There's no question that Sangiovese ages well -- Traditional Brunello begins to show well after a decade or more, there are legendary bottles in Chianti Rufina, and it has been my good fortune to taste some extraordinary, and extraordinarily fresh Carmignano wines from the 30s.
These are all Tuscan. People tend to think less of ageworthiness in conjunction with the Sangiovese from Romagna, perhaps because the general image of Sangiovese di Romagna is as a lighter quaffing wine. This doesn't mean, however, that Sangiovese di Romagna cannot age well, and indeed in 1970 Mario Pezzi, of the Fattoria Paradiso, decided to try something new: A Sangiovese di Romagna aged in small oak the first wine of its kind in Romagna, and a wine that the late Luigi Veronelli thought was a great idea. So did others -- he was invited to supply it to the Palazzo del Quirinale, Residence of the President of Italy, and it quickly attracted both attention and imitators.
His daughter Graziella brought the last bottle to a retrospective of Sangiovese di Romagna organized by Giorgio Melandri on the occasion of the establishment of a Sangiovese di Romagna archive in the cellars under the main square in Bertinoro, a town in the heartland of Sangiovese di Romagna.
The retrospective featured 26 bottles, which Giorgio organized into 7 chapters (for want of a better term), each illustrating an aspect of winemaking in Romagna over the past 40 years.
The invention of the Riserva, and other Ways of Making Wine: the 70s
Pale almandine with orange rim. The bouquet is elegant, in a thoroughly tertiary key, with dusky accents, alcohol, Moroccan leather, brandied prunes with some brandied raisins too, sweetness from alcohol, and some bramble, cool accents, slight balsam, hints of sherry and also some nougat. A lot going on, and it continues to evolve with great interest. On the palate it's dusky, with warm rather leathery sour cherry fruit with savory accents and some leaf tobacco as well, flowing into a long savory tobacco laced finish. Very nice, and though it is clearly quite old, has a story to tell and is a wine a wine lover will enjoy conversing with. This was the last bottle.
Pale almandine with orange rim. The bouquet is deft, though not as bright as the 70, with warm savory notes and sour berry fruit supported by considerable leaf tobacco and some greenish notes with considerable balsamic accents too. Pleasant, in a quite material key. On the palate it's tertiary, with leather and sour cherry fruit supported by deft tannins and some brandied fruit, also savory notes and flows into a long dry greenish tannic finish. It has a lot to say, and is perhaps a little more powerful and interesting on palate than the nose. It's not quite as bright as the 70, and this is in part the vintage, and in part the bottle.
Both wines were quite interesting and very much Sangiovese, with the acidity typical of Sangiovese of the period and scrappy tannins holding them up.
Deep almandine with some black reflections and almandine rim. Quite deep color, surprisingly so for a Sangiovese of that time. The bouquet is interesting, and a bit odd, with cut flowers and chrysanthemums, with a degree of sweetness as well; it's quite green, with aromas that are more typical of older southern wines -- Negroamaro and Primitivo -- than Sangiovese with some savory notes too. It's interesting. On the palate it's earthy, with savory notes and spice, sour berry fruit and some balsamic notes, with considerable leather as well. Unusual mouthfeel, with some carob and a certain leatheriness, and one again has the impression that there is also something else in the wine in addition to Sangiovese.
It is quite possible; winemaking was approximate at the time, and many did flesh out their wines with more powerful southern wines.
Pale almandine with almandine rim. The bouquet is fairly rich with carob and leather mingled with some savory notes and balsamic brambly acidity. The palate is quite alive, with bright leathery savory notes supported by tannins that are brambly and leathery, and flow into a clean savory finish. Quite whole yet, and a lot going on with considerable depth and elegance. It's interesting, and though again quite old is graceful in a rather lacy key, and has quite a bit to say. Very impressive, and as is the case with the other 1970s wines shows that there was much more territoriality, taking the acidity the wine had and accepting it, without attempting to soften it or make it more appealing to an "international" taste, and this is part of the reason for its longevity.
Pale almandine with almandine rim. The bouquet is, well, the Italian term would be scarico, which means unloaded or empty, with some balsam and slight mentholated accents, some alcohol. Slight dried leaves. And hints leather. On the palate it's bright, with slightly candied fruit supported by fairly bright brambly acidity and some sweetness from alcohol, and tannins that have a brambly burr and flow into a fairly long savory brambly finish with slight sweetish accents. Pleasant, and though some of the other tasters found it more commercial, I found it to display some of the same distance of the others -- perhaps not quite as much, but the distance is there.
These are wines of the pre-consulting winemaker era, when the winemakers in the wineries made the wine following tradition using what they had, some wood, all large, and tradition.
Consulting winemakers began to arrive in the early 1980s. Vittorio Fiore was one of the first and most important, settling in at the Azienda Castelluccio.
Ruby with almandine rim; color has held more than the older wines. The bouquet is deft, with savory balsamic accents with warm sea salt and green leather, also Moroccan leather, and some deft mentholated accents with slight underbrush as well. Quite interesting. On the palate it's bright, with fairly rich cherry fruit supported by slight bitter accents, and by moderately intense rather scrappy tannins, and flow into a clean slightly leathery finish. Quite a bit going on, and quite impressive, a testimonial to the potential of the land. Castelluccio, which used barriques, was the first wine from Romagna to break out of the region and sell well outside of Romagna, commanding prices higher than those of Chianti Classico in places like Rome. Though it is now quite mature, it is quite obvious why it commanded the prices it did.
Pale almandine with almandine reflections and orangeish rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with unusual floral accents and savory notes, with some sea salt as well, and a slight balsamic underpinning with some herbal notes -- woodsy thyme with mentholated accents in particular -- the wine is not quite perfect, and this is the bottle. On the palate it's ample and mineral, with considerable savory accents and dusky balsam-laced berry fruit supported by moderate acidity and tannins that have a warm greenish burr, and flow into a warm savory finish. Impressive, and again clearly reveals the potential of the area. Which is considerable, though the vintage was weaker, and this wine is more tired.
The 80s and 90s: Ugly Ducklings
Innovation is a process of trial, experimentation, and reaction to the results of the trials and experiments, which are sometimes successful and sometimes less so. The 80s and 90s were a period of tremendous experimentation, with people trying new pruning techniques, new planting strategies, and new cellar techniques.
Cherry ruby with black reflections and almandine rim paling to orange. The bouquet is fresh, with hints of balsam and berry fruit that bring to mind nougat somehow, and some menthol and leaf tobacco, with some leather too, and pleasant spice. Quite a bit going on. On the palate it's bright, with fairly lively warm sour cherry fruit supported by leathery accents and some spice, quite a bit of sea salt, and tannins that have a greenish burr, and flow into a warm savory finish. It's rich and smooth, and has a certain suppleness to the tannic structure that suggests it isn't completely Sangiovese.
This was by Stefano Chioccioli, a leading Tuscan consulting winemaker whose wines tend to be richly fruit forward in youth. It's deep black cherry ruby with black reflections and some almandine in the rim. The bouquet is ripe, with fairly bright cherry fruit supported by some prune liqueur and candied accents, with some mineral notes, and some greenish vegetal accents with something fairly aromatic. On the palate it's ample and soft, with cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins, while the acidity is firmly in check and the finish is rather bitter, a reflection of the oak. It's much less alive than the other wines, and while it may have been seductive and fruit forward in youth the production technique has penalized it with time.
The 90s: Here Comes The Gang
Experimentation continued, spreading to those who had been hesitant at first, and people began to get a feel for what they wanted to do.
Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bottle is less than perfect, a problem that can happen with older wines. It's spicy, with candied accents and some mint supporting berry fruit and slight balsam and some leather as well, also Moroccan leather and some alcohol. On the palate it's also a touch tired, and this is again the bottle; reading between the lines there is pleasant acidity and slightly balsamic tannic structure supporting sour berry fruit while the tannins are dusky with a silky underpinning, and the finish is savory with some prune plum fruit and some dried mushrooms as well. An imperfect bottle, but one that clearly reveals the potential of the vintage.
Fairly deep black cherry ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with berry fruit and some vegetal accents, balsamic acidity and spice and an underpinning of dried mushrooms. Pleasant but going in a different direction with respect to the earlier 70s wines. Much cedar too. All Sangiovese? On the palate it's ample, with cherry fruit supported by splintery accents, and moderate acidity; the acidity plays second fiddle to the tannins and flows into a bitter finish savory finish with some oaky accents. It revolves more around minerality and leafy notes than fruit, and this makes it more particular; my first impression was that it was less interesting, but fellow tasters rave about it and sipping it again makes me realize they have a point. It is in any case what one would call international in style.
Deep cherry ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with considerable minerality and some iodine, and also hints of camphor and slight cedar. On the palate it's fairly rich, with lively cherry fruit supported by minerality more than acidity, and by tannins that have greenish vegetal accents and a warm pencil shaving graphite laced burr, and flows into a clean rather bitter finish. Interesting, and though it doesn't have the acidity that the earlier wines have, does display pleasing personality. I wonder if it is all Sangiovese.
Deep black cherry ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with savory accents and warm berry fruit supported by sea salt, brings sweat socks to mind in a positive way. The palate is bright, with lively cherry fruit supported by considerable minerality and graphite shaving bitterness that flows into a clean bright mineral finish. Interesting, with considerable personality, and it does have Cabernet in it, which however hues to Romagna. Quite interesting.
Romagna By Luck and By Chance
Further experimentation during the 1990s, some quite successful, and some slightly less so.
Deep black cherry with cherry rim. The bouquet is warm and savory, brings well salted stewed tomatoes to mind, with savory notes and spice, and some berry fruit. On the palate it's ample, with rich jammy cherry fruit supported by tannins that are quite mineral and decidedly dusky, flowing into a dusky mineral finish. It's charged, and quite distinctive, a wine that you will like or not. Powerful too, and though Giorgio says it has Merlot I don't note it in the tannins -- though there is some cassis on the nose.
Deep black cherry with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is interesting, with candied accents and berry fruit supported by some leather and prunes, also savory notes and some caraway seed. Smoky notes too. On the palate it's fairly rich, with mineral laced berry fruit supported by greenish tannins that have a warm burr and flow into a fairly long rather bitter greenish finish. Unusual, and though I might have though there was something else, they say it's Sangiovese in purezza. Distinct with respect to the other wines.
Claudio Fiore, Vittorio's son, was in Castelluccio for this, and oversaw bottling it. Cherry ruby with almandine in the rim. The bouquet is smoly and balsamc, with some animal hair and stable straw. On the palate it's bright, with savory sour cherry fruit supported by minerality and spice, and flows into a rather tannic finish. It's much greener than the earlier Castelluccio wine, and it's more of a food wine -- it will work very well with stews or roasts, and is less of a wine to sip far from the table. Quite fresh.
Deep cherry ruby with cherry reflections. The bouquet is fairly intense, with brandied plums and cherries with some quite a bit of mint as well, and some cedar too. On the palate it's ample, smooth with cherry fruit supported by cedar laced tannins and some minerality while there is also acidity, though the tannins are carrying the show more than they did in the earlier vintages, where acidity played a greater role. The wine is particular, in that it's a late harvested wine, and the lower acidity comes out in this respect.
An Awareness of Terroir:
Following the period of intense experimentation in the 80s and 90s there has been a return to terroir, and an interest in making the wines reflect their vineyards. At the same time, however, vineyard technique has changed considerably, as have harvesting criteria and winemaking techniques. In particular, many winemakers aim for physiological ripeness, ripeness of the tannins, which comes later than sugar ripeness (that which will give a certain minimum alcohol content). The wines therefore tend to be more alcoholic and less acidic, though this is not a hard-and-fast rule.
Deep cherry with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with animal accents and minerality supported by acidity and spice with a fair amount of balsamic accents too. On the palate it's rich, with jammy cherry fruit supported by minerality and slight acidity, and by tannins that are a fairly dusky mineral finish, with some greenish accents. It's fairly rich, but by now the acidity that was so distinctive in the early wines is gone. Much more tannins and structure, and much less acidity. 2 stars
Deep black cherry ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is fairly intense, with cherry fruit supported by some cedar and moderate acidity, with some minerality as well. On the palate it's bright, and fresher than I expected, with lively cherry fruit supported by dusky graphite shaving bitterness and some mineral acidity that flows into a clean rather bitter finish with dry tannic underpinning. Pleasant. 2 stars
Deep black cherry ruby with cherry rim paling to white. The bouquet is a bit more balsamic than some, with animal notes and some lathered horse, and as it opens rather penetrating brambly accents and some sea salt. On the palate it's ample, with fairly bright savory berry fruit supported by minerality and spice, and by tannins that have a warm savory notes and flow into a greenish mineral accents. It's fairly deft, with minerality that works well and gives nice depth, and will work well as a food wine. 2 stars
From a magnum Deep cherry ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with some berry fruit supported by greenish accents and slight burnt rubber, which sounds odd but is slight enough to just add depth, and some jammy cherry fruit accents too, with slight sweetness and moderate alcohol. On the palate it's ample and smooth, with moderate fruit supported by tannins that have a warm burr, and some acidity; the fruit is more evanescent than I might have liked. 1 star
From a magnum Deep black cherry ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is fairly rich, with ripe plum cherry fruit supported by floral notes and some sweetness, and by some savory accents. Quite concentrated and quite ripe. On the palate it's bright, and ripe, with fairly rich cherry plum fruit supported by tannins that are warm and greenish with a mineral underpinning and flow into a clean mineral finish. Pleasant, in a fairly mineral key, and it has quite a bit to say; the fruit is ripe but not overripe. 2 stars
Deep black cherry with cherry rim. The bouquet is moderately intense, with some berry fruit and some acidity, and also some savory accents with slight greenish notes. On the palate it's fairly direct, with savory accents and some spice, and tannins that are warm and splintery. It's not what I had expected given the earlier vintages -- it's neither as bright nor as lively, and lacks the pleasing deftness of its older siblings. 1 star
Deep black cherry ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, and rather animal, with lathered horse and some wet stable straw and greenish balsamic accents with underlying brambles. Not much fruit. On the palate it's pleasant in a rather savory key with moderate fruit supported by powerful greenish savory notes, and flow sinto a clean rather savory finish with greenish accents. It's powerful, and a wine that you will like if you like the style, but you have to like the style, which is a bit rustic. It will work quite well with grilled meats or roasts if you like the style. 2 stars
We closed with a couple of wines Giorgio says Look towards the Future:
Deep cherry ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is fresh, with jammy cherry fruit supported by some greenish vegetal accents and spice. Fairly direct. On the palate it's ample, with cherry fruit supported by moderate plum cherry acidity and by tannins that are smooth and sweet, and flow into a fairly sweet cherry finish. Direct, and fairly p front in a light key, with a fair amount of sweetness that will make it more approachable to those who are not traditionally minded, though someone who expects more acidity and tannin may wonder about it. 2 stars
Deep cherry ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is rich, with pleasant violets and floral accents supported by some berry fruit and underlying spice. Quite young. On the palate it's bright and fresh, with lively cherry plum fruit supported by deft acidity and by smooth sweet tannins that balance the acidity, and flow into a clean fresh cherry finish. Beautifully fresh, one of those wines one can drink by the bucket. 2 stars
A fascinating tasting that on the one hand showed the evolution of the wines, from the tarter much more aggressive (in their youth) Sangiovese of the 70s though the lusher riper wines of today, and also the introduction of new kinds of wood for aging -- and the struggles to learn to use them rather than be used by them, and on the other confirmed the aging potential of the older styles of Sangiovese. I am not sure that the newer riper style will prove as long-lived, but it will be interesting to see.
NO STAR goes to wines that are correctly made but nothing to get excited about.
ONE STAR goes to wines that are good. TWO STARS go to wines that are very good to excellent. THREE STARS and a POINT SCORE (90-100) go to wines that are superb to extraordinary. And I will give pairing suggestions, which I consider much more important than the scores.