Thursday, August 27, 2009

King Barolo and his friends

Dwayne Perreault - Ah, Barolo. As they like to say here, "the King of wines, and the wine of Kings." If you want to appreciate it, you need to have patience, and let's face it, few people possess this trait nowadays. Really, a good Barolo should not be drunk until it's 10 years old, but if you want to purchase one of these finer old specimens in a shop here, count on spending between 50 to 100 Euros for a bottle. You can buy them for about a third or a quarter of the price when they're young, but you need to have a cellar and you need to have patience.

The rolling hillside vineyards of BaroloThe rolling hillside vineyards of Barolo

Barolo the place is eye-candy: rolling land stretches out from the foothills (Piedmont literally translated) of the Alps where medieval castle towns sit perched on the tops of escarpments, looking over geometrically aligned terraces where virtually every square meter is planted with a Nebbiolo vine. I came here in a used VW Polo and on a budget, but what I found was winemakers consumed with a passion for their craft, good honest people ready to share their enthusiasm with a devotee, and willing indeed to share the wine itself. This place represents southern European hospitality at its best.

But I want to talk not only about Barolo but all of Piedmont and Nebbiolo's neighbours, the Barberas and Dolcettos, the Freisas and Bonarda Croatinas and the white cousins, the Arneis, the Favoritas and Corteses. Piedmont is a cornucopia of grape varieties, and they are all delicious. Unfortunately, it takes less time to drink wine than write about it.

Camping in a hazelnut grove in Vergne, a steep two kilometers west of Barolo, I awoke the first morning and realized I was a mere hundred meters away from G.D. Vajra, a quality vintner of the Nebbiolo juice. That's the way it is here: you can't throw a cork without hitting a winery.

Another view, showing densely planted Nebbiolo vines.Another view, showing densely planted Nebbiolo vines

Owning 38 ha of vineyards (and renting another 12), Aldo Vajra started winemaking in 1972 and now produces about 250,000 bottles of different Piedmont wines per year. The winery is truly modern in nature, both functional and beautiful. I tasted 11 different wines, too many to explore in detail here, but these were some of my favourites: the Langhe Bianco Pétracine 2008 is a Riesling, which performs surprisingly well in this rather hot climate. Expressing white fruit with a citrus tint and mineral tone and 14% alcohol, this is a powerful wine which should be aged 3-7 years.

Few Piedmont wines are made to be enjoyed young, but the Dolcetta d'Alba is an exception. Coste & Fossati 2007, from clay soils, has concentrated dark fruit with something dusty and dry in the aftertaste. 2007 was a very hot year and this is a powerful Dolcetto with 14,5% alcohol, very expressive.

The Barbera d'Alba Superiore 2006, made from 50 year old vines and aged in new oak barriques, is quite tannic. It needs to be aged up to 10 years, but shows promise, with plummy ink and wood tones in the nose.

Barolo, yet another viewBarolo, yet another view

The 2005 Langhe Freisa 'Kyè' (which is the Piemontese dialect for 'who?') has a very fragrant bouquet of red fruit but is extremely tannic and needs another 7+ years of bottle ageing, after having experienced one and a half years in oak. DNA research has proven that the Freisa is the ancestor of the Nebbiolo. This is a wine for game dishes.

And now, the Barolos. The Bricco delle Viole 2005, a cask sample having undergone 40 months used oak ageing, has so much going on: ink, leather, tobacco, dark fruit and violets (as its name suggests). It shows incredible potential.

The Vajras have purchased for their sons 5 ha of vineyards from the respected producer Luigi Baudana, who had no children himself. The Baudana name will be kept on the label out of respect for family tradition, and the Barolo Cerreta 2005 (barrel sample) is all dark fruit with good structure, already showing great tannic balance.

By the way, Vajra also makes a Moscato d'Asti, and its just grapey and great.

Small but good: Stra's cellar.Small but good: Stra's cellar.

A much smaller producer is Roberto Stra in nearby Novello, just 3 kms away, working just 7 ha, but 3 of them in Barolo. This is an old-fashioned producer making traditional wines in an almost Burgundian way: the cellar is small but functional. In fact, only half of the harvest is vinified at home and the rest is sold to larger producers, as there is simply no room to keep the wine. Plans are being made to expand the cantina and hopefully in the future some wines will be available for export. Currently, all 15,000 bottles produced yearly are enjoyed locally. The Barbera d'Alba 2007 is pure delight: honest dark fruit expression, extremely straightforward, it simply drinks itself away.

The Barolo 2005 is already stunning: forest smells and truffles intermingle with a still rather raw but developing alcohol in a taste sensation that is both noble and enticing. The 05 vintage is generally known to be very fruit-driven; it will be interesting to see how this wine develops.

I don't pretend to speak Italian, but I can still understand a fair bit. Talking with the 80+ year old grandfather Giovanni in the courtyard under a blistering early evening sun (the azienda is in the valley, and so much hotter) I understood that the famous 04 vintage won first prize in a local tasting event, and that says a lot, considering nobody understands the wine better than the local Piemontese. I couldn't resist picking up a magnum; I only hope I can keep my hands off it for another 5 years!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bordeaux 2009: Jane Anson's video update

Wine journalist Jane Anson, based in Bordeaux, is one of my favourite information sources for the wines from Bordeaux. These days she is talking to producers to hear about the development of the new vintage, Bordeaux 2009.

Only after the harvest something more or less definite can be said about the potential of the new vintage, in this stage it is just... an update on the development so far.

Recently Jane interviewed Lafite's director Charles Chevallier, in a sunny Lafite vineyard. Let me summarise the main points on the development of the Bordeaux 2009 vintage (most points taken from the video):

- The start of the growing season in April was in good conditions; there was no frost. To compare: in 2008, there was the Graves region was hit by spring frost, which - more or less - diminished the crop.
- Pauillac was not affected by the hailstorms that hit large parts of Bordeaux in early May. Damage, sometimes severe, was recorded in Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and the Southern Médoc including Margaux - the affected properties are likely to produce less Bordeaux 2009. Lafite's crop however is of normal size, slightly bigger than last year's crop.
- In May and early June the weather was less ideal: there were substantial fluctuations in temperature between the one week and the other, and at times it was quite wet. As a result it was necessary to spray against diseases.
- From mid-June onwards the weather is good again. I was in Bordeaux in the beginning of July, and it was sunny and warm then. Due to drought and warmth the vines do not suffer from diseases such as mildew and oidium.

According to Charles Chevallier Bordeaux 2009 is "OK" at this stage. Now we have to wait for the harvest next month. For the complete interview see the YouTube video below - which can also be found on Decanter.com and Lafite.com (new website!).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Back to Ticino: Werner Stucky

Dwayne Perreault - As I noted in the first posting I made for this blog, few Swiss wines will ever find a public outside of Switzerland, because they are practically all consumed in their home country. There are two major reasons for this, and they are both economical in nature. Swiss wines are expensive to export, given that land is costly in this tiny mountainous country and production costs are high. Secondly, foreign wines are heavily taxed in Switzerland, which gives local wines an advantage for the Swiss consumer.

But the Swiss know a good wine when they drink it, and there is little doubt that Ticino is the country’s rising star. When Hugh Johnson compiled his Wine Companion in 1983, he listed no more than five producers. But there has been a renaissance happening here in the last 20 years, and the region is now producing some outstanding Merlots, some of which can rival St. Emilion and Pomerol, both in quality and price.

Werner Stucky TicinoWerner Stucky in his "garage" in Rivera, Ticino

One of the winemakers Johnson mentioned in his guide is Werner Stucky in Rivera, a small producer working 4 ha of land, who studied both in Switzerland and in Bordeaux under the famous oenologue Emile Peynaud. Stucky is an unpretentious man who makes only three wines, all of them seriously good vinos da tavola. When I asked him why he doesn’t produce wines which fall under the DOC classification, he simply replied that that doesn’t interest him. His customers, all restaurants and private individuals, know that a Stucky wine stands for quality.

Stucky might indeed be called a garagiste: his wines are made in the garage, where every square centimeter is put to good use. After a short tour of the premises, we retired to his house to get to the business at hand, the tasting.

First up was a truly unique white wine, Temenos, made from Sauvignon Blanc and Completer, a rare Vinifera sort originally brought by the Romans from Lazio some 2,000 years ago. It is eschewed by most producers, largely because it is extremely oxidative, but here it is used to give the wine acidity, as Sauvignon Blanc tends to be more fruity than dry in this sub-tropical climate. Golden in the glass, it has a bouquet which is rather difficult to describe, but is rather like sticking your nose into a deep well, earthy and fresh at the same time. Aged 10 months in oak barriques on lees, its taste was dry with some minerality, but also quite complex with wood tones and a nutty flavour due to the lees contact and the oxidative Completer. Stucky produces only 2,000 bottles of this wine per year, admittedly to suit his own palate, though I must agree, this is a wonderfully complex white which would accompany a wide variety of fish dishes. I feel privileged to have tasted the last bottle of the 2007 together with him.

Next up was the Merlot, Tracce di Sassi 2007, made from old vines on gneiss soils which provide excellent drainage. This lustrous ruby red wine had both cherry and blackberry in the bouquet, with abundant leather and tobacco. The taste was concentrated dark fruit, full bodied with a hint of licorice. This is not Merlot in a simple style: it aims to please, and wants to be enjoyed with a good piece of red meat or a hard, aged cheese. Aged 12 months in barrique, it is sensual and enticing.

We finished with Conte di Luna 2007, Stucky’s most popular wine, although only 3,000 bottles are produced yearly. This is a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend which sees 16 months ageing in new oak, with a dark garnet colour and very dark fruit in the nose. A powerful wine with strong tannins, my feeling is that it could use some bottle ageing, although Stucky professes not to be a lover of old wines, preferring pure fruit expression.

If you are visiting Lugano or Locarno, and like to drink quality wine that is artisanal in nature and eschews everything that is commercial, I strongly recommend you visit Werner Stucky, where you may purchase his wines by the bottle or case. This warm-hearted and friendly man will change your conception of Swiss wines forever.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bolomey Wijnimport new Dutch importer for Domaine Arnaud Ente

In my blog posting of 29 June I briefly mentioned our visit to Domaine Arnaud Ente in Meursault. We tasted all Ente's whites, and our undivided conclusion was that these wines are of extraordinary quality. Jan van Roekel wrote a summary of this tasting on his website Burgoholic.

The current state of affairs: Bolomey Wijnimport has just become Ente's exclusive importer for The Netherlands. Certainly worth mentioning I would say. But what makes Ente's wines so special?

Arnaud Ente Meursault Clos des Ambres 2006Arnaud Ente Meursault Clos des Ambres 2006

First: a ruthlessly ambitious winemaker is working at one of the finest terroirs for white wines on the face of earth - the appellation Meursault. Ente is uncompromisingly dedicated (all year round there are four people for just over four hectares!) to make the very best wine, according to his own ideas. Ente produces a harmonious, natural style of wine, which can in fact be found between the thick-oaky-style on the one side, and the lean-mineral-approach on the other side of the Meursault spectrum.

Second: Ente is successful. If I try to summarize his wines, the common denominator - from Aligoté to Premier Cru - is balance, and, partly as a result of this, richness and versatility: it is due to this harmony that every facet present in this wine can shine. This makes drinking Ente an exciting, almost sensual experience. Moreover: these natural, not too heavy wines never tire. They are complex wines, yet made for drinking.

Combine this with the fact that Ente's production is small (just 4,25 ha), and we get a sought-after wine.

If you don't live in The Netherlands but would like to taste Ente's wines, you might try booking a table at one of the following restaurants: La Bastide Saint-Antoine (Grasse), Bernard Loiseau (Seaulieu), Petit Nice (Marseille), Michel Bras (Japan), Alain Chapel (Mionnay), Daniel Boulud (New York), Manoir d'Hasting (Tokyo), La Rotonde (Charbonnières Les Bains), Hameau Albert 1er (Chamonix), L'oasis (La Napoule), Enoteca Pinchiorri (Florence) and Gambero Rosso Pierangelini (San Vincenzo). Next month I will be in San Vincenzo myself, and am definitely intending to check out Fulvio Pierangelini's Gambero Rosso. More about that later.

If you are able to read Dutch and are interested in further information, I would suggest that you check out the Bolomey Wijnimport website.