Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Context and conclusion of the Burgundy-Champagne 100-year war

On February 2nd, 2016, Gargantuan Wine posted a scintillating piece on the 100-year (mid-17th to mid-18th century) battle between supporters of  Burgundy and Champagne for the primacy of their favored wine at Court, and, as a result, in the realm. Since reading that post I have encountered a book (Thomas Parker, Tasting French Terroir) which places the battle within a wider context. I share Parker's perspective in this post.

As I will cover in a future post on the topic, the concept of terroir has had a roller-coaster existence during the course of its French history. And this period was one of its down times. Further, terroir was not confined only to wines and foods of regions; the word could be used to denigrate a person, a region, or a population. For example, Paris, was the center of French society (and, therefore, the center of the universe). But as you ventured away from this center, you encountered increasing terroir; that is, less refinement and more country bumpkinness. And so with the wines of France.

Nicholas Abraham de la Framboisière, the Royal Physician of Henry IV and Louis XIII, in some of his early 17th-Century writings spoke of white- and rosé-colored wines as being produced closer to Paris (and thus more cosmopolitan) while lighter to darker reds could be found in Burgundy and Bordeaux. The latter wines, according to de la Framboisière, contained more terrestrial elements; in a time when that was considered unsavory. The table below (compiled from Parker) captures de la Framboisière's characterization of white and red wines.

In the mid-17th Century Champagne was a still wine but, according to Parker, was "already imbued with prestige" and was "long the choice of royalty and other elites." In this timeframe it was considered bad form for a wine to reflect terroir. Charles de Saint-Évremond, the most refined epicurean of his age, captures both his love of Champagne and aversion to terroir in the following passage (Parker):
If you ask me which of these wines I prefer, ... I would say to you the good wine of Ay is the most natural of all wines, the healthiest, the most purified of any odor of terroir -- and of the most exquisite pleasurability in its flavor of peaches, which is unique to it, and the best in my opinion of all flavors.
Potrait of Charles de Saint-Évremond.
By Sir Godfrey Kneller - Collection of James stunt,
Public Domain,

It was in this timeframe that the skirmishes described in Gargantuan Wine began. Medical texts of the latter half of the 18th Century favored Champagne because it supposedly contained a large proportion of water which led to "healthful, frequent urination" (Parker). The battle royal was kicked off by Guy-Crescent Fagon (Louis XIVs Physician) who indicated that the frequent urination associated with Champagne was caused by excessive tartrates and that Burgundy would be the King's drink henceforth because Champagne was too acidic for his stomach.

Despite the efforts of the Champagne proponents, red wines gained a foothold at Court and across the land. During this same timeframe, the light, still red wines produced in Champagne began to lose favor in the Parisian markets, forcing the Champenois in ever greater numbers towards an effervescent wine (Parker).

When the smoke of battle had cleared, the following outcomes could be discerned:

  • France had modified its drinking practices
  • The status of red wines had been elevated
  • The French had begun to take the first steps towards a new, 18th-Century view of terroir.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Practical implications of the Vietti sale

One of the most significant events in Piemonte so far this summer has been the recent purchase of Vietti by Krause Family Holdings for a figure north of €50 million. I shared my thoughts on the deal in a recent post and review its practical implications herein.

The acquisition and sale appear to have been more opportunistic than strategic. Krause has reportedly long been on the hunt for Langhe properties and recently bought the Enrico Serafino property for around €6 million. In the case of the Vietti owners, there is no tradition of vintner-selling of property in the region (Elena, Luca's wife, even said that during our recent tour of their facility), nor has Luca previously evinced any broader vision -- for his winery or the region -- which would serve as evidence of a strategy-based sale. Rather, in his discussion with Tom Hyland, he indicated that the family had been approached by Krause. In the podcast with Levi Dalton, Luca indicated that the family discussed the offer and, while everyone did not agree with the direction, the decision was taken to accept the offer. So the evidence clearly points to tactical decisionmaking (and that is a statement of fact rather than a judgment).

With the foregoing in mind, let us take a look at the potential synergies that may accrue to the Krause family as a result of the acquisition. First, it should be noted that Vietti and Enrico Serafino were acquired in separate transactions by the holding company. This implies separate and lengthy due diligence activities and a judgment that each would be profitable in its own right. And that each would be managed separately in order to meet its individual ROI goal (That being said, it should be noted that the cost of the Vietti acquisition was almost 10 times the cost of the Serafino acquisition and that the cachet gap is probably of similar size.).

In both the Hyland and Levi Dalton interviews, Luca indicated that his remit would remain Vietti but, in the Hyland interview, he indicated that both he and Mario Cordero would act as consultants to Enrico Serafino (It cannot hurt Enrico Serafino to have one of the leading vintners in Piemonte providing advice and counsel regarding its operations.). And the relationship is already bearing fruit for Krause in that Dalla Terre, the long-time distributor of Vietti in the US, has now agreed to distribute Enrico Serafino wines in the US. It is not clear that that would have happened without the current linkage.

The figure below shows the location of the sources of Krause Barolo-targeted Nebbiolo grapes. The data included on the map was culled from a variety of sources to include the Vietti website (instrumental in identifying single-vineyard designates), Barolo MGA (Vietti plots in Barolo crus not previously identified), Galloni (Perbacco and Barolo Castiglione sites), and the Hyland interview with Luca (Enrico Serafino sites).

In his discussion of the Barolo Castigliione and Perbacco grape sources, Antonio Galloni stated that he had, on previous occasions, asked Luca why some of the components had not been bottled as cru wines and had been told that the "sites were not consistent enough from year to year to merit vineyard designated bottlings." In discussing the deal with Tom Hyland, though, Luca indicated that the holdings of the two estates might allow for the development of future vineyard designates. When I look at the map above (and assuming accuracy of the data), I do not see significant enough vineyard overlap to overcome the objections to designates raised with Antonio.

In discussions with Antonio, Luca said that the Serafino holdings might provide him the opportunity to improve the quality of the Perbacco and Barolo Castiglione wines. The question is why? Especially when, as Antonio stated, these wines are already of very high quality. If the winery cannot raise the price of the wine to accompany this increase in quality, then it has embarked on a fools errand. And customers may be resistant to a price increase based on a qiuality improvement that they may not be equipped to detect.

Further, the CEO of Enrico Serafino may be resistant to a potential decrease in the quality of his/her portfolio to benefit the Vietti labels. Just last night I saw a job listing on Linked In for a CEO for Enrico Serafino with clear responsibilities for attainment of the unit's business goals. That is not to say that Krause will not institute mechanisms to incentivize resource-sharing, but they are still in the early phases of building what could be a much larger portfolio of properties (The Vietti sale could give permission to other willing vintners to pursue a similar path and if they could sell and still retain autonomy -- a la the Vietti model -- then Krause would be the preferred home.).

On the other hand, if Krause sought to really extract the synergies of its charges, the potential exists for doing Vietti vineyard designates from sites -- Le Coste, for example -- that it had no access to prior to the sale and to fill the gaps that this might create in the Enrico Serafino portfolio with Perbacco and Barolo Castiglione grapes. This, of course, assumes that these sites merit single-vineyard designation. And, if they merit such designation, the return to the enterprise would be much higher if they were Vietti rather than Enrico Serafino designates. Such an approach would also meet Luca's promise of not increasing the number of bottles produced by Vietti.

From a Krause portfolio management perspective, if growth on the Vietti side exceeds any negative impact on the Enrico Serafino side, then it would have been a win for the enterprise. The challenge for them then, is to put mechanisms in place to allow team play and win-win situations.

Luca has talked about a partnership and it has not been readily apparent to observers. But this may be the area where that partnership plays out. If he can create new products and, in his inimitable style, drive them into the markets successfully, that would result in significant ROI from the Krause Enrico Serafino investment; albeit in a backdoor way. And Luca, having played a principal role in the realization of that new revenue source, could share in the proceeds.

So may, just maybe, this acquisition could have been strategic after all. Krause could have seen the potential of marrying his under-exploited crus with a legendary single-vineyard-producing estate and approached Luca with the idea. The selling point for Luca here would have been monetizing the Vietti property while remaining in control and, in addition, creating new single-vineyard designates from properties which were not available to him. Finally, the family could continue to benefit through sharing in any upside from the agreement. Obviously I have no facts to back up the foregoing but it falls within the realm of possibility.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, August 15, 2016

Some thoughts on the Vietti sale

My first encounter with Luca and Elena Currado was at the Galloni Vietti Rocche di Castiglione Retrospective on May 10, 2016, where I had the honor of sitting next to Luca. I found him to be warm, personable, knowledgeable, and committed to his craft. My next encounter with the family was a visit to the estate in June of this year as a part of the launch of Suzanne Hoffman's Labor of Love. Elena led our group on that tour and tasting.

With Luca and Elena at Galloni Vietti
Retrospective earlier this year
Elena Currado and Suzanne Hoffman on our
visit to Vietti on June 3 of this year
After this level of interaction with the principals, and having been singularly impressed with the quality of the wines, I drank the Kool-Aid. I bought into the story of the artisanal family farmer whose positioning was perennial -- even though I had published posts on my site about the Burgundization of Barolo and the implicit risk for its way of life. So, like many other lovers of the concept #piemonteispiemonte, I was shocked when I saw a tweet from Suzanne which linked to the Wine Spectator article announcing the sale of Vietti to Krause Holdings for, according to estimates, upwards of €50 million.

In a Levi Dalton podcast following the sale announcement, Luca defended the deal against vocal criticism. In that session Luca was sometimes defiant, sometimes sheepish; open, but guarded; and was short on some details. He posited the arrangement as a partnership rather than a sale, saying that it provided the opportunity for the Vietti and Krause families to pursue other projects together in the future.

The problem, as Luca sees it, is the families of current farmers not wanting to renew contracts as they come to an end. As the price of the land continues to rise, the farmers, or their heirs, see more benefit in cashing out rather than renewing contracts. And with intense competition for the land, because of the current standing of the region's wine in the world, the prices are being bid up to stratospheric levels. He mentioned something on the order of €1 million per ha.

The risk to the winemaker is a potential reduction in the quality and quantity of his/her wines. If a key supplier of grapes to one of your key wines is bought out, and you no longer have access to those grapes, and can't replace it with grapes of a similar quality, then your wine will suffer a quality deficit. If you are unable to replace the grapes period, then you suffer both a quantity and quality falloff.

So the question can be asked, ok, if these plots are coming on to the market, why don't the vintners buy them? While Barolo is doing very nicely today, the cost of the land will require that the vintner take on unsustainable levels of debt in order to make acquisitions. And would need to keep going back to the well time and again in order to stanch the bleeding.

By entering into this deal, according to Luca, he has taken steps to ensure that the quality of the Vietti brand is protected going forward and there is potential for even increased quality. This happens in a number of ways. First, he now has access to the fruit from the prior high-quality Serrafino acquisitions that the Krause's have previously made. This, coupled with the fact that the deal says that the number of bottles produced by the estate will remain constant, means that he can substitute the high-quality fruit from those acquisitions for some lesser quality fruit in some of his offerings. Also, with a bigger capital pool, Vietti/Krause will be able to bid successfully for some of the properties from which they source fruit if/when those properties come on the market.

One of the things that Galloni fretted about in his thoughtful and lengthy assessment of the deal, was the fact that the Vietti family retained no ownership.  Luca, in his Levi Dalton interview, stressed that "the family" made the decision to enter into the deal with the Krauses. They had lengthy discussions and, while everyone did not necessarily agree with the direction, at the end of the day it was a family decision. One of the things that he kept saying was that the deal would allow The Krause and Vietti families to pursue additional projects in the future. But the structure of any such "future deals" is not readily apparent.  As Galloni points out, the current deal has the no ownsership stake in the new entity for the Vietti family. And with the escalating price of land, I find it hard to see a reason for Vietti to take the money earned from the sale of their property and invest it into higher priced land in the future. All evidence points to an employee-only relationship between the Currados and Krause holdings on a go-forward basis.

Now what are the implications of all this for the broader Barolo. There is potential for this being the tip of the spear. In a tight market, Vietti now has a competitive advantage over its neighbors. It's sources of supply are guaranteed and it is sitting on capital with which to make future acquisitions. In the podcast Luca described a property that was coming on the market but he would not bid on it because the vintner who sourced grapes from that property was a friend. With the Krauses as partners, that property could have come into his portfolio through a Krause acquisition, allowing him to hide behind the "they did it" mantle. No self-respecting market player can allow a participant to acquire and retain this type of competitive advantage without a response at some time down the road. Within that environment, the Vietti purchase is just the tip of the iceberg for Barolo: (i) All of the other vintners are facing the same pressures that Vietti was facing and drove them to this decision. (ii) Luca says there are a number of potential investors sniffing around the valley; therefore, it is only a matter of time before some of the folks seek to monetize their investments while preserving the fundamentals of the business.

The issue becomes how does the character of the Vietti business change as a result of the change of ownership. Will Luca spend as much time in the vineyard (or on the road) with all this cash burning a hole in his pockets? Will the management challenges of running a portfolio of assets diminish the level of his personal focus on vineyard and marketing activities? Only time will tell.

Luca should not be surprised at some of the negative reaction that the deal has generated. Some avid Vietti fans feel as though the deal amounted to a bait and switch. They bought into the advertising and the "story" of the artisan against the corporate juggernaut and, suddenly, one of the key players turns up on the "other side."  And people do not react well when they feel betrayed. In that regards, the dissemination of information about this major change in strategy was handled poorly. Vietti had a number of stakeholders: family members, distributors, retailers, restaurants, consuming public, and the Piemontese. Only one stakeholder component was prepared for this news: the family. For everyone else it was a shock. And people react negatively to shocks. Luca did admit that the news got out earlier than they would have liked.

This is potentially the beginning of a new phase in the story of the Langhe Hills. In his article Galloni speaks to a new concept: The Bordeauxification of Piemonte. One can only pray that such a fate does not befall this region. The families, the wines, and the place have combined to carve out a special place in the heart for Piemonte lovers, be they region-resident or not. We hope that the dam holds.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, August 12, 2016

Tasting a selection of Vietti wines

At the conclusion of our tour of the vineyard and aging cellars, Elena Currado led us in a tasting of a selection of the Vietti wines.

The first wine tasted was the Arneis 2015. The grapes for this wine are sourced from vineyards planted in 1967 in Santo Stefano Roero on calcareous clay soils. The training system is guyot and the planting density is between 4500 and 500 vines/ha. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and remains on the lees for 25 days.

Walnut and creamy richness. Lime and lime rind. Minerality. Attention-grabbing acidity. According to Elena this wine should be put aside for a while; maybe 1 year.

We next tasted the 2013 Barbera d'Alba Vigna Scarrone. The grapes for this wine are sourced from the Barbera vineyard directly below the cellar in Castiglione Falletto. This vineyard was planted in 1988 against the wishes of Luca's dad. The wine was fermented for 15 days in open-top stainless steel tanks and macerated for an additional 7 days before being transferred to barrels for malolactic fermentation (MLF). The wine was aged in barrel and bottle for 1 year.

High-tone red fruit with a predominance of strawberries. Light on the palate. Non-complex. Piney character which gives way to a metallic finish.

The La Crena Barbera d'Asti 2012 is sourced from vines planted in 1932. South-facing vineyard on clayey silt soils and vines trained guyot. Twenty-day fermentation in open-top steel vats and then transferred to barrels for MLF. Aged in barrels and barriques for 16 months. The old vines generally yield structured, powerful wines and this drives the decision to keep the wines in bottle for an additional year before commercial release.

Rich red fruit. Savoriness. Oily. Concentrated. Hint of sweetness. Great acidity. Full round mouthfeel yielding to a long finish.

The Barolo Brunate 2012 is sourced from 43-year-old vines grown on chalky-clay soils in the historic Brunate vineyard in La Morra. The 1.6-ha plot is planted to 4600 vines/ha. Three days of cold maceration is followed by 15 days of fermentation and five days of maceration. MLF in barrels followed by 36 months of aging in large barrels and barriques. Blended and bottled without filtration.

Classic tar and rose notes. Pine. Asphalt. On the palate, rich yet focused. Silky tannins. Fresh, fruity, and elegant.

As was the case for the Brunate vineyard, the Lazzarito vineyard is also blessed with chalky-clay soils. The 1.7 ha Vietti plot is SW facing and the 39-year-old vines are planted 4500 vines/ha. The 2012 Lazzarito had a nose of beautiful, rich red fruit with baking spices, black pepper, and a savoriness. Powerful wine with sweet red fruits dominating the palate.

I have described the Rocche di Castiglione MGA in greater detail elsewhere. The Vietti plot is 1.3 ha in size, is SE-facing and is planted to 4600 plants/ha with 47-year-old vines. A 29-day fermentation-maceration period is followed by MLF and 31 months in barrel.

The 2012 Rocche di Castiglione exhibited red cherries, roses, licorice, and spice on the nose. Power and bright acidity on the palate. Full, round mouthfeel. Lengthy finish.

This was a stunning lineup and reinforced the acclaim which is heaped upon the estate's wines. At the conclusion of the tasting, Suzanne Hoffman presented a copy of her book (Labor of Love) to Elena.

Elena and Suzanne sharing a moment re Labor
of Love
Parlo, Elena, and author

All-in-all a very good visit. There were no hints of what was to come.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Vietti (Castiglione Falletto, Piemonte): A pre-sale-announcement visit

Antonio Galloni has described the Castiglione-Falletto-based producer Vietti as "one of Italy's most historic wineries," credited as (i) being one of the first bottlers of single-vineyard Barolos and (ii) having revived the moribund Arneis variety in the 1960s. According to Antonio:
Winemaker Luca Currado, his brother-in-law Mario Cordero, along with their families and tightly knit staff, have taken the early groundbreaking work of Alfredo and Luciana Currado and built upon those successes, reaching an unprecedented level of consistency and quality across the entire range. 
My first encounter with Luca and Elena was at the Galloni Vietti Rocche di Castiglione Retrospective where I had the honor of sitting next to Luca. I found him to be warm, personable, knowledgeable, and committed to his craft. My next encounter was a visit to the estate in June of this year as a part of the launch of Suzanne Hoffman's Labor of Love. Elena led our group on that tour and did a wonderful job of presenting the estate and its products.

As you get closer to the Vietti winery, the roads become narrower, steeper, and winding. My wife was not very impressed with my efforts to navigate our rental car through this terrain. It was with a sigh of relief that I crested the hill on whose top the estate is located and saw some relatively level parking spaces.

I stepped up to the wrought-iron gates and rang the bell. Elena poked her head out of one of the buildings on the down slope at the same time as Suzanne and the rest of the team drove up. Elena buzzed us in and we walked down the incline towards the cellar. After our welcomes and introductions, Elena suggested that we go back outside to view and discuss the vineyards below the winery. It was slightly foggy but, from the vantage point of the winery, we had a very nice view of the Serralunga Valley. Elena began talking about the estate.

There had been an old winery on the site since at least 1873 -- based on the old bottles found behind the walls in the cellar -- but signs point to wine production on the property way before then.

In those days the property was a farm, rather than the grape monoculture that it is today. By the mid-1800s, they had begun to concentrate on wines and began bottling in the second half of the 1800s.

In the 1960s and 1970s Vietti, based on the activities of Luca and his dad, was one the first local wineries to promote Piemonte in the US. Today 70% of the Vietti production is exported, with the US, at 30 - 35%, the most important market.

One of the stellar figures in the Vietti history was Mario Vietti, an engineer who had lived in Boston for 25 years and only came back to Piemonte upon the death of his brother. Other Piemontese families called him "the crazy American" because he went around looking for sites to buy or rent. And he was the one working the vineyards in all those locations (i) at a time when it was much more difficult and time-consuming to get around than it is today and (ii) where the norm was to farm where you were.

Mario was a visionary. He planted Barbera in 1918 against the common wisdom. Previously, Barolo was fortified and most vineyards had been planted to Barbera. When Mario came back, Barolo was just becoming the "wine of Kings" and farmers were pulling out Barbera and planting Nebbiolo. He planted the Barbera for his personal use.

The chart below shows the current distribution of Vietti grape sources by region and the allocation of the sources by wine label. Grapes are from a mix of owned and long-term-contract (5) vineyards.

The figure shows three labels of Barbera sourced from Alba, one blended (Tre Vigne) and two crus (Vigna Scarrone and Vigna Vecchia Scarrone). The Scarrone vineyard is a 20.55 ha surface which lies below the estate and is planted to 81% Nebbiolo, 11% Barbera, 6% Dolcetto, and 2% other reds (Barolo MGA). It is in this vineyard that Mario planted his Barbera in 1906. A 100-year-old vineyard for Barbera is very unusual today.

In addition to the Alba Barberas, Vietti also produces two Asti Barberas, one a cuvee (Tre Vigne) and the other a cru (La Crena). The La Crena vineyard is a 3-ha plot which was planted in 1932 and has a vine density of 4800 plants/ha. According to Elena, this may have been one of the best quality-for-price acquisitions that the estate has made.

The winery is best known, though, for its five Cru Barolos: Rocche di Castiglione, Lazzarito, Brunate, Ravera, and Villero. Elena refers to them as Garnd Crus. The full complement of Barolo crus from which Vietti sources its grapes are shown in the table below.

       Barolo Crus Farmed by Vietti
Cru Township
Brunate Barolo
Bricco Boschis Castiglione Falletto
Rocche di Castiglione
Boiolo La Morra
Lazzarito Serralunga d'Alba

Elena sees the estate, at 300,000 bottles produced annually, as a medium-sized winery. One of her statements during the course of the visit stands in stark contrast to the current situation: "We are always looking for great vineyards. Wineries never sell but you never know with the farmers."

The vineyards are kept separate but are worked in the same way. Decisions are made regarding the wines after aging in wood. The crus are separated out with the rest being tasted blind and blended for Castiglione and Perbacco.

Nebbiolos are vinified in stainless steel tanks with fermentation and maceration of 35 - 40 days while Barberas complete the process in 25 - 30 days. Malolactic fermentation is conducted in stainless steel tanks or barriques. According to Elena, barriques are used as technical instruments; as an evolution, not a revolution.

At the conclusion of the cellar tour, we repaired to the tasting room to sample a few of the Vietti wines. I will report on that tasting in a subsequent post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Book Review: The World of Sicilian Wine

The World of Sicilian Wine (Bill Nesto MW and Frances di Savino, University of California Press(UCP)) is simply the best region-specific wine book I have ever read. It is comprehensive, detailed, informative, well-structured, revealing, and an ode to research well done. In addition, the writing style makes it easy to read and comprehend -- traits not equally shared by all books issuing from UCP.

One of the shortcomings of many regional wine books is that they devote a minor portion of the book to geography, viticulture, and viniculture with the larger portion taken up with descriptions of the area wineries. To me this is a "filler approach" to writing about a wine region. I do not want to sit down and read about 80 wineries in a region. Nesto and di Savino eschew this approach and devotes individual chapters to: (i) Geography of Sicily; (ii) Vine Varieties; (iii) Viticulture in Sicily; and (iv) Enology in Sicily. And the treatment of each of these topics is intense and detailed. Producers are treated within the context of these individual chapters.

Before launching into the technical aspects of grapegrowing and winemaking, the authors provide cultural and vitiviniculture histories of Sicily. The figure below summarizes the political/cultural history of the island and is drawn from the book's first chapter. That chapter could have served as the soundtrack for the recent British Museum Sicily exhibition.

With the political/cultural history established, the book then turns to a comprehensive discussion of the history of wine in Sicily. That discourse is summarized in the figure below.

According to the authors, there is "no simple and logical way to discuss Sicilian wine from a regional perspective" because of (i) the confusion associated with duplicate names (provinces having the same names as the capital cities, for example) and (ii) the power politics which seep into the appellation application process and "frequently misdirect appropriate and sincere intentions." The authors turn to the Tre Valli mechanism -- initially formulated around 1000 AD (but no longer in use today) -- which divides the island into the three major regions indicated in the figure below. According to the authors, the word Valli is derived from the Arabic wali and translates to magistracy.

Sources: map -- Wikipedia; data -- Nesto and di Savino
The authors further divide the Vallis into sub-regions and discuss the individual characteristics of those sub-regions -- to include location characteristics, varieties, viticultural practices and leading practitioners.

But this is more than just a book about the wines of Sicily. Nesto calls on his MW background to provide excellent background on a number of technical issues throughout the book. For example, in describing the soils of Mt Etna, he provides a clear, succinct description of the structure and workings of volcanic soils. His description of the Sicilian climate, and moderating forces, is exhaustive.

It was a pleasure reading this book and I have drawn on it heavily for my ongoing series on Sicilian wines. If you are interested in Sicilian wines, this book is a "must-read." If you want to see what a comprehensively researched, well-written, region-specific wine book looks like, buy this book.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cantina Benanti: A Mt Etna quality-wine marker

I first encountered a Benanti wine when I had a bottle of 2011 Pietra Marina at A16 in San Francisco in June of last year. 

I was blown away by the wine and described it thusly:
After having had a couple of days to think about it, I would describe this wine as "Neanderthal Assyrtiko" -- or "Caveman Assyrtiko" -- due to the brawn and heft accompanying the saline minerality and acidity. It was nutty and saline, with tar, florality, minerality (as much as I dislike that word), walnut, and a green herb. On the palate, lemony-lime, citrus rind, and blackpepper towards the rear. Balanced and consistent through all the tasting zones. Rustic (The combination of the rusticity, minerality, and tar being the neanderthal markers).
My next Benanti encounter took place at last year's Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Plovdiv (Bulgaria) where Antonio Benanti participated in a panel on Mt Etna and led attendees in a tasting of two of the estate's wines. The session was very informative and reinforced my resolve to get to Mt Etna as soon as I could to further explore the wines of the region.

So it was with great anticipation that I set out on the visit that Brandon had arranged to the Benanti estate. Antonio was not going to be there (he was out of the country) but his twin brother Salvino and his dad would both be at the estate. We were also told that Benjamin Spencer, Director of Education for The Etna Wine School, would be visiting the estate around the same time with some clients.  I was excited because I had not seen Benjamin since the DWCC at Rioja two years previous.

The Benanti estate was founded in 1988 by Guiseppe Benanti, a Catania businessman who had conducted an extensive study of the soils of Mt. Etna with an eye to re-invigorating its moribund wine industry. The estate's initial vintage -- 1991 -- yielded 20,000 bottles, a figure that has grown to 130,000 annually (Etna Wine Lab). According to Nesto and di Savino, Salvo Foti, a man who brought with him "... a love of the mountain and a respect for the Etna culture of family production" was Benanti's "pioneering enologist" until 2011.

After the introductions were made, Salvino poured us the 2012 Benanti Pietra Marina. This was a very civilized way to begin a visit. The wine showed petrol, dried herbs, rosemary, thyme, and sawdust on the nose. On the palate it was bright, with lime, saline minerality and some drying characteristics. After that initial taste, Salvino took me for a walk up the hill to the Monte Serra vineyard.

I have previously described the climate and soils of Etna. As the estate sources grapes from all of the major slopes (see figure below), all of the characteristics discussed in the climate and soils posts apply.

Sources: Underlying map -- Wikipedia;
data --
The Monte Serra vineyard is on the southeast slope of the volcano and, according to Salvino, is planted to 6 ha of Nerello Mascalese and some Nerello Cappuccio. This vineyard was purchased in 1970. Some of the Nerello Mascalese vines are pre-phylloxera, ungrafted old vines. They are replaced with grafted vines upon death. The Sierra della Contessa single-vineyard wine is produced from a 1.7 ha plot of these old vines. Benanti recently purchased 2 ha of local orange groves which will be planted to vines in the near future. Two hectares of international varieties are also planted in this vineyard.

At the conclusion of the walk through we rejoined Brandon and began tasting a broader range of the Benanti wines. The first wine tasted was was a 2013 Etna Biancodicaselle. This wine is made fron Carricante grapes sourced from the villages of Caselle and Cavaliere. Lemon rind and minerality were the key characteristics of this wine.

We next tasted a 1995 Pietra Marina. Characteristics included petrol, orange, orange rind, burnt orange and some tropical notes to include sapodilla skin and pulp. A textured wine with orange notes on the palate giving away to to a long, spicy, drying finish.

The Etna Rosso 2014 is, according to Salvino, intended for restaurants by-the-glass programs. The wine is made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capppuccio (20%) grapes and is aged in steel tanks. This wine is meant to be an introduction to Etna at an affordable price. Every importer (according to Salvino) buys this wine.

We also tasted 2011 and 2012 Rovitellos. This is a Nerello Mascalese-Nerello Cappuccio (10%), single-vineyard blend which has been aged for 12 months in barrique and an additional 12 months in bottle. Savory dried-herb note overlaying tobacco, cigar box (more prevalent in the 2011), mahogony, spice and fig. On the palate raisin, fig, dried and green herbs, spiciness, and an oily finish. Raisiny character more prevalent in 2011 but beautiful fruit character on both wines. The fruit masks some of the complexity of the 2011.

The Serra della Contessa is an old-vine, NM-NC (20%) blend from the Monte Serra vineyard. We tasted 2002 and 2012 vintages of this wine. Red fruit and tar along with a spiciness. Elegant and restrained with good acid levels. Sour finish with a hint of spice. The 2012 exhibited dark stewed fruit, spice, cigar box, tobacco leaf, and tar. On the palate big dark fruit, stemminess, and some structure. According to Salvino, they sell 1000 bottles of this wine a month out of the tasting room.

From left to right: Brandon Tokash, EWS Client1, Benjamin
Spencer, EWS Client2, Salvino Benanti, and author
Tasting lineup
As a part of our discussion I asked Salvino for his recommendations as to the best recent Etna vintages. For whites he pointed to 2009, 2006, 2001, and 2013. For reds he liked 2006, 2004, 2002, and 2011.

The wines of this estate are well regarded and the fact that the brothers are two of the most savvy social media practitioners in the wine industry aids in the positive perception of the brand.

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