Cooperative Excellence: The Produttori del Barbaresco 2015s

Produttori BarbarescoThe mission of the Produttori del Barbaresco is simple: “Excellence in Barbaresco.” The 54 families who grow the fruit and own the Produttori farm just one grape: Nebbiolo. And there are few winemakers more skilled than Aldo Vacca, managing director and head winemaker, and his team at Produttori del Barbaresco.

Co-op, Reborn
Unlike most well-known Barbaresco estates, Produttori is a co-operative winery, one owned by its growers. The co-op idea came early in Barbaresco, in 1894 when Domizio Cavazza, headmaster of the Royal Enological School of Alba and a Barbaresco resident, brought together 9 vineyard owners to make and market wine collectively.

Produttori vineyardAfter being abolished in the 1920s, Produttori del Barbaresco was reborn in 1958 when the head priest of Barbaresco’s church realized that local vineyard owners were unable to afford to make and profitably market their own wine. Today, the co-op includes 54 members and 250 acres of vineyard.

While the Produttori is a co-op, it’s not “just” a co-op – this is quite likely the single best co-operatively owned winery in the world. Just consider a few of the comments top wine critics have made about their wines over the past 20 years:

“The Produttori del Barbaresco is unquestionably a terrific source for Barbarescos that rival the best made in Piedmont. Although there is a tendency to scoff at wines made by cooperatives, the quality of the wines from this superbly run operation is as high as that from any highly committed, passionate estate-bottler… The Produttori del Barbaresco gets my vote as the best run and most committed cooperative regarding quality, and, most importantly for prospective purchasers, a source for exceptional Barbaresco wine values!” – Robert Parker, Wine Advocate, April 1994
 
“Piedmont’s cooperative winery makes top-notch values. Vacca’s cooperative has always paid its members according to the quality of their crop rather than the quantity. And that’s why it consistently makes outstanding Barbarescos.” – Jo Cooke, Wine Spectator, December 2006
 
“The quiet transformation that has taken place at Produttori del Barbaresco in recent years is nothing short of remarkable. Far from a sleepy, old-fashioned cooperative winery, the Produttori have stepped up their game big time over the last decade or so. The wines remain reference-points, though, especially in years in which the Produttori make their flagship Riservas. The Produttori’s Riservas remain some of the greatest values in the realm of fine, cellar worthy reds.” Antonio Galloni, 2015

Grand Riservas
About those Riservas: The Produttori’s “main” wine is its Barbaresco Normale, a wine made by blending fruit from across its members Barbaresco vineyards. Every vintage, the first question the winemaking team asks itself is, “What is needed to make the Normale a great wine?”

In exceptional harvests, the Normale shines brightly enough that the winery can carve out grapes from its nine great “Crus” or single vineyards and bottle them separately. The best fruit from each of these sites is fermented, aged and bottled separately. Winemaking and aging for each of the Crus is exactly identical, so the remarkable differences you taste between the wines is due entirely to the unique characteristics of each of these great sites.

The “Ultimate Lockdown Wines”
Like all Barbaresco, the Produttori’s Riservas are meant to age and develop gracefully in cellar. We’ll leave you with Monica Larner’s words from her most recent report on Barbaresco and Barolo in Wine Advocate (including these wines):

“The wines presented in this report are hitting the market as the world struggles to cope with COVID-19. Lockdowns, restaurant and retail closures and disruptions to distribution channels have severely shaken vintners’ confidence. For those looking to sell and promote new releases, the unease and uncertainty is paralyzing.

“This is indeed a bleak moment. However, as I worked to better understand these wines, I became profoundly moved by their grace, power and persistence. I am touched by their majesty and beauty, so carefully crafted by the thousands of families, winemakers, vineyard workers, cellar hands, marketers and sales agents collectively responsible for their creation. What I discovered while writing this report are wines that magically gravitate toward the metaphoric, as symbols of culture, territory, humanity and resilience. They are spirited and soulful wines that remind us what optimism takes like.

“Delivered to me during lockdown, these are the ultimate lockdown wines. They are profound expressions built for safekeeping. You should lock them down in your cellar for many years to come.” Wine Advocate July 2020 Week Three

Our 2015 Produttori del Barbaresco Offer
We’re offering eight of the Produttori’s nine Riserva 2015s. We have unusually good supplies of what are often considered the Produttori’s top wines: Asili, Rabaja, Ovello and Montestefano. But, really, you cannot go wrong with any of this year’s releases.

You can see the entire offering on the website at this link. If you’re having trouble deciding, shoot us an email or give us a call – we’ll be delighted to help you assemble the perfect set of 2015 Riservas for you!

Note that six- and 12-bottle savings are mix/match across the offer. Mix/match savings will not display on your online order form or confirmation email, but will be applied before your card is charged. If you have any questions at all, please let us know!

What’s Ramato? A Short Primer on … Pinot Grigio!

Palazzone Ramato labelIf it looks like rosé, why is the wine we’re featuring this week called “Ramato?” The Italian means “copper,” and that’s a great description for the slightly orange, onion-skin coppery color you’ll find here.

Most modern rosé wine is made from black grapes – Grenache, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, etc. – that are allowed to bleed some of their purple color into fermenting juice. Those purple-skinned grapes would turn the wine what we call “red” if left in the juice, but leave behind the various shades of pure pink we’ve come to love in rosé when removed after a few hours.

Not Black or White
Ramato is made from a grape that’s not really “black,” but isn’t really “white” either. It’s “Gris” in French or “Grigio” in Italian – a grape showing a dusky light purple color when ripe on the vine but that has much less pigment trapped in its skin than most black grapes.

Pinot Grigio Grapes
Pinot Gris (in France) or Grigio (in Italy) is the most famous of these gray grapes, and for centuries wineries in northeastern Italy made an orangey/pink wine from them – but not because that’s what winemakers were after! Until modern white wine production methods, including artificial chilling and use of stainless steel, were introduced in the 1950s, there was no way to keep the color out of wine made from Pinot Grigio.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when Santa Margherita began shipping pure white Pinot Grigio to the US and started doing a land-office business that most Italian wineries ditched Ramato and began making the white Pinot Grigio we know today.
And then it wasn’t until about 5-10 years ago that they realized pink wine could sell and returned to the old Ramato style.
While most Pinot Grigio Ramato comes from the low hills of Italy’s Friuli, this is from a touch further south and the cellars of the outstanding Orvieto producer Palazzone. We’ve been enjoying their Umbrian white Vignarco Orvieto for years and featuring their great value Sangiovese/Cabernet/Merlot Umbria Rosso Ross for a few months now. But we’re especially excited by this new addition to the line and – especially given the great introductory price – we think you will be, too!
Palazzone Ramato bottle

Mt. Etna’s Terre Nere: Pinot Noir Meets Brunello and Nebbiolo

nerello-mascalese-1727-1-1Have no idea what Nerello Mascalese is? Or never had a wine from Mount Etna before? And think “Sicilian red wine” means “fat, flabby and jammy” and that “Marco De Grazia” means “oaky and international styled”?

Let’s fix that, shall we?

We’ll start with the grape. Here’s how Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine and author of the world’s most comprehensive book on wine grapes describes Nerello Mascalese: “Noble, late-ripening Sicilian variety that retains its acidity well and is responsible for some dense and haunting reds on the slopes of Mount Etna.”

Grown on the poor, fast-draining soils of active volcano Mount Etna and blended with softer Nerello Cappuccio, Nerello Mascalese tastes like a cross between mature Barolo, warm-vintage red Burgundy, and classic leather and fruit-laced Brunello. Think ripe strawberries, sweet cherries, expensive leather, and dark flower aromas and flavors in a texture that has Pinot Noir’s silkiness, Sangiovese’s power, and great Nebbiolo’s stunning blend of acidity, tannin and perfume.

An Italian Icon on Mt Etna
mount-etna-volcanoNobody does a better job of pulling out all of Nerello’s delicious charm than Marco De Grazia. Best-known for introducing Americans to the joys of great Italian wines as an importer, Marco and his brother purchased a swath of old vine vineyards on the steep slopes of Mount Etna 30 years ago and have lovingly nurtured them as they used classic Burgundian winemaking techniques to make simply stunning wines.

Since moving to Sicily and founding Terre Nere, Marco has established himself as Mt Etna’s “benchmark” producer. The winery’s approach is straightforward. First, they have acquired old vineyards up and down the volcano’s slopes, giving them sites with a variety of exposures, slopes and soil types. Then they farm each site organically and to low yields. And make their wine simply and naturally, bottling each vineyard – or “contrada” – individually to showcase Mt Etna’s varieties of terroir.

The results have been spectacular from the beginning. As Wine Advocate reports, “Marco de Grazia-s influence on the wines of Etna looms as large as the massive volcano that dominates the landscape in this very special corner of Sicily.” We have a selection of the best of this fabulous set of wines. All are very limited and all very much worth your attention and space in your cellar.

Terre nere Mt Etna

Amarone: A Short History of an Intense Wine

Amarone wine glassAmarone is one of the biggest, most intense wines made in Europe, commonly coming in at 15% abv and often reaching 16% and beyond. It comes from Italy’s Valpolicella region, situated between Verona to the west and Venice to the east, and its history goes back to ancient times.

The Greeks made wine in Valpolicella even before the Romans arrived – and the name itself is thought to be a mash up of Latin and Greek meaning “Valley of Cellars.” The region has always enjoyed strong local demand for its light, aromatic red wines made from native grapes Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. And, today, the overwhelming bulk of wine made here is still in a light, easy-drinking style for drinking casually and young.

Strong and Sweet to Please the Ancients

amarone grapes

Grapes for Amarone are air dried to concentrate the juice.

A couple of thousand years ago, though, the Greeks and Romans liked their wines strong and sweet – in part because they are better able to withstand storage in porous containers like clay amphora – so they invented a style of winemaking today called appassimento.

Ripe grapes were harvested in autumn and then laid out on straw mats (today more hygienic plastic mats or slatted wooden bins are used) under the roof of a shed. As the cool breezes blew over the grapes, they gradually lost water, leaving sweeter and sweeter juice behind. When the dried grapes were made into wine, they had more alcohol than regular wine and, usually, a big slug of residual sugar as well.

Going Dry: That’s “Amaro!” for Today
Winemakers in the Veneto continued making this strong, sweet wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella” in modern times – right through the mid-1950s. Then, something strange happened, although no one really knows how. We’ll go with the most popular legend: A winemaker left his fermenting batch of Recioto in the vat for several weeks longer than usual. The yeast in that vat somehow found the strength and muscle to keep working through the heavy sugar load past 12% alcohol, through 13% and all the way to 14% or so. At that point, there was no residual sugar remaining, and when the winemaker tasted it, he declared it “Amaro” – or “bitter” – compared to his normal sweet red Recioto.

This dryer style of wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone” at first and today simply as “Amarone della Valpolicella” – found fans and soon became Valpolicella’s most famous and important wine. Usually, it’s so jam-packed with the flavors of dried fruit, balsamic, earth, leather, crushed flowers and more, that it needs to be paired with big, rich, foods (Osso Bucco is a classic match). Or, as is often done in Italy, enjoyed after the main course with strong cheeses and dried fruit.

Roccolo Grassi’s Amarone
Marco at Roccolo GrassiIf you love great Amarone and don’t know the name “Roccolo Grassi” yet, then you’re in for a real treat.

When Wine Advocate first tasted winemaker Marco Sartori’s 2003 Amarone, they called him “one of Veneto’s most promising young producers.” And since then, the praise keeps coming. Now, his 2013 Amarone joins Marco’s 2006 as his second Wine Advocate 95 point red and showcases a distinctive, thoughtful, and utterly delicious approach to crafting this unique Italian powerhouse red.

Like all Amarone estates, the Corvione, Rondinella and Croatina grapes used here are allowed to air dry after being picked, but with an important difference. Traditionally, grapes destined for Amarone are not picked terribly ripe so the drying process is responsible for both most of the wine’s body and much of its flavor. Marco takes a different approach, allowing his grapes to hang on the vines longer to achieve more natural ripeness and flavor and then air drying for a shorter time than most – 90 days vs 120. This means his Amarone has plenty of classic dried fruit and chocolate character, but also an uncommon level of freshness and amazing complexity and finesse.

Roccolo Grassi Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 is going to age beautifully and take on even more savory tobacco/herb and meaty notes over the next 15 or so years. But it’s so delicious now for the ripe fruit that there’s no reason to wait to start digging into it right now – or at least on the first combination of cold night and warm fire you encounter this year. Especially at our best in the USA prices on six-bottles or more while this special offer lasts.

roccolo-grassi-amarone-della-valpolicella_1

History in a Glass: Campi Flegrei Falanghina

Cantine Farro - Phlegraean FieldsFalanghina is an old grape with a bright modern future. Greek settlers probably brought the grape to Italy when Rome was still a fortified village and soon discovered that it thrived on the rocky, volcanic soils of Campania north of modern-day Naples. As first the Republic and then Empire expanded, Romans continued to cultivate Falanghina along with the region’s other most successful grapes, Aglianico and Piedirosso.

The Romans soon discovered that Falanghina vines did best when trained to grow up wooden stakes, called in Latin “falangae,” the source of Falanghina’s name.

The Famed Falernian of Ancient Rome

Cantine Farro - Cup of Nestore

“I am the cup of Nestore from which it is pleasant to drink. He who drinks from this cup will immediately desire Aphrodite with the beautiful crown.”

While not certain, it seems likely that Falanghina was one component of Rome’s most famous and sought-after wine, Falernian. This seems to have been a late-harvest blend of grapes, made with considerable residual sugar, and aged for decades in clay amphorae. As it aged, the got more concentrated and exposure to heat and oxygen probably resulted in a sweet wine much like modern Madeira.

And, it packed a punch – Roman authors frequently commented that Falernian had so much alcohol that it was the only wine that could be set on fire with a match!

The same volcanic soils that allowed Falanghina to thrive spelled doom for much of the region’s vineyard when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, covering both the city of Pompeii and its surrounding farms in lava and ash. The disaster extended down to the vineyards northwest of Naples where Romans had planted grapes alongside the bubbling craters of a second volcanic area called “Campi Flegrei” or “the Phlegraean Fields.”

Replanting in a Moonscape

Camp Flegrei - Cantine Farro

The Campi Flegrei remain active

Over the years, first Roman and then Italian farmers replanted vineyards in the Campi Flegrei moonscape (although an eight-day eruption here in 1538 set things back a bit). The region remains active, with more than 100 identified pools of water and mud still bubbling up gas and steam.

But, the porous, well-drained soils remain excellent for growing top-quality grapes. And, the high levels of sulfur in the soil are toxic to the phylloxera louse, meaning this is one of the few areas of Italy where vinifera grapes can still grow ungrafted on their own roots.

The Farro family had lived in Naples and the surrounding countryside for years before Michele Farro’s grandfather first established a winery in the hills overlooking the Phlegraean Fields in 1926. As Michele assumed control of the estate, he became a champion of the region (he now heads the DOC’s board) and of its classical grapes: Piedirosso and Falanghina.

A Modern Classic
Michele Farro at Cantine FarroOver the years, Michele and his family have carved out vineyards right on the edge of active volcanic craters by the sea and running up to terraces hacked out of volcanic rock up to 1,800 feet above the Fields and also down vineyards covered in talc-like powdered pumice. Where possible, Michele vineyards grow on their own rootstocks, and some of the vines in the lower vineyards are probably 100 years old (or more!).

Throughout the vineyards, Michele farms as naturally as possible and uses modern winemaking techniques with care to preserve the very best features of his Falanghina grapes. His 2018 Campi Flegrei DOC Bianco is a fantastic introduction to both the region and the vine. From first sniff to last sip, it’s clearly a wine of both volcanic and seaside origins – you’ll find loads of rocky, saline, minerality throughout this wine. But it’s also a wine of fine purity and lovely fruit, with plenty of bright peach, apricot and tangy pineapple flavors and a bracing squirt of lemony acidity at the end.

It’s hard to find something better to drink at with a sizzling plate of shrimp scampi or just-fried baby calamari (as my experience on Michele’s porch this summer proved). And, it’s sure to will delight with pasta laced with fresh vegetables or even fennel-spiked Italian sausage.

But we also think it’s pretty darn delicious all by itself, offering a captivating blend of richness and fruit to go with bright, refreshing, acids and minerality. Fine wine, fine value. Get some today!

A ‘Primer’ on Barolo

Our recent offering of Vietti’s latest vintage of Castiglione, a double 94 point blend of multiple Barolo vineyards (or “Crus” as they’re called there), got us thinking about Barolo’s history, how it grew to be more like Burgundy, along with questions about aging and the 2015 vintage, so it seemed like a good time to offer a little ‘primer’ on the subject!

What is Barolo?
Barolo the name of a town, of a small slice of a wine region, of the larger wine region, and of one of the world’s most profound and cellar-worthy red wines. The town is perched on a hilltop in Italy’s Piemonte region, south of Turin and not far from Alba – a pretty spot with lovely views of vineyards running up and down the steep hills surrounding it. The vineyards around the town of Barolo and those of nearby La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba make up the wine region named for the town.

Barolo and Map

While the vineyards across Barolo are planted to a variety of red grapes, the undisputed king of Piemonte grapes – and the only grape allowed in the wine “Barolo” – is Nebbiolo. And, like all royalty, Nebbiolo can be a bit of a prima donna.

Pampering the Royal Grape to Wine
Nebbiolo.jpgNebbiolo can’t stand wet feet, so it only thrives on loose-grained soils that drain water freely. It refuses to move quickly, taking up to 20% more days on the vine to ripen vs, say, Pinot Noir, so it needs to grow someplace where spring frosts are over early, summers are hot (but not too hot), and autumns are sunny, comfortable, and dry. And, as Jancis Robinson writes, “it is worth planting Nebbiolo only on south- or south-west-facing slopes at an altitude somewhere between 250 and 450 m (820 and 1500 ft) as there is no chance of making decent wine from this late-ripening variety if it is not exposed to maximum sunshine.”

So Barolo Nebbiolo buds early and hangs on the vine until late September, October, or even November. Then it has to be picked by hand – because the vineyards are too steep for machines – by workers who spend hours trudging up and down hills carrying buckets, baskets and bins of grapes to be hauled off to the winery.

Where more fun ensues. Because while Nebbiolo can make great wine, it insists that winemakers work for it. The grape is jam-packed with acidity, one of the reasons growers have to wait so long to pick so that the grapes will develop enough alcohol to balance the acidic tang. The skins are relatively low in color, so winemakers need to regularly pump over or “punch down” the fermenting rapes to get enough pigment in the wine to support aging and protect from oxidization.

But the skin and seeds are very high in tannin – the long-chain protein that makes your mouth pucker and feel dry when drinking young red wine or strong black tea. So all that work pulling out color also pulls out the firm, drying, tannins that make just-fermented Nebbiolo feel unbelievably, almost painfully, dry and astringent.

When exposed to oxygen, those tannins will “polymerize” – or stick to other tannins or wine pigment – and either become less aggressive or even get so big that they precipitate out of the wine. But exposing the wine to lots of oxygen can cause the fruit flavors to fade and make the wine turn brown. What to do?

Nebbiolo barrelsThe Barolo solution is to age the young wines for a long time – usually about 30 months – in wood casks that let just a trickle of air in through the barrels’ pores. The casks can be really big and old, so the process is slow and very little wood flavor enters the wine. Or they can be more “normal” size and new, which tends to lock in color (it’s a new wood thing) and soften the tannins faster – but adds noticeable oak flavor that can obscure Nebbiolo’s beauty.

So most Barolo winemakers use a mixture of wood vessels to try to get the best of both worlds and then regularly “rack” the wine – gently pumping it from one barrel to another – to add a little extra oxygen and speed the process along. Then into bottle…where the wine usually rests for another year or so before release to let it soften a bit more.

What’s Barolo Like to Drink – and When?
Mature Barolo – wine that’s rested long enough in bottle to allow the tannins to soften and some new aromas and flavors to develop – is one of the wine world’s most beautiful and captivating treats.

When you pour a glass, you’ll notice that it’s much less dark and opaque than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, with an often translucent ruby red color and some orange highlights at the rim. If the light color makes you think you’re about to try a light wine…WRONG! Getting Nebbiolo ripe enough to balance its acidity means letting the alcohol rise to 14% and higher, so Barolo always has plenty of body. And when you put it in your mouth – even if it’s older – you’ll get a big punch of tangy cherry juice acids up front and grippy, dusty, at least lightly mouth-puckering, tannins on the end.

But before that first sip, take a moment to give it a sniff. You’ll be rewarded with big, beautiful, utterly captivating aromas (one of the reasons Barolo is so often compared to red Burgundy is it’s glorious perfume). On both the nose and palate, you’ll discover a beguiling blend of cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit, hints of licorice, leather and chocolate, floral scents like violets, earthy notes like mushroom or white truffle, perhaps a dash of white pepper and cured tobacco. And, in the best wines, Barolo’s aromatic and flavor signature: tar and roses.

Traditionally, though, you couldn’t actually hope for all those flavor and aromatic fireworks until at least 10 years after the vintage (and often longer). Because old-style Barolo went into bottle with so much acidity and so very, very, much grippy, astringent, palate-closing, tannin that it wasn’t just yummy to drink young – it was often positively painful.

Something of a Revolution
Fortunately, Barolo has undergone something of a revolution over the past 20 years. As Antonio Galloni explained about the 2010s (a more structured, tannic vintage than the 2015s):

“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.”

And the 2015s, benefitting from a lovely, warm, growing season and still more winegrower experience is more accessible still. As Wine Advocate reported, Barolo’s vintage 2015 offers “plenty of options for those seeking wines to drink early and to those who have room in their cellars to age a few bottles for longer periods.”

There are three keys to enjoying 2015 Barolo young:

  1. pick the right wine;
  2. decant the wine for the proper amount of time; and
  3. matching it up with the right food.

Vietti Castiglione.jpgNo question – Vietti’s Barolo Castiglione 2015 is “the right wine,” with a perfect blend of Barolo aging potential and immediate accessibility. The right amount of time? Answering that question requires a bit of experimentation. Which we’ve done for you!

How Long to Decant?
We poured a bottle of Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2015 into a decanter at 9:30 am in the morning and then tasted it right away and over the next four hours. At first pour it showed a nice perfume and good flavors, although the fruit aromas were a bit obscured by notes of spice and tobacco and the flavors cut a little short by the very firm, if silky and ripe, tannins.

At three hours, the tannins had turned more chalky and were sticking to our teeth a bit. The wine was starting to show some browning of color and flavors with the fruit taking on a deep, earthy, note, some truffle/underbrush character emerging, and the fruit showing as a dark bass note. But the aromas had fallen off sharply, turning very reticent and lacking much interest. The glass sampled at four hours was pretty much the same, but more so.

The delicious sweet spot for the wine was from one hour after decanting until hour three. The perfume really peaked right around hour 1, showing stunning lift, intensity and complexity and a perfect mix of fruit, flowers and earth. Then, over the next hour (as the nose quieted a bit), the fruit got bigger, sweeter, and more prominent with plenty of complexity from notes of summer violets, perfumed roses, licorice root, and sweet spice.

Conclusion: decant this about an hour before you sit down at table so it shows maximum perfume from first pour and then enjoy over the next couple of hours as the fruit gains breadth, richness and volume before turning mellow, spicy and truffled towards the end of your last glass.

Pairing Barolo with Food
And what should be on your plate while drinking Vietti Barolo Castiglione? Something savory, perhaps even a little earthy, with a good balance of acidity, salt, fat, and protein (all of which help soften tannins). Some options:

  • Grilled beef, mushroom risotto, green beans braised with tomato
  • Any feathered game bird (partridge, squab, duck) with wild rice and mushroom stuffing and a touch of lemon zest
  • Beef carpaccio or cruda with truffle, olive oil, salt and lemon zest
  • Any rich red wine braised beef dish topped with a gremolata
  • Milder, salty, cheeses like Robiola, Grana Padano, or Toma

All of these pairing let young Barolo’s tannins and acidity work for you, offsetting the richness of the dish, while adding savory, earthy, flavors that bring out those aspects of the wine.

Conclusion
Barolo isn’t cheap. But in a world where the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy routinely cost $100-$300+, the Nebbiolos of Piemonte still offer the chance to cellar and drink great wines at a price that can fairly be called a “reasonable splurge.” Give ‘em a try!

The Young Master of Verdicchio

riccardo baldi la staffa

Now 30 year-old Riccardo Baldi grew up in the hilltop town of Staffolo in Italy’s Marche region, not far from the Adriatic sea. It’s a town where, as he says, “everyone makes wine, because we have 2,000 people and about 20 wineries.”

His parents established a family winery in 1994, and Riccardo worked harvest and in the winery growing up but left Staffolo to study engineering after high school. He quickly realized that wine was in his blood.

Verdicchio: Worthy of Fine Wine Status
la staffa vineyard and signHe returned to Staffolo and apprenticed himself to Lucio Canestrari of Fattoria Corncino, the winemaker who was among the first to show that the Marche’s Verdicchio grape was worthy of fine wine status (and not just something to be served to tourists in fish-shaped bottles). Eventually, Riccardo asked his parents for 2 HA of vineyards to try his own approach to winegrowing – organic farming, picking just ripe enough, and making wine simply to emphasize Staffolo’s uniquely calcium-rich and very old soils.

He was successful, rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the Marche’s most exciting young winemakers. Today, he and his parents have expanded La Staffa to cover 10 hectares, all at around 1,500 feet elevation, exposed to breezes from the Adriatic Sea, and lying on Staffolo’s uniquely ancient soils.

Where Vines Struggle …
la staffa vineyardRiccardo farms about 10 HA of vines in the Marche’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi zone, not far inland from the Adriatic Sea at around 1500 feet elevation. Riccardo’s vines grow on uplifted marine sedimentary soils that are around four million years older than most of the region. With their high concentration of calcium carbonate – up to four times other nearby locations – Riccardo’s vines have to struggle extra hard and deliver a unique salty sea-shell minerality.

To capture that minerality, Riccardo farms his vines organically and by hand, picks on the early side, and ferments and ages this wine in cool stainless steel tanks. The result is a wine with lovely nectarine and stone fruit flavors and a good dose of Verdicchio’s classic lavender, fennel and bitter almond complexity, all supported by crisp acids and salty seashell minerality.

Overlooked by the Critics
Despite the growing reputation of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Riccardo’s own talent, these are wines that consistently get overlooked by the major wine critics – probably a good thing for us! But the last vintage of this wine did get a little attention from Ian d’Agata at Vinous who rated it 91 points and described it like this:

“Nectarine, dried orange peel, walnut and fresh white flowers are lifted by a minty topnote; a hint of volatile acidity blows off with aeration. Glyceral and fruit-driven on the palate, with flavors of stone fruit nectar and lime framed and lifted by harmonious acidity. Very long and refreshing on the aftertaste.” Vinous 91 points (for vintage 2016).

The 2017 edition is better still, with even more drive and intensity to match a richness and complexity that’s been building since it first arrived last July. The past year in bottle has seen the wine unwind a bit more with the fruit, fennel and sea shell aspects gaining breadth, the texture picking up weight, and the tangy lime zest acidity keep on going strong.

It will certainly shine with shellfish and seafood of all kinds and with ripe cheese and grilled vegetables as well.

And it’s also fun to drink solo as a refreshing break from a warm summer’s day. It’s open this week for tasting. Check it out on our website!

The Produttori del Barbaresco and the Magnificent 2014 Riservas

Produttori vineyardThe mission of the Produttori del Barbaresco is simple: “Excellence in Barbaresco.”

The 54 families who grow the fruit and own the Produttori farm just one grape: Nebbiolo. And there are few winemakers more skilled than Aldo Vacca, managing director and head winemaker, and his team at Produttori del Barbaresco.

Unlike most well-known Barbaresco estates, Produttori is a co-operative winery, one owned by its growers. The co-op idea came early in Barbaresco, in 1894 when Domizio Cavazza, headmaster of the Royal Enological School of Alba and a Barbaresco resident, brought together 9 vineyard owners to make and market wine collectively.

After being abolished in the 1920s, Produttori del Barbaresco was reborn in 1958 when the head priest of Barbaresco’s church realized that local vineyard owners were unable to afford to make and profitably market their own wine. Today, the co-op includes 54 members and 250 acres of vineyard.

While the Produttori is a co-op, it’s not “just” a co-op – this is quite likely the single best co-operatively owned winery in the world. Consider a few of the comments top wine critics have made about their wines over the past 20 years:

“The Produttori del Barbaresco is unquestionably a terrific source for Barbarescos that rival the best made in Piedmont. Although there is a tendency to scoff at wines made by cooperatives, the quality of the wines from this superbly run operation is as high as that from any highly committed, passionate estate-bottler… The Produttori del Barbaresco gets my vote as the best run and most committed cooperative regarding quality, and, most importantly for prospective purchasers, a source for exceptional Barbaresco wine values!” – Robert Parker, Wine Advocate, April 1994

“Piedmont’s cooperative winery makes top-notch values. Vacca’s cooperative has always paid its members according to the quality of their crop rather than just the quantity. And that’s why it consistently makes outstanding Barbarescos.” – Jo Cooke, Wine Spectator, December 2006

“The quiet transformation that has taken place at Produttori del Barbaresco in recent years is nothing short of remarkable. Far from a sleepy, old-fashioned cooperative winery, the Produttori have stepped up their game big time over the last decade or so. The wines remain reference-points, though, especially in years in which the Produttori make their flagship Riservas. The Produttori’s Riservas remain some of the greatest values in the realm of fine, cellar worthy reds.” Antonio Galloni, 2015

Only in Exceptional Vintages: Grand Riservas
Produttori del BarbarescoAbout those Riservas. The Produttori’s “main” wine is its Barbaresco Normale, a wine made by blending fruit from across its members Barbaresco vineyards. Every vintage, the first question the winemaking team asks itself is, “What is needed to make the Normale a great wine?”

In exceptional harvests, the Normale shines brightly enough that the winery can carve out grapes from its nine great “Crus” or single vineyards and bottle them separately. The best fruit from each of these sites is fermented, aged and bottled separately. Winemaking and aging for each of the Crus is exactly identical, so the remarkable differences you taste between the wines is due entirely to the unique characteristics of each of these great sites.

In an era of climate change and ever warming growing seasons, vintage 2014 was a “classic” year where the grapes were able to hang on the vines until mid-October before harvest at balanced levels of alcohol, acidity, and amazingly ripe tannins. The next four vintages in the winery – 2015-2018 – will all have their charms. But none will deliver the classic levels of freshness, finesse and perfume you’ll find in these stunning 2014s.

Like all Barbaresco, the Produttori’s Riservas are meant to age and develop gracefully in cellar. At our class, we found all of the 2014s to be giving boatloads of pleasure on the palate after a two-hour decant (although a few, like Ovello and Montestefano, were clearly powerhouses!). But vintage 2014 is all about the aromatics, and those will take another 2-3 years in cellar to start showing their best. And all will shine most brightly from 2024 and continue giving pleasure for 20 years or so after that.

Our 2014 Produttori del Barbaresco Offer
We’re offering seven of Produttori’s nine Riserva 2014s today plus magnums of one great site: Rabaja. The tiny allocation of Paje sold out during the class. We also can obtain Mucagota at the same prices as the other wines on a special order basis. We have unusually good supplies of what are often considered the Produttori’s top wines: Asili, Rabaja, Ovello and Montestefano. But, really, you cannot go wrong with any of this year’s releases.

You can see the entire offering on the website at this link. If you’re having trouble deciding, shoot us an email or give us a call – we’ll be delighted to help you assemble the perfect set of 2014 Riservas for you!

Note that six- and 12-bottle savings are mix/match across the offer. Mix/match savings will not display on your online order form or confirmation email, but will be applied before your card is charged. If you have any questions at all, please let us know!

A Short History of Soave

(A story of the dangers of popularity)

soave vineyardThe wines of this small growing area near Verona were once America’s favorite Italian white, far outselling Pinot Grigio in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s.

With soaring demand, the dominant Soave exporter – Bolla – succeeded in having the region’s boundaries expanded to include acre upon acre of fertile flatlands. And they also succeeded in convincing the world that “Soave” meant thin, tart, lemony wine based heavily on the inferior Trebbiano Toscano, wines to be drunk when something “fancier” than Gallo Chablis was called for.

Soave_Volcanic_SoilBack to Its Core: Volcanic Soils
When (slightly) riper, fatter Pinot Grigio came to the US market in the 1990s, Soave was sunk. But – quietly, methodically – a small band of dedicated growers like Gini, Inama, Pieropan and others have taken Soave back to its core. They refocused on the region’s best grape, Garganega, lowered yields, and retreated to the vineyard sites that made Soave famous in the first place.

What makes those sites special is their high content of decomposed volcanic material. As The New York Times explained a few years ago:

“The Soave growers attribute several benefits to this terroir. It stores heat, helping the grapes ripen. It wards off illnesses and pests. And it confers on the wines a salty, smoky, bitter quality that makes a nice complement to the almond and citrus flavors that are typically found in garganega.”

Sandro de Bruno Soave
Sandro Tesoriero’s uncles and his father, Bruno, have made quality Soave on the volcanic hills of Monte Calvarina since the 1930s, and as Sandro de Bruno (“Sandro, son of Bruno”) since 2000, have quietly made a name for themselves across Italy as leading “modern” (meaning “the real old school”) Soave winegrowers.

Sandro de Bruno bottle and glass

This week’s featured Sandro de Bruno Soave -Soave DC: your perfect spring to summer white on sale from $11.98

 

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.
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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.