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Archive for the ‘Tuscany’ Category

To put you out of no-doubt-intolerable suspense, my answer to that question is yes.

I’ve been drinking some Brunellos lately that are getting positively burly – and that, to my mind, is definitely the wrong way for a Sangiovese wine to go. Sangiovese is a grape whose character is gracile, not muscular, like a sculpture rather than a quarry. Sangiovese makes a wine of elegance and suppleness, even delicacy, a wine of nuance and complexity, not a push in the face.
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It’s been a few years now since I’ve been able to attend the Brunello Consortium’s annual new release event in Montalcino, so I can’t claim to be fully up to date on the broad spectrum of Brunellos. This opinion piece is based on my recent experience of some young and youngish Brunellos, bottles from solid if not stellar producers, who represent to my mind a fair sampling of what the large middle ground of Montalcino winemakers have been up to in recent years – and I’m not happy with it.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying these are bad wines. Far from it. Many of the bottles I’ve tasted lately, wines like Val di Cava 2010 and Le Gode 2012 and Mastrojanni 2015, have been very enjoyable. But they have been big, and high alcohol, and they seem to be pursuing a model of winemaking that I think is a misdirection for Brunello, one that if followed to its logical conclusion will result in a wine that I for one will no longer recognize as Brunello di Montalcino.

Just the other evening, to test my palatal memory and to make sure I wasn’t imagining this whole problem, I opened a bottle of Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s Brunello Riserva 1999.

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(Believe me when I say I’m very aware of the difference between a mature wine and a young one. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know how to taste a young wine to discern what its aging and maturation potential is. Almost all the reports I’ve ever written about Brunello new releases – and they have been many – have demanded that kind of palatal knowledge.)

Donatella’s wine was lovely, everything I think a Brunello should be: Balanced and mouth-filling, without being in any way heavy, rich with mature fruit flavors while still subtle and nuanced, complex and changing with every dish, from a spicy rabbit pâté to poulet Marengo (the whole deal, with fried bread and poached eggs), to a gorgeous ripe pont l’éveque. Never aggressive but always responsive, not insisting on its own primacy but establishing its greatness by its gracefulness.

That is exactly what I am not tasting in the younger Brunellos I’ve recently drunk, and that is what worries me. Maybe it’s resulting from global warming and the steadily increasing heat in many wine zones, with consequent super-ripeness. Or maybe it’s resulting from young winemakers playing their version of who’s the toughest kid on the block. I can’t answer that, and I’d be very interested to hear from other Brunello lovers about whether their experience tallies with mine and how they account for it.

All I’m really sure of is this: that I feel very strongly that the Brunello I have loved for many decades now is slipping away.

Kerin O’Keefe, in her landmark book, Brunello di Montalcino, describes her early experiences learning Italy’s great wines: “While I relished discovering those glorious Barolos, it was Brunello, exceedingly elegant and vibrant, with more complexity than muscle, that won my heart.” That’s an assessment that’s hard to better: lively, vibrant elegance, complexity and nuance foregrounded over power. I couldn’t agree more. What I’m worried about is that muscle – always easier to achieve than elegance, especially in warmer and warmer vintages – is pushing elegance out the door.

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Who says I’m too old to believe in Santa Claus? Taub Family Selections just provided four samples of Fonterutoli’s newly released best wines for me to try, and that’s one of the nicest Christmas packages I’ve received in a long time. Vicoregio 36, Castello Fonterutoli, Badiòla – all 2017 vintage, all Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – and 2018 Siepi IGT are the bottles in question, and opening them was a big holiday treat.

Fonterutoli is the Mazzei family. That tiny hamlet in the heart of the Chianti Classico country has been the family seat since the middle of the 15th century, and the Mazzei have been deeply involved in Tuscan wine since at least 1435.

That adds up to many generations of wine know-how and experience, which the present generations have used to keep their wines at the forefront of Tuscan production. The Mazzei have steadily pushed for the improvement of Chianti Classico: They were deeply involved in the Chianti Consortium’s Chianti 2000 project for instance, one of whose results shows in the 36 clones of Sangiovese that make up Vicoregio. And Siepi was one of the earliest – for my palate one of the most successful – of what used to be known as supertuscans, the wines that are credited with pushing Tuscan (and subsequently all Italian) winemaking into the modern age.

(A necessary aside: I’m very happy that “supertuscan” as a phrase is fading from use. I’ve always thought that the real supertuscans are the wines made with indigenous varieties, chief of them Sangiovese: Brunello, Carmignano, Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Wines made from “international” varieties can be very fine, but they are rarely truly Tuscan in character. I would rate Siepi as one of the few exceptions to that, insofar as Merlot – its “international” component – has shown itself to be one of those varieties that have adapted best to the soils and climates of the Chianti Classico zone.)

I have been a steady admirer of Fonterutoli wines for several decades now, and there was nothing in these four bottles to change my opinion. With the proviso that all are very young and showing a small touch of bottle shock, they all impressed with their separate but equal expressions of their grapes and terroirs, and all promised interesting evolutions as they age.
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Vicoregio 36, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

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This wine originates in the Mazzei’s southernmost vineyards, in the commune of Castelnuovo Berardenga, and it reflects the huskiness of the wines of that area. It shows a rich, grapey nose, earthy, and a touch smoky (that may be the barrels), with a hint of dried figs. These elements all follow through on the palate. A smooth, round, mid-weight wine, with excellent Sangiovese character and a big, dry-fruit finish. Very fine for immediate drinking or keeping for five or more years.
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Castello Fonterutoli, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

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This is the family’s flagship wine, sourced entirely from the home vineyards surrounding the village of Fonterutoli. It displays the same aroma and flavor characteristics as the Vicoregio but feels lighter in body and higher in tone, simply more elegant overall – very typical of the best Chiantis from the heart of the zone. I tasted a wonderful zing of wild cherry in the mouth and the finish. An excellent wine, for immediate drinking or keeping for five to ten years.
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Badiòla, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

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The vines that make this wine grow in Radda at 570 meters, the highest altitude of any of the Fonterutoli wines. They are 100% Sangiovese, and they fill the wine with wild cherry notes from aroma through palate to finish. The other aroma and flavor components are like those of the two preceding wines, only more so, with an extremely long finish. This is about as elegant as a Chianti gets. Very, very fine: good drinking now but structured, I would guess, for a much longer haul.
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Siepi, IGT Toscana 2018

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Composed of 50% Sangiovese and 50% Merlot, this is a darker wine in all respects than the Chianti Classicos. It’s rounder and softer – smells and tastes of mulberry. On the palate, that mulberry merges nicely with the Sangiovese cherry. The wine is big and soft in the mouth (the Merlot showing its stuff), very composed and balanced. For all the Merlot, it shows some genuine Tuscan character in its fine acid balance. Truly, a one-of-a-kind wine, unique and fine.
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To sum up:  Siepi is a kind of wine I admire, but the three Chiantis are the kind of wines I love. Can’t help it: I’m old-fashioned – so let me wish you an old-fashioned Merry Christmas and a very Happy post-Covid New Year!

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An Ode to Ordinary

Well, I’m back from my vacation. Covid 19 hasn’t gone away, and there definitely won’t be anything like a normal autumn wine season, with its crowded portfolio shows and densely packed seated tastings of new releases. There have to be new releases, I guess, but how a working-from-home wine journalist is supposed to find them and taste them is beyond my imagination. Like so much else, the wine world that emerges from this corona-virus cocoon is going to be far different – perhaps unrecognizably different — from what it was before.

Facing up to that fact started me on a nostalgic yearning for the good old ordinary wine world I used to know. But thinking a bit more about that lost world made me realize that (a) it wasn’t uniformly good; (b) it wasn’t that old; and (c) ordinary was the wrong word to apply to it: There was actually very little ordinary about it.

What I’m talking about is the fact that since at least the 1960s, the wine world has undergone several seismic shifts: The world immediately pre-Covid was already a very different place – had in fact been several different places – from the one I had come to know way back when I first seriously engaged wine. Even more important, the concept of ordinary, as it applied to wine, had completely shifted its meaning from what vin ordinaire – a phrase one rarely hears nowadays – had meant for several generations. We are now well into Ordinary Wine 2.0 – or maybe 3.0 or 4.0.

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Let me explain – and I hope this doesn’t sound like ancient history, but you really do have to know where we’ve been to appreciate where we are now – or, I should say, where we were a few months ago. I’ll start with a case in point.

The other evening, for our dinner wine, I had opened a bottle of Castello di Meleto Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2010. I don’t even know how I happened to have a ten-year-old Castello di Meleto: It’s not a wine I seek out, and usually not one I would lay down.
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Castello di Meleto is a real castle, located in the heart of the heart of the Chianti Classico zone, not far from Gaiole and a little further from Radda. That makes it a serious piece of Sangiovese terroir. In the late 1960s, it and its surrounding fields were acquired by a large Italian firm seeking to diversify into an agricultural component, as many firms did then, at the start of the Italian wine boom. For years it was a negligible producer of large quantities of wine. In the late 1990s, Castello di Meleto began – as almost every Tuscan estate had by then – moving toward smaller-quantity, higher-quality production, and by the end of the first decade of the present century it was producing quite respectable Chianti Classico.
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However the bottle wound up in my cellar, there it was, and we drank it with an ordinary meal on an ordinary day. It was very enjoyable: quite correct Chianti Classico, aging nicely, with charming Sangiovese fruit and character, delightfully adaptable with the main course and then with a little selection of cheese – all quite typical. This was by no means a great wine, but a thoroughly pleasing one, reflecting a level of field work and cellar care that now is almost universal – that is to say, ordinary.

The winemakers at Castello di Meleto are not going to be thrilled to be praised for being ordinary, but that’s precisely my point. The caliber of most of the wines entering the international market today – the ordinary level of wines that we can all buy and drink – is what back in the day used to be considered unusually good, ranging up to great. And that is because of the widespread shift from making wine in quantity, as simply a beverage to moisten food, to making wine of quality, as a fine drink to enhance meals of all kinds.

That, the most profound of the wine world’s earthquakes, began very slowly, perhaps as early as the 1955 vintage in Germany and France, and gathered strength all through the 1960s, until in the early 1970s it simply exploded. Bordeaux and Burgundy winemakers and negociants, riding an economic wave and dominating the international wine market, got greedy and demanded then-preposterous prices for their miserable 1973 vintage. The expanding American market resisted. California winemakers, who had been waiting for their moment, saw their chance and grabbed it, as did Italian and Spanish winemakers, and the wine world, which until that point had exclusively spoken French, began to learn other languages.
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That was the second step toward the polyglot market we now have. Wine & Spirits Magazine has just announced its Top 100 Wineries of 2020. The countries represented, in addition to France and the United States, include Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Uruguay. Such a list was unthinkable in, say, 1975. Now the questions it is likely to raise are more of the order of “What about South Africa?  What about Britain? Canada?  Croatia?”

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And it’s not just geographical change this Wine & Spirits list indicates: These are top wineries, wineries judged to be on a par with, just to pick two, Bollinger and Bouchard. Back in 1975, those worthies would have been shocked to be named in the same sentence with, for example, Mastroberardino or Stag’s leap.

The third of the wine world’s great transformations, and the one that made so much else possible, was the vast leap forward in wine technology. Both in the field and in the cellar, new knowledge and new methods improved the health and quality of the grapes that came into the presses, as well as what happened to them between that step and bottling. In the course of a few decades, winemaking around the world made a great leap from the Late Stone Age to the Twentieth (as it then was) Century.

And then, of course, came global warming, which among its very alarming effects had the lovely one of almost every year gifting with gloriously ripe grapes regions that used to see good harvests once every five or ten years. In between those good harvests, they used to endure many mediocre ones – which was then ordinary – with some real stinkers generously interspersed.

People who have come to wine only since the 1990s can’t realize what a golden age of wine they’re living in. Piedmont and Burgundy particularly have been enjoying fine harvest after fine harvest, one excellent vintage on top of another. Consumers have forgotten that there can be rotten harvests, because there’s always a good one somewhere in the greatly expanded wine world. Memories of truly undrinkable green, weedy wines – sometimes from the most reputable houses – have simply vanished.

(Of course, if global warming continues, we may start seeing bad wines for the opposite reason. Burnt, scorched, desiccated grapes could loom in our future.)

Anyhow, that’s all history, and my point is just this: What we now think of as ordinary in wine, like my thoroughly enjoyable Castello di Meleto, is the extraordinary result of a concatenation of causes working together over the last fifty years to lift the quantity, quality, and availability of good wine to the very high plateau we are now enjoying. There is real reason to fear the world may not be able to sustain this uniform, reliable “ordinary” level very much longer. So revel in our amazing ordinary while it is still ordinary and available. Remember the wisdom of Zero Mostel in The Producers: “Flaunt it while you got it!”

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“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.

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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.

 

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Barbi Brunello 1977

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.

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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.

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Cecchi: Toscanissimo

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.

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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.

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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.

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