Thursday, March 28, 2024

Pride of Piemonte

Few Italian wines attract the acclaim given to Barolo and Barbaresco, arguably Italy's greatest red wines and the pride of Piemonte.  Credit Nebbiolo, the most important red grape of Piemonte, as the source for all the praise.  

Piemonte (Piedmont), as the northern district is known in Italy, has a number of noteworthy wines, but none as valued as the Nebbiolo-based Barolo and Barbaresco.

Nebbiolo takes its name from the Italian word nebbia, a natural phenomenon that loosely means the "fog or mist" covering the rolling Piedmontese hills. The nebbia is a symbiosis that occurs in autumn, with the ripening of Nebbiolo and the formation of fog in the district.

Nebbiolo on the vine

Once known as Spanna, mainly in the upper Piemonte, Nebbiolo is the grape of lesser known Piemontese reds, Gattinara and Gemme, as well as red wines in neighboring Lombardy and Val d'Aosta. The four Piemonte reds are all DOCG wines, although the international reputation of Barolo and Barbaresco is paramount.

Barolo, and to a lesser degree Barbaresco, reach a drinkable point only after many years of aging.  Nebbiolo is a tannic grape with lots of acidity, and that  combination means wines such as Barolo need extended bottle time before the classic tar and rose petals are evident.  

I will say, that whatever magic is at work in the cellars of Barolo and Barbaresco, to me, aged Nebbiolo has the scent of freshly spread road tar, although the perfume of rose petals has never been as noticeable.  

Before getting to specifics for Barolo and Barbaresco, here's a quick review of the Italian wine classification system.  In 1963, Italy created the DOC (Denomazione di Origine Controllata) to bring order to its wines while emulating the French AOC system. At the same time, DOCG (...Garantita) was added to recognize the country's highest quality wines. 

Barbaresco was first to get DOCG in 1966, then Barolo in 1980, Gemme in 1997 and Gattinara in 1990.  I've always wondered why, if Barolo is often rated higher than Barbaresco, why the fourteen year wait before approving DOCG for Barolo?  I should add that opinions differ about the quality differences and if Barbaresco is a "baby" Barolo.


Progress in glass bottle manufacturing signaled the first major move in the establishment of Barolo.  About 1850, the name Barolo first appeared on wine labels, coinciding with the use of glass bottles in Italian wineries.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Barolo producers had divided the core of wine production into five districts: Castigione Falletto, Barolo, Serralonga d'Alba, La Morra and Monforte d'Alba.  The official naming of these areas as the authentic zones of Barolo was not without controversy, as arguments persisted about which area was the authentic Barolo.

Nebbiolo in Barolo

The next big change took place in the 1960s when winemakers realized that how they were making Barolo was outdated and modernization was needed. Old-style Barolo, favored by traditionalists, did not use temperature controlled fermentation and many of the wines were over extracted due to lengthy macerations. The so-called "modernists" wanted a more international style of Barolo, with shorter and faster fermentations, shorter aging periods in barrel and the use of French oak.

Most of today's Barolo reflect the changes made since the 1960s by such noted producers as Renato Ratti, Paolo Cordero di Montezemolo, Pio Cesare and the Conternos. Barolo is noted for foward bright fruit, without being jammy. Barolo ages well, integrating the spice of French oak nicely with Nebbiolo.


Many of the same wine making practices for modern Barolo apply to Barbaresco. But it is also accurate and fair to say that Barbaresco is its own wine and not a junior Barolo.

Barbareso is one-third the size of Barolo and did not get name recognition until about 15 years after Barolo.  The production zone is in the districts of Treiso, Neive and Barbaresco, plus a small vineyard area near the town of Alba. 

Nebbiolo in Barbaresco

Another factor that separates Barbaresco from Barolo is Nebbiolo ripens earlier in parts of Barbaresco, giving the wine more finese and less tannin. There is a difference in aging requirements as well: 26 months with 9 in oak for Barbaresco, compared to Barolo's 38 and 18. Riserva wines age even longer. 

Barbaresco vintners like Angelo Gaja, Prunotto, Bruno Giacosa and Vietti are leading the movement to modern wine making, while staying within DOC rules and maintaining traditions. The character of Barbaresco today is the taste of Nebbiolo: black cherry, tar with floral notes and full tannins. Like Barolo, Barbaresco requires aging.

Still, determined wine drinkers ask: "Besides price and location, what's the difference between Barolo and Barbaresco?"  Locals in both places say it's the soil, others claim different local terroir, while others maintain that wine making techniques make the difference.  

The sure way to see if there is a difference is to pour a glass of Barolo and Barbaresco, from the same vintage, side by side, and taste.


Next post: Getting Down with Gewurz 

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Thursday, March 21, 2024

Tokaj & Hungarian Wine

Few wines are weighted down with more romantic legend than the great Hungarian Tokaj. Made first in the 13th century, Tokaj is an extraordinary sweet wine that is little known or appreciated by today's wine drinkers. 

The number of truely great sweet wines can be counted on one hand: Sauternes, German beerenauslese, Portuguese Port, Alsace Selection de Grains Nobles and Tokaj.  There are other very good to great sweet wines, like  Madeira and Australia's Liqueur Muscat, but they don't quite measure up to the top six. 

It's one thing to say that Tokaj is extraordinary, but to become a true believer, you need to taste an entry level Tokaj Szamorodni alongside a top-end Tokaj Aszu. The difference is like putting Ch. Pontet-Canet, Fifth Growth Pauillac/Bordeaux against Ch. Latour, First Growth Pauillac/Bordeaux. 

Hand-hewn Tokaj cave

The differences between Tokaj Szamorodni and Aszu, price aside, may be subtle, but the discerning taster will notice a depth of aromatics, more concentration, layered flavors, added complexity and above all, a definable elegance in the Aszu  that is absent in the Szamorodni.  

Just what is this wine called Tokaj and why is it so special?  Here's a brief synopsis of Tokaj, followed by a few words on Hungarian wine, including a look back at my first taste of a Hungarian red wine, with a name that should have scared me away, but didn't.

Hungarian Tokaj

The first thing you should know about Tokaj is that it is not the same as a California wine called Tokay or the French Tokay d' Alsace.  Interestingly, the original name for the Hungarian wine was "Tokay."  And the Alsatian wine is now called Alsace Pinot Gris; a righteous move as Tokay d' Alsace never had anything to do with Tokay or Tokaj.

One more technical point: Tokaj is a town in Hungary, near a volcano named Mount Tokaj.  Locals prefer to call the wine Tokaji -- the "i" denoting from, but universally it is known as Tokaj. 

Tokaj is made from two indigenous grapes: Furmint, a high-acidity grape susceptible to essential botrytis and Hárslevelű, genetically related to Furmint, this hard-to-pronounce native grape makes wines with spicy flavors and good aging potential.  Tokaj is a botrytised wine but, contrary to common belief, it is NOT a fortified wine. 

Historically, there are both dry and sweet Tokaj, with the sweet wines better known in export than the dry wines. Sweet Szamorodni is made from select botized grapes, while the dry style can be a blend of botrytized and non-botrytized grapes. Some wineries are exporting a Dry Furmint.

Aszu Tokaj is the classic sweet wine, made only from botrytized grapes that have been soaked for hours in new wine, before fermentation. The old way of classifying the style or sweetness levels, was by puttonyos (loosely translated as a picking basket). The highest was 6 puttonyos or about 18% residual sweetness. Today, all Aszu most have a minimum of 12% RS.


Eszencia, the fabled upper end of Tokaj Aszu is sweeter and rarer than 6 puttonyos Aszu.  It is not unheard of to find older Eszencia today at 45% RS and sweeter.  Rarely available commercially, Eszencia is usually used for blending.

The Royal Tokaji Wine Company is the major exporter of Tokaj wine to the United States, although a few other firms are making inroads.  Look for 6 puttonyos Aszu  from RTWC, Kvaszinger, Samuel Tinon and Disznoko. Price range is $65 to $75 for a 500 ml bottle.   

Hungary's Other Wines

In 2009, Hungarian wine fell into compliance with EU regulations and the designation of 36 official appellations that fall into three geographical groups: Transdanubia, The Great Plain and The Northern Massif. 

The wines of Transdanubia, in western Hungary, are strongly influenced by the Danube river and Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe. A variety of grapes include native varieties Furmint and Hárslevelű, along with Traminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, Muscat and Olaszrizling, a variety also known as Welschriesling, although it has nothing to do with the noble Riesling.  

Red wines, mostly from the native Kadarka, Merlot and Syrah, are important in the southern districts of Villany and Szekszard. Perhaps Hungary's best known red wine, Bikaver, or "Bull's Blood" is made in Szekszard and the Northern Massif district of Eger.  More on Bikaver wines below. 

The Great Plain lies between the Danube and Tisza rivers, in south-central Hungary. About half of the country's vineyards are planted here, ranging from Chardonnay to Kadarka and Olaszrizling. 

North of the Great Plain, on the border of Slovakia, is The Northern Massif.  Among the handful of small districts are Tokaj and Eger, one of two areas making Bikaver red wines. 


Personal note: One of the first European wines I tried was from Hungary.  The  black and red label had an angry snorting bull under the words "Egri Bikaver."  I was intrigued, so I turned the bottle to read the back label. 

A short description of the wine included the meaning of Egri Bikaver as "Bulls Blood," an appropriate name for the wine's blood-red color. The rustic fruity wine   was likely made then from the native grape, Kadarka, while today's Egri Bikaver has gone the way of many other wines, using international varieties like Merlot, to supplement a pair of other indigenous grapes.

The volcanic soils of this mountainous region yield white and red wine, with a recent influx of young winemakers experimenting with international varieties like Pinot Noir. Although there is some interest in Chardonnay and Riesling, native grapes are still the most popular for white wines.

In the late 1980s, Hungary became a post-communism free-market economy, linked with the European Union.  Although interest in Tokaj wine outside Hungary is small, wine drinkers curious about new and different wines, are looking to Hungary for different wines made from local varieties.

Next post: Nebbiolo Reds

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Thursday, March 14, 2024

Sonoma & Napa Chardonnay

Lately, I've had the feeling that Chardonnay has eased into complacency. Twenty years ago, Chardonnay was a major item of discussion in wine circles (dare I say on everyone's lips). Now, it seems as though Chardonnay has settled in as the self-assured dominant white wine, in most of the world's wine regions. 

There was a time when Chardonnay was synonymous with white wine. This was a  common scenario: Three young women are catching up at a bar in Los Angeles and the bartender asks for their order. "I'll have white wine," they all say.  The wines are set in front of the friends, they clink glasses, take a sip and immediately admonish the bartender for not serving them Chardonnay. 

A cliche, perhaps, but the tale demonstrates the enduring popularity of Chardonnay. 


Which brings me to Sonoma and Napa, two California regions responsible for most of California's Chardonnay.  Sauvignon Blanc may have found a comfortable spot in both places but it's not threatening to dethrone Chardonnay.

Fact is, Chardonnay is not an original New World wine. Chardonnay can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, to a part of France we know today as Burgundy.  DNA analysis claims that Chardonnay is the offspring of Pinot Noir and an old variety called Gouais Blanc.  Ancient ancestry aside, Chardonnay is a modern global  traveler, the most popular white wine on every continent where wine is made. 

The popularity of Chardonnay in Sonoma and Napa took off in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Hanzell likely made the first Sonoma Chardonnay in 1956 and about 15 years later, Bob Travers was making Chardonnay at Mayacamas on Mt. Veeder.

Tasting the Difference

Is it possible to taste the difference between a Napa and a Sonoma Chardonnay?  Anything is possible, but it would be difficult and here's why.  

There's geography and its connection to terroir. The Napa Valley is a smaller place than Sonoma, with 16 clearly defined areas, or AVAs. Sonoma is much larger and spread out, with 19 AVAs. Each of these AVAs has a different terroir. 

Although it's not easy to clearly define what is the terroir of any area, the simple explanation is such factors as climate, soils, vineyard location, plus a host of other things combine to form a grape growing environment. 

The sum of all those factors means that Chardonnay is happiest when it has lots of time to ripen evenly, in a cooler environment, like that for Pinot Noir. Wherever you find Pinot Noir, you will also likely find Chardonnay: Burgundy, Carneros, Champagne, Russian River.

Consider the growing conditions for Chardonnay in the Napa Valley. They are thought to be ideal at the cool end of the valley in Los Carneros and Wild Horse Valley, but less so in warmer northern Calistoga. 

Thus, the taste of a Carneros Chardonnay is more Granny Smith apple and its  brisk mouth-watering acidity. Move up valley to warmer spots, like Calistoga, and Chardonnay takes on a softer acidity and tropical fruit flavors.


The same differences are present in Sonoma, where a local terroir makes it more suitable to grow Chardonnay in cooler west county, closer to the ocean or the Russian River Valley.  Move further inland to the Alexander Valley and conditions warm a little and get warmer yet near Geyserville. 

Local topography, of course, can make a difference, with cooler pockets where Chardonnay does well.

These generalizations are for Chardonnay that hasn't been fermented in oak, or seen oak during barrel aging. Chardonnay is a malleable grape to work with, allowing a winemaker enough room to ferment in oak or just age in oak and to calculate how much time in barrel is just right. Plus, there's the wine making choice of malolactic conversion or not. 

With Chardonnay, there are many variables for a winemaker to work with, starting in the vineyard, providing an unlimited number of styles. You'll find most of the styles in Napa and Sonoma Chardonnays. 

What follows then is a list of a few select wines with prices. The list does not reflect the highest or lowest prices in either Napa or Sonoma:

Napa Chardonnays range from $17 for Napa Cellars to $929 for Kongsgarrd The Judge. If that's too much strain on your wine budget, there's Mondavi, Duckhorn, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Grgich Hills, all for less than $50.  Far Niente is $70, Ch. Montelena, $75 and Kongsgarrd, $150. 

Sonoma Chardonnays are priced from $19 for La Crema to $684 for Marcassin Estate. Others include Sonoma Cutrer, $25; Jordan Vineyard and Winery, $42; Flowers, $48; Paul Hobbs, $65; Peter Michael "Belle Cote," $138 and Kistler, $146.


Next post: Tokaj & Hungarian Wine 

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Thursday, March 7, 2024

The Temptation of Tempranillo

What would you say is Spain's most dominant red wine grape...Garnacha? Good guess, but the grape planted in more places is Tempranillo; a favorite for its lush texture, ripe aromas and flavors of blackberry and black cherry. 


Not for nothing is Tempranillo the most popular red wine grape in Spain. It's also the country's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is an alternative choice for folks who favor Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. 

Popular wine areas, like Rioja and Ribera del Duero, prefer Tempranillo as the base for their red wines. Tempranillo is also the main red grape in many other regions of Spain, like Toro, Catalonia, Navarra, La Mancha, Costers del Segre and Somantano.  

Throughout Spain, growers and winemakers identify Tempranillo by different names.  In Ribera del Duero, it's called Tinto Fino; in La Mancha, Cencibel; Tinto Toro in Toro; and in Catalonia, Tempranillo is known as Ull del Liebre. Neighboring Portugal has yet another name for Tempranillo: Tinta Roriz, a main component of  Port. 

I digress briefly to bring back Garnacha (Grenache), a red wine grape whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, although not so much in Spain, due to a government mandated vine pull.  

Long known as the variety that adds the oomph to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France; in Spain, Garnacha shares a lot of the same aromatics and flavors found in Tempranillo: deep color, bright strawberry/cherry flavors, moderate tannin, good acidity.  

By 2021 Tempranillo had secured its dominance over Garnacha, due mainly to the grape's thick skin, dark color and the promise of longevity. In recent years, that promise has been realized in the long lived wines of Ribera del Duero, Toro, Navarra and in the best Rioja, like Muga, Martinez Bujanda and Campo Viejo.


 Ribera del Duero

For years, Rioja was the standard bearer for Spanish red wines. Then, in the late 1980s, the striking red wines of Ribera del Duero hit U.S. markets with a loud bang. Ribera Tempranillos offered more than Rioja: bigger and riper, but with finesse and the potential for longer aging. Wineries in Ribera had been making this style of Tempranillo for years, but it was new to American fans of Spanish red wine.

The region lies along the Duero river in central Spain. Originating in Spain, the Duero flows downhill, entering Portugal through the narrow Douro valley, site of Port production, eventually emptying into the Atlantic, just past Oporto. Along its way, the Duero/Douro, flows past many wine regions, including Ribera del Duero.

Well-heeled, in-the-know collectors, were already familiar with Vega Sicilia, the iconic Ribera wine first made in the 1860s, and then refined in 1927 to the wine we know today, made in three styles from Tinta del Pais (aka Tinto Fino), a strain of Tempranillo. 

More than 130 years ago (yes, you read that right), Vega Sicilia introduced Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot to the region, to provide support for Tinta del Pais. For years, Vega Sicilia held its lofty place as the top Ribera wine.

Then, in the 1980s, the late Alejandro Fermandez released Pesquera to international acclaim. The Ribera juggernaut was loose, with wineries that had been selling mainly to cooperatives, now were marketing Ribera del Duero.  The wine takes its name from the village Pesquera del Duero and is not far from Vega Sicilia.

Noted Ribera wines to consider: Antidoto, Prado Rey, Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Arzuaga, Dominio de Pingus, Bodegas la Horra, Dominio del Aquila.  Most Ribera wines range in price from $25 to $40, with some reaching $350 and Vega Sicilia Unico, scaling the lofty heights of $1,350.



Before Ribera took off, Tempranillo and Garnacha got together to form the base for Rioja red wines.  The name of Spain's leading wine region is a mash up of Rio (river) and Oja, a tributary of the river Ebro.

The key to understanding Rioja wine is the belief by Riojans that aging in barrel is a stronger indicator of Rioja red wine quality than fermentation -- the reverse of that practice in most other wine regions.  

By regulation, Rioja Crianza and Reserva must spend at least one year in oak, usually American, although interest in French oak is growing. Gran Reserva must age in oak a minimum of two years, plus two more years in bottle. A third category, Joven, is unoaked red.

The best vineyards in La Rioja are in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, around the villages of Laguardia, Haro, Fuenmayor and San Vicente.  The climate there is continental, without the extremes in other places. Soil composition is mainly clay over limestone, while in Rioja Baja, the broadest place in the valley, there is alluvial soils with river silt and the wines are more common.

Wine making in Rioja follows the traditional methods employed elsewhere. Barrel fermentation for whites was common until the 1970s, then most wineries switched to tank fermentation, but in recent years, some wineries have switched back. Resistance to official requirements about such practices as barrel aging has picked up in Spain, mirroring a mini-trend felt elsewhere in places like Italy. 

Here are some noted Rioja producers: Muga, La Rioja Alta, Miguel Merino, Vine Real, CVNE, Marques de Murrieta, Pedro Martinez, Sierra Cantabria.  Expect to pay $25 to $35 for most Rioja.

Tempranillo is considered a workhorse red grape in many parts of Spain, and this hard working grape produces some of Spain's best red wines.

Next blog: Napa & Sonoma Chardonnay

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