Archives for October, 2010

Barolo: high point of nebbiolo, Brezza wines, Piedmont, sublime beauties, Italy

The tiny town of Barolo is still a very busy place in mid-October. Grapes are all in but the last of the Americano influx to hit the enotecas was in full swing. It was a sunny afternoon to walk along the cobbled street and watch transactions under way for lots of Euros for scantly-heard of single vineyard Barolos.

But evening temperatures drop very quickly, and at departure on October 22, the signs of the first frost were there, and autumn colours starting on the well-managed, greener vineyards, while the more stressed ones were well into leaf drop.

I met a terrific chap local chap; Enzo Brezza who started making the family’s wines in 1989. The cellars, the family hotel (called Brezza too) and restaurant are all in one, on the main road out of town towards Alba.

As you do in these wonderful old cantinas, descend quite quickly into the basement, which of course is the original winery storage cellars gouged out of rock and lined with stone to house those original big oval barrels from 1885.

That makes Enzo the fourth generation family winemaker.

Standing in the original cellar Enzo says, “My production is from only my vineyards; 23.5 hectares of which 16.5 ha is in production. That is growing nebbiolo, barbera and dolcetto. I do have one ha of chardonnay which is my only white wine, but this is not a white wine area.”

Brezza Dolcetto d’Alba 2009 San Lorenzo, (89), 14%, USD 11, is grown on the lesser soil, the better provides for the nebbiolo, so it’s very sandy, yet that has not diminished this wine. The vineyard site is the Cannubi vineyards side of San Lorenzo in Barolo. Nose is earthy; taste is morello cherry and quite soft and juicy.

Dolchetto is stainless steel made, bottled in April 2010. For a country of inhabitants who drink wine daily, this variety and its various other simply-made brands are regarded as making good, every day wine. I agree.

Brezza Barbera d’Alba 2009, (90), 14%, USD 22, comes from their Santa Rosalia vineyard, has some pippy fruit aromas, is earthy, a good chew without being tannic, and has some great character.

Barbera in Piemonte is regarded as the low tannin, high acid variety of the region, and only rarely is more tannin added via oak aging to change its natural structure. Consequently most barbera sees stainless steel during ferment and aging, which is usually not very long either, followed by early bottling, early release.

Brezza Barbera d’Alba 2008, Cannubi Muscatel vineyard (89), 14%, USD 26, is aged one year in new oak before release as a 2-y-o wine. It has a terrific violet colour which is attractive, is juicy and earthy, and a good long palate tasting of black cherries. Muscatel (non-Italian spelling), white grapes were planted there pre-Phylloxera (1880s) and hence the retained name.

Since 2002 all Brezza early release reds, dolcetto and barbera are sealed under the German-origin ground glass bottle stoppers which accounted for the high level of freshness (and my high points) of these wines.

Brezza Langhe Nebbiolo 2009, (89), 14%, USD 17, is made from the single rose clone of nebbiolo, and hence its paler colour, made in stainless steel and bottled early to preserve its rose/floral aromas. It’s nice and simple.

Brezza Nebbiolo d’Alba 2008, (91) 14%, USD 20, comes from seven km away from the cantina, in the regional split between the two premier nebbiolo regions; Barolo (11 villages) and Barbaresco (4 villages), so that it has the less auspicious generic name of Alba wine attached.

This has one year in old large barrels before bottling; it’s terrific, lots of nose, violets, licorice, oak too, but quite advanced colour and big juicy fruit. This is Brezza’s sole generic nebbiolo which is a very easy drink.

Larger brands buy grapes from a collection of regions and villages to make their regional Barolo. In the case of Brezza all Barolo origin nebbiolo is single, named vineyard, usually making 6-7,000 bottles annually.

Brezza Sarmassa Nebbiolo 2006, (91) 14%, USD 90 has a traditional nose expressing the old oak aging, the palate is fine but growing in charm.

Brezza Sarmassa Nebbiolo 2005, (92) 14%, USD 90, ruby colour, a majestic nose of roses, minty, herbal, vibrant tannins with some of the green mint residues, now needing some time in bottle to go to the next stage of subtlety.

There was some discussion with Enzo about the evolution of nebbiolo, particularly in single vineyards or such pristine wines which reward drinkers by longer aging. What is the sensory chemistry?

Enzo says ”The primary evolution takes place in bottle over the first three years, or six years on from harvest, and they are well appreciated at this time, then there is a dip in nose or palate or both where hibernation occurs, and wines will come out of this in 5-10 years for appreciation at the higher plane.”

This explains the bottle age phases of nebbiolo. Also beware of drinking top bottles in restaurants; and controlled breathing takes place best over 2-3 days. So a freshly opened bottle may never give the best.

This was often the case on winery visits where makers could show a range of vintages because the wines had been held over from previous days’ tastings and had completely evolved.

The single vineyard nebbiolo spend their first year in 5-10 yo big barrels (1500-3000 litres), the second in 10-15 yo ones. Enzo wishes to avoid oak tannin but wants the oxidative softening. Barrels are replaced after 15 years, one annually made of Slovenian oak.

Brezza Cannubi Nebbiolo 2006, (94) 14%, USD 90, smells of cedar and roses, the former from oak, very fresh, very young, nice, long, green mint, silky tannin, yet warming.

Brezza Bricco Sarmassa Nebbiolo 2006, (94), 14.5%, USD 90, is just full of roses, elevated by its volatility, a very concentrated nebbiolo showing oodles of still firm tannin, aged this longer. 5440 bottles and 780 magnums made.

Bricco Sarmassa is the top part of the Sarmassa vineyard; in some years the two are combined, where there is no quality difference (the highest elevation portion sometimes excels).

Brezza Cannubi Nebbiolo 2003, (90), 15%, USD 90, is a very aged colour, browning considerably but no doubt that does not phase Enzo, this is normal for nebbiolo, the nose is very baked as in molasses, the Piemontese call this “balsamic freshness”, and it is very, very soft, though high on mouth sweetness.

Enzo rates his recent vintages for me: 2003 (hot, uncharacteristic, unsure of ageability), 2004 (elegant, so a long classic aging arc ahead), 2005 (vertical; difficult year from rain, greener tannins though ok), 2006 (classic year, same maturing profile as 2004); 2007 (rounder wine, meaning hotter and wines very concentrated, bigger therefore shorter in the classic age cycle), 2008 and 2009 remain in barrel.

Prunotto: Star of Alba, Italian wine

Close to the centro of Alba is the venerable company Prunotto, established in 1904, and originally formed by Alfredo Prunotto in 1923.

He bought a bottle shop which presumably made its own collective of wines known as “Vini delle Langhe” or in Aussie speak Langhe Wines; Langhe being the general collective geographical allocation to all the top red grape regions on the southern side of the Tanaro River which bisects the region.

To the north is the Roero Hills known mainly for the white arneis and volumes of the early-drinking barbera variety.

On a sunny October afternoon I visited Prunotto’s new cellars (relocated in 1972 says Tiziana Gallo, my guide and commercial presenter) now on Alba’s outskirts where it is easier to receive grapes than it was in the historic city centre (with its narrow streets, restricted traffic and wine grape deliveries which have anti-tourism needs).

Tiziana says the season’s last harvest was just in, as a tractor and trailer pulls up on the weighbridge beside our tasting window, loaded with selected, black-sheened, hand-harvested nebbiolo.

A tour of Prunotto’s barrel storage below ground told me about how the company’s red wines are aged; as this contributes so much to the original character and aroma of the young wines, and significantly to the aging trajectory of the more highly regarded vineyard wines.

Slovenian oak casks in the range 2000-5000 litres made by the Venetian coopers Gamba are essentially used, plus hogsheads (300 litres) and puncheons (500 litres) of French and Hungarian oak (owner Antinori appears to have a cooperage interest in Hungary). There has also been a sliver of small American oak used for the past two years.

Prunotto Roero Arneis 2009, (89), 12.5%, USD 26 from the southern Monteu Roero sites is a delightful drink. Unwooded, all the sole grape variety, made in stainless steel with cultured yeasting, it is fruity in the lemon/nectarine, crunchy palate fashion. Just so good to salivate over with a plate of Piemontese raw veal topped with tuna sauce (tonnato).

Prunotto Pian Romualdo Barbera d’Alba 2006, (90), 13.5%, USD 61.50, is a single vineyard barbera from the Monforte region in Alba, owned since 1955, and released for the first time as a single wine from 1961 (Prunotto’s first ever single vineyard release). It is cherry-red, has a serious nose now that some small oak has been applied since 1996. The wine has 50 percent large, 50 percent small

barrel aging for 10 months then off to bottle for eight months before sale is considered. Modern barbera: fresh pippy fruit, oak sweet, acid at its normal high level, soft grainy tannin gives style.

Prunotto Costamiole Barbera d’Asti 2007, (92), 14%, USD 46, is a more recent single vineyard barbera from the Asti sub-region, a 27 hectare vineyard in the Agliano region of Nizza after this sub-zone became recognised in 2004-2005. This wine has substantial new oak aging, 100 percent in barrique and the winemaking cleverly manages the balance between fruit and oak sweetness. Aging profile is 3-5 years.

Prunotto Occhetti Nebbiolo d’Alba 2007, (90), 13.5%, USD 28 is a single vineyard wine from Monteu Roero, arneis country, pretty swish nebbiolo regional wine, has lighter colour as a vineyard trait, is made traditionally with that “old dumb oak” nose from 70 percent in large oak, 30 percent small oak (2nd and 3rd fill). This is soft nebbiolo, shows my telltale “baked/treacle” character from a warm year like 2007 where aging on the palate is now obvious.

Prunotto Barbaresco 2006, (92), 13.5%, USD 47.50, steps also into the traditional “oak-seasoned” aroma characters, good perfume still (the rose clone jutting out), lots of tannin, a touch minty which is long and green. This is a blend of grower vineyards from the region, 95 percent large oak, 5 percent small, one year in barrel, one year in bottle (which accounts for its liveliness-less oak time, fresher wine). The rationale with oak is with high tannin parcels, why add more from oak tannin from new barrels, just use large stuff to allow softening time. Age span 8-10 years, (2014-2016), the essence of Barbaresco type wine.

Prunotto Barolo 2006, (92), 13.5%, USD 54.50, cherry red, never too dense in sync with the nebbiolo grape, oak sweet nose, spices, roses, has concentration, palate quite fine and quite elegant, surprisingly less tannin than its Barbaresco running mate. The Barolo is a grape supplier wine from vineyards in Monforte, Serralunga and Castiglione Ferrato.

Prunotto Bric Turot Barbaresco 2006, (95), 13.5%, USD 63, is a 5 hectare single vineyard wine, has some special qualities, including freshness and modernity, one year in barrel (10% barriques), the rest bottle and the careful handling shows. It has subtlety, still sweet oak and long, unobtrusive, silky tannins which make it ultra-fine.

Prunotto Bussia Barolo 2006, (92), 13.5%, USD 81, more old fashioned, is a 5.5 hectare single vineyard wine, lots of funk collected from its old barrels, complex, soft and long; supple, now aging a little, and I suspect, an earlier maturer than its Barbaresco mate.

Alfredo Prunotto retired in 1956, sold to a younger winemaker Beppe Colla, who later sold to Antinori in 1989, who added international distribution from that time, and winemaking responsibility from 1995 when Beppe retired.

Moppity in the Hilltops NSW: Great area and great wines

Jason Brown from Moppity Vineyards in the Young area came by the other day. He has made a huge impression on the respect for this region by wine drinkers.

The family business has been wine retailing in Canberra but this was still a pioneer operation by Jason and Alicia. This couple’s main focus was to identify and establish a super-premium brand with the equivalent quality vineyard sited in a highly-regarded Australian region. He had the Eden Valley, Clare or Margaret River in mind.

It did not have to be a stones throw from Canberra.

Jason had been drawn to the hilltops region by McWilliams winemaker Martin Cooper who was obviously seeing the Barwang grapes and other regional fruit come through the company crushers. That excited Martin and his enthusiasm for the capability of high end red wine production was blowing off on other local Hilltops people.

The Brown’s original asset was a vineyard planted in 1973 by pioneer Pat Wickham; there was 4 hectares of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and semillon plus more chardonnay and riesling planted in ’80s.

Moppity Park was the original property name, sited in the Parish of Moppity, with an address of Moppity Road. It sold in the mid-90s to a consortium with links to Hardys (then an Australian owned company), where it had grown to 70 hectares; the same varieties had been bulked up plus merlot planted.

“There was never enough water infrastructure and water was in short supply. an area short on rain, the 150 ML dam leaked, losing 2/3 rds of its water,” said Jason.

The property was in receivership and purchased as a distressed asset in 2002, eventually settled by the Browns in 2004.

So Moppity became a lifestyle in the making, though a tough one, as this branch of the Brown family was less interested in the retail of wine and set out to distribute their own brands throughout Australia. Hence my encounter in Brisbane.

“Here we had the potential to be over-extended; I wanted a great vineyard and I wanted great wines. Hilltops had the potential and this Moppity property was going to auction in 2002, yet it looked unaffordable even though we were familiar now with the region,” he said.

“It was past my initial intention of a hobby farm; there was a tender to make. I found out that Helm Wines had bought grapes from the old shiraz vines and had been very happy with the result.

“The best of the region had yet to come, so we were in on the ground floor, we had found a vineyard. My wife Alicia had grown up in Young, 12km away.

Well the recognition did come afterwards when grapes from this vineyard contributed to the 2009 Jimmy Watson trophy shiraz which was made in Canberra; a first for a long time that New South Wales-grown grapes had figured in this Melbourne award. Jason’s hunch was correct, and the focus on the Hilltops has stayed with many winedrinkers.

“We made a cheeky offer which took six months to negotiate, we then put a lot into the property to have it restored from the run down condition. We intended to make a small vintage and sell the rest.

“The Cooper Coffman business, Eden Road in Canberra, took all our fruit in 2007, with over-the-top pricing at $2500 per tonne when at the $800 mark normally, 2008 started a six year contract taking up to 3500 tonnes if available. When that business folded in 2008 I took over the bulk wines with a potential 30,000 cases a year, and I placed 25,000 dozen in the first year.”

He crushed 450 tonnes in 2009, then 500 in 2010, adding some pinot noir and chardonnay from Tumburumba.

The entry wine group is Lock and Key which has great sales as the escape route for Moppity. There is 2010 Chardonnay Pinot Noir (charmat), Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 Chardonnay, then 2009 Rose, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, all USD 14.

I tried the 2010 Riesling, 94, 11.5%, peachy; lemon, it develops early in the mouth, has citrus, long acidity, dry, 3.5 g. Then 2009 Shiraz 95, 14%, has a Winewise trophy and two golds, is nose rich and aromatic; has weighty smells, funky; yet low oak and warming flavours, contains a dab of viognier

There is an estate range of the same wine varieties, with sauvignon blanc from Orange and chardonnay from Tumburumba, Rose from shiraz, all USD 23.

Moppity Vineyards 2009 Estate Shiraz USD 23, 14%, has nose concentration, more age on nose than the Lock and Key Shiraz, it’s made mainly in puncheon (larger barrels), 25% is new barrel, the rest being 2,3 and 5 year-old barriques; it has up front fruit sweetness and tangy black fruit flavours, there have been four recent gold medals so the shiraz is doing well.

The Estate 2010 riesling is more serious than the Lock and Key wine; bone dry, has length as a small part was aged on solids in old barrel to impart textural complexity. “For us, thank goodness riesling sells, we have 6 ha of it,” said Jason

The final tier is Reserve 2008; USD 55; 14.5%, quite a hefty wine. It has 2.5% viognier, 10% whole bunches in the ferment; cold soaked for two weeks before ferment, cool ferment at production, all that saying a lot of work was done on the wine to extract the best character.

This wine lifts the profile of the Hilltops region. It’s had a trophy at the Sydney International as best medium bodied red; the winemaking has given it more texture than normal, diversity of flavour, length, and a jubey, cool flavour which persists. It’s blended from 10 different wines, part being the 37-year-old vines.

The follow-on wine, 2009, has four golds in New Zealand and the Sydney International, made the NSW Top 40 in 2010 and made best in class Winewise 2010. There is much to look forward to drink.

To Moppity Vineyards

Gaja: at the peak of Barbaresco, nebbiolo, greatest Langhe reds, chardonnay too

There was a feeling of anticipation visiting Angelo Gaja in his home hill town of Barbaresco. Having admired his wines for over 30 years meant the final day. After all he is known as Mr Piedmont and Mr Barbaresco or this is how I would imagine it to be.

The company had also celebrated 150 years of establishment last year, yet the past three decades have really pasted the word GAJA on the foreheads of Italian wine lovers.

Harvest had just finished; no more nebbiolo for 2010, just long days of skin contact on the fermenting grapes and skins, malo-lactics and transfer to barrels underground (where it is now warmer) for the 2-3 year process to bottle.

Reflections of the 2010 vintage are positive. Except for the 30 percent loss of grapes from hail in June in Serrulunga vineyards, the crops have weathered the season well.

Some rains certainly fell during the ripening stages, but good grapes have resulted and the overall general result today is one of very good wine but not as concentrated as the highly pointed vintages of recent years. That was the impression Angelo Gaja gave me.

It seemed a bit surreal to talk about 2010 after 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 all so good, 2008 also outstanding, and 2009 not far behind. A stellar run for Piemonte, in part attributed to climate fluctuation.

During my drives around vineyards in the Barbaresco area most vineyards had harvested by the end of the first week of October; some vineyards were still exposing their fruit, but some light rain, the usual fog and lowering day temperatures curtailed any further delays.

“We first started to get an inkling about climate change with the 1997 harvest. There were four or five very hot days. By 2003 we had 10 very hot days during the harvest. Now by 2010 this confirms that we have to deal with this permanent change and understand what leads to concentration in our grapes. Vines dry grown can be both hungry and angry in these conditions,” Angelo explains.

He continues by describing the nebbiolo vine growing in Piemonte and the comparisons made with New World vineyards where applied irrigation becomes automatic.

“Water can have its problems, it’s important to be available. In 2010 we had good harmony, with grape colour well-formed, wines not highly concentrated but in balance. For over 200 years we have had the clay maintain the water supply in our soils, usual rain is 650-800 mm per year. In 2003 that fell to under 400 mm. With the slope of the hills the excess water runs off.” One by-product of global warming is a change in Gaja blends of nebbiolo to now include barbera, the grape carrying higher acidity than “neb”. The three single vineyard wines in Barbaresco now carry five percent barbera. In the La Morra, in the low part of the hill, in the Conteisa vineyard eight percent is used, and at Sperss high on the hill, six percent is blended.

I tasted three wines; one an international chardonnay, one Barbaresco, one Barolo.

Gaja Rossj Bass 2009 Langhe DOC is Chardonnay (90), USD 70, 14.5%, a monster chardonnay to smell from the charry oak intensity, though pale coloured, yet on palate great minerality and slatey acidity, a wine style to stand up to some time in bottle.

Gaja Barbaresco 2007, DOCG is Nebbiolo (93), USD 160,14%, really fine wine, usual cherry, brick colour, some flowers though not much, more an expression of aromatic nebbiolo, a background of oak cedar, then to the important part, the palate. This wine has great palate freshness for drinking now, long, fine tannins, fine acid and flavour sweetness. Drink now until 2012 as a young wine.

Gaja Sperss 1999, Langhe Nebbiolo DOC (96), USD 238, 14%, showing the tell-tale clear-orange edge of nebbiolo, brick and black at the depth; nose shows progressing maturity in the herbs, truffle, sweaty, still with aromatics and signs from barrel aging, palate superb, powdery and silky tannins, lovely maturity (drink 2015-2020 no trouble), yet very fresh, long final flavours, six per cent barbera.

Returning to the 1997 vintage, the first to herald that climate change was occurring, Angelo had some curt words for the scribes making predictions of vintages, 1997 in particular.

“1997 had concentration, from the hot and dry year, it was a small crop. The US writers were in conflict with the Europeans. The US scribes welcomed Sori San Lorenzo, the wine was bigger but approachable being the high points while the Europeans said it would not last. It was unusual but it did age well, and is looking very good now. The beauty of such a wine is that it is not aging quickly, unlike some Montalcino wine.”

Gaja has marvellous cellars; mainly under the Barbaresco town, and significant production from 100 hectares. The name was originally Spanish, from past conquistadores, and a slice of that bloodline has been retained in branding.

In 1977 Gaja established their own distribution in Italy, a very smart move.

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