Wine Masters Italy: 12 Days of Christmas

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post reviewing the first season of Wine Masters – a new documentary series focused on five French wine regions and winemaking families.    The first season was thoroughly enjoyable, cinematically breathtaking and highly educational.  So, when they asked if I would be willing to write an honest review of their second season on Italy, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

My review of their first season was written during film awards season, so of course I had to give it a bit of an Oscars theme.  Honestly, there was a little part of me that wondered if the Italian “sequel” by Wine Masters would be as good as their original.  In other words, would it be a Godfather II….or a Tron Legacy?

I needn’t have worried – Wine Masters Italy is about as Godfather II as you can get.  (Complete with beautiful Sicilian scenery . . . and locals!) 😉  The second season is on par, if not better, than the original season in France.

And since we’re now in the middle – quickly nearing the end – of the holiday season, I’m giving this post a bit of a 12 days of Christmas theme.  (I say “a bit of” because admittedly several of the days below are a stretch – so bare with me and don’t be a Grinch!)  Here are some highlights of Wine Masters Italy along with my own educational tidbits and new outlines (Merry Christmas to YOU!) 😉

It’s a good thing for you this is written and not a live video where you could hear me sing off key . . . without further ado – on the Twelfth Day of Christmas Wine Masters gave to me!

12 Percent of Production

Sicily is responsible for 12% of Italy’s total wine production.  Much of this production used to be bulk wine, but today there is more focus on quality – as Alberto Tasca discusses in Wine Masters’ Sicily episode. Richard Hemming MW (see 2nd day of Christmas below) describes Sicily as a relatively great bargain since this region doesn’t yet have the international reputation as some of the other wine regions of Italy.  The keyword being “yet” – it’s only a matter of time before this rather remote region is on the radar of wine lovers everywhere. For example – the Tasca family was recently named Wine Enthusiast’s “European Winery of the Year”!

11 Native Grapes

The number of native grapes in Italy is close to 350.  Thankfully, Wine Masters Italy narrows this down to 11 to discuss in detail.  At the end of the second season, viewers come away with a better, more thorough understanding of: Nebbiolo, Sangiovese (see 10th day of Christmas), Aglianico, Greco, Fiano, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and Osleta.

10 Percent of Vines

Sangiovese is by far the most planted grape variety in Italy.  It represents 10% of all vine plantings, a total of about 177,000 acres, much of this located in Tuscany.  The Antinori family is highlighted in this episode and they do an excellent job of succinctly describing how Sangiovese can produce very different styles of wine depending on where the grapes are grown:

  • Chianti Classico – more fruity with approachable tannins
  • Brunello di Montalcino – a “supercharged Chianti” built to age (and sadly, one of the classic wines that I’m just not a fan of)
  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – an in-between style that hasn’t reached the fame of either Chianti or Brunello

The Antinoris also stress that Sangiovese is a wine that is not designed for drinking by itself – it needs food.  In my experience, I’ve found this to be true about most Italian wines . . . or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to chow down on some Italian cheeses, cured meats and pasta.

Antinori Family
Piero Antinori and his daughters Albiera, Alessia and Allegra

9th Generation “Founding Father”

Antonio Mastroberardino is considered by much of wine world to be the founding father of Campania’s modern wine industry.  In the mid-1900s, after vineyards had been destroyed by phylloxera and the country was experiencing an economic crisis, the Italian government encouraged vignerons to plant (overly) productive grape varieties like Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano.  Antonio boldly ignored this request and instead decided to remain true to Campania’s heritage by replanting his family’s vineyards with indigenous varieties such as Aglianico, Greco and Fiano.

Today, Antonio’s son, Piero, carries on the Mastroberardino tradition and is featured in Wine Masters’ Campania episode.  International varieties make up a miniscule amount of plantings in Campania.  Instead, this region is proudly and uniquely focused on native grapes – thanks in large part to the efforts of Antonio.  And while these varieties may never have the same acclaim as international ones – as Piero so eloquently states – “the world doesn’t need another Cabernet Sauvignon.”  A statement I couldn’t agree more with.

8th Century Viticulture

One of the many things I find fascinating when studying Italy is the depth of their traditions.  They have traditions that go back centuries, sometimes millennia – like the alberello vine training still practiced in Sicily . . . which dates back to the 8th century!

Alberello vine training
Alberello vine training

As Richard Hemming explains, this low to the ground vine training system works well in a hot, arid region like Sicily because it helps shade the grapes from the sweltering sun.  It also helps varieties that need heat to ripen (like Nero d’Avola) because by keeping the grapes closer to the ground, they are also benefitting from the radiant heat.

7 Chianti Sub-Zones

According to Piero Antinori, the Chianti fiasco is “the symbol of Tuscan wine.”  This statement baffled me a bit because I think of the fiasco as something that came to symbolize cheap plonk wine you’d purchase at your local “Italian” restaurant that served unlimited salad and breadsticks (I DO love their breadsticks though!)  And as Sarah Heller MW asserts: “No bottle that can be used as a candle holder could ever have had anything amazing in it.” Chianti fiasco candle holder

The Chianti region produces about 100 million bottles annually.  Much of this is made by large producers within the value category – the resulting wine often being fairly boring.  However, the best wines from the Chianti region can usually be found in its seven sub-zones. For more information on these – check out my outline on Chianti.

6th Generation Ripasso

Wine Masters’ Veneto episode introduces us to Sandro Boscaini, the sixth generation winemaker at Masi, a family owned winery located in Valpolicella.  Over the years, Sandro has been instrumental in bringing international attention to the Valpolicella region located in western Veneto.  Perhaps most notably, in the 1960s he re-introduced and popularized a traditional winemaking technique known as “ripasso” which involves pouring freshly made Valpolicella wine through unpressed Amarone skins in order to increase body, color and alcohol.  The result is a wine that is somewhere in-between a light, easy-drinking Valpolicella and a rich and powerful Amarone – “the best of both worlds” according to Richard Hemming.

Sandro Boscaini
Sandro Boscaini tasting Valpolicella grapes

Valpolicella Ripasso DOC became its own DOC in 2010.  Today, many producers in the Valpolicella region have a ripasso style wine in their lineup – sometimes referring to this wine as a “baby Amarone.”  Just don’t use this term in front of the man who’s responsible for bringing this production method back in style: Sandro can’t stand this description.

5 Wine Regions

Italy is divided into 20 regions – each with its own, unique wine growing traditions.  When I studied for my Italian Wine Scholar certification, there were a handful of regions that represented a larger chunk of the textbooks and (not surprisingly) featured more prominently on the exams: Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany, Campania and Sicily.  These just so happen to be the five wine regions covered in the Wine Masters Italy series.

Having a thorough understanding of these five regions is paramount to succeeding in many wine certifications and I highly recommend the Wine Masters’ series for wine students of all levels.  It’s a beautiful way to wrap your brain around this country, and the stories of these five families are so much more interesting than memorizing a list of the DOCs.

4 Appellations

The Valpolicella region boasts four different major appellations. In addition to the Valpolicella Ripasso DOC (discussed in the 6th day of Christmas above), there is also Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Valpolicella DOC.  The Wine Masters’ Veneto episode provides a terrific overview of the differences between these four appellations (plus the time lapsed Amarone production is fascinating to watch!) You can also check out my outline on Valpolicella.

3 Gaja Offspring 

Angelo Gaja began working for his family’s winery in 1961 (it had been founded 102 years earlier by his great-grandfather).  He and his three children – Gaia, Rosella and Giovanni – are the focus of the Wine Masters’ Piedmont episode.  Angelo notes that each generation has made its own mark on the winery, but always with a focus on the challenging Nebbiolo grape – which he admits isn’t “a blockbuster” or “opulent.”  His oldest daughter, Gaia, I think best explains the family’s loyalty for Nebbiolo by saying that it “allows the terroir to talk, it allows the vintage to talk” more so than other varieties.

And note: Angelo’s son, Giovanni, walks us through some of the family vineyards and discusses several concepts related to viticulture – more so than in any of the other Italian episodes.  So, if you’re wanting to dork out on dirt, Piedmont is the episode to tune into.

2 Masters of Wine

As in the French Wine Masters, the Italian series helps guide and educate the viewer with the addition of two Masters of Wine:  Richard Hemming and Sarah Heller.  They are a balance of entertainment and education, and each does an excellent job of explaining difficult concepts like why a producer would declassify their wine to a “lesser” appellation and the subtle differences in Chianti’s terroir.  I also appreciate their honesty on some of Italy’s shortcomings (like mass produced Prosecco and Pinot Grigio).  However, I could have done without their food pairing suggestions for Amarone . . . you’ll just have to watch it for yourself. :-/

One Unique Gift

So here we are – just a few days away from Christmas.  Even Amazon may not be able to deliver your gift on time at this point!  Before you pick up a crapshoot bottle of wine from the grocery store, I have a better suggestion: get the wine enthusiast in your life access to Wine Masters.  You know who else would enjoy this?  The travel lover, the foodie, the perpetual student, the history buff, and even the person who has everything and is such a pain in the ass to buy for (we ALL have one of these in our lives!)

I love this series and cannot wait to see what they do next.  In 2020, Wine Masters TV plans to add new content like a travel-focus series, short documentaries on influencial individuals in the wine world, and wine classes.  Plus Season 3 of Wine Masters will launch – this time in Spain!

So pour a glass of Nebbiolo, raise a toast to Jolly Old St. Nick, hit the play button on Wine Masters Italy, and sing along with me loudly and completely off key….

Twelve Percent of Production, Eleven Native Grapes, Ten Percent of Vines, Ninth Generation Founding Father, Eighth Century Viticulture, Seven Chianti Sub-Zones, Sixth Generation Ripasso, Five Wine Regions, Four Appellations, Three Gaja Offspring, Two Masters of Wine, and One Unique Gift!!”

Beats the hell out of a Partridge in a Pear Tree if you ask me (Pear wine is terrible!)  🙂   Happy Holidays everyone!

 

Note: I received a complimentary screening of Wine Masters second season in exchange for an independent and honest review.  All thoughts and opinions above are my own.

 

 

Brunello di Montalcino: the Rembrandt of my Wine World

Early during the first quarter of my freshman year at college, I decided I wanted to major in art history.  I was a couple months into an Art History 101 class and could clearly envision my future as curator for some fabulous museum or gallery, or possibly work for one of the big auction houses like Christie’s.  Even though this was my first ever art history class – I just knew that this was what I was destined for.  I excitedly called my Dad to inform him of my plans – and after our brief discussion, I hightailed it to the business office to declare my major in Business Administration.

To this day, my art history classes remain some of my most favorite.  They made me look at the world like I hadn’t before – and in a way I haven’t since.  Starting with ancient art – from ornate Egyptian tombs to Greek architecture to Roman marble sculpture.  Then the Renaissance with the David and Mona Lisa.  Next came the utterly fascinating, over-the-top religious works of Bosch and El Greco.  My art history course worked its way through each era and I found myself in awe of them all . . . and then we got to the work of Rembrandt and – well, I didn’t like it.

Was his work groundbreaking?  Was he able to capture people in their daily lives like no artist had before? Was his work influential to countless others?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Is he considered by many to be the best painter that ever lived?  Absolutely.

I’m not debating these assertions – all I’m saying is that I personally didn’t care for his work.  (And for the record – I still don’t).  I thought it was dark and dreary.  He did a lot of self portraits that all ran together in my mind.  Nothing about his work spoke to me.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t want his work hanging in my house (Hubs Note:  Yeah…..that was never an option in the first place).  I’d rather have a calming Monet landscape or fun and colorful Matisse:

Right about now you might be asking “That’s all well and good, but WTF does Rembrandt have to do with Brunello di Montalcino?”

Patience . . . I’m getting there.

In the vast world of wine, there are certain wines that are considered to be “classics” or “benchmarks” of their respective varieties.  Wines such as Burgundy (Pinot Noir), Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), Barolo (Nebbiolo),  and Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese).

Brunello di Montalcino (hereinafter “BdM”) is considered by many to be the highest quality and most pure expression of Sangiovese.  It’s been called Tuscany’s grandest wine zone by Jancis Robinson. It was one of Italy’s first DOCs (1966) and later one of its first DOCGs (1980).  To qualify as a DOC/DOCG, several hoops must be jumped through – such as establishing geographical boundaries, permitted grape varieties grown, and limitations on yields.  For a more detailed explanation of these terms – read this short article by a Master of Wine.

Unlike many other Tuscan wines, BdM is not a blend – it is made from 100% Sangiovese.  Specifically, the Brunello clone that is grown exclusively in the region.  BdM has the longest aging requirements in all of Italy: a minimum of four years (2 years in oak, 4 months in bottle) before it can be released to the public.  These wines are full bodied with high tannins and acidity, and very long lived.

BdM is held in high regard by enthusiasts, critics, students and collectors alike.  When a classic BdM is served – words like “majestic”, “elegant” and “oh holy shit this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” fall off tongues.  Except for mine – because I don’t like BdM (insert blasphemous gasps here).

Now before you members of the Brunello Brigade come after me with pitchforks, let me explain.  Like with Rembrandt, I’m NOT claiming that BdM is crap nor am I saying that I cannot appreciate BdM. What I am saying is that I, subjectively, don’t care for it.  I would love to find a BdM that changes my mind.  Believe me, I’ve tried!  Over the years, I’ve tasted many – particularly during my studies for the Italian Wine Scholar and at the recent Master class I attended led by Master Sommelier Peter Neptune  where we tasted 11 different BdMs.

Valdicava 1997That evening, the wines tasted ranged from a 2013 Camigliano BdM to a 1997 Valdicava BdM.  There were BdM from 2001 and 2010 – both highly rated vintages.  All 11 wines tasted were very high quality and from top producers such as Altesino, Donatella Cinelli Colombini and Salvioni.  I appreciated these wines, and was particularly amazed at how their structure held up over the years.

But did I like them?  No, not really.  Why?  Well, for starters the tannins were overwhelming.  They usually dominate in a BdM’s youth, but are still over prevalent (for me) in an aged BdM.  And even if I can get past the Hoover suctioning tannins, I don’t particularly enjoy the taste of BdM.  While I’m definitely not a juicy fruit bomb lover, the orange peel/medicinal cherry/tea leaf flavors I find in BdM aren’t appealing to me either.

And it’s not that I don’t like Italian wines.  I love Barbera, Aglianico, and Etna Rosso.  And I actually really enjoy Rosso di Montalcino – more than most Brunellos in fact.  Even though Rossos are usually from younger or “lesser” vineyards, have few restrictions on production (no oak aging required!) and are way less expensive.  I know this is like saying I’d prefer to wear Tory Burch shoes as opposed to Manolo Blahniks, or that I’d rather drive a Chevy truck than a Tesla – but both of these examples are also true (Hubs Note:  She drove a Chevy truck for a decade).

However, like a Rembrandt painting that I don’t want in my house, I don’t want a BdM in my glass.  I’d rather have a dozen other wines instead.  And on that note, I’m going to go pour myself a non-BdM and leave you with this awesome outline on Montalcino.