Tuscan wine scandal: a producer speaks out and names a name

tuscan wine scandal

This morning over at VinoWire, Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani and I published a translation of a page from a new book on the top wines of Europe by thirty-something Italian journalist Andrea Scanzi.

Aretino-born Andrea is a certified sommelier and a popular journalist. He has written on sports, music, and wine, including Elogio dell’invecchiamento (In Praise of Aging, 2007, Mondadori), in which he chronicles his “search for the 10 best wines of Italy” according to the flap jacket copy.

His current book, Il vino degli altri (Other People’s Wines) was released with great PR fanfare during the annual Italian wine industry trade fair Vinitaly. It wasn’t intended to be a scandalous book. In fact, from what I understand (and I haven’t read the book in its entirety), the book is an attempt to contextualize the great wines of Italy within the macrocosm of their European counterparts.

But his interview with Super Tuscan producer Massimo d’Alessandro of Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro — just a few pages in the book — may represent the first instance when a prominent Tuscan winemaker has spoken on the record about last year’s Tuscan wine scandal (10 million liters of wine produced by wineries in Chianti were seized by Italian officials).

The page (131) scanned and posted by Mr. Ziliani on his blog and the subsequent response from Brancaia are remarkable because the texts shed some light, however distorted, on what has really been happening in Tuscan winemaking. Neither observers of Italian wine nor anyone who’s ever spent time with Tuscan winemakers will be surprised by the mention of a famous Tuscan enologist — the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone has mentioned his name on record (even though, off the record, many Tuscan wine professionals will point to this gentleman as the architect of the region’s current ills).

Click here to read my translation and the response from Brancaia at VinoWire.

In other news…

sweet peas

Tracie P only begins to bring home tomatoes when they start to come back into season with warmer temperatures (no “winter” greenhouse tomatoes allowed zum Parzen!). Last night we had a delightfully light supper of bruschette rubbed with garlic, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil (San Giuliano, Alghero, Sardinia), and topped with fresh cherry tomatoes and fresh basil leaves. She also gently sautéed some springtime sweet peas with country ham. The 2008 Pinot Grigio (Friuli) by Scarpetta (Bobby Stuckey’s label, under $20) paired beautifully, especially as it warmed up a little (when too cold, it’s as if you’re only drinking half of the flavor of this wine).

Happy springtime, everyone! :-)

Mikey likes it: Brunello 2004 by Il Poggione

From the “on any given Sunday” department…

poggione

Above: Just to be on the safeside, we opened 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione last night at Trio in Austin. Photos by Tracie B.

Tracie B and I were both concerned when, the other day, we read that the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione had been eliminated from the top-ten wines in The New York Times recent blind tasting panel of 04 Brunello.

Blind tasting can be such a tricky business and in many ways, it removes wine from the terrestrial context in which we consume it (and the way it was intended to be consumed). In blind tasting, our experience becomes metaphysical, in other words, beyond the physical inasmuch as it treats wine as an abstraction. The intention is noble: blind tasting is intended to remove as many “extraneous” variables as possible and force the taster(s) to evaluate the wine purely on its sensorial attributes as an empirical expression of its intrinsic value. But wine, by its very (human) nature, cannot be reduced to pure science.

Even Eric, whose palate I admire greatly, was surprised that Il Poggione didn’t make the top-ten cut. “Some very well-known brunellos,” he wrote, “missed the cut in our blind tasting, including one of my perennial favorites, Il Poggione… A cautionary note about blind tastings: they are snapshots of a wine at a particular moment. I would never say no to a bottle of Il Poggione, even if I did reject it here.”

Never ones to say no to a bottle of Il Poggione, Tracie B and I went to Trio in Austin last night and asked our friend sommelier Mark Sayre to open a bottle of the 2004. Above and beyond our friendship, I turn to Mark when I want the proverbial “second opinion” (and his wine program offers the ideal setting for tasting fine wine in Austin).

Tracie B, Mark, and I all agreed that the wine is going through a very tannic moment in its evolution. We opened the bottle, decanted it immediately, and then tasted it immediately. Then, we put it aside and let it aerate for about 45 minutes.

tocai

Above: We also tasted Scarpetta 2007 Tocai Friuliano (bottled by Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey) with the shrimp croquettes. This old-school wine is one of those “not-for-everyone” wines but just right for me and Tracie B!

At first sip, the wine was overwhelmed by its tannin, but when we returned to it, it had begun to open up beautifully, showing that magical balance of tannin, fruit, and acidity that makes Montalcino (in my view) one of the greatest appellations in the world.

Not everyone made great wine in 2004. As much as the Tuscan wine industry would like us to believe that 2004 was a 5-star vintage, it simply was not: summer heat spikes plagued growers whose vineyards lie at lower elevations.

But, as father-and-son winemaking team Fabrizio and Alessandro Bindocci will tell you, Il Poggione’s vineyards lie at some of the highest elevations in the entire appellation, reaching 400 meters a.s.l. and thus keeping summer temperatures cooler during warm summer months.

I don’t think 2004 will be remembered as a great vintage in Montalcino but I do think a handful of producers made superb wines and Il Poggione was one of them. The wine has many, many years ahead of it in the bottle and will only get better with age. It’s a young buck right now and just needs some patience and aeration to temper the power of its youth.

The je-ne-sais-quoi moment came when Mark insisted that we pair the fried pork belly with the wine: the classic plum notes of the wine and its tannin attained an ethereal nobility when blended with gelatinous fat and caramelized flavors of the dish.

What happened with the bottle that Eric and the panel tasted in New York? We’ll never know: on any given Sunday, even in a laboratory environment, a bottle of wine can be affected by innumerable variables (including how it was handled by the many actors who “touch” it before it reaches the end user).

Our evaluation? In the words of Tracie B, “Mikey likes it!”

A killer Tocai (and a new system for wine ratings?)

Above: Bobby Stuckey, Master Sommelier and probably the nicest guy I’ve met in the world of fine wine and dining. He came to Austin recently to show the new vintages of his killer wines from Friuli.

“We’re not making a lot of wine,” said Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, when he showed his Scarpetta Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano from Friuli in Austin the other day to a group of Texas wine professionals. “But Texas stepped up to the plate with our 2006 and so we’re going to give you an allocation even though there’s not a lot to go around.”

As Willie Nelson once wrote, “Miracles appear in the strangest of places”: you wouldn’t expect to find small-production wines like these in Central Texas but I’m finding more and more that the Texan style and passion for great food and wine brings some of the brightest and the best out to see us.

Above: The pig on the label of Bobby and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s Scarpetta is inspired by their love of Prosciutto di San Daniele. The name “scarpetta” comes from the Italian word for “sopping up leftover sauce from your plate.”

I liked Bobby’s 2007 Pinot Grigio a lot: bright acidity, freshness, and nice fruit, with balanced minerality. A totally clean wine, easy to drink, a great quaffing wine.

But I REALLY DUG the Tocai Friulano: while the Pinot Grigio is aged in stainless steel, the Tocai, Bobby told me, is aged in botti, large old oak casks — totally old school, the way I like it. This wine had the richness and grassy notes that I love in traditional style Tocai and I’m totally geeked that it will be coming to Texas (at under-$20 retail, I was told). I can’t wait for Tracie B to taste it.

Btw, even though the EU prohibits Italians from writing Tocai on the label, I still can’t help myself from calling it Tocai. Surprisingly, the new requirement to call it Friuliano has resulted in an increase in sales, as Franco and I reported earlier this year at VinoWire. (In 2007, in decision in a complaint by Hugarian producers of Tokaj, the EU constitutional court prohibited Italian producers from using Tocai on bottles sold outside Italy.)

I also liked what Bobby had to say about it: “I wanted a wild beast, not a lap dog in a Gucci bag.”

Bobby is part of an expanding group of master sommeliers who are making wines or consulting with winemakers, approaching them from the perspective of the restaurateur rather than the trophy wine seeker.

In other news…

We tasted some great Italian wines last night at my sold-out Italian 101 seminar at The Austin Wine Merchant. Participant Pat Kelly posted this nice review at her blog.

And our new friend Mary Gordon surprised me by showing up after she snagged one of the waiting-list spots.

During the tasting, I realized that I, too, am guilty of using a de facto rating system: I found myself calling a grapy, easy-to-drink Montepulciano d’Abruzzo a “Wednesday night wine,” an elegantly tannic Rosso di Montalcino a “Friday night wine,” and when we tasted a rich, earthy Aglianico, Mary Gordon asked, “what night of the week is this wine?” Another participant chimed in, to the amusement and agreement of all, without skipping a beat: “Definitely a Saturday night wine!”

Next Tuesday’s Tuscany class is already sold-out but there are still some spots available in later sessions. Click here for the full schedule.

Mmmmm… tonight is Wednesday night. I wonder what Tracie B and will drink… ;-)