Tuscan Tussle: A Brunello v. Super Tuscan Dinner

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Hosting a few friends over Italian wine and food the other night led me to ponder life’s virtues: conviviality, expression, pleasure, empathy, debate. These are also the virtues of great Italian wine. In particular, the top wines of Tuscany manage to balance each of these aspects and remain versatile and open minded. Our tasting focused on a mini-comparison of top IGT wines with Brunello di Montalcino in an admittedly unscientific capacity (with each wine from a different vintage and producer). Nonetheless, the comparison was insightful and allowed for useful observations.

IGT and Brunello: The Story

Without labouring in intricate detail over this well known tale, Super Tuscans developed as a response to overly restrictive regulations by the Consorzios of Chianti et al. Antinori introduced the famed Tignanello in the 1970’s so that he could blend Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and age the wine in barrique vs. the originally required large oak botti. In the 70’s, such wines could only be labelled ‘vino da tavola’ or table wine. Now such wines fit into Italy’s IGT designation, which has very few rules and allows producers to experiment considerably. Of course, these days Chianti has reformed and allows blending and other barrel techniques such that Chianti quality has seen a huge resurgence of late. But IGT Super Tuscans remain an important category.

Our two examples were from a top classically styled producer, Isole e Olena, whose Cepperello is a 100% Sangiovese made by Paolo DeMarchi, and a modern Brunello star Uccelliera, whose wine is a blend of 70% Sangiovese with the remaining being Cab Sauv and Merlot.

Brunello, of course, is one of Italy’s greatest wines. The region, which was ‘discovered’ by Biondi Santi, has become the definitive source of Sangiovese in the world. The reason is the soil (limestone and sand), the Brunello Sangiovese clone, and the warmer climate compared to Chianti and other more northerly Sangiovese growing regions. Brunello must be aged 4 years combined (5 years for Riserva) in barrel and bottle before release, though some producers hold for longer. One key indicia to Brunello’s greatness is its soil and climate variation, which has allowed producers to explore the DOCG’s terroir. Wines produced north of the town of Montalcino are grown on clay soils and in a cooler climate at high elevation (which leads to significant diurnal temperature shifts – hence long ripening and high acidity). This tends to produce more perfumed, elegant wine built for long aging. In the south, the soils become sandier and the climate warmer, making richer, denser wines, many of which drink younger. Both of our Brunellos for this tasting came from vineyards north of Montalcino, in the more heavily limestone soils. The producers were the more classic Conti Costani and the modern organic winery Pian del Orino.

Versatility and Grandeur – The Wines

Each wine displayed the classic Italian characteristics of aromatic lightness and complexity along with high acid (perhaps excepting the ‘07 Orino) and tangy fruit. We paired the wines with hard Italian cheeses, meatballs in a wine mushroom sauce, eggplant parmesan and braised rabit ragu on egg-based papardelle (a classic pairing for Brunello) – the food and wine were great together.

Overall the Brunellos showed the best, but they had the unfair advantage of coming from superior vintages. I think both Brunellos showed more classically than their comparison Super Tuscan. In the ‘classic’ flight, the 2006 Conti Costani was the most complete wine of the night and easily overshadowed the 2008 Cepparello. That said, the Cepparello was a very good wine in its own right, though less balanced and perfectly integrated than the Costani.

In the ‘modern’ flight, the Pian del Orino outclassed the Uccelliera Rapace with greater fruit purity, texture and distinctive Sangiovese character, though I felt the 2007 vintage of this wine to be a bit alcoholic, especially in the finish and thus lacking the finesse of other vintages (this is a criticism Brunello expert Kerin O’Keefe levels at Pian del Orino generally). The Rapace felt and tasted more international with the Cabernet Sauvignon notes being quite dominant. That said, the wine was still clearly Italian with its aromatics and acidity. I would not refuse to drink any of these wines, but my heart remains with Sangiovese, particularly those made traditionally with less barrique and a focus on elegance over concentration.

1. Vouette et Sorbee ‘Fidele’ n/v Extra Brut Champagne

As with all good wine tastings, we started with a bottle of dry Champagne (and some homemade devilled eggs – a delicious pairing). Vouette et Sorbee is new in the Vancouver market. Lucky for us as this is one of Champagne’s most exciting producers and making wine of impressive quality that compares very well with more expensive wines. The wine was dense and vinous, though also clean and precise.

Excellent. $100 at Kits Wine.

2. Conti Costanti Brunello di Montalcino 2006

The most traditional wine of the evening, though actually a producer that straddles the line between traditional and modern. Costanti makes early drinking Brunello, but is also known for elegance. This wine was fantastic and drinking perfectly right now with elegant, forward fruit. Classic Sangiovese bitter cherry notes lead into sandalwood and finessed texture. Integrated, ripe tannin and a very long finish. This wine is complete.

Excellent. $90 at Kits Wine.

3. Isole e Olena Cepparello 2008

Proprietor Paolo DeMarchi was a pioneer experimenting with Sangiovese clones and planting density. Using new clones, he experimented with increasing density to five thousand vines per hectare (vs. the more standard 2000 vines per hectare), producing 1-2kg vs. 4-5kg. The quality shot up dramatically, which helps to explain why he can make an outstanding wine even in a poor year such as 2008.

Compared with the Costanti, the wine seemed more awkward and far less beautiful and easy drinking. However, the aromatics were truly outstanding and the wine still had typicity and great acid structure. Will age very well and I think come into its own in another 4+ years.

Very Good+ to Excellent. $110 at Kits Wine.

4. Pian del Orino Brunello di Montalcino 2007

Pian del Orino is a newer estate with vineyards adjacent to Biondi Santi. This is a quality conscious producer that drops a lot of fruit, leading to highly concentrated Brunello. The fruit in this wine, from the ripe 2007 vintage, was really outstanding. It was pure and elegant but also very deep and concentrated without feeling highly extracted. This wine will age very well, but right now I found the finish somewhat alcoholic for my preferences. This wine, however, will appeal to many. For medium term aging, but I think this needs 5-8 more years to truly show itself. Organic farming, biodynamic treatments, indigenous yeasts. Pian del Orino is part of a new wave of producers seeking to legally divorce itself from the Brunello Consorzio because of a feeling the Consorzio benefits larger producers and not boutique, quality conscious ones.

Excellent. $130 at Kits Wine.

5. Uccelliera Rapace 2009

Uccelliera entered Brunello once the region started to expand with the major investments of Banfi and Antinori in the 1980’s. It is a quality conscious, smaller producer of highly respected Brunello. It also makes this fascinating Super Tuscan, made with 70% Sangiovese and 30% Cab Sauv/Merlot. I’d say this wine aims for a more international style, but it does not attempt to cover its Italian roots, with high acid and highly aromatic fruit. My biggest complaint with this wine is that I prefer my Sangiovese unadulterated as the fruit character is so subtle, finessed and unique. The addition of Cab Sauv dominates the aromatics and, for me, disrupts the real joy of Sangiovese. That said, this is a very well made wine and will be enjoyed by those who like structured, fresh Cab/Sangiovese blends.

Very Good+. $90 at Kits Wine.

6. Cappellano Barolo Chinato

We finished the dinner with this brilliant Chinato (herb and spice infused Barolo), paired with Sicilian canolis (made with ricotta and orange). This fortified wine is wonderful and unique. On the dry side for Chinato, the sweetness is of course noticeable after a dinner of Sangiovese. This is very wine-like, with great structure and length. It ranks up there for one of the best after dinner drinks I’ve had in quite some time. Highly recommended.

Excellent. $100 at Kits Wine.

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