Archive for the ‘Tuscany’ Category

One Fine Wine: Mazzei Belguardo Serrata 2007

July 2, 2020
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently

Every now and again, when our home supply of wine dips below a level I consider crucial for human life, Diane and I trot over to our off-premises storage unit and bring home a case to bolster our resources. Most of the cases I’ve squirreled away are mixed lots, and I’m never quite sure what’s going to turn up in them. That was how I found today’s star, a lovely Sangiovese-based wine from the Tuscan Maremma.

Diane had prepared a Neapolitan tinged dinner, in deference to my almost withdrawal-symptom need for tomato sauce and good mozzarella – and by the latter I emphatically mean fresh buffalo mozzarella, not cow’s milk fior di latte. Buon Italia provided both the cheese and some good potato gnocchi, which we had in a transcendent dish of gnocchi alla Sorrentina.

So it was a very happy Ubriaco who sipped and swallowed his way through Mazzei’s Belguardo. This is a Toscana IGT from the Maremma region, and the 2007 version of it contained 80% Sangiovese grapes, 20% Alicante. In Tuscany, Alicante can be a crapshoot, and most of it often turns out to be Grenache (Garnaccia), so what I was expecting from this wine was exuberant fruit – the hallmark of Maremma-zone Sangiovese – perhaps reined in somewhat by barriques and age, now almost 13 years old.

I got that and then some! Despite its age, this Belguardo tasted intensely fruity and fresh with an antipasto of Italian salume: finocchiana, coppa dolce, and schiacciata picante. The fatty meats softened the wine’s tannins even more than age had, and they all but nullified any lingering barrique notes, making it taste youthful and lively and perfectly companionable with all the differing flavors those meats presented.

With our lovely gnocchi alla Sorrentina, the wine changed completely. With the sweet/acid tomato sauce and the lush, melting mozzarella surrounding the delicate gnocchi, the Belguardo became more austere and complex and deep – almost a different style of wine, yet still firmly rooted in the character of Sangiovese. This was simply a lovely wine, incredibly pleasing in radically different ways with those very different courses, and clearly nowhere near old age. It showed terrific structure and balance: an estimable wine from a great wine family.

The Mazzei wine pedigree is impeccable: They have been in the Chianti wine business since 1435, rooted in the same small town, Fonterutoli, in the heart of what is now the Chianti Classico zone. Brothers Filippo and Francesco now head the firm, with another generation of Mazzei in the wings. Since the beginning of Italy’s wine renaissance in the last century, they have been in the forefront of Tuscan wine making in both style and quality.

Mazzei’s Belguardo Estate

Their flagship wine is Castello di Fonterutoli, a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. If there is any serious wine person who still does not know how great Chianti can be, this is a wine to learn on. Their Siepi, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, likewise sets the bar for supertuscan wines. They make as well a monovarietal Sangiovese called Mix36, which is a blend of 36 different clones of Sangiovese: It recently won Tre Bicchieri. And finally, they farm their Maremma property Belguardo, which produces the lovely Serrata that sent me over the moon and prompted this post. In short, the Mazzei are Sangiovese royalty, and every one of their wines attests to it.

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.

 

Barbi Brunello 1977

February 27, 2020

There are some wines, objectively great in their own right, that hold a special place in your heart. The 1977 Barbi is one such wine for me. The product of a fine growing season, some years after its creation a small stash of it, newly recorked on the estate, was part of my award for winning the Barbi Colombini Prize for articles about Brunello.
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Tom receiving Barbi prize from Francesca Colombini Cinelli, owner of Fattoria dei Barbi

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Not only was the prize a great balm to my ego and my palate, but it also included a week in a modernized casa colonica – what nowadays would be an agriturismo – on the Barbi estate, and thereby initiated my now-many-years-standing friendship with the Barbi family. The bottle that is the subject of this post was the last of that supply, carefully hoarded for a special occasion.

Well, the occasion finally arrived: my 82nd birthday, when it dawned on me that neither I nor that bottle could count on surviving all that much longer (just the odds, folks, no serious ailments in either me or the wine), and there would be few better times to drink it. So we did: Diane made a wonderful braised duck in the Romagnola style (from our first cookbook), which we followed up with some excellent cheeses from Murray’s, and that Brunello sang its aria. Not a swan song, mind you, but an aria. The wine was wonderful, rich with mature, woodsy, mushroomy Sangiovese fruit, beautifully balanced and still alive – a little delicate perhaps, but lively and above all elegant and complex, changing with every bite of duck or taste of cheese.

Back in the day when this 1977 was just a-borning, some people claimed to find the Barbi wines rustic. If that was true, they were rustic in the way Italians call rustico elegante, meaning with the manners and unpretentiousness of a country gentleman – which, never let us forget, is what Brunello is: a country cousin of the more urbane Chianti Classicos. Anyone who ever met Franco Biondi-Santi and experienced his unaffected courtesy will understand completely what I mean. And my prized bottle of Barbi Brunello was, happily for me, precisely like that.

The Barbi family is as deeply entwined in the development of Brunello as the Biondi-Santi. Winelovers tend to forget, in the glow of Brunello’s present fame, that it is a newcomer to the table in terms of Italian wines. A 100% Sangiovese wine in a region famed for blending, made from very localized clones of Sangiovese grosso in a remote country zone far from urban centers like Florence or Siena, Brunello was virtually unknown even within Italy until well after WW II.

Then the impact of the beginning international wine boom; the end of the mezzadria, the medieval share-cropping system that had kept Italy green and poor for centuries; and the arrival, by way of California, of up-to-the-minute wine technology all worked together to bring attention to a wine that, for the few who knew it, was remarkable for its quality and longevity.

In the 1960s, the Barbi were one of the six families producing Brunello di Montalcino, and their estate was one of the largest and its wines perhaps the best distributed of them all. Now, of course, there are close to? more than? 300 producers. The number keeps growing as the Brunello name draws more and more producers to try their hand. But old-timers like the Barbi got there first (by about 100 years) and got most of the best sites, and their wines remain quintessentially what Brunello di Montalcino was meant to be – a wine big for Sangiovese, of great depth and aging potential, and redolent of its hilly, (formerly) forested countryside.

My 1977 Barbi Brunello was all that: Like a perfect gentleman, it wished me a happy birthday and went on to make it so, without once ever suggesting that either of us was too old for such frippery.

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.