Calgary Wine Life: A Special Evening with Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole @ Centini

15 03 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

It was while reading my very first book on wine, the 6th edition of Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan’s “Wine for Dummies”, that I first encountered the term “Super Tuscan”.  I instantly became enamored with the concept.  Some Tuscan producers became wary of traditional wine-making laws that they perceived as stifling innovation. Part of the motivation here was that these producers wanted to experiment with “international varieties”, particularly those famous for yielding Bordeaux blends in France.  Such grapes could be grown.  The kicker was that wines made from them could initially be labelled only as “vino da tavola” (or table wine), as they clearly violated Italian DOC production guidelines which emphasized native varietals.  However, it became apparent that parts of Tuscany were in fact better suited to growing international varieties than native son Sangiovese.  It was absurd to equate quality wines from such areas with the multitude of serviceable but undistinguished table wines found across the country, and thus the marketing concept of the Super Tuscan was born – described on the Italian Wine Central website as “a maverick wine of great breeding but living outside the Establishment”.

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Cinzia Merli does not resemble any stereotype of a maverick.  My initial impression was one of a quiet, conservative, perhaps strict woman, full of resolve and perhaps possessing a keen wit underneath her stolid outward presentation.  She first apologized for her English, which by my reckoning is quite good.  She then provided a fantastic overview of the Bolgheri region and her own wine estate, Le Macchiole, during which her passion and unrelenting dedication to her craft became apparent.  I was already in awe coming into this event:  these wines are legendary.  Cinzia’s presentation only served to stoke the flames.  This evening shall live on in my memory as one of the most fun tastings that I have ever experienced with total strangers (strangers no more!).  I should add that Centini provided exceptional dinner service and perfect ambience.  Read on for my takes on five burly reds (including two vintages of the iconic Paleo), plus a sprinkling of relevant history.

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2016 Le Macchiole Bolgheri Rosso DOC ($39.95)

La Macchiole was one of the first wineries established in Bolgheri, a small town located about 8 km inland from the coast. This region is the birthplace of the Super Tuscan, although before the Marchese Mario Incisa planted Cabernet Sauvignon in the early 1960s, it was known only for rustic Sangiovese and Trebbiano.  (The area is too hot for Sangiovese.)  La Macchiole has one row of this vine still in the ground, a curio preserved solely to show visitors how horribly the variety does here!  Additional early wisdom held that Bolgheri was too close to the sea for quality wine production, regardless of varietal. It is now clear that this proximity is exactly why international varieties yield such opulent wines.  Cool winds from the ocean counteract the blistering heat, helping to keep acidity high while promoting slow, consistent maturation of sugars, polyphenols, and aromatics.  This climate and the pebbly alluvial soils together produce big but well-balanced reds.  We start with a classic Bolgheri blend.

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The Rosso is described as Le Macchiole’s “major production vehicle” and is 50% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Syrah.  Grapes are harvested from the 3rd week of August to mid-September, and fermentation (including malolactic) occurs for about 15 days in steel tanks. The wine is aged for 10 months in 80% oak barriques (2nd, 3rd, and 4th use), with the remaining 20% in concrete.  I get toasty oak right away on the nose, but in decidedly tasteful doses.  Further sniffs reveal a cornucopia of fresh strawberries, red cherries, and currants (red and black), sweet paprika/red bell pepper, cinnamon stick/nutmeg/allspice, delicate floral aromatics (violets, lilacs), a subtle current of menthol inhaler, and a bed of wet gravel.  The wine manages to become smokier as it sits.  Someone else at my table said it was almost “peaty”, and this development in the glass really dialed up my initial paprika impression. A fresh acidity lifts up the fruity and floral notes, and the tannins are velvety and plush, with a slight (welcome) grip.  I get a lingering spicy finish with a spurt of chocolate syrup. This was paired with a wonderful brodo (broth), an unconventional pairing but one that works strikingly well, with the richness of the broth accentuating the wine’s spicy elements.

90+ points

2009 Le Macchiole Scrio Toscano Rosso IGT ($195)

Cinzia started Le Macciole with her husband Eugenio, who tragically died in 2002.  Syrah was Eugenio’s favorite varietal.  Scrio, which translates roughly into English as “pure and honest”, is 100% Syrah and is thus disqualified from using the Bolgheri DOC designation: Syrah can comprise only up to 50% of the blend under these rules.  Eugenio presumably did not care.  His vision was to deliver an expression of Syrah that was decidedly Tuscan, not French, and since 1994 Scrio has been a limited production offering (5000 bottles per vintage).  Grapes are harvested during the 2nd week of September and are macerated in steel tanks for 20 days. Aging takes place for 20 months in new tonneaux, with 25% in 2nd use barriques.

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My immediate impression is one of a deep, rich, sublime earthiness.  Freshly turned soil pours into my nostrils (more pleasant than it sounds), followed by something more herbal like old ginseng root, rooibos and perfumed black tea.  A sip reveals a dollop of strawberry preserve that is rather quickly subsumed by darker flavours of black liquorice, root beer and cola, tamarind pods, ham hock, tar, blood sausage, and a heaping teaspoon of white pepper/musty sock.  The complexity is breathtaking and Syrah’s often strange character shines forth.  The tannins are clumping, round, slightly piquant, and serve to further hammer home the black tea impression.  Some white truffle oil drizzled over giant raviolo pasta perfectly complemented the earthy funk.  This is art in a glass, art that was pieced together from rusty old field implements and gnarled rhizomes.  I hope this note does Eugenio’s legacy justice.

94 points

2005/2013 Le Macchiole Paleo Toscano Rosso IGT ($125)

We arrive at the flagship, Le Macchiole’s best-known bottle and one with a compelling history. Paleo began as a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, one which by most accounts suffered from the addition of the latter.  Eugenio started to experiment with progressively larger amounts of Cabernet Franc, with a decisive moment coming in 2000.  This was a particularly warm vintage that required large amounts of Franc to be added to bolster freshness and acidity, and from here the leap to a 100% varietal wine was destiny.  Cinzia herself says that “Cabernet Franc is seen as the ugly duckling –  greener, rougher, untamable, a difficult challenge to manage.  In Bolgheri, it is something entirely different:  its tannins are softer, it is extremely fruity and amazingly fresh”.  Grapes are harvested in the first two weeks of September.  They are macerated in concrete for 20 days and the wine is aged for 18 months, 75% in new oak barriques and 25% in 2nd use barriques.  “Paleo” is the common name of a Tuscan grass that grows along the coast.

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The 2005 was silky smooth, with a robust body but a classy, intricate structure.  I get pungent herbs (oregano, thyme) on the nose with a dash of peppery Tabasco, but also a velvety core of maraschino cherries and milk chocolate, a lovely combination, with slight undertones of straw, musk, mustard seed, and European frankfurters.  This can definitely keep aging despite an already impressive bouquet.  This bottle provided my favorite food pairing of the night:  I am not usually crazy about very rare beef, but the wine brought me around to the extent possible, particularly in concert with a divine chicken liver mousse.  The 2013 Paleo has more than the aforementioned dash of Tabasco, perhaps more like Nando’s Peri-Peri sauce in its zestiness, and is redolent with fruity bell peppers, black currants and raspberries accompanied by a generous seasoning of copper penny and wet fur.  More vanilla and brown sugar notes are apparent than in the 2005, with less-integrated new oak and flashier fruit.  This needs time but will reward patience admirably, perhaps at some juncture surpassing the heights reached by its elder stablemate.

92 points (2005), 91+ points (2013)

2014 Le Macchiole Messorio Toscano Rosso IGT ($259)

A few of us wondered if 100% Merlot Super Tuscans were a relative rarity.  Cinzia did not entirely disagree, although she was also quick to cite several other examples.  I wanted to ask her why Le Macchiole puts so much stock in varietal bottlings in a land where blends reign supreme.  Although I did not get a chance to pose this question directly, it became clear that Cinzia is very proud of this distinction, feeling that focusing on individual varieties is the best way to present Bolgheri’s terroir.  Standing out from the pack does not hurt either.  “Messorio” refers to the Tuscan practice of wheat harvesting, a nod to the agricultural history of the area.  If Paleo is one of Italy’s iconic Cabernet Francs, Messorio is its Merlot partner in crime.  Grapes are picked in the second week of September, followed by maceration for 20 days in steel and concrete and 18 months in new barriques.

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Somehow this comes across as the “biggest” of these five wines:  broad, lush, sweet but far from jammy, with considerable heft.  A wonderful iron/hematite tang tweaks my olfactory bulbs, followed by a pulsating splash of blackberries and black plums.  A rich tobacco note hits mid-palate, becoming the dominant element for a few moments, and I start to notice crème brulee or light toffee creeping in around the edges.  There’s a meaty note (again like sausage), followed by a curious marzipan-like confected nuttiness and a ghost of chocolate brownie.  The Parmigiano-Reggiano accompaniment is decadent in its own right, but the wine commands my attention at the moment.  My oh my, there is a lot going on here.  But does it all hang together?  Remarkably enough, it does!  Finely-woven tannins and a shockingly fresh acidity are the ties that bind.  Although this is dangerously good right now, cellar this for a long time.  I think it will integrate even better over the coming years.

93+ points     

One more wine was in store, a 2004 Trabucchi d’Illasi “Terre del Cereolo” Recioto della Valpolicella, accompanied by a 70% Valrhona chocolate tart.  I brave a potential sugar coma, scribbling down “molasses, dried gooseberries, raspberries, honey, cloudberries, fruit roll ups, long brambly finish” and of course “chocolate”…  Then I put my pen down, try to will my pancreas into action, and decide to just bask in what a wonderful evening this turned out to be.  Devan from Richmond Hill Wines and the other guys at the table were erudite and hilarious in equal measure.  My surroundings were appropriately refined.  I realize I’m downtown, a part of the city I’ve always loved and one that I am fortunate enough to now call home.  I reflect on recent hardships but still manage to feel blessed, simply mindful of the present moment.  Or at least the warm, fuzzy, boozy equivalent of mindfulness.

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