I soliti ignoti and blogs I’ve been reading lately

My friend and co-editor of VinoWire, Franco Ziliani, has posted recently on the Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 List (my translation is posted at VinoWire) and James Suckling’s top Piedmont picks (in Italian). Franco points out rightly: it’s simply appalling that Giacomino (Lil’ James) Suckling and the Wine Spectator elide an entire swath of traditionalist wines and even include wines virtually unknown to Italians and their palates. After all, aren’t they the Italians’ wines first and foremost? If you want a list of Nebbiolo not to get me for Christmas, read Suckling’s article (to be published on December 15). His wines are the soliti ignoti, the usual suspects, that appear on his list every year and he arrogantly ignores the wines that have historically defined the region. (See IWG’s post.)

Over at Montalcino Report, winemaker Alessandro Bindocci has published some interesting posts about olive oil made from depitted drupes and “integrated farming.”

Ever the devoted fan, I always love to read Simona Carini’s excellent blog Briciole. And I owe Simona a thanks for the help she’s been giving me with the desserts in a translation I’m doing for Oronzo Editions.

Alice Feiring posted this conflicted take on the California Conundrum.

Tracie B just posted this irresistibly delicious piece on pasta e fagioli (but, then again, I might be a bit biased when it comes to her cooking).

And on a totally unrelated note, I’m in the Marines Too! reminds me that we are a country at war and that world conflicts affect the lives and hearts of the people who live in my hometown.


Even if you don’t understand Italian, watch this clip from Monicelli’s 1958 classic, I soliti ignoti (literally, the usual unknowns or the usual suspects but released in English as Big Deal on Madonna Street). Totò’s performance is brilliant…

On the eve of a historic vote, a 1975 Brunello by Lisini

Above: the 1975 Lisini Brunello di Montalcino was one of the most beautiful expressions of Sangiovese I’ve ever tasted. The wine was so bright and alive, with gorgeous acidity, red fruit flavors, and the elegant tannin that defines truly great Brunello. Look at the clear color of the wine: 100% Sangiovese. THANK YOU ALFONSO!

Austin, Texas—Last night Tracie B. and I opened a bottle of 1975 Brunello di Montalcino by Lisini, given to us by Italian Wine Guy. The wine was simply divine. Here are Tracie B.’s tasting notes:

menthol, cedar and sottobosco (woodsy), pecan pie and cherries with cinnamon, tar and liquorice, cherry vanilla oatmeal with cinnamon, chocolate (only for a second)… two constants: cinnamon and vanilla caramel…

The fact that on Monday, members of the Brunello Consortium will vote on whether or not to change appellation regulations was not lost on us. Currently, regulations require that the wine be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, grown in Montalcino. Many believe — as do I — that over the last decades, unscrupulous Brunello producers have blended international grapes, and most notoriously Merlot, in their wines.

Above: it was tough to pull that cork but Mr. Bianchi knew what to do!

To put it all into perspective, I sat down and took a look at a book that’s been sitting on my virtual shelves for some time: I vitigni stranieri da vino coltivati in Italia or Foreign Grape Varieties Cultivated in Italy, by Salvatore Mondini, Firenze (Florence), Barbèra Editore, 1903 (reprint Zazzera, Lodi, 1998). Keep in mind the date of the original publication of this tome, 1903:

    “Tuscany has the greatest number of foreign wine grape varieties in Italy… These plantings, however, rarely reach important quantities, save for Gamay, which is widely planted, particularly in the province of Pisa. … When he saw the scarce productivity of planting foreign varieties, the inferiority of the wines they produced, and the difficulties caused by their early ripening (which consequently affected the progress of the harvest), Baron Ricasoli decided to transform his vineyards by grafting Tuscan varieties onto the foreign varieties previously introduced there” (p. 45, translations mine).

Mondini is referring to the famous letter sent by Baron Ricasoli (1809-1880, producer of Chianti Classico and the second prime minister of unified Italy) to Professor Cesare Studiati in 1872, in which the Baron writes:

    “As early as 1840, I began experimenting with every grape variety. I cultivated each one in significant quantities on my Brolio estate. Our goal was to test the quality and taste of the wines produced from each grape.”

    “Following this comparative study, I restricted the number of grapes at Brolio and began growing Sangioveto, Canaiolo, and Malvasia almost exclusively. In 1867, I decided once again to make wine using these three grapes. I made a relatively large vat of each one and then I blended the three in another vat using exact proportions” (translation mine).

There are “plantings of Merlot in Italy,” wrote Mondini, only in ten provinces belonging to the regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia, Tuscany, Latium, and the Mediterranean [coastal areas] of the South” (p. 294).

“In Tuscany, there are some very limited plantings of Merlot in the provinces of Lucca and Pisa” (p. 296).

As the documents above reveal, historically, Tuscan growers have not favored Merlot. It’s a pity that so much Merlot has been planted in Montalcino over the last two decades.

Yesterday, I read another document that gave me hope that Brunello will come out of this mess unscathed. I rarely agree with James Suckling’s take on Italian wine but I was thrilled to see that he spoke out against a change that would allow the blending of grapes other than Sangiovese.

You need to subscribe to the Wine Spectator site to be able to read his blog (yes, I admit it, I subscribe!). But I’ve copied and pasted the following passages below.

    “I think that Montalcino is the greatest place on earth to grow Sangiovese, and allowing Brunello to be something other than 100 percent Sangiovese would be scandalous. … No thank you!” …

    “Something as unique and as delicious as a great Sangiovese from Montalcino needs to be protected, even cherished. Its great quality can’t be replicated any place in the world, except for a few other parts of Tuscany. There are other DOCs in the Montalcino area and the rest of Tuscany for blended wines. Let Brunello be Brunello.”

I couldn’t agree more: Let Brunello be Brunello. Chapeau, James. I hope Brunello producers are listening.

A couple of posts worth reading…

David Schachter and I had our weekly powwow at Mozza last night, where we also tasted with general manager David Rosoff (above) — top sommelier and Italian wine guy in Los Angeles in my book. Man, I wish I could get my facial hair to look as good as his. He’s also a rocking drummer.

Today finds me simply too busy to keep posting my Brunello debate series and I promise to pick it up again on Friday.

In the meantime, check out this post by winemaker and wine blogger Craig Camp, who sets the record straight with James “Giacomino” Suckling. The 1997 and 2000 vintages in Piedmont (and Tuscany) are among the most overrated and misunderstood in this country (I mean, come on: is there such thing as a 100-point vintage?). Suckling should be commended, however, for keeping prices of 1999 and 2001 down. And Piedmont 1998? Drinking great right now.

Schachter brought a bottle of Il Cantante white, impossible to find in this country, and I have to say, one of the most impressive Sicilian whites I’ve ever tasted (made from Carricante, Minnella, Grecanico, and Moscato). Don’t let the rockstar label fool you: this is serious stuff.

I also liked Lyle Fass’ report “U.S. to bailout wine retailers.” Note his take on the 2000 Barolo and 2003 Brunello (both warm, atypical vintages).

We also drank a Conterno Cicala 1996 from Schachter’s cellar. I tasted this wine twice on release — once in NYC and later at the winery. I have to say that it did not show as well as I would have expected and the wood still dominated the wine unfortunately. This wine was touted by some — and they know who they are — to be one of the greatest releases of the decade. I’ve always enjoyed Aldo Conterno’s wines but at the end of the day, I think that traditionalism invariably trumps modernism, however muted that modernism may be (call me a passéist). But this post is about others’ rants, not mine! More on the Brunello debate on Friday…