More than 20 of Houston's top wine professionals gathered yesterday at the weekly meeting of the Houston Sommelier Association. The occasion was an advanced seminar and guided tasting with winemaker Alessandro Bindocci from the Tenuta Il Poggione, iconic producer of Brunello di Montalcino and one of the appellation's oldest wineries.
Attendees included three Houstonians who are poised to become Master Sommeliers within the next 12 months: Steven McDonald (now wine director at the flagship Pappas Brothers Steakhouse); HSA co-founder Ben Roberts of Masraff's; and HSA co-founder David Keck of Camerata, the venue generally used for the association's tastings and where yesterday's event was held.
(The Court of Master Sommeliers is considered by many to be the world's most prestigious guild for wine professionals; the admission process submits candidates to a grueling series of examinations that cover wine service, blind tasting and -- the most unforgiving of all -- theory.)
Although the "vertical flight" -- the set of different vintages of the same wine -- was incomplete thanks to the government shutdown and bottles (the 2003 and 1999) that had been waylaid by an overburdened and understaffed customs agency, association members and auditors tasted the Tenuta Il Poggione's Rosso di Montalcino 2011, the Brunello di Montalcino 2008, the Brunello di Montalcino 2008 Riserva Paganelli (single-vineyard designate) and the Brunello di Montalcino 1985 Riserva.
Over the course of one and a half hours, Bindocci, together with Roberts, Keck and McDonald, led a spirited seminar that covered the Brunello controversy of 2008 (when Italian authorities indicted and convicted more than a handful of Brunello producers for adulterating their wines with the addition of grapes other than Sangiovese; the Tenuta Il Poggione was not among them); the current debate within the Brunello consortium on the creation of official "sub-zones" within the appellation, to be based on macroclimate and soil type; and the effects of climate change on the vineyards' vegetative cycle and the nature of the wines they produce.
"Do you see direct impact from climate change?" asked one of the attendees.
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"Definitely, yes," answered Bindocci, who noted that the harvest now comes much earlier than it did when his father, Fabrizio, became the estate's chief winemaker, in the late 1970s.
Despite the challenges of generally warmer temperatures, he said, they are able to maintain the acidity-driven style of their "traditionalist" Brunello thanks to the high elevation of their vineyards (keeping them cooler) and their age. The older vines have deeper roots, he explained, and thus are able to find the water table even in times of "hydric stress."
The high level of dialogue and the caliber of the guest speakers, remarked one of the Houston-based wine writers in attendance, underscore the Houston Sommelier Association's commitment to wine education for local restaurant professionals.
"This is just another example," he said, "of how Houston is rapidly becoming an epicenter for fine wine in the U.S. today."