I have a confession to make: I am a sentimental fool. I mostly think of myself as a very unromantic, straightforward, no-bullshit person, with few illusions about myself or the world. But this is quite likely a total illusion, for I am a complete sucker for greatness. True, sheer, unadorned, unadulterated greatness. I simply cry when confronted with it: One look at a picture or footage of Muhammad Ali roaring “I shook up the world!” after having beaten Sonny Liston has me in tears. Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream” gives me difficulty breathing. Reminiscing about Brian Lara’s 400-not-out against England at Antigua has me sniffling. Earth Wind and Fire performing “In the Stone” gets to me every time. When I first held my newborn children and looked them in the eyes, I bawled like a baby.
And sometimes, I have such moments with wine. Allow me to tell a couple of stories.
In early-september 1992, I had an unusually good day. I had borrowed a bicycle at Hotel Barolo and cycled up to Castiglione Falletto, where I had made an appointment with Aldo Conterno to taste his wonderful Barolos. The bicycle was not in great shape, so when my visit came to an end and we went back into the courtyard the tyres were rather flat. The great man noticed this and proceeded, as the most natural thing in the world, to patch up the tyres and pump them full of air. I couldn’t believe that one of the greatest men in my wine world would just do that, but he merely scoffed at my weak protests and finished the job, then sent me on my way.
I happened to have made my next appointment that day with his brother, Giovanni, maker of the greatest Barolo there is, Monfortino. Once at the cantina in Monforte, we proceeded to taste the full range of wines, ending with a bottle of Monfortino which was so immensely, unbelievably fantastic I just sat there and cried. I had to explain that since I was on a bicycle, and had arrived with my now-wife-then-girlfriend by train, I had no room for any wine, so couldn’t buy any of his great wine. Unperturbed, Giovanni went in the back and came out with a one-bottle carton that he insisted I bring with me, under strong admonitions that I must not open the carton until I came home to Denmark. When I did arrive home, it turned out he had given me a bottle of his legendary 1974 Monfortino, one of the greatest wines ever made. I just stood there and cried once again. And every time I think of that day and those two great men, brothers and mythical winemakers, and now both sadly dead, my eyes water and I start sniffling. Monfortino continues to have that effect on me, and for instance I still remember when in 1995 we tasted Monfortino 1988 from cask, and I just had to surrender my faculties to pure emotion again. That wine on that day – and then in that company – remains the single greatest wine I have ever tasted.
Other moments of wine greatness have come courtesy of Gianfranco Fino and his amazing Primitivo di Manduria Es. I still remember vividly the first time I tasted Es. This was at Vinitaly 2008, and I had camped at the Apulian bar and proceeded to taste every single primitivo they had available. I had long harboured a fascination for the potential of primitivo, and had drunk with joy some of the great Primitivo di Manduria wines made by Gregorio Perrucci and partners during the nineties and noughties, notably the Dunico 2000 and 2005. However, guided by some of the great zinfandels made by Ridge in California, and some inexplicable sense that Apulia could do even better due to terroir and a greater sensitivity towards the importance of letting that terroir shine through, I had long felt that there was some elusive but ultimate primitivo to be made in Apulia. After the ordeal of dozens of good, bad and so-so primitivos, I then suddenly sat with Es 2006 in the glass, and suddenly my notion of true greatness had become reality. Finally, the holy grail of primitivo-dom filled my nostrils and palate with ultimate power yet refinement and a huge sense of terroir. And suddenly, I felt my eyes go moist again. The sommelier behind the bar sensed my emotional state and proceeded to lead me to a stand where I could speak with Gianfranco’s wonderful wife and muse Simona Natale about this new wonder. An emotional conversation ensued, during which the immense passion of the proprietors shone through in the person of Simona.
Gianfranco and Simona have gone on to ever greater heights, and famously have pulled off the hitherto unbelievable feat for an Apulian wine of having their Es 2010 unanimously voted best wine in the 2012 Italian wine guides. I am also glad and humbled to say that we have become great friends, which of course does nothing for my impartiality, but makes me happy.
When I encounter true greatness in wine, my tasting notes tend to degrade into gibberish. So when I sat down with Gianfranco and Simona at Vinitaly 2012 and tasted the Es 2010, this is what I managed to jot down between flicking away tears and blowing my nose repeatedly:
Gianfranco Fino Primitivo di Manduria Es 2010
The usual wild mix of fruit, structure, spices and minerals to the power of 10; insane nose. Ditto in the mouth, soft but elegant, wild extract, beautiful balance. Mega-long and fragrant with the entire spectrum. Iconic.
Now that won’t help you very much in terms of what it smells and tastes like, but sometimes words just aren’t enough. Sniff.