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.

The Great Escape

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.

Read the article: The Great Escape

Frescobaldi now in full control of Ornellaia

Tuscan producer Frescobaldi has bought the remaining 50% shares of Ornellaia from Constellation and now owns the elite Bolgheri estate outright.

Frescobaldi logoAs 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.

Read the article: Frescobaldi now in full control of Ornellaia

Italian and other producers turn back to large casks

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.

Read the article: Italian and other producers turn back to large casks

Barolo patriarch Bartolo Mascarello dies (by Paolo Tenti)

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.’

Read the article: Barolo patriarch Bartolo Mascarello dies

Kerin O’Keefe racconta Franco Biondi Santi, il gentleman del Brunello (di Franco Ziliani)

© Paolo Tenti | Franco Biondi Santi and Kerin O’Keefe

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.

Kerin O’Keefe, Franco Biondi Santi. Il gentleman del Brunello, Veronelli Editore, 2004

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”.

leggi l’intera recensione: http://www.winereport.com/winenews/scheda.asp?IDCategoria=19&IDNews=1458

Italian wine culture in danger of outsiders and ‘vultures’: Tachis

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.

Read the article: Italian wine culture in danger of outsiders and ‘vultures’: Tachis