Tuta's Wine

Writing under the Influence

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Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico, Azienda Agricola Cos 2008

February 6th, 2011 · Color, Red, Sicily

Surely wine writing is a form of short fiction. Far less anchored to this world than a short story. Rarely, however, do we get Continental philosophy.  Consider these lines from the owners of the Cos vineyard in Sicily. (We could laugh at the computer translation — but people who cannot do better live in glass houses.)

I think a kind of wine is business, money, and it is right. Others, instead, maintain high the tension and the debate, and why not, the responsibility to defend the essence of the things, their origins. Otherwise, little by little,  they would go to the drift, to a system which doesn’t want outsiders. COS moulds all that, accompanies it, does to drink to all, without geographic, social and economic borders.

Here is life’s essential two-ness: business and money v. the essence of things.   Feet of clay and our heads in the clouds. Very Hegel. But let’s try the wine.

Cerasuolo means “cherry-like.”  These wines are a blend of Nerola d’Avola and Frappato.  They are valued for their fresh, Beaujolais-like fruit, darkened with the local tristesse and time spent in the cellar. The region is Ragusa, once the great trading port of the Greeks who lived  for centuries along the south coast of Sicily.

At the Cos vineyard, the classical tradition of aging in amphora has found found new life.  The wine is poured into great terra cotta urns — squat and wide-mouthed — which are half-buried in the earth.  Stable temperature, and little is added to the essential flavor of the wine by these humble clay pots, vast and cool.

The wine which emerges from Ali Baba’s cave has a vivid cherry streak. The fruit has survived unchecked through process and aging. Very traditional; very young.

About $25.00

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Visciole Querci’Antica Velenosi

January 29th, 2011 · Italy, Red

Quasi non bevera vino se non de ciriege o de granate.
(He drank almost no wine except cherry wine)
Vespasiano da Bisticci, biographer of Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482)

Duke Federico drank wine rarely and then only the sour cherry wine which we know today as Visciole. Under the influence of an occasional glass, he led his tiny city state of Urbino to prominence during the Renaissance and was one of the models for Machiavelli’s The Prince.  If you look closely at his portrait, there is a piece missing from the bridge of his nose.  He was painted only from the left side.  His right suffered terribly in a tournament injury, and he had a little slice of  the bridge of his nose removed later to improve the field of vision in his remaining eye. That must have required at least one glass of cherry wine.  Count your blessings that you can try it with nothing more taxing than almond cake.

Visciole is a blend of wine and cherries. In mid-summer in Marche, the great agricultural province on the Italian Adriatic, sour cherries are crushed with sugar to form a syrup. When the grapes are gathered a few months later, the syrup is blended with the new red wine. The result is a soft red dessert wine, not too sweet. The sourness of the cherries keeps the taste light. The taste, both rich and tart, is very like the Montmorency pie cherry which we pick in late June.

The Velenosi family, Angela and Ercole, have been producing wine since 1984 on their farm in San Marcello. (We can only mourn the relative poverty of English first names. Why have we reserved “Hercules” for our larger pets? Who will have the courage to name a son after the great hero?) Their Visciole is a charmer, perfect for a lazy winter afternoon when fresh cherries seem a distant memory.

About $50 for 500 ml.  Surgery is extra.

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Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Champs-Gains” 2005

December 23rd, 2010 · Color, Country, France, Red

“I think it not unpleasing to insert in this place an account of the site of Dijon…It is a stronghold with very solid walls, built in the midst of a plain, a very pleasant place, the lands rich and fruitful so that when the  fields are ploughed once the seed is sown and a great wealth of produce comes in due season. … It has all around it abundant springs and on the west are hills, very fertile and full of vineyards which produce for the  inhabitants such a noble Falernian that they disdain wine of Ascalon.”

- Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks (575 A.D.)

Burgundy is remarkable for its tipicité – the idiosyncrasy of each domaine.   The wines — alike in a general way in their fine-boned muscularity — differ from one plot to the next.  There is a case to be made that the root cause of this … uniquehood  is more histoire than terroir.

Consider two tectonic events: the loss of dominion and the end of primogeniture.  Game-changers.  First, the historical decline.  For almost one thousand years, from about 500 AD until its annexation by the early French state, Burgundy lay at the center of European power.   In the  high Middle Ages, say, 1350, Burgundy was a vast, autonomous duchy  reaching across France from Flanders  and the Low Countries to the Alps.  When Charles the Bold died in 1477 at the Battle of Nancy, power settled irrevocably with the French kings in Paris.  Burgundy, like so many others who have been disappointed in politics, began to spend more time with its family.  The region accepted an umbrageous, inward-looking domesticity, marked by good lamb and better wine.  Is it any wonder that in the wake of lost battles and ebbing fortunes,  the populace turned to the more certain pleasures of the  kitchen and vineyard?

Now, the adoption of the Napoleonic Code in 1803.

Children or their descendants succeed to their father and mother, grandfathers, grandmothers, or other ancestors, without distinction of sex or primogeniture, and although they be the issue of different marriages.

- French Civil Code, Ch.III, sec. 745 (1803)

Land was no longer left to the eldest son to be held for his first-born. In a spirit of egalité, it was divided among all  children, including daughters.   In Burgundy, vineyards were divided into tiny fractions, each with many owners. Each domaine followed its own practices — the timing of the harvest, cellar habits — which became highly individual in tone.

But enough.  Can we try the wine?   The Chassagne-Montrachet is a lovely example of the Burgundy style  – smooth, reserved, a little smoky and tawny at the far end, cherry headed towards sunset.  The red wines from this region live a little in the shadow of the Montrachet whites.  But the lineage is long, and it is marvelous to find a true Côte d’Or 1er cru, the noble Falernian, bright with real stature, at a fair price.

About $45.

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Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain Three Vineyards 2006

November 27th, 2010 · Uncategorized

The merlot grape — from le merle or the blackbird — grows in loose clusters.  The grapes are  large, thin-skinned and blue-black.  The wine shows these qualities as well.  It is round, rich, and fleshy — the Peter Rubens of the vineyard.  The thin skins produce a wine low in tannins with a soft feel.  Grown by the ton for the trade or picked too late, merlot-based wine can take on a slack quality.    

The trick then — at least from the wine drinker’s side — is like buying jeans in middle-age.  We can embrace the softer, relaxed taste — qualities of ease and welcome — without crossing entirely into sloth.

At 51 % merlot, the Hedges Three Vineyards shows off the voluptuous taste of the grape.   Red Mountain — an AVA in the Columbia Valley in south-central Washington State — is dry, hilly country with 5 inches of rain in a year.  Few trees.   At night in the summer the breeze moves from north to south through the vines, cooling the fruit as it ripens.  The acid stays high; the sugar is kept in check.

The taste is plummy, of course, but there are also qualities of cut cedar and baker’s chocolate.  And we meet a little resistance as we drink it.   This is no fruit sundae.   At the end, there is a pleasant dryness.  These are beautiful wines to drink late in the afternoon.  They do not need food.  A little bread would be enough.  Later perhaps a small steak with mashed turnips, creamy and sharp.

About $25.

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El Castro de Valtuille Bierzo 2006

November 23rd, 2010 · Color, Country, Red, Spain, Uncategorized

Bierzo is a recent discovery for many of us.  I like the darker, richer qualities of the Castro  –  other Bierzos are brighter and shinier.  This one has the briar and turf qualities of, say, a Rhône wine but with that characteristic Spanish bitterness.  And qualities of light and high brass which can only be the Mencía grape.

The Pérez family has owned the vineyard since 1752.  Since 1752 — imagine !  In that year, Adam Smith took on the chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University,  and the world changed.   In June, Benjamin Franklin escaped electrocution by kite.  And in Spain, the Pérez family started to dig, plant and tend the ancestral vines.  Today Raúl Pérez signs the bottles as Viticultor.

The land of the  Pérez vineyard is very sandy, and sand is the one soil which the phylloxera louse was unable to tolerate.  As a result, the vines are old — as much as a century.  The wine is concentrated:  dark purple with an apothecary nose — herbal and medicinal — and an attractive immediacy in the mouth.  We can only be grateful.

About $15.

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Dinastía Vivanco Reserva 2004

November 21st, 2010 · Color, Country, Red, Spain

We could divide the taste of wine into five parts: sugar which we call fruit, acid for balance, alcohol — experienced as texture and heat in the mouth, tannin from the skins and stems, and oak from the barrel.

Of these flavors, oak is the only one added by the vintner. The others result from the process of fermentation. Oak comes later — from aging the new wine in wood. Oak is the only “extra” flavor allowed.  We do not add spices, herbs or fruit juice to wine — we call this punch and drink it standing up at parties. We can love it, but it is no longer wine.

Of all the wines treated with oak, Rioja is perhaps the most outspoken, the most frankly and consistently “oaky.” Dinastía Vivanco Reserva is a fine example. It is made in Rioja Alta — a little higher and a little colder — where aging in oak is a respected tradition. Like most riojas, the wine is a blend: 90 % Tempranillo –the little early one– from the word temprano — and 10 % Graciano. Tempranillo can get a little soft in some years; Graciano increases the acid and adds brightness and pop.

As the label promises, the Dinastía ages for two years in new oak. Then at least two more years in the bottle. This one is a 2004 — a youth by Rioja standards. What does the oak bring us? Its smell has that marvelous quality of menthol and a freshly tarred road which we loved as children. It is the  smell of adulthood, of salaries and smoke, city streets, strong winds, and a world beyond the domestic circle.

Oak is the most protean ingredient in the taste of wine. In Bordeaux and especially in the New World, oak can produce the bakery tastes, especially chocolate and vanilla bean. In other wines, it conceals itself, adding weight without claiming credit. In the Dinastía, the oak has that typically Spanish taste of resin and the barest trace of wood ash. Duro we might say. The oak tastes good against the more pliant taste of the grapes. It reminds us that our lives are not entirely sweet and vegetal.

About $24.

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2008 Luna Beberide Bierzo

November 8th, 2010 · Color, Country, Red, Spain


Asturii scrutador pallidus auri – “Pale seekers after gold”– Lucan, Pharsalia

Bierzo was once the home of the Astures, fair-haired Celts (“pallidus“) who lived in stone forts and raided the occupying Roman force for centuries.   From their isolated redoubts, these stubborn indigènes fought bitterly, men beside the women, long after most of the Iberian peninsula had bowed to the inevitability of the Roman yoke.  In the year 25 B.C.,  it took 7 legions plus a naval force — and the presence of the Emperor Augustus — to bring the Astures into a state of fitful obedience. Plus ça change.

Today we admire Bierzo for its wine which is made with the ancient Mencía grape.  The Bierzo D.O. lies in the northwest corner of Spain, above Portugal and just to the east of Galicia on the Atlantic coast.  The same qualities of geography which bedeviled the Romans — steep slopes, little water, hot days and cooler nights — permit small lot production of dark, tart wine.

In recent years the production in Bierzo has moved from the plain — the meseta — which produced thin wine in great quantity to the lines of arid hills. The vines grow slowly.  The soil is meager — calcareous clay and slate  The hot sun develops sugar; cool nights slow the fruit.  The vineyard work is harsh and demanding.  Old school.

If you have not tried Bierzo, Luna Beberide  is a fine introduction.   It has that ringing, burnished taste of so many mountain wines — bright, dark berries, a  bracing dash of fruit with a bitter undertow.   For me, Bierzo has a breakfast quality — like dark coffee and fresh juice — but the early hour may not be appropriate for all of us.  Braised lamb shanks at dinner, bony and rich, would be a better choice.

About $19.

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Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2006

September 27th, 2010 · Color, Country, Italy, Red

Let me not thirst with this Hock at my Lip,
Nor beg, with Domains in my pocket  
–  Emily Dickinson

The Grenache grape grows in a vast arc around the western Mediterranean — from Spain in the west across the south of France and as far east as Sardinia.  This is a chthonic peasant’s vine — earth-born and tasting of fruit and the night rains. The wine can be slow-moving, dark and herbal, and, in other hands, it can be lithe and breezy.

Cannonau di Sardegna is on the quick, bright side.  Cannonau is the local name in Sardinia for the Grenache grape.  This wine, an unblended Grenache,  is light, clear, simple and direct.  The promotional material promises it has spent three years in oak — but it must be a very large barrel, used for years, because the time in barrique has imparted no oaky taste at all.  Instead, there is a quick acidic briskness — that familiar Italian staple so necessary for food.

Like a good marriage, this is a companionate wine — an easy friend, intimate and familiar.  As winter approaches, we will need this souvenir of  summer’s heat and the green fuse of life.

About $13

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2008 Waters Interlude Columbia Valley

August 25th, 2010 · Color, Country, Red, United States

Walla Walla.  Eastern Washington State — no trees; great brown hills; cold in the winter – hot in the summer.  More Steinbeck than Stendhal.  Who would think that you could make cabernet — the wine of politesse and great houses — in such a … western setting.  But the Walla Walla wines are wonderful:  American garagiste blends made skillfully and without pretense.  These are committed people.  No one moves to Walla Walla to show off a fortune made in another place.  You could say they come here despite themselves.

Waters Winery provides a fine example of a big, generous Walla Walla wine.   Interlude is simply labeled “red wine.”  It is a blend of cabernet, merlot and what we could only call les autres.   The word that came to me first was “sumptuous.”  This is a very rich Bordeaux style wine.  Forward, perfumed — a young Bordelaisee in heels.  Can we be more specific with less frothy enthusiasm?  Maybe.  The wine is dark in the glass.  In the nose and at the end of the glass, there is chocolate — that bandit Aztec chocolate which is not sweet.  The fruit is ripe — a yellow peach, leather and plum.   The feel of  the wine in your mouth is smooth and without pucker.

I would not keep this bottle for long — I would share it quickly and look for a second.  And I would serve it before dinner.  Dessert before the meal.  At most with a little blue cheese and some water crackers.  The richness of this wine — its fatty heft — needs no food to share the billing.

About $30.

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2008 Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre

August 8th, 2010 · Color, Country, France, Loire, White

Across northern France, chalk runs in a formation of great depth and age.  We can see it at the white sea cliffs at the Channel and, less dramatically, in outcrops and valleys where flowing water has revealed the bones of the land. This great chalk formation runs from England in the west across the heart of France as far as Champagne and Chablis in the east.

In the Loire Valley, the chalk lies under the vineyards and gives the Sauvignon Blanc grapes their snap and minerality.  Pierre à fusil — gunflint– is the French phrase.  Sancerre is the classic Loire white: delicate, incisive, washed clean as a shell.   The vines, we like to think, reach down into the marl and white gravel and, in the dark, by feel, year after year, draw up a gram or two of soluble limestone laid down in the Upper Cretaceous period when the land was covered by a warm, shallow sea.

Sancerre is an old hill town, southeast of Orléans and just above the great bend where the Loire River wheels left and flows towards the Atlantic.  The Romans knew the place, and later it was ruled by Burgundy whose dukes insisted on Pinot Noir.  The red wines perished in the phylloxera epidemic, and Sauvignon Blanc became the principal varietal, here and throughout the valley.  There are still reds in the Loire Valley, especially the estimable Cabernet Franc, but the whites, pale as chalk, are the best.

Hippolyte Reverdy makes a particularly beautiful Sancerre.  Very traditional.  Almost clear in color.  Sporty and aromatic in the nose.  A taste like a brook: bright and clean.  My son says, “like a lemon rind” and he is right — the citrus taste is crisp like the skin, not fruity like the juice.  And to serve with Sancerre?  Any fish will be fine, but, by preference, sole or flounder, dusted with flour and cooked quickly with butter and capers.

About $25.

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