Selvapiana Chianti Rufina good to the last drop

color sangiovese

MAN, I love this wine! Look at the color (no Photoshopping here, just a raw photo snapped with a white backdrop). THAT’s the color of Sangiovese.

I paired last night with a thinly cut, bone-in pork chop, slowly roasted Yukon Golds, dripping in extra-virgin olive oil, on the side. It was a beautiful thing…

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A star is born in Chianti in Porta di Vertine (and a Super Tuscan that I loved)

These days, we can’t even figure out how so many unsolicited samples make it to our doorstep. Before my days writing for the Houston Press, we’d receive the occasional Italian sample and my winemaker friends would often send me new vintages of their wines for me to taste. But now media relations companies just send wine without letting us know (not a good move in hotter than July Texas!) and without taking a moment to reflect on what kind of wine I’ll review for my “column” for Houston’s weekly rag.

But when Walter Speller, who writes for Jancis Robinson on Italy, sends an email saying, “I think you’d really like these wines… would you like me to send you samples?”, well, how could I refuse?

On the surface, the Porta di Vertine estate in Gaiole might seem like the same old paradigm: retired, rich couple from the east coast buys vacation/tax-shelter property in Chianti; hires top-notch Italian viticulturist and winemaker; replants vineyards with Cabernet and Merlot and Sangiovese (the latter for good measure); vinifies wine as trophy for friends and dinner parties.

But, man, when Tracie P and I tasted these wines over the last few evenings, we were blown away by how good they are and how much we enjoyed them.

I even liked the obligatory “Super Tuscan” (what an irrelevant term, no?), made predominantly from Merlot with a balance of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was bright and deliciously fresh, with zinging acidity holding the earthiness and red fruit in check. And when I retasted the wine a week after I opened it, it was still delicious.

But the wine that really won me over was the Chianti Classico Riserva, 100% Sangiovese.

There are so few Chianti Classico producers making traditional-style wine today with a historical perspective on what came before. The unmitigated success of the Chianti brand in the 1970s, the fall from grace with the sale of some of the big domains to American corporations, and the subsequent refashioning in the image of California… Chianti Classico — in my view – is a “brand” that lost its way and lacks the stalwart models for excellence and tradition that Montalcino has.

Just look at the color in the photo above (taken by Tracie P)… the translucent beauty of real Sangiovese… This wine had it all: the freshness, the bright acidity, the red stone fruit flavor, and just a touch kiss of horse sweat. Very elegant yet earthy, muscular in its tannic structure but with delicate floral notes in the nose and in the mouth.

The classic Chianti Classico (as opposed to the Riserva, above) was meatier thanks to a blend of the classic indigenous grapes, including Pugnitello (I learn from reading the winery’s website). But the Sangiovese remained the wine’s alpha grape and I’m hoping the price on this wine, once it reaches US shores, will be below $30 so that I can drink one bottle per week. It’s that good…

Of all the wines that make their way to our tasting table these days (and I taste EVERYTHING that arrives no matter how unpromising), it was so refreshing to find a project that breaks from the predictable paradigm of contemporary Chianti. We loved all the wines (all of them 2008).

Selvapiana, the gift of Sangiovese just keeps giving (and a photo of not so little Georgia)

It’s been incredible to see the heartfelt, poignant reaction to Quintarelli’s passing on Sunday. With the loss of Quintarelli and Gambelli, January has been a “cruel month” in Italian wine, as Italy’s top wine blogger Franco Ziliani put it. With uncertainty looming over Europe and an ever shifting wine industry, this passing of the old guard seems to mark the end of an era in the wines that we know and love. I have to admit that it leaves me in a state of aporia. But it’s time to begin wine blogging again…

When you first open the Selvapiana 2009 Chianti Rufina, you are greeted by a stiff whiff of volatile acidity and a wine so tannic, dense, and chewy on the palate that your first impulse is to recork it and put it down for another few years.

But with a little aeration, the funk quickly blows off and the wine starts to reveal its gorgeous ripe red and berry fruit, its ethereal mouthfeel aligning with its bright, translucent granite color (see the photo by Tracie P above).

Tracie P’s not drinking more than a glass of wine at dinner these days because she’s nursing Georgia P and so I’m always looking for under $25 wines that will last for several days in the fridge.

I opened the 2009 Selvapiana on a Monday and drank a glass every night with dinner over the course of four days. But the last day — and the last glass — the wine appeared to me as a Platonic ideal of beauty, the quintessence of what fine (food-friendly) wine should be in my view: bright, bright acidity, balanced alcohol (around 13%), a nose reminiscent of dewy pine, and ripe plum and black cherry. Pretty nifty for a wine that costs less than $20 in most markets (mine included). It just needs a little patience. I love it…

In other news…

Georgia P’s nearly 9 lbs.! She and mamma are doing great…

Best value Chianti (but sorry, fellow Texans, not available here)

Above: My good friend Francesco treated me to a bottle of 1995 Chianti Classico by Castell’in Villa at the Enoteca I Terzi in Siena when I visited in October.

Castell’in Villa is one of my favorite producers of Chianti Classico. It’s actually one of my all-time favorite Italian producers: traditional-style, pure Sangiovese, grown in galestro-rich stony soils at excellent elevation and with superb exposure, and raised in large cask. The wines are remarkably affordable (I recently bought some of their entry-tier 2007 for under $25) and the winery continues to draw from what must be an astonishing cellar, offering importers library releases that stretch back to the 1970s (I’ve tasted back to 1979).

The only problem is that you can’t get the wines in Texas.

Above: We paired the 95 with housemade tagliatelle tossed with funghi porcini that night in Siena.

Well, actually, there’s another problem: the wine is readily available in the U.S. but Texas won’t allow out-of-state retailers to ship the wine here. It’s against the law. Unless, of course, you set up shop as a winery in Texas — even if you don’t make wine. Yes, a winery that doesn’t make wine…

I’ve already pissed off a lot of folks today with my post over at the Houston Press, “Absurdity of Texas Wine Shipping Law Reaches New Heights”, about Friday’s news that the Texas alcohol authority has granted a winery license to Wine.Com, eve though — in the TABC’s own words — doesn’t produce wine. With the license, will now be able to ship wine to retail customers within Texas.

I knew this issue would press some of Tom Wark’s buttons: he’s spent the last few years campaigning against the anachronistic, obsolete, gerrymandering laws that regulate retail shipping of wine in our country. I sent the link to Tom this afternoon and he responded immediately:

    But here’s what needs to be understood. is actually only able to sell and ship wines to Texans that it first purchased form a Texas wholesaler. That means that the Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico you mentioned can not be sold by and shipped to a Texas consumer unless buys that wine from a Texas wholesaler.

    What’s really interesting is that set up a physical presence in Texas and got the wine producers license in stead of a retailers license. You know why? Because a few years ago, when SWRA was suing texas for discriminating against out of state retailers, the TX legislature passed a law that limited Texas retailers to only shipping wine into the county where the physical retail outlet was located. However, a Texas “WINERY” can ship ship throughout Texas.

Above: A San Francisco-based retailer shipped me the wine regardless of the TABC restriction. It’s a great value and one of my favorite wines.

For the record, I side with many of my colleagues in the trade when it comes to the three-tier system in the U.S. I believe, like them, that the three-tier system helps to keep costs down and it protects the consumer by making it difficult for importers and distributor to monopolize brands.

But what the hell, yo????!!!! Ain’t America a free country? As a U.S. citizen, shouldn’t I have the right to purchase a bottle of wine from a retailer in San Francisco or New York and have them ship it to me?

Most retailers ignore the TABC restrictions anyway. And I have a secret for you: the rich folks in Texas? They spend so much money at the high-end retailers in New York and Northern California that the sellers will always find a way to get them their high-cost wine.

Me? I just want my under $25 bottle of Chianti Classico by Castell’in Villa! And by golly, it went great with a bottle of ranch dressing from Walmart! So there!

Here’s the link to my post over at the Houston Press.

Chianti and Brunello, the brand names

Inspired by that Prince of Paronamasia, Thor, I was tempted to entitle this post, “Brand on the Run”… But have you ever known me to mince words?

Above: The Castello di Brolio, site of the Ricasoli winery. The “Iron Baron” Ricasoli, winemaker and Italy’s second prime minister, re-branded Chianti in the late 19th century when he replanted his vineyards with Sangiovese. Would he recognize the wine his family makes today?

Reading Eric the Red’s brutally honest column on Chianti Classico yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder out loud: would the “Iron Baron” Ricasoli, father of pre-industrial Chianti Classico, recognize the wines that his family makes today?

Even more chilling was the thought: in the light of Montalcino’s “vote for modernism,” as Ms. Robinson put it, is Brunello heading down the same path as Chianti Classico?

In other words, will we not recognize the wines that are going to be made there 20 or 30 years from now, leaving us as befuddled as Eric and his colleagues? “Of the 20 glasses before us,” wrote Eric, “many did not look like Chianti Classicos, the designation for Chiantis made in the Chianti region’s heartland in the hills of Tuscany. Or at least they did not look the way I expect a Chianti Classico to look.”

By the time Ricasoli was purchased by behemoth Seagram’s in the 1970s, Chianti had already achieved antonomastic status in the collective consciousness of the American consumer. In other words, it had become synonymous with “Italian wine.”

I cannot tell you how many times I come across the common misconception that Italians pair pizza with Chianti. The other day, a young Sicilian woman here in Austin told me that the traditional pairing for Parmigiano Reggiano was Chianti.

As the apologetic title of the column reveals (“Tasting Report: Chianti Classicos, So Dark and Oaky, but Still Recognizable”), the wines that Eric and colleagues tasted did not resemble the wines that they expected to uncork. In fact, “Many were densely colored and dark, almost impenetrable in their blackness.”

As rumors of corporate take-overs in Montalcino abound (reminiscent of the heady Seagram’s years), I fear I see a (literally) dark cloud in my wine horizon. To borrow a phrase, from Mel Brooks, “Let’s hope for the best…” You already know the next line…

Italy vintage 2008: the good, bad, and delicious

Above: Tracie P made a delicious pollo alla canzanese (with potato purée) last night for dinner. After she tasted a bit paired with the 2008 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, she said: “wow, Chianti goes with everything!” Selvapiana is one of our favorite wines, in terms of cost, food-friendliness, general deliciousness… and of course, its old-school ethos.

It’s too early to make any general sweeping observations (and no matter what the vintage, there will always be idiosyncratic expressions of any appellation depending on the grower, growing sites, and winemaker), but 2008 — from what I have tasted so far — is sizing up not to be the greatest vintage in northern and central Italy in recent memory. The legacy of 2008 has yet to reveal itself but it would seem that rain — particularly rainfall in the latter part of the vegetative cycle when the vines need aridity to avoid mildew — made for a harvest without a lot of longevity.

But that’s not bad news. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s really more a question of when the wines will begin to show well (earlier in this case) and their approachability and food friendliness.

So far, the two standouts for me have been the 2008 Langhe Rosso Nebbiolo by Produttori del Barbaresco (which we served at our wedding, if that’s any indication of how much we like it!) and the 2008 Chianti Rufina by Selvapiana, which our friend Sarah (a publicist who reps the importer, Dalla Terra) recently sent to us to try. Of course, anyone who reads my blog knows that Tracie P and I are big fans of Selvapiana.

The wine wasn’t as tannic and did not have the structure of the 2007 (which we drink regularly at home, because of its under-$20 price tag and its wonderful versatility at the table; it was my pick for Thanksgiving 2009, as you may remember).

Instead, this time around the wine was bright and showed nice ripe fruit right outta the box. It was lighter in body and sang a cheerful tune in the glass. I probably won’t stash a bottle of the 2008 to see what it tastes like in a few years (as I did for the 2007): when it hits the Texas market, it’s sure to be a a Wednesday- or Saturday-night (or in last night’s case, a Sunday-night) wine for the dinner table at home, to be drunk as soon as it’s had time to rest after arriving from our local wine monger.

The best news is that in tough vintages (as 2008 is shaping up to be), winemakers will often choose not to make their flagship wine and their top vineyards will go into their second and third label.

Above: A few weeks ago, we served the 2006 Chianti Rufina Riserva [single-vineyard] Bucerchiale, the winery’s current flagship release, with roast lamb on the patio of our new home. Rich and still very young for its age, a wonderful roast and grilled meat wine, still very tannic but approachable with some aeration, one our favorite expressions of Sangiovese. Definitely a Saturday-night or Sunday-feast exclusive (the PARZEN 7-DAY RATING SYSTEM® is calculated according to a festivity-and-celebratory-worthy algorithm).

I don’t know whether or not Selvapiana intends to bottle their single-vineyard Bucerchiale from the 2008 vintage or not and it’s highly likely that the winery doesn’t know yet either: they’ll taste and re-taste the wine before they decide how they choose to age and subsequently label it. We’ll see.

Legend has it that famed Italian winemaker Piero Talenti once said, “there is no such thing as a bad vintage. There are just vintages where we make less wine.” However apochyphal, there is more than a grain of wisdom in this axiom. Vintage is just one element in the vintage-terroir-winemaker equation.

After all, Bordeaux 2009 may be the “most talked about vintage” in the last 30 years, as Alfonso pointed out on the corporate blog that he authors, but I won’t be able to afford it!

POST SCRIPTUM Here are a couple of interesting links and recipes for Chicken Canzanese: Cooks Illustrated and Amanda Hesser in The New York Times via 1969.

Tasted any good 2008s? Please share!

A bygone wine: 1991 Chianti Montalbano by Capezzana


Tuesday morning finds me on the road and on a secret mission, ferrying precious cargo, and so I cannot reveal my location. But I can share my impressions of one of the most amazing wines I’ve tasted in a long time, a truly bygone bottle (to borrow Eric’s phrase from his bygone blog The Pour, requiescat in pace): 1991 Chianti Montalbano by Capezzana.

The Montalbano subzone of Chianti is one of the growing areas that enjoyed great celebrity in a bygone era, eclipsing the fame of appellations that enjoy household brand status today (like Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino). On another day, when I have more time and access to my library at home, I’ll have to look up what Edmondo de Amicis said famously of this appellation, which, according to legend, he enjoyed immensely despite his abstinence.

Today, only a handful of wineries produce Chianti Montalbano and I don’t have time to figure out when the regal Capezzana estate, famed producer of Carmignano, bottled its last Montalbano.

The 1991 harvest was a good although not great vintage in Tuscany but this wine was very, very much alive, with bright fruit and acidity. Old-school Sangiovese, probably with a kiss of Canaiolo to lend some color and mouthfeel.


My companions and I expected it to “fall away,” shortly after being opened but over the roughly 45 minutes it took us to consume the bottle, it remained vibrant and beautiful — one of the greatest wines I’ve tasted in some time (and I must say that I have the good fortune to taste a lot of good ones!).

To anyone who can share info about this bottle, please do so!

In other news…

I’m writing in hurry today because on the road but I’m happy to report that one of the upshots of the current volcanic crisis in Europe is that American wine professionals and European winemakers alike are stuck in Europe. As a result, I’m hearing reports that lots of folks are getting together to taste and to visit wineries. When life gives you lemons, the saying goes…

More later… and thanks for reading…

Suckling and Soldera on the Tuscan wine scandals

case basse

Above: One of the great maestri of Brunello Gianfranco Soldera and I tasted his wines together in September 2008 at his winery Case Basse in Montalcino (before Tracie B convinced me to go back to my au naturel hair style!). Photo by Ben Shapiro.

In an hour-long documentary on the Orcia River Valley, recently aired on the national-television Sunday show Linea Verde (it’s worth watching the show, even if you don’t understand Italian, if only for the cinematic beauty of the Val d’Orcia), the presenter asked Brunello maestro Gianfranco Soldera to share his impressions of the recent controversy in Montalcino regarding producers who allegedly added disallowed grape varieties to their Brunello (which, by law, must be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes).

“Luckily,” Soldera said, “the [Italian] treasury, the magistrate, and the anti-adulteration department did a great job in their investigation and they found some big problems. Millions of liters of wine were declassified in order to protect consumers and those producers who have always used only Sangiovese, as required by law, because this is what needed to be done.” Even though the quantity of wine declassified was significant, he noted, “only a handful of wineries” were implicated in the investigation. (The segment on Soldera appears at the end of the show and it is the only occasion that I know where the general public has been allowed to view Soldera’s “secret garden.” Definitely worth viewing.)

wine spectator

Above: The clairvoyant Swami shared his wine predictions for 2010, including a real whopper for Tuscany.

A week or so earlier, one of America’s premier wine writers, a world-renowned expert on Italian wine, and a resident and champion of Tuscany and its wines, the inimitable James Suckling published his predictions for the year in wine 2010 on his blog, including, this ominous premonition for Tuscany: “Tuscany will be embroiled in another wine witch hunt with the magistrate of Siena along the lines of a similar debacle in Montalcino over the past two years.”

This morning, I couldn’t help but share Franco’s indignation at Suckling’s admittedly “less than earth-shattering” prediction, expressed in a post entitled, American Wine Writers: Luckily they’re not all like James Suckling.

However ugly the recent controversy in Tuscany, it “needed to be done,” as Soldera pointed out. Everyone I’ve spoken to there (except for those implicated in the investigation) seems to share Soldera’s opinion.

Of all the things to predict for Tuscany in 2010 (eclipsing the rest of Italy, btw), how about something like this?

1) The Val d’Orcia DOC will emerge as one of the coolest new expressions of Sangiovese.

2) Tastings of the 2007 harvest will reveal that Tuscany was blessed with one of the better vintages in recent memory.

3) The high-cost of barrique and the emerging trend against oak-laden, concentrated wines will lead more and more producers to make traditional-style wines using large-cask aging and less manipulation in the cellar.

4) Thanks to more flexibility in labeling, the recently implemented EU Common Market Organisation reforms will allow Tuscan producers to regionally “brand” their international-style wines without encroaching on the Brunello and Chianti de facto trademarks.

5) Tracie B and Jeremy P will win the lottery and finally be able to move into the Ripa d’Orcia castle as their “vacation home.” (There are some beautiful shots of the castle in the Linea Verde show, btw.)

Thanks for reading. Tracie B and I will soon be heading to Montalcino on our honeymoon, where we’ll have our “nose in a glass” and our “ears to the ground.” Stay tuned…

One riot, one ranger

Tracie B and I were treated to what can only be called an “epic” meal and flight of wines last night da Alfonso in Dallas. Many truly great bottles were opened, including the 1990 Tignanello that Alfonso had “stood upright” after reading BrooklynGuy’s post on it, and a 1979 Sassicaia, which just totally blew me away.

So much is going on in the blogosphere and beyond and I have a lot to post about (I regret that the news from Chianti is not good and I will post about it tomorrow at VinoWire and here). I’m staying on in Dallas for work tomorrow and so Tracie B took a commuter flight home from Love Field.

This afternoon, when I took her to the airport, I finally got to see the famous Texas Ranger statue that Étienne de Montille told me about when he visited here. He loves repeating the line “one riot, one ranger,” inscribed in the pedestal of the statue. The aphorism is apocryphal (evidently) but it ably evokes the ethos of the legendarily indomitable Texas Rangers.

Stay tuned for more tomorrow… and in the meantime… buona domenica ya’ll!

Chiantigate? News of a new controversy breaks in Italy

When the first dispatch arrived in my inbox this morning with my nearly daily dose of, I just didn’t want to believe it was true. But then, after lunch, when Franco’s post appeared in my feed, I knew there was no ignoring it: Italian authorities believe that roughly 10 million liters of current-release Chianti and Toscana IGT and purportedly smaller amounts of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino have been “cut” with inferior wines not in accordance with appellation regulations. News of the authorities’s investigation and their subsequent request for a preemptive seizure of wine was widely reported today in the Italian news media. Seventeen persons and forty-two wineries, including some of the big players (according to the reports), are under investigation.

What can I say? It literally makes me feel sick: I love Italy, I love Italian wine, I have more good friends in Italy than I can count, and the majority of Italian winemakers I know personally (and I know a lot) are honest, earnest, hard-working folks. And I will continue to buy, drink, enjoy, love, and write about Italian wines. But the news of yet another controversy makes me feel sick. Franco has stated openly that he no longer wants to write about the Brunello controversy or any other Italian wine controversy for that matter. But as a chronicler of the world Italian wine, he felt obliged today to repost the story for the sake of “the completeness of information.” And, so, as his colleague, friend, and partner, I, too, feel obliged to report it here.

When I was a child my family went through a crisis that was reported by the media. And whenever there was a story in the papers, my mother taught me to be the one to tell my friends — so that they would hear it from me and not from a stranger. It was one of the best lessons she ever taught me.

Well, here I am again, and my “family” is in trouble. And I want you to hear it from me. So be it. Surely, it is the saddest form of wine writing.

Ne nuntium necare.