April 19, 2017

Vertical of the Month: Pian del Ciampolo 2012–2002

Montevertine, located in Radda in Chianti, the heartland of the famed Chianti Classico region, is hailed as one of the greatest producers of classically styled Chianti Classico.

Or they would be, if they happened to produce any.

Let's start off with the mandatory introduction to the winery, so everyone knows what's the stuff we're talking about today. Montevertine started off as a hobby of Sergio Manetti, a steel product manufacturer. In 1967 he bought a dilapitated house in Chianti – that was to become the Montevertine winery – as his holiday house, restored it and planted two hectares (5 acres) of vines to the newly acquired lands, just to produce some wine for his family and friends. In 1971 Manetti produced his first vintage and after some encouraging feedback he also presented his wines in Vinitaly fair in Verona. The wines were so welcomed there that only after few years Manetti decided to leave his day job and concentrate fully on creating high quality wine in Montevertine, planting and acquiring new vineyards and installing winemaking facilities more appropriate for a real winery. Since the first vintage of 1971, Montevertine has produced wine in every single vintage – not counting the remarkably poor and rainy vintage 1984, when no Montevertine wines were produced from the estate's fruit.

Montevertine was originally a Chianti producer, but in 1981 the winery's top wine Le Pergole Torte, a 100% varietal Sangiovese, was denied rights for the Chianti Classico appellation, as the appellation laws back then (and until 1996) stipulated that the CC wines should be blends of white and red grapes instead of varietal wines, and thus the wine was deemed unsuitable for bottling. As a countermeasure, Manetti decided to bottle all his wines as basic table wine bottlings from that on, be they eligible for the appellation or not. Even though all of the winery's labels could now be eligible for DOCG Chianti Classico, Montevertine steadfastly still labels all of their wines under the lower-tier IGT Toscana appellation.

Montevertine's core range consists of only three wines: two top-tier reds and one entry-level red. The aforementioned Le Pergole Torte is not only a more modern take on the Tuscan reds (being a 100% Sangiovese from selected fruit that is aged for a years in large Slavonian oak casks and another year in small Allier oak barriques), but also the wine better known as the world's first single-vineyard Chianti Classico –albeit never having been labeled as such – from the original 2 ha vineyard planted by Manetti. The wine known only as Montevertine is the standard bearer of the winery, made from the classic Chianti grapes of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino, and aged for 2 years in the traditional Slavonian oak casks. The entry-level wine Pian del Ciampolo is the little sibling of Montevertine, made from the Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino wines that were not used for the higher-quality Montevertine and aged for only 12 months in large Slavonian oak casks. Despite bearing the IGT Toscana appellation, both Montevertine and Pian del Ciampolo are through-and-through Chianti Classico wines at their heart.

In addition to these three wines, there are also a handful wines that are produced only in best vintages, otherwise sporadically or have just went out of production. These include the Vin Santo that goes by the name Ambradolce; the white wines Bianco di Montevertine and M; and the single-vineyard wines Il Sodaccio and Il Cannaio – of which the latter one is a special wine made for the three Michelin star-restaurant Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence.

As the wines have since 1981 boasted only Vino da Tavola and – from 1992 onwards – IGT Toscana in their labels, many people think that Montevertine is a Super-Tuscan producer. Yet nothing could be further from the truth: the winery has never planted anything but the local, traditional varieties in their vineyards and their winemaking reflects the traditions of the regions. Thus, the wines are not mouthfillingly voluptuous and powerful blockbusters as one might associate with the IGT Toscana wines, but instead very sophisticated, harmonious and classically styled Chianti Classico reds with much emphasis on the balance between the fruit and the structure.

Of the core range, Montevertine and Le Pergole Torte wines are usually considered to be good choices if one wants to have excellent, ageworthy Chianti wines in the cellar, whereas the Pian del Ciampolo wines are considered to be great alternatives if one is thinking of getting into the Montevertine style with more younger-drinking wines. Normally this entry-level wine is considered to be a nice, more pedestrian example of both Chianti Classico and Montevertine, suitable mainly for early consumption and less for cellaring. However, I recently attended a Montevertine tasting that aimed to show that even this least ambitious wine of the range is not just a simple, easy-drinking red meant for early consumption, but also a serious Chianti Classico on its own, capable of withstanding a decade of cellaring.

These are my tasting notes on the Pian del Ciampolo wines we tasted through that evening.

Montevertine Pian del Ciampolo
IGT Toscana
  • Montevertine
  • Country: Italy
  • Region: Toscana, Chianti Classico, Radda in Chianti
  • Grape(s): Sangiovese (90%), Canaiolo, Colorino





The entry-level red of Montevertine, made from a Sangiovese-driven blend of local red varietals. The wine is first fermented and macerated with the grape skins for 25 days in cement vats. The wine also goes through the malolactic fermentation in the cement vats before it is transferred to large Slavonian oak casks, in which the wine ages for a minimum of 12 months. After the wine is bottled, it is aged for a further 3 months in bottles before it is released to the market. Since 2009 the wines have been made from organically grown grapes.

Oh, and if you are wondering about the pronunciation, it is PYAn del CHUM-polo (ending with two short o's, not pow-low).

***

Pian del Ciampolo 2012
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on 4th of January, 2016

A vintage evaluated as 3/5 by Montevertine. This year there was no real winter nor were there any spring rains. The summer was very warm to even hot, especially towards the July-August, halting the ripening process in many vines. However, the rains arrived in late August, resuming the growth and ripening in the vines.

Youthful, dark yet moderately translucent ruby red appearance.

Somewhat restrained but fragrant and surprisingly sweet nose with fruit-forward primary aromas of red cherry, rose petals, some boysenberry aromatics and a hint of raspberry marmalade.

On the palate the wine feels quite youthful and easygoing, albeit drier than what the nose suggests with juicy flavors of ripe cherry, dark-toned forest fruits and some sour cherry crunchiness. Overall the wine feels moderately acid-driven, bright and quite structured with medium-to-moderate tannins.

The wine finishes with flavors of sour cherry bitterness and sweeter flavors of ripe dark berries. The aftertaste is medium-long, juicy and quite straightforward with some tannic grip.

Overall this young vintage of Pian del Ciampolo seems rather simple and easygoing basic-level Chianti Classico with more emphasis in sweet but rather one-dimensional fruit than complexity.

87/100
Summary: Although the wine seems structured enough, I fail to see much aging potential here and most likely the wine is best for earlier consumption – although if this wine is representative of the house's young style, the older Pian del Ciampolo vintages have proven me quite wrong with this prediction.

***

Pian del Ciampolo 2011
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on 4th of January, 2016

A vintage evaluated as 4/5 by Montevertine. Overall not considered a great vintage, starting with a warm spring, followed by extended spring rains well into the summer. The rains were followed by a record-breaking heat wave in August that not just ripened the grapes, but also shut down some vines and raisined some grapes in the vines. Due to the very irregular weather, careful selection of fruit yielded best results.

Quite translucent and luminous, but also pretty dark ruby red color.

Very dark-toned and somewhat earthy nose with aromas of juicy and quite sweet dark cherries, some plummy fruit, hints of dried prunes and an underlying nuance of leather.

Rich, supple and full-bodied on the palate with lots of ripe, well-delineated fruit on the fore: dark cherries, plummy dark fruit, some sour cherry bitterness and hints of peppery spice. The warm vintage is quite evident in the sweet edge of the fruit. The structure feels in balance with the fruit, the wine having moderate acidity and moderate, firm but not that grippy tannins.

The finish is long, juicy and quite opulent with somewhat less sweet and more savory flavors of peppery spice, dark cherries, some tart sour cherry character, a hint of earth and a little tannic astringency.

A classy and sophisticated Chianti Classico with more weight than in 2012 or 2010 and with much emphasis on the pure, slightly sweet and very ripe, dark-toned fruit. Although somewhat big and pretty ripe, the structure feels well-balanced with the rest of the wine.

88/100
Summary: This is an enjoyable and nice Chianti Classico from the sweeter and obviously more ripe end, drinking very nicely right now. Although the wine shows potential to short-to-medium-term cellaring, I wouldn't hold on to this vintage for too long.

***

Pian del Ciampolo 2010
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on 4th of January, 2016

A vintage evaluated as 5/5 by Montevertine and one that is also considered as one of the best (but also very difficult) in Tuscany in some while – especially so in Montalcino. The vintage started off pretty wet and remained rather cool until July, when the temperatures started to rise. The wet and cool start reduced yields and kept the ripening about 2 weeks behind the normal schedule. The grapes ripened very late, well into October, and many producers had to pick their grapes in may tiers in order not to harvest grapes that weren't ripe enough or not to let some go overripe. In many cases the resulting fruit quality was outstanding.

Quite translucent and luminous, but also pretty dark ruby red color.

The nose feels somewhat dark-toned and even a bit reticent with ripe red cherry fruit on the fore, supported by a blanket of earthy and dusty tones and hints of tart dark berries. However, there also lingers a slightly green undertone of bell pepper and celery behind the brighter fruit notes.

On the palate the wine feels a bit restrained as well, but with pure and bright flavors of plums, sour cherries, darker berries, some dusty earth notes and nice, subtle bitterness. The mouthfeel is full-bodied with moderate acidity and moderate, ever-so-slightly grippy tannins.

The medium-long finish follows the midpalate with slightly rough-edged flavors of roasted spices, brambly blackberries, ripe plums, some tannic grip and hints of sour cherry bitterness.

As I've had lots of tremendous Tuscan reds from 2010, I had high expectations for this wine. However, they were met only partially; the wine was pure and lovely with a bit more tightly-knit texture than in 2009 or 2011, but it fell a bit short on the depth and complexity department.

89/100
Summary: Overall this is a nice, bright and balanced Chianti Classico-style red with lovely purity of fruit and one that is obviously still on its way up, but most likely this is not going to be one of the great Pian del Ciampolos despite the great vintage.

***

Pian del Ciampolo 2009
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on 4th of January, 2016

A vintage evaluated as 5/5 by Montevertine. The year began with a normal spring, followed first by an exceptionally hot May and then a month of more or less nonstop rain. After the rains, the summer was warm and got pretty hot towards the end of the summer – culminating in a heat wave that arrived during the time when the temperatures normally start to decline. The summer nights were somewhat cool, preserving some of the acidity, but most of this year's wines bear the mark of the hot vintage in their sweet, somewhat jammy or cooked fruit.

Quite translucent and luminous, but also pretty dark ruby red color.

For a 2009, the nose is quite sophisticated and nuanced, albeit very fruity and juicy. The aromas are quite dark-toned and brooding with obviously sweet edge, betraying succulent aromas of dark cherries, blackberries, even some strawberries – and a hint of alcohol.

On the palate this wine feels a bit richer, fruitier and more plump than the surrounding vintages with its full body and pure but somewhat rich and obviously very ripe flavors of dark forest berries, earthy spices, some red cherries and even a hint of syrup. However, there is a hint of bitterness and sour cherry tartness to offset the sweetest edge. Due to its modest acidity and suave, mellow tannins, the mouthfeel is noticeably silky, but lacking that certain Tuscan brightness.

The wine finishes with a spicy, dark-fruited medium-long aftertaste that shows a bit more bitterness and sour cherry character than the midpalate, yet remains rather sweet and soft.

This vintage feels excessively mellow and easy for a Pian del Ciampolo, as if the hot vintage just had polished away all the rough edges and personality from the wine.

87/100
Summary: This is an enjoyable Chianti Classico-style red, albeit one a bit too ripe and sweet for my taste. The wine is drinking really nicely now, but although the wine might keep for a handful of years in a cellar easily, I fail to see much potential for development here. Most likely a vintage for earlier enjoyment.

***

Pian del Ciampolo 2008
Size: 0,75
Tasted on 4th of January, 2016

A vintage evaluated as 4/5 by Montevertine. Overall a cooler vintage with high diurnal temperature variation, resulting in lighter, structured and more serious wines. In Chianti Classico the vintage was less successful than in other Tuscan regions, with only the very best vineyards producing fruit for the truly remarkable wines.

Remarkably dark, almost opaque black cherry color.

Somewhat restrained nose that shows that slightly darker-toned aroma profile of Montevertine, but lacking all that sweetness which was so evident in the vintages that followed. The nose is pure and fresh with aromas of red berries, sour cherries and crunchy – not that sweet – dark cherries with some earthy spice tones.

The wine is very dry, fresh and savory on the palate with moderately full body, balanced high acidity and rather pronounced, firm but not angular tannins. The fruit feels ripe, but intense instead of sweet, showing flavors of juicy dark berries, dark cherries, roasted Moroccan spices, some fresh red forest berries, a little smoke and a hint of aged, slightly raisined dark fruit.

The wine leaves a long, spicy and crunchy finish with some astringent, tannic grip and bright flavors of plummy dark fruit, tart cranberry, some Middle-Eastern spice and a hint of sour cherry.

This vintage shows exactly those characteristics I look for in a Chianti Classico: sour cherry, spice, intense structure of acidity and firm tannins, great finesse and no distracting sweetness.

91/100
Summary: This is a wine that still, at almost 8 years of age, shows good potential for further cellaring – yet also starting to drink very nicely as well. Seeing how this one feels much more serious, leaner and less sweet than the younger vintages, this is definitely a food wine. No hurry to open this one now, but if you do, let it breathe for a while. A terrific example how the best vintages of Pian del Ciampolo can be actually quite ageworthy and truly worth the buck.

***

Pian del Ciampolo 2006
Size: 0,75
Tasted on 4th of January, 2016

A vintage evaluated as 4/5 by Montevertine. Generally hailed as one of the greatest vintages of the the millennium along with the superb 2004, resulting in very serious wines. The weather conditions were very variable, ranging from the heat waves of June and July to the cooler days of Autumn, and from the hot Indian summer to the rains that closed the harvest.

The wine's appearance is translucent, yet moderately dark cherry red with a limpid, almost colorless rim.

The rich and nuanced nose is starting to show some hints of maturity in its dark-toned aromas of dark cherries, slightly tart plums, boysenberry marmalade, light earthiness and floral hints of aged Sangiovese. Overall the fragrant nose feels really beautiful and attractive.

The wine has full body and lovely, textural mouthfeel on the palate. There are somewhat developed, but remarkably intense and focused flavors of dark cherries, dried dark berries, some roasted exotic spices and umami hints of soy sauce and game. The flavors are juicy and succulent, but more dry and savory than ripe and sweet. The structure is remarkably good with moderately high acidity and ample, but ripe tannins that feel round yet still firm.

The wine finishes with a really long and slightly aged aftertaste of earthy spices, slightly wizened red cherries, some dark berries, a little sour cherry bitterness and a hint of rocky minerality.

Now this is the stuff, really! Judging by this bottle, 2006 is by far the best vintage of Pian del Ciampolo I've had. Not only it is a textbook example of a high-quality Chianti Classico, it is also an entry-level red that is capable to putting many flagship reds to shame!

95/100
Summary: This is really a remarkable example of the Montevertine style – even at 10 years of age, this wine feels like it was opened 10–15 years too early. Definitely a beautiful Chianti Classico that is all about aging potential. Just wow.

***

Pian del Ciampolo 2002
Size: 0,75
Tasted on 4th of January, 2016

A vintage evaluated as 3/5 by Montevertine, which is surprisingly high considering how horrible this vintage was on average: it was cool and wet, resulting mainly in grapes that were either unripe or rotten – or both. Definitely not a vintage that made keepers.

Somewhat translucent and somewhat hazy cherry red appearance with a matured maroon hue.

The obviously developed nose is really complex and attractive with fascinating aromas of dried cherries, dark forest fruits, some leather, a little mushroomy earthiness and hints of smoke.

On the palate the wine feels medium-bodied and moderately high in acidity with very mellow and fully resolved tannins. The fruit seems to have dried out a little, resulting in a quite developed, but rather unassuming taste with flavors of wizened red cherry, some raisiny dark fruit, a little syrupy, a hint of figs and a touch of dried dates. The wine's structure is in balance with the fruit, so it hasn't become yet overtly austere nor has it fallen apart yet either.

The finish is rich, albeit somewhat unfocused and lacking cohesion. There are pretty light yet still rather sweet flavors of dried dark fruits, wizened red cherries, some caramel and a hint of dried dates with some sensation of soft, powdery tannins gripping the gums very lightly.

Unsurprisingly, as a wine from a vintage universally recognized as poor, this was on a decline already. The wine was still quite alive and thoroughly enjoyable, but obviously it had never been a remarkable wine and its peak years were already in the past.

83/100
Summary: Perhaps the wine would have had a few points more, if enjoyed some years ago. Now most of its charm was reduced to only a shadow of its former self and those syrupy-raisiny notes of old wine had started to take over. It's high time to drink up these.

The wines of our tasting, pt. 1
The wines of our tasting, pt. 2

Although only an entry-level wine, this vertical successfully challenged the widely regarded view that Pian del Ciampolo is a wine for early consumption. Of course not all of the vintages are meant for the long haul, and quite certainly even the better ones won't outlive any good Montevertine or Le Pergole Torte, but it's quite plain to see that even the less impressive vintages are not just early drinkers, but also capable of benefiting from cellar age, whereas the best vintages can easily develop for decades.

Above all, this vertical really showcased the lovely, sophisticated style of the Montevertine winery that obviously emphasizes clarity and purity over power and concentration. You don't need to spend bucketfuls of bucks in order to get stunning, classically styled Tuscan reds – all you have to do, is study which vintages were really good in Chianti Classico and look for Pian del Ciampolos from those years!

March 31, 2017

Ruchè

Italy is an inexhaustible horn of plenty for wine geeks looking for obscure grape varieties: some say there are over one thousand different grape varieties in Italy alone – which might be a little bit of an exaggeration, seeing how there are many varieties that are actually just one single variety with numerous synonyms. But even if we group up all the different synonyms under their respective varieties, we still end up with hundreds and hundreds of different varieties, red pink and white. Of course this means that a handful of varieties (like Sangiovese or Trebbiano) account for a great majority of plantings whereas more than 9 out of 10 of the varieties found in Italy are so obscure they aren't produced anywhere else but within their native home region – and even then usually totaling for less than 10 hectares (25 acres).

Ruchè (pronounced ru-KEH; also written as Ruché, with an acute accent, or Rouchet) is one such variety. It is a unique red grape variety indigenous to Piedmont, Northern Italy, and to my best knowledge not encountered anywhere else. Even within Piedmont the variety is very rare, grown mainly around the comune of Castagnole Monferrato and, to a lesser extent, in the neighboring province of Alessandria (where it is known as Moscatellina or Romitagi). The variety became into limelight for the first time in 1987, when Castagnole Monferrato, the region where most of the Italy's some 40 hectares (100 acres) of Ruchè are cultivated, acquired the variety-specific DOC appellation. The variety got further recognition in 2010, when the appellation was promoted to DOCG Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato.

What makes Ruchè so unique is its aroma and flavor profile. I often see it compared to Nebbiolo due to its aromatic, floral character, but in my opinion this comparison does no justice whatsoever to the variety; Nebbiolo might be somewhat aromatic and have faint characteristic aromas of roses, but this is to no extent what one can experience with Ruchè! What I would compare Ruchè to would be the other local aromatic red variety, Brachetto, or maybe Muscat Rouge, or then just the heady Gewürztraminer – only with red color. The aroma of a Ruchè wine can be very close to the explosively floral aroma of Gewürztraminers, which is a whole different ballpark from that of Nebbiolo.

How Ruchè wines differ from these aforementioned varieties is that normally these aromatic red varieties are usually vinified into sweet and (especially Brachetto) often lightly to moderately sparkling wines, whereas Ruchè is normally vinified into more serious and completely dry red wines, with the tannins and all. The variety is normally quite tannic and moderate in acidity, so producers often want to pick the variety early enough to retain as much acidity as possible (especially in warmer vintages), yet late enough for the variety to develop its unique, aromatic profile. Another difficulty is to avoid too much extraction, because otherwise the wines can end up forbiddingly tannic.

The resulting wines are often very Nebbiolo-like in appearance with their clear and luminous, pale red color and they often smell like rosewater and raspberries with subtle grapey hints. Some wines can be light and refreshing with high acidity, whereas some can be softer and more mellow; some can be very easy on the tannins, whereas others can have surprisingly much tannic grip and bitter astringency, something not unlike Nebbiolo or Freisa, another Piedmontese variety. These wines often finish on a slightly bitter note, something similar to many dry Muscats and Gewürztraminers. Traditionally these wines have been paired with cold cuts and other local dishes in their origin of Asti province, with very little consumption outside its area of cultivation. However, in the past decade or so, the variety has gained wider recognition and is slowly making its way to other parts of Piedmont and the rest of Italy and even an occasional bottle making its way out of Italy altogether.

Here is a small selection of some Ruchè wines I have sampled.

Enrico Morando Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2013
DOCG Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato
  • Vigneti e Cantine Enrico Morando
  • Country: Italy
  • Region: Piedmont, Asti, Castagnole Monferrato
  • Grape(s): Ruchè (100%)
  • Price: 7,69€ / 0,75 l
  • Tasted on: April 26th, 2015



At 130 hectares (320 acres), Enrico Morando is not only one of the biggest producers in the Monferrato region, but also one of the most prominent producers of Ruchè.

The wine has a translucent, thin raspberry color with a faint purple hue.

The wine shows heady, floral and really aromatic bouquet with rich aromas of Brachetto / Gewürztraminer rose and rosewater, ripe raspberry sweetness, some strawberry jam and hints of grapey notes, even a bit of raisin.

Though velvety smooth in the mouth, the wine is surprisingly high in acidity with good, peppery spiciness. The wine has medium-sized body, yet it feels almost mouthfilling with its rich flavors of intense spiciness, sweet raspberry notes, ripe strawberry fruit and nuances of rosewater. Very soft and mellow tannins that are barely noticeable.

The wine ends with a juicy, powerful finish with pronounced black pepper spice, some bitter herbs, sweet raspberry notes and hints of strawberry juice.

It might be hard to take a wine this rich and aromatic seriously, yet I must admit that this wine is surprisingly serious and balanced with remarkable poise.

87/100
Summary: Very interesting and complex a red wine that is really fun to drink. Not the most remarkable Ruché, but at only 7,69€ this wine gives good bang for the buck.

***

Produttori di Portacomaro Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2014
DOCG Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato
  • Produttori di Govone
  • Country: Italy
  • Region: Piedmont, Asti, Portacomaro
  • Grape(s): Ruchè (100%)
  • Price: ~10€ / 0,75 l
  • Tasted on: September 9th, 2015



This wine is produced by Produttori di Portacomaro, a sub-division of a bigger co-op, Produttori di Govone – a producer known for making simple but reliable, well-made traditionalist wines true to the Piedmontese style. Portacomaro is a small village of some 2000 people in the province of Asti, neighboring Castagnole Monferrato and included in the local appellation of Ruchè.

Deep, translucent cherry red.

Very expressive, rich and perfumed nose with intense aromas of roses and rosewater, some cherry and hints of lingonberry.

Rich and juicy on the palate with light body – yet the wine doesn't feel so light, due to the rich and juicy character of the fruit. There are bright, expressive and characterful flavors of red cherry, rosewater, some raspberry jam and hints of sour cherry bitterness. The tannins are pretty light and mellow.

The wine finishes on a dry yet curiously sweet note that encapsulates the varietal characteristics perfectly. There are intense notes of perfumed rosewater, sweet raspberry, cocktail cherry, some sour cherry bitterness and a hint of tannic grip in the aftertaste.

This is really a textbook Ruchè that is dry, yet fools one into thinking that this wine is sweeter than it actually is due to its rich, aromatic flavors of roses and raspberries.

88/100
Summary: Not a big and impressive wine by any standards, but definitely one that is easily remembered due to its almost Gewürztraminer-like aromas and flavors of roses and rosewater. Well-balanced stuff that is really interesting to sip just on its own, but also easy to pair with many lighter dishes, be they vegetarian, white meat or red meat.

***

Giuseppe Rinaldi Rosae 2014
Vino Rosso
  • Giuseppe Rinaldi
  • Country: Italy
  • Region: Piedmont, Langhe
  • Grape(s): Ruchè (100%)
  • Price: ~15€ / 0,75 l
  • Tasted on: August 11th, 2016



A wine by the traditionalist Barolo producer, Giuseppe Rinaldi, spearheaded by the grandson of the winery's founder Giuseppe Rinaldi, also named Giuseppe Rinaldi – better known as 'Beppe' in order to avoid confusion. As Ruchè (or Rouchet, as it is known there) is not an allowed variety in the Barolo region, this wine doesn't bear any designation of appellation, but is simply 'Vino Rosso'.

Luminous, translucent ruby color with faint purple highlights and colorless rim.

Really exuberant and even somewhat funky nose with pronounced aromas of sweet dark berries, plums, roses, leather, bretty manure notes, some earthy tones and hints of cranberry. Pretty rustic and atypically complex nose that isn't just about the varietally typical rose aromas.

Very light and remarkably acid-driven – even crisp on the palate with fresh and really juicy, albeit surprisingly concentrated flavors of lingonberries, cranberries and crowberries with some floral complexity and hints of dirty brett. The wine feels very structured with its high acidity and moderate, slightly grippy tannins.

The finish is really long and very complex with lively and slightly funky flavors of tart lingonberries, sour cherry bitterness, juicy raspberries, some bretty manure notes and light hints of sous bois along with gentle tug of tannins.

This wine is just perfect for my taste. I can imagine not many people will be seduced with a wine that is light, bracingly acidic and quite noticeably bretty, but I'm sold. This is just perfect stuff.

95/100
Summary: I'm not sure if the wine (or this vintage) is actually supposed to be bretty or if this is an off bottle, but I don't mind one bit. This is like good, funky, old-school Burgundy Pinot with a unique, floral character of Ruchè. Higher in acidity and more tannic than an average example of the variety. Probably the best example of Ruchè there is.

***

Scarpa Rouchet Briccorosa 2008
DOC Monferrato Rosso
  • Antica Casa Vinicola Scarpa
  • Country: Italy
  • Region: Piedmont, Monferrato
  • Grape(s): Ruchè (100%)
  • Price: 23,50€ / 0,75 l
  • Tasted on: August 11th, 2016



Scarpa is a winery located in Nizza Monferrato, well-known for their back vintages; since the 1950's the winery has always held on to their best vintages and stashed them away in the cellar. And this is not just Nebbiolo wines, but wines from other Piedmontese varieties as well. Furthermore, the winery is known to age even their entry-level wines much longer than other wineries of their region. This single-vineyard Ruchè (labeled as Rouchet) is fermented and aged completely in stainless steel in order to preserve the varietal characteristics best.

Luminous and obviously more deeper dark cherry red than what is usual for Ruchè; only a little translucent.

Quite sweet and very complex nose with rather dark-toned and slightly developed aromas of dark cherry, chokeberry, some perfumed rose notes, a little licorice, minty herbal notes, a hint of ink and a touch of something slightly green.

True to the variety, the wine feels even somewhat sweet on the palate, despite being technically bone-dry, yet also very light and racy due to the lively acidity. There are ripe flavors of dark forest berries, juicy dark fruits, tart cranberries, some licorice, a little dark cherry, autumnal leafy hints of sous-bois and a touch of salinity. The age has made the mouthfeel very smooth and velvety and the tannins are quite mellow and easy.

The juicy finish is remarkably long with bright acidity, tart cranberry flavors, ripe and almost sweet dark berries and dark cherries, some rough, robust spiciness and hints of floral complexity. The unusually high alcohol (14,5%) shows a little and the tannins give the finish slight grip.

This slightly aged Ruchè is a stunning experience and easily one of the most impressive examples of the variety I've ever tasted.

94/100
Summary: Unusually ripe, rich and concentrated, with age having faded away the more expressive primary characteristics and replaced them with more tertiary notes, Scarpa's Briccorosa 2008 might be an atypical Ruchè, yet also it is a testament to the variety's aging capabilities. Although Ruchè seems like a variety that'll drink only while still young, this wine shows that it can obviously withstand some age when made into this bigger, more serious style.

***

As these wines I have described here show, Ruchè is truly a fascinating and versatile grape variety that often feels like it is a blend of Gewürztraminer and a light-bodied yet also quite structured red wine. Only the aforementioned varieties Brachetto and Muscat Rouge are the only red varieties I can think of that show this kind of explosive aromas of roses, yet even these varieties are set apart from Ruchè seeing how the don't have the tannins Ruchè does nor do they reach such high levels of acidity. In a nutshell, this is truly a characterful variety, that not only drinks nicely when young, but is also capable of developing nicely in the cellar – although perhaps the best way to get into Ruchè is to enjoy one that is still very young and full of that unique, floral character.

Of course such perfumed wines might be an acquired taste and pairing such aromatic wines with food might first be difficult, but perhaps one shouldn't overthink the unique character of Ruchè when planning on pairing it with food; most likely the best way to approach this strange bird is the way people in and around Castagnole Monferrato do – by thinking of it as nothing special, but instead just a regular red wine.

March 12, 2017

Vertical of the month: Produttori di Carema 2012-1964


The most tender place in my heart is for Northern Piedmont Nebbiolo, when it comes to Italian wines. Sure, wines from Barolo and Barbaresco are often stunning and some producers can make some really attractive Chiavennasca in Lombardy, too. However, I find Nebbiolo to be at its most thrilling when tasting these small, virtually unknown appellations that can produce just astounding Nebbioli at prices so low you would never imagine! These wines are not as burly and brooding as those from Barolo or Barbaresco, but instead much lighter and noticeably higher in acidity – some almost painfully so. Some wines might show very restrained and mellow tannins, more comparable to Pinot Noir from Burgundy, whereas the others can be even as tannic as the most grippiest of Barolos! But what matters the most to me is that practically all of the producers in these appellations are so-called "classicists": new barriques, extended hang times and other modern practices have never gained much foothold – unlike in Barolo and Barbaresco – and instead wines are made more or less the same way they were made a hundred years ago. The equipments have been replaced with newer ones, but the core recipe of the wines remains unchanged.

I heard of Carema the first time about three years ago when I stumpled upon a 1964 Carema by Luigi Ferrando in a small tasting of sorts. I wanted to know more about this appellation, so the next spring, in April 2015, we visited all the producers of Carema, just to get the hang of the region. I want to point here that this wasn't much of a feat, because there are only two producers in the region: the aforementioned Luigi Ferrando and the local co-operative, Cantina Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema.

Nebbiolo wines trained in pergolas.
Carema, located in the northern part of Piedmont, is easily one of the smallest appellations in Italy. Unlike all the other Nebbiolo-regions of northern Piedmont that are located north from Barolo and Barbaresco, close to the Lombardian border to the east, Carema is a lonely little spot right at the mouth of Aosta Valley in the northwestern corner of Piedmont – closer to the French and Swiss border, at the foothills of the Alps. It is an appellation centered around the village of Carema – a place so small you can drive through it in less than a minute or two – and although virtually unknown, it is amongst some of the oldest appellations in Italy, having been created already back in 1967. Although this appellation is situated in Piedmont, it shares much more terroir character with the neighboring appellations of the valley of Aosta, instead of with any of the other Piedmontese regions. The main variety of Carema is Nebbiolo, which must compose at least 85% of the local red wines; the rest can be filled out with other local varieties. The vines are often trained in traditional pergolas, which were used historically in the region in order to maximize the sparse arable land in the Alpine hills: the wines would grow high above the ground in this wooden framework, pergola, whereas the ground itself was reserved for the cultivation of vegetables. The vineyards are planted in the hills of the Alps – the lowest of the vineyards located at 300 meters above the sea level, whereas the highest ones could reach up to 600 m a.s.l. – in terraces built of stone. Not only can these stone terraces increase the acreage of arable land, they also store up the Sun's warmth during the day to keep the vineyards warmer at night – a real benefit for the wines so up north.

It is Aosta valley up there.
Although Carema might not seem so small by the appellation's allowed land area for cultivation – some 120 ha / 300 acres – the area under cultivation is actually really small, composed of only some 16 ha / 40 acres, making it easily one of the smallest appellations in Italy. For example even the relatively small Gattinara region covers 100 ha / 250 acres! And not only is Carema still a virtually unknown wine region, it is really easy one to miss too! The main road that goes past Carema doesn't pass through the village, but instead past it, so unless one is aware where this region really is, it is too easy drive past the village never noticing it.

Not that there is much to see in Carema. It's a small village of some 800 people and only the local co-op is situated there, pretty little anything else. The appellation laws stipulate that Carema wine must be made within the wine region, so Luigi Ferrando – a winery not situated in Carema but instead in the nearby city of Ivrea – responded to this stipulation by building small vinification premises and a cellar in the village just to make the wines according to the appellation rules. For those interested, this means that to visit Ferrando one mustn't actually go to Carema, but instead to Ivrea.

Out of the 16 hectares / 40 acres, the local co-operative Cantina Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema owns a great majority at 14 ha / 35 acres through the approx. 80 members of the co-op. They produce a handful of wines, three of which are local Nebbiolo wines of Carema: the regular Carema Classico, the flagship wine Carema Riserva (known as Carema di Carema before the revision of the appellation law) and the more modern Carema Selezione Barricato. What I find really adorable is how humbly the co-op understates the aging capabilities of their wines: they say in their home pages how the wines can age well (for over 10 years) and are likely to age more. Well, having tasted several of their vintages from the past 50 years, I can easily say that the wines are capable of developing for decades and holding for more than half a century!

Here are my tasting notes on the Carema / Carema Classico wines I have tasted.

Produttori di Carema Carema Classico
DOC Carema
  • Cantina Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema
  • Country: Italy
  • Region: Piedmont, Carema
  • Grape(s): Nebbiolo




This is the wine that composes the backbone of the co-operative's production. The wine is 100% Nebbiolo from the hills of Carema. After having been fermented and macerated with the grape skins for 12 days, the wine is aged for 12 months in old, large botti casks, followed by another 12 months of aging in bottles before release. Due to the relatively cool climate of Carema, the wines very rarely reach higher alcohol levels of 12,5%, but instead the acidity levels are very high – normally around 5,5 to 6 g/l, but occasionally capable of reaching levels even close to 9 g/l.

Produttori di Carema Carema Classico 2012
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on: 22nd of April, 2015

Pale cranberry marmalade color that is light even by Nebbiolo standards; this is more like a dark rosé wine than something remotely red wine. It has pure, crystalline nose with that attractive, really tart edge of a cool-climate Nebbiolo. There are aromas of crunchy, tart red berries, cranberries, some smoky and slightly tarry Nebbiolo aromatics, hints of dried flowers and a whiff of rose petals. The wine is very dry, but surprisingly full-bodied and silky on the palate with moderate acidity. There are spicy flavors of sour cherry, cranberry marmalade, some crunchy red currant notes and a hint of smoke. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of tannins, but they are still obviously quite young, tightly-knit and grippy. The wine leaves a dry, astringent and persistent aftertaste of crunchy redcurrants, raspberry marmalade, ripe cranberries, some smoke, a little roasted spices and a hint of sour cherry bitterness.

This is a really attractive little Nebbiolo that somehow combines the relatively simple and easy-drinking style with a very delicate, serious and almost Burgundian character.

91/100
Summary: Maybe not the most complex effort, this still is a lot better than almost any of the Langhe Nebbiolos with its superb balance and great focus. Probably won't develop much in the cellar, but will easily keep for years if not even for several decades. Very recommended and a steal at approx. 10€ at the co-op's cellar door.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1983
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on: 10th of September, 2016

Translucent but quite dark ruby red color with a mature maroon hue. The nose seems to show some signs of oxidation – there are mature notes of dried dates, nutty tawny port, sweet raisins, pungent smokiness and some sharp, Fino Sherry-like green apple notes of acetaldehyde. Especially the nutty tawny port aroma seems to become pronounced as the wine breathes. On the palate the wine seems more enjoyable, although somewhat over-matured with flavors of raisins, dried prunes, christmas spices, raisin soup, some sharp smoky notes and a little sharp aldehydic tang of salinity. The structure is very grippy with high acidity and moderately high tannins. The finish is quite long with very aged characteristics of nutty tawny port, raisins, dried dates, some aldehydic green apple notes and a little astringent tannic grip.

Although this wine wasn't completely dead, it was pretty obvious it was way too much developed for its age. It was still quite enjoyable, although the longer it stayed in the glass, the more aged it got – and it was pretty over-aged already – so this really wasn't the kind of experience I hoped it would be.

FLAW
Summary: As the wine wasn't showing like it should've, I'm scoring it as flawed. Although still drinkable, this wine was too oxidized to be actually worth rating.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1980
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on: 10th of September, 2016

By its appearance this wine is very similar to the vintage 1983, although with a bit deeper and darker hue. The savory nose doesn't seem to be oxidized, but somehow the aromas seem to have withered up; there are dark-toned and slightly pungent aromas of dried dark berries, some sour cherries, light notes of dried mushrooms, a little earthiness and a volatile lift of acetone. On the palate the wine feels dry, medium-bodied and focused with savory, acid-driven flavors of sour cherry bitterness, dried plums, peppery spiciness, some crowberry notes and a hint of minerality and iron. The tannins are moderate and somewhat grippy. The finish is dry and a bit thin with angular tannins and acid-driven flavors of crowberries, lingonberries, some dried blackberry notes and a hint of sour cherries.

Although the wine seemed past its prime according to its nose, it actually turned out to be quite nice – but only for a while. After only some moments of breathing, the wine seemed to sort of fall apart and die: having been in the glass for some 15-20 minutes, the nose became almost mute and the flavors dull, so most likely the wine had reached the end of its plateau of maturity.

83/100
Summary: The wine was pretty nice, but only for a little while, and even then it wasn't anything special. After the wine got some air, there wasn't much to savor. If you own bottles of this wine by some happenstance, I heartily recommend you to open them sooner than later.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1978
  • Size: 0,75
  • Tasted on: 10th of September, 2016

Remarkably youthful appearance: the wine is almost completely opaque with its bright black cherry color. The slightly reticent nose is savory and moderately developed, but still in wonderful condition, exhibiting earthy aromas of sour cherries, loamy sous-bois, some meaty notes, a little withered flowers and a hint of volatile acetone lift. On the palate the wine feels quite light-bodied, but bright and focused with crunchy acidity and nice, light tannic bite. There are quite ripe flavors of juicy dark cherries, tart lingonberries and cranberries, some sour cherries, light rainy forest notes and a hint of crowberries. The wine finishes with a medium-long, acid-driven and somewhat bitter aftertaste with dry flavors of crowberries, some cranberries and a hint of sour cherries.

This wine is a really lovely example of the aged Nebbiolo of Carema: it seems pretty hard to catch these wines in the optimum drinking window, as they either seem to be still on their way up, or long past their prime. This wine, however, was in really wonderful phase, showing some obviously mature characteristics, yet no oxidation or anything other overmature.

94/100
Summary: In short, this is just perfectly balanced Carema Nebbiolo; light in body, yet showing great depth and complexity of fruit and enough body to make its acid-and-tannin structure feel noticeable, yet not overwhelming. Probably will keep for years, even decades, but most likely won't develop any further from this.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1974
  • Size: 0,70
  • Tasted on: 1st of February, 2016

Moderately dark, somewhat translucent dark cherry color with maroon highlights. The nose feels somewhat restrained, yet pleasantly juicy with aromas of ripe sour cherry, a little dried fig and some autumnal forest floor notes with underlying hints of smoke, roasted spices and even some salty licorice; there is also the slightest touch of volatile acetone lift. On the palate the wine feels surprisingly full-bodied for a Carema, yet with lovely high acidity, giving the taste a tart edge. There are flavors of sour cherry, lingonberry, cranberry, some aged pruney character and a little sweet spice. Although the wine has moderately high tannins and bright acidity, its mouthfeel is pretty velvety due to the concentration brought by age. The wine finishes with a rather long, sharp and bone-dry aftertaste with even more pronounced acidity and bright flavors of tart dark berries, lingonberries, cranberry skins, some sweet pruney fruit and a lot of tannic grip.

This wine shows remarkable power and concentration for a Carema, being almost atypically full-bodied and tannic. Yet it is very obviously so Carema, with its sharp, acid-driven and almost austere character that is more about tart red berries than anything really fruity. Almost like a Bourgogne Grand Cru but made from Nebbiolo.

95/100
Summary: The 1974 vintage of this wine is remarkably youthful for its age and probably still on its way up, even at the age of 41 years! Very tart, sharp and acid-driven stuff but with lots of concentration and depth to back it up. Simply stunning wine, most likely the best co-op's Carema I've tasted.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1973
  • Size: 0,70
  • Tasted on: 1st of February, 2016

Moderately dark, somewhat translucent dark cherry color with modest bricking. Quite reticent, dark-toned nose with light but attractive aromas of red cherry, some tart plummy notes, a little sours-bois and a hint of wizened dark berries. On the palate the wine feels medium-bodied, dry and very acid-driven, almost bracingly tart with flavors of sour cherries, dark cherries, lingonberries and some tart dark berries. There is also a sweeter undertone of developed darker fruits. The tannins are quite ample and pretty grippy, but still not overtly aggressive. The wine finishes on a long, mouth-puckeringly tart note with acid-driven flavors of lingonberries and sour cherries and a hint of mouth-drying tannins.

Taking into account how tannic and high in acid this wine is, it is remarkably smooth and velvety – it feels it has some obvious grip, but all the rough edges have been polished away by the age. Stylistically this wine feels very close to the young vintage 2012, but only concentrated with the age.

92/100
Summary: Really lovely stuff, this. Not the best Carema I've had, the fruit being so austere and acid-driven taking all the focus and not letting the more developed nuances to shine through, yet this is still enormously attractive and drinkable. It is still so tightly-knit it definitely needs some food to be paired with.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1972
  • Size: 0,70
  • Tasted on: 1st of February, 2016

Developed, translucent maroon red color with a slightly tawny yellow-brown rim. Initially there's a very light, musty note of TCA and after that not much else. The wine is quite tannic and really tart with high acidity on the palate, but completely mute flavor-wise.

Probably a mild case of TCA: the wine really didn't smell or taste like corked, it was just completely dead.

FLAW

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1971
  • Size: 0,70
  • Tasted on: 1st of February, 2016

Translucent, luminous Burgundy red color with some obvious developed maroon highlights. Juicy, developed nose with complex aromas of ripe red cherry, some developed red fruit notes, a light touch of acetone volatility, a floral hint of rose petals, a touch of barnyard and a whiff of potpourri. The wine is medium-bodied, quite tannic and moderately high in acidity – meaning that it is a bit less acidic than Caremas on average. The lively flavors exhibit mainly surprisingly youthful red fruit flavors of sour cherry and ripe cranberry with underlying hints of sous-bois. Overall the wine feels very balanced: there is a crisp streak of acidity, yet the wine is still very smooth and pleasant. The wine finishes on a pretty long and quite tart note of sour cherries, acidic red berries and some stony minerality – although the developed flavors kick in towards the end of the aftertaste, introducing a slightly sweeter suggestion of wizened red fruit.

Overall the 1971 vintage of Carema was surprisingly enjoyable on its own; even though it sported high acidity, true to the region's style, it was slightly lower than in Caremas on average, making the wine feel quite balanced, even on its own – which is not always the case. Someone in the tasting described the wine pretty well as a "fillet knife in velvet".

93/100
Summary: For a wine close to 45 years of age, this is remarkably youthful effort, only showing very slight signs of age. Most likely the wine has reached its plateau of maturity already some time ago, but it doesn't show any signs of giving up, so probably this can still keep for several decades more. I suppose there won't be much development, but it doesn't matter as the wine is drinking so nicely now.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1970
  • Size: 0,7
  • Tasted on: 1st of February

The wine's color is quite dark and almost completely opaque, but obviously rather developed with its orange-black hue. The nose is quite all over the place with no sense of focus; there are aromas sous-bois, chokeberry, pickles, some dried cherry, light inky notes and a hint of phenolic smokiness. Most likely the wine has gotten a little bit too much oxygen over the years, letting a possible acetobacter run amok; there aren't any vinegary notes per se, but the briney-vinegary hints of pickle suggest that way. On the palate the wine is very light-bodied with pronounced, sharp acidity and moderate, grippy tannins. The flavors here are pure – tart lingonberries, cranberries, herbal greenness and some sour cherry – but the wine feels excessively sour and quite thin. The wine finishes on a thin and tart note with flavors of lingonberries and a hint of aldehydic salinity (think of Fino Sherry).

Most likely the cork has given up at some point; although the cork seemed to be OK, some oxygen might have seeped in, resulting in the pickle aromas and a hint of acetaldehyde noticeable in the finish.

FLAW
Summary: Although the wine was drinkable, it really wasn't that enjoyable, but instead pretty much lacking in balance and focus. Based on the other Carema wines of similar age, I doubt that the wine should have been like this, thus I rate this one "flawed".

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1968
  • Size: 0,7
  • Tasted on: 1st of February, 2016

Luminous, moderately dark cherry red; doesn't look that old. Somewhat developed and slightly restrained nose with aromas of ripe dark cherry, earthiness, some dried fig notes, light hints of loamy sous-bois, a touch of sour cherry and a whiff of something sharp, perhaps acetaldehyde? Despite its dark-toned flavors, the wine feels light-to-medium-bodied and almost thin on the palate with very pronounced, bracing acidity. There are flavors of tart dark berries and lingonberries, some sour plums, a little leather and a hint of bitter cranberry skin. There doesn't seem to be much tannins, but the tannins themselves feel rather sharp and angular. The wine finishes with a tart, acid-driven and pretty lengthy aftertaste with flavors of sour cherries, lingonberries, some earth and a hint of leather.

While sipping this wine I started to wonder whether these wines age at all? Although there were some light suggestions what would be signs of age, this wine really didn't differ that much from a vintage that was 40 years younger! The flavors were still remarkably pure and even somewhat youthful, whereas the tannins felt almost unchanged by the years.

84/100
Summary: Although this wine was remarkably young for its age, I must admit it really didn't offer much of anything interesting. It is always an experience to taste wine close to 50 years of age, but I really don't think the wine should be awarded much extra points if it has actually failed to age – or then these wines just age on a geologic time scale and this wine was just opened too young! Go figure. There isn't much fruit to develop, so most likely any development that might happen will be rather marginal.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1966
  • Size: 0,7
  • Tasted on: 1st of February, 2016

Dark, but very translucent and luminous brick red color. Very complex, but obviously very developed and not that pleasant nose with aromas of acrid smoke, gunpowder, manure, pencil shavings, dried orange peel, some nutty oxidative notes, a little old furniture, hints of rust and a touch of candle wax. On the palate the wine feels very light-bodied, even thin, with sharp, bracing acidity and rather pronounced, angular tannins. The fruit seems to have withered away, leaving just flavors of cranberry skin, sour cherry bitterness and lichen. The finish is pretty short; sharp, yet dull. There are thin, brief and quite tart flavors of cranberries and lingonberries, nothing much else.

Most likely this is what a Carema that has lived beyond its years tastes like. The nose shows lots of developed notes – mainly quite unpleasant ones – and the palate feels like it has withered up.

FLAW
Summary: As the wine feels like it is more or less dead at this stage, I feel there's no point scoring it. There is very little flavor left, but the structure still remains pretty unchanged. Apparently these wines can develop after all in the cellar, but only fruit-wise; the structure just doesn't soften up even after 50 years! So remember this if you have a bottle of Carema and you are planning on aging it: if you don't like its tart, acid-driven structure when the wine is young, you most likely won't like it when the wine is old.

***

Produttori di Carema Carema 1964
  • Size: 0,7
  • Tasted on: 1st of February, 2016

The wine has remarkably youthful appearance; dark, translucent red with even a slightest hint of purple hue. The nose suggests that the wine has seen a bit too much oxygen before opening the bottle: in addition to aromas of sweet red cherry, plum compote and some floral notes of violets, there are sharp and pungent aldehyde notes of Oloroso Sherry, some syrupy, oxidative notes of caramel and a hint of balsamic volatility. On the palate the wine is bone-dry and light-bodied, but instead of showing really bracing acidity, the flavors are full of sharp, Fino-Sherry like aldehydic notes of salinity and green apples. The tannins seem to have resolved away. The finish is sharp, tart and quite rough with green apple notes and saline flavors of acetaldehyde.

Probably the wine's cork has started letting in oxygen at some point. The wine wasn't oxidized like some wines I've had, making it come across very nutty and obviously oxidized, but instead letting the alcohol become oxidized into aldehydes, yet not making the wine come across nutty or much caramelized.

FLAW
Summary: It is really hard to say whether the wine would've been OK if it hadn't been so aldehydic. Now it just tasted like Fino Sherry made from red wine and it was impossible to assess the wine underneath all its sharp aldehydic notes.

The lineup from one of our tastings: the vintages 1964–1974.
Overall it has been really interesting and enlightening to taste through 50 years' worth of Carema Nebbiolo wines. What my experiences drinking these has revealed is that: a) These wines are truly capable of aging at a glacial pace – often even several decades of cellaring hasn't done much; b) These wines often don't age much! They are pretty light-bodied, high in acidity and focused on tart fruit when they are young, and they aren't much more when they are old, perhaps a little more complex and earthy; c) The drinking window of these wines is erratic and moves in a span of decades: whereas one wine can be past its prime at 30 years of age, another can be still young and in need of more cellaring even at 40 years of age!

Having drunk more than 10 of these wines, I still see no clear picture what is the perfect aging regime for a Produttori Carema. However, what I can say for certain is that these wines always tend to need to be paired with some food – they are light, tart and austere with high acidity, so they can be quite forbidding on their own, but instead paired with right food they can be outright spectacular.

So if the wines really don't age that much in the cellar, is there any point in aging them? Well, yes and no. On one hand, you can drink a bottle now, not worrying how much more interesting it would've been in 5 more years, because the chances are that it wouldn't have been. On the other hand, it is always nice to have a pure, smashing Nebbiolo at hand anytime, with no need to worry whether the wine is past its peak or not – unless you are planning on keeping on to those bottles for more than half a century. So if you are looking for truly wonderful, bright, and light-bodied, terroir-driven Nebbiolo-wines, the Carema wines must be up your alley; however, if you are looking for that specific, aged Nebbiolo character of long-cellared wines, probably the other Piedmontese regions will suit you better.

Wherever your interests lie, Carema is still a region you most certainly don't want to miss out.

February 25, 2017

Morenillo

One of the most intriguing discoveries I've done during the past few years is Morenillo, which I was introduced to during a trip to the wine region of Terra Alta, Catalonia. This is a variety so unheard of that even the most recent version of Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson et al. doesn't include it! However, I don't blame them, because currently the variety is on the brink of extinction with only some 15 ha (37 acres) in cultivation. Please note that despite the similarity in the name, Morenillo is not the same thing as Morellino, which is a synonym for Sangiovese in DOC Morellino di Scansano, Tuscany.

Morenillo is most likely a native variety from Terra Alta, where it has been cultivated for centuries. However, it fell out of favor during the 20th century, because the variety is relatively difficult to cultivate compared to the local favorites Garnatxa Negra (aka. Grenache) and Garnatxa Blanca (aka. Grenache Blanc) and normally it produces thin wines of pale color compared in comparison to the wines produced from other local red varieties. You have to remember, of course, that this was during the time when the determining quality factors of red wine were its color and concentration.

Juanjo Galcera Piñol of Celler Piñol, from the small village of Batea, Terra Alta, introduced us to this unknown variety during our visit to the winery in 2014. Historically the variety was widely cultivated, but now it is cultivated only by a handful of winegrowers – their number somewhere between 10 and 20 – and there is an even small number producers actually making Morenillo wines. Some of them use Morenillo in wine blends, whereas others make varietal wines. The reason behind the diminishing number of Morenillo producers is the local Consejo Regulador of DO Terra Alta, having decreed that Morenillo isn't only a non-recommended grape variety in the wine appellation of Terra Alta, but also an unauthorized variety as well. This means that there can't be no new plantings of Morenillo anywhere, nor has there been any for the past decades. All this is because the appellation consortium regards Morenillo an inferior variety and they try their best to keep the quality of the wine region up, emphasizing especially the high-quality white variety of the region Garnatxa Blanca.

Based on the Morenillo wines I've tasted I've realized how wrong the consortium is.

When Juanjo introduced us to Morenillo, he likened it to Pinot Noir. This is because both of these varieties have thin skins, resulting in wines with relatively pale, translucent color, and high acidity is typical for both of the varieties – only that Morenillo has adapted to survive in the warmer climate of Terra Alta* and thus is capable of retaining high acidity even in quite hot weather. The Morenillo plant itself is often pretty big: the trunks grow large, the trunks are long, the leaves are big and the grapes are often big with pretty small skin:juice ratio.

*Even though Terra Alta is bordering the hot wine region of Priorat, notable for its massive and concentrated red wines, it is not as hot a place as you might imagine. The wines of Terra Alta are often lighter and more delicate due to the high altitude of the region – after all, the name means "high land" – of 400 meters above sea level on average, keeping the climate relatively mild (and this is why Terra Alta's bright, sophisticated, crystalline and often remarkably high-acid Garnatxa Blancas are held in such high esteem!)

From what I have gathered based on my experiences, there are two main styles of Morenillo wines:
  • The lighter ones are made with fruit sourced from younger vineyards. These are often very Burgundian or even (Cru) Beaujolais in character, with pale color, high acidity and lovely freshness.
  • The more concentrated ones are made with fruit sourced very old, even vineyards. As new Morenillo plantings are scarce, most of the Morenillo vineyards are very old. However, it takes decades, even close to 100 years before the vines begin to bear fruit that is so small and concentrated that the resulting wines are very deep and feel a lot weightier than their lightier counterparts.

Now here are all the Morenillo wines I've had to this date:

Celler Piñol Finca Morenillo 2011
DO Terra Alta
  • Celler Piñol
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 29,00€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: September 25th, 2014



Celler Piñol is a family winery that has been operating in the village of Batea, Terra Alta, since 1945 and is also the winery where we working for some time during the harvest 2014. As Celler Piñol is probably the biggest winery producing Morenillo wines, Finca Morenillo is most likely the wine the people (who have heard of Morenillo) know. The wine is made with grapes from organically cultivated 75 yo vines and aged for 15 months in 500 liter French oak casks. Annual production is about 3,000 bottles.

Dark, almost completely opaque garnet color shows much more concentration than what is typical for the variety.

The wine has very open and aromatic nose with fragrant floral nuances veering towards violets and rich blackberry-driven fruit aromas, with elegant hints of fresh dark fruits and a touch of wild strawberry in the background.

On the palate the wine is medium-to-moderately full-bodied with lively acidity and lovely brightness. The wine feels moderately concentrated – probably due to the intense fruit produced by the old vines – but still very balanced and far from being heavy or ponderous. There are juicy, vibrant flavors of rich dark berries, some plummy fruit, a little tart cranberry character and a hint of leather. The mouthfeel is velvety smooth due to the rather modest, ripe and pretty mellow tannins.

The finish is long, nuanced and delicate with layered aromas of ripe blackberries, sour plums, some violet floral hints, a touch of vanilla and a light volatile lift towards the end. The alcohol lends a little warmth towards the finish.

This wine is really lovely stuff – it is by far the most elegant and delicate expression of Terra Alta in Celler Piñol's premium range. For a Morenillo, however, this Finca Morenillo is very dark-toned, concentrated and robust an example; normally Morenillo wines show much less concentration and extraction, are paler in color and higher in acidity.

91/100
Summary: Although not my favorite Morenillo, with its bit too ripe fruit flavors and somewhat too obvious oak character, Finca Morenillo is still one of the best examples of Terra Alta winemaking and definitely one of the best wines in Celler Piñol range, if not the best. At 29€ the wine is priced according to its quality, making it somewhat of a "cult wine" of Terra Alta. I can imagine the wine will age nicely in the cellar, especially if it loses some of its baby fat with the years.

***

Lafou El Sender 2012
DO Terra Alta
  • Lafou Celler
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Grenache (60%), Syrah (20-25%), Morenillo (15-20%)
  • Price: 8,90€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: September 28th, 2014



Lafou Celler is from Batea, Terra Alta, just like Celler Piñol, and also one of the very few producers making a varietal Morenillo. I haven't had the Morenillo wine from this relatively new winery (founded in 2007), so here's a tasting note on a wine with a small portion of Morenillo instead.

Dark, slightly translucent cherry color.

Juicy, succulent nose full of fruit-forward aromas of ripe strawberries, dark cherries, cherry marmalade and some brambly raspberry.

The wine is juicy, fruit-forward and medium-bodied on the palate with succulent and spicy but somewhat one-dimensional flavors of ripe strawberry, some sweet oak spice and a hint of plummy dark fruit. The wine is rather low in acidity, but has moderately firm, ripe tannins.

The finish is juicy and quite long with nuanced flavors of cherry, roasted spice, some coffee notes, a little bitterness and a touch of sweet raspberry juice.

87/100
Summary: El Sender is a fruity, enjoyable and quite balanced blended wine typical of the region, where the small addition of Morenillo adds nice brightness and a little sense of crunchy red fruit. The wine is, however, a bit simple, easy and pretty straightforward and lacking a little in the structure department. With higher acidity and grippier tannins the wine might come across more serious and intense. Might hold on for some years in the cellar, but is not in need of further cellaring. OK QPR at 8,90€.

***

Vins del Tros Morenillo Àmfora 2013
DO Terra Alta
  • Vins del Tros
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 12,20€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: September 27th, 2014



Vins del Tros is a winery founded in 2009 with an aim to produce terroir-driven wines that are very typical for the Terra Alta region. Their winemaking philosophy is pretty much based on minimal intervention. This is a 100% Morenillo fermented with natural yeasts in stainless steel tanks and aged for 5 months in 450 liter terracotta amphorae. Total production 3,102 bottles.

The wine has translucent dark cherry color with a hint of youthful purple to it.

Youthful, pure and aromatic nose full of crunchy red berries like wild strawberries, ripe raspberries, tart cranberries and sweet redcurrants with a light, herbal undertone of blackcurrant.

The wine is youthful, refreshing and medium-bodied on the palate with velvety texture, bright acidity and modest, fine-grained tannins. There are pure and fresh flavors of wild strawberry, cherry, crunchy red fruits like raspberries and redcurrants with some earthy spice, a hint of bitterness and a touch of slatey minerality. Wonderful focus and balanced structure.

Long, fresh and clean finish with flavors of cranberries, bilberries, stony minerality, some wild strawberries and a hint of herbal bitterness.

Overall we have here a wonderful, pure, bright and easy-drinking example of Morenillo. Truly a lovely and attractive little wine that drinks wonderfully on its own, but shows great potential as a versatile food wine.

92/100
Summary: Stylistically this is very close to a well-made Pinot Noir or Cru Beaujolais. Incredibly moreish stuff with tremendous drinkability. Most likely this is best enjoyed young, when the wine is full of youthful vigor. Simply exceptional value at 12,20€.

***

Vins del Tros Morenillo Lo Morenillo 2011
DO Terra Alta
  • Vins del Tros
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 23,45€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: October 25th, 2015



This is a wine made from the grapes of century-old Morenillo vines, the oldest vines owned by Vins del Tros. The wine is fermented and aged partly in old barrels, partly in amphorae and bottled unfiltered and unfined. Annual production of 1,140 bottles.

In the glass the wine has dense, opaque and concentrated blackcurrant color with a hint of haziness from the sediment.

It has incredibly rich, charming and expressive nose that is just deliciously juicy and clean; there are aromas of pure, juicy red grapes, prunes and fresh blackcurrants with nuances of balsamico volatility and animality in the background.

In the mouth the wine follows the aromas of the nose with its intense, pure and super-juicy flavors of ripe dark fruits, plum juice, bitter spiciness, some wild florals and a hint of honey. It has dry, concentrated and savory overall appearance with high-ish acidity and moderate tannins.

Ripe and pure finish with flavors of bitter spice, plum juice, florality and hints of volatile rusticity – and a slightest hint of alcohol heat (14,5%). Very long, pure, honest and complex aftertaste.

Boy oh boy this was good! More than good! Just incredibly pure, charming and juicy stuff – it is so much like its younger sibling, Àmfora Morenillo, but with a lot more oomph and concentration!

94/100
Summary: Not only is this perhaps the greatest Morenillo I've had, this is also one of the greatest modern Spanish red I've ever drunk. I'd love to see how this stuff ages, but it's very hard to cellar a wine like this, because this is so incredibly delicious and thus has incredibly high evaporation rate – my glass just emptied itself in mere seconds after it was filled, every time! An excellent buy at 23,45€.

***

Bàrbara Forés El Templari 2012
DO Terra Alta
  • Celler Bàrbara Forés
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (70%), Grenache (30%)
  • Tasted on: October 25th, 2014




Celler Bàrbara Forés is a winery that has produced wine since the late 19th century in Gandesa, Terra Alta, and is currently spearheaded by Carme Ferrer and her husband Manuel Sanmartín. They cultivate 22 ha of vineyards organically and they are one of the wineries trying their best to revive larger interest in Morenillo. However, curiously, their Morenillo wine, El Templari, isn't a 100% varietal Morenillo, but instead a Morenillo-dominant blended wine with some Garnatxa Negra (aka Grenache) in the mix.

Morenillo is fermented and macerated for 35 days in stainless steel whereas Grenache is fermented and macerated for 28 days in stainless steel. After the fermentation is complete, the wines are transferred to French Allier oak barriques, where they remain for 13–14 months before blending and bottling.

Dark, translucent color.

The wine exhibits a bit reticent nose dominated by sweet strawberry notes of Grenache with some alcohol and hints of oak spice.

It is quite full-bodied and sweet on the palate with relatively low acidity, resulting in a slightly flat and flabby mouthfeel. There are really ripe and rich flavors of strawberry, bitter spices, some fresh red berries and a hint of chocolate oak spice. The fine tannins are rather mellow and gentle and alcohol shows a little.

The finish is rich, juicy and a bit warm with flavors of strawberry, some oak spice and a hint of plums.

I was really curious to check out this new, Morenillo-dominant wine, but in this case the moderately small proportion of Garnacha seemed to dominate the blend with the oak influence overwhelming the rest of the Morenillo character. Normally Morenillos that I have tasted have been quite light, delicate and bright, but this was more about richness and sweet, ripe fruit – the wine actually tasted like a normal, average Grenache wine, with very little unique character.

85/100
I was a bit disappointed with El Templari. Probably the wine suffered from being served a bit above the optimum drinking temperature, making the acidity appear lower, fruit sweeter and alcohol more prominent, but it really felt that even in optimum drinking conditions it would have been an underachiever for a Morenillo wine. I guess I should return to this, but serve it cooler. This time the wine just didn't manage to impress.

***

Bàrbara Forés El Templari 2014
DO Terra Alta
  • Celler Bàrbara Forés
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (70%), Grenache (30%)
  • Price: 13,00€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: July 16th, 2016



Well, as the vintage 2012 of El Templari felt such an underachiever, I decided to give it another go. A few years later I returned to the vintage 2014, which should be similar in style – a Morenillo-dominant blended wine.

The wine's appearance is a bit lighter than that of 2012's, with translucent and rather pale cranberry red color, turning almost clear towards the rim.

The nose is pretty nuanced and bright, but also rather reticent and restrained, even. However, the nose exhibits more savory than sweet red tones with aromas of cranberries, some crowberries, faint wild notes and faint nuances of sweeter, ripe raspberry. The alcohol (13,5%) and the oak character seem to be well integrated.

On the palate the wine feels pretty full-bodied and moderate at most in the acid department, although showing a bit more freshness and brightness than the 2012 vintage. There are ripe but attractive and lively flavors of sweet dark berries, red cherries, some wild strawberries, a little dark-toned oak spice and a hint of rough, stony minerality. The tannins are still pretty mellow and keep out of the way unless you go looking for a fight.

The wine finishes with a medium-long, dark-toned and pretty pure aftertaste that is mostly about ripe fruit, not oak character. There are juicy and lively flavors of sweet red berries, some dark forest fruits and a little bitter spiciness with a hint of aromatic oak spiciness towards the end of the aftertaste.

Well, after the rather nondescript vintage 2012, it really did good to return to this wine again with another vintage! The 2014 vintage of El Templari felt brighter and more pure with more emphasis on the fruit than on the oak department. Still, I wouldn't say El Templari shows much competition against the best Morenillo wines on the market – this wine is a simple, unpretentious, easy-drinking red with very little to set it apart from a multitude of other Catalan reds.

88/100
Summary: Apparently Morenillo is so delicate it gets pretty easily overwhelmed under more powerful varieties. Both times I've tasted El Templari it felt I was drinking a Garnacha wine – even though Garnacha was only a minor component there composing only approximately 30% of the blend. I guess if you want to make a good Morenillo, you should treat it as the delicate variety it is, not something that needs "bigger" varieties to bolster up its "weaknesses".

***

Bodega Marañones Darío 2015
DO Madrid
  • Bodega Marañones
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Madrid
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 15,40€ / 0,75
  • Tasted: February 17th, 2017



Before I heard about Bodega Marañones' Darío I thought Morenillo was a variety found exclusively in Terra Alta, but lo and behold, somehow they've got some Morenillo in Madrid as well! I have no idea how and why Morenillo ended up in Madrid, or whether this Morenillo is even the same variety than the one in Terra Alta. But take note that this isn't just a recent thing – this Darío is made with grapes sourced from a vineyard 60 years old! Anyhow, this is definitely the only Morenillo wine I've seen coming from outside Terra Alta – at least for now.

The bottle itself doesn't declare it is made from Morenillo, only variedades locales; furthermore, the home pages of Bodega Marañones don't even recognize Darío's existence! It's all the other sources that claim this is a Morenillo, and I guess I just have to take their word for it. The vineyard in question is situated on granite soil and the resulting wine is aged for 9-10 months in very old (more than 10 years of age) oak barrels of 500-700 liters. The total production is 2,500 bottles.

The wine is dark cherry-colored and quite translucent.

The fragrant nose is utterly beautiful and attractive with pronounced aromas of crushed lingonberries, supported by more delicate notes of cranberries, raspberries, some dusty earth and a hint of animal. The nose actually has a strong sense of Pinosity, really, with a slightly wild undercurrent.

True to the nose, the wine is very light-bodied, fresh and super-crunchy on the palate with bright, lively flavors of raspberries, cranberries, redcurrants, some sour cherry and a hint of sour plums. Some lighter nuances of earthy spices and something wild linger in the background. Overall the wine shows remarkable focus and purity of flavor; if this was served to me blind, I'd go automatically for a Loire or Jura Pinot Noir, nothing Spanish! There isn't much in the way of tannins, yet the wine shows nice little grip and even a slight sense of astringency, just to emphasize the tart and savory red fruit flavors.

The finish is somewhat more bitter than the midpalate with quite pronounced sour cherry character, complemented by savory nuances of ripe dark-skinned berries, some slightly leafy green notes, a little plummy fruit and hints of animal and leather. The aftertaste that remains on the tongue is really long with pronounced lingonberry tartness and slightly grippy tannins.

As a whole, this is an immensely attractive, tasty and delicate red wine that is nothing what you would expect from a wine coming from Madrid! As a huge fan of well-made Pinot Noir and other red wines showing same kind of poise and verve, this wine shows huge appeal to me. Along with Lo Morenillo by Vins del Tros, this is definitely the best Morenillo on the market currently.

94/100
Summary: Whereas Lo Morenillo shows a lot more concentrated and brooding character with tremendous focus and balance, this wine is only about elegance and sophistication. Definitely one of the most Burgundian red wines I've had from Spain. Although drinking really wonderfully now, I wouldn't be surprised if this wine would age as gracefully as the best Pinot Noirs from Burgundy. Simply astounding value at 15,40€.

***

To me, Morenillo is an undiscovered treasure of Spanish wine, capable of producing tremendously attractive wines of some real character and wonderful drinkability. The thing of utmost importance is that the Consejo Regulador of DO Terra Alta would start promoting the variety, instead of talking the growers out of cultivating it! Of course I understand they want to promote their Garnatxa Blanca, which is definitely their trump card and a variety cultivated there for ages, but if they also have this red variety of remarkable character that no other region else has (well, apart from Madrid, it seems), I can't understand for the life of me why they wouldn't want to take advantage of it!

Lucky for us, there are still some producers who are intent on making wines of real local color out of Morenillo and I really do hope that they will keep on doing them in the future. With this blog post I hope to raise some awareness of this virtually unknown and almost extinct variety; this way we can signal the producers that there is demand for this unique variety and that they are doing the right thing.

Fortunately, as both light and delicate wines and wines made out of unheard-of indigenous varieties are currently popular, the wine trends seem to be on Morenillo's side for once. Let's hope it stays that way.