A Winners’ Trip to Tuscany: Part TwoBy
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 the second instalment from Societynews editor Joanna Goodman (read part one here).
Into the heartland of Chianti Classico for the winning members of our Tuscan tour starting at Castello di Brolio, the birthplace of modern-day Chianti, followed by an afternoon in the company of Paolo di Marchi at Isole e Olena to learn about the rebirth of Chianti in the post-seventies whicker-flask era and finishing up at Fontodi with Giovanni Manetti where the grapes were still coming in! A final flit to Carmignano country and Villa di Capezzana on the way to the airport completed our trip…
Good morning Siena!
What a difference a day makes. Opening up the shutters on our second morning in Tuscany, the sun streamed in and the view across the hills in the early-morning mist was stunning. The vision was made even more magical with the appearance of a host of hot-air balloons, hanging surreally in the sky before us. Today was going to be another great day.
Yesterday, our adventures in Montalcino and the very south of Chianti Classico were fabulous, despite the drizzle and cold. We’d found out about the fickle sangiovese grape and how it changes from place to place (even changing its name in Montalcino where it is called ‘brunello’), but today we would learn even more about its capricious nature, as well as the history of Chianti itself.
Castello di Brolio – the birthplace of Chianti
I had visited this famous Tuscan estate around 20 years ago and knew that we were in for a treat. Back then, we hadn’t gone inside the imposing castle – ancestral seat of the Ricasoli family since 1141 – so I was thrilled to learn that we would be taken on a guided tour.
We were met by Elisabetta, a cousin of the current Barone (Francesco Ricasoli), who took us first on a quick tour of the vineyards to point out the different aspects and soils of this vast 1,200-hectare estate, 230 of which are under vine. Most of the vineyards are south/south-west facing and at an altitude of 200-500 metres above sea level. 80% of the vineyard area is planted with sangiovese, but merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malvasia, plus experimental plantings are also grown.
Elisabetta explained that one of the most important aspects of the estate is the fact that they have more than 20 different soils on the estate, the five most important being: galestro (a schistous clay soil), sandstone, argilliti (sedimentary clay marl), limestone and alluvial soil.
She took us to the side of the road to point out the different rocks to help in our geological education. Some of the rocks dug out of the vineyard were huge – it gave you some idea of how hard the work must have been for the original land workers who would have had to haul out these rocks by hand. Nowadays, machinery and dynamite make it a little easier!
History of the Ricasoli family
Elisabetta explained that the castle was strategically placed almost mid-way between Florence and Siena and that the side facing Siena was constructed of red stone mirroring the buildings there. The north side facing Florence is made of ‘green stone’ (limestone), in homage to the architectural style of that city.
It seems that the castle has always been caught in between these two warring rival cities, but the ‘Iron Baron’ Bettino Ricasoli is credited with bringing about peace and unifying Italy, going on to become prime minister of Italy not once, but twice!
Whispering the secret password to get us inside the enormous castle walls, Elisabetta took us on a tour of the castle telling us more about the incredible Bettino, whilst showing us around the museum set up to display his many accomplishments.
He was a real polymath – an artist, philanthropist, scientist and politician – interested in the education of the children on the estate; he studied soils, collected shells, carried out early research into phylloxera; his studies of grape varieties and experimentation in wine led to the first written formula for Chianti as we know it today, identifying the importance of sangiovese in the blend.
Although the formula has been modified over the years, sangiovese is still recognised as the most important variety in the mix and today must make up at least 70% of the blend (80% for DOCG wines). The rest is made up of either native canaiolo or colorino, or non-native cabernet sauvignon or merlot. White grapes, which were included in the original formula (their acidity helps to fix the colour of the wine, among other things), can no longer form a part.
You can go on guided tours of the castle and I would thoroughly recommend it: there’s plenty to see and the castle is truly atmospheric in all its gothic splendour. Our host hinted that the building was still patrolled by the Iron Baron and someone heard her whisper thanks to no one in particular as we left.
Tasting the Castello di Brolio wines
We headed back down to the office building for a tasting with export manager Andrea Maiolatesi who took us through some of the more recent developments at Brolio.
Since the early nineties, the 32nd Baron of Brolio, Francesco Ricasoli, has been engaged in a massive replanting project. Using modern techniques, help from the university of Florence and also with the knowledge passed down over generations, he has set about replanting the vineyards, matching terroir to variety and identifying the best clones of sangiovese, matching vines with the best rootstock and increasing the vine density.
They are fortunate to have such a wide variety of different terroirs to play with all on one estate as well as a wealth of different vine stocks at their disposal.
Buyer Sebastian Payne MW had told us in the coach on the way here that he had stopped buying the wines for a while as they hadn’t been as good as they had been in the past, but that now they were really starting to shine again. All that hard work and endeavour is starting to reap dividends.
We started our tasting with the white Toricella 2015, a Tuscan IGT wine made from 75% chardonnay and 25% sauvignon blanc. Our group of members seemed to really like this wine. I can’t help but feel that the first wine of the day, especially a white in a predominantly red-wine region, always seems to have a little something extra about it! Sure enough the wine was beautifully poised – lush oaky vanilla flavours from oak-aged chardonnay combining with fresh, bright acidity from the sauvignon blanc.
Next came a red – Colledilà 2013 Chianti Classico DOCG – a Gran Selezione wine. This comes from a single vineyard and is 100% sangiovese. The Gran Selezione label is the highest category, above Riserva, and the grapes must come from the estate and the wine aged for a minimum of 30 months. It has to pass muster by a tasting panel from the Chianti Classico consorzio. Andrea explained that this wine isn’t produced in every vintage and that it undergoes 20 months in barrel and a further 10 in bottle. ‘It needs further ageing’, he said, but despite the smoky, cigar character, it wasn’t heavy but showed great elegance already. Sebastian says that he has bought a little for members, which will be released at a later date.
The Castello di Broilio Chianti Classioc DOCG 2013 is also a Gran Selezione wine made from 90% sangiovese, 5% cabernet sauvignon and 5% petit verdot. Still quite firm and ‘chewy’ with savoury, truffley aromas, there’s lots to get your senses around in this wine. It’s the big brother of the Brolio Chianti Classico, the 2013 vintage of which we currently list.
Casalferro Toscana IGT was the invention of Francesco Ricasoli when he took on the running of the business in 1993. His first release was a 100% cabernet sauvignon, in 1997 it was 50% cabernet 50% merlot but now, in the 2013 vintage, it’s 100% merlot. Why the change? After lots of tasting with his agriculturalist, Francesco decided that the merlot from this one particular vineyard was so amazing that it really warranted being made into the wine on its own. ‘Chiantified merlot’, Sebastian said and he must have approved of its sweet, herbaceous balsamic fruit as it’s currently on our List!
The final wine in the line-up was another relatively new invention of Francesco Ricasoli’s, made in tribute to Bettino Ricasoli. Called Brolio Bettino Chianti Classico DOCG 2013, it is made from predominantly sangiovese and is unfiltered and aged fo 18 months in large traditional barrels (botti). Lovely ripe red fruit with a touch of typical austerity, this could be drunk now or cellared further, we were told.
We were treated to lunch in Brolio’s restaurant, Osteria del Castello, before heading to our next appointment and very good it was too. Knowing that we were to be eating out in the evening too we tried to limit the number of courses taken (always tricky in Italy – even more so when there were some really interesting dishes on offer, created by chef Silvia Zinato).
If you are ever in the region, I’d recommend a visit, or you can even stay in some renovated cottages on the estate.
Isole e Olena – the story of Chianti’s rebirth
Winding our way up through the narrow forest roads, you really got a feel for just how isolated parts of Chianti Classico are. Sebastian said that the roads were much improved since he has been visiting these parts and that in the winter, the roads can still be quite hairy.
Sebastian explained that Paolo de Marchi’s family were Piedmontese and had bought up two neighbouring estates based around the hamlets of Isole and Olena in the west of Chianti Classico in the 1950s. The land had been share-cropped but, but as was the case with many such estates, the locals had abandoned the land for work in the cities.
It wasn’t until 1976 that Paolo took over the estate and he had to start practically from scratch with very little money. ‘The first years were all about survival,’ Paolo told us. ‘I had to borrow money from the banks to try to rebuild the tumble-down houses and replant the vineyards.’ It wasn’t until 1987 that Paolo planted his first vines, a project that is still ongoing. Importantly, he realised the significance of clonal variety in the vineyards; using massal selection he has managed to create vineyards with a great diversity of plant material.
‘Sangiovese isn’t genetically that strong,’ he explained, carrying on the refrain that we had picked up from our first visit in Montalcino. ‘It isn’t like cabernet sauvignon, for example, that gives a strong identifiable character, no matter where it is planted, sangiovese, is less easy to pin down, it’s more variable and sensitive to its surroundings, this is its beauty….think of it like the Alps, with lots of smaller peaks rather than the Himalayas with its great mountains!’
But he didn’t just stick to sangiovese, planting chardonnay, syrah and cabernet sauvignon amongst others too. Sebastian had told us that Paolo is always experimenting and trying out new things.
He took us up to the tiny hamlet of Olena where one family have moved in and are gradually renovating some of the ancient properties. Paolo explained that he has always tried to maintain something of the history of share-cropping – not-for-profit ventures such as bee-keeping, experimenting with ancient strains of wheat, orchards of apples and apricots – all great for maintaining biodiversity, essential for the good health of the land.
Before getting onto the subject of Chianti’s revival of fortunes (for which he can claim to be one of the trailblazers), Paolo shared his concern for the future. This is hard physical work and Paolo worries who will take over from him in the future. He knows it will be hard to let go of all that he has worked for but recognises that he will need someone to challenge and experiment as he has done and that he will need to stand back and watch them make mistakes.
‘I studied oenology at Turin university, but you don’t really learn about making wine properly until you get your hands dirty in the field and the winery.’ Looking around our band of members, I could see that some were wondering if they’d ever have what it takes to take on such a fantastic project – they were certainly under Paolo’s spell, anyway.
The perfect storm which dealt a huge blow to Chianti
The sun was starting to go down, but we were still wandering around the ruined buildings of Olena and Paolo was in full flow, telling us about the history of Chianti and the constant struggle to produce top-quality wine.
In the post-war period there was a demand for cheap bulk wine and, unfortunately, Chianti at that time was all about quantity and not quality. A surge in price for bulk wine (remember the old raffia flask wines?) didn’t help matters. The wine produced at this time was thin and pale in colour with white grapes helping to sweeten the rather tart, often unripe sangiovese. Sadly the DOC rulings came about in 1966 enshrining some of these bad practices and the mix of grapes in law before any of the moves to create more quality-focused wines could take hold. Things were only set to get worse when the oil crisis of the 1970s saw a slump in the bulk price of Chianti, just as the fruit from newly planted vineyards planted to meet the earlier high demand came on stream, creating a huge surplus. The bulk price fell dramatically leaving many estates on the verge of collapse.
But it’s an ill wind that doesn’t bring someone some good, and so it was for the top-quality producers of Chianti Classico. Innovative winemakers started to experiment with their wines, reducing the proportion of white grapes, introducing ‘foreign’ grapes like cabernet and merlot to beef out the sometimes austere sangioves, making 100% sangiovese wines and playing around with smaller barriques to age the wine in rather than the traditional botti. Because these wines flouted DOC regulations, they had to be labelled as simple vino da tavola, but their reputation grew and they started to gain attention, earning the sobriquet ‘Supertuscans’.
Paolo arrived just at the right time you could say. He focused on low-yielding clones, re-established the abandoned terraced vineyards and set his sights on producing quality Chianti. He too created his own Supertuscan, Cepperello, which is usually 100% sangiovese, though sometimes he adds in a little cabernet sauvignon to flesh out the mid-palate.
We walked through the cellars, dug into the rock below the house, and Paolo told us of his plans to extend – he’d like to be able to age his wines and release them when mature for the top restaurants. He said that when he first started out he had barrels all over the house, including the bedroom, ‘it nearly drove my wife mad!’
Back in the main building above the cellars, Paolo took us through his wines, talking all the time about changes in climate, in winemaking, in consumer tastes. But regardless of external forces, the Isole e Olena style remains one of elegance, with fragrance and drinkability to the fore. His 2014 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico DOCG has attractive red fruit and spice with a richness to the finish. It has a splash of syrah in the mix. ‘Table-friendly Chianti’ is how Paolo describes it and you can imagine it going beautifully with some of the lovely food we’d tried over the last couple of days.
Next came the 2013 Cepperello IGT Toscana. 2013 was a pretty good year in Tuscany, ‘like the old days with harvest in mid-October,’ Paolo said. Made from the best plots of sangiovese on the estate, the wine is aged in French and American oak barrels for 20 months before bottling. Very full-bodied but with the characteristic red-fruit character, the wine still feels like a sleeping giant. One for the cellar, I’d say.
We tried two of Paolo’s ‘Collezione Privata’ wines – a 2009 syrah and a 2013 cabernet sauvignon. Paolo said that he wasn’t trying to create another Supertuscan but felt that both the cabernet and syrah do well here. They are lighter than elsewhere and fresher, reflecting the terroir (though not to the extent that the sangiovese does.)
The sun was sinking fast and we had to take to the road again for our final appointment of the day at Giovanni Manetti’s Fontodi estate in Panzano. It wasn’t too far away, but the roads were going to be wiggly!
Fontodi’s Giovanni Manetti – a fellow trailblazer for Chianti Classico
Like Paolo de Marchi, Manetti is one of the heroes of modern-day Chianti. His vineyards are in a prime location in the conca d’oro (golden shell) of Panzano – a south-facing natural amphitheatre in a relatively high-altitude location for Chianti (400m above sea level).
It’s because of this higher position that they were still picking at Fontodi, the cellar hands were still scrubbing and washing down the grape reception area when we got there ready for the next day, which Giovanni said would be the end of the harvest. We worried that he’d had rain all day as we had in Montalcino, but he said that it had been fine here – a special spot indeed!
For someone who had been harvesting for weeks now, he still looked remarkably fresh and took off at a brisk pace to show us as much as he could of the winery in the fast-dying light.
He showed us the amphitheatre of vines stretched out below the village on the hill to the right and explained how he had gradually persuaded all his neighbours to follow his example and convert to organic farming (well, all but one neighbour, apparently!) We asked how he had managed to do this and he said that it was largely a question of demonstrating how much healthier the soil and therefor the grapes were. I imagine Giovanni’s charm worked a treat too. He is now using most of the principles of biodynamic viticulture too.
In the winery, there’s very much a hands-off approach too. Everything is designed to make the most of nature – the cellars built so that gravity can be used to move the wine from place to place (rather than being pumped). Giovanni said that he leaves the grapes sealed for 24 hours and lets fermentation start naturally, ‘last night it was so cold however that we had to heat up some of the vats!’ he revealed. When the sun went down it was decidedly chilly up here.
I couldn’t hear much of what was said on our tour of the winery as it was still very much a place of action even this late into the evening. One thing that did surprise me on our tour of the cellars was the number and variety of sizes of clay amphorae clearly being used for winemaking. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise as the Manetti family have been manufacturers of fine clay amphorae for centuries. Giovanni’s brother is in charge of that side of the business and apparently there is a boom in demand for amphorae for the wine trade with orders coming in from across the globe.
‘It’s a natural fit for our family,’ Giovanni explained. ‘We started experimenting with using the amphorae and we really like the results… there’s a degree of porosity which seems to work well with the wine.’ They certainly look impressive too and a great showroom for the terracotta side of the family business!
But it isn’t just terracotta that Giovanni is experimenting with. He proudly showed off his latest acquisition, a newly delivered huge wooden vat in the traditional botti style but made in Burgundy from French oak. We put our heads inside to breathe in the heady vanillin aromas. Giovanni wanted to see what the toasty oak character would give to the wine in this large format… interesting.
Time to taste Fontodi
It was quickly down to tasting through the range of wines before heading off to Giovanni’s local trattoria for dinner; we certainly didn’t want him to have a late night before the final push!
The first wine was a new project, from an historic vineyard high up behind Panzano in the village of Lamole owned by the Manetti’s cousins. Giovanni explained that the family had stopped bottling the wine in the 1970s as the high production costs made it unworkable. Now the two families are working together, the wine is fermented up in the village then brought down to Fontodi. Very different in style from the other Fontodi wines, Filetta di Lamole Chianti Classico 2014 is not a ‘big’ wine but it has structure and Giovanni says it can age well. It is very typical of the classic Chianti style, a little bit astringent and sinewy but with attractive fruit character and delicate aroma.
Fontodi Chianti Classico 2013 was next up (Sebastian said we had just shipped this wine to Stevenage). Giovanni explained that for him this wine represents their house style, a sort of vinous business card made from a blend of wines from different vineyards on the estate. I thought it had lovely brambly, bosky flavours with great depth and subtlety, and an exuberant freshness to the finish.
Next came a sneak peak at the 2015 vintage – a stunning vintage here as almost everywhere in Europe and certainly in Italy. Not yet in bottle, this was incredibly rich and full; Sebastian revealed that he had agreed to buy some from Giovanni for a special bottling for members to be released in several years’ time.
Fontodi’s Gran Selezzione wine, Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico, came next from the unusual 2012 vintage. The wine comes from a single vineyard – one of the most beautiful on the property with vines with an average age of 40-50 years. Made from 100% sangiovese, this weighs in at a powerful 15% alcohol, but it wears its power lightly, feeling quite gentle on the palate with distinctive notes of roses, herbs, tea and cherries vying for attention. Giovanni said it would keep 20 years at least.
The Fontodi Supertuscan, Flaccianello della Pieve, was to be our treat over dinner. No time to waste! We were ushered into a flotilla of waiting Land Rovers and whisked down to Giovanni’s fantastic local for dinner.
The journey back to Siena was a very sleepy one filled with wakeful dreams of fabulous food and wine, inspirational winemakers and beautiful scenery. Tomorrow would be our last day in this Tuscan paradise, but we were going to squeeze in a trip to Villa di Cappezana, north of Florence and en route to the airport.
Tenuta di Cappezana – a taste of history in Carmignano
This part of Tuscany, to the north of Florence, used to be a favourite spot for the Medici and other wealthy Florentines to take refuge at the height of summer. They built fine manor houses here and had hunting lodges and parks and of course, grapes and olives were grown. It is quite low-lying here compared to Chianti but although it is hot in summer, there’s a wonderful refreshing breeze that comes down from the Appenines.
Carmignano only has 12 producers in the consorzio and Cappezana is the oldest and largest – in fact, you could say that the DOC (and now DOCG) was created almost for this estate alone. What’s the main difference between Carmignano and Chianti? The biggest difference is that the wine must contain cabernet sauvignon. But this non-native is no newcomer here: it is thought that the Medicis brought it here and that the vines planted at Cappezana by ancestors of the Bonacossi family brought cuttings from Château Lafite, no less.
Today this large property is still in the hands of the Contini Bonacossi family. Bernadetta is in charge of the wine and her brother Vittorio, the olive oil. Several generations of the family are employed in the business and it was a niece, Sabrina, who met us and showed us round.
The first thing that struck us as we got off our coach was the heady scent of fresh olive oil. How exciting! They had started to pick the olives and we were to see the pressing of the olives first hand. Apart from the deafening noise of the press, the most surprising aspect of olive-oil production is the incredible luminous green colour of the new oil as it oozes out of the machinery.
We could hardly believe our eyes. Then we were treated to the sight of more ancient amphorae, some dating back as far as 1881! These beautiful old glass-lined pots are filled with the new oil where it stays for several weeks to allow the sediment to fall out.
If it wasn’t for the incredible smell you’d almost believe you were looking into large vats of Swarfega!
We risked sensory overload when we were taken into the lofts where the Capezzana Vin Santo was ageing gracefully. We went from room to room and saw tiny vat after tiny vat of cherry and chestnut wood in a variety of different sizes.
The grapes (mainly trebbiano) are dried on cane mats until January after harvest then fermented very slowly in these casks, caratelli, for four or five years. Yields are tiny and get less by the year, but the final product was amazing. Our guide explained that her aunty was passionate about these wines and thought they should be enjoyed on their own as meditation wines not spoiled by pairing with dessert.
Time was tight so we sat down to a light bite (four-course Tuscan traditional menu) before racing off to the airport. The house rosé, Vin Ruspo 2015, came first with fresh toasted bread and the new extra virgin olive oil. I think I would have been happy to stop there! Then came a fresh pasta and home grown baby Savoy cabbage sauce with Barco Reale di Carmignano 2014. This is the equivalent to Montalcino’s Rosso and is made from 70% sangiovese, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 10% canaiolo and 5% cabernet franc. It had a lovely ruby colour and smooth tannins accompanied by cherry/plum fruit.
Next with a traditional beef stew came two vintages of Carmignano Villa di Capezanna – the 2013 followed by the 2006. The wine is a standard mix of 80% sangiovese with the balance cabernet sauvignon and sees 12 months in new oak. The fruit is very perfumed and the wine shows real elegance; the 2006 was particularly soft and perfumed.
With the main course there followed the Riserva wine which they call Trefiano DOCG from the 2010 vintage. This is made from 80% sangiovese and 10% each of cabernet sauvignon and canaiolo. Refined, elegant and sophisticated, it was rich and chocolatey but yet with freshness still. Ghiaie della Furba IGT is their Supertuscan. Also from the 2010 vintage, it is made from grapes grown in the alluvial soils of the Furba River valley (ghiaie are pebbles). It is made from 50% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot and 20% syrah and given 15 months in oak. Less overtly fruity than the previous wines and quite savoury in character, it possibly still needs time. Finally a pear and raisin cake (which seemed quite British in style) came with a glass of 2009 Vin Santo Riserva.
It couldn’t have been a more perfect way to complete this Tuscan tour.
News & Content Editor
Many thanks to the estates who hosted us and to Peter Cox for some great photos.