Friday, September 24, 2010

Blind Tasting of Nebbiolo and Barbera wines from Piedmont

Piedmont is one of the great winegrowing regions of Italy. The name means at the foot of the mountains in the local dialect as the region is surrounded on three sides by the Alps. The climate is continental with long and hot summers, misty autumns, and cold, foggy winters. Rainfall is low due to the rain shadow effect caused by the Alps.

Piedmont is home to many indigenous grape varieties including Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino and Brachetto. While Barbera is the most widely-planted grape in the region, producing plummy dark wines naturally high in food-friendly acidity, Nebbiolo is considered one of the most noble Italian varietals. It is quite difficult to master but it can produce ageworthy wines known for their elegance and power. Vineyards are usually found on the hills at altitudes between 490-1150 feet, with the warmer south-facing slopes planted to Nebbiolo and Barbera, and the colder areas dedicated to Dolcetto and white varietals.

Big wine estates are rare in Piedmont. The vast majority of producers are small-to-medium wineries, often owned by the same family for generations.

We tasted our wines blind accompanied by a chicken liver terrine, braised short ribs cooked in wine, and cheese.

Chicken Liver Terrine

Braised Short Ribs

Here are the wines that we tasted:

• 2006 Luciano Sandrone Nebbiolo d'Alba Valmaggiore: founded in 1978, the Luciano Sandrone estate farms a total of 27 hectares (67 acres), 75% of which is owned, and produces about 8,000 cases per year. The winery follows organic farming rules although it has not chosen to seek certification. It uses organic fertilization and pest treatments and no chemicals or enzymes are added to the wine. The wine is produced with Nebbiolo grapes from Valmaggiore, one of the historical cru vineyards in the Roero district around the commune of Vezza d'Alba. The vineyard is on a hill characterised by an extreme slope and very sandy soil. The average vine age is 25 years. Sandrone purchased this parcel in 1994 and replanted the vines in 2001 at a density of 9,000 per hectare. Our notes: medium red color with orange tints, dairy nose with notes of red berries, cherries, and caramel, tannic with a solid mid-palate, good finish. Was ranked third in our tasting.

• 2003 Aurelio Settimo Barolo Rocche: founded in 1979, Aurelio Settimo is a 5.67 hectares (14 acres) property producing mostly Nebbiolo and a small amount of Dolcetto. The property used to do mixed farming and animal breeding and until 1974, 50% of the grapes were sold to the larger local wineries. But since the 1974 vintage, all the production has been vinified on site. The wine comes from the Rocche dell'Annunziata cru, a 3.42 hectare vineyard facing south-southwest and one of the four historic vineyards in La Morra. Our notes: orange hues, nose of sweet berries and prunes, good fruit flavor and acidity on the palate with some herbal notes. Food friendly, great with the braised ribs. Finished in 2nd position.

• 2005 G. D. Vajra Barolo Albe: Founded in 1972, the Azienda Agricola G. D. Vajra is regarded as one of the most reputed Barolo producers in the area. It is situated in Vergne, the highest village in the Commune of Barolo. Its vineyards are planted with Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera at heights of 350-400 meters. The cuvée Albe is a blend from three different vineyards, Fossati, Le Coste, and La Volta. Albe is the plural of alba, which means dawn. According to the winery website, here is the explanation for the name: when the sun rises in the morning, it takes about 20 minutes for the dawn to reach each vineyard, which results in three different albe (dawns). Our notes: medium red color, shy nose with notes of dried herbs, acidic on the palate and quite green with not much fruit flavors. Quite unbalanced but better with sharp-flavored cheese. Finished in 6th position.

• 2006 Agostino Pavia Barbera d'Asti Superiore La Marescialla: founded in 1979, Agostino Pavia is a small family estate located in the heart of the production area of Barbera d'Asti. The estate has several 50-year-old vineyards covering seven hectares, partly owned and partly rented. La Marescialla is one of the crus of Barbera d'Asti. The wine is produced from careful grape selection from one of the oldest vineyards of the estate and is aged about 11-12 months in barriques. Our notes: darker color, dairy aromas on the nose with notes of citrus, caramel, and vanilla. On the palate, not as tannic, but assertive with fruity flavors, well balanced. Finished in 4th position.

• 2000 Paolo Scavino Barolo Carobric: Azienda Vitivinicola Paolo Scavino was established in 1921 by founder Paolo Scavino in the commune of Castiglione Falletto. Today, the winery is run by Paolo's two granddaughters, Elisa (winemaker) and Enrica (marketing). The Carobric cuvee (Ca-Ro-Bric) is a selection of grapes from Scavino's best crus: Cannubi, Rocche di Castiglione, and Bric dël Fiasc. It is aged in a combination of barrique and cask. Our notes: orange/brown color, shy nose getting richer with more time in the glass, round, tasty, complex, well balanced, with a long finish. The wine was a clear favorite, maybe because it had reached its peak. Finished in first position.

• 2003 Massolino Barolo: located in the commune of Serralunga d'Alba, the Massolino estate has been in the family since 1896 and today has 15 hectares of vineyards around the village. The Barolo is a blend of several estate vineyards. Grapes are hand-picked and the winemaking is traditional. The wine id aged 30 months minimum in large oak barrels with further bottle ageing for at least one year before release. Our notes: bright medium red color, nose of sweet fruit and citrus, some tannins and acidity on the palate that became softer with more time in the glass, not as balanced as the Carobric. Finished in 5th position.

Related posts:
•  Tasting the wines of Piedmont
•  Blind Tasting of Bordeaux Right Bank wines
•  Syrah Blind Tasting

Technorati tags:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Budweiser, balsamic vinegar and the effect of expectations on our biased view of the world

Would you willingly mix balsamic vinegar with your Budweiser? yes in certain conditions, explains Professor of Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

The Muddy Charles is one of MIT's two pubs and the place of Ariely's experiment. Students that dropped by were offered two small free samples of beer, one labeled A and the other labeled B. Beer A was regular Budweiser whereas Beer B was a special mix called “MIT Brew”, two drops of balsamic vinegar for each once of beer. After tasting the samples, participants were offered a free large glass of the beer of their choice.

Most of the participants that knew nothing about the vinegar before tasting the beers chose Beer B, the vinegary beer. But those that were offered more information before the tasting (Beer A was a commercial brew, Beer B had a few drops of balsamic vinegar in it) would wrinkle their nose at the vinegary brew and request Beer A instead. They believed beforehand that Beer B was going to be bad and after tasting it, they actually found it bad.

Now what happens if the presence of vinegar is revealed after tasting the samples instead of before? Can initial sensory perceptions be reshaped with new knowledge or is it too late to change the perceptions once they are established?

It turned out that the participants to this new version of the experiment liked Beer B as much as those that knew nothing about the vinegar. Moveover, when asked whether they would like to make the “MIT Brew” themselves, they were willing to add the right amount of vinegar to their beer. Like the first group, they tasted the vinegary brew blind without any pre-conceived expectations and they actually liked the taste of it so they didn't mind giving it another try.

What happens is that our brain is always refining and distorting sensory information in order to construct a simpler picture of the world. If our brain has tried to represent everything as accurately as possible, we would be completely paralysed by information. Moreover, it cannot start from scratch at every new situation. Instead, it must build on what it has seen before so we can interact with our environment more decisively and make better sense of our complicated surroundings.

So next time you make a decision, be realistic, it's 100% biased.

Technorati tags:

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A tasting of affordable Bordeaux from the Planet Bordeaux Program

Before the summer, I received three samples of Bordeaux wines from Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications as part of a new marketing campaign called Planet Bordeaux. The goal of Planet Bordeaux is to promote wines from the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations, incite wine amateurs to look beyond the expensive classified growth and top rated wines and help them discover well-crafted wines at very reasonable prices.

The Bordeaux AOC is the most generic and the largest category within the Bordeaux region. It is used for red, white, and rosé wines produced outside the more specific appellations. Wines under that appellation vary greatly in style, price and quality but the best can be smooth, easy to drink, and affordable.

The Bordeaux Supérieur AOC covers the same geographic area as the Bordeaux AOC but has stricter production norms. The wines must be aged for at least twelve months before they can be sold. So it is usually used for more ambitious wines with a better aging potential, sourced from older vines in selected vineyards.

The first sample was the 2009 Château Ballan Larquette Rosé. Château Ballan Larquette is a 35 hectare property (86 acres) owned by the Chaigne family. It is located in the Entre-Deux-Mers region between the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers. The vines are on average 18 years old. The blend is mostly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of Cabernet Franc. The Rosé is made by partial saignee (or bleeding off the juice) after a 24 hours contact with the skins to obtain a light cherry color. The wine had a fresh nose of red berries and citrus with some good acidity on the palate and notes of of sour cherry and mineral on the finish. Take the wine along on your next picnic or try it with Grilled Rosemary Lamb Chops.

The next wine was the 2008 Château Fontblanche. Château Fontblanche is owned by Elisabeth & Armand Schuster de Ballwil of Château Montlau. It is located between the hills and the banks of the Dordogne river. The wine is a blend of mostly Merlot with some Cabernet Franc and a dash of Malbec. It showed a medium ruby color and a mellow nose of fresh plum. On the palate, it was easy going with a dry and clean aftertaste. Try it with Pork Tenderloin and Grilled Vegetable Salad

The last sample was the 2007 Château de Bel La Capitane. After spending 10 years as a négociant in the wine business, Olivier Cazenave and his wife Anne bought the property in 2003, realising their dream of making their own wine from their own vines. Olivier's philosophy is to make wines that are immediately pleasurable, without being diluted or overextracted, and as such, works long hours in the vineyard. The Château is located along the bank of the Dordogne across the river from Saint-Emilion. It has 12 acres in production, mostly old vines of Merlot and some Cabernet Franc. The cuvée La Capitane is a Bordeaux Supérieur made from 100% Merlot vines averaging 30 years old. The wine has matured in 100% new American oak for 6 months. It had a deep garnet color and attractive notes of vanilla and fresh cherries on the nose. On the palate, it had a round, juicy mouthfeel with dried herbs and earthy tones on the finish. Try it with Grilled Pork Sausages with Spiced Figs.

Technorati tags:

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

If our wine is too bold, too alcoholic, there is hope: just add water

Maybe you knew it already, and like me, have in several occasions surreptitiously dropped an ice cube in your glass of 14%+ alcohol Merlot and found the resulting drink more palatable.

I thought that the wine tasted better because it was a few degrees cooler but according to Harold McGee's latest Curious Cook column, water is actually an ingredient that can enhance flavors.

That may seem counterintuitive: water has no flavor and by adding water, you dilute instead of concentrate flavors. But what McGee found out is that water, by diluting the other ingredients, can change their balance for the better.

This is how it works in high-alcoholic drinks:

“Both alcohol and aroma molecules are volatile,” explains McGee, “meaning they evaporate from foods and drinks and are carried by the air to the odor receptors high up in the nasal cavity. Aroma molecules are also more chemically similar to alcohol molecules than they are to water, so they tend to cling to alcohol, and are quicker to evaporate out of a drink when there's less alcohol to cling to. This means that the more alcoholic a drink is, the more it cloisters its aroma molecules, and the less aroma it releases into the air. Add water and there's less alcohol to irritate and burn, and more aroma release.”

In case of high-alcohol wines, “flavor chemists have found that high alcohol levels accentuate a wine's bitterness, reduce its apparent acidity and diminish the release of most aroma molecules. Alcohol particularly holds down fruity and floral aromas, so the aroma that's left is mainly woody, herbaceous and vegetal.”

So next time your glass is filled with some big, bold Zinfandel, don't worry about what others will think. Add water, the wine will taste more fruity, more balanced, more pleasant, and you will know why.

Technorati tags: