Saturday, August 19, 2017

Elio Grasso (Barolo, Piemonte): Serious wines from an esthetically pleasing estate

The Elio Grasso estate reeks of fine art. From the fine lines of the estate, surrounded, as it is, by the immaculately laid out and manicured vineyards (as seen on the cover of A Wine Atlas of the Langhe and visible in real time from the terrace bar at Il Boscareto across the valley); to the equally immaculate lawn fronting the main building and the aerodynamic robot mini-tractor mowing as it plys its way across; to the sculpted tree fronting the building; to the well-appointed tasting room/reception center/office encountered as you enter the building; to the tunnel cellar that circles behind the tasting room; and the barrels that reside therein. Beautiful. And oh, by the way, they also grow grapes and make wine here.

We were welcomed to the estate by Roberto Bordignon and, after a spell gawking at the external aspects of the estate's beauty, were led into the offices. From there we walked back into the cellar located through the door from the office.

The estate is located in the Ginestra cru of Monforte d'Alba. The first map below shows the cru, within the context of the Barolo zone, while the second map shows the cru, its sub-crus, and the related vineyards.

Ginestra cru, sub-crus (all caps), and vineyards
As we walked through the cellar, Roberto chose to present the estate in relation to its wines. I will adhere to that construct in this post.

According to Roberto, the estate regularly produces two single-vineyard wines: Ginestra Casa Maté and Gavarini Chinieri. Both of these vineyards are 3 ha (7.41 acres) in size. Casa Maté is at a lower altitude than Chinieri, is located within an ampitheatre, is south-facing, ripens earlier, and has clay and limestone soils. Gavarini Chinieri is convex, has good ventilation, and the soil is comprised of clay, limestone, and eroded sandstone.

The grapes for these wines are vinified on the lower level and then pumped upstairs to the aging cellar (I would like to point out that many modern cellars are moving to gravity-flow operation in order to provide a "gentler, less interventionist approach to winemaking."). The wines are aged for 2 to 2.5 years in untoasted Slavonian oak casks. After bottling, the wines are aged for an additional 6 months prior to release to the market. Fifteen thousand bottles of each of these wines are produced annually.

Like the Chinieri vineyard, Runcot is located within the Gavarini sub-cru. This 18-ha (44.48-acre) vineyard was replanted in 1989 - 1990 at 4500 vines/ha with the first vintage produced in 1997. This wine is only produced in great vintages. The grapes are macerated for 45 days with pump overs and some batonnage in the early days. Annual production of this wine is 9000 bottles.

In the years when Runcot is not produced, the fruit is declassified to Langhe Nebbiolo. The Langhe Nebbiolo is vinified in stainless steel and is sold in the spring following vinification.

The Barbera is made from grapes sourced from the 13-ha (32.12-acre) Vigna Martoni. This wine is aged for 15 months in 60% new barriques. They are stored in the tunnel which maintains a constant humidity of 64 - 65%. Annual production of this wine is 100,000 - 110,000 bottles.

The winery also makes a Chardonnay, the first vintage of which was produced in 1990.

After our walk, we tasted some wines.

Roberto indicated that 2016 was an incredible vintage with great balance between alcohol, tannin, acidity, and fruit. The last time he had seen a vintage like this was back in 2004. The 2016 Dolcetto d'Alba was a light, easy, immediately enjoyable wine. Bright red and blue fruit. Unconcentrated. The 2016 Langhe Nebbiolo was floral with sweet strawberry, cherries and tar on the palate. Aggressive tannins. Pure Nebbiolo.

The 2014 Barbera was floral with sawdust, sandalwood, and baking spices. Integration of fruit and barrel spices on nose. Mid-palate issues and flavor dilution.

The 2013 Barolo Gavarini Chinieri had a beautiful sandalwood nose with sweet florality, rose petals, nut, spice, and tar. On the palate, tar and earthy red fruits. Medium weight on palate.

We next did a number of vintages of the Casa Maté: 2013, 2007, and 2004. The 2013 showed spice, tar, baking spices, and an earthiness. Depth and structure. Great mouthfeel. The 2007 showed obvious development. Tar, waxiness, honeyed fruit, mint, eucalyptus, herbs, florality, and curry. Tar on the palate along with a long, caressing finish. The 2004 also showed curry and tar on the nose. Great weight on the palate. Beautifully balanced.

Al in all a wonderful visit. Robert was wonderful and the time flew by. Serious wines from an esthetically pleasing estate.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Barolo Zone landscape formation: Building the basement

Discussion of Barolo zone soils requires an understanding of basement and cover rocks from which the soils may be derived. We begin the discussion with a look at the region's basement rocks.

The Hercynian Mountain Belt, stretching from Britain to Eastern Europe, was formed as a result of a continental collision which ended 200 million years ago. This range has been severely eroded over millennia and in many places only exist as "basement" rock, hidden from view by sedimentary deposits. The figures below illustrate the concepts of basement and cover rocks.

Basement and cover rocks of France.

Relationship between basement and cover rocks.
Formation timeline -- basement and cover rocks
According to Martinez Catalán, et al., a crustal basement is "the result of an orogeny that is the consequence of a deep remobilization of the continental crust caused by the convergence of plates." Three major phases of orogeny (mountain building) define the geology of the European continent: Caledonian, Variscan/Hycernian, and Alpine. The timing of these three orogenies are illustrated in the figure below.

Using the Variscan orogeny as an example, Martinez Catalán, et al., see the process as encompassing:
  • Shortening and intensely deforming those sediments deposited previously along vast continental margins
  • Remobilizing the prior basement on which they laid
  • Generating a new crust by partial melting of the former
  • Adding fragments of oceanic crust and mantle
  • Eroding and re-sedimenting part of the newly formed crust
  • Deforming the majority of the new sediments.
The Italian basement recorded a possible subduction of oceanic crust with Ordovician granite during the Caledonian orogeny in the Ordovician to Early Devonian eras (490 - 390 mya). The orogeny was caused by a collision of the continents and terraces of Laurentia, Baltica, and Avalonia and subduction of the crust of the Iapetus Ocean. The configuration of the world's landmasses prior to that orogeny is illustrated in the picture below.

Reconstruction of how the Iapetus Ocean and surrounding
continents might have been arranged during the late
Ediacaran Period. Source:

The distribution of mountain ranges at the end of the Caledonian orogeny is illustrated below.

Present day coastlines are indicated in gray for reference.
By Woudloper - Own work, CC BY-SA 1.0,
The granites formed during the Caledonian orogeny were later deformed during the Hercynian (Variscan) orogeny, a Late Paleozoic geologic process which deeply modified the continental crust of western Europe and the north and northwest of Africa. This orogeny resulted from the collision of Euramerica and Gondwana to form the supercontinent Pangea. The Variscan orogeny forms the basement of most of western and central Europe and is well preserved in Italy when the basement pops up (as it does in the Alps, Sardinia, Calabria, NE Sicily, and West Tuscany). The results of the Variscan orogeny are shown in the figure below. The only Italian section of the Variscan not superimposed by Alpine or Apennic thrusts are belts located in Sardinia.

After the Hercynian earth movement, the general area of Italy was covered by the sea for long periods. As such, limestones are typical for the Permian and Mesozoic eras. Towards the end of the Mesozoic, and during the Tertiary, gravels, sands, clay, limestones and marls were deposited.


The most recent activity in the basement formation began with initial compression caused by subduction of the European plate under the African plate in the Jurassic period. Collision between the African and Eurasian plates resulted in increased deformation of Tethyian Sea deposits. The orogeny "produced intense metamorphism of preexisting rocks, crumpling of rock strata, and uplift accompanied by both normal and thrust faulting. Remnants of the Tethys Sea remain as the Mediterranean, Black, Caspian, and Aral Seas. The plate movement resulted in the Italian peninsula being driven northward and compressed into Europe.

Ranges resulting from the Alpine orogeny. Source:

A schematic geological map of the Alps is shown below.

Schematic geological map of the Alps. Source: Public Domain,

The next phase in this story is the Tertiary Piedmont Basin and the formation of associated cover rocks.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Il Palazzone: The Quintessential Montalcino (Tuscany) boutique winery

I made my first trip to Montalcino in April 2011 as part of a Bordeaux Index team visit to Tuscany. Laura Gray, Estate Manager at Il Palazzone, a producer located on the hills of Montalcino, and I were Twitter compatriots at the time and she reached out to me to offer a visit to her property. I was, unfortunately, on my way back to Florence when I got her message and, so, missed out on the opportunity.

Through the years Laura and I have stayed in touch via social media and email and we truly had a moment during the time that the Consorzio was voting on allowing up to 15% Merlot in Rosso di Montalcino wines. We were both on the "no" side and shared many a thought on the subject. I remember waiting anxiously on the day of the vote for her to make me aware of the results and what a relief it was when I got her email that the resolution had failed.

While prepping for my trip to Contrada dell'Etna this year, I was able to arrange a visit to the Vini Franchetti Tenuta del Trinoro estate in Val d'Orcia and thought to combine this with a visit to Il Palazzone. Laura was in agreement and so we were on. I would finally get to meet her in person.

The best laid plans ... I got an email from Laura on the Wednesday prior to my Friday visit: her son had had an accident and she would not be able to host me personally as planned. Instead, she had arranged for a colleague -- Esther Mercedes Juergens -- to conduct the tour in her stead. I totally understood.

My upcoming post, then, will be based on my conversations with Esther, subsequent email communications with Laura, and secondary research of public sources.

Il Palazzone, according to Laura, translates to the Big Palace and is often used to describe any big house. In the picture below, the structure to the far right is the Il Palazzone of relevance to us. "This is the oldest building on the property and gave its name to the estate." Though overlooking the property, the house is not owned by the estate.

As it relates to wine, Il Palazzone is a boutique Brunello di Montalcino producer located high-up on Montalcino hill and sourcing fruit from the vineyards surrounding the property (Due Porte), as well as two additional vineyards in the Castelnuovo dell'Abate sub-region of Montalcino.

I arrived at Il Palazzone at the appointed time and was warmly greeted by Esther. She apologized again on behalf of Laura and provided some context for her being here today. As owner of the wine tourism company, she had led many a tour to the Il Palazzone and was intimately familiar with the estate an its history.

Esther Mercedes Juergens

Il Palazzone, she said, had originally been an olive grove. It was bought by one Mario Bollag in the 1980s. The olive trees suffered dramatically in the freeze of 1984 (In a contemporary LA Times article, a grower named Franco Cencioni said "of the 1300 olive trees in his nearby grove in Montalcino, 80% show no sign of life."), so Bollag took them down and began planting vines instead. Bollag was not alone:
In response to the rapid expansion of vineyards in Montalcino, in 1995 the Consorzio stopped authorizing land for Brunello production. The decision has definitely had a series of welcome repercussions for winemaking (forcing producers to have plots in multiple subzones), for prestige of product due to the enforced limited production and for land value given that producers wishing to expand or start new property are forced to buy or rent existing vineyards (Laura Gray).
Bollag sold Il Palazzone to Richard Parsons, former CEO of Time Warner, in 2000. At that time the estate owned the 1.5 ha La Due Porte vineyard. In 2004 the estate added another 2.5 ha of vineyards with the purchase of two plots in the Castelnuovo dell' Abate subzone. The difference in terroir between the upper and lower elevation vineyards are demonstrated annually by a two-week-earlier blossoming and veraison of the latter over the former. The characteristics of the various Montalcino sub-regions and the Il Palazzone vineyards are shown in the figures below.

Esther sees Montalcino as an excellent environment for grape-growing: (i) there is a cooling seabreeze in the afternoon and (ii) the diurnal temperature variation aids in acid retention and flavor development.

Looking out over the Due Porte Vineyard

The estate is, by and large, organic but is not certified as such. Farming practices are guided by a set of principles that the estate refers to as Responsible Agriculture. The elements and characteristics of the system are shown in the table below.

Table 1. Il Palazzone Responsible Agriculture System (Source: Il Palazzone)
Element Characteristics
  • No chemicals
   - Treatments made utilize base metals allowed by EEC 2092/91 governing organic farming
  • Manual labor rather than anti-fungal treatments
   - Strip away vine leaves by hand in order to give bunches as much air as possible
Cultivate biodiversity
  • Avoid chemicals as much as possible
  • Try to replenish the sol and environment
Fertilization Organic fertilizers in the vineyard
  • Cover crops — nitrogen-rich leguminous plants such as lupins and fava beans in alternate rows
  • Cover crops plowed into earth, enriching and fertilizing the soil
Support posts Locally grown chestnut for support posts
- Do not need to be treated with preservatives

The vine training system employed is cordone speronato, along with some experiments with Guyot. Vine density ranges between 5000 and 6000 vines/ha. The vineyards are dry-farmed. Yield and fruit quality are managed via (i) a green harvest and (ii) leaf pulling two to three weeks prior to harvest. Yields are less than 5000 kg/ha.

In response to my query regarding the Il Palazzone winemaking philosophy, Laura stated thusly:
We hope to have wines that show an authentic expression of vintage; that incredibly complex set of moving natural variables intersecting with luck and human decisions. My expectation is that each wine should embody weather in the glass. I also consider the quality of our wines entirely dependent on our work during the year in the vineyard ... That said, of course our wines will have a common thread -- as easily identified as siblings to their parents.
Optimal harvest time is determined by a combination of factors to include weather, sugar and acid levels, taste, and color. Viticultural and enological decisions are within the purview of Maurizio Castelli, the estate's consultant winemaker.

Following a manual harvest, the grapes are brought into the reception area where they are sorted and destemmed. They are then fermented/macerated in large Slavonian oak vats for 18 to 20 days with frequent pumpovers and delestage. Each plot is vinified separately using indigenous yeasts.

Malolactic fermentation and aging are also conducted in Slavonian oak. The wines are racked depending on the vintage and development. "There are no hard and fast rules since we try to interpret each vintage as it presents itself." The wines are never fined but are filtered in the years where the vintage dictates such.

The estate ages its regular Brunello for 4 years, twice the Consorzio obligation. A Riserva is produced in the years when there is a perception that "the vintage will be considerably improved by a further wood aging." To date Riservas have been declared in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2010. The Brunello spends 4 months in bottle as a Consorzio requirement but the estate is always happy with more time.

The Brunello is a blend of the three terroirs. Blending is effected just prior to bottling and is generally done in one of the vats if the volume is below 50 HL (the size of their largest vat). The contribution of each vineyards to the blend is vintage-dependent but, in general: Capa contributes fruit, sugars, and puissance; Vecchia gives minerality; and Due Porte gives aromatic complexity and elegance.

Cellar Master Stefano Sassetti

The wine remaining after this blending goes into a label called Rosso del Palazzo NV. The most recent version of this wine is designated 1/16 and is a blend of the 2011 and 2014 vintages, years in which the estate opted to not produce Brunellos. According to Esther, 2014 was wet and cold during the summer and was a very difficult vintage for Montalcino. This wine showed bright, dark fruit along with nutty and herb characteristics. Bright, fresh, and with high acidity. Slightly unfocused and shortish finish.

We opened a fresh bottle of 2012 Brunello di Montalcino for the tasting and it had a core of dark fruit surrounded by herbs, leather, spices, and a minerality.  Young, hard tannins point to the need for lengthy cellar-residence.  We switched to a '12 that had been opened previously -- but which we had passed up due to being unsure as to exactly how long it had been open -- and it exhibited a bit more oxygen-assisted brightness. Great finish on both wines.

Lorenzo & Isabelle is a Supertuscan blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. It has been bottled only twice: 2005 (released in 2007) and 2013 (released in 2017). I tasted the 2013 edition. Darkest color of the wines tasted today. Herbaceous. Perfumed. High-toned. Silky smooth on the palate along with a spiciness. Late-arriving tannins. Moderate acidity but lengthy, mineral finish.

In one of my very informative exchanges with Laura, she noted that "one of the special aspects of smaller wineries is that there are no fixed recipes or kneejerk logistical decisions but that we can behave in a very intuitive way both in the vineyard and in the cellar ..." And that is the beauty of this estate. That, and the incisive, insightful, socratic management and communication skills and practices of one Laura Gray.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Earls Kitchen and Bar: Excellent casual dining at Orlando's Mall of Millenia

I had suggested Urbain 40 or DoveCote for our regular Wednesday lunch. Ron came back with Urbain 40 or Earls. I had never been to the latter (as a matter of fact was unaware of its existence) so I thought it would be interesting to explore. We plugged the name into Waze and let the car take us where it would.

It took us to the Mall of Millenia (Conroy Road in Orlando). More specifically, it took us to the site of the old Blue Martini Lounge, a night club where, in my younger days, I had some of my finest moments. It was now adorned with the name Earls.

I went through the entrance and into a rather cramped foyer. I peeked around the corner and, boy, it was a large space. After a short wait, we were taken to our seats. As we walked along, i noted that it was primarily a business clientele, drawn from non-retail businesses in the area, along with a smattering of mall shoppers.

The menu was extensive and seemed to have an offering from every major ethnic-food type. That was concerning in that it seemed a lot to pull off with excellence. Ron and Bev had eaten here before so they suggested that we start out with the chicken wings (one of the reasons I love these guys). The wings came. They looked good. They tasted even better. And they did not bow down in shame in the presence of the Jacques Selosse Rosé.

We next ordered a Dragon Roll from the Sushi and Raw Bar section of the menu. Scintillating. Paired well with the Ygrec. As did the Jamaican Jerk Chicken with a 2007 Clos Vougeot. For my main course I had a bunless burger washed down with a 1989 Lynch Bages.

Dragon Roll

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

At the end of the meal, Chef Simon came over to get feedback on the food. A bright, smiling young man from Vancouver (British Columbia), he had opened this restaurant and would soon be moving on to open another restaurant. It was during the course of this conversation that I first became aware that Earls was a Canadian chain with restaurants located around the world.We expressed our satisfaction with the days offerings and wished him all the best on his next assignment.

Chef Simon

Parlo and I were so impressed with the restaurant that we went back for brunch on Sunday. It was very busy and was much louder than on Wednesday. Mall shoppers and brunchers were out in full force.

The General Manager, Stefan Oostveen came over to help with my wine and this gave me the opportunity to query him about the restaurant and its business model. Like the Chef, he is also from Vancouver. Earls, he said, operates 60 - 70 restaurants worldwide. They started out as a beer and burger joint. The Chefs they have hired over the years, have added new products and management has kept the popular items. They also have a test kitchen which develops new concepts. The Sushi and Raw Bar, for example, is only a few months old. The overall focus is on using fresh ingredients and making things in-house.

Stefan, Oostveen, General Manager
I started out with a sashimi. I have seen more enticing presentations of this dish but this one more than held its own in terms of taste.


I nest tried the curry -- an unexpected dish in this environment -- and was very happy with my choice; great flavor; an appropriate level os spiciness; included chicken that was cooked to the perfect temperature; and a green-mango-like acidity.

Chicken Curry with Nan Bread

For my final course I had a marinated skirt steak. This is not a standalone item on the menu; it is normally paired with coconut prawns or sushi. At my request the additional elements of the dish were held off and the steak provided. Mint, rosemary, herb and an excellent marinade.

Marinated Skirt Steak

Excellent experiences. Great service, exceptional dishes, and a wonderful atmosphere (depending on time of visit). I would be remiss in not mentioning the $25 corkage fee. This is where I will be doing brunch from here on in.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme