Franco Biondi Santi (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Franco Biondi-Santi, proprietor of his family’s world-renowned Brunello estate, passed away today at the age of 91. Grandson of Ferruccio Biondi Santi, who is credited with “inventing” Brunello di Montalcino in the 1870s, Franco devoted his life to maintaning the traditions of his grandfather and father Tancredi, by producing traditional Brunello in the strictest sense. His wines over the past six decades were sublime, heralded as among the world’s finest.
I met Franco for the first time a little more than ten years ago, as I was with a group of international journalists visiting a number of estates in Montalcino. We were all impressed to be able to tour this “temple” of Brunello and even more excited to briefly meet Franco. He displayed his playful side, as he took a business card from each of us, held them in his hand and then spread them out like a deck of cards. I suppose you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it was nice to see someone so famous who didn’t take himself too seriously.
I met him again about six years later at a wine fair and how nice that he remembered me; after all, here was a man who rubbed shoulders with many famous people, so for him to take time to say hello and invite me to a tasting later that day was very gracious of him.
But my most memorable meeting with Franco was last May at the Tenuta Greppo estate, situated just outside the town of Montalcino. I sat down with an employee who assisted me with my interview; afterwards the three of us sat down in the cellars to taste the new releases. It’s a pretty special occasion to merely sample Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino, but to be able to do it at the estate with Franco Biondi Santi was a day I’ll never forget. It was especially nice to hear the proud tone of his voice as he told me the story of his family and their wines. It was also quite a treat to see him standing next to some of the botti in the cellars and talking about these casks used to mature the Brunello; a few of these had been in operation for over 100 years!
In my book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, I wrote the following about the Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva:
“This is one of the few wines from Montalcino – or anywhere in the world – that I would call ethereal.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary has several definitions for the word “ethereal,” among them “heavenly,” “intangible,” “marked by unusual delicacy or refinement” and finally, “suggesting the heavens or heaven.” We don’t usually refer to a person as ethereal, but it’s clear that the reference to heaven is fitting for Franco Biondi Santi; surely he is there now, looking down on his beloved estate.
Opening the 1961 Mastroberardino Taurasi (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
In my previous two posts (here and here), I wrote about marvelous vertical tastings of Taurasi from two first-rate producers: Feudi di San Gregorio and Luigi Tecce. As Taurasi is a significant red that does not receive the attention it deserves, it’s a pleasure experiencing the beautiful work that these two producers – as well as another few dozen estates – have accomplished over the past 10-15 years; perhaps now Taurasi will be a more important part of the discussion about Italy’s greatest red wines.
But if you have to single out one producer who has carried the torch for Taurasi for more than 70 years, it is clearly Mastroberardino. Indeed, this family estate, situated in the small town of Atripalda in the province of Avellino, is indeed synonymous with this wine. Anyone who knows even a little bit about Taurasi has probably read about some journalist’s amazing experience with the 1968 bottling, a wine that has become a watershed for Taurasi. I am one of those lucky souls who has tasted this wine ; that one occasion being at VinItaly in Verona about six or seven years ago with Piero Mastroberardino, the managing director of the winery. I was pleased to note at the time that this legendary wine – almost forty years of age when I sampled it that day – deserved its celebrated status. It seemed to me that the wine had plenty of life ahead of it – I estimated that it would still be in fine shape in 2016-2020, meaning it would be a pleasure to drink even at 50 years of age! I recall that I tasted the 1971 as well that day and told Piero that while I believed that wine was outstanding, it was the 1968 that was fresher. Piero’s sheepish reply was, “well, 1968 was a better vintage.”
So it was a great pleasure to be invited along with a small group of international journalists in March to a tasting of six decades of Mastroberardino Taurasi at the winery. Piero and his team – along with his father Antonio, who guided the firm through many of its greatest successes since the 1940s – selected one wine from each decade, starting with the 1952 and continuing up to the 2006 bottling. Piero gave a brief talk about how his ancestors started selling their Taurasi around Italy; he then let us taste the wines in silence, without any additional words about each bottle.
Here are my notes on the six wines:
1952- Pale garnet; still lovely fruit aromas with notes of strawberry along with balsamic, oregano, thyme and cedar. Medium-full, with a beautifully elegant entry on the palate, this is a remarkably fresh wine, one of stunning grace and harmony. There is notable acidity along with a very subtle spiciness. Absolutely amazing now, this wine has at least another 10-12 years ahead of it, but I will admit that this is an educated guess; who knows, perhaps this will will be in fine shape some 20-25 years from now, as the balance is that impressive. A great, great wine.
1961 Riserva - Deep garnet; aromas of dried currant, dried cherry, sage and balsamic. Medium-full with excellent concentration; generous mid-palate. Outstanding freshness and balance; amazing persistence – the finish goes on and on. As flavorful and rich as this wine is, it is undeniably light as a feather. A sublime wine, one of great pleasure that will be drinking well for another 15-20 years, perhaps even longer. A great, great wine.
1970 Riserva – Deep garnet; aromas of truffle, balsamic, dried currant, oregano and cedar. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Long, long finish with very fine tannins. Outstanding complexity, very good acidity and remarkable freshness. What a wine – one of great typicity, balance, freshness and harmony. This has at least 15-20 years of life ahead of it. Another great, great wine and the one that I selected as my favorite, although I admit that if I could taste these wines together again, my choice as the favorite – an incredibly difficult selection – might be either the 1952 or the 1961, as they are all of immeasurable quality, class and breeding.
(At this point, I need to let you know that I did not spit any of these first three wines. Of course at any tasting, you spit or else you wouldn’t be able to walk straight after a few minutes. But how could I spit the 1952, 1961 or 1970? Not only were they amazing to taste, who knows if I’ll ever get a chance to try them again? During this first part of the tasting, I turned to my colleague Tom Maresca from New York City, who confirmed to me that he wasn’t spitting any of these either!)
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)
1985 - Deep garnet; aromas of fresh red cherry, hint of orange peel, balsamic, truffle and cedar. Very good persistence, very good acidity, round tannins. Impressive persistence and notable length in the finish. Excellent complexity and wonderful varietal character. Best in 10-12 years, although it will undoubtedly drink well for another 7-10 years after that. Excellent.
1996 Riserva “Radici” Radici means “roots,” an appropriate designation for a Campanian firm that has been producing their own wines since 1878; the “Radici” project for Mastroberardino Taurasi was initiated with the 1986 vintage. Lovely deep garnet; aromas of fresh red cherry, strawberry, cedar and a hint of brown spice. Medium-full with very good concentration. Elegant mid-palate, very good acidity, very fine tannins and impressive length. Very harmonious with beautiful typicity. Best in 12-15 years. Excellent.
2006 Riserva “Radici” - Bright, deep ruby red; aromas of black cherry, along with hints of tar and dark chocolate. Generous mid-palate; very good acidity, rich, balanced tannins, excellent persistence and typicity. Notes of black spice in the finish that add to the complexity of this wine. A lovely, somewhat powerful wine, albeit one with beautiful charm. Best in 15-20 years. Outstanding.
Anotnio and Piero Mastroberardino (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Just as we were finishing the tasting, Antonio Mastroberardino, patriarch of the firm, entered the room – what a pleasure to see this man again! I had met him about eight or nine years ago at the winery, but had only seen him briefly one time since. I always made it a point to ask Piero how his father was doing over the past few years and he replied that he was just fine. I had heard that he was slowing down a bit recently and perhaps not in the best health, but here he was, some 84 years young, looking just great! He must be drinking a good amount of Taurasi!
Antonio, along with Piero, then told us brief remembrances of their work in the vineyards and cellars over the past six decades. “There was no technological revolution in the 1950s,” Antonio said, reminding us that these great wines were the result of hard work as well as good fortune in any particular growing season. Wines as special as we enjoyed this day are truly one-of-a-kind bottles, ones that are unique and have their own identity. In that respect, they were just like this tasting!
My heartfelt thanks to Piero and Antonio Mastroberardino and the entire team at the winery for inviting me to this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Luigi Tecce (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
There are producers that should best be described as specialists, just as with surgeons. Luigi Tecce is a specialist’s specialist when it comes to Taurasi, a fact I discovered when I was fortunate enough to taste a vertical of his “Poliphemo” Taurasi, a wine that truly is among the four or five best examples of its type.
Tecce’s small estate is located in the town of Paternopoli, in the southeastern section of the Taurasi zone. He sources grapes from vineyards at his estate here as well as in Castelfranci, situated a bit farther south. These are the traditional pergola vines – known here as pergola avellinese – and have quite a bit of age; some of the vines at his Paternopoli holdings date back to 1930.
Certtainly, these old vines provide a great deal of insight into why Tecce’s examples of Taurasi are so special. But it’s also his minimal, traditionalist style of winemaking that is a key. He ferments his Taurasi in large chestnut casks, followed by maturation in mid-size casks (tonneaux) before being transferred to large oak casks (botti) for twelve months. Finally, the wines are bottled and released about a year later. Needless to say, the wood notes are in the background here, as the lovely dark cherry and chocolate notes of the Aglianico variety shine through.
This long period of aging in mid-size and large casks also results in wines that have a rich, beautifully defined mid-palate. For me, whether we are talking about Taurasi, Brunello, Barolo or any great Italian red wine, a well-defined mid-palate greatly adds to a wine’s complexity and length, rounding it out and rendering it as a more complete wine.
Here are notes on the “Poliphemo” Taurasi of Luigi Tecce:
2009 - Deep ruby red; marvelous array of aromas – black cherry, menthol, tar and black plum and tobacco. Full-bodied with excellent concentration. Rich, layered mid-palate; beautifully balanced wine with nicely integrated wood notes, very good acidity and outstanding persistence. Complete and complex, this has a lengthy finish. Just a gorgeous wine, one of beautiful typicity and finesse and one that offers a distinct sense of place. Best in 20 years plus.
2008 – Lovely garnet color; aromas of dried cherry, currant, thyme and cedar. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Very good acidity (a signature of this vintage), elegant, polished tannins and very good persistence. Lovely, graceful wine. Not a powerhouse, but a wine of finesse. Peak in 12-15 years – although I may be a bit conservative with this estimate.
2007 – Deep garnet; aromas of bing cherry, dark chocolate and thyme. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, excellent persistence, very good acidity. Best in 12-15 years.
2006 - Lovely garnet color; aromas of Queen Anne cherry, currant, tea leaf and a hint of strawberry. Medium-fulll with very good concentration. Very good acidity (once more!), lovely overall balance with beautifully polished tannins. A sublime wine, supple and elegant. Best in 15-20 years. Tecce noted that in 2006, it rained throughout August, resulting in a very late harvest (November 26!). How the difficulties of that growing season resulted in such a wonderful result!
2005 – Deep garnet; floral aromas (carnation) and hints of bing cherry and mulberry. Medium-full; the oak is quite subtle; soft tannins and lovely balance. This lacks the persistence and grip of the other wines, but again, it is a wine of supreme harmony. Best in 7-10 years, perhaps a bit longer.
2003 - Labeled as Irpinia IGT, but in all reality, a Taurasi. Deep garnet; aromas of dried cherry, hints of sage, dried currant and cedar. Medium-bodied; the tannins are a bit rough (relatively speaking, though other 2003 Taurasis have this same problem), balanced acidity, with excellent fruit persistence. Peak in 7-10 years.
2001 – Labeled not as Taurasi, but as “Omaggio a Varenne.” Deep garnet; lovely aromas of bing cherry and red roses. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Silky tannins, precise acidity and a lengthy finish with outstanding persistence. A joy to taste, this is elegant with great finesse and is a great wine! Drinking beautifully now, this will be at peak in another 10-12 years.
These examples of Luigi Tecce “Poliphemo” Taurasi do not scream at you. Rather they are reminders that greatness in red wine, is above all, about elegance, finesse and drinkability. Bigger does not make better in my opinion and there are several noted producers of Taurasi that make more deeply colored and extracted wines. If you prefer that style, that’s fine. But for me, I will take the subtleties, intricacies and overall complexity of Luigi Tecce’s wines any day.
Annual production of the “Poliphemo” Taurasi is only about 5000 bottles; Tecce also makes approximately the same amount of another 100% Aglianico called “Satyricon” that is a Campi Taurasini DOC (basically a younger version of Taurasi that has not been aged for the minimum three years as dictated by the disciplinare). So while these wines may be difficult to locate, they are a must-try for any serious lover of Taurasi.
My thanks to Luigi Tecce for presenting these wines and to his friend Sabino Loffredo of Pietracupa for his help in organizing this tasting.
Taurasi Vineyard of Feudi di San Gregorio (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
My recent trip to Campania focused on red wines from this lovely region. This was a welcome opportunity, as I’ve always been entranced by the delightful whites from here, most notably Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Falanghina; the best examples of these wines are evidence that not all great Italian whites are from Alto Adige or Friuli. So it was nice to further my education of the first-rate reds wines from Campania, wines that in my opinion do not receive the attention they deserve.
In my last post, I wrote about a superb red wine made primarily from the Palagrello Rosso grape, an indigenous variety of the Caserta province in northern Campania. I also tasted several first-rate examples of wines made entirely or primarily from Piedirosso, which varied from charming versions of Lacryma Christi rosso, produced from vineyards near Mount Vesuvius to more complex, ageworthy wines from the Benevento province. Given the nature of viticulture in this region, where there are so many small hills that create so many microclimates, it was fascinating to taste such varied and delicious wines.
But in all reality, when we’re discussing red wines of Campania, it’s the Aglianico grape that is most famously recognized. This includes blends (often with Piedirosso) from a number of provinces and while there are many superb wines from the Taburno zone in the province of Benevento, made solely from Aglianico, it is Taurasi, made from a small zone in the province of Irpinia that is the region’s most celebrated red wine.
I mentioned the Lonardo Taurasi “Coste” 2008 as one of the year’s best Italian wines in my last post and I also tasted several outstanding examples from producers such as Villa Raiano, Antonio Caggiano and San Paolo; truly the 2008 Taurasi – both normale and riserve - are something special and I’ll write more about these wines soon.
By now, you’ve probably noticed that I love Taurasi and why not? It’s a wine that when it’s at its best, can compete with the greatest red wines of the world. It’s a wine that can age 25 years from outstanding vintages and in some special instances, it even shows well after forty and fifty years – evidence of that will be noted later on in these posts.
Anotonio Capaldo, Feudi di San Gregorio (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
So while being able to sample so many examples of Taurasi during the Vendemmia Taurasi event in Avellino was a very special happening for me, imagine how I felt when I was able to attend vertical tastings of Taurasi from three celebrated producers: Feudi di San Gregorio, Luigi Tecce and Mastroberardino. I really was in heaven for a few days!
There were two verticals in one at Feudi; the first focused on the regular bottling of Taurasi, with the second dealing exclusively with their finest cru, Piano di Montevergine. The regular bottling has gone through numerous changes; one of the most important is the enologist that made the various wines. The oldest wines in this vertical were the 1998 and 1999, made by Luigi Moio, one of Campania’s finest consulting winemakers. The 1998 was in fine shape, with very good acidity and persistence; I noted that the wine would drink well for another 3-5 years. The 1999 was a step up, offering dried cherry, dried brown herb and cedar aromas with beautifully integrated wood notes, subtle spice in the finish, polished tannins and very good acidity. This is showing well now and will drink well for another 7-10 years. Both the 1998 and 1999 offer excellent varietal character and were made in a style that treasured overall harmony, rather than extreme ripeness or power.
The 2001, made by Riccardo Cotarella, is a wine with deeper extract that pushes the fruit to the forefront. It’s a different style that than of Moio, but given the beauty of the 2001 growing season, this is a highly successful wine, one with very good acidity and an elegant finish. There’s more of the dark chocolate notes that are common with Aglianico in this bottling as well as a touch of anise in the perfumes. Overall, it’s a very elegant wine that will be at its best in another 7-10 years.
The more recent vintages – namely 2007, 2008 and 2009 – were all impressive, with the 2007 and 2008 as 4-star wines (excellent) in my opinion, with the 2009 just a notch below that. Aromas of black cherry, black raspberry, plum and chocolate are common to each wine, with the 2008 offering slightly higher acidity than the other two examples. The 2007 has the stuffing to age the longest – perhaps another 7-10 years, but the 2008 has beautiful structure and may be in peak shape at the same time frame. Capaldo and his current director of winemaking Pier Paolo Sirch, have decided to cut back on small oak maturation of this wine, aiming for a greater percentage of large wooden casks, as Capalado believes small oak does not really show off the varietal character of Aglianico as well as the bigger barrels.
The second vertical of Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi dealt with the Piano di Montevergine cru, located near the town of Taurasi. There were seven wines, from the oldest, 1996 to the youngest, the 2008, which will be released in the market later this year. This is a rich, full-bodied Taurasi that shows impeccable balance throughout, even in lesser years (I loved the 2002 version of this wine, which I had tasted a few years ago; this from a subpar growing season that offered lovely richness o the palate and sleek tannins).
Again the older wines – 1996 and 1998 – were made by Luigi Moio and are beautifully complete and complex. The 1996 in particular had advanced to another level, where tertiary aromas had developed with precise notes of truffle and dried cherry being accompanied by notes of thyme. Offering very good persistence, this was a wine nearing peak, which should arrive in another 5-7 years.
The 1998 was a bit fresher with very good acidity and beautiful structure; there were aromas of dried cherry along with a hint of mocha and the lovely ruby red color made this wine seem younger than fifteen years of age. Offering excellent persistence and a long, elegant finish, this is a wine of great breeding, finesse and varietal character; it is a remarkable wine with a definite sense of place. This has at least another 10-12 years of life ahead of it; I found it outstanding!
The 2001 is a solid wine with big weight on the palate as well as very good ripeness and good freshness. I rated this as excellent, estimating that peak drinking will be in another 10-12 years. The 2004 is deeply colored with very good ripeness as well as impressive acidity. The tannins are big, but not overpowering and overall the balance is excellent. Give this 15-20 years of cellaring before it reaches peak condition.
The youngest wines – 2007 and 2008 – are quite impressive; the former has expressive aromas of milk chocolate and purple iris flowers backed by big extraction and rich, young tannins. There is perhaps a touch too much wood in this wine, at least for my tastes, yet overall the balance is first-rate. This definitely needs time to settle down and should peak in 12-15 years.
Finally the 2008 is a remarkable wine and for me, the finest version of Piano di Montevergine Taurasi since the 1998. Displaying aromas of black cherry, milk chocolate and a hint of raspberry, this is a sensual wine that is a bit more subdued and less forward than the 2007. The tradeoff, however, is that the 2008 has ideal structure with very good acidity and excellent grip in the finish. The wood notes are beautifully integrated and the tannins are quite elegant. This is certainly great evidence of where the new direction of Feudi di San Gregorio under the leadership of Capaldo and Sirch is headed, as this is a textbook Taurasi that offers a lovely expression of terroir, all the while maintaining its focus on harmony – this is a wine definitely meant for the dinner table, although high scores are certain to follow (if that means anything to you). The 2008 Piano di Montevergine is one of the winery’s best offerings of the past five years; an outstanding wine, it will drink beautifully for at least another 15-20 years.
My thanks to Antonio Capaldo and his team at Feudi di San Gregorio for organizing this wonderful tasting!
Giovanni Ascione, Nanni Copè (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Lists for the best wines of the year are usually compiled in December or early the following year. However, I tasted two red wines from Campania during my visit there last week that will definitely be among the finest of the year when I complete the list in another 8-9 months. In fact, these wines are not only among the best of the year to date, they’re among the single best Italian wines I’ve tried in the last two or three years.
The first is the 2010 Nanni Copè, the only wine made by Giovanni Ascione at his estate in the province of Caserta in northern Campania. Ascione crafts this wine primarily from the indigenous variety Palagrello Rosso; he uses up to 10% Aglianico in the blend as well. The wine is labeled for Ascione’s vineyard named “Vigna Sopra il Bosco” (“vineyard above the forest”) that was planted in 1987 (there is also a small amount of Casavecchia from a 120 year-old vineyard located nearby named “Vigna Scarrupata”). For Ascione, his Sopra il Bosco site is an obsession, as he has divided it into several sections, based on factors such as pruning, foliage management and harvesting approaches.
The wine has been produced from only three vintages to date; 2008, 2009 and 2010. I tasted all three wines with about a dozen other journalists in Campania last week; each offering is first-rate, with gorgeous fruit aromas (raspberry, black cherry) impressive concentration and ideal structure. While the first two releases are singular wines, it is the 2010 that really captured my attention as well as my heart. Deep garnet/crimson with aromas of black raspberry, black plum and a hint of licorice, it is medium-full with excellent concentration. There is outstanding persistence, lively acidity and beautifully polished tannins; the finish is very, very long. This is a wine of perfect balance, one that is seductive. I use a good number of words to describe my favorite wines and believe me, seductive is about as praiseworthy as I get for a red wine, as this gets into sheer pleasure, while at the same time, finesse. While this is simply sensational now, I expect this to be even better in a few years, with peak enjoyment in about 10-12 years.
By the way, when I told Ascione that the wine in my opinion was “molto seductivo,” he said, “that’s enough, no need to translate any further.” It was clear that he had succeeded in his goal of making this a memorable wine and he was happy to hear the praise.
The second brilliant red wine from Campania that I tasted during my stay was the 2008 Contrade di Taurasi Riserva Taurasi “Coste.” Also known as Cantine Lonardo for the family that owns the vineyards and cellar just outside the town of Taurasi, this is one of the area’s most outstanding producers, making their Taurasi in an ultra-traditional style, maturing the wines in large casks.
I’ve enjoyed their regular bottling of Taurasi for years and have had the good fortune to also taste their riserva Taurasi once or twice. For 2008 however, the Lonardos have decided to produce two separate cru bottlings of Taurasi: “Vigne d’Alto” and “Coste.” Both are superb!
The former offers lovely cassis, black raspberry and lavender aromas; medium-full, with a rich mid-palate, the wine has very good acidity and marvelous complexity. I predict this will drink well for 20 years plus.
All of the elegance and richness of the “Vigne d’Alto” are present as well in the “Coste” bottling, but this is an even better wine. The aromas include black cherry, black raspberry, marmalade, plum and a nice floral touch with a hint of violets. There is excellent concentration, while the mid-palate is layered. The tannins are polished, there is finely tuned acidity, outstanding persistence and impeccable balance. The harmony of all the components is really quite something and there is enough stuffing for this wine to be drinking well several years beyond its 20th birthday. It is also a great expression of terroir and a wine of superb varietal purity. In case you’re wondering, this is not an aggressive wine that needs time to settle down, rather it is supple and absolutely delicious! Of course, it will improve for many years, but it is a remarkable bottle of wine that can be enjoyed now. Congratulations to the Lonardo family for their excellent farming and brilliant winemaking.
I have to tell you that these riserve represent many things, above all the strength of the 2008 vintage, one that is not as forward as 2007, but offers far greater depth of fruit with ideal structure for aging. This could be just the thing needed to drive much more attention to this superb red wine from Campania, one that is sadly neglected, compared to its more famous counterparts from the north, such as Amarone and Barolo.
But perhaps – no more?
Final note: Many of the riserva Taurasi from 2008 are not released yet, but will be available in the market within a few months. Keep your eyes open for these wines.
Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, my first book on Italian wines has been published.
I wrote this book to share my knowledge and insight of Italian wines after more than 50 trips to Italian wine regions over the past 12 years (I returned yesterday from my 56th trip). Too often people have the idea that Italian wine is limited to a few world-famous reds, such as Amarone, Barolo and Brunello. I have certainly included those wines in this book, as they are classics, but the focus of this book is on the great examples of everyday wines that truly represent the Italian wine scene.
Thus, I have written about excellent examples of wines such as Soave, Gavi, Dolcetto, Chianti Classico, Verdicchio and Taurasi to name only a few. I have written about beautiful wines from every region in Italy, ranging from sparkling wine from Valle d’Aosta in the far northwestern reaches of Italy to Passito di Pantelleria, the marvelous dessert wine from a tiny island just south of Sicily.
I’ll keep this post short. If you love Italian wines or need to know more about this subject (who doesn’t?), then I think my book is meant for you.