Wine writers look for benchmarks—wines that resonate so forcefully within their category that they become emblematic of the category itself.
Such a wine is Cervaro della Sala, the iconic Chardonnay produced by the Antinori family in Umbria. First introduced to the market in 1985, it was a wine that broke all the rules: it was a Chardonnay produced in Orvieto; it had roughly 15% of Grechetto blended in for spice and raciness; it was modeled after the classic white Burgundies, yet reflected the unique terroir of the region. It is known for its elegance and finesse, its formidable mineral backbone, and its unusual ability to age.
I recently had the opportunity to sample a range of current and older vintages with Renzo Cotarella, now the Chief Winemaker and CEO of Antinori. Cotarella started at the Orvieto estate in 1979 and became “emotionally involved” with Cervaro; his belief in the wine, and his persistence with it, helped catapult it into the top range of Italian bottlings. Cervaro is made with skin contact, a controversial method for white wine in general and Chardonnay in particular. Some wine experts will tell you that highly extracted Chardonnays have a tendency to fall apart early in life, but with Cervaro this technique contributes to its ability to stand the test of time.
We began with the current vintage, 2009 ($45), which was young and brash, displaying a bright palate imprint of green apple, citrus and spice. The 2001 exhibited slight signs of oxidation but was clean and fresh in the mouth, with good balancing acidity and prominent flavors of pear and lemon. The 1999 was absolutely amazing, a wine of both character and charm—powerful and concentrated, infused with minerals, spice and hints of candied citrus. More surprising still was the 1988, which had a succulent, full-bodied mouth feel, remarkably alive and vibrant for a 23 year-old Chardonnay.
The evening concluded with a half-bottle of 2007 Mufato ($50), a blend of five grapes varieties, three of which were affected by botrytis. The wine had a concentrated sweetness balanced by excellent acidity and was ripe, rich and refreshing. According to Cotarella, Orvieto began 3,000 years ago as a sweet wine made with botrytis-affected grapes, and the Mufato provided yet another link to the past.