Monthly Archives: March 2010

A New Leaf: Passover 2010

I am looking around for wines to drink this Passover at my family seder but my heart isn’t into it. I feel like this tree in the picture next to my parent’s house in New Jersey. The storm a few weeks ago ripped these trees out of the ground. It is really sad to see these majestic trees toppled over. Laying roots is very difficult and these trees spend years trying to do that. Then one huge storm comes in and takes it away. I guess it’s life’s amazing unpredictability that is getting to me this past week. Good and bad things happen in a flash. I’m hoping Passover will put me on a new path for the Spring, a great bottle of wine might help too. I’ve been drinking lots of that while consuming copious amounts of cacio e pepe.

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Dijon Week In New York In Early March

I sometimes write about France on this blog because as I have oft repeated, it was my first love. In fact, I was a French major in college and lived in a beautiful city called Dijon for about six months some time ago. Dijon has always remained in my heart as it was part of my early training in wine. A somewhat staid city at the time, there wasn’t all that much to keep me busy but I did drink a lot of wine for a 20 year old. Great wines in fact, the wines of Burgundy – the Cote de Beaune and the Cote de Nuits, Beaujolais, wines from the Macon, etc. I love these wines and have always been partial to French wines and to French Burgundy. I can hear you saying, who isn’t partial to Burgundy and you’d be right.

Dijon, as many people know, is the capital city of France’s Burgundy region and has a long and well respected tradition in art, culture and gastronomy. Historically the city was home to the Dukes of Burgundy (1363-1477) who were responsible for developing it into a world class city. While many Americans have traveled to France and to this beautiful city in the North East, not all have been so lucky. Those that passed through Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Station in early March did get a taste of what they are missing and undoubtedly will be considering it as an option for their next vacation. I know I am.

Dijon Must Art was a week long celebration of Dijon and involved a series of food and wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, as well as a free music concert in Grand Central Station, and a musical duel on Fifth Avenue for the opening of a nationwide tour of “The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy” currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until May 23. Dijon’s Mayor Francois Rebsamen was on hand for the opening and is actively promoting his city throughout the United States.

Burgundy in general is perhaps most well known for its fabulous red and white wines made largely from the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes and for its fabulous food. Other signature products that everyone thinks of when they hear the word Dijon, are mustard and Cassis, liqueur made from blackcurrant (think Kir, Kir Royale). All were offered to guests at public and private events.

This is a long introduction to some stories that I wrote recently for Gourmet Retailer on this lovely Dijon week organized by my friend and former WSET classmate Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco of Fraiche Pr. She did a fabulous job and I loved having the opportunity to relive some Dijon memories and create new ones.

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Warren Buffett’s Bershire Hathaway Enters Wine Business Through McLane Company – Winespiritsdaily.com

This just in from Winespiritsdaily.com. If you aren’t signed up, you need to change that. It has great information about the industry.

The site said that “Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway issued an official statement today confirming that its subsidiary McLane Company (a grocery distributor) has indeed entered into an agreement to acquire Kahn Ventures, parent company of Empire Distributors, Inc and Empire Distributors of North Carolina, Inc.
….The current executive team will stay intact and Empire will continue to operate out of its existing facilities and in the same markets. The only change to Empire’s business “will be new access to enhanced resources, operational best practices and intellectual capital that will provide significant upside and opportunity for increased levels of success for Empire, its suppliers and the brands it distributes,” according to a company statement.”

Winespiritdaily also reported that “Even more interesting, Berkshire Hathaway chief Warren Buffett opened the door for future acquisitions of distributors: “We are excited about the opportunity to have Empire become part of our portfolio of outstanding businesses. We expect that the Empire acquisition will provide us with a solid platform for potentially acquiring other similar high quality wholesale distributors.”

I think this is fascinating news. I wonder who else might eventually be a target. The speculation begins. What will it mean for the business? It will certainly be great for Empire but I do wonder if it is going to be even tougher for the little guy or the medium gal….

In a former life, I used to be a financial reporter so this stuff interests me for a whole host of reasons. I’ve always been a Buffett fan. Yes he is a successful investor but his values always seemed to be in the right place at the same time, no mean feat and what a rarity these days.

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Colle Massari & Grattamacco Vertical Tasting At Del Posto

There are some invitations you just can’t pass up. The one I received some weeks ago was one of them. Bedford International hosted a beautiful luncheon at Del Posto to do a vertical tasting of Grattamacco wines and wines from the Colle Massari property, both owned by Claudio Tipa. Tipa was born in Tunisia to Italian parents from Sicily. Along with many other European families, he moved back to Italy when Tunisia became independent. He has had a long love affair with the wine business, particularly with French wines and their Domaine styles. He is looking to create the Domaine concept on his estates in Tuscany.

Colle Massari was founded in 1999 and makes wines under the Montecucco D.O.C. in Upper Maremma in Tuscany. Tipa said that this was the ideal place to make Sangiovese-based wines, nestled between the fruitier and more acidic wines of Morellino di Scansano D.O.C. and the heavier, more serious wines from Brunello. “We want to make wines with depth but we don’t want to lose that lightheartedness or allegria that comes from a Morellino,” Tipa told me at lunch. The first vintage produced at Colle Massari was the 2000.

Colle Massari’s vineyards are located at the foot of Monte Amiata, at 320 meters above sea level. The winery has 300 hectares or abut 740 acres, 40 of them planted with vines. The wines are made under the supervision of enologist Maurizio Castelli, a very well known winemaker who also works with the Bastianich family wines, among others.

Castelli explained to our group how the grapes were all hand selected on sorting tables and how Colle Massari wines are certified organic, a rarity in Italy. The picture above is of the Castello Colle Massari built by the Patrizi family during the Renaissance. In the not too distant future, it will be a private home with guest rooms and a conference center.

Tipa has built a 65,000 square foot cellar where none of the grapes are pressed or pumped but only gravitational forces are used. Tipa also told me that those that pick the grapes at Colle Massari are very familiar with the property and have been doing the harvest for years allowing them to have real familiarity with Sangiovese.

In fact, Castelli noted that one problem some modern growers have is that they don’t treat Sangiovese the way they should. ‘Sangiovese needs shade and many of the new generation take the leaves off. Sangiovese is very sensitive to sun and wind. This is why you don’t always see great Sangiovese on the coast,” he said. “Sangiovese can age for 10 to 12 years at least.”

We tried a Vermentino from Colle Massari, Melacce 2008 which had great white fruit aromas and flavors and was quite refreshing despite its 13.5% alcohol. Castelli said this clone of Vermentino which is different than those found in Liguria, Sardinia, and Corsica, produces wines with more body than perhaps those that we had tried in the past.

I particularly liked the Rigoleto 2007 made with Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Cigliegiolo. This wine aged in barrique, tonneau and stainless steel, was fruity with spicy notes and a velvety mouthfeel. It had beautiful acidity as a Sangiovese should and was a pleasure to drink with the food served.

My favorite of the Colle Massari wines were the Lombrone 2004 and the Lombrone 2005. These wines were 100% Sangiovese. What a beautiful expression of this grape which I adore. I’d be hard pressed to choose between one and the other. I thought they had great acidity, black and red fruit, ripe tannins with spicy notes and a long finish.

Both are made from selected grapes. They undergo malolactic fermentation in 40 hectoliter vats and are then aged in them. Only 6000 bottles were made of the 2004. The wines spend 18 months in the bottle after aging in the vats. I was very impressed by these wines which accompanied the meat dish quite well. Sangiovese is always an incomparable food wine for me and this was truly a wonderful expression of what it can do in the Montecucco D.O.C.

I loved the Colle Massari wines but the hype about the tasting was that we would do a vertical tasting of wines from Grattamacco, a very famous estate in Maremma, the second one to begin production there, around the same time that Tenuta San Guido made the famed Super Tuscan, Sassicaia.. Super Tuscan is short hand for wines made outside of the traditional D.O.C./D.O.C.G. requirements. These Bordeaux style blends are usually made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot and sometimes Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc, or any combination thereof. The first Super Tuscan to be called that, Tignanello, was made in 1978 by Piero Antinori.

Much has been said about these wines which were heavily overvalued and sought after in the 1990s and then somewhat fell out of favor as a movement towards “indigenous” grape varieties began to take root. I have always tried to stay out of the debate about which wines are better: traditional Tuscan wines or Super Tuscans. I won’t say I love all my children equally, not owning any of these vineyards ahime’, but what I will say is that some of my most memorable experiences include wines such as Ornellaia, Masseto and Carmignano. Carmignano has been made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese for centuries. My point here is that a great wine is a great wine. I digress. Back to Grattamacco.

Grattamacco was created in the 1970s and Tipa bought it in 2002. It is part of the Bolgheri D.O.C. area about which so much has been said. The first wine from Grattamacco was a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese blend made in 1978. The winery is quite close to the sea, one kilometer, which has a mitigating impact on the heat in Maremma and brings fog to the vineyards. The winery has 30 hectares with 10 hectares planted with vines. The vines are about 15 years old on average.

Fermentation of the wines is done using ambient yeast and with long maceration time, 25 to 30 days in cone shaped 800 liter oak vats. At the end of the maceration, the wines are put into barriques. After 12 months, they are taken out and blended and then are put back in for a further 12 to 18 months followed by at least six more months in the bottle. The wines are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese, just as they have always been.

The winery is located at 100 meters above sea level. Castelli said it is a golden area, somewhat like California’s coast. Some of the vines are quite old while others are newer and have been replanted. This is why the average age is 15 and not 30 years. Castelli said they often do green harvesting on the vines and always use sorting tables. According to Castelli, the best expression of the Grattamacco wines is after about 10 years. “Pure Sangiovese on the coast is difficult but we know how to work with it,” Castelli said. Tipa told me that the same people who do the harvest at Colle Massari come to Grattamacco therefore their familiarity with the wine maker, the owner and most important with Sangiovese can be a real help.

We tried six vintages of Grattamacco Superiore, the 1999 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, and the 2006. The color of all of the wines was the most brillant, glowing ruby red that I have ever seen. That’s a result of the long maceration they undergo on the skins. I was partial to the 2006, 2005 and the 2004. 2003 was a hot year all over Europe. The 2001 was also interesting but oddly enough I preferred the younger wines and would love to see how they age.

The 1999 and 2001 were ready to drink and quite different than the other wines. They had a barnyard or Brett-like quality which I like but many people do not. Brett comes about for a whole series of reasons which I will discuss in another post. Mostly, it was clear that the wine had been made by a different hand. It was put into the tasting to show the potential these wines have. I would be very happy to drink the 2004, 2005 and 2006 in a few years time, if I could wait that long.

Castelli said that 2006 was a perfect weather year and he had high hopes for that vintage in some years to come. It already had great fruit and pencil shavings, spice and oak on the nose but was too young to drink. The 2005 was quite closed at first but then opened up to reveal complex tertiary notes . Castelli loved this vintage and I would like to taste it again in a few years time. The 2004 was magical I thought, elegant and complex with black fruit, smoke and spice.

Each vintage is made with the same three grapes, in the same percentages. It is 65% Cabernet, 20% Merlot and 15% Sangiovese. Tipa is partial to French wood on these wines. I also learned the name of a new Tuscan herb I had never heard of Elicriso. Apparently this herb grows all over the winery and is a distinctive note in the wine.

Before starting out on our vertical tasting, we also tried two wines that Grattamacco makes, Bolgheri Rosso and Alberello. Alberello is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. I have always thought Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc are great grapes to grow in Maremma. This wine was delicious and round, smoky and earthy at the same time with spicy notes from the Cabernet Franc, a very sexy grape in my opinion. The Bolgheri Rosso was a blend with both Cabernets, Merlot and Sangiovese. It was a great wine to have with any meal although of the two, I preferred the Alberello.

A lot of care went into making these wines and that showed through in all of the vintages and all of the wines. The Bolgheri area is renowned for its rich heavy, stone soils and Mediterranean weather. The wines that emerged from the tasting, while somewhat different because of vintage, all shared certain characteristics whether it be black fruits, bramble notes, spice or oak. It was exciting to think what the wines would taste like in a few years.

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Italian Indigenous Varieties: Barsaglina, Becuet Nero and Bellone

Who ever heard of Barsaglina or Becuet Nero? I certainly hadn’t until I started doing my Italian indigenous grape dictionary posts. Barsaglina sounds like a candy, the kind that you might find on the counter in a pretty tin, but instead it is a grape variety from Tuscany which hails from the town of Massa Carrara. This red variety makes a nice wine with a deep ruby color and significant body. It can be found both in Tuscany and in Liguria in the D.O.C. of Colli di Luni, famous for its’ Vermentino. Barsaglina is quite vigorous and hardy and is capable of resisting numerous diseases.

Becuet Nero, on the other hand, is from Piedmont and is rarely vinified on its own. It is used to add color, body and structure to other wines, specifically those made with the Avana’ grape. This red grape variety ripens and matures early. It is also quite vigorous. This is a mountain variety and can be found in the Val di Susa.

Bellone is a much better known grape than these last two varieties. It hails from Lazio and can be found in a couple of well known D.O.C. wines such as Velletri Bianco and Marco Carpineti’s Collesanti. To learn more about this grape, check out this article I just wrote for Alta Cucina’s website.

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Spain’s Various DO’s: Vinos de Madrid – A Real Surprise

I have spent considerable time tasting Spanish wines over the course of the past 18 months. Why you might ask? Many reasons including the immense variety of wines that are now available on the US market. I have also been studying Spanish for the past 18 months and that too has helped me to understand more about the regions, the country and the wines. In October 2008, I did the Spanish Wine Academy certificate class and then this past summer, thanks to the same organization, I did a fabulous tasting of a variety of Spanish wines at the Society of Wine Educators conference in Sacramento and that peaked my interest even further.

Lastly, a number of D.O.s have begun to promote their wines on the American market. Thanks to Melanie Young’s recent events, I have had a wonderful opportunity to try wines from many different areas, the most recent of which was the D.O. of Manchuela. I have never written about the earlier tastings of Vinos de Madrid in October 2009 and the Kingdom of Navarra tasting earlier this year.

I have decided to write about the three of them in order so I will start with the Vinos de Madrid tasting held at the Astor Center. Michael Apstein, a wine educator and writer for the Wine Review Online. did a fabulous job of illustrating the wines from this D.O. which lies near the city of Madrid, one of the world’s most exciting capitals and one of my favorite cities.

The D.O. Madrid is home to more than 45 producers and 8000 hectares of vines. Despite the fact that the area has been producing wines since the 13th century, it didn’t receive its D.O. designation (Denominacion de Origen until the 1990s. In the middle, many events occurred including the arrival of the Phylloxera louse, grubbing up of vines, and the Spanish Civil War, to name a few…

There are some 2500 growers in the area which can be divided into sub zones. The three sub zones are Arganda, the largest one which represents 50% of the vines registered in the D.O. and encompasses 30 municipalities where Tempranillo and Malvar, a white grape variety reign. Navalcarnero sub zone which can count on 19 municipalities and where the Garnacha grape dominates and the San Martin sub zone which includes nine municipalities. The main varieties in the latter sub zone are Albillo for whites and Garnacha for reds.

Vinos de Madrid exports a small percentage of their production but most is consumed locally. A variety of grapes are allowed in the D.O. including a few international ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah but the wines that interested me most were made with indigenous grapes.

Five producers showcased their wines, among them Bodegas Orusco from Valdilecha. We tried two of their wines and I particularly liked the Vina Main 2008 made from 100% Malvar. It was crisp and refreshing with citrus and floral notes as well as a creamy, nutty note thanks to lees stirring. It was also pretty long on the palate. The second wine we tried was a Main Crianza 2006 made with 100% Tempranillo, aged in American oak. It also was well balanced with some fruit and oak notes as well as a hint of liquorice from the American oak.

To qualify as a crianza, a wine must age for a minimum of at least six months in oak containers.

A second bodega showing its wines was Vinos Jeromin from Villarejo do Salvanes. We tried the Grego Garnacha Centenaria 2008 made from Garnacha. It was fruity and chewy at the same time with lots of alcohol. The second wine we tried was the Grego Crianza 2005 made from a blend of Tempranillo, Syrah and Garnacha/ This was a bif wine that needed food to go with it to be fair. It had a barnyard note that I like but some people do not. It was also earthy and had aromas and flavors of char and liquorice.

The third winery was Bodegas Nueva Valverde S.A., the Tejoneras 2006 was made from a blend of Tempranillo and many other red grapes. It spends 12 months in oak. This wine was quite old world in style and was very well balanced. Their second wine was the Nueva Valverde S.A. 2005 which had a lot of acidity. This one was a blend of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It wasn’t ready to drink at the time and it will be interesting to see how it settles down.

The last two wineries were Bodegas Senorio de Val Azul and Bodegas Licinia. The wines from Senorio de Val Azul were Fabio 2007 and Senorio de Val Azul 2007. The former was a blend that was a little short in my view and had a lot of Brett on the nose and palate. I think it was also too young to drink and probably needed more time to settle down as did the former which was a blend of international grapes and Tempranillo.

The Licinia 2007 was made with Garnacha and was quite reminiscent of the Gamay grape but was bigger with a lot of alcohol but earthy and spicy notes which I really liked. All in all, I think the Malvar at the start may have been my favorite but I think that’s also because it was quite new for me. As always, when I branch out into a new region, I find wines that are thrilling, some less so and some that make me want to hop on a plane tomorrow. Vamos???

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Women in Wine: May Matta Aliah- Armagnac Ambassador, French Wine Expert, Graphic Designer

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have begun to interview women who work in the wine business in the United States as well. One of the people who was nice enough to have a chat with me about her work in wine was May Matta Aliah, owner of Red Dot Solutions. I met May some years ago when she taught a class on Sherry at the International Wine Center (IWC) as part of the WSET Diploma program. I later discovered that May was not only a wine educator but also a fabulous graphic designer. This is a very long post without photos but I haven’t yet been either to Armagnac or Lebanon and have no nice photos to share. Must remedy that.

In fact, May has been my graphic designer for the past few years and I am very happy with the results at Vigneto Communications and another website I have which focuses on something completely different, Gold Communications. Working with May can be difficult because I like all of her designs and sometimes it was hard to choose which one I preferred.

In addition to being a friend, I wanted to interview May because of her work with Armagnac in the New York area as well as her take on the Lebanese wine scene. May was born and grew up in Beirut.

In addition to teaching at the IWC, May has also worked retail at Astor wines, an experience she says taught her an enormous amount about wine. She has also worked in house as an Art Designer at a major importer designing very well known brands, including the redesign of the Yellow Tail Reserve label and labels for George Duboeuf. She became Armagnac ambassador in 2009 and has been promoting Armagnac on and off premise every since.

Armagnac from France is little understood, May said, with many people thinking that is a type of Cognac. Instead, Armagnac is the oldest spirit in the world from Gascony and is over 700 years old, 150 years older than Cognac. May does staff training and consumer tastings and has found that if people try Armagnac they love it. “The secret is to get them to try it.”

There are three important regions where Armagnac is produced in South Western France, Bas Armagnac, Armagnac Tenareze and Haut Armagnac. Armagnac has a a wide range of styles. When selling a Armagnac compared with a Cognac, May pointed out that there is a big difference in price. She noted that Armagnac of about 12 years is at its peak.

Some 10 grapes are allowed in the production of Armagnac but most use Ugni Blanc and Baco 22A as well as Colombard and Folle Blanche. Distillation in Armagnac is done in a Column still

In terms of flavor profile, May said that Armagnac has more of a fruity and dried prune aromas with forest flower and coconut and spice notes while Cognac has more citrus notes. Another fact that she underlined was the sheer difference in production between the two brandies: 160 million bottles of Cognac are sold a year while only some six million bottles of Armagnac go to market. This means that there are many, many artisanal producers of Armagnac, about 500. There are also some 300 coops and 40 negotiants. The Cognac region is closer to the sea and therefore to shipping than Armagnac. Armagnac is 100 chilometers south of Bordeaux.

The three Armagnac regions produce different aromas and flavors in the product thanks to their soils. In a presentation earlier this year, May told us in a webinar that Armagnac from Bas Armagnac was the most elegant and approachable and the most significant in terms of production figures. The soils in that area are a mix of sand and clay. This produces wines with high acid and low sugar which is ideal for making Armagnac.

At the moment, May represents 10 brands in the United States.”I’ve found the industry to be very receptive to Armagnac. There is a real affinity between wine drinkers and potential Armagnac consumers,” May said. Armagnac is made from a base wine and is then distilled as are most brandies. “One thing that is hard is that there are not a lot of great books on Armagnac out there nor libraries of brandies to taste from,” she added.

May said that most people approach Armagnac thanks to a French friend. About 60% of all Armagnac produced remains in France while the remaining 40% is exported to 130 countries. Armagnac, May confirmed, is a hand sell, just like so many fine wines. May is confident that once people begin to really discover Armagnac, there will be strong growth. She also said that it is a great drink for mixologists to work with to create new cocktails.

In addition to Armagnac, May will also be teaching the French Wine Scholar program at Artisanal cheese starting in April. I have yet to take this class but am sure that I will do it soon. The program focuses on a number of the most important regions of France.

May and I also spoke about what she has seen in Lebanon in the past few years. “The wine industry has really been growing and it is very exciting. Chateau Musar is the most famous of the Lebanese wineries of course and put Lebanon on the wine map,” May said. “There is also a new generation of wine makers who studied and lived abroad and are now bringing that knowledge back home to Lebanon,” she added.

May mentioned a variety of wineries including Massaya, owned by two brothers one who had lived in France and the other in the United States. They reclaimed there land and began making wines.” Wine tourism is also alive and well in Lebanon, May said. Another winery she mentioned was Kefraya, still part of the old guard but they have a young and dynamic manager. Chateau Ksara is also a very well known and large winery in Lebanon. May said there is a lot of interest in boutique wines now in Lebanon including in both stores and restaurants. The newer wines are being made with international varieties mostly.

Another winery to watch, May said, is the Chateau Belle-vue.. They have a female winemaker who had previously worked in Burgundy.” Lebanon is an old world wine country but is embracing the new world ways of wine labeling according to varietal. “Even in my mother’s village of Richmaya, wines are being made.” May exclaimed, “it’s an exciting time.”

Lebanese wines are not that easy to find in New York stores or on wine lists but I did notice a few in a wine shop in Brooklyn. There are also a couple of interesting Lebanese restaurants to try, one is Naya where I tried my first Chateau Musar and had a wonderful meal. I also started getting information about Ilili on Fifth Avenue. They were showcasing a different Lebanese winery for one week in January and February. I imagine as they become more well known, we will see a proliferation of brands in stores and on wine lists. I hope the same will be true for Armagnac. I know May is doing her part to make that happy.

Oddly enough, my Mother has always favored Armagnac, so I grew up with a bottle often in the house. Perhaps it is this warm memory that makes Armagnac so dear to my heart.

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