01 April 2015

n.d.p. in sardinia: tenute dettori

It's hard not to have strong reactions to the dense, craggy wines of northern Sardinian estate Tenute Dettori. My own feelings are tinged with nostalgia, because Dettori's wines used to fascinate me back when I worked as a sommelier at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. It being California in the mid-2000's, we had a proportion of clients whose palates were accustomed to strong, hot-climate wines, to whom even a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or a Nero d'Avola would scan as middleweight and mild. (The list was all-Italian.) To such fellows - for they were invariably men - I would suggest Dettori's reds. 

The estate's "Tenores," "Tuderi," and "Dettori" cuvées routinely climb into the upper-teens of alcohol content, and they all show a brooding, mouth-conquering complexity that defies any accusations of lightness. Even if my guests proved unprepared for the wines' savoury notes or the various flaw-like zig-zags associated with low-sulfur winemaking, they nonetheless never failed to perceive that something somehow important was occurring on their palates. I rarely had bottles returned, even though the guests had asked for pleasure and I'd served them, instead, a puzzle. 

Puzzled is what I remain about the wines, even in the wake of the delightful press trip to the estate in Sennori that my friend the wine agent Emma Bentley organised for myself and several more notable wine writers this past October. Winemaker Alessandro Dettori is accomplishing so much: preserving the island's ancient viticultural tradition, maintaining his family's meticulous respect for their local terroir, reviving marginal native grape varieties, not to mention, of course, making serious wines that demonstrably improve with age. But with these accomplishments comes a final challenge that remains, for the moment, unanswered: how to make these strange, strong, majestic Romangia reds fit the context of a meal, or, for that matter, contemporary drinking among non-Supermen. 

What I mean is, if you have five jolly wine professionals on a free trip someplace, and night after night they prove themselves continually reticent or unable to finish bottles, something is amiss. Even aided by the marvelous cuisine of the Tuscan chef of Dettori's agriturismo, Luca Galli, we all seemed constantly to be reaching for refills not of the reds, but of the "Dettori Bianco," a lightly-macerated (1 week) Vermentino that usually shows a more modest 14% alcohol. The younger bottles we drank were bristly, full-fruited, occasionally lumpen - not my favorite style of Vermentino, but honest and satisfying.* From the estate's 3ha of Vermentino, Dettori produces this white, and another, the pleasant but structureless "Renosu Bianco," which contains some Moscatellu.

The estate's lower-priced "Renosu" range is completed by the "Renosu Rosso," which, in a blind tasting of Cannonau with Allessandro Dettori and the other writers (on which more later), I made the rather hilarious faux-pas of loudly denouncing. (I called it "jittery and weird, like a bad Bonarda-Pinot Nero blend from Emilia.")

I might as well justify myself here. To me it seems clear that the grandiosity and power of Dettori's principal wines is directly reflected in the muddled, unambitious nature of the Renosu range, which is composed of the grapes deemed unworthy for the former. (Alessandro and his father Paulo personally hand-sort all the grapes.) The "Renosu" range wasn't exported to the USA at the time I was buying Italian wine, but I do encounter it in Paris now and then. It would be a shame for it to be one's introduction to Dettori. Interestingly, some friends of mine once independently visited the estate's agriturismo, and reported that all they were ever served was "Renosu."

The agriturismo.

Given the exacting care that goes into production of Dettori's titanic principal wines, I can't help feeling some level of Fitzcarraldo-syndrome is going on. Klaus Kinksi's character in Werner Herzog's film attempts to drag his ship over a mountain, and is duly punished by fate for having defied nature.

Far be it from me to imply that Dettori, who practices biodynamy of the Australian school and who uses no sulfur during vinification and avoids it "ninety-nine percent" at bottling, is not making natural wine. But even the most natural wines are subject to the great human intervention that is marketing strategy. In Dettori's case, he builds these maniacally huge, expensive reds, hoping to sail them over the mountain of the international wine market, and sells the "Renosu" locally. Whereas it might be better to offer, internationally, more of a gradation in price and quality, not to mention lightness. To build smaller, more transportable ships, as it were.

That said, I can't presume to know all the factors that influence Dettori's decisions. I am left with assessing the winery as it is, and the wines as they are. The former remains very inspiring, and some of the latter are indeed excellent.

Alessandro Dettori with old vines whose fruit makes up the "Dettori."

The estate has been around since at least the time of Alessandro Dettori's great-grandfather, who planted the 3ha of ungrafted Cannonau vines whose fruit now makes up the "Dettori" cuvée.  Tenuta Dettori as a whole extends 33ha. The estate is certified biodynamic since 2003, although Dettori chooses not to push that idea too hard on his wine labels; as with most Burgundy winemakers, he prefers the quality of the wines to speak for itself. (The labels, I might add, belong to a previous generation of Italian wine. They look like sleek Super-Tuscans.)

I'd long understood the estate to practice biodynamic viticulture, but it was only at a tasting in Paris a few year ago that I learned they avoided sulfur use, and that, along with Elisabetta Foradori, Emidio Pepe and others, Dettori were among the first major Italian domaines to have self-identified as part of an international natural winemaking community (at least in their interactions with the French wine market.)

Dettori plows with tractors, feeling the best approximate the traditional method of using cows to plow. Horses aren't strong enough to plow as deep down as he likes (80cm). 

Isn't it amusing, how hedgy I get, when discussing natural wine marketing? All I know is that in Los Angeles in the mid-2000's, no one sold these wines as natural wines. That is how fast the conversation is changing.

For Tenute Dettori, at least, only the conversation changed, not its winemaking practices. The estate has always hand-harvested, has never used select yeast. Dettori forswore sulfur use during vinification from 2003. All aging occurs in picturesque sky-blue cement tanks of sizes that vary depending upon which generation purchased them. Some are enameled, others are not, depending on the age and porosity of the tank. Reds are held two years in tank before release, partly, says Alessandro, as a manner of quality control.

When we arrived at the cellar, Paulo Dettori was just putting some Cannonau through the de-stemmer. The free-run juice is rich, basso, smokey - one almost has the impression it already contains a trace of alcohol. Alessandro affirms that he always destems his reds, otherwise the wines show too much tannicity.

Dettori's habit of employing nomi di fantasia for all their cuvées, regardless of whether the cuvée in question is parcel-specific, can be confusing. It derives, in part, from a spirit of protest against the backwardness of a DOC system that offers the entire island the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, but which places the more terroir-specific region of Romangia at mere IGT status. Alessandro explained that Romangia is home to the largest vineyard area in Sardinia, but that 600ha of it belong to large-scale producer Sella & Mosca, who presumably find it easier to brand their wines as simply Sardinian.

So Dettori's five dry reds, all from Romangia, bear fantasy names. Most distinctive are two cuvées composed of marginal varieties, the "Chimbanta," from the Monica grape, and the "Ottomarzo," from the Pascale grape. I have a strong preference for the latter. The Monica grape shows a tendency towards volatile acidity, and the "Chimbanta" is no exception. I'm able to overlook a whiff of VA in kittenish Loire reds, but the "Chimbanta" clocks in around 16% alcohol, depending on the vintage, so drinking it is like being played with by a young lion. The 2011 had a foxy, tannat-like nose. I found myself wondering how the grape would show if vinified as a sparkling red.

The "Ottomarzo," on the other hand, is lovely just the way it is. Named after Allessandro's grandfather's birthday, it scans, in its youth, like a righteously ripe Pineau d'Aunis, bright with blueberry, black pepper, and saline notes. The 2011 tasted like Jean-Pierre Robinot's "Concerto," if that cuvée's fruit were as loud and Italianate as his shirts.

Meanwhile, a 2003 "Ottomarzo" Alessandro opened was among the highlights of the visit, a nose of strawberry confiture and dried flowers, with a persistent, though relatively unchanging, fruit-leather palate. It reminded me vaguely of certain older bottles of Freisa.

Dettori's three Cannonau cuvées are, in ascending order of price and scarcity, "Tuderi," "Tenores," and "Dettori." I'll admit to having trouble discerning much substantive difference between the first two, although I gather that "Tenores," a blend of the two differently-composed vineyards on either side of the estate's driveway, is considered to be the more age-worthy of the two. Both arrive at between 16% and 19% alcohol, depending on the vintage. Current vintage "Tenores" didn't overly betray its booziness on the nose, but its palate was distinctly porty, with a light rosiness amid the long, full tannins, and perhaps a buried note of VA.

Alessandro rightly declares the cuvée bearing his family name to be an exercise in "culture anthropology," a self-conscious attempt to make an antiquated style of wine. In introducing the wine, which often contains traces of residual sugar, he reminded us that it was "like Barolo in 1899, a sweet wine." Fruit for the wine derives from the estate's oldest vineyards, ungrafted vines originally planted in 1883. The 2011, like other vintages we tasted, was lighter in colour, indeed more Nebbiolo-like, at least visually. It showed a scaldingly hot nose, and tasting it was like being pegged in the mouth with a clove the size of a softball. There was, nonetheless, a widescreen aspect to the wine, a sense of grandeur, some cedary complexity.

I can admit to being drawn to the courage it takes for a winemaker to produce a wine as an exercise in cultural anthropology. The greatest wines are always vehicles for cultural information, transmitting not just the skill of the winemaker or the characteristics of the vintage, but the whole pre-industrial tradition of wine and cuisine in the life of the surrounding region. (I'm reminded of Mâcon winemaker Julien Guillot's terrific "Cuvée 910," which reprises the ancient Cluny monk winemaking practice of blending Chardonnay into their Gamay and Pinot Noir.)

Happily, the 2000 vintage of "Dettori" easily lived up to its ambitious narrative. Its cigar-like nose, its notes of dark chocolate, sweet tea, and beef bouillon, its relative balance on the palate went a long way towards illuminating an ideal role for Dettori's strange creations. It was assuredly a vino di meditazione, something for the end of a meal, or the end of an evening - but one which could provide enough to talk about until morning. (Provided one could still form sentences after a few glasses.)

* A magnum of 2004 "Dettori Bianco" we consumed out on the town one night was significantly better. A cooler vintage, it showed a more Ligurian acid profile, with a superfine dried coconut nose and light vegetal tones. 

Tenute Dettori
Badde Nigolosu, S.P. 29 Km 10
Tel: +39 079 512772

Related Links:

If my own reporting on Tenuta Dettori seems heavy on interpretation and light on facts, blame my friend Bert Celce of the peerless Wine Terroirs blog, who got to most of the latter first in his excellent post


  1. Thank you for illuminating report! I m curious about acidity, added or natural, which I usually find lacking in Dettori, especially the reds. Not surprising, at this level of alcohol, and from such a warm climate. In any case, would love to know if you got a sense of how much he acidulates, if at all.

  2. Hi Oswaldo! It's my understanding that, at least for the principal range, Dettori add nothing during vinification. No sulfur, no acidifiers, etc. Thank goodness!

    I'm not sure I would seize upon a lack of acid as the biggest drawback of these wines. My key reservation about them is that they seem designed to be a little monumental.

  3. Thank you. Don't like design either (intelligent or otherwise), but without balancing acidity, any monument is made of sand.