Do Magnums Taste Better?

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in: Drinking

Each year the three major Tuscan wine consortia of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino pool their resources and Rolodexes and invite over 200 international wine writers to Tuscany for five days. This year journalists came from countries as diverse as Brazil, South Korea, Israel and the Czech Republic. The object of the event is to taste and assess the new-release wines from each of these DOCG (controlled and guaranteed) denominations, and to meet and visit the wines’ producers. All three of these areas focus primarily on the great red grape, Sangiovese.

For the wine writers, it’s quite hard work. The first two days of the trip are held in Florence’s stylish converted Leopolda train station, where we sample the Chianti Classicos. More than 400 wines are available to taste from 152 estates, all arranged on a table as long as a swimming pool. Even to hard-nosed tasters used to sniffing, swilling and spitting dozens of wines per day, that’s a lot of wine to get through. After Florence, the caravan of critics moves south toward the hill towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino. The Montepulciano tasting always takes place on Thursday morning, followed by winery visits and dinners in the area. Friday and Saturday are given over to Montalcino and its wines.

Meals and cellar visits at Tuscan estates

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Wine bottles at Boscarelli opened for the comparative tasting, with the magnums at the rear. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Along the way, journalists are invited to additional tastings and meals in many Tuscan estates to spend time with the owners and visit the cellars. One of the most interesting of these private presentations this year came from Poderi Boscarelli, the small, prize-winning estate on the southeastern slopes beneath Montepulciano. Each year the Marchesi De Ferrari Corradi family organizes intimate vertical tastings in which three or four vintages of the same wine are compared, a useful way to learn about a wine and its variations.

This year the De Ferrari hit on an original way to test a small group of tasters. In the cozy living rooms of their country cottage, surrounded by vineyards, we each sat with six glasses of wine arranged in pairs on a table in front of us. Each pair was made up of one wine from the same vintage that had been aged in two different bottle sizes, one small, one large. The Boscarelli Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1990 Riserva, for example, had been served before our arrival from a magnum, or 1.5-liter, bottle as well as from the standard 750ml bottle. The writers were not told which was which. Our object was to see whether we could taste the difference.

Does bottle size matter?

“Producers and drinkers are always attracted by the larger formats of wine bottle, such as the magnum, for an added element of ceremony,” says Luca De Ferrari, who runs the estate with his mother and brother. “Wines are supposed to age better in the larger-bottle formats where the volume of liquid is greater. What better way to test this out is there than to ask experienced tasters to taste them blind?”

In addition to the ’90 Riserva, we were offered Boscarelli 1995, the estate’s “super-Tuscan,” as well as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1998. As we examined the wines, it became clear that one of each pair was indeed more vibrant and had livelier fruit and energy than its counterpart. Within a few minutes, the concensus among tasters was that there was a taste difference between the two pourings. Luca waited for everyone to finish taking notes before revealing which wines came from magnums, and which from the smaller bottles.

In every case, the wines that had been aged in the larger magnums seemed more youthful. When, in the second flight, he compared whole bottles with half-bottles, the result was similarly evident: The larger-sized bottles helped the wines develop more slowly, maintaining elegance and character better than their smaller cousins. A very interesting experiment that proves that the fountain of youth is contained in a large bottle!

For those interested in visiting the area, we stayed in three lovely hotels: the ultra-modern Hotel A-C Firenze beside the Leopolda station in Florence; the brand-new Etruria Resort and Spa just outside of Montepulciano, and the ever-welcoming family-run hotel that is everyone’s favorite in Montalcino, Hotel Il Giglio.


Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.

Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
Naples book
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.

Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.


Top photo: A sommelier at the long table of Chianti Classico wines at Leopolda Station in Florence.

Photo and slide show credits: Carla Capalbo

Also:

Tasty Italian Hospitality

The Contrasts of Wines in Puglia, Italy

Tuscan Vertical Tasting: The Wines of Fattoria Montellori’s flagship Salamartano

White Wines of Tuscany

Paris des Chefs Festival

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