Saturday, March 1, 2008

Le Piane Tasting: An Excellent Evening

A wine maker who significantly contributed to the resurrection of a dying wine region. That is certainly a compelling story and I was pleased to get to meet that vintner, talk with him a bit and taste his wines.

Last evening, Eileen Wright of Adonna Imports arranged for Christoph Künzli, the winemaker of Le Piane in the Northern Piedmont to have a tasting at Salem Wine Imports. I attended the tasting, bringing some members of the North Shore Winers, and also met there two other local wine bloggers, Taster A and Taster B from Smells Like Grape.

A brief aside: As I am also celebrating the contributions of women to the wine industry this month, I wanted to specifically honor Adonna Imports, run by Jeannie Rogers (of Il Capriccio fame) and Eileen Wright. Adonna Imports is becoming an important wine importer, specializing in more boutique Italian wineries. I have tasted many wines from their portfolio and are usually impressed with what I taste. Their wines are becoming more common in a number of local wine shops. If you check a wine label, and see the name Adonna Imports, you are almost guaranteed of finding a quality wine you will enjoy.

Back to the tasting....

Christoph Künzli, who is Swiss, first became aware of the Boca DOC wine region around 1988. At this time, he also learned of one of the last local growers in that region, Antonio Cerri. Boca is a small village in the Lower Alps of northern Piemonte. It is the most eastern wine region in the Piemonte, situated between Valle Sesia and the lake of Orta. Until the end of the 19th century, their wines were considered excellent. Yet interest in the area began to wane, and the vineyards were eventually sold or neglected.

When Christoph arrived in Boca, there were only about 20 acres of vineyards left. Christoph and vinologist Alexander Trolf saw much potential in Boca, having tasted some incredible wines made by Antonio Cerri. Cerri's vineyard, Campo delle Piane, was situated above the village and had since been surrounded by a forest. Cerri produced about 2500 liters of wine every year, until 1991. The site was planted with Spanna, the local name for Nebbiolo, aged up to 100 years.

Cerri decided to retire and offered to sell his vineyard to Christoph and Alexander. Thus, they founded the Le Piane winery in 1998. They planted new vines, adding some new Nebbiolo clones. Their efforts helped to resurrect this dying wine region though sadly, Alexander would not live to see their dream come true. He died in a tragic road accident though his memory lives on in the vineyard "Meridiana" which he replanted.

Now, Le Piane has about 15 acres of vineyard, about ten times what Cerri's vineyard had been. The entire area of Boca now has about 50 acres of vineyards as other growers have followed suit and chose to help in the resurrection of Boca.

The soil in Boca is of porphyry (of volcanic origin), crumbled on its surface to fine gravel. This soil is unique in Italy and it resembles the famous sites of Cote Rotie. The moderate climate of the Lower Alps characterized by high autumnal temperatures, together with intensive sunshine due to southern exposures, offers the best conditions for a perfect maturity of the grapes. The embedded vineyards between the surrounding hills are protected against cold alpine winds. The grapes of Boca generally include Nebbiolo with some Vespolina and Bonarda.

Christoph also makes some wines from the Colline Novaresi Rosso DOC, which is in the Novara province near Boca. Their grapes generally include Nebbiolo, Vespolina, Bonarda as well as Croatina.

The first wine of the tasting was the 2004 Le Piane La Maggiorina ($13.99) from the Colline Novaresi Rosso DOC. This wine is made from three unusual Italian grapes and one common one, including Croatina, Vespolina, Uva Rara and Nebbiolo. It has an alcohol content of 12% and is made solely in staineless steel. It sees no oak at all. I loved the lush berry flavors of this wine. There was some acidity and mineral notes. It is an easy drinking wine with plenty of flavor. At this price, it is an excellent value for an everyday wine. It should please everyone. Only about 700 cases were made of this wine.

The next wine was the 2004 Le Piane ($39.95), also from the Colline Novaresi Rosso DOC. This wine is primarily Croatina with a bit of Nebbiolo ancd Vespolina to help tame the tannins. Croatina, which is not found in the Boca DOC, can be rustic, harsh and tannic. So, other grapes are often blended in to smooth out those characteristics. The Croatina used in Le Piane is from a 100 year old vineyard. Le Piane ages in small barrels of French oak, new and used, for about eighteen to twenty-four months. Afterwards, it is then blended with Nebbiolo in a large barrel. This vintage is viewed as having made "the prototype of a perfect Le Piane wine."

This wine had a nose of cherry notes with a tinge of earthiness. It was a full-bodied wine and on the palate there are flavors of black cherry, plum and some mineral notes. The tannins are restrained and there is a mild earthiness to its taste. It is a smooth wine with a lingering finish. It is also well balanced with some interesting complexity. A wine I definitely enjoyed and would recommend. Only about 700 cases were made of this wine.

We then moved on to the Boca wines, of three different vintages. This was a good opportunity to examine how vintage does matter, how the same wine can really differ year to year. And each three of these Boca wines were definitely different. The Boca wines are primarily Nebbiolo, the famed grape of Barolo and Barbaresco. Yet the Boca wines are different, especially as the soil differs. The Boca wines are intended to reflect the terroir of the region, and thus show their uniqueness. About 15% of Vespolina is added to the Boca wines, generally to help tame the tannins. Traditional methods are also used to create the Boca, such as pressing the skins by hand during fermentation.

The 2000 Boca ($59.95) was produced in a very good year due to a hot summer and few rains. It spent about four years in French oak and was bottled in 2004. The wine is considered to still be young and has much aging potential. I found this to be a superb wine, very Old World in style. The nose was a bit restrained with some subdued berry notes. On the palate, the flavors were subdued as well. This was a silky smooth wine, like liquid velvet. You needed to pay attention to its complex flavors, to realize the various fruit notes as well as a bit of licorice. The finish was very long and satisfying. The tannins were very smooth, almost ethereal. This is a wine of finesse not power. Only 200 cases of this wine were produced.

The 2001 Boca ($49.95) came from a perfect year, not too hot but with very slight rain fall along with a perfect autumn. It might also have been the first year that the difficult Vespolina grapes grew successfully. It too saw about four years in French oak and was bottled in 2005. It too is still very young. The vintner feels this is "one of the best Boca wines produced." I enjoyed this wine but not as much as the 2000, though I know there were others who preferred the 2001. I did not feel this Boca was as smooth as the 2000 and I detected a bit more tartness in the 2001. It presented more vibrant fruit and a bit more tannins. There was more power in this wine than the 2000 Boca. Yet that is all a matter of preference. This is a very good wine and only 200 cases of this wine were produced.

The 2003 Boca ($59.95) came from a year with an incredibly hot summer without any rain until mid-October. But a very early harvest gave absolutely perfect grapes with very high sugar content. The Boca wine was drinkable immediately due to its low malo-acidity. This wine made it onto the Gambero Rosso list of Tre Bicchieri recipients for 2008. This was the boldest of the three Boca wines, with more prominent tannins and berry and plum flavors. Yet it was well balanced and had plenty of complexity on the palate, as well as a nice, long finish. I did not find the tartness of the 2001. I enjoyed this wine very much and liked it almost as much as the 2000, though they are very different in style. Only 500 cases of this wine were produced.

Interestingly enough, while speaking with Eileen Wright, we discussed how these tastings could sometimes be deceptive, that a wine can taste very different when accompanied by food. This is also something Natalie MacLean mentioned in her book Red, White and Drunk All Over and which I recently discussed. It is often true, wines can taste very different when paired with food.

In that regard, I will have the opportunity on Monday night to taste all of the Le Piane wines with dinner. Il Capriccio in Waltham is holding a special, six-course wine dinner Monday night, which you probably can still make reservations. So I look forward to seeing how the wines fare with food and will definitely report back my thoughts.

Salem Wine Imports
32 Church Street
Salem, MA
Phone: 978-741-9463

1 comment:

Taster B said...

Hi Richard,

This is a very nice write-up on last night's tasting. I was wondering where Christoph hailed from...
Excellent point about experiencing the wines again with food--wish we could make it Monday but, it's not going to work out this time. At least we have a bottle of La Maggiorina and a Le Piane 2001 to save for later.