MONTEPARONI: CHIANTI FOR MATURE AUDIENCES

As we see it, our job is to find the good stuff.  Period.  If there is widespread success, and lots of good stuff, so be it.  If there is a concentration of standouts in one region as opposed to others, that’s OK, too. Tuscany has had their share of good fortune of late, though 2017 was a bit more difficult from a farming perspective, though mostly from an economic standpoint (early weather quirks curtailed a lot of cropload). We aren’t going to tell you the vintage was like 2016. There haven’t been many at that level. But there certainly was a good enough vintage canvas for talented artists and this small estate is one of the under the radar stars.

This will be our third straight vintage with Monteraponi. Yes, for some folks, Chianti comes in those little, woven fiasco bottles.  But this is on a completely different plane. Value is a relative thing and means delivering for the fare. This estate makes one of the more serious Chiantis you’ll taste, though it isn’t all gussied up with wood.  It can go toe-to-toe with Gran Seleziones, a new, and still rather nebulous ‘reserve plus’ designation.

Monteraponi is in Radda and the vineyards are at high altitude (from 1300-1500 feet above sea level).   The wines are carefully made in a very natural way, which is to say no added yeast, nutrients, or malolactic bacteria are used, fermentation takes place in cement tanks, followed by long macerations (even the Chianti Classico is kept on the skins for at least 25 days), the wines are aged in large neutral oak only, and they are not fined or filtered.

Plenty of complex, terroir-driven fruit, this ‘regular’ bottling somehow has more gravitas than most Chiantis we encounter, price notwithstanding.
The deep core of dark red fruit comes to the fore, with accents of earth, menthol, pepper, cedar, sandalwood, and violets.  But it also has another gear that carries more through the back of the palate and length to the flavors. It gets pretty consistent accolades from the press (93 for both the 2015 and 2016 from Vinous for example) and we expect the same here. It has plenty of fruit and, if you had the 2016, this one will be a little higher toned and lighter on its feet by virtue of the vintage. Delicious and very soulful, a little air time will allow it strut its stuff.

Monteraponi is in Radda and the vineyards are at high altitude (from 1300-1500 feet above sea level).   and the wines are carefully made in a very natural way, which is to say no added yeast, nutrients, or malolactic bacteria are used, fermentation takes place in cement tanks, followed by long macerations (even the Chianti Classico is kept on the skins for at least 25 days), the wines are aged in large oak only, and they are not fined or filtered.  

The Best Charbono in Years

Unless you have had a somewhat unusual wine experience, we are pretty confident that this will be the best Charbono you have had in years.  We can say that because it is very likely the only example of this varietal you are likely to have experienced over the last few years.  There is precious little even being produced any more.

Charbono has a shadowed past. To this day there is no agreed upon origin of the grape. Some suggest it comes from the northwestern part of Italy under the name Bonarda Piemontese.  Others claim it comes from the southwestern part of France and exists under the handle Corbeau or Douce Noir.  The only things that can be stated with any certainty is that the Charbono grape thrives in a harsh mountain terrain, and that it made it across the ocean as the Italians that settled California early on planted multiple-varietal field blends to assure, through diversity, there would always be some sort of crop to harvest.

For a lot of you, there is no point of reference for a wine like this.  In truth, we don’t need more than our fingers to count all of the California versions of Charbono we have had over the years.  The thing is that, among the limited experiences we have had with California versions of this varietal, there have been a disproportionate number of intriguing efforts.  So on the rare occasion we are presented with a Charbono, we pay attention.

This story is particularly interesting.  We initially were a little skeptical of the ‘program’ at Inizi, a small side project for some wine professionals who have ‘day jobs’ at other wineries.  That in itself is not a big deal.  But the fact that they were focusing on eclectic Italian varietals like Sagrantino and Tocai Friulano, and blends of things like Dolcetto and Montepulciano, gave us some concern that they were a little bit out on the fringe from a marketability standpoint.  The Inizi Charbono 2014, however, showed us some of the best traits of this somewhat hard to pinpoint grape.

The profile is engaging red and mainly black fruit, a touch of woodsiness and lots of spice, ample enough but with plenty of freshness and lift.  There’s some tobacco and vanilla in there, too. It is a delightful example of what Charbono can be. It is a unique situation.  The grapes come from the Heitz Brothers vineyard near Calistoga, a 1.5 acre plot with 40-year-old, head-trained, dry-farmed vines.

A long, dry vintage delivered great optimally ripe fruit that was 30% whole berry fermented.  About 25% saw once used barrels, the rest neutral wood, for 10 months.  Plenty to like here, Charbono is one of those grapes that has elements that remind you of other varietals, but ultimately has its own unique character.

2016 ITALIAN WHITES: MAKING A POINT (plus three more winners)

The more we taste examples from the 2016 vintage in northern Italy, both red and white, the more wonder we experience.  Wine after wine shows a clarity of purpose, purity of fruit, and uniquely expressive nature unlike anything we can recall in recent times.  Are these wines really that good?  The more we experience, the more inclined we are to say ‘yes, they are!’

It wasn’t that long ago we were pretty gaga over the 2010 whites from this part of the world.  The fruit had substance and power, there was plenty of zip and verve and, in short, they were everything that you could expect n Italian white to be.  We remember the 2010s fondly, and were using them as the ‘benchmark’ for  everything that was special about Italian whites.  The 2016s are all of that and more, with everything that the 2010s had plus an undefinable ‘presence’ and harmony that sets the 2016s on another level.  That being said here are three more outstanding examples to make our point:

Filippo Gallino Arneis 2016The story here isn’t extensive, just a committed producer that consistently makes very good wine and doesn’t charge a lot for it.  With a ‘naked’ grape like Arneis you can’t really tweak it in the cellar with wood and have to be very careful with extended lees contact as both can negatively affect the desired freshness of the wine’s profile, you get what Nature gives you.  Wines like this really are made in the vineyard and those that farm meticulously are the successful ones.

Sure there are slightly more exotic aromatics with some of the big dogs labels that cost a lot more.  But this one presents all of the fresh floral nuances and apple-skin aromatics and the lively fruit driven palate that are the essence of this genre.  The 2016 simply has more energy and fruit weight than past versions, which makes this one a killer deal.

Inama Soave Classico 2016– As we have remarked, even the little wines are noticeably better in 2016.  Somehow they have a little more punch, a little more lift, and a surprising degree of harmony that forces you to take notice.  Inama is a staple around here, and we buy it almost every year.  But there’s just ‘more’ to this wine than any that we have tasted in recent memory.

There’s no big story here.  This is just Garganega, the classic grape of Soave, done in 100% stainless steel.  Sure it sounds simple enough.  But again this is a ‘naked’ wine which they can’t really mess with in the cellar of everything doesn’t go right, so there is a bit more to it.  All of the words matter.  To carry the name ‘classico’ the grapes must come from the hillside vineyards around the municipalities of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone in the original and oldest classic “zone” of Verona established back in 1927.

Forget those over-produced, insipid Soaves that flooded the market 20-30 years ago.  This is nothing like those.  Advocate’s Monica Larner’s words are precise enough, “This entry-level Soave Classico delivers the elegant mineral definition and fruit sensation you should expect of the best Garganega grapes. The 2016 Soave Classico Vin Soave benefits from very favorable growing conditions in a classic vintage. The bouquet is refined and polished with stone fruit, citrus, dried sage and saffron.”  Driving and quite engaging for the fare.

Keber Collio Bianco 2016No place does this kind of thing like the northeast  of Italy.  Riveting, purposeful blends of a mixture of white varietals make for some uniquely compelling whites with lifted fruit, plenty of sizzle, but also unexpected palate presence.  In that realm, Keber has always been one of the stars.  Their Collio Bianco can stand with the best in the region, but is much more attractively priced.

Maybe it was just a good day, but the 2016 Keber Collio is the best version of this wine we can remember tasting, everything the past efforts have been but with seemingly another gear.  The blend is 70% Friulano , 15% Malvasia Istriana, and 15% Ribolla Gialla.  The concept is Friulano for structure, Malvasia Istriana for its aromatic qualities, and Ribolla Gialla for
acidity. These varietals do very well in the so-named “Ponka” soil, composed of marl and sandstone, that naturally stresses the vines.  The grapes are whole cluster, soft-pressed to minimize oxidation during crushing. The juice is fermented and matured on the yeasts for 6 months in
cement vats. Twenty per-cent of the Friulano is aged in older, large barrels.

This wine, from a 10-acre estate near the Slovenian border, always has remarkable weight, body and a distinctive, super-minerally aspect typical of the region.  The estate produces just this wine but it is a constant winner.  This time around, it’s just a notch or two better, which is pretty sensational.

 

VIE DI ROMANS: FRIULI SUPERSTAR

Because of what we do, it is not unusual for us to be asked what our favorite wines are.  There are a couple of recurring scenarios that occur as we try and answer the question honestly and not sound like we’re too above it all.  If you have only tasted two wines in your life, the answer to the question is quite simple.  But when you have tasted literally hundreds of thousands, it’s hard to narrow favorites down even to a couple hundred wines, let alone one or two.

The categories that get our attention can be pretty esoteric as well.  For example one of our favorite places for white wines is northeastern Italy.  Here in the hills that elevate into the Alps there are high valleys with crystal clean air, bright sunshine and cool nights that create wines like nowhere else in the world.  Pure, insistent, remarkably expressive and lively on the palate, perfect foils to a wide variety of foods, the wines from this part of the world have a special character and vigor.

People ask us to name some of our favorites from the region and then have puzzled looks on their faces when we point to wines like Val Isarco, Abbazia di Novacella, Schiopetto, and Cantina Terlano.  None of them are exactly household words even among a lot of serious wine cognoscenti.    One of our absolute favorites is the subject of today’s offer, a brilliant white wine house in Friuli called Vie di Romans.

We identified these folks as one of the best-of-the-best in the region a very long time ago, and have always jumped at the chance to taste their newest wares.  Unfortunately, such chances have come far less often than we would have liked.  For one, the wines have not had consistent distribution over the years.  Most suppliers don’t have a lot of patience to try and develop higher priced Italian whites.   Also, because the wines cost quite a bit more than your run-of-the-mill Friulanos, Pinot Grigios, and Sauvignons, suppliers are more reluctant to show them.  The perfectly valid opinion is that most restaurant/retail buyers would find them too pricey to work into standard scenarios.

We’d have to admit ourselves that we have shied away from some pretty stupendous efforts from Vie di Romans simply because we presumed people would be hesitant to spend the additional coin even though these soar above the crowd.   People figure they can get ‘good’ Pinot Grigio for $15-16 while Vie di Romans version is closer to $30.  Yet there is no comparison.  The VdR is richer, more driving and more complex, simply a wine unto itself with dazzling acidity and palate length that bears little resemblance to most of the vapid Pinot Grigios on the marketplace.

We know such wines are not the  easiest sell. Sometimes, even against our better ‘marketing’ judgment, we buy them anyway.   The very best simply cost more, and these wines deserve the spotlight.  So it was with this riveting Sauvignon Blanc duet from Vie di Romans… driving fruit, insistent palate length and mouth- watering acidity.

The single-vineyard Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Piere Friuli Isonzo 2015 simply smells and tastes like something from another strata.  There’s power, finesse, and complex flavors of grapefruit, stones, and apple, along with the classically Italian note of tomato leaves.  Oak would damage the wine’s purity, so ‘Piere’ is done entirely in stainless steel with an eight month sojourn on the lies and  no malo-lactic.  The result is a sleek, vividly flavored effort that can play with Sauvignon s costing a lot more.  James Suckling’s take, “Plenty of sliced apple, grass and fennel seed character. Medium body, tangy acidity and a smoky, slate aftertaste. Always excellent. Drink now… 93 Points!”  You can drink it now, but this meticulously crafted Sauvignon can age as well.

The Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Vieris Friuli Isonzo 2015 kicks it up a notch.  It has everything that the Piere has, but more, and with a little different twist to the flavor profile!  More palate authority, intensity, and high-toned fruit, plus this one reaches a little into the realm of exotic fruit tones.  The main difference between the two is that Piere consists of a higher percentage of Italian clones, whereas the Vieris favors French clones.  The vines are a little older here, and Vieris spends nine months on the lies.  Again, what a wine…surprising punch yet with an uncommon refinement.  Suckling went a little cheerleader on this one, “This is really exotic with peaches, mangoes and grapefruits as well as a steely undertone. Full body, plenty of fruit and a powerful finish. One of the great whites of Italy. Drink now… 96 Points!”

One of the great whites of Italy?  Indeed, they both are.  Considering they are legitimate best-of-breed, the prices actually don’t seem out of line.  You get what you pay for, and these are the works of masters.  Treat yourself.

“Too sexy” Guidalberto 2015

On any given day.  That’s typically a sports related saying about how a game can have a decidedly different outcome from one day to the next.  The saying does have applications to wine, too, however.  In this era of the critic, a wine’s evaluation can have a lasting effect on the particular wine’s following.  We have made the point many times that critics are people, too.  They have good days and bad days, happy days and angry days.  Wines go through a constant evolution as well and last week’s so-so can be next week’s knockout.  Given people, wines, biodynamic calendars, barometric pressure, bottle variation, relativity, etc., etc., the whole process is pretty fluid.  Yet the score lives indefinitely.

That is our only explanation for this wine, the sexiest version of Sassicaisa’s Guidalberto we can recall, getting only 91 points.  The Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto Toscana 2015 is a fruit bomb with layered flavors of dark red fruits tinged with leather, anise, earth and spice.  It is big, broad and generous in thee mouth with an almost sappy palate feel and more richness on the palate than any Guidalberto we can recall.  Lush, layered, downright hedonistic for a Cabernet-based Italian red (it’s 60 % Cabernet Sauvignon and 40 % Merlot), this one impressed us right out of the gate.

Even more curious is that this one only garnered a couple of points better than the rather uninspiring 2014 (a difficult vintage in all fairness).  The words are encouraging enough from Wine Advocate, “The 2015 Guidalberto opens to a darkly saturated garnet hue. It shows similar concentration and power in terms of its aromatic delivery. Aromas are shapely and round with dark fruit nuances followed by leather, spice and dark tar…You feel the lush softness of the second grape as the wine glides smoothly over the palate. It takes on more weight in the glass.”  The conclusion? A little baffling.

Maybe this wine is too sexy for Bolgheri, but we certainly don’t see that as a flaw.  This is a pretty flashy, rather accessible, very delicious effort.  Sometimes we don’t agree with the critics.  This is one of those times.  We like this a lot.

There was another point in the Advocate article, “The 2015 vintage promises good things in Tuscany and this wine offers an informal sneak peek at what we can expect from the celebrated Tenuta San Guido vineyards in Bolgheri.”  No argument there, but this offers more than just a ‘sneak peek’….$39.98

HIGH VALLEY WHITES-PART ONE

Not a lot of 2016 whites have come across our paths yet, but it’s easy to be optimistic given what we have seen so far.  More specifically, those versatile whites from northeastern Italy are most promising.  One of the real go-tos around here over the last few years have been from Abbazia Di Novacella.  They are both high quality and won’t break the bank.  We have an admitted fondness for Kerner around here and the Abbazia Di Novacella Valle Isarco Kerner 2016 is a beauty.  Tender and pliant in the mid-palate with just the right touch of acidity, the delicate florality, faintly pear and pineapple fruit and refined palate are hard to resist and this one is food friendly with anything from a pasta primavera to a lighter handed fish dish to Vietnamese spring rolls.

Pinot Grigio had sadly become almost a cliché, and that’s unfortunate because the Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio 2016 is an excellent example of what this varietal can be.  It has plenty of pear and apricot fruit, some richness and weight on the palate and the requisite brightness to the flavors.  This Pinot Grigio can play to a more sophisticated audience yet has the quaffability factor to please the casual cocktail crowd.