Pier Luigi Tolaini’s Excellent Estate – and his 93 point Super-Tuscan!

Pier Luigi TolainiPier Luigi Tolaini left his home in Luca at age 19 to find work,  promising himself he’d return to Tuscany someday to show his family how to make really good wine.

It took him a while – he spent the next 40+ years in Canada, ultimately building a prosperous trucking business. But in 1998 he purchased a 119-acre Chianti Classico property and set out to make “really good” wine.

He’s done pretty darn well, earning accolades from the wine press:

“Tolaini is on a tear, making some of the best wines representing the warmer Castelnuovo Berardenga subzone of Chianti Classico.” – Wine Advocate, 2014

“An estate to watch.” – Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson after visiting in 2016

“Passionate attention to the Bordeaux-style vineyards, and a very natural approach to the cellar benefitting from international consultants, make Pierluigi Tolaini’s estate one of the most important in the Chianti Classico area.” – Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most important wine guide

If you’d like to learn more about the Tolaini story and estate, join us on Thursday, January 24, when winemaker Francesco Rosi leads our Spotlight on Tolaini class (you can reserve your seats online at this link – pretty cool Christmas present!).

Want to taste a preview? Stop by anytime this week for a taste of  Pier Luigi’s San Giovanni Valdisanti Toscana 2014, a great gift or Christmas dinner wine on sale from 28% off.

“The wine wraps thickly over the palate with dense textual richness and generous flavors of blackberry, spice and cured tobacco. There is a pretty note of sweetness on the close that resembles candied fruit or cherry liqueur. Drink 2017-2027″ Wine Advocate 91 points.

And Wine Spectator’s 93 point review agrees: “”Ripe, packed with black cherry, blackberry, violet, iron and spice aromas and flavors, this red is muscular and sophisticated. Beefy tannins shore this up, along with fresh acidity and a detailed aftertaste.” Wine Spectator 93 points

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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.

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

Aglianico – The Best Grilling Grape You Don’t Know (and a grilled ratatouille recipe)

AglianicoGrown in the steep hills of Italy’s Basilicata, inland from Naples, Aglianico is the best grape in the world that nobody knows (or, if you know it, don’t drink enough of). Wine writers try to get drinkers to pay attention to it by calling it “the Barolo of the South.” Because, like Piemonte’s Nebbiolo, it’s wonderfully aromatic, full of bracing acidity, laced with sharp, firm, tannins, and can live and gain complexity for decades.

But “Barolo” it ain’t. It’s much more fun than that, especially when grown on the old lava flows of the extinct volcano, Monte Vulture. For one thing, it’s darker, fleshier, and more powerful than Barolo, serving up fine concentration of black raspberry and blueberry fruit to Nebbiolo’s fine cherry and strawberry.

Mt VultureAnd it’s wilder than Barolo, with a direct, assertive, ready to party by the grill, boldness and layer upon layer of summer-friendly wild herb, black olive, violet and earth notes. And while Aglianico from more famous Taurasi needs years in bottle to be much fun, many Aglianico del Vulture (like this one!) are delicious and ready to rock out on the deck as soon as they arrive in the USA.

While this is fun to hang out with and drink, growing fine Aglianico is serious work – work no one has done better over the last 40+ years than d’Angelo. Lucio d’Angelo’s ancestors had grown Aglianico for centuries before he started his winery in 1971. And Lucio and his children, Rocco and Erminia, almost single-handedly created the DOCG and set the standards for what great Aglianico del Vulture is all about.

The hard work starts in the vineyards, where the Basilicata’s high altitudes and low latitudes mean days can be brutally hot and nights chilly to frigid. Aglianico can’t really be grown successfully under any other conditions because it buds very early – when frost is too likely in lower sites – and needs to hang for months and months to develop flavor and soften fierce tannins. By the time the d’Angelo family harvests their Aglianico in late-October/early November, essentially all of Italy’s Sangiovese, Nero d’Avola, Bordeaux varietals, and even Nebbiolo are already bubbling away in their fermenters.

Once the grapes are painstakingly picked by hand – as they must be on these mountain slopes – they are crushed and ferment warm and vigorously to extract color and flavor to match naturally high acids and tannins. Then comes the wait: 20 months in huge, old, oak casks to allow the tannins to soften and full, fleshy, flavors to emerge.

d'Angelo Aglianico del Vulture

And, when all that’s done…the wine still releases at just $25 vs the $50-$150 Barolo gets. Which makes this gloriously fruit-filled, complex, powerful red a steal all the time, but especially from $17.98 this week.

Come on by and try it – we’ll keep a bottle of d’Angelo Aglianico Del Vulture open to try this week through Friday’s free tasting. And if you want to taste Aglianico’s perfect match, check out my recipe for Grilled Ratatouille. We think you’ll enjoy them both!


Doug’s Grilled Ratatouille

Grilled RatatouilleSauternes and foie gras. Ribeye steak and Napa Cab. Meursault and lobster. Fine Bordeaux and roast lamb. Every wine has a perfect pairing, a match that elevates both the food and the wine. And for Aglianico, my perfect pairing is anything laced with salty/savory olives, roasted peppers, basil, and/or capers.

You and make that match happen with something as involved as a hearty southern Italian lamb stew or as simple as an antipasto platter of olives, peppers, cured meats and cheese. But with summer’s bounty starting to arrive at farmers’ markets all around town, my favorite pairing with southern Italy’s Aglianico is a riff on a classic from the South of France: Grilled Ratatouille.

This started off as a somewhat fussy recipe from Cooks Illustrated, but now it’s more of an approach than a recipe per se. Sometimes I have more eggplant, sometimes less. Sometimes I grill everything until it’s mushy, sometimes I leave things more crisp. And sometimes I leave it rich and dense and other times add a big jolt of lemon juice for freshness. It always seems to come out great, though, and as long as you make sure to have enough capers/olives and basil, I promise it will taste great with Aglianico!

Ingredients
Note: This makes about 6-8 servings as a side dish. I usually double it, but you can futz with the mix anyway you like and it will still come out great.

  • 1 red onion peeled and quartered, leaving enough stem to hold the quarters together
  • 2lb eggplant sliced about 1 inch thick
  • 1.5lb zucchini sliced in half or into thick planks (depending on how big your squash is!)
  • 2 bell peppers cored and quartered (yellow or red are fun)
  • 1lb tomatoes cut in half along the equator (more is good, too)
  • ¼ cup chopped basil (more is ok)
  • 1 tbsp chopped thyme
  • 1 tbsp capers or 2 tbl chopped black olives (or both – just watch the salt)
  • 3 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic grated or mashed into a paste
  • ¼ cup really good olive oil plus more for tossing/brushing
  • Salt & pepper
    Lemon juice

Directions

Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with a little oil and sprinkle with a little salt.

Put the other veggies in a large mixing bowl (in batches) and toss with oil to coat; lay out on baking sheets and salt lightly.

Get your grill hot; with charcoal, do a two-level fire; with gas, leave one row/side off

Get grill marks on the onion over direct heat and then move to other side of grill to cook until soft

Put the eggplant over the direct fire and grill, turning frequently, until they are softening (your choice of still a little toothsome or full on mushy)

Put the bell peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes (in batches) over the hot side of the grill, turning until both sides show grill marks; either continue turning over direct heat or move to other side until they are as soft as you want them.

When the veggies have cooled, rub the skins off the tomatoes and peppers (don’t worry if some stays on – no one will care).

Chop everything up to the size you like – I go pretty chunky, but it’s up to you – and put everything in a big bowl with the olives/capers, thyme and basil

Make a dressing of the sherry vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil and garlic (I use an immersion blender but you can go old school and whisk it together), and pour on the veggies and toss.

Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like and a squeeze of lemon juice if that’s your thing. Serve warm or room temperature with Aglianico!

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.

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.

The Drunken Poet Grape

Abbazia di Novacella1

Abbazia di Novacella, the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” the Austrian nuns sing at the beginning of The Sound of Music. Their denominational cousins, the monks at Abbazia di Novacella in what were Austria’s Dolomites until WWI, probably sang a similar song until the 1930s – “How do you solve a problem like well-exposed, high-altitude, mountain vineyards prone to frost?”

Admittedly, not as catchy and perhaps they’d have chanted it instead of sung. But still.

The answer to the monks’ prayers was born in Germany in 1929, when a grape researcher named August Herold made his first plantable cross of Riesling and Trollinger, the grape called Schiava in Alto Adige. Schiava gave the new grape strong resistance to late season frost, while Riesling promised fine acidity, the ability to express minerality, and plenty of perfume. August named his new grape “Kerner” after a local German poet who once penned that classic, “Wohlauf, noch getrunken” which translates as “Arise, still drunk.”

In post-WWII Germany, plantings of Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus and other “new breeds” spread rapidly at the expense of more finicky, lower yielding Riesling as the wine industry struggled to recover from war damage and devastation. At its peak, Kerner was actually Germany’s third-most planted grape! But it didn’t make very interesting wines at the relatively low altitudes where Germans planted it (and, especially, at the mind-bending yields they sought), so as the industry and Germany recovered in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, Kerner plantings shrank fast.

Kerner Climbs The Mountains
The monks of Abbazia di Novacella control the third oldest continuously operating winery in Europe – dating from the 12th Century – so they’re not exactly prone to jumping on fads. Over the centuries, they and their partner growers working in the craggy vineyards of Alto Adige’s Dolomite had done a pretty fine job of mapping grape to vineyard based on exposure, soil type, slope and altitude.

Red grapes like Lagrein, Schiava, and Pinot Nero claimed the lowest vineyards, those at around 1,000 feet altitude ringing Lake Kaltern near Bolzano (45 minutes south of the winery). Near the winery in Brixen (or Bressanone if you prefer the Italian), Pinot Grigio climbed up the slopes from 1,200 feet and Gewürztraminer and other whites claimed full-sun South and Southwest facing sites at up to 2,000 feet.

But at just short of a half-mile up, none of these grapes would consistently ripen – or at least succeed at economic yields in the face of bitter cold spring nights and regular frosts.

Kerner

Kerner: A cross between Reisling and Schiava

So, at some point in the 1970s, the monks and their winegrowing team decided to give frost-resistant Kerner a try. While the first wines may not have been very successful, soon the combination of steep vineyards, super-dense planting, plenty of daytime sunshine and crisp, cold, nights proved to be exactly what Kerner needed to shine. So much so that in 1993, Italy recognized high-altitude Alto Adige Kerner with its own DOC status.

Kerner vs. Praepositus Kerner
Today, the monks’ winemaking team produce two Kerners. The “Classic” Kerner is delicious and is, as the folks at the winery told us last March, a perfect aperitivo wine – ideal for sipping on during the hour after work and before dinner. Light, fresh, refreshing fun.

Then there’s the Praepositus Kerner. It’s made the exact same way as the Classic Kerner: harvested by hand, destemmed, crushed and fermented cool in tank and then bottled after six months on the fine lees. But it’s a completely different wine because it’s made from grapes from two of the world’s finest Kerner vineyards.

aromas-of-kernerThe vineyards sit at 2,100 – 2,300 feet altitude and the vines grow on hand-built terraces running down the 25-40% gradient mountain slopes. These super-steep slopes allow the densely-planted vines (about 2,500 plants per acre) to slowly ripen to perfection. Although both the Classic and Praepositus Kerners are harvested about the same time (in early October) the “regular” wine usually comes in at 13.5-13.7% alcohol. Praepositus reaches 14.3% in 2016.

The extra alcohol translates to better body and more flavor – because only when it’s fully ripe does Kerner really come into its own with explosive aromatics and wildly complex flavors. And the cold nights and deep minerality balance the richness of texture perfectly, giving the wine compelling lift, definition and refreshing crispness.

If you’ve had other Kerner wines before, then know that this one is better. And if you’ve never tried one, please, don’t miss this!

Abbazia Di Novacella Kerner Praepositus