Tag Archives: Sangiovese

Isole e Olena: Forward-Thinking in Traditional Tuscany

While on holiday by Lake Garda a couple of years ago, my wife and I dined al fresco at Pizzeria Leon d’Oro, a stereotypically bustling Italian restaurant squeezed into one of Riva Del Garda’s many narrow, winding streets.

Negotiating wine lists in Italy can be a tricky affair, given each region’s unwavering commitment to its own – usually esoteric and obscure – local grape varieties and wineries. The result is like reading someone else’s shorthand notes: you can take a stab at some recognisable elements, but overall coherence is unlikely.

Luckily for me that night I did spy a well-known and highly-regarded name: Isole e Olena from Tuscany. Though I hadn’t tasted it before, the winery’s reputation preceded it, and thankfully it delivered on all levels, providing characteristic Italian cherry fruit but with the concentration, balance and finesse befitting the estate’s esteemed status.

However since that day in 2013, I for some inexplicable reason failed to get my hands on the wine again, despite being easy enough to find. Imagine my delight, then, when none other than Paolo de Marchi himself, proprietor of Isole e Olena, was in Ireland at the end of last year for an open meet-and-greet in the excellent Terroirs wine shop.

And so it was on a dark cold November night in Dublin I got the chance to rekindle some dolce vita once again … albeit this time in Donnybrook.

Isole e Olena Wines: Forward-Thinking from Traditional Tuscany

“You Won’t Fool the Children of the Revolution”

The Isole e Olena estate is located in the heart of the Chianti Classico region at the midway point between Siena and Florence, and the name came about in the 1950s when the De Marchifamily purchased and combined two adjoining estates, ‘Isole’ and ‘Olena’, each of which dated back hundreds of years – indeed, the earliest documentation of the village of Olena goes as far back as the 12th century.

The De Marchi family are actually from Piedmonte in the north-west of the country, an area known for its Barolo, perhaps the single most famous Italian fine wine style. After establishing the new Isole e Olena estate, the De Marchi family immediately set about rejuvenating the vineyards and updating the winery in a quality drive that was novel to the region at the time.

Paolo is the fourth winemaking generation of his family, taking over the reins at Isole e Olena in 1976, which he still runs it today with his wife Marta. Their eldest son, Luca, now runs the family estate in Piedmonte, Proprieta Sperino.

When Paolo arrived from Piedmonte, fresh from a degree in Agriculture at the University of Turin followed by several harvests in California and France, he found much need for improvement and modernisation in Chianti. To say that the region was beset by inertia and apathy at the time is an understatement – Chianti by the 1970s was terribly outmoded, with quantity preferred over quality and much plonk produced. None of this seemed to bother the region’s producers however, who were still selling their wine by the truckload to homesick Italian emigrants in the US and elsewhere.

But none of this sat well with Paolo the perfectionist, who tore up the unwritten rule book and set about with the aim of elevating Chianti to the heights he felt befitted the region he fell in love with.

The “Extra Tuscan”

Isole e Olena Wines: Forward-Thinking from Traditional Tuscany

Indeed, his zeal for improvement and experimentation coincided with the rise of what became called the “Super Tuscan” movement. Spearheaded by Piero Antinori and his now-iconic Tignanello, the Super Tuscans defied tradition and regulation by growing ‘international’ varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot and either blending them with native Italian grapes or indeed excluding them all together.

In the eyes of the antiquated and outdated wine regulatory body, these acts were considered scurrilous, and Super Tuscans were downgraded to ‘table wine’ designation.

Nevertheless, wine critics and lovers worldwide loved the results, leading to a revolution in the quality of Italian wines and the amendment of once-immovable regulations around wine production in Italy. The Super Tuscans are now considered icons and change hands for the same prices as the classed Bordeauxs they sought to imitate.

Paolo similarly planted international varieties at Isole e Olena, and to much success, but he tended away from the “Bordeaux Blend” of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which many other Super Tuscans were striving to replicate.

Instead he was one of the early pioneers of Syrah in Tuscany, a small drop of which finds its way into his benchmark Chianti Classico, as well as establishing an outstanding Chardonnay (more of which below).

But it’s Sangiovese and its distinctive expression in Chianti that is the true passion for Paolo, something evident in almost every account written on him to date. At all times he has striven to make the purest Chianti possible, updating tecnhiques and m

odernising methods as much as possible yet maintaining as much of the distinctive and much-loved qualities of traditional Chianti.

The apogee of this effort is manifested in Cepparello, a barrique-aged Sangiovese classified as an IGT – a designation usually reserved for basic weekday wine – because at the time of its creation in the 1980s a wine comprising 100% Sangiovese could not legally be labelled as Chianti.

But just like the Super Tuscans, Paolo felt that in order to create the best wine possible the rules had to be ignored, and so it was that Cepparello, a love-letter to the Sangiovese grape and its Tuscan home, has since become a legend in the Italian wine world … indeed, some have playfully given it the fitting moniker “Extra Tuscan”.

 

A Legend in Tweed

Isole e Olena Wines: Forward-Thinking from Traditional Tuscany

Given Paolo’s reputation for single-minded attention to detail, his pursuit for perfection and his bloody-mindedness in challenging the establishment, you might be forgiven for assuming he’s a difficult character in person.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Standing in Terroirs that day in November was one of the most affable and charming people you’d ever have the pleasure to meet.

A diminutive character with tousled silver hair and tweed jacket, Paolo de Marchi seemingly never stops smiling. The fact that he is a genuine wine celebrity seems to have had no effect on him, and he gave his time easily and generously to anyone who wanted it.

Interestingly, owners of Terroirs Seán and Françoise Gilley have known Paolo’s family personally for a number of years: Marta, Paolo’s wife, came to Ireland in July 1999 to study English and the Gilleys soon became very good friends with her, often having her around to their home for long dinners paired with some stellar wine from around the world. In the words of Françoise, “Marta and Paolo have remained lovely friends and we are delighted to have their splendid wines and olive oil on our shelves.”

Of course, I couldn’t meet a winemaker without having a bottle signed, and naturally Paolo did so with great enthusiasm. While he was about to hand over the bottle of Isole e Olena Chianti Classico I recounted the memory of last enjoying his wine in Riva Del Garda. This inspired Paolo to suggest he dedicate the bottle to my wife, fittingly completing the circle so to speak.

And so it is that I have a treasured bottle of one of the finest Chianti Classicos on my shelf at home, on which is written in gold: “To Helen, Paolo de Marchi”. So now, for me and my rekindled relationship with Isole e Olena, a quote Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca comes to mind: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

THREE TO TRY

Isole e Olena Wines: Forward-Thinking from Traditional TuscanyIsole e Olena, Chianti Classico

€29.50 from Terroirs

A blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and 5% Syrah, this is one of those wines I like to call ‘experiential’ – there isn’t one element that catches your attention, and instead it’s the wine’s overall purity, balance and elegance which strikes a chord.

Of course there’s lots of fresh cherry fruit, perfect tannin and delicate oak, but to reduce this wine to a list of flavours wouldn’t do it justice. Just buy a bottle and see what I mean.

Isole e Olena Wines: Forward-Thinking from Traditional TuscanyIsole e Olena, Cepparello

€79.50 from Terroirs

As mentioned above this is 100% Sangiovese, and is a more intense, serious version of their Chianti Classico.

The wine I tried was the 2008 vintage and even at eight years old I felt it was still too young to drink. A tautly-wound, concentrated wine which isn’t giving up much at the moment, you can be sure that this will start to sing in a few years’ time.

 

Isole e Olena Wines: Forward-Thinking from Traditional TuscanyIsole e Olena ‘Collezione Privata’ Chardonnay

€45.50 from Terroirs

This really took me by surprise. Terroirs co-owner Seán Gilley introduced the wine as being akin to Meursault, which was a neat summation of what was a decadently poised, textural and experiential wine.

It’s so well balanced, with oak, fruit and minerality all playing their part in equal measure. Oaked Chardonnay gets a bad rep nowadays, but a glass of this would convert any naysayers.

This article first appeared on TheTaste.ie

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TheTaste.ie: Wines for Autumn

Some of you may know that I contribute to TheTaste.ie, easily the foremost food & drink website in Ireland. I’ve often thought I should re-post those articles here on TheMotleyCru.com, but for some reason I’ve never got around to it before now. So anyway, without further ado, here was my September article which you can also read on TheTaste.ie by clicking here.


As of Tuesday 1st September, we’ll officially be in Autumn. This may not come as a surprise to many, given that July was so wet and August left a lot to be desired – it’s almost as if we skipped summer altogether!

But there have been whispers of an Indian Summer potentially appearing this month, which may offer the chance of wheeling out those barbecues one last time before the evenings begin to darken.

So below are some autumnal wines to match the change in season. These straddle the divide between lighter summer styles and bigger, richer wines suited to winter. Perfect for when the sun finally shines… or not, as the case may be.

 

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling
€20.99 from O’Briens and other good independent off-licences nationwide

The Penfolds Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling is a perennial favourite that I like to trot out at this time of year, for how many wines are there with a season in the title?!

Thankfully, the quality of the wine is more than capable of walking the walk. Easily-spotted thanks to its retro 70’s label – the decade the wine was first created by the famous Max Shubert – this is an Aussie take on this famous grape variety that has its spiritual home in Germany.

Expect a very definitive lime character to this wine, but also rose petal floral aromatics, pear, and exotic flowers. A small addition of another grape called Traminer adds a Turkish delight and spice twist too.

 

Deakin Estate Chardonnay
€10.99 from Donnybrook Fair, Dublin; Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Dublin; Ardkeen Stores, Waterford; Bradley’s of Cork; and other good independent off-licences

For me, Deakin is a bit of an anomaly. Without wanting to get into too much detail, most Australian wines around this price are usually sourced from a large generic area of of the country, oftentimes the dreaded 2,000km expanse called “South Eastern Australia”, meaning these wines are often blends of regions hundreds if not thousands of kilometres from each other.

For Deakin, though, not only do their grapes come entirely from their own vineyards, ensuring above average quality control from start to finish, but all of Deakin Estate’s wines are sourced and produced entirely within a small 350ha area of the Murray Darling region in North Victoria.

Sounds relatively straight-forward, and it is – but usually not at this price. The result is that Deakin Estate’s wines are lighter, balanced and more subtle, with this Chardonnay is a case in point – simple, medium-bodied, balanced and very refreshing. Most appealing of all, perhaps, is the price: this is one of the best-value Aussies around.
San Michele a Torri, Chianti Colli Fiorentini
€15.99 from The Organic Supermarket online and in-store in Blackrock, Rathgar and Malahide

[I featured this more extensively on a recent post which you can read here]

This was a nice little surprise I discovered for myself recently. It’s a fully certified organic wine from that most famous of wine regions – Chianti – or more accurately a specific zone of the region called Colli Fiorentini, close to the famous renaissance city of Florence.

Made mostly with the traditional Tuscan grape Sangiovese, it also has a dollop of the equally local Canaiolo and Colorino thrown in for good measure. The result is – for my money – an excellent and approachable wine that’s a great value representation of what the region can offer.

Give it a few swirls in the glass to open up and you’ll be rewarded with a delightfully fresh and lively wine, full of the cherries and vivacious acidity that you’d expect from a nice Chianti. It mellows out and evolves over the course on an evening – or days – and runs the gamut of red berry flavours (redcurrant especially) with some nice lip-smacking savouriness.

 

Bagante Mencía Joven Bierzo
€13.95 from Cases.ie

If you’d like to be seen as being on top of the game as far as up-and-coming wines are concerned, then you’d do worse than picking this wine: little-known Spanish region (Bierzo)? Check. Little-known Spanish grape (Mencía)? Check. Clean minimalist labelling? Check check check.

In all seriousness, I was really taken by this medium-bodied, fresh and easy, lively wine. Juicy and fruity, I could drone on about various berry flavours, but this is a wine to be drank and enjoyed, not laboured over too much. Enjoy it Spanish-style: in the sun, with nibbles and good friends.

 

Graham’s Fine White Port
€21.95 from Mitchell & Son

What’s this? Port? Isn’t that a winter drink?

Well yes and no. The Port we’re used to – that heavy red stuff – is indeed a deliciously wintery drink. But make Port in the same way though with white grapes instead of red and you get, well, White Port, with flavours of honeyed almonds offset by some sweet citrus elements in the case of the Graham’s Fine White.

Throw away all preconceptions of Port when tackling the white version: for one, you should serve it chilled, then serve it as an aperitif rather than a dessert wine (though it will equally well serve that role too). If you’re feeling very adventurous, try mixing it with tonic to make a refreshing Port Tonic, just like the locals do, or even use it in place of Vermouth in other cocktails. Saúde!

The Vagaries of Irish Wine Pricing

​Apologies to all who have followed this blog since its inception around a half year ago (which is all two dozen of you), but I’ve been very lax with my postings of late. I’m afraid to say that this one won’t exactly set the world alight either, but you have to start somewhere as they say. Normal service resumes as of now.

I didn’t mean it to be this way but this will actually be my first negative review. I don’t intend to have one of those obnoxious, intentionally offensive blogs penned by haters and trolls, mainly because I’m neither of those types and tend to avoid them like the plague, which is exactly what they are. What I do want to do, however, is be truthful first and foremost, to shine a light on the good and bad, to tell it as it is but in a balanced and considered way.

I’m not going to set out seeking the worst wines and thrash them online with glee, but instead if I feel that if a wine is getting undue coverage and popularity and better is to be had elsewhere, especially in the same price bracket, then I will feel the need to speak up about it.

So, recently I had the Volpetto Chianti Riserva which can be got currently in O’Brien’s for €17.99, its ‘normal’ price. I put ‘normal’ in inverted commas since this is one of those wines that O’Brien’s import themselves, and as such they are free to play around with its pricing and promotions since they have full control over the margins they make on them.

That’s less easy with wines imported by a third party distributor since they themselves have their own margins to worry about, and so they space price promotions on their own wines more evenly (and sparsely) throughout the year since it costs them money every time they do.

So O’Brien’s can effectively have their own-import wines on almost permanent promotion throughout the year, returning the price to its ‘normal’ RSP for a few months in order to stay legal. Another example is their lovely Monte Real Rioja Reserva, which is currently €13.99 ‘down from’ €19.99. Have you ever seen it at full price in-store? Me neither.

The thing with the Monte Real Reserva Rioja is that it’s actually quite good, and at €13.99 it’s something of a steal and easily one of the best-value wines out there. At €19.99 it’s pushing it, with a much much better example to be found in the Muga Rioja Reserva for example, but at least it’s playing in the same league, if not at the top exactly

The Volpetto at €17.99, though, is really poor value, and at its usual reduced price of €10.99 is only barely excusable. The problem I have is that consumers are sucked in by the proposition of getting a Riserva wine from a historically prestigious region – Chianti – for a ‘bargain’ price of €10.99. What they end up with though is a bland, weak, atypical red wine that shows barely if any of the characteristics that have made – and continue to make – the better wines of the Chianti region really great.

The low price is achieved by only barely adhering to the minimum requirements set out to secure Chianti Riserva status, with quality coming second to securing that all-important promotional price-point; which for the Volpetto was, before the duty increase in the Budget last December, only €9.99 – below the crucially important threshold of €10 under which the vast majority of consumers make their choice, as it happens.

So regular punters, in the belief that they are getting a top-level wine from a famous region, in fact end up with the barely-legal dregs. Chianti Riserva dregs, yes, but dregs nonetheless.

Unfortunately this is the case with many famous wine regions where consumers, ever confused by the vast array of wines available, return time and again to those regions that have for the right regions earned a reputation in the past, but now are often sullied by chancers prodcing pale imitations of what can really be achieved in those areas. Chablis is the classic example – you really shouldn’t be able to get one for €8.99, but you can.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a dig at O’Brien’s, who have done much to raise the bar for wine in Ireland and offer genuinely great deals and some fantastic wines, not to mention being lovely people to work with both from a consumer and trade perspective. But with the Volpetto I feel they’ve hit a bum note, and more worryingly they risk adversely affecting consumers’ perception of Chianti as a result.

So how do you get around this? How can you tell which wines are genuine direct-import finds and which are duds? The answer, unfortunately for most, is through research – I say unfortunately because how many consumers have the time to sit down and read through wine articles and blogs? How many of you have made it this far down this post, for example? (I’ll soon be quizzing those who claim to be regular readers…!)

Consumers want recognised names at impossible prices, so importers will always find ways of giving the consumer what they want, even if it is to the detriment of the perception of a wine region. And they all do it: Tesco, Dunnes, Superquinn, SuperValu, etc etc. Such is the wine market in Ireland I’m afraid.

So rant over. Caveat emptor as they say. The best way to get around this is to go to your friendly local independent off-licence and add for a really representative wine, one full of terroir and regionality. You’ll get so, so much more bang for your buck, get some excellent service and most likely always come out happy – and if not go back again, give then some feedback, learn a little more and come away with something even better.

Either that, or for a few quid more skip the Volpetto and pick up a bottle of Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classic Riserva instead.