I recently had the honor of judging at the 2019 San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge (now in its 37th year!), the results of which have been published, allowing me to share some of my thoughts on a few surprises that my panel had the good fortune of tasting during the competition. When I wasn’t feeding errant seagulls who begged at my hotel room window, that is. It’s a long story.
Anyway, seasoned 1WD readers will recall that I’ve been infecting the Stay-Classy-San-Diego-based Critics Challenge competition for the last few years, but this was my first time joining much of the same well-heeled, finely-tuned crew for the SD Challenge. I’m happy to report that the SD incarnation is every bit as fun and professionally-executed as CC, and I’m already crossing my fingers that I’ll be back next year. [ By the way, if you’re curious about how the details on these competitions go down, listen to head honcho Robert Whitley dish on it over at the Wine Biz 360 podcast. ]
One of the most interesting – and fun… and humbling – things about judging wines blind is that occasionally some items surprise you, busting up your preconceived notions and turning you on to things you might otherwise overlook. The 2019 SD Challenge proved particularly generous in that regard. Here are a handful of vinous items that impressed my panel (Platinum medal winners all), the majority of which are over-achieving budget lovelies, tailor-made for Spring sipping by the San Diego seaside in a manner that would make Ron Burgundy himself beam with pride. Okay, before we start, let’s go over the ground-rules… No touching of the hair or face… And that’s it. Now FIGHT!…
Chiara Condello grew up “ten minutes away” from Predappio’s Azienda Vitivinicola Condé, a place so picturesque – even by exceptionally picturesque Romagna standards – that it houses its own resort, which in turn houses its own restaurant in an area that’s nearly synonymous with Italian cuisine.
Condello’s father, Francesco, established this little slice of Napa-Route-29-in-the-heart-of-Romagna-wine-country in 2001, after retiring from real-estate finance brokering and consolidating nearly 80 hectares of vineyards (73 of which are devoted to Sangiovese, with a bit of Merlot and chardonnay making up the rest) from their previous owners.
The U-shaped Condé estate has 52 parcels, from which 7 wines are made, and boasts plantings dating back to the late 1930s on Spungone soils (sandy, sponge-like limestone rich in ancient seabed fossils) that date back a lot further (over three million years, to the Pliocene). In other words, it’s prime Sangio growing territory, with good winegrowing and winemaking talent behind it (including agronomist Federico Curtaz, eonologist Stefano Zoli, and Tuscan consultant Federico Staderini). Of course, they also have olive production. And, of course, they’re organic (“for me, it was crucial,” notes Chiara, “in terms of respect; I don’t want to change the balance that we have in the area”).
Chiara Condello has four acres of her own to play with on the estate, and has access to all of Condé’s winemaking resources. But before you write her off as embodying the stereotype of a modern European princess, you should know that Chiara studied Economics at Luigi Bocconi University in Milan; and got her CEMS Master in International Management; and is currently studying eonology; and seems to know what the hell she is doing when it comes to making Sangiovese (something that I learned firsthand when tasting these wines during a recent media visit)…
When Fattoria Zerbina matriarch Cristina Geminiani talks about her Faenza area vineyards in Italy’s Romagna, she gives the distinct impressions that a) she knows what she is doing, and, b) isn’t prepared to take any sh*t about it.
At least, that’s the sense that I got when I got my feet into Zerbina’s 32 hectares of red clay and limestone soils during a recent press jaunt. Geminiani took over the reins of the family wine business (established in the `60s by her grandfather) in 1987, having studied at both the University of Milan and the University of Bordeaux.
Geminiani’s “puzzle” necessitates a pasticcio approach to crafting wine in this case, primarily from Romagna’s Sangiovese and Albana grapes) – combinations of alberello, gobelet, and trellised vine training, and often different pickings (sometimes within the same plots). Zerbina’s proximity to nearby rivers means that their Albana is prone to noble rot, which Geminiani understandably has totally run with for their passito wine, given her experience in Bordeaux.
“Romagna had to fight a lot – and still has to fight a lot.”
So mentioned Alessandro Fiore – who, along with brother Claudio, oversee wine production of Castelluccio, one of their family’s three winery operations – recognizes the oddly ironic state of Romagna wine.
On the one hand, by most measures this hilly, picturesque northen-Italian area near Bolgna is synonymous with what we in the USA consider to be Italian food. Romagna is the birthplace of Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, lasagne, tagliatelle, tortellini, and prosciutto. On the other hand, Romagna is not synonymous with fine Italian wine, having spent decades churning out juice for the bulk market.
But there are several smaller Romagna wine producers who are engaged in fighting the good fight to elevate the region’s craft, including Modigliana’s Castelluccio, nestled in what the Fiore brothers call “ancient Tuscany” (where I visited on a press jaunt back in November). While they might look more like members of early Jethro Tull, the Fiore brothers know that the struggle for Romagna wine recognition is very, very real. Their father, Vittorio Fiore, acquired the majority of their fourteen Romagna hectares of land over several years, and has been focused on quality wine production from their marl and limestone soils since the 1970s. They made a splash early on by producing a regional Sauvignon Blanc (“which at first was not very good” remarked Alessandro) in an area better known for Sangiovese…
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