Vinography Unboxed: Week of 4/4/21

Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

Let’s start this week with what wine writer Matt Kramer has called the most reliable wine in the world: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I agree with him. If you pay $15 to $25 for a New Zealand “Savvy,” 99% of the time you are going to get a delicious wine that tastes the way you expect it to. It’s hard to say that about any other single “type” of wine in the world. The stuff ain’t profound, but it’s damn tasty. This week I’ve got a pitch-perfect rendition of the form from Allan Scott. At $12 a bottle, what’s not to love?

And now we can move into the slightly more unexpected realm of white wines with the 4 pale crown jewels in Piedmont’s ruby-studded reputation. Yes, there are white wines made in Piedmont, and some of them are damn special. Piedmont has been going through something of a white wine renaissance in recent years, as producers work hard to revive traditions that very nearly were lost forever.

Our first wine serves as the prime example. At one point there were a mere dozen or so rows of Nascetta in a single vineyard, but winegrower Elvio Cogno rediscovered the variety 20 years ago and began to expand plantings with the goal of finding out the potential of this all-but-unknown variety. Now 12 producers in Piedmont make it, including Gregorio Gitti, who has decided to try planting the grape at higher elevations in order to retain a bit more acidity, which apparently can disappear fast under the wrong conditions. While Gitti and his Castello di Perno bottling may not have yet reached the apogee of what Nascetta has to offer, the wine is very good, and the opportunity to drink a bit of forgotten history should not be missed.

In some ways, Nascetta is about 10 years behind Timorasso, which has a similar tale of rediscovery, but now is a somewhat poorly kept secret in Piedmont. The best examples of this semi-aromatic variety can be truly delicious and distinctive, and two of the best examples come from La Colombera, often called the “Queen of Timorasso” thanks to Elisa Semino who has spent 20 years dedicated to the grape along with her father Piercarlo. The one I have for you today is their single-vineyard “Il Montino” Timorasso, which grows at about 900 feet of elevation and is full of tropical fruits and brisk with bright acidity and salinity.

The two better-known white grapes of Piedmont are Cortese (made famous by the town of Gavi whose name has become almost shorthand for the wine), and Arneis, which has been made for a long time by a lot of Barbaresco producers in Roero. La Colombera also makes a really lovely Cortese and producer Malvirá has one of the better interpretations of Roero Arneis I have had in some time. Arneis can sometimes be an austere grape, so it’s fantastic when someone makes it as wonderfully balanced as this one is.

So while we’re in Piedmont let’s dally a bit with some reds as well, shall we? I’ve got four extremely different incarnations of Nebbiolo to share with you, all of which are distinctive and worthy of attention.

Let’s start with some northerly interpretations of Nebbiolo from Travaglini, which is the most prominent name in the northern parts of Piedmont. The family has been farming wine grapes in this region for four generations, and have been landholders since the 9th century. They farm 149 acres of vineyards in the foothills of the rocky Monte Rosa mountains. Their bottling of Gattinara is famous for both its quality and its distinctive curvy, asymmetrical glass bottle, which is molded from a 1958 design created by third-generation proprietor Giancarlo Travaglini.

Travaglini also makes some wine from one of the newer sub-regions of Piedmont, the Costa della Sesia, which is in the northwest of the region and shares some of the crunchy, more mineral qualities that can be found in the Gattinara bottling.

In addition to these two worthies, I have notes on a Barolo from Gregorio Gitti and a reserve Nebbiolo from Malvirá, both of which will please anyone looking for the classical complexities of the grape.

After spending a while dallying in Piedmont, I couldn’t think of a better transition back to California than the wonderfully brisk interpretation of Dolcetto from Acorn Winery just south of Healdsburg in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. This tiny producer run by husband-and-wife team Bill and Betsy Nachbauer has long focused on heritage field blends that resemble the wines that were made in California more than a century ago by the immigrants who first planted grapes in California. Their Dolcetto is brisk and crunchy and offers a lovely balance between savory notes and bright fresh fruit.

The real stars of the Acorn portfolio, however, are its old-vine heritage bottlings, of which the Medley and Acorn Hill are both excellent examples. The Medley is a full-on “Mixed Blacks” field blend with several dozen grape varieties all planted together and fermented together. The Acorn Hill is a bottling from a specific hillside right behind the winery, and while it has fewer grape varieties than the Medley, has a poise and balance that is just remarkable. These are unique wines of a type that few make any longer, and are very worthy of your attention. Bill and Betsy are also the kind of tiny family-run operation that, too, has become scarce in Sonoma County.

Tasting Notes

2020 Allan Scott Family Winemakers Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold with a hint of green, this wine smells of cut grass, gooseberries and green apple. In the mouth, zippy green apple and gooseberry flavors have a nice electric green acidity to them, with margarita lime and passionfruit flavors lingering in a mouthwatering finish. Classic New Zealand “Savvy” profile. Crisp, delicious, and what you expect. 12.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $12. click to buy.

2018 Gregorio Gitti Castello di Perno Nascetta, Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
Light greenish-gold
in color, this wine smells of struck match and candied lime. In the mouth, slightly sappy green apple and star fruit flavors mix with lime zest and a touch of pomelo. There’s a slightly oxidative quality to this wine. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. click to buy.

2018 La Colombera “Il Montino” Timorasso, Colli Tortonesi, Piedmont, Italy
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of struck match, unripe mango, and a sort of resinous floral note that is hard to pin down. In the mouth, bright lemony papaya and saffron and a hint of melon flavors are juicy with fantastic acidity, especially for this variety. A silky texture gives way to a lightly mineral dustiness in the finish. Quite compelling. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 La Colombera “Bricco Bartolomeo” Cortese, Colli Tortonesi, Piedmont, Italy
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of grapefruit pith and lemonade. In the mouth, silky flavors of lemon curd and grapefruit have a bright freshness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a hint of toasty nuttiness to this wine and a wonderfully saline finish. Quite tasty. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.

2019 Malivirà “Renesio” Roero Arneis, Roero, Alba, Piedmont, Italy
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cream, white flowers, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, wonderfully bright lemon pith mixes with white flowers and a deep stony minerality. Gorgeous acidity makes the mouth water as a faint saline and green apple note lingers with the margarita lime in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2017 Travaglini Gattinara, Northern Piedmont, Italy
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of smoky dried flowers and strawberries. In the mouth, bright strawberry, rhubarb, and earth flavors have a wonderfully bright juiciness. Powdery tannins flex their muscles as the wine moves across the palate, but there’s a really nice suppleness to this wine and a freshness thanks to excellent acidity. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2018 Travaglini Nebbiolo, Coste Della Sesia, Northern Piedmont, Italy
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of strawberries, wet pavement, and citrus peel. In the mouth, fresh and bright strawberry fruit mixes with chopped herbs and a touch of licorice. Faint tacky tannins back up the very fresh juicy acidity. Easy to drink and quite delicious. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $22. click to buy.

2016 Gregorio Gitti Castello di Perno “Castelletto” Barolo, Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
Light to medium ruby in the glass with orange highlights, this wine smells of strawberry and cherry fruit, a touch of woodsmoke, and crushed dried sage and other herbs. In the mouth, bright raspberry and sour cherry flavors are juicy and mouthwatering thanks to excellent acidity. Burnt orange peel and dried herbs emerge towards the finish, as lightly muscular tannins flex and squeeze. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2009 Malivirà “Riserva Trinità” Nebbiolo, Roero, Alba, Piedmont, Italy
Light ruby with significant brick color encroaching from the edges, this wine smells of strawberry jam and bacon fat. In the mouth, strawberry fruit still has some primary character, but notes of dried strawberry, as well as mixed dried herbs, are the dominant quality on the palate. Excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh as thyme and oregano linger in the finish. Fleecy tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $55. click to buy.  

2017 Acorn Winery “Alegria Vineyards” Dolcetto, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of boysenberries and leather with a hint of citrus peel. In the mouth, smooth, fresh flavors of boysenberry, black cherry, cola and citrus peel are wrapped in a very soft suede blanket of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps this wine quite brisk and delicious, adding an herbal tinge to the dark fruit. Contains 3% Barbera and 3% Freisa. Ages for 18 months in a combination of French and Hungarian barrels, mostly used. 13.5% alcohol. 153 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $42. click to buy.

2017 Acorn Winery “Medley – Alegria Vineyards” Red Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberries, woodsmoke, cherries, and cedar. In the mouth, juicy blackberry, cherry, and strawberry flavors swirl under a fleecy blanket of tannins. There’s a hint of cedar and incense that lingers in the finish along with a touch of oak. Excellent acidity and wonderful balance. Very compelling. A dizzying field blend of more than 60 varieties including 18% Syrah, 14% Zinfandel, 4% Dolcetto, 20% Cinsault, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Sangiovese, 2% Alicante Bouschet, 2% Petite Sirah, 1% Mourvedre, 20% various Muscats, and the remaining 12% includes dozens of other grape varieties including Einset, Blue Portuguese, Viognier and more. Ages for 15 months in a combination of French, American, and Hungarian oak barrels, mostly used. 14.4% alcohol. 119 cases made Score: around 9. Cost: $50 . click to buy.

2015 Acorn Winery “Acorn Hill – Alegria Vineyards” Red Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberries, black cherry, and exotic flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous bright fruit flavors of boysenberry, cherry, and black currant are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. There’s a cedar note that creeps into the fruit, along with some grace notes of flowers, while a citrus peel quality lingers in the finish. Unique and boisterous in personality, this wine beautifully showcases the joy of old-school mixed-black wines. An unusual field blend of 49% Syrah, 49% Sangiovese, 1% Viognier, .5% Canaiolo, and .5% Mammolo grown on the prominent hill just behind the winery. 13.9% alcohol. Ages in 42% new French oak for 18 months. 132 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $48. click to buy.