Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The wines of Vega Sicilia and experiences with selected Unico vintages

In continuous operation for 150+ years, Spain's Vega Sicilia has been variously characterized by terms such as "Spanish First Growth," "distinguished history," "venerable," "Spain's most prestigious estate," "Spain's most respected and prestigious winery," and "Ribera del Duero's legendary estate." And it is not without reason that these terms are applied. The estate has leveraged terroir, aging regime, and an unbroken string of legendary winemakers to produce one of the world's most respected and desired wines.

As shown in the timeline below, the Vega Sicilia story begins with the purchase of the estate by Toribo Lecando. Shortly after the purchase, his son Eloy began growing grapes and making wine on the property. Based on one source, it appears that Eloy inherited the property fully in 1859. In 1864 he brought back Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Carmenere cuttings from Bordeaux and planted them alongside the local mainstay Tinto del Pais (now called Tinto Fino). After a short time Eloy realized that the local grapes were out-performing the imports.

When he began planting grapes at the estate, Eloy Lecando's intent was to produce brandy and ratafia. The winemaking era at Vega Sicilia really began when the negociant Cosme Palacio, seeking new sources of wine outside of his phylloxera-ravaged sources, located the estate and brought in the winemaker Domingo Garramiola to oversee the production of wine therein. Garramiola introduced Bordeaux techniques such as aging wine in barriques and extended elevage and began bottling wine on the estate. He was the first of many iconic winemakers (see the timeline) who have entered through the doors of this esteemed estate.

Vega Sicilia is located high up (600 - 700 m) on the plain of Castille in the town of Valbueno de Douro in the Ribera del Duero.

Vega Sicilia (red dot) and its vineyards
bounded by the Douro to its north

The Ribera del Duero climate is distinctly continental with bitter winters and hot summers the order of the day. Rainfall, at an annual average of 450mm, is low. There is significant diurnal temperature variation given the high elevation (700 -1000 m) at which the region lies. This day-night temperature differential allows for the attainment of high levels of ripeness (and associated power and concentration) while retaining freshness and acidity in the grapes

Ribera del Duero soil consists of layers of silt, sand, and clay alternating with layers of chalky limestone.  According to the Consejo Regulador, most of the soils near the river are a mix of sandy sediment, marl, and alluvial rocks (Campiñas) while vineyards at higher elevations experience a much higher content of chalky limestone and clay (Laderas).  The soils above the Laderas (Cuestas) are harder to work while the soils above them (Páramos) are too exposed to be worked. 

The Vega Sicilia vineyards are located on the slopes above the valley with limestone and chalk soils at the highest elevations and a denser mix of clay and gravel -- richer -- in the lower reaches. It has been claimed that the unique combination of minerals found in these two different soils endows the grapes with more intense polyphenols.

The estate is over 1000 ha in size with 210 of those dedicated to grape growing. Of the 210 ha, 140 is dedicated to growing grapes for the Unico and Valbueno wines of Vega Sicilia while the remainder is devoted to the needs of Alion, another Alvarez-owned winery. The north-facing vineyard is divided into 52 plots based on variety planted, vine age, and soil classification (there are a total of 19 separate soil classifications in the vineyard).

The varieties planted are Tinto Fino (the local name for Tempranillo) Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The Tinto Fino is said to produce smaller berries, with a higher concentration of tannins, when compared to the Tempranillo grown in Rioja. Vines are a mix of bush- and wire-trained and are planted at 2200 vines/ha. Average vine age is 35 years but a plant has to be at least 10 years old in order to contribute grapes to the wine. The estate has an extensive replanting scheme as it prefers the fruit profile of a mid-life vine versus that of an older vine.

The Vega Sicilia vineyards are farmed organically with the use of organic compost as needed and the use of natural herb teas to strengthen the vineyards and combat diseases. In addition, biological techniques are utilized for combatting pests and diseases. Vega  Sicilia utilizes a patented natural anti-fungal mix (vanilla, garlic, chitosan, bee propolis) which is brushed on to every wound resulting from winter pruning.

The Vega Sicilia product lineup is shown in the chart below. The most famous of the three is the single-vintage Unico which is made from 80+% Tinto Fino plus Cabernet Sauvignon and is aged for in excess of 10 years. The Valbuena is a blend of Tinto Fino and Merlot and is aged for 5 years. The Reserva Especial is a multi-vintage blend of 30+-year-old Unico wines.

Cabernet Sauvignon component may be higher
in older Unico vintages. Merlot component in
Valbuena 5⁰ generally hovers around 5%.

Given the elevation, the winemaker can wait to harvest the grapes when they are truly ready. Grapes are harvested by hand, with selection in the field, and transported to the cellar in small crates. Vineyard yields are kept low by green harvesting and field selection. 

The Vega Sicilia winemaking process is fairly traditional until you get to the aging process. Many European wine regions have been consumed with the battle between aging in big oak barrels versus barriques. Vega Sicila has hewed to tradition while still incorporating some modernity into its winemaking process. And its wines have benifited from the approach. This mix of large oak vats, followed by barriques, followed by old oak, followed by bottle aging translates into more oak than seen by most of the world's other fine wines and a longer aging time to boot.

Tasting Vega Sicilia Unico Wines
I have tasted a selected number of vintages of the Vega Sicilia Unico, in most cases at dinners which included my wife as well as our dear friend Ron Siegel and his wife Bev.

2000 Vega Sicilia Unico, tasted in December 2018 at Vineyard Wine Company. Young, structured wine. Intense ripe red fruits on the nose. Layered complexity on the palate. Persistent. Round tannins. Many, many more years of fine drinking ahead of it.

Vega Sicilia drinking buddies: Ron, Bev, Parlo,
and the author

1991 Vega Sicilia Unico. Still a baby at the time of drinking. This wine was popped and poured and showed a nose of red fruits, exotic spices, vanilla, and tobacco. Plums and chocolate on the palate with silky tannins. Very classy and elegant. 

1994 Vega Sicilia Unico. Drunk with a number of friends at the original The Wine Barn. I had embarked on a journey to taste the wines identified by Master Sommelier Andrew MacNamara as his "wines of the decade" and this was on his list.

Andres (owner of the Wine Barn) noted that this particular vintage was made by Mariano Garcia, the winemaker at Vega Sicilia from 1968 to 1998.  The bottle was opened and decanted at 5:00 pm and I began pouring wine into the glasses at 5:15 pm.  In the glass, the wine had an oily texture and a dark cherry color.  Both Andrew and JC remarked as to the brilliance of the meniscus and lack of "bricking," an indication that the wine still had many years of life in it.

Scents of saddle leather, baking spice, sandalwood, wet stone, morcilla, bacon fat, toast, buttered raspberry, and sweet tobacco with brandy.  At the initial taste, the wine did not live up to the promise provided to the nose.  In addition, there was a strong sense of iron and the wine was both highly tannic and acidic.  It exhibited a lot of power but the finish was not as long or as deep as one would have expected.  Some vegetal elements were apparent towards the back of the tongue.  We set the wine aside to see if the various elements would resolve themselves with time.  The wine delivered.  It smoothed out considerably as the elements began to integrate properly and the promise on the nose began to show up on the palate at about 5:50 pm.  The vegetal characteristic noted previously resolved into a soft chalkiness and hints of Penfolds Grange began to show through.

In a comment on the post, Andrew MacNamara stated as follows:
For me, the 1994 Vega Sicilia is a timeless example of this extraordinary estate. I remember the first bottle I had of this. And I thought the exact same things you did. Nice nose, but quite unimpressed by the taste -- until several hours later when I came back to my glass and found that everything I expected to be in the bottle aligned in my glass. This is one of those wines where the taste stays with you forever ...

1982 and 1985 Vega Sicilia Unicos. Lunch at Jaleo. The 1982 was a gorgeously complex wine. Strawberries, candied red fruit, bramble and baking spices on the nose. Balanced and fresh on the palate with a medium to full body, soft tannins, layered complexity, and a lengthy finish. The 85 also presented well with notes of tar, smoke, ripe blackberries, spice, and leather on the nose. Dark red fruit on the palate along with sour cherries and tobacco. Integrated. Balanced. Lengthy finish.

1975 Vega Sicilia Unico. Jaleo lunch. Red fruit, roses, dried prunes, leather, and mocha on the nose. Dark fruits on the palate along with mocha and earth. Rounded mouthfeel and long finish,

1974 Vega Sicilia Unico. Lunch at Jaleo. Dark and red fruits, baking spices, smoke, leather. Integrated on the palate with rounded tannins and good levels of acidity. Lengthy finish.

1970 Vega Sicilia Unico. Tasted twice: once at an event at my home and the second time at a Victoria and albert dinner. In the first instance, the wine was decanted for residue and then poured into the waiting glasses.  Even after being in bottle for well nigh 40 years, the wine had a bright color and was devoid of bricking.  The wine offered up an aromatic feast of coffee, mocha, spice box, leather, mint, faded red flowers, raw meat, morcilla, dried currant, sandalwood, and dried tobacco.  It exhibited great structure and balance and had a very long finish. 

According to Ron, the 1970 Vega-Sicilia Unico that we tasted at V&A exhibited dried red fruits, licorice, graphite, earth, and spice box. Very focused with polished tannins. Elegant and silky. Balanced. First-growth-like. 

1962 and 1964 Vega Sicilia Unicos. My contributions at a recent private Spanish Wine Dinner. The 1962 had a slight green character with coconut, leather, baking spices and red fruit on the nose. Concentrated but less alive than I would have hoped. This wine still has a long life ahead. The 1964 showed some funk on the nose along with spice, mint, and red fruits. More open than its compatriot. Full round mouthfeel with a cherry liqueur note. Balanced. Lengthy finish.

1962 and 1964 Vega Sicilia Unicos

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

My experiences with the wines of Biondi-Santi

My original plan was to follow up on an initial post titled "Biondi-Santi: Then and Now" with a post on some of the older Biondi-Santi wines that I have tasted. I did launch that initial post but pulled it in order to include some new information that has been provided to me; information which assuages some of my concerns and will be welcomed by Biondi-Santi fans. Even though I have not completed the updating of my initial post, I will go ahead and release this post as it is not impacted by the new information.

The current Biondi-Santi Montalcino holdings are shown in the chart below.

The vines are spur-cordon-trained, with the oldest vineyards carrying 2200 to 3300 plants/hectare, the mid-aged vineyards carrying 5900 plants/hectare and the youngest, 4500 plants/hectare. The Riserva wines were sourced from vines in excess of 25 years old while the Rosso and Rosato wines were sourced from vines that were less than 10 years old.

Some of the operational procedures, originally developed by Tancredi Biondi Santi, included: weed control through topsoil-turning; two green harvests to aerate the grapes; grape thinning towards the end of July to allow for better ripening; limited leaf removal before harvesting; hand harvesting; and careful selection among harvested bunches. Yields were three to five tons per hectare with deselected grapes vinified and sold in bulk as table wine.

Fermentation was initiated with natural yeasts. The Riserva grapes were fermented in Slavonian oak barrels, the Brunello in concrete vats, and the Rosato in stainless steel tanks.  

The must is kept in contact with the cap in a pumping-over process and temperature is controlled by cooling the must to 30 degrees during this process. Maceration runs between 15 and 18 days followed by malolactic fermentation which occurs in the vat room. The Brunello and Riserva wines are aged for three years in oak and 6 months in old barrels prior to bottling and are racked twice per year while in wood.

Production averages 80,000 bottles of wine and 3000 bottles of olive oil annually. Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Annata production amounts to 60,000 barrels while 8,000 bottles of the Riserva is produced in exceptional years. About 12,000 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino is produced annually. This wine is aged for one year in Slovenian oak and is ready to drink upon release.

Below is a reprise of selected Biondi-Santi wines that I have tasted over the years (I am a big fan of the wines of this estate.). With the exception of the 2010 vintage, all wines were acquired from Italian Wine Merchants.

Biondi-Santi Annata 2010. Drunk more times than I can count with my initial exposure being the Antonio Galloni NYC tasting of top 2010 Brunellos. This wine was the best of its flight that night but continues to request time. Sweet red fruit with leather and earth becoming more pronounced over time. Medium-bodied with good structure. Lengthy finish. Will continue to give pleasure well into the future.

Biondi-Santi Annata 2010

Biondi-Santi Annata 2006. Drunk three times: once with Ron, once at a friend's home in Windermere, and the third time at an Earl's Kitchen lunch with my wife and her good friend. At the time that we tasted the wine, Ron thought that it was pretty tight with a tannic structure that needed an hour of air for it to begin to open. Light-bodied. Showing notes of tart red cherry, leather, dried herbs and tobacco. 

Biondi-Santi Annata 2006

1990 Biondi-Santi Riserva. Rich, powerful wine. Funk cleared to reveal red fruit, herbs, and florality. Savory on the palate along with balsamic notes. Fine-grained tannins. Lengthy finish.

1990 Biondi-Santi Riserva

1985 Biondi-Santi drunk at a Luma dinner. Fine-boned. Cherries, spices, leather, vanilla, and tobacco on the nose. Lean on the palate with silky tannins and a mineral streak. Lengthy, sour finish.

1985 Biondi-Santi

1985 Biondi-Santi Riserva tasted at dinner at Peperoncini with Ron and Bev. An elegant wine. Plums, raspberries, rosemary, violets and cedar on the nose. Focused and balanced on the palate. Fine tannins. Herbs and mint and a lengthy finish.

Biondi-Santi Riserva 1977. Dinner with Ron and Bev at Enzo's. On this wine Ron got dried red fruits, balsamic, anise, and dried herbs. He was pleased with the acid level. He noted that "These Riserva's need a lot of time and this one has just reached its drinking window."

Biondi-Santi Riserva 1977

1978 Biondi-Santi. Dinner at the old Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton. This wine was up against stiff and powerful competition and probably did not get the attention that it deserved.Cherries, earth, leather and a savoriness on the nose. Earthy on the palate along with red fruit and a balsamic note. Fine tannins. Lengthy finish. 

Biondi-Santi 1978 Brunello di Montalcino

1970 Biondi-Santi Riserva. Birthday brunch for my wife and I made it an all Brunello affair. Slight oxidation on the nose. Leather, coffee, anise, and underbrush. Savory on the palate. Slightly tired. Drying finish. I have one more bottle of this wine left.

Biondi-Santi Riserva 1970

1961 Biondi-Santi Riserva. Earth, tea, spice, and a savoriness. Drying tamarind on the palate. Long, herby finish.

Biondi-Santi 1961 Riserva

1958 Biondi-Santi Brunello Riserva. Tasted with Ron at Dinner at Terramia and then again at a larger dinner with friends at Victoria and Albert. Truly one of the best Brunellos that I have ever tasted (and definitely the oldest). As regards the V&A tasting, the wine was in really good shape. It started out almost Burgundian (one of my friends thought more like very old Barolo) and was both opulent and sexy. A nose of cherry, orange peel, and mushroom. On the palate, very rich red fruits, along with some balsamic and tobacco notes, perfect acidity and balance. The wine presented as being much younger than its years.

1958 Brunello Riserva

I love these wines. One of the hallmarks of the Biondi-Santi wines is its ageability. Franco's recorkings were legendary and, even though a number of the old Riservas were sold off to Sergio Esposito, the winery still has a noteworthy stable of old wines in its library.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Biondi-Santi: Then and Now (Updated)

I initially published this article on 10/20 but pulled it back to include additional information provided to me by the estate. I thread this new information through the initial document, indicating where I have done so and the impact on my prior assessment. If the estate adheres to its stated positions, some of the fears of long-time Biondi-Santi fans will be rendered moot. 

At a 2015 Vinous-hosted tasting of selected 2010 Brunellos di Montalcino, Antonio Galloni commented that Biondi-Santi had "lost its direction" to some extent in the recent past but that the 2010 edition of its Annata was "the essence of Classicism." Commenting further, he indicated that he was more worried about the estate's future than its past, given the recent changes that it had undergone. In this post I examine the history of the estate and the changes that Antonio alluded. As stated in the foregoing, I will also discuss the steps that the estate has taken to allay those fears.

Historical Biondi-Santi
The Biondi-Santi story is a tale encompassing innovation, pedigree, longevity, and adherence to founding principles and the manifestation of these characteristics in both the founding family and the clonal variety with which they are associated.  

It is a story of innovation in the way in which the Sangiovese Grosso clone was isolated and nurtured to become what it is today -- one of the most revered and desired wines in all of Italy.  

It is a story of pedigree in that Ferrucio Biondi Santi, the "discoverer" in the Sangiovese Grosso story, was the grandson of Clemente Santi, a noted Sienese agriculturist and winemaker and, himself, the grandson of Georgio Santi, a noted Tuscan scholar. That pedigree continued to suffuse the modern-day enterprise with the tenure of Tancredi Biondi Santi, son of Ferrucio -- and himself a renowned oenologist -- who implemented most of the managerial and operational principles which drove the company up to its recent past, and Franco, his son, who exhibited the epitome of patrician stewardship  (Franco, referred to as "the Gentleman of Brunello" by Kerin O'Keefe, died in 2013 at the age of 91.).

Pedigree, as it relates to Sangiovese Grosso, is shown by the fact that the same clone isolated by Ferrucio Biondi Santi continues as the basis of the wine produced by the estate. New vineyards at the estate are planted with buds from old vines.

Longevity, in terms of the winery, is manifested in the fact that there has been a continuous chain of Biondi Santis caring for the estate beginning with Ferrucio and continuing through Tancredi to the regime of Franco and his son Jacopo. The longevity in the wine is manifested in the time required before it is approachable as well as its demonstrated aging ability. Numerous bottles of 100+ year-old Biondi Santi wines are known to have resided in the winery's cellar.

Adherence to founding principles is manifested in the fact that the clone developed by Ferrucio is still the basis of the wine and the operating principles developed by Tancredi still guide the company's day-to-day operations.

Franco's son Jacopo worked with him until, frustrated by "his father's tight grip on Il Greppo and adherence to tradition" he left and founded his own estate -- Tenuta Castello di Montepò -- in the Tuscan Maremma. Upon Franco's death, Jacopo took up the reins of management of the Biondi-Santi enterprise.

As will be discussed later on in this document, Jacopo no longer serves in that capacity at Biondi-Santi.

My visit to the Estate
I visited the Biondi-Santi estate in July of 2011.

Some background: The farm, Il Greppo, dates back to 1870; Ferrucio isolated the Sangiovese Grosso clone and produced the first wine in 1888; Tancredi Biondi Santi established the estate's production standards; and, Franco Biondi Santi still ran the cellar and functioned as the winemaker at the time of our visit.

The current Biondi-Santi Montalcino holdings are shown in the chart below.

 A detail of Il Greppo

The vines are spur-cordon-trained, with the oldest vineyards carrying 2200 to 3300 plants/hectare, the mid-aged vineyards carrying 5900 plants/hectare and the youngest, 4500 plants/hectare. The Riserva wine was sourced from vines in excess of 25 years old while the Rosso and Rosato wines were sourced from vines that were less than 10 years old.

Some of the operational procedures, originally developed by Tancredi Biondi Santi, included: weed control through topsoil-turning; two green harvests to aerate the grapes; grape thinning towards the end of July to allow for better ripening; limited leaf removal before harvesting; hand harvesting; and careful selection among harvested bunches. Yields were three to five tons per hectare with deselected grapes vinified and sold in bulk as table wine.

Fermentation was initiated with natural yeasts. The Riserva grapes were fermented in Slavonian oak barrels, the Brunello in concrete vats, and the Rosato in stainless steel tanks.  

The must is kept in contact with the cap in a pumping-over process and temperature is controlled by cooling the must to 30 degrees during this process. Maceration runs between 15 and 18 days followed by malolactic fermentation which occurs in the vat room. The Brunello and Riserva wines are aged for three years in oak and 6 months in old barrels prior to bottling and are racked twice per year while in wood.

Production averages 80,000 bottles of wine and 3000 bottles of olive oil annually. Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Annata production amounts to 60,000 barrels while 8,000 bottles of the Riserva is produced in exceptional years. Rosso di Montalcino Fascia Rossa is produced in the years when grape quality is not high enough for the production of the Brunello.  About 12,000 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino is produced annually. This wine is aged for one year in Slovenian oak and is ready to drink upon release.

Liquidating the Historical Biondi-Santi Assets
The liquidation of the Biondi-Santi assets began with a surprise sale of a stash of its Riservas and culminated with the sale of the estate to EPI. I was aware of the initial sale of a majority of the Biondi-Santi shares to EPI but have just been informed that EPI is now the sole owner of Biondi-Santi. This suggests that the 7.7% share that Jacopo is reported to have retained in the new company has subsequently been purchased by EPI.

Sale of Riservas
The liquidation of the historical Biondi-Santi assets began around the time of Franco's death with the sale of 7000 bottles of Riservas from the 1945, 1955, 1964, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1975 vintages. According to Jancis Robinson, these wines had been moved from the estate to another location in Tuscany in the year prior to the sale. The sale price was 4 million Euros with the seller being the distribution company Biondi-Santi Spa and the purchaser being Sergio Esposito of Bottled Assets Fund. In an interview with Oinos Viveredivino, Jacopo characterized this sale as a great demonstration of international recognition of the objective value of the estate's Riservas.

Sale of a Majority Stake in Biondi-Santi
In late 2016, the Biondi Santi family signed an agreement with French luxury goods maker EPI to transfer majority ownership of the estate to that entity for the consideration of a reported 107 million Euros. As reported, the brand, Tenuta Greppo property, and 26 ha of Sangiovese vines were transferred to the new entity, with Jacopo and his son Tancredi remaining as winemakers and Brand Ambassadors.  The Biondi Santi family retained an almost 8 percent stake in the new entity.

In an interview with Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jensen (World Wine Guys) reported in Forbes (6/18/19), Jacopo said that the reason for the sale of the estate was his father reneging on a verbal agreement they had had prior to his death. According to Jacopo, the agreement would have left the grape and the trademark to him and his mother's estate to his sister. On his death, however, it was revealed that 50% of the estate was left to his mother and 25% each to him and his sister.

Jacopo could not afford to purchase the 75% of the estate that he did not own but he did not want to partner with family members who did not really, as he said, care about the business; he wanted serious working partners. Hence the sale. According to Jacopo, he is the President of the organization in addition to winemaker and Brand Ambassador. In addition, the company retained the copyright to the BBS11 clone, the launchpad of Brunello di Montalcino wines.

Current Ownership and Key Players
EPI is now the sole owner of Biondi-Santi and has tasked Giampiero Bertolini, the CEO, with strategic responsibility for the business. Giampiero (who has been onboard since November 2018) will be assisted operationally by Federico Radi in his role as Viticulture and Winemaking Director. Federico has bee with Biondi-Santi since 2017. Jacopo and Tancredi Biondi Santi are no longer co-winemakers at the estate while Tancredi fills the position of Worldwide Brand Ambassador for Biondi-Santi wines.

Jacopo Biondi Santi's Instituted and Proposed Changes
During his time as leader of the estate, Jacopo had instituted a number of changes for the 2013 vintage and provided insight into expected changes going forward. I report on these actual and proposed  changes and contextualize them within the framework of stated positions from the current management team.

Wine Spectator Interview
In the course of this interview, Jacopo revealed a number of changes that he had instituted for the 2013 vintage:
  • Swapping out the "antique" hydraulic basket press for a more modern soft bladder press. Jacopo saw the hydraulic press as being "too violent."
  • Doubled the maceration time for fermenting must to 25 days (This was not actually a doubling. During my visit to the estate I was told that the maceration time was 15 to 18 days)
  • He kept the temperature a few degrees cooler
  • He did an additional racking to remove the gross lees earlier.
Oinos Viveredivino Interview
In this interview Jacapo indicated that there would be small updates on the production front but no activity in the grape-growing arena. He foresaw no change in the production of the Brunello Riserva but would review the harvest period, fermentation, and aging to guide him in the slow evolution of both the Brunello Annata and the Rosso.
The "Brunello Annata" and "Rosso di Montalcino" must be produced closer to the consumer, the goal is to reach elegance immediately, without having to wait decades. In my opinion, above all Rosso di Montalcino must be a slightly more round wine which must be consumed in the first 5/10 years of life and this can be done by leaving the characteristics of the grape unaltered, only by modifying some technological processes.
The Wine Advocate Interview
Post the acquisition, Monica Larner travelled to Il Greppo to speak with the Biondi-Santi management team regarding plans for the future. Whereas in the Oinos Viveredivino interview Jacopo had forsworn any actions that would affect grape-growing, herein he was touting the fact that EPI investments (4 million Euros over a 2- to 3-year timeframe) would allow a "more complex analysis of vineyard soil." According to Jacopo, as a result of soil scans taken at differing depths, the vineyard had been divided into dozens of micro-parcels, leading to 12 separate vinifications in the 2019 vintage.

In the Oinos interview he had said no change to the Riserva; not so much now. Beginning with the 2018 vintage he was doing away with its prior spec of > 25-year-old vines in order to "allow flexibility based on vineyard analysis."

Other initiatives afforded by the EPI investment include:
  • The purchase of an optical sorter (adding another step in the selection process)
  • More static pumps and technologies for automatic temperature control
  • Replacement of two larger oak casks with smaller botte from Garbellotto (move toward micro-vinification)
  • Some replantation.
The Biondi-Santi Direction: As Stipulated by Current Management
One clear area of difference from Jacopo's thought-process is in the direction of the Brunello Annata and Rosso di Montalcino wines. Jacopo proposed reviewing the harvest period, fermentation, and aging of these wines to guide him in their "slow evolution." He wanted both wines to "reach elegance immediately, without having to wait decades" and for the Rosso to "be a slightly more round wine which must be consumed in the first 5/10 years of life." Current management clearly refutes those positions with the statement that they are "Not trying to change the personality of the Biondi-Santi wines."

I reached out to Biondi-Santi to see if the maceration period specified by Jacopo in the Wine Spectator story still held and the winemaker provided the following response:
The maceration period (from de-rasping to racking off the skins) is different each year depending on the weather patterns of the growing season and varies for each vineyard plot. It cannot be standardized. What we can say is that it is not in the Biondi-Santi DNA to push macerations, as you can see from the always bright red color of our Brunello and elegant tannic structure.
Biondi-Santi management countersigns the gist of Jacopo's Wine Advocate interview while providing further details and rationale. The soil analysis is rationalized as being driven by the desire to take the concept of quality to ever higher levels." Today the three wines are selected based on vine age but an understanding of the soil characteristics and contribution to the finished product would provide a scientific basis for final wine construction. 

Towards that end, they have embarked on a vineyard "parcellization" project, the intent of which is to "allow them to become even more precise in the definition of the grape profile for each wine." The steps in the process are as follows:
  1. Soil scans of all vineyards to get an initial picture of its clay, rock, and water content
  2. Cross reference above data with NDVI maps which measure the vegetation vigor of the vineyards
  3. Use the foregoing as the basis for digging 32 deep pits in the vineyards
  4. Soils data evaluated by the noted terroir expert Pedro Parra.
The analysis identified interesting plots which then received special attention during harvest, fermentation, and aging of the 2019 vintage. "Keeping these plots separate throughout the production process allows us to study not only the quality, but more importantly the character traits of the wines which come from our micro-terroirs." A total of 12 of these parcel fermentations were conducted. The intent of the project is to, at the end of the day, "build a veritable grid map of our vineyards, their soil, and the characteristics of the wines they give."

Soil analysis of the type on which Biondi-Santi has embarked is almost a requirement in today's wine world. The Ceechi Family for example, as a first order of business after acquiring Villa Rosa of Castellina in Chianti, undertook a detailed soil analysis as a mechanism for identifying crus and guiding planting decisions. The quality of Biondi-Santi decision-making and wines can only improve as  a result of undertaking this effort.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Villa Rosa of Castellina in Chianti: Building on the foundations established by Giulio Gambelli, the "Sangiovese Whisperer"

I have previously noted the significant contributions of the "Sangiovese Whisperer," Giulio Gambelli, to the success of heavyweights such as Soldera, Poggio di Sotto, Cerbaiona, and Montevertine. He played a similar role at Villa Rosa, another notable Chianti Classico producer.

Villa Rosa is a 126-ha estate -- 30 of which are devoted to vineyards and 15 to olive groves -- located in Castellino in Chianti and, until 2015, under the ownership of the Lucherini Bandini Family. In 2015 the estate was purchased by the Ceechi Family, concluding the 70-year run of the former owners.

Giulio was friendly with both families and no doubt advised on the initiative. The Villa Rosa cellarman, Oletto, transitioned with the new owners. In describing Giulio to Corriere della sera Firenze, he stated thusly:
"A hunter drawn to wine," so he liked to define himself. But over time he was given the name "Bicchierino," as an expert taster but also a talent in knowing how to recognize the nuances of one of the most representative vines of Tuscany in the glass: Sangiovese. He has helped to develop some of the best known companies in the Italian wine scene and with simplicity, in a historical period in which enology was done above all with the heart.
The stature of the Villa Rosa Gambelli-era wines are illustrated by the inclusion of the 1969 and 1971 Chianti Classico Reserve in a tasting titled "Tasting the history of Giulio Gambelli: a (perhaps) unrepeatable tasting, from Villarosa 1969 to Soldera 1999" (Carlo Macchi, lavinium.it, 4/21/16). . Macchi remarked on the "... exceptional youth, complexity, freshness, and depth of practically all the wines tasted .. " and Gambelli standing out "in the round as the absolute master of Sangiovese."

All of the wines were characterized by "absolute longevity, with backbone and almost always incredible aromatic and gustatory depth." Macchi continued:
In some cases we have had before us wines that perhaps can no longer be made, with marked acidity, low alcohol (12.5%) and characteristics of finesse, elegance and shelf life that is not really obvious to imagine in many products of these years. Maybe then they were rough and, especially those born in the nineties, did not follow the prevailing taste, but these bottles proved that Giulio Gambelli was always right.
Villa Rosa sits between the hills of Castellino in Chianti on calcareous clay soils  that combine albarese limestone and marl shale. The grape growing areas of the estate are illustrated in the graphic below.

Vineyard image from villarosa.wine

The Ceechi Family has doubled down on Gambelli's love of, and committment to, Sangiovese. They have fully embraced the concept of Gran Selezione as the apex of the Chianti Classico quality pyramid and have undertaken a number of initiatives at Villa Rosa to implement this vision. The first step was the implementation of a comprehensive soil profile study with the objective of locating crus on the estate. The intent here was to combine the scientific information gleaned from the soil profiles with the qualitative information base of the winegrowers in order to determine the rootstock and clones that would allow the best expression of Sangiovese in differing terroirs.

The second step was the modification of the vineyard environment based on the Step 1 findings. In this phase the Palazione Vineyard -- originally planted in 1965 -- would be gradually renovated  with older vines maintained and cuttings from those vines used as scions for new/replacement plantings.

The third step was, beginning with the 2015 vintage, declaring its top wine a Gran Selezione. After over two years of study, in 2013 the Chianti Classico Consorzio announced the introduction of a new tier of wine that was to be positioned above the Riserva. This new tier was called Gran Selezione and was designed to communicate the quality of the wines resulting from replanting over 60% of the region's vines in the prior 15 years. The wines must be: made from estate-grown grapes with yields not to exceed 52.5 hectoliters/ha; 80% Sangiovese; spend 30 months in oak; and spend three months in bottle. Producers could begin offering these wines using their 2010 vintages. 

While some producers saw Gran Selezione as a positive step, potentially leading to single-vineyard offerings, others saw the possibility for creating greater confusion as the consumer wades through the thickets of Chianti, Chianti Classico, IGT, and the relevant tiers. In the intervening years, as pointed out in Tom Hyland's Forbes article, Chianti Classico producers have become more accepting of the scheme; Villa Rosa falls within that camp.

The estate's Gran Selezione entry is 100% Sangiovese fermented for 22 months and then aged in Tonneaux for 15 months, in concrete for 3 months, and then in bottle for an additional year.

The estate's other wine, Ribaldoni, is classed Chianti Classico DOCG. It is fermented/macerated for 15 days after which it is aged in Tonneaux for 12 months and then a minimum of 6 months in bottle.

It will be very interesting to taste the 2015 Gran Selezione against some of the newer vintages yielded by the changes in the Villa Rosa vineyards. The 2015 vintage is reflective of the inputs of Giulio Gambelli but vineyard changes should change the taste profile of the wines. Given that newer vintages will most likely be a mix of older and younger vines, it will take some years before a meaningful contrast can be drawn.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, October 9, 2020

The distribution of dry white wines in Piemonte

Piemonte is best known for its red wines -- primarily in the southern part of the region but also with  strong representation in the north -- based on Nebbiolo but it is also the source of vibrant indigenous white wines; wines that I have captured in the chart below and describe in the links below the chart. Erbaluce-based wines dominate in the morainic soils of the north while Cortese-based wines hold sway in the limestone soils of the south. The wine to watch, in my estimation, is the Timorasso.




©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Piemonte dry white wines: Langhe Rossese Bianco

In the land of obscure Piemonte white varieties, Rossese Bianco is downright vanishing. And its obscurity is further compounded by the fact that a number of other Italian varieties carry the same, or similar, names. DNA analysis shows that Rossese Bianco is neither the same or related to any of the varieties listed below:
  • Rossese di Dolceacqua (Liguria; synonym for the Provence variety Tibouren)
  • Grillo (Le Spieza, Liguria)
  • Ruzzesa (Le Spieza, Liguria)
  • Pigato
  • Rossese Bianco de San Biagio (Savona, Liguria)
  • Rossese di Campochiesa (Savona, Liguria; red variety).
The foregoing notwithstanding, it is commonly held that Rossese Bianco made its way from Liguria into Piemonte in the 19th century. It was widely planted in Alba, Sinio, and Roddino in Cuneo Province but largely disappeared from the region. It was saved from extinction in the mid-1970s when the Manzone family re-discovered it on an old family vineyard in Monforte d'Alba. Since 1982 Manzone Giovanni has produced a white wine from the grape and, after many years of research and consultation with the University of Turin, a new DOC -- Langhe Rossese Bianco -- was formalized.

Rossese Bianco, according to the literature, "owes its name to an intense amber or even pinky shade on the fully ripe grape ..." The characteristics of the variety are as follows:
  • Berries -- Small; spheroid; thick, very waxy, greenish-yellow skin with light-gray accents
  • Bunches -- Medium-large size; medium compact; wide; conical; well-developed
  • Vine -- Poor vigor and average productivity.
Today there are a total of five Langhe producers farming 2 ha of Rossese grapes. The grapes are generally fermented in stainless steel tanks except for one case where there is a mix of barrel and stainless steel vinification. The wine is generally aged for 1 year on the lees with batonnage. One producer ages in barrique, another in steel tanks, and a third in a mix of wood and stainless steel.

According to one source, Rossese "... will remind you of Vermentino but with more flesh and delicate fruit aromas and flavors (ripe citrus, nectarine) and stronger herbal nuance." A second source describes the wine as having "good alcohol" and being "fresh and lively with typical fruity notes ... full-bodied with lively acidity and good persistence on the palate."

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Montevertine: Another Sangiovese estate illuminating the legacy of the Sangiovese Whisperer, Giulio Gambelli

With visits to Italian vineyards (or any outside the US, for that matter) out of the question, I have turned to reporting on wines where I have drunk multiple vintages but have not yet reported on the label in my blog. Using this approach, I researched and posted on three Montalcino wines (Soldera, Poggio di Sotto, and Cerbaiona) and discovered that they had each used Giulio Gambelli as their enological advisor. Mr. Gambelli started with these estates when they were in the fledgling stages so a significant portion of their success must be attributable to his efforts. Based on that perspective, I set out to find other Sangiovese-based estates with which he had been associated. I found such an estate in Montevertine (best known for its iconic Le Pergole Torte label and wine) and report on it in this post.

Montevertine grows grapes and produces wine approximately 3 km outside the Chianti Classico commune Radda in Chianti.

The location in question was in use since the 11th century but its life as Monvertine began with its purchase by Sergio Manetti (an iron and steel industrialist) in 1967 as the site for a holiday home. Manetti planted 2 ha of vines, and erected a small winemaking cellar, as part of the property refurbishment. His idea was to produce small quantities of wine that be could be given as gifts to customers, employees, and friends.

The first vintage produced was 1971 and it was so good that Manetti arranged to have some bottles sent to Vinitaly in Verona; they were well received. This initial success prompted Manetti to leave his existing career and instead become a full-time wine producer. In pursuit of that goal he built out a team that included the aforementioned Giulio Gambelli and with Bruno Bini as the cellarman. The estate's only label (at that time) was named Montevertine.

Over time, Sergio planted new vineyards and developed the guiding principles (simplicity, respect, detail-oriented, know-how) that guide the estate to this day.

Sergio's quality focus, and his vision for his wine, led to him leaving the Chianti Classico Consortium in 1981. Today a Chianti Classico DOCG wine is comprised of a minimum of 80% Sangiovese and maximum 20% of other red grapes to include Colorino, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. But that was not always the case. The original Chianti DOC specification (1967) required, in addition to the Sangiovese, between 10 and 30% of white grapes for, according to Jancis Robinson, "the entirely expedient reason that it provided a convenient use for the substantial proportion of pale-skinned grapes then planted in the zone ... The great majority of white wine grapes that used to go into Chianti, blanching its colour and diluting its flavour, were the most basic sort of Trebbiano whose wine is generally near flavourless ... " Sergio refused to include Trebbiano in the Montevertine blend and, in the ensuing dispute, left the consortium and the Chianti Classico denomination. 

Sergio, unfortunately, died in 2000 and management of the estate passed to his son Martino. When Gambelli died, his protégée Paolo Salvi joined the Manetti team as enologist.

The current estate is 18 ha in size and is planted to Sangiovese (90%), Colorino, and Canaiolo. The Montevertine grape-growing architecture is illustrated graphically in the chart below.

As shown below, the estate produces three wines, all blends of the estate's cultivars.

The Le Pergole Torte was first released in 1977 and was the first 100% Sangiovese wine produced in the Radda in Chianti area. It is made from the best grapes drawn from the vineyards planted between1968 and 1999.

Tasting Selected Vintages of Le Pergole Torte
I have tasted a number of the Le Pergole Torte vintages.

The 2006 Le Pergole Torte showed spice, violets, faded roses, and a slight balsamic on the nose. Rose water, sour cherry, black pepper, and salinity on the palate. Elegance with an ethereal finish.

The 2008 Le Pergole Torte showed berries, earth, herbs, and leather on the palate. Sour cherry, spices, and velvety tannins on the palate. Elevated acid levels. Lengthy finish

2009 was a hot vintage and the wine reflected as such. Ripe red and black fruit on nose and palate along with mint and spices. Leather and tobacco on the nose. Lengthy finish.

The 2012 yields were down due to uneven ripening. Dark fruit, licorice, and spices on the nose with a sour cherry character and velvety tannins experienced on the palate. Lengthy finish.

The 2013 Le Pergole Torte was tasted on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the square in front of the Duomo in Milan. Elegant, and not because of the setting. Intense nose of dark cherries, plum and licorice carries through to the palate. Lengthy finish. This wine will be around for a while.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme