Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
Many journalists believe that this well known Italian consulting enologist is captivated by international-styled wines using the Merlot grape variety. Indeed, the calling card of the Falesco winery, co-owned by Riccardo and brother Renzo, is Montiano, a 1OO% Merlot wine matured in small French barrels. Falesco is located in Montefiascone, in the region of Latium, with vineyards on the Latium-Umbria border. It is an area traditionally known for Sangiovese. Since the early 199Os when Montiano grabbed the spotlight as the most famous red wine of Latium, Merlot has come to share the stage with Sangiovese in repute if not in volume of production. Jonathan Nossiter, in his documentary Mondovino, caricaturized Michel Rolland’s counsel by the terse order “Micro-oxygenate”. A sequel featuring Cotarella might have tagged him with “Add Merlot”.
An “Add Merlot” tag, however,
would not do justice to this man.
His Curriculum Vitae builds like Ravel’s Bolero. Renzo and he started Falesco in 1979. Two years later, he started his independent consultancy when such a role was barely recognized in Italy. During the 199Os, he took on numerous high profile clients throughout Italy. More recently he added several Bordeaux chateaux. Meanwhile, Renzo became director of operations at Marchesi Antinori, leaving Riccardo to be the hands-on director of Falesco. In 1999, Riccardo began teaching at the University of Tuscia near Viterbo, attaining the position of fulltime professor of enology and viticulture. Since then he established an agricultural and enological consulting company. Ten young students from the University of Tuscia work under his direction. Over the years, he has presided over, and has been a member of, regional tasting commissions that oversee certification of Orvieto, Colli Amerini and Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC wines.
In February 2OO8, Riccardo Cotarella sat across the table from me at Dante’s Restaurant at the Hotel Sonesta in Cambridge. Between us were three brilliant yellow wines.
Cotarella set the stage for our conversation: “These are my most recent vintages of Roscetto. It is a very old variety indigenous to Latium. The name is probably derived from the Latin, russum, which means red. The skin becomes reddish when the grapes reach full maturity. In some areas, people called it Trebbiano Giallo because they mistakenly believe it is a close relative of the Trebbiano grape variety. Attilio Scienza, the famous vine researcher at the University of Milan, tells me that it is genetically similar to the Greco variety.”
“In our area, we called the grape “tostarello” because the grape is crunchy when you eat it. The skin is hard. It is even thicker than a red grape skin. (“Tosto” means hard in Italian. “Tostarello” means the hard, little one.) Farmers never liked it because each vine gives a low yield. They picked the grapes before maturity to avoid the red color and to reduce the risk of bad weather or disease. They did not want the pink color in their white wines. During the 196Os, the traditional mixed agriculture, which had vines running up trees, was transformed into fields of free standing vines dedicated to single varieties. Roscetto nearly disappeared during this time. What remained was allowed to be used, up to 5%, in the Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone blend along with Trebbiano and Malvasia. Roscetto interested me though. I have always dreamed of finding a white variety local to my area that could age. I adopted this variety to see what I could make of it. In 1992, I made my first experiments. My first Roscetto varietal wine, the very first one ever made, was the 1998 vintage. My students subsequently took a great interest in my work. Today many of them are planting vineyards dedicated to Roscetto.
“Before you, I have poured three vintages of Ferentano, the 2OO6, the 2OO5 and the 2OO4. Ferentano is the name I give to my Roscetto wine. I make only 9OOO bottles of it. What do you think?”
I leaned each glass back against the white tablecloth, looked at the ricochets of light caught within the crystal, and remarked: “The 2OO5 has the paler color. The yellow hue of 2OO4 and 2OO6 is so strong that these wines will attract attention in the marketplace, positive attention, because they are rich bright colors and not the amber tints of an oxidized or older wine. How did you get that color?”
Cotarella answered: “First, you have to ripen the grapes 15 days more days than the traditional picking date. The grapes turn pink at this point. But you have to do something more to release the yellow pigment into the wine. I cryomacerate (flash-freeze) the freshly picked grapes for a few seconds. The temperature drops from 86˚F to 23˚F. The cells in the skins explode and release the compounds that make the yellow color. Then I delicately press the grapes and start the fermentation.”
I put each glass up to my nose and inhaled slightly. I said: “I prefer the nose of the 2OO6. It has an exotic late harvest smell, a mix of hawthorn, quince, vanilla, butter, and caramel. The smell is heavy and rich but still fresh. The 2OO4 is similar but more clearly shows the evidence of new oak, not too much oak for the market, but too much for me. The 2OO5 is my least favorite. It has a slight wet wool character mixed in with the fruit. Perhaps the wine is a bit reduced. Also the oak peels away from the body of the wine which is lighter than the other two wines.”
Cotarella: “2OO5 shows the vintage. It was colder. It was difficult to ripen the grapes. They did not fully reach the pink stage. The bouquet too was less developed, making the oak more evident.”
Sipping each wine was next. I followed up: “The vintages show on the palate. The 2OO6 and the 2OO4 are denser than the 2OO5. They have weight and solidity that balance the firm acidity. I prefer the 2OO6 to the 2OO4. The stronger fruit character balances better the impact of the alcohol and also any bitterness or astringency that comes from the grapeskins or the oak.”
Cotarella: “Because the 2OO5 is a lighter wine, it is less able to support oak. I have tried to keep oak contact minimal, particularly contact with new, toasted oak. Midway through an alcoholic fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, I drain the wines into barriques. I have moved away from new oak barriques with a heavy toast. Today, I use second-use barriques that have never been toasted. The wines stay there in a cool temperature until the early winter or spring. Before I bottle the wines, the malolactic fermentation must finish completely and the wines must taste ready for bottling. The time in barrique with the lees, about 4 months, helps to soften the tannins of Roscetto, fix the color and develop the flavors. The acidity is firm, isn’t it? It shows the connection with Greco, also a grape with a lot of acid.”
At this point, we turned to the Falesco reds. I tasted a 2OO5, 2OO4, 2OO3 vertical of Montiano. The Falesco vineyards are on the Latium-Umbria border. The climate there makes the ripening of Merlot a challenge. The skins and seeds of Merlot ripen sometime from late August to the third week of September depending on the vintage. The grapes have to be picked quickly before the skins over-ripen. At this point, the sugar (potential alcohol degree) is on the high side and the acidity on the low. Over the years, Cotarella has done a masterful job of handling this variety here. The warming of the climate has not helped. Cotarella told me that 2OOO was the tipping point as far as the conditions for Merlot. Since that year, he tells me, that Merlot has “suffered” from the heat. Though the climate may have changed for Falesco Merlot, the ratings for the wine have not wavered much from scores such as 94 points out of 1OO.
“The impact of global warming has been enormous.” Cotarella underlined. “Where they are typically planted, Merlot, Ciliegiolo and Nero d’Avola harvests are becoming increasingly difficult to manage. The ripening weather is too hot for them. Other varieties such as Montepulciano, Aglianico, Nero di Troia, Piedirosso, Falanghina, Greco, Vermentino, and Grillo have benefited from the hotter conditions.” What’s good for the goose is bad for the gander.
I tasted the wines in reverse order, starting with the 2OO3. That summer sizzled with record high temperatures. The 2OO3 Montiano showed the heat. Nose showed some dried fruits. The mouth was soft, rich, but too alcoholic. In 2OO4, weather conditions were much better. It was cool enough to provide acid, yet warm enough to ripen the skins. Of the trio, this wine had the deepest color. The nose was mute. In the mouth, the wine had a solid backbone of astringency and tartness. The wine may be better in two or three years. The autumn of 2OO5 was too cool and wet to fully ripen the skins. The 2OO5 Montiano did not have aroma and body to balance its tart, astringent structure.
Falesco makes a good value varietal IGT Umbria Sangiovese. I tasted the 2OO6. It was deeper in color than most central Tuscany Sangiovese. For the smells, I wrote “earthy, tarry, leather-edged nose, and a heavier, bulkier, more tannic palate.” For those of you who like Sangiovese with heft and muscle, this may be your dream housewine come true. I, however, am a devotee of fresh, lively Sangiovese produced in cooler areas like Chianti Rufina and Chianti Classico. Each to his own.
Though Montiano has made the reputation of Falesco, Marciliano, a 7O% Cabernet Sauvignon-3O% Cabernet Franc blend, is now even better. 2OO4 was a fine year for the area. Cabernet Sauvignon is a heat resistant variety with a long ripening period. The 2OO4 Marciliano was nearly opaque. The nose reminded me of Port. Opulent super ripe juicy berries filled the glass. In my mouth, the wine had both huge size and elegance. Wool and silk. Alcohol, acidity and tannin combine in a way that defies description.
The meeting finished on a luscious, fruity note. The 2OO6 Pomele IGT Lazio Aleatico had a strong Aleatico character in the nose. Boiled cherries and pomegranates is the closest I can come to it. It was soft, sweet, yet refreshing on the palate. Aleatico vines benefit from proximity to the sea. The island of Elba is the most famous center of production. Falesco sites its Aleatico in the vicinity of Lake Bolsena in northern Lazio. Unlike Elba versions, the Falesco Aleatico grapes are not semi-dried after harvest. No raisin smells here. Chocolate pairs well with the Elba style. Cotarella warned that chocolate and sweet deserts will overwhelm it. Better with fresh fruit. Only 2OOO bottles were made.
In terms of appearance, nose and palate, Ferentano was the highpoint of the tasting. It shows how the marriage of a creative enologist and modern enology can unlock the beauty, uniqueness and quality of a neglected and an otherwise difficult-to-vinify grape variety. The Falesco winery, however, is better known for red wine, for its Merlot, Montiano. Climate change, however, has changed the game of viticulture. During the 199Os, Merlot was the super-grape of Central Italy. Though Montiano remains a worthy reflection of Cotarella’s talent, will climate change force him to look for a red variety that better suits the new climate? The Marciliano Cabernet waits in the wings. It impresses me more than the Montiano. Cabernet, however, like Merlot, is not traditional to the Umbria/Latium area. Perhaps there is a Cinderella dressed in purple quietly waiting for Cotarella with glass slipper in hand.