Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter – Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

A chance to explore the “other half” of my favorite wine double-entendre? Sign me up!

What the heck am I talking about? I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Montepulciano…

Jennifer at Colangelo offered me the opportunity to wrap my taste buds around a bottle of Avignonesi 2011 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. I didn’t hesitate. Many bottles labeled “Montepulciano” get consumed around Vine HQ. It’s one of our favorite basic table wines. But that has little to do with the aforementioned selection from Avignonesi.

Montepulciano is one of those wines that gets tied up in the European naming conventions and can be somewhat confusing. To avoid getting addled – and to avoid ending up with a wine that isn’t what you intended, you need to distinguish between the Montepulciano grape and the Montepulciano region.

The Montepulciano grape is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy -- across the country from Tuscany, which is where you’ll find the Montepulciano region. Wines from Abruzzi are usually made from at least 85% of the Montepulciano varietal and are aged for a minimum of five months. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo" ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi"). These wines tend to be relatively inexpensive. I’ve seen bottles of Montepulciano for as little as $5 in my local stores. They’re straightforward, uncomplicated table wines.

The Montepulciano region is just to the northwest of Chianti in Tuscany. Most wines made in the Montepulciano, just like those made in Chianti, are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. The best wines from the Montepulciano region are designated "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” (“The Noble Wine of Montepulciano”). They are aged for a minimum of 24 months, 18 of which must be spent in oak, before being released. Like most Sangiovese-based wine, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is high in acidity, which allows it to go well alongside meats and big sauces. They’re known for having much more aging potential than many Tuscan wines. They’re also more expensive – you won’t run into many of these for less than $25, so they fall into the “nice dinner” wines category for me.

The Avignonesi is, itself, somewhat unusual for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Going against tradition, the winemaker, Virginie Saverys, made her wine out of 100% Sangiovese rather than doing a blend. Few other wines in Tuscany are single varietal – the best known of which is Brunello di Montalcino.

The aforementioned nice dinner was my intended use for the Avignonesi. I prepared chicken thighs braised in an herbed porcini mushroom and tomato sauce, served with a side of gnocchi. Before I plated it up, we tried the wine on its own. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t generally prefer Italian wine on its own. Something about the minerality just makes my palate crave it with food. This wine, however, had no issues with flying solo.

I found some strong and lush cherry and dark fruit flavors riding alongside some tannins that gave the flavor some great depth. I don’t run into many wines with that level of fruit intensity that don’t taste “thick.” The mouthfeel was ample, but not too full. Lovely aromas, and a silky, smoky lasting finish. It’s just a pretty wine.

It shined with the meal, as well. There was enough acidity to cut through what evolved into a very rich sauce, but enough strength of flavor not to be overwhelmed. I couldn’t have imagined a much better pairing than this one became. We sat out on the patio on a perfect temperature of a Sunday evening, laughing, eating slowly, and going through the bottle over the course of…well, I don’t know how long. When a wine lends itself to losing one’s sense of time, I have to recommend it.

If you’re into Brunello di Montalcino, you should check out the Avignonesi. I think you’ll find it compares favorably. Since, generally, you can’t find Brunello for less than $50 a pop, and the Avignonesi clocks in at around $30, I think you’ll be pleased.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Naked Vine Triple Play – Malbec! Malbec! Malbec!

If you want to peek all the way back to the Naked Vine’s germination, you’ll find a Malbec among the first set of wines I ever wrote about. Since then, Malbec has remained a go-to grape for many occasions, most of them involving grilled or roasted meat of some sort.

Over the years, I’ve tried to turn a lot of folks on to Malbec. It yields a big, flexible, food-friendly wine that’s consistently one of the best values out there. It’s a perfect wine to pair with almost anything in line to be dragged across fire. While I can’t take all the credit for the increased availability of this happy, dark grape, I’m glad to see dozens more Malbec varieties in the South American section of wine stores. (The fact that there *are* South American sections is a nice bonus, too…)

Here’s a quick refresher on Malbec. Malbec was initially most widely cultivated in France, where it was one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux. (The others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere.) Malbec yields inky, tannic wines on its own – so it was usually blended into the Cabernet and Merlot to add depth and structure. The amount of Malbec grown in France has steadily declined over the years, due to vine health issues and an improvement in winemaking  technology. (One province in France, Cahors, still makes the bulk of its wine primarily from Malbec – although the grape is known there as Côt.)  

In the mid-19th century, not long before the phylloxera outbreak that nearly wiped out all European wine, a French agronomist named Miguel Pouget brought Malbec cuttings from France to Argentina for propagation. In the Argentinean soil, something magical happened. The wine made from this Malbec took on an entirely different characteristic. The wine was still inky and dark, but it lacked much of the powerful (some would say overwhelming) tannins. Instead, it yielded a plummy, smoky wine with a much smoother texture.

The bulk of Argentinean Malbec is grown in the Mendoza province – with the most renowned wines grown in the high-altitude regions in the foothills of the Andes like the Uco Valley. Altitude agrees with the Malbec grape, and the higher-altitude vineyards are the most prized.

Tara at Balzac recently sent me three bottles from Bodegas Salentein, a modern Uco Valley winery. I’ve written a number of reviews of Malbec as pieces and parts of other columns, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do a true Malbec comparison. These three bottles from three different Salentein labels lent themselves to this little project:

Salentein 2012 Uco Valley Reserve Malbec ($20)
Killka 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($15)
Portillo 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($10)

The first thing I hope you notice is that the relative price of these wines. Malbec’s increase in popularity hasn’t popped the prices out of reasonable range. This is a good thing – especially with grilling season getting into high gear. You’ll never have to hunt too hard to find a reasonably priced Malbec.

We started with the Killka and the Portillo. I thought they’d make an interesting contrast – since they’re made, obviously, from the same grape, same vintage, and the same set of vineyards. The two also have the same alcohol content, acidity, and residual sugar content The real difference was in the winemaking process. The Portillo begins its process from grape to wine at low temperatures and is not fermented in wood. The Killka underwent a much more traditional process, and was aged with the addition of oak staves for eight months. Thus, the Portillo gets more of its tannin from the grape skins alone, while the Killka adds tannin and oak flavors from the wood.

The Portillo was a big, plummy, straightforward wine. The mouthfeel is full and round, yielding a very easy-to-drink quaff. Basically, it reminds me of a solid, table wine. Nothing too complex. The Killka, on the other hand, was softened by the touch of wood. It’s still a big wine, but it’s softer and smokier with some vanilla on the finish from the oak. I thought it was the more pleasant of the two wines to drink on its own. With some grilled pork chops and red potatoes, the Portillo was the better of the two – probably because the complexity wasn’t lost. We killed off the Portillo and saved the Killka to go alongside the Reserve.

The Salentein Reserve had a bit of a flavor of both winemaking techniques. It started off with the similar cold maceration process before full fermentation, and the wine was aged for a year in oak barrels. It also included grapes from an additional vineyard at even higher altitudes. The results were easy to see. The wine ends up big, but it’s a very well-integrated wine, especially for twenty bucks. The flavor balance was excellent. My note reads, “About as delicate a Malbec as I can remember.” There’s a floral/herbal characteristic to the nose which is quite pretty and a nice amount of smoke to go along with the firm tannic finish.

Side-by-side, the Reserve and the Killka taste somewhat similar, but I thought the Reserve was just “better.” Even when we forgot which wine was in which glass momentarily, it was clear which was the Reserve. With food – a grilled flank steak this time – there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two. Either worked just fine. The steak, with its richer flavor, was better than the pork with Malbec in general, as well.

In general, Malbec will serve any needs for reasonably big red wine. Once you find a flavor profile you like, ask your friendly neighborhood wine store person for recommendations of similar styled ones. You’ll be happily busy for awhile. Fire up the grill and get to it!