20 Apr 2012

The heart of Italy (Tuscany, Italy - Day One)

One of the things that I have realised since arriving in Italy is that it is so difficult to categorise it in a certain way, and no single image does it justice. One of the most indelible images that spring to most people’s minds when they think of Italy is the classic image of gently rolling hills covered in grape vines, olive trees and villas. Tuscany perfectly lives up to this cliché. As I drove south from Florence (which is simply stunning, but is kind of a sinkhole when it comes to money), I became more excited at a place that seems so familiar, as you see it on travel and cooking shows, on calendars, promotional material of Italy, you name it. Tuscany has a number of unfair advantages over every other region in Italy. The first is its location close to the centre of Italy, where the weather is neither too hot nor too cold. It has some of the most beautiful and diverse natural scenery in Italy, from the hills all the way to the coast. The diversity also helps with viticulture, and they have the ability to produce a wide range of wines. It is a very large province, and also has a very long history, with families going back over 1,000 years. Tuscany is very wealthy, and is arguably the most visited province in the country. The food is great, the people are great. If this were the USA, Tuscany would be California. And like cabernet sauvignon is the most important grape (but far from the only one) in California, the king of varieties in Tuscany is sangiovese, and I am spending five days here to become more familiar with it.

Dante Alighieri once owned these cellars
My first appointment in Tuscany was with probably the most important wine company in the country, at their most historic estate. The Antinori family have been in Tuscany for almost 700 years, and have been very well connected for most of that time. Wine production was something that came very easily to this aristocratic family, and they established a name for themselves far and wide. Whilst their headquarters are in the old part of Florence, their viticultural nucleus is at their Tignanello Estate in the Chianti Classico area, and it was here that the modern reputation of Antinori was born. In a very challenging era for wines, particularly Italian wines, The Anitnori family made the revolutionary decision to make the shift from volume to quality wines, something unheard of in Chianti. They decided to cease producing red wines from a field blend of both red and white grapes (as was not only tradition but also law), and to make wines exclusively from red grapes. In addition to this they decided to plant and produce wines from non-Italian varieties, in those times against DOCG regulations. The first great example of this was the Tignanello, which right from the start was a blend of 80% sangiovese, and 20% cabernet sauvignon. In those days this meant that the wine could not be classified as chianti classico, and as such was classified as an IGT. Today the laws state that chianti classico must be at least 80% sangiovese, and 20% other red varieties, but Antinori have decided to continue labelling the wine as an IGT.

The Tignanello Vineyard
The other important wine to come out of the estate was the now famous Solaia. Back in the 1978 vintage Piero Antinori identified a very special parcel of cabernet sauvignon fruit from the Tignanello vineyard, which he vinified and separated, keeping it in barrel for two years instead of one. He was so happy with the quality that he decided to bottle it, and thus one of the most famous ‘super tuscans’ was born. The wine is now a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and sangiovese, and its quality rivals that of several first growth bordeaux wines. In the vineyard, both the Tignanello and Salaia vineyards were replanted in the last 20 years, and when this was done a new concept was introduced. The idea was to lift the white stones from under the soil to the top of the soil under the row. The idea was to create a moderating influence on temperature, but also introduce the reflective characteristic of the stones so the bottom of the canopy could have adequate sun exposure to ripen the fruit. There are separate areas for the winery and separate equipment dedicated to the vinification of the Tignanello and Solaia wines. In different sizes, both wines have fermentations in stainless steel vats with a conical shape, to make the mechanised punch-downs easier and subsequently gentler. The conical shape limits the amount of wasted tannin extraction through less surface contact with the sides of the tank. Both the Tignanello and Solaia wines have 100% new oak malolactic fermentation and maturation (mostly French with some Hungarian), the Tignanello for one year and the Salaia for two. The wines are commonly held back from release for at least a year to allow them to settle in the bottle. Much like wines in Bordeaux, the quantities are large by Barolo/Burgundy standards, but with such a worldwide demand it would be a shame to deny thirsty customers.

Conical shape red wine fermenters
Estate Director Stefano Carpaneto guided me through the estate and then showed me three of the wines produced under his stewardship. The first was the Peppoli, which is one of the most widely distributed chianti classico wines in the global market, and is a blend of 80% sangiovese (the miminum legal requirement), 15% merlot and 5% syrah. Back in Australia I had already tasted and sold the 2009 vintage, but it was good to refresh myself after six months of travel. On the nose it was very juicy and plummy, the merlot elements showing very strong, quite broad and soft, very clean and approachable, but lacking any real structure or character. This is a wine designed for appeal to a broad and diverse market, is made very safely, and could arguably come from anywhere. The Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva is the complete opposite, but for three times the price it should be. The 2007 had a much more attractive unique nose of rustic earth, toast and cinnamon blackberry, had great tannin structure and depth, was bold but also elegant, and with its tightness will age well. The final wine was the 2009 vintage of the Tignanello, which aromatically showed the strength of the cabernet in this vintage. On the palate it expressed very earthy cassis notes, but the tannins were very restricted. At a maximum of 15 years of age, the vines don’t seem to be mature enough, as whilst this wine is far from unripe, it does seem undeveloped. The estate rarely opens Solaia, so I wasn’t lucky enough to taste this wine.

New cellars at Tignanello Estate
My other appointment for the day was in the hills around Florence, in Chianti Colli Fiorentini not part of the Chianti Classico area. I had been highly recommended the winery by the importer in Australia, and having visited I can see why, as the owner is wonderful and honest, and close friends with the imports manager. Fattoria Bagnolo is owned by Marco Bartolini Baldelli, who left a career in the stock market in Milano to take up agriculture on his family’s property at the age of 29. His dream was to eventually be able to live on the land, producing a tangible product that he could sell and make a living from. After many years of hard work he has achieved this goal, and different to when he was in finance, he can show his son the efforts of his labour and be proud. His annual production sits at around 25,000 bottles, which for the broader Chianti region is miniscule. Producing wines that he likes without bending to market trends is his passion, and he is able to maintain this commitment easily in these small volumes. In support of the wine business, he also produces some very high quality olive oil and olive products from his own trees, and also runs a renowned and profitable hospitality business, including bed & breakfast establishments across Tuscany. Marco is a man of simple pleasures and philosophical expressions, and an afternoon or more spent with him is a rewarding experience.

Fattoria di Bagnolo
The focus of the wine production is on three wines, but underneath this he produces white and red table wines which are very traditional simple and approachable wines. The Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2010 had an interesting reductive and rustic nose with fresh black fruit and olives, very bright and forward on the palate with softness and clean structure. The Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva 2008 had a dustier more earthy character on the nose, with a toasty oak element to support, and on the palate had tighter more precise tannins and focused concentration with some savoury and fruit characters to keep things relatively complex. The Capro Rosso is an IGT blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and colorino. The 2007 had some subtle brooding roasted pine nut complexity on the nose, was quite broad and intense in fruit on the palate, and whilst very approachable had good balance and structure. Marco had also prepared a veritable smorgasbord of various nibbles that I gratefully enjoyed whilst tasting, and after having a try of his olive oil (fantastic), I said goodbye and left for Fonterutoli for the night.

The two most popular crops in Tuscany
Click here to see more photos from Day One in Tuscany, Italy.

1 comment:

  1. Lucky you!!!
    fantastic days you have. a big hug from Milan sigh :-(
    ciao James
    "cousin" chiara