Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ornellaia: A Quick Look At The Recent Vintages

Ornellaia (the wine) doesn't require much of an introduction: It's the flagship wine of the Ornellaia estate Ludovico Antinori founded in Bolgheri when his cousin Mario Incisa Della Rocchetta's Sassicaia started attracting international attention. Unlike Mario, who concentrated exclusively on the Cabernets in creating Sassicaia, Ludovico worked up a blend, using primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, to which he added Merlot and Cabernet Franc; the current proportions are 65-15-20, with an additional 5% Petit Verdot. In other words, he developed a classic Bordeaux-style blend, and since Bolgheri is superbly well suited to Cabernet, the wine, which he made with considerable care -- he didn't want to fall behind either Cousin Mario, or his other cousin, Piero Antinori, who was developing Guado Al Tasso -- was quite good and quickly gained an international following.

Many things have happened since Ludovico Antinori introduced Ornellaia in 1985, including his departure for other projects, and now the estate is owned by Marchesi de'Frescobaldi, who wisely decided not to change anything when they took over a few years ago. To celebrate the release of the 2003 vintage, this April they held a quick four-vintage vertical in Florence's Grand Hotel. It was quite interesting. The Wines:

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2000
Deep pigeon blood ruby -- a color they all share -- with violet rim. The bouquet is quite rich, with intense forest berry fruit laced with alcohol, balsam, and deft cedar. Great harmony and depth in a young wine; it brings to mind looking in on a roomful of 7th graders who are good looking and will improve with age. On the palate it's rich and chewy, with powerful black currant fruit supported by graphite bitterness and ample sweet tannins that are wound quite tight and flow into a long clean black currant fruit finish with bitter undertones. It's quite nice, displaying great depth, and though one could enjoy it now with succulent red meats it will go places with time; I'd give it 5-8 years and mayhap more.

Up until this vintage, the grapes for Ornellaia came exclusively from the Ludovico Antinori's Ornellaia Vineyard. However, starting in 2001 grapes from the Bellaria Vineyard were also used.

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2001
Again, deep pigeon blood ruby with violet rim. The bouquet is a bit sharper than the 2000's, with vegetal notes and slight savory animal tang laced into the forest berry fruit that provides the framework, and this is likely a contribution of the Cabernets that didn't come through in the 2000 vintage due to higher August temperatures. Truth be told, the accents add pleasant depth and facets produing a delightful whole. On the palate it's rich, full, and defter than the 2000, with powerful black currant fruit that is supported by ample tightly woven tannins that lay a bitter dusky trail over the tongue, and flow into a clean rich berry fruit finish. The tannins have a touch more equilibrium than those of the 2000, drawing more from grape, and though the wine is younger than its sister, it also has more potential and depth, I think. Great elegance too, and though it has a lot to say now it will have much more to say in 5-10 years. Something to set aside

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2002
Deep pigeon blood ruby with violet rim. The bouquet is quite rich, surprisingly so considering the vintage's reputation, with rich black currant fruit laced with some cedar and hints of underbrush, mingled with graphite shavings, sea salt, and underlying vegetal notes. Nice balance in a cooler vintage key. On the palate it's lighter than either the 00 or the 01, but deft, with rich black currant fruit that has pronounced bitter overtones supported by tight sweet tannins that have slight greenish notes with a cedar underlay and flow into a bitter cedar laced finish. It's clearly less intense than its older siblings, but quite pleasant, and will drink well with red meats. A fine expression of a more difficult vintage, and though it is ready it will also hold nicely for 3-4 years.
2 stars

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2003
Inky pigeon blood ruby with violet rim. 2003 was in many ways the negative image of 2002 -- hot and dry to 2002's cool and wet -- this is reflected in the bouquet, where the initial rush of youthful violets and cherry blossoms is joined by powerful jammy accents that mingle with black currant fruit and graphite shavings, with some underlying menthol. Nice harmony in a softer hot weather key. On the palate it is full, rich, and very round, with ample jammy black currant fruit that's a touch sweet (but gains direction from acidity) supported by full sweet tannins that are very smooth, so smooth they seem smaller than they are, with some oak that still needs to fold in, but will by the time the wine reaches stores. It's quite elegant in a softer, riper key -- the heat of the vintage is quite apparent -- and if you like this slightly softer style you will like it very much. Given its softness I wouldn't age it for that long, though it will age nicely for 3-5 years at least.
2 stars

A couple of observations from the post-tasting discussion:

Everyone present thought that the 2001 was the best wine of the flight, and we also all agreed that it needs time. The second best? Some say 2003, in expectation of the future, though I found myself preferring the 2000 for its present expression. Then, (for me) the 2003, and finally the 2002.

One important thing to keep in mind about blends such as Ornellaia is that they are not carved in stone; in 2002 they used more Merlot than they do in normal vintages because it ripens more easily, and in 2003 they used more Cabernet than they might otherwise because it stands up to heat and drought better than Merlot (and the wine is therefore slightly more vegetal).

Also, the 2003 vintage really was exceptionally dry, so dry that towards the end of the summer the vines stopped drawing water from their roots and began to absorb it from the grapes instead. Considering this, the fact that Ornellaia's agronomists were able to prevent cooked aromas and overripening is impressive indeed.

Bottom Line Impression? Ornellaia is an international style wine, with a beautiful balance or wood and fruit, and great harmony. If you like this style of wine, you will enjoy it very much. Given its price and limited availability, however, it is best suited to special occasions.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Tenuta I Quaranta: A New Piemontese Winery

A great many wineries are either started or taken over by people whose lives take unexpected turns, and I Quaranta falls squarely into this group: Annalisa was an automotive engineer, working for FIAT, and after spending two years on assignment in India came home with different priorities. She resumed an old interest in agronomy, concentrating on a newfound aspect of it, enology, and shortly thereafter, established the I Quaranta winery.

Why I Quaranta, which means 40? A number of reasons: Annalisa was 40 when she quit FIAT, there's a neaby town called Quaranta…

I tasted her wines at Vinitaly and enjoyed them.

Practical things:

Tenuta I Quaranta
Regione Rioglio, 9
15010 Ricaldone (Alessandria)
Tel. 0141 777412
Imported to the US by Terra Verus Trade, Austin Texas

I quaranta Memento Chardonnay Piemonte DOC 2004
Fairly bright yellow with greenish reflections; the bouquet is bright, with powerful pineapple tropical fruit with some gooseberry overlay and mineral acidity. Pleasant and rich. On the palate it's full and languid, with fairly intense pineapple fruit supported by warm pineapple acidity and some mineral overtones that flow into a fairly long fruit laced finish supported by lively acidity. It's pleasant, and will drink well with creamy vegetable based risotti, fish with cream sauces or off the grill, and also has the wherewithal to work well with moist, flavorful white meats. Quite fresh and will drink well for 3-5 years.
2 stars.

I Quaranta India Barbera D'Asti Superiore 2004
Deep pigeon blood ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with bright raspberry and forest berry fruit that gain definition from vegetal notes that add a fair amount of complexity. On the palate it's bright, light, and scrappy, with bright sour raspberry and red currant fruit supported by lively acidity and light splintery tannins that flow into a fairly long berry fruit finish with bitter undertones. It's not a wine that will show well -- too aggressive and too bright -- but if you're sitting down to a meal of grilled or fried meats, or perhaps a cookout, you will want a second bottle.
2 stars

Quaranta Le Rose Brachetto D'Acqui DOCG 2005
Pale bright ruby with fine white perlage. The bouquet is quite rich and sweet, with honeysuckle mingled with raspberry and violets, with sufficient acidity to keep it from being cloying. Pleasant. On the palate it's rich, with sweet raspberry fruit supported by deft sparkle and clean raspberry acidity that carry into a long finish. It will be quite nice far from the table, say on a patio as the sun sets, or, if you must, with a creamy dessert.
2 stars.

I Quaranta Dorato Moscato D'Asti 2005
Pale brassy gold with bright highlights. The bouquet is a touch overripe with slightly pungent floral accents mingled with tangerine fruit and very ripe pineapple. On the palate it's full, and rich, with powerful warm pineapple fruit that's a bit unusual for a Moscato but nice, and flows into a long clean finish with pineapple overtones. Quite deft and will be a fine poolside wine or with light desserts. Over strawberries, even.
2 stars.

I Quaranta Dorato Passito Moscato Passito 2004
This is a traditional passito, from grapes harvested in September and pressed after 6 months. It's a lively lemony gold with golden highlights and some greenish notes, and has an elegant bouquet with candied melon peels mingled with honey, apricots, and yellow peaches. The overall impression is chewy, with great harmony. On the palate it's rich, with delightful white fruit a mix of yellow peaches and hints of melon dripping with honeysuckle, and it all flows into a clean honey laced finish. Very nice, with great depth and richness, and will drink really well after dinner. If you like passiti, this is one to look for.
2 stars

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Uva di Troia: The Other Puglian Varietal

After decades -- centuries, even -- of being considered vini da taglio -- big, tannic, alcoholic, color-laden wines to be blended into wines from other regions that needed a boost -- Puglia's wines are at last attracting positive critical attention. Much of this attention initially went to the wines of Southern Puglia, first the Negroamaro produced between Brindisi and Lecce, and then the Primitivo produced in the Salentino; that Primitivo is closely related to California's Zinfandel certainly helped.

However, more recently northern Puglian varietals have also begun to attract attention, in particular Nero di Troia, which is grown north of Bari, and is one of the more important components in Castel del Monte DOC. It's not the easiest grape to work with, says Rivera's Sebastiano De Corato. It was traditionally grown for volume, and therefore farmers preferred clones that produced large compact bunches, with fairly large grapes; because of the structure of the bunches ripening was uneven, and as a result almost every bunch had a few unripe grapes, which contributed harsh unripe tannins. Rivera has found vines that produce smaller, looser bunches of grapes that ripen more uniformly in their vineyards and is propagating them, though it's too soon to speak of clonal selections or anything along those lines -- the first certified Aglianico clone was only presented last year, and much more work needs to be done on the other southern varietals before they can be certified.

Unlike Negroamaro and Primitivo, both of which ripen early (Primitivo doesn't mean primitive in this context, but rather early ripening), and are harvested by the end of August, Nero di Troia is a late ripening varietal, and at Rivera they start to harvest it in the first or second week of October. Sebastiano de Corato says this influences the style of the wines, which tend to be fresher. He is using his selections of Nero di Troia to make two wines:

Puer Apulie and Violante. Puer Apulie, named in honor of Frederick II of Swabia, the 13th Century holy Roman Emperor who whose love of Puglia earned him the nickname Puer Apulie (Son of Puglia) is a big, concentrated wine that uses new wood to balance the grape tannins, and has the potential to age very well. Production is low, on the order of 8-10,000 bottles per year, and it's Rivera's most expensive wine. Violante, which is being introduced this year, is less charged and considerably more accessible.

At Vinitaly, I tasted through the producers who make wine with Uva di Troia.

Azienda Vinicola Rivera S.p.A.
S.S.98 Km. 19,800 - Contrada Rivera
70031 ANDRIA (BA)
Tel 088 356 9501

Rivera Nero di Troia Violante Castel del Monte DOC 2004
Lot LF91F
Deep cherry ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is quite elegant, with rich red berry fruit mingled with berry fruit jam -- currants and blackberries -- and supported by deft grilled bell pepper and some peppery acidity, while there are also floral -- violet -- accents that add grace. On the palate it's full, and quite round, with voluptuous forest berry fruit supported by clean grilled bell pepper notes and tannins that have a warm bitter greenish burr, and flow into a long clean slightly tart fruit laced finish. Great depth that's all the more impressive considering how young the wine is; it will drink beautifully with a platter of mixed grilled meats and veggies, or with a succulent stew. Well worth seeking out.
Note: I tasted a prerelease bottle of Violante in the fall of 2005 and found the wine significantly better this time around.

Rivera Puer Apuliae Castel Del Monte DOC 2003
Lot E08
Poured pyrope ink; the bouquet is quite intense, with jammy berry fruit supported by equally intense warm cedar -- a marvel of concentration -- that is still very young and gives an impression of being between here and there, in transit as it were. On the palate it's equally full and powerful, though there is more fruit, which does balance the oak, though it also gives an impression of vineyard immaturity -- one expects more depth than there is. It will in any case be interesting to follow the wine to its destination, which will be frankly international, and if you like the "gobs of fruit and concentration in spades" style that some of the wine press seems to favor, you will like it. I found myself feeling, on the one hand, that I was looking in on a toddler, and, on the other, that this isn't my style of wine. But I did find it interesting.
2 stars

Agricola Conte Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli
C.da S. Domenico S.P. 231 Km. 60
70031 Montegrosso-Andria (Bari) - Italia
Tel 0883 569511 - Fax 0883 569560
Not imported to the US

Tenuta Zagaria Vigna Grande Uva di Troia Castel del Monte DOC Rosso 2004
Lot VG20053H9RO
Deep ruby with pale white rim. The bouquet is deft, with bright berry fruit laced with orange citrus and hints of marzipan, which may sound odd in a red, but works nicely. Pleasant to sniff. On the palate it's full, with bright cherry fruit with hints of plum supported by deft orange acidity and bright brambly tannins that flow into a long warm tannic finish with wonderful freshness. Pleasant, though you have to like aggressive wines to appreciate it. Drink it with succulent meats -- fried lamb chops, for example, would be quite nice.
2 stars

Conti Spagnoletti Zeuli Il Rinzacco Uva di Troia in Purezza Castel Del Monte DOC 2003
Lot 6859
This is fermented in wood -- upright conical vats -- and returns to them after racking. It's also cropped to lower yields, about 90 quintals/hectare. The bouquet is rich, with bright orange-laced berry fruit supported by berry fruit jam and hints of almond butter and bitter almonds. Quite a bit going on. On the palate it's full and rich, with powerful berry fruit supported by berry fruit jam and deft orange acidity that flows into lasting warmth, while the tannins, which are ample and have been polished by the wood, provide smooth support. It's much more approachable than the Vigna Grande, and will drink well with grilled meats, roasts and other succulent meats. Expect it to age well for a number of years.
2 stars

Botta S.r.l.
S.S. 16, km 755+510
70059 TRANI (Bari)
Tel 0883 491116 - Fax 0883 492203
Not Imported to the US

Botta Castel del Monte DOC Rosso 2003
Lot 0540
This is a blend, actually, of Uva di Troia, Bombino Nero, and Sangiovese. It's dusky black cherry ruby with almandine rim, and has a fairly rich bouquet with red berry fruit laced with bitter almonds and lively peppery spice, and underlying underbrush, sea salt, and wood smoke. Fairly complex. On the palate it's ample and soft, with clean bright red berry fruit that gains direction from lively citric acidity and is supported by full, smooth tannins -- Uva di Troia's natural aggressiveness is tempered by the other varietals, and perhaps just a touch much, because there is a slight languid feel to it on subsequent sips. It is in any case pleasant, and will drink well with red meats.
2 stars

Torre di Pilato Nero di Troia IGT Puglia 2004
This is 80% Uva di Troia and 20% Montepulciano; it spends 8 months in carrati, which are 750 liter Slavonian oak casks that provide some wood but don't overshadow. The bouquet is rich, with red berry fruit laced with savory crushed almonds and some slightly balsamic underbrush and sea salt. Quite fresh and a lot going on. On the palate it's full, with rich red berry fruit that gains definition from lively orange acidity, and is supported by ample sweet tannins that flow into a long clean berry fruit finish with tannic underpinning. Pleasant, and will drink well with grilled meats, stews, and similar dishes. There's considerable depth, and the wine also has the potential to age nicely for up to a decade.
2 stars

Botta Turenum Rosso di Puglia IGT 2004
Lot 0634
This spends 12 months in carratti, and is deep black lam with white rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with crushed almonds mingled with ripe berry fruit with alcohol and some berry fruit acidity that keep it on its toes. Pleasant to sniff, and with further sniffing dusky notes emerge as well. On the palate it's full, and rich, with powerful berry and plum fruit supported by deft citric acidity and by tightly woven tannins that still display youthful splinteriness, and flow into a long warm berry fruit finish that gradually fades into warmth. It's elegant, and quite promising though it will show much better in a year's time, and will continue to age nicely for up to a decade. In terms of accompaniments, I'd serve it with a hearty stew, and boar with bay leaf and black olives comes to mind.
2 stars

A brief, but pleasant aside:

Botta Moscato di Trani Dolce DOC 2003
Lot 03/00
Deep gold with rich gold highlights and reflections; it looks inviting. The bouquet is powerful and nicely blaanced, with honeydew melon mingled with apricot acidity and yellow peaches with some underlying white pear. Quite a lot going on, harmoniously. On the palate it's full and rich, with powerful peach and pear fruit mingled with apricot marmalade supported by moderate acidity and by sugars that carry the wine nicely, flowing into a long sweet peach finish that gains definition from some bitterness. Quite pleasant, and will work very well with flavorful, not too sharp cheeses or far from the meal.
2 stars

Agrinatura Giancarlo Ceci
C.da Sant’Agostino
70031 ANDRIA (Bari)
Tel 0883 565220 - Fax 0883 565223

Ceci Parco Marano da Uve di Troia Castel del Monte Rosso DOC 2004
Lot 06041
This is their first vintage of this wine; as he poured the wine maker told me that Uva di Troia is quite delicate during the final ripening, and an increase in local humidity can either round out the tannins or cause entire bunches to rot.

The wine is deep pigeon blood ruby with violet rim -- poured ink. The bouquet is fairly rich, with bright red berry fruit laced with cedar and peppery spice. It's recently bottled and still a bit unsettled, though cleaning up nicely in an international key. On the palate it's further along, with rich bright berry fruit supported by bright orange and lemon acidity and by tannins that lay an angry hot peppery wash over the tongue and gradually fade into a fairly persistent savory finish. It's woefully immature, but has a pleasing grace and deftness and promises quite well. It needs at least a year, and perhaps two to get its feet under it, at which point it will drink well with hearty stews or rich roasts. Impressive for a first vintage.
2 stars

My Bottom line impression of Uva di Troia? It can be quite rustic, especially if the vineyard management isn't up to snuff and corners are cut in the cellar. However, when made with care it reveals considerable potential, and has the capacity to age quite nicely for many years. In short, it's a wine to keep an eye out for, and with time it will likely become a force to be reckoned with..

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Hundred Point Rating System: Has It Run Its Course?

The New York Times recently published a long article, the gist of which is that the 100 point rating system many publications use to score wines is much more useful to wine marketers than it is to wine consumers: Wine marketers trumpet the scores, which (according to the article) really don't mean much without an associated tasting note, while significant segments of the wine consuming public establish a cut-off score below which they simply won't buy the wine.

What are needed, the NY Times concludes, are much broader ranges, say a 3 or 4 star system.

I agree with the NY Times's conclusion, and in fact have always used a 4-star system, with:

  • No Stars for wines that are either faulty or simply not good -- what would be below 70 on a 100-point scale.
  • 1 Star is for wines that range from correctly made but unexciting to good in a simple, direct key, roughly 70-79 points on a hundred point scale. And what are simple and direct? Wines that are good, but that don't distract from the food or the occasion, and drink quite well. In many cases these are wines that you may find yourself wanting a second bottle of because the first goes quite fast.
  • 2 Stars are wines that are good to very good -- 80-89 points on a hundred point scale -- and range from easy-to-drink wines that go down quite nicely to wines that are more complex, and demand much more attention, but are not outstanding. Included in these more complex but not outstanding wines are good but overly young wines, for example high end wines along the lines of Brunello or Barolo tasted at a vintage presentation, when they have just been released and still need time to reach maturity.
  • 3 Stars are excellent wines, and when I give a wine three stars I also give it a point score of 90 or above. As a general rule I rarely give three stars to a wine that is not fully mature, and as a result I tend not to give wines at vintage presentations 3 stars. Why? Because even though the direction they are headed in may be evident, they're not there yet. Better to give them the score they deserve now rather than something inflated, and say in the tasting note that the wine will be much better a few years hence.

And this brings us to the tasting notes that the NY Times says should accompany a raw point score; the folks at the NY Times say they should consist of something along the lines of ("hints of blackberry," "a good nose"). I think they should go a lot further, because what exactly is a good nose? Well balanced, probably, but there are many different good noses, ranging from vibrantly youthful through mature and ethereal, and the same holds true for flavors, tannins, and so on.

Also, what should one serve the wine with? I once met a guy who had come into serious money, and told me he drank Biondi Santi's Brunello every night. Probably trying to impress me, but my first thought was that it would go horribly with fried chicken.

A wine note should, in addition to describing the wine and saying whether it's still climbing, is mature, or is on its way down, also give a serving suggestion, because most wines are meant to be drunk with food, and little is more disappointing than a wildly mistaken paring that sets good food and fine wine at loggerheads, bringing out the worst in each.

Winding down,
there is another reason I'm against using the 100 point scale to judge a wine: It implies that there's a degree of precision that really doesn't exist in wine tasting. There is a very significant difference between, say, a 78-point and an 89-point wine, but how important is the difference between 89 and 90 points in the tasting room? The 89 point wine may have been the last of a flight of very good wines, while the 90 point wine may have followed a flight of poor wines. Or, the 90 point wine might have been poured early, and the 89 point wine 50 wines later, when one is much more ready to find (or excuse, depending upon one's temperament) faults in the wines.

Don't think this is possible? A friend of mine who is a sommelier and master distiller participated at a study held by the University of Florence, in which wine professionals -- journalists, enologists, winemakers, and sommeliers -- were given blind flights of wine morning and afternoon for a week. Some of the flights included the same wine more than once, and sometimes they were given identical flights morning and afternoon.

The results were eye-opening -- the participants scored the wines differently in the morning and afternoon sessions, and also scored the same wine separated by other wines in a flight differently, sometimes better and sometimes worse, depending upon how good the separating wines were.

Does this mean that wine journalism is a sham? I don't think so or I wouldn't be here, but I do think that it means a point score with a cursory note is really not enough. The wines deserve more, and so do wine consumers, and the best way to do this is to rate wines in broad categories, rather than give them precise scores.

The New York Timse's Article (requires registration and will be free only for a limited time)