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Dreaming of Tuscan Wines

November 4, 2012 17 comments

Source: Wkipedia.com

“Tuscany”. Try to say the word out loud. It rolls of your tongue, smooth, round and effortless. It is so easy to picture endless green hills, beautiful little houses spread across the endless green, and of course, sun-soaked grapes.

I visited Italy many times, but not the Tuscany, which still stays on the “dream destinations” list. I can easily picture bringing my family there, renting a little villa (there are many villas in Tuscany), and spending time doing… nothing, just enjoying that beautiful scenery, true, simple and honest food and of course, the wines.

The wines of Tuscany hold its own special and unique place in the wine world. True, the wine making was born outside of Italy ( Georgia and Greece are the top contenders for the title of “cradle of the winemaking”). But where else you can find wineries and winemaking families which are almost a thousand years old (look at Barone Ricasoli, which is tracing its wine history to 1141, or Castello di Ama, which goes all the way back to 1210), next to the wineries which propelled from non-existent to the world’s best in mere 30-40 years, as many of so called Super-Tuscan wines did? Tuscany offers tremendous diversity when it comes to wines, and I want to take you on a little tour of Tuscan wines.

We are going to start with Chianti, one of the oldest wine-making areas in Tuscany, located in the center of region. Sangiovese is the main grape which is used to produce Chianti wines, but other grapes can be also blended in, including both red and white grapes.

Then there are all sorts of classifications for the Italian wines – but I really don’t want to bore you with the details of it. While classification information is very important, there are so many available resources covering subject in depth, like this Wikipedia article, for instance, you can definitely learn about it without my help. As a side note, I want to mention that in the end of the day, DOC, DOCG, IGT , the producers and the wine ratings are all important, but you really have to let your taste buds be a judge when it comes to finding the wine you like.

Chianti are some of the oldest wines with the world, with the very rich history having its up and down times – it is impossible to cover Chianti’s history at any good depth in the blog post, so again I have to refer you to the great source – the Wikipedia article. Chianti wines are usually split into two main groups – Chianti and Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico, which comes from its own part of the Chianti region, is available as Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, which is usually aged for more than two years before it is released. If you are looking for a good bottle of the Chianti, you can always play it safe and go by a good producer – Antinori, Castello Banfi, Castello di Ama, Fontodi, Frescobaldi, Monsanto, Ricasoli, Ruffino are all well known producers and represent a good bet as you are looking for your next bottle of Chianti.

Let’s move down south from Chianti to the town of Montalcino. A bit younger than the Chianti, only going back to the 14th century : ), there was a local wine produced there, which was called Brunello, referring to the name of the local grape. Eventually it was established that the actual grape was a clone of Sangiovese, called Sangiovese Grosso, but the name of Brunello always stayed with the wines called Brunello di Montalcino (often referred to simply as Brunello).

In order to be classified as Brunello, the wines have to be made from 100%  of Sangiovese Grosso (no other grapes allowed). Over the many years, Brunello built a reputation as some of the best wines in the world – power, finesse and ultimate ageability make them very desired wines among wine consumers and collectors. Biondi Santi is probably the most legendary producer of Brunello wines, but Altesino, Casanova di Neri, Castello Banfi, Poggio Antico, Valdicava are all well worthy of your attention.

Continuing our tour from the town of Montalcino, we got two options – we can move east, to the town of Monepulciano, or west to the region called Bolgheri. Let’s talk about Montepulciano first, as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines are rivaling Chianti in its history. The first references  to the vineyards around Montepulciano go all the way back to the 8th (!) century, but it was not until 1925 that the wines from the region are actually assumed the Vino Nobile name. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines are again produced from Sangiovese clone,  known as Prugnolo Gentile, and often blended with other local grape varieties. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are lesser known then Chianti wines, but they are worth looking for as they still provide a good value.

And now, let’s go all the way west, to the coastal area of Tyrrhenian Sea, to the town of Bolgheri, where some of the best wines in Italy are made. I’m sure you heard the term Super-Tuscan – these are the wines made in Tuscany, but in completely non-traditional way. Starting from 1960s, Bolgheri was a center of Super-Tuscan wine revolution – instead of making the wines by the strict Chianti rules, many vintners started producing wines based on terroir, always looking for the best grapes from particular vineyards. In 1978, Antinori started producing the Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend wine called Tignanello, which became a great success. Many winemakers turned their attention to traditional Bordeaux varieties, such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, eventually producing the wines rightfully called some of the best wines in the world. Today Super-Tuscan wines need no introduction, and absolute majority of wine lovers can’t pronounce the names such as Ornellaia, Solaia, Masseto, Sassicaia, Redigaffi without their breathing stopping for a second and eyes rolling up to show utmost respect. You don’t need to take my word for it  – get a bottle and taste it for yourself, and you can thank me later.

Before we are done here, I want to share some interesting numbers with you. You probably heard of Wine Spectator, a very famous wine magazine. Wine Spectator has their 100 points rating system and obviously, it is not simple to get a 100 points, as the wine should be truly ultimate to get such a high rating – only 74 wines out of more than 250,000 rated wines received 100 points. Out of those 74, 13 are Italian wines. Out of those 13, 6 are the Tuscan wines. And out of those 6, 2 are Brunello di Montalcino wines, 3 are Super Tuscan, and one wine is a Vin Santo – another famous Tuscan wine, this time it is a dessert wine, made out of Trebbiano and Malvasia white grapes. And to complete the picture, do you want to guess what grape those 100-point Super Tuscans are made from? Sorry Miles ( remember movie Sideways?), but all three 100-point Super Tuscans (Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masetto, Tua Rite Redigaffi and Le Macchiole Messorio) are made out of 100% Merlot!

I think it is time to finish our tour. Tuscany makes a lot of great wines, and there are many books, articles and blog posts covering those wines from all possible angles. I think  my top tip for choosing the Tuscan wines will be very simple – go out and play! Open a bottle of Tuscan wine, and be transported in the instance to the warm and inviting land of great food, wines and people. Salute!

Serious Fun With Wines

July 24, 2012 10 comments

In case you are wondering about the “serious fun” versus “not so serious fun”, somehow this title just got stuck in my head when I thought about this post, and I decided not to fight that. Also, when you have Gaja, Ornellaia, Turley, Bertani and whole bunch of other interesting wines, I think “serious fun” is a good way to put it. And to stress even further how serious the fun was, I’m even using different style of pictures for this post instead of usual “just label” style (and yes, you are right, I also use an opportunity to play with my new camera).

What is your first thought when you see the name like Gaja on the wine list? I don’t know about you, but in majority of the cases I would expect to see a red wine there. Yes, I can think of Gaja Chardonnay, and only because it typically looks at least as an affordable possibility on the wine list, as opposed to the Gaja red wines, which are not. So the wine we had was a white wine made out of …(wait for it)…Sauvignon Blanc!

2006 Gaja Alteni di Brassica Langhe DOC, Italy was a total surprise. Mineral nose, with wet stone, smoke and heavy grass. Touch of white fruit on the palate, more stone, touch of lemon, perfectly balanced. Finish lasted for 3 minutes, if not longer! Very beautiful wine. Drinkability: 9

The next wine we had was also coming from a very respectful Italian producer, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia. And the wine was…yes, white again! The grape? Yep, Sauvignon Blanc. 2010 Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia, Toscana IGT was simply delicious, with perfumed nose of lychees and white apple. Palate was exhibiting nuts and ripe apple. Very long finish with some tropical fruit notes coming in later on. Bright, round, amazing! Drinkability: 9

We continued our “whites’ extravaganza” with 2009 Ken Forrester The FMC ( (Forrester Meinert Chenin), South Africa.  This wine was made out of the Chenin Blanc grape. While Chenin Blanc is one of the signature white French grapes from Loire, it also makes great wines around the world. It does particularly well in South Africa, where it is also known under the name Steen. This particular The FMC wine is a single vineyard flagship wine of  Ken Forrester, one of the oldest producers in South Africa. This wine had a beautiful nose very similar to a typical chardonnay – nutty with some acidity, bright yellow color, very round. Drinkability: 8+

Done with whites. Before switching to the reds, we had a different, very unusual wine – as you can judge from the color above, this wine is not called “Orange” for nothing. Orange wine is one of the latest trends, where skin of the white grapes is left in the contact with juice during maceration. This imparts a nice deep yellow/orange color, hence the name, orange wine. This wine also was not some fly by night experimental plonk. 2008 Marani Satrapezo 10 kvevri, Georgia (100% Rkatsiteli grape, all coming from specific block of the Kondoli vineyard) was made in a traditional Georgian style with maceration for 20-25 days in historical clay vessel called Kvevri.

The wine had beautiful orange color. On the nose it had aromas of a bright fresh apricot. Palate was dry, full bodied, vegetative with enough brightness, touch of apricot but no sweetness whatsoever. After three hours in decanter the wine softened considerably – this wine definitely would benefit from a few years in the cellar. Drinkability: 8

Okay, we are finally switching to reds – with it’s own set of surprises. We started from 1997 Estancia Meritage Alexander Valley (Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend). The wine had perfect color – dark, concentrated ruby red. Eucalyptus, wet stone, dust and raspberries on the nose. Bright red and black fruit on the palate with cassis, eucalyptus and licorice – perfect balance, nice, soft tannins. Drinkability: 8+

This was probably the biggest surprise of the evening – 1997 Toasted Head Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah California. Generally, Toasted Head makes simple everyday wines – which you generally are not going to age. This wine was simply lost in the cellar, and we opened it to taste but with the full readiness to dump it. To our astonishment  (too strong of a word, but – why not), the wine had perfect acidity, bright youthful color, good black fruit, soft tannins and a touch of cassis. Drinkability: 8

The next wine was Giribaldi Cento Uve – but this will be a subject of a separate post, so I will skip my tasting notes for that wine. And the next wine was the one … we killed – it sounds way too strong, I know – but please read on. Amarone are typically big enough wines, so we decided to decant this wine – without even tasting it first (but the nose was perfect!). This was a [big] mistake. After 3 hours in decanter, the wine became barely drinkable. Another 30 minutes later, the fruit came back, both on the palate and the nose, only to disappear shortly after. Note to self – be careful with decanting. Considering this experience, I will not give this wine any rating – it simply wouldn’t be fair.

As you might expect, we didn’t just drink – we had a lot of good food as well. Just to give you an example, here is lamb kabob in the process of making:

To complement the lamb, we had 1996 Turley Duarte Zinfandel – nice fruit, raspberries on the nose and the palate, hint of jammy fruit later on, plus some eucalyptus. Very good overall balance for the wine at 15.4% ABV. Drinkability: 8-

And then of course there was a dessert – Clafoutis (no further comments, just look at the picture):

This was definitely a great experience. Pretty rare case when all the wines worked very well and were absolutely delightful – if I can only re-taste that Amarone… Well, may be one day. Wishing you great wine experiences! Cheers!

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