Sangiovese

Chianti Reconsidered

22 February 2016

Andrea Cecchi Chianti ClassicoFor many of us of a certain age, the word “Chianti” evokes fat bottles in straw baskets, bought not for the cheap wine inside so much as for the bottle, which made a great candle holder. Even today, that stereotype has yet to entirely disappear. Those in search of a great wine might pick up a Super Tuscan, perhaps, but I suspect fewer would look to a wine labeled Chianti Classico. Chianti may be Italy’s most famous wine region, but its name is not necessarily synonymous with fine wine.

The Italians have only themselves to blame for that, I’m afraid. In the 1960s, the government updated the DOC regulations for Chianti Classico, the traditional heart of Chianti and the source of most of the region’s best wines. The bureaucrats of the time decided that the best way to promote the economic health of Chianti Classico was to increase the quantity of wine produced and sold. Quality was of secondary concern. Whereas regulations previously allowed a certain percentage of the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes in the Sangiovese-based blend, now the rules required that the blend include 10 to 30 percent of the white grape juice. Fortunately, a number of growers decided to focus on quality instead, planting international varieties and selling what proved to be critically acclaimed (and expensive) wines as lowly Vino da Tavola.

The topsy-turvy situation was a bit of an embarrassment to regulators, of course, and finally in 1996, Chianti Classico became its own DOCG region as opposed to just a sub-region of Chianti. Yields were restricted, the required percentage of Sangiovese was increased, and the white-grape requirement was scrapped. But it wasn’t until 2006 — just ten years ago — that white grapes were banned from Chianti Classico, as the World Atlas of Wine explains.

Andrea Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di FamigliaI relate all this at length because I suspect that many people remain unaware of the recent changes in Chianti Classico. The wines now coming out of this region merit serious attention, a point that was driven home to me at a recent tasting with winemaker Andrea Cecchi.

I had expected to write only about his wines from Maremma, a region with far less fame than Chianti Classico, and therefore more appropriate for this blog dedicated to the unusual (you can read that post here). But the Chianti Classicos Andrea poured proved so surprisingly delicious, I felt bound to write about them.

His Chianti Classico is his winery’s best-seller in the United States, and after trying it, I can see why. A blend of 90% Sangiovese with the remainder composed of the traditional Colorino and Canaiolo varieties, the 2012 Cecchi Chianti Classico ($21) had a bright and cheerful aroma of red fruit, notably strawberries and cherries, and a hint of star anise. The wine filled my mouth with dark-red fruit, but like the other Cecchi wines I’d already tried, this Chianti Classico had distinct dryness to it. Some light spice in the middle led to some supple tannins on the finish. This was no rough-and-tumble Chianti. The wine had real elegance.

Those who prefer their wine with some oak should instead consider the 2009 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia ($41), which is produced only in favorable vintages. This wine, composed of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, sees 12 months of aging in barriques (small oak barrels). It smelled of fresh red fruit, but I also detected a raisin note in the aroma. The fruit felt really rich on my tongue, and thank goodness it did, because it had to balance the ample oak that followed. The tannins were wonderfully round, in spite of all that wood, and overall effect was quite refined. The oak notes made it an excellent pairing with some savory prosciutto, which also gave the fruit an extra shine.

Andrea Cecchi COEVOLast, Andrea poured the 2011 vintage of his Super Tuscan, a blend of 60% Sangiovese from Chianti and 20% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot from Maremma. The name, COEVO, which translates as “contemporary,” was chosen “because it conveys the value of time,” according to the tech sheet I received. I could tell from the aroma that this was a wine to be reckoned with. The deep, dark-fruit aroma had a striking freshness underneath, conveyed by a tobacco note.

I took a sip of the wine, and Andrea started saying something or other about it that was probably important, but I didn’t hear a word he said. It was just me and this absolutely gorgeous wine. The fruit was positively sumptuous — rich and round — and just enough spice perked up to keep it in balance. The wine moved seamlessly from one flavor to the next, culminating in the slow and steady development of exquisitely fine-grained tannins.

I can just picture it now, as I write this. What a shame I only had a small glass! I’ve never really considered spending $106 on a bottle of wine, but the 2011 COEVO might convince me to do just that.

The Dark Horse Of Italy’s Cowboy Country

9 February 2016
Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

I recently returned from a trip blessedly free from internet access to discover an aging invitation to have dinner and taste wines with Andrea Cecchi. My recent lack of connectivity suddenly seemed more like a curse. I scrambled to arrange a meeting, because Mr. Cecchi makes highly regarded wines in an obscure but very exciting region of Italy: Maremma.

Until the mid-20th century, Tuscany’s coast was better known for malaria and buttero (cowboys) than fine wine. But Mussolini drained the swamps, the cattle herds dwindled and the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Bolgheri. Now, Bolgheri is its own DOC and the home of Sassicaia, one of Italy’s most coveted wines.

But I don’t have $200 to spend on a bottle of Sassicaia. Instead, I focus instead on what ranks as one of Italy’s best red-wine values: Morellino di Scansano. The hill town of Scansano sits on high ground in Maremma, and the vineyards of Morellino (the local synonym for Sangiovese) reach as high as 1,500 feet above the nearby sea. “This is the Maremma’s classic Sangiovese zone,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and Italy seems to agree. In 2009, Morellino di Scansano was elevated from its DOC classification to DOCG, the most most restrictive and (theoretically) highest-quality designation in Italy’s wine classification system.

Cecchi La Mora Morellino di Scansano RiservaIn 1996, Andrea Cecchi’s father bought 360 acres of Maremma vineyards, expanding his wine company out of Chianti Classico, its home base since the late 19th century. He called his new wines “La Mora,” in honor of the black-skinned horses for which Maremma was once famous, Andrea explained, indicating the horse-head silhouettes on the labels.

We talked about measures the winery takes to improve sustainability and how they continue to innovate, working to make even the most incremental of improvements, knowing that enough small steps forward eventually lead to great leaps in quality. In the not-so-distant past, the fashion was to amp up the extraction and oak flavors. Now, the pendulum has swung the other direction, and Andrea, like many other top winemakers these days, seeks to emphasize the quality and purity of the fruit. It all sounded good, but did it translate into delicious wine?

I smelled the 2013 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano. It had a lovely rich aroma of red cherry fruit and violets. This wine sees no oak. “I want it to be very perfect, clean, into the bottle,” Andrea explained, and he succeeded in that effort. The wine started with ample dark cherry fruit before moving to a brief perk of white-pepper spice, admirably round tannins and a clean, dry finish. It worked well with some tomato and basil bruschetta, becoming a bit bigger and spicier. A very good value for $23 a bottle.

Cecchi La Mora Maremma VermentinoWe also tried the 2011 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano Riserva, aged 12 to 14 months in French oak barriques composed of 40% new wood (older barrels impart less oak flavor). I felt especially excited to try this wine, because only 10% of Morellino di Scansano is riserva. I loved its rich dark-chocolate and cherry aroma overlaid with a note of black licorice. On my palate, the cherry fruit felt cool and ripe, undergirded by mocha notes and well-integrated tannins. Like with the first Morellino, this example exhibited a general undertone of dryness — the wine didn’t feel juicy or jammy. This wine is pricier at $40 a bottle, but if you have that money to spend, you won’t regret spending it on this absolutely delightful riserva.

Maremma can produce notable whites as well, as demonstrated by the 2014 “La Mora” Maremma Vermentino Andrea presented. Demand for wines made from this indigenous grape far outstrips supply, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and I can understand why. This Vermentino smelled fresh and green, with just a touch of creaminess to it. A lengthy amount of time in contact with the yeast gave this wine a wonderfully even keel and elegant mouthfeel. Ripe fruit expanded on the palate, but taut acids underneath buoyed it up without becoming intrusive or overly tart. I also liked the dry, mineral finish. Many Italian whites require food to really appreciate them, but this wine worked just as beautifully all on its own. Very classy, and very well-priced at $20 a bottle.

Honestly, I had expected to end my writing about Andrea Cecchi’s wines here, because though he planned on presenting some Chiantis, they hardly qualified as obscure. But these Chiantis did turn out to be unusual, and well-deserving of an upcoming post all their own.

Note: The tastes of these wines were provided free of charge.

The Beefy Joys Of Brunello

25 May 2013

Wines of Il PoggioneMany of you will doubtless already have heard of, or perhaps even sampled, Brunello di Montalcino. Made from 100% Sangiovese, this powerful red wine from southern Tuscany has made quite a name for itself, and, let’s be honest, it could hardly be considered obscure. But since this wine costs anywhere from $40 to $150 per bottle (or more), it’s certainly unusual for me to be drinking it.

So let’s have a little fun and talk about a more exclusive wine for a change. After all, it’s important to splurge every now and then, and a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino is a worthy splurge. I had the opportunity to try some Brunellos when I was invited to dinner by the engaging Alessandro Bindocci of Tenuta Il Poggione, along with the vivacious Liz Barrett of Terlato Wines, a major Chicago importer. The wines were delightful.

Although wine has been produced in the area around Montalcino for centuries, it wasn’t until 1888 that Ferruccio Biondi-Santi bottled a wine called Brunello di Montalcino. The success of this wine is often attributed to superior Sangiovese clones, but according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Climate is perhaps a more significant factor than specific clones in creating the characteristics of the wine.”

And indeed, Montalcino is blessed with excellent terroir. The World Atlas of Wine notes that “Montalcino has the double advantage of the warm, dry climate of the Tuscan coast with, in the best vineyards, the rockier, less fertile soils of the cooler Chianti Classico zone.” Around the time Biondi-Santi was bottling the first true Brunello, Lavinio Franceschi recognized the potential of the region and bought some land himself, founding what would become Il Poggione.

These Brunello pioneers established the tradition of long cask aging, a practice codified in 1960. The law at that time required a minimum of 42 months of cask aging, reduced to 36 months in 1990 and 24 months in 1998 (aging in cask and bottle must still total at least 48 months, however). Less concentrated fruit won’t stand up well to all that aging, however, hence the creation of the Rosso di Montalcino classification, which allows wine to be released after only one year. And, as the Atlas notes, this classification allows producers to use only the most age-worthy fruit in their Brunellos, keeping the quality level high.

This doesn’t mean that Rosso di Montalcino isn’t worth drinking. Bindocci shared the 2011 Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino with me, and it tasted delicious, with ripe red fruit, powerful but carefully controlled black-pepper spice, and a surprisingly long finish. It was big, but by no means overblown. Sipped with some prosciutto, it felt mellower, and some vanilla notes became clearer. At $20 per bottle, it’s an excellent value, and a fine wine to bring to a dinner party.

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia asserts that the best Brunellos require at least 10 years of maturation in the bottle, but the younger Brunellos we sampled next worked for me. We started with a 2008 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino, which is aged three years (not just the minimum two) in large casks and one year in the bottle. The fruit comes from vines at least 20 years old. It had a tightly wound aroma which opened over time, big fruit, a beautiful structure and a finish that went on and on. I wrote in my notebook, “Can simply taste the quality.” This powerful wine costs about $65 a bottle — no small sum — but it lives up to the price tag.

And then there was the 2007 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino “Vigna Paganelli” Riserva, which comes from the oldest vineyard on the Poggione estate, planted in 1964. According to Il Poggione’s website, the vines there are “used for sourcing the Sangiovese clones when new vineyards are planted.” This is a wine, therefore, with a significant pedigree, and it lived up to my considerable expectations. Aged four years in casks and one year in the bottle, this Brunello had an enticing aroma of vanilla and oak. It sounds crazy, but there was a note of cognac in the nose —  it was that big. The flavor started with juicy, cherry fruit, and it grew and grew. This wine was huge, with gorgeous structure, beefy tannins and a long, raisiny finish. I can see why some people are moved to spend $90 or so on a bottle.

I was particularly impressed that these wines weren’t simply fruit and oak bombs. Both Brunellos blossomed when paired with some lamb, their ample acids keeping things balanced and food-friendly.

It’s not often I have the pleasure of drinking wines in this price range — most of what I write about costs well under $20. I love these wines, and I love writing about them, but it is great fun to step out of my budget from time to time. When you taste wines like this, it’s easy to understand why they’re expensive, and it’s easy to taste why they’re worth it.

Note: These wines were provided to me free of charge, as was the dinner that accompanied them.

We tasted some other well-crafted wines at this dinner as well. Read about an unusual Pinot Grigio here, and about an exciting unoaked Barbera here. To learn more about the wines of Montalcino, have a look at Bindocci’s blog, the Montalcino Report.

From The Formerly Malarial Side Of Tuscany

16 May 2012

Until relatively recently, Italy’s Maremma region was better known for poverty and malarial swamps than fine wine. Mussolini drained the swamps, solving the malaria problem, but the region didn’t achieve much viticultural fame until the 1970s, when Sassicaia hit the scene (now it’s one of Italy’s most well-known and expensive wines).

One little region rose above the swamps, however, allowing vineyards to be cultivated well before Mussolini intervened. Morellino di Scansano had a fine reputation at least as far back as the 19th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Nowadays the area has achieved DOCG status, a significant vote of confidence for its wines.

On hillsides near the sea, vineyards planted with Morellino (the local synonym for Sangiovese) flourish in “balmy conditions,” notes The World Atlas of Wine, and “a host of outsiders” such as Antinori and Frescobaldi have invested in wineries here. But Maremma didn’t quite turn out to be the next Chianti, and the lack of pedigree along with the economic downturns in the last decade “left many a producer with a large hole in their bank account,” according to the Companion. That has left consumers with some “interesting bargains” on their hands.

And goodness knows I love a good bargain. I wish I could claim to have known about the value proposition of Morellino di Scansano before I purchased a bottle of it at Urban Orchard, but no. I bought the wine because I’d never heard of Morellino di Scansano before, and because it was only $15. That’s a buck or two more than I usually like to spend on an unknown, but hey, it was DOCG, and there were two creepy-looking peasants with scythes on the label. How could I resist?

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The Desert Vineyards Of Washington State

27 August 2011

A hurricane may be raging along the East Coast, but in Chicago we’re having some of the loveliest weather we’ve had all year. It was a perfect chance to relax outside with a glass of rosé, my favorite fun summer wine.

Although my wine rack currently overflows with bottles, only one rosé was left — a 2010 Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sangiovese rosé, much less one from Washington State. It was an ideal choice (of course, the total lack of other options also contributed to the selection process).

Before settling down with a glass, I researched Sangiovese a bit, wondering what this common Italian varietal might be doing up in Washington State. It came as a surprise to read in The Oxford Companion to Wine that “Sangiovese’s principal characteristic in the vineyard is its slow and late ripening…” Washington isn’t known as the sunniest of states, leading me to wonder how this grape might get enough sun to fully develop.

I really became curious how on earth anyone could grow this varietal in Washington when I went on to read that “The grape’s rather thin skin creates a certain susceptibility to rot in cool and damp years…” Washington State would seem to be the epitome of cool and damp — who would be crazy enough to grow Sangiovese there, and how did they possibly make it work?

And here my lack of knowledge about the Columbia River Valley’s terroir became all too apparent. (more…)