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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?

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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.

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Biodynamic Old Carignan Vines at Chateau Maris

Natural, Organic, Biodynamic – oh my! Sometimes trying to navigate the shelves of a wine store sure can make you feel like Dorothy in the woods. And I’m not gonna lie – I’ve definitely met my share of curmudgeonly wine shop owners who could stand their own in a witch-off with that famous green-hued cackler.

Understanding the difference between these three environmentally friendly labels isn’t even really enough – there’s a huge debate among people in the wine industry about whether or not these labels make any sort of a difference to the wine itself.

But we’ll get to that. First, let’s tackle each of these terms to understand what, exactly, they mean:

            Organic: A wine that is labeled “organic” means it is produced only using chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other treatments that fall within the parameters of that country’s “organic” guidelines. Different countries have different standards and allow for different practices – but most require a wine producer to meet the standards set out by that government and to pay for a license that allows them to call their wine “organic.” Organic wines can be misleading when consumers assume that “organic” means “without chemicals.” In the USA, organic actually allows for a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders, however, products, if used, must be derived from natural sources and not synthetically manufactured. Organic also becomes a problem when winemakers are using environmentally sound practices that don’t fall within the government’s guidelines – in fact, often they are more “organic” but because they’re not following the rules, they don’t get the label. There are also many small producers that practice organic farming but don’t want to or can’t afford to pay for the license and have to forego it.

Biodynamic: Biodynamic wines are made using the principles of Biodynamic Agriculture, which emphasizes the relationships between all living things in a vineyard and visualizes it as a self-sustaining system. Biodynamic farming has much in common with organic farming in that it excludes the use of artificial and synthetic chemicals and follows guidelines set by a local certification agency. However, biodynamics takes its practices further, with its emphasis on sustainability, and also reliance upon various fermented herbal and mineral preparations, often buried in cow horns, the use of animals instead of machines for labor, and the use of an astronomical (and often lunar) sowing and planting calendar. Many detractors of Biodynamics have focused on the more wacky practices – such as burying cow horns, crystals, and planting based on a celestial calendar.

Natural: So here’s where things get tricky. There is no governing body or association that has set guidelines and presented a series of practices a winemaker must use for his wine to be labeled Natural.  If a wine calls itself natural, that could mean that the wine was made without any intervention – no yeast inoculations, no sulfites added, no fertlizers or chemicals in the vineyard that weren’t heaven sent – nada, zip, zilch. The problem with this approach, however well-intentioned, is that quite often, these wines are highly volatile. They end up refermenting in the bottle (because something wiggled in and started to grow) or they’re horribly oxidized (exposed to oxygen). One of the biggest selling points for many natural wines is that it’s made without sulfides – compounds that have become the scapegoat for every wine drinker who ever got a headache after a glass of wine. Yes, there are winemakers – usually large or industrial-scale – who pour sulfides into their wine like there’s no tomorrow. And that can be a problem. However, sulfides are naturally occurring in wine and have been used in wine production for centuries. So, really, sulfides are not the enemy. Many of the most successful natural winemakers are the ones who understand that wine needs guidance – it needs sulfides, it needs fermentation to be controlled, and the whole process needs to be very clean. Which brings us back to the question of what Natural means exactly? Let’s come back to that in a bit.

What the wine world has to say

            Over the past few weeks I have spent a fair amount of time talking to various peeps in the biz about the whole Natural Wine Movement and also tasting my way through a pretty sizeable sample of natural wines.

One of the people I spent some time with is Jenny Lefcourt, one half of Jenny & Francois Selections, a company that imports and distributes

Jenny Lefcourt, of Jenny & Francois Selections

natural wines. Lefcourt discovered natural wines while living in Paris, where she says she drank a lot of wine and found herself drawn to wines made from small producers using natural winemaking techniques.

“There was a freshness to these wines,” said Lefcourt. “They were alive and complex.”

After many visits to Paris wine bars and vineyards throughout France, all paths led to wine instead of academia and Lefcourt started Jenny & Francois Selections in 1999 with her partner, Francois Ecot.

For Lefcourt, natural wine is made with the least possible use of chemicals, additives and overly technological procedures.

“We present the wines of small vineyards […] winemakers who work like artisans, crafting a different wine each year,” said Lefcourt. “Natural wines are low-tech or no-tech meaning no laboratory yeasts, enzymes, sugar, artificial concentrators, acidification, or sulfites are added during fermentation, and the wines are aged and bottled without stabilizers, or excessive filtering or sulfites.”

One of the biggest challenges to Natural Wine is the perception among some in the industry that the whole movement is a gimmick solely intended to sell more wine. Lefcourt attributes the demonization of the Natural Wine Movement largely to industrial wine producers who don’t want consumers to know just how many chemicals are in their wine.

Jacque Herviou of Natural Selection Wines, whose company focuses on importing and distributing biodynamic wines, agreed with Lefcourt that much of the most vocal opposition to natural wines is coming from industrial producers.

“Natural wine is against industrial plonk that is sold to us as a natural product because they’re anything but,” said Herviou. “They’re made with crazy enzymes, genetically modified yeast and ]…] and also more importantly, pesticides, insectisides, herbicides. There are all sorts of chemicals around it that get into our food and wine.”

Herviou understand the industry’s reluctance to embrace the natural movement in the wake of what he calls the “greenwashing” of the industry.

“If you go to any website for large corporations you’ll see talk of sustainable, organic,” said Herviou. “But it’s a reaction against us and it takes us back to question of what is natural wine? It’s exhausting because it’s the wrong question, the wrong conversation.”

However, the backlash is not restricted to large industrial winemakers. Many smaller winemakers object to the movement, as well. For many of these winemakers it is the implication that their wine is “unnatural” when many of them follow sustainable and responsible practices yet don’t ascribe to the movement’s stringent yet vague guidelines.

“Natural wine is a loaded word in the world of wine,” said Will Ouweleen, the owner and winemaker at Eagle Crest Vineyards in the Finger Lakes. “For me, natural means the least manipulated possible […] its sort of a philosophy of wine as a natural thing so we try to guide the wine like judo masters.”

Ouweleen went on to say, however, that there are few, if any, organic grape growers in the Finger Lakes because the region’s climate puts the vineyards at high risk for mildews and fungi. That doesn’t mean, however, that the growers and winemakers in the area are not sensitive to the issue.

“Most people are like, ‘We live here! If anyone is going to get sprayed on its us!’ So it’s not about being high and mighty about organic but spraying costs money and I’d rather not have that stuff near my family,” explained Ouweleen.

There is also a sense among many winemakers that the movement seeks to bully consumers into buying their wine by playing into the recent rise of the ecological conscience in the marketplace.

“It’s this totally bogus movement today that is using the word ‘natural’ to connote some kind of ephemeral quality that doesn’t exist in the wines,” said winemaker Jeff Morgan, of Covenant Wines in Napa. “If you can grow grapes organic and make your wine really naturally that’s something to strive for but it’s certainly not a consumer’s concern and I think it’s a mistake to buy those wines because of those labels.”

Lefcourt insists, however, that it’s not a marketing ploy, but rather a genuine interest in discovering and sharing wines that she believes in. Lefcourt does acknowledge that there are certain factors in the marketplace that have helped increase awareness of natural wines.

“There are more women, and more younger people interested in wine,” said Lefcourt. “And these are consumers who are more aware of what they are putting in their bodies. Also, there’s an increasing awareness of wine as part of the meal – as going with food, and there’s a freshness to natural wines that lends them to that particularly well.”

Herviou also acknowledged the idea of “freshness” in natural wine, saying that there is a purity to the wines that can be tasted.

The work horses in the vineyards at Chateau Maris, biodynamic winery

As for Herviou, when it comes to natural wine, he has put his money where his mouth is. He is a partner in a Biodynamic winery in Minervois, France called Chateau Maris.  The winery itself is made entirely of organic hemp, a biodegradable material that provides enough insulation to the winery that it requires no heating or cooling.

“The hemp is mixed with lime and together they actually absorb and store carbon,” said Herviou. “So since we bought solar panels, the winery is not just carbon neutral, its carbon negative. Biodynamic is really about the farm as a self-sustaining entity and that is what we try to do.”

Chateau Maris also employs two large workhorses who work in the vineyards, and they use bottles that are made from recycled glass and weigh 1/3 of the weight of a standard wine bottle. The label, too, is made from recycled paper and printed with natural ink.

So, what’s the verdict? Personally, I think that many of the people working within the natural wine movement are doing something they truly believe in. I think Jenny Lefcourt and Jacque Herviou are two such people – they practice what they preach and they’re true believers in making wine that is not just environmentally friendly but also representative of a dying breed of artisanal winemakers who focus on simplicity and purity. I think that there’s good reason to be skeptical, especially with the increasing “green washing” of the industry, but I think that, in general, the natural wine movement is well-intentioned and based on principles that I, for one, can support.

Does that mean I’m only going to buy natural or biodynamic wines? Not in the least. Do I think these wines are better than other wines out there? Not always – they range from terrible to brilliant just like any other kind of wine. Typically, these wines do come from the kinds of winemakers and producers that I like to support anyways – those who have smaller production and approach winemaking as an art, not just a business. They are the winemakers who feel a sense of responsibility to the land, to the terroir, from which their wines are produced and are representative of. For me, the most beautiful wines are expressive of the place they are from – they are the distillation of a unique moment that makes them different from every other wine.

Interested in tasting some delicious Natural Wine? Good, because I’ve made you a nice little list:


Whites

Didier Montchovet Bourgogne Aligote 2009 ($8.00): A fairly obscure grape used almost exclusively in Burgundy and really the only white grape you might encounter besides Chardonnay in the region. You’d be hard pressed to ID this grape in a blind taste as something other than a classic Bugundian Chard with its smoky nutty nose, rich juicy flavors and light body.

Domaine Binner Saveurs 2010 ($10.00): Sweet ripe summer peaches and honey on the nose and a lovely slightly smoky quality on the palate.

Chateau Haut La Vigne Cotes de Duras 2010 ($12.99): Burnt rubber on the nose is complemented by notes of brown butter. That buttery nose follows through to the palate with toasty notes and a hint of lemony citrus and bright brisk acidity.

Claude Courtois Quartz 2008 ($16.99): This is a totally atypical Sauvignon Blanc. Bright and bubbly on the nose, with notes of citris leaping out of the glass, its an absolutely delightful little wine.

Didier Montchovet Hautes Cotes de Beaune 2012 ($17.00):  This wine smells like apple cider! It’s got the sparkling acidity to match, with a slightly dusty texture that is intriguing and delicious.

Domaine Oudin 2007 Les Serres Chablis ($22.00): At first sniff, this is a stinky wine. After a few swirs, the nose opens up into a rich, appley perfume that’s boosted by a savory yeasty quality. Super gulpable!

Clos des camuzeilles Muscad de Rivesaltes 2010 ($22.99): A beautiful wine with an aromatic nose of white peacehes and warm, tropical fruits.  

Domaine Audrey et Christian Binner 2004 Schlossberg Grand Cru ($23.00): On the nose, this Riesling has classic unctuous notes of petrol lingering with the scent of tangerine. It’s savory, bright, toasty and actually made me write “wow!” on my tasting notes.

2010 Plageoles Domaine des Tres Cantous Ondenc ($25.00): This is a wine made from a rather obscure old white variety that was, once upon a time, prominent as a white grape in Bordeaux. The nose is pure honey followed by a rush of ripe pear on the palate that yields a surprisingly dry white wine.

Hardesty 2010 Reisling ($26.00): A really savory and enticing bready and yeasty nose followed by a rush of grapefruit notes and lively acidity.

Chateau Maris Grenache Gris 2010 “Brama” ($50): Apparently those natural wine makers have a thing for obscure   and practically extinct grapes – because Grenache Gris is another one! This wine had the most amazing nose of smoky roasted almonds and burnt popcorn, followed by a wine that is has big sweet juicy fruit, soft body, and racy acidity. A really interesting and rare wine that’s definitely worth the price tag.

Rosés & Sparklers

Deep Creek Cellars 2010 Glade Run Rosé ($14.00): The first note on this wine? “Delicious.” Juicy and bright with notes of ripe pear and melon, this surprising wine comes from Maryland of all places(!) and is utterly delightful.

De la Patience Costieres de Nimes 2011 Rosé ($16.00): An explosive floral nose and inviting notes of ripe fruit make this a wine that is entirely sippable.

Colombaia Vino Rosato Frizzante 2010 ($29.99): This lovely sparkler comes with a trendy crown top and smells like walking into a patisserie. The scent of ripe strawberries and freshly baked bread mingle on the nose with notes of cherry liquorice.

Jacques Lassaigne Le Cotet Champaign N.V. ($70.00): A delicious savory biscuity nose that yields a nice, bright, and juicy champagne. Simply gorgeous.

 Reds

Clos Seguir 2008 Cahors ($12.99): Ripe red fruit an savory notes of oak on the nose are followed by a plump, juicy, and delicious wine that is surprisingly more dry than fruity.

Deux Anes Premiers Pas 2009 Corbieres ($13.99): A great everyday wine that combines funky Carignan, fruity Syrah, and spicy Grenache.

Tire pe Diem 20111 Bordeaux ($13.99): The gorgeous floral nose on this wine just jumps out of the glass, mixed with the scent of ripe plums. It’s pleasantly dry and has savory notes of toasty popcorn on the palate.

Chateau Maris 2009 “La Touge” Syrah ($14.45: This biodynamic wine is made without any filtering or fining. Despite this, the nose is rather shy with a whiff of black raspberries. It’s clean, bright, fruity and has nice lively acidity and some tannin to hold the whole thing up and accents the slightly herbal notes in the wine, as well. 

2010 Sablonettes Les Copines Aussi Gamay ($18.99): The nose on this wine is a little bit funky and definitely has some barnyard notes. On the palate, this wine is light, juicy and very pleasant.

Tire pe 2009 Les Malbecs Bordeaux ($29.99): Smoke and savory notes dominate the nose, along with the tell tale odor of barnyard funk. It’s a soft, nice, and plush wine on the palate.

2009 Plageoles Prunelart ($31.99): A nose of baked plums, dried herbs, and a cool rush of juniper on the end. Bold tannins and a full body lends this wine to accompanying a big meal.

2010 Herve Souhaut Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet Sainte Epine ($40.99): A green spice on the nose that comes off more floral than leafy. On the palate, its light and lovely.

Catherine et Dominique Derain Gevrey-Champbertin En Vosne 2009 ($89.00): Earthy and smoky on the nose with a tinge of cherry liqourice.  Ripe red fruit bursts on the palate and paves the way for a velvety smooth wine.

 

 

 

 

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That’s right, I’ve done another lovely little collaborative blog post with Mutineer Magazine!

Check it out right this way!

Image used couresy of Creative Commons Dave_B_

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Why not the obvious 10 Winter Wines? Because when its 18 degrees outside, sometimes you need a little something extra to get you out into the world (amIright?) and so, dear readers, I’ve given you just that. Below you’ll find a collection of some of my favorite recent wines – I’ve got plenty more coming your way but these should all keep you nice and warm for now. And just in case you’re bummed that I’ve squandered an opportunity to ramble mercilessly before, after, and during my wine discussions, fear not! For there is a lovely little chunk of Forget Burgundy goodness in each bite-sized…erm…review?  Cheers!

Reds

Bodegas Muga 2007 Reserva Unfiltered ($26.99)* : This beauty was a finish-in-one-night bottle. When I mentioned to a dear old friend that I had a bottle of Rioja that I’d been meaning to taste lying around she exclaimed that she’d been loving her some Rioja lately and that was that. Powerful but lively with red fruit, undertones of chocolate and a kiss of oak, this was the perfect wine for a long night of catching up, old laughs, and chilly weather. So what does it mean that its unfiltered, you ask? A lot of winemakers these days like to pour their finished product through a fine-pored filter to ensure a crystal-clear wine but some more traditionally minded devotees, insist that this can strip a wine of some of its finer aromas and flavors and, thus, decline to filter their wine. However, this doesn’t mean that this wine was cloudy by any means it was perfectly clear and just as delicious.

Trumpeter Rutini Wines Merlot 2010 ($12)* : This Merlot from Mendoza, Argentina’s Malbec territory was a really pleasant surprise. Sideways snobbery aside, I love a good Merlot. That’s right – I. love. Merlot. And this particular bottle was eager to please. This wine was juicy with flavors of black cherries and some brooding darker fruit that was set off with some nice subtle spice and rich full body all held up by firm but not overpowering tannin that made it a pleasure to drink all by its lonesome but also would have lent itself well to pairing with dinner.

Valle dell’Acate Frappato 2010 ($18) : Ah, Frappato – that strange little grape from Sicily. When a few friends and I went to one of my favorite wine bars, The Tangled Vine, on a recent Wednesday evening we were delighted to find out that on that particular day of the week they’ll serve any of the wines on their wine list by-the-glass if you commit to two glasses. In the face of such a glut of wonderful options, I gleefuly chose this little gem. When it arrived, the wine’s pretty scent was practically curling out of our wine glasses like the seductive pink hand-shaped puffs of perfume that, once upon a time, enticed cartoon characters to follow with love-struck infatuation. Strawberries, raspberries, and roses danced around the rim of the glass and delivered a light, floral and juicy wine with bright acid and a lovely finish.

2009 Chateau Coupe Roses “La Bastide” Minervois ($15) : Minervois is an AOC within the larger Languedoc-Roussilon region in the South of France (just west of Provence). For a long time, the Languedoc was the source of many of France’s ordinary table wines – and those from Minervois were particularly favored as great go-to’s for bistro fare. This particular wine, made from a mixture of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah is a wonderful example of an easy-to-drink wine that pairs well with all kinds of food. On the nose, this wine is a little bit barnyard – a little funky in the best sensebut with a crisp medium body that’s packed with plummy fruit and a dusty dark-chocolatey finish.

Dievole Dievolino Chianti DOCG 2008 ($14)* : I’ll be honest, most of the time I think about Chianti I think about it as a wine my dad loves to order. It’s not usually something that I pay a lot of attention – it’s a little been-there-done-that. This bottle, however, was a complete and pleasant surprise! Lively and bright with typical Sangiovese flavors of cherries and plums, this wine gets a little more serious the longer you sip it – unfurling flavors of tobacco and an earthy quality that make it stand out. It would be the perfect companion to a plate of pasta swimming in red sauce or something yummy and Parmigiano-ish.

San Pietro Lagrein 2009 ($15) : So there I was, hearing about this weird little grape called “Lagrein” for the first time and thinking that maybe I’d picked up on something new going on in the wide world of wine. Enter stage left: Google. Guess who wrote about Lagrein way back in March? You guessed it – good ole Eric Asimov at the New York Times. Drats! Any ways, Asimov might have written up this Northern Italian variety months ago, but it’s only just now popping up on wine lists all over NYC and making a more noticeable appearance on retail shelves. It’s not hard to see why either; Lagrein makes a plump, juicy red wine that’s high on acid, low on tannin, and fruity but not fruit-bomby. It’s the wine geek’s answer to Pinot-fatigue –  just as nice to sip on its own as it is to pair with lots of different kinds of food. 

Erste + Neue Lagrein 2010 ($18) : With my insatiable curiosity not yet quite sated, I was determined to get a fair swing at Lagrein. Purchased at Eataly’s wine shop – I brought this home to be my cooking companion while a friend casually whipped up some braised pork cheek caramelized ragu to be served over the funniest little curly pasta I’ve ever seen. Seeing as my friend was too busy cooking to actually pay me any mind while I clamored (danced, maybe?) for attention, I sure was glad I’d decided to purchase a bottle of wine for sipping-while-cooking. But enough about me. The wine? It was lovely – tingling acidity, warm ripe fruits, and a nice tight finish without a ton of tannin that made it effortlessly sippable. Dare I say gulpable?

Whites (and a Rosé )

Bodegas Muga 2010 Blanco ($15.99)* : Look, its hard enough to get me to drink white wine most of the time anyways. Add winter into the mix and you’ve got yourself a bonafide challenge. One this wine was happy to live up to. I schlepped this baby all the way from the UWS to a friend’s dinner party in Williamsburg – do you know how opposite those two places are? Like, the most opposite. Anyways. My friends were serving up a smorgasbord of leftover this-and-that and this wine managed to be a true crowd pleaser – the girl in the bumblebee outfit (she had just come from protesting Montsanto at OWS) loved it paired with dark chocolate just a much as I did alongside the pulled pork tacos. It had a gorgeous nose that leapt right out of the glass – orange blossom and melon – that was followed by a rich and full-bodied wine with flavors of peaches, a nice kiss of oak and a lively minerally finish.

Prieure de Montezargues Tavel AOC Rosé 2010 ($28)* : I’m kindof having a thing with rosé right now. It’s totally inexplicable given the frigid temperatures outside (seriously, right now I could chill wine leaving it by the window for a few minutes) but it’s just one of those things, I guess. This beautiful rosé from the Tavel AOC in the Rhone, across the river from famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape, tasted just as pretty as it looked. Delicate and subtle, with a nose of ripe grapefruit and pear, the crisp flavor of white raspberries was rounded out by a rich full body and long finish that expressed soft notes of ripe peaches. On a salad night, this is exactly what I want to add some indulgence.

Domaine du Tariquet Chenin-Chardonnay 2010 ($10)* : As I’ve made it no secret that Chardonnay is not my favorite grape, and that I love Chenin Blanc, I thought this wine might just be a great compromise. Calling this wine a compromise is to undermine just how delicious it is. At $10 a bottle, this is a wonderful wine – combining the rich sweetness and minerality of chenin blanc with the richness and big fruit of Chardonnay. The price means this wine might just enter into my rotation as a go-to everyday bottle when I’m in the mood for a white wine or have to entertain a crowd that clamors for Chardonnay.

Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2010 ($58)* : Yes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is known for its earthy, spicy, and rich red wines. But this wine is a great example of just how good the oft-overlooked whites from the area can be as well! This is a rich and full-bodied white that has an intense expressive nose of ripe peaches and a hint of bitter citrus peel. Smooth and delightfully round on the palate, with ripe fruit and a long finish, this wine nonetheless has a nice lively acidity to lift it up and a pretty floral quality to the very end. If ever you’re looking for a rich, full bodied white to keep you warm on a winter’s night, this is definitely a great choice.

*denotes that this wine was a press sample

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Photo Courtesty of Katie Sokoler, colormekatie.blogspot.com

Jonny Cigar, one part performer to two parts wine geek, is the self-appointed master sommelier behind the city’s coolest underground wine salon, The Noble Rot.

Cigar’s impact on the New York City wine scene has been palpable; he was recently proclaimed one of the city’s new wine prophets by Time Out New York. He says it is crucial to point out that he has no official wine education – but he has studied performance and theater.

“I went to school for performance. What the hell am I doing?” Cigar said of his initial thoughts on receiving the news that he’d been named a “wine prophet.”

Cigar’s flair for the dramatic extends from his name (he was born Jonathan Cristaldi), to his bespoke three-piece suits and penchant for bow ties. At Noble Rot events, Cigar is known for his habit of introducing the evening’s theme and wines through dramatic readings, soliloquys and even the stray Frank Sinatra impersonation.

Meeting over tea on a chilly fall afternoon in the West Village, Cigar was in one of his signature three-piece suits with matching tie and pocket square – folded just so. Cigar has an easy grin and a mixture of sophisticated confidence – emphasized, perhaps, by his sense of style – and an endearingly goofy sense of humor that makes it easy to believe he’s a theater kid at heart.

“I should be a drama dork somewhere researching history for some big Broadway production getting paid big money to do that and instead I’m drinking and drinking professionally!”

The Noble Rot has come a long way since its first event. A few years ago, armed with not much more than a budding interest in wine and a mailing list from his performance art residencies at various downtown theaters, Jonny Cigar set out to hold a tasting of the best wines available for $10 or under. He found a

Photo Courtesty of Katie Sokoler, colormekatie.blogspot.com

rooftop, got together some friends to play music and make food and voila! The Noble Rot was born.

Cigar’s budding interest in wine sprouted, Cigar said, when he started drinking wine with the man who would become his father-in-law.

“My wife’s father is a serious collector of Burgundy and Bordeaux and old Italian wines – Brunellos and Barolos. So he would open up all this crazy stuff, I mean he doesn’t like to drink anything that’s not at least 20 years old, and so I’m dinking these wines and I didn’t know anything about them but I know there’s something special.”

His future father-in-law gave him a copy of a book called The Billionaire’s Vinegar about a wine fraud scandal that tore through the fine-wine collecting circle of the 80s and 90s. Cigar devoured the book in a single plane ride and found himself fascinated by the whole world and especially by the stories of extravagant vertical and horizontal tastings of first growth Bordeaux.

“I just thought, ‘This is very cool!’ I was really involved in the supper club scene and I thought, ‘I’m gonna start a supper club about wine so I can learn while doing it with a group of fun interesting people,’” Cigar said. “And it was sort of enlightening – we had a bunch of food and had a blast and we sort of took off from there.”

Time Out New York’s proclamation came just days before Cigar returned to New York City from a five-month trip to Napa that he’d taken in the wake of a professional break with his previous Noble Rot business partner.

“We tried really hard to hash out a business plan and in doing so we realized we had a lot of differences so we split ways,” Cigar said. “It came at a good time.”

Cigar seized the opportunity to get out of town and regroup.

“So I thought I will go west and look for gold!” Cigar riffed before taking a serious note. “The whole idea was to get an education, to completely immerse myself, and to get in from the ground up.”

Preparing for his move to Napa, Cigar set out to find work in a tasting room or a cellar and convinced himself he’d be spending most of his time knocking on doors and looking for work. Cigar caught a lucky break, however, when a new Sonoma winery called Ram’s Gate hired him to help launch their brand.

The Napa Valley, for all of the wine-fueled romanticism that surrounds it, is still very much farmer’s country and Cigar soon found his sartorial inclinations out of step with the community.

“I was the only guy in the whole valley wearing three piece suits,” he said. “I’d walk into the bank and people would get nervous because they didn’t know what to think, it was like ‘Oh god, whats this guy?! Whats he doing?’”

However, Cigar had no intention of trading in his custom-tailored jackets for overalls and, eventually, his sleek suiting helped to land him another job.

Cigar, dressed down in jacket & jeans, in Napa

Near the end of his two-month gig with Ram’s Gate, Cigar was invited to an event at a little known but beloved boutique winery owned by the Swanson family (yes, the Swanson family of frozen TV Dinners fortune).  The Swanson Vineyards & Winery hosts three by-appointment-only tastings a day in their tasting room, which they call the Salon, styled after the swanky Parisian salons of the 18th century, with intellectual discourse over good food and wine.

Cigar met the Swanson family patriarch, Clarke Swanson, decked out in a double-breasted suit at one of these events, and they hit it off immediately. Soon after, Cigar began hosting appointments in the Salon at the winery. When he wasn’t reciting passages of The Great Gatsby or serenading wine tasters, Cigar was doing grueling but, he said, fulfilling cellar work for another winery, Alpha Omega.

Having returned to New York City with a whole new appreciation of the winemaking process, and enlightened by his experiences in Napa Valley, Cigar has big plans for The Noble Rot.

“I’ve realized that I like a smaller more intimate group. I want our events to become a place for people to really come and learn about wine, and not only learn but experience something new,” Cigar said. “And also to be a conduit for people [who are] looking for hard-to-find awesome boutique wines – I want to be the place for that.”

Cigar’s first Noble Rot event since he returned to New York, a 2011 Harvest Party to “celebrate this year’s harvest from set to crush,” was an opportunity for Cigar to share his favorite stories and insights from working in Napa.

He greeted all of his guests that night with a glass of Cava – saying that the Spanish sparkling wine was a tribute to the Mexican workers who did much of the harvest’s work. Coming from anyone except the endearingly sincere Cigar, this could have been a gaffe but bravely wearing two paisley patterns that somehow meshed, Cigar pulled the whole thing off with charm to spare.

Once the small group assembled, Cigar regaled the small crowd with his favorite harvest stories while pouring wines from the wineries he worked for in Napa (Swanson Family Vineyards & Alpha Omega). When it was time to eat, he’d brought in The Brothers Green, a fraternal duo who run the same supper club circuit as Cigar, for a feast of tacos – another homage to the migrant workers and the end-of-day meals he ate with them.

Cigar plans to keep hosting events for The Noble Rot but is thinking of retooling The Noble Rot so that it’s membership only. He went on to say that he wanted to work his way into making The Noble Rot into a tiered membership, like a wine club.

“But the greatest wine club on the face of the earth,” Cigar said with confidence and a not a hint of histrionics.

Jonny Cigar’s Wine Picks:

I had to ask, what is he drinking these days?

“I’m big into Syrah right now – I just feel like it’s starting to turn crisp and cold and I love a good robust Syrah from California,” said Cigar.

I also asked Cigar, in honor of his recent trip to Napa to give me his five favorite California wines of the moment. Here’s what he had to say:

 Robert Foley Vineyards: “A wine I could drink all the time anytime is The Griffin. It is such a heartwarming delicious wine that’s got these subtle chocolate notes that are just outrageous.”

Covenant Wines: “A really outrageously delicious wine. Jeff Morgan is the winemaker and not only does he make a kosher wine, but it’s the best kosher wine on planet earth (according to Robert Parker).”

Pinot Noir from Carneros: “I have become a huge fan. I recently discovered Saxon Brown and Flowers makes a good Pinot, too.”

Ram’s Gate: “They are producing elegant wines with superb structure, aromas and will age beautifully

Gemstone: “ I had the opportunity to taste this wine right before leaving and I would say that its one of my favorite wines now.  So good.”

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