February 2011

The wines of Vinedos y Bodegas Garcia Figuero — to give this estate its full name — are made of 100 percent tempranillo grapes, some of which derive from vineyards that date to the 1930s. For decades, the grapes from the Figueros vineyards went into the wines of other producers in the Ribera del Duero region in north central Spain, part of the province of Castilla y Leon, until the family launched its own winery in 2001. As far as this palate is concerned, it was a wise decision.

Yes, these wines age in French and American oak barrels, much of them new barrels, qualifying the the wines for the often-used designation “new” or “modern” wines, in opposition, I suppose, to “old” or “traditional” wines, you know, the ones that aged years in large, ancient wooden casks or vats and emerged dry, austere and fruitless. I tend, as I have iterated many times, to be a purist about such notions of a region’s tradition and heritage, but Figeuros proves that we don’t have to adhere to tradition slavishly. Yes, the top levels of these wines display notable austerity on the finish, but that quality is preceded by rich, ripe fruit.

The Figuero 15 2004 and Figuero Noble 2004 I reviewed in June 2008, and these vintages are still the current releases for the wines in the U.S.A. I tasted them again in September 2010, and it was fascinating to see how the wines had developed over more than two years.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal. Samples for review.

Figuero 4 2008, Ribero del Duero, aged four months in a combination of 85 percent American oak and 15 percent French oak, all new barrels; the grapes derive from vineyards that are 10 to 20 years old. The wine presents a dark ruby color and aromas of black currant, black cherry and wild mulberry drenched in spice, dried flowers and dried herbs. This is a solid, dense, chewy wine, almost powdery in the texture of its resilient tannins and graphite-like minerality, yet the black and blue fruit flavors are succulent and luscious, unfolding with tantalizing hesitation to reveal depths of lavender and licorice, dried fruit and bitter chocolate. Bring on the medium-rare rib-eye steak, the grilled pork chops, the roasted leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $20.

What are the differences between Figuero 4 2008 and Figuero 12 2005? First, of course, the vintages; second, those numbers, 4 and 12, that indicate that aging times, 12 months opposed to four months. The grapes for Figuero 12 ’05 are from vineyards that are 20 to 40 years old. Interestingly, this is the only wine in the group that does not spend time in new oak; the barrels, 90 percent American and 10 percent French, are two or more years old. In the bottle, somehow, these factors translate to more of a mineral edge, more forest-freighted tannins yet also more spice, more forcefully juicy black currant, black cherry and plum scents and flavors and greater fathoms of potpourri, lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. The finish is long, solid, packed with dense tannins and sleek oak, though the wine exhibits lovely balance and integration of all parts. Another wine for roasted and grilled red meat. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $33.
Here’s what I wrote about Figuero 15 Reserva 2004 in June 2008:

Next is Figuero’s 15 Months in Barrel Reserva 2004, a wine that I found absolutely compelling in smoothness and mellowness, in balance and harmony. The grapes are from 50-year-old vineyards. Despite aging in new barrels for 15 months — 95 percent American — the wine, like its cousin mentioned above, displays no trace of vanilla or new oak toastiness. Instead, the oak provides a sturdy framework, a permeating presence of spice that never becomes obtrusive. Mint, eucalyptus and cedar float above scents and flavors of black currant, black cherry and plum set into a lush, dense and chewy texture. I rated the wine Excellent and said to drink through 2012 to ’15.

To which I would add that tried again in September 2010, the wine felt even more integrated, more harmonious, heady, seductive, dense with dusty granite-like minerals and dusty, briery tannins, yet lush and silky, deeply and darkly spicy and fruiyt; the finish lasts and lingers. I would extend the consumption window to 2015 to ’18. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $80.
And here’s what I wrote about the Figuero Noble Gran Reserva 2004 in June 2008:

You will need patience for the Figuero Noble Gran Reserva 2004. The vines whence the grape derive are more than 70 years old, a factor that contributes to the wine’s extreme density, richness and austerity. The aging is sequential, first 15 months in American oak, then six months in French. It’s true that Noble 2004 emits beguiling touches of cedar and tobacco, mint and eucalyptus, but this is mainly about gritty tannins, polished oak and brooding earthy, minerally qualities that will require aging until 2011 or ’12 to achieve company manners. After that, consume through 2018 or ’20.

A bit more than two years later, the wine felt much the same though it had deepened the effect of its layers of black fruit flavors and spice and had smoothed out and mellowed, with the oak thoroughly absorbed, into almost inexpressible confidence, balance and integration. This would be superb with small games birds like squab and pheasant, but I sipped it, instead, with a demitasse of espresso and a slice of intense chocolate cake. Yikes! 14 percent alcohol. 2018 to ’20 still seems reasonable. A world-class wine of unimpeachable character. Exceptional. About $130.

It was a quick working-day lunch. I had some farfalle left over from some night, so I spread it on a plate and threw it in the microwave. While it was slowly revolving and heating, I finely chopped a little sage and thyme and grated some zest from a lemon. When the pasta was ready — two minutes? — I scooped it into a bowl I had kept under the warming lamp, sprinkled on some salt and grated a lot of pepper on it, brushed on the herbs and lemon zest, grated a heap of Parmesan and pecorino cheeses and finally drizzled on a greenish-gold stream of good olive oil. A squeeze of lemon. Toss everything with a couple of forks. Prego! A terrific lunch. Just for the hell of it, I opened three bottles of different Italian white wines, all labeled with the I.G.T. designation: Indicazione geografica tipica, a category created in 1992 to account for regional wines that could not qualify for vino da tavola — which under EU regulations cannot be a wine of a specified place or vintage — and that often used grapes actually not typical of the region. IGTs, therefore, can be simple, inexpensive wines or quite expensive wines crafted from grapes that don’t fit the traditional regimes or somewhere in between.

These wines were samples for review.

The Bollini Pinot Grigio 2009 is an IGT from Trentino, or, more properly, Trentino-Alto Adige, a region, also referred to as South Tyrol, that nestles between Lombardy and the Veneto just under Austria. Made in stainless steel, the Bollini Pinot Grigio 2009 is fresh and crisp and invigorating, with pleasing notes of almond and almond blossom, delicate scents of lemon and pear and undertones of peach and dried thyme. It’s quite dry and crisp, but with a charming, slightly soft texture, wrapped around smoky citrus flavors and a finish that draws out several layers of limestone and shale. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2011; this would make an appealing summer outdoor wine, as aperitif or with light dishes like shrimp bruschetta or chicken salad. Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The Sartori Ferdi 2009 carries the designation Bianco Veronese IGT, meaning that it’s a white wine from vineyards in the area near or around the city of Verona. The grape is garganega, the principal grape in the wines of Soave, and if your reaction to Soave is that it tends to be bland, insipid and flat, it’s not the fault of the grape but the fault of growers who insist on planting garganega in the Veronese flatlands where the abundantly fertile soil causes the vines to flourish immoderately. Grown in the right places, however, with greater elevation and tended so that its flair for vigor is subdued, garganega can produce wines that are not only attractive but compelling. Sartori Ferdi 2009 offers a bright medium gold color and bold spiciness to match. The wine is made partly in stainless steel and partly in oak barrels, resting on the lees — the spent yeast cells (poor babies, so exhausted after fomenting fermentation) — for six or seven months. The result is a blossoming of bee’s wax, camellia and honeysuckle, roasted lemon and baked pear, with hints of apple and newly-mown hay and grass, all enfolded with delicacy and nuance after that first burst of spice. The texture is deftly balanced between good but not acute acidity (typical of the grape) and moderate lushness that envelopes lemony citrus flavors with back-notes of greengage and grapefruit. The finish could be more decisive, or a bit more lingering, but otherwise this is a very satisfying and drinkable white wine that was well matched with my pasta dish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+. About $14 .

VB Imports, a division of Banfi Imports, Old Brookville, N.Y.
The Counts of Capponi have lived at Calcinaia, in the heart of the Chianti Classico region, since 1524. The estate produces Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, but our concern here is the Villa Calcinaia Comitale 2009, Bianco dei Colli della Toscana Centrale IGT. This designation (first time I’ve seen it) means “white wine from the hills of Central Tuscany.” A blend of 90 percent grechetto grapes and 10 percent vernaccia, made in stainless steel, the wine is notably clean and fresh, while exuding a profound sense of earthiness and chalk-infused limestone. Pert aromas of green grapes, yellows plums, roasted lemon, lemon balm and thyme are attractive and intriguing; pert, too, is the bright acidity that animates the wine’s lemon and spiced pear flavors made savory by touches of wild herbs and leafy-curranty nuances, all this ending in a wash of penetrating lime/limestone/grapefruit citric minerality. A wine of unique individuality; very satisfying with my thyme-sage-lemon pasta. 12 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.

Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano has roots way back in history, being cited (as a billion wine-writers repeat) as the favorite wine of Michelangelo. Was it precisely the same Tuscan wine that was awarded, in 1966, the first DOC classification? That we’ll never know, since, as far as can be ascertained, Michelangelo never took notes on the wines he drank. The situation is interesting for a white wine that had almost disappeared by mid-century from this area of chalky hills and San Gimignano, its famous hill-town of jutting slender towers northwest of Siena. Farmers neglected the vernaccia grape in favor of trebbiano and malvasia. In a sense, the bestowal of the DOC revived the fortunes of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, though that’s not supposed to be the motivation of the official classification; it’s rather like the manner in which Academy Awards are given for an actor’s minor work because he didn’t get the Oscar when he should have years ago. One could list a dozen wines that should have been first to receive DOC classification, but that hardly matters now. Promotion to DOCG status came to Vernaccia di San Gimignano in 1993.

These observations are inspired by a group of wines that I encountered in New York on Jan. 25. The event was a tasting, at VINO 2011, of wines from 30 Tuscan properties that had been included in the 2010 Selezione dei Vini di Toscana Awards. I didn’t get to try many of these wines because I had been in a seminar on social media that ran at the same time that afternoon, but the tasting was supposed to go on until 6 p.m. so I still had more than an hour, except that after a few minutes hotel staff started flashing the lights. A wedding was going to occur later that night and the room had to be prepared, chairs set up and so on. Good planning there.

Anyway, the wines that absolutely knocked me out were whites from Montenidoli, the “mount of the little nests,” a small organically-run estate near San Gimignano founded by Sergio and Elisabetta Fagiuoli in 1965. Senora Fagiuoli herself, 46 years later, poured wines at VINO 2011. She offered one rose and five whites wines, though the estate also produces reds, two Chianti Colli Senesi and a Toscana I.G.T., all three of which I dearly long to try, because matters are handled in the old-fashioned way at Montenidoli. The wines are labeled “Sono Montinidoli,” meaning that they are made completely from estate grapes.

Some of the wines of Montinidoli are brought to our shores by various importers, including Artisan Wines Inc., in Edison, N.J.

The Canaiolo 2009, Toscana Rosato, is made from the canaiolo grape, traditionally a minor portion in Chianti wines (to soften sangiovese’s tannic edge) but largely relegated to oblivion these days, except for producers that cling heroically to the past. This is an extremely attractive and totally dry rose, sporting a pale copper-peach color, aromas and flavors of strawberries, peaches and dried red currants, and a finish of dried thyme and damp limestone. On a frigid day in New York, it brought to mind a pleasant early summer in Tuscany. Very Good+. About $18.

Montinidoli produces three levels of vernaccia wines. The first, in the current vintage, is the straightforward but surprisingly layered La Vernaccia Tradizionale 2007, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which receives more skin contact than the estate’s other vernaccias to extract all of the grape’s natural spiciness and elements of bee’s-wax and camellias and touches of leafy citrus. This Vernaccia Tradizionale 2007 is far better than the simple refreshing knock-it-back quaff typical of most examples of the genre. Very Good+. About $20.

Next is the Montinidoli “Fiore” 2007, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, made from free-run juice, fermented in stainless steel and allowed to rest “long” on the lees in tank. My first note on this wine was “Wow, so great!” I’ll come right out and say that not only have I never tasted a Vernaccia di San Gimignano filled with so much character but I never expected in this lifetime that I would. (We can talk about other lifetimes in, you know, another lifetime.) The purity and intensity, the sense of presence — by which I mean the wine’s authority in the nose and mouth and its sense of “thereness” — are amazing, yet the grape’s innate delicacy, its crisp, lively acidity keep the wine buoyant and animated. Roasted lemon, almond and almond blossom, bee’s-wax, a touch sage, a hint of freshly-mowed grass all combine for a feeling of sensual appeal and completeness. Drink now through 2013 to ’15. Excellent. About $23 and definitely Worth a Search.

Third is this roster is the Carato 2006, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which ages 12 months in barriques, that is, small barrels of French oak. Instead of being limited to three sips, I would love to try Carato ’06 with a wild mushroom risotto or a piece of swordfish marinated in lemon juice and white wine and seared to just beyond rare at the center. The wine is boldly spicy, deeply luscious with fresh and dried citrus and stone fruit, and, yes, one feels the influence of the oak aging in the wine’s supple texture and sandalwood-like “blondness,” yet a powerful acidic structure asserts its crystalline authority and a whole topography of limestone and chalk provides unassailable foundation. How strange and gratifying to encounter a world-class wine made from a grape whose wines are usually dismissed as “merely drinkable.” I suspect that Carato 2006 has five or six years of aging ahead, so drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $35.

The tradition in the vineyards around San Gimignano — so I have read — is that the workers would harvest the white trebbiano and malvasia grapes first, press them and use the free-run juice to make vin brusco — brusque wine — and then when the sangiovese and canaiolo had been picked for Chianti, that juice would rest on the skins of the white grapes. Montinidoli’s Vinbrusco 2005 — yes, 2005 — is no winsome little quaffing wine; no, friends, this is a wine of tremendous body and character, made all in stainless steel and resting on the lees for an unspecified time. I would urge you to drink it with white meats like veal and rabbit or with grilled trout, but it is not imported to the U.S., so I’ll keep this short. Excellent, and if available it would cost an astonishing $20.

Finally, we come — at the risk of mindless repetition — to another amazing wine, the Montenidoli Il Templare 2006, Toscana I.G.T., a blend of trebbiano, malvasia and vernaccia grapes that sort of blew my mind. (San Gimignano was a way-station for the Knights Templar.) This ages in wood, and you feel that structure, that woody spiciness and slightly spare austerity, that dryness, yet the wine is, as all these are, superbly balanced, thoroughly poised and integrated, a model of two forces that wed here in sweet synergy as they should in all wines that deserve our attention: integrity and individuality. From the color, which is radiant medium gold, to its aromas of roasted lemon, lemon curd and lemon balm imbued with dusty acacia and a hint of briers and brambles and thyme, to its spiced and macerated citrus and pear flavors supported by the triumvirate of bright acidity, keen limestone-like minerality and subtle wood, this is a world-class wine. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About — gasp! — $23.

I hope that I’m not overselling these wines, but it’s probably pretty evident that I loved them, not only for their inherent qualities but for the blessed amalgam of geography, vineyard, hard work, tender care and individuality that they seem to embody. I hope that My Readers can track down a few bottles.

At a press conference on the future of Italian wine in America — last week at VINO 2011 in New York — importer Leonardo LoCascio startled everyone — well, me — by asserting that American consumers don’t give a flying fuck (that’s not exactly what he said) about the regional niceties of the elaborate Italian DOC and DOCG regulations that determine where grapes can be grown and how they may be blended (if at all) in specific wines and how those wines must be treated in terms of barrel and bottle aging.

“Most of the Italian wine laws are irrelevant to the American consumer,” said LoCascio, founder, chairman and CEO of Winebow Inc. “These regulations are totally meaningless as to whether people buy a wine or not. Everything needs to be simplified.” And he mentioned in passing some little-known DOC zone with the implication that it was completely beyond the pale in terms of marketing interest in the U.S.

It’s true that Italian wine and the Italian wine laws are complicated and often confusing. Over 2,000 grape varieties are officially grown in the country’s 20 broad wine regions — they conform to the boot-shaped nation’s administrative divisions — portioned into something like 311 DOC zones, 39 DOCG zones and 120 IGT zones that produce more than 1200 different wines. Many of these areas are tiny and obscure and produce minute quantities of wine from grapes no one has heard of outside the neighborhood. (The abbreviations stand for Denominazione di origine controllata; Denominazione de origine controllata garantita, a theoretically higher category with stricter controls and “guarantees,” and notice that I say “theoretically”; and Indicazione geografica tipica, for a wine that does not fit into the traditional grape heritage of a region or vineyard area.)

Now I’m not about to contradict the authority of one of this country’s leading importers of Italian wines from all regions, the man who practically singlehandedly persuaded Americans to drink the wines of Apulia, and LoCascio may be correct when it comes to Mr. or Ms. Average American Wine Consumer (AvAmWinC) who just wants to pick up a bottle of pleasant, quaffable pinot grigio to knock back with a bowl of potato chips before dinner. These people, I vouchsafe, probably don’t care a hoot whether their pinot grigio hales from Collio Goriziano or Valle Isarco or Blanc de Morgex et de la Selle (yes, that’s in Italy).

There is, on the other hand, a group of people for whom the notion of regional authenticity rates high on the scale of their aesthetic and moral principles. These are the people who care whence their coffee and and tea and chocolate originate, down to the name of the plantation; who eat on a strictly seasonal basis from local food sources; who buy organic and healthy ingredients whenever possible; who want the wine they drink to be made naturally and traditionally, the consumers who care deeply (perhaps maddeningly so) about the notions of integrity and authenticity that regionality signifies. These concepts form the whole basis of the international Slow Food movement, which started in Italy, and the related locavore phenomenon, and if those social and cultural directions appeal to a minority of Americans, let’s remember, in vinous terms, that only 20 percent of Americans who drink wine drink 90 percent of the wine that gets drunk. These people are serious, and they spend money.

As for me, the more regional the better! I was pleased as punch to try wines at VINO 2011 from Italian DOC zones that I had not encountered before, especially in Lombardy. And to move the discussion out of Italy, a few days ago I made my Wine of the Week a juicy tasty garnacha from Spain’s Vino de la Tierra del Bajo Aragón, another region that was new to me. Somebody is sending me a wine from — New Jersey! The Outer Coastal AVA! I can’t wait!

Of course just because a wine is made by a venerable family on an ancient farm in some dim, out-of-the-way valley using only the most traditional methods and gluing the labels on the (recycled) bottles by hand doesn’t guarantee a great or even good wine. Intentions count, but not much. My point, though, is that we must value individuality, integrity and authenticity, even some eccentricity, if we are to participate truly in a global wine world that does not become homogenized or “pinot-grigioized” into universal innocuousness.

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