Rethinking Wine Enthusiast’s No 1 wine

In one of his NY Times wine columns, Eric Asimov makes a case for rethinking wine criticism. He sees the retirement of Robert Parker as an opportunity for wine critics to quit producing “dreary scores and tasting notes”. He argues that one of the core goals of any good wine writer should be to give consumers the tools to educate themselves. “The most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves. This can best be achieved by helping consumers gain enough knowledge to make their own buying decisions without the crutch of the bottle review.”

This article convinced me to write an article I was already brooding on for a while, but of which I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to write it. I’m talking about my experience with the number 1 wine of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 of 2018. If you haven’t seen that list yet, just try and imagine which kind of wine you would expect on the number one spot. I assume many will think of a top Bordeaux or Burgundy, a Barolo perhaps, or a Californian cabernet? Plenty of options, but I’m sure you didn’t think of a Barbera, did you? Yes, Wine Enthusiast’s Wine of the Year is a Barbera, or to be more accurate a Nizza, a former sub-zone of Barbera d’Asti which became a DOCG in its own right a few years ago. The Cipressi 2015 of Michele Chiarlo received 95 points and was described as follows :

“Elegantly structured, delicious and loaded with personality, this benchmark Nizza offers earthy aromas of truffle, leather, game, pressed violet and ripe black-skinned fruit. The aromas carry over to the savory palate, along with star anise, black cherry, mature plum and crushed mint. It’s balanced by polished tannins and fresh acidity.” 

This wine happens to be available in a supermarket here, and I had drunk the 2014 of the Cipressi a while ago. I recommended it even in a blog post I wrote about Barbera. Not knowing that the 2015 had meanwhile been ranked No 1 by Wine Enthusiast, I ordered a bottle to taste this new vintage. When the bottle came out the box, it was impossible to ignore the big label on the bottle that showed that the wine was voted No 1 by Wine Enthusiast. I was very surprised to see it, and for a moment I even thought it might refer to a best buy ranking. But no, it tops the general list with wines that Wine Enthusiast calls : “the best of the best”.

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How about that?! I bought “the best of the best” for around 15€. Hard to believe, isn’t it?But I am a firm believer that wines do not have to be expensive to be really good, so it was not without certain expectations that I popped the bottle. This is my tasting note (a lot less elaborate than Wine Enthuasiast’s) :

Attractive nose, dark cherries, cedar wood and a touch of barnyard. On the palate it’s pretty straight forward, fruit driven and supported by the typical barbera acidity.

I was disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but anything that is chosen as the wine of 2018, should have more complexity, depth, length, something out of the ordinary, something that makes you silent and conclude that life is good…

It was obvious that this wine was not in that league.

Surprising? Well, it shouldn’t be. This is what I wrote about a year go : “Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young.”

And here’s a description by Ian D’Agata, author of Italy’s wine grapes, of how barbera wines should be: “bright, fresh, vinous, loaded with brambly fruit…”.

If you look at the Cipressi like that, it’s actually a good example of what a barbera should be. Loaded with fruit, fresh, attractive. Above average even. And definitely a good value. The kind of wine that I would normally enjoy. If… I approached it as barbera. What happened here was that I let myself be led by a ranking that created unrealistic expectations, instead of relying on what I know about barbera.

Or as Asimov puts it : “By subjecting seemingly every bottle to evaluation, year in and year out, these reviews convey the sense that the quality of a wine is random. With nothing else to go on but these reviews, consumers are not liberated by knowledge; instead they are bound to reviewers, dependent on the direction of the critical thumb.”

Funny detail : Wine Enthusiast’s website also shows user reviews. This is how one user described the same wine :

Smooth finish, great bouquet, excellent value. A great wine to go with a wide variety of food for the everyday table.”

 He nailed it…

 

 

 

Sangiovese : how well does it stand the test of time?

I had the luck to participate in a tasting of old Sangioveses. Not having a proper cellar to keep wines for decades myself, I was very happy to be given this chance. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a Sassicaia 1991 thrown into the deal! But more about that later.

Honestly, I wasn’t convinced of the ageing potential of Sangiovese… I have a difficult relationship with this grape. I have had very good experiences, but also less good ones. I like Sangiovese when the fruit is not cooked or too jammy, and when the alcohol levels are under control. But in recent vintages, alcohol levels of 14,5% or even 15% were more often the rule than the exception.  The fruit of those wines tends to evolve to dried fruit, and unless there’s good supporting acidity underneath that, such wines can be rather heady.

So when the opportunity came to taste a few really old Sangioveses, I knew I had to do this to finally know if these wines are worth cellaring for a couple of decades. When I say really old, they were indeed really old, the oldest bottle being a 1971… This was the line-up :

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  1. Isole e Olena 1983, Chianti Classico
  2. Brolio Riserva 1971, Chianti Classico, Barone Ricasoli
  3. La Casa 1979, Brunello di Montalcino, Tenuta Caparzo
  4. Il Poggione 1977, Brunello di Montalcino
  5. Tenuta Sant’Agnese 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  6. Avignonesi 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  7. Sassicaia 1991, (at that time still) Vino da Tavola

A really exciting line-up, with a perfect spread over the three most important wine producing regions for Sangiovese! Already the fact that I was going to taste a few wines that had spent more time on this planet than I have, was something to look out for. And yet, at the same time, I was kind of preparing myself for wines that were dead on their feet.

Isole e Olena 1983

The first wine was already immediately a surprise, because it appeared much younger than I had expected. Black cherry, plum, chocolate, tobacco, leather, a touch of cedar wood. Beautiful nose! The mouth feel was surprisingly fresh, and the wine even had some tannins still. Based on the nose I perhaps expected a wine with a bit more body, but still, this Chianti was alive and kicking. Good start! When I came back to this wine a bit later it was evolving to aromas of black tea, which I found less attractive, so no long airing needed here.

Brolio Riserva 1971

Twelve years further back in time, and that was immediately obvious, the color having evolved to copper/amber. It took a while for the aromas to show as there was a bit of dustiness that had to be whirled out the glass. After a couple of minutes we finally got some dried fruit, chocolate, dried spices, and even raisins. The wine was relatively thin, although not completely dead. Still a bit of dried fruit and chocolate, but it was clear that the best years of this Brolio were long gone.

La Casa 1979

Still ruby red with a brick colored rim signalling the evolution. Great nose! Dried fruit, floral tones, cedar wood, chocolate, plum, nutmeg, and a touch of animality. Very complex. The wine is very intense and deep, fresh as well, and still displays ripe red fruit. The balance here is remarkable. This wine is now perfect. Amazing after 40 years…

Il Poggione 1977

Clearly evolved color. The aromas come timidly out of the glass. Still some red fruit, spices, a touch of iron. It opens up a bit more after a while in the glass. After the impressive La Casa this wine appears a bit thinner, but it’s especially the tannins that draw the attention here, being a bit rough even after more than 40 years in the bottle. The balance is not completely right.

Sant’Agnese 1979

Transparent and evolved in color. Not very expressive, the fruit is ripe or dried even. There’s something dusty here as well. A touch of cedar and pine tree. In comparison to the previous wines, this Vino Nobile is a bit warmer, riper, and the acidity is lower than in the previous wines. Still noticeable tannines here. Good effort, but I personally prefer the elegance and freshness of the Brunellos.

Avignonesi 1979

Remarkably dark color in comparison with the previous wines. Quite a different nose also : black cherry, rubber, dried fruit, liquorice, coffee. Again a warmer impression in this Vino Nobile and again slightly drying tannins. The wine did evolve nicely in the glass, however, opening up beautifully with aromas of tobacco and more cedar wood. 40 years old and still margin. Hard to believe.

Before I move on to the Sassicaia : what’s my conclusion after these 6 Sangioveses? Well it’s clear that Sangiovese is worth tucking away in your cellar for a long, long time. Apart from the Brolio, all the wines were still in a good shape, which was much more than I had hoped for before the tasting. But not only were they not dead, most still displayed beautiful fruit aromas, noble cedar wood, and above all freshness. The Vino Nobiles were a bit warmer, but the Brunellos and the Isole e Olena were very fresh, even salivating wines, a characteristic I don’t often find in todays Sangioveses. That things have changed in Tuscany since the 1970s was probably the most obvious in the alcohol levels : all wines had between 12,5% and 13,5%. Difficult to imagine that nowadays…

If you were wondering about the Sassicaia, I will not beat about the bush : it was corked! What a bummer… But still, there are a couple of things worth mentioning for Sassicaia fans. 1991 was the vintage that received a 81 score in Wine Spectator, not a glorious score for  one of the world’s most famous wines. It is described as a wine that was thinner than other vintages. On top of that, Monica Larner, the Italian reviewer for The Wine Advocate, wrote this in April 2017 :

The 1991 Sassicaia has reached the end of the line. It shows overly oxidized aromas of dried meat, old leather and dried fig. This was a hot vintage and the bottom has dropped out on any residual fruit or fiber. The mouthfeel is tight, gritty and there’s a sudden note of bitterness on the finish. The effect is flat and void of any significant dimension. However, you do feel the vintage heat.

So I had no high hopes for this Sassicaia. When I discovered it had cork taint, I was even more disappointed of course. But I could still tell that this was not a wine that had “reached the end of the line”, quite the contrary actually, I could still discern loads of fresh fruit. Despite the off aromas there was still a glimpse of an elegant and vibrant wine, making the disappointment that it was corked even bigger. So if you’re lucky enough to have Sassicaia 1991 in your cellar, no reason to rush! Then why did Monica Larner say it was at the end of the line? Could it have been a badly stored bottle? Or was there bottle variation? It’s interesting to read the reviews on Cellartracker : some are really raving, while others mention oxidation. I wished there was a second bottle to put to the test, but alas…

To sweeten the pill our host came up with a replacement bottle for the Sassicaia : the Col d’Orcia 1991, Brunello di Montalcino. A good deal younger than the other Sangioveses we tasted earlier on, but still 28 years old! The difference in age was noticeable quite well : still loads of fruit, blueberry, rosemary, tobacco, leather, cedar. Great nose. The tannins were still present but in general the balance was good. Great length as well! Very enjoyable now, but still so many things going on that it can easily hold up for at least another decade!

And that was the end of a great evening. La Casa of Tenuta Caparzo was my personal favorite, but it was definitely not the only oldie with a good performance. This tasting illustrated very aptly how good aged Sangiovese can be. Anyone up for a follow-up tasting in 40 years?

 

Reviewing James Suckling’s The Miracle of Alto Adige

On 22th of March, the Miracle of Alto Adige was released, a documentary produced by James Suckling and his son Jack about this wine region in the north of Italy. On 29th it was released for the general public on his website. I was pretty excited about this documentary and eager to see it. I’m a big fan of audiovisual productions about wine. Probably because I’m not the most avid reader there is, but also because the treshold is lower than reading a thick book. After a long day at work, I find it quite relaxing to watch a documentary or listen to a podcast. On the train for example, since I spend at least two hours per day commuting.

One of the series I really enjoyed watching, already quite a few years ago, was Jancis Robinson’s wine course. When I started getting interested in wine that was the perfect introduction for me to the subject. It was very educative and had a good mix of factual information, beautiful images of the world’s best known wine regions, and interviews with key winemakers. When I heard about James Suckling’s documentary about Alto Adige, I expected something similar. I was particularly happy to see that someone like James Suckling chose a fairly unknown region like Alto Adige. I might be wrong, but I think of him as a critic who has a preference for “big” wines, while I know Alto Adige as a wine region that’s especially known for somewhat lighter and fresh wines. Anyhow, it’s a region that doesn’t get a lot of attention, even among lovers of Italian wines, Tuscany and Piedmont still being the go to regions for many.

The documentary starts off with very impressive footage of the mountainous area. The images, shot by drones and helicopters, are really breathtaking, immediately driving home the point of the “miracle” of Alto Adige. That probably should not come as a surprise, the director of the documentary being James Orr, known for popular Hollywood movies such as Three Men and a Baby, and Sister Act 2. The scenery is the perfect introduction to the winemakers of the region, including top winemakers such as Alois Lageder and Elena Walch, but I was happy to see also a few cooperatives such a Cantina Tramin. They only get a few minutes each to talk about their experiences with wine making in the region. After all, the documentary is only 23 minutes long and that seriously limits the possibilities of what you can show. If you want to showcase 6 wineries, well then there’s not an awful lot of time left to show or tell anything else.

Unfortunately this means that you don’t get to know much about the region in general : where is it situated? what kind of wines are made there? and which grapes are used? Particularly the last question is of interest, I find, because Alto Adige is home to a few indigenous grapes such as the well-known gewürztraminer, but also less well-known, but not less interesting, grapes such as schiava and lagrein. Especially lagrein is a grape that I find interesting. It produces medium-bodied, sometimes floral, but mainly spicy, peppery red wines,  reminiscent of syrah. Alas, no word about lagrein or any wine of the region for that matter. It makes you wonder a bit about the point of this documentary. Perhaps James Suckling has a personal preference for the wines coming from Alto Adige? Well, again, you won’t find out by watching this documentary! James Suckling is not to be seen anywhere. You only hear him saying a few lines at the beginning of the documentary.

I won’t hide that I find this documentary a bit of a missed opportunity. James Suckling uses his popularity to draw the attention to a less-known wine region, such as Alto-Adige, and that’s great. But he does not use his knowledge or tasting experience to share his insights, or to let us in on a few talented but yet undiscovered wine makers for example. Nor do we really learn anything about Alto Adige. Pity…

Well, let me give you at least one lagrein to look out for then! It’s the Staves, a Lagrein Riserva of Weingut Kornell. This is a wine that is defined by its pureness, its elegance and yes, the black pepper that could lead you to northern rhone syrah. In its youth the wood can still dominate the fruit a bit, but I drank the 2012 and the wood is perfectly integrated now. I found this wine just under 30€, so quality also has its price in Alto Adige, but what you get in your glass is definitely worth the money.

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So, if you watch The Miracle of Alto Adige, then treat yourself with a nice peppery lagrein or a flowery schiava. They go well with the beautiful scenery.