Tomatoes are a simple delight. Their taut skins straining under the pressure of their flesh, their seeds held captive in that singular tomato gel, their meaty husks strangely satisfying, you know, for a fruit—tomatoes make it look easy, especially right around now, late August, when in a good year we are knee-deep in tomatoes’ lambent hues. And, make no mistake: this year in the Northeast is a very good year for tomatoes.
In the best of all possible worlds, we eat them warm off the vine, as thoughtlessly as we eat berries or apples, depending on the size of the tomato. One step down from that, we find them ripe to almost bursting, and we slice them (serrated bread knives are the secret to cutting tomatoes without tearing their thin skins), plate them, drizzle them with olive oil and dust them with salt. You can go for baroque and add fresh mozzarella, ricotta or burrata, if you like. Sometimes the lily enjoys a little gilding.
My love affair with summer tomatoes began when I was a toddler. My great-grandfather tended a small garden at our family’s summer enclave on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I’d watch him garden, and I’d putter about the tomato stakes, taller than I, inhaling the tomato essence, that herbaceous acrid smell that fills your nostrils with its pointed scent. He raised beefsteak tomatoes, and we’d all eat them sliced on plates, their wet tomato guts oozing beautifully.
Like my great-grandfather, my mom grew tomatoes in her organic garden. She tried all manner of trellis, stake and tree to get the best results; at one point, she even let the vines grow upon one another, like long tendril puppies in a big pile. When we had bad harvests, which happened often in Vermont, she’d fill the larder with jars and jars of garlicky pickled tomatoes. Wrapped in newspaper and kept in the dark, a tomato will ripen slowly but perfectly—another tip for you.
Tomatoes, like berries, like peaches, like watermelon, are a fruit of summer. You can get them in the winter, but why bother? The waxy February representations of an August fruit is like eating a bad memory (on the other hand, canned and jarred tomatoes are things of lingering, useful beauty). The tomatoes of summer shout a cacophony of carpe diem. Seize the tomato and enjoy it. Chop it, mix it with extra virgin organic olive oil and salt, and spread it across garlic-rubbed bruschetta, and serve with an orange wine from Paolo Bea. Slice it, drizzle it with olive oil and balsamic glaze, and serve it with watermelon and feta, and put a nice, steely Amalfi Coast rosato on the side. Take a handful of the tiny tomatoes, cut them in half and swirl them with pasta, brie and olive oil, and serve with Cornarea Roero Arneis. Or just eat them from your palm, a saltshaker in your other, as my great-grandfather did. Nothing that good ever goes out of style.
After a week of wine exploration south of the border, I returned from Mexico wanting some good juice. I craved the aromas and flavors that I am used to and enjoy. While in Ensenada, Baja California, I had surprisingly enjoyed mono-varietal wines made of Nebbiolo and another with Tempranillo, so I wanted to taste Old World wines made with the same varietals, from their native lands, and vinified using traditional methods.
Two producers that stand out as the icons of tradition are Bartolo Mascarello in Italy and Bodegas López de Heredia in Spain. Bartolo Mascarello was called the “last of the Mohicans” because he remained stubbornly faithful to the Barolo tradition of assembling blends from different vineyards to ensure a wine with more balance and of better harmony. To this day, the Mascarello estate, now in the hands of Bartolo’s daughter, Maria Teresa, uses this method to make its single Barolo. For 138 years, Bodegas López de Heredia has been family run; three generations of the López de Heredia family have devoted themselves to producing exceptional and unique wines. You can’t get more traditional than Bodegas López de Heredia.
Both of these producers make long-lived wines that are delicious, expressive representations of their winemakers’ passion. And both of the wines I’ve chosen for today reward you with a spectacular drinking experience, if you are patient enough to allow them to mature in the cellar.
Bartolo Mascarello 1986 Barolo 1.5L $ 1099.00
Made by Bartolo himself, the 1986 vintage is super elegant with a nose of dried flowers, rose petal, berries, spice and smoky notes that lead to truffle and then tar. The palate has dusty tannins that linger nicely with notes of red fruits, leather and earth, creating a great layered texture that finishes silky. Drink now to 2026.
This 1981 is vibrant with hints of orange brick on the rim. It’s Rioja all the way with a nose typical of mature Rioja—there are still hints of dill and sweet vanilla that have fully integrated followed by hints of citrus peel, orange rind slight leather, and tart cherry. The palate is super smooth and potent with earthy notes that lead to mushroom and tobacco notes finishing with balanced acidity and dry tannins. Drink now to 2016.
This week saw stops in Italy, of course, but we also lingered on Japanese sake and Mexican wine from Baja California. We began with a look at olive oil–what makes it special, and how to gauge a good one. Then Stephane Menard offered a delicious pairing of a northern Italian value white, Cornarea 2014 Roero Arneis, and a pasta dish from the Amalfi Coast, uniting all of Italy in one amazing taste experience. Crystal gave us the basics of Japanese Sake, her latest obsession. And John Camacho Vidal brought us south of the border, where he attended a wine festival in Ensenada.
Our experts gathered mostly in France. Garrett Kowalsky offered up a pair of stellar Louis Jadot Burgundies. Michael Adler sang the praises of two Syrah bottlings from the Rhone Valley (one is under $20!). Crystal poured out a pair of special André Clouet Champagnes, a favorite small house. And Francesco Vigorito reminded us of the beauties of Castello dei Rampolla’s Vigna d’Alceo, a Super Tuscan that’s often overlooked.
Cheers to you enjoying all the world has to offer, even if you never leave your home!
Early this month I headed south of the border to Valle de Guadalupe in Ensenada, Baja California, for the town’s 25th anniversary grape harvest celebration, organized by Provino, the region’s winegrower’s council. I consider myself an adventurous taster and I was very excited to taste wine from a region that I had only heard about. The many different opinions about this region intrigued me enough that I had to visit it—especially how so many writers described these Baja wines as salty and debated whether those saline notes were a flaw or a feature.
It’s important to take into consideration that the Guadalupe Valley, located on the Mexican Peninsula of Baja California, is less than two hours away from San Diego. One of the most noticeable things on this trip was the look of the terrain. While northern Italy sports beautiful green rolling hills, Valle de Guadalupe is a desert. The hills are covered with boulders and it’s very dry. The evenings are pleasantly cool, and you can feel the sea breeze coming from the Pacific Ocean over the hills that lie only ten miles away and help create a costal Mediterranean climate ideal for grapes. In fact, this is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the New World. The first commercial winery, Bodegas de Santo Tomas, opened in 1888, but in the last decade this region has exploded with wineries and dozens of spectacular restaurants.
I attended a seminar where I was privy to tasting with enologists, winemakers and chefs, and I also went to the harvest celebration’s grand tasting the next day, when most of the wineries poured wines for the 2,000 attendees.
South of the border wines are interesting. One of the things that struck me was a pervasive Wild West attitude of the winemakers. The main governing body, the Mexican Winemakers Council, has no interest in establishing a DOC or IGT standards, and I found the question of standards to be a subject of much debate. The wines I tasted were big, full bodied, with loads of black fruits—they let you know they are from a hot region. Some of the wines had the salinity that I read so much about, but it wasn’t in every wine. While the great saline debate isn’t yet put to rest, I discovered that two winemakers are caring for their land with biodynamic practices to balance the salinity because of they believe it’s part of the terroir. This region is living in a time when winemakers are very open to exploring different ideas in vineyard management, and they are just getting in tune with their terroir and their desert agriculture.
Visiting the vineyards I saw the expected hot climate grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel, just to name a few. Most of the wines are blends of these grape varietals, and I was skeptical to see wines made with Nebbiolo or Tempranillo. That said, I actually brought back two bottles of each of these two grapes—stay tuned for my notes on the individual wines!
Castello dei Rampolla’s Vigna d’Alceo is definitely a wine that flies under the radar of most Italian wine buyers, when it should sit at the forefront with Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Solaia, and the rest of the Super-Tuscan greats. Hailing from Chianti Classico, instead of the coastal region of Bolgheri, Castello dei Rampolla is a gem of an estate that utilizes a full biodynamic regimen, giving their wines a unique sense of terroir. The Vigna d’Alceo is the flagship wine, composed of Cabernet Sauvignon and touch of Petit Verdot.
This is a massive wine that displays a wealth of power, fruit, concentration, body and tannins. It’s gorgeous in stature, but this monster is going to require some time to open up in the glass. When it does, we are going to have something truly special on our hands. Get the ’97 Vigna d’Alceo while they are available. Finding vintage Vigna d’Alceo is super difficult, so if you are reading this, do not hesitate to pick them up!
Another well endowed, structured and incredible vintage for the Alceo, the ’01 has tons of class but it’s not as exuberant as the flashy ‘97. More classic in style and long lived, the 2001 has a bright, promising future ahead of it, even though its starting to drink great today. It is perhaps the finest Vigna d’Alceo made!
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