Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reviewing Brunello - Il Poggione and a few other thoughts

Fabrizio Bindocci, winemaker, Il Poggione (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Last week, Alessandro Bindocci of the great Brunello producer Il Poggione entered a new post on his Montalcino Report blog that featured Antonio Galloni’s review of the 2004 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino. Galloni, the Italian specialist for Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, labeled the wine as “awesome” and commented that this wine “stood apart.”

I’d like to comment on this review, as it is a notable one. First, it’s good that Antonio was so generous in his review of this wine, especially as this is such a great estate and the 2004 is a stellar wine. I praised the wine back in February when I first tasted the wine in Montalcino as part of Benevenuto Brunello (Alessandro Bindocci also was kind enough to post my review of the wine, which you can read here – thank you Alessandro!)

Now that Galloni has written his review, I’ve been getting emails from retailers bragging about their price for this wine and of course, they have included Galloni’s review. I understand this, especially in this economy, as retailers are doing what they can to move this wine out of the store and bring in some much-needed cash.

But where were these retailers a few years ago? As dozens, if not hundreds of wine writers in Italy and the United States have known for years, Il Poggione has been one of the leading estates in Montalcino for more than four decades; there aren’t many estates that can make that claim. But the way these retailers are pushing this wine, you’d think this was a new producer.

One thing that will happen with some of the customers who buy this wine is that they will purchase it because of a review, meaning it could have been any producer, not just Il Poggione. These people are called cherry pickers and are notorious in the business as they buy the top rated wines whenever they can. But where were these people in previous years? Probably buying such wines as Casanova di Neri, a Brunello that has consistently received scores in the upper 90s in The Wine Spectator.

If so, this would be highly ironic, as Casanova di Neri produces a very ripe, very modern, international style of Brunello while Il Poggione remains in the traditional approach of winemaking for Brunello. So many customers are buying a wine because it gets a high score, not because they think they’ll like it.

I’d like to stay positive, but I’ve been around too long and have seen this before. I hope that the “new” customers of Il Poggione based on Galloni’s review will seek out Il Poggione when the next few vintages are released. So of course do Alessandro Bindocci and hs father Alessandro the winemaker! But let’s see what happens when the 2005 and 2006 are released; as these are two very good – but not great – vintages for Brunello, will the cherry pickers be there to support Il Poggione or will they look for other wines (perhaps not even Brunello) that receive higher scores?

Producing wine is a long-term business and love affair; vintners don’t just release wines from great vintages (great is such an overused and misunderstood term), they must release them from virtually every harvest. Readers of my newsletter have known of my love for Il Poggione for years; I rated their bottlings from 2002 and 2003 – two less than stellar years - as excellent. It’s easy for any producer to make a very good wine in a notable vintage such as 2004 (if you can’t, as they say, find another job!). But to me one of the best qualities about a producer such as Il Poggione has been their track record with Brunello. As I wrote earlier, how may estates have been at the top of their game for more than 40 years?

So for consumers, retailers or restaurant buyers who might be tempted to purchase a bottle or several of the 2004 Il Poggione Brunello based on Galloni’s review, please do the Bindoccis a favor and buy the wine when the 2005 is released next year – you will not be disappointed!

A few final notes: Antonio, congratulations again on getting it right. While no score was published with this review, I can only make an educated guess, but I’m sure the score will be in the mid to high 90s. If so, this is in contrast to James Suckling of The Wine Spectator, who awarded the wine 91 points. Some of you might be saying, “wait, 91 points is pretty good.” Well there’s a big difference between pretty good and stellar. The 91 from Suckling is a shrug on his part, letting us know he admires the wine, but isn’t wild about it. No surprise here, as the Il Poggione Brunello is all about elegance and harmony; it isn’t flashy enough for Suckling’s tastes.

So how nice that a major wine publication awards Il Poggione as among the very best of Brunello. But Antonio, two things. First, this mention of this wine “standing alone” among the 2004 Brunellos. While I’m sure that the Bindoccis are pleased, there are a dozen or so examples of 2004 Brunello that are first-rate including Sesta di Sopra, Pian dell’Orino, Talenti, Il Palazzone, Fuligni, Caprili and Uccelliera (read my February post on vinowire here). I want readers to know that there are other estates that made an outstanding 2004 Brunello and have been at the top of the pyramid of producers in Montalcino for several years and that all of these estates including Poggio Antico and Ciacci Piccolomini are to be commended as well for their recent Brunello releases.

So, Antonio, I’d rather you didn’t write that one wine stood alone among the 2004 Brunellos. It’s this type of wine writing that gives the business a bad name. It’s as though there has to be a best. Il Poggione is among the very best and has been for years. Let’s celebrate that. But let’s also remember another dozen or so producers that deliver the good every year.

Finally, I do have one more bone to pick with Signore Galloni, one that is far more serious than the one I just wrote about. That is in regards to his text about the Il Poggione where he writes that the wine was aged in French oak casks. This is accurate, but why write this? All this does is open up a can of worms.

Let me explain. To the average consumer that reads this, French oak aging for a Brunello will probably signify that the wine is made in a modern style. But nothing could be farther from the truth, as Il Poggione is a traditional Brunello producer, through and through. Yes, the oak happens to be French, but the casks are the large ones called botti grandi, which are the traditional ones that have been used to produce Brunello for more than a century; Fabrizio Bindocci made the decision a few years ago to work with new coopers, so his large casks are French oak and not Slavonian. The modernists, who prefer flashiness and ripeness over balance and subtlety, use the small barrels known as barriques (225 liters instead of the botti grandi, which range from 2000 to 6000 liters).

So Antonio, what is important about oak aging with Brunello is not where the wood comes from, but the size of the casks. This is something you need to communicate to your readers; it’s your responsibility to be accurate. Certainly, Galloni has heard of the scandal in Montalcino, where some producers have been accused of bypassing regulations, by including grapes other than Sangiovese. The big picture here deals with tradition versus doing what some people feel is right for the moment. Given that, it’s so important these days to let people know about traditional producers and how they view their work. Il Poggione is a traditional producer and one of the best.


  1. Nicely crafted post. I wholeheartedly agree with your criticism of Mr. Galloni's leak of his review for Il Poggione BdM 04. One gets the impression that this was an exercise in flexing his muscles. It also smells of favouritism. Still it shouldn't take away any of the credit due to the Il Poggione team.

  2. I have to admit that I found a certain sense of wonderment in Galloni's review, as if he were saying, I didn't think I'd like this wine and I actually do and I'm so pleased that I do. I agree with you, Tom, that it's wrong for wine writers to say that a wine "stands alone" or to say it is the "best." When you underline a passage in a book, you're really deleting the rest of the page. But I don't think the problem lies with Galloni and the fact that he finally bothered to take this wine seriously. I feel the problem lies with retailers, who don't see the bigger picture and only want to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. Then again, I can't blame them for wanting to make money. I do think we should applaud Galloni for breaking with rank and praising an un-Parkerlike wine. And I wholeheartedly agree with you that his statement about French oak is entirely misleading and to some extent reveals his almost apologetic stance: "I know you think I'm not supposed to like this wine because I write for Parker but hey, at least, it's aged in FRENCH oak, and that's a good thing, right?"

  3. Jeremy: Great comments- very insightful. I like your point about the retailers featuring this wine if only to make money in the short term. Il Poggione has been around for more than 40 years!

  4. Tom:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well written comments. I hope you don’t mind if I address the points you and some of your readers raised regarding my review of Il Poggione’s 2004 Brunello di Montalcino.

    For readers’ reference this is what I wrote on my forum:
    “My tastings of the 2004 Brunellos are now complete, and one wine stands apart. On its own, this Brunello is one of the top wines of the vintage. But it gets better. At $75 full US retail, it is also relatively fairly priced for a wine of such pedigree. Keep in mind that WA prices assume everyone across the distribution chain takes a full markup, something that is not very likely in this economy. Chances are the wine can be had for much less. Total production is an incredible 220,000 bottles, (18,300+ cases if you prefer to think that way), which means the wine should be readily available in most markets. Any guesses....?

    It’s the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino from Il Poggione.

    Here's my tasting note:
    The 2004 Brunello di Montalcino from Il Poggione is awesome. This finessed, regal Brunello flows onto the palate with seamless layers of perfumed fruit framed by silky, finessed tannins. The wine remains extremely primary at this stage, and its full range of aromas and flavors have yet to emerge, but the sheer pedigree of this Brunello is unmistakable. The elegant, refined finish lasts an eternity, and subtle notes of menthol, spices, licorice and leather add final notes of complexity. The estate’s 2004 Brunello is a wine to buy and bury in the deepest corner of the cellar. Brunello is never inexpensive, but this is the real deal, and in relative terms, it is one of the world’s great values in fine, cellar worthy wine. Incredibly, there are 18,000+ cases of the 2004 Brunello, so it should be fairly easy to source in various markets. The Brunello is made from four vineyards ranging from 250 to 400 meters in altitude, all in Sant’Angelo in Colle. The wines from the various vineyards were aged separately in French oak casks prior to being assembled and bottled. Anticipated maturity: 2014-2034”

    Just to be clear, I never said Il Poggione’s 2004 Brunello “stands alone” (your quote). I wrote that the wine “stands apart.” Why? Because it offers an incredible combination of quality, value and availability. If there are other Brunellos that that possess these admirable attributes in equal measure, I would like to know about them! I also never said Il Poggione was the “best” (your quote) 2004 Brunello. I said the wine was “one of the top wines of the vintage” which is again quite different in both spirit and meaning. As you will see when The Wine Advocate is released at the end of the month, there are plenty of highly-rated 2004 Brunellos – some higher than Il Poggione. I have also included a top ten list of wines that I feel are particularly noteworthy. Judging by some of the estates you mention, It looks like we agree on a number of names.

    With regards to my mention of French oak, it is just a detail in the aging of this particular wine, along with the notes I provided on vineyard altitude and vinification. I doubt anyone will make a choice to buy or not buy this wine based on its being aged in French oak, but as I am not in the business, I may be wrong on that point. For those who are interested in the details, Il Poggione uses casks ranging from roughly 30-50 hectoliters in capacity. While these are of course larger than the 225/228-liter barrique, they are also smaller than the very large 75-100 hectoliter barrels used by other traditionally minded producers. Il Poggione is not the only producer to favor French oak casks/botti for their wines. As an example Brovia and Bruno Giacosa also use French oak, which I sometimes reference in my notes, but it is not an indication of quality, simply a technical detail. I have no agenda other than finding and writing about the best wines in each vintage. Modern or traditional makes absolutely no difference to me from a qualitative standpoint, which is something my track record in rating wines amply proves.

  5. Do Bianchi: I am a big fan of your blog and an admirer of your writing. Perhaps for those reasons I am perplexed by your comments. As mentioned above, I never said that Il Poggione’s 2004 Brunello “stands alone” or is the “best.” Your assertion that I “finally bothered to take this wine seriously” is simply not supported by the facts. The first vintage of this wine I reviewed for The Wine Advocate, the 2001 (annata), was scored 93 points in December 2006, and in that review I alluded to a great recent showing of the 1985. Last year I published notes on a vertical of Il Poggione covering a dozen vintages going back to 1967.

    The comment that I am “breaking rank and praising an un-Parker like wine” is shockingly uninformed, particularly for a writer and thinker of your talent. There is no Parker “rank.” Each of our writers is free to express their own opinions. Consider than when Bob hired Neal Martin to write for our website he was specifically seeking to add the voice of a young British critic who offered readers a different - and often dissenting - perspective. With regards to my work, every article I have written for The Wine Advocate has been printed in its entirety as submitted, with the exception of the occasional correction for grammar and punctuation. My scores are not questioned, edited or adapted in any way. Bob does make a practice of tasting a random selection of the wines I review (the identity of those wines is unknown to me) to verify that my reviews are accurate and hold no biases. I have 100% editorial control of content on our website and in my forum with regards to which wines and/or regions are covered. In short, I am solely responsible for all the reviews and scores on Italian wines in The Wine Advocate, for better or worse. Over the last few years I have written extensively about producers like Soldera, Emidio Pepe, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Paolo Bea, Giacomo Conterno, Roagna, Giuseppe Mascarello, Gravner, Damijan, Vodopivec (and Lopez de Heredia!), to name a few, that rarely get attention from other mainstream publications. Just how my praise for the best of these wines corresponds with your comment that supposedly "I know you think I'm not supposed to like this wine because I write for Parker but hey, at least, it's aged in FRENCH oak, and that's a good thing, right?" is beyond comprehension and strongly suggests you have taken little time to actually read my articles.

    Bob Parker has a much broader palate than most people have ever taken the time to research and write about. He is as likely to show up to dinner with a Sancerre from Vatan as he is with a Chardonnay from Aubert. I have been to tastings where he has poured verticals of Rayas and Napa cult Cabs, all from his cellar. When we have dinner, the Italian wines he brings are the Barolos of Giacomo Conterno, Aldo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa and Giuseppe Mascarello. Bob has stated his admiration for Vietti, Produttori del Barbaresco and specific wines such as Cappellano’s 2001 Barolo Pie Franco and Emidio Pepe’s 1967 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I would like to know which of these Italian wines is “Parker-like” in your mind.

    Let me close by saying I don’t mind being critiqued, actually it is just the opposite. I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for the opinions of the well-informed, whether those views are similar to mine or not. I treasure any and all opportunities to exchange opinions with people who are passionate about wine. That said, I have little tolerance for being misquoted and having my words distorted, especially by those whose judgment is clouded by preconceived notions. It is sloppy reporting and misrepresentation of facts that threaten to give our business a bad name.

  6. Antonio:

    Thank you for your comment. It's nice to know that we agree on several other Brunellos from 2004 - I look forward to seeing your list.

    Regarding your comment on French oak, you mention that you doubt anyone will make their buying decision on this wine based on the type of oak used. Perhaps not, but I believe that the average consumer that is not that familiar with Il Poggione will believe that as the winemaker used French oak, the wine must be a Brunello made in a modern style, which of course, it is not. Il Poggione is one of the shining stars of the traditional school of Brunello producers.

    I am glad that you so favorably reviewed a traditional wine such as Il Poggione. I also admire your comment, "modern or traditional makes absolutely no difference to me from a qualitative standpoint..." However, I believe that most readers of The Wine Advocate have over the years, purchased far more modern style wines from Italy, as these are the bottlings that have received the highest ratings in the publication (The Wine Advocate is not alone in this instance.) So perhaps it is your responsibiity to educate people about the traditional versus modern approach with Brunello, Barolo and other famous red wines of Italy. You don't have to favor one, but if you mention the style used by the producer (not just the type of oak), the reader can then make his or her own decision if this is important or not.

    Thank you again for your comment and continued success.

  7. This is why I love blogging so much.

    @Antonio if you're still reading, I applaud your coverage of Italy and some of the less obvious wines you've chosen to highlight.

    That's so cool that you weighed in here...

  8. @Antonio I believe that Tom had some technical issues with his blog: the comment addressed to me only came to my attention last night.

    You are entirely right to say that "The comment that I am 'breaking rank and praising an un-Parker like wine' is shockingly uninformed."

    Please ascribe this "sloppy blogging" — and I agree that's what it is — to the ephemeral nature of the medium and the haste with which comments are too often composed.

    There is a tendency among wine bloggers to take issue with the Parker Brand and Robert Parker is often the target — a facile target — of gratuitous derision. I have followed your writing since you began covering Italy for him and I agree wholeheartedly that you have raised awareness of some fantastic, terroir-driven Italian wines that often "fell through the cracks" of the editorial calendar at the Wine Advocate.

    The nonchalant attitude and dismissive tone in my comment was entirely inappropriate and I apologize for any perceived insinuation that your writing has been affected by the Parker brand or Parker palate. It is all too easy to launch poorly worded missiles and missives in the comment thread of a blog post.

    In fact, I believe that you have brought new and better informed insight to the Parker perspective with your writing and experience. I say that most genuinely and I applaud you — as a true fan of yours and many of the wines you have brought into the consciousness of Parker readers — for bringing a welcomed breadth of vinous knowledge and experience to the Parker sphere of influence.

    I have always been a HUGE fan of your writing and your palate and was a subscriber to Piedmont Report. And I thank you for the kind words that you had for my blog and my writing.

    Respectfully and sincerely, Jeremy