Bloody marvellous or bullshit and vinegar? Wine tasting in Cortona

Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro, Cortona.

The tour: Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro (Cortona)

We were picked up early by car. Our driver, Lorenzo, was quiet, friendly and wearing a suit jacket despite the heat. He drove very fast in a casual, unemphatic manner, as if it were a computer driving game and if we were killed we’d just have to restart the level. As he dropped us off he would smile and make a few comments; at the mention of Avignonesi’s Vin Santo he almost beamed and made a gesture of delight with his forefinger and thumb. Otherwise he was mostly silent in a comfortable way.

We arrived at Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro a little before 10 a.m. It was already very hot; by the afternoon it would be 35° C. It had the look of an old manor house, Tuscan-style. We were shown into a reception hall of sorts in a commodious, high-ceilinged building, and waited there for five or ten minutes listening to Lorenzo talking in an adjacent room with a closed door. The place was moderately grand in its fixtures and a little shabby in its fittings; you could smell the damp and the decaying plaster. We speculated that Lorenzo was telling a cobwebbed and embittered Signorina Havisham about our arrival while she plotted some cruel trick. It also seemed possible that they were unaware of or had forgotten us, or that they weren’t ready.

Eventually Lorenzo emerged with our guide and slipped off, murmuring that he’d be back to pick us up later. Margherita was young, cheerful and immediately likeable. We toured the nearby grounds, some of the cellars, various wine-making areas and finished in the café/bar, where we tasted some of the wines. It was fairly brisk and Margherita wasn’t someone who hated a silence and felt that the more she spoke, the happier we’d be. We liked this.

It was very Tuscan. Here were immeasurably ancient cellars; there was an ultra-modern sculpture/water feature. Here was a minimalist swimming pool; there was a gravel walkway with a rusting old bench. The old and new are often mixed in Tuscany, and so are agriculture and tourism. d’Alessandro don’t just make wine, they also have accommodation (the Resort Borgo Syrah), a spa, and a restaurant. There are cookery courses as well as wine tastings and the like. It’s what the Italians call an agriturismo. Agritourism is big business in Italy, very big business in Tuscany, and is closely regulated by law.

For all this, we barely noticed the tourist side, except to wonder at the sudden swimming pool as we wandered about.

Margherita told us a bit about d’Alessandro. She said that until the 1980s they’d made fairly indifferent Sangiovese there, as people always had in Cortona; that they’d realised that their terroir was quite different from that of Tuscany’s famous Sangiovese-growing areas like Chianti and, with the help of some scientific investigation, determined that it was rather like that of France’s northern Rhône Valley; that they’d begun to experiment with different grape varieties, above all the northern Rhône’s favourite Syrah; and that they’d gone from making mediocre Sangiovese to making good Rhône-style Syrah.

If anything, Margherita modestly understated what d’Alessandro had done. The introduction of new grapes and approaches transformed Cortonese wine, with many other winemakers choosing to grow Syrah and other novel varietals, and the area being granted DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status in 2000 in recognition of its enormously improved wine. This was related in a matter-of-fact way, without any professional boasting or brand promotion.

They gave us two whites first, both made from Viognier (vee-on-yay), a grape generally associated with the Rhône. I watched JFD slyly out of the corner of an eye, because she likes her wine to be pale, lean and crunchy and Viognier is often golden and on the plump side, and its bouquet can be a little like walking through the ranks of perfume counters in a department store. But she didn’t say they tasted like someone had eaten a hothouse full of orchids and pissed them into a glass. She liked them.

If fact, we all enjoyed both the standard (Bianco del Borgo) and the superior (Fontarca) labels, although given the time of day, the absence of food, and the heat, I’m not sure we appreciated the extra complexity of the Fontarca. Both wines had a good bit of acidity to offset any potential unctuousness and give them a refreshing edge. On a hot day, or rather a hot morning, I’d have preferred something with a lighter touch, though; I tend to think of Viognier as an autumnal wine, perhaps because it goes well with pumpkin.

The Syrah rosato (rosé, which traditionally wasn’t made much in Italy) was the big surprise. We all liked it. It was clean and crisp with a nice mix of fruit and peppery spice. Not at all soupsweet, unlike the sort of wine that gives rosé a bad name in the UK, and an eye-opener for a couple of tasters who hadn’t drunk anything like it. Pretty damn good on a hot morning.

The reds are the silverbacks at d’Alessandro and we drank them last. We only tried two, the standard Borgo Syrah, which is mostly not aged in wood, and the prestige Il Bosco, which is aged for 12 months in barriques (small barrels) and 24 months in barrels (larger than barriques and influencing the wine less).

JFD was carried away by the conviviality, the atmosphere, her amiable chatter with Margherita about the best places to visit in Scotland, and tried the Borgo. Her cautious smile changed to a look of appalled surprise, which she tried to disguise by laughing. The rest of us were happier, though with ST I only discovered this a couple of days later when she suggested we order Borgo in a restaurant in Cortona. It wasn’t yet noon, but AFD’s affability was already immense.

As you’d expect from Syrah, both had dark fruit and a bit of biff and spice. They were decidedly savoury, with a certain enjoyable chewiness from tannins and acidity. I may be exaggerating this, though, because I have a fixed idea that Italians like their tannins and acid; it generally makes the wine good with food, and they say that that’s what it’s all about in Italy. It could also just have been because wine can feel a bit harder in the mouth in the morning. In any case, this probably made JFD’s rare experiment with red wine even more deplorable than normal.

I liked both wines plenty and thought that the Bosco had more finesse but above all was more complex. If the Borgo was an agreeable ham sandwich, the Bosco was a ham and provolone soufflé.

The tasting was very relaxed, with a brief introduction to each wine, a little conversation or not after, and no spitting out. There wasn’t any hard sell and in fact Margherita seemed pleasantly surprised when AFD said he wanted to buy a couple of cases. The gentleman handling the cases in the warehouse also seemed pleased, shaking our hands and introducing himself. We left liking Tenimente D’Alessandro and their wine. We knew this might be the friendly people, the setting and the early drinking, but when we sobered up we still liked them, and when we drank their wine again we liked that too.

Next stop: Avignonesi in Montepulciano.

The wines

Bianco del Borgo Viognier and Fontarca Viognier: pretty good for a hot morning, but better with food on a cooler day. Try with seafood pasta with saffron, or spicy Oriental food—hot Schezuan sea bass?—or autumn pumpkin dishes, or traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, with its mix of sweet and savoury.

Pepe Rosa (“pink pepper”) Syrah Rosato: excellently refreshing and could be served with crostini, meaty fish like a tuna steak, ham, etc, and I’d like to try it with pizza, eating it outdoors on a hot day.

Borgo Syrah and Il Bosco: like good Crozes-Hermitage and in the latter case perhaps Hermitage from the Rhône, with a touch of local style. A bistecca’s best friend and very well suited to the local meat and mushrooms.

A few other wines are made—see here.

Read about the second and final part of the tour

Paul Fishman (Il Toro, June 2014)

Fishman-bucketPaul is a freelance writer, editor and all-round ink-slinger; he’s also the managing editor of Alderman Lushington.

Website: Twitter: @fishmandeville