Monday, November 30, 2009

Brunello Tribute

If the measure of a man is how he is remembered, then John Demergasso was a man of impeccable good taste and refinement, exactly like the Brunello wines we drank in his honor and memory last month.

True to his Italian genes, John was a Renaissance man. An athlete, a lawyer, and a businessman. An adventurer in the Hemingway tradition: he climbed Kilimanjaro, Whitney, Aconcagua, and Matterhorn, and enjoyed corridas in the bullrings of Spain. I came to know him late in his life. A serene man who enjoyed his drink quietly. The most I saw him excited was over a bottle of 1986 Maison Leroy Meursault two years ago. I thought, being an Italian boy, he was, perhaps, amused that a French white could be that good.

Kevin and Marguerite, longtime friends of John and Bonnie Demergasso, hosted the get-together at their pad in Hillsborough, giving us all the pleasure of their expansive, newly remodeled kitchen, with ample space for the eleven Brunello, a magnum of Champagne, and a bottle of Vin Santo (which I sadly missed as I left early) that we all kicked in for the tribute, including extras from Kevin's cellar. To toast John, we started with the magnum of Franck Bonville Brut Grand Cru "Selection" Blanc de Blancs NV. A rich, penetrating Champagne, with juicy apple and pear skin flavors and crisp minerality. Definitely a bracing start.

I proceeded with the vertical of Brunello from young to old. I've never had Brunello older than fifteen years. The common wisdom is they won't go much beyond twenty years. I mean, Sangiovese, right? That's why modernists (or tainters?) are bent on adding Cabernet and Merlot. Well, this tasting proved that I was dead wrong.

The 1999 Tenuta San Filippo Fanti felt warm, rich, ripe, and forward. Its tannins are velvety and the acidity is soft. I like the charm of this modern-style Brunello.

In contrast, the 1997 Canalicchio di Sopra Le Code di Montosoli showed more precision and focus. Its tannins are firm and well-knitted to the cool, elegant fruit. A wonderful step up, it's clearly headed to an even better future.

The 1997 Conti Constanti was the first dip into classical Brunello territory. Light-ruby color. Sandal and cedar-infused tart cherry flavors with undertones of chestnut. I expected more concentration given the vintage, still it wins by virtue of its purity and substance.

Just when I was warming up to the classical elegance of the Conti Constanti, the 1997 Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Riserva "Ripe al Convento" pulled me back in to the power world of modern Brunello. An explosion of ripe, luscious fruit. Its nose was perfumed with black cherry and barrique. The fruit was dense, velvety, ripe, and milk-chocolatey. Clearly, this has all the extract of the vintage.

The next two Brunello were the 1995 Gaja twins. Steve decided to bring the Sugarille when he found out that I'll show up with the Rennina. A brilliant counter! I've never had the two side-by-side, and what more from the same vintage.

Convinced that Case Basse possessed the best terroir in Montalcino, Angelo Gaja tried to acquire it but his offer was spurned. So he settled for the next best thing by moving next door at the historic estate Pieve Santa Restituta. 1995 was the vintage when Gaja took complete control of the winemaking and operation of the estate. And the year also marked the first solid vintage since Gaja's involvement in the estate. The 1995 Pieve Santa Restituta "Renina" is the feminine of the two. Dark, structured, with a rich, sinewy fruit hinting of roast and game. Not a forceful Brunello, but ample and shapely.

In contrast the 1995 Pieve Santa Restituta "Sugarille" was muscular and fleshy with superb depth of fruit and firmer tannins. Its menthol and resin aromas were uniquely intense. While the Rennina appears to be hitting its best, this has more to offer in years to come.

More resin, mixed with saddle and fresh cranberries surfaced in the 1982 Pertimali of Livio Sassetti. Gorgeous round, velvety fruit punctuated by rich tannins. Nearing thirty years, it seems like this is just hitting its stride. Every time I open a bottle of Livio Sassetti's Brunello I'm blown away by its depth and seamless, spherical beauty.

I was fortunate to taste two vintages of Brunello's founding producer, Biondi-Santi, this night. The 1978 Biondi-Santi "Il Greppo" offered classic Brunello understatement. Lean, delicate, and graceful. It has subdued aromas of dried red fruits and tea leaf. Not much flesh clung to the wine so it danced freely on my palate with nice gusto.

Sandwiched between the two Il Greppos, the 1975 Col d'Orcia was most beautiful. A revelation in aged Brunello, as anyone who drinks this wine would fall in love with it. Rose petals, tea leaf, and sweet red fruits in the nose. Really focused sumptuous ripe fruit, fresh and accompanied by enough good tannins to make one yearn for a bite of something rich and savory, like a Florentine steak.

Finally, the 1968 Biondi-Santi "Il Greppo". Were it not for Ben's Glamis Castle-like cellar I don't think this annata would be so alive. This was as ethereal as an old DRC RSV Delicate, elegant bright red fruits hinting of mushrooms and black tea. Fresh-tasting and with a mouthwatering spiciness. I was already late, but It was hard to let go as it kept evolving in the glass.

Kevin, John's close friend and our generous host, offers his notes on the wines and some parting words:

Magnum—Franck Bonnville Gran Cru Blanc de Blanc (Avize).

Rich, frothy, nice magnum cream (1 year since purchase), excellent balance, some call it baby Krug, lemon curd, citrus, brioche, aged in old oak, champ vines are an astonishing 80 years old. Nice way to get started. With the Great Ben pouring, how could we go wrong.

1999 Fanti San Fillipo—Very dark saturated, rich, coffee expresso flavours, more of an international style, but also loads of cassis and glycerin,spice and oak, not traditional, but didn’t genuflect to Rolland either. Despite the rich style, not overripe, well balanced. One of the biggest mouthfuls of the evening. Want this with a steak.

1997 Conti Constanti—cherry and leather notes, seemed more about potential, despite an hour of decant, on repour, classic old school, dry tannins, ends nice, seemed more mature than the other 97’s, which was ok. Classic sangiovese—it was better but could have been a chianti high end riserva if tasted blind, for me. Which is not bad!

1997 Canalicchio di Sopra---traditonal style, well done, menthol and licorice, tight, good acidity, not much texture and depth at this point, falls short of wowing, but plenty of upside. The most traditional, correct Brunello so far for me. (18.0).

1997 Castelgiocondo Riserva—oh my, oh my oh my, lock the doors and keep the young ens and women folk in the house where it is safe, this was spectacular, not necessarily traditional, but traditional producer to be sure, powerfully extracted, dark violet, damp earth, deep rich like no Brunello I have had, stunning in that sense, the monster has been tamed so to speak someone said, delicious, not traditional, would like to see if this will improve or if it is all about the power game. (17.5—19.0?)

1995 Gaja Sugarille—beautiful nose, aromatic, spice and more spice, well integrated, pine resin also on the nose, full bodied, elegant, lovely wine, maybe the prettiest wine so far. (18.0).

1995 Gaja Rennina—juniper, aromatic underbrush exotic leathery notes, cool, menthol, silky tannins, another wonderful drink. Kind of reminds me of his barbaresco, that silky wonderful seemless style. (18.0).

1982 Livio Sassetti Pertimali—very small producer, hard to get in this country, very rich, high octane, but alchohol present but in check, deep leather,
Parker said if he had one Brunello to drink on a desert island, it would be this one, tons of fruit, soft tannins, but strong tannins, this will age and improve forever. One of Wassermans favorites also. Super concentration of fruit on retaste next morning. My favorite of the evening.

1978 Biondi-Santi—tobacco, leather against a good background of fruit, this was and today, still showing very nicely, solid but maybe on the beginning of its slow apogee downward. Has the classic roasted chestnuts, dried flowers, that the aged brunello beauties get at about 30 years.

1975 Col d Orcia—Great producer from a great vintage—most developed wine so far, has all the old world traditional school notes, I remember giving this very high marks, but now can’t quite remember why. It was the one bottle that had the least left at the end of the evening if that says something. I remember saying it was 18.5 but again, lost track on this one. Alex, help. Tell me what I thought…

1968 Biondi—Santi---thought it was tired, lost its fruit, gave it a 15.0. Last night, this morning, on retaste, jumped to 17.5, amazing. What is more amazing is that Ben gave it the 7 decant workout last night. It improved the most overnight, which given its age and how it showed, I would have thought it the last of the wines to benefit from more time. Lots of leather, tar, resin, lovely finish. The fruit of course not the strength of the wine at this point.


1975 “ Annata” Avignonesi Vin Santo---The Saint wine—this had special connotations for John. John researched every wine we drank, as Bonnie knows, and John told me Vin Santo was so named, because in the 15th century, during the council of Florence, the Armenian or Greek Patriarch of the Eastern edge of the empire used the word xantos which means yellow in both Greek and Armenian, The Florentines mistakenly thought he had said santo or saint. Ha! Before that, it was known as vin pretto or “pure wine”. The Florentines liked vin santo better. The grape variety that goes into Vin Santo are Malvasia, Trebbiano and something else. It is of course dried like raisin on mats and then when almost raisin, pressed, resulting in very concentrated juice.
Avignonesi is the Y Quem of Vin Santo.

Dark amber, rich, viscous, very dense, mouth filling, dried flowers, nuts, raisiny, completely dry, this was perfect Vin Santo. Alex, saving a taste for you in a split. (19.0).


I want to thank all for contributions of wine and spirit and remembrance of a super person, great father, husband, and best friend.


  1. Kevin & Alex,

    One hell of a night night in memory of one hell of a man.


  2. Thanks for sharing the wine notes. Being an avid wine drinker, I enjoyed it very much.


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