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Special Project Kosher Wines in Tuscany

By Dr. Kenneth Friedman

Photos on this article are courtesy of Andrea Mosti.

Wine at its root is art. In its purest form, it is created by passionate craftsmen, those driven by sincerity and spirit, and brought to you to enjoy in life’s better moments, religious and secular.

The relationship between the winemaker and wine négociant is certainly transactional but can occasionally capture a shared, rooted interest in bettering the lives of wine lovers. The story of the partnership between Ben Weber and Eli Gauthier is one such story.

Weber, president of Select Wine Imports, is a man with a devotion for bringing new and interesting wines to his customers. The modern consumer craves the new and interesting, and Weber sees himself as someone to bridge that gap. With the blossoming of kosher wine over the last half century, consumers are continually being introduced to once-unfamiliar wines. Wines created via different methods. Wine produced from unfamiliar grapes. Wine hailing from regions, some among the top in the world, which have not produced kosher wine, or at best, very few.

One such region now seeing a promising, and well-deserved, boom is Tuscany, Italy. Over just the last few vintages, the kosher offerings from Italy have grown exponentially, with new wines from multiple producers and importers. Weber is one of the forerunners of the movement to bring Americans a taste of the bel paese, the “beautiful country,” and travels several times yearly to meet with his winemaking counterpart, an innovator in his own right: Gauthier, of Cantina Giuliano Winery in Tuscany.

The French-born Gauthier would eventually spend time working in wine in London, but learned winemaking in France. His wife and business partner, Lara, is from a Tuscan family that had made wine for generations. When Lara was a young child, her grandfather passed away, and with the family unable to sustain the business, generations of farming would seemingly end.

Gauthier would eventually get into winemaking, where he noted a lack of good kosher wine being produced out of Italy, and equally noticed that the public was tiring of industrial-style foods and wines, seeking the more authentic and natural.

It struck Gauthier that his in-laws had this abandoned garage in the village, so he decided to “try to do something authentic from Tuscany.” For six months, he rolled up his sleeves and fixed up the entire garage, outfitting it with vats and pumps. Next door to this property sat an old winery and olive press dating to 1788. Gauthier would then spend another six months refurbishing, and just before harvest, finished the building. The restaurant was immediately established to create something “real,” to be an equivalent of other experiences in Tuscany unavailable to the kosher-keeping individual.

The winery is named for Lara’s grandfather, Giuliano, who left behind a winery and farm after his untimely passing. Be it through devotion or destiny, the Gauthiers would soon build their own winery and farm-to-table restaurant and inn centered around the land and building Giuliano would leave behind, a Tuscan winery founded on the backbone of faith, family, and history.

Today, in the Cantina Giuliano restaurant, Lara makes cheese, pasta and ricotta. The olive oil is pressed from the fields, the vegetables are picked from the garden, and the jams from their orchard. All food is created with an eye on an authentic “bite of Tuscany,” said Gauthier.

In 2014, Gauthier began producing a Chianti. Tuscan law mandates that Chianti be made with at least 70% sangiovese to be called “Chianti.” The rest of the wine was blended with a “bit of merlot, and a bit of a native Tuscan grape called ciliegiolo,” and aged nine months in barrels.

Soon, he turned his attention to white wine. Vermentino was another grape that was not produced kosher, but as Gauthier said, “I decided to make it while taking strolls along the beach with my wife, where you can see that in all the little restaurants and all the little bars, this is what the local Italians drink with their fish or with their antipasti.” Vermentino is known for its characteristic fresh style, minerality and salinity, alongside its delightful aromatics, and Gauthier decided to bring this grape to the kosher marketplace.

Weber’s passion for food and wine drove him to “search for something different,” he said, “and not in the box.” He wanted to bring artisanal products stateside that he, himself, would enjoy. This led him to produce an exclusive wine in Israel, and soon he wanted to expand to other continents as well. He reached out to his business partner and sommelier, Ari Lockspeiser, to ask his thoughts on what boutique winery in Europe would not only produce good wine but would also be willing to work alongside him, collaborating together. Weber dreamed of using his creativity and style alongside a winemaker’s to create a superior and individual product. Lockspeiser would introduce Weber to Cantina Giuliana’s Gauthier.

Weber and Gauthier team up to buy grapes and create “special project” wines to be released exclusively in Weber’s shop, The Cellar, in Lakewood, New Jersey. One such recent offering created at Cantina Giliano was a “Super Tuscan.”

Italy is well known for some of its classic wines, including Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino, but Super Tuscan is quite the rage today, and for good reason. Italy may possess the perfect environment for winemaking but forbade its winemakers for many years in their viticultural techniques, from the ability to grow certain varieties, to regional restrictions on production, to the use of oak.

By the 1960s, frustrated Tuscan winemakers began making wines using more than just the indigenous sangiovese found in Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino. They began to blend cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, syrah and others, and to adopt increasingly popular, but then forbidden oak-aging techniques to lend more body and structure to their wines.

A new term, Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), was created to distinguish these “Super Tuscans” from DOCG and DOC wines in 1995. The “super” here is a bit of a loose term, used more as “extra,’ as Super Tuscans are permitted to use these “international” varieties not native to the region, such as the well-known Bordeaux varieties such as cab and merlot.

Thus, the Viniferia brand was born, utilizing cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah to conceive brilliant and affordable Super Tuscans.

Beginning with the 2018 vintage, two blends were made, a merlot-based Super Tuscan, called “Castel Luciano,” and a cab-based Super Tuscan, named “Terra di Pietra,” utilizing other varieties in a blend.

But then came the 2019 vintage, which entails winemaking be done in the 2020 calendar year. You may recall that 2020 brought a world shutdown, and with it a juggling act for the Viniferia line. Gauthier lives in France but spends six months of the year in Italy. Come 2020, and the pandemic, he was not immediately allowed back into Italy, but said, “I was soon going to Italy every month to check on the wine and the barrels,” but as things were more complicated with this vintage, he knew that “things change year to year, so we make decisions on what we have.”

Gauthier and Weber decided to send the wines for lab analysis and see what was worthwhile and what was not. “It turned out that not only were some of the barrels salvageable,” said Weber, “but were really excellent.” Some of the cabernet was lost, which led to the decision to make only one blend for the 2019 vintage, utilizing primarily merlot, and the best of the vintage. With this combined “higher quantity” batch made possible by only producing one Super Tuscan, they decided to make it mevushal, as normally the mevushal process would require a larger aggregate with which to begin.

As a result, since the Viniferia was only made as the Castel Luciano in 2019, they decided to use the 2020 vintage for the cabernet-focused Terra di Pietra blend only. While this might seem like decision-making on the run, it fits neatly into Gauthier’s and Weber’s shared mindset. “We are not following a specific program,” Weber said. “One, we make wine based on the wine talking to us, and number two, if it ain’t good, we throw it away or sell it off. The fact that we don’t have a middleman allows us to keep our pricing so reasonable.”

With the continued expansion of kosher offerings, and the abundance of their shared genuine will, the “new and interesting” will certainly continue to make their way to the curious palate of the kosher consumer. Gauthier’s passion to create authentic and affordable Tuscan wines, matched with Weber’s drive to bring these products to the consumer, is the perfect recipe for success in this partnership and for the kosher wine world.

Viniferia, Castel Luciano, Super Tuscan, 2019

A blend of 55% merlot, 29% cabernet sauvignon, and 16% syrah, aged 18 months in French oak. In the glass, dark but intense ruby. Nose of dark fruits such as black cherry, blackberry and plum, spice, chocolate, soy sauce and soil. The palate shows high acid with brawny tannins, and a lush, impressive body. Very nice structure. This wine is ready to drink but can certainly cellar and improve some. Drink now until 2029.

Viniferia, Vento Di Mare, Vermentino, 2021

A relatively unknown grape in America, but a classic Tuscan beachside offering. The nose is aromatic, with peach, citrus, noticeable minerality and a “nose of ocean breeze,” with salinity. Light with nice acid and a fresh palate. I expect we’ll see more of this variety. Or maybe I should say, I hope.

Dr. Kenneth Friedman, WSET III, is a wine writer, educator, and consultant. He creates unique kosher food and wine tastings utilizing his years of experience. He can be found on Instagram @kosherwinetastings


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