Do Consumers Even Like Barolo?

Above: Which way Barolo? A signpost at an overlook in La Morra showing the distance to neighboring communes.

So, do consumers even like Barolo? It’s a sad question to ask if you’re a nebbiolo obsessive, but I think there’s some truth to it. Outside of the wine trade, it seems like most people just don’t respond to nebbiolo the way they do to, say, pinot noir or even sangiovese. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing for nebbiolo is an open question; but it most certainly has implications for producers in Barolo and Barbaresco.

I recently wrote an article about the current state of Barolo for the San Francisco Chronicle (you can read it here). And while it seems that producers in the region are moving beyond the (frankly tired) debate of traditional vs. modern when it comes to the identity of Barolo, there’s arguably an even bigger step necessary for the nebbiolo heartland: connecting with the people who actually enjoy their wines.

By enjoy, I don’t necessarily mean covet or collect, but rather the appreciation of Barolo (or Barbaresco) for what it is instead of as some sort of trophy. Sadly, the wines won’t ever be cheap but neither should the pricing continue to rise to levels where (most) wines are unattainable.

It’s unlikely that Barolo will ever develop an international high-end market (complete with knock-offs) equivalent to what Bordeaux has going on, and aside from a few rare bottles, Barolo winemakers aren’t anywhere close to the status enjoyed by their counterparts in Burgundy — a frequent comparison.

Happily, two recent trends suggest that there’s bright news for nebbiolo-lovers. First up, the current vintage in the market, 2006, seems to favor producers with a classical bent meaning that what’s in the bottle is an honest representation of the region’s terroir.

And perhaps even better news: after years of lavishing their attention on riserva-level bottlings or numerous single-vineyard ‘cru’ wines, winemakers in the region are turning a serious eye to their blended base wines, those labeled as Barolo, and often sourced from multiple communes. When I joined the Chronicle’s tasting panel for an overview of the 2006 vintage, we found several wines from this category in the $30- $40 range that showed the clarity and depth I love to see in nebbiolo. Good news indeed! You can read the results of that tasting here.

Two Sides to Every Tasting: Nebbiolo Prima 2010

Nebbiolo Prima, the reconstituted annual anteprima event formerly known as the Alba Wines Exhibition, is easily one of the most engaging Italian wine tastings that I’ve attended. It’s also certainly the most gruesome: four days, 75-85 new nebbiolo wines each day, and only three or so hours in a single sitting to taste them all. Still, it’s a fantastic opportunity to taste most of the new releases from the following appellations: Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo. And as an invited (and hosted*) journalist, I got to taste everything blind, broken out by vintage and commune.

I’m still typing up my notes, so it’s a little premature to comment on individual wines. Actually, typed notes or no, I think it’s impossible to offer accurate impressions of the 330 or so wines tasted at Nebbiolo Prima. To be sure, I had some favorites — wines that, to me at least, gave a balanced impression of how nebbiolo performs in a particular zone, whether the Roero, Nieve, or Castiglione Falletto.

Large, comprehensive tastings like Nebbiolo Prima, however, do have their advantages, namely providing an opportunity to play generalist and look for underlying trends or profiles within communes and, most importantly, within the vintage.

So speaking generally, I came away from this tasting uninspired by many of the ’07s from the Roero (a region that I tend to like under normal circumstances) and frustrated by the bulk (literally and figuratively, but not all) of ’07 Barbarescos, especially those from Treiso which, marked as they were by jammy tannins and high alcohols, didn’t seem to handle the warm, dry conditions of 2007.

(Above: Two sides to every tasting, and every rental car. I had rented a new – and adorable – Fiat 500 to make getting around much easier. Unfortunately a tight alleyway and an obscured bench in the medieval town of Serralunga decided to make things a little more difficult. Thankfully, a quick thinking winemaker reattached the bumper with tape.)

Barolo 2006 was a different matter. And at least to judge from my experiences during both Nebbiolo Prima and during visits with several producers both before, during and after the event, 2006 is looking like it will be a very good, possibly classic, vintage for Barolo, especially among producers in Castiglione Falletto, Barolo/Novello, Monforte, Serralunga and Verduno. La Morra was the odd man out here, with too many wines that felt pushed in the cellar, whether through overworked tannins or excessive oak flavors.

Which brings up another point about 2006, and perhaps why I think this vintage shows real promise for Barolo: it’s a tough year to hide behind. In other words, it’s not a year in which warm, ideal ripening conditions can hide bad winemaking, nor is it a year in which the more obviously modern and international styles tended to show their best. If you dig brighter acidity, earthy, firm tannins and purity of expression over technique, then 2006 Barolo is your thing.

A few more posts, including some producer visits in Liguria and Valtellina in addition to Piedmont, to follow…

NB: I had the great pleasure of spending a good amount of time tasting (and eating) with David McDuff, who has also posted informed observations about Nebbiolo Prima. Definitely worth a visit.

*As noted before, but worth pointing out again, I was an invited journalist at Nebbiolo Prima, and have the organizers to thank for logistical support, airfare, some meals, etc. The rental car, in all its taped, bashed-up glory, was my own responsibility.

Wine of the Week: That Old Black Magic

Time to take a break from all that Italian wine here at Spume. One of the more notable wines this week comes from Steve Edmunds at Edmunds St. John.

That Old Black Magic, 2006 California Red Wine, Edmunds St. John

This feisty blend of syrah and grenache feels spicy and lean — more about savory flavors than sweet fruit, though there’s enough California power to give it an appropriate New World charge. Edmunds co-ferments the grapes for this wine from three vineyards, Wylie and Fenaughty (both in El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills), and Eaglepoint Ranch up in Mendocino. I was surprised by the wine’s finesse and texture, which was silky without being overly generous or stupid. Edmunds’ response to my question/statement about the relationship between co-fermentation and texture:

Not just texture, but harmony, and integration. It’s amazing, after pressing into cask, I didn’t rack until August of the year after harvest, and bottled right after the rack. Glad you liked it! The nose, I think, is pretty persuasive…

“Persuasive” is an excellent word for it. A lovely effort, worth tracking down (I found my bottle at Castro Village Wines in San Francisco, where it was about $21). You can learn more about That Old Black Magic here.

Skin-Fermented Fiano from the Volcanic Highlands of Campania

What a week for wine! As indicated earlier, I was in New York for the latter half of last week for VINO 2010, a massive conference of seminars, tastings, meetings, dinners and the like, all celebrating the contemporary world of Italian wine in the US. I’ll get to details of wines tasted at the event, as well as notes from the panel I participated in, later but first a little indulgence.

One of the more notable wines I tasted all week was a fiano from Calitri, in the Irpinia highlands deep in inland Campania. Think the other side of Mount Vesuvius and you’re about right. Head south a little too, through the raw farmland, mountains and ancient Germanic castles on the road to Basilicata.

Don Chisciotte 2006 Fiano Campania IGT is a an unusual take on one of this region’s most promising indigenous white varieties from the father-uncle-son team of Michele, Pierluigi and Guido Zampaglione. Made in a natural style — ie, organically farmed, with no additions of yeast, enzymes, or chemicals; limited use of sulfur — it’s also fermented on its skins, where it acquires a distinctive golden-orange hue.

(Above: Skin-fermented fiano and a bowl of just-fried hushpuppies. Note the similarity in color.)

I met Guido Zampaglione this past year at ViniVeri in Verona where he was pouring wines from Tenuta Grillo, his winery in Monferrato. Don Chisciotte is a project Zampaglione started with his father and uncle at their family’s Il Tufiello estate in Calitri, where they’ve long been growers of organic wheat, oats and sunflowers. Two hectares of fiano vines were planted in 2001, at an altitude of around 800 meters (2,600+ feet). The high-altitude viticulture in this part of Italy is part of what makes the region so thrilling.

This ’06, found at Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan, is an unusual wine — not for everyone, but certainly interesting. and worth checking out. On top of apple/ stone fruit flavors and the gripping texture from the skin fermentation, we noticed a curious spice component, sort of like curry. Pretty groovy stuff.

Production is quite low — apparently there’s around 5,000 bottles produced — but it’s the kind of thing that will attract attention, and apart from Antece from Bruno De Conciliis, it’s the only skin-fermented fiano I know about (though I’m sure there are more).

For more about Il Tufiello and Don Chisciotte, check out the farm’s blog. Also, Jamie Goode weighed in on the 2007 vintage of this wine a couple weeks ago.

Building Community

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Above: The new tools of the trade?

One of my favorite aspects about the wine, specialty cocktail and food business is that it builds communities, from casual tasting groups to communal neighborhood gardens. And this is one reason tools like blogging, twitter, Chowhound and (gasp) even Yelp are so well-suited to the food and wine world, or at least to the people who get excited about those worlds. These are the tools that easily bring people together to form new (and hopefully lasting) communities.

A great recent example of creating a food or booze-centric community is San Francisco Cocktail Week, which just wrapped up the other night. I didn’t participate much this year because of deadline pressures, but the event was a success and I’ve heard from many people that this year’s was the best yet. I bring up SF Cocktail Week because in my opinion one of the main reasons San Francisco’s cocktail scene has evolved the way it has is because of the strong community ties among bartenders in this town. As local booze scribe Camper English puts it in his excellent essay, SF Cocktails: A Recent History, published on the SF Cocktail Week website:

What helps San Francisco bartenders stay current and at the top of their game is the fact that most of the top bartenders are members of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, visit each others’ venues, share information, value education, and collaborate on projects. We may see a flavor trend (yuzu, smoke) show up in a variety of bars, as we also see techniques (shrubs, fat washing) used across various types of ingredients. Good ideas don’t last long at a single venue in San Francisco- they spread rather quickly.

Recently I was invited to be on a podcast produced by Richie Nakano, aka linecook415. Richie and his friend and fellow cook Corey Nead (and their friend Amy) record an informative, fun and sometimes raucous podcast mostly about food, always about life in food, and sometimes about crocs. The three are all cooks at Nopa, one of San Francisco’s most popular and successful restaurants. I like the podcast – and Richie’s blog – because it’s not only a glimpse into the food community, it’s an invitation to join in the discussion.

I met Richie through blogging but the idea of doing this podcast came about via conversations on twitter between ourselves and Kevin Kelley of the Natural Process Alliance. And before Kevin or I could say ‘natural yeast’, we were sitting in Richie’s kitchen in front of a microphone talking wine, organics, natural wine and the aforementioned crocs. We covered other topics too, but you can listen for those yourselves. It’s a fairly long (and somewhat rambling) recording, so sit back and pour yourself something nice before digging in.

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Above: Action shots!

Click here to listen or download the podcast.

Ramp fever, or some recent blog posts of note

Since we on the West Coast don’t really have ramps, I’ve satisfied my spring ramp fever reading my friend Jonathan Meyer’s delightful food blog, i8ny. After reading his post about making ramp butter, I might just have to smuggle a frozen stick back with me the next time I’m in New York.

And then David McDuff, one of Philly’s resident wine gurus, has a post and recipe up to make pickled ramps. Yum. David has also been consulting with me over buying a new bicycle to replace the one I had stolen recently from my garage. We both agree that it is, in fact, easier to buy Barolo or Burgundy than it is to get a new bike.

*Starting at the end of this week I’ll be traveling to Israel for a friend’s wedding and then New York for Wine & Spirits, so it will be quiet around here. You can always check in with me on twitter.

Big Bottles

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What can I say? I’m a bit of a size-queen when it comes to magnums (or bigger) of wine.

Large-format bottles age better than 750s, the greater volume making for subtle and slow aging thanks in part to a low ratio of oxygen to wine. Perhaps hindering the desire to age your magnum is the fact that big bottles just look more enticing: Nothing quite says “party” like 1.5- or 3-liters of wine.

Found myself at NOPA this past Sunday where a friend had gathered a group of survivors from the annual Rhône Rangers tasting here in the city. I skipped the tasting myself, shackled as it were to several deadlines that needed immediate attention. Pity, as there were some lovely wines to be tried. (Check out Jon Bonné’s write up here.)

But that’s not to say I wasn’t feeling Rhônish, so I brought along the above magnum of 1999 Clos de Cuminaille Saint-Joseph from Pierre Gaillard to share. I picked this wine up years ago over in the East Bay at North Berkeley Imports, and it’s been stashed away since. Anyway, it tasted great, starting off minty but closed and then loosening up with some partial decanting. It grew more aromatic with air, and after a couple hours showed fresh pepper, dried rose, cranberries and a slightly meaty funk. A minerally beast too, as the vines are planted in decomposed granite soils. Aging beautifully, with several more years ahead of it. Mmm, Syrah.

We raided NOPA’s magnum list for the rest of dinner, starting off with Gaston Chiquet’s 1998 Club Millésimé a.k.a. Special Club (okay, we ordered two 750ml-sized bottles of that because it’s freaking awesome); then the 2005 Privat Riesling from Nigl (precise and focused, even for such a warm year; still a baby); and the 2001 Riserva Montestefano Barbaresco from Produttori del Barbaresco (pictured above, really aromatic and floral at this point in its life, elegant and silky and then quite gripping on the finish; another baby).

* The dinner menu at Nopa is quite good right now (rockin’ cod: thanks Richie!)

Value for Winegeeks: A Gobless Surprise

I was at Bi-Rite Market buying meat last week when on a whim I took a detour through the wine section. Okay, the line at the counter was rather long so I grabbed a number and decided to kill time oogling bottles. The one below immediately caught my eye — the sort of faux medieval script perhaps? I’ve not had a lot of still Bugey (love the bubbly version), or none actually, and the price was $13.99, which is well-within my spontaneous purchase range. The importer (for California at least) is noted Armagnac authority Charles Neal, whose eclectic portfolio of French wines is filled with many pleasant surprises.

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Maison Angelot 2007 Bugey

100% mondeuse that undergoes carbonic maceration for 10 days. Dark in color, floral, with a sort of wild prettiness to the aromas of crushed berries. It’s a cool juxtaposition of dark fruit (black cherries, plums) and fresh pepper on the palate, with a lifted finish. 12% alcohol. $13.99

Charles Neal has this to say about the region and estate on his site:

The region is a natural geographical crossroads, and the grape varieties planted here reflect this, juxtaposing the grapes of Jura, Savoie and Burgundy. Bugey uses a large variety of grapes to make a wide variety of wines, including sparkling wines and still wines. The white grapes Aligoté, Chardonnay, Rousette, Altesse, Molette and Jacquère are planted around the town. For reds, Mondeuse, Poulsard, Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes come from some of the property’s oldest vines.

Maison Angelot is run by the brothers Eric and Philippe Angelot. Their 57 acres of vineyards are divided into about 20 different parcels, some hillside and others along the valley floor. Harvest is both manual and with machine (depending on the parcel), and their modern winery houses temperature-controlled stainless-steel and fiberglass tanks.

Delicious stuff, I was sorry to see it go. Until I buy more that is. Anyway, the wine also brought to mind Peter Liem’s concept of goblessness. A gobless wine for him is one to which you could attach any of the following descriptors: refinement, finesse, elegance, subtlety, delicacy, complexity and grace. It would not contain words like: blockbuster, high-extract, glycerin, power, tannin and excess concentration, etc., etc.

I would hardly call the Angelot Bugey a light wine (and there are plenty of other light reds made in that part of France), but it certainly had a light touch. Gobless, you might say.

Speechless

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Mmm…

Above: The last few precious sips of 1985 Viña Tondonia from R. López de Heredia at dinner last night. I kept smelling my empty glass, which I refused to put down.

These elegant, traditionally styled Riojas need no introduction from me. You can visit the winery’s website to learn more; K&L has a short interview with María José López de Heredia here; and Old World Old School has a post with tasting notes on more recent vintages of Tondonia and Bosconia, another vineyard wine bottled by López de Heredia. And if you’d like to buy a bottle, Terroir in San Francisco has several vintages in stock, including this ’85.

Maria José also has some interesting thoughts on tasting wine (from that same K&L interview):

I was taught to distinguish among objective, subjective and affective tasting. If I taste objectively I think of virtues or defects. When I drink subjectively I decide what I like and what I don’t. When I taste affectively I think of enjoyment.

Consciously at least, I’m probably most often in the first two categories when tasting (working?), but this notion of affective tasting intrigues me. It strikes me as an interesting way to explain those feelings and emotions stirred by a great wine. Those elements that, in other words, leave you speechless.

Stereolab vs. Marcel Lapierre

I love the idea of pairing wine and music. Aside from the fact that there are plenty of songs where wine features prominently in the lyrics, the two have a lot in common, sensorially speaking. A quick scan through various blogs (and even mainstream publications) suggests that others feel this way too. And why not? Both wine and music have the ability to reach in and grab you by the soul. I think that’s pretty neat.

Stereolab was in town recently for a two-night stand at the Fillmore, and we caught the second night. Unfortunately Laetitia Sadier’s voice was slightly strained (her side project, Monade, was the opening act; not sure how I feel about lead singers opening for their own shows), but she still sounded lovely, and the band was as tight as ever.

But back to music and wine. About 10 or 15 minutes into the show I leaned over to a friend and said half-jokingly that people who like Stereolab would probably dig Morgon, a wine from the town of Villié-Morgon in the Beaujolais region. Gamay grown here typically yields a relatively powerful wine that feels frisky and alive despite all that structure. Sure, I’m biased here — Morgon is one of my favorite red wines from anywhere, and I think Stereolab is just great — but hang with me for a moment: Stereolab’s best songs skirt the frivolous edges of pop music yet remain firm and nuanced, built from multiple layers . Kind of like the tension between the higher-toned fruit notes, firm acidity and minerally structure of Marcel Lapierre’s fantastic Morgon Côte du Py (pictured at the top).

Take, for example, ‘Neon Beanbag’ from the group’s latest full-length, Chemical Chords:

Jangly melodies laid down in layers such that the whole is undeniably complex; on its own, that horn refrain isn’t much more than a poppy salute to a sunny day. But as part of the entire song it adds a sense of lightness that invokes a tension with the heavier elements here.

Perhaps that tension is better illustrated (heard?) in a song like ‘Cybele’s Reverie’ from 1996′s Emperor Tomato Ketchup. It’s a lovely track that feels light on the surface yet gets more complex with every listen:

My weekend challenge: drink Morgon and listen to Stereolab and let me know if this theory, such as it is, holds up. And if it doesn’t, well at least you’ll hear good music and drink a delightful wine.

In other music and blogland news, here’s an article from the NY Times that discusses the growing role of blogs in the discovery and promotion of independent bands. An interesting read.

Does Terroir Matter?

(Above: I image googled ‘terroir’ and got this abstract painting* back as a result)

A challenging question apparently, and while I would answer in the affirmative, that yes it does, there are people out there who might disagree. And that’s fine.

But I did drink a syrah the other night that had me wondering for a moment, really, if terroir does matter. The wine in question came from Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast–the 2001 Scrio, a syrah from Le Macchiole is, frankly, pretty awesome wine. All savory and peppery, too, with the density of Cornas. But if I think about it for a minute, I realize that the wine (a French grape on the Tuscan coast), and my reaction to it (to think of Cornas, which is neither coastal nor anywhere near Tuscany), are somewhat contradictory to the commonly accepted notion of terroir. Did it matter where this syrah came from, or just that it was good syrah?

So it was with great delight that I read Joel Stein’s article at Time, “Fifty States of Wine”. His premise is simple: Now that all fifty states make wine, why not try a wine from each state and see if and how the concept of terroir works here in the US. In other words, can you make good wine anywhere? Or as Stein puts it: “Great wine keeps coming from surprising new places–New Zealand, Lebanon, Slovenia–so why not Nebraska?” He does seem to disregard winemaking style–a glaring omission if you ask me, but considering that this is Time Magazine, probably a moot point.

One of the more choice sections:

In reviewing somewhat randomly selected bottles priced around $15 to $20, I learned a few general truths. White is easier to make than red. Wines made at golf courses are not good. And the importance of terroir is definitely questionable, since no region of the country seems ill suited for winemaking except the Deep South, all of which I think Sherman salted. Though I didn’t touch the dirt on these vineyards, my impression is that it’s more a matter of finding the right grape for your climate. (Michigan’s riesling was one of my favorites.)

(Go here to read the entire article)

* – painting by Clay Vajgrt