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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How does the 'American palate' respond to '97 Brunello?

I have never been at a tasting that was so outwardly fragmented when it came to judging wine quality than I was last night during the Executive Wine Seminars retrospective tasting of 1997 Brunello di Montalcino. I think there were a couple of forces at work that caused the tasters to be deliberately polarized, one of which is undoubtedly the fact that Tuscan winemaking is all over the map.

Having distinctive viticultural and cellar practices does make for dynamic wines, but this tasting revealed a bit more of a Sangiovese identity crisis as opposed to showcasing a tribute to its varietal diversity. There was no sense of continuity from one wine to the next. Even flaws varied greatly from the undernourished efforts that were already past their prime, to the over-nourished exhibitions of monstrous structures void of any substance. Some Brunellos were wonderful wines, albeit a bit ambiguous in terms of varietal correctness. Traditionalists generally struggled to find examples of Sangiovese that they could identify with, claiming they more closely resembled Napa than anything they were accustomed to in Tuscany. Personally, I didn’t think any of the wines tasted like a ripe Cabernet, but I did find that quite a bit of them attempted to conjure the opulent, hedonistic elements that are adored by the so called 'American palate' (the United States happens to be one of Montalcino’s biggest customers, and American critics tend to have quite a bit of say in which wines we spend our money on). Sometimes these methods worked beautifully; other times it created an appalling mess.

The Tuscan battle ground needs to consider something as they progress into the era of modern viticulture. They need to consider that the American palate is actually all over the place, at least when it comes to Tuscan wines. To be clear, I am not talking about the uneducated, point-purchasing palate, I am discussing a population that is a bit more secure in what they subjectively enjoy. This tasting demonstrated such divergent opinions on what high quality wine should be that I almost had to start second guessing myself! While there were a couple of pockets in the crowd that I’d come to an occasional consensus with, I had just as many tasters thoroughly disagree with my commentaries on the wines (much less the disagreeable scores from the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator).

So what does all that mean? Well, as we’ve said before, a singular voice is more valuable when you know where you line up with it, subjectively. So how can one find value in the culmination of several voices shouting in different directions? Well, I think there is quite a bit to be learned from consensus notes, it just needs to be read with different glasses than how one would view a Robert Parker evaluation. Allow me to explain.

The Executive Wine Seminars consensus notes do encompass both ends of the spectrum. As you read through, controversial matters will be noted and the character of the wine is described through various palate impressions. Is it less precise? Probably, but perhaps more relevant to some readers than one, specific palate is. Sometimes we try to analyze wine and evaluate it quantitatively with as much accuracy as possible, but considering how unscientific this passion can be, sometimes painting with a broader brush can best articulate a polarizing object. In addition, I’d like to note that the overall ratings of the wines (votes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd are tabulated at the end of the evening) in this case were extremely well balanced. The top wines were less controversial, but extremely well made (to just about everyone’s palate). The wines were all evaluated blind, which does have its pitfalls, but consensus opinion had nothing to do with label envy and was ultimately based on what was in the glass at that particular moment im time. Taking all of this into consideration, I think there is plenty of value to be had in not only attending one of these tastings, but in ascertaining the results (assuming they are interpreted appropriately).

Without further adieu, here are my impressions on the wines, followed by the consensus winners for the evening. Considering most of you are getting to know my palate, I hope you can find value in both my commentary as well as the audience winners.

Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova
Striking, pretty aromatics of fresh cedar, dark chocolate, black currant, iron and briar are unfortunately the wines best attributes. The flavors in the mouth come off as oaky, with angular acidity, as the tobacco and floral elements seem to be submerged in an intrusively tannic structure. The most difficult thing to assess about these wines, as a whole, was to determine whether or not they were drying out or simply unyielding due to an evolutionary phase. I leaned towards the former rather than the later in this effort, which unfortunately wasted a lovely nose on an attenuated palate that put the brakes on when it came to the finish. This was the only wine to receive zero votes by the entire audience. Poor showing, 84 points.
-For the record, I absolutely adored the '99 Tenuta Nuova and was surprised at how poorly the '97 showed.

Pertimali (Livio Sassetti)
One of the most promising wines of the flight, as this effort appreciably improved with exposure to air. A very floral, attractive nose that cast an array of crushed lilacs, Asian spices, and dark berry fruits upon the taster. The wine built in strength and power in the palate, time allowed the fruit to gain in richness, softening the wines chocolaty tannic structure. I believe this wine has some positive evolution ahead of it. 92+ points, received only 1 point from the audience.

Fuligni Riserva
Easily the darkest wine of the flight, and certainly the best showing of the first 5 wines tasted. The nose had a much more vibrant, super-ripe attack of dark fig, blackberry ganache, cassis and mocha (which obviously pissed off the traditionalists, but I found it very attractive). A muscular, juicy effort that unwound its complexities in the mouth, finishing w/ elements of crushed berry fruit, bailed hay, oregano, spice and pepper. Walked the line, but walked it with balance and persistence. 94 points, received 8 total points from the audience.

Banfi Riserva “Poggio all ‘Oro”
This wall of cement had such impenetrable density that it could easily be mistaken as backward. The wine was dominated by a chewy, brooding structure that lacked enough pleasurable elements to keep it honest. There were trace elements of dark plum, cocoa, roast coffee and dark cherries that seemed to dissipate in time instead of augmenting. For tasters that have an addiction to tannin and the optimism of a saint. I have yet to have a Banfi wine that was thoroughly enjoyable. 87 points (with fingers crossed), received 2 total points from the group.

Pieve Santa Restituta “Sugarille” (Gaja)
One of the more modern, perhaps internationally styled wines of the evening. Perhaps it was a tad monolithic, but that didn’t distract from the wines sexy, plush texture that carried along succulent layers of spices, dark currants and chocolate notes to a solid finish. Never would have pegged it as a Brunello, but it was a well made pleasure pot of a wine. 91+ points, received 9 total points from the crew.

This was the first wine that really hit my pleasure spot of the evening, so much so that I broadcast my impressions to the group, only to hear “that was my least favorite wine of the flight” spat right back at me (it so happens that the next wine was her favorite of the flight and I found it to be the least compelling, go figure)! I got such an alluring, layered nose that screamed of leather, cigar tobacco, pepper, porcini mushrooms and dusky spice. The palate kicked things into high gear, gushing w/ velvet textured blackberries, black cherries and toffee flavors that had no quit in them. A seamlessly integrated joyride from start to finish. 95 points, 19 total points from the audience.

Castelgiocondo Riserva “Ripe al Convento” (Frescobaldi)
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this wine as I found it to be a sound and moderately expressive version of Brunello, but it simply was un-exciting. The scents of tobacco leaf, currant, cherry and peppery fruit were very ‘correct,’ but also quite dull. The attack was the strongest characteristic of this wine, as the mid-palate was clipped by excessive alcoholic heat and the chalky, splintered tannic finish kept this wine from achieving any form of greatness. 88 points, received 12 total points from the audience.

Fanti “Tenuta San Filippo”
Now this is exactly what I am looking for in a Brunello! Sticking my nose into a glass that is reminiscent of an Arthur Avenue Deli is exactly where I want to be….bring on the cured prosciutto and salami because I am begging for seconds! A meaty, savory nose of pure Tuscan heaven that evokes notions of truffles, sweet cherries, cocoa and spice box got the entire crowd off their feet. Not entirely full bodied, but had such layers of elegant, finesse driven fruit that was perfectly proportioned and in such harmony that it didn’t need to wow you w/ its mass. Exquisite example of 10 year old Brunello, 97 points and received a whopping 57 points from the group (WOTN).

Siro Pacenti
This was a showpiece of masterful winemaking in Tuscany that I felt privileged to taste. I must have gone back to this wine 6 times, with each subsequent visit netting a more compelling experience. Its poetry snuck up on you a la Lafite, notes of toast, shitake mushrooms, dark olives, cedar, blackberries and graphite kissed the senses like an exotic temptress wearing a red dress. Believe it or not, this wine had the most impressive length of the evening, with such juicy, purity of fruit that truly cemented its sheer sense of class. Although the Fanti drank slightly better tonight, I believe this effort from Pacenti will prove to be the better wine. 96+ points, racked up 50 total points from the group.

Gianni Brunelli
Likely to receive the award for ‘lightest hued’ of the evening, sporting completely transparent ruby specks that screamed old school from the get go. The nose followed through in character, with freshly cut mushrooms and Rose petal elements that whispered instead of shouting. There was a surprising sense of opulence and under-stated power in the palate, as the wine had some seriously supple tannins that carried along flavors of cherries, plums and tea to a poetic conclusion. Not the most seductive or exciting, but an outstanding showing for Gianni nonetheless. 92+ points, netting only 3 total points from the crew.

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Riserva “Vigna di Pianrosso”
Here’s where the real controversy starts. You know when a host of the evening is blatantly bad-mouthing the juice as ‘a bad Brunello masquerading as a Port, perhaps the worst wine ever poured at Executive Wine Seminars,’ you are in for an experience! Well, I happened to disagree, as did the other host of the evening, Howard Kaplan. I found the wine to be quite compelling, bringing a lot of penetrating, focused aromas of cigar humidor, chili powder, sweet dark cherries and game to the table. I thought the palate was absolutely to die for, offering up a veritable showcase of anise, fresh truffles and plum sauce. The wine had spellbinding concentration, a velvet-laced texture and admirable length to create an irresistible sense of synergy. 97 points, with the controversy muting the audience enthusiasm to a total of 12 points.

Cerbaiona (Diego Molinari)
Oddly enough, those that detested the Ciacci found the Cerbaiona to be a lovely wine of great fruit, focus and strength. Personally, I thought it was past its peak! The scents reminded me of a maturing Burgundy, full of underbrush, raspberry, meadow floor, decaying autumn leaves and bay leaf notes. While I found the nose to be quite pretty, the palate was skeletal, lacking sinew, stuffing and length. Some tasters thought it was drinking beautifully, so this is certainly a subjective matter, considering I tend to like wines that possess a bit more fruit and concentration. 85 points, 6 total points from the group.

Altesino Riserva
It wouldn’t be right if we finished up this helter-skelter tasting with a boring, uncontroversial wine now would it?! This puppy was a sheer powerhouse and perhaps the most uber-concentrated, thick effort of the evening. Spicy notes of melted asphalt, cardamom, cedar and tobacco erupted from the glass in volcanic proportions. Layers upon layers of fat, juicy fruit bombarded the palate while the structure of well rounded, suave tannins was nearly submerged by the wine’s opulence. The finish left me breathless, echoing in authority in a nearly vulgar, but perfectly powerful deliberation. Not for the faint-hearted. 98 points, garnering 19 total points from the group (again, a controversial wine).
As karma has it, this wine was a last minute replacement, because the Montosoli purchase fell through. Go figure!

Final Count:
  1. Fanti “Tenuta San Filippo”: 57 points

  2. Siro Pacenti: 50 points
  3. Valdicava, Altesino Riserva: Both 19 points

  4. Castelgiocondo Riserva “Ripe al Convento” (Frescobaldi), Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Riserva “Vigna di Pianrosso”: Both 12 points

  5. Pieve Santa Restituta "Sugarille" (Gaja): 9 points

  6. Fuligni Riserva: 8 points

  7. Cerbaiona: 6 points

  8. Gianni Brunelli: 3 points

  9. Banfi Riserva "Poggio all' Oro": 2 points
  10. Pertimali (Livio Sassetti): 1 point
  11. Casanova di Neri "Tenuta Nuova": 0 points


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