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Wine of the week: Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2012

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Cusumano Nero d'Avola Two years ago, I wrote: “One day, perhaps, Sicily will take its place as one of the world’s great wine regions…” and then listed all the horrible things that would happen when it did. Which is mostly what has happened, and the Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2012 ($10, purchased, 14%) demonstrates just that.

Six years ago, when I first tasted Cusumano, few people who weren’t the Italian Wine Guy knew about Sicilian wine. Today, it’s all over the wine magazines, the best Sicilian wines from the Mt. Etna region cost as much as $100, and there is even Sicilian wine made to taste like grocery store merlot.

The Cusumano Nero d’Avola, a red wine made with the nero d’avola grape, has gone down a similar path, from a wine rarely tasted in the U.S. to one imported by one of the most successful American wine marketers. Along the way, the price went up, the wine lost something that made it what it was, and I took it out of the $10 Hall of Fame. I’m not the Wine Curmudgeon for nothing.

But I’ve made my peace with these changes, and two recent tastings, this red and the white Insolia, have restored my faith in the brand. This version of the Cusumano Nero d’Avola isn’t as dark and plummy as previous vintages, but it isn’t as fruity as it was when I tasted it a year ago, either. Bottle age helped restore the balance between the red fruit and its Sicilian earthiness, and I enjoyed the wine. It’s red sauce, pizza with cheese and sausage, and maybe even chicken cacciatore.

It probably won’t return to the Hall of Fame when the 2013 vintage arrives this year, given the price increase, but I’ll buy it and no doubt enjoy it. And that will be enough.

Wine of the week: Zestos Old Vine Garnacha 2013

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Zestos garnachaOne of the Wine Curmudgeon’s battle cries is varietally correct — that is, does the wine taste like the grapes it came from, or has winemaking been used to make it taste a certain way? The latter approach, though useful in making certain kinds of cheap wine, is ultimately not very satisfying. The best wines, of whatever price, should be varietally correct.

Which is why the Zestos garnacha ($10, purchased, 13.5%) is so stunning. I rarely quote from producer websites, but this says it all, including the exclamation point: “This tremendous quality wine is made from old vine Garnacha and it sells for a song!” No less than Robert Parker — yes, that Robert Parker — calls the Zestos “a staggering value.” If Parker and I agree on quality and value, it’s time to buy a case and reserve a spot in the 2015 $10 Hall of Fame.

So what makes the Zestos so impressive? It combines the best parts of garnacha, its fresh and juicy red fruit, with the qualities added by using grapes from old vines, most 40 to 50 years old. That means rich, concentrated fruitiness (dark cherries?), an almost oak-like depth, though there is no oak, and layers of flavor rarely found in $10 wines. The tannins are soft, as they should be, and the finish is chalky, befitting the terroir.

All this is impressive enough. But the Zestos does it with normal alcohol; other wines with these attributes need to be 15 percent or more to taste this way. Hence, you can drink a bottle with dinner and not pass out. That Parker likes a wine that hasn’t been Parkerized is the Wine Curmudgeon’s holiday gift to his readers.

Wine of the week: Tiefenbrunner Pinot Bianco 2011

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Order by noon Monday for holiday delivery for the cheap wine book


Tiefenbrunner Pinot Bianco Many of us who were liberal arts students in the 1970s spent a lot of time with European history, and one of the things we learned is that national borders were flexible. Unlike the U.S., where we believe in mostly straight lines that are always the same, European borders have changed frequently over the past 500 years. A war, a new ruler, or a dynastic marriage, and part of one country would become part of another without any trouble at all.

What does this have to do with wine? A lot, actually, as only the Wine Curmudgeon would take the time to point out. Northern Italy wasn’t Italian the way we understand it for most of those of 500 years, but part of various German-speaking states, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Which means there is a tradition in Northern Italy of wine producers with German-sounding last names making wine with German grapes.

Alois Lageder does it, and so does the Tiefenbrunner family, as the pinot bianco ($15, purchased, 13%) demonstrates. Hence a label that says both pinot bianco and weissburgunder, the grape’s German name (which is pinot blanc in French) on it. Pinot bianco is softer and more floral than pinot grigio, and is much more enjoyable at the lower prices I write about.

This wine is an excellent example of pinot bianco. Look for green apple fruit with an undercurrent of something almost tropical, lots of white flower aromas, and a minerality and acidity that don’t overwhelm the wine the way they can in pinot grigio. That I bought a previous vintage, and paid more than I usually do, attests to the Tiefenbrunner quality. Highly recommended, even at $15.

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