Soldera update: making sense of the unfathomable

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.

Casanova di Neri supermarket Brunello in Lecce

It’s hard to believe, I know: tasting notes for Casanova di Neri 2004 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG on Do Bianchi.

But when I saw this bottle at a downtown Lecce supermarket for Euro 22.90 (see receipt below), I couldn’t resist the temptation to pick it up (that’s $29.51 based on today’s exchange rate).

I opened and tasted the wine today before lunch and I have to say that it’s pretty good. Lighter in body than Giacomo Neri’s U.S.-bound Brunello, with bright fruit and some wood tannin on the finish. If it weren’t for the wood, I’d even say it was more than pretty good.

I’m guessing that this wine is akin to his “white label,” as it is called in the states.

On Winesearcher, I see Casanova di Neri for as low as $40. But never this low. Who knew it was a supermarket wine in Italy?

I plan to taste it tonight with pucce for dinner (on our first night in Lecce, we had an early dinner of grilled vegetables at a rosticceria and last night we had take-out pizza in our B&B; tonight is puccia night and generally we’ve either been eating very early or back at our hotel).

In an hour or so, we’re heading to one of Lecce’s culinary landmarks for lunch, Le Zie. I can’t wait!

GREAT NEWS! Bindocci new president of Brunello Consortium

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.

Ezio Rivella, contrapasso, and the Triumph of Time (fugacity)

From the department of “I read the news today o boy”…

Above: Rivella in a 1982 profile by Wine Spectator.

Not a bad PR move, eh? Announce your long-awaited resignation on a Friday at the beginning of summer.

On Friday, the controversial and much loathed toad of Montalcino, Ezio Rivella, resigned from his position as president of the Brunello producers association. The news was announced by WineNews.it, in its weekly PDF (the fact that it still sends out PDFs is indicative of the great minds behind this pseudo-journal, an advertorial affair produced by a PR machine that serves as Montalcino’s in-house media outlet).

According to the press release — and yes, let’s call it what it is and stop pretending that WineNews.it represents any form of serious, self-respecting editorial coverage — Rivella resigned solely because of personal reasons pertaining to family.

In the end, Rivella did not succeed in gerrymandering changes in Brunello appellation regulations. At every step, he campaigned tirelessly in his quest to allow international grape varieties. And at every turn, even when he called votes at the peak of harvest when he knew the hardship it would cause for producers, the popular voice of Brunello growers managed to drown his.

In reading the news, I couldn’t help but think of Rivella’s Dantean contrapasso: I can see him cast in the fourth circle (greed), forced to drink endless amounts of chemical tannin and tartaric acid.

But in the end, it wasn’t the Commedia that came to mind but rather another cycle of Italian poems written in terza rima, Petrarch’s Trionfi (Triumphs). In it, Petrarch envisions triumphal processions of the forces that inform and ultimately vanquish the human condition: Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, Eternity.

From what I’ve been told by industry insiders, Rivella sought to lay claim to Brunello’s throne (the regal metaphor is his not mine) in an attempt to refashion a legacy that was sullied when Banfi dismissed him (against his wishes) in 1999 after a career that spanned more than three decades. Rivella may have curated Brunello’s meteoric rise in fame but the spoils of the battle were denied him. And in a last flourish, he had hoped to beat time by once again redefining (literally) what Brunello was and could be.

But fame and time were greater forces than he.

Historically (as we have seen in recent weeks here), winemaking in Brunello has always been shaped by big business interests. And it will continue to be so (now more than ever, sadly).

Over the last two decades, those interests have moved farther and farther away from the ideals that informed Brunello’s pioneers (massal selection of a Sangiovese clone, excellent growing sites, and easy railway access). Instead, they have shifted their approach to appeal to globalized tastes and they have over-cropped their farms to deliver the quantities demanded by a globalized market.

We can only hope that Brunello’s new captain will guide its ship back to Tuscan shores and hear the ancient cadence of Tuscany’s great poets.

In other (sadder) news…

In an uncanny twist of fate, Rivella’s retirement eclipsed the sad news that Count Bonacossi, historic producer of Carmignano (above with his wife Lisa), transpired on May 24, 2012. Bonacossi’s farm produced superb Cabernet Sauvignon long before Tenuta San Guido ever released its Sassicaia. He and his wines were Super Tuscans ante litteram. A press release, issued by the winery, follows…

Continue reading

Call for emergency irrigation in Brunello by Fabrizio Bindocci @BrunelloMaker

“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

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!

Poggio di Sotto 2006 Rosso di Montalcino

Since the arrival of Georgia P three weeks ago today, we’ve been cooking at home every night (no takeout a casa Parzen except for Christmas day, when we just had to have Chinese and Woody Allen) and drinking “everyday” wines that we love — entry-tier Santorini by Sigalas, Verdicchio by Bucci, Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo, all ideal because they’ll last for a few days once opened).

Meals have been simple and wine hasn’t been a focus at our house lately but I did open a special bottle of wine for Alfonso when he and his SO Kim came to meet their putative granddaughter for the first time.

Together with Brunelli, Poggio di Sotto is one of the “younger” estates that has really carved out a name for itself as an indisputable icon of the appellation. And the bottle that we shared that night — from a good to great vintage, depending on the producer — was a true benchmark for Sangiovese: brilliant nervy acidity, technicolor fruit balanced by layered minerality, and a focus and precision that is uncommon among the sea of Brunello bottlers who came late to the game.

The wine isn’t cheap but it’s one of those wines that I wish every young wine professional in our country could taste: it is the apotheosis of what Sangiovese can and should be (as Alfonso pointed out in his excellent post yesterday). And perhaps more significantly, it’s an expression of what the variety can attain when it’s grown in the best sites and with the proper care.

The Poggio di Sotto farm lies in the southern subzone of the appellation, in the village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate. In the photo above, I’m looking south-southeast toward Mt. Amiata from the village. The Poggio di Sotto farm is about a three-minute drive east, with some of the highest south-and southeast-facing vineyards in the appellation (I’ve actually never visited the farm but I’ve driven by it a thousand times).

Poggio di Sotto was recently sold to pharmaceutical giant, northerner Claudio Tipa, whose Tuscan empire continues to grow. But from what I’ve seen with his other acquisitions of legacy wineries (like Grattamacco), Tipa seems to be committed to maintaining continuity. Let’s hope it’s the case: to lose these wines would be to lose an icon, a benchmark, and a piece of that “cultural patrimony” that some of us continue to hold dear…

The Magic of Brunelli’s Brunello (and tasting notes)

There are times when my ability as a photographer fails me. My October visit to the Brunelli farmhouse was one of those times.

I simply cannot express how beautiful the family’s farm is.

The Brunelli estate is situated in the center of the appellation, along the road that leads to Barbi: heading north from Sant’Angelo in Colle, you turn right and head east about halfway between Sant’Angelo and Montalcino.

And when they arrive at Laura Brunelli’s home, her visitors are rewarded with what I think is one of the most spectacular views in one of the most photogenic landscapes of Italy.

As your eye scans the horizon, looking south-southeast toward Mt. Amiata, there are few signs of modernity. It is Tuscany as it probably looked 50 years ago.

As Tracie P once wrote on her blog, if I were a grape, I would want to grow here.

The Vigna Olmo is Brunelli’s top growing site: its gentle slope faces south and is ideal for the cultivation of thin-skinned Sangiovese Grosso. Standing atop the vineyard, you can feel a gentle breeze from the valley below. It’s simply magical.

The entire estate is biodynamically farmed and even the Brunelli house was constructed using organic precepts — bioedilizia as it is called in Italian, Baubiologie in German or building biology.

The beloved, visionary Gianni Brunelli left our world just over three years ago (see this beautiful tribute by Avvinare). But he lives through the estate that he and Laura built together. I never met Gianni but I could feel his presence that day.

Laura and I tasted three wines together. Here are my notes.

2009 Rosso di Montalcino

Brunelli’s signature acidity and bright, bright red fruit. More savory in the mouth. Alcohol very well integrated. This wine is sourced from the estate’s Oliva and Chiuse vineyards, said Laura.

2006 Brunello di Montalcino (classic)

Elegantissimo nose! Meaty in the mouth but so bright and elegant! This wine is sourced from Chiuse, Olmo, and Rada.

2004 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

YES! Acidity! Fruit! Savory and very tannic. Fantastic! One of the best wines I’ve tasted on this trip. Sourced mostly from Olmo with some fruit from Oliva.

Of all the great wine made in Montalcino, Brunelli’s wines are among my all-time favorites. They always have been. They’re pure, they’re focused, they’re clean but meaty and savory. They’re delicious. They’re like a favorite song: they make me feel high…

And the family’s farm is one of the most magical places on earth.

Thank you, Laura, for our visit. And thank you for these exquisite wines.

Harvest dispatches from Europe are changing the way we understand “vintage”

One of the coolest things about the enoblogosphere this year is the number of European wineries who are posting dispatches from the harvest. I loved the above photo of grapes for Vin Santo posted by my friend Ale at Montalcino Report (he’s been posting regularly about weather conditions and harvest progress).

My friend Laura, also in Montalcino, posted this brutally honest report about the recent heat spike there, entitled “Can someone please turn the hairdryer off?” Not everyone in Montalcino has embraced transparency but a few brave souls like Ale and Laura have.

It’s been a few weeks since he’s posted, but my buddy Wayne in Colli Orientali del Friuli has posted some great photos of harvest (like the one above), including some shots of the young Ethan Bastianich!

Back in July, Wayne did this amazing however sad post of images documenting hail damage in Collio.

Today at the Boutari blog, we posted some images and a report from the harvest in Naoussa by enologist Vasilis Georgiou. Those are Xinomavro grapes, above, waiting to be picked.

Although he doesn’t have a blog, my good friend and Pasolinian comrade Giampaolo Venica has been using social media to document the harvest in Collio. He sent me the gorgeous photo of dawn (above) to illustrate the time of day that they begin picking the grapes, when temperatures are coolest. Beautiful, no?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the 2011 harvest in Europe has been documented like no other before it… all thanks to the internets and a growing number of forward-thinking winemakers.

Know a winery that’s posting about harvest this year? Please share a URL in a comment and let’s a list going! Buona vendemmia yall!

Breaking news: Rosso di Montalcino proposed changes (documentation)

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.