Earlier this month we launched another VinConnect Customer Tour, this time to visit the region of Tuscany. I was accompanied by some of VinConnect’s customers, who joined me for tours and tastings at our winery partners, some wonderful meals and visits to many beautiful places.
We were able to taste wines across several recent vintages, from 2010 Brunellos in bottle to some 2014s in barrel/cask, and to hear the vintage specifics directly from the vintners in various regions. In general the Tuscan vintages in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 were all very good to excellent or better, but in different ways and to varying degrees depending on region. For example, in Chianti 2013 was exceptional vintage while 2012 was “just” excellent, whereas in Brunello those roles are reversed with 2012 particularly strong but 2013 a touch behind it. In both Brunello and Chianti 2014 was incredibly difficult, but along the Tuscan Coast with its unique weather patterns it was actually pretty good.
The trip began with our arrival in Chianti and check-in at the lovely Villa La Rota (one of several villas among the vineyards owned by Fontodi), whereupon we headed out to dinner at a renowned restaurant far out in the Tuscan countryside — Le Cantinetta di Rignana. Hanging off the side of a hill at the end of a dirt road deep in the vineyards, this was an absolutely authentic Tuscan dining experience with several different grilled meat courses served while dining on the patio al fresco. As the sun slowly drifted over the hills we polished off a couple bottles of wine and planned out the details of the week to come. What a way to start the trip!
We kicked off Panzano day with a visit to our old friends at Castello dei Rampolla (profile). Maurizia was off tending to some matters on the farm, but she was kind enough to arrange for us a special tasting of some older wines from their “library” — the Sammarco 2005 and d’Alceo 2007. The Sammarco 2005 (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 5% Sangiovese) was drinking really well, with sweet red fruit and a slightly roasted quality, while the d’Alceo 2007 (Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot) was phenomenal — dark, smoky fruit and an incredibly minerally finish. No wonder Robert Parker scored that wine 99 points!
Our next stop was across the valley to Fattoria La Massa (profile). Export manager Francesco Buffalini took us through a tasting of their 2012s in bottle and barrel samples of the 2013s, for comparative purposes. All of the wines from both vintages showed excellently, but the stylistic differences in the vintages were apparent. 2012 in Chianti was perhaps more classic and structured, while the 2013s wines showed big and sexy. The most exciting wine for me was the entry-level La Massa 2013 (70% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) — this was drinking great with beautiful fruit and minerality and will be a spectacular value at a ~$20 price. In addition the 100% Sangiovese Carla VI 2013 was simply awesome with beautiful fruit and a silky texture; you can sense the winery is really finding the essence of this new release.
For lunch we did what all carnivores should when visiting Chianti — eat at “Mac Dario,” the restaurant of famed celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini. Not only was the food fantastic, but my guests were also able to spend some time with the man himself, who was working diligently behind the counter taking orders as we arrived.
Next stop was Fontodi (profile), where we spent some time with the always gracious proprietor Giovanni Manetti. For the tasting we sampled the full line of just-released 2012s, which were brilliant across the board. With the Vigna del Sorbo single vineyard wine now 100% Sangiovese, it’s becoming increasingly distinct from the Flaccianello — much more structured versus the silky texture I find in Flaccianello. In addition, Giovanni graciously treated us to a special bottle from the cellar — the Flaccianello 1995. This was drinking in a perfect spot, showing wonderful secondary notes of mushrooms and truffles to complement the softening fruit. Wow!
It is always a great pleasure to visit Podere Il Carnasciale (profile) and meet with the lovely Bettina Rogosky and Peter Schilling, who heads up the winemaking team. As the world’s only producer of wine from the Caberlot variety (a “hybrid” of Cabernet Franc and Merlot), tasting these unique wines is always a fascinating experience. In addition to enjoying a lovely lunch on the patio overlooking the surrounding valley with some recent vintages of Caberlot, we also did some barrel tasting in the VERY cramped, authentic cellar. There we were able to taste the single vineyard components of the 2012 and 2013 vintages, which will be made into the Carnasciale and Caberlot. The distinctiveness of the single vineyards was dramatic (based on soil, exposition, vine age, etc.) and really demonstrates the fine art of crafting the final blends. The overall quality was exceptional, and I can’t wait to see the finished wines in the market!
Our next stop was my first visit to Castello di Ama. What a fascinating place — the winery occupies several buildings in the tiny town of Ama, where visitors are welcome to wander the narrow streets, visit the winery and hopefully stumble upon some of the dozen or so modern art installations located all around. Here we enjoyed a lovely tour of the grounds, facilities and art, and then a tasting of the full lineup of current release wines. The highlights for me were the 2011 Chianti Classico Gran Riservas San Lorenzo and Bellavista. The San Lorenzo is made each year blending the estate’s top vineyards, whereas the Bellavista is a single-vineyard bottling produced only in top vintages. In addition, we were surprised to hear that the winery had a such a challenging vintage in 2012 that they sold off all of their production since the quality was not up to their standards — a prime example of why visiting wineries in person can be so interesting and valuable.
Tuesday evening we were back on the road to our next stop — a couple of days in Montalcino staying at the fabulous Borgo Canalicchio di Sopra Wine Relais. What a wonderful property — a handful of rooms and apartments set near a lovely pool and surrounded by Canalicchio di Sopra vineyards. That evening we were thrilled to join proprietor Francesco Ripaccioli for dinner in Montalcino at Drogheria Franci, which quickly became my favorite restaurant in town. They feature fantastic, fresh, contemporary food, a comfortable room (with patio across the street adjacent to the fort) and an amazing yet well-priced wine cellar. Thanks to our host we had plenty of our own wine, however, and we enjoyed some amazing selections including Canalicchio’s Brunello Riserva 2003 as well as the not-yet-released-but-I-can’t-wait-since-it’s-mindblowing Brunello Riserva 2010. A must buy!
The following morning we formally visited the Canalicchio di Sopra (profile) winery, where we had the opportunity to walk the famed Montosoli vineyard before heading to the cellar to taste the Brunello 2011 in cask, as well as barrel-taste the different vineyard components of the 2013 prior to blending — a very interesting experience. One of our new partner wineries, I couldn’t be more excited about the quality of these wines and the momentum of this estate. Between the outstanding lodging, amazing wines and wonderful hospitality, a visit here is most highly recommended!
Our next visit was to our fine friends at Ciacci Piccolomini (profile). Angela and the team there do an excellent job, and their tour, tasting and hospitality are second to none. We sat at a lovely table on the patio overlooking the vineyards for a leisurely tasting of current releases, where the standout not surprisingly was the Brunello 2010. I was also reminded how much I enjoy their Montecucco, a 90% Sangiovese Chianti look-alike that’s made just outside the DOCG border on essentially the same soils and microclimate — at about half the price of the Brunello it’s a steal if you can find it!
Our final stop was my inaugural visit to the highly regarded Altesino (profile) estate. Set on a beautiful hilltop just north of Montalcino, the estate and surrounding vineyards share a gorgeous view of the town atop the mountain to the south. Here we tasted the Brunello and Brunello Montosoli 2010s, which were every bit as delicious as one would expect with beautiful fruit as well as great balance and complexity. We also tried two other wines that I wasn’t familiar with from the 2012 vintage made in a more forward, accessible style — the Palazzo Altesi 2012 (100% Sangiovese) and the Alte d’Altesi 2012 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese blend). Both were rich, extracted, and quite tasty.
We kicked off this morning with our highly-anticipated visit to the legendary Biondi-Santi estate. This is the family that literally created Brunello; the family and their winemaking dates back hundreds of years, and they still use incredibly traditional techniques. For example, during the tour we were shocked to see historic Slavonian oak casks from 1870 still in use today, as well as some 200+ year-old pre-Phylloxera vines still in production! The wines we tasted were so classic and so gorgeous — a Rosso 2011, Brunello Annata 2008, and Brunello Riserva 1997. All showed lovely fruit, as well as an elegance and balance that seems almost Burgundian, something increasingly rare with the advent of more modern processes and winemaking styles in the region.
Next we departed Brunello for our excursion to the Tuscan Coast to taste the Bordeaux blends so prevalent here. The first stop — a wonderful tour, lunch and tasting at Monteverro (profile). As you may know this is a relatively new winery, which released its first commercial wines in the 2008 vintage. While the great reviews and mid-90s scores arrived soon after, the winery is still working hard to refine its winemaking and dial in a signature style. We tasted their soon-to-be-released 2012 vintage wines (Chardonnay, Terra di Monteverro, Tinata and Monteverro), and they definitely show an evolution of the estate style. While still bright, vibrant and forward, the 2012s show more balance and elegance than in past vintages. There is still plenty of power and complexity in the wines, but a little higher acidity and more integrated alcohol make these wines more food-friendly than in prior years. Hopefully the critics will share our thoughts and take the scores even higher!
Tua Rita (profile) was our final visit on Thursday. As they bottle and release earlier than many other estates here, we had the opportunity to taste their eagerly-anticipated 2013 vintage wines. Given their location along the coast, the weather here was somewhat different than in Chianti or Montalcino, but quite good nonetheless. Across the board Tua Rita’s 2013 wines were outstanding, all sharing their signature fruit-forward, silky, sexy style. The Perlato del Bosco 2013 (100% Sangiovese) was a delicious, full, round, ripe expression of the grape. The Giusto di Notri 2013 (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cab Franc, 5% Merlot) continued its migration toward being a fully Cabernet-based wine, showing ripe fruit with hints of mint and eucalyptus in a voluptuous texture. The 100% Syrah 2013 showed thick, rich black fruit on the palate, with telltale iron notes coming through on the finish. And finally the Redigraffi 2013 (100% Merlot) once again showed why it’s among the top Merlot-based wines in the world, with a huge complex palate of dark fruit, milk chocolate, and notes of pine and mint among others.
Our first destination on the trip’s last day was our good friends at Castello del Terriccio (profile). Situated on a 4000 acre parcel overlooking the Mediterranean coast, this estate is truly something to behold. The wines are as well, with an outstanding range of Super Tuscan selections. Among the wines we tasted were three vintages of the Tassinaia, a mid-range Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and historically some Sangiovese. This wine is always among the most outstanding values in Tuscan wines, with rave reviews and scores in 92-94 range despite a typical price under $50. The Tassinaia 2009 with its juicy red fruit and chocolate notes was a real crowd-pleaser, while the Tassinaia 2010 showed fuller and riper if a little less focused. The Tassinaia 2011 was a revelation, however — with a bigger, darker palate and more structure, this showed real muscle and class despite the modest price. We ended that tasting with the estate’s flagship Lupicaia 2009 (85% Cab Sauv, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot) — as usual this wine showed wonderfully ripe dark fruit and a silky mouthfeel with some real structure underneath. Outstanding!
Our second visit was to Tenuta di Biserno. This is the estate of Ludovico Antinori, the original founder of Ornellaia who started Biserno after selling his interest in the other. In addition to his estate holdings here making Super Tuscan wines with a focus on Cabernet Franc, he also owns properties in New Zealand and Hungary, whose wines we were able to taste as well. Our main focus however were the Super Tuscan wines Insoglio, Il Pino and Biserno. The Insoglio 2013 (45% Sangiovese, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petiti Verdot) showed vibrant, brambly dark fruit and a chewy mouthfeel. The Il Pino 2012 (Cab Franc, with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot) showed lots of dark, forward fruit and nice mouthfeel. And the namesake Biserno 2011 (60% Cabernet Franc, 22% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot) showed black plum and blackberry fruit along with chocolate and coffee notes. Each of these wines showed a lot of fruit, but not as much focus, structure or elegance as I personally would have preferred.
We finished our tasting slate with a visit to Ornellaia, one of the most famous and successful Super Tuscan estates of all. The hospitality here was truly special, with a lovely trip through the vineyards, comprehensive tour of the winery, and amazing tasting of their full lineup of wines. The Le Volte 2013 (50% Merlot, 30% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon) showed light red fruit, a chewy mouthfeel and good balance– a consistently excellent wine found in many restaurants. The Le Serre Nuove 2012 (50% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot) showed bright red fruit, some coffee notes, nice acidity and excellent complexity. And finally the Ornellaia 2012 (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot) delivered just what one would expect — a big, sexy nose of rich dark fruit, combined with some spicy notes and good acidity, making it an easy wine to love. These are all excellent wines, cut from the same cloth and exhibiting a shared “house style.”
Friday night in Lucca
On our way back from the coast we decided to spend the evening in Lucca, a popular destination but smaller, less crowded and less “American” than I find Florence or even Siena this time of year. We were able to grab an excellent seafood dinner just around the corner from our comfortable hotel, and then spent the evening wandering the town for dessert and a nightcap. We began to encounter more and more people and hear music in the distance; following the crowds we came upon a live band playing in the main oval-shaped piazza in the town center. They played for hours while we listened and lounged over drinks nearby — just the kind of serendipitous experience that ties together a wonderful week of wine, food, travel, and good friends.
Hosting our Customer Tours is one of the things I love most about VinConnect — it is the ultimate embodiment of our name, integrating intimately the two critical constituents we serve (top European wineries and their most passionate customers). I truly hope that those reading this will someday have the chance to join us, as I’d love you all to have the kinds of experiences that we and our other trip participants have been fortunate enough to enjoy.