Monthly Archives: December 2009

Chile Day 12: Almost 1 Year Later

Amazing how time flies but almost one year has past since my fabulous visit to Chile. I feel nostalgic for that beautiful country, its vistas, its people and of course, its wines. I get more letters from people about my trip to Chile than I would have ever imagined. A couple of friends are on their way now and I must say, I am happy for them but a wee bit envious as well…

That said, I remember my trip perfectly so here are some thoughts about Valparaiso and the day I spent in the Colchagua Valley visiting wineries. Apparently Valparaiso is the place to be on New Year’s Eve. I was there after New Year’s and it was somewhat subdued up in the older part of the city where I was staying. I found it beautiful in an aging lady sort of way. I loved the multicolored houses, the ascensores from the last century and the sea gulls overhead. I found the port area of the city to be quite seedy and frankly a little scary. I would advise staying in the upper neighborhood in an old guest house which can be quite romantic.

This was the nicest hotel I saw up in my favorite part of the city. I stayed in a guest houses with a tin colored facade, all very characteristic but somewhat declasse.

I wished I had more time in Valparaiso. Instead I was off to the wine country in the Colchagua Valley. I planned my trip on the phone through the tourist office and I took a very long train ride to get there and spent too much money on a van and driver. Next time, renting a car would be much smarter.

Colchagua is one of the newer regions in Chilean viticulture. It has a Mediterranean climate which is cooled by ocean breezes. There are some low hills in the valley. The region is particularly well suited to making red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Carmenere. The Valley used to be in habited by Mapuches, a bellicose tribe and was once the southern tip of the Inca empire. The Valley has always been an agricultural area.

The Ruta del Vino of the Colchagua Valley has a very helpful office in Santa Cruz. This was the first area to develop a wine route and is at the forefront of wine tourism in Chile. They organize tours, wine tastings and the like for groups or for individuals. I decided to go to three wineries: Mont Gras, Montes and Viu Manent. The first stop was Mont Gras. The winery was very welcoming and the staff seemed quite used to giving tours to foreigners. They have an experimental vineyard where they try to grow many grapes.

I tasted the Montgras Riserva 2008 Sauvignon Blanc which I quite liked. Citrus and lemon abounded and it was nicely integrated. The grapes for that wine come from the Casablanca Valley. It is the red varieties that do particularly well in this area of Chile. I also tasted the Carmenere Riserva from 2007 which I liked very much. It had a wonderful bouquet of dried fruit, berries and tobacco, according to my notes, and spent 10 months aging in American oak. I am quite partial to Carmenere and this was one that I truly enjoyed. I actually drank the 2008 Montgras Riserva earlier this week with friends from graduate school. It didn’t disappoint but was full bodied, plummy and rich with spice and nuts.

Carmenere, a French grape, has truly found its home in Chile just as Malbec has found its soul mate in the soils of Argentina. Between the two, I find Carmenere sexier and more sensual, a little pepper and spice but not so much that it leaves nothing to the imagination…I also tasted their 2007 Montgras Merlot Riserva. Not bad. It was very plummy and had a lot of vanilla notes on the nose and palate from the 10 months it spent aging in American oak.

Visiting wineries in Chile is so interesting when compared with visiting wineries in Europe. The enormous amount of land and the vineyards surrounding the winery is quite striking as are the Andes in the distance, a very special experience and one I would highly recommend to all. Frankly, I can’t wait until my next visit.

The soils at this vineyard were incredibly interesting. Crusty and volcanic in origin, the Colchagua Valley has a variety of soils including loam clay, loam silt and those of volcanic origin. The vineyards can be irrigated as you can see from this picture. Chile, like Argentina, uses the ice melt from the Andes to irrigate its vineyards. Chile is largely immune to the phylloxera louse but does have a problem with root knot nematodes, Eileen Le Monda reminded me. Nematodes can do just as much damage to grape vines if not more because they penetrate the grape vine as opposed to chewing on the surface of the bark.

From Montgras I went on to visit Montes. Montes is almost a mythical name in Chilean viticulture. Aurelio Montes, the President and Chief winemaker is a true cult figure and the winery, done according to principals of Feng Shui, is a destination for wine lovers.

Who knows what the true impact of the Gregorian chants that are piped into the barrique room in the Montes winery is on the wines? Does it improve the quality of the wine while it ages? It’s hard to tell and to prove but the chants certainly create a lovely and appealing experience for the visitor and those who work in the winery.

The staff at Montes is very enthusiastic and takes you on a long tour of the different parts of the winery. The vineyards in Colchagua, one of four Montes estates in Chile go on for as far as the eye can see.

It is somewhat hard not to be dazzled by these wineries and their extensive holdings not to mention the wines. Montes has more than 1000 hecares in Chile and makes 12 million bottles of wine a year. Montes was the first winery in Chile to plant grapes on hills.

Montes makes a number of wines under the Montes Alpha label. They also make Montes Folly and Montes Purple Angel. Montes is quite famous for its Syrah. The one I tried, a 2006 was a blend of 90% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a beautiful ruby red with spice, strong tannins and cedar notes. Everyone loved it.

I also tried a Montes Alpha 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon 90%, Merlot 10% blend. I actually preferred this to the Syrah but that is just a matter of taste. They were both extremely well made and well integrated wines. I tried a Montes Limited Selection 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon 70%, Carmenere 30% which was my favorite. The wine spends nine months aging in French and American oak. It was rich and full bodied with wonderful spice, vanilla, tobacco notes with dried fruit and nuts on the palate.

At a Wine of Chile tasting in New York earlier this year, I also tasted the Montes Limited Selection 2007 Cab/Carmenere blend. It was equally as good as the 2006 that I had tasted in Chile. The Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon from 2006 was bigger than its 2005 counterpart and even more full bodied.

After Montes, we headed towards Viu Manent which was a true scene. They have a beautiful restaurant apparently with great food. I ate in a local joint and had a strange specialty called Pastel de Choclo. Rather than taste any more wines, I wanted to take a nap. Of course, I persevered and went on to try some of the local wines at Viu Manent. Like Montes

Viu Manent was a very large winery as well with 270 hectares. They make two million bottles of wine a year. The winery itself it very large with big round epoxy resin tanks to hold the wines. The company began exporting after 2000. I tried a 2007 Merlot riserva which impressed me. It was a very big wine with 14.5% alcohol, ripe tannins and black and red fruit on the nose and palate. I thought it was one of the better Merlots I had tasted in Chile. I also tried the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Riserva. It had more oak, smoke notes and fine tannins. I thought it was more elegant than the Merlot and very well balanced.

We went around the winery on a horse and buggy through the extensive vineyards. This is definitely a winery where you should have lunch and spend some time. It was quite crowded on the day I arrived and when I left, I wished I had had more time there as well as one of their juicy steaks on the grill. I look forward to my next trip. Day 12 was my perfect vacation day, hours in wineries with a beautiful landscape everywhere you look.

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Great Metodo Classico Sparkling Wines From Arunda Near Bolzano, Italy

Italian sparkling wines can be confusing, especially now that everyone is getting into the act and making sparklers from a variety of grapes. Sparkling wines are usually made using either the traditional method where secondary re-fermentation takes place in the bottle or the charmat method where it takes place in the tank. The first method tends to make higher quality, more expensive wines that are drier. The second makes fruiier wines that often have a hint of sweetness.

One area where sparkling wines tend to be made using the classical method is Trentino-Alto Adige. Famous wineries such as Ferrari are household names from this area but there are also smaller producers who are making a name for themselves thanks to their delicious sparkling wines.

One producer that I really like is Arunda from the small mountain town of Meltina located between Merano and Bolzano. The winery is located at 1200 meters. They do not own their own grapes but buy from trusted local producers. The grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco. I have tried the Brut whcih is 50% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Bianco and 20% Pinot Nero. It was peachy and had aromas of apricot with fine bubblies. I also tried the Blanc de Blancs made with 100% Chardonnay. The wine ages in French barriques and had a gorgeous perlage with aromas of apple and pear. I also ttied the Extra Brut Cuvee Marianna which was 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Nero and aged in barriques. It had hints of mango, melon and passion fruit as well as yeast notes.

A friend of mine suggested that I try the wines from this winery when I was at Vinitaly last year. I am glad I did. During the holiday season, I like to try all sorts of bubbly. The real truth is that I like sparkling wines all year long.

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Maslow 6 & Jumpstart Celebrate The Holidays and Raise Awareness

Maslow 6 did it again. There seems to be no stopping Keri and Mollie this fall at their new store in Tribeca. This time, not only did I get to try even more wines that tickled my fancy but I also got to feel good buying wine and contributing (10%) of the purchase price to a cause I believe in, early childhood education for all. Maslow 6 and Jumpstart held an event on December 15 at the Maslow 6 store on West Broadway which showcased a number of different Argentinian, Chilean, French, Italian, and German wines while raising money for Jumpstart. The promotion continues throughout the month of December so get out there, buy some wine, say hello to Mollie and Keri and make some kids happy.

According to Maslow 6’s website, “Jumpstart works in preschool classrooms in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country including many here in New York City. By pairing adults in mentoring relationships with these children, the program builds language, literacy and social skills which are critical for success in ongoing school. Without Jumpstart’s intervention, at least 30% of economically disadvantaged children enter school behind their peers. Jumpstart’s mission is that every child enter school prepared for success.”

The President of Jumpstart in New York told a horrific story about how far behind kids can get in just a few years. If a middle class child has a vocabulary of 20,000 words by age 5, an underprivileged one has just 5000 words in their vocabulary at the same age. If a child starts out so far behind, it is no wonder they have trouble catching up. How can we as a nation not do more for our kids? I just don’t get it. In any event, thank you Keri and Mollie for introducing me to this organization and of course, for the holiday cheer and the opportunity to taste new wines.

Some great wines were offered last night including a sultry Chianti Classico from Felsina. This 1995 Felsina Chianti Classico Riserva “Rancia” was silky and smooth with just enough fruit and spice to keep me interested. I haven’t had such a delicious Chianti Classico in a very long time.

Another couple of wines which I really enjoyed were from Burgundy. A relatively simple Chardonnay from Alain Corcia. This white burgundy was yeasty and nutty while not being over the top and underscored how variable Chardonnay can be, big and flashy or subtle and sensuous. Lastly, a wine which fascinated me was the Arnaud Chopin Nuits St George “Murgers” 1er Cru 2006. This wine was truly unforgettable and left me reflecting on just how special wines from Burgundy can be. I lived in Dijon when I was 20 and that time in my life and the beginning of my earliest wine tasting years has left a lifelong impression on me, as you can tell. Pinot Noir from Burgundy is just in a category of its own. Chapeau! Once again, Alain Blanchon Selections has chosen a real winner.

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Aperitivo all’Italiano Makes it to New York City

The definition of what makes a good aperitif is often hard to define. In France, an aperitif is usually Pastis or a similar drink while in Italy; the word aperitivo means so much more, particularly in Northern Italy. An aperitif or l’aperitivo is a social moment of the day, as much as a chance to see friends and have a conversation as it is to grab a drink and maybe some snacks. L’aperitivo is very popular throughout Italy and has really been catching on abroad as well.

The concept of l’aperitivo is quite different from Happy Hour as Americans intend it. First of all, the drinks are not discounted. Sometimes, they are actually even more expensive to compensate for the food that is offered. Secondly, people drink a variety of drinks at the aperitif. Thirdly, in Milan, the Northern city and financial capital of Italy for example, l’aperitivo often substitutes dinner. I miss those many “ape” with friends, particularly during the holiday season.

In terms of the functions of an aperitivo it is supposed to open up your stomach and be the entrance to a meal. This is not always the case. Many aperitivos go on very late and actually take the place of dinner. An aperitivo is a great idea before going to the theater or a movie. This small meal can tied you over or satiate your needs, depending on your eating habits.

Bartenders put out wonderful spreads of small pizzas, focaccia, torte salate , some rice dishes, pasta dishes, cold cuts and vegetables. This is almost always supplemented by the requisite potato chips and olives. L’apertivo is a ritual of Northern Italian life and is slowly making its way to New York, I am happy to say.

In addition to a variety of foods, there are classic aperitivo drinks as well. The first question is whether or not you want to drink something made with alcohol. For those that don’t there is usually an option of something made with a variety of fruit juices. This is called an analcolico. The second question is whether you want wine, beer or hard liquor. The wines are usually sparkling either Prosecco or Spumante from Franciacorta or Trento. Many opt for a crodino or aperol.

The specialty drinks that are usually ordered are a Negroni, a Negroni Sbagliato, an Americano, a Mojito or a Caipirinha. A Negroni is made with Gin, Vermouth, Campari and orange peel while a Negroni Sbagliato substitutes the gin for sparkling wines. An Americano has vermouth, Campari, and soda while the Mojito and Caipirinha are based on Rum and Cachaca respectively. An aperitivo that has been garnering a lot of interest throughout Italy is the Spritz from the Veneto. This delicious drink is made with Prosecco, soda, and Campari or Aperol. I always choose a Spumante although once in a while a Negroni sbagliato is the drink of choice.

You can get an aperitivo in New York at a number of places. I was reminded of this the other day at Piola. Aroma on the Lower East Side and Emporio in Nolita and a host of other places around town offer l’aperitivo.

I find that an aperitivo is a good way to meet friends without having to get involved in a long dinner.
It can also be fun to invite people over for an aperitivo at home. Some of the classic Italian recipes for an aperitivo include focaccia and small pizzas. Essentially, anything can be served as an aperitivo.

Most aperitivi run from about 7 to 9 p.m in Italy but start earlier in New York City, around 5 p.m. Having an aperitivo has traditionally been a smart way to get people into a restaurant, especially in difficult times such as the current recession and aftermath. The aperitivo renaissance in New York, this most Italian of traditions, is certainly here to stay.

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Natural Wines At The Ten Bells, Northern Italian Wines At Bacaro

Yesterday I had the luck to taste a number of wines with my friend RB of Wine Messenger. He has quite the palate and is extremely knowledgeable. Additionally, I find him endlessly funny, a trait I truly appreciate. I have often tried to come up with a method to describe wines. One idea is always to think of wines as people. That only works for me on some occasions and with certain wines. RB’s latest comment was about the German grape Scheurebe. According to RB, a cross between a Riesling and a wild girl from the village. I just love that.

The wine, Scheurebe 07 Sekt from Dr. Becker of Germany which I liked less is a sparkling wine. It was very floral with a lot of grapefruit aromas. I am not a huge fan of this variety but it was interesting to taste. I did have a truly delicious white wine made from Arneis, Cortese and Favorita, called Arcese Bianco 08 made by Vittorio Bera & Figli. This is an enveloping rich wine with complex layers of aromas and flavors. It reminded me of a complex chenin blanc. It too was very floral with nice balanced acidity.

We tried a number of other glasses at The Ten Bells,, a wine bar on the Lower East Side. They have about seven sparkling wines open as well as six or seven whites and reds on the by the glass list. Eric Asimov wrote a great review of the bar in his weekly column a couple of weeks back. Last night, the bar was packed with santas as well as the usual crowd.

After trying all the wines by the glass that we were interested in, our group which had by now expanded, went to Bacaro on Division street. Bacaro rarely disappoints me. I love the decor, the food’s not bad and the wine list is great. I had an interesting Lagrein while my friends each had a Nebbiolo, one from Piedmont and one from Valtellina. The one from Valtellina, Sandro Fay, was rounder and fruitier than I would have expected but eminently drinkable. My favorite wine of the evening though, in addition, to the Arcese was Dindarello from Maculan. No one makes dessert wines the way they do.

The first Italian dessert wine I ever tasted was a Maculan, Torcolato. I’ve been hooked ever since. Tanto di cappello!

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Italian DOCGs – Too Many?

I saw the news the other day that Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella had become DOCGs. Like many wine geeks worldwide, I began to try to count all of the DOCGs and list them from memory. Thank goodness for people like Alfonso Cevola, the Italian Wine Guy out in Texas who put a full posting on his lovely blog.

When I saw that Verdicchio di Matelica and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi had made the list earlier this year, I began to think more precisely about what DOCG actually means. Yes, it is quality controlled of a higher standard but does it actually mean the wine is better? I’m not sure. I have begun to see these wines as purely a marketing ploy and the value of the DOCG label, like everything that moves from being a rare commodity to being more common place, somewhat diminished.

I am not casting aspersions on any wine in the list I just think that perhaps there wines aren’t any better qualitatively but are just an expression of territory and tradition. I haven’t fully worked out what I think they should use instead of this labeling but I do think a fuller explanation and perhaps a new category should be created. Something whereby the quality is actually judged and defined in terms of its tasting profile as well not just restricted viticulture and vinification techniques.

Italian wines are quite complicated for even the most expert of wine enthusiasts and of course this system helps to guide people towards choosing one wine over another. That said, I am afraid that DOCG system has lost its shine. Perhaps it always was all about marketing and I just was in denial about it.

It’s the holiday season and it is nice to keep some illusions but in my humble opinion, the list is growing too long and has mutated into something totally different than the original intent of this system. I miss the days of 30 DOCGs when I began the Italian sommelier school in 2000. Every new DOCG was a huge event. No more….

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Italian Indigenous Varieties: Albarossa From Piedmont

Just when I thought I had finished all of the “A’s” in terms of Italian indigenous grape varieties for the dictionary I am doing on Alta Cucina’s website, I come upon a new one that I have never heard of, Albarossa. The grape was created in 1938 by Giovanni Dalmasso, a leading Italian enologist who died in the early 1960s.

The grape is a cross of two grape varieties from Piedmont: Nebbiolo and Barbera. Only a few producers grow the stuff, among them Michele Chiarlo, Prunotto and Fontanafredda.

I tried the Albarossa called Montald from Michele Chiarlo made from grapes grow in the Monferrato area where the soil is made up of small fossils and shells together with sand. The grape is designated a Monferrato Rosso DOC.

In terms of vinification, the grapes spend 12 days macerating on their skins in steel tanks. The wine then spends a minimum of 12 months in wooden barrels made from French oak from Allier, followed by six months in the bottle before it is sold on the market.

In terms of its tasting profile, I found the Albarossa to be somewhat acidic and fruity at the same time. I got more of the Barbera notes than the Nebbiolo ones on first flush but later found some of Nebbiolo’s floral notes such as violet and rose on the nose and palate. The wine was also more tannic than a Barbera and this is likely due to the Nebbiolo influence.

This wine would work well with light dishes of meat or pasta or even cheeses. I haven’t seen any of this on wine lists in the United States but I think it would work very well with the American palate that enjoys fruity wines.

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