Kerin O’Keefe explores the recovery and rise of Timorasso, the indigenous varietal that has achieved eminence in obscurity thanks to the creative determination and passion of one man.
John Lennon once described his wife Yoko Ono as “the world’s most
famous unknown artist: Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” The same description can easily be applied to Timorasso, one of the most exciting wines coming out of Italy: Everyone in the wine world has heard of it, but no one knows much about it, apart from the fact that it’s a singular white and comes from Piedmont.
O’Keefe is a Bostonian wine journalist and author (published books include Franco Biondi Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello and Brunello di Montalcino) residing in Lugano, Switzerland (and therefore within easy driving-distance of Alba) with her husband, Paolo Tenti. She is responsible for numerous articles in magazines like this one and Decanter and is presently working for the American publication Wine Enthusiast as well.
A number of her articles have been on the subject of Barolo and/or Barbaresco, and she has spent years tasting the stuff (a happy fate, you might think; but that would be to underestimate the palate-coating, tannin-accumulating effect of Nebbiolo, which can turn the prospect of a 100+ lineup of individually excellent Barolo samples into a living nightmare). So, she is eminently qualified for the authorship of such a tome…
…Indeed, it’s a very useful tome to have to hand: measured, informative and very readable. I thoroughly recommend it.
O’Keefe dishes all the secrets about who’s on the hillsides and who’s on the flats; and for those who would find it fascinating to know who makes wine from Montosoli (probably the second-most esteemed Brunello vineyard after Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo estate) without bothering to mention it on the label, this is the source.
And a valuable source, too, because it gives the appellation something that it has deserved for some time: a critical voice who writes about Brunello with the affection and focus ordinarily reserved for the likes of Burgundy, and, more important still, one who appreciates Brunello for what Brunello is and not for what it can be when it’s dressed as something else.
Wine drinkers in the United States have long been pigeonholed as obsessed with dark, oaky, powerful wines, and this perceived preference has impacted international winemaking for more than two decades. But as more and more wine lovers there and elsewhere turn away from this heavy-handed style, many winemakers around the world, and particularly in Italy, are taking notice, as Kerin O’Keefe reports.
For years now, many wine writers and winemakers in the Old World, and even some in the New, have blamed the existence of excessively ripe, oaky, alcoholic wines squarely on American wine drinkers. Just look at the justifications given by the Italian wine press for Montalcino’s infamous 2008 grape-blending scandal, “Brunellogate.” In a rare show of unity, Italian wine blogs, websites, and even mainstream newspapers covering the scandal surmised that any alleged blending of Sangiovese with other grapes such as Merlot was done to soften the wine and make it easier for “inexperienced American palates.” Critics continue to point to the US market as the raison d’être for this more muscular and obvious style. In his column in the May 2012 issue of Decanter, Hugh Johnson delightfully describes these concentrated, tannic wines as “wrist sprainers” that are “offered to us in their thickly-muffled youth, coffeed up with oak, their dense flavors, sweetness, tannins, and alcohol clogging up our palates.” He adds, “I know it’s the style favored in the US.”
Once considered the future of Italian winemaking, Super-Tuscans might finally have run their course. Kerin O’Keefe considers the past, present, and future of these wines.
Super-Tuscans undoubtedly hailed a new era of winemaking in Italy. Rebels with a cause such as Sassicaia and Tignanello, originally labeled as table wines because they did not adhere to the winemaking laws of the time, shook up what were exasperatingly uninspiring practices and production codes. Ambitious producers across the region, armed with international varieties, brand-new barriques, and a fancy label sporting a proprietary fantasy name, began turning out their own Super-Tuscans and were soon followed by winemakers throughout Italy. But today, inundated with far cheaper but similar bottlings from the New World, consumers are apparently turning their backs on these once trailblazing wines.
Fascinating article in the current issue of “The World of Fine Wine’’, a glossy, erudite and, alas, very expensive British wine quarterly that always has many things worth reading. This article, by Kerin O’Keefe, a wine writer based in Italy, suggests that the Super-Tuscan category, which has attracted so much attention in the last 35 years, may have run its course.
“By law, Brunello di Montalcino can be made only with 100 percent Sangiovese cultivated in Montalcino. Otherwise, it’s not Brunello. It shouldn’t be difficult to grasp,” asserts Gianfranco Soldera of Case Basse regarding “Brunellogate,” the grape-blending scandal that broke wide open just days before Vinitaly, the country’s largest annual wine fair, rocking both the sleepy village of Montalcino and one of Italy’s most esteemed denominations. The always forthright Soldera is one of the very few Brunello producers to speak out on the issue that currently besieges the wine and threatens its future. A tense silence has fallen like an iron curtain among the majority of Montalcino’s growers and winemakers, as well as their governing Consorzio. This near-total communication breakdown has not only left Brunello fans in the dark but has also generated controversial media coverage that has confused, exaggerated, or even made up the facts, while at the same time casting doubt as to the fate of Brunello as a varietal wine.
Once infamous for making industrial quantities of concentrated musts and uninspiring sweet wines, Sicily is fast shaking off its bulk-wine and sticky Marsala image. Kerin O’Keefe identifies the island’s best growing areas and the dynamic estates that are transforming its reputation.
Photography by Paolo Tenti
Thanks to almost ideal growing conditions and a patrimony of unique native grapes, Sicily’s once stagnant wine scene is undergoing a much deserved quality renaissance. Now a wellspring of experimentation and investment, the largest island in the Mediterranean is quickly becoming Italy’s most exciting wine-producing region, as winemakers discover the island’s ancient grapes and classic growing areas.
Though the recent past was devoted to industrial-quantity winemaking, the future is focused on top-quality wines of relatively good value that are both modern and indisputably Sicilian. Sprinkled with ancient Greek temples and Norman cathedrals built by former invaders, Sicily has long been a land of contradictions, and this is especially evident in its flourishing wine sector, where new boutique wineries can be found alongside sprawling cooperatives the size of oil refineries. Even though Sicily is no longer merely a vast reservoir of grapes and concentrated must, the island’s determined drive toward quality is hindered by its steadfast image as a bulk-wine producer.
Its lingering reputation is not groundless: Sicily remains one of Italy’s most prolific wine-producing regions, with as much land under vine as all of Australia and more than double that of Piedmont or Tuscany. Surprisingly, only 17 percent of Sicily’s massive output is bottled on the island, and only 3 percent of this is under Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) appellation system. The island remains a leading producer of strong grape must (vino da taglio), which is covertly used by many northern producers to give their more delicate wines an injection of southern muscle, while the brunt of the harvest, of dubious quality, is still sold in bulk or distilled. But side by side with these dismal remnants of mass production, dynamic winemakers have carefully revived ancient grapes and are now making some of Italy’s most innovative wines.
Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most charismatic and successful winemakers, is credited not only with drawing Barbaresco out of obscurity but with triggering the quality revolution that pulled the country’s wine scene out of the doldrums. Yet while aficionados and pundits automatically associate Gaja with Italy’s modern winemaking movement and sleek single-vineyard bottlings, the great aging potential of his wines should also be remembered.
Tasting through four decades of Gaja’s Barbaresco at an informal private tasting held for this author by Angelo and his daughter Gaia on January 12, 2007, at their cellars in Barbaresco was a chance to experience Italy’s quality metamorphosis at first hand. Changes and improvements in viticulture and vinification were subtle but unmistakable, while Gaja’s hallmark elegance was evident in every bottling, like a family resemblance.
While Gaja’s fans applaud his world-class wines, cynics often claim that his modern winemaking methods have changed the tipicità of his Nebbiolo. Yet these same critics often fail to note that Gaja persists with more traditional techniques whenever he thinks them worthwhile. He is among the few top producers in Italy who still resist selected yeasts for the alcoholic fermentation, except in very difficult years when, as a last resort, he will add a small amount of nutrients to feed the native yeasts. Gaja’s use of barriques has also come under fire by advocates of traditional Nebbiolo. But it should be pointed out that all his Nebbiolo wines are aged one year in barriques of various ages and one year in giant, perfectly maintained Slavonian casks that are, on average, 100 years old, so the new-wood sensations are minimal.
While the notion of terroir has been both celebrated and ridiculed in some of the world’s greatest wine-producing areas, one of Italy’s most illustrious denominations has instead chosen to ignore it—until now. Kerin O’Keefe discovers Montalcino’s unofficial subzones.
Majestic. Elegant. Powerful. Long-lived. Expensive. Rare. All these adjectives have been applied to Brunello di Montalcino by the world’s leading wine authorities, from Cyril Ray to Burton Anderson, but may soon be supplemented by another much less positive—overflowing. Due to massive overplanting, Brunello production is now on the brink of exploding, which has pushed the long-neglected question of Brunello’s tipicità to the forefront, as Montalcino winemakers search for ways to protect Brunello’s identity and prestige from the perils posed by a saturated market. As areas previously considered unsuitable for winemaking are cultivated, many producers feel the time has come to recognize officially Montalcino’s greatly varied subzones and to curb vinification techniques that render a more international style.