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Malcolm Jolley: The news out of Benvenuto Brunello Toronto: Some good, some bad—plus lots of wine to love

Commentary

Last week in Toronto, more than a hundred wine people (media and trade) were assembled in a fancy financial district restaurant at the very un-Dionysian hour of 9:30 in the morning. The room was set up in a series of numbered tables, and as we filed in to register for the event we were told at which table to sit. Before us at each sitting were four glasses and a list of 70 or so fine red wines from 35 producers that belong in the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.

It was Brunello Day, a tasting event held not just in Toronto, but on the same day in Dallas, Miami, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Zurich, and Vancouver. These events were, in turn, smaller versions of a greater series of tastings, called Benvenuto Brunello, organized by the Consorzio and supported abroad by the Italian Trade Agency.

Brunello di Montalcino is one of Italy’s “Big B” success stories, along with its northern luxury wine cousins Barolo and Barbaresco. Until the 1970s, the vineyards around the Medieval hilltop town of Montalcino, about forty kilometres south of Siena in Tuscany, grew mostly Muscat grapes to make sweet white fizzy wine. The resurgence of the Brunello clone of the Sangiovese grape in this small wine region has never slowed down—demand continues to outstrip supply and prices rise correspondently.

Benvenuto began in Montalcino, two weeks before. It ran for four days there, then moved to London for another big show. All of this was in the service of what the Italians call an anteprima, or preview. The Tuscan and U.K. versions would have had all or most of the wines to be released to buyers this year, whereas the satellite versions, like the ones in Canada, would focus on products available in each specific market.

The Toronto-based wine writer Michael Godel was our event host and MC and acted as an ambassador of the Brunello preview. It might be said that Godel “brought” the wines to us, since he and fellow Canadian Brunello ambassador Michaela Morris (who played host at the event in Vancouver) had spent the previous week in Montalcino at the proper anteprima.

Before any wines were poured into our glasses, Godel gave us a preview of the preview, as it were. The bulk of the wines released were from 2019; these were “plain” Brunello di Montalcino DOCG wines. The DOCG wines are distinguished from the more ordinary Rosso di Montalcino, though as Godel pointed out, the winemakers of Montalcino make twice as much of the Brunello as the everyday Rosso, as there is a significantly higher price ceiling on the former.

The rest of the wines were the Riservas. The chief difference for those wines selected to be Riserva is aging. Whereas “regular” Brunello cannot be released to be sold until the first of January “of the year following the end of the fifth year calculated in consideration of the year of harvest,” the rule for Riserva is six years. Accordingly, all of the Riservas poured to be previewed were from 2018, except one outlier from 2016.

Godel brought more than wine; he brought news from the small, prestigious wine region. First, he addressed the vintage just brought in, 2023. He confirmed the bad news from much of Italy: this rainy year was something of a disaster, chiefly because of powdery mildew. A number of producers do not expect to make any Brunello at all from 2023 grapes. In any event, production will be severely limited.

Bad news was followed by good. The 2019 was, by contrast, a “Goldilocks year”: not too hot, not too wet. Godel said one producer told him that making wine in 2019 was a “breeze”. 2019 is predicted to be a “famous vintage”, and the Montalcino winemakers are happy to focus on this good fortune after the heartbreak of the previous six months.

Then, because there is never a dull moment in the world of wine, back to bad news. Or at least not as good news. 2018 was a challenging year, cooler than most. A wine writers’ joke is that vintages like 2018 are called “classic”. There’s truth to the sarcasm, though. Cooler vintages hark back to wines made before the effects of global warming were consistently felt beginning in the late 1990s. Looking on the bright side, Godel told us to look for an expression of “pure Sangiovese” in the 2018 Riservas.

During the tasting proper, I tasted 39 out of the 70 or so wines on offer over three hours. Here’s my verdict: if you can afford and enjoy Brunello di Montalcino, then you have nothing to worry about. Nearly all the wines I tasted showed well. The 2019 wines were generally speaking rich, complex, and showing what the Brits call hedgerow fruit: blackberries. The tannins were still gripping but fine; these wines could be drunk now with a decanting, or better to be put down for a few or more years. If you want to impress your date at a fancy Italian restaurant in 2029, I suggest you order a 2019 Brunello.

If you want to impress your wine nerd friend at a fancy Italian restaurant in 2024, ’25, or ’26, then order a 2018 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. The 2018 wines sang a softer song. I could see what Godel meant by pure Sangiovese: cherries. These wines showed a red fruit elegance and were more or less ready to go.

If contemporary winemakers are cursed with weather disasters and climate chaos like this summer in Italy, then they are also blessed to be making wine in the information age. Never has so much knowledge about how to shape wine in the cellar been accumulated and disseminated. The enologi of Montalcino knew exactly what to do with their fruit from a cooler year. I predict that as things continue to heat up, fresher vintages like 2018, or 2013 before, will become sought-after rarities.

Jonah Davids: Has the Israel-Hamas war spoiled the Muslim-Conservative coalition on parental rights? 

Commentary

On September 20th, 2023, Canadians across the country participated in the “1 Million March 4 Children” to protest the rise of gender and sexual identity education in K-12 schools across the country. The march in favour of “parental rights” was successful in stirring responses from Prime Minister Trudeau, who condemned the protests, and Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre, who declared that “parents should be the final authority on the values and lessons that are taught to children.” 

Leading up to the march, a tentative alliance was forming between Canadian Muslims and grassroots conservative activists. Muslims were joining and organizing protests against gender ideology and LGBTQ+ programming in schools, and organizations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Muslim Association of Canada were calling on school boards, politicians, and media outlets to stop demonizing concerned parents and Muslim students. While Justin Trudeau told the Muslim community that their concerns around education were a product of far-Right disinformation, Pierre Poilievre worked to convince them that his party shared their values of “faith, family, and freedom.”

There was some optimism that these developments were helping the Conservative Party overcome the trust it had lost with Muslims when it promised to implement a “barbaric practices tipline” and proposed a Niqab ban for the public service in the 2015 election campaign. Conservative political strategists saw these prospective voters as a crucial part of growing the electoral coalitions of centre-right parties across the country. 

Then October 7th happened. As knowledge of Hamas’ crimes against Israelis spread and as the Israel Defense Forces began to retaliate, it became clear that Canadian Conservatives (and conservatives) overwhelmingly sided with Israel while Canadian Muslims were largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. For instance, while Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre was quick to condemn Hamas terrorists and support Israel’s right to self-defence, the National Council of Canadian Muslims chose not to mention them and instead singled out Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as an extremist leader who wanted to reduce Gazan cities to rubble out of vengeance, a message the Muslim Association of Canada signed onto

Many conservative activists and commentators who had praised the involvement of Muslims in protests against gender ideology and in favour of parental rights now condemned them for protesting in support of Palestine. B.C.-based parental rights activist Chris Elston, better known as Billboard Chris, signaled his continued willingness to work with Muslims, but only if they condemned the October 7th attacks. The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer even suggested that supporting Israel ought to be a condition for Conservative Party candidates, a position which could disqualify a great number of Muslims. 

These developments illustrate the potential for disputes rooted in diaspora politics to frustrate new political alliances and cross-faith collaborations on domestic policy issues. While Canadian Muslims have traditionally voted for left-wing parties, they tend to be socially conservative including holding traditional views concerning marriage, gender, and sexuality. But it’s also somewhat natural that a population with such inclinations would side with its fellow co-religionists in an international conflict given that social conservatism is about preserving so-called “first things”: the peoples, religions, and traditions in which cultures and societies are rooted.

It raises interesting questions about the exercise of political coalition building and which issues or positions can be subject to intra-party compromise and which are non-negotiable. How does one assess the relative political importance of unequivocal support for Israel versus a cultivating shared position on stopping public schools from helping young students change their gender? How one answers this question may depend on whether the failure to, say, condemn Hamas’ actions on October 7th should be viewed as a reflection of run-of-the-mill tribalism or a sign of a more basic incompatibility with the core values of conservative politics in Canada. 

It’s too hasty to say that the burgeoning conservative-Muslim coalition has fractured over October 7th. While the federal Conservatives have probably traded off potential gains with Muslim voters by being unequivocally hawkish on Israel, it’s still possible that centre-right provincial governments who promise to protect parental rights can earn their support. 

What is clear is that recent events have led both groups to re-evaluate their assumptions about the other. Once Muslims began publicly opposing left-wing educational priorities, the Right subordinated its concerns with issues such as terrorism, women’s rights, and Sharia law and welcomed them with open arms. Post-October 7th, however, those concerns are live again. Muslims, on the other hand, have now seen that Canadian conservatism draws a line in the sand around support for Israel and continues to see Islam as problematically illiberal. 

Despite these differences, it’s essential to remember that coalitions are built on specific issues rather than unanimous agreement. The political campaign to restore parental rights in the education system might therefore still provide common ground for Muslims and conservatives in Canada.