Those Zin loving Thais, and oh yeah - the Brunello

An influential wine critic dies. The funeral organizer comes to a big-time wine producer asking:
-- Would you like to make a contribution for the funeral?
-- How much?
-- $50K – says the funeral guy.
-- Here is $100K. Bury two!

If you got the joke and are smiling even a little bit, then you must be on your way toward wine geekdom, and perhaps even becoming a "member of the trade", thus qualified to attend “members-only” events, to sample expensive wines and to nibble on gourmet food designed to accentuate the voluptuous drink, all free of charge, in hopes by the wine producers that you will promote their wines.

I knew all this blog babbling was going to lead to something! Such was the case on Thursday, Jan 22, when my friend and fellow blogger Enoch and I had the pleasure of being invited t0 the "Benvenuto Brunello SAN FRANCISCO" trade event - a Brunello tasting in the upscale Terra Gallery in the SOMA district of San Francisco. It was there in the midst of assessing two or three dozen (who’s counting!) 2001, 2003, and 2004 Brunello di Montalcino’s and munching on tasty Italian small dishes, I ran into a grandfatherly chap Alex R. who told me the above joke. He is a writer, working of all things for an Asian Seniors magazine. He was quick to enlighten us that Zinfandel is really big in Thailand - apparently the Thai love California Zin – particularly going after the high-elevation vineyard fruit, and the Amador County (fruit bombs). Good grief! Amador County! They really found ardent followers in the land of elephants and spicy chilies. I suppose this makes good sense – Zin *should* go quite well with spicy, pungent and slightly sweet Thai food. And there all along I’d been told that the new rich of Asia and Russia were really into big brand name Bordeaux, collecting them more for prestige than for tasting pleasure. At least that’s what they told me at Grand Cru chateaux in Medoc (Bordeaux) a month ago. Not the case according to Alex, who spends considerable time helping Asian seniors discover California in all of its acid-less Zinfandel glory.

But let us return to the fantastic Brunellos that I was experiencing...

What a great way to really imprint the taste of a wine variety into one’s memory! Having had Brunello a number of times in the past, I certainly knew that it’s made from Sangiovese grape variety (actually a high-end clone called Sangiovese Grosso) in the area of Montalcino in Tuscany, in a more opulent style than its neighbor Chianti (also a Sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany). Brunello di Montalcino, of course, is normally bigger than Chianti in every respect – having more complex fruit, bigger tannin, greater balance, more supple texture (disclaimer: there are always exceptions). By no means does it mean that Brunello is always preferable to Chianti, since the typically lighter and brighter Chianti is often a better complement to light and medium-bodied foods (pizza being a classic pairing), while Brunello seems to be a great match for more robust dishes, like meats. But as in Chianti and so many other Italian reds, the wine has great acidity and clear black cherry / black berry fruit. However, this time I clearly noticed that many Brunellos are also quite leathery and spicy (as in white pepper and char sprinkled on top of the fruit) – about a third of the reds had that. I also tasted several Super-Tuscans, which are unclassified blends of Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, and sometimes also with Merlot and Syrah. Obviously, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot being home in Bordeaux and Napa Valley (and a few other new world spots) are not typical in Italian reds, but the combination of a dark-berried black-curranty Cabernet Sauvignon, plummy Merlot, with tart cherry-ish Sangiovese really makes a delicious and eye-opening wine, especially the 2005 Sant'Antimo "Olmaia" from Col D'Orcia estate in Montalcino (shown on the right).

After two hours of drinking (and spitting, of course) and snacking, and drinking and snacking, and so forth, I concluded that all Brunellos at the show were enjoyable, reliable, expensive ($50-100+), and frankly, most being quite similar. When in the mood for Italian food, it's hard to go wrong with Brunello! But a couple of bottlings really stood out in terms of depth of fruit, with Riservas showing their top billing pedigree - Riservas have the best fruit, the most complexity, and are aged longer than standard Brunellos. In particular, the 2001 Riserva from Lionello Marchesi (with me on the photo) was a real stand-out, with just enough age to showcase perfectly integrated fruit and earth flavors, acid, and soft ripe tannins, still with another 5-10 years left in the tank.

When it comes to great wines of Italy, one invariably thinks of Brunello - the highest expression of the Sangiovese grape, and Barolo - the highest expression of the Nebbiolo grape. Luckily, the opportunity to dig into the great 2003 vintage of Barolo is coming up in early February at a Vineyardgate-hosted "insider" Barolo dinner, where I will attempt to compare these two Italian greats!

Enoch and I - experiencing great tooth-staining wines!


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