Italy Featured: Top Tuscan Wines And the Best of the 2013 Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri Awards
Attenzione lovers of Italian wine! I know you’re out there in large numbers, and this special report is for you. It’s focused on wines from Alto-Adige to Sicily, and specifically on highlights of the recent Gambero Rosso tre bicchieri tasting, as well as a comprehensive look at Tuscany with reviews of the latest releases from Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano covering 2007-2011.
Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri 2013
Gambero Rosso’s highly anticipated “Tre Bicchieri” (“three glasses”) tour landed in Toronto for the first time on June 5th. The event highlighted over 130 wines, including nearly 120 awarded the tre bicchieri, the highest rating given for wines in the Vini d’Italia guide, now celebrating its 27th edition. In 2013, The Vini d’Italia Guide assigned 399 tre bicchieri out of a total of 40,000 wines tasted from over 2,350 producers. Piedmont led the way with 75 tre bicchieri awards, followed by Tuscany with 68 and Veneto with 36. From my little corner of the Liberty Grand ballroom where I looked like the most antisocial guest in attendance, and from a handful of other agent-organized tastings pre and post the main the event, I managed to taste and review nearly 40 wines – not comprehensive admittedly, but these wines demanded attention and time to unravel. I discovered several new gems in any case, and reconfirmed affection for long time favorites.
One interesting observation is how the style of the three glass winners appears to have changed in recent years. There has of course been no stated policy change in the criteria for winning wines; the evaluations “are above all humanistic, cultural and hedonistic rather than scientific”. But it seems that hedonism has taken on a new meaning. Whereas in earlier editions of the guide it was often the most impactful, full-bodied, rich, extracted, heavily oak influenced wines that came away with a three glass rating, in 2013 there were decidedly many more leaner, more savoury, fresher, less-wooded wines that came out on top.
I discussed this with several winemakers and we share the feeling that the shift is for the better. Sergio Germano of Az. Agr. Ettore Germano in Piedmont was pleased that his 2010 Riesling Hérzu won three glasses, while his flagship, and more expensive Barolo Cerreta earned two red glasses. Stefano Bariani from San Patrignano in Emilia-Romagna was also not displeased that the estate’s mid-range “Ora” Sangiovese di Romagna garnered the highest accolade, instead of the top of the range “Avi” Sangiovese. “Next year my goal is to win three glasses for San Patrignano’s Aulente Rosso” he laughed, the winery’s entry-level, unoaked bottling. There’s evidently a cultural shift underway in Italy, returning towards more drinkable, less “important” wines, and it’s great to see a guide with the clout of Gambero Rosso driving the change, or at least recognizing that consumer preferences have shifted.
All of my reviews from the tastings, including several absolutely cracking nebbiolos from Piedmont, Burgundy-like Brunello, and many more familiar and little known gems are posted on WineAlign. Availability varies (LCBO, Consignment, Private order), but all are available from one channel or another. (You can find them by entering “Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri Event” in the search panel, top right.)
For the last twenty years in late February, consortiums from each of the big three DOCGs of Tuscany – Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino – have coordinated a series of comprehensive tastings to introduce the latest vintages to the professional wine world. These have become significant events on the yearly calendar; this year over 200 journalists from 30 countries attended the Chianti Classico Collection preview in the Leopolda Train Station in Florence, and they came in even greater numbers to Benvenuto Brunello in a wet and uncharacteristically cold and snowy Montalcino. Read on for a brief report on each region along with specific recommendations.
Degustazione alla Toscana
Unlike the primeur tastings held in Bordeaux, which feature unfinished wines drawn from barrels, the vast majority of the wines presented for the Anteprime Toscane (“Tuscan Previews”) are finished and bottled, if not yet commercially released. This makes the tastings far more useful and representative of what consumers can expect to actually purchase down the line. And there is often more than one wine on hand from a single estate, considering special designations such as riserva, legally matured for longer before release than non-riserva wines, as well as special single vineyard cuvees. Add in IGTs, and other appellations like Rosso di Montalcino, Sant’ Antimo and Moscadello di Montalcino, and the list of wines available for tasting is very long indeed.
Over the four days that I attended these events – a day each in Chianti Classico and Montepulciano and two days in Montalcino – I tasted several hundred wines. Yet even still I was unable to cover everything. I wrote full reviews on some 200+, and further whittled the list down to just over 85 recommended wines from across the three regions. Many of the estates will be familiar to Canadian drinkers (at least those who drink Italian wines), so you can expect to find them available in restaurants, consignment/private import portfolios and provincial liquor board shelves in the coming year.
The format for the tastings is quite unique. Attendees are provided a catalogue of all available wines, referenced by number. Each then selects the wines they wish to taste, jotting down the numbers for one of the army of sommeliers on hand in the traditional Associazione Italiana Sommeliers attire, complete with silver tastevins hanging around the neck on a thick heavy chain. The wines are quickly brought (stunningly quickly in fact, considering the number of samples available), and poured for you at your table. All the necessities of modern tasting – WiFi, electrical outlets, bottled water – are provided. You can taste at your own pace, and cover all, or only some of the wines offered. And if you’re still in the mood for more, many of the producers are on hand in a separate room pouring yet more preview wines.
I’ve included some brief notes on each region, the conditions of the vintage previewed, and the odd observation or two on the evolution of wine styles. Following that is the list of recommended wines, broken down into categories.
Chianti Classico: A new Designation
In the news, the Chianti Classico Consortium announced some modifications to the DOCG regulations during the preview. In addition to the existing “Annata” and the “Riserva” designations, a new level of Chianti Classico, called Gran Selezione, is reserved for wines “produced exclusively and entirely by a single producer, allowing no percentage whatsoever of grapes (or wines) bought from other producers”. Gran Selezione, which takes effect from the 2010 vintage, can be released on the market 30 months after the harvest, of which a minimum of three months must be in bottle. The Riserva minimum ageing requirements remain 24 months, and 12 months for the Annata.
The announcement of the category has been met with mixed reviews. Paolo De Marchi of Isola e Olena told Decanter.com that “People are already confused between Chianti and Chianti Classico. I don’t really see the need for a new category unless it relates directly to wines of origin.” But Sergio Zingarelli, president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, contends that: ‘Gran Selezione will not create any confusion. Rather, our aim – which we are certain we’ll achieve with this new type of Chianti Classico – is to give better order to our denomination and further valorise our territory’s excellent wines.’
Vittorio Fiore of Poggio Scalette believes that ‘The new denomination should be based on the differences of the region, not on shortcuts that are an end in themselves,’ while David Berry Green, Italian wine buyer for Berry Brothers & Rudd in the UK, ridiculed Gran Selezione as ‘bureaucratic tinkering’ and ‘more of a whimper’. We shall see.
Additionally, in a minor modification to the regulations for the Riserva designation, producers are now required to declare the intended classification of a wine (annata or riserva) at the beginning of the certification process, with the goal of encouraging “producers to plan more effectively which grapes they intend to use for each level wine, from the beginning of the harvest.” Previously, the riserva designation could be applied for any wines that had spent the required two years in the cellar before release, regardless of whether the quality merited such long aging or not. This should in theory tighten up quality, forcing producers to separate out the best, most ageworthy parcels from the start, and remove the temptation to retroactively apply for riserva for wines that had simply been sitting around in the cellar long enough. And considering that riserva wines currently represent 30% of the total production and 40% of the total revenue for the DOCG, this change could have a significant financial impact.
The Chianti Classico Style: Hard to Define
Over 500 wines from 150 producers in the region between Florence and Siena were presented for the Chianti Classico Collection preview 2013, mostly from 2011, 2010 and 2009. I found the quality overall to be quite spotty, with wide stylistic variations. The addition of up to 20% of grapes other than sangiovese, including both other local varieties such as cannaiolo, colorino and mammolo, and international grapes like merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Add in the variations on ageing (stainless steel, concrete, large old botti, small new barriques and everything in between, and it’s become tougher to pin down a regional or sub-regional style.
I also got the impression that a lot of time, effort and money, much of which goes into the pockets of freelance consulting oenologists, has been spent on making “important” wines, with maximum extraction, concentration and structure, to compete with the world’s other perceived important wines. There’s nothing inherently wrong with aiming high, but sangiovese is not generally suited to making big, burly wines. At its best it is a refined, perfumed and delicate grape, comfortable in the medium, not full-bodied range. Perhaps if the benchmark model were Burgundy rather than Bordeaux or Napa Valley, Chianti Classico (and other sangiovese-based wines) would be much finer.
On the positive side, there are many excellent wines that do manage to capture sangiovese’s hallmark crackling acidity and fine-grained, gritty tannins, with a range of flavours that have little to do with chocolate, vanilla and coffee grounds, and everything to do with vibrant red berry fruit, savoury herbs, faded flowers and an umami-laden succulence that makes sangiovese a food-friendly wine with few equals.
2010 Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico (Barrel sample)
Chianti Classico Riserva
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Overall I was very impressed with the Vino Nobiles presented in the Fortezza di Montepulciano, the first time that the anteprima has been held here. The wines showed considerable consistency and a lot of finesse, and they represent some of the best values coming out of Tuscany. Larger houses like Avignonesi have taken up the challenge to push quality to the outer limits, and since taking over in 2009, Valery Saverys has converted the entire estate – nearly 200 hectares and one of the appellation’s largest – to biodynamic farming. Having a driving force like Avignonesi with a strong international reputation and wide distribution will only serve the interests of the entire appellation. Already 70% of the DOCG’s production is exported, and sales are strong. The DOCG is outperforming most other sectors of the Italian economy to be sure.
“Were optimistic about the quality of our wines, which is rising every year”, says Andrea Rossi, president of the Consortium of producers of Vino Nobile. He describes the wines as “austere, wines of the interior, not the sea, with solid structure and astringent tannins”. Although admittedly, this is about the opposite of what I found at the tasting.
In general I find the 2010s to be far fresher and more balanced than the 2009s.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva & Vineyard Designated
Brunello di Montalcino
I’m a big fan of the 2008 vintage, which was the year on display at Benvenuto Brunello for the normale bottlings. According to the Consortium, the 2008 harvest took place in optimal conditions and the wines showed good acidity, with soft structures and not too aggressive tannins. “The result – declared President of the Consorzio, Fabrizio Bindocci – are wines fascinating for their aromatic intensity and for their softer characteristics. A balanced and pleasant Brunello, that can be enjoyed straightaway and that fully deserves the four stars that had been assigned to it five years ago”.
Today 65% of the total production of Brunello di Montalcino is exported, a significant increase since 2007. In real terms, this translates to an increase of over 2 million bottles in the last five years.
Times are indeed prosperous in Montalcino and property is hot; investment is also coming in from abroad. The Argiano estate was recently purchased by Brazilian investors, while Swiss industrialist Ernesto Bertarelli acquired the Poggio di Sotto estate in 2011 and Riccardo Illy, ex-governor of Friuli Venezia Giulia and president of the Gruppo Illy, took over the Mastrojanni Estate in 2008, to name but a few.
The wines are of course not inexpensive, but the top remain among the best in Italy and the world, and the overall median quality is very high – the stakes are just too big these days to get away with mediocre wine under the Brunello DOCG.
Rosso di Montalcino
Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello Di Montalcino Riserva & Vineyard Designated
John Szabo MS
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