Tag Archives: Sangiovese

Chianti classico finds its soul

The thirty miles between Florence and Siena takes you through one of the most famous landscapes in the world of wine.  But while the landscape has enduring appeal – gently undulating hills, now smart renovated farms, vineyards, cypresses, woodlands, more vineyards, medieval towns and castles – the wine is little understood.

Line drawing from Hugh Johnson, Tuscany and its wines

This is because the second half of the last century saw this famous name go down all sorts of blind alleys.  It is an undoubtedly an historic wine but one that has only recently begun to settled down with a clear identity. The debate has focused on:

  • the zone:  the classic area was given its first designation by Cosima III de’ Medici back in 1716 but in the 1930s the name of Chianti was bestowed on a vast area of central Tuscany between Pisa and Arezzo and well south of Siena.  It was not until 1996 that the Classico zone was redefined as the historic area between the two historic Tuscan cities.  But how many consumers know the difference between Chianti Classico and Chianti?
  • mass market or quality wine? The 1970s and 80s saw subsidised expansion of  land under vine at the lowest cost and with no regard for quality and the result.  The result was a lot of IMG_5366mediocre wine.  By contrast the Chianti 2000 project undertook research into clones of Sangiovese and has enabled Chianti Classico to head in the quality direction. It was spurred on of course by the fame and fortune that was being made by those creating the Super Tuscans, wines made from French grape varieties especially on the Tuscan coast.
  • the blend: at least since the later nineteenth century this has been Sangiovese plus secondary additions of other grapes to soften the wine.  Up to 20% of the other local grape varieties (usually Canaiolo, Malvasia nera, Colorino) gives you one result; 20% of Merlot, Cabernet or Syrah a completely different one.  So should Classico be a defined Tuscan style or a international red with a Tuscan twist?
  • oak ageing: should the wines be aged in small French barriques, older or newer, or in traditional, larger Slavonian oak barrels?  Or in other words should the fruit have a suave aroma of vanilla and tobacco or the more neutral if perceptible notes of balsamic, cloves and leather?

These questions were given a pretty clear answer in a blind tasting of Chianti Classico wines from the very good 2006 vintage, mostly sourced from the Wine Society.  The selection may of course simply reflect the preferences of their buyers but it showed that Classico does now have a clear identity:

  • pale to mid ruby red
  • distinctive aromas of sour cherry, fresh and dried fruit plus a moderate veneer of oak ageing
  • an absolute maximum of 10% of non-IMG_5388Tuscan grapes.  More than that and the wines may be good but they won’t be Chianti Classico in style, whatever it says on the label
  • good fruit on the palate (but certainly not fruit led) with moderate to high acidity and tannins. The wine at this quality level is  no longer either thin or tough as it was in the past, but it is no pushover either – it is quite rightly a wine of medium intensity, complex, lively and refreshing.
  • an excellent wine to accompany food including fatty/salty food such as prosciutto or tomato based sauces; good persistence.

Chianti Classico seems to have found its proper and distinctive place in a world awash with big, fruit led, wines – and long may it continue in this style.

The wines

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Monteraponi 2006, £14

90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, 12 months 70% in 23hl casks of Allier oak and 30% second passage barriques.  Pale ruby, medium intensity aromas, nice pretty palate of cherry leading in the raspberry and strawberry direction, lowish acidity, subtle.  Good plus.

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Chianti Classico 2006, made by Cecchi from the Villa Cerna estate, £7.50 Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino grapes, but the proportions not declared.  Mid ruby, not a fruity nose but spices, eg cloves, good fruit on the palate which faded in intensity quite quickly but then persisted at a lower level, good plus.  Worthwhile introduction to the style and held its own with wines up to nearly twice the price

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Villa Calcincaia 2006, £11.25

80% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, 10% Merlot, 18 months in Slavonian oak.  Initially muted nose which then opened up, quite perfumed, slightly intenser than average of this field, greater acidity, powerful, quite long if not very complex finish.  The relatively substantial amount of Merlot does not dominate the wine.

IMG_5364Brolio 2006, £13 The website unhelpfully says: Sangiovese with small addition of other grapes, but probably with some French grapes in the mix because of a deeper colour with a continuing purple tinge. Very good fruit but not a clear Sangiovese profile (?Merlot), good persistence.  Very good if heading towards an international style.

Fonterutoli 2006, £16. 90% Sangiovese; 5% Malvasia Nera and Colorino; 5% Merlot.  Purply red, denser colour; rich, clove nose; velvety dense fruit, more obvious tannins, very good if slightly international in style

Villa di Vetrice, Chianti Rufina Riserva 2006, £8.50: 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo.  Not Classico of course but from the Rufina area directly East of Florence.  The most traditional wine in this tasting. Quite a dense ruby, rich and demanding, Sangiovese very dominant, more tannic than acidic, very good plus if very traditional

An older wine for comparison’s sake, with thanks to David Thomas of Caviste:  Castello dei Rampolla, Chianti Classico riserva 1998, generally viewed as a decent but not outstanding year in Tuscany. No grape variety breakdown available.  Colour very similar to the 2006s, lively pale to mid ruby red, no signs of ageing; complex nose, cloves, some red fruit, leather, fading fruit on the palate but still quite drying tannins.  Drink up.

Favourites

The clear favourite of the tasting group was the Monteraponi with its subtle ripe fruit.  Then came Brolio.  My choice was the traditional wine from Vetrice in Rufina – but that’s just a matter of which style you prefer.

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Piemonte 2-3 Toscana: A weekend in Italy part 2

After the Capezzana tasting, the riches of Decanter’s Italian day at the Landmark Hotel.  This has to be the best one-day introduction to the Italian quality wine scene in the UK and maybe beyond.  It’s big – with 86 listed producers – and pretty representative, 13 out of 20 regions present, with Sardinia a surprising absence.  A third of producers are from Tuscany with 16 from Chianti alone, but then we all know about that English love affair.

Faced with these riches, you have to choose.  Janet and I concentrated on filling in a few gaps from our recent Piemonte trip and of course some Tuscan friends.  Here are  some of the highlights.

Damilano, Barolo

This winery, between the communes of Barolo and La Morra, has a great range of wines and of  single vineyard cru.  It is particularly pleased to La Morrabe expanding its holding in the important Cannubi vineyard from two to ten hectares, leasing the additional land from Marchesi di Barolo, which will give them 60% of the cru.  The investment is eye-watering, with one hectare of Cannubi in the €2m range.  And so is the responsibility of moving from 9,000 to 50,000 bottles of this wine per year.

Of the wines we particularly enjoyed Barolo Cannubi 2005, squeezed between two great vintages, now showing better than most expected, with a very rich, complex nose and dense fruit.  But a good word has also to be put in for the Barbera d’Alba 2007 in a modern oaked style (40% new barriques), but a good depth of fruit and quite luxurious.

Michele Chiarlo, Calamandrana, Monferrato

Michele Chiarlo, while being based in the Monferrato region, has important wines from many key areas of Piemonte – whites from the Roero and Gavi, Moscato, an interesting sparkling wine which we drank when we were in Alba, quality Barbera and of course Barolo and Barbaresco.  The highlights included the premium Barbera, La Court, Barbera d’Asti Superiore ‘Nizza’ 2006.  This wine, which from the 2008 vintage has acquired DOCG status, is treated like the top wine that it is – low yields of only 1 kg of grapes per plant, harvested late in the middle of October, half fermented and aged in larger 650 litre barrels, half aged for 12 months in barriques and then for a year in bottles. It shows brilliant dense fruit, complexity and typical great acidity, a powerful but balanced food wine.  The wine received the Gambero Rosso’s top grade of ‘three glasses’ in this excellent vintage, as well as in 2000, 2001 and 2003. It’s great value too at €26 – just over half what you would expect to pay for a Nebbiolo based wine of similar quality.  All the wines we tasted here were very good or excellent: Arneis Le Madri 2009 and Gavi di Gavi Rovereto 2009 were very good, Barbaresco 2006, Barolo Tortoniano 2005 and Barolo Cerequio 2005 were excellent.

So, so far on this football day, an early 2-0 lead to Piemonte.

Marchesi di Frescobaldi

In the Tuscany room, I noticed that Frescobaldi had bought a fine range of wines including top Brunello and Chianti.  But there was also the chance to taste two Super Tuscans, which draw on the cultural and religious symbolism of the Mediterranean, Lucente and Luce.  From these bottles beams the sun rays in embossed golden splendour – can the wines live up to this?  Lucente 2007 – the affordable option – has very good medium weight fruit, good counterbalancing acidity, a decent second level Super Tuscan.  Luce 2006, a 50/50 Sangiovese/Merlot divide, spends two years in barriques and emerges with deep, dense, colour and aroma (prunes and cherries, balsam), great fruit (the Merlot of course to the fore) and lively acidity (Sangiovese makes its mark). Perhaps a wine for tasting rather than drinking, but an excellent achievement nonetheless.

Montenidoli

Having tasted this company’s top Vernaccia di San Gimignano at Vinitaly, I was keen to catch up with at least the other whites in the range from this producer.  Maria Elisabetta Fagiuoli introduced the wines herself and fully justified the company’s slogan Sono Montenidoli – ‘I am Montenidoli’, or rather less likely, ‘They (the wines) are Montenidoli’.   This part of Tuscany is the product a great prehistoric salt-water sea, a land of fossil filled limestone which can produce whites of real character.

The Vernaccia tradizionale 2007 is the product of long maceration on the skins and has very good complexity on the nose though it is rather flatter on the palate. I love this style but if you prefer something cleaner, more fruit led, then there is Vernaccia Fiore 2007, with freshness and even delicacy, some fruit, pleasurable drinking.  Il Templare 2007 is a real marmite wine (Gambero Rosso agrees: these wines don’t leave you indifferent …): 70% Vernaccia, 20% Trebbiano gentile, 10% Malvasia bianca, a distinctly cheesy opening, then herbaceous notes, nice texture, good lemon and melon fruit. We also enjoyed Canaiuolo 2007, the unusual rosé made from Canaiolo,  a Tuscan grape usually relegated to being a blender with Sangiovese. Here it produces a nicely balanced, quite floral wine for summer drinking.

Caiarossa

Dutch investment, French know-how and biodynamic agriculture is the package at this very contemporary venture, near Riparbella close IMG_0159 to the Tuscan coast.  Dominique Génot remembered us from our visit on a tempestuously  rainy day in May 2007 and judging by the wines, since then things have gone from strength to strength.  A fine sweet wine and a dry white have been added to the entry level if excellent Pergolaia (90% Sangiovese) and the top wine, Caiarossa.  The grape mix for the latter sets new standards for a multi-grape wine in Tuscany – you could be in the southern Rhône: around 20% each of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, plus 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Alicante, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Mourvèdre.  Or to put it another way, that’s 40% Bordeaux, 30% Rhône and 30% Tuscany.   The show offered three vintages:

Caiarossa 2004: is now beautifully knit together, with a fabulous nose of ripe fruit and savoury wood, rich in texture, complex, satisfying.

Caiarossa 2005: squeezed between two great vintages, this shows more herbaceous notes but still very creditable.

Caiarossa 2006: do not drink this wine yet!  Not that there is anything wrong with it but it is going to be outstanding with its great depths of fruit, zippy acidity, so much potential  – currently very young.

Oro di Caiarossa 2006 and 2007: late harvested Petit Manseng, slow strong pressing of whole bunches, two days of cool maceration, then barrel fermented for  eight months.  A delicious sweet white with apple and nut flavours.  The 2006 shows some oxidation (there are risks in that long slow fermentation), the 2007 is exactly what the maker intended: a sweet wine with freshness, notes of acacia honey, good fruit, very good.

We left the tasting early – me for football reasons, Janet heroically filled in the time shopping.  The cup final, which looked like it could be a mismatch between  the top and bottom teams of the Premier League, exceeded expectation with a match full of incident and interest: competitive, lots of goal mouth incident, bad tackles, two missed penalties.  Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners but somebody ought to explain to them that the ball is supposed to go between the posts, you don’t get any points for hitting post or bar.  To complete the perfect Italian weekend in England, the winning cup final manager was of course an Italian.

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A weekend in Italy: Capezzana

As the saying goes, if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, then the mountain will have to come to Mohammed.  The past weekend not only offered not only the ending of the English domestic football season with the show piece of the FA Cup final, but also a Tuscan wine tasting in Hungerford, Berkshire and Decanter’s Great Italian Fine Wine Encounter in Marylebone in central London.   Apparently the Chelsea team were staying at the Landmark Hotel for the final, venue of the tasting, but we saw no sign of them expect for a large police presence. 

The evening tasting at the wine merchant Caviste’s new Hungerford branch was a great opportunity to learn about Tuscany’s smallest fine wine area, Carmignano. What it lacks in size (only 14 producers), it makes up for in history, location and interest.   10 miles NW from Florence, the area is marked by the presence of the Tuscan nobility and especially their hunting villas and lodges. While the Medici are critical to the history of wine in the area, recent research has found documentary evidence of wine making in 804, a remarkably early date.  The Etruscan presence in the area makes it highly like that wine making was going on centuries before the Christian period. 

What really marks Carmignano out in wine terms is the custom of growing at least some Cabernet Sauvignon alongside Tuscany’s Sangiovese.  This has become commonplace in Tuscany since the success of the so-called Super Tuscans in the 1970s and 1980s, often to the detriment of the lighter, more characteristic, local grape.  However, in this area the Cabernet was introduced by the Medici in the 1700s from Bordeaux – aristocrats were talking to each other and wanting to be like each other back then, just as the Super Tuscan classic, Sassicaia was the result of an aristocrat wanting to ‘grow his own’ Bordeaux after the second world war. 

I approached these wines with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.  They have a great history but I rarely like the Sangiovese ‘plus French grape variety’ wines.  You have to agree that Sangiovese is normally not a big, bold wine, but if you want big and bold there is no shortage of them either from Italy or from other countries.  The recent increase of allowed ‘other grapes’ in Chianti Classico is a case in point – there comes a critical tipping point, certainly above 15%, at which the more imposing French varieties drown out the particular charm of fresh, acidic, sour cherry Sangiovese. 

But I have to say that Carmignano has got this more or less right.  The quality appellation  (DOCG) calls for at least 50% Sangiovese, 10-20% of Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc, up to 20% Canaiolo IMG_0158nero (another local grape) plus other minor varieties.  Leading this tasting, Beatrice Contini Bonacossi explained that her family wines at the largest of the Carmignano estates, Capezzana, have stuck to the rule of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon (the twentieth century ones from Ch. Lafite no less) and 10% Canaiolo, or an 80/20 split between the two main varieties in the top wine. 

We start by tasting a good rosé, Vin Ruspo 2009 with a sweet, juicy nose, rounded with good fruit in the mouth, quite weighty and very food friendly.  Particularly good is the wine made for everyday drinking, Barco Reale 2007, named by Beatrice’s father after the noble hunting enclosure.  Here the Cabernet contributes to a wine of mid ruby colour, darker than if it were just Sangiovese, but still clearly Tuscan in style.  A good nose of violets, plum and cherry is followed by dense plummy fruit, a little bitterness and typical, if by Tuscan standards, mild acidity.  Beatrice says this her everyday bottle and you really could not complain about that! 

The premium wine is Villa di Capezzana, in this case, 2006.  The wine, 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, is aged in tonneaux for 12-15 months, a compromise between the larger traditional barrel and the smaller French barriques.  Only 30% are new each year, so the new oak aromas are not pronounced. It is a more powerful wine, which comes at you out of the glass, with aromas of darker red fruits and some toast and perhaps even a chocolate note.  It has superb acidity and dense fruit, but the wine, even at this young age, is balanced and drinkable.  It has a long, long life ahead of it; from this great vintage it would be outstanding in 10 years time and long after that.  

The penultimate wine is a proper modern Super Tuscan, ‘pebbles of the stream’ or Ghiaie della Furba, 2006, now 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Syrah, aged in small French barriques.  It has great fruit, from blackcurrant to plum, and an intriguing bitter, tannic finish, very Italian, the land battling back against the non-Tuscan grapes. 

After a light supper, we taste another great treasure of the estate, its Vin Santo, 2003. It is made in the traditional manner by drying of the grapes on racks for months before making wine and then long slow fermentation and maturation in very small barrels (caratelli) of a range of woods for five years.    The anticipation/anxiety must be something when you finally open those barrels with their much diminished content – is it going to be the nectar of the gods or is it going to be five years leading to nothing?  This example was definitely the former, on the drier side, one of the subtlest I have ever tasted with very grown up chestnut, raison and even herby dimensions.  Very refined, it coats the mouth and lasts and lasts and lasts. 

Capezzana have fairly recently introduced a top quality Trebbiano – not a combination of words you can often use in Tuscany!  The old war horse, the peasant’s favourite for its productivity, rarely produces anything more than a basic white accompaniment to food.  I am looking forward to tasting it, hopefully at the estate. 

This was a great introduction to Carmignano, to Capezzana, and a fine start to the Italian weekend.

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Vinitaly 4: high altitude Sangiovese

Sangiovese, the most important red grape of Tuscany, is famously variable.  It produces both thin sour wine (though today there is really no excuse for this) and some of Italy’s most magnificent, structured and age-worthy reds.  The May 2010 edition of Decanter magazine gives the Brunello riserva of 2004 from Biondi-Santi an amazing 20/20 score – apparently the perfect wine, even if it is a breathtaking £200 a bottle.

A huge range of Sangiovese styles was available of course at the recent Vinitaly.  My tastings of the wines from the Maremma (eg the very traditional and wonderful Podere 414 or the warm climate Parmaletto wines of Montecucco) will be added to the Tuscan Maremma pages of this site.  Here I want to concentrate on a favourite Chianti zone, cool Rufina, and one classic wine from southerly Montalcino. 

The Rufina zone is easy to reach as it is basically just east of Florence on the steep hills which rise from the Sieve river.  It is the coolest of the Chianti zones and can produce the most wonderfully austere wines with long ageing potential.  Fortunately this style is not to everyone’s taste so the wines are good value too.  

The Rufina consortium’s stand at Vinitaly gave a wonderful opportunity to taste a number of wines side-by-side and to compare each growers normale with the riserva.  Mind you, there is nothing ‘normal’ about these normali. 

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Here are the two offerings from the large firm of Galliga e Vetrice.  A trick of the light makes the normale on the right look rather darker than in reality, while the ageing of the riserva can clearly be seen in the brown tinge on the right.  The latter is available at a great price from Berry Bros.  

It would be tedious to rehearse all the wines here.  The pair shown above illustrate the two main styles, with the normale (2008) having wonderful freshness, a real zing and some classy minerality. By contrast the riserva of 2007 is very young and still showing tobacco and leather notes from oak ageing and is very tannic, very distinctive and will no doubt be wonderful in 5-10 years time. 

We also tasted wines from the very cool sites of Marchesi Gondi (their 2005 riserva has lots of potential but is still a sleeping giant), while Castello di Trebbio riserva 2006 has more fruit and is already drinking well – but then it was a better year.  We also enjoyed Dreolino’s two offerings. 

By complete contrast, at the Castello di Argiano stand we managed to catch up with a modern cult classic.   Argiano is one of the big names of the world famous Montalcino area which is a relatively high plateau with a distinctive geology and a local form of Sangiovese known as Brunello, the ‘little dark one’.  From these special berries – and three to five or more years in large, neutral, oak barrels – emerge wines of great complexity, structure and longevity.  Our short tasting started with the Brunello di Montalcino of 2005. Such is the richness of the experience at Vinitaly that you can occasionally skip all the ‘lesser’ wines and start with Brunello.  2005 was a mixed year but this now has nicely browning edges to its medium ruby colour, an attractive nose of red fruit and violets, and good balance. 

But the bottle we really wanted to taste is simply called Suolo – soil.  When we visited Argiano four years ago, I tried to buy a bottle of this not knowing how much it cost (€70), but it was sold out.  It is not Brunello in its typical style at all but a wine made from the same 100% Sangiovese grapes from 50 year old vines.  The principal difference is that the wine is aged for 18 months in new and one year old barriques, not the traditional larger botti.    This treatment means that it is a rather more modern style, with more obvious vanilla and leather aromas from the new oak, luxurious rather than austere. But the real triumph in this 2007 vintage is the beautiful, ripe fruit which shines through.  There is plenty of room in my (sadly hypothetical) grand cellar for brilliant new wines of this quality alongside traditional Brunello which will go on developing for years or decades. 

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Wine, people, place: Nicholas Belfrage’s and Jon Wyand’s Tuscany

Nicholas Belfrage MW, The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy.  A regional and village guide to the best wines and their producers, Fine Wine Editions, Aurum Press, London, 2009 

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Nicholas Belfrage is a well-known figure on the English wine scene, a wine trader and author of the best general introduction to Italian wine.  An American, now based in Chianti Rùfina, he is particularly well placed to comment on Tuscany.  As he declares here, he set out to make his mark on the English wine scene, obsessed with Bordeaux, by specializing in then unfashionable Italy while establishing his credentials by getting his MW.  His subversive undermining of the stuffy English scene has been a conspicuous success.  He has been helped by the glamorous image of all things Italian (or rather, selected images of Italy), given new life since the 1990 World Cup.  But every page of this book makes you want to visit the places he writes about, to meet the people (including the winemakers whose pictures appear here) and to try the wines. 

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Writing about wine is inherently difficult.  You can avoid the problem by focusing on all sorts of things, many of them interesting and helpful: the people, the land, agriculture, wine making, the science or even the wine market.  But none of these convey much about the wine itself.  Tasting notes are, well, literally dry, but often helpful and perhaps the best we can do.  Belfrage tackles the problem with  a good mix of people, land, wine craft and tasting notes.  But his key attribute is  enthusiasm, laced with a dry sense of humour.   His excellent two volume survey of Italy is now beginning to date (1999 and 2001) and perhaps suffered from a low budget – small page size, basic maps, no colour pictures.  In this new book all this is put to right.  He is hugely helped in his task by the photography of Jon Wyand.  (The photos in this post are Jon’s – thank you to him for providing them.) Although described as a specialist in wine photography – and the book has its share of trademark Tuscan landscapes – what really jumps off the page are the portraits of owners and wine makers.  So, off the page, come a host of Tuscan aristocrats, technical magicians, Tuscan and Italian sons (mainly) of the soil, English, French, Dutch and German émigrés and growers.  A few important women have also made their mark:  Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti, Rita Tua, Elisabetta Geppetti and even the Englishwoman, Charlotte Horton at Castello di Potentino (see picture). 

Trebbiano_TUS9656Volpaia.VinSanto

The heart of the book is the series of profiles of wine people and places, drawing no doubt on the magazine format of ‘The World of Fine Wine’.  There is no satisfactory English word to translate cantina – the place you make and store wine , but which stands for the whole enterprise.  ‘Cellar’ is too static, winery too technical, company too coldly commercial.  In these pages, you get a flavour of all these and more:  the people who give the work its character, the places that they own or where they work, the vineyards and micro-climates, the grape varieties they have chosen to work with, their wine-making and marketing philosophy.  The format also allows selective tasting notes, with, a rare treat in Italy, notes from tastings through a range of vintages. Biondi-Santi, the inventor of the style of Brunello, gets the most extensive treatment, with ten wines from 2004 back to 1891. 

The profiles of place and people are preceded by a fine introduction – history, soil types, grape varieties and winemaking.  Belfrage’s great value here is his detailed knowledge of current trends, experiments with clones of Sangiovese in the vineyard and blending in the cantina

Are there any downsides?  With high quality reproductions of Wyand’s excellent photographs, there was the temptation to make a great ‘coffee table’ book with large format pictures, but actually the smaller format is more practical and can be read.  Belfrage’s modest forays into Umbria, Le Marche and even southern Romagna make sense, even if they are only 10% of the book but it might have been better to stick to Tuscany, a big enough subject in its own right. 

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The lists of ‘the best of the best’ are rightly kept to the very end – the Tuscan wine scene is so varied it would have been shame not to enjoy its diversity before the guilty pleasure of handing out the prizes.  Of course this could lead to hours of debate.  I was delighted to see that Poggio Le Scalette’s Il Carbonaione gets an honourable mention here in ‘Ten Great Sangioveses’ – we have just drunk a memorable bottle of the 2004 which we were given when we visited. There will always be differences of opinion – no Vecchie Terre di Montefili for example; and is the Rothschild-backed Rocca di Frassinello too new to make the cut for its elegant supertuscans? At least having ten categories makes this a less arbitrary exercise than most listings.  Let’s be honest, testing the lists would only make sense with an open bottle or two. 

And the best moment of all? – a really Italian moment when Belfrage nominates his own landlord, a relatively unsung if large scale family winery, Galiga e Vetrice, as outstanding, amid the rich and famous.  Any Italian will tell you that the food in my village, the wine in my local vineyard, is categorically the best.  This is not a exercise in evaluation but an axiom.   Belfrage has a reason of course, apart from keeping in with the neighbours: the wine is made in a traditional style that has virtually passed away.  No exotic consultants, French grape varieties,  temperature controlled stainless steel, micro-oxygenation or expensive new oak here. Rather, traditional grape varieties and wine-making, then just waiting for the wine to come around, as the wines are aged for indefinite periods in large, neutral casks or glass.  He tells us that at the time of writing the 1988 was still being held in bulk … and the current vintage of Vin Santo is 1992.   And guess what, one of the  named riservas is named Nicholas Belfrage MW Selection … But all this is not just a mutual admiration society.   It’s finding these complete one-offs – surrounded by highly competent modern wine-making in recognisable styles – that continues to make Tuscany irresistible.   You could call it terroir, but really it’s a distinctiveness which is comes from the combination of people and place, expressed in the glass – il mio paese. 

 Finally, unlike Monty Waldin’s touring guide to the wines of Tuscany, this volume makes no attempt to include the good wines and the everyday  wines.  But as an introduction to the fine wines of Central Italy this is ottimo.  A glass of top Sangiovese anyone?

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Old style Chianti

Old style Chianti probably conjures up wicker baskets (in Italian – fiasco, which seems a little harsh) and thin, sharp wines.   In truth much of the cheap, commercial wines of previous decades was pretty awful.  Today’s wines are vastly better – quality wine making, vibrant if still sharp fruit, well judged use of oak-ageing in the premium wines.  If anything, the temptation recently has been to make international style wines with the Chianti Classico rules allowing up to 20% of grapes other than Sangiovese. That’s fine if the other grapes are Cannaiolo, Colorino or Ciliegiolo, the local varieties but not if they are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah.  The latter are such powerful characters that less than 10% will change the character of the wine completely.  Most growers have now understood this and retreated to a more traditional stance – Sangiovese plus local varieties, and if you must, a small percentage of French grape varieties for colour and upfront fruit. 

IMG_4284 A few growers have had nothing to do with these changing fads.  They can’t be called complete traditionalists because if they were they should still be adding some white grapes to their blends as happened in the past.  But they have stuck to Sangiovese plus locals.  Equally importantly they are looking for a style that does not focus on primary fruit flavours.  This Chianti Rufina, from a north easterly part of Chianti, East of Florence, is genuinely different – it’s perfumed.  There is some cherry fruit there, and some dried fruit flavours, but there is also something which has elements of both mushrooms and, well, Turkish delight …  The blend here is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo nero.  This style takes time and this bottle was five years old and had many years ahead of it. But it’s a wine to celebrate because it couldn’t really have come from anywhere but the northerly hills of Chianti.  Available in the UK from both the Wine Society and Berry’s, between £8.50 and £10.50 a bottle.  Grati/Galiga e Vetrice also produced some premium wines and some great Vin Santo, but they don’t appear to be available here.  A good excuse for another trip to Chianti …

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Castello Banfi – a modern Brunello

As you drive from the south towards the high plateau on which the hill town of Montalcino sits in Southern Tuscany, you can’t really miss the presence of Banfi.  In a mixed landscape of farming, woods, hunting land and of course vineyards, once you cross the River Orcia you see first an enormous factory of a winery – there is no other word – and then the romantic castle. 

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The winery, down on the plain, is a bit of a blot on the landscape.  But then, we can be too snooty about this – it provides employment, wealth and a serious commitment to lifting the standards of everyday wine, which is its mainstay.  So Banfi is a big, big player.   

The firm’s everyday wines are good, modern bottles. They show lots of innovation with an unusually wide range of wines for Tuscany – a full range of international grape varieties and even a Pinot Grigio, all carried forward by expertise in vineyard and winery, and the power of the brand.

But brands don’t really get prestige unless they have quality wines.  And Banfi has to succeed with its Brunello as, after all, we are not far from the walls of Montalcino.  This variety is part of the large Sangiovese family, capricious, given to variation, difficult to grow and vinify well, prone to excess acid and astringency.  In short, as capable of the bad and the ugly as the good and the great. 

Historically, Brunello was a bit of a beast to be tamed.  The word is simply the local name for the type of Sangiovese grown here.  As it hints (brunello – brunette!), the grape produces wine that is darker than it relatives, with high tannins and acidity.  Back in the nineteenth century the Biondi-Santi family created a style for it: put simply, make wine, put in large barrel and wait for five years for the beast to calm down.  Hopefully what emerged was a wine of complex, aged fruit, scents of liquorice and tobacco, long lived.  But that takes time and so is an expensive proposition.  A tasting in London of the Banfi’s top wines showed how they at least are tackling this challenge. 

The tasting at Decanter’s Fine Wine Encounter, IMG_4204November 2009, was led by Cristina Mariani-May, part of the owner’s family.  She gave us the family philosophy, emphasising raising quality through investment and research. The wines themselves spoke clearly of how Banfi want to re-position Brunello as a more immediately attractive wine. 

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Brunello Poggio alle Mura is only made in exceptional years. The 2004 is a complex wine, attractively ruby in colour, with fresh and dried fruit flavours and a luscious topping of French oak, vanilla especially.  In the mouth it is refined but with a great streak of acid. I had a double reaction to it. On taking the very first sniff, I wrote down ‘happiness’ for its excellent Sangiovese character and immediate appeal. And then I thought – but it’s very atypical for Brunello and, more importantly, what is going to happen when the veneer of French barrique wears off?  But we will only be able to tell that in another 5-10 years …

IMG_4197  You can clearly see the effect of even short-term ageing in the picture of the 2004 (on the left, with the brighter red) and the 2001 (on the right, developing some orange at the rim).  This second wine was more traditional, a nose of sour cherries, preserved fruit and plums, a wine that you have to go toward, rather than it leaping out of the glass at you.   That may answer the question in relation to the 2004 (and all may be well) but certainly, it is immediately appealing.  Banfi know about modern (American?) consumers and that they don’t want to wait to drink their wine. 

The older wines are more typical, all well-made, with no signs of oxidisation common in more average wines. 

Brunello 1999 – musky, beautiful fruit, much better balance now between overall weight in the mouth and acidity

Brunello 1997 – mulberries and plums, earthy or mushroom notes beginning to develop, balsam, still refreshing

Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1995 – a star wine, powerful notes of fruit, liquorice, velvety, still good acid and a drying finish

Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1990 – a wine which split opinion, some found the nose vegetal and earthy , with fading fruit, others something closer to eucalyptus or menthol, rounded in the mouth, acidity now a side show.  On the way down or over?

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Thanks to Decanter and to Banfi for this tasting – probably the best £10 we have spent for a long time!  Banfi’s Brunellos in their current style won’t please the traditionalists.  But they will keep Brunello, this great expression of Sangiovese, in the shop window of the world’s great red wines. 

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