Celebrates its 239th birthday today, November 10, 2011
The Spanish take their wine aging very seriously–they are truly concerned with not releasing a wine “before its time.” So much so that they’ve written it into their wine laws:
A Spanish quality wine labeled Crianza (red wine) must be aged a minimum of 2 years, with at least six months in barrel (barrica de vino). In Navarra, Rioja, and Ribera Del Duero, the minimum time in barrel is a year. White wines must be a year old, with at least six months in barrel.
Reserva wines (red) must be aged at least three years, with one year in barrel. Whites must be two years old, with at least six months in barrel.
Gran Reserva wines (red) must be aged at least five years, with 18 months in barrel. In Navarra, Rioja, and Ribera Del Duero, the minimum barrel time is two years. White wines must be four years old, with at least six months in barrel.
Spain, by the way, has more land under vines than any other country on earth.
South Africa is one of those wine regions that a lot of people have heard about, but few people–too few, anyway—have taken the time to discover and explore its wines. I’m a little bit in that category; I’ve tasted some of its stuff from time to time, particularly Chenin Blanc, which they sometimes call “Steen” locally, and of course Pinotage, a cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir that was literally invented in South Africa in 1925. But I’ve never really spent much time thinking about South Africa except at an occasional tasting. And for a lot of people, SA is really just off their wine map, and that’s unfortunate.
Wine has been produced in South Africa probably since the mid-1600s, when vine cuttings from Europe were brought to the cape. But grape growing and wine production unfortunately didn’t follow a path of steady growth and improvement. Over the next three centuries, both good and bad wine was made, but South Africa really never became a major player on the world wine stage. In the early 1900s, a cartel called the KWV was formed and gained considerable power, with quotas on grape production and controls on prices. In the end, this really didn’t do the SA wine business much good and led to the production of a lot of, well, crappy wine. However, about 18 years ago the power of KWV was essentially stripped away, and the industry has really begun to flourish.
Today South African producers are starting to open up space on American shelves, and its winemakers and marketers are showing up here to showcase their products. South Africa, if I’m not mistaken, is the 8th largest wine producer in the world in fact. The country as a whole is making great strides—the really miserable, gamey offerings of Pinotage have tapered off to a trickle, and some great sparkling wines are coming out, as are possibly the best Chenin Blancs from anywhere. There are also some excellent Chardonnays, Rieslings and even Bordeaux blends being produced, some with the help of so-called “flying winemakers” from France.
I was able to enjoy some of these wines a few weeks ago with two producers from Stellenbosch Vineyards, from of course the Stellenbosch region, about 30 miles northeast of Cape Town. Here, in the “Bordeaux of South Africa,” the current winemakers trace their lineage back to 1690, including the land making up the Welmoed (courage) farm, named to commemorate Jacobus van der Heyden, its first owner, who stood up to the corruption of the Dutch governor of the day. Our New York hosts were Eduan Steynberg, one of the Stellenbosch Vineyards’ owners and its managing director, and Johann Diedericks, whose job it is to sell to American consumers. Although they were on a whirlwind tour, they both were clearly enjoying their time in New York.
Over the course of the evening at Manhattan’s Vareli restaurant, we tasted several wines:
- Four Secrets Sparkling Shiraz: a light, crisp, only slightly sweet sparkling wine. I’ve tasted a bunch of these from Australia, and this is decidedly different, and mostly better.
- Stellenbosch Vineyards Heyden’s White: Very crisp, the Sauvignon dominates, but the Viognier adds body and floral aromas.
- Welmoed Chenin Blanc: This is a tremendous, just outstanding Chenin Blanc and one of the best <$10 white wines I’ve tasted in a very long time.
- Stellenbosch Vineyards Bushvine Pinotage: Here they got past the smoky, too-earthy and way-too-gamey Pinotage wines I’ve tasted far too often from South Africa. Clean, integrated and well balanced.
- Stellenbosch Vineyards Heyden’s Red: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Solid blackfruit, moderate but integrated tannin and a nice long finish.
- Stellenbosch Credo Shiraz: A little deceiving. Much of this is Shiraz (Syrah), but there’s a good proportion (∼30%) of Merlot in here and the rest Viognier, yes, a white grape, that adds floral aromas. Powerful and balanced but not over the top.
When you think of Italian wine—and I’m just guessing here—you probably think of reds. Dr. Hannibal Lecter aside, Chianti is the wine everyone knows best, made from Sangiovese grapes grown in Tuscany, and it’s a truly great food wine. Amarone, one of my favorites, is lush and powerful, with a hint of sweetness, made from partially-dried Corvina grapes, and works best with rich food. And Barolo and Barbaresco wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape, are among the greatest red wines of Europe. And of course there are the Super-Tuscans, fairly expensive wines often (but not always) made from a base of Sangiovese, and then “suped-up” with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. The most famous of these, Sassicaia, actually has no Sangiovese at all, and can retail for $200 a bottle.
If you think of any white wine from Italy, it’s likely to be Pinot Grigio. PG used to be and probably still is the most popular imported wine in the United States, and what my friend Tina Caputo of Vineyard and Winery Management magazine calls “accessible.” Well, she’s right. But much of it isn’t terribly good, with little aroma, body or flavor. Now, there are Italian whites of note—Prosecco, of course; Gavi, from the Cortese grape; Lugana, made from Trebbiano; and of course Soave, made mainly from Garganega. And then there’s always Chardonnay. I guess everywhere, there’s Chardonnay. But I don’t know that I can name a truly standout Italian white; I mean something I crave, or crow about.
That’s why I was really looking forward to tasting some Italian white wine that just might be memorable, and also a wine with which I wasn’t so familiar.
So I was excited as I walked into Bettony restaurant on West 57th in Manhattan and bounded down the steps to the private dining room, set up more elegantly than for just about any other tasting I’ve ever attended. I was the first guest there, but before my friend Jane could introduce me to our winemaker host, Andrea Felluga, she had to tear him away from several magnums of Terre Alte, which he was opening and tasting in advance of our arrival. Over the next couple hours Andrea treated us to a “vertical” tasting of these interesting and unique whites, in this case eight vintages ranging from 1997 to 2012. Literally, “high land”, Terre Alte is a blend of Friulano, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon Blanc wines, from grapes grown in Friuli in far northeastern Italy.
The winery was founded by Andrea’s father Livio Felluga, whose name is on the label, and he bottled a first vintage in 1956. But these were single-grape varietal wines; Terre Alte wasn’t born until until 1981, and that was only after a long struggle by Andrea’s Brother Maurizio, finally persuading his father that a blended wine was the key to the future.
This break with tradition was significant, because while the Friulian winery was relatively new, the family’s history in the business spans five generations, and began in the Istrian peninsula, in what became Yugoslavia, and is today shared by Italy (a tiny slice), Slovenia and Croatia. In the 1930s, Livio, having made only two vintages, headed off to WWII, and when he returned home, the family had lost all its vineyards in Yugoslavia. They ended up working the slopes of Friuli, where Livio, Mario Schiopetto and a few other pioneers had set about creating a Friulian “archetype” white wine. By the 1960s they were producing pure, light, aromatic wines from gently-pressed grapes fermented in antiseptically-clean and refrigerated tanks.
The base of Terre Alte is Friulano, but for decades, maybe centuries, it’s been known here as Tocai. Some wine scholars say it’s related to Furmint, which is the grape used to make the rich Hungarian dessert wine Tokaji, and to avoid the confusion (though you’d never confuse the dry, crisp Terre Alte with the cloyingly sweet Tokaji) the locals all refer to the grape as Friulano now. There are more stories about a more modern version of Friulano related to another grape, but I won’t bore you.
Anyway, the tasting. We began with the 2012, which as Andrea admitted, is “hardly wine” at this very early stage. I agreed. And enough said. The others, though, were truly interesting, and some were outstanding. All of these wines generally have many of the characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc—nicely refreshing—but are certainly more complex, with varying amounts of fruit, and they all age nicely.
Terre Alte 2011: Nice for such a young wine. Dominant citrus, well balanced, a very slight cinnamon aroma; medium to long finish.
Terre Alte 2009: Soft, round, and rich, with a hint of vanilla and a short finish. Not my favorite.
Terre Alte 2008: Perfectly balanced, with a touch of ginger, and a long finish. Outstanding. Best of the lot!
Terre Alte 2006: Fresh and fruity (thanks, Denny’s) which is unusual for these wines. Just a hint of sweetness. Very nice.
Terre Alte 2001: Strong mineral character, briskly acidic, with a medium to long finish. Nice.
Terre Alte 1998: Well balanced, crisp, really smacks of the Sauvignon Blanc; strangely doesn’t show its age!
Terre Alte 1997: Does show its age; softer, lacks the acid it needs for balance.
Looking forward to lunch with Andrea Felluga of Friuli’s (Italy) Livio Felluga wines, on Wednesday, at Manhattan’s Betony Restaurant. Meeting winemakers is always great fun. As is lunch in New York during working hours!
The world of Italian wine might be more complex and mystifying to most Americans than any other wine region, including France or Spain. Yet it’s only been the last 25 years or so that Italian wines have really taken off here, due in large part to a couple things—one, a revolution of a sorts in modern winemaking, and two, the introduction of the so-called “super-Tuscans”, wine based on the Sangiovese (Chianti) grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot added for structure and body. That actually points out one of the things that’s typically been a stereotype but true about Italian wines; they’ve always been known for their finesse, moderation and balance, true food wines, rather than blockbusters. And of course, that makes a lot of sense, given the Italian penchant for fine food. And at least during my visits to Italy, I couldn’t get and haven’t had a bad meal, although I did have some less than stellar wine.
But there’s some great wine coming from Italy now, and there always has been. A few years ago I was privileged to work with Marilyn Krieger at Winebow, and taste many of Leonardo Locasio’s many fine import selections. But just last week, I had the pleasure of actually sitting down with a scion of one of Italy’s great winemaking families, for a lunch and vertical tasting of wines from the Capezzana estate of the Conte (Count) Contini Bonacossi Family, in Tuscany, perhaps Italy’s greatest wine region.
Our hostess, Beatrice Contini Bonacossi, is one of four siblings (of a total of seven) who are directly involved in the winery, and its global brand ambassador. As she buzzed around the modern yet elegant Soho apartment she’s renting as her NY headquarters, chatting with the dozen or so of us that she’d invited over, I cornered her for a few moments and learned that she fell into this line of work really by accident, selling high-end German cookware while a student in London. Her brother Vittorio figured out that her skills in sales and customer relations would be transferable to the wine business…and so it has!
The Capezzano Estate is huge by any standard, with a total of about 1650 acres, with 200 under grapevine, 140 in olives, and the rest farmland and private property. The place is about 12 miles west of Florence in the Apennine Mountains, but at only about 600 foot elevation, daytime temps are high and nights are cool. The grapes ripen early here.
The specific wine region here, Carmignano DOCG, is Tuscany’s smallest wine appellation but it has an important history and influence. Long before the Super-Tuscans were adding Bordeaux grapes to their wines, the story is that the Medici family (yes, that one) was adding Cabernet Sauvignon to its Sangiovese-based wines 450 years ago. The winery’s offerings include DOC, DOCG and IGT wines, and to refresh your memory:
DOC: Demoninazione di Origine Controllata or Demonination of Controlled Origin. Reserved for Italy’s best wines, and created in ’63. Also says how wines in this category have to be made.
DOCG: Demoninazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita or Demonination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin. Reserved for Italy’s most prestigious wines, a level above DOC. DOCG was created in ’63 with DOC, which just leaves off the “G.” There are 31 DOCG zones.
IGT: Indicazione Geographica Tipica or Typical Geographic Indication. Middle ground between table wine and DOC/DOCG (classified) wines.
Villa de Capezzana Riserva DOC 1968: 65% Sangiovese, 10% Cab, 15% Canaiolo, and 10% other regional grapes. Hints of cinnamon, very little tannin, still nicely balanced and has maintained its acid.
Villa de Capezzana Riserva DOC 1977: 65% Sangiovese, 10% Cab, 15% Canaiolo, and 10% other regional grapes. Mint, violets, very light bodied, but holding up well.
Villa de Capezzana Riserva DOCG 1988: 70% Sangiovese, 15% Cab, 10% Canaiolo, and 5% other regional grapes. This was the first DOCG vintage. Moderate tannin but has lost some fruit, mint and leather, actually tasted older than the ’77.
Villa de Capezzana Riserva DOCG 1998: 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cab. First vintage fermented in a type of vessel called a tonneaux. Nice balance, medium-long finish. Overall a very nice wine.
Villa de Capezzana DOCG 2008: 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cab. Lots of fruit, lots of tannin. Fun wine to drink.
Trefiano DOCG 2007: 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cab, 10% Canaiolo. Easy drinking, yes. Complex, no.
Ghiaie della Furba IGT 2007: 80% Sangiovese, 30% Merlot, 10% Syrah. Wow. This wine punches you in the mouth with flavor and acid, spice and a long finish.
Other Capezzana Wines:
Sessante IGT 2007: 100% Merlot. Wonderful wine. Great balance, nice blackfruit, great long finish.
Vin Santo DOC 2006: 90% Trebbiano and 10% San Colombano. Wonderful, nutty sweet dessert wine. I’d drunk Trebbiano as a dry white table win but I’d never heard of San Colombano before. Bet you never have either.
But maybe one last bottle of Rose will go down nicely, sitting on the deck after a football game this weekend. Just got a bottle of Banfi’s Centine (Chen-teen-eh) Rose 2012 and snapped open the (yes) screwcap last night.
This pale salmon-colored wine delivers strawberry and melon flavors, a nice balance and a long finish, and I don’t really find that real hint of sweetness that others do, which suits me just fine. Maybe there’s a skosh. A great fall wine with appetizers and wings before the game, too.
I built this website to help you de-mystify the world of wine, so that you can try new stuff at your local retailer, or order confidently in a restaurant. And this little article should also give you some gumption when you attend your first, or 20th, wine tasting.
So – you’re invited to a formal wine tasting…and you want to go. After all, it’s for a worthy charity that you know, and they’ve got some wonderful cult California reds and brilliant French white Burgundies. Yum. So you register, and pay your $75, and you show up with anticipation. You’re new to the world of wine, and the only “tastings” you’ve ever attended are at a friend’s house. And we all know that those were really more like wine “drinkings,” also known as “parties.”
So when you stand outside and gaze into the tasting room, you feel overwhelmed as you watch the light reflect off hundreds of freshly washed glasses, while the assembled guests preen and prance around like masters of the universe. This is supposed to be fun, right? But all you see is very serious-looking people having what look like very serious conversations with well-dressed men and women standing behind tables, carefully pouring a small sample into each glass. The guests hold their glasses up to the light very deliberately, and then swirl them with great ostentation before sticking their noses in so deeply that you think they’ll break – the glasses, their noses, or both. You hear one say something about the “mid-palate” and another remark that “too much time in 100% French is obvious.” Some guests even have those little shiny “tastevins” around their neck, while the prettiest woman in the room is spitting into a ceramic bucket from three feet away with the accuracy of a Marine sniper.
Aside from all these affectations of wine tasting, you think to yourself “I’m not really experienced or very good at this…and what if one of the wine suppliers asks me to describe their product wine in ‘wine terms’ – I will literally shrink to the floor!” You assume that the palates of these critics – and their tastes in wine in general – are so much more “refined” than yours, that you’re simply out of place here.
Well, don’t, and, you’re not.
Why do I say that? Because in 2001, a professor at the University of Bordeaux conducted two wine tasting experiments that show just how much even so-called experts are influenced by pre-conceived perceptions. In the first of his two scams, Professor Frederick Brochet invited a bunch of self-anointed wine gurus to describe the flavors and aromas of both red and white wines he poured. One of these high priests praised the red for its “jamminess,” while another talked of its “crushed red fruit.” None of the almost 60 experienced tasters figured out that the red was really a white wine, tinted darkly with food coloring! The second test with a different group was even sneakier, in which ordinary and inexpensive red table wine was placed in a pricey Grand Cru-labeled bottle, and also in its original labeled bottle.
In other words, a single wine was passed off as itself - and as a different, far superior wine. Yet three-quarters of the experts there judged the “grand cru” as “complex, balanced and rounded,” while the vin de table (ordinary wine) in their view was “weak, light, flat and faulty”.
But they were the same wine!
My points here are simple: