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Super Wines

Maria and Neil Empson of Empson & Co, a leading exporter of fine Italian wine based in Milan, Italy (Photograph supplied)

Although they have not visited Bermuda for a couple of years, an incident this weekend past has put two of our oldest friends, Neil and Maria Empson, firmly in the thoughts of my wife and myself. Neil, a New Zealander, and his wife Maria, a Rhode Islander, opened their wine trading firm in Milan many years ago and represent many fine offerings in the Burrows Lightbourn line-up.

In 1981 they partnered with another couple to purchase a few acres plot in Tuscany and grafted low yield clones of Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, onto older Sangiovese vines to give extra depth to the wine. Wild boars consumed most of their very first crop in 1983 and so they used an old Tuscan name for these animals and called their Super Tuscan 90 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 per cent Merlot blend Cignale. Neil has always told me that an abundance of natural nitrogen in the soil bodes well for very long ageing and a few days ago I certainly proved that.

I carefully removed the cork from a three-litre (double magnum) of 1990 Cignale and after tasting and confirming that it was in fine shape, I poured it into four well rinsed Barefoot Pinot Grigio bottles and firmly corked them. Six of us shared one bottle. A very knowledgeable taster guessed ‘a well-aged St Emilion’ and another commented that they had never tasted a 32-year-old wine. I have difficulty describing very old Cabernet Sauvignon and suspect that we do not have the correct words in English. I like to think of all that has happened since these grapes hung on the vine. For instance, one four-year-old boy, now with his doctorate, teaches at a fine Canadian university and his then two-year-old brother is now involved in the manufacture of sintering equipment in the United States.

There are six sketches of wild hogs that appear in random on the labels, and they are done by artist Maria Empson. Only a few hundred cases are made each year and I have known for us to get up to 25 per cent of this very small production. Our current stock of 2013 Cignale received 94 points from James Suckling who wrote, “a big and ripe red with chocolate, coffee bean, toasted oak and a ripe fruit. Full body, layered and juicy. An intense wine. Better in 2019 when it softens”. $63 (Stock #9004).

The Empson’s also have the everyday price bracket in mind as well, in fact I recently bought three bottles of their 2016 Monte Antico, a Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. For a mere $18.70 you can have a 90 pointer from Suckling who comments, “a medium-bodied red with aromas and flavours of cherries, fresh herbs, citrus zest and red tea. Soft tannins and a fruity finish”. (Stock #9055).

I would be remiss if I wrote about Super Tuscans and did not include what is probably the most asked for one here and it is supplied by the Empson company who represent it internationally. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate has this to say: “ 2016 Terrabianca Campaccio (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) is robust and soft, peeling back layers of dark fruit, spice, leather and tobacco. This wine offers a high level of richness and concentration, however it does not feel heavy or too thick. The wine's fibre is firm and tight enough to pair with roast chicken or a hearty steak, either way. With 170,000 bottles made, you get good value here. 93/100.” $34 (Stock #9046). One day I will get around to opening a bottle of 1997 that I have stashed away.

2015 San Felice Vigorello is a blend of 35 per cent Pugnitello, 30 per cent Merlot, 30 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and five per cent Petit Verdot that garners 94/100 from Suckling and 93/100 from the Wine Advocate. The colour is dense garnet flecked ruby and the wine releases a medley of red currant, sweet spice, and pungent underbrush. It is warm and rich with smooth hints of vanilla, and I imagine it with lamb or well-aged cheeses. $52.50 (Stock #8957). Let me add that San Felice has an extensive programme of finding and developing ancient indigenous vines and they told me that Pugnitello was down to a single vine when they rediscovered it.

As I write about the last Super Tuscan today it occurs to me that either the owners or winemaker from each of the estates have been the house guests of my wife and myself. Although, except for writing this weekly article, I am now retired, but what memories of such lovely people.

I think of sitting under a trellis of flowering vines with Federica Mascharoni and her mother in their yard at Castello Volpaia and how this ancient, hilltop Tuscan hamlet and the surrounding nine hundred acres of organic vineyards, olive groves and woods is owned by this family. The Wall Street Journal has suggested that it is a must see place in Italy. You can stay there, dine there and of course taste their wines which they have made since 1172. In fact, they were a founding member, in 1250, of the Chianti League.

Recently, Wine Spectator magazine rated one of their Chianti Reserva offerings among the top three wines in the world, but for today let me share what this magazine wrote last year about their Super Tuscan 2017 Volpaia Balifico, “a juicy, black cherry-laced red, displaying fine concentration, balance and freshness. Dusty tannins gather on the finish, as do accents of oak spice. Shows fine harmony and complexity overall, though will benefit from a year or two of bottle age. Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Best from 2023 through 2038. 1,500 cases made, 175 cases imported." (94 points). The wine is supplied in six packs, so I calculate that only one bottle for every 314,000 inhabitants of the United States. Let me assure you that Burrows Lightbourn has more than one single glass to share among all of us here. $63 (Stock #8967).

This column is an advertorial for Burrows Lightbourn Ltd. Contact Michael Robinson at mrobinson@bll.bm. Burrows Lightbourn have stores in Hamilton (Front Street East, 295-1554) and Paget (Harbour Road, 236-0355). Visit www.wineonline.bm

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Published August 20, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated August 19, 2021 at 9:07 am)

Super Wines

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