Thursday, October 30, 2014

Barbera—The Ultimate Food Wine

A good red wine to match with food must have enough flavor to stand up to what you are eating but not so much to overpower it. If the food has a high fat content, such as a nicely marbled ribeye steak, the wine should have ample tannins to cut through the fat, but in the absence of fat, tannins should be moderate to low. Perhaps the most important trait of a food friendly red is ample acidity. This keeps the wine refreshing, vibrant, and palate cleansing and enhances the flavors of the meal.

With this in mind, one of my favorite wines to recommend is Barbera. Native to the Monferrato region near the town of Asti in Piedmont, Italy, where it has been documented as far back as 1240 in the records of the local cathedral, it is the third most planted red grape in Italy behind Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Although over 70,000 acres grow in Piedmont,  and it was a favorite of Italian immigrants resulting in 8000 acres growing in California, it is surprising how few people know about it.

In the early 1980s, over 120,000 acres of Barbera were planted in Piedmont. Then, in 1985, unscrupulous producers added methanol to their wine to give it a little extra “kick.” As a result, 30 people died and over 50 were blinded. This bad publicity along with growers switching to more profitable Nebbiolo led to a marked decrease in production.

Barbera grows best in warm climates and tends toward high yields, so it must be aggressively pruned. It is very thin skinned, so it is prone to mildew, disease, and sunburn. It ripens two weeks earlier than Nebbiolo and two weeks later than Dolcetto, the other two major Piedmont grapes. The grape has a very high acidity, approaching that of white wine grapes. Leaving the fruit on the vine longer to lessen the acidity results in higher sugar levels, denser flavors, and a higher alcohol level in the finished wine. When this balancing act between acidity and fruit concentration is performed well, the wine is delicious.

Barbera is dark in color, has medium to low tannins, a high acidity, and flavors of red fruit and black cherries There are two styles—a lighter style that is usually made without oak aging, and a richer more complex style that is aged in used oak. They are both delicious and are wonderful with food, from pasta with red sauce, sausages, and pork to stews and braised and roasted meats. In Italy, the spicy fruity Dolcetto is the everyday and (ALL day) drinking wine, while the Barbera is the wine enjoyed with the main meal. (The higher priced Nebbiolo is for special occasions).

Besides being delicious and food friendly, really good Barbera can be found in the 15 to 25 dollar range. Mauro Molino Barbera d’Alba, aged in stainless steel, is fresh and vibrant with a mouth watering acidity and lots of red berry fruit and costs only $15.99. Rivetto Barbera d’Alba Nemes, also $15.99, is aged for a short time in Slovenian oak but retains its freshness and lightness of fruit.

If you are going to try Barbera, you absolutely HAVE  to try the Barbera di Monferrato from Fabrizio Iuli. He calls himself a “Barberista” because although most Piedmont estates that make Barbera also make Nebbiolos and Dolcettos, he concentrates only on Barbera. His Umberta, at $15.99, is aged in stainless steel and is an explosion of exuberant red berry fruit fruit in your mouth. The Rossore (named because that will be the color of your cheeks when you drink it) is aged in French oak and is lush and complex with the underlying acidity and ample red and purple fruit that is classic for Barbera, This is one of my very favorite wines with Italian food and is well worth the $22.99 price tag.

Natale Verga makes a very drinkable Barbera for only $8.99.  Although not world class, it is varietally correct, and a good way to find out if you like this grape without spending much money.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, if you want to taste what is probably the ultimate expression of the Barbera grape, try G.D. Vajra’s Barbera d’Alba Superiore. I first tasted this wine at a large trade tasting a year ago featuring at least a hundred wines including some very expensive Barolos and Barbarescos. Vajra’s Barbera was THE wine of the tasting. With beautiful aromatics of flowers, red and purple fruit, and massive complex layers of black cherry, plums, red currants, and vanilla, it has a bracing acidity that makes your mouth water and makes you want to consume the entire bottle with a very large amount of food. In a word, this wine is ridiculous. It will be $44.99 well spent.

Barbera is a wine that anybody who loves a good meal needs to try. It will bring even the simplest of dishes to life…and it will become a common occurrence at the dinner table. Cheers!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Donald Hess—Entrepreneur and Visionary

Donald Hess, a Swiss entrepreneur, bought 900 acres on Mount Veeder (situated between Napa and Sonoma Valleys) between 1978 and 1982, setting aside 600 acres to support wildlife corridors and biodiversity. Immediately, sustainable practices, as defined by the Wine Institute, were utilized in the vineyards. The old stone winery, originally built in 1903, was opened to the public in 1989. Since that time, the Hess Collection of wines has become synonymous with quality wines and green farming.

I had the opportunity to visit Hess a few weeks ago, and it was a memorable experience. Within a few hours of landing in San Francisco, my new friends and I were sitting at a picnic table in the middle of the Allomi Vineyard looking out over 210 acres of vines. The vineyard, purchased in 1997, sits at the base of Howell Mountain in the beautiful and remote Pope Valley. Although Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and Petite Verdot are also grown here, this vineyard is best known as the source for the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Allomi. Mike, our host, poured the 2012 as we enjoyed an incredible picnic lunch prepared by Hess’s chef. This wine is a quintessential valley floor Cab with luscious red fruits that are joined by a bit of blackberry and black currant. The tannins are ample enough to lend support and complexity but are well integrated for a soft, round mouth feel. Selling for $28.99, this is a delicious wine! The six of us polished off two bottles before leaving this beautiful place and resuming our adventure.

We then headed up Mount Veeder, almost to the very top, to the Veeder Summit vineyard. Hess is so dedicated to sustainable green farming that dozens of goats are released before bud break each spring to clear undergrowth around the vines so there is less dependence on vehicles. There are fully a dozen varietals grown here, with the early ripening Malbec and Merlot being the most dominant. Looking southwest, we could see as far as the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and 115 acres of vines spread out before us.

We gazed out over the magnificent vista as we drank a bottle or two of Hess 19 Block Cuvee. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, and Malbec sourced mainly from the vineyard we were sitting in, this wine has beautiful red berry fruit, clove, and cinnamon on the nose followed by a mouthful of red fruit. A soft tannic finish laced with raspberry and a hint of vanilla make this a wonderful wine. It sells for $31.99 and is worth every penny.

We then went to the beautiful old stone winery, where we tasted several wines in the garden. We tasted a few winery-only wines that were very good, especially an awesome Petite Sirah. We also tasted through the Hess Select series. These entry level wines are sourced from all over California and are very well made for the price they sell for. There is a Monterey Chardonnay, fresh and vibrant without being overwhelmed with oak, and a very correctly made citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, both of which sell for $10.49. The Pinot Noir was a pleasant surprise, with cola, cherry fruit, and spice. The Treo, a blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Merlot, full of cranberry, pomegranate, black cherry, and spice, is jammy and easy drinking, a perfect BBQ wine. Both these wines sell for $12.49 and are great values.

The tasting completed, we now walked up to the library, gazing at Mr. Hess’s amazing art collection on the way. We enjoyed a wonderful meal and, of course, wonderful wines to match each course. The most noteworthy wine was the 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay, served with a pan seared halibut. This delicious Chardonnay, is sourced from the Su’skol Vineyard on the Napa Valley floor, barely ten miles from San Francisco Bay. Morning fog from the bay cools the hot Napa Valley microclimate, providing perfect growing conditions for Chardonnay, and it shows in the wine. I tend to be an ABC kind of guy (anything but Chardonnay) but this wine is remarkable. The musque’ clones used in the vineyard result in beautiful floral aromatics and flavors of honeysuckle and apple with a background of citrus and tropical fruits. Acidity is perfectly balanced against a rich mouth feel. Only 25% malolactic fermentation and aging in neutral oak result in a perfectly balanced, vibrant Chardonnay. This wine is a must for Chardonnay fans at $21.99.

The next day we visited the 175 acre Su’skol vineyard, and Kate, the winemaker gave us a tour of the massive 850,000 case facility that Hess has nearby. From there we continued our adventure in wine country, but we are not soon to forget our experience at Hess. If you go to Napa Valley make sure to visit the winery. But in the meantime, enjoy the wonderful wines that come from this venerable estate, whether they are from the excellent value Hess Select series or the amazing estate wines. You will be impressed.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Looking For a Few Good Men—Sardinia’s New Winemakers

Sardinia is Italy’s second largest island and lies about 150 miles off the western coast. Interestingly, the island not only is isolated in terms of geography, but also regarding grape varietals. Instead of finding typical Italian red grapes like Sangiovese,  Nebbiolo, or Negroamaro, we find those commonly associated with France and Spain—Grenache, Carignan, and Bobal.  The whites have a little more Italian feel, with Malvasia and Vermentino being dominant, as well as the ubiquitous Muscato Bianco. There are as well some indigenous grapes, like Monica, Torbato, and Nasco, and a host of others.

The Italians’ love of complex bureaucracy is evident in the fact that there are more D.O.C. and I.G.T designations than in nearby Calabria and Basilicata combined despite there being fewer vines per overall hectare than any other wine region in Italy.

Unfortunately, despite the climate and soil being ideal for grape growing, this is a rare part of Italy where the growing of wine grapes is not a priority.

In the sixteenth century, Sardinia was abundant with vineyards, to the point that it was called the “Wine Island,” but then the number of vineyards declined until the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time, several cooperatives arose and bought grapes on a guaranteed price per volume.  As a result, high yields were prized far above quality, and Sardinia became known for producing cheap low quality “plonk” wines.

In the early 1990’s a few serious winemakers decided to change the face of Sardinian wines. They improved vineyard management, and soon yields were low and qualities were high. They brought in new winemaking techniques and combined the best of these with the best of traditional methods to ensure that the “terroir” would be preserved in the wines.

While few Sardinian wines actually get to the U.S., three estates send enough wine across the ocean to be found at very good prices. First is Sella and Mosca’s Canonnau di Sardegna Riserva. Cannonau is the Sardinian word for Grenache, and this is one of the finest wines made from that varietal that you’ll ever find. Aromas of violets, bright red berries, and jam. On the medium bodied palate, there are spices and herbs beneath the ample red fruit. Medium bodied with supple tannins, this wine was once called the world’s best wine under $25.00 by Robert Parker. It is considerably less than that—a steal at $16.99.

Argiolas makes a bevy of wonderful wines. They make a Cannonau as well, called Costera, that is of similar flavor profile and quality as the Sella and Mosca—and a similar price as well. The Perdera is made from the indigenous Monica grape, and shows more blue and black fruit on the palate than Grenache and is delicious.

Finally, there is a wonderful Vermentino called Costamolino. Full of bright citrus and tropical fruit with a nice underlying mineralty, this is an outstanding food wine.

Last and certainly not least is the Santadi Carignano del Sulcis Grotto Rosso. This wine bursts with savory dark fruit, leather, and earth and is an awesome wine to have with your next beef stew. I love this wine, and at $14.99, it is an awesome value.

Italy is one of the greatest wine regions on earth. There are hundreds upon hundreds of different varietals made into wine. Each of the many regions has its own expression of its wines, and Sardinia is no different. Try them, and you’ll be very happy that you did. Cheers!