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Top 100 2005 preview

The Top 100/All Star weekend 2005 is available for viewing on www’topwinesofthecentury.com There are ONLY FOUR SEATS LEFT! Let me know ASAP if interested, as it is sure to sell out soon.

Ok, this week’s write-up is chock full of recent events, thanks to a trip out to LA (I do a lot of my writing on planes), a holiday weekend, and the increased guilt of missing a couple weeks this month due to my recent Partypoker.com obsession. So let’s get right into it

Bruno Giacosa Lunch at Cru

This month seems to be an Italian one for me, with Monfortino a few weeks back and now these. There are other events already waiting in the wings to be written, but I figure let’s stick to Italy this week. There probably won’t be many more Italian write-ups in a while, so all you Francophiles can rest easier. The first and most spectacular event of this issue was a Bruno Giacosa lunch that we held at Cru on Friday, May 20th, the day before our incredible May auction. As all of you should know by now, Cru is my favorite restaurant in the entire country; no one can match the combination of amazing cuisine, fine wine and great atmosphere. Since there is no private room (yet), we were able to talk them into allowing us to do our version of a power lunch.

The first flight warmed us up with a trio of 1996s. The 1996 Barbaresco had a gorgeous nose with all the classic components of sweet cherry fruit, tobacco, leather, tar, anise and rose. Rob S. noted it was very bright. aromatically, but the palate was very dry. There was great grip there, but it was not overwhelming in its tannins. There were some tangy citrus and soy flavors, but the wine lacked definition in the middle and seemed simple by my Giacosa standards. This was the first AC wine I have had from him in a while, so maybe they are best in their first five or six years (90). The 1996 Barbaresco Santo Stefano. (not Riserva) was a jump up with its perfumed and meaty nose. You could see the extra layers, fatness and nuttiness right away. The meat, game and nut components to the nose were delicious. The wine was richer, rounder and more balanced than the regular Barbaresco, and the meat and game carried over to the palate along with some tar flavors. There was beautiful balance, tasty flavors and nice cedar, or as Rob put it, shop. flavors (93). Lastly, we had the 1996 Barolo Falleto Riserva.. We were most certainly in Barolo territory, with much more power emerging from its deeper and darker nose. Aromas of meat, nut, tar, tobacco, cassis and asphalt sang like a booming tenor from this deep and brooding wine that still remained very fresh. Rob called it a mouthful, and its finish crushed those of the first two wines. Minerals and vitamins rounded out its superior palate (95).

We weren’t messing around, as flight number two was one of Santo Stefano Riservas. The 1990 Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva. had a nose like wildfire with its brick, ash, cedar and leather components. Soy, nut, BBQ and Worcestershire were also present, and that last one was not a good sign in this case, as it started to become the dominant aroma with its BBQ and mesquite friends. The wine was very meaty on the palate and surprisingly smooth. Robin noted that it was almost like a Port, and there was a lot of chocolate and some anise, someone noted. Rob and I looked at each other quizzically and started to realize that this bottle was slightly affected. I have rated this wine as high as 97 points, and this bottle was clearly not 100%. It still had many redeemable qualities, but it was not what it should have been. Knowing how great this wine should be and usually is, I ultimately decided to (DQ) it. The 1989 Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva. was more like it, more wound and more my style, I wrote. There was big t n a (tannins and alcohol), racy minerals, anise, fresh glass, and more t n a. The palate was enormous with enough finish for a small house. It was still an infant and has enormous potential (95++). The 1988 Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva. was more forward and ripe with the nutty, leathery and gamy Nebbiolo characteristics taking center stage. There was also fireplace, brick, meat and soy. There were brown liqueur flavors that is best described as hedonistic and early maturing, a quality many feel is prevalent in a lot of 1988s in Italy (93). As I was speaking about drinkablity and how it seemed that the 88 was ready to go, Robin, who was there with some of her girlfriends, asked me What about husbands? When are they ready?. Husbands are always best within the first five years, I replied on cue, which got a big laugh, and a try two. from one of the gang. We quickly gathered ourselves in the presence of the great 1985 BarbarescoSanto Stefano Riserva.. This wine had the best of both maturity and youth, in perfect harmony right now. The leather, the game, the cedar, the meat, the truffle, the soy, the nut the palate was huge a la 1989, but much bigger than the nose led me to believe. The finish could best be described by the words a wallop of, with loads of tannins, alcohol, minerals, slate, fire and rock. The 1985 was definitely in a sweet spot and tickled me all sorts of ways (97). There was still one more wine to this great flight, the 1982 Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva.. The nose was the shiest of the flight, with faint traces of brick, tar, caramel and uncracked nuts still in their shells. The nose widened a bit in the glass, and the palate left no doubt as to its quality. The fireplace qualities were blazing on its wound and taut palate, which had tremendous breed and length. The tannins, alcohol, vitamins and minerals made a case that the 1982 was a balanced breakfast, indeed (96).

On to the 1990s, we went. The 1990 Barbaresco had a lovely nose, still very vigorous at first with solid t n a, in stereo with its meat, nut and leather qualities. The wine was smooth and satiny on the palate, balanced and long, just starting to plateau. It made a case for the 1996 being in a dumb phase, but I do not think that the 1990 will get any better than it is right now (92). T/he 1990 Barbaresco Gallina. had another seductive nose sensing a trend? There was chocolate, nut, fig, smoke and of course, leather, cedar and tar (that’s a given by now, I wrote). The palate was rich, meaty and long, the t n a rock solid, and the balance exquisite. The wine was still very vigorous, with a nice expression of fruit on the palate relative to the finish. Nutty flavors were there, and this wine flirted with an outstanding rating but ultimately fell a hair short. It was still great (94). The 1990 Barolo Villero. was almost exotically fruity by comparison to the styles to which we had become accustomed with its red, red, red profile of cherry, tomato, and cherry tomato. Musk, jasmine and exotic spice rounded out its kinky nose, and the palate was also great long, screechy but in control with its classic flavors of cedar, tar, leather and meat (95). The 1990 Barolo Falleto Riserva. again showed who’s boss. My notes started out with the universally accepted Ooooooooooooo, plus or minus an o or two. It was very nutty in the nose, in an oily way this time, and was very rich and almost creamy. The palate was enormous, especially the concentration of fruit. The oily texture of the fruit was amazing and really left an impression. The nose got more and more complex, and the wine had great t n a. The palate was so f.ing delicious, I put. Sometimes, less is more when it comes to the pen. It was beefy and oily with traces of toasted brown sugar. Yum (97). The last 1990 was handicapped since it was accidentally served behind the Falleto Riserva. Oh, well, there was nothing we could do except taste it and see for ourselves. The 1990 Barolo Collina Rionda Riserva. had the classic aromas of nut, tar, anise, leather, meat, t n a and a pinch of exotic fruit soda in there. The wine was more gamy on the palate than its other 1990 Barolo counterparts, smooth, long and pleasant but after the Falleto it just did not seem to cut it at first. It did gain in the glass with time, come out and become more rugged (94+).

Two more flights to go, and the heavy breathing started to commence. In and out The 1989 Barolo Falleto Riserva. also required a lot of oxygen and got another Oooo. out of me, but only four o’s this time. The nose was super intense and wound with loads of t n a, more t n a and some nut, cedar and a chocolate/molasses combo. It was piercing, spiny and deep, delicious on the palate, backside heavy with a great finish in reserve (95+). The 1985 Barolo Falleto Riserva. was unfortunately affected, more mature than it should have been, although again there were many redeemable qualities. At this stage in the game, though, I was not trying to figure it out (DQ). The 1985 Barolo Rocche. was solid tasty, easy, leathery, smooth, rounded and gamy. It got a little better in the glass but seemed to be at its peak (91). The 1982 Barolo Collina Rionda Riserva. was very forward, with baked beans and a white sugar, mint julep quality. It was long, smooth and dry on its dusty palate, and the nose got incredibly nutty (93).

There was a trio of 1978s at the end, but unfortunately, I was toast by this point. I now know that my limit for glasses of Giacosa in the afternoon is seventeen. The 1978 Barolo Collina Rionda Riserva. was corked, the 1978 Barolo Rocche. got a WOW. from me about its nose and Slover couldn’t stop talking about the 1978 Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva.. Unfortunately, that sums up that flight. With an auction the next day, I retreated back to the office a little cross-eyed yet still bushy-tailed. It was quite an afternoon.

The 2001 Gajas with Angelo

With Angelo Gaja himself in New York City a few weeks ago and all this talk about 2001 being better than 2000 in Piedmont, I decided to hop over to the Four Seasons Restaurant in the afternoon and take in the 2001 Gajas and see what the man himself had to say about 2001 and wine in general.

Founded in 1859, the Gaja winery in Barbaresco has been owned and operated by four generations of the Gaja family. With now over 250 acres of vineyards in Barolo and Barbaresco, they recently acquired two estates in Tuscany, Pieve Santa Restituta (Montalcino) and Ca. Marcnada (Bolgheri). All Gaja wines are exclusively made from grapes grown in estate-owned vineyards. Angelo has been responsible for not only numerous innovations in Italian winemaking, but also for elevating the stature and international reputation of Nebbiolo. For this, all of Piedmont will be forever in his debt. Soon enough, I will go into detail about the things that Angelo said himself which make for fascinating reading.

We started with the 2001 Sito Moresco, an equal blend of Nebbiolo, Cabernet and Merlot. I found the wine harsh, rustic, high in alcohol and rough. I suppose it could flesh out, but it was very rough at the moment (86+). Not to worry, the 2001 Barbaresco was next. The nose was pretty with soft red fruits marked by playful spice and leather. It was inviting with its delicate, feminine charm (delicate and feminine by Italian standards, I should say!) There were nice, secondary aromas of earth, more layers of spice and a splash of tar. The core of red fruit stayed. The wine was very youthful, high in alcohol and firm with lots of bitter tannin flavors (the bitterness of youth). One could sense the seriousness of the wine(s). The wine got dusty in a Wild West way in the glass to go with its spine, spice, leather and pitch. The sandy and leathery flavors dominated in this youthful stage, and the finish sparkled with its minerals and acidity (92-3).

The 2001 Costa Russi. can no longer be called Barbaresco because it is 5% Barbera. The same goes for the Sori San Lorenzo and the Sori Tilden. Obviously, Gaja dos not care. His name and the names of his vineyards mean far more than the designation of Barbaresco. Indeed, he is larger than life when it comes to the world of Italian wine and its governing laws. The 2001 Costa Russi had a deeper nose than the Barbaresco with much more flesh and presence of fruit black, purple and red were all neck and neck in a three-way race for most present. The nose also contained sand, leather, minerals and a kink of petrol. Black roses came to my mind as I prepared to taste, and the palate delivered tremendous power. The tannins, alcohol and acidity were all very present; in fact you could not ignore any of them. The wine was razor sharp yet big like a boulder. There was lots of earth, plummy fruit, coffee grinds with a hint of mocha and meat on the bones of this well-bred and built 2001 (94+). The 2001 Sori Tildin was next, which surpised me as I always thought it was the big boy of the three cuvees. Regardless, the Sori Tildin had a spinier nose than the Costa Russi with less fruit and more sand, leather and dust. There was still some fatness to the wine, however, and some red fruit, chocolate and black licorice emerged with heavy coaxing. The palate was hotter, more wound, spicier and lingering yet less approachable than the Costa Russi. The acidity was spine tingling, I must admit. This will be a great wine (96). The 2001 Sori San Lorenzo seemed to have the best of both the Costa Russi and the Sori Tildin. There was great balance in the nose with a touch more yeast (positive) to go with its black rose fruit, leather and earth. Its plumminess really seeped out with time, and the nose became sappy and rich, round and literally dripping with fruit. The palate was much tighter and rugged; hot, alcoholic, spicy and rocky. The wine was the biggest of the three, after all, but also the squarest on the palate, but the nose made me think that something special was happening here (95+).

It was after tasting through these three wines that Gaja decided to speak. Well-versed in English, he spoke in a style that was open, honest, warm yet firm. It was as if E.F. Hutton had entered the room. He started off by discussing his fundamental principles. One, all quality wine must be estate-bottled, and good land is necessary to make good wine. Two, one must respect the dignity of the wine, not only the land and varietal but also the climactic conditions each and every year and NOT bottle everything when Mother Nature dictates so and NOT to be afraid to declassify your best vineyards and sell of the juice to other negociants in those years that are more difficult than others. 2002 was a perfect example. It was not an easy vintage, and they kept waiting and waiting for Mother Nature to give them something late in the Fall, but the rains came instead, and the wine did not meet Gaja’s standards. As a result, they did not bottle any of the aforementioned five wines. 1972, 1980 and 1984 were other years that the same was done. Gaja spoke about the recent vintages and called 2000 and 1997 approachable;. 2001 and 1998 approachable but not like 2000 and 1997;. 1999, 1996 and 1995 need time. They will be the most classic and have impeccable balance for long-term aging.. Funny, those are the vintages that are good buys at the auction right now, and 1999 is almost a forgotten vintage already! He also stressed the importance of an operation having one vision and one mind, which is why he never did a joint venture with anyone. He told us the story about how Robert Mondavi had approached him in the early 1990s, and how he almost accepted. He was obviously very fond of Mondavi, whom he called, a great man who gave credibility to California wines.. Obviously, their paths are somewhat linked in their respective regions. He went on about how they had a first meeting in New York, and when he walked into the room, there was Mondavi with a team of advisors and lawyers and how he was slightly embarrassed that he came to this meeting unprepared for such serious discussions. He continued that a joint venture is like a wedding. You must have complimentary characters, reciprocation and share a dream. You must also have good sex, literally for the wedding and figuratively for the joint venture. I am a mosquito with my 300,000 bottles. Robert is an elephant with 25,000,000. How can a mosquito and an elephant make love?. In the end, this is why he politely declined. The whole experience, however, made Gaja start to think differently. He was flattered and started to ask himself why shouldn’t he expand and increase production a bit? That is how his involvement in Tuscany was born and eventually led to the purchase of the two estates in the mid-nineties.

He also told us some stories about industry pioneers like Frank Schoonmaker and Bill Sokolin. He remembers meeting Frank for the first time and how Frank wanted to buy all of his 1961s, which Gaja found arrogant and pretentious at first. He also did not like the idea of having to put a Frank Schoonmaker Selection. strip label on all of his bottles, either. It was his selection, after all. He remembers the wholesale (his) price of the 1967 being $0.75 a bottle, and how Bill came knocking looking to place a 100 case order, but get it half-price, of course. The answer was no. There were missed opportunities, but others came, he reminisced.

He said that Costa Russi is normally the most approachable of the three cuvees, that Sori San Lorenzo is normally the longest aging, and how Sori Tildin was named after his grandmother, whose nickname was Tildin, but no one dared to call her it even grandpa! He affectionately went on to describe his summers with grandma in Barbaresco, and how she never smiled and was always correcting his behavior and homework. She was a strong character and influence in Angelo’s life, instilling a discipline in him that he carries with him to this day. In regard to the 2001s, he said that these were wines that needed time to be completed. and that in eight to ten years, they would be fantastic. He admired the soft, noble tannins of 2001. More from Gaja later

We continued with his two Barolos (again a small percentage of Barbera does not allow Gaja to call either of them Barolo. The newer 2001 Conteisa had a deep, layered nose full of dark blue fruits, nut oil, grape, plum and musk with hints of modernity and less of the leather/sand/tar typicity of the Barbarescos. It was still far from a modern wine, but it did have a whiff of cult Cabernet in it, a la Harlan or a quality of the sorts. The palate was surprisingly round and forward, and its finish a touch light despite good acidity. It seemed like an early bloomer and lacked the stuffing of any of the Barbarescos. Perhaps Angelo is still getting a feel for the property and vineyard and needs some time to get his signature on this estate (92). The 2001 Sperss was very tight in the nose with only hints of aromas, but those that were there were more classic in style. Tar, leather, darker, blacker fruits, spice, sand and hints of vanilla were all late to the party unfolding in the glass. The wine coated the mouth with balance; the fruit and finish had great symmetry actually. There were classic flavors and good spice despite its chunky personality, and good acidity on the finish (95).

The Darmagi, 95% Cabernet, had a funny story behind it. Angelo was always fascinated with Cabernet and ended up being one of the pioneers of the grape varietal in Piedmont. There was this vineyard next to the house that had been torn up for replanting by his father. After seeing the vineyard manager’s work, his father looked over the vineyard and cooed how we will make excellent Nebbiolo here.. In January, Angelo’s father went away for two months before the vines could be planted. Well, Angelo had something else in mind and had Cabernet planted instead. Of course, his father never liked the wine. I guess some people in the Gaja family know how to carry a grudge! In fact, the wine is named after what his father said when he found out what happened. Darmagi. translates into what a pity. in Italian! The 2001 Darmagi let us know right away that Cabernet was in the house. There was classic cedar and cassis there (classic for Cabernet, that is), but with the Italian earth, sand and leather behind it, the terroir. It was very fragrant on the fruit side, almost perfumy. The wine was round, rich, spicy and balanced on the palate with charcoal flavors (93).

We ended with the two Brunellos from 1999, since that was the most recently released vintage. The Brunellos do not say Gaja on the wine as the producer; they have kept the Pieve Santa Restituta name. The 1999 Rennina was a left turn as we headed south to Tuscany. The nose was bready with light leather and some sundried, meaty fruit, red in nature yet earthy in its personality. There was an autumnal center/edge (one or the other), perhaps its wood components. There was also vanilla, boat interior and old paint. There was a gamy flavor with old wood edges. It was surprisingly approachable and tasty but less powerful than I expected. The wine still had grip but was without much length (91). I much preferred the 1999 Sugarille, which had more pinch and less game to the nose. The wine was richer and longer with more fat, chewy, red leathery fruit and a sprinkle of cotton candy sweetness/sexiness. It was more classic and mountainous in style with its tasty, meaty, cherry flavors (94).

Angelo summed things up by stressing how all of us should see how the wines were evolving in the glass, which is particularly important in young wines. He spoke of Europe being the cradle of wine, and the wine revolution.. We were all about terroir in Piedmont, he said, and looked down upon Tuscany forget about Southern Italy, but a revolution started, and started in the U’s. Things like using stainless steel to control temperature during fermentation, the use of small barriques and the experimentation with grape varietals helped vineyards everywhere in the world. Speaking of barriques, he went on to say how many producers overoak their wines when using barriques, but that they can be used effectively and that many producers have improved their use of them with experience. In the U’s., there is one Robert Parker. In Italy, everyone is a Parker because everyone is an expert!. (If you know some headstrong Italians, you know of what he speaks, right Big Boy?) He introduced his daughter, Gaia, who has been involved in the business full-time for six months. In fact, this was the first, major, commercial tasting that he has done with his daughter by his side. He said their vision is to keep things the same as they are now, but if his daughter has more vision to expand the operation later in life, so be it. She has his blessings.

There is a lot of confusion in Italy, he reasoned. It comes from Parliament and the Vatican with a German now as the Pope, who knows?. That got some laughs. But confusion in Italy, it works. All the different wines are good; we must maintain confusion in what we do..

I got to say hello and shake Angelo’s hand at the end. It was truly an honor and privilege to hear him speak and taste the 2001s with him present.

A 2000 Barolo Tasting with RP in Vegas

The last time I was in Vegas (I did not go again!), there was a tasting of 2000 Barolos hosted by Robert Parker at Valentino’s in the Venetian. Parker was his usual, charming, warm and endearing self and was a great host for the event, full of anecdotes and personal stories that made the dinner a real pleasure. However, halfway through the event I found out the wines were opened about eight hours before the event! This was not Parker’s decision, I must add, but it makes for an interesting point of discussion about aeration. This was my first major experience with the 2000 vintage in Piedmont since wines of this level I usually have when they are older. I was thinking to myself how soft, supple and charming the wines universally were, and it all came together when I found out how much airtime they had. Now, the wines were probably drinking as well as they could have due to the extra airtime. All signs of bitter youth, overt tannins, alcohol or acidity had melted away into Father Time. However, I feel that given how rare it is to evaluate wines with this much aeration, by opening up these wines so much in advance, it gave a skewed perspective on the vintage for me and many others and made the 2000s seem less vigorous than they probably are. Therefore I have a tough time putting definitive scores on these wines. All the wines were quality and still showed very good (90-2 points) to excellent (93-4 points), with a couple of outstandings as well. The standouts were the 2000 Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis. and 2000 P. Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc, which both managed to get (95) points from me, but might have gotten more with less air, who knows? My notes on the Sandrone read: Grapy nose the fruit, seed and oil and nuts, why not? Very expansive and chewy fruit in the nose like the Gaja, and the plummy side really comes out. It has a perfumed quality unmatched so far and great structure the longest of the night but still somehow fine. In between modern and traditionalist, RPkicked in.. For Scavino: Intense nose with lots of anise and alcohol, along with animal, leather and fat fruit. Rich, long with great structure and balance. Long, smooth but firm. Sandy, sturdy, charcoal flavors.. The 2000 Giacosa Barolo Rocche del Falleto. and Corino Barolo Giachini. were right behind them, and then there were the rest. I just don’t feel that my notes are in the same context that I consistently review, so it would be askew to get into a full, in-depth review. Sorry.

Some tidbits from RP: he called Nebbiolo the Pinot Noir of Italy. and La Morra the Pomerol of Barolo.. He reminisced about growing up around bourbon, not wine, and how he had to give away issues of the Wine Advocate for free when he was starting up the newsletter just to get the word around (I know that feeling!) He called wine the greatest gift Mother Nature has given to mankind, and how 98% of the wines produced in the world don’t get any better.. He called Barbera Piedmont’s version of a bistro wine. that does not improve much with age. He made a great point how all of Barolo is only 3000 acres, which is the equivalent of one chateau in Bordeaux. You are always a student, when it comes to wine, he mused. Each new vintage you have to go back to school and learn again.. Here here.

A Celebrity Death Match: 1989 Clinet vs. 1978 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva. at Alto

An old, wine-loving friend of mine, who had moved to Hong Kong a couple years ago, was back in New York for the week with his father and stunning, new Indonesian girlfriend, so we all headed to Scott Conant’s new place off Madison Avenue, Alto. I have a feeling you will be hearing more from me about this restaurant in the future. The wine list is tremendous and very fairly priced, and Scott is one of the great, young chefs of my generation.

A celebrity death match for wine is when you have two different types of wine for dinner, two types that really have no relation to each other outside of the fact that they are (hopefully) quality. I suppose it could be done with a Beringer White Zinfandel and a Sutter Home Chardonnay, but you get the idea. So, Dave’s dad brought the 1978 Giacosa and ordered the 1989 Clinet off the list, as Alto has a one-bottle maximum corkage policy. Anyway, it is always good form (in New York at least I know California people think differently and feel BYO is a right of passage) to order at least one thing off the list when BYO-ing.

We started with the 1989 Clinet, which had a sexy nose. It was shy at first but still incredibly intense in an alluring way, kind of like the veiled woman waving her finger at you, partially behind the curtain. (Ladies, insert your male fantasy here). Its mineral and earth components were singing out of the glass, forward but not shrieking, sprinkled over the top of some lightly covered-in-chocolate, plummy fruit. There was also a caraway-ish edge in its earth aspects, but it wasn’t exactly caraway. The palate was also a bit shy but still delicious with its plummy core, nice cedar edges and twist of non-citrus tang (good earth as well, of course, as that was the dominant characteristic on this night). The palate was satiny and silky, smooth and fine, long and lightly gritty. It was still a baby and lingered well, but it was far from the winegasm that others have had over it (94).

As fate would have it, Dave Sr. brought a 1978 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva, the same wine that I would not have the energy to take a note a couple days later! We sampled bottle number #565 out of only 4,536. The nose was the kind of nose that makes a great wine seem average. Dave was in awe of how much was going on. The leather, tar, soy, black fruit and anise quintafecta was astounding. There was great spice and gamy fruit on the palate, which bordered on being hot. There was big-time rose in the nose as well. The wine was intense without being screechy but still had lots and lots of alcohol, which fortunately smoothed out with time, giving a silver streak of an impression. The spice got more and more exotic in this amazing wine (96+)

The Clinet put up a good fight but was no match for the Giacosa in the end. That’s the way the Clinet crumbles.


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