Apr 032013
 

 

Tracy Ellen Kamens

Photo Credit: Peter Doyle Photography

In February 2012, I had the pleasure of presenting an educational seminar on Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (among others) at the Italian Wine Masters event. Standing at the podium a few minutes before I was scheduled to begin, I noticed Kevin Zraly second row, center. OK, considering the very first wine book I ever owned was written by this well known and highly regarded author and educator, no pressure! After my presentation, I had the opportunity to say hello to Kevin and admitted to him that his presence had made me a bit nervous. He graciously shared that he had taken three pages of notes and I floated through the rest of the day (and perhaps the week). High praise indeed!

A year later, I was invited to attend a session on Brunello di Montalcino, this time presented by Kevin. You can bet I was eager to attend. Arriving early (as usual), I took a seat in the front row and was immediately welcomed by Kevin. He teased me a bit, asking if I knew anything on the topic and made sure to tell me it was a red wine. He jested that my arrival had just added to his nerves and, while I doubted the validity of the statement, was appreciative of his kindness. I then sat back and waited to see what Kevin would say.

Surprisingly, in one sense, he didn’t say much. For one, he ignored the Powerpoint presentation. Yes, he let it loop from slide to slide, but never really called attention to it or directly used it for instruction. For another, he skipped to the tasting almost immediately. Kevin did note that it was the job of the educator to start at the beginning and made sure to do so, first ensuring that the audience knew he was talking about Italy, then Tuscany, and then, more specifically, Brunello di Montalcino. Next, he drew on the similarities and differences among Chianti Classico (Sangiovese blend), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Sangiovese blend) and Brunello di Montalcino (100% Sangiovese). Then, he stopped.

That’s not to say that the seminar was over or that he ceased to talk, but he did not provide any further factual information on the wines. In fact, aside from making us repeat the names of the producers aloud (to correct our pronunciation), we didn’t even get any information on the producers’ histories or winemaking practices.

At first, I was annoyed. Was he phoning it in? But, despite this seeming lack of a presentation, Kevin actually provided us with a lot of information. We tasted the eight wines several times each, using the Zraly method, which he demonstrated and reinforced repeatedly. Also, Kevin also had us discuss our tasting notes with our neighbor before we discussed them as a group. Moreover, Kevin continued to point out the key characteristics of the wines, particularly with regard to tannic structure, wine style and readiness to drink.

Kevin Zraly

Photo Credit: Peter Doyle Photography

All in all, once the seminar was over, I realized that he had, in fact, given us an extremely good overview of the 2008 Brunello di Montalcino vintage, while also underscoring how each wine was both similar and different from its counterparts. Additionally, the tasting included three wines from the 2004 vintage, providing further delineation among Brunello vintages.

This experience reminded me that there are multiple approaches to teaching and that each has its time and place. Kevin’s style and approach were exactly what was needed to provide attendees with an understanding of the new Brunello vintage, which was precisely his goal. The positive comments I heard from fellow participants after the seminar reinforced that they agreed his presentation was a success. Moreover, although I pride myself on being a good educator, I recognize that my style is very different from Kevin’s and that I could never pull off his style successfully. Instead, I can learn from Kevin’s approach, but must remain true to myself as a teacher and present my own seminars in a style that is authentic to me, while always keeping the audience and their education in mind.

So, what did I take away from the seminar? The bottom line is that the 2008 Brunello di Montalcino wines are accessible wines, most of which are ready to drink now. They are classic and elegant with vibrant acidity and firm tannins, but enough fruit and complexity to make them easy drinking, very pleasant and, in some cases, extremely complex.

And, more specifically, my 2008 favorites were the Podere Brizio, which I noted as being complex with cherry, cocoa, cedar and herbal notes, along with the Castello Romitorio, which I described as lush with cherries, earth, spice, herbal and floral. Among the 2004s, the Podere Brizio again stood out, as did the Camigliano, both of which were surprisingly still youthful, but drinking well now.

Nov 022012
 
Indigenous cosmopolitan: Prosecco Superiore goes “glocal”

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

Passing the microphone to moderator Luciano Ferraro, the reason behind Prosecco’s popularity became clear. Ferraro shared that his wife had described the wine as “’light, fruity and beautiful’” and further explained that his wife doesn’t even like wine. American journalist, Alan Tardi, concurred, saying that it was fresh, pleasant, low in alcohol, well priced and very versatile; in sum, it was “Italy in a bottle.”

As evidence of the wine’s success, Professor Vasco Boatto presented data, which showed significant growth of Prosecco (both Prosecco DOC and Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG) in value and volume. Figures from 2011 showed the product’s growth to be up 63% in value and 48% in volume, in the U.S. alone.

But, Tardi also mentioned that even though Americans have embraced Prosecco with open arms, they do not fully appreciate the territory where it comes from. He added that there is still work to be done in differentiating Prosecco DOC and Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG for American consumers.

Speaking to the theme of this year’s Vino in Villa event – Indigenous cosmopolitan—Enrico Finzi, president of Astraricerche, discussed globalization 2.0. While globalization 1.0 has created a homogeneity worldwide (think Coke or McDonalds), this new phase ushers in the opportunity to be “glocal.” Accordingly, globalization and local do not have to be at odds with one another. Rather, local traditions are being revived and exported out of their local territory while maintaining quality, providing a wider audience for these products, a “plurality of access.”

Building on this theme, the tasting event featured international cuisine from Japan and Russia and the main dinner paired Prosecco Superiore with food from one of Denmark’s top restaurants- Restaurant Kvægtorvet di Odense in Fionia. From the fjord shrimp with pickled cucumber and rye grains with pea purée to the roasted loin and fresh strawberries, the Prosecco Superiore rose to the occasion in each case. Proving that two seemingly disparate, artisan products – Danish food (almost all of the ingredients were brought in for the dinner) and an Italian wine – could find such synergy at the table.

Aug 132012
 
Franciacorta group

Photo Credit: Paul Wagner

It was a tough assignment:  leading a group of some of the top sommeliers, writers, bloggers and a film crew on a hosted tour of the finest sparkling wine region in Italy, Franciacorta.   Less than an hour from Milan, this region produces world class sparkling wine in the foothills of the Alps—but nobody ever sees it outside of Italy.  Why?  Because they drink it during Fashion Week In Milan, at Opening Night and the Opera at La Scala, when Inter or AC Milan win an important championship, or whenever anyone in Italy wants to celebrate a grand occasion with glamour and style.

Like I said, not much gets out of the country.

But that didn’t stop them from pulling out all the stops.  We visited the Museum in Brescia and wished we’d had a full day to wander around it—including the Roman ruins they discovered as they were working on the museum.  We had tours of the charming town of Iseo, on the lake of the same name, where Riva, the most expensive speedboats in the world are made.  We took a cruise on the lake itself, and passed the island owned by the Beretta family, complete with palatial residence.  Yes, that Beretta.  And we saw monasteries, ancient towns, and wildlife refuges as well.

Franciacorta

Photo Credit: Paul Wagner

Most of all, we met the men and women who make the wines of Franciacorta.  They were excited and exciting, passionately sharing their vision for their wines and their role in the world of wine.  They poured their classic releases and the top of the line wines.  They proudly told us about their new experiments, and they insisted that we try the results—often with great food, always with fascinating wines.  These were not Citroen or Renault sparkling wines—-these were racy wines that made us think of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati.

And the food.  Each meal was artfully crafted to match with wonderful wines—and since the wines were elegant sparkling wines, the food was pure delight.  Nothing too rich or heavy, each dish simply satisfied, intrigued, and led to the next course.  We got up from each meal with an amazing sense of both satiety and—amazing on a wine trip—health!

After five days, we were sold.  Actually, we were sold after about a day and half—but please don’t tell them.

(Of course, that was the point!  The trip is part of a new project to introduce the wines of Franciacorta to the US market, and this was a first step).

And when we flew out, we left the film crew behind.  They still had a date with Fashion Week in Milan, and a drive in a Ferrari.

I guess we’ll get to do that next time.

Jul 192012
 

Wine JudgingThe world of wine can seem quite glamorous – jaunting off to Italy or France to taste wines with some of the world’s most highly respected winemakers, enjoying dinners at top-rated restaurants and just generally basking in the glow of vaunted vineyards and scenic countryside. What’s not to like?

But, it can also be hard work. No, I’m not asking for sympathy (you can dismiss the violins); I know I live a “winederful” life. Yet, it’s not all truffles, roses and cherries.

Well, actually, that’s not entirely true either. In mid-May, I found myself tasting through hundreds of samples of Nebbiolo, a grape variety which is generally characterized by its aromas and flavors of truffles, roses and cherries. But, even with such a well regarded grape in my glass, it wasn’t as thrilling as you might expect.

On Monday morning, I was perched at a white-clothed table, fully set with five Riedel stems, a water glass, a bottle each of still and sparkling water and a bundle of breadsticks nestled in a napkin. This being my first visit to Alba in Piedmont, Italy for Nebbiolo Prima, I wasn’t sure what to expect next.

My fellow journalists were similarly seated while members of the Italian Sommelier Society, in crisp black uniforms, prepared bottles of wine on a central table. Each bottle was equally clothed in black with a bag pulled to the neck to hide the wine’s identity, designated only by a single number written in white.

After being given a small amount of wine with which to prepare (rinse) our glasses, the spectacle began. Tasting the wines poured in flights of five, we proceeded to taste a total of 67 wines. And, this wasn’t any ordinary tasting. These were the newest releases of Nebbiolo hailing from the DOCGs of Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo. In other words, VERY YOUNG, VERY TIGHT, VERY TANNIC, TEETH-STAINING Nebbiolo.

Taste, spit, taste, spit, taste, spit (with some notes scribbled in between each taste and spit session) continued for nearly three hours, punctuated only by the occasional gulp of water, bite of breadstick or enforced pause while you waited for someone to bring you an empty spit bucket. Very glamorous, no? After the 67th wine, we were excused for lunch and other activities, but the same procedure was repeated the next day.

Whereas Monday focused on Roero 2009, Roero Riserva 2008 and Barbaresco 2009, Tuesday concluded the 2009 Barbarescos and introduced the Barbaresco Riserva 2007s and Barolo 2008s. By Wednesday, it was all Barolo 2008, all the time, which continued into Thursday. Thursday also offered up a “pleasant” surprise with an additional 10 wines, bringing that day’s tally to 80 samples. Those last ten were a struggle, but I trudged through knowing that the producers of those ten wines weren’t to blame (and, thus, shouldn’t be penalized) for their placement in the tasting lineup. To say I had palate fatigue would be the understatement of the year – I had palate coma.

About a third of the way through the tasting on Friday, we shifted to Barolo Riserva 2006, concluding with a final count of 350 samples tasted over the five days (excluding those tasted outside of the formal proceedings). At this point, I was strongly considering moving my semi-annual dental appointment up a few weeks to be certain that I hadn’t sustained any permanent damage to my teeth.

For me, the experience and exercise of tasting the wines at this early stage in their development was a challenge. I did find wines I preferred more than others (and a few I outright disliked) and saw some patterns emerge among samples from the various vintages and communes. However, it was not nearly as instructive as the tastings that took place during our visits to the wineries or while dining at local restaurants with the winemakers themselves. Admittedly, these latter activities are more relaxing, but, more importantly, they bring the people and the place to life, which is what truly makes all of the days and days of wine and roses worthwhile.

Apr 162012
 

Baseball grape - SangioveseEarlier this week I wrapped up three days of seminars called “Tuscan Wine Masters.”  The three days were comprised of lectures and in-depth tastings of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino.  The common denominator of the three days was, of course, the Sangiovese grape.  After tasting through the better part of 30 wines with the attendees over the three days I have decided to call Sangiovese the “baseball” of red grapes.  Stay with me for a second while I explain.

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid growing up in Albuquerque in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s where the home team was the Dukes, the triple-A club team for the now hated Dodgers. I’m a long-time Giants fan which will explain the previous Dodgers remark (more on that some other time).  But what struck me even as a kid way back then was that baseball seemed to be the perfect game; that teams had to face the opposing pitcher and score with exactly 27 attempts to do just that.  Even with the introduction of the designated hitter or the infield fly rule, or something as completely lame as the commissioner ending an all-star game in a tie, nothing could really change the game.  I could go on but my point is that no matter what the proverbial “they” have tried to do to baseball, they can’t wreck the game.

So what does that have to do with Sangiovese?  Easy.  What we—the attendees of the Tuscan classes and your humble narrator—found in our tasting excursions during the three days was that the character, and especially the structure, of the Sangiovese grape is immutable and unstoppable.  That try as winemakers often do, the character of Sangiovese shows through like a consistently brilliant light; and the structure, while not quite like the dominatrix commonly known as Nebbiolo, never takes any prisoners.  Here are some further thoughts on the tastings and one of my favorite of all grapes.

Day I: Chianti Classico

A great line up wines that really showed the tremendous impact of the Chianti Classico 2000 project has had and will continue to have on the Chianti Classico wines for decades to come.  The high quality of the wines was also the biggest discovery of the three days for the class attendees. Here’s an encapsulation of markers we as a group came up with for the wines:

Fruit:

Predominantly tart/sour red fruits such as sour cherry, red raspberry, pomegranate, and rhubarb.

Non-fruit:

Floral (usually dried flowers or potpourri), anise or red licorice, sandalwood, leather, bitter herbs (usually dried), iodine, tomato/tomato leaf.

Earth:

Mushroom/truffle, forest floor, su bois, and other soil elements.  Add a pronounced chalky note from the galestro soils.

Oak:

Brown spice, toast, and smoke notes predominated.

Overall the major variations in the wines had to do with the use of Cabernet and Merlot which contributed a darker fruit character and the use of small French barrique which added more spice elements.

Favorites of the flight: 2008 Felsina “Berardenga,” 2008 Fontodi Riserva “Vigna del Sorbo,” and the 2007 Monteraponi Riserva “Baron Ugo.”

Day II: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Day two and we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.  Several major differences in the wines from the day before were immediately apparent: first, nearly a complete lack of chalk/limestone character in the Vino Nobile wines as these soils are infrequently found in the Montepulciano region.  The Vino Nobiles also consistently showed more dark fruit character probably due to the laws allowing for the blending of up to 30% non-Sangiovese grapes (including 5% white grapes). Longer cask aging compared to Chianti Classico also made for more wood influence which was not always positive as the overall winemaking of the flight was inconsistent in terms of hygiene.  Here’s a snapshot of the general style of the wines:

Fruit:

More dark fruit and plum/prune character overall.  Still the sour cherry and cherry pit, especially on the finish.

Non fruit:

The wines were definitely not as floral as Chianti Classico and also a lack of the chalky minerality that was the key note of Chianti Classico.  In its place much more pronounced dark earth, mushroom, turned soil and decaying wood.

Oak:

The oak regimen was all over the map.  Lots of traditional large Slavonian barrels mixed with large and small French cooperage.  One of the wines even had partial American oak barrique.  Momma mia!  Imagine your pappardelle pasta with wild boar and a splash of maple syrup.  You get the idea.  Just a bit outside …

In the end what also separated the flight of Vino Nobile from the Chiantis the day before was winemaking.  More than a few of the wines displayed a quality that we shall politely call “rustic.”

Favorite wines: 2008 Lodola Nuova and the 2008 Il Greppo.  The shining star of the flight was the 2008 Poliziano, a remarkably elegant, complex and seamless wine.

Day III: Brunello di Montalcino

A packed house for the third tasting.  After all, how often does one get to taste ten Brunellos in a single sitting?  Overall the wine quality was far better than the Vino Nobile flight the day before and easily as good as day one.  Stylistically the wines were very consistent across the board.  However, what was interesting was that for the first time ripeness and alcohol level played a key role in determining wine style.  About 30% of the wines sported levels up to 15% with very ripe, even stewed fruit characteristics.  The riper wines also tended to display a medicinal, mentholated note and a lack of floral qualities.  Wines that stayed at or below the 14% level tended reflect more pure red fruits with lifted floral notes.  Oak regimen also played a key role in the style of finished wines with the riper bottlings consistently showing more new wood influence because of the use of smaller barriques.  Combine that with ripe fruit and high alcohol and you have the magic recipe for what might be called the “international style.”  Here’s a snapshot of the overall wine style:

Fruit:

Ripe but tart red fruits with pronounced black fruit character in some of the riper wines.

Non fruit:

Dried roses/potpourri, anise and red licorice, leather, menthol/mentolatum.

Earth:

Both inorganic and organic earth notes as in rocks and dirt: the same pronounced chalkiness as Chianti Classico in some wines combined with the rich truffle dark earth notes of Vino Nobile.  Truly, the best of both worlds.

Oak:

Vanilla, brown spice, toast, smoke, caramel, cola, root beer.

Overall, the Brunellos were the most powerful and large-scaled wines of the three days and again very high quality in terms of winemaking.  The wines also command the highest average retail price per bottle of the three appellations–and they deserve it.

Favorite wines: 2007 Camigliano, 2007 Capanne Ricci, 2007 La Lecciaia and the 2007 Sassodisole

Extra Innings

Back to baseball.  What struck me at the end of three days was how the character of the Sangiovese grape is basically unstoppable.  That you can throw the high alcohol, the stewed-pruney fruits, the Vicks VapoRub, the lumber mill, and that splash of Mrs. Butterworth’s Maple Syrup at it but nothing seems to stop Sangiovese from being its brilliant self.  And that’s a remarkable and wonderful thing.  Nine innings?  Not a problem.  It can easily go the distance and beyond.  Play ball!

You can also see a copy of this posting on my own blog, TimGaiser.com.