Monday, October 22, 2018

Tasting with Stefano Ricagno of Cuvage in Asti


I recently went on a Grappa tour that ended in the town of Asti which is located in the Piemonte region in northern Italy. The area is famous for Asti Spumante, a sweet, aromatic sparkler, that is often enjoyed at celebrations due to its easy drinking characteristics. Our group set out to enjoy a sparkling finish to our tour with 5th generation winemaker, Stefano Ricagno at Cuvage.  

He led us through the winemaking area where they are producing both Asti DOCG wines as well as Metodo Classico wines. Traditionally, the sparkling wines of the region have been made in the Martinotti method which is also known as Charmat. Federico Martinotti was a native of Piemonte so the local winemakers prefer to acknowledge and pay respect to him. He actually invented the method for making sparkling wine in a closed vat in 1895 while French winemaker, Eugene Charmat, would apply the concept on a more industrial level a little over a decade later and his name would become more well known. Metodo Classico means making wines sparkling in the same way they are made in Champagne with a second fermentation in the bottle. 

As we walked through the winery, we stopped at a tank and Stefano Ricagno served up samples of the Canelli Bianco Moscato juice. This type of white Moscato is indigenous to the town of Canelli in the Asti province. He shared that linalool is the name of the distinct aroma. Linalool is a naturally occuring terpene alcohol that can be found in some flowers and spice plants, it gives the wines a white flower or citrus blossom character. The juice was deliciously drinkable but we saved some of it to take back into the tasting room where three wines awaited us. All were from the Acquesi line and all were made from the same Canelli juice.

In the tasting room:
Acquesi Moscato d'Asti CasaritoIntensely aromatic and fresh, it differs from other Asti DOCG wines in that the fermentation process is halted when the alcohol content reaches about 5% by volume. Moscato d’Asti is not a true Spumante though it still has a lively sparkle. It has a sweet taste, but is not cloying, it tastes more like a ripe peach, than candy. This wine showed notes of honeysuckle, white peach and mint, with a fresh, juicy finish.

Acquesi Asti SpumanteAsti Spumante is often seen at celebrations due to its easy drinking characteristics. With moderate alcohol, a distinctive aroma and a well-balanced, natural sweetness, this wine has a lot to offer. Crisp, aromatic, lightly sweet and juicy, this off-dry wine is fully sparkling with a persistent mousse and fresh, lightly fruity flavors, with a slight savoriness and a bit of white pepper over honeyed peach flavors.

Acquesi Asti Secco - Light, crisp, and dry with a persistent mousse and more delicate aromas of apricot and citrus blossom with flavors of pear, mint and a slight nuttiness in the lingering finish.

Following our tasting room experience, we headed out into the neighboring vineyard in Strevi where Stefano Ricagno showed examples of some of the local grapevines, Moscato, Barbera, and Brachetto. We had the opportunity to taste some grapes off the vine and take in some beautiful views. After our vineyard tour, we went to lunch in Acqui Terme at Ristorante La Curia. Stefano ordered an antipasti array to enjoy while we continued our tasting which included a sampling of three local dishes: rabbit salad, Russian salad, and calamari on creamy basil. My entree of truffled risotto arrived in time to enjoy with the second Cuvage wine.

At the table:
Acquesi Rosé Brut - Dry and crisp with a delicate mousse and cranberry flavors with a slight salinity to the finish.
Cuvage Brut Rosé - This wine is made from 100% Nebbiolo in the same way as Champagne, called Metodo Classico in Italy, this wine had a persistent mouse with red fruit notes and hints of bread.
Cuvage Cuvage Pas Dosage - No dosage sparkling wine also made Metodo Classico from 60% Pinot Nero, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Nebbiolo. This wine spent 36 months on its lees giving it freshness and a fuller body. With bakery notes and baking spices, this crisp, dry, sparkler has a distinct mineral finish from the limestone soils where the vines are grown.

An assortment of local cheese arrived to the table to enjoy with a sweet Asti Spumante. This wine is made by Stefano's family. The wine is made from 100% white Canelli Moscato from Alto Monferrato.
Ca’ dei Mandorli - Sweet and sparkling with notes of honey and sage.
The decandent lunch would end with a final course of a simple dessert similar to peanut brittle, but made from hazelnuts, Torrone di Nocciole . This was served with a local sweet Piemonte Moscato Passito wine from Pizzorni. No notes on this wine, but it was a delicious finale to our visit.

Monday, October 1, 2018

EX TERRA Wines from Fall Creek Vineyards

Last week, I had the opportunity to taste some current releases from Fall Creek Vineyards at a media event in Houston with owners, Ed and Susan Auler, Director of Winemaking, Sergio Cuadra, and Director of Operations, Ame Brewster.

The big news they wanted to share is the release of a new premium line called Ex Terra which translates to "From the Earth". The three single varietal, single vineyard wines will be sold primarily through their tasting rooms but will also have some placement on higher end restaurant lists. All three wines in the line are sourced from the Salt Lick Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country in Driftwood. Ed Auler was quick to comment, "We have to give so much credit to Salt Lick for growing these grapes and so much credit to Sergio for making these wines."

Salt Creek Vineyards was originally planted in 2005. It is a unique growing area due to the fact that it sits at a bend near Onion Creek. This creek meanders all around the Hill Country before emptying into the Colorado River. The creek tends to catch a lot of different soils from the region and during floods they get deposited down into the valley below. The mix of soils contributes to the high quality of the grapes that are grown there.


Cuadra discussed the potential of the Hill Country which not only includes this great diversity of soil types but also the different hillside exposures and unique pockets of special micro-climates that haven't been fully explored yet. Recent years have seen tremendous growth throughout the area with greater knowledge leading to better variety and terroir pairings. Ed made the point that it has taken time to figure out which variety should go where. "What if people had showed up and drilled a hundred holes in Texas looking for oil and come up empty? They could have easily believed there was no oil here and what a wrong assumption that would have been. I think that is a great comparison to early grape plantings. It has taken a lot of trial and error but Texas can do it and can be competitive with the world's important wine regions."

All three of the new wines are from the 2016 vintage which Cuadra describes as a low yield but very high quality year. "We had envisioned a project like this,' he shared, "the concept was to revamp what we have done until now. The wines were carefully aged in the winery over 18 months in different types of barrels and these three wines are the best wines we have ever made."

Cuadra joined Fall Creek Vineyards in 2013. After working with the grapes from Salt Lick Vineyards, he had noticed the good consistency despite the weather. Then came 2016 which was an almost perfect year with under an inch of rain per rain event happening at almost regular ten day intervals, this continued for almost all of spring and through midsummer. The vineyard area remained fairly dry from midsummer through harvest. He believed the even higher quality of the 2016 vintage had a lot to do with water intake and he now believes that it can be recreated in dry years. "Unlike in Europe, irrigation is a tool that we can use to maintain this type of quality from year to year."

The Wines

All three wines are 100% of the named grape and were sourced from the Salt Lick Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country off of clay and loam that sits above weathered limestone, the top soils are deep and nutrient rich from past flooding of Onion Creek. They are each priced at $100 per bottle.
EX TERRA Syrah 2016 - This wine was aged 18 months in 100% new French oak barrels. Fresh, fruity, and lively with mixed berries and a smoky note, this medium+ bodied dry red has ripe tannins that are already well integrated with a persistent peppery finish. Ed Auler stated, "This was our first time to bottle single varietal Syrah but it sure won't be our last." Cuadra added, "I know this wine will evolve beautifully over the next ten years. Only 44 cases were produced.
EX TERRA Mourvèdre 2016 - Cuadra shared that this wine project began with no agenda as far as the wood aging. They did a lot of experimenting with both new and used barrels in both French and American Oak. After tasting each and blending different amounts to make several different samples, they determined the best was a blend of everything they had done. No matter how many ways they tried it, "Blending everything was always better," Cuadra proclaimed. Brewster added, "This is a Mourvèdre with finesse that I haven't really seen before, it's livelier, not as dense, dark and brooding as many that I've had. It's less rustic and more refined." This full-bodied, dry red displayed a mix of plum and berry aromas and flavors with freshly turned earth and what I had written down as hints of root beer that Brewster noted as sarsaparilla in the winery's tasting note, also fresh and smooth with polished tannins and a lingering finish. 134 cases were produced.
EX TERRA Tempranillo - This wine was confined to just three barrels, all American oak, two new and one used. Brewster noted, "After several years of making single varietal Tempranillo, this wine stands out as a distinctive wine worthy of this higher tier." Aromatically complex with cherry and plum fruit, black tea, and dried leaves, this full-bodied dry red has a distinctive tannic structure with a lengthy smoky yet still fruit-filled finish. Only 72 cases were produced.

This new line of premium wines also received a packaging upgrade with heavier bottles, longer corks and a new label featuring a topographical map to showcase the vineyard's terroir. After receiving more accolades from Ed and Susan Auler, Cuadra wrapped up the tasting modestly noting, "Modern winemaking with accurate analysis is crucial in winemaking today yet they had none of those things in the past and they could still make great wines. It's important to not let all that control take away from how good the wine can just be."

Undoubtedly, the EX TERRA wines from Fall Creek showcase what a skilled winemaker can do with high quality grapes from exceptional terroir, all are fresh and elegant examples and all are highly recommended.