While the Holy Roman Empire was created in a fairly hostile way, Tuscany is taking a more gentle approach in its attempts to conquer the world wine scene. Producers are making more and more fruit forward wines from within its DOC and DOCG territories in attempts to make inroads on wine list territory regularly reserved for critic’s darlings. This approach dolce seems to be working because according to Premire Beverage Italian and French Specialist Raffaele Benassi sales of Tuscan wines in the US are up 14%. The nearest competitor is the entire country of New Zealand with a paltry 4% gain in the U.S. market. Great news for Tuscan wine sellers. But where does that leave the traditionalist wine drinker who prefers the old-world style of higher acid, lower alcohol, and generally more food friendly wines? Well, we have not been forgotten. There are many producers in Italy who are not changing their style in exchange for wider appeal and greater sales. Whew! This Monday at the Old Collier Golf Club I had the distinct opportunity to sit down with the area’s foremost wine decision-makers and sommeliers at a seminar held by Angie Cheatham of Augustan Wines. This is the third and final installment of her “Summer Wine Series” at which she introduces a winemaking region and the group thoroughly explores the traditions, history, and winemaking styles of that area. I am very sad this is the last seminar. Boo. I am cheered by the fact that today’s event surpassed all expectations. Having been to Tuscany and having tried many a Chianti I was not particularly jazzed about a flight of four Chianti Classicos for the first round of the day. My toddler-like recalcitrance retired embarrassed after the first sip. These Chiantis offer the world to wine consumers and at a very comfortable price. The first two were more traditional in style, not overly fruity and definitely geared towards food. The second two became progressively more round and fruit forward. They were more likely candidates for sipping while watching a sunset rather than requiring a nosh. I was in love with wine #1 called Volpaia, but the table evenly distributed among the wines when declaring faves. It feel far less betrayed by the “modern” style when I see people whose palates I respect selecting them as their favorite of the group. Relieved to find inner peace with the artisan v.s economy tug-of-war we moved to another level- Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello is right up there with Barolo from Piedmont insofar as perceived greatness and price. It’s one of Italy’s big boys, andtherefore is beloved by Italian wine fans who consider themselves in the know. The first to Achieve Italy’s DOCG designation, Brunello is required to be made from 100% Sangiovese, aged two years in oak and four months in bottle before release. The gray area in which Brunello producers are able to almost completely change the style of the wine is in those two years of oak aging. There is no stipulation that producers must use the huge neutral Slovenian oak “botte” which are traditional in the area. These gargantuan barrels barely impart any flavor to the wine, making the traditional Brunello a more austere wine than one would sip without a plateful of Chianina beef. Winemakers in Brunello are free to age their wine in new french barrique if they feel the need, and some do in order to achieve the more “modern” style of wine with more vanilla-like oak and fruit flavors. We tried four Brunellos on this glorious day. Two were more traditional, aged in the huge barrels. The other two had seen a little more time in smaller barrique- but nothing obscene like two solid years steeping in tiny new french oak. They were all amazing, yet very different from one another. I loved # 2 pictured to the right, it was traditional in style and of course the most expensive of the day. Just once, I would like to prefer the cheap one. Just once.
The conversation turned briefly to the transgressions of a handful of Brunello producers back in 2008 when they were busted for adding Cabernet Sauvignon to their wines. This seamlessly bridged into the IGT Super Tuscans and their use of all grapes Bordeaux with little or no traditional Tuscan varietal involvement. IGT is a classification just above vina da tavola and beneath DOC and DOCG. Yet they are fetching superior prices in spite of their lacking the revered classification. Is there any value in DOC or DOCG then? Raffaele says yes, because the end consumer likes the reassurance that there is a governing body supervising wine quality from a given area. This is, after all, how Brunello-gate came to light. An IGT needs only the approval of one local magistrate, while the DOC and DOCG wines need the approval of an entire panel. “The DOC and DOCG labels are easy to understand, while the Italian on the bottle is difficult for anyone to understand,” says Raffaele. The Super Tuscans at least have the advantage of listing grapes we all know; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc. so buyers can reference that and feel safe without the alphabet jumble reassurance. The third flight of four Super-Tuscans were spectacular, as was the conversation, which was only quieted by the stellar food pairings prepared by Old Collier’s Chris Jones.
While the traditional vs. modern winemaking debate is tantamount to heresy to old-school devotes, it is one that is inevitable as curious consumers approach a new old world wine and want to enjoy themselves in the process. Yes, I prefer the old-school style of Italian wine, but I will not begrudge a producer for trying to make his wine just a little more round and fruit forward in an effort to sell more and keep the lights on. Let’s face it, there are hundreds of thousands of customers out there and my taste bud is but one in a sea of preferences looking for a place to spend some dough. I just need to do my homework first and ask the question- how does this producer age his wine? Big barrels=more traditional style. Small barrique=modern style. Lesson learned. Thank you Angie for another great seminar.
2010 Castello Montauto Vernaccia
2008 Montesecondo Chianti Classico
2007 Volpaia Chianti Classico
2007 Castello D’Abola Ellere Chianti Classico
2006 Agostina Pieri Brunello di Montalcino
2005 Le Machioche Brunello di Montalcino
2005 Cercaiona Brunello di Montalcino
2005 Frescobaldi Castiglioni Brunello di Montalcino
2008 Montepeloso Eneo
2007 Moris Farms Avvoltore
2007 Biserno il Pino
2007 Brancaia il Blu
by Chris Jones
Alaskan Roe Shrimp, Nectarine, Upland Cress, Raw Beet, Tomato Water Salad
Papardelle, Pork Shoulder Confit, Cavelo Nero
Niman Ranch Short Rib, Summer Truffle, Egg Yolk, Marble Potatoes, Spinach