August 24 2011
In the rolling hills of Tuscany the Frescobaldi family has been making wine for 30 generations and some 700 years. Yet, it was only in 1995, when the family aligned with the Mondavi’s, America’s first wine family, that a cross-continental collaboration was borne in Montalcino, an area within the Tuscan region famous for its Brunello, a 100% Sangiovese wine.
Luce della Vite, meaning “Light of the Vine,” is the resulting winery even as gyrations in the Mondavi family business have blunted the initial collaboration of the two families in jointly creating a world class winery. Now run exclusively by the Frescobaldi’s with investment from Michael Mondavi (and imported to the U.S. by Michael Mondavi’s Folio Wine Partners), their flagship wine, sourced from 29 DOCG certified acres, the 2006 Brunello di Montalcino, has been awarded a perfect 100-point score by James Suckling, former European Bureau Chief for Wine Spectator, now leading his own wine project at his eponymous web site.
This introduction would be apropos of nothing besides ornate wine writer affectations were it not necessary to create the milieu for what is an interesting convergence of issues in the wine world.
Encapsulated in this one wine, from an Italian wine family, formerly aligned with the scion of American wine and imported to the U.S. by his son and given a perfect 100-point score by a former critic with the Wine Spectator, many of the contemporary issues of the wine world can be examined and pondered…
• A 100-point score
Is there such a thing as a perfect wine? I’ll leave the question open-ended while noting that my own scoring only goes to 99. In the realm of subjectivity, can something like wine or art achieve perfection?
• The fallibility of wine criticism
Stephen Tanzer, another notable wine critic, gave the same wine 92 points. Wine Enthusiast scored it 93 points. Robert Parker’s Italian wine critic (and recently anointed California reviewer), Antonio Galloni, gave it a 90. While a 90, 92 or 93 is a good score, the difference between a 93 and a 100 certainly points to a margin spread that provides more questions than answers about the wine.
• Crossing the digital divide
Suckling, ex-Wine Spectator, is out of the paper magazine business and running his own web site with subscriptions, a business that is less than a year old. He has lived in Tuscany for a number of years and knows Brunello wines well. However, anointing 100-point wines isn’t something critics do lightly or without thought. So, when he declares that, “The 2006 vintage for Brunello di Montalcino is the new benchmark…” is he genuinely reviewing the vintage and the region’s most notable vintner or is this his attempt at market-making relevance akin to Robert Parker Jr.’s declaration of ’82 Bordeaux as “superb” when others weren’t as bullish?
• Critical scores affect on inelastic pricing
While so-called “cult” wines get a bad rap based on their stylistic profile, the reality is that prices are high because of scarcity – more people want to buy it then there is wine available to buy. Suckling’s 100-point score for the Luce Brunello is oft-repeated on numerous retailer web sites where the retail price has been raised from a suggested retail price of $89.99 to an average price of $127 based on Wine-Searcher.com data. Meanwhile, the 2005 Luce Brunello is being discounted and has an average price of $84 based on Wine-searcher.com data. It should be noted, that save for Suckling on the ’06, both wines were reviewed consistently with scores in the low 90s.
• A global style
It’s interesting to note that Suckling’s tasting note for the Brunello called it, “…A wine with soul.” Meanwhile Antonio Galloni noted, “The sheer concentration and depth of fruit are remarkable, but ultimately this comes across as a heavy, labored Brunello with limited finesse.”
So, which is it? Is it a soulful wine or one with limited finesse? The U.S. has the largest global appetite for Brunello with some reporting that upwards of 25% of all Brunelli produced is imported to the states. Given that, is the Luce Brunello made to appeal to more of a fruit-forward palate that is often found in the U.S., a style of wine that Wine Spectator and Suckling have lauded in the wake of Robert Parker, the so-called, global style?
I’ll save the full review of the wine for my Forbes.com column…in the meantime, I’m reminded that the conversations about the people, personalities, ideas and issues in the wine world are often as interesting as what’s in the glass and that’s certainly the case with the 2006 Luce della Vite Brunello di Montalcino, a 100-points for interest and conversational fodder and less for the actual wine. For me, that’s just perfect.