Perhaps the most enjoyable Brunello tasting I’ve ever had the good fortune of being a part of was certainly due, at least in part, to the great company (having a Russian chef cater to your every whim certainly amps up the fun-o-meter). Mikhail, Leo, Carlo, Bob, Jay and company offered a dynamic ambience for one of the more intriguing line-ups of Tuscan wines that you’ll ever see. Any tasting of the en vogue Sangiovese Grosso grape is certain to raise quite a few eyebrows, whether it is the tiresome debate of traditional vs. modern, the appropriate decanting regimen, discrepancies in the qualities of one vintage vs. another or the dramatic variance in ‘house-style,’ these wines tend to be a lesson in how to expect the unexpected. Part of that, perhaps, is their charm.
Most producers of Sangiovese Grosso are relatively new to the Tuscan scene and painting on a canvas that has no major sense of tradition etched in stone (save for Biondi Santi). The grape can't be traced back to generations of viticultural practice like hundreds of other Italian varieties and this tends to make Brunello one of the more variable experiences in today’s wine world. The fickle American palate debate is always sure to arise while tasting wines that were ‘made for us,’ yet we have yet to decide, as a nation, what it is we truly like. Perhaps the wines have such vast appeal because of their variety? Intense and inky, lean and rustic, brash and bold, or ethereal and elegant (this last category is perhaps only truly executed by one wine), the cornucopia of high quality options give a country like America something to feast on in nearly any direction they please. I believe this appeals to two particular natures that the United States thrives on. One is our thirst for selection, with the ‘right to choose’ being something in which we hold near and dear. I believe the other, a bit more controversially, is that of our own lack of firm identity through tradition, which perhaps allows us to find solace in a grape w/ the same dilemma.
Here come the Mullers:
Muller Catoir Scheurebe Spatlese 1994
A fascinating example of this aloof hybrid grape, expelling a beguiling aromatic profile consisting of smoky slate, lilac, peach skin and spearmint notes set the stage for a thick, juicy palate full of pure dried apricots. There is quite a bit of residual sweetness left in this 13 year old Scheurebe, as it began a bit undelineated on the palate but seemed to gain in depth and cut as it sat in the glass. An outstanding effort that perhaps has a bit more evolution in store for the future, 91+ points.
Muller Catoir Haardter Burgergarten Spatlese Riesling 1998
A surprisingly taut, backward ’98 that took quite a bit of decanting to round into its Pfalz form, as it initially only offered foundational green apple skins, mineral and modest citrus blossom notes. As it unwound, a much more honeyed, tropical character emerged in the palate, sporting quince and pineapple notes that were impressive in their weight and overall depth of flavor. This is a quintessential candidate for the cellar as it demonstrates how structured a fine spatlese can be, 93 points.
Time for Sangiovese Grosso:
Poggio di Sotto 1995
This was a perfect introduction into ‘the more oxidative’ style of Brunello, as the main event Soldera wines showcased the apex of how to achieve elegance w/ this normally rustic grape. While I found this to be an interesting interpretation, it definitely left a lot to be desired from a pleasure and provocative standpoint. This plum colored, floral rendition of Sangiovese evolved quicker, and more elaborately than any other wine we tasted throughout the evening, as its damp earth and dried fruit characteristics became much more liqueur-ish in time. Hints of bright mushroom, incense, sour raspberry and spice shape the personality of this medium bodied yet dense and slightly monochromatic effort. Although I appreciate ‘the style,’ I was left feeling that Grenache is a much yummier example with this type of persona, 84 points.
La Poderina 1995
A much more classical style, firm and full of expressive Tuscan character (but boy was it different than the Poggio di Sotto!). A lovely cascade of high toned cherry, cigar box, leather, spiced blackberries and pepper greet the taster’s nose w/ such vivid delight that I can still feel them as I relay their character to you. A bit dusty and gravely throughout the palate, but spiked with pure, deep Sangiovese character that is racy, plump and youthfully tannic, 90+ points.
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Vigna di Pianrosso 1995
This wine spoke to me immediately with its bit more extroverted, brashly Brunello nature that slaps you over the face w/ its Montalcino hammer, rendering the taster unconsciously enchanted. Full of brooding depth, as notions of dried porcini mushrooms, blackberry, bitter chocolate, cedar, underbrush and black olives explode from the glass, shattering muscular, pure Brunello debris all over the palate. A wonderfully intense and pure performance that is drinking exceptionally well now and should continue to for close to another decade, bravo, 94 points.
Soldera Riserva 1994
Admittedly my first taste of this iconoclastic wine and I certainly was a blank slate, ready to be impressed upon. While the Poggio di Sota hinted at what style personified Soldera, this wine is in a category by itself and truly has no peer group. This is an undeniably sexy, even sultry wine, with a Pinot Noir sense of an ethereal, numbing sweetness that is a recipe for a slow seduction which entranced just about every taster last night, hook, line and sinker. Flavors of black tea, melted licorice, sour cherry, mushroom, clove and a mélange of other sweet spices scintillate throughout the palate in a dazzlingly plush fashion, tempting you to further investigate w/ another sip as you are haunted by the finish. I’d never tasted a Brunello that could disguise its structure so admirably, as this ’94 Soldera convinced me that its body was as weightless as an angelic goddess gliding through the air. Perhaps the most sophisticated and silky wine made in Tuscany today, 97 points.
Soldera Riserva 1997
One of the most enjoyable exercises in wine is contrasting two vintages of Soldera, glasses juxtaposed to one another. The 1997 is a much less evolved, riper wine that is typified by a more powerful, denser personality. The nose hints at the exotic, with a rich bouquet of deeply flavored cocoa, wild truffles, rose petals, cherry liqueur, cedar, black olives and strawberry perfume. The wine is purity personified throughout the palate, w/ a slight roasted touch to its admirably dense flavors that are persuasive, compelling and punctuated with an amazingly penetrating finish. If I have the good fortune of going back to this wine in the next 5-10 years, I may be able to witness perfection in the glass, 99+ points.
Talk about night and day folks, this is Brunello at its inkiest and is a blatant departure from the all the previously tasted wines. This opaque, brilliantly decadent performance is full of crème de cassis, roasted coffee, black chocolate, violet, roasted meats and a full throttle, palate staining persona that pulls no punches. While it may be ‘monstrously delicious’ (the Lucky Charms cereal of Tuscany), there is an underlining intensity of acidity and earth that are certain to evolve glacially into a stunning wine. Not for traditionalists, but certainly should take a varietally recognizable shape in the cellar, 95+ points.
Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo 2001
I almost never say that ‘this Bordeaux tastes like Napa Cabernet,’ or ‘this Tuscan wine tastes like a Barossa bomb,’ well I almost never say that, that is until I put this over the top behemoth to my lips. If this were placed in front of me simply as ‘wine,’ I’d likely peg it for a heady McLaren Vale Shiraz and I would have happily slurped down the cassis liqueur, black currant, toast, blueberry ganache and mocha flavors with pleasure. I have never had a Sangiovese that was this soft, this super-ripe and this low in acid, and I mean never! Perhaps, just perhaps there is the faintest hint of rustic spices on the finish that may lead me to believe this will settle into something Brunello-ish, but I doubt it. If I looked at this as a wine, I’d say it is a 92 point fruit bomb that I enjoyed to the last drop. As a Sangiovese, I have no idea what to say about this wine other than the old school Tuscan fans need to avoid this like the Ebola virus.
Silvio Nardi Manachiara 2001
This is a single vineyard project from Silvio Nardi that undergoes extremely severe selection, drastically low yields and is an outstanding achievement in Brunello that merits consumer attention (in case it doesn’t have enough yet). Dark, but not inky in color (like most concentrated Brunello) with a penetrating nose of leather, high class cigar tobacco, tea, dark cherry, fig and judicious toast notes that are not likely to upset anyone as this wine is full of crisp but heady, chewy fruit throughout the palate that manages a tantalizing sense of symmetry. Has a long, impressive life ahead of it and is sure to be a showstopper, 95 points.
Silvio Nardia Manachiara Barrel Sample, 2004
A treat brought to us from Tuscany thanks to Leo’s wife Connie, giving us an early glimpse into the pleasures that are sure to be found in the ’04 vintage for Brunello. A bit more saturated in its color and extremely precocious in its tobacco, lilac, mushroom, and chocolate covered blackberry persona. Effusively fruity, intense and seething in its youthful complexity that is currently submerging a seriously endowed structure, 94-96 points.
Isole e Olena Vin Santo Chianti Classico 1997
I drank far too much of this, considering the pairing w/ biscotti was far too delicious to not over-indulge upon. Heady scents of maple syrup, glazed pecans, honeyed granola, dates and fig spread are syrupy, but actually defined enough to drink on its own (surprisingly so). Pouring this on morning pancakes is likely a ticket to hell, but one that may be worthy investing in, 92 points.