The Wines of Lombardy: An Eclectic Cornucopia with Some Original Gems

Jun 28

On June 22nd I had the pleasure of tasting the wines of Lombardy at a media/trade event in Washington, D.C.  About two dozen producers attended, and the wines ran a fascinating, eclectic gamut from international varieties to Italian varieties to rare local varieties; from world-class methode champenoise to a range of dry whites and reds, to an exquisite dessert wine, an amarone-style wine made from the local red moscato de scanzo grape, which also forms the smallest DOCG in Italy.

Like me, you probably have a hard time coming up with a pithy wine descriptor for Lombardy (“and where the heck is it?”, you may ask (north-central Italy, south of the Alps and northeast of Milan). Lombardy is an enigma of a wine region; on the one hand, it is quite large for Italy with 28 million gallons of wine produced annually, more than many of the more well-known regions like Friuli-Venezia.

On the other hand, because it is a geographically large region and quite viticulturally diverse, using both Italian and international varieties more famous elsewhere, the region as a whole doesn’t have a strong identity in the minds of American consumers, such as Tuscany would have tied to sangiovese, or Piedmonte would have with nebbiolo, barbera, and dolcetto (maybe that would be different if most American wine consumers knew that the red fizzy lambrusco originates from Lombardy).

Due to the region’s obscurity and the promise of the U.S. market, some of the region’s producers are now traveling the U.S. holding these media and trade tastings, trying to raise the awareness of their region and its many wines.

I liked the variety of grape varieties, blends, processing styles, and entirely new wines like the moscato de scanzo which I’d never tasted before. Seemingly predictable categories like chardonnay/pinot noir methode champenoise produced fresh, lively yet complex and terroir-driven sparkling wines. The IGT red blend category, rather than producing over-extracted Super Tuscan knock-offs, produced some gutsy but original blends and flavors.

The local clone of trebbiano (“lugana”) produces a rich, unctuous white which actually needs a few years of bottle age to show its true potential. Barbera and nebbiolo, better known to the west in Piedmonte, makes brighter, fresher reds in Lombardy, and gentle aging in large, neutral oak shows these wines off with a cooler climate Burgundian style of fresh fruit and crisp acidity. Aside from the smoky yet richly fruity  moscato de scanzo, I was also highly impressed with a lemberger-like local grape gropello ruberti (labeled just as “gropello”), which I’m told is genetically related to pinot noir. The wine has smoky briar fruit nuances like lemberger, vibrant crisp cherry/berry notes like pinot noir and a cool-climate crisp acidity.

Here are some tasting notes of my favorite wines from the tasting:

Lantieri Brut 2006, Tenuta degli Angeli, Franciacorta DOCG This very elegant cool-climate methode champenoise from the Franciacorta sub-region of Lombardy, which produces the best dry sparkling wines in the country, showed finesse but also a kind of lively minerality and sense of place I found in other Lombardy wines but still different from what you’d find in Champagne, Cava or the Loire Valley. The nose was lively and fresh with pear/apple  notes, just a hint of yeast, with focused, lively apple/pear flavors and a long firm crisp finish; stylish but not over-done. Est. U.S. retail: $29.95

Tarti pinot nero di bianco (blanc de pinot noir) sparkling NV, Oltrepo Pavese DOC: A lovely sparkling wine showing that high-quality and fruity sparkling wines need not be made be made in the champagne method. The nose is bursting with passion fruit and juicy non-fermented grape juice. On the palate, passion fruit, pineapple and kumquat carry on a tropical mardi-gras, and the round juicy texture is balanced by a vibrantly fresh and clean finish. Throw a summer party with a case of this, and you may not remember it all but the guests will be talking about it for months if not years.

Perla “Madonna de la Scoperta” Lugana superiore DOC 2007: This is a fine white wine made from the lugana trebbiano clone mentioned before which needs some bottle age to gain its potential. Nose shows some oak components, but grows in the glass to reveal yellow apple, hazelnut, dried flowers and minerality. On the palate…wow! The single varietal intensity and integration of concentrated viscocity, fruit and mineral elements grows, and resembles nothing as much as fine white burgundy. This shows the potential for whites from this region.

Cantina di Villa “Tinaia” 2005 Sforzato di Valtellina: A compellingly original interpretation of nebbiolo (100%) from the Valtellina sub-region. The grapes are dried on straw mats as with vin santo, and pressed at the end of January, followed by a long maceration and careful temperature control. The relatively high (14.5%) alcohol softens the typical nebbiolo acidity some and rounds the palate nicely, but the wine is very smooth and neither hot nor sweet. The wine is aged in large neutral oak for 3 years followed by 6 months of bottle maturation, and the mellow nuances are all about fruit and terroir; a must for top-notch northern Italian cuisine. U.S. retail: $40.00

San Michele ai Pianoni “Pynos” pinot noir 2004, Oltrepo Pavese DOC: a lovely cool-climate pinot noir reminiscent of Volnay, with a perfumed bouquet of violets and spicy briar fruits. Medium-bodied; it starts slow, but grows to a full-bodied finish with firm tannins, while remaining elegant with lots of finesse. Aged 24 months in French oak and an additional year in the cellar, this is a refreshing alternative to big syrah-like pinots from the West Coast, with lively fruit and bottle maturity despite 14% alcohol, and no obvious oak flavors in sight.

Monte Cicogna “Don Lisarder” 2001, Largo di Garda classico superior DOC:  A world-class wine, a uniquely local blend of the indigenous gropella with sangiovese and barbera, this wine spent a year and a half in small oak and has matured impressively in the bottle. The nose is full of rich truffle and forest floor notes, with dried plums and cherries. On the palate the wine is smooth yet full-bodied and powerful, with earth, truffle and spicy dried black fruit flavors. This wine is like a combination of Cotes de Nuits Burgundy, Chianti Classico riserva, and gran reserva Rioja. While rich and powerful, like the other fine Lombardy wines, it retains an original sense of place and stylish elegance.

Fejoia moscato di scanzo NV, moscato di scanzo DOC: As described above the moscato di scanzo is a red muscat variety unique to this part of Lombardy. The wine is made in an amarone style and is not fortified as with many dessert muscat wines; the grapes are dried on straw mats for 40 days and vinified and aged entirely in stainless steel to preserve fresh aromatic fruit character.  The bouquet is spicy/smoky cherry and muscat notes, slightly pungent with dried cherry nuances. On the palate, it is richly viscous but drier than you expect, a bit pungent, with a perfumed and complex mix of dried fruit and earth elements and lingering finish. A perfect match for gorgonzola cheese or dried cherry tart.

The good news from this tasting is that if you know where to look you can find highly original and rewarding wines from this large and diverse region of Italy. The bad news is that it may be a challenge knowing where to find them, and whether the trade in this country will purchase enough of these gems for you to find. I didn’t get all of the U.S. retail prices for these wines, but the ones noted above won’t be cheap, and whether the trade will buy at these prices in this economy is an open question. Also, a number of the wines not reported above were not very compelling, or made in a reductive style (the opposite of fruit-forward and aromatic). Hopefully these producers can focus efforts on specialty markets like the many high-end Italian restaurants on the East Coast where discriminating connoisseurs can be delighted and surprised by these unique and terroir-driven wines.

Pollak Petit Verdot, and More

Jun 26

Pollak Vineyards in Greenwood won the Monticello Wine Trail Cup 2 weeks ago with their rich and powerful 2008 Petit Verdot. I was a judge in the competition and was impressed with the entire flight of varietal petit verdot wines regardless of vintage (see previous post); rich, deep, smooth and full of black fruit and herb/spice nuance but long smooth tannins…

So I got a chance to taste the wine while looking at the label, at Pollak’s first Friday Barbecue on June 25th. This was the first such event the winery has put on, and featured the vineyard manager’s own band, barbecue by Buck Island Barbecue, and lots of ’08, ’07 and ’09 wines from Pollak Vineyards.

I was expecting to be impressed by the ’08 petit verdot that me and other judges (blind of course) had chosen as the Monticello Cup winner. But before I describe that, other things that impressed me…

1) ’09 Pollak viognier. Ripe tropical fruit nose, smooth broad mid-palate, then Pow! Huge juicy tropical fruit with depth and weight in the finish! This is a rich, emphatic wine, but not too heavy, just weighty in a stylish way like Aretha Franklin…

2) ’09 Pollak reserve chardonnay. I’m not a fan of most chardonnays, especially the oakey, low acid reserves, but this is different. A nose of racy lemon/citrus and cream, with mineral hints, is followed by rich palate viscocity, prickly pear fruit and lusciousness, but finishes with crisp balancing acidity. I thought of Burgundy (Puligny-Montrachet) and winemaker Jake Bushing confirmed that these grapes (grown at 900 ft. elevation) are from Burgundian clones. Native yeast fermentation augmented by multiple commercial yeasts adds to the complexity. Drinking well but will improve for 2-3 years and then hold.

3) ’09 Pollak pinot gris. Great combination of ripe pinapple fruit and firm, full acidity to balance. A model for those doing pinot gris in Virginia.

4) ’07 Pollak meritage. A standard blend of 44% cabernet franc, 43% merlot and 13% petit verdot, this wine has an intriguing spicy red fruit bouquet, with fresh red fruits and savory herbs on the palate, dry but not too tannic, a fascinating and still evolving blend.

So…notes on the ’08 Pollak petit verdot (14 months in oak). Nose: spicy black fruits, lots of complex, rich oak and fruit integration. Palate: Wow!! Blows you right away with intense, rich and deep black fruits and firm tannins, with nice punchy spice notes, and the finish just keeps on. Very young, needs time. Will match with spicy barbecue for those who can handle the punch, but really rocks with a rich, not too sweet brownie, as the chocolate and long smooth tannins just make perfect…uh, harmony…This is a wine for a long winter’s night. Just how long, is up to you…

Sneak previews from the cellar: ’09 petit verdot; rich and aromatic but full and supple tannins; ’08 cabernet sauvignon: strikingly Haut Medoc-like cigar box and cassis nose, very smooth and long tannins, will be a classic for cabernet in Virginia; and an amazingly elegant viognier-based white port ’07: rich, spicy, full-bodied and smoooooooth…..

Remember…the last Friday of each summer month, the Pollak barbecue and band event will continue (from 5-9 p.m.)

Pollak Vineyards Wins 2010 Monticello Cup

Jun 18

The Monticello Wine Trail announced the results of their 20th annual wine competition Monday evening 6/14. The competition, which is limited to wineries in the Monticello appellation of Central Virginia, received almost 60 wines from sixteen wineries. The wines were evaluated by a tasting panel that included sommeliers, wholesale wine buyers, retailers and other wine industry professionals including this writer.

Top awards included the Cup winner, Pollak Vineyards 2008 Petit Verdot, three double gold medal winners; Delfosse Vineyards Meritage 2006, King Family Vineyards Meritage 2008, and also their Merlot 2008.

Sixteen gold medal winners included: Barboursville Vineyards Octagon 2007, DelFosse Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2007, Flying Fox Vineyard Fox White 2009 and their Trio 2007; four wines from Jefferson Vineyards: Viognier 2009, Pinot Gris 2009, Chardonnay Reserve 2009, and Meritage 2007; King Family Vineyards Loreley 2008, Kluge Vineyards SP Rose 2007 and New World Red 2005, Pollak Vineyards Meritage 2007, three wines from Veritas Vineyards: Sauvignon Blanc reserve 2009, Viognier 2009, and Petit Verdot 2008; and White Hall Vineyards Gewurztraminer 2008.

Judge Elaine Futhey, wine buyer and sommelier at Charlottesville’s C&O Restaurant said, “I have been a fan of Virginia wine for 20 years, I am most pleased with the wide variety of high quality wines entered in this years competition”.

The quality consistency of the flights was worth noting. I found the chardonnay and cabernet franc flights uneven in quality and style (chardonnays ranged from a brilliant Chablis-style to a very West Coast big oak and butter style). Viognier and meritage flights were more consistent with higher average quality, and the petit verdot flight had some brilliant wines, including the competition winner.

Chardonnay is the leading winegrape variety by acreage in Virginia and cabernet franc the leading red grape, but in the Monticello AVA, it seems that the meritage blend category is stronger than any one red variety, while petit verdot has probably pulled ahead of cabernet france for quality potential. Producers might do well to increase production of viognier and petit verdot (the latter either for varietals or blends), but it’s also worth noting that there’s impressive versatility in the Monticello AVA amongst the top wines; sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer, and pinot gris also made strong varietal showings with gold medals.

Complete Competition Results [pdf]

NY State Fair Results In!

Jun 10

As a follow-up to my last post, the results of the 2010 New York State Fair are now public! Major winners are:

Belhurst Semi-Dry Riesling 2009

Glenora Wine Cellars Riesling 2009

Atwater Estates Vineyard Meritage 2007

Goose Watch Winery Pinot Noir Brut Rosé

JD Wine Cellars Blackberry Boogie 2009

Casa Larga Vineyards Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2006

Goose Watch Winery Cabernet Franc Rosé 2008

Goose Watch Winery Classic Cream Sherry NV

Hosmer Winery Raspberry Rhapsody NV

Earle Estates Meadery Raspberry Reflections NV

Complete results are available online [pdf]

NY State Fair: Results Sneak Preview, and Tasting Highlights on West Cayuga Lake

Jun 08

A busy day of judging wine (6/5) and tasting wine along west Cayuga Lake (6/6) racing to make my flight out of Elmira; arrived in Philly where it was about 25 degrees warmer and sunny; started writing this while relaxing in Vino Volo wine bar at the airport, sipping a very refreshing Slovenian pinot grigio (more like an albarino, which is a good thing).

Last time I judged the New York State Fair 3 years ago we judged in a freezing vestibule of a shivering well as air conditioners protected us from the warm humid air outside. So I wore a heavy shirt only to find the AC busted, and we had to open up doors fore and aft to get refreshment even from the humid air outside through a long day of wine tasting. Rough work, but someone has to do it…

This state competition is likely the most diverse in the country, featuring red, blush and white table wines, sparkling wines, fruit wines, fortified wines and “specialty wines”, all made from hybrids, native and vinifera grapes as well as fruits, mead and blends of same. The quality impressively carries across the scale in all these different categories.

The results haven’t been released yet (visit, but standouts I noted include the following:

– an impressive gooseberry and grapefruit-tasting sauvignon blanc;

– a beautifully pink yet bone dry and delicately strawberry-tasting sparkling pinot noir;

– about half a dozen rieslings from the fine ’08 and ’09 vintages, from dry to semi-sweet. My two favorites included two dry rieslings; the first (which I’ll identify when judges are given the key when results are given) had white peach aromas, and a gentle intensity on the palate which was amazingly concentrated yet light and fresh. The second also had white peach aromas but was tight and taut, needing more time but with flavors bursting with white peach and nectarine with long fine acidity.

– something called “cranberry breeze” allegedly from an unlikely blend of cayuga and de chaunac hybrids, which produced a remarkably cranberry-like aroma and flavor, not too tart, with lively juiciness.

– an amontialdo-style sherry that could have passed for sercial madeira, with nice acidity balancing an unctuous nutty palate.

– two fine late-harvest vidals, rich in apricot/tropical fruit but with good balancing acidity.

After a long hard day’s judging we were looking forward to fine Italian cooking in the Maplewood Inn, with friendly service, but imagine our horror when we found, after a couple of introductory bottles had been opened, that there was NO WINE FOR DINNER brought from the competition, even though we’d booked the restaurant in the hotel precisely because they’d let us bring wine in. Apparently there was a communication break-down between the competition and the judges; I’d have brought half a case myself if I hadn’t flown and refused to pay the airlines to check bags. So Phil Ward (of Opici Wines) and I jumped in his stylish Quattro car to get provisions. Wine cannot be sold in grocery stores in NY (because the powerful wholesalers will lean on someone if they do), and the first tacky corner liquor/wine story we came to had few things we’d want to offer our judges, so Phil punched in “wine” into his GPS navigator and we drove to downtown Syracuse, past tattoo parlors where girls of questionable virtue lingered and white youths were pretending to be Brothers, to 3 different locations which somehow were non-existant or closed.

By the time we returned we were disappointed that nobody knew or cared what we’d attempted on their behalf, but were cheered up because other judges had been compelled to break into their stashes and cough up some wine, and even a Bota Box looked welcome at this point. I was even more grateful when Lynne Montgomery poured me a few ounces of a reserve riesling from Hermann Wiemer, 1999, from an autographed magnum; rich and full-bodied, Alsatian-like, and just hitting stride.

After dinner, we invaded Frank Aquilino’s room. Frank, a former president of the American Wine Society, is a passionate wine lover with photos of his large cellar on his iPhone. He was generous enough to share a ’98 Super Tuscan and a recent vintage Falanghina with us. The Super Tuscan was remarkably dark, rich and full-bodied. He used to work as an A/C contractor so he knows how to keep a cellar at the right temperature and casually mentions “R-value” with authority.

My friend Martha Gioumousis brought me 4 12-oz bottles of her homemade apple cider, 2 from ’09 and 2 from the ’04 vintage. I enjoyed 2 with Albany Times-Union reporter Fred LeBrun. We both preferred the ’04; with the high acid level, this Finger Lakes cider ages like champagne and needs time to mellow.

The next day I picked up a rental car at the airport and headed west on the Thruway to enjoy tasting wines on the Cayuga Wine Trail on the west side of the lake. The first stop was Knapp Vineyards (now belonging to the Glenora Wine Group). Quality is consistent and the product range is wide. Here are my favorites:

  • Knapp dry riesling ’08 Lovely white peach aromas, racy and fresh with classic floral and mineral notes of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. Will be a killer match with seafood, cream sauces.
  • Knapp lemberger ’08 The cool vintage showed this red Central European grape off well. Aromatics of spicy huckleberry, on the palate, lively, racy spicy and fun smoky berry flavors.
  • Knapp sangiovese ’07 Classic smoky/spicy cherry nose. Nicely balanced on the palate, smooth with a crisp finish; fine food red.
  • Knapp vidal blanc ’08 A very classy example of varietal vidal; nice fruity apple-like nose, with fine fruit/acid balance on the palate.
  • Knapp vignoles ’07 (5% R.S.) Probably Knapp’s most consistent and well-known wine, this is sweet but elegantly balanced. Aromas of peach and honeysuckle with tropical fruit flavors; clean, vibrant, fresh, lively and with great balance, probably the most elegant example of this very assertive variety I’ve tasted.

WARNING: if you’re driving the Cayuga Wine Trail on a wet weekend day, expect the wineries to be overrun by noisy, inebriated bus tour groups. I kept dodging one group of rowdy Indians from winery to winery, and even at other wineries with less rowdy groups, found myself shut out of tasting counter space due to the crowds.

Goose Watch winery is part of the Swedish Hill group (also including Penguin Bay). Owner Dave Peterson explains that the Goose Watch label was created to feature mostly wines and grape varieties that were not being done by other Finger Lakes wineries. You’ll find heirloom native varieties like rose of isabella and diamond here, but also viognier, lemberger, villard and traminette as well as more mainstream pinot grigio, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Highlights:

  • Goose Watch pinot grigio ’08: More aromatics on the nose than usual, spicy pear notes, some complexity. On the palate, a rich texture with some depth but a fine dry finish, stylish and more to it than usual.
  • Goose Watch traminette ’08: Elegant lychee/rosewater nose typical of good gewurztraminer (the vinifera parent of this Cornell hybrid), not as overtly blowsy as most. On the palate, like an elegant gewurztraminer but good acidity.
  • Goose Watch cabernet franc rose ’08: lovely nose of cherry, cranberry. ON the palate, zesty, fresh, juicy cranberry but crisp and dry; no “veggies” at all, great example of what’s possible with this grape in a dry rose format.
  • Goose Watch ’07 lemberger: nice violet color. Nose: vibrant smoky and spicy boysenberry notes. Palate: smooth yet vibrant and spicy, richly fruity with spicy pepper without heavy tannins.
  • Goose Watch ’05 chambourcin: color amazingly deep (15% cabernet franc). Nose; just like barbera, spicy, a bit pungent. Palate: rich, round, smooth, fairly tannic but smooth with a fresh long cherry-flavored finish. Great summer grilling wine.
  • Goose Watch ’07 cabernet sauvignon: Nose of rich black fruits with a hint of spice (10% lemberger). Palate is lively, zesty and bright red and black fruits, with smooth tannins and a firm blackberry/pepper finish.
  • Goose Watch ’05 merlot reserve: A complex nose with earth, Right Bank Bordeaux minerality and chocolate/berry hints. Palate: racy fruit/acid balance of crushed blackberries with a mocha/chocolate finish. Great example of fine Finger Lakes red, drinking like a St. Emilion Grand Cru.
  • Goose Watch ’05 cabernet sauvignon reserve: Great dark ruby color. Nose:lovely perfumed cassis/blackberry notes like St. Julian with some leafy hints. Palate: OMG! Solid crushed blackberry/cassis with long fine tannins and dark chocolate finish. Amazingly stylish, drinking like a St. Julian classified growth with Finger Lakes terroir.

Thirsty Owl Wine Co. is less than a decade old but they’ve made an impressive debut on the Finger Lakes wine scene, winning the NY Governor’s Cup award with a riesling a couple of years ago, pretty impressive for a new winery competing with other well-established riesling producers. Very stylish and original reds. Most impressive wines:

  • Thirsty Owl pinot gris ’08: still very young and taut but racy and fresh with lively apple and white peach flavors, some nice palate weight and long lingering finish; a different style than riesling but some of the same elements.
  • Thirsty Owl dry riesling ’08: a tight nose, but on the palate, racy, flinty, apple and white peach flavors. Still tight and very young; needs time but impressive.
  • Thirsty Owl riesling ’09 (semi-sweet) Nice floral/peach Middle-Mosel nose. Palate: juicy and floral, great fruit/acid balance, one to watch.
  • Thirsty Owl syrah ’08: Nose: spicy red fruits and black pepper. Palate: round, smooth, mellow and light, same flavors as the nose.
  • Thirsty Owl meritage ’07: Nose: leafy, some herb hints and crushed blackberries. On the palate, elegantly balanced cassis, smooth tannins, rich layered flavors. Stylish, will age.
  • Thirsty Owl cabernet sauv, syrah, malbec ’07: Nose is mostly closed but with some complex hints, especially spice from the malbec. Palate: medium-bodied, smooth, tight, flavors closed, needs time but texture and aromatics hint at a very stylish, but light/medium red blend in the Finger Lakes style.
  • Thirsty Owl “vinte” ’07: a port-style blend of chancellor and cabernet franc, this is a vibrant and juicy ruby-style wine. The nose is spicy and lifted cherry and chocolate elements. The palate is bright and fresh, very spicy, lively and fresh, bursting with cherry flavors.

Hosmer Winery is a laid-back low-key kind of place that belies the solid track record they have for riesling, chardonnay and cabernet franc for a decade or more. Owner Cameron Hosmer is a grower first and a winery owner second; all varietal wines have the Cayuga Lake sub-appellation. If you want excitement in the glass and not the décor, this is a good place to visit.  Highlights:

  • Hosmer pinot noir ’08: Nose of smoky briar fruits, with hints of truffle and forest floor. Palate: vibrant and fresh, broad, with crisp cherry/berry fruits.
  • Hosmer cabernet franc ’08: Nose: fresh briar fruit aromas, no green “veggies”, resembles lemberger. Palate: lively, juicy and fresh red fruits, no hard tannins. Fine cab franc for a cool vintage.
  • Hosmer dry rose ’09 (cab franc): Nose: closed, very young but nice cranberry hints. Palate: great vibrant cherry, cranberry flavors, fine fruit/acid balance. Still too young but will be great from mid July.
  • Hosmer pinot gris ’09 (barrel sample): Nose: Alsatian-style smoky pineapple with great viscosity and spice on the palate, fine length.
  • Hosmer dry riesling ’09 (tank sample): Nose: spectrum of apples (green/yellow/red) with some white blossom. Palate: a fine Mosel/Saar/Ruwer style with floral peach/nectarine and solid apple fruit. Very young but will develop well; stylish.
  • Hosmer ’07 Vintner’s Reserve riesling (semi-dry): made from a selection of the best estate fruit, this is not overpriced at $25. Nose: OMG!! Wonderful Middle-Mosel floral, apple and peach aromas with a hint of bottle age. Palate: lots of depth, apple and peach, with layers of texture. Elegant for an ’07 and will age gracefully but can be quaffed now with pleasure.

Apologies to Sheldrake Point and Lucas Vineyards; I had a plane to catch in Elmira and had run out of time after finishing at Hosmer; hopefully will include them in the future.