Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Old School, New Tricks: Avignonesi

By Eric Guido

The name Avignonesi has always been synonymous with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. In fact, they were one the pioneers of the DOCG, and a winery that has been producing wines from the region since 1984. However, up until recently, it was only the Vin Santo that really made it onto my radar (and a truly amazing Vin Santo it is). For the longest time, Avignonesi Vino Nobile fell into a bracket of wines that I didn't appreciate: namely, wines that were unidentifiable as Sangiovese-based wines. There's no question why I felt this way, especially with the blending regulations of the DOCG permitting up to 30% other varieties into the wine.

Courtesy of Wine Folly
"Guide to Sangiovese"
Sangiovese is a finicky grape that takes a lot of work to get it right. Once you've put all of the effort into growing and vinifying Sangiovese--to add 30% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah, which will overwhelm and eliminate nearly all of the grapes inherent traits--is, in my opinion, a waste. There are many wine makers that will battle against the idea of a pure Sangiovese based wine (too hard to get right and keep balanced) and I too have enjoyed many Chianti that were blended with small amounts of other local varieties. But when a winery gets it right, pure Sangiovese can be a thing of beauty. Avignonesi has now joined the ranks of those daring vintners that have decided to make a true 100% Sangiovese-based Vino Nobile di Montepulciano--and I couldn't be happier.

Virginie Sayerys of Avignonesi
So what's changed, besides the blending? The fact is that the changes at Avignonesi go right to the core. In 2009, the company was bought by silent partner, Virginie Sayerys. Virginie, Belgium by birth and a lawyer before getting into the wine business, took her own beliefs in natural living, and then applied them to the production at Avignonesi. The winery is soon to be certified organic, along with many biodynamic principals, which have been adopted. Her focus on Sangiovese and terroir has brought a new elegance and balance to the entire range, while maintaining traditional Tuscan qualities. 2010 was the first Vino Nobile to be 100% Sangiovese, and the second I tasted it, I smiled from ear to ear. Frankly, to taste a wine like this, from a winery with such a large production (750,000 bottles a year), is a breath of fresh air.

The formidable Desiderio 85% Merlot / 15% Cabernet
& the dark classic;
 Grifi 60% Sangiovese / 40% Cabernet
Having loved the 2010 so much, I knew I had to explore the rest of their range, and the other day I finally got my chance. I was able to work through the core wines of the Avignonesi portfolio. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. A standout among them was the 2011 Avignonesi Rosso, which is an incredible value at a retail of $19. The 2011 Vino Nobile was intense and a great follow-up to the 2010. This was also the first chance I had to taste the Desiderio and Grifi. These were all great wines, but I would strongly urge readers to look at the Rosso and Vino Nobile. In a world where we pay $50 - $100 for the average Brunello, a 100% Sangiovese-based Vino Nobile can be a strong contender, and at $30 retail, a no brainier.

On to the wines:

2011 Avignonesi Rosso di Montepulciano (94% Sangiovese / 6% local varieties) – The nose showed ripe wild berry, sweet spice, hints of crushed blackberry, violet floral tones, and a hint of animal musk. On the palate, it was juicy with dark red fruits, yet soft and velvety, giving way to earth and spice with a vibrant acidity, which kept the mouth watering. The finish was impressive for its persistence as red berry, undergrowth and soil lingered on. The Avignonesi Rosso was a pleasant surprise, not overdone, yet fun with enough depth to keep it interesting throughout. (90 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2011 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (100% Sangiovese) – The nose alone was intoxicating with perfumed dark-red fruits, sweet Tuscan spice, violet floral notes, and the slightest touch of oak. On the palate, it was intense and robust, with concentrated dark red fruits, balsamic notes and black licorice. The fruit nearly covered this wine’s impressive structure, finishing with brisk acidity and remnants of red fruit. This was a massive wine which can be enjoyed now, but it should be even better in a few years’ time. (92+ points) Find it on Wine-Searcher! (Soon to arrive in the U.S.)

2010 Avignonesi Desiderio Cortona (85% Merlot / 15% Cabernet) – The nose was dark and brooding, yet inviting and sensual, showing mixed berries, undergrowth, spice and a hint of oak. On the palate, it was velvety and plush with black fruit, herbs and intense acidity. The finish showed cranberry and minerals against this wine’s youthful structure. Yet the fruit persisted. This is a very young wine in need of time in the cellar. (92 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2010 Avignonesi Grifi Toscana IGT (60% Sangiovese / 40% Cabernet) – The 2010 Grifi was as dark as night with notes of plum, black cherry, dark soil tones and herbs. With time in the glass, hints of sweet wood spice and floral tones came forward. It was large-scaled and silky smooth on the palate, yet it’s youthful nature quickly took control with an intense, tightly wound expression of massive dark fruit, soil and minerals tones. Hints of violet, bitters and dark fruit lasted through the finish, even with this wine’s impressive structure. It was a beautifully balanced wine which simply needs time to come around. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Producer website: Avignonesi


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  2. The legend has it that the Sangiovese is a finicky grape, that it is somehow ungrateful. Actually most of the Tuscan vintners will confirm this assertion and will recommend blending it with other varietals with the declared intention to improve the quality of the wine. This thick-skinned doctrine has recently been questioned on two fronts by the new generation of Tuscan producers. It is true that the Sangiovese is ungrateful but only when planted at the wrong place. The recent indiscriminate extension of the Tuscan vineyards (especially in Montalcino) has supported this fallacious idea.
    You are absolutely right; blending Sangiovese with other varietals like Merlot or Cab-Sauv not to mention less acclaimed grapes such as Montepulciano di Abruzzo makes little sense. A genuine pure Sangiovese of quality stands on its own and has nothing to envy to other wines, blending it will degrade it rather than improve it. Who on earth will buy a Burgundy containing 30% of Cab-Sauv? Why should it be different in Tuscany? However, if it is easy to convince the doctrine and the critics, it may take a bit more time before we see the vast majority of Tuscan producers sharing this opinion…

    1. Having tasted excellent, 100% Vino Nobile and Brunello, it is hard to argue against deteriorating quality when blending the Sangiovese grape. However, Bolgheri bases Super Tuscans argue tastefully against this theory. Obviously the grape is different in all of Tuscany's regions, which makes this ageless argument all the more interesting.

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