Sunrise with a Brunello master: Sangiovese is safe in Montalcino

One of the most thrilling experiences of my recent sojourn in Tuscany was a sunrise ride through the vineyards of Il Poggione with the estate’s winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci (above). I’ve known Fabrizio for seven years now and I consider him a friend and a teacher. Born and bred in Montalcino, he is one of its top winemakers and one of the appellation’s greatest defenders and protectors. In recent years, he has spoken — passionately, eloquently, and very publicly — in favor of not changing Brunello appellation regulations to allow for grapes other than Sangivoese.

And I don’t think that Fabrizio would mind me calling him a toscanaccio: he has the sharp wit and the sometimes acerbic tongue for which Tuscan men have been famous since their countryman Dante’s time and beyond. I try to visit and taste with him every year and I’ve never known him to mince words.

I love the wines he bottles, for their integrity and for their purity, for what they represent and the people who make them, and for their honest and utterly delicious aromas and flavor.

Of course, my $48K question to Fabrizio was will the modernizers of Brunello succeed in changing the appellation regulations and obtain their desired allowance of international grape varieties in the wine?

Brunello as a monovarietal wine, i.e., 100% Sangiovese, is safe, he told me. And he doesn’t fear that the new and decidedly modern-leaning regime in the Brunello producers association will attempt to change the Brunello DOCG to allow other grapes. The body, he said, is currently studying verbiage for the soon-to-be unveiled “new” appellations under the EU’s Common Market Organisation reforms. (This summer, authority to create new European wine appellations passed from the individual states to the European Commission in Brussels.)

The bottler-members of the association are evidently considering a new appellation, putatively called “Montalcino Rosso,” that would allow for more liberality in creating blends raised in Montalcino. This would seem to represent a palatable compromise — my words, not his — between traditionalists who want to preserve Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino as monovarietal wines and modernists who what to cash in on the de facto Montalcino brand (again, my words, not his).

Daybreak in the vineyards of Montalcino during harvest is a sight that everyone should see before leaving this earth. There is a light that brings a transcendent clarity to the mind and the soul.

As the sun rose over this immensely beautiful place, I couldn’t help but think of Dante and the roles that light plays in his Comedìa as metaphor of knowledge and love.

I was relieved on that morning to discover that (it seems) Brunello has emerged from its selva oscura, its dark wood. (Observers of Italian wine will appreciate my paronomasia.)

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

Strange hues of the Middle Ages

This morning, my last in Montalcino, I enjoyed a daybreak drive through the vineyards of Il Poggione with winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci as my guide (I’ve been staying at the estate’s farmhouse).

The vision above made me think of Dante, Inferno, 34, 132-33:

    Into that hidden passage my guide and I
    entered, to find again the world of light

I remembered my years as a grad student, often spent imagining the quality of light as perceived by humankind in the Middle Ages.

I remembered the famous passage from Burckhardt:

    In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues.

And I realized that those strange hues often reveal truths lost on those inebriated by the glow of rationalism.

Sunday poetry: Dante’s “sweetness of the drink”

The below image (a postcard, I believe) reached me via friend and comrade Howard to whom it had been sent by his friend Amos, who’s living in Florence this year.


The image satirically parodies two of the last lines in Dante’s Puragtory, with a slight distortion (most probably inadvertent) of the text. The author of the postcard transcribes:

    io pur canterò in parte
    lo dolce ber che mai non m’avria sazio

Most scholars would take issue with the accuracy of the transcription (canterò, future, vs. the probably more accurate canterei, present conditional) but that’s no matter nor the point here.

The line is lifted from the famous closing tercets of The Purgatory, the second of three canticles in Dante’s poem, The Comedy. Here they are as translated by professors Robert and Jean Hollander.

    If, reader, I had more ample space to write,
    I should sing at least in part the sweetness
    of the drink that never would have sated me,

    but, since all the sheets
    readied for this second canticle are full,
    the curb of art lets me proceed no farther.

    From those most holy waters
    I came away remade, as are new plants
    renewed with new-sprung leaves,

    pure and prepared to rise up to the stars.

At the end of Purgatory, Dante, who is accompanied by the Latin poet Statius, is instructed by the mysterious Matelda to bathe in the waters of the Lethe river (one of the five rivers of Hell) to erase the memory of sins committed on earth) and then to drink from the Eunoe, a river of Dante’s invention, from the Greek, the eu (beautiful or good) noe (mind), which reminds the penitent of her or his good deeds on earth.

The famous lines would have been very familiar to the author of the postcard, who has parodied Dante’s dolce ber or sweet drink of the Eunoe, the river referred to in the closing lines of the canticle, as alcoholic. The triad Statius-Dante-Matelda also would have been familiar to the author, who probably created this image in the 1920s or early 1930s, gauging from the imagery

The image of Dante is taken from 15th-century painter Domenico di Michelino’s depiction of Dante, now in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence:


Here are the two Dantes, side-by-side:

I believe that the other male figure in the panel could be a parody of poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was at the height of his fame when this postcard was printed.

The lady with the tray of glasses completes the triad. To this day, scholars don’t know Dante’s inspiration for Matelda but she is described by him as la bella donna, not just a beautiful woman as in the contemporary Italian, but rather a beautiful noble lady in the Dantean lexicon. Here’s 19th-century French engraver Gustav Doré’s depiction of Matelda bathing Dante in the Lethe:

Of course, in Dante’s text, the waters of the Eunoe do not have any alcoholic content nor do they have any analgesic properties. In fact, the effects of alcohol were associated more with sleep than with forgetfulness in Dante’s time. The lines from The Purgatory are among the most beautiful in the canticle, for many reasons. But I don’t have any more space left here to go into all of that… the curb of art lets me proceed no farther

Buona domenica, ya’ll… thanks for reading!

A great winebar in Asti and 3 wines that blew me away

Special thanks to Tom H, who hipped me to this place.

Above: Classic-method Petit Rouge “Caronte” by Morgex et de La Salle (Val d’Aosta)? Hell ya! Caronte is Dante’s Charon, as the label reveals with these lines: Charon the demon, with eyes of glowing coals/beckons to them, herds them all aboard/striking anyone who slackens with his oar (Inferno 3, 109-11). This wine had elegant structure and citrus fruit balanced by a savory minerality. One of those, I-could-drink-everyday-and-never-get-tired-of-it wines.

Posting hastily as I head out for meetings in Alba and Grinzane this morning and then to Milan to reconnect with friends, old and new, and hopefully to visit a bookshop or too before dinner.

Above: “Natural wine” is a touchy subject in Italy and the term “natural” really refers here, as Thor pointed out the other night, to a philosophy, loose but honest, rather than a rigorously enforced code. Owner Claudio called this a “natural” Barbera. 2006 Piemonte Barbera (although actually a Barbera d’Asti) by Hohler. It was earthy and savory, meaty but not over rich. I completely dug it.

After everyone left yesterday, I spent the day alone, catching up on correspondence, doing a little translating for a client, and resting. Tom H had mentioned TastéVin Vineria, a fantastic wine bar near Asti’s city walls, and so I headed out for a little walk and then took a seat at the tiny counter and chatted with owner Claudio, munching on charcuterie and cheese and tasting wines he recommended.

Above: I was completely floored by this wine. 2004 Aglianico d’Irpinia Drogone by Cantina Giardino. No sulfite added. Rich and savory, gorgeous tannin (slightly mellowed after having been opened the night before), rocks and red fruit, and impressive acidity. Definitely a great candidate for aging. My one word tasting note? Wow.

Okay. That’s all I have time for today. Gotta run. If you ever make it to Asti, please check out TastéVin Vineria. That’s a photo of owners Claudio and his fidanzata below (I’m so sorry, Claudio! I lost the card you gave me last night with your last names!).

TastéVin Vineria
Via Carlo Vassallo, 2
14100 Asti, Italy
0141 320017

In other news…

Only my love holds the other key to me…

Italy meal 1: Trattoria il Pozzo, Sant’Angelo in Colle (Montalcino)

Just like people, restaurants have “good days” and “bad days.” The night we went to Trattoria il Pozzo in Sant’Angelo in Colle (Montalcino), it was one of those off-the-charts good days (and not every meal we had in Italy was worth writing home about, believe me). I’ve been going there since 1989 when I first began to “frequent” Montalcino (the fons origo of my passion for Italian wine). Paola (in the kitchen) and Franca (front of the house) Binarelli have owned and run Trattoria il Pozzo since 2001 and honestly, the food there has never been better. It was just one of those magical culinary nights, when everything came together just perfectly. I’ll let Tracie P’s superb photos do the talking…

tuscan cuisine

Salt-less bread crostini topped with liver and spleen (the chestnut-colored spread, classic Tuscan), chopped mushrooms, and tomato (not so traditional but now part of the pan-Italian culinary lexicon).

tuscan cuisine

Salt-less bread soup, drizzled (rigorously) with extra-virgin olive oil by Il Poggione (more on Il Poggione later).

tuscan cuisine

Pici (long, hand-rolled noodles) with sausage, mushroom, and tomato (this was UNBELIEVABLY good).

tuscan cuisine

Pici with wild boar ragù (the boar meat was so tender and flavorful and the combination of textures and flavors was sublime).

tuscan cuisine

We had to sneak a peak in the kitchen since they were still rolling out the pici that evening.

tuscan cuisine

One of the sine qua non elements of the bistecca fiorentina is that it must be charred on top — to heat the meat on the bone without cooking it through.

tuscan cuisine

Need I say more? To look at the meat you’d think it was over cooked. But the secret is that the beast is slaughtered young. Older than a calf but still relatively young and so the meat has a pink rather than blood-red color.

tuscan cuisine

Fried artichokes. Franca told me that Italian celebrity chef Gianfranco Vissani once complained that they had served these with lemon wedges. So no more lemon wedges!

tuscan cuisine

The chicory was at once bitter like Tuscan dirt and sweet like Tuscan heaven.

gianni brunelli

The 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by the dearly departed Gianni Brunelli, one of the great Tuscan restaurateurs of our lifetime. Beautiful acidity, gorgeous fruit, and man, the combination of the red fruit flavors of the wine and its acidity against the fat and flesh of the steak was better than… well, actually, it wasn’t better than… it was our honeymoon after all! ;-)

Ristorante Il Pozzo
53024 Montalcino (SI) – Piazza Del Pozzo, 2
tel: 0577 844015

closed Tuesdays

You shall learn how salt is the taste/of another man’s bread… Cacciaguida to Dante, Paradiso 17, 58-9.

Sunday poetry: Dante and wine

Of the entire corpus of Dante’s writings, his Inferno — the first canticle of his Commedia, with its gallery of eternally damned, their sordid tales, and their punishments — is indisputably the most popular (in part because of its inherently cinematic and more immediately accessible content). The other two canticles are much more dense and more difficult to penetrate but they are equally — and in many cases more — inspired, as Dante travels up toward heaven through Purgatorio (see the terraces of Purgatory left) toward Beatrice in Paradiso.

The word vino or wine appears twice in the Commedia, both times in the Purgatorio. In the first instance (Purg. 15, 123), Dante refers to his fatigue, “like a man overcome by wine or sleep.”

In the second, wine plays a much less mundane role. In Purg. 25, 76-78, the Latin poet Statius compares the miracle of winemaking (natural winemaking, I might add) to how God creates life:

    E perché meno ammiri la parola
    guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,
    giunto a l’omor che de la vite cola.

    And, that you may be less bewildered by my words,
    consider the sun’s heat, which, blended with the sap [must]
    pressed from the vine, turns into wine.

(You can read the tercet in context at the Princeton Dante Project here and I’ve included the Princeton Dante Project commentary to Statius’s lecture on embryology, the physiology of the spirit, and the formation of the aerial body below, together with a link to the entire commentary.)

I had been thinking about this tercet after I posted in Saignée’s 31 Days of Natural Wine Series on the “miracle” of winemaking. (The series continues through July 18 and is definitely worth checking out.)

This passage from Dante is a great example of how Western thinkers and poets saw winemaking as a divine act. I find it beautiful how Dante (in the voice of Statius) uses the example of winemaking to illustrate how life is formed — a concept not easy for the mortal to grasp. As the heat of the sun starts fermentation, so the miracle of grape juice being turned into wine begins. Juice for thought, no?

Thanks for reading and buona domenica! Tracie B and I are off to the movies now…

From the Princeton Dante Project, a great tool for reading, browsing, and studying Dante’s Commedia:

Statius’s lecture on embryology may be paraphrased as follows. He is willing to deal with Dante’s desire to know how the aerial body is formed ([Purg XXV 34-36]): (1) After the ‘perfect blood’ is ‘digested’ (the fourth digestion) in the heart, having now the power to inform all the parts of body, it is ‘digested’ once again and descends into the testicles; (2) it now falls upon the ‘perfect blood’ in the vagina; it is ‘active,’ the latter ‘passive’; (3) the male blood now informs the soul of the new being in the female; (4) but how this soul becomes a human being is not yet clear ([Purg XXV 37-66]). Once the fetal brain is formed, God, delighted with Nature’s work, breathes into it the (rational) soul, which blends with the already existent souls (vegetative and sensitive) and makes a single entity, as wine is made by the sun ([Purg XXV 67-78]). At the moment of death the soul leaves the body but carries with it the potential for both states, the bodily one ‘mute,’ the rational one more acute than in life, and falls to Acheron (if damned) or Tiber (if saved), where it takes on its ‘airy body,’ which, inseparable as flame from fire, follows it wherever it goes; insofar as this new being ‘remembers’ its former shape, it takes on all its former organs of sense and becomes a ‘shade’ ([Purg XXV 79-108]). This ‘lecture’ is put to the task of justifying Dante’s presentation of spiritual beings as still possessing, for the purposes of purgation, their bodily senses even though they have no bodies. Souls in Heaven, we will discover, have no such ‘aerial bodies,’ but are present as pure spirit.

Synæsthesia and wine writing (and Valentini 2004 Trebbiano)

Synæsthesia is “the use of metaphors in which terms relating to one kind of sense-impression are used to describe sense-impressions of other kinds; the production of synæsthetic effect in writing or an instance of this” (Oxford English Dictionary, online edition).

A famous example of synæsthesia is found in Dante, Inferno 33.9, where Count Ugolino says to Dante and Virgil:

parlare e lagrimar vedrai insieme (you will see me speak and weep together).

(This is also an example of zeugma, one of my favorite figures of rhetoric, if only for the term’s etymology.)

Synæsthesia is inherent to wine writing: when we describe wine, we use “one kind of sense-impression… to describe sense-impressions of other kinds.”

The wine descriptor velvety is a great example of this (Italian Wine Guy published this excellent post, The Allure of Velour, on its usage yesterday).

In our confabulationes, my comrade Howard and I often discuss synæsthesia in wine writing.

The other night he and I (he in the Hollywood Hills, I in Austin) exchanged messages on whether or not to decant a 2004 Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The next day, he sent me the following tasting notes, which he graciously has allowed me to share with you.

    We started with a Lambrusco rosé from Lini, which was subtler and more satisfying that I had expected. What I’d wanted was “amiable,” and it was that, to be sure, but there was also something come-hitherish which made all of us want to refill our glasses until it was gone.

    The Valentini was another story — one with a narrative arc. It was dull, cloudy in the glass, and at first seemed like a seaside breeze, seashells in the sun, but old, distant, as if we were trying to hear a conversation at the other end of a transAtlantic cable. Then it thickened, notes becoming chords, with sweet second-order harmonics, lush feedback. It could have stayed there and we would have been happy. But then, about an hour in, it went all psychedelic on us. Weird aromas, flavor notes, speaking to each of us in individual tongues. For me, it was witch hazel and Pinaud Lilac Vegetal, taking me all the way back to the Brooklyn days when my uncle would walk me to the barbershop — I’d get a haircut, he’d get a shave, as the Men Born Elsewhere chattered in their native languages. The memories came flooding back. Then the Valentini got even stranger, more ethereal — and was gone.

    To go with the cheese (a Manchego with membrillo, and a truly memorable Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery, a washed-rind triple cream, perfectly ripe, perhaps the best domestic cheese I’ve ever had) we opened another of the 1998 G. Conterno Barolos. The bottle we shared at Lou told a story (or many stories). This one never really lost its martial beat. It was stern, perhaps a bit disapproving. The cheese evolved before our eyes, but the wine simply looked on, aristocratic and unengaged. I look forward to seeing what it’s like this evening. It may not have been ready to yield up its pleasures, but time is on my side.

From this moment on, I hereby declare feedback to be a canonical wine descriptor!

Thanks for the tasting notes and photos, Howard.


The 2004 harvest was the penultimate vinified by Edoardo Valentini before his passing in April 2006.

The ashes of Dante: exile rescinded but Count Serego Alighieri refuses Florentine Golden Florin

You may remember my recent post about Dante Alighieri and the Florentines’ attempt to bring his remains back to their city by rescinding his exile. According to a report published today in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the motion to rescind the exile was approved by the Florence city council but Dante’s descendant, winemaker Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, has refused to accept the Golden Florin, the city’s greatest honor. Dante (left) was exiled in 1302 and died in Ravenna, where his tomb remains a popular tourist attraction.

“When I see things like this, I pray to heaven that they will leave poor Dante in peace,” said Serego Alighieri, the 20th and current generation of Dante Alighieri’s family. “That’s why I thought the Florence ‘full rehabilitation’ initiative was good. But even on that front, things didn’t go so well: at the city council meeting where they were supposed to rescind the 1302 banishment decree, the measure passed with just one vote. It was approved but by just a small margin and it was immediately sullied by base controversies that touched even me — and I have nothing to do with the whole affair. It got to the point that I decided not to accept the Golden Florin.”

Italophones can read the entire account here.

Dante inspires a wine and gets a welcome (?) home after 700 years

Dante made the Italian news wire the other day — yes, Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321; how’s that for a boldface name?), author of La Commedia, an autobiographical and politically charged allegorical poem written in terza rima, or rhymed tercets, divided into three canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), in which he recounts his exile from Florence (1302) and his journey through the center of the earth (with Virgil as his guide) to heaven where he is received by his beloved Beatrice, who in turn guides him to the Virgin Mary and his salvation. Earlier this month, only 700 years after the fact, Florence rescinded Dante’s exile, thus allowing for the poet’s remains to be returned to the city on the Arno river. The back story: the Florentines want to wrest the body back from the city of Ravenna, where Dante died and his tomb is a major tourist attraction, most likely because they’d like to see those tourist dollars (and euros) spent at home. (For a concise overview of Dante’s life and work and details of his exile, please do not use Wikipedia; use the excellent Princeton Dante Project and for closer reading of La Commedia, use the Dartmouth Dante Project.)

In the light of this news, I was all the more intrigued by a wine I came across the other day called “Bello Ovile.” The expression il bello ovile (the fair sheepfold) comes from Canto 25 of the Paradiso, and is a metaphorical reference to Dante’s youth in Florence:

    Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,
    to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
    so that it has made me lean for many years,

    should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
    of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
    foe of the wolves at war with it,

    with another voice then, with another fleece,
    shall I return a poet and, at the font
    where I was baptized, take the laurel crown.

    (Par. 25, 1-9)

Next to his lifelong quest to free the Italian city states from the yoke of papal power and to restore imperial (temporal) power, Dante desired nothing more than a glorious return to Florence and his laureation there, i.e., his crowning with a laurel and recognition as poet laureate (in fact, he never returned). “The font [spring] where I was baptized” refers to the famous Baptistery of San Giovanni (left) that you surely remember from your Renaissance Art History 101 for its gilded doors (and the competition to cast them, won by Ghiberti and lost by Brunelleschi). After he was exiled from Florence, Dante found his first “welcome” and “refuge” in Verona under the protection of the Veronese seigneur Cangrande della Scala. In the Paradiso (17, 70-72), Cacciaguida (his great-great-grandfather) tells Dante:

    You shall find welcome and a first refuge
    in the courtesy of the noble Lombard,
    the one who bears the sacred bird above the ladder.

In 14th century Italian, Lombard denoted an inhabitant of Northern Italy and the “sacred bird above the ladder” is a reference to Cangrande della Scala’s coat of arms, a ladder (scala) with a black eagle (an imperial symbol) atop. Dante’s son Pietro Alighieri settled and remained in Verona: today, Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri continues to make wine there, in one of the oldest historically designated vineyards of Valpolicella, Armaron (many believe that the toponym Armaron is the etymon of Amarone; I’m a fan of Alighieri’s Amarone, which he ages in cherry wood).

When Serego decided to buy an estate and begin making wine in Tuscany, he viewed the move — rightly — as a return to his ancestor’s “sheepfold” even though the wine isn’t made anywhere near Florence: it’s made in Montecucco, a wonderful, undiscovered and still undeveloped part of Tuscany, to the west of Montalcino toward the sea, where you’ll find all sorts of artisanal pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) producers, grape growers, and fantastic norcini or pork butchers (when I was there year before last, I had some amazing head cheese near the village of Paganico).

It will be interesting to see how the fight over Dante’s remains plays out and in the meantime, I’m glad to see that Count Serego decided to use indigenous grapes in his homage to his ancestor Dante: Bello Ovile [BEHL-loh oh-VEE-leh] is made primarily from Sangiovese, with smaller amounts of Canaiolo and Cilliegiolo (it retails for under $20). The wine is done in a modern style, fruit forward, but judiciously enough so that it still expresses the grape variety.

Bello Ovile would have tasted foreign to Dante: in his day, Sangiovese was not considered a grape variety for fine wine and wines were much lighter in color and body. Of Italy’s three “crowns” of the Middle Ages — Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio — Petrarch wrote more and most famously about wine. There’s a famous passage in Dante about Vernaccia and the eels of Lake Bolsena, but I’ll save that morsel for another post.

Some clarification on the title of La Commedia…

  • Dante called the poem La Commedia but he never called it “divine”: Boccaccio, one of Dante’s greatest commentators and the author of an early biography of Dante, called it “the Divine Comedy.”
  • In the context of Dante’s poem, the title Comedy does not denote humor but rather the fact that poem has a happy ending (as opposed to tragic) and — most importantly — is written in Italian rather than Latin. In a letter to Cangrande della Scala, presenting the poem, Dante wrote: “in the conclusion, it is prosperous, pleasant, and desirable,” and in its style “lax and unpretending [undemanding],” being “written in the vulgar [vernacular or Italian] tongue, in which women and children speak.”
  • Father of the Italian language…

    Dante is often called the “father of the Italian language” because the immediately and immensely popular Comedy became one of the primary models for literary Italian and ultimately — together with the Italian writings of Petrarch and Boccaccio — became the basis for the national language of Italy (which first emerged only in the late nineteenth century).

    Dante in translation…

    The most recent translations have been published by top Dante scholars Robert Durling (Oxford University Press, 1996 [2003]) and Mark Musa (Indiana University Press, 1996 [2004]. For readability, I’ve always been a big fan of the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1892-1893). From a purely exegetic point of view, I always prefer Charles Singleton (Princeton University Press, 1970-75). Allen Mandelbaum’s excellent translation (Bantam Books, 1980) is one of the more inspired renderings in my opinion and Robert Pinsky’s “verse translation” of the Inferno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994) was an interesting experiment in “translation as performance.”