Celebrating the Maestro
Beaulieu marks the centennial of the late, great Andre Tchelistcheff
On December 1, Beaulieu Vineyards celebrated the anniversary of the birth of its longtime winemaker, the late Andre Tchelistcheff, who would have turned 100 on December 7. There was plenty of great wine, great food, and great stories from people who knew and studied under the man they called "Maestro."
A rainstorm failed to dampen spirits, as guests gathered on Beaulieu's historic Rutherford, California, estate to taste a range of older vintages made under Tchelistcheff's direction. Tchelistcheff, who died in 1994 at the age of 92, is widely viewed as the most important Californian, indeed American, vintner of the 20th century, mentor to two generations of winemakers and the originator of many techniques now taken for granted.
To name a few, Tchelistcheff is credited with initiating the now-common practice of cold fermentation, achieving breakthrough understanding of malolactic fermentation, and being one of the first Californians to use small oak barrels to age fine wine.
So long was Tchelistcheff's career—he came to Beaulieu in 1938 and worked continuously until his death—that it could be said that he led Napa Valley's wine industry through its post-Prohibition period of reconstruction (1938-1965), years of rebirth (1965-1980), and period of greatest refinement and expansion (1980s-1990s).
Perhaps Tchelistcheff's signal achievement was Beaulieu's Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Named after the winery's founder, it set the mold for great California Cabernets, and was incidentally the first wine to employ the "private reserve" designation.
Tchelistcheff was born into a conservative Russian family with ties to the czar. He served in the anticommunist infantry during the Russian Civil War and was forced into exile in Yugoslavia and then to Czechoslovakia, eventually arriving in France to study enology. While at the National Agricultural Institute in Paris in 1938, he was referred to Latour, who was shopping for a new winemaker at Beaulieu. Tchelistcheff had other opportunities, but decided to go to the fledgling Napa Valley, for $125 a month, after tasting, he once said, a Wente Brothers Sémillon and an Inglenook Gewürztraminer, both of which he described as "very extravagant."
He "retired" in 1973, but remained more active than ever, starting his own consulting firm and mentoring dozens of winemakers and wineries. A tiny man who stood only 4 feet, 11 inches, he was known for racing his sportscar at top speeds and for his witty, racy sense of humor. After flipping his car in the early 1990s, Tchelistcheff was persuaded to slow down. He returned to Beaulieu in 1991. Although his second stint there was to last only for three years, Beaulieu's director of winemaking, Joel Aiken, credits Tchelistcheff with overseeing Beaulieu's comeback period of brilliance during the 1990s.
Among the older vintages tasted at the birthday celebration were Pinot Noirs from 1942, 1946, 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1968, and Private Reserve Cabernets from 1941, 1946, 1947, 1951, 1954, 1958, 1959, 1966 and the monumental 1968 and 1970. Also included was an important but frequently overlooked Tchelistcheff innovation: The 1968 Beaulieu Special Burgundy. This was an ur-Rhône blend, in all likelihood one of the first of its kind in California. A very great wine, I gave it 99 points on Wine Enthusiast's 100-point scale.
At the celebration, Aiken and Tchelistcheff's widow, Dorothy, announced that world-famous sculptor William Behrends has been commissioned to create a bronze sculpture of Tchelistcheff, to be in place at the winery by the summer of 2002. Behrends is widely known in the Bay Area for his statue of San Francisco Giants great Willie Mays, which stands in front of Pac Bell Park. His sculpture of Tchelistcheff will be larger than life. "Just like Andre," a wag from the audience noted.
Enter the Mouthfeel Wheel
You've seen aroma wheels. Now comes a tool for describing the "feel" of wine.
A spritz, a prickle, a tingle? Pepper or chili? Heat, texture or weight? A mouthful of sawdust—or suede—or possibly, a combination? Just give me a minute! With my handy dandy Mouthfeel Wheel, I can easily describe precisely what my mouth experiences when I taste red wine.
Roughly modeled on the Aroma Wheel developed by the University of California at Davis, the Mouthfeel Wheel was created by a trio of wine experts from the University of Adelaide, the Australian Wine Research Institute and the Australia-based Cooperative Research Center for Viticulture.
The developers of the wheel, Richard Gawel, A. Oberholster and Leigh Francis, note that while the beer industry has had a standardized terminology wheel of mouthfeel terms since 1979, wine tasters have been forced to rely on general, subjective descriptors. Summing up their work in an article in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research, Volume 6 (3), 2000, the authors describe the wheel as a "hierarchically structured vocabulary of mouthfeel sensations elicited by red wines."
The trio based their findings on results of a tasting panel of 14 wine-knowledgeable staffers from the University of Adelaide's Department of Horticulture, Viticulture and Oenology and the Australian Wine Research Institute. This group tasted 147 Australian, Italian and French red wines, ranging in age from one to 33 years old (median age, four years) over a 13-week period. Each of the tasters came up with descriptions of various mouthfeel sensations, then worked together to clarify and define their terms. The terms were grouped and sorted by the tasters, as well as by a panel of nine experienced winemakers. After much discussion, a final matrix of mouthfeel terms was organized in a "wheel" format.
Gawel, Oberholster and Francis note that they expect "this present list will be altered as has already occurred with the original wine aroma wheel. We would appreciate being notified of views on this terminology and suggestions for improvement." For more information, visit the website of the Journal's sponsoring organization, the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology, at www.asvo.com.au/ajgwr—and you, too, can let them know how you "feel."
Antinori's New Puglian Wines
Sun-baked southern Italy serves up big bargains
Southern Italy is one of the hottest wine regions on the map, so it's both understandable and interesting that Piero Antinori, one of Italy's most prominent and respected wine producers and a man with the purest of Florentine roots, has expanded his operations into sun-baked Puglia, the heel of Italy's topographical boot.
Antinori, through his wholly owned Vigneti del Sud company, ventured into southern Italy by purchasing two Puglian estates in 1998-99, one in Castel del Monte in central Puglia, and the other near Brindisi, the heart of the Salento region. And now, the first Puglian wines to be bottled by Antinori are being released in the United States. Both are 2000 Puglia IGT wines under the Tormaresca label: One is a fresh, fragrant and rather full-bodied Chardonnay; the other, a juicy red blend featuring 60 percent Aglianico and 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines are priced in the $10 range.
At lunch last fall at I Trulli in New York City—one of the few fine Puglian restaurants in the country—Antinori and his highly respected winemaker Renzo Cotarella (this year, one of Wine Enthusiast's Winemakers of the Year) introduced the wines, which were matched with regional dishes such as grilled lamb chops with greens and puréed fava beans. The two Tormaresca wines, named for the sea-facing towers that dot the Puglian countryside, showed well and complemented the food. But it's what's coming down the pike that should be of particular interest to wine enthusiasts. Vigneti del Sud is scheduled to introduce three reserve-level wines from the 2000 vintage. At the lunch, I was treated to a taste of the just-bottled Chardonnay and a 1999 version of one of the reds.
Pietra Bianca is a rich, sweet oak-aged Chardonnay very much in the Australian style, as it features ripe tropical fruit and lots of vanilla. The red we tried is called Bocca di Lupo (Mouth of the Wolf), and it's 80 percent Aglianico and 20 percent Cabernet. It is supple, deeply fruity and full of ripe ageworthy tannins. Both are from Castel del Monte. The third wine, a reserve-level 100 percent Negroamaro from Brindisi, is also coming next year. The trio will sell for $20-$25 a bottle.
Usually modest about his new ventures, Antinori seemed excited about the prospects of Puglia, a region that has experienced unprecedented progress over the past decade or so. "Puglia has such a great food and wine culture, and we're just beginning there. We are just starting to understand the soils and grapes." Antinori said the ground in Puglia is so naturally rocky that vineyards must be made from excavated and pulverized rocks, some as big as boulders.
For his part, Cotarella, one of Italy's most talented winemakers, says he is shooting for a "New World style" in the wines. With his first efforts, he seems to be squarely on target.