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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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Seismic Wine

It is not often that one gets to taste wine during an earthquake but on Monday it happened twice. In the morning, I sat down at my desk, set the timer on my phone for 22 minutes (I was only tasting two wines) so as to recreate the conditions of an MW exam, and began my sniffing and spitting. Whilst staring into the middle distance pondering the powdery nature of the first wine’s tannins, I became aware of the gentle pull and push of the quake and the swaying of the pictures on the wall. Those of you who have experienced this rather soothing effect may have noticed that most people’s reaction is to sit still. Whilst I contemplated getting under the table just in case the soothing morphed into something more sinister I knew that this seismic event was going to play havoc with my timing.

In the evening our tasting group had just poured the wines when the first of two aftershocks crept into the building causing more swaying of lights and human stillness. After that the wines were sure to be a disappointment…but they weren’t and although they may not have caused the earth to move they did provide plenty of animated discussion.

There were two wines in particular – a Chianti and a Muscadet – that proved deliciously atypical. The Chianti was soft, supple, lithe and delightfully refined with an almost Burgundian feel whilst the Muscadet had most of us looking at something Rhone-ish like Roussanne, so generous was the fruit and body. Lastly we enjoyed some Marsanne whose lemon verbena scented richness provided the perfect post quake quaff.

All of the wines below come highly recommended.

Domaine de la Pépière, Clisson, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, 2011, 12%
Grapes: Melon de Bourgogne
Wine-making: 2 yrs on the lees
Note: Alluring nose of candied pineapple, lemon oil and some cheesiness from time spent on the lees. This is generous, outstandingly rich for Muscadet, and persistent. A bargain.
Price: 800NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: www.rt-mart.com.tw 

Castello di Ama, Chianti Classico Riserva, 2008, 13.5%
Grapes: 80% Sangiovese, 20% Malvasia Nera, Merlot, Cabernet Franc
Wine-making: 12 months in 20% new French oak for 12 months
Note: Blackberry, meaty and graphite scented loveliness. The tannins, so often laced with astringency in Sangiovese are supple, almost soft, and provide a fine boned structure from which the fruit seductively hangs. Although not inexpensive (it is still cheaper than most Brunello) this is an excellent example of the elegance achievable in Chianti.
Price: 1900NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: www.icheers.tw 

Les Vins de Vienne, Les Bialères, Saint Peray, 2012, 13.5%
Grapes: 80% Marsanne, 20% Roussanne
Wine-making: 9 months in French oak (not new)
Note: Smelling of lemon oil and lemon verbena, this Marsanne is typically generous of body and soft in acidity and makes me salivate for some salmon.
Price: 1300NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: www.titlist.com.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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Angelo Gaja: The Wines from his 'other' Estates

The wines of Barbaresco’s infamous Angelo Gaja are delicious and often profound, the prices are less easy to stomach.

Not that Angelo will be unduly concerned, there are plenty of people willing to pay the required, necessary to secure a bottle. Today’s post, however, casts an eye over the more affordable wines that herald from Gaja’s other properties in both Piemonte and Toscana. Too often, subsidiary estates acquired by very successful producers can seem like nothing more than vanity projects with little purpose other than to increase profits. My biggest gripe being that the wines from these subsidiaries appear unable to deliver quite the profundity of the offerings from the more famous original. Yet acquisitions by Gaja have his stamp of quality running through them meaning few will be disappointed by the end product. Angelo describes himself as an artisan and once you stoke his metaphorical embers, by asking him questions concerning the methods used in his wine’s production, you realise that this is not an estate owner going through the motions; this 74 year old’s inner fire remains undimmed.

The purchase of estates in both Montalcino and Bolgheri gave Gaja production capability in Italy’s three most prestigious wine regions. The Rennina is a deeply pleasing Brunello and the Magari a fine example of how well the coastal vineyards of Bolgheri and Maremma suit Bordeaux varieties. Further purchases in Piemonte allowed Gaja to extend their offering and provides the consumer with some wines that are more forward and easily broached in their youth such as the elegant Sito Moresco. The aim is to produce wines that reflect a sense of place, a commonly heard mantra much easier to say than to achieve, yet these bottlings have seen that goal successfully attained. None of the wines below could ever be described as inexpensive but on the whole they impress and are worth the efforts required to seek them out.

Sito Moresco, Langhe, 2012, 14%
Grape:
35% Nebbiolo, 35% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine-making: 18 months in small barrels
Note: Delicately perfumed, sweet red fruit, floral, touch of cordite. Lovely palate, fine powdery tannins (very Nebbiolo) but with a plushness to the palate that is surely the result of the relatively high Merlot content. This may not have the same density or concentration as other Piemontese wines from Gaja but this is not a wine to be under-estimated. Delicious drinking now but with the ability to age over the medium term.
Price: 2400NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Sergio Valente (Sergio.com.tw)

Rossj Bass, Langhe, 2013,13.5%
Grape:
Chardonnay
Wine-making: 100% Stainless steel fermentation and a little new French oak maturation for 8-10 months.
Note: Fresh, very limey, apricot, taut, crisp and mineral with some complexity provided by a little nutty creaminess. Intense fruit character and persistent but this needs some time to develop. Still a baby.
Price: 3400NT
Score: 17.5
Available from: Sergio Valente (Sergio.com.tw)

Magari, Ca’ Marcanda, IGT Toscana, 2012, 14.5%
Grape:
50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc (young vine)
Wine-making: 18 months in French oak
Note: Black and red fruit dominate on the nose but are amply supported by spice, perfume and some toasty oak. A freshness provided by the fine acidity lets you know that you are in Italy and the elevated alcohol that warms the mouth without setting it alight is an expected marker from these costal Tuscan vineyards.
Price: 3000NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Sergio Valente (Sergio.com.tw)

Pieve Santa Restituta, Rennina, Brunello di Montalcino, 2007, 14%
Grape:
Brunello (Sangiovese)
Wine-making: 12 months in small oak followed by 12 months in large oak (botti)
Note: Bright ruby/garnet in colour this has a deliciously alluring, complex and savoury nose of tomato soup, beef bones, porcini mushrooms and sandalwood. Rich and concentrated, dens and persistent. Brilliant
Price: 7200NT
Score: 18.5/20
Available from: Sergio Valente (Sergio.com.tw)

D40 Angelo bottles