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Brunello 2011: Meiburg Makes it Easy

As a fellow educator it is always an enjoyable experience to see a true professional at work. Last week Debra Meiburg was in Taipei to help promote the 2011 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino so I was always going to find room in my diary for a date that dovetailed California’s finest with the apogee of Sangiovese.

As a Master of Wine, many will have assumed or expected Debra to be on point but all of us who have ever attended a formal lesson or seminar whether at school, college or through work, will know that knowledge per se does not a great teacher make. The ability to engage is the most fundamental skill as learning is then elevated to what it should be; a positive experience rather than a chore. Debra’s methods are neither revolutionary or unique but by talking to those present (rather than at them), inviting contributions and gently fishing individuals from the audience to help her illustrate certain essential facts, ensured that the two hour class felt refreshingly concise.

As an admirer of Brunello, the four samples from 2011 did not disappoint. Fans of 2010, with its opulence and generosity might find the crisp acidity of 2011 too brusque but I enjoyed the elegance and nervosité of these wines. One must also never forget that these are Italian wines. Italian red wine devoid of acid is like an Italian man who doesn’t look good in knitwear; it’s just not meant to happen. Debra signed off with a quiz that was designed to whittle those assembled down to a number where she could award prizes. Unfortunately her abilities as a teacher coupled with the Taiwanese trait of attentive academic application meant that this proved impossible, everyone had been too engaged to fail. Hopefully Brunello di Montalcino 2011 has a similar effect on the wine-drinking public.

Listed below are the two wines that I would happily buy and if you’ve never been convinced by Brunello then one of these should be sufficient to make you see sense.

Col d’Orcia, ‘Nastagio’, Brunello di Montalcino 2011, 14.5%
This is a little too reticent (on the nose) at the moment to warrant more than the score I have given but on the palate the wine springs to life delivering dried herbs and cherry flavours wrapped in firm but fine tannins and a bite of acidity. It also has a silkiness, weight and persistence that suggests this is worthy of a few more years in your wine fridge to allow it the opportunity to blossom. Elegant and fine.
17/20
Currently seeking an importer in Taiwan 

Le Macioche 2011, 14.5%
This was the first time that I had tasted wines from this small estate and this has the perfumed purity and prettiness, that will really appeal to Taiwan’s ever growing band of ‘Pinotphiles’. Refreshing and with less obvious grunt than the Col d’Orcia, Le Macioche is a wine I would be very pleased to serve this evening. No ageing required but this has enough concentration to warrant further cellaring if you can resist its already ample charms.
17/20
Currently seeking an importer in Taiwan

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Sangiovese: Mr Grumpy or misunderstood maestro?

Some will think that linking Sangiovese to the irascible means that I cannot be one of this Tuscan variety’s biggest fans but they would be wrong. Being the proud owner of a Mr Grumpy mug, (thanks daughter), ensures that being judged as a little tetchy is more a badge of honour than a slur on my, or indeed Sangiovese’s, somewhat querulous nature. Deep down we are not grumpy at all, just occasionally misunderstood.

Sangiovese is not a variety for the uninitiated. On first entering a pub on my 18th birthday (and not a day before) I was drinking cider; a sweeter, more approachable and forgiving taste experience than the Tetley Imperial bitter, I would gravitate towards after a few months training. Younger wine drinkers are also often seduced by a little sweetness and why not? Barefoot Moscato or Apothic red are easy wines to like but for many the shift towards drier styles is a natural progression in the same way that some people grow into liking the full flavoured Brussels sprout or the iodine reek of Islay whisky.

Sangiovese is a variety that many will come to reluctantly, especially if one’s only drinking experiences have been the meanest of Chiantis bought whilst holidaying in Italy. Historically these wines have been served in that most aptly named bottle, the straw covered ‘fiasco’. So why is Sangiovese worthy of your hard earned money, why choose this over a more generous Merlot or violet scented Syrah? Because with some care and effort, better producers can smooth out the testiness and rusticity and create wines that twinkle on the palate. The inherent high levels of acidity and sour cherry fruit style make it well suited to food. Sangiovese cleanses one’s weary maw in a way no amount of 70’s inspired sorbet ever can and cuts through dishes laced with fat (such as those containing a slick of Tuscany’s famous olive oil), like a tooth through blancmange.

Sangiovese is also relatively affordable. Good examples are to be had from around the 1,000NT mark here in Taiwan (or in the ten to fifteen pound mark back in the UK) but if you want something really fine, a wine that can mature with you, it can do that as well. Arguably the apogee of the variety is to be found in the southern Tuscan town of Montalcino. Here Sangiovese is known as Brunello and these wines, aged for a minimum of five years before release, have the guts to provide gustatory pleasure over many years. With the passing of time, maturation reveals an increasingly complex array of aromas that runs through truffle and leather to the more floral and perfumed. Structurally, these flavours are supported by warming but not aggressive alcohol and fine, powdery tannins, that hold the attention of your tongue without ever threatening to stick it to the roof of your mouth. So is Sangiovese really Mr Grumpy or more Mr Tickle? Try one of the wines below and find out.

Good

The Wine Society’s Exhibition Chianti Classico, 2013, 14%
I make no apology for choosing as my entry level Sangiovese a bottle that costs more than a tenner. Some grapes just aren’t very well suited to making cheap wine. This is a good quality introduction to the variety and region and is delicious drinking now. Plenty of fruit whilst retaining the dry finish that lends these wines an appealing if slightly rustic elegance.
Available From: thewinesociety.com (UK)
Price: 10.95
Score: 16/20

 Better

Bibbiano Chianti Classico, 2012, 13.5%
Smelling of raspberry tea and with a herbal twang, this is classic Chianti Classico. Vigorous, sappy and almost crunchy, lovely now but will happily sit under the stairs for a couple of years although like its neighbour, the vacuum cleaner, it won’t improve much during this time.
Available from: bbr.com (for those in the UK or Hong Kong)
Price: 14.95
Score: 16.5/20 

Best

Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino, 2008, 14%
I like this style of Brunello. In the same way a good suit can make a man a little more handsome than you’d first suspected, Montalcino seems to add an air of refinement to a variety that inherently suffers from ‘bed hair’. This is perfumed like sandalwood and has the beginnings of some aged aromas that are leafy and comforting. This is good to drink now, although it would benefit from the aeration that decanting would provide, or if you are patient, leave for a year or ten and wait for the complexity to unfurl.
Available from: Ascent Way (Taiwan) or leaandsandeman.co.uk
Price: 3,600NT
Score: 17.5/20

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A Postcard from Tuscany

The belt on my trousers is being buckled at a less familiar point following a week of excellent food and wine in Italy’s hill-town state of Tuscany. Normally my diet is relatively modest with only one significant meal a day but here, holidaying at garter level on Italy’s leggy peninsula, I found that my modest powers of self-restraint were constantly being outweighed by my greed. In the local shops, markets and restaurants, deliciousness oozed from every meat counter, cheese vendor, table top and menu making any resistance futile.

As a resident of the great and gastronomic city of Taipei I never lack access to food that has the ability to make my heart skip with pleasure but there are certain European flavours that are no longer part of my regular life. Shavings of fresh truffle, like translucent slices of some small animal’s brain, scented both the air and butter coated ribbons of perfectly prepared papardelle in Montepulciano. In Cortona I indulged in aged Pecorino, yellowed beneath the rind but milky white and with a firm midriff that when cut into uneven wedges added some subterranean pungency to Tuscany’s famously salt-free bread. Back at our villa, inch thick steaks of the local long-legged Chianina cattle caused the grill of our barbecue to sag towards the middle in apparent sympathy with my own torso and an accompanying salad of fennel was elevated beyond the prosaic by the intensely aromatic and sherbert-like lift provided by a good squeeze of sfusato lemon juice (from Amalfi in Campania); and still no mention of wine…

As one would expect there was a good deal of Sangiovese consumed, especially following visits to producers in both Chianti and Montalcino but there was also a satisfying selection of Tuscan white. Vermentino from Bolgheri, Vernaccia from San Gimignano and (a first for me) a rather rare but delicious Sauvignon Blanc from Sesti in Montalcino. I will write more about those wine experiences later in the season but now it is time to move northwards to Valpolicella territory: Veneto’s Verona. Food Goals

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Italy: More than pizza and pasta

Italy’s cuisine, founded on pasta, pizza and the concept of ‘cucina povera’ (simple but quality food), has seen Italian food garner global fame. It is rare to arrive in any town or city in the developed world without seeing the tricolore proudly displayed in the signage of the local trattoria, but what about Italian wine?

Most wine consumers will, at some point, have worked their way through a glass of Chianti or Pinot Grigio but that is just the tip of a very large ‘wineberg’ that remains relatively unknown to the majority. If you doubt my assessment of the level of consciousness that Italian wines have managed to prick, just examine the Master of Wine exams of the last three years (2012-2014). Of the 108 wines that candidates have been asked to assess: only eleven were Italian in comparison to thirty three from France. I don’t think this is evidence of some internal bias by the Institute of Masters of Wine, just a reflection of the lack of penetration in global terms for many of Italy’s offerings. This lack of recognition is partly due to what lovers of Italian wine cherish the most; namely the vast range of indigenous varieties scattered throughout the Italian peninsula. The ‘problem’ for many of these varieties is that they seem reluctant to flourish away from their homeland meaning that there is a concomitant lack of exposure. Hopefully Australia’s increasing desire to plant some of these varieties, a sensible choice considering the generally Mediterranean climate experienced in much of the wine growing South East, will help to redress this situation.

Monday saw the Gambero Rosso Italian wine tasting event arrive in Taipei. The raft of Italian producers in attendance, many as yet to find importers in this corner of Asia, provided a welcome opportunity to refamiliarise myself with the classic as well as the more esoteric offerings from this vinous heavyweight. Below are wines from four producers that I hope will have been successful in their search for representation, as I believe they have the necessary charm to delight not just me but also the increasing number of wine-drinkers here in Taiwan. Whatever the outcome for these four estates, be sure to explore Italy’s vinous heritage, it is as important and as impressive as their food and warrants your attention.

Barone Pizzini, Franciacorta DOCG, Brut Nature, 2011
Grape: 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir
Wine-making: More than 24 months on lees and less than 3g of sugar per litre in the dosage.
Note: Buttered brioche with a little nectarine and citrus fruit, this was a decidedly precise yet still vinous glass of Franciacorta. If you like Champagne then the wines from this part of Lombardy offer similar levels of quality with a touch more generosity.
Score: 16/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

Bibbiano, Chianti Classico DOCG, 2012, 13.5%
Grape: Sangiovese
Wine-making: No oak
Note: Benchmark Chianti Classico, all crisp, pithy and with the scent of sour cherries gives this a thirst quenching quality that makes it alarmingly easy to drink.
Score: 16/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan 

La Raia, Gavi DOCG, ‘Pisè’, 2012, 13%
Grape: Cortese
Wine-making: 12 months on lees
Note: This shows how good Cortese can be. Leesy, firm but with apple, almond and a subtle floral quality that is almost reminiscent of a good 1er cru Chablis. Break out the oysters.
Score: 16.5+/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan 

Marchesi di Barolo, Barbaresco Tradizione, 2011, 14.5%
Grape: Nebbiolo
Wine-making: Short maceration (helps retain fruitiness) and 18 months in large oak.
Note: This is as juicy and approachable as young Nebbiolo gets. Fruity, floral and generous and tame enough to enjoy without food.
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

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Chardonnay: The Greatest of Grapes

Like people who take their Mother for granted, there are those that do not show Chardonnay the respect it deserves. If I were told I could only drink the wine of one white variety for the rest of my life, then Chardonnay would be it. Why? Because it is capable of being at once both magnificent and cosseting; I want to be bowled over but not injured in the process. I know some will trumpet the versatility and filigree fine-ness of Riesling and they are right. Riesling can and has made me cry such is the intensity and density of its best work, but it assaults rather than woos and for this reason I could not drink it daily. Chenin Blanc is another favourite of mine making some of the most thought provoking dry and sweet wines in the world, from its base in the Loire, whilst building an ever increasing body of quality work in South Africa.

Yet Chardonnay remains the one. At this point it would be easy to list the great and the good of Burgundy, quite rightly considered the apogee of what is possible with this variety but that would also be very predictable. In the New World; Australia, New Zealand and California all have producers that consistently craft wines of top 1er Cru level quality (to use Burgundy as the reference), and there is no reason to believe that in the near future, wines of ‘Grand Cru’ quality will be beyond their reach.

And so to Italy, a nation not associated with great Chardonnay. From her heel to her thigh, Italy’s reputation is for food-friendly reds not jaw-dropping whites but that is changing. In Tuscany, Isole e Olena produce an anachronistic or, if you prefer, ‘classic’ style of Chardonnay which oozes oak from every aromatically charged pore. Such is the intensity and refinement on display, the oak acts as a foil rather than obstacle and helps promise a wine capable of a decade or more of decadence. The moral of it all? Don’t dis your Mother.

Isole e Olena, Collezione Privata, IGT Toscana, 2011, 14.5%
Grape: Chardonnay
Wine-making: Lots of new French oak
Note: Romantic I know, but this smells of a warm Tuscan summer. A little dusky peach, lemon oil and fig. Incredibly concentrated but it does not lose its charm, you will want to keep drinking this. Delicious and fine.
Price: 3,300NT
Score: 18/20
Available from: Ascent Way

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Let Them Breathe

One of the most annoying aspects of social media is the constant reminder that people are drinking not only better wine than me but also more mature examples. Here in Taiwan my only storage is my wine fridge that allegedly holds 66 bottles but in reality shoehorning the contents of four cases of wine into its meagre maw is the best I have managed. The result is that wine does not get much chance to mature; such is the rapid turnover of bottles. Therefore the only old wine I get to drink is other people’s, or wine that I make old myself.

It is illuminating to realise just how easy it can be to experience a wine’s future development in bottle, today. Three wines that I opened with my tasting group on Tuesday of last week were perfect examples, the oldest being from 2009 and the others from 2010. One of them in particular the Podere Sapaio from Bolgheri (reviews below) was classy but demure on Tuesday, slightly more alluring on Wednesday and positively rambunctious by Thursday. The Clos Marsalette also opened up, progressively becoming more tobacco and fruitcake scented over those 48 hours. The Domus Aurea from the upper Maipo in Chile was the Dorian Gray of the line-up seemingly oblivious to the ravages of sitting on ullage in my kitchen. It remained very primary and pure with the pointed tang of fresh blackcurrants as dominant on the first day as it was on the third.

There is no doubt that having the facility to store more, or indeed having the money to buy mature is the ideal scenario for winos (should that be wine lovers?) everywhere. Yet the reality is rarely so convenient so open some wine, drink it over two or three days and take a peak into the future.

Podere Sapaio, ‘Volpolo’, Bolgheri, 2010, 13.5%
Grape: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot
Wine-making: 14 months in both large and small French oak barrels
Note: By the third day this was rich in black cherry, vanilla and graphite aromas. The firm and grainy tannins of day one had not altered much in texture but they appeared more voluminous. This is fine stuff and one for Bordeaux lovers who fancy a change.
Price: 2,500NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: www.ascentway.com.tw 

Clos Marsalette, Pessac Leognan, 2010, 13.5%
Grape: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Wine-making: Matured in 50% new French oak
Note: Exuberant strawberry nose matured to more sweet tobacco and fruitcake by day three. Plush and plump and with ripe, grainy tannins, this is not the most complex Bordeaux you will ever drink but is crowd pleasing in its generosity.
Price: 1,450NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: www.winesymphony.com

Vina Quebrada de Macul, Domus Aurea, 2009, 14%
Grape: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc & 2% Petit Verdot
Wine-making: 18 months in 80% new French oak
Note: Incredibly pure and precise with brightness of both fruit expression and acidity making this delicious drinking now whilst promising a potential decade of further improvement. Very good.
Price: 1,800NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: www.icheers.tw

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The Diversity of Sauvignon Blanc

Historically I have not been one of Sauvignon Blanc’s biggest fans, finding it rather wearing after a glass or two. Sauvignon’s big draw is its hugely aromatic scent, but it is exactly this rather brash trait that leaves me a little underwhelmed. Too often behind all the perfume is a hollow and sometimes hard wine; a one trick pony.

Yet like so many grape varieties, Sauvignon does possess what it takes to be great. Anyone who has ever tasted Domaine de Chevalier’s white from Pessac Leognan knows how intense, complex and elegant this variety can be. Two regions of the world where the styles are often the antithesis of each other are, Marlborough in New Zealand and Sonoma County, California. Marlborough is synonymous with the most effusive examples, floral, fruity and bright. The best from California (usually labelled ‘Fumé Blanc’) are more restrained. These wines are often fermented and matured in oak giving a sweeter fruit style and, in the best examples, have added complexity from time spent on lees and from their slow exposure to air.

The two Sauvignon Blancs below would make for a great comparative tasting. The Matua is a premium example from Marlborough. It has greater depth, weight and concentration than is normal for the region, whilst retaining all the flamboyance that has made Marlborough Sauvignons famous. The ‘La Petite Etoile’ has a more restrained character with a leesy, nutty and bruised apple aroma that reminds me of Chenin Blanc from the Loire. The warmer climate of Sonoma (in comparison to the other great Sauvignon regions of the world) is partly responsible for this more muted style and the use of the Musqué clone adds extra richness and body. Whichever style you prefer, both are excellent examples and are worth seeking out.

I have included a review of the delicious Chianti Classico Riserva from the ‘La Route’ range, for those of you who prefer red. This was my wine of the afternoon and mature enough to have allowed sufficient softening of Sangiovese’s naturally rather strident tannins.

 

Matua, ‘Lands & Legends’, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2013, 13.5%
Grape: Sauvignon Blanc
Wine-making: No oak, this is all about fruit purity and intensity.
Note: Ultra clean but not boring Marlborough Sauvignon, that has extra intensity and focus in comparison to many of its competitors. That extra concentration comes at a premium but is well worth comparing with the Fume Blanc below to experience the vastly different styles that Sauvignon can produce. Delicious.
Price: 1,500NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: La Route 02 8780 0959

 

Chateau St Jean, ‘La Petite Etoile’, Russian River, Fume Blanc, 2011, 14.5%
Grape: Sauvignon Blanc, includes a portion of the ‘Musque’ clone which adds a little extra aromatic and textural dimension.
Wine-making: Barrel fermented and two thirds matured in a mix of old and new French oak for 8 months.
Note: Engaging, complex and classy. Nutty, leesy and with bruised apple and citrus aromas that are supported by a ripe but savoury and persistent palate. Very good, a Sauvignon version of Savennieres.
Price: 1,200NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: La Route 02 8780 0959

 

Castello Gabbiano, Chianti Classico Riserva, 2009, 14%
Grape: 95% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot
Wine-making: Maturation in both old and new oak.
Note: A ‘proper’ Chianti that already looks old in the glass with its rich, garnett colour. Leathery, herbal and dried strawberry nose coupled with some spice and very fine powdery tannins. Mature and delicious, this is perfect drinking now and comes highly recommended.
Price: 1,300NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: La Route 02 8780 0959

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On Drinking Older Wine

Unless you are one of the lucky few with access to a cellar that has been carefully collected over years, the wine you drink will rarely be over five years old. This is not necessarily a bad thing, there is little reason to covet the un-covetable as the vast majority of wines produced are intended for early consumption. The situation in the most prestigious of regions (such as Bordeaux) is no different, the laying down of middle-rank wines for periods in excess of ten years rarely results in a wonderful drinking experience. Too often these wines become faded imitations of their more vibrant, youthful selves and any perceived increase in complexity is irrelevant if the fruit character of the wine has long since departed.

Certain wines do have the stuffing for the long haul, replete with the necessary intensity, concentration (tannin if red) and acidity to allow a progressive, evolving transformation. These wines can be both remarkable, and at times disappointing, but their representation of a small piece of history always induces excitement as the pulling of the cork uncloaks the past. In previous posts Sniff has looked at older wines that are released onto the market ready to drink, wines such as Gran Reserva Riojas or aged Tawny Ports. These provide accessible glimpses into the merits of older wine as they require the buyer to have neither patience nor an exotic storage system to appreciate their charms. Yet there is no more pleasing moment of self satisfaction (…ok I can think of a couple) than uncorking a bottle that has matured under your own roof. Both the self-denial and the company with whom you choose to share the wine, hopefully warrant your patience. If you really can’t be bothered to buy wine for the future, ingratiate yourself with people who can and enjoy the fruits of their resolve instead.

Below are two wines that I recently enjoyed drinking…thank god for friends with wine collections.

Château Canon, St.Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe, 1979, 12.5% (Magnum)
Grape:
Merlot, Cabernet Franc and perhaps a little Cabernet Sauvignon
Note: Intensely perfumed nose that showed no signs of fading even after an hour in the glass. Blood, cedar and that very old school graphite/wooden school desk aroma that so typifies older Bordeaux. Fresh acidity, supple tannins and restrained savoury fruit that teeters between elegant and the slightly unripe. Persistent.
Score: 17.5/20

Ruffino, Riserva Ducale Oro, Chianti Classico, 1990, 13% (Magnum)
Grape:
Sangiovese
Note: Bituminous, scorched earth and herbal, intense and concentrated with plenty of ripe red fruit lingering in the background. Fine and rustically elegant
Score: 17.5/20

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