Wine notes

Friday 28 January 2011


Although the Bordeaux vintage rumour mill traditionally starts to spin almost before grapes are visible on the vine, Italy is much more cautious about vintage predictions. This may have to do with the fact that harvest dates on the peninsula extend from one of the earliest in Europe (Sicily's whites) to one of the very last (Piemonte's Nebbiolo and Campania's Aglianico). Hence, a clear general picture tends to emerge much later than for most French wine regions. 

'Interesting' seems to be the word that sums up the 2010 vintage, immediately followed by 'heterogeneous'. At least these are the adjectives most frequently used in the Italian media when discussing 2010. The main reason for what looks like a rather modest vintage in terms of quality was an excessive amount of rain. During the winter and early spring the growing cycle started off with soils saturated with water, which can be beneficial if the season proves to be hot and dry. However, instead of the heat needed, most regions experienced continuous cool weather, which soon indicated a late harvest, in many cases protracted by a cool and rainy end of the summer. Or, in the words of Assoenologi, the Association of Italian Enologists: 'September could have been better'. 

It was September especially that caused such variation throughout Italy, with good and mediocre results side by side, although the vintage on the whole is likely to lack the stuffing for excellence. According to Assoenologi, the total crop is 45.5 million hl, similar to the previous year's 45.8 million hl, and both years were particularly wet. But while the 2009 vintage was one of excesses - high and low temperatures, sun and rain - 2010 in comparison was simply not warm enough in many areas. 

The first to start the harvest was Sicily, for white wine grapes, on 18 Aug. In Veneto, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, considered early-ripening varieties, were not brought in before mid September and Soave's Garganega even later, sometimes as late as mid October. Although in August the situation had looked promising in Veneto, with hot days and cool nights, September brought irregular weather with more rain. 

In Conegliano, heartland of Prosecco, depending on the site and altitude, some perfumed and refreshing wines will result, although the thin-skinned grape was attacked by rot thanks to the protracted harvest and rain, making severe selections in the cellar obligatory. Although more robust than the whites, the red varieties in Veneto as well as in parts of Friuli are characterised by low levels of anthocyanins in the skins. Friuli, also faced with a rainy harvest, seemed to have fared better because of the ongoing ventilation by the prevailing bora winds. 

As always, all eyes are on Piemonte, as this region, together with Tuscany, produces some of the world's most admired wines, Barbaresco and Barolo, and the quality of the vintage is often, even if not always correctly, seen as a blueprint for the whole of Italy. The typical 2010 characteristics of a very cool spring also delayed the growing cycle in Piemonte by more than two weeks. However, this far-north-western region largely escaped the September rains that other regions had to endure, keeping fungal disease at bay. In this vintage much depended on superior sites, the ones that guarantee full sun exposure and higher than average temperatures. Hence expectations for Nebbiolo from prime areas are high, and good sugar levels have been reported in most of the Langhe. More modest qualities are expected from Dolcetto and Barbera from lesser sites. Production levels have remained stable since 2009, which is not necessarily a good thing, considering the street protests staged by producers in Asti just before the harvest, claiming grape prices had sunk so low that harvesting would no longer make economic sense and demanding the return of state-subsidised distillation. 

The growing cycle in Emilia-Romagna was delayed by some 14 days, and the autumn rains made picking dates critical, with some producers expressing great concern at the beginning of September about the ripeness levels of the grapes. While the harvest at the end of August started off with rain, the weather soon changed to sunny warm days, helping increase ripeness levels, and cool nights reducing the risk of fungal attacks for the later-ripening red varieties. 

More or less the same picture emerges in Tuscany, where the beginning of the growing cycle was delayed more than two weeks by cool, wet weather. The whole cycle was determined by cool weather, after an initial spike of high temperatures. Canopy management, including leaf plucking to expose the embryonic fruit to the sun as well as optimising ventilation, and bunch thinning, appeared to be some of the most effective tools. Producers who spent long hours in the vineyards were presented with wines of much higher alcohol and riper tannin levels than could initially have been expected. Although the season has resulted in good rather than great raw material, there will be plenty of suprises, not least in Montalcino, which reportedly received less rain than the rest of Tuscany. 

Not even the south escaped the rains, although here they were more evenly spread. In Campania most of the rains fell before June, replenishing water tables. By mid June temperatures had shot up, accelerating the fruit set and leaf growth, only to be interrupted by cool July, before the season's climate became more regular. Only producers who remained viligant, keeping vigour and yield in check and guarding against fungal disease, succeeded. The rest of the season was more benign than on average in Italy with a hot, dry August, indeed so hot in some areas that fruit burn could have resulted, but owing to very cool nights (with diurnal temperature variation up to 14 °C), the grapes remained healthy and held on to their all-important acidity. Harvest was also delayed by some two weeks in Campania, but the general quality of the grapes seemed to be good to high. Harvest began with the earlier-ripening varieties at the end of September, and the first week of October seeing the beginning of the harvest for Falanghina and Fiano. Aglianico, mostly planted at higher altitudes, was not picked before mid November, which in fact is not exceptionally late. 

Puglia seems to be the exception this year, with an initial delay of the growing cycle of only one week, which was quickly reversed by a warm and even season, with grapes harvested in good health. Although some 2,000 ha of vines were grubbed up in 2010 at the EU's behest, the region somehow managed to produce 20% more grapes than in the previous year. 

Sicily's total production, on the other hand, declined by some 30%, not least owing to the EU subsidies available to those who grubbed up their vines, but a large part was also the result of an intense green harvest to keep fungal attacks during a wet growing season under control. Although some good wines can be expected, overall the harvest was delayed by more than a week, and produced fruit of more modest extract levels than normal.

At the beginning of November, after the harvest was mostly done and most producers were sighing with relief, the rains came back with an unexpected violence, especially in the Veneto between Verona and Friuli, causing dams to break and causing widespread flooding in the vineyards, with the Soave town of Monteforte d'Alpone worst hit. This picture shows a Soave vineyard after the worst of the rains. The main traffic artery between Venice and Milan, the Serenissima Autostrada, was blocked, while large parts of Vicenza disappeared under water (see picture top left). The most optimistic reports of the damage caused by the relentless rain estimate a total cost of 250 million euros, while the bleakest forecast predicts that Italy's especially wet 2010 will cost over a billion euros. 

Although some of the resulting damage to land and livestock was nothing short of tragic, I couldn't help but think that everyone on the plain was affected whereas all those with vineyards on the hillside were not. Surely this is an indication that if this kind of weather pattern persists in the future, terroir specifics will force the grape growers to retire to the hills, where wine quality is so much more assured.


The news in 2008 that Avignonesi, arguably Vino Nobile di Montepulciano's most emblematic producer, had sold the majority of its shares to the Belgian Virginie Saverys sent a ripple through Italian wine blogs - all of them worried about a historic Italian estate falling into foreign hands. What most of the critics did not realise was that although the Avignonesi name goes back to at least the 16th century, it didn't start bottling wine until 1978.

Whereas grape growing and winemaking had always been part of the Avignonesi activity, its vinous rise to fame started only after Adriana Avignonesi married the agronomist Ettore Falvo in the 1970s. It was he who immediately modernised the estate with replantings and regraftings and introduced French barriques to the cellar. By bringing the Falvo holdings in Cortona and Val di Chiana into the operation, the Avignonesi portfolio was also enlarged by quite a few international grape varieties, notably Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. With enough critical mass available to penetrate the international market (some 700,000 bottles a year currently), Avignonesi became the indisputed leader of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano denomination, with their Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo [look out for my tasting notes on a range of Vin Santos next week - JR] a star in its own right, as well as the international blends Grifi and Desiderio.

The 2008 sale of the majority stake was instigated by Ettore Falvo's wish to leave the company, but already in 2007 Saverys, director of Belgian shipping company Compagnie Maritime Belge, had acquired a minority stake of 30%. The Falvo family retained 10% of Avignonesi. Although according to the initial agreement Alberto Falvo would remain responsible for the winemaking, Saverys decided to buy out the last Falvo member in 2009 and embark on her own. From one day to the next she found herself running a winery as well as Avignonesi's international wine, spirits and foods distribution company Classica, and that without any prior wine knowledge apart from drinking it.

Doubts have been expressed in recent years over the quality of the estate's wines, with the exception of the Vin Santo. This was all the more surprising because the Falvo family had always been keen on research and viticultural experiments in an ongoing effort to improve the wines, some of those research projects in conjunction with the University of Florence. Under the direction of Saverys, the estate's entire 110 ha of vineyards are being converted to biodynamic viticulture.

Before I met with Saverys, her consultant agronomist Dr Adriano Zago showed me the vineyards. Avignonesi consists of four separate estates or vineyard areas: I Poggetti in Montepulciano proper; Le Capezzine, the actual estate with the ageing cellars west of Montepulciano; and La Selva and La Lombarda in the recent Cortona denomination, a playground for international grape varieties, and sensibly demarcated without overlapping the Vino Nobile production area (unlike Montalcino's Sant'Antimo). Made DOC in 1999 to highlight its unique propensities for Syrah in particular, Cortona still has to prove itself.

The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG actually consists of two individual zones: the hills around the township of Montepulciano and, about 10 km to the west and separated by the very flat Val di Chiana, the hills around the township of Valiano. According to Zago, the original denomination was enlarged some 30 years ago by the addition of the hills of Valiano, apparently to accommodate large holdings of newcomers at that time. Although I have not found evidence to confirm this, the fact is that most of Valiano's vineyards are in the hands of large and very large estates, such as Antinori (La Braccesca), Trerose (Tenimenti Angelini), Lodola Nuova (Ruffino) and Barbanera.

While driving up to the Le Capezzine estate I had already noticed that vineyards here are planted ad alberello and trained on stakes. Lately, alberello, or gobelet, training has become the sacred cow of Italy's left field 'natural wine' movement, and considered proof of a producer's true dedication to the natural wine cause. It can, however, also be seen as the emperor's new clothes, with alberello cultivated in parts where it never was the traditional method and in places where it is completely unsuitable. Avignonesi, Zago told me, started planting ad alberello as early as 1996 and continued doing this until 2001. Although this may seem at first glance truly visionary, it turned out quite the opposite, of which more later.

I Poggetti, near the town of Montepulciano, is in comparison a conventional vineyard, planted 40 years ago with Sangiovese, Vino Nobile's main ingredient, called Prugnolo here. Although Avignonesi have always embraced the international varieties, their Vino Nobile traditionally consisted of Tuscan varieties only, complementing Sangiovese with Canaiolo and Mammolo, with the curious exception of the Riserva, to which a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon was added.

La Selva and the La Lombarda vineyards in the aforementioned Cortona DOC are the source of the Cortona Sauvignon Blanc (which includes 15% Chardonnay), Il Marzocco Cortona Chardonnay, Avignonesi's stab at creating an ambitious burgundy-style white, including barrel fermentation, and Desiderio Cortona Merlot (which includes 15% Cabernet Sauvignon). It remains to be seen which of these wines will continue to be produced under the new ownership.

The hills of Montepulciano and Valiano are not exclusively vine territory, sharing the clay and limestone soils with sunflowers and wheat. While his four-wheel drive literally ploughed its way through heavy clay (pictured above left on Zago's boot) during my visit, Zago, who consults for a variety of estates in Chianti Classico, Carmignano and Montalcino, mentioned his surprise that he couldn't find a single stone in the Avignonesi vineyards. Montepulciano's soils consist mostly of clay with some limestone. Sandy soils are apparently much less prevalent than is frequently mentioned in the wine literature.

I met Virginie Saverys in her office at the Le Capezzine estate. She is an elegant, understatedly dressed, and attractive woman in her late forties who seems to communicate with her staff in an informal, open way. It was only when she asked if I would like tea, which she ordered by telephone and was brought in by a waiter, that I briefly realised I was sitting opposite one of the richest women in Belgium. I also could not help noticing that she probably hasn't given many interviews yet in her new role, something I deduce from her sincere and open answers. Only briefly was she distracted by the regular sound of Skype messages pouring in on her laptop, which, after a short while, she resolutely closed.

I began by asking her why she decided to buy a wine estate, considering her background in a completely different industry. Saverys wouldn't be the first wealthy person to turn a passion for wine drinking into wine producing without any prior knowledge, but her answer was much more profane than I expected. She told me she already knew the Falvo family personally and initially bought the first minor stake to 'help a friend', indicating that the estate was in financial need of some sort, but she also wanted to diversify her investment portfolio. When I remarked that one needs a large fortune to make a small one in wine, she replied that she at first saw it as a real estate investment opportunity only with the land and the buildings representing a certain value. Within less than a year, however, her share went up to 90%. The deal that came with this, was that one of the Falvo brothers would teach her the business of the trade, but when this plan didn't materialise soon enough, she managed to buy him out (the total sum of the acquisition remains undisclosed).

All of a sudden Saverys found herself in charge of a sizable estate without any prior knowledge. She admits that originally she didn't intend to get steeped in wine, but she quickly put her mind to it, deciding she had the time and the passion, 'and anyway, there was no longer a way out', she pragmatically added. This was spring 2009, and while the Falvo family was no longer in charge, the staff they had worked with for years stayed on. When I ask her what it was like she says it was a steep learning curve with mistakes, mostly by relying on the staff and their ways of working in the vineyard and cellar. But Saverys is not only passionate, she is also thorough. She started visiting estates both in France and Italy, and had the entire estate, including all work processes, completely audited.

Calling herself a curious person, she started to read widely about wine. It was thus that she came across biodynamics, and decided to go to Burgundy where she began following courses under Pierre Masson, who introduced her to the biodynamic preparations and the Maria Thun calendar, now a permanent fixture on her desk. It was Masson who suggested she should work with Zago to convert the estate's vineyards to biodymanics.

While talking to Saverys and Zago (pictured here, with more clay), I started to understand that the main issue with the fomer staff was the management of the vineyards and in particular the use of chemicals they had got so used to working with during the Falvo management. According to both Saverys and Zago, at Avignonesi staff were previously accustomed to work with a staggering amount of chemicals, some nine different chemical treatments including herbicides and insecticides, apparently applied to the vines and the vineyards according to a protocol, regardless of whether there was a need for them or not. The first decision Saverys took was to abandon all chemical products. She felt that some of the staff were unable or unwilling to follow her in this, and hence some of the workers had to go.

The cost of biodynamic viticulture must be high, thanks to the intense and mainly manual vineyard management, especially on Avignonesi's extensive vineyards, but Saverys maintains that it is in large part offset by no longer having to buy expensive chemical products. The direct consequence is that yields are bound to go down, at least in the first few years when soil and plants start to regenerate. Saverys added that biodynamics does not necessarily exclude mechanical ways of working, but the main concern is that heavy machinery will compress the soils. But while some of the work can be done mechanically, the alberello vineyards, due to their high density and their stake training, are a limiting factor, the high clay content of the soils another.

Biodynamics has already begun improving the soils, as Zago showed me in the vineyard. During my visit Zago took soil samples and showed me how compact the clay is. He also pointed out its blueish hue, a sign of reduction. It is very wet too. To improve this, herbs are planted between the rows. Zago pulled out a weed and showed that the clay around its roots is much less wet, more crumbly, less compact. Planting herbs improves soil aeration, structure and regulates water content, while stimulating the development of microorganisms working the soil. I asked him how many cow horns, the most famous of all biodynamic preparations, he will need for 110 ha. A great many, he said, smiling.

Zago has also pointed out that the Sangiovese planted ad alberello is causing viticultural and logistical issues that he and Saverys are still trying to find a solution for. Sangiovese is a naturally vigourous variety, even more so on clay, and the alberello training method with its low trunk system cannot easily accommodate the many branches the vine produces, which not only shades the fruit, but restricts ventilation and aeration causing increased humidity in the canopy, which in turn can lead to fungal infections. Neither does it allow for a large enough canopy surface to maximise photosynthesis, and hence fruit ripening, not to mention the intense manual work that bushvine training demands. Apparently, high density, even at 7,500 vines per ha, doesn't reduce vigour in proportion to the number of plants. They had to abandon the plan to pull every second albarello out, as this would have led to a density per ha below that of the official DOCG regulations. Now they are considering bringing in a trellis system, at high cost.

Saverys explained all this with an ease which almost matches that of Zago. She told me that she started following courses and lectures on viticulture at Bordeaux's ENITA, which she still does. It was ENITA she assigned to do the audit of Avignonesi's vineyards, and which unearthed a wealth of information on soil diversity, structure, and clonal selection. This, again, led to the mapping of all individual plots, something which had never been done before at Avignonesi, with each and every plot vinified separately from the 2009 vintage on, unlike in the past when such distinctions were never made.

What all this shows is that the previous owners of Avignonesi may have been undoubtedly focused on quality wine production, but despite the viticultural experiments, the focus was still very much on the cellar. Evidence of this, except for the styles of wines produced in the recent past, are the more than 1,600 barriques that the Avignonesi cellars contain. Although the actual fermentation is done in Cortona in an open-air battery-like collection of stainless-steel tanks (another thorn in Saverys side), there are also some smart Stockinger conic fermentation vats at Le Capezzine just waiting to be used for fermenting the finest plots. Until now they have been used only for ageing. At Avignonesi you get the impression that all the ingredients to create something exceptional are there, it just hasn't happened yet.

It is easy to see that from the beginning of the 1970s, with Falvo's innovative ideas, lower yields and investment in modern vinification techniques, the wines must have been perceived as enormously different from their old-fashioned peers, and easily received the recognition they so rightfully deserved. At the same time, the next page, that of in-depth terroir investigation, was never turned. Until now, that is.

Saverys is still acquainting herself with the estate's terroir, and biodynamic techniques have already helped to identify some superior plots in the vineyards which are so promising that she is considering single-vineyard bottlings in the future.

With the philosophical course of Avignonesi so radically changed, how will she deal with the fact that the wines are bound to go through a phase of variation, which undoubtedly will lead to stylistic change? Is she worried about losing customers? With an air of pragmatism she brushed this off, saying she will have to communicate intensely what it is she is trying to do at Avignonesi. At the same time she mentioned that she may well lose customers, but will win new ones in return. She has started to ferment with indigenous yeast only, and she expects this to have a huge impact on the wine and, potentially, the following. 'I owe it to my customers, to the land and to the people I work with, that at least they know they don't get any chemical stuff,' she told me.

She also indicated that there will be little change to the range. Avignonesi is a very strong brand, especially on the international market, and it seems only wise to keep the names, while going through changes. The entry level will remain the IGT red Rosso di Avignonesi, a blend of Sangiovese and mainly Merlot, a new IGT white (a blend of Sauvignon and Chardonnay), and a rosato from Pinot Noir which, as Saverys says, was previously 'dumped in the IGT Rosso', but she feels it is too good for that. And making a rosato for the sake of it, by using saignée, is something she says she is not interested in.

The first 'real', indigenous wine will be the Rosso di Montepulciano, which she plans to give less ageing to make it in a fresher style. Cortona will be the next level up, and she intends to keep the barrel-fermented Chardonnay Marzocco (with an annual production of around 8,000 bottles), as well as the apparently highly popular Desiderio Merlot (30,000 bottles), but the latter, again, will receive less oak ageing. 'Before, Desiderio was like a Swiss clock, it always got 18 months of oak, without fail, no exception.' Now she wants to vary time in barrel on the basis of the vintage and quality of the wine. Saverys wants to change and fine tune the barrel regime - not an easy task with the amount she inherited.

We briefly discuss Grifi, a wine created on the crest of the Supertuscan wave, an iconic blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon in equal parts. Its production was stopped by the previous owners, although she thinks it is a great wine. I sense she would like to have a go at it at some stage, but in the vineyards of Cortona, where the Cabernet is grown, there is no Sangiovese, and she is, at least for the moment, unwilling to resurrect Grifi by blending it with Montepulciano Sangiovese. I understand, it should be a proper DOC Cortona wine, while the actual top of the pyramid will all be Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, featuring Sangiovese and indigenous varieties only. She considers Sangiovese a difficult and fickle grape, but when she tasted the 2009 vintage, she started to realise the true potential of the variety. This did not deter her, however, from declassifying all the fruit to Rosso di Montepulciano, as she felt the vintage was not good enough to produce a good Vino Nobile. [This should be a wine worth seeking out - JR]

By the way, the previous consultant oenologist under Falvo management, Paolo Trappolini, was discarded too. Saverys is working now with the relatively unknown oenologist Giampaolo Chiettini, as she wanted a very good technician and felt the estate had no need for a big name. Chiettini, incidentally, makes a Sangiovese Shiraz (sic) in collaboration with the South Australian Primo Estate's Joe Grilli in Cortona. She told me Stéphane Derenoncourt visited Avignonesi, and she could have asked him to work for her, but good wine starts in the vineyard, she asserted, and there are already too many people making wines in the cellar.


To become IGT Bianco: 60% Chardonnay, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, fermented in stainless steel by indigenous and cultured yeast. Very fresh and yeasty and not too fruit driven. Salty notes. Medium length.

Sauvignon Blanc from sandy soil. Same salty impression again, with grapefruit and hints of passion fruit. A touch buttery. Restrained aromatics. Not very typical. With a spicy lemony finish.

To become Marzocco Chardonnay: hand-picked selection fermented in second-year barriques. Notes of yeast, dough, spicy apple and lemon rind. Soft vanilla touch, with lemony fruit flavour. Very good length pushed by zippy acidity.

Bushvine trained Merlot from the top of La Selva in Cortona. Soils consist mostly of clay, but with more chalk on the top. Could possibly become Desiderio or a component for 50/50 (the curious joint venture wine with Capanelle from Chianti Classico's Panzano, who brings Sangiovese to the blend). Yeasty and reductive at this stage. There is some good concentrated fruit underneath, with quite big tannins, but overall good structure.

Merlot from the La Selva vineyards in Cortona planted in 1974. A touch reductive, but quite concentrated, brooding and impressive on the nose. Only a hint of vanilla. Slight malolactic prickle and massive but ripe tannins. Very long, if initially reluctant.

Sangiovese acquired from a 40-year-old vineyard close to Poggetti on tufo soils. Fermented in stainless steel with indigenous yeast. Floral red fruit with hints of walnut skin. Bright red fruit, at this stage somewhat unsettled, with tannic spine and bright acidity. Aromatic finale with a tannic core.

Sangiovese from alberello-trained vines from I Poggetti. Fermented in stainless steel, and transferred to Stockinger 20-hl foudres. Quite reductive at first. Very fine and ongoing waves of tannins. Quite mute on the attack, but opens up slowly on the finish. Powerful, impressive.

Sangiovese blend of old vines trained on a high trellis system. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in 135-hl botte. Muted nose, but generous, sweet fruit attack and grainy tannin. Very long finish which grows on you. Precise, focused fruit. Very, very long.

Sangiovese planted in 1997 ad alberello at Le Cappezine. Fermented in stainless steel and only very recently put into third-year barriques. Red fruit and a touch of iron. Viscous mounthful at first, with ripe, sweet fruit shot through by acidity on the finish. Grainy tannins. Closes up. Less structure and depth than the Sangiovese trained on high trellis.

Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 2001 ad alberello in La Selva, Cortona. Reluctant dark fruit and hint of rhubarb. Sweet, rich and concentrated and quite tannic. Hint of fennel seed and liquorice. Very tannic finish.

Wednesday 5 January 2011


The ambitious aim of the European Union to organise all of Europe's wine regions into a single system more or less analogous to France's AOC, but called DPO, thereby simplifying wine labels, has caused increasing anxiety for the Consorzio di Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

To clarify labels for consumers, the EU aims to phase out any duplicates in wine names in due course and allow only absolutely clear denominations of origin. This in reality means that any wine striving for a Protected Denomination of Origin needs to be named after a place. At first the regulations seemed deceptively easy to adapt. It was assumed that France's AOC, Spain's DO and Italy's DOC, to mention the most important, would simply be translated into DPOs and registered in an official list of denominations. Any irregularit ies and duplications would be dealt with over a period of five years (until 2014). As the law was introduced in August 2009 in what looked like a great rush, it caught many consortiums and producer associations by surprise, because owing to lack of clear information they were often unable to explain to their members what the new law would entail.

Traumatised by the phasing out of their traditional name for the grape Tocai Friulano due to objections from Hungarians because of confusion with their famous sweet wine, Italy is growing increasingly anxious to prevent any further such cases. The latest to pull the emergency brake is the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. While this organisation has taken the better part of 10 years and more than three million euros to register and protect the name to prevent others from using it for products made outside of the region, it now fears confrontation from its neighbour the Abruzzo. Abruzzo's most renowned wine is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. The name Montepulciano in this latter case is the name of the grape variety while the Montepulciano of Vino Nobile is a place. The Consorzio is worried that during further clarification with the register, their name may run the risk of becoming erased, while Abruzzo's will be kept.

The Consorzio has already expressed their concern to Italy's agricultural minister Giancarlo Galan, but it has gone further, and has apparently already turned to the European Tribunal to appeal against the current listing of registered and protected geographical indications, which is accessible online and is called E-Bacchus. At this stage, E-Bacchus, which is in the process of being updated, shows both Vino Nobile di Montepulciano as well as Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, so the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano's fears may be unfounded.

However, with further rationalisation of the registration, issues may arise over the duplicate use of the name Montepulciano to denote two completely different wines. The Consorzio wants to prevent at all costs any 'distortion' of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano name. (The Friuli grape Tocai Friulano had to be renamed Friulano, and Tocai Rosso, a synonym for the Grenache cultivated in Veneto, had to be renamed Tai Rosso.) 

But the real reason the Consorzio went straight to the Tribunal was because the latest document in the new OCM regulations, EU 410/2010, failed to mention the word Nobile. The Consorzio, and the local Siena Chamber of Commerce, want to press Brussels to explicitly clarify this matter, as without the word Nobile, the DOCG wine currently known as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano would be labelled merely Montepulciano, and there would henceforth be confusion with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which could potentially lead to a sort of declassification of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano into a wine with an entirely different name.


In On the trail of Sangiovese di Romagna, I described the work of the leading group of producers, the Convito di Romagna. Its members voluntarily comply with a set of rules which are much stricter than the DOC requirements, the most crucial differences being lower yields, high-quality plant material, high-density plantings and a much later release date for the Riserva version than is normally the case. As the majority of the members have a relatively short history of producing and bottling wine, a clear profile of subregionality is still to emerge. Very promising, however, is the fact all members show restraint in their use of new oak, allowing the fruit to play the lead. Many of the members work their vineyards sustainably, while some have started experimenting with organic methods.

A comparison with Tuscany is unavoidable when talking about Sangiovese, and although there are similarities, there are also several marked differences. In general Sangiovese di Romagna seems richer, with bigger tannins which, in youth, can seem a little unpolished, even if ripe, and demand bottle ageing (a fact most Convito members honour by allowing their wines to age longer than is legally required, the current vintage on the market generally being 2006). There is usually considerable concentration on the mid palate, and acidity seems generally softer and better integrated than in many Tuscan Sangioveses.

At the moment stylistic differences within the Convito abound, perhaps partly due to the youth of several of the vineyards, but surely partly because of differences in terroir. However, as always, detection and recognition of terroir in any wine becomes easier as the taster's experience and knowledge increase. Therefore initiatives such as that of the Convito are urgently needed to get recognition for the wines on the international market. The (legal) practice of appassimento (using dried grapes) in the production of Sangiovese di Romagna seems less desirable, as it can blur terroir characteristics, although it is easy to see how it would appeal to an international audience.

Another marked difference in any comparison with Tuscany seems to be a relative absence of interest and money from outside of the region, and the accompanying phenomenon of the superstar oenologist-consultant. Romagna has proved, at least until now, to be a far less evocative name than Tuscany. The disadvantage of Romagna's relative isolation is that the process of bringing the best wines to international attention will take longer and won't be as explosive a process as it was in Tuscany until some years ago. But the advantage is that the best wines are in general a more truthful expression of their origin and the people who make them, and less the result of a standardised protocol.

CALONGA, Loc Castiglione, Forlì (Oriolo subzone)
The estate comprises 7 ha and is the smallest of the Convito members. Vineyards are at an altitude of about 120 m on the hills between Forlì and Faenza. Winemaking started as early as 1977, but only since 1996, when current owner Maurizio Baravelli started to get seriously interested in individual characteristics of the vineyards, have the wines been estate bottled. Fabrizio Moltard consults for Baravelli on the winemaking, while the estate's most important wine is the Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva Michelangiòlo.

Calonga, Michelangiòlo 2006 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 16.5 Drink now-2015
Fermented in stainless steel, and seven days of skin maceration after fermentation. 12 months in oak followed by 12 months in stainless steel for stabilisation and 6 months of bottle ageing, which in the future will be increased to 12 months.
Quite leafy tobacco nose, initially. Hints of sweet sour cherry and plummy notes, herbs underneath. Concentrated, spicy cherry and plum and firm but fine tannin. Slightly drying on the finish. Real Sangiovese flavours, but perhaps bolder than Tuscany. Honest, focused, with good length. 14% (WS)

Calonga, Michelangiòlo 2007 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore 17 Drink 2012-17
Vinification similar to 2006. Shows posh new oak on a lifted nose (VA?). Clear oak impact, but there is complexity too. Almost Tuscan on the palate, with focused, succulent fruit. Firm tannins predominant on the finish. This will need time. 14.5% (WS)

DREI DONÀ TENUTA LA PALAZZA, Loc Massa di Vecchiazzano, Forlì (Predappio subzone)
The Drei Donà family has been producing Sangiovese grapes since the early 1900s, but the wines were sold off in bulk until Enrico's father, after a career as a solicitor, started a second one, this time as a quality wine producer. He embarked on an ambitious replanting scheme, but kept some of the old vines for massal selection purposes. The vineyards, at an altitude of 110–160 m, lie like an amphitheatre around the estate, and are planted with the classic Romagna Clones R23 and R24. Interestingly, R23 is also planted a lot in Tuscany. Whereas the old vineyards from the 1960s had a density of 3,300 plants per ha (which, according to Enrico, was quite high for the time), the newer ones are planted with 5,000-5,500 vines per ha. Since 1992 the vineyards have been tended sustainably, with very little intervention, while fungal diseases are rare thanks to the ventilation of the winds off the sea. Although the path was set for Sangiovese, in 1983 Cabernet, Chardonnay and Riesling (more out of curiosity than real conviction according to Enrico, pictured here) appeared in the Drei Donà vineyards. Until recently, Franco Bernabei, well known for his work in Tuscany, has been consulting at the estate, but now this role has been taken over by his son. The estate's most important wine is Pruno Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva, of which the first vintage was 1989.

Drei Donà Tenuta La Palazza, Pruno 2006 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 17.5 Drink 2010-20
From a single vineyard. Half of the wine is aged in barrique, of which half is American oak (new as well as old) and the other half in new and second-fill tonneaux. The wine has 18 months of cask ageing in total.
Medium deep crimson. Very posh nose of oak and concentrated red fruits. Cherry, first and foremost. Succulent fruit palate with crunchy tannins and perfectly balancing acidity. Tannins are the main theme, persistent, but finely woven, and backed up effortlessly by ongoing fruit aromas. And huge length. Has potential, but difficult to resist right now. 14% (WS)

Drei Donà Tenuta La Palazza, Pruno 1995 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 16.5 drink now 2010-18
Deep, developed ruby with small brickstone rim. Very impressive, fine, mature and complex. Developed with tobacco and a spur of mushroom, finely spiced. Very fine tannic waves with sweet, mature fruit and tobacco. Elevated acidity and with almost an orange note on the finish. 13% (WS)

Drei Donà Tenuta La Palazza, Pruno 1998 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 17.5 Drink 2010-18
Very dark, mature ruby with brickstone hints. First impression is of notes of orange skin. Savoury, meaty, with very fine red fruit perfume slowly to emerge. Rich, sweet fruit attack, with immediate grainy tannin. Acidity seems well integrated, and turns up more clearly at the finish. Concentrated, with dry finish, still seems to need some time, at least decanting. Richer than 1995. 14% (WS)

STEFANO FERRUCCI VITICULTORE, Serra di Castelbolognese, Ravenna (Serra subzone)
The vineyards of Ferruci date back to 1932 and comprise 15 ha. The estate has had only a recent history of producing and bottling wine, but the main focus has always been in the vineyards (hence the Viticultore in the estate's name). In-depth research into clonal selection from their own plant material, with very low yields, has been the main principle of grape production here, and all red wines produced are from Sangiovese only. Interestingly, for all reds the grapes are dried for a period of up to a month, giving an unmistakable appassito character to the wine. The consequence of this procedure is that terroir characteristics are perhaps less easy to detect. The most important wine of the estate is the Domus Caia Sangiovese Superiore Riserva, as well as a sweet white from the Malvasia grape, obtained from grapes left to freeze on the vine until well into the winter.

Stefano Ferrucci Viticultore, Domus Caia 2006 Sangiovese Superiore Riserva 16.5 Drink 2010-15
100% Sangiovese from a vineyard planted in the 1960s and 1970s. The grapes are hand harvested and dried for 30 days, without using temperature or humidity control. Fermented in cement tank with temperature control, and with malolactic fermentation triggered at the same time (Ilaria Ferrucci tells me that the low ambient temperature in their cement tanks tends to delay malolactic fermentation, making the wine vulnerable, which is why they inoculate the wine with malolactic bacteria immediately after the fermentation has started, so that the warmth produced by the alcoholic fermentation helps initiate it, and it therefore ends practically at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation). The wine is aged aged for 12 months in tonneaux of which one third are new.
Plummy, and dried cherry and hints of dried fruit, but with depth. Note of cacao, ever so slightly. Hint of apple from the appassimento. Lively palate with very attractive, chocolatey, coating tannin. Vegetal touch of apple pie, seems ever so slightly oxidised, but very appealing, and with very good length. 14.5% (WS)

PODERI MORINI, Faenza (Oriolo subzone)
One of the last to join the Convito, the estate started bottling in 1998, and the first wine to be produced was Nono Ricco Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore, named after the current owner's grandfather. The vineyards are planted on limestone clay, and, except for Sangiovese, play host to some pretty rare varieties, of which the red Centesimino (a variety indigenous to Faenza, and locally known as Savignon Rosso, but with no connection to Sauvignon whatsoever) has barely been saved from extinction.

Poderi Morini, Nonno Rico 2007 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 17 Drink 2011-15
The first vintage of this wine was produced in1998. 13 months in tonneaux, and not yet on the market as the wine undergoes a further 12 months of bottle age.
Very dark ruby, but suprisingly young and elegant on the nose, almost like Teroldego. Rich, sweet maraschino cherry followed by an austere but long aromatic palate with fine tannin. Lifting acidity, slightly stalky finish. Very good but one doesn't immediately associate the wine with Sangiovese. 14.5% (WS)

SAN PATRIGNANO, Coriano, Rimini (no subzones in the Rimini area)
San Patrignano, one of the founding members of the Convito, is a community which helps severely addicted people by offering them accommodation, work and therapy. The latter two are intertwined in that San Patrignano finances itself by its agricultural activities, including the production of wine, carried out by the community members. Sometimes the charitable nature of an enterprise eclipses the quality of products on offer, but that is certainly not the case with this estate. Consultant for years has been Riccardo Cottarello. There are about 100 ha of vines planted and, unusually for such a large area, all the vineyards lie within the San Patrignano estate, and are only 5 km from the Adriatic coast. Although the estate has embraced international varieties, the most important wine of San Patrignano is Avi, a Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva.

San Patrignano, Avi 2006 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 15.5 Drink 2010-14
The grapes were hand harvested followed by a triage on arrival in the cellar. At the beginning of the fermentation there is lots of pumping over to extract the tannin, while alcohol levels are still low (higher alcohol levels speed up extraction, but also tend to leach out all the bitter tannins). The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation as well as ageing in barrique, Tonneaux, and large 20-hl oak casks.The goal is to reduce more and more the amount of oak. The wine remains in oak for almost three years.
100% Sangiovese. Medium concentrated ruby. Surprising nose of saddle and plum notes, blackcurrant, I almost thought it was Bordeaux. Initially peppery too, and leather (brett?). Could do with a bit more concentration on the mid palate, but undeniably Sangiovese. Completely dry palate, with slightly bitter tannin. There is complexity, but looks like this needs more work, or earlier release onto the market. 13.5% (WS)

SAN VALENTINO, Rimini (no subzones in the Rimini area)
This Convito member can look back on only a very recent history. Acquired in 1990 by Giovanni Mascarin, it leapt in quality only in 1997, the year his son and daughter Roberto and Maria Cristina took over. The vineyards, 14 ha in total, are very close to the sea in the hilly area around Rimini. Since 2000 the brother and sister team have been assisted by consultant Fabrizio Moltard, who also consults to several other members of the Convito, and who is especially known for his work in the Tuscan Maremma. The estate's most important wine is the Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva Terra di Covignano.

San Valentino, Terra di Convignano 2007 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 16 Drink 2010-15
No maceration on the skins after alcoholic fermentation as the proprietor, Roberto Mascarin, wants to keep as much of the primary fruit flavour as possible: 'you extract something that diminishes the clear fruit flavour', he told me. Vinified in tronconic stainless steel tanks, with regular remontage and délestage. Malolactic fermentation also takes place in stainless steel. Ageing follows in tonneaux of 400 litres and 100% new oak. Subsequent vintages see a difference in vinification: manual destemming, while a part of the fruit is fermented in open tonneaux, with pigeage and with indigenous yeasts. The wines are extremely ambitious and alcoholic.
Herbal, with hints of sweet cherry liqueur. Inviting, hinting at rich cherry fruit, matched by bitter, ripe tannin. Acidic nerve creeps up on the finish. Quite rich and ever so slightly rustic, but carries its alcohol well. 15.5% (WS)

TREMONTI, Bergullo, Imola (Serra subzone for the Imola estate and Oriolo for the estate that they have in Petrignone)
The Navacchia family, owners of Tremonti, bought the estate in the 1960s but only at the beginning of the 1980s did they decide to focus solely on wine. From that moment on they completely changed their approach to the vineyards, with replantings, and much lower yields. Since 1996 Donato Lanati has been the consultant, but in 2004 the family decided to discontinue working with consultants to be completely in charge and 'personalise the wine', as Vitorrio Navacchi puts it. Extensive research into the soil structure of the vineyards (mostly consisting of clay and limestone) under the guidance of Professor Atillio Scienza resulted in a micro mapping of the estate, on the basis of which, clones from the estate's oldest vines will be matched with the most suitable plots. The most important wines of the estate are the Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva Thea and Sangiovese Romagna Superiore Riserva Pertignone. The estate started implementing organic methods, and additionally produces a unsulphured Sangiovese di Romagna, called 'SoNo'.

Tremonti, Petrignone 2007 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 16.5 Drink 2010-15
From a vineyard on sandy clay soil planted in 1968. Stainless steel and 15 days of post-fermentation maceration. Malolactic fermentation is done on the gross lees, and ageing reduced to six months and only in second-year oak.
Distinct herbal nose, roses and crushed raspberries, with a seemingly light palate of fresh cherry flavours (young vines, I thought at first, but the vineyard is quite mature). Quite firm tannins for its constitution, but with lasting cherry fruit flavours on the finish. Youthful and lively and stylistically very different from the other Sangiovese di Romagna wines of the Convito. 14.5% (WS)

FATTORIA ZERBINA, Loc Marzeno, Faenza (Marzeno subzone)
One of the founding members of the Convito, Cristina Geminiani was one of the first to put her full weight behind Sangiovese as a high-quality variety. Backed up by postgraduate courses under Denis Dubourdieu in Bordeaux, she embarked on an ambitious, high-density alberello replanting scheme. Intense scrutiny of soil structure, plant vigour and grape-ripening patterns have resulted in a range of long-lived vintages of Sangiovese di Romagna Pietramora. Her motto '100% Sangiovese only or nothing' runs contrary to the DOC's 'at least 85%' rule and has given the wines originality and a real sense of terroir. (WS)

Fattoria Zerbina, Pietramora 2006 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva 17.5 Drink 2014-20
Very youthful crimson and rim still shows some violet. Beautiful cherry and leafy nose with hint of sweet bread dough, and herbs. Lifted nose with yet more hints of that gingerbread. Very young, still somewhat shy to open up. Needs lots of air to show sweet cherry and dark crushed fruits. Sweet, rich fruit attack, very young, with boisterous, but ripe tannin, but everything falls neatly into place on the finish. Ends warm, but will mellow with age. On the palate the wine seems quite big, but the finish is lingering and elegant. The sweet spicy pâtisserie notes are, according to Cristina, characteristics of the soil, and you can find it in all the wines, even after she changed coopers. Half of this wine has been fermented in open tonneaux. This is the current vintage, as Pietramora is kept for 18-24 months in bottle before it is put onto the market. 15% (WS)