The Power and Elegance of Chianti Classico

The author and the Black Rooster
A Bit About Terroir

Few wine regions, and their wines, combine power and elegance as well as Tuscany. The land best known for sangiovese is remarkably hilly, the roads featuring few straights or flats of consequence. It experiences the kind of challenging weather one might expect from such topography that rises, at various points, over 1,000 feet above sea level. While this makes traveling the region by car both exhilarating and stressful, it also helps explain the meat and starch dominate local diet that demands the area’s naturally powerful wines. The region’s rich history of both nourishing its inhabits and challenging their existence is an added plot line.

Tuscany’s picturesque vistas bely the challenges of living among them, challenges that might not seem so obvious if we focus on our Hollywood association of Tuscany with self and romantic discovery. It’s a land populated for millennia and plagued, until relatively recently, by frequent bloody fighting among neighboring villages. Yet in more recent times, Tuscany has benefited as much from modernity as anywhere else in the world, becoming a tourism haven based on its natural beauty, incredible history, unique traditions, amazing food and wine, and welcoming people. Enter the elegance.

In Tuscany terroir is more than the connection between land and grape; it permeates the elements of daily life. This is especially evident in the region of Chianti Classico where I spent the week of Thanksgiving last year. I am a newcomer to Chianti Classico, a sub-region of Chianti within Tuscany defined essentially as a portion of the land between Siena and Florence. It has a history of second class wine world citizenship behind its Tuscan neighbor, Montalcino, comparable in many ways but almost always overshadowed by it due, in part, to centuries of decidedly second class quality.

Chianti’s Path To(wards) the Top

Before the first Chianti was bottled and labeled as such (in 1398 – a white wine, in fact), the Tuscan power centers of Florence and Siena, at war since the Middle ages, decided in the 13th Century to settle their territorial dispute in an unusual way: Each city would chose a rooster and a knight, and on the same day each knight would set off towards the other city on horseback when their respective rooster crowed. Wherever the two knights met would become the border.

To gain an advantage, the Florentines put their rooster in a box with no food for the few days leading up to the event so that it would crow earlier than usual out of hunger when the day came. It worked, giving their knight a head start and allowing him to get to within just 20 kilometers of Siena before encountering the Sienese rider. Four centuries later, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, formalized Chianti as a wine region with its southern tip located where the riders met.

In 1565, an artist named Giorgio Vasari chose the Florentine black rooster that had given the city’s knight a head start to depict the region in a painting that eventually served as the inspiration for Chianti’s winemakers who formed Italy’s first consortium of winemakers in 1924 and adopted the rooster as their logo.

In 1932 the Italian government expanded Chianti beyond the Cosimo III-defined area, and in 1984 gave that original Cosimo III Chianti the designation of Chianti Classico to reflect its origins. At this time both Chianti and Chianti Classico received the Italian government’s highest certification of quality, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

By the time the DOCG designation was made, Chianti Classico had not yet fully recovered from the reputation the region had developed over centuries of producing mediocre wine, especially when compared to their southern neighbors in Montalcino. Although the wines were improving, the region was still suffering from this second class reputation.

The requirements on what could be bottled and labeled as Chianti Classico underwent several rounds of refinement with the goal of improving quality and credibility. For the vast majority of the region’s existence, white grapes made up considerable portions of red blends; in the 1950s, trebbiano was often a third of a red wine’s contents, for example.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the production of 100% red wine was even authorized – limited to sangiovese. In 2005, the region’s consortium set a requirement that all Chianti Classico wines must include at least 80% sangiovese, with the following year becoming the first that producers began leaving white grapes out of their red wines.

As part of its efforts to improve quality and reputation, the consortium established designations for wine sbased on a variety of factors, including maximum vineyard yields, alcohol levels, extraction rates, duration of aging before the wines are both bottled and released. In 2014, the latest designation was made: Gran Selezione, which sits above Chianti Classico Riserva and Chianti Classico.

The oldest Chianti Classico I’ve tried is 2007, so I cannot speak to the evolution of quality from first hand experience. This limited exposure, however, was enough to pique my interest, and so when I decided to take a solo trip it last November wasn’t terribly difficult to settle on Chianti Classico.

Landing in Panzano
One of Panzano’s many breathtaking views

My first destination after landing in Rome was the small hilltop town of Panzano, a sort-of mid-point between Siena and Florence. I had heard about a butcher there, Dario Cecchini, who has become famous in part due to a visit by Anthony Bourdain. The Cecchini family has leveraged that fame to launch several restaurants and a bed and breakfast in Panzano, and I figured there might be no better entry point to November in Tuscany than a hearty and traditional local meal.

Upon arrival in Panzano, I checked into the Cecchini’s Rosso del Chianti and made my way by foot down the hill and into town where I stopped by a wine, cheese, and meat store called Wine Gourmet la Ripa to kill some time before dinner. The proprietor put together a small plate of delicious local meat and cheese, and paired with it a glass of 2019 Monte Bernardi Retromarcia Chianti Classico. I’d never heard of Monte Bernardi before, but liked it so much that I decided to fit a quick visit into my itinerary. More on that later. La Ripa was a wonderful find.

Wine Gourmet la Ripa in Panzano

My dinner was at Officina della Bistecca, the Checchini’s restaurant located the floor above their butcher shop, which offers a 50 euro set menu that includes four different beef courses plus a few quintessential Tuscan side dishes, bread, dessert, and a metal plant pot full of raw vegetables to gnaw on.

The open kitchen, where diners sit at rustic tables, features an open grill where your main courses are prepared in real time. I wound up seated next to a family that lives in a town close to where I grew up, and thoroughly enjoyed the friendly conversation. The drink menu is BYO, so I brought a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva from their store downstairs. The meal was exceptional, and I particularly enjoyed the traditional Tuscan tartar.

The combination of Rosso del Chianti, la Ripa, Officina, and the beautiful views from the small town were a fun way to start the trip, and the next day I made my way to Siena, which would be my home base for the remainder of the trip.

Officina della Bistecca

My time in Siena lasted five nights, and the plan was to sleep in each day, enjoy the hotel’s extensive breakfast, leisurely make my way to one winery where I would spend several hours, return to nap, and then walk to the historic old city for exploration and dinner. The only changes to this itinerary ended up being the addition of two wineries, both of which I’m very glad to have visited.

One note before proceeding: In lieu of scoring each wine I tasted, I’ve adopted a formatting meant to draw attention to the wines I found particularly compelling. Those in bold are wines that left a mark, and ones that I hope to encounter again. Bolded and italicized wines are those that I plan to seek out. Bolded, italicized, and underlined are those that I prioritized adding to our collection, purchasing them at the wineries at the time of tasting.


My first winery visit was Cecchi, one of the largest conglomerates in Chianti featuring a range of wines produced by a number of properties. The gorgeous property of Cecchi itself (spoiler alert: every property I visited is gorgeous (it’s Tuscany!)) has been planted with vines since 1081, and features facilities both modern and traditional. I was given a nice tour and then an extensive seated tasting with the chance to taste through a range of wines, from entry level to the highest end.

The Cecchi line-up

We started with the 2019 Cecchi Sangiovese di Toscana, a sangiovese from Chianti Classico not produced according to the region’s specifications and therefore unable to be labeled as such. It sees no oak, and is designed to be an easy-drinking wine for any occasion. The nose was fruit-forward, plum-driven, and featured rhubarb. The palate was smooth, low on tannin, and its red fruit and easy spice made it refreshing.

Next up was the 2020 Cecchi Chianti, a blend of grapes mainly from the Siena province that also see no oak. The nose was a bit more saturated than the Toscana and featured dried herb and juniper along with the tradition red and black fruits of the region. The palate was quite smooth, bordering on lush, but elevated by its bright acid. The tannins were long and lean, featuring tobacco along with the fruit.

Chianti Classico wines are known for significant tannins, and their arrival with the 2019 Cecchi Storia di Familglia Chianti Classico signaled things were getting local. The plum-led nose featured more depth and complexity than the prior two wines, featuring prune and star anise aromas that kept my nose going back for more. Those substantive tannins were balanced by good acid, and the wine poured quite dark. Flavors included blackberry, licorice, black strap molasses, violet, and dark fruits. Roughly 1 million bottles of this, a homage to the Cecchi family’s history, get produced each year. The grapes come entirely within the Castellina sub-region, and the blend is at least 90% sangiovese each vintage.

From there we ventured to the 2017 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Fagmilia. This one is a blend of 90% sangiovese and 10% cabernet sauvignon that is produced entirely off the estate vineyard and aged 12 months in oak. The earthy nose offered some fungal notes along with plum, cassis, currant, and violet. The sturdy and broad tannins framed a highly structured wine, thankfully elevated by juicy acid. The profile included lots of similarly earth-forward flavors along with a nice note of blood orange. This really shined on the palate, and is one I’d like to enjoy over a long evening in 2027.

By this point my mouth was filling up with tannin, but I was eager to soldier on when the 2016 Cecchi Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Valore di Famiglia was poured. It comes from older and higher elevation vines, and although the oldest wine of the lineup, it will require the most aging. The reticent and floral note is similar to the Riserva di Fagmilia, though time will likely expose more complexity. The most substantive and layered of the Cecchi Chianti Classicos, the graceful palate layers blood orange, raspberry, cherry, tobacco, violet, pepper, and tomato leaf. I wouldn’t touch this one for at least ten years.

The penultimate wine was the 2015 Coevo, the pinnacle wine of the Cecchi brand. Always a blend, this vintage is 50% sangiovese, 20% each cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and 10% petit Verdot. The sangiovese qualities are apparent on the nose, though the cherry is turned up, and augmented by fresh herb, sweet flower, and a variety of marmalades. The smooth, substantive, and elegant palate shows the sangiovese DNA at its core, which is surrounded by strawberry, cocoa, sweet leather, and black pepper. This is a very elevated wine; the tannins do serious work as they mix with oxygen, but the acid keeps the wine lively and juicy. There should be no rush to drain these bottles.

We finished on a very different note with a pour of the 2014 Tenuta Alzatura Montefalco Sagratino. From the Montefalco Sangratino area of Umbria (way outside Chianti), this sturdy variety reminded me of several wine tastings I’ve done in Virginia that feature mostly Bordeaux varieties but end with tannat, a grape historically from Uruguay that is dark, tannin-rich, and peppery.

The Sagratino, of which roughly 13,000 bottles are produced each year, has a dark set of aromas that include tar, licorice, plum, blackberry, fungus, and blueberry; effectively a more complex version of tannat. On the palate it’s very structured and incredibly tannic, but surprisingly balanced because of the bright acid – something rarely achieved by tannat. Similar to petit verdot, it’s very peppery, and also carries loads of tar, mulled blackberry compote, licorice, and dark moist earth. I was told that it pairs well with boar dishes.

The Cecchi range represents a number of characteristics: High quality, differentiation between each bottling, varietal (and location) signatures, and value. Emphasis on the value. Cecchi’s three Chianti Classicos, for example, showed the characteristics you would expect for high quality examples of the region’s quintessential wines, but at price tags you’d expect to find on lesser wines. And bonus: With the exception of the Sagratino, these are widely distributed within the United States.

Villa di Geggiano (Geggiano pronounced “jay-ja-no”)

Villa di Geggiano was my introduction to Chianti Classico. I took a flyer on their 2007 Riserva when I came across it a few years ago on Winebid, and it was one of the most memorable wines I drank in 2020 – and still counts as one my favorite red wines. That bottle led to more exploration of the region that ultimately inspired the trip, so after I booked my flights and accommodations, they were the first winery I reached out to schedule.

Though the winery and estate came into the Bianchi Bandinelli family in the 1500s as a dowry, its history as a winery goes back further – its cellar, for example, dates back the 1300s. The property itself has several gardens, both ornamental and functional, and is a declared National Heritage site. When I arrived, Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli gave me a tour of the area immediately surrounding the unbelievably gorgeous villa, which is a functioning guesthouse. We walked through several gardens, Andrea telling me about the history of the property and some of their future plans for it.

One of the estate’s highlights is an outdoor raised theater, the Teatro di Vezura, that was built in the 18th Century and is surrounded by incredibly tall Cyprus trees and hedges. Playwright and poet, Vittorio Alfieri, the founder of Italian tragedy, was a frequent guest of the property in the 18th Century and even performed one of his tragedies there. Live concerts and other performances are still held at the Teatro year-round.

The Geggiano Villa

While I’m glad the place I stayed at in Siena was within walking proximity to historic Siena, in hindsight I should have spent at least a night or two at Geggiano. The family puts its heart and soul into not just its wine but its entire property, committing the long hours – and money – to maintain everything, including the villa’s flour-to-ceiling (and ceiling-covering) frescos, intricate flooring, and everything else in and around the building. My favorite mural, among many, in the villa was done in 1780 by a traveling Austrian painter depicting the four seasons.

Although Geggiano began exporting its wines to the United Kingdom in 1795, exportation lagged during the winery’s more recent history until Andrea and his brother took over in 1989. Chianti Classico producers of its size – around 40,000 bottles per year – typically sell locally and have just a few big clients, but Andrea, who speaks great English and is well-traveled, saw exporting as an important diversification strategy and took it on. The effort has been so successful in England that the family opened an outpost in London in the form of a restaurant in 2014.

The Grounds

One of Andrea’s early connections was to Kermit Lynch, who liked what he tasted so much that Geggiano became Lynch’s second Italian client. “Kermit tasted the wines and told us to stop filtering, and we did,” Andrea told me. “Before that we only filtered half our wines, but after trying it we agreed with Kermit that it was better to not filter any of our wine.”

One winemaking technique used at Geggiano that stood out to me is the addition they make of dry ice to their three-day cold soak, putting the dry ice in the destemmer so it comes out with the berries. “When the dry ice melts it releases carbon dioxide, which acts as a natural preservative and means we don’t have to use as much sulfites,” Andrea said, explaining that this allows the fermentation to extract “more flavor and aromas in more delicate ways.” There is a sense of uniqueness to Geggiano wines, a more precise window into the wine’s terroir than I’m used to experiencing with most wine, and perhaps this dry ice technique is a reason why.

A large cistern helps provide for the estate’s water needs

After spending considerable time walking and talking, we sat down at a table in one of the side rooms of the villa to taste. The first wine poured was the 2019 Bandinello Toscano, a blend of 60% sangiovese and 20% each of syrah and ciliegolo. This blend of younger vine fruit is intended to be an early drinking wine with great freshness, and delivers a textural footprint framed by deceptively light tannin and elevated acid, byproducts of a three month stay in “very old” barrels before bottling. Andrea told me that he likes to serve it slightly chilled in the summer. I found its combination of fruit and earthly aromas and flavors, which produce a nice spicy plum undercurrent, very enjoyable. I usually default to Rosso di Montalcino when I am in need of a light red, but as I tasted it I couldn’t help but think how great it would go with marinara dishes and grilled meat.

From there we sent to the 2017 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico, a bottling of 100% sangiovese from the mid-age range of their vineyards. This wine poured quite dark, and the immediate seriousness of what I had experienced with that 2007 Riserva struck me. “2017 is not considered an easy vintage,” Andrea warned me, as I smelled the wine. “However, it didn’t produce enough Riserva-level fruit so we put all those grapes into this wine.” No wonder it reminded me of the Riserva!

It is a full, round, and flavorful wine with a beautifully perfumed nose (a signature of Geggianio Riserva). The surprisingly mature structure seemingly belied the immaturity of the prototypical Chianti Classico flavors, which remained buried under the tannin that, although substantive, avoided most of the astringency one might find in young Chianti Classicos from even the top producers. This will have a long and interesting evolution.

Wine aging in the Geggiano cellar built in the 1300s

Next was the 2016 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico Riserva. When I tasted it, it had been in bottle for only three months and Andrea cautioned me against making too many conclusions about it. The grapes for the Riserva come from the oldest at the estate. The blackish-red wine was bigger, rounder, and juicier than the Classico, and showed the Geggiano team’s effort to produce “a more elegant and aromatic” wine.

Unlike the Classico, a small percentage of the winery’s 40-year old cabernet sauvignon vines, 5% of the blend in this vintage, is added “to give more breadth to the bouquet.” Florals showed through in both the aromas and flavors, while the tannins showed elegance and refinement rarely found in Classico and balanced well with the beautifully deft acid. This one struck me as particularly age worthy – I wouldn’t touch it before 2030.

We finished with a 2008 Classico, a treat from the cellar that I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience. The then-13-year old wine showed a beautifully mature bouquet and a level of freshness worthy of a much younger wine. In fact, the palate remained tight after an hour of aeration in both structure and flavor, but also showed some mid-life qualities of baking spice and sweet balsamic reduction. I got the feeling it would continue to mature and improve at least through its 20th birthday. Like every Geggiano I’ve tasted, there’s less blood orange than I typically experience in Chianti Classico wines, and I found myself noting but not missing it with this or any of the other Geggiano wines tasted.

One topic of discussion throughout my time with Andrea was the impact of climate change on their vineyards and winemaking, which Andrea said he and his brother have experienced, in often wild waves, ever since taking over the estate.

“The previous generation would harvest in October, but now we typically do that September 10th-15th or so. There’s been a lot of draught, heat waves, and big rains,” he told me. They have employed a variety of techniques to account for these dramatic weather events, for example pruning later so that flowering isn’t killed by the increasingly frequent spring frosts, and leaving clippings on the soil to slow evaporation (“our clayish soil helps us with this as well” as it retains moisture very well).

Geggiano has not yet produced a Gran Selezione, making its Riserva the highest end of its range. Taking the designation seriously, that a Gran Selezione should be notably and noticably better than a Riserva, the family has taken its time determining where it might develop fruit that qualifies. “We’ve wanted to have an established new normal [of weather] before putting the time and investment into a Gran Selezione,” Andrea told me.

The time for one, though, appears to have come. They are now working on what Andrea described as a “cru” 1-hectre vineyard on a southeast-facing slope right up against the villa, with the intent to eventually produce such a wine. The Geggiano Riserva is such a good wine, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better version, though I am quite keen on tasting it what they put together.

I went into my Geggiano visit excited and left even more so. Too often I come across a single bottle of wine I love, and then as I explore the producer come to realize that whether founded in reality or perception, no other wine from that producer will top my initial experience. With Geggiano that is not the case. As a note from for those in or visiting New York, Andrea told me their wines can be found now at 11 Madison Park.

San Guisto a Rentennano (Guisto pronounced “jew-stow”)
San Guisto a Rentennano’s concrete tanks

As I was leaving Villa di Geggiano, Andrea and I discussed my remaining plans for the trip including both winery visits and restaurant reservations. The one winery he really pushed me to add to my itinerary was the renowned San Giusto a Rentennano. Close friends of his, he called one of the family members and set the visit up for me the very next day. There was zero way I was saying no.

As one leaves the main road to drive the private road up to the estate, taking in the sweeping landscape, vineyards, and olive tree groves, it is impossible to not feel the history and tension of Tuscany. San Giusto’s property was originally a monastery for nuns called San Giusto a Monache that opened in the late 900’s. Later, in 1204, after signing a border treaty with the Sienese, the Florentines fortified it and used it as a defensive post. It was later destroyed and rebuilt in the 1600s. Although most of the Florentine fortifications have fallen prey to time, some remain, and a portion of those along with other old foundations were used to create the 800+ year-old cellar still used today, which I was able to visit in total awe.

A corner of the cellar

Later, when I sat down to taste, I was able to see oyster shells, frequently unearthed on the property, that date back toa period roughly 60 million years ago (yes, you read that right) when this part of Tuscany was under the sea. The shells make the cellar seem modern.

The current family of owners, the Martini di Cigalas, took the property over when it came to them through marriage in 1914. In 1957 it was inherited by Enrico Martini di Cigala and his nine children. Today, six family members form the owner partnership including Anna, who showed me around the property and its facilities and gave me a tasting I’ll never forget.

The family tree

The property is 160 hectares with an average elevation of 270 meters, or just shy of 900 feet above sea level, of which 31 are planted to vine, 11 to olive trees, 40 to woods, and 78 reserved for grazing and “cultivated” purposes. Like much of Tuscany, the property experiences dramatic differences between day time and night time temperatures, and because of its geographic aspects gets a lot of wind.

The oldest vines on the property are now about 50 years old. Beginning in 1989, the family began replanting one hectare of vineyard per year using land that had undergone five to six years of revitalization prior to replanting. The vine density is between 5,000 and 7,000 vines per hectare, which is high, to drive competition by forcing the roots to grow deep into the ground to find sustenance. This tactic shines through in the wines, which demonstrate incredible depth of flavor.

Producing wine is clearly a labor of love for the di Cigala family. During the summer months, for example, the vines are thinned by as much as 50% in a practice known as “green harvesting” to limit resource dissemination in the vines and boost the quality of those grapes that ultimately end up in the wines. Each row is eventually harvested three times as the team looks for different selections to serve their range of wine: The larger bunches of sangiovese go into the Chianti Classico, the medium sized into the Riserva, and the smallest into the flagship Percarlo. 

The Vin Santo drying and barrel room

Perhaps the most inspiring example of the care put into San Giusto’s winemaking is their Vin Santo, a traditional sweet Chianti wine made of sangiovese that has been air dried before it is pressed to concentrate the flavors and sugars. In this winery’s case, the grapes are dried for three months and then pressed into small barrels, many of which are over 100 years old and none of which are ever cleaned.

The fermentation is jumpstarted with an addition from the “mother” barrel, something similar to a sour dough starter, that is a family product dating back multiple generations. Filtration takes a month-and-a-half to two months to complete and requires a canvas-like filter that needs multiple cleanings during the process.

Producing vin santo “is more [about] passion, not economics,” Anna told me as we stood in the drying room in the top floor of the winery. It’s a process in which San Giusto “ends up with a wine measuring 10-12% of what could have been produced using the same grapes to make a dry wine.”

~60 million, give or take, year-old oyster shells

Anna and I sat down to taste in a room with wonderful views of the property and display cases of oyster shells and other paraphernalia from the property. We started with the 2019 Chianti Classico, a blend of 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo that spends 10 months in oak. Considered a good vintage, the structure, as with all of the San Giusto wines I tasted, was absolutely seamless, melding its tannin and acid to produce serious grip and lifted floral notes that included lavender, violet, and rose. The flavor profile also included warm leather and blood orange to go with sweet cherry. This was better than many of the Riservas and Gran Seleziones I’ve had from other Chianti Classico producers, and was (and remains) the most serious-smelling Classico I’ve put my nose over to date.

Next came the 2018 Riserva le Baròncole, which is 97% sangiovese and 3% canaiola. While production is similar to the Classico, it receives an additional six to ten months of French barrel and cask aging. Once bottled, San Giusto lets it rest for six months before moving it out the door. The berries used for it are smaller in size than those that go into the Classico, and this choice shines in the concentration and depth of the wine. The nose seems infinitely layered, showing promise in its youth of a variety of sweet and leathery aromas. The mouthfeel and structure is otherworldly, allowing the wine to be both thicker than the Classico and somehow more delicate at the same time. Similarly seamless, the amazingly pure fruit – a cornucopia of red and black types – plays well with the sweet earthy aromas. It hits that magical point that few wines do of being more than the sum of its parts. While the Classico might go from really good to great in the next five years, this Riserva will need twice as long to achieve its best, if not more.

The 2017 Percarlo, meaning “For Carlo” and named after a family friend who died one year before the first vintage of this wine, is 100% sangiovese and befitting of a wine named after a special person. It spends 23 months in oak and then one year in bottle before becoming available to the public, and is a cuvée of the smallest berries from the best parts of the vineyards.

My first written note is “this is quite something – incredibly substantive in every direction; the vista is incredible.” The nose was more reticent than the palate at this stage, with a focus on delicate violet florals and that crushed Sweetart thing. The acid was bright, maybe brighter than the Classico or Riserva, but remained perfectly balanced. On the tannin side it was the most refined of the three sagiovese wines (quite a feat); “pure perfection on that front,” I jotted down.

I never found a rhythm going back and forth between the Percarlo, the Classico, and the Riserva, because all were so good that I couldn’t stay focused on one for very long before grabbing the next glass to check in. Thankfully, the next two wines were the 100% merlot 2018 and 2015 La Ricolma, which pulled me out of my sangiovese circuit.

These two wines were the most pleasant surprise of the trip and examples of a wine I’d put up against any other merlot in the world with great confidence that they’d stand up to, if not defeat, their challengers. The Ricolma is the result of a decision to plant merlot for the purpose of blending into the Chianti Classico. “We never did produce a Classico with any merlot because [when we tried it] we didn’t like it. Instead, we turned it into a unique project that we call “a Chianti merlot,” Anna explained.

It was fascinating to taste a traditionally smooth variety like merlot that was grown in a region known for robust tannin. Rentennano are able to build a very smooth mouth feel into this regional peculiarity by developing just enough of the right acid to smooth out a classically Chianti tannic profile. This is a merlot like no other.

The 2018 has some of the sweetness of the Rentennano Chiantis as well as some of their florals, but there remains sufficient quintessential merlot typicity that while one might be confused about its physical origin, they would be unlikely to confuse the variety. Despite age being on its side, the cooler vintage 2015 struck me as more austere and angular, more grippy and earthy, and less sweet than the younger 2018. Both are going to benefit with time, but are already quite special.

We finished with the 2013 Vin Santo, a sweet wine unlike any I’d had before – Vin Santos included. Vin Santos have a an almost gelatinous mouth feel that is not for everyone; I tend to describe them, and especially San Guisto’s, as slimy wine, for better or worst.

San Guisto purposefully fills their Vin Santo barrels only two-thirds of the way full to oxidate the wine. By the time it gets bottled, the sugar is around 400 grams per liter. By way of comparison, that’s roughly four times the sugar of a typical Port; the far end of Wine Folly’s chart of sugar in wine notes that “very sweet” wine falls within the 120-220 grams per liter range. Thankfully this one has brilliant acid, which appropriately redirects the high sugar with depth and crispness; you “feel the structure of the sugar more than you taste the sweetness,” I wrote.

Since returning from Tuscany, I’ve spent more time thinking about and purchasing San Giusto a Rentennano wines than any other wine I tasted on the trip. The time spent there was one of those life-changing events, up there with the likes of our visits to Emidio Pepe and Markus Hüls a few years ago. I went to Chianti knowing I loved Villa di Geggiano, and I came back knowing that I’d never get board of Chianti Classico again because now I have San Giusto as well.

Monte Bernardi

As mentioned earlier, I enjoyed a single glass of Bernardi Chianti Classico my first night in Tuscany, when I was staying in Panzano and visited a small wine and charcuterie shop. I asked the proprietor to pick the wine for me, and as he told me about his selection I could see a couple at the table next to me listening and chuckling. After the proprietor left, they leaned over and told me how hilarious they found it that even though I had traveled to Italy, I had been given a wine made by a winery owned by a fellow American. The wine was good, so I didn’t care.

As I sat there, I did a 30 seconds of Googling and noticed two things: Monte Bernardi was less than five minutes down the hill from where I was sitting, and it seemed to be popular among the natural wine crowd. I wasn’t really looking to add another winery visit, but I figured that if I found myself out and about and interested in another tasting, I could pop in for a quick tasting. Towards the end of the trip I indeed did find myself in that position, and made the stop.

Monte Bernardi’s name as an estate goes back to 1085, though the first wines produced under that name were made with the 1992 vintage. Prior to that, grapes grown on the property were sold to wineries. Perched on their own mini hilltop, the tasting room has direct line of vision to some of the winery’s estate vineyards. Monte Bernardi only produces wines from its own vineyards and does so biodynamically. The 53-hectare estate has 9.5 of them planted to vines, which average 40 years in age. The estate was indeed purchased by an American family, the Schmelzers, in 2003, and remains under their ownership.

I didn’t get into many details with the person in the tasting room, but a few things stuck out that are in keeping with a biodynamic approach to winemaking: minimal human intervention, very neutral oak, concrete tanks, and low sulfur dioxide. One thing that did surprise me was the duration of wood aging, which is significantly longer than the legally required amounts. For example, the portion of the Retromarcia Chianti Classico that gets oak aging spends 18 months in large casks. The Sa’Etta, my favorite of the lineup and a riserva, can spend as long as 30 months in wood.

On a future trip I plan to reach out to the winery to see if I can spend more time on the property as my brief encounter with the wines left me wanting more. They are not the hardest niché Chianti Classicos to find in the US, and for those looking to try something a little different I highly recommend them.

Sorelli and Felsina

I also made visits to Cantina Sorelli and Felsina, though my notes from those visits have somehow vanished. I spent time at Sorelli with Matteo Sorelli, one of the younger generation of the Sorelli family who is undertaking considerable efforts to modernize and refine the long-time operation that produces a range of wines of wide quality and type, mostly in the lower tier of price points, across a range of brands. A conglomerate, they own (among many others) Castello di Uzzano, makers of serious Chianti Classico. I really enjoyed my time with Matteo, and left very impressed with his business, and wine, acumen. I’ll be curious to see where he steers the company has he seems to take a minority view among the company by prioritizing quality over quantity.

Just one portion of the sprawling cellar of Felsina

Felsina is an industry standard of Chianti Classico. Their wines are widely available in the United States, and are held up as a standard bearer of the region. I had a nice tour of the cellar, and then a guided tasting of three Chianti Classicos, their Tuscana red blend called Fontalloro, their chardonnay, and their non-vintage spumante. I will admit to both a subpar experience with previous bottles of their Rancia Riserva, and an extremely good prior experience with their spumante. I hoped that this visit would give me a more rounded experience with their wines. While I wasn’t able to taste many of their wines that would have been new to me, I took to the 2018 Fontalloro and 2016 Spumante Brut, both of which are now aging in our cellar.

I’ll Be Back

In the last two years, the quantity of sangiovese in our collection has multiplied by a factor of six. Much of that growth has happened since this Tuscan trip. I brought back some Geggiano, Monte Bernardi, and Felsina, and have gone on a mini Rentenanno buying spree as I continue to look for more Geggiano domestically.

Two of the many beautiful things about Chianti Classico are its affordability and its long lifespan. It’s financially feasible to stock up on Chianti Classicos relative to, say, Brunello, and the affordability allows you purchase more wine and experience them at more stages of their development. This is true of even the highest end Chianti Classicos, and it permits you to get to know the wines, their winemakers, and terroir more intimately, connecting you more deeply with the varietal and a region of the world that is enticing, inviting, beautiful, and challenging. Chianti Classico is a gift that keeps on giving in this regard.

My favorite city in Europe is Florence, and I was very tempted to make that my home base for this trip. But I knew that with my daily trips to the wineries, I would have to battle the traffic of whatever city I stayed in. My terrible experience with Florence’s traffic is what pushed me to Siena, a city I had never been before. I’ll just say that I am quite pleased with how it worked out.

Siena is smaller than Florence, but offers its own brand of charm and history. The old city is quite beautiful, and I really enjoyed getting to know it by foot as I ate and drank my way through it. Geggiano’s Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli, in addition to connecting me with Rentennano, sent me to a restaurant in old Siena called Osteria Le Logge, owned by a friend of his. It was one of my last dinners of the trip, and definitely the best; those traveling through Siena should not miss it. Le Logge has its own multi-floor underground cellar, located a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant, and I was treated to a tour of it by its master. I ultimately selected and enjoyed a Faccoli Franciacorta Riserva Extra Brut 2005, yet another example of how underrated Italian sparkling wine can be.

Italian sparkling wine is vastly underrated

While I was able to cover a lot of ground in Chianti Classico, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. My first trip won’t be my last, and I look forward to visiting the friends I made on this trip while making new ones as I eat and drink my way through a region that deserves every bit of the legend it has.

Really Good Brunello: Bartoli Giusti

Giusti agriturismo

Bartoli Giusti’s vineyards and agriturismo

During our honeymoon in Europe last summer, Kayce and I visited three wineries: Emidio Pepe in Abruzzo, Italy; Weingut Markus Hüls in the Mosel Valley in Germany; and Bartoli Guisti in Italy’s Montalcino. Emidio Pepe blew our minds, and I didn’t wait very long to write about it. Hüls revolutionized our mutual appreciation for rielsing. Finally, eight months later, I’m getting around to writing about Guisti. Don’t let the gap throw you, though, the wine is stellar and worth seeking out.

The city of Montalcino is the center of the small wine-producing region known as Brunello di Montalcino, often referred to simply as “Brunello.” Brunello di Montalcino has the Italian government’s highest wine classification, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or DOCG for short. Although there are some wines from Brunello not made from the red grape sangiovese, the most famous, creatively called “Brunello di Montlacino,” is entirely that grape. When people say “Brunello” it is sangiovese that they mean.

Montalcino city

Montalcino is a gorgeous city draped over the top of a mountain. The roads that wind up to the city center at the top of the hill are long and steep, and pass many wineries, vineyards, olive groves, and other agricultural businesses. The old(est) and (most) historic part of the city is mostly made of roads too narrow for car travel, so you feel the incline in every step. Shops, homes, restaurants, tasting rooms and bars alternate with each other and mingle with apartments and historic churches, making the small city a cohesive place to visit. It’s a truly lovely city, even if you don’t make it to a winery.

Of the 100% sangiovese wines, there are aging rules that dictate how the bottle is labeled. The youngest wine is called Rosso di Montalcino, and must be aged at least one year, in oak and/or in barrel, before release. Brunello di Montalcino Normale (it is rare to see the “Normale” distinction on the label, most just say “Brunello di Montalcino”) must be released no earlier than five years post vintage, and have spent at least two of those years in barrel and four months in bottle. Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, as you might expect, ages the longest: six years from vintage with a minimum of two years in barrel and six months in bottle.

Many Brunello aficionados believe that Brunello di Montalcino “Normale” and the Riserva demand at least ten years of aging post vintage before the might even begin to enter their prime. Sitting on the best Normale’s and even standard Riserva’s for fifteen to twenty years is not only common, but frequently recommended. The best examples are why Brunello is considered among Italy’s, and the world’s, very best wines.


The Consorzio 2012 vintage tasting

My first real exposure to Brunello came through an invitation to a large tasting hosted in New York in January of 2017 by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, a consortium of wine producers from the region. The tasting was the industry’s first real access to the then-newly released 2012 vintage, which received the Consorzio’s full five star rating, marking it as one of the few in the last few decades to receive such praise and faith from the producers themselves. One of the reasons why people age Brunello for at least a decade is because of how tannic the wines are when first released. As someone with a low tolerance for high tannin, it was a struggle to taste through the fifty or so producers at the event. By the midpoint, it was hard to detect much beyond the tannin structure and acid.

Nevertheless, I walked away very intrigued and began exploring more from Montalcino. Eight months later, I attended the grand opening tasting of Zachy’s DC and fell for the 2012 Marchesi Antinori Pian Delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino, which was being poured. Although built with a sturdy tannin structure, the flavors popped more than many of the 2012’s I had tasted in January and made me feel confident enough to bring home three bottles to lay down. Barely a month later, I came across a 1998 of the same wine, took it home and liked it so much that I placed it third on my most memorable wines I tasted in 2017.

I’ve slowly stockpiled more Brunello, but have come to really love the Rosso di Montalcino’s as well. With a less extractive winemaking process, most Rosso are much more accessible and flavorful upon release than Brunello. Compared to the ~$50 entry point for most Brunello di Montalcino (many go $100+), a high quality Rosso will set you back, at most, $30, with many great ones closer to $20, and is a real treat. This is my segway to Bartoli Guisti.

Old vintages

Guisti is imported by our friends at Weygandt-Metzler, who connected us with the winery as well as helped set up our visit with Markus Hüls. I had not tried Giusti prior to the visit, but had asked Peter Weygandt if he could connect us with one of his Brunello producers. I’m not sure why or how Guisti was the choice, but I’m grateful that it was.

The Guisti family isn’t sure how long they’ve been making wine, but based on documents found during the last winery renovation, they know their ancestors were active in the wine business in the early 1700s. Still run by the family today, their vineyards cover nearly 30 acres within Brunello di Montalcino, with an additional 74 acres of olive trees. The winery and cellar is located on the outskirts of Montalcino in an area called Osservanza.

The vineyards are tended to by hand, from pruning to harvesting and everything between. Production is a modest 20,000 bottles of Rosso, 50,000 bottles of Brunello and a small amount of Riserva made only in the best years. These are quantities that relative to vineyard size indicate high standards for the grapes that make it into the wine. Put another way, through cluster dropping or meticulous sorting, or both, production is lower than it could be. Nearly half of the vineyards are new plantings that went into the ground in 2017, 2018 and 2019 under an expansion plan meant to boost both quality and quantity of production. Grapes these vineyards are still coming online and for the most part haven’t entered production wine yet. Currently, 60 or so percent of their production is exported.

Barrell maker

Guisti’s production area

The wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks and made somewhat reductively using pump overs. Fermentation typically takes between 15 and 20 days. The wood aging vessels are made in Veneto, Italy, from oak sourced from Slovania, and hold more than 2100 gallons each. These large (and old) barrels mean that while the wine benefits from the structure and mellowing that the oak provides, there is little to no flavor added to the wine by the wood. These oak barrels are one of the reasons why I was drawn to Giusti’s wines: all the structural upsides with none of the oaky flavor downsides. Unfortunately, there is a sizable portion of Brunello made in a more New World style these days that feature oak-forward flavor profiles. Giusti stands apart from this newer trend, thankfully, and maintains a focus on nuanced elegance rather than tannic power.


Giusti’s oak barrels

After making our way into the center of Montalcino and working through some logistical mix-ups, we met Anna Maria Focacci, who shares ownership, winemaking duties and management of Giusti with her brother, and proceeded to the winery for a tour through the cellar and a tasting in a nicely-appointed family room on the top floor of the “cantina” adjacent to the winery. Anna, whose first vintage was 1970, did not speak much English, but we did our best to learn the information I’ve conveyed in this post so far. What did not require translation, however, were her beautiful and elegant wines.

We started with the 2017 Rosso di Montalcino, a wine we’ve had several times since returning from the trip because we love (LOVE) it. It’s always an open question of how well a wine travels, and it’s always interesting to see how a wine ages, so for comparison’s sake I’m posting my tasting notes from the visit on July 1st, 2019 and a more recent tasting on January 25th of this year.

From the visit in Montalcino, Italy: The nose is very perfumed with high-toned aromas of red fruit, spice, leather and florals. It’s medium body is very juicy and spicy. It delivers good mineral earthiness and a range of sweet red fruit: cranberry, strawberry and huckleberry. The fine grain tannin is mouth filling and offers engaging grip that accentuates the flavors. It is very clean and crisp. Additional oxygen is exposing a chili flake and scorched earth finish. Very good, very complete with lots of depth of flavor and concentration. 92 points. Value: A+.

From a few weeks ago in Washington, DC: This elegant, pretty nose offers aromas of sweet and spiced plum sauce, rhubarb, muddled strawberry, red current, seasoned leather and cardamom. The medium body coats the mouth with juicy acid and sweet, fine tannin that develops a slightly grippy sensation the longer the wine remains in the mouth. Flavors include blackberry, mountain strawberry, sweet balsamic, blood orange, fresh leather and mild black pepper. This is absolutely singing at the moment and impressively accessible. 92 points. Value: A+.

We have accumulated a small stock of the 2017 Rosso and are going through at a rate of 1-2 per month. It is an absolutely great wine to enjoy on its own, and the modest but grippy tannin, bright and integrated acid, and combination of fruit and earthy flavors make it a versatile food pairing wine as well. At about $20 per bottle, it’s an incredible value.

Anna then poured the 2013 Brunello di Montalcino. The aromas wafted plum, cigar, boysenberry, raspberry, cracked black pepper, graphite, violet and a menthol-type aroma. Despite its youth, it was pulled together nicely on the palate by refined tannin and an elegant balance between acid and texture. Unlike many young Brunello, the core of tannin shows better construction and was not entirely separate and apart from the other structural components. The flavors are dark fruited and dark spiced, and bolstered by orange peel, green pepper, herbaceous undertones and scorched earth. While somewhat approachable, the density suggests it requires the usual ten-plus years of aging to get the full experience. 94 points. Value: A.

We have a few of these aging away, but haven’t opened any, and won’t until at least 2023. At about $40, this one continues the Giusti tradition of amazing value.


The final wine opened was the 2012 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. The nose packed a huge punch and was marked by considerable depth and concentration. The longer one inhaled, the more they got: asphalt, sweet cherry, spearmint, leather, balsamic reduction, and more. The full body was well-rounded with velvety and gorgeously smooth tannin (especially for a young Riserva). The flavors will require time to fully delineate, but at that moment showed promise of red, purple and black fruit, as well as mint, spice and earth. It’s all there, but don’t dare open it until at least 2025. 96 points. Value: unknown.

Unfortunately, the Riserva is not imported to the United States at this time, though I’m working on Weygandt to bring some in. It is a truly spectacular wine and, I would imagine, another exceptional Brunello value.


We finished with a taste of the estate’s grappa, which is a brandy made from the leftover bits (called “pomace”) of the wine production – stems, seeds and skins. I’m a grappa lover, but don’t drink much of it outside of Italy because of the ridiculous markup it receives in the United States. Like its wine, Giusti’s grappa is spectacular and I bought a 700ml bottle hoping to get a good way through it before we flew home. Quite strong, I put down about 60% of it before the end of the trip, making it an entirely worthwhile purchase. Here is the tasting note:

Fruity and spicy on the nose, I get cactus fruit, passion fruit, aloe vera, anise and strawberry. The flavor is almost Tequila-esque, but without the bite. This has more warmth and fruit – namely cactus, melon and papaya – to go with strong herbal flavors.

Like the Riserva, this is also not available in the US, but also like the Riserva, I’m working on Weygandt to change that. Fingers crossed.

Guisti will be a difficult find for most Americans as it is imported in small quantities and not widely distributed. That’s unfortunate because the quality and value are off the Brunello charts. Brunello is not an accessible wine no matter how you measure it, price or palate. The flavors are not for everyone, and few have the patience or cellar to age it into the version of itself that would be easier for a wider audience to appreciate. Guisti is anything but elitist, as are most Brunello producers, but the quality of the soils, the climate, the winemaking, everything about Giusti suggests that it is a rare winery that services everyone from the Brunello neophyte to expert.

The limited production is, I’m sure, part of why Giusti impresses to this extent. After all, it is usually more difficult to make world class wine at higher production numbers than lower ones, all things considered. However, as the new plantings come online and production is boosted a bit, it’s my hope that more people in the United States will be able to find it.

If you’re interested in visiting Montalcino, Giusti has an agriturismo that I imagine, if the effort put into the hospitality is anything like the effort put into wine, would be a great experience. The winery’s tasting room is conveniently located in the heart of Montalcino as well. In short: if you’re visiting, there is no excuse or justification for missing some aspect of Giusti.

The Legend of Abruzzo & Beyond: Emidio Pepe


When Kayce told me she booked us for two nights during our honeymoon at the Emidio Pepe agritourismo in Abruzzo, Italy, I thought, ‘no way.’ Seemed too good to be true. Emidio Pepe is a legendary wine producer. Legendary Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine, and legendary trebbiano white wine. It’s essentially the winery of Abruzzo, at least according to what I know, and it’s not always easy to find bottles in the United States. I had heard great things, but had never actually verified them since I’d never tasted any Emidio Pepe. I was hoping this wasn’t going to be too good to be true.

Months later, as we drove up the winding road on our final approach to the winery, I allowed myself to transition from skeptical to hopeful; if my first step inside the place carried any trepidation, I’d jinx it. The Pepe estate, which consists of the family home, winery, vineyards and an agritourismo (essentially a full service boutique hotel serving food grown on and near the property), is perched on top of one of the many hilltops in the rolling countryside of Abruzzo. The property has an idyllic setting: affixed atop a hill with a roughly 270 degree view of the surrounding rolling hills, which are mostly draped in vineyards and topped with either agricultural estates or small villages. Beyond them are large mountains, some of which go into the several thousands of meters above sea level.


The view from our room

Even though our stay at Emidio Pepe was part of our honeymoon, Kayce was understanding in recognizing that, given the weight of Emidio Pepe in the wine world, it should be leveraged for a Good Vitis piece, and so I sent an email ahead of time asking for some one-on-one time with a representative of the property in order to collect information for a post. We were paired with Gianluca, who runs the commercial side of the property, for a tour and tasting the day after our arrival.

A side note on Gianluca: He appears to be a true asset for the company, and for its visitors. Though not part of the Pepe family, he was hired to run the agritourismo and represent the winery around Italy. Having spent time in England for work previously, he speaks very good English and knows how to connect with Anglos, an important skill for Pepe because of the high percentage of visitors they get from the US, UK and other countries with whom the common language with Italians is English. He is a gracious and warm host who cares about every visitor’s experience.

A second side note on Gianluca: He also really knows his wine stuff. He took us on our tour of the winery, explaining numerous aspects of the process and providing answers to questions that are only known by people who study the craft. We had a great discussion with him about skin contact wines from Italy, and he wrote down several suggestions that we are eager to pursue. It’s clear he’s a true wine lover.

As a wine region, Abruzzo hasn’t had much recognition in America, at least the type of recognition that a winery focused on quality and uniqueness like Emidio Pepe would want. Most of America’s experience with Abruzzo comes by way of inexpensive and fairly simple wine, the three most common of which are made as varietally-labeled wines from the signature grapes of the region: white grapes pecorino and trebbiano, and the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. In Washington, DC, where we live, it’s much easier to find these wines on a bar’s happy hour menu for $8 a glass than it is in a wine shop for more than $15 a bottle. Abruzzo is vastly overshadowed by Italy’s better known region, though Emidio Pepe is one that transcends this reputation of simple wine.

Part of what sets Emidio Pepe apart is the focus they have on making wines that transcend themselves with significant aging – we’re talking twenty-plus years for the better vintages of montepulciano and five-plus years for trebbiano.

To say “transcend” with age rather than “improve” or “evolve” is to imply more gravity, namely that there is a significant transformation that happens from an early stage of the wine’s life to a later stage. This kind of change can be exemplified by two tasting notes, two experiences, that are almost, if not completely, different: the structure, aromas and flavors show little resemblance to each other as the structure becomes more regal and the common themes are reduced to (critical) things like quality and style. Transcendence on this scale is limited to the best wines in the world – some, but not nearly all, Bordeauxs, Burgundys, Barolos, Brunellos (lots of B’s now that I think about it), Riojas, Vouvrays, etc. Pepe’s transcendence puts it in the most elite of company.


Gianluca and the author walking the Emidio Pepe cellar

Nearly half of each year’s production is placed in Emidio Pepe’s cellar for future release, and when I say “future release,” I’m talking five to twenty years later depending on the vintage and variety. Each year, these older vintages are made available to a maintained list of collectors. America is the biggest destination of these library releases.

I’ve come across serious library programs before, but none come close to this level of dedication to releasing “wine that is very good and elegant,” as Gianluca put it. Walking the cellar is an experience: rows and rows of unlabeled bottles segregated by vintage. Every vintage since the first in 1964, save the eight they skipped due to poor quality, are there. Finding the section reserved for a personally important year is a lot of fun. I scoured the room for 1983, my birth year, while Kayce was disappointed to learn that her birth year, 1989, was one of those skipped.

To go even further, the wines are bottled unfiltered and made in a very reductive manner, which are factors that contribute to the wine’s ability to improve with age. “Reductive wine” refers to wine that is made with techniques that limit its exposure to oxygen. Because oxygen inherently and irreversibly kills wine (it ages wine to death just like it does humans), the less the oxygen exposure, the longer-lived the wine. Also, oxygen exposure forces a wine to release its aromas, flavors and textures, and so if you’ve had a wine that becomes significantly more interesting as it sits in your glass or decanter, you’ve likely experienced a reductive wine opening as it takes in oxygen for the first time.

When the older Pepe vintages are released, it is because the winery believes the vintage is beginning to hit the early part of its drinking window. Before bottles of old vintages are shipped, each wine is opened, decanted and re-corked with a new cork. This process helps rid the wine of the significant amount of sediment that has built up. Given the amount of reductiveness in Pepe wines, the brief decanting does little to stunt its growth. By the time a bottle of 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo makes its way to a customer in 2019, for example, it’s beginning to reveal its promise. I can attest to this example as the 2000 was one of the wines we tasted.

Making wine for the long haul is centered on the belief that when good wine ages, it gets better. While “good” is the operative term in that sentence, the underlying premise is that the wine is made in a way that allows it to become better with age. “Good,” therefore, carries the implication that the winemaking is done intelligently and purposefully with the goal of the final product being better later than it is sooner. This leads to practices in grape growing and winemaking that may not otherwise be followed. I point this out because unless this conscious choice is made, the wine likely won’t improve much beyond a more limited amount of time.

This is the starting point from which Emidio Pepe makes its wine. At the winery level, there seems to be some correlation between interest in making reductive wines and interest in making what is being referred to these days as “natural wine,” an approach characterized by minimal human intervention and minimal use of “unnatural” products (e.g. synthetic pesticides, fining agents, etc.). Emidio Pepe is often considered a “natural” wine producer. Though there is no definition of natural wine (a fact that in my view undercuts the argument for natural wine), when a wine is good, it’s good, regardless of how it’s made.


A Pepe vineyard

Natural wine proponents argue that following minimalist techniques, like limiting pesticide use in the vineyard or refraining from additives in the winery (some go so far as to exclude all additives, including sulfur, a natural element and effective preservative in even small doses) produces a wine more inclined to taste like the terroir and vintage than if more human intervention and manipulation were used, and is better for nature and human health.

This means that unless someone really, really knows what they’re doing, a poor vintage of natural wine can taste like a poor wine. It also means that if something goes wrong in the vineyard or winery, the winemaker has few tools to correct it. I’ve had truly terrible natural wines that would’ve been better with some human intervention, and I’ve had great natural wines that would’ve been worse under a heavier human hand. I see no reason why natural winemaking is inherently better. If a property can produce better wine by following some natural winemaking process, I’m all for it. If they can’t but still chose to, then they should re-evaluate the business.

We had an interesting discussion with Gianluca about the topic of natural wine during our tasting with him because Emidio Pepe is often categorized by others as a natural wine producer. We got an answer not that different from the paragraphs above. It effectively went like this.

Part one: We’ve been making wine from these vines for a long time (the trebbiano vines are 35 years old, the montepulciano are 50) using the same vinicultural and winemaking techniques, and so we’ve learned what we need to do to get the best harvests. Further, because all these vines and our winemakers know is what we’ve always done, both have learned how to adapt effectively to nature’s various curveballs.

Part two: Because we love our grapes so much and want to show them off, we only do what is necessary to showcase them as they are, and nothing more.

Part three: If at any point we decided a change in the vineyard or winery would lead to better wine, we’d probably make it, but only after serious study.

Part four: This process is the original winemaking process – it is organic and biodynamic by its own nature, not by a desire to get a certification – and we like its outcome. If this happens to fit someone’s definition of natural wine, great.

Though Pepe could easily be called natural wine and few would argue with it, I think a more appropriate term, if we need one, is old school winemaking. Emidio Pepe was established in 1964, and though today’s vines aren’t the originals (the montepulciano is 50 years old and the trebbiano is 35 years old), it is easy to maintain organic and biodynamic methods, as they do, when that’s all the vines have known their entire lives. Pepe has effectively been organic and biodynamic since 1964 in practice, though actual certifications came later (when organic and biodynamic became a thing requiring certification to commercially claim). The idea is a “natural expression of the viniculture” as Gianlucca explained it.


Gianluca explaining the foot treading phase over one of the wood vats

The winemaking process is similarly straight-forward and consistent from year-to-year. All grapes are handpicked and foot tread, which represents the entirety of the pressing process. The whites and reds are tread in different vessels, both made of wood. The skins from the white grapes are not reintroduced to the juice, while the red goes through fifteen to twenty days of maceration. Naturally occurring yeast is allowed to initiate and complete fermentation. Tightly-trimmed stems are included with the white grapes in the treading, but removed for the red. The whites are aged in temperature-controlled stainless steel while the red is aged entirely in concrete.

These aging vessels are critical to their respective varieties because of Abruzzo’s searing heat and the desire to make reductive wines. While we were there in mid-June, temperatures were consistently in the mid-90s. They rise through July and August. It is imperative that the whites go into cold jacketed tanks in order to maintain safe temperature, and the concrete tanks that the reds age in are fantastic for maintaining low temperatures on their own. Given Abruzzo’s heat, it shouldn’t be surprising that canopy management in the vineyard is imperative as well to protecting the grapes from sun burn and keeping sugar levels reasonable, which can build quickly in this kind of heat. Vines in Abruzzo are allowed to maintain thick layers of leaves across their tops to provide shade and protection for the grapes.


Pepe vines

Additionally, because montepulciano is so strongly expressive and naturally inclined to produce big wines, concrete is preferred at Pepe because it tames this tendency by allowing little oxygen to come into contact with the wine compared to what oak barrels would allow (more oxygen means bigger wine in this context). Punchdowns are used once per day, and no batonage (stirring of the wine while aging) is performed. This combination of stainless steel for whites and concrete aging for reds (versus oak for either), a small amount of punch downs (versus pump overs) and zero batonage (versus some) are all reductive techniques relative to their alternative methods.

The moral of the Pepe story is that the two things that do not change from vintage to vintage is the unique qualities that come from this approach and Pepe’s terroir. What does change is the influence of the vintage on the wine. The dinner we ate the first night of our stay included the current releases of the pecorino, trebbiano and montepulciano. Later, when we met with Gianluca, we tasted some different vintages.


We started with the 2016 Trebbiano, which pours a dark, golden honey color that belies the absence of skin contact in the winemaking process. The aromatics are tropically themed with a linear spice that cuts through the center. Pineapple, mango, marzipan, Key Lime and a petrol-like quality not unlike that found in high quality riesling waft at first sniff. Over time, a gorgeous sweet aroma develops as well. So saturated, the bouquet has its own structure, a quality I’m not sure I’ve experienced before and one that blew me away. On the palate, it is medium bodied with round and sturdy acid that creates great tension. The flavors lead with a crisp mineral Key Lime pie, followed by peppery spice, saltiness and pineapple. It broadens with as it takes on air, coating the mouth with sweet peach and vanilla spice notes. This brilliant wine is among the very best I’ve had, red or white. 95 points. Value: A+.

From there we moved to the 2015 Pecorino. This variety is normally planted at 500-700 meters in elevation in Abruzzo, but Pepe put theirs at 250 meters because it packs on sugar very quickly. This lower elevation helps with limiting direct sun exposure on the grapes, and they harvest the pecorino before their other grapes to keep sugars low as well. Aromatics are tricky when producing pecorino, and Pepe actually shuts fermentation down a bit early in order to do that. Given all this, I know now why I’ve never had great pecorino until I tried Pepe’s, which is phenomenal.

The nose starts off slightly funky and a bit muted, but with air it takes on mushed banana, lanolin, apricot, orange plum, orange marmalade, sweet Thai chili sauce and Kiwi. The body is plush and soft, offering less acid than the Trebbiano. The flavors are similarly soft and a bit salty. Citrus carries the day despite the preponderance of tropical flavors, including banana, quince, passion fruit, zesty lemon peel and white pepper that really pops. It has a wonderful light oiliness sensation. 93 points. Value A+.

At this point, we transitioned to the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Gianlucca opened the 2000 and 2010, both exceptional vintages for the estate that he called “among the best for Abruzzo.” The 2010 will be re-released soon. There are six sectors of the oldest vines on the property, and the grapes from them are made into a separate batch that goes into the lot that is held back in the cellar for future release. The 2000 and 2010, taken together, exemplify the transcendence I discussed earlier. You’ll see in the tasting notes below a number of differences that could suggest two different wines. I had a difficult time picking a favorite as each has so much to offer and left me wanting nothing more than another glass. What was evident in tasting them side-by-side is that 2000 was a warmer year: the body, structure and alcohol are all more significant than the 2010.

The 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has an exquisite nose showing signs of sweet tertiary aromas with a sherried/carmelized note. I also picked up roasted and jarred piquillo peppers, sweet mint and canned cherry. The palate remains quite robust in structure and weight; in fact, it appears to just be hitting puberty. The flavors are similarly sweet as the aromas, but the spice is really taken up a notch. The fruit is mostly red and crisp, but somehow also saturated and dense. The acid and tannin spine is keeping everything perfectly framed and structurally integral, developing a slight chewiness as it takes on oxygen. There are strong elements of scorched earth and wet pavement, with smaller doses of tomato paste and mint. This is a perfectly balanced wine with serious depth and elegant structure. It has another ten-plus years of great life ahead of it. 96 points. Value: A.

We finished with the 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The nose offers an interesting combination of primary, secondary and tertiary notes with some funk thrown in for very good measure. Nevertheless, it remains a bit muddled and needs time to delineate and develop clarity. The palate delivers a full-bodied wine that is quite broad, but also surprisingly soft for its youthful age compared to where the 2000 is right now. A funkiness similar to the nose is found in the mouth, and and pairs nicely with red fruit, tomato leaf, blood orange and loads of pepper spice. Extended oxygen brings out fine, slightly chewy tannin and elevates the peppery kick. Those who decide to buy this should consider laying it down for at least another ten years. 96 points. Value: A.


Some old and new vintages that are ready for release

We were completely taken with Emidio Pepe’s wine (as well as the agritourismo, which we can’t suggest strongly enough). Putting aside the romanticism added by the fact that it was our honeymoon, the tranquility and beauty of the estate and surrounding area, and some of the best food we’ve ever had, I don’t remember a winery that I’ve been more excited to follow and collect since my discovery of Oregon’s Cameron in 2017. Pepe has immediately jumped into my top-5 favorite producers, maybe even top-3. Their wines are especially appealing for me as my favorite wines are those built to age, and then aged. Emidio Pepe deserves the highest marks on quality, personality, process and business model. If only more wineries did it this way…

A Taste of Alto Adige/Südtirol


The cellar at Castel Sallegg

I have to admit, my knowledge of Alto Adige/Südtirol, a wine region in Northern Italy, was very limited prior to the research I did before writing this. That research began with the Wikipedia page of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, which does a decent job of running the reader through its history, which is not that easy to follow because of its location that put it in the middle of many power battles.

In short, previous rulers included the Romans; a combination of Germanic tribes, Alamannic Vinschgua and Bavairians; Charlemagne/Kingdom of Italy; Holy Roman Emperors’ “prince-bishops”; House of Habsburg; Austria; France under Napoleon quasi on behalf of the Austrians and Italians; Austro-Hungary; Nazis; Italy; and now semi-autonomous rule under Italy that the native Germans and Austrians don’t entirely like.


An illustration of the current sensitivity can be seen on the region’s wine industry website, which labels itself with both the German and Italian languages in the same logo (Südtirol Wein/Vini Alto Adige – the respective names of the region and spellings of “wine”). To quote directly from’s page on the region:

“Most residents speak both Italian and German and two-thirds are native German speakers, hence the reason why the region is Alto Adige – Südtirol. Many wineries have names in both languages for the Cantina (Italian) or Kellerei (German), and wine labels could include a grape variety’s name in either language, such as Pinot Grigio or Grauburgunder. But despite its history of change, archaeological evidence places Alto Adige – Südtirol among the oldest winegrowing regions in Europe, dating back to the 5th century B.C.”


Picture credit: Merles’ World

The region is quite mountainous as it plays home to sections of the Alps and Dolomites, which protect the vines from cold winds and rains, giving them roughly 300 days per year of sun. The warms days and cool nights (vines are planted at considerable elevation) help the grapes reach full maturity while preserving acid levels, a phenomenon well-evidenced in the wine reviewed for this post. Its fertile valleys make for great agricultural production and logging, while its lakes and rivers are harnessed to produce a good deal of electricity. Recently, tourism has become a major driver of the local economy as well.

Wine-wise, Alto Adige-Südtirol is best known for pinot grigio. There are six common varieties in addition to PG. For this post, I was able to taste three of them: gewürztraminer, langerin and schiava, the latter two reds. While PG is the most grown white (gewürzt is third on that list), schiava and lagerin are the two most planted reds.

Traditionally, gewürztraminer from the region is produced with a touch of residual sugar. Schiava and lagerin make very different wines. Gamay lovers may gravitate towards the former, while zinfandel lovers are more likely to appreciate the latter. All, I would argue, are good food wines due to their high acid. The three wines below were received as samples and tasted sighted. It was a delight to give them a try, and if you’re looking for a taste of the region, all offer good values.


The 2017 gewurztraminer from Nals Margreid offers very honeyed and tropical aromas of honeysuckle, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, vanilla custard and just a hint of chili flake kick. It’s full bodied and lush, though the mineral-driven acid provides nice cut. The flavors are quite saturated, and feature a profile similar, if not drier, to the nose: mint, cantaloupe, pineapple, Granny Smith apple, vanilla custard and slightly bitter greens. This wells its 5.2 grams/liter of residual sugar with class. I’m a fan. 89 points. Value: B+.

The 2017 Castel Sallegg Lagrein Südtirol Alto Adige has a very saturated nose featuring crushed cherry, blackberry and boysenberry at the forefront. Underneath this hedonistic trio is sweet tobacco leaf and vanilla. Full bodied, the tannin and acid are each lean and mean. This one is driven by a rustic texture reminiscent of tannat. A bit dominated by under ripe red and black fruit (think plum, cassis, strawberry and cherry), it has nice touches of underbrush, baking spice and cigar. A wine to chew on, and one that benefits from several hours in a decanter. 88 points. Value: C+.

Finally, the 2017 St. Pauls Missianer Schiava Südtriol Alto Adige has a stewed cherry-rich nose with additional aromas of macerated strawberry, lavender, flower petal, cinnamon and toasted marshmallow. It’s medium bodied with bright, juicy acidity that’s well-integrated with a fine tannin profile to create a very smooth and easy mouth feel. The flavors are more powerful than the feel suggests, however, and begin with pretty florals and rose water and transitions to red-tinged fruit and slightly dirty soil and smoke. A seriously tasty that offers a lot for such an accessible wine. 90 points. Value: A.

2017’s Most Memorable Wines


Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.


#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.


#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.


#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.


#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.


#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.


#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.


#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.


#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.


#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.


#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.


#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Two Great Wines from the Famous Land of Tomatoes


So it turns out wine from the heel of Italy is pretty good. Specifically, San Marzano wine. I’ll admit to knowing next to nothing about wine from this part of Italy, this part being Puglia. When I hear Puglia, my mind goes back to Mario Batali’s old (and best) Food Network show, Molto Mario. My first culinary love was Italian food, and in my formidable teenage years I learned through the show the concept of what I can call “regionality,” which effectively means that how and what people cook varies by where it’s done. If this sounds a bit like terroir, that’s not far off, although it encompasses a bit more: in addition to how differences in land and climate affect the taste of the ingredients, it also includes methodology traditions, ingredient combinations, religious influences, past conqueror(s) influence, and more. One could make a case that terroir can encompass all of this as well, but I think that goes beyond the spirit of terroir’s focus on non-human elements.

Regardless, when I think of Pulgia and San Marzano, I think about food and the latter’s renowned tomatoes (though don’t let the grocery store packaging fool you). Until now, until these Talo wines. I tasted them over two nights, and had a neighbor over to try them on the second. Not a wino, he asked me to tell him about the wines and I found myself going down the rabbit hole of trying to explain the terroir of certain wines from Southern Italy and Greece, which I flippantly referred to as “Med wines,” a terrible term that doesn’t actually exist outside this world of one because it also applies to wines from, say, Israel, that offer little in similarity. In my mind, Med wines are driven by a peppery spice and loam-driven minerality that I can pick out of any assembly of wines from around the globe. Not having tasted San Marzano wine before, I could’ve called Med wine in a blind tasting but in a million years would never have placed them in the land of the world’s most famous tomatoes.

And what a pleasant surprise, because these are uniquely expressive and approachable wines that bring that “Med wine” edge that I’ve always loved and have never spent enough time getting to know. I’ll be reviewing a trio of whites from Greece in an upcoming post, and these two wines have made me a little more excited to do that. I had a lot of fun with these, reviewing them separately and then going back and forth identifying differences and themes.

On quality and approachability, they are comparable. Both benefit from an hour or so of decanting. Their textures suggest the same warm, dry climate, and they both deliver that peppery-loam energy I noted earlier. Beyond that, we’re talking about distinctly different wines that can still be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone liking either. That is to say, if you get to try one and like it, definitely seek out the other. Or better yet, just get both and drink them together.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Malvasia Nera, made from the Malvasia grape, is the more fruit forward of the two. It’s dark, brutish nose bursts with bruised cherries, crushed blackberries, blood orange, tar, violet and crushed rocks. The palate is full bodied with saturated grainy tannin that never seem to settle in one place. The juicy, bright acidity keeps the wine from developing a cloying sensation, which is an important counter balance to the sweet fruit that comes in waves of boysenberry, strawberry, blueberry, Acai and bewildering big dose of grapefruit that I could never get over, or stop appreciating. There are streaks of loam, saline and sweet tobacco leaf as well. Overall, it’s a brilliantly unusual package of aromas, flavors and textures. I’m giving it 89 points with a value rating of A.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Negroamaro, made from the Negroamaro grape which I’m not sure I’ve had previously, is also a real treat and my preference of the two if I’m forced to pick. The fruit is a bit more reserved than the Malvasia Nera, which allows more savoriness to come through. The nose is all about minerality and Earthiness, offering seasoned leather, tar, wet Earth, granite, Evergreen, saline and sour cherry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with lush, juicy acidity that really carries the flavors and round, fine grained tannin that keep things well-framed. The flavors strike an almost-elegant tone. The fruit is sweeter on the palate than the nose, boasting cherry concentrate and huge hits of black and red currants. Dusty mocha, loam, graphite and bright, sweet orange juice come through as well. I suspect this one might improve with a year of aging, but decant it for an hour and it won’t matter. This one deserves 90 points and an A value rating.

Since we’re less than a week out from Thanksgiving, I’ll answer the question: yes, these would work well for your feast. They also work well on their own, and I can imagine them pairing nicely with a big range of foods, even including heartier seafood. At roughly $15 each, they are some of the more interesting and unusual wines you’ll find in that price range. I’ll put it succinctly: there’s good reason to find and try these wines.

Zachys DC is Open and Raring to Go


The new opening of a location of Zachys in Washington, DC is a big deal for the local wine market. Even though the location won’t have a retail storefront – at least for now – bringing one of the most influential names in wine to the District says something about the growing power and sophistication of the market here.

Zachys is bringing a number services to DC: wine storage; direct-to-consumer sales of wines otherwise not offered DTC to DC customers; tastings and classes; wine dinners; a customized corporate tasting service; collection assessment; other TBD events; and, for the first time in thirty years, a live wine auction. That last one isn’t an insignificant deal.

Wine auctions signal an opportunity to at least be around, if not acquire, the world’s best and often rarest wine. Putting aside for now the recent past proliferation of fake wine facilitated in part by wine auctioneers, including Zachys – a topic to be discussed in an upcoming Good Vitis review of In Vino Duplicitas – Zachy’s DC existence means a new and much higher level of access in DC to wines that likely wouldn’t otherwise be available to locals. While I imagine the best of Zachys’ lots will remain the purview of its New York auctions, Zachys wouldn’t have made the decision to enter the DC market if it didn’t think our market wasn’t craving a higher level of wine.


Wine auctions are held in the biggest, most prestigious wine markets in the world: New York, London, Hong Kong, Geneva, and Paris are the standards. Although the biggest general auctioneers like Christie’s and Sotheby’s haven’t visited DC in a while, within the world of wine auctions Zachys is among the very top and their decision to auction wine in DC – their appropriately named inaugural “Capital Collection” auction will take place on October 27th and 28th of this year – marks Washington’s entrance onto that top stage, something that shouldn’t go unnoted.

Last Friday, I attended a grand opening party at Zachys, which featured sixteen different tables pouring wine from California, Virginia, France and Italy ranging in price from $14 to $1,110. From top to bottom these were good wines, many hitting their price point with impressive quality. The ability to source such a lineup is indicative of what I think Zachys is going to bring to my local market: a large range of impressive wines where anyone – even those who will never lift a bidding paddle – can find what they want. Welcome to town, Zachys!

Before signing off, I’ll highlight a few of the wines I found particularly impressive:

2014 MacMurray Range Central Coast Pinot Noir: At $19.99 it’s the best $20 California pinot noir I’ve had.

2013 RdV Vineyards Virginia Rendezvous Red Blend: While many feign spending $70 on a wine from Virginia, it stood out among the domestic offerings as the most multidimensional.

2015 Domaine Leon Boesch Sylvaner Les Peirres Rouges: a Sylvander for Sylvander haters and lovers, everyone should try this pleasurable $16 wine.

2014 Domaine Blain-Gegnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru La Boudriotte: The best white Burgundy of the night for me, I placed an order. Hard to beat at $59.99.

2014 Jl Chave Selections Saint Joseph Offerus: Year-in and year-out, this is a classic from one of the regions of the Rhone valley producing some of the prettiest syrahs. The 2014 doesn’t disappoint, and is a real value at $32.99.

2008 Chateau Larcis Ducasse St. Emillion: Really popping right now, it has all the classic St. Emillion notes and is far from poorly priced at $64.99.

2011 Chateau Margaux: Yes, it’s barely crawling at this stage, but when it gets to a full gallop…

2004 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Rocche dell`Annunziata Torriglione: From a 3 liter. Dear God, this was the best wine of the night. The bittersweet cocoa that comes with age on a fine Barolo is out in force. What a pleasure and treat.


2012 Antinori Marchesi Pian Delle Vigne Brunello Di Montalcino: Despite having attended the Consorzio del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino’s 2012 vintage tasting in New York earlier this year, I hadn’t yet had this marvel of a wine that is, for me, a standout wine in a standout vintage. I grabbed a few for myself.

2012 Brunellos are alive, well, and coming to a store near you


The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino setting up in Gotham Hall

So. Much. Brunello. I shouldn’t be surprised, I mean, this was the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino’s “Benevenuto Brunello, “or “Welcome Brunello,” 2012 vintage release tasting in New York City. Between the seated and the walk-around tastings I had the option of trying around 50 producers’ Brunellos – and their Rossos, their Sant’ Antimos, and their Moscatos. Some brought multiple vintages, others riservas to augment. One even had 100% merlot and cabernet sauvignon bottlings. It was without doubt a great line up. But, wow, so much Brunello.

Brunello, made entirely from the sangiovese grape, is one of Italy’s most lauded wines. All of it is made in a small area surrounding the town of Montalcino, which sits atop of a four-sided pyramid-shaped mountain that tops out at 2150 feet above sea level. As the mountain slopes down and flattens out, vineyards fan out in all directions, 360 degrees, at elevations between 400 and 2150 feet above sea level. The geographic distribution of vineyards covering 8,650 acres, combined with the winds that its proximity to the sea provide, the variation in elevation, and four distinctly different soil types (with variations of each) add up to a diversity of terrior. Most wineries produce blends of multiple vineyards while some produce single vineyard designates as well. It is admittedly hard to discern a lot of difference in nuanced flavors among just-released Brunello, but one can find a great deal of distinction in their youth by paying close attention to their respective structure and balance.


The Il Poggione Winery in Montalcino (Credit:

The 2012 vintage has been lauded by the industry and press as one of the finest in this still young century, so this event was held with palpable anticipation. For most in attendance this was our first crack at the 2012s prior to their release. It was a vintage marked by small production – one-third less than average – with a hot, hot summer followed by August rain that reduced hydric stress on the vines and finished off with what many producers called the perfect final eight weeks. The combination of esteem and small production is likely to mean higher prices. Many retailers and distributors were at the event angling to pick up the lines they most wanted, and consumers can expect to see the 2012s showing up in stores and online over the next two to three months.

All-in-all the wines didn’t disappoint, thought it’s always hard to predict where a wine will be in 10-20 years, which is how long these 2012s likely need in the cellar to fully reward. When a wine with the tannic fortitude of Brunello lives up to its potential, as it did in 2012, so much can be hidden in its youth. Attempting to see the trees through the forest, if you will, was challenging with so many tannic beasts available at beautiful Gotham Hall where the event was held.

The Consortium of Brunello producers has awarded the 2012 vintage with its full five-star rating. Frankly I don’t have the encyclopedic experience with Brunello to register an opinion on whether it’s deserving of five stars, but I can say I bought into the potential of 2012. I’m going to post some cursory tasting notes below on the wines I sampled – and I didn’t attempt to try nearly all of them – but I’d like to comment first on some characteristics that shown through many of the offerings as well as the two standout producers and one standout wine.

As I looked over my notes I found a few consistent scribblings that painted a profile I feel fair ascribing to the vintage: bright acidity generally in good balance with heavy, grainy tannins that suspend above the palate for a bit before crashing down and taking over. The fruit was generally red and fresh, with the most interesting bottles offering additions of pomegranate and watermelon. Many showed Earthy flavors like tar, cigar tobacco and smoke while the most complex delivered good salinity and floral qualities as well. Tannin integration remains modest at best for many, but this is one of the reasons why many advocate for at least a decade of aging post vintage for Brunello. If you have sufficient cellar space I suggest lying most of the 2012s down for at least that long and then consuming over the following five to fifteen years.

The day’s two standouts were wineries I had never tasted before: Máté and Tenuta Buon Tempo. Among a crowd of similarly-profiled wines the offerings from these two stood out, Máté for its full and smooth mouthfeel and dense complexity that included strong doses of herbs and wet Earth, and Tenuta for its best-in-show finesse and elegance. The standout wine, however, was a 1995 Brunello Riserva Poggio All’Oro offered to me from the generous fellow pouring at the station for the renowned Banfi. Bringing a 1995 to a 2012 vintage release party is like bringing a gun to a knife fight, so it wasn’t even close to being fair. But I’m not crying foul. A very good but not great vintage, it was nevertheless a compelling case for why Brunello deserves patience for its completeness, complexity and full integration of tannin when given time to coalesce.

Many thanks to the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino and its members who poured their wines for us. In the notes below I will put an * next to wines I would happily drink again. Wines with ** are wines I hope to revisit with purpose.

Seated Tasting (all 2012 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG unless otherwise noted)


The seated tasting

Castelgiocondo – Very aromatic and dark with pronounced barrel and tobacco notes to go along with red fruits. Palate is quite astringent and acidic with big, juicy and tart red fruit along with leather and black pepper. There’s a nice cut of saline. The finish is quite persistent. Needs many years to integrate but the balance shows considerable progress.

Collosorbo – Very dark fruit aromas along with sweaty gym socks, Earth and pepper. The palate is impressively developed for its age, with thick tannins and balanced acid. The fruit is red and tangy, and there is tar and a bit of vegetal greenness.

La Magia – The winemaker made some brief remarks about the vintage, saying that for La Magia it was better than the lauded 2010. His vineyards are between 1,300 and 1,650 feet in elevation and this moderated some of the heat of 2012, which he believes makes it more drinkable in its youth. I found the nose to be slightly bloody and more earth than the prior two. It was still a bit reticent but is promising. The palate has strong grainy tannins but offers quite ripe strawberries that are dripping with acidic juiciness. It’s a very fresh wine but a bit singular at this point.

*La Macioche – This one showed red fruit and gasoline on the nose, with the body of the wine on the lighter side and with more lifted acid. The fruit is sweet and red with pomegranate and watermelon. It’s a little leathery and offers a celery seed spice. The integration is quite good on this and aided, I believe, by the use of French oak (not all that common in Brunello).

Loacker Corte Pavone – Very brooding nose with a dark fruit core and untanned leather. The palate is big with coarse tannins and moderate acidity. Big leather along with cranberries, raspberries and strawberries. The integration is good.

*Pian Delle Querci – Lighter bodied and more polished than any of this batch of wines, it offers strawberries with sporadic fine grained tannin. It’s a bit smoky and spicy, and in my mind the most classically styled of the bunch. The bright acidity plays with the taste buds as it washes in and out rounds of different flavors.

Talenti – Very dormant nose. The palate is big and coated with sandpaper tannin. Bright red fruit, tar and leather with black plums. Relatively approachable at the moment but it offers a lot of upside.

Banfi 2011 Riserva Poggio Alle Mura – Very expressive nose bursting with red fruit. The palate is lighter than any of the 2012s but not lacking in complexity or tannin. The acid is persistent and delightful. The fruit is red and tangy and the wine offers a nice round of herbaceous qualities.

From the Walk Around Tasting

*Altesino Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Floral nose and perfumed palate, it’s high toned acid and high octane, literally offering some gasoline-like flavors.

**Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – A dense wine, it has sweet red fruit with floral qualities that make it very pretty. There’s a lot of minerality on the palate that suggests a very pure wine.

*Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2012 – rich and ripe fruit on the nose along with sea brine. Palate is pure and mineral-driven with saline and red fruit.

**Armilla Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – Very brooding palate offering discernable oak qualities that turn the red fruit dark and bring out vanilla. The palate is similarly complex with noticeable oak influences.

Armilla Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – very round and full with a lot of floral qualities to go with big red fruit and smoke.

Banfi Rosso di Montalcino Castello 2015 – light and lean with very red fruit A little singular but also pleasurable.

*Banfi Rosso di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2015 – Nose is dominated by iodine with good texture on the palate that features red fruit and pepper.

*Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Castello 2012 – Good funk and fungal notes on the nose along with strong, ripe cherries. Smoothly textured, dense but fine tannins and ripe juicy fruit with a saline finish.

Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2012 – A lot of rhubarb on the nose. Very sandy tannins with dark fruit that’s a bit underripe. Some mushroom and hickory smoke on the palate, too.

**Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1995 – Rich oak flavors along with dark fruit and classy Earth notes. It’s smooth and pleasantly sweet and has achieved full integration.

*Bonacchi Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – Bit funky on the nose but in a good way, it is fruit forward with a weighty body and has a nice little addition of cigar tobacco.

**Bonacchi Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Very lifted palate with nice acid and tamed but rigid tannin. Really nice red and blue fruits with smoke, saline and sweet tobacco.

*Il Poggione Moscadello di Montalcino 2016 – Tantalizingly sweet and heavy, it offers delicious mango, cantaloupe, strawberries and vanilla.

*Mate Sant’Antimo Cabernet Sauvignon/Mania 2013 – high toned, acidic for a cabernet sauvignon – and for Brunello (higher acid level than Mate’s Brunellos). Very classic cabernet sauvignon flavors but leaner and more acidic than others it would be a fantastic wine for a big steak.

*Mate Sant’Antimo Merlot/Mantus 2013 – Big, dark nose with cherries, cocoa and gasoline. Lot of acid on this as well, would be a great merlot to pair with a big steak.

*Mate Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – perhaps the best Rosso of the tasting for me, this has big strawberries and cocoa with a slightly lusher mouthfeel that retains the region’s acidity.

**Mate Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – top-2 Brunello of the tasting, this has a huge nose with fruit that is incredibly dense, pure and tangy. The palate is very round and full with smooth tannins, nice herbs and wet soil.

Palazzo Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – Really nice and juicy, not super complex but ready and rearing to go. Classic Rosso all-around.

*Palazzo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011 – Dark and brooding with a nice addition of Acai flavor to go with pepper and orange.

Palazzo Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Skunky nose with a big and dense palate and strong acidic finish. This needs time.

*Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Ripe and ready to go. The fruit is on the sweeter end of the Rosso spectrum and offers playful acidity.

*Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli Brunello di Montalcino 2010 – Smooth and nicely integrated with flamboyant dark flavors of petrol, tar and smoke to go along with massive strawberries.

Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Big tannic structure with strong acid, saline, tar and herbs. Fruit is definitely secondary at the moment.

*Tunuta Buon Tempo Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Very pure and elegant fruit on the nose with a body that is smooth and satisfying and heavier than the first sip suggests. Beautifully floral.

**Tunuta Buon Tempo Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Pretty and elegant nose. Fruit is gorgeous, diverse and complex in the mouth where the wine is very perfumed. There is blood orange as well, and all of it plays in a the wonderful structure and balance.

**Tunuta Buon Tempo Brunello di Montalcino P.56 2012 – Very, very good. One of the top two Brunellos I tried. Very pretty and feminine but doesn’t sacrifice a stout structure. Approachable now but will improve. Sweet fruit, leather, smoke and Earth and nice florals abound.

Villa Poggio Salvi Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Nice acidity and mature fruit. Smooth with substantial tannins that thankfully don’t distract too much.

Villa Poggio Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011 – Very pretty and a little floral.

**Villa Poggio Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Really nice red fruit on the nose offering a little extra in the way of pomegranate. Very smooth and satisfying with gorgeous tannin integration. The fruit is red and perfectly sweet. Little bit of soy sauce. Could well be the third best Brunello of the tasting.

*Villa Poggio Brunello di Montalcino Pomona 2012 – Extremely pretty nose. Palate as saturating dusty tannins and bright acidity. Flavors are of red fruit, graphite and flowers.