Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review -- Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Vivienne Sosnowski's When the River's Run Red (previously reviewed herein) recounts the travails that beset the American wine industry as a result of the Prohibition Amendment to the constitution.  While Sosnowski "paints a broad-brush picture of the national battle leading up to the institutionalization of Prohibition ...," Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," conversely, takes us down into the weeds of the Prohibition fight.

This book is a sweeping history of the pre-Prohibition American drinking culture, the politics of the Prohibition Amendment, the economics and governance of the Prohibition experiment, and the subsequent repeal fight. It is a tour de force of political history which delivers great detail and insight into the politics of a significant period/event in American history.

From its pages rise powerful organizations and individuals that are a distant memory for some of the current generation and a revelation for others.  Neal Dow, Susan B. Anthony, Francis Willard, Mary Hanchett Hunt, Carry Nation, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheeler, and Andrew Volstead are a few of the individuals/institutions  figuring prominently in the social experiment that was Prohibition.  A number of strange alliances were forged on the side of the "Drys" (those in favor of the Prohibition Amendment): Southern anti-black forces using the Prohibition movement to take voting rights and alcohol away from blacks; Progressives wanting to better the lot of the "unfortunate" immigrant; income tax lovers; and suffragettes.

The author shows  a confused and erratic response by the entities that would be most affected by a prohibition on the sale of alcohol: the brewers, the spirits industry, and the wine industry.  The wine industry was very small and was, for the most part, an inconsequential player in this battle.  The beer and spirits industries were engaged in internecine warfare and, in addition, the brewers were somewhat compromised by their German roots at a time when the US was involved in WWI.

At this point, you are only one-third of the way towards completion of the book.  The author continues on with a similarly comprehensive treatment of the Prohibition years and corruption and incompetence that was inherent in the management of the process, the rise of organized crime, the actions of the "legitimate" brewers and spirits companies during the Prohibition years, the plethora of bootlegging activities that were undertaken, and the resulting fortunes accumulated.  The fight for repeal arrays the elite of American society, led by Dupont who sees an excise tax on alcohol as a perfect antidote to the income tax to which he and his cohorts are subjected to under Prohibition.  The author closes with a look back at what became of the major players in this drama.

The author does a phenomenal job of bringing these historical personalities and events to life and carefully elucidating their roles in shaping the America that we know today through their actions in a key historical period in the annals of the republic.  This is a must read but will require a fair amount of time to negotiate its 400 pages (inclusive of appendices) of weighty facts.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Husic Vineyards Vintner's Dinner at Ma(i)sonry, Yountville

Last Saturday evening, every fiber of my cultural being was located, stimulated, and satiated at a curated gallery reception and wine-paired dinner hosted by Frank and Julie Husic of Husic Vineyards at the historically relevant, one-of-a-kind showcase that is Ma(i)sonry.  The event combined the wines of Husic Vineyards, the artistry of Guiseppe Columbo, the culinary magic of Cindy Pawlycn, and the sculpture-garden setting that is the external manifestation of Ma(i)sonry chic into a culture and pleasure mosaic that started at a fairly high level and ascended steeply over the course of the event.

Ma(i)sonry -- a construct drawing from the French word Maison (home) and masonry (stone craft) -- is focused on "pairing artisan wines with exquisite art and furnishings in a historic setting."  The original structure was built as the home of Charles Rovegno (an Italian stonemason) in 1904 and he resided therein until his death in 1954.  The building was converted to a hotel -- Burgundy House Inn -- in 1974 and then sold for its current use in 2007. 


The building is one of three stone structures in Napa and one of two listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Over 16 artisanal wines are showcased at Ma(i)sonry and customers can sample the offerings in rooms appointed with 16th- to mid-20th century furnishings and works of important artists or outdoors in a garden setting.


Husic Vineyards is one of the artisanal wineries showcased at Ma(i)sonary. Proprietors Frank and Julie Husic plant Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on a 40-degree-slope, 9-acre property that is located next to Stags Leap Wine Cellar's Fay Vineyard and divided into three plots: Julie's Knoll, FJs Terrace, and Paris's Terrace. The soil is of a heavy volcanic type and the micro climate consists of hot days with an afternoon cooling breeze coming in from Suisun Bay. The Husic vision is the production of wines with a French feel: Burgundy for the white and Bordeaux for the reds. Winemaker Michael Hirby is responsible for implementing this vision. The current portfolio consists of two Cabernet Sauvignons (Husic Vineyard and Palm Terrace) and a Chardonnay. Grapes for the Chardonnay are sourced from the Robert Young vineyard on Pritchard Hill. Plans are afoot for a Pinot Noir which would be made from grapes sourced from three Sonoma Coast vineyards.

The works of Guiseppe Palumbo served as the artistic foil to the vinous magic of the Husic Vineyards wines at the event.  According to the Ma(i)sonry website, Palumbo's "... figurative bronze sculptures are warm, spirited works that capture the essence of each being he portrays." 

Palumbo, who has studied in Italy, Mexico, and the US and has had his works displayed at many important shows nationwide, mingled attentively with attendees, answering questions and gracefully accepting compliments on the sometimes stunning, sometimes whimsical, sometimes comedic pieces positioned casually about and through the gardens and exterior dining area of the venue. 

In many instances, large-format bottles of Husic Vineyards wines were displayed alongside Palumbo pieces. Art and wine amidst a sculpture-endowed garden.  Idyllic.

Rather than entering through the front door, attendees turned left and walked to the garden which runs along the north side and rear of the building.  A wine station had been set up at the intersection of the path running across the face of the building and the one running along the building and the server behind that station offered arriving guests 2007 Husic Vineyards Chardonnay.  Wine glasses in hand, we ventured deeper into the garden, studying the sculptures and meeting our fellow attendees and sampling the hor d'oeuvres being offered by smiling servers.

Julie Husic, author, and fellow attendees
Frank Husic holding court

After an hour of this pleasurable interaction, we were ushered to a lengthy table set at the rear of the building for the sit-down portion of the event.

The event was officially opened by the Ma(i)sonry GM who welcomed us, spoke a little bit about the company, and then turned the floor over to Frank.  Frank thanked us all for being there and then asked us to check under our seats (It looks and feels kind of weird to be feeling around under your seat while sitting.).  There were two yelps and two pieces of paper were held up by the hands connected to the bodies from whence the yelps had originated.  Frank mentioned that these people were winners of a signed bottle of Husic wine each.  Smiles from ear to ear for the winners.  Fake congratulatory smiles from everyone else.

The dinner was catered by Cindy Pawlycn Catering with Chef John Trunk having on-site responsiblity.  The advertised menu consisted of four courses and four distinct wines:

  • Course 1 -- Halibut, Summer Bean Ragout, Aioli; paired with Husic Vineyards Chardonnay Napa Valley 2008
  • Course 2 -- Grilled Duck Breast, Wild Arugula and Balsamic Figs; paired with Husic Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005 and Husic Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006
  • Course 3 -- Idiazabal Cheese, fresh Cherries, Crostini; paired with Husic Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007
  • Course 4 -- Thumbprint Cookies, Coconut Macaroons and Mudslide Cookies

This was a truly wonderful setting which got even better as darkness descended and the lights were turned on.  We were dining in the open air, surrounded by sculptures which had morphed into the background through the combined effects of descending darkness and the glow that is brought on by good food, good company, and good wine.  Frank rose up time and again to introduce the wines to us as did the chef upon delivery of a new course. Most of the attendees had been strangers at the beginning of the event but our tongues had been loosened by the bounty of sensory pleasures to which we had been subjected.  We were busy chatting away as we indulged.

But wait.  It was not over.  Frank took to the floor and announced a special treat.  He was going to pour his as-yet-unreleased 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.  This was a great capper to the evening and a total surprise.  This wine will continue the tradition of quality that the Husics have presented to the market. Concentrated without being jammy.  Hint of Pauillac with credible acidity.  Excellent finish.
The evening had been so successful in bringing people together that a group of us headed to downtown Napa  to listen to Jazz at Uva Trattoria.  We did not want the evening to end.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

Australia and Wrap up: A World of Cabernet Sauvignon

The final flight in our tasting covered Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Australia but, unfortunately, the results were somewhat disappointing.  The wines tasted were: 2001 Gralyn Estate (Margaret River, Parker 94); 1997 Penley Estate (Coonawarra, Parker 91); 1994 Penfolds Bin 707 (Barossa Valley, Parker 90); and 2003 Two Hands Aphrodite (Barossa Valley, Parker 94).

These wines might have suffered from being the last wines on a rather long night where they were preceded by 17 quality wines.  The Margaret River was described as having an Irish Spring aroma and collapsing on the palate while the Penley Estate hinted at molasses and muddy water with a definite Shiraz leaning.  The Bin 707 had a "Grange nose" and was "Napa on steroids" while the Two Hands Aphrodite had a short finish and was "uninspiring."  The Bin 707 was designated WOTF but, according to the panel, this had more to do with the weakness of the field than the brilliance of the Bin 707.

At the conclusion of the Australian flight, I asked the panelists for their impressions of the Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the varying regions.  Ron began by stating that there had been impressive wines tasted from each region but that the Bordeaux wines stood out for him.  He would approach this discussion by asking the question "What wines do I want in my cellar?"  He would eliminate Australia immediately.  He liked the older California wines -- the Heitz, for example -- but they do not make wines like those anymore.  The more modern California wines seem one-dimensional with low acidity and high alcohol.  Bordeaux is the one for him.  Those wines stood out and were the most interesting.  He was also very pleased with the Leonetti.  Overall, as you tasted the wines, you could clearly tell whether you were in the Old World or New.  But with Bordeaux, he could tell where the wine is from and the vintage -- for example, whether it was a wet year, or a hot year.  He had heard that Chilean Cabs were Bordeaux-like but did not get that sense coming out of this tasting (it should be pointed out that we only had one Chilean Cab in this tasting); as a matter of fact, he felt that the Don Melchor was closer to Napa than to Bordeaux.

In his comments, Andrew noted that Bordeaux stood out on its own.  "You cannot confuse these wines for anything else but Bordeaux."  In a blind tasting he would have placed the Ornellaia in with the Bordeaux wines.  Ron chipped in at this point to say that he would put Italy right behind France in terms of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Andrew said that the Ornellaia was still fresh.  He found it a little hollow but would still put it in his cellar.  This tasting was an interesting window, according to Andrew, on how Cabernet Sauvignon has evolved in the New World.  For example, in Meritages he has a problem picking out the Cabernet Sauvignons from the Merlots from the Cabernet Francs, a problem he almost never encounters with Bordeaux blends which tend to be a lot more balanced.

Russell felt that the goal of the tasting was accomplished in that Cabernet Sauvignons from different parts of the world showed distinct differences in characteristics.  His bias is towards Bordeaux.  His surprise of the night was the 2003 Ducru-Beaucaillou, which showed great class and elegance.  Australia was disappointing for him in that the wines all tasted Shiraz-like but, that being said, the Penfolds was his favorite.  He enjoyed the Ornellaia.

Jeff was very sure that Australia and South American Cabernet Sauvignons were not for him (He came in with this baggage).  His preferences tend towards Napa and France depending on his mood.  If he wants the tertiary flavors like saddle leather, cedar, cigar box, etc., then he drinks Bordeaux.  According to Jeff you do not get those flavors with Napa Cabs except for wines like Dominus and some of the older Napa Cabs.  He was thrilled with the way the Heitz showed tonight.  The tasting basically served to reinforce his preferences.

I commented that I had a special place in my heart for Cabernet Sauvignons from Bolgheri but felt that the wines from Bordeaux, even the lesser ones, stood up very well against their peers from other regions. I am currently overweighting Bordeaux in my purchases in order to bring that region to a position of dominance in my cellar.  The Ducru, Leonetti, and Heitz were different, but standout, representations of Cabernet Sauvignon from my perspective.

Fred was more impresed with the New World wines than the Old but, as he says, that is his palate.  He liked the Leonetti, Revana, and Shafer.  Laurie and Lisa concurred with Fred in this position.  Laurie likes "California fruit bombs" while Lisa feels that Napa Cabs are great drinking wines which complement what you are doing today and have great flavor.

There is a clear sense of place associated with Cabernet Sauvignon from varying places around the world. Whether that difference is a result of sunlight, aspect, soil, climate, or a combination of these factors, is beyond the scope of this post.  We set out to identify regional differences and we did.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A World of Cabernet Sauvignon: Sonoma and Napa Valley

So, after a brief respite, I return to our World of Cabernet Sauvignon tasting. In previous posts I have reported on our tastings of Bordeaux and Washington/Chile/Tuscany Cabernet Sauvignons. In this post I turn to our tasting of the Sonoma/Napa Valley flight.  The Napa wines were actually tasted in two flights -- mountain and valley floor -- but will be combined in this post in the interest of efficiency.  The wines included in this flight were: 2002 Chateau St Jean; 1994 Togni; 2004 Sherwin Family Vineyards, 1995 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain; 1985 Heitz Martha's Vineyard; 1973 Inglenook; 2002 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon; and 2002 Revana.

The first wine tasted was the 2002 Chateau St Jean from Sonoma County.  Sonoma County is a diverse growing region with a complex terrain of small valleys, benchlands and hillsides. A coastal appellation, it is favored with fog in the morning and sunny afternoons cooled by maritime breezes. From the cool Carneros area in the south to the more moderate Russian River and Alexander Valleys further north, a wide variety of grapes can enjoy the optimum climate to achieve rich varietal flavor.  This wine had a beautiful nose, somewhat reminiscent of a Bordeaux wine.  Ron, one of our panelists, indicated that he had the 1966, a Wine Spectator wine of the year, in his cellar but felt that the 2002 presented better on the nose.  Russell felt that the wine gave a clear indication of where you were – California.  It lacked acidity but had vanilla and a brambly taste which Jeff uses as a marker for Sonoma Cabs.

The second wine tasted was the 1994 Philip Togni Vineyard, a 97-point rated wine by Parker.  Philip Togni began planting vines at the pinnacle of Spring Mountain in 1981 after having been winemaker at a number of Napa wineries. The 25-acre vineyard 200 feet up on Spring Mountain is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (82%), Merlot (15%), Cab Franc (2%), and Petit Verdot (1%).  The 2000-case production is late-picked, “blended deliberately” and aged in 40% new French oak.  Jeff identified this wine as being Dominus-like and this launched a lengthy discussion of Dominus (everyone likes it).  This wine had good acidity, was well balanced, and, according to Jeff, would go well with a steak.

The 2004 Sherwin Family Vineyard was rated 93 points by Wine Spectator.  This wine is made from grapes grown in a 16-acre vineyard contained within a 30-acre estate.  The vineyard is planted to 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc.  Ron visited this estate in 2002 and, after tasting the wine, bought three cases.  He thinks that it is a great representation of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Good balance and nice finish.

The 1995 Dunn Howell Mountain was the next wine tasted.  Dunn produces both a Howell Mountain and a Napa Valley wine -- both 100% Cabs -- but the Howell Mt is 100% Mountain fruit while the Napa Valley contains about 6% valley floor fruit.   The Howell Mountain wine is massive in fruit and tannins. The estate spans 200 acres of which 30 are planted to vine: 24 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon and six to other varietals.  The vines range between 30 and 10 years of age.  Wines are aged in 75% new French oak for 30 months.  This is a big wine with Howell Mountain tannins.  Seemingly immune to the passage of time.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was the first vineyard-designated wine in Napa valley (1965).  The vineyard is owned by the May family who grow grapes for Heitz.  The vineyard covers 34 acres on a gently sloping alluvial plain on the western side of Napa, close to the Mayacamas foothills, and is ringed by giant eucalyptus trees which may contribute elements to the wine.  The 1985 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was rated 94 points by Parker.  This wine is huge and expansive on the nose.  Hints of graphite, chocolate, leather, tobacco, asian spice and earth co-exist with a decided creaminess. The wine retains some acidity, is silky smooth, balanced, and elegant with a long finish.  This is the way California wines used to be.  This wine was voted wine of the flight.

Napanook was the former Inglenook Estate which, under John Daniels, had become famous for its Inglenook Cask Selection. Grapes from this site were highly sought after for the production of high-quality Napa Cabernets. Napanook, located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, has a history that goes back to 1836 when George Yount, who gave his name to Yountville, planted the first vines in the valley there. The farm is 124 acres -- 108 of which are planted to vines -- with volcanic, heavy clay, and loam soil types.  The 1973 Inglenook exhibits aromas of tanned leather, red fruit, mushroom, and fig.  On the palate, somewhat Burgundian but with a short finish.  This wine seems to be on its way out.

The 2002 Shafer Hillside Select was rated as a 100-pointer by Robert Parker.  Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon is the flagship product of Shafer Vineyards, a Stags Leap District winery founded in 1972 by John Shafer.  As the name implies, Hillside Select is crafted exclusively from selected blocks of hillside vineyards whose soil characteristics and micro-climate combine to produce Cabernet Sauvignon wines with excellent aging potential. The soil on the Shafer Stags Leap properties are primarily bale loam or volcanic -- 2- to 4-feet deep -- resting on bedrock. The warm days and cool nights result in elongated growing seasons and a near-perfect mix of ripening and acidity. The wines are aged for four and one-half years prior to public release.  The 2002 Shafer Hillside Select had a great nose: grilled steak and graphite along with a rich decadence.  On the palate vanilla, licorice, new oak, sugar cane.  Not a food wine at this time.

The final wine in the flight was the 2002 Revana Family Vineyards, a 95-point (Wine Enthusiast) wine.  Revana is located to the north of St. Helena on gravelly soils.  The vines, first planted in 1998, are in eight separate blocks covering a total of 9 acres.  The blocks, five of which are Cabernet Sauvignon, are farmed and vinified separately.  Winter rains provide a constant supply of gravel, soil, and nutrients to valley floor vineyards.  Warm days and cool nights provide the perfect environment for the right balance of sugar and acidity.  This wine had aromas of licorice, spice, graphite, blackcurrant, cassis, and broccoli.  On the palate a nice attack but a missing finish.

Our final flight was Cabernet Sauvignon’s from Australia and those will be covered in my next post.

Napa Valley: Marquee Cabernet Sauvignon Region

Five percent of California’s wine is produced in the famed Napa Valley region. The valley spans 225,000 acres of land which is planted with 44,000 acres of vineyard and is home to 331 wineries. Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Napa with 17,300 acres of vineyards devoted to this varietal.


Napa Valley is 5 miles wide and 30 miles long and is bordered on the east by the Vaca Mountains, the west by the Mayacama Mountains, and at the northern end by Mt St. Helena. The southern end of the valley is exposed to the cooling influences of the San Francisco Bay. Soils in the valley are varied with over 30 different types having been cataloged. Primary soil types are of volcanic, maritime, or alluvial origins.

Napa Valley is blessed with a temperate climate with long growing seasons of sunny, warm days and cool evenings. Fog is generally pulled into the valley as a result of warm air rising. In some instances, inversion layers trap hot air in the valley. This warmth contributes to the lush ripeness of the valley floor fruit.  Hillside soils are thinner and more “minerally” than valley soils and these factors, combined with the valley floor warmth, are key contributors to the difference between valley floor and hillside fruit.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Visit to Biondi-Santi, Montalcino, Italy

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 varietal 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 Christopher Columbus of 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.  Tha pedigree continues 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 drive the company up to the present time, and Franco, his son, who exhibits the epitome of patrician stewardship.  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 current regime of Franco.  The longevity in the wine is manifested by the length of maturity time required before it is approachable as well as its demonstrated ageing capability.  Numerous bottles of 100+ year-old Biondi Santi wines are currently resident 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.

So it was with great anticipation, and a sense of embarking on a pilgrimmage, that I began my visit to this shrine to Brunello, this hallowed gound; Il Greppo, the Biondi-Santi estate.  We made our way up a Cypress-lined driveway towards a vine-encrusted building where we were met by Lauren Cicione (at the time in the employ of Biondi-Santi but now owner of her own business, Tuscan Auteur) who was tasked with translating the Biondi-Santi mystique into something that mere mortals could comprehend.

Lauren began with some background information: 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, even though 80 years old, still runs the cellar and functions as the winemaker.

Il Greppo covers 150 hectares at elevations ranging between 300 and 500 meters above sea level.  The vineyards extend over 20 hectares of stone-endowed marl and are oriented towards the southeast, east, northeast, and south. 

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 is sourced from vines that are in excess of 25 years old while the Rosso and Rosato wines are sourced from vines that are less than 10 years old.

Some of the operational procedures, originally developed by Tancredi Biondi Santi, include: 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 bumches.  Yields are three to five tons per hectare with deselected grapes vinified and sold in bulk as table wine.

Fermentation is initiated with natural yeasts.  The Riserva grapes are 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 12,00 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.

As we concluded the tour we exited the cellar through a portal that differed from our entry and was confronted by a magnificent, solitary, powerful white dog which seemed to epitomize the wines of Biondi-Santi.  These wines stand alone.  Majestic, powerful, staring into the interminable depths of time.  Separated from the other producers by a fence constructed of pedigree, longevity, and adherence to founding principles.

Our group, mere mortals all, had been transported back to the beginning of time -- Brunello time -- and guided along a singular path unto the current day with Brunello di Montalcino's north star as our guide.  It was an elevating experience.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Visit to Altesino Winery, Montalcino, Italy

This is Italian week on the blog.  More specifically, it is Montalcino week on the blog.  But you knew that when I posted the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG review last Friday, didn't you?  Italian Week begins with a tour of the Altesino estate, a visit that was a part of my Tuscany escapade with Bordeaux Index earlier this year.

The night preceding the trip to Montalcino was subdued in relation to the night preceding our trip to Bolgheri. We had a nice dinner and then retired to bed in preparation for an early start the following day.  After breakfast at the hotel, we piled into our transport and made our way to Siena via the Superstrade and then towards Montalcino via SR2 Cassia.  Upon our arrival at Altesino, we were welcomed by Sabine, a Danish transplant who led the early part of the tour.  Tour leader responsibilities were later transferred to Claudio Basla, General Manager and winemaker.

According to Sabine, the estate is located on the northern border of Montalcino and extends over 80 hectares, of which 42.5 are planted to vines.  The estate is owned by Mrs. Elisabetta Gnudi Agnelini who purchased the property in 2002.  At the time of my visit the estate had 20 full-time employees.

Altesino has always been a trendsetter in Montalcino and was one of the first wineries to introduce a "cru" Brunello di Montalcino from its Montosoli vineyard.  Three of the estate's five vineyards are located on the north side of Montalcino and two on the south side.  Montosoli is a south-facing vineyard and, as such, reaps the benefits that I mentioned in the Brunello di Montalcino post.  The average age of the Montosoli vines is 35 years.  The estate utilizes cordon spur for vine training and does not allow any grass between the rows.  According to Claudio it is very important to turn the earth in order to kill the grass.  The estate practices sustainable farming and limits density to 5000 plants per hectare.

Winemaker Claudio Basla discussing viticulture

According to Claudio, harvest begins five to eight days earlier for the south side vineyards than for those on the northern side.  Harvesting is by hand and begins in mid-September.  Between 15 and 25 people are involved in harvesting the grapes.

Unsatisfactory fruit is weeded out at sorting tables with post-sort product making its way to stainless steel tanks for fermentation.  Juice is pumped over during fermentation to ensure full engagement of the must and juice.  "Crus" are vinified separately and blended later.  Post-press residue is sent off to make grappa.  Malolactic fermentation takes place in the stainless steel tanks.  The estate does no fining but filters the wine with wide-guage mesh.

The estate produces approximately 200,000 bottles of wine annually.  The Brunello di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Rosso di Montalcino, and Palazzo Altesi are all made from 100% Sangiovese Grosso.  The estate also produces two Super Tuscans -- Alte d'Altesi and Rosso di Altesino (20% Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and 80% Sangiovese) -- a Vin Santo (Trebbiano and Malvasia), and a Bianca di Altesino (60% Vermentino, 20% Chardonnay, and 20% Viognier).  The Super Tuscans are aged in barriques -- used for three years -- while the Brunellos are aged in large Slavonian oak barrels.  These barrels are used for between 15 and 20 years.

In addition to the wines, the estate also produces olive oil (filtered and unfiltered), grappa, and brandy.

At the conclusion of the tour we repaired to the dining room for lunch.  The meal was traditional Tuscan fare (indicated below) accompanied by the range of the estate's offerings.

My wife's birthday fell on the day of the tour and the chef surprised her with a cake.  No, she is not 1 year old.

We dragged ourselves away from the table sluggishly and asked our tour guide if we could go to the hotel to sleep off the food.  He said no.  On to the next winery.  Cruel.