Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I have been tasting and buying the olive oils of the Grati family, as well as other fine Tuscan olive oils, for over a decade. While there are high-quality olive oils made in many regions of the world, Tuscan oil is particularly distinctive for its richness, complexity and character, and those from top producers such as Grati can demonstrate individual personalities as detailed and as terroir-driven as the region's wines.
Located in the Rufina zone just to the east of Florence, the Grati estate produces oil under their own label for commercial distribution, but for consumers in the United States, the real joy is seeking out Grati's three single-grove olive oils selected and distributed by the Rare Wine Company: Monte, Prunatelli and Vetrice. The Rare Wine Company recently released their 2008 olive oil offerings, and as I was eagerly anticipating this trio from what is by all accounts an outstanding olive oil vintage, I brought them along as a minor sideshow when brooklynguy invited me over for a magnificently delicious dinner a few nights ago.
Monte, Prunatelli and Vetrice all lie on the south- and southwest-facing hillsides of the Grati estate, and all are planted primarily with the Frantoio variety. The Rufina subzone is noticeably cooler than others in the area (think about the elegant character of Rufina wines versus the fuller-bodied style of Chianti from the Classico region), and while the overall elevation here is already higher than average, Grati's sites are even higher than most—both Monte and Prunatelli lie at about 500 meters above sea level, while Vetrice is slightly lower. This results in oils of great purity and finesse.
Grati's Monte is one of my favorite olive oils in the world, consistently demonstrating a remarkable elegance and a fine, subtle complexity of character. The 1999 Monte, from a great vintage, was an epiphany of sorts for me when I tasted it in the spring of 2000, and ever since then it has been the first oil I buy for myself every year. In this decade, 2004 turned out to be another standout vintage—cooler years tend to bring out more complex flavors and more overall finesse, and the 2004 Monte was superb. In 2008, the Monte is unusually grassy and peppery, and in some ways I feel that it has the most assertive personality of the trio this year. With its silky texture and understated harmony, I normally find the Monte to be the one most suitable to enjoying on its own, simply with bread, but the 2008 is unusually extroverted and intense, with bright notes of artichoke and freshly cut grass. This year I imagine I'll probably use it more with food, to finish a plate of beans, perhaps, or drizzle over grilled vegetables.
The 2008 Prunatelli, in contrast, is less extroverted than usual. I generally find this to be the most overtly peppery and pungent of the three, yet this year its notes of arugula and green peppercorn are surprisingly toned down. It does show a typical body, however—Prunatelli is typically a little bit bigger and richer in body than Monte, and the 2008 is no exception. While in years past I've often found the Prunatelli to be too intense to serve as a dipping oil, I quite enjoyed tasting the 2008 with a crusty ciabatta from Balthazar, especially due to its thick, luscious texture.
Overall, I found the 2008 Vetrice to be more classic in profile than the Prunatelli, showing the dark, resonant depth typical of this cru. When I compare Vetrice to the others, I always think of body and structure, and of deep, authoritative flavor. It's baritone in pitch compared to the alto of Prunatelli, Chambertin versus the Musigny of Monte. While the 2008 Vetrice is not quite as complex as the 2008 Monte, it demonstrates a great deal of character, its flavors of artichoke and snap pea creeping up slowly from underneath rather than attacking you immediately. As I gave my only bottle to brooklynguy, I'm not going to get to experiment with it this year, but my immediate instinct was that the Vetrice might be the most versatile of Grati's three oils from 2008. I'll leave it up to him to tell me later whether or not that's the case.