Donatella, Prima Donna del Vino

 

 

Donatella Cinelli Colombini has lived and worked in the wine world all her life. Her family owns the Barbi vineyards and winery. They have lived in Montalcino since at least the 16th century, and the properties that Donatella now cultivates have passed down the female line for many generations. The most important one, a Montalcino vineyard, used to be called simply Casato; for reasons that will come clear shortly, Donatella has renamed it Casato Prime Donne.

The Cinelli Colombini family and the Barbi vineyards played a key role in the invention of Brunello. In the 19th century, one of their ancestors, along with a Biondi-Santi ancestor and a few other individuals in Montalcino, began experimenting with vinifying the local clone of Sangiovese by itself – a heresy of sorts in Tuscany, where blending several varieties had been the traditional way of vinification for centuries. That tradition was powerful enough by itself, and it had only recently been reinforced by the influential precepts of Barone Ricasoli about the way to make Chianti. Nevertheless, the Montalcino pioneers persisted, and so the wine we now know as Brunello di Montalcino was born.

For many years, Donatella was generally in charge of affairs at Barbi, running everything from the cheese- and salume-making to the winemaking (Barbi was and still is a complete farm operation), but in the late 1990s she claimed her share of the family properties and set up on her own – “in keeping,” as Kerin O’Keefe dryly puts in her book Brunello di Montalcino, “with the unwritten but solid tradition of most of Italy’s great wine families of not being able to work alongside parents or siblings.” My own sense of the matter is that it was not willfulness on Donatella’s part that led to her departure. But that isn’t important: What does count is what she proceeded to do at Casato, which is to create a winery completely staffed by women – hence Casato Prime Donne.
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This would be significant anywhere, but in the Italian wine world it was close to revolutionary, and it was compounded by the fact that from the very beginning, she made wonderful wine. I think it’s getting better all the time, as the house’s emphasis is shifting from power to elegance, but even some of the earliest bottles have matured very well.

That isn’t all Donatella did. For as long as I’ve known her (Full disclosure: I’ve known Donatella – as well as her mother Francesca and her brother Stefano – for decades now), she has been engaged on many fronts, all linked by her love of the wine, nature, history, and traditions of Montalcino. She has compiled and published collections of local food lore. She even campaigned to save the local species of donkeys. Most important, she created a whole organization for wine tourism in Montalcino and invented Cantine Aperte, an annual event during harvest time when Italian winemakers – who by and large are the antithesis of Napa Valley, totally unequipped to deal with visitors – open their cellars to the wine-loving public. Cantine Aperte has spread from Montalcino all through Italy.
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Donatella now teaches wine tourism in the graduate programs of three universities. It’s hard to imagine a more complete and more successful life in wine.

What spurred this whole lucubration for me was an exquisite bottle of her 1999 Riserva that Diane and I drank about a week ago. I had brought home a gorgeously marbled T-bone steak from Ottomanelli’s, which we simply broiled; and we had found at a sub-astronomical price at Eataly some fresh porcini mushrooms, which we seethed in olive oil along with some sliced fingerling potatoes; and we both felt that a properly aged wine of some real complexity was called for. Donatella to the rescue:  The wine was perfect, with all the deep, dark prune-plum-grape-earth elements that Brunello is famed for in perfect balance, and wrapped in a velvet envelope of soft tannins and still-fresh acidity – simply put, at 20 years old, as good as Brunello gets. Savoring it, we reminisced about Donatella and realized how much she had accomplished and how infrequently it is acknowledged. Hence this long overdue tribute to one of wine’s great women.

Casato Prime Donne makes all the classic Montalcino wines: Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello, and Brunello Riserva. In addition it produces a special-selection Brunello Prime Donne, which is blended according to the input of a group of prestigious female tasters. The bottles I’ve sampled have been pretty heavy on the fruit, but all showed the kind of structure necessary for good maturation – so I’m hoping to taste some of them again with a little age on them.

More power to the women, I say, and I’m pretty sure that’s coming: I have no statistics, but a great many of the Italian wine families I’ve visited in recent years seem to have a large number of very capable daughters.

2 Responses to “Donatella, Prima Donna del Vino”

  1. giovanna Says:

    Donatella has done a very generous work for the whole world of wine. Everybody should thank her.

    Gio

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