Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Villa Il Poggiolo, Carmignano, Tuscany (26/9/2011)

The town of Carmignano lies to the north-west of Firenze (Florence) and is actually in the Chianti Moltalbano region.  However, the grape growers here decided to relinquish their entitlement to make Chianti and instead obtained their own DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) of Carmignano.  Inevitably, the rules for Carmignano are different (hey! This is Italy after all) and require a minimum of 60% and a maximum of 90% Sangiovese in the wines which must also contain some Cabernet Sauvignon; someone obviously twigged to the need to beef up the more northerly grown Sangiovese with a bit of something else that I mentioned in the last article.
The spectacular view from Villa Il Poggiolo

Villa Il Poggiolo is on the top of a hill on the edge of the town of Carmignano.  Access is via a steep winding road with plenty of hairpins and not for the faint-hearted.  In the distance Florence is visible and the views all round are spectacular.  Here they make a white wine, a rose, 4 reds and a Vin Santo.  The reds are Rosso dei Colli Della Toscana Centrale (catchy name eh?) Barco Reale (a DO for younger or declassified Carmignano) a Carmignano and a Carmignano Riserva.  Villa Il Poggiolo have about 20 hectares of vines and make about 100,000 bottles of wine each year.  Their oldest vines are 40 years old and all the grapes have to be hand-picked because the grape varieties are mixed plantings throughout the vineyards and all ripen at different times.  Il Poggiolo wines are aged in old large oak casks which have a gentle toasting.  They do not use new oak barriques, believing them to be too aggressive for their wines.
Old casks at Villa Il Poggiolo
We tasted the following wines in the winery:  The 2010 Carmignano is 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and is very fresh and fruity with youthful tannins.  It has notes of concentrated chocolate and cherry and,with still 9 months to go in cask, will fill out and soften.  The 2009 has 70% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Canaiolo and is gamey, rich and shows more oak; full, grippy,warming.  The 2008 Carmignano Riserva  is really quite big and grippy with rich fruitcake notes and hints of cherry.  A super wine already but will get better still.  There was a tremendous depth and concentration to these wines.

Over what was described as a “light lunch” (of local breads; proscuitto; chicken liver pate; cold dressed tripe; cured pigs cheeks on bruschetta with honey and rosemary; a salad of lamb’s lettuce, pine nuts, mint and anchovies; pumpkin risotto; pasta with beef shreds; rare roast rib of beef followed by a dessert made from the recently harvested grapes) we tasted the white, the rose and a couple of reds and then finished with the Vin Santo. 
The end of our "light lunch".
Just in time for our evening flight back....
Despite the obvious distraction on the table I managed to scribble a few notes which reveal the white – the 2010 Lacrima di Cantine Bianco – to be a 50/50 mix of Vermentino and Trebbiano which is unoaked, clean, fresh and herbaceous with good fresh fruit and zippy acidity.  It was perhaps a little short on the finish but otherwise sound enough.  The 2010 Rosato – a mix of Sangiovese and Canaiolo which varies depending on the vintage – is really quite dark for a rose with orange hints on the rim.  The nose is of pure strawberries leading to savoury notes in the mouth.  Wholesome stuff but perhaps a bit pricey in the light of the competition on our shelves back home.  The 2008 Barco Reale is 70% Sangiovese and 15% each Canaiolo and Cab.Sauv. all of which spend 6 months in cask and then 6 months in steel tank.  It’s round, savoury and has gentle leathery notes.  My notes record that I was relatively unmoved by this though.  The 2008 Carmignano is 70% Sangiovese with 20% Cab.Sauv. and 10% Canaiolo which is soft, fruity and easy on the palate.  It does look a bit on the expensive side though at the best part of £20 retail in the UK.  Though not currently available in the UK, the wines of Villa Il Poggiolo may become so if some work can be done on the prices.

We finished with the 2001 Vin Santo which is 80% Trebbiano and 10% Malvasia with the remaining 10% a mix of San Colombaro, Canaiolo Bianco and Vermentino.  A great wine to sign off with, this has notes of dried fig with a hint of liquorice and dried orange peel.  Again there is the almost sherry-like nuttiness on the nose as well.  In the mouth this is roundly sweet and rich with fresh sultana and citrus flavours with super cleansing acidity and a long finish.

Please do not hesitate to ask about the availability of any of the wines featured in this series of blogs from Tuscany.  Not all make it as far as the UK, none are cheap, but many are great value for what they are given the level of care and attention that goes into making them and the experiences they bring.  Almost all need food but they provide a perfect illustration of the spiritual heart of Italy as far as wine is concerned.  You will not be disappointed!

Casa Emma, Chianti Classico, Tuscany (25/9/2011)

Towards the western edge of the Chianti Classico region, just south of the village of San Donato (which is about halfway between Poggibonsi and Greve in Chianti if you’re really that interested) lies the Casa Emma estate.  Casa Emma was bought by the Bucalossi family back in 1970 from the Fiorentine noblewoman Emma Bizzarri (hence the name) and sits amidst 34 hectares of land of which 21 hectares are vineyard.  They grow mainly Sangiovese here (surprise, surprise) but also have about 3 hectares of Merlot and smaller plantings of Malvasia Nera and Canaiolo.  There are the inevitable olive groves but also 5 hectares of botanical park where a Quercus Pubescens wood (or “oak” if you prefer to keep it simple – “downy oak” if you want to get more technical, but I’m stopping there…) is interspersed with plantings of cistus, broom, honeysuckle, privet, juniper shrubs and several species of wild rose and other herbaceous plantings.  Rose syrup, rose dressing and rose jam are produced here too.
Casa Emma
Casa Emma use the traditional grape blend for Chianti Classico of 80% Sangiovese with the remainder made up of Canaiolo and Malvasia Nera.  Fermentation usually takes about 20 days on the skins with the fermenting juice pumped over the “cap” to keep the maceration going.  The malo-lactic fermentation (the conversion of the harsher Malic Acid into the softer Lactic Acid which is encouraged in wine) takes about 6 months.  Once complete, the wine is moved to casks of French oak.  A combination of 225 litre (barrique) and 500 litre casks is used.  Casa Emma keep their barrels for 3 years using 1 and 2 year old casks for Riserva wines and the older ones for straight Chianti Chassico.

The 2010 Chianti Classico (tasted from cask) is clearly very young, but has good fruit and nice tannins underneath.  There is a hint of smoke from the oak and it promises well for the future.  A straight Merlot from 2007 was really showing unexpected youth for a wine that was already 4 years old while the 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva was full, rich and showed evident oak.  No doubt it promises well, but I found myself engaged in a bout of chin-stroking over the enthusiastic oak, wondering whether the fruit would be energetic enough to keep up. 

The 2009 Riserva, though really quite tannic, showed a little better I thought, while the 2009 straight Chianti Classico was slightly smokey and meaty on the nose compared to the others and on the lighter side in the mouth.  I suspect that this is nothing more than a common accusation levelled at Sangiovese though; I will explain.  If you’re far enough south in Tuscany in, say, Montalcino, Montepulciano or Orcia, you have less trouble getting your grapes nicely ripe and, in turn, produce fuller and more complete wines than it is possible to make in Chianti, which is that bit further north (different soil too) without the addition of other varieties to help the wine along.  Sangiovese is sometimes accused of seeming a little “hollow” somehow so the addition of other varieties makes perfect sense in some areas.  Sangiovese has plenty of flavour that’s for sure, but perhaps is sometimes in need of a bit body-building.  Some varieties do this better than others; Rietine use Merlot which works well, Casa Emma use Canaiolo and Malvasia Nera which tweaks the style a little in a lighter, some would say elegant, direction.  It’s all very subjective of course, but I generally found the Casa Emma style was less appealing.

We then tasted the 2007 Riserva and hit a problem.  Some were not happy and suspected a fault, but not one of the obvious ones, so a second bottle was brought forward.  The second bottle was better in the mouth but still had the same issue on the nose.  It was one of those frustrating experiences where the wine didn’t shine and no-one could quite put their finger on why.  The 2006 Riserva was a completely different experience, it had bigger fruit and was rounder and richer than the 2007.  The tannins were nicely ripe and there was a pleasant vanilla oak finish.  The 2005 Riserva again got us all quite animated.  It was savoury on the nose with a slightly cooked element (some spotted the prickle of sulphur) but in the mouth it was wholesome enough.

Casa Emma also make a Super Tuscan (see previous blog for definition) called Soloio.  It’s 100% Merlot.  The 2006 is much more New World in style and has a huge nose with rich plum fruit and a hint of smoke.  It’s quite round and grippy in the mouth with plenty of body and depth but, like so many such wines, it carries an overly-optimistic price tag and would be in the region of £40 a bottle in the UK.  Sorry chaps, nice wine, wrong price.  The 2005 Soloio showed evident age and had an odd nose, not faulty, but oddly whiffy in a meaty way.  Strange stuff.

Casa Emma make about 800 litres of Vin Santo a year made from air-dried Trebbiano and Malvasia picked in mid-October, once the main harvest is in.   The wine is aged in chestnut and cherry casks for 8 years before release.  We tasted the 2000 which has toffee and marmalade notes on the nose; a sort of Amontillado-meets-Rutherglen Muscat.  Fresh and fruity in the mouth it’s clean, pure and has good acidity to balance the concentrated sweetness.
The Casa Emma vineyards, just showing a hint of autumn.
A bit of a mixed bag here then.  Some nice wines, but also some that didn’t float my boat particularly.  The winery itself is modern and well presented, as are the staff with their Casa Emma shirts, and maybe this formulaic approach works for others, but as someone who has become accustomed to tasting in damp cellars the polished nature of the presentation seemed better suited to visiting tourists somehow.  Maybe Soloio works well for the Transatlantic market where mouthfilling oaky reds have a more immediate appeal, and where the preferences of Robert Parker seem to release many wine drinkers of the courage to formulate their own opinions, and the 2006 is good but I know we couldn’t sell it for £40 back home in Ipswich.  The Chiantis really come down to a preference in style and, of the two Classico estates we visited, Rietine get the nod as far as I’m concerned; Rietine’s wines are still elegant, but they have a bit more going on in the glass…

We can obtain the following wines from Casa Emma should you be interested – please contact us for details:

2006 Chianti Classico  £15.95
1998 Chianti Classico Riserva  £24.00
2000 Chianti Classico Riserva  £24.50
2001 Chianti Classico Riserva  £25.00
2004 Chianti Classico Riserva  £28.50
2005 Chianti Classico Riserva  £31.00

Vintages and prices correct as at 15th November 2011

Monday, 14 November 2011

Christmas Wine Ideas...

Well then, what are you eating at Christmas?  Traditional turkey, goose, beef perhaps or venison, maybe you’re a veggie or a fish fan; you can already see that wine recommendations need to cover a lot of ground.  Oh, and what’s your budget?  We’re always happy to advise customers individually according to menu and price but, realistically, we might not get the chance, so here are a few ideas to enjoy with your seasonal feasting.

Before the meal, why not have a glass of bubbles?  If it must be Champagne avoid the big brands - the shelf price reclaims such a whack of marketing expense that they are seldom good value.  Lallier Grand Cru, Reserve Brut, Ay at £26.50, is made only from Grand Cru vineyards, showing real class and more than enough flavour to match a tray of canapĂ©s.  Super value at less than half that is Mayerling Brut, Cremant d’Alsace at £12.95, made entirely from Pinot Blanc grapes.  It is brisk and cleansing with fresh fruit - a perfect appetiser.

Fish needs care: what goes well with shellfish may not work with smoked mackerel or salmon as the oil in them clashes with the acidity of a deliberately sharp wine like Muscadet, which is perfect with mussels.  For richer and smoked fish recipes, try 2010 Macon-SolutrĂ©, Domaine Denuziller at £11.25, a smooth, dry but ripe, entirely oak-free White Burgundy, boxing above its weight.  For a crisper, zestier option go for 2010 False Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa at £7.25 with the grape’s leafy freshness and zippy palate.

If turkey is on the menu a gentler red works well if it can stand up to stuffings and sauces without overpowering the meat.  2008 Herringbone Hills Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand at £10.95 offers just the right balance of flavour with freshness, but without clobbering alcohol.  It will take on rich gravy and traditional trimmings, but won’t send you to sleep in front of the queen who, obviously, deserves your full attention.

Richer meats demand bigger wines though available space allows just one or two ideas.  So, full enough to match beef, with sufficient edge to cut through the richness of goose and with a savoury character to compliment game - it’s time to visit Italy.  2005 Malintoppo, Azienda Agricola Simonelli-Santi, Orcia, Tuscany at £12.25 comes from a valley sandwiched between Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, yet is about half the price of the Vino Nobile and one third of the price of Brunello and cracking value relatively speaking. 

If a less high-falutin’, general purpose red is wanted, consider 2009 Hacienda Lopez de Haro Roble, Rioja, Bodegas Classica.  At £6.95 it won’t break the bank and at a quality above its price it won’t let the side down.  It is bursting with soft, ripe Tempranillo fruit with just a kiss of background oak spice, it will drink beautifully with red and white meats and it is perfect for entertaining a crowd.

For pud, one grape in two variants.  For palate refreshing zip try 2010 Moscato Frizzante, Cantine Volpi, Piemonte @ £8.60, sweet and grapey with a half-sparkle and at just 5.5% abv, it won’t frighten the vicar.  So fresh, so clean.  2009 Late Harvest Muscat, Tabali Estate, Limari Valley, Chile @ £6.50 per half bottle is stickier, richer and bubble-free with barley-sugar intensity.  Both will ease down a mince pie delightfully.

Cheese is a vital part of the Christmas table and traditionally this is accompanied by a glass or two of Port.  Here is a rich, lusciously fruity, fleshy example of generosity and warmth to put with your Stilton: it is Rio Torto, Reserva, Krohn, normally £12.50 but reduced to £10.50 until December 31st.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Rietine, Chianti Classico, Tuscany (25/9/2011)

This history of Chianti is long and complex and today the region of production is divided into several sub-regions with the Chianti Classico region – considered the best of them, and where it all began – at its heart sitting neatly between Firenze in the north and Siena in the south.  Early attempts to define what the make up of the wine should be resulted in too great a proportion of white grapes being permitted but this has, over time, been corrected to the point in 2006 where the use of white varieties in Chianti Classico was outlawed.  The traditional white varieties are still permitted (up to certain levels) in the surrounding regions of Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Pisane, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Montalbano and Chianti Rufina but Chianti Classico wines now have a distinctive character all of their own, and are much the better for it.

Mario and Galina Lazarides own and run Rietine (pronounces Re-ee-tine-ay) a winery in the south of the Chianti Classico region, about 8km as the crow flies south east of the town of Radda in Chianti.  It feels like about 20km by road because you don’t go anywhere quickly in Tuscany. The undulating hills, sweeping valleys and mix of vineyards, olive groves and forest somehow always seem to be in the way and it’s one of the easiest, but nicest, places on the planet to get lost!
Mario & Galina in their cellar at Rietine
Mario explains that he has 12 hectares in total of which 7 hectares are vineyards.  There is an approximate mix of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot as well as a few small plantings of other varieties.  He aims to make about 5,000 litres per hectare as long as he has no vines missing, and many vineyards in Chianti Classico are missing vines – mostly white varieties that were grubbed up following the 2006 ruling.  Indeed some producers still make 5,000 litres per hectare even when their vineyards are missing vines which obviously has an effect on concentration. The Consorzio are now checking vineyards for missing vines and adjusting permitted yields accordingly.  “About time too!” says Mario.

Each vine is expected to yield 6 or 7 bunches of grapes, though vines destined for Chianti Classico Riserva production will be reduced to 4 or 5 bunches in about June to encourage concentration.   In August some leaves are removed from the vines to aid ripening and the grapes, once ripe, are hand-harvested enabling close inspection and selection of each bunch.  2011 is a good vintage but quantity is down by about 30%.
The vineyards of Chianti Classico
Mario has several different varieties on oak casks in his cellar, all French but from different oaks (Allier, Troncais, Limousin, Nevers and Vosges) each barrique is marked with a letter to denote its origin.  Chianti Classico Riserva and Rietine’s “Super Tuscan” (Tiziano) see 24 months in oak.  New casks are toasted gently for 45 mins before use.  Mario is quite particular about which oak variety is used for what.

Rietine’s 2007 Chianti Classico is 80% Sangiovese (which is must be by law) and 20% Merlot.  It is poised, balanced and fine with fresh cherry fruit on the nose expanding in the mouth to hints of damson.  The flavours are focussed and pure.  Mario explains that he is not 100% happy with the 2008 Chianti Classico which will be sold off as declassified wine.  This is honourable in my book and demonstrates Mario’s adherence to strict quality standards for his wines.  His 2007 Chianti Classico Riserva is 100% Sangiovese and is much more concentrated than the straight Classico; rich yet elegant, not simply bigger and oakier which many other Riserva can so often be.  The use of oak is very gentle adding, correctly, a seasoning to the wine to lift and enhance the natural fruit flavours and balance rather than dominating the palate.  There are complexities here which flesh out the finish.

Tiziano is Rietine’s “Super Tuscan”.  Super Tuscan wines are those which do not stick to the local rules (for example they include non-permitted varieties which prohibit the wine from being called Chianti).  Originally many had to be simply labelled as table wines because no other classification existed which produced the anomaly of “Vino da Tavola” selling for higher prices than much Chianti, but the introduction of the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) classification now gives them a more suitable “home” as far as labelling is concerned.  Tiziano is 90% Merlot and 10% Ancelotta the latter of which I never knew was a grape variety until this visit (I thought he used to be the Chelsea Manager…).  The 2004 Tiziano is ripe, plummy and rich.  It shows more evident vanilla oak than the Chiantis, but has the structure to take it.  The finish is long and rich with an almost sweet note at the end balanced by a nip of grape skin astringency.   The 2007 Tiziano is the same blend and has a more obvious note of Merlot on the nose, a youthful appearance and very pink edges.  It smells full ripe and rich with the oak bringing an almost sweet element.  In the mouth is a rich mouthful of chewy fruit with a gentle savoury edge.  It clearly needs a few years yet to reach its full potential.

From tank we tasted the 2009 Chianti Classico which Mario was due to bottle on 11th October.  It’s a super wine with lots of fruit and concentration and still some way to go to reach its full potential.  The 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva (again from tank) seems even better than the 2009 but it could be that it’s just more approachable.  Again Rietine’s well-judged use of oak is evident with ripe almost raisin-like notes on the finish.  The Riserva 2008 was due to be bottled on 20th October 2011.  The 2008 Tiziano is also a big wine, full rich and concentrated, almost difficult to taste because it’s so young.

Before we depart we are treated to a taste of the 1997 Vin Santo which reminded me of sherry in a sort of Oloroso-meets-PX way. The grapes for this are harvested late so are already very ripe when they leave the vines (in about October).  They are then dried over the winter and crushed in late January.  Normally you might expect to get 75 litres of juice from 100kg of grapes, but by the time these are dried 100kg of grapes will produce about 22 litres.  The wine is then aged in casks for over 10 years. It is wonderfully rich and concentrated.  Someone else said “Twiglets” which may seem like an odd flavour for a sweet wine, but I know exactly what they mean!  The Rietine Grappa di Chianti Classico is clean and pure and reminded me of some of the French Eaux de Vie de Fruits with its purely fruity nose.  We were able to compare it with the same Grappa which had seen 2 years in oak which was drier, fuller and just as elegant.  The group was split 50/50 on which they preferred.

The whole experience at Rietine was fascinating.  The wines are skilfully hand-crafted and Mario and Galina utterly charming.  They insisted we took a glass or two of Chianti Classico before we departed!  My final note records that this visit was like looking at Chianti through a microscope in terms of the level of detail, the elegance of the wines and the definition of the myriad of flavours.

We can obtain the following wines from Rietine should you be interested – please contact us for details:

2007 Chianti Classico, Rietine  £15.95
1998 Chianti Classico Riserva Rietine  £18.95
2000 Chianti Classico Riserva Rietine  £19.95

Vintages and prices correct as at 4th November 2011 

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Azienda Agricola Simonelli-Santi, Orcia, Tuscany (24/9/2011)

The regions of production of two of Tuscany’s finest wines – Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montpulciano – are separated by a strip of land where the River Orcia flows.  You can stand in the main town - San Quirico d’Orcia - and see the hill of Montalcino to the west while over the hills to the east, across the next valley, sits Montepulciano.  Sangiovese is the dominant variety everywhere which makes wines like Simonelli-Santi’s Malintoppo (100% Sangiovese) cracking value when compared to its more famous neighbours; a few kilometres east and you could easily double the price.  Move a few kilometres west and you ought probably to triple it.  It is interesting to note that producers in Orcia often receive approaches from growers of Brunello di Montalcino for their “surplus production” when their own vines leave them short of wine.  It is perfectly legal for Brunello producers to buy from Orcia, but they are only allowed include Orcia production in Rosso di Montalcino and not Brunello.  ‘Nuff said…(ahem).
The entrance to the old town of
San Quirico d'Orcia
The Simonelli-Santi winery sits on the outskirts of San Quirico d’Orcia.  They make two red wines here:  Malintoppo is 100% Sangiovese made from a 4 hectare plot about 400m above sea level.  The wine sees about 3 months in oak.  Antonio is 80% Sangiovese with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and sees about 8 months in oak.  Grapes for Antonio come from just 1 hectare of vines.
In the winery we were guided through several vintages of Malintoppo by Ilaria Simonelli who makes the wine as well as being a busy wife and mum.  Her energy and enthusiasm for her products (she makes Vin Santo, Grappa and olive oil as well) is infectious!  As I write we are on the last few bottles of the fantastic 2004 Malintoppo here in the shop and about to move to 2005 which is also good, a little fresher and fruitier and perhaps less savoury.  Younger vintages, already queuing up to follow on when the time is right, are looking good!
Tasting several vintages of Malintoppo
The 2006 is delicious with lovely richness in the mouth.  There was disagreement amongst the group on when to drink it though; some thought it needed longer to settle down and soften some of its grippier character, while others thought it ready now.  Personally, though approachable now, I’d prefer to see it in a year’s time.  At least there is plenty of 2005 to be going on with!  If anything the 2007 is even better.  It has a purer and more characteristic Sangiovese character and a balance that perhaps gives it the edge on the 2006.  The 2008 is much deeper and darker and, though the tannins are ripe, they need time to integrate.  The alcohol is quite evident here and we notice a rise from the 2004 (13%abv) through the 2005 (14%abv) to the 2006 and 2007 (both 14.5%abv) to 15%abv in the 2008 (yeah, I know - more on this in a bit).  The 2009 is enormous with notes of liquorice, chocolate and tobacco.  It will be wonderful, but not for a few years yet.
Many of our number report comments from customers that alcohol levels in wine generally are on the rise.  Ilaria agrees, but explains that winemakers have a choice to make about whether to interfere with nature or not to address this.  Her approach is simply to let nature get on with it and riper grapes (and as a result higher alcohol levels) are the result of the current climate.  How much rain falls and (perhaps even more critically) when it falls has a direct influence on final alcohol levels.  It is possible to irrigate of course, encouraging the vines to take up water that might not have otherwise been available, which will proportionately reduce sugar (and therefore alcohol) but the resulting wines may lack concentration and depth.  “You could always add the water to the final wine!” suggests one of our number.  Ilaria’s wry smile suggests that this may be an option employed by other, less scrupulous, producers!  Hot climates are getting hotter and the message here is that we either we poke up with higher alcohol, or we buy different wines because it’s more important to producers like Ilaria that her wines are as natural as possible.  As a customer, you might not like that, but it is an approach worthy of respect.

Our tasting at the winery concentrated solely on vintages of Malintoppo (vin santo, grappa and olive oil) but bottles of Antonio 2005 were attacked without mercy at several points during our time in Tuscany.  Antonio is a more modern style with the addition of the Cab.Sauv.  It’s still leathery and savoury with underlying black fruit and is fuller and richer but the critical thing here is that although the Cabernet fills out the Sangiovese in a modern way, the wine firmly maintains its Italian identity.  If you don’t know what I mean, just buy a bottle or two…
Ilaria hands out the 2003 Vin Santo
The 2003 Vin Santo is made from a blend of 20% Trebbiano and 80% Malvasia.  The grapes are picked before the main harvest and then dried until late February.  The wine is matured for 5-6 years in oak casks after which time only 30% remains of its original volume (can you imagine the concentration)!  It is raisiny and rich with a soft, velvet feel in the mouth.  Utterly captivating!

We can obtain the following wines from Simonell-Santi should you be interested – please contact us for details:

2005 Malintoppo  £12.25 (already on the list)
2005 Antonio  £16.50 (shortly to be added)!
2003 Vin Santo  £29.00 per 50cl

Vintages and prices correct as at 25th October 2011 

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Podere Le Berne, Montepulciano, Tuscany (24/9/2011)

The medieval hill town of Montepulciano has a problem, namely that is shares its name with a red grape variety grown extensively on the other side of Italy in Abruzzo.  The town of Montepulciano and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo are entirely unrelated of course, yet confusion reigns; sometimes I wonder whether the Italians do it deliberately… So, the town is Montepulciano, the grape is Sangiovese (mostly) and the people are the Natalini family who own Podere Le Berne, a farm which occupies about 21 hectares of which 10 are planted with vines.
We found Andrea Natalini
with his pickers in the vineyard.
We had to search for Andrea amongst the vineyards for the harvest was in full swing and he was out with the pickers.  Greeted with confident handshakes and beaming smiles we were handed the secateurs and encouraged to join in. 
Picking Sangiovese in the Le Berne vineyards near Montepulciano.
The small trailer was soon full and on its way back to the winery, we watched the grapes unloaded, crushed and the juice pumped to the fermentation tank.  Within 30 minutes of picking the grapes we were tasting the resulting juice. 
The grapes are crushed.
Andrea grabbed his hydrometer and took a reading of the sugar content.  It read 22 something-in Italian-that-I-didn’t-quite-catch which Andrea said was high and would equate to about 15% alcohol in the finished wine.  This too is high, though not unusual for such a hot vintage as 2011 (his 2008 is also 15%). 
Andrea checks the sugar content of the
juice from the freshly crushed grapes.
Some people may be put off by a wine whose label reads 15% abv but it’s foolish to judge a wine solely on its alcoholic content.  Wine is all about balance and lots of booze is ok so long as there’s lots of everything else to maintain that balance.  Besides, what’s the alternative?  Pick the grapes before they are fully ripe to control the sugar and thereby the potential alcohol?  That means mean, green stalky wines that are not enjoyable.  Or you could just add water I suppose?  It might lower the alcohol but also dilutes the flavour that the winemaker has worked so hard to achieve. 

It is possible resort to all sorts of modern trickery to lower the alcoholic content (as many supermarkets are now insisting their producers do in response to customer demand) by techniques such as reverse osmosis (look it up...) but just how much do you think we should bugger about with that which nature has seen fit to provide?  The time has come to stop bickering about a few degrees of booze and have a glass of water with your wine and, if you have to resort to such desperate measures, just drink fewer glasses; it’s meant to be shared after all!  OK,  that’s the rant out of the way and you need to buy a bottle of Le Berne’s 2008 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano too see what I mean about 15% abv wine and balance.

Andrea has vines ranging from 60 years old to those which he only planted this year.  In the best years he makes a Riserva, the juice for which tends to come from his oldest vines.  Generally speaking only vines over 10 years of age make his Vino Nobile, anything younger will tend to become Rosso di Montepulciano.  It will be several years before he uses the fruit from the vine he planted this year for anything other than green manure!
Tasting the Le Berne wines.
The 2010 Rosso di Montepulciano (13.5% abv since you ask) has a fresh cherry nose and shows evident youth.  It’s attractive enough now, but will mellow and soften with a couple more years in bottle and will drink beautifully for another 3-5 after that.

The 2008 Vino Nobile di  Montepulciano (15% abv if you recall) has a super ripe nose of red fruit with real depth and intensity.  The palate is concentrated ripe cherry with a hint of vanilla from the oak.  It’s very big in the mouth and the alcohol, pleasingly, doesn’t dominate at all.  My scribbled tasting note at the time ends with the words “Bloody brilliant!”

The 2007 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva is much darker in colour and is even more complex with the characteristic red fruit but just a hint of liquorice.  There is more obvious oak here which follows through onto the palate which is full and fleshy with great length.

Andrea drizzles some of his olive oil onto some bread for us to taste and then mysteriously vanishes to return a few minutes later with an unlabelled bottle asking if we’d like to taste something else.  It was impossible to resist.  The wine we taste is, we understand, something of an experiment.  So much so that it does not yet have a name.  It is 75% Colorino and 25% Marmolo (no, I don’t know either).  It is simply enormous, with a nose reminiscent of Priorat or at least a similar Grenache/Carignan mix from a warm climate.  It’s young, vibrant, rich and chocolatey and quite unlike anything else we’ve tasted from Tuscany.  Andrea is clearly a chap who's not afraid to try new things in the quest for better and better wines.  He certainly got my vote anyway!

The Vin Santo is the nuttiest we’ve tasted so far.  Almost sherry-like on the nose yet with a sweet delicacy in the mouth with raisin and dried citrus notes.

Grapes for Vin Santo drying on raised mats
We can obtain the following wines from Podere Le Berne should you be interested – please contact us for details:

2009 Rosso di Montepulciano  £14.50
2008  Vino Nobile de Montepulciano  £22.50 (in stock now - yes, you can buy this today)!
2007 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva  £29.50

Vintages and prices correct as at 11th October 2011 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Fattorie Giannozzi Wines, Marcialla, Tuscany (22/9/2011)

Fattorie Giannozzi is a small family-owned and run Fattorie that can trace winemaking in a direct line since 1710.  Situated about halfway between Siena and Florence their vineyards lie in the district of Barberino Val d’Elsa which itself is just 2km from the edge of the Chianti Classico region.  The grapes here are grown without the use of fertilizers etc though they (sensibly) reserve the right to intervene when absolutely necessary.  There are 180 hectares in total with 35 hectares being vineyards. 

The ancient farmhouse (you can stay there is you wish) dates from the 16th century, though Marcialla has grown to the extent that it now sits on the edge of the main square!  Two ancient olive presses lurk in the cellar alongside a selection of old agricultural tools displayed on the wall like instruments of torture. 
Instruments of torture?
Hidden in the corner is a small door leading to a treasure trove of old historic vintages on which several generations of spiders had woven their protective silky blanket; there are bottles here dating back several generations!
The "Library" at Fattorie Giannozzi
Our tasting here was done as part of a Tuscan meal and commenced with, unusually for Tuscany, a Chardonnay.  The 2010 Chardonnay from Fattorie Giannozzi is clean and fresh with a note of lemon and pear on its easy, attractive nose.  In the mouth it is apple-fresh and crisp with citrus acidity.  It’s not available in the UK however, and one can understand why when it would sell for around £11 – after all, you can buy decent Macon for that sort of money.

The 2009 Chianti Colli Fiorentini Villa Marcialla is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot.  It is fermented in stainless steel and sees no oak.  The nose is all ripe cherry and damson with the damson and an attractive hint of grape skin astringency following through to the palate.  It really needs food to show it at its best.  The selection of proscuitto, salami, olives, breads and salads we ate with it certainly did the job well!
These wines worked better with food....
The 2007 Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva Villa Marcialla is also a 90/10 blend of Sangiovese and Merlot and sees 24-30 months in French oak (18, 20 and 25hl barrels though – not barriques).  Certainly there is evident oak on the nose though the ripe cherry and damson fruit still shows through.  The palate is rounder, fuller and more savoury than the 2009 straight Chianti, and the finish longer with lingering notes of vanilla.

Fattorie Giannozzi also make a straight Merlot and a straight Cabernet Sauvignon neither of which are brought into the UK; presumably for the same reason as the Chardonnay.  Both are sound wines though.  The 2006 Merlot has gentle round chocolate notes and is ripely fruity in the mouth.  It’s something of an international wine and, whilst sound enough, could almost come from anywhere which sort of misses the point when you’re in the middle of Italy.  The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is very minty on the nose and actually tasted of spearmint leaves with fleshy blackcurrant fruit.  Again, it is sound enough and perfectly enjoyable, but something of a homeless wine.

Giannozzi’s Vin Santo di Chianti was super though.  Very intense and almost sherry-like in flavour it has a sweet nuttiness on the palate and a long powerful finish.

We can obtain the following wines from Fattorie Giannozzi should you be interested – please contact us for details:
2006 Villa Marcialla Chianti Colli Fiorentini  £9.95
2005 Villa Marcialla Chianti Colli Fiorentini  Riserva  £12.95

Vintages and prices correct as at 12th October 2011 

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Olive Oil

Almost all Tuscan vineyards are interspersed with olive groves; olives are the other big crop of the region.  Consequently, most producers make olive oil in addition to wine and there is an equal variety of styles available.  I have to be careful here since, whilst my palate is accustomed to wine, it is not used to tasting pure olive oil.  Many producers drizzle it over the local bread (which is unsalted) though one producer served it to us in a tasting glass, like wine.

Olive oil is a delicate beast and easily killed by light.  9 years ago the EU (bless ‘em) woke up to this and decreed that it could only be sold in dark green bottles or tins.  So if you keep yours at home in a clear bottle get a dark one instead.  It also picks up other flavours so keep the cork in the bottle!  In the UK we’ve only really caught on to what the Italians, Spanish et al have known for centuries – after all it wasn’t that many years ago that you could only buy olive oil in the UK at the Chemists, and only then in small bottles that lived in the medicine cupboard and not the kitchen!  My parents thought it was really only good for de-waxing your ears and getting the fluff out of your belly button…

Legally olive oil has to carry a “best before” date (rather than an expiry date) because it is a foodstuff.  This always strikes me as a bit odd for something that has been used as a preservative for centuries.  But then again, as one food broker we know pointed out, he sources salt for a UK supermarket that comes from a deposit that is hundreds of thousands of years old, and that has a “best before” date on it too… best before the next ice age presumably…

When olive oil is fresh it’s green in colour.  This is because the olives (only picked in Tuscany once the grape harvest is in) are not 100% ripe.  In time the colour will change from green to yellow.  Olive oil will begin to solidify at 4˚C and once it’s done that it will separate and will not restore itself once it warms up again.  To taste it (if tasting from a glass, like wine) you find the same flavours as with everything else: sweetness on the front, bitter at the back and salty and sour at the sides, acidity underneath.  You then swallow it and you get an extra flavour, pepper in the throat and, as a general rule, the more pepper you find when you swallow it (and you must swallow it to get the pepper-in-the-throat sensation) the fresher the oil.

There are two ways to press olive oil, cold press and hot press.  Of these a cold pressing produces the better oil because it’s easier to separate out the water element, but it’s labour intensive and correspondingly expensive.  Hot pressing (and you’ll never see it on a label – you might as well print the words “mass produced”) is the more commercial because it’s cheaper and faster, but more water remains so the oil is less fine.  Some producers (including our own Felix Gasull from Spain) opt for a low temperature (but not completely cold) pressing at night which still produces a high quality oil, but helps keep to a reasonable price too.  Prices for the finest oils can be pretty high.

Olive oil consumption is the UK is increasing, but an average Italian family of 2 adults and 1 child consumes about 50kg of olive oil each year.  An average American probably consumes the same in cheeseburgers… at least we in the UK are now starting to recognise the benefits of olive oil and the nature of its friendlier fats. 

Whilst on the subject of America, did you know that in the USA and Canada it is legally permissible to dilute olive oil with up to 20% of sunflower oil and still call it Extra Virgin?  Sneaky eh?  As indeed is the fact that you can import olive oil from (say) Spain to Italy and, as long as it’s bottled in Italy, it can be called Italian olive oil.  You could argue that this is no different to buying a Japanese car that’s been made in Sunderland, but surely labelling should be about clarity?  So, please remember that any country of origin on your olive oil refers only to where it was bottled/canned and not necessarily where the olives were grown.  That’s also pretty sneaky in my book actually come to think of it.  To get round this you need to decode the label.  Look at the label and you should find no more than 2 names on it.  These will be the grower’s name, and the producer’s name (who presses and bottles it).  They may be the same chap of course in which case you’ll only find one name. Marvellous.  But if you see 3 (or more) names you’re probably looking at a product that’s going for the cheaper end of the market and has been imported from another country and is trying to cash in on the perceived prestige of being from a different country.

Our Felix Gasull olive oil is Spanish and comes from Reus which is near Tarragona, just down the coast from Barcelona.  It’s Extra Virgin (the highest quality grade characterised by not more than 0.8% acidity) and made from “Arbequina” olives. The olives are hand-harvested and transported to their mill to be milled at a low temperature during the night. The hand-harvesting is important since it enables more effective removal of the leaves which can adversely affect the flavour of the final oil if too many left in.  The result is a single varietal oil of low acidity, with a slightly fruity taste and almond, fennel, nuts and anise notes.  It’s great for salads, dipping, frying, roasting, anything in fact as it’s a good all-rounder.  Yours for only £7.95 a litre.  Order now here.

Prices correct as at 2nd December 2016