In the last few weeks we've been writing articles in our newsletters about Aglianico. We love the grape, and it is overlooked. We think it's time to give it some space. Our newsletter, though, does not have room for lots of detail. For anyone who wants to drill down and really get to know this wonderful grape, here's an FAQ: What is Aglianico? Aglianico is a grape variety grown in Southern Italy, mostly in Campania and Bascilicata. Most experts consider Aglianico to be one of Italy's "noble" varieties, alongside Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. It is the grape that makes Taurasi, the most famous red wine from south of Tuscany. Why is it called Aglianico? Most people will tell you that Aglianico is a bastardization of "hellenico", and is a reference to the grape's Greek origins. This myth has recently been demolished on two fronts. Linguists do not see any link between the words Aglianico and Hellenico. Geneticists do not see any link between the grape Aglianico and the grapes of Greece. The best evidence suggests that Aglianico is indigenous to southern Italy, and we don't know how it got its name. What makes Aglianico a special grape? Aglianico has thick skins and naturally high acidity, which gives the wines tremendous structure. The combination is perfect for long growing seasons, often at high altitude, allowing the acidity to soften while the structural components of the grape develop full ripeness. The thick skins also help protect the grape from botrytis, which tends to develop late in the season. What does it taste like? Aglianico can taste an awful lot like Nebbiolo. Both are grapes that can produce fairly high alcohols but retain balance and freshness. They both have alluring aromas that evoke roses, other red flowers, and even porcini mushrooms. Aglianico often has the same kind of red fruits that you find in Nebbiolo (such as red cherry), but it is also more likely to have blacker fruits. Aglianico does not tend to have the herbaceous notes that you often find in Nebbiolo, but instead veers towards spice, coffee, cinnamon, and the like. Like Nebbiolo, they produce wines of high acidity and fine tannins, though the tannins in Aglianico tend to be a touch grainier. It is easy to mistake an Aglianico for a Nebbiolo in a blind tasting, though after the reveal you will usually notice the difference. Are there different kinds of Aglianico? We think of Taurasi, Vulture and Taburno as the three great DOCs for Aglianico. They are also three distinct biotypes. Taurasi berries are the smallest and least vigorous, resulting in very concentrated wines. Taburno is typically highest in acid and ripens soonest. Vulture tends to be the fruitiest. Where are the best places to grow Aglianico? Aglianico typically is grown on volcanic soils or steep mountain sites in Southern Italy. The world's best examples come from the three DOCs mentioned above, Taurasi and Taburno, in Campania, and Vulture, in Bascilicata. You will often find it in other regions of Southern Italy, but with less frequency and often in a blend with other grapes. In Puglia, for example, Aglianico is blended with Primitivo, an "easy" grape that softens the severity of Aglianico. There are experiments with growing Aglianico in other parts of the world as well. This has occurred mostly in Australia, but there are also promising experiments in New Mexico and Texas. Because of its unique physical properties and excellent resistance, Aglianico may be just the right grape for certain extreme conditions where wine cultivation doesn't otherwise seem possible. It might be a generation or more before consumers can really start to enjoy the benefits of these early experiments. But no matter, in the mean time there is plenty of reasonably priced Aglianico from Southern Italy. On that note... I want to try Aglianico. What should I do? There are two directions to go in here. First, you should try a young, fresh, fruity example of Aglianico. The best region for these sorts of wines is Taburno. Here is one to try: Rivolta, Vulture Second, you will want to try a great Taurasi in all its mature glory. Because Aglianicos are so structured, they really need 10 years or more of cellaring. We have a great example from the 2006 for you to try at a reasonable price: Molettieri 2006 I am a collector. Should I add Aglianico to my collection? Yes! Although wine writers and merchants have been extolling the virtues of Aglianico for years, it is still somewhat under-appreciated in the marketplace. This means you can get similar quality to a great Barolo for a lesser price. These are wines that age beautifully and for a long time. The 1968s from Mastroberardino are considered some of the best Italian wines ever made, and they are still going strong! Probably the most collectable Aglianico on the market today is the Taurasi from Tecce. Tecce is a super old-school producer with very old vines. You can think of him as the Bartolo Mascarello of Taurasi. Check out his top wine For something more modest that is really a great wine for the price, try Lonardo's 2010 Taurasi.
My article on Vincent Antoine and Chateau Fuisse has gotten me thinking again about the advantages and disadvantages of AOC branding. Branding, of course, is really what the AOC system is about. It gives a group of vintners who share a geographic space and a set of norms and traditions, the exclusive right to call their wines AOC "X". It works out beautifully when the marketplace determines that X = Good, and suddenly the vintners can make and sell more wine for a higher price. The great modern day example is Sancerre. As any American wine merchant will tell you, any bottle that says "Sancerre" on it will sell very easily. It is a brand, and a very successful one. But are there downsides? In researching the article on Chateau Fuisse, I came across something interesting. I am too young to remember this, but apparently in the 1970s Pouilly Fuisse was the Sancerre of its time. So hot was Pouilly Fuisse in the American marketplace that half of the AOC's entire production was exported here! Guess what happened? Producers cut corners so that they could make more and more juice that they could bottle as Pouilly Fuisse. Farming became sloppy and yields rose; apparently, that flood of Pouilly Fuisse into America was filled with low quality wine. Americans eventually noticed and they moved on. They started to drink Californian Chardonnay, and eventually Sancerre. Meanwhile, true artisans who made world class Chardonnays in the AOC -- like Chateau Fuisse -- were over-looked, and they remain vastly under-priced in today's marketplace. Is this now happening in Sancerre? We may be seeing the start of it. There is certainly a lot of low-quality, industrially produced Sancerre out there (though this is far more commonly found in super markets than in fine wine shops). There is also a certain anti-Sancerre snobbery that has set in among wine "elites". This snobbery is already depressing the prices from great producers like Thomas Labaille and Pierre Boulay. When (and if) this snobbery starts to go mainstream (remember when the "ABC -- Anything But Chard" movement caught on?), Sancerre could be in for a rough ride ahead. Why does this happen? It may just be a good old-fashioned collective action problem. When a company has exclusive ownership over a brand, like Apple or Coca Cola, they have a strong incentive to maintain the brand's value, by investing in product consistency and quality. But when the brand is owned collectively -- by a bunch of vintners in Pouilly Fuisse or what have you -- it's tempting to over-crop your vines and rely on everyone else to maintain the brand's image. It's free riding. An AOC can try to impose rules to curb this activity, like yield restrictions, mandatory harvest dates and so forth, but this is subject to a highly politicized process and comes with its own set of problems that plenty of people have written about ("What? I can't harvest before September 1? My grapes are perfect now!). Of course, the easy answer for anyone who cares enough about wine to read this blog post is to purchase by producer rather than AOC. Hopefully, there are enough of us out there that the discipline of the marketplace will eventually overwhelm these countervailing forces. In the meantime, do take advantage of the great pricing from producers like Chateau Fuisse and Pierre Boulay!
I'm as guilty as every other wine geek in America, and get super excited about the latest thing. A new vintage of my favorite Haute Cote de Bourgogne from Digoia-Rohyer shows up, and I have to bring it home and drink it immediately. Because it's new. Even though I have a bottle from two vintages earlier that are readier to drink. But I don't make that mistake every night. Last night, my wife and I drank Cantalupo's 2007 Ghemme. At Flatiron, we have been happily buying and re-ordering this wine since 2015. It's now 10 years old, and it's astonishing to think that we still have it on our shelves at its original release price. Ghemme is one of those villages up above Barolo in the area called Alto Piemonte. Nebbiolo is the main grape there, though sometimes a little bit of Vespolino is blended in. This one is 100% Nebbiolo, so when you drink this wine it's natural to make comparisons to Barolo and Barbaresco. Essentially, Ghemme is softer and lighter than its cousins to the south, with a bit of spicy minerality thrown into the mix. It is a lot like Gattinara, but not quite as rich, and while Gattinara seems to emphasize rocks and minerals, Ghemme tends to have more of a smoky spice. The great thing about all these Nebbiolo-based wines from Alto Piemonte is that they offer an opportunity to drink mature Nebbiolo far earlier than their Langhe counterparts. If you read our newsletter regularly, you might have noticed our reference a while ago to the 1980 edition of Hugh Johnson's Wine Encyclopedia, where he reports that Alto Piemonte wines become wonderfully mature and truffly after just 5 years! And that's from an English man. Probably, the wines which are made now are better than back then. This Ghemme is certainly wonderfully mature and truffly now, but it took an entire decade to get there! The truffles, the fruit, the spice...it was a truly satisfying wine. And to think that I could just pluck the wine of our store shelves and didn't have to put it in my cellar for multiple years! As tempting as it is to taste only the latest, sometimes the best wines for the moment are just under your nose.
Is Pouilly Fuissé a great wine? We rave about Meursault and Puligny Montrachet. We spend too much money on culty Chardonnay from California. We obsess over the Chablis of Raveneau, Dauvissat, and (finally) a handful of other producers as well. But the Macon doesn't get any love. At best, it's considered a source of "good value" wines. It's true that for $20 or less the Macon is probably the best source of Chardonnay anywhere. But it's so much more than that! And Antoine Vincent, wine-maker at Chateau Fuissé proved beyond a shadow of a doubt just how great P-F is, at the in-store tasting he led last Tuesday at the shop. Everyone who attended agreed that his are world-class examples of Chardonnay that deserve as much appreciation and recognition as all but the top white wines from the Cote d'Or. What is the taste of Pouilly Fuissé? For a while, I've been thinking of the Macon as a combination of Chablis and Meursault. At its best it has the minerality of Chablis and the richness of Meursault. But Chablis’ minerality is very distinctive. Its Kimmeridgian soils give Chardonnay a salty kind of minerality that most of us call "iodine." The Macon doesn’t do that. I needed a new way to think about these wines, and it was with that in mind that I tasted through Antoine's wines. Chateau Fuissé “Tete de Cru,” 2014 Antoine started us with his Tete de Cru, a selection of grapes from sites in both Pouilly and Fuissé, the two villages that give the AOC its name. The idea is to make a true village wine: a reflection of the "taste" of Pouilly-Fuissé rather than any single parcel within, kind of like an AC Meursault or Chassagne—or a traditional Barolo, for that matter. Pouilly has more limestone soils, contributing finesse, while Fuissé has more clay, contributing size and structure. Together, in Antoine’s hands, they make a complete wine, with great fruit intensity and a clear mineral spine, but with enough of a casual vibe to keep it fun and easy to drink. It helped that this was 2014, one of the all time great Macon vintages. Chateau Fuissé “Le Clos,” 2013 Next we tasted the 2013 "Le Clos." Le Clos is the Chateau's best parcel, and their backyard. The soils are dense clay, and the vines are oriented perfectly towards the sun, facing southward. The 2013 Le Clos was fruity to the point of being exotic. No, there was no mistaking this one for Chablis! Thanks to its south-facing orientation, the wine is always ripe, but this one was off the register. The wine is a bit of a star: both Stephen Tanzer and Burghound reviewed it quite favorably and it was a hit with many Chardonnay lovers at the tasting, especially people who drink a little more new-world Chard than Chablis. But Antoine Vincent didn't seem to love the way it was showing, and neither did I. He said that the grapes just got too ripe in 2013. That’s in sharp contrast to the Cote d’Or’s 2013s, which ripened healthily but also preserved great acidities and made terrific, balanced wines. In the Macon, not so much. It's just another example of how general regional vintage rules don't necessarily apply to specific sub-regions. Chateau Fuissé “Vieilles Vignes,” 2012 Then, we tasted the 2012 "Vieilles Vignes". “Vieilles Vignes” appears on many French labels, as it's French for old vines. The importer's web site says that this VV bottling is from several of the Chateau's best parcels, but when I visited the domaine several years ago I was told that really all the grapes come from the oldest vines exclusively in Le Clos. Antoine confirmed that on the night of the tasting, and he told us that he no longer makes the cuvée, using all the grapes for his Le Clos bottling. The Le Clos 2012 was deep, serious Chardonnay. 2012 is another lower acid vintage, but here it works: the fruit is more finely toned, and the extra year of bottle development allows the minerality to shine. Yes, this was a very mineral-driven wine, but like I said above, it was not iodine, and this was not a wine that anyone would confuse with Chablis. So, what makes Pouilly Fuissé, Pouilly Fuissé? I thought of the time many years ago when I wandered around the vineyards of Pouilly Fuisse, walking all the way to the top of the rock of Solutré. The presence of limestone in the landscape is profound. The rock of Solutre is itself a giant monument of limestone. Loose stones are everywhere. And as Vincent will tell you, you can pull over to the side of any road in the area and find a fossil in about two minutes. This limestone is the same outcrop that you find in the Cote d'Or, dating from the Jurassic Era. But here, for whatever reason, the forces of nature have eroded less of it away. In the Macon, the Jurassic limestone is more resistant. Thinking about this, and tasting Vincent's wines, it all made sense and I had my new paradigm. The minerality of Pouilly Fuissé has a lot more in common with the Cote d'Or than with Chablis. They are both Jurassic, after all, whereas Chablis is Kimmeridgian. But in Pouilly Fuissé, this minerality is enhanced, as obvious to the taster as limestone outcroppings are to any hiker. If Chablis' minerality is iodine, this, like Meursault, is more granular, mealy, more stony, more textural. And here it is more full on. Chateau Fuissé “Vieilles Vignes,” 2005 My PF epiphany out of the way, it was time to finish the tasting with a real treat: a magnum of the Vieilles Vignes from the 2005 vintage. The ripe fruit from the warm vintage had calmed down and this wine was showing off its terroir in all its Jurassic glory. It was a beautiful wine at its apogee and a true testament to how great the Macon can really be. And it may be that there is no clearer expression of Jurassic limestone anywhere in Burgundy! Here's what we have from Chateau Fuissé at the time of writing: Chateau Fuisse, Pouilly-Fuisse Tete de Cru, 2014 Chateau Fuisse, Pouilly-Fuisse “Le Clos”, 2013 Chateau Fuisse, Pouilly-Fuisse Vieilles Vignes, 2012