Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tre Bicchieri 2014

This year's Tre Bicchieri event in San Francisco continued the string of exciting annual tastings organized by the prestigious Gambero Rosso Italian food and wine magazine. I am proud to have been covering this event for many years now, as it is the top Italian wine tasting event of the year in the Bay Area. 415 wines made it into the "2014 Best Italian Wines" list out of tens of thousands sampled from across the prodigious land of Italy in the past year. For more details about Tre Bicchieri process and winners, see here (html) and here (pdf). Most of the cult names were awarded, but not present at the tasting this time. In general, the amount and variety of wines poured per winery was the lowest I had seen. The explanation I got was that producers are no longer allowed to take any left-over wine out of the building, so many were quite conservative in how much they brought in, and quite a few ran out of wine well before the end of the tasting.

2009 Barolos on display were a pleasant surprise. Based on my previous reading, I had expected flabby, hot, fruity wines associated with a warm year. However, out of ten or so 2009 Barolos, I liked at least half. Indeed they conveyed the softer warmer conditions of the year, with graceful tannins and richer fruit, but I still found them balanced and delicious. They don't have the structure of the recent cooler "classic" vintages like 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2008, but they are quite beautiful, sensuous wines nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed the 2009 Oddero Barolo Rocche di Castiglione (rich, balanced, with soft tannins and lush, silky texture) and the 2009 Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Bussia (extremely elegant pretty sweet fruit and sensuously understated, not over-extracted mouth-feel). Other noteworthy 2009's were Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato full of tasty sweet plums on a long, slightly hot finish, and the tasty dark rich choco-cherry G.D Vajra Barolo Baudana. Finally, 2006 Riserva Villero from Vietti with a scary looking label (see photo below) was very serious, deep, smoky and classically structured - this powerful wine is only produced in top years and will run you $300+.

Claudio Fennocchio with a bottle of
Giacomo Fennocchio Barolo Bussia 2009
Me and Isabella Boffa Oddero with a bottle of
 Oddero Barolo Rocche di Castiglione 2009
Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato 2009
G.D. Vajra Barolo Luigi Baudana 2009
Vietti Barolo Riserva Villero 2006

There were a good number of Amarone's - I didn't try them all, but of those I tasted, 2007 Brigaldara Amarone Riserva was impressive in an opulent style - with a mysterious nose of grains and tea, and a richly sweet, lush palate, with some bitters, smoke and tobacco creating a very complex bouquet. 2009 Speri Amarone was very good in a more traditional, less opulent style - burnt brown sugar, bitter herbs and spices, very intense but not too rich, should be classic with age.

Sparkling wines stood out as well. Franciacorta had wide representation with the likes of the solid Ca'del Bosco Brut 2009, plush Ca'del Bosco Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 2005 (less structured than the 2004), the terrific Ferghettina "Riserva 33" 2006 (rich, long, spicy pear,  mint, almond, wow!). From other regions, highlights were Ruggeri Prosecco Brut "Guistino B" - clean, intense roses and toothpasty strawberries, but also totally out of the blue, a very charming Lambrusco di Sorbara - a lighter rosé-like style as compared to a more commonly seen darker sparkling Lambrusco Grasparossa. Cantina della Volta Lambrusco Rosé di Modena Spumante was very light pink, a beautifully elegant and delicious sparkling wine with gentle fruits, very pretty strawberry and cranberry tones, intriguing juniper-like nuances, a rare Lambrusco made in the traditional champagne method (second fermentation in the bottle), retailing for mid-$20's, an incredible bargain IMO.

Giorgio Angiolini with a bottle of
Cantina della Volta Lambrusco Brut Rosé

2010 Chianti's were very strong. Wines from both Felsina and Fontodi reflected the great 2010 vintage that blessed grapes all throughout Europe, Tuscany being no exception. Very structured, with great deep fruit and echos of graphite, quality and structure-wise they reminded me of the blockbuster 2010 Bordeaux. Fontodi Flaccianello 2010 was absolute knock-out, the best I'd ever tasted of this wine - powerful tannins were totally enveloped by beautifully deep and refined Sangiovese fruit, with spice nuances that were a noticeable step up from the very good 2010 Fontodi Chianti Classico. The Flaccianello was my favorite red of the tasting - a stunning wine. Elsewhere in Tuscany, the 2007 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva from one of my favorite producers Canalicchio di Sopra was sensational too - balanced, deep, inky, dark, slightly smoky, leathery intense cherries and roses exploded on my palate like fireworks, while delivering an incredibly rich, silky smooth liqueur mouth-feel, with soft tannins eventually making a discrete appearance.

Another wine that blew my socks off was a dessert wine from the Italian island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean, half way between Sicily and Tunisia, from one of the most famous Sicilian producers - Donnafugata. 2011 Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito Di Pantelleria, made in the passito (grapes air-dried on straw mats) style from ancient Zibbibo grapes (a type of Muscat), was incredible - spicy smoky, deep, vibrant apricots for days!, slight hints of herbs and flowers, sugar and tartness joined in symphony - wow, this has to be one of my favorite dessert wines of all time!

In the still whites category, I unfortunately only had time and energy to try a few. The range of characterful Italian whites always amazes me, as does their value. Pieropan 2011 La Rocca (Soave Classico) was my favorite - a full bodied, rich, ripe, really serious Soave, aged in large oak barrels on lees, this wine reminded me of high-end white Burgundy. But unlike Burgundy of such caliber, this wine can be had for under $30 - really quite an amazing deal.

After several intense hours of tasting dozens of wines, and having visited only a third of the selection, I felt exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, as I do every year at the end of this event. The bounty of Italian wine is amazing, as there seem to be more regions and varieties than in any other major wine producing country, with always more to discover and enjoy. Every wine awarded by Gambero Rosso with "three glasses" (tre bicchieri) is a great expression of a particular region and grape variety, a pinnacle of vinous achievement. So selecting favorites among them is more about my own taste rather than necessarily the quality of the wines. I wish I had a whole separate long dinner to focus on each one, but alas I would probably need to be Italian for that...

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Initial look at 2012 Burgundies

Frederick Wildman's portfolio tasting was my first dip into the 2012 vintage in Burgundy. I had heard that it was a difficult, low-yielding year that resulted in inconsistent wines, where the best boasted beautiful concentration and exceeded the quality of the 2011 vintage. After tasting through several world-class producers, my impression is that the reds are ripe, plump, pliant, with soft ripe tannins, appearing to have lower acidity than the generally energetic 2010's and the lighter 2011's. I think the acidity and structure are there, but presently masked by generous fruit. It should be noted that most of the reds are still in barrel for another 2-3 months, and will then spend another 6-12 months in bottle before release to markets throughout the world. We should expect them to hit US retail in 2015.

Domaine Armand Rousseau

Not suprisingly, Domaine Armand Rousseau drew a lot of attention. The Gevrey-Chambertin (village), Lavaux St.-Jacques 1er, monopole Ruchottes-Chambertin "Clos Des Ruchottes" Grand Cru, and the widely admired as the pinnacle of Burgundy - 2012 Armand Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru - were sweet, plush and plump, and gently spicy. Right now, the Lavaux St. Jacques was a stand-out, more expressive and sleeker, with intriguing spice. Both the Ruchottes and the Chambertin were monolithic and mouth-coatingly thick. It is not hard to imagine that with age they will unwind into beautiful wines. It is hard, however, to comprehend that the Chambertin is likely going to go for $2000+/btl (that's 3 zeros!) when it hits the street at the end of 2015, to those "lucky" enough to find it, that is, but such is the game in the upper echelon of Burgundy these days. I had a ton of fun chatting with charmingly opinionated member of the next generation of the domaine - Eric Rousseau's daughter Cyrielle. She's been helping her dad since the 2009 vintage, and also has done harvests in Oregon and in Australia's Yarra Valley. She seems very young - but what an amazing responsibility it must be knowing that eventually she would be in charge of one of the top three Burgundy's most legendary domaines (with DRC and Leroy being the other two). As I was taking a picture with her, she joked "I know what you are doing! You want to send it to my dad, to have a "link" to him. Haha!" No, I was simply enjoying the conversation (!) while sippin' on that 2012 Rousseau Chambertin, feeling very privileged indeed. When asked to compare the 2012's with the 2010 and 2011 vintages of their wines, Cyrielle didn't think that for Rousseau the wines were lighter in 2011 - perhaps an exception from the norm. We will see in about a month at La Paulee SF, where her dad Eric will be pouring the not yet released 2011 Chambertin.

Cyrielle Rousseau and Iron Chevsky, with the bottle of the 2012 Armand Rousseau Chambertin

Domaine Faiveley

Next was Domaine Faiveley. At this point, the improvement in quality, refinement, and approachability of Faiveley's wines is well recognized, since Erwan Faiveley took over the running of the domaine from his dad in 2007. The 2012 reds were supple, with deep "baby-fat" fruit that blanketed the structure. While Chambertin Clos de Beze was at the top of the pyramid with its serious dark, almost Rhone-like masculinity, the monopole Corton Clos Des Cortons Faiveley was excellent too, both a notch above the very good Latriciers-Chambertin. Two Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru's on display - the monopole Clos Des Issarts and the Cazetiers - were warm, plush, and inviting. I was particularly impressed with the "value" end of the portfolio - Mercurey monopole 1er Cru Clos Des Myglands and Beaune monopole 1er Cru Clos de l'Ecu - delicious and ripe, and perhaps the best I'd ever tasted from these vineyards at this stage. The 2012's came across as more approachable than the 2010's, with lower acidity. That combined with generous fruit and soft tannins made the wines feel like a warm comfy blanket. I recall 2010's had more bite and are the best recent vintage for Faiveley, while 2009's were riper with more of the chocolaty/mocha aspect, and the 2011's lighter. That said, the 2012's are very very good, with a unique character, and I am certainly interested in buying them for myself.


From Jacques Prieur's portfolio, Corton-Bressandes was my favorite, similar vintage character as other top wines at the tasting.

As for whites, Maison Olivier Leflaive's two deeply flavored, fleshy Meursaults - a very good villages and an even better domaine-owned plot of 1er Cru Poruzots - stood out. And finally the well-endowed, well-rounded and serious Corton-Charlemagne.

In the respectable line-up of Chablis from Domaine Christian Moreau, I found the wines well-made and even aristocratic, particularly the Grand Cru's Valmur and Clos, but somewhat lacking that seawater/iodine/oyster-shell aspect I look for in that region.

All in all, I don't think I tasted enough to pronounce any sweeping judgments. From what little I did taste, my impression is that both reds and whites are fleshy, ripe (but not overripe), sweet and generous, none of the searing acidity of some of the previous vintages. The reds possess velvety-soft tannins. These traits will likely bring more California drinkers onto the Burgundy bandwagon. As the wines age and shed their baby fat, revealing more structure, I think they would please traditional Burgundy lovers as well, although they may never deliver quite the excitement of 2010 or the completeness of 2005. In terms of sexiness, they might compete favorably with 2009's. The density and depth of material suggest a longer-lived vintage than 2011, though certainly not as long as 2005 or 2010. Given the small crop, price hikes of 20-30% are expected from most producers. That's tough to swallow.

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