Italian Merlot is a thing of beauty. When the likes of Le Macchiole’s Messorio, Ornellaia’s Masseto and Tua Rita’s Redigaffi rival the very best of Pomerol, you know you have something special. Merlot does best in Tuscany, specifically in the region of Chianti and, more importantly, Bolgheri. You can also find Merlot growing in northeast Italy, where the wine’s character is usuall much leaner and fresher, but even this generalization has exceptions when you look at wines like Friuli’s Simcic’s Opoka Merlot.
In the great pantheon of wine grapes, Merlot is generally not looked highly upon for some reason. When I say, ” You have to try this Merlot!” people are sometimes unenthused. I think that feeling exists because of all the subpar, uninspiring, and over-oaked Merlot coming from California. If you have a taste of this stuff, you will hate Merlot as well. The good news is that really good Merlots are nothing like that, and the ones from Italy challenge that commonplace reasoning from first whiff to last, lingering sip.
The best Merlots are aromatic, rich, full, complex and extremely silky. If find the right stuff, they also age very, very well, which makes them perfect for the cellar. The most age-worthy Merlots from Italy are definitely coming from Tuscany. There, the soils have the prefect mix of sand, clay and gravel, lending great freshness and verve to this soft, seductive grape. The bright hot Tuscan sun also does a great job at helping the grape achieve full ripeness. Because these conditions, many Tuscan winemakers produce high quality grapes, and their wines are able to stand up to French Oak, unlike most of the their California counterparts.
Once you get hooked on Merlot, I can guarantee it will become part of your everyday drinking repertoire. Then the only problem becomes choosing one.
Posted on | April 3, 2012 | Written by Michael Greeson | No Comments
In accordance with the shorter nights and slightly warmer days I’ve chosen a Go-to-Tuesday wine that complements all elements of spring. For many of you Chablis might not come as a big surprise (the level of quality has dramatically increased throughout the last several years), but having tasted through many of the 1er cru and grand cru vineyards, I’d like to report that Chablis offers more than crisp, dry Chardonnay. Take Domaine Barat 1er Cru ‘Les Fourneaux’ 2010, for example. Classic dusty shells on the nose nuanced with subtle hints of green melon and dry daisies, stunningly complex on the palate with mineral-infused layers and precise detail, lovely medium-bodied weight and a very pleasing finish–this is an exceptional 1er cru Chablis that’s under $30.
This wine, made from old-vine grapes, really highlighted the level of diversity that you can find not only among grand cru vineyards in Chablis but 1er crus as well. Choose a racy, high-acid wines from Cote de Lechet, something slightly softer like this particular Les Fourneaux, or if you’re into something with more richness and spice, choose something from Les Vaillons.
In solid vintages like 2010, 1er cru Chablis can offer some of the great values in white Burgundy and I encourage wine lovers to explore the region and discover the diversity.
Wine writers give a lot of guidance about how to buy, store, order, consume, analyze, critique and generally enjoy wine. One of the lingering results of the Robert Parker revolution—and one that seems to have resonated on both English-speaking sides of the Atlantic—is a thirst for propriety in the consumption of wine. But in all this listicle-friendly how-to happiness that sets us on the path to full wine enjoyment, one point seems to have gone unnoticed: how to visit wine producers.
And thus I endeavor to fill in the blank and give you a few tips on how to do your cantina visit with the least stress for the producer and thus the greatest enjoyment to you. While this advice is based on my experience in Italy, I’m sure that the advice could be adapted for any winemaking region. Feel free to tinker as you see fit.
Producers are not service workers. Producers are not shopkeepers. Producers are not members of the food-and-service industry. Producers are not tour guides. And while your trip to an estate may place a producer in these various roles—they do greet, guide, pour, sell and chat in a friendly service-worker way—don’t confuse producers with any of these occupations. Producers, and the people who work on their estates, make wine. And your being able to visit them at their winemaking estate is a perk, not a right.
Timing is everything. Wine estates are busy places. The only time they aren’t busy is in the dead of winter, and then they’re more busy-reduced, rather than flat-out crazy. Therefore, you need to schedule your trip, plan travel ahead of time, and call if you’re going to be late. One of the very best things you can invest in when visiting a foreign country is a foreign cell phone. You can get them pretty cheaply, about $50, and owning one will allow you to call if you’re running late, which you absolutely want to do.
After timing, planning is everything. Chianti and Montalcino may both be in Toscana, but they are not anywhere near each other. Ask your concierge, get on the Internet and use Google maps, open an actual atlas and look at the route, but plan ahead. And then add in extra time for your trip. Italian trains are often late, and it’s easy to take a wrong turn on the Autostrada. It’s better to arrive early and use your extra minutes to soak in the view than it is to run late.
Use your noodle and Google it. Do your research. You’ll get a lot more out of the visit if you spend about fifteen minutes reading up on the estate before you get there. You’ll have a better sense of what questions to ask and you’ll have context for what your guide may be telling you. You’ll also know that Montepulciano is a grape, a wine and a town; that they’re all unrelated; and that none of them are Montalcino.
Clothes make the traveler. Vineyards tend to be hilly, stony, muddy, sandy, dirty, mucky, rocky, slushy places. Visits to an estate will entail walking through dirt, and thus you want to wear shoes that you’re cool with getting dirty and that’ll work on seriously uneven terrain. Leave your Laboutins at the hotel and pack the Hunters. One other thing, Italy is rife with yummy wine-producing microclimates. This means that temperature vary wildly. Bring a wrap or a jacket just in case.
Know your culture. Italians, for example, are very serious about eating lunch at lunchtime, and with all due respect, they most likely do not want to eat with you. Respect their custom and don’t hang around expecting to be invited to lunch because you won’t be. Likewise, Sunday is sacrosanct and set apart for time with family. Don’t expect to visit on a Sunday. While there are some larger Italian estates that do employ people as guides (both Tua Rita and Ornellaia do, for example, so does Biondi-Santi), most don’t. Therefore, you need to understand that these are private people who are donning a public role for your benefit. Respect them.
Make your mama proud. Courtesy is everything. Don’t bring little kids along with you—they won’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy it, and your guide might be seething on the inside. If you bring a baby whose diaper needs tending, don’t just summarily hand the used diaper to the guide (this actually happened to a producer I know). If you are traveling with a dog, call ahead, make sure that it’s ok (it usually is), and pick up after your dog. If you’re not sure your American bulk will work on tiny, fragile, antique chairs, don’t sit on them. In general, act like your mom is there watching you.
Wine, wine, wine. Yes, you can swallow. You can also spit. What you can’t do is pour yourself a second glass. Your hand shouldn’t touch anything but your wineglass, the spittoon, your napkin and the breadsticks, should the producer choose to give you some, and he or she may or may not. Remember Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a cautionary tale.
Smell you later. Don’t wear perfume or cologne. It interferes with your enjoyment of the wine, and it interferes with the winemakers’ making of the wine. Put it on after your trip to the vineyard, not before.
Money makes the wine world go around. Do try to buy a bottle of wine. Chances are if you take the time to make an appointment, follow your Garmin’s directions (navigation systems in Italy are hysterically perverse; one sent Sergio and me down a pedestrian mall in the center of Verona; another sent me down a tiny cow-path that was flooded, although a perfectly lovely paved road ran parallel to it), and do your research, you want the wine. Even if you worry about packing it in your luggage, see if the estate ships or ask where you can buy their wine in local restaurants. Any support is good support.
Give a little gratitude. If you had a good time, enjoyed yourself, and learned something, email the producer and say thank you. Everyone likes a good dose of gratitude—it’s nice for employed staff when the estate owners see that they’re doing a good job, and it’s nice for producers who take time away from the making of their wines to see that you appreciated their choice. Plus, you never know when you might pass that way again, and it’s good to have a positive history.
Finally, enjoy yourself. Vineyards are glorious, amazing places, and seeing where the wine comes from, smelling the air that the grapes grew in, feeling the sunshine, and seeing the plants, animals, minerals and love that surrounds those grapes will forever change your understanding of that wine. As will interaction with the humans who make that wine. Visiting a vineyard is a primal, atavistic, gorgeous experience—revel in it. But do it politely, if you please.
From afar, it may seem that the Hong Kong wine market is still all about the most expensive Bordeaux. Auction results will always catch headlines and there’s no doubt that most wine investments are made with Bordeaux at the core. On the ground in Hong Kong, however, you see a different focus, one that’s local, service-based, and palpable.
It’s in the restaurants, the clubs and the pubs, where the service standard among waiters and sommeliers, along with constantly improving selection at the finest restaurants to the local pubs, continues to raise the Hong Kong wine game on a very accessible level.
In the past, Hong Kong has not received high regard for its standard of tableside service in restaurants. For example, a great many Italian restaurants until very recently were listing French wines before Italian wines on their lists. This was owing to the fact that it was uncommon to find professionals eager to lead their guests into trying new experiences. But things seem to be changing.
Last week, I attended a dinner at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University at which the students executed every aspect of the evening. The students put forth a wonderful effort and gained hands-on experience that they can take into the bustling Hong Kong food and beverage scene. There was no discussion of Lafite or DRC; that’s not what is motivating this group. Rather, it’s their collective commitment to making Hong Kong a premier region for consistently outstanding dining, further proof of the overall rise experience quality in Hong Kong.
Looking beyond the shock-value of HK’s sales results, we see that the dedication of both imported and up-and-coming local industry professionals is enhancing Hong Kong as a wine and service destination, from top to bottom. These pros are enriching the lives of local foodies and curious visitors from abroad. And it’s only going to get better.
Those of you who know me know how much I love biodynamic wines. Whether it’s Josko Gravner, Paolo Bea (who grows biodynamically but isn’t certified biodynamic) or Movia, I find natural, biodynamically made wines fascinating and very enjoyable.
Last week I had an opportunity to taste some Radikon Merlot 2000. This is a wine for the adventurous taster—in fact, the wines of Stanko (Stanislao) Radikon are about as exciting a wine drinking experience as you can get. Radikon has a tiny farmhouse/winery of about 11 hectares in the town of Oslavia, on a relatively tiny stretch of hills north of the border town of Gorizia in the Isonzo zone of Friuli.
Radikon forms part of a vanguard group of winemakers (Jasko Gravner, Edi Kante, Paolo Bea and Ales Kristancic are other members) in Italy who strive to make unique wines that do not reflect the recent international trend of wines that all taste the same. Most importantly, they make natural wines, made without additives, yeasts, sulfur or even temperature control. The whites are orange owing to the extended maceration on the skins for three or four months–or longer. Long skin-maceration has been proved to promote extraction of tannin and other grape compounds, and this is why long-macerated wines have very intense color, contain natural antioxidants for wine preservation, and do not need further chemical preservatives such as sulfur dioxide.
Radikon makes his wines in the traditional Slovenian style, with hand harvesting, extended skin maceration, and fermentation in large older barrels (30-35 hl) without temperature control. Radikon goes so far as to avoid sulfuring his wine, a risky practice that can result in spoilage, but if done skillfully, it produces a fresh, lovely wine with flavors beyond compare, as is the case with the 2000 Merlot I tasted. Following the maceration he proceeds with the racking and a slight pressing. The wines are then aged in large oak barrels (30-35 hl) for three years or so and later left another year in bottle before being released. The wines reflect the area and, in my opinion, are very terrior driven. Every vintage is different, allowing nature to express its climatic conditions through the wine.
If you want to taste a wine that will shock your palate and give you an experience that is unlike any other, you must taste this Merlot. I can honestly say that no wine drinker is complete until he or she tries a bottle of Stanko Radikon’s wines. They will take you to a long-forgotten time in Italian winemaking, a time of natural winemaking with no artificial chemicals, and a time of minimal intervention from the winemaker. Radikon’s philosophy is present in every bottle: he simply guides and lets the wine make itself.
When I first poured this 200 Merlot, the first thing that came to mind was how funky it was on the nose; the closet thing that I can compare is that it smelled like borscht soup (in a good way), or if you have ever walked threw a stable of sweaty horses after a fox hunt, it will bring back that pleasant memory. It is intense red, slightly hazy or opaque. After some time and lots of aeration the funk dissipates a bit to reveal some really sweet, ripe red fruits, herbs, cocoa and a bit of licorice. The mouth-feel is incredible. The tannins are sweet and complex, rich with hints of ripe fruit with a very persistent aftertaste of cherry and spice. Over a three-hour lapse, it developed further and was completely different, more nuanced, more mellow, and yet still fresh.
All though this wine might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I urge you to try it. It’s an experience you will not forget and that will stay with you for a long time, and whenever you see the Radikon label, you will probably want a glass again. Try drinking your bottle over a three-day time frame and see how it evolves.
« go back — keep looking »