Friday, July 3, 2020

America's First Wine Expert

Foreword. Thomas Jefferson, a founder of this country, wrote that "all men are created equal," yet held hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. Jefferson was also a noted statesman, diplomat, astronomer, inventor, original thinker and our third U. S. president. While I recognize Jefferson's controversial legacy, the following essay is offered as a recognition of Thomas Jefferson: America's first wine expert. 

July 4, 1776 – On this day, 244 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, forever severing the American colonies from the British Crown.  The Committee of Five, which included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, met a few days earlier to draft the document.  John Adams, then the representative from Massachusetts, had asked Jefferson to write the declaration. 

                                            thomas-jefferson-portrait image - Free stock photo - Public Domain ...

It is not a stretch to imagine that Jefferson, a multi-talented man and America’s first wine expert, had a glass of Madeira at his elbow while he worked on the first draft.  Malmsey Madeira was, after-all, the wine of choice then in the Colonies. 

Madeira is a sweet fortified wine from an island of the same name in the Atlantic, about midway between Portugal and North Africa.  British trading ships en-route to India stopped at Madeira to take on new provisions including Madeira wine.  The wine soon became fashionable in England and was so popular in the Colonies that it was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Today, the United States is still a major export market for Madeira, although sales are small.

While he continued to enjoy Madeira, Jefferson’s natural curiosity sparked an interest in learning about indigenous grapes grown in Virginia and the Carolina's and expanding his knowledge of European wines. Thanks to friends and college tutors, Jefferson had already tasted wines from France, Germany and England, but his interest picked up with the construction of a new home. 

In 1772, Jefferson built Monticello in the neoclassical style on 5,000 acres of land outside Charlottesville, Virginia.  A year later, the Florentine horticulturist Filippo Mazzei came to Virginia to look for land for his Italian Vineyard Society.  Mazzei’s idea was to import Italian grape vines and vineyard workers and all he needed was land.  Mazzei and Jefferson had earlier corresponded and Mazzei was anxious to meet Jefferson in person.  Eventually, Jefferson gave land next to Monticello to Mazzei and a mutual friendship and working relationship was established.

                            The Best Views at Monticello | Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

About 200 years after the completion of Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello, native Virginian Jay Corley, named his Napa Valley winery in honor of Jefferson’s Virginia estate.  Corley built a one-third replica of Monticello on Big Ranch Road in the Oak Knoll District and named it Monticello Vineyards.  Monticello Jefferson Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon is the winery's top bottling.

Mazzei encouraged Jefferson to expand his plantings of various crops on the estate, including local grapes like the native Vitus labrusca “fox grape” and Scuppernong, a native grape of the Vitis rotundifolia species that grew along rivers in the south. Jefferson heaped praise on wine made from native grapes like Scuppernong, writing that its strong muscat aroma and flavor would be “distinguished on the best tables of Europe.”  He planted 287 vines at Monticello, including 24 European grape varieties, hoping to make wine from the European grapes.

Unfortunately, after many years of planting and experimenting, Jefferson had little success in the vineyard and the only wine made on the estate was from local varieties, including the Alexander grape, which impressed Jefferson enough to proclaim that it was “equal to Chambertin,” one of Burgundy’s top red wines made from the Pinot Noir grape.  Premium grape varieties, of the family Vitis vinifera, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, did not survive the vine pests and black rot common then in Virginia, not to mention the area’s harsh winters.

Undaunted, Jefferson encouraged his neighbors James Monroe and James Madison to develop their own vineyards, while he concentrated on developing his formal wine education, with the same devotion and enthusiasm he showed to other interests like astronomy and fine art. In 1785, George Washington appointed Jefferson Minister to France, a post held previously by Benjamin Franklin.  For the next four years, the erudite and curious Thomas Jefferson traveled throughout France’s wine regions and was the toast of Parisian society.  Jefferson’s new French friends and colleagues introduced him to Champagne and Bordeaux and broadened his knowledge of fine Burgundy. 

Paris Society Art Print by Max Beckmann
Paris society by Max Beckmann

While traveling in Italy, Jefferson sampled the great Nebbiolo reds of Barolo and Barbaresco and the red wines of Tuscany, some of which he was told about by his friend, Filippo Mazzei, himself a native of Tuscany.  Upon tasting a Nebbiolo-based wine in Piedmont, Jefferson said it was “about as sweet as the silky Madeira.”  But his favorite Italian red wine was Montepulciano, which he described as “superlatively good.”  Today, that Tuscan red is known as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. (See "The Many Faces of Montepulciano" blog, June 23, 2020.)

Jefferson built further on his European travels, establishing himself as a wine consultant and buyer for his friends and colleagues in the Colonies, remarking: “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”  Over the next few years, he traveled back and forth between Virginia and Europe, building his wine knowledge and establishing himself as the go-to-wine guy in Virginia and Washington.  When Thomas Jefferson became the third U.S. president in 1801, he was known for his extensive wine knowledge and for keeping a well stocked wine cellar in the White House.  Also, he helped lower taxes on wine, hoping that it would make the United States a wine-drinking country.

Thomas Jefferson’s major contributions to wine in America were his experimenting with native grapes and introducing Americans to European fine wines from France, Italy and Germany. 

Afterword. This short essay on America’s first wine expert is but a small part of the vast material on Thomas Jefferson, notably his interest in wine and the many other aspects of his life and learning that distinguished the man, warts and all.  To learn more, Google Thomas Jefferson, Monticello or the Jefferson Society.  


Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 4

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Monday, June 22, 2020

The Many Faces of Montepulciano

"One barrel of wine can work more miracles than a church full of saints."  Italian Proverb

In all the world's wine regions, there is confusion over the naming of some wine grapes; Is it Mataro or Mourvedre?  Depends on where you live; Aussies prefer the former, French the latter. In a class by itself, though, Italian wine has a confusing jumble of grape, wine and town names.

Along the Italian peninsula there is a single red grape known by many different names. In the Tuscan region of Chianti, the main red grape is called Sangiovese, while in the hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino, Sangiovese is known as Brunello. Vintners in Montepulciano, another hilltop town not far from Montalcino, refer to Sangiovese as Prugnolo Gentile. 

And then there's this head-scratcher: Montepulciano is the name of a town, the renown Tuscan Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and, wait for it, a red grape that is not grown in Tuscany.  However, the noble wine of Montepulciano is made from Prugnolo Gentile not the Montepulciano grape.  And if that's not confusing enough, in Abruzzo, on the Adriatic Sea, there is a popular red wine called Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, made from the Montepulciano grape.

Did you get all that?

No worries.  You can see from that little exercise, though, that the mix of Italian wines, grapes and town names can be as confusing as Italian politics.  A few simple guidelines will help sort out the differences between Montepulciano uva, Montepulciano vino and Montepulciano citta. 

The Montepulciano grape
In all of Italy, including the island regions of Sicily and Sardinia, there are 95 provinces, of which 20, mostly in central Italy, are suitable for the cultivation of the Montepulciano grape. The provinces of Abruzzo, Marche, Molise and Puglia, along the eastern side of Italy, on the Adriatic Sea, are where the Montepulciano grape is most widely planted.  

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Wine - Gathering a Landscape in a Glass
Montepulciano vineyard in Abruzzo

Montepulciano is a late ripener, thus the warmer planting zones in the center of the peninsula are best.  Farther north, closer to the Alps, the climate is too cool for the grape to ripen fully, and further south, in parts of Puglia, the Montepulciano grape can get overripe fast.  Nevertheless, growers always looking for new places to grow quality wine grapes, have found that the Montepulciano grape does reasonably well in landlocked Umbria and along the Tuscan coastline in Maremma.

When planted in an optimal area, Montepulciano produces wines deep in color, packed with fruit and supported by firm robust tannins. These qualities make Montepulciano a good addition to red blends needing a boost.

The Montepulciano wines
Despite the name similarities, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Montepulciano d'Abruzzzo wines are different. In fact, some would say the two wines have little in common. Let's take a closer look.                                                                                                                                                                       
                                                   Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ...

Sangiovese, Prugnolo Gentile; is this just a name difference or are the two grapes the same?  Depends on who you ask.  Locals say that Sangiovese grown in the vineyards around Montepulciano, gives a fuller wine with deeper color, than say, Chianti, but not as big and deeply hued as Brunello.

The taste of Sangiovese is often described as dark fruits like blackberry, with floral and herbal notes. Prugnolo Gentile in Vino Nobile is more dark cherries, sweet herbs, brisk acidity and full tannins.

Reliable Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Producers: Avignonesi, La Braccesca (Antinori), Ettore Falvo, Il Macchione, Poliziano, Di Ricci, Valdipatta
Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is a different wine, mostly because it is made from the Montepulciano grape and not Sangiovese.  The Montepulciano grape is a vigorous late-ripening variety with robust tannins and ripe flavors. The flavor profile is more rustic, although wineries in Abruzzo are working to refine Montepulciano's flavors. To that end, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Coline Teramare has earned DOCG status.

Reliable Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Producers: Cataldi Madonna, Centorame, Citra, Farnese, Pasetti, Valentini

The Montepulciano city 
Montepulciano, in the Tuscan province of Siena, has the distinction of being mentioned as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy.  Having been there a few times, I would agree.

Piazza Grande In Montepulciano, Italy Stock Photo, Picture And ...
Piazza Grande, Montepulciano

Sitting on a limestone ridge, at an elevation of about 2,000 feet, the town of 14,000 is about 77 miles from bustling Florence. The relative quiet of Montepulciano makes the distance seem much further. 

Like most small Italian towns, Montepulciano is chock-a-block with historic buildings, presented in a variety of architectural styles. Three hundred years before the 19th century unification, known as Risorgimento, Montepulciano boasted a large enough population to support three major churches. One of those, the Duomo, houses an historic triptych above its altar.


The proverb above is from "The Quotable Wine Lover," Kate Fiduccia, The Lyons Press 

Next Blog: America's First Wine Expert

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