Friday, June 15, 2018

San Felice Wine Dinner at Il Casale: Chianti Classico to the "Little Fist"

Tuscany is a historically rich area, and many famous personages lived in, passed through and/or enjoyed the Chianti and/or Chianti Classico region. From the famed poet Dante Aligheri to the extraordinary Leonardo da Vinci, from Amerigo Vespucci (where we derive the name America) to Giovanni da Verrazzano (the discoverer of Manhattan), from Galileo to Machiavelli. Michaelangelo was especially fond of the wines of this region and gifted some of their wines to the Pope. Plenty of ordinary people have passed through this area too, including myself, and it was sheer pleasure to witness the beauty of the region and enjoy their compelling cuisine and wines.

Earlier this week, I was invited as a media guest to attend a Tuscan-inspired wine dinner at il Casale Belmont, showcasing the Chianti Classico and Brunello wines of San Felice Winery. Chef Dante de Magistris and his brothers, Filippo and Damian, co-own il Casale, an Italian restaurant which opened back in 2009 in Belmont on the site of a former firehouse. Belmont is their hometown and when the firehouse was in operation, it once made a call to a fire at the de Magistris home.

Chef Dante and his brothers have just opened a new restaurant, The Wellington, located across the street from il Casale. As Chef Dante and his brothers are rather busy with this new endeavor, Chef Daniele Baliani (pictured above) took the lead on presenting the cuisine for this wine dinner. Daniele has worked with Chef Dante and the entire team on and off for 24 years at both il Casale Belmont and Lexington. Daniele started his career back in 1987 and spent some time studying and working in Tuscany.

The demand for this dinner was so high that the restaurant shut down regular service for the evening, hosting only the wine dinner. Now, when you have so many people, over 100, all enjoying the same dishes, at the same time, there is always a slight worry that it will overwhelm the kitchen, and that your dishes will be less than hot when they reach your table. However, that was not the case at all, as each dish we enjoyed was at an optimal temperature. Their professional kitchen is obviously well experienced in dealing with such crowds and know exactly how to handle the situation. Overall, the dinner was superb, with excellent food, wines, and service.

The event offered a five course dinner, paired with Chianti and Brunello wines, and presided over by Marco Secola (pictured above), a native of Florence, Italy, and the U.S. East Coast brand ambassador for San Felice Winery. Besides speaking on the microphone, so everyone could hear his comments, Marco also made sure to stop by all the individual tables at least a couple times, for a more personal talk about the wines and the winery, including showing photographs of the beautiful estate.

The village of Borgo San Felice extends back to at least 714 AD though the Pieve San Felice, a church, traces its root back to the ancient Etruscans. A "pieve" was originally a rural church with a baptistery, though it later also referred to the larger community based around that church. Throughout the Middle Ages, the village of San Felice was frequently the site of battles between the cities of Florence and Siena. Finally, in the 18th century, the village became the noble of the Del Taja family, who were based in Siena. One of their descendants, Giulio Grisaldi Del Taja would become a founder of the Consorzio del Chianti Classico in 1924.

During the 1970s, the land and vineyards in San Felice were acquired by the Allianz Group, an insurance and investment corporation. They invested heavily into creating a state of the art winery, though ensuring sustainability was an important objective. They now have a total estate of about 650 hectares, extending over two territories, Chianti Classico and Montalcino. Within Chianti Classico, they own over 140 hectares of vineyards, as well as about 17,000 olive trees. In Montalcino, they own the Campogiovanni estate, with 20 hectares of vineyards.

They are also involved in experimentation, especially concerning the biodiversity of vines. In their Vitiarium, they have been cultivating and studying about 270 grape varieties for about 30 years, seeking those which might grow best in their terroir and trying to save others from extinction. This is impressive research, well needed, and their results could benefit many other wineries in Italy, as well as elsewhere.

We began the evening with an aperitif of a glass of 2016 San Felice Perolla Vermentino ($15), which is made from 95% Vermentino and 5% Sauvignon Blanc. The wine matures on the lees for a month and then ages in the bottle for an additional two months. The wine is fresh and crisp, with pleasant tastes of grapefruit and lemon, with hints of tropical fruits on the finish. It is an easy drinking wine, intended to whet our appetites for what was to come.

The next wine of the evening was the 2017 San Felice Perolla Rosato ($12), a blend of 65% Sangiovese and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, made in the saignee process. It had an alluring aroma and was pure deliciousness on the palate. Light bodied, crisp and dry, with bright red fruits (especially strawberry) and a savory touch. Refreshing and an excellent summer wine, it would also pair well with a variety of foods. And at this price, it is a very good value too. I plan on buying maybe a case of this wine to enjoy during the summer.

The First Course of the evening was Insalata di gamberetti con fagioli su bruschetta al pomodoro, olio al basilico (Rock shrimp salad with cannellini beans on tomato bruschetta with basil oil).
Tuscans love cannellini beans, and they were tender, enhancing the taste of this dish, with the small shrimp, bright tomatoes, and basil notes. A good blend of textures and flavors, this went well with the Rosato. Off to a very positive step.

The Second Course, and my absolute favorite of the night, was the Fusilli fatti in casa con ragù "bianco" di carne e salamino di cinghiale (Handmade fusilli with "white" meat ragù and diced wild boar salami). This "ragu bianco" is traditional mostly in northern Italy, including Tuscany, and it is made with cream rather than tomatoes. This was simply a perfect dish, with homemade pasta cooked just right, plenty of savory and tender meat, a touch of earthiness, and a cream sauce that added plenty of flavor. The sauce was neither cloying or overly heavy, and I could easily have devoured a couple more plates. Each bite was scrumptious and this dish probably will end up as one of my top ten dishes of 2018. It is rare to see a ragu bianco at local restaurants, and that really needs to change if this dish is an example of what can be created. (And the recipe for this fine dish will soon be made available!)

With the Fusilli, we had two wines, both Chianti Classico. First, there was the 2014 San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva ($25), made from 100% Sangiovese, which spent about 24 months in oak, 20% in small barriques, and 1 year in the bottle. It was made in a more traditional style, which is my preference, and was quite good, with good acidity, notes of cherry and black fruit, mild spice notes, and low tannins. It was delicious, but definitely does best when paired with food, especially meat or a hearty dish. To me, this is an example of a very good traditional Chianti Classico.


The second wine was my personal favorite of the evening, the stellar 2014 San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($50). In 2013, the Gran Selezione designation was created, intended to represent the pinnacle of quality, akin to a Grand Cru, and it has different regulations than the Riserva category. Gran Selezione must be at least 80% Sangiovese, the rest chosen from a small group of approved grapes. It must also be aged for at least 30 months, rather than the Riserva 24 months. This new designation has been enmeshed in some controversy but it appears to be here to stay and we should be judging the wines on their merits.

This Gran Selezione is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, with the rest a blend of indigenous grapes including Abrusco (for color), Pugnitello (for structure), Malvasia Nera (for aroma and fruit), Ciliegiolo (for aroma and fruit) and Mazzese (for spice). The wine was barrel aged for about 24 months, 50% in large Slavonian oak casks and 50% in 225 and 500 liter French oak barriques. It then spent about 8 months aging in the bottle.

This was a WOW wine, impressive and compelling. The aromas seduced my nose, giving evidence of the quality that I would find within the wine. On the palate, it was silky smooth, with plenty of complexity, including ripe plum, black cherry, mild spice notes, hints of earthiness, and wisps of additional flavors that seemed to flit in and out. Well-balanced, fine acidity, and a lingering, satisfying finish. It was the epitome of elegance and well worthy of the designation of Gran Selezione. This is a wine to slowly savor over the course of an evening, relishing each sip, finding new flavors within each taste. It is worth its price, and I bought two bottles during dinner. And I probably should have bought more. My highest recommendation!


The Third Course was a Quaglia Arrosto alle erbe aromatiche, cous-cous al pistacchio, molasse di melograno (Roast quail with aromatic herbs, pistachio couscous, and pomegranate molasses). Another excellent dish, the quail had tasty crispy skin, and was tender, flavorful and meaty, with few bones. And the nutty couscous was a fine addition to the quail. Quail definitely has a different taste than chicken, and the chef made a great choice in opting for it. Quail is popular in Tuscany and should be more popular locally too.

With the quail, we enjoyed the 2013 San Felice Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino ($65.00), made from 100% Sangiovese. The wine spent 3 years in Slavonian oak and 500 liter tonneaux, and then 12 months in the bottle. It was bold but elegant, with intense black fruit flavors, moderate spice notes, and moderate tannins. It was complex, savory and delicious. A fine example of what Brunello can offer. This wine will age very well, and didn't overwhelm the quail.

The Fourth Course was Wellington di manzo con spinaci, salsa al tartufo nero con gratin di patate tartufate (Beef Wellington with sautéed spinach, black truffle sauce and truffled potato gratin). This course was in honor of their new restaurant, The Wellington. The pastry was flaky and buttery, and the beef came out perfectly medium rare, enhanced by the subtle truffle sauce. The beef was tender and flavorful, meaty with a nice intensity. And the potato gratin was tender, cheesy and quite scrumptious.


Accompanying the Wellington was the 2013 San Felice Pugnitello ($55.00), made from 100% Pugnitello, an indigenous grape whose name means "little fist." This grape was nearly extinct but a vine was found on a small farm and sent to the University of Firenze in 1981. DNA testing indicated this vine had no known relationship to any other grapes. The University then collaborated with San Felice, which planted the vine, and it turned out Pugnitello was the most successful of over 250 grapes that San Felice had under experimentation. The grape acquired its name as the clusters resembled little fists.

San Felice's first release of a Pugnitello wine was in 2006, and they currently only produce about 500 cases of it each year. This wine spent about 18-20 months aging in 225 liter French oak barriques and then 8 more months in the bottle. It was made more in an international style. It has a deep, dark color and on the palate, the black fruit flavors are intense, accompanied by strong spice notes, vanilla, and hints of leather. It also has moderate tannins, good acidity, and is muscular yet still elegant with a long, long finish. It pairs well with beef and I certainly would like to try other examples of Pugnitello,  as at least a couple other wineries now make wines from this grape.


The Fifth Course, our dessert, was Cantucci tipici della Toscana....per intingere (Tuscan style almond biscotti....to dip in the Vin Santo) and Tartufi al cioccolato per la tavola (Chocolate truffles for the table). The biscotti, dipped in the wine, was pleasant though it was the truffle that captivated me, with its rich chocolate and creamy interior.

The San Felice Belcaro Vin Santo ($25.00/375ml) is a blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, which ages for 10-15 years in small, oak barrels. It is sweet, but balanced with strong acidity, and has intriguing Sherry notes, with flavors of caramel, dried fruit, citrus and salted almonds. A fitting end to this excellent evening.

I'll note that all of the San Felice wines are available from Cuvée Fine Wines, a Belmont wine shop located close to il Casala.

il Casale held an impressive wine dinner, delivering well on all levels. The food was compelling, the wines were interesting, and the service was exceptional. If you haven''t dined at il Casala before, then now is the time to change that. And you really should seek out the wines of San Felice, especially their Rosato and the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione.

Now, I need to check out the new The Wellington,

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