A Tuscan Wine Experience: Antinori nel Chianti Classico

Sparking at the intersection of tradition and innovation…

Going on 50 years ago, the Marchese de Antinori rocked the Tuscan wine world by flouting tradition.
Today, innovation and tradition keep a rare and delicious correspondence in places like Antinori’s Chianti Classico estate; from the art to the architecture to the wine, it remains a distinctive place today.

Their international art resists definition – from spare biome globes to the spare rendition of the Resurrection on vinyl tarp to the 17th century oils and the line drawing miniatures of the Bacchae.
The building’s structure comes from three local materials: native oak, their Cortana steel/copper and the terra cotta. These comprise the voluminous 129,000 square foot, technologically advanced winery. Constructed into the side of a hill, it is nearly invisible, even from the air.

The Marchesi cultivates this balance of innovation and tradition as enthusiastically as his vineyards cultivate grapes balancing ripeness and acidity. The traditional grape varieties of Chianti alloy with international varieties in wines as diverse as the renowned Tignanello and the Chianti Classico. These foreigners lend bas relief of taste to the structure of the natives, a contrast that highlights the crisp acidity and lively (my guide called them ‘crunchy’) fruit and spice characters indicative of the region.

Yet, balance implies a simplistic quality, between ripeness and acidity or old and new or tradition and innovation; the deeper balance of dynamic elements winks out of these impressions from light, shadow and darkness.

Across Europe we celebrate the traditions of wine; we adhere to guarantee of the DOCg in Italy, entrusting their regulation to ensure the consistency of the next bottle, at least within the parameters of vintage. It has been this way for more than 100 years in Tuscany, less so in France but even longer in Spain, mainly to combat fraudulent copycats. Breaking these rules breaks faith, creates remarks. So in the celebration of the constancy of tradition, innovation always sparks attention.

Dynamism finds expression in the flexing terra cotta walls of the aging cellar, breathing with the seasons and the wine. It finds expression in the religious relics represented on modern materials adorning the aging room of the Vin Santo.

The massive winery appears as a topographical line from the air, a simple curve of architecture over vineyards from below, creating tension, space and wine where there was less before.

The place is like the wines, or vice versa.

This dynamism lives in the wines, new and old, light and concentrated, fresh and complex. The reds of Chianti mimic the best artistic tension; they pair with food to create something that was not there before.

What’s not to love here? The restaurant is mentioned by the Michelin guide, deservedly. The antique Tuscan art and terra cotta pieces adorn every architectural innovation. The hospitality is gracious and the wines express why the 12th century Baron Ricasoli thought this region deserved recognition and protection for its wine identity. For an authentic treat, try a bottle of Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva with some Wild Boar ravioli and Ragu!


Tartrates: 30 Year Challenge

Nearly all elements of wine have dramatic influence on wine’s flavor but tartrate crystals visually evidence a winemaker dedicated to making the most delicious wine possible.

As mentioned elsewhere, many elements of wine influence our preference for them: alcohol content, grape variety, oak maturation, various winemaking practices. Here’s a look at one of those practices, what it does and cannot do.

Again, cultural preference influences personal preference. If father or mother had a taste for, and complimentary words for, pickled beets or fermented Brussels sprouts their grown children likely will spend money on them as well. Same for mentors. If your mentor, or editor, says every sentence must contain a verb, chances are every sentence of yours will contain at least one. My mentor loved the Oxford comma, weirdly.

Tartrate is the most abundant acidity in fermented grape juice. Most wineries in the in the New World practice cold filtering to help this particular acidity precipitate out of solution and form the raw version of Cream of Tartar. (Use the dry version to make your homemade bread fluffier or Snickerdoodles at all.)

But cold-filtering also removes other elements from wine simultaneously. Some of these elements contribute to the flavor and texture of the bottled wine so winemakers will opt to not cold filter, leaving all the flavor with those messy remnants of wine chemistry. To be clear, to expect them in our wine is to expect deeper flavor and more characterfully textured wine.

10 year old tartrates in Sauternes

Conversely, to best experience a wine with these “Wine Diamonds”, as the publicists have christened them, filter them out. The gentle pouring into a decanter lets all of the flavenols remain in the wine but thorough enough to leave these heavier sediments in the bottle. In short, there is no enjoyment in the gritty texture they contribute to a sip of wine. Decanting is the preferred method for a number of reasons, but the removing sediment is a prime rationale for the practice. As they age out of their crystalline phase into more of a powdery or blob phase, the decanting requires an even more gentle hand and an illuminating backlight to locate them during the process.

40 year old tartrates in Sauternes

Beyond bottling, they do not contribute complexity to the wine like the sur lie aging in bottles from La Champagne. Tartrates are simply less interactive than yeast lees; old tartrates are simply less crystal and more dust. So cultural preference does not touch the age of tartrates because they are chemically inert by the point of their precipitation.

Nearly all elements of wine have dramatic influence on wine’s flavor but tartrate crystals visually evidence a winemaker dedicated to making the most delicious wine possible.

Taste in wine follows similar cultural lenses through which to grade quality and value. To paint in broad strokes, North Americans have a distinct preference for bolder, brasher impressions of younger wines, wines that are not to their 8th birthday. Great Britain’s inhabitants, at least those who are wealthy enough to travel to the West Coast of the U.S. and drink wine in restaurants, show a marked preference for wines beyond the 8th anniversary of the vintage date on the bottle – often well beyond.

The litmus test is: at what average wine-age will a particular nationality of drinker prefer a wine to the point of ordering a second?

Here’s the analogy. Wine represents an abstraction

Getting a Feel for Wine

The mere suggestion that there is a shortcut to wine expertise sells books, classes, seminars and certifications every day. It slyly borders actual myth

I am the type of guy who can’t even throw a curve on a bowling lane. Straightforward and up front are two cardinal virtues in my world. To bring this rectitude to wine, I have spent the bulk of my professional hours studying, tasting, selling and enlivening meals for myself and others with the happy conveyance of wine. I like bringing comprehension to a few principles that illuminate more about wine than the memory they require. Just enough people regard me as their “wine guy” that I accept the regard as a happy responsibility by striving to live up to it. But wine has an irritating frustration that has that has plagued my career.

Truth. There are precious few true principles, or Universal Truths, in wine.

I first learned this as a novice wine server at a local country club. I displayed an aptitude for wine service as well as an interest in the subject, so a local wine distributor invited me to join a fairly routine sales luncheon for a local winery.  At the time, I believed I was hitting it big – an unsolicited invitation to a private wine luncheon – I must be famous. At the appointed day, we were led into the mahogany-lined and naturally lit room at the upscale restaurant. I sported the only tie I owned and made pleasant hellos with the dozen other attendees.  I happened to be seated to the left of a large man in his 60’s, he wore a black wool vest and patent leather shoes that mirrored his imposing quiet; I thought his solemnity for this tasting and lunch were appropriate so I masked my un-vested role as rube with attentive nods to conversation around the table. The first wines were poured and, having some familiarity with the process of analytical tasting, I looked at the first wine, swirled it around and put my nose squarely inside the glass, as was my habit, and did my level best to intelligently sniff the Chardonnay.  My elder neighbor did the same.  I sipped the wine and let the 1/2oz. sit on my tongue for a few seconds to really grab every flavor it offered. 

My elder neighbor did not do this.  Instead, he had brought the glass down to his lap, where he believed no one could see, placed his index finger in the glass and brought it out with just enough wine to rub on his thumb.  He was literally “feeling” the wine.  Glancing around, no one else was doing this or paying attention to his clandestine technique.  He never once took wine in his mouth.  No one appeared to notice this either. The winemaker addressed him often, deferring to his expertise in wine, restaurants and the quality of the lunch.  While he offered opinions, I cannot recall a one as I was too busy putting my glass below the table and rubbing wine between my fingers.   That day, I learned Universal Wine Truth #1, wine is wet.  

However, I was convinced the secret edge of expertise for this gentleman was through the doorway of touch; in visiting his restaurant, I noted he had a plaque on the wall declaring him a certificate holder of wine expertise.  I was convinced that if I could translate this secret, I could leapfrog to wine expert in no time at all.  It would be glorious.

It took me just over six months to stop fingering my wine.

In the meantime, I looked for examples of the significance of touching wine from other sources, articles that would justify the value of wine’s tangible viscosity to the quality of the wine.  I even quietly mentioned it to a few other wine folks who looked at me as if I were trying to trick them into fingering their wine too.  

In retrospect, what I really learned was that there is much misinformation in the world of wine, especially if one guesses the answer instead of asks the question.  (Some wine does “feel” different than other wine – but usually because it is so sweet.)  As it turned out, one other person had seen this behavior from my lunch companion on other occasions, and had confidence that it was a relic of the man’s truce with alcohol.  For reasons known to him, he did not consume alcohol: the only way he would sense the wine’s texture was to feel it between his fingers.  He had been doing it for years; maybe it did offer him some kind of illustrative comparison after so much time.  I did not have the time to keep hiding my glass under the table.

However, this learning led me to Universal Wine Truth #2: wine’s half-truths and myths are far more numerous and entertaining than its absolutes.  The Society of Wine Educators and the Court of Master Sommeliers have “theory” exams so rigorous that an average 85% of attempts fail.  These are designed to weed out the erroneous, the ignorant, the untrue and the downright mythical misinformation that circulates the arena of wine appreciation. Common wine myths include, but are by no means limited to: “bottles in a cellar need to be turned regularly”, or “dangling silver spoons in Champagne bottles maintains the wine’s effervescence.”, or “sediment that stains your hand from the bottom of the cork means the wine has turned bad.”  These and many others have compiled a Hurt Locker of misinformation most often offered as helpful insight.  God bless them for trying.  The most entertaining one of late is the Napa Valley winery website promoting the science that swirling one’s wine clockwise accentuates the fruit component in the wine while swirling it counter-clockwise brings out the voices of the oak barrels and winery treatments. I wonder if that is opposite in the Southern Hemisphere.  Half-truths may be less noxious, but in this age of “alternative facts” it behooves people of wine to be as transparently accurate as vinifera grapes are to the place they are grown.  Some familiar partial truths include: “good wines have corks”, “strong legs down the glass mean the wine is excellent”, “it’s expensive, it must be good” or perhaps worst of all, “it’s supposed to taste like that.”

Through it all, through every embarrassing or enlightening moment has emerged Universal Wine Truth #3: the Magnificent Power of Suggestion wields massive influence in the appreciation of wine.  It forms both the road to understanding and the path of confusion.  It is the Jedi Power of Sommeliers, slashing it around dining rooms, bouncing it off egos and corporate credit cards with shameless aplomb.  In defense, if a guest even so much as believes that we are trying to to get him or her to finger their wine irresponsibly, they will give us the finger.  The distrust we have of our own taste is a trait that only diminishes with familiarity; it never actually goes away.  The older gentleman putting fingers in his wine had a reason for his technique.  Had I asked the question instead of running amok with the suggestion that there was a secret door to wine knowledge, I would have saved myself some time and probably headed off other hazards of the profession as well.  Old crusty Somms have learned that perceptive guests are equally good teachers if we keep our ears tuned to learning.  As humans, we see what we are primed to see and what we see is what we get.  The same principle works in all avenues of our experience from love to politics to taste.  Suggesting New Zealand Sauvignon’s more feral qualities either repulses its detractors or attracts its aficionados – same for Riesling’s petroleum-esque impressions.  If it does not make them more delicious, at least it offers honesty.  Wine is complex, but it is not complicated.  The suggestion that everyone can taste raises the bar of experience for guests and for the educators, the retailers, the service staff.  I suggest we do better.  I suggest that open curiosity serves us better than suspicious fingerings.

35-ish Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Wine (without order or explanation)

There is much to know about wine and there is much to not know.

There is much to know about wine and there is much to ignore – there is plenty of ritual in front of the spiritual when it comes to the appreciation of wine.  The difference between these 2 bodies of knowledge resembles the channel between Scylla and Charybdis each one threatening to swamp the boat with ignorance or overwork. 

The confusing parts of wine come from largely outdated convention and happenstance. The ladder of wine knowledge resembles a ladder, but without the first few rungs to give one a leg up to the rest.  Which is why “Learn Wine” programs gain so many students. No one can make you understand wine; but there are many good resources to begin and continue listed here. Below is a compendium of learnings earned on the path to becoming a reasonably good “wine person” in honor of all those who have been my teachers and the students who have taught me as much as I have taught them. Wine remains simple and complex, but it is only complicated by mis-information. Let’s get started with the basic basics:

  1. All wine is made of fruit juice; the most popular fruit has been grapes for their adaptability to climate and soils, their sugar/acid balance and their overall taste.
  2. Rice wine and honey wine are NOT wine; their alcoholic strength easily matches wine’s alcoholic strength, so Sake and Mead are often referred to as “wine” – the same is true for Barley Wine.
  3. Grape wine is primarily made from a species called Vitis Vinifera; all white pulped – mainly.  Red wines are only red for extended contact of the skins with the juice – mainly.  These “Vinifera” wines are mainstream, nevertheless, wines of all grape species have long winemaking histories.
  4. Vitis Vinifera grapes can be “transparent” in taste to the region of the world in which they were grown. This transparency confounds scientists and energizes enthusiasts.
  5. We “taste” with our eyes first. 
  6. Our tongues are blunt and tonal, like the rods in our eyes, and nearly universal from one person’s perception to the next.
  7. Our noses are sharp, with as much ability to differentiate smell as the cones in our eyes differentiate color – and nearly as personal as a fingerprint.
  8. Brandy is the distillation of wine. Cognac is region of France specializing in distilling wine.
  9. Ugni Blanc is the most planted grape variety in the world. Outside of Italy, it is the basis for Cognac, inside Italy it is called Trebbiano and makes a perfectly unoffensive white table wine.
  10. Cognac is a region of France that makes grows Ugni Blanc grapes to make their brandy; confusingly, they also have growing districts with “Champagne” in the name though they make no sparkling wine.
  11. Champagne (not in Cognac) is a blended wine, using both “colors” of grapes.  See #3.
  12. Blended wines both erase and highlight the importance of a “Vintage Year”.  In this regard, Port and Champagne are twins.
  13. Temperature is the single most affective component of wine growing, wine making, wine serving and wine tasting.
  14. The sweeter the grapes, the more alcoholic the wine can be.
  15. Sweeter grapes have traditionally been achieved by longer growing seasons, freezing grapes, drying grapes and a certain fungus.
  16. Fermentation is both a sugar conversion and an acid conversion process.
  17. Varietal wines are made from different varieties of the same species of Vitis Vinifera.
  18. There are grammar police in the wine world; i.e. – Variety is a noun, varietal is an adjective. While you CAN’T have a grape varietal, you can have a varietal wine. While you CAN have a grape variety, you can’t have a variety wine. In other arenas, a punt, the indentation in the bottoms of some wine bottles, is also known as a kick-up, appropriately.
  19. Punts are extremely useful for strengthening the bottoms of bottles that contain 4 & 5 atmospheres of pressure (carbonation); and they remain exclusively decorative in every other application. After the bottom of the bottle is reinforced with a punt, the next weakest point is the neck of the bottle – which enables sabering the top from Champagne bottles.
  20. Regional wines can be varietal wines or blended wines – it purely depends on the region’s traditions, values and in some cases, laws.
  21. Old World wines are made to accentuate the place, New World wines accentuate the grape; in both places, great wines are made.  Both places can screw up good grapes just as easily.
  22. White wine with fish, red wine with meat, unless the protein is accentuated with a more dominant flavor like Mango Salsa, Bearnaise or bleu cheese – then pair that flavor instead.
  23. Tannin is Mother Nature’s anti-oxidant. Protein, fat and salt erase it from our taste, as does time in a well-cellared bottle.
  24. Sulfites are a reactive chemical that occurs naturally from the fermentation process – we routinely add more as a “chemical refrigerant”.  Happily, once they react to something, they cannot react to us.
  25. Sweet wines mask flavor, Dry wines turn flavor up. Why would you want to mask flavor? Spicy Thai, perhaps blue cheese or maybe Puttanesca?
  26. “Dry” designations refer to beverages without much or any sweetness.  This is a throwback to humoral medicine, widely practiced until germ theory became dominant in late 19th century.  While there are “Wet” wines, we do not refer to them as such – same for “Cold”.  However, we still refer to some wines as “Hot” for the same reasons that our ancestors did – as the figurative heat of the alcohol evaporation increases to the point of seeming warm, or even hot.
  27. All preference is based in experience and expectation.
  28. Context is a huge determiner of appeal. Outside influence from companions to location will influence your memory of the wine.
  29. Details of flavor are a huge determiner of fineness in wine.
  30. A winemaker’s ability to spend money making wine is finite; the price charged for the wine does not seem to be.
  31. Taste can be honed, sharpened and enhanced.  Attention is the biggest, sharpest tool to do so. Listening to others is the second sharpest tool. 
  32. Esters of aromatics evaporate at different temperatures.  It’s what makes fancy stemware worth the price – to catch those different layers of flavor more easily.
  33. Memory is not enhanced with alcohol.
  34. “Legs” or “tears” do not indicate quality or even style of any beverage.
  35. Every pro knows what they don’t know, for that is also a form of knowledge.
  36. The secret of taste is to be able to remember who you are.  An open mind is an open palate; though the definition of connoisseur includes being able to tell the difference between what is good and what you personally prefer.


Small Grower Champagnes – December 2018

…the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label…

Elements of Champagne stand out as its cardinal virtues: prestige, rarity, purity, but before we get to these, a word about effervescence.  The entire world holds effervescence as Champagne’s defining characteristic, the frothy mousse that so many wineries attempt, and a few outside La Champagne bring off well.

These bubbles, the erstwhile remnant of bottle fermentation, once loathed by Dom Perignon himself, define the identity of this region’s wines. In every instance, bubbles are a glass of wine’s loudest advertisement that this is a special beverage, drunk with abandon and care at the same time.  Karen MacNeil points out in The Wine Bible (updated 2015) that, “…one stands taller when holding a flute of Champagne”.  I have also found true that those charming, minuscule bubbles of CO2 rush alcohol to the bloodstream like firemen to a fire – when that straight posture resembles bravado.

Plenty of wine can be effervescent. Plenty of wines can be refreshing when served straight out of the icebox, even red wines. In short, if plenty of wine imitates Champagne, what renders this peculiar authenticity worth attention, or worse, higher cost?  Prestige is a thing – but the habillage, the bottle’s clothes as it were, communicates this more clearly than the most consistent house style.  Is that it? As in so many human interactions, if the clothes make the man, can the label makes the wine?

Peripherally, I would argue that the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label – and the fiery pride of Champagne’s grape growers are doing their best to get drinkers to ignore the labels of famous negociant Grandes Marques in favor of their single vineyard and single commune wines.  The purity, rarity and prestige of these wines rests in their unique, flavorful, tiny productions, some as low as a few hundred cases per year.  None of us can remember Champagne as a vineyard specific wine – now we are getting a chance.

Grand marques are the image of modern Champagne, their marketing budgets alone consist of kajillions of dollars for image and prestige.  All growers in La Champagne benefit from the image-building of these négociants, while the negoce idea of terroir rests firmly in the backseat.  The échelle des crus attempts to recognize the effects of context on fruit, but this ladder is more an industry scale than a consumer scale – and in the big houses, even the best vin clair gets the blending. The Grandes Marques Emperor is delicious, but in the context of the wider wine world, he has no clothes.

By contrast, these small growers are trying to put the clothes of terroir back on the frame of Champagne’s image, imitating their neighbors in Burgundy.  It’s usually a regal picture.  Recent, warmer vintages render sites more likely to withstand the scrutiny of single-vineyard bottling.  However, success remains a mixed bag of regal and pedestrian – the importance to wine lovers is that the attempts are showing up.   Please show a sense of adventure when choosing your next Champagne, your palate will thank you.

What follows is this taster’s impressions of a selection of 42 small grower Champagnes, presented by the region in which the wines were sourced.

The Aube – controversial in its re-inclusion to the Champagne AOC, the Kimmeridgian limestone surfaces here and is again recognized as comparable.  While all grape varieties are planted here, the region has yet to make an outstanding wine.  One highlight:

Tassin Brut NV exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit of Aube and grower Champagne at once with its 80/20 Pinot/Chardonnay blend and lower wholesale pricing.  The wine displays a bright, light mousse, appley citrus and barely ripe tropical impressions to a light finish.  This wine provides a fine example of how Champagne can be enjoyed by a broad range of drinkers.

Cote des Blancs – centered around the communes of Avize, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cuis – featuring the white grape that ripens enough in this slightly cooler region of limestone exposure.  Some highlights:

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Cuvee Gastronomie” Brut Premier Cru 2014 was a very effervescent example of a fine Champagne; the bouquet was notable for its deep lemony grapefruit characters and mild chalk/yeast/dough.  The palate was creamy with mousse and actual texture echoing the bouquet with an almost limoncello character, almost invisible yeastiness and a delicate, ethereal finish.

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Special Club Oger” Brut Grand Cru 2012 provides a dramatic difference to the Cuvee Gastronomie in its normal effervescence and robust, red fruit impressions from tart cherry to unroasted coffee.  Remarkable and deserving attention alongside heartier cuisine.

Pierre Peters “Cuvee de Reserve” Brut Grand Cru NV (based on 2015 with reserve wine dating back to 1998) despite older reserve wine, the revelation of this wine was its absence of evidence of battonage or autolysis.  The clean, brisk chalk impressions were firmly underpinned with brilliant lemon citrus and a lingering lemon, mildly tropical finish.  Weightier as a GC might inspire but not heavy.

Varnier-Fanniere Brut Grand Cru NV showed a brilliant hybrid of Champagne and rich Meursault.  On the Champagne side, there was a mild oxidation to the fruit that played well off of the chalk and nutty citrus flavors.  The effervescence was low-key by comparison to its peers but with a richer almond, pear and mild roast coffee finish that was more reminiscent of Meursault than La Champagne.

Vallee de la Marne – warmer with more of the rough-hewn impressions of the Pinot Meunier grape, the region traditionally gives heft and longevity to the region’s best wines.  Some highlights:

Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs d’Ay Brut Grand Cru NV despite the warmer region, this wine displays the lightness and ethereal qualities of a blanc de blancs with a delicate balance between almond shortbread and lemon meringue.

Marc Hebrart “Special Club” Brut Premier Cru 2013 runs the gamut of Champagne flavor with a medium plus texture, the ripe, roasted almond plays off of the red appleskin and yellow grapefruit flavor impressions to a lingering finish. Remarkable.

Geoffrey Rose de Saignee Brut Premier Cru NV displays an almost pet-nat character with indigenous yeast influence and robust plum, dark cherry and mushroom flavors on the complex palate.  If this is the beginning of the complexity Champagne is assuming, the future is bright for lovers of the region’s wines.

Montagne de Reims – wines are based on Pinot Noir and typically among the more robust, ageable and complex of the region.  Some highlights here include:

A. Margaine Rose Brut Premier Cru NV has become a light, bright and crisp example of the area but with a pale rose color echoed in the refreshing red cherry, bright raspberry  and crisp citrus finish. 

Jean Lallement et Fils Rose Brut Grand Cru NV makes an intense rose with a funky, mild mushroomy character alongside the clear, clean plum, dark cherry and sheer character of flavor.  Another standout.

L. Aubry Fils “Aubry de Humbert” Brut Premier Cru 2009 smells like a fruit bowl of banana, pineapple and smoky lemon.  The texture and mousse is moderate allowing the melange of flavors to show off on the palate before cleaner citrus arrives on the finish.

Pierre Paillard “Les Mottelettes” Blanc des Blancs Extra Brut Grand Cru 2012 registers as the single most assertive BdB in memory.  The robust, almost dried lemon, almond shortbread and guava impressions are heavy enough as to not be appealing to every Champagne fan, but it remains a remarkable wine with a long life ahead.

These wines were tasted with labels showing and expectations based around growing region and color of the wines.

“…the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label.”