Sunday, May 15, 2011

Montalcino Deja Vu: What a Difference a Generation Makes

From the Archives while the Invisible Man prepares the bandages

In 1984 Montalcino was a sleepy little hamlet

Sometimes, it seems I don’t throw anything away. There are some who would say I never let things go. From the tossing and turning the other night (was it the buffalo steak or the stake in the heart?) I couldn’t argue. But, with the grace of patience and the hope of wisdom, some of the bumps on the wine trail might eventually smooth out.

This has been a long, arduous month. I thought after Christmas we’d get a respite. But the history of January, in my life, hasn’t been one of rest and reflection. More like throw some more wood on the fire, let’s crank it up in here, 'cause we aren’t through yet.

So, there we are.

Chef Croci with his favorite plate of pasta, surrounded by Tuscan wine and women

Earlier this week I had arranged to meet a salesperson out in Ft. Worth. The rodeo and stock show season is on and the town is busy. We arranged to meet at an old friends place, Bella (Italia) West. Carlo (Pietro) Croci has been buying wine from me since the early 1980’s and I hate to tell you what great wines he has gotten from me, usually for a song. But he is a generous guy and will share his wines and his stories. Carlo comes from Tuscany, but for some reason I have always kidded him that he was really the child of forgotten prisoners that were left on the Elba Island. Of course he kids me about being from Africa, because of my noble Sicilian roots.

Years ago I sold him a ton of ancient wines, from the 1968 Sassicaia (first year released) to some very rare 1937 Capezzana Carmignano. So it was only fitting that we share a bottle of the 2006 Carmignano to see how the wines are doing in the new century. Odd, that behind him was visiting from Tuscany Violante Gardini; the grand daughter of Francesco Colombini Barbi.Violante has her own Brunello wine from the Cinelli Colombini estate of hers. She represents a strong line of woman winemakers in Tuscany, dating from the times when her grandmother had to run an estate in a day and age when grown men were not used to taking commands from a young lady. But she persisted and now it is part of the history of Montalcino. Violante is carrying on in her grandmothers steps.

Why odd? Because the very next day I would be out in the market, “blitzing” with the representatives of the Barbi Colombini estate, Violante’s grandmother’s wines.

Cellarmaster and yours truly in 1984

I first went to Barbi in April of 1984 (about 4 months before Violante was born) to taste the 1979 -1983 Brunellos at the source. In those days Montalcino was a sleepy little hamlet and quite rustic. I loved the local dialect of the people with their soft c’s (like an “h”) and their sturdy nature. My colleague, then and now, Guy Stout was on the wine trail in Italy with me on that trip, the first of many adventures we have had.

Cellarmaster and future Master Somm, Guy Stout, in leaner times

The billiard table in the cellar doubled as a
staging area for the bottling line in the early days

The Barbi, along with the Dievole wines, are now imported into the USA by Pasternak

Along the way I got nervous that we wouldn’t have enough wine for lunch, so I stopped off at home and picked up a bottle of the Barbi riserva red label 1997 to try with Sausage Paul and Joey the Weasel (aka Joe Strange Eye). What a good move that was! The wine was supple and ready, 12 plus years old and, maybe because of the hot vintage (or the less than stellar cellar conditions that we have to deal with here in the infernotti of Texas). But whatever, the wine was jumping for joy into our glasses. It was interesting to compare the 1997 with the 2004 Brunello from the same estate.

The Barbi cellar (and sales room) in the heady days of the 1980's

I noticed that the 2004 had a similar structure in that the wine was full-fruited. There is talk of the 2004 vintage being compared to the 2001; several of us in my circle think that comparison is odious at best. During the 2004 vintage there were recorded heat spikes, creating mixed results around the appellation. Last year at Benvenuto Brunello I tasted many 2004's and was surprised by the variation. So, another 2001? I don’t think so. 1997? I hope not. No, I think the 2004 is going to be a good wine for restaurants, better than the 2003 or 2002, but to me more similar to the 1980. Barbi, Pietro tells me, still stick to their traditional methods, and they produce a large amount of Brunello (about 1/5 of what Silver Oak makes – 20,000 cases). I remember last year when we opened the 1978 (a classic year) and it was a perfect example of normal Brunello – no steroidal oak or magical vineyard blend. And I have had some great older Brunellos; the 1964 Costanti comes to mind as one of the great ones alongside the 1955 Biondi Santi and the 1971 Il Poggione. So there is some history there, from the first time I was in Montalcino, one short generation ago. But what a difference that generation has made. And now the young tribe, with the likes of Violante and her peers, gives me high hopes for the rehabilitation of Brunello. I know it's a long row to hoe, but everyday I find there are people who don’t want high octane, Cabernet wannabees Brunellos - they are seeking out authenticity. Isn’t it once again about time for the recalibration of intent, not just in Montalcino, but all over McItaly?

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