A ‘Primer’ on Barolo

Our recent offering of Vietti’s latest vintage of Castiglione, a 95 point blend of two single-vineyard Barolo, got us thinking about Barolo’s history, how it grew to be more like Burgundy, along with questions about aging and the 2010 vintage, so it seemed like a good time to offer a little ‘primer’ on the subject!

Vietti Estate

Vietti was a pioneer in developing ‘Cru’ Barolo.

Italy’s Burgundy? Barolo, like Burgundy, are vineyard-driven wines, mostly due to the work of Vietti. Italy’s Barolo region and its classic Nebbiolo grape have a lot in common with red Burgundy. While the structure and flavors differ, both Barolo and Burgundy are all about perfume and complexity.

The best wines start with a core of ripe primary red fruit and then add on layers of floral, earth, and spice complexity. And both get even more complex and compelling with age, becoming wines you linger over and sometimes just smell for minutes before you even take your first sip.

Today, at their best, both Burgundy and Barolo are vineyard-driven wines that producers offer in various levels of specificity. Most Barolo producers start their line-up with a straight Nebbiolo di Langhe (their Bourgogne) based on fruit from just outside the important Barolo villages or young vines from within. Next, Barolo Normale (like a Village Burgundy), often a blend of fruit from lesser vineyards within Barolo. Then, the single-Cru Barolo (a 1er Cru Burgundy) made from grapes grown entirely in a single vineyard recognized for quality over the years. Last – Barolo’s Grand Cru – one or two Riserva Barolos from the very best vineyards and with extra time in cellar.

‘Cru’ Barolo. Vietti and its long-time head Alfredo Currado were largely responsible for this modern-day Burgundy parallel. When he started making wine, virtually all Barolo was bottled as a blend of vineyards. Alfredo was one of the first producers to assert that Barolo vineyards have as much to say as their Burgundy counterparts, and the first to bottle a line of unblended, single-vineyard “Cru” Barolo.

Today, Vietti’s Barolo from Lazzarito, Brunate, Rocche, and Vilero routinely top critics ratings (Galloni awarded Vietti’s top 2010s ratings of 99 and 100 points!) and, unfortunately, sell at prices in line with the very best of Burgundy. Having established the single-cru principal, Alfredo was less sure what to do with the family’s smaller vineyard holdings in the outstanding Crus of Bussia, Ravera, Bricco del Fiasco, Fossati, and Ciabot Berton.” His success with single-vineyard wines convinced him that he didn’t want to make a “normale” Barolo, but his vineyards in these Crus were too small to be bottled on their own. Alfredo’s compromise was to introduce his “Barolo Castiglione” – a blend of his smaller Cru vineyards made to drink young and introduce customers to the “house style.”

Castiglione Moves Up! Alfredo’s son, Luca, was never comfortable seeing fruit from some of Barolo’s best and most famous vineyards end up in what was a delicious, but “easy” wine. So, starting in 1999, Luca began using only the very best Nebbiolo from the most successful of his smaller Cru holdings in Castiglione, with the rest of the fruit going into a value-priced Langhe Nebbiolo he called “Perbacco”.

It took Luca a few years to find the right approach for Castiglione, but in 2004, he seemed to figure it out. As Wine Advocate reported, “With this [the 2004] effort, the Castiglione bottling takes an important step in Currado’s plan to make this wine much closer in quality to his single-vineyard offerings.” And, a few vintages later, the Advocate said, “Barolo is never inexpensive, but the Castiglione is as good a wine as readers will find for the money.” We’ve been fans of Vietti, the Currado family, and – especially – Castiglione for years, and last year’s 2009 seemed to us to be the very best Castiglione yet. The 2010 is simply better. Here you’ll find all the ripe fruit and power we loved in the luscious 2009, but with more grace, purity and length. It’s a stunner, folks, one that you will struggle to keep your hands off of from the moment the first bottle crosses your threshold at home.

How Long Do I Wait? Barolo is one of those wines we talk about cellaring for years and enjoying for decades – but there’s no need to wait even a day to enjoy the very best of modern-day Barolo like Vietti’s 2010 Castiglione. In the old days, Barolo’s Nebbiolo grape was usually harvested with searing acidity and masses of tough, chewy, tannin that needed at least a decade of cellar time before delivering any pleasure at all. After some unfortunate experiments with manipulation in the winery – small oak barrels, roto-fermenters, cultured yeasts and more – the best Barolo growers now know that the secret to creating long-lived Nebbiolo wines that still deliver pleasure young is simple – grow ripe grapes.

As Antonio Galloni explains: “As structured as the 2010s are, these aren’t your father’s (or mother’s) Barolos. In other words, the wines won’t take decades to become approachable. Significant strides in viticulture and winemaking have made today’s young Barolos more approachable than they have ever been. For example, the 2008 Barolos, wines from another cool, late-maturing vintage, are surprisingly open today. Those wines may close down at some point in the future, but the days of needing to cellar Barolos for decades before they drink well is largely a thing of the past. The last vintage I can remember with truly forbidding youthful tannins is 1999.”

Fellow critic James Suckling agrees, especially in 2010. “‘Crowd pleaser’ is the way I like to describe it in view of most of the wines’ early drinkability. You can pull the cork and drink most of them, especially if you decant them an hour or two before serving.”

By all means, try to hold on to some of your 2010 Vietti Castiglione and let it develop the extra gear of aroma and complexity that only cellar aging can provide. But, if you’ve got a meal of richly flavored food – perhaps a roast with some mushroom risotto – pop a bottle of this and splash it in a decanter for a couple of hours and then dig in. You will not be disappointed!

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What We’re Drinking – Happy New Year!

nye leflaiveWhat to drink to ring in the New Year is always a fraught question here.  We tend to bandy about ideas for holiday meals and what to drink with them for weeks beforehand – it’s our version of water cooler gossip.  Here’s what we drank on the last night of 2013:

Randy brought plenty of Finca Valldosera’s Brut to a party, and reports that both he and his fellow partygoers thoroughly enjoyed it, though no one ended up with a lampshade on his or her head.  Whew!  In all seriousness, this high-quality sparkler from Spain is the perfect thing to pick up when you want something that drinks like Champagne – dry and crisp with a touch of yeastiness – but don’t quite have the budget for it.

When asked what he and Meg drank on New Years, Doug shrugged and said, “Coessens,” as though there could be no other answer.  It’s our current favorite grower Champagne, a brooding blanc de noirs from a small producer in Aube.  It’s a great choice for an evening of noshing, because its acidity, complexity, and deeper flavors make it a great match for almost anything you might throw at it.

In a momentary fit of culinary ambition, Diane built a meal around the stunning Domaine LeFlaive 2009 Bourgogne.  There’s nothing ‘little’ about the entry-level wine from this famous estate, and its racy acidity and judicious use of oak were a perfect match for pureed cauliflower with seared scallops, shrimp and beurre blanc.  Hey, you’ve been eating like crazy for a month, why not go out with a bang?

So, what did you drink to start off 2014?

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Our Favorite Class of the Year – Champagne!

champagne customers class 3

As much as we love all the classes on our calendar, we have a soft spot for our annual Champagne class.  Our customers seem to as well, because we’ve had to start doing two sessions to satisfy the demand!  Two evenings of bubbly?  Well, twist our arms…

Every year we try to present a mix of big-name classic Champagnes and more unusual, under-the-radar producers to give you a balanced perspective on this most celebratory of beverages.  Champagne can be an intimidating subject, so we try to take the mystery out of it by showing a wide range of styles and explaining some of the lingo attached to Champagne – that way, when you are in a restaurant or shop and want to splurge on that special bottle, you’ll know what you’re looking for.

We usually get about 50% toward that goal before the evening devolves into a big party.  Bottles get just a smidge too warm and start festively frothing when opened, Doug gives up on making us all study maps of the Cote des Blancs, and we give into the holiday spirit and have a few more sips of our favorites.

At our first session, the crisp, edgy Gatinois rose Champagne stole the show. Unfortunately, any kind of pink wine makes folks suspicious – people see that color and think the wine is going to be sweet and boring.  Not so with this beauty!  With its notes of cranberry and rhubarb and smoky, mineral notes, this is a Champagne that can stand up to serious food.

Another new addition to our Champagne lineup was Coessens, a unique blanc de noir that wowed everyone with its complexity.  Technically in Champagne, a blanc de noir can be made from either of the two red grapes commonly used in Champagne, Pinot Noir or the less-favored Pinot Meunier.  Coessens, made by a small grower producer in Aube, is made from all Pinot Noir, and has the richer mouthfeel to prove it.

In our second session shortly after Christmas, we were reminded of how much we love the Guy Larmandier Blanc de Blancs.  Blanc de Blancs are generally made with all Chardonnay grapes, as this sparkler is, and are considered to be the lighter, more elegant counterpart to the fuller, more brooding blanc de noirs.  A perfect wine for crispy appetizers – or popcorn with truffle oil!

Larmandier

Another Champagne that surprised us was the Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny.  This is an unusual wine in that Pinot Meunier, usually considered a lesser blending grape in Champagne, is the star of this wine.  It’s made from all Pinot Meunier, and we were all shocked by its depth and complexity.  In addition to those intriguing blood orange notes mentioned in the review, we thought the mouthfeel was exceptionally round and almost buttery.  A very impressive surprise from this small producer!

We hope those of you who attended had as much fun as we did, and that those of you who didn’t are inspired to keep the bubbly fun going this year!  Who says it has to be New Years Eve or your anniversary to pop something special?

champagne class customers 2

champagne class customers 1

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What We’re Tasting: How Sweet It Is

Wine-and-Chocolate

Maybe we were all picked last for dodgeball in gym class as kids, but we’re suckers for wines that have a bad reputation.  We just want to rescue them from obscurity and show everyone how fantastic they can be!

Hawley Late Harvest Zin – This was a real discovery for us.  Often, dry red Zinfandel can be a little heavy and jammy.  This late-harvest version, harvested at 32 brix, too high to really be fermented into dry table wine, avoids many of the pitfalls of regular red Zinfandel.  Mouthwatering acidity balances the sweetness, and it’s surprisingly light on the palate for a dessert wine made from Zinfandel.  Perfect for a ‘little something’ after dinner, or with any dessert involving berries or chocolate.

Dow’s 2011 – Port can be an intimidating category, with so much history, a high price point, and all the different types (LBV?  Tawny?).  Well, there’s no need to break out the Oxford Companion here.  2011 is considered to be an absolute monster of a Port vintage, with the structure to age, but ripe, luscious tannins that make the wines enjoyable today, too.  The only thing you need to decide is whether you want it in half or full bottles.  A few dark chocolates on a fancy platter, and dessert for your next dinner party is all set.

Perucchi Vermouth Gran Reserva Red – We know what you’re thinking: Isn’t Vermouth that stuff you try to avoid in martinis?  The stuff moldering in the rail at your local bar?  We thought so, too, until we tried some of the better Vermouths out there, like this handmade red Vermouth from Italian producer Perucchi.  Its aromas are so complex, you’ll just want to dive into the glass.  It elevates a Manhattan for sure, but its spicy aromas are perfect for this cooler time of year, and can be enjoyed solo or with a twist of orange peel and a splash of club soda or sparkling mineral water.

It may not be cool to admit you have a sweet tooth, but we won’t tell anyone.  Take a break from Thanksgiving menu planning and gift shopping to indulge in a little something sweet!

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Your Guide to a Foolproof Thanksgiving!

thanksgiving sign

No matter how early or late Thanksgiving is, it always sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?  Here are a few wine pairing and entertaining tips to help you make your Thanksgiving a holiday to remember!

Start with bubbles.  We’re wild for fizz of any kind around here, but we’re especially hooked on the latest release of Jean Michel Guillon’s Cremant de Bourgogne.  A blanc de noirs made from very high-quality Pinot Noir, it’s always a sparkler that punches above its weight, but this year there’s just something extra-special about it.  And since this is the last year it’ll be produced at this estate, snap some up while you can!

Think “mouthwatering.”  It’s not secret that while turkey is swell, it’s no New York Strip. No matter how much trouble you go to brining and fussing over the big bird, it’s always missing a little something in the moisture department.  For this reason, we recommend reds that are big on flavor, but easy on heavy tannins, like this juicy St. Amour from Beaujolais, or, for something a little bolder but still turkey-friendly, this classic Zinfandel from Seghesio.  For whites, Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to break out whites that feature fuller, richer, more ‘fall fruit’ flavors.  Gewurztraminer, with its extravagant fruit flavors and spicy aromatics, is a classic for a reason, and this one from Trimbach manages to keep all that richness well-balanced.  For something a little zippier, this Pinot Gris from Austria’s Hillinger has plenty of juicy pear fruit.

Don’t forget dessert!  And to go with pumpkin pie, or any fall fruit or nut-based dessert, a nip of this very special Madeira will really put things over the top!  Though it seems like a splurge, a little of this complex Madeira goes a long way, and the leftovers will keep indefinitely.

Keep it simple.  Unless you’re entertaining a group of hardcore foodies, trying to perfectly match each course or dish to a specific wine is a recipe for insanity!  We’ve found that having a white and red either both on the table or readily accessible keeps everyone more than happy.

Lastly, here’s our full list of featured wines for Thanksgiving – all sure to be delicious crowd pleasers!

The Thanksgiving meal is a reflection of the day itself: a big jumble of flavors, spices, and personalities!  That boisterous mix is part of what makes it so much fun, and such a quintessentially American holiday.  So, at the end of the day, there is no perfect pairing – you should drink what you like, whether it’s a big, bold red or a crisp, refreshing white.  Our best advice is to not sweat the finer points of food and wine pairing on a day like today, and make sure to make extra pie so you can have a slice for breakfast the next day.

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“Happy” Wines – An Evening in Alto Adige

Dave McIntyre described a wine in one of his reviews once as one that would “fuel conversation, not dominate it,” and if we had to sum up the delicious, joyful wines of Kellerei Kaltern in one phrase, that would be it.  Though they are made with great care, the grapes handpicked by a collection of hundreds of small growers all dedicated to quality, they do not knock you over the head with their importance.

Instead, they are the kinds of wines that insinuate themselves into your daily life, or, in our case, into your wine shop.  No other single winery dominates as many spots as Kellerei Kaltern does, and they deserve every bit of shelf space.  This is why we were so excited to have Tobias Zingerle join us this past Thursday for a relaxed evening of delicious, food-friendly wines.

10.28.13 011

In the foothills of the Alps, Alto Adige is a unique, high-quality wine region that combines the kind of racy, cool-climate varieties you find in Germany and Austria with a food-friendly Italian sensibility.  In Bolzano, the  main city in the region, the signs are in German first, and then Italian – the region really is at the intersection of two cultures, and the wines reflect this as well.

kaltern grower

We tasted nine wines in all, each one more delicious than the last.  Standouts included the refreshing, crisp Pinot Bianco, perfect for crab or any kind of shellfish, and the quintessential aperitif wine.  The light-bodied red Schiava was a revelation for many as well, although it’s been the ‘house red’ for many of us on staff for months  now.  A red this light can at first seem too thin and light if you’re used to drinking full-bodied, New World reds.  It’s the kind of wine that grows on you over time rather than bowling you over at first sip, so it’s easy to overlook.  But put a few bottles in your wine rack, and you’ll be surprised at how often you reach for it.

The Moscato Rosa was another surprise.  Made from a rare pink mutation of the Muscat grape, it’s an off-dry rose with a little bit of tannin, and a whole lot of flavor and fun.  It’s the perfect wine for brunch or a lazy Sunday afternoon spent with the paper or a great book, and maybe a little cheese.  The thought of sweet rose is shudder-inducing for many, calling to mind those not-so-great ‘blush’ wines that come in a box or jug, but this is real wine, and very well made – it just happens to be loads of fun, too!

Many thanks so Sandy Dickerson of Siema Imports and Tobias Zingerle of Kellerei Kaltern for a fun and educational evening.  Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a date with a bottle of Schiava and some pizza…

Be sure to peruse the links below for more information on these delicious wines!

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Bianco Vial 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Chardonnay Wadleith 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Grigio 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Muller Thurgau 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Gewurztraminer Alto Adige 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Schiava 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Nero 2012

Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Lagrein 2011

Kellerei Kaltern Rosenmuskateller Moscato Rosa 2012

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What We’re Drinking

9.24.13 048If anyone knows the importance of having a house wine, it’s Randy.  But after years of enjoying Ch de Chasseloir’s crisp, delightful Muscadet for after-work refreshment, he’s switched it up!  Now the house wine chez Randy is another minerally white from the Loire Valley, but this time a Chardonnay!  The Le Souchais Chardonnay has a bit more richness than a traditional Muscadet made from Melon de Bourgogne, but it has all of its chalky minerality.  A wonderful everyday sipper, great with young, soft cheeses, chicken dishes, or Breaking Bad!

Diane enjoyed a fabulous dinner out at Ray’s the steaks in Arlington.  The traditional sides of creamed spinach and mashed potatoes were fantastic, as was the crab bisque, but what really stood out with the New York Strip and Delmonico was the side of sauteed wild mushrooms.  Full of flavor, they were perfect with the 2004 Damilano Liste she squirreled away in her suitcase in January on the way back from Italy.  Still powerful and grippy, but with more than enough fresh fruit to enjoy now, it was worth leaving behind a few pairs of socks to make room for it!  The 2006 Brunate and Cannubi are available, but they will need a few more years to unwind…

Doug and Meg are just back from their vacation out west, and Doug brought home a  bottle of our new favorite (they’re all favorites at some point – that’s how much we love bubbles around here!) Champagne, the Coessens Blanc de Noir.  Powerful and rich, but still light on its feet, with intriguing notes of ginger and red fruit, it’s the kind of unique sparkler we love spending an evening with.

So now that the air has turned a little crisper, what are you drinking?

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