Wine notes

Tuesday 24 February 2009


Angelo Gaja, whose estate hasn’t even got a website, recently seized the opportunity to reflect online with the help of an army of bloggers.

While it may seem that the Brunello di Montalcino scandal has lost most of its newsworthiness, especially after the majority of its producers voted with a clear ‘no’ against any adulteration of what by law is supposed to be a 100% Sangiovese wine last year, a very belated aftermath was staged this January way up in northern Italy, miles away from Montalcino, by Angelo Gaja.

Gaja, who also produces a Brunello di Montalcino at his wine-making operation Pieve Santa Restituta, offered last September to stage a ‘blogger summit’ on the Brunello scandal in his winery in Barbaresco. The offer was made public in a thread on the Gambero Rosso website (Italy’s most influential food and wine organisation, and responsible for the annual publication of Vini Italia guide) promising total openness in expression of thought. The date for this summit was set for 18 Jan 2009, so far in the future that it was thought that by then the event could well be past its sell-by-date.

Last year Gaja had already meddled in the Brunello scandal by openly discrediting last October’s acrimonious debate involving Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani and Ezio Rivella of Castello Banfi, calling it ‘boorish’ and comparing it to ‘pub banter’.

The January summit assembled 20 bloggers at the Gaja headquarters in Barbaresco, all of them reporting live on a discussion fed by questions from a virtual public while a Rinaldi 1999 Barolo was served. This seemed a somewhat inconvenient way of discussing such a complex topic, interrupted as it was by five-minute toilet breaks and a general slowing down of the debate due to the multi-tasking challenge of arguing and typing at the same time. Italians seem to have taken a liking to this medium that allows them speak out in favour of or against controversial issues in a country staunchly clinging to conservative values. However, it did furnish a stage for Gaja to repeat much of what he had said in the past. He openly questions the law that stipulates the sole use of Sangiovese for Brunello, which came into force in 1982, and which he considers a political decision made in Rome, far away from the reality of the vineyards in Montalcino.

Gaja had already aired his thoughts in a thread on the Il Numeri di Vino website last August, in which he explains that the original Brunello area back in the 1960s comprised no more than 60 hectares, with around 20 or so producers, and with Biondi Santi as the leading estate. In the 19th century, Biondi Santi had isolated a superior clone of Sangiovese, capable of producing wines of great longevity, and called it ‘Brunello’. This wine reached near mythical status in Italy and abroad for sheer rarity due to the fact that the single vineyard version Il Greppo was only very rarely made during the last 100 years or so.

The region enjoyed enormous prosperity after Banfi, an Italo-American operation, settled in the area in 1977, buying large swathes of land to plant with Moscadello, an aromatic but mediocre white grape variety designed to produce the Tuscan equivalent of Moscato d’Asti. Banfi’s ambitious Moscadello planting scheme became a financial fiasco, until the estate started focusing on Brunello as well as the production of a range of international grape varieties, most notably Merlot and Syrah, planted alongside Sangiovese.

According to Gaja, the huge success of Banfi’s Brunello, especially in the United States, triggered a frenzy of plantings in the region, increasing total vineyard area to 2,000 hectares divided among 250 producers. This enormous increase was undiscriminating to say the least, not taking into account that Sangiovese, a variety with ‘weak points’, according to Gaja, demands certain specific sites to ripen properly. A high return seemed to be secured by the name Brunello on the label alone. However, to mitigate the tartness of Sangiovese planted in too cool spots, the international grape varieties introduced by Banfi appeared to be ideal blending partners.

Over time the wines have met with huge international success and, again according to Gaja (and Rivella), it is unacceptable that anyone would want to defend a 100% Sangiovese wine, which would mean that large parts of the Brunello vineyards would not be suitable for its production. Although during the blogger summit Gaja literally said that he didn’t want to tell the producers in Montalcino what to do, and would rather keep his thoughts to himself in order to avoid controversy, in reality there was no doubt that he clearly favours a legalised inclusion of international grape varieties in Brunello either to make the wines more marketable or to compensate for sites where Sangiovese struggles to ripen, or a combination of both.

The law that stipulates a 100% Brunello doesn’t take this into account, and Gaja argues that if producers are constantly in conflict with that law, the law should be changed. The suggestion made by one of the bloggers to use the more flexible St Antimo DOC that allows grape varieties other than Sangiovese, was declined by Gaja. He said that, having made a considerable investment in Montalcino, he expects a proper return on that.

Gaja’s critics point out that this idea of a ‘blended’ wine which is supposed to be monovarietal comes from the same man who tried to have the Barbaresco DOCG changed to allow for inclusion of a certain percentage of anything other than the revered Nebbiolo. He failed in this and as a consequence declassified some of his most prestigious wines to the fairly nondescript Langhe Nebbiolo DOC, which allows up to 15% of other grape varieties in a Nebbiolo-based wine.

Gaja also criticised the outcome of the ‘100% Brunello’ vote, calling it an act of hypocrisy, saying that in spite of almost all producers having voted in favour of this varietal purity, it doesn’t reflect the reality. He pleads for a regulation in which producers themselves can decide how to make a marketable Brunello, especially as, according to Gaja, more than half of all vineyards registered for the production of this wine are not suitable for Sangiovese, but no one can (or wants to) declassify them.

It is easy to see that statements like these infuriate the purists who defend the special characteristics that only a 100% Brunello, plus bottle age, will possess. They also insinuate that Gaja was a relatively late comer to Montalcino and therefore may have been unable to buy up the best vineyards for the production of a truly great Sangiovese Brunello. But Gaja thinks it is irresponsible to endanger the position of Brunello, and its international sales, by laws making the production of a rounder, easier wine impossible. During the bloggers’ summit, he exclaimed that drinkability goes before typicity (‘la bontà del vino fa premio sulla tipicità’), especially if a producer ends up with a Sangiovese which is a bit thin, and decides to ‘ameliorate’ it even if this possibility lies outside the law.

The question why Gaja always seems to want to change some DOCG or the other, first for Barbaresco and now for Brunello, is answered by one of the bloggers with a succinct ‘because the wines that are obtained by following the law are inadequate according to Gaja’. Even the president of the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco, Giancarlo Montando, came to Gaja’s defence, making the bold statement that it is hypocritical to even think that a pure single varietal wine is possible in Italy, as there will always be something in its vineyards that doesn’t comply with regulations. And it is Gaja’s strong belief that any law should work around that fact.

The summit ended punctually at 12.56 when its chairman Antonio Tombolini exclaimed ‘and now it is time to have lunch at Ristorante Antica Torre di Barbaresco!’ The summit didn’t seem to have ruined anyone’s appetite greatly, although one cannot escape the impression that Gaja seems to be more interested in marketability than terroir characteristics. It was very odd too that during the summit no one wanted to even accept the fact that a ‘consumer friendly’ Brunello can be perfectly legally produced in Montalcino, but without the use of the prestigious name. And it is here where one suspects the true problem lies.

Wednesday 18 February 2009


Alessandro and Filippo Filippi challenge the meaning and value of the Soave appellation

Soave, the wine at which most wine lovers would turn up their noses, has suffered for years under a self-inflicted inferiority complex, having allowed the production of bland and cheap wines under its appellation. Although the Consorzio, the controlling body of Soave, recently embarked on an ambitious project to describe and map single vineyards in an effort to restore the wine’s ancient, but largely forgotten, reputation (of which more later), it has yet to restore the reputation of Garganega, the white grape responsible for wines that are often described as ‘flowery, elegant and with finesse’, but could easily mean ‘dull’.

Garganega, Soave’s main ingredient, is not generally considered a great grape variety, although this view is almost always based on the mediocre wines described above rather than on true efforts to find out what it is capable of. Of course, a handful of producers, notably Pieropan, have been stubbornly producing wines of concentration and complexity, but recently this very select camp has been joined by two brothers, whose wines seem to add a completely new dimension to Garganega. They provoke the question: is Garganega light and flowery or full bodied and multi-layered? Their wines also do away with the age-old myth that Garganega’s yields should never be too low as this would compromise the wine’s ‘elegance’, which, according to the brothers Filippi, is nothing other than dilution and a direct result of unreasonably high yields.

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi determinedly cling to old vines trained on the maligned pergola training system and, with one exception, have turned their back on the much more modern Guyot system. They refuse to green harvest and use exclusively organic and biodynamic methods. They scorn any other grape in their Soave except for Garganega, and their highly original wines, all single-vineyard bottlings, show purity, concentration of fruit and minerality in such abundance that they have found it difficult to get the official approval for their wines because the Consorzio struggles to recognise them as ‘traditional and genuine’. Part of the Filippi range can therefore be marketed only under the meaningless classification IGT Veneto Bianco, signifying another lost opportunity for Soave to spruce up its battered reputation.

Although the estate seems to have appeared out of the blue, the family has since the 14th century been firmly rooted in Castelcerino, one of the highest and oldest parts of the Soave hills, and they have an enviable monopoly in two of the very best crus, Vigne della Bra and Monteseroni, and 1.5 hectares in the über cru Castelcerino. The estate was one of the first to vinify its own grapes, but estate bottling wasn’t introduced until 2003, when the Filippi brothers took over the reins from their parents.

The soils in this part of the Soave hills are extremely varied and complex with basalts of volcanic origin and layers of ancient, prehistoric limestone (the Filippi office is full of stones with fossile imprints found in their vineyards). The soils of the Castelcerino vineyard, with-50 year-old vines, are volcanic with black basalt stones, whereas Monteseroni, only a stone’s throw away, consists mainly of limestone. A perfect south exposition makes it the warmest of the three vineyards, and although the vines are pergola trained, yields are very low thanks to vines 60 years old.

Vigne della Bra has sandy clay soils with a skeleton of basalt rock. The vineyard is surrounded by a forest, shielding it from cooler winds, with a marked difference between day and night temperatures. A row of trees neatly divides this vineyard into two separate plots, which is duly recognised by their separate vinification and bottling.

Although Castelcerino is one of the oldest vineyards in the region, only part of it falls within the superior (at least on paper) Soave Classico designation, while the highest and smallest part is confined to the nondescript Soave Colli Scaligeri designation. The Filippis can literally see the border of Soave Classico run past their front door, making a bow around their vineyards, thus raising doubts over the seriousness of a legal designation which doesn’t recognise some of its finest terroirs.

As Soave Colli Scaligeri doesn’t mean anything to anyone, and Soave Classico is not a guarantee for quality, the brothers are considering taking all their wines out of the Soave denomination. The name Soave, according to Alessandro, hinders a proper return on investments, and prevents producers from focusing on quality instead of quantity. While Soave continues to be synonymous with the cheapest of wines, lower yields, a prerequisite for showing Garganega’s greatness, are not really an option, which makes the Filippi efforts even more laudable. For the moment, the vineyard names feature prominently on the labels, with the word Soave in very small print and relegated to the back label, as it could prevent wine lovers beating a path to their door.

The aforementioned pergola, which has traditionally been considered the main culprit for higher yields because it accommodates Garganega’s extreme vigour while giving support to an enormous number of loose-hanging, heavy bunches of grapes, has been lovingly embraced by Filippo and Alessandro. Although the modern Guyot trellis system has been adopted by one and all, it cannot automatically be read as a commitment to quality. Alessandro explains that in Soave, especially on the plains, it allows for a high level of mechanisation, impossible in a pergola vineyard. With the modern trellis system came the introduction of high-yielding Garganega clones, as well as the now so familiar international intruders, with Chardonnay playing the leading part. Although it has no affinity with the volcanic soils in the hills, and doesn’t produce anything of much character on the fertile plains, Chardonnay can fill out the mid palate of high-yielding, dilute Garganega and, more importantly, boost alcohol levels.

For Alessandro, the advantages of the ancient pergola system far outweigh the disadvantages, but even he admits that clones and the age of the vines play a key role. The Filippi vines are almost all 50 to 60 years old, all descendants of an ancient biotype, and not of selected clones from the beginning of the 1960s that were developed for quantity only. Unsurprisingly, clonal selection represents another bone of contention for the brothers. Pergola, especially in combination with old vines and low yields, produces loose bunches of grapes (Guyot, at least in Filippo’s experience, giving much more compact bunches) which are more resistant to rot. The high position of the bunches on the pergola, up to two metres above the ground, allow for ventilation, provided the vigour of the plant is kept in check. Old vines are naturally less vigorous, and the organic approach seems to restrict profusion even more. Another very important side effect is that quality is not improved by green harvesting, which the brothers describe as an artificial correction of an intentionally unbalanced situation.

The cellar, as you would expect, is an extremely simple affair, consisting of a couple of stainless steel tanks. Minimal intervention seems to come naturally here. As the building is set against a slope, gravity flow is the norm, while temperature control during fermentation is mostly left to the season, with perforated walls allowing streams of cool air into the cellar.

The grapes are handled as little as possible, with destemming and pressing only. Pre-fermentation maceration, which nowadays is almost standard practice, is not used – the brothers consider this a ‘trick’ to coax more out of a grape than it has brought with it in the first place. The wines, vinified and bottled strictly by vineyard, are fermented with indigenous yeast in stainless steel. The wines stay on the fine lees for six months, and often much longer, only to be disturbed by the occasional bâtonnage. In addition to adding complexity, this results in a natural clarification without the need for fining agents. Malolactic doesn’t occur, nor is it desired.

All wines get an additional year in bottle before they are released, as the high mineral content seems to inhibit the normally swift development of Garganega, and even the entry-level Soave Colli Scaligeri Castelcerino needs decanting, something the brothers advise for the entire range.

As if that were not enough, the Filippis produce in minuscule quantities (sometimes no more than 100 bottles) a range of wines called ‘Vini di Ricerca’ – research wines – which are in-depth investigations into late-harvested Garganega, fermented on the skins and given prolonged lees contact.

Their counterpart to the classically sweet Recioto di Soave is a deliberately dry wine made from dried Garganega grapes. This wine is called Scapa, dialect for ‘escape’, suggesting that the sweetness has escaped from the wine. The Filippis call this wine the white equivalent of Amarone, which, incidently, they also produce from a tiny patch of pergola-trained vines in Valpolicella, using Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara.

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Castelcerino 2006 Soave Colli Scaligero 16 Drink 2009-12
Quite deep yellow. Intense spicy fruit and camomile with lots of minerals. Serious stuff. Mineral fruit on the palate, restrained and elegant. Bitter almond finish. Still a touch yeasty and will benefit from another year in bottle. Needs decanting. 12.5%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Monteseroni 2006 Soave Colli Scaligeri 16.5 Drink 2009-14
Restrained, very fine stony nose. Salty and minerally on the palate. Again tight, and complex. Great potential and length. 13%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Vigne della Bra 2006 Soave Colli Scaligeri 17 Drink 2010-16
The most open of them all with soft fruit with depth and stony notes. Camomile and garden herbs. Much more restrained and closed on the palate. Mineral theme again, and soft sweet fruit, matched by marked but fine acidic structure. Will need more time, and has lots of potential. 13%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Vigne delle Bra 20 mesi sui lieviti 2006 Soave Colli Scaligeri 16.5 Drink 2009-16
From the upper part of the Bra vineyard. Twenty months on the fine lees, hence the name. Perfumed nose of sweet white fruit, earthy and with touch of fresh dough. Fascinating. Closed at first, then shows more and more soft fruit, with minerality. Very elegant and persistent. 13.5%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi Trebbiano 2006 IGT Bianco Veronese 17 Drink 2009-16
Vinification without sulphites and 6 months on the lees, with regular bâtonnage. Pale golden. Intensely sweet nose of honey and candied fruit, apricots and brioche, apple. Aromatic fruit but completely dry palate. Almost a touch phenolic. Genuine, but for a select few only. 12.5%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Puro Garganega 2007 IGT Bianco Veronese 17 Drink 2009-16
Only stainless steel, skin contact for 4 days, no sulphides at any stage. Light golden amber. Intense, sweet nose of apricot marmelade, honey, cooked apple and nutmeg, caramel notes. Closed on the palate, minerals, bread crust. Marked but very fine acidic structure. Intense finish. Will develop over the years. 12%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Tardiva 2004 Soave Colli Scaligeri 17.5 Drink 2009-16
Exceptionally late harvest. The fermentation is so slow - it takes three months to complete. The wine stays at least an extra year on the fine lees, and a year or so in bottle. There is virtually no residual sugar. The appearance of a dessert wine – brilliant golden. Beautiful, powerful, intense and pure sweet nose, apricot, bready and savoury notes too, camomile and green tea. Similar to the Puro, but finer, more refined. Minerally fruit palate is still compact and closed. 13%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Secco 2002 Soave Colli Scaligeri 18 Drink 2009-16
Made of apassito (dried) grapes which were attacked by botrytis during the drying process. Bright amber. Opulent sweet complex opening. Apricot juice and notes of croquant. Beautifully balanced with focused, sweet fruit. Ends dry but there is great balance and pure fruit flavours, creamy notes, and lovely acidity. 14.5%

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