Guessing an Italian wine in a mixed bag is quite easy. Guessing a specific region among 21 bottles is no walk in the park and having poor tasting conditions on top of that doesn’t really work in your favor. “Here he goes complaining right away”, you think, but if you’ve ever attended any evaluation (professional or casual) in your life, you’d know that a good set up is half the job done. A few things that needed improvement were:
1. Decanting: More than half the wines were not decanted on time (some were even opened at the tasting itself). If you get into serious wine, you better be ready to get serious. You will get so much more for your money. It’s almost like buying a 30-pound cheese and eating 1/4 of it and throwing it out. That’s what you’re really doing when you’re drinking a big-time wine straight out of the bottle or giving it only an hour of air. You’re just not getting what you’re paying for. It’s like watching 3/4 of football game and leaving.
2. Setting a benchmark for quality: A price category of $80 and above is great for New World wines or a regional tasting, but an 80-dollar Barolo can’t be compared to an 80-dollar Amarone in any life. And the limit goes on forever. As a result, some people brought crazy wines from the 1990s, while some brought just average as fuck bottles.
3. Faults: It is key to know your wine faults. I can’t stress this enough. We had one oxidized bottle and one cooked one. And the sad thing was that they weren’t even signed off, but kept there for shots in the dark. Would you eat a moldy hotdog just because it was served by Gordon Ramsay? I think not.
But hey, if it’s a party, I’m good with that as well. To each his own. Now, let’s progress to the tasting notes, shall we? We did 7 flights of wines from five different regions – Piemonte, Tuscany, Veneto, Campania and Sicily. I’ll write details about the regions and grapes in another article, but here I will try to be as concise as possible in my short analysis to help you get a better picture of what went down at this tasting. For detailed notes with a WSET deductive analysis, check out my separate CellarTracker feed created for this particular session.
A 2012 flight. This vintage was different for all three sub-regions. A difficult year in Brunello – extremely cold and wet winters, remarkably hot summers with late rain. Luckily, the high temperatures were consistent throughout the growing season, so the grapes had time to adapt, giving wines marked with alluring aromas, more finesse and less alcohol compared to recent years. Even though 2012 Barolos don’t have tremendous age-worthy characteristics, numerous producers delivered some very well-balanced wines. Summer hailstorms and temperature fluctuations weren’t as bad as in previous years. Campania saw an excessively hot summer with barely any rain, resulting in low yields and soft acidity levels.
Prunotto Bussia Barolo 2012 (S$83)
A Barolo with a nicely refreshing and pure fruit character which gets a double highlight on the palate thanks to soaring levels of acidity. Despite being driven by this, the wine’s boozy alcohol levels tend to stick out throughout the structure, causing it to appear somewhat hollow and missing finesse. This might mellow down in the years to come, but due to the additional lack of length and the moderate fruit concentration, this specimen may never gain proper sophistication.
Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi 2012 (S$80)
This is showing some massive fruit concentration, well-integrated with notes of oak and bottle aging, making this a highly complex Taurasi. Hints of Brett come off as unpleasant in places, but put a mark on the wine’s uniqueness. However, the alcohol appears to be sky-high and not quite in sync with the medium tannins, making the rest of the liquid seem unexciting. Not a surprise, since late-ripening Aglianico struggles to balance sugars and phenolic ripeness in vintages like this.
Castelgiocondo (Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi) Brunello di Montalcino 2012 (S$81)
Medium ruby red. Sweet red fruit on the nose with whiffs of roasted Mediterranean herbs, blackberries and pungent spice (paprika, juniper). The tannins on this are quite grippy, but not as expressed as you’d detect in Nebbiolo. Seriously lacking in vibrancy, intensity and focus. A rather forgettable Brunello that drinks like a 20-dollar bottle on a vacation in Bali when you could truly care less.
Here we had a brilliant vintage for both Brunello and Barolo (2006) and an average one for Campania (2008). It was great to compare quality of just two years apart. The two B’s will be remembered for its richness, warmth and colossal structure, which led me to guess Amarone for Brunello and Brunello for Barolo. Silly, but you’ll see why in the review below.
E. Pira & Figli (Chiara Boschis) Barolo Cannubi 2006 (S$160)
This is an outstanding wine. The breadth of aromas and flavors across primary, secondary and tertiary profiles indicates real complexity. Even though the alcohol is on the warmer side, the acidity integrates nicely and highlights the red/black fruit throughout the structure, giving this wine a beautiful string of finesse. The fully ripe tannins, a pronounced intensity and great length suggests that this is a wine will age well for years to come and will likely get even better. A very complete, complex wine.
Terredora di Paolo Aglianico Irpinia Il Principio 2008 (S$65)
A good Aglianico, pretty easy to guess. Even though the acidity is lower than the alcohol, nothing is sticking out of the two. At the moment, this has good complexity of tertiary aromas, but because the wine is fully developed, it’s starting to wilt away in intensity and freshness and showing very strong, almost unpleasant barnyard aromas. The angular tannic structure and medium length could keep this going for a few more years, but I wouldn’t keep my hopes up. Drink up.
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2006 (S$62)
Due to the ripe/dried twist of red and black fruit combined with high levels of alcohol, I couldn’t help but guess that this was an Amarone from a more commercial producer. Structurally, the wine is very good. It’s incredibly firm and rich showing a nice balance of acidity and alcohol, strong structure and complexity across the board. However, it’s lacking finesse and length one would expect from a high tier Tuscan such as Brunello, so long-term cellaring is questionable.
A 2011 flight. It was quite hot and dry in all three regions, with a few showers here and there occurring mid-summer. This spiked up the sugars and even though it rained during harvest, the grapes remained plump and rich. On the other hand, the physiological ripeness lagged behind, so growers had to make a decision – to pick early and risk unripe tannins or wait for the PR to be achieved and get high levels of alcohol, sugar and possibly cooked flavors. Needless to say, timing had to be sniper-like precise. The best examples of wines made in these three DOCGs are racy and very approachable at a young age.
Gianni Brunelli Brunello di Montalcino 2011 (S$95)
A very well-done Brunello. It has some age on it, but the fresh primary notes are still well-highlighted by the high acidity. There is some oak character, but definitely not too much in relation to the bold fruit department. Even though this comes from a warmer vintage, the acidity and alcohol are showing great integration. Complexity is there without a doubt, but the length is shortened abruptly. Sad emojis, as I was looking forward to this taking the cake in the Brunello division.
Giacomo Ascheri ‘Sorano’ Barolo 2011 (S$60)
This was quite a strange one. Proper varietal expression and moderate complexity, but not the best example overall. The primary fruit here has evolved into its Charizard form – dried cranberry/cherry/strawberry. Even though it’s showing a great balance and intensity of all its structural elements, the flavors just seem to be developing too fast. Lacking quite a bit of length on the other hand, which makes the wine finish off in a rather hollow manner. Limited cellar life.
Cesari ‘Il Bosco’ Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2011 (S$136)
Who would’ve said that Amarone would be crowned the winner of this flight? If you’re expecting a sweet, over-extracted fruit bomb, you’re gonna have to look somewhere else. Even though this is massive, opulent and rich, it has a string of acidity that lifts up the wine throughout the whole experience. The oak is quite dominant at this stage, but should integrate with the primary fruit nicely over the years, giving the wine more finesse. Needless to say – excellent aging potential on this baby.
Another 2011 flight with a 2007 Nerello Mascalese thrown inside. This was the most disappointing flight of the evening, not because of the quality of the wines, but because of my utter lack of confidence. Right from the beginning, my colleague and I were pinpointing the middle wine as Nerello, ticking off all the boxes of a volcanic beauty – fresh aromatics, herbaceousness, minerality, medium body and racy acidity. Since the wines didn’t breathe enough, the tannins were blazingly high, hence my decision to pinpoint Barolo in stoppage time. Note to self: ALWAYS GO WITH YOUR GUT FEELING.
Conti Costanti Brunello di Montalcino 2011 (S$108)
Moderately deep, but very translucent, luminous red cherry color. The first flawed wine of the evening, cooked through like tomatoes on the Tuscan sun. Except this isn’t delicious. It’s flabby and overdeveloped – stewed red fruit, wet forest floor leaves, Sherry spice. Medium-bodied with the tannins still kicking, but the acidity diminishing rapidly. Once again, a fine wine lost to improper storage.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere ‘Santo Spirito’ Etna Rosso 2007 (S$70)
A thoroughly lovely, bright and immensely drinkable effort. Showing lots of primary characteristics (red fruit, crushed stone, herbaceousness) even for a 10+ old wine with no signs of development yet. Grippy structure displaying beautiful balance between acidity and alcohol and clean, polished flavors. Long, refreshing finish. The only thing this Nerello could use is a bit more intensity to give it additional punch for long-term cellaring.
Fratelli Alessandria Barolo 2011 (S$85)
A rather stout reflection of this sizzling vintage. Tons of ripe, almost overripe red & black fruit – cherry liqueur, blackberry, blueberry, dark chocolate, nutmeg. Even though it’s rather complex, this Barolo has an acidity, a crucial element for a good Nebbiolo, that is totally overwhelmed by the ripe, sweet fruit, making the wine fall behind in focus and balance. It could benefit from some cellaring, but with the surprising level of tannins (medium), aging could be shortened significantly.
Another 2012 flight, this time with Veneto and Sicily replacing Barolo and Campania. Veneto growers harvested 10-20% less than in previous years due to a dry and hot summer which gave good-quality grapes, but very low yields. The same scenario applies for Sicily, with grapes planted on higher altitudes performing tremendously well compared to those in the valleys.
Il Poggione ‘Vigna Paganelli’ Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2012 (S$140)
A Brunello that’s showing beautiful complexity. The aromas are almost Pinotesque, with heaps of red fruit appearing from the glass. The oak is never dominant at any given moment, because the high acidity livens up the wine by highlighting the fresh primary notes and letting the alcohol and tannins carry it into a long finish. To be outstanding and a more powerful cellaring candidate, it could use a bit more depth. Nonetheless, this shows great potential, can’t wait to taste it again.
Valenti ‘Puritani’ Etna Rosso 2012 (S$60)
This wine is years past its prime. I could have sworn some people thought it was 50 years old. Medium garnet color. Aromas of soya sauce, mushrooms, wet cabin wood. Fruit notes? Raisins. Lots of them. Absolutely no life detected on the palate. Tastes like soaked overripe strawberries kept in the fridge for a week. This is one of those wines you get from your retiring boss that never knew you existed for those five years you worked in the company. And you didn’t even drink the stuff on time.
Monte del Fra Tenuta Lena di Mezzo ‘Scarnocchio’ Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2012 (S$136)
I honestly thought this was a joker wine from Barossa or some similar region. Varietal expression – non-existent. Starting from the aromatic profile which gave away notes of eucalyptus, mint, overly sweet black fruit and overly sweet oak spice. Everything on the palate is held in a chokehold by the alcohol and this seems to go on forever. Completely lacking in any redeeming quality of Amarone. Wait, IS this Amarone? Guess I should check the label.
The reason why I love massive tastings is because one has a chance to try a huge range of styles and vintages. I may not have thoroughly enjoyed everything in this session, but a flight like this makes up for most of it. The 1990 and 1998 were crazy, but superb vintages for Barolo producers. Filled with drought, wildfires, excessive rain and finally stable conditions in late summer, they made some tasty and long-lived wines, definitely worth investing in. The 2005 wasn’t the best year for Brunello, with late rains defining the quality of the wines. The majority lack depth and structure for cellaring. Nevertheless, the 2005 in this flight was my WOTN, so I may be easily impressed or just cheap af.
Marchesi di Barolo Barolo 1990 (S$141)
Back to the old school! A good Barolo, one that has evidently lived life to the fullest and now is in slow decline. Good complexity of predominantly tertiary aromas – dried red fruit, wet leaves, forest floor, mushroom – and a proper balance of acidity and alcohol. The intensity is missing for extended shelf life, so if you come upon this bottle, my advice is that you’d better drink up. Don’t look for happiness in the same place you lost it.
Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino 2005 (S$120)
A truly harmonious, complex, well-aged and incredibly balanced Brunello. Still on the dominant primary fruit notes, but with its intensity and length, there is no doubt that this will benefit further from cellaring. There is quite some depth and grip to it as well, which I believe is one of the most important traits of every great wine. Even though this was not the best vintage for Brunello, I find this a fine exception to that rule. Bravo.
Fontanafredda ‘Vigna La Rosa’ Barolo 1998 ($120)
I remember the exact moment I first tried Fontanafredda, my oldest Barolo at the time. It was a ’96 vintage and for a young sommelier like myself, it was truly special to see how Nebbiolo developed so gracefully, cementing why its one of the greatest grapes of the land. The 1998 is on a similar level. Complex, showing well-balanced development and intensity. The acidity is still keeping this very much alive and together with the integrated alcohol and tannins will keep it going for at least a decade more.
What a way to finish the evening – the glorious, must-buy 2010 vintage. Easy to guess blind, since every wine showed impeccable varietal expression. Love it. This was showing perfect growing conditions in both Brunello and Barolo, while Veneto struggled a bit with low temperatures, but did very well in the end. Warm day temperatures balanced by cooler night ones gave intensely perfumed, rich wines displaying great structure, freshness, power and 15-20 years of aging potential. The even better fact is that many of them are approachable even now. Hooray to that!
Renato Ratti ‘Conca’ Barolo 2010 (S$124)
Starting with a very well-structured Barolo that’s showing awesome freshness thanks to high levels of acidity highlighting the primary red fruit beautifully. Notes of bottle age creep in slightly – some forest floor and cured meat – but stay integrated with the main characters of the show. Proper complexity and intensity, but could use a bit more depth, especially towards the finish where it starts to lose its grip a bit. Nevertheless, this will undoubtedly go strong for years to come.
Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2010 (S$115)
A quite muscular Amarone with surprisingly tough structural feel, thanks to the moderately high acidity and ample, grippy tannins. The alcohol tends to overpower in places, coming in waves of heat, especially on the finish, boosting the sweeter tones of fruit. Terrific intensity and complexity on the other hand, which together with the length, will contribute to the extended bottle aging of this wine and help it develop and mellow with time.
Donatella Cinelli Colombini Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (S$90)
A very classic and balanced Brunello with soft texture and tons of finesse, but firm depth and structure as well. The freshness here is off the hook, making this wine sooo easy-drinking, dare I say “glou-glou”. Everything flows equally as one into the long, concentrated finish that will undoubtedly keep this together for years to come. My only complaint is that it could use a bit more intensity, that oomph that completes it.