“History has yet to be written in Bolgheri”

Above: Winemaker and owner of Le Macchiole Cinzia Merli — producer of one of Italy’s most talked-about wines — at Fraîche in Culver City, CA last night.

Last night found me in one of the most talked-about restaurants in America together with one of Italy’s most talked-about winemakers, Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole.

Ever since Frank Bruni included Fraîche (Culver City, CA) in his top 10 list of restaurants that “count coast-to-coast,” friends (from the left bank and right) have raved to me about its food. One of the guests at dinner last night told me you need to reserve four months in advance (although another noted, “we didn’t need Frank to tell us how good Fraîche is”).

It’s unlikely that I could ever get a reservation there but Cinzia Merli certainly can: her winery has been touted (pun intended) as the new Super Tuscan supreme and at least one of her bottlings has attained a Midas-touch 100-point score (conferred by the sole arbiter of such accolades). Her high-end, handmade wines retail for upward of $250 these days.

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am generally not a fan of Super Tuscans — wines by definition aged in new oak. But who could resist an invitation to dine with Italy’s newly anointed megawatt star at one of the hottest tables in America?

Above: Branzino with escargot tempura at Fraîche. I regret to say that the the restaurant was disappointing. I was expecting simpler, locally driven fare. But escargot tempura? The service was excellent but more than once our table had to send back stemware that smelled like a sewer (I’m not kidding). When you’re pouring $250+ bottles of wine, you’d hope that someone would pay attention. There didn’t seem to be a sommelier on duty that night. The vibe of the restaurant felt like a scene from Altman’s 1993 film “Short Cuts.”

Conversation with Cinzia was truly fascinating and all in attendance were keen to discuss her preference for monovarietal (single-grape variety) wines in an appellation that has historically favored Bordeaux-style blends.

“I believe that monovarietal wines are the greatest expression of Bolgheri’s terroir,” said Cinzia. “In the past, Bolgheri winemakers have felt that blended wines best expressed our terroir. But today the same producers who weren’t so thrilled about my monovarietal wines are now lobbying to change the appellation regulations and allow monovarietal wines [to be classified] as DOC.” (The Bolgheri DOC currently does not permit monovarietal wines.)

“Even though we have very important models for winemaking — Sassicaia and Ornellaia — the history of Bolgheri has yet to be written,” she told us.

Some notes from the dinner…

  • The name of Cinzia’s Paleo (today made from 100% Cabernet Franc) comes from a Tuscan word for tarraxacum, a dandelion that grows wild in Bolgheri. She does not weed her vineyards, thus allowing naturally occurring grasses and weeds to flourish. Tarraxacum was prevalent during the first vintage (1989). Paleo was originally made from a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese but became 100% Cabernet Franc with the 2001 harvest.
  • Messorio (her 100% Merlot, the most famous of her wines) is an archaic term for wheat farmer. Before Cinzia’s family planted their land to grapes, wheat was the most important crop grown there.
  • Her 100% Syrah is called Scrio, a Tuscan word for pure: Scrio and Messorio were first produced in 1994 and have always been vinified as monovarietal or “pure” wines.
  • It is believed that Le Macchiole, the name of Cinzia’s estate, comes from the Italian macchia or maquis, the dense scrub or brush that defines the landascape of Maremma (the Tuscan coastline).
  • Of all of her wines, my favorite is the Paleo because the bright acidity of her Cabernet Franc makes it her most food-friendly wine. The 2005 Messorio and the Scrio were opulent, rich with flavor, and they showed great minerality and depth. It will take some time (5-10 years?) for the wood to integrate in these wines but this vintage of Le Macchiole is clearly destined to be a benchmark for Bolgheri in years to come.

    My feelings about oak and the history of barrique aging in Italy continue to evolve: hopefully, my path will cross once again with Cinzia and I will get the chance to taste these powerful wines when they have had a chance to evolve.