Thursday, July 15, 2010

What's in an Old Bottle?

As I was saying in the last post, there was discussion at the table about the contents of the old Vallana Spanna wines we drank. Were these wines made purely of Nebbiolo? Were they reconditioned - re-bottled and perhaps topped up with some newer wine?

It's tempting to say that the answers don't matter - these are old wines that were made before there were controls that dictated what was allowed and what wasn't. There will never be a way to know for sure what's in these bottles. Why not simply drink them and enjoy them?

Well, that's what we did. But I'm not entirely satisfied with that idea because it would cost about $100 to buy one of the bottles we drank, others would be more expensive. I like to know the grapes used to make my $14 rosé - I want to know what was used here too. Maybe I feel entitled because it's expected now with food to be able to ask the provenance of the tiniest grain of salt on the plate. Should that extend to wine? I have this idea that with wine, particularly with expensive wine, I should be able to find out what's in the bottle. Of course it isn't always possible, and with the Vallana Spanna wines, there are questions and few definitive answers.

Since I know so little about this sort of thing, I'll share with you what a few knowledgeable people had to say.

Before going to the dinner I told Peter about it and showed him the list of wines we would drink, hoping that he would help me to build some context for what I would experience. Peter made sure to explain that he is an agnostic on this issue, that for him it is purely a sensory experience that forms his opinion. One of the things he said was this:

That's a fantastic Vallana lineup. Back in Portland we did a number of dinners like that, when the wines were first unearthed by the Rare Wine Company about ten years ago. They were very affordable back then (comparatively speaking), but unfortunately now they've been "discovered". The '58s are incredibly youthful, as is '61 Campi Raudii. Anyway, they're all great. Hope you enjoy them. Just between you and me (sorry Peter - ed.), you should open a Taurasi or other aglianico tonight, and then tell me if you don't find those same aromas in the Vallanas! I've long thought that those old Vallanas aren't 100% nebbiolo (or spanna), although it doesn't bother me one bit. I like to think that they were bulking it up with aglianico, and 50 years later we're discovering how noble aglianico can really be.
Levi agreed that the wines are likely not to be pure Nebbiolo, and as Peter said, this doesn't bother him a bit.
If these wines were represented the way Burgundy wines are represented, as pure Pinot from one specific vineyard, that would be problematic. But they're not represented that way. The techniques used to make these wines are not those used to make traditional Barolo and Nebbiolo wines - I think these Spanna were made using dried grapes for example. so should we dismiss them? No, they're intensely expressive wines and I think they taste very much of Piedmonte, they have a cut that I recognize as Piedmontese.
I asked Levi if he thinks that Aglianico was added to the Vallana Spanna wines we drank. He said it is possible, but that he doubts it.
That's pretty far to go, from Campania to Piedmonte. The roads were unpaved, there is no river to use for sending the grapes. Why use Aglianico if they had local grapes that would work the same way, like Vespolina, Bornarda, and Uva Rara? The grapes are similar - Nebbiolo and Aglianico, and people don't have the reference point to say "wow, that tastes like Uva Rara" when it might well be Uva Rara, not Aglianico. Also, Vallana was using chestnut to age the wines and that has a taste that people might identify as Aglianico - chestnut is cheaper than oak and it was used to age wine back then in Campania too. Look - we drink this and say "this doesn't really taste like Nebbiolo, it tastes like Aglianico. But there are other questions too. To what extent is this stuff made from dried grapes? Also there is the old wine sweetness, the still intact sugar that you can taste from the chaptalization. There's a lot going on here.
I talked with Jeremy Parzen, who wrote a fun and informative post in 2007 that provides lots of context for Vallana Spanna. Jeremy has had several opportunities to drink Vallana Spanna and I asked him what he thinks might be in these bottles.
Remember that in the 1950's and 60's it was rare to have a very good vintage. Two great vintages in a row - forget it. It was so cold, they had trouble getting enough alcohol in the wines because the grapes rarely developed enough sugar. Now it's easy - it's much warmer, there are many more good vintages today than in the past. A wine maker recently told me that global warming has made him rich. Anyway, that was a time when you needed to be able to sell a lot of wine to people who were going to put it on the table and open it. If the vintage was bad, you better get creative and figure out how to sell wine or else you might lose your clients. Aglianico from the south was riper and could help raise alcohol levels. I have no doubt that Aglianico regularly made it into Nebbiolo wines during those times.
I asked Jeremy how this would have actually worked. What about the bad roads, the costs of transporting grapes if other grapes were available locally that might have helped - Bornarda, Vespolina, Uva Rara.
It's true, the roads were bad, but Italy had a very well developed canal system, the vestiges of which can still be seen today. Almost all of Italy was navigable by canal in those days. It would have been possible to get the grapes to Piedmonte that way. And if the vintage was bad, Bornarda, Vespolina, and Uva Rara wouldn't have been much help if they also came from a thin vintage. I don't taste Aglianico in those wines, I taste Nebbiolo. but 1955 and 1958 were very good vintages and maybe they didn't need to bulk up the wines. I agree, though, that the wines clearly have been reconditioned. They are just so fresh - more so than Giacomo Conterno wines that I've had from those same years, for example.
I asked Jeremy if he feels that Vallana Spanna are wines that express terroir, or are they wines of blending and conditioning.
My concept of terroir includes people and tradition - it's not just place. These are distinct wines that taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte - a little lighter and not quite as tannic as Langhe wines. In the 1950's and 60's, east Piedmont and Lombardy were where fine Nebbiolo came from. It wasn't until the early 70's that Barolo and Barbaresco emerged as the place for the finest Nebbiolo and the single vineyard as terroir idea only began there at that same time. Personally, I think that the greatest Barolo and Barbaresco are not single vineyard wines, but that's another story. In the 50's and 60's, people making Spanna traditionally blended their wines - they had to in order to make a living. They weren't making wines so that some one could age them for decades. They needed to sell wine, good wine, to their clients. Some say that Syrah might have made it into Spanna at times. I wouldn't doubt it. Part of the terroir concept regarding Spanna involves blending and perhaps grapes from far away. Still, though, these wines to me taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte.
I've heard similar stories about Burgundy too, by the way. That Syrah was used to fortify the wines at times. It goes to show that the sensibility that real wines should be purely of one place and that demands an exactitude with regard to blending - this is a purely modern phenomenon. In the good old days, it was far less clear than now what was in the bottle.


Alfonso Cevola said...

I sold those wines in the 1980's and 1990's. Could've asked me...

Brooklynguy said...

Hi Alfonso - didn't know that. Didn't know they were even here then. There are a great many things that I don't know Alfonso.

Well, if it's not too late I'm asking now - what is going on with 50's and 60's Vallana Spanna? What's really in the bottles? Do you think they express terroir?

Alfonso Cevola said...

I think they express the style of wine that was being made in the pre DOC days. To elaborate, they express a way of making wine, and thinking about wine, which is no longer fashionable. Well yes, and no. It is no longer trendy (or proper) to openly express interest in making wine with from grapes outside of one’s own DOC discipline. Although it seems perfectly acceptable (to some) to make a wine that doesn’t appear to revel solely with help from the terroir of the DOC. Does that make sense?

In those times, wine was being hauled all over Italy to make wines “sunnier” or “healthier”, or just more flavorful. It was also an economic issue, as the labor in Southern Italy was cheap, and the cost of getting grapes up from Puglia or Abruzzo was minimal. And the juice from those grapes was good. Witness the explosion of interest in the wines from Abruzzo, Puglia, Basilicata, et. al.

Every bottle of wine I have had spoke to me more of the hand of man than one particular terroir. I admit to being a little color blind when it comes to tasting wine with grapes from the South. I love those wines, so, my visceral response often is, “Hell, yes, that’s what I’m talking about!”
Kind of like the same response when I pull into a BBQ joint in the Hill country of Texas (even though the meat comes from Kansas or Chicago or God knows where) it always seems to taste better in Belton, or Elgin or Llano. But I digress.

I remember one of the grand old men of the wine business, Tony LaBarba, whom I worked for. He would tell me stories of the warehouse (I think the importers name was Daniele) where these wines would sit in repose. Hundreds and hundreds of cases of old Spanna going back to the mid 1950’s. Old man Daniele was crazy about these wines and bought them because he loved them. Not that there was a very big market for them back then. I remember we offered the ’68 in 1990, wholesale, for something like $9, tops. We almost drank more than we sold. But what a pleasure that was. And an education. Like I said, the hand of man was involved, more than an individual terroir, but it was with a masterly hand those wines were turned. They taught me to love the old guys and their old wines. Now you folks are re-discovering them. Charles Scicolone has better stories about them than me. What I have are my notes and the memories of wines that probably were never meant to be aged for so long, but because there was some character to the grapes and the folks who made them, they made it to this point. Gotta love a story like that.

So to answer your question, “Do you think they express terroir?” – I think they express the terroir of the hearts and the minds and the souls of the Italians living in that time as much as the earth in which they came. As for the earth in which they came, I reckon much of the wine came from Piemonte, but I couldn’t vouch for all of it being 100% Piemontese.

There are more of those wines in them thar hills. I spent an afternoon recently with a winemaker who discovered a whole cache of barrels of Boca going back a lifetime. Something for our future when you all drink up the Spanna. Matériel in which to wax elegiacally in the future.

Do Bianchi said...

@BrooklynGuy I hope our chat was helpful. And I agree with Levi: it's likely that dried grapes were also used to help up alcohol levels in these wines. And thanks for the shout out. Any excuse to catch up is always a good one...

@Alfonso got any old Vallana Spanna in your cellar?

obwnknobe said...

I have been drinking Vallana Spanna
since 1981 when I found out about the wine fron the late Shaldon Wasserman and Burton Andreson. The wine was imported and distriputed in NY by Mario Danielle.Wasserman believed that the wine contained Aglianico and that was one of the reasons the wines back then lasted
so long. Wasserman may have gotten the information at the winery.When I had a wine store in Brooklyn Mario Danielle came there and he said that the wine contained Aglianico when I asked him.The fist bottle of Vallana Spanna I had was the 1955 that I drank with Charles Castelli a lover of the wine that also told me the same thing. In January I had a 1955
with Alfonso Cevola and Tom Hyland.

Unknown said...

being at the dinner and having luckly dranks cases of these vintages before and having bought many wines from the cellar these came from I believe they are in no way reconditioned but cant say if pure nebb.....popped a couple 61ers same cellar with some well tasted italian folks when know vallana well.....the original seals are still on the capsule, the corks were old, and they were amazing and all agreed what they should be.....the cellar they came from was amazing and they never moved in 40 years....Peace