Barbera Tasting

October 28, 2009

Like the last post, I actually wrote this shortly before I started this blog.  This one is from another tasting at the Wine Bottega on 10/15, solely focused on the Barbera varietal:

Red grape from the Piedmont, overshadowed by Barolos and Barbarescos; high acid; food friendly – that was about the extent of my knowledge of Barbera prior to tasting through seventeen of them tonight at the Wine Bottega.  Nothing like a focused intensive tasting like this to really get to know a particular varietal or style.  While it hasn’t necessarily entered my list of favorites, and none of the wines blew me away, some were very good and I can now say with confidence that I understand Barbera and it certainly has acquired a place in my wine repertoire.

The tasting started with some entry level Barberas that were quite good and fairly inexpensive.  The 2005 Matthew Fioretti “Mattei” showed all of the features of the varietal – great acidity, easy drinking, pretty red fruit, without the overwhelming complexity of some of the wines later in the tasting, but at $12, a perfect Tuesday night pizza wine that is starting to shatter my preconception of Italian wines.  This was followed by the 2004 Tenuta Migliavacca, a very rustic wine that showed a slightly different interpretation of the grape at a similar price point – think pizza with mushrooms and garlic or an especially pungent cheese as a good pairing.  In the number three spot was the only wine that wasn’t 100% Barbera; the 2007 Bricco Mondalino blends in 15% freisa.  I thought I was so smart guessing it was probably a younger vintage because the fruit was brighter and more in your face, but that most likely comes from the blend.  Not terribly exciting, but fundamentally sound and a serious delicious factor at $19.

The rest of the table were variations on a theme, spanning vintages from 2004 to 2007 and prices from $25 to $30, mostly Barbera D’Alba, which along with Asti, are the two major Barbera producing regions within the Piedmont.  None were bad, none changed my world, but the experience of tasting the next five side by side, probably equal to the total amount of Barbera I had consumed prior to tonight was a great way to understand the grape.  Acid is definitely the key – which is what makes these wines so food friendly.  They are not terribly complex, but again they’re also not Beaujolais Nouveau.  All had a good attack with mostly clean red fruit, not obnoxious fake candied fruit like Australian Shiraz or bad American Pinot Noir, but clean red fruit – Massachusetts cranberries, fresh cherries, pomegranate, but not the darker fruit flavors you get in Cabernet-type wines.  Also noteworthy is the absence of tannins – drinking these wines gives you a perfect understanding of the difference between tannin and acidity.  The five wines included:

2004 Luigi Voghera Barbera D’Alba Riserva, Neive

2004 Az. Agr. San Fereolo “Austri, Dogliani

2005 G.D. Vajra Barbera D’Alba Superiore, Barolo

2006 Brovia Barbera D’Alba “Brea”, Serralunga D’Alba

2007 Conterno Fantino Barbera D’Alba

I then moved on to what Matt termed the ‘Big Boy Table,’ the first wine of which was the 2006 Fratelli Cigliuti, Serraboella, which if I were to buy any of the wines from this tasting, (which I didn’t) this would probably be it, at $40.  Also from Alba, this wine was just more subtle and complex than the ones prior, with a little bit less acid and coffee type flavors going on while still true to the style.  Next up were a pair of wines from Lombardy, where Barbera is atypical.  The first, the 2005 Vercesi del Castellazzo Barbera “Cla” Oltrepo Pavese was good, and distinct from the Albas.  The second, the 2004 Martilde “La Strega, la Gazza, e il Pioppo,” Oltrepo Pavese, was the only wine to see new oak, and in this context, the wood tannins were obvious, but the absence of grape tannins made this wine again a variation on a theme – the same high acid bright red fruit, just with those vanillaesque flavors that come from oak and a bit more of a tannic finish.

The 2006 Bartolo Mascarello “Vigna San Lorenzo” Barbera D’Alba was excellent, and one of the three wines I went back and retasted.  This far along into the tasting I was starting to understand Barbera, and this wine could be the archetype for it – great acidity, beautiful clean red fruit, silky smooth mouthfeel, and slightly more complexity than the others, though now we’re approaching $50 territory.  Next were two single vineyard 2004 Barbera D’Asti wines: Cascina Roera, a partnership between Claudio Rosso and Piero Nebiolo – the spelling is different but with a name like that how can you not be a good winemaker.  I had a slight preference for the “Vigna San Martino” which I could picture with a rich pasta dish with sundried tomatoes or braised short ribs or wild boar, though the “Cardin” was almost as good; both of these had slightly bigger and bolder flavors than the D’Albas, perhaps Barolo in comparison to Barbaresco or Pauillac to Margaux.

We finished up with a vertical of the “Braida” Giacomo Bologna Barbera D’Asti “Bricco dell’Uccellone,” Rocchetta Tanaro, which apparently is the wine that put Barbera on the map.  The wines were very good; the 2004, 1999, and 1996 vintages really showcased the ageability of this varietal, and the complexity that it is capable of.  The 1996 had this gorgeous nose with almost like a crème-brulee component, which makes you think you’re going to get that French vanilla latte flavor on the palette, perhaps at the expense of fruit, but even thirteen years later tastes like it was picked yesterday.  The oak/makeup analogy holds up quite well here, as this wine does see a little bit of oak:  If the “Bricco dell’Uccellone” is an absolutely gorgeous girl, the 2004 is her at 19; the 1999 is the same girl at 25; and the 1996 is this woman at 32, looking like she did at 19 but with a little more maturity and worldliness, perhaps wearing a little more makeup, but not much, and none of us can tell.

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Loire Valley Tasting

October 28, 2009

So this post (and the one that follows about Barbera) are actually things I’ve written before I started this blog.  This is about a Loire Valley tasting on 9/17 at the Wine Bottega in the North End.

I have always loved French wines; Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne command, and often deservedly so, nearly instant respect.  The wine I’d most like to try is the legendary Domaine Romanée-Conti; the best I’ve had thus far was a Chateau Cheval Blanc, and if I could only drink one type of wine for the rest of my life it would hands down be small-production vintage bubbly.  However I am equally partial to the lesser known French appellations, and have time after time been impressed with Southern Rhones, wines from the Languedoc, and the Loire Valley, usually finding consistent high quality and great value.

It’s this last region, the Loire Valley that was the theme of tonight’s tasting at the Wine Bottega.  I have had some experience with the Loire before – Sancerre is definitely my favorite expression of Sauvignon Blanc and perhaps my favorite white; because I love what Cab Franc can do in blends I’ve been drawn to it as a single varietal wine, and thus have enjoyed a few Chinon’s; and finally, Vouvray has been one of the few styles where I’m still batting 1,000.  However prior to tonight this was the extent of my experience with, and knowledge of the Loire Valley.  I did a little background reading in Sotheby’s before heading to the tasting, which actually was not too high on the region, but the common theme of their chapter and the introductory notes to the tasting was diversity – essentially the region produces a hodgepodge of wines of all different styles, reds and whites, dry and sweet, still and sparkling, from a number of different varietals, though predominantly Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc.  This could be expected from the relative size and heterogeneity of the region, but to say that the wines of the Loire Valley are diverse is a gross understatement, and variety was certainly the hallmark feature of this evening, with quality coming in at a close second.

So, onto the wines.  We started out with a sparkler, which was very good – not mind-blowing, but very good.  Tons of yeast on the nose and flavor that could rival most Champagnes.  Nonvintage and at $22 a bottle this could be a place for value bubbles.  Next up was a Muscadet, which is the first I can recall tasting.  It didn’t do much for me – good acid and body, but lacking any real compelling flavor… dare I make the butterface comparison.  This was followed by a Sancerre, which as I mentioned before, I traditionally am very high on; this one was solid but nothing special.  Next came a Cheverny, an appellation in the Touraine where apparently single-varietal bottlings are prohibited; this one was a 70/30 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which was actually quite good, and looking at the guide now at only $15 a bottle I am thinking I should have picked up some.  Now it gets interesting – a Chinon Blanc, confusingly enough, made from Chenin Blanc, which apparently accounts for ~1% of Chinon – another obscure style that I can now lay claim to have tried; not to spoil the surprise, but in the same night as a Sancerre Rouge (made from Pinot Noir); the Loire is full of surprises!  The white Chinon was actually quite good, a dry expression of the Chenin Blanc grape that was a little lighter in body and easier drinking if less complex than the Vouvrays that were up next.  And speaking of – we then did a vertical, going back in time nonetheless, of the 07, 06, and 05 Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec “Le Mont.”  Now I know white wines can age; I immediately think Burgundy, Sauternes, etc; and I had an inkling of suspicion that Vouvrays are ageworthy as well, but this really solidified it for me.  The ’07 was good, but as a I learned a baby… no… maybe a blastocyst!  The ’06 was infinitely more complex, the ’05 same deal, but like a geometric progression.  Apparently you don’t want to touch these guys for 10 years minimum, and they can last for 50… I thought even Bordeaux’s peak before that.  The gentleman pouring said he had a ’93 of the “Le Mont” he was still keeping.  Next was the first wine I bought – the 2005 Nicolas Joly Savennieres – Coulée de Serrant.  I had never had a Savennieres, I had a vague recollection of Gary speaking highly of them and remembered that it was a dry Chenin Blanc.  Tonight I learned that Coulée de Serrant is one of two single vineyard designations within Savennieres (the other being Roche-Aux Moines), both owned by Nicolas Joly, who is apparently quite the character and a serious advocate of biodynamic wines.  Well this wine was incredible – the nose had something I couldn’t place for the longest time, almost like a cinnamon oatmeal thing going on and then all sorts of floral aromas behind that, flavors that translated to the palate with a crisp attack that dipped to a beautiful more subtle midpalette and then returned for an incredibly long finish, great acidity, pure fruit, and unbelievable complexity.  One of the guys pouring suggested Chartreuse, which instantly fit.  Needless to say I took a bottle home with me.  The last two whites were also both of extremely high quality, also both Chenins, one dry and one sweet, but nothing like the Savennieres.

The Loire reds were equally diverse.  First up was a Bourgueil, which was a good expression of Cab Franc but nothing special.  Then came 100% malbec wine, which I learned in the Loire is called Côt.  Very good, and distinct from Cahors or New World malbecs, perhaps something I should explore further.  The next wine was from a varietal I had never heard of, Grolleau, most of which apparently goes into cheap rose, but this old vine bottling was quite good, with a barnyard nose that could put some Burgundys to shame and a matching dusty, rustic palette.  The specific flavors escape my memory, but I’ll make the analogy to a 90 year old ex-Marine in a nursing home with a Purple Heart who you faintly suspect could get up out of his wheelchair and kick your ass if he still wanted to.  Next up was a pre-phylloxera (read, very old) Cab Franc, very good, it was one of three wines I went back and tried again, but I can’t remember the details.  The next red was another wine I liked enough to buy, an unusual blend of pinot d’aunis, which I had never heard of before tonight); côt, or malbec, which I had just learned was even grown in the Loire; and gamay, which I didn’t think existed outside of Beaujolais.  Anyway these three unlikely grapes came together to produce the 2005 Domaine Le Briseau Couteaux du Loir “Les Mortiers,” which had an awesome backbone of bright and vibrant fruit, a characteristic earthy and vegetal component, and a complex layer of spice and other aromas.  The gentleman pouring at this table (I really need to find shorthand for this, is ‘pourer’ too diminutive?) said, and he was only slightly exaggerating, that opening this wine filled with room with a cloud of cinnamon.  Next was the previously alluded to red Sancerre, 100% Pinot Noir that tasted like an imaginary blend between Burgundy and Willamette Valley pinot.  Finally, the finishing wine was the ’04 Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny, 100% cab franc, and perhaps the best expression of the varietal I’ve ever tasted – this wine was phenomenal, and I wish I took a bottle with me, but at $65 you have to make some sacrifices.

So all in all I’m very high on the Loire Valley right now.  I tried 5 new varietals (up to 58 now, well on my way to the Wine Century Club), found a new candidate for a value sparkling play, learned about the incredible aging potential of Vouvray, had a white Chinon and red Sancerre, drank juice from 160 year old vines, and tasted what are perhaps the iconic expressions of the Loire’s most well known white and red wines – the Nicolas Joly Savennieres Couleé de Serrant and the Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny, one of which is now sitting on my shelf.

Balthassar is an alternate spelling of Balthazar, which refers to a huge bottle of wine that holds the equivalent of 16 regular sized bottles. It is also the name of one of the biblical three wise men. I have no special affinity to large format bottles, I just liked the name, and the connection to wisdom kind of fits too.

Who am I, what do I have to say, and why should you care? My name is Bill, essentially this is going to be a forum for my opinion and perspective on all things wine-related, and, you shouldn’t, unless you do. Allow me to expand a little on each of those.

First of all I don’t for a minute profess to be an expert or an authority by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoy wine, and I recently decided that I’m passionate enough about it that I want to share my opinions with the world, or anyone who cares. On to my humble background… I’m very young, let’s say I have not legally been drinking wine for very long. I recently graduated from Boston College, and my long term plan is to go to medical school and become a cardiologist [insert resveratrol joke here]. Somewhere along my collegiate adventure I realized I needed to make some money, and, coming from a family where my parents owned a restaurant and catering business, I naturally gravitated towards the food business. The summer after my sophomore year, I began working in fine dining at a particular restaurant in Boston (which I won’t name at the moment, nor the one that I currently bartend at, but most likely will in future posts as they become relevant). Naturally, wine was inevitably part of fine dining, and at the time I knew nothing about it. When I say nothing I mean I couldn’t tell you the difference between Cabernet and Merlot, what color Reisling was, or what the hell Sauvignon Blanc was. So, I headed home for a long weekend and consulted the best wine authority I could think of, my Dad. He went to the liquor store and bought a couple of bottles, we had an intense crash course, and I returned to Boston knowing that Pinot Noir (as if the NOIR doesn’t give it away), was red. After establishing the basal wine knowledge necessary to work in fine dining, I started learning that the more I knew about wine, the more expensive wines I could sell, which translated into higher check averages and more cash in my pocket. Cool. So I started to learn what I could. Eventually I started to enjoy learning, and drinking for its own sake, and then I was hooked.

Fast forward three and a half years. I now know slightly more than the colors of the 10 most popular grape varietals. But the great Socratic maxim that the true indicator of knowledge and wisdom is realizing how much you don’t know perhaps applies more to wine than anything else. No one can possibly know everything. That’s part of the fun, realizing the vast world that’s out there. Sure, you can be a Master of Wine, a Master Sommelier, and know a lot. I’ll be the first to admit that I do not. But a lot about wine is extremely subjective, what you and I smell and taste, and therefore like or dislike may be completely different. Sure, there are some absolutes – tannins are real chemical compounds, residual sugar can be quantified, the vanilla flavor associated with new oak actually comes from a compound called vanillin. But the aromas and flavors that one picks out in a particular wine, and the conclusions one draws about a particular varietal, style, terroir, vintage, or pairing, are largely subjective. So disagree with me, please.

Let me emphasize that last statement. I’m ultimately doing this for myself. If anyone learns anything from anything I put up here, that’s awesome, and I really hope it is the case. If not, I won’t lose any sleep over it. In fact, I’d rather someone read something I post, disagree with it, and call me out on how much of an idiot I am, so that I learn from it. These are merely my observations and reflections on my personal journey to learn everything I can about wine.