Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Red Wine Bonanza

June 4, 2018


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Campania Stories 2018 climaxed with a blind tasting of 111 red wines. By the standards of the Nebbiolo Prima or the Chianti Classico and Brunello anteprima, at either of which professionals taste 100 or more wines a day over multiple days, that’s not a lot of wines – but judged against what Campania’s production was in the past, that is a tremendous leap forward. That same progress is evident in the quality of the wines as in the proliferation of appellations and producers: Every year, the most authoritative Italian experts – Daniele Cernilli, Gambero Rosso, the Italian Sommeliers Association – give Campania more and more of their top awards, and list more and more Campanian wines in their annual guides.

Not all of those wines are available here in the US, of course, but many are – enough to create some confusion for American consumers. The region’s many appellations result not from Italian whimsicality or parochialism, but from Campanian geography. Campania is broken up by hills and mountains, divided by valleys and rivers, with soils volcanic and alluvial and sedimentary, and climates modified by altitude and/or proximity to the sea. These necessitate differing appellations to reflect the many varied growing circumstances, which in turn affect the kind of wine produced – even when the grape varieties are the same.
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A misty morning in the hills near Avellino

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That is one of the underlying simplicities of Campanian red wine: Campania has largely resisted the importation of foreign grapes, and almost all Campanian reds are made with a small handful of indigenous grape varieties. At the top of the heap stands Aglianico, in its pinnacle expression Taurasi and in many other regionally named wines. Right behind is Piedirosso – the Per’e Palummo beloved of traditional growers – sort of a Merlot to Aglianico’s Cabernet, which blends wonderfully with Aglianico and also makes a very nice wine on its own. And distantly behind Piedirosso (in volume, not in quality) follow Casavecchia, Pallagrello nero, Tintore, and a handful of other ancient red varieties just now being rediscovered and re-cultivated.

Thus, understanding Campanian reds isn’t all that complex, once you’ve familiarized your palate with what Aglianico and Piedirosso can do. (If you haven’t, you’re depriving yourself of some great pleasures: Aglianico in particular is a truly noble red variety, easily on the same plane as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo or, for that matter, Pinot noir.)

For me, as a wine lover and an I-hope-useful journalist, this plenitude of fine wines and their appellations makes a major problem. For instance: at the blind tasting, 71 of the wines presented were either 100% Aglianico or largely Aglianico-based. None of them was a wine I couldn’t drink with pleasure. Fifty-six of them scored 3.75 to 4.5 on the 5-point scale I use for my own ratings, and I’m a stingy scorer. Fifty-six! I can’t in conscience just turn this post into a gigantic list: I came too close to that for my own comfort (or yours, I am sure) in my post on the white wines of Campania Stories. But I also can’t omit the names of these wonderful wines and their hard-working producers – so here’s a link that will connect those of you curious or masochistic enough to want to know them to the complete list of Tom’s Very Pleasurable Fifty-six.

What impressed me consistently about the Taurasis especially, but all the less famous Aglianico wines as well, was the wonderful Aglianico fruit – wild cherry, black raspberry, forest underbrush, walnuts and earth – in the aromas and flavors. In the Taurasis, it tends to be a bit more austere and structured, in the other wines a little softer and more giving, but in all it is sustained by a structure that promises long life and development. Not that they have to be kept forever – many were already pleasant drinking and almost all will be thoroughly enjoyable very soon – but for anyone seeking mature flavors and style in a red wine, these Campanian beauties can provide it, if you’re patient enough. Galardi’s Terra di Lavoro, Villa Matilde’s Falerno Rosso, La Rivolta, Mustille, Fontanavecchia, Benito Ferrara, Donnachiara, Di Meo, Luigi Tecce’s Campi Taurasini Satyricon – all these “non-Taurasis” are splendid wines, with a good chunk of Taurasi’s virtues.

As for the Taurasis themselves: There was an impressive, almost universal level of excellence from producers large and small. Clearly the level of winemaking in Campania has taken a major step upward. Familiar larger producers like Feudi di San Gregorio and Villa Raiano showed lovely wines, as did medium-sized houses like Donnachiara and Di Meo and small producers such as Luigi Tecce – and so too did a raft of producers previously unknown to me, some of them quite small, such as Vigne Guadagno or Regina Collis. In the 2012 and 2013 vintages especially, throwing darts at a list of Taurasi makers would probably get you a fine wine nine times out of ten.

Finally, I can’t close this post without praising the wines vinified – in most cases, 100% – from Casavecchia or Pallagrello Nero. Two ancient and indigenous Campanian varieties now undergoing serious revivals, both make an intense, dark wine, brooding and elegant, and seemingly capable of graceful aging. Top-flight producers include, for Casavecchia, Aia delle Monache, Alois, Sclavia, and Viticoltori del Casavecchia; and for Pallagrello nero, Alois, Cantina di Lisandro, Nanni Copè, Sclavia, Tempio di Diana, and Vestini Campagnano.

As my enthusiasm should show, I found the whole Naples event pleasurable and exciting. I would urge any young enophile to start paying serious attention to Campanian wine, while it is still modestly priced and not yet well known. This is an opportunity to fill your cellar with beautifully structured, long-lasting wines that you will enjoy for many years.

White Wine Wonderland

April 30, 2018

It may be news to the casual wine buyer, but it’s certainly no secret to wine lovers that these days Campanian white wines are among the most exciting in the world. My second day of tastings at Campania Stories in Naples covered 109 samples of them from 86 producers over vintages stretching from 2017 back to 2003. I make no secret of the fact that I am a major fan of these wines, so no one should be surprised when I say that I was wowed.

The producers ranged in size from very large to very small, some white wine specialists but most making at least some reds as well. I’ll talk about the red wines (another day’s tasting) in a later post: for now I want to focus on the enormous diversity of white wines Campania makes.

Top of the list, of course, stand the two white DOCGs, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, but they are followed by a host of wines vinified from Fiano or Greco in other parts of Campania. And beyond those two varieties comes a whole gazetteer of other white grapes, many localized and only recently acquiring any reputation outside their zone, others long-standing staples of production in wines that aren’t varietally named, such as Lacryma Christi. Most prominent of these varieties are Asprinio, Caprettone, Catalanesca, Coda di Volpe, Falanghina (now very well known), and Pallagrello bianco (now an emerging star) – to name just some.

The hardest problem for me in tasting so many and such diverse wines is staying focused on what is actually in the glass, not what I hope or expect it to be. It’s hard to say which tires first, the palate or the brain, but the task is to bring the same attention to wine #109 as to wine #1. It helps a great deal when the wines are well-made examples of interesting varieties, and the good news from Campania Stories is that that was true in 90% of the cases. As a veteran of many a hard slog through a slate of mediocre wines, I can assure you that 90% is a terrific average, whatever the country or appellations you’re dealing with.

So: down to details. First, the “lesser” breeds, which many of us have been drinking happily for years in blends such as Lacryma Christi bianco or Costa Amalfitana. Most wines so labelled were for years relatively simple wines for everyday meals, but now, as the winemaking improves steadily throughout Campania, they are rapidly ascending the scale of quality and interest.

I was particularly charmed by Marisa Cuomo’s 2016 Fiorduva, a blend of Ripoli, Fenile, and Ginestra, and a wine that is a perennial prize winner, but then I’m impressed by Cuomo’s entire line of wines. The humble Lacryma Christi bianco appellation produced two striking wines, Sorrentino’s 2016 Vigna Lapillo and Matrone’s 2015 Territorio de’ Matroni. The appellation that showed strongest among these lesser-known wines was unquestionably Pallagrello bianco, an IGP wine from Terre del Volturno in the province of Caserta. Every sample in this category showed the complexity of which this variety is capable: the nose and palate are marked by assertive, almost red, fruit and strong minerality, and they were biggish (especially for a white wine), round in the mouth, and long in the finish. Pallagrello bianco takes quite well to at least a few years’ aging, and often more. This is definitely a dinner wine, not a cocktail.

Falanghina is one of Campania’s success stories, a wine that went from obscurity only a few years ago to vinous stardom. Its light body and refreshing minerality make it an ideal wine for everything from sipping at parties to drinking throughout light meals. There are several appellations: Falerno del Massico bianco, Falanghina del Sannio, Campania Falanghina, and Campi Flegrei Falanghina. Each is good, and each differs slightly from the others.

The Falanghina from the Flegrean fields is probably the most “volcanic” tasting of them all, the Sannio Falanghina the roundest and best suited to dinner service. There are excellent producers in all the appellations: in the Massico zone, Villa Matilde; in Sannio, Fattoria La Rivolta, Feudi di San Gregorio, Fontanavecchia, and especially Mustilli, who rescued the variety and pioneered its re-introduction; and in the Campi Flegrei, Aganum, Cantine Carputo, and La Sibilla.

The group of Fiano and Fiano-based wines ran to 40 samples ranging from vintage 2017 back to 2003. Of them, 29 were Fiano di Avellino. This was a sensational bunch of wines: There is no other way to put it. I had been impressed by the level of winemaking that the white wines had been showing, but with these Fianos, it really shone. No rusticities, no overpowering oak, no off bottles: just clean, pure Fiano flavors throughout, in a range of styles from delicate to forceful.

Fiano is a great grape, as noble as Chardonnay or Riesling, and these 40 samples both demonstrated what has been accomplished with it thus far and indicated what it is capable of. Aromas of forest floor, pears, hazelnuts, almonds, with mineral inflections; palates of white fruits and nuts and mineral interlacings, with long, dried-pear and nut finishes, all varying with vintage and age, and gradually – with age – rounding and plumping into a more mature hazelnut-and-sottobosco complex of scents and tastes: for my palate, as lovely a white wine as can be found anywhere. Here is a highly selected list of the samples that impressed me most, in the order I tasted them:

  • 2017 De Conciliis, Paestum Fiano Bacioilcielo
  • 2017 De Conciliis Paestum Fiano Donnaluna
  • 2017 Casebianche Cilento Fiano Cumalé
  • 2017 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Colli di Lapio Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Feudi di San Gregorio Pietracalda
  • 2017 Petilia Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino
  • 2017  Donnachiara Fiano di Avellino
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  • 2016 Nanni Copé Terre del Volturno Bianco Polveri della Scarrupata
  • 2016 Tenuta Sarno 1860 Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Pietracupa Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino
  • 2016 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino
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  • 2015 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino Ventidue
  • 2015 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino Tognano
  • 2015 Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino Feudi Studi Arianello
  • 2015 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino Alimata
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  • 2014 Ciro Picariello Fiano di Avellino Ciro
  • 2012 Tenuta Sarno 1860 Fiano di Avellino
  • 2007 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Colle dei Cerri
  • 2003 Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Erminia di Meo

And finally came Greco: 26 wines, the great majority of them Greco di Tufo. Greco is also a great variety, of much nobler status than the wine world seems aware of, but I think for most wine lovers less immediately accessible than Fiano. Its wines show the greatest minerality of any Campanian wines, and that is saying a lot. The soils of the Tufo zone are richly volcanic and mineral-laced: A sulfur mine on the di Marzo estate just outside the town of Tufo was for many years the major employer in the region. But Greco – especially Greco di Tufo – rewards the small effort it takes to get to know it: It is a big wine for a white, and capable of matching with many foods, from seafood (it loves shellfish) through white meats and even smoked meats (try it with a ham steak). And it ages complexly and well, the palate rounding and softening, the nose deepening and acquiring intriguing forest-floor aromas. Here are the best of the best I tasted in Naples:

  • 2017 Villa Raiano Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Ferrara Benito Greco di Tufo Vigna Cicogna
  • 2017 Di Meo Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Petilia Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo Cutizzi
  • 2017 Donnachiara Greco di Tufo
  • 2017 Colli di Lapio Greco di Tufo
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  • 2016 Di Marzo Greco di Tufo Serrone
  • 2016 Di Prisco Greco di Tufo
  • 2016 Pietracupa Greco di Tufo
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  • 2015 Villa Raiano Greco di Tufo Contrada Marotta

In addition to all these at the formal tasting, I managed to taste a few more on visits to individual producers. Almost all of them took the opportunity to show their experimental wines, the directions they want to go with their Fiano and Greco. Almost all of those – especially Di Marzo, Petilia, and Sarno 1860 – seemed to be moving in the direction of making their wines more Burgundian in style – rounder, fuller, more complex, still more expressive of their terroir. As you can imagine, these wines are still in the developmental stages and not commercially available – but they gave a very exciting indication of the sophistication and quality that lies in store for us in years to come. I left Campania a very happy camper.

Unknown Italy: The Wines of Basilicata

April 19, 2018

Every April, the increasingly important Campania Stories, an event presenting new releases of a great many Campanian winemakers, convenes in Naples. This year, it grew a new appendage, a day devoted to Basilicata Stories.

This is to my mind a very promising development: I think the south of Italy is making some of the most exciting wines in the whole realm of wine, and it needs to find a way to make its case to the world. An event like this, which could bring together all the wonderful produce of Italia meridionale, may be just the venue it needs.

Basilicata, for those unfamiliar with Italian geography, is the province at the bottom of the Italian peninsula, jammed in between Puglia to the east, Campania to the northwest, and Calabria to the southwest. If Puglia is the shank and heel of the Italian boot, and Calabria the toe, then Basilicata is the instep – and like insteps everywhere, it doesn’t get much attention. I hope that will be changing soon.

The event in Naples presented 45 wines from 18 producers in its blind tasting. Almost three-quarters of the wines were red, vinified in large part from Primitivo and Aglianico, with a very small admixture of Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon. Most of the Primitivo wines originated in the eastern end of Basilicata, where the terroir and the grapes seem to be almost a continuation of Puglia. Aglianico is far and away the most important and most widely planted variety in the region, with Aglianico del Vulture Superiore, Basilicata’s only DOCG, pre-eminent.

This has been so for a long time. I remember visiting Rionero in Vulture decades ago, when it was a sleepy country town,* and the only winemakers of note in the area were Donato d’Angelo and, to a lesser extent, Paternoster; and the only wine of distinction in Basilicata was Aglianico del Vulture. The Monte Vulture that lends its name to the zone and appellation is a long-dormant, probably extinct, volcano, high and windy – so windy, that, as I recall, Aglianico vines were grown very close to the ground and surrounded by little teepees of reeds around which the vines could twine and shelter the grapes.

I haven’t been back, but I suspect that is probably no longer the case. There are certainly many more producers now than there were then, and many more Aglianico appellations. Much has no doubt changed about the fieldwork with Aglianico, and this Naples tasting certainly showed that the wine, already fine back then, has gotten even better.

Basilicato Aglianico differs greatly from Campanian versions of the wine. Different clones and different soils yield a softer version of this great red wine: the same luscious black-cherryish fruit, and the same fine acid/tannin balance, but in its youth Aglianico from Basilicata is gentler on the palate, a little softer and more welcoming. It lacks the austerity of Taurasi, and it may – I’m not sure – lack Taurasi’s aging ability, but it retains all its complexity and interest. I found the samples I tasted delightful, especially those of the 2011 vintage, which were remarkably fresh and pleasing. Here is a short list of the Basilicata Aglianicos that pleased me most:

  • Cantina di Venosa Aglianico del Vulture Verbo 2015
  • Cantine del Notaio Aglianico del Vulture La Firma 2013
  • Cantine del Notaio Aglianico del Vulture Il Sigillo 2011
  • Colli Cerentino Aglianico del Vulture Masqito 2011
  • D’Angelo Casa Vinicola Aglianico del Vulture Caselle 2012
  • Elena Fucci Aglianico del Vulture Titolo 2016
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Aquila del Vulture 2011
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Massaron Riserva 2009
  • Lagala Aglianico del Vulture Nero degli Orsini 2011
  • Lagala Basilicata Rosso Maddalena 2016
  • Carmelitano Musto Aglianico del Vulture Pian del Moro 2013
  • Ripanera Basilicata Rosso Sansavino 2016

Only some of these wines – those in red – are at present imported into the US, but I suspect that will be changing as attention begins to be paid to this important variety and to the whole zone.

I’m not sure I can say the same about Basilicata’s Primitivo wines. Although I found many of them charming, these wines are so overshadowed by the better-known and better-distributed Primitivi coming from Puglia that I fear it will take them a good while to break into the American market. For their sake, and for the consumer’s sake, I hope I’m wrong.

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*  Purely personal history: It was around 1980 when Diane and I visited Donato d’Angelo, and Diane was gawked at along the whole length of the main street of Rionero as probably the tallest woman ever seen there. She then created what seemed to be the scandal of the year by entering the café with us boys and having an espresso at the bar. The times they have a-changed, especially in the Italian south.

One Fine Wine: Di Meo Fiano di Avellino 2012

March 5, 2018

This is the first of what I intend to be an intermittent series of short posts about individual wines I’ve recently enjoyed. Diane and I drank the bottle named above, a Di Meo Fiano di Avellino 2012, with a relatively simple dinner of snapper soup (brought home from a trip to Cape May) and filets of John Dory (brought home from our local Citarella). The nutty, mineral scent of the wine tempted from the first pour – and then the wine itself stood up and kissed the soup and danced with the fish and kept growing more interesting as it opened in the glass. We finished the bottle easily and looked around for more.

Fiano is, without qualification, a great white variety, as fine as Riesling or Chardonnay, and in the vineyards around Avellino, high up – 550 meters up for Di Meo – in the complex volcanic soils of those hills, it achieves its maximum expression.

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Writing some time ago about the wines of Campania, I said that some day wine lovers would regard the Avellino zone with the same reverence they accord Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Every time I open a bottle like this Fiano, I feel that even more strongly:  This simply is a world-class white wine.

Fiano is never as fat on the palate as a white Burgundy: It’s linear, and often more subtly elegant, with a fine nut (hazelnut and almond) and mineral-inflected complexity that grows more intriguing with every year of bottle age. About a year ago, Diane and I drank (with friends to help) a magnum of Di Meo’s 2000 Fiano di Avellino, and it was spectacular, showing not the slightest sign of senility and all the signs of depth and all the layered flavors that mineral-laced soils and mature fruit (lots of dry pear and hazelnut) can convey.

Di Meo is becoming something of an aged Fiano specialist, but the natural structure of the Fiano variety is such that almost any well-made Fiano di Avellino will mature beautifully, if you can keep yourself from enjoying it while it’s still young.

In addition to all its natural advantages of soil, site, altitude, and climate, the Avellino zone is blessed with a throng of passionate and knowledgeable winemakers. In addition to Di Meo’s, you can find excellent Fiano di Avellino from Cantina del Barone, Ciro Picariello, Donnachiara, Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Pietracupa, Tenuta Sarno, Terredora, Urciuolo, Villa Diamante, Villa Matilde, Villa Raiano and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

When next you buy some, try squirreling a few bottles away in some corner where you can forget them for a few years: They’re worth the wait.

 

Cucco: A Great Barolo Cru Lost and Found Again

February 22, 2018

In as intensively cultivated a wine zone as Barolo it’s rare for an important cru to drop out of sight for a couple of decades, but one did. Cascina Cucco, as it was traditionally known, was long regarded as a major site for fine Barolo. Renato Ratti’s pioneering 1976 Carta del Barolo ranked it just below the top crus of Serralunga, and Slow Food’s 1990 Wine Atlas of the Langhe continued to esteem it, albeit mostly in the past tense, with nary a word about its then owners or produce:

Below and alongside the village of Cerrati lie the vineyards of Cucco and Posteirone.… Cucco used to belong to Dottor Giuseppe Cappellano, a celebrated figure in the world of Barolo, who was quick to acquire this superb plot when the opportunity arose. It is on the eastern flank of Serralunga and Nebbiolo has always been at home on its white, tufaceous soil. The grapes yield a Barolo with outstanding structure, capable of aging in the cellar for many years.
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Barolo crus near Serralunga, from Wine Atlas of the Langhe

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In the more recent and highly detailed Masnaghetti maps of the crus of Barolo, the cellars of Cascina Cucco are listed, but the cru designation Cucco has disappeared from the map. As successive owners of the vineyards ignored the Barolo boom and essentially neglected their vineyards, the reputation of its wines faded and it apparently slipped from the collective wine consciousness, a classic instance of sic transit gloria mundi.

Fast forward to 2012, when the Rossi Cairo family acquired the property. The Rossi Cairos had for more than a decade been producing excellent Gavi on their biodynamic, Demeter-certified vineyard La Raia, and they saw a wealth of potential in the splendidly located Cucco site. From what I know of the land situation in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, properties like this are very rarely available, so the family was wise indeed to leap at the opportunity.

Realizing the need for direct involvement in anything as complex as a Barolo-producing estate, Piero Rossi Cairo, the son of the new owner, gave up his legal career, began educating himself about enology and vineyard management, and assumed responsibility for beginning the newly renamed Tenuta Cucco’s conversion to organic and eventually biodynamic production.

Two weeks ago, Piero and his importer, Vinifera, hosted a tasting and luncheon here in New York to introduce the family’s wines. It was clear from the start that Piero was no dilettante winemaker. He is passionate and knowledgeable about the organic approach to grape-growing, both its virtues and its limitations. And he spoke warmly of his neighbors, particularly of Franco Massolino of the bordering Massolino estate. I know from my own experience that in addition to the excellence of the wine he makes, Franco knows as much about Barolo as any grower in the zone, and he is as open and generous with his knowledge as any newcomer to the zone could possibly hope for. The Rossi Cairo family bought far more luckily than they realized when they acquired Cucco.

Piero showed seven wines that day, starting with two Gavi: La Raia 2015 and La Raia Riserva 2015. These were two fine whites, the regular bottling light, soft, and fresh, with light citrus and melon fruit, and the Riserva strikingly different. It seemed much more intense, with a fat, buttery, white fruit nose and a palate that followed through point for point: very smooth and buttery in the mouth, with a very long finish. Neither wine saw any wood – stainless steel throughout – but the Riserva came from 60- to 70-year-old vines, and its must stayed on the lees for a year, hence that pronounced butteriness. I thought them both impressive.

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The basic Cucco Barolo 2013 came next, and it showed very characteristically of Serralunga Nebbiolo – black cherry, tar, and tobacco on the nose, in the mouth abundant but soft tannins riding alongside black cherry, earth and mineral notes, with another very long finish. This wine received a prolonged maceration on the skins – 25 days – which may account both for the softness of its tannins and the richness of its flavor.

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Piero and his family had little role in the growing of Cucco Barolo 2012, but were largely responsible for its handling in the cellar. This was an impressive wine, similar in general to the 2013, I thought, but markedly more intense, especially in the aroma. On the palate, I found it soft and accessible, beautifully balanced, and already drinking very enjoyably, with a long licorice-and-black-cherry finish. In short, a lovely wine.

The cru wine, 2012 Barolo Cerrati, spent some time in French barriques, but I detected no oakiness in the wine – just the classic Barolo black cherry, earth, mineral, and underbrush. It was smooth on the palate, with evident tannin that needs a little time to soften. But the flavor package was classic: black cherry, earth, and mushroom, with a long, rich, black fruit finish. This is an excellent wine that will evolve and open for years yet, maybe decades.

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Piero also showed two older wines, vinified well before the Rossi Cairo family’s acquisition of the estate, to show us what had attracted them to it. The 2007 Cucco seemed a good, sound middle-range Barolo in both heft and quality, while the 1995 was very elegant, very graceful and balanced, while still in no way big. Lovely wines on a sort of smallish Barolo scale. But heft and authority will come, I think, with more attentive field work of the sort the family has already begun, so the future for this once-famed site seems bright indeed. For an old Barolo lover, it is a pleasure indeed to witness this sort of resurrection in progress.

2013 Brunello: Classic Elegance

February 8, 2018

The yearly exposition of new releases from a representative selection of producers of Brunello di Montalcino recently visited New York. For journalists and members of the wine trades, this is an important and much-anticipated event: Most of us can’t get to Montalcino for the full-scale showing of the current vintage, so this is our only chance to taste a broad spectrum of what has become one of Italy’s most important wines.

Manhattan’s Gotham Hall, where the event takes place, becomes the site of an up-scale scrum as at each producer’s table we press first for a taste and then for the spit bucket. It’s not an elegant scene – but fortunately the wine is, and this year’s new release, the 2013 vintage, was especially elegant.
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That wasn’t entirely a surprise: The best Brunellos have always shown great elegance and restraint. But in the past, as new releases and young wines, they were never as accessible as this vintage showed itself to be. Across the board, the wines I tasted that late January morning all felt soft on the palate and were very pleasantly drinkable.

This is a remarkable change from young Brunellos of yore: Tasting them was a penitential exercise, a lot like chewing a nice mouthful of toothpicks, so prickly and tannic were they. You looked for signs that they would evolve over the years into wines of elegance and breed: you never expected to taste those qualities then and there. That I was able to do so on this occasion provides a sharp reminder of how much Brunello, and Italian wine in general, has evolved in the years since its first irruption into commercial importance in this country and the world market.

Forty years ago, there were only a handful of producers in the whole Brunello di Montalcino zone, and the wine, though prestigious, was not well known or widely available even in Italy. Today, the Brunello Consorzio has 208 members, representing 98% of the growers and producers in the zone.
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They cultivate about 2100 hectares (roughly, 5300 acres) of Sangiovese vines to make a wine that is now sold all around the world: 70% of all Brunello is exported, a very large chunk of it to the United States, which is probably its largest single market (if you think of the US as a single market).

That explosion of production came about because Brunello is a great wine that has been steadily improving. How those improvements came about was the subject of some (largely pointless) discussion at the seminar session that preceded the Gotham Hall scrum.
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There are some obvious answers, of course: temperature-controlled fermentation, improved field treatment, better clones of Sangiovese to work with, and so on. I was struck that no one mentioned phenolic ripeness, which is crucial to a wine’s success, so I asked about it. I didn’t really get an answer that told me anything: From all that was said, Brunello producers could be achieving phenolic ripeness – as they obviously most beautifully did in the 2013 vintage – by accident. I most certainly do not believe that, but I received no enlightenment on the subject.

By that as it may, the answer to all important questions is always in the bottle. Here are the 2013 Brunellos I tasted at the seminar, along with my personal ratings of them:

Talenti * * * * *
A long-time high-achiever among Brunello producers, Talenti (whose consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini is one of the most respected names in Tuscan wine) continues to rank among the top few every year. This bottle sported scents of dark fruit and earth and a little tannic woodiness. In the mouth it was big (despite an alcohol level of 14 degrees, low among the wines in this tasting), round, and soft, with classic Brunello flavors and a long, long finish. An excellent wine, and surprisingly accessible – as all would show themselves to be.

Val di Suga * * * * ½
A largish estate, with 55 hectares of Sangiovese in 3 different exposures around the zone. They are fermented separately, some to be bottled as cru and some to be blended to produce a very fine “basic” Brunello. This example had a deeply herbal and black-fruit nose and seemed mid-weight on the palate, very harmonious and elegant.

Barbi * * * *
A Montalcino old-timer, Barbi was among the pioneers of Brunello and still remains one of its most important and most traditional producers. This wine was lovely: black cherry, mint, and earth on the nose; soft tannins and subdued acidity on the palate, with very persistent, restrained fruit. The style of Barbi’s wines is consistently what is called in Italian rustico-elegante, which could probably be accurately rendered in English as “country elegant.”

Le Chiuse * * * *

From vineyards on the northeast (300 meters above sea level) and southeast (500 meters) slopes of the Montalcino hill. Similar on the nose to the Barbi wine, with sweet black cherry fruit on the palate. Soft, restrained, and elegant, with a fine, long finish.

Il Palazzone * * * *

The grapes for this wine originate in three different vineyards, one in the north of the Brunello zone and two in the south – very different soils, exposures, and microclimates. The nose gives black cherry and a little earth. It’s biggish in the mouth, but balanced, soft, and elegant, with a long dark-fruit finish. Quite fine.

La Magia * * * ½

A smallish estate, with a 15-hectare block of Sangiovese at 400-450 meters above sea level. The wine seemed in all respects quite similar to Il Palazzone, but not quite as refined.

San Polo Brunello Riserva 2012
This lone 2012 served nicely to point up the differences between the two vintages. This estate is owned by the Allegrini family of Valpolicella and Amarone fame, and the wine was very well made, as all Allegrini wines are. But the very warm 2012 weather showed through in a slightly baked aroma and some biting tannins, which contrasted sharply with the smoothness, softness, and elegance of the 2013s. The 2012s are probably more powerful, so if you like big wines, 2012 is probably your vintage. But if you like your Brunellos balanced and harmonious, the cooler growing season of 2013 has made your wine.

In addition to the above-named wines, I was also able, at the scrum, to get quick tastes of the 2013s of Altesino, Banfi and its Poggio alle Mura, Castello Romitorio and its Filo di Seta, Col d’Orcia, Il Paradiso di Frassina, Il Poggione, La Fiorita, and Uccelliero. While I wasn’t able to give these wines the attention I gave the seminar wines, it was nevertheless clear that they were of the same quality (my ratings fell between 3.5 and 4.5 stars) and – even more important – of the same style: accessible, enjoyable, and elegant. Very, very classic Brunello, and a delight to drink.

Chiarlo Double Anniversary

January 29, 2018

Some formal dinners are memorable because of the food, some because of the wine, and some because of the occasion. The recent Chiarlo Double Anniversary Dinner sponsored by Kobrand at Casa Apicii in New York’s Greenwich Village did the hat trick and scored on all three counts. Michele Chiarlo, one of the trailblazing generation of Piedmontese winemakers, celebrated his 60th harvest and his 40th year of being imported to the US by Kobrand by presenting a fine tasting of the Barbera and Barolo for which he is famous.

He capped that with a dinner in which the chef Vincenzo La Corte from Chiarlo’s estate hotel, Palas Cerequio, teamed with chef Andrew Bosi of Casa Apicii. Together, they presented a classic Piedmontese meal adorned with Alba white truffles and culminating with braised veal cheeks accompanied by a glorious and utterly appropriate on several counts 1978 Chiarlo Barolo. I count myself very fortunate to have been among the handful of journalists present.

 

In his preliminary remarks, Michele Chiarlo surveyed the many changes he has seen since he took over from his father in 1958. As he rightly said, Italian wine the late 50s and early 60s was a very different world. Emphasis everywhere – even in the Piedmont, now seen as the pinnacle of Italian quality wine production – was on quantity: making a lot of wine to sell fast and cheap. Only gradually did the situation evolve, as attention turned to reducing yields and raising quality, and only gradually did the technology that is now taken for granted enter the Piedmont: stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation, establishing phenolic ripeness before harvesting, crop thinning.

That last was the most difficult. It was initially regarded as scandalous to throw away good grapes. But Chiarlo and others like him persisted. His fellow attendees at the University of Torino’s enological school are a roll call of the pioneers of quality Italian wine; e.g.,Renato Ratti, Ezio Rivella, and Giacomo Tachis.

In addition to his early emphasis on quality, Chiarlo’s great technical innovation was the achievement of malolactic fermentation in Barbera, which had long been considered impossible. But with the help of the enology faculty in Beaune (it was a visit to Burgundy that prompted him to try this), he found a reliable method for inducing malo with Barbera – and this, as Chiarlo rightly said, created a renaissance for Barbera, making it the satisfying wine for all foods that it is today.

After his remarks, attention turned to tasting the wines.

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First, three Barberas: Nizza DOCG Cipressi 2015, Nizza DOCG La Court 2013, and Nizza DOCG La Court 2011. The youngest showed a grapey, blackberry nose: It was smooth and velvety in the mouth, with pleasing blackberry fruit and excellent acidity, with fine balance – a thoroughly enjoyable wine. Stylistically, the other two wines followed suit, while displaying deeper flavors and greater elegance. The 2013, a year of fabulous weather, may have been the best: It certainly seems to promise long life at a peak of drinkability.

 

Then came three vintages of Barolo Cerequio – 2013, 2001, 1997. All three were superb vintages, and Cerequio is one of the great crus, lying midway between La Morra and Barolo. Chiarlo farms nine hectares of it, but uses only two parcels for the cru bottling. The 2013 had a deep, earthy, woody, black fruit nose and tasted cherry/berry on the palate, with lovely acid/tannin balance – an elegant middleweight. Though 12 years older, the 2001 seemed lighter, brighter, and fresher, beautifully balanced and elegant. Chiarlo has always striven for elegance, and these Barolos showed how well he has achieved it.

The 1997 stood midway between the other two wines in all respects. This vintage at the time was trumpeted as a wonder, but recently I’ve tasted a lot of 97s from other producers that have already begun to fade. Not this one, however: it’s still lively and seems to have many years before it.

After a small pause – a chance to refresh our palates with a glass of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne – we arrived at dinner and its much-awaited white truffles. No disappointment there, and none with the wines, which played up splendidly to the truffles’ intense aromas.

The Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2015 Le Orme was simply splendid, for my palate the best Barbera of the evening, and in its clarity of Barbera character a benchmark for the breed. The Barolo DOCG 2013 Tortoniano worked beautifully with one of the best risottos I’ve eaten: The harmony of this match was excellent.

 

Finally, the 1978 matched perfectly with the richness of the veal cheek. This was the wine of the night, and it deserved its climactic position. I remember (I know I’m dating myself) when the ‘78s were first released, it seemed as if they would never be ready to drink, so hard and closed were they. Well, they are at last ready, and this one at least was glorious, with all the character, complexity, and depth one looks for in Barolo, and with – apparently – years, if not decades, of life still before it. A fantastic accomplishment, and a fitting cap to Michele Chiarlo’s anniversary feast.

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A far less joyous note: Another Piedmont pioneer has passed away. Bruno Giacosa, famed for his Barolo and Barbaresco, especially his cru riservas, died peacefully on January 22. Sit terra levis tibi, Bruno.

More Splendid Caparone Cal-Itals

January 15, 2018

Caparone Vineyards, in Paso Robles, continues to impress me mightily. Some time back I wrote in praise of its 2002 Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, the most delicious and elegant California versions of those varieties I’ve ever tasted. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to taste bottles of the same grapes from the 2014 vintage, and I was almost reduced to a barely articulate Oh wow!  (Be assured: My normal verbosity quickly reasserted itself.)

Naturally, these younger wines were not as complex or developed as their older relatives – but the vines are older too, and that adds dimension to even a newly released wine. These were all beautiful specimens of their varieties. They seemed perfectly worthy of standing on the table with the best young examples of their kinds I’ve had in Italy, though patently different from them in the character of their fruit and their balance.
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Sangiovese

The Sangiovese showed a brilliant light garnet, very pleasing to the eye. The nose came across as all underbrush and fresh red fruit. The palate tasted youthful – bright cherry – with medium body and a lively acid/tannin balance. The overall impression was freshness and elegance, spot-on for young Sangiovese. This wine differed from a young Chianti, for instance, in being not so markedly acid-forward: It was also slightly fuller-bodied, with more generous fruit. The latter quality I think of as quintessential California.

It’s worth noting, since this is a young wine, that it got better and more interesting as it opened in the glass. What it will do with some years of maturity makes for very pleasant speculation. The Caparones aren’t given to exaggeration or over-hyping their wines, but their back label claims that this wine (and its sibling Aglianico and Nebbiolo) “will continue to age for 25 years or more.”  I’m not likely to be able to test that statement, but I sure hope some of you will.

It’s also worth noting that the alcohol level of this wine is a modest 13.3 degrees — by current California standards, almost a soft drink.
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Nebbiolo

I enjoyed the Nebbiolo just as much, but it was an animal of different stripe. Its color was a pale garnet, with a thin orange edge, perhaps to an eye unused to Nebbiolo suggesting it’s already old and fading. Far from it: this wine was an infant, tasting of fresh berries (strawberries kept peeping out) and earth. It had good acidity and very soft tannins, with low – by California standards, very low – alcohol: 13 degrees – and a long licorice and leather finish. But what really grabbed my attention right from the start was the aroma: Damned if it didn’t smell delicately of tar and dried roses and earth. That’s textbook Alba Nebbiolo, folks, and I am in awe of a New World wine capturing that quality of this great, cantankerous grape.

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One major difference between Caparone’s Nebbiolo and any young Barolo or Barbaresco I’ve experienced: No Piedmont Nebbiolo would be as pleasant drinking as this wine at first release. In many vintages, a Piedmont Nebbiolo’s tannins would rip your throat out. Even 2004, which was – and is – a great vintage and a very forward one, was much sterner and more sharply tannic at a comparable age. We’ve all always assumed that such early toughness was a necessary concomitant to the structure that made long aging possible – but if David and Marc Caparone are right about the aging potential of their wine, then received wisdom has been dead wrong about that. And that should give us all – consumer, critics, and producers alike – a lot to think about.
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Aglianico

The 2014 Aglianico certainly gave me a lot to think about. The darkest, most deeply colored of the three varieties, it also had the most intense aroma: earth, toasted nuts (hazel? almond?), and rich, black, plummy fruit. The earth and black plum flavors emphatically followed through on the palate – just huge fruit flavors, understrapped by lovely acid/tannin balance. The tannins were abundant, but soft, making a well-structured and long-finishing wine, but also a very accessible, enjoyably drinking wine, even so young.

With food, the flavor components rounded and broadened and deepened remarkably, revealing an extraordinary balance and structure, yet still soft and open. Diane and I were bowled over: We thought this a wine destined for greatness. And, oh, by the way, it was only 13 degrees of alcohol, which ought to be a slap in the face of all those overblown California wines that substitute big alcohol for any real winemaking quality.
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I’ve never particularly wanted to live to any great age, but the way the Caparones make wine is causing me to think again about that. .

Dave Caparone at his tasting room, with Tom’s whilom student and old friend Magda Gilewicz. Photo by Mike Chen

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All I Want For Christmas . . .

December 21, 2017

. . . is that we bury, finally and for all time, the fiction that Italian white wines can’t age. Enough knowledgeable writers have tried, for at least the last decade, to tell consumers otherwise, that I would have thought by now that this piece of misinformation had died a natural death, but nevertheless I keep hearing it, and often enough from people who ought to know better.

So, as what I hope will be one more nail in its coffin, my Christmas gift for all worthy winos will be an account of my recent experience with two very different Italian white wines, both of the 2000 vintage.
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I have long had in my “cellar” (regular readers will understand the quotation marks) a single bottle of Bucci Verdicchio 2000. Too long, in fact: This is a wine that was meant to be drunk years ago, but somehow it kept getting passed over.
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Ampelio Bucci

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Bucci is, in my opinion, the best producer of Verdicchio in the Marches, and Verdicchio is probably one of the most underestimated and underesteemed of all the Italian white wines – at least in this country. Ampelio Bucci is a charming and patient man: That patience sustained him for many years in dealing with his enologist, the brilliant but difficult and quirky Giorgio Grai.

Grai is – or was – nearly legendary in northern Italy for his skill in crafting long-aging white wines, and he guided the yield of Bucci’s vineyards into two forms, a “simple” Verdicchio, designed for youthful drinking, and a more complex Villa Bucci Verdicchio Riserva, designed for longer aging. I have drunk many 10-year-olds of the riserva, and they were uniformly lovely – fresh and deep, with Verdicchio’s characteristic pear, apple, and mineral flavors beautifully balanced against a restrained acidity.

But the wine I am talking about now isn’t that one: It’s the basic Verdicchio, the wine meant for being drunk young. Somehow it hadn’t been, and once its “use by” date had in my mind passed, I kept leaving it behind on the assumption that it was probably already dead or dying. So, recently, when Diane and I were having an unusually fancy first course (American Osetra caviar) with a light dinner of omelets, I decided to dispose of the bottle once and for all. Carefully chilling a back-up bottle of white Burgundy, I poured the 17-year-old Bucci, fully expecting to taste it and dump it.

Boy, was I wrong! The wine looked old, but pretty – golden amber and translucent. Its aroma was intriguing – very lively, with some floral notes but mostly complex mineral scents, like flint and chalk and slate. In the mouth, it felt light, balanced, and live – still that restrained acidity so typical of Bucci, sustaining complex flavors of unripe pears, untoasted almonds, and the ever-present mineral notes, with a pleasing butteriness in the finish. We were amazed, and our pleasure only grew as the wine opened further in the glass and responded beautifully to the very different challenges of caviar and omelets. This was not just a great Verdicchio, it was a great white wine from anywhere, of any age.

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That was my instance of unplanned-for glorious longevity. My second wine story, a Di Meo Fiano di Avellino Selezione Erminia 2000, is the very opposite – in terms of planning, not quality. This is a wine that was designated for long aging right from the start, and only quite recently acquired by me.
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The Di Meo family tends high-altitude vineyards (around 550 meters) in the most prized wine-making part of Campania, the Fiano, Greco, and Taurasi zones surrounding Avellino.

Generoso, Erminia, and Roberto Di Meo

The harvest of 2000 in most of Italy was a good one: in some places too hot, but in most bringing the grapes to a perfect point of ripeness, with fruit, sugar, acid, and tannins in excellent balance. That year, as an experiment in aging their indigenous white wines, the Di Meos selected a particular plot of Fiano within one of their best vineyards for special treatment to test how well a traditionally made white wine could age.

The grapes of this plot stayed on the vines longer than others of that harvest, not to super-ripeness, but definitely beyond the hang time for ordinary vinification. Then they underwent a long maceration period before soft pressing and low-temperature fermentation in steel. After that, the wine rested on its fine lees for a whole year, still in steel, before being racked off to repose in more steel and then bottle for a total of 13 more years before release.

This wine never saw a piece of wood, and its purity showed clearly in every sip. Fiano is a great grape, and the Avellino zone its heartland. My bottle was a magnum, but even allowing for that, its freshness was astonishing. Lovely aromas of underbrush and soil, a harmonious palate of white fruits and nuts – hazelnut especially – and long, lingering finish of dried fruit, mostly pear, all encased in an elegant package. Just a gorgeous wine, with years, maybe decades of life still before it. (WTSO – Wines Til’ Sold Out – has twice recently offered this wine in this vintage, and may do so again.)

I hope everyone reading this gets the chance to taste wines similar to these – often. That’s my Christmas wish for you. If you haven’t enjoyed it yet, it’s the kind of experience that will completely revise your notion of what white wine is all about.

Buone Feste, tutti!

Castello di Volpaia: A Tuscan Classic

November 30, 2017

Everyone knows that there are many fine Chianti Classico producers who, vintage after vintage, offer well-made wines redolent of lovely Sangiovese fruit and undertones of their various soils, wines that show what Italians call, most honorifically, tipicità. “Typicity,” in English, doesn’t quite capture it: Authenticity might be closer. One of the best of these lovely Chiantis, one of the most authentic and typical and, at the same time, most distinctive, is Castello di Volpaia.

If I had to choose just one place in the Chianti Classico to show a visitor what Tuscany once looked like, and what its enduring charm is, that place would be Castello di Volpaia. Its beauty, its serenity, immediately captures the imagination. It certainly holds a very special place in my heart as a quintessence of Tuscany. It’s not a castle in the same way Brolio is. Rather, it was in the Middle Ages a fortified village, a small walled town perched on a ridge in the commune of Radda, a bastion of Florence against its eternal enemy Siena.
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Its serenity and tranquility came centuries later, as local warfare died down and peace and prosperity grew in the countryside. Over the years, portions of its walls and battlements were removed (a few remain), more houses were built, and the vineyards extended.

Since taking possession of the village in 1972, Giovanella Stianti and her architect husband Carlo Mascheroni have devoted their best efforts to preserving it and steadily improving the vineyards.  Signora Stianti’s father had acquired the property in the mid-60s and gave it to the couple as a wedding present. It has become their life-long passion.

Of the village, more later: Let’s speak now of the vineyards.

They were in pretty good shape to start with, since for some centuries the wine of Volpaia had been prized, but the family has systematically experimented with clones and root stocks and training systems to bring them among the best cultivated in the Classico zone, and they are what form the heart of Volpaia’s distinctiveness. First of all, they are high for this part of Tuscany, probably in fact the highest in the Classico zone, ranging from a low of about 450 meters to a high of about 650. That makes for a very long growing season, with big day-to-night temperature differentials, which in turn produces great aromatics in the wine.

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Additionally, the soils in Volpaia’s vineyards contain much less clay and more sand than most other parts of the Classico. These contribute a distinctive set of trace elements to the wine. So the characteristic Volpaia wine is less full-bodied and forceful than many other Chiantis, but it is also and always more elegant, more nuanced, and – according to my experience – even in merely middling vintages more structured and capable of graceful bottle aging.

You can see why I love it: I’ll opt for elegance over power every time. Power impresses on the first taste, but over the course of a bottle it wears you out: It’s the same with every swallow. Elegance impresses on every taste. Over the course of a meal it adapts to and changes with each dish, becoming slightly different with each. For me, that’s fascinating, and that’s what Volpaia consistently delivers.

The estate produces several wines of note: Chianti Classico and Classico Riserva, of course, and several crus – notably Coltassala and Balefico. Balefico is Volpaia’s supertuscan, blending roughly one-third Cabernet and Merlot with its lovely Sangiovese. The other wines are all 90 to 100 percent Sangiovese, with, depending on the harvest, a small amount of Mammolo or Merlot blended in. (Riccardo Cottarella is the consulting enologist, well known for his passion for Merlot, which – I guess –is how it arrived on this proudly traditional property.)

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For me and many other Tuscan wine fans, the Coltassala and the Chianti Classico Riserva are the superstars, wines of depth and nuance and, always, elegance. Over the past month, I’ve been drinking bottles of those two from several vintages – 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006 – and they have been without exception beautiful examples of what Sangiovese and great Tuscan winemaking are all about. They are all perfectly alive and vigorous, with years of bottle life before them – but about 15 years of age is when I like to drink them. It’s a sweet spot, where fresh fruit subsists beside the beginnings of more mature flavors and neither dominates. For me, that is pure pleasure.

Now the village of Volpaia. Signora Stianti and her husband built Volpaia’s modern winery, sheltering its components within existing medieval buildings and structures of the ancient town. Since this is a protected historic site, that meant that when, for instance, the piping for the winery was laid beneath the streets of Volpaia, every single cobble of each street had to be removed, numbered, and replaced in its exact location. The same care was exercised on the facades of every single building in the town, and the original appearance of the ancient streets was scrupulously preserved in its entirety. That is what has made Volpaia one of the most evocative spots in an area filled with fragments of ancient towns and castles.
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