The Drunken Poet Grape

Abbazia di Novacella1

Abbazia di Novacella, the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” the Austrian nuns sing at the beginning of The Sound of Music. Their denominational cousins, the monks at Abbazia di Novacella in what were Austria’s Dolomites until WWI, probably sang a similar song until the 1930s – “How do you solve a problem like well-exposed, high-altitude, mountain vineyards prone to frost?”

Admittedly, not as catchy and perhaps they’d have chanted it instead of sung. But still.

The answer to the monks’ prayers was born in Germany in 1929, when a grape researcher named August Herold made his first plantable cross of Riesling and Trollinger, the grape called Schiava in Alto Adige. Schiava gave the new grape strong resistance to late season frost, while Riesling promised fine acidity, the ability to express minerality, and plenty of perfume. August named his new grape “Kerner” after a local German poet who once penned that classic, “Wohlauf, noch getrunken” which translates as “Arise, still drunk.”

In post-WWII Germany, plantings of Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus and other “new breeds” spread rapidly at the expense of more finicky, lower yielding Riesling as the wine industry struggled to recover from war damage and devastation. At its peak, Kerner was actually Germany’s third-most planted grape! But it didn’t make very interesting wines at the relatively low altitudes where Germans planted it (and, especially, at the mind-bending yields they sought), so as the industry and Germany recovered in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, Kerner plantings shrank fast.

Kerner Climbs The Mountains
The monks of Abbazia di Novacella control the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe – dating from the 12th Century – so they’re not exactly prone to jumping on fads. Over the centuries, they and their partner growers working in the craggy vineyards of Alto Adige’s Dolomite had done a pretty fine job of mapping grape to vineyard based on exposure, soil type, slope and altitude.

Red grapes like Lagrein, Schiava, and Pinot Nero claimed the lowest vineyards, those at around 1,000 feet altitude ringing Lake Kaltern near Bolzano (45 minutes south of the winery). Near the winery in Brixen (or Bressanone if you prefer the Italian), Pinot Grigio climbed up the slopes from 1,200 feet and Gewürztraminer and other whites claimed full-sun South and Southwest facing sites at up to 2,000 feet.

But at just short of a half-mile up, none of these grapes would consistently ripen – or at least succeed at economic yields in the face of bitter cold spring nights and regular frosts.

Kerner

Kerner: A cross between Reisling and Schiava

So, at some point in the 1970s, the monks and their winegrowing team decided to give frost-resistant Kerner a try. While the first wines may not have been very successful, soon the combination of steep vineyards, super-dense planting, plenty of daytime sunshine and crisp, cold, nights proved to be exactly what Kerner needed to shine. So much so that in 1993, Italy recognized high-altitude Alto Adige Kerner with its own DOC status.

Kerner vs. Praepositus Kerner
Today, the monks’ winemaking team produce two Kerners. The “Classic” Kerner is delicious and is, as the folks at the winery told us last March, a perfect aperitivo wine – ideal for sipping on during the hour after work and before dinner. Light, fresh, refreshing fun.

Then there’s the Praepositus Kerner. It’s made the exact same way as the Classic Kerner: harvested by hand, destemmed, crushed and fermented cool in tank and then bottled after six months on the fine lees. But it’s a completely different wine because it’s made from grapes from two of the world’s finest Kerner vineyards.

aromas-of-kernerThe vineyards sit at 2,100 – 2,300 feet altitude and the vines grow on hand-built terraces running down the 25-40% gradient mountain slopes. These super-steep slopes allow the densely-planted vines (about 2,500 plants per acre) to slowly ripen to perfection. Although both the Classic and Praepositus Kerners are harvested about the same time (in early October) the “regular” wine usually comes in at 13.5-13.7% alcohol. Praepositus reaches 14.3% in 2016.

The extra alcohol translates to better body and more flavor – because only when it’s fully ripe does Kerner really come into its own with explosive aromatics and wildly complex flavors. And the cold nights and deep minerality balance the richness of texture perfectly, giving the wine compelling lift, definition and refreshing crispness.

If you’ve had other Kerner wines before, then know that this one is better. And if you’ve never tried one, please, don’t miss this!

Abbazia Di Novacella Kerner Praepositus

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Brunello 2012s – A Taste from Mastrojanni

Mastrojanni and glassThis week we’re featuring our first (but not last!) 2012 Brunello: the 2012 Brunello from Mastrojanni, a relatively new winery that’s on a roll (this Brunello earned 94 points from the Wine Advocate).

Some are saying that the 2012 Brunellos are a cross between 2006 (but with less tannin) and 2008 (but with more body and fruit). Others offer even higher praise, comparing their 2012s to the monumental 2004s (if, perhaps, with a tad less concentration).

A bit of history about Mastrojanni:

From Brunello Tradition…
Mastrojanni vineyardMastrojanni is a gem of an estate for wine lovers, both because the quality is outstanding and because the market hasn’t fully caught on to just how fine the wines have become. The estate was created in 1975 when Gabriele Mastrojanni purchased the San Pio and Loreto estates in the southeastern portion of Montalcino’s Brunello zone.

Gravel rich clay soils over limestone bedrock and a climate moderated by nearby mount Amiata, an extinguished volcano, made this perfect Sangiovese Grosso country. But Mastrojanni also planted a little Cabernet Sauvignon in the San Pio vineyards to see what it could do.

In 1992, Andrea Machetti joined as Managing Director, a position he continues to hold today. Under Machetti’s guidance the Mastrojanni wines improved substantially and by the 2007 and 2008 vintages was recognized as a fast-improving estate in the “traditional” (i.e., limited new oak) style.

…To “Glorious”
Andrea Machetti of MastrojanniIn 2008, following the death of the founders’ son, Mastrojanni was purchased by Francesco and Riccardo Illy of Italy’s leading coffee company.

What they did next was simply brilliant: very little. They essentially asked Andrea Machetti what he needed to make better wine and then did that and little else. The vineyards needed little work – the sites were excellent, they had been planted to high-density from the beginning, and were coming into full maturity.

The winery, however, had lagged behind. So the Illy’s invested in better sorting tables – all grapes at Mastrojanni are sorted twice to ensure only the best fruit makes it into the fermenters – built a winery that allowed more gentle handling of the fruit and wine, and allowed Machetti to swap out some tired old barrels for newer, large, casks.

The style of the Brunello remained unchanged – a “traditional” approach that emphasizes Montalcino’s ripe fruit and power without obvious oaky notes or over extraction. And, they allowed Machetti to further improve the San Pio Cabernet blend, first made in 1997.

“On a Roll”
As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner says, today “Mastrojanni is on a roll. This extraordinary estate has been enjoying the spotlight lately and very much deserves the attention. I’m adding my name to a long list of their fans.” Commenting on last year’s releases, she adds:

“Mastrojanni is an estate that is living a true moment of glory. The new winery has been up and running for a number of years, the best vineyard sites are in their prime production years and a slew of interesting additions (such as a charming on-site country hotel) are about to go online. The Illy family (of the famed coffee house) bought the property in 2008 and made a series of important investments. The cellars were completely renewed. Managing Director Andrea Machetti stayed on during the many years of transition and his role has been crucial to the continuity and the improvements made at Mastrojanni since the Illy ownership commenced.”

This stunning 94 point Brunello di Montalcino shows how Mastrojanni’s progress plus a truly outstanding vintage combine to create a simply stunning Brunello. Don’t miss it!

 

Barolo vs. Barbaresco – What’s the Difference?

NebbioloNebbiolo is the great red grape of Italy’s Piedmont region, and when grown in the small communes of Barolo and Barbaresco, it’s one of the great red grapes of the world.

The perfumed aromas of cherries, rose petal, tar, spice, truffle and more are unique, as is the balance of intense flavors, rich ripeness, and lifting acidity. There’s also a lot of tannin, making Nebbiolo a wine that’s best with rich foods, a long decant, and/or a few years of cellar time. When it’s made right, though, there are few wines more satisfying with hearty stews, rich risotto, or pretty much anything with truffles.

For a variety of reasons, Nebbiolo from the Barolo region was the first to find international fame in the late 1800s and the first to reclaim international attention after WWII – Barbaresco always seemed to lag behind. So there’s been a temptation to consider Barolo the “better” wine and Barbaresco the “little brother.” You’ll see that attitude reflected in prices, with Barbaresco selling for a 20-40% discount to comparable quality Barolo.

But, it’s exactly the wrong way to look at things – top Barbaresco is just as fine as excellent Barolo and, for the average consumer, it’s a much better choice to experience Nebbiolo’s magic.

Soil and Climate
Nebbiolo is the only grape allowed in any wine labeled Barbaresco or Barolo and the winegrowing and making are pretty much the same in both regions. The biggest differences are soil and climate. Barbaresco’s soils are a tiny bit richer in organic matter than Barolo’s, so the grapes ripen a little faster with more fruit flavor and a little bit less tannin. And, although Barbaresco is only 10 miles away from Barolo, it’s a tad cooler and gets more refreshing maritime breezes than Barolo.

The earlier ripening date – about 2 weeks ahead of Barolo – and cooling breezes gives Barbaresco a big advantage over Barolo in warm vintages like 2009 and 2012. Both are considered “difficult” years in Barolo, with the summer heat making it difficult to ripen tannins and giving many wines cooked/roasted profiles. But both are excellent in Barbaresco, where alcohols usually come in 0.5-1 percentage point under Barolo and the extra heat just added a touch of fleshy richness.

So, Barbaresco delivers all the Nebbiolo wonderfulness you’ll find in Barolo, but in a bit softer, more accessible style. The typical Barbaresco has a touch more fruit, a bit less tannin, and an earlier starting drinking date than Barolo. Barbaresco’s more tempting structure is reflected in the region’s rules – Barbaresco can be released after only 2 years aging while Barolo has to wait 3 years. But, don’t underestimate how well Barbaresco grows in cellar – it will still develop for 20 years with no problem. You just get to drink it a bit sooner!

Paitin FamilyPaitin’s Historic Legacy
The Paitin story starts in 1796 when Benedetto Elia purchased a pretty 30 acre or so property in Barbaresco from Luigi Pellissero (another famous Barbaresco name!). Over the next 100 years or so, the Elia family grew grapes and made wine here, including the lightly sweet, sometimes sparkling, Nebbiolo then common in the region. Once they and their neighbors finally figured out how to get Nebbiolo to ferment dry in Piemonte’s cool autumns, they launched their first Barbaresco in 1893. By 1898, Paitin’s wines were recognized as outstanding and the first exports to the rest of Europe began.

In the 1960s, Secondo Pasquero-Elia moved the estate forward by building a new cellar and – importantly – beginning to replant the estate’s vineyards by taking the best vines from each plot and matching them to the soils where they performed best. In the 1980s, Secondo and sons Silvano and Giovanni Pasquero-Elia began working with importer Marc De Grazia. De Grazia favored riper, more lush, Nebbiolo, and encouraged Paitin to adopt “modern” Barbaresco techniques: more ripeness in the vineyards, roto-fermenters to limit tannin extraction, and the use of new oak barriques to add polish and sweetness to the wines.

The results were fine: plenty of good ratings and ample consumer demand for ripe, fleshy, Barbaresco that drank well early and still aged nicely, too. But, as Antonio Galloni writes, “The Pasquero-Elia family has been producing wine for several centuries, making this small estate one of the historic properties of Piemonte. The wines have received critical acclaim for decades. Brothers Giovanni and Silvano Pasquero-Elia could easily have rested on their laurels. But they knew they could do even better.”

Moving Forward from “Modern”
Although Secondo still works in the winery, Silvano and Giovanni have been drivers in Paitin’s revitalization over the past 15 years or so. The brothers have moved Paitin back to what I like to call an “enlightened traditional” approach to winemaking. In the vineyard, they achieve perfect ripeness for loads of fruit flavor and supple tannins, but avoid over-ripe or roasted fruit flavors. In the winery, they have eliminated the use of new French oak and now age their wines entirely in larger, more traditional, Slovenian casks. And, roto-fermenters are on the way out as they have returned to more traditional, long, fermentations including gentle pump overs and submerging the grape cap for better extraction.

You’ll see some of these changes in the powerful 2009 Barbaresco Sori Paitin, but they are even more obvious in the just-released 2012s. Here, with help from long-time Bruno Giacossa associate Dante Scaglione, the wines show a new-found energy and precision to go with traditional power and ageability. They are as delicious as ever, but offer even more potential to improve with time.

As Galloni sums up:

“The Pasquero-Elia family has superb vineyards and already knew how to craft delicious wines, but the continued search for excellence and the willingness to invest in the future is what separates the true greats from the merely good and excellent producers. … The Pasquero-Elia family has made fabulous wines for years, but now they are in a position to challenge for one of the very top spots in Barbaresco. Personally, I couldn’t be happier for them, because they have made all the right choices and are therefore richly deserving of the success that now appears to be coming their way.”

‘Barolo Girl’ is Born

Giulia Negri BarologirlGiulia Negri’s family have been growing Nebbiolo and making Barolo at their Serrandenari estate for about 150 years. Their La Morra vineyards are the highest up in all of Barolo, ranging from 380-500 meters in altitude. The cool climate and sandy La Morra soils give elegant, pure, wines here, and they’ve long been a favorite of Barolo fans who value sophistication and grace over pure power and weight.

Giulia grew up in the winery and vineyards and seemed destined to join Serrandenari herself. But, she as she watched many of her slightly older friends establish their own, small, projects, often working in tiny cellars or their own parents’ garages, she developed an itch to strike out on her own.

So, in here early 20s, and with her parents’ support, Giulia founded her own “Garage” winery. She set up shop in a modest shed with simple winemaking equipment. She knew she wanted to honor her family’s traditions, so she took charge of Nebbiolo vines growing on the lower portion of the Serrandenari estate and a small, east-facing sliver of the famous Brunate vineyard. And, to make her own mark, she planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on sites too cool for Nebbiolo.

From Barolo to Burgundy to Us. One of the most important trends in Barolo over the past 20 years is young winemakers exploring the world of wine beyond Piemonte – beyond Italy itself. And, having seen her friends do that, Giulia sought out experiences, expertise, and advice from the best non-Italian winemakers she could find. Searching for advice to make rich, powerful, but pure and site-specific Pinot Noir and how to meld this temperamental wine with wood, she called on one of the greatest Pinot Noir winemakers we know: Jean-Michel Guillon in Burgundy’s Gevrey Chambertin.

Jean-Michel was delighted to help this budding winemaker, and hosted Giulia at his Burgundy domaine for hours of tasting, talking, and training on Pinot Noir winemaking, especially on the selection of the best barrels that deliver all the benefits of fine French oak – softening, fixing color, adding complexity – without overwhelming fruit or sense of place. He was impressed by her talent and passion – and by the wines she brought along for him to taste. Recognizing the almost Burgundian style of her Barolo and learning of her very limited representation in the US, Jean-Michel introduced Giulia to his good friends and US importers, Jonas Gustafsson and Olivier Daubresse.

As Jonas and Olivier would be the first to say, the very last thing either was looking for was an Italian wine to add to their portfolios. Olivier specializes in French wines from the Rhone, Provence, and – especially, Burgundy. And Jonas is the master of rich, powerful, authentic wines from Spain and Portugal. Italy simply wasn’t in the cards.

But, after first tasted her wines and then meeting with Giulia, they simply could not resist bringing her beautiful wines to us here in the mid-Atlantic region. And, knowing our passion for fine Barolo, especially Barolo that tempers it’s power and depth with a sense of elegance and fine style, Jonas and Olivier were kind enough to bring Giulia’s wines to us.

Giula Negri the Future‘Barolo. The Future.’  I strongly encourage you to visit Giulia’s website to see pictures of her, the tiny winery, the beautiful Barolo scenery, and her dog (clearly important to Giulia, as he takes center stage on the wine label!). The wine is as charming and pretty and the pictures you’ll see there!

While Giulia is innovating with Piemonte Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (and we hope to have the chance to taste those sometime soon!), her Barolo is all about very precise and well-executed tradition. Her Nebbiolo is sustainably grown on legendary sites – the high-altitude La Mora vineyard of Serradenari and the famous Cru of Brunate. She and her team of 3 – only four people total at this project! – harvest the grapes at perfect ripeness and bring them cool to her tiny, garage-like cellar.

After careful destemming – a key part of making great Barolo! – the grapes are crushed and then allowed to ferment in large wood vats. The must spends a total of 45 days in vat, with the cap submerged for 30 days and allowed to float gently on top for an additional 15. The challenge in making Barolo is to get plenty of color and flavor complexity from Nebbiolo’s skins without extracting hard, bitter, tannins. The combination of gentle (if largely traditional) maceration and perfectly ripe grapes delivers perfect balance in Giulia’s wine.

After fermentation, the wine is aged for three years in equal parts 500 liter Tonneaux and 250 litter Barriques. Both are 100% French oak (and very high-end French oak at that!), but none of the barrels are new. The mixture of fairly small (for Barolo) casks and absence of new oak allows Giulia’s Barolo to retain color, soften, and gain wonderful complexity without overt wood aromas and flavors.

Like many of her friends’ wines, Giulia’s Barolo benefits from all that winemakers have learned about capturing all of Nebbiolo’s complex aromas, rich flavors, and deep power without the hard tannins that used to require 20 years to resolve. But, unlike most of the “garagiste” Barolo we’ve tried, the 2010 Barolo La Tartufaia avoids an overt sense of winemaking – no black-as-night color, no thickness to the texture, and no intense vanilla/chocolate flavors of wood.

As Giulia writes on the “Barolo Girl” portion of her website, “Now that the Barolo Boys have grown up, time may have come for us, the Barolo Girls.”

Alto Adige, Biodyamics, and a Count!

What exactly does “biodynamic” mean? And where is Alto Adige, anyway? A class next Tuesday (May 13) – “The Brilliant Biodynamic Wines of Manincor” – takes on both topics.

This stunning underground winery opened in 2004. Since then, quality has soared at Manincor.

This stunning underground winery opened in 2004. Since then, quality has soared at Manincor.

If you haven’t heard of Manincor before now, it’s hardly surprising. The vineyard estate was founded in 1606 and has been in current owner Michael Count Goëss-Enzenberg’s family since 1662. But for virtually all of its 400+ year history, grapes from Manincor’s vineyards went to co-op wineries in nearby Kaltern and Terlan where they formed the backbone of both producers’ top wines.

The modern story of Manincor begins in 1991 when Count Michael took over from his uncle. He soon began what would be a 20-year journey of converting the entire property – orchards, woodlands, meadows and vineyards – first to certified organic farming and ultimately, to Demeter-certified biodynamic viticulture. As the conversion proceeded, Manincor began keeping more and more grapes for itself and bottling wine under its own label.

Then, in 2004, Manincor opened a stunning underground winery beneath a key vineyard, immediately adjacent to the historic Manincor manor house. The winery blends into the vineyard perfectly, uses geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling, and allows wine to be moved mainly by gravity. Count Michael installed labor-intensive unlined concrete tanks for fermentation and aging (allowing more gentle air exchange than stainless steel) and even added a cooperage – Manincor harvests oak for some barrels in its own forests and dries the wood and builds barrels on the property!

Since the new winery, the quality of the wines here has soared. Over the past few vintages, Manincor has earned four Tre Bicchieri awards from Gambero Rosso (Italy’s most prestigious wine guide) as well as ten Due Bicchieri citations. And while none of the current releases have been reviewed yet, we’re certain all will be raking in the critical praise, too!

We’ve been hearing rumors about Manincor wines for the past few years, but they only recently arrived in our market. Local importer Maurizio Farro represents the estate now, and on Tuesday, he will be joined by winery representative Michael Jaeger to address all questions Alto Adige and Biodynamic. (Sorry, the Count wasn’t available …)

“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