sweet spices and a note of orange peel. On the palate, it was velvety and rich with notes of cherry, sweet spice and minerals. The finish was long, showing hints of this wine’s otherwise hidden structure. (92 points)

1998 Parusso Barolo Mariondino – The nose showed dark red berries, spice box, dark chocolate and a hint of vanilla. On the palate, it was soft with a diluted feel, showing tart red fruit, cedar and angular tannins. The finish showed fading red berries. (86 points)

2006 Parusso Barolo Mariondino – The nose was highly expressive with cherry and earthy woodland notes up front, backed by hints of spice, mint and brown sugar. On the palate, it was full-bodied and velvety, showing pure red fruits and earthy notes, which nearly masked this wine’s fine structure. Tannin was only perceptible on the finish as dried red fruits clung to the palate. (93 points)

2007 Parusso Barolo Mariondino – The nose showed crushed red berries, sometimes tart and sometimes sweet, with floral notes and mint. On the palate it was rich with dark, almost black fruits and spice notes. The tannins were barely perceptible against its masses of dark fruits. The finish lingered long with hints of pepper adding an interesting layer to this dark beauty. (92 points)

2008 Parusso Barolo Mariondino – The nose was elegant and floral with cherry and strawberry fruits, herbs, and cedar box. On the palate an exotic mix of ginger, spice and orange rind mixed with its red fruits and hints of vanilla to create a truly unique experience. The finish was long, filled with spicy ginger and sweet floral notes. (94 points)

2008 Parusso Barolo – On the nose I found tart red berries, orange peel, cinnamon, cedar and herbs. On the palate it was full-bodied with a zing of acidity, showing raspberry and sweet spice. A hint heat fleshed out on the finish with moderate tannins clinging to the palate along with dried red fruits. (91 points)

Although many of these bottles can be found through Wine-Searcher, I highly recommend visiting the website for Grapes: The Wine Company, the hosts of this amazing tasting. Many of these wines can be found through Grapes and if you’re not familiar with the company already, you’re in for a treat.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Southern Rhone: Value Hunters Welcome

There is amazing value to be found in the Southern Rhone, especially in the categories of Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages and Gigondas. What's more, 2010 has turned out to be an amazing vintage in the region. Grenache is front and center in most of these wines with Syrah used as a likely blending partner. I've been having a great time exploring this region. There are wines for the hedonist as well as a lover of the austere.

My top wine, Les Garrigues from Domaine de la Janasse, may not exactly be considered a "value" to some, but it's certainly a relative value when you consider the quality of wine found in the bottle. It's essentially a baby Chateauneuf du Pape. The rest that follow are all amazing value wines that will thrill you with pure, focused fruit that is perfectly ripe yet never cloying. These are great wines to introduce someone to the Southern Rhone and the styles that are possible in the region.

On to the Wines:

Chateau de Saint Cosme is currently enjoying waves of praise from nearly every critic for their top-shelf Gigondas. However, you don't need to buy up to the top to enjoy this house’s style. Also well worth the hunt is their entry level Gigondas and Northern Rhone St. Joseph.

2010 Chateau de Saint-Cosme Cotes du Rhone - The nose seemed to sway between fruit and earth, at first showing intense red berry, then pepper, herbal notes with fresh turned soil and a hint of bacon fat. Each time I put this to my nose, I seemed to find something slightly different. On the palate, it was silky smooth yet juicy with dark cherry and black pepper. The finish was dry with palate-coating tannin and a hint of perceptible heat. I’m interested in seeing where this may go with a year or two in the cellar. (88 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

Some wines just want time to open up, and that was certainly the case with the Eric Texier Cotes du Rhone Brezeme. When I first opened this bottle, it seemed thin and diluted. However, two hours later, it revealed all of it's alluring personality which lasted into the following day. This was a very good bottle that will find fans of a more traditional style.

2010 Eric Texier Cote du Rhone Brezeme - The nose showed blackberry with savory spices, reminding me of mustard seed and pepper followed by mineral laden black stone. On the palate, it was light-to-medium bodied with zesty acidity, black fruits, grill char, herbs and orange peel. The finish was dry with cheek-puckering tannin, showing tart black fruits and pepper notes. (88 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

The Lavau Gigondas is a perfect introduction to Gigondas. It's interesting to think that this designation used to be part of the all-encompassing Cotes du Rhone Villages appellation, because the wines from Gigondas are so unique. I find them earthier, more floral and with elegant fruits.

2010 Lavau Gigondas - The nose showed fresh blackberries, violet floral tones, slate dust, pepper notes and a hint of spiced cookie. On the palate, it was at first rich, yet turned elegant and juicy with pure black fruits, licorice and hints of mountain herbs. The finish was lasting with blackberry fruit and violet candies lingering long after the close. (90 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

A very good Cote du Rhone Villages wine comes Philippe Cambie. This bottle received huge critical acclaim, and although I wouldn't place it as high as some other critics, it's certainly worth tasting. This is a rich, intense, dare I say hedonistic wine that will impress for its ability to color within the lines.

2010 Calendal (Philippe Cambie) Cotes du Rhone Villages Plan de Dieu - The nose showed black cherry and blackberry jam with lavender and rock dust. On the palate, it was medium-bodied, showing rich textures and a hint of sweetness to its rich, dark fruits and spices with an acid-driven core of minerals. A bit of alcohol was perceptible into the finish, which was slightly dry with palate-staining fruits. (90 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

The Gassier Cercius is easily one of my top value wines of 2012. I've yet to put this in front of someone that didn't like it. Don't look for layers of depth here but you can certainly expect an excellent bottle of wine that thrills people with its balanced ripe flavors and juicy personality.

2010 Michel Gassier Cercius - The nose showed ripe mixed berries, sweet spicy cookie and chalky minerals. On the palate, it was soft like velvet yet juicy and it balanced its 14.5% alcohol very well, as blackberry jam and violet candies messaged the senses. The finish was long and enjoyable with ripe berries and herbs. (90 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Domaine de la Janesse has been improving from vintage to vintage. Their Chateauneuf du Pape is one of my favorites from the region, and each wine I've tasted in the portfolio is well worth the tariff. The Terre d'Argile is a major step up from the Cotes du Rhone and with great structure that should keep in maturing through the next 5 - 8 years.

2010 Domaine de la Janasse Cotes du Rhone Villages Terre d’Argile - The nose showed a vibrant mix of ripe wild berries, blueberry jam, sweet spices, licorice, hints of vanilla and mountain herbs. On the palate, it was rich and full-bodied yet showed excellent acidity, which kept it in check and left a juicy sensation throughout. Crushed blackberry and spice saturated the senses, yet a hint of heat detracted ever so slightly. The finish was long and juicy, showing pure ripe blackberry fruit. (92 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Domaine du Grapillon has been making one of my "go-to" bottles of Gigondas for the last five years. These are ripe but with beautiful focus and Gigondas character.

2010 Domaine du Grapillon d’Or Gigondas 1806 - The nose showed spicy blackberry fruit with lavender, black pepper, dried meats and crushed rocks. On the palate, it was like velvet over a stone structure yet juicy throughout with black fruits, spice and hints of black licorice. Berries, pepper and olive tapenade lingered on the medium-long finish with a tinge of heat. (92 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

My top wine, Les Garrigues from Domaine de la Janasse, may not exactly be considered a "value" to some, but it's certainly a relative value when you consider the quality of wine found in this bottle. It's essentially a baby Chateauneuf du Pape.

2010 Domaine de la Janasse Cotes du Rhone Les Garrigues - The nose was plush with ripe blackberry fruits, violet candies, herbs and sweet spices. On the palate, it was velvety with intense concentration yet balanced with acidity that kept it fresh and juicy. Sweet blackberry, cola and violets from the bouquet filled the senses. The finish was remarkably long with lasting dark fruits that seemed to change from ripe to tart as they melted from the palate. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!