Modernism Redux in Barolo

What does modernism mean to you? International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon? Powerful wines with dark colors and lots of extraction? Lots of new oak exposure? Well that is not at all the significance of modernism in Barolo.

In the 1980s when the “Barolo Boys” revolutionized Barolo, infighting between modernists and traditionalists was vicious to the point of destroying family relationships. I started my week in Barolo with visits to three arch-modernists, but nobody feels that modernism versus tradition is much of an issue any more. In fact, it seems that modernism has a rather different meaning in Barolo from what you might expect casually elsewhere in the world of wine.

“You have to remember what wine making was like in the seventies,” says Silvia Altare, whio has just taken over the Elio Altare winery from her father, one of the original Barolo Boys. “When my grandfather was making wine, there was no running water, there were chickens running about in the cellar, there was no hygiene, everything was filthy.” When Elio came into the winery and introduced green pruning, there was outrage because he was wasting the grapes. “Yields were 20 tons per hectare then,” says Silvia, “today they are 2-3 tons.” When Elio introduced barriques it was a scandal, especially because the only way he could remove the old foudres, which had been purpose built in the cellar, was to cut them up with a chain saw. His father did not speak to him for the next ten years. And then the use of rotary fermenters to get softer tannins was another scandal. When I visited a few years ago, Elio said that, “Everyone recognized Barolo because of its barnyard smell, and basically the typicity of Barolo was of flawed wine. I just adapted the methods that were being used in France to make great wines.” Burgundy was, and remains, the inspiration at Altare, Silvia explains.

RotaryThese rotary fermenters and barriques created a scandal when Elio Altare introduced them into Barolo

Today the common feature to Altare’s style is a silky smoothness, which increases going from the Langhe Nebbiolo (called Giarborina, it does not identify Nebbiolo on the label), to the Barolo (a blend from several vineyards) to the Cerretto single vineyard wine. Fruits are cut by a savory edge, the tannins get finer and silkier, and the fragrancy of the variety comes out more clearly along the line. The ultimate is the Unoperuno, which comes from the Arborino vineyard, but where the berries are selected by cutting off the bunch, one by one, in order to get absolutely perfect ripeness. “The difference is enormous,” Silvia says, although she wonders whether it’s really economic to achieve perfection at a cost that can’t be recouped by the price of the bottle.

Silvio Grasso is emphatically a small family winery, where the cellar work is handled by only four people, Federico Grasso and his wine Marilena, and their sons Paulo and Silvio. I tasted through the range from 2012 with Paolo. Barolo is about half of production. “We have one traditional Barolo,” he says, “matured in a larger vat, and five Barolos matured in barriques.” New oak usage depends on the year, but can be up to 80%. The traditional cuvée is Turnè, which shows a savory, almost savage, edge, with firm tannins on the finish. The Barolo tout court is a blend from several vineyards, matured in old barriques for 24 months, with smoother tannins than Turnè. This is a halfway house to the single vineyard wines, where I tasted Luciani and Manzoni, both vinified the same way in a mix of old and new barriques. Manzoni is actually a slightly warmer vineyard and the vines are older (planted in 1968 compared to 1982 for Luciani). The difference between the wines is striking. Luciani is the more powerful, with a richer palate, fruits more evident, and the perfume of Nebbiolo coming in at the end. Manzoni is more fragrant, the height of elegance on the palate, with the savory fruits making a delicate impression. I see more of a continuum along the range than a break between tradition and modernism. Paulo surprised me by saying, “Manzoni is our most modern wine.” At Silvio Grasso, “modernism” means increasing refinement. I have the impression that Luciani is the more popular wine, but for me, Manzoni captures the quintessence of Nebbiolo,

Roberto Voerzio was one of the Barolo Boys but his son Davide doesn’t think the distinction between modernism, and tradition means much today. “It’s better to speak about good wines and bad wines. There are two ways of making wines: the result of the fruit or made in the cellar, the results are different. Even if people think we belong in the modern group, we work in a way that is very traditional, the only modern thing here is the barrique, but it’s a very soft use, we have never used 100% new oak, we have never been against using big casks. For us the kind of wood we use is not important. We’ve been making wine in the same style for thirty years, we like a pure expression of terroir and vintage.” In fact, five of the Barolo Crus are aged half in barriques and half in large casks; two are aged only in barriques because quantities are too small to use large casks. For all Voerzio’s reputation as an arch-modernist, I was under no doubt tasting the wines that they capture both terroir and vintage, with Rocche dell’Annunziato conveying a strong mineral impression of precision, Brunate showing as sleeker, and the latest cuvée, the Reserva 10 Anni from Fossatti Case Nere in 2004 showing a powerful character with breadth of flavors. Roll on modernism!

Thoughts about the Modernization of Chianti

Judging from the wines at this week’s Definitive Italian tasting in London, Chianti Classico is making great strides towards more uniform quality, although wines seem to be diverging in two direction. The event showed wines from all over Italy, of course, but I find its organization, with each importer presenting an array of wines from all over the country, rather confusing for getting a bead on what’s happening in each area, so this year I just concentrated on Chianti Classico.

The big news in Chianti Classico, of course, was the introduction of the Gran Selezione category in 2013 as a new top tier. (Chianti Classico must age for 12 months, Riserva for 24 months, and Gran Selezione for 30 months. Grapes for Gran Selezione must come from an estate’s own vineyards, but the wine can be a blend or selection of lots, and doesn’t have to be from a single vineyard. A process for approval should ensure that all wines with the label live up to the demands for a top tier, which was not the case with Riserva, previously the top level, but now a middle tier.)

Gran Selezione to date has been a mixture of Riservas relabeled with the new category and new cuvées being introduced for the category. The wines definitely seem richer (and more alcoholic) giving the impression that they come from the ripest grapes. However, I’m not sure that I necessarily prefer them to the Riservas or even to general Chianti Classico.

There are eight different communes with Chianti Classico, but although producers may be conscious of their individual characteristics, I don’t think this has much impact for the consumer. There’s a tendency for wines from the warmer areas to be richer—Castellina-in-Chianti or Castelnuova Berardenga, for example—but with improvements in viticulture there’s also a tendency for Sangiovese to be planted at higher altitudes than used to be thought desirable, which gives a finer quality.

Chianti seems to be evolving towards two extreme styles. I think of them as red fruit and black fruit. What you might call traditional shows lively red fruits with a spectrum in the direction of sour red cherries, with a tang of savory acidity at the end. The black fruit wines have a more modern impression, with greater density on a softer palate, less obvious acidity, and sometimes tannins evident at the end.

There may be a tendency for the modern class to have more in the way of international varieties and more often to be matured in barriques, but you can find both 100% Sangiovese and blended wines in either category, and wines matured in the traditional large casks in either category. Gran Selezione tends to show less delicacy and more weight.

I would not say it’s a mistake to use barriques or new oak, but the effect is to reduce what I think of as the typicity of Sangiovese from Chianti, that delicious savory counterpoise to the red fruits. At their best, wines in traditional style can have a wonderful silky delicacy. For my taste, it’s the wines in the red fruit category that really express the freshness I expect in Chianti, but there are lovely wines in both categories, and it may well be that the more modern wines have greater success in today’s market.

The problem is that unless you really know the producer, there’s little indication of what to expect. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s a confusion of styles, but I was unable, even with the detailed information provided by producers about proportions of grape varieties and methods of vinification, to predict before tasting what would be the style of any particular wine.

Judgment of Paris Wines: Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap

It seems ironic that on the day of the referendum in Britain, the Judgment of Paris tasting should be revisited in London. To celebrate the famous tasting of 1976—it doesn’t seem like 40 years ago—Chateau Montelena (which won the Chardonnay tasting with its 1973) and Stag’s Leap Winery (which won the red tasting) presented current and older vintages in London.

Today’s Chardonnay from Montelena comes from the Oak Knoll vineyard near the winery, but current winemaker, Matt Crafton revealed that the winning 1973 “was not at all a terroir wine. It came from grapes that were purchased to fit Montelena’s stylistic objectives, sources were all over the place.” Half of the grapes came from Russian River in Sonoma Valley, some came from Calistoga (the hot end of Napa valley), and a small proportion from Oak Knoll. What price terroir if this could beat Meursaults and Puligny Montrachets?

The question in my mind going through the 2001 and 2009 vintages of Montelena’s Chardonnay, three Cabernet Sauvignons from 2013 to 2005, and five vintages of Stag’s Leap SLV vineyard from 2013 to 1983, was whether their origins would be any more obvious in a blind tasting today than they were at the 1976 tasting in Paris. It has always seemed to me that the importance of the Judgment of Paris isn’t at all who “won,” but rather that the French judges were completely unable to distinguish whether the wines were Cabernet-based blends from Bordeaux compared with varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from California, or Chardonnays from Napa compared with Burgundy. That speaks to the success of the winemakers of the time in emulating French style.

SLVToday wines are richer all round, California has found its own style, and often enough the winemakers of Europe are trying to emulate New World richness. I think it’s fair to say that both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Winery have relatively restrained styles for California: there is not much New World exuberance here. The Montelena Chardonnays remind me a bit of Meursault, but show more body and alcohol. I’m not sure I really see enough interesting development with age–but then with premox cutting off the lifespan of white Burgundy, I don’t very often see it there either. The Cabernets seem to get leaner as they age.

The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon tasted in Paris in 1976 was the forerunner of today’s single vineyard bottlings. The two famous vineyards are adjacent but different in character. “Fay’s vineyard is softer and more perfumed, more elegant,” says current winemaker Marcus Notaro, “SLV is a bigger wine.” In another era, I might have said that Fay is more feminine and SLV more masculine. Spanning thirty years, the SLV vintages at this week’s tasting showed a common stylistic thread, with slightly spicy, slightly herbal overtones to the fruits. I would say they’re as much in the European tradition as in the New World mold, except that alcohol is higher and there’s a sense of warmth, for me showing as almost exotic fruit flavors, which suggests they don’t come from France. Would I confidently distinguish Fay Vineyard and SLV in a blind tasting with, say, Margaux and Pauillac? I’m not so sure.

A Visit to Amorim: Progress with Cork

“It’s very upsetting when people come and try to kill you. We’ve had two funerals already. But when you have 70% of wines under cork, I think you can see that after fifteen years the debate has been resolved,” Carlos de Jesus started our meeting at Amorim.

I had taken advantage of my trip to Douro and the Dão to visit Amorim’s plant just to the south of Porto. Half of the world’s corks come from Portugal, Amorim has more than a third of the market, and roughly two thirds of business is in wine stoppers. There’s a plant farther south, near the forests, when the first processing is done, and then the sheets of cork are sent to the plant in the north to be turned into corks.

Amorim1Sheets of corks come from the south

We visited the plant where both agglomerated corks (made of small particles) and solid corks (punched out from the sheet) are made. It’s actually technically easier to remove TCA from agglomerated corks, because the broken up particles can be heated to extract it before they’re stuck together into the cork. There’s a whole hall with a vast series of machines taking in raw cork and spewing out finished corks.

Amorim3Raw cork goes in one end and agglomerated corks, free of TCA, come out the other end

To make solid cork, the sheets are cut into bars of the right width, and then the corks are punched out. There are two separate parts of the plant devoted to this, one automated, one manual. Watching the operators of the manual line seems like a time warp. They hold the bar in a machine, operate a treadle to punch out the cork, and then move the bar along to punch out the next cork. This seemed old fashioned compared with the automated equipment, but Carlos explained that the operator gets better results, just like manual grape harvest is better than mechanized!

Amorim5Corks being punched out of bars on a automated line

After visiting the plant, we walked over to Amorim’s research facility, in a small building close by. The R&D department was created in 2000. A main objective is to find solutions to the TCA problem, but they’ve also been investigating the route for oxygen to enter bottles.

I was quite surprised when researcher Paulo Lopez explained that the routes for ingress are different for different closures. For synthetics and screwcaps, it’s permability from the exterior, but for cork it is the oxygen contained within all those little cellules in the cork itself. (Presumably this applies unless and until the cork loosens, but experiments show that this doesn’t happen in the first few years.)

Paulo says that the TCA problem is being significantly reduced. In 2003 the average TCA was 2.68 ng/l, now it is 0.62 ng/l. “We consider 0.5 ng/l to be zero as that is the limit of detection by available equipment. 1 ng/l is the sensitivity of the most sensitive human tasters.”

The lab does Q & A, testing 800 samples per day for TCA. This requires 24 hours to soak the cork and then 24 hours to get results. So it’s a check, but they have to wait 48 hours to release each batch.

Amorim7Serried ranks of gas chromatographs in the lab

The latest system is NDtech, which analyzes individual corks. (If not secret, it’s certainly more closely guarded as no photos were allowed here.) Eight years in development, NDtech basically takes the gas chromatography system to automated speeds. A single production line can handle about 15,000 corks per day, and it costs 15¢ per cork.

Each line spews corks out into one of three bins: guaranteed below detection; at the edge of detection; and not acceptable. It didn’t look casually as though the second bin was that much less full than the first (the third was much smaller), but Paolo says the proportions are 65%, 30%, and 5%. “There are still too many false positives,” he says, “the next stage is to reduce them.”

It was a major feat to automate the equipment to this point, but capacity is still limited. There will be about 15 million NDtech corks this year and 60 million next year, which is probably way below demand. “Looking at individual corks is the holy grail. NDtech analyzes individual corks, but I doubt that we’re going to apply it to billions of corks. We’ll start with 50 million corks and then we’ll scale up. We’re not here to defeat TCA and go out of business. We need to defeat TCA and stay in business,” says Carlos.

Visit to Dão: Quinta dos Carvalhais

Portugal’s largest wine company, Sogrape, started in the Dão in 1957 by buying grapes, but bought the Quinta dos Carvalhais only in 1987, with the first vintage in 1990. Today this is a vast enterprise, really two wineries, one for making 300,000 bottles annually from Quinta dos Carvalhais’s 50 hectares, the other for producing 2 million bottles of entry level wine from other sources. I met with Beatriz Almeida, who started with Sogrape in 2007, and has been making all the wines at Carvalhais since 2012.

Cavarlhais2The modern winery

Beatriz is convinced by the merits of blending. “We did a study of soils and found five soil types, so when we make a varietal wine, we blend from all five terroirs and get more complexity,” Beatriz says. She takes the logic further. “If you accept that blending varieties and blending sources makes more complex wine, why should you reject blending of vintages?” This resulted in the Especialidada wine, which came from blending lots of individual varieties that had been originally kept for experimental purposes.

“The varieties are the same but the wines are completely different from the Douro; the terroir of the Dão is quite different. It’s mostly granite, but with some clay which gives higher water retention,” she says. Whites are about 25% of production (this is pretty standard for the Dão). The style of the wines is elegant and smooth, with a sort of silky edge to the finish of both reds and whites. The whites show minerality, reds a taut precision., showing why the Quinta is a leader in the move towards elegance in the Dão.

Reserva, Red, 2011

This is a roughly equal blend of Encruzado and Verdelho. Fermentation is in stainless steel and then the wine is transferred to old oak barriques to mature for three years. “It will keep for 20-30 years,” Beatriz says, “because after three years in barrel, it won’t oxidize any more.” Smoky sense of oak shows on nose, but is less obvious on palate, although there is a faint bitterness on the finish. Medium weight palate has real sense of smoothness, showing sweet, ripe, stone fruits with touch of lemon, and quite a silky impression at the end.

Especialidada, white, no vintage

This is an unusual wine which is a blend of vintages (in this case 2005 and 2006), all of which stayed in barrel until 2015. Oxidative style but not oxidized. It’s a deep color and shows some oak on the nose and honey on the palate. Lovely fresh fruit concentration, good weight of fruits, touch of bitterness at the end to counteract the honeyed impression. More herbal than savory. Resembles the Reserva in general style but more intense.

Reserva, Red, 2008

A taut linear precision of black fruits suggests a high proportion of Touriga Nacional. The style shows the elegance of the best wines of the Dao with well defined black fruit aromatics showcasing purity of fruit. There’s more tannic structure than is immediately apparent, not because it’s hidden by powerful fruits but because it’s exceedingly fine. Flavors are just coming out now.

Visit to Dão: Quinta dos Roques

Quinta dos Roques was a little difficult to find, as the GPS took us to the middle of a forest by a track that really needed 4-wheel drive, but when we called the Quinta, Luis Lourenço said that the GPS often does that, and he came to retrieve us. The quinta is quite a bit out of the nearest village and you’d be likely to feel you’ve gone wrong even on the right track. Once you arrive there’s a tasting room that showcases the elegance of the wines.

Roques1Quinta dos Roques

Luis is a lively and enquiring fellow, who’s always experimenting with his varieties and vineyards. He started out as a maths teacher and says it took him a while to adjust to wine. “In maths, 2 plus 2 always equals 4,” he says, “but in wine it never makes 4.” A tasting here is an education as you go through many of the varieties that go into the blends: “In terms of numbers there are more varietal wines, but in terms of bottles, it is mostly blends.”

The style here is in the direction of elegance rather than power, always showing well delineated fruits. The top whites and reds show a strong sense of minerality and age beautifully. Comparing a white varietal Encruzado of the current vintage with the 2001 shows an amazing evolution, and the red Quinta dos Roques of 2001 is still lively. The Garrafeira (the top quality classification in the Dão) of 2008 still seems quite youthful. These are definitely wines of character. Some favorites from the tasting:

Encruzado, 2014

Unlike the other white varieties, which see only stainless steel, this is split between half in stainless steel and half in new or 1-2-year oak. Really pale. Faint notes of vanillin and nuts on nose. Quite crisp acidity balances the oak impressions. The fruits are rather neutral and not really yet breaking through the oak (which is used to add flavor interest). Yet slowly more flavor variety emerges in the glass: this does take time

Encruzado, 2001

Huge contrast between intense flavors of this wine and the rather neutral character of the 2015 shows that variety develops in bottle, but quite slowly. Color has picked up from transparent in 2015 to medium gold after 15 years. There’s a mix of oak, spices, and savory elements on the nose, and a touch of honey, which becomes more distinct on the palate. This vintage had 100% new oak; you can still see the oak, but it’s balanced by lots of flavor variety in the fruits, with quite a bit of spice and honey. The palate is thicker and really intensifies in the glass over time, becoming savory and herbal and very complex.

Quinta dos Roques, 2013

This is about half Touriga Nacional and half other local varieties. It spends 12 months in oak, which shows as spice on the nose together with a sense of acidity. The oak conveys a touch of bitterness to the finish. Faint animal hints retronasally bring some complexity. Still a bit young, the fruits seem to be struggling to get out from under.

Quinta dos Roques, Reserva, 2013

This is a field blend from a single 38-year old vineyard. Very faint animal impressions bring complexity to nose. Complex black fruits on palate point in a mineral direction with savory overtones. Very nice balance of fruit to structure, which is present but not obtrusive. This should turn more savory with time and I expect it to age beautifully.



Visit to the Dão : Quinta da Pellada

On the edge of the village of Pinhanços, Quinta da Pellada is not easy to find, even when you have geographical coordinates and a GPS. Apparently the method of choice is to ask at the village pharmacy, which will provide aspirin for the headache of getting there, and will phone to inform the quinta of your arrival. Maria Castro collected us in the village square because we had not had the confidence to enter the premises to which the GPS took us, basically a rather old doorway into a courtyard off the main street without any sign of ownership. But through a somewhat rural courtyard is a winery to the left and a family house to the right. Quinta da Pellada has been in the family since the 16th century, but it was Alvaro Castro who brought it to its present eminence as a definitive influence on what Dão wines can achieve. Today he makes the wines together with his daughter Maria.

Quinta da Pellada has three vineyards, Pellada being used also for the name of the company, the others being Quinta de Saes and Oteiro. The vineyards are well out of town, accessed only by four wheel drive. At the center of the Pellada vineyard is the old house pictured on the quinta’s web site, which had been badly damaged, with the roof coming down, and has now been rebuilt. After a tour of the vineyards, we went to the winery and collected some wines from a storage area which takes the form of a long underground passage; at the other end of the passage, we emerged into the house. “My father trained as a civil engineer,” Maria explains.


The old house in the vineyard is being restored

It’s immediately obvious why the wines are regarded as a defining influence. The style shows perfumed herbs and spices of the garrigue, never heavy, always elegant rather than powerful. This shows through both reds and whites, with the latter tending to savory and mineral impressions. There’s a strong impression that you are really seeing the terroir reflected in the wines. Notes from the tasting:

Primus, 2014 (white)

This has 24 hours skin contact, barrel fermentation – “the barrels are getting older and older” – with battonage, and then bottled after two months. It’s a field blend from a vineyard of old vines with 19 different varieties. Restrained nose is somewhere between spicy and savory. The palate offers an impression of spice and the garrigue. Acidity is balanced. This has a lovely herbal freshness, and should mature well for mid term (say five years).

Alvaro Castro Reserva, 2011 (white)

This is Encruzado from the Outeiro vineyard. Quite a spicy nose, but in the house style there is a herbal touch giving a savory impression to the palate. Nicely rounded on the palate, with soft spices and herbs. This is a wine of the garrigue with a savory catch to the finish giving a sophisticated impression.

Quinta de Saes, Reserva, 2011

This is a field blend. It spends 3 years in barrels and then two years in bottle before release. Lovely acidity and hint of piquancy gives a fresh nose with suggestions of red fruits leading into a herbal sense of the garrigue. Filigree acidity supports a complex array of flavor. Elegant smooth red fruits on palate with silky tannins and some herbs and spices at the end, where there is a smoky impression retronasally. There’s a faint bitterness at the very end. This is ready but will develop in a more mineral direction with time.

Carrocel, 2011

“This is Touriga Nacional, from the old clone, which is naturally concentrated,” Maria explains. Spicy nose with some high toned herbal impressions. Very fine, most refined, here is all the precision and purity of the variety. Nicely delineated black fruits are slightly perfumed, , with some nutty overtones on the finish.

Quinta da Pellada, 2007

This is a mix between a field blend and Touriga Nacional and other varieties. Slightly spicy impression to nose. Softer and broader than the pure Touriga Nacional. Nice balance with soft black fruits, balanced acidity, a touch waxy on the finish. That sense of the garrigue comes through with perfume and spices at the end.