Greetings! I didn't get to this last week because I was at the Central Tuscan Vintage presentations, which I will discuss shortly. But first, the latest on the Italian Wine Review is a look at the latest vintage of Amarone, the 2005. The latest things of consequence on Italian food are instead three collections of favorite recipes: Involtini (rollups), chicken breasts, and pork chops, all of which can be reached via the favorite recipe collections page. Since collections are popular, I'm planning to add bread soups, cabbage, crucifere (cauliflower, broccoli and so on) and steak in the near future.
Vernaccia, Chianti Classico, Nobile, Brunello: The Vintages
Returning to Cosa Bolle, the major Central Tuscan red appellations presented their new vintages last week, with San Gimignano taking advantage of the opportunity -- as it has for a few years now -- to invite people to sample Vernaccia on Monday, before the main events got started. Carlo Macchi has rated the events in terms of organization, logistics, quality of the tasting, and food served, and if you're curious you'll find his impressions here.
Given that I pretty much agree with his assessments, I may as well start with Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which does things a bit differently than the other appellations: Since they feel, probably correctly, I'm sorry to say, that many of the journalists who travel thousands of miles to taste reds will not be interested in their white (the comments on it in some wine texts are decidedly dismissive), they arrange comparisons with great whites from elsewhere, and this time the elsewhere was the northern Rhone Valley, with its Saint-Péray, Fleur de Crussol and Hermitage, the last defined "the first wine in the world without a single exception" by Tomas Jefferson in 1791.
The ploy worked and the hall was packed; we tasted 8 pairs of wines, comparing the unoaked Saint-Péray and Fleur de Cussol with unoaked Vernaccia, and Hermitage (which is always oaked) with oaked vintages of Vernaccia, and I thought that the Vernaccia held its own, showing quite well. After lunch the Vernaccia producers presented their current vintages -- 2007, which has been on the market for a while, and 2008, which some brave souls have already bottled, while others presented barrel samples. Unfortunately the tasting was a standup affair, with no place to take notes, but I was favorably impressed by the 2007 Vernaccia's depth and intensity; it's a fine vintage and though one can certainly enjoy it already, it just as certainly has the capacity to age well for 3-5 years, and in the case of some producers for much longer. I will taste the 2008 vintage later this year, when it has some bottle age under its belt.
Chianti Classico: From 2001 Forward
Chianti Classico once again held its presentation in Florence's Stazione Leopolda, the old train station between Porta al Prato and the Parco delle Cascine (just outside the city walls), whose construction was begun in the 1841, and which is named after Grand Duke Leopoldo -- it was discarded (as a train station) in 1860, and was thereafter put to many uses, ranging from site of the Espozizione Nazionale (National Fair) opened by King Vittorio Emanuele in 1861 to munitions plant in WWI. The bombing it suffered in WWII destroyed the roof; a makeshift roof held up by iron pipes was applied, and the complex used as a railway warehouse until 1993, when it was transformed into an extraordinarily beautiful exposition area, which now hosts all sorts of things, from fashion shows to wine tastings. As Carlo Macchi points out, the lighting's beautiful, the temperature is just right, there's all the space one could want, and it's also quiet. In short perfect, and I began with the Riserve, starting with the one Chianti Classico Riserva 2001 being presented. It was, alas, tired.
The 2004 Chianti Classico Riservas, of which there were about 20, were instead for the most part quite good, showing depth, vigor, and the onset of maturity; it is a fine vintage and should you come across bottles of either Chianti Classico Riserva or Chianti Classico D'Annata you should definitely consider them.
I continued with the 2005 Chianti Classico Riserva, which was, I thought, weaker -- 2005 was a cooler, wetter vintage. As a result the grapes didn't ripen as well; the wines have less richness of fruit, and wood steps in to carry more than I might have hoped. There are (as always) exceptions to this dreary picture, but on the whole, when buying Chianti Classico 2005, be it Riserva or Vino D'Annata (some producers were presenting it too), one has to choose with considerable care.
There were quite a few 2006 Chianti Classico Riservas, and they provided a very welcome change after the 2005s, with much richer fruit and much more grace and elegance. It was a better vintage, and the greater ripeness of the grapes translated into nimble, wines with a nice balance between fruit and structure, for both the 2006 Riserva and the 2006 Chianti D'Annata. As is always the case, one must choose with care, taking into account one's personal preferences and the style of the winery, but the 2006 vintage is a much, much surer bet than the 2005.
There were some 2007 Chianti Classico Riserva barrel samples, but I decided to wait on them, and taste through some of the 2007 Vini D'Annata. I found the vintage more high-strung than the 2006; though the fruit was nice, the tannins were on average brasher and more aggressive than those of the 2006 wines were last year (when they were the same age as the 2007 wines are now). This, coupled with lively acidities many of the wines display, means that they will likely be long-lived, but at present are more aggressive. As a result, at least for now they're not as much wines to drink by the glass far from the table as wines to be enjoyed with foods.
The 2006 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Of the three major Central Tuscan appellations, Vino Nobile is the least consistent, and though I say this every year, it continues to be true. Not so much for the quality of the vintage, which was quite good, as stylistically; as a fellow taster said, the wines were all over the map. And within this spread there seem to be three major directions.
One that is simply old-style -- not traditional in the sense of large wood and harvesting top quality grapes before they are really overripe, but rather the sorts of rather tired wines that used to be much more common than they are now.
Then there is a very overripe, extracted style, with fruit that is jammy tending towards prune, with low acidities (with increasing ripeness acidity drops), and tannins that tend to be ample and very smooth. I confess this is a style I don't particularly care for, because though one can drink it by the glass far from the table, I don't see it as being a very good accompaniment to foods -- the combination of low acidity and soft tannins simply won't work with the hearty pasta dishes and soups or stews, roasts, and grilled meats that are the hallmark of Tuscan cooking -- the foods overshadow the wine.
And finally, there is what I would call traditional, made from fruit that is carefully grown but not allowed to ripen quite as much, fermented so as to obtain less extraction, and aged in large oak casks that surrender little to the wine; the wines are more acidic, brighter, and have richer tannins with considerably more backbone that provide (I think) a much more effective counterpoint to Tuscan foods.
The trick is to pick a wine of the style you like, and having done so the 2006 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano will give considerable satisfaction and enjoyment. The winemakers also presented the 2005 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva, which followed the same path as the Chianti Classico 2005 Riserva, with relatively weaker wines that depended to a much greater degree on oak for their structure and body. They should be approached with caution.
The 2004 Brunello di Montalcino
I had high hopes for the 2004 Brunello, coming as it did on the heels of the two worst vintages in many, many years. And they were at least partially met, though the vintage isn't the sure-fire proposition that those who rate vintages thought it would be. Some of the wines are excellent, displaying rich fruit, vibrant tannins and bracing acidity that have much to say now, will be superb with rich dishes, especially succulent meats, and will age well over a period of many years. Others are also good, albeit in a style that I have more trouble understanding, with richer, much riper fruit and sweeter, softer tannins; a fellow taster said they reminded him of Central Californian reds, and while they will be nice by the glass if you like the style, I don't see them working as well with foods, nor do I think that they will age as well.
And then there are weaker wines, in both of these styles. In other words, the vintage is what Italians call a chiazze di leopardo, like a leopard's spots, i.e. uneven, and therefore requires a that one select the wines with care, keeping in mind both style and quality.
Truth be told, the situation isn't as negative as it sounds, because, as Gianfranco Soldera pointed out in the course of a dinner a few weeks ago, vintages that look perfect on paper (for example 1997 or 1982) rarely reach the heights that were expected of them at the time of the harvest. More difficult vintages (and a number of people did tell me that the 2004 was) require that the winemaker work more in vineyard and cellar, and as a result have facets and qualities the easier vintages simply lack, and develop more fully with time. Casting PC aside, one might consider the difference between a person whose beauty is natural, and one who obtained beauty with the aid of a surgeon -- the natural might not be perfect, and indeed the imperfections contribute, whereas what is surgical may be spectacular, but is ultimately less interesting and with less character.
And now for the elephant in the room. What, you wonder, has become of the scandal that roared through the Brunello appellation last spring, with many wineries being accused of vineyard irregularities of one sort or another (overproduction or illegal varietals)? Nobody was talking about it, and since the accusations have not yet (and may never) become convictions, I didn't see much point in bringing it up. People said it was a sad and messy situation last year, and the opinion will not have changed.
But I did notice a significant change in the color of the wines: there was much more garnet than there has been in years past.
What am I talking about? All wines change color as they age. Most reds start with deep purple hues, and Sangiovese, the grape that is used to make Brunello, is no exception. However, after 4-5 years, which is the time Brunello ages for, Sangiovese is usually a pleasing, not too dark almandine garnet, and may have garnet to orange in the rim. And this is what I found in just about every glass of Brunello I tasted this time. Not so in the past, however, when colors ranged from the garnet one expects of Sangiovese to considerably darker hues that did raise doubts.
Something has happened, and while I am certain that some of the suspiciously dark wines of yore got their color from the "taglio migliorativo" provision of the Brunello Disciplinare, which allows producers can add up to 15% of a different (usually younger and darker) vintage to perk up their Brunello if they find it wanting, the across the board nature of the color shift this year suggests that other forces may also have been at work. It is quite possible that those who in the past bent the rules, adding other things to make their Brunello more appealing to the international markets before bottling it (while some people do blend wines made from several varietals at the outset, many prefer to keep the varietals separate until bottling, because doing so allows them more control over the wine) decided to forego the practice, and I cannot but view this development favorably, as I think that a well-made Sangiovese has no need of crutches. I also think it is sad that it took the concrete threat of criminal investigation to deter the practice, and can only hope that garnet will continue to be as prevalent in future vintages as it was in this one.
Bottom line: for the first time in a number of years all of the major central Tuscan red appellations presented successful vintages and there are many nice wines, either to be enjoyed now or to be set aside to bring happiness in the future. I'll be posting tasting notes shortly.
La Mole Antonelliana
Moving in a very different direction, this January we took advantage of the kids' being on vacation to go to Torino for a few days, primarily because Daughter Clelia has been bitten by the Egyptian Bug and wanted to see things Egyptian; since Torino's Museo Egizio is one of the world's finest the trip seemed logical. And I will write about it, but today I wanted to say something about Torino's most prominent landmark, the Mole Antonelliana, a slender quadrilateral cupola whose immensely long spire seems to puncture the sky.
It wasn't planned like that, however: After the government of the newly unified Italian State relaxed the strictures on non-Catholic religious buildings in the early 1860s, the city's Jewish community asked Alessandro Antonelli to design a Synagogue for them. Construction began in 1863, but proceeded with difficulty because the he raised the cupola from the planned 47 meters to 113. Technical difficulties and cost overruns led the Community to halt construction in 1869 and apply a temporary roof to what they had.
In 1873 the City negotiated an exchange, giving the Jewish community a different area to build their synagogue, and dedicating the Cupola to King Vittorio Emanuele II. Construction resumed, with the cupola and its spire eventually reaching 167.5 meters, or about 545 feet, and thus becoming the tallest masonry structure in Europe. Alas, though Antonelli continued to work on the structure until he was past 90, using an observation basket that dangled from the center of the dome to check the work, he didn't live to see it finished. Rather, his son Costanzo completed the cupola in the early 1900s, while the decoration of the dome's interior was handled by Annibale Rigotti between 1905 and 1908.
Unfortunately, the weight of the considerably increased upper section proved more than the foundations were capable of standing (the fact that the cupola was built over a section of city walls Napoleon had demolished probably exacerbated the instability), and after a tornado ripped off 47 meters of the spire in 1953 architects wove a reinforced concrete skeleton into the structure to provide additional support.
After the restoration was completed the Mole Antonelliana was used to host temporary shows, and to showcase Torino, as it were: The observation basket Alessandro used was transformed into a glass elevator that rises quickly through the cupola, like a spider whizzing up a thread to stop at the base of the spire, where there is an ample observation deck offers an absolutely stunning view of the city.
Which, with just the occasional show, wasn't enough to draw people. So the city had an inspired idea, and transformed the cupola into the national Cinema Museum: the entrance leads directly to the elevator, where one waits about a half hour (at least, we did) and then whoosh up to the observation post; as you enter the elevator try to take a place by the glass wall, unless you are very afraid of heights, because the view as you rise through the air is delightful.
Depending upon the temperature you'll spend anywhere from 5 to a lot more minutes on the observation deck before returning to the elevator and descending to the museum, which begins with a large, fascinating section dedicated to pre-cinema animation techniques (shadow puppets, animations, dime-store viewers and so on) followed by a floor dedicated to cinematographic techniques with all sorts of cinematic keepsakes, including a black lace bustier belonging to MM, which is (from a male perspective) most impressive.
There's a ramp around the drum of the cupola with a great many poster boards and film posters, and down on the floor of the cupola are pieces of sets, including one designed by Gabriele D'Annunzio, more mementos including a set piece from Alien, and two viewing areas equipped with couches and continuous feeds; if you get tired of watching what's on the screen you simply look up at the cupola, whose lighting changes regularly, sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, and sometimes with images projected over it. Always interesting.
To be honest, though I paid the admission because I wanted to enjoy the view, I'd happily go back and spend more hours simply enjoying the Mole Antonelliana's interior. It's one of the most interesting museums (and buildings) I've been in in many years. For more information on the Museo del Cinema, see their site.
Winding down, this year, rather than hold a large gala dinner the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino held several smaller dinners in restaurants in Montalcino, and I drew the Grappolo Blu (Scale di Via Moglio, 1, not far from the Town Hall; Phone: 0577.847.150; closed Fridays), which was quite nice, with (among other things) an inspired chestnut flour tagliatelle served with wild mushrooms and sausages, beef jowl braised in Brunello wine, and a tasty wild boar stew with polenta. Highly recommended, though you will have to make reservations if you visit during the turisty part of the year.
I had planned to close with a couple of recipes, but this is already quite long enough. This time's proverb is Tuscan:
Un sol gusto non determina sapore, a single flavor does not define a taste.
Until next time,
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com
PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find recent ones at Cosa Bolle.Com, http://www.cosabolle.com, and older ones at http://italianfood.about.com/blbol.htm.
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