Mauro Sebaste and his daughter Sylla (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Let me start with an analogy. Many of us love dreaming about flashy sports cars, but the truth is that most of us will never own one; they’re too expensive and they really don’t fit our lifestyle. The same holds true for watches that cost several thousand dollars or mansions that run into the millions.
The same thinking often comes to being with wine; people love to read about the most expensive, longest-lived red wines, ones of great breeding and class. The editors at the most influential wine publications know that, which is why the 100-point scale is in use these days. Hey, wouldn’t you prefer a 95 or 97-point wine as compared to a 91 or 92-point wine? The editors are betting you will – as are the producers that receive the higher scores.
But let’s wait a bit. What do those scores really mean? I could go off on this at great length, but basically, this is a case of “bigger being better.” Whatever you think about a particular wine or group of wines, you have to admit there’s not right or wrong at play. If you like a bigger wine, fine. But there are many of us that would rather have a more delicate wine, especially if we are trying to find the ideal match with food.
All of this brings me to the wines of Mauro Sebaste in Piemonte. I first met him in Chicago more than a decade ago and recently visited him at his winery near Alba, in the heart of the Barolo zone. I find him to be a gentleman, one who goes about his business in a professional, thoughtful and relatively quiet manner. It’s a bit of a cliché, I suppose, but he prefers that the wines speak for themselves.
It’s the same understated qualities of the man that are on display in his wines. These are not powerhouse, showy wines meant to “wow” you, but rather, they are beautifully balanced wines that display excellent varietal character; for me, that’s what I seek and I think it’s what a lot of wine drinkers prefer.
In their 2013 Guide, Gambero Rosso, the Bible of Italian wine publications, mentions that these wines “are not overly extracted and faithfully reflect the character of their individual terroirs.” This is a valuable assessment of Sebaste’s wines and it’s that first part of the sentence I want to focus on, as those wines that get the high point ratings I referred to earlier are generally deeply extracted to obtain the deepest colors and get every fruit essence they can from the grapes. The results are often like jam, not wine; if that’s what you like, fine. But upon further examination, the best wines are about balance and expression of the site where the grapes are grown. That’s what Sebaste brings to all his wines.
Briefly then, don’t look for the highest scores or the most precious descriptors for the wines of Mauro Sebaste. But be prepared for elegant, flavorful wines that are well made and a pleasure at the dinner table. Here are notes on wines I tried with Mauro earlier this year at his winery:
2012 Roero Arneis - Appealing Anjou pear and melon aromas; medium-bodied, very appealing, with excellent varietal character. Very good acidity, this is sleek and beautifully balanced. This would be a wonderful partner with a vegetable risotto. (Very good to excellent)
2011 Barbera d’Alba “Santa Rosalia” – Bright purple; black cherry and black plum aromas. Medium-bodied, good acidity with a slightly tart finish. Nicely balanced with very light tannins and notable varietal character. A bit of an old-fashioned Barbera, one that’s not over-oaked or tricked up, but nicely made for food, be it pizza or roast veal. (Very good)
2009 Barolo Prapò - This is from the famed cru in Serralunga d’Alba. Lovely delicate garnet color (again, not overextracted); expressive aromas of cedar, dried cherry, orange peel, rose petals and a hint of tar – just lovely! Medium-full with elegant tannins, good acidity and a clean finish of good length. While not as complex as recent vintages (especially the 2008), this is a well made wine and a notable example of the understated style of the Mauro Sebaste Barolos. Best in 12-15 years. (Very good to excellent)
Incidentally, I wrote about this wine, the Mauro Sebaste Barolo Prapò, in my book, Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distincitve Wines. Here is an excerpt from that text:
“This is a classy Barolo that expresses its terroir in a graceful manner. It’s made in a style that offers approachability upon release, as it’s not a tightly wrapped wine, yet it will clearly offer greater complexity at twelve years of age and older; the best vintages will drink well for as long as 25 years.”
(Clearly, I enjoyed writing about this wine almost as much as I loved drinking it! I always wish to find wines like this – ones that are true to their variety as well as heritage.)
2007 Barolo “Brunate” Riserva – The Brunate cru, situated in La Morra, is one of the famous in the entire Barolo zone. Deep garnet; aromas of dried cherry, dried currant, orange peel and a note of tobacco. Medium-full with a generous mid-palate. Long finish, excellent persistence, good acidity and nicely balanced tannins. Best in 12-15 years – perhaps a bit longer. (Excellent to outstanding)
Montalcino (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
I will be conducting a memorable Brunello di Montalcino dinner at Vivere Restaurant at The Italian Village in Chicago on Wednesday, September 11. There will be a total of 10 wines, ranging from the current 2008 vintage of Poggio di Sotto to the monumental 1997 Biondi-Santi Riserva. Details follow.
Seating is extremely limited, so if you would like to attend, please contact me right away!
Brunello di Montalcino is of course, one of Italy’s longest-lived and most iconic red wines. Produced in a limited area in southern Tuscany, Brunello di Montalcino is produced exclusively from the Sangiovese grape; aged for several years, the wine is only released into the market in its fifth year.
Alex Pilas, Executive Chef, Eataly, New York City
In mid-July, I was honored to co-teach an Italian wine and food class at Eataly in New York City with Dan Amatuzzi, wine educator for the store. The experience was great and I want to thank everyone at Eataly that assisted in this class.
That’s about all I want to write about myself, as this post is about learning about Italian wine and food the right way. At least that’s my opinion. What do I mean by the right way? I’m referring to enjoying a variety of Italian wines from numerous regions with traditional Italian foods.
Just look at the wines we tried in the class: the special cuvée “Rabochon” (2005 vintage) from the Franciacorta producer Monte Rossa; Vespa Bianco 2011 from Bastianich; Friulano 2007 “Vignecinquant’anni” from Le Vigne di Zamo; Morellino di Scansano 2010 “Le Perazzi” from La Mozza; Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba “La Lepre” 2008 from Fonatanafredda and the Langhe Nebbiolo 2009 from Borgogno.
If you think this wasn’t the typical array of Italian wines you’re likely to taste at a class, you’re right. The wines were chosen for a few reasons, one being that they are all given a writeup in my recently published book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines. In this book, I have endeavored to give the reader a portrait of the true Italian wine scene and not just coverage of the most famous wines from the country.
So notice that there wasn’t a single example of Barolo, Brunello or Amarone, but rather wines that you might come across everyday in Italy. Combine that with some marvelous foods prepared by Eataly’s executive chef Alex Pilas and you have a setting that in some ways brings Italy home. I told the students at the class that they were learning about Italian wine as the Italians do – in a relaxed setting, enjoying a glass of wine with local food.
Pesce crudo (raw fish) was served with the sparkling wine and the two whites; the acidity of these wines were an ideal match for the fish. Various styles of salumi (prosciutto di parma, soppressata) accompanied the Morellino di Scansano and the Dolcetto, while the final course was a mushroom ravioli that was paired with the Langhe Nebbiolo. I absolutely loved this match – and given the comments by the students, so did they – as the earthiness of the mushrooms were in tandem with the similar qualities of the Langhe Nebbiolo, which also happens to offer subtle notes of porcini in the aromas. You just don’t get a pairing that works as beautifully as that one did every day, so complimenti to chef Pilas!
Another note about the Borgogno Langhe Nebbiolo. I wanted to feature this offering, as this is the exact type of Italian wine that does not get the attention it deserves in the well-known consumer wine publications. Yet it is excellent and offers a sense of place – you can tell instantly that this is from Piemonte. What I love about this wine is that this is 100% Nebbiolo – the same as the much more expensive Barolo and has a lot in common with that more famous wine. Indeed, Borgogno produces this wine with Nebbiolo fruit sourced from five local vineyards that are also used by the produced for its various bottlings of Barolo. This is the type of Italian wine that everyone needs to know more about, not only because it displays lovely varietal purity and beautifully represents the land, but it is also a very reasonable alternative, pricewise, to Barolo. You’d be surprised how many of these wines exist in Italy, from Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba in Piemonte to Aglianico in Campania in the south.
Generally, Italian wine classes are often about what I call “trophy” wines; the bottles that are the longest-lived and most renowned wines from the country. I love them, but more often, I seek out the best examples of everyday wines crafted by producers throughout Italy. That’s something I think every wine lover should do, as this will be an exercise in tradition and heritage and not merely a search for the highest scores. The best wines of Italy are meant for consumption with food; they play up to the food and when it’s done right, the total is far more than the sum of the parts.
So I was thrilled to have this experience co-teaching this class to consumers who were eager to learn about pairing Italian wines and foods the right way. Oscar Farinetti, who created Eataly in Torino about a decade ago, as well as Lidia and Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali, co-proprietors of the New York Eataly, are creating an atmosphere of helping the consumer learn about the pleasures of Italian wine and food in a relaxing, no-nonsense way. Here’s to each of them for their work and here’s to their staff for involving me in this environment.
I can’t wait for Eataly to open up in Chicago later this year, where I hope to be part of more education about Italian wine and food!
Collio Vineyards of Livon looking towards Slovenia (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
During my recent visit to the Collio district of Friuli Venezia Giulia, I was able to taste several recently released white wines from the 2012 vintage. 2012 was a warm vintage, but unlike 2011, which was also quite hot, growers received a break with rain in late summer, which allowed longer ripening on the vine, giving the wines better acidity and structure. The 2011 Collio whites are very nice, but different, as they are very rich on the palate, while the 2012s are a bit more delicate, but have better balance overall and the potential to drink well for a few additional years.
Of course, Collio is a marvelous growing district, especially for white grapes, as there are temperate influences with both breezes from the nearby Adriatic Sea and well as winds from the Julian Alps, situated not too far away. Combine that with beautifully sited vineyards (Collio means “hill” in Italian) and you have a perfect home for distinctive white wines. The best examples here are what I like to call vibrant, as they excite your palate; how nice to find white wines that aren’t simple or on the other hand, burdensome. Be it monovarietal, such as Friulano, Sauvignon or Ribolla Gialla or several others or a wonderfully crafted blend of several varieties, the white wines from Collio are among the finest and most distinctive in the world.
Here are brief notes on some of my favorite 2012 Collio whites to date:
Villa Russiz Pinot Grigio – Yes, Pinot Grigio has become a commodity and unfortunately, there are too many insipid versions from Italy. But when it is made from grapes in a cool climate from hillside vineyards, the results are often wonderful. Villa Russiz has been producing one of Italy’s finest examples for some time now; this 2012 has a slight copper color (the color of the grape is actually a mix of copper, gray and gold) with fragrant aromas of Bosc pear, apple peel and magnolia. Medium-full, this is refreshing with very good acidity and a long finish. Simply put, it is delicious and beautifully made!
Villa Russiz Malvasia – Malvasia (or Malvasia Istriana, as it is sometimes known in Friuli) is a beautiful variety with amazing aromatics and striking acidity. I love it and I hope that more producers will work with this variety and export it to the United States and other countries, so more consumers can experience the exotic pleasures of this wine. The 2012 Malvasia from Villa Russiz is excellent with gorgeous perfumes of papaya and hyacinth (how’s that for unique fragrances?), lovely acidity and impressive persistence. This is one of the best examples of Malvasia I’ve had, as this has a bit more depth of fruit than many versions that are “pretty,” yet lack concentration. Perfectly balanced, this has marvelous texture and could work with any number of foods, from Thai and Oriental cuisine to roast chicken with lemon and tarragon. Enjoy this now or over the next 2-3 years. Another beautiful examples of the strength and wide array of Collio whites!
Livon “Solarco” – This is a lovely blend of Ribolla Gialla and Friulano that Livon has perfected. Offering beautiful aromas of green apple, spearmint and lilacs, this is medium-bodied with very good acidity and balance. Refreshing and quite complex, this is a lovely wine at lunch with lighter seafood or pastas.
Livon “Soluna” – This is a Malvasia from Livon that displays excellent varietal character, especially with its lovely floral aromatics, with notes of quince and Anjou pear along with a distinctive notes of cinnamon. Medium-full, this has very good acidity and persistence and is simply delicious! Enjoy this over the next 2-3 years with Oriental cuisine.
Muzic Malvasia – Muzic is a small, but notable producer in Collio; this Malvasia is an excellent example of the quality at this estate. Aromas of yellow peaches, lemon rind and acacia flowers, this is a lovely wine with lively acidity and ideal ripeness.
Humar Friulano – Friulano, formerly known as Tocai Friulano, is a signature grape of Collio. This is a version that offers lovely aromas of Anjou pear and lilacs with impressive weight on the palate, very good acidity and impressive persistence. This can accompany many white meats as well as risotto or many vegetable dishes.
Russiz Superiore Pinot Grigio - There’s no great mystery to this wine; it’s just a well made PInot Grigio with rich concentration, ideal acidity and notes of white spice in the finish that give this wine added complexity. What a lovely wine for just sitting down and enjoying with good friends at an outdoor enoteca or garden, much as I did with Marco Felluga, proprietor of this estate, who is an energetic 86 years young. Here’s to many more great wines, Marco!
Livio Felluga Sauvignon – The Livio Felluga estate (Livio is the older brother of Marco; he is 99 years of age) produces wines from both Collio and the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC zones. This 2012 Sauvignon is typical of the rich fruit and lively acidity one sees from this variety in Collio. Offering aromas of spearmint and white flowers along with just a hint of fresh hay, this is medium-full with lovely texture, good acidity and notable persistence. Beautifully balanced, this is a perfect partner with most shellfish; enjoy over the next 3-5 years.
The author pictured with the other four recipients of the 2013 Premio Collio
I’ve been a fortunate individual to have traveled to Italy so often and to have tasted so many great wines and more importantly, meet so many gracious, warm people. Each one of my 59 trips has been special, but perhaps none as memorable as the most recent to Collio, where I received the Premio Collio.
This award is given out each year by the Collio Consorzio to a few select journalists and wine professionals who have done the most to promote the wines of this beautiful district in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Collio is situated in the southeastern portion of Friuli, in the province of Gorizia and shares part of its border with Slovenia. This area is blessed with rolling hills (the word collio means “hill” in Italian) and is a marvelous climate for grape growing, as there are breezes from the nearby Adriatic Sea as well as winds from the Julian Alps that help moderate temperatures, ensuring a slow, even ripening that results in wines with excellent natural acidity, pronounced aromatics and ideal structure. The cool climate here is ideal for vibrant white wines, although there are also some excellent red wines from Collio as well.
I was given the award for the section on the wines of Collio in my recently published book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines. I wrote about selected wines from more than 20 producers in Collio; these included famed estates such as Marco Felluga, Schiopetto and Radikon. Individual wines included some very famous offerings such as the Edi Keber Collio (Bianco, though he chooses not to label it that way) and Villa Russiz Sauvignon “De la Tour” along with underrated bottlings such as the Gradis’ciutta “Bratinis” and the Primosic “Klin.”
I decided that I would give my acceptance speech in Italian, as I thought that was the proper thing to do. After more than fifty trips to Italy, I have a good foundation in Italian, though I am certainly not fluent in the language. I’m sure if I lived there for an extended period of time, that would be different, but for now, I can understand and speak Italian, relatively well.
Giving my acceptance speech in Italian for the Premio Collio. Tania Princic, who helped me with the translation, is to my right.
I speak often in seminars to the trade and public about Italian wines, but this night was very different, as I would be speaking to 125 locals in the wine business, so needless to say, I was a bit nervous. Prior speaking helped me overcome my nerves to a large degree, but it will still a unique experience that I hadn’t done before. Thankfully, Tania Princic, who works with the public relations group for Collio helped me to translate my speech into Italian just a short while before the event.
Now combine that with the fact that I had to wait more than an hour and a half and you can imagine that I was getting a little more nervous by the moment. But I made it through without too many mistakes (I did mess up a word or two) and the audience gave me a warm reception. I’m sure they appreciated my gesture of speaking in Italian and I’m glad I did as well, as it will help me prepare for the next time I need to give another speech in Italy.
I thought I’d close with the last paragraph of my speech, first in Italian and then translated into English.
“Non ho ancora visitato il Collio quanto mi sarebbe piaciuto, ma grazie alla ospitalita e la qualita dei vostri vini, vi guarantisco che ritorno molto presto.”
“I have not visited Collio as often as I would have liked, but thanks to your hospitality as well as the quality of your wines, I guarantee I will return very soon.”
Thank you very much to the producers of Collio for giving me this award. I am honored and I will certainly not only visit again soon, but will also continue to promote these wonderful wines any way I can! A special thank you also to Alessandra Gruppi and Veronica Brumat for their help organizing my trip.
I am being honored in Collio this weekend with the Premio Collio, an award that is given each year to the journalist who does the most to promote the region’s wines. This year, I am receiving this honor for the section on Collio in my recently published book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines.
I’m looking forward to this event and I’ll report back on it soon. In the meantime, in honor of this award, I am passing on special savings on the book for a limited time. From now until June 18, you can receive an 18% discount off the list price.
Here is what you need to do. Here is the link for ordering:
Use this discount code to apply the savings:
Thanks and enjoy the book!
I’ve addressed this situation in the past, but it bears repeating. Chianti Classico has lost a lot of luster and that’s a shame, as there are some outstanding examples. But the truth is that the consumer thinks of Chianti Classico as an ordinary wine, one that’s overpriced and too often, merely a red wine meant for quaffing or for the most basic food pairings.
I write this as I tasted a brilliant example of Chianti Classico the other day, the Felsina “Vigneto Rancia” Riserva 2008. In my recently published book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, I wrote this about the wine:
“This estate has become one of the unmistakable reference points for Chianti Classico… It is with the single vineyard “Rancia” Chianti Classico that Felsina displays its best winemaking… this is a wine of outstanding complexity and breeding. When you find a young vintage, lay it away for a few years in the cellar, as peak consumption is generally at age 10-12.”
The 2008 release of this wine certainly fits this description, as there is excellent depth of fruit, notable persistence, lively acidity and outstanding structure. 2008 was an excellent year in Chianti Classico (and throughout most of Italy, for that matter), as this was a growing season that yielded wines that were classic (no pun attended) in nature, with excellent structure and a sense of place; brilliant producers such as Felsina made stunning wines from 2008. (Of course what makes Felsina so great is that even in years that aren’t considered classic, they still craft marvelous wines.)
Felsina of course, is not the only great producer in Chianti Classico. Fontodi is another as is Querciabella and there are another six to eight estates such as La Porta di Vertine, Rocca di Montegrossi, Castello di Volpaia and Villa Calcinaia that routinely produce excellent wines. Producers such as these make wines that show the rest of the world what Chianti Classico can and should be. But there are not enough examples.
The problem is a big one and there are many reasons; yes, Sangiovese is a grape that has a high yield, so there are still too many producers that do not oversee the proper work in the vineyard, resulting in wines that are thin with modest fruit and high acidity. Certainly the producers of today do take more care in the vineyards than those of 30 or 40 years ago (generally speaking), but there are still too many examples of ordinary wines and the disciplinare allows vintners to make wines such as these.
But a bigger problem is that Chianti Classico is a rather large area, basically from Florence to Siena and given as vast a territory as this, not every vineyard is sited in the best spot. So while we hear all about the beauty of Tuscany and Chianti Classico, it doesn’t always translate into special wines.
Vineyard in Panzano, one of the most prized sites of Chianti Classico (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
So how to fix this? Well there’s a logical solution, but it’s one that I truly think will never come about (I know that you’re never supposed to say never, but in this case, I believe I’m safe). The answer is zonation – allowing labels to list their zone of origin. This would mean that Felsina can list Castelnuovo Berandenga not just as the winery’s address in small print, but in larger print as a denomination of origin. The same would be true for Fontodi, as their estate vineyards are situated in Panzano, also known as the Conca d’Oro (“the golden hill”); other fine estates located here, such as Panzanello and Il Molino di Grace could also label their wines as being from Panzano grapes. As Panzano is recognized by everyone who is familiar with Chianti Classico as one of its very best sub-zones, listing this geographical name on a label would certainly add a dimension of prestige to the wine, which would help sales of those specific wines and perhaps Chianti Classico in general.
There are several sub-zones in Chianti Classico, from Greve to Castellina in Chianti to Radda and Gaiole; the wines vary in terms of aromatics, weight and acidity, as you might imagine; after all these areas are micro-climates. When speaking about Barolo in Piemonte, dozens of crus (single vineyards) have been officially recognized and we talk about the differences in wines from La Morra with their floral perfumes and gentle tannins as opposed to the more muscular style of Barolo from Monforte d’Alba or Serralunga d’Alba.
So why not in Chianti Classico? Well maybe it’s a Tuscan mentality; the same problem exists with Brunello di Montalcino, as has been documented by Kerin O’Keefe in her excellent book about this wine. Maybe it’s a larger problem, especially when you consider the old joke about getting more than five Italians to agree on anything. But kidding aside, it’s politics, plain and simple, as least as it seems to me. Tuscany, unlike Piemonte, is represented by both farmers and wealthy businessmen, many of whom made their fortunes in other businesses, often in foreign countries. There’s nothing wrong with these people owning estates in Chianti Classico and other wine districts of Tuscany, especially as new blood can infuse a tired corpse, but in reality, do these people have the same sense of pride about their land as farmers in Piemonte whose families have been working their land for more than 100 years in many cases?
Then you have the problem of Chianti Classico being a victim of its own success. This is such a recognizable name around the world – indeed it may be the world’s most beloved and recognizable red wine – so that producers do all they can to attract as many new drinkers as possible around the globe. This means producing an international wine – really, was it a smart decision to allow producers to include Cabernet Sauvignon in Chianti Classico? – one that too often loses its expression of local terroir. If it’s a success in Italy and the United States and Scandanvia, why change? Let’s try and make it appealing to everyone, from Russia and China to Japan and Hong Kong. Try and please everyone and you wind up pleasing no one.
This problem does not exist only in Chianti Classico; there are international wines made in other part of Italy as well. But few wines are as well known as Chianti Classico and few have lost as much market share (at least in the United States, a very important market, without question) as this wine. Price has something to do with this and it’s not the fault of the local producers that the US dollar isn’t as strong against the Euro as it used to be (although admittedly, it’s better today than four or five years ago). But for a wine that was routinely $14 on retail shelves about five or six years ago, it’s now $18-$20 and that’s for the basic Chianti Classico, not riserva. For $14, tens and hundreds of thousands of American wine drinkers are purchasing Malbec from Argentina. What does this have to do with Italy? Nothing of course, but these consumers are looking for a wine they like at a price that they’re comfortable with. If Chianti Classico can’t come in at that price, so be it, Malbec can.
Back to Felsina and Fontodi and a few dozen Chianti Classico estates that really deliver the goods. As I wrote above, these producers show the world that Chianti Classico can be a very special wine. It’s just that too many producers in Chianti Classico take the easy way out, cashing in on the success of the Chianti Classico marque. The bottom line is average quality, which drags down the overall image of this wine. As it stands now, Felsina and Fontodi will sell every bottle of wine they make, as they continue to push themselves to make the best wines possible and enough people realize that. It’s a shame that too many Chianti Classico producers don’t make similar efforts. Resting on your laurels – if one can call it that – is never a good thing and Chianti Classico sales – and the image of this wine - are taking a beating.