Wine notes

Wednesday 20 August 2008



In Part two of the “Great Italian Wine Makers”, a series of seminars featuring high profile Italian wine making consultants, Carlo Ferrini took to the stage at one of the oldest and most daunting of all wine institutions in the world: London’s Vintner’s Hall. This veritable institution is located since the 15th century in Upper Thames street and its building has resisted time as well as the ugly 20th century architecture which surrounds it today. It survives on such a busy road it makes pedestrians look like a phenomenon from the last century. Inside, away from the noise of the city, one finds oneself in dark, comforting and very noble rooms, where several lit fireplaces enhance the feeling of a London long past.

I am being greeted by the amiable Marina Thompson from the wine marketing agency of the same name, which has its base in Rome, and instigator of the first seminar, about six months ago, featuring Cottarella, who seemed as happy to talk to an audience as someone facing the prospect of having a particular painful tooth pulled out without narcosis. The seminar, drenched in examples of all wines Cottarella has a finger in, dragged on for hours, and continued well passed Lunchtime, causing for people to leave before it ended, and this seminar very much set my expectation for the Ferrini one. I hadn’t counted on the formidable Jane Hunt though, who, with her partner Tina Coady, is this time responsible for the organisation. While taking my seat, the seminar proved so popular, that several tables and chairs needed to be dragged in at last minute to accommodate illustrious guests.

This seminar bore the somewhat ominous title “Carlo Ferrini and his producers”, suggesting that Ferrini’s intervention puts a bigger stamp on the wines than the estates themselves, and a certain recurring theme, or signature, was easily to be detected throughout the entire flight.
Mr Ferrini is a likeable and very knowledgeable person. He immediately started by apologising for being unable to speak English but Jane Hunt proved a very able interpreter, so much she made me jealous. A brief overview of his involvement in wine was followed by his exclamation to be a true “campagnolo” (a “countryboy” in Jane’s translation), claiming to feel much more at ease in the vineyards than in a fancy suit. This set very much the tone for Ferrini’s comments on all “his” wines, and he insisted that it is the terroir of the individual estates, which he considers solely responsible for the final outcome.

Ferrini’s rise to stardom begins in the 1980s of the last century when he is appointed viticultural consultant for the Chianti Classico Consortium. In this function he became responsible for one of the most ambitious projects in the modern history of Italian viticulture, “Chianti 2000”, as described in detail by Nicholas Belfrage in his seminal books on Italian wine. At that time the Chianti Classico region was struggling with its cheap and cheerful image, the wine from this region being a huge export success but only to be found back in foreign markets at the lowest possible price point. The Consortium of the Classico region had to fight several fronts at the same time. First, the fact that it had to (and still does) represent quality growers as well as the huge bottlers, with both sides having a very different outlook on the product. Secondly, the almost lost fight to profile itself as defender of the true and original region as opposed to the much larger Chianti region, which nevertheless also wears the highest quality seal of Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), but hardly ever lives up to this expectation.
Its biggest challenge however, was the fact that its signature grape, Sangiovese, which most of its vineyards were planted with, was of very low quality. At the beginning of the 80s Ferrini realised that many of the vineyards planted in the 60s and 70s would have reached an average of 30 years at the end of the century, and this is normally the time when vines become less productive and need to be uprooted, even more so when unreasonably high yields have been demanded of them. To increase the image of Chianti Classico, it therefore became inevitable to plant better clones, but as the region is so diverse with different soil compositions and altitudes, a large scale experimental scheme was rolled out. Cooperation was sought with several estates throughout Chianti Classico, who were willing to devote specific parcels of vineyards to be planted with a selection of clones and rootstocks. In order to give the research as much depth as possible, weather stations were set up throughout the region, and these still supply the Consortium with invaluable information. The Chianti 2000 project has now officially come to an end, but experimentation continues, and the logical follow up is on its way: a delineation of the region according to soil type, altitude and temperature in order to advise on the best possible sites for Chianti’s indigenous, and international grape varieties.

Ferrini talks with ease and confidence about his work and doesn’t shy away from controversy. For example, when one talks about the New World, Ferrini opines one should consider Italy very much part of it. Of course he is not denying the country’s long history of viticulture and wine making, but he feels strongly that Italy’s involvement with high quality wine is as recent as the New World’s. I must confess to feel slightly uncomfortable with this statement, as it doesn’t take into account the great vineyards and wines Italy has been producing for many centuries, but Ferrini insists that wine was part of an agricultural mixed activity that has been the norm for so long in Italy. I am unsure if this correctly reflects the historical accounts, especially in the light of the fact that to the best of my knowledge up to this day no single systematic historical study has been conducted, although all textbooks on Italian wine never fail to mention the writings of the Romans on viticulture. Ferrini seems to support the continuation of an almost innate and historical viticultural inferiority Italy displays, especially when it compares itself to France, a situation that may only be alleviated when the wine laws start supporting quality instead of quantity.

While tasting the flight of wines, of which the majority came from Tuscany, the question inevitably turns up why this region relies so much on the Bordeaux grape varieties, if the desire is to produce authentic wines. Ferrini agrees that it is a valid and important question, and while tasting Castello di Brolio’s Casalferro, a Sangiovese based wine with an added 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon, he remarks that even in such small part it easily dominates the wine. It also begs the question what a “true” Tuscan wine is supposed to be like, an added irony being that mediocre vintages like 2002 are “saved” by a dollop of Merlot if producers are to be believed. One wonders if strict selection of grapes and proper soil matching would not suffice. But the sheer fact that there is no consensus on the characteristics of Chianti Classico only adds credibility to Ferrini’s suggestion that Italy is “New World”.

The Latin spirit creeps up on several occasions, most bluntly when one of the attendants asks about the characteristics of Sangiovese. Ferrini draws parallels with Pinot Noir: this grape is all about aromatics and perfume, and the same is the case with Sangiovese. The fact that this is not yet recognised has mainly to do with high yields, and, according to me, also the blending with the international suspects. Sangiovese, according to Ferrini, is as much a Prima Donna as Pinot Noir. It demands constant attention, especially in the vineyard, and he compares it with courting a beautiful woman (he actually mentions Claudia Schiffer), who you will never possess. Although charming as a comparison, I wonder if this metaphor is helpful in establishing the undoubted greatness of the grape.

While tasting the wines, Ferrini mentions several times his desire to achieve elegance. In Tuscany’s main grape he sees it reflected in balance of acidity and fragrance, but all “his” wines show a balance that is difficult to overlook. Alcohol levels may vary up to 14,5% but never give a feeling of heaviness and he is a master in harnessing tannins into velvet and even manages to coax something fascinating out of Montepuciano d’Abbruzzo, a grape that often shows deep colour, low acidity and upfront fruit, but in Ferrini’s hands, and with the proper terroir, I hasten to add, Valle Reale’s San Callisto shows complexity, freshness and ageing potential, not in the least due to the vineyards, which are planted on a higher altitude than normally is the case. (I am a little unfair to this grape, as a well known Barolo producer recently confessed to me that he would love to study Montepulciano d’Abrruzzo).

With all this elegance and smoothness being the trademark of the very seductive Ferrini style, it comes as no surprise that the couturier Roberto Cavallo has appointed him to consult his Azienda degli Dei estate in one of Chianti Classico’s most important terroirs, Panzano. Ironically, Cavalli has abandoned Sangiovese to fully concentrate on the Bordeaux grapes. The tiny estate, that also serves to breed racing horses (nomen est omen after all), has sold off the classified Chianti Classico vineyards and has embraced the much more flexible IGT status, but at least we don’t see the fiddling with Cabernet and Merlot up to the maximum percentage where the final wine is only technically a Chianti Classico. The first vintage of the wine, modestly baptisted “Cavallo Selection”, to be released on the market in 2008, is a blend of the Panzano vineyards and tiny plots near Florence.

Although this seminar also exceeds the time frame, nobody is able to leave the charismatic Ferrini, who, when questioned on the use of modern technology in the winery and the influence on terroir characteristics, compares it to the introduction of the washing machine. It does the job gentler and much more efficient than when beating the laundry on a stone in the river.

Tasting notes
2001 Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT – Tenuta San Leonardo, Avio, Trentino
Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere
Deeply coloured, still youthful. Sweet fruit and belpepper and hints of leather, definitely a “cool climate” nose. Similar palate with red fruits and belpepper. Somewhat difficult to appreciate, although the wine comes with hallmark finely grained tannins, immediately followed by high acidity, which dominates the finish. Wait.

2003 Casalferro Toscana IGT– Barone Ricasoli, Gaiole in Chianti, Tuscany
Sangiovese with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon
Almost black, impenetrable. Initially closed, with hints of dark, sweet fruit. Compact fruit palate with hints of cedar, followed by intense tannins. The finish shows complexity and suggests a long future, but right now challenging to taste.

2005 Il Blu Rosso Toscana IGT – Brancaia, Radda in Chianti, Tuscany
Sangiovese with 15% Merlot
Very dark. Beautiful and inviting nose, seductive and rich. Persistent crushed dark berry fruit with notes of sweet oak, followed by grainy tannins in a long finish. Brilliantly made but difficult to pinpoint. Also shows that generalisations about 2005 are no more than just that.

2000 Cerretalto Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – Casanova di Neri, Montalcino, Tuscany
Ferrini describes the beginnings of this estate as “a program of extreme anarchy”: Casanova di Neri is a large estate, and although all its vineyards are within the Brunello DOCG, not all of them were suitable to produce true quality. In order to come up with an outstanding wine a rigorous selection of vineyards, which could produce the best fruit, was implemented. Ferrini calls this precise choosing of sites “a luxury”, as, according to him, the concept of site selection has been a very recent one in Italy.
Impenetrable with a very small rim. Subdued fruitnose with notes of cherry jam, cherry liqueur and black currant, with a hint of spice and tobacco (this wine sees no new oak at all according to Ferrini). This is followed by a tight fruit palate with polished tannins and a restraint fruit finish suggesting a great ageing potential.

2001 Luppicaia Toscana IGT – Castello del Terriccio, Maremma, Tuscany
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Very dark, with almost black centre, showing some signs of age in the tiny rim. Sweet, concentrated, almost jammy black currant notes, but with depth and complexity. The ripe fruit is highlighted by acidity. Very long finish.

2004 Cavalli Selection Toscana IGT – Azienda degli Dei by Cavalli (official description), Panzano, Chianti Classico
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot,
Ferrini confessed to be initially uncomfortable with this project, as the fame of the proprietor could have easily eclipsed that of the wine. Lavish care and severe selection of fruit from four year old vines.
Deep ruby. Dark fruit and lavish new oak with notes of panettone, black olives, plum and tar, followed by, how could it not be, elegant, juicy fruit harnessed by compact tannins. The wine can’t do anything wrong, but lacks complexity on the finish.

2004 Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG – Fattoria Nittardi, Castellina in Chianti, Tuscany
Very dark. At first subdued, but after aeration quite a lot of oak and pronounced balsamic notes and cedar surrounding concentrated fruit. Coating, ripe tannins. Very long finish with lots of oak again.

2005 Galatrona Rosso Toscana IGT – Petrolo, Mercatale Valdarno, Tuscany
100% Merlot from vineyards a 350 m altitude.
Concentrated ruby. The nose prepares for a juicy fruit palate, with notes of dark chocolate. A well defined palate with intense, but at the same time restraint fruit, and coating tannins. The Ferrini touch.

2004 Poggiassai Toscana IGT – Poggio Bonelli, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Tuscany
A relatively new estate in one of the most southerly communes of Chianti Classico made famous by Mazzei’s Fattoria di Felsina and Castell’in Villa, and characterised by higher average temperatures during the growing cycle of the vines. the stone content of the Poggio Bonelli vineyards is apparently high, therefore intensifying the heat. This wine is made of 93% Sangiovese and 7% Cabernet, such a small amount makes one wonder why to include it in the first place, but the nose immediately betrays the foreign intrudor.
Appealing but international, if posh nose with leather, dark fruits and notes of cassis. Concentrated palate, which seems already quite evolved. Well balanced.

2005 Marsiliana Maremma Toscana IGT – Principe Corsini, San Casciano in Val Pesa, Tuscany
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet franc, balance is made up of syrah, Petit Verdot and Sangiovese
Medium deep ruby, with a broad rim starting to show some development. New oak with hints of black bread, cigar box, dark fruits and notes of mint and leather. On the palate cassis and dark fruit, with tarry notes. Coating tannins and sweet oak complement the elegant fruit. Ends on tobacco notes, suggesting rash evolution.

2004 Sapaio Bolgheri DOC Superiore – Podere Sapaio, Castagneto Carducci, Tuscany
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot. Poured from magnum.
Impenetrable, almost black. Perfumed sweet fruit, with notes of licorice, cigar box and tar. Ripe, quite mature fruit palate, with persistent tannins. Looks much older than it is.

2005 Maharis Noto IGT – Feudo Maccari, Noto, Sicily
1005 Nero d’Avola
The Sicilian outpost of Tenuta Sette Ponti. Very deep, with small rim, violet reflexes. First impression is that of sweet oak and panettone, followed by attractive open knit fruit, with plum, cherry and hints of leather. The sweet vanilla remains main motive, penetrating intense fruit. Oak becomes quite dominant on the finish.

2005 San Calisto Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC – Valle Reale, Popoli, Abruzze
Deep dark cherry colour, small violet rim. Shy fruit at first, with notes of liquorice, cherry, tamarind and black olives. On the palate red, bright, but concentrated fruit with refreshing acidity and notes of cedar. Coating tannins frame a very long finish. One of the more complex Montepulcianos.

2004 Marangi Salento Negroamaro IGT – Tenute Mater Domini, Campi Salentina, Puglia
Ferrini has consulted this estate near Lecce for the last two years. According to him the reduction of yields is crucial in the search for quality. Negroamaro, one of Puglia’s signature grapes (the other being Primitivo), can be “rough”, and Ferrini mentioned the difficulty he has in achieving balance and elegance. The vines are planted “ad albarello” (bush vine or gobelet), but as the bunch of Negroamaro is elongated, the plants are higher than usual for bush vines. The vigour of the vine makes a constant monitoring in the vineyard necessary.
In the cellars of Tenute Mater Domini the work process is free gravity flow oriented, according to Ferrini to keep the bitter tannins of Negroamaro in check.
Deep ruby with concentrated rim, showing some age. Roses and black cherry opening, balsamic with note of black olives. High acidity fruit palate with fine tannins and a warm finish. Very good.

2004 Mille e Una Notte Contessa Entellina Rosso DOC – Donnafugata, Marsala, Sicily
Sicily is marked by a hot climate, where “blockbuster” wines with a natural alcohol over 15% are easy produce, but for Ferrini, unsurprisingly the challenge lies in creating something more elegant.
Very dark colour. Seductive, perfumed sweet nose, with real depth. Almost exotic. A balanced palate of fruit, acidity and almost bittersweet tannins. Quite delicious if with international appeal.