Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Barolo: In the land of giants

I taste a lot of Barolo. When I think back, I find that I often compare much of what I taste today to the wines I’ve loved from the past. These wines become your benchmark. Sometimes they are uprooted and moved down the list by new wines, and sometimes they are forever immortal. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, one of my first experiences with a bottle of ’96 Aldo Conterno Bussia Soprana. Over time I realized that this bottle wasn’t a great bottle of Barolo, although at the time, it was magical.

With that in mind, I thought it was time to list my current top ten, or maybe, fifteen, which I say because I purposely tried not to repeat too many producers. For instance, my unedited top ten would include three different Bruno Giacosa Red Label Riservas. I feel this list is much more useful to my readers or someone looking to start down the path toward great Barolo. Some are hard-to-find gems, but there are also some surprisingly affordable and available bottles to be found here. I know there are a number of aged wines here that are very hard to come by, but if you take nothing else from this list, at least take my word that it is worth buying Barolo on release and cellaring it to maturity. It’s one of the main reasons I started my own cellar.

2001 Cavallotto F lli Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe

Imagine my surprise when in the company of some pretty stiff competition that the 2001 Cavallotto Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe came out as one of the top bottles of the night. What's more is that this isn't a $100+ bottle of wine. If you can find them, buy them.

The nose showed deep, rich red fruits, poppy and menthol with a zesty, almost tropical note of tangerine. On the palate, it was velvety and rich with sweet, spiced red fruits. The finish was intense, structured and long. This wine is just starting to drink well but could use a few more years. A must have!  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1999 Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonnello

1999 is shaping up to be one of the greatest years of Piedmont's vintage streak of ’96 through ’01. They are still very young and only starting to show what’s in store for the future. With that said, I was pleasantly surprised to find the ’99 Colonnello assessable after a few hours in decanter. Aldo Conterno is considered one of the great houses of Piedmont; in recent years, there has been some upset over generational changes, which I hear may be evening out. I seriously hope so, but the quality in this bottle was astonishing. 

The nose was dark and seductive with cherry tobacco, plum, dusty potpourri, a hint of musk and medicinal herbs. On the palate, it was velvety and perfectly balanced with masses of fruit. Sour cherry sauce and a hint of cedar filled the senses and warded off the silky tannins that were still present but not out front. On the finish, the fruit turned dry yet was still intense with hints of sweet spices. Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1998 Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric dël Fiasc

This was the wine that sold me on Paolo Scavino’s style. Here was a producer that I often disregarded as too oaky, too extracted—too modern, yet one that was suddenly catapulted to my top-ten to watch list. Where ’97, ’00 and ’03 are drinkable yet clumsy in their own ways, ‘98 is a year that has become very assessable in a refined and graceful way.

The Bric dël Fiasc initially showed cherry and dusty potpourri, but with time it transformed into something more with cherry compote, allspice, hard red candy, roses and cooked sausage. The palate showed a good amount of structure and intense cherry fruit with herbal tea and mushrooms. The finish presented silky tannin that lent to a brilliant aftertaste of sour red fruit.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1996 Luigi Pira Barolo Marenca

This bottle totally took me by surprise. As any Barolo lover knows, '96 is a vintage to watch. The wines are still babies and show so much potential over the long term. The last thing I expected was that a producer that's known for its modern style would have made such an intense yet graceful wine. In the end, it made its way onto my top ten list.

Initially, the nose showed roses with new leather, tar, anise and sour red fruit hiding behind it all. The palate was very tight with savory beef broth, minerals, old cedar and cranberry. The finish showed sour red fruits with cheek-puckering tannin lingering toward the end. As this bottle approached the fifth hour; the nose retained many of its initial qualities, but a rich (not sweet) cherry tobacco had moved to the front along with dusty dried flowers. The palate had taken on more body, as a mix of red berries, cinnamon and sauté mushroom led to a slightly gravely tannin on the tremendously long finish. At the seventh (and last) hour (only because we couldn't stop ourselves from drinking it) this bottle had become almost impossible to ignore, as the cherry took on darker, woody and mentholated tones in the nose. The roses had become sweet, and the tar faded to the rear. On the palate, sweeter red berries with cherry liqueur, spice, and soil took over. The tannins on the finish had faded to a slight drying sensation and left me with cranberry and cedar which lasted for a full minute.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2004 Vietti Barolo Riserva Villero

I know it's hard to spend so much money on wine, but if I had to choose one 2004 to put away, I believe it would be Vietti's Villero Riserva. This wine showed so much intensity mixed with balance that I just wanted to stop everything and admire it for as long as possible.

The ’04 Villero Riserva was one of the most intense yet balanced young Baroli that I have ever tasted. The nose showed rich elegant cherries, medicinal herbs, sweet spices and a subtle sheen of vanilla. On the palate, pure red berry fruit gave way to tar and menthol as this elegant wine turned to a structure that coated the entire palate in silky tannin and staying red fruits until the long close.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Elio Altare Barolo Vigna Arborina

2011 was the year that I was properly introduced to the wines of Elio Altare, and I sure am glad that I opened my mind to them. For years I shunned them due to Altare's reputation as a modernist, but no more. These wines are silky and structured with a deftly applied layer of oak. They are nothing like the traditional Baroli that I love, but they are a great experience all the same.

The Altare Arborina showed a classic Barolo nose of red fruits, plum skins, roses, tar, a hint of animal musk and undergrowth. The nose pulled me in and reminded me somehow of childhood autumn days with dried leaves and pine nestles. On the palate, it showed an elegant, full body backed by a balance of tannin and acid. The fruit was rich but not over-ripe with sweet spice and an airy, refreshing note of menthol. The finish was long with red fruits, tobacco and a hint of brown sugar. This wine needs more time and is truly stunning. It reminds me very much of some of the best '96s I've tasted.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1990 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia

I tasted this wine in a lineup of Giacomo Conterno that spanned over three decades, and it was the best drinking wine of the night. Don't get me wrong, the '89 was amazing, but it wasn’t quite ready, and the '96 and '01 obviously needed time. However, the 1990 was firing on all cylinders--enough to make me buy some the very next day. It's a beautiful bottle of wine that's worth every penny.

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.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1974 Vietti Barolo Rocche

The 1974 Vietti Rocche was one of my WOW wines of the last five years. Never did I think that a '74 could be so young and vibrant. This wine was literally bursting with juicy Nebbiolo fruit and layers of mature complexities. As of this writing, I know The Rare Wine Company still has a few of these left, and frankly, I'm surprised they do.  If you can't buy up to the '74, check out the '01, '04, '06 or '08 and bury them in your cellar for the next decade or two.

What a pleasure it was to drink the 1974 Vietti Rocche. The nose showed floral undergrowth, fresh-turned soil with strawberry and, as time passed, a sweet, almost caramel note which added outstanding complexities to the already beautiful bouquet. On the palate, it was juicy yet balanced and still showed youthful notes of fresh red berries, cinnamon and sweet floral notes. The finish swung toward the savory side as broth and brown sugar lingered for over 30 seconds.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia

I know, I know that I have the 1990 as one of my top ten Baroli, but the '89 deserves a spot up here too, maybe even more so. These two bottles of wine are so different yet both so amazing. In comparison, the '89 is still a tween, while the '90 is roaring into its young adult life.

The nose showed dried red fruits, tar, mushroom broth, a bit of black strap molasses and a hint of barnyard. A gorgeous structure showed on the palate that gives the impression that this wine will last the ages. It was still a little tight with a tannic grip but giving none the less with dark red fruit and a mineral core. The finish was long and fine, showing sour cranberry. This was the wine of the night for me.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Collina Rionda Riserva

There it is again; 1990 Barolo. Some people have it out for 1990 Barolo. It was a ripe year, and the wines were big with high alcohols. A lot of people said they wouldn't age, but I invite you to give them a try. These wines might not be drinking as well in 15 years, but they are fantastic right now and should continue to impress for some time. This bottle was one of my favorites, and I know it's expensive, but you don't have to buy up to a Bruno Giacosa Red label to experience 1990.

This wine 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 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.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

1998 Chateauneuf du Pape: Past the aging curve?

Recently, I was given the opportunity to taste through a number of Chateauneuf du Papes from the revered '98 vintage. It was a tasting that I was eager to attend, since I have limited experience with aged wines from this region. It was funny to see some price tags on these bottles and to realize just how affordable this wine used to be. Prior to the last fifteen years, Chateauneuf du Pape had very little popularity in the United States. However, after heavy praise from The Wine Advocate and newer wines being made in a more internationally-appealing style, Chateauneuf du Pape has certainly become a hot topic with prices to match.

The red grapes permited in Chateauneuf
du Pape include Grenache, Cinsault,
Counoise, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Syrah,
Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse. White grapes
 include Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc,
Clairette, Picardan, Roussanne,
and Picpoul.
The big question for me is how can we expect today's wines to age? Chateauneuf du Pape is typically a blend, with the AOC laws permitting 13 different grape varieties, including a number of white grapes. Today, very few producers use the traditional blends and instead rely heavily on Grenache. This, along with heavily-reduced yields, are producing bigger wines with high alcohol and intense concentration. Many of these wines can be enjoyed in their youth, but the sweet spot for me is usually around 5 - 6 years of age, with the majority of opinions saying that the 10 - 12 year mark is usually when the wines achieve their peak maturity.

I'm not sure that '98 proved this aging formula to be true for me. At 10 - 12 years, they should have been at "peak" but still be drinking strong for number of years (at least to 14 years). Granted, 1998 was defined by its hot growing season, which from my experience means wines that mature earlier. I can imagine these wines in their youth (ripe, juicy and sexy), but it's difficult for me to compare them to recent vintages. The tasting showed that the Beaucastel and Pegau were still quite alive and vibrant with a few years of possible development ahead of them. The Paul Autard and Chateau-Fortia were enjoyable but not going anywhere. Lastly, the Les Cailloux and Domaine du Banneret drank okay but were obviously on the decline. In the end, I truly enjoyed the majority of these wines, but this does make me wonder where vintages like 2007 are going. While they sleep in my cellar, maybe it's time to check on them.

On to the notes:

1998 Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape Réservee – The nose leapt from the glass showing black pepper up front with ripe black fruits and mixed herbs. On the palate, it was expansive and palate-coating with ripe fruits, pepper and structure showing through. The fruit wrapped around the palate and filled the senses. The finish continued to show its structure, yet it couldn’t stop the palate-soaking fruits from marching on. (91 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape – The nose was reticent yet refined with perfectly ripe blackberry, spice, and hints of wood and stems. It opened over time with sweeter fruit and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, it was beautifully balanced and smooth yet holding back at first. As it opened in the glass, flavors of finessed black fruits and medicinal herbal tea notes sweetened up the palate. The finish showed long spices and hints of remaining structure. (91 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

1998 Chateau-Fortia Chateauneuf du Pape (Boiseaumarié) – The nose was pretty, showing a mix of ripe berries and bacon notes, along with floral stems with a hint of barnyard and old library book. On the palate, it was at first aggressive, then airy and soft showing focused red fruits and hint of old wood with balanced acidity keeping it juicy and fun. The finish was medium-long and still showed a bit of tannin. (90 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

1998 Domaine Paul Autard Chateauneuf du Pape – The nose showed black fruits and earth with black pepper, animal musk and hints of graphite. On the palate, it showed vibrant acidity with soft ripe berries, earthy minerals and spices. It’s a joy to drink and ready to go. The finish showed lingering pepper notes that lasted on the senses. (89 points) Find it on: Wine Searcher!

1998 Domaine du Banneret Chateauneuf du Pape – The nose was spicy with taut black fruits, dark earth and herbs. On the palate, it was tight yet pleasant with black fruits that were somehow muted. Lots of black pepper showed on the finish. (87 points)

1998 Les Cailloux Chateauneuf du Pape – The nose showed herbal tea, hints of decay and carmelization. On the palate, it was soft and balanced, showing sweet berries but with an old tea note. The finish was reminiscent of the nose but with a peppery quality. (82 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Elio Grasso: In The Spotlight

It was a bottle of Elio Grasso’s 2000 Gavarini Vigna Chiniera that started me on my path to loving Barolo. The Grasso family has been making great Barolo in the township of Monforte d’Abla since 1978. All of the Baroli are estate-grown; in fact, the Grasso family takes pride in being considered farmers first and winemakers second.

Borrowed from Elio Grasso's website
With holdings in some of the most well-known Barolo vineyards, including Ginestra, and Gavarini, the Grasso family turns out three single vineyard Baroli that are each unique and worthy of the lofty scores that wine pundits have bestowed upon them. However, it wasn’t always this way. For the longest time, the name Elio Grasso seemed to fly under the radar, with my initial purchases of the 2000 Barolo averaging in the $45 range. Now, with Gavarini Vigna Chiniera averaging at $69, it is still an unbelievable value for top-shelf Barolo.

Borrowed from Elio Grasso’s website
The style varies depending on the bottle, with the Ginestra "Vigna Casa Maté" and Gavarini Vigna Chiniera being more traditional in style, having been aged in large Slavonian oak botte. The Rüncot (a Riserva bottle from a parcel in the Gavarini vineyard and made only in the best vintages) takes a more modern turn with a sheen of oak from aging in new Franch barrique. Otherwise, the wines are made very similar, with manual harvesting, 12 – 16 days of maceration and fermentation in stainless steel.

Borrowed from Elio Grasso’s website
Below are my notes from some recent experiences with Elio Grasso’s Baroli, where even the Rüncot, with its new French oak, managed to turn my head with its purity of fruit and complexities. Also check out my notes on the '09 Dolcetto, which I had to include here because the wine was simply beautiful. These are all wines worth checking out, but with the press that the ‘08 Baroli are receiving, you may not want to wait too long.

On to the notes:

2008 Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Vigna Chiniera - The nose show crushed red berries with rose and floral notes, spices and dusty minerals. On the palate, it was tight and focused yet wonderfully finessed with an almost weightless quality to its expansive presence. Intense red fruits and hints of spice lingered into its long, palate-staining finish with fine tannin making an appearance in the close. (96 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2007 Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Vigna Chiniera - The nose was classic, showing floral rose and stem notes with strawberry and tree bark. On the palate, I found juicy, bright red fruit, which turned darker with time in the glass. Its structure peaked out on the long finish. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2007 Elio Grasso Barolo Ginestra "Vigna Casa Maté" - This bottle was drop-dead gorgeous with its first glass. It was very feminine and pretty with fresh strawberry, sour cherry, roses, cedar, cinnamon stick and little of its structure poking through. The palate was nearly weightless. Then it shut down through the next six hours, only to reemerge as a beautiful bruiser with a ripe dark fruit and spice profile. The nose was marred slightly by the noticeable presence of heat, but it was still lovely. On the palate, it was firing on all cylinders with wonderful focused red fruit. At every taste, the finish was amazingly long with staying red fruits that seemed to penetrate and saturate the taste buds. (95 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Elio Grasso Barolo Rüncot - This wine was painfully young, but there was such potential in the glass and, after time in decanter, a glimpse of what it may become shined through. At first, the nose was full of oaky vanilla and even a hint of nail polish, but this faded over the course of three hours, and what remained was dark red fruit, a dusting of brown sugar, and menthol. On the palate, I found an elegant and more feminine structure than expected with lush cherry fruit, herbs and cinnamon. The long finish showed fine silky tannin that left my palate dry but not fatigued. I’m very excited to think of what this may be in another ten years. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2000 Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Vigna Chiniera - The nose showed black cherry, rose, leather and a bit of heat that was moderate enough to not get in the way. On the palate, I found cherry and currant on a medium-bodied frame and a moderate amount of silky tannin. This wine balanced between ripeness and elegance. The finish carried sour red fruit to the close and stayed with me for what seemed like a full minute. (90 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

This may be a blog post about great Barolo but I would be remiss not to mention the excellent Dolcetto made by Elio Grasso. Dolcetto is one of my favorite weeknight wines. It's not for everyone, but that's okay, because then there will be more for me. You owe it to yourself to check it out.

2009 Elio Grasso Dolcetto d'Alba dei grassi - The nose showed ripe blackberries, with floral undergrowth and a hint of bouillon. On the palate, it was soft and enveloping in a mid-weight style with blackberries, a hint of sweet spice and a touch rustic with juicy acidity. The finish was pleasant and fresh just as a Dolcetto should be. I thoroughly enjoyed it over the course of two days. (89 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Tasting at Vinitaly N.Y.C. 2012

If you love Italian wine, then you must know of Vinitaly. Vinitaly is a tasting to beat all tastings that takes place in Verona, Italy each year. For days, the entire city becomes a meca for Italian wines. Every shop, every Trattoria and every parking space is filled with wine lovers, journalists and industry people who are in town to sample the thousands of wines that are available.

Last year, I was very happy to hear that Vinitaly had decided to start a tasting tour with stops in a number of major cities, and that New York was one of them. There may not be thousands of wines to taste, but it’s still done in style. With producers from around Italy, some are staple names, but many are still unknown in the United States. This always provides a great opportunity to discover new wines and producers.

And that's exactly what I was able to do this year. From the obscure Rabosa grape in Verona, to Sagrantino and even a taste of the stunning 2008 Elio Grasso Gavarini Vigna Chiniera. This year's Vinitaly event was a joy to attend. I've narrowed down my tasting notes to my top five. These aren't necessarily my top scoring wines, as much as they are the most exciting wines I tasted that day. There's something here for everyone.

Bosco die Cirmilio (Bosco Viticultori)

This Rosé was spell-binding and just the thing that I wanted to have on hand through the summer. Also a new name for me, the Canal Grando Venezia Rosé Raboso hails from the Veneto region of Italy and is made from the obscure Raboso grape, which lends this wine its unique aroma and flavor profile. If you are looking to try it, buy more than one bottle, because it will go fast.

Bosco Viticultori Canal Grando Venezia Rosé Raboso Spumante Dry - The nose was reminiscent of summer days with watermelons, fresh sliced apples and floral undergrowth. On the palate, a refreshing wave of fruits washed over the senses with a hint of sweetness and a perfect dose of refreshing acidity. The hardest thing about tasting this wine is that I just wanted to keep drinking it. (91 points) Company website!

J. Hofstätter

Hofstätter is certainly not a new name to me, but this wine is. From Trentino, Italy, Martin Foradori, of J. Hofstatter makes thrilling earth and mineral-driven wines from a number of native varieties. Their single vineyard Lagrien is a benchmark wine, and the Gerwurtraminer can be magical. However, on this day it was the Pinot Bianco made me take notice.

2011 J. Hofstätter Pinot Bianco – The nose showed under ripe peach, hints of citrus and spring floral notes. On the palate, it was fresh and vibrant with a hint of sweetness and flavors of green apple, sweet spice and inner floral notes. The refreshing finish had a spritz of citrus and remained enjoyable throughout. (92 points) Company Website!

Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro

From Tuscany and with Luca Currado of Vietti as a consultant winemaker, Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro’s lineup of Syrah seems to be getting better with each vintage. The only sad thing about this wine is the price, but for those looking to experience its racy, palate-coating fruits and hedonistic, yet truly Tuscan bouquet, it’s worth every penny.

2008 Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro (Manzano) Syrah Cortona Migliara – The nose was intense with mixed berries and spice, dark chocolate and earthy herbal notes. On the palate, it was aggressive with its concentrated red and black fruits, pepper and teaming acidity that kept it fresh and lively. The finish was long and palate-coating, showing a glimpse of this wine’s structure as the fruit slowly melted away. The Syrah Migliara gave me hope for Italian Syrah. (94 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!


Two producers from Trentino made it into my top five. That must really say something about how this region is really starting to explode. Concilio is a cooperative winery that has a thrilling lineup of whites that I feel fortunate to have tasted through. Their Gerwurtraminer also deserves an honorable mention. These wines walked the tightrope between rich and racy. The end result was nothing short of magic.

2011 Concilio Sauvignon Blanc Trentino Arjent - The nose was striking with aromas of fresh-squeezed lemon, floral perfume and stony minerals. On the palate, it started soft and enveloping yet quickly turned clean and focused as flavors of lemon zest and granny smith apple filled the senses. The finish was lingering yet mouthwatering with lemon and floral notes. This was a great example of Sauvignon Blanc from a northern climate. (92 points) Company Website!


Many years ago, Cesari was one of the first Amarone I tired. Their entry-level bottle is priced very fairly but has never scored very high in my book. However, the Bosan was everything that I love in a glass of Amarone. If you’re in the mood for a racy style of Amarone that still retains its finesse, the Bosan should be right up your alley.

2004 Cesari Amarone della Valpolicella Bosan – The nose showed black cherries with dark chocolate-covered raisins and a hint of ripe banana. It flowed like velvet across the palate with great balance and flavors of black cherry and bitters that lasted into the long fruity finish. (92 points)