Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Le Piane: Wine Maker Christoph Künzli

Christoph Künzli, the winemaker of Le Piane in the Boca region of the Northern Piedmont, has a rather unique wine making approach. He "makes wines with his mouth." I'll explain that philosophy later in this post.

Recently, Jeannie Rogers and Eileen Wright of Adonna Imports hosted a special wine tasting with Christoph. This was not the first time that I had met Christoph. Last year, I attended a wine tasting and wine dinner with Christoph, and was very much impressed with both he and his wines. About three years ago, Adonna Imports were the first to bring the Le Piane wines into the U.S. market. If you have not tasted these wines, you definitely should do so.

Now, Adonna Imports was hosting the first tasting of the wines of Antonio Cerri. When Christoph first came to the Boca region, he was introduced to Cerri by Paolo de Marchi, a famed Tuscan wine maker who owns the winery Isole e Olena. Christoph tasted Cerri's wines and was very impressed. He wanted to purchase Cerri's vineyard, but Cerri resisted for a number of years. Eventually though, in 1995, after having a stroke, Cerri changed his mind and sold his vineyard and wine to Christoph.

Cerri, who only sold his wines locally, was very selective in his vineyard, carefully choosing only the very best grapes. Plus, he held onto his wines for years before releasing them. He had plenty of patience, which seems to be lacking in some modern wine makers who rush to release their wines. When Christoph bought the winery in 1995, he found that Cerri still had wines in barrels, vintages extending back to 1984. He was unsure how those wines would be, but after tasting them he realized they actually were quite good so he bottled them, which was not an
easy task.

We began our tasting with some of Christoph's wines, the 2000, 2001, 2003 & 2004 Le Piane Boca. We then proceeded to taste through Cerri's wines, including the vintages of 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, & 1991. All of Cerri's wines are made from old vine Nebbiolo. It was fascinating to compare the wines, to see how Cerri and Christoph were similar and different. There was a clear evolution of the wines, a progression attributable to changes instituted by Christoph.

The 1991 was still very fresh, and you might not even realize it was 18 years old. It had a rich ruby color and a lush dark berry smell with hints of leather. The complex flavors were pleasing, with black cherry, raspberry and plum. The tannins were restrained, there was plenty of acidity and a lengthy finish.

The 1990 had tinges of orange in its color and the nose was more muted. On the palate, it was more acidic than the 1991 and had some earthier notes amidst the red fruit flavors. It was smooth, with a long finish.

The 1989 had a light red color with a dusty, earthy nose and delicious red fruit flavors though it did not seem as complex as the 1991. Yet some of the others at the tasting were very much impressed with this wine.

The 1987 was disappointing to me, with a musty smell and a so so taste. I felt like it was past its prime, on the downward side.

After disappointment came great joy. The 1985 was my favorite of the tasting, an exceptional wine that would be sure to please any wine lover. It had a darker red color than the 1987, with a compelling nose of red fruit and earthy notes. The concentrated flavors had subtle complexities and there were hints of mushrooms and violets. The tannins were mild and the finish was extremely long and very satisfying. This is a wine to savor slowly, to relish every sip. This wine strongly reminded me of an aged Burgundy. In fact, most of the Cerri wines seemed to resemble Burgundy.

The 1984 had almost as much color as the 1985 and it had more of a mushroom smell. Its taste was similar to the 1985 except that it was more acidic and tannic. For a wine of this age, it was still relatively vibrant. For many of the attendees, their favorite wine of the tasting was either the 1984 or 1985.

The Cerri wines are clear ancestors to Christoph's wines, though Cerri's wines tend to be more acidic. This is partially due to the fact that Cerri's grapes came from a vineyard that is of lower altitude than Christoph's vineyards. Christoph has been planting new vineyards, which are now the highest vineyards of Nebbiolo in the Piedmont. He has also been planting better Nebbiolo clones. The height of the vineyards are supposed to lead to better acidity, more freshness, softer tannins, mineral notes, and be more fragrant.

Like Cerri, Christoph tries to do the least amount of wine making and uses little technology. As I mentioned earlier, Christoph "makes wines with his mouth." He is not an enologist, he is just Christoph. To him, the most important part of wine making is taste. He will taste the wine at various stages during the wine making process, assessing the quality of the wine from its taste. He learns through experience, growing in knowledge with each vintage.

Christoph used an analogy to explain this process. Consider a chef who can make the same recipe hundreds of time in a year. But the wine maker does not have that many opportunities. He is very limited in the amount of wines he can make in a year, and thus has less opportunity to learn. So it takes him longer to improve. Christoph continues to learn, experimenting, trying to find ways to make better wines. He has even produced an Erbaluce passito, though he had none for us to try. Maybe the next time he visits the U.S.

This was a fun and informative tasting, a rare opportunity to taste some compelling wines. Adonna Imports continues to offer an excellent portfolio, showcasing some intriguing and passionate small producers. Christoph Künzli is certainly very passionate about wine and produces top wines which I highly recommend.

Plus, the Cerri wines will eventually be available in Massachusetts. They will be priced similar to the Le Piane Boca wines, about $65-75. They will be of limited availability and I think they are a good value, especially considering their age. I will be sure to buy some when they are released.

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