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February 28, 2007

Col d'Orcia's Poggio al Vento: No Wine Before It's Time

SANT ANGELO IN COLLE, Italy - From the wall of this small Tuscan hill town you can scan the horizon and spy some of the most important wine estates in the Montalcino district: Banfi, Argiano, Il Poggione and Col d'Orcia.

This is the southern tip of the Brunello di Montalcino zone, warmer and drier than vineyard lands closer to the town of Montalcino to the north. The wines of this area are typically riper and more powerful than those produced elsewhere in the Brunello zone, but none moreso than the iconic Col d'Orcia single-vineyard Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Poggio al Vento.

As the producers of the region unveiled their 2001 Brunello riservas last week (riservas must be held a minimum of five years before release) at the Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino, Col d'Orcia was only then taking the wraps off its 1999 Poggio al Vento Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, a full two years later than other 1999 riservas were presented.

'A great Brunello needs time,' opined Count Alberto Marone Cinzano, proprietor of the Col d'Orcia (meaning the hill, or col, overlooking the Orcia river) estate.

Of course, the Count's neighbors might argue that all reserve Brunellos are great, or should be. But that would miss the point. The Poggio al Vento vineyard is a unique parcel that delivers a consistent quality vintage after vintage, namely powerful, long-lived Brunello that will be better in 10 years than it is today.

This is the quality that distinguishes Brunello di Montalcino from other Sangiovese-based wines of Tuscany, and it is the reason Brunello can command prices considerably higher than those of the district's chief rivals in the Chianti Classico region between Florence and Siena.

The 1999 vintage was exceptional for Brunello, perhaps slightly underrated by the local consorzio, which awarded the vintage four stars out of a possible five. During an extensive tasting of the 1999 Brunello normale (non-riserva) three years ago, I had been impressed with the quality across the board. And the riservas are even better, exhibiting more structure along with exceptional complexity.

Col d'Orcia's Poggio al Vento appears tight even today, as though it could have gone another year or two prior to release. The idea behind the long wait is to allow the tannins to mature and soften, making a riserva more pleasing to drink upon release. But the better riservas inevitably require additional patience by the consumer, though there has been movement in recent years toward more modern, supple Brunello that can be consumed immediately.

Even at Col d'Orcia they produce Brunello in this fashion. But not the Poggio al Vento. Here, they allow the vineyard to speak for itself.

Photos: Top, Col d'Orcia's Poggio al Vento vineyard; middle, 1999 Col d'Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 'Poggio al Vento' is boxed for shipping; bottom, the Count proudly shows off a bottle of the latest Poggio al Vento Brunello Riserva.

Photos by Robert Whitley

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:00 PM

February 21, 2007

Poggio Antico, the Wine and the Food

MONTALCINO, Italy -- Finally connected with my driver this morning. We left Florence shortly after 8 a.m. and arrived here before 10:30. Not bad considering it rained off and on all the way.

I had three winery appointments today, the first at Col d'Orcia (it's on the hill, or Col, that overlooks the Orcia river) followed by stops at Poggio Antico and Il Poggione.

Poggio Antico is especially interesting because it has a phenomenal restaurant (owned independently) on the estate. I don't use the term phenomenal lightly. Chef Roberto Minetti had a Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome before moving his family and career to Montalcino more than a decade ago.

He quickly earned a star in Montalcino (since lost) and gained renown for operating the best restaurant in the region. Poggio Antico has since been eclipsed by the superb restaurant at Castello Banfi (with one Michelin star) but it was clearly a ground-breaking restaurant when it opened and continues to turn out inspired dishes to this day.

Paola Gloder, the proprietor of the winery with the same name, has never regretted recruiting the talented Minetti to open shop in Montalcino.

"Roberto has a wonderful imagination and creates dishes that are international in origin but with a Tuscan twist," said Gloder. "He was originally from Tuscany, you know."

Gloder admits her decision to make her own Poggio Antico the only Brunello di Montalcino on the wine list has perhaps hurt the restaurant with the Michelin Guide, which prizes depth in a wine list. There has been some criticism that there aren't more Brunellos, though you can find wines from the rest of Italy.

"What do you do?" she said, "If you put some Brunellos on the list and not others, you only make friends and enemies. And we can't possibly have 200 Brunellos listed. So it is just us, and the other wines from outside this region."

If you're a Brunello fan, don't let the absense of many of Montalcino's best deter you from trying the Poggio Antico restaurant. The Poggio Antico Brunello is top drawer, and you can always dress it up with something dazzling from the kitchen of Roberto Minetti, one of Tuscany's genuine culinary stars.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 3:43 PM

February 20, 2007

When Dining Is a Happy Adventure

FLORENCE, Italy -- I'm stranded in Florence tonight because of a miscommunication about the pick-up time for a ride to Montalcino for a week of tasting Brunello.

It's been one of those trips, starting Sunday night in Paris when I walked from my hotel to Willi's Wine Bar (left), only to find it was closed. I had been savoring an evening at Willi's since I began my journey, so I was a bit bummed. But not for long.

I walked around the corner to Le Grand Colbert (right) and managed to get in without a reservation, which can be difficult on Sunday nights in Paris because so many of the good restaurants are closed (i.e., Willi's).

One of the finest roast chickens in Paris with a bottle of Frederic Magnien 2004 Gevrey-Chambertin saved the night. Le Grand Colbert is a favorite brasserie because it's both cozy and elegant, yet unpretentious. And the prices are modest for Paris. It was an excellent recovery from my own poor planning.

I flew to Florence on Monday and had a mission to experience the best steak Florentine, or bistecca Fiorentina, in Florence. Several friends had suggested I would find it at Il Latini. I thought this was probably a very good call, for Il Latini is one of my regular stops in Florence and I always order the same thing -- the world's greatest veal chop!

It was not a great leap to imagine Latini might have the best steak Florentine as well. So I set out on the trek from my hotel along the Arno river to Il Latini, near the Ponte Vecchio.

Wouldn't you know it, Latini is closed on Mondays. They don't take reservations, so I never thought to call. Now I was really bummed. But once again, not for long. I went around the corner to a restaurant I know well, Buca Mario (below right).

Once again, without a reservation I lucked into a good table. Ordered a bottle of San Felice Chianti Classico Riserva and watched a couple of the most beautiful bistecca Fiorentinas I had ever seen pass me on their way from the kitchen to tables in the back.

Sold. Steak Florentine for one, a bottle of Chianti and I was good for the night. What awaits me this evening I have no idea, but I'm starting to think carefully laid plans might be overrated!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:09 AM

February 15, 2007

Rose Champagne Another Success for Moet

Today's Wall Street Journal has an interesting take on the surge in popularity of rose Champagne.

Sales of rose Champagne have increased dramatically in the United States, particularly in the non-vintage brut segment of the rose market. WSJ attributes the growth to a long, expensive campaign by Moet-Hennessy to develop cache for the rose style.

The kudos are aimed at Moet's vision, of course. Ramping up rose production in the non-vintage category was a long-term affair and there was no guarantee there would be a payoff in the end.

Now that success has been achieved, it looked like a no-brainer all along. But it's clear success required a company with deep pockets and a willingness to stay the course.

As a devotee of good Champagne, with a fondness for rose, I'll raise a glass of my own to the folks at Moet. Cin-cin!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:43 PM

February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day Fix: Bubbles or the Bull

Today's the big day and I know some of you are already in a panic. Yep, there's some slim pickings at the neighborhood florist right about now.

Never fear, every Valentine really wants a good bottle of wine. If not, you have to ask why not. It's the least you could do before you dump 'em.

Anyway, I digress. Which wine, you might wonder? This time of year I get all sorts of suggestions for the perfect Valentine's Day wine. Most of them would get you some serious time in the dog house.

Do not, I repeat, do not show up tonight with a bottle of Argentine Malbec. Or a Shiraz from the Barossa. You might squeeze by with a lovely Chianti, but only because even a frog could pass for romantic arriving at the door with something Italian.

But why chance it. This is a no-brainer. It's Valentine's Day for crying out loud. It's got to have bubbles or it must be sweet, or some combination of the two (come to think of it, the Rosa Regale Brachetto d'Acqui is just about perfect for the occasion).

If you're really lucky when you hit the wine shop on the way home you'll find a wonderful sparkling rose; perhaps the exceptional J Wine Company Brut Rose or the Laurent Perrier Brut Rose Champagne.

But let's face it, any Champagne from a respected Champagne house will make a good impression. That's your ace in the hole.

Then there is the world of dessert wine, particularly Port, Sherry and Madeira. The Blandy's Alvada Madeira is a beautifully balanced Madeira -- sweet, but not too sweet -- and it comes in at about the same price ($20 or thereabouts) as the Rosa Regale.

Then there are the great Tawny Ports. I'll throw out the Graham's 20-Year-Old (about $60) just for fun, but you'd have to search to find a 20-year-old Tawny from a reputable producer that wasn't at least passable.

And a PX Sherry will get the job done as well. My favorite is from Osborne but, again, good Sherry producers rarely miss with their top end dessert Sherry. Osborne is easy to spot because of the huge black bull on the label!

When in doubt, go for the bull.

Happy hunting!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:03 AM

February 7, 2007

The Wines Women Want?

Wine Review Online's very own Leslie Sbrocco, who wrote the book Wine for Women, and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, have been tapped to judge next month at the first-ever wine competition for women only, sponsored by the national organization Women for Wine Sense.

There also are a number of exceptional women winemakers, such as Dawnine Dyer and Carol Shelton, on the judging panels. The idea, as it has been explained, is to find the "wines women want."

While I believe this is a tremendous marketing ploy -- studies show that a huge percentage of the wines consumed in the home are purchased by the woman of the house -- I wonder if there really is a feminine palate and a masculine palate.

I'm not so sure there is a gender divide when it comes to wine. For example, if Leslie and Dawnine are sitting on the same panel and Leslie loves a wine but Dawnine spits it out in disgust, which one would you say is representative of the woman's point of view?

I remember a panel I had one year at the Monterey Wine Competition (I'm the Director of that competition) in which a well-known woman winemaker from the Central Coast came to me in frustration to explain why her panel was being so stingy with medals. Seems she was on a panel with another woman from the wine industry who worked on the sales side.

"It's uncanny," the woman winemaker told me, "but if I really like a wine I know she's going to hate it. And if I don't like a wine, I know she's going to love it!"

Or consider two great Pinot Noir producers from Sonoma County, Gary Farrell and Merry Edwards. Farrell makes elegant, sometimes delicate Pinots that are typically aromatic and smooth as silk. Edwards makes Pinots that are dense and powerful and kick you upside the head (in a very good way, I should add).

Which would you describe as masculine and which feminine? So I'm not so sure wine tasting preferences split along lines of gender. But I do know from the cast of judges that the sessions will be lively and fun to watch. And the results should be very interesting, to say the least.

And I would bet a whole bunch of he-men wine enthusiasts will just love whatever the ladies come up with!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:29 AM

February 4, 2007

A Wine That Rekindled Fond Memories . . .

As I decanted a bottle of Travaglini's 1997 Gattinara Riserva before dinner last night, my thoughts drifted to a long ago evening at a restaurant outside of Verona, Italy, where I once met the late Giancarlo Travaglini.

Giancarlo spoke little or no English and I spoke little or no Italian, but amazingly enough we had a beautiful conversation over many courses and several bottles of Travaglini wine. It was a mixture of a few well-known phrases and words everyone understood, and the universal language of hand-waving, nodding and gesturing that you might find anywhere wine lovers gather around a table of good food and wine.

Gattinara is a miniscule district in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Its DOC red wine is produced from the Nebbiolo grape, though Gattinara is not nearly as famous as its more exalted neighbors, Barolo and Barbaresco. With the possible exception of Travaglini, which gained recognition initially for its oddly shaped frosted glass bottle.

Giancarlo made it his mission in life, however, to ensure the Travaglini wines were known at least as much for their quality as their visual appeal at the dinner table.

I had tasted the '97 Riserva with Giancarlo that night and remember being impressed with its intensity and color, especially the fleshiness that balanced the sharpness of its ample tannins. At 10 years of age, the edges are beginning to tinge and the leathery notes that were so subtle in the wine's youth are now more pronounced.

There remains plenty of concentrated fruit, and the spiciness of the nose seems to me to be more enhanced, coming together with a fragrant earthiness that makes you want to plunge your face into the glass. The tannins are still going strong, a bit grainy now but definitely mellowing.

I remember the expression on Giancarlo's face as we tasted this wine. He was proud of it, as well he should have been. I purchased several bottles upon my return from Vinitaly that year, but this was the last from my stash.

So it was with a bit of sadness that I took the final sip, my thoughts turning once again to an evening long ago when Giancarlo and I drank this wine and wondered aloud what it would taste like in a few years' time.

It was beautiful Giancarlo, just as you imagined it would be.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:01 PM