Experimenting with the blind tasting order

If you have organized a blind tasting before, chances are high that you will have prepared wines from white to rosé ro red, and from light to heavy. To start with white before red makes perfect sense of course. Although you might come across wineries in Bourgogne who will present their reds before the whites, in Meursault for example. And I have experienced myself that to have a white, rosé or sparkling wine after a series of reds can be nice and useful to “cleanse” your palate, especially if the reds are quite powerful and tannic. But in general white goes before red.

When you come to the order of the reds , things can get slightly more difficult. The basic idea is to start with light and move gradually to more powerful and structured reds. The reason for this this is pretty obvious : if you have a young, structured Bordeaux before a Burgundy, you might miss some of the nuances of the latter. Especially the build up of tannins in your mouth makes it difficult to appreciate the structure and the quality of the tannins of a lighter wine. Chewing on bread and drinking water in between wines will help, but in general you will try and build up from light to powerful.

One issue, however, that I have come across regularly in tastings, is the contrast between ripe and fresh in red wines. What do I mean with that? Let’s take the example of Burgundy again : if you follow the basic guidelines, you will want to start with the Burgundy (so a pinot noir) before you move to wines with more body/alcohol or wines with more tannins. My experience is that it works, as long as you stay in the same category of “freshness”. If you move from a Burgundy to a Loire Cabernet Franc and then to a Bordeaux, for example, that will perfectly work out. It’s more difficult when you move from a fresh, cool-climate style of wine to something riper. The last time I experienced that was when I had a glass of Valpolicella Superiore after I came home from a tasting of Loire Cabernet Franc. The Valpolicella came across as sweet, something I had not experienced when I drank that wine before. Normally I would perceive the fruit of the Valpolicella as ripe, but in balance with the acidity. When I had it after the Loire Cabernet Franc, I perceived it as sweet, round, and lacking tension. We’re talking about the same wine!

So when I had a blind tasting at my place last week with two Burgundy lovers, I decided to experiment a bit with the order. I reckoned that if I put the riper wines before the  fresher, more elegant wines, the riper wines would show well and there would not be a negative effect on the fresher wines that followed.

These are the red wines I gave :

  1. The Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2016 of Stefano Mancinelli. (in my previous blog post you can read that these are very aromatic wines, with loads of ripe fruit)
  2. The Valpolicella Superiore 2014 of Roccolo Grassi, also relatively ripe, but very nicely balanced.
  3. The Barolo Ascheri 2015 of Reverdito, a very typical Barolo with ripe red fruit, and strong tannins.
  4. The Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 of Charlopin, the most elegant in the line-up with nice strawberries, relatively ripe though for a Burgundy.

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I gave the wines in this order. And as I had hoped for, the Italian wines were appreciated at their true value and were even lauded for their freshness. My two companions being absolute Burgundy lovers, I knew it was not obvious that they would like the Italian wines, especially the Valpolicella, which was the same wine that I found sweet after a Loire Cabernet Franc. So the experiment was successful! Almost…

If I could re-do the tasting, I would probably change one thing. I would put the Barolo last instead of the Gevrey-Chambertin. You can probably guess why : the tannins. The Gevrey was ready to drink and did not have very strong tannins. The Barolo, however, had tightened up a couple of hours after opening. The wine was actually very balanced and accessible just after opening the bottle. A few hours later the tannins had become quite prominent, very much typical Barolo tannins. And that made the transition to the Gevrey less smooth than I had wished.

That goes to show that reversing the order will not always work. I would not start with a very structured Australian Shiraz to finish with a fragile Burgundy. But you can play with the order of a couple of red wines in your line-up. If both wines have a tannin level that is more or less equivalent, and one has riper fruit than the other, then try putting the riper one first. And let me now if that worked!

 

 

 

 

New Etna Rosso finds

It’s about two years ago now (time flies!) that I took a closer look at Etna Rosso and recommended a few wines I liked. As I like to explore new things, I haven’t had Etna Rosso for a while, but recently I felt like going back to these intriguing wines. What I already mentioned in my previous post about Etna Rosso is confirmed in the wines I had this time as well : there is not one profile for Etna Rosso. Terroir and vintage are usually elements that are given to explain the differences, but my impression is that the style of the winery is just as important.

Here are three Etna Rossos I can wholeheartedly recommend :

ER 2014, Etna Rosso, Theresa Eccher

2014 is considered a difficult year for Italy, but things turned out relatively well for Sicily. Decanter’s Michael Garner describes the Etna Rossos of this vintage as balanced and perfumed, delicious to drink young. Theresa Eccher’s ER is very light in color. There is already some evolution here, the red fruit no longer being the freshly cut fruit that was probably there a couple of years ago. A hint of coffee, cedar, and a fresh, leafy herbaceousness give this wine an elegant and fresh profile. This is a very light type of Etna Rosso, for sure not one that is built to last. If the comparison with Burgundy is one that you often hear for Etna Rosso, then it is certainly applicable for this one. If you have this vintage, drink up, it’s in a nice spot now, and will not get better.

Nero Nibali 2015, Etna Rosso, Vino Nibali

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Very aromatic, the ripe red fruit comes floating out of the glass. There is a spiciness that reminds me of curry powder, and a hint of barnyard that adds to the complexity of the wine. A touch of noble cedar wood makes it complete. At this stage the wine is still very much fruit driven, but there is a structure behind it all that the ER of Theresa Eccher did not have. The tannins are ripe and give a bit of bite, which I like. Despite that, the global feeling I have here is one of satin softness. The savoury spiciness sets this wine very much apart from Theresa Eccher’s Etna Rosso. Beautiful!

Archineri 2012, Etna Rosso, Pietradolce

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Very ripe nose, with dried fruit, plum, spices, cigar. Very luscious wine, with also a hint of black chocolate in the background, kept sufficiently fresh by a good acidic backbone. The ripe/fresh contrast is quite big, but it works out well, the two keeping each other nicely in balance. If I didn’t know what this was, I might have guessed this was a Brunello… 2012 was a very hot vintage, so this could explain the very ripe fruit here. I am curious to try other vintages of this wine. Being able to deliver a wine in balance in such a hot vintage clearly proves craftmanship!

Conclusion :

Three different styles but three lovely wines. It was nice to reconnect with these volcanic wines and to see that the quality of these randomly bought bottles was very good . The focus on Etna wines these days does not only reflect a hype, but also the fact that this is simply a region that produces great wines.

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?

 

A few Taste Bud-worthy Barberas

Barbera is probably not the sexiest grape to write about. It’s not the kind of trophy wine you see on top of wine tasting lists. And yet, it’s one of Italy’s most-planted native grapes. You can find it in many regions but it’s in Piedmont that it shines. Or should I say, tries to shine? I suppose nebbiolo will probably always be the first grape that springs to mind when you think of Piedmont. But nebbiolo and barbera are two very different grapes and produce very different wines. Nebbiolo is late ripening, while barbera is earlier ripening (still later than dolcetto though). Barbera wines are often very dark, while nebbiolo is very transparent. And barbera is low in tannins, while nebbiolo tends to produce very robust and tannic wines. The only thing they have in common is the high acidity. So all in all, despite the fact they are grown in the same area, there is very little common ground.

The reason why I find barbera interesting, however, is because it occupies a place where you don’t find many other grapes. Just think of the usual suspects in red : cabernet sauvignon or franc, merlot, syrah, grenache. Or popular Italian grapes, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, and montepulciano. None of them really has the same characteristics as barbera. 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. The acidity of the grape is also a grateful partner for tomato based sauces. Think bolognese or puttanesca sauces with pasta. For me that’s comfort food with comfort wine. Perfect for those evenings when you want to treat yourself with a nice meal without having to spend hours in the kitchen…

I focused a bit on barbera in the past few months to explore the grape. In general I found that I prefer the Barbera d’Asti over the Barbera d’Alba. In Alba we are in Barolo territory, so it’s nebbiolo that is in the spotlight here. It’s therefore no wonder that wineries choose to use their best vineyards for nebbiolo, as Barolo can be sold at much higher prices than any barbera. In Asti things are different, because barbera does not have to share the attention with nebbiolo. In general I found that Barbera d’Asti is a bit more full-bodied and with more pronounced acidity than Barbera d’Alba, the latter being a bit warmer, rounder. Of course it’s difficult to generalise not having tasted dozens of barberas from Alba, but the Albas I had were not from obscure unknown wineries, so I suppose they were representive for Alba.

The second conclusion I draw from my experience is that barbera is a winemaker’s grape. Despite my feeling that barberas are best when they are juicy and fresh, some were very modern, with very strong wood aromas, obviously more geared towards an international palate. Those are not bad wines per se, but they loose their unique selling proposition. However, the grape allows it, contrary to  terroir grapes such as nebbiolo or pinot noir, which need very cautious extraction and use of wood.

So here’s a few barbera’s I can recommend…

If you’re looking for good, textbook barbera :

Tre Roveri 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Pico Maccario

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The nose is loaded with ripe dark cherries, yet at the same time it has a spicy freshness. The fruit is evolving towards dried fruit, showing a bit of evolution. The wine is rather full-bodied, but has the typical barbera acidity that keeps this wine fresh, nicely covering the 14% alcohol. Actually, this wine was best on day two, showing more elegance and perfect balance. So no hurry here.

If you want to show off :

Vigna Scarrone 2012 Barbera d’Alba, Vietti

Beautiful, well integrated nose with cherries and a whiff of  chocolate. Elegant and complex, with multiple layers and very long finale! No doubt that barbera transcends its peers here, but it also costs more than 30€. That’s a price point where the competition with premium wines from other grapes starts getting really tough. I know that that is comparing apples and oranges. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone does? Nevertheless, great effort.

Nizza 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, Dacapo

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Picture courtesy of the Associazione dei Produttori del Nizza

This is a barbera from the subzone of Nizza which was in 2011 still a part of the denominazione of Barbera d’Asti, but exists separately as DOCG Nizza since 2014. Before that barbera could still be complemented by 10% other grapes. Now it is 100% barbera.

The wine is a bit evolved and the nose has become a nice bouquet where everything has blended beautifully together. The morello cherries stand out, together with a bit of coffee. The ripe fruit is balanced by a razorsharp acidity that might be over the top for some, but I like it. I had it with ragu alla bolognese and that went very well. But mind you, this is more than just a simple spaghetti wine!

If you’re looking for a good price quality ratio :

Soliter 2016, Barbera d’Asti, Pescaja

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This is a barbera that can be found around 10€ and it gives very good value for money. It’s a modern barbera, the wood is still very noticeable, but then again it’s also a very young wine. Beautiful ripe cherries as well and a hint of black pepper. This is a very smooth wine that makes you grab the bottle as soon as your glass is empty. Dangerous stuff!

Piova 2014, Barbera d’Asti, La Montagnetta

Another pleasant easy-drinking barbera at around 10€. Graphite, black cherries, chocolate, and a hint of rose. Quite ripe and round, and the wood is very present. Good and lively acidity that give this wine freshness. Very modern style, but pleasant wine.

So these a couple of barberas that I liked. I did not post all the barberas I tasted here in order to avoid a too lenghthy post, but I started using Vivino to post my tasting notes there, so if you’re interested in the other barberas I tried, you can find them there if you go to my profile.

Cheers!