Monday, June 30, 2008

Can Brunello di Montalcino Weather the Storm of Scandal?

It’s reads like the perfect setting for a modern day spy novel. The Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s Financial Police, in dramatic fashion, seize thousands of cases of Brunello and hand down indictments against a handful of Tuscany’s most respected wine aristocracy. The booming prestigious wine industry of this small northern Italian hamlet is turned on its ears as the wine world watches in anticipation. Who or what could be behind such a diabolical plot? Could it be terrorist organizations, communist splinter groups, a corrupt government, or perhaps even the Illuminati? And what is their purpose? Perhaps to set off a chain reaction that could send Italy’s and Europe’s economy into a tail spin bringing about a world wide depression. But this is no Tom Clancy novel, this is the sad state of reality for Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino producers. Okay, my imagination maybe running away a bit here ,but the truth is this scandal is not good news for anyone who loves Italian wines.

The trouble began in November of 2007 when Italian authorities began investigating claims that some of the producers of Brunello were violating DOCG (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita) rules by not using 100% Sangiovese grapes in their wine. The origin of the investigation is not totally clear, but it is reported that complaints had been filed by unnamed individuals who claimed to have witnessed certain producers importing grapes from Southern Italy to blend with their indigenous sangiovese grapes. In any case as soon as an official investigation was launched Siena Magistrate Nino Calabrese ordered the seizure of over 1 million bottles of the 2003 vintage from 4 of the regions biggest producers. These producers were:

1. Castelgiocando (Marchesi di Fescobaldi),
2. Castello Banfi,
3. Pian delle Vigne (Antinori)
4. Argiano

The seizure was followed up by the handing down of 14 indictments in March of 2008, which included six grape suppliers from Puglia (Southern) Italy. So what do the accused say about these charges? The big four are united in issuing complete denials of the allegations. Lars Leicht of Castello Banfi cries “politics” citing to the timing of these indictments which corresponded with the annual “Verona Vinitaly”, the country’ s most famous and noteworthy wine fair. Lamberto Frescobaldi, owner of Catelgiocando has vowed to fight the charges in court to clear his name. An enologist hired by Antinori points the finger at overzealous prosecution and stated that the charges are the result of uniformed people finding 5 acres of Merlot in his company’s vineyard. It is common for producers to grow non-sangiovese grapes for use in creating Rosso Tascano (IGT) a blended wine from Tuscany.

So what happens next? Well, as the matter makes its way slowly through the Italian judicial system, one things is for certain, very little Brunello from the 2003 vintage is getting to the consumer. Both Argiano and Pian delle Vigne have both stated that they cannot afford to wait the scandal out and will have no alternative but to declassify their Brunello to IGT (Indicazione Geograpica Tipica) status. IGT regulations allow up to 15% of the grapes in a wine to be from outside the appellation. Argiano has announced that 6,600 cases of its 2003 Brunello, 2/3 of its production, will be labeled Il Duemilatie de Argiano and sold as IGT.

The first thought that came to my mind was that this declassification could be a good thing for Americans like yours truly who love Brunello; at least from a cost perspective. I’m just speculating, but it's my guess that these declassified wines will sell for much less than the traditional Brunellos. But, just when you thought there might be the slightest bit of silver lining to this cloud, it was just announced that the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has demanded a list of Brunello producers being investigated from the Italian government. They are threatening to halt all imports from these producers unless the importer submits a full and accurate statement of contents verified by laboratory analysis that wine is 100% sangiovese. A move, which in my opinion, is certainly excessive and over the top considering there has been no final adjudication of guilt. When you consider that the United States currently imports 6.5 million bottles, 25% of the total Brunello production each year, such an action by the US could deal a major blow to this small wine region.

Finally, one can’t help but wonder, what the overall impact this scandal will have to the region and to Italian wines as a whole. Will the revenue losses drive some wineries out of business? Doubtful, but you never can tell. There is one thing that is for certain however. There will be a great need for quick damage control in regard to the reputations of the Brunello and Tuscany appellations. It would be a real shame to see such fine and classic wine lose the ground it has gained in recent years against it’s overpriced French neighbors to the north. No matter what the outcome, I can clearly state that, as a true Italian wine lover, there will always be a place for Brunello on my table.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wines tasted during week in Chicago Area

I had another opportunity to entertain my increasing interest in tasting new wines while travelling for work to Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Despite having training during the day and catching up on work at night, I did find a few brief periods during each day to do a couple of relaxing things--jog and dine with new wines to try.

As I did in my post highlighting wines I tried in Colorado Springs, I'd like to list the wines I tried in order of worst to first in preference (prices listed are per bottle)

1. 2007 Mirassou Pinot Noir-Central Coast, California ($7.99)--this effort had an extremely fruity odor, heavy body and very dark. It had the weight of prune juice, leaving a coating of what tasted like cranberry sauce and sweet red grapes in my mouth. The alcohol was not that bad, but the overly sweet, gritty, shellaq-like layer of film felt in my mouth left my palate (and me) scratching my head--a major pass. Rating: 1.5 (yeah, it was that bad).

2. 2007 Chateau St. Michelle Reisling, Columbia Valley, Washington ($8.79)--this wine was very stingy with it's odor, giving me only a slight hint of lemon soap. Though it had the traditional lighter coloring of reislings I've had in the past, it came across as unusually heavy. It was pretty high in alcohol, almost hot to the taste. It had long length, and after some light puckering I felt in my mouth in the end coupled with the high acidity, it suddenly resembled drinking a Corona right when the lime piece gets caught in the neck of the bottle. That said, I was expecting to taste wine and got beer. I've had better reislings. Rating: 2.5

3. 2005 Big Sky Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington ($17.95)--this light bodied wine had a terrific reddish brown, almost rusty color to it. However, the only odor emanating from it was rubbing alcohol--plain and simple. Suprisingly, the taste in the beginning was a very nice mix of berries and green vegetables (like lettuce or cucumbers). BUT, the fire began about 5 seconds into the experience, when it became extremely hot on the backend, almost resembling my experiences with doing shots. I couldn't even settle it down with some steak I had ordered. Maybe if this Merlot sits in prison for a few years and calms down, or possibly something as simple as decanting could help this wine out, but since we evaluate on actual taste, not potential taste, it pays the price in this review. Rating: 2.5

4. 2005 Castello Banfi Centine Toscana (Cabernet Sauvignon/Sangiovese) ($11.98)--this was the only Italian wine sampled during the week. It had all the classic characteristics of an old-world Italian vino (despite its 'Super Tuscan' status). The nose was fresh fruit salad with a hint of vinegar. It's medium body and coloring reminded me of the numerous Sangiovese and Barberas I've had in the past few years. Hoping to taste something resembling my elusive 'Nobbio', I did catch much of the same low tannin and low fruit properties I've come to enjoy with Italian wines that have had some chance to mature, but this one nuked it when it blindsided me with a suprisingly hot finish. Though the hot ending impacted the score, somewhat, I can say I would probably try this again, perhaps after another year or so of aging or decanting. Rating: 3.0

5. 2004 Fire Station Red-Sonoma, California (Shiraz) ($11.98)--this was the first of three difficult rankings I needed to make, as this along with the next two screamed of terrific taste and balance. This particular effort bore a terrific nose, combining sour red grapes with berries of all sorts (raspberries were most predominent). The taste, while heavy bodied (a trait I'm not too big on), had a great balance of cranberries and grape drink, less most of the sugar. It was low on acidity and alcohol. The most intriguing characteristic is the consistency of the flavor for the entire duration during each sip. The length was particularly long, which suprised me. I suspect Anthony might not be too keen on this New World product, but even he might give it some props. I liked it, and would purchase. Rating: 4.0

6. 2005 California's Jewel Viognier, California ($7.98)--I found it laughable that I continue to gravitate to a number of 'very expensive' wines. This pale golden drink smelled of canned fruit cocktail with a slight odor of alcohol. The taste was unreal--it was the juice you find in a can of Pear Halves with the right amount of alcohol and acidity. Having no other taste I could detect, it reminded me of the Kim Crawford 2007 Sauvignon Blanc I had in Colorado for its concentrated taste (the sole flavor of grapefruit for that one). This wine "Brought the Thunder". Rating: 4.0

7. 2004 Trimbach Gewurztraminer, Alsace, France ($19.98)--Wow. Just wow. This treat had a beautiful floral and candied (almost like Life Savers) aroma. The taste resembled a flat, diet lemon/lime soda with hints of pepper. There is acidity, but not enough to offset the nicely balanced effort, and the alcohol is enough to be noticed but just enough to make the drive home from the club fun, not dangerous. I really liked it with Halibut, and am curious if another seafood dish (perhaps my current favorite, Swordfish) would nudge this up or down in points. For now, it settles in comfortably in the number 1 position amongst these other wines. Rating: 4.5.

Ironic how a 'French' wine settles in as the favorite for my week away, with just a few weeks until my Dinner and Wine Tasting on the 19th of July, featuring red and white wines from France. It's no coincidence, really:-)

Until next time!

June 21 visit at the Bloom home--Dinner and Mini-Wine Tasting

Last week (Friday the 20th to be exact), Dawson invited Anthony, Joe, and me over for some dinner and wine (though Joe didn't quite make it). He had quite a spread of cheeses, olives, and meats (plus pizza for dinner). Participating in the tasting portion of the visit were four seemingly unrelated wines:

1. 2007 Graff-Reisling Kabinett from Warms, Germany--price $9.98
2. 2007 LeParadou-Viognier from Provence, France--price $10.98
3. 2006 La Petite Tour-Sauvignon Blanc from California--price $9.98
4. 2007 Cerejeira-Estremadura from Portugal--price $5.98

(these may not have been what we all actually paid; these are just prices I found for them on the internet)

Below are the responses to each of the wines, from worst to best (average score from all three testers, using our traditional 1-5 scale):

1. The La Petite Tour-Sauvignon Blanc--the laggard of the group, not terrible, but not remarkable, either--average score: 2.67.
2. The Le Paradou-Viognier--all three thought the wine was solid--average score: 3.0.
3. The Graff-Reisling Kabinett--Dawson's favorite of the bunch, very tasty to JP as well--average score: 3.5.
4. Cerejeira-Estramadura--the only red wine represented in the tasting, but the best of the bunch--smooth, not overly fruity, nicely balanced--average score: 4.0.

No doubt we'll see many more mini-tastings like this during the rest of this summer!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is the Australian Love Affair Over? BEWARE of the 2008 Vintage!

Over the past five years main stream Americans have developed a sort of love affair with Australia's wines. The reasons behind this sudden infatuation are multifaceted. One need only look toward the reasonable prices and the exceedingly over the top fruity nature of these wines to explain why the "Land Down Under" has gained such sex appeal in the wine arena. This relationship however may be coming to an abrupt end with the 2007 and now 2008 vintages. The 2007 vintage yielded such an extremely small amount that prices were driven up, merely by the principles of supply and demand. Slowly but surely, the cost affordability side of this fragile equation seems to be evaporating.

Now the reports on the 2008 growing season are in and they don't paint a pretty picture. In fact they could represent one of the proverbial final nails in the coffin. The Hunter Valley region was hit with record flooding in early February. The end result was water soaked grapes and rampant rot in the vineyards the ultimately caused 85% of the harvest to be discarded. Such a monumental loss affects both the prices and quality of the wine. In Southern Australia, the wine regions were hit with 15 consecutive days where the mercury hit 95 degree F. or higher. This type of weather produced super ripe sugar filled grapes which will turn the normal fermentation process on its ears. Finally, and probably the most devastating turn of events has been the prolonged and ongoing drought conditions in the South, particularly Langhorne Creek. Growers estimate that they have lost 3/4 of the total Cabernet Sauvignon producing acres.

Bottom line is that the 2008 vintage will be Australian winemakers most challenging to date. In fact, working with such a damaged crop could prove impossible even for Australia’s notorious "science lab" approach to winemaking. The resulting product may be too rich even for America's sweet tooth mentality toward wine. In terms of my personal preferences, I've never been a fan of Australia's "fruit bombs", and given the rough treatment Mother Nature has dished up for our Aussie friends, I doubt very highly that my taste will change in the near future.

***For more information on this topic, there is an article in Wine Spectator, the July 31, 2008 editions in the "Up Front " column.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Signing at Costco in Edison, June 11, 2008

I had a chance today to visit Gary Vaynerchuk at his book signing at the Costco in Edison tonight. Despite the horrible drive during the heart of rush hour, I figured my first time attending a book-signing would be worth it. He was gracious enough to sign two books for me--mine as well as one for Anthony, who was not able to make it (I figured he'd have little problem swapping one of his paperbacks for a personalized, autographed copy).

After talking for a few minutes about his recent travels and plans for the summer, I did also manage to get a family member of his to take a picture of us:

He does plan on another affair at the Wine Library this summer, similar to last time in format, and will be making us aware of it in upcoming episodes of WineLibrary. He also plans to add a calendar of his whereabouts throughout the summer on the website.

A mix-up in the hours posted could mean a longer night than Gary had planned. Originally scheduled from 7pm-9pm, the hours of the signing had been changed to 5pm-7pm (I got my e-mail alert from, but I suppose MANY others did not get that memo, as I did not wait very long on line to chat with him. Amusing was a remark he had made--I was talking with another guy on line to Gary about the likely mix-up, who then added by mentioning to Gary that there could be a post-7pm rush to meet him. Realizing this, he replied, "Oh, shit".