Wojciech Bońkowski
Wine & tea writing

An ocean of Chianti

Chianti DOCG: 110 million bottles and almost as many issues.

A statistical Chianti

A statistical look at my tasting of 97 Chiantis from 2009 – for fun and, hopefully, education.

Chianti 2009: moving on

First taste of 2009 Chianti Classico. Looking good – producers have coped well with this hot, dry vintage.

Extra virgin upper crust

Fantastic tasting of extra virgin olive oils from the DOP Chianti Classico area. Controlled appellation oils are really classy – unlike for wine, DOP for oil is a seriously reliable endorsement.

Losing breath

Is Chianti becoming Italy’s Roussillon? Sounds absurd but a string of recent hot vintages such as 2007 is driving alcohol levels higher than ever. I don’t enjoy Chianti at 15%. Luckily there’s an amount of very good – and refreshing – 2008s too. Click to find out the best ones out of 80 tasted.

The wines of Mannucci Droandi

I received this nice box of samples from the Mannucci Droandi estate in Chianti, after a nice exchange of e-mails with owner Roberto Giulio Droandi. This 30-hectare property in Caposelvi hit the headlines recently with its wines from experimental grape varieties that were recovered from a pool of ancient clones in a programme with the Istituto Sperimentale per la Viticoltura in Arezzo, under the umbrella name of Chianti Classico 2000.
Chianti, we all know it, is made from the Sangiovese grape, and Sangiovese’s ups and downs as a variety define the critical history of Chianti and its Tuscan siblings: Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. And as we all know as well, there are some subsidiary grapes customarily blended into Sangiovese according to the Chianti ‘recipe’ worked out by Bettino Ricasoli in the 1860s: Canaiolo, and the white Malvasia del Chianti (as well as Trebbiano Toscano which is a later, and less happy, addition to the recipe). Hardcore Chianti fanatics might well remember some of the more obscure additive to Sangiovese, such as Colorino, Ciliegiolo, Malvasia Nera and Mammolo (some of these are seeing a minor renaissance and are occasionally made as varietals).

Well, as we learn from the Chianti Classico 2000 programme, it’s not the whole story. Historically – i.e. in pre-phylloxera and pre-scientific replanting times in the early 1800s and 1700s – there were far, far more varieties grown in Chianti, and Sangiovese was anything but dominant in the vineyards. The plantings were universally mixed and a single harvest was operated where all varieties were picked and then pressed and vinified together. This traditional system persists in some areas of Germany and Austria where it is known as gemischter Satz whereas in France or Italy, the complantation has been largely abandoned. Italians have a term for a blend of grapes made in the vineyard and vinified together: uvaggio.

Now here are some of the excitingly obscure name of historical Chianti varieties that were examined with the CC2000 study:

Albano, Cascarella, Lugliola, Malvasia Bianca Lunga, Orpicchio, Perugino, Salamanna, San Colombano, Trebbiano Dorato, Vermentino Bianco, Zuccaccio (these are all white) and Aleatico, Canaiolo, Colorino del Valdarno, Foglia Tonda, Formicone Bonamico, Grossolano, Lacrima del Valdarno, Mammolo Nero (in several subvarieties including Primaticcio, Piccolo, Sgrigliolante) Mammola Tonda, Morellino, Passerina, Primofiore, Pugnitello, Rossone.

Before you smile asking ‘who on earth needs all these obscure useless grapes’, it is worth remembering that many grapes that were on the verge of extinction just a decade or two ago are now firmly established as some of the world’s most exciting. (Viognier is one example).

 Vineyards in Ceppeto. © Mannucci Droandi.

The best-known of these revived Chianti grape varieties is Pugnitello, the best-known version of which is bottled by the large estate of San Felice. It’s an impressive wine showing Pugnitello as grape with massive colour, great concentration, powerful structure coupled with very sensual fruit. My only criticism is that it is very unlike Chianti as we know, much the opposite of Sangiovese, and so its possible use in a Chianti blend is problematic.

Mannucci Droandi, meanwhile, are offering varietal bottlings of other obscure historical grapes. The Barsaglina 2007 is a wine of some body and extract, quite tannic on end (I wonder how much of this derived from wood, of which there’s obviously been a little), rich but restrained and structured – which perhaps sums up the Chianti terroir somehow. The colour is moderately deep and the bouquet is modest: a little reductive and animal at first, with some bright red berries underneath. The fruit register and highish acidity are in fact Sangiovese-reminiscent, though the fierce tannins are not. Made in a rustic, challenging, not very elegant style, but surely with interest, though it’s hard to see exactly what this would contribute to a Chianti blend. The Foglia Tonda 2007 is altogether a better wine, with a cleaner and deeper aroma and a more balanced palate where the tannins are more integrated; there is some wood support but better digested than the Barsaglina above. An attractive wine with broad, assertive fruit and very good concentration, smoother and easier than a comparably sized Sangiovese (indicating Foglia Tonda as a softening and perhaps enriching grape in the blend). 

 The Ceppeto property. © Mannucci Droandi.

Yet the most excitement comes with the regular, Sangiovese-based Mannucci Droandi bottlings. The Chianti Colli Aretini 2007 (coming from the historical core of the estate, the Campolucci vineyard located outside the Chianti Classico zone) is a typical Chianti with strong acids and mineral tannins, and plenty of seriousness too: most of Colli Aretini wines are for immediate drinking while this, aged in oak, can easily wait 4 or 5 years. Good impressions too for the Chianti Classico Ceppeto 2006 (Ceppeto is the name of a different, recently acquired property), riper and broader than the Colli Aretini, structured and tight and still somewhat dominated by the oak and extract, but with good fruit, length and potential. The Chianti Classico Ceppeto Riserva 2006 basically continues along the same lines, extractive and powerful with a tight mineral kernel wrapped in semi-intense crisp cherry. I’ve retasted these 2006s recently in Tuscany and they are evolving quite well (if slowly). Really distinctive and engaging stuff for a winery that only started bottling in 1998. 

Tuscan winter.

Source of wines: samples sent by the winery.

Apenninic wine

Rúfina is a town east of Florence that produces, on just 750 ha of vineyards, a red wine from the Sangiovese grape that is labelled Chianti Rúfina. Like many Italian appellations it invites journalists to come and taste through the new vintages and so I’m in Florence to report for you on the 2007, 2008 and other trivia.
Rúfina is a zone with many assets. It is well located on the Western slopes of the Apennines, rather high by Tuscan standards (some vineyards up the 650m mark) on very good dolomitic soils. On paper, in a good sunny vintage with a prolonged autumn (Sangiovese’s favourite conditions) it should produce an exciting medium-bodied red wine with good structure, minerality and considerable ageing potential.
Yet it rarely does. The level of bad wines here – oxidised, reduced, vinegarish, dirty – is the same as everywhere else but there’s a surprisingly high proportion of average stuff: not downright bad but just devoid of any character. Or perhaps it’s not so surprising after all when you look at the figures: on 750 ha of vines there are just 23 bottlers operating (the similarly sized DOCG Barbaresco in Piedmont has 10 times that). Rúfina is dominated by large industrial players and there isn’t enough competition between the small estates to guarantee a steady increase in quality. Viticulture in many places is still primitive.
Rúfina has two world-known names: Frescobaldi and Selvapiana. The former are producing – besides an ocean of every conceivable Tuscan wine from Chianti to Ornellaia – two definitely engaging Rúfina bottlings, Nipozzano and Montesodi, which however are so much Bordeaux-styled that in a comparative tasting, anyone would pick them out of a bunch of Rúfina Sangioveses. The 1985 and 2007 Montesodis I’ve tasted over the last two days are very serious wines with considerable concentration and a fine design to the tannins but the blueberry register is so un-Tuscan. Selvapiana, on the other hand, remains a benchmark for its 1960s and 1970s Riservas – last year I’ve had a superlative tasting of the 1965, 1970, 1979 and 1982 that were second to no other Tuscan wine – but it seems to have changed its course considerably over the last years. In 2006 and 2007 the flagship bottling, Bucerchiale, is tasting puzzlingly modern and international with big extract and lavish oak notes; the finely poised structure of Rúfina is there but it remains to be seen whether it can rise to proficiency again from underneath the oak. Given Selvapiana’s track record I trust it will. The 2004 Bucerchiale is very good indeed, too.
On the side of uncompromised tradition there is really a single name: Cológnole, belonging to the same family that used to own the well-known Chianti brand of Spalletti. From an impressive estate of 700 ha in the highest crus of the appellation come structured, ungiving, mineral, majestic wines that need a long time in bottle, though the 2007 Riserva del Don is approachable now and, by a margin, my best Rúfina of this very good vintage.
There are some other dynamic estates including the modern-oriented Lavacchio and Castello del Trebbio, whose owner Stefano Casadei is doing some impressive work in the vineyards and whose Riserva Lastricato has been consistently good in 2006 and 2007, with fair weight, balanced oak and very good potential. I’ve also been happy with Fattoria di Grignano that is a bit more traditional-oriented, especially with its basic Chianti Rúfina that’s perhaps the most consistent of the bunch.
From the other 16 estates that I’ve tasted this year and last, the impressions are mixed but 2008 Chianti Rúfina from Frascole, Il Pozzo, Il Lago and Dreolino are recommended, as well as the 2007 Riservas from Travignoli, Fratelli Bellini and Il Capitano. These estates are still rather inconsistent in quality but they remain a good source of reasonably terroir-driven, continental-profiled, structured, mineral, ageworthy wine. In your diet of Chianti Classico, do make room for Rúfina from time to time. It’s well worth a detour.

The wines of Tenute Folonari

The Polish wine magazine WINO where I’m one of the editors recently published a special edition on Chianti, summarising a four-day visit in situ (read about it here) and a number of tastings both in Italy and Poland. Soon afterwards I was contacted by fellow Italian writer Stefania Vinciguerra, now also Export & PR Manager for Tenute Ambrogio e Giovanni Folonari, who offered to send some wines for review to complete the latter series of articles. Who am I to turn down an offer to taste some good Sangiovese?
Ambrogio Folonari was manager for the large wine company of Ruffino where among others, he contributed to the creation of Cabreo, one of the early ‘supertuscans’. In 2000 he left Ruffino to create his own group of estates in several subregions of Tuscany. Here I look at four of these.
Toscana Cabreo Il Borgo 2006
This is a classic Tuscan label with a long record of enthusiastic reception since the mid-1980s, historically one of the early Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blends aged in small French oak. In 2000 the 46-hectare Cabreo estate in Greve remained with the Folonari family when they left Ruffino, and the bottling’s style was continued. While there’s no doubt this Franco-Italian Concorde can produce outstanding results (Querciabella’s Camartina is perhaps the top example), in recent years the concept has lost much of its appeal as its stylistic limitations became obvious. The best wines of Tuscany are Sangiovese wines that manage to combine perfume, elegance, minerality, freshness and longevity into a package full of allure. Ageing in much new oak and, especially, adding Cabernet Sauvignon with its imposing tannic presence and heavier texture inevitably compromises elegance and freshness. Increased structure and longevity is not, in my opinion and that of many Italian writers, worth the sacrifice. Sangiovese is a capricious and delicate grape and even 10% Cabernet can seriously inhibit the Tuscan grape’s personality.
This lengthy introduction is to explain my prejudice and, generally, the limited interest I have in such blends. That being said, Cabreo Il Borgo 2006 is obviously a good wine. Not such a very dark colour for 30% Cab, it is sweeter and pushier in style than the other wines here, with notes of blueberries and blackberries, but not over the top and in fact attractively perfumed with a flowery allure after airing. Quality of fruit is very good indeed and on a purely sensual level the blend works well, though it’s hardly very deep at this stage and suffers a bit from lower acidity. It’s in the mid-palate texture and on the mildly overextracted, rigidly tannic finish that the 18-month small oak regime (30% new barrels) is showing somewhat contradictory with the natural expression of Sangiovese. Yet this develops well with air and with the track record it has, I’m confident it’ll drink better in two or three years: it retains a certain evening-dress elegance of Sangiovese to be worth your (and my) while.
Tenuta di Nozzole Chianti Classico 2006
2006 is a ripe, round, wonderfully fruity vintage that I’ve greatly enjoyed in the Chianti normale (non-riserva) bottlings. This wine is consistent with the excellent vintage, and is honestly traditional in style. Showing a transparent medium ruby colour that’s typical of Sangiovese, the first impressions are good. Ripeness is fine and there’s already a mere hint of maturity (stewed plums; macerated cherries). Although this is only aged in traditional Tuscan large 3000-liter casks (botti) there’s a bit of roasted coffee in the background. A medium-bodied wine showing the ripeness and warmth of the vintage on palate. Flavours centering on Sangiovese red fruit. Good length, firm finish with some natural grapey tannins and freshness. By all means this is a serious wine, well-made and balanced if perhaps not so adventurous.
Fattoria di Gracciano Svetoni
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Torcalvano 2001
It’s natural for a Tuscan collection of wine estates to include on in Montepulciano too, but the Fattoria di Gracciano Svetoni has been mildly underperfoming over the last few years compared to Nozzole or La Fuga. The style is similarly traditional: the Vino Nobile and the Riserva are both based on 100% Sangiovese (locally: Prugnolo Gentile) and aged in large oak. This 2001 is a good surprise. Clearly evolved and slowly maturing now, the nose shows reasonable complexity with an autumnal bouquet of dry leaves, mixed spices (anise?) and meat, plus an initial whiff of classic ageing Sangiovese almondiness. On the palate this is really rather classic in style, again mildly meaty, unfruity, herby and almondy. Acidity is subdued but balances the whole. All in all this is rather light in body now and showing a certain limitation of this bottling but I like the unforced, classic profile. This is à point now or even a year or two past prime, so drink up.
Tenuta La Fuga
Brunello di Montalcino 2001
La Fuga is located in the warmer parts of the Brunello DOCG, south-west of the town itself with a strong Mediterranean climatic influence. Unlike many of its neighbours in this sub-zone, however, the style of La Fuga has consistently been one of balance, integration and elegance rather than sheer power and record ripeness, and in recent vintages I have repeatedly placed their wine among my top 15 or 20 Brunellos. The basic Brunello sees 3 years of large oak and though tasted in the same vintage as the above Nobile, is considerably more youthful and tight, showing the ripeness advantage of Montalcino in a similarly restrained, ‘reformed traditional’ style. Ripe cherries and berries with a hint of aged Brunello herby tautness, ripe balanced tannins in a wine of good mouthfeel and structure. Can continue to age for another 5 years perhaps. This is really very convincing. With airing the restraint gives way to a bit more meaty, almost marmitey power. Really an excellent wine, and excellent value too at the 30–35€ it retails for in Italy.
Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Le Due Sorelle 2001
I don’t often get to taste this Riserva which sees no less than 5 years in cask. It’s the least obvious wine on this tasting. Initially, despite the denser and less evolved (though still transparent) colour than the Brunello normale above, I found it a little light and simple, if fruit-focused with some nice volume and weight. There was also a certain weakness from mid-palate on and a mildly diluted finish bringing no expected climax. Then with airing there’s substantial improvement with the whole gaining a proper riserva dimension while keeping a good traditional Sangiovese elegance here. It’s obviously a little (old-)woody and in a very classic Brunello style, with no aromatic fireworks. At 50–55€ it’s not so much competitive against the normale here but likely to improve with further ageing.
It has been a happy tasting. In the universe of Tuscan wine Folonari is a biggish brand, though one with a qualitative image, focusing as it does on single estates and ‘premium’ wines. What I found most comforting here was the unashamedly traditional style of the Chianti, Nobile and Brunellos. Respect for tradition, quality and fair pricing sound like a happy combination.

Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico 2005

Sangiovese perfection

Over the past week I have been digesting my trip to Chianti. It reinforced my admiration for Sangiovese, which is fantastic grape capable of great depth and fabulous elegance. But it is also tricky. Pick it too late, smother it with new oak or a generous splash of Merlot, and it will lose all its finesse, becoming cumbersome, obese and boring.

That’s why in recent years, I have increasingly favoured producers with a ‘light touch’, and especially those that use old large oak barrels instead of new French barriques. I won’t be making a huge discovery in saying that Sangiovese doesn’t take new oak very well. If the grapes are really concentrated and the ageing is done deftly, wines such as Percarlo, Flaccianello or Fontalloro can be excellent, but there is a unique airiness and transparence in Sangiovese that only sees the tighter grain and cooling effect of traditional Italian botti.

In a restaurant in Castelnuovo Berardenga last week, I picked up a bottle of Castell’in Villa. It is an estate that somehow I have never tasted before. A strange one at that. It is mysteriously absent from many Italian wine books (meaning, probably, that they just don’t send tasting samples), and there isn’t even that much opinion about it on the internet. Yet among Chianti cognoscenti, Castell’in Villa enjoys an enviable reputation, especially for its older, pre-1990 vintages that are said to be among the finest examples of the above-mentioned airy, perfumed, acid-driven style of Chianti.

In recent years, this producer has introduced some small oak barrels in the ageing of its top wines, but this Chianti Classico 2005 only saw large botti. And it is a fantastic wine. Exactly the sort of unadulterated Sangiovese taste I was looking for. Colour is a bit darker than I anticipated for this traditional style: a transparent purple with not so much rim. Nose is delightfully fresh and fully announces what will happen on the palate: a solid core of the cleanest, juiciest crisp dark cherry. On the finish there is a moment of assertive, if unaggressive, perfectly pitched peppery tannins. The epitome of what a real Chianti Classico should be: clean, refreshing, driven, medium-bodied, serious, with good concentration. I honestly do not remember so much excitement in any other bottle of 2005 straight CC.

Castell’in Villa is located in Castelnuovo Berardenga,
on the southern outskirts of Chianti Classico.

In Chianti (3)

Isole e Olena: lightness, juiciness, naturalness

Our stay in Chianti is slowly drawing to an end. But it’s been immensely rewarding. Today we spent an entire afternoon at Isole e Olena. The name of the estate comes from two tiny hamlets, Isole and Olena, which are located in the middle of nowhere and nearly totally abandoned. Like the various poderi at Fèlsina, these used to house a large number of sharecropping peasants, but since the mid-1960s have been left to ruin. The entire estate together with the two villages was purchased by the father of the current owner, and now some buildings are being renovated but the place still feels desolated and incredibly remote, despite being only 5 km from the Florence–Siena motorway.

Paolo de Marchi, owner of Isole e Olena.

Paolo De Marchi’s family comes from northern Piedmont, the land of Nebbiolo, so it is no wonder he brought with him quite a different wine sensitivity. His Sangiovese is among the palest-coloured, crispest, and most elegant in Chianti. We spent a lot of time in the vineyards, talking about the impressive vineyard replanting and clonal selection work that has been done here since 1976, when Paolo joined the estate. Replanting was necessary because all the vineyards planted after the massive migration were of insufficient quality. As heroic as the effort was for the owners in the 1960s to build their operations from scratch, vineyards were planted with vigorous high-yielding clones, at low density so as to allow mechanisation, etc. It took a good decade to experiment and select the best old genotypes of Sangiovese, and another to re-establish them in the vineyards. Meanwhile, white grapes were eliminated, French varieties introduced, plantings densified, cellars modernised. Modern Chianti is only now coming out of this painful adolescence.

The hamlet of Olena.

We tasted very good Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon but the Sangiovese wines shone above all else. I really like the Isole e Olena Chianti Classico for how unextracted and ‘unambitious’ it is. This is a wine not about power or concentration but zest and invigoration: precisely what Chianti should be in my book. Not a winemaker’s Chianti – even less so than Fèlsina’s – but a restaurant-goer’s. Buy as much of the 2006 as you can find. For Isole’s top Sangiovese, Cepparello (still bottled as an IGT, not a Chianti), we tasted the 2005 and 2006 (the latter unreleased). Back in October, the 2005 was tight as a fist, like a crouching tiger in the dark jungle of which you only see the glowing eyes. Now it has opened into a gem of floral, cherry-scented juiciness.

Sunset over Isole.

This long visit ended with a delightful dinner at the Michelin-1* restaurant Albergaccio in Castellina. The rather traditional food there paired well with older wines from Isole. Cepparello 1995 showed a little inert but the 1991, from an underrated vintage, was excellent, fresh and pitched. There was also a light but elegant Chianti 1988 and a more complex, satisfying 1982 Riserva, but the surprise of the night was the 1995 Chardonnay, saline and stony like a good Chablis!

The essence of terroir: a wall of galestro in Isole’s cellar.