The Italian Argument
My friend (and wine importer) Massimo is so Italian, I sometimes feel like asking him to tone it down a bit. When he does Vintage Room tastings, he dons his baby-blue velour blazer, unfurls the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and puts out the bread, the cheese, and the salami that he drove to East Van to buy (“always so bad the traffic, Jordan”). He knows the families behind each of the wines that he pours, and purrs out the hyper-syllabic place names like arpeggios; he is simultaneously 100% legit and one step away from hopping onto a turtle shell to go save the princess. Sometimes when he’s pouring I step back, out of the Vintage Room, to observe the people he’s serving to see if they get the same –
“Hello, Jordan.” It came from behind me, a familiar voice with an accent that was similar to Massimo’s, if somewhat time-worn. It was Vito.
Vito is, well, the other Italian importer that I buy a lot of wine from (and who also does tastings with cheese and bread and tablecloths – it’s like the Aloha of Italy, I guess). In fact, I’ve been buying from Vito since long before there I knew there were Massimos (Vito has been in Canada a lot longer), and maybe that explains my sheepish expression when I turned around to face him. Despite the fact that I support both of these importers equally and despite the fact that – last time I checked – I’m a grown man, I felt guilty, like I got caught cheating on Vito with Massimo. After I made small talk with Vito for a couple minutes, he announced that he was going to go say hi to Massimo, and I promptly ran away, just as a grown man would do.
As I pretended to do important things in the rest of the store, I talked myself down. You have Vito pouring in the Vintage Room all the time, I told me. Vito’s been here a long time, probably doesn’t even have a temper anymore, I continued. You’re 43 years old and you can buy wine from whomever, it’s all good, you’re such a professional, I said. It was working. I felt better. My friend Rick was standing at the tasting bar looking into the Vintage Room and beckoned me over, “you’ve got to see this”, he said. My anxieties returned like booming car stereos.
It looked initially like they were trying to swat many flies away from each other’s heads. Vito and Massimo were gesticulating wildly at one another, raising and lowering their pitches accordingly. I don’t know what they were arguing about (I no habla Italian) but I got the sickening feeling that I’d put a Japanese Fighting Fish in the same tank as another Japanese Fighting Fish. I had to do something before it came to blows, so – like a grownup – I ran away further into the back.
After dusting the same bottle for 10 minutes I figured the coast was clear, and emerged cautiously from the back and went into the Vintage Room where Massimo was pleasantly whistling. Vito was gone. “What was that about?” I asked Massimo, who blinked at me for a beat before asking “what you mean, Jordan?” “I mean, what were you and Vito talking about?” I clarified. Massimo blinked at the table, then the ground, then his own hand, “I think the weather?” he shrugged. After I pushed a little further, Massimo divulged, with a puzzled look, that they’d maybe discussed soccer a bit. They weren’t fighting, they weren’t even disagreeing, that is just how a couple of Italian guys talk to each other.
That kind of passion pervades every Italian conversation, but it can be weaponized when applied to things that really matter, like wine. Throughout most Italian wine regions, the predominant argument is between those winemakers (and wine drinkers) who adhere to styles and practices handed down to them over centuries, and the restless types who want to use the best techniques from around the world in their own back yard. Between the Traditionalists and the Modernists.
The documentary Barolo Boys showed how the rift between Traditionalist and Modernist winemakers in the Langhe created an ongoing feud that has affected every part of Piemontese life. There’s a great Decanter article (linked to below) that describes the more technical aspects of the divide, but the main points of contention regard the macerations (length and temperature - affects colour, tannins and intensity) and oak treatment (type, size and aging – affects aromas, texture and tannins), as well as the general vibe of the finished wine. Traditional Barolos generally need a long nap whereas Modern bottles can be friendlier earlier. Traditional Barolos hue a particular shade of orange around the rim, where Modern ones trend deeper red. Both kinds of Barolo, however, are comprised of 100% Nebbiolo, but still the battle rages on.
The Tuscan argument is about as old and as famous as Led Zeppelin, and largely put to bed. When Piero Antinori made the decision, now conservative but then radical, to add a weensy smidge of Cabernet to his Chianti, Tignanello was born and started a chain reaction that brought forth the army of “Supertuscans”, non-traditional premium wines that shook the tree so much, the traditional rules were eventually amended to allow for more innovation. Nowadays a Toscana I.G.T. (the Italians don’t like the term Supertuscan) is as normal a find as a Chianti or Brunello, indeed many houses will produce an I.G.T. alongside more traditional fare.
And that’s how many Italian houses mind the gap, they either compromise, inhabiting a point on the spectrum using elements of both ideologies, or they straddle the divide by having two kinds of children: one becomes a judge, and the other one invariably ends up before that judge sporting a Mohawk. Elio Grasso and Fontodi, featured below, do this, making a traditional bottling alongside a more international one, whereas houses like Macchion dei Lupi, Benanti and Paitin stake their ground firmly between both camps. To the wines:
It’s worth remembering that although Nebbiolo has been grown in the Langhe for centuries, villages like Barolo and Barbaresco were only recognized as world class terroirs after Noblemen like Conte di Cavour enacted vineyard and cellar practices that dragged everyone kicking and screaming into the 19th century, cementing the traditional Barolo style we know today. The Grasso estate in Monforte d’Alba (one on Barolo’s communes) dates back to that time, and the family makes both traditional and modern wines:
Elio Grasso Ginestra Casa Mate 2012, Monforte d’Alba, Barolo
A traditional bottling from the tiny lieu-dit Casa Mate in the muscular Ginestra cru. If you squished cherries, pebbles and an unlit cigar together on a freshly paved road, everyone would wonder what you were doing. The window probably opens next year, with spicy delights for those patient collectors who venture through it. 96 points Vinous, 95 points Robert Parker, 2 6-packs available, $117.49 +tax
Elio Grasso Runcot Riserva 2010, Monforte d’Alba, Barolo
To quote Chris Pratt from the recent Magnificent Seven remake: “I do believe that bear was wearing people-clothes”. Staying a very modern 2 years (minimum) in new French barriques, then a further 5 in bottle until it stopped being angry, this caged animal exudes cherry, plum, licorice, soy, menthol, truffle and tobacco, before an enormous mouthfeel and tannins you could cut with a knife. The reviews say that you can approach this beast in a year or two, but I would wait a few more, just until it gets used to your scent. From Monforte’s Gavarini vineyard, only made in worthy years. 98 points Robert Parker, 96 points Vinous, 2 wooden 6-packs available, $210.99 +tax
Before being replanted to vines 200 years ago, the amphitheatre-shaped landscape beneath the town of Panzano was planted to wheat, giving the area the name Conca d’Oro (Golden Shell). Today, the Conca d’Oro is one the best terroirs in Chianti Classico, and after making terracotta tiles for decades, the Manetti family started acquiring vineyards here 50 years ago. Their winery, Fontodi, makes both Supertuscans and Chiantis:
Fontodi Vigna del Sorbo 2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
The very top of Chianti’s traditional scale, a Gran Selezione designation must be earned anew each year, approved in blind tastings by a rotating panel of Tuscan winemakers, and this firecracker from the Sorbo vineyard in Conca d’Oro is just bonkers. Leather, flowers and black cherry swirl towards an intensely packed front palate, on the back end there’s minerals, spices, and nothing but time. Gorgeous. This wine can be vintage-sensitive, lucky for us that 2013 was just so wonderfully silly. 98 points Vinous, 96 points Robert Parker, 3 6-packs available, $79.99 +tax
Fontodi Flaccianello 2013, Colli Toscana Centrale
You didn’t know Sangiovese could do this, heck, I bet Sangiovese didn’t even know. Unlike most other Supertuscans that employ international grape varieties, Flaccianello is comprised entirely of traditionally Tuscan Sangiovese, but they’ve somehow trained it in hand to hand combat. The body on this is always enormous (24 months in new French barrels can do that), but the stars aligned in 2013 to give this Flaccianello special powers. The concentration astounds, with black cherry, blackberry, plum, mint, and vanilla all vying for your attention, and a friendlier tannic structure than you’re expecting. I already know I don’t have enough of this, I’m currently trying to get more. 98 points Robert Parker, 97 points Vinous, 3 6-packs available, $135.99 +tax
Here is that Decanter article regarding the Barolo Argument, very well done: