Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bordeaux 2010 Primeurs - a unique viewpoint

There's a lot of serious talk around at the moment about Bordeaux 2010 - most of it justified. From the already published opinions of Queen Jancis, James Suckling, various merchants and numerous bloggers - all the talk is of another legendary vintage. Everyone now awaits the pronouncements of Sir Bob (Parker - not Geldof) due in the first few days of May.

In the meantime, it's great to stumble across a somewhat more light-hearted approach......

Bordeaux 2010 Belair Monange en-Primeur

Have a look at some of the other videos too - the ones on Ch. Lafite Rothschild, Petrus and Ausone are wonderful. Did no-one notice he was filming them..?

Bizarre stuff!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

VinItaly 2011 - Day Two

“VinItaly – another love story in Verona” – sounds nice, but does it really mean anything? How much money do you think they spent on dreaming up that little nugget? Anyway, our own love story with Verona was about two hours away as we sat in traffic on the Autostrada from Brescia to Verona. After a particularly wild night out on the tiles in party central Brescia, we decided to set off even earlier to beat the traffic we had encountered on the first day. So did everyone else.

As we sat in the traffic, Sinead decided she wanted to join Twitter. Being a Twitter-virgin, Gay kindly took her through all the steps. After much deliberation and discussion about finding a quirky, memorable and above all, cool name, Sinead plumped for @sineadcabot. Very adventurous. Gay and Sinead then spent the next 20 minutes tweeting each other – from the front seat of the car to the back seat. I can’t see this Twitter thing ever taking off….

We arrived just over an hour late. Friday was obviously a more important day as the organisers had commandeered part of the car park that had been available the day before to facilitate a stream of helicopters depositing VIWI’s (Very Important Wine Importers) – sadly we didn’t spot anyone from Ireland scrambling out of one.

First stop was a Prosecco masterclass with La Riva dei Frati. We have always been big fans of their Prosecco but recent legislative changes in Italy and price rises have strained the relationship a little. In Ireland, we can import a Frizzante D.O.C. Prosecco at the normal Excise Duty rate, but a Spumante falls foul of the double “Champagne” rate. Until recently, producers could bottle their Frizzante D.O.C. with either a Spago (flat cork) closure or mushroom cork – but the Italian regulations now specify that only Summate D.O.C.G. can have a mushroom cork. All reasonable enough until you remember that the producer’s vineyards are all within the Valdobbiadene D.O.C.G. region. So the wine in the Frizzante D.O.C. is effectively exactly the same as in the Spumante D.O.C.G. – yet they want to charge two very different prices. Hence the mild consternation and a reluctance on our part to be charged more for the same thing – just because the regulations changed. The meeting and tasting was very productive – “really good” and “Prosecco” are still rare words in the same sentence, but in fairness to La Riva, they deliver – across their whole range. The tasting and meeting worked for all of us – they now understand our market and pricing concerns a bit better and we understand their desire to create a hierarchical range of Proseccos emphasising quality at different levels. I should have been a diplomat.

After spending far too much time tasting Prosecco, we were now late for everything – with lunch looking like a very distant possibility. A quick stop at a new potential Sicilian producer called Foraci yielded a delicious and well-priced Nero’ d’Avola – a variety with great potential for challenging Syrah as a juicy, flavoursome red.

Onwards to Antonio Fattori – late again. His Pinot Grigio Gregoris is one of our bigger selling Italian whites – a Pinot Grigio that actually tastes of something, yet doesn’t cost the earth. However, to write him off as a producer of large volumes of tasty Pinot Grigio would be to hugely underestimate his skills as a winemaker – and one who is continuously evolving. He was in good form and up for a chat about winemaking, life and the pursuit of happiness – all good things to talk about. First up was a new project – his Soave Runcoris 2010 “Free Wine”. This is a special cuvee produced almost anaerobically and therefore without added sulphites. This is a contentious issue, and I for one do not believe the “all Sulphur is bad Sulphur” brigade and to even raise the topic is a but like jumping into a field of nettles. My biggest problem is not the actual winemaking techniques, which I applaud, but the marketing “image” that goes along with it – and by association, the implication that other wines are less natural, or have much more sulphur. To be clear: this wine has no sulphur added – but it does have natural sulphur of about 17mg/l as a by-product of fermentation. A white wine made by a skilled winemaker who does add sulphur might only have a total of about 25mg/l – of which 17mg/l is natural. Then there is the issue of cellar cleanliness – sulphur can be used as a cleaning agent in a winery – and to produce wines with no added sulphur requires scrupulously clean equipment – so there’s a challenge. So I believe that to label wines as either “sulphur free”, “natural” etc. is disingenuous to the skill and intelligence of the winemaker who actually understands the tools with which they have access to but maybe choses not to market them as such. That said, there is no doubt Antonio is very open about his reasons for participating in the project: he wants to push the envelope – to see what can be achieved. He acknowledges that Garganega is a suitable variety for such a project, whereas a less “stable” variety such as Sauvignon Blanc wouldn’t work. He also points out that overall levels of sulphur use have dropped dramatically over the past few years and that this project is about trying to go that tiny, final bit of the journey to see if it’s possible or not.

As an aside, Gay pointed out that apart from the wine itself, the label might cause a bit of confusion – not of the sulphurous variety, but monetary. He has visions of people wandering into his shop and helping themselves to “Free Wine” – ta very much!

Antonio’s other wines reinforced the image of a winemaker clearly in command of what he does – the “regular” Runcoris Soave 2010 was lovely and the Soave Daniele 2009 (Stelvin closure) was outstanding. As Antonio pointed out (and we agreed) it is just beginning to drink beautifully – just as he has run out of it and moves to the tighter 2010 bottling. He was like a magician producing different cuvees of this and that from behind the table, but none of us expected a Spumante – a lovely, fresh effervescent way to finish the tasting.

Next, it was back to another Prosecco producer, Il Follo. As the issue of price increases and legislative confusion had frustrated us last year, we had gone on the hunt for a less expensive Prosecco Frizzante. In a huge blind tasting, Luca Follador’s D.O.C. Treviso had stood out head and shoulders above the rest. It’s also a Frizzante, but instead of just bringing the second fermentation to 2.5 atmospheres in the autoclave, they allow the pressure to rise all the way to 5 atmospheres (full Spumante / champagne) and then let the pressure dissipate naturally back to Frizzante level. This gives a Prosecco with much finer bubbles and greater persistence in the glass. The overall House style is also a little drier here than at La Riva dei Frati.

By this stage, any hope of chewing on a Panini for lunch had disappeared – so we went to chew on some wines instead with Enzo Boglietti. Since our first tasting of Enzo’s wines over a decade ago (we found the key outside the kitchen door and wandered in to help ourselves), we have been following his progress. He was one of the first producers to use barriques in a complimentary way, not to suffocate the fruit. Yet his wines are big and rich and very modern. Almost too big and rich – after tasting the whole range and a collection of older vintages of different Barolo cuvees, the inside of our mouths felt like we had been eating dry straw for a week. The Barbera 2009 was lovely and savoury, and the elegance of the 2009 Langhe Nebbiolo was captivating. Some of the other wines were almost a bit too much – impressive certainly, but challenging at this stage of their youth. And then, in the middle of the onslaught of extraction and brawny tannins, a wonderfully perfumed Barolo Fossati 2007 jumped out – elegance, persistence and very fine tannins – just lovely. Of the three Barolo Crus that Enzo produces, Fossati is always my favourite.

Sticking with Piedmont, we then headed off to meet with Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino. Renato is the stylistic opposite of Enzo – his wines are more Burgundian in style, with pure, focussed fruits delivering poised and elegant wines. Only problem was that Renato was nowhere to be found – 11,000 people in a small space doesn’t make for great mobile phone coverage and our attempts to make contact failed. So there was only one thing for it: raid his locker, open the wines and grab a few glasses. Much to the bemusement of the neighbouring stand, we set about our own impromptu tasting – minus the winemaker. The 2010 Dolcetto, aged in steel tanks had nice, dark cherry fruit and a savoury finish. The 2009 Barbera had violets on the nose and soft, fresh fruits – it’s what I’d happily describe as “lip smacking”. The three Barbaresco were all from 2007 – his “normale” and two crus, Albesani and Ovello. We discovered later that we had picked bottles that had been opened the previous day and had no doubt succumbed to the heat of the hall, as they tasted just slightly soupy. Nevertheless, there was great purity of fruit coming through, with a nice hint of minerality and only the slightly disjointed finish pointed to the heat in both the Hall and from the 2007 vintage.

One last stop – and a producer we have always admired from afar: Villa Caffagio. Here they keep things simple – unlike many of their peers who have been seduced by the marketing potential of different “Super-Tuscan” cuvees. Here is it just Chianti Classico, a Riserva and two special cuvees – San Martino (100% Sangiovese) and Cortaccio (1005 Cabernet). All were delicious – managing to combine a depth of fruit flavour with fine tannins and no signs of over-extraction. They had structure, but not harsh tannins and were a lovely set of wines. As someone who is enjoying the odd bottle of their 1999 vintage from a small stash, it was a really pleasurable tasting where, for once, the wines did live up to their reputation.

Not having eaten anything for 11 hours at this stage, we decided it was time to wave goodbye to VinItaly and head back to the bright lights of Brescia. On arrival, we had the best and worst experiences of our short time in Brescia. The best was stumbling across a tiny, dingy bar that seemed to be staffed by an endless succession of old, wiry men who were quite happy to slice salami all evening to accompany many varied glasses of fresh and fruity whites. All their mates were in the back playing cards and the banter was great. The downside was that we left – fuller than intended – to go to a highly rated restaurant we had booked – only to discover that their “unique” offering was beef burgers made from Irish beef served on brown sheets of paper. Not quite Supermacs…. but a posher Italian version.

Was going back to VinItaly a success? Yes, definitely. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out of Italy these days and it was great to get into the thick of it and taste what we already import alongside their peers. We were really happy with what we tasted. Is that smugness? I honestly don’t think so – just a nice reassuring feeling.

Only 361 days until the next one…..

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

VinItaly 2011 - Day One

I have sinned - it has been two years since my last VinItaly – a confession by any standards. After 8 years of consecutive VinItaly Fairs, I took a break for the last 2 – something to do with about 11,000 people cooped up in vast, hot, noisy halls had put me off. Not to mention some over zealous attendees trying to rob wines from the various stands, imbibing too much and falling over in the corridors. OK – maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but I definitely needed a break from it.

Two years later, I was ready to return! The lure of the Bordeaux 2010 Primeurs circus and/or Prowein were both strong – but VinItaly won out mainly due to the opportunity to catch up with some favourite producers and have a quick search for some new value wines – something Italy does better and better each year. A few things had changed since the last visit: mostly critically the little “Locanda” slap bang into the middle of the old part of Verona that we previously stayed in had closed. Bad news. This used to be a wonderful little secret – basic, good value and a long list of things you couldn’t do… “No dogs, no cheques, no late arrival, no lift, no breakfast.” It will be missed.

So the process of identifying a new base began. Would it be a very basic, yet ridiculously expensive dive in Verona that jacks up the price during VinItaly by a multiple of 10 – with a minimum of a 5 night stay? Or would it be something a little different? Well, different won out – by a long shot. Try different town altogether. Try Brescia. Certainly a nice town for a romantic break or cultural enrichment – but maybe not the best place to stay in for VinItaly. An hour long journey each way to and from Verona made us feel a bit like we were on another planet. Quite possibly we were.

I assumed driving duties – I’m not quite sure how I landed that role, but Gay did (quite cleverly I think) tell me he accidently forgot his driving licence. And I don’t think it crossed Sinead’s mind to bring hers. So it was down to me to drive, taste, spit, write notes, taste, spit, write notes, taste, spit – and drive. Actually, the closet we came to a crash was when I was fiddling with a self-administered breathalyser thing at 140km/h on the Autostrada. Definitely won’t try that again.

As to the Fair itself – well, we arrived early (but not quite as early as planned – something called traffic) on the Thursday morning. Years of previous experience have taught us that only the vinuously insane would attempt to attend on a Saturday or Sunday when it’s a general free-for-all. All was relatively quiet on the Thursday, with many producers looking slightly confused – that sort of “just landed from another planet – and is this all real?” type look. We decided that the best start to two days of non-stop tasting would be some high quality, crisp fresh whites and we headed straight for San Michele Appiano – or Kellerei St. Michael Eppan as they seem to now prefer to be known. Why these wines don’t sell more for us is always a mystery – I suppose in a sea of inexpensive (and largely bland) Pinot Grigio and other watery Italian whites, these are small islands of excellence and it’s easy to lose sight of them. However the quality is superb – the Pinot Bianco, Riesling and Gewurztraminer all from the 2010 Classic Range were delicious and each one a great template for a varietal wine – unique, yet accessible. The Pinot Nero Riserva would put many a Burgundian or NZ Pinot to shame, but at a similar price it’s a tough challenge to actually get someone to taste both to make the comparison. Shame. One of their most well-know wines is their annual Tre Bicchieri winner, the oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc Sanct Valentin. It’s certainly an impressive wine – but after the purity of the initial wines, it seemed a little heavy and lumbering.

On the way to our next appointment, we stopped briefly at another well-known Alto Adige producer. Without wanting to sound too biased (but I suppose we obviously are), to say we were underwhelmed in comparison to St. Mick would be an understatement. We left with a spring in our step and a certain uncharacteristic – and definitely undesirable – smugness.

Puglia was next – Cantina San Donaci to be precise. Some years back we visited here and witnessed the beginnings of a wine-making revolution of sorts. There was a relatively old fashioned co-operative with many members producing juicy, chunky wines. But there was also an ambitious “Presidente” along with a talented winemaker who wanted to turn the Cantina around and make it a source for smooth, velvety, balanced wines from the old vine Negroamaro and Primitivo fruit that they had access to. Since then, the quality has soared – yet the prices remain reasonable. We sat down with Carlo in eager anticipation of a great tasting. These were some of the most inexpensive, yet highest quality, wines we were to taste at the Fair. They have a new entry-level range called Fontenera and a also a wonderful new cuvee called Contrade del Falco (blend of Negroamaro and Primitivo) along with our old favourite – the barrique aged Salice Salentino Anticaia Riserva. Normally, hot climate, rich grape varieties (like Negroamaro) and barrique ageing are a recipe for testosterone-charged, full-throttle, chunky and alcoholic wines. But not here. Each one was silky smooth and elegant – with some very skilful and impressive winemaking evident. We finished off with a sweet red called Pietra Caya – a Malvasia “dolce” that was sublime. A great tasting and watch out for much flag waving from us when the new wines arrive in a few weeks time.

Next it was back to some whites – and an intruder. The guys from Verus (in Slovenia) had told us they were getting up at 3am to drive to VinItaly to show their 2010 vintage wines on the stand of their Italian importer. Although we had tasted them a few weeks previously, we wanted to go and taste again – and to try and squeeze a few more bottles out of them for a shipment later in the year. Their Italian importer turned out to be one of the big, flash companies with a castellated stand that looked like something straight out of the Princess Bride. We were swept past security (very impressive looking security indeed) and upstairs where we enjoyed some delicious Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sipon with Danilo and Rajko. And we got a promise of an increased allocation – although I think it was due to the sleep deprivation that they were suffering from – when they wake up they might regret it! Success again.

On our way from Slovenia to Tuscany, we decided to stop by Lazio and do a quick tasting with Falesco. The wines used to be imported by O’Briens and were excellent price/quality wines. I’m not sure what happened with O’Briens, and they certainly didn’t look like they were going to tell us, so we just asked to try some wines. The Vitiano Bianco (Vermentino and Verdicchio) was lovely, but the Falesco Rosso tasted a bit like it (or the winemaker) was trying too hard – soft and a little soupy, but with a twist of heat on the finish. We tried a couple of other cuvees too – but overall, we were slightly underwhelmed. It could have been the heat, the day, the mood we were in – but something wasn’t working quite right.

Onwards then to Renzo Masi from Chianti Rufina. We feel like we know Anna-Rita and Paolo very well by now – and swap horror stories about kids etc. Once again, we are fortunate to be working with a producer who focuses exclusively on producing inexpensive wines of exceptional quality. No stratospherically priced super-Tuscan icons here – just great drinking value. For some strange reason though, none of this winemaking skill seems to have been applied to the labelling so best news of all was that the slightly wildly labelled Poggerissi wines have been the subject of a label makeover and now sport a far more restrained label that won’t give your granny nightmares. Of course, both the Bianco and Rosso were delicious as usual, along with the Renzo Masi Chianti (from bought in grapes) and the Basciano Chianti Rufina (from estate grapes). Every year, Anna-Rita gives us a big poster showing a collection of all the awards and scores the wines have accumulated. And every year we focus hard to see if they have repeated anything from previous versions – but each time we’re surprised (and impressed) to discover that, yes, everything on the sheet has been achieved in the past 12 months.

With time moving very quickly at this stage, we hurried over to Aldo Degani. Now, here is a very humble and quiet – yet impressively talented – winemaker. Not much chat from Aldo – I don’t think you’d find him doing stand-up on Italy’s Got Talent – but if it was a competition for wines that could talk for themselves, then they’d do very well. Again, he tends to go for purity of fruit, balanced concentration and elegance – not descriptors usually associated with Amarones. His straight Valpolicella Classico is packed full of juicy, cherry fruit and the Ripasso is velvet (more velvet!) and rich without any portiness at all. The Amarone has surprisingly soft, warm fruit and is also very smooth – a wine to drink and enjoy.

With an hour-long drive back to the very distant hotel beckoning, we left the Fair just after 6pm and headed back to explore the nightlife that Brescia had to offer. Not very much it would seem!