Tuscan Greatness: Fonterutoli’s Siepi

May 27, 2016

I thought I had written quite enough about Tuscan wine recently, but when Palm Bay Imports invited me to a vertical tasting of Fonterutoli’s wonderful Siepi, I couldn’t refuse, and I can’t not write about it. Great wine is great wine, even when it contradicts my usual bias against French grapes in Italy (as did the two Syrahs I recently posted about).

Journalistically, Siepi belongs to the class of wines usually referred to as Super Tuscans, a designation I and many Tuscan winemakers hate. Technically, Siepi is classified as IGT Toscano, being a non-traditional and very unusual 50/50 blend of native Sangiovese and foreign Merlot. Historically, Siepi is a single vineyard attached to the Fonterutoli property, a beautifully preserved medieval metropolis now buzzing with some 70 inhabitants.
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Fonterutoli borgo

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It was already in vines when the Mazzei family acquired Fonterutoli 25 generations ago, in 1435, and it was already an important enough site to be mentioned by name in registry documents from 1461. Siepi is certainly one of the most historical viticultural sites in Tuscany and probably one of the region’s very best crus – and so not surprising as the source of one of Tuscany’s very best wines.

Gambero Rosso has called Siepi “one of the fifty wines that changed Italy.” I’m not entirely sure what GR meant by that, or which the other 49 are, but the statement does indicate clearly the esteem in which Siepi is held by Italian connoisseurs. Robert Parker said of one of its vintages, “this wine could easily compete with a first-growth Bordeaux.”  For me, that’s comparing apples and oranges, but clearly in his mind that is meant as the highest praise.

Which brings me logically to what I think of as Siepi’s greatest achievement – precisely that it doesn’t taste French, or even international, for that matter. Siepi is immediately recognizable by its acidity and by its own distinctive harmonics as an Italian wine, and a great one – balanced, lively, deep without being ponderous, elegant without losing vivacity.

Siepi_NVI wrestled for a long time about whether it could be described as authentically Tuscan, until I realized I had to expand my notion of what Tuscan style – toscanità – could embrace. If a winemaker or a vineyard can assimilate a foreign grape well enough to produce native-tasting wine, then even though the grape is new to the region it can be regarded – at least, I can regard it – as typical. Merlot lends itself to this, and often – in the right places – complements Sangiovese beautifully. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, doesn’t. Wherever it’s planted, it stubbornly remains Cabernet, and even in small quantities it dominates rather than complements Sangiovese (which is why I continue to be unimpressed by Tignanello and Solaia).

That’s probably more than enough enological rumination for one post. Here are the vintages I tasted at the vertical:

2005: A good but not a great vintage. Separate stainless steel fermentation for each variety, followed by over a year in largely new oak before the Sangiovese and Merlot were blended (this is the standard winemaking procedure for Siepi). The resulting wine offers pronounced Merlot aromas, plus cedar and dry earth, though the Merlot is far less pronounced on the palate, which shows big, soft, mulberry fruit and a long, dried-cherry-and-leather finish. Very elegant, with years of life before it. Very fine, 5 out of 5.

2006: The Mazzei rate 2006 an outstanding vintage, and the wine supports the claim. A very persistent and elegant mulberry and leather nose precedes an equally elegant and balanced, live and fresh wine, dominated by gorgeous Sangiovese flavors. This is a wonderful wine, probably the best of the tasting. 5

2007: Also rated outstanding, 2007 yielded a wine with aromas quite similar to the 2006 but a very youthful, still evolving palate, not yet fully in balance. The fruit still shows side-by-side elements of Sangiovese and Merlot that haven’t yet knit together – but they will, and when they do, the wine will be sensational. Now 4.5

2008: The Mazzei describe the 2008 growing season as only “very good,” compared to the “outstanding” of the two preceding years, but I gave this wine a 5. Mulberry and cherry in the nose. In the mouth, Sangiovese cherry tones dominate the rich fruit and a fine acid/tannin balance. Long, long cherry finish. Already fine, although very young.

2011: An aroma of mulberry and mushrooms, with rich, lively, and very young Sangiovese fruit on the palate. Balanced and elegant, as all these wines are. Now 4.5, though I think this is a vintage of very great promise that I would love to retaste in a few years.

Siepi 20122012: Serendipitously, “a distinctive vintage” (Mazzei) to mark the 20th anniversary of Siepi, though the cold, dry winter and the hot, dry summer produced only half the normal quantity of grapes and wine. A mere 600 bottles have been allocated to the United States. The still slightly closed nose gives earth, black fruit, and funghi. The palate offers big fruit and still firm tannins. This wine needs lots of time, which it will amply reward. It almost scores 5 points already: Call it minimally 4.5

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Francesco MazzeiFrancesco Mazzei, who presented the wines, explained that he wasn’t showing any 2010 – a very much praised year in Tuscany – simply because they didn’t have any left, a fact that speaks volumes about Fonterutoli’s standing among Tuscan wine fanciers. All these wines were top-flight, marked in every case by elegance and balance, and showing no taste of wood despite the use of new barriques. That, and the impressive continuity of style from vintage to vintage, bespeak masterly winemaking. What else can I say? Here the Merlot works brilliantly in cooperation with excellent Sangiovese to produce a wine unique and yet authentically Tuscan.

Rosso di Montalcino 2014: Some Good Wines from a Bad Year

May 16, 2016

The Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio is usually pretty generous in evaluating the quality of each year’s vintage, so when it gave 2014 only three stars (out of five), you can be pretty sure that year was a real stinker. And indeed it was: Cool, wet weather in the spring delayed bud break and continued essentially all summer long. Low temperatures and too much rain encouraged leaf growth but not grape development, and also provided the perfect environment for all the molds and vine diseases that growers fear. Warmer-than-usual days at the end of September/beginning of October helped improve the situation somewhat, but months of damage couldn’t be undone in a few weeks.

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Fuligni Vineyards

Fuligni Vineyards

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Despite all that, I was very pleased with the samples of Rosso di Montalcino 2014 from a handful of excellent producers that I was recently able to taste, thanks to the good offices of the Consorzio. The 10 wines I tasted came from some of my favorite estates, proving once again that the best winemakers can often do well in the toughest circumstances. It’s highly likely that every one of these rossi benefited from the inclusion of vineyards that in better years would have gone into Brunello – but that doesn’t detract from the winemaking skills needed to spin this straw into gold.

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Altesino Vineyards

Altesino Vineyards

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Here, in alphabetical order and rated on a five-point scale, are the wines:

Altesino Rosso di Montalcino: A bright cherry aroma precedes a good black cherry palate, with excellent acidity and soft tannins. Quite nice. 3.5-4

Canalicchio di Sopra Rosso di Montalcino: Dark cherry with woodsy overtones in the nose, similar components in the mouth. Slightly bigger than the Altesino. Very good. 4

Capanna Rosso di Montalcino: Aromas similar to the Canalicchio, palate like the Altesino. Pleasurable. 3.5-4

Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino: Intense wild cherry and sottobosco nose. In the mouth, fine fruit, some elegance, fine balance. Very nice. 4.25

Donatella Colombini Cinelli Rosso di Montalcino: Doesn’t have all the wild, foresty notes of the Col d’Orcia, but even more elegant. 4.25

Fuligni Rosso di Montalcino Ginestreto: Strong black cherry and underbrush aroma. Excellent fruit, good acidity, soft tannins, nice balance, with a long, juicy finish. 4

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Rosso di Montalcino: Scents of cherry and old wood. In the mouth, pleasing cherry sweetness, fine acid/tannin balance. Round and full. Quite pleasing. 4

Lisini Rosso di Montalcino: Bright cherry aroma. Palate very similar to Ciacci Piccolomini. Enjoyable. 4

Le Potazzine Rosso di Montalcino: Very much in the same style as the preceding two wines. Medium-bodied, fresh and lively. Very nice. 3.5-4

Talenti Rosso di Montalcino: Those lovely Sangiovese cherry scents again. Palate follows through. Very long finish. A very enjoyable Rosso. 4

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As you can judge from my comments, these wines all showed classic Montalcino characteristics, no small accomplishment for the growing season, and an indication of how much the zone is capable of when the conditions are right. My usual caveats about tasting notes still hold: These comments were valid for one tasting one morning, and I might react differently to the same wines in different circumstances. That said, I do think that any of these wines will be very pleasant drinking over the next three or four years, and will accompany any but the most exalted dinners.

Col d'Orcia Vineyards

Col d’Orcia Vineyards

Syrah: The Most International Grape?

May 5, 2016

The Syrah grape has probably achieved more prominence in recent years as Shiraz from Australia than it ever did under its own name in its native Rhône valley. However great the wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, they are overshadowed in the marketplace by the abundance of Aussie versions of the grape, and even by a few California renditions. Well, add two more “foreign” Syrahs to the list of winners: Banfi’s Colvecchio and Fontodi’s Case Via Syrah.

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Long-time followers of this post know that I am usually no friend to French grapes in Italy, but even the most dearly held opinion has to bow to evidence (except in politics, apparently, but that’s a subject for somebody else’s blog). The evidence in this case was provided by two successive at-home dinners that sent me searching through my wine closet for something that would match well with, for the first, a provençal-style eggplant quiche, and, for the second, beef short ribs braised in tomato sauce (red wine reduction, mushrooms, celery) almost in the manner of Roman oxtails.

What I came up with was, first, a 1998 Banfi Colvecchio, a 100% Syrah from Montalcino, and, second, a 1999 Fontodi Case Via, also 100% Syrah. The Colvecchio was grown in vineyards in the hot southeastern corner of the Brunello zone, and the Fontodi grew in the fabled Conca d’Oro in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Both bottles had slumbered many long years in my less-than-stellar storage until, at last, the moment for their star turn approached – and quite a turn it turned out to be.

However little it may be known or appreciated in the States, Syrah from the northern Rhône produces some of the world’s greatest red wines – most notably, Hermitage, which George Saintsbury in his famous cellar book called “the most manly of French wines,” and Côte Rôtie, whose name – the roasted slope – tells you a lot about the kind of growing conditions Syrah likes. It remains a surprise to me, for that reason, that California hasn’t done more and better with the variety, especially in these days of global warming.

syrah grape

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Jancis Robinson, in her huge tome Wine Grapes, describes the taste of Rhône valley Syrah this way:

Syrah’s flavours tend to be in the leather, licorice and tar spectrum with marked black pepper or even burnt-rubber aromas in slightly underripe examples but much sweeter black-fruit flavours in Syrah picked fully ripe in warm climates. Wines made from very ripe to overripe (and therefore thoroughly shriveled) berries can have flavours of dark chocolate and prunes, sometimes with porty overtones.

Those are, of course, the flavors of young wines that Robinson describes, and I have often tasted black pepper and traces of chocolate – dark, bittersweet chocolate – in young Italian Syrahs. But those flavors evolve as wines age, and my two examples, an 18-year-old and a stripling of 17, had mellowed mightily during their years in bottle. Mellow, in fact, was the first word that sprang to mind on tasting them – rich and round, not with “porty overtones” but with a surprising lightness and elegance on the palate. They both seemed very complete, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine any quality I would want added to their flavor spectrum: Their black fruit and lingering hint of black pepper couldn’t be anything but Syrah, but it was Syrah that had been to finishing school.

Neither was showing any sign of tiredness. I really don’t know how many years they had left in them, but it seems to me that I most luckily drank them at an ideal moment in their evolution. I only regret that I didn’t have the foresight to put away more of them. Who knew that this French grape would mature so well in the very different soils and microclimates of Italy? I probably shouldn’t be surprised considering who made these two: The Banfi Colvecchio was the handiwork of Ezio Rivella, who I recall took special pride in making truly textbook Syrah, and the Fontodi Syrah was overseen by the perfectionist Giovanni Manetti, who to my knowledge has never released a merely OK wine.

Lovely wines both, and very satisfying with the two different dishes they accompanied. If Italian Cabernet sauvignon could taste this good or age this gracefully, I wouldn’t be such a Grinch about it, and Bordeaux would quickly lose a lot of its complacency.

Sicily Is Hot!

April 25, 2016

OK, so I can’t resist a bad joke. But it’s true: Sicilian wine is hot right now, especially in Italy, where for the past several years the wines of the three-cornered isle have been getting a lot of press attention and a great deal of consumer demand. In recognition of that, the New York Wine Media Guild dedicated its April tasting and luncheon to surveying Sicily’s highly varied bottlings.Sicily wine map

Organized by co-chairs Pat Savoie and Charles Scicolone, with a little input from yours truly, the WMG tasting focused almost entirely on Sicilian wines vinified from indigenous grape varieties – a decision I heartily applaud. In my opinion, the two impediments to the growth and reputation of Sicilian wine have been the fad for international varieties – think about it: does the world really want a Sicilian Chardonnay or a Sicilian Cabernet? – and the influx of young Australian winemakers, some of whom assume (a) that Sicilians knew nothing about making wine until the Aussies arrived, and (b) that Syrah is the answer to all questions. So a tasting that concentrated on Sicilian wines made from native grapes – 25 wines in all – put the spotlight right where I think it belongs, on the wines that are unique to this beautiful island.

Here are the wines in the order of their presentation that day.

White

  •  Feudo Sartanna 2014 Zirito Grillo
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2014 Grillo Cavallo Delle Fate
  • Spadafora 2013 Dei Principi di Spadafora Grillo
  • Cusumano 2014 Insolia
  • Benanti 2013 Etna Bianco di Caselle (Carricante)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Vigna Casalj (Catarratto)
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2012 Nozze d’Oro Contea di Sclafani (Inzolia & Sauvignon)
  • Planeta 2014 Cometa (Fiano)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Piano Maltese (Grillo & Cataratto)

Rosé

  • Tasca d’Almerita 2015 Le Rose di Regaleali (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Paternò di Vittoria 2013 Frappato
  • Planeta 2014 Frappato
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2014 Frapatto
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2012 Paterno di Vittoria (Frappato & Nero d’Avola)

Red

  • Cusumano 2014 Nero d’Avola
  • Morgante 2011 Don Antonio Nero d’Avola Riserva
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2010 Rosso del Conte Regaleali Contea di Sclafani (Perricone & Nero d’Avola)
  • Vivera 2010 Etna Rosso Martinella
  • Benanti Etna Rosso 2013 Rovitello (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Palari 2011 Rosso del Soprano
  • Palari 2009 Faro
  • Palari 2008 Santa.Nè
  • Alessandro di Camporeale 2012 Kaid Syrah

Dessert

  • Florio Targa Riserva Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco
  • Florio 2009 Malvasia

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That is a pretty exhaustive sampling of Sicily’s native grapes, spread out over 9 whites, 5 rosés, 9 reds (one non-native Syrah slipped in there) and 2 dessert wines. The varieties covered there include the white Grillo, Insolia, and Carricante, widely grown in the western two-thirds of the island, and the white Catarratto, a specialty of the Etna region. The red Frappato is usually used to produce a charming rosé wine, delightful with Sicily’s great seafood cuisine – or just about anything else, for that matter. Nero d’Avola and Perricone are the favorite red grapes of the western chunk of Sicily, though a whole cluster of indigenous red varieties – Nerello mascalese and Nerello Capucci especially – replace them throughout the eastern piece of the island.

That kind of completeness has been characteristic of WMG tastings of Italian wines in recent years, and it is one of the most enjoyable and most useful aspects of those tastings: You come away from them with a good sense of an area’s production, quality, and styles, which is invaluable for a wine journalist and not at all harmful for a collector or consumer.

Needless to say, being the opinionated person I am, I have my favorites: I like especially the wines from Sicily’s eastern hills. It is a not sufficiently appreciated fact that, broadly speaking, Sicily has two distinct geologies. The eastern third of the island – think Messina, Catania, Etna – is part of the Italian geologic plate, a continuation of the same piece of land that is thrusting up into Europe, raising the Alps in the north and causing volcanic activity in the south. The western two-thirds of the island are a portion of North Africa that broke off from the mainland, drifted north, and got snagged by the Etna mass.

That eastern, Etna-anchored portion of Sicily, with its mineral-rich volcanic soils, makes the Sicilian wines that intrigue me most – the reds from Etna and from Palari (the Faro DOC), and the whites of Etna. All taste richly of their native grapes and of their roots in volcanic soil, which may well be a wine grape’s greatest ally.

Etna’s volcanic soils especially nurture richness and subtlety in the vines that grow there, so that red wines vinified from Nerello mascalese (Faro, Rosso del Soprano, Vivera, Benanti’s Rovitello) possess a richness and nuance that remind many fans of the beauties of Burgundy. The whites vinified there from Carricante are in a league of their own: Some of Benanti’s are among the best white wines in Italy, though most of the market hasn’t realized that yet. Your gain, while it lasts, before tastings like this one spread the word.

Paumanok Vineyards’ Chenin Blanc

April 12, 2016

Every now and again, a wine comes out of left field and just bowls me over. This happened last week when I opened a bottle of Paumanok Vineyards’ Minimalist Chenin Blanc. To say the wine impressed me understates the case: I thought it was gorgeous. The dry and sweet white wines of the middle Loire are pretty much the gold standard for Chenin. This Long Island wine tasted fuller and richer than most dry Vouvray, less austere and almost as structured as Savennieres – which, god knows, is about as good as Old World Chenin gets. An eye-opener, an attention-getter of a wine. So I decided to look further into it.

paumonok sign

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Paumanok Vineyards got started in 1983, which makes it an old-timer among Long Island wineries. There were only a few of them then, pioneers excited by the possibilities of the North Fork’s long growing season and well-drained soils, as well as a loose similarity to the climate and terroir of France’s prized Médoc. The basic agriculture that had sustained the region – acres and acres of potatoes, cabbages, and corn – was fading, and land was available. If wine-growing did nothing else for the region, it scored a major triumph in saving the North Fork from developers and their battalions of boxes.

Kareem Massoud

Kareem Massoud

The Massoud family, owners of Paumanok, has roots in Lebanon and Germany, but from the start they planted French varieties: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, even Petit verdot. Kareem Massoud, son of the founder and now winemaker, says that there is nothing distinctive about the terroir of the Chenin vineyards, but that all the Loire varieties – especially Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc – seem to do well on Long Island. Chenin blanc, he says, they found growing on a plot they acquired in the late Eighties – and they almost ripped it out, until they realized how well it was doing.

I lived on Long Island way back when, and find it hard to imagine how Chenin blanc had ever found its way there among the potatoes and pumpkins, but a wonderfully serendipitous find it was. Paumanok’s Chenin blanc every year ranks among the best in the US – and yet it remains the only one made on Long Island. Hello? How can that happen?  Do all the other producers hate Vouvray?

minimalist cheninPaumanok’s Minimalist Chenin blanc stands a whole level higher, in my estimation, than the very fine “ordinary” Chenin, which wins the prizes. The back label of my 2014 bottle tells its story concisely:

This wine was produced using minimalist winemaking techniques. The fruit comes from our vineyard planted in 1982. Select clusters of unblemished Chenin Blanc that had attained total ripeness were carefully hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. The juice was transferred into stainless steel barrels where alcoholic fermentation spontaneously occurred. Only 84 cases were bottled.

As Kareem pointed out to me, this is a purely variety- and terroir-powered wine: Nothing intervenes to modify the expression of the grape and the soil. That purity comes through on the palate with lovely intensity.

Diane and I drank this Minimalist Chenin with some Scotch smoked salmon, followed by simply sauteed filets of John Dory, and it made a wonderful match with both. Its fruit was rich and dry, but hard to pin down: The closest I can come to an accurate descriptor would be half-ripe white figs with an amazing underlayer of minerality and structured by vivid acidity. I would guess that, like many Loire Chenins, this wine could age very well – but I can honestly say that I would be hard put not to drink it all before it had any chance to mature. For me, this is a masterly American wine. I wish there were more of it, and I hope there will be, eventually.

Convergence: Nostalgia and Preserving a Patrimony

March 31, 2016

I recently attended a seminar, sponsored by Banfi, on the subject of saving some Italian wines whose continued existence is threatened by a variety of modern phenomena, even including, in some cases, their own popularity. Such paradoxes aside, this is an important topic, and the Banfi presentation highlighted it with four wines that constituted a kind of nostalgia trip for me, a sort of where-are-the-snows-of-yesteryear experience with, for a change, a happy ending.

The wines were Albinea Canali FB (for Fermented in Bottle, which it is) Lambrusco di Sorbara, Luna Mater Frascati, Palari Faro, and Targa Riserva Marsala – four wines utterly different from each other but alike in how near they have come to slipping under the waves of fashion and disappearing into wine’s dead letter office – to thoroughly garble a metaphor. Language sometimes gets away from me, but I usually have a firm grasp on my glass.

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Albinea Canali FB Lambrusco di Sorbara

Many of my readers will remember clearly when Riunite Lambrusco was one of the largest selling wines in America. At its peak, tens of thousands of cases a month were being consumed. That wine was the sweet version of Lambrusco, and its amazing popularity effectually killed the American market for dry Lambrusco, the premier exponent of which was – and is – Lambrusco di Sorbara. A lot of sweet Lambrusco is still being purchased here, but the dry version has survived and is starting a comeback.

In contrast to the brashness of the sweet Lambrusco, Lambrusco di Sorbara is dry, delicate, and very elegant – a pleasing light wine to serve as an aperitif with any sort of hors d’oeuvre, or simply to sip as a cocktail. A niche wine, perhaps, but the niche is a big one, and the wine is pleasing enough to drink right through any light meal. The bottle of Canali FB that was poured at the seminar was pale salmon in color and, having undergone its final fermentation in the bottle, was unfiltered, fully dry, and with all its fresh fruit intact.

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Fontana Candida Luna Mater Frascati

Luna mater

The Fontana Candida Luna Mater was a 2011 bottle chosen to show just how well this wine can age. Really heavy nostalgia here: Frascati has always been the white wine of Rome, and in the days of yore it was one of the most popular white wines in America. Demand exceeded supply, and producers began overcropping or using any grapes they could lay their hands on. Consequently, many bottles of Frascati eventually devolved into lightly alcoholic water, and its American market disappeared.

But Fontana Candida soldiered on. The firm had been the first bottler of Frascati, and it now accounts for 40% of Frascati production. These days, it is fighting a war on two fronts: one to reclaim the reputation of properly vinified Frascati, the other to physically save the Frascati zone from Rome’s ever-encroaching urban sprawl. The only way to prevent small growers from selling their vineyards to developers is to make it more profitable for them to grow grapes, so Fontana Candida is working with growers both in terms of technical support and in the solid cash terms of paying premium prices for superior grapes.

Luna Mater is a key element in Fontana Candida’s campaign. Meticulously and painstakingly vinified by an intricate and lengthy process* from selected grapes, all from prime vineyards on the volcanic hills that surround Rome, Luna Mater evokes decades-old memories of charming, refreshing Frascatis, sipped on hot summer afternoons on cafe terraces in a quieter, far less touristed Rome than we will ever see again. Medium-bodied, aromatic, mineral on the palate, elegant and light, Luna Mater recalls not so much the snows of yesteryear as the bright sunshine of summers past.

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Palari Faro

Faro

Palari is the name of both the estate and the wine; Faro is the DOC. The name derives from the lighthouse (faro) of Messina, in whose zone the vineyards are located. When that DOC was on the verge of being swept off the books some 20 years ago, the great Italian wine journalist Luigi Veronelli challenged then-architect Salvatore Geraci to save it. Geraci had inherited his grandfather’s vineyards near Messina, and they needed heroic efforts to be brought back into production again. But the efforts were made, the DOC was preserved (the tiny Faro zone now has five working producers), and Geraci’s Palari started winning Tre Bicchieri awards almost from the get-go. Veronelli hailed Palari’s second vintage by comparing it to Clos de Vougeot. For me, it is probably the best red wine of Sicily (and I say this loving the red wines of Etna), however improbable its blend of obscure indigenous varieties from old, head-trained vines (Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Capucci, Nocera, Iacche, Acitana, Cor’e Palumba).

Signor Geraci tells me I was the first American journalist to visit Palari and the first in America to write about it: If so, I was amply repaid for my efforts by the taste of the 2009 he poured at the seminar. To call it fine is understatement: It was big, elegant, mineral, subtly fruited, and very long finishing, albeit still very young – a wine worthy of long cellaring, if you can keep your hands off it.

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Florio Targa Riserva Marsala

targa

The Florio Marsala was a 2003 semidry specimen. Marsala, once as esteemed as Port or Madeira, fell victim to its identification with culinary uses and flavored bottlings. Outside of Italy it never developed the kind of cult following that saved Port from decline when taste turned against sweet, fortified wines. The Florio family, which was among the Italian founders of Marsala in the early 19th Century, nevertheless persisted, becoming even better at their craft. They now make their Marsala only from the Grillo grape, which is vinified and aged with extreme care. The result, in the bottle poured at the seminar, was a beautifully Madeira-like wine – my first thought on tasting it was old Bual – sweet but balanced, with excellent acidity to keep it supple. I would love to serve it with some fine bloc foie gras, where I think it would work better than Sauternes.

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This was for me a very enjoyable session, not just for the quality of the wines served but also for the success of the mission each wine represented, for both of which Banfi should be congratulated. Italy is a treasure trove of fine wine varieties, and none of them should be allowed to fall out of use.

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* Handpicked grapes are divided into two lots. One is cooled before pressing to maintain aroma. The other is fermented on the skins in small oak barrels to preserve varietal character. A subsequent harvest, a few days later, adds hand de-stemmed whole grapes to the must to enhance aromas and flavors. (Source: Banfi website)

 

Chianti Classico’s Gran Selezione

March 17, 2016

Almost three years ago, the Chianti Classico growers and producers created a new top classification for their wines. It’s called Gran Selezione, and until now I have maintained a studied silence about it. Some recent tastings that I’ve been doing, however, have persuaded me that I do have something to say about Gran Selezione, and, while it will hardly be news, I think it may be useful for Chianti fans and general consumers to read.

Gran-selezione

I have long been a partisan of Chianti Classico, extolling its many pleasures, sympathizing with its unending skirmishes with the satellite Chianti denominations that so often ride on its coattails, and appreciating the public relations campaigns that its producers have had to wage for decades as its regulations have time and again been revised. The road of Chianti Classico has not been smooth: Its evolution has been marked by successive waves of seeming modernizations, as the 19th century formula for the wine’s blend, devised by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, was gradually and repeatedly modified.

First came the reduction, then the elimination, of white grapes from the official DOC blend. Later, growers were given permission to make a Chianti Classico of nothing but Sangiovese, and still later, permission to use – at different times, different percentages of – “international varieties.” Somewhere in there the DOCG happened, as well as the introduction of regulations about Riserva status that were supposed to guarantee not only quality but also a certain consumer-reassuring consistency. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and Riserva became a very iffy category – at its best, splendid, but too often just the basic wine aged for an extra year. Now, on top of Riserva, we have Gran Selezione.

Chianti Classico’s heart is Sangiovese, and I love Sangiovese. I think it is one of Italy’s noblest red grapes. When Sangiovese vines are properly cared for on one of the Classico zone’s distinguished terroirs, I think they are capable of enological greatness. I just wish the Tuscans could stop tinkering with Sangiovese and let it be itself, without the intrusion of French grapes or French oak or “international” styling. For the uninitiated, in this context “international” style means a wine designed for what many Tuscans still wrongly perceive as “the American market.” This phantom they understand to be a single entity, thirsty for fruit bombs and with lots of oak sweetness disfiguring them even further. What damage such emphases have done to a wine as elegant in its nature as Chianti Classico I leave to your judgment, but you can easily guess that the “international style” wines are not the Chianti Classicos I love.

When I first heard about Gran Selezione, my initial reaction was “Oh no! Not again! Not another classification change that really won’t change anything but will leave consumers – American consumers, at least – further confused about what is in the bottle they might be interested in buying if they could figure out what it is.” Remember, I love the wine, I’ve been following it for years, I have great admiration for many Chianti Classico producers and nothing but good will for all of them – but my fear was this just might be the last straw for many consumers. So I decided to keep my mouth shut and wait and see.

I’m happy to say that what I have seen lately is encouraging. In the past, many of Chianti Classico’s most distinguished wines were cru wines. Even though that is not an official category, Chianti Classico labels often sport a cru designation – Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo, or Felsina’s Colonia, or Castello di Volpaia’s Coltassala, for example. When such truly top crus were vinified as Riservas they made extraordinary wines, deep and complex and capable of long aging, all the while preserving Chianti Classico’s characteristic elegance.

What I am seeing now is that wines like these are migrating to the Gran Selezione category, whose requirements go far beyond simple extra aging and include quality and typicity tests, as well as strict control of things like acidity and extract. This is right and just, and it is where top-flight wines like these belong.

pyramid

If the producers and the consorzio can maintain the quality level they have thus far established, Gran Selezione may finally give consumers the kind of confidence in the name Chianti Classico that they have until now hoped for. If they do that, Gran Selezione could be the most important of all the changes Chianti Classico has undergone. If, however, the producers and the Consorzio fail to maintain that level of quality, if Gran Selezione is allowed to become a promiscuous designation, then it could be the final nail in the coffin of consumer confidence in the Chianti Classico name.

Follow-Up News

March 15, 2016
A much-expanded version of my article on Giacomo Tachis has now been published on QRW.com.

Moris Farms Avvoltore: A Match for Wild Boar and Tame Veal

March 7, 2016

In the past 25 years, the Tuscan Maremma – the stretch of hills and valleys just behind Tuscany’s Mediterranean seacoast – has become an important wine-making zone. The most prestigious part is the Bolgheri area, home to Sassicaia and Ornellaia and Angelo Gaja’s grandiose winery, as well more indigenous producers such as Grattamacco and Michele Satta. Right behind Bolgheri – in the prestige sense, not geography – is the Scansano zone, with its luscious Morellino, another delicious incarnation of Tuscany’s ubiquitous Sangiovese.

Among many newish enterprises in the Maremma, a few old-timers – real pioneers, such as Erik Banti – stand out. One of the best of these has the unusual name of Moris Farms, whose wines deserve to be far better known here in the US than they are.

vineyard

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2003 avvoltoreFarms is an English word, but Moris is Spanish, the name of the family that acquired two estates in the Maremma a few generations back. One is located in the Morellino di Scansano zone, and the other in a less well-known but very interesting part of Grosseto province, around the also-interesting town of Massa Marittima. Despite Morellino’s DOCG status, the latter, supposedly lesser, Moris Farms location produces what amounts to its banner wine, the IGT classification Avvoltore.

The estate also houses a pen of cinghiale, the wild boar that inhabit every uncultivated stretch of the Maremma and whose appetite for ripe grapes can wreak havoc in the vineyards at harvest time. The canny grape growers get their own back by hunting and eating boar at every opportunity, and I can assure you from several happy visits to the region that Avvoltore makes the ideal wine to accompany boar, whether it appears in a long-simmered pasta sauce, a stew, or simply braised or roasted. Boar is a forceful, full-flavored meat, and it wants a forceful, full-flavored wine to partner with. Avvoltore fills the bill admirably.

Moris farms boar

 

I can also tell you, from more recent, domestic experience, that Avvoltore matches equally well with milder, less wild meats. Diane and I served a 2003 Avvoltore at a dinner party alongside a handsome stuffed breast of veal, and the pairing was spot on – as Italians would say, un buon abbinamento.

Adolfo Parentini

Adolfo Parentini

Moris Farms’s vineyards are overseen by Adolfo Parentini, the husband of Caterina Moris, with the help of consulting enologist Attilio Pagli. Within Italy, Moris Farms has long been highly reputed, but awareness of the quality of its wines has been slow to reach these shores. This is surprising, because Avvoltore is the sort of “modern” wine – some Cabernet and a bit of Syrah blended with 75% Sangiovese, aged for a year in barriques – that in theory the American market loves and I usually hate. I can only defend my seeming inconsistency by saying this wine tastes purely Italian to me: The Sangiovese sings in the blend, albeit with deeper notes than in most other Tuscan wines, and the oak notes are seamlessly integrated, not dominant. With decent age – my 12-year-old was perfect – the wine is utterly harmonious. In The Finest Wines of Tuscany, Nicolas Belfrage describes Avvoltore as “a wine of complexity and character, rich but rounded, a Tuscan modern classic.”  I’d say that’s nailed it exactly.

Purely by the way, the name Avvoltore comes from the hillside vineyard in the Massa Marittima estate that grows the grapes, and it in turn is named with the local word for a bird of prey – apparently a falcon of some sort. Not inappropriate for a high-flying wine of this caliber.

Nil Nisi Bonum?

February 22, 2016

By now, every wine lover of any pretentions has heard of the death of Giacomo Tachis, a figure of central importance in the 20th century Italian wine scene. The homages have been unstinting and the praise unqualified. (See for instance the New York Times’s reverential obituary.) I have even seen him credited with introducing temperature-controlled fermentation – a decisively important development for Italian wine, to be sure, but the credit for it belongs to many individuals in many countries, not to Tachis alone.

I know we are supposed to speak only good of the dead, but I feel strongly that Tachis’s influence, though crucial for the commercial success of Tuscan wines in the sixties, seventies, and eighties of the last century (god, saying that makes me feel ancient!), has been in the long run baneful for the development of Italy’s wine culture. That’s the reason behind this contrarian take on his enological legacy.

Tachis of course achieved fame and prominence first for his work with the Antinori firm, primarily in the development of Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia. Tachis did not, as many people seem to believe, invent Sassicaia. Rather, he lucked into it. The Antinori’s cousins, the Incisa della Rocchetta family, had – back in the forties, I believe – planted an unlikely stretch of their property in the Tuscan Maremma (a very untraditional area for serious winemaking then and even much later) in the two Cabernets, sauvignon and franc, which their patriarch loved. The family had for years been vinifying them for their own consumption.

It is unclear – I have heard several versions of the story – whether the Incisa della Rocchetta approached the Antinori or the Antinori approached their cousins about commercializing the wine. But the Antinori did successfully accomplish that, and Sassicaia began winning prizes and gathering attention from press and public and wine lovers generally.

Many people speak of Tachis as a student of Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist and teacher. That is not literally true, though Tachis was an intense admirer of Peynaud’s work and writings. His own talent was for blending, a skill that fits very nicely into the traditions of both Tuscany and Bordeaux. With Piero Antinori’s backing, reinforced by the commercial and prestige success of Sassicaia, he soon developed Tignanello, which, except for its first vintage, has been a blend of predominantly Sangiovese with about 20% Cabernet sauvignon. Tachis then followed that with Solaia, a blend of mostly Cabernet sauvignon with about 20% Sangiovese and a little Cabernet franc.

These were immensely successful wines, soon spoken of in the press as Super Tuscans, a nom de guerre that, as the practice of using “international varieties” spread within Tuscany and Italy at large, almost pushed native Tuscan wines into economic oblivion. And there is why I think Tachis’s influence has been in the long run harmful, not just for Tuscan wine but for Italian wine generally.

I don’t drink Tignanello and Solaia. I just don’t like ‘em. They don’t taste Tuscan to me, and they don’t taste French. They taste commercial, as if they could have been grown and vinified anywhere, of almost any grapes. They’re sleek, and polished, and hollow at the heart, as most of the now-happily-fading-into-oblivion Super Tuscans all were. But their 20-year run of commercial success left vineyards of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, and Syrah dotted all over Italy, while perfectly worthy but untrumpeted native varieties have been allowed to languish.

Rucché, anyone? Pignolo? Pallagrello? Nerello?  These are varieties capable of making great wine, and there are many more such indigenous vines all through Italy. Their development has been slowed, and even their survival threatened, by the to-my-mind undeserved and unwarranted attention to international varieties. Beyond that, many Italian wines have been denatured – homogenized – by the continued admixture of international varieties. Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah particularly – even in small quantities – take over a blend and drown the distinctive characters of the native grapes.

For both these effects, it seems to me that Tachis and the Antinori must take primary responsibility. I’m not a forgiving sort: I will hold that grudge as long as a single Italian winemaker muddies the character of Sangiovese with Cabernet. And I every day bless the Piemontese and Campanian winemakers who resisted the lure of such varieties and stuck faithfully to their native grapes. Nebbiolo and Aglianico are powerful consolations in a world elsewhere gone awry.


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