Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Very Warm and Heartfelt Visit to Fuligni Winery

(Jan. 7, 2013) - The sun had just set as we left Casanova di Neri Winery to drive the short 10 minute distance to Fuligni Winery. The sky had turned to a lovely orange and the tall cedar trees were dark silhouettes against the sunset colors.

Unfortunately as we wound our way down the hill, we missed the sharp left turn into Fuligni and had to go to the bottom of the Montalcino hill before we could turn the bus around. Then once we arrived, the bus was too large to enter the narrow driveway without scrapping against the long row of ancient olive trees. So all 29 of us alighted from the bus to walk down the gravel driveway as the first stars began twinkling in the dark sky above.

We couldn’t have had a warmer welcome than we received at Fuligni. We were met by Mr. Fuligni himself, as well as his marketing manager, Michael. We stood outside in the beautiful night next to vineyards as Mr. Fuligni described the 8 hectares of Brunello and 3 of Rosso that he had farmed here since the 1960’s. He described how the old wide spaced vineyard rows of 12 x 4 feet had been replaced with tighter spacing and new clones, but that half of the vineyard was still planted to the old Brunello Santi clones.

Visiting the Old Cellars of Fuligni

Next we walked through the vineyards to the cellar, which was situated about ¼ of a mile downhill. It was a beautiful experience to walk through the cold clear night with millions of stars shining overhead and know we were in such a special Montalcino vineyard. When we arrived at the old stone building, we were all inspired to see that they had raised the American flag to welcome us.

Fuligni believes in producing Brunello in a traditional fashion, and they limit their production to around 40,000 bottles. They still use old Slovenian casks for much of their aging, but have recently added some larger French oak casks as well. They export 85% of their wine, with the US being the largest customer at 35%.

Tasting Fuligni Wines With a Warm Fire, Bread, Salami, and Olive Oil

After the cellar tour, Mr Fuligni invited us into his warm house with a fire crackling in the fireplace in the living room and a large boar’s head on the wall. He served us bread, olive oil, and salami with the wines, and regaled us with stories of the old days. Everyone said this was one of the warmest and friendliest visits we had on our trip.

We tasted the 2010 Fuligni Rosso Di Montalcino, which appears to be an excellent vintage. It was beautiful with ripe fruit, approachable tannins, and a long finish. Michael told us we should be able to find this wine at the Wine Warehouse in California.

Next we tasted both the 2008 and 2007 Fuligni Brunellos. There was a large difference in vintage variation with the 2008 much lighter and more elegant with black cheery and smoke flavors. I preferred the larger and more concentrated 2007 with its larger tannins and dense dark fruit and earthy notes. To me, it was more of a classic Brunello.

It was difficult to leave Fuligni with all of the warmth, the crackling fire, the wine, food and good company, but we were already way behind schedule and still had to drive to Siena and check into our hotel for the evening. So eventually we said good-bye and walked back to the bus under the twinkling stars.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Visiting Casanova di Neri Winery – Home of Award Winning Brunellos

Jan. 7, 2013 - Our appointment at Casanova di Neri Winery wasn’t until 3:30, so we enjoyed a leisurely lunch in Montalcino without being rushed. However, we ended up being late for our appointment because as the bus was heading down the hill towards the winery, we encountered a funeral procession with a priest and a cop leading it. The cop refused to let us pass, so we had to follow the procession for 20 minutes until they finally turned in the opposite direction.

Viticulture Practices at Casanova di Neri

Pier Luigi met us at the winery door and immediately led us across the street into one of their vineyards. He explained that this sangiovese vineyard was primarily clay based with 8 x 3 feet spacing, VPS cordon and around 7000 vines per hectare. However, their famous Cerretalto vineyard, planted in 1961 was on wider spacing with around 5000 vines per hectare and more gravely soil.

They are using sustainable winegrowing practices with no irrigation. He explained that recently they were “doing less” in the vineyard in terms of suckering, deleafing and green harvest as part of a new philosophy and in response to global warming. He mentioned that there is a big difference in day/night temperatures in Montalcino, with much cooler nights, which helps maintain grape quality.

While we were there, a large tractor was plowing a hillside close to the winery in order to plant more wheat. Pier Luigi explained that in Tuscany they believe in agriculture diversity, and that most wineries have 4 types of crops: vineyards, olive oil, wheat, and forest. He gestured to the surrounding countryside, and it was then that I realized that this practice was what created the beautiful checkerboard landscape of Tuscany with the tall cypress trees to delineate the fields and surround houses.

Winemaking Practices at Casanova di Neri

The Casanova di Neri Winery is a state-of-the-art gravity flow building buried in a hillside so you don’t even see it when you arrive at the small farmhouse that serves as winery visitor center. They produce around 18,000 cases per year. The process starts with sorting tables and destemmer on top, then grapes are gently transported to stainless steel tanks on the next level where they undergo fermentation for 24 days with average temperature of 25 to 29 C and punch down 2 to 6 times, depending on the vintage. Brix is usually 24 to 26 at harvest resulting in a 14.5% alcohol.

After fermentation only the free run juice is using for Brunello with the pressed juice going into other wines. They age in 10 to 30% new French and Slavonian oak, racking 2 to 3 times in first year but not in the second year. They try not to filter, but may fine. Total SO2 is 70. The blend is assembled and married in tank for 10-14 days before bottling. Pier Luigi said they export 50% of their wine, with the as USA their number one export market at 15% of production.

Tasting the 2007 Brunello

Back in the tasting room, Pier Luigi opened two bottles of the 2007 Brunello Casanova di Neri for us to taste. He said all of the grapes came from the vineyard across the street that we had visited. Both 2006 and 2007 were excellent vintages in Montalcino with the 2007 being bigger and fruiter, whereas the 2006 is known for more elegance.

The wine we tasted had a magnificent nose with dried cherry, spice, and dark berry notes. The tannins were huge, but it was still well-balanced with strong fruit, good acidity and well integrated oak. Excellent intensity and concentration of flavors with longing aging potential.

Pier Luigi suggested that this wine would be best in 2017, because ideally Brunello should be aged 10 years before drinking. Before we left, most of us purchased a bottle of two of Brunello, before heading to our second winery of the day.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Visiting Montalcino – Hilltop City and Bastion of Brunello

Jan. 7, 2013 – As we left Florence to drive the 1.5 hours to Montalcino, the fog was just lifting from the city, and as we crested the hilltop with the bronze statue of David, we could look back and see all of the red-tiled roofs and domes of Florence gleaming in the sunlight. However the blue sky was short-lived as we headed south into Chianti Classico and the fog shrouded the bus again. It was only as we climbed the last twisting turns of the road into the small hilltop town of Montalcino that we burst out of the fog and into the clear sun that was bathing the village.

As we climbed down from the bus we could look down into the valleys and see a lake of white fog, and it felt like Montalcino was a floating island. We entered the Consorzio di Montalcino and were ushered into a conference room where we received an excellent presentation from Stefano regarding the wines of Montalcino.

Montalcino Wine Regulations

The Montalcino wine region is 600 meters above sea level and 240 square kilometers, with around 260 wineries producing around 9 million bottles of Brunello per year. The term “brunello” is their local word for sangiovese.

Regulations require that they use 100% sangiovese in their Brunellos and Rosso di Montalcinos, and that all the grapes must come from the Montalcino region. They use a specific clone of sangiovese called “grosso,” which has thicker skin and produces more tannic, highly structured wines. It is for this reason that their aging requirements are 4 years for regular Brunello and 5 years for riserva. Of this, at least 2 years must be in wood and a minimum of 4 months in bottle.

Wines can be released to the market on Jan. 1st four/five years after the harvest. As we arrived in Montalcino on Jan. 7, 2013, they had just released the 2008 regular Brunello and 2007 Riserva. Rosso di Montalcino’s, affectionaltely known as “Baby Brunellos” only need to age 1 year, and usually see 4 to 6 months in wood.

In addition to Brunello and Rosso, Montalcino also produces Moscadello, sweet dessert wines from the Moscato grape, as well as Sant’ Antimo and IGT Tuscany wines. Altogether they have 3500 hectares of vineyards with an average production rate of 8 tons per hectare.

Viticulture and Winemaking Practices in Montalcino for Brunello & Rosso

In terms of viticulture, Stefano explained that most of the sangiovese vines are on VSP trellis with spur-pruned cordon. All harvest is done by hand, and most grapes go through a sorting process. Brunello fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks for 15 to 25 days, whereas Rossos are 10-12 days. Temperatures usually range from 30 to 32 C and they conduct pump-overs 2 – 3 times per day. Aging takes place in small barrels as well as large casks, with 300 to 500 liters most common.

One hundred percent of the producers are members of the Consorzio which provides annual marketing tours to the US, Canada, Russia and Brazil. The Consorzio also acts as a public and trade relations agency, and while we were there professional tasters from Wine Enthusiastic magazine and Jancis Robinson were evaluating the newly released vintage.

Lunch at Taverna Grappolo Blu

After the presentation, we wandered through the charming village of Montalcino and found a restaurant called Taverna Grappolo Blu. The owner waited upon us and assisted in our food and wine selection. Their wine list is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with an amazing list of Brunellos.

We started with a local white from Banfi, which I had with an arugula salad with dates stuffed with goat cheese and then wrapped in pig ear bacon. For the main course, we ordered a half bottle of the 2007 Brunello Col D'orcia to pair with Rabbit in Brunello Sauce. Though the rabbit had a lot of bones, the savory sauce went beautifully with the Brunello.

After lunch we climbed up to the castle and took pictures of the breath-taking view. The fog had cleared from the valleys, so we could see the hills, vineyards, houses and tall green cypress trees that separated estates. I also stopped in a local wine shop and purchased a couple bottles of wine.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Free Sunday in Lucca – City of Red Tiled Roofs

Jan. 6, 2013 – Since the 6th of January is an important religious holiday in Italy, we did not schedule any winey visits, and instead provided a free day. Many members of our group took the train the Venice, but Janeen and I decided to go to Lucca. We had both been to Venice before several times, but the city of Lucca was still unknown to us.

I awoke rather hungry, as we didn’t eat any dinner the night before. We had decided to eat large lunches, and just have cheese and wine for dinner for the remainder of the trip. This plan worked well as we often returned to the hotel rather late. So after breakfast at the hotel, we started out around 9:30.

Train from Florence to Lucca

The morning in Florence was very foggy, and though the weather forecast said it would be sunny, the fog hovered over both cities most of the day. We walked the 20 minutes to the train station and took the local train to Lucca. It was 7 euros each way and took about 1 hour and 20 minutes with frequent stops. The train was comfortable and it was interesting watching the Italian countryside flow by outside the window.

Wandering Around Lucca

We arrived in Lucca around 11:30 and were delighted to discover we could walk right into the ancient walled city -- just a few minutes from the train station. We began by walking around the top of the ancient wall until we saw the tourist office. Even though it was a holiday, the tourist office was open all day, and we were very impressed with the excellent service, advice, maps and brochures we found there.

Armed with these reinforcements we set off to explore the city and I fell in love with Lucca. It has small narrow streets filled with charming shops, delectable restaurants, beautiful churches and museums and nice squares. When we entered the first plaza we were greeted by a musician playing Italian music on an accordion – how appropriate. The other aspect of Lucca that I appreciated were the beautifully painted stucco buildings in shades of yellow, gold, and cream with red tiled roofs. Shutters were in dark green, blue, white and black. Also the city was very clean – not covered with graffiti and garbage as you often see in Florence.

Lunch at L'oste di Lucca

We wandered around a bit, until we found a restaurant called L’oste di Lucca. There we ordered a bottle of the local red wine, and I had a wild boar dish with red wine sauce and a side of spinach. Janeen said she had the best homemade pasta of the trip at this restaurant – a perciatelli with cheese and vegetables. Afterwards we went shopping, and visited most of the major sites and the Duomo. When we reached the famous medieval tower with the trees on top, we decided to pay the 4-euro admission price and climb the steps to the top. It was well worth it, because then we were able to witness the amazing panorama of the red tiled roofs of Lucca. Later we stumbled across a farmer's market and bought local olive oil, cheese, and prosciutto.

We caught the 4:30 train back to Florence, and my friend Vincenzo, a professor at the University of Florence, picked us up at the station. He took us to his house where he introduced us to his wife and children, and we enjoyed a pleasant hour catching up over wine and cheese. Later I spent time doing emails, while the rest of the group engaged in a floor party that ended up getting shut down around 2am due to complaints from other guests in the hotel regarding the loud singing.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Badia a Coltibuono – An Organic Winery in an 11th Century Abbey

(Jan. 5, 2013) - Before arriving at our 2:30pm appointment at Badia a Coltibuono, we stopped in the small town of Radda where Janeen had made a reservation to eat lunch at La Botte di Bacco Restaurant. This turned out to be one of the best meals of my trip.

Lunch at La Botte di Bacco in Radda

We started with a glass of local vermintino and a fresh salad mista. They served this with a big basket of mixed breads, including a very delectable mini-fried bread, which were addictive and hard to stop eating. In general, I usually do not care for Italian bread because it is often hard and has no salt, but La Botte breaks the mold with their bread. The main course was pork loin served on a bed of spinach with a honey and balsamic vinegar sauce. This was so large I could not finish it, but enjoyed the pairing of a nice glass of Chianti Classico sangiovese.

Vineyards of Coltibuono – Organic and Progressive

After lunch we drove through the winding hills of Tuscany and many people on the bus became car sick due to the switchback turns on the way to Badia a Coltibuono Winery. However, once there, we were met by the very eloquent general manager, Robert, and he walked us into a nearby sangiovese vineyard.

The clouds cleared and the sun came out, shining with bright clarity on the dormant winter vines and very green grass. Robert informed us that the vineyard was organic and described with much passion their farming processes. They have 60 hectares of which 90% is sangiovese. Replanted in 1988, the density is 5500 vines per hectare with 7 x ¾ feet spacing. Trellising is VSP with cane pruning. The soil is a mix of clay and rock. Production is 3 tons per acre. Rootstock includes 420a and 1103 with a masale selection of clones.

Interestingly, Robert said they have stopped doing green harvest (dropping of fruit clusters) and instead do an early harvest and then a regular harvest again later. In this way, they pick younger clusters to ferment separately to provide higher acidity and freshness for the blend. The second harvest is the riper, more mature clusters with bigger tannins, but less acid. Later in the trip, we found this same practice being used at other estates, and many said it was in response to global warming.

We learned much from Robert about sangiovese, which he says “is an amplifier that over-responds to changes in the environment,… and is over-emotional.” During the course of the trip, we came to recognize that sangiovese in Tuscany is treated more like pinot noir in Burgundy. It is a more delicate grape that requires a cooler climate, and needs gentle handling in the cellar with less extraction, lower temperature fermentation, and less racking than cabernet sauvignon or merlot.

The Benefits of Organic Farming

Robert also strongly advocated the benefits of organic farming, though Coltibuono was the only one of the eight estates we visited that was using organic methods. They were certified organic in 2005, but Robert said it took about 20 years to see clear benefits. He reported that now organic farming provided “higher quality and lower costs” for Coltibuono. Because the immune system is now built into the soil, the vines continue to flourish even in hot summers with little rain, and are more disease resistant.

Interestingly, while we were standing in the vineyard we could hear gunshots in the nearby hills. I asked Robert the source, and he said it was people hunting wild boar. He then gestured to the fence around the vineyard, and told us it was electric to keep the boar out of the vines.

Winemaking at Coltibuono

The winery of Coltibuono, which is located about 20 minutes from the Abbey which houses the tasting room and a bed & breakfast, is very impressive. Built in 1996, it is designed to be a gravity flow winery. We started at the top where the grapes are sorted manually on sorting tables before de-stemming. Robert said they have a specially designed de-stemming machine, which is very gentle, because sangiovese stems are very brittle and can add too much astringency and tannin to the wine. He said the machine has made a big difference in reducing these negative influences. After destemming the grapes are very lightly broken in preparation for fermentation.

Indigenous yeast is generally used with the sangiovese, with a madre batch created in the vineyard reserved as back up if needed for a stuck fermentation. Stainless steel is used with a 30 C temperature and lasting 7 to 9 days, with two gentle punch downs per day using gentle mechanical pressure. Vineyard blocks and different types of grapes are fermented separately.

The resulting wine is 12.5 to 14% alcohol, depending on the vintage. The wine is pressed off the skins using two bladder presses, and then goes back into stainless steel tank for ML. (We discovered that the majority of Tuscan wineries we visited completed ML in tank, rather than barrel.) Very little SO2 is used, as the new European requirements for organic wine were implemented at the end of 2012 and limit it to 100 ppm for red wine, verses non-organic wine that is 150 ppm.

Aging takes place in both barrel and large cask depending on the level of wine (see wine tasting notes below). Production is around 30,000 cases annually, but they also produce a second negotiant label from purchased wine that increases total production to around 50,000 cases.

Tasting of Coltibuono Wines at the Abbey

After touring the winery, we boarded the bus and drove about 20 minutes to the 11th century Abbey of Coltibuono. It is a beautiful old stucco building, and as we arrived the sun was setting and the stars came out to fill up the night sky. Robert gave us a tour of the beautiful building showing us the ancient frescos of the monks on the walls and a statue of the founding monk who was a leader in local agriculture.

As we entered a lovely room set with four round tables for the tasting, the winery dog – a large white sheep dog – followed us and wandered throughout the tables during the tasting, delighting all.

We tasted 3 wines of the estate, beginning with the 2009 Chianti Classico, which was lighter in style with fresh fruity sangiovese and canaiolo, aged 12 months in oak casks. We then moved onto the 2008 Badia Coltibueno Chianti Classico Riserva, which was my favorite. It was very traditional in style with strong sour cherry and leather notes, and a high cleansing acidity. It was also a blend of sangiovese and canaiolo, but with 24 months in oak casks. We ended with a 2008 Sangioveto di Toscana, that was 100% sangiovese, and which Robert called a “Super Tuscan.” The aromatics on this wine were stunning with lifted violet, cherry, and spices, and many declared it their favorite. It was aged 12 months in newer French oak barrels.

All in all, I found the wines of Coltibuono to be beautifully crafted in a traditional style with clear terroir notes that reflected the land and environment.

That evening we returned to the hotel in Florence where we had another professor briefing and tasted some Rossi di Montalcino in preparation for the next day’s tour. That evening, I was not hungry so I went to bed early, while many of the others went out for a night on the town again.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Visiting Castello de Verrazzano in Chianti Classico Italy

Jan. 5, 2013 – The next day, we boarded the bus at 8:45 to drive to Chianti Classico and our scheduled visit with two wineries. On the bus, I provided a brief overview of the DOCG regulations for this region, including the mandatory 80% sangiovese rule with the remainder 20% up to the winery where they can use other grapes such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and the traditional caniolo and colorino. As of 2006, white grapes are no longer allowed in Chianti Classico red wine. We also reviewed the production method of the famous dessert wine of the region, Vin Santo, which means “holy wine” and is made from dried grapes.

The day was still cool and cloudy when we arrived at the Castello de Verrazzano for our 10am appointment. Despite the cloud cover, the view from the castle walls was still amazing, with a panorama of the Tuscan countryside complete with undulating hills, olive trees, vineyards, wheat fields, and tall green cypress trees. It looked like a picture postcard or something from a movie set.

We were pleased to be greeted by the owner, Luigi, who provided a 2-hour private tour and tasting that was excellent. Since the winery was closed for the holiday season (Christmas break last through Jan. 6 in Italy), we were very honored that he opened it especially for our delegation. Luigi described the history of the castle, which dates back to 1150, and the interesting background of Verrazzano who explored and mapped much of the Eastern coast of the US. The Verrazzano Bridge in NY City is named after him.

Viticulture and Production

The estate is a total of 250 hectares, with 45 devoted to vineyards. They produce 300,000 bottles, or 25,000 cases annually. The vineyards are sustainably farmed, and Luigi’s goal is to produce wines that have elegance and spice and reflect “the place”. The predominate grape is sangiovese, but they also grow caniolo, merlot, malvasia and trebbianno.

Trellising is primarily VSP with single cordon and spur pruning for the sangiovese. Soil is calcareous. Grapes are handpicked with gentle pressing. We did not receive much detail on production here, but Luigi did mention that fermentation temperatures are rather high. This was different from most other estates that reported they used more moderate temperatures for sangiovese, around 26 to 30 C. The castello ages primarily in large casks with only a small amount of new oak. We enjoyed touring the ancient cellars and seeing the huge wooden casks.

During the tour, Luigi described their Vin Santo production, which includes hanging malvasia and trebbiano grapes vertically to dry, and aging the wine a minimum of 3 years with no topping. Interestingly he was using 225 liter used oak barrels, rather than the smaller chestnut barrels.

Wine Tasting and Marketing

As we were running short on time, our tasting was limited to two wines. The first was the entry-level light and fruity Chianti, which Luigi called a minituscan, or 2010 Verrazzano Rosso with 45% sangiovese, 55% merlot and canaiolo, and 10 months aging in older oak. The second was the 2008 Castello de Verrazano Riserva Chianti Classico Sassello. This wine was my favorite, with sour cherry and earthy notes on palate, high acidity, and big tannins.

Castello de Verrazano has won numerous awards for wine tourism, and is a frequent stop of tourist buses. Because of this, they sell more wine direct than any other winery we visited – at a rate of 40%. The remainder is used for export and for sale to wine shops and restaurants within Italy. Overall, this was a delightful tour, and everyone was very impressed with the charm and knowledge of Luigi. Before we left, most everyone purchased wine or olive oil from the estate.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Arriving in Tuscany and Walking Tour of Florence Italy

Jan. 3, 2013 – Our group of 28 California wine professionals left San Francisco at 7:30pm on Swiss Air Flight to Florence with a 2 hour stop-over in Zurich. Though a long flight with over 12 hours of flight time, Swiss Air was quite generous in giving us two meals and plenty of Prosecco as well as a house white and red wine. Everyone was quite excited to be going on a 10 day wine tour of Tuscany.

We were met at the Florence Airport by our EF College Tour Guide, Linda, who efficiently loaded us on a bus and whisked us away to the 3-star Hotel Meridiana near downtown Florence. We stayed here 4 nights and found this hotel to have very friendly service, clean basic rooms, but no shelves or dressers for clothes. Breakfast was included and was comprised of the standard croissants, cheese, salami, bread, cereal, yogurt and chocolate.

Welcome Dinner at the Palazzo Borghese

After a 30-minute refresh break, we boarded the bus again and drove a short distance to the Palazzo Borghese, a renaissance palace complete with elaborate chandeliers and gold rococo design. EF had booked a private room for our welcome dinner, which turned out to be one of the best group meals of the trip. The first course was wonderful gnocchi pasta with pesto sauce. This was followed by a Tuscan beef, potato and vegetable stew, and we concluded the meal with tiramisu. They also provided a basic red Chianti and coffee with dessert.

Walking Tour of Florence

The next morning Linda led us on a tour of Florence. We walked the 20 minutes from the hotel to the Duomo where a local tour guide took us through the amazing church and walked us by all of the important buildings in the city, describing the history and colorful characters of this city of art. One of my favorite places, which I had not visited on my previous 2 times in the city, was Dante’s chapel – a small church commorating him and Beatrice. The tour ended with a private demonstration in a leather factory, and then we were free until 6:30 to wander around the city.

Janeen and I had a nice lunch at the Golden View Restaurant on the River Arno where we had a window seat of the famous bridge. We both ordered pizza, and though not actually a food of Tuscany, the thin crust and fresh vegetables were wonderful with a glass of house wine. Afterwards we paid the admission to tour the Palazzo Vecchio, as we had both already visited the Academie and Uffizi museums. Aftewards we went shopping, and then prepared for our first Professor Briefing at the hotel at 6:30.

That evening we had another group dinner, but this one was more informal. It was held at the La Rotunda Taverna where we were treated to a 3-course meal of homemade cheese ravioli, Tuscan beefsteak with arugula, and a chocolate torte for dessert. We had to purchase our own wine for this meal, and even though our table of 10 people ordered 6 bottles, the cost was only 6 euros per person. I definitely enjoy the prices of wine in Italy. After dinner, Janeen and I went to bed early, but many of the others stayed out until 1 or 2 in the morning – a tradition that became quite common throughout our 10-day trip.