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.
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.
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.
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.
It is rare today to find vines that have not been grafted to American rootstock to counter phylloxera, which destroyed so many of the world’s vines. Until recently, few people had any idea of how this had affected the wines’ flavours, but a few producers are now making wines from ungrafted vines and have discovered a taste of yesteryear, writes Kerin O’Keefe.
It is hard to believe that a nearly microscopic louse is responsible for obliterating age-old traditions of vine cultivation and wine production around the world. Yet phylloxera, a tiny insect which kills grape vines by attacking their roots, accomplished just that and continues to attack California and parts of the New World today.
Aptly named phylloxera vastatrix or ‘the devastator’ by 19th-century French scientists, the pest was unknowingly imported into Europe from America with live vines during the height of botanical imports from the New World. Destroying nearly 2.5 million ha (hectares) in France alone, phylloxera raged throughout Europe from the 1860s until the 1930s before being brought under control.
After much trial and error, it was discovered that the only effective solution was grafting the European vitis vinifera varietals onto resistant US rootstocks, a technique which still holds true today. While replanting grafted vines saved wine production from extinction in the Old World, experts and wine lovers have often wondered what wine was like before phylloxera. Thanks to tiny parcels of vineyards throughout Europe which were inexplicably unscathed by this voracious aphid – as well as a very few courageous producers who are risking all by planting ungrafted vines – it is still possible to get a taste of these wines from the past.
Tuscan producer Frescobaldi has bought the remaining 50% shares of Ornellaia from Constellation and now owns the elite Bolgheri estate outright.
As reported on decanter.com last December Frescobaldi had been eyeing a complete takeover since wine giant Constellation bought the Robert Mondavi Corporation. Mondavi had been partners with the Frescobaldi family in two Italian joint ventures, Luce della Vite and Ornellaia. Frescobaldi took control of Luce in early March of this year although Constellation was more reluctant to part with the higher-end Ornellaia, one of the jewels of the Italian wine scene, and whose wine, Masseto, is one of the most-sought after around the world.
Frescobaldi exercised the ‘option to buy clause’ in the original contract between the two companies which stated that if either party sold its share of the wine, the other would have the option to take full control.
Orders for traditional large wooden barrels are sharply increasing in Italy and abroad, as barrique imports fall dramatically, according major cooperage Garbellotto.
Reacting to consumer demand for less dominant oak flavours in wines, producers all over Italy are starting to use their small French barrels (‘barriques’) two or three times. Many are abandoning them altogether and turning back to traditional large barrels made from Slavonian wood.
Italy’s Bartolo Mascarello – the patriarch of Barolo – died at his home in Barolo on Saturday at the age of 78.
A teenage partisan during the Second World War (he used to tell German wine lovers, ‘first you chased me, now you chase my wine’) he was dubbed ‘the Last of the Mohicans’ for his dogged refusal to let traditions die.
Deploring the shift from the traditional wooden botti to smaller, 225-litre barriques, he never accepted any method of making Barolo other than low yields, long maceration, big oak casks and minimum intervention in the cellar.
His dedication to the preservation of Barolo’s true character and above all its longevity, made him the patriarch of traditional Barolo and gained him an international cult following – with fans as diverse as the cellist and conductor Rostropovich, and the Queen of the Netherlands.
Mascarello spent most of his life tending four small vineyards in prime locations: Cannubi, San Lorenzo and Rué in Barolo, and Rocche in La Morra. He favoured the old-school practice of blending from those four plots, rejecting the modern style of single vineyard crus. He always argued, ‘We don’t even have a word for cru: we have to import it from France.’
Con il suo libro Kerin non ci propone solo una documentata, appassionata, ben raccontata biografia della dinastia Biondi Santi e di Franco, gentleman del Brunello, descritto a tutto tondo nella sua umanità e nel suo voler essere il degno testimone di un impegno, quello della qualità senza discussioni, che è sentito ancor più fortemente perché s’intreccia con la storia della sua famiglia.
O’Keefe, e di questo dobbiamo esserle profondamente grati, nel suo libro dimostra di credere in una sua idea del Brunello, (che, vedi caso, coincide con la visione di Franco Biondi Santi), e con coraggio, senza perifrasi e giri di parole, ricorda chiaramente che ora ci si trova di fronte ad una “situazione allarmante per il futuro del Brunello, il cui carattere e la cui tipicità uniche al mondo sono minacciate”, e che “oggi con il futuro di questo grande vino in pericolo e il volere da parte di certi produttori di cambiare ancora il disciplinare”, Franco Biondi Santi ha scelto di aderire al Consorzio per combattere dal di dentro ,”nella speranza che lui e gli altri produttori del Brunello tradizionale possano fermare la tendenza a renderlo un vino irriconoscibile”.
Giacomo Tachis, the most celebrated Italian winemaker, has outlined a bleak future for corporate-owned Italian wines – and says those who inflate the price of the top wines are ‘vultures.’
At the Vini di Toscana 2004 awards ceremony held earlier this week in Florence, the legendary oenologist, who was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his pioneering work with Super Tuscans, surprised the audience with some outspoken observations.
Italy’s most celebrated wine and food critic Luigi Veronelli died at his home in Bergamo yesterday after a long illness. He was 78.
‘Gino’ Veronelli was among the first to celebrate the men and women who dedicated their lives to viticulture and agriculture. His pioneering guide to Italian wines, first published in 1959, set the standards for wine writing and wine guides around the world, and his television series on cooking and wine in the 1960s introduced millions of Italians to Italy’s regional specialities.
His advice on wine and viticulture was not only for consumers. According to Barolo and Barbaresco producer Bruno Giacosa, the critic also influenced Italy’s top wine producers.
‘Gino was all heart,’ Giacosa told decanter.com. ‘He was the first person to teach us that a great wine was born in the vineyards. He was the first to point out the absolute necessity of carefully selecting grapes in the vineyards, the importance of terroir, of realising the potential of one vineyard or cru over another.
‘He believed Italian wine could be brought to exceptional levels if we worked closely with the earth. Back in the 60s and 70s, no one thought like this. He truly was a pioneer.’
A modern-day war is being waged in Italy’s most renowned and treasured wine regions.
Of course there are no real battlefields and no loss of life. Instead, this war is being fought in seemingly idillic vineyards and winery cellars up and down the peninsula as two schools of tought clash. In jeopardy in this conflict are native grape varieties, prized wines and years of winemaking tradition. Some obeservers even argue that those who admire and enjoy Italy’s unique wines could suffer.