Once the Lime’s in the Coconut, Put the Fiano in the Aglianico

The problem with referring to Viticoltori De Conciliis ‘Latoscuro’ as ‘The Côte-Rôtie of Campania’ is that no one but a select circle of snooty, snotty, snoring old pedants will get it.

People like you and me.

However, reference that silly, one-chord Nilsson ditty about the lime and the coconut everybody immediately perks up and nods to a calypso beat

So that’s why I opted not to plagiarize Todd Abrams’ apt analogy, in which that hallowed hawker of hooch alluded to the tradition in the Côte-Rôtie—Northern Rhône’s roasted slope—of co-fermenting aromatic Viognier with meaty Syrah to produce a wine with an almost paradoxical bouquet, both floral and carnal.

Now, most people even on the periphery of old pedantry are quite familiar with the varietal characteristics of both Viognier and Syrah, so putting that lime in that coconut creates an organoleptic profile that one may at least wrap one’s snotty, snooty tongue around.

In Campania, the predominant red wine grape is Aglianico, and when that varietal is mentioned, even the oldest and most pedanticky among us may need to run to the World Atlas of Wine.

Italy’s Red-Wined Stepchild

Campania gets no respect. When you discuss the bold and blustery reds of Italy, I’m willing to bet dollars to Dove bars that you think of Amarone, Brunello and Barolo before you think of Taurasi, despite the fact that it can glare any of them down. Hailing from elevations that start at around two thousand feet, Taurasi’s soils are a unique blend of calcareous marls and volcanic deposits and the resulting wine is musky, tannic and acidic, and is aged for four years before release.

Taurasian

Taurasi—which sounds like a Star Trek planet—is as age-worthy as any Nebbiolo or Sangiovese. The acclaimed 1967 Taurasi by Mastroberardino is apparently still drinking well, although at $400 a bottle, I’ll have to take their word for it.

Back on earth, Aglianico was once used to make the iconic Roman Falernian wine, which sounds like something Taurisians would drink. As a stand-alone (as in Aglianico del Taburno or Aglianico del Vulture), it has a tendency to produce leathery, earthy wines that required multiple revolutions around the sun before they become palatable. Even then, it has a rustic, smoky nose without a lot a delicacy and is an ideal counterpart to the fatty cured meats for which the area is known—especially Campanian capicollo.

However, as the eccentric Bruno De Conciliis—who plays jazz to his aging wine to keep them happy—discovered, by macerating these tannic brutes with the skins of the local white variety Fiano, the resulting wine, like Côte-Rôtie, picks up sultry, sunny aromatics that elevate it from a brooding red to a bright and complex gallimaufry of flowers and fruit.

Bruno De Conciliis

Fiano is Aglianico’s blonde bride, a grape grown in Campania since Jesus was cutting eyeteeth; it produces rich, honeyed nectar that seems to pull a crisp minerality from the same volcanic slopes on which Aglianico thrives.

After being flayed alive, Fiano skins are allowed to macerate for two weeks with pre-fermented Aglianico, which began its own life highly concentrated with a yield on only ½ ton per acre, resulting in…

Latoscuro means ‘The Dark Side’

Viticoltori De Conciliis ‘Latoscuro’, Paestum IGT, 2009 ($80).

It’s a big wine with one of the most assertive noses I can recall experiencing in a red—and it’s the influence of the white, for the most part. Big honeysuckle and orange sherbet blends with deeper red berries and the distinct scent of cola; the palate is tannic and full, with chocolate cherry surfacing about a persistent citrus backbone, both acidity and—I imagine—Fiano.

Let the Taurasians drink their Falernian; I much prefer this lighter incarnation of Aglianico, which—though it doesn’t have quite the age-power of the purist’s version—still has the stuff to live long and prosper.

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The Man, the Myth, the McClelland

There comes a time in the life of every curmudgeon, no matter how mordant or cynical or jaded, when he must—if only for a moment—wax a little sappy.

When confronted with a new, powerful wine created by a potent, old-school personality who witnessed much of California’s wine history firsthand and who today remains that most elusive of viticultural species: A humble legend?

That qualifies as such a moment.

John McClelland

John McClelland, who I interviewed last year for Starstruck in Lodi Again, has a vinous pedigree to rival anybody in America still breathing oxygen: His sixty year career spans such milestones as running Geyer Peak, Alderbrook and Almaden, facing down mobsters in Las Vegas over wine lists and hobnobbing and bread breaking with every single big name from the California Vinicultural Pantheon. He’s a treasure trove of treasured tales, and I defy any wine historian to find anybody more knowledgeable—or more accessible.  Call the dude tonight and I guarantee you’ll end up listening your ear off.

The label that displays his signature is a partnership between McClelland, Napa wine whiz Mitch Cosentino and Paul Scotto, wine and cider makers extraordinaire from Scotto Family Cellars.

When I stopped by his Sonoma bungalow last February, I described McClelland’s physical presence this way: ‘Big as a bear and bald as a billiard ball, hands big enough crack walnuts; he looks a little like Brando in Apocalypse Now’.  Somewhere in his early eighties, and despite having been drop-kicked through some health issues, he retains a look of indomitability.  When sharing a room with him, you tend to see more of the physical side, and  lose sight of the gentle flow of affability that underscores his personality—on the phone, however, it’s all homespun charm.

When he called last week to talk about his 2013, released last June and just now coming into its true splendor, I was treated to the disembodied John—a phone voice several thousand miles removed from the shot-putter’s physique—and was thus reminded that his gentility is an equal and opposite side to  his persona.

CharacTerroir

A few years ago, facetiously, I talked about the human counterpart to terroir, the psychology of a winemaker that—like the climate—coaxes specific, often pre-determined qualities from a grape. But the more I considered it, the less facetious it seemed.  Two winemakers, building a product from an identical harvest, will invariably come up with two different wines, and the singularity in each will arise from the personalities of the man or woman behind the crush pad.

In fact, it is very easy to state that, as a rule, an exemplary wine reflects the creator as well as the place of origin.

McClellan Cellars Petit Verdot 2013 ($40) seems to embody that principal as succinctly as any wine I recall tucking into. Petit Verdot, once restricted to a blending grape in Bordeaux, is used rarely even in that capacity these days: It is a challenge to ripen it if springtime conditions are not optimal, even in the relative mild maritime climes of the Médoc.

Petit Verdot

In general, Petit Verdot requires more hang-time than France can provide, but in Napa, it has found a promised land, and when pampered through its fickle flowering season, it can produce plump, polished, powerhouse wines of the sort that many Napa disciples have come to expect.

The grapes that built this blockbuster were hand-harvested in early October, 2013 at (I’m guessing) optimum phenolic ripeness, hailing entirely from the Oak Knoll District in the southern end of the Napa Valley floor.  Each lot was fermented separately and barrel-aged in French oak for 26 months.

The resulting wine—not to be too hokey, too odic or too gross—displays quintessential characTerroir; it is John McClelland in a glass.

It opens with a strapping presence, forceful and sweet, with an embrace like currant syrup—cool Oak Knoll, with its extended growing season, allows fruit to ripen without stewing.  The concentration is remarkable, sapid and massive on the palate, but as cool as shade in the summertime.  This is wine with a grip capable of crushing walnuts or putting shot, but offers enough subtle restraint to remain delightfully layered, big, bold, but not boisterous.

Like John.

Elegant wine?  Not exactly, but there is an undercurrent of class and breeding that knifes through the potency; the flavors are rich cassis, blackberry, tarry licorice and some nice oak spice and smoke.  Tannins remain grippy, but the structure of the juice is so firm and the fruit so pristine that the wine promises to have a career as storied as its namesake.

Nature and nurturing have seen the remarkable John McClelland through eight decades: May his eponymous elixir show the selfsame spunk and longevity, even if neither he nor this sappy cynic are around to do the ultimate depth sounding.

 

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Verdejo Viejo: Rueda Gravitas

In central Spain, Rueda is a white wine buoy bobbing on a vast red sea.

iberia-2-web1-600x468How vast? Spain produces a billion gallons of wine a year, and Castilla y Leon—Rueda’s home province—is by far the largest autonomous wine region in the country; the biggest region in the entire EU, as a matter of fact. It comprises a fifth of all the land in Spain, and it is solidly red grape country,  Tempranillo in particular.

And how tiny? Of the hundred thousand winemakers in Spain, only 62 produce Verdejo; a grape considered by many (myself included) to be Spain’s most splendid, age-worthy, non-fortified white wine varietal.

An additional  Verdejo plus is that for all intents, it’s grown nowhere else on earth.  Although 90% of Rueda is planted to Verdejo, that still only amounts to about eleven thousand acres in total—less than what California plants to Pinot Gris, a grape that Verdejo is said to resemble.

Verdejo in its native habitat

Verdejo in its native habitat

Before being rediscovered by Riojan producer Marqués de Riscal, Verdejo had been nearly forgotten in its native Rueda; that’s partly because it is so prone to oxidation that this became the region’s signature style, often made via a solera system similar to Sherry. Following the phyloxxera plague of the 1800s, Verdejo did not find another Spanish audience for nearly a century.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, a new wave of Riscal-inspired Verdejos have highlighted alternate qualities, focusing  on freshness and youth.  This, in part, is thanks to the manipulation of modernity. Night harvesting, cool fermentation and the use of an inert gas blanket minimized exposure to air during aging and maintained the crisp, tropical intensity that the grape displays when going through birthing pains.

“I Do Not Know if I Live in Spain to Make Wine or Make Wine to Live in Spain”

Among the handful of Verdejo producers is Didier Belondrade from Montauban, France, who, in 1992, went full Thoreau and left his executive position at Air France to make wine in Spain. He was especially enamored of the indigenous grape Verdejo, convinced that he could make a barrel-fermented, lees aged version patterned after the great Chardonnays of Burgundy.

The style was intended to blend some of the richness inherent in lightly oxidized, wood-aged wine with the keen, aromatic expression of young Verdejo. Key to such an endeavor, of course, is an obsessive attention to detail in all phases of viniculture, from vine to stemware. Rueda is rough country; the climate is harsh, far removed from any meliorating maritime effect, and the soils are poor, composed primarily of iron-heavy limestone.  Cereal grain barely eke out a living here, but as it happens, such terrain is ideal for Verdejo, especially when the vineyards are planted in the proximity of the Duero River.

Didier Belondrade

Didier Belondrade

These were the terroirs that excited Belondrade:

“My story began over a glass of Verdejo on a hot day in sun-drenched Andalusia; it occurred to me that I didn’t think the grape was living up to its true potential. With the climate here, Verdejo can be in Rueda what Chardonnay is in Burgundy. But for the techniques of some short-sighted people, we could have been the Great Spanish White Zone.”

That’s the sort of blunt honesty one expects from Belondrade, of course, and it hardly tempers his passion for his adopted country: “Spain,” he maintains, “not only stole my heart, it stirred something deep in my soul.”

He just had to bring a little Burgundian bump to Nava del Rey, creating a wine that incorporates the best of the aged, pre-phylloxera Verdejos of the past with the fresh, acidic Riscal  Verdejos.

To achieve this, Belondrade hand-harvests Verdejo from nineteen individual plots, each with unique terroirs, and containing vines of an average age of thirty years. He ages the wine on its lees in 300-liter French oak foudres; the wine is bottled and stored for a further 6 months prior to release.

It was this wine not upon release, however, but several years down the road that intrigued me.

2011 Belondrade y Lurton Verdejo Rueda ($40) is the most sophisticated incarnation of Verdejo I have ever encountered; remarkably textured and complex.  It is clearly not a Burgundian Premier Cru, but only because the profile is so distinctly non-Chardonnay: The breeding is every bit as heady.

bodega-belondrade-y-lurton-verdejo-rueda-spain-10532143The wine opens with lovely perfumes drenched in honey, walnuts, creamy white flowers and apple peel; the acids are in beautiful balance and the slight butterscotch of oak and oxidation is a counterpoint that is suspended within that balance.

To me, the sign of wine at an ideal stage of development is one that manages to flirt with the unique flavors of maturity without any one of them dominating; here, exotic wood notes blend with toasted almond and a touch of anise, but the fruit—predominantly fresh apple—remains keenly alive and of 2017, encompasses the rest.

In short, this is wine of monumental grandeur, and at $40, about a third of what you’d pay for a quality-comparable white from the Côte de Beaune.  Some voluminous value in Verdejo Viejo—¿verdad?

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There’s a Cure for the Saumur Wine Blues

…And I’ll get to it at the end. In the meantime, no spoilers. No cheating. No peeking, no snooping, no shaking the box beneath the Christmas tree under penalty of a bitch-slap.

Ever seen this two in the same room?  Me neither.

Ever seen this two in the same room? Me neither.

I have had a pathological aversion to spoilers ever since seventh grade when that nasty little prick Joe Paolella came up to me when I was standing in line for Star Wars and whispered, “Darth Vader is actually Luke’s father.” And later, when Paul Zack sent me an email right before I left to see Sixth Sense that read ‘Bruce Willis is dead—that’s why the kid can see him.’

That sort of stuff spoils everything for everyone, every time. Especially wine columns.

But I Digress…

Saumur-Champigny

Saumur-Champigny

Anyway, Saumur is the topic of today’s harangue, in particular, Saumur-Champigny—a smallish appellation created in 1957 dedicated to producing red wine in the white heavy Loire. Like the ABC of Loire Rouge—Anjou, Bourgueil and Chinon—Saumur-Champigny relies on Cabernet Franc as its raw material. This grape, the third wheel in Bordeaux, and frequently an understudy only allowed to perform when Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot calls in sick. In the fertile limestone soils of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol in may excel, but throughout Bordeaux, it is generally treated as an also-ran.

Interestingly, not only did our subject also-ran begin the race in the Loire, Cabernet Franc (then known as Bouchet) is one of the parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, developed when it was bred genetically with Sauvignon Blanc in the 17th century. In Bordeaux, it’s a case of the Luke Skywalker out-performing Darth Vader, but in the Loire, which is farther north than Bordeaux and considerably further from the meliorating effects of the ocean, Cabernet Sauvignon—which buds late—rarely ripens.

Blues for the Reds are Green

Cab Franc on the hoof

Cab Franc on the hoof

The problem is—and thus, the titular blues—is that Cabernet Franc doesn’t always ripen in the Loire either. When fully flavor ripe, Cabernet Franc offers lyrical floral and spring berry flavors in a youthful, light package. It’s rarely overtly tannic and, like most cool-climate reds, shows shivery acids.

Unripe, however, it shows a pronounced vegetal undertone that is most easily described as bell pepper.

Whether or not you like this quality in your wine, it’s one rarely sought after by your winemaker. Like brett, it’s an occasional occupational hazard.

Saumur is one of those French growing reasons where the terroir, so vital to the endgame, is fairly easily laid out: A plateau made of the Loire’s distinctive metamorphic rock tuffeau rises at the town of Saumur town and continues for seven miles to the village of Candes Saint-Martin. This offers vines not only elevation, but well-drained underpinnings that provide such remarkable drainage that some of Saumur-Champigny vines—as in a few isolated pockets across the globe—managed to escape the phylloxera plague of the mid-19th century. Not all, obviously, but at least a handful within one of the vineyards from which Thierry Germain draws a quartet of wines released under the Domaine des Roches Neuves label.

Thierry Germain

Thierry Germain

Germain is considered one of France’s leaders in biodynamic winemaking—his logo shows him in silhouette casting a long shadow that morphs into wine vines. He nurtures them individually, by his own words, ‘observing and listening to them’, becoming indispensable to the farming where pesticides are not.

He began his career in Cab Franc country—Saint-Émilion—which explains his affinity for the varietal. He moved to the Loire in the early 1990’s, where he became as student of the great Charly Foucault of the benchmark Saumur-Champigny vineyard Clos Rougeard.

Focault, sadly, passed away in 2015 at the age of 66.

They are big shoes to fill, but Germain has forged his own Focault-sized reputation in Saumur, and although he is too involved with foliage to rest on laurels, it is fair to say that his wines are iconic examples of Cabernet Franc grown anywhere—a purist’s dream. He harvests thirty parcels by hand, restricting yields to half what the law allows, and often to half of the half. In his view, these vines are essentially allowed to grow wild, producing a miniscule number of quality fruit clusters. Depending on the parcel, many of these clusters he ferments whole using native yeasts, as they do in much of Beaujolais; thereupon, he ages the juice in massive foudres in order to minimize contact with oak. The resulting wines are remarkably fresh and grapey—a word, ironically, used rarely to describe wines. They offer juicy elegance braced by sharp, refreshing acidity with tannins as a background note.

The four I tasted were all from 2015 vintage, and reflect Germain’s imminently accessible style, though each with a slightly different and personal profile. By tethering himself to the needs expressed by the vines themselves, he has drained the juice of anything green and vegetal, leaving us with a shimmering image of Cabernet Franc.

Domaine des Roches Neuves, Saumur-Champigny 2015

franc-piedCuvée ‘Franc de Pied’ ($65): The sandy soils of this three acre plot give a distinct, explosive floral nose to the wine—the technique of 100% cold, whole cluster maceration lend it an almost Grape Kool-Aid youthfulness. The wine is not terribly complex, but easy and enjoyable—a perfect expression of ripe Cab Franc picked at an optimal moment to reflect the balanced bloom of youth.

Cuvée ‘Clos de l’Echelier’ ($59): A mingling of styles, ‘l’Echelier’ involves whole-cluster fermentation of only half its harvest, resulting in a wine that reflects both the Beaujolais-nose and the earthier, Saint-Émilion concentration. Crushed stones and raspberry enliven a meatier wine that comes from soils with slightly more clay than ‘Franc de Pied’, leading to a sensuous grip from nose to finish.

cuvee-marginaleCuvée ‘Marginale’ ($59) A striking intensity of flavors, beginning with a bouquet that’s like sniffing wild violets in the spring. Less overtly carbonic smelling, with a deep cherry, almost Burgundian profile, it is velvety in the mouth with a sense of sophistication that elevates it above a certain fun quality inherit in the others. ‘Marginale’ is made only in exceptional vintages, and only from restricted yields.

Cuvée ‘Mémoires ($69): Sweet fruit is prominent, though as always, in a bone-dry package; the acid level is pronounced, making this a wine for the cellar, though not indefinitely—a couple years should tone it back a bit. Tannins are light and slightly chalky. The parcel from which the wine is drawn was planted in 1905, and is on original European rootstock.

The Cure…

In conclusion, class, the cure for the greening of the grape seems to be a balanced combination of terroir and technique. Toss in optimal hangtime, and vanished are the Saumur wine blues.

Now, go in peace.

main-qimg-88d49a1aecc040b5d7a22227b98b0d26And for those of you who intentionally defied my advice and read on ahead, like my Irish grandmother used to say, “Go ndéana an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn”—“May the devil use your backbone as a ladder while picking apples in Hell”.

Oh, and ‘Rosebud’ winds up being the name of the sled.

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And Now, A Word From Our Sponsors: Me

 

“I have something to say, and one of these days, I’m going to stop writing these stupid books and say it.”

– Living epitaph on Kassel’s tombstone.

bgd_cover-page-001

But seriously folks: As some of you know, when I accidentally checked ‘Author’ instead of ‘Hi-Lo Operator’ on the back of the matchbook that listed career choices, I was forced to embark upon a lifetime of literary lechery.  I snoggled and slavered over the requisite reliquary of writers. I consummated a mature relationship the greats while dorking the near-greats in my Chevy van, occasionally forgetting to call them in the morning. During the course of this prurient pathway, pausing only to catch my brain breath, I planted a few odd trees of my own.

The roster can be found by Googling my name alongside ‘amazon.com’, but from time to time, I take a time-out from the wine column for a little personal plugola.

This is one of those station breaks.

The Blinding Glare of Darkness is my tenth book; it contains three short novels drawn in part from the fifteen years I spent in the mind-numbing world of Detroit automotive engineering and in part from the another fifteen years I spent in writing and co-producing documentaries for a Detroit film company.

The goal was to drill some drama into the dull and elevate the ordinary to the realm of extraordinary.  That’s the beauty of fiction: There are no constraints and the only rule is ‘No Rules’.

Demonstrated in The Blinding Glare as…

…A lonely addict interacts with his various adult children from the confines of a dystopian downtown tenement building.

…A Bloomfield Hills attorney becomes obsessed with a cryptic painting from rural India and abandons his career and family to search for the artist.

…A Ford assembly line worker with an abusive husband and an autistic son is rescued by a strange babysitter who recognizes genius beneath the scars.

Book  illustrations by my son, Jesse Kassel

Book illustrations are by my son, Jesse Kassel

Pledge Drive: You’re Soaking In It.

For the past half dozen years I’ve offered up this column gratis, keeping it free of advertising because, after the years I spend schlepping for Detroit’s Big Three, I have no wish to be beholden to anyone on any level.

Intoxicology Report, by design, has been something for nothing.

Now, it’s your chance to get something for something—I keep my books at $13 because I think it’s a cool, potent number and it seems like a pretty fair price for a piece of tactile entertainment that won’t vanish with a power outage and that you can pass on to others.

If I didn’t think these stories could hold their own in the rarified atmosphere of fine literature, I wouldn’t recommend them: In fact, I’d keep reworking them until they did.

Above all, I find the whole art of composing and/or consuming anything longer than a 140-character tweet to be an endangered species.  If you remain true to your reading roots and nibble at this brief interlude of self-promotion, I’d love your feedback.

The Blinding Glare of Darkness
is available at

https://www.amazon.com/Blinding-Glare-Darkness-Three-Novels/dp/1542669014/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

*

“And we now return you to your regularly scheduled drivel….”

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Booting the Boot: Italy Becomes My Chanterelle

Boot camp sucks, boots on the ground kill, boot licking is for losers.  All in all, referring to Italy—Europe’s most celebrated culinary gem—as a boot, the same item consumed by the Donner Party right before they switched to the inner thighs of their relatives, is an abomination.

clipboardIf it’s shape we’re going for, I opt for an alternate comparison—to a luscious, just-picked chanterelle.

Anyway, the best part of a chanterelle is the meaty funnel that opens up from the stem, and as it corresponds to a map of Italy, that means the six topmost regions.  And from two of them, one from each side of Italy’s funnel, come two interesting, representative, minuscule production wines that are, above all, serious values for what the bottle contains.

Silvio Giamello ‘Vicenziana’, Barbaresco 2013, around $32

13fsg01-3418Tuscany’s Sangiovese may produce wines that are sensuous and savory in their youth, with fresh mint often offsetting the cherry-rich bouquet, but Piedmont’s Nebbiolo is the varietal you look to show the burnished maturescence of age.  Young, even the tamest Barbaresco (an even earlier drinking Nebbiolo than brawny Barolo, its cousin) shows a tannic clout that effectively builds a wooden fortress around the fruit.

That astringency shows up primarily in the palate, however: When you nose a Barbaresco, the full complement of aromatics—vital to the long term stability of the fruit core of any wine—may be on display. Thus, purple flowers, juicy black cherry, licorice, raspberry and cinnamon are the qualities I look for in the nose of an underage Barbaresco, fully expecting their presence in the mouth to be overshadowed by a stockade of tannins.

In fact, Giamello’s ‘Vicenziana’ is that in a textbook format.  Richly perfumed with all the vibrant reds of Nebbiolo’s color/fruit palette, the 2013 needs at least another few years of contemplation before the wood settles into the lushness and everything melds.  As a wine, it is pleasant as hell to smell; to drink, unless you’re tucking into a side from Certified Piedmontese cattle, not so much.

 Silvio Giamello and Marina Camia

Silvio Giamello and Marina Camia

From an atomically-wee parcel, scarcely five acres in total, Silvio Giamello produces about five thousand bottles of ‘Vicenziana’ annually.  His land, in Barbaresco’s calcareous clay-rich soils, put the word ‘Nebbiolo’ in bold face, and when combined with a slightly cooler microclimate, tend to exemplify the Barbaresco breed: An exuberant and distinctive cherry nose followed by burly tannins on the finish.

To temper nature’s ferocious grip, Silvio Giamello and his wife Marina Camia vinify in stainless-steel tanks and then age the wine in 2,000-3,000 liter, Slavonian oak botti for two to three years. This minimizes the oak influence on the already tannic profile, and probably shaves a few years off its journey to pleasant drinkability.

Peter Dipoli ‘Iugum’, Alto Adige, about $32

Trentino Alto Adige, situated near the right center of Italy’s mushroom funnel, is known for the most part for Alsatian whites—Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Bianco—and reds from the indigenous varieties Schiava and Lagrein.

Peter Dipoli

Peter Dipoli

A regional pioneer, Peter Dipoli spend years scouring Alto Adige microclimates to find one ideal for the cultivation of Merlot and Cabernet, finally settling on a zone with a milder climate and the clay/limestone foundation suited to these Bordeaux hotshots. In 1992, at an elevation of 1000 feet, he planted three acres of Merlot and Cabernet on the southeastern slopes of Magré, one of the warmest vineyard sites in the region, where grapes enjoy additional hang time to achieve maximum ripeness.  As a result, this wine—called ‘Iugum’, the Latin name for the yoke of an ox—is polished, medium-bodied and fresh, loaded with spicy earth and fresh red summer fruit—plums, raspberries and cherries—wrapped in beautifully integrated tannins.  Dipoli vinifies both varietals separately, blending after twelve months in barriques of varying age; he holds back the wine for four years to age in the bottle, thus ensuring that his wines, as this one demonstrated, are ready to rock upon release.

 

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Left Bank-A-Palooza 2017

medoc-map-2010At the periphery of every wine experience, Bordeaux looms.  In a pinch (and a stellar vintage) other wine regions may be considered Bordeaux’s equal, but none are superior. Like the specter of a master—like Michelangelo hovering above an art class or Shakespeare over English Lit—the twin banks of the River Gironde form a greater tributary from which our sense of wine appreciation flows.

The magic and the majesty behind names like Lafite, Latour, Rauzan-Ségla and Margaux cannot be understated; they are the perfect blend of history and hedonism, backstory and brilliance.

So when someone offers you a table at a three-vintage Bordeaux vertical, even on a blustery, snowy January night, you go.

Not that the wines poured rose quite to the level of Château Lafite; for that kind of vertical, you brave a sharknado during an earthquake caused by the detonation of a plutonium bomb. These were serviceable châteaux from the estuary’s Left Bank, which is, by and large, where all the flashy crème de le crème names come from—estates that generally produced wines with a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. That noble variety does better in the gravel/sandstone on this side of the river than anywhere else in France, while the Merlots of the Right Bank enjoy a similar reign.

hendrix-and-woodstock-10This was a Left Bank-A-Palooza where Hendrix fails to show and his spot is filled by several more rounds of Melanie Safka.

Anyway, as seen in this tasting, the wines of the Left Bank, whether from the tannic, high acid and somewhat austere-in-their-youth north to the somewhat more lyrical and gently perfumed wines in the south, offer a marvelous cross-section of the diversity and quality of this storied region.

A brief note on Bordeaux classifications, which came up frequently during this tasting, as they always do:

In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III ordered a 5-level classification system for Bordeaux wines; a delicate task, to be sure. Around eighty wines, white and red, wound up with pedigrees that, for good or bad, and with only a single exception, they own today. In 1973, Château Mouton Rothschild was elevated from a second growth to a first growth vineyard. Otherwise, if you won a bronze in 1855, you are still a Troisièmes Cru in 2017; likewise, each of five crus—or ‘growths’.

This is an overview of what was presented at Elie Wine Company’s Second Annual Bordeaux Master Class, 2017. They are all producers of various repute, so I’ll list them geographically, north to south and not by order of preference.

Château de Camensac, Médoc

camensac-2010-label-500x500A Cinquièmes Cru, or Fifth Growth estate, Camensac has always been a remarkable value. At around twenty dollars a bottle, the estate sits on well-drained soils a five-iron drive from Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, and displays some of the powerful, masculine characteristics of the nearby commune. Managed by Jean Merlaut and his niece, Céline Villars Loubet, Camensac generally relies on a cépage that’s about half Cabernet Sauvignon, half Merlot.

2014: Warm alcohol nose above a sort of Blackberry Kool-Aid-scented acidity; still too youthful to pass much of a judgement—the tannins wrestle you to the ground and mask any subtlety going on.

2010: Wine offers a slightly stewed scent of plums and cherries, but opens into an array of fruits, though still slightly cooked. Some anise appears mid-palate along with espresso bean and smoke.

Château Phélan Ségur, Saint-Estèphe

jardinchateauphelansegurIf ever a wine for St. Patrick’s Day existed, this is it: Launched in 1805 by an Irish wine broker, the estate has been producing reliable and affordable wines of a quality often in the same ballpark as their 2nd Cru neighbor Château Montrose. In fact, in 2010, Phélan Ségur sold fifty acres to Montrose, so that should offer perspective on what’s inside the respective bottles rather than what’s outside

2014: Superb intensity, but somewhat mono-dimensional with a lot of red fruit, but not much else. Friendly, acidic and fruity with the tannins still sitting a yard above the palate and kicking in late, gripping the mouth beyond what you’d probably enjoy. Firm, masculine and too young.

2010: A slight VA, nail polish smell in the bouquet quickly blew away and the nose opened up expressively with cassis and blueberry. Sweet flavors with a bit of leather, thyme and meat; additional spices include cedar and eucalyptus with a bit of pronounced minerality at the end.

Château Haut-Bages-Libéral, Pauillac

2014-chateau-haut-bages-liberal-5eme-cru-classe-pauillac-240x700-8569The dual-hyphenated three-word name refers to, in order, the height of the vineyards, the name of the hill upon which they’re found, and the name of the family who owned the chateau during the 18th century. In 1855, it picked up a Fifth Growth door prize, and today sits on 75 densely-planted, organically farmed acres of excellent land that produce around 10,000 cases a year.

2014: Fresh scents of blackberry, cherry and tobacco, but still tightly wound and far too stubborn to enjoy. Big tannic wine that needs mellow time, although it has sufficient fruit and acid to pull it off.

2010: The wine drinks beautifully; the wild berry notes remain aggressive and delightful and the tannins are slightly more intertwined; the wine shows the refined elegance of Pauillac without a sledghammer’s worth of impact.

Château Lagrange, Saint-Julien

chateau-lagrange-saint-julien-france-10156241Troisièmes Cru, or 3rd Growth, Lagrange is produced from over a hundred separate parcels of land that are, on the surface gravel, but beneath, an amazingly complex array of subsoil, producing wines that are known as much for texture as flavor. Managed by agricultural engineer and enologist Matthieu Bordes, Lagrange has been owned by the Japanese brewing and distilling company group Suntory since 1983.

2014: Pencil lead, black currant and berry ice cream on the nose along with an appealing dried cranberry depth; there’s lots of round fruit on the palate but it is quickly devoured by the youthful tannins.

2005: Cigar box, soy sauce, mint and licorice settle in above the sweet plum; there’s a nice caramel warmth to a full-bodied but velvety, earthy mouthful.

Château Chasse-Spleen, Moulis-en-Médoc

7823239_f260Ironically, though not named after the human organ that recycles iron in the blood, this two hundred acre estate recycles iron in the soil to produce 28,000 of bright, medium bodied, moderately priced red. For the record, the name actually means, ‘to dispel melancholy’.

2014: Big-shouldered wine with a slight confectionary bouquet perfumed with plum sherbet and cotton candy. Creaminess expands in the mouth, but retains a berry yogurt with a finish that is slightly angular and bitter with citrus rind.

2005: Beautifully aged, with chocolate-brown scents and a nice array of sophisticated flavors, including black olive, cocoa powder, truffle and caviar. Silken in the mouth with a bit of youthful liveliness across the tongue, but not much fruit.

Château Durfort-Vivens, Margaux

chateau-durfort-vivens-margaux-france-10613775The second part of the name comes from Viscount of Vivens, who sounds like a character from Lewis Carroll—but the estate is a Deuxièmes Crus, an elitist position shared by only ten other châteaux. In the heart of Margaux—and having at one time had their wines made at the great First Growth estate named after the appellation—Durfort-Vivens is run by the Lurton family, composed of six generation of winegrowers.

2014: Despite the heritage, a disappointing mouthful with green pepper and a strange, stewed collard undertone. A bit more elegant on the palate, with some soft fruit and a certain level of elegant tannins, but nothing I’d want to explore further.

2005: Even less appealing than the ’14. Mercurochrome and alley urine odors and a medicinal mouthful; whatever fruit was there originally has long since dropped out..
Château Bouscaut, Pessac-Léognan

chateau-bouscaut-pessac-leognanPessac-Léognan is a sub-appellation of Graves, and a rarity in Bordeaux, known as much for white wines as red. As the ‘Graves’ name suggests, terroirs here are primarily gravel, underlayed with limestone and sand. Drainage is key; so is the pine forest that surround the area, protecting it from humidity and wind, creating a microclimate unique in Bordeaux. The estate of Bouscaut is managed by Laurent Cogombles, and draws fruit from acreage on the highest slopes in the commune.

Blanc, 2014: A strange opening volley, with notes of asparagus and eggy quiche; it quickly dissipates, though, leading to a lovely aroma of passion fruit and pineapple backed by lemon grass, banana and peach. Pure grapefruit on the tongue, with a long, acidic finish.

Rouge, 2014: Simple, ripe, lush with a firm acidic backbone and a profile of basic red fruit.

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