Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Anteprime Save My Day

I am pleased to announce that starting today my friend Bill Marsano (photo at left by Maury Englander) will be an occasional contributor to this blog. He is known variously as Marsanobeel and Lui Di Nuovo; I know him as a James Beard award-winning writer and one of the most insightful observers of the Italian wine scene. He himself admits only to being "a crank with some bizarre opinions."

By Bill Marsano
©Copyright 2009
Photos below by Bill Marsano

April--the cruellest month? Pace Mr. Eliot, it's February, my friends. February gives Oscars to mostly the wrong people; is National Canned Food and National Snack Food Month. It features Disaster Day (the 5th), Toothache Day (the 9th) and Hoodie-Hoo Day (the 20th; don't ask). And this February the French took leave of their senses.

Formerly a sophisticated people, the French now wage war on wine. New laws put wine on the same menace-to-society level as pornography. And according to Decanter magazine, France's National Health Ministry says “The consumption of alcohol, and especially wine, is discouraged”; Dominique Maraninchi, head of France's national cancer institute adds that "Small daily doses of alcohol are the most harmful. There is no amount, however small, which is good for you." Cieux aux Élizabeth! as my mother would have said had she ever Frenched 'Heavens to Betsy!' And Maraninchi feels much the same about red meat and charcuterie. Can I get an Ooo-la-la! here?

In short, France is awash in the Higher Nonsense. Tuscany, on the other hand, is not, so thither I skedaddled for the annual anteprime (previews) of Chianti, Vino Nobile and Brunello. The anteprime attract some 200 international critics and far-flung journalists, lightly salted with a few indigent scribblers like your correspondent, who apply themselves to the latest vintages and to rounds of dining and drinking such as would give Messr. Maraninchi the blue creevies or the dry fantods or both. This goes on without surcease for six start-early/end-late days, and we call it work.

Events opened with the Chianti Collection at Florence's Stazione Leopolda exhibition hall, in which the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, which represents 95 percent of Chianti Classico DOCG producers had gathered about 160 of them; they in turn opened their 2008s, '07s and '06s, throwing in a dozen or so '05s just for lagniappe. The total was close on to 400 wines. To deal with this tsunamic quantity I skipped all barrel samples (the '08s promise well but can't be released until autumn) and the '07s still in barrel now won't be the same when bottled. I lit into the bottled versions of '07 and '06, two vintages that are "widely," as they say, "hailed."

Chianti Classico offers endless variety for nearly endless reasons. One is that Chianti, which lies mostly between Florence and Siena, sprawls over 173,000 acres; has numerous soil types and elevations running from 660 to 2600 feet. Another reason is the vexed question of whether Chianti should be a varietal (its latest expression) or a blend (which is what it has been for centuries).

That question is answered by the three clans of Classico producers: I Puristi, who use Sangiovese cento per cento or in purezza, refusing to blend it; I Tradizionalisti, who use at least 80 per cent Sangiovese (the legal minimum) and add such back-in-the-day grapes as Colorino and Canaiolo, and Gli Innovatori, who blend instead such international varieties as Cabernet and Merlot.

Guess what? They all make really good wine.

In relying on Sangiovese alone, I Puristi benefit from the Consorzio's years of work to develop the best possible Sangiovese clone through the Chianti 2000 program. The results show that, all other things being equal, Sangiovese can stand alone as a varietal wine. Winning examples at Leopolda came from Le Fonti, Aria, Borgo Salcetino, Piccini, La Forra, Vignamaggio (where Emma Thompson starred in "Much Ado About Nothing"), Molino di Grace, Fèlsina, La Sala, Villa Cafaggio--among others.

The Tradizionalisti make blends, and they do it the old-fashioned way, using secondary red varieties that most people have forgotten: mainly Canaiolo, to soften the Sangiovese, and Colorino, which as its name implies puts more color in its cheeks. Does some Malvasia Nera creep in here and there? Bet on it-- but you can kiss yesterday's white varieties goodbye. No more Malvasia Bianco and the enthusiastically despised Trebbiano, which made Chianti an early drinker—da pronta beva in Italian--according to the formula long ago promulgated by the Iron Baron, Bettino Ricasoli. They had been steadily reduced to derisory amounts over the years, permitted, in fact, solely for old times' sake. Now, not even that. It’s official: quella è la porta is the word. They’ve been shown the door.

Before Leopolda showed me the same I had some very nice samples of these wines: Monsanto, Badia a Coltibuono and Castello di Querceto are names known to all, senza dubbia, but these others are hardly obscure: Fattoria Nittardi, Casa Emma, Carpineto, Manucci Droandi, Lornano, Tenuta di Capraia, Montegrossi, Mangiacane, La Ripa, Nozzole, Vicchiomaggio and more. I could go on. I'd rather go back.

Gli Innovatori have their roots in the 1960s, when the great effort to systematically improve Italian wines fairly began. Many producers dumped the traditional blender grapes in favor of Cabernet or Merlot. In the early days, when they were used heavy-handedly and accompanied by too many barriques, they overwhelmed Sangiovese’s essential elegance--stepped on her gown, so to say. A lot has been learnt since. Leopolda showed some nifty examples: Ruffino Santedame, Panzanello, Bindi Sergardi, Monte Bernardi Retromarcia, Le Due Arbie, Viticcio, Riseccoli, Poggio al Sole, Il Palagio and many more.

Among the newer blending grapes is Syrah. Talk about muscle! A colleague rightly fears it'll become too popular because it's powerful enough to cover for the producer who overcrops his Sangiovese: not at all a good thing. Used judiciously, however, it seems to work pretty well. Castello di Volpaia and Isole e Olena do very nicely using only 5 per cent (Volpaia adding an equal amount of Merlot and Isole e Olena using 15 percent Canaiolo).

Many and maybe even most producers mix and match--they'll have a cento per cento, but they’ll also make blends using old varieties, international varieties, or both. That suggests not inconsistency but careful attention to the vintage by the likes of Castello di Ama, Castello di Fonterutoli, Castello di Selvole, Il Poggiolino and Villa Calcinaia. It's surely the same with San Fabiano Calcinaia, Cecchi and Villa Cerna, but they prefer to keep us guessing, saying only that they add to their Sangiovese five or 10 percent "other complementary varieties."

Two fine vintages, a plethora of fine producers--increasingly it gets harder to make a mistake with Chianti Classico; you can pretty much pick blindfolded.

Tasting through so many wines in so little time was made possible largely by an army of fleet-footed sommeliers, by the efforts of the consorzio’s president, Marco Pallanti, its marketing/communications manager, Silvia Fiorentini, and by the restorative luncheon buffet and gala dinner provided for the ravening giornalisti. As I said, we call it work.

Next: A Tale of Two Cities: Vino Nobile’s Anteprima.

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