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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Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2017: Day 10

10 12 2017

I think it is officially Sugar Coma Weekend in the Bricks Wine Advent Calendar.  When the COMBINED alcohol level of your Saturday and Sunday wines is 12%, you know you’ll be facing an armada of unfermented grape sugar in the bottle.  After last night’s 6.5% abv Auslese Riesling, I thought we had hit our December alcohol floor, but the 2015 Braida “Vigna Senza Nome” Moscato d’Asti will see that 6.5% and raise it (well, technically, lower it), clocking in at an almost juice-like 5.5%.  The wine’s name roughly translates to “Vines Without Names”; the roughly dozen online sources I consulted trying to find out why declined to say so, though most of them noted that the corresponding motto on the front label “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas” means “the farmer at the plow chooses the path”, which is reflective of this classic producer’s focus on the quality of the vineyard, even if they decline to name the vines in it.

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I love Moscato d’Asti.  At its best it is equally refreshing and luxuriant, searing and delectable, a frozen rope of distilled fruit essence that disappears from the glass before you even notice.  It is made from Moscato Bianco grapes grown around the famed town of Asti, in the heart of Piedmont, which are harvested then crushed and immediately refrigerated before fermentation so that the yeasts don’t immediately kick in.  The cooled must is then transferred to pressurized sealed steel tanks before fermentation is allowed to begin; as the grape sugars are converted to alcohol, carbon dioxide is released as a by-product, which can’t escape the tank and gets dissolved into the wine.  Once the alcohol content clocks above 5% (which is WAY before all of the sugars are fully converted), the whole tank is chilled down to near freezing so that fermentation stops, after which the yeasts are filtered out and the wine is bottled under pressure, leaving an intensely sweet, slightly bubbly bolt of lightning for patio enjoyment.  It is best consumed as early as possible, when acids are crisp and bubbles are buoyant, and there is little to be gained in trying to mature it.

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Cork Rating:  6/10 (The extra expansion and vertical writing are winning somehow, even if the cork as a whole is bland.)

This 2015 Vigna Senza Nome is a surprisingly golden colour for a Moscato and has a slightly syrupy nose of baked pear, bruised apple, honey and caramel to go with brighter tropical and Fuzzy Peach notes.  Some lift remains on the palate in the form of hedonistic melon, lychee, blood orange and bergamot, but much of the life and effervescence that normally characterizes this style and expression has been faded away, whether due to time (it’s only two years old, but Moscato’s probably best at 20 minutes old) or (more likely?) due to storage conditions between its bottling and its insertion into the calendar. I’ve had this exact bottle multiple times before, albeit never in back vintage form, and this is the first time it’s tasted heavy; the bubbles aren’t quite up to the task of scouring away the sweetness, and quiet acidity doesn’t provide enough of a helping hand.  It’s still completely delicious, but it is drained of some of its usual joy and not quite showing at its peak.

86 points





Wine Review: Modern Italian Traditionalists

11 10 2017

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

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Reunited with Italy.

I don’t know why, but before yesterday I hadn’t had a bottle of Italian wine for a long, long time.  I’m not a hater or a New World purist; I have a bunch of Italy in my cellar and rank certain Italian bottles and regions among my favourites in the world.  I’ve just been through a phase where nothing has drawn me to that corner of my wine racks in a number of months…there has always been something more enticing to my senses that has kept the country in the press box.  Well, no more:  in order to restore equilibrium to my wine world and reacquaint myself with one of the two traditional cornerstone nations of viniculture, I cracked a pair of Italian bottles last night and reminded myself of why Italy is viewed so loftily by grape lovers everywhere.

On the surface, the two bottles seemed to have very little in common:  one was playful pink bubbles, while the other was a legacy Chianti crafted to centuries-old founder’s standards.  But both in their own way were asserting their place in the often-calcified lore of Italian wine history.  The pink bubbles hailed from the province of Treviso in northeastern Italy, just north of Venice, the world home of Prosecco; but it couldn’t be called Prosecco by virtue of its hue and its choice to forego the region’s Glera grape (which was previously also called “Prosecco” in an attempt to be as confusing as possible), which took the wine out of the threshold criteria of the Prosecco classification. Even though it was produced by a generations-old Prosecco house, it wasn’t Prosecco, and it was OK with that, ambling on its merry mission to bring joy to those who opened it.  The Chianti was a modern take on a wine made to the recipe of a 19th century legendary figure, the one who first set down what it legally meant for a wine to be a Chianti.  While the first bottle gleefully acknowledged its place on the parallel track from history, the second not only embraced its history but walked in its footsteps.  In their own way, I admire each for their paths taken. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2012 Marabino Noto

20 01 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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I admit: I had to do a little research for this one. But well worth it!

Sicily is hot right now (figuratively at least; literally, it’s about +8 Celsius right now, and it’s 4:00 a.m. tomorrow morning).  After a lengthy history of exporting purely bulk wines for blending and bottling wines only for domestic consumption, this large island off the toe of Italy’s boot is suddenly undergoing a rapid and massive quality transformation, showcasing its indigenous varietals to the world and beginning to show up on wine lists and in boutiques all over town.  There are wines from vines grown on the side of an active volcano (Etna) and wines so close to the ocean they can smell the salt.  More and more Sicilian wine is being targeted for import, filling a gap in our drinking experience we never knew was there.

This is the second bottle of Marabino that I’ve had the opportunity to try; the first was their fantastic Eureka Chardonnay, exactly five months ago today.  Marabino is a relative newcomer to the island, established in 2002 as a fully biodynamic winery focused on growing Moscato, Nero d’Avola and Chardonnay, the first two native to the region.  Marabino is based in the Noto DOC, a UNESCO world heritage site featuring surprising white soils in the very southeast corner of Sicily.  While the number of classified Denomination of Origin zones in Sicily is continually growing, Noto has held this designation since 1974 and has an entrenched place in Sicilian wine history. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2011 Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva

30 09 2015

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Modern Traditional Chianti.

Modern Traditional Chianti.

Barone Ricasoli holds itself out as the oldest winery in Italy.  Its history certainly marches in lockstep with that of its region, Chianti:  the winery’s eponymous founder was the man who first suggested the modern “recipe” for the standard Chianti blend — largely Sangiovese, blended with indigenous varieties Canaiolo, Trebbiano and Colorino — in a letter in 1872.  That mix has expanded and adapted since then, but Ricasoli has remained a constant in the area, producing Chianti at all price and quality points, from the entry level to the sublime.

This particular bottle is from the sub-zone of Chianti Classico, the traditional Chianti heartland at the centre of the region encompassing the original lands upon which that name was bestowed.  Chianti has now expanded significantly beyond that area, some might say for largely economic reasons and to the detriment of its reputation, as the lands surrounding Classico often do not quite live up to its hallmarks of quality.  The symbol of Chianti Classico, emblazoned proudly on this bottle in multiple places, is the black rooster, the gallo nero.  Why?  Legend has it that, back when the provinces of Florence (in the north) and Siena (in the south) were fighting over the territory of Chianti (right in the middle), they settled on a contest to determine their mutual border:  they would each pick their best knight, who would ride from his city towards his opponent as fast as his horse could take him once the rooster crowed, and wherever they met would mark the new edge of each province’s lands.  The Florentines had a black rooster, and before the date of the contest they kept it locked up in a box with no food, so that when it was finally released on the day of the race, it crowed much, much earlier than dawn, giving Florence’s knight a massive head start.  The Florentine met the Sienese knight just outside of Siena’s walls and thus scooped all of Chianti for Florence, giving the black rooster mythical status in the process.  This is the best part about wine:  everything has a story.  You just have to find it. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Menti & Marabino, Natural Italy

20 08 2015

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

If you are a massively wine-obsessed civilian, you have probably had at least a passing thought about it.  I can think of a half dozen wine friends off the top of my head with whom I’ve had the conversation.  You know something about wine, you have a particular love for a particular region, you’ve found a lesser-known producer or two there whose wines aren’t currently brought in to your jurisdiction…what if I just imported them myself?  I could be a wine agent on the side…who WOULDN’T want to buy these wines?

Small importer, statement wines.

Small importer, statement wines.

Of course, it takes much more than a passion for wine and an idle dream to make a go of it in the wine import world, an extremely competitive sphere full of others who have been at it a long time and know what they’re doing.  This is why I am behind a keyboard right now instead of combing Washington State and Oregon for hidden gems.  But I have the utmost respect for the people who do take the plunge, who put their money where their mouth is and find a way to step a little bit further into the world of wine.  Maxim Atanassov is one of those people, populating the white collar world by day and crusading for all-natural biodynamic Italian wines on evenings and weekends through his agency Vino Al Vino.  He has assembled a tight-knit group of producers from the southern and eastern edges of Italy who share a steadfast mission to let the land do the talking and a hands-off approach to winemaking.  I got the chance to try two bottles from the white side of his wine portfolio, and they proved to be some of the most interesting wines I’ve ever been asked to review. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2007 Luciano Sandrone Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore

24 01 2013
Some of my favourite labels of all time.  Classic.

Some of my favourite labels of all time. Classic.

If there’s anything better than a good bottle of wine, it’s a good bottle of wine that you got on sale.  While this particular bottle usually retails for around $50, I was lucky enough to grab it on special for a shade under $30, which made me ultra-excited to open it and greatly reduced my chances of being disappointed with what was inside.  Not that there was much of a chance of that, given who made it.

Luciano Sandrone is a Barolo legend.  If you were going to make an All-Star team of producers from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy, Sandrone would definitely be in the starting lineup. Ever since his first vintage in 1978, he has wowed the wine world with a slate of bottlings that are crafted in a more open, approachable manner than those made by the staunch traditionalists in the area but yet that remain elegant, complex and capable of aging and improving for a long time.  Most famous for his Barolos (Barolo is a subregion of Piedmont whose wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape), Sandrone also makes a Barbera (which is fantastic), a Dolcetto, a red blend and this Nebbiolo d’Alba.  Here’s a good rule of thumb for reading Italian wine labels:  if you see a label stating “_______ di _______” or “_______ d’_______”, odds are that the first word in the sequence will be the name of the grape and the last word will be the area where it’s from.  “Nebbiolo d’Alba” means “Nebbiolo from Alba”, which is the name of a Nebbiolo-growing region in Piedmont immediately adjacent to the great Barolo and the equally great Barbaresco appellations.  Since the soil and climate conditions in Nebbiolo d’Alba are similar to those in Barolo/Barbaresco, and since the same varietal is used to make the wine, Nebbiolo d’Alba can be a source of wines that give you a good sense of what Barolos and Barbarescos are all about but at a fraction of the price. Read the rest of this entry »








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