Sangiovese : how well does it stand the test of time?

I had the luck to participate in a tasting of old Sangioveses. Not having a proper cellar to keep wines for decades myself, I was very happy to be given this chance. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a Sassicaia 1991 thrown into the deal! But more about that later.

Honestly, I wasn’t convinced of the ageing potential of Sangiovese… I have a difficult relationship with this grape. I have had very good experiences, but also less good ones. I like Sangiovese when the fruit is not cooked or too jammy, and when the alcohol levels are under control. But in recent vintages, alcohol levels of 14,5% or even 15% were more often the rule than the exception.  The fruit of those wines tends to evolve to dried fruit, and unless there’s good supporting acidity underneath that, such wines can be rather heady.

So when the opportunity came to taste a few really old Sangioveses, I knew I had to do this to finally know if these wines are worth cellaring for a couple of decades. When I say really old, they were indeed really old, the oldest bottle being a 1971… This was the line-up :

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  1. Isole e Olena 1983, Chianti Classico
  2. Brolio Riserva 1971, Chianti Classico, Barone Ricasoli
  3. La Casa 1979, Brunello di Montalcino, Tenuta Caparzo
  4. Il Poggione 1977, Brunello di Montalcino
  5. Tenuta Sant’Agnese 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  6. Avignonesi 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  7. Sassicaia 1991, (at that time still) Vino da Tavola

A really exciting line-up, with a perfect spread over the three most important wine producing regions for Sangiovese! Already the fact that I was going to taste a few wines that had spent more time on this planet than I have, was something to look out for. And yet, at the same time, I was kind of preparing myself for wines that were dead on their feet.

Isole e Olena 1983

The first wine was already immediately a surprise, because it appeared much younger than I had expected. Black cherry, plum, chocolate, tobacco, leather, a touch of cedar wood. Beautiful nose! The mouth feel was surprisingly fresh, and the wine even had some tannins still. Based on the nose I perhaps expected a wine with a bit more body, but still, this Chianti was alive and kicking. Good start! When I came back to this wine a bit later it was evolving to aromas of black tea, which I found less attractive, so no long airing needed here.

Brolio Riserva 1971

Twelve years further back in time, and that was immediately obvious, the color having evolved to copper/amber. It took a while for the aromas to show as there was a bit of dustiness that had to be whirled out the glass. After a couple of minutes we finally got some dried fruit, chocolate, dried spices, and even raisins. The wine was relatively thin, although not completely dead. Still a bit of dried fruit and chocolate, but it was clear that the best years of this Brolio were long gone.

La Casa 1979

Still ruby red with a brick colored rim signalling the evolution. Great nose! Dried fruit, floral tones, cedar wood, chocolate, plum, nutmeg, and a touch of animality. Very complex. The wine is very intense and deep, fresh as well, and still displays ripe red fruit. The balance here is remarkable. This wine is now perfect. Amazing after 40 years…

Il Poggione 1977

Clearly evolved color. The aromas come timidly out of the glass. Still some red fruit, spices, a touch of iron. It opens up a bit more after a while in the glass. After the impressive La Casa this wine appears a bit thinner, but it’s especially the tannins that draw the attention here, being a bit rough even after more than 40 years in the bottle. The balance is not completely right.

Sant’Agnese 1979

Transparent and evolved in color. Not very expressive, the fruit is ripe or dried even. There’s something dusty here as well. A touch of cedar and pine tree. In comparison to the previous wines, this Vino Nobile is a bit warmer, riper, and the acidity is lower than in the previous wines. Still noticeable tannines here. Good effort, but I personally prefer the elegance and freshness of the Brunellos.

Avignonesi 1979

Remarkably dark color in comparison with the previous wines. Quite a different nose also : black cherry, rubber, dried fruit, liquorice, coffee. Again a warmer impression in this Vino Nobile and again slightly drying tannins. The wine did evolve nicely in the glass, however, opening up beautifully with aromas of tobacco and more cedar wood. 40 years old and still margin. Hard to believe.

Before I move on to the Sassicaia : what’s my conclusion after these 6 Sangioveses? Well it’s clear that Sangiovese is worth tucking away in your cellar for a long, long time. Apart from the Brolio, all the wines were still in a good shape, which was much more than I had hoped for before the tasting. But not only were they not dead, most still displayed beautiful fruit aromas, noble cedar wood, and above all freshness. The Vino Nobiles were a bit warmer, but the Brunellos and the Isole e Olena were very fresh, even salivating wines, a characteristic I don’t often find in todays Sangioveses. That things have changed in Tuscany since the 1970s was probably the most obvious in the alcohol levels : all wines had between 12,5% and 13,5%. Difficult to imagine that nowadays…

If you were wondering about the Sassicaia, I will not beat about the bush : it was corked! What a bummer… But still, there are a couple of things worth mentioning for Sassicaia fans. 1991 was the vintage that received a 81 score in Wine Spectator, not a glorious score for  one of the world’s most famous wines. It is described as a wine that was thinner than other vintages. On top of that, Monica Larner, the Italian reviewer for The Wine Advocate, wrote this in April 2017 :

The 1991 Sassicaia has reached the end of the line. It shows overly oxidized aromas of dried meat, old leather and dried fig. This was a hot vintage and the bottom has dropped out on any residual fruit or fiber. The mouthfeel is tight, gritty and there’s a sudden note of bitterness on the finish. The effect is flat and void of any significant dimension. However, you do feel the vintage heat.

So I had no high hopes for this Sassicaia. When I discovered it had cork taint, I was even more disappointed of course. But I could still tell that this was not a wine that had “reached the end of the line”, quite the contrary actually, I could still discern loads of fresh fruit. Despite the off aromas there was still a glimpse of an elegant and vibrant wine, making the disappointment that it was corked even bigger. So if you’re lucky enough to have Sassicaia 1991 in your cellar, no reason to rush! Then why did Monica Larner say it was at the end of the line? Could it have been a badly stored bottle? Or was there bottle variation? It’s interesting to read the reviews on Cellartracker : some are really raving, while others mention oxidation. I wished there was a second bottle to put to the test, but alas…

To sweeten the pill our host came up with a replacement bottle for the Sassicaia : the Col d’Orcia 1991, Brunello di Montalcino. A good deal younger than the other Sangioveses we tasted earlier on, but still 28 years old! The difference in age was noticeable quite well : still loads of fruit, blueberry, rosemary, tobacco, leather, cedar. Great nose. The tannins were still present but in general the balance was good. Great length as well! Very enjoyable now, but still so many things going on that it can easily hold up for at least another decade!

And that was the end of a great evening. La Casa of Tenuta Caparzo was my personal favorite, but it was definitely not the only oldie with a good performance. This tasting illustrated very aptly how good aged Sangiovese can be. Anyone up for a follow-up tasting in 40 years?

 

Midlife crisis? Drink Gaja!

A midlife crisis is a great excuse to organise a birthday tasting and open a couple of wow bottles. The ones you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Also the ones that have a price tag that comes with the label (read overpriced wines), but that you secretly want to try anyway, at least once. All in all, turning 40 has its advantages…

I lined up 12 wines to share with three other winos, ranging from Champagne to Burgundy, Piemonte and Sicily, to end with a deliciously sweet Jurançon.

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The line-up

I will not discuss them one by one, but just pick out a couple that made us silent for a couple of minutes. The first one is the Barbaresco 2013 of Piemonte icon Angelo Gaja. If you know Piemonte, then Angelo Gaja probably does not need introducing. He is not only recognized for making top Barbarescos, but is also known for his controversial decisions such as the introduction of small barrique aging instead of the traditional botti (large casks), planting the international grape varieties cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in Piemonte, and breaking out of the official Barbaresco DOCG designation. A bit of a phenomenon, really. All the more reason I wanted to try one of his wines!

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The Barbaresco is the flagship wine of the Gaja family. Even though Gaja started producing single vineyard Barbarescos in the 60s, it’s the “normal” Barbaresco that was produced already in the 19th century. Nowadays it is made with grapes from 14 different sites and it is aged for 12 months in barriques, and another 12 months in large oak casks. Gaja is sometimes called a modernist and the barrique aging could make you think that his wines will taste like vanilla juice, but still, his wines are always described as elegant and refined. To be tested of course! Also, if you are familiar with nebbiolo, you know that this is a grape variety that can be quite austere, producing wines that need time, sometimes even decades, to reach their peak. Opening a 2013 nebbiolo would in most cases be considered infanticide, a waste of money. Well, one of the reasons Gaja introduced barrique aging was to soften the tannins, and make wines that are more approachable in their youth. 2013 is also a vintage that produced  in general lighter wines than 2012. Again, to be tested!

How do you prepare such a bottle? That remains one of the most difficult things in wine, I find. Most of the wines you find in the supermarket are made to drink young, and you can just pop and pour. Once you go to wines of a higher segment, you will often find wines that need time, wines that can be difficult in their youth, aromatically challenging, or austere. It would not be the first time that I hear people who buy an expensive wine to celebrate a special occasion, and end up being really disappointed. Opening a bottle in advance can help to give it oxygen, and let it breathe. But for how long? The day before? A couple of hours in advance? Or pouring it in a carafe to give it a more agressive oxygen treatment? There is not one right answer to this, I’m afraid. A Bordeaux can benefit from opening it the day in advance, but I’ve had bad experiences with doing so with lighter wines, Burgundies for example. With wines made of nebbiolo, my experience is that the tannins can be quite rough, even unpleasant, on the second day. So I decided to open the Barbaresco a couple of hours before tasting it.

When I opened it around noon, I had a little sip to see how it was and check if it didn’t have cork taint. The wine already displayed beautiful aromas of red fruit, but the complexity was not there yet. I didn’t panic. A little bit of air can do wonders. And indeed… The red fruit was accompanied by floral aromas, and a bit of pepper. It was not so much the complexity but the quality of the aromas that made everyone realise this was something special. Delicate, elegant and refined were some of the adjectives that came up when sniffing from our glasses. The first sip pushed us further into exaltation. Ripe fruit but a cool impression at the same time. Everything here was so well dosed. The tannins were noticeable, but ripe and elegant, and provided a superfine structure that carried the wine. The long finish presented us with an extended goodbye. If I had to choose one word to describe this Barbaresco, it would be airiness! The complete opposite of a blockbuster actually. Or how a wine can mesmerize without having luxurious oak, or huge concentration.

Well, what can I say? This is an experience. Angelo Gaja completely lived up to his reputation as “King of Barbaresco”. You pay alot for a bottle, but at least this is the kind of tasting that will linger in your thoughts for long and that will put a big grin on your face when you think back of it. When you buy such a bottle, you don’t buy 75cl of wine. You buy an experience!

After reading this declaration of love for Gaja’s Barbaresco, you probably think this wine was the undisputed WOTN. For those of you who don’t master wine slang, that’s Wine Of The Night. Well, actually, there was a strong contender… Which one could that be, you think?