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A view of Parma, the salumi capital of Italy, in the Emilia-Romagna region

So it’s been a few weeks since I’ve returned from Emilia-Romagna and I owe you all a blog post. I know… I’m the worst.  Emilia-Romagna is, in many ways, a largely undiscovered region of Italy that is also really the country’s culinary heart and soul.

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A classic plate of salumi with salami, culatello, and Prosciutto di Parma

This region of Italy lies north of the “butter line” where it’s too cold to cultivate olives – so the cooking fat of choice is butter. This, my friends, is my kind of Italy.

Besides being home to such famous Italian goods as Parmiggiano-Regiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and Aceto Balsamico, the region is also renowned for its production of salumi and, especially, a delightful cured meat called Culatello.  What makes all of this even more exciting, perhaps, is that besides the first three products on that list, none of it is allowed into the U.S. (at least not for another 2 years-ish) so gorging on salumi while in the region is not only acceptable, but necessary.

But, ok, this is a wine blog. So while the fecundity of the region makes it an amazing culinary capitol of an entire country already obsessed with food, that same fertile soil doesn’t do much for viticulture.

The best wines of the world are cultivated in places relatively hostile to anything other than grape vines, which, masochists that they are, thrive in soils and conditions that require a bit of a struggle. As you might imagine, fertile and fecund Emilia-Romagna is not a region much renowned for its wine.

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A view of the Langhirano Valley in Emilia-Romagna

The best-known wine of the region is definitely the oft-derided Lambrusco – a lightly sparkling and barely alcoholic red wine.  The main white grape of the region is Malvasia where it generally manifests in a not-offensive yet not very exciting wine that can come sparkling, flat, dry, or semi-dry. It’s alright but not amazing.

Lambrusco, however, is a different story. Lambrusco has had a bad reputation in the states since commercial producers introduced it as an insipid and sickly sweet sparkling red wine in the 1970’s during the age of White Zinfandel. However, real Lambrusco has about as much in common with that horrid iteration as White Zinfandel does to proper Zinfandel.

Real Lambrusco is bone-dry with flavors of fresh fruits, earth, minerals, and roses. It’s super low in alcohol (usually about 11% ABV) and is imbibed across the Emilia-Romagna region in a manner similar to the way we Americans drink soda. It’s a refreshing afternoon quaff, something to sip with lunch, and it pairs impeccably with the region’s rich cheeses and salumi.

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My absolute favorite go-to Lambrusco

As soon as I knew I was heading to Emilia-Romagana, I got in touch with James Koch. Koch imports my absolute favorite Lambrusco (Pronto) through his company, JK Imports, and is single-handedly responsible for importing and growing awareness of real Lambrusco in the states. I couldn’t head to the land of Lambrusco without tasting the good stuff and, true to form, James set me up with a tasting with an amazing producer called Cinque Campi.

Cinque Campi is a small family run winery that has a history of being passed from father to son for more than 200 years. Nick is the current proprietor and the first to make wine not solely intended for family consumption. Besides having a focus on biodynamic winemaking, Nick has also made efforts to reintroduce indigenous vines that had become all but extinct and, when it comes to particular varieties, may be the only winemaker using them in the entire world.

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a view of the vineyards at Cinque Campe

Nick was gracious enough to take us on a full tour through his vineyards, plucking grapes into our mouths along the way, explaining his growing techniques and harvesting practices. He also showed us the 16th century stone cellar where he ages his wines in Piedmont-style Slovenian oak barriques and hand riddles his sparkling wines. The cellar is located under his house, where, on the day we arrived, he was casually boiling grape must that would, in 12 years, become his family’s own Aceto Balsamico. NBD.

After we had to seek shelter from marble-sized raindrops, we began a tasting of Nick’s truly special wines. Fearing the rain had come too late in the season and might damage his crop, Nick ensured us that the rain was welcome for his Grasparossa vines, which, of the three varieties he uses to make Lambrusco, are the last to be harvested and need a big rain like the one falling outside.

We started our tasting with a 2012 white wine called La Bora Lunga made entirely of Spergola, a native variety of Emilia-Romagna that, for a long time, was confused with Sauvignon Blanc, but which, is in fact, very much its own grape pretty much exclusively grown in the region.  The wine was a rich golden color with a nose of ripe melons that gave way to a rich-tasting yet medium bodied white wine that finished with a minerally lick of damp earth. It was very much unlike anything I’d ever had before and made me excited to taste what came next.

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the family’s aceto balsamico barrels

Next, we tried a sparkling white wine called L’Artiglio from 2010 that was also made from Spergola that had spent three years sur-lie. The nose was all honey and figs while the wine was full-bodied yet clean with notes of sage, grapefruit, and a minerally finish that called to mind the best Champagne. It was complex and delicious.

We followed that up with another sparkling white called Terbianc that went through secondary fermentation in-bottle, and was made from a variation of the usually blah-Trebbiano grape called Trebbiano Modenese.  The grapes came from a vineyard planted with 120-year old vines. The skins stayed in contact with the juice all through the first fermentation, giving the wine a rich yellow almost orangey color. The wine had a slight appley nose but opened into a lightly bitter sparkling wine with bracing acidity and flavors of grapefruit and marmalade.  It pairs splendidly, Nick promised, with the region’s classic dish of Tortelli stuffed with Ricotta and herbs and drenched in butter. I believed him.

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the hand-riddling going on in the 16th century cellar of Cinque Campe

Finally we made it to the good stuff – the realest of the real Lambruscos I’ve ever tasted.  We opened up with the 2011 Rio degli Sgoccioli, a Lambrusco that, according to Nick, was made in the truly ancient style. This was the most elegant Lambrusco I’ve ever tried. There was nothing rustic about this wine – it was all finesse with a beautiful cranberry color that, if not for the bubbles, could have been mistaken for a Beaujolais. It was all roses, raspberries, and a touch of yeast, with a delicate body and a tang of minerality on the finish that made me crave another (and another and another) sip.

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One of the labels with a drawing from Nick’s 2-year old son

Lulled into the kind of great-wine-induced trance that made me feel like I could die any moment and do so happily, Nick wanted us to try one last wine – his classic 2011 CinqueCampe Rosso that was the most traditional Lambrusco they made. The wine comes wrapped in a label decorated with a drawing by Nick’s 2-year old son – yet another endearingly charming detail. This was the kind of Lambrusco I’d been looking for the whole trip with notes of blackberries, licorice, and a touch of bitterness on the finish. This Lambrusco was made up of 85% Grasparossa, 10% Malbo Gentile to give the wine body and 5% Marzemino to contribute some elegance.

Thrilled with how thrilled we were, Nick ran down to his cellar and pulled a bottle of the 2012 vintage of this same wine – not even labeled yet! We must, he insisted, try this, too. We didn’t put up much of a fight. The 2012 vintage was entirely different – with more fruit than the 2011 with notes of strawberries that were reminiscent of Peidmont’s Grignolino and lighter, with even more minerality.

Just to make sure we all had a good nap on the way back to Parma, Nick also brought out a bottle of his desert wine called Tribülê from the 2010 vintage and it was incredible. Too incredible to write down tasting notes, apparently, but I came home with a bottle of it in my suitcase so… enough said.

Leaving Cinque Campi was hard to do, but thanks to James Koch, who imports the wines into the states, I can always pick up a bottle stateside, too.  The whole day with Nick at Cinque Campi was fascinating and delicious – just like his wines. Seeing this kind of truly artisinal (none of the wines has a production that exceeds 500 bottles) and family-run winery was a really special experience and reaffirmed all my feelings about supporting smaller producers who make wine with passion, history, and so much soul.

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the aftermath of our epic tasting

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image via winecurmudgeon.com

Earlier this summer, I was invited to attend a wine tasting event on behalf of one of my clients. The event was billed as a tasting of the “Top 100” wines and, while meeting with the man who had organized the event, I asked him what it meant that a wine was considered a “Top 100.”

Obviously, he told me, they were wines from his portfolio (he ran the wine and liquor division of a local import/distribution company). In addition, each wine had received a score of 90 or higher from the top wine scoring publications – Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer, etc.

“But you had a say in choosing what to pour too, right?” I asked smiling.

The man blinked at me like I’d just started speaking Chinese. Or a frog had jumped out of my left ear. He stared at me, as though the idea that he would have chosen the wines independently of these sources, according to his tastes, was simply…

And yet, the man struck me as confident and had certainly proved his mettle in the wine world judging by his position and the selection of bottles he’d curated for the company’s brick-and-mortar operation.

It was a strange encounter for me – it had been a long time since I’d stumbled into the company of someone in the industry who was still so fiercely loyal to the powers-that-be in wine scoring.

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image via princeofpinot.com

Most of the industry professionals I know fall neatly (though often begrudgingly) into the millennial generation. When it comes to wine, they are the next generation of influencers, tastemakers, and, ultimately, drinkers.   And not a single one of them decides what to pour, sell, or drink based on the scores in last month’s Wine Spectator.

Choosing a wine because it was rated highly by a wine scoring publication is just anathema to the values that drive millennials’ purchasing decisions. Many wine professionals, too, are wary of the scores themselves and are sensitive to the politicking that plays a part in the rating process.

Working in wine PR, I was in a position to really take a good look behind this particular curtain. Wine scores are something that we count on – a high score curries favor with the client and warrants a triumphant press release while a disappointing score sends us shuffling into meetings to discuss how best to proceed.

Much to the chagrin of an industry that has, for years, relied upon the point system developed by Robert Parker (and adopted by subsequent wine scoring publications), to sell their product, this same system has failed to resonate with a millennial audience.

It’s no secret that the scoring publications often favor wines that are more concerned with being technically correct and commercially appealing rather than wines that are interesting, exciting, or unique. They often rate according to reputation rather than quality and it’s much harder to find a 98-point rated Beaujolais than Bordeaux or Burgundy.

All this is not to say that I don’t often sometimes agree with the critics and when I see a beloved bottle awarded a high score I am happy for the producer and feel a little validated.

Going into the Top 100 tasting, however, I wasn’t expecting many surprises and, while I certainly tasted some beautiful wines, I also tasted a lot of what I expected to taste. For me the surprise and adventure of discovery in wine gives me as much pleasure as the indulgence in something classic and perfect.

This, I think, is one of the biggest problems with the wine scoring system – it has, for the most part, failed to evolve and account for the changing palate of a new generation.

Certain critics, such as Robert Parker, have  such a very particular preference and palate that it was easy to spot a Parker rated-wine. One would think that Parker’s palate, one that single-mouthedly transformed the industry, would have evolved since he started Wine Advocate in 1975. Yet, at the Top 100 tasting, I could spot a Parker wine from a mile away.

I think this oaky fruit bomb might be a Parker wine…

For older wine consumers, the ones whose palates were developed along with the scoring system, these scores still hold sway – I won’t deny that. And if you asked anyone in sales whether a score can move a boatload of wine, I bet they’d tell you that it doesn’t hurt. Sommeliers and wine directors still take advantage of highly-rated wines, too, marking them up a little higher and using those high scores as a selling point for a certain crowd.

However, when it come to the next generation of influencers, tastemakers, and drinkers, either the system needs to evolve to account for the shifting tastes of younger wine drinkers, or it will soon dissolve into the same arbitrary and antiquated system for consumers that it has already become with so many rising wine professionals.

What do you think? Are you a fan of the easy-to-use point system? Do you think it needs to go the way of the dinosaurs? How does a wine’s score factor into your purchasing decisions?

The Comeback

So its been over a year since I last published. Shame on me. I got a “real job” and have been working for the past year and a half in PR & Marketing for food and wine accounts. One of whom was Georges Duboeuf – a brand I’ve actually written about right here on this little blog! The whole situation was the very definition of serendipity.

It felt a little weird writing about wine while also working for a wine client… it’s tough enough being a writer and a publicist as it is. Lots of blurred lines. No one at work made me feel like there was any conflict of interest, but it was also important for me to focus on my career and get it off the ground. My company was/is super supportive of my writing (I’m lucky!) and they even have me writing for our company’s blog, The Buzz Bin, in a weekly installment called The Booze Bin. If you’re curious as to what a wine publicist actually does, and what, specifically, I’ve been up to the last year and a half, you can check out my most recent post.

Why the sudden comeback? A couple of reasons… first of all – GIFS! You guys – we did not have gifs when I last blogged!

omg my god oh reaction omg my god oh reaction

Ok, no, that’s not really (but kinda is) why I’ve decided to reboot. The real firs reason is that I’m not longer working primarily on a wine account. My focus has shifted back towards food so I don’t feel that there is as much a conflict of interest. Second of all, I learned a TON about the wine industry over the past year and a half and feel that I can bring a new refreshed perspective to my writing here. One of the most striking things I learned was that there’s a huge gaping void in the world of wine writing when it comes to analysis (and criticism) of the industry. Also, while there are tons of blogs writing tasting notes, posting reviews, and interviewing winemakers, there are very few that do so with any kind of focus besides, occasionally, a local one.

Now is one of the most exciting times to be working in or even interested in wine. We have access to more wines at better prices from more places around the world than ever before. And yet, when it comes to the industry and the way it works, not much has changed except the product.

There are people and forces at work to change this and I’d like to join their ranks. That is going to be the sharpened focus of this blog – an element that was always there (hello! See my blog title!?) but that was always more of a context than a platform.

Keep an eye out for my first real post on Monday… after that I’m headed to Italy (Emilia-Romagna) for a few days and should come back with some exciting reports from the land of Lambrusco. There is plenty of good stuff to come.
Cheers!

Caroline

 

Weird indigenous grapes from Italy have been showing up on NYC wine lists like its their job. It started with Lagrein– a rare grape indigenous to Italy’s Alto Adige region. Next, it was Pelavergo– a grape I’d never heard of from Piedmonte in Northwest Italy. Then Gaglioppo started to pop its strange little head up from time to time, this time an indigenous grape from Calabria – at the other end of Italy’s boot. Now, I’m spotting Freisa –another obscure indigenous grape from Piedmonte – on menus here and there. Freisa, in fact, is one of the most derisive grapes in the wine world that drinkers either adore or vilify (it has been praised as “immensely appetizing” and derided as “totally repugnant” in the media).

Like I said, Lagrein is a weird grape that has been showing up on wine lists across the city in the last few months. Not surprisingly, given its sturdy character, I first noticed it in the dead of winter. I’m always intrigued by multiple sightings of a grape I’ve never heard of within a short period of time. I like to think that I’m pretty geeky when it comes to wine and it’s hard to get one by me (see above). So when I saw Lagrein listed on three different lists within a month, I was determined to find out what this wine was and what exactly everyone else had already figured out.

First off, Lagrein is indigenous (and pretty much exclusive) to Alto Adige – a region that comprises part of the Northeast corner of Italy. It’s a region that straddles the borders of Austria and Switzerland and is very mountainous – covering a large swath of the Dolomites and the Southern Alps. In short, it’s very cold and a majority of the region has a pretty significant elevation.

Image via John Mariani @ Cork Dork

The region is also known as Trentino-Alto Adige and Sudtriol. It’s a region that, wine-wise, is best known for Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. Knowing all of this, I was poised to expect a red that reflected its chilly upbringing – something light, floral, brisk, and maybe medium-bodied at its heaviest.

Lagrein, however, fits none of those descriptions – in fact, I’d even go so far as to say that this grape makes a wine that is hearty. Not rich or luxurious – this is no Napa Cab – it’s a little rough around the edges and not a wine I’d characterize as “refined” – but no less charming for it. The hearty character of the wine means it goes well with a soul-warming stew, braised or grilled meat because it’s got a fair amount of tannin to suck up all that fat– exactly the kind of warming-up wine that you might want to drink if you were snowed in by a blizzard raging in the Alps.

Eric Asimov, the NYT wine critic, must have noticed Lagrein’s steady rise in popularity, too – he wrote in a March 28 column about this wine that is was “deliciously plummy, earthy and chewy, dark and full-bodied but not heavy, with a pronounced minerally edge”. He also mentioned that the wines had a savory side (I’d call it gamey), floral notes, and bright acidity.

Of the five Lagriens that I’ve sampled over the past few months, all but one fell definitively in the plummy, chewy, dark, and full-bodied side of the spectrum and I had a hard time detecting this fabled bright acidity.

The Lagreins that I tasted, too, had a pronounced savory quality, and the notion of darkness in a wine is something you can taste in a Lagrein. And as Asimov wrote, the tannins in Lagrein are chewy rather than sturdy – something that I had a hard time with. I tended to agree with one of the members of the NYT tasting panel that the wines I tasted lacked sufficient structure and usually hit one or two notes strongly and then collapsed.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy these wines – because I did. And in particular, I enjoyed the one Lagrein that stood out from the rest because of its brightness, refreshing floral character, and tight structure. In fact, the Lagrein that I liked best approached the freshness and structure of a young wine from Ribera del Duero, but with richer and darker fruit, a streak of gamey earthiness, and compact tannins to hold the whole thing together. It was also the cheapest of the Lagreins I tried at about $16.99 – the Cantina Tramin Lagrein 2011.

Especially with Memorial Day right around the corner, heralding the unofficial start of grilling season, Lagrein is a wine to keep in mind. With dark plummy fruit and a soft chewy mouthfeel, Lagreins are a wonderful barbecue wine. For the drinker tired of resorting to California Cabs or a bottle of room-temp Merlot, Lagrein is an interesting and novel choice for accompanying grilled meats. The thick dark fruits will appeal to the untrained palate, but the eyebrow-raising texture and healthy tannins will please the drinker who knows what to look for in a wine served with steak.

See below for more info on the Lagreins pictured above!

Franz Haas Lagrein  ($34.99)

Tiefenbrunner Lagrein “Turmhof” 2010 ($19.99)

H. Lentsch Lagrein “Marus” 2009 ($24.99)

Cantina Tramin Lagrein 2010 ($16.99)

San Pietro Lagrein 2009 ($14.99)

 *The Lagreins reviewed were sent as samples.

It’s been over a year since I’ve taken the time to write about the 20-something wine palate. Last I checked in, Millenials were mad for Malbec – but that was a while ago and, while I’m sure there are still plenty of 20-somethings throwing back these easy-drinkers from Argentina, there’s plenty more to catch everyone up on.

It’s only taken a year of writing this little wine blog but my friends have finally started to come around to being introduced to different wines that I bring around. And to actually go into wine stores on their own, ask questions, and spend a little money on a wine that they might actually enjoy. The biggest crowd pleaser? Without a doubt, Barbera.

Barbera is a grape indigenous to Piedmont in Northwestern Italy and it makes a wine that is notable for its big juicy fruit, high acidity, and low tannin. Unlike Malbecs from Argentina, which are also incredibly fruit forward, Barberas tend to show flavors of cherries and red plums and, because of the high acid, they are brighter and much more food-friendly. I have a theory that given these wines’ flavor profiles, easy drinkability, and food friendliness, they would easily be the next Malbec if not for their higher price tag. Wine directors around the city of New York have taken note, too, and begun to offer them widely and broadly on wine lists across the city as an affordable and accessible by-the-glass option. For the 20-something who is starting to get comfortable with their palate, maybe into a something a little heavier than their usual Pinot Noir but a little sick of rich chocolatey Malbec, Barbera is a brilliant choice.

Barbera is traditionally a wine of Piedmonte, but there are some truly wonderful examples coming out of Santa Barbara and also Amador County at the foot of the Sierra Foothills in California. Above, I’ve included my two clear favorites from this burgeoning region.

For the more adventurous 20-something wine drinker, I’ve found that another big hit is the Austrian grape, Blaufrankisch. Austrian wines, in general, have seen a pretty significant surge in popularity over the last year – with Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, and even St. Laurent starting to become a less rare sighting on wine lists and retail shelves. For the 20-something wine drinker who just doesn’t have a taste for Pinot Noir, Blaufrankisch is a great option – it’s light, has really bright acidity, and berry fruits like raspberries, blueberries, and a sophisticated hit of black pepper that makes the nose on this wine instantly recognizable. With just a touch of tannin, this is a good gateway wine into understanding the structure and complexity that tannin can bring to a wine – there’s no way that the average 20-something wine drinker is going to ever appreciate tannin if they’re smacked in the face with it. It has to be a gradual introduction and one that gets more aggressive over time, as the palate warms up to it. Blaufrankisch is another wine that my friends enjoyed so much that it drove them to their local wine shops in search of it.

As far as heavier reds go, I think that a lot of 20-somethings who have the money to spend are big into the reds from Chateneuf du Pape. The price of these spicy, earthy, and moderately tannic wines have fallen as the market has been flooded with more affordable bottles, and millenials are drawn to this very classic French wine. However, for those who have a taste for bigger reds that can’t quite afford to throw down $20 every time they want a bottle of wine, the reds of the Languedoc are a great place to go. Specifically, the red wines of Corbieres are popular and, generally, easy sellers. These are reds that have some of the spice, aggressive fruit, and earthiness that Chateneuf offers, but with softer tannins and a funkier character that is strangely appealing. The price tags on these wines are generally a little gentler on the wallet, too, with good bottles usually retailing for about $12/bottle.

In Corbieres, the main grape is Carignan, which is often supplemented with Syrah and Grenache. Carignan is the main culprit behing the funky character that sets the region’s reds apart. Meanwhile, in Chateuneuf du Pape, Grenache is king.

So, what about the whites you ask? Besides the Moscato craze sweeping the marketplace, there are plenty of other wines that are poised to be a big hit with the 20-something wine-drinking crowd. To start, I think that Rieslings are making a big impression on the 20-something wine drinker – especially with the shift towards the bone-dry style. If there’s one thing that Millienals never want to be, it’s uncool. And sweet Rieslings? They are the epitome of uncool. But dry Rieslings are delicious and 20-somethings are learning this slowly but definitely.

In the spirit of Riesling’s growing popularity in regions across the world, I’ve included here a sample from The Finger Lakes, Alsace, Washington, and the Mosel Region of Germany…all have distinct characteristics that speak to that all-elusive idea of terroir

I also think that Greek Whites are making some decent headway. Assyrtiko, once obscure, is slowly becoming a go-to white wine on many wine lists around the city, and I’ve had some other Greek whites that have just blown me away. These are wines to watch out for. Again, like with the dry Rieslings, these are usually whites with racy – if not downright aggressive – acidity that are crisp and clean, but offer nice fruit and some interesting flavors. Oak, I think, has become a faux-pas as far as 20-somethigns are concerned – an oaky white wine is too much something their mothers would drink and, thus, far too uncool.

The wine on the far left, the Alpha Estate Malgouzia, isn’t actually an Assyrtiko, but it is a wine I fell in love with recently. It has a vaguely minty marshmallow flavor and texture that make it endlessly intriguing from the first sip to the last. Coupled with a bracing acidity, it’s a wine that continues to pique my curiosity weeks after I’ve tried it.

Lastly, as far as whites go, I think that Sicilian whites are piggybacking on the huge surge in popularity of Sicilian reds, and we may start to see more of them. Just like with Assyrtiko and Riesling, Sicilian whites have zingy acidity and unusual flavors that range from orange blossom to stark minerality. They’re cool and weird and so far from what our parents ever liked that I think they’re bound to become strangely popular for such an obscure wine.

I think the biggest insight we can glean into the shifting trends in what 20-somethings are drinking is that younger wine drinkers like wines that have a “cool factor” – whether the grape or the place is a little obscure, a taste for high acidity, and, obviously, the price. If the average bottle is above $15, you can forget about it – you’re not going anywhere fast with this recession-battered crowd. I think, too, that, wines in general made with less oak and a lighter touch are becoming increasingly popular.  I think that two wines poised to make a big impression in the next year are Rioja – those that are made in a more traditional old-world style with restrained oak and less bombastic fruit, and Beaujolais – a wine I love dearly for its subtlety, delicacy, and lightness. We’ll come back around to those two, later. In the meantime, go drink what the cool kids are drinking and thank me later.

That’s right…your humble little blogger got an article in the June 2012 Issue of Wine Enthusiast! I’ve uploaded a picture for ya but if you’re so inclined, you should go get an issue and then write in to the editors to tell them how my piece was your favorite piece. Because, you know… you love me. The story is all about how there are some really cool winemakers in California using some interesting Italian Varieties. Of course, the story got significantly chopped and there are SO many great winemakers I interviewed and whose wines I sampled that didn’t make it into the piece. For them, I’ll be writing an in-depth roundup of the best of these new and interesting wines – so watch out for that in the next few days. Cheers!

 

Ya know, Spanish wine is a weird thing. Spain, as a nation, has more acreage devoted to wine production than any other country at 2.9 million acres. For some perspective, California only has a little more than 500,000 acres devoted to wine production and France, the world’s largest producer, squeezes its vast quantity of wine out of just under 2 million acres. And yet, while Spain has more land devoted to winemaking than anyone else, it is only the 3rd largest producer after France and Italy (first and second respectively).

I would also argue that we Americans tend to know less about Spanish wine than we do about other wines from abroad. Or at least that’s how I feel. Want me to tell you what grapes are grown in the Loire Valley versus the Cotes du Rhone? No problem… the answer rolls off my tongue, greased with confidence. Want me to tell you the difference between the wines of Piedmont and those grown in Alto Adige? Psh, please – what do I look like to you? Some sort of amateur?

Alright, tough guy – what are the differences between the grapes used in Ribera del Duero and Rioja? Ermm…umm….uh…I…. what? You know what the scariest part of that question is? It’s a trick question – the grapes are the same. Both regions use Tempranillo! I hear ya, you’re like, wait – what? Isn’t that what makes European wine so confusing? Because every region of every country uses different weird grapes that I don’t know how to pronounce properly?

That’s kind of the beauty of Spanish wine– in many ways it’s actually significantly less complicated than French or Italian wine. For example, while Spain does have its fair share of weird indigenous grapes and there are certain regions that use specific grapes rarely used anywhere else (like Mencia, only used in Galicia), there’s also a lot of continuity across wine regions in Spain that can offer a brilliant lesson in the effects of climate, geology, and geography on winemaking.

When it comes to Spanish red wine, bets are that whatever you’re drinking is comprised of Tempranillo, Garnacha, or a blend of the two. That’s a pretty wild generalization, but it’s also a good place to start. I owe it to Spain to do a full examination of all her wondrous wine regions, and to do it in the same fashion and with the same attention I’ve given to her sisters, France and Italy. But I’m not going to do it today. Because today, what I really want to talk about is Ribera del Duero.

A closeup of the Castille y Leon Wine Region of Spain

A couple months ago, I was invited to a tasting of the wines of Ribera del Duero and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had no clue what these wines were all about, but being the giant nerd that I am, I did my homework and a little research. I learned that Ribera del Duero was a wine-producing region located in the Castilla y Leon region. I also realized that the closest thing I’d tasted to a wine from Ribera del Duero were the wines of Toro – pretty much Ribera’s next-door neighbor. I also realized, quickly, that both Ribera del Duero and Toro produce wines from Tempranillo (though, in Toro they like to call it Tinta de Toro).

The famous castle of Castille y Leon

And then I was like, oh, hey! Tempranillo! I know that grape – that’s the stuff that’s in Rioja! Sweet, I got this. So Iwalked into the tasting expecting to experience the ball-busting powerhouse wines I associated with Toro and the flavors of chocolate, oak, and dark fruit that I associated with Rioja.

Boy, oh, boy was I wrong. Dead wrong. Like, leather pants in August wrong. I hardly even know where to start, so I guess I’ll start with the Vega Sicilia, one of the most highly-regarded and revered wineries in the world. It seemed a little unfair that my introduction to the wines of Ribera del Duero would be through the region’s and, indeed probably the country of Spain’s, most prized wine. I felt poised for disappointment because how on earth could this possibly be a fair entry to the wines of the region? It would have been like sipping a LaTour or Mouton Rothschild by way of introduction to Bordeaux. It’s just simply not done.

But I did it. And I was dumbfounded. As I sat and swirled my glass of this ridiculously expensive wine, expecting the heady masculine scent I associated with Rioja and Toro, I was absolutely disoriented by the scents of eucalyptus and roses that wafted up instead. What the hell was going on here? I sipped. The wine was smooth as velvet with soft firm tannins, an ethereal light body and an acidity that kept the whole thing aloft until it had slid, like silk, down my throat. That was the Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2006 –  the least prestigious of Vega Sicilia’s wines, being the one they produced every year. We still had the Vega Sicilia Unico Grand Reserva 2000 to go – a rare wine made only in the best vintages and in extremely limited amounts. This time the nose was all baked cherries with floral notes and some liquorice hovering around the edge along with a whiff of leather. This one had a little more weight to it, anchored by dusty tannins but still held aloft by an astringent herbal quality that kept it unbearably fresh. It wasn’t until you swallowed this velvety conconction that a faint streak of chocolate and earth rushed into your mouth. It was incredible. And so light.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2006 on the left, Vega Sicilia Unico Grand Reserva 2000 on the right

I floated out of the seminar and into the elevator to be whisked down into the main tasting room. Surely, I thought, this was all some sort of gross misunderstanding. I must have missed something – these wines were so elegant, so fresh, so pretty! They were nothing like the rich, kick-you-around wines I was expecting from Toro or the warm, comforting give-you-a-hug wines of Rioja…there was more to this than I thought. And so I marched on.

The wines of Ribera del Duero have another thing in common with the wines of Rioja (besides the use of Tempranillo) in that they employ the same classification system whereby they are categorized according to the amount of time they’ve spent in oak:

Cosecha or Joven: These wines usually do not see any oak.  “Joven Roble” and “Joven Barrica” are aged for only three to six months in oak and released soon after harvest. As a result, they are fruity, vibrant, and meant to be consumed young.

Crianza: Aged two  years with a minimum of one year in oak barrels. These wines usually have well-balanced tannins with a medium-to-full body.

 Reserva: Aged three years, with a minimum one one year in oak barrels. After at least one year in oak barrels, Reserva wines are bottle-aged in winery cellars, producing wines that are ready to drink once they are released – they are more intense, richer, and have a longer finish.

Gran Riserva: Gran Riservas are wines that are only produced in the very best vintages. They are aged fro a minimum of five years, with a minimum of two years in oak barrels, followed by additional bottle aging. These are complex, structured, balanced, and the biggest examples of Ribera wines.

The most amazing aspect of these wines though, especially for any drinker familiar with the wines of Rioja, is how absolutely and terrifically different they are. Even though these wines are made from the same grape in much the same manner, they couldn’t be more different.

vineyards in Ribera del Duero

The take away I had from this whole experience was that the wines of Ribera del Duero are incredibly fresh and elegant. Scattered among my tasting notes are phrases like “really light”, “lovely and floral”, “raspberries and violets”, “baked blueberries and cinnamon!” “so fresh”, and “herbal, stony, and juicy”.

One of the reasons that the wines of Ribera del Duero manifest the Tempranillo grape so differently is the region’s geography. Most of the vineyards of Ribera are planted between 2,500 and 2,800 feet above sea level with some vineyards planted even higher. The region’s elevation contributes to wildly fluxuating daytime/nighttime temperatures during the growing season that facilitate healthy ripening of the grapes by day and promote balanced acidity and aromatic complexity at night. The region is also fairly dry, contributing to consistent ripening and soil conditions that are near-perfect with limestone and chalk that help to give the wines structure. But mostly, it’s the region’s elevation that contributes to the unbelievably fresh character of these wines.

That said, while I can surely appreciate a wine that’s gonna kick me around a little bit (see: my love affair with Priorat) – I absolutely fell in love with the younger wines of Ribera del Duero because they were so pretty and bright and fresh. That’s not to say I didn’t like the Riservas and Grand Riservas I tasted – they are more complex, more elegant, and more serious grown-up wines. But, for me, the region’s real charms were on full display in the flirty and vivacious younger wines –the Jovens and the Crianzas. 

This time of year is especially perfect for these young wines of the Ribera del Duero. Here in New York, Spring has unfurled her flowers and tree branches and now turned a cold shoulder on the city – turning the sky gray and the air chilly again. And for this, the wines of Ribera del Duero – floral and pretty, but also substantial, are perfect. Take a look at some of my favorites below and, oh, did I mention that they’re also wildly affordable with a median price that lands somewhere between $10-$15/bottle? Yeah. You’re welcome.


D.O.5 Hispanobodegas, S.L.U 2010 Vina Gormaz: 
This joven is made from very old vines that lend a complexity and concentration to the wine that is pretty unreal. Fresh raspberries on the nose lead to a wine that has a tightly wound structure that carries the aromatics from the nose through to the palate.

Hacienda Ernestina Solano Roble 2010: This joven is light, fresh and has an absolutely gorgeous nose of flowers and fresh fruit.

Pagos de Valcerracin 2008: This Crianza was so different on the nose with notes of earth, tar and even a whiff  of petrol that made me think of Reisling. On the palate, however, the wine exploded into something floral with a sweet vanilla-laced flavor and sun-ripened blackberries.Blew me away!

Pasquera 2009 Tinto Pasquera: Baked strawberries on the nose and a scent of canned cranberry sauce. It’s juicy and really drinkable.

Bodegas y Vinedos Neo 2009 Sentido Cosecha: An unbelievable nose of baked blueberries and cinnamon leads to a wine that is light and spicy with amazing balance.

Bodegas Vizcarra 2008 Celia Crianza: More of that beautiful blueberries-and-violets scent on the nose that just makes your mouth water. It smells like berry pie and fresh flowers and on the palate is light and silky.

Carmelo Rodero 2005 Valtarrena: A single vineyard Reserva that was soft, spicy, sweet and incredibly fresh.

Adarezo 100% Unoaked Vina Villano: This wine was so refreshing it was like drinking juice – blueberries and raspberries jumped out of the glass, mingling with floral perfume. On the palate it had sparkling juicy acidity and tight tannins to hold it all up. Even, at the end, a faint trace of watermelon…just lovely.

Hijos de Antonio Barcelo 2007 Vina Mayor Crianza: Really light and floral with a lovely plummy character – absolutely delicious. Right next door to Vega Sicilia’s vineyards so the quality is pretty amazing.

 

 

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