Friday, December 28, 2012

Select list of the best wines tasted in 2012

Well, it is that time of the year again.  Time to revisit the wines that rocked our world during the course of the past year.  These wines were, for the most part, consumed at our Orlando tasting events and were acclaimed wines of the flight, and in some cases, wine of the night, by our tasting panels.  There is no preferential ranking implied other than chronological. So here goes.

The first set of  memorable wines were encountered at our Luma Cellar tasting where two of the three bottles in our second Burgundy flight were drawn from the fabled 1947 vintage, considered by some to be the greatest Burgundy vintage ever.  The first bottle of the flight, the Remoissenet 1947 Chambertin Clos de Beze, drank like a 1990 in that it was amazingly rich and youthful.  Manifestation of the classic soy and Asian spice notes.  Really a step up over the 71’s.  The Drapier 1947 Romanee St.-Vivant was very aromatic.  A nose of cherry, cinnamon, clove, and Asian spice. Classic Romanee St.-Vivant, feminine and aromatic but not as powerful or rich as the Clos de Beze.  The final wine in this flight was the 1961 Hudeolet Bonnes Mares.  Dark color, very spicy and floral. Someone referred to it as almost-perfume-like.  A great flight of Burgundies.

The Night of Wines at Victoria and Albert's was plenty bountiful.  The 1937 Boisseaux-Estivant Bourgogne Réserve de la Chevre Noire was one of the biggest surprises of the night.  A bouquet of sour cherry, mushroom, and orange peel with sweet and smokey barbecue tones and an intensity which held for at least an hour. All you could ever expect from a Bourgogne! 

The 1959 Caves du Chateau F 'Troyes Clos Vougeot had a soaring nose of red fruit, asian spice, iron, soy, and beef broth. This wine had incredible length and richness on the palate and seemed to get better with time.  This was the group’s wine of the flight.

The Bordeaux flight and was led off by a 1966 La Mission Haut Brion. Wow! It has been a long time since we had a Bordeaux that beat the Burgundies and this was the Groups’ WOTN.  This wine presented a kaleidoscope of flavors beginning with sweet blackcherry, smoke, tar, cigar box, soy, spice, and mineral. The finish is near perfect as it has reached it's peak. Well-stored bottles will keep for several more years.

One of the great Dominus vintages -- and one of the true Napa greats -- the 1991 Dominus would have been identified as a great Bordeaux if it had been placed blind into this flight.  This wine is fully mature and showing amazing complexity with black currants, cedar, leather, tobacco, and earth.  Long finish. Very Pauillac-like. The 1991 never disappoints.

The 2000 Rayas CdP showed cherry, kirsch liqueur and rose petal on the nose. Rayas to me is the most Burgundian of the CDP's and this vintage shows it's elegance and purity of fruit. The group seemed to really love this wine. They have almost become impossible to find. Groups’ WOTF.

The next wine in the flight was the 2000 Usseglio Deux Freres CdP.  Next to the Rayas this has always been one of my favorite CdPs.  This wine kept getting better in the glass. Nose of garrigue, earth, kirsch, licorice, and flowers. Saucy texture with a beautiful finish.

The 1947 Pierre André Chambolle-Musigny was the leading wine at our Chatham’s wine dinner.  Wow! Massive red fruits, very sweet, ripe with great acidity. A touch of tomato and protein.  This wine showed much younger than its age.

The 1999 Chapoutier L'Ermite and 1990 Les Cailloux Cuvée Centenaire  were opened and tasted together.  The Chapoutier had a nose of blueberry, roasted nuts, pepper, and herbs.  Meaty with a shoe polish finish. These wines will age effortlessly for 50 + years.  I had high hopes for the Les Cailloux and it delivered. Very sweet and opulent Kirsch fruit.  Almost Burgundian but more rustic with soy, balsamic, iron, and beef blood in the mouth. I love CdP and this was a great one!

The Gruaud Larose 1982 showed sweet black fruits with spice and cigar box.  Great aromatics with some barnyard and earth. This wine was reminiscient of the smell and taste of the 1966 La Mission Haut-Brion but was fresher. I feel this is the best vintage of Larose since the '61.

At the Vintage Rioja Wine Tasting at the Bull and the Bear, the stunner was the 1925 Marques de Riscal which ended up as the wine of the flight and of the night.  This wine was opened just prior to pouring because we were afraid that it might be too delicate to survive extended exposure to the elements; but it got better with the passage of time and three hours later it was running at top speed.  Phenomenal.  

While all of the preceding wines were trully phenomenal, the wine of the year for me was the 1958 Biondi Santi Brunello Reserva consumed at dinner at Terra Mia. This was truly one of the best Brunello’s that I have ever consumed and it was in really good shape. It started off as almost Burgundian (Russell thought more like a Barolo) and was opulent and sexy. It had a nose of cherry, orange peel, and mushroom. On the palate very rich red fruits along with some basalmic and tobacco notes, perfect acidity, and balance. The wine presented as much younger than its years. 

Here is to more great bottles in 2013.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tour and tasting at Poderi Aldo Conterno: Decanter's Great Piedmont Reader Weekend

We had just spent 5 hours with one of the most enthralling wine producers -- Angelo Gaja -- in the world and were now on our way to a tour and tasting with Gianfranco Conterno of Poderi Aldo Conterno.  His was going to be a tough job.  We were sated -- both gastronomically and mentally -- and our best bet would probably have been a crowning siesta.  But no.  We had a schedule and we were going to stick to it.  Gianfranco would have the task of bringing us along and keeping us focused on the present.

Poderi Aldo Conterno was founded when Aldo Conterno parted ways with his brother Giacomo shortly after the former's return from a 5-year stint in the US.  His time overseas had expanded Aldo's mindset while his brother, who had never spent any extended time away from the Langhe, remained loyal to the traditions of the region. Under the direction of the father, the brothers split the equipment and inventory, with Giovanni retaining ownership of the historical family cantina while Aldo went off and created today's Poderi Aldo Conterno.  Aldo focused on making wines which, while not modern, were less tannic and backward than was traditional.  He came to be known fondly as "the King of Barolo." Aldo Conterno died on May 30, 2012, leaving the winery to his sons Franco, Stefano, and Giacomo.

Poderi Aldo Conterno is located in Bussia, a village in Monforte d'Alba.  It is surrounded by 25 ha of vineyards at 400 meters altitude and with a south southwest aspect.  The soil is comprised of alternating layers of compact gray sand and white and blueish calcareous marls.

Used with Decanter's permission

In addition to the vineyard surrounding the Cantina, the Conterno family own three cru vineyards in Bussia: Romirasco, Cicala, and Colonello.  Romirasco -- located at 410 meters altitude on Soprano Hill -- has a SSW exposure and a clayey calcareous soil which is rich in calcium carbonate and iron.  The Nebbiolo vines in this vineyard are 50- to 55-years old.  The Cicala vineyard is located on concave slopes with southeast exposures. The soil profile is similar to Romirasco's except that it is browner in color.  The vines here are 50-years old.  The vines at the Colonello Vineyard are 35- to 40-years old.  All of these vineyards are farmed organically.

Giacomo with Decanter's brain trust (used with Decanter's permission)

Aldo Conterno has a 7000 square meter cellar with room for 1 million bottles.  They produced 250,000 bottles during the 1970s but but has reduced that number to 80,000 bottles today.  According to Giacomo, small production levels is the price that they have paid for going organic.  Alcoholic fermentation (with indigenous yeasts) occurs in stainless steel tanks (with the exception of the Granbussia which is fermented in large Slavonian oak casks) while the resulting wines are aged in large Slavonian oak casks -- Barolos -- or French oak barriques -- all other wines.  The Conterno wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

At the conclusion of the cellar tour we settled in for a tasting of the Conterno offerings. First up was the 2009 Bussiador Chardonnay Langhe B. DOC.  According to Giacomo, they were the first to think that Chardonnay would have the chance to flourish in Barolo. In his view, Chardonnay grown here expresses the minerality of the area.  The Chardonnay grapes are grown on 35- to 40-year old vines resident on 2.56 ha of the Chastain vineyard and, while the winery has the capacity for 30,000 bottles, they only vinify 6000 bottles.  The wine is placed in stainless steel tanks until the initiation of alcoholic fermentation when they are transferred to 100% new oak barriques for its completion and for malolactic fermentation.

On the nose minerality, sweet white flower, apple pear, rusticity, vanilla, and a hint of pineapple.  On the palate, clean, grapefruit, minerality, long finish with some heat. According to Giacomo, this wine should live on for 9 or 10 years.

The second wine tasted was the 2009 Il Favot Langhe Nebbiolo DOC.  The grapes for this wine are sourced from 20-year-old vines from a number of vineyards in Bussia.  After hand harvesting, the crushed grapes are allowed to stay in contact with the skins in stainless steel tanks in order to increase the color and tannin levels in the finished wine. Vinification occurs in the stainless steel tanks where the wine will remain for 6 months post-vinification.  The wines are transferred to 100% new oak barriques at the end of that six month period and will mature therein for another 18 months after which they are bottled.

On the nose violets, deep plum, sweet vanilla, turpentine.  On the palate spicy, rustic, fresh, plum, slight green characteristic.  Balanced.  Giacomo saw this wine as being ready in 3 to 4 years but with the stuffing to last up to 10 years.

The 2008 Colonello Barolo DOCG was made from grapes grown in the highest position in the namesake vineyard.  Giacomo saw this as being a classic vintage with harvest ending in the first week of November.  The must stayed in contact with the skin for 30 days.  After vinification the wine was racked a number of times before being transferred to large Slavonian oak casks for 29 months of aging.

Violets, plum, tar, and a hint of phenolics on the nose confirmed on the palate along with a spiciness.

The 2008 Cicala Barolo DOCG is treated in the same manner as was the Colonello. Violets, plum and tar on the nose with spice, freshness, coating minerality, and a blackpepper finish.  5500 bottles of this wine were produced.

The grapes for the 2008 Romirasco Barolo DOCG is sourced from the 3.8 ha vineyard of the same name.  This wine is aged an additional 2 months in oak casks relative to the wines from the other cru vineyards.  Dark cherry, licorice, and tar on the nose with an elegant long spicy finish.

The Granbussia Riserva DOCG is the flagship wine of the estate.  The 4950-bottle production is made from grapes drawn from the Cicala (15%), Colonello (15%), and Romirasco (70%) vineyards.  These grapes are co-fermented in wood with 60 days of skin contact and spends another 32 months maturing prior to bottling.  The wine is stored for another 12 to 18 months after bottling.  This wine was first introduced in 2005 and that was the vintage that we tasted.

On the nose tar, roses, violets, plum and figs.  On the palate richness, tar, graphite, freshness and elegance.  Long finish with some heat.

At the outset I said that we had presented Giacomo with a tall order given what had preceded him.  He came through.  The winery has a story to tell, having, as it does, such a storied pedigree and such excellent wines.  Giacomo himself was earnest and passionate and served as an excellent counterpoint to the whirlwind that had gone before.  Wonderful capper to a wonderful day.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, December 7, 2012

Inclement weather and lengthy fermentation time risks in natural yeast fermentations

I have previously characterized the risks associated with natural-yeast fermentations thusly: (i) stuck fermentations; (ii) yeasts washed off grapes during inclement weather; (iii) spoilage yeast contamination; (iv) lengthy fermentation times; and (v) persistence of negative characteristics.  I have begun a process of exploring these perceived risks in greater detail beginning with a post on spoilage yeast contamination and continuing with a subsequent post on the risks of sluggish and stuck fermentations.  In this post I will examine the risks associated with (i) inclement weather and (ii) lengthy fermentation times.

Yeasts and Inclement Weather

Regardless of the source (bird droppings, stoamch of bees, etc.), Saccharomyces yeasts are present in very small quantities on the grapes exiting the vineyard at harvest; according to Bisson and Butzke (Diagnosis and Rectification of Stuck and Sluggish Fermentations, American Journal of Enology and Viticulture 51(2), 2000), as low as 100 viable cell/ml.  With this low initial level of Saccharomyces, it is understandable that there would be some concern that rain could separate the grape from its precious cargo and, conceptually, leave the must laying around in the tanks pining for  a long lost suitor. There are two issues with this scenario.

First, if the rain is heavy and persistent enough, the greater risk is for the development of rot and the mold and bacteria which accompany it.  These molds and bacteria can make their way into the must if care is not exercised and proliferate during the lag phase with an associated wine-spoilage risk.  Secondly, there is a much greater yeast population in the winery than there ever was on the grape at any time during its residence in the vineyard. According to Bisson (Introduction to Wine Production, Viticulture and Enology, Section 3, Lecture 11,, yeast cell population in the winery is 102 cells/ml early in the vintage and 106 cells/ml late in the harvest as cells build up on the winery equipment.  These cells can more than make up for any cells washed off the grapes during a rainstorm.

Lengthy Fermentation Times

Longer fermentation times can result from (Bisson): (i) long lag before the onset of fermentation; (ii) normal start but a slowdown during fermentation; (iii) sluggishness throughout the process; and (iv) arrested fermentation.  Natural fermentations do have longer lag times because of the growth requirements placed on the yeast populations.  For example, the maximal yeast density during fermentation is 108 cells/ml while most inoculations are 106 cells/ml.  It requires seven generations (and 24 to 35 hours) to bridge the gap (Bisson).  To this we must add 12 to 24 hours for the yeasts to adjust to the must environment.  In the case of a natural ferment, the growth requirements are more intense.  To get from 100 cells/ml to 106 cells/ml will require 13 generations and to this must be added the time to maximal yeast population.  Even if the must is colonized by winery-resident yeasts, the growth curve is still steep.

It is true that lengthier fermentation times are associated with natural yeast fermentations but the overall lengthening of the wine production process might be viewed by the natural-yeast practitioner as an essential characteristic and requirement in realizing a more complex end product.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dimensions and rationalization of Prosecco's market success

Prosecco has headlined a recent Italian usurpation of the traditional French role of sparkling wine market leader.  In seeking to understand the dynamics underlying the Prosecco surge, I begun with an exploration of the Prosecco production areas as well as its production method and styles.  In this post I close the loop by dimensionalizing and rationalizing Prosecco's success.

Prosecco's success has been broad-guaged: (i) production has grown from 5 million bottles in 1970 to 200 million bottles in 2011, a 3900% increase over the period (Ben Cooper, Prosecco leads the sparkling wine charge,, 9/13/12); (ii) Prosecco shipments from Italy to the US amounted to 750,000 cases in 2009, a 65.5% increase from 2007s 453,000 cases and a major contributor to the 73.5% growth in Italian sparkling wine exports to the US between 2005 and 2010 (Ben O'Donnell, The Italian (Sparkling) Renaissance,, April 4, 2011); (iii) Prosecco volume in the US now stands at 1 million cases and is growing at 35% annually (Shanken News Daily, Prosecco's Current Growth just Scratching the Surface,; and (iv) Prosecco is the number 1 DOC wine in Italy in terms of both volume and value (

There is some disagreement as to the mix of domestic consumption and foreign exports (Gambero Rosso pegs domestic consumption at 70% while Italian Wine Club ( pegs it at 40% and shows it as being 60% (Roger Morris, Prosecco's bubble not bursting ..., June 16, 2011)) but there is no disagreement as to the most significant foreign markets for Prosecco: US, Canada, Japan, Russia, Baltic States, Austria, Germany, and Great Britain.  Foreign markets penetration proceeded through Germany, then the UK, followed by expansion to North America, Japan, and South America (Gambero Rosso).

According to O'Donnell, one of the keys to Prosecco's success was the 2008 financial collapse.  He argues that the collapse forced belt-tightening among sparkling wine consumers and an associated search for cheaper alternatives to Champagne and US sparkling wine. With a price of $18 for a bottle of premium DOCG Prosecco, and $35 to $40 for a bottle of Champagne, Prosecco was positioned to take full advantage of the conditions; and it did.

Gambero Rosso characterizes the Prosecco profile as being "fresh and light" with a fruity, floral fragrance and a slim, graceful structure.  Cooper sees Prosecco as being less acidic, having softer bubbles, and having lower alcohol levels than Champagne.  O'Donnell sees Prosecco as being lighter and less yeasty than Champagne.  These characteristics that combine to form the profile of Prosecco makes the wine, according to O'Donnell, appealing to American palates.  For the Germans, it is the touch of sweetness in the Extra Dry version that is enthralling while the British are drawn to the character of the Brut version (Gambero Rosso).

Another key driver of Prosecco's growth is the overall growth in sparkling wine sales in the US, UK, and Australia, a result of the breaking of the linkage between sparkling wine and celebration (Cooper).  In these countries sparkling wine has become an everday drink and this plays right into the hand of Prosecco, the quintessential everyday drink: low in alcohol, light, and affordable.

Finally, Prosecco is a key ingredient (along with Aperol orange liquer and soda) in the Aperol Spritz, an aperitif that originated in Italy in the 19th century ( and is growing in popularity in the major Prosecco markets.  According to, this aperitif is a great way to start a meal because it is (i) low in alcohol and (ii) light and refreshing.

And there is no wane in sight.  First, the extra-territorial "imitators" have been cast into disarray by the shrewd strategic move of the Prosecco producers to take their future back into their own hands.  The Prosecco DOC was first awarded in 1969 and was restricted to wines produced in the Conegliano-Valdiobbadene region.  Growers felt that the brand was under attack by "imitators" using just the grape variety and moved to isolate those competitors by changing both the rules and the venue of the game.  Prosecco growers agitated for, and gained regulatory acceptance of: (i) extension of the Prosecco DOC to cover all of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and approximately two-thirds of Veneto; (ii) promotion of the original Prosecco DOC to DOCG status; (iii) changing the name of the source grape from Prosecco to Glera; and (iv) restricting the use of the name Prosecco only to Glera sparkling wines produced within the delimited zones.  The growers felt that these actions would serve to protect their territory, the brand, and the quality of Prosecco.  The regulations authorizing these actions came into law in 2009.

Second, the Managing Director of leading Prosecco player Mionetto USA sees the current sales levels as just scratching the surface (  The core consumers of the product are 40- to 50-year-old women and this segment has been lightly penetrated.  Younger drinkers are still experimental but they are trading up to Prosecco from "cheaper Cava."  Deeper penetration of these markets, plus pushing into other market cohorts and demographics, provide plenty of opportunities for this wine in the future.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Prosecco: Production method and styles

Prosecco has headlined an Italian usurpation of the traditional French role of sparkling wine market leader.  As a precursor to a discussion of this phenomenon, I follow up on a recent post on the Prosecco production areas with today's post on production method and styles.

To summarize our learnings to date, Glera wines produced in specified Veneto provinces and in Friuli-Venezia Giulia are classified as Prosecco DOC while Glera wines produced in the Conegliano-Valdiobbadene and Colli Asolani areas of Treviso are classified Prosecco DOCG.  Glera wines produced in other parts of Italy are classified IGT and are not allowed to use the name Prosecco. Within the Valdobbiadene area, the steep hills around the villages of San Pietro di Barbozza, Santo Stefano, and Saccol are considered the Grand Cru of the DOCG. Another cru-style called Rive has been added where 43 localities with steep hills in the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region are allowed to so designate their wines.  The requirements for a Rive are : (i) it must be so designated; (ii) production is limited to 14.3 tons/ha; (iii) the grapes must be harvested annually; and (iv) the vintage must be indicated on the label.

The Glera grapes are handpicked and transported to the winery for further processing. The grapes from the Cartizze area are the last to be harvested as, coming from the steepest hills, they are the most difficult to be accessed.

The grape stalks are removed and the grapes crushed after which the must is moved to a press for separation of the juice from the skin and seeds. The grapes are pressed gently in order to ensure that only the most desirable juice makes it into the wine. The remaining material is set aside to be used in the production of grappa.

Alcoholic fermentation is conducted in stainless steel tanks at 18-20 degrees C over a 15- to 20-day period.  At the conclusion of this fermentation, the base wines are assembled into batches and pumped into large, sealed tanks (autoclaves) for the second fermentation.  Sugar and yeast are added to the tanks and the consumption of the sugar by the yeast results in the Carbon Dioxide that gives the sparkling characteristic to the finished wine.  This method of sparkling wine production is called the Italian (because it was first demonstrated as industrially viable by an Italian, Martinotti) or Charmat (the name of the Frenchman who refined the process such that it became feasible for large-scale industrial production), or Martinotti-Charmat method.  It is felt that this method preserves the aroma of the grapes yielding fruity, floral wines.

The second fermentation can run between 20 days and 3 months after which the wine is bottled.  The wine rests in bottle for between 20 and 40 days before being shipped.

The DOCG wine styles are as follows:
  • Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore -- Sparkling
    • Brut -- 0-12 g/l of residual sugar
    • Extra-Dry -- 12-17 g/l residual sugar
    • Dry -- 17-32 g/l
  • Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore -- Frizzante
    • One version undergoes in-bottle fermentation
  • Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore -- Still
    • Least common version
    • From most densely planted vineyards
  • Superiore di Cartizze
    • Sparkling
      • Dry
      • Brut
  • Rive
    • Sparkling

The Prosecco DOC wines are produced in Still, Frizzante, and Sparkling styles.  The difference between the Frizzante and Sparkling styles is that the former is bottled under 2.5 bars of pressure while the latter is bottled under 3.

Top Prosecco producers include:
  • Adriano Adami
  • Bisol
  • Bortolin
  • Carpene Malvolti
  • Nino Franco
  • Ruggeri
  • Villa Sandi
  • Zardetto.

The Prosecco rules provide a fairly tight correlation between yields and wine style as follows: Prosecco DOC wines are limited to 20 tons/ha max; Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco wines are limited to 13.5 tons/ha and minimum 9.5% abv on entry into winery;  Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Frizzante and Spumante are limited to 13 tons/ha and a minimum of 9.5% abv; and Superiore de Cartizze is limited to 12 tons/ha and abv of 9.5%.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme