Rebels without a cause? The demise of Super-Tuscans

Once considered the future of Italian winemaking, Super-Tuscans might finally have run their course. Kerin O’Keefe considers the past, present, and future of these wines.

Super-Tuscans undoubtedly hailed a new era of winemaking in Italy. Rebels with a cause such as Sassicaia and Tignanello, originally labeled as table wines because they did not adhere to the winemaking laws of the time, shook up what were exasperatingly uninspiring practices and production codes. Ambitious producers across the region, armed with international varieties, brand-new barriques, and a fancy label sporting a proprietary fantasy name, began turning out their own Super-Tuscans and were soon followed by winemakers throughout Italy. But today, inundated with far cheaper but similar bottlings from the New World, consumers are apparently turning their backs on these once trailblazing wines.

Read the article:  “Rebels without a cause? The demise of Super-Tuscans (PDF). The World of Fine Wine (2009, 23): 94–99.

 

Read Eric’s take: Asimov, Eric (13 April 2009). Are Super-Tuscans Still Super?. The New York Times.

Fascinating article in the current issue of “The World of Fine Wine’’, a glossy, erudite and, alas, very expensive British wine quarterly that always has many things worth reading. This article, by Kerin O’Keefe, a wine writer based in Italy, suggests that the Super-Tuscan category, which has attracted so much attention in the last 35 years, may have run its course.

Cult Barolo producer Teobaldo Cappellano dies

Teobaldo Cappellano, the respected and controversial Barolo producer, has died at 65.

Cappellano – known to friends as Baldo – was an outspoken traditionalist who often joined forces with Beppe Rinaldi and the late Bartolo Mascarello. They referred to themselves as the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ for their fierce determination to defend classically crafted Barolos.

A purist who believed that the future of Barolo lay in the denomination’s traditional winemaking methods, he shunned barriques, over-extraction and excessive concentration. He also denigrated contemporary scoring systems and refused to submit his wines for rating.

The late winemaker’s complex Barolos were produced in tiny quantities. His Barolo Otin Fiorin Piè Franco, made with grapes from ungrafted vines, was particularly sought by collectors the world over.

Read the atrticle: Cult Barolo producer Teobaldo Cappellano dies

Brunello: no change in the rules, producers vote

Brunello di Montalcino producers have voted by a landslide to leave the wine 100% Sangiovese.

In yesterday’s highly publicised assembly to decide the fate of the beleaguered wine, 96% voted to leave Brunello as it is.

‘Only 4% of producers voted to change the production code,’ a triumphant Franco Biondi Santi told decanter.com.

Biondi Santi was one of the most active defenders of the wine’s traditional production code and over the past few months helped rally the support of the majority of Brunello makers.

Read the article: Brunello: no change in the rules, producers vote

Brunello: Image or substance, truth or dare?

“By law, Brunello di Montalcino can be made only with 100 percent Sangiovese cultivated in Montalcino. Otherwise, it’s not Brunello. It shouldn’t be difficult to grasp,” asserts Gianfranco Soldera of Case Basse regarding “Brunellogate,” the grape-blending scandal that broke wide open just days before Vinitaly, the country’s largest annual wine fair, rocking both the sleepy village of Montalcino and one of Italy’s most esteemed denominations. The always forthright Soldera is one of the very few Brunello producers to speak out on the issue that currently besieges the wine and threatens its future. A tense silence has fallen like an iron curtain among the majority of Montalcino’s growers and winemakers, as well as their governing Consorzio. This near-total communication breakdown has not only left Brunello fans in the dark but has also generated controversial media coverage that has confused, exaggerated, or even made up the facts, while at the same time casting doubt as to the fate of Brunello as a varietal wine.

Read the article: Kerin O’Keefe, Brunello: Image or substance, truth or dare?, in The World of Fine Wine, nº 20, 2008.

Brunello on the brink

An overhyped 2003 vintage, a fraud scandal, and the threat of a US ban has left Brunello in crisis. Could subregions be the answer, asks Kerin O’Keefe.

No one will forget the scalding summer of 2003, among the hottest and driest ever recorded in Europe. Many consumers, however, will want to forget the wines from this vintage; Italy was hit hard and most wines reflect the difficult conditions.

Brunello di Montalcino subzones
© Decanter | Montalcino subzones

For now, subzones remain unofficial, but more and more producers are writing back-label info or the name of the hamlet on the front label. Although some subzones are considered superior to others, ultimately, any such view depends on what you want. Brunellos that will develop layers of complexity with age hail from the original growing area just southeast of Montalcino, while Sant’Angelo is a good source of fruit forward, muscular Brunellos. For a combination of elegance and power, look for Castelnuovo d’Abate, and for Brunellos with exquisite bouquets and refinement, buy from north Montalcino. While unofficial, the following zonal breakdown should provide a useful guide…
Read the article: Brunello on the brink

Sicily. A continent of wine

Once infamous for making industrial quantities of concentrated musts and uninspiring sweet wines, Sicily is fast shaking off its bulk-wine and sticky Marsala image. Kerin O’Keefe identifies the island’s best growing areas and the dynamic estates that are transforming its reputation.

Photography by Paolo Tenti

Thanks to almost ideal growing conditions and a patrimony of unique native grapes, Sicily’s once stagnant wine scene is undergoing a much deserved quality renaissance. Now a wellspring of experimentation and investment, the largest island in the Mediterranean is quickly becoming Italy’s most exciting wine-producing region, as winemakers discover the island’s ancient grapes and classic growing areas.

Though the recent past was devoted to industrial-quantity winemaking, the future is focused on top-quality wines of relatively good value that are both modern and indisputably Sicilian. Sprinkled with ancient Greek temples and Norman cathedrals built by former invaders, Sicily has long been a land of contradictions, and this is especially evident in its flourishing wine sector, where new boutique wineries can be found alongside sprawling cooperatives the size of oil refineries. Even though Sicily is no longer merely a vast reservoir of grapes and concentrated must, the island’s determined drive toward quality is hindered by its steadfast image as a bulk-wine producer.

Its lingering reputation is not groundless: Sicily remains one of Italy’s most prolific wine-producing regions, with as much land under vine as all of Australia and more than double that of Piedmont or Tuscany. Surprisingly, only 17 percent of Sicily’s massive output is bottled on the island, and only 3 percent of this is under Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) appellation system. The island remains a leading producer of strong grape must (vino da taglio), which is covertly used by many northern producers to give their more delicate wines an injection of southern muscle, while the brunt of the harvest, of dubious quality, is still sold in bulk or distilled. But side by side with these dismal remnants of mass production, dynamic winemakers have carefully revived ancient grapes and are now making some of Italy’s most innovative wines.

Read the article: Sicily. A continent of wine

Gaja Barbaresco over four decades: 1961-2003

Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most charismatic and successful  winemakers, is credited not only with drawing Barbaresco out of obscurity but with triggering the quality revolution that pulled the country’s wine scene out of the doldrums. Yet while aficionados and pundits automatically associate Gaja with Italy’s modern winemaking movement and sleek single-vineyard bottlings, the great aging potential of his wines should also be remembered.

© Paolo Tenti | Barbaresco 1961-2003 Gaja
© Paolo Tenti | Barbaresco 1961-2003 Gaja

Tasting through four decades of Gaja’s Barbaresco at an informal private tasting held for this author by Angelo and his daughter Gaia on January 12, 2007, at their cellars in Barbaresco was a chance to experience Italy’s quality metamorphosis at first hand. Changes and improvements in viticulture and vinification were subtle but unmistakable, while Gaja’s hallmark elegance was evident in every bottling, like a family resemblance.

© Paolo Tenti | Barbaresco 1961 1964 1967 Gaja
© Paolo Tenti | Barbaresco 1961-1964-1967 Gaja

While Gaja’s fans applaud his world-class wines, cynics often claim that his modern winemaking methods have changed the tipicità of his Nebbiolo. Yet these same critics often fail to note that Gaja persists with more traditional techniques whenever he thinks them worthwhile. He is among the few top producers in Italy who still resist selected yeasts for the alcoholic fermentation, except in very difficult years when, as a last resort, he will add a small amount of nutrients to feed the native yeasts. Gaja’s use of barriques has also come under fire by advocates of traditional Nebbiolo. But it should be pointed out that all his Nebbiolo wines are aged one year in barriques of various ages and one year in giant, perfectly maintained Slavonian casks that are, on average, 100 years old, so the new-wood sensations are minimal.

Read the article: Gaja Barbaresco over four decades: 1961-2003

Brunello’s Moment of Truth

While the notion of terroir has been both celebrated and ridiculed in some of the world’s greatest wine-producing areas, one of Italy’s most illustrious denominations has instead chosen to ignore it—until now.  Kerin O’Keefe discovers Montalcino’s unofficial subzones.

Majestic. Elegant. Powerful. Long-lived. Expensive. Rare. All these adjectives have been applied to Brunello di Montalcino by the world’s leading wine authorities, from Cyril Ray to Burton Anderson, but may soon be supplemented by another much less positive—overflowing. Due to massive overplanting, Brunello production is now on the brink of exploding, which has pushed the long-neglected question of Brunello’s tipicità to the forefront, as Montalcino winemakers search for ways to protect Brunello’s identity and prestige from the perils posed by a saturated market. As areas previously considered unsuitable for winemaking are cultivated, many producers feel the time has come to recognize officially Montalcino’s greatly varied subzones and to curb vinification techniques that render a more international style.

Read the article:  “Brunello’s Moment of Truth” (PDF). The World of Fine Wine (2006, 11): 74–80.