Our first Master Class, focusing exclusively on Tuscan wines, was held at AWC Wine Academy recently and it was a tasting I had been looking forward to for quite some time. Clearly I was not the only one, as all of the tickets were sold out well in advance of the event. The heavy demand resulted in an extensive waitlist, so we have now scheduled an additional session for anyone unable to make the first one. Given the popularity, I recommend your register for it promptly.
Understandably, with the range of impressive Tuscan wines we planned to show, there was a palpable excitement leading up to this event. Italian wines in general and Tuscan wines specifically are hot topics these days, with demand for top wines from these regions continually on the rise.
Additionally, we were delighted to welcome our expert speaker for the evening, Master of Wine Michael Palij. Michael is, without question, one of the world’s leading specialists on Italian wines. In addition to writing for Decanter Magazine, he also writes all of the course material related to Italy for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
Along with his academic credentials, Michael is an engaging and charismatic presenter. He is able to add colourful insight to his lectures due to his very personal knowledge of and experience with the wines, estates and people of Tuscany. Michael was certainly able to call upon his expertise for this Master Class, conducting an extremely interactive session, which was a joy to attend.
Forty years ago, ‘great’ was not a word that was generally associated with Tuscan wines. At the time, the category of very fine wine barely even existed in the region. So what has changed?
According to Michael, many of the advances can be traced back to the dramatic establishment of the Super Tuscan movement. Led by the likes of Piero Antinori and Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta, these Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines were controversial, glamorous and most importantly, different. Crucially, they were also of an extraordinarily high quality. These wines helped establish Tuscany’s fine wine credentials at a time when they were sadly lacking.
Interestingly and perhaps more significantly, the Super Tuscan movement also spurred a revivalist ‘Risorgimento’ with Tuscany’s native Sangiovese, which Michael described as, “an underrated but truly world-class grape variety.” “The key to the success of Sangiovese comes down to where and how high it is planted. While the French have terroir and attitude,” Michael told us, “Tuscany’s secret is that they have terroir and altitude. In Tuscany, how high up you plant is often the critical factor.”
“You also have to remember that Italian wines are primarily meant to be enjoyed with food. Sangiovese is no exception,” he added. “As a variety, it has a lot of tannin and quite a kick of natural acidity. These wines have a real heft to them. They will certainly age and improve, but ultimately they are meant for the dining table.”
Above: Master of Wine Michael Palij lectures on the finer points of fine Tuscan wines.
We began our tour of Tuscany’s greatest wines in the southerly coastal region of Morellino di Scansano. Morellino became a DOC in 1979 and a DOCG as recently as 2009, largely because of the pioneering work done by Elisabetta Gepetti at Fattoria Le Pupille. The wine we started with was her single vineyard, Poggio Valente from the 2005 vintage. This is a Riserva which is only made in great vintages. According to Michael it is also, “without doubt, the top wine of Morellino.”
The Poggio Valente is a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Alicante, a variety which adds more depth of colour. At seven years of age, this was showing lovely black fruits and a touch of earthy tomato leaf. There’s plenty of grip, weight and acidity, with excellent integration and balance. “This is what Morellino should be all about,” Michael pointed out. “This is not a vin de garde though, it is really a wine for early or medium term drinking. This is probably at its best now and will be for the next five years.”
Above: Account Manager Annabel Dent takes careful tasting notes.
The next wine was one of Michael’s professed favourites, Fontodi’s 2006 Vigna del Sorbo, a Chianti Classico Riserva from Panzano. At 500m in elevation, Panzano is right in the heart of Chianti Classico, often making it too cold to completely ripen Sangiovese. However, in exceptional years such as 2006, it matures to perfection. Giovanni Manetti’s magnificent wine proved a prime example.
A blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, there were more red fruit expressions in this wine than in the previous, including raspberries and redcurrants, on both the nose and palate. It had a lovely elegance and lift to it as well, with more refined, silky tannins and an abundance of refreshing acidity. Michael informed us that he had actually tasted the 1990 Vigna del Sorbo the day before and thought that this wine would age just as well, if not better. “This is brilliant today, but you should really wait another 20 years before you open this wine.”
If we wanted certain proof of Tuscany’s ability to age, we got it with our next wine, the 1995 Vigneta Bellavista from Castello di Ama. Owner Marco Pallanti was one of the pioneers of the single vineyard, ‘cru’ concept in Tuscany back in 1978. This 22 hectare vineyard now produces one of his finest wines. Selection is extremely strict and Pallanti only makes Bellavista in the best vintages.
Above: Account Manager Lucy McMillan quizzes a taster on his thoughts.
Beautifully constructed, this wine had great finesse, complexity and elegance. The primary fruit was still there but is now giving way to tertiary, bottle age flavours of sous bois and minerals. Also interesting to note was the alcohol level. As Michael pointed out, this bottle was 12.5%. “Now, ten years later on and with global warming, the current release is listed at more like 14.5%.”
The fourth wine was the 2005 Brunello di Montalcino from La Fiorita, owned and run by one of Italy’s best known ‘flying winemakers’, Roberto Cipresso. Heading over to Montalcino and moving forward a decade, we were now seeing a completely different style and expression of pure Sangiovese. This was a big wine at 14.5%, but it holds it together very nicely. Quite modern in style, with a bold, rich and forward expression, this wine had spice, intense black cherry flavours, firm tannins and superb acidity. Ultimately, this was a beautifully balanced and utterly beguiling example of Brunello di Montalcino.
I have to confess that I did struggle slightly with the tannic structure of the next wine, Soldera’s 1999 Case Basse. This was also a Brunello di Montalcino, but it is produced in the southwest of the region. Michael has visited this estate many times and regaled us with stories about the beauty of the gardens and vineyards. The property owner, Gianfranco Soldera, is something of a legend in Tuscany. His interests are not geared towards chasing ratings or critical acclaim. “He just makes wines that he personally likes to drink,” Michael told us. Though this wasn’t my personal favourite of the night, many, including Michael, absolutely raved about it, describing it as, “one of the greatest Brunellos ever made.”
Fortunately, nearly everyone in attendance agreed on the next wine, Piero Antinori’s 2004 Tignanello. This is, of course, the original Super Tuscan and the wine which caused all the fuss and brouhaha back in the 1970s. It was the first Sangiovese to be aged in small oak barrels and also the first wine in modern times to use Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Today, the blend is roughly 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet.
This was a huge pleasure to drink. It is wonderfully lush, plump, and fleshy and it is absolutely brimming with creamy, plum fruit flavours and baking spices. As Michael noted, “it is a very generous, ‘come hither’ sort of wine, largely because it gets a complete, new oak treatment. Significantly, Antinori only utilizes 50% new oak with [neighbouring property] Solaia, but Tignanello gets a full 100%.”
Following the Tignanello, we tasted the current latest release of Ornellaia, another Super Tuscan legend, which was founded by Piero Antinori’s brother, Lodovico. Michael explained that this estate was really born out of an internal family feud between Piero and Lodovico. However, this initial conflict was only the beginning of the drama that has befallen Ornellaia in recent years.
In 1999, the Mondavis of California became serious shareholders in the estate. When the Mondavi Company was subsequently taken over by Constellation Brands, the corporation felt that Ornellaia did not fit within their portfolio of global properties. In a subsequent, bizarre twist, Constellation then sold Ornellaia to the Antinori’s arch-enemies, the Frescobaldi family. It all sounds a bit like something out of an Italian opera performance. In spite of all the management changes though, the estate and the quality of its wines have remained very much intact.
This particular Tignanello was the 2008, which is admittedly a bit too young to drink still, yet was fascinating to taste due to its ripe, modernist style. The mix is a classic Bordeaux blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest comprised of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a bit of Petit Verdot.
As is our tradition here at AWC Wine Academy, we always like to liven up our tastings at the finish to make them as interesting as possible. Therefore, the last three wines were all tasted blind. The first was definitely my wine of the night – an absolutely fabulous 1997 Solaia which was a complete tour de force. The wine showed extraordinary class, elegance, complexity and length. Michael agreed, pointing out that you could put this alongside a really good First Growth Bordeaux and it would not look out of place.
Just to prove the point, that is exactly what we did! The next wine was an equally superb 1996 Château Mouton Rothschild. Last, but by no means least, the third wine in the trio was Nicolo Incisa della Rochetta’s 1997 Sassicaia from Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri.
Personally, I felt that the Château Mouton Rothschild and the Solaia just edged the Sassicaia. Ultimately though, the line between these three extraordinary, Cabernet-based wines was incredibly thin. Interestingly, when Michael asked for a show of hands, almost everyone picked the Mouton as the mystery First Growth – an impressive feat. Yet, for the evening’s preferred wine, it was much more evenly spread out. Although the greatest number of people (11) voted for the Mouton Rothschild, both the Solaia and the Sassicaia were just behind it in the popularity poll.
Indeed, talking to people after the event, it was clear that the Mouton Rothschild did stand out. This was not because it was necessarily better than the two Tuscans. Simply that it was noticeably different. In other words, the concept of terroir is alive and well, as is the future of great Tuscan wine.
Below is the complete list of wines tasted on the evening. All wines are currently available on request from The Antique Wine Company and prices quoted are in bond.
To join us for a tasting or to reserve AWC Wine Academy for yourself, please visit - http://www.awcwineacademy.com - or contact Deborah Ives via email or on +44 (0) 20 3219 5560.