Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The history of the concept of terroir: A timeline

I have recently completed a series on the history of the concept of terroir in France. I summarize that work in the below timeline.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cavallotto Barolo Winemaker Dinner at La Pizza Fresca Ristorante, New York City

As New York Magazine sees it, "Most pizza places don't have an award-winning list of Italian wines that top out at $2000. Similarly, most oenophilic haunts don't offer certified-authentic Neapolitan pizza. La Pizza Fresca Ristorante, no ordinary pizzeria, does both." And this was the venue for the Cavallotto Winemaker Dinner jointly hosted by La Pizza Fresca and Morrell Wine and Spirits on November 7th.

About 60 people attended the event. The winery was represented by Alfio Cavallotto, one of three 4th generation children working at the estate.

La Pizza Fresca has a relatively narrow frontage but compensates for that fact with significant depth. You enter the restaurant into an abbreviated foyer which immediately gives way to a bar and an initial seating area which you traverse to get to the main dining room. The kitchen lies in the deep recesses of the building, beyond the dining room.

The front area of the restaurant was noisy and busy on the night of the dinner. Pleasantly so. I sought out someone to find out where exactly we were to be seated for the dinner. The young lady asked my name and, after consulting a list, gave me a glass of white wine and led me back to my assigned seat.

The wine that I was given as an aperitif turned out to be the Cavallotto Langhe Chardonnay 2014, a wine made from grapes grown on the hillside between the estate's two crus. The wine was fermented for 45 days in stainless steel autoclaves and aged sur lie -- with daily batonnage -- for 9 months. The wine was aged for an additional 6 months in bottle before being released to the market.

This wine did not show the richness that I associate with sur-lie aging or the rusticity and body that I have observed in international white varieties planted in the region. This wine was austere; thin and acidic with a dose of minerality and a distinct lime character. This wine would probably have been more appealing if it had been accompanied by a food item.

After the attendees had introduced themselves, and indulged in some "Barolo banter," Bradley Bonnewell, Wine Director at La Pizza Fresca, went to the front of the room to kickoff the proceedings. He introduced himnself and the restaurant, lauding its age (it has been in business for 20 years), its pizza (it has been certified for authenticity by AVPN, a Naples-based certifying authority), its imported bufala mozzarella (used on the in-house pizza), and the wine list (1600 selections, 30,000 bottles spread over three sub-lists). At the end of his presentation he introduced the Cavallotto representative, Alfio, one of three 4th generation children working at the estate.

Bradley Bonnewell, Wine Director at
La Pizza Fresca

Eric Guido of Morrell listening intently to Brad

The farm was established in 1928 (according to Alfio) and, until 1946, the family functioned as grape growers. In 1946 the estate became the first of the Castiglione Falletto growers to bottle its grape production and, two years later, was the first to produce Barolo on its own account. I covered Alfio's discourse and more in my post on the estate's grape-growing environment. Dinner service began upon the conclusion of his presentation.

The first course was a Carpaccio di Manzo, the componnets of which were beef tenderloin, parmigiano reggiano, arugula, sicilian extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt. This dish was esthetically as well as palate-pleasing. Clean and tasty.

Carpaccio di Manzo

It was accompanied by the Barbera d'Alba Vigna Del Cuculo 2012 and the Barolo Bricco Boschis 2010. The grape sources for both of these wines have been described previously, as was the wine-making process. The Barbera exhibited some pungency and hints of rose, phenolics, and waxiness on the nose. On the palate, sharp, bright fruit, good acidity and weight, and drying tannins.

The 2010 Barolo Bricco Boschis displayed a nutty character along with charcoal, tar, roses, spice, savory herbs, red fruit and baking spices. Unfocused on the palate at this time. Savory fennel note. Unspectacular finish.

The second dish was a Ravioli di Vitello, made with hand-made pasta, veal, porcini, and mascarpone. By this time all pretensions at pairings had broken down. The wines were being brought out in pairs and the food was on one track and the wine on another.

Ravioli di Vitello
The second pair of wines brought to the table were the 2011 and 2012 Barolo Bricco Boschis. The 2011 had a phenolic character accompanying tamarind and spice. Tamarind on the palate. Silky tannins. The 2012 had tar and beautiful elegant roses on the nose. On the palate, more concentrated than the 2011. Full-engagement mouthfeel, big fruit core, and excellent finish.

The next two dishes were pizza: Pizza Savoia (pancetta, cremini, fontina, bufala mozzarella) and Pizza Margherita (San Marzano tomato, bufala mozzarella, and parmigiano reggiano).

Pizza Savoia

Pizza Margherita

The final dish was the Manzo Brasato al Barbera the components of which were barbera-marinated boneless beef short ribs and olive-oil crushed potatoes. This was, for me, the dish of the night. It had a great earthy flavor and was fall-off-the-bone tender.

The final three wines were the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Barolo Riserva Vignolo. The Nebbiolo fruit from this, the second of two crus owned by the estate, is only used to make a Riserva wine, attesting to the high regard in which this property is held. The 2008 and 2009 wines struck me as rather similar except for evolution. Bacon fat, tar, and roses on the nose. Great attack on the palate with a concentrated core of fruit. The 2010 had a phenolic character but that did not deter the aromas of tar and roses. This is a structured wine. A little green in the tannins. Great round mouthfeel and lengthy finish.

There was a clear distinction between the Riservas and the cru Barolos with the Riservas imparting a lot more pleasure at this time.

At the conclusion of the formal tasting, a small group of hard core Barolo fans refused to leave the building. We stood around talking and then decided to order something off the vaunted La Pizza Fresca list. The wine we opted for was the 1964 Barolo Giacomo Conterno. This wine was decanted. When poured into the glass, it displayed a delicate golden color, as of a faded tawny port. Heavenly on the nose. First scent as of an elegant rose. The tar was also delicate and faded into a hint of molasses. Burnt orange. Savoriness and spice on the nose as well as on the palate. A very textured wine with an exceedingly long finish. We meditated on this wine.

Clifton Hyde of Morrell, Alfio Cavallotto, and
the author
I had a very enjoyable evening and made some new Barolo friends. The organization of the tasting was not as tight as I would have liked. Alfio started out at the center of the room but then folks to the left could not hear him so he went to the front. So then we could not hear him. Some type of audio aid should have been provided, given the size of the crowd.

The decoupling of the wine from the food was also of some concern because things were being brought to the table in competition with each other. I have no problem with decoupling; that is the way that I do my tastings. But I do the tastings first (so that we can concentrate on the wines) and then the meal after (accompanied by wine but in a more relaxed fashion).

I would have liked Alfio to have spoken at least three specific times during the course of the evening: at the beginning; before or after the Bricco Boschis wines; and before or after the Vignolo wines. He spoke twice and, as I mentioned, I heard lees than half of what he said.

That being said, the wine, food, comapny, and locale all contributed to making this a wonderful evening.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Cantina Cavallotto Wine Tasting Dinner: The estate's grape-growing environment

Earlier this year I visited Mt Etna to participate in Contrada del Etna, the annual event which showcases the region's wines and producers. After a full-day of tasting local wines, we repaired to Cave Ox, the local watering hole, for dinner. I had a feel for a non-Etna Italian red and conveyed that sentiment to the owner. He brought me a Barolo by a producer named Cavallotto. I liked the idea of a Barolo but had not had a Cavallotto previously. He reassured me that it was a good producer so I jumped in. And was rewarded for my courage.

I had been pleased with my first encounter with the wine so when I received an invitation from Morrell to attend a Cavallotto Wine Dinner at La Pizza Fresca in New York, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the Cantina and its wines.

About 60 people attended the event. The winery was represented by Alfio Cavallotto, one of the three 4th generation children working at the estate. Before describing the tasting, I present some background on the estate's grape-growing environment.

Castiglione Falletto
The Cavallotto estate is located in Castiglione Falletto, one of the five core Barolo communes.

A key characteristic of the commune, according to Masnaghetti (Barolo MGA), is a long ridge which rises from the plains in the northern part of the township and continues southward forming eastern and western slopes." The dividing line for the slopes is illustrated by the generally north-south blue line on the map below. Exposure is homogenous across the eastern slope, improving gradually with elevation as it shifts from east to southeast to south (Masnaghetti).

The western slope has four distinct sectors, each associated with a ridge running in a northwesterly direction. The best exposures are those facing Barolo and La Morra, normally with a south or southwest orientation but sometimes veering west (Masnaghetti). The MGAs (crus) of Pugnane and Mariondino are normally placed in the fourth sector but, according to Masnaghetti, "differ in terms of their position and layout." He sees Pugnane as the terminus of the Munie cru of Monforte d'Alba while Mariondino hugs the ridgeline and has principally western exposures.

Source: Compiled from Masnaghetti's Barolo MGA
Castiglione Falletto vineyards rest on Langhian soils, the characteristics of which are detailed here. A total of 247.08 ha are planted to vine in the commune with the distribution across wines as follows: Barolo, 140.17 ha; Barbera, 31.23 ha; Dolcetto, 27.29 ha; Langhe Bianco, 24.26 ha; and Langhe Rosso, 24.13 ha.

The Crus
The Cavollotto holdings amount to 25 contiguous ha distributed across the Bricco Boschis and Vignolo crus.

Bricco Boschis lies between the ridges of Monprivato and Montanello and is 17.65 ha in size. Eighty-six percent of its surface is under vine, with the resident varieties being Nebbiolo (78%), Barbera (15%), Dolcetto (3%), and Langhe Rosso varieties (4%). Elevation in the cru ranges between 230 and 337 m. This cru is a Cavallotto monopole save for two small, non-contiguous plots farmed by Vietti and six contiguous plots farmed by Roccheviberti.

The cru falls within the Langhian soils subzone and has a mix of sea-floor, shallow-sea, and sandy-beach deposits. The center of the cru rests on the Langhian-Tortonian border and, as a result, the cru shows a mix of white, yellow, and grey marls interspersed with layers of sand. This mix of soils imparts characteristics of both soil zones to the wines of this cru.

A little more than half of the Vignolo MGA is farmed by Cavallotto with the remainder worked by Paolo Scavino and Privati. This tiny cru (compared to Bricco Boschis) is 3.57 ha in size, is 99% planted to vine, has southwest exposure at altitudes ranging between 220 and 270 m, and is primarily planted to Nebbiolo (78%) and Dolcetto (17%). The soil of this cru is Langhian and is comprised of calcareous clay marls intermixed with a small amount of evenly distributed beach sand deposits.

The map below shows the distribution of plantings by cru and vineyards. The table following shows some additional data for a subset of these vineyards.

Source: Compiled from

In addition to the above, Grignolino, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay are planted in the environment. The over-arching management philosophy is the application of an integrated farming methodology inclusive of some organic principles.

I will cover the actual tasting in a follow-up post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The concept of terroir in 18th-century France, Part II: The wind beneath its wings

The concept of terroir had begun its rise from the ashes during the first half of the18th-century and continued that ascent during the century's remaining years. In 1765, Louis de Jaucourt, writing in the 17th volume of Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie, elaborated on the specific flavor characteristics that a wine from a specific region needed to exhibit. According to Parker (Tasting French Terroir), "It was not merely a question of which area yielded the best wine, the most healthful, or the most pure but which produced individualized flavors that were true to their place of origin."

Louis de Jaucourt (

Another force for the good of terroir was the burgeoning Societies d'Agriculture, regional gentlemen's clubs that met monthly for agriculture-themed discussions. The popularity of these clubs in this period was in marked contrast to a condescending attitude towards anything associated with the earth that was characteristic of the late 17th century. It was also a testament to the success of Rousseau's efforts in the current century. This popularity, according to Parker, "... attests to the economic and social transformation of French identity: being close to the earth was in vogue, as long as one didn't get too close."

Mapping France by culinary production also served to frame identity and reinforce the regional nature of terroir. The pioneering effort was the work of Pierre Jean-Baptiste Le Grand d'Aussy, a famous culinary writer of his time. His Histoire de la vie privée des Français mapped France according to agricultural production, regions, and characteristics of its inhabitants (Parker).

This pioneering work was replicated and improved upon by a number of writers (see an example below) in the period just after the revolution. The country was in search of itself in that timeframe and culinary maps provided a mechanism for framing identity and expressing nationalism. Parker: "... the phenomenon managed to reinforce terroirs and individualize regions while at the the same time disassociating Paris from the rest of the country."

By Jean François Tourcaty - Cours Gastronomique ou Les Diners
de manant-Ville, ouvrage Anecdotique, Philosophique et Litteraire,
2nd ed., Paris, 1809.Cornell University: Persuasive Cartography:
The PJ Mode Collection, Public Domain,

By the end of the 18th century, the concept of terroir had become recognizably modern. Parker uses the work of one group of canonical agricultural writers to illustrate this point. These writers differentiate between  a natural goût de terroir -- a welcome flavor in wine -- and an artificial goût de terroir -- a defect. The authors perceive the former as "a normal element of the earth's contribution to the wine" and a positive aesthetic aspect. "The flavors that issue from the wine are both caused by the wine, and result from the minerals in the soil, appearing as delicate fragrances (violets, raspberries) and prestigious flavors (truffles)"

Artificial terroir, on the other hand, were unpleasant smells that could be produced in vines and wines as a result of (Parker):
  • Certain plants and trees growing in the vicinity of the vineyard
  • Use of the wrong type of fertilizer
  • Smoke from a lime kiln or charcoal stove.
At the end of the 18th century one could unabashedly say to the proponents of the concept of terroir: "You've come a long way baby."

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The concept of terroir in 18th-Century France: Part I, a Phoenix rising from the ashes

The concept of terroir stumbled into the 18th century battered and bruised and looking for someplace to hide; the 17th century had delivered some devastating body blows. According to Thomas Parker (Tasting French Terroir), at the beginning of the 18th century, "... the influence of terroir was considered mostly in relation to those lacking autonomy of intellect, possessing imperfect language, or having deportment sullied by the provinces ..." In this post I examine the fortunes of the concept during the pre-Revolutionary period, again drawing heavily on Parker's work.

Terroir began its long climb out of purgatory with the 1719 publication of Jean-Baptiste DuBos’ Réflexions critiques sur la péinture. In his writings, DuBos postulated a climate-based identity; that is, the characteristics of a people were determined by their resident climate. And that climate was itself acted upon and determined by the native soils. Further, if a person, or plant, were to be moved to a new environment, that entity would undergo transformations resulting from the influences of the new environment.

Jean-Baptiste DuBos
Public Domain,

DuBos used this reasoning to stoke nationalism in that, he said, French temperament and products were highly desirable and were a result of France’s temperate climate. According to Parker, in contrast to where things stood at the beginning of the century, “… in DuBos there is a general democratization and terroir appears without explicitly derisive connotations.” So, for the first time in a while, we see the word terroir used without the writer metaphorically holding his nose.

Baron Montesquieu, in his De l’esprit des loix (1748), built on DuBos’ work by specifying that the French national character was attributable to marl, the predominant soil in Champagne. This is a significant step, moving from a shaming of things associated with the earth to a soil type now being acclaimed as the key determinant of the national character.

Baron Montesquieu. Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia
The next major step in the rehabilitation of terroir was the effort of Menon, a famed cookbook author, to redefine the role and standing of a skilled chef. He proposed that, although terroir could have some deleterious effects on food, a skilled chef would be able to remove the "offending components." In his La Science du mâitre d'hotel cuisiniere (1749), he proposed methodologies to (i) search out terroir in foods and (ii) neutralize any pernicious effects it could have on the refined connoisseur (Parker).

Writing in the foreword of Menon's book, Lauréault de Foncemagne transfers the previously mentioned DuBos' theories directly into the world of food and cooking and proposes that exotic foods -- that is, food from unfamiliar territories -- can be consumed in order to compensate for climate-induced deficiencies.

For terroir and the cooking profession then, a symbiotic relationship had developed: "... as terroir's status slowly changed, it helped to expand and legitimize the profession of the 18th-century chef in new ways. Terroir created the need for a specialist who could transfer the dangerous and lowly terrestrial components, using art and science to marry flavors and create a safe, enjoyable culinary experience." So the chef was elevated because he could remove the deleterious elements from terroir and terroir was now not so dangerous because it could be controlled by that skilled chef in your employ.

The individuals mentioned in the foregoing contributed significantly to the 18th century revitalization of the concept of terroir but those efforts are surpassed by the work of Rousseau in the decades leading up to the revolution.

By Maurice Quentin de La Tour - Unknown,
Public Domain,

According to Parker, Rousseau:
  • Promoted the superiority of terroir to the reading public as well as well-known historical figures such as Robespierre and Marie-Antoinette
  • Kindled a spirit of rural renewal in his readers by glamorizing provincial living
  • Reinforced a positive role for terroir in culinary culture.
"... an unmistakeable transformation in culinary culture with respect to terroir took place in the eighteenth century and some of that change undoubtedly owes to Rousseau's influence (Parker)."

I will complete the 18th-century resurgence of the concept of terroir in my next post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme