Ready or not: 07 Produttori del Barbaresco Asili vs. 07 Chiarlo Tortoniano

Unfortunately, it happens all the time: you find yourself at dinner with a good friend (in this case, a best childhood friend) who is new to the wine world and who insists on tasting you on a wine that they’ve discovered with no regard for your personal tastes or palate (how could she or he know?).

It’s exactly what happened when Yele and I visited a restaurant in La Jolla the other night with a close high school friend of ours (a Hebrew school friend for me; that’s how far we go back). I had a bottle of 2007 Produttori del Barbaresco Asili in my bag: however young in its evolution, I wanted to taste a bottle from my allocation just to check in with the wine, see where it’s at in its development, and indulge in one of my favorite wines of all time.

Said friend, who had eaten at said restaurant a few nights earlier, wouldn’t listen to our gentle admonitions and he insisted that he allow him to buy our table a bottle of Chiarlo 2007 Barolo Tortoniano in 375ml.

The 2007 Asili was extreme in its tannic expression and frugal with its fruit. California, where I maintain my cellar, gets a smaller allocation of Produttori del Barbaresco crus and I’m thrilled that I was able to get a case of this wine. I probably won’t revisit it for another few years but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to become one of the gems of my collection. The practically winterless 2007 vintage in Langa has delivered some of the most muscular, opulent expressions of Barbaresco that I have ever tasted (remember when Tracie P and I tasted the 07 Asili with Bruno Giacosa on our honeymoon?).

My experience with Langaroli wines from 2007 was a stark counterpoint to the bright cherry cough-syrup fruit of the 2007 Tortoniano by Chiarlo. There’s no doubt that this is a well made wine but it’s just “not my speed,” as I like to tell folks when I politely decline to taste a given wine. The tannin was well-balanced in the wine but I just couldn’t get past its yeasted quality and its softness. It wasn’t bad (in fact it was very elegant). But it simply didn’t reflect the appellation or the vintage. It tasted more like a high-end Russian River Pinot Noir than it did Langa Nebbiolo — at least to me.

Having grown up in San Diego, I often find that my peers took paths in life widely divergent from mine — in wine tastes and ideology. Actually, I should say the opposite: I spent my entire adolescence leaving Las Vegas La Jolla, heading to Mexico, to Italy, to New York, and now Texas.

It’s often hard to taste wine with them. But ready or not, I love them just the same.

Sub Camerata generosa vites optimis vinis: Feudo Montoni

Myriad wine bloggers erroneously report that sixteenth-century Italian philosopher, doctor, and naturalist Andrea Bacci mentions Feudo Montoni in his landmark De naturali vinorum historia (On the Natural History of Wines, 1595).

Many also wrongly call Bacci “the pope’s sommelier.”

In fact, Bacci lavishes praise not on Feudo Montoni but on the wines raised in (the modern township of) Cammarata, where Feudo Montoni grows its grapes today (though the winery did not exist in Bacci’s time).

In fact, Bacci was Pope Sixtus V’s archiater (i.e., his personal physician).

After I tasted Feudo Montoni’s superb 2008 Nero d’Avola Vrucara this week, I couldn’t resist the urge to look up the reference and report it here.

Bacci does laud the wines of Cammarata with high tones, noting that in the province of Cammarata “noble vines” deliver wines superior in quality. They are powerful, he observes, and rich in red color, two indices that seem insignificant to us today but remarkable in an era when it was difficult to obtain high alcohol content and deep color in wine. He also takes note of their excellent aromas and their ability to age.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed by the 2008 by Feudo Montoni. This, to me, is classic Nero d’Avola and it stands apart from the crowd of wines, often thin and without much backbone, shipped by younger wineries who want to exploit American’s blind love of anything labeled indigenous.

I loved the meatiness of this nuanced expression of Nero d’Avola and the way it played with the dark fruit and life-giving acidic vein in the wine. Truly gorgeous and such a great value.

It was a great excuse to revisit Bacci and the time I spent this morning with his wondrous book delivered an observation on the application of word natural.

In a time before Pasteur, grape growing and winemaking belonged to the realm of nature — not to science. By the end of the nineteenth century, European writers readily spoke of the “science” of winemaking. But in Bacci’s day, wine was described as a purely natural element. The title of his book is, after all, De naturali vinorum historia.

As we continue to grapple with epistemological and ontological implications of the term natural and how it applies to wine and winemaking, it’s important to keep in mind that there was a time — before the modern era — when all wine was natural. By natural I don’t mean the loosely codified aesthetic of the current Natural wine trend. I mean simply that wine belonged to the natural (as opposed to technical) world in the pre-industrial age.

Wine for thought…

soba!

We took Georgia P to our favorite Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles these days, K-ZO.

She LOVED soba noodles and it was amazing to see her slurp them up. She’d never had a long noodle before but she innately knew how to eat them. So much fun…

Heading back to Texas today… see you on the other side… :)

Georgia P takes her first meeting (and so many great wines this week)

Georgia P took her first meeting at a major studio yesterday. That’s her on the backlot. As her manager (and a budding stage father), I can’t reveal which studio because we’re still in negotiations. But rest assured, her next project is going to be a blockbuster.

In other news…

I’ve tasted so many great wines this week in California and our event with Lou at Sotto last night was a blast (we’re planning to do another “oblong table” in August when I’m back).

I’ll be posting on the wines and the event as soon as I get a chance next week. Emidio Pepe 2003 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was one of the highlights.

Stay tuned…

Natural wine: Italian government crackdown

Above: In late June, Italian authorities visited the Enoteca Bulzoni (one of the city’s oldest and most respected wine retailers) and cited the owner for the display of a sign that read “natural wines.” Many in Italy believe that the Italian government is poised to crack down on the use of the expression “natural wine” in the sale and marketing of wine (image via Google Maps).

While most in the U.S. took the last week off from blogging (myself included), a small news story in Italy exploded into a major controversy.

On June 25, Marco Bolasco (editorial director for Slow Food publishing) posted the follow story on his personal blog:

    A few days ago I received this email from [Alessandro] Bulzoni, an important Roman wine shop on Viale Parioli.

    “I’m writing you to let you know about what happened to me last week: two agriculture ministry officials came [to my shop] to notify me that the sale of ‘Natural’ wines on my shelves was illegal. They wrote me up and they will be fining me. They might even charge me with a crime. The issue was advertising the sale of wines without certification.”

Above: The fact that authorities chose to penalize Enoteca Bulzoni — a Roman institution since 1929 — has led to speculation that officials wanted to make an “example” of a high-profile retailer (photo via the shop’s website).

In the days that followed, myriad posts appeared, including pieces by high-profile blogs Intravino, Millevigne, InternetGourmet, and Terra Uomo Cielo, a blog co-authored by Giovanni Arcari, who brought l’affaire Bulzoni to my attention.

“If advertising a wine as ‘natural’ is a crime, I want to be arrested, too,” wrote blogger Fabrizio Penna in a post on Enotime.

It’s not clear whether or not this episode will mark the beginning of a new crackdown by government officials or whether it will be a singular incident.

But as Maurizio Gily points out on his blog MilleVigne, the fact that the officials didn’t hesitate to fine Bulzoni appears to indicate that they will be taking an aggressive approach. A request to remove the sign and a warning would have been more in line with current attitudes and trends, noted Maurizio.

In his post, Maurizio also reminds us that the use of the word natural in the labeling and sale of wines is not permitted by Italian wine industry regulation. Technically, Bulzoni was in fact guilty of having committed “consumer fraud,” a crime that Italy’s agriculture ministry and inspectorate take very seriously (consumer fraud is what spawned the Brunello controversy of 2008).

The production, labeling, and marketing of wine are highly regulated in Italy and the wine industry lobby is one of the agricultural sector’s most powerful.

And as Natural wine continues to emerge as a commercially viable category (the fact that a retailer like Bulzoni was advertising “Natual” wines is indicative of this trend), there are many powers-that-be who would like to curb its application.

I can’t help but be reminded by another analogous instance in the history of Italian vinography: in the 1980s, when Sassicaia and Ornellaia (among others) were still being labeled and sold as vini da tavola because they were not “authorized” by Italian appellation regulations, the English-language media — deux ex machina — coined the phrase Super Tuscan.

The origins of the expression Natural wine are surely French but the term has been popularized (read vulgarized) by the American wine media. And many would point to the vibrant interest in Natural wines in the U.S. as one of the factors that has prompted Italian winemakers, marketers, and retailers to embrace the epithet.

But the thought of Italian officials entering a beloved shop and fining the owner for the use of the term natural evokes images from an era when fascist linguistic “purists” (as they called themselves) tried to ban foreign terms in commerce (the word tramezzino for sandwich is a famous historical example of this).

Above: Umberto D.

Italians don’t enjoy the same freedoms of speech that we do in the U.S. but this move by the Italian government seems excessive (and is being closely followed by industry observers).

At a time when the financial crisis has led to an overarching reset in the Italian wine industry and when small producers and retailers continue to struggle to stay afloat, is there really any harm in a little sign on Viale Parioli?

Evidently, in the eyes of the Italian agriculture ministry, there is…

Mario Batali’s joke on Bill Clinton (and great charcuterie in La Jolla @ArriciaMarket)

Yesterday, Bobby Pascucci (above) shared some of his excellent porchetta di testa (below) with me at his new Ariccia Italian Market in La Jolla.

His testa (pig’s head) brought to mind a salacious tale often retold in New York restaurant circles about President Clinton’s first visit to Babbo.

It’s a little too racy for Do Bianchi but my editors at the Houston Press didn’t bat an eye when I asked them if I could post it there.

Here’s the link (WARNING CONTAINS ADULT CONTENT).

Mysterious case of the yellowed corks (SOLVED)

From the department of “keeping the world safe for Italian wine”…

Yesterday, Fabien Jacob, a good friend and one of the top wine professionals in San Antonio, sent me the following message via the Facebook.

“I need your help,” he wrote. “Have you ever encounter corks that are glazed and turned yellow at the bottom of it? This is happening with a wine from Abruzzo, the wine itself is not bad or faulty but the cork is very fragile and became glazed and yellow. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you.”

Nonplussed by the mysterious case of the yellowed corks, I asked Fabien to send me a photo (click the image above to enlarge) and then reached out to Giovanni, who swiftly answered (and I have translated here):

    It’s a silicon film that is applied to the top of the closures in order to stop the wine from coming into direct contact with the cork. It helps to ensure that the wine isn’t affected by cork taint.

    It has been applied to both the top and the bottom of the cork. In this case, it has yellowed because the bottle contains [wine made from] Montepulciano [grapes] or similar, a grape variety that that has a strong tendency to tinge. The film has been applied to the top as well but it’s still transparent.

Tonight I’m giving a seminar on social media and wine for the San Diego association of women wine professionals. I can’t think of a better example of how social media makes the wine world a better place.

Grazie, Giovanni! Evviva il bromance!

98 & 03 B. Mascarello, 85 Tignanello, 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva @TonyVallone

Where do we go from here?

When my friend and client Tony Vallone opened last Thursday’s dinner (at Tony’s in Houston) with 1998 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, I wondered how the subsequent wines could possibly compete with such a stellar entry.

Tony paired this extraordinary bottle with a porcini mushroom risotto, made with Acquerello rice and prepared rigorously all’onda — an indisputably traditional and ideal match.

Even though the wine had begun to disassociate slightly (i.e., some light solids had begun to form in it), this bottling was the apotheosis of Barolo: earth, tar, and mushrooms on the nose, rich ripe red fruit in the mouth, all “supported” (as the Italians say) by Mascarello’s signature acidity. I was surprised by the solids in this wine (and will revisit the 98 in my cellar) but was nonetheless thoroughly impressed by the balance and nuance of this superb wine.

When I had breakfast with Angelo Gaja last month in New York, we talked about how the warm 2003 Langa vintage was such a great restaurant wine inasmuch as the wines are already showing very well (he declassified nearly 50 percent of his crop that year, he said, noting that it was an “honorable” but not “great” vintage). For producers with great growing sites (like Mascarello and Gaja, however divergent in style), it was still possible to deliver excellent wines from the early and very small harvest. Tony paired with halibut (yes, fish!) dressed with an Amatriciana sauce — a creative and decadent match that worked surprisingly and brilliantly well. I loved the way the richness and ripe fruit in this expression of B. Mascarello worked with the acidity and savory of the sauce and creamy flakiness of the fish. While I don’t think that the 03 will be a thirty-year wine, I was taken with how fresh it was and how nervy its acidity. How can you not love Bartolo Mascarello? Always a great.

The last time I tasted 85 Tignanello was in 2005 in New York. I was blown away by how different this wine was from the 1990 we tasted in 2009 at Alfonso’s. I might be wrong about this but I ascribe the difference in style to the change in winemaker that came about in that era: although the wine was conceived by Giacomo Tachis, who made its early vintages, Riccardo Cotarella took the reins at the winery in subsequent years and he nudged the wine toward a bolder and more American friendly expression.

The wood was perfectly integrated in this wine and it was vibrant and remarkably fresh. Not only was I impressed by its fitness, I also thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tony’s general manager Scott Sulma has every right to tease me about my across-the-board disdain for Super Tuscans, given my request for a second glass of this wine with my rack of lamb. A truly original wine — in its twilight but not in decline.

Quintarelli was at the peak of his genius in 1990 when he made this wine… an extraordinary vintage by one of the greatest winemakers of the twentieth century (he even made his rare white Bandito in 1990).

What an incredible bottle and what an unforgettable experience! The 14.3 alcohol in this wine was perfectly balanced by its acidity and freshness and its unlabored, subtle notes of ripe red and stone fruit were answered in counterpoint by a gentle hint of bitter almond. Absolutely brilliant, unique, and thrilling… One of the most memorable wines I’ve ever had the chance to taste…

And dulcis in fundo

For his birthday, Tony surprised cousin Marty with Baked Alaska. I love Tony’s playfulness and his love of baroque presentation, especially when it comes to nostalgic desserts like this one.

Cousin Joanne, Marty, and I were still talking about the dinner when we got back to their place in Houston. And we were STILL talking about it over breakfast the next morning.

Tony, thanks again for a night I’ll never forget.