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:
France, and specifically Bourgogne, what we in the great USA call Burgundy, is where the world’s best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are grown. And I say “grown” because Burgundy is all about the vineyard rather than the chateau or winery.
Not to say that there aren’t some excellent Pinots and Chardonnays from other places – old world and new, oaked and unoaked, cool climate and hot climate, austere and crisp. Of course, there are also sweet, caramel-y, and in my view pretty much undrinkable wines from those places, too. Think Yellowtail, or, actually, don’t.
I’ve tasted Pinots from New Zealand and Oregon that rival the best from Burgundy, and recently I had a Chardonnay from Italy that I might have sworn was a Premier Cru from France. But for a whole bunch of reasons, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay just seem to grow better in Burgundy than just about anywhere else on earth. Incidentally, several other grapes are at home in Burgundy including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Aligote—a totally under-appreciated white grape that has some similarities to Chardonnay—and last but not least, Gamay, the great grape of Beaujolais.
Now you could spend a lifetime learning about all the vineyards in Burgundy. You could memorize all 33 Grands Crus and win a wine-trivia contest, and you could read the 821 pages of Clive Coates’s The Wines of Burgundy and learn far more than you wanted to know about this almost perfect wine-growing place. I’m about a third of the way through it and frankly it’s more like a career than a book. But maybe you just want to know a little bit.
A Reign of Terroir
What you might find more interesting if you care about any of this, beyond just how good these wines taste, is the idea of terroir. This is the somewhat mystical concept which holds that the wine is a result of the soil, subsoil, temperature, rainfall, elevation, drainage, sun exposure and hours of sunlight, density and orientation of the vines, wind, cover crop, and a bunch of other things related to the vineyard, far more than anything the winemaker does. Nowhere in the wine world more than Burgundy is the idea of terroir held so absolutely, regardless of whether any of it can be proved. And I don’t think it can. Yet many people believe absolutely in the idea.
A Brief History of Burgundy
For hundreds of years leading up to the French Revolution, the great vineyards of Burgundy were owned by the nobility and the Catholic Church, who leased them out through a chain of proprietors down to the tenant farmer who actually maintained the land and the vines, and grew the grapes. While the nobility is long gone and the Church has invested in other things, this fragmented owner/operator system still exists.
The first Burgundy chateau we know of was built by monks from Citeau in the year 1115. And as far back as 1395, a focus on quality was formally established through an ordinance published by Duc Philip “the Bold.” Twenty years later, King Charles VI set the original boundaries of the Burgundy wine-producing area.
In 1720, the merchant company Champy was founded…and is still in business today. And as the French Revolution came 60 years later, vineyards owned and operated by the Catholic church were confiscated and auctioned off, setting the stage for today’s Burgundy where even tiny vineyards often have multiple owners. In 1861, Beaune’s Agricultural Committee issued the first classification of Burgundy wines of the Côte d’Or.
In 1875, the nasty little louse Phylloxera began destroying the vines in Burgundy, and in return, huge vineyard areas were eventually torn out and replanted. On the eve of WWII, Morey-Saint-Denis became the first Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) in Bourgogne; on the eve of D-Day, the “Premier Cru” category was created in the region. In 1975, Burgundy’s version of Champagne called “Cremant de Bourgone” was granted AOC status, and just five years ago, Bourgogne Tonnerre became the region’s 100th appellation.
Understanding the Classifications
Burgundy is composed of five distinct regions, from north to south: Chablis, Cote d’Or (Cote de Beaune in the north and Cotes de Nuits in the south), Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais. The Cote d’Or alone has 28 different wine-producing villages called communes, with a total of 20,000 acres or 8100 hectares of vineyards. The entire region has about 72,000 acres of vineyards, and produces about 200 million bottles of wine a year.
The classifications in Burgundy do have a certain logic to them, but they’re still a pain in the ass, and they’re far different from the Bordeaux ones. The important thing here is the vineyard and village where the grapes are grown, rather than the Chateau (winery) as in Bordeaux.
The top classification is Grand Cru— there are 33 Grand Cru Appellations representing about only 1.5% of the wines produced here —and they’re named by the single vineyard alone. If you’ve spent some time in the Burgundy section of a wine store, some of these names might ring a bell: Bâtard-Montrachet, Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Échezeaux, Montrachet, Musigny, Richebourg, and Romanée-Conti. Each Grand Cru wine really is its own Appellation.
The second tier is ironically named Premier Cru or “first growth”, sometimes abbreviated 1er Cru. These also represent great terroir and about 10% of Burgundy’s production. In an interesting twist, a few 1er Cru wines will actually take grapes from more that one named vineyard, and then they’ll keep the Premier Cru designation but name the wine for the village only. But they’ll always say “Appellation Premier Cru Controlee.”
Tier 3 are true Village wines, about 37% of all Burgundies, and the grapes for these wines are sourced from vineyards within a single village or commune…and that’s what they’ll say, the village name; for example, “Appellation Nuits-St. George Controlee.” The thing here is that the vineyards themselves have to be classified at the village level or better.
Bringing up the rear, but by no means bottom-feeders, are wines from the 23 Regional AOCs, making up about 52% of all Burgundies. Make no mistake, the wines from regional appellations can be superb and command pretty big prices. These will be labeled by the broad region alone, such as Appellation Bourgogne Controllee, or by a smaller sub-region such as Cote de Beaune. Regional wines can also have the name of the grape on the label, and this is the only level in Burgundy where this is permitted.
The Wines: Chardonnay
Chardonnay is far too often grown in hot-climate areas all over the world, allowed to overripen, and then turned into high-alcohol, over-oaked, sweet caramel bombs. I know that some people like these, including a lot of Americans, so who am I to say they shouldn’t drink them…just because I won’t?
But since we’re on the subject of White Burgundies, I want to mention that while there are a lot of lousy ones from here, there are also the world’s best, with names on the bottles that you’ve probably heard of such as Chassagne, Meursault and Puligny. The finest are rich without being sweet, with enough oak to balance their acidity and bring out the honey, nutty, vanillin and toasty flavors that make this wine, well, the best white wine on earth.
As an aside I want to give a shout-out to Chablis, and no I don’t mean the crappy, sweet and watery California jug wine I drank in college, made from French Colombard grapes. Although it’s considered the northernmost part of the Burgundy region, Chablis is actually about 70 miles northwest of the top end of the Cote d’Or. Its chalky soil (similar to the soil of Champagne), relatively cool climate, and restrained style of winemaking produces wines that are often described as austere or flinty. What they are for sure is about the purest “expression” of Chardonnay.
The Wines: Pinot Noir
The merits of Burgundian Pinot Noirs are probably discussed and debated among wine lovers more than any other grape, wine or wine region. People that love them don’t think anything else comes close, and they’ll give you the reasons: they’re elegant, perfumed, silky, subtle, nuanced, and glorious! Notoriously thin-skinned, Pinots are lighter in color and lower in perceptible tannin than almost any other red wines, and deliver up a lush bouquet of summer fruit: to me, red cherries, strawberries and raspberries. As they age they gain spiciness and complexity that they clearly lack in youth, and contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom Red Burgundies can age for a very long time, at least those from good terroirs in the best vintages.
At a lunch last week hosted by Cooking by the Book , I was reminded why I like Chilean wine so much. Or at least I was reminded that I like Chilean wine so much. And I was also reminded that wine and food “matching” (as wine writer Randy Caparoso likes to say instead of “pairing”) really can make a fun meal even more fun, interesting and delicious with just a little thought and effort.
Our host at at “Cooking’s” loft space in Lower Manhattan was Ruth Van Waerebeek, born in the medieval city of Ghent and originally known for her cookbook “Everybody Eats Well in Belgium.” Maybe, but Ruth has made her reputation with wine people in another place, 73oo miles to the southwest, in Chile where she’s the consulting chef and culinary advisor to the Concha y Toro wine group, the largest producer in the country. (I wrote about Concha here.) Ruth also runs a “Gastronomical Hotel,” Mapuyampay, a couple hours south of Santiago, where you can stay, take some cooking lessons, drink some wine, and generally just indulge yourself. I’m thinking about it.
Here’s the lineup of the food courses, and wine matchings from Concha y Toro:
The “Reception” wine was Casillero del Diablo Coastal White Blend 2011, 65% Chardonnay and the rest Moscato. This was actually my favorite wine of the day—a refreshing, easy drinking wine with a flavor of white melon, peaches, and honey and a slight hint of sweetness.
The first course was Cucumber rolls with Salmon Ceviche. It was served with Gran Reserva Serie Riberas, (Riverbank Series) Sauvignon Blanc 2012, a classic SB with that green pepper aroma, initial rush of bracing acidity and grapefruit flavor. The Ceviche was delicious, and wine was a nice complement, especially because it wasn’t overpowering as I find some from the South Pacific can be. Don’t get me wrong, those wines can be very refreshing and they have their place, but they’re very tough on food.
The third course was Parmesan Cheese Budini with litchis and a small herb salad. Frankly, before it was served I had no idea what a budini is, a very thick pudding, made with a starch. The accompanying wine was Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay, a remarkably good wine that resembled a white Burgundy I had recently, and now can’t remember which. A great value at $23.
Course four was a Gorgonzola, walnut and pear tart, very flaky and rich. It was served with an equally rich Casillero del Diablo Reserva Privada 2009, a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon wtih about 15% Syrah. The Syrah really adds fruit and aroma to this very well-balanced and full-bodied wine. It’s only about $15 retail. Get some.
The final course was grilled lamb brochettes with merquen adobo and Chilean-style mint salsa served on a bed of quinoa. Once again I had to look something(s) up—merquen—which is seasoning of ground smoked chilies with salt, ground coriander and cumin, and quinoa, a seed native to Chile that resembles a whole grain and is boiled and served like rice. The lamb was served with Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. I much preferred the other red to this one, which was a well-made, balanced Cab with no distinguishing characteristics.
All in all, a pretty outstanding match of wine and food, and a trip to Chile in downtown New York City.
Most Champagnes are made from among just three grapes-Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Some are made from just one of each. (There may be Champagnes made from just Pinot Meunier but I don’t know of any; many Champagnes are a mixture of juice from two or three.)
However, it’s a little-known fact that there are actually 7 grapes permitted in Champagne: the three above, as well as Pinot Gris (sometimes called Fromenteau), Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, and Arbane. And there are a few-very few-Champagne makers who actually do use these grapes, but their bottles are mostly sold on the French domestic market as far as I can tell.
Blanc de Blancs is white Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay. Blancs de Noirs is white Champagne made from Pinot Noir or rarely Pinot Meunier grapes, or often both. There’s little or no color from those red grapes, though, because the juice is gently pressed and then fermented with no skin contact. Sometimes you’ll see a slight hint of gray or pink in these wines.
You’ve probably never heard these words, unless, perhaps, you live in New York’s Hudson River Valley and you get out a bit. And if you want to expand your tastes and wine experience a bit, here’s a primer to get you started.
Seyval Blanc is a French-American hybrid that’s a little reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, and can produce outstanding, crisp dry white wines as well as slightly sweet ones. When mixed with Chardonnay, as they do very well at Baldwin Vineyards with their Mist de Greco, or Clinton Vineyards where they do a 100% Seyval, it’s a nice change from the whites you probably drink frequently.
Baco Noir is another hybrid, this time a red, that produces a foxy, smoky varietal a bit like Charbono, another grape you may not know. Benmarl in upstate NY makes a great Baco as does Canada’s Henry of Pelham Family Estate, shown here.
Norton, which was introduced to the US in the 1830s by one Dr. Daniel N. Norton of Richmond, Virginia, is sometimes called “America’s True Grape.” They make very nice wine from Norton in New York, Virginia (Chrysalis Vineyards), Illinois, and especially in Missouri where it’s the popular state grape. Bet you didn’t even know that Missouri had a state grape! Try the Stone Hill Winery for this one, too.
And I’ll throw in a couple from across the pond, too.
Savagnin is a European white grape that can make an aromatic, sherry-like wine and is widely grown in the Jura region and often bottled as Vin Jaune or “yellow wine.” The nutty taste is unmistakable and makes a great aperitif before dinner in place of cocktails. Look for the place name of Arbois where it’s sometimes mixed with Chardonnay and gets a little closer to table wine.
Picpoul Blanc (Picpoul de Pinet) is a white grape and one of the few grown in France whose wine is named for itself rather than the place where it’s grown. Its name means “lip stinger” and it really is, with crisp citrus and floral flavors that go great with seafood.
So – expand your horizons and try some of these. Happy 2013!