What gives one the impetus to isolate yeasts, experiment with, say, cumbersome large barriques, and pursue crafting world-class Sangiovese in a region best known for bulk wine? Probably having regional winemaking in your blood.
That’s the sense that one might take away from a visit to Tenuta Casali, in Romagna’s Mercato Saraceno, where Silvia, Francesco and Daniele Casali now work with the previous Casali generation, Valerio and Paolo, who themselves took over in the late 1970s from grandfather Mario, who farmed their alluvial, stony, and white clay soils since the 1940s as a grower. So there are five family members now involved directly, doing all of the normal family-winery stuff while also attempting the aforementioned experimentation/fine-tuning, and yet I got the impression that things were running well enough, and personally did not notice anyone trying to kill one another while I was there…
Tenuta Casali sits astride the Savio Valley, which itself sits astride Italy’s Appenine hills in Romagna, with approximately twenty hectares of vines (all but twenty percent of which are devoted to Sangiovese) in effect bordered by Tuscany and the Adriatic.
Their vineyard placement – which also enjoys an elevation of between 500 and 800 feet – seems to work some mighty Romagna magic on their Sangio fruit; their reds were some of the best that I tasted during my media trip to the region last year. Not that their whites are slouching, as we’ll get into, well, immediately…
Casali’s Albana is a bit of an extreme, planted at 400 meters on tuffa soils, and it hits the sweet spot between round fullness and fresh minerality. Floral, honeyed, and chock full of ripe stone fruit and brioche action, with impressive balance between a sense of energy and astringency. In other words, much ass is kicked here.
Juicy, supple, and spicy, this is a red that’s easy to down. Black cherries and plum dominate, but it’s never overly or obnoxiously fruity; in fact, at turns this is fresh and structured in ways that should make many, many Italian wine lovers very, very happy.
The grosso clone is used here, from lower-yielding guyot vines in the white-clay Baruccia vineyard, planted in 1990, with the wine being aged in 20hl wooden vats. You might expect a thoroughly old school, sit-on-it-for-20-years Sangio red, and you’d be wrong. While undoubtedly young, this is gorgeous and perfumed now, with dried herb spiciness, black cherry, mint, and cooked orange peel notes, and a palate that mixes structural grit with a supple juiciness and ample freshness. So, yeah… wow.
When Fattoria Zerbina matriarch Cristina Geminiani talks about her Faenza area vineyards in Italy’s Romagna, she gives the distinct impressions that a) she knows what she is doing, and, b) isn’t prepared to take any sh*t about it.
At least, that’s the sense that I got when I got my feet into Zerbina’s 32 hectares of red clay and limestone soils during a recent press jaunt. Geminiani took over the reins of the family wine business (established in the `60s by her grandfather) in 1987, having studied at both the University of Milan and the University of Bordeaux.
Geminiani’s “puzzle” necessitates a pasticcio approach to crafting wine in this case, primarily from Romagna’s Sangiovese and Albana grapes) – combinations of alberello, gobelet, and trellised vine training, and often different pickings (sometimes within the same plots). Zerbina’s proximity to nearby rivers means that their Albana is prone to noble rot, which Geminiani understandably has totally run with for their passito wine, given her experience in Bordeaux.
Albana is Romagna’s other grape, the name being a Latin reference to the fruit’s whitish color. Interestingly, Albana from the region achieved DOCG status way back in 1987, which, this being Italy and all, I can only assume had deeply political origins. Zerbina didn’t get into Albana until 2008, but they have caught up quickly. An earlier harvest gives this a lifted, mineral, perky presentation, with a clean, crisp, clear, and linear mouthfeel. Tropcial fruits move on to stone fruit, fresh citrus, and then wet stone, all of it subtle and impeccably balanced.
Made from the grosso Sangio clone, this is all crowd-pleasing, early-drinking delight; bright, fresh, with plenty of the cherry fruit after which it’s named. Hints of herbs and tobacco add nuance to the friendly proceedings.
The vines that go into Zerbina’s flagship Sangio produce small berries with thick skins, a fact that permeates everything about this leathery, herbal, mineral red that aims for structure over overt opulence. Black cherries, juicy red plums, orange peel, and overarching freshness all combine to make you want to invent a time machine to be able to immediately see what this will become in several years time.
I don’t know exactly how much this little wonder would fetch in the states per bottle, but it won’t be cheap, of that I can assure you. Single berry selection is used here to pick the best of their noble rot-infected Albana grapes, resulting in a concentrated, potent 300 g/l of sugar. Sultana, biscuit, honey blossom, candied lemons… this is fresh, luxuriant, balanced, and stunning.
“Romagna had to fight a lot – and still has to fight a lot.”
So mentioned Alessandro Fiore – who, along with brother Claudio, oversee wine production of Castelluccio, one of their family’s three winery operations – recognizes the oddly ironic state of Romagna wine.
On the one hand, by most measures this hilly, picturesque northen-Italian area near Bolgna is synonymous with what we in the USA consider to be Italian food. Romagna is the birthplace of Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, lasagne, tagliatelle, tortellini, and prosciutto. On the other hand, Romagna is not synonymous with fine Italian wine, having spent decades churning out juice for the bulk market.
But there are several smaller Romagna wine producers who are engaged in fighting the good fight to elevate the region’s craft, including Modigliana’s Castelluccio, nestled in what the Fiore brothers call “ancient Tuscany” (where I visited on a press jaunt back in November). While they might look more like members of early Jethro Tull, the Fiore brothers know that the struggle for Romagna wine recognition is very, very real. Their father, Vittorio Fiore, acquired the majority of their fourteen Romagna hectares of land over several years, and has been focused on quality wine production from their marl and limestone soils since the 1970s. They made a splash early on by producing a regional Sauvignon Blanc (“which at first was not very good” remarked Alessandro) in an area better known for Sangiovese…
That Romagna could produce excellent wine shouldn’t be all that surprising (and with the Fiores, I tasted several, including their neighbor Torre San Martino’s stellar ‘Vigna 1922’ Sangiovese Riserva), given that the Adriatic is a mere 30 kilometers away (leading Alessandro to mention that “the hill is always kissed by the sea breeze,” which you’ll have to imagine spoken in a lyrical Italian accent). Fresh, cold air from the Alps also influences the growing area, and the result is, according to the Fiore bros., “more elegance, finesse, and more bouquet” in their Sangio than can be found in the African-climate-influenced grapes grown further south in Tuscany.
This pair of Castelluccio sippers are making an especially good case for Romagna’s Sangiovese good fight:
The Fiores have been making the all-stainless-steel Le More since the early 1990s. This is lovely, lively stuff, with juicy red plum flavors, bright berry aromas tinged with herbs, and enough vibrancy to light up a dark room. Having said that, it also has juuuuuust enough hint of structure to make you want to immediately start cooking burgers on the grill.
This is single-vineyard, 100% Sangiovese that’s aged in 350 liter French Oak tonneau for a year, then in bottle for nearly another year. Older vines are used, and it’s considered one of the first “Super Romagna” Sangios, having first been released in the 1980s. Fresh, juicy, spicy, and lifted, there are plums of nearly every stripe evoked here, along with wood spices, leather, graphite, orange peel, and finish that is both quite long and very, very elegant. If a wine like this doesn’t punch you in the head with the realization that the Romagna fine wine Sangiovese fight is worth fighting, then you probably ought to be literally punched in the head…
Despite the fact that I have content to write up that spans more than a year of travel (including my takes on the wine scene in Israel, the southern Rhone, and Romagna), the thing that’s been rattling around in my brain and not letting the hell go stems from a much more recent excursion, when I had a brief, impromptu visit taken during my latest jaunt to Monferrato.
Specifically, to the as-of-right-now 219-year-old building (established the same year – 1900 – as the planting of the sort-of-famous tree in their backyard in Nizza) of Scarpa. My short-term obsession has to do with the impression that this relatively small (22 hectares, yielding about 120,000 bottles/year) producer is fascinatingly, anachronistically refreshing within the context of modern Italian wine. Time passing seems to have little impact on how Scarpa approach crafting wine in Piedmont.
Scarpa works only with indigenous Italian grape varieties, and is one fo the few regional producers that have been grandfathered in to the zonal production laws of Barolo. The rest of this short tale is literally told almost exclusively in liquid form, in the hopes that my written words can transmit the sense of nonchalant, almost insouciant joy that Scarpa’s winemaking style presents…
Earthy, old school, and classically framed, this is a textbook definition of how traditional Asti and Piedmontese Barbera shoudl present itself. Juicy red fruits and vivacity are there, but so are hints of tenser structure, leather, and spices. Capable of elevating just about any meat pasta dish to more refined territory at a moment’s notice.
Only 3,000 bottles of this alternatively-styled Nebbiolo were made, using large-format Slavonian oak barrels for aging. If that sounds Old School, it’s intentionally so, but in the best ways imaginable: the ways with stewed plums, incense, cloves, earthiness, minerals, bacon fat, spices, lanolin, violets, licorice, and balsamic. This is intense in its aromatic punch and its vibrancy, but at no point feels overwhelming; in other words, it’s a joy.
Occasionally, you run into a wine that makes little sense without food; this was one of those times. Scarpa’s Freisa Secco is the kind of red that feels disjointed on its own, yet will gracefully, resplendently shine with just about anything at the dinner table. Pepper, wild raspberries, meat, and spices open things up, juicy red plums are next, followed by acidity that’s both intense and yet somehow soft around the edges. The tannins are a bit on the rougher side, but their feel is tempered by a clean, linear, just goddamned delicious finish.
One of the more complex and complicated Brachetto d’Acqui incarnations that you’re likely to ever encounter – herbs, mint, roses, lanolin, juicy and brambly red berries, and savory game meats abound. It’s leathery, chewy, lovely, lively, and difficult to understand at first (don’t worry, it’s also so tasty that soon enough you won’t care).
This is Ruché, a Piedmontese grape with which longtime 1WD readers are already quite familiar, though it’s not labeled as such. Back in `74, Scarpa received a few Ruché plants as a gift, and planted them on sandy soils in a windy, elevated area of their vineyards. That turned out to be just about the perfect spot for Ruché, but at the time Scarpa weren’t permitted to put the grape name on the label. So, like just about all Italian producers do, they turned to their deep penchant for fantasy names. Roses, perfume, pepper, dried herbs, mint, and sour cherries kick things off with this excellent – and stainless steel only – version of one of Italy’s wilier red varieties. There’s a smooth palate entry, austere tannins, and a finish that’s long, tasty, chocolaty, and spicy.
Among Idaho’s state slogans and motto (which have included Esto perpetua, “Great Potatoes,” “What America Was,” and “Tasty Destinations,”) was the phrase “Not California.”
There’s a slight air of desperation and defiance in defining your identity in the negative; though in the case of Idaho’s budding wine production scene, it’s not entirely inappropriate: despite 150+ years of winemaking history, this is a state whose first AVA (Snake River Valley) was recognized less than fifteen years ago (and is probably more famous for Evel Knievel than it is for wine). Idaho’s other two AVAs – Eagle Foothills and Lewis-Clark Valley – are less than five years old, and one of those is a sub-AVA. Despite its visually stunning expanses, the state has a mere 1300 acres of grapes planted, almost all of it in the Snake River Valley, and is home to just over 50 wineries (for some perspective: California has about 4400).
We can forgive Idaho for having a bit of a petulant-attention-seeking-middle-child chip on its wine producing shoulder, because there’s little reason that the state can’t make very, very good wines. Formed from ancient volcanic and flooding activity, Idaho’s soils are sandy, sedimentary and well-draining, and its climate is dry with cold winters; all of which are good conditions for reducing pest and disease pressure for grape vines (and in some cases, allow the vines to be own-rooted).
Actually, there is one very good reason why Idaho wine doesn’t get the media luv right now: there simply isn’t enough of it. As Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Shatz Dolsby told me when I visited the state last year, “our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough grapes.”
Following is a (very) brief overview of the wines that stood out the most to me during my Idaho travels. There are, I think, three basic themes that, like Idaho’s famous rafting rivers, run throughout the best of their vinous experimentation: a sense of purity (possibly helped by the lack of a need to graft on to American rootstocks), a pioneering spirit (sometimes to a fault), and a diversity that few American wine regions can legitimately claim to be able to match…
Now, here’s an example of Idaho’s pioneering ways: in March of 2018, former ballet dancers Travis and Mallory Walker opened up Par Terre (“on the ground”) in Garden City, across the parking lot from a Big Smokes cigarette shop. Travis put it this way: “When we retired [from dancing], we knew that we couldn’t just sit behind a desk. I thought that I could make the most change here.” In terms of passion for wine, they lack little of it, to the point that they grow Gewürztraminer in their backyard as “practice” for when they can plant their own fruit. Their Merlot shows great promise – it’s lithe, silky, and full of black and blue plum action, without shying away from the grape’s penchant for pungent black olive notes.
Also in an urban setting in Garden City, Cinder Wines is the brainchild of Chateau Ste Michelle alumnus Melanie Krause and husband Joe Schnerr (a former chemist). Cinder has seen early success with their chic tasting room and even more chic, clean wines (now up to about 8,000 cases, though some fruit is from nearby WA state). Their Syrah is leathery, toasty, and jam packed with smoked meat aromas, a sense of minerality, and deep, dark fruit flavors.
Kentucky native and Telaya founder Earl Sullivan is a former Pharma COO, his wife Carrie was a veterinarian surgeon, and they run their second careers in wine with all of the gnat’s-ass precision that you’d expect from their backgrounds. That’s a good thing for their 5000 case wine production, which is determined and quality-driven. Earl is a font of information with respect to Idaho’s winemaking issues, from its nascent quality focus (“we used to deal with grape growers,” he told me, “now we deal with wine growers”) to its unique climatic challenges (“we lose a bottle per barrel per month due to the dryness of the climate”). Bright, light, and textural, their Mourvedre is delicious – pepper, red currants, violets, citrus peel, and a sense of tasty delight.
NV 3100 Cellars Whitewater Sparkling (Snake River Valley, $35)
Telaya winemaker Hailey Minder’s side project is named after the number of miles of rivers in Idaho, and given her experience in crafting spumante in Italy, she decided to go with sparkling (though in this case, it’s methode traditionale). Made from Bitner Vineyards Chardonnay, this bubbly is floral, with green and yellow apple notes, and a nice undercurrent (ha ha!) of toastiness. A bit pricey, but also more than a bit tasty, and an open bottle won’t last long.
Situated near the town of Caldwell, Koenig has been in the business of Idaho wine for two decades (and in farming for almost 100 years), which qualifies it as a bit of an institution in these parts. Owner Greg Koenig is tall and mild-mannered, which might explain why some of his wines, among the best in the state, are under-priced. Case in point: this pithy, bright, and citrus-tinged Riesling, which offers aromas of bruised apple, white flowers, toast, and wet slate. The fact that it’s available for under $20 is head-shaking.
Simply put, this is probably the best red that Idaho currently has to offer. Silky, savory, structured, and gritty, there’s power here and a purity of fruit that provides a solid, unflinching backbone for its herb, pepper, and smoked meat aromas. I’m starting to believe in the future of Syrah in Idaho, though I suspect that, like Syrah just about everywhere else, it will continue to be a hand-sell.
First homesteaded in 1909, this family farm now produces almost twenty different labels of wine. Whenever I don’t loathe a domestic US Sangiovese, I consider it a success; even more so when I actually like it. You know immediately what you’re getting with this one, as it has Sangio’s telltale dried orange peel notes and textural combination of vibrancy and chewiness.
2015 Fujishin Reserve Petite Sirah (Snake River Valley, $26)
Martin Fujishin (former Vineyard Manager for Bitner) and Teresa Moy began the Fujishin brand in 2009, and seem to be really coming into their own at the decade mark. Or maybe they came into their own ten years ago and I’m just catching up… Anyway… Violets and vivacity mark the entrance of this big boy red, which lacks shyness but not power, meatiness, or deep, dark fruitiness.
Fujishin’s “second label” is an experimental playground of sorts, and it’s produced this crisp, clean, mineral-and-lime-driven delight. Long and fresh, with exotic fruit and toast notes, it’s yet another under-priced white from the state, who seem to think that the word “Riesling” is German for “offered at a 35% discount.
Named after the Rocky Mountain range that runs through the state, Sawtooth is Idaho’s largest vineyard owner, with 500 acres of vines, and thirty years of experience. In my experience, it’s their higher-end offerings that are worth the attention, in particular this peppery, floral, meaty, and juicy Grenache. Lovely on the nose, things get sultry on the palate, where raspberry, bing cherry, and red plum flavors dominate, along with a sense of both power and energy.
Scoria is one of the more curious success stories of Idaho wine. With a tiny production (expanding now to 2000 cases), the brand is getting press on the media-friendly story of Sydney Nederend, who seems impossibly young for the task of expanding on her family’s long-standing farming business (father Joe Weitz produces mint) by planting mostly Malbec and launching a wine brand. In fact, Nederend was too young to (legally) drink when she began researching the scoria rock and basalt channels that would become the brand’s sandy vineyard soils, and clearing the sage brush in order to plant about 800 vines. What defines this young vine Malbec is its savory texture and black and red cherry fruit flavor combo. It’s spicy, a tad oaky, but definitely promising.
During my recent travels in Piedmont, I was part of a (rather large) media group that took part in a “Barbera Revolution” masterclass, held in the small town of Nizza Monferrato, organized by the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e vini del Monferrato. There was nothing about that tasting of 2016 vintage releases to make me personally think that Barbera was undergoing some sort of quality revolution; likely a result of the fact that, given my history with the region, I was already convinced that Barbera in Asti was experiencing a quality renaissance.
So, no arms were taken up during the sampling of these 2016, but we did take up several glasses of promising Asti reds. Now that my stint with the My Name is Barbera program has wrapped up (for now, anyway), I felt comfy in taking a more critical eye on some of the latest Barbera d’Asti releases (not that you can ever fully take the critical eye from the critical guy, but I’ve generally avoided talking about Piedmonte Barbera here on 1WD while I was cashing checks for the video and blog work over at mynameisbarbera.com).
Here are my personal highlights from the tasting, many of which I think have been given short shrift from other critics in the past, and others that might be looking for US representation (importers… I’m looking at you!)…
Dante Garrone farms his Barbera on clay soils in Montemagno, and his approach can probably be summed up as exuberance. Floral, spicy, and full of wild raspberry fruitiness, this is a supple, fresh, and juicy joy to drink. The dried herb and leather notes are a nice touch, but overall this is friendly to both people and food.
Just about everything from this little number, coming from sandy higher elevation soils, is lovely. Cloves, licorice, juicy red fruits, lithe acids, bouncy texture, great balance… all evoking elegance, and capped by a nose that’s spicy AF.
This is a family that has figured out its sweet spot, marrying modernity with a bit of tradition, and churning out excellent Barbera at prices that are probably too low. Black fruits, plums, earth, spices, violets, cloves, and perfume aromas abound, exuding classiness; jumping acidity in the mouth and a long finish make this gorgeous (and versatile) to drink. Ok, love letter’s over.
Calcareous soils, and a mix of old and new wood make for an interesting combo in this Superiore, which starts off with vanilla, cedar, and plums, then winds its way to licorice, more plums, tannic grip, supple dark fruitiness, and finally to a long exit of spices and herbs. On the fuller-throttle side, and will stand up to heartier fare normally in the Cabernet-or-die territory.
Boom. Savory, juicy, spicy, long, concentrated… but also composed and emphasizing Barbera’s red fruitiness (rather than the darker plums and black cherries that usually accompany a Superiore this ripe). If you dig power, but also dig poise, this is your sweet `16.
There’s refinement amid the power of this 15% abv beast, primarily in how the perfumed aromas of minerals, flowers, cloves, vanilla, and red berries jump out of the glass and into the lap of your nostrils. Sure, there’s some heat, but it’s a sexy kind of heat…
Masters of the new Nizza DOCG, Olim Bauda is primed in style to become a further darling of the wine cool-kid crowd, and I mean that in the most positive senses. Cedar, smoked meat, baking spices, dark red fruits… the entire aromatic package is enticing. In the mouth, this is taught, focused, elegant, and very, very, very serious. Structured, sporting a long finish, bold, powerful, and potent (with that acidity, you’ll barely realize it’s over 15% alcohol), it’s everything that modern Barbera is striving to hit right now.
Dial it all up to 11, Barbera style: ripe red fruits, juicy plums, and raging acids, this is a shy baby right now that’s built for a longer haul in the bottle. Mineral edges, woody spices, and powerful heft and structure (by Barbera standards) are all combined into a potentially future stunner. If you try this and think that Barbera still can’t hang with the big boys, then… well, you’re wrong…
Being DOCGs, these are to be just as regulated as the strictly mandated Moscato d’Asti DOCG, which is good news for Moscato lovers looking for something different (and, presumably, for the Italians looking for work enforcing the regulations!). Like Moscato d’Asti, the new DOCGs are made from 100 percent Moscato Bianco grapes grown in the region, but don’t require Moscato dAsti’s vintage declaration. Confusingly (for me, anyway), neither mentions the grape in its DOCG name. Anyway, here’s the run-down of the new categories, both of which offer a broader stylistic range of Asti Moscato…
ASTI Dolce DOCG – This is the new sweet(ish) wine category for Asti’s Moscato. The Like Moscato d’Asti, the sugar is all natural/residual, mitigated to some extent by the bubbles and the ample acid volume. In my experience tasting the versions now available, you generally get a slightly sweeter, easy-to-imbibe presentation of Moscato Bianco in this new DOCG, with tons of floral, grape, and stone fruit aromatics, and a straightforward, harmonious finish. Think aperitif, or pairing with fruity desserts, and be prepared to pour a not-insubstantial amount of this stuff to party guests.
11.5% minimum potential alcohol
6-7% actual alcohol
4.5 g/l minimum total acidity
3.0 bar minimum pressure
90-100 g/l sugar
ASTI Secco DOCG – There are far fewer examples of this new category of Moscato Bianco being made than its Dolce counterpart (particularly in the Extra-dry and Demi-sec versions), but I did manage to get my lips on a few of them during my Asti travels. In general, this is Asti’s answer to Prosecco, offering a drier non-vintage style (courtesy of higher bubble pressure and lower residual sugars). It’s a food-friendly Moscato style, with the floral bite amped up (think hoppy beer), the finish drier (sugars are almost ten times lower than in Moscato dAsti), and the body more substantial (almost double the alcohol of its lower-abv Asti counterpart DOCGs).
11.5% minimum potential alcohol
11% actual alcohol
4.5 g/l minimum total acidity
3.0-3.5 bar minimum pressure
17 g/l sugar (average)
I see a good market for ASTI Dolce, but personally I am most excited about the Secco category, as it will explore a side of Moscato Bianco that we rarely ever see (even in Italy).
Speller’s masterclass was part of a presentation given to media guests gathered at the bucolic Castello Gancia, smack dab in the heart of Asti and a focal point of the area’s recent UNESCO designation. It’s the kind of place that you imagine in your dreams of what Piemonte would be like (17th century architecture sitting atop gorgeous rolling hills… that sort of thing).
Anyway, it only took me about ten minutes into that masterclass for the cold water of facts to jolt me out of any residual dreamlike morning Piemonte trance into the realization that just about everything that I thought I’d known about Asti’s boisterous vinous calling card was, basically, absolute wrong. I’m betting that most of you reading this have gotten it wrong, too; the simple truth is that the simple pleasures of Moscato d’Asti – hands-down one of the dead easiest wines to enjoy – belie complexities that are pretty friggin’ serious.
I’m not talking about Moscato’s complexity in the nose, either; though a good argument could be made that, in terms of volume of aromatic compounds, Moscato Bianco is one of the most aromatically complex grape varieties in the world. But I am talking about… well, just about everything else that goes into making a finished, drinkable Moscato d’Asti product…
Moscato Bianco has been in the Piedmonte mix of making high quality wines since at least the early 1500s, though its longevity in that category (as Speller put it, “a mediocre wine could never stand the test of time”) is a bit peculiar given what a pain in the ass it can be to grow properly. To get the right mix of acidity, sugar, and aromatics, you need to pick Moscato Bianco at the right time – usually between August and September, when it’s most prone to be rainy. As (bad) luck would have it, the grape is susceptible to powdery mildew, so that timing is perfect if your goal is to increase the need for vineyard labor.
To mitigate this – and to grow the stuff on the right soils (ancient seadbed and sandstone, for instance) to fine-tune the aromatics (yet another hidden complexity) – Moscato in Asti is mostly planted on hillsides at higher (200-300 meters) elevation. This has the effect of vastly increasing the need for manual viticulture (unless you are fond of flipping tractors), since over 9700 hectares of Moscato in the region are planted on gradients above thirty percent. My back hurts just hearing things like that. Oh, and much of the vines are older plantings, so they naturally produce lower yields. They also consists of lots of smaller (about four hectares on average) plots, with some vineyards now in danger of being abandoned altogether (can’t say that I blame them, given the combination of all of the above).
If it’s beginning to feel like it’s a miracle that these deceptively simple wines ever get made, we haven’t even talked about the vinification method, which essentially combines arrested fermentation (to retain natural sweetness) with Charmat-method bubbles (a process that Charmat himself refined, but was invented by the un-credited Italian Federico Martinotti). These are laborious processes to get right even now, so one can imagine how difficult they used to be before techniques like, say, refrigeration. Moscato d’Asti, after all of that, also happens to be one of the more regulated wines on the planet, mandatory vintage declarations, and every bottle being (theoretically, anyway) traceable at every step from the vineyard to consumer sale.
So… I felt… dumb. Hopefully, after reading this, you feel the exact opposite, and are ready to show off your newfound wine smarties the next time you’re kicking back on your yacht pouring copious amounts of Moscato d’Asti for bikini- (or speedo-) clad models. Unless you already knew all of this stuff about what might be Italy’s most deceptive “simple” wine, in which case, stop lying already.
Late last year, I had the pleasure (once again) of pretending to be an all-growed-up wine pro judging alongside some very notable palates at the 38th annual San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Judging the SFIWC almost always ends up being one of my favorite events of the entire year, and despite quite a bit of behind-the-scenes personnel changes, the competition didn’t skip a beat; I had a blast, with the only downer being the inundation of the city streets by the ominous smoke from the nearby Camp Fire (terribly, California’s deadliest and most destructive to date).
The results of the 2018 SFIWC have been announced, so I am officially allowed to share them with you. Here are some thoughts on the Best In Show winners, which are determined after going through 1) two days of normal judging panels, 2) “super tastings” of judges from multiple panels (meant to whittle down the field of wines deemed excellent enough to potentially vie for Best In Show ), and finally 3) a lively and spirited sweepstakes round in which the the most awarded wines are pitted against one another…
Best in Show Red (and Best Syrah): 2015 V. Sattui Winery Syrah (Napa Valley, USA, $50) – This spicy, deep, and concentrated little number edged out a field of tough competitors that included some killer Pinots; that a Syrah took top honors is, I think, indicative of the scientifically proven fact [ editor’s note: this is not factual and has never been proven clinically ] that hating on Syrah makes you boring and stupid.
Best in Show White (and Best Riesling): 2018 Winemaking Tasmania Artisan Riesling (Tasmania, $NA) – Well… I didn’t even pretend not to be relieved that a more marketable grape took top White honors in 2018, after a run of a few, uhm, more obscure varieties garnering the top spot in the lastcouple of SFIWC results. Perky and focused, this one will be difficult to find but well worth seeking.
Best in Show Dessert (and Best Ice Wine): 2017 Inniskillin Niagara Estate Riesling Icewine (Niagara Peninsula, Canada $80, half bottle) – Holy f*ck, this is soooooo good. Look, Canadian Ice Wine is usually a safe bet for those who like their dessert wines to amp up the volume on sweetness, fruit purity, and natural acidity, but when Riesling gets the Great White North Ice Wine treatment, something magical happens… floral, candied, lip-smacking, succulent magic…
Sometimes, the wine business is a very, very small place. Also, I am about to talk about jellyfish. You’ve been warned…
While in San Francisco recently for the SF International Wine Competition (more on the results of that in a couple of weeks), I caught up with wine marketing maven Tim Martin. Longtime 1WD readers might recognize Tim’s name from way back in 2012, when apparently (according to Tim, anyway) I was the first person to write about Tim’s Napa Valley project, Tusk. “We’ve got a ten year waiting list on Tusk now,” Tim mentioned, which I suppose is much more a tribute to that brand’s cult status, and the prowess of winemaker Philippe Melka than it is to my influence. I mean, as far as I know, even my mom doesn’t read 1WD.
After Hidden Ridge patriarch Lynn Hofacket – who planted the vineyards on the steep hills of that estate (some of which literally match the great pyramids in slope percentage) – passed away, his wife Casidy ward eventually (though not without some trepidation, as I’ve been told) sold the vineyards to what would become the team behind what would become Immortal Estate (Hidden Ridge winemaker Timothy Milos remains a part of the team).
It was Hofacket’s passing, which nearly coincided with the death of Martin’s father, that became the genesis of Immortal’s brand name. “I started to think about legacy, and what we leave behind” Martin told me, and he noticed that Wine Advocate’s 100-point review of the 2013 Hidden Ridge Impassable Mountain Cabernet included the phrase “This wine is nearly Immortal.” And thus, a brand (or, at least, the idea of one) was born.
Which brings us to the jellyfish…
Immortal Estate’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon has a jellyfish on the label. Not just any jellyfish, of course, but the small Turritopsis dohrnii, which possesses the Medusozoa equivalency of near immortality. There’s no good way of explaining this, so I’ll point you to an excerpt from www.immortal-jellyfish.com:
Turritopsis dohrnii is now officially known as the only immortal creature. The secret to eternal life, as it turns out, is not just living a really, really long time. It’s all about maturity, or rather, the lack of it. The immortal jellyfish (as it is better known popularly) propagate and then, faced with the normal career path of dying, they opt instead to revert to a sexually immature stage.
Sexual immaturity? Forever? That’s not exactly a wine marketer’s wet dream, but check out how the innards of this nigh-undying look to the human eye; namely, almost exactly as if it’s carrying a wee little glass of red wine:
Turritopsis dohrnii (image: amnh.org)
Now, that kind of is a wine marketer’s wet dream right there.
One of my first questions to Martin, because this is the kind of guy I am, is why, if the vineyard site and winemaker are the same, should anyone feel compelled to pay three-to-four times the Hidden Ridge asking prices for Immortal Estate. Martin’s answer was obviously well-considered, and just as obviously wasn’t marketing fluff: “Lynn just didn’t have the same resources to elevate the farming practices as we do.”
In other words, Immortal’s Randy Nichols has the funds to farm their unique vineyard site to its fullest potential. And personally, I think you can already taste it.
Available by acquisition only because, well, cult wine. Densely packed, in terms of palate weight, complexity or aromas, and intensity of mouthfeel, this is immediately identifiable as a Napa Valley styled classic, but of course in a blind tasting we’d all get it wrong since it’s technically from Sonoma. Cassis, pencil lead, cocoa, dried herbs, black and red plums… the stuff just keeps coming and coming.
Interestingly, while this is drinkable stuff now, the palate has hints of reservation. There are nice laces of acidity through the leather of the tannins and the density of the fruit, but it’s the tannin action that has the most depth to it. Deceptively so, however; those tannin chains are nice and long, so you’re getting a silky experience now, and so it’s easy to miss just how much structural scaffolding is built into this puppy. The tannin Force is, indeed, strong with this one; and it has many, many, many years of excellent drinking ahead of it.