A couple months ago in this column, I noted the difficulty of predicting wine quality based on the weather during the growing season and harvest. And then came 2011. Having recently returned from a tour of the top Barolo and Barbaresco producers in northwest Italy's spectacular Piedmont region, I can tell you one thing for certain: 2011 will be an even more complicated vintage than usual, and not just in Northern Italy.
Why so tricky? As in most of Western Europe this year, the flowering of the vines in the Piedmont's Langhe area took place way ahead of normal. As far back as late May, most vineyard owners were already planning for a very early harvest. For example, nebbiolo grapes used to make Barolo and Barbaresco are normally picked in October, but the growers this year figured they'd need to be ready to harvest in mid-September.
As it happened, after the very early flowering, much of June and July was overcast and cool, with on-and-off rainfall, and the ripening process slowed down. The weather didn't really turn summer-like until mid-August, and then the next five weeks were extremely hot--and quite dry. A number of locals in the old town of Alba, the commercial center of the Langhe hills as well as Mecca for white truffle hunters, told me that daytime temperatures in town often reached triple digits in late August and early September. The freakish heat was as unbearable for vines as it was for humans: in some prime south- and southwest-facing vineyards, the vines shut down or the grapes suffered from sunburn, especially where growers had removed leaves in early August in the hope of getting more sun on their fruit.
I should know. I sweated through the first week of my recent tastings (September 12 through 16), when afternoon temperatures exceeded 90 degrees and nights felt like Manhattan in July. That week, some growers told me they were optimistic about making extremely rich wines in 2011. Others worried aloud about the vintage, noting that grape sugars were already fairly high but that the skins and seeds were not yet ripe. Because the fruit wasn't ready to harvest, producers feared making grotesquely alcoholic or overly tannic monsters from small, dehydrated berries and roasted grape skins.
Then a half inch or so of rain fell on the weekend of September 17 and 18, refreshing the nebbiolo grapes, stimulating the foliage, and carrying with it the promise of fat white truffles by late fall. The water on the grapes was a godsend, softening the tough skins a bit and giving the berries a little more juice. Magnificent late-summer weather followed, with brilliant sunshine, much more moderate daytime temperatures and very cool nights. Suddenly the Alps, invisible for weeks in the hazy air, popped into view. For the most part the weather after that was perfection, offering growers who had not yet picked the option of letting their fruit hang longer.
So, how to characterize 2011? An early year? A rainy year? A summer marked by extremely heat and drought? And what about the grapes that were harvested in a rush, under hot conditions, in late August or early September, whether it was dolcetto in Piedmont or pinot noir in Burgundy?
You'll start hearing early reports on the 2011 harvest any minute now. But the real story won't be known for many months, if not years. And by then the early vintage generalizations will turn out to look foolish. So stay tuned.
Bright ruby. Cherry and dark berry preserves on the nose, with
complicating notes of licorice
and olive tapenade. Lively, taut cherry and blackberry flavors stain
palate, showing very good clarity and zesty minerality that builds with
air. Finishes with strong cut and lingering sweetness. This is an
outstanding syrah value. (JR)
(a 59/41 blend) Deep ruby. Complex bouquet of red berry preserves
complemented by minerals, fresh flowers, anise and white pepper. At once rich and
lively on the palate, offering sweet raspberry and candied rose flavors, a silky
texture and strong mineral snap. There's a pinot-like clarity and energy here
that I like. Finishes sweet and long, with the floral note echoing. This wine has a
solid track record for aging. (JR)
(85% garnacha tintorera and 15% monastrell): Dark ruby. Smoky,
spice-accented aromas of black raspberry, cherry-cola and minerals'; smells a
lot like a northern Rhone wine. Juicy and precise on the palate, offering nervy
dark berry and bitter chocolate flavors and slow-building spiciness. Dusty
tannins add grip to the long, incisive finish. This could easily pass for a
Bright yellow-gold Smoky, soil-driven nose offers aromas of stone fruits, oatmeal, clove, grilled nuts and lees, along with intriguing high notes of lilac and minerals. Penetrating, minerally and very dry, with lovely mid-palate energy giving the wine a light touch. Really dances on the finish, offering saline, spice and mineral nuances and a light touch. This uncompromisingly dry, very subtle wine is about much more than just fruit.
Bright straw-yellow. Perfumed, precise aromas of orange and lime peel, chlorophyll, botanical herbs and minerals. Dense and fat in the style of this warm vintage but with uncanny energy and minerality leavening its creamy texture. Sexy soft citrus flavors are complicated by saline and spice notes. This tactile, chewy wine finishes brisk and long. Compares favorably to many premier crus from the Cote de Beaune at two or three times the price.
Vivid gold. Classic viognier aromas of ripe peach, poached pear, apple and violet. Energetic and focused, with broad but precise orchard fruit flavors and tangy minerality on the back. Finishes quite taut and lively, with a refreshingly bitter lemon rind quality and excellent persistence. (JR)
Region: New Zealand
Bright pale yellow. Knockout, varietally expressive nose offers musky grapefruit peel, lemon, orange, tangerine, anise, pepper and tarragon. Densely packed and penetrating, with superb definition to the flavors of lemon, grapefruit, licorice and peppery herbs. A floral element gives added lift to the middle palate. Really pristine and uncompromising on the very long, spicy finish. Conveys outstanding energy and yet this beauty is pliant rather than hard.
Bright ruby. Reticent but pure aromas of blueberry, dark chocolate and spices. Creamy, seamless and round, with a restrained sweetness and good freshness to its dark raspberry and blackberry flavors. Has just enough acidity to maintain its shape. Finishes with ripe tannins and very good length. Use this excellent value as a stand-in for a polished Cotes du Rhone.
Light gold. Intense, mineral-dominated citrus and floral aromas, complicated by
notes of herbs and white pepper. Lively acidity adds lift to the fresh,
incisive flavors of orange pith and green apple, with a late note of anise
adding nuance. Finishes juicy and long, with a resonating note of dusty
(aged in 50% new and 50% one-year-old barriques for 15 months, then held in bottle for a year prior to being released; from barbera vines very close to the Grasso family's top Barolo vineyard; vinified and aged like a Barolo): Bright red-ruby. Highly perfumed aromas and flavors of red fruits, flowers and spicy oak. Fine-grained, dry and suave, with perfectly integrated acidity and a strong floral component giving definition to the pliant, sweet middle palate. This has the finesse of a nebbiolo! Finishes with wonderfully smooth tannins and subtle lingering perfume.
Green-tinged gold. Lemon pith, lime, licorice and quinine on the nose. Firm
and racy, with dry citrus and pear flavors braced by dusty minerals. A touch of
bitter apple skin on the finish provides energy and cut. This impressively
balanced and precise wine is destined for a long, positive evolution in the
bottle; it's also an outstanding value. (JR)
Good deep red-ruby. Cool aromas of blueberry, crushed rock, licorice and violet. Broad, sweet and fine-grained, with a pliant texture and good depth to the flavors of dark berries, chocolate and mint. The tannins are tongue-dusting but sweet and the finish nicely persistent. It's hard to find suave California cabernet at this price.
Moderately deep medium red. Lovely earthy perfume of cherry, leather, smoke, rose petal and minerals, with an exotic whiff of peach. At once sweet and bright, with vibrant acidity giving shape and precision to the dense earth, saline and floral flavors. Finishes with firm tannins, lovely lift and verve, and noteworthy length. Perbacco means "wow" or "surprise" in the local dialect. This 100%-nebbiolo bottling includes fruit from numerous Barolo crus; in fact, much of this juice used to go into Vietti's entry-level Barolo Castiglione.
(made entirely in stainless steel; no malolactic fermentation): Pale, bright straw. Aromas of lemon drop and ripe grapefruit, with a suggestion of more tropical fruits. Pure and fruity, with a touch of sweetness and impressive intensity to the flavors of tropical fruits, grapefruit and dusty herbs. Finishes perfumed and persistent, with good limey lift. A really excellent Washington State sauvignon.
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
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