Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Wines from the Valdarno

Of the four Tuscan wine producing areas Grand Duke Cosimo III De'Medici recognized in 1716, three are still producing wines eagerly sought out by connoisseurs: Chianti Classico, Carmignano (Cosimo introduced the Cabernet that distinguishes Carmignano from Chianti to the area), and Chianti Rufina, which Cosimo identified as Pomino (the present Pomino, a blend of French and Italian varietals, was developed in the 1850s by Vittorio degli Albizi).

The fourth, the Upper Valdarno towards Arezzo, has instead faded into obscurity; there are lots of vineyards, which for the most part yield lackluster reds for local consumption. The situation is changing, however: New people are buying into the area, and established producers have begun to realize that if they want to continue to make wine they have to improve quality. The Comune of San Giovanni Valdarno recently organized a tasting of six wines that provides a good snapshot of the situation: The wines ranged from the last wine made from an old vineyard before replanting, though a wine made with what had matured best in a newly planted vineyard, and on through a couple of wines made from vineyards that aren't fully mature yet, but are beginning to show their potential.

Varietals, you wonder? Given the area's lack of tradition in producing quality wines, the producers feel freer to experiment than they might in areas with better established traditions, and many are planting a number of different varietals to see which will work best with their land. As one might expect, the major Italian varietal is Sangiovese, but many are also working with French varietals, in particular the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, though there is also Syrah and Petit Verdot, among others. To be honest, I'd prefer to see more work with Italian varietals, but that is the winemaker's call, not mine.

The Wines:

Fattoria Petrolo Torrione 2003 IGT
This is a Sangiovese in Purezza; it's deep pyrope ruby with violet reflections and eggplant purple rim. Youth in a glass. The bouquet is rich, and quite fresh, with an abundance of violets mingled with red berry fruit, in particular chewy black cherries and black currants, laced with spice and hints of graphite. Nicely balanced, and fairly sweet, a characteristic attributable to the heat of the vintage. On the palate it's quite young, and still a bit disjointed, with a rush of ripe cherry and forest berry fruit supported by tannins that are smooth but have a pronounced bitter cedar burr derived from wood, and flow into a long slightly bitter finish. It's very young now and will improve greatly over the next three to five years; if you must drink it now drink it with succulent rare red meats; a thick porterhouse or rare roast beef would be about right.
2 stars

Tenuta il Borro Il Borro IGT 2003
This is 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Syrah. It's lively cherry ruby with bright rim tending towards red almandine ruby. The bouquet is fairly intense, and reveals a certain youth of the vineyards, which are (we were told) about 5 years old; there's fairly rich berry fruit mingled with violets of youth and considerable spice derived from wood; a fellow journalists mentions cloves and cardamom, and he is right, and there is also smoke and hardwood ash. On the palate it's full, with powerful red berry fruit -- primarily black currants, mingled with bell pepper and hints of underbrush; though it is rich, it also has a lightness to it that is again a result of the youth of the vines. The tannins also reflect this youth, with a degree of lightness in the grape component that will fade in future vintages, and a consequent cedary accent that is the wood stepping in (well) to take up the slack; the finish is long, with brandied fruit notes that had been at mid sip emerging. Quite deft, and an impressive result from very young vines; it will work well with succulent red meats.
2 stars

Tenuta Setteponti Crognolo 2002 IGT
90% Sangiovese plus other varietals
Dark black cherry ruby with some almandine in the rim. The nose is very different from the first two, with a savory vegetal sharpness mingled with underbrush and some underlying animal tang; there's also some smoke, and hints of fruit. It gives an impression of thinness coupled with lack of ripeness, and of wood stepping in to take the place of fruit, something that would be possible given the rains of the 2002 vintage. On the palate it's fairly light, and quite acidic, with moderately intense sour cherry fruit that has some lemony overtones, and is supported by light slightly splintery tannins that flow into a warm rather bitter acidic finish. It's an aggressive wine, and a child of the vintage, and given its character will drink quite well with fairly fatty cuts of meat, either off the grill or roasted.
1 star

Fattoria di Presciano Greti IGT 1999
This is a Sangiovese; it's impenetrable black cherry ruby with cherry ruby rim. The bouquet is a bit musty, with a fair amount of acidity and some grassy vegetal notes; there isn't much fruit at the outset, though the must does fade as it opens, revealing sour cherry and raspberry fruit, and some peppery spice On the palate it's medium bodied and frankly acidic, with moderate sour cherry fruit supported by tongue-curling dusty brambly tannins that lead into a bitter finish; it's not clean, and in particular has a musty bitterness I associate with overly old wood. The winery changed hands in 1999 and this was the wine they made from the old vineyards, one would presume with what they found; The wines that will come when the new vineyards they have planted begin production, and are vinified using (one assumes) new equipment will bear little resemblance to this wine.

Azienda Agricola Poggio Molina Le Caldie IGT 2001
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese; it's impenetrable pyrope with purple eggplant rim; given its age it looks surprisingly young. The bouquet is vegetal, with iodine and graphite shavings; there isn't much fruit. This is their first vintage -- Merlot is 80% in this wine because it was the readiest vine -- and to be honest, it feels like a first wine; the vines are not yet mature enough to give much depth. On the palate it's full, and smooth, with moderate black currant fruit that's fairly sour, and is strongly overshadowed by bitter iodine and cedar tannins that flow into a fairly long bitter herbal finish. A babe, but from the vineyard standpoint; the vines need more time, and to pass judgment upon them or upon their winery on the basis of this wine would be to do them a disservice.

Tenuta Vitereta Villa Bernetti IGT 2001
This is a Cabernet Sauvignon; it's deep pyrope ruby with black cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, and distinctly vegetal, with grilled bell peppers mingled with spice, sea salt, and tangy acidity, and supported by underlying black currant fruit and hardwood ash. On the palate it's fairly full, and surprisingly acidic, with sour black currants mingled with slightly green black berries, and greenish tannins that flow into a long vegetal finish with underlying bitterness. It seems unripe, which is a surprise given the richness of most of the wines produced in 2001. It's not off -- no problems per se -- but is simply greener and more acidic than I would have expected. Perhaps very young vines? It will, in any case, drink well with succulent to fatty grilled meats or roasts.
75 (1 star)

Final Analysis? The area is in a state of flux, but has a lot going for it, and will bear watching in the future.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Badia a Coltibuono's Vin Santo: A Vertical

Coltibuono's VinsantoVinsanto is a strange and wonderful Tuscan wine: The grapes, usually white, and generally Malvasia and Trebbiano, though there are those who use other white varietals, for example San Colombano, and red varietals too, are harvested when they reach optimal ripeness, and either hung or laid out on mats to dry. When the raisins reach what the winemaker considers the proper concentration -- usually sometime between November and February -- they are pressed, and the resultant concentrated must is put into small casks that have some of the previous batch's lees, what are called madre, sealed up -- sometimes with cement over the filling hole -- and put into the vinsantaia, a chamber under the eves.

And there the casks sit for several years; for the first few months the wine ferments -- the high sugar content and the low temperatures under the eves slow the fermentation -- and then it ages, the heat of the summer making the wine expand into the staves of the casks, and the cold of the winters drawing it back out, together with quite a bit of oxygen, which interacts with the lees, and with other components in the wine.

When the time is up the winemaker opens the casks, tastes them all, and combines the best to make vinsanto; depending upon the sugar content of the original must it can range from quite dry, almost sherry-like, through extremely sweet, and can also range from fairly thin to chewy and rich.

Making Vinsanto is an extraordinarily labor intensive process that results in miniscule yields -- Maurizio Castelli, Badia a Coltibuono's enologist, figures that by the end of the process, the 260 quintals of grapes they've hung up in the drying room this year will be reduced to 30 quintals of wine. It's also almost entirely up to chance: Once the raisins are dried, a process that cannot be accelerated even with cold dry air, because doing so would adversely affect the flavors of the wine, the casks are filled and stacked; what comes out comes out. "The nice thing about making vinsanto is that you can't influence it," says Maurizio.

Once it's in the cask; one obviously can influence the results by deciding how much to dry the grapes, and this will vary some from year to year, in part because of climate: In a dry fall one can perhaps let the grapes dry for longer, whereas in a rainy fall one may cut the drying short, because grapes do not dry well in damp air and may also develop mold; though some Botrytis may be acceptable, there are other molds that simply ruin the grapes.

One can also influence Vinsanto through wood type, and wood size; vinsanto casks, which are called caratelli, are usually small, in the 50-100 liter range, and can be quite old; some producers don't change them unless they smell off, and have casks that are decades old. Others instead change them, and this obviously has an influence; Coltibuono uses fairly new casks, and replaces them regularly.

Badia a Coltibuono was one of the first Chianti Classico estates to bottle its production and sell it directly rather than sell its wine in bulk to one of the major wine merchants, and as a result they have some very interesting old bottles of Chianti Classico in their cellars. They also have old bottles of Vinsanto, and this time chose to open a number of them. It was a delightful tasting, with Maurizio Castlli, who worked on most of them, commenting together with Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti, who grew up with the older ones and has since had her say as well with the more recent vintages.

The wines:

  • 1961 Vin Santo (no label)

  • 1977 Vin Santo di Coltibuono Vino da Tavola

  • 1979 Vin Santo di Coltibuono Vino da Tavola

  • 1983 Vin Santo di Coltibuono Vino da Tavola

  • 1987 Vin Santo DOC Val D'Arbia

  • 1993 Vin Santo DOC Val D'Arbia

  • 1996 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOC

  • 1999 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOC

The 1961 Vinsanto was bottled by Emanuela's grandmother, a Giuntini, and doesn't have a label. It's amber, with some greenish highlights, and has a rich, sweet bouquet with dried apricots and walnut skins mingled with alcoholic warmth and oatmeal sweetness. Considerable depth and much alive. On the palate it's rich and full, but not terrifically sweet, with pleasing dried dates and walnut skins mingling with some nutty bitterness and slight smoke that flow into a long fairly savory dusky finish that leaves a slight butteryness on the lips. Quite elegant in a fairly deft key, and quick on its feet; it will drink quite well with piquant creamy cheeses, or far from the table.
2 stars

They had, recalls Maurizio, 7 1/2 hectares of vineyards in the Valdarno, and until 1985 they made their vinsanto with grapes from these vineyards. Beginning in 1985 they used grapes from Monti to make their vinsanto, employing a blend that was 50% Trebbiano, and the remainder a mixture of Malvasia and San Colombano -- whatever was ripest, and therefore the composition varies from year to year.

The 1977 Vin Santo di Coltibuono is tawny amber, and the darkest of the flight. Its bouquet is also quite different: Powerful, with dried fruit mingled with candied melon peel and honey, and underlying walnut skins and almond butter; a fellow taster likes it to a Sauterns, whereas Maurizio says it reminds him of Tokaj. On the palate it's full and rich, with lively acidity and apricot fruit that has some nutty sweet oatmeal notes, and flows into a long clean finish with chestnut bitterness. Nice, and very much alive.

The 1979 Vin Santo di Coltibuono is tawny amber with brassy apricot reflections and light green overtones. The bouquet is pleasingly complex, with bright acidity mingled with dry leather, smoke, almond skins and nutmeats, and slight dried apricot that with time takes on savory notes, and an underpinning of burnt toast, which is, according to Maurizio, a contribution of a cask made from chestnut wood. On the palate it's deft, bright, and moderately sweet, with lively apricot acidity and some bitter smoky undertones that flow into a long bright finish. Quite harmonious.
2 stars

The 1983 Vin Santo di Coltibuono is tawny amber with tawny gold highlights and some green in the rim. The bouquet is nutty, with sea salt and rancio mingled with alcohol and cedar bitterness. On the palate it's less interesting than some of the others, and a touch flat, with moderate dried apricot fruit and smoky cedar veneer; there's less acidity and it therefore feels more settled and slower.
1 star

In the mid-1980s they phased out the chestnut casks, and also experimented with whisky barrels, which, Maurizio recalls, still had some whisky in them when they arrived.

The 1987 Vin Santo is pale tawny amber with dried apricot reflections, and has a slightly greenish rim; the bouquet is nutty, with saddle leather and walnut skins mingling with rancio that gains in intensity with swishing, brown sugar-flavored oatmeal, and honeysuckle, and an undercurrent of kerosene. On the palate it's richer and fuller than I expected, and sweeter too, though acidity and burnt leather bitterness do provide contrast and balance, and it flows into a fairly long oatmeal and brown sugar finish with dried apricot brightness. Quite nice, a wine to sip with creamy, fairly piquant cheeses or foie gras if you must eat with it, though I would rather enjoy it on its own.

The 1993 Vin Santo is tawny amber with apricot highlights and greenish reflections; the bouquet is fresh and bright -- much younger than those of the older wines -- with bright spice and well polished leather mingled with banana skins and bitter honey, and underlying walnut skins and bread dough. Lots going on. On the palate it's rich, full, and bright, with considerable sweetness balanced by equally powerful bitterness, and underlying sea salt that flows into a long cedar-laced finish. It's still very young, and developing, though it already has a great deal going for it.

Starting with the 1995 vintage, they began using some red grapes in the blend of their vinsanto -- about 5-6%, and an Occhio di Pernice, made with just red grapes, is in the works.

The 1996 Vin Santo is deeper tawny amber than the 93, with bright brassy dried apricot reflections and greenish rim. The bouquet is spicy, with honeysuckle and honey mingled with dried apricots and pleasing, albeit unusual menthol and hints of leaf tobacco that develop into pepper jelly with time. Quite a lot going on. On the palate it's rich, and bright, with lively dried apricot fruit supported by sweetness and hints brown sugar that flow into lasting walnut skin bitterness. Quite graceful, and though young is nicely developed and has a great deal to say.

The 1999 Vin Santo is slightly paler amber than the 96, and has lively reflections. The bouquet is very young and a bit unsettled, with sour bread dough and acidity mingled with spice and some mint, with underlying dried apricot and oatmeal. On the palate it's full and sweet, with moderate acidity and bright dried apricot fruit with some cedar underpinning that flows into a long clean finish. Pleasant, but as yet undeveloped, and by comparison with some of the older wines, simpler.
2 stars

Taken as a whole Badia a Coltibuono's Vinsanti are quite elegant, with a balance between sweetness and acidity that's tilted towards acidity; the result is quite graceful, and I found it growing upon me in the course of the tasting.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Nero di Troia: The Other Puglian Varietal

Castel del MonteAfter decades -- centuries, even -- of being considered vini da taglio -- big, tannic, alcoholic, color-laden wines to be blended into wines from other regions that needed a boost -- Puglia's wines are at last attracting positive critical attention. Much of this attention initially went to the wines of Southern Puglia, first the Negroamaro produced between Brindisi and Lecce, and then the Primitivo produced in the Salentino; that Primitivo is closely related to California's Zinfandel certainly helped.
However, more recently northern Puglian varietals have also begun to attract attention, in particular Nero di Troia, which is grown north of Bari, and is one of the more important components in Castel del Monte DOC. It's not the easiest grape to work with, says Rivera's Sebastiano De Corato. It was traditionally grown for volume, and therefore farmers preferred clones that produced large compact bunches, with fairly large grapes; because of the structure of the bunches ripening was uneven, and as a result almost every bunch had a few unripe grapes, which contributed harsh unripe tannins. Rivera has found vines that produce smaller, looser bunches of grapes that ripen more uniformly in their vineyards and is propagating them, though it's too soon to speak of clonal selections or anything along those lines -- the first certified Aglianico clone was only presented last year, and much more work needs to be done on the other southern varietals before they can be certified.

Unlike Negroamaro and Primitivo, both of which ripen early (Primitivo doesn't mean primitive in this context, but rather early ripening), and are harvested by the end of August, Nero di Troia is a late ripening varietal, and at Rivera they start to harvest it in the first or second week of October. Sebastiano de Corato says this influences the style of the wines, which tend to be fresher. He is using his selections of Nero di Troia to make two wines:
Puer Apulie and Violante. Puer Apulie, named in honor of Frederick II of Swabia, the 13th Century holy Roman Emperor who whose love of Puglia earned him the nickname Puer Apulie (Son of Puglia) is a big, concentrated wine that uses new wood to balance the grape tannins, and has the potential to age very well. Production is low, on the order of 8-10,000 bottles per year, and it's Rivera's most expensive wine.
Violante, which is being introduced this year, is less charged and considerably more accessible.

I tasted a prerelease vat sample of the 2004 Violante, which had spent a couple of months on the lees, with battonage to stir things about and oxygenate the wine.
Impenetrable purple ruby with ruby rim. The bouquet is fresh, and bright, with violets mingled with plum and cherry blossoms, supported by red berry fruit -- strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries -- some graphite shavings, and a fair amount of alcohol. Very fresh, and impressive for a barrel sample. On the palate it's a big wine, with powerful plum-laced cherry fruit that has some berry fruit jam overtones; it gains definition from some brambly graphite bitterness from grapes, and from some tart acidity, while the tannins have a pleasant brambly burr that carries through into a long brambly plum finish. Quite nice, in a powerful and fairly graceful key, and will drink very well with grilled meats, including fattier cuts, or with stews. Something to keep an eye out for.
2 stars

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2004
Much darker than the Violante, with pigeon blood ruby rim; it too is a barrel sample (release date 2006), and has a much more disjointed nose than its lesser sibling, with the oak strongly overshadowing the wine, while there are violets that manage to emerge from around the edges, mingled with some berry fruit. But it's mostly cedar. On the palate it's full, and concentrated, with rich plum fruit laced with berry fruit jam, and supported by smooth sweet tannins that have considerable oaky bitterness as well. It's going to be impressive in a strongly fruit driven key in the future, and if you like this sort of charged wine you will like it very much; it's a distinct step up from the 2003 vintage, and this is both the vintage at work and the slightly greater age of the vines.
Too young to score, but something to wait for.

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2003
This is made from a younger vineyard. It's impenetrable violet pigeon blood ruby with pigeon blood ruby rim. The bouquet is powerful and very fresh, like sniffing violets stuck in a jam pot, with some wood smoke that has yet to fold in, and some bitter almond as well, and underlying cedar. Charged; it brings to mind body builders. On the palate it's full, powerful, and also very young, with intense plum fruit supported by tannins that have a pleasing graphite burr and bitter smoky cedar overtones from wood that have yet to amalgamate; there are also hints of sweetness likely related to the long hot summer from which it came. It comes across as fairly direct -- a massive wine that has considerable character -- but one can also sense the youth of the vines; they have a ways to go, and future vintages will have more depth. In short, I found it one-dimensional. Not bad, but one-dimensional. In any case, give it 2-3 years to develop, and expect it to age well for a decade or more.
2 stars

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2002
This is made from grapes taken from the 35 year old trellis-trained vineyard that also yields Il Falcone. It's impenetrable pigeon blood ruby with black cherry rim, and has a richer bouquet, with toasted hazelnuts and violets mingling with balsam and sea salt, and underlying spice and red berry fruit backed by some raw meat, and some lacy acidity. It's much more mature than the 2003, and this is in part related to the vintage, and in part to the greater maturity of the vineyard. On the palate it's again much further along, with tart, almost sour plum berry fruit that reflects the vintage, supported by tannins that are much softer than those of the 2003 -- again the vintage at work -- though they do have a slight burr, and flow into a clean rather tannic finish. It has greater depth than the 2003, but is less substantial, so they are probably correct in their decision to go with the young vineyard, which has much greater potential. The 2002 is in any case extremely elegant, and has a great deal to say, perhaps because of the difficulties posed by the 2002 vintage, which was poor throughout Italy.

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2001
Impenetrable pyrope ruby with deep cherry rim. The bouquet is powerful, and delicate in its power, with red berry fruit and some cedar that mingle with raw beef, violets, hardwood ash, and with time underbrush; it's quick to write but has a lot going on. On the palate it's full, and rich, with intense cherry plum fruit supported by tannins that gain direction from both graphite bitterness and from wood-derived cedar, and it all flows into a warm tannic finish. It's frightfully young, much younger than the 2002, and needs more time to develop and show its best -- I'd give it another year or two to get its bearings, and then drink it with succulent grilled meats or roasts, or perhaps stewed game. By comparison with the 2002 it's more muscular, but less graceful, and though one cannot say that it lumbers, it is muscle bound in its youth. Concentration!
2 stars

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2000
Deep pyrope ruby with hints of almandine in the rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with cedar and bramble from grape laced with raw beef and nose tingling spice, while there is also quite a bit of alcohol and some underlying menthol. On the palate it's full, and quite smooth, with ample soft plum fruit that gains direction from some strawberry acidity, and is supported by smooth sweet tannins that flow into a long slightly sweet berry fruit finish with tannic underpinning. It's beginning to mature, and though it will improve with another year or two in bottle, will do nicely with a steak or hearty stew as is. Expect it to age well for at least 5-8 years. It definitely shows the potential of the wines that will come in the future.
2 stars

The Bottom Line: Nero di Troia has a great deal of potential, and we can expect it to yiled some extremely interesting wines in the coming years.