My Italian Summer Vacation
Wine of the WeekDonatella Cinelli Colombini 2003 Cenerentola, Orcia, Tuscany ($50, 90 points)One of the most interesting wines of my summer vacation in Italy was this fragrant blend—65% sangiovese, 35% foglia tonda—an antique, almost extinct Italian variety being revived at Colombini’s Fattoria del Colle estate near Trequenda. Aged one year in two different barrel sizes it shows lovely blueberry and blackberry fruit with fine peppery notes, supple texture and fine-grained tannins. Quite international in style, especially in this hot vintage, and very elegant and nervy as well. It is available by the case at www.lesommelier.com.
Despite the ”gone fishing” shingle in this space for the past month, I only went fishing once on my long summer vacation, landing a solitary but spirited smallmouth bass. But two weeks in Italy with the lady in my life was all the recreation I needed; a genuine romantic Italian vacation, without wine as the focus. There was a certain comfort in joining the August throngs awed by all that this amazing country has given to the world. The destinations provide some idea of the balance of sightseeing and professional interest that we struck—Rome, Orvieto (never touched a drop of its wine but loved the view), Montalcino (couldn’t resist the Brunellos), the medieval Castello di Meleto in Chianti Classico (three days of eating and hiking with no winery tours), Siena, Bolgheri (had to see the home of Sassicaia and Ornellaia), Pisa, Florence, and finally Venice—a masterpiece of human achievement.
We had wine with every dinner, and drank well without breaking the bank. It’s so much cheaper to drink good wine in restaurants in Italy. Time and again I calculated that the price we were paying at the table was about what we would have paid for the same wine at the LCBO—never mind the mark-up at a Toronto restaurant. This is not to blame restaurants per se for the outrageous prices we pay, but our prices do reflect our different cultural perspective around wine. In Italy wine is a water of life, flowing freely and easily, never damned or dammed. Here it is still archaically viewed as part privilege, part sinful pleasure, and taxed accordingly by governments and purveyors who prey on our guilt and ignorance.
New perspective is of course the real reward of travel, and it was a “wine day” spent with Donatella Cinelli Colombini near Montalcino that brought the most important new insights about Italian wine. This dynamic woman has founded two wineries since 1998, one in Montalcino where she makes classic DOC Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino; the other at the Fattoria il Colle estate near Trequenda where she makes various wines based on sangiovese, merlot, and a re-established ancient variety called foglia tonda. She is the first in Italy to employ only women (except for a male consulting oenologist she affectionately calls Il Drago, The Dragon). His wine of the same name (also pictured above) is a taut, vibrant, tannic blend of merlot, sangiovese and alicante ($32.60, 89 points).
She is a major achiever, and talked repeatedly about how she and so many of her colleagues were trying to improve Italian wine vintage by vintage. I commented that this drive for betterment surprised me given Italy had been making wine for so long. You’d think they’d figured it out long ago. To which she replied that “fine wine in Italy is a new idea”, not really taking hold until the last quarter of the last century, as it has elsewhere in the world. To find this sense of newness and wonderment about wine in Italy suddenly illuminated all the dramatic new wines that Italy is indeed producing, like our wine of the week.
And also like the stunning portfolio from a small winery called Gualdo de Re in the Suvereto region of coastal Tuscany. I had featured one of its wines—a cabernet called Federico II—here a few weeks ago after encountering it at a Tuscan tasting in Toronto in May, and I had to go to the source myself. There in a sun-drenched coastal plain we found a family of sunny disposition turning out hugely flavourful, ripe, almost Californian wines including voluptuous merlot; a rich, firm old barrel-aged pinot blanc, and yes, even delicious pinot nero (pinot noir) not sold beyond the property gates. Back in 1999, Gualdo de Re became the first client of an energetic oenology graduate named Barbara Tamburini who now criss-crosses Italy—from Piedmont to Sicily—helping 23 wineries catch the modern wave.
According to Donatella Colombini, there are around 672,000 wine producers in Italy. I strongly suspect that the innovation and attention to quality demonstrated in just two days of winery visits this summer has percolated into every nook and cranny of Italy, making it the most diverse and fascinating wine country on the planet.
It’s already time for my next trip.