A Day at Three Mythic Wineries in Montalcino

“This destination is not on the digital map,” my GPS announced, when I entered the coordinates for Cerbaiona, but we knew the destination was in sight when we saw the huge crane looming over the construction. The buildings are in full flight of reconstruction with a two year project to renovate and extend the cellars, improve the vineyards, and plant a new vineyard. Cerbaiona is one of the mythic producers of Brunello, created when Diego Molinari left Alitalia in 1977, and instead of flying planes, began making wine.

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The crane showed me where to find Cerbaiona

 Winemaking might more accurately have been called idiosyncratic rather than traditional, with vinification in cement tanks with fiber glass lining, and aging in very old botti. But the wines won worldwide acclaim.

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The house at Cerbaiona is being restored

Cerbaiona was a manor house, and the east-facing vineyards just below the house are adjacent to the La Cerbaiola estate. Cerbaiona was purchased in 2015 by a group of investors led by Matthew Fioretti, a Californian who spent some of his education in Italy, and started in wine by importing Italian wines into the United States. Now he is living at Cerbaiona and managing the massive reconstruction. “I thought we could do it one step at time, but I realized we would have to do everything at once,” Matthew explains. Just below the house a 1 ha olive grove has been replanted with vines, and an additional vineyard may be added at slightly higher elevation (the estate is at 450 m).

“The Molinaris were the ultimate garagistes, making some wine in the basement,” is how Matthew describes the previous situation. Working around the construction, the current vintage is being made in new equipment, with wood fermenters and new botti. So there may be a bit more wood showing for the next year or so. Tastings of the Rosso and Brunello presently maturing in botti show the characteristic combination of density with elegance. Will there be any permanent change in style? “Well, it’s the vineyards that count,” Matthew says, but there will be better handling of the fruit, so look for increased purity in the wine.

The adjacent vineyard is La Cerbaiola—Diego Molinari used to say that Cerbaione and Cerbaiola were part of the same estate a century ago—but to visit you don’t go to the winery, but to the cellars in Montalcino. The tiny scale of production at La Cerbaiola is indicated by its aging cellar, underneath the family house in Piazza Cavour in the town of Montalcino: it has 6 botti of 20 hl. That’s the total production for one of the mythic producers of Montalcino.

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The unassuming entrance hides the cellar of one of Montalcino’s top producers

The property at La Cerbaiola, three vineyards totalling 4 ha in a 20 ha estate, has been in the Salvioni family for three generations, but winemaking is relatively recent. “Our story started in 1985 when my father decided to make wine, says Alessia Salvioni.   Guilio Salvioni’s first vintage in 1985 was an immediate success: the traditional approach, using indigenous yeast, botti (albeit of medium size), and lack of filtration, marked the wines firmly in the artisanal camp.

The entire vineyard is declared for Brunello, but some is declassified to Rosso when the crop is unusually large or there is a poor vintage. There are certainly ups and downs in production. In 2012 there were 12,000 bottles of Brunello, in 2013 there were only four botti (about 10,000 bottles), in 2014 the entire crop was declassified to Rosso, and in 2015 there will probably be 15,000 bottles, all Brunello. The wines have that combination of full flavor and density, yet elegant expression, that marks the vineyards of Cerbaiola and Cerbaiona.

And then for something completely different, I went to Valdicava, in the northeast of the appellation. Well, not completely different: a sense of Déja Vu all over again, as we had to go a long way round to the back entrance, because the front was blocked by massive reconstruction works. Driving through the extensive estate on the way to the winery, we passed the Madonna del Piano, a small building that used to be a church, and which is just above the famous 8 ha vineyard of its name.

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Madonna del Piano overlooks the famous vineyard

The work is to build a new winery, a stable for the racing horses (another interest), and a tasting room. The present winery is small facility, packed with equipment and botti. One of the older established producers in Montalcino, Valdicava was turned into something of a cult wine after Vincenzo Abbruzzese took over in 1987. The estate was founded by his grandfather, Bramante Abbruzzese, in 1953. Valdicava was a founding member of the Consorzio, and has been bottling wine under the Valdicava label since 1977 (previously they carried a generic description from the Consorzio with the winery’s name).

The vineyards occupy only a small part of the 135 ha estate, which extends into the famous Montosoli hill, where the most powerful wines of Montalcino are produced. Valdicava produces three wines: Rosso (from the youngest vines), Brunello, and the single vineyard Madonna del Piano Riserva, produced only in the best vintages in small amounts (around 800 cases). Wines are aged only in botti, which are natural wood with no toast. Botti are replaced after fifteen years, and Vincenzo buys the wood and stores it in advance.

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The gracious back of Valdicava’s winery hides all the work at the front

The style is forceful, and at all levels the wines give an impression of the density that comes from low yields (in fact some of the lowest in the region), and the wines correspondingly need time to come around. Although forceful, Valdicava does not lose elegance and purity of fruits. Madonna is not so much more intense than Valdicava as different in its profile, with an intriguing blend of minerality on the bouquet and chocolate on the finish. “It’s different but it’s just between the other vineyards, there must be something in the soil.” Its character comes right through vintage variation, but it needs a long time to come around, perhaps twenty years. How long will these wines age? Vincenzo has been quoted as saying, “I guarantee the Riserva for the lifetime of the buyer.”

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Brunello In Between

The official line on Brunello di Montalcino in 2009 is that it’s a very good, but not quite the best vintage—“four star, not five star,” says Fabrizio Bindocci, President of the Consorzio. From the wines presented at the Consorzio’s event in New York January 27, I’d be more inclined to give it three stars. The word most often being used to describe the vintage was “plush” but that is not an adjective I would use.

The most noticeable feature is the extreme variability, from wines that have tight red fruits with punishing acidity to fruits with more black fruits and smooth elegance. The vintage is being billed as perfect for restaurant wines, showing much less acidity and drinking much sooner than the 2008s, but I find this hard to see from comparing 2009s with 2008s at the tasting. The fact is that 2009 is so variable that it’s all but impossible to make a single generalization for the vintage. It’s fair to say that few if any wines rise above the level of restaurant wine into being worth consideration for the cellar: many in fact strike me as more what I expect from Rosso di Montalcino.

Most of the wines are around 14.5% alcohol, but this seems to fit quite naturally into their flavor spectrum and is surprisingly unobtrusive. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that one of the wines I liked best came from the north, showing floral delicacy, and had only 14% alcohol; where one I liked least came from the south and with 15% alcohol made an altogether heavier impression. But although quite a number of  wines conformed to the stereotype of finesse and elegance from the north and greater power from the south, there were plenty of reversals: nor were the wines from high altitudes (up to 500 meters) necessarily any tighter or more acidic than those from down below. The type of oak (French versus Slovenian, barriques versus larger containers) seems to be just as important. Once again, it would be brave, if not foolhardy, to generalize.

I suppose it would be fair to say that the wines I liked best fell into two styles: those with floral finesse and red fruits (where more came from the north than the south);  and those with smooth black fruits, elegant and round (where most came from the center or south.) But one of the best wines supported all the traditional arguments for blending: a mix from north and south it had a combination of power and finesse, with good flavor variety.

One thing that is evident is that the debate between  modernists and traditionalists has run its course. There are certainly stylistic differences, but (at least in the wines represented at this event) they were less extreme than they were, say, ten years ago. I have to admit however that I did not like wines showing evident new oak.

The 2009s certainly seemed quite acidic enough, thank you, so I was worried about the official line that 2008 has more acidity and should be left longer before starting (and will age longer). Of course, Sangiovese is a variety known for its acidity, but to my mind the difference is more that the fruits in 2008 tend to be firmer, in fact in many cases greater fruit concentration absorbs the acidity better. It also seems to be a more consistent vintage, although firmness sometimes becomes a bit too sturdy. In fact, I think some of the 2008s are readier to drink now than the 2009s. The 2006s at the tasting tended to be rather tight, with a certain lack of generosity, and sometimes a little crisp.

The best wines at the tasting were the 2007s, perhaps partly because many of them were Riservas. Riserva isn’t always a sure fire bet in Brunello (they can be too much) but whenever it was possible to compare a 2007 Riserva with a regular bottling, it had an extra dimension and greater refinement. These wines had a combination of smoothness with greater complexity that lifted them well above any of the 2008s or 2009s. Among the latter two vintages, the most elegant 2009s carry the day; but sight unseen, there is a better statistical chance of enjoying a 2008 given the variability in 2009.

Restaurant Review: Locanda Locatelli

A late meal after a concert showed that this snazzy restaurant remains on top form food wise, but still attracts a rather noisy crowd, so be prepared for noise interference from other tables. We started out with a basket of interesting breads and excellent olive oil with that unmistakable green olive texture; the only other olive oil of this quality I’ve encountered was at Picholine in New York. This being one of London’s top Italian restaurants, we decided to go for broke, and started with the pasta, malfatti for my companion (a sort of slightly heavier pasta than ravioli rolled around ricotta and aubergine to make some delicious parcels) and chestnut tagliatelle with wild mushrooms for me (made with chestnut flour and five types of wild mushroom). The tagliatelle were faute de gnocchi because the gnocchi with cepes had all gone, and no doubt would have been a little lighter. (I am always reminded when having wild mushrooms of the time years ago when we ordered wild mushrooms as a starter at a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. Simply sautéed, they made a wild assortment of colors and shapes on the plate, many I had never seen before. After we had eaten them, we asked about the source. “Oh, someone knocked at the door and said he had wild mushrooms and the chef bought them, “ said the waiter. We both went white for a moment, but decided that if they had been lethal they would have already killed us.)

We both ordered the same second course, wild sea bass in a tomato crust with an artichoke purée. This was accompanied by artichoke leaves to chew, something I have not seen for quite a while. Here was an excellent balance between fish and accompaniments, with the acidity of the tomatoes nicely cutting the opulence of the purée. Service is absolutely top notch. Overall I give the food one and a half stars: clearly above one star level, but not quite at the level of innovation and refinement for two stars.

The wine list is full of top names from Italy as you might expect, with many pages of red wines – especially strong on Barolo and Barbaresco – but not a whole lot of interesting choices in whites (of course, you might say that about Italy as a whole). A feature I really liked was that alcohol level was stated on the list, which saved me from an error: I was about to order a bottle of Fontodi’s Chianti, and then noticed that it had 15% alcohol. This would definitely have been a mistake, especially at the late hour. We settled for a half bottle of Valdicava’s Brunello, which at 13.5% showed subtlety and elegance. Wine service was impeccable.

Locanda is highly recommended if you can get a table – reservations are difficult; not only is it difficult to get through (booking is only by phone), but there tends to be some awkwardness about getting a table at the time you want it.

 Brunello di Montalcino, Valdicava 2004

Still quite a ruby color. A faintly savory sour cherry note develops on the palate, very Sangiovese. (Oh my goodness, they were right not to allow Cabernet Sauvignon into Rosso di Montalcino, it would have been the thin end of a wedge into typicité). The initial surge of fruits from the original release has calmed down considerably. Nice balance of acidity and savory edge to the cherry fruits, a fairly taut sense of structure, aging gracefully but perhaps not destined for a really old age (I think really long aging is much rarer for Brunello than generally supposed), although perhaps not to be judged on this example as this was a half bottle. 91, drink now-2016.