Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Any person of Italian descent knows what it means to be passionate. We are intrinsically programmed to throw ourselves “all in” when we find our heart’s desire. For Renzo Cotarella, Italy’s premiere winemaker and head enologist for the wine icon Antinori, his passion is wine making. The histories of both Renzo and the Antinori family are well embedded in the wine industry. Their beliefs, values and passions are what have added to the longevity of their careers and the quality of their craft. Antinori currently has vineyards in several different winemaking regions around world. The ability to produce wines of such quality at vastly different locations is an art form that Renzo seems to have mastered. He is one of the lucky few to be able to produce wines in both the old world (Europe) and in the new world (The rest of the World). Along with overseeing the wine making at eighteen Italian locations producing Super Tuscan wines like Guado Al Tasso and Umbrian Chardonnay blends like Cervaro della Sala he is now also producing California Cabernet and Chardonnay at Antinori’s newest venture, Antica Napa Valley.

The Antinori family has been producing high quality wines for over six centuries. Their philosophy stands in their roots and reaches for innovation. For Renzo Cotarella, the passion for wine came very early. Both his father and his uncle were wine makers and as Renzo says, he was “born with the smell of wine.” When Renzo was very young Piero Antinori offered him the opportunity to make wine at the Cervaro della Sala property near his home in Umbria and thirty years later the relationship is as strong as ever. Over these many years Renzo has come to believe that there are two different categories of grapes. The first are grapes like Cabernet and Merlot where drinakability is the main factor. The second are grapes such as Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese that have strong personalities. He says, “you feel more involved with these grapes and once you succeed – they are yours – you feel more complete.” To be certain, in Renzo’s eyes, it is not a matter of one grape being better than the other he simply feels that one is more intriguing, more challenging. For Renzo, working with grapes like Pinot Noir is “something you feel in your soul.”

Being able to produce wines in both the old world and the new world is a challenge that is unique to few winemakers and it is a challenge that feeds Renzo Cotarella’s passion for winemaking. To Renzo, the old world and the new world are two different “ideas” of wine. He believes that with old world wines there is an identity, elegance and a soul that comes from its long history. The new world is fruit driven, approachable and muscular. In an old world wine makers approach to new world wines Renzo tries to capture some of the soul and the fire of the old world style and impart this on the new world grapes. “The ideal wine is a blending of the two ideas,” he says. Renzo’s goal is to impart the elegance of place as well as the history of the vine in each wine that he makes whether it be new world or old world.

Renzo’s philosophy on grapes and wine making is proven in the quality of wine that he makes and the consistent high ratings that he achieves. The proof is in the bottle. I recently had the opportunity to taste four of the Antinori wines. The 2005 Cervaro della Sala and the 2006 Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay were the two whites. The 2003 Guado al Tasso and the 2004 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon were the two reds. All were simply amazing in their own ways.

The Cervaro della Sala in Renzo’s words is “a mix of Mediterranean with a touch of minerality, citrus and white flowers.” This wine is an Indicazione Geographica Tipica (IGT) classified wine made from 85% Chardonnay and 15% Grechetto. There is more flower than fruit to this wine and it is, in my opinion, savory without being heavy. In our conversation about the wine Renzo told me that the previous Friday he had the opportunity to taste the 1988 vintage and remarked that it was fabulous. 1988 would have been Renzo’s third year as a winemaker for Antinori. The Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay is a completely different wine, as you may have guessed. This is the first vintage of this 100% Chardonnay wine and has much more alcohol, intensity and weight than her Italian counterpart. This wine is not an over-the-top California Chardonnay, but it is very intense; the balance of oak and acidity is simply amazing.

The reds were an even bigger treat for me than the whites. The 2003 Guado al Tasso is a Super Tuscan wine from the Bolgheri region on the coast of Tuscany and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Renzo describes this wine as being “spicy, approachable, salty, big and intense.” I had the good fortune of also recently trying the 1993 Guado al Tasso and can tell you first hand that these wines are huge. They are almost too big for the bottle that contains them. Give them a few moments to catch their breath after you open them. A few minutes in a decanter and a sip of this wine will make you throw your head back and surrender to its intrinsic beauty. I was also honored to try Renzo’s first vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet. The 2004 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet was, for lack of a better term, pretty. Renzo feels that this wine has a little more minerality than the Guado al Tasso mostly because of the soil. It is one of those wines that has the complex duality of being approachable now but will age as well as Sophia Loren.

For Renzo, there is nothing in common with these wines except the wine maker and “that is me,” he said. I could almost hear the smile of pride on his face as he said that to me over the phone. With Renzo, there are no favorites among the wines that he produces. All he will tell you is that because the Cervaro della Sala was his first winemaking position with Antinori he is emotionally attached to the wine. He says, “It is like your first love; you never forget.” So wondrous is the Italian passion for what we love.

Sara Jane Fasolino
Certified Sommelier