Thursday, 20 September 2012

Far From A Fiasco

The importance of Marchesi Piero Antinori’s contribution to Tuscan wine specifically, to Italian wine generally and to the standing of both in the wider world of wine cannot easily be overstated. The figures make impressive enough reading on their own: Piero is the 26th generation of a family whose unbroken winemaking provenance dates back to 1385; today the family owned company owns nearly 2500 hectares of vineyards in Italy and abroad, it produces around 20 million bottles for a turnover in excess of €115 million annually and it exports over 60% of its production to more than 100 different countries (I have even seen Antinori's bottles on the wine list of the restaurant in the Yak & Yeti hotel in downtown Kathmandu).

Impressive statistics aside, it is Antinori’s list of wines that has always spoken most persuasively in favour of the way Piero has chosen to run his family’s estate. A fervent champion of the inherent value of his native Chianti, and of that of all of the other Italian wine regions, he has worked long and hard to improve and modernise the techniques and regulations that traditionally favoured quantity over quality. Across the board, the standards to which Antinori consistently holds itself are even more impressive when you consider that it is one of the larger wine producers in a country of seriously large, and often seriously mediocre, wine producers.

A recent tasting of a cross section of Antinori’s wines, in the company of UK brand ambassador Alex Canetti, confirmed their quality to be as high as ever just as their names become even longer than ever!

Tenuta Guado Al Tasso,
Scalabrone Bolgheri
Rosato 2010
1. Tenuta Guado Al Tasso, Scalabrone Bolgheri Rosato DOC 2010 (12% ABV, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 30% Syrah). A reasonably deeply coloured, peony tinged, rosé with grapefruit citrus notes, white pepper, strawberry sweets and a whiff of Cabernet earthiness to its nose. Bright strawberry and raspberry fruit on the palate with a pleasing level of lemony citrus acidity and a hint of herbaceousness. A more serious wine than many a rosé, but it always puts a smile on my face and it’s great with food.

Tenuta Guado Al Tasso,
Guado Al Tasso
Vermentino 2011
2. Tenuta Guado Al Tasso, Guado Al Tasso Vermentino Bolgheri DOC 2011 (12.5% ABV, 100% Vermentino). More usually found in Corsica, in Sardinia and across the South of France, this racy Mediterranean variety retains it acidity in warmer regions giving racy, refreshing wines. Ripe, gently honeyed, Sauvignon-esque nose with suggestions of tomato leaf and greengage. Dry, but not austere; fresh and limey fruit was balanced by an almost salty minerality and the finish was surprisingly long for a light white.

Castello Della Sala,
San Giovanni Della Sala
Orvieto Classico
Superiore 2011
3. Castello Della Sala, San Giovanni Della Sala Orvieto DOC Classico Superiore 2011 (12.5% ABV, 50% Grechetto, 25% Procanico and 25% Pinot Bianco and Viognier). Along with Soave and Frascati, Orvieto is a wine whose reputation has been almost irreversibly tarnished by oceans of industrially produced, personality-free plonk and I find that a terrible shame. This is Antinori’s top Orvieto and its quality shows. A light, white fruit and blossom nose; the gently spiced, long, ripe palate echoes the white fruit and blossom from the nose paired with a fresh, citrusy acidity. The Pinot Bianco and Viognier add weight without overwhelming. Very good indeed.

Castello Della Sala,
Cervaro Della Sala 2009
4. Castello Della Sala, Cervaro Della Sala Umbria IGT 2009 (85% Chardonnay and 15% Grechetto). There are many great Chardonnays from all corners of the world, but, unlike those, this Umbrian take on Meursault benefitted from the freshness provided by the Grechetto. Whiffs of vanilla and toasty new oak – it was fermented and matured sur lie for six months in French oak barriques – wafted over lemon zest scented Chardonnay fruit. The palate, too, was dry and zesty, if a little oaky at present, although this will integrate and harmonise in time. Complex, smokey, toasty and full bodied, the richness was balanced by a streak of minerality. The finish was long, elegant and refined. An excellent wine, as always, although it needs another year or two in bottle to develop before you serve it with a poached lobster.

Tenuta Tignanello,
Marchesi Antinori Chianti
Classico Riserva 2007
5. Tenuta Tignanello, Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva 2007 (13.5% ABV, 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and other complementary varieties). Whilst I really enjoy Antinori’s modern take on local white wines and its wholly atypical Cervaro, somewhat hypocritically I’m far less keen on its internationally influenced reds. Don’t get me wrong, they are in no way bad wines, quite the opposite in fact, it’s just that my traditional (old fashioned?) palate prefers a Chianti to be a Chianti. This wine was a case in point: a Chianti Classico, from the heart of the historic region, made from grapes grown in the renowned Pèppoli, Badia A Passignano and Tignanello vineyards, yet given a modern twist by fourteen months of ageing in barriques and by the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon.

If ever an Italian wine and a grape variety were synonymous with one another, then it must surely be Chianti and Sangiovese. I suppose my argument is with the Chianti DOC for not having sufficient faith in the heritage and quality of its wines rather than with any individual producer per se, but adding Cabernet Sauvignon and new oak will substantially alter the nature of any wine. Whilst the standard of Chianti has improved immeasurably over recent years, and certainly there were many aspects of the old production methods that needed to be improved upon, it has now become very difficult to find a traditionally styled wine that tells of its origins. To me, trying to market centuries of winemaking history and an inimitable terroir that is the apogee of cooler climate Sangiovese production with modern, Bordeaux-influenced, oak flavoured wines sends out something of a mixed message. Is the unique identity and timeless appeal of an important and renowned wine-producing region being sacrificed on the altar of current trends? Similarly radical reforms were roundly rejected down the road in Montalcino and I can only wonder if the Chianti region will come to regret its decision in the future. I don’t say stop making these internationally influenced wines; just devise a new and more appropriate nomenclature.

Anyway, back to the wine that was in my glass. Earthy and blackcurrant leaf Cabernet notes gave an edge to the tobacco, cherry and sweet, new oak nose. Minerally, earthy suggestions from the Cabernet also balanced the new oak on the palate, leaving the subtler cherry and leather flavours of the Sangiovese to linger underneath. Rounded, soft and with a long finish, it was undoubtedly an enjoyable and well-made wine. Modern? Certainly. Appealing? Definitely. But is it really Chianti?

Tenuta Tignanello,
Tignanello 2009
6. Tenuta Tignanello, Tignanello Toscana IGT 2009 (80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc). Although the Bolgheri Bordeaux blend Sassicaia was the first, it is Tignanello that has some claim to being the first genuine Super Tuscan, made as it is predominantly from Sangiovese. It is a modern take on Chianti and it was embarrassment over the price, the quality and the humble vino da tavola status of wines such as this that led, some would say inexorably, to the creation of the experimental IGT classification.

A smoky, toasty, brooding black fruit nose was dark and alluring if rather youthful. The palate was dry with firm, but very finely textured, tannins and complemented by a fresh, fruity acidity. The higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and the small but influential proportion of Cabernet Franc gave more of a black fruit character than was evident in the Chianti Classico above and the oak was more deftly integrated. Dark, velvety and rich with a hugely long finish, the Sangiovese character was somewhat masked at present but experience of some older vintages suggests that this will be remedied over time. This release is still something of a baby and has plenty to offer in the future.

Tenuta Guado Al Tasso,
Il Bruciato 2009
7. Tenuta Guado Al Tasso, Il Bruciato Bolgheri DOC 2009 (13.5% ABV, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 20% Syrah with other red grape varieties). This is the newish second wine of Guado Al Tasso that I have only tasted once before, my abiding memory of this sole previous encounter being the pronounced level of alcohol (14% if I remember correctly). Black fruit, a hint of oak and a hint of smokiness characterised the rather simple nose, whereas the rather simple palate had a slightly burnt quality to it, possibly from the Syrah. Much less obviously alcoholic than before, unfortunately it still did nothing for me, although it may well have suffered in comparison to the Tignanello that it immediately followed.

Tenuta Guado Al Tasso,
Guado Al Tasso 2007
 8. Tenuta Guado Al Tasso, Guado Al Tasso Bolgheri DOC Superiore 2007 (14% ABV, 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot). Bordeaux varieties certainly have an affinity with Bolgheri, the region seems to imbue them with a spark of Italian soul. So much so that it was granted its own DOC back in 1994. Guado Al Tasso is one of the trinity of the region’s top wines each created by a different member of the Antinori family.

An herbaceous, blackcurranty, savoury nose led seamlessly into complex, well-structured palate that delivered different facets of flavour in the same way that a well cut gemstone reflects the light. One moment came the leafy, blackcurrant flavours of Cabernet Sauvignon, then came the softer, plummier character of Merlot. The next moment capsicum-tinged Cabernet Franc was highlighted, before the focus switched to the firmer, tannic Petit Verdot, all rounded off by beautifully integrated new oak. Beguilingly textured, harmonious and expertly crafted, the finish lasted and lasted. Bordeaux in inspiration, Italian in execution.

I have been an admirer of Antinori’s wines for nearly thirty years (thanks Dad!) and I can trace my love of Italy’s fresh whites, light rosés and structured reds to those simpler times of Villa Antinori Bianco, Capsula Viola Rosato and Villa Antinori Rosso. It was not until later I realised that their freshness, approachability and food friendliness symbolised the exciting blend of modernity and tradition that is still an unmistakeable hallmark of Antinori.

As I have said above and will continue to say, the quality of Antinori’s wines is as inarguable as it is impressive, particularly given the scale of production. I admit that the traditionalist in me is less comfortable with the evolution of their increasingly international style, but this is not an indictment of the wines, simply a matter of personal taste.

In case you were wondering about the title of this post, a fiasco is the traditional round-based bottle or flask of the Chianti region. These bottles would not stand up on their own (hence the word's subsequent meaning) and they were placed in a wicker cradle to support them. Today, it is the wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles so beloved as candle holders that utilise the name, although it is usually the wine inside them that is more worthy of the description.