A guest post from my friend and colleague Bill Marsano
Two Italian estates of the Maremma—Tuscany’s southwest coast—uncorked their wines in Manhattan recently. Both Tenuta Fertuna and Tenuta Sette Cieli are hard by Bolgheri, the sub-zone of the Maremma that shot to prominence with Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia in the 1970s (it’s home to other Supertuscan producers as well, including Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia, Gaja’s Ca'Marcanda and Antinori’s Guado al Tasso). The wider Maremma now has stature despite its history as an obscure terra infida, or treacherous land: a haunt of bandits (long suppressed), malarial mosquitoes (now purged) and cattle-poking cowboys, or butteri, (now mostly a tourist lure). That stature comes from its wines, and because it is so hospitable to French vines, the Maremma is sometimes referred to as “Italy’s Médoc.” (Giacomo Tachis, godfather of Supertuscans, has called it the home of “deluxe enology,”no doubt with prices in mind.) Sangiovese remains inescapable nevertheless, and happily so.
Tenuta Fertuna, a mere stripling (founded in 1997), threw its luncheon at Mulino a Vino, a new cellar-dwelling “creative Italian” place on West 14th St. in the Meatpacking District. I like a darkish restaurant, so I think The New Yorker was a tad unkind in calling MaV a “dungeon-like space, gloomy and gilded, like Christian Grey’s guest room,” but “to each his,” etc. An example from the menu’s creative side is the smoked-cured wild salmon and saffron caviar topped with Amarone 2001 glaze and served on fennel panbrioche. It was fine, but stodgy me leans toward the large and tomato-sauced Mamma’s meatball and the properly cooked homemade pastas. It’s worth noting that MaV has a list of about 100 wines, all Italian, all available by the glass, all in the care of not only a sommelier but a mini-sommelier. That’s what the website says, anyway.
Fertuna’s wines were creative too—they were all IGTs, that category which allows much freedom from the sometimes-stifling DOC rules—but without punishment or humiliation. (Remember when Tignanello had to be labeled vino da tavola, Thirsty Reader? If not, I envy your youth.) Anyway, the first Fertuna was Dropello Toscano Bianco, a white Sangiovese (really) with a little Sauvignon Blanc. Straw yellow, it’s crisp and engaging, and it’s what Fertuna calls “accessible,” meaning affordable: I’ve seen it at about $10 a bottle, although the suggested retail is $16.
A bigger surprise was the Pactio Toscana Rosso: 60% Sangiovese, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. Normally such a large dose of Cabernet absolutely flattens Sangiovese, but not this time: The Pactio still had Sangiovese’s distinct delicacy and elegance, the result of using only second- and third-fill barriques obtained from Marchese Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta’s Tenuta San Guido. Indeed, Fertuna’s winemaker, Paolo Rivella (nephew of the renowned Ezio) worked hand-in-glove with San Guido’s team. Imagine: all that for $19. The final wine, LODAI (about $32), had even more Cabernet, 40%, and so, for me, missed the mark. Cab’s heft was certainly there for its innumerable devotees, but the dancer’s grace of Sangiovese was overwhelmed. If you’re not expecting Sangiovese, you won’t mind a bit.
Tenuta Sette Cieli actually hit town earlier by a month or so, and their luncheon was held at Upland (Park Ave. South & 26th St). My restaurant-savvy pals were floored, impressed, gob-smacked: “Justin Smillie’s place? You’re kidding! It takes months to get in there!” Had I but known I’d have put on airs instead of my pajamas.
It’s a handsome, airy, open-kitchen kind of place featuring “California cuisine,” which here means a lot of Italian, lots of local produce, and obscure ingredients (dentile, anyone? puffed farro?). Sette Cieli's wines were presented by the winemaker, Elena Pozzolini, a very pretty and enthusiastic young woman with a high-beam smile and a taste running to Cabernet and Prada handbags. She served her itinerant apprenticeship in the customary international way (Mendoza, Mornington Peninsula, Santa Ynez Valley, and Tuscany, where she was winemaker to Bibi Graeta at Testamatta, in the Fiesole Hills overlooking Florence. The wines she poured were from 2011, and so were not "her" wines; she came to Sette Cieli only two years ago (the estate itself dates to only 2001). But they certainly showed it to be capable of impressive wines.
Elena offered three IGTs and one DOC, all of them excellent. The former were the Yantra (60% Cabernet, 40% Merlot), $25; Indaco (40% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot), $55); and Scipio (100% Cabernet Franc), $120. The DOC was the oddly named NO14, whose Bolgheri-born uvaggio, or blend, is 70% Cabernet, 15% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc. It retails for about $45. Possibly you were not expecting to see a Bolgheri DOC going for so much less than a Maremma IGT, and possibly you will struggle to find it. The estate produce a mere 3400 cases of these wines, of which 60% go to export: that’s about 2000 cases, which makes a good case for online shopping.
There’s another reason for online shopping: The SRP, or Suggested Retail Price, would cop the Pulitzer for Fiction every year if only prices were considered literature. They are fiction, however, to the extent that most retailers use them solely as a basis on which to discount.