Breaking news: Rosso di Montalcino proposed changes (documentation)

August 26, 2011

It is with a heavy heart that I share today’s news from Montalcino.

Italy’s top wine blogger Franco Ziliani (my partner in and co-editor and founder of VinoWire) has obtained a document that specifies proposed changes for the Rosso di Montalcino appellation. I haven’t had time to review them carefully but I am very alarmed by the “hypothesis for three typologies [categories] of Rosso di Montalcino”:

1) Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese Superiore: 100% Sangiovese (with a 1% “tolerance” of other grape varieties).

2) Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese: 100% Sangiovese (1% tolerance).

3) Rosso di Montalcino: minimum 85% and up to 100% Sangiovese, “authorized” red grape varieties up to 15% (1% tolerance).

Click here to view a full-sized version of the document.

Although it doesn’t appear that the Brunello oligarchy plans to call a vote on the proposal anytime soon, it has called for “ordinary assembly” of producers to put the modifications to the floor (September 7).

Rosso di Montalcino with up to 15% Merlot (see the third category)? Please say it ain’t so…

Anecdotally, Franco reports today on his blog that producers are “optimistic” that only 10% of them would vote to adopt the changes.

At least one producer wondered rhetorically and philosophically, “why isn’t there a proposal to not change the appellation?” It seems that the powers-that-be are hell bent on opening the floodgates of Merlot in Montalcino.

Last week, Montalcino experienced some heat spikes, as warm weather arrived from Africa. I regret that this doesn’t bode well for the 2011 vintage (although at least one producer is reporting cool evening and morning temperatures).

I’m with Franco when he says he hopes that the heatwave will pass quickly and stop “cooking the brains,” as they say in Italian, of the Montalcino establishment.


Merlot di Montalcino is almost here! Hurray! Not!

January 11, 2011

Nearly 3 years after the story of the Brunello controversy broke in the mainstream media, after millions of liters of wine have been declassified, after guilty pleas and plea agreements and guilty verdicts and fines and sentences that included jail time for some… tomorrow the Brunello producers association is expected to approve new verbiage that will allow for up to 15% of grapes other than Sangiovese to be used in Rosso di Montalcino.

Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani and I reported the new language today over at the English-language blog we co-edit VinoWire.

Is the change a lesser of two evils? Yes.

Is it a shame? Yes, it’s a shame. It’s a pity and it causes me sorrow.

The fact of the matter is that when you add an alpha grape like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to a lighter-bodied grape like Sangiovese, the Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot will mask the nature of the Sangiovese — even when the former are added in small quantities. Most of the Chianti Classico that makes it to the U.S. these days is made in this manner.

Remember the other day when I was talking about paesaggio come stato d’anima (landscape as state of soul/mind) in Italian new wave cinema?

Antonioni’s 1957 Il grido (The Outcry) is a great example of this and it’s how I feel right now. Buona visione


Some of my best friends are Merlot (the Cocacolonization of Chianti Classico)

December 2, 2010

Above: Ornellaia’s Masseto vineyard in Bolgheri, Tuscany is arguably Italy’s most famous expression of Merlot.

I don’t have anything against Merlot. In fact, some of my best friends are Merlot.

As a matter of fact, on my recent trip to Friuli, I had a bona fide Merlot revelation after tasting some truly fantastic bottlings of Merlot from Radikon, Edi Keber, and Ronco del Gnemiz. (BTW, I have a backlog of Friuli posts but am hoping to get to them soon.)

But when I read that the Chianti Classico producers association is going to allow member wineries to present IGT (read “Super Tuscan”) bottlings at their annual vintage debut show in February next year, I thought I was going to heave… The nausea only grew when I learned that it would only cost the producers an extra Euro 50 per bottle of Merlot or Cabernet they present.

Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani first reported the news on his blog and we posted about it today in English at VinoWire.

At the end of a decade of Italian wine marked by the high-profile Montalcino controversy and the less-talked-about but equally significant Tuscan blending scandal, the Cocacolonization of the Italian wine industry seemed to have shifted gears, leaning more toward Bethlehem than Babylon. Unfortunately, the organizers of this landmark event have once again decided to defile the Temple.

The Chianti Classico producers association represents Italy’s most recognizable wine brand and one of its greatest historic appellations. This aberration and contamination of the sanctity of Chianti Classico’s most important yearly event is — in my mind and on my palate — a hegemonical tragedy of Gramscian proportions.


Grape porn from around the world (harvest has begun)

September 2, 2009

Come on, just admit it… We ALL like to look at a little grape porn now and then, don’t we? Even Alder likes him some grape porn.

It’s that time of year again and bloggers have been posting photos of the harvest as it progresses.

My favorite grape porn photo so far is the one above by Wayne over in Friuli.

In Montalcino they began harvesting Moscadello di Montalcino last week and this week they began to pick the Merlot. The Merlot comes in earlier than the Sangiovese. Alessandro posted the photo above: he and his father use the Merlot to make their Super Tuscan Mazzoni. (See, it’s okay to like Merlot, as long as you label it correctly.) So far, so good: it’s looking like a good harvest in Montalcino.

Over in Napa, Vinogirl author of Vinsanity posted this image of Pinot Gris — yes, the red grape that we’ve been taught to think of us a white grape. (Vinogirl has also been coming up with some sassy titles for her posts.)

From the Greek pornos (prostitute) + graph (writer), pornograph means literally someone who describes or writes about prostitutes.

I would hardly call those little berries prostitutes but they sure can be sexy and I’m not sure why, by they do inspire mimetic desire in me (mimesis means imitation in Greek).

For some vintage grape porn, like the image to the left, check out these beautiful plates from Giorgio Gallesio’s Pomona italiana (completed in 1839).

*****

Didn’t George Harrrison write a song called “I, Mimesis, Mine”? Here’s Elliot Smith’s version.


Deep Throat speaks from Montalcino

August 3, 2009

As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the shadows cast upon the walls of a wine cellar outline not reality but the truths of those who live them. Little clarity has emerged from Montalcino, even in the light of Italian officials’s findings in their investigation of adulterated wine there. As outside observers, we see only shadows of reality cast upon the walls of Brunello’s caves.

The following interview was conducted last week via email with a young winemaker in Montalcino who works with and for a small family-run estate. S/he has asked me not to reveal her/his name and so I will simply call her/him Deep Throat. Her/his English-language ability allowed her/him to answer the questions in her/his second language. For the sake of immediacy, I have not made any edits whatsoever to the answers. Read them below as I received them at the end of last week. I doubt we’ll ever know the truth about what really happened in Montalcino but I hope this point-of-view (however factual or speculative it may or may not be) helps us to understand the disparity between what we have been told by the wine media and the perceptions and sentiments “on the ground,” as we used to say when I worked at the U.N. Read and digest it for what it’s worth…

*****

Why did the investigation happen in the first place?

The whole bomb came officially out about 16 months ago. Strategically… just few days prior to Vinitaly 2008. You can imagine what kind of backlash this gave to everybody in the appellation. The Brunello collective stand at the fair was like a war zone… Why did it come out? Likely because it was no longer possible to hide the lack of controls by the Consortium or, maybe better, the lack of actions by the Consortium after finding vineyards, cellars and/or wines not conforming to the Brunello production rules.

Was it because banks were checking on vineyards supposedly planted to Sangiovese and used as collateral in loan applications?

Let’s say that this could surely be a factor… many illegal vineyards were planted with big loans or (even worse) with EU funds. Just to give an example: a hectar of Brunello is worth about 500.000 Euros while an IGT one could be around 100-150.000. Do it yourself: this is very simple math! Only the producers were blaimed for the illegal vineyards and/or wines but those very same wines were tasted and passed at the Tasting Commission (official and external). The vineyards were supposedly checked and obviously passed by Officials form the Consortium, from the “Comune”, from the “Provincia” and I ask myself why nobody there was then involved in the investigation…

Now newcomers to Montalcino (Gaja, Frescobaldi, Folonari) are asking for “relaxed” rules and a more flexible set of rules. Screw you! Did you arrive to Montalcino for the idea of producing Brunello or for the value of the land? Be clear and make a choice. Or be nice and… get the hell out of here!

Or was it because “anonymous letters” were sent to the Siena prosecutor by disgruntled Brunello producers?

I have very good reasons to think that The Letter was clearly sent. This is going on a personal level: it is a very personal “faida” between some of the top managers of thee most visible estate in Montalcino (especially on the US market) and one of thee most radical and straight forward producers. Is David hitting Goliath. But I must say that little David was hitting the wrong enemy this time: is not Goliath’s fault if David’s wines are usually NOT conforming to the mandatory analysis due prior to the tasting at the Official Tasting Commission. The wines must conform to the parameters. Period. If they are out, they are out and you should adjust your winemaking method instead of complaining with the rules if they are not according your personal taste. Orelse… go your way without labelling your wine as a Brunello… but like this… the value of David’s bottles is going dramatically down. And David is already in deep shit with sales.

PS Last minute news: David’s estate is now for sale. But he’s asking way too much.

Has your winery been inspected by Treasury officials? What do they do when they inspect the estate? What technical tools do they use? How often do they visit? What are they looking for?

I cannot talk for other people but our tiny estate was checked several times by several different authorities especially in the last 2 years. I don’t know how much other people has been inspected. We ALWAYS conformed and they ALWAYS came back for more. We had: Tresury officials, Consortium inspectors, Ministry of Labour officials, etc. To make it short: you name it… they came! To check everything… I wonder what they have been checking at the other places. There was no way to get out of it with something out of the line. Of course it makes a big difference if you go and inspect a vineyard to check for the different varietals in July or in December… we got checked last week too for the countless time.

Was the issue yields or was the issue Merlot? Is it true that some were using grapes from Apulia?

The issues were several, being the non-Sangiovese grapes the most important one and the yeald per hectar another one. By the beginning of the investigation, I have personally seen a 4 hectars vineyard (supposedly Brunello) litterally destroyed with a Caterpillar by the owner from a day to another; and another one grafted with a new and different varietal (Sangiovese, this time?) in late June (???). I know a very influential Consulting Wine Wizard that, in order to come and make the wine for the estate of one of the past President of the Consortium, strongly demanded (as a condition to accept the job) to plant some ALICANTE grapes for the color. Come and drive around Montalcino in October and look at the leaves… You’ll have fun!

Wines in bulk were a point too. But we must say that: it is absolutely not illegal to buy wine in tanks from somewhere else. Illegal could be the use of it in some certain ways in the cellar. We must also say that: some of this wine could have been (and IT WAS) used illegally, out of the DOC and DOCG rules. You know… quality and quantity rarely match. Following the Brunello rules, you should not exceed 7 tons of grapes per hectar. Let me tell you that, to have a great juice (as Brunello should demand) it’s hard to go over 4-4,5 tons. Figure it out yourself!

As a small producer of traditional-style Brunello, how do you feel you have been treated in a sea of commercial producers?

As a small producer, we have been treated like we had nothing to say. We felt absolutely NOT represented by the Consortium, neither protected. DOCG means that our Appellation of Origin is Controlled and Guaranteed. This was the only supposed role of the Consortium. None of this things was provided by them: oviously NOT the controls, NOT the guarantee and, sometimes, NOT even the origin. So I am asking myself what is the reason of the Consortium to be. Right now, the Consortium is just a cost for a small producer, and it’s giving no advantages at all. Many people will soon leave, I am sure. We asked them how to act to protect ourselves from this situation, we were told to shut up! The big guys are messing around… and we suffer the real damage, being all commonly treated as cheaters. Our reputation is on the line and they could not care less. It’s hard to accept this, especially when they ask you to shut up, I feel I want to raise my voice from the top of the mountain. They have even payed (BIG MONEY) an very high-ended external press office from Milan to… shut up. With our money too… How pathetic!

You are a litterate person: write a few lines about the origin and the history of the word “Consortium” and you will find very little similarity with the recent image of the Consortium of Brunello.

PS. Is there any other kind of Brunello apart traditional? Don’t think so!

Would weather conditions in the dismal 2002 and 2003 vintages have had such an impact on wineries if growing sites were limited to the south and southwest subzones Sant’Angelo in Colle and Castelnuovo dell’Abate and the Montalcino township subzone?

The problem is that many people planted vineyards only for the sake of investement more than for the love of wine and the respect of a tradition. A lot of people arrived to harvest and bottle the wine with no idea on how and where actually sell that wine. This was the main reason for the price drop: fear and unprofessionalism!

Right after the 2002 harvest, everybody apparently agreed on the fact that the vintage was absolutely not good and not suitable for producing Brunello. You could go around and ask producers and they all would tell you that they were not going to release any 2002 Brunello. The fact is that very few people hold to that word: probably 98% of the producers actually released a 2002 and a single real genius (or a magician… previously President of the Consortium but not the one I was telling about before) even released a 2002 Riserva. Come on! Be serious and give me a break… We are talking about integrity here. Or, at least, we are trying… some of us is trying harder than others!

2003 was hard too and this was surely not helping in this moment as the beginning of the scandal hit Montalcino right after the official release of the vintage. so many importers and/or distributors took the chanche to invest -in moment of great financial crisis- in other (cheaper) appellations while waiting for the great 2004 vintage to come out. We must also thank the Consortium for the dangerous overrating of recent vintages that have been generously given too many stars…

About sub-zones, I am a fervent believer! But you, as owner of a vineyard in Torrenieri, would want this to be written on your label? And you, as a regular but somehow skilled customer, would prefer to buy a Brunello from the sub-zone of Castelnuovo dell’Abate or Sant’Angelo, or one from the lowest vineyards in Torrenieri? You already know the answer: that’s why sub-zones of Brunello are never gonna happen.

What is the future of Montalcino? Will other grapes be allowed?

The future of Montalcino is unwritten. I personally hope for the sudden death of the Consortium and the birth of a free association of producers with total dedication to PR and promotion and absolutely no role in the controls. I would like the controls to be completely made by State offices with less bureaucracy and very fast times of reaction to needs and/or infraction.

Allowing other grapes would mean to betray Mr. Biondi Santi original vision and dream. Dream that became reality and privilege for all of us. Allowing zelig grapes would kill the reality of a truly blessed terroir. We are always filling our mouth with the words “tradition” and “heritage”. It’s now time to stand tall behind our words. I have been doing this since forever. Like this they were doing at my estate before me. Like this they will do at my estate after me. The password is only one. Sangiovese! That’s the true reason why this land is so valuable. Why are they all so blinded by other less important things?


Americanata: Mondavi in Italy

June 22, 2009

From the “no go paroe” department…

big_gulpAs much as Italians generally like Americans and the U.S. of A., they also love to make fun of us. They even have a word for it, americanata: the word (a noun) is used disparagingly to describe Americans’s tendency toward the grandiose, the overblown, exaggeration, bad taste, and kitsch. A classic if banal example of an americanata would be the Big Gulp. According to Wikipedia, the Big Gulp was introduced by 7-Eleven in 1980 and in its largest size, contains 64 fluid ounces of soda pop. Is it humanly possible to drink 64 ounces of Coke in one serving? That’s a lot of corn syrup. The Big Gulp is clearly an americanata.

tiziana nenezicThere is an entire genre of commentary on Americans and their americanate in Italian journalism. Vittorio Zucconi writes about the U.S. from an Italian perspective for the Italian national daily La Repubblica and is perhaps the most famous chronicler of americanate. There is even a blog called Americanata, authored by an Italian writer living in the U.S. Tiziana Nenezic has published two books: How to Survive New Yorkers, the Tale of a Woman Who Managed to Do So (Maybe) and Love in the Times of Globalization.

Over the weekend, Franco and I reported on a new and disturbing wine industry partnership that represents another step in globalization’s seemingly unstoppable march of progress: the behemoth Cantina di Soave has become the exclusive distributor of mammoth Constellation Brands in Italy and will begin to market and sell “new world products of excellence” like Mondavi.

Do Italians really need another barriqued and oaky, overly extracted, jammy, hyperalcoholic Merlot? From California? I fear that this merger does not bode well for those of us who love Italy for its mosaic of indigenous grapes and who crave food-friendly wines made in the traditional style (wines for which no new oak has been used, no artificial concentration has been employed, and wines that express grape and place and people). It will only foster the continued Coca-Colization of the Italian palate. I can’t think of a bigger americanata.

I’m going to get down off of my soap box now but before I do, I invite you to watch the following Coca Cola commercial that aired recently in Italy. In the spot, a girl named Giulia from Pisa says, “lately everyone’s been talking about [the economic] crisis.” But she’s an optimist because she likes “simple things.” She eats pizza instead of sushi, a sandwich with salami instead of caviar. She likes to stay home and eat with her family instead of going to “gala dinners.” The spot ends with a message from Coca Cola, la felicità a tavola non va mai in crisi: “happiness at the table is never in crisis.”

Now watch the parody. In the original version, the girl has an Italianized Tuscan accent in the voice over. In the parody, she has a strong Tuscan accent (the use of dialect and dialectal accents is important and very Pasolinian here, btw). Bear with me if you don’t speak Italian: it’s worth it for the images.

No go paroe, I am speechless, as they say in the Veneto.

(Thanks Ale for sending me the “Real Giulia Commercial”!)


Ramontalcinos say no to Merlot

April 30, 2009

Above: They say “no” to Merlot. Federico Marconi (left) handles marketing and Gianni Fabbri is the winemaker at the Fabbri family’s winery, Le Presi, one of my favorite Brunello producers. I tasted with them and snapped these photos at the Italian wine trade fair, Vinitaly, earlier this month.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Merlot per se. I’ve tasted great Merlot from all over the world — Bordeaux, Trentino, Friuli, Tuscany, California. I can’t say that I’m a fan of most it but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it.

The problem, as Alice pointed out in her post today, is that Merlot is a grape Zelig: “Why does everyone has to grow merlot? Because it’s a grape Zelig? Merlot, like mint, takes to most places.”

Merlot has been grown in Tuscany for centuries, but it was during the 1980s and 90s that it became increasingly popular there, as the Super Tuscan craze began to emerge and Italy began to sell more wine in the Merlotophile American market. Behind his back (and with an acute dose of disdain), many Italian winemakers call Tuscany’s leading wine wizard “Mr. Merlot” — a distinction bestowed upon him because of the ubiquitous Merlot in his award-winning Chiantis and his alleged use of Merlot in Brunello di Montalcino, where appellation regulations require the wine be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes.

Yesterday, when I wrote “just say no to Merlot,” I was addressing and appealing to producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, who are considering an increase in the amount of international grape varieties allowed in their appellation.

My friend, artist, poet, musician, and marketing director for old school Brunello producer Le Presi, Federico “Ramontalcino” Marconi, had this to say:

    The Fred Man too says No to Merlot! Let’s defend a precious little thing called “heritage”… Why are they so short-sighted and unable to recall the nasty backlash of last year’s “Brunello-gate”? I don’t get it: what does these people have against a Good Ol’ Sangiovese!? And let me tell ya: I am a Sangiovese “fan to the bone”. Gabba Gabba Hey!

Above: Federico created this “Old School” t-shirt to reflect Le Presi’s traditional approach to winemaking. Even though the winemaker and his team are young, the wines are as old school as it gets — natural fermentation and aging in botti, large old, neutral oak barrels. Wolfgang was the first to post on this great marketing idea.

When I met Federico and we became friends, we decided we would start a band called the Ramontalcinos (we owe the name to Josh Loving of Vino Vino fame, an accomplished classical guitar player, who will also be part of the act).

I wish more Italian winemakers could be like Federico and Gianni: they marry a punk rock sensibility with a respect and passion for their heritage. They are wise to see that they can better market their wines not by changing their nature but rather by infusing their image and perception of their brand with youthful energy and verve.

Gabba gabba hey.

Ringo says no to Merlot, too. Check out this clip of Ringo singing the “No No Song” with the Smothers Brothers. The best part is the gag at the end (with Ben Einstein)!


A guilty pleasure: Quintarelli 1998 Valpolicella

April 20, 2009

There was one day during my stay in Verona for Vinitaly when I managed to escape the prison walls of the fairgrounds and enjoy a stroll down the main street of a small Italian town, eat a sandwich, have something refreshing at a the counter of a bar, and chat with the owner of a fantastic charcuterie and wine shop, Francesco Bonomo (above).

The town was San Martino Buon Albergo (on the old road that leads from Verona to Vicenza). Alfonso Cevola (above) and I stopped there for a brief but much-needed hour of humanity on an otherwise inhumane week of too much travel and too many wines. That’s Alfonso munching on a panino stuffed with Prosciutto di Praga, baked and smoked ham (that we bought at the first food shop we visited).

One of the more interesting bottles displayed on Francesco’s shelves was this bottle of 1973 Barolo by Damilano. Now just a collector’s bottle, its shoulder was pretty low and Francesco agreed that the wine is surely sherryized. Francesco let me photograph the bottle using my phone (I didn’t have my camera with me) but he was careful not to disturb the bottle’s patina of dust, of which he was particularly proud.

I wish I could have taken a better photo of this wines-by-the-glass list at the little bar on the main square of San Martino: Cartizze, Verduzzo (sparkling), Soave, Fragolino, Bardolino, and Valpolicella by the glass? All under 2 Euros? The answer is YES!

Francesco presides over a modest but impressively local collection of fine wine, including an allocation of 1998 Valpolicella by Giuseppe Quintarelli, the gem of his collection. I rarely bring wine back from Italy these days but the price on this wine was too good to pass by.

However coveted and mystified in the U.S., Quintarelli is one of the most misunderstood Italian wines on this side of the Atlantic, in part because its importer is one of the most reviled purveyors in the country (his infamously elitist, classist, snobbish, monopolistic, extortionist attitude are sufficient ideological grounds for not consuming the wine here).

I’ve interviewed Giuseppe Quintarelli on a number of occasions by phone and his daughter Silvana is always so nice when I call (and, btw, they happily receive visitors for tasting and purchase of their wines). I love the wines and was thrilled to get to taste this 10-year-old Valpolicella with Tracie B on Saturday night: she made wonderful stewed pork with tomatoes and porcini mushrooms for pairing (with a side of mashed potatoes). The wine’s initial raisined notes blew off quickly, giving way to a powerful, rich expression of Valpolicella. I tasted the wine repeatedly in 2004-2005 and I was impressed by how its flavors and aromas has become even more intense.

Francesco was so proud of his Quintarelli. He told me that he sells it at just a few Euros over cost because he just wants to have it in the store and wants to be able to share it with his customers. It was great to bring back a little Valpolicella to Austin and my Tracie B, direct from the source and sourced from someone who understands it for what it really is.

Post script

Alfonso gave me this nifty “wine skin” to transport the bottle back stateside. It seals tidily, so even if the bottle breaks in your suitcase, you don’t risk leakage. Happily the bottle made it back intact.

In the olden days, you used to be able to take bottles on the plane and you even used to be able to bring your own wine for drinking. Alice developed this system for smuggling natural wine on to the plane (happily, no Cavit Merlot for her!).


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