Soldera update: making sense of the unfathomable

December 4, 2012

montalcino vendetta wineMala tempora currunt (bad times are upon us), wrote Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani yesterday in an email, one of the tide of messages that pulsed across the internets as we all tried to make sense of the unfathomable: on Sunday night, someone entered the cellars of Gianfranco Soldera (left, photo taken during my visit in 2008) and destroyed more than 60,000 liters of his wines, six entire vintages, spanning 2007 (still in cask) through 2012.

According to a post today by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association), “62,600 liters” were destroyed and the site confirms that “the entire production from 2007-2012″ was lost.

The site WineNews.it also reports the same figure and vintages, noting that “the valves of 10 casks were opened.”

When reached for comment by the authors of the post, Soldera’s son Mauro told them that the wine was insured, including coverage for vandalism (before becoming a winemaker, Gianfranco Soldera made his fortune in the insurance trade in Milan).

The post also quotes the mayor of Montalcino, Silvio Franceschelli, who expressed the town’s “utmost solidarity with Case Basse for this villainous and cowardly act.”

Franceschelli is also quoted as saying that “any allusion to phenomena that bear the mark of the mafia are entirely imaginary.”

I wasn’t able to reach Soldera winery for comment today (the landline was occupied every time I called and a call to Gianfranco’s cellphone went unanswered). But I did speak to a number of people “on the ground” who concurred that the involvement of organized crime is unlikely.

Most believe that the senseless act was inspired by vengeance, perhaps in retribution for the supposed (but never verified) letter that Soldera wrote to authorities who launched an investigation into adulterated wines in Montalcino, an episode that culminated with judiciary action against a number of major players in Brunello in 2008 (the so-called “Brunellopoli” or Brunellogate affair).

(For the record, in 2008, while visting with him under the pergola of his home, I asked Soldera whether or not he had sent a letter to authorities. He flatly denied that he had and I believed him. He was, however, an outspoken critic of many of those implicated in the scandal.)

brunello scandal soldera

Above: Photo taken in 2008 during a visit to the winery. Yesterday, when we spoke, wine merchant Ceri Smith told me that she had tasted the 2007 in cask when she visited Soldera in February of this year.

One person I spoke to this morning (afternoon in Montalcino) proposed that it might have been a disgruntled ex-employee of Soldera.

But everyone I spoke to agreed that it’s unlikely that organized crime was the author of the vandalism. There has been no mafia activity there, said one informed person, and it is improbable that such an event would be isolated if the malavita were involved.

“One thing is certain,” wrote Franco Ziliani on his blog today, “today, all those who called Soldera a ‘poison pen’ or ‘snitch,’ accusing him of breaking the curtain of silence and challenging [Montalcino's] establishment, should recite a sadly belated mea culpa. They are the ones objectively responsible for having prompted the deranged vandals who violated the cellar at Case Basse as punishment of its owner.”

In a phone conversation today, one of my friends in Tuscany noted how easy it would be to empty the casks of their wine. If you’ve ever visited a winery where large format casks like Soldera’s are used, you know that it’s simply a matter of opening a valve (if the wine were aged in 225-liter barriques, for example, this egregious task would be much more complicated).

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Above: “I let my grandchildren use chalk to draw on the casks,” said Soldera during my 2008 visit. Note the spigot at the bottom of the cask.

“The territory of Montalcino is a small and tranquil territory,” wrote winemakers Alessandro and Fabrizio Bindocci on their blog today, “where many people still leave their doors of their homes unlocked.”

As hard as it is to wrap our minds around this nefarious and senseless episode, it’s easy to imagine how simple it would be to execute the crime. When Tracie P and I stay in Montalcino, we regularly leave our keys in the rental car and the doors to our apartment unlocked.

Italy has a long history of vengeance, spanning ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the twentieth-century, when many towns and families were torn apart by the brutality of fascism, the extreme violence of organized crime, and the envies and jealousies borne out by the gap between those who prospered in Italy’s post-war economic miracle and those who didn’t.

The English word vendetta, indeed, comes from the Italian (from the Latin vindicta, meaning vengeance).

Today, faced with the thought that no fewer than six vintages of one of the world’s greatest wines have been lost, no one among us has an explanation for the incomprehensible violation of — what we must recognize as — one of Italy’s greatest treasures and one of the most noble expressions of its cultural legacy.

United in our bewilderment, we can only express our solidarity for a man who has lost six precious years of his life.


Brunello pres moves to allow emergency irrigation

September 18, 2012

Brunello growers and bottlers association president Fabrizio Bindocci (above) is appealing to the Italian agriculture ministry to reinterpret current appellation regulations and allow emergency irrigation without revising legislation.

As I wrote on Friday for the Houston Press, one thing was achingly apparent during our recent two-week trip from northernmost Italy to the tip of the heel of the boot, traveling through ten of Italy’s twenty regions: prolonged heat and drought have seriously impacted growers and winemakers over the last decade and their acceptance of climate change is no longer subject of debate but rather resignation in the face of an unavoidable truth.

Last week, Angelo Gaja issued the following statement:

    Climate change — marked by prolonged summer heat and drought — is the cause for the sharp drop in Italy’s grape production for 2012. It was also the reason behind the light vintages of 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011.

    Now, as a result, another scarce year adds to the lack of wine from previous vintages lying in Italian cellars. In the space of just a few short years, we have shifted from a situation in which Italy perennially produced a surplus of wine to the current shortage.

And on Wednesday, Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello growers and bottlers association (Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino) wrote that “To make great wines, one needs healthy grapes at the right point of ripening. For this reason, we are passing through the vineyards of Sangiovese harvesting, selecting the bunches that have suffered the heat, and leaving still the whole grape bunches to ripen. [The 2012 vintage] is surely not an easy vintage, with a reduction of production not yet predictable but surely of 20%.”

Off the record, among the score of growers and winemakers I talked to over the last two weeks, many compared 2012 to the disastrous annus horribilis 2003, when unrelenting heat and drought decimated Sangiovese vineyards in Montalcino, the first in a series of warm-hot vintages that have challenged growers and producers of fine wines.

In Montalcino, the situation is aggravated by the fact that emergency irrigation — irrigazione di soccorso — is not prescribed by appellation regulations.

Above: For growers with ideal vineyard sites, like Laura Brunelli (Podernovi-Le Chiuse di Sotto [Montalcino]), the quality of fruit is excellent. The problem is that there will be less of it in 2012 (as for Bindocci’s Il Poggione). Even Laura conceded that she would have irrigated this year in certain spots if the appellation allowed it.

In the light of the warming trend, Fabrizio has been lobbying for many years (since 2003) to change the appellation regulations and allow for emergency irrigation.

When I met with him a week ago Saturday, he told me that he is currently preparing a request for “clarification” from the Italian agriculture ministry.

Apparently, the appellation regulations make no mention of emergency irrigation (or whether it is allowed or not).

“In another time,” he told me, “irrigation wasn’t included in the appellation because it could have been used to inflate yields. That’s not an issue today: our members consistently deliver yields far below the maximum requirements, which are already low. So the question is no longer quantity but rather quality. By allowing irrigation in vintages like this, we could help to raise quality for the entire appellation.”

Bindocci’s move, if successful, would also eliminate potential bureaucratic delays and headaches: now that EU technocrats in Brussels have to rubberstamp any changes to appellation regulations issued by Rome, a whole new layer of red tape has been added to the process.

“If the minister declares that, according to the letter of the law, irrigation is legal because it is not referenced in the regulations, we could potentially begin right away,” although the Italian government summer recess, which just ended, would seem to preclude that possibility at this point.

A deux ex machina from the Italian government would also resolve another set of local and political issues for the growers association (and these are my words, not Fabrizio’s).

“No one wants to be the first,” said one grower, “to irrigate without the government’s authorization. Theoretically, they could try to since the appellation doesn’t state whether it’s allowed or not. But no one wants to be the first.”


GREAT NEWS! Bindocci new president of Brunello Consortium

June 19, 2012

Because we were recording all day, I was offline yesterday when the news broke: my friend Fabrizio Bindocci, winemaker at the historic Montalcino estate Il Poggione, has been named the new president of the Brunello bottlers association.

The news came in the wake of Ezio Rivella’s sudden departure from the post on June 8 (for personal reasons, he reported in a press release issued by Montalcino mouthpiece WineNews.it).

It’s hard to believe that nearly ten years have passed since the disastrous 2003 vintage and more than four years since the Brunello controversy exploded in 2008.

In my view, Rivella’s presidency only prolonged the issue (remember when Rivella told an Italian journalist that 80 percent of Brunello was made with grapes other than Sangiovese?).

Fabrizio is a Tuscan (Rivella is from Piedmont and didn’t even keep a residence in Montalcino while president, opting instead to commute from Rome); he was born and raised in Montalcino; he has worked for Il Poggione since 1976; and he is one of the most respected and beloved winemakers in Tuscany today.

His presidency marks a new (and happy) chapter in the saga of Montalcino and I — along with many other lovers of Brunello — could not be more thrilled.

Tracie P and I will visit with Fabrizio later this year when we travel to Montalcino.


Biondi Santi a cooperative winery?

June 4, 2012

biondi santi

Alfonso weighed in yesterday with another earth-scorching post devoted to wines made “Under the Tuscan Scum” (and I highly recommend it to you, especially if you’re a sommelier working with Italian wine).

But the post I can’t stop thinking about this morning is another fantastic document culled from the archives of Il Poggione’s library. In this case, the entry for the “Cooperative Cellars of Biondi-Santi & Co.” in the 1933 handbook of wines from the province of Siena, published by the department of the agriculture at the university of Siena (frontispiece, above).

Many will be surprised to learn that the early modern incarnation of the Biondi Santi winery was as a cooperative cellar. But the document is rich with clues from and traces of another era in Italian and Tuscan winemaking that help us to understand better the origins of Italy’s wine industry today. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing Alessandro Bindocci’s translation here so that I can comment each paragraph. You’ll find the original text in Italian on Ale’s blog.

*****

The cooperative winery Biondi Santi & Co. was established in Montalcino in 1926 thanks to the praiseworthy efforts of a group of [land] owners who were wine producers. They understood the necessity and importance of promoting two of Tuscany’s classic wines: Brunello and Moscadello from Montalcino.

Today, few remember that Moscadello was nearly as important as Brunello in those early years. When the Mariani family (Banfi) went to Montalcino in the 90s, it’s great hope was to produce sparkling wines from Moscadello that could rival Moscato d’Asti (that’s why they brought down Ezio Rivella from Asti).

1926 is the same year that Luigi Pirandello published one of his most popular novels (Uno, nessuno e centomila). He would win the Nobel prize for literature in 1934, the year after the wines of Siena handbook was published (can you name any contemporary Italian writer today?) 

The farming companies who lead the cooperative winery are the following: Biondi-Santi, Cocchi Brothers, Padelletti, and Tamanti. Together, these farms have 1,200 hectares [planted to vine].

I was able to find this information about the Padelletti family, one of Montalcino’s oldest clans. And I discovered this document on the Tamanti legacy. As per my previous post on Brunello, the founding fathers of Brunello weren’t farmers who had raised wine for generations. They were rich land owners who saw business opportunity in the production of fine wine. I wasn’t able to find anything on Cocchi (in the short time I could devote to this).

Thanks to the topographic position and the geological nature of its soils, the hill of Montalcino produces grapes with exquisite flavor from which delicious wines are made — wines that have been known as such for centuries. The cooperative winery is located in Montalcino, 40 kilometers from Siena. The nearly railway station is in Torrenieri (on the Siena-Grosseto line), 9 kilometers from Siena.

In 1933, eleven years into Mussolini’s rule, the notion of italianità was in vogue in Italy: national pride in Italy’s natural, industrial, and commercial resources.

Today, many cite 1888 as the year that Brunello was “invented” and bottled as such. But this document reveals that it was famous even before Biondi Santi’s 1888 bottling. Today, Torrenieri is covered with vineyards planted to Sangiovese. In 1933, it was a railroad stop: shipping posed great challenges for wineries in that era (can you imagine a wine guide noting the location of the nearest port or railway station today?).

The cooperative winery produces more than 1,000 quintals of wine annually and it places its coveted products easily and lucratively in Italy and abroad.

The winery is endowed with highly modern equipment and well suited facilities. The technical director of the winery is Dr. Tancredi Biondi-Santi.

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is how Biondi Santi provided a new working model for Montalcino (and Tuscany in general): modern equipment, easy access to a supply chain, and a cooperative system that allowed grape growers to combine their resources.

Think how different things would be had Mussolini not come to power in Italy. Of course, Germany would have devastated Italy regardless. But, either way, the renaissance in wine described here wouldn’t have been interrupted by the conflict that followed the rise of fascism.

Ale, thank you for this fantastic document and wonderful post!


Mussolini’s Brunello

April 25, 2012

I was thrilled to read this translation of the entry for Brunello di Montalcino in a 1937 (fascist era) catalog for an exhibition of Italian wines in Siena by my friends at Tenuta Il Poggione.

The document offers us a window onto how Brunello was perceived in another era. In 1937, fascism was at its zenith and Mussolini had yet to adopt Hitler’s race laws (1938). It was a time filled with national pride for many Italians (members of the fascist party) and the exhibition of “typical Italian wines” in Siena that year was indicative of the spirit of italianità that gripped the Italian collective psyche.

Alessandro Bindocci, who posted the document and translation on his blog, neglected to translate the quote from Mussolini at the bottom of the page (btw, I asked Ale to send me hi-res versions of the document; click the images here to view), il vino rappresenta il dio domestico sul riposo settimanale: wine represents the domestic god of weekly rest.

The quote is significant for many reasons. But most importantly in my mind, it offers us a trace of how fine wine was considered a medicine with health-enhancing properties in the era before the Second World War.

Brunello di Montalcino, write the editors of the catalog, has an alcohol content of “12.5-13%” (!!!) and is recommended for “those who work with their brains, the elderly, and those recovering from illness. It will give the drinker a sensation of new life.” They even suggest that Brunello di Montalcino has a “tonic” (i.e., medicinal) flavor.

It’s a fascinating however short text and I highly recommend it to you.

I hope to consult the catalog when I visit Montalcino later this year.

Buona lettura…


Call for emergency irrigation in Brunello by Fabrizio Bindocci @BrunelloMaker

March 20, 2012

“Let us debunk the common misconception that irrigation serves solely to increase production,” wrote my friend and Brunello producer Fabrizio Bindocci (above) on his son Alessandro’s blog Montalcino Report this morning. “Today, the appellation rules establish low yields and monitoring is implemented in the vineyard to see if these yields are real. For this reason, we would be opening a practice that can only help to raise the quality when there is need because of climatic capriciousness. But until today, not having this possibility, the growers of Montalcino will use the agronomic techniques that they possess to manage their vineyard the best that they can.”

If you’ve been following their blog (as I have), you know that the weather in Montalcino has been very strange this year and there are already forecasts and fears of drought in the 2012 vintage.

Drought isn’t as great of a threat for Fabrizio, his son, and the estate they manage as it may be for other growers: thanks to the age of their vines, their roots reach deeper and have greater success in finding the water table, even in lean years.

But as one of the members of the technical advisory board of the Brunello growers association, Fabrizio is speaking to and for the more than 250 bottlers in the appellation.

Fabrizio has taken a lot of flak for serving on the advisory board under Ezio Rivella, the maligned septuagenarian who continues to lobby for the inclusion of international grape varieties in Brunello.

The way I see it, Fabrizio — a friend of mine and a winemaker I greatly admire — is serving Montalcino’s best interests by working within the current political framework and climate. I can’t think of a more noble and more Tuscan attitude…

And should Montalcino be stricken with another 2003, emergency irrigation would make the blending of Merlot in Brunello much less appealing…

Click here to read his “open letter” calling for emergency irrigation in Montalcino.


1979 Vino Rosso dai Vigneti di Brunello @BrunelloMaker

January 31, 2012

Tracie P and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary on Friday night with one of the most stunning bottles we have ever shared together: 1979 Vino Rosso dai Vigneti di Brunello by the Tenuta Il Poggione (our anniversary is actually today but we celebrated on Friday because Rev. and Mrs. B were in town and we had our first date night out since Georgia P was born!).

The bottle was given to me by my friends Fabrizio and Alessandro Bindocci at the winery back in October when I visited with them (I had it shipped from Siena, fearing that such a delicate bottle would not withstand travels in the trunk of my rental car and in the cargo of a commercial airliner). It had been cellared there since bottling and it had not been recorked or topped off. The shoulder was impressively high for a bottle this old.

Until 1982 when the DOC for Rosso di Montalcino was created (see Alessandro’s post here), the rosso was a vino da tavola labeled as Vino Rosso dai Vigneti di Brunello (Red Wine from Brunello Vineyards). Note the alcohol content (13.5%) and note the bottle format (720ml).

Usually when you open a bottle of wine this old (and especially in the case of a wine originally intended to be drunk in its youth), you expect it to deliver one last gasp of life: you pull the cork and pour it into your glass and you enjoy it immediately, as its vibrancy quickly fades.

Not knowing what to expect (in part because Bindocci father and son had told me that it could be past its prime), Tracie P and I were BLOWN away by its bright acidity and fruit. And as we tasted it over the course of an hour and a half, it just continued to reveal layer upon layer of ripe red and berry fruit. It paired exquisitely with a black and blue New York sirloin. I had brought the bottle to the restaurant (Trio in Austin) three days prior and it had been stored upright. I asked our sommelier Coalminer Mark not to decant it and we opened it just a few moments before our main course arrived. I’m sure it could have kept its life for many more hours had we not slurped it down!

An truly unique and special bottle of wine for a magical moment in our lives: (not so) Little Georgia P was seven weeks old yesterday. We love her so much!

Thanks again, Fabrizio and Alessandro, for sharing this experience with us — from Montalcino to Austin… BRILLIANT!


Nuns and wine (Coenobium) and a report from Montalcino

August 22, 2011

Above: “Decameron” by Waterhouse (1916). The countryside outside the city of Fiesole served as diegetic backdrop in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Fiesole lies in the hills above Florence.

If you’ve visited my blog before, you probably have already tasted Coenobium, a wine raised by Cistercian sisters in the Province of Viterbo and vinified by natural winemaker and co-founder of Vini Veri, one of Italy’s leading natural wine movements, Giampiero Bea. Most Italophile wine lovers have heard the tale of this wine many times before.

But when I posted about it today over at the Houston Press food and wine blog, I couldn’t resist making an allusion to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Third Day, Novella 1, “Masetto da Lamporecchio [who] feigns to be dumb, and obtains a gardener’s place at a convent of women, who with one accord make haste to lie with him.”

The funny, sexy tale is one of those depicted by Pasolini in his 1971 filmic version of the Decameron (which we watched the other night) and I’m always looking for excuses to talk about literature when writing about wine.

    Fairest ladies, not a few there are both of men and of women, who are so foolish as blindly to believe that, so soon as a young woman has been veiled in white and cowled in black, she ceases to be a woman, and is no more subject to the cravings proper to her sex, than if, in assuming the garb and profession of a nun, she had put on the nature of a stone: and if, perchance, they hear of aught that is counter to this their faith, they are no less vehement in their censure than if some most heinous and unnatural crime had been committed; neither bethinking them of themselves, whom unrestricted liberty avails not to satisfy, nor making due allowance for the prepotent forces of idleness and solitude. And likewise not a few there are that blindly believe that, what with the hoe and the spade and coarse fare and hardship, the carnal propensities are utterly eradicated from the tillers of the soil, and therewith all nimbleness of wit and understanding. But how gross is the error of such as so suppose, I, on whom the queen has laid her commands, am minded, without deviating from the theme prescribed by her, to make manifest to you by a little story…

Here’s the link to my post.

And here’s the link to the tale. Buona lettura!

In other news…

Above: My friends have begun harvesting their Pinot Grigio in Montalcino. As you can see in the image, Pinot Grigio is not a white grape.

I’ve been following my friends father and son Fabrizio and Alessandro Bindocci’s posts on the vegetative cycle and harvest 2011 over at their blog Montalcino Report.

They’ve been doing an amazing job of documenting the 2011 vintage and to my knowledge, they are the only Italian winemakers who have attempted a project like this.

Today they posted the above photo of Pinot Grigio grapes and reported “Heat Spikes But Grapes Are Healthy and Correctly Ripened.”

It takes a lot of courage to be so honest about the vintage but it also gives Italian wine enthusiasts an entirely new perspective into the vegetative cycle. It will be fascinating to taste the wines when they are released and compare our tasting notes with their documentation of the vintage.

Chapeau bas, gentlemen!


Sangiovese Grosso: Italian grape name pronunciation project

April 4, 2011

CLICK HERE FOR ALL EPISODES.

This week’s episode of the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project is devoted to Sangiovese Grosso as spoken by my friend Federico Marconi who was born in Castelnuovo dell’Abate (a subzone of Montalcino) and general manager of the small estate Le Presi (click here for my post on Le Presi and a great photo IMHO of the strata of volcanic soil that define the wines raised in Castelnuovo).

Sangiovese is relatively easy to pronounce for Anglophones. But for the record, it is pronounced here by a bona fide toscano and ilcinese (ilcinese or montalcinese is the ethnonym used to denote an inhabitant of Montalcino).

Also, for the record, please see my post on the Origins of the Grape Name Sangiovese, which most probably does not mean the blood of Jove — a folkloric etymology too often repeated by wine writers who don’t do their homework (I cover all of the current theories of its origins in the post).

Above: “Due palle così!” My good friend Federico entertained the nice ladies at the famous food shop Nannetti e Bernardini in Pienza (HIGHLY recommended, especially for its legendary porchetta).

Federico is one of the most colorful and lovely people I know in Montalcino and his Ramones t-shirt is his de rigueur uniform (as you can see above). He’s one of those people, to borrow an observation by the great Montalcino winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci, who makes you smile when he walks into the room.


Porcini porn: how Tuscan men eat

September 15, 2010

Lunch today with the Bindocci men at Trattoria il Pozzo (Sant’Angelo in Colle)… Keep in mind they are approaching “piena vendemmia” (nearly the peak of harvest) here in Tuscany and this was a quick, working lunch… a 45 minute affair… giusto, giusto so that we could “break bread” together…

Raw porcini salad.

Pici al ragù (di manzo, beef ragù). Normally I’d have the wild boar ragù but I didn’t want to get carried away (literally).

The 2004 Brunello Riserva Paganelli (cru) by Il Poggione was INSANE! Such bright acidity, such chewy red fruit, equine tannins, indomitable but delicious nonetheless!

Normally we’d have the bistecca alla fiorentina but today it was a mere beef filet (blood rare, of course) topped with a grilled mushroom cap.

Just in case, we also had a roast mushroom cap.

Wherever I lay my hat these days, I am reminded that Texas is my home (for MELVIN CROAKER).


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,129 other followers

%d bloggers like this: