Monday, March 05, 2007

Casanova Di Neri's Cerretalto: A Fine Wine, But Is It Brunello?

The short answer is yes, because the tasting commission of the Consorzio del Brunello Montalcino has tasted it and found it acceptable.

So why the question? First, some background:
A few years ago I was invited to a vertical of Cerretalto, a wine from Casanova di Neri, whose other Brunello, Tenuta Nuova, caused a tremendous stir in the Italian wine world last year by being declared Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year. In view of the reactions, both positive and negative to Tenuta Nuova's winning the award, it's interesting to look back over my notes for Cerretalto, and then jump forward to the vintage currently being released.

Cerretalto began life as a Brunello Riserva; the first vintage released was 1988, and throughout the early 90s it was a Riserva; with the 1995 vintage it became a Selezione, or vineyard selection, which is what it still is today.

The difference between a Riserva and a Selezione? A Brunello Riserva is aged a year longer than regular Brunello, and is thus released six years after the harvest; the required time in wood is still two years now -- just as for non-Riserva Brunello -- whereas prior to the introduction of the new Disciplinare in 1998, the required time in wood was 4 years. A Selezione is instead a selection, either made from a specific vineyard, for example Cerretalto, or from the estate's best grapes. It can be released 5 years after the harvest, though many producers choose to hold it an extra year. Casanova di Neri chooses to, and the current vintage is the 2001.

The Wines Tasted Then:

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto Riserva1988
Lot 81193
Almandine garnet ruby tending towards brick with black almandine heart, gives an impression of welcoming warmth. Rich, very fresh bouquet with chewy cherry jam that has hints of raspberry to it as well, in particular the acidity of raspberry fruit, supported by leaf tobacco, vinous warmth, and a touch of bright acidity. Quite nice, though with time it fades, giving more dried fruit and balsam, also carob. On the palate it's relatively lacking, with moderate berry fruit -- red berries -- supported by tannins that are rather empty, bringing to mind shells -- they have a certain dryness to them as well, and a granular angularity that is in part the result of four years in wood, which began to dry out the wine. In other words, the Disciplinare, which then required 4 years in wood, impinging. Returning to the wine, the finish is long and cherry laced with pencil shaving overtones. Because of the tannic structure, it's not a wine I would pick to drink far from the table, but those same tannins will make it an ideal match for a rich stew or a flavorful roast, especially one served with thickened gravy. Very nice, though by comparison with the other wines tasted, it's a bit thin.
2 stars

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto Riserva 1990
Lot 26594
Deep garnet ruby with slightly reddish brick rim. The bouquet is powerful (second bottle), with clean red berry fruit supported by leaf tobacco and a barest hint of barnyard tang, all overlain by vinous warmth; the overall impression is again chewy, and one could spend quite some time swirling and sniffing. Rare harmony too. On the palate it's full and rich, with powerful cherry plum fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that gain definition from a slight Sangiovese burr, and flow into a clean plum fruit finish with some tannic underpinning and black peppery overtones that's quite nice. Most impressive, and the sort of wine one hates to encounter at a tasting, because one has to move on to others. It is in its prime, though it still has considerable life to it, and will transform a properly cooked well-marbled porterhouse steak into an extraordinary experience. Or, one could enjoy it with friends, but I think it will work better with food. Well worth seeking out.

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto Riserva 1993
Lot 97612
Almandine ruby with ga warmth to the rim. The bouquet is slightly unusual, with the first impression being a mix of red berry fruit and freshly ground cumin seed. Also some coffee grounds, but the cumin overshadows, with the berry fruit peeking out from behind it. Pleasing, however, and harmonious. On the palate it's full and round, with fairly intense plum fruit mingles with cherry and supported by smooth sweet tannins that come apart slightly in the finish, revealing tart plum acidity and graphite, with pencil shavings mixed in. It gives an impression of being slightly too big for its britches, and is somehow watery in a way. Watery in a relative sense; we're splitting hairs, but it feels as if the grapes got rained on -- something quite possible, since it began to rain in Tuscany on September 20th. It will work nicely with grilled red meats, or even poultry.
2 stars

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto 1995
Lot 995
Deep ruby with cherry rim; the bouquet is powerful, with berry fruit and black cherries supported by ripe plums and cooked cherry fruit, and mingling with leaf tobacco and espresso coffee, all overlain by slight hardwood ash and hints of vanilla. Complex and harmonious, and gives an impression of youth as well. On the palate it's full and very smooth, with powerful plum and cherry fruit supported by sweet tannins that have distinct pencil shaving overtones coupled with a Sangiovese burr that give an overall impression of youth. Pleasing, and with lots of personality; a wine that will work nicely now with rich roasts or stews, or perhaps a stracotto, and which has considerable life ahead of it. Something to seek out and set aside, to begin enjoying with friends in 3-5 years.
2 stars

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto 1996
Lot 004
Deep ruby with cherry rim, suggests youth. The bouquet is powerful, and still somewhat disjointed, with strong spice, in particular mace and cinnamon, laced with vanilla and supported by cherry blossom and some plum and hints of balsam. Very fresh, surprisingly so for a Brunello. On the palate it's moderately full, with lots of fruit, in part plum, that has a fair amount of sweetness, though the wine is dry; the tannins are sweet and have a Sangiovese burr laced with vanilla, and flowing into a clean plum-and-cherry fruit finish with tannic overtones. An amazingly languid wine that needs time to settle; it gives an impression of being caught in mid-stride, and it will be very interesting to see where it goes. High places in any case. Well worth seeking out, to enjoy with red meats of the grill.

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto 1997
Unlabeled, unreleased sample.
Deep ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is still up in the air -- the wine will be released in several months -- cumin mingled with cherry fruit and sweat, which is (I am told) lactic acid that has yet to resolve itself in a young wine. Frankly unready. On the palate it's extremely promising, with rich plum and cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that are very round. Tremendous fruit, and it will be most impressive when the pieces begin to fall into place. Look for it.
No score, as we're not there yet.

My Impressions?
With the 1995, there was a distinct change in the wines: A terrific increase in fruit, and the wines take on a decidedly more voluptuous character. In part these changes are attributable to changes in wood use, which is evident in the bouquet --- very good wood that has a strong influence on the wine -- and in part, to improvements in vineyard technique that result in considerably better fruit. The wines become less intellectual, more welcoming, and, most importantly, more international. This trend continued, and now we come to the 2001, tasted last week at Beneventuo Brunello:

Casanova di Neri Cerretalto Brunello di Montalcino 2001
Deep black cherry ruby with almandine in the rim. The bouquet is powerful, with cedar and sweet spice nicely balancing powerful berry fruit. Quite elegant, and a wine that you will sniff again and again, but there's a richness and feel to it that I usually don't associate with Brunello. On the palate it's full, a broodingly elegant presence with powerful very ripe berry fruit that has some plum overtones supported by smooth sweet tannins that still display some cedary warmth, but are headed towards velvety smoothness. The acidity is held firmly in check, and as with the nose, I find it very good but not what I associate with Brunello -- polish aside, the acidity is different, and the wood plays a major role. The result is a superb wine that could just as easily be from elsewhere as from Montalcino. In short, if you like this elegant ripe fruit driven international style, you will like it very much and I do recommend it. But if you prefer a fine wine that displays its territorial roots, this isn't it. It's very young and will age for at least 15 years, assuming you have the patience.

I had planned to say more, but think the tasting note pretty much sums it up. For this wine; Casanova di Neri has set out in a very international direction with it, and I'm fine with their decision. It has worked very well for them.

However, I hope others don't decide to follow their lead, because there's lots of very good wine of this sort already on the international stage. Good wines that truly reflect Montalcino are harder to come by, and therefore (for me) more exciting and more interesting.

Casanova di Neri
53028 Torrenieri - SI

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