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 »

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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 »





Wine Review: 2009 Il Palagio Casino delle Vie

14 11 2012

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

This is a pic of a real acrobat doing a real balance pose, albeit probably not on a bottle of wine.

Many celebrities have wine ventures.  For the most part, they are side hobbies at best and branding exercises at worst, usually making it hard to see what the famous name on the label has added to the wine inside.  Not so with Sting and the lineup of wines coming out of his old-made-new estate in Tuscany.  When he and his wife Trudie Styler first came across the historic Tuscan Il Palagio property in the late 1990s, it was dilapidated and poorly tended, in a vast state of disrepair.  After they purchased the estate and the 350 acres of land forming part of it, they spent an entire decade restoring the buildings and revitalizing the land, bringing on viticultural experts to convert the property to biodynamic growing methods (a pesticide- and herbicide-free holistic philosophy that focuses on ensuring the vine thrives in harmony with its surrounding environment and ties patterns of vine development to lunar phases, among other things) and giving vineyards that had been producing wine grapes since the 16th century a new lease on life.  Instead of rushing the fruits of the estate to market to capitalize on a well-known name and get cash flowing, Sting and Trudie waited until they and their team believed the land was sufficiently rehabilitated and the products of a high enough quality; 13 years after they first came across the property, they are releasing only their second vintage of wines.  In addition to a trio of vinous bottlings, Il Palagio is also the source of many other biodynamically-grown agricultural products, including fresh-made honey and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (I’ve been lucky enough to try the oil, and though I’m far from an EVOO expert, my layman’s opinion is that it was unbelievable).  The amount of time, effort and money that has gone into building Il Palagio back up is clear proof that this is a serious pursuit for Sting, one intended to create a lasting legacy.  I will refrain from making a “Message In A Bottle” joke here, but this is no mere vanity project. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2006 Brancaia Tre, XMas Edition

31 05 2012

I don’t even know what to say. Oh wait, yes I do.

Yes, I intentionally waited until it was completely seasonally inappropriate to open this bottle.  I bought it back in December (no surprise) mainly because I couldn’t believe someone had done this to a bottle of wine:  pull a back-vintage bottle from a producer’s library (or an importer’s warehouse), replace the original label with a horribly tacky dollar-store-worthy holiday one, and re-release it in time for the Christmas retail rush.  The most amazing thing is that this isn’t some hack wine:  Brancaia is a well-regarded Tuscan producer, and the 2007 vintage of Brancaia Tre (the year immediately after this bottle) was so acclaimed that it cracked the top 10 in Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 Wines of the Year.  Meanwhile, the 2006 was stripped of all its dignity, festooned with a cheesy red label and thrown into the hyper-commercialized Christmas arena alongside Justin Bieber’s holiday album and boxes of red and green M&Ms.  My reaction on first seeing this bottle on the shelves probably echoed that of many wine lovers:  “You’ve got to be f______ kidding me.” Read the rest of this entry »