Archive for the ‘Tuscany’ Category

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.

The Pleasures of BYOB

November 4, 2019

Diane and I don’t dine out much anymore, for three key reasons. First, we can’t stand the noise levels: In most New York City restaurants, the din reaches a volume so painful that conversation is impossible. Second, the cuisine has become too californicated – too fussy, too many incompatible ingredients, too many fantasy creations. And finally, the clincher: Prices for the kind of wine we enjoy are stratospheric, so much so that I could buy a case of enjoyable wine for the cost of a single meal out.

And of course, restaurant wines are never old enough to have developed the kind of mature flavors we love, or if they have, the prices have shifted from stratospheric to astronomical.

Thus, we mostly stay home, do our own cooking, and drink our own wines. But recently some friends told us about Temple Court, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant at Manhattan’s Beekman hotel. Colicchio is a cook who respects the great culinary traditions, lightening and modernizing them, but preserving their integrity and depth. So Diane and I tried a lunch at Temple Court and loved it – all except for the wine prices, which verged on terrifying. The ambiance was lovely, very old-New Yorkish. No loud music, ambient noise at a comfortable level. And the food was excellent.
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Just recently we learned that on Sunday evenings, the restaurant allows patrons to bring their own wine, with no corkage fee. Oh frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! An expedition was rapidly organized, and five of us descended on Temple Court with five bottles in hand and palates honed. Spoiler alert:  It was all wonderful, so brace yourself for a lot of superlatives.

So compatible was this group in terms of taste that all but one of us ordered the same meal: Lobster Thermidor to start and Venison Wellington for entree. Clearly, classic palates ready to work on gently modified classic dishes.

The Thermidor was a lightened and more elegant version of the very rich traditional preparation. With it we drank two white Burgundies, a 2008 Drouhin Puligny Montrachet and a 1995 Ampeau Meursault. The older bottle still showed fresh and light on the palate, with lovely Chardonnay floral and mineral accents.
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The Drouhin wine showed those same sorts of flavors, but bigger, with more flesh – probably the result of longer time for the wine on its lees. Both were lovely wines, the Ampeau probably better as an aperitif and the Drouhin better matched with the Thermidor.
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While we rested our forks for a few minutes before the venison, we started on a bottle of 2010 Aloxe-Corton red from Michel Mallard, a small Burgundy producer who sells most of his wine locally, which one of our group bought right there at the winery. This bottle gave all the pleasures of Pinot Noir from prime Burgundian terroir and served as a beautiful modulation to the more aggressive flavors to come.
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With the arrival of the venison, our immensely helpful and attentive sommelier Lise poured us glasses of our ’03 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle and 1999 Fontodi Flaccianello. Both of these were wines to which I could easily have devoted a One Fine Wine post.

The Tuscan wine was simply gorgeous, a great wine from a great vintage. Flaccianello is 100% Sangiovese, classified as an IGT wine back then and still proudly continued as such by maker Giovanni Manetti, even though it could now call itself Chianti Classico DOCG. This ’99 showed all the bright red fruit and liveliness on the palate that Sangiovese is capable of – and that’s a great deal.
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A beautiful wine, but bettered with the venison by the Hermitage, a lesser vintage from a more aggressive, less nuanced grape. This bottle showed the classic Syrah force, depth, and pepperiness — and though for my palate it lacked subtlety, its character matched better with the venison, foie gras, chestnuts, and wild mushrooms of the Wellington than did the lighter and more agile Flaccianello.
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An important lesson there, it seems to me: A lesser wine can be a better choice, depending on what you’re drinking it with. It’s not just the quality of the vintage that’s at stake, but the nature of the combination. As Italian winemakers are often acutely aware, the abbinamento – the match between the food and the wine – is crucial. The flavors of the venison Wellington preparation needed not a nuanced wine but a bold one. The lobster Thermidor, on the other hand, was all about nuance, which is why the more complex Puligny worked better with it.

After this Lucullan feast, five magnificently satisfied diners made their various ways home, blissfully smiling all the way. No dessert had been needed or desired: no wonder.

Donatella, Prima Donna del Vino

April 1, 2019

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Kobrand’s Tour d’Italia

October 11, 2018

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar led by Kevin Zraly at the New York presentation of the importer Kobrand’s annual Tour d’Italia. This showing of Kobrand’s line of Italian brands was open to the wine trade and media. The seminar was available only to wine media members, and organized around a selection of Kobrand’s major Italian producers – Pighin (Friuli), Silvio Nardi (Tuscany), Michele Chiarlo (Piedmont), Nozzole (Tuscany), Sette Ponte (Tuscany), Masi (Veneto), and Medici Ermete (Emilia Romagna).

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Have you noticed that nothing is selected or organized any longer, but everything is curated? Well, the wine world isn’t exempt from that kind of verbal hyperventilation. What is called a seminar these days (and not just by Kobrand: It’s universal) is simply a panel of producers talking a bit about their estates and the representative wine they’re showing. And the wines at this event and the larger portfolio tasting of which it was part aren’t just fine wines or even great ones: These were “The Icons of Italian Wine.”  Icons is a vastly overworked word, but what puts this phrase over the top for me is the definite article: The icons – there can be no others. Give me a break, please.

OK, so I’m tilting at windmills again: I’ll dismount and get back to the wines. Which weren’t bad at all. Some not my style, but well made of their kind, true to their varieties and to the winemaker’s vision. Some very good, drinkable young and worthy of some aging. And at least one just remarkable: This was Masi’s Costasera Amarone Riserva 2009, which already tasted lush and lovely and which promises to be off-the-charts gorgeous in 20 years.
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The presentation of these wines was very honest and straightforward, lacking the kind of hyper-seriousness foreboded by “icons” and “seminar.” Kevin Zraly is an old pro at events like this: He kept things lively, interesting, and moving at a good pace; and he allowed plenty of time for questions – of which there were almost none. The few there were could have come from civilians, not wine professionals.

So my big disappointment at this event was not with the wines or their presentation, but with what we used to call the press corps and now have to denominate the media. They seemed totally content with the basic information being offered: no questions, no remarks on what they were tasting, no burrowing for technical data. That’s like writing an article entirely from the press handouts. It made me nostalgic for the guy who always used to ask about pH and reverse osmosis and then endlessly argue with the winemaker about the truth/accuracy of what he was saying. At least that guy cared, and he had some core of knowledge against which to weigh the winemaker’s claims. I got no sense of any of that in this session – which is seriously too bad, in many respects.

OK, I mounted my horse again. Apologies. In addition to the Amarone that I loved, I also particularly enjoyed

  • Pighin’s 2017 Collio Pinot grigio, a totally unwooded wine that tasted richly of oyster shells and pears, the way Pinot grigio used to,
  • Medici Ermete’s 2017 Concerto, a single-vineyard dry Lambrusco sparkler of seductive raspberry/strawberry charm,
  • and Chiarlo’s 2013 Barolo Cerequio, a very elegant, balanced wine that the maker compared to the outstanding 2004 vintage.
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Also quite interesting was Sette Ponte’s 2016 Oreno, a Tuscan IGT Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Petit verdot), a wine big in the mouth, rich and fat, with splendid Italian acidity, bigger than the Bordeaux wines it’s modeled on, with more fruit and more enlivening acid. I’m no fan of Bordeaux grapes in Italy, but this is a good wine.

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.

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.

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.