Friday, December 5, 2008

Export of Italian wines: crisis in Tuscany and success in Piedmont

It is the moment of Piedmont for Italian wines (in the picture a view of the village of Barolo).

According to the data reported in an article of "Sole 24 Ore" of 29 November 2008, there has been a redistribution of preference in the world public with regard to the Italian wines in favour of Piedmont.

After a long period of growth for the export of tuscan wines, there has been during the period January-August 2008 a decrese of 4.2% in value and 9.2% in volume compared to the same period of 2007, while at the same time, the wines of Piedmont enjoyed +17.3% increase of export during the first semester of 2008. It is true that the first semester has seen the release on the market of Barolo's 2004, a fantastic vintage that has received unanimous praise with the Italian and international wine critic.

However, the negative data regarding Tuscan wines may also have other reasons apart from the competition of barolo. First of all, as it is recognised, Tuscan wines are relatively more expensive compared to other Italian wines and this trend has been growing during the recent years. While focusing on the growing export, Tuscan winemakers have forgotten to moderate their price list and take into account the competition of other wine countries, the relative strenght of the euro (and weakness of the dollar, major export market for Tuscan wines) and the world economic crisis. In addition, the recent scandal of Brunello with the bottles of some producers temporarily kept out of the market and the non exceptional quality of 2003 Brunello released in 2008 may have influenced the decisions of wine importers, notably in the US (no official data are available yet for the export of Brunello in 2008). Since Brunellos 2004 to be released in January 2009 should reflect an outstanding vintage, one can expect (and hope) a re-launch of exports for next year.

However, the signals arriving from the Italian market are not reassuring and the current economic crisis will further reduce the consumption of the Italian consumers in the medium-high price segment.

Most likely, we will see a reduction of prices in the next months that will benefit first of all wine consumers but will make life difficult in particular for the new entrants in the wine market.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Reportage on Douro wines (2): Quinta do Crasto - Quinta do Infantado - Niepoort

It's day 2 of my travel around the Douro wine region and the day started rather early, since I had to reach Quinta do Crasto on the right bank of the Douro river and I had a vague idea of how long it would take from Regua.

Actually, Quinta do Crasto is visible a few kilometres from Regua from the road running on the left bank of the river, a fantastic Quinta dominating the panorama over the Douro Valley, but this does not mean that it only takes minutes from regua, because there is no direct road on the right bank.

Finally the road proved to be much longer than expected, with a long detour that takes largely more than one hour on a winding road. However, the panorama of the hills was so beautiful that it simply looked like the perfect introduction to what would be a very stimulating day.

Quinta do Crasto is a very elegant quinta owned by the Roquette family who occasionally also lives in a beautiful historical house dominating the Douro Valley.

The Quinta started to self-marketing his wines rather recently, in 1994, but the investments of Jorge Roquette since the 1980's in the vyneyards and in the cellar produced important results. The wines that are produced with the 130 hectares of Quinta do Crasto have acquired great reputation and are largely praised.

While most of the red wines (vinhos de mesa) come from the vineyards around the quinta, the grapes for the port wines come from another property more eastern in the Douro Valley. The vineyards include both very old vines (some 90 years old) planted with a large number of grape varieties altogether (like in the rest of Douro) and an important part of vines planted in the 1980's (Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão and Touriga Francesa) where grape varieties are separated and which allow also for separated vinification.

Manuel Lobo, enologist of the Quinta for the red wines (Tomas Roquette is responsible for port wines) was my guide through the vineyards and the cellar. The main body of the cellar also includes the old granite lagares used for the maceration of the grapes for port wines and occupies a re-organised old fabric that keeps beautiful old azulejos (the typical Portuguese ceramic tilework that you find often in Portuguese old houses).

I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines of Quinta do Crasto:

  • Crasto 2007. this wine comes from the newly planted vineyards and includes several grape varieties. It is a wine which shows a good freshness on the palate combined with a good tannic presence and some black fruit flavor. About 500.000 bottles produced annually.
  • Quinta do Crasto Reserve Old Vines 2006. It is a wine produced from the oldest vineyards of the Quinta, including a large number of grape varieties (>25). After fermentation it ages for 18 months in French oak barrels of 225lt. It reveals some intense black fruit flavour combined with tobacco, while on the palate it shows already some soft and round tannins and a good structure and long persistence. About 80.000 bottles produced annually.
  • Xisto 2005. This wine is the result of a joint venture between Roquette and Jean-Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch-Bages. It has a clear dominance of Touriga Nacional with part of Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz and comes from 25 years old vines. The wine is dominated by some red fruit, but the taste appears to be rather closed at the moment.
  • Quinta do Crasto Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) 2002. I appreciated very much this LBV that has a very good elegance and persistence. A very well made port.

Quinta do Infantado

My second visit of the day was a few kilometres away from Quinta do Crasto, in the direction of Pinhao. Coming from Quinta do Crasto, one notes clearly the difference in style.

First of all I had some difficulties in finding my way to the Quinta do Infantado ( tel. +351-254 738 020), since no clear signs indicate it and it is not located on the main road, but finally I reached my destination through a narrow steep road.

When coming there, the order, perfect organisation and sense of grandeur of Quinta do Crasto was a striking contrast with the slight decadence of Quinta do Infantado, which gives a sense of being in the good old times of wine growing and not in the sometimes too perfect and aseptyc world of modern winemaking.

A group of "pisadores" (foot threaders) worked with continuity and relax in a room including five lagares filled with fermenting grapes. I felt reassured by such a timeless image.

After having spent some time walking around I found my way to the offices area, where an immense room overlook the valley in front. There I met Joao Roseira, and it would be a very rewarding visit also due to the personality of Joao, an open and passionate person who enjoys living in the Douro but also recognises the difficulty of wine growing there and who would share openly his views on this world.

Quinta do Infantado has been owned by the Roseira family for more than a century and is mostly focusing on port wines, with a very large of port wines of great character. They first started bottling and seling their port in the estate in 1979, mostly due to the organisation of port market until the '80s, characterised by the monopoly of the shippers of the city of Gaia that maintain the exclusive right of export until 1986. They only produce port and red wines using the grapes of their 46 hectares and based largely traditional techniques such as foot threading, long maceration and ageing in large oak barrel and "toneis" (smaller wooden barrels).

Joao stressed that a key aspect of the philosophy of the quinta is to leave the greapes for port wine to ferment longer so that there is less residual sugar and more natural alcohol, which is then leaving a less part for wine brandy added. As I experienced in the tasting of the whole range of port wines, the results are some very enjoyable port, easier to drink and with a sense of freshness that is sometimes lacking in other ports, but at the same time rich in fruits and complexity.

  • White port. The quinta produces a single dry white port, coming for four grape varieties. I enjoyed very much this dryier version of white port.
  • Ruby port. The first port of the brand is a very good introduction to the philosophy of the Quinta. Only 15% of brandy added during fermentation and a port that can be drunk like a red wine. Very pleasant and very far from a standard ruby.
  • Reserva. This port is made from a single undeclared vintage which results in a very good, balanced and rich wine that anticipates the vintage
  • Tawny 10 anos (ten years). A spectacular example of aged tawny. An amber colour introduces to expressive flavors of flowers, nuts and black fruits. The taste is dominated by an impressive elegance and a long finish.
  • Vintage 2003. It is always difficult to evaluate a new vintage, because of usual strong tannic character and deep fruit expression of new vintages. The 2003 vintage of Quinta do Infantado surprised me for its readiness in the immediate while keeping the capacity for long ageing. A great achievement.
  • Quinta do Infantado 2006. This is the only dry red produced by the Quinta. Most of the wine after foot threading and maceration is aged in stainless steel and part of it in toneis of second and third passage. The result is a pleasant wine with moderate complexity.


After lunch, the moment came to take the direction of Quinta de Napoles (photo taken from the Niepoort website), tha main headquarters of Niepoort property in the Douro. Quinta de Napoles is located on Rio Tedo, a tributary of Douro river, and has recently been entirely re-built in order to better suit the expansion of the production of Niepoort of red and white wines in the Douro. I was welcome at my arrival by Dirk van der Niepoort, who is unanimously considered as the major actor in the new wave of Douro wines and has largely contributed to the increasing visibility of Portuguese wines all around the world.

Dirk comes from a dinasty of one of the most famous port wine shippers, Niepoort, a family of Dutch origin that has since 1842 been producing outstanding port. However, he is the first in the family who has really started to produce wines, when he acquired in 1987 Quinta de napoles and the Quinta do Carril in the Douro Valley and started producing red and white wines.

Dirk guided me through the impressive new quinta, magnificently overlooking the Rio Tedo, organised in different floors according to the phase of production and with a sober modern concrete walls and a number of beutifully coloured rooms where the wines are resting in the barrels.

Dirk is a real pleasure to talk with, his knowledge about wines is so comprehensive that during the discussion we move from the discussion on his projects and on his view on Douro wines to a view on Italian wines and anecdotes on his meeting with Italian producers (extremely funny was when I compared him to the Italian innovative producer Josko Gravner and Dirk told me that when he first wanted to visit him Josko refused the meeting but Dirk went anyway and they enjoyed very much each other even if disagreeing on a lot of points).

What is so enjoying about this man is his permanent research and passion for experimenting. During the visit to the installations of the quinta we tasted to a large number of barrels when the wine was in the fermentation phase and we tried both the major wines of the Quinta (Batuta, Redoma..) and some experiments that Dirk is running and that most likely will not be bottled and enjoy the lucky persons coming to the quinta. I have to say that among those to-be wines I found an enormous potential coming not only from the most renown ones but also from the "experiments", some of which I hope to be able to taste in the future.

Dirk is not only a great winemaker, as I had the opportunity to discover later at night in the large dinner room of the quinta, but also an excellent cook, since he perfectly managed a large size fish that he served to a small group of friends for a celebration of the end of the harvest. Sitting besides me at dinner was a young Douro winemaker, Jorge Moreira, who is running "Poeira" (very enjoyable his Poeira red with deep black fruits, spicey and a good long finish) and is enologist at Quinta de la Rosa. The dinner was particularly pleasant as Dirk kept bringing wines in decanters and the step by step discovery stimulated a discussion on various wine areas (a non exaustive list of wines opened includes an opening Batart-Montrachet of Mounier, a great Rioja of 1966, a classic Gruaud-Larose of 1979, a Vosne-Romanee of La Romanee Conti, a Madeira of 1876).

A great ending of a very instructive day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wine Spectator releases a report on Tuscan wines: this is not a serious magazine!!

I always find interesting to check what the reports of various wine magazines and guides are saying on Italian wines, first of all in order to check if (not so often) I find some wine journalists with a taste that is similar to mine, and second to see which are the next overpriced and unaccessible wines (usually those getting >95 points from US guides/magazines).

But the recent reading of a report on Tuscany published by Wine Spectator on October 31, 2008 is going too far and shows how it is becoming not a matter of taste but more a question of lack of sense of ethics in part of the world of wine. Wine Spectator is trying to establish itself as a reference globally and the arrogance of its journalists is growing at a similar pace.

Since I believe it is important to bring concrete examples I would like to quote the score received by Gianfranco Soldera for his Brunello di Montalcino Case Basse Riserva 2000 in the report I just mentioned. I am sure most of the readers will not believe my words and will look for the report to see with their eyes that the brunello Riserva 2000 of Gianfranco Soldera received 68 points out of 100! Yes, the worst of all scores published in the report. The second worst was ... Brunello Case Basse Soldera Riserva 2001 with 78 points! (to be noted that other US wine sites, like Parker and IWC, both gave a 96 point score to this wine)

Since I tried the Riserva 2000 with some friends during a Superbrunello tasting last summer that you can trace here, and Soldera Riserva 2000 overshadowed largely all other brunello present (Poggio all'Oro 1990, Valdicava 1999, Cerretalto Casanova di neri 1999) I can reasonably affirm that James Suckling (the author of the tastings and of the report) has most likely expressed a judgement on Gianfranco Soldera as a man, and not on his wines, otherwise I would have no doubt saying that he is not suited to be a wine journalist but he would better look for another job. But if the judgement concerns a man and not his wines, as it clearly seems, then he is not suited to be a journalist neither, since his readers are asking him to judge wines and not to express his disagreement with a man though the pages of a magazine that does not come for free.

Either way, such a judgement is a shame for wine journalism and strongly undermines the reputation of Wine Spectator. I believe the wine public deserves much better than this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Reportage on Douro wines (1st part - Introduction+Quinta Vale Dona Maria)

During the last harvest I took the opportunity of a visit to the Douro region to explore the area that has been promoting during the last years a new image of Portuguese wines in the world: the valley of the Douro river.

The Douro valley is of course not new to wine, as it has been producing and exporting for centuries that magnificent example of fortified wine that is the Port wine. All grapes used for producing port come from the Douro valley, and in particular from an intricated system of terraced vineyards that is a pleasure for the view but of course a challenge for the wine growers.

But this year I was coming there not for tasting port wine, even if I actually tasted some of them that I will report here, but mainly for visiting wineries that are producing some of the most interesting "Vinhos de mesa" (literally "table wines", even if this simply serves to reflect the difference with port wines since these wines fall under the denomination "Douro").

This area has been in fact leading the renewal of interest for Portuguese wines in the world market and its wines have been largely rewarded by the main wine guides and critics notably in the US. This "new wave" of Douro wines is largely due to the capacity of a number of growers, first of all Dirk van Der Niepoort (Niepoort family has already been producing outstanding port wines for centuries), to start on the one side to invest strongly also on dry red wines and not only on port wines and to experiment winemaking techniques, and on the other side to spend more energy on the promotional side of Portuguese wine, notably abroad (I remember that I get the best overview on Portuguese wines during an excellent Wine fair organised in New York by ViniPortugal some 2 years ago).

The result of this intense work has been in fact extremely rewarding since the interest for Portuguese wines in the biggest export markets, US and UK, has been growing in such a way that the key wines of some leading Douro wineries, such as Niepoort, Quinta do Vale Meao, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale Dona Maria... are now quickly sold out.

But the best way to discover this world is not in a wine fair but there, in the Douro valley, notably during the harvesting period, when the colour of the valley changes during the day with the inclination of the sun, and the rare roads of the area are filled with small trucks charged with people or grapes.

The Geography of the Douro

First of all, when coming to the Douro area, one should be aware of the peculiar geography of the place. The wine area, which starts from Regua (Peso da Regua), some 100 km from the sea coast and the key city of Oporto, is dominated by the Douro river, about 200 mt large there. The river is literally dominated by lusciurious hills entirely planted with terraced vineyards. Only part of the left bank, between Regua and Lamego, has space enough for a solitary road, while on the right side of the river the road is dominating the river and is following the up and down of the hills. The only possibility to cross the river is either at Regua or at Lamego some 20 km north. Reaching the "upper Douro" valley (Douro Superior) requires a large detour even if the panorama is splendid.

But a good way to visit the river is the train, which is following the right bank and takes you all along the river and let you discover this great scenery without being obliged to drive up and down. I would suggest to try a bit of both, but when visiting the wineries you should either have a car or arranging for a pick up at the train station.

In any case, the first element to take into consideration when coming there is understanding that the distance on paper and in reality are rather different. Better to coordinate the visits to the wineries fairly well on the basis of a detailed map.

Of course...this is not what I did...but I enjoyed my mistake.

When planning my visit I decided to visit the wineries that have been at the forefront of this "new wave", since I wanted first of all to understand how this movement was born, under which conditions, constraints and opportunities. I had to leave for a next occasion the visit to less known wineries, knowing that I want to explore also that side of the Douro world.

Quinta Vale Dona Maria

On October 8th, I was heading towards Quinta Vale Dona Maria, the first winery on my list, one of the five members of the so-called "Douro Boys", a group of some of the highly acclaimed wineries that has joined efforts in successfully promoting Douro wines. In fact, the Douro boy of this Quinta (Quinta= farm in Portuguese, but often refers to a countryside mansion) is in part a woman, Sandra Tavares da Silva, the enologist who is following the Quinta owned by Cristiano Van Zeller, helped by a newly arrived young enologist, Joana Pinhão, who has been my perfect guide during the visit.

Quinta Vale Dona Maria is located on the valley of the Douro tributary Rio Torto a few km from the Douro river, on the left bank, just after Lamego in direction north. My meeting was in the morning and I was admiring on my way from Regua the morning scenery of the Douro with the water condensation creating an even more heavenly panorama and sensation.

The steep road for the winery allowed me to admire the careful planting of the vineyards to reach even the more remote areas and profit from every single piece of land.

The Quinta is a rather recent acquisition by Cristiano van Zeller in 1996, even if belonging to his family's wife for several centuries. This is a common aspect of the Douro, where large part of the land has not changed ownership and where several families are linked with parental links to the very popular (an almost mythical) Dona Antonia, a woman who in the XIX century owned immense properties and was of key importance for saving the industry of wine in the Douro at the moment of the Phylloxera invasion.

Cristiano Van Zeller has turned the quinta in a few years into producing two of the most appreciated wines of the Douro: "Quinta do vale Dona Maria" and, more recently, "Curriculum Vitae (C.V.)". The quinta covers about 21 hectares, planted with old and new vines, with south-south-west exposure. As it is the case in all the douro, old vines are planted with dozens of different grape varieties, in a way that makes impossible separating them (Joana told me that they have counted more than 40 varieties in old vines there). Single grape wines are in fact a recent experiment for wineries, and only based on new vines.

In addition to the two wines described above, the Quinta produces also a number of Port wines (Vintage, LBV and Reserve) and under the brand "Van Zeller" (V.Z.) a white wine and a red wine that form the basic line.

I have only tried in this occasion the two wines of the basic line, and I appreciated the good acidity and freshness of the V.Z. white and the easiness and freshness of the V.Z. red.

The two upper line reds, Quinta vale Dona Maria and C.V. , after foot treading spend a few days fermentation in the lagares (the open stone or concrete tanks traditionally used for the fermentation of grapes for port wine), then are moved for further fermentation in steel tanks. They then age for 18 months in French oak barrels with light toasting. I appreciated the organisation of the winery, where all is arranged on a vertical basis partly due to space constraints but also to facilitate the different phases of the production.

The Quinta, in addition to the winery, has also developed a rural tourism area with a small swimming pool dominating the valley. A good place for relaxing and also learning about the life of wine growers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Assemblea of Consorzio of Brunello: there will be no change for Brunello di Montalcino.

I transcribe as reported by the tenuta Il Poggione on his "Montalcino Report" the result of the Assembly of the Consorzio of Brunello di Montalcino that took place yesterday in Montalcino. The counting of the votes (based on the hectares of Brunello planted to vine) is the following:

Proposition 1: are you in favor of changing the ampelographic basis for Brunello di Montalcino?

662 NO
30 YES

Proposition 2: are you in favor of changing the ampelographic basis for Rosso di Montalcino?

540 NO
162 YES

Proposition 3: are you in favor of making other changes to the appellation rules? For example, changing the maximum yields for Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Moscadello, and Sant'Antimo? Or allowing for the use of concentrated rectified must?

474 NO
228 YES

Proposition 4: are you in favor of grouping all the current appellations, except for Sant'Antimo, in a single Montalcino appellation?

684 NO

Proposition 5: are you in favor of grouping all the current appellations, except for Brunello di Montalcino, in a single Montalcino appellation?

572 NO
118 YES

Even if I am, like a few others, (positively) surprised by the large majority who has voted against any change to the terms of reference of Brunello (some producers who previously expressed in favour of the change seem to have now voted against, possibly under the public pressure and visibility that the issue was acquiring) the result must be read as a sign that producers do not want to change the basic elements that form the Brunello di Montalcino. I hope that this vote will end these long months of conflicts that have strongly damaged the image of brunello di Montalcino and also of Italian wine in general.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

While the Brunello Assembly discusses the sort of Brunello...Biondi Santi is the undisputed king of wine guides for 2003 brunello's

Tomorrow is taking place the Assembly of the Consortium of Brunello that should discuss (and possibly vote) about whether in the future Brunello should remain a 100%Sangiovese wine or if other grapes may concur for a small part in it.

I already had the possibility to discuss about this and expressed my view for the mantain of the current 100% Sangiovese composition that characterizes strongly this prestigious Italian wine.

I would like to stress that for this meeting 149 producers of Brunello, which should represent about 60% of votes in the assembly, have expressed support for maintaining the 100% sangiovese composition thus anticipating the today's battle. On the other side, Banfi, the large brunello producers owned by the Mariani family, has issued a statement of a different tone, asking to introduce the possibility to use up to 5% of other grapes to "correct winemaking errors in the cellar". This explanation, however, does not correspond to the arguments that have ben used to now, notably by the former Banfi manager Ezio Rivella, who has supported, notably during a debate transmitted in video-conference with journalist Franco Ziliani, that such a flexibility should be used to allow those winemakers who are located in areas not good enough to produce a brunello 100% sangiovese.

Well, tomorrow we will have a first result of this conflict round one of the most important Italian wines.

In the meantime, it is essential to underline that the wine that received the largest prize as the best brunello of 2003 (and notably the only brunello 2003 selected by the Gambero Rosso) is the Brunello Il Greppo 2003 of Biondi Santi, a pure expression of the tradition (ageing in big oak barrels and with great elegance and less extraction). A good sign for the General Assembly.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Analogy between red Burgundy and barolo..

Some two weeks ago I have been invited to dinner during a tour of the Douro region (on which I will report soon) by a great winemaker in his quinta besides the Douro river.

It was a dinner with a few friends in order to celebrate the end of the harvest, when the Douro area is still more charming with small trucks plenty of either grapes or "pisadores" (the men and women who are pressing the grapes in the traditional way).

At a certain moment of the dinner, after a long serie of charming wines (a splendid Batard-Montrachet 2001 from Morey, a typically vegetal Gruaud Larose 1979, a perfectly aged Rioja 1964...) all served blind by our guest in large decanters and rigorously in shared glasses, a dark liquid appeared in a decanter.

Since it was a guessing exercise, and I was in fact the first in the row, I approached my nose of the glass and tried to identify the mysterious living element in front of me. However, the anonymous wine was keeping his charme tightly closed to the outside and clearly needed to get used to the fresh air like a new born baby. The other friends around the table and notably another wine producer sitting besides me was of the same opinion and suspended his judgement and analysis.

Only after some 20 minutes and after the glass had circulated all around the table we started appreciating his powerful aroma combined with an extreme elegance and finesse. A clear and strong floral aroma (rose, violet) was appearing, together with a strong sensation of earthiness and black fruits. After a short moment when I was trying to figure out the roots of that wine I poured it and kept it for some seconds in the mouth. Elegant and soft tannins in a strongly structured wine, with a great concentration that confirmed the rather dark color in the glass.

The first thing that I said was that the first image was an association with a "brasato" (a beef braised in a sauce, typically a Barolo in Piedmont), and then a memory of great barolos. However, and was pretty sure of it, this was not a barolo. It reminds me very much of a barolo, both for its structure, elegance, floral aromas, but in the mouth in particular the tannic structure was rather different from a barolo, also a modern barolo (with shorter maceration and aged in barriques which acquires a less astringent character when young). It was clearly a French wine, but the association of aromas and concentration was making more difficult the final answer (yes...sure, everybody was focusing on the east France, but that was making even more difficult the guessing).

Our guest finally brought the bottle and we discovered a Romanée Conti, Vosne Romanée Cru Duvaul-Brochet 1999. It has been a very good year for Romanee Conti and that cru is actually made from a second selection of fruit picked from all 6 DRC Grand Cru vineyards. The result is a great wine that shows the great character of La Romanee Conti.

But the clear association between a great burgundy and barolo came again recently during a discussion with Elio Altare (a great winemaker from Piedmont who has been promoting the use of modern winemaking techniques in Piedmont). He is a great lover of Burgundy and strongly believe that Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo have a common root and this appears in particular with regard to the evolution of their aromas.

If we take some of the characteristics of these two grapes we find similarities, like the composition of antocyans (responsible for the coloration of wine, and giving this pale red color that tend to move into brick through aging: mainly a responsibility of the strong presence of malvidine compared to peonine), some floral aromas notably after some aging. However, the two grapes have also strong difference, notably with regard to the maturation (a much later harvest for nebbiolo, which receives his name because it is picked up during the beginning of foggy days - nebbia - in the Langhe late October) and to the tannic structure (nebbiolo grapes have a strong tannic component, both in the skin and notably in the seeds).

But apart from the technical characteristics of these two grapes I like the idea expressed by Elio Altare that they were born from the same father and that it is for that reason that these grapes may produce the most elegant and complex wines in the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Giro d'Italia 2008 at Licata wine (Belgium)

During the week-end 18-19 October 2008 has taken place the annual "Giro d'Italia" organised by the Belgian wine importer "Licata" in its premises, closed to Hasselt.
It is the major event for Italian wine in Belgium, due to the excellent organisation of Calogero Licata and his son Laurent, who bring to Belgium some of the best Italian wine producers for a presentation of their wines during a three-day event. The stands in the main room are organised by region so that it is very easy to move across the stands and follow a precise program.
I went there with Anne, a French friend who was also able to taste much better than I who was still suffering from a big cold. The following is a list of the impressions of the day on the basis of the producers that we visited:
  • Bisol (Veneto). Prosecco di Valdobbiadene "Crede" is pleasant and fresh, while the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene "Vigneto del Fol" is more complex on the palate with some dry fruits flavour. The Riserva Brut Millesimato 2001 (pinot bianco, chardonnay and pinot noir) is very well done and of good complexity.
  • Ronco Calino (Lombardia). The Franciacorta Brut Millesimato 2003 has a good structure and complexity and is a good representative of Franciacorta quality.
  • Alois Lageder (Alto Adige). Moscato Giallo 2007 shows some spicey and lavanda scents and a very dry pleasant finish. Sauvignon 2007 has good flavours of dried fruits but lacking complexity on the palate. Pinot Grigio 2007 is rather disappointing with short finish and lacking structure. Pinot grigio "Benefizium Porer" 2007, instead, has an intriguing nose with strong white fruits (pear) and powerful taste with long finish. Finally, Chardonnay "Coreth" 2007 reveals good complexity and freshness.
  • Pieropan (Veneto). Unfortunately this time Pieropan did not bring an old vintage of his Soave "La Rocca", a wine that improves strongly with ageing. We tasted Soave Calvarino 2006, showing intriguing strong flavours but losing power on the palate with a rather short finish, and Soave La Rocca 2006, a great wine showing great complexity both in terms of flavours and taste. This latter will only improve with 3-4 years ageing.
  • Livio Felluga (Friuli venezia Giulia). An historical producer of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Livio Felluga arrived with a large range of wines. We only tried Friulano (new denomination for the Tocai) 2007, with good flavours but lacking power on the palate, and the Illivio 2006 (blend of pinot bianco, chardonnay and picolit), a powerful fruity wine spending 10 months in oak.
  • Feudi san Gregorio (Campania). It was the last serie of white wines tasted, starting with Fiano di Avellino 2007, showing pleasant white fruits with very long finish, and Greco di Tufo "Cutizzi" 2007, a complex wine showing good acidity and long finish.
  • San Leonardo (Trentino). A producer always keeping a great coherence during the years. We started with the Villa Gresti 2004, showing some vegetal character (green pepper) and good balance. The San Leonardo 2003 is in the classic style of the house a very well balanced wine with a very expressive nose, very good structure and finish.
  • Avignonesi (Tuscany). Rosso di Montepulciano 2007 represents one of the best quality/price ratio, with good red fruits aroma and lenght. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2005 was not particularly expressive, while Grandi Annate 2004 shows an expressive cassis nose combined with a good balanced taste. Desiderio 2005 (Merlot 80% and cabernet sauvignon 20%) is one of the best merlot-based wine of Tuscany, very powerful and deep.
  • Fanti (Tuscany). Sant'Antimo 2006 is an easy-to-drink pleasant wine with good aromas of red fruits. Rosso di Montalcino 2006 has additional complexity and represents a very good quality/price ratio.
  • Mazzei/Castello di Fonterutoli (Tuscany). One of the historical houses of Chianti Classico, they presented here a good Chianti Classico 2006 and a very good Castello di Fonterutoli 2005 (90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet sauvignon). Siepi 2005 (50% Sangiovese and 50% merlot) is a reference for Supertuscans with power and complexity..
  • Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona (Tuscany). Brunello di Montalcino 2003, not a great year for Brunello, has a good long finish and expressive aromas but it is still rather tannic.
  • Piaggia (Tuscany). Carmignano Riserva 2005 is pleasant and with long finish even if rather mono-dimensional.
  • Michele Satta (Tuscany). I spent some time here because I remembered last year a long conversation with Michele Satta (who did not come here this year) on the true natures of his wines and tha passion that he is able to transmit. The two white wines, Costa di Giulia 2007 (65% Vermentino, 35% Sauvignon) is very good and Gioven Re 2007 (Viognier 100%) is even better, a very good example of an experiment with a rather difficult grape. Also very pleasant is the simple Bolgheri Rosso 2006, while in the Cavaliere 2003 we find more complexity and a slightly vegetal nose. But it is Piastraia 2004 (Sangiovese, Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah) that reaches the top, with an expressive black fruits nose, very good acidity (uncommon for the wines from Bolgheri), good structure and long finish.
  • Altesino (Tuscany). Its Rosso di Altesino 2006 (Sangiovese 80%, cabernet sauvignon and merlot) represents a good price/quality ratio with good aromas and freshness. The Brunello di Montalcino 2003 is a good effort for a not happy year for Montalcino, with very good aromas and balance.
  • Tenuta di Ghizzano (Tuscany). The wines of Ginevra Venerosi Pesciolini have been very successful in the last years and this is confirmed here with Veneroso 2004 (70% sangiovese, 30% cabernet sauvignon) showing spicey and fruity aromas with good acidity, and Nambrot 2004 (70% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 10% petit verdot) extremely balanced and powerful with black fruit and cassis aromas.
  • Tua Rita. While I was not convinced by Rosso dei Notri 2006 (vegetal nose not really corresponding to the grapes used: 60% sangiovese, 30% merlot, 10% syrah) and Perlato del Bosco Rosso 2005 (rather impersonal), Giusto di Notri, both in the vintage 2005 and 2006, is a good wine with expressive aromas of cassis and prune with good finish.
  • Villa Sparina (Piedmont). The two Gavi wines presented by villa Sparina were extremely different. Gavi di Gavi 2007 has good aromas of spices and cinnamon with great acidity and lenght, while the Gavi di Gavi "Monterotondo" 2006 shows a minty nose but a not well integrated oaky element.
  • Braida (Piedmont). Bricco dell'Uccellone is as usual a representative of modern winemaking. This barbera is extremely powerful, with a strong structure and balance. The Bricco della Bigotta looks slighty closer at present but on the palate has a similar power and structure.
  • Elio Altare (Piedmont). Elio is in Piedmont a symbol of modern winemaking in the Barolo area. He started three decades ago to experiment with shorter skin maceration and small barrels against the traditions of Barolo with the aims to create long ageing wines that were more drinkable in the short term and did not need the strong tannic component of long maceration. It was a pleasure discussing with him about the current situation in the wine world (for example the whole discussions about the future of Brunello). His wines were all remarkable, starting with Dolcetto d'Alba 2006 showing a perfect dolcetto nose. Barbera d'Alba 2006 is an example (opposite to Briada) of traditional barbera, and one of his best examples. Vigna Larigi 2005 (Barbera) is a very complex wine, powerful and long ageing.
  • Paolo Scavino (Piedmont). I only had the time to try the Barbera d'Alba 2007, an excellent barbera, showing very good fruits.
  • Parusso (Piedmont). The barolo's 2004 (Barolo and Barolo Bussia) while showing a very expressive nose, with the classic floral nebbiolo scents of violets/rose, are both a bit short on the finish.

Finally it was a big marathon and I needed some rest but as usual a big applause to Licata for organising such a wonderful opportunity for tasting an impressive range of good Italian wines and discussing them with their creators.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Are wine guides reliable....?

Fall is traditionally the wine guides period.

When the wine growers are approaching a critical time of the year, when they are waiting to decide the right moment for picking up the grapes, hoping that the weather does not create surprises and finally starting this great machine and feast that is the this precise moment of great stress for the wine growers the wine guides reach the market.

If harvest was not enough stress for the farmer, then the wine guides provide an additional significant stress for him, since the wines selected by the guides are granted an easier access to the market.

It appears already bizarre that these two events happen at the same time, especially when you are a wine grower and you need to focus on the delicate moment of the harvest and the follow up process of the first steps of transformation of grapes into wine.

In addition to this, some guides have decided that this stress was not enough and have elaborated a "Countdown system", which is the discovery of the winners only step by step during a sort of Hitchcock or for some wine growers "horror" movie that is aimed at holding your breathe until the end, a system that is expected to attract a largest number of customers to their site (yes...internet is of course facilitating this exercise).

Newspapers or sites like the American Wine Spectator (which is starting the countdown in 3 weeks) or the Italian "Gambero Rosso" (which has decided to unveil his best wines, called "Tre Bicchieri", on a region by region basis, thus also creating an unecessary hierarchy between Italian regions) are following this route but others may be tempted by their success to follow-up in the future.

I do not know what wine growers feel about this (I guess they would deserve less stress in harvesting period), but I see a parallel between this exercise and beauty contest ("Miss ....), and I do not really appreciate much.

But this is somewhat secondary because I would like to focus here more on the reason for using a wine guide today.

First of all I want to clarify that I buy myself some wine guides and possibly this year I may buy more than ever because I would like to compare their different approaches and selections.

The main reasons for buying a wine guide appear to be linked to:

* a recognition that guides select the best wines on the market;

* a need to be get some indications for wines to taste and buy in a middle of the big wine world.

It is true that a big element of appeal for the wine guides is that they alawys advertise strongly their selction of the "best wines of the year", with more or less creative instruments (the classical system of points, mostly /100, like Wine Spectator; or the "glasses" like the Gambero Rosso, three glasses being the excellence).

However, we should note that there is a very limited rate of coherence between the different guides focusing on the same market: I remember in 2005 an Italian wine blogger stressing that only 8 wines could be found in all the 3 most popular Italian wine guides, less than 10% of the total number of the wine selected by each guide; and if we look at the points expressed by Wine Spectaor and Parker (clearly the two reference for the US wine market) we will notice the same differences.

The concept of "best wine" is then a rather arbitrary concept but, and this is even more important, guides do not cover the whole producers in a wine market, but cover usually only the wines that are directly sent to them by the producers (Note: these "samples" are not always representative of the average quality of the bottles that we'll find in the market). Now, just to take the example of Italy, a key producer of Montalcino, Gianfranco Soldera, is not sending his wines to wine guides at all, and several other producers only send their wines to 1-2 guides, making the reading of the result of the guides even less reliable.

There are then two fundamental problems related to wine guides in general: the first relates to the fact they do not cover the whole market due to the way of selecting wineries (as I said, usually those which are sending their samples); the second is related to the specific taste of the panel of the guide (preference for ripe, fruity wines or for more angular, light ones). Rarely these two elements are clearly indicated in the wine guides and this is clearly a key problem and the main limitation.

Obviously, an ideal solution would be to be able to taste during the year the largest number of wine to select them according to our taste and on the basis of the direct experience: wine fairs and tastings offer the best opportunity for this exercise. However, this is not always possible for all wine lovers, lacking time and possibility to follow wine fairs across many countries, and even for those who do it (I spent already quite a lot of time at wine events), I can only try a minimal number of wines in front of a growing and diversified offer.

Wine guides offer indeed an useful instrument, but wine lovers require to select them with attention and to use them more as indications, used in associations with other instruments, like participation to wine fairs, visiting wine blog on the internet that provide often information also on wineries that do not send samples to wine guides and then do not appear in most wine guides.

It is important not to rely only on wine guides, even less on only one guide. It is important to read about wine guides in order to understand their basic tasting approach (for example the "Luca Maroni" guide announces from the beginning its preference for "vini frutto", very fruity and jammy wines, an approach that is mostly banning traditional barolo or brunello).

Use a wine guide only if you know about that wine guide so that you can filter the information that are provided in it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mastrojanni: a great Brunello producer is acquired by Illy.

On September 29 Illy Group (the famous coffee producer) announced the acquisition of Mastrojanni, one of the most significant producers of montalcino whose Brunello (both standard and the cru "Schiena d'Asino") have always maintained a constant high level of quality (I opened recently a "Mastrojanni 1997" and it was at its best, still lightly tannic with delicate tertiary aromas).

Mastrojanni is a good example of the story of Montalcino in the seventies, where wine lovers from different areas of Italy sometimes with no specific experience in wine production (including Gianfranco Soldera, Diego Molinari..) finally settled in Montalcino and started producing Brunello.

It was 1975 when Gabriele Mastrojanni, a roman lawyer from Rome, landed in Montalcino and bought 90 hectares (222 acres) in the South-East area of Montalcino territory, close to the conjunction between the river Orcia and the Asso. No water and electricity in the old farm in the middle of the property. The first vineyards are planted in 1979, 11 hectares of Sangiovese grosso for the production of Brunello (now 15), plus other 6 ha. for production of other wines (the winery today produces brunello, brunello riserva, brunello Schiena d'Asino, rosso di montalcino, rosso San Pio, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet sauvignon, and Botrys, a blend of moscato, malvasia and sauvignon). Gabriele Mastrojanni, well seconded by the second generation of the family (Antonio, Ottavio and Federica) only in 1984, after long efforts and investments, started to enjoy profits from the winery.

Today the winery produces about 80.000 bottles, with 7.000 bottles of the prestigious cru "Schiena d'Asino" only released in the best years (2001 is a great example of it).

The rumors regarding the selling of Mastrojanni had been circulated for a while. The information released by the Illy Group, notably regarding the stability of the current organisation of the winery and notably of the enologist Maurizio Castelli, is a good signal that Illy does not want to abandon the way followed to now and which has made of Mastrojanni one of the best reality of Montalcino.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Short "paternity leave"

A new father is born...and will be back posting in the next few days.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Impact of the new EU wine market organisation on wine labelling: a study of "Città del Vino" shows a drastic reduction of wine names for Italy

I found extremely interesting a study recently issued by the Association "Città del Vino" on the impact on wine labelling for Italy of the entry into force of the EU reform of the Wine market on August 1st 2009. And even more interesting now that the debate on wine labelling and the terms of reference associated with it (like for Brunello di Montalcino) is particularly hot in Italy.

According to the projection of the Città del Vino, more than half of the existing DOCG/DOC/IGT in Italy will have to disappear because not compatible with the criteria imposed by the reform that tries to harmonise the different criteria for wine labelling existing at EU level to make them more "consumer-oriented".

This means that wine "Denominazioni"/names in Italy may be reduced from the existing 470 to only 182 and we may lose for example Barbera and that in order to keep "Brunello di Montalcino" we may lose "Rosso di Montalcino" and "Sant'Antimo". The scenario presented by Città del Vino, which takes into consideration the strict criteria imposed by the reform regarding for example the fact that it will be reduced the possibility of denomination in "pyramids", would have a great commercial and cultural impact but this issue has rarely been discussed until now.

It is clear that the positioning of some wine growers (see my previous post on Brunello di Montalcino) that are looking to extend the Terms of Reference for existing names, must be read in conjonction with this element.

For example, if Rosso di Montalcino and Sant'Antimo are going to disappear, what is the commercial impact for wines that are currently using these names?

I do not like the idea to touch at the most prestigious wines in Italy like Brunello di Montalcino in order to make more flexible the conditions for its production (like a modification of the Displinare/terms of Reference), but I believe we should start a serious discussion about the future changes and anticipate them as much as possible. The Tocai/Friulano case has already done enough damage to see a reproduction of this problem (but multiplied by 100 times).

However, I would encourage those who are willing to start a discussion on this issue not to hide the problem or start discussing for example simply the Disciplinare of Brunello, but to open up a large discussion about the impact of the reform and adress one by one the consequences.

I welcome very much the intervention of Valentino Valentini (President of Città del Vino), even if the time is short, the problem is big and the solutions are not many.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Brunello di Montalcino: the view of a famous producer on its future.

As I recalled in my previous post on the stop of the US authorities on the Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, the most famous Tuscan wine, is in the middle of a big storm since last March when the Italian authorities started investigations on some big producers of Brunello to verify if they respected the Disciplinare (Terms of Reference) for this wine, which impose that it is made of 100% Sangiovese grosso grape, or if they added some other grapes, like Merlot or Syrah, in order to soften some of the characteristics of Sangiovese and make it more accessible for the big "global" consumers.

I would like today to report the view expressed on this issue (letter in Italian reproduced on the site of the A.I.S. by Franco Ziliani) by one of the most famous Italian producers, Angelo Gaja, who has been responsible for promoting a modern view of Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont.

The name Gaja (the first wine business started in 1859) is in Italy synonimous of wines that have reached a "cult" status, thanks to an absolute pursuit of quality and an approach that has brought in 1961 the father of Angelo Gaja to use only its own grapes (and not bought from other growers) and then limit to the production of Barbaresco. This wine (including the two "Cru" of Barbaresco) has become a reference and its 1989-1990 vintage are highly collectible and sought-after wines (and are among the most expensive wines of Italy).

But Angelo Gaja has since the 1990's decided to move also to Tuscany and has bought in 1994 Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino (where he produces the Brunello Rennina and Sugarille) and in 1996 Ca' Marcanda in the area of Bolgheri (where he produces the wines Promis, Magari and Ca'Marcanda).

But what is he saying on the "infamous" Brunello saga?? Angelo gaja does not really manage his words and takes rather clearly the position of those who are supporting a modification of the Disciplinare. I already explained in my previous blog why I consider that there are no reasons justifying a modification of the Disciplinare and that there is already in Tuscany and on the basis of the Italian system of classification enough flexibility for producers who are not willing to respond to 100% Sangiovese to find out alternatives that would leave their commercial attractiveness untouched (Tuscan IGT that are called "Supertuscan" enjoy a large success notably in the US market and with American wine critics).

However, this time I am particularly puzzled by the arguments that Angelo Gaja has used to support such modification: it seems that he considers that since a bunch of producers already possess the best locations in Montalcino and that a large amount of Brunello are produced now in areas that are not well suited to produce high quality Brunello (difficult areas for Sangiovese), the only way to produce high quality Brunello for these producers would be to blend Sangiovese with other grapes.

Two remarks with regard to what he is saying:

a) first of all he seems to argue mainly against the "rental position" that the producers with the best areas are enjoying (because they have either enjoyed these lands as part of a family tradition or because, like Soldera, Mastrojanni, or Diego Molinari they bought it in the 1970's at very low prices) and his proposal to modify the "Disciplinare" seems like a "compensation" vis à vis the other producers, but with a clear effect to diminish the existing "rental positions". I believe that those which own the best locations have the right to produce better Brunello and the rules of the game should not be changed in order to "compensate" the other producers.

b) second, he considers that it is necessary to identify "a formula allowing the "artisans" to show in their wines the great dignity of Sangiovese and to identify this in the label on the basis of 100% Sangiovese and at the same time to the big producers to operate with more flexibility: both should be able to call this wine Brunello". Then, he seems to support two kinds of Brunello: a first class product, pure sangiovese, that we may call the "Real Brunello", and a more ordinary product, an unspecified blend resulting from second class wineyards: a basic, standard, "generic" brunello. I believe this strange patchwork would not help the image of the most famous Italian wine abroad and would simply allow to see our supermarkets filled in with plenty of 10€ "generic" Brunello. It would simply become like a basic Chianti. I do not think this is what the wine lover wants.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Vino in corte: a week-end event at San Briccio di Lavagna (Verona-Italy)

On 5-7 september 2008 at san Briccio di Lavagna in the province of Verona "Vino in Corte 2008" (Wine in the courtyard) will take place. The small old village center will be closed to the traffic and it will be possible to taste in its courtyards a selection of wines from Veneto, Calabria Piemonte and Umbria and Lombardia from 6pm.

I like the way some small communities like San Briccio di Lavagna are able to organise nice events around the wine (but not only, because there will also be a selection of Belgian beers). Sommeliers from the A.I.S. (Associazione Italiana Sommeliers) will be pouring the wines and guiding the tasting.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's the moment of Beer in Brussels! Great events in September.

Even if the blog is devoted to wine, since living in Brussels I have been drinking with great interest and enormous pleasure many of the hundreds beers that this country produces, which are small pieces of art, often brewed only in very small quantities and in a real artisanal way.

I know that the reputation of Belgian beer is now rather undisputed but only a very small amount of these jewels can be tasted beyond the borders and often not those of the small independent producers.

Even in Brussels, if you can easily find Leffe, Chimay, Orval or Rochefort, it is much more difficult to taste a Floreffe, Napoleon and even more a beer of the brewer "la Brasserie à vapeur", producing more than 50 different beers (some of them with 2 years aging in barrels!!).

Well, I think I will have in the future the opportunity to start a longer discussion and an introduction to some of the most interesting Belgian beers but I just wanted to flash some major events that will take place around the beer in September.

First of all, on 5-7 September the 10th "Week-end de la biere" will take place in the Grand' Place in Brussels. Organised by the Belgian Brewer's Association and featuring more than 40 brewers it will offer a large choice of beers from the whole country.

The second Beer event is the "Bruxellensis Festival" that will take place on 13-14 of September always in Brussels at "La Glacière de Saint-Gilles", 18 Rue de la Glacière, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels. Even if the number of brewers present to the tasting won't be very large, they are all selected among the most interesting independent brewers and for sure they will offer great surpirses.

For the beer fans a warm suggestion if you are looking for a nice cool place to taste a large number of beers in brussels: "Chez Moeder Lambic" (Rue de Savoie 68, at 1060 Saint-Gilles). The place claims to list more than 600 different beers and the environment is extremely nice and cool.

I will keep you informed about the result of these beer tastings in the following weeks.

And for many friends living in Italy and looking for Belgian beers I know that the situation has largely improved during these last years but availability is often limited to the big brewers (Leffe, Chimay...) and they cost about 3-4 times the Belgian price (for example a bottle of Leffe Blonde in Belgium costs around 1€). I have already friends that are organising orders directly from beer shops here in order to get larger choice and better prices.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Availability of Italian wine in Belgium

Some friends are repeatedly asking me to inform them regarding where to find this brunello or barolo that we taste together or that I suggest on the basis of the tastings to which I participate.

Well, the availability of Italian wine in Belgium is actually a matter of great mystery.

First of all, because it is difficult to find an importer that covers the whole territory of the country (should I stress that this is a rather special country, with a peculiar federal structure, three official languages - Flemish, French and German, plus a very large English-speaking international community in Brussels - and a major ongoing conflict between the two largest communities). Most commonly, importers and distributors are "regionalised", and in fact the area that is paying the consequence of it is the area of Brussels, where the availability of good Italian wine is scarce (to say the least).

I personally import myself all the wine that I need (sometimes with friends), first of all because I can only find 10% (or less) of the wine that I am looking for, second because it would cost me (even after paying transport + Belgian excise duties) at least 30/50% more than what I actually pay by arranging things myself directly with the producers or wine sellers from Italy.

Of course not everybody can arrange for personal delivery and this is certainly not the ideal situation. It is important to stress each time (for example when discussing with wines sellers here) the need to improve this situation, breaking this de facto segmentation into regional markets.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Stop to Nobile di Montepulciano in the USA: what's happening to the Tuscan wines?

Not even during the mid-August holidays we can quietly relax and enjoy the summer with a good bottle of wine (actually up to now here in Brussels summer was not so bright but I am thinking about a nice sunny day in Tuscany).

The scandal that hit Montalcino and its Brunello this spring and that brought to the temporary withdraw of millions of bottles of some well known producers of Brunello now is moving further south towards Montepulciano, a wonderful village which is producing the second star of Sangiovese: Nobile di Montepulciano.

But what's happening to the most famous "traditional" wines of Tuscany, recently brought to heaven also by the US wine critics (most notably the Wine Spectator), now stopped by the US authorities for suspect fraud?

Well, I guess most of you know of the scandal that hit Brunello in Spring, where some producers were suspected of blending the Sangiovese grapes (Brunello, according to the "Disciplinare" must be produced on the basis of 100% sangiovese) with other grapes (such cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Aglianico) in order to create a wine easier to drink for what is considered a "globalised taste". If you want to find more details I suggest that you read these articles that well present the situation. The situation as you may know has not been clarified yet: some of the producers have been cleared (but to some the doubts may well remain), some not yet but may well be in the future;

Discussions have flourished about whether to change the "Disciplinare" to introduce more flexibility with regard to the grapes which may be added to the Brunello. I believe that the producers in Tuscany have already a large flexibility in producing the type of "international wines" that appeal to the large public by using the denomination "IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)" or also DOC (like Bolgheri DOC). These denominations allow to use various grapes in the wines and have strongly supported the widespread world recognition of those wines called "Supertuscans". We should not make of Brunello just another Supertuscan, despite the strong pressure of major interests behind it.

In addition, the market for brunello is clearly not asking for it. The production of Brunello (which is growing probably excessively (too many areas of Montalcino that are not well suited for creating great wines are not cultivated with Sangiovese for Brunello) is largely absorbed by the market and the reputation of what is one of the greatest Italian wines has been growing during the last years. As some fine wine journalists and bloggers (is there a real difference now...?) have noted (see here an article of Monty Waldin), despite the fact that in Montalcino we have noticed recently a large presence of wines that appear not to respond to the general criteria of Brunello (too much concentrated, or round, with signs that other grapes than Sangiovese may have softened their characteristics), there are still the tenants of the tradition (starting of course from Biondi Santi) that reminds us of what a real Brunello is. It is still possible, as many have done from the '90's to use other means to soften some characteristics of Brunello, for example by using french barriques (I' m not a friend of it however).

The news (largely expected) that US authorities are now blocking imports of Nobile di Montepulciano is a rather a big blow to the Italian world of wine. Even if the issues concern a small number of producers, the entire sector will surely pay the consequences and the reputation will suffer for a long time.

As you know, I organised last month an interesting tasting of Brunello. Several persons were participating, some with a good knowledge of Italian wines and notably Brunello, others not at all and from various EU countries: nearly all of them elected Biondi Santi and Soldera Case Basse as the two best wines of the evening (against the competition of more modernist producers like Cerretalto Casanova di Neri, Castelgiocondo Ripe al Convento..).

The traditional brunello and nobile di Montepulciano is a great wine and we should work to protect them. It is not by protecting the geographical indications at international level and then watering down their major characters that we will reinforce the reputation of Italian wines and our credibility.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Tour of Italian wines: 10 monthly sessions (September 2008/ May 2009) in Brussels

A small anticipation of a thematic session of wine tastings that will start from the next September 2008 in Brussels/Bruxelles.

The session is articulated on the basis of 10 thematic wine tastings starting in September 2008 and ending in June 2009. Each session will take place on Wednesday or Thursday on the basis of a calendar that will be finalised in September.

This is a non-definitive list of the sessions:

1. Tuscany: the tradition of "sangiovese"

2. Triveneto: the land of white wines

3. A tour around Verona

4. South of Italy

5. Really Supertuscans!

6. The Centre of Italy: a place to discover

7. Piemonte: the land of great red wines

8. The Italy of Pinot noir

9. 1997: a great harvest in Italy

10. The vertical tasting: Guado al tasso (from 1996 to 2001)

It will be the opportunity to discover a large spectrum of wines from most of the Italian regions.

For info:

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Great Brunello evening

Last thursday we finally organised the great brunello event.

The nine Brunello of the evening were tasted in the following order:

Poggio Antico Riserva 1990
Mastrojanni 1997
La Gerla 2001
Valdicava 1999
Castelgiocondo Ripe al Convento 1999
Banfi Poggio all'Oro 1990
Casanova di Neri Cerretalto 1999
Biondi Santi 2001
Soldera Case Basse Riserva 2000

It was decided to open and decant the 3 last wines from the beginning of the evening, while all the others, apart from the 1990's, were opened half an hour before tasting them.

The group of friends was as usual very multilingual/multicultural, with representatives from Italy, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark and Spain. 14 in total (maximum number for an adequate tasting), almost all of them never tried most of these Brunellos but they knew well the key names of the evening, Biondi Santi, Soldera...

And now let's pass the floor to the sensations of the evening.

The Poggio Antico Riserva 1990 unfortunately had already largely passed its peak. The color brownish revealed and the nose confirmed that not very much remained of the fruits. On the palate the wine was flat with no structure neither tannins.

The second wine of the evening, the Brunello Mastrojanni 1997, comes from a producer that has rarely disappointed my expectations. The precision of the nose, not an explosion of fruits but instead a more discreet evolution of fruits with flavors of leather and ink, was followed perfectly by a very elegant taste, with satin but still firm tannins. A wine that can still age for 3-4 more years even if I would be rather incline to profit immediatly since it achieved its peak.

The La Gerla 2001, clearly the pupil of the whole bunch of our brunellos, despite being a good representative of the vintage, lacked the personnality that most of our brunellos showed today. However, I was more than happy, and my friends too, to introduce it in the bunch as a very good example of a good brunello that will age well at least 4-5 more years. Even if lacking the elegance of the Mastrojanni 1997, its cherry nose and good structure make of La gerla a very pleasant experience.

Then we moved to the Valdicava 1999. Its very dark color reveals a strong concentration and a actually Valdicava represents a rather modern interpretation of the wine. Both the nose and the taste confirm the impressions of the color. A strong but rather mono-dimensional aroma, with mostly riped cherry, and on the palate the impression of the wine that would gain more from more cellaring if in particular losing part of its ripeness and concentration.

One of the friend was waiting strongly for the Castelgiocondo Ripe al Convento 1999, since he still enjoyed the souvenir of a fantastic 1997. I was in fact not particularly impressed by the Castelgiocondo. The wine is indeed showing great balance, and is very very pleasant to drink. The tannins still very firm indicate that it is promised to a long life. Possibly the wine is still too young, confirming the impressions that 1999 was a very good vintage that is offering a long life for those who have the patience not to open them too early. However, after a while, Catelgiocondo reveal a more complex nose, it opens more to leather, ink and tobacco, and it also appears more elegant on the palate.

I was very curious to finally open one of the two bottles of Poggio all'Oro 1990 that I bought 2 years ago and left resting in my cellar since then. Clearly the wine has passed its peak, and it should have been a much better bottle 3-4 years ago. However, there was an interesting evolution and elegance with a leather/ink-driven nose. On the palate some of the tannins were still present even if the finish was rather short.

Cerretalto 1999. I first discovered cerretalto with the 1997 vintage. It was at Vinitaly and I was strongly impressed by the complexity and lenght of the taste of this wine. The 1999 that I opened today does not give me the same sensations however. Still closed despite some 3 hours decanting, Cerretalto does not unveil very much in terms of aromas and taste, despite a very good structure and body, is is not as long as expected. Some more time in the glass was clearly helping it and I would suggest waiting some more years.

It was then the time of opening the 2001 Biondi Santi. Well, you probably already guess my sensation in front of the elegance of this bottle. Starting from the colour we are back to the tradition of wines that do not play the card of extra-riped and concentration. The style recalls the bottle of Mastrojanni earlier in the evening but with extra additional layers of nuances and then complexity of spices, ink, even some kind of mushrooms. The taste perfectly matches the sensations of the nose. A great precision, the sensation of a great balance and a long finish. A great wine! I shared some comments with friends and I saw an unanimity of judgements among the "connoisseurs". But even those who could not be qualified as "connoisseurs" enjoyed greatly Biondi Santi and its different character.

The tensions then mounted....Soldera Riserva Case Basse 2000 was waiting for us after 4 hours+ of decanting. The nose explosion of sensations...on line with the finesse of Biondi Santi but more...radical and like escaping in different directions. It is indeed like if Brunello was meeting Bourgogne, but I would quote Bourgogne not for the specific aromas but for the large range of complexity of the nose. Then the taste, of great perfection, elegance, structure and perfect tannins and this long, long finish. Simply perfect, and if you think that this is the product of such a torrid vintage. Gianfranco Soldera is capable of creating an object which is at the same time ethereal and so deeply anchored to the hills of Montalcino.

I then ask myself...but if his Brunello is coming to such a perfection, why there are so few people who are following his route...?

But then I know that there are many, starting from Franco Ziliani, who would be able to respond much better to such a question.

My guests are happy, and as usual I ask them to rank the wines of the evening according to their preferences. The first three bottles of the evening have been Soldera Case Basse, Biondi Santi and Cerretalto.

And I am very happy too, especially knowing that there are some more bottles of Gianfranco Soldera waiting for me (including the great Riserva 1983).

My wine tastings take a break...until September.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Super Brunello tasting: Soldera, Biondi Santi...

Next Thursday, we will hold a new tasting of Italian wine. This time, some of the best Brunello di Montalcino will be the stars of the evening.

We have selected also some major vintages of the last 20 years, in order to verify the ageing potential of the Brunello produced in 1990 and 1997.

The palette of Brunello is impressive indeed, since Soldera (Case Basse Riserva), Biondi Santi, Poggio all'Oro, Valdicava, Castelgiocondo (Riserva Ripe al Convento) will be poured during the evening.

About 7-8 wines will be opened, as usual during our events, with 12-13 participants, already very familiar with our tastings.

Parma ham, cheese and a risotto will be the perfect partners for this evening.

Here is a more detailed list of the wines:

Poggio Antico - Riserva 1990
Valdicava - 1999
Mastrojanni - 1997
Castelgiocondo - Riserva Ripe al Convento 1999
Banfi - Poggio all'oro 1990
Biondi Santi - 2001
Soldera - Case basse Riserva 2001

We'll see the impressions of the evening next week.