Thursday, March 31, 2005

31 March 2005 - Lombardia, Oltrepo Pavese, Bonarda...

This was going to be a blog about Bonarda and all the confusions surrounding that one name. That blog disappeared into webspace somewhere, and the wine that sparked the subject turned out to be made mostly from Pinot Noir...forget it. I'll start over, and hopefully this entry won't vanish!

Lombardia, whose political and financial capital is Milan, is Italy’s largest, wealthiest region. However, as a wine producer it ranks only 11th in Italy, and up until about twenty years ago, its vinous reputation was pretty lousy. It is only recently that Lombardia’s wealth has been unleashed on local wine production. One of the results is Franciacorta, Italy’s answer to Champagne. And even more recently, the investments are paying off in the Oltrepo Pavese.

Oltrepo Pavese (“the other side of the Po River from Pavia”) is a little triangle of land tucked between Piemonte and Veneto. It produces more DOC wine than Soave, and that’s saying something. Almost all of it is sweet, fizzy light red wine sold mostly in supermarkets in Milan. But a few visionaries have taken beautiful hillside vineyards and transformed them into top flight wine estates.

The indigenous grapes of Oltrepo Pavese include Barbera, Uva Rara (“the rare grape”), Vespolina and a grape they call Bonarda, but which is actually Croatina. Before phylloxera wiped out Italy’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Bonarda Piemontese accounted for 30% of Piemonte’s vineyards, but only tiny parcels still exist. A grape called Bonarda is also one of Argentina’s two most widely planted grape varieties (the other is Malbec), but it is also not likely to be the Bonarda Piemontese. Argentina’s Bonarda might also be Croatina, but a lot of ampelographers think it might be Charbono. As in California Charbono, which is likely also know as Corbeau, or Charbonneau, an extinct French grape which is identical to a Savoie grape called Douce Noire, which Galet insisted was the Italian Dolcetto. Based on Argentine “Bonarda” that I’ve tasted to date, and comparing that to Oltrepo Pavese “Bonarda” (Croatina) I’ve tasted doesn’t do much to clear up the confusion for me. I would be more upset if the wines weren’t usually so much fun to drink. Whatever the grape actually is, the wines are worth getting to know.

The wine that sparked this confusion is Riccardo Albani’s “Costa del Morone” ’01, Oltrepo Pavese. When I first tasted it, I was told the wine was a blend of Bonarda (Croatina) and Pinot Noir. However, a little web research in preparation for making this a “wine of the week” uncovered more confusion. Albani’s ’99 Costa del Morone was primarily Barbera, with some Croatina and Uva Rara. Reading through Albani’s website, I discovered that Costa del Morone was a blend that changed depending on what the vintage brought to the raw materials. The ’01, best as I can find out so far, is 75 % Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), the remainder Vespolina, Croatina and Uva Rara. Again, whatever it’s made from, it sure is delicious. After trying to make sense of this blog, I’m ready for a bottle. Now.

2 April 2005 - Hold the presses! Oh yeah, this stuff already went to press. Well, it's Saturday, and I received a call from Albani's importer this morning, who was falling all over himself with apologies -- the wine I mention above, Albani's Costa del Morone '01, is in fact mosty Barbera, with a little Croatina and Uva Rara. Zero Pinot Nero. I could make excuses, like Barbera and Pinot Noir are easy to confuse, but what the hell, the wine's still delicious, and confusion is a perpetual state. Drink on.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

29 March 2005 - Bonarda = Confusion

The confusion about Bonarda started a year ago and just when I thought I got it, I just got more confused. The story involves at least five different grape varieties -- all of which might be called Bonarda -- and at least four countries.

Where to start? At the beginning. Before phylloxera wiped out most of Europe's vineyards in the late 19th century, 30% of the vineyard land in Italy's Piedmont was planted to Bonarda Piemontese. Today it is virtually nonexistent. But what about all that Bonarda planted in Oltrepo Pavese, just across the southeastern border of Piemonte in Lombardia? Turns out that grape isn't Bonarda at all, but is actually a variety called Croatina.

And what about the Bonarda which is one of the two (Malbec being the other) most widely planted grapes in Argentina? Various experts, including Jancis Robinson, are sure it's not Bonarda. Some say it is in fact Croatina; according to Robinson however, most ampelographers think Argentina's Bonarda is the same grape as California's Charbono. Charbono is believed to be the French Savoie's Corbeau, aka Charbonneau, which is also known as Douce Noire. Douce Noir is, according to Galet (via Jancis Robinson again), identical to Dolcetto. Whoa, back to the Piemonte, by way of Argentina, the USA and France!

So, let's see, we've got:
Bonarda Piemontese -- virtually extinct, but still grown in the Piemonte.
Croatina -- thriving in Oltrepo Pavese, where it is called Bonarda, and perhaps, in Argentina.
Charbono -- aka Corbeau, Charbonneau, Douce Noire, tiny quantities in California, virtually extinct in France.
Dolcetto -- thriving in the Piemonte.
Bonarda -- What makes this exercise worth the effort is the wine. Whatever its actual identity, its true origin, I've tasted a few remarkable wines that claim Bonarda as the grape. Look for Martilde or Riccardo Albani from the Oltrepo Pavese, Tikal or Susanna Balbo in Argentina. These Argentine examples remind me more of Bonarda as Croatina than Bonarda as Charbono. Still confused? Have a glass of wine, relax, enjoy the ride wherever it may take you.

Monday, March 21, 2005

21 March 2005 - A Great Riesling

Today I tasted six wines from Weingut Robert Weil, Rheingau. Five from the 2003 vintage, and a barrel sample from 2004. The few '03 Rieslings I'd tasted before didn't prepare me for this -- I was expecting soft, juicy, sweet wines; delicious and easy and not worth spending lots of cash to obtain.

The most basic wine of the day, the Estate Riesling Qba Trocken '03, was dry, with mineral/white peach smells and flavors, and as good a QbA as you could imagine from any great estate in any great vintage. As good as the other four wines were, I want to get to the point:

Part of the estate's home vineyard, Kiedricher Grafenberg, is designated "Erstes Gewachs" (a "first growth"). "First growth" is a designation achieved through adherence to all kinds of criteria in the vineyard and the cellar, as well as tasting evaluation by peers. Their '03 Riesling "Erstes Gewachs" is picked at Auslese level of ripeness and vinified dry, leaving about 13% alcohol. It has a phenomenal concentration of mineral/fresh apricot/blossom smells and flavors balanced by great acidity. I've never tasted a dry wine that has such incredible intensity of flavor -- almost painful -- with such exquisite balance. I was, and remain, astounded. I didn't need to be convinced about the greatness of Riesling, but this wine has blown the lid off what I thought was possible to attain with the grape.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

16 March 2005 - Corks Again...

The talk about corks, and their replacements, is intensifying. I've stated the case for screw caps here before, but I've read more, and perhaps more important, I've started asking wine makers themselves. Big wineries can change bottling lines, and bottles, faster than their smaller counterparts because they can more easily absorb the tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars it requires. The little guys with little pocket books want to be sure that when they make such an expensive change it will be the right change for the long term. Since other types of closures are being tested now that it is generally accepted that natural cork is not the best bet, they want to be sure another type of closure doesn't pop up that blows screw caps off the table as the best alternative. Even the natural cork manufacturers are diversifying, opening screw cap divisions, alternative material divisions. Change is in the air, but the small wineries want to be sure they make a change that will last.

Through all the controversy, I still think about this: Cork taint is not a new phenomenon. While the actual scientific causes might be recently discovered, the cork itself has been recognized as a culprit for decades. Even now that new research has revealed that wood and paper products can also produce the dreaded TCA, that didn't let cork off the hook, it just added to the list of culprits. What were the cork manufacturers doing all that time? Were they always working on ways to make cork TCA-free? Or is their reaction to the problem too little, too late?

As I was discussing this issue with a young winemaker from Oregon this week, and he was criticizing screw caps and talking about other alternatives and clearly worrying about how to pay for potential bottling line changes, two of the first three bottles he opened were corked. I might have been glad that the problem was so vividly illustrated at so propitious a time, I couldn't help feeling sympathy for his situation. We did agree that regardless of what we end up closing our bottles of wine with ten years from now, it'll be better for this current storm of controversy.