If there is anything to adequately characterize the wine world in the mid 1980s, it would be revolution. The United States, France and Italy were teeming with young rebels who were abandoning traditional winemaking practices to craft better wine. European grape varieties, smaller barrels, native yeasts and biodynamic farming outraged older generations who wanted their successors to strictly adhere to long-lived traditions. Younger generations who inherited the winemaking mantel saw their chance to improve wine quality.
Facing financial peril, a young and brash Michel Chapoutier swapped his father’s chestnut oak barrels for new French barrels, introduced biodynamic farming and created luxury wines from the Northern Rhone Valley. Angelo Gaja, a fourth-generation winemaker in Piedmont, feuded with his father before introducing Bordeaux grape varieties and small French oak barrels to make barbarescos. His wines achieved international acclaim.
This internecine war between generations was no more bitter than in the Barolo commune of Piedmont. It was even the subject of a 2014 documentary, “The Barolo Boys,” a movie that can still be found on Netflix.
In the movie, Elio Altare talks about how consumers would spit out tannic, under-developed barolos. He visited Burgundy to help him understand why that region’s wines were held in higher esteem. When he returned, he introduced several changes to his family’s wines: he cut up the large, worm-infested Slavonian oak barrels into firewood, invested in smaller French barriques, eliminated herbicides and pesticides, used only indigenous yeasts and eliminated fining and filtering. His father, Giovanni, was so aghast, he wouldn’t speak to him. Worse, when he died in 1985, Elio found out he was cut from his will.
Altare worked to buy back the winery from his siblings and today Elio Altare wines have the elegance and balance that eluded his father.
Altare was just one of many young winemakers who led Barolo into a new world, particularly in the United States, where consumers were willing to pay big money for expensive barolos that didn’t require decades of aging to be enjoyed. They were so idolized that they toured the United States like they were the Beatles.
So, how did history treat this movement? Many of these wine producers, once living in poverty, were seeing profits like they never have seen before, thanks in part to this country’s emerging love affair with Italian food. Barolos were racking up high scores from critics and that drove demand. Financially, the changes were a success.
However, even the Barolo boys will admit the revolution may have gone too far because of the deep rift it caused. Maybe gradual, less radical change would have achieved the same success but without the family acrimony. The young winemakers have grown old and now have off-spring to judge them. Altare, for instance, turned over the reins of the winery to his daughter, Silvia, in 2016.
Today we’re seeing more of a bridge between traditional and progressive winemaking in Barolo. French barriques are still favored to soften tannins through shorter maceration and to create a second layer of flavors – coffee, vanilla, chocolate and more. But today there is some Slavonian oak being used.
We recently tasted two 2007 barolos that demonstrated different approaches. The Azelia Bricco Fiasco Barolo was aged 24 months in a mix of Slavonian, French and Austrian oak barrels. Maceration was a long 55 days just as they were in the old days. The Domenico Clerico Pajana Barolo was macerated for half the time and aged 16 months in French barrique. Domenico Clerico, who recently died, was one of the progressive “Barolo Boys.”
Both high-scoring wines were impressive for different reasons. The Domaine Clerico was more approachable with round tannins and layered fruit, but at 15 years old it showed the new style didn’t hurt its endurance.
The Loire region of France may be known more for its picturesque castles that dot a rolling-hill landscape. But beyond those castles are acres of vineyards that consumers often overlook. Although the region has a dizzying array of 51 appellations and 6 IGP, there are four major grape varieties grown here: sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, melon de bourgogne and cabernet franc (the only red grape variety).
What is really overlooked is the beguiling profile of the white wines: low acidity and moderate alcohol. Those elements make the wines very approachable for sipping as well as pairing alongside simple foods. The popular sauvignon blancs are dominated by grapefruit, freshly mown grass and minerality. The chenin blancs usually have a melon character. The muscadets that deploy the unique melon de bourgogne are simple and crisp – a perfect match to oysters.
Discover – or rediscover – this region.
Domaine de Villalin Quincy 2020 ($18). This sauvignon blanc is full-bodied and has herbal aromas, grassy, grapefruit and citrus flavors. Long in the finish, we found this wine to be impeccably delicious. This is one of our favorite appellations in the Loire Valley.
Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme Tesniere Blanc Touraine 2019 ($25). Menu pineau and chenin blanc grapes make up this refreshing Vin de France. Apples notes and crisp acidity.
Chateau de Montgueret, M de Montgueret Tete de Cuvee Saumur Brut ($14). Not all sparkling wine from France is champagne. This region plays home to quite a few sparkling wines made in the same style. Unlike champagne, though, the composition includes chenin blanc, chardonnay and groleau. Flowery aromas with peach and brioche flavors.
Aperture Cellars Bordeaux Red Blend Sonoma County 2018 ($55). Malbec (40 percent) and merlot (34 percent) dominate this fantastic wine with the remaining blend made up of the other three red Bordeaux varietals. This is a massive wine with abundant fruit notes of cherries and berries and an interesting spice note that includes hints of fennel. A very well-balanced wine.
Girasole Vineyards Pinot Blanc 2019 ($15). Grapefruit and peach aromas with orange and apple flavors typify this Mendocino gem. Fresh acidity and a dash of classic minerality.
Lake Sonoma Winery Lazy Dog Vineyards Malbec 2019 ($45). Dense, purple-tinged color with vibrant plum and blackberry flavors.
Tenuta Sant Antonio Monti Garbi Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore 2018 ($18). Good complexity and body highlight this ripasso-styled wine that brings together corvina, rondinella and other native red grape varieties. One of the best bargains on the market considering the structure of this wine.