Lunch at home with Maria Teresa Mascarello

italian gardiniera

One of the highlights of my November trip to Italy was a lunchtime visit Giovanni and I made to the home of Maria Teresa Mascarello in the village of Barolo.

That’s the gardiniera (above) her cousin made her. It was topped with hard-boiled egg wedges and crumbled olive oil-cured tuna. The combination of textures was wonderful, one of the best things I ate on this trip.

salame cacciatora

The butcher who makes this cacciatora is di sinistra, noted Maria Teresa, on the left side of the political aisle. And that was one of the reasons it was so tasty.

In the U.S., we rarely discuss the ideology of people whose food we eat. In many homes in Italy, such gastronomic scrutiny is de rigueur.

barolo vinegar mascarello

Of course, Bartolo Mascarello aged vinegar was offered to guests to dress their lettuces.

Conversation was dominated by the center-left primary elections (which would take place the following day). Maria Teresa was one of the polling organizers.

But it soon turned to the sticky subject of Natural wine.

Maria Teresa expressed her frustration with the Natural wine movement, noting that she doesn’t consider her wine a Natural wine by any means.

The obsession with “zero sulfur,” she lamented, was misguided.

luigi oddero

Maria Teresa’s partner David was geeked for us to taste a Barolo — the Luigi Oddero Rocche Rivera — that he’s keen on.

Traditional in style, this wine showed uncommon balance for a 2003. Its earth and tar prevailed over its fruit but its acidity delivered unexpected brilliance in the mouth. Gorgeous wine.

Conversation also touched upon the recent and ongoing Cannubi controversy.

Political discussion and cultural engagement at the dinner table are considered a responsibility in the homes of many Italians.

In the Mascarello home, of course, the di sinistra ideological legacy of Maria Teresa’s father Bartolo still resides warmly.

And in my experience, there is nothing that pairs better with great Nebbiolo…

1998 Bartolo Mascarello tasting notes (no cause for alarm)

When I tasted the 1998 Bartolo Mascarello last month in Houston, I was frankly disappointed by the amount of sediment in the wine, probably due to recent diassociation rather than issues at bottling. I’ve followed the wines for years now and have visited and tasted with Maria Teresa Mascarello on a number of occasions. These are wines conceived and produced for long-term aging and my suspicion is that the wine I had tasted in Texas had been damaged in some way (possibly heat exposure?).

When I went to California in August, I grabbed one of the few bottles of 1998 Bartolo Mascarello that I have in my cellar (I keep my wine locker in San Diego, where it’s less expensive to store wine and where I have access limited by distance, thus precluding and preempting impulsive visits!).

I’m happy to report that the wine (as can be seen in the photo above) showed beautiful and is still very young in its evolution. No issues with sediment whatsoever.

I snapped the above photo when I visited the winery a few years ago. In my view of the world, Bartolo Mascarello’s wines are a benchmark in Langa wines, where steadfastly traditional growing and winemaking practices align seamlessly with elegance and depth.

The 1998 is still very tannic in character but is already revealing some of its gorgeous fruit. I plan not to revisit my remaining (and sadly dwindling) allocation for at least another five year.

But no regrets here, coyote. Just keeping the world safe for Italian wine… thanks for reading…

Aldo Conterno, remembrances and my visit to Bussia

Above: One of Barolo’s most beloved winemakers and last defenders of its historic identity Aldo Conterno has died at 81 (photo via La Stampa).

Myriad English-language tributes to the great Barolista Aldo Conterno have appeared in the enoblogosphere between yesterday and today since news of his passing first broke: Walter Speller, Monica Larner, and — one of the most touching — by S. Irene Virbila.

Franco Ziliani reminds us (in Italian) that together with great winemakers like Giovanni Conterno (Aldo’s borther), Bartolo Mascarello, Teobaldo Cappellano, Beppe Rinaldi, and Mauro Mascarello, Aldo was a “steadfast defender in a battle for the respect of Barolo’s personality in the heady years when some were trying to make the wine become something different.”

And La Stampa wine writer Sergio Miravalle remembers fondly that “for decades, he signed some of the most stunning wines of Italy but his fame never distanced him from the concrete, simple way of life of farmers in Langa.”

I had the great fortune of meeting him once at his home and winery in the village of Bussia (in the township of Monforte d’Alba).

The year was 2000 and I had met his son Franco Conterno earlier in the year at the presentation of the A. Conterno 1996 crus in New York and Franco had invited me to visit their cellars in Langa.

The release of the 1996 vintage from Langa was a pivotal moment in the new wave of Nebbiolo mania in the U.S. Then rising wine star Joe Bastianich, owner and founder of the retail crew at Italian Wine Merchants, had decided to throw his weight behind the vintage and the producer and the hype that 1996 would be “the vintage of the century” was thick. (Of course, even though there’s no doubt in my mind that 96 was the superior vintage, it was eclipsed by the American wine media’s love affair with 1997.)

When I was received by Aldo, we spoke in Italian only because I was accompanied by an Italian friend of mine but he greeted me in perfect English (see S. Irene Virbila’s wonderful remembrance for Aldo’s years in California and his service in the U.S. military).

I was just starting my career as a wine writer then and our meeting had a profound effect on me. I realized, for the first time, that certain women and men — persons of truly great character — make wines that will outlive them. In other words, he grew, bottled, and raised a wine — in this case the epic 1996 vintage — whose ultimate expression would occur only after his passing. My personal realization was even more powerful given that so many winemakers in Langa at that time were trying to make wines more approachable in their youth.

I’ll never forget his gentle voice, nor will I forget the taste of bittersweet Barolo Chinato at the end of the flight.

Carissime Alde, sit tibi terra alba levis…

First kiss: Tracie P. First sip: Brovia 04 Barolo.

I dream of your first kiss… And then I feel upon my lips again…

The first kiss of 2011 tasted just as sweet as that very first kiss of 2008. A taste of honey, tasting much sweeter than wine…

Tracie P and I had wonderful New Year’s eve at Tony’s with cousins Joanne and Marty, Dana and Neil, Mary Kelly (Neil’s mother), and prof Jonathan, who took the photos above. Don’t I look like I just won the jackpot? ;-)

That first kiss was followed by a first sip of 2011: Brovia 2004 Barolo.

I have long been a fan of traditionalist Brovia and I finally got to taste at the winery in March 2010 when I was visiting Piedmont with a group of wine bloggers. That’s Brovia son-in-law Alex in front of the winery’s cement vats. (Check out Saignée’s excellent post on Brovia here.)

No pharmaceutical yeast here: Brovia’s wines always captivate with their balance of freshness, purity of fruit, and their power, and this wine drank surprisingly well as young as it was, with not overly generous fruit tempered by mushroom and earth. It was a fantastic way to start our 2011.

I posted some of the food shots from that night over at Tony’s blog, btw: Chef de Cuisine Grant’s risotto is always stellar IMHO, and his rich beef stock carnaroli topped with fried sweet breads were served perfectly al dente that night.

All in all it was an unforgettable night, our first New Year’s as a married couple and a celebration of all the wonderful things that happened for us in 2010. We have lots of adventures (and challenges) ahead of us in 2011 and we’re looking forward to our upcoming trip to Italy (more on that shortly).

But in the meantime, I’m gonna keep on dreaming about that first kiss, tasting much sweeter than wine… Happy new year, everyone!

06 Barolo Ravera by Cogno INSANE! (06: so far so good)

For our Christmas day meal in Orange, Texas (at sister and brother Misty and Ricky’s house), we opened this bottle of 2006 Barolo Ravera by Cogno (sent to us by winemaker Valter Fissore).

While I’ve tasted a lot of 2006 Barbaresco at this point, this was one of the first expressions of 06 Barolo that I got to spend some time with. The more and more 06 I taste, the more I’m convinced that this is going to be a fantastic vintage for Langa wines, despite the controversy stirred in 2008 when B. Giacosa decided not to bottle his 2006).

06 may not be as great as 01 and 04, but it’s an indisputably balanced, classic vintage, where people who make and made honest wine are going to be rewarded for their faith and integrity.

I was stunned by how good Valter’s 05 Ravera was: beautiful nose, bright acidity, and a great balance of earth and fruit. Chapeau bas, Valter!

The other star of the Christmas day meal was this 2004 Vinsanto by Boutari, also sent to me as a sample (for the Boutari Social Media Project, which continues in 2011). At a youthful 6 years out, this wine showed the depth and complexity that the appellation in known for, with a gorgeous balance of candied white stone fruit and saltiness. The Assyrtiko grape and its unique expressions, whether vinified as a dry or dried-grape wine, continue to fascinate me and the Boutari Vinsanto is one of my favorites (for the record, it’s actually a blend of Assyrtiko and Aidani, which imparts a wonderful aromatic character to this wine). Tracie P and I have been blown away by how well new oak and small cask aging works with Assyrtiko and in this case, the wood gives a nutty counterpart to the fruit and salt (the label reports that the wine was bottled in 2008, leading me to believe that it spent nearly 4 years in wood). I also love how this wine clocks in with a judicious 12% alcohol, remarkable for the dried-grape category but in line with overarching attitudes among Greek winemakers. Great stuff…

95 B. Mascarello and Alba truffles, a marriage made in heaven

Within the gentle heart Love shelters him,
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in Nature’s scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.

(the incipit of “The Gentle Heart,” by Guido Guinizelli, 1230-76)

You can keep your DRC, your Bond, your Pétrus… No, those wines are not good enough and do not deserve to touch the lips of the one I love. No, their aromas and flavors are not worthy of her noble nostrils and chaste tastebuds.

No, when I dine with my wife, my signora, my lady, my dame, my donna, my domina… such wines will not suffice.

When I share a special repast with Tracie P, bring me Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello.

Many great wines have been opened, tasted, and drunk in 2010, but perhaps none thrilled us more than the Bartolo Mascarello 1995 Barolo that we shared on Saturday night at Tony’s in Houston. Over these last two years (my first two in Texas), Tony has become a friend and now a client (I write his blog). Over the weekend, he generously treated Tracie P and me to dinner in celebration of our first year as a married couple.

Sometimes a wine is only as good as the person you share it with… Tracie P had never tasted Bartolo Mascarello and it was high time that this travesty in the annals of enological history was rectififed!

Bartolo Mascarello is one of the great icons of Nebbiolo, a steadfast defender of traditional winemaking, producer of one of the greatest wines in the world, and more recently, a founder and promoter of the “real wine” movement in Italy. Like many of the great houses of Langa, the Mascarello legacy began with a grape broker, Bartolo’s father Giulio, who intimately knew the best growing sites for Nebbiolo, as his granddaughter Maria Teresa explained to me the first time I tasted with her at the winery in 2008. Today, their Barolo is still made from grapes grown in four vineyards purchased by Giulio: Cannubi, San Lorenzo, Rué, and Rocche. Extended submerged cap maceration and large-cask aging are still employed at the winery today, a tradition that now spans three generations.

The pairing of great Nebbiolo and shaved Alba white truffles is no cheap date but it’s one of those gastronomic experiences that will literally change your life (and when done correctly, is worth every single penny).

Tony had captain Vinny shave us truffles over a perfectly cooked white risotto by chef de cuisine Grant.

95 was a classic although not great vintage for this wine and at 15 years out, it was drinking stupendously. Bartolo Mascarello has all the hallmarks of great Barolo: the savory tar and earth flavors. But to my palate, its sottobosco flavors, notes of woodsy underbrush, are its signature. Gorgeous acidity and IMHO perfectly evolved tannin for this vintage, although this wine could certainly age for another decade or more.

Regrettably, B. Mascarello is tough to find in this country and Tony is the only restaurateur I know in Texas who features the wines on his list (in a mini-vertical no less!). Thanks to my line of work, I’ve been fortunate to taste a lot of B. Mascarello and I was thrilled to share this bottle with the love of my life.

What else did we eat?

We were disappointed that we missed Tony’s bollito misto (with bollito cart!), but he had reserved a poached capon studded with black truffles just for us. Utterly delicious…

And a night like that just couldn’t end without chef Grant’s soufflé, expertly sliced and served by captain Vinny.

What a night!

Some guys have all the luck and Nebbiolo and truffles are some girls’s best friends. I am one lucky dude to be married to one such lady.

Thanks again, Tony! That was one of the most memorable meals of our life together! We had a blast…

97 G. Mascarello Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio and great food at Tasting Kitchen LA

The Schachter factor was in high gear on Tuesday night at The Tasting Kitchen in Los Angeles. Good friend David Schachter reached deep in his cellar for a bottle he knew would thrill me (as it would anyone who knows the great wines of the world): Giuseppe Mascarello 1997 Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio, Mauro Mascarello’s top bottling, from one of the great if somewhat maligned vintages of the twentieth century.

The 1997 harvest was and remains a classic example of semiotician Harold Bloom’s “misunderstanding,” what he would have called the anxiety of influence (@Comrade Howard, I know it’s a stretch but I think you would agree!). Similar to what happened for 2000, many American wine writers (and you all know whom I’m talking about) praised the warm 1997 vintage for the fruit-forward, hot (read highly alcoholic) wines it delivered. In the view of most Piedmont producers, 97 was a good vintage… not a great one. Wines from this harvest, in their view, were not “classic” expressions of their territorio. They were good and sometimes great but not worthy of the hype that they attained in their trans-Atlantic crossing.

Winemaker Mauro Mascarello’s bottling of his Ca’ d’ Morissio vineyard (above, visited by me and Tracie P and top Italian wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani in February 2010) was an exception to this paradigm: thanks to the unique microclimate of this deservedly famous growing site (owing to exposure and elevation), Mauro is able to obtain Barolo benchmarks even in hotter vintages. In fact, to my knowledge, he was the only Barolo producer in the five core townships to produce his flagship single-vineyard wine Ca’ d’ Morissio for the extremely hot 2003 vintage (that’s the Ca’ d’ Morissio, “Maurizio’s house,” at the top of the hill, btw).

Mauro Mascarello is a remarkable man, a 19th-century man, a man whose spiritual integrity and wholesome warmth are expressed in his warm, sturdy handshake and personal manner. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and taste with him three times now (each thanks to Mr. Ziliani) and I am always as impressed by the man himself as I am by the incredible wines he produces. Many Barolo insiders point to his winery as the most recently canonized member in the pantheon of the truly great producers in the appellation.

One of the hallmarks of traditional Barolo is large-cask aging: Tracie P snapped the above photo of me when we visited with Mr. Ziliani to show how large “large” is at Giuseppe Mascarello! Mauro’s father was in the lumber business and he built the cask in the photo as an experiment in dimension, said Mauro. (For a fantastic English-language profile of G. Mascarello, I highly recommend this excellent post by my blogging colleague Gregory dal Piaz who knows this winery and its wines perhaps better than anyone else in the U.S.)

I am very fortunate to have tasted a lot of fantastic wine this year (and many of the highlights have been in the last few weeks) but 97 G. Mascarello Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio? An astounding wine. Layers and layers of nuanced fruit and earth on the nose, with this fantastic black licorice, almost menthol note that is always a signature in wines from this vineyard. Rich tar and mushroom in the mouth, with harmonious red berry and red stone fruit. But it was the acidity, tongue-splitting acidity, as Tracie P would have said — even in the warm 1997 vintage! — that took this wine over the top. In Italian wine parlance, you often say that the acidity is a “backbone” that “supports” the flavors of the wine: this wine was the embodiment of this notion.

O, and the food at the Tasting Kitchen (yesterday named 4th best new restaurant in the U.S. by Alan Richman in GQ)?

Buckwheat bigoli with lamb and anchovy ragù was my favorite.

I also loved Chef Casey Lane’s unabashed use of heat in dishes like this tagliolini with baby squid (the fact that my WordPress spellcheck knows tagliolini is remarkable, no?). We spoke to Casey before our meal: he is a super cool, mellow guy (unusual for chefs of his caliber) and he’s from Texas! Awesome dude…

Housemade chorizo and roast pork loin were FANTASTIC with the Ca’ d’ Morissio.

Thanks again, David! And congrats, Casey! An amazing meal and an UNFORGETTABLE wine…

Bartolo Mascarello 2008 Langhe Nebiolo [sic]

Talk about mimetic desire! You can imagine my envy when I read Mr. Franco Ziliani’s post this morning on tasting the 2008 Langhe Nebiolo [sic] by Maria Teresa Mascarello of the Bartolo Mascarello winery in Barolo.

For those of you who don’t read Italian, I’ve translated Mr. Ziliani’s tasting notes at VinoWire (here).

Maria Teresa made only 2,000 bottles of this reclassified Barolo (for a vintage, 2008, not ideal in Piedmont because of excessive rainfall).

Man, I hope someone will save a bottle to open with me!

In the meantime, read about it here…

Drinking well with Peter Wasserman in Austin, thank you very much

Above: What a treat to get to taste with Peter Wasserman (center) yesterday! He led a superb tasting at Jeff Courington’s Vino Vino (that’s Jeff, right). And we were joined by our friend Julio Hernández (left), who made a name for himself in the wine world as Emeril’s wine director and now distributes fine wine here in Texas.

In case you were concerned that there weren’t any good wine for Tracie P and me to drink in Austin, Texas, I just thought I’d share yesterday’s flight.

Before heading to dinner in the home of friends, we got to taste some fantastic French wines with Peter Wasserman, who was in town to “work the market” as they say in wine parlance. I’d never met Peter in person and what a delightful, charming, and engaging fellow he is! There were some impressive wines in his flight (including the 2007 Domaine Mugnier Nuits–Saint-Georges 1er Cru Clos de La Maréchale).

But the wine that blew me away was this 2007 Aligoté by Lafarge. Some late ripening and large, old cask aging give this wine a richness and gorgeous unctuous character I’d never experienced in Aligoté. Stunning wine (not cheap, unfortunately).

Regretfully, I had to leave Peter’s excellent tasting, as Tracie P and I had a long-standing invitation to dine in the home of our new friends Sonia and Steven (check out Sonia’s very exciting new gallery in Austin).

Steven hadn’t revealed what he was making for dinner and surprised us with one of my FAVORITE things in the world to eat…

Lasagne verdi, the way they make them in Emilia. Steven is a fascinating dude (from a Taiwanese-Veneto family) who’s lived in NYC and Italy, a top wine collector, and an AMAZING cook (I like his taste in music, too, with the playlist ranging from virtuoso country guitar to Nino Rota).

We paired with the Rivetto 2004 Barolo (Serralunga d’Alba) Riserva which had been sent to me by my friend Enrico Rivetto (Enrico is perhaps the most prolific Italian winemaker blogger I know).

The Barolo showed nicely (great acidity from this very classic vintage in Langa) but Steven also opened a 2004 Domane de Montille Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Le Cailleret because Tracie P was in the mood for some white and he just happened to have some in the fridge.

So, in case you were concerned that Tracie P and I weren’t eating and drinking well in Austin, you can sleep soundly tonight…

Thanks for reading! Buon weekend ya’ll!

Barolo, I’m still in love with you on this harvest moon

The world is such a grand, beautiful place, isn’t it? But it’s a small world after all…

Yesterday, trading emails about this and that, my friend Giuseppe Vaira of G.D. Vajra in Barolo sent me and McDuff this amazing photo of sunrise in Barolo (click image for full effect).

“Moon Nebbia Dawn on Bricco delle Viole. View of the western slope. October 5, 2010, 6:35 a.m., two days to the new moon.”

Barolo, I’m still in love with you… On this harvest moon…

Come a little bit closer
Hear what I have to say
Just like children sleepin’
We could dream this night away.

But there’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancin’ in the light
We know where the music’s playin’
Let’s go out and feel the night.

Because I’m still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I’m still in love with you
On this harvest moon.

When we were strangers
I watched you from afar
When we were lovers
I loved you with all my heart.

But now it’s gettin’ late
And the moon is climbin’ high
I want to celebrate
See it shinin’ in your eye.

—”Harvest Moon,” Neil Young

Did I mention that Giuseppe’s Dolcetto d’Alba is mama Judy’s favorite wine?