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Piemonte 2-3 Toscana: A weekend in Italy part 2

After the Capezzana tasting, the riches of Decanter’s Italian day at the Landmark Hotel.  This has to be the best one-day introduction to the Italian quality wine scene in the UK and maybe beyond.  It’s big – with 86 listed producers – and pretty representative, 13 out of 20 regions present, with Sardinia a surprising absence.  A third of producers are from Tuscany with 16 from Chianti alone, but then we all know about that English love affair.

Faced with these riches, you have to choose.  Janet and I concentrated on filling in a few gaps from our recent Piemonte trip and of course some Tuscan friends.  Here are  some of the highlights.

Damilano, Barolo

This winery, between the communes of Barolo and La Morra, has a great range of wines and of  single vineyard cru.  It is particularly pleased to La Morrabe expanding its holding in the important Cannubi vineyard from two to ten hectares, leasing the additional land from Marchesi di Barolo, which will give them 60% of the cru.  The investment is eye-watering, with one hectare of Cannubi in the €2m range.  And so is the responsibility of moving from 9,000 to 50,000 bottles of this wine per year.

Of the wines we particularly enjoyed Barolo Cannubi 2005, squeezed between two great vintages, now showing better than most expected, with a very rich, complex nose and dense fruit.  But a good word has also to be put in for the Barbera d’Alba 2007 in a modern oaked style (40% new barriques), but a good depth of fruit and quite luxurious.

Michele Chiarlo, Calamandrana, Monferrato

Michele Chiarlo, while being based in the Monferrato region, has important wines from many key areas of Piemonte – whites from the Roero and Gavi, Moscato, an interesting sparkling wine which we drank when we were in Alba, quality Barbera and of course Barolo and Barbaresco.  The highlights included the premium Barbera, La Court, Barbera d’Asti Superiore ‘Nizza’ 2006.  This wine, which from the 2008 vintage has acquired DOCG status, is treated like the top wine that it is – low yields of only 1 kg of grapes per plant, harvested late in the middle of October, half fermented and aged in larger 650 litre barrels, half aged for 12 months in barriques and then for a year in bottles. It shows brilliant dense fruit, complexity and typical great acidity, a powerful but balanced food wine.  The wine received the Gambero Rosso’s top grade of ‘three glasses’ in this excellent vintage, as well as in 2000, 2001 and 2003. It’s great value too at €26 – just over half what you would expect to pay for a Nebbiolo based wine of similar quality.  All the wines we tasted here were very good or excellent: Arneis Le Madri 2009 and Gavi di Gavi Rovereto 2009 were very good, Barbaresco 2006, Barolo Tortoniano 2005 and Barolo Cerequio 2005 were excellent.

So, so far on this football day, an early 2-0 lead to Piemonte.

Marchesi di Frescobaldi

In the Tuscany room, I noticed that Frescobaldi had bought a fine range of wines including top Brunello and Chianti.  But there was also the chance to taste two Super Tuscans, which draw on the cultural and religious symbolism of the Mediterranean, Lucente and Luce.  From these bottles beams the sun rays in embossed golden splendour – can the wines live up to this?  Lucente 2007 – the affordable option – has very good medium weight fruit, good counterbalancing acidity, a decent second level Super Tuscan.  Luce 2006, a 50/50 Sangiovese/Merlot divide, spends two years in barriques and emerges with deep, dense, colour and aroma (prunes and cherries, balsam), great fruit (the Merlot of course to the fore) and lively acidity (Sangiovese makes its mark). Perhaps a wine for tasting rather than drinking, but an excellent achievement nonetheless.

Montenidoli

Having tasted this company’s top Vernaccia di San Gimignano at Vinitaly, I was keen to catch up with at least the other whites in the range from this producer.  Maria Elisabetta Fagiuoli introduced the wines herself and fully justified the company’s slogan Sono Montenidoli – ‘I am Montenidoli’, or rather less likely, ‘They (the wines) are Montenidoli’.   This part of Tuscany is the product a great prehistoric salt-water sea, a land of fossil filled limestone which can produce whites of real character.

The Vernaccia tradizionale 2007 is the product of long maceration on the skins and has very good complexity on the nose though it is rather flatter on the palate. I love this style but if you prefer something cleaner, more fruit led, then there is Vernaccia Fiore 2007, with freshness and even delicacy, some fruit, pleasurable drinking.  Il Templare 2007 is a real marmite wine (Gambero Rosso agrees: these wines don’t leave you indifferent …): 70% Vernaccia, 20% Trebbiano gentile, 10% Malvasia bianca, a distinctly cheesy opening, then herbaceous notes, nice texture, good lemon and melon fruit. We also enjoyed Canaiuolo 2007, the unusual rosé made from Canaiolo,  a Tuscan grape usually relegated to being a blender with Sangiovese. Here it produces a nicely balanced, quite floral wine for summer drinking.

Caiarossa

Dutch investment, French know-how and biodynamic agriculture is the package at this very contemporary venture, near Riparbella close IMG_0159 to the Tuscan coast.  Dominique Génot remembered us from our visit on a tempestuously  rainy day in May 2007 and judging by the wines, since then things have gone from strength to strength.  A fine sweet wine and a dry white have been added to the entry level if excellent Pergolaia (90% Sangiovese) and the top wine, Caiarossa.  The grape mix for the latter sets new standards for a multi-grape wine in Tuscany – you could be in the southern Rhône: around 20% each of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, plus 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Alicante, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Mourvèdre.  Or to put it another way, that’s 40% Bordeaux, 30% Rhône and 30% Tuscany.   The show offered three vintages:

Caiarossa 2004: is now beautifully knit together, with a fabulous nose of ripe fruit and savoury wood, rich in texture, complex, satisfying.

Caiarossa 2005: squeezed between two great vintages, this shows more herbaceous notes but still very creditable.

Caiarossa 2006: do not drink this wine yet!  Not that there is anything wrong with it but it is going to be outstanding with its great depths of fruit, zippy acidity, so much potential  – currently very young.

Oro di Caiarossa 2006 and 2007: late harvested Petit Manseng, slow strong pressing of whole bunches, two days of cool maceration, then barrel fermented for  eight months.  A delicious sweet white with apple and nut flavours.  The 2006 shows some oxidation (there are risks in that long slow fermentation), the 2007 is exactly what the maker intended: a sweet wine with freshness, notes of acacia honey, good fruit, very good.

We left the tasting early – me for football reasons, Janet heroically filled in the time shopping.  The cup final, which looked like it could be a mismatch between  the top and bottom teams of the Premier League, exceeded expectation with a match full of incident and interest: competitive, lots of goal mouth incident, bad tackles, two missed penalties.  Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners but somebody ought to explain to them that the ball is supposed to go between the posts, you don’t get any points for hitting post or bar.  To complete the perfect Italian weekend in England, the winning cup final manager was of course an Italian.

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Vinitaly 3: a towering Vernaccia

A second wine which suffers at the hands of its reputation is the Tuscan indigenous white, Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  If I had a pound for every average IMG_5039bottle sold to tourists in this spectacular town under its medieval towers, I would be … well, you can finish the sentence.  But is is potentially a quality wine, as we had  confirmed at a mini-seminar at Vinitaly.  Our friendly sommelier double-act talked us through the four  examples. 

Pietrafitta ‘Borgheto’ 2009 is Pietrafitta’s quality Vernaccia, lively and pleasant, good clean fruit, not very complex but with a good nutty and apple taste.  One  IMG_5035 suggestion was that  it had a bit of turkish delight about it, but that may have been a flight of fancy!  By contrast, Guicciardini Strozzi riserva 2007 has a more intense nose, vegetal with some herbiness, then aged fruit, along with some wood derived coffee and vanilla aromas.  It retains a lime green streak to its colour (on the left).  Altogether a fatter, more structured wine with emerging minerality.  One of the unusual features of top Vernaccia – like the Gavi commented on above – is an ability to age, perhaps for up to 10 years. 

Wine number 3 was the Vernaccia from Falchini Abvinea Doni 2008.  This wine is fermented and then aged for eight months in French oak barrels which produces a wine of a deeper straw colour and lots of extract.  On the nose the is a subtle use of wood, less immediate freshness but good fruit (peach, ripe plums), altogether a good structured white.  IMG_5041 Finally, we were introduced to Montenidoli Carato 2005, a substantial wine with 13.5˚ alcohol and oak aged for a year.  This is a wine of real personality which was awarded the top ranking of tre bicchieri in the Gambero Rosso 2010.  It is has that wow factor when you first taste it – great initial attack, then so much going on in the mouth but well held together.  The fruit is in the ripe apricots and peaches department, accompanied by aromatic herbs, with great mineral and even salty notes.  A very, very long way from the bottles which tourists take home after that day out under the medieval towers. 

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Wine, people, place: Nicholas Belfrage’s and Jon Wyand’s Tuscany

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 

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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. 

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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). 

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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. 

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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?

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Serraiola – picture essay

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These few pictures are some highlights from a visit in August 2007 with the British Institute’s Tuscan summer school. It was a great day out!  Thank you to Margaret Leon, an American living in Umbria, for the photos. 

More information:

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Castello Banfi – a modern Brunello

As you drive from the south towards the high plateau on which the hill town of Montalcino sits in Southern Tuscany, you can’t really miss the presence of Banfi.  In a mixed landscape of farming, woods, hunting land and of course vineyards, once you cross the River Orcia you see first an enormous factory of a winery – there is no other word – and then the romantic castle. 

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The winery, down on the plain, is a bit of a blot on the landscape.  But then, we can be too snooty about this – it provides employment, wealth and a serious commitment to lifting the standards of everyday wine, which is its mainstay.  So Banfi is a big, big player.   

The firm’s everyday wines are good, modern bottles. They show lots of innovation with an unusually wide range of wines for Tuscany – a full range of international grape varieties and even a Pinot Grigio, all carried forward by expertise in vineyard and winery, and the power of the brand.

But brands don’t really get prestige unless they have quality wines.  And Banfi has to succeed with its Brunello as, after all, we are not far from the walls of Montalcino.  This variety is part of the large Sangiovese family, capricious, given to variation, difficult to grow and vinify well, prone to excess acid and astringency.  In short, as capable of the bad and the ugly as the good and the great. 

Historically, Brunello was a bit of a beast to be tamed.  The word is simply the local name for the type of Sangiovese grown here.  As it hints (brunello – brunette!), the grape produces wine that is darker than it relatives, with high tannins and acidity.  Back in the nineteenth century the Biondi-Santi family created a style for it: put simply, make wine, put in large barrel and wait for five years for the beast to calm down.  Hopefully what emerged was a wine of complex, aged fruit, scents of liquorice and tobacco, long lived.  But that takes time and so is an expensive proposition.  A tasting in London of the Banfi’s top wines showed how they at least are tackling this challenge. 

The tasting at Decanter’s Fine Wine Encounter, IMG_4204November 2009, was led by Cristina Mariani-May, part of the owner’s family.  She gave us the family philosophy, emphasising raising quality through investment and research. The wines themselves spoke clearly of how Banfi want to re-position Brunello as a more immediately attractive wine. 

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Brunello Poggio alle Mura is only made in exceptional years. The 2004 is a complex wine, attractively ruby in colour, with fresh and dried fruit flavours and a luscious topping of French oak, vanilla especially.  In the mouth it is refined but with a great streak of acid. I had a double reaction to it. On taking the very first sniff, I wrote down ‘happiness’ for its excellent Sangiovese character and immediate appeal. And then I thought – but it’s very atypical for Brunello and, more importantly, what is going to happen when the veneer of French barrique wears off?  But we will only be able to tell that in another 5-10 years …

IMG_4197  You can clearly see the effect of even short-term ageing in the picture of the 2004 (on the left, with the brighter red) and the 2001 (on the right, developing some orange at the rim).  This second wine was more traditional, a nose of sour cherries, preserved fruit and plums, a wine that you have to go toward, rather than it leaping out of the glass at you.   That may answer the question in relation to the 2004 (and all may be well) but certainly, it is immediately appealing.  Banfi know about modern (American?) consumers and that they don’t want to wait to drink their wine. 

The older wines are more typical, all well-made, with no signs of oxidisation common in more average wines. 

Brunello 1999 – musky, beautiful fruit, much better balance now between overall weight in the mouth and acidity

Brunello 1997 – mulberries and plums, earthy or mushroom notes beginning to develop, balsam, still refreshing

Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1995 – a star wine, powerful notes of fruit, liquorice, velvety, still good acid and a drying finish

Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1990 – a wine which split opinion, some found the nose vegetal and earthy , with fading fruit, others something closer to eucalyptus or menthol, rounded in the mouth, acidity now a side show.  On the way down or over?

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Thanks to Decanter and to Banfi for this tasting – probably the best £10 we have spent for a long time!  Banfi’s Brunellos in their current style won’t please the traditionalists.  But they will keep Brunello, this great expression of Sangiovese, in the shop window of the world’s great red wines. 

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