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Appreciating sangiovese for what it is
TO hear the wine marketers tell it, every estate picks its grapes at the point of perfect ripeness. But does such a moment really exist?
As with so much in wine, what is in fact subjective is often presented as objective. Just as no perfect moment exists to open a bottle, and no optimum length exists for ageing a wine, no particular set of conditions defines perfect ripeness. It all depends on the intent and taste of the grower and producer, along with vintage conditions, the site and perhaps a bit of luck.
The motives of the marketer and the desires of the consumer inevitably clash. Here, we love wine but are inherently sceptical about anybody in the trade who claims to have done anything at the one right moment. Just as in journalism, in which generations of reporters have been taught never to assume a thing - not even that their mothers love them - such claims should invite doubt.
I was thinking about ripeness over the past few weeks as we tasted several examples of Rosso di Montalcino, the younger sibling of the renowned Brunello di Montalcino. Each of the three bottles I suggested, from the 2015 vintage, seemed to exhibit a different degree of ripeness. Each, depending on the taste of the consumer, could be considered to have been made with properly ripened grapes.
These were the three Rosso di Montalcinos: La Torre, Le Potazzine and Lisini.
Each wine, as is required of all Rossos and Brunellos di Montalcino, was made entirely of the sangiovese grape. At times this rule has caused frustration among some Montalcino producers, who 20 years ago were seeking to soften sangiovese's naturally high acidity, darken its characteristically ruby color and relax its often angular austerity by adding international grapes like merlot, syrah or cabernet sauvignon.
Those efforts outside the rules came crashing down in scandal in 2008. Since then, Montalcino producers have, outwardly at least, reconciled themselves to the sangiovese rule and have turned to legal, if not always palatable, methods to achieve their aims.
Among those methods, they might age the wine in small barrels of new oak, which can intensify the color. Frankly, I've never understood the fixation with dark colors in red wine. Some of the greatest Burgundy, Barolo and sangiovese-based wines are fairly pale.
You would think that producers would aim for pale rather than dark. But they have heard from consultants that consumers prefer darker reds. The nonsense apparently flows in both directions.
Producers might also try to address some of their concerns in the vineyard, through how they manage the canopy of leaves, which can be arranged not only to allow a steady movement of air, reducing susceptibility to diseases, but also to shade grapes from the sun or to permit more direct sunlight, affecting the rate at which the grapes ripen. They can vary the yield of the vines, through pruning or thinning grape bunches, which can ultimately achieve greater or lesser intensity in the wines. And they can manipulate aromas, flavours and textures simply by deciding when to pick the grapes.
I'm happy to say that I do not think that any of these three producers is troubled by the natural characteristics of sangiovese, one of the world's great grapes. Each of these wines showed ample evidence of sangiovese's vibrant acidity. They were also naturally tannic, meaning that they demonstrated the true tannins of the grape rather than the bitter tannins that can be imparted by new oak barrels. And they showed the true flavours and character of sangiovese, unmitigated by new oak.
But each bottle seemed to adhere to a different definition of ripeness. It seemed to me, judging strictly by the wine, that the Rosso from La Torre had been picked the earliest. Its dominant characteristics were freshness and purity of aromas and flavors.
I loved its liveliness, its dusty, earthy red fruit flavours with a touch of minerality and bitterness. In current wine parlance, sommeliers might refer to this wine as "crunchy," like biting into a juicy apple in which the sweetness and the acidity were precisely balanced.
At the other end of this admittedly narrow spectrum, the Lisini Rosso seems much riper. The fruit is a little bit sweeter, as if you are not biting into a piece of fresh fruit but maybe dipping into some compote. It's also more tannic, as if the juice of the freshly crushed grapes had macerated longer with the tannin-bearing skins, or perhaps the grape skins were a bit thicker and contained more tannic compounds.
I would not call these grapes overripe by any means. Wines made from overripe grapes would be overtly jammy, with less acidity. They can feel thick, give an impression of sweetness and lack zest. Some people enjoy them, but not me.
The Rosso from Le Potazzine seemed to stake out a middle ground. It offered the acid snap of the La Torre but was even more tannic than the Lisini. The fruit was not sweet, but the flavours seemed darker, with almost a licorice tinge.
All of these wines improved with food, fettuccine Bolognese, but Le Potazzine really blossomed, melding beautifully with the rich, meaty sauce.
Rosso, as I said, is the younger sibling of Brunello di Montalcino. What's the difference?
Brunello is aged longer, for one thing, four years before it can be released, of which a minimum of two must be in casks. Rosso need only be aged one year before release.
Producers often choose to use the fruit from younger vines or from lesser sites in their Rosso, or grapes that simply did not fit into the blend of their Brunello.
Although marketers often try to capitalise on the fame of Brunello by referring to Rossos as "Baby Brunellos," it's better to accept Rossos on their own terms. They are lighter, fresher, more easygoing wines, more accessible without aging, although some will evolve and improve over the years. They generally do not require contemplation, and what's wrong with that? Deliciousness is its own reward.
I have noticed among some consumers a tendency to dismiss Montalcino wines in general as somehow not being authentic enough, much in the same way that many have sneered at Bordeaux. Please. Like any wine region in the world, Montalcino has its share of poseurs, manipulators and fabricators. But the good wines are beautiful and should not be missed.
One sentiment often expressed is echoed by one reader, VSB in San Francisco, who drank the 2015 La Torre. He seemed surprised about one thing: "Oddly, tasted better with the food than by itself."
Welcome to Italy, where wine is especially constructed to go with food. On their own, most traditionally made Italian reds can taste acidic, tannic and bitter without food. They are meant for the table, not as cocktails or aperitifs. In Italy, that's what sparkling wine is for.
Other than ripeness, other factors also play a role. Soils will influence the flavours; those grapes coming from heavier clay sites will be fruitier and denser, while those from sites with more limestone may be more aromatic and less fruity. The altitude of the vineyard plays a role, as does luck. By that I mean that some things are out of a grower's control. A crew of grape pickers might not be available at the moment a grower wants to harvest. That unexpected delay can result in riper grapes than envisioned.
But the most important factor is intent. Each of these wines, I believed, represented the intent of the producer, and each differed. So when you hear the next marketer crowing about the "perfect ripeness" of the grapes, simply know that the marketers should add a clause to their claim: "in our opinion". NYTIMES