Gallo meets Da Vinci
Wine giant E. & J. Gallo - the industrial-strength California-based mega-corporation whose vinous output makes it the world's largest wine company with sales exceeding those of all but the top nine wine-producing nations - has added a line of serious Tuscan red wines to its bulging portfolio.
The Italian portion of this Italian-American family firm's wine shelf had heretofore been filled by producers Ecco Domani and Bella Sera, mass-market labels that have gained considerable popularity in the restaurant and supermarket niches but that fall below the radar screen for the upscale market.
The new line is labeled "Da Vinci" and is produced in Italy by wine maker Alberto Antonini at Cantine Leonardo da Vinci, a 200-vineyard Tuscan grower cooperative and winery. Gallo purchases much of its production for U.S. export.
The Da Vinci line will be more pricey but not as ubiquitous as Gallo's other Italian imports, ranging from 30,000 cases of the basic 2003 Da Vinci Chianti at a suggested retail price of $12 to just 1,000 cases of the high-end 2001 Da Vinci S.to Ippolito, an impressive Syrah-Merlot blend that's priced by the winery at $40, although the retail "street price" will likely be a bit less. (In contrast, Gallo moves 80,000 cases of the Ecco Domani Chianti into the U.S. annually at street prices in the $8 to $10 range, and some 100,000 cases of Bella Sera Sangiovese Toscana, also under $10.)
This move by Gallo strikes me as parallel to its development of the Gallo Sonoma line in California a decade ago: It seeks to fill a vacant spot in its portfolio with a new product that does not compete with an existing Gallo label but puts the company into a more upscale niche that it did not previously occupy. The Da Vinci wines started showing up in the U.S. this summer, but distribution remains spotty.
But enough wine-industry talk: How do the wines rate? I've sampled my way through all four of them in recent weeks, and as a fancier of Italian wines in general and Tuscan reds in particular, I have to say I'm pleased. The three Chiantis - typical of Gallo's higher-end wines - are straightforward, well-made and varietally correct, showing warm and amiable Chianti-style flavors, and they compete at appropriate price points within their niche. The S.to Ippolito, a pricey Tuscan made from "non-traditional" grapes, is an impressive wine indeed, with the caveat that it's made in an "international style" commonplace among its "Super Tuscan" competitors, a bold, full-bodied, fruity and oaky wine that's likely to score well with the big-name publications.
My detailed tasting notes follow. But first ...
SIDEBAR: HOW BIG IS GALLO?
Moreover, as noted, Gallo's sales trailed the entire national output of only nine wine-producing countries. Here's the ranking, based on Wine Institute's listing of national average production between 1997 and 2001:
France - 5.6 billion liters
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Four Da Vinci Tuscan reds
Da Vinci 2003 Chianti ($12) - This dark-ruby wine offers typical Chianti aromas of spicy black cherries, with flavors in an open, fruit-forward Chianti style, juicy and bright, tart-cherry fruit and warm cinnamon over plenty of mouth-watering acidity and a wisp of soft tannins. Under modern Chianti regulations, its Sangiovese base is filled out with non-traditional Merlot (10%) and Syrah (5%). It's good to get the 2003 over so quickly, and best to enjoy it while it's young and fresh. Matched well with juicy lamb burgers topped with fresh tomatoes and basil. (July 19, 2004)
Da Vinci 2001 Chianti Classico ($17) - Very dark garnet in color, this 100 percent Sangiovese Chianti breathes black-cherry and spicy oak aromas with grace notes of caramel and a warm tone that suggests an acceptable threshold level of volatile acidity not uncommon in Italian reds. Juicy plums and dried-fruit flavors are structured by lemon-squirt acidity; tannins aren't perceptible. Good food wine, as a Chianti should be; it made a fine pairing with charcoal-grilled free-range chicken. (Sept. 1, 2004)
Da Vinci 2000 Chianti Riserva ($20) - This inky blackish-purple wine, made 100 percent from Sangiovese, is almost opaque; brilliant garnet glints show against the light. Intense dried-cherry fruit gains depth from spicy oak; bright and full flavors follow the nose, ripe black fruit over snappy acidity, with a hint of fennel in the finish and soft but significant tannins to suggest some aging potential. Fine with food, it made an appealing match with a simple meat-sauced pasta dish of chopped pork in a light tomato sauce with onions, garlic and green olives over rigatoni. (Sept. 2, 2004)
Leonardo Da Vinci 2001 "S.to Ippolito" Toscana ($40) - Inky, blackish, opaque. Black plums, anise and a whiff of vanilla appear in the initial aroma impression, with fragrant black pepper and warm brown spices appearing after swirling in the glass. This equal blend of Merlot and Syrah makes a big, tooth-staining red, muscular fruit built on lemony acidity, with a background of smooth tannins cloaked by the fruit. Impressive but young; a few years of cellar time (or an appropriate red-meat food match) will serve it well. We enjoyed it with penne topped with a simple meat sauce of ground lamb and fresh tomatoes laced with fresh basil and oregano. (Aug. 23, 2004)
U.S. IMPORTER: Imported for E. & J. Gallo by DaVinci USA, Hayward, Calif.
FIND THESE WINES ONLINE: Widely available in the U.S., as Gallo is distributed in all 50 states. Elsewhere, look up Cantine da Vinci on Wine-Searcher.com:
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Friday, Sept. 3, 2004