MS, MW, friend of 1WD, and exceptionally cool wine geek Doug Frost is not a man to mince words. As a media guest recently for the 2019 incarnation of Zinfandel Experience in San Francisco, I managed to catch up briefly with Doug, who had this to say regarding Zinfandel continuously being cited as the quintessential American grape variety:
“That’s utter bullshit.”
This is, of course, because Zinfandel is actually of Croatian origin, where it sometimes goes by the name of Tribidrag (which might also be the name of a character from The Silmarillion… I’m not sure). In the shorter-term history of American fine wine, however, Zinfandel does have deeper roots than most other grapes, Croatian or otherwise. As Frost put it, “back in 1961, Sonoma’s principal grape was Zin.”
ZinEx, for me, consisted of several tastings, both media-only and open to the public, though I find the former a lot easier to digest than the latter (I’m not exactly a large guy, so it’s not easy to signal my way to a spit bucket with a mouthful of high-octane red wine in a crowded room). The minor suffering was worth it, of course, as ZinEx was chock full of excellent examples of the surprising versatility of California’s adopted Croat wonder-boy grape.
Following are highlights from my ZinEx encounters (skipping badges, because there are just too many recommendations, 90% of which would just be tagged “Kick-Ass” anyway)…
While Giovanna Drei Donà “hates” technical questions about wine, she is fond of horses; maybe more fond of horses than her children Ida Vittoria and Enrico, the fourth generation who have helped to run the winemaking operations at the picturesque Drei Donà estate now owned by her husband Count Claudio Drei Donà (who focused on its thirty hectares of land and its ‘La Palazza’ farmhouse, constructed around a fifteenth century watchtower, as a passion project after retiring from law in the 1990s).
Drei Donà’s wines are named after their several horses (after visiting during a media tour, I think that their ten or so dogs might be jealous, given their propensity for barking in seemingly coordinated protests), and she readily admits that she recalls the births of the horses “more than the birth of my sons!” Drei Donà’s horses earn their keep, apparently; they are one of the best litmus tests for proper grape ripeness: “when they start to eat the grapes, they’re ready.”
While “nestled” is an overused term bordering on cliche (both in the wine writing biz writ-large, and here on 1WD), if ever a vineyard was nestled, Drei Donà is it. The estate sits only about 150 meters high, located in the ancient hills between Forlì, Castrocaro and Predappio – on the other side of the hills from Montalcino. Its landscape is influenced by both the Adriatic coast and the Apennines mountains. As in ancient Romagnan times, Sangiovese is the focus here (“it’s maybe the oldest vine in the world” Giovanna proclaimed, though I suspect that’s true only in the world of Romagnan wine).
“Romagna is more known for food than for wine,” Giovanna admits, though Drei Donà makes a very good case for altering that global market perception. “This was a sort of peninsula in ancient times,” she notes, “with water running along the rocky soil beneath the clay and sand on which their vines are planted. Back to being nestled – bad weather tends to follow the hills and thus travel around their site, lowering disease pressure and enabling them to utilize organic viticultural practices. The results are wines about as bold – and with personalities nearly as strong – as Giovanna herself…
What gives one the impetus to isolate yeasts, experiment with, say, cumbersome large barriques, and pursue crafting world-class Sangiovese in a region best known for bulk wine? Probably having regional winemaking in your blood.
That’s the sense that one might take away from a visit to Tenuta Casali, in Romagna’s Mercato Saraceno, where Silvia, Francesco and Daniele Casali now work with the previous Casali generation, Valerio and Paolo, who themselves took over in the late 1970s from grandfather Mario, who farmed their alluvial, stony, and white clay soils since the 1940s as a grower. So there are five family members now involved directly, doing all of the normal family-winery stuff while also attempting the aforementioned experimentation/fine-tuning, and yet I got the impression that things were running well enough, and personally did not notice anyone trying to kill one another while I was there…
Tenuta Casali sits astride the Savio Valley, which itself sits astride Italy’s Appenine hills in Romagna, with approximately twenty hectares of vines (all but twenty percent of which are devoted to Sangiovese) in effect bordered by Tuscany and the Adriatic.
Their vineyard placement – which also enjoys an elevation of between 500 and 800 feet – seems to work some mighty Romagna magic on their Sangio fruit; their reds were some of the best that I tasted during my media trip to the region last year. Not that their whites are slouching, as we’ll get into, well, immediately…
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.
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