August 06, 2006

Italy: Something old (school), something new

I try to avoid the circular old world/new world debates that rage in online wine fora about so-called “traditional” wine from old fashioned methods vs. “international” wine made from the latest technical innovations. Traditional methods often reflect what were probably heretical advances a generation or three back. And the latest technological innovations aren’t all about making wines the world over taste the same.

But sometimes you just have to ask – what the hell is going on in Italy?

A few weeks back, my wine group had a blind tasting in two flights. First, a pair of traditionally made Tuscan wines from Montevertine. These wines are both made from 90% Sangiovese and 10% Caniaolo grapes, and are labelled “Riserva” on the back label while just “Montevertine” on the front.

The 1995 Montevertine was stellar, with a ruddy ruby color and an elegant but rich aroma that to me defines quality Tuscan red wine. Cocoa, cherries, smoke and a light balsamic accent, with great purity and depth. In the mouth, the wine was soft with good acidity and fine tannin, tart cherry flavors and terrific balance, very good wine that should only be better with dinner.

In contrast, the 1996 Montevertine was sweeter aromatically, almost Amarone-like in richness (where the grapes are dried before fermentation), with a minty herbal edge not unlike a California wine. Fat with a minty tone in the mouth, this wine is chewy and heavier than the 1995 but still classically made. That is, ruby rather than purple in color, with winey aromas instead of sweet fresh fruitiness and firm but not unnaturally sharp acidic structure. I thought the ’96 might be from ’97, to my knowledge a riper vintage, but still this was impressive if a little odd for my tastes. Interestingly, I mentioned this wine to a very wine-knowledgable friend who said, “I love how high quality Sangiovese can show a eucalyptus quality.” Which I’d never heard before, so perhaps what I thought a bit odd isn’t so odd at all.

In any event, these wines from Montevertine show what terrific, old-school Italian red wine can be like. They don’t come cheap at a price beteen $40 and $50, but they are quality wines that have aged well and will continue to age for another decade or more.

And then we moved to flight #2, a trio of 2001 vintage wines from Fattoria Zerbina in the up-and-coming Emilia Romagna region east of Tuscany. These wines absolutely confounded me. They didn’t taste Italian, instead they could have come from anywhere but really that’s not the criticism. They just aren’t that attractive. If you want big, lush, modern wines, you can do a lot better than these, at lower prices.

First was the 2001 Zerbina “Pietranora” Superiore Riserva, dark red in color with a yeasty, nail polish-tinged aroma of jammy sweet fruit amid some attractive perfume. In the mouth, the wine was sharply acidic with more volatility, a creamy, oxygen-deprived frootiness, and fine but drying tannin that hardens the finish. In short, “impressively” ripe and rich wine but wholly unappealing. How do they do that? Let’s not mention the boozy whack of alcohol, as this bottling weighs in at 15.5%. Yikes. Not to mention the price - $65. Eek!

Next came the 2001 Zerbina “Ceregio” Sangiovese di Romagna, to me the only one of the three maybe worth drinking. Slightly ligher in color with some perserved fruit aromas and earthy complexity in the mouth alongside similarly the tannic, candy froot flavors of the Pietranora. At least this tasted like Sangiovese, if not really good Sangiovese. Would you believe that this is the cheapest of the three by a wide margin? Around $15.

Finally, the 2001 Zerbina Marzieno Ravanna Rosso, which was eye-stingingly volatile with big creamy sweet fruit aromas along with a thick, dark color. There were also some tar, dirt, and pepper notes, but in the mouth it was even more tannic than the others, and not tannic in a way that time would tame. I see this drying out over time, the lush purple fruit shortening with age while the rough tannin and acid structure takes things over. For this, you pay around $50.

In the end, I loved Montevertine. Can you believe I’d never tried this producer before? And as for Zerbina, others report greatness and who am I to argue? But I know what I’m drinking.


Marshall Manning said...

Montevertine is one of the few Tuscan wines worth buying these days, and the purity and class of the wines is unmatched. Try the '02 Pian del Ciampolo (availabe at L & E for $15), a pretty, complex, and beautiful expression of Sangiovese.

And how many of "the latest technological innovations" have actually improved the distinctiveness of wine over the "traditional" methods? They may have made the wines more similar to CA Merlot, but that's not my definition of improvement.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

That '02 is in the queue. Tried to get to it before posting on Montevertine, but it'll be a follow up.

The problem with "traditional" methods is that many aren't that traditional. Most of what we think of as "old school" wine wasn't around 100+ years ago. So it seems fuzzy to me on what to embrace as "traditional" and what is just plain good technique, no matter when it came about.

My take on most "technology" these days is that it usually is intended to make winemaking easier so that you can produce larger and more consistent amounts of wine. Which isn't what artisan wine is really about, artisan wine not necessarily being good or great wine, but perhaps worth all the fuss of writing about. When technology is intended to make wines better, I tend to find "better" means "worse" for my tastes. I'm thinking, for example, of dealcoholizing to find the "sweet spot" or fermentation additives that enhance the color and texture of a wine, often it seems creating an artificial character a la collagen injections and other body "enhancements."

Ok, enough with the "quotes."