Sunday, July 26, 2020

Following Monprivato Through the Ages

by Eric Guido (Originally published at The Cellar Table Blog)

It all started with the 2009 vintage.  As an avid reader of Antonio Galloni, I remember it well.  What was originally a 93-95 point wine in a difficult vintage had suddenly been downgraded to a “?” in January 2014, with reports that the addition of declassified juice from Mascarello’s top wine, Cà d’Morissio, had done nothing to boost the quality of Monprivato--in fact, it hurt it.  However, with a downgrade like this, we were left to read between the lines.  Then there was 2010, a great vintage, and an 89-point score.  Other critics continued to dole out scores in the mid-nineties, while Antonio held his ground.

Frankly, I’m glad that he did, because it has become apparent to me that something has changed about Giuseppe Mascarello Monprivato Barolo, and I know I’m not alone.  Granted, only time will tell if this change is for the better or worse, yet if there’s one thing that tasting this wine multiple times in vertical tastings has shown me, it’s that the Monprivato of today is absolutely a different wine than the Monprivato that most Barolo lovers have come to know over the last forty years.

The Monprivato of yesterday and today

I’ve formed a sincere love for many vintages of Monprivato, yet I’m the first one to admit that it’s a wine that’s incredibly hard to judge in its youth.  However, I’ve learned through experience that the youthful expressions of Monprivato of the past are very different from what we find today.  For me, Monprivato has always been a wine that showed severe austerity in its youth, crystalline tannin against incredibly delicate fruit, making it difficult to imagine the wine ever coming into balance.  Not only that, Monprivato always seemed to take at least two decades before it would even begin to open up.  I can’t recount how many tastings showed younger vintages to be completely shut down.  Yet, once the wines reached maturity, there was really nothing quite like it.

After a recent vertical tasting, led and hosted by Elena Mascarello, I had the chance to taste some of my favorite vintages of the past, along with new releases and recent vintages.  This is where the questions began to arise.  Tasting the 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010, one can’t help but notice that those hard crystalline tannins that used to define this wine in its youth are quite different today.  Yes, the wines are tannic and youthful, but today’s tannins are finer and softer than they were previously.  I know I’m not alone in this opinion either, as fellow tasters began asking questions.

Questions about Monprivato and… Answers?

One of the first questions from the audience that day was asking Elena if the tannin management was being handled differently at any point in the process.  Her answer was a resolute “No.” 

Another taster asked about changes to the pressing of grapes.  Again, a firm “No.” 

Turning our attention to the fruit, today’s Monprivato is more forward, which is not to say riper, just more present with a bright red berry persona, instead of the delicate, almost floral fruit I was accustomed to (this is a vineyard that has often been compared to Rocche). During the question and answer, I asked about replanting, as I had heard that a good amount of replanting had been done recently.  Elena confirmed this, stating that it has been more widespread than in the past, yet also confirmed that those plants are not currently being used for Monprivato.  Struck out again.

As we all continued to try to bend our brains around the apparent differences between older and newer vintages without a satisfactory reason for the differences, another participant asked about yeasts, citing Kerin O’keefe’s book, Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine, where she explained that Giuseppe Mascarello is using  “...a strain of selected Barolo yeasts, BRL 97, created by the University of Turin.” (p.118).  Elena confirmed that in 1997, the family did decide to switch from naturally-occurring yeasts to selected yeasts, because they discovered that the fermentations went smoother and were more uniform.  This did raise a few eyebrows in the crowd, but the fact is that the majority of wineries around the world use selected yeasts.  That said, yeast could be part of the equation, but not the answer.

As the tasting let out, I found myself leaving without any of the answers I’d hoped for.  Don’t get me wrong, the new vintages are good wines, especially the 2010 which has continued to get better over the last few years.  But that’s just it; with over a decade of tasting Monprivato, I can’t help but feel that a vintage like 2010 should be an iron vault at this time--impossible to read.

This all got me thinking, reading (and re-reading), digging and searching for answers, and through it all, I can’t help but come to one conclusion: the Mascarello family has been experimenting in their vineyards and altering their processes for decades.  Is it possible that they have simply experimented and refined their way into a completely different style of wine?

A Deep Dive on Giuseppe Mascarello and Monprivato

The Mascarello family has a winemaking history that goes back to the mid-1800s.  Originally located in Monforte, and working the vineyards of wealthy landowners of the region, the family aspired to own their own vineyards, and by the early 1900s, moved the winery to Castiglione Falletto.  The key to their success was acquiring Monprivato, a vineyard located in Castiglione Falletto, with vines that enjoy a southwest exposure, planted in white and grey marl soils rich in limestone.  Sourcing fruit from Monprivato as well as purchasing from other sources (Villero and Bussia Soprana among them), Giuseppe Mascarello began to build a reputation as one of the region’s top producers.  I can attest to the outstanding quality of the amazing wines from that time, as they rank among the best Barolo I’ve ever tasted.

Today, the cantina resides in Monchiero, and it still incorporates the large Slavonian oak barrels that were purchased by the current owner’s grandfather, Maurizio, in the 1950s.  Mauro, the head of toady’s Mascarello family, is the fourth-generation winemaker of the estate, having taken the reins from his father Giuseppe and his grandfather Maurizio in 1967.  Any source will tell you that he is a traditionalist, like the generations before him, yet I believe that a better way to describe Mauro is as a progressive.  The winery does employ long macerations (by today's standards, 25-30 days) and aging in large Slavonian oak, calling cards of a traditional estate.  However, Mauro was bent on refining the winemaking and experimenting in the vineyards to create the absolutely perfect representation of Monprivato terroir, and to be more specific, how that terroir could be communicated using the Michét Nebbiolo clone.

It all started with the 1970 vintage, the first single-vineyard example of Monprivato, which was created from a small parcel of old vines in the heart of vineyard.  Mauro had been instructed by his father that these vines, all of the Michét clone variety, were the best that the family had.  Michét is a late-ripening clone of Nebbiolo that is known to give lower yields. In 1920,  Mauro’s grandfather, Morissio, had identified the best Michét vines within the vineyard and planted this section using massal selection.  The 1970 Monprivato was an unprecedented success and remains one of the iconic examples of the region.  With the success of this wine, Mauro decided to use Monprivato to make only one Barolo, a blend of Michét, Lampia, and Rosé Nebbiolo clones from throughout the entire vineyard.

Yet Mauro had an idea which began with the 1970 vintage.  He believed that the vines planted by his grandfather had so perfectly adjusted to the distinct terroir of Monprivato, that they would create a far superior wine if planted throughout the vineyard using massal selection from the estate’s best performing vines.  His father before him had a similar idea, having done some replanting in 1963 using the same logic.

This began the Cà d’Morissio project, which started in 1983 and continued on through the late nineties.  Mauro started by dedicating two acres of Monprivato, where he removed the Rosé vines that were planted, installed drains to help prevent erosion (which had plagued Monprivato in the past), and replanted these locations through massal selection using Michét at high density.  Mauro worked block by block, and by 1993 had decided that it was time to put his theory to the test; the Cà d’Morissio Riserva was born.  Sourced from the blocks Mauro had experimented on and aged an extra year in smaller Slavonian oak barrels (25-27 hectoliter), Cà d’Morissio continues to only be released when the wine itself is unique enough to stand out from the Barolo Monprivato, if not, it’s blended in.  Mauro was so happy with the results of the 1993 and 1995 vintages that he immediately started work on another block of the vineyard in 1996, following the same processes as before.

The Theory, or maybe just a fool’s ponderings

As stated on the Giuseppe Mascarello website, prior to 1992, the clonal makeup of Monprivato was Michét 30%, Lampia 45%, and Rosé 25%.  I could find no reference of the exact current percentages, but since that time, Mauro has ripped up multiple acres of Rosé clones to replant Michét for the production of Cà d’Morissio.  While doing this, he changed the plant density of the vineyard to 5680 plants per acre and added “drainage.”  The only reference that I could find relating to the clones planted in Monprivato today comes again from Kerin O’keefe’s book, Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine, where she explains that beyond the planting of Michét, that “...the rest of Monprivato is cultivated with Lampia clones… planted in the 1960s” (p.117), making no mention of Rosé.  What’s more, during the tasting event, Elena Mascarello confirmed that even today, when replanting needs to be done in the vineyard, it is completed using massal selection from the best Michét of the estate.

Other than the fact that the winery changed from naturally-occurring yeasts to selected yeasts in 1997, we’ve been told that nothing else has changed.  The fruit is always destemmed, macerated for about thirty days, fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks (since the early nineties, which is quite common in the region today), employing a soft vinification with gentle pumping over, and then aging in large neutral Botti for three years until bottling.

Having said that and circling back to where this all started…

Is it possible that the Giuseppe Mascarello winery has forever changed the profile of Monprivato over the course of thirty years by removing clonal and biodiversity from their vineyards, using their best plots for Cà d’Morissio in all but the worst vintages and planting at a higher density in their vineyard?

This is just a theory, but it’s a theory based on over a decade of experience tasting these wines, and countless (I repeat, countless) hours obsessing over every source and printed piece of material (including the Mascarello website) that I could find.  Until a firm answer is found, what I can assure you is that the recent vintages of Giuseppe Mascarello are quite enjoyable, but they are not the same Barolo Monprivato that I have grown to love over the decades.  How will they age?  It’s anyone's guess.   For now, all we can do is love them for what they are.

On To the Tasting Notes

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2013
- Here I found intense floral perfumes with dusty dried roses up front, followed by notes of ripe strawberry, bright cherry and hints of undergrowth.  On the palate, I found a lifted expression, showing feminine textures with pure ripe strawberry, a light dusting of sweet spices and inner floral tones, remaining remarkably fresh and pure throughout, with hints of acid and tannin.  The finish was shorter than expected with light strawberry and light, fine grain tannin. (91 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2012 - The nose was reserved with mineral-infused dried strawberry, tart raspberry, stone dust, dried flowers and dusty earth.  On the palate, I found wonderfully soft textures with tart raspberry, inner spices and floral perfumes.  The finish was medium in length with lingering spice and floral tones. This showed very little in the way of structure, save for a coating of dry inner florals.  As much as I enjoyed this, it’s a lighter style of Barolo that depends on grace over staying power. (92 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2011 - The nose showed crushed cherry with an herbal tinge, marine-minerality, and hints of spice that emerged over time. The warmth of the vintage showed only in its sweet cherry fruit, being a bit overripe, yet kept in check through earth tones.  On the palate, I found soft, medium-weight textures with pretty notes of strawberry, minerals and light spice.  The finish was long, showing crushed cherry and spices, which coated the senses. This is not one for the ages, yet I found it quite enjoyable today. (91 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2010
- The nose showed dusty dry earth and notes of raspberry, with sweet and sour brown sauce, then lifted by notes of lavender, hints of licorice and cinnamon.  On the palate, I found silky textures with sweet-and-sour cherry, masses of inner floral tones, licorice and spice, yet lacking dimension on the mid-palate.  It finished with medium-length and hints of young tannin, yet remained lifted throughout. (94 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2009 - The nose was darker than the surrounding vintages, with marine-influenced minerals giving way to dark moist undergrowth, hints of animal musk, black cherry, raspberry and herbs.  On the palate, I found silky, pliant textures with notes of bitter cherry, blackberry, lavender and hints of spice.  The finish was medium-long and balanced, showing ripe strawberry and inner florals over hints of grippy tannin. (92 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2008 - The '08 Monprivato showed a pretty bouquet of dusty, mineral-encased bright cherry, crushed stone, dried roses, soil tones and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found zesty, feminine textures, accentuated by brisk acidity with bright cherry and strawberry, sweet herbal tea, saturating mineral tones and the slightest hint of fine tannin. It finished medium-long, fresh and savory, with lingering inner florals, minerals and spice. This is showing beautifully tonight, but it's very hard to gauge how well it will age. (93 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2006
- The nose was dark and brooding with hints of animal musk up front, then opening to reveal exotic florals, dusty spice, earth, and mineral-infused black cherry.  It seemed to seamlessly glide across the palate, where I found silky textures offset by an intense mix of black cherry and tart raspberry, with mineral and savory spice tones emerging along saline-minerals.  The finish was long, with a coating of complex tannin offset by brisk acidity and dark red fruit. (96 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2004 -  The nose was intense yet also quite pretty with marine-influenced minerality, dried flowers, undergrowth, hints of rosemary and animal musk.  On the palate, I found silky textures with an energizing mix of brisk acids and saline-minerality, as notes of tart cherry and inner floral tones emerged. The finish was medium-long with saturating cherry tones, minerals, hints of spice and lingering tannin. This was highly enjoyable and worth every point, yet it fell short of the 2006, as I craved more persistence on the palate. (94 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2003 - The nose was dark with earth and minerals up front, followed by crushed blackberry, cherry and spicy florals.  On the palate, I found silky textures with ripe cherry, violets, brisk acidity and hints of grippy tannin in an unexpectedly balanced and highly enjoyable performance.  The finish was medium-long with lingering dark fruits and hints of gruff tannin. This was a beautifully balanced wine for the vintage. (92 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1998
- The ‘98 showed a mature color in the glass. The nose was dark and earthy with hints of undergrowth, moist fall leaves, sous bois, crushed ripe cherry, and hints of spice.  On the palate, I found silky textures with a wave of balancing acidity, notes of tart cherry, spice and balsamic tones with impeccable balance.  The finish was long and spicy with saturating dark fruits, moist earth and inner floral tones. Wow. (94 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1996 - The nose showed mineral-infused black cherry and crushed stone, as hints of wild herbs, moist soil and animal musk evolved.  On the palate, I found soft textures, which were firmed up by a mix of tart red fruits, minerals and fine tannin, yet the fruit persisted throughout, picking up perfumed florals and spice.  It was remarkably balanced yet still very young, with a long and structured finish that showcased intense tart red fruit that saturated the senses. (96 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1988 - The nose was gorgeous, showing dried cherry and undergrowth up front, opening more with time in the glass as the fruit gained richness, changing more to crushed strawberry, dried orange, smoked meats, wild herbs, dusty earth and hints of animal musk.  On the palate, I found soft textures with sweet cherry offset by savory minerals with saline spray, spice and zesty acidity.  The finish was remarkably long and fresh with lingering dried cherry and inner florals.  What a performance from the ‘88, showing perfect balance and maturity. (96 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1985
- The nose was dark and earthy with iron-borne minerality up front, giving way to dried roses, tomato leaf, dusty earth and hints of dried strawberry.  On the palate, I found soft yet zesty textures with tart raspberry, dried citrus and hints of lingering tannin.  It finished long and a bit spicy, still full of so much life with lingering hints of red berry and rosey florals. This was wonderfully youthful on the palate and finish, promising years of further development. (93 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1979 - The nose showed dark red fruits with dried florals, dusty earth and hints of animal musk.  On the palate, I found soft, perfectly resolved, fresh textures with minerals, hints of earth and dried red fruits.  It finished with medium-length, showing earthy minerals and inner floral tones. It was very pretty with beautiful energy, yet the fruit has dropped out to show more earth and minerals than anything else. (88 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Ca’ d’Morissio 1995 - Here I found a gorgeous, dark and brooding bouquet with animal musk up front, giving way to mineral-infused crushed black cherry, licorice, dried orange, stone dust and dusty roses.  On the palate, I found silky textures with saline-mineral thrust, before giving way to tart black cherry, inner rosey florals and youthful fine tannin. The finish was long with lasting fine tannins and mineral-soaked red berry fruit. (94  points)

Is Monprivato a Monopole

At one time, Mauro Mascarello was thought to have controlled the entire slope of Monprivato, making the vineyard a monopoly for nearly two decades, as no other producer bottled its fruit as a single vineyard. You would need to look all the way back to 1990 for the last Monprivato made by another producer, and that was Brovia.  Today it is thought that Giuseppe Mascarello controls over 93% of the vineyard, with only one other producer that I know of who has begun to bottle a Barolo Monprivato: Giovanni Sordo.  However, having tasted this wine, it is still far off from the quality, of even the lesser vintages from Mascarello.

What is Massal Selection or Selection Massale

Massal selection is a process of replanting vineyards using cuttings from vines which are identified as superior or better suited to the terroir of a specific location.  These cuttings can be obtained through nurseries or from vines within the vineyard that have demonstrated superior performance or health.  It’s important not to mistake this for clonal selection, a process carried out in nurseries to propagate the same genetic clone of a vine for planting.  In the case of Giuseppe Mascarello, he has been identifying Michet vines (Michet being a clone of Nebbiolo) within Monprivato, and then using massal selection to propagate these vines throughout the rest of the vineyard.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Announcement: Eric Guido Joins Vinous' Editorial Team

From Antonio Galloni's Vinous Media

Dear Friends –

I am thrilled to announce that Eric Guido has joined Vinous in the role of Editor, responsible for reviewing the wines of Italy. I have admired Eric’s writing and unique take on wine for many years. His passion, intellectual curiosity and work ethic are second to none.

Eric will be based in our New York office. His tasting beat will include Montalcino and the many regions that comprise Northern, Central and Southern Italy, with the exception of Piedmont, Chianti Classico and Coastal/Central Tuscany, which I will continue to cover, as I always have.

Eric, who will be familiar to many subscribers for his insightful postings on YourSay, our subscriber forum, comes to Vinous from the Morrell Wine Group. For the last five years Eric held the position of Director of Wine and Marketing, where he was responsible for driving Morrell's retail marketing campaigns, wine program, and authoring the highly acclaimed Morrell Holiday Catalog. Eric’s formal training in cooking and music round out his diverse personal interests.

Lastly, I would like to thank Ian D’Agata for his many contributions both to Vinous and Italian wine over what has been a brilliant career. Ian’s final article for Vinous will be his report on the 2015 Brunellos. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors.

Please join me in welcoming Eric to Vinous. I am sure you are going to love his take on the vast, ever-changing landscape that Italian wine is today.

Antonio Galloni

Friday, January 24, 2020

No Fiasco In Sight: With Marco Ricasoli

The next addition to my video interview series is now live on YouTube. Join me as I sit with Marco Ricasoli to discuss his family's long history in Tuscany and Chianti Classico. This family can lay claim to being a major player in the region since the 7th century, as well as being a part of creating the original recipe for Chianti Classico in the late 1800's. However, it's what Marco is doing today at the Rocca di Montegrossi estate, that has me excited. Enjoy!

Also, make sure to check out our vertical tasting of his highly acclaimed Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, The San Marcellino, at The Cellar Table Blog

Friday, January 3, 2020

Can Paolo Bea Solve The Montefalco Paradox

I'm thinking about Italian wine, from north to south, about all of the great reds that come to mind.

Only ten years ago, Barolo, Brunello and a smattering of Super Tuscans, were the handful of wines that could lay claim to international renown. Back then, the wines of Etna were in their infant stages, and Taurasi had proven itself only to the insiders, collectors and Italophiles that took the time to understand and embrace it. Chianti Classico was still associated with pizza parlors, and Barbaresco was nothing more than the little sister to Barolo. However, all of that has changed in recent years. No longer do we need to make excuses for Aglianico in the south, explain the value of Sicily, or make the case for Barbaresco’s unique attributes. As for Chianti, its popularity has exploded, and it’s now giving Brunello a run for its money.

However, there is one wine that you’ve probably heard rumblings of, that hasn’t risen to the occasion, and that’s Sagrantino.

So the question is, why?

This big, gusty, structured red seemed to have everything going for it: hailing from a classic, hilltop medieval village, able to age and mature for decades, and championed by a winery that had won multiple awards for their wines, which put Montefalco on the map.

So why are we not celebrating the elevation of the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG into the same company of Barolo, Brunello, Turasi and the like?

In my opinion, it’s not the small size of the vineyards planted, the gripping tannins that Sagrantino is known for, or a lack of marketing. No; in my opinion, it’s the winemaking.

In an attempt to make Sagrantino more palatable for the average consumer, or international consumer, the majority of winemakers continue to age their wines in new oak. Even the world-renowned Arnaldo Caprai winery, and their award-winning 25 Anni, represents what is possible when Sagrantino has been tamed, or sheathed, in a cloak of French Barrique. I consider this to be a horrible shame when you consider that of all of the producers in Montefalco, Caprai should have the raw materials to make some of the greatest expressions of varietal wine in the region. Here we have one of the first wineries to take Sagrantino seriously, going as far back as 1971, eight years prior to the creation of the Montefalco DOC. Caprai brought vineyard analysis and clonal research to a region that was filled with farmers who made local wines for local palates. Their success has a lot to do with why so many other producers continue to make Sagrantino in this “international” style.

However, there is still hope for Sagrantino--I haven’t given up on its ability to produce one of the greatest wines in Italy, and the reason why is Paolo Bea.

Before I get too deeply into how Paolo Bea has proven Sagrantino’s worth to me, let’s first delve a bit into what makes the raw materials in Montefalco so precious in the first place.

Located in the landlocked region of Umbria, Montefalco (or “falcon mountain”) suffers from being surrounded by some pretty serious “wine-related” neighbors. With Tuscany to the northwest, Marche to the northeast, Lazio to the southwest, and Abruzzo extremely close in the southeast, Umbria and Sagrantino compete with the popular Sangiovese, Aglianico and Montepulciano grapes. That said, two things that Umbria has been able to claim fame to are production of top-shelf olive oils and black truffles from Norcia.

However, they also have a perfect terroir for the production of world-class red wine.

The DOC and DOCGs of Montefalco and Sagrantino sit in a basin, surrounded by the Apennines mountains, growing in soils rich in clay with a mix of sand and limestone. However, as you push into higher elevations, rising up to 1500 feet, you’ll also find clay-calcrete, an almost cement-like blend of clay, gravel, sand, and silt, making it difficult for vines to survive, but as they say, the strong always do. The region is warm yet moderated by winds coming down from the Apennines, along with Meditarainan influences carried across the Tiber river.

Sagrantino, renowned for both its deep red color, but also powerful tannins, can be difficult to tame. In fact, going back centuries, Sagrantino’s first leading role was in the production of sweet wines, where their power and broad tannins would be balanced by rich textures and riper fruit developed through Passito (air-drying the grapes). There is also Sangiovese, as Umbria sits in the heart of the Sangiovese belt, producing, what is, in my opinion, a spicier version than their neighbors, with grippier tannins to help set them apart. These two grapes make up the lion’s share of red grapes produced in Montefalco.

The DOC Rosso di Montefalco is composed primarily of Sangiovese from 60-80% with a minimum of 10% Sagrantino and other red varieties. While the DOCG, Sagrantino di Montefalco must be 100% Sagrantino, a grape whose intensity of color is only matched by its intensity of tannic bite--which brings us back to Paolo Bea, one of the few producers I know of that age their wine entirely in large, neutral wood, and yet manage to create wines that require aging, but are also impossible to ignore in their youth. In my opinion, this should be the benchmark of the region.

The Paolo Bea Paradigm

What keeps Paolo Bea flying under the radar is a combination of low quantity, no desire to market themselves, and an unwillingness to submit wines for review to the press, which sounds quite a bit like another producer who I have often compared them to: Giuseppe Quintarelli.

Giampiero Bea
The history of the Bea family is closely tied to Montefalco, going back as far as the 16th century. This is a family of farmers who have cultivated olives, grains, vegetables and grapes since the beginning, maintaining a wholly natural ecosystem, which is focused on the fruits that nature provides them. There is no winemaking wizardry and no chemicals in the vineyard or winery. Instead, it’s a complete respect for what each vintage brings to the table, and the Bea family’s desire to bottle that expression, capturing the essence of terroir, without taking anything away. This approach has obviously worked, as vintage after vintage, whether it was warm, dry, wet, abundant, short or simply perfect, presents something pleasurable to the senses. What’s more, supply could never fill the demand that has been created for the wines, and the family has no interest in expanding. Instead, the current generation, represented by Giampiero and Giuseppe, continues to work their 5 hectares of vineyards by hand, choosing to only use only ⅓ of their 15-hectare property for the production of grapes, even though they could easily continue planting to expand. Their vineyards occupy the higher elevations of Montefalco terroir, reaching up to 1500 feet above sea level, and taking advantage of a diverse mix of soils. It’s here that they have begun to vineyard-designate their lineup of Sagrantino, to further accentuate the esteemed terroir of the region.

In the winery, gentle macerations and slow fermentations can last from three weeks to as many as seven, before the wine is placed into steel tanks for a year to rest, and then large neutral wood for up to two years. At this point, the wines are bottled without filtration and extremely low, if any, added sulfur, and left to rest for another year. This process is a long, painstaking effort that is extremely costly to the producer as well, and it results in the 2012 vintage being their current release, seven years after harvest.

Paolo Bea with his grandson
However, the proof is in every bottle of Paolo Bea. Don’t get me wrong; this is natural winemaking in the extreme, and as a result you’ll sometimes find some volatility or a large amount of sediment. However, for every slightly off bottle of Paolo Bea, there are ten more that are otherworldly, kaleidoscopic, ethereal examples of what Sagrantino and Sangiovese are capable of from Umbria. The fact is, once you taste a Paolo Bea Sagrantino, you’ll be asking yourself why more producers aren’t trying to replicate their processes. However, just like the wines of Giuseppe Quintarelli, it’s almost impossible to recreate such a perfect union between terroir, wine, and family.

Yet, I wonder why other producers don’t seem open to trying.

Here is the rub: in a time when the majority of consumers are looking for more varietal purity, less “wine making”, and the ability to observe a “sense of place” from each bottle of wine, how can Sagrantino ever become the next great Italian red, as most wineries continue to produce it in a contradictory fashion?

As for Paolo Bea, I’ve been a fan for many years now, going back to the 2003 vintage, and I thought it was about time that I checked in on some of the current releases and maturing vintages, to not only give myself a good idea of where the wines are going, but to also share the results with our readers. I focused on the reds, but it’s also important to mention that Bea excels with white wines as well (a story for another time). It also pays to mention that Bea excels in both warm and cool vintages, lending very different expressions of place, but as I already said--it’s about what Mother Nature gives, not what they make of it.


On to the Tasting Notes.

The San Valentino vineyard hosts 50-year-old vines, planted in soils dominated by clay. It sits at 1300 feet altitude and creates Bea’s open-knit expression that is amazing upon release but also matures for up to a decade in the cellar. The composition is 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, and 15% Montepulciano.

2012 Paolo Bea Umbria San Valentino - What an incredible bouquet on the 2012 San Valentino. It comes in at 1.5% less ABV than the previous vintage and shows depths of dark, earthy, almost animal-like complexities. Here I found balsamic spice over dried strawberries, with moist dark soil tones, crushed lava stone, dusty dried florals, and hints of brown sugar. On the palate, silky textures flooded the senses with flavors of sour cherry, tangerine, savory spice, and masses of exotic inner florals, as zesty acids made the mouth water, while concentrated tart red fruits and hints of tannin tugged at the side of my cheeks. The finish was long, zesty, spicy, and tart, yet still so energetic, as the wine’s vibrant acids refused to give in to the intensity within. The result was a spellbinding and tactile experience that is impossible not to like, and it’s easily one of my favorite vintages to date for San Valentino. (93 points)

The Cerrete vineyard sits at the highest point in Montefalco, between 1300 and 1500 feet above sea level. The soil is clay and limestone-infused with small pebbles from an ancient riverbed, and used to create Bea’s most ethereal yet complex Sagrantino. However, the Bea family also produces the Rosso de Veo from the young vines here. Frankly, you’d be amazed that these are “young” vines.

2011 Paolo Bea Rosso de Véo - It's amazing to think that this is Paolo Bea's "young vine" bottling of the Cerrete vineyard, as it shows so much intensity, yet balance as well. Here I found a rich and seductive bouquet of crushed raspberry, dried cherries, smoke, dried red florals, spice box, hints of undergrowth, and animal musk. On the palate, silky textures unfolded to reveal black cherry, made vibrant through zesty acids, with a mix of spicy florals, tongue-curling notes of tangerine, cinnamon, and some of the best managed Sagrantino tannins I have ever experienced. The finish was amazingly long, as raspberry and cherry tones seemed to linger for two to three minutes, along with sweet and savory spices, minerals, inner florals, and a hint of tannin. This is a gorgeous wine that may have been helped by the warmer vintage, yet it achieved something very special nonetheless. I can't wait to taste the 2011 Cerrete. (93 points)

The Pipparello vineyard is a hilltop site in Montefalco at 1300 feet above sea level. The soil is clay and gravel. Here, the Bea family farms varying percentages (depending on vintage) around 60% Sangiovese, 25% Montepulciano, and 15% Sagrantino to produce their Montefalco Rosso.

2011 Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Riserva Pipparello - The nose was dark and brooding, as masses of balsamic-infused black cherries, sweet herbs, brown (almost, curry-like) spices, fresh tobacco, and sweet minerals lifted from the glass. On the palate, I found silky textures, which caressed the senses, just as a wave of tart cherry mixed with zesty acids, minerals and tannin set in, creating a cheek-puckering experience. The finish was incredibly long and structured, with continued intensity from the palate, as grippy tannin held firm against notes of tart cherry fruit, black tea, spice, and minerals. Pipparello is a massive and towering wine in this vintage, with a tight finish, yet a lovely note of sweet red berries lingered for minutes on the back palate.

It's a serious "experience wine" that just needs a few more years to come together. I, for one, can't wait to see how it matures. (94 points)

2008 Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Riserva Pipparello - The nose was dark and brooding with masses of dried black cherry and cedar up front; yet beneath it, notes of exotic spice, tobacco, dried flowers, crushed raspberry, and undergrowth gained volume and depth with time in the glass, until they permeated the senses entirely. On the palate, I found soft, silky textures, which seemed to hover on the senses, offset by a tart acid core, yet also complemented by enveloping bittersweet cherry, quinine, spice, and inner earth tones. The finish was incredibly long with saturating dried cherry fruit, sweet inner florals, hints of gruff tannin--yet juicy and fresh, with a note of hard red candies and licorice which seemed to literally last for minutes on the mid-palate. (93 points)

2005 Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Riserva Pipparello - The 2005 Paolo Bea Pipparello Riserva showed a bouquet of ripe crushed cherry and raspberry, infused with dried orange, exotic spice, and dusty sweet florals, before evolving to show undergrowth, savory herbs and hints of animal musk. On the palate, I found soft textures offset by brisk acids, as fleshy, zesty red fruits caressed the senses, giving way to a mix of savory spice and cheek-puckering minerality. The finish was long, with a tart twang of red berry fruit and acids, as hints of lingering tannin faded against a backdrop of inner florals. (94 points)

2003 Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Riserva Pipparello - The nose was dark and savory, showing ripe plum, crushed black cherry, sage, cherry tobacco, balsamic spice, cumin, and hints of licorice. On the palate, silky, yet remarkably fresh textures, gave way to zesty spiced cherry with energizing acidity, sweet and savory spices, herbs, and florals which reminded me of childhood Christmas with hints of lingering tannin. The finish was long and fresh, as zesty acids created a mouthwatering experience, coupled with resonating cherry and spices. It's amazing to think that this is the product of a warm vintage. (92 points)

The Pagliaro vineyard is situated at 1300 feet in altitude, and it is dedicated in large part to Sagrantino. This is the location that produces Bea’s flagship Sagrantino.

2012 Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco Pagliaro - The ‘12 Pagliaro showed depths of red berry fruit with balsamic spice, crushed plum, sweet herbs, black licorice, dark earth, and a hint of volatility on the nose. On the palate, silky textures gave way to concentrated tart black and red fruits, as dark mineral tones, savory spice, and notes of black tea soaked the senses, while mounting tannin quickly dried them out. The finish was long, structured, and almost chewy, showing gripping tannin with lingering dried black cherry, saline minerals, and savory herbs in an imposing expression of Sagrantino. I can only imagine a decade or more until the 2012 reaches maturity, yet I believe it’s worth the wait, as the wine is poised like a bomb waiting to explode. (95 points)

2011 Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco Pagliaro - The nose was dark and intense, leaning toward earth tones yet with a massive wave of crushed black cherry to balance it. With time in the glass, cherry seemed to change to ripe strawberry, as sweet spices, smoky minerals, tobacco, and woodland earth tones joined the mix. On the palate, soft, caressing textures washed effortlessly across the senses, with a graceful lift I’ve seldom experienced, showing a combination of both ripe and tart red fruits, herbal tea notes, sweet inner florals, and exotic spice, all kept lively through brisk acidity. The finish was dry and long, exposing the large-scale Sagrantino tannins I had expected, yet there was a soft edge to them here, making the experience both structured yet enjoyable at this stage. Dried black cherries lingered, as well as minerals, a hint of orange citrus, and lovely inner florals, as a sweet note of red candies seemed to resonate for well over a minute. (94 points)

2005 Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco Pagliaro - The nose displayed fresh mineral intensity and moist, dark earth tones up front, evolving to show savory brown spices over ripe black cherry, backed by wild herbs and a hint of animal musk. On the palate, velvety textures flooded the senses with waves of dark red fruits, yet firmed up as brisk acids settled in, unveiling savory herbal tones and a tart twang of peppery spice; yet through it all, grippy tannin slowly gained strength. The finish was long and structured, yet its resonating acids allowed the '05 Pagliaro to sign off on a "early maturity" note, as lingering cherry and spice slowly faded amidst dried inner florals. (94 points)

Credits and Resources

Article, Tasting notes and bottle photos by Eric Guido

Special thank you to Rosenthal Wine Merchants, and Blake Johnson for use of family and vineyard photos.

Click to visit the official Paolo Bea website.