Falanghina and Aglianico: A New Appreciation for Campania’s Native Grapes

doug-in-italy-.jpgI’m just back from a week in Italy, mostly in Campania, and in addition to six pounds of extra girth, I’ve come back with a new and much deeper appreciation of two of Campania’s native grapes: Falanghina (white) and Aglianico (red).

And a very deep appreciation of the outstanding work done by brothers Giuseppe and Libero Rillo at Fontanavecchia!

Over 2000 Years of Vineyards
The estate’s vineyards have been the source of fine wine for more than two thousand years. First planted to grapes like Falanghina and Aglianico by Greek colonists, the hillside vineyards of Taburno were the source of ancient Rome’s most important wines including the famed Falernum.  Red Falernum was probably made from Aglianico; white from Falanghina (or, possibly, Greco – we’re not sure!).

Libero Rillo’s ancestors have grown grapes here for hundreds of years and started what would become Fontanavecchia in the late 19th Century.  His father began bottling and selling wine with that label some 30 years ago, but it was Giuseppe and Libero who took the estate to new heights over the past 15 years.

Quality in the Vineyards
As in all great wine, the quality starts in the vineyards.  The estate’s 18 hectares of vines grow on the slopes of rolling hills covered in argillaceous soils – fine, powdery, and very old marine sediments that become thick and a bit gooey with rain but shed water quickly before the vines can take up too much. The Rillo family keeps yields low by careful pruning and green harvesting as necessary, and the region’s warm, sunny days followed by surprisingly chilly nights delivers wonderful ripeness and generosity of fruit matched by crisp acids and, for red Aglianico, firm, chewy, tannins.

Winemaking is simple and clean.  The whites are gently pressed and fermented cool in tank with some later harvested whites seeing a short stay in used cask.  The red Aglianico is allowed to ferment warmer with gently pump-overs to extract color and flavor and then given several years in barrel to soften and mature.

Ready to Drink … and to Age
Libero believes in releasing wines when they are ready to drink, which means fairly early for the white Falanghina del Sannio but years after harvest for his Aglianico.  But, make no mistake: these wines age wonderfully well.  At the generous (and 3 hour long!) “light” dinner and tasting we had at the winery, Libero showed us whites back to vintage 2001 that were mature but still vibrant, full of freshness, and utterly delicious.  And the 2001 Aglianico we discovered on a restaurant wine list (for just 30 Euro!) the day before was gloriously complex and delicious and still had plenty of time to go.

While Fontanavecchia makes more “important” wines, the “base” Aglianico del Taburno and Falanghina del Sannio were the bottlings I found most satisfying and exciting.  The Aglianico outperforms its 90 point rating (and crazy low price) by a good bit.  And the white may be the best they’ve ever made – which is saying something about a wine that has already earned more Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri awards than any other Campania Falanghina!

As the summer goes on, we’ll be bringing you several more of my favorite wines of this delicious trip.  But none will have better quality-price-ratios (QPR) than these.  Grab them while you can!

Advertisements

The Highs of Mencía – Exploring Spain’s Ribeira Sacra

Mencía, a varietal unique to Portugal’s Dao and Spain’s Bierzo and Galicia regions, reaches its most exciting heights on the steep riverside vineyards of Ribeira Sacra in the center of Spain’s Galicia region.

MenciaMencía is high in anthocyanins (red pigment), so its wines typically show a deep red color even when grown in cooler vineyards. And it’s high in terpenoids, aroma compounds that deliver bold scents of fresh flowers, raspberry, strawberry, pomegranate and sweet cherry. A bold dose of cracked peppery spice, a touch of something leafy green (think Cab Franc), and a dollop of crushed gravel minerality round out the fascinating aromatic and flavor profile.

What does Mencía taste like? Well – if you like the aromas and silkiness of Pinot Noir, the herbal snap of cool-climate Cabernet, and the plump, direct, fruit of Cru Beaujolais, these wines are sure to thrill.

As Neal Martin wrote in Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I found the wines of Ribeira Sacra immediately attractive, not because they are powerful, ineffably complex or built for the long-term. No, I enjoyed their sense of purity and their complete lack of pretention. I enjoyed these wines because they spoke of their place, harnessing the Mencía grape variety to conjure crisp, fresh, vivacious wines that are born to marry with the local cuisine. The finest wines are those whereby I could envisage one finishing a bottle and yearning for another drop – a virtue all too often forgotten in this day and age.”

From Romans, to Monks, to Today
First planted by the Romans to provide wine to overseers and slaves working the goldmines of Bierzo to the east, Ribeira Sacra’s vineyards tumble down hills sloped 50 to 85 degrees (remember – 90 degrees is straight down!), often running along terraces first carved by the Romans. Replanted by monks in the Middle Ages to serve the 18 monasteries and hermitages that dot the region’s hills and valleys, the vineyards were once again largely abandoned in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Today, the region’s most visionary, committed, hard working and talented wine grower, Pedro Rodriguez Perez, comes from a family that kept up the struggle during these times, making wine selling it in garrafones – 20 liter glass containers – to local bars and families.

In 1991, when Pedro was still a teenager, he and his parents decided to bottle their own wine and named their estate Guímaro – dialect for “rebel,” the family nickname for his grandfather.

steep vineyards of ribera sacra

Doug and winemaker Pedro Rodriguez in the steep Ribeira Sacra vineyards.

Pedro and his parents (still in the vineyards daily!) work their vineyards organically and by hand (because machines are impossible here). The whole bunches are sorted and then go into tank where they are trod by foot to release some juice and then allowed to ferment with native yeast. Then into a mixture of large oak tanks and barrels of various sizes (all used) to smooth out before blending and bottling with minimal sulfur.

We spent a day with Pedro in March at the winery, tasting his 2017s and 2018s to come. Pedro took time out of his day not only for the tasting, but to hike the vineyards with us (don’t look down!) and then treated us to a Galician lunch of squid, octopus and rare local beef.

Tasting his wines today recaptures that amazing experience. We have two on sale this week. Like Pedro himself, these are wines of fantastic joy, intense focus, and – importantly – serious fun.

Guimaro wines

  • The 2016 Camino Real (93 points Wine Advocate; 95 points Suckling) is at once rich and light. Aromas of fresh red berries, cracked pepper, leafy herb and sweet spice carry through to a palate that combines a velvety mouthfeel with energetic verve and sublime grace. Every sip reveals a new combination of flavors that flow beautifully into the silky, kaleidoscopic, finish. From a best in the USA $22.98/ea, this is fabulous now through 2026.
  • The 2015 A Ponte (95 points from both Wine Advocate and Suckling) is stunning at multiple levels. From a very young vineyard, it somehow delivers old-vine intensity in a wine almost translucent in color and weightless on the palate. As Suckling writes, “Detail is the key. Great length and depth. Toasty, plush finish.” We have only five cases available (the region’s allocation) of this rare (165 cases) gem from $49.98.

These are some of the very finest wines produced to date in Ribeira Sacra, made by the region’s leading winegrower from amazing vineyards old and young. We cannot recommend them to you highly enough.

Drink Like (Frugal) Royalty: How this Wine Connects to Florence’s Medici Family

One thing we love about the world of wine is how a wine can connect us to little slices of history. This week’s 91 Tuscan red is a good example – we enjoyed its blend of fruity and savory and weren’t surprised at its 91 point Wine Spectator rating. What did surprise us was to learn that this is one of Tuscany’s oldest legally recognized wine growing areas and one of the first to include significant amounts of French varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.

And for both, we have the Medici family to thank!

Italy’s First Wine Regions.
When they weren’t commissioning art works from Leonardo da Vinci or reading treatises on ruling from Niccolò Machiavelli, Florence’s ruling Medici family was eating and drinking well. And, being orderly and thoughtful (if a tad cruel), they soon realized that some of vineyards in their lands made better wines than others. So in 1716, Cosimo III dè Medici created Italy’s first legally defined wine regions: Chianti, Pomino, Val di Sopra, and Carmignano.

The Medici took special interest in Carmignano – the closest of the four top sites to Florence – and actively encouraged ongoing improvements in quality here. In fact, Catherine de’ Medici brought Cabernet back from France in the 1600s and had it planted in Carmignano. To this day, the grape is known as “Uva Francesca” – the “French grape.”

Today, Carmignano is an official DOCG – Italy’s highest quality designation – and makes a dark, rich, and very intense red from super-dark Sangiovese plus Cabernet and Merlot, a wine that needs long aging in barrel and bottle to shine. Today’s featured wine is designated “Barco Reale di Carmignano” – a fresh, easy-going red designed to be drunk young with pizza, pasta, and other casual fare.

The “Barco Real” in the name refers to a 4000-acre game park established by the Medici in the 17th Century. Perhaps this was the kind of wine they drank as the rabbit, stag and boar they’d run down during a long day’s hunting roasted in the fireplace?

Pratesi - Barco Reale di Carmignano Locorosso.jpegToday, you can certainly enjoy Pratesi Barco Reale di Carmignano Locorosso 2017 with the fruits of your hunt for good eats in the local grocery store. Like wines from nearby Chianti Classico – many of which today include Cabernet Sauvignon in their blends! – it’s got the heft and structure to stand up to Bistecca alla Fiorentina grilled over grape vine cuttings and finished with lemon and olive oil.

But it’s soft and fleshy enough to match up with burgers on the grill, pork tenderloin, pizza, even cheese and crackers. At $16.98 by the bottle and $14.98/ea by the case of 12 this week, this wine doesn’t require the Medici’s wealth for you to drink like a prince!

Inside Tuscany’s Poggio ai Chiara

IMG_20180426_142523Poggio ai Chiara is a true “Tuscan insider’s” wine, made in tiny quantities and rarely leaving central Italy. To be honest, I’d never heard of it at all until I met Fabbio last March at his modest-looking home and vineyard not far from Cortona in eastern Tuscany.

Any winery where you start your visit by ducking into a half-buried Etruscan tomb and then navigate past mold-covered casks of all sizes before reaching a newer cellar filled with used French oak in every size imaginable … well, you can tell something interesting is going on. And whatever else you can say about the passionate, intense, dedicated Fabbio Cenni, you certainly have to agree he and his wines are interesting!


Fabbio’s vineyard is in an overlooked slice of eastern Tuscany near Cortona and Lago di Trasimeno. Fabbio planted his vineyard with more than 19 different Sangiovese clones at a crazy high density of 10,000 plants per hectare. He farms organically and makes wine “naturally” – if extremely.

After crushing, the Sangiovese barrels rest in their fermentation vats until native yeasts begin to work. Fermentation is low and slow, with most wines getting a full 30 days on the skins (pretty much unheard of for tannic Sangiovese). Then into a dizzying array of old barrels, some small, some medium-sized and some very large. Over the next 5-6 years, the wine stays in barrel, with Fabio racking it from one cask to another to give the wine air and keep it healthy. After bottling around the 6-year mark, the wine rests for another two years before release.
Mustiola vertical.png
While the 2009 was the most impressive of the Poggio ai Chiara vintages I tasted, I loved the 2008 and 2006 as well and was delighted to be able to grab a little of each for you. If you can, come by the store this Sunday from 2-4pm and try a mini-vertical of all three. Importer John Grimsley will be here to present the wines and we’ll have good sized pours, time, and some snacks that will allow you plenty of time to get to know these wonderful wines.

But whether you can come or not, reserve some of the 2009 Poggio ai Chiara right away. It will become one of your favorite Tuscan rarities and a wine you love drinking and sharing over the next decade.

Sassetti Pertimali Brunello – from Brunello legend Livio Sassetti

Doug and Sassetti

Livio Sassetti and Doug on our Spring 2018 visit to Italy

Livio Sassetti and his son, Lorenzo, make Brunello di Montalcino that tastes like Brunello di Montalcino – not super-Tuscan Chianti or red-berried Napa Cab. It’s a celebration of Sangiovese Grosso, modest in color and redolent of dark cherries, roasted strawberries, juicy wild berries, crushed flowers, fresh leather, and a kaleidoscope of sweet spices. There’s amplitude to spare (even at just 13.8% alcohol) balanced by juicy acid and firm tannin – perfect for pairing with steak tonight and cellaring for 20 years.

Sassetti Pertimali Vineyard

The Pertimali Vineyard on the famed Montosoli Hill in Montalcino

In short, it’s pretty much exactly the kind of wine Livio Sassetti has been making in Montalcino since he took over the family farm in the 1950s. In 1967, Livio and 10 other growers came together to create the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino, creating the first legal “Brunello di Montalcino” labels. And, in the late 1970s, he sold the family farm and purchased a 35 acre farm – Podere Pertimali – on the southern part of Montalcino’s great Montosoli Hill.

Montosoli is arguably the finest place to grow Sangiovese in the world, and Livio’s southeast facing marl, clay and sandy soils at 900 feet elevation are among the very finest slices of the hill. Since he arrived, very little has changed. The vineyards have always been farmed organically, the vines tended and harvested by hand, and fruit picked at the apex of ripeness – but while fantastic Sangiovese freshness and structure remained locked in.

Sassetti tonneauThe wines were made inside the tiny stone farmhouse already on the property when Livio arrived, a warren of corridors and small rooms now bursting with cement and steel tanks and giant casks. While Brunello’s rules have changed to allow shorter times in cask and small barrels have become popular, Livio’s Brunello still rests a full 36 months in large Slavonian oak tonneau.

For the past decade or so, Livio’s son, Lorenzo, has been the primary winemaker (and Lorenzo is moving production to a more modern facility a few miles away for the 2018 harvest), but Livio remains a constant presence in the vineyards, winery, and client visits. And, like his wines, even in his 80s, Livio remains a charming force that demands attention and embrace at table.

Whether or not you find the history compelling, I know you’ll love the wine. And at a time when Livio’s contemporaries and neighbors on Montosoli regularly charge $75-$100 plus for their single-vineyard wines, both the $64.98 bottle and $54.98/ea case price are compelling indeed.

sassetti brunello and glass

A Tale of Two Trade Wars: A Wine History in Cahors, France

The story of Cahors in the Southwest of France is a humdinger! If you’re interested in a bit of wine history – and how old stories can resonate with very current events – read on!

ch la caminade grapes

The Romans loved the dark black-fruited reds from Cahors.Enter a caption

Trade War – Roman Style
The Romans launched winemaking in Cahors in late Republic times, and by 70BCE or so, these dark, powerful black-fruited reds became fashionable in Rome itself. This upset growers on the Italian peninsula to no end, leading to complaints of unfair competition to the Emperor. In 92AD, Emperor Domitian responded in typical Roman fashion. No half-measures here: He simply ordered that all the vines of Cahors be uprooted and burned!

It wasn’t until year 276 that Emperor Probus – famed for his interest in agriculture and winegrowing – revoked the ban and encouraged replanting in Cahors. The Cahors wine business remained rocky during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but began improving in 630 when Saint Didier, Bishop of Cahors, took the lead in revitalizing winegrowing.

Cahors’ big break came in 1152 with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri Plantagenet, the future king of England. The wine known as “the black wine of Lot” was served at their wedding, and soon Cahors’ dark, strong wines became fashionable and highly desired in England. In the peak year of 1310, Cahors send 850,000 hectoliters of wine (about 9.5 million modern cases) to England through the port of Bordeaux, about half of all wine shipped there.

Cahors_Bridge

The Valentré Bridge of Cahors was completed in 1378, even as a trade war with Bordeaux continued.

And a Trade War with the Bordelaise
Which, of course, upset the merchants and growers of Bordeaux to no end! Because Cahors is warmer, sunnier, and less rainy than Bordeaux, the Bordelaise cried, “Unfair Competition!” and started looking for ways to disadvantage Cahors. Since all Cahors had to pass through Bordeaux’s port to reach England, they tried imposing a tax on “imported” wine – causing English King Henry III to issue a proclamation in 1225 ordering, “the authorities of Bordeaux not to stop nor to impose a tax whatsoever on the wines that the merchants from Cahors, under his protection, were bringing to Gironde.”

After Aquitaine reverted to France at the end of the Hundred Years War, the Bordelaise were freed to act, and in 1373 they imposed high taxes and other restrictions on all wines coming down-river from Cahors and the rest of the Southwest of France. Bordeaux’s lighter-colored “Claret” began taking market share from Cahors, and increasingly Cahors main export market was Bordeaux itself, where the “Black Wine of Lot” was used to give the lighter wines of the Medoc color and richness.

Climactic Tragedy, Pestilence and Persistence
Ch la caminade vineyard

From the 1400s to the late 1800s, a much diminished Cahors wine region soldiered on, selling blending wine to Bordeaux (although they soon planted their own Malbec), serving the Russian and Dutch markets (where dark, hearty wine was preferred), and – of course – drinking their wine at home.

In 1866, about 58,000 hectares of vines were still tended in Cahors. By the 1940s, there were fewer than 5,000 ha of vines remaining. Phyloxera’s arrival in the 1870s wiped out much of the Cahors vineyard, and the construction of railway links from Languedoc to Paris brought an ocean of equally dark (and less expensive) wine to Cahors’ traditional markets. An attempt to revitalize the region begun in the 1930s was stalled by WWII and then halted in its tracks by the brutal frost of 1956, which killed much of the remaining vineyard.

In hindsight, the 1956 frost – which wiped out many growers – was the salvation of Cahors. After phylloxera, much of Cahors had been replanted to higher-yielding, lower-quality varietals including French/American hybrids. Following the frosts, the hearty growers who remained dedicated themselves to replanting their vineyards entirely to Tannat, Merlot, and – overwhelmingly – the region’s own Malbec.

In recognition of Cahors’ long, distinguished history and rapidly improving wine quality, the region was awarded AOC status in 1973 and was poised to once again establish itself as a world-class wine region and the leading source of dark reds based on Malbec… Only to have the rich, plush Malbec wines of Argentina’s Mendoza Valley soar to fame! Leaving the wine growers of Cahors to once again hitch up their pants, put down their heads, and quietly get back to work.

The Wines of Ch La Caminade
Ch La Caminade winemakersThe vines and site of Ch La Caminade have been part of pretty much all of Cahors’ history. Until the early 19th Century, the property was part of a monastery of winegrowing monks. The name “La Caminade” means The Presbytery or curate’s house in local dialect and was given to the Domaine during these years. After the French Revolution, it passed into private hands until it was inherited by Antonin Ressès in 1895.

The Ressès family helped re-plant Cahors after phylloxera and following the 1956 frosts but sold their grapes to the co-op until 1973. When Cahors AOC was granted then, they decided to make and bottle their own wine for the first time. And 4th generation winegrowing brothers Dominique and Richard Ressès continue to run this 35ha estate today.

Sangiovese from Montecucco – A wine to savor, share, enjoy!

Sassetti Petimali estate

As I sat sipping the 2015 Sassetti Montecucco with patriarch Livio Sassetti at his famed Petimali Brunello estate back in May, I knew how much you’d love this supple Sangiovese this summer. Just like Washington, DC, today, it was a hot, slightly muggy day that made the prospect of tasting even great Brunello (and Livio’s 2013 Brunello is great indeed – as you’ll see this fall!) a bit daunting.

Before the first Montalcino wine, though, the Montecucco La Querciolina sloshed into our glasses – and, suddenly, the whole group was revived. Aromas of dark strawberry, cherry, violets, leather and cinnamon spice wafted from each glass. And those captivating scents turned into brilliantly fresh and refreshing flavors on the palate. The wine was at once juicy-fresh and deeply flavored, and the fine, silky tannins pushed the finish to fantastic length.

Being lunchtime in Italy, everyone immediately reached out and started gobbling still more of antipasti in front of us. (A mixed blessing, as we thought we were having a light lunch and weren’t aware that a glorious rice dish and Tuscan T-Bone steak were still to come!). No professional spitting here – this was a wine to be savored, shared, enjoyed.

sassetti montecucco bottle and glass summerAnd “savor, share, enjoy” is what Livio Sassetti’s son, Lorenzo, intends his Montecucco to be all about. Lorenzo is principal winemaker at the family’s famed Pertimali Brunello estate (although Livio remains very much involved!) where he makes some of Montalcino’s most exciting, classically-styled Sangiovese Grosso. But he and Livio purchased land in nearby Montecucco in 1999 to make a wine that was all about this fast emerging region’s unique character – and unique style of Sangiovese.

The Sassetti winemaking family is famous, with deep roots in Montalcino as co-founders of the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino, and one of the early producers of Brunello. Montecucco – a region that’s fun to say if still a bit obscure –  sits just west of Montalcino in a region.  The vines here are the same as in Montalcino, the large-berried clone known as Sangiovese Grosso. But in Montecucco, there’s more clay and mineral content in the soil than in Montalcino (courtesy of the nearby extinct volcano Monte Amiata). The minerality and larger day/night temperature swings bring out Sangiovese’s bright cherry fruit and floral notes while allowing tannins to ripen to silky smoothness.

Lorenzo gives this just six months in large Slavonian oak casks and then a bit of bottle age before release. Which locks in the super juicy, fresh fruit and allows the fresh violet, savory leather, and cinnamon spice notes to shine through.

With a light chill now, Sassetti Montecucco La Querciolina 2015 delivers a gloriously refreshing jolt of fresh cherry and cranberry juice fruit that will refresh and revive you on a warm summer’s day. By this winter, it will have taken on weight and power (without losing the smooth finish) and be ready for steaks and stews. At these special savings prices, you’ll want to stock up on enough to enjoy all year long.

Come by Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15,  and taste for yourself. Then pick up some antipasti on the way home and get ready for a festive feast.