A Winners’ Trip to Tuscany: Part OneBy
In October four lucky members and their guests made a ‘trip of a lifetime’ to visit some of our favourite Tuscan producers in the company of Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW. Here’s a behind-the-scenes write-up of the delights and discoveries made along the way by Societynews editor Joanna Goodman.
I’m not sure that any of us, the four winning members and their guests, or the members of staff asked to accompany them, could quite believe our luck at being picked to take part in a four-day tour of Tuscany’s top wineries.
All the prize winners had to do was propose someone for membership of The Society back in the spring of this year. My job was to help make sure everyone had a good time, along with my colleague Emma Dorahy from Buying, who had arranged the tour, and buyer Sebastian Payne MW, who proved to be quite the composite tour guide! Oh, and to be tour scribe… we packed in quite lot to our three days and learned an awful lot too, so I wanted to share some of that here.
We were based in Siena for the duration of the trip and had dinner on our first evening at the Osteria Le Logge, close to the Piazza del Campo and set up by Brunello producer Gianni Brunelli. Widely regarded as one of the best trattorias in Siena, appreciated by tourists and locals alike, the restaurant specialises in typical Tuscan dishes given a modern twist. The dining room used to be a pharmacy and still retains the old shop-fittings making for an atmospheric setting in which to enjoy the food and, of course, excellent wine.
After dinner we were asked if we wanted to see the cellar. All of us thought this a little strange, not appreciating the significance until we got there. One of the waiters accompanied us through the winding streets to a small locked door which opened into a tiny bar area and café, and small stage used for occasional jazz nights, we were told. But what lay underneath was astonishing!
As we burrowed deeper beneath the streets of Siena we came upon room after room of amazing bottles from around the world and from top vintages too, each individually wrapped in cling-film to protect the label from the damp. We had fun wondering around, famous-label spotting, calling out when we found something of note, in a sort of vinous version of ‘Top Trumps’!
‘I’ve found some Pétrus!’…’There’s some amazing Penfolds over here’…
We could have stayed for hours, but the waiter needed to get back and we needed to get some rest ahead of our busy schedule the next day, which would include a visit to Laura Brunelli’s estate in Montalcino. So we’d get a chance to pass on our compliments for the meal and ask her more about her new cellar venture.
Brunello di Montalcino
We woke to a rather grey, cold morning, with temperatures down considerably on the previous day; not typical of the weather here, we were to learn from talking to winemakers later on. Yes, Tuscany gets pretty cold in winter, but to have such a rapid change in temperature is not usual, they said. Thank goodness, everyone had pretty much finished harvesting!
No trip is complete without a talk from your tour-guide, so on the road out to Montalcino (20 miles south of Siena), buyer Sebastian Payne MW took to the in-coach microphone to give everyone the low-down on the properties we were to visit and explain a bit about the region.
A bit of geography…
Further south than the Chianti Classico vineyards, those of Brunello di Montalcino, enjoy a warmer more Mediterranean climate (the sea is just 20 miles away); the countryside is more open here, with cereal and other crops sharing land with the vine. (Chianti Classico is more hilly and wooded). Vines around the picturesque hilltop town of Montalcino itself enjoy an elevation of around 600m above sea level, which gives a pleasing freshness to the wines and off-sets the summer heat.
…and some history…
Sebastian surprised us by saying that Brunello di Montalcino is a relatively modern wine, first appearing around 1870, and was practically invented by one man, a certain Ferruccio Biondi-Santi. Biondi-Santi took a scientific approach to winemaking, taking care to plant vines in the right place and carrying out experiments in the winery to establish the ideal methods of production. Significantly, he fermented his grapes separately. At the time it was standard practice to co-ferment, not just different varieties, but red and white grapes too. He also matured his pure-tasting, high-quality sangioveses in cask, a radical new step at the time
The other key differentiator of the wines of Montalcino identified by Biondi-Santi was the type of sangiovese grape grown here, the sangiovese grosso clone, known locally as brunello, which gave its name to the wine. It gained DOC status in the 1960s (upgraded to DOCG in 1980 – one of Italy’s first).
Of course, microclimates and different soil types are usually key in producing subtle nuances of flavour in single-varietal wines and the best producers have vineyards in a variety of expositions, as we were to learn from the charming Francesco Ripaccioli at our first-stop, Canalicchio di Sopra.
Canalicchio di Sopra – one of the founders of the Montalcino consorzio
After a very warm welcome from the winery cat (makes a change from the more habitual wine dog), who made a point of greeting each of us in turn, we were given a brief overview of Francesco’s family’s property and an explanation of the importance of terroir for their wines.
Francesco explained that Canalicchio is a sub-zone of the Montalcino region (‘sopra’ means higher), and that the family has vineyards here on the northern side of the town and in another important ‘cru’ of the region, Le Gode di Montosoli. The soils of the former are richer and mainly clay and give and opulence and silkiness to the tannin in the wine. Soils on the slopes of Montosoli are more stony marl and limestone, giving a minerality and freshness to the wine.
Francesco said that the first ever producers of Montalcino in the 1870s were from the Montosoli area and his family, originally farmers rather than winemakers, were one of the 12 producers to form the consorzio helping the wine to gain its DOC status in 1962. They are obviously proud of their heritage and significant role in the development of the wine, particularly as founders of the DOC who also have vines in the original area of production. The label they use celebrates this heritage depicting the bell tower in Montalcino harking back to the original label design used on all Montalcino (they were given special dispensation to use it).
Above the roof of the winery loomed the most enormous crane and Francesco called us over to look at the huge clay pit that had been dug out behind their house for a new cellar, which they hoped to have ready for next year’s vintage. It was also a way of showing us the different types of clay in the vineyard. Looking down into the vast abyss, it was hard to picture it covered over and primed ready to receive next year’s grapes. But Francesco is full of energy and dynamism, so I’m sure he’ll make it happen.
Talking of vintages, it was time to go and taste.
Would the real sangiovese please stand up!
But before we got down to business, there was one more important lesson; one which we would hear over and over again during our four-day trip and which was key to understanding what makes Tuscany one of the great classic wine regions.
Sebastian was explaining to us that in terms of style, Canalicchio di Sopra’s wines have something in common with red Burgundy – elegant, with a lightness of touch, not over-blown or over-extracted (a criticism that can be levelled at a good deal of Brunello!).
Admitting to being a big Burgundy fan, Francesco took up the point being made suggesting that three of the world’s best red wines (in his opinion) are made from three of the most problematic grape varieties – pinot noir, nebbiolo and sangiovese.
‘Because the grapes are not constant you get a greater variety. The grapes are more fickle and susceptible to their terroir and to weather conditions so they give a greater expression of where they are grown.’
Aha! I had never thought about wines in this way, but it made total sense and gave a whole new perspective for me at least – a light-bulb moment in my 26-year wine vocation!
The desire to let the terroir be expressed through the wine had led to a change in the way they make their wine, Francesco went on to explain. Now, the aim is for more purity of fruit and cleanliness in the wines, changing barrels more frequently, controlling temperatures during fermentation. ‘Classic, rather than super-traditional’ was how he summed up their approach.
We started with the 2014 Rosso de Montalcino. The Rosso is usually declassified Brunello di Montalcino, often made from young vines and should be a producer’s calling card, says Francesco. 2014 was a tricky vintage throughout Italy, but Francesco’s Rosso, though lighter in colour than it would perhaps usually be, had a lovely red-fruit character and definite elegance.
Moving on to the 2011 Rosso di Montalcino, we were treated to something of the ‘balsamico’ character that Francesco had said was a hallmark of his wines. By balsamico, he means a savoury character to the fruit, nothing to do with the vinegar of the same name! A very different vintage for this area produced a lovely pruney, meaty wine with a lot more chocolatey richness and a hint of coffee on the finish. The 2011 Brunello di Montalcino was still a little closed at this stage but with big, rich, powerful fruit, eliciting a few oohs and ahhs from the team!
2012 – an extreme vintage
Next came the 2012 vintage, described as ‘extreme’ by Francesco…’nothing was normal; everything was irregular!’ The winter was warm with no days below 0?C (they usually get around 30 days below zero), then in the middle of February they had lots of snow. They were concerned they might lose their olive trees. Then there were five months without rain and they thought they’d lose everything. Vines went into survival mode, all the energy going into the plant rather than the grapes. At the end of August came a couple days of rain which woke up the vines, then September was perfect. Phew!
Francesco said that 70% of the quality of a vintage is made in September, so there were sighs of relief all round.
So what was the final result of this crazy vintage? Francesco said that as a young winemaker (his first vintage was 2007), there was no precedent for these kind of conditions. With the help of the winery’s consultant they managed to make a good wine which, though a rather tough at first, is now opening out and showing great balance. It was an important lesson and a vintage that they will learn from as there are likely to be more extreme vintages in the future.
The 2012 Brunello di Montalcino had the aroma of a hot vintage but the balance of a more even year on the palate; ripe, full-on fruit with a savoury character and spicy finish showing just a hint of liquorice, it was showing well.
The 2016 vintage – early insights
Before leaving and a quick tour of the cellar, Francesco rushed off to get a sample of the still fermenting 2016 wine, still on its skins 18 days after picking. I was impressed with the members’ enthusiasm to try wine in its early raw state… this lot were keen! Francesco advised not swallowing as fermenting wine can give you an upset tummy and we were only on our first visit of the day!
And how was the 2016 vintage? Well, obviously, these are early days, but Francesco, like many of the winemakers we were to chat to over the coming days, was pretty pleased with the wine. It isn’t going to be the block-buster that 2015 was, and quantities are reduced a little, but all seemed pretty happy with the outcome.
Gianni Brunelli – a local hero
Onwards and upwards. We wound our way up to the hilltop town of Montalcino and on to the charmingly positioned property of Gianni Brunelli on a ridge looking out towards Monte Amiata in the south.
There are two vineyards: the original one is on the north side of Montalcino (where we’d just come from) at Le Chuise di Sotto. This plot of land was once owned by Gianni Brunelli’s father a share-cropper who was forced to leave his land and find work in the city of Siena in post-war times of hardship. Whenever he could, Gianni’s father, Dino, would come home to tend his vines, but when he died, Gianni’s mother was forced to sell the land. Gianni vowed that one day he’d buy back his father’s couple of hectares of vines. This he and his Sardinian wife, Laura managed to do in 1987.
A tale of passion and determination
Gianni and Laura had met in Siena, she was studying at the university and he worked for Ignis. His dream, though, was to open an old-fashioned inn. He was evidently quite a charismatic man persuading two old shop-keepers on via del Porrione in Siena to let him give it a go in their empty premises just of the main square. With his mother in the kitchen and Laura at his side, the Osteria delle Logge took off and was such a success that the couple were able to fulfil the dream of buying back the family plot in Montalcino. Later they bought the property the second property at Il Podernovone, with its four vineyards, Olmo, Oliva, Quercia and Gelso, all with very different aspects and soils, and with a tumble-down farmhouse which they repaired and made into a charming place to receive visitors.
Sadly, in 2008, Gianni died, leaving Laura heartbroken but determined to carry on realising their shared dream, something she has done with enormous zeal and passion, recently constructing a new winery at Podernovono, built tastefully and sympathetically into the hillside.
When we arrive at the farmhouse, Laura and her winemaker, Adriano, a cousin of Gianni, meet us. Ignoring the now distinctly British-style drizzle, they walk us over to the edge of the ridge to get the lie of the land and view the vines. Even if you knew nothing about winemaking, you’d be able to tell that this is a special spot. But lovely though it is, we were quite pleased to get out of the cold and into the cellar – toasty warm with the heat of the fermenting wine!
Adriano and two young interns took us from vat to barrel to taste the new 2016 wine and then last year’s wines, still in the huge wooden barrels (botti) – it was fascinating to try the wines from the separate vineyards and have the subtle differences pointed out to us, then to taste the young Brunellos made from a blend of these constituent parts. (We have just shipped the 2015 Rosso di Montalcino, Gianni Brunelli, which is superb, by the way!).
Now with our understanding of Brunello di Montalcino firmly established it was time to head back to Laura’s house for a light lunch Italian-style, prepared by Laura’s octogenarian Sardinian mother and friend. Plates of local cured meats and cheeses with wonderful salads of beans and tomatoes, all beautifully enhanced by the estate’s olive oil, were handed around by Laura and Adriano. We were made to feel completely at home and thoroughly spoiled and Laura clearly enjoyed sharing her wine and food with an appreciative, and by now, slightly noisy, crowd – once a restaurateur, always a restaurateur!
Before we left, Laura was keen to know what we’d thought of her new venture – the wine cellar that we’d ogled the night before. It is quite an investment for her, but she explained that she wanted the restaurant to become a venue known not just for its great food and local wines but a place where you could enjoy some of the finest bottles from around the world. Something appreciated by many local winemakers we were to find out, who regularly visit and meet up there.
Fèlsina Berardenga – Chianti on the edge
Our last port of call for the day took us back over the Chianti Classico border; just.
Fèlsina is located in the most southerly part of the Chianti Classico region: a geological ‘frontier land’, situated between the last hills of Chianti Classico and the Crete Senesi. Some of the vineyards here (this is a big estate – 600 hectares, 95 under vine) don’t even fall into the Chianti appellation. But there’s a huge mix of soil types and the southerly position is crucial to the character of the wines which are big, full and rich. Such is the variety of soils and aspects here that the estate bottles a number of single-vineyard wines as part of its portfolio.
We were greeted by Giuseppe Mazzocolin who has been in charge of the family property since the 1970s. Sebastian hadn’t expected to see him, thinking that he may have stepped back from duties, but both men were clearly delighted to see each other, which was rather touching. Giuseppe was once a teacher of Latin and history, he is softly spoken, inherently wise and everything he says is delivered like a line of poetry or philosophy. We were all smitten by the end of our tour!
Jumping back into our coach, we took to the hills, quite literally, climbing up the steep vineyard track so that Giuseppe could give us both a history and geography lesson (or, with hindsight, perhaps it was more like a philosophy lesson!) Fèlsina is an ancient property and Giuseppe wanted to explain its past and how it fits in with the story of this area.
While the heart of Chianti Classico is a wild, forested landscape, here, Giuseppe explained, you see the start of the Crete di Senesi – the low-lying clay hills better known for rolling fields of wheat and a truffles, rather than wine. He said that up here too you get the sea breezes and feel more of a connection with Montalcino than Chianti.
As well as being able to feel the sea breezes, Giuseppe said that he could also feel nature working around him up here: ‘the vines are not passive, I can feel them ‘working’ around me, interacting with the sun and the wind, and all the other elements that surround them…..’
Next we were taken into the historic Rancia farmhouse, which gives its name to the neighbouring vineyard and the wine made from it. Giuseppe explained how the building had once been a Benedictine monastery and that it was sited on an old Franciscan road, a path trodden by pilgrims in the middle ages on their way to Jerusalem or Santiago di Compostela. At one time, as often was the case with monasteries, the building became not just a hostel but a hospital – according to ancient documents, one of the first in Europe.
Giuseppe explained how Rancia is derived from the same word as ‘grange’ with its associations with both granaries and Granges (places to stay). But also, this land was traditionally share-cropped and agricultural land was organised into different ‘grangia’ or units. This was the way the land was worked for centuries up until comparatively recently.
Indeed, the war and post-war periods of poverty hit rural communities hard, but it was the terrible frosts of 1957 which killed off the olive groves that was the final nail in the coffin. At the time, olive oil was more important commercially than wine, in fact wine wasn’t commercialised as such but was produced for home consumption. Even without the devastating frosts, olive oil could not sustain the communities so this was a period of mass emigration both to the cities and abroad.
In 1966 Giuseppe’s father-in-law Domenico Poggiali took the brave step of buying the estate in a period when agriculture was really struggling. Domenico had made his money in logging and sheep-farming, but this new project was by no means one of vanity, he was determined to make great wine and olive oil with a focus on quality from the start. He employed a young team and later, some of the country’s top oenological consultants and his son-in-law, Giuseppe would come at the weekends before giving up teaching Latin and Greek to move here permanently in the late 1970s.
He spent time talking to some of the old farmers that were still around, learning his craft and finding out about the land from the people who had worked it for centuries.
One of the most important things they recognised was the rich diversity of different clones of sangiovese they had across their vineyards. They set about preserving these, identifying the best for propagating using massale selection and establishing the best sites for each type of plant. The work carries on; the attention to detail and respect for the land shines through in the wines as we would see later.
Pioneers of olive oil production
Making our way back down to Fèlsina’s ancient cellars we passed through an avenue of olive trees. Giuseppe explained that the property has more than 8,000 trees and that they were one of the first to identify different varieties and to bottle these separately. Since 2002 they have worked hard to establish the best sites for each variety (Italy has more than 600 different varieties!).
If Giuseppe had been passionate about wine and the vineyards, when he started to talk about olive oil he became even more animated, declaring that this was going to be his focus from now on. ‘There is still so much work to be done here,’ he declared, ‘we’ve barely scratched the surface; olive oil is what connects us to our past, it has been produced for millennia.’
We asked when they would be harvesting the olives, noticing that some of the fruit was black and some still green. Giuseppe explained that the best time to pick the olives is when they are just changing colour, ‘this is when the polyphenols are at their highest, making a product that tastes great and is also good you.’
But he went on to say that the most crucial aspect of olive oil production is getting the olives to the mill immediately, saying that ‘the best olive oil is on the tree!’
We had a quick tour of the ancient winery and ageing cellar (it was built around the middle ages, but they don’t know exactly when – there’s no documentation about it) with its rather incongruous modern art installation (not sure Giuseppe approved!) and steeply sloping floor down which to roll the barrels. Then we were a little relieved to go indoors out of the drizzle to taste, not just the wine, but the amazing olive oil too.
Single-varietal olive oils
This was a first for us all and Giuseppe guided us through the best way to taste the oils, each laid out in tiny polystyrene lidded cups before us. He told us to lift the lid, poke our noses in and inhale deeply to get the aromas before finally tasting (I found this easier when bread appeared to dip into the oils).
Pendolino – one of the most widely planted varieties in Italy, this is one of the most delicate too. Gentle, slightly sweetish flavour and delicate nutty character – good with fish or white meat, Guisseppe told us.
Leccino – also widely grown and quite delicate with more herbal notes, this too is ideal with chicken or veal dishes but also great on salads and with poached fish dishes.
Moraiolo – very common in Tuscany, this is quite a peppery olive oil; the classic choice for drizzling over a plate of mixed Tuscan starters or grilled meat.
Raggiolo – this ancient Tuscan variety has a fiery kick – a little like biting into rocket leaves and would be lovely drizzled over grilled vegetables, meat or fish or as an accompaniment to typically Mediterranean cooking.
As the first company to bottle single varietal olive oils, Fèlsina are certainly at the vanguard of top-quality olive oil production, but Giuseppe thinks there is still vast untapped potential in this area and now wants to dedicate the rest of his days to realising this. If this is a foretaste of what’s to come, it is going to be very exciting to see what he can achieve.
The Fèlsina wines
Next we were on to the wines, starting with the estate’s IGT Toscana chardonnay, I Sistri, in the 2014 vintage. This, their only white, is made from French clones of chardonnay fermented in barrel and given batonnage (lees stiring) and bottle age before release. It’s creamy apricot and melon flavours are topped off with a lick of lime and tangy, salty finish. It went down well with the team.
When one of us asked Giuseppe about the name, he said that he said that the Sistri were ancient instruments dedicated to the Isis, goddess of agriculture, fertility and rebirth, but also that it was a nod to a line of poetry by Giovanni Pascoli where he describes the sound of the wind blowing through a field of wheat; something which seem particularly apt for this vineyard which is surrounded by wheat fields.
Next came the estate’s Chianti Classico Fèlsina Berardenga 2014 DOCG (we currently list the 2013). Despite the tricky weather in 2014, the wine showed really well, demonstrating admirably some true Chianti characteristics; aromas of roses and redcurrants with a slight herbaceous edge.
We followed this with the single-vineyard Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva 2013 DOCG. The fruit for this wine had come from the vineyard we had driven up to earlier and was a notable step up from the straight Chianti and from a riper vintage too. Full, powerful with silky tannins and a long finish, it put smiles on our faces!
Fontalloro 2013 IGP Toscana came next and is from vineyards straddling the Chianti Classico and the Chianti Colli Senesi denomination and as such is highly representative of what it is that makes the Fèlsina wines distinctive; sangiovese ‘on the edge’! It displayed earthy, truffley flavours and spice on the finish – a wine to cellar and enjoy with rich dishes.
The next wine was the estate’s Gran Selezione Chianti Classico Colonia 2013. Having spent 30 months in new oak, this is smooth yet full-bodied with full-throttle delicious red cherry fruit. We were starting to get hungry!
Before we left, Giuseppe pulled out a 2005 Rancia Chianti Classico to show us how these wines develop. It was a real revelation and a great demonstration to the members who hadn’t tried Chianti with age before – smoky, meaty with hints of star anise and black pepper, it was a real treat.
Totally besotted with the poetic and lyrical Giuseppe and the equally evocative Fèlsina wines and olive oils, we took our leave and headed back to the coach, Siena-bound. After all this wine tasting we had worked up quite an appetite. We were all looking forward to walking into town for our dinner.
Tomorrow is another day and for us it would entail heading into the heart of Chianti Classico, to visit Castello di Brolio, where modern-day Chianti was born, Isole e Olena and the always fascinating Paolo de Marchi and Fontodi, who we had learned were still picking!
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Part two will follow soon. In the meantime, if you enjoy finding out what goes on behind the scenes on our wine buyers’ visits to our winemakers, visit the Travels in Wine™ pages on our website.