Cellar Direct: On To Italy!

24 01 2018

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Italy is not kidding around.

Over the past couple of years, I have come to know the wares of virtual Canadian wine merchant and weekly offer club Cellar Direct pretty well.  Over the course of half a dozen reviews and nearly twice as many bottles, I’ve grown accustomed to the Old World bona fides and seemingly effortless consistency of the wines sourced by CD founder Ron Van Schilt from family estates strewn across Europe:  France all day, Germany for sure, with a bit of Spain thrown in for good measure.  But I had never yet tasted anything from the fourth pillar of Cellar Direct’s traditional sourcing ground, the most glaring omission from the vinous Euro-stars above:  Italy, the focus of multiple prior online offerings but no corks popped at my kitchen table.  That changed tonight, and my perception of what this virtual venture is bringing into the country climbed ever higher.  The focus tonight is two dynamic, bombastic Italian reds, with a wild Cellar Direct white (Arneis!!) from the same country to come a bit later.  Let’s start where my Italian heart lies.

2015 Renzo Seghesio Barbera d’Alba Superiore ($28)

I LOVE Barbera.  In terms of sheer drinkability and what I continue to keep reaching for, it may be my favourite Italian varietal.  Taking a back seat in its home region of Piedmont to the Nebbiolo grapes of Barolo and Barbaresco fame, Barbera is what all the Nebbiolo winemakers drink when they go home for dinner.  Thanks to its bright acidity, measured tannin and appealing red fruit flavours, it is for my money the best match for casual Italian foods of all stripes, particularly pizza.  Happily, Renzo Seghesio loves Barbera too, so much so that he grows Barbera within the confines of one of Barolo’s mightiest vineyards, the five-star Nebbiolo stronghold of Ginestra near Monforte.  He does so with about as much insider knowledge and clarity about the area as anyone on Earth:  he was the longtime mayor of Monforte d’Alba, and as a hobbyist cartographer he engaged in extensive topographical mapping of the area’s vineyards.

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Seghesio is a tricky estate to research, for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s not widely available around here, making local reviews or discussions hard to come by.  Second, there is at least one other winery in Italy, plus the much more ubiquitous Zin specialist winery in California, with the exact same name, making search engine efforts for “Seghesio wine” all but pointless.  This particular bottle is also a bit of a scoop, because it has yet to be offered to the ravenous Cellar Direct hordes — but keep an eye out, as it may be coming to an inbox near you soon.

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Cork Ratings:  6/10 & 7.5/10 (Strong showings x2, but the Fubbiano coat of arms is a cut above.)

This Barbera d’Alba Superiore hails from 60+ year-old vines in a small plot within Ginestra.  It was hand-harvested, fermented using native yeasts then aged in large neutral Slavonian oak barrels for 10 months before a further 6 months’ rest in bottle prior to release.  It is a glass-coating but only semi-opaque purple colour and immediately comes across richer and fleshier than many Barberas, even on the nose:  fresh rather than sour cherry fruit edged with blackberry, dark chocolate and violets, but balanced by black pepper, oiled leather and olive brine.  Bold but nowhere near overblown, it hits the tongue sleek and modern on the outside but with old-school soul, its polished purity of fruit not coming at the expense of racy acidity that makes the wine accelerate from attack to finish, where traces of charcoal and dried parchment bring the plushness down to ground.  If you’ve ever thought Old World non-interventionist wine can’t be overtly delicious, I have a bottle for you.

90 points

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2013 Fubbiano I Pampini Rosso ($43)

When most people see the Toscana IGT designation on a bottle, their minds head right to Super Tuscans, those 20th century renegades against restrictive Italian appellation wine legalities that prevented fine bottles made outside its strictures from being recognized as anything higher than table wine.  The most famous Super Tuscans made blockbuster wines often melding Chianti’s homegrown son Sangiovese with star global imports Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) classification was added as a sort of middle ground to recognize the quality of these non-traditional creations.  Naturally I assumed that Fattoria di Fubbiano had given up its DOCG status on this bottle to make a similar mix.  Not so much.

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This red is a blend of 95% Chianti DOCG-approved Sangiovese with 5%…Teroldego??  Yes, this estate in northwest Tuscany, home to 20 hectares of grapes interspersed with forest across 45 hectares of land, devotes some of it to plant an obscure, alpine, northern Italian red found on the edge of Austria and almost never seen elsewhere.  I love it.  As with the Seghesio above, the grapes for Fubbiano’s I Pampini were picked by hand and fermented using indigenous yeasts, but in this case fermentation occurred in the large wooden barrels seen on the bottle label.  Cellar Direct just recently offered this wine to its mailing list, and it looks like there may be some left.  I would run to buy it.

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Colour contrasts.

This was a great side-by-side colour contrast with the Barbera:  not a trace of purple in the bright deep ruby-garnet hue, so those who get angered at the thought of pitch-dark violet Sangiovese need not fear.  My first inhale of the I Pampini brought forth an involuntary “oh wow”.  More lifted and higher-toned than the Seghesio, it pairs some citrus/lemongrass with the fresh raspberry and pomegranate fruit, quickly mixing in an array of supporting notes that multiplied as I breathed:  Bounce sheets, pickle juice, potting clay, coriander, cilantro, a cacophony of smells that is not only synchronized but symphonic, aromas in stereo.  Then, funnily enough, it is deeper, denser and filled with bass notes on the palate, the fruit broader and chunkier, the dusty earth tones gaining prominence.  It glides over every crack and crevice of the tongue, leaving lingering hints of spice and warmth, hot rocks and cola, and stony, rugged tannin.  Just an epic bottle of wine.

92+ points

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