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From Mechanic to Winemaker in the Northern Piedmont

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Tiziano Mazzoni spent most of his adult life as a mechanic, working on engines for race cars and boats.

Now he makes wine. In fact, very good red wine in the relatively obscure Ghemme appellation in Italy's northern Piedmont region.

“I decided to do something crazy,” says Mazzoni, 55, explaining why he retired his wrenches when he turned 40 and bought some vineyards to indulge his passion for red wine—particularly Nebbiolo.

Mazzoni, a compact man with clear blue eyes and a graying mustache, is today a leader for quality in Ghemme.  Read the full blog at winespectator.com

A Youthful Obsession

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Norther Piedmont's wine wunderkind goes deep into Nebbiolo

As a teenager in northern Piedmont, when most boys were enthralled by soccer, girls and cars, Cristiano Garella developed another obsession: Italian wine.

At 13, Garella bought his first wine guide, by the influential Italian writer Luigi Veronelli. A couple of years later, he spent his Christmas money on his first two bottles, one of them Barolo Brunate from Enzo Boglietti.

"Wine was like a sensation from a new world," says Garella, who can't pinpoint the origins of his precocious interest. "My father was a gymnastics teacher, my mother was a secretary, and my grandmother drank a lot of bad wine."

But this he knew: He wanted to be part of the booming Italian wine scene. He enlisted his older brother to drive him about 100 miles to southern Piedmont and knocked on the cellar doors of Barolo and Barbaresco producers—from Elio Altare to Angelo Gaja. He tasted wines and soaked up all the knowledge he could.

To Boca With Love

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Exploring the Northern Piedmont Part 1

Christoph Künzli discovered northern Piedmont's Boca appellation at the end of the 1980s, it was, in a word, "dead."

="It was the end," says Künzli. "Everybody was gone. Most of the wines were undrinkable."

At the time, Künzli was a Swiss importer, guided by his friend Paolo de Marchi—the northern Piedmont native who created Tuscany's legendary Isole e Olena.

De Marchi introduced him to a Boca exception—retired farmer Antonio Cerri, who bottled elegant Nebbiolo-based reds from an acre he had worked for 40 years.

"Cerri made these incredible wines from another time," explains Künzli, now 54 and a gray-bearded bear of a man. "That is why I am here. I lost my heart here."

Before World War II in Italy, the hills around Boca and four other towns were covered with more than 10,000 vineyard acres. After the war, waves of locals left vinegrowing to work in local textile and plumbing industries. By the mid-1990s, only 25 acres remained under vine.

Tradition versus Terroir in France Profonde

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What's a rebel to do in the Jura?

It isn't easy being a rebel in one of France's smallest and strangest wine appellations. Just ask Laurent Macle.

Château-Chalon is, as the French say, particulier. The appellation allows only one kind of wine—the Jura's oxidative, Sherry-like vin jaune (yellow wine). No one knows how this white style from Savagnin grapes began, but in the cliff-top village of Château-Chalon (pop. 170) and neighboring burgs, it's taken very seriously.

Macle, however, is trying something different. "This is my little test I have been doing since 2007," Macle, 44, explains discreetly in his family's 17th-century cellars. The "little test" is four Burgundy barrels a year—1,000 bottles—of clean, complex, non-oxidative, Chardonnay-based Côtes du Jura wine.

Seeing Red in Provence

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Rosé a "cliché?"

Among Provence winemakers, Henning and Sylvain Hoesch are close to being heretics.

The father and son have made wine for a combined 40 years at Domaine Richeaume on the flanks of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, just east of Aix-en-Provence. The gorgeous 160-acre estate, drenched in sunlight reflected off the cliffs of Sainte-Victoire, is a landscape right off a Cézanne canvas, with 70 acres of organic red-soil vineyards, olive and almond groves, grain fields and a flock of 100 sheep.

The Hoesches are contrarians. They shun the local Côtes de Provence Ste.-Victoire appellation (created in 2005), cultivate outsider varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot, and even use a touch of American oak in aging wine.

And here's the worst of it: They don't care much for rosé, the dominant and booming wine synonymous with Provence.

"Personally, I would prefer not to make rosé at all," explained Sylvain, 44, a lanky, blue-eyed winemaker who bottles pink wine, in minuscule amounts, only because some customers demand it.

The Vinarchiste of Bergerac

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Luc de Conti's white mission

There was a memo that never made it to Luc de Conti in Ribagnac, France: the one that said If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

At 53, after nearly 30 vintages, de Conti is considered a leader for both quality wines and organic farming in southwest France's red-dominated Bergerac region.

But he isn't satisfied.

"Yes, we can make good red wines here, but great red wines are difficult," says de Conti, standing amid his vines on a limestone plateau about 50 miles east of Bordeaux. "Here it's easy to make great whites with character."

Hence, de Conti's latest mission: replacing his Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec with Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle. His family's 120 acres of estate vineyards are now 60 percent white varieties, and he is going to plant more.

"For me, the greatest potential for a grand vin is Sauvignon," says de Conti, his green eyes full of evangelical fervor... Read the full blog at Wine Spectator

Letter from Europe: Charlie's Labels

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The Paris terror attacks also took the lives of France's most outrageous wine label designers

This past week, the words "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") have traveled the world in sympathy with the victims of the deadly jihadist terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen is now claiming responsibility.

Among the slain were five of France's most celebrated cartoonists. Three of them were also among the country's most outrageous wine label designers.

"They were my friends," explains Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe, 65. For more than 40 years, Descrambe commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that varied from drunken to suggestive to sexually explicit humor. "Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the biggest bullshit in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bullshit."

Letter from Europe: The Sweet Life

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Can this Monbazillac open your mind?

"I want to get out of the ghetto," says Bruno Bilancini.

Below him, the hillside of browning Muscadelle and Sémillon grapes in southwest France's Monbazillac appellation doesn't look much like a "ghetto." In fact, the gentle slopes look more like a vinous paradise.

But I get the point.

Bilancini's Château Tirecul La Gravière makes delicious cult sweet white wines that have been compared with Sauternes' Château d'Yquem. But he's frustrated that fine sweet wines are still an afterthought in the wine world. The French, for example, drink sweet whites with foie gras around the holidays, then forget about them for a year. We Americans relegate them to the dessert course.

"I want to get them out of the ghetto of foie gras and dessert wine," says Bilancini, rattling off some surprisingly delicious-sounding pairings: white meats, spring rolls, strong cheeses and curries. Even entire cuisines like Szechuan, Indian and Moroccan.

Italian Brew-ha-ha

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How the son of a Piedmontese winemaker, launched Italy's booming craft beer scene

Teo Musso's stellar success was shaped by a fight with his father, a Piedmont winegrower who insisted his children drink the family's home vino with meals.

"He made me drink wine mixed with water," Musso says, adding that the stuff often approached vinegar.

A punk-rock rebel at 15, Musso defiantly told his Dad, 'I want to drink beer!'"

Today at 50, the bearded, gray-mopped Musso has followed that proclamation to become a guru of Italy's booming craft beer scene and to build one of the world's hottest artisanal beer brands, Baladin.

Baladin beers are served in high-end European restaurants in Musso-designed tasting glasses. He owns 13 themed pubs across Italy, is a partner in breweries inside Eataly stores in New York and Rome, and has opened a hip, gastronomic beer-pairing restaurant called Casa Baladin on the main square of his native Piozzo (pop. 1,000), a Dolcetto-producing town 10 miles southwest of Barolo.

Letter from Europe: Inside Ar.Pe.Pe

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Extreme Nebbiolo Part II

I confess. I'm one of those wine lovers who regard Nebbiolo as more than a wine grape. I won't say Nebbiolo wines provide a mystical experience. But some get pretty close.

A recent Nebbiolo pilgrimage across Northern Italy led me inevitably to the door of Ar.Pe.Pe.—the perfectionist, traditionalist producer in the grape's alpine frontier of the Valtellina valley bordering Switzerland.

And what a door it is.

The winery threshold is carved into a steep mountainside, terraced with vineyards, in the appellation's Grumello zone. Here the centuries-old terraces, built from 10-foot drywalls of schist and granite, lead way up to a medieval castle perched in the distance.

Inside, I was immediately struck by the cathedralic vastness of Ar.Pe.Pe.'s cellars. The family company, after all, produces a modest 5,000 cases. But this is a winery that could produce hundreds of thousands more.

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