A Dark Knight on a Dark Night: Castello di Gabbiano

It might sound ominous, but meeting Tuscan winemaker, Federico Cerelli of Castelli di Gabbiano, on a cold winter’s night to taste his new wine was actually quite a warm and welcoming experience.

Its vinous heritage spreads back as far as the Etruscans, but Castello di Gabbiano’s physical history dates to 1124 when its castle was built in San Casciano Val de Pesa. This medieval fortress was among many that were established to fortify the area between Siena and Florence as the two kingdoms fought for control of a region widely known for its wine and olive oil.

With its castle still standing tall nearly 900 centuries later, it is not surprising that the winery takes such pride in its noble estate and has adopted Il Cavaliere – the knight who protected the castle from invaders – as its mascot.

Firmly ensconced within the Chianti Classico wine region, the estate boasts 360 acres of vineyard, planted predominantly to Sangiovese, supplemented with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and several local varieties such as Colorino and Canaiolo. The castle itself has now been converted into a beautiful hotel with 11 traditional guest rooms and five apartments. Adding to the estate’s hospitality, an upscale restaurant featuring local cuisine opened a few years ago.

Although Castello di Gabbiano is presently managed by Treasury Wine Estates, the winery’s previous owner was responsible for making Gabbiano’s American debut in the early 1980s with its Chianti wine.

The winery’s current winemaker, Federico Cerelli, joined Castello di Gabbiano in early 2011. Prior to coming on board, the Tuscan native served as a consultant winemaker to numerous local wineries building a decade of experience. Federico maintains a distinct philosophy when approaching his wines, placing an emphasis on elegance, drinkability and the ability to pair with food over power and polyphenols. Accordingly, the wines spend less time aging in wood and more time in the bottle before release, with the conviction that wines in the past were overly rustic with their tannins and over-extracted.

Moreover, Federico enjoys experimenting with wood and uses a mix of French and Hungarian oak to season his wines. More recently, he conducted some trials with local oak from forests near Florence and has been pleased with the results: more pepper and floral notes. Consequently, he hopes to increase its use in the future.

As the second largest winery in the Chianti Clssico region, Castello di Gabbiano has significant resources to invest in the latest technology and apply it to producing great wines. For example, Federico notes that it is better to pick by machine on time (thanks to sophisticated mechanical harvesters) than to wait and harvest manually, especially with Sangiovese, which could develop rot or mold during a delay. Additionally, he relies on a vibration sorting system to maintain more whole berries and has adopted a more gentle approach to winemaking.

Among its portfolio, Castello di Gabbiano produces a Pinot Grigio with grapes sourced from northeastern Italy. The Promessa Pinot Grigio 2015, IGT delle Venezie (SRP $10.00) sprinkles in a small percentage of Chardonnay to overcome some of the bitterness associated with Pinot Grigio and also adds body and weight to the palate. Yet, it is still fresh with citrus and apple notes, culminating in medium+ length.

The Chianti Classico line-up includes a basic Chianti Classico and a Riserva-level wine as well as the latest addition to the Chianti Classico pyramid – Gran Selezione – with a wine called Bellezza, which was my favorite of the three. Moving up the hierarchy, the wines are aged for longer periods of time, generally with more time in oak, but also time in bottle.

From a cool vintage, the Chianti Classico 2014 (SRP $10.00) was bright and fresh with light tannins, along with an undercurrent of wet leaves and a slight hint of oak. The flagship Riserva 2013 (SRP $25.00) hailed from a warm and dry vintage and displayed darker cherry fruit, firmer tannins as well as woody and leafy notes with long length. The second Gran Selezione vintage is the Bellezza 2012 (SRP $40.00), so called for the beautiful view afforded by the small (less than 20 acres), high elevation vineyard block from which the grapes are sourced. The resulting wine is fuller bodied, with more concentrated fruit and more structure, but is still fresh and lively even though it is five years old.

And, of course, there is the “hero” of our story. The winery’s newest offering is its Dark Knight 2015, IGT Toscana (SRP $17.00), featuring its beloved Il Cavaliere on horseback on the striking label. With the belief that traditional Sangiovese is a difficult wine for nascent drinkers, this red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese was crafted as an introductory wine for these newer consumers. Taking a modern approach and style, the wine is partially produced with some carbonic maceration with the aim of creating a soft and easy-drinking wine that can be enjoyed with food or on its own.

While it is clearly targeted at a less experienced wine drinker, it is not a fruit bomb or overly high in residual sugar. Rather, it was still elegant and offered up black fruit, vanilla and a hint of floral on the nose, with light tannins, slight vanilla and spice on the medium+-bodied palate.

We concluded with the Alleanza 2010, another IGT Toscana (SRP $35.00), this time a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Of all the wines tasted, this had the most noticeable oak, along with lush red and black fruit, intensity and power.

Two Tuscan Gems

Synonymous with quality, both Il Poggione and Brunello di Montalcino are well known names in wine, the first a highly-regarded producer of the second, a wine often cited as Italy’s best expressions of the Sangiovese grape.

Hailing from the region of Tuscany, production of these long-lived wines center near the hilltop (monte) town of Montalcino, which takes its name from the oak trees (leccio) found growing there. Brunello’s roots date back to 1869 when Clemente Santi defined the wine as being one produced from 100% Sangiovese and aged for a long period of time in oak. His grandson, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, built upon Clemente’s initial work, establishing strict production standards and isolating a particular clone of Sangiovese, known locally as Brunello.

Initially established in 1966 (and promoted to DOCG status in 1980), today, the Brunello denomination is home to 250 producers and, while the delimited area itself comprises 60,000 acres, only about 5,200 acres are planted to Brunello vineyards. Other wines produced within this same delimited area, but from younger vines and without the lengthy aging requirements, are made under the appellation of Rosso di Montalcino, often referred to as a “Baby Brunello.”

With an even lengthier history, Il Poggione predates Brunello and was founded by the Francesci family in the 1800s, when Lavinio Francesci, a wealthy Florentine landowner, purchased property near Montalcino after hearing of the land’s potential from a local shepherd. Today, the fifth generation of the Francesci family is currently at the company’s helm.

In an unusual symbiotic relationship, the Bindocci family has been instrumental in the winery’s recent history. Fabrizio Bindocci took over as winemaker at Il Poggione in the late 1970s and was later joined in his endeavors by his son, Alessandro. The duo presently work side by side in crafting Il Poggione’s wines.

I first became acquainted with Il Poggione when I visited Montalcino in 2011. More recently, I had the opportunity to taste a selection of current Il Poggione wines with Alessandro at L’Amico in New York. We kicked off the tasting with the Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino.

Such wines offer a win-win scenario since their shorter production process (there is no aging requirement) permits the wineries to get these wines into the market earlier than their Brunellos and at a much lower cost. In contrast, Brunellos are required to have five years of aging by law (two of which must be in oak) and, while this time and effort results in more complex wines, such complexity and elegance come at a price.

During lunch, Alesandro called his Rosso, a younger brother and was quick to point out that it is a wine with its own identity and not a poor cousin. Produced from vineyards that are less than 15 years in age, the hallmark of Rosso di Montalcinos is their bright red fruit.

“Rosso’s are always about the fruit and the freshness. We make them very clean,” he said. Alessandro added that such wines are still capable of bottle aging 15 years resulting in leather and floral notes with time and occasionally sneaks in an older vintage Rosso wine in vertical tastings with the more vaunted Brunellos to illustrate their quality and aging potential.

Despite the lack of aging requirement, Il Poggione’s Rosso di Montalcino 2014 (SRP $29.99) spent 12 months in oak barrels and barriques, along with an additional 8 months in bottle, before its release. This beautiful wine showed good depth of cherry fruit, with bright, vibrant acidity and a slight woody undercurrent, with long length.

The Rosso wines are also a barometer of the vintage. In 2014, climatic conditions forced producers to cut their Brunello production since it was an okay, not great, vintage. Accordingly, many Brunello grapes were declassified and found their way into Rosso production instead, thereby improving the quality of such wines.

Il Poggione also exceeds the aging requirements for its Brunellos. Their current vintage Brunello 2011 was produced from vines 25 years of age or older and spent three years in oak. However, this longer aging period does not result in an overly oaked wine because their use of oak is actually quite limited given their reliance on larger oak vessels (5000 L in size).

Aged in French oak barrels for 36 months, the Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2011 (SRP $84.99) displayed dark cherry notes, with some dried fruit character and spiciness. In spite of the wine’s full body, it still offered an elegance and finesse along with long length.

At the top of the pyramid, Brunello Riserva wines must be aged for a total of six years. The single-vineyard Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Vigna Paganelli 2010 (SRP $125.00) comes from the oldest vineyard on the Il Poggione estate (planted in 1964) and spent four years aging in large oak vessels, resulting in a powerful wine with cherry, leather and woodiness on the nose and palate, culminating in long length.

The winery’s careful oak management extends to its decision to season its own oak and then assemble the barrels themselves, rather than sourcing them directly from a cooper. Further, in an effort in be sustainable, the barrels are kept for 20 years and shaved every five years. After that, the wood is recycled into floor boards and other non-wine uses. Moreover, the winery has been fully solar-powered for the past three years.

Green efforts also apply outside the winery as Il Poggione propagates its own vines with its own unique clones of Sangiovese and practices sustainable agriculture. Beyond its 300 acres of vineyards, Il Poggione’s 1300-acre property also boasts extensive olive groves, grain fields and livestock, all of which are tended to by hand.

Such attention to detail is labor-intensive and costly, but certainly befitting a jewel in Brunello’s crown.


Moscato d’Asti: A sparkling wine for the times

2016-11-15-11-20-05Back in the day (1966), Dionne Warwick sang that, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.” Such words are particularly true today. While not quite love in a bottle, Moscato d’Asti isn’t too far from it with its floral and fruit notes, effervescence and beautifully balanced sweetness. Plus, the Moscato grape has high levels of terpenes, including linalool, a naturally occurring chemical, which is widely used in aromatherapy to reduce stress.

The Moscato (aka Muscat) grape has become quite popular recently, but the denomination of Moscato d’Asti is more than just a grape name and has a history that significantly precedes the current craze. Produced exclusively from the Moscato Bianco de Canelli variety, this grape arrived in the region over 800 years ago. Here, in Piedmont, the same region known for Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera, 52 municipalities are granted the right to craft these special wines.

First designated in 1932, the denomination is carefully controlled with only the best sites planted; planting on damp or shaded slopes is forbidden. Specifically, this means that the vines are grown on steep vineyards and picked by hand. Moreover, the area itself has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.

High in terpenes, the Moscato Bianco grape results in wines with distinct floral and fruit aromas and flavors of apricot, peach and white flowers, tasting nearly the same on the vine as it does in the glass. Thanks to its low alcohol (~5% abv) and softer pressure (2 bars of pressure compared to 5 to 6 atmospheres of many other sparklers), its frothy creaminess lends itself to food pairing and second (and third) glasses.

Lightly sweet, these are the perfect companion to a wedding toast, especially when wedding cake is involved. Yet, due to the diurnal shift and fog, the grapes keep their acidity and freshness, resulting in balanced wines that pair equally well with savory and salty foods.

A recent seminar and tasting included representation from Michele Chiarlo, Saracco, Coppo, Marenco, Ceretto and Caudrina to highlight the characteristics of these wines. At retail, consumers should expect to pay $13.00-$25.00 per bottle for high quality Moscato d’Asti.

While all of the wines showed well, my favorite were:
Marenco Scrapona Moscato d’Asti 2015, Piedmont, Italy
Pronounced apricot on the nose, with pear, apricot and slightly candied note on the palate, yet finishing cleanly

Coppo, Moncalvina Moscato d’Asti 2015, Piedmont, Italy
With distinct floral aromas, this wine displays great acidity, a creamy mousse and lovely flavors of apricot and white flowers. It culminates with a zingy sweetness throughout its long length.

Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti 2015, Piedmont, Italy Intense floral, pear and cotton candy aromas greet the nose, giving way to citrus and lemon candy on the medium sweet palate. Good acidity and a nice mousse, with long length.

Valpolicella: One Gentle Wine from Verona

2016-11-08-09-23-01Looking for a low tannin, high quality red wine? Look no further than Valpolicella!

This fruity, yet elegant, red wine hails from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy.

We tasted a selection of these wines at a recent Wine Media Guild luncheon and, while I had my favorites, there wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch. Even more impressive, most the wines were priced under $20.00.

While Verona is famous for its balcony, the valley (val), just north of the city, is known for its many (poli) cellars (cella). This amalgamated name has been attributed to the wine since the mid-12th century.

The region relies on indigenous grape varieties, with most wines produced as a blend of Corvina and Corvinone and, to a lesser extent, Rondinella (making up 5% to 30% of the total), supplemented with other authorized, red varieties. The resulting wines have aromas and flavors of berries, cherries and flowers, although I did find some herbaceous notes in a few of the wines we tasted.

Unlike its vinous siblings – Amarone and Ripasso – these wines are not aged nor are they influenced by dried grapes. Consequently, they are wines that are honest about their origins. Looking at the vineyards themselves, the focus has been on reducing chemicals through the Consorzio’s “Reduce Respect Retrench” Project. To date, low impact pest control measures have been implemented for 2,000 ha (approximately 25% of current plantings) and growing.

Wines produced from grapes grown within the most historic (aka classic) area are called Valpolicella Classico DOC, while those from the broader designation are simply, Valpolicella DOC.

mappavalpolicella

All in all, we tasted 12 wines; these were my top selections:
* Buglioni “Il Valpo” Valpolicella DOC Classico 2015, Veneto, Italy, $19.00
* Scriani Valpolicella DOC Classico 2015, Veneto, Italy, $17.00
* San Cassiano Valpolicella DOC 2014, Veneto, Italy, $N/A
* Fattori “Col de la Bastia” Valpolicella DOC 2015, Veneto, Italy, $N/A
* Massimago Valpolicella DOC 2014, Veneto, Italy, $17.00
* Villa San Carlo Valpolicella DOC 2015, Veneto, Italy, $N/A

The 2014 wines tended to be more acidic in style due to the cooler weather conditions of that vintage, while the 2015 wines were more generous. The Consorzio has very high hopes of the 2016 harvest being even better than 2015.

The wines paired quite well with pasta as well as with a pork dish and are a nice option for this transitional period of late autumn with its crisp, sunny days and cooler nights.

NB: Prices are listed when available on Wine-Searcher.com  All other wines are available in the U.S. somewhere, but not somewhere associated with Wine Searcher.

Domaine Katsaros and Ricossa offer up modern wines for modern times

Although the world of wine has a long and storied history, two recent events – dinner with Evripidis Katsaros of Domaine Katsaros and lunch with Andrea Marazia of Ricossa winery – underscored the ever-evolving nature of the industry.

Domaine Katsaros, modernity in ancient Greece

KatsarosThinking about Greece, images of the Acropolis and other ancient temples might spring to mind –  crumbling pillars as a testament to a bygone civilization. But, despite this legacy of antiquity, there is a very modern bent to the winemaking currently taking place in Greece and Italy.

Instead of meeting Katsaros’ winemaker at a Greek establishment, the invitation promised pizza at Marta, the resident restaurant at the Martha Washington Hotel. Part of Danny Meyer’s empire (aka Union Square Hospitality Group), Marta is known for its wood-burning ovens, which turn out beautiful thin-crust pizzas and tempting grilled meats.

But, before the food was served, the journalists were given the opportunity to blind taste two wines and guess which one was the Katsaros 2015 Xinomavro barrel sample and which… was a Barolo. Like Nebbiolo — the grape responsible for Barolo (among others) — Xinomavro needs a lengthy time to fully ripen and has similarly high acidity and firm tannins. Evripidis further described Xinomavro wines as showing aromas of black fruit, rose petals, olive and tomato.

Interestingly, while the blind comparison didn’t seem to stump the participants, it did illustrate the shared characteristics of the two varieties. Yet, in the end, the Barolo’s significantly more tannic structure and less overt fruit aromas gave itself away. Meanwhile, despite its youth, the Xinomavro was rather enjoyable with its pronounced floral nose, brighter acidity and softer tannins.

For many of the guests, this was a first introduction to both Xinomavro and to Domaine Katsaros. The Domaine got its start in the early 1980s, when Evripidis’ father, Dr. Dimitrios Katsaros, purchased a small estate on the slopes of Mount Olympus. The property was initially intended as a family vacation home, but the area beckoned to him and soon he was buying additional land and planting grapevines on the 2500-foot elevation plots.

At the time, technical information on Greek grapes was non-existent, so Dimitrios looked to a grape with a proven track record: Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet was followed by Merlot, which was originally intended solely as a blending partner for the estate blend. However, they quickly discovered that the grapes were of significant quality to be crafted into a single variety Merlot.

In the early days, Dimitrios made wine only for friends and family, but, by 1985, the winery became official, coinciding with Evripidis’ childhood and adolescence. Having spent his summers watching his father build up the estate, it was a natural fit for him to study bio-chemistry at Bordeaux University, followed by a degree in Viticulture and Oenology from Burgundy University.

Consequently, Evripidis knows his way around French grapes and his contribution in this regard has been the addition of Chardonnay, thanks to his belief that they would get good results from this variety. While many areas of Greece would be too hot for a grape that thrives in Burgundy’s cool climate, the northerly position of Domaine Katsaros’ provides a suitable home with a latitude and weather akin to that of Tuscany. In true French fashion, the Chardonnay is aged in French oak for several months, although Evripidis, who took over as head winemaker in 2008, admits that he prefers less wood than his father, especially in white wines.

However, despite the heavy reliance on French varieties, a subtle shift seems to be taking place, with a new interest in indigenous grapes, as evidenced by the planting of Xinomavro grapes in 2010. And, soon, they will add Robola Kefalonia, a white grape that originated on the island of Cephalonia.

Today, the family-owned winery is still the only one within Thessally’s PGI Krania, and maintains its dedication to using only estate grown fruit even though the vineyards are dispersed among 21 separate parcels. In recognition of their good stewardship of the land, the vineyards received organic certification in 1998.

Overall, the wines were very well made and showed off Evripidis’ skill as a French-trained winemaker. In this regard, although the Xinomavro/Barolo comparison was quite fun, it would be equally fascinating to taste his Merlot beside a glass of Right Bank Bordeaux.

Unfortunately, not only do people really like the Domaine Katsaros’ wines, but they (or at least the grapes that go into them) are a big hit with wild boars; nearly all of the 2014 crop was eaten by the pigs. Thus, it was with some sense of poetic justice that we eagerly devoured the meat-heavy Macellaio pizza (Sopressata, Guanciale, Pork Sausage, Mozzarella and Grana Padano) and the grilled pork loin with the wines. Thankfully, the boar were less destructive in 2015, ensuring that there will be more wine to go around for this latest vintage.

Ricossa wine, co-opting old traditions to create new trends

RicossaAlthough not nearly as ancient as ancient Greece, winemaking in Italy’s Piedmont region – home to the aforementioned Nebbiolo and hence, Barolo – dates back several centuries. Here, traditional winemaking has primarily centered on producing powerful, long-lived reds that take decades to reach their full potential. And, it seemed that such traditions were firmly entrenched.

But, even here, things are shifting. For one, classic wine styles have been evolving since the 1980s as a decidedly different view of Barolo winemaking came to the fore, splitting producers into one of two camps — Traditionalist vs. Modernist.

More recently, in another blending of old and new, the region has co-opted the age-old tradition of drying grapes in service of a new, modern style of Barbera. The newly minted Barbera Appassimento DOC owes a debt of gratitude to Ricossa Winery, which was the brainchild behind the creation of this wine.

The company, part of the MGM Mondo del Vino group, felt that there was something missing from the Piedmontese winescape – wines made in the appasimento style – and specifically targeted the Barbera grape as the beneficiary of this process. And, after only a year of discussions with the Consorzio, this new wine was approved as of the 2014 vintage.

The appasimento style is most closely associated with Italy’s Veneto region – think Amarone della Valpolicella, but, essentially, these wines are produced from grapes that are dried in humidity-controlled, ventilated room, thereby reducing water content and concentrating aromas and flavors in the grape.

Moreover, the specific rules for the Barbera Appassimento DOC are vastly different than those of Amarone. Of note, the drying process for this new wine is limited to four to six weeks, a much shorter time frame than the four months required for Amarone production. Further, there is no wood aging permitted compared to the minimum two years of oak aging for Amarone.

Yet, despite the obvious comparison to the Veneto, the true intent was to express the Barbera grape in a alternate way rather than mimic Amarone, as evidenced by the resulting style of wine. The group was pleasantly surprised at how fresh and light the wine was, finding it to be a great expression of the grape with softer acidity and fuller body than more traditional Barbera wines. Lunch guests also tasted Ricossa’s Gavi as well as its Barbaresco 2011 and Barolo Riserva 2008, which provided a broader introduction to the winery’s portfolio.

Velenosi: Wines of Poise and Passion

VelenosiWhen I was first invited to meet with Angela Velenosi, owner of Velenosi Winery in Le Marche, I was intrigued by her name. Having studied Italian, the word velenosi struck an immediate cord; we had read stories in class about a character named Valentino Valentini who had first gone on a walk through the forest collecting mushrooms and making a tasty risotto with them. Unfortunately, as the tale went, “Ma…spesso i funghi sono velenosi” – but…often mushrooms are poisonous – so Valentino was brought to the Emergency Room. After leaving the hospital a few days later, our dear friend Valentino was treated to a dinner of oysters, but, as was pointed out: “Ma…spesso le ostriche sono velenose” (but…often oysters are poisonous), so Valentino was again rushed off for emergency care.

After meeting Angela Velenosi in person, I am pleased to note that, while Valentino Valentini was quite unlucky, Angela has had a much better track record with her life. This poised and passionate Italian woman has been the driving force behind her family’s wine label, which she founded in 1984 with then husband, Ercole, when she was only 20 years old. The two saw the opportunity, had a good relationship with the local wine community and, perhaps most importantly, a passion for wine. Angela admits that she had very limited knowledge and experience, but clearly had an abundance of conviction, confidence and courage.

Thirty-plus years later, it is evident that her gamble and dedication has paid off. An award winning winery (listed among Wine Spectator’s top 100 wineries in both 2012 and 2013), Velenosi is firmly established in the region today and is the second largest, family-owned estate, with 100 hectares planted in the south of the region and another 48 hectares located closer to the sea in the province of Ancona.

This same fearlessness seems to pervade everything she does. During dinner she revealed that she has run a total of 11 marathons – three of them in New York. Unfortunately, her knees have kept her from continuing this particular passion, but while, marathons are not a part of her life anymore she is still extremely active.

In addition to being a staunch supporter for her own brand, Angela is equally heartfelt about the region and currently serves as President of the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Piceni, a post she has held since 2014.

Admittedly, among Italian wines, at least in the U.S., Le Marche is much less well known, but this region, situated along Italy’s Eastern coast along the Adriatic Sea, has a lengthy history. The only plural among Italy’s 20 regions, Le Marche got its name in 1105 when three border regions were joined by the Roman Emperor Henry IV. (And, perhaps it’s a bit like New York City’s The Bronx in that it is the only region to possess an article.) Within Le Marche, the town of Ascoli dates back to 1000 BCE and was established by the Piceni tribe of warriors. It pre-dates the Romans’ rise to prominence and was known for its iron works and jewels.

Today, Le Marche is home to 5 DOCGs and 16 DOCs, featuring a diverse range of climates, depending upon topography and distance from the coast. The area features various hills and mountains; there are no flat lands to be found. The relatively small region is primarily known for its crisp, refreshing whites and its Montepulciano-based reds. Although Sangiovese features heavily in many of Le Marche’s wines, the Sangiovese in the Le Marche is a different clone than that found in Tuscany. Consequently, these wines share more similarity to those produced in Abruzzo than in Tuscany.

Velenosi produces 20 different wines, from a combination of indigenous varieties (such as Pecorino, Passerina, Verdicchio, Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Lacrima) and international grapes. In general, Angela likes wines that are both ready to drink, but also have good aging potential, a philosophy she applies to all of the wines she produces. With this mind, many of her wines are bottled in dark, heavy glass to keep the light out during the lengthy aging process. Additionally, Angela looks for clarity and purity in all of her wines. As a result, Angela’s wines are anything but poisonous. – they are elegant, well made expressions of the Le Marche terroir.

Eight of the Velenosi wines are exported to the U.S., covering a range of styles and providing an excellent introduction to the wines of Le Marche!

TASTING NOTES
Passerina Brut NV, Marche, Italy
A Charmat Method sparkling wine produced from 100% Passerina grapes, this slightly off-dry sparkler presents light aromas of peach and pear on the nose and palate. It has nice acidity, with a lovely mousse, finishing cleanly and pairing well with food.

Pecorino Villa Angela Falerio DOC Pecorino 2014, Marche, Italy
Named for the tradition of grazing sheep in the mountains, this variety stems from the Italian word pecora, which translates as sheep. The wine has notes of anise, citrus and apple on the nose. The light to medium-bodied palate offers up savory, herbal and vegetal flavors with high acidity and a slight, textural grip.

Verdicchio Querciantica Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico 2014, Marche, Italy
This wine has fresh fruit aromas of peach and almond and is more fruit-forward than the Pecorino, although it is still dry and balanced. There is bright acidity on the medium to full-bodied palate, with flavors of pear, peach and almond.

Lacrima Querciantica Lacrima di Morro d’Alba DOC 2014, Marche, Italy
An aromatic red variety, Lacrima has thins skins, resulting in a lighter-bodied red, with little to no tannins. The grape’s freshness is deliberately preserved through the use of stainless steel and no wood contact. This wine expresses its fresh raspberry, cherry and plum fruit so vibrantly with bright acidity and beautiful balance.

Brecciarolo Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore 2013, Marche, Italy
Falling within the Rosso Piceno DOC rules, the specific blend is up to the producer, with this wine being a blend of 70% Montepulciano/ 30% Sangiovese, aged in older oak for 10-12 months. The heavy reliance on Montepulciano produces a stronger, darker wine than other Rosso Piceno wines.

Ludi, Offida DOCG Rosso 2011, Marche, Italy
One of Angela’s top wines, Ludi was first produced in 1998, named for the Latin root for play – ludo – a reminder that wine is meant to be enjoyed. It is a blend of 50% Montepulciano, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot, which is aged in new French oak for 24 months. This wine offers up ripe, yet elegant, black fruit with cedar, vanilla and a hint of anise, with finely grained tannins and long length.

Roggio del Filare 2010, Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore, Marche, Italy
Velenosi’s flagship is the Roggio del Filare, literally “fire in the vineyard,” whose name stems from a poem by the Italian poet Carducci, recalling the way that the sun looks on the vines as it sets in the vineyards. This 70% Montepulciano – 30% Sangiovese blend is produced from 50+ year old vines with a long maceration on the skins and then aged in new French oak for 18 months. It is intense, powerful and structured, with beautiful, concentrated black fruit, wood and minerality on the full-bodied palate with very long length.

Visciole Selezione Cherry Wine NV, Marche, Italy
This fresh and delicate dessert wine is produced from a combination of fully-fermented Lacrima grapes to which a wild cherry syrup, known as visciole, is added, causing a second fermentation and ultimately resulting in a wine with remaining sweetness. Redolent of ripe cherries on the nose and palate, the wine is nicely balanced, with enough sugar to marry well with dessert without being cloying.

Marche

The DOCGs and DOCs of Le Marche

Versatile Vermentino: Rolle with it!

IMG_20151207_133046568[2]Stuck in a rut? Instead of reaching for the same-old grape varieties, why not try a versatile Vermentino? This Mediterranean grape offers up unoaked, fresh fruit flavors with bright acidity. Masquerading under a myriad of synonyms, the grape is also known as Rolle (France’s Provence and Corsica), Favorita (Piedmont) and Pigato (Liguria).

Vermentino is also widely planted in Tuscany and is the main white variety found in Montecucco and the Maremma. These dry, white wines typically display peach and pear fruit aromas with an occasional floral or spice note.

However, Vermentino probably shines brightest on the island of Sardinia where it has earned the highest designation for quality wine: Vermentino di Gallura DOCG. It was here that the vines were initially introduced to the island from Corsica in the early 1800s. Situated on the northeast of the island, Gallura’s name translates as an area located on high ground due to its elevation. The spot is also prized for its granite soils, which provide a mineral character to the wines, while the proximity to the sea adds a note of salinity.

One of the leading wineries in the area is Vigne Surrau, which produces 300,000 bottles annually. Although they also produce wines from Cannonau and Carignano, 60% of the winery’s production is dedicated to white wines, especially from Vermentino. In this regard, they make a range of styles from the variety, including dry, sweet and sparkling. Like the people on the island (Sardinia is known for being among the top five places in the world where people live the longest), these Vermentinos have great longevity. They can easily age for 5 to 7 years due the granitic soils, and, while they lose some of their freshness similar to aged Riesling, they retain their beautiful structural elements and evolve in the bottle.

VDSC_0052al delle Rose Litorale Vermentino 2014, Maremma Toscana DOC, Italy
With 10% Sauvignon Blanc in the blend, this wine displays a nice richness on the palate with pear and lanolin, along with fresh acidity.

La Mora Vermentino 2014, Maremma Toscana DOC, Italy Very floral nose joined by flavors of peach and pear on the round palate.

Moris Farms Vermentino 2014, IGT Toscana, Italy
Tropical in style with intense peach fruit, floral and spice notes on the nose and palate.

Massi di Mandorlaia Vermentino 2014, IGT Costa Toscana, Italy Aromas of peach, pear and mineral persist on the fresh palate with good acidity and long length.

2015-09-24 13.06.33Marchesi de Frescobaldi Massovivo Ammiraglia Vermentino 2014 IGP Toscana, Italy
Having spent time on the lees, this elegant wine has a lovely waxy texture along with pear and peach flavors, culminating in long length.

Ribusieri Vermentino Chiaranotte 2014, Montecucco DOC, Italy
This wine shows ripe peach fruit with lanolin and spice, along with medium acidity.

ColleMassari Melacce 2014, Montecucco Vermentino DOC, Italy
A very fresh wine with high acidity and a pleasing palate of mineral, pear and peach notes.

ColleMassari Irisse 2013, Montecucco DOC, Italy
An 85% Vermentino – 15% Grechetto blend that spends ten months aged in large oak vessels, this wine displays aromas and flavors of smoke, citrus and mineral with an angular structure and a hint of spice in the finish.

2015-09-26 10.40.21Prato al Pozzo Vermentino 2014, Maremma Toscana DOC, Italy Bright and fresh with high acidity and lots of citrus and pear along with saline and mineral characteristics.

Tenuta I’Impostino Ballo Angelico IGP Toscano Vermentino, Italy There is almost no fruit on this wine; instead, it offers up overt mineral, chalk and salty notes on the rich palate.

Vigne Surrau Branu Vermentino di Gallura DOCG 2014, Sardegna, Italy, $18.00 Pronounced floral aromas give way to ripe peach and pear on the palate with bright acidity, richness and long length.

Vigne Surrau Sciala Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Superiore 2014, Sardegna, Italy, $25.00
Named for the Italian word for “enjoy,” this higher-end version of Vermentino offers a more restrained nose, but with more richness and texture on the medium-full palate thanks to 24 hours of skin contact and five months on the lees, along with distinct salinity and minerality.

Vigne Surrau Sole di Surrau IGT Isola dei Nuraghi Passito di Vermentino 2014, Sardegna, Italy, $N/A
This unctuous dessert wine offers up both fresh and dried apricot notes accompanied by honey and orange peel; it is beautifully balanced with bright acidity.

Sangiovese Spoken Here: Tuscany’s Montecucco

DSC_0513It could be the start of a bad joke: six journalists walk into a Consorzio office… wondering what in the world is Montecucco? But, instead, it was a pleasant journey that revealed another side of Sangiovese, a coterie of winemakers dedicated to their land and people passionate about wine.

Situated within Italy’s Tuscany region, just south of Sienna, Montecucco abuts Morellino di Scansano and looks across the river to Brunello di Montalcino. Here, seven towns sheltered by Mt. Amiata, an extinct volcano, are making wine under the Montecucco designation.

While wine has historically been produced in the region, the denomination is quite young, having obtained recognition in 1998, thanks to the enterprising efforts of six producers. Previously, the area was known more for its polycultural approach to agriculture, with farmers growing not only grapes, but also olive groves and cereals and raising livestock, a practice which continues to this day.

But, despite its relatively recent arrival on the wine scene, Montecucco has seen significant growth in both numbers and quality and has been rewarded for its efforts. Since 2011, the denomination also sports a DOCG level wine and can boast that its yields are among the lowest in Italy at 7 tons per hectare for these top wines.

The DOC rules account for white, rosato and red wines. White wines are produced DSC_0600predominantly from Vermentino, with a minimum of 40% required for Montecucco Bianco DOC[1] and at least 85% of this variety for Montecucco Vermentino DOC.

As elsewhere in Tuscany, Sangiovese is the grape of choice for reds. The Montecucco Rosso DOC requires a minimum of 60% Sangiovese, while the Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG must be produced with at least 90% Sangiovese. This latter wine and the Riserva also require 12 months and 24 months in wood, respectively, plus several months in bottle before release.

Given the area’s proximity to Morellino and Brunello, the wines almost beg to be compared and contrasted, in their description — more tannic than Morellino; less intense than Brunello. But, in reality, such an approach is much too limited and doesn’t provide the full picture.

Rather, the wines are truly capable of standing on their own merit and have their own distinct voice. This point was abundantly clear after we tasted through a selection of 24 wines at the consorzio office – our introduction to Montecucco. The wines were robust expressions of Sangiovese with firm tannins, notes of dried red fruit, spice and cherries with structure, complexity and power.

Moreover, as we quickly learned, as a region made up of many small producers (there are presently 70), the stories behind these wines were equally revealing. While there were differences in individual wine styles from producer to producer, a unifying declaration of a fierce devotion to quality and love for the territory was evident during our visits. To wit, 55% of the producers subscribe to organic farming.

Colle Massari: A Gentle Giant
2015-09-25 22.24.52Perhaps the leading voice of the region is that of Claudio Tipa, President of the Montecucco Consorzio and owner of Colle Massari. Named for the hill on which it stands, Colle Massari is by far the largest producer in the region at 500,000 bottles per annum (of the region’s total annual production of 1.8 million bottles).

Tipa, a Tunisian-born Swiss who entered the wine industry after a successful career in telecommunications has built a portfolio of wine properties with his sister, Maria Iris, beginning with the purchase of Colle Massari in 1998.

Now also the owner of Grattamarco (in Bolgheri) and Poggio di Sotto (in Montalcino), Claudio admits that he entered the industry in a backwards manner by starting with a wine that was unknown in the market. Yet, despite this obstacle, and the allure of his other properties, his heart seems wedded to Montecucco.

Further, his commitment to Montecucco appears motivated by passion and not profit; Claudio proclaimed that, “We want to do something else – something smaller; something real. [Montecucco] is little and hidden. If you have Brunello, you can sell it. Montecucco is much harder [to sell].” In spite of Colle Massari’s relatively large size, his maintains a philosophy of staying small while keeping the quality high. His hard work and dedication have paid off, with Colle Massari earning Gambero Rosso’s Winery of the Year distinction in 2014.

Not surprisingly given his tenure and stature in the region, Claudio has served as president of the consorzio three times, but says that he won’t serve in that position again. Instead, he prefers to get the younger generation involved. In fact, he mentioned that he plans to retire at DSC_0607age 70. While I enjoyed the full collection of Colle Massari wines, I was particularly impressed with the Montecucco Riserva 2012, which displayed an impressive array of spice, cinnamon, black cherry, wet leaves, earth and olive notes.


Perazzeta: Preserving the Past DSC_0541
Another of the region’s early pioneers is Perazzeta.  One of the founding members of the DOC, this small family business operates from a building that dates to 1400. The historic cellar was bombed during WWII because the Allies through the Germans were hiding there (they weren’t, but others were).

Similarly, the vineyard had been in the family for generations, providing wines for daily use. But, in 1994, the family was asked to bottle their wine by a Livorno restaurant, encouraging them to pursue a more commercial course for their wines. Today, their annual production runs 60-70,000 bottles.

In another nod to the past, the Bocci family has been working with a professor from Padua to research and identify old vines that have survived. As a result of this work, the winery’s Emma is produced from an extinct Sangiovese clone.DSC_0565

We were greeted at Perazzeta by Rita Bocci, wife of winemaker, Alessandro, who welcomed us dressed in denim overalls, underscoring the hands-on, down-to-earth nature of the people we met. More recently, they have been joined by their daughter, Sara, in the family business. Their Rita Riserva 2009 – named for both Alessandro’s wife and mother – was stunning with its beautiful development of spice, oak and cherry.

 

Prato al Pozzo: Yielding a Dream
DSC_0630At Prato al Pozzo, we met Francesca Quiriconi, who owns the small estate with her husband, Fabio. The duo purchased the property in 2003 and have been slowly growing the estate. Fabio has served as director of two Antinori estates for many years and has always had a dream to produce his own wine.

After ten years of waiting, they are finally building a real cellar, with construction appearing almost completed during the time of our visit. But, this dream has not come without its costs. Francesca manages the property in Fabio’s absence (he is only home on weekends) and is also responsible for taking care of their two daughters on her own.

2015-09-26 10.40.21Named for a Molière character who was reluctant to spend money, their flagship wine is sourced from the initial Arpagone vineyard (1.5 hectares), which doesn’t yield very much. Although Francesca referred to this wine as a “poor cousin of Brunello,” it was really quite lovely with fresh cherries, earth, olive and mineral character. As they continue to establish themselves, they plan to grow to a maximum of 2.5 hectares and are in the process of converting to biodynamics.

Poggio Mandorlo: Bringing Friends Together
Another realization of a dream, Poggio Mandorlo brought together four friends – Roberto, Felice, Giuseppe and Fabio – who wished to make their own wine. Accordingly, they came to the region in 2001, planting 30 acres of land under the direction of Consultant viticulturist, Maurizio Saettini, and initially hiring Brunello producer, Roberto Cipresso (of La Fiorita), as their consultant winemaker.

DSC_0528The estate sits 250 meters above sea level. Here, the mountains protect the vineyard from the Sirocco winds and stop the rain, while the good wind from the sea is able to penetrate and benefits the vines. With Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the vineyard was carefully planted based on soil and exposure. Unlike Montalcino, which has no calcium in its soils, the Poggio Mandorlo estate is home to calcareous Albezza soils, similar to those found in Chianti Ruffina. The first vintage was in 2004. 2015-09-25 14.34.26

Their top wine, bearing the same name as the estate, is a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc, taking its cue from St. Emilion, despite its IGT Maremma Toscana designation. Given their north-facing exposure, the Cabernet Franc vines maintain good acidity and provide elegance to this wine, with its ripe fruit of red and black berries along with wet leaves and spice. Il Guardiano, their entry-level wine, previously qualified for Montecucco Sangiovese status, but with its 85% Sangiovese/15% Merlot blend, as of 2011 (the year of the new DOCG regulations), this wine is now labeled as IGT Toscana.

Poggio al Gello: A Labor of Love
With four hectares of grapes and five hectares of olives, Poggio al Gello DSC_0672is a labor of love for a retired teacher (Alda) and engineer (Giorgio) who claim that they are continuing to work, but without the stress. The two are happy with their small size of 20,000 bottles annually and are proponents of organic agriculture.

Recognizing that they needed schooling in the ways of wine, the couple hired the director of Col d’Orcia as their “teacher.” They note that he never tells them to do this or do that, but rather, is careful to explain to them why they should or shouldn’t do something. “He is our doctor of wine,” Alda says. Their Rosso del Gello Riserva 2011 spent two years in large oak, resulting in depth and complexity in the balanced and elegant wine.

DSC_0670In addition to producing Montecucco wines, the estate makes two wines from ancient varieties – Pugnitello and Fogliatonda  —  as much as to preserve these nearly extinct varieties as because they don’t wish to be boring. Beyond wine, they also make their own olive oil. In fact, Alda seems to come alive in the olive grove, as she stops to admire the budding olives on the tree. In their spare time, he is writing a novel, while she plays the piano and recently wrote a song for their grandson.

 

 

Tenuta l’Impostino: A Place to Stop and Rest
On a larger scale, Tenuta l’Impostino takes its name from the impostini — places where couriers would stop and change horses before heading on to their next destination during Medieval times. But, instead of moving on to the next location, the current owners fell in love with the area and decided to stay.

DSC_0696The 52 hectare property has 25 planted to vines, where a natural amphitheater provides excellent exposure. The old homestead’s restored farmhouse and stable presently serve as a restaurant and inn, respectively, providing a wonderful place for tourists to relax and recharge, while enjoying the estate’s wines. DSC_0725

The first harvest was in 2006 and, in spite of the property’s size, the grapes continue to be hand harvested. Tenuta I’Impostino’s Vermentino, Ballo Angelico, was one of my favorite whites, with freshness, minerality and a touch of salinity. Their Montecucco Rosso 2011 was also really lovely, with cherries, earth and spice.

Parmoleto: The Family that Farms Together
As Leonardo Sodi meets us in his parking lot, he glances wistfully across the valley at Castello Banfi and Brunello territory, seemingly only a whisper away. Yet, he is resigned to his Montecucco fate and in keeping the family farm in the family.

DSC_0766The 72 hectare estate consists of five hectares of vineyards, three hectares of olive groves and 65 hectares of cereals, along with 300 pigs and a bed-and-breakfast. The vines were mostly planted in 2000 and include just over 1 acre of Riesling.

The Sodi family’s historic cellar is 100 years old, but his parents only starting bottling wine in 1990 and were among the six founders of the DOC. Today, they produce seven different wines, with a total annual production of 23,000 bottles. The intention is to maintain the current size of production because Leonardo is determined to keep it a family farm. If it becomes too large, it will not be a family farm.DSC_0745

A sparkling wine and full-bodied white round out the predominantly red portfolio, but a rosato is noticeably absent because as Leonardo explains, he doesn’t like rosé. Although it needed more time to resolve its tannins, the Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva 2010 was balanced and elegant with tart cherry, spice and wood. His Sormonno, a blend of 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, displayed power and structure along with minerality and spice and was fondly dubbed a “Super Cucco” by fellow journalist, Dave Eckert.

Campo Nuovi: Breathing New Life into New Lands
2015-10-27 21.39.13I first met Daniele Rosellini when I visited Chianti Classico in 2011; the agronomist had been instrumental in the Chianti Classico 2000 research in which the best grape varieties, clones and rootstocks were identified as part of Chianti Classico’s commitment to improving quality. During this time, Daniele and his wife, Nadia Riguccini, wished to craft their own wines, but they needed to stay outside the Chianti Classico territory to avoid a conflict of interest with his job.

After much consideration, they purchased property 2015-09-25 22.37.55within the budding Montecucco denomination in 2000 with the goal of creating their own venture. Their land was previously referred to in historic documents as “Campi Nuovi” (New Fields), a name they kept as they thought is fitting to begin their “new life.” Today, their property is Certified organic and they are also practicing biodynamics. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit his estate during this trip, but it was a lovely surprise and pleasure to become reacquainted with him and to taste his wonderful wine. His Montecucco Rosso 2012 was powerful, concentrated and full of intense, dark red fruit, with slight notes of spice and vanilla.

In Montecucco, Sangiovese speaks loudly and proudly; those tasting these wines will be rewarded with beautifully balanced, well-made wines. But, it is the voices of the people I met that linger with me still.

DSC_0591 DSC_0558

[1] Alternately, the Montecucco Bianco can contain a minimum of 40% Trebbiano Toscano.