DREAM ‘SWEETS’: Part 1

First off, thanks for clicking. It never ceases to amaze us that when you say something is a dessert style, people (the same ones that drink Chardonnays with 2% residual sugar and love those sweets when they are poured in their glass) scurry away. It is not a sin to like fruitier wines, nor does it mean you aren’t ‘cool’, in spite of what the populace at large might do to suggest otherwise. Far too many people act like drinking dessert wines is akin to drinking pancake syrup. But in fact the sizzling acidity that supports the great ones make them brighter and more versatile than a lot of wines out there.

Anyway, we are still fans of the genre and appreciate their place in the wine spectrum. Also, in spite of all of the negative attitude out there, we sell a lot of them…often providing we don’t say the ‘S’ word. For the moment we have a couple of gems that deserve a word. First up is the Felsina Vin Santo 2007, a fascinating and complex wine that is the result of an equally fascinating process.

The grapes in Felsina’s case are Trebbiano, Malvasia and Sangiovese that are harvested by hand and put through a rigorous sorting before the grapes are placed on mats until January/February. They are then de-stemmed and pressed, and the must is transferred to sealed, 100-litre oak casks containing the “mother” (a thick substance remaining from previous vintages).

After 7 years in storage, the cask is opened and the wine is bottle-aged for a minimum of 6 months. It’s a little bit ‘life on the edge’ because anything can happen in that closed environment for such a long period of time. When the stars align, it is magic, and this complex peach, dried apricot, carmel and spices elixir is one of those engaging examples.

Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner went off on this one saying, “The 2007 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico (375-milliliters) is a gorgeous wine with so many descriptors that apply to the ever-evolving and complex bouquet. This golden dessert wine offers distinct aromas of dried apricot, honey and saffron. But give it a few moments and earthy or autumnal tones of wild mushroom, forest floor and aged cheese also rise to the top. The effect is almost savory and definitely very sophisticated. The wine glides smoothly over the palate with creamy richness and viscous smoothness. ..94+.”

Simply a stunning way to end an evening and, if you don’t finish it, it will hold up for a few days. (Go to ‘Dream Sweets: Part 2’)

YET ANOTHER KILLER 2016 CHIANTI VALUE: CASTELLO DI VOLPAIA

Castello di Volpaia has been on our radar for a long time.  We have, at one time or another, sold their black label Riserva, and specialty bottlings Coltasala and Balifico.  But we can’t remember a time the ‘regular’ Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico turned in a performance like this.  Hey, this is a good house that has a solid track record and an occasional ‘home run’ (their 2015 Riserva was #3 on Wine Sectator’s Top 100 last year…of course it had been sold out for months).

But an exceptional vintage like 2016 has the power to lift the level of all wines great and small and put this ‘little’ wine into a special place.   The Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico  is usually a pretty good utilitarian choice, but this time around this 2016 is touching another level.  As we have explained a few times, the scores for this wine are typically going to be influenced lower by the fact that there are a number of upper tier selections from the same house for scribes to review.  But the fact that everybody gave this wine a nice ‘number,’ and even nicer comments, speaks volumes.

For our part, we’ll say that the rounder texture, lift, and darker fruit component, as well as the easy-to-swallow price ($17.98), made this a must.  Here are quick hits on the critic’s words,

Antonio Galloni, Vinous Media : “The 2016 Chianti Classico is all class. Fresh, floral and beautifully lifted, the 2016 offers a terrific expression of the estate in its mid-weight personality. All the elements meld together in this effortless, classy wine from the family. The 2016 is quite accessible today, but it also has enough brightness to age nicely for a number of years. What a pretty wine it is… 91 Points”

Monica Larner, robertparker.com: “Showing ripe fruit and rich intensity, the 2016 Chianti Classico (made with 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot) would pair nicely next to pasta with extra cheese grated on top. This wine is bright and fruit-forward with the fresh acidity to cut though the fat in cheese, butter or cream. The tight and focused nature of the wine’s sharp berry flavors would also make a perfect contrast to the natural sweetness in those ingredients. This is always a great food wine, but this vintage is even better poised to match your favorite Italian dishes…90+ points!”

James Suckling: “Aromas of cherries, dried strawberries and red plums. Medium to full body, round and ripe tannins and a nice, fresh finish. Drink now….92 points.”

Decanter Magazine: “…Merlot is included to make it more approachable, but it still has the potential to age. Red berries and earth notes reveal themselves slowly, with perfumed violet nuances showing up on the palate. Firm but refined tannins hold it all together, and the finish lingers with appetizing  minerality…91 points”

Another superb ‘go-to’ from Chianti in 2016…enough said.

IT’S ROSSO TIME: LISINI ROSSO DI MONTALCINO

As you have probably gathered if you have read enough of our rants, 2016 has been a generally very good vintage in Europe and ‘lights out’ in certain regions like Bordeaux and the southern Rhone.  Tuscany is one of those ‘lights out’ areas as our tastings have shown.  We have had spectacular Chiantis and the market is anxiously awaiting the big dogs from Piedmont, Bolgheri, etc.   As an adjunct to the highly anticipated Brunellos coming two years down the road, we have come across the most remarkable crop of Rosso di Montalcinos we can recall from the 2016 vintage, and they are here now.

Yeah, we are fully aware that we are fighting convention.  A lot of consumers don’t take Rossos seriously, like they are some unwanted stepchild or byproduct.  Believe what you want, we’ve had a number of Rossos in 2016 that are better than the Brunellos are most years, and ceretainly more appealing.

It is simply a function of the 2016 vintage.  In Tuscany, the reds have brighter profiles and more flesh, taking them quite literally to another level.  If you tried any of the Collosorbo Rosso 2016 we featured a while back, you already know what we are talking about.  Now our toughest decision is figuring out which ones to put one the floor out of the uncanny number of outstanding examples we have encountered.

Even being as picky as we are being, Lisini is definitely one of the stars.  Lisini is a highly regarded house in the first place, and has been for a long time.   But while the scribes rush to present their opinions on all of the top-line Brunellos, the Rossos are largely ignored.  In 2016 that would be  a mistake.  This wine has all the trappings of a big time Brunello with a rich, layered fruit core, emerging aromatics of confectionary cherry, mineral and anise, and well integrated, ripe tannins.  You literally couldn’t design them any better.

The texture is perhaps the most noticeable difference with the 2016 Rossos vis a vis other vintages of Rosso or even Brunello.  The wines are round and seamless from front to back, with surprisingly tender edges for their relative youth all as a function of this unique year where the wines are at once plush and light on their feet.  There are vineyards designated for Rosso at Lisini, all from the same missal material as the Brunello.  There can also be some declassified Brunello juice in the mix though, in such an exceptional vintage, we doubt much got selected out.

It’s not like the Lisini Rosso di Montalcino 2016 needed more.  It’s pretty loaded, though it will differ from the ‘big dog’ by virtue of its accessibility.  We’ve never tasted Rossos like these.  They are friendlier than the 2010s and fresher than the 2007s, and in our minds perform a couple of notches higher than either.  Given the sourcing and vintage, this is a very classy wine for the modest fare of $24.98.  The only issue is that some of your friends may not be suitably impressed by something that says ‘rosso’ on it, until they taste it that is.

COLLOSORBO ROSSO DI MONTALCINO 2016

There are many ways to approach wine.  You can buy at the top, or you can buy on the cheap.  There’s nothing wrong with either approach depending on one’s expectations.  For us, it is always about finding the best juice for the best price.  That sounds easy enough, but opportunities are not always there.  Pricing is, of course, the principal issue.  But getting the better wines greatly depends on vintages as well.  As we have maintained for years, finding the little wines from serious producers is always a higher percentage play as a rule.  But those elite producers obviously have greater upside potential on all of their wines when Nature cooperates.

Again, as we may have mentioned, there are few vintages in Tuscany that compare to 2016.  Chiantis?  A number of ‘best ever’ performances from a variety of producers.  Brunello? Folks will be anxiously awaiting the 2016s, but they are two years away.  We’ve have seen a number of thrilling ‘little’ wines from the ‘big boys’ in Bolgheri.    But poor little Rosso di Montacino, essentially declassified Brunello in many cases, is still pretty much under the radar.

In short, Nature smiled on Sangiovese in 2016 and we have come across some crazy good Rossos that perform well above their station.  Admittedly prices for Rossos can be all over the board. But given the vintage, one should take a good, hard look at the category.  The Collosorbo Rosso di Montalcino 2016 is one of those exciting finds by virtue of both price and performance.

While every Brunello producer’s Rosso story is a little different, this one doesn’t have a lot of twists and turns.  This wine comes from the same vineyards as the Brunello and is hand harvested into small baskets, pressed softly into temperature controlled stainless steel before a sojourn in Slavonian and French barrels for about a year.   That’s the way they do it all the time, but the results in 2016 reached new heights based on our experience with Collosorbo and we have had some pretty good runs with this bottling in the past (the 2010 comes to mind).

What’s the secret? No secret. Consistent producer, excellent harvest, not rocket science.  This is about fruit…pure, generous, rather ample Sangiovese fruit that wears its terroir for all to see yet can be appreciated simply for its outgoing, well-stuffed, rather gushing demeanor.  It plays dark cherry, some earth and anise in the mix, shows surprising size for a ‘simple’ Rosso and the flashes the kind of polish to suggest higher aspirations in this wine.  The Collosorbo Rosso 2016 played as nicely with a steak as with a plate of pasta because of its gregarious fruit core and bright flavors.  It was engaging from the first sip.

It got some pretty serious ink for a ‘little’ wine as well.  Monica Larner of Wine Advocate comments, “The 2016 Rosso di Montalcino opens to a bright ruby color with purple highlights. The wine is youthful and bright in personality with a full load of plump cherry and ripe blackberry. You also get hints of spice, crushed mineral and balsam herb to round off the bouquet. The mouth feel is rich, generous and nicely structured. This is an excellent value buy…90 points.”

James Suckling kicked it up a notch, “Offers more concentration on the nose with mostly notes of blackberry pie, plum cake and even some Christmas pudding. On the palate, the fruit is melded beautifully with chewy yet tight tannins and taut acidity. Great stuff for what it is. Drink now… 93 Points.”

This ‘best ever’ effort exceeds previous efforts for this series from a review perspective, but shares an important number with the 2010…the price.  Thanks to a variety of factors that worked in concert here, $19.98 will buy you a pretty spectacular bottle of Rosso that doesn’t play like your ordinary ‘second wine’.

An exceptional ‘go-to’ while it lasts.

‘Modern’ (Easy Dinking) Chianti

Chianti as a category can be a bit daunting.  You’ve got commercial stuff in straw fiascos in the red checkered cloth Italian restaurants, the $100+ single vineyard bottlings from Castello di Ama, and a rainbow of stuff in between.  It’s all called Chianti even though some have nothing in common.  To further complicate matters, you have a variety of terroirs like Chianti Classico, Rufina, and Greve that make their own unique contribution to the finished wine.  Finally, you have individual styles of the wineries themselves.

While most of the producer names that come to mind fall into more or less in what would be the ‘traditional’ camp, today we thought we’d touch on a couple that were more ‘new school’ at least in how they come across.  While the whole discussion of ‘camps’ doesn’t really come up a lot relative to Chianti, we felt the need to share a couple of wines that have a plumper, sweeter core of fruit that gives a more fruit-driven, ‘modern’ element to their profiles.

The first was a staple at the Orange store for years, though this is the first time this ‘regular’ bottling of the Fattoria Basciano Chianti Rufina 2015 has appeared here.  We hadn’t seen the wine in a while.  The fact that this came from the juicy 2015 vintage made a perfect platform for Basciano’s gregarious stylistic bent.  Key words that seem to come up consistently when we talk about Basciano are ‘lip smacking’ and ‘juicy’.  Father Renzo and son Paolo Masi run something of a negociant enterprise with the idea of consistently getting high quality fruit to create enviable quality at attractive prices.  This they have done quite well for a long time.

The 2015 has the bright, slippery, ripe black and blue fruit core that should appeal to anyone.  The wine is packed with tender fruit, has plenty of energy, and is far too easy to haul off and drink for something from Rufina.  At this point we don’t see a lot of the minerally terroir that appears in a supporting role in most efforts from this part of Chianti.  This wine is the proverbial, succulent ‘fastball down the middle’.

Wine Spectator’s descriptors work efficiently here, “Pure aromas and flavors of cherry, blackberry and floral gain depth from earth and leafy tobacco accents. Firms up on the finish, with a pleasant astringency.”  One doesn’t write paragraphs on this one.  One drinks it with relish.  The Basciano simply wants to be liked and it succeeds admirably on that score.  Don’t let the $12 price scare you either.  This delivers plenty of character and value as well.

The Gagliole Chianti Classico Rubiolo 2016 plays to the same crowd, but for different reasons.  We have had a few presentations of this Gagliole bottling in past vintages, but this is the first one to ‘make the cut’.  We are probably not going out on too much of a limb to suggest the 2016 vintage may have had something to do with that, ome article suggesting later harvesting during this cooler vintage probably did a lot to elevate and enrich this wine’s fruit core.

It is that outgoing fruit that makes the Rubiolo appealing to a larger audience.  Not sure if ‘fruit driven’ and ‘modern’ was the intent here but that is what this delivers.  The Rubiolo is 95% Sangiovese, clearly a big beneficiary in the 2016 vintage as a varietal, but also contains five percent Merlot to give the edges a bit of polish.

While this is our first dance with the Rubiolo that we can recall, there seems to be a ready audience with a 91 from Wine Advocate with comments, “This wine is an absolute steal…” James Suckling tossed a 92 on it and it got two glasses from Gambero Rosso to boot.  Plump, seamless, focused on a joyous core of plumy fruit, it is easy to like, and won’t break the bank at $14.98.

Tenuta di Trinoro Toscana IGT Le Cupole 2015

That bizarre red and yellow label with the picture of a swan on it that kind of looks like it was botched at the printer has been a fixture around here for some time.  That’s because we are big fans of the pioneering work of Andrea Franchetti in this part of southwestern Tuscany.  His Tenuta di Trinoro wines have a serious following but it is with the Tenuta di Trinoro Toscana IGT Le Cupole 2015 that we get the most excited.  Here is a meticulously produced blend of Bordeaux varietals that has the seamless nature, polish, and fruit driven style of his icon bottlings but is a fraction of the price.  It is a true ‘second wine’ as it faultlessly emulates the harmonious style of the house and is a great window into the workings of this unique estate.  The ripe 2015 vintage didn’t hurt either.

Our ‘little wines from great producers’ mantra is in full array here and we think this 2015 is one of the juiciest in the series.  From Advocate’s Monica Larner, “…(it) is far more sophisticated and richly textured compared to the great majority of wines from the surrounding hillsides of Tuscany. Black cherry, sweet spice and tarry earth converge on the bouquet. The mouthfeel is slightly sweet and rich in texture…92 points.”   With 2018 showcasing such an amazing volume of great efforts from Italy in general and Tuscany in particular, a lot of really exciting stuff like this is still ‘on deck’ as far as email offers and may never get its time in the spotlight.  But this is a versatile and appealing red not to be missed.

‘NATURALLY’ TASTY: QUERCIA GROSSA BATTIFOLLE TOSCANA 2014

You’d think after doing this as long as we have, we’d have the sense to be a little more selective of the topics we choose.  Sadly, or perhaps not, we are in it for the experience and to highlight wines that deserve attention from folks who love wine, famous or not.  It sometimes takes you in directions you aren’t necessarily expecting to go.  Quercia Grossa is one of those times, but the wine definitely made it worth the ‘trip’.

Located in the southern part of the Maremma, the warmer part of Tuscany, this wine has the distinction of being from a ‘genre’ that is no longer recognized as en vogue (super-Tuscan), made in a ‘natural’ style (definitely something that sends up reds flags to us because of how many sloppy wines hit the market under that banner), and from one of the most difficult vintages in the region in this century.  It would be very easy, simply based on the data, to just look past this one.  But the wine was simply too compelling and had an engaging, rather unique personality.

It starts with the farming.  In their words, “In the course of this venture, we recovered a number of old vineyards scattered around Roccatederighi in various small plots on the undertaking that they would be treated like a garden, in tune with the rhythms of nature.  Production is not forced in the vineyard, and, as far as possible, we use manual working methods in order to avoid using products that may be harmful to the plants and environment.  Respect for nature and the environment requires the absence of insecticides, botritycides, weed-killers and chemical fertilizers. Treatment in the vineyards is kept to the minimum.”

As to the harvest itself, “Grapes are hand-picked into small crates, so that they can be examined and sorted if necessary during the harvesting process. The grape harvest is a magical moment in which a symbiotic bond forms between man and the grapevines that have been trained and shaped by generations of loving hands. After the grape clusters have been picked and laid carefully in small crates, they are taken to the winery: an intimate, magical place. Here they undergo a delicate vinification process; the grapes give off an intense aroma and start to macerate in small concrete vats for a period of up to forty days. Fermentation takes place naturally with the aid of the indigenous ‘wild’ yeasts present in the grapes.”

“Achieving and preserving a harmonious balance between man, the grapevines and the surrounding countryside in keeping with the concept that “wine is made in the vineyard” is the key to creating a wine with personality: a wine produced by a local winemaker who treats the grape cluster with the utmost respect, applying a philosophy based on simplicity.”

If you have read enough wine writings, you have heard all of this kind of thing before.  The difference here is that, unlike all of the ‘natural’ folks out there that seem to use the process as an excuse for marginal winemaking, the folks at Quercia Grossa made a little magic when the odds were against them.  Of course, having former Cristom Pinot-master Tim Manning consulting and informing the wines with an extra level of elegance doesn’t hurt.

We aren’t trying to qualify the achievement either.  This tender, fruit centered, surprisingly ample wine is just plain tasty, with a uniquely appealing texture, plum, cassis and black cherry fruit with notes of earth and minerality, and gentle, unfettered tannins.  The Quercia Grossa Battifolle Toscana 2014, still presented under the indeterminate banner of IGT, is a blend of 40% Sangiovese, 40% Merlot , and  20% Cabernet Sauvignon , after which it is placed into 225 liter second and third use barrels with minimal sulphite addition.

For the guy who imported this wine, this is a labor of passion.  But this genteel, tasty red deserves an audience which is why we bought it.

“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

TENUTA TRINORO: ‘The Best or Nothing’

As many of you will recall, one of our mantras is to always be aware of the ‘little’ wines from elite producers.

The idea is that the best winemakers are considered the best because they continuously succeed.  That success is largely due to their attention to detail and commitment to excellence.  Such producers don’t even have the capacity to ‘coast’ or ‘phone it in’.  It’s not in their DNA.  Their expectations as to what is acceptable are simply on another plane.  Imagine Thomas Keller or Joel Robuchon cooking your breakfast eggs.  Sure, they’re just eggs, but those guys have standards for eggs, and they will be cooked and seasoned perfectly.  It’s like that.

We know a lot of such meticulous folks in the wine industry and these are the folks that make the great wines.  We know of no one that is more passionate or more of a quality fanatic than Andrea Franchetti.  He is also not afraid to go where few have gone before.  Tenuta di Trinoro’s location in southeast Tuscany is a far cry from the traditional wine road (heck it’s almost Umbria).  But Andrea liked the soil composition for the Bordeaux varietals he was intent on growing so in the vines went.

He ‘runs with the big dogs’ counting as close friends Jean-Luc Thunevin of Valandraud in St. Emilion and Peter Sisseck of Pingus in the Ribera del Duero.  Imagine what ‘show and tell’ is in that crowd.  Though Franchetti operates on the same level both here in Tuscany as well as at his Etna property, Passopisciaro, he is probably less ‘famous’ than he should be because of this off-the-beaten-path location.

Now, no matter how good you are, you still have to deal with Mother Nature, and the 2014 vintage was a formidable foe for even some of Tuscany’s top addresses.  But Franchetti was not going to allow Nature to beat him.  Andrea hired more people to work the vineyards and drop one-third of the crop.  Because of the extra vineyard work and the overall health of the vineyard, the grapes ripened slowly if a little unevenly.  No problem, there were 36 separate pickings from 29 September until 28 October for this wine, making sure all the blocks were at their best when harvested.  You can expect that kind of commitment from an estate charging $80, $100, or more for all of their wines.  But to push this hard for something selling for under $30?  For Tenuta di Trinoro there is no other way.

The Tenuta di Trinoro Rosso Toscana IGT Le Cupole 2014 is a sensational success.  This Bordeaux-inspired blend of mostly equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot with a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon got glowing reviews from Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson, with a 93-point score and comments, “Alluring scents of ripe cherry, mulberry and fresh herbs complement concentrated flavors of cherry and sweet spice in this red. Offers a backbone of mouthcoating tannins and remains integrated as the finish lingers.”

It also placed #29 in the Wine Spectator Top 100 2016. That’s a pretty big deal, especially for the price.

Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner was no less impressed, offering Andrea Franchetti is a perfectionist when it comes to fruit selection. This Bordeaux-inspired Tuscan blend opens to dark concentration and a full bouquet that is redolent of dark fruit, spice and tobacco. The aromas are delivered in seamless fashion and with noteworthy intensity. Those are the qualities that ultimately distinguish this wine among the many choices you have from Tuscany today. One thing Tenuta di Trinoro always delivers is distinct personality…”.

This is an exciting example of one man’s plain sheer will, and that’s the kind of story one can tell about Andrea Franchetti and those like him.  That’s why we tell people to look at everything producers like Andrea craft.  Delicious wine for the money?  Distinctive and character-filled?  Yes, and yes.

By the way, we have a smidgen remaining of some of Trinoro’s ‘partners’ from the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including last call on the Maurodos San Roman Toro and Felsina Chianti Classico 2013.