Castello della Sala, IGT Umbria (Italy) 'Cervaro della Sala' 2006 ($50, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates): Would it sound like boasting if I said that I've known Cervaro della Sala since that wine was just a glint in the winemaker's eye? I can say this at all only because, of all the wineries I have visited, my evening at Antinori's Castello della Sala in the early 1980s, when winemaker Renzo Cotarella gave me a taste of a new Chardonnay, still stands out for me. If I recall correctly, Cotarella--now the head honcho of winemaking for all the Antinori properties--thought that some Grechetto, the star of native white Umbrian grapes, could enhance the Chardonnay (although I couldn't see what needed enhancing). This wine is what he envisioned.
Cervaro della Sala 2006 is 85% Chardonnay and 15% Grechetto, fermented and aged in new French oak barrels. It is a dry, full-bodied, majestically structured Chardonnay with a lift, a dimension of lightness, that counterbalances Chardonnay's weight and mass. It is by all means Chardonnay-enough that Chardonnay aficionados can relate to it and love it, but it is also much more than just another Chardonnay.
Cervaro della Sala hails from estate vineyards surrounding the Castello della Sala, a storybook medieval castle in Italy's Umbria region. In 1940, Marchese Niccolo Antinori, father of Piero Antinori, bought the property and made Orvieto wine. Under Piero's leadership, the family later modernized the vineyards and began striving to produce a modern white wine with a more striking character and personality than Orvieto. The 1985 vintage of Cervaro della Sala debuted in 1987.
On the nose, this 2006 is rich yet delicate, with fine notes of smoky oak and minerals atop the earthy, ripe-apple, hazelnut broadness of Chardonnay. In the mouth, the wine's texture is richly creamy, yet the wine has high acidity, which creates depth. Flavors of lemon, apple, minerals and nuts and honey are intense, concentrated and satisfying. To taste the wine's refreshing acidity, you might assume that the wine had not undergone malolactic fermentation, but in fact it has. Lees aging and the barrel fermentation account for the creamy texture, and brief skin contact accounts for the intensity and complexity of aroma and flavor.
Recently I also tried the 2005 Cervaro della Sala, and loved it. That vintage and this 2006 are tight enough and concentrated enough in flavor, even on the finish, that they can age for a decade. Piero Antinori recently remarked, in fact, that the 1985, 1986 and 1987--the three oldest vintages of this wine--are still in very good condition. My recommendation is that you hold this 2006 for six months or so, and then use a large glass to expand the wine's expression. When I taste it a year or so from now, I won't be surprised if I give it an even higher score.