Giuseppe Sesti: Brunello Written in the Stars

A medieval Montalcino castle inspires a stargazer to make his own wine.
© Paolo Tenti | Giuseppe Sesti rejects small barriques in favor of large Slavonian barrels

When Giuseppe Sesti, a historian of astronomy, purchased an ancient ruined castle in Montalcino, he did not realize he had just sealed his own destiny as a boutique Brunello maker.

Sesti, whose rich and powerful Brunellos are a cult favorite among fans of Italian wine, is Montalcino’s accidental winemaker; when he bought the splendid Castello di Argiano estate in 1975, wine was the last thing on his mind. The property came complete with a disintegrating but authentic medieval castle tower, a ninth-century church, and a stone country house with a tree growing through the roof and pecking chickens milling about the sitting room. Sesti and his English wife, Sarah, were captivated.

Read the article: Brunello Written in the Stars

Conterno: Tradition Underscores Celebrated Barolo

Barolo doesn’t get any better than Giacomo Conterno. Kerin O’Keefe explains why.
© Paolo Tenti | Roberto Conterno pictured at the Monforte d’Alba winery

The prized wines include Cascina Francia and the family’s crown jewel: Monfortino. Monfortino is not simply one of the best Barolos, whose name alone can make die-hard Barolo fans weak at the knees, it is one of the finest wines in the world. Italian wine expert Nick Belfrage MW wrote in his 1999 book “Barolo to Valpolicella“: “Indeed if I was given the choice of one bottle of Barolo before I die (I have more than once maintained that Barolo will be my deathbed tipple) I would choose Monfortino.”

© Paolo Tenti | Wooden barrels at the Conterno winery; nebbiolo grapes; Conterno’s sought-after wines

Read the article: Conterno

Police arrest suspect in Soldera wine sabotage

Police have arrested a former employee of Brunello producer Soldera in connection with the destruction of thousands of litres of wine.

As reported earlier today on Montalcino-based website winenews.it, Di Gisi was arrested last night after a coordinated investigation involving Montalcino and Siena carabinieri, as well as the public prosecutor of Siena.

According to reports, the suspect already has a record of crimes involving destruction of property. In this case, he is charged with sabotage.

According to unofficial reports, Di Gisi bears a grudge against Soldera, stemming from the fact ‘Soldera showing preference to another employee by giving him better lodging’ at the winery, online daily siena.free.it said.

At a televised press conference in Siena the authorities said they arrested the subject after following his movements on 2 December on various video cameras around Montalcino and later intercepted a cell phone call where he told his nephew, ‘Wine isn’t like blood, with two washes it will go away.’

Read the article: Police arrest suspect in Soldera wine sabotage

Tenuta San Guido

Sassicaia is the Italian wine world’s rock star, and not just because of the unusual rocky soils where the wine’s grapes are cultivated. A rebel when it was first released in 1971, Sassicaia – like the defiant rock musicians of the same period – shook up the status quo and spawned generations of imitators.

© Paolo Tenti | L-R: Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing at Tenuta San Guido; a barrel of Sassicaia; Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta

It can also claim the title of Original Super Tuscan as it was the first of Tuscany’s renegade wines to break with the antiquated rules that governed Italian winemaking in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Although no longer a revolutionary, Sassicaia is one of Italy’s most iconic and seductive wines.

Read the article: Tenuta San Guido

Check out my reviews of Tenuta San Guido wines

Montalcino rallies round as Soldera’s Brunellos are destroyed

Vandals have destroyed thousands of litres of ageing Brunello in the cellars of cult producer Gianfranco Soldera.

The cellars at Soldera’s Case Basse estate in Montalcino were broken into and the taps opened on all of his Brunello barrels, draining the every litre of vintages from 2007 to 2012 – more than 600 hectolitres (60,000 litres) of ageing wine. No bottles, nor any valuables were taken or damaged.

Most observers assume this was a personal attack on Soldera (pictured), one of the most outspoken Brunello producers and a staunch advocate of the rule that allows only 100% Sangiovese in the blend.

Fellow producers and their consorzio, shocked at the crime, are rallying behind him.

Read the article: Montalcino rallies round as Soldera’s Brunellos are destroyed

Angelo Rocca (1948–2012): Barbaresco’s free thinker

The adventurous producer of some of Piedmont’s most acclaimed wines, Angelo Rocca was also a much-loved and respected figure in the region, says Kerin O’Keefe.

© Paolo Tenti | Monica, Angelo and Daniela Rocca

Celebrated Barbaresco producer Angelo Rocca, of the family firm Albino Rocca, died on October 8, 2012, in a plane crash.

Angelo Rocca’s small yellow plane had become a fixture in the skies above his home village of Barbaresco, and friends say he was a passionate pilot who also enjoyed cars and motorbikes.

Read the article: Angelo Rocca (1948–2012): Barbaresco’s free thinker

Italy and the American palate: debunking the myth

Wine drinkers in the United States have long been pigeonholed as obsessed with dark, oaky, powerful wines, and this perceived preference has impacted international winemaking for more than two decades. But as more and more wine lovers there and elsewhere turn away from this heavy-handed style, many winemakers around the world, and particularly in Italy, are taking notice, as Kerin O’Keefe reports.

For years now, many wine writers and winemakers in the Old World, and even some in the New, have blamed the existence of excessively ripe, oaky, alcoholic wines squarely on American wine drinkers. Just look at the justifications given by the Italian wine press for Montalcino’s infamous 2008 grape-blending scandal, “Brunellogate.” In a rare show of unity, Italian wine blogs, websites, and even mainstream newspapers covering the scandal surmised that any alleged blending of Sangiovese with other grapes such as Merlot was done to soften the wine and make it easier for “inexperienced American palates.” Critics continue to point to the US market as the raison d’être for this more muscular and obvious style. In his column in the May 2012 issue of Decanter, Hugh Johnson delightfully describes these concentrated, tannic wines as “wrist sprainers” that are “offered to us in their thickly-muffled youth, coffeed up with oak, their dense flavors, sweetness, tannins, and alcohol clogging up our palates.” He adds, “I know it’s the style favored in the US.”

Read the article:  “Italy and the American Palate: debunking the myth”. The World of Fine Wine (2012, 37): 79–83.

Italian legend Aldo Conterno dies

Legendary Barolo producer Aldo Conterno passed away in Monforte d’Alba in Piedmont at the age of 81.

Aldo Conterno, who played a crucial role in Barolo’s rebirth as a world-class wine, came from generations of Barolo producers.

His father was the acclaimed Barolista Giacomo Conterno, one of the denomination’s twentieth century pioneers who in 1920 began bottling the family’s Barolo Riserva, so heralding the birth of Monfortino, arguably Barolo’s most iconic wine.

In 1961, Conterno and his brother Giovanni inherited the Giacomo Conterno winery; the two brothers went their separate ways in 1969 and Aldo created his own estate, Poderi Aldo Conterno, in Bussia in Monforte d’Alba.

Read the article: Italian legend Aldo Conterno dies

Modest maestros

From the shadows of Italy’s famous consultant winemakers, who drove the country into the spotlight with cult bottlings from international grapes, a band of less starry names is finally emerging. Kerin O’Keefe profiles six oenologists working with native grapes who are reluctantly getting the attention their efforts deserve.

Read the article: Modest maestros

Montalcino: time to get in the zone

Forget blending scandals and infighting over the make-up of Rosso – the biggest issue facing Brunello di Montalcino is the creation of subzones. Kerin O’Keefe argues that consumers need better guidance around what is a vast region of hugely variable styles – and quality.

If Brunello di Montalcino’s 2008 grape blending scandal proved anything, it was that the region’s native Sangiovese excels only in certain areas of the vast growing zone. Why else would producers be tempted to adulterate it with other varieties?

It is surely no coincidence that since the scandal, which was effectively swept under the rug in 2009, there has been an attempt to change Brunello’s rigid production code to allow other grapes, as well as two efforts to modify Rosso di Montalcino – reportedly launched by some of the denomination’s largest firms. The efforts failed.

Now a number of producers are arguing that, rather than allowing other grapes to bolster wines hailing from inferior vineyards, it is instead time to recognise quality by creating official subzones. Summertime temperatures can vary by up to 7°C between Montalcino’s northern and southern extremes, and a dizzying array of altitudes range from just above sea level to more than 500m. Montalcino also boasts one of the most complex and diverse soil profiles in Italy, and all of these factors have a marked effect on the performance of the temperamental Sangiovese. Despite such obvious differences, or perhaps because of them, the powers that be in Montalcino continue to ignore pleas from a growing number of parties to officially acknowledge Montalcino’s varied subzones.

Read the article: Montalcino: time to get in the zone

Lugana. World Class White with Finesse

Lugana is one of the most exciting white wines made in Italy thanks to its unique growing conditions, very old vines and native grape Turbiana.

If for years Lugana was Italy’s best kept oenological secret,
known mainly to the throngs of tourists who descend every year
on the sparkling shores of Lake Garda to visit the area’s picturesque villages and the charming 13th century Sirmione Castle, the secret is now out.

Read the article: Lugana. World Class White with Finesse

Bruno Giacosa

This eminent Barolo producer has been around the block more than once since starting in wine 68 years ago. Kerin O’Keefe pays the great man a visit and hears how he has overcome the formidable challenges of recent years, including illness and the firing and re-hiring of his winemaker.

At first glance, things appear remarkably unchanged at Bruno Giacosa’s winery during my recent visit. It is almost as if the daunting challenges that the legendary Barolo and Barbaresco producer has faced over the past five years had never happened. Giacosa, one of Langhe’s trailblazing winemakers and an undisputed expert on the area’s top sites, showed off the latest vintages and discussed the past, present and future of this iconic estate alongside daughter Bruna and winemaker Dante Scaglione.

Giacosa, now 82, began his illustrious career at the age of 14, when he started working for his father’s grape-buying and winemaking estate. The young Giacosa soon gained renown for what many describe as his golden palate, and he went on to create Barolos and Barbarescos of extraordinary complexity from renowned vineyards, while discovering lesser-known sites that he would later make famous. Today, Giacosa’s acclaimed bottlings read like a wish list for wine connoisseurs, and include some of the most hallowed names in Piedmont, such as Falletto and Le Rocche del Falletto in Barolo, and Asili and Santo Stefano in Barbaresco. His red-label Riserva bottlings – made only in the best years – are among the most sought after wines in the world.

Giacosa was one of the first Italian winemakers to fully understand the importance of Langhe’s vineyards and, in 1967, he began bottling the famous hillside vineyard yields separately. Thanks to decades of experience as one of Langhe’s foremost grape buyers and winemakers, Giacosa decided years ahead of time which properties hewanted to own. The main object of his desire? Falletto. Located in the venerable village of Serralunga, perhaps the most prestigious of all the Barolo villages, Falletto has perfect southwest exposure that allows the grapes to mature slowly but fully, while its calcareous soil adds complexity and structure. ‘I’d been buying grapes from Falletto since 1967 and had always wanted to buy it,’ says Giacosa. ‘In 1982, I finally realised my dream.’ In 1996, he went on to acquire a parcel of land on the top of the notable Asili hillside in Barbaresco. Today he admits that this is the vineyard closest to his heart. ‘No other vineyard in Langhe yields a bouquet as elegant, or possesses such finesse and balance as Asili,’ says the veteran, who attributes the vineyard’s performance to its sandy, almost silty soil, full southern exposure and high altitude.

Read the article: Bruno Giacosa

US love affair with Italy

Why the US can’t get enough of Italian wine.

Food and wine have always been important for Italian Americans, and today many star US chefs are of Italian descent. This love for Italian food has helped drive the popularity of Italian wine.

Even though an increased focus on food and wine pairing is a major force behind Italian wine sales in America, some experts attribute the sustained success of Italian wine here to a tailor-made style that caters specifically to the ’American Palate‘, a term which has become synonymous with highly oaked, overly dense, sweet and powerful wines.

Surprisingly accepted as a reality for years by many in the media and by wine producers themselves, the concept behind the American Palate – that a single style can capture the taste buds of an entire nation – is generating sharp debate, if not a downright backlash, as evolving consumer preferences are turning away from this heavy-handed style.

Read the article: US love affair with Italy

A Rosso by any other name

Rosso di Montalcino used to be a light, simple quaffer, not a rich powerhouse like its big brother, Brunello. So why are so many Rossos now being made in this stronger style, asks Kerin O’Keefe.

Monstrous tannins, alcohol levels reaching 14.5% and made exclusively with 100% Sangiovese? Only one wine should fit this description: Brunello di Montalcino.
But Rosso di Montalcino, often called Brunello’s fratellino (baby brother), and created as the denomination’s second wine to be consumed young, often shares many of the qualities once reserved for the hilltop town’s most illustrious bottling. While sibling rivalry is nothing new in the Italian wine world, it is perhaps the first time the term applies to two wines made with the same grape from the same denomination. So why are so many Rossos now powerhouses, with
almost Brunello-like structures?

Read the article: A Rosso by any other name

Brunello: 2005 now, 2004 Later

The tail-end of the vintage was a washout, leading some to write it off. Yet many smaller estates have made impressive Brunellos in 2005, says Kerin O’Keefe– perfect as we wait to open the magnificent riserva 04s…

One of the biggest problems facing producers of the recently released Brunello 2005s is that the vintage is sandwiched between the superb Brunello 2004s and the already much-hyped 2006s, scheduled for release next year. While 2004 is a classic vintage, thanks to perfect climatic conditions that yielded structured, harmonious wines with serious cellaring potential, 2005 was an unstable year in most of Montalcino’s growing zone, with a cool summer that culminated in heavy rains at harvest time.

There are, however, some surprisingly good Brunellos from
the vintage, and those estates – mostly small – that were able to
pick entirely before torrential rains arrived, like Costanti, made
some of the best 2005s. Many of the larger houses, on the other
hand, were not able to finish harvesting before the rain, so had
a mixed quality crop.

The 2005 vintage underlines the need for official subzones
in Montalcino. While many Brunellos hailing from estates just
north and south of the town are delicate, with earthy, floral
aromas, Brunellos from Castelnuovo dell’Abate in the southeast
have bigger structures (though grape selection was still crucial).
The higher areas of Sant’Angelo in Colle in the far south also
yielded some very good wines, such as Il Poggione’s.

Read the article: Brunello: 2005 now, 2004 Later

Chianti Classico divorce papers come through

The Chianti Classico Consorzio has confirmed that after 78 years of distancing itself from the Chianti denomination, the divorce is now final.

The Chianti Classico zone, the original central growing area for Chianti, was first delimited in 1716 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

It was relegated to mere subzone status in 1932 when the government divided the much expanded Chianti area into subzones.

Since then Chianti Classico, which produces among the best wines in Italy, has fought to distance itself from Chianti, winning its first battle for independence in 1996 when it became its own autonomous denomination.

A new ministerial decree goes even further, and bans any vineyards in the Classico zone from being used for Chianti or Chianti Superiore production.

Read the article: Chianti Classico divorce papers come through

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.