29 Apr 2008

The Sun Shines Alongside 'Brunellogate'

'Suddenly, just as we were leaving Florence the morning sun started to shine on the top of the roofs... I thought... Light, Luce, that's it! ...the right name for this great wine.'
[Margit Biever Mondavi]
I WENT to a fascinating tasting of six vintages of Montalcino Sangiovese/Merlot Super Tuscan, Luce della Vite this afternoon. This joint venture, started in the mid 90's, represents Robert Mondavi's quest to make a formidable Italian icon - a way of tracing his roots. It was facilitated by Leonardo Frescobaldi, head of a family firm which spans 30 generations.
The tasting, held around a large oval banquetting table with silver Bacchanalian centrepieces, took place within the classically beautiful Italian Embassy. It was hosted by Serena Sutcliffe MW, an elegant but intimidating lady. William Eschikson, author of the excellent 'Noble Rot' describes her as having 'aristocratic bearing', 'tall and thin, dressed in designer clothes, perhaps even Dior' and with 'striking white hair'.
These are big, tightly structured, charismatic wines which develop much needed grace with age.
It is stylistically worth noting that the '01 signified a move from partial Slavonian oak maturation to entirely French, which made a tangible impact on its signature.
The beautifully maturing, shiny '94 threw a snowglobe of sediment with aromas of cedar, hanging game, eucylptus, compost and subtle sweet, smoked Havanna. On the palate, present, but soft tannins and a long, defined aftertaste. A monument, rather then monumental, it was thought to have reached its apogee, although I think its charm will grow further over a few more years.
From a vintage which started with a terrible frost, the '97 was the odd one out in the range, a fattier wine with raw veal on the nose and more chocolate on the dense, angular, well-powered palate.
The '99 was glossy, with a crisp, smart, leafy, even herby nose suggesting unsmoked tobacco. Refined with deep, dark fruit aromas (cassis) and a little cream beneath. On the palate, grasping, but welcoming tannins. Overall, fresh, and in arrested development. The strong alcohol (14.5p/c) was fully integrated. Serena Sutcliffe thought this wine showed a "perfect recipe".
The 'o1 had a dramatic, quality scheme of colour with a more formal nose, perhaps even more French, with a light lavender perfume and a touch of salty minerals. Plushly textured with sweeter fruit and a crisp, designed finish.
The '04 was my least favourite, a purple tinged, but already accessible, vanilla, clotted cream and raisin scented wine. Staggering, seductive, with less fruit, but more richness. Leonardo put this down to vintage variation: "vintages are different, as are humans". Serena Sutcliffe thought there was a spiciness within, which I didn't delve.
The '05 was a survivor from an Italian vintage which in others hands "suffered from a lack of financial backing". However, Leonardo ensures that "the vineyard is looked after like a baby". This wine had the most staggering concentraton, with more sweet oak, lush, soft tannins and sturdy but reconciled alcohol (14.97p/c). Impressive, like a Napa Cabernet, with hardly any Italianate intrigue, although it did retain a distant family resemblence to the glossy '99.
The event also saw the launch of Leonardo's Brunello di Montalcino from '03, a wine so reassuring and complete that it made Serena Sutcliffe "nostalgic" about this "native". Serious, herbacious, minted, "vinimitable", with cinammon, "ink" and blackcurrant tea on the nose. Also a little barnyard. The palate was expressive and refreshing, with a ripe sweetness and fennel on the finish. It was not considered something for the U.S. which would "prefer Merlot/Sangiovese blends".
This vintage is currently the focus of what has been termed 'Brunellogate', an accusation by the Italian police that this, and other leading producers bottles contain grapes other than Sangiovese. Whilst Leonardo's vineyards are planted with other varieties, he insists that the wine is strictly Sangiovese. Preparing for the long haul legal process, he states "at least these wines have a tremendous ability to age..."
After the tasting, I was allowed to speak to Leonardo, although time was limited. Whilst I waited for him, I got stuck into a motifed plate of moreish little toasts with smoked salmon and sliced caperberries, a tasty, tangy combination. He confirmed that unlike other top end Super Tuscans, his are drunk by Italians (up to a third of the production, in fact). He compared the light in Montalcino to that in Napa. Both have "a certain purity". His one regret was studying Political Sciences rather then agricultue.
He told me that the most prized bottle in his personal cellar was the first vintage of another US/Europe joint venture, a certain Oakville wine with Grand Cru ambitions - Opus One. This was gifted in person by Robert Mondavi, signed.
The U.K. representative is Hallgarten.