HomeAbout UsWine ReviewsArchivesAdvertiseContact Us


Whitley On Wine

Wine Review Online Radio

W.R. Tish

Leslie Sbrocco

International Wine Center

The Great Wines of America

Wine Style Book

Gold Medal Wines

New York Times 'The Pour'


Critics Challenge

San Diego International


WRO Wine Blog

September 30, 2008

Brunello Purity Urged by Count of Col d'Orcia

The investigation into the purity of many Brunellos from the 2003 vintage drags on, and there is no end in sight. Count Francesco Marone Cinzano was president of the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino when the controversy erupted earlier this year after news leaked the Italian government had embargoed the '03 vintage for export.

The Count now is the ringleader of a group of Brunello producers who have vowed to strictly adhere to the traditional definition of Brunello as 100 percent Sangiovese from Brunello classified vineyards. That is the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week. Click here to read.

The Count also has written a paper on the controversy, which he titled "Brunello and the Goose with the Golden Eggs," that is reprinted below:

The more I think of recent events in Montalcino, the more the fable of the goose with the golden eggs comes to my mind. Eternally optimistic as I am, I find it difficult to believe that greed will prevail; that a majority of producers in Montalcino are so blinded by greed that they are ready to kill the goose.
The fortune of Montalcino resides in the fact that for many decades it has produced a unique wine. The very special combination of pure Sangiovese with the soil and climate of the hills surrounding this medieval town yield a very distinctive and recognisable wine. Apart from its typicality, true traditional Brunello also offers another rare element of distinction: it will last and it will improve and it will age and will go on getting better and better.
Starting in the 1960s the Italian market first and European ones soon after started discovering this little-known gem from Tuscany. Swiss and Germans in the 1970s followed by Belgians and Scandinavians discovered Brunello and started loving it. Japanese soon joined the group of markets that appreciated the unmistakable warmth of this wine. A wine that when poured in the glass will fill your senses with all the heat and dryness and elegant aromas of the Tuscan hills. Eventually in the mid 1990s, when the grand vintage 1990 was released, Brunello became a worldwide phenomenon and the goose was really laying golden eggs for everyone.

Now, no one said this came easily. Sangiovese is a very sensitive grape; its yields vary greatly depending on climate. The quality, one year compared with the next, is even more variable. Some vintages may allow you to bottle only half a normal production, some very difficult years even less if not none. If you work properly, the fact of having four/five vintages aging in the cellar tends to even out the ups and downs of nature and allow you to supply your customers without too many disruptions. All this as long as you are not overtaken by greed and you do not demand from your vineyard to deliver every single year the maximum yield allowed by the protocol of production. And if the vineyard of Sangiovese does not comply, finding other ways of filling the gap.
The Public Prosecutor in Siena, in 2007, started an investigation into such practices. He stated clearly that he is not after the presence of a small number of vines other than Sangiovese in the Brunello vineyards. The wrongdoing he is concerned about is how some producers could have yielded in the 2003 vintage as much Brunello as in other years when even school boys know it was the hottest, driest, most difficult summer on record and in some cases the grapes just dried up in the vineyard before reaching ripeness.
Because unfortunately the bending of the rules has become somewhat widespread in Montalcino, in order to save themselves, some producers are turning the issue into a debate about traditional versus modern style Brunello. They say that the markets want softer, deeper coloured wine and that this is the way forward.
My provocative answer  to proposals of allowing a percentage of other grapes into Brunello is that it would probably be faster, considering Italian law making rapidity, to subscribe to the Consorzio of Chianti Classico and change the name of Montalcino into Castellina in Chianti.
Currently the key word in Montalcino for some is 'tolerance'. Tolerance concerning grapes that are used in Brunello. Tolerance in cellar practices. Tolerance because nature is never 100%. In my view tolerance is as good as killing the goose, because it goes well beyond using a little Merlot or Syrah in the wine:
Tolerance means changing radically the typology of the wine we produce
Tolerance means accepting higher pH's from Sangiovese at harvest for a more ready-to- drink wine 
Tolerance means allowing the grapes to go to over-ripeness
Tolerance means allowing more oxidation during vinification for wines that will not age as long.
Tolerance means releasing wines such as some of the 1997 Brunellos tasted last year at the 40th anniversary of the Consorzio in Montalcino that were strongly criticized by journalists.

My opinion, as a father that has in mind the legacy to his children, is that Brunello producers today need to stop thinking on how to fix the problem of the vintages that are aging in the cellar currently and look at the medium long term, recognizing that our goose of the golden eggs is the uniqueness, the recognisability, the strong link with our territory and our grape, the magic mix achievable only in Montalcino that makes true Brunello a wine a breed apart.

     -- Count Francesco Marone Cinzano, Col d'Orcia

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:30 PM

September 27, 2008

Durbanville: Little-Known South African Sauvignon Star

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Granted, Sancerre and Pouilly-FumĂ© from France's Loire Valley, along with New Zealand's Marlborough region, are the 800-pound gorillas of the Sauvignon Blanc world.  However, from my current vantage point here in Africa (where they know a thing or two about gorillas), neither the French nor the Kiwi renditions of Sauvignon look quite so big and bad.

Many American wine lovers are still not up-to-speed on South African wine as a result of relatively spotty distribution Stateside, but three days of intensive tasting here at Cape Wine 2008 (a huge, bi-annual national wine trade show) have demonstrated conclusively that this country can make kick-ass wine from an impressively wide range of grape varieties.  I was also here for Cape Wine in 2006, so this is a confirmation experience rather than an epiphany for me.  But the very high caliber of top South African wines remains newsworthy on account of their lamentable scarcity in the USA, and the diffusion of excellence across new regions and start-up producers has come as quite a revelation to me.

Sauvignon Blanc provides an excellent case in point.  Truly top-flight Sauvignons are now made in an impressive number of distinct appellations, including Stellenbosch, Elim, Walker Bay, Elgin, Constantia, and Cape Point--among others.  But to that list you'd better add Durbanville, a region that may be entirely new to you (as it was nearly new to me), that now has nine wineries that are making extremely convincing Sauvignon.

The region is located up in the hills (verging on mountains) to the west and north of Cape Town, and on a clear day, the views of the city and the Cape are absolutely stunning.  Altitude and proximity to the cooling waters of two oceans (Atlantic and Indian, in case your geography is rusty) make for cool temperatures, especially at night, which explains the bright, driving acidity that runs through the wines.

However, these wines are not just about acidity.  The rolling hills provide a variety of exposures to the sun, making it possible for winemakers to attain varying degrees of ripeness to fill out the body and flavor of their wines.  Those who prefer a fuller, fleshier style can get it here, and some of the regions Sauvignons show hints of tropical fruit, whereas others who favor a leaner, brighter, citrus fruit site can get what they want as well.  Some of the top wines actually show both of these fruit profiles at once, which can make for an especially interesting experience.

Although Chenin Blanc gets a lot of attention here as a contender for the role of South Africa's calling-card white, it sure looks to me as though Sauvignon has a clear edge at this point.  Keep an eye on this appellation and on its top Sauvignons more generally--the best of them should likewise have the French and the Kiwis looking over their shoulders….

Posted by Michael Franz at 1:56 AM

September 24, 2008

Bordeaux from Under the Radar

I confess that I cut my wine teeth on Almaden from a jug. And that was progessive for the late 1960s because Almaden probably had the nicest jugs.

When I got serious about wine, I was living and working in New York City. Of course, it was my playground as well. It was in the restaurants of Manhattan that my taste buds for wine awakened and I was exposed to the glorious world of Bordeaux.

It was a fine time to become interested in this great wine of the world, for wonderful vintages such as 1966 and 1964 could be found for a pittance. And the exceptional 1970 vintage arrived shortly after I settled in the city.

Even on a journalist's salary I could afford many of the greatest wines ever made, including first growths such as Latour and Haut Brion and Margaux when I was able to splurge.

The top Bordeaux of today are another matter, They have become cult wines and are priced accordingly, sometimes fetching $1000 and more from a great vintage.

Those of us who have grown to love the complexity and longevity of Bordeaux are often reduced to the purchase of one bottle or two -- or sometimes none -- from our favorite chateaux. Yet there is more to Bordeaux than the tres expensive classified growths of the Medoc.

I have just spent the past week in Bordeaux, exploring the less well-known regions of the right bank. Investment and energy have poured into the regions of Fronsac, Montagne-St. Emilion, Lalande-Pomerol and other satellite regions of Pomerol and St. Emilion in recent years.

In my Creators Syndicate column this week I focus on Fronsac, where I discovered exceptional wines at Chateau Richelieu and Chateau Riviere, the latter the largest estate of Fronsac at about 200 acres (a plot of land that dwarfs most estates in either of the two more famous neighboring appellations of Pomerol and St. Emilion).

These wines are two things: beautifully crafted from well tended vineyards with good terroir, and they are affordable. The best of them should top out at $35 retail in the U.S., and many can be had for $20 to $25 per bottle.

The downside is availability. Shelf space for French wines in retail shops has been shrinking in the U.S., and what's allocated is often reserved for only the most famous wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone Valley.

Less exposed areas such as the Loire Valley, Alsace, Languedoc AOC and the more obscure appellations of Bordeaux are given little if any room at the table, and most producers from these regions are too small to mount a marketing effort in the U.S.

They are the underground wines of France. But well worth giving a look when you actually see one on a wine list or in a savvy wine shop. For those of you who love Bordeaux and miss the time when drinking Bordeaux didn't mean extreme financial sacrifice, they are wines you may come to love every bit as much as the familiar chateaux of the Medoc.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:06 AM

September 17, 2008

Can a California Cab Be Perfect? Reader Says No!

Reader reaction was swift after I recently meted out a perfect score of 100 for the 2005 Nickel & Nickel Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The reader didn't exactly take issue with that specific rating -- perhaps having never tasted the wine -- but argued in general that no California Cab could possibly be worthy of a 100-point score.

I beg to differ, of course. Two that come to mind besides the Nickel & Nickel are Spottswoode and the Cabernet-based Joseph Phelps Insignia. I awarded both 100 points just last year.

And there are no doubt others I have missed through the years. What strikes me as odd in this age of enlightenment is that some continue to challenge the proposition that California produces wine -- in particular Cabernet Sauvignon -- as good as any in the world.

To believe otherwise is pure nonsense. That is the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week. Click here to read the whole thing.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 5:22 AM

September 9, 2008

Great Benchmark: Nickel & Nickel's 100-Point Cabernet

I'm often asked what makes a winery great. The word 'great' is probably the most over-worked adjective in the wine journalist's vocabulary, so greatness would seem to be a relatively easy commodity to define, bottle and sell.

I wish. We may be awash in very fine wine from across the globe, but greatness remains a rare commodity. Trust me, you'll know it when you taste it.

I vividly remember my first sip of Meursault from Lafon, Grange from Penfolds, Pesquera from Alejandro Fernandez. But one great wine does not a great winery make. Producers at this level command the high prices they fetch because they've proven they can reproduce great wines vintage after vintage.

And now I believe another "great" winery has been born, albeit 11 years ago. Nickel & Nickel, located in the heart of the Napa Valley, was founded in 1997 with a very straightforward mission: Make single-vineyard wines that would showcase California's most spectacular vineyards.

Only now, as I taste the wines (mostly Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot) and note their remarkable consistency and extremely high quality, I realize Nickel & Nickel has passed the test of time. As a benchmark for California wine quality, it is as good as it gets.

That is the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week, where I discuss my most recent 100-point wine (the Nickel & Nickel 2005 Stelling Cabernet) and the impressive fact that I rated all four of the latest '05 Cabs from Nickel & Nickel 95 points or higher.

The Nickel & Nickel wines are relatively expensive, although it's certain you can pay more for a California Cabernet and come away with a lesser experience. These wines are made in small lots, making them rare (I know high-profile retail shops and restaurants that can't even get their hands on a case) and precious.

The quality is very high. And the team at Nickel & Nickel (famed winemaker Dirk Hampson is one of the partners) has resisted the current fashion of sweet, jammy Napa Cabernet to produce wines that are in perfect balance.

They are, I dare say, great wines from a great winery.

Click here to read.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:46 AM

September 2, 2008

Wine Service Tips 101

One of the greatest pleasures of the wine lover is sharing something exciting with friends. So it's fair to say you could serve that special juice in a jelly jar and the ooohs and ahhhs would be forthcoming.

But let's be real. If you could enhance that experience you would. Believe it or not, it's not that difficult. In fact, it's as easy as 1-2-3. That's the topic of my Creators Syndicate column this week. Click here to read "Preparation Makes Any Wine More Enjoyable."

This is news you can use, and I assure you it won't increase the cost of your wine tasting experience unless you have a budget-threatening addiction to Baccarat crystal. It will make your wine tasting experience more enjoyable, more fun and not nearly as pompous as you might imagine.

Using a better wine glass is not the action of a wine snob. Decanting a wine is not the stuffy, formal exercise of the imagination. And seasoning a glass to remove aromas from the kitchen is just good old common sense.

Here's hoping you agree with all of the above!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 7:58 PM