21 Apr 2012

Drawing blood from a stone (Tuscany, Italy - Day Two)

It becomes necessary to attempt to remove all expectations and pre-conceived notions when arriving into a new region and new producers. There is always going to be some flow-through from the previous region, we naturally compare an experience to the most recent one. Thus on my journey I am constantly having to readjust to each new place I visit and make no assumptions nor judgements about such things as production volumes, estate sizes, yields, varieties or practices. What the important (and difficult) thing to ascertain is whether or not the philosophies and subsequent practices are right for that particular place. Whilst the nebbiolo grape is ideal for the elevated and cool hills of Piedmont, it is the sangiovese grape which performs exceptionally in the undulating and warmer landscape of Tuscany. Further to this, nebbiolo is a grape that necessitates small yields and small volumes to produce great wine, as it is notoriously difficult to handle both in the vineyards and in the cellar. Sangiovese needs a careful eye to be sure as it has very high yielding potential, but similar to the syrah grape is quite adaptable to site and you can easily make great wine in more generous volumes. The fact that I am visiting wineries that annually produce approaching one million bottles should therefore not mean they are not great wineries; they just couldn’t be great in Piedmont. After a very restful night and a couple of café lattes with breakfast, I adjourned to the winery of my hosts for the previous night.
Budburst has most definitely begun
The Mazzei family have been in Tuscany for over 600 years, and settled in Fonterutoli in 1435, making them one of the oldest wine families in the world. A very old invoice of the family shows the sale of six barrels of ‘Chianti’ wine, which by all accounts the first recorded mention of a wine named by a geographical place as opposed to the proprietor. Rather than spend too much time reflecting on the past, the family has been innovating for the past 50 years, in a number of ways. The first was to purchase land and grow grapes in new areas; within Chianti, in the south-western part of Tuscany in Maremma, and more recently in the very historic but now emerging region of Sicily. They have invested in both viticultural and winemaking in these newer estates, in an effort to best capture the nuances of the site and variety. Vinification is all performed on each of the three estates, but bottling and logistics are all carried out in Fonterutoli. Closer to home the family have been taking a much closer look at each of their terroirs, and isolating the various indigenous strains of sangiovese, in an effort to understand the best expression of both. In 2006 they also completed works on a brand new world-class winery at the foot of Fonterutoli hill, using best-practice and gravity to ensure that nothing goes wrong and the best wines can be produced. Considering the volumes they are working with precision and consistency are important, as well as being able to predict how certain things are likely to go.
Fruit processing area, falling down into tanks below
In an effort to show the nuances of site within a relatively small area, wine educator Leonardo Capelli took me through a parcel tasting of sangiovese from the 2007 vintage. The first parcel came from the Siepi vineyard in a lower part of the valley, and the Vigna Isodi parcel expressed very soft, smooth and rich black fruits and gentle tannins, with plenty of breadth and very little structure. From the Caggio vineyard a little higher, the Vigna Cipressi was a little tighter showing less fruit, was a little fresher and finer in tannins, and although bold and forward on the palate was a little immature because of the youthful vines. From the Belvedere vineyard came two parcels. The Vigna Piano had an interesting dusty chocolate rustic red fruit nose, was quite powerful and yet shy on the palate, and was focused in a broad way on the palate. The Vigna Pino showed slightly spicier cumin curry notes, and again had great drive but this time seemed to sit on the palate like a tube. The final parcel was from the Fonterutoli vineyard, and the Sant Antonio was the quietest and most contemplative of the samples, very delicate and smooth, but with wonderful balance and structure. Of the five it was the only one that could be bottled on its own. It was explained to me that these parcel samples do not have the same oak treatment as those that go into the final blend, as they are attempting to see the development of the fruit in the wine.
Barrels, barrels, barrels
Moving on to finished wines, we started with the Castello Fonterutoli 2007 final blend, which significantly showed the difference of having more oak than the sangiovese samples, and also the small addition of cabernet sauvignon. On the nose it combined roasted red capsicum with black cherry and red currants, and on the palate showed very youthful power and texture, looking very masculine. The Fonterutoli Chianti Classico 2009 followed, which had an interesting floral black fruits nose, very good concentration and balance, a clean finish with nothing sticking out. The Siepi Toscana IGT 2007 had a very dense mature nose, and on the palate was soft and plum jammy, very fruit sweet and warm and quite bold in fruit and oak. We then tried three wines from the Belguardo Maremma estate, starting with the Serrata 2009, a wonderful blend of 80% sangiovese and 20% Alicante. The 2009 wasn’t showing anywhere near as well as the 2008 did when I sold it back in Australia. The Tenuta Belguardo 2007 was very soft and full, but still elegant and structured, with expressive blackberries and powerful breadth. The Belguardo Vermentino 2007 had very big aromatics somewhere between riesling and pinot grigio, but on the palate looked like a fruit-driven viognier. The Zisola 2009 from the Sicilian property was quite dull and lifeless, also not a patch on the 2008.
Tasting at Fonterutoli
A few years ago I tasted my favourite rosé, which also convinced me that the best grape variety for rosé was sangiovese. The only problem with the wine was that it is produced is such minute quantities that Australia barely gets any, and it sells out far too quickly. Fortunately the producer in question also has a range of red wines that offer outstanding value. When I heard more about the producer I was intrigued to discover more and visit if I could whilst in Chianti. The producer is Poggerino, and compared to most of the other producers I was visiting in Tuscany, miniscule. Piero Conti has been producing wine in Chianti since 1988, and from the beginning was committed to biodynamic viticulture. He took me through the vineyards on his estate where his is repairing and renovating the cellars, and it was a fascinating experience. The most important tenet he carries is to maintain a close relationship with nature, closely monitoring everything it provides (and neglects). He spent a lot of time observing the specific soils of each part of the estate, and not only planted and trellised the varieties differently, but also maintains the parts of the vineyard in different ways. Even within one hectare it is amazing to see the difference, particularly now that bud burst has begun, but has developed differently depending on parcel and elevation. The wines are made quite simply without interference, and Pietro has recently invested in a cement egg for fermentations (the fifth biodynamic producer I have visited that has one).
Piero inspects the Poggerino vineyards
Having tasted the Rosato 2010 (one of the few that is made from 100% sangiovese) at Vinitaly, I moved straight into the red wines. At the entry level there is the Labarinto, which is a basic chianti. The 2010 is lovely and bright, with juicy dark cherry and blackberry fruit, and is a totally uncomplicated easy-drinking wine for every day. The Chianti Classico 2009 was very full and soft, intense in both fruit and savoury notes, but is one of the most balanced and elegant from the 2009 vintage. The Bugialla Riserva 2007 had a very dense yet delicate and complex nose, with black fruits and some walnut characters, is very expressive but also structured and textural. It is however still very young and needs at least two more years to soften a little. The Primamateria is an IGT blend, of 50% sangiovese and 50% merlot coming from a different vineyard lower in the valley. The 2008 vintage whilst an excellent wine is not what I consider to be particularly inspiring. It shows great balance and composure, with texture and focus, but shows as very young and not really expressive at the moment.
A friendly reunion
The final winery I visited on my second day also happened to be my host for the night. Felsina is situated on the southern border of the Chianti Classico DOCG, and today is possibly one of the most important in the entire region. The assets the owners have would make anyone envious, as they have extensive land with vineyards, olive groves and hunting reserves, beautiful historic buildings not only on the outskirts of Castelnuovo della Berargenga but also dotted around the estates, and an extensive and functional winemaking facility. From these assets they produce a modest 900,000 bottles per year, and whilst this may suggest that they are merely a volume producer, most of their wines are in premium categories. How they can manage to consistently produce wines of such high quality in such volumes is exemplary, but also not hard to understand. They keep a very harmonious connection to their land, and biodiversity is very important to not only retain the agricultural history, but also encourage natural and indigenous pest and disease resistance. The amazing thing is to consider how much potential there still is, not only in the wine and olive oil production, but also in terms of tourism, hospitality and agribusiness. As far as the wines are concerned, whilst they are at the upper end of the price spectrum for Chianti they more than deliver in terms of quality.
The 'Rancia' on the Felsina Estate
The focus of the wine production is understandably on red wines. With most of the wines I was able to taste and compare at least two vintages. The Chianti Classico 2010 showed bright fresh red cherries on the nose, great purity and balance on the palate with focus and integrity, and is not your average chianti classico. The 2008 showed the same harmony and balance, but with a few more years had opened up and was starting to express more complex rustic red fruits, with some nice savoury notes to compliment. The Chianti Classico Riserva from the same vintage was a significant step up aromatically, showing earthier and more mineralic red currants, much more intensity but also restraint, and although young was quite expressive. Three vintages of the Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva then followed, a wine coming from a single vineyard on the estate. The 2009 had intense earthy rustic black fruits on the nose, was full and expressive on the palate but slightly hollow and lacking in structure. The 2007 was similarly soft and approachable, with very mellow and full-flavoured tannins, but with slightly more character and freshness. Slightly older was the 2003, and as a product of its bottle age and vintage is very approachable now, showing interesting marzipan, cocoa and balsamic notes. The Fontalloro is a blend of fruit from vineyards in the Chianti Classico DOCG and the Chianti Colli Sienese DOCG, and as such is classified as an IGT wine. The 2009 and 2007 vintages were similar to those of the Rancia, but showing earthier and more powerful tannin structure and oak influence. The 1998 had some subtle blackforest fruits with seductive sweet floral notes, had developed soft elegant tannins and juicy blackcurrant sweetness, still holding together very well.
Historic Felsina cellars
Click here to see more photos from Day Two in Tuscany, Italy.

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