Rosso di Montalcino wins, Champagne iffy

In a victory for integrity, common sense and good taste, a majority of wine producers in Tuscany have voted down a proposal to alter (some said “dumb down”) the make-up and character of Rosso di Montalcino. As with other areas of Italy, the vineyard plantings have expanded, often to marginal areas, and some producers, especially the newcomers, have pushed for non-native varieties, especially Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to be included in the wines, essentially doing for Rosso di Montalcino what they did for Chianti, to the north. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion, but it might be useful to remember that Chianti was always a blended wine to begin with, and Rosso di Montalcino, like its big brother Brunello, has always been 100 percent Sangiovese.
       The argument in favour of blending was that it would allow “consistency,” as if the wine were some sort of industrial product. It may be best to remember Emerson: “”With consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do.” I’ll drink to that.
       Meanwhile, however, Champagne is expanding—not horizontally, as vineyard expansion is severely and assiduously restricted, but vertically, sort of: The CIVC, Champagne’s governing trade association, has allowed an increase in yields from the existing vineyards of 20 percent, “to meet demand.” This is the third such increase in a row, raising the output by about one-third. Something to celebrate—if you’re a Champagne producer.

Riesling along with the breeze. . .

Packing a case of Riesling along on a summer vacation may simply be a matter of logic and good taste—no other wine is going to do all the recreational and gastronomic tasks of the season quite as well (in partnership with a few good reds for the charred burgers, spareribs and steaks). We had a couple of opulent Alsatians for the turbot and sole, but the best, most appealing all-rounders, were Germans,  deliciously vivacious and lively companions for the occasion as well as the food.
       Most memorable was a trio by Prinz von Hessen, from the 2010 vintage. It was a difficult one, with a slow start in the Spring, a sharp heat spike in mid-summer, and then long spells of rain. I was surprised, and delighted, at how well the wines turned out. The afternoon and evening sipper was labelled “H,” pleasantly light at 11.5 percent alcohol, with a bracing zip of acidity to match the light residual sugar—the sort of wine you never tire of, and wonderful with fresh crabmeat on thin slices of sourdough bread. The “Kabinett” was vibrant, a little fuller (12 percent alcohol), nearly dry, with a light touch of citrus, a perfect match for plaice, skate, and John Dory baked with a bit of grapefruit and lots of parsley. “Dachsfilet,” from a vineyard on a high slope, was the fullest (12.5 alcohol and partly fermented with the grape skins),  almost unctuous, complex (hints of white peach and a long aftertaste) and, unsurprisingly, the ideal partner for scallops and sea bass.

Summer: The Italian job

Packing up the wine for the summer beach holiday was easy—a case of Riesling from Germany and Alsace, another of Beaujolais 2009, a few bottles of Chablis for serious fish dinners, a couple of Champagne, and a serious red for the thick steaks we get from the local butcher in Cornwall.      
       The red was a no-brainer for us, but a surprise to our guests: Vajra Barbera d’Alba 2008, one of our favourite wines. The usual match for steak, especially grilled, is Cabernet or Bordeaux, I know. Surely not for flavour, though, with those tannins and alcohol rasping against the succulence of the meat? Barbera generally has a better balance of acidity and astringency, and a more amenable mix of fruit overtones, for caramelized, juicy steak, and its restraint doesn’t tire out your palate. No snob value, of course, but a better meal in the end.
       I first visited Vajra 23 years ago, right after they’d finished building the new winery, and the first thing that impressed me about the wines was their balance and restraint. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a glut of French oak, after the ebullient Giacomo Bologna won acclaim for his woody barrique Barberas, so Vajra’s, made in large Slavonian oak barrels (as they still are) stood out as clear expressions of the grape and the soil. If anything, the wines have gotten even better. It doesn’t say so on the label, but the grapes are farmed organically. I’m not surprised.
copyright 2010-2015 by Brian St. Pierre