Monday, October 27, 2014

A Side-by-Side of Super Tuscan and a Return of the Heavy Hitter

Fall! Air cooling a bit, leaves turning, and the menus around Vine HQ shifting from the scrumptious salads, soups, and lighter fare which the Sweet Partner in Crime regularly cobbles together during the warmer months. Autumn and winter cooking is my culinary wheelhouse. Casseroles, stews, rich pastas and other stick-to-your-ribs offerings give me flashbacks to my bachelor days when I’d whip up a big batch of something to nosh on for the entire week. (Of course, it was mid-July when I was making those dishes back then, but I digress...)

Fall also means bigger wines, so as I amble down the Italian aisle, my eyes start to drift over to the section often simply labeled “Other Italian Reds.” Wine stores use this section to stash Italian bottles that don’t fit the traditional Italian designations. They can be blends of grapes from across a region, or even across the country. Many will be labeled “vino da tavola.” This translates as “table wine,” as you might guess – and they’re usually light, inoffensive, and forgettable. In contrast, the bottles I go for are have “IGT” on the label. An IGT designation indicates that a wine is of high quality, but does not adhere to the winemaking guidelines of the region.

The most well-known IGT wines began appearing in the 1970’s in Tuscany. These wines became known as “Super Tuscans.” To illustrate, wines made in the Tuscan region of Chianti must be made from 75% or more Sangiovese juice to be labeled “Chianti.” IGT winemakers used grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to create bigger, fuller -- some traditionalists would argue “Americanized” – wines. Many of these Super Tuscan wines are made of a majority of grapes other than Sangiovese and command high prices. Prior to the creation of the IGT classification in 1992, any wine with less than 75% Sangiovese could only be labeled vino da tavola, regardless of quality or price range.

Super Tuscan reds were all the rage in the 90’s and 00’s, but I haven’t heard that term nearly as much in recent days. My guess is that the name “Super Tuscan” was seen as a bit faddish (much like “Meritage” was in California around that time), so wine companies eventually backed away from using that as a primary marketing term. I personally still use the name, since I like imagining Wile E. Coyote saying “Soooper Tuscan…” 

In any case, I received a pair of Super Tuscan wines recently from Colangelo (Thanks, Maggie!) with compositions that don’t resemble Chianti in the slightest. I thought the two demonstrated a very interesting contrast.

Luce Della Vite 2001 “Lucente” IGT – Lucente is the “second label” wine from Luce Della Vite. The “first label” wine, called “Luce,” is the first blend of Sangiovese and Merlot ever constructed in the commune of Montalcino. This wine, emerging from the partnership of well-known winemakers Robert Mondavi (now deceased) and Vittorio Frescobaldi, retails for close to $100. “Lucente” is the “little brother” wine, which goes for $20-25. For a little brother, Lucente shows some muscle. This blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Sangiovese comes on strong with big fruit, strong tannin, and high acid levels. That said, as powerful as it is, no sensation is really overwhelming. If you’ve got big foods, it’s got something for every occasion. You need some tannin for your eggplant parmesan? Done. Need some acid to go with that big tomato sauce? Check. Something dark and fruity for evening consumption? Gotcha. I had quite a bit of leftover tenderloin from the Barolo experiment, so we made steak sandwiches piled high with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, which made for an absolutely delicious pairing. I think the Lucente is an exceptional value for the price range.

Tenuta Frescobaldi Castiglioni 2011 Toscana IGT – The Tenuta stands in contrast to the Lucente. The Lucente, as big and round as it was, still tasted like an Italian wine to me. On the other hand, if I’d been blindfolded, I easily could have thought the Tenuta might have been a California red blend with its big, dark, Cabernet-ish fruit. This makeup is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc. Sangiovese comprises a mere 5% of this wine. Even after decanting, the fruit on this wine overwhelmed the acid and minerality found in many Tuscan wines. We had it both with minestrone and as a side-by-side with the Lucente and the aforementioned steak sandwiches and it was just OK. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a decent wine, but at $25 – if I wanted a fruity Italian wine, I could find a similar-in-quality Barbera for ten bucks less.

Along with the pair of Tuscan tasties, tucked away in the package was a bottle of Perticaia 2009 Sagrantino di Montefalco, which retails for around $50. I wrote about the Sagrantino varietal about a year ago. This powerful red wine, which I dubbed “The Italian Heavy Hitter,” has the highest concentration of polyphenols – the compounds that make red wine so good for you – of any grape in the world. It also stains teeth more than any other red wine I’ve come across. Of the bottles I tried back then, the Perticaia was my clear favorite of the three. The 2009 vintage is very much along the lines of the 2007 I reviewed previously. While big and tannic, it had enough balance to make it drinkable, and the finish of spices and berries was very pleasant. I’m happy to report that the 2009 is very similar to the 2007 – which means that it’s worth the price for a special occasion. We also discovered a fabulous food pairing for the Perticaia: the humble pot roast.

If you want a funky twist for your next fall or winter dinner party, dust off your best pot roast recipe. Get your mom to divulge her secret recipe, or get your grandfather to divulge that twist that he brought over from the Old Country. Maybe you love a recipe that you found in a $1.99 slow cooker cookbook when you were in college. Find a recipe you can embrace. Serve it over rice, over noodles, over artisanal gluten-free amaranth shavings – whatever floats your boat. Before you start the roast, decant this wine. It needs a lot of air. When your roast is ready, plate it up, pass the platter and this bottle around your table of thankful friends, and enjoy your comfort food-laden bliss. It’s eyes-roll-back-in-your-head good.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Damilano Lecinquevigne -- A Modern Take on Barolo

A bottle of Barolo – the Italian “Wine of Kings” – recently made its way to Vine HQ for a visit.

Barolo doesn’t make many appearances around these parts. This wine from the same-named area of the Piedmont region commands respect on any wine list and an emptying of most wine drinkers’ wallets. Almost all Barolo are high-priced wines. Decent Barolo usually start at around $50 and go up from there. It’s not uncommon to see good vintages hung with pricetags upwards of $150.

When this particular bottle showed up, thanks to the good folks at Colangelo, I did a double-reason double-take. What was so different about the Damilano 2010 Barolo “Lecinquevigne”? First off, the vintage. 2010? Most Barolo, or so I understood, require around 7 years in bottle for its powerful tannins to chill out enough for the wine to become drinkable. Second – the retail on this wine was $35. Thirty-five clams for an actual Barolo? Inconthievable!

OK, so what gives here? Why is Barolo so expensive, and how’d this wine end up being so much less so? And why can I supposedly pop and pour this bottle, when I’d expect to wait until 2017 under normal circumstances?

Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape, a small, thin-skinned grape that’s notoriously hard to grow. The juice from Nebbiolo is super-high in both tannin and acidity. In the traditional method of making Barolo, the fermenting juice soaks with the skins of the grapes – a process called maceration -- for almost a month in some cases, extracting the maximum amount of tannin from the skins. The resulting juice is then aged in large containers called botti for at least two years and sometimes much longer. Once bottled, the wine had to sit for a long time, as I’ve already mentioned. The resulting Barolo’s tannic, powerful flavors can be challenging for many wine drinkers.

[Side note: Interestingly, “traditional” Barolo-making technique has only been around since the 1920’s, when the French, of all folks, brought these techniques to the region. Prior to that time, the Nebbiolo-based wines in that area were sweet, light in color, and slightly fizzy.]

In the 1980’s, the region went through what some writers termed the “Barolo Wars.” A group of winemakers, again influenced by their Burgundian counterparts, decided to employ more modern harvesting and winemaking techniques. These techniques included green harvesting (removing unripe grapes from ripening clusters to improve the remaining grapes), temperature-controlled fermentation, and the use of commercial yeast for more control over the product.

Additionally, these modernist winemakers used smaller barrels called barriques. Barriques typically hold around 60 gallons of wine, compared to botti, which can hold up to 4,000 gallons. Smaller barrels and shorter maceration times combine to create wine that is more approachable flavor-wise and can be drunk after a shorter period of time. These “modern” Barolo tend not to have the extended aging capacity as their more “traditional” brethren.

Which brings us to the Damilano. Damilano Winery was founded in the 1890’s, yet clearly falls on the “modern” end of the spectrum winemaking-wise. They make four “cru” Barolo (interesting that they’d use the French term) which are in the $70-80 range. The wine I received, the “Lecinquevigne,” is a blend of grapes from vineyards across these “cru.” Hence, it has a lower price – as seen with most second label wines. The name “Lecinquevigne” translates as “Five Vineyards” and has given my spellcheck a somewhat permanent case of the yips.

I wasn’t hip to the history of the “wine wars” before starting this column, and the Barolo I’d tried previously had been, as far as I know, from the “traditional” end of the spectrum. I didn’t know the history when I took my notes, and I was somewhat reassured when I tasted this – because I thought there was something a little different about the Lecinquevigne.

The nose flew at me rich and fragrant. I initially got strawberries, cotton candy, and some woodiness. The traditional “tar and roses” aroma that Barolo is known for emerged a bit as the wine got more air. But the flavors were soft and subtly dark. There’s plenty of mouth-coating tannin in the medium body, with notes of licorice, cherry, and leather. The finish is super-long, lots of strong tea flavor that lasts a couple of minutes if you let it. That said, I wouldn’t call it overly complex, compared to many other Barolo.

This isn’t meant to be a slam; it is a really good wine. The intent of the modernist winemaker clearly shows through. Traditional Barolo’s power and harsh tannin is Exhibit A of the male end of the “masculine vs. feminine” wine divide. It is the “Wine of Kings,” after all. Modern Barolo has a much softer, “feminine” flair. I enjoyed the Lecinquevigne quite a bit, but it might not sit as well with traditional Barolo enthusiasts. I don’t know if it would pass the Uncle Alan test. We had this bottle over the course of two nights – once with a beef tenderloin braised in three wines, and again with a late-summer-veggie minestrone. Both worked very nicely with this more mellow version of Barolo.

At $35, I’d certainly recommend it. I think it’s a pretty darned good wine – especially if you’re still learning about Barolo and deciding whether it’s for you.