Veraison wireless in Montalcino

My friend Ale at Il Poggione (Sant’Angelo in Colle, Montalcino) is not the only one who’s been posting about the 2010 vintage on his blog.

Another good friend, Laura, has been doing some amazing posts at the blog she authors for Il Palazzone. The photo above comes from a wonderful post she did showing the different ripening times in different growing zones of the winery’s estate.

One of things I’ve been enjoying about following Laura and Ale’s respective blogs is how it illustrates the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in the various subzones of the appellation.

In the case of Ale in the southwest subzone, the rate of ripening has accelerated slightly (80% of the grapes have changed color, he writes, catching up to the average) while Laura’s grapes are still about a week behind schedule. I love how she writes: “The ripening seems to be more than a week behind schedule, if it is appropriate to apply such concepts to nature.”

Check out Laura’s most recent post and Ale’s thread on the 2010 harvest in Montalcino.

In other news…

Another Brunello has been born with the 2010 vintage…

Over the weekend, Tracie P and I got to visit with our good friends Melanie and Noah, who have just welcomed Bruno into the world. Don’t they look angelic?

Noah and I grew up together (even attending Hebrew School together!) and luckily their stay in La Jolla overlapped with ours. Melanie has taken to calling the little one “Brunello.”

I still haven’t had a chance to pick up my copy but Melanie’s new book Eating for Beginners is now available.

Mazel tov, Melanie, Noah, and Bruno!

@Bruno I’ll be sure to put away some 2010 Brunello to drink with you when you turn 21!

The James Suckling era ends (and what we ate and drank for my birthday)

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Above: We treated ourselves to a bottle of 2004 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino and porterhouse steak last night in celebration of my birthday. When we planned this classic Tuscan meal, I had no idea that my birthday would also deliver the news that James Suckling had left the Wine Spectator.

Yesterday, as we were preparing for birthday and Bastille Day celebrations chez Parzen, the following news arrived via email from a colleague and friend:

    James Suckling, who joined Wine Spectator in 1981 and has served as European bureau chief since 1988, has retired from the company.

    Suckling’s tasting responsibilities have been reassigned. The wines will be reviewed in our standard blind-tastings in the company’s New York office.

    Senior editor and tasting director Bruce Sanderson will oversee coverage of Italy. Sanderson, who has been with the magazine for 18 years, currently reviews the wines of Burgundy, Champagne and Germany.

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Above: To make a proper “bistecca alla fiorentina” at our house, we season the porterhouse generously with kosher salt, rubbing the salt into the meat, and then we char the T-bone, with the steak upright.

Neither Tracie P nor I could ignore the uncanny coincidence that we had decided to open a bottle of 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione, a traditional-style wine made by a family who has vehemently and vociferously opposed the modernization of its appellation. There’s no two ways about it: during James Suckling’s tenure at the Wine Spectator, the scores he gave to modern-style Brunello — with Casanova di Neri as its poster child — helped to eclipse the sale of traditional-style wines, like those made by Il Poggione. (In all fairness, Suckling also gave good scores to Il Poggione but his historic preference for dark, concentrated, oaky Brunello with higher alcohol levels, indisputably skewed his evaluations toward modernism.)

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Above: Then you cook the steak on either side, very quickly at high heat. By cooking the steak upright first, the meat “heats through” entirely.

Another layer of irony was cast upon the news and our Brunello by the fact that Mr. Franco Ziliani — at times Mr. Suckling’s detractor — had suspended publication on his wine blog Vino al Vino, the leading Italian-language wine blog, a few days earlier. (Mr. Ziliani’s relationship with Mr. Suckling is even referenced by the author of the Wiki entry on the Italian wine writer.) “A pause for reflection,” wrote Mr. Ziliani on Monday, a search for “clarity” in his life and for a sense of purpose for the blog, he explained. “To blog or not to blog,” he asked rhetorically.

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Above: High heat is the key to searing and caramelizing the fat on the outside of the steak while leaving the meat in the center tender and nearly raw.

The two events are certainly unrelated but their confluence is rich with meaning. We often forget that that the current economic crisis has affected both the wine industry and the publishing industry. Hawking wine is no easy tasks these days (especially when it comes to high-end, luxury wine like Brunello) and hawking newspapers and magazine is even harder.

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Above: Traditional style Brunello and steak, one of the great gastronomic pairings in the Western Canon. (Honestly, I wish I would have used a slightly shorter cooking time. I prefer my steak “black and blue,” charred on the outside, blood rare on the inside. But it was delicious nonetheless!)

While I’ve been a devoted fan of Mr. Ziliani’s blog since I first discovered his writing more than 5 years ago, I can’t say that I’ve been such an admirer of Mr. Suckling’s take on Italian wine. In fact, I think that Suckling historically ignored and omitted the great icons of Italian wine from the canon of the Spectator’s “top wines of the world” because he was looking for wines that appealed to his idiosyncratic sensibility without viewing them in a broader scope and without consideration for the wines that Italians consider to be indicative of their winemaking tradition. At the same rate, looking back on Suckling’s legacy (however skewed) as an arbiter of Italian wine, I feel compelled to acknowledge his contribution to the world’s awareness of the overarching greatness of Italian wines.

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Above: Potatoes, spinach, grilled onions, and steak, all dressed simply with kosher salt and extra-virgin olive oil.

And so we raised a glass of 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione last night, to both Mr. Suckling and Mr. Ziliani, polar opposites in their approach to Italian wine, leading voices of antithetically positioned vinous philosophies. I hope and trust that both will continue to share their impressions and palates, using whatever media they see fit, with a world ever-thirsty for Italy’s unique wines.

Jancis Robinson: “Syrah di Montalcino”

From Jancis Robinson’s blog, yesterday, “Montalcino votes for modernism”:

“After dramatic last-minute machinations, it has just been revealed that the secret ballot to elect the new president of the Brunello di Montalcino consortium revealed that arch-modernist Ezio Rivella of Banfi garnered most votes and will now direct the fortunes of this controversial wine.

Until very recently it looked as though the most prominent woman in Montalcino, Donatello Cinelli Colombini, would win, but at the eleventh hour, in a move that took many by surprise, she withdrew her candidacy and threw her weight behind Rivella. Concerned that this would be the final nail in the Brunello coffin, and that Piemonte-born Rivella would encourage the use of grape varieties other than Brunello (Sangiovese), veteran winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci of the respected estate Il Poggione declared his own bid for the presidency yesterday. …

It seems as though the juggernaut rolling towards the likes of Syrah di Montalcino is unstoppable.”

Had any good 03s from Italy lately?

Above: Tracie P tasting at Giuseppe Mascarello with winemaker and owner Mauro Mascarello, on a crisp winter day in February 2010. We were invited to taste there with Italy’s inestimable wine blogger and wine pundit Mr. Franco Ziliani.

However lost in translation, my post on Monday led to an earthly discussion of who bottled good expressions of the 2003 vintage in Italy and a metaphysical dialectic on whether or not one should drink 2003 at all, when stellar vintages like 1999, 2001, or 2005 are within hand’s reach.

Above: Perhaps an anomaly, perhaps the child of a superior growing site and excellence in winemaking, Mauro Mascarello’s 2003 Barolo Monprivato was no fluke.

Was 2003 a forgettable vintage in Italy? Questions of taste literally aside, the wine punditry on both sides of the Atlantic has spent a lot of energy and time talking about the 2003 vintage (in part because of the controversy it stirred).

Above: Only a handful of winemakers made their top wines in 2003, but, man, what wines they were! Like this 2003 Brunello di Montalcino Paganelli by Tenuta Il Poggione (Tracie P and I tasted it over dinner with winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci in February).

Of course, 2003 was a poor vintage because of the aggressive heat that year, almost across the board throughout Europe. But that also means that many winemakers, who didn’t make their flagship wines, used their top fruit for their other wines. As Gary put it so well, “I think that 2003 presents an interesting opportunity to pick up some amazing bargains at the peak of their drinkability, but one must be very picky, and try before buy.”

I’m certainly not stocking my cellar with 03s but over the last months (and even the last few days), I have had some great 03s: like the Oddero Barolo the other night, 03 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco, 03 Barolo Monprivato by G. Mascarello, 03 Brunello di Montalcino Paganelli by Il Poggione, and 03 Barbera del Monferrato Perlydia by Valpane (the last three are all “flagship” wines, btw). While not all of these are going to cellar as well as 99, 01, and 05 (and 04 IMHO), they are by no means wines I’d turn down if someone happened to open one in my presence. In fact, they are more approachable and drinkable (as Gary points out) than their more cellar-worthy counterparts.

Have you had any good 03s lately from Italy? Please share so that I don’t have to feel so alone… ;-)

A big tree and a little tree in Montalcino

Above: Alessandro Bindocci (above) and his father are “on a roll,” wrote one of my favorite wine writers, Antonio Galloni in the April issue of The Wine Advocate published today. I took the photo of Ale in September 2008 at Tenuta il Poggione.

Alfonso does a series of posts on his blog about “big trees” and “little trees,” in other words, mothers and fathers and daughters and sons who work and live in the Italian wine industry. Alfonso’s worked in Italian wine for some time now and let’s just say that he’s seen a few big trees go and a few little trees sprout up.

One of the things that Tracie P and I thought and talked a lot about on our February trip to Italy was the relationships between mothers and fathers who make wine and their children. In some cases, the children aren’t interested in furthering the legacy of their parents, in other cases they are. Sometimes the conflict that arises thereof can lead to bitter quarrels. Other times there is a harmony — not always perfect but ultimately sturdy — that ensures the continuity of the parents’s legacy.

In March when I went back to Piedmont, I asked Enrico Rivetto’s father what he thought about his son’s newfangled blog. “I think he’s crazy,” he replied. “But, then again, my father thought I was crazy when I told him we should make a single-vineyard Barolo.” However reluctantly, the elder Rivetto supports his son’s blogging project.

My friend Alessandro Bindocci is a blogger as well. His father Fabrizio the winemaker at Tenuta Il Poggione (one of my favorite Brunello producers and my long-time friend), can’t even send an email. Alessandro can monitor vinfication using his blackberry.

I was thrilled to read Antonio Galloni’s glowing words for Fabrizio and Alessandro’s wines on Ale’s blog this morning.

As Tracie P and I talk about us making little trees ourselves, it’s a wonderful and warm thought to think that some day they may get to taste wines in the same traditional style Brunello that we love so much. By the time our putative children will be old enough to appreciate fine wine, the wines won’t be Fabrizio’s any longer. They’ll be Alessandro’s.

Mazel tov, Ale. Congrats on your superb scores from Galloni!

Vinitaly observed from afar

Vinitaly went on without me this year. As much I was glad to spend some time at home this week, after already too much time on the road in 2010, I can’t conceal that I was disappointed not to attend this year. But I’ve been following a lot of truly great blogging from the fair. Here’s a round-up of some of the blogs I’ve been following so that I can get my virtual fair on…

Avvinare really took it up a notch with some great coverage of the tastings she attended. I really liked her post on the Franciacorta seminar (and highly recommend all of her posts from the fair).

I’m also dying to read Tom Hyland’s notes on the Franciacorta tasting but his not-yet-posted notes on a Vermentino Nero (!!!) are the ones keeping me on the edge of my seat and glued to my screen. He posted some first impressions here.

A lot of folks received fancy awards, including Eric Asimov who was given a Grandi Cru d’Italia prize for best foreign wine writer, as reported by the excellent blog Consumazione Obbligatoria.

Ale over at Montalcino Report posted about a prize given to his family’s importer Tony Terlato (and to other Italian American notables) by the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy. I grabbed that picture of Ale’s stand, above, where I taste every year, from Ale’s Facebook fan page.

I also read about Italian president Giorgio Napolitano’s historic visit to the fair over at the ANSA English-language feed and I translated some of Mr. Franco Ziliani’s thoughts about lame duck agriculture minister Luca Zaia’s braggadocio over at VinoWire.

And of course, Vinitaly wouldn’t be Vinitaly without at least one day of rain, as Ale reported, and some Miss Vinitaly watching by top sommelier Andrea Gori.

But the blogger that’s really been killing me has been Alfonso, who’s been “turning Visentin” without me!

Xe sempre l’ultimo giosso queo che imbriaga…

More chestnut-flour polenta and pork facial glands

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Wow, thanks, everyone, for all the wonderful comments and emails about yesterday’s post on dinner in the home of the lovely Bindocci family in Sant’Angelo in Colle (Montalcino, Siena). I thought I’d post a few more photos from the dinner. And thanks, especially, to Stefania and Fabrizio, who so graciously welcomed us into their home. That’s Stefania, above, slicing the chestnut-flour polenta with a string.

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The incredible sensual experience of the chestnut-flour polenta is its combination of its sweet, chestnut flavor combined with its inimitable texture. The night we were invited, Fabrizio’s niece was there with her husband. They had just returned from Libya, where they had been living (they’re agricultural engineers and they work to create sustainable farming in the third world). To celebrate their return, Stefania had created this traditional Mt. Amiata menu (she was born in the mountains, while Fabrizio was born on the Orcia River Valley floor).

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@BrooklynGuy the delicate but firm-to-the-bite texture of the pork facial glands (almost like candy), which have imparted their flavor to their cooking liquid, combined with the pillowy softness of the polenta was an unforgettable sensorial event in our mouths. The porousness of the polenta proved an ideal receptacle and medium for the rich jus of the offal. The two worked in concert, in a dynamic dialectic that rewarded the senses with its seamless ingenuity.

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In another era, the slaughter of a pig was an important event in the familial and societal rhythm of life. While most of the pork was “put up,” as they say here in Texas, in the form of cured thigh and sausage, the offal was consumed in celebration of the good fortune of avere le bestie, as they say in Italian, of having beasts (i.e., livestock) on your estate. One of the coolest things about Il Poggione is that it is a working, integrated farm, where livestock is raised and sent to pasture in fields adjacent to the vineyards and olive groves. The integrated approach, says Fabrizio, is an important element in creating the terroir-driven wines for which their winery is so famous. We paired the 2006 “owner-selection” Rosso di Montalcino with the chesnut-flour polenta and pork facial glands (we served the 07 Rosso di Montalcino by Il Poggione at our wedding reception).

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Some of the most memorable meals I’ve had in Tuscany have been centered around pig and boar liver. It’s so important to experience the wines of Montalcino (and Sangiovese in general) in the context of food and pairing. The 2001 Brunello by Il Poggione was such a fantastic wine — a great vintage from a great producer. But the greatest treat was to taste it in the context and flavor “economy” of traditional pairings. The tannin, red fruit, and acidity of Il Poggione’s Brunello, paired with nearly impenetrable richness and deep flavor of the liver, assumed a new ontographical significance, by which, I mean our ability to describe the nature and essence of things.

We ate liver again on the next day of our trip in Bologna… and there was an important reason for that. More on that later…

Please stay tuned and thanks, again, for reading and for the thoughtful comments… :-)

Tuscan mountain food (WARNING: EXTREME OFFAL CONTENT)

The second night and second dinner of our stay in Tuscany, we had the great pleasure of being invited into the home Stefania and Fabrizio Bindocci in Sant’Angelo in Colle. I’ve known Fabrizio, the winemaker at Tenuta Il Poggione, for many years now and Tracie P and I were thrilled to get to taste his wife’s cooking.

“We’re not having ‘Tuscan’ food,” joked Fabrizio when he invited us. “We’re having ‘mountain’ food,” he said. He met his wife, he told us, when he attended a dance as a young man on Mt. Amiata (to the south of Montalcino and Sant’Angelo in Colle). There were no women in the valley back then, he joked.

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Dinner began with a nice light chickpea soup, accompanied by Sbrancato, a Sangiovese rosé produced by Il Poggione.

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Next came a dish I’d never had before: chestnut flour polenta, a classic dish of the Tuscan mountains, said Fabrizio and wife Stefania. She used a string to slice the individual portions.

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Fabrizio’s son Alessandro authors a blog about Brunello and life in Sant’Angelo, where he has posted about the pigs they raise at Il Poggione. We dressed the chestnut flour polenta with facial glands (above), butchered from the estate-raised pigs.

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Next came the true “stick to your ribs” dish: pig liver wrapped in caul fat.

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The liver was followed by sausage made from other organs, the darker of the two was spicy.

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To my knowledge, Il Poggione was the only producer to make a “riserva” Brunello in 2003, an extremely difficult vintage throughout Europe because of the heat and lack of rain. Brunello di Montalcino does not allow irrigation (not even emergency irrigation). But the elevation of the vineyards and their age (and thus the depth of the roots, which allows the vine to find the water table even in drought years) made it possible for Il Poggione to make a superb expression of Sangiovese despite the growing conditions. This was my first taste of the 03 Riserva, which is the first vintage that the winery has labeled as its “cru” Paganelli (the oldest vineyard on the estate, with vines more than 40 years old, and the source of the clones that inform the estate’s identity). The 03 Paganelli was superb: its fruit was bolder than most vintages I’ve tasted from Il Poggione, but the surprisingly powerful tannin and acidity kept the fruit in check. Very impressive. The 2001? To my palate, that’s one of the greatest vintages for Brunello in recent memory. The wine was unbelievably good, nearly perfect I’d say, a glorious balance of fruit, tannin, and acidity, with many years ahead of it but already showing gorgeously — and what a wonderful opportunity to taste it a stone’s throw from the estate, with the winemaker, paired with his wife’s traditional cuisine!

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Winter means fresh chicory as a side dish in Tuscany, red and green chicory, dressed with the estate’s olive oil.

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What Tuscan meal would be complete without castagnaccio, a short bread made with chestnut flour, topped with pine nuts and rosemary, for dessert?

Oops, I didn’t mean “Tuscan” food. I meant “mountain” food! ;-)

Thanks, again, Stefania and Fabrizio, for an unforgettable meal…

Tuscan Rooms with Views

One of the highlights of our honeymoon was the Tenuta Il Poggione farm house where we stayed on our first two nights of our trip. The old farm house, located in the middle of the estate, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, has seven guest rooms, all with air conditioning, heating, and kitchen. We stayed in the room called “Pero,” the pear tree.

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This amazing olive tree is about 50 yards from the farm house. Il Poggione is one of my favorite wineries and I’ve been friends with the Bindocci family, who runs the estate, for many years now. Winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci told me that some of the trees in this grove are nearly 200 years old.

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Can you see why I love her so much? :-)

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This is the view from the farm house, looking northward. That’s Sant’Angelo in Colle (where we ate at Trattoria Il Pozzo).

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That’s the view from the farm house looking south. There are few signs of modernity here. Just looking at this photo, the mimetic desire kicks in and I can still smell the dolce aere tosco, the sweet Tuscan air that Petrarch reminisced about and longed for in his Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, his Fragments of Vernacular Things (194.6).

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The farm house seen from the south. The property also includes an Olympic-sized swimming pool (that was covered, of course, when we were there). The rooms are cozy and each one has a kitchen. I’m hoping that one of these days we can make a family trip there.

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Even an amateur photographer like me feels like a Rembrandt in this immensely photogenic land. To get to the farmhouse, you have to drive about 10 minutes from the town of Sant’Angelo on a dirt road through woods, vineyards, and olive groves. And when you get there, you feel like you’re in a 19-century grand tour landscape… that’s some room with a view… I highly recommend it!

For more information and booking, email the estate at agriturismo@ilpoggione.it.

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Happy Friday, ya’ll!

Brunello manga (yes, manga)

Yesterday was the last day of Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino and my friends over at Montalcino Report and Il Palazzone both posted on the annual unveiling of the artist’s plaque commemorating the release of a new vintage. This year it was crafted by sister and brother Yuko and Shin Kibayashi, creators of the immensely successful manga, Drops of God.

In other news…

I tasted some pretty incredible, unusual, and remarkable wines yesterday and met and talked to some pretty interesting folks… It’s only been two days that I’ve been on the road but all I can think about is what it will feel like when I can plant these lips on those belonging to my lovely lady tonight… Two days on the road feels like SIX!