Inside Tuscany’s Poggio ai Chiara

IMG_20180426_142523Poggio ai Chiara is a true “Tuscan insider’s” wine, made in tiny quantities and rarely leaving central Italy. To be honest, I’d never heard of it at all until I met Fabbio last March at his modest-looking home and vineyard not far from Cortona in eastern Tuscany.

Any winery where you start your visit by ducking into a half-buried Etruscan tomb and then navigate past mold-covered casks of all sizes before reaching a newer cellar filled with used French oak in every size imaginable … well, you can tell something interesting is going on. And whatever else you can say about the passionate, intense, dedicated Fabbio Cenni, you certainly have to agree he and his wines are interesting!


Fabbio’s vineyard is in an overlooked slice of eastern Tuscany near Cortona and Lago di Trasimeno. Fabbio planted his vineyard with more than 19 different Sangiovese clones at a crazy high density of 10,000 plants per hectare. He farms organically and makes wine “naturally” – if extremely.

After crushing, the Sangiovese barrels rest in their fermentation vats until native yeasts begin to work. Fermentation is low and slow, with most wines getting a full 30 days on the skins (pretty much unheard of for tannic Sangiovese). Then into a dizzying array of old barrels, some small, some medium-sized and some very large. Over the next 5-6 years, the wine stays in barrel, with Fabio racking it from one cask to another to give the wine air and keep it healthy. After bottling around the 6-year mark, the wine rests for another two years before release.
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While the 2009 was the most impressive of the Poggio ai Chiara vintages I tasted, I loved the 2008 and 2006 as well and was delighted to be able to grab a little of each for you. If you can, come by the store this Sunday from 2-4pm and try a mini-vertical of all three. Importer John Grimsley will be here to present the wines and we’ll have good sized pours, time, and some snacks that will allow you plenty of time to get to know these wonderful wines.

But whether you can come or not, reserve some of the 2009 Poggio ai Chiara right away. It will become one of your favorite Tuscan rarities and a wine you love drinking and sharing over the next decade.

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Sassetti Pertimali Brunello – from Brunello legend Livio Sassetti

Doug and Sassetti

Livio Sassetti and Doug on our Spring 2018 visit to Italy

Livio Sassetti and his son, Lorenzo, make Brunello di Montalcino that tastes like Brunello di Montalcino – not super-Tuscan Chianti or red-berried Napa Cab. It’s a celebration of Sangiovese Grosso, modest in color and redolent of dark cherries, roasted strawberries, juicy wild berries, crushed flowers, fresh leather, and a kaleidoscope of sweet spices. There’s amplitude to spare (even at just 13.8% alcohol) balanced by juicy acid and firm tannin – perfect for pairing with steak tonight and cellaring for 20 years.

Sassetti Pertimali Vineyard

The Pertimali Vineyard on the famed Montosoli Hill in Montalcino

In short, it’s pretty much exactly the kind of wine Livio Sassetti has been making in Montalcino since he took over the family farm in the 1950s. In 1967, Livio and 10 other growers came together to create the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino, creating the first legal “Brunello di Montalcino” labels. And, in the late 1970s, he sold the family farm and purchased a 35 acre farm – Podere Pertimali – on the southern part of Montalcino’s great Montosoli Hill.

Montosoli is arguably the finest place to grow Sangiovese in the world, and Livio’s southeast facing marl, clay and sandy soils at 900 feet elevation are among the very finest slices of the hill. Since he arrived, very little has changed. The vineyards have always been farmed organically, the vines tended and harvested by hand, and fruit picked at the apex of ripeness – but while fantastic Sangiovese freshness and structure remained locked in.

Sassetti tonneauThe wines were made inside the tiny stone farmhouse already on the property when Livio arrived, a warren of corridors and small rooms now bursting with cement and steel tanks and giant casks. While Brunello’s rules have changed to allow shorter times in cask and small barrels have become popular, Livio’s Brunello still rests a full 36 months in large Slavonian oak tonneau.

For the past decade or so, Livio’s son, Lorenzo, has been the primary winemaker (and Lorenzo is moving production to a more modern facility a few miles away for the 2018 harvest), but Livio remains a constant presence in the vineyards, winery, and client visits. And, like his wines, even in his 80s, Livio remains a charming force that demands attention and embrace at table.

Whether or not you find the history compelling, I know you’ll love the wine. And at a time when Livio’s contemporaries and neighbors on Montosoli regularly charge $75-$100 plus for their single-vineyard wines, both the $64.98 bottle and $54.98/ea case price are compelling indeed.

sassetti brunello and glass

A Tale of Two Trade Wars: A Wine History in Cahors, France

The story of Cahors in the Southwest of France is a humdinger! If you’re interested in a bit of wine history – and how old stories can resonate with very current events – read on!

ch la caminade grapes

The Romans loved the dark black-fruited reds from Cahors.Enter a caption

Trade War – Roman Style
The Romans launched winemaking in Cahors in late Republic times, and by 70BCE or so, these dark, powerful black-fruited reds became fashionable in Rome itself. This upset growers on the Italian peninsula to no end, leading to complaints of unfair competition to the Emperor. In 92AD, Emperor Domitian responded in typical Roman fashion. No half-measures here: He simply ordered that all the vines of Cahors be uprooted and burned!

It wasn’t until year 276 that Emperor Probus – famed for his interest in agriculture and winegrowing – revoked the ban and encouraged replanting in Cahors. The Cahors wine business remained rocky during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but began improving in 630 when Saint Didier, Bishop of Cahors, took the lead in revitalizing winegrowing.

Cahors’ big break came in 1152 with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri Plantagenet, the future king of England. The wine known as “the black wine of Lot” was served at their wedding, and soon Cahors’ dark, strong wines became fashionable and highly desired in England. In the peak year of 1310, Cahors send 850,000 hectoliters of wine (about 9.5 million modern cases) to England through the port of Bordeaux, about half of all wine shipped there.

Cahors_Bridge

The Valentré Bridge of Cahors was completed in 1378, even as a trade war with Bordeaux continued.

And a Trade War with the Bordelaise
Which, of course, upset the merchants and growers of Bordeaux to no end! Because Cahors is warmer, sunnier, and less rainy than Bordeaux, the Bordelaise cried, “Unfair Competition!” and started looking for ways to disadvantage Cahors. Since all Cahors had to pass through Bordeaux’s port to reach England, they tried imposing a tax on “imported” wine – causing English King Henry III to issue a proclamation in 1225 ordering, “the authorities of Bordeaux not to stop nor to impose a tax whatsoever on the wines that the merchants from Cahors, under his protection, were bringing to Gironde.”

After Aquitaine reverted to France at the end of the Hundred Years War, the Bordelaise were freed to act, and in 1373 they imposed high taxes and other restrictions on all wines coming down-river from Cahors and the rest of the Southwest of France. Bordeaux’s lighter-colored “Claret” began taking market share from Cahors, and increasingly Cahors main export market was Bordeaux itself, where the “Black Wine of Lot” was used to give the lighter wines of the Medoc color and richness.

Climactic Tragedy, Pestilence and Persistence
Ch la caminade vineyard

From the 1400s to the late 1800s, a much diminished Cahors wine region soldiered on, selling blending wine to Bordeaux (although they soon planted their own Malbec), serving the Russian and Dutch markets (where dark, hearty wine was preferred), and – of course – drinking their wine at home.

In 1866, about 58,000 hectares of vines were still tended in Cahors. By the 1940s, there were fewer than 5,000 ha of vines remaining. Phyloxera’s arrival in the 1870s wiped out much of the Cahors vineyard, and the construction of railway links from Languedoc to Paris brought an ocean of equally dark (and less expensive) wine to Cahors’ traditional markets. An attempt to revitalize the region begun in the 1930s was stalled by WWII and then halted in its tracks by the brutal frost of 1956, which killed much of the remaining vineyard.

In hindsight, the 1956 frost – which wiped out many growers – was the salvation of Cahors. After phylloxera, much of Cahors had been replanted to higher-yielding, lower-quality varietals including French/American hybrids. Following the frosts, the hearty growers who remained dedicated themselves to replanting their vineyards entirely to Tannat, Merlot, and – overwhelmingly – the region’s own Malbec.

In recognition of Cahors’ long, distinguished history and rapidly improving wine quality, the region was awarded AOC status in 1973 and was poised to once again establish itself as a world-class wine region and the leading source of dark reds based on Malbec… Only to have the rich, plush Malbec wines of Argentina’s Mendoza Valley soar to fame! Leaving the wine growers of Cahors to once again hitch up their pants, put down their heads, and quietly get back to work.

The Wines of Ch La Caminade
Ch La Caminade winemakersThe vines and site of Ch La Caminade have been part of pretty much all of Cahors’ history. Until the early 19th Century, the property was part of a monastery of winegrowing monks. The name “La Caminade” means The Presbytery or curate’s house in local dialect and was given to the Domaine during these years. After the French Revolution, it passed into private hands until it was inherited by Antonin Ressès in 1895.

The Ressès family helped re-plant Cahors after phylloxera and following the 1956 frosts but sold their grapes to the co-op until 1973. When Cahors AOC was granted then, they decided to make and bottle their own wine for the first time. And 4th generation winegrowing brothers Dominique and Richard Ressès continue to run this 35ha estate today.

Sangiovese from Montecucco – A wine to savor, share, enjoy!

Sassetti Petimali estate

As I sat sipping the 2015 Sassetti Montecucco with patriarch Livio Sassetti at his famed Petimali Brunello estate back in May, I knew how much you’d love this supple Sangiovese this summer. Just like Washington, DC, today, it was a hot, slightly muggy day that made the prospect of tasting even great Brunello (and Livio’s 2013 Brunello is great indeed – as you’ll see this fall!) a bit daunting.

Before the first Montalcino wine, though, the Montecucco La Querciolina sloshed into our glasses – and, suddenly, the whole group was revived. Aromas of dark strawberry, cherry, violets, leather and cinnamon spice wafted from each glass. And those captivating scents turned into brilliantly fresh and refreshing flavors on the palate. The wine was at once juicy-fresh and deeply flavored, and the fine, silky tannins pushed the finish to fantastic length.

Being lunchtime in Italy, everyone immediately reached out and started gobbling still more of antipasti in front of us. (A mixed blessing, as we thought we were having a light lunch and weren’t aware that a glorious rice dish and Tuscan T-Bone steak were still to come!). No professional spitting here – this was a wine to be savored, shared, enjoyed.

sassetti montecucco bottle and glass summerAnd “savor, share, enjoy” is what Livio Sassetti’s son, Lorenzo, intends his Montecucco to be all about. Lorenzo is principal winemaker at the family’s famed Pertimali Brunello estate (although Livio remains very much involved!) where he makes some of Montalcino’s most exciting, classically-styled Sangiovese Grosso. But he and Livio purchased land in nearby Montecucco in 1999 to make a wine that was all about this fast emerging region’s unique character – and unique style of Sangiovese.

The Sassetti winemaking family is famous, with deep roots in Montalcino as co-founders of the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino, and one of the early producers of Brunello. Montecucco – a region that’s fun to say if still a bit obscure –  sits just west of Montalcino in a region.  The vines here are the same as in Montalcino, the large-berried clone known as Sangiovese Grosso. But in Montecucco, there’s more clay and mineral content in the soil than in Montalcino (courtesy of the nearby extinct volcano Monte Amiata). The minerality and larger day/night temperature swings bring out Sangiovese’s bright cherry fruit and floral notes while allowing tannins to ripen to silky smoothness.

Lorenzo gives this just six months in large Slavonian oak casks and then a bit of bottle age before release. Which locks in the super juicy, fresh fruit and allows the fresh violet, savory leather, and cinnamon spice notes to shine through.

With a light chill now, Sassetti Montecucco La Querciolina 2015 delivers a gloriously refreshing jolt of fresh cherry and cranberry juice fruit that will refresh and revive you on a warm summer’s day. By this winter, it will have taken on weight and power (without losing the smooth finish) and be ready for steaks and stews. At these special savings prices, you’ll want to stock up on enough to enjoy all year long.

Come by Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15,  and taste for yourself. Then pick up some antipasti on the way home and get ready for a festive feast.

Chianti Tradition and Modern Innovation at Il Molino di Grace

Il Molino di GraceIl Molino di Grace’s 2015 Chianti Classico is just about the perfect marriage of Chianti tradition and modern innovation, much like the estate itself.

I visited the estate just a few weeks ago. Located right outside the village of Panzano, these vineyards in the heart of Chianti have given wine for more than 350 years. The name of the estate, “Il Molino,” gives tribute to the 19th Century windmill that remains perched on a hill (you can see the windmill in the background in this photograph).

The “modern” comes from Frank Grace and his family who purchased the site and began planting/replanting the vineyards in 1996. Grace was initially attracted to the site as a vacation home and place to indulge his passion for modern sculpture (there’s some amazing art dotted around the estate). Wine was not on the agenda – until son Tim and good friend Gerhard Hirmer pointed out that the vineyards were in one of Chianti’s great sites and that it was a shame to continue selling them to inferior winemakers.

For Frank, it was in for a penny, in for a pound. So he invested in building a modern, squeaky clean winery and hired one of the world’s foremost Sangiovese gurus, Franco Bernabei, to guide the operation. Vineyards were planted/replanted to modern trellising, yields lowered, and farming converted to organic status (with certification achieved in 2014). Bernabei’s winemaking style is simple – cool fermentations to retain fruit, gentle extraction to avoid harsh tannins, and skillful use of large Slavonian oak casks to smooth the wine without covering it in wood flavors.

In the truly outstanding 2015 Tuscan growing season, this blend of modernity and tradition brought forth a simply lovely Chianti Classico, one with enough fruit and silkiness that anyone can enjoy it but enough classic Chianti cured tobacco, leather and earth that it couldn’t possibly be from anywhere else.

We had a nice run with Il Molino di Grace Chiantis a few years ago before availability and pricing got spotty. Now our good friend John Grimsley of Le Storie Wines has partnered with the Grace family to bring Il Molino di Grace back to the market – and partnered with us to get it to you at very special prices.

Why We Love Zeitgeist Cabernet

Zeitgeist WinemakersWe think that one taste of Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all you’ll need to fall in love with this lush, rich, luxurious Napa red. And, how great it tastes has a lot to do with why we love it, too. But it’s only part of the reason we became this small-production Napa Cabernet’s foremost champions in the Mid-Atlantic nearly five years ago.

We introduced the mid-Atlantic region to Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon four years ago with the un-rated 2011 bottling. Why did we pre-buy a substantial quantity of a not terribly inexpensive, utterly unknown, wine in what was easily Napa’s least popular vintage in 25 years – without even tasting the finished wine?

Because as soon as I met co-owner/winemaker Mark Porembski and tasted his 2010 Napa Cabernet, I could tell this was a person and a project we wanted to be a part of. Mark and his wife/partner, Jennifer Williams (formerly of Spottswoode), care about the things we care about. Hard work. Exhaustive selection. Careful craftspersonship. And, most of all: having fun with delicious, authentic, place-centered wine with no snobbery, attitude or fuss.

The Critics Pay Attention
ZeitgeistWith Mark and Jenn’s 2012 vintage, the Wine Advocate began paying attention and (under) rated it 91 points. The next year, Robert Parker upped the rating for the 2013 to 93 points. In 2014, the 10th bottling of Zeitgeist Cab, Parker’s Wine Advocate delivered Mark and Jen an “Outstanding” 94 points. And while Parker hasn’t tasted the 2015, his former associate, Jeb Dunnuck, popped the rating up to a fine 94+ points in 2015!

After tasting that succulent 2010, it took us a couple of years to persuade Mark to sell us any wine – after all, with only 330-450 cases made per year and “insider” fans up and down the West Coast, there wasn’t much to spare. But – as we said – Mark’s our kind of guy, and even as the praise and ratings roll in, he’s remained generous in giving us all the Zeitgeist Cab we ask for.

So, by all means, feel free to enjoy the 2015 Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon for its bold fruit, velvety texture, and powerful, cellar-worthy, finish. And it won’t bother us if you notice that this wine delivers the quality and intensity that you normally only find in $100+ (even $200+) bottlings.

But if you really want to “get” why this is so special, plan a trip to California and, before you go, give Mark a call at the winery to schedule a visit. An hour with Mark (or Jenn if she’s available) will remind you that there’s more to wine and winemaking than what’s in your glass. And that little bit extra is why wine can be so very, very, exciting and satisfying.

Unique Co-Op, Unique Wines from Northern Italy

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern with Judith Unterholzner.

Nestled in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine growing region – although you could also call it Austria’s southernmost vineyard! Ceded to Italy after WWI, there’s still plenty of Austrian tradition here and you’ll notice road signs shifting from Italian with German subtitles to German with Italian annotations as your drive northward from the Veneto.

While the names of producers and bottle shapes can look German, the style of the wines combines the ease and food-friendliness of Italian whites and reds with the precision and freshness of Italy’s northern neighbors.

The soaring mountains of the Dolomites and cool temperatures at higher altitudes limit grape growing to a series of valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers which form a Y-shaped vineyard area that meets at Bolzano. The valley floors are rich, fertile, and quite hot – often Bolzano is one of Italy’s hottest cities in July and August. The combination of reliable warmth, fertile soils, and relatively flat terrain makes the valley floors perfect sites for mass produced wines – like typical grocery store Pinot Grigio.

Working the Slopes
Kellerei Kaltern CaldaroBut for growers willing to plant and work vineyards on the steep, rocky, slopes looking down on Alto Adige’s lakes and rivers, grapes can ripen perfectly, gaining plenty of lush fruit flavor while retaining crackling, pure, acidity for balance.

Working the hillsides has been the philosophy of the growers who built Kellerei Kaltern from the first. Wine growing here has always been a small-scale operation. In the past, most vineyards were owned by locals who also farmed other crops on the flat lands below. Today, vineyards are just as likely to be owned by professionals who commute to Trento or simply summer in the mountains. But average vineyard sizes remain small (less than three acres), too small for growers to profitably make their own wine.

From the 19th century on, the small growers of Alto Adige began banding together to form mutually owned wineries – co-operatives – to turn their grapes into wine. And in 1906, a group of growers around Lake Kaltern, north of Bolzano, came together to create Kelleri Kaltern.

A Source of Pride
Today, about 440 growers jointly own and supply grapes to Kellerei Kaltern, with the winery providing both vineyard management advice and winemaking and marketing for the group. Usually when we think of co-op wine, we think of inexpensive jug wine where the focus is more on quantity than quality. But, because so many of the small growers that sell to this bright, modern cooperative winery grow grapes as a second source of income, it’s a source of pride more than anything for them to sell fruit that will make the best possible wine. More importantly, they are paid on a profit sharing basis rather than by the ton, a key difference between this co-op and more traditional ones that keep the quality shockingly high considering the wines’ reasonable price.

Come see for yourself this Saturday, May 5,  when Judith Unterholzner from the winery is here and pouring five terrific selections. You’ll be glad you did.