Archive for the ‘Chianti’ Category

Where Are the Wines of Yesteryear? Safely Locked in Memory

April 23, 2020

In the enforced inactivity that Covid 19 has imposed – the virtual tastings that now seem to be all over the internet are not the same as tasting real wine – Diane and I have been cooking determinedly and raiding the cellar frequently. No new young wines, no trade tastings, no lunches or dinners with winemakers – just our own kitchen skills and our own wines on hand.

It lacks a bit in variety from the wine point of view: I don’t get to try new vintages nor any wines or producers that are new to me. But it’s not what I could really call the same-old same-old. Whether by luck or cunning, I’ve got some nice wines stashed away, which we’ve been enjoying to soften our isolation from friends and colleagues. Not all of them are antiques (would that I had more of those!), but even the youngish ones can evoke memories: Wines, we are finding, are very good for that.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Just a dinner or so back, Diane and I opened our last bottle of Mastroberardino’s 2003 Taurasi, which led us into fond reminiscences of Antonio Mastroberardino, for many decades the head of the family firm and one our favorite wine people. We first met Antonio in the late ‘70s and had been friends ever since, until his death in 2014. I’ve come to think that Neapolitan men of a certain age begin to converge on a common face: My first thought, when I met Antonio, was that he looked like all my uncles.

My favorite memory of Antonio, among the many, is of the time he and his wife Teresa picked up Diane and me in Vietri to drive together to Naples. Antonio was of a pronouncedly scholarly, almost professorial turn of mind, and, instead of focusing his attention on the hair-raising autostrada traffic, he turned to broader issues – much to the consternation of our two wives in the back seat.

At one point he was trying to explain to me in English a complex idea about Italy’s political scene, the state of wine producing, and the attitudes and circumstances of Campania’s small growers. He finally gave up English and – mostly looking at me and only occasionally glancing at the road – laid out his thoughts in flowing Italian. After his peroration, he asked if I had understood it all. “Si, si,” I said, “ho capito in senso metaforico.” Yes, I understood it in a metaphoric sense.

That fixed Antonio’s attention on me even more. I thought Diane was ready to clamber into the front of the car and grab the steering wheel. “In senso metaforico,” he said thoughtfully, as if relishing the phrase. He looked ever so briefly at the traffic around us – and repeated “senso metaforico” a few more times, almost chewing the words. Then he turned again to me and said, in his most serious, professorial voice, “I congratulate you on your culture.” Finally, to the incredible relief of the two ladies in the back, he turned his thoughts to driving, as if that had successfully closed the matter.

I knew that the whole concept of culture was centrally important to Antonio, so I realized this was a tremendous compliment. But I have always thought that the episode said more about him and the character of his mind than it does about mine. There were very few like him in the wine world and it feels very good to remember him not just as a winemaker but as the thoughtful, humane person he was.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

A very different set of memories was triggered on an evening when Diane and I were drinking a 2010 La Selvanella, a pitch-perfect Chianti Classico Riserva from Melini. Selvanella is sort of Melini’s home estate, a largish vineyard in the Classico zone, and Melini has been producing very traditional Chianti Classico there for many decades. Sipping this one alongside a modest home version of bistecca fiorentina, I found myself recounting to Diane an extraordinary visit there many years ago.

The Frederick Wildman firm, Melini’s importer, had organized a visit for a large group of wine journalists to several of the estates Wildman represented in northern and central Italy. This culminated in Tuscany, and climaxed at Selvanella. You could not imagine a more picture-perfect rustic Tuscan setting: brilliant sunshine on rows of neatly pruned vines, surrounded by the deep green of forest, and a spacious, shaded patio to shelter us from that very hot sunshine – and also to house a huge, wood-fired spit.

On that spit revolved skewer after skewer of cooking animals, ranging in size from thrushes through several other birds (the quail were particularly delicious, I recall) up to pheasants, then rabbits; and finally, on another even larger spit, cinghiale – a whole wild boar. There was not a single farm-bred creature in that whole intensely gamey and succulent lot: Every one of them had been shot by Nunzio Capurso, then the head of Melini, the winemaker at Selvanella, a generous host, and a passionate hunter. We tasted through several vintages of Selvanella at that feast, and now, enjoying this bottle of 2010, at home in not-quite-rustic Greenwich Village, with a fine but comparatively tiny steak, I vividly recalled the flavors and pleasures of that now far-distant, thoroughly Rabelaisian day. I can’t believe now how much I could – and did – eat then.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

At another recent home dinner, Diane and I shared a bottle of Barbi’s 2013 Brusco dei Barbi, a lovely 100% Sangiovese from one of the oldest, most highly reputed producers in Montalcino (I wrote about Barbi Brunello recently here). This bottle, at not quite seven years old, was still a touch tannic but nevertheless tasted deeply of dense, dark, fully ripe Sangiovese grosso. It promised years of development yet.

That tannin, which we both remarked on almost simultaneously, triggered our memory of the evening – again many years ago – when Francesca Colombini Cinelli, proprietor of the Barbi estate, treated us to a vertical tasting of about a dozen Bruscos, the oldest twenty years old. At the aroma of the fourteen-year-old Brusco, Diane and I both exclaimed, “white truffle!” A broadly smiling Signora Cinelli explained that the Barbi family too had been pleasantly surprised by that. They had originally formulated Brusco to be a young, early-drinking wine, as opposed to the many years of aging needed by their Brunello, and they had not really expected the Brusco to have great aging potential. But good fruit, good soils, and great care in the cellar will not be denied, any more than will good memories – and Diane and I only regret that we don’t have more and older Brusco dei Barbi salted away.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

“Sheltering in place” – or maybe it’s just age and garrulity – has triggered the flow of memories of decades of encounters with much-loved wines and even more fondly remembered people. These are probably a lot more fun for me to write about than for others to read, so I’ll try to moderate the flow – but I can’t guarantee that I won’t succumb again to the allure of wine and memory.

 

Another Tuscan Triumph: Rocca della Macie

November 28, 2019

I seem to be on a Chianti Classico binge: My last post was about Cecchi’s lovely Chiantis, this one is about Rocca della Macie’s. All of which is just fine with me, because Sangiovese, the grape that is the heart and soul of Chianti Classico, is one of the world’s finest wine varieties, capable of innumerable different manifestations and styles. Simply stated: I don’t get tired of it.

Just a few weeks ago, Sergio Zingarelli, the owner of Rocca della Macie and a former president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, presented to a very appreciative group of wine journalists a vertical tasting of six library samples of his Riserva di Fizzano, the estate’s flagship wine. They were 1995, 1999, 2005, 2011, 2013, and 2015.

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Riserva di Fizzano has been Rocca della Macie’s most important cru ever since the Zingarelli family acquired the vineyard in the mid-1980s. From the start, its wine blended 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet sauvignon, and 5% Merlot to make a beautifully balanced wine, austere in youth but maturing to a smooth, round, structured wine redolent on nose and palate of dark berries and earth, as poised and elegant as any Tuscan wine. The 1995 seems completely mature now, but the ’99 – a very great vintage – is still evolving, and I can’t guess how many years it still has in front of it. The 2005 also promises greatness, though it is right now reticent.
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A great change came with the 2011 vintage. Zingarelli and his enologist Lorenzo Landi (a Tuscan of the Tuscans, I have heard him called) dropped the Cabernet sauvignon from the blend and made it 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot. The 2013 vintage followed suit, while the 2015 blended 93% Sangiovese with 7% Colorino, an indigenous Tuscan variety: this seems to be the direction of the future for this important wine.

Let me stress how significant I think this is. First, omitting the Cabernet is an addition, not a subtraction. The beauty of the multifaceted Sangiovese fruit shows through immeasurably more clearly without the mask of Cabernet. The young wine is no longer so austere, but now feels softer and fresher on the palate, with a greater richness and intensity of fruit. It simply has more and purer Sangiovese character. The clonal research of the massive Chianti Classico 2000 project that the Consorzio undertook almost three decades back is clearly bearing fruit (all possible puns intended), and Riserva di Fizzano – now designated as Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – is showing quite evidently just how marvelous its results can be.

During the lunch that followed this vertical, Zingarelli showed some newer vintages that highlighted the continuing evolution of his Chianti Classico. First up was the basic Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico 2017, 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot, a fine wine displaying excellent fruit even though very young. I’d wait a year or so to drink this one, when I think it will be lovely.
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Next came the 2016 Rocca della Macie Riserva, 90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought this wine both lovely and a bargain (suggested retail price of $26.99: wow!) Terrific rich fruit, great balance, long, dry, cherry finish, drinkable now and structured for some years of life: As the current cliché has it, what’s not to like?

The third wine was Rocca della Macie’s second Gran Selezione, Sergio Zingarelli 2013, 100% Sangiovese. For my palate, this wine was a champion, elegant and structured, with decades of enjoyable life before it, and already showing complex, multifaceted Sangiovese character. Were I 20 years younger, I’d buy cases of it and stash it away where I couldn’t get my hands on it for at least a few years.
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The 2014 vintage of the same wine – a difficult vintage because of summer heat and humidity – tasted bigger and very ripe. This a very good wine, and very forceful and authoritative, but for me it lacks the elegance of the 2013. Lovers of big Chianti will no doubt prefer this bottling. That is a matter of taste: Both are fine Chianti Classico, as is almost everything from this progressive, increasingly important estate.

Cecchi: Toscanissimo

November 18, 2019

When talking about Tuscan wines, and especially Chianti Classico, it’s easy to forget the Cecchi wines, just as, when you’re trying to negotiate the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, it’s easy not to notice the Empire State Building. In their own way, both are monumental – and you have to step back a bit from both to put them in the proper perspective and see their dimensions clear.

I think it was Daniele Cernilli, the Italian wine guru, who said that in Tuscany, anyone who puts his mind to it can make a good bottle of Chianti – but to make 100,000 good bottles of Chianti, year after year, is a magnificent accomplishment. The Cecchi family has been doing just that for decades now. I do think it’s time we all started noticing.
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Cesare Cecchi, left; Andrea Cecchi, right

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Cecchi is a large firm, but it’s still family-owned and family-run. A lot of family wineries have grown substantially during the continuing wine boom of the past 40 years, but very few have grown as intelligently, with as consistent a level of quality, as has Cecchi. These days, brothers Cesare and Andrea are in charge of several vineyards in the Chianti Classico, the family’s home base, in the Tuscan Maremma, and in the Sagrantino growing area of Umbria.

For all the varied production that necessitates, the Sangiovese grape and Chianti Classico remain where Cecchi’s heart is: Those were the core from which it started, and where its best efforts still go.

I tasted recently a trio of Cecchi’s new releases, all Chianti Classicos: 2016 Storia di Famiglia; 2015 Riserva di Famiglia; and the 2015 Gran Selezione, Valore di Famiglia. Each one was a fine example of its level of Chianti Classico.

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The basic Storia di Famiglia serves as the fundamental Chianti, a wine meant to be drunk young, usually within five years of its harvest, though in good vintages it can easily go longer. This bottle had a really nice aroma of currants, berries, and dried flowers. On the palate it tasted of gentle cherry fruit. It was lightly acidic, live and pleasing, with a slightly tannic finish tasting of dried cherries. I consider this an excellent example of what Chianti Classico ought to be.

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The Riserva di Famiglia resembled the Storia bottling, but more so, from its nose of dried cherries, dried flowers, and wet stone to its long finish. On the palate, it tasted meatier and showed more structure, with its tannins appearing earlier. I would put this one away for at least a year or two, probably more, and serve it with roast meats, good cheeses, and such. It gives every indication that it will mature nicely for a decade at least.

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The Gran Selezione Valore di Famiglia appropriately topped off this progression of Sangiovese quality. It opened with a distinctive, high-pitched aroma of tar, warm earth, and dried roses – almost Nebbiolo-like. In the mouth, it was all big fresh fruit (it’s very young, after all) and an impressive underlying structure, with a very long, juicy finish. I thought it fairly reticent now (if you’re going to drink it young, give it lots of time to breathe), but it’s clearly a big wine with a great aging capacity. This is a wine you should try hide away for a good while: It will be worth the wait.

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In my experience, wines of this caliber and this fidelity to Tuscan character are typical of Cecchi’s production. You can count on Cecchi, year in and year out, to deliver real quality and the true taste of Chianti Classico. That is an achievement the family can be proud of and that lovers of Tuscan wine ought to enjoy frequently.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines II

March 21, 2019

I’m posting now about the inexpensive case of mixed, everyday red wines I put together as a complement to the dozen everyday white wines I talked about two posts back.

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We drink a lot of white wine at Casa Maresca, but we consume even more red. I’d guess that two out every three, maybe three out of four, dinners we make call for red wines – and since I care strongly about making the wine and food play happily together, it means I like to keep a good variety of red wines on hand. And that means, of course, reasonably priced wines, for all the obvious reasons.

Enough prologue: Here’s the list.

  • Barale Barbera d’Alba 2017 Castlé
  • Barale Dolcetto d’Alba 2017 Le Rose
  • Bodegas Olarra Rioja Reserva 2010 Cerro Anon
  • Cà Lustra di Zanovelli Marzemino 2017 Belvedere
  • Centopassi Nero d’Avola 2016 Argille di Tagghia Via
  • Château de Plaisance Anjou Rouge 2017 Entre Copains
  • Cuvée des Galets (Côtes du Rhône) 2016
  • Filipa Pato (Vinho Tinto Bairrada DOC) Baga 2017
  • Oreste Buzio Freisa del Monferrato 2017
  • Oreste Buzio, Grignolino del Monferrato 2017 Casalese
  • Villa Sant’Anna Chianti Colli Senese 2015
  • Viña Real Rioja Crianza 2015

In selecting this batch of wines, I was not trying to be experimental, to try new wines or kinds of wines I’m not familiar with. Food compatibility was the goal, and compatibility with the kinds of food we cook every day was the guiding principle of selection. Hence the preponderance of Italian wines on the list, and especially the large presence of Piedmontese wines, which I think are particularly food-friendly, and which – happily – are available in good variety in the New York area.

Barbera and Dolcetto I find are especially useful. Barbera’s medium body and high acidity make it compatible with an extraordinary range of foods, from – to choose a few random examples – asparagus frittata to tomato-based sauces to grilled sausages or even steaks, especially gamy cuts like skirt steak or hanger steak. Dolcetto is softer-bodied and far less acid, and it loves buttery sauces, mushrooms, more delicate meat – especially veal in any form.

Nero d’Avola is also medium-bodied, and on the palate feels and tastes Merlot-ish. Its strong suits are stews and brown-sauced casseroles – really any dish that isn’t aggressively sauced or spiced.

Even more useful – the utility infielder of red wines – is that perfectly named Anjou red, Entre Copains – “among pals,” which is how I envision large quantities of this wine must be drunk on its home turf. It’s 100% Cabernet franc, which is a Loire valley specialty, and this is one of most welcoming versions of it I’ve encountered. Its pleasing, soft, generic red fruit would match with anything from a good pizza on up the culinary scale to simple roasts and grilled meats. It’s practically the definition of an enjoyable everyday wine.

The Côtes du Rhône wasn’t quite that all-niches useful: By itself, it was a fairly light, high-acid Rhône, with cherryish fruit and a good finish, but it rounded nicely and gained some flesh with food, especially with cheese.

The Baga from Filipa Pato was also surprisingly soft on the palate and versatile with food. It stood up well, for instance, to mideastern spiced lamb meatballs and to Indian chutneys and pickles. Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato, the acknowledged master of this grape in Portugal, and with this particular wine she has chosen a different path from that of her father’s formidable bottles.

The Grignolino and Freisa are more specialized wines that I couldn’t resist buying, since I don’t encounter them that often. Both are light-bodied, light-fruited reds ideal for warm weather quaffing, which is exactly what I’m saving them for. I should have done that too with the Colli Senese Chianti: These are always at-most-medium-bodied and fruity, with a touch of Sangiovese elegance, but this bottle was a tad too light for matching with cold weather dinners.

The Marzemino was another wine I selected simply because I don’t get many chances to taste it. This one turned out to be a big, not entirely balanced wine, black-plum fruited and a touch hot: It loved steak and mushrooms, but wasn’t too happy with anything else.

The two Riojas – Crianza and Reserva, at opposite ends of the aging spectrum – were both a bit disappointing. I love Rioja and find it very useful as a dinner wine, but of these two bottles the Reserva was too young of its kind and yet still too important for everyday utility, while the Crianza had been exposed to too much oak, which diminished its freshness and charm. I won’t give up on Rioja, however: I’ll just have to sample some others.

And there’s my necessary excuse to order some more wine. Diane, look away.

The Wine Version of March Madness

March 11, 2019

By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

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And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.

One Fine Wine: Castellare Chianti Classico 2014

August 20, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’m lucky enough to drink a lot of good wine often, which is fine by me: Its downside is that I get lulled into thinking that high quality is just ordinary. Wrong, but I hope understandable. Every now and again, I rouse out of my trance and realize that this “ordinary” wine I’ve been sipping at is, really, one fine wine, and I ought to be paying more attention to it. My latest instance of this was a very youthful bottle of Castellare Chianti Classico, the 2014 vintage – an infant, to be sure, but what a beautiful baby!

Whatever nastiness is going on in the greater world, we live in a golden age of wine. There is more good, sound, drinkable wine being made now in more places than ever before in human history. True as that is, the number of master winemakers – individuals who have the skill and insight and touch to rise with the best vintages but not fall with the worst, and who can navigate the zigs and zags of our increasingly quirky weather – that number remains very small, and one of those rare individuals is Alessandro Cellai, for many years now the winemaker at Castellare di Castellina.

The town of Castellina is almost dead center in the Chianti Classico zone, and many of its vineyards are esteemed for producing textbook Chianti: sapid and juicy when young, and maturing into elegant, long-lived, delicious nectars. Castellare’s wines share the soils and styles and many of the qualities of the zone. The Italian wine critic Daniele Cernilli says that all the Castellare Chianti Classicos have “the most noble characteristics of Castellina wines, including their drinkability and ability to charm and seduce from the first sip.”

Castellare’s most sought-after wine is I Sodi di San Niccolò, a single-vineyard blend of Sangiovese and up to 15% Malvasia nera, aged in barriques – a lovely, complex wine for long cellaring. It is a perennial Tre Bicchieri winner, and correspondingly expensive. I Sodi is a great wine, and I drink it whenever it comes my way. But I think that Alessandro Cellai’s greatest accomplishment isn’t I Sodi, fine as it may be, but what so many of us wine dorks tend to overlook (and even to dismiss): his base wine, his year-in, year-out, drink-every-day Chianti Classico.

No elaborate winespeak here; this is simply a lovely wine, juicy and drinkable from its release, easily capable of a few years of aging, and perfectly happy to match with almost any food you can name. 95% Sangiovese (of very carefully selected clones) and 5% Canaiolo, aged in big barrels, this is traditionally made and traditionally styled Chianti of the highest order, and to produce it at this level, vintage after vintage, is an accomplishment any winemaker anywhere should be proud of. One fine wine indeed!

Let me beat this particular horse for a few sentences more: Most of us who write about wine get caught up in the search for excellence, the pursuit of rarity, the quest for a new flavor, a startling new experience. That’s understandable and forgivable, I hope, and great if and when we find it – but how many people in this galaxy are ever going to have the chance to taste one of those rarities?  Galahads (we wish!) on our quest for that grail, we forget that far more important for the happiness and pleasure of a much greater number of people are really excellent wines made in decent quantities and available almost everywhere (at least with a bit of effort). That is exactly what this delightful Castellare Chianti Classico brought home to me: that I and my colleagues should write more for real people and less for collectors – who, as far as I can tell, don’t read us anyway.

Tales from the Crypt: A Cellar Story

June 28, 2018

My wine “cellar” is in fact a rented mini-storage unit in a big, thick-walled warehouse alongside the Hudson River, not too cold in winter and not too hot in summer. Most collectors would scream with horror at such an uncontrolled repository for their wines, but I’m not a collector and never have been.

(cover illustration © Mort Todd)

The wines I’ve stored over the years have been a hodge-podge: some bottles I wanted to give more maturity before drinking, and some samples – from back in the days when I was a more active wine journalist and samples came in over the transom – that I didn’t have time to taste at the moment but thought I might need for future articles. So if less-than-perfect storage conditions meant speeding up their maturation – in effect adding a few years to their calendrical age – that was and is no problem for me. In fact, it’s an advantage, since I have no plans to bequeath a cellar to my heirs and assigns, and I’d like to taste these wines while I still have functioning taste buds.

This is a long preamble to the fact that, now that I’m plodding my way through the Vale of Years, I’ve stopped adding wines to my hoard and started bringing home cases for tasting and drinking. Most of the time, these cases form a pretty mixed lot: My most recent one consisted mostly of 2007 and 2008 wines – some Burgundies and Chateauneufs and some Tuscan and Piedmontese bottles – all red, and all potentially pretty nice drinking, even if still a bit young by strict standards.

But this also furnished an opportunity to test just how quickly my less-than-perfect storage was aging these wines: Would I be able to taste properly maturing flavors, and would they be appropriate ones for 10- or 11-year-old wines?  Interesting questions, and just the kind to tempt an old wine-bibber to make a test.

So test I did, choosing 3 wines of the 2007 vintage from the case, a Chanson Clos des Fèves Beaune Premier Cru, a Selvapiana Bucerchiale, and a Cogno Barolo Ravera. I opted for those three wines because I know them well and am familiar with the pattern of their development. And I picked 2007 because it was a good, solid vintage in all three zones and because, at 10-11 years old, these wines ought to be on the cusp, passing from youth to maturity. So for my test purposes, these wines would be perfect subjects, able to answer the questions I’m asking.

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I allowed all the wines three hours breathing in bottle, not decanted. First wine up was the Chanson Clos des Fèves, which showed clear garnet with a definite orange edge – in a French wine, a definite sign of aging. It had a good nose of dark berries and dried fruit, with underbrush notes and a slight hint of wood. On the palate, the taste confirmed the aroma: dried cherry, medium body, fine balance, graceful and elegant, with a long, dry, fruit-and-leather finish. A little less substantial than I would have hoped, and a little further along its evolutionary path than I expected, but still not fully mature. In an ideal cellar, I would expect this wine to peak at about 20 years old or a little bit more. This bottle I would think would have needed only two or three more years to develop fully: to put on a little more flesh and open more forceful mature aromas.

Next came the Selvapiana Bucerchiale, a slightly darker wine with a bit more orange at the edge, which is quite characteristic of many Italian wines and not necessarily a sign of aging. It had a biggish aroma of dried fruits – a suggestion of prune – and earth notes. In the mouth, it was big and soft, with dark flavors – dried berries and a little tobacco – with fine balance and persistence. Not a huge wine, but mouth-filling. Though it showed no fresh fruit tastes, it still seemed some years from full maturity. I’d say that it’s on a proper path of maturing though a bit accelerated: From what I know of Bucerchiale, I would expect it to peak at about 25 years old in an ideal cellar; in mine, I think it will top off at about 20, which can’t come soon enough for me.

Then I tasted the Cogno Barolo Ravera, which showed the most orange of all the wines, and which I regard as perfectly normal for developing Nebbiolo-based wine. The nose offered a whole mélange of elements – dried cherry/berry, wet stones, mushroom, with similar notes in the mouth, where it showed as big and slightly tannic. On the palate this wine displayed no fresh fruit, but not all the mature Nebbiolo flavors that I look for were yet in place. So it is still evolving, and still needs some years before it will be fully mature. In a good cellar, this wine will go for 30 or 40 years: good Nebbiolo wines do that. In my storage, I expect it to be drinking best at 20 to 25 years old – which is a lot better for those of us not building heritage collections, but for a person of my age is still seriously pushing the envelope.

My Tasting Workshop

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This for me was a really interesting experiment, and it confirmed a lot of what I’ve thought about “cellaring” wines – principally that a lot of what have been thought to be absolutes about how wine is to be stored are far from absolute. Rather, they’re based ultimately on the evolution of wines in their makers’ caves or in the cellars of 19th century English great houses, cellars that are meant to be steadily drawn on and augmented over a lifetime and left as an inheritance for one’s heirs.

That doesn’t speak to the needs of people of more limited means and lacking anything approaching a great house, who want mature wine to enjoy in their lifetime. So as regards the “rules” of wine storage, I’d borrow a phrase from Martin Luther: Sin bravely. Just think about what you want from your wine and how to get it, then go and do it.

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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Castello di Radda Chianti Classico

September 7, 2017

To indulge in my favorite sort of overgeneralization: In California, it seems, dentists and proctologists buy boutique vineyards; in Italy, insurance companies and machinery manufacturers set up whole agricultural divisions. So the Beretta company, for instance (manufacturers of, among many other things, James Bond’s favorite tool), has an agricultural arm, Agricole Gussalli Beretta, which owns and operates vineyards in several parts of Italy – Franciacorta, Piemonte, Alto Adige, Abruzzo. In Tuscany, its holding is Castello di Radda, a Chianti Classico estate in the heart of the traditional zone.
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The idea of corporate ownership of vineyards may cause a reflexive shudder or two, but it is not necessarily the character-eviscerating phenomenon you may suppose: Everything depends on the choices and aims of the owners. To use an example close to home: Corporate ownership of Ridge Vineyards has in no way compromised the character of its wines. So too in Italy, many corporately owned vineyards produce wines of high quality and solid reputation, and Castello di Radda is certainly one of these, with two Tre Bicchieri awards already in its young history. Besides – let’s get real about this – what is Antinori, or Frescobaldi, or for that matter Mouton Rothschild, but a corporation, and a sizable one at that?

The Beretta family – yes, it’s a family, just like Antinori, Frescobaldi, and Rothschild – started Castello di Radda in 2003, working literally from the ground up, with vineyard choices and a largely subterranean winemaking facility, an anything but old-fashioned cellar. The great Tuscan master Maurizio Castelli has served as the guiding spirit and chief enologist for some years now. The man and the location – Radda is about as central to traditional Chianti as one can get – are clearly spot on.

So are the wines. The estate specializes in 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico. Its Chianti Classico Riserva has twice won Tre Bicchieri, and its other wines, especially its Gran Selezione, are beginning to attract critical attention. In 2017, Castello di Radda began converting all its vineyards to 100% organic production. This is certainly an estate to watch: As its new vineyard practices settle in, and as its vines mature, Castello di Radda seems poised to move into the upper echelon of Chianti estates.

Courtesy of the Wellcom Agency of Alba, I last week tasted a selection of Castello di Radda’s wines.  Here they are:
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2014 Chianti Classico

Dry earth and dried berry aroma. Lightish palate, with lots of bright acidity, very typical of the Radda area. Good tannins and light cherry/berry fruit. Long leather/dried cherry finish. Very pleasing drinking.

2013 Chianti Classico Riserva
Biggish berry and tobacco nose. Fresher fruit than the 2014 vintage (this is the wine that was recently awarded Tre Bicchieri). Good balance. Some complexity already beginning to show. Very long finish. A distinct step up from the 2014, which is the proper relation of a Riserva to the normal bottling.

2012 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Dried berry, tobacco, and earth scents. Fuller body and darker fruit than the preceding two wines. Fine acid/tannin balance sustaining complex fruit flavors. Very persistent finish. Again, another notch up, as it should be.

2006 Chianti Classico Riserva Poggio Selvale
Similar aroma to the Gran Selezione. A touch mute on the palate. Subdued (just coming out of mute phase?). Elegant and round, but not very forthcoming. This single-vineyard wine dates from the estate’s earliest days, so at first I didn’t know whether its reticence showed some tentativeness in the winemaking or just a stage in the wine’s evolution. Later, after it had time to breathe, the wine showed much more flavor and structure.

The key thing for me was that the three wines from the 20-teens provided plenty of interest now and point a good way for the future of Castello di Radda.

 

A Princely Wine: Corsini’s Don Tommaso

April 6, 2017

In the Tuscan wine world, barons and marquises – scions of old land-owning families – abound, but among all those titles there are very few princes or princesses. Principessa Coralia Pignatelli produces Castell’in Villa, an almost cult wine among Sangiovese admirers, but the only other of princely rank I am aware of is Duccio Corsini, the Principe Corsini of the Le Corti estate. That lofty title, however, is far from the winery’s only distinction, as I and a few other journalists had the opportunity to discover over a recent dinner at the restaurant Babbo. Duccio Corsini wears his distinguished heritage lightly, and he speaks with genuine passion of the wines his distinctive Tuscan terroir yields.

Le Corti lies in San Casciano in the Val di Pesa, about halfway between Florence and Greve, so in the northwest of the Chianti Classico zone. Its soils consist of much less of the marl and clay that mark most of the Classico zone, but are largely alluvial, filled with what Duccio refers to as “river pebbles,” many much closer in size to what we would call cobblestones. If my memory of a long-ago visit serves, several of the vineyards resemble hilly versions of Châteauneuf du Pape, with more stone showing than soil. That terroir yields wines that show real differences from many Chianti Classicos.
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That evening at Babbo we tasted through a six-vintage vertical of the estate’s flagship wine, Don Tommaso Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (now Gran Selezione): 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2010, and 2013. Over those years, the composition of the wine gradually evolved from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot to 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot, which it has been for about 10 years now. It used to age for 15 months in new oak barriques, now it rests in tonneaux (70% new, 30% used) for 18 months, plus at least a year in bottle before release.
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This was a striking tasting. Don Tommaso’s consistency in style from vintage to vintage was admirable: All the wines were of medium weight, all were elegant, balanced, and complete. None smelled or tasted at all of new wood. On the palate, they were squeaky clean, with wonderful Sangiovese black-cherry flavors and acidity, undergirded by an intriguing set of earth tones – not quite what we usually call minerality, but not clay, or mushrooms, or anything underbrushy either. Quite fascinating, and quite impressive: These are top-flight Chianti Classicos, with tremendous aging potential. The three oldest wines were still fresh and vital: In fact, the ’99 was my favorite wine of the evening, and I suspect it probably has a good 10 years at this plateau of quality in front of it. As enjoyable as they all were to taste – even the very young 2013 – these were very clearly dinner wines that would grow in dimensions and pleasure with food.

With dinner, we happy few tasted a different selection of wines. After a glass of a sparkling rosé made from 100% Sangiovese that served brilliantly as a palate cleanser and apéritif, we sat to an abundance of far-too-tasty-for-anyone’s-good antipasti and pastas, accompanied first by Le Corti Chianti Classico 2014 and then by Cortevecchia Chianti Classico Riserva 2014.

The Chiantis were both thoroughly enjoyable, classically Tuscan wines, sapid and juicy – the kind of wines whose appeal is so clear and direct that even non-winedrinkers would instantly realize that what was in their glass was something special. Both wines were vinified from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Colorino, the latter an ancient Tuscan variety. The main difference between them stemmed from their aging: The Classico spent 12 months in either cement or large wooden casks, while the Riserva aged for 20 months, partly in big oak casks and partly in tonneaux. The Riserva of course showed more depth and complexity, but neither wine tasted of anything other than the purest Sangiovese flavors – cherry and a hint of tar, that intriguing, un-namable goût de terroir, and a long aftertaste of drying fruit and – just maybe – a little leather.

With the main course, we were offered a very special wine called Fico, which Corsini believes represents the shape of the future for the Le Corti estate and perhaps for all of Tuscan wine. This project was initiated by his son, who died last fall in a tragic accident. The wine is 100% organically grown and organically vinified Sangiovese. We tasted the 2015 pilot vintage, of which only 280 bottles were made, so this was a rare privilege. Even beyond its rarity, it was one of the most striking Tuscan wines I have ever tasted. Every one of us journalists had the same reaction to our first sip: Pinot noir! Excellent Pinot noir!  And yet it was all unmanipulated Sangiovese. That was the front and middle of the mouth. The back of the mouth and the finish were pure Sangiovese, but that opening taste – and this persisted as we drank our way through the bottle – showed us all a dimension of Sangiovese that we had not known existed. I’m sorry to get so geeky about where-on-my-palate-I-tasted-what, but something like this doesn’t happen every day, and I found it pretty exciting. It is going to be very interesting indeed to see where Principe Corsini goes with this.

Dinner concluded more conventionally (for Tuscany) – but no less deliciously – with an over-abundance of desserts and very welcome glasses of Sant’Andrea Corsini 2004, a Vin Santo made from Malvasia and Trebbiano. In Tuscany, an elegant Vin Santo like this one would be served to a guest as a welcoming toast. Outside Tuscany Vin Santo is most often used as a dessert wine or digestive, which role it on this occasion played admirably, sending us all off into the chilly, slushy New York night warm and content.