Nuns and wine (Coenobium) and a report from Montalcino

Above: “Decameron” by Waterhouse (1916). The countryside outside the city of Fiesole served as diegetic backdrop in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Fiesole lies in the hills above Florence.

If you’ve visited my blog before, you probably have already tasted Coenobium, a wine raised by Cistercian sisters in the Province of Viterbo and vinified by natural winemaker and co-founder of Vini Veri, one of Italy’s leading natural wine movements, Giampiero Bea. Most Italophile wine lovers have heard the tale of this wine many times before.

But when I posted about it today over at the Houston Press food and wine blog, I couldn’t resist making an allusion to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Third Day, Novella 1, “Masetto da Lamporecchio [who] feigns to be dumb, and obtains a gardener’s place at a convent of women, who with one accord make haste to lie with him.”

The funny, sexy tale is one of those depicted by Pasolini in his 1971 filmic version of the Decameron (which we watched the other night) and I’m always looking for excuses to talk about literature when writing about wine.

    Fairest ladies, not a few there are both of men and of women, who are so foolish as blindly to believe that, so soon as a young woman has been veiled in white and cowled in black, she ceases to be a woman, and is no more subject to the cravings proper to her sex, than if, in assuming the garb and profession of a nun, she had put on the nature of a stone: and if, perchance, they hear of aught that is counter to this their faith, they are no less vehement in their censure than if some most heinous and unnatural crime had been committed; neither bethinking them of themselves, whom unrestricted liberty avails not to satisfy, nor making due allowance for the prepotent forces of idleness and solitude. And likewise not a few there are that blindly believe that, what with the hoe and the spade and coarse fare and hardship, the carnal propensities are utterly eradicated from the tillers of the soil, and therewith all nimbleness of wit and understanding. But how gross is the error of such as so suppose, I, on whom the queen has laid her commands, am minded, without deviating from the theme prescribed by her, to make manifest to you by a little story…

Here’s the link to my post.

And here’s the link to the tale. Buona lettura!

In other news…

Above: My friends have begun harvesting their Pinot Grigio in Montalcino. As you can see in the image, Pinot Grigio is not a white grape.

I’ve been following my friends father and son Fabrizio and Alessandro Bindocci’s posts on the vegetative cycle and harvest 2011 over at their blog Montalcino Report.

They’ve been doing an amazing job of documenting the 2011 vintage and to my knowledge, they are the only Italian winemakers who have attempted a project like this.

Today they posted the above photo of Pinot Grigio grapes and reported “Heat Spikes But Grapes Are Healthy and Correctly Ripened.”

It takes a lot of courage to be so honest about the vintage but it also gives Italian wine enthusiasts an entirely new perspective into the vegetative cycle. It will be fascinating to taste the wines when they are released and compare our tasting notes with their documentation of the vintage.

Chapeau bas, gentlemen!

A voice of reason in Montalcino? A top producer addresses the absurdity…

Above: A monument rests atop Montaperti, not far from Montalcino. It commemorates the 1260 battle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, when the temporal and spiritual [im]balance of power in the Western World lay in precarious uncertainty. In the wake of the battle, a cloud of darkness fell over Italy for centuries to follow.

Italy’s top wine blogger, Mr. Franco Ziliani, has obtained and yesterday posted (with the author’s permission) a letter addressed to members of the Brunello Producers Association by the scion of a storied Montalcino family, Stefano Cinelli Colombini, owner of the Fattoria dei Barbi. Even in the wake of an aborted call for a vote early this year to allow international grape varieties in Rosso di Montalcino (which, by law, must be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes), certain members of the body are asking its technical advisory council to consider calling again for a vote on the matter.

I have translated the letter in its entirety and believe that its truths are self-evident.


Dear friends and producer colleagues, I have just attended a meeting organized by the Consortium [Brunello Producers Association] where we discussed the inclusion of other grapes [besides Sangiovese] in the Rosso di Montalcino [appellation]. And I am writing to share my deep-seated reservations. We are faced with a serious problem because an overwhelming majority voted against the inclusion of other grapes in the Rosso di Montalcino [appellation] in a recent assembly.

An assembly vote should not be put up for discussion just a few months later. With all due respect, I would like to remind you that we have just put a tremendous rift behind us. It happened because the [fifteen-member technical advisory] Council was too stubborn to call for votes on votes [sic] on an argument (the blending of Brunello [with grapes other than Sangiovese]) for which the assembly had already expressed its clear dissent.

The message conveyed by the members is more than evident: appellation regulations are to be changed only if there is clear and broad consensus beforehand. All it takes is to ask for signatures from the members who wish to modify the appellations. We were just a handful of members but it took us just a week to gather the signatures of more than two thirds of the members against the blending of Brunello. I am certain that the Consortium has the means and the personnel to do a better job than we did. If as many producers were to sign [a call for a new vote], it would only be right and correct to call an assembly vote on whether or not blending should be rejected. Otherwise, you should stop.

Anyone who lives in this community knows that [a proposal for] blending will be voted down by the assembly, that such a vote will once again create a rift among members, and that a media storm will inevitably follow.

We must avoid such a useless confrontation. A new conflict between the assembly and the Council will lead only to paralysis and paralysis helps no one.

I’m not interested in who’s right and who’s wrong. Now, more than ever before, we need a Council that knows how to win the trust of its members. We don’t need a Council that opposes them.

The only plausible reason to allow blending has fallen by the wayside: the sale of Rosso di Montalcino is no longer falling. [Consortium] director [Stefano] Campatelli says that during the first six months of 2011, 500,000 more bottles have been shipped than in the first six months of the previous year. This represents phenomenal growth.

Previously, there could have been some doubt but now the numbers show that the sales of Rosso di Montalcino depend on the price of Brunello and not on the Sangiovese. When Brunello was sold in bulk at Euro 300 per hectoliter, no one wanted to buy the Rosso anymore. With Brunello at Euro 800, the Rosso is soaring with a 40% increase in sales.

If you think about it, it’s only logical that if a bottle of Brunello only costs a few Euro more than the Rosso, everyone will buy the Brunello. The cure for the Rosso di Montalcino malaise is higher prices for Brunello and not blending, which would not make the Rosso technically better. Blending would only make it the same as many other excellent wines that cost much less. It takes a lot more than slapping a Ferrari label on a [Fiat] Panda to sell it for Euro 100,000. And it takes more than the Montalcino name to set a high price for a wine that may be technically perfect but otherwise indistinguishable from many others that cost three or four Euros.

Your colleague, Stefano Cinelli Colombini, Fattoria dei Barbi


In unrelated news, have you noticed that Franco has announced the winner of his recent “make me a new blog banner” competition? His new banner was created by Ms. Stefania Poletti, a native of Bergamo who now resides and works in Boston. Congratulations, Stefania! Nice work!

Easter greetings from Montalcino and the etymology of Easter

Above: I just couldn’t resist reposting this photo sent from our friends Laura and Marco at Il Palazzone in Montalcino.

In English today, we use the name Easter to denote the springtime Christian holiday and festival, from “Eostre (Northumbrian spelling of Éastre),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition), “the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.”

In nearly every other Western language, however, we use a name that corresponds to the name of the Jewish festival of the Passover: “Greek πασχά, Hebrew pésaḥ [pesach], Latin pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Dutch pask,” write the editors of the OED.

Until the late nineteenth century, Anglophones also commonly used the name pasch to denote the Easter feast (as in the expression the paschal lamb): from the “Aramaic pisḥā Passover fesival, Passover sacrifice, Passover meal (emphatic form of pasaḥ [meaning] to pass over; compare Syriac peṣḥā Passover, Easter, Hebrew pesaḥ Passover).”

What does passing over have to do with it all?

“The festival is named after the Lord’s ‘passing over’ the houses of the People of Israel, whose doorposts were marked with the blood of a lamb, while the Egyptians were punished with the death of their firstborn (Exodus 11–12).”

Buona pasqua, happy Easter, kalo pascha (Greek), ya’ll! :-)

Want your wine to last? Drink good wine (Gianni Brunelli Brunello di Montalcino)

Above: The 2004 Gianni Brunelli Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is one of the most stunning and memorable wines that Tracie P and I have tasted so far this year.

One of the most frequent questions I get when I lead consumer and educational wine tastings (and I’m leading one next week in Houston, btw) is the following: what’s the secret for conserving wine in the bottle once you’ve opened it? (and the corollary how long is the wine good for?)

My number one answer and secret? DRINK GOOD WINE! And the most important element in the wine for its longevity once opened? ACIDITY! (I know that my wine sisters and brothers will agree with me on this one — just think of the 1978 Barbera by Angelo Gaja that we opened a few years ago at Alfonso’s pad).

As a whole, Americans have been trained by the Military-Industrial Complex to drink wines with LOW acidity, high alcohol, and concentrated jammy fruit — wines that have a short shelf life and wines that won’t last long once opened. (Sorry to sound like a broken record!)

But when you buy and spend some time with wines with healthy acidity, you’ll find that the wines will last longer — much longer — once opened. Wake up, America! It’s time to smell the coffee good wine!

Above: With much lighter tannic structure and body, the acidity in the 2008 Rosso di Montalcino kept the wine alive for no fewer than 3 days — no refrigeration, no pumping, no nothing… just the cork that the bottle was born with.

Truth be told: when Tracie P and I opened a bottle of 2004 (not an easy vintage in Tuscany despite what some would have you believe) Gianni Brunelli Brunello di Montalcino Riserva the other night, we drank the whole bottle between the two of us at the dinner table. It was a Saturday night, we were staying in, and this bottle — with GORGEOUS, stunning acidity, brilliant fruit, and lusty alcohol held in check by pancratiast tannins — was simply irresistible. (This and the bottle below were given to us in Austin by the lovely Derryberry and Shaw families of Austin, the former bottling as a gift to thank us for Tuscany recommendations, the latter a gift from my virtual friend Simone whom they visited in Lucca.)

But when we opened a bottle of 2008 Rosso di Montalcino by Gianni Brunelli to pair with some ciceri e tria (chickpeas and long noodles) that Tracie P had prepared on weeknight/schoolnight, she had just one glass and I had two. Not only was the wine fantastic that night (and great with the creamy chickpea gravy) but a third glass was great even the next day… and a fourth and final glass vibrant and juicy even the following day.

Not rocket science… just common sense and great wine… :-)

Laura Brunelli recently visited the U.S. and Notable Wine wrote a great post about it here with video. Also, a must read: Avvinare’s remembrance of Brunelli is one of my favorite posts on her excellent blog.

Merlot di Montalcino is almost here! Hurray! Not!

Nearly 3 years after the story of the Brunello controversy broke in the mainstream media, after millions of liters of wine have been declassified, after guilty pleas and plea agreements and guilty verdicts and fines and sentences that included jail time for some… tomorrow the Brunello producers association is expected to approve new verbiage that will allow for up to 15% of grapes other than Sangiovese to be used in Rosso di Montalcino.

Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani and I reported the new language today over at the English-language blog we co-edit VinoWire.

Is the change a lesser of two evils? Yes.

Is it a shame? Yes, it’s a shame. It’s a pity and it causes me sorrow.

The fact of the matter is that when you add an alpha grape like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to a lighter-bodied grape like Sangiovese, the Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot will mask the nature of the Sangiovese — even when the former are added in small quantities. Most of the Chianti Classico that makes it to the U.S. these days is made in this manner.

Remember the other day when I was talking about paesaggio come stato d’anima (landscape as state of soul/mind) in Italian new wave cinema?

Antonioni’s 1957 Il grido (The Outcry) is a great example of this and it’s how I feel right now. Buona visione

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.

Gaja’s Santa Restituta restoration project fascinated me

This is the first in a series of posts culled from my recent trip to Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. While on the road, I was only able to post short snippets and highlights from my visits. Starting today, and in the weeks that follow (as time permits), I’ll be posting in-depth accounts of my conversations with winemakers and restaurateurs and what I tasted. Thanks for reading…

Above: Can you imagine my delight when I got to tour the Pieve di Santa Restituta restoration site in Tavernelle (Montalcino) a few weeks ago? The white bassi rilievi (bas-reliefs) are possible indications of the presence of a Romanic church on this site, i.e., a pagan temple that was converted and consecrated as a Catholic church in the Middle Ages.

When I tasted with Gaia Gaja back in the spring of this year in Chicago, one of the things I was most curious about was her family’s restoration of the Pieve di Santa Restituta and the church of the parish (pieve) in the Orcia River Valley, where her family makes Brunello di Montalcino.

I first visited the Orcia River Valley in Tuscany (perhaps the most photogenic and photographed swath of this beautiful land) in 1989 and have been fascinated ever since by the medieval hilltop towns and the rich ancient religious traditions that thrive here, like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (in Castelnuovo) or the Madonna di Vitaleta (in San Quirico).

Above: The medieval façade of the Chiesa di Santa Restituta.

The pieve and church of Santa Restituta are particularly remarkable because the site represents an entirely unique and anomalous tradition in the context of the Orcia River Valley: the church is the only one in Tuscany devoted to Santa Restituta, the patron saint of Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples, where Tracie P lived for nearly 5 years before we met.

Since Gaia (the fifth-generation winemaker in one of Itay’s most famous winemaking families) first told me about the church and her family’s restoration project, I’ve also been absorbed by the powerful legend of Santa Restituta. During my recent visit with her in Tuscany, she very generously photocopied an essay entitled “Una madre vegliarda: la Pieve di Santa Restituta (Montalcino)” (“An Old Mother: the Parish of Santa Restituta”)* and published in 1978 in Arezzo by a gentleman named Angelo Tafi, who spent the better part of the second half of the twentieth century documenting the many small parishes that dot the Tuscan countryside. On the plane ride home from Europe, I devoured this wonderful piece of writing, so generously given to me by Gaia.

Above: Many of the relics currently being cataloged in the restoration process date are from the nineteenth century, when this parish was populated by a vibrant community of sharecroppers.

St. Restituta was born in Africa during the rule of Diocletian (284 to 305). She is believed to be one of the Martyrs of Abitina (modern-day Tunisia). When she refused to worship Jupiter, the Romans ordered that she be covered in tar and burned on a boat. Miraculously, her captors’s vessel caught fire and her boat drifted away before they could set it ablaze.

Most scholars believe that her relics were brought to Naples by African Christians who fled persecution in the sixth century. Today, the Cathedral of Naples now stands where the Church of Santa Restituta was established at that time. Ultimately, the relics were transferred to the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia where a church devoted to her still stands.

Above: I don’t know if she planned to do so, but Gaia’s handsome outfit was reminiscent of a nun’s habit that day. The parish and the church have a truly magical aura about them.

Her feast is celebrated in May on the island, where the legend is re-enacted each year in a colorful and widely popular pageant. In the contemporary version of her story, her boat finds its way to the bay of San Montano in Lacco Ameno, where her body is discovered by Lucina, a local matron, who proclaims that a virgin has been delivered by the hand of God. Her cult on the island is so powerful that many families still name their daughters Restituta (as Tracie P can attest!).

No one really knows why the church in Tavernelle was devoted to Santa Restituta, although — as Tafi demonstrates — it’s unlikely that there is a relation to Latium’s homonymous Santa Restituta di Sora. The site was a well established state-owned farming community in Roman times and it’s possible that Neapolitan merchants settled there in the late Middle Ages: anyone who knows the coastal road from Fiumicino airport in Rome to Sant’Angelo in Colle (the southern outpost of Montalcino) will immediately recognize the strategic location of the Pieve di Santa Restituta with relation to Naples.

I simply cannot convey the electric sensation of touring this beautiful property. A team of artisans buzzed around us, delicately chipping away at a stuccoed wall to reveal the classic brown limestone of the Orcia Rivery Valley underneath.

Above: Tafi’s research shows that the Sugarille vineyards were already devoted to the cultivation of grapes by the fifteenth century.

In his research, Tafi discovered that certain parcels were already devoted to viticulture by the fifteenth century. Today, Gaja uses those same growning sites for its flagship Brunello, the vineyard-designated Brunello Sugarille (the vineyard of the cork trees, sugheri in Italian).

Gaja’s vineyards lie adjacent to those of Soldera (who, together with his wines, will be the subject of an upcoming post). Many consider these historic growing sites to be among the best in the appellation. My guess is that centuries of sharecropping ultimately depleted the soil’s nutrients, making the white and brown earth ideal for the cultivation of fine wine grapes (but more on that later).

Above: Gaia poured me a flight of wines that spanned 1996 through 2008.

Of course, I was also there to taste Gaia’s family’s wines and I will not conceal that I was thoroughly impressed by the 2008 Brunello Sugarille (single vineyard) and the 2006 Brunello Rennina (which is sourced from three different vineyards on the estate). As you can see from the color in the image above, the wines were bright and transparent, and I found them to be excellent expressions of Sangiovese Grosso and the Brunello appellation. The red fruit was balanced by good acidity and powerful tannin (still very youthful in the case of the Sugarille) and there was none of the woodiness that I’ve found in earlier vintages of this wine. Here, in this most western subzone, elegance and purity trump the earthier expressions of Sangiovese that you find in the central, southwest, and southeast areas.

In my limited experience with Gaja’s bottlings of Brunello (since I can hardly afford them), I’ve seen an evolution (and I think that Gaia would agree) bringing them more into line with the classic profile of great Brunello. I thought the most recent vintages were great.

But, most of all, I was impressed by this fascinating restoration project, adding yet another destination to the many sites on my list of places to take Tracie P the next time we’re there. Truly exciting stuff for geeks like me!

*The reference to the madre vegliarda is culled from the great nineteenth-century Italian poet Giosué Carducci’s poem “La chiesa di Polenta” (“The Church of Polenta”). The title alone is worthy of a stand-alone blog post but it will have to wait.

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.

Video of Soldera’s vineyards

Above: A shot of Sant’Angelo Colle taken from Il Poggione’s farmhouse at 10:30 a.m., September 15, 2010 (using my Blackberry).

It rained heavily in Tuscany on Monday night while I was in the Maremma (on the coast), although according to accounts from Montalcino, the vineyards in Sant’Angelo in Colle emerged unscathed.

Last night, I slept at Il Poggione’s farmhouse and watched the sun rise: at daybreak, when I went outside to take some photos, it was so chilly that I had to wear my Adidas jacket and cowboy hat.

At 10:30 a.m., as I write this, it’s 61° F. and the weather is fantastic, clear skies and sunshine.

Here’s what it looked like on Sunday, in the vineyards of Gianfranco Soldera, in Santa Restituta, not far from Sant’Angelo, also in the southwestern subzone of the Brunello di Montalcino appellation.