Sign of the times, part 2

This is at one of several large booths behind the Royal Festival Hall in London, along the Thames. 
I don't know if they were serving Prosecco on tap--I suspect they were-- because the line was so long 
(longer than the ones for cocktails or beer) that I couldn't get close enough to see!

Pinot Noir moves the needle in California

There’s something about Burgundy (and of course I mean the red wine rather than the place 
or its Chardonnay), something that brings out a kind of poetic, often ribald, ambiguously 
affectionate response from people, something other kinds of wine will never get to. At a Burgundy 
tasting years ago, we were asked to raise our hands if that wine had been our best experience; 
most of us raised our hands. Then we were asked if it had been our worst, and most of us raised 
our hands again, chagrined but smiling.
        In Hilaire Belloc’s famous poem, he forgets the girl’s name, but the wine is Burgundy; 
Dumas said it should be drunk kneeling, and with your head bared. Musketeers saluted as they 
marched past the vineyards. And, lately, in California, the similes have been extended. Winemaker 
Paul Hobbs said making Pinot Noir was like coming home to the indifference of a cat as opposed to 
the welcome of a happy, tail-wagging dog, while Karen McNeill said a tasting of it was like 
waking up in a strange bed at 3 a.m.—you don’t know whether you’re about to have 
a good time or a bad one. 
        Karen and the Wine Institute hosted a tasting/seminar of California Pinot Noir 
at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley recently, which was entitled 
“The Needle Has Moved.” The point was well made, though the needle still isn’t pointing toward 
Burgundy. Karen and her crew tasted 126 Pinots and chose what they thought were the best 18; 
most of the wines cut were heavier, or tannic or over-extracted, the survivors chosen for power, 
elegance, fruit and earthiness. Subjective, and certainly not definitive (I'd have included 
the very elegant McMurray Ranch version and a solid, well-defined Schug "Carneros" we tried the day 
before, and there are surely more worth trying), but most of the wines showed through beautifully 
in those aspects, velvet with silk trim: 6 were from the Sonoma Coast, 4 from Santa Lucia Highlands, 
2 from Santa Rita Hills, 2 from Arroyo Grande, and 1 each from Carneros and Santa Maria Highlands. 
Terroir aside, the winemaking varied, some barrel-fermented, some aged on their lees; all were aged 
in barrel; alcohol levels ranged from 13 to 15.2 percent.
         I ranked half on my top level: Sanford Winery, Brewer-Clifton, Paul Hobbs, Kosta Browne,  
Peay Vineyards, Laetitia, Talley, McIntyre, and Siduri (the last three, incidentally, had the lowest 
retail price, less than $42 a bottle.) One that got my attention, almost Burgundian, funky, edgy, 
full—I wrote, “a flashback, loud, feral”—turned out to be, unsurprisingly, Au Bon Climat, 
from the original Wild Boy, Jim Clendenen. It didn’t come tops for technical reasons, but it would be 
the first one I’d want with dinner.

California: Sign of the times?

Billboard spotted just north of the town of Napa, alongside Highway 29: 
“Make the Napa Valley your lifestyle!”
          According to latest statistics, less than half of the valley’s residents actually live there 
full-time, so obviously it’s a dream come true.

White is the new. . . news?

During back-to-back trips to California and Greece last month, a few easygoing white wines caught—and held—our attention. In the midst of work and seriousness, they stood out for sheer pleasure, perfect diverting intermissions. At Seghesio Winery, whose Zinfandels from Sonoma have become increasingly robust and bolder, a light, bright, and refreshingly dry Pinot Grigio was a revelation, as was an equally appealing Arneis. What struck me was that neither has an exact correspondent in Italy: The Pinot Grigio wasn’t in the dilute style of so many in the Veneto, nor in the fuller style of Friuli; the Arneis was also lighter (and crisper) than those found in the Piedmont’s Roero, but without sacrificing any flavor. The next day, at the MacMurray Ranch, also in Sonoma, we stopped on a hillside overlooking a bend in the Russian River, above the afternoon fog line, and had a glass of their Pinot Gris, dry, lightly fruity, and with the sort of limestone finish that I can only think of as—I hate to say it, as it’s become so traduced—minerality (and, again, unlike European versions such as Alsatians). As I wrote at the beginning, none of these were “serious,” but all were seriously pleasant. Maybe California’s on to something in terms of style, something unashamedly independent. If these are examples of that, it’s welcome.
           Greece? Moschofilero. A more elusive animal. Stay tuned, please.

"Natural" or no?

In writing a book on the history of wine in America, I’ve had to grapple with the national aberration known as Prohibition. One casualty of the crusade by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other groups was language: Their definition of “Christian,” for example, didn’t include Catholics, and “temperance” meant abstinence rather than moderation. It still does, in some dictionaries. Words matter.
        The current fuss in wine terminology revolves around “natural,” usually noted with an asterisk, like disputed sports records: wine made from organic grapes, with low-or-no sulphur, biodynamically. . . It actually encompasses a wide variety of philosophies—and generalizations. “Emotional black magic,” says a viticulturalist, “a hoax,” writes a Napa Valley winemaker, while a proponent of naturalism ardently claims that oxidation isn’t a flaw, and skeptics are demonized as being in favour of “mass-produced, manipulated” wines. You’d get a more rational discussion talking about bankers.
       Meanwhile, in Alsace, the Loire, increasingly in Burgundy and lately Bordeaux, in Sicily, Greece, Croatia, and Germany, good, honest dirt is celebrated; New Zealand’s aiming at 20% organic soon, and Oregon may top that. Want a true taste of terroir? Go to the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, where they’ve been messing  with biodynamics for over 20 years, and find delicious consistency. While the True Believers and Snarky Skeptics were playing dodgeball dogma, the train left the station. 
       And in all this, with two rival “natural” wine fairs competing concurrently in London, a flurry of books, and Facebook navel-gazing, something’s been lost: The audience--consumers, those folks who are supposedly our collaborators in the adventure of wine. While we up in the choir loft are poring over our hymnals, murmuring over subtleties of the sermons and the correctness of the liturgy, the congregation down below are simply happy to be in church, and looking for some comfort.
       My friend Joan, in her mid-80s, lives in a cottage in Sussex. She’s a good cook, and has a glass or two of wine with dinner every night. It will be red, probably Sainsbury’s own-brand, about a fiver a bottle, which is all she can afford, and the sort of thing the naturalists revile. Does she want a wine she might like when she “gets used to it,”, or to read a wine label to know how it was made? No. Is she a wine-lover? You bet she is.
       The wine trade has o’er-leaped the saddle, and fallen on the other side of the horse. We need to begin again, and ask what wine’s really for, and include the audience in the conversation. And we should be working toward civility, along with sanity.

Argentina 2, France 0

After accumulating some Cahors from the 2011 vintage, I decided to do a small tasting; it didn’t take long, and my kitchen drainpipes are cleaner than ever. All were rather heavy, over-extracted, and unyielding, in an expression of a certain style of winemaking rather than terroir or what the grape (Malbec) can do. The most interesting thing to emerge was the prominence given to the grape name rather than the region—either Cahors was completely omitted from the front label, or in smaller type than Malbec, which has, of course, been popularized by some lovely wines from Argentina. (Another sign of its popularity is the way clothing retailers now refer to a deep shade of purple in their fabrics as “Malbec” instead of “Burgundy.”)
          Many of the Cahors also came in heavy bottles with deep punts and minimalist labels, imitating too many from North and South America trying to bull their way into the winner’s circle on appearance alone. (I’m beginning to be wary of the very deep indents in the bottoms of these ambitious bottles, intended to announce seriousness, but really just telegraphing the punchiness of their style—I think of them as “Parker punts.”)

Barolo 2010: Coming up roses

The Collisioni festival, taking place all over the town of Barolo, provided the opening round of tastings and conversation about the 2010 vintage, which is coming on to the market now. It was a year of only moderate drama, cool and somewhat wet during the summer, but any anxiety eased with a sunny and warmer September, setting up a fine harvest. (The coolness probably offset some of the effects of global warming, providing the grapes with a better balance as they finished ripening.) The resulting wines are forceful without being overbearing, and the best of them are quite elegant (I want to say they're “without arrogance”—they’ll be quite gracious and approachable when they mature, which will begin about 2020/2025).
          My personal picks follow, based on those tasted in Barolo as well as several subsequent samplings in London, minus show-offy tasting notes (the wines will change so much over the years that intimations of exact flavors would be even more ridiculous than usual; also, please note that the rankings are somewhat tenuous for the same reason. That said, all the wines that follow are recommended, with considerable enthusiasm, surely to be joined by many more as other wines become available in the next few months.)
          The top tier at the moment are Vajra “Bricco delle Viole;” Chiarlo “Cerequio;” Pio Cesare “Ornato;” Luciano SandroneCannubi Boschio;” Marchesi di Barolo “Sarmassa;” and Cordero di Montezemolo “Monfalleto.” A half-step behind are Damilano “Cannubi;” Giuseppe Rinaldi “Brunate;” Vietti “Lazzarito;” Paolo ScavinoBricco Ambrogio,” and Ratti “Rocche dell’Annunziata.” Two others deserve mention: Pio Cesare’s Barolo, a blend of five vineyards that will be ready to drink in a few years, enjoyed with lunch one day, and Fletcher, also a blend, made by David Fletcher, an Australian who has made wine in several places there and in California, and for a few years in the Piedmont. His 2010 is available in small quantities in the US and UK, and is just fabulous. Another great choice from the Nebbiolo grape, deliciously ready right now, is the Vajra “Nebbiolo delle Langhe.”

Rambling in the Piedmont: Vajra, Gaja, and the market for manure

Back in the Piedmont for the second Collisioni Festival, Stephen Spurrier and I were whisked straight from Turin airport to the Vajra winery, for a welcoming reception with several of our colleagues and, in the best Italian tradition, several grandchildren running around the tasting room, extremely cute and happy to be indulged. We started with a new addition to the line, a dry, full-bodied, and minerally Riesling—a lovely and moderately serious wine that made its own esthetic statement, not resembling either Germanic nor Australian styles, but a firm, straightforward expression of Riesling character—and things got even better after that. (I don’t know of another winery that so consistently makes an array of wines as well as Vajra, from the relatively rare Freisa and somewhat unfashionable Dolcetto all the way up to splendid Barolo. One reason, surely: at harvest time, all the grapes are carefully sorted by hand before crushing, with busy crews swarming over tables laden with grapes, carefully culling. The winemaking is undoubtedly as meticulous.)
         As a sidebar to the events, panel discussions, seminars, and visits to winemakers, the organizers put together a fairly formal tasting of a range of Barolos from the 2010 vintage, which were just being released. It wasn’t definitive, but several subsequent tastings in London confirmed our first impression—2010 is a splendid vintage. (Details updated above.)
       Over lunch at Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja made several interesting points. Global warming was a benefit, “a big factor,” resulting in more good vintages; higher alcohol levels could be a worry, but the wines are more supple. And so-called “natural” wines aren’t a fad, he said; many Piedmontese, including him, are working hard to make cleaner, less manipulated wines—not labeling it as such, but simply getting on with getting along with nature. He showed me a picture of worms in soil—that’s what he wants, he said, dirt that’s alive, that can truly nurture grapevines. “I give you some investment advice,” he said with a laugh. “Cow shit! If you can get any, there’s a good market for it in the Piedmont!”
copyright 2010-2018 by Brian St. Pierre