Nicholas Belfrage MW, The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy. A regional and village guide to the best wines and their producers, Fine Wine Editions, Aurum Press, London, 2009
Nicholas Belfrage is a well-known figure on the English wine scene, a wine trader and author of the best general introduction to Italian wine. An American, now based in Chianti Rùfina, he is particularly well placed to comment on Tuscany. As he declares here, he set out to make his mark on the English wine scene, obsessed with Bordeaux, by specializing in then unfashionable Italy while establishing his credentials by getting his MW. His subversive undermining of the stuffy English scene has been a conspicuous success. He has been helped by the glamorous image of all things Italian (or rather, selected images of Italy), given new life since the 1990 World Cup. But every page of this book makes you want to visit the places he writes about, to meet the people (including the winemakers whose pictures appear here) and to try the wines.
Writing about wine is inherently difficult. You can avoid the problem by focusing on all sorts of things, many of them interesting and helpful: the people, the land, agriculture, wine making, the science or even the wine market. But none of these convey much about the wine itself. Tasting notes are, well, literally dry, but often helpful and perhaps the best we can do. Belfrage tackles the problem with a good mix of people, land, wine craft and tasting notes. But his key attribute is enthusiasm, laced with a dry sense of humour. His excellent two volume survey of Italy is now beginning to date (1999 and 2001) and perhaps suffered from a low budget – small page size, basic maps, no colour pictures. In this new book all this is put to right. He is hugely helped in his task by the photography of Jon Wyand. (The photos in this post are Jon’s – thank you to him for providing them.) Although described as a specialist in wine photography – and the book has its share of trademark Tuscan landscapes – what really jumps off the page are the portraits of owners and wine makers. So, off the page, come a host of Tuscan aristocrats, technical magicians, Tuscan and Italian sons (mainly) of the soil, English, French, Dutch and German émigrés and growers. A few important women have also made their mark: Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti, Rita Tua, Elisabetta Geppetti and even the Englishwoman, Charlotte Horton at Castello di Potentino (see picture).
The heart of the book is the series of profiles of wine people and places, drawing no doubt on the magazine format of ‘The World of Fine Wine’. There is no satisfactory English word to translate cantina – the place you make and store wine , but which stands for the whole enterprise. ‘Cellar’ is too static, winery too technical, company too coldly commercial. In these pages, you get a flavour of all these and more: the people who give the work its character, the places that they own or where they work, the vineyards and micro-climates, the grape varieties they have chosen to work with, their wine-making and marketing philosophy. The format also allows selective tasting notes, with, a rare treat in Italy, notes from tastings through a range of vintages. Biondi-Santi, the inventor of the style of Brunello, gets the most extensive treatment, with ten wines from 2004 back to 1891.
The profiles of place and people are preceded by a fine introduction – history, soil types, grape varieties and winemaking. Belfrage’s great value here is his detailed knowledge of current trends, experiments with clones of Sangiovese in the vineyard and blending in the cantina.
Are there any downsides? With high quality reproductions of Wyand’s excellent photographs, there was the temptation to make a great ‘coffee table’ book with large format pictures, but actually the smaller format is more practical and can be read. Belfrage’s modest forays into Umbria, Le Marche and even southern Romagna make sense, even if they are only 10% of the book but it might have been better to stick to Tuscany, a big enough subject in its own right.
The lists of ‘the best of the best’ are rightly kept to the very end – the Tuscan wine scene is so varied it would have been shame not to enjoy its diversity before the guilty pleasure of handing out the prizes. Of course this could lead to hours of debate. I was delighted to see that Poggio Le Scalette’s Il Carbonaione gets an honourable mention here in ‘Ten Great Sangioveses’ – we have just drunk a memorable bottle of the 2004 which we were given when we visited. There will always be differences of opinion – no Vecchie Terre di Montefili for example; and is the Rothschild-backed Rocca di Frassinello too new to make the cut for its elegant supertuscans? At least having ten categories makes this a less arbitrary exercise than most listings. Let’s be honest, testing the lists would only make sense with an open bottle or two.
And the best moment of all? – a really Italian moment when Belfrage nominates his own landlord, a relatively unsung if large scale family winery, Galiga e Vetrice, as outstanding, amid the rich and famous. Any Italian will tell you that the food in my village, the wine in my local vineyard, is categorically the best. This is not a exercise in evaluation but an axiom. Belfrage has a reason of course, apart from keeping in with the neighbours: the wine is made in a traditional style that has virtually passed away. No exotic consultants, French grape varieties, temperature controlled stainless steel, micro-oxygenation or expensive new oak here. Rather, traditional grape varieties and wine-making, then just waiting for the wine to come around, as the wines are aged for indefinite periods in large, neutral casks or glass. He tells us that at the time of writing the 1988 was still being held in bulk … and the current vintage of Vin Santo is 1992. And guess what, one of the named riservas is named Nicholas Belfrage MW Selection … But all this is not just a mutual admiration society. It’s finding these complete one-offs – surrounded by highly competent modern wine-making in recognisable styles – that continues to make Tuscany irresistible. You could call it terroir, but really it’s a distinctiveness which is comes from the combination of people and place, expressed in the glass – il mio paese.
Finally, unlike Monty Waldin’s touring guide to the wines of Tuscany, this volume makes no attempt to include the good wines and the everyday wines. But as an introduction to the fine wines of Central Italy this is ottimo. A glass of top Sangiovese anyone?