Wine notes

Sunday 28 September 2008

Pleasing the masses - the 80th anniversary of Villa Antinori

Renzo Cotarella explains how, after more than 73 vintages, a historical Chianti Classico was turned into a modest IGT.

A wine of which more than 3 million bottles are produced annually and which Sainsbury’s has stocked since the mid 1980s you wouldn’t expect to be the centre of attention of a vertical tasting going back to 1974 presented in the sumptuous surroundings of the posh Lanesborough Hotel in Knightsbridge. This treatment is almost always exclusively reserved for what are considered Premier and Grand Cru wines only, but exactly this was the case last Tuesday. What made the invitation irresistible was the fact that I consider Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva “Villa Antinori” to be a “supermarket wine”, albeit in the higher echelons. This wine is one of the very few vinous offerings in large retailers to demand a retail price of well over £10.00, staggeringly high compared to the depressingly low average spent of £3.99 for a bottle of wine in the UK. I was curious to find out why such lavish marketing exercise was rolled out for this modest wine.
As if that was not enough, the stylish invitation sent out by Antinori’s UK importer, Berkmann Wine Cellars, seem to promise a huge flight of wines presented by Renzo Cotarella, the estate’s CEO and senior wine consultant himself. I was therefore somewhat surprised to see only 6 wines in front of me.

Cotarella started by explaining that the wine represents the flagship to the Antinoris, a Florentine Wine Merchant and Banking Dynasty, and one of the oldest independent wine producers in the world. Their history goes back to the 13th century and “Villa Antinori”, established in 1928 by Nicolo Antinori, it is the only wine that actually bears the family name, and this tasting had been organised to commemorate its 80th vintage. The Antinori portfolio, however, includes much more illustrious wines, like Tignanello, one of the first Super Tuscans, consisting of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and Solaia, a blend which is the exact opposite, this time with Sangiovese in the minority. Villa Antinori can’t keep up with this league, not least due to its enormous production.

Cotarello goes on to explain that Villa Antinori used to be firmly Tuscan as the grapes in the blend were indigenous, the main part being played by Sangiovese, and the balance made up of the red Canaiolo and the white Trebbiano. Until very recent the inclusion of white grape varieties in Chianti Classico was stipulated by law. With the 2006 vintage this at last has been reversed for all the obvious diluting reasons.
While tasting the first two vintages of the flight, 1974 and 1987, it became immediately clear that the elevated acidity in both wines have helped them survive. Cotarella explains that this is due to the inclusion of the white Trebbiano, and this controversial comment is only one of many to follow throughout the tasting.
According to me, Trebbiano historically played the role of softening agent to counteract the tart and sometimes tannic Sangiovese. I am supported in that view by Barone Ricasoli, a proprietor of an estate in the Classico area in the 19th century, who was the author of an afterwards often cited letter from 1872 stating that Sangiovese would be more palatable if blended with softening white grape varieties. However, the Barone only recommended this blend to produce wines for immediate consumption, and that Riserva qualities, destined for long cellaring, should never include white grapes. To me it seems much more likely that the high acidity in either the 1974 or 1987 originates from the late ripening Sangiovese and not from the usually high yielding and therefore flabby and dilute Trebbiano. Also, the main reason why Trebbiano ended up together with Sangiovese in the fermentation vat was the fact that vineyards were not as systematically organised as is the case today. Therefore, one could find both red and white grape varieties in a single plot. That white grapes could add longevity to Chianti Classico is highly unlikely.

Cotarella of course is right when he claims that it was legally impossible to make a Chianti Classico without the inclusion of white grapes (Malvasia being another one). Any producer interested in quality, therefore had to opt out of the DOC, the Denominazione d’Origine Controllata, Italy’s law of controlled designated origin, as its regulations wouldn’t allow for 100% Sangiovese wines, nor the use of French oak casks, as this was considered “untraditional.” These wines, which could only be labelled Vino da Tavola, became the true flagbearers of Italy’s new dawn of quality wine making. In this climate, wines like Tignanello could achieve cult status matched by high prices, indeed three times as high as the market would pay for Chianti Classico, which, until 10 years ago, was rightfully considered mediocre. It wasn’t until 1994 that wine laws were amended, and white grapes were no longer mandatory, although not forbidden either. The law went further: it also allowed the inclusion of what was euphemistically called “ameliorating varieties”. It is thus how Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to name but a few, could legally make their way into a wine that was previously firmly Tuscan. Although a generous margin of 20% of these foreign intruders were now legally allowed in the Chianti blend, for Antinori, who had shown great enthusiasm for Cabernet & co in the past, this was not enough and they decided in 2001 to no longer market the Villa Antinori under the DOCG Chianti Classico Riserva. In doing so they upset quite a few producers, who, driven by quality and a fascination for Sangiovese, wanted to strengthen the appellation’s reputation, but consequently saw one of the most famous Tuscan estates turn its back on it. Speculations went that Antinori, with the high volumes it produces, didn’t want to pay the obligatory fee per bottle to the Consorzio of Chianti Classico, but instead wanted to spend the money on marketing devoted solely to their own products.

Villa Antinori in the meantime had gone from a 90% Sangiovese blend to 60% in 2001 (the balance being Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah), sliding even further to 55% in 2005. Cotarella explains that Antinori used to consider themselves negociants instead of wine producers. As more and more producers started to bottle their own produce, Antinori not only saw the volume needed to sustain its production dwindle, but the wines they were offered were the batches producers considered unfit to be included in their own wine. This situation forced Antinori to start buying vineyards, which proved difficult and expensive within the Chianti Classico area, where, due to recent quality improvements, prices for vineyard land had shot up. They therefore expanded their vineyard holdings outside of the Chianti Classico area, like the Maremma and Cortona, where prices were, until recent, considerably lower. They now possess a total of more than 1750 hectares of vines spread throughout Italy.
Although Sangiovese dominates the blend in order for the wine to keep its Tuscan character, the international grape varieties help produce a more international style of wine, and at the same time they are much easier to grow. It took until 2001 for most of the new acquisitions to come on stream, and from that vintage on Villa Antinori was reborn as IGT Toscana, and de facto the cheapest Super Tuscan in the Family’s portfolio. According to Cotarella, Villa Antinori needs to be Tuscan but at the same time needs to be produced in large volumes to satisfy a global demand. In order to do so, it is of the utmost importance to maintain a constant quality, while promising an easier and more approachable style. “Toscana is not based on Sangiovese”, he proclaims, “and to offer a better and more approachable wine to people is not a crime”. And although I hardly ever heard the word “terroir” mentioned during the entire tasting by someone who started off stating he doesn’t consider himself a wine maker but a vineyard manager who makes wine, who would argue with that.

The wines

The below flight consists of vintages, which Cotarella calls “very particular”. 1974 is “nice, but not the best of the decade”. Apparently 1971 as well as 1975 were superior, but this became clear only after the 1975 had been bottled and one could properly compare the two. 1987 Cotarella calls “average”, while 1994 is “controversial”, with the vintage initially looking very promising until at the beginning of the harvest rain set in. Cabernet fared better, and Cotarella considers 1994 Solaia one of the greatest vintages ever. 2001 is described as a “great vintage, with lots of body and rich, ripe tannins, if perhaps not very elegant”, while 2004 Cotarella considers even superior, due to a very long, even ripening season. 2005 proved to be more challenging due to rains at the end of the ripening season. It is especially this vintage that elicits the remark from Cotarella, that “technology is important in order to produce a good wine, especially in bad vintages”.

1974 Chianti Classico Riserva Villa Antinori, 12.5% vol.
Completely mature ruby with amber rim. Wonderful nose of forest floor, cherry and herbal notes, with a touch of leather and hung game. Still alive and pronounced on the palate, with the first signs of oxidation. Less complex than the nose, but refined tannins.

It is at this stage that Cotarella claims that Trebbiano was added to give the wine ageing potential, comparing the practice to that of France’s Cote Rotie. This statement struck me as extraordinarily ambitious and creative.

1987 Chianti Classico Riserva Villa Antinori, 12.5% vol.
Fully mature with brickstone rim. At first notes of dried fruit, tar and hints of mushroom. Soft and somewhat one dimensional on the palate, with soft, astringent tannins. Acidic backbone well integrated in the finish. Ends alcoholic, due to fading fruit.

1994 Chianti Classico Riserva Villa Antinori 12.5% vol.
Very dark with very small rim. Powerful, savoury and meaty nose, with notes of cherry, licorice and cigar box. Much more understated on the palate, tired even, with high acidity and firm, astringent tannins.

2001 IGT Toscana Villa Antinori, 13% vol.
The grapes for this wine came from Cortona (Syrah), Bolgheri (Merlot), Maremma (Cabernet Sauvignon), Montalcino and Montepulciano (both Sangiovese).
Very dark, impenetrable, with orange reflexes. Still youthful, with a pronounced sweet cassis nose with notes of garden herbs and spice. Lively succulent fruit on the palate, with sweet, somewhat unsettled (oak) tannins. Quite closed on the finish with dried fruit notes. Rustic.

2004 IGT Toscana Villa Antinori, 13.5% vol.
Very dark, with first signs of age. Soft, and less focused on the nose than 2001 and somewhat monotonous on the palate without a lot of tension or interest. Restraint on the finish. Big tannins seem to suggest further ageing.

Cotarella remarks that this wine lacks minerality apparently due to the young age of the vineyards. He also tells us it is not easy to “fine tune” this wine, as it is not clear which blending approach will be right. According to him it takes a long time to find out how to make an elegant wine…

2005 IGT Toscana Villa Antinori 13.5% vol.
Impenetrable, almost black. Nose dominated by leather notes, almost horse saddle, and notes of dark, sweet fruit, nutmeg and oak. Vegetal too. Lively acidity at first, which quickly dissolves in dark fruits hinting at fruit cake underlined by astringent tannins.
The blend seems to take away all the edges, only saved by acidity. Alcoholic too.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Sangiovese rules at Il Molino di Grace


That is “Grace”, like in “saying Grace”, or, rather, Frank Grace, the American proprietor of the eponymous estate in the heart of Chianti Classico, Panzano, who apparently merely stumbled upon the winery on his search for a little pied-a-terre for his retirement.

Winding fast forward: last Friday I found myself in a most fashionable and upmarket part of town, the triangle between Piccadilly, Park Lane and Grosvenor Square. Although I am quite used (or spoiled, depending on the view) to visit all kinds of upmarket restaurants and hotels, all for the love of wine (I know, it’s hard), it is not everyday that one is invited to the home of a retired, wealthy entrepreneur and taste the fruits of his latest project: Il Molino di Grace.
It happens to be a glorious day and I am slightly early. I decide to take a little walk to kill five more minutes as not to upset the time schedule – I, for one, absolutely hate my guests for turning up too early at my dinner parties, but I may have been somewhat naïf in this case: the white washed domicile’s entrance is guarded by a member of staff, suspiciously looking like an undercover agent out of an older James Bond sequel. It is therefore highly unlikely that I will be taking Grace by surprise while he is busy adding the final hasty finishing touches to the meal, or hiding a month’s worth of newspapers behind the couch. When I turn the same corner again I see Jane Hunt MW nipping out of a taxi, and let into Palazzo Grace by the aforementioned secret agent. I follow her example, but before I enter, my attention is caught by a large plastic “hedge sculpture” flanking the entrance. On closer look it appears to be a giant poodle, which has pulled up its hind leg to pee. Before I get a chance to ponder over the oddness of this the door is opened and I am allowed inside.

I am welcomed by an immaculately clad gentleman, Frank Grace himself, while another dog (this time a real one) is lying on the ancient tile floor. I congratulate Grace on the fact that Il Molino di Grace was awarded “Winery of the Year 2008” by Italy’s most important and, in equal measures, controversial wine guide, Gambero Rosso and I shake hands with Marina Thompson, the organiser of the event. I am also introduced to Mr Gerhard Hirmer, the “amministratore” of the estate, but his lengthy explanations during the following tasting make it abundantly clear that his role involves far more than that. He appears to be as much the driving force behind Il Molino di Grace as Grace himself. Hirmer turns out to be of German origin (he actually denies this by stating he is not German, but Bavarian), and displays the proverbial thoroughness I have come to associate with this nationality.
In the meantime the door opens several times to allow much more illustrious guests in than me: Serena Suttcliffe and David Peppercorn, as well as Jamie Goode and Anthony Rose. Even Jancis Robinson slips in at the last minute. Marina must be smiling from ear to ear. We all sit down in the beautiful antechamber, where a flight of the estate’s wines is ready for us to be tasted. I notice immediately that there are no spittoons, and consider for a split second to ask for one, but before this idea can come to fruition, David is quicker than me and on his request all kinds of silverware is hastily brought in to serve as such.

The story of Il Molino di Grace is not one that is unique to Tuscany, and especially not to the region of Chianti Classico. Like so many people Grace fell in love with the breathtakingly beautiful landscape and was looking to purchase something for his retirement. This happened to be the Villa Castagnoli near Panzano, in the very heart of Chianti Classico, which unsurprisingly, came with several hectares of vineyards, and which he renamed into Il Molino di Grace, after the wind mill that came with the estate. It was also in this region that he met Hirmer, who told me before the tasting that he used to be an investment banker, but his doctor advised him to settle down, if he wanted to prolong his presence on this planet. Both men not only share a passion for wine but also art, which explains the large collection Grace has surrounded him self and the estate with.

Although passion is a great starting point, and the business acumen of Grace and Hirmer being useful too, it did make sense to hire a consultant to oversee the oenological side of the estate. This happens to be no one else but Franco Bernabei, one of the famous oenologists of Italy, a species that over the last twenty years or so has benefited enormously from the lavish amount of money investors, keen to lead a country life but without any wine knowledge, poured into the region.
The “enologo” became a phenomenon closely associated with Chianti Classico’s rise from its image of mediocrity, and almost a guarantee for winning the so coveted 3 bicchieri, the highest accolade given by the Gambero Rosso. These consultants introduced what is now considered a standard recipe of new clones, lower yields, late harvest, French barriques, and the use of international grape varieties (first and foremost Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) to ameliorate the final blend, as Sangiovese, Chianti Classico’s misunderstood main grape variety, was considered unsuitable to produce wines that could entice an international audience and guarantee a handsome return on the investment.

To be honest, the investments from the last 20 or 30 years or so probably saved the region as during the 50s of the 20th century the mezzadria system, whereby large, mixed agricultural estates were tended by farmers and rent was being paid in kind, was officially abolished. While the majority of the work force moved away, it literally emptied the countryside. Many estates were sold and turned into monoculture, most often vines. The emphasis came to lie on high volume production resulting in mediocre wines, which nonetheless would carry the historical name Chianti Classico, a situation made possible by wine laws that encouraged enormous yields. It is therefore easy to see that producers focusing on quality wines, a rare phenomenon in those days, almost collectively turned their back on the Chianti Classico designation and enthusiastically embraced Merlot and Cabernet, in fact anything French, which had (and still has) the aura of high quality. The wines, often blends of the aforementioned plus Sangiovese, and produced using new technology, including the use of barrique, where not recognised by the wine law as “genuine” or “traditional” and were only allowed to carry the lowest designation possible: Vino da Tavola, VDT, or table wine. Ironically, VDT became a seal of guarantee for the highest quality for wine lovers the world over, while the theoretically superior designation Chianti Classico was avoided at all cost.

This new generation of high quality wine came to be known as “Super Tuscans”, which met with great international success and it was this kind of product investors were most interested in. In this context the reputation of several oenologist-consultants could rise as fast as the price of the wines they created. It also meant that with the growing number of clients many consultants were only able to spend minimal time at each estate, forcing them to delegate the work to staff, who would consequently execute the job according to protocols. It is this situation that makes one of the attendants of the Il Molino di Grace tasting, Anthony Rose, wonder whether the dominance of a handful of very famous consultants in Tuscany has led to a standardisation of styles. Hirmer though, downplays the significance of Bernabei, while claiming that the estate’s main focus is to bring out the terroir in the wines. A standard recipe would only blur this. Interestingly, Jane Hunt adds that over the years she has noticed that the more experienced Bernabei became with Sangiovese the more he stylistically retreated himself from the wines.

The wish to elaborate on the characteristics of terroir in the wines of Molino di Grace seem s to be a genuine one, and Sangiovese plays the leading part (more often than not a 100%), while the estate’s “Super Tuscan”, Il Volano, consisting of 75% Sangiovese and 25% Merlot, is only considered an entry level wine. Grace and Hirmer strongly believe that Sangiovese is most suited to the stony limey soil of the vineyards, and the wines are neatly divided in tiers that reflect the soil composition.
The fruit for the Chianti Classico and its Riserva version stems from several vineyards, while the very best grapes are selected out on a sorting table to be transformed into the Chianti Classico Riserva Margone. However, the top wine, Gratius, a 100% Sangiovese, which legally can bear the title Chianti Classico, but is marketed under the potentially low IGT designation (the legal follow up of Vino da Tavola) comes from a steep vineyard with a shallow top soil over granite rock. According to me this wine, which has a subscription on Gambero Rosso’s highest award, should be labelled Chianti Classico to help correct the erroneous view that Sangiovese lacks extract and ageability. It is produced from 70 year old vines, resulting in tiny yields of 20hl/ha. These old vines are planted al Capovolto, a training system where the branches are not tied horizontally to the trellis system, but in arched, bowlike shapes, which in the past would have guaranteed for better bud break, and at the same time allow for longer canes accommodating more bunches, but the latter no longer plays any role. Newer vineyards are planted according to modern training systems (Guyot and Cordon), and the plant density of more than 5000 vines per hectare is much higher than legally required.

When I ask Hirmer about the estate’s point of view on organics and biodynamics, he seems reluctant to answer as according to him he had reserved this topic for a later stage in his speech, but although I seem to have upset his scenario, he starts by saying that organics (and biodynamics for that matter) do not automatically result in better wines. Although I agree, Hirmer seems to give the impression as if he is not convinced in these practices. He mentions the difficulty of having the vineyards of the estate organically certified, as there are many organic associations, each with different and not seldom contrasting set of criteria. Curiously, the estate’s website describes in detail its vineyard practices, which could be generally described as “organic”, such as the use of organic fertilisers only, and cover crops planted in between rows.
Gentle practices are also employed in the cellar, where, from this vintage on the wines are fermented using indigenous yeast only. Although the wines are aged in oak, it is only seen as a support. It is also for this reason that malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel as, according to Hirmer, this would impart too much of an oak taste to the delicate fruit of Sangiovese. He does admit though, that stainless steel may be too anaerobic whereas oak allows for a minuscule ingression of air, which is considered to make wines rounder. To imitate this tiny amounts of oxygen are being pumped into the tanks, a process known as “oxygenation”. After this the wines are transferred to a selection of different oak casks, barrique and tonneaux, of first and second passage. No wine remains longer in wood than 11 months followed by two months in stainless steel.
Truly remarkable is the fact that the estate clings to its bottles, whereby after bottling all wines are kept at least for another two years, often longer. The estate actively strives for creating elegant wines unburdened by oak, or alcohol for that matter, as not a single wine exceeds the 13.5% vol in this tasting, which is, given for example the hot 2003 vintage, quite an achievement.

The wines
Although the estate claims to focus on the expression of Sangiovese, in some samples the colour of the wine seem unusually dark (especially 2005 Gratius), that the assumption of the addition of Merlot and CS seems a fair one. This very dark colour according to Hirmer is an attribute of the vineyard, but he struggles with the explanation. Of course, it is no great wonder that a low yielding, old vine vineyard will produce grapes with more extract and more pigments. We are being told that Sangiovese has tougher skins than Pinot Noir, a variety it is often compared with, as both share a low anthocyan content, which it releases relatively late in the fermentation process its pigments. Therefore at Il Molino di Grace remontage, or pumping over is only used for the first two days, to be followed up by pigeage, or punching down of the cap, a classical Burgundian technique incidentally. The total time the skins are in contact with the wine is around 23 days, which apparently is unusually long.
Curiously, the estate’s website is less inhibited with regards to blending practices, when it reproduces a review from the American Wines & Spirits winter 2006 issue which states: “All of Molino’s Chianti Classicos include a small percentage of Cabernet and Merlot, and the wine making skews to the modern, with microoxygenation in stainless steel and hefty doses of oak from time spent in Bordeaux barrels…Il Margone, a vineyard selection of the best Sangiovese and the oldest Cabernet, puts up an impressive shield of oak, but it doesn’t take long for the Sangiovese to dominate…” Of course, it is not impossible that the estate’s philosophy has changed since then.

2005 Chianti Classico
Deeply concentrated garnet with youthful rim.
Subdued at first, this shows perfumed cherry and cedar box and a touch of pepper. Quite complex. A lively acidity underpins a concentrated, aromatic fruit palate, showing only a hint of oak. Crunchy, softly rustic tannins roll out onto a warm finish.
Only second passage barrique and used tonneaux

2005 Chianti Classico Riserva
More Mature looking with some signs of age in the rim. An altogether softer, more refined and seductive nose, with plummy notes and better integrated oak. Elegant fruit palate with velvety tannins and balancing but fully integrated acidity. A convincing Riserva inspite of the vintage’s mediocre reputation.
A third Slavonian Cask, a third new barrique, a third barrique of second passage.

2006 Gratius
Deep concentrated colour with violet reflexes.
Instantly recognisable Sangiovese with compact lifted cherry and a touch of tar. Touch medicinal at this stage. On the palate concentrated cherry fruit underlined by posh oak. Will age well.

2005 Gratius
Unusually dark for Sangioves, almost impenetrable. A very small rim shows the beginning of orange. Opulent, almost plump nose of dark fruits and meaty, savoury notes and a touch of dark fruit compote, followed by quite a soft fruit palate with fairly soft acidity and powdery, but persistent acidity. Quite a lush wine, a touch alcoholic too.

2004 Gratius
Deep, evolved ruby with just the beginning of age in the very small rim. Exciting evolved and multilayered nose showing cherry, hints of tar and licorice with a touch of cedar.
A fantastically balanced palate with lots of sweet amarene cherry and refreshing acidity, carrying well into a long, fragrant finish with elegant, crunchy tannins.

2003 Gratius
Medium deep ruby with a darker centre. the most open knit Gratius in the flight, it shows spicy cherry and savoury notes, but there is also a herbal, almost vegetal note. A distinctively sweet attack is rapidly followed by acidity, which melts away in soft fruit accompanied by soft, drying tannins.

2001 Gratius
Very dark, impenetrable, with very dark, evolved small ruby rim. Beautiful open and concentrated dark fruit compote nose with notes of spicy oak. More powerfulthan 2003 but also more sleek with persistent, finely grained tannins and pure and minerally fruit. Compact and somewhat closed on the finish, this shows great potential.

During Lunch a flight of Riserva and Margone (in a very unusual order) was served. Both are the fruit of the same vineyard, of which 20% of the grapes are selected out for “Margone” (the preciseness of this figure betrays a Germanic mind), while the rest is destined to become the Riserva.

2004 Chianti Classico Riserva
Very dark with tiny orange rim. Dried cherry, amarene liqueur and garden herbs nose.Crunchy tannins follow a juicy fruit palate with a long, warm finish. Quite delicious.

Il Margone 100% Sangiovese ( a wine Marina Thompson claimed to be so fond of, that she often asked her husband, the editor of Gambero Rosso, why he couldn’t give it the coveted 3 bicchieri. Her husband allegedly answered that it would never achieve it. Ironically, the last 2008 edition of Gambero Rosso, not only bestowed its highest accolades on the wine but also made Il Molino di Grace “Winery of the year”. Marina must have smiled from ear to ear.

2000 Margone
Medium deep with a dark garnet centre, rim showing some orange reflexes. Opulent stylish and powerful all at the same time. The palate shows concentrated juicy fruit and spicy notes and compact but ripe tannins. A long, aromatic finish with great balance.

2004 Margone
Tighter and more compact than its 2000 version, it shares however its depth and aromas of savoury plum and cherry fruit and hints of kitchen spice. Complex and inviting. Still somewhat closed on the palate with firm, still youthful acidity.

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Saturday 20 September 2008

Contadini Metropolitani

In Naples' vineyards Falanghina still thrives on its own rootstocks resisting the concrete wave

One of Italy’s great strength, and still not properly appreciated by wine lovers in general, spoiled as they are with wines of high quality coming from this peninsula but often produced from international grape varieties, is its treasure trove of indigenous vines. It must be said, that some are quite obscure and produced in such low quantities, that they will never reach international markets, but more often these amazing wines struggle to find an appreciative palate especially over here, due to the unfamiliarity with their taste. Still, indigenous grape varieties may catch the wave anytime, as there seems to be consensus in the UK wine trade on a general fatigue with Chardonnay & Co. as well as the fact that, arguably, the notion of terroir is far better expressed by vines, which have adapted themselves over hundreds of years to the soils of a given region.

To catch that wave, however, there must be at least as much awareness from the side of the producers of these local grapes to promote them in the market, destined as they are to be the best ambassadors with their knowledge and experience. And it is exactly here were part of the problem lies too: many Italian wine producing regions may have consorzios in which producers and growers are organised, but many of them are too torn by politics and philosophical difference to find time to design a marketing strategy, let alone an international one. It is therefore that many Italian producers who want to enter the international market do so on their own account, which inevitably leads to promoting their own brand only, and in which grape variety and origin inevitably play a second fiddle.
There are some hopeful signs though: the younger generation of winemakers and proprietors, especially those who have absolved parts of their viticultural education abroad, is more familiar with the idea of marketing, whereas previous generations relied on their commercial relation with importers only who would then face the task of selling the wine. This no longer, at least according to me, suffices, and a point in case is that there is almost not a single week one cannot attend a regional generic tasting with wines coming from every corner of the wine world in London. These tastings are the ideal occasion to introduce the vinous strengths of a region and support the product with educational seminars. As only few Italian consorzios are able to fulfil this role, it is therefore that smaller associations of young winemakers should bundle their strength to put a stamp on the market.

One very energetic young man who seems well up for this task, strengthened by a strong belief in the indigenous grape varieties of his home, the Campi Flegrei region in Campania, is Gerardo Vernazzaro from Cantine Astroni. In the family’s vineyards you won’t find a single vine not planted here literally ages ago. This DOC, of which its flag bearers are the white Falanghina and the red Piedirosso is right in the middle of Naples’ urban sprawl fighting a lost cause against speculation and real estate, making the vineyards of Chateau Haut Brion in the suburbs of Bordeaux look distinctively rural. The DOC zones spreads itself through the towns of Pozzuoli, Bacoli and Quarto, all of which are now more or less part of Naples proper, and on to the tiny island of Procida, switched in between the bay of Naples and Ischia.

Gerardo’s main vineyard clings to a slope of one of the many craters surrounding the Etna, of which this particular one is called Astroni. The Astroni, which were used by the Romans as thermal baths, are now declared officially a WWF reserve, which must have helped in halting any further developments threatening the vineyard’s survival.
Together with Gerardo, whose family are our generous hosts for the next few days, and whom I had met at last April’s Vinitaly, Italy’s most important wine fair, we climb up the slope to the top where a low wall separates the Astroni estate from the crater, now fully covered with trees, and teeming with wildlife. While looking down the crater it’s hard to believe we are in Naples.
We turn around, now facing the city while Gerardo points out another stretch of land of about 8 ha of quite steep vineyards, literally squeezed in between houses and which the family is in the process of buying. As land is at a premium here, for a brief moment I wonder aloud if buying the land wouldn’t be a great investment, to sell it off when prices have reached their peak, which, judging from the density of houses and highways, can only be a matter of years. Gerardo looks at me incredulously replying that the family has the longterm plan of growing their total surface of vineyards. Gerardo mentions the many generations that have tended vines in his family and they are incapable of doing anything else. The only issue, at least to me, seems the fact that they are trying to do this in the middle of a huge city. For Gerardo, however, it is not just a question of wine, it also a question of trying to keep surfaces devoid of concrete and roads. When one views down from the winery’s courtyard, one looks straight into a dynamic landscape of houses, vineyards, and highways, which is almost like a movie, especially when the sun sets.

Falanghina, or Falanghina Flegrea to be precise, is widespread throughout Campania, and one of its oldest grape varieties. It is suggested by many sources that the grape was originally brought over by the first Greek settlers in Italy’s South, and it is speculated that Falanghina may have been the main ingredient of the legendary Falernum, a wine which was highly prized by the Romans. The name comes from the Latin Falangae, meaning “pole”, referring to the stakes to which it was trained during ancient times. Compared to the then conventional system of planting vines near trees, which would function as the main support, this stake training system was much more sophisticated and betrays a systematic approach to viticulture not generally seen before. Falanghina features in almost any white DOC throughout Campania but arguably finds its finest expression in the Campi Flegrei.

The volcanic soils on which the Astroni vineyards are planted come with blessings and curses. It is normally considered rich, but here the soils are extremely sandy, which allows the vines to be planted on their own rootstocks, which, with very few exceptions, is very rare in Europe. High levels in potassium, required for a healthy growth, is counteracted by low levels of magnesium, which can reduce yield, and slow down fruit ripening. This is adjusted by grafting on selected Vitis Vinifera rootstocks. Irrigation is needed to prevent the vines from withering when it becomes too hot on the slopes, but this is only regarded as a last resort, and low cover crops and grass between the rows function as a moist retainer as well as a measure against erosion.

The vineyard shows a lowish density of vines, around 2500 per ha, but the yield per plant is kept at a modest 2 kilos. As Falanghina is not easy to keep in check (when left to its own devices it will produce abundance of fruit resulting in insipid bland wines, showing little acidity) intense vineyard management is therefore practiced. Fruit set can be irregular too, resulting in normal size berries and small ones at the same bunch. It is a late ripener compared to other varieties, as it cannot be harvested before the end of September and more often not until the beginning of October. Gerardo though, doesn’t consider this late at all, especially compared to the red Aglianico and Piedirosso, which continue to ripen well into November.
The trellising system in the Astroni vineyard, called spaliera, is very high due to old school vine growing, where parallel trained double branches would accommodate Falanghina’s profusion, but Gerardo has reduced them to a single cane, and I wonder how much resistance he must have met from the old guard when he introduced this novelty. Restricting abundance of fruit can come close to heresy in fiercely traditional agricultural communities.

The crater provides the winery, which is right underneath the Astroni vineyard, with yet another natural advantage: it allows for total gravitational flow, so highly regarded in Bordeaux’ finest chateaux, but there cannot be executed without the aid of technology. The cellar is the latest state of the art and comes complete with pneumatic presses and stainless steel tanks. Fermentation of Falanghina is normally excecuted at a low 18°c, to retain the gentle aromatics. However, as the fruit is harvested so late in the season (and, unsurprisingly with attention to detail I have now become to expect, in small crates) , and early in the morning, the grapes need not be chilled before processing.

The wines are divided in a four tier system: an entry level called Falangus, which is a pleasant wine showing white fruits and green apple on the nose, and is marked by highish acidity. If modest in its youth, it is capable of adding on more complexity as a sample of the 2002 showed: reminiscent of a mature Riesling, it didn’t fail to surprise me about its potential.
“Colle Imperatrice” from contracted fruits, of which the vineyards are strictly monitored by Gerardo, is a step up. After crushing the grapes the skins remain on the juice for about 10 hours followed by temperature controlled fermentation, of which about ¾ takes place in stainless steel and the balance in large acacia casks. Only 50% goes through malolactic fermentation.
The undisputed star, however, is the premium “Strione”, a Falanghina Campi Flegrei fermented on the skins for the whole period in tonneaux and acacia. Weekly batonnage, and partial malolactic fermentation add to its complexity showing a somewhat subdued, but sexy nose of sweet peach coulis and preserve, followed by quite a pure fruit palate, with integrated acidity.
The range is complemented by a sparkling version of Falanghina.

According to Gerardo Falanghina has a good chance to find an international market if it is produced in a fashion that highlights its minerality, acidity and focused fruit. Strione will undoubtedly be helpful in convincing even the most spoilt of palates about the inherent qualities of this particular white variety.

Embracing acidity


The Consorzio of Chianti Classico, the association of producers and bottlers of that most emblematic of Italian wines (often for all the wrong reasons), is one of the most switched on when it comes to promoting the product on a national and international scale. It plays a far bigger role in upgrading the wine than most producers would be willing to admit, by means of ongoing research in all areas concerning the production of Chianti Classico, from viticultural aspects (for example, it ignited a continuous investigation at the beginning of the 1980s in superior clones) to laboratory analysis of the wines and indepth soil composition research, in an effort to pull Chianti Classico out of the shadow of its former mediocrity.
It also fights an ongoing battle in educating the general public (and not a few wine professionals too) about the fact that Chianti Classico is the original zone and has precious little to do with wines, which are marketed under the straight Chianti designation, and which tend to come from a much larger region produced with less stringent regulation, especially when it comes to total yields. These insipid wines, which can be found back in supermarkets, do nothing to help and bring out the quality message the Chianti Classico Consorzio is so eager to push. A sole exception may be Chianti Rufina, a sub region Northeast from Florence, where the vineyards are generally higher than on average in the area, resulting in higher acidity in the final wines, guaranteeing a long life, and which a are far cry from the stuff we know as plain Chianti. However, it still may represent a style most Chianti lovers are unfamiliar with, as we are now so used to big, extracted, deeply coloured and almost sweet reds.

Acidity, by the way (in combination with lower alcohol levels) is the new buzz word in the UK wine scene, which is desperate to promote more digestible and food compatible wines, as it feels the hot breath in its neck of the legislator, who is trying to curb alcohol intake and in this effort discredits all alcoholic beverages (ironically enough, statistics seem to point in an altogether different direction suggesting we drink less alcoholic drinks than ever).

The Consorzio of Chianti Classico launches annually the latest vintages in a near perfect tasting in Florence, where literally hundreds of samples are available for professionals to taste in an airy and very impressive former train station, Stazione Leopolda. The tasting allows professionals to sit down and have sommeliers pour all samples for them during two days. A greater luxury is hardly conceivable. A spin off of this huge event this time representing only 40 odd producers while focusing on estates, which are imported to the UK market, was held in London last May. Although a smaller version compared to its Italian counterpart it nevertheless attracts the likes of Jancis Robinson, who worked herself through the samples, making it abundantly clear that the event provides the most efficient way of assessing a vintage only a tube ride away from home. Sommeliers and wine suppliers take note.

The Consorzio seems to be well aware of the fact that a lack of knowledge about the Classico zone hinders a greater understanding and forms the main obstacle in obtaining a premium price for the wines. This in turns makes it difficult for producers, who are genuinely convinced of the quality of the main grape, Sangiovese, to get a proper return for their financial and timely efforts in the vineyards. Planting the right clones and bringing down total yields come at a cost, which at the same time is continuously compromised by the large production of cheap low quality wines, which nevertheless lawfully carry the Chianti Classico designation. It is therefore no wonder that many producers still believe in international grape varieties, notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to beef up the wines for an international market that is not used to acidity as a main structuring element in the taste of Chianti Classico. These grapes however have a considerable impact on the style of wines, and tend to dominate the characteristic perfume Sangiovese imparts. The wines become more international in style, and at the same time seem to strengthen many producers in the false belief that Sangiovese cannot stand on its own legs. How otherwise could one explain for the generous 20% of “other grape varieties” (read: the international suspects) the law sanctions in the blend, and in doing so purporting this erroneous view. Nicholas Belfrage recently remarked dryly in this context, that it would be like allowing Sangiovese in the wines of Bordeaux: “The French would go apeshit”. Yet no such reaction is to be seen from the side of the legislator.

The Consorzio seems also to have a hunch of the jadedness of the average wine professional, who is pampered with such an affluence of wine events in London on a daily basis, that a mere tasting, even a comprehensive one, is no longer regarded as relevant. What seems to pull the crowd are seminars and Master Classes (a much over used word nowadays), offering sensible background information, which can be turned into immediate use for journalists, sommeliers and wine buyers alike. The intriguingly named seminar preceding the London tasting, “Does height make a difference? – Chianti Classicos from different altitudes” certainly attracted well deserved attention and it lead the way immediately back to acidity as one of Sangiovese’s main parameters.

The seminar tutored by the Consorzio’s in house and very knowledgeable oenologist Daniele Rosselini, with the ubiquitous Peter McCombe at his side, focused on the influence of altitude on the style of wines from the Chianti Classico region. It is an intriguing and ambitious concept, based on the fact that the make up of the soils in the Chianti Classico zone is so endlessly complex, with several soil types occurring within a single vineyard, that it is virtually impossible to “map” the zone neatly into separate communes on basis of a specific soil type analogous to Bordeaux to explain for terroir characteristics and wine styles.

There is no doubt that vineyard altitude has an impact on fruit ripeness and quality, but most estates within the zone have a multitude of vineyards with different exposures, aspects and altitudes and as the majority of wines are almost always assemblages of these different patches of land, this blending can be used to even out or compensate for different ripeness levels of the fruit, Bordeaux being the most obvious example of this practice.
The question put before us was if a clear trend would be visible, and to this means two flights of wines were tasted, the first consisting of wines from vineyards between 450 – 600 m, and the second between 250 – 350m.
Logically, one would expect a much higher level of acidity in the wines originating from the higher vineyards, and vice versa. However, the limited amounts of samples shown did not allow for such broad generalisation, not least due to the fact that not all samples were a 100% Sangiovese. Wine making techniques putting their stamp on several of the wines showed to be another determining factor. Still, even without being able to draw a final conclusion it confronted the professional audience with the strong suggestion, that Sangiovese is first and foremost about its inimitable perfume followed by an acidic bite embedded in a sweet red fruit coating creating what the Germans call “spiel”, a game between fruit sweetness and acidity combating for dominance, a sensation which the addition of Cabernet and Merlot seem to dampen on the palate.

The attempt to map style by altitude may have not been immediately obvious from the seminar but fact is, that several young producers I met during my sojourn last year in Chianti Classico are busy acquiring vineyards on higher altitude to use its fruit as a much needed component in creating Chianti Classico with freshness and uplifting aromatics light years away from the stewed fruit we have come to expect from the wines. They may have gotten closer to a truly terroir driven style than ever before in Chianti’s century old history.

The wines in the flights below where known beforehand to the tasters, however, the exact grape variety blend was revealed afterwards.

Flight 1 (450 – 600m)
1) 2006 Chianti Classico - Monteraponi
Tight but serious, marked by cedar and cherry jam – quite truthful. Marked acidity underlines fresh cherry fruit, with very soft tannins, lifting the palate and is of the perfumed school if very restraint. Will need more time. Soft alcoholic touch on the finish. 480m. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, no temperature control during fermentation followed by punching down, 10% aged in barrique. 13% vol

2) 2006 Chianti Classico – Borgo Scopeto
Quite deep. Opens earthy and medicinal, with brooding fruit on alcohol. Full bodied and at the same time somewhat lean, with soft drying tannins and considerable acidity on the finish. Shy on aroma, but will change with time, tannins are at this moment dominant. Seems better balanced (i.e. less alcoholic than no1, but also less fun at this stage). From Castelnuovo Berardenga (but Peter says the estate has a cooler microclimate than normally associated with this commune – due to altitude?). Stainless steel fermentation, the wine is aged in large oak barrels. 100% Sangiovese. 13% vol.

3) 2006 Chianti Classico Fattoria Montenaggio
Subdued fruit with alcoholic prickle and spicy oak on the nose. Fruit cake too, markedly high in acidity and powdery, drying tannins. Red fruit and touch of lead pencil, and quite restraint, even closed on the finish. Tannins become more dominant, but should work out fine with a year or two in the bottle. From the commune of Radda in Chianti, Mostly Sangiovese with the addition of Merlot. Vineyards are between 450-600m. Fermented in stainless steel and concrete vats. Malolactic fermentation and maturation in Slovanian oak. Andrea Pauletti is the estate’s consultant. 13.5% vol.

4) 2006 Chianti Classico Collelunga
Openly seductive with obvious oak and vanilla, the popular school. Oak also shows on the palate but more complex. High acidity carries fragrant fruit, but less opulent on the nose. Still great sweet-sour impression followed by quite drying, persistent tannins. Will make a great bottle at the dinner table. From the commune of Castellina in Chianti . 90% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot. Fermented in stainless steel, and maturation for 12 months in second year barrique. Consultant Alberto Antonini, who also works in new world (Argentina, etc). 450 -600m. 13.5% vol.

Flight 2 (250-350m)
1) 2006 Chianti Classico Castello di Monsanto
Opens slightly sweaty and alcoholic but with brooding fruit. Touch of kitchen spice.
Closed on the palate, and still lots of acidity, but seems rounder than previous sample. Soft, drying, somewhat rustic tannins, on a closed finish. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and Colorino. From the commune of Barberino. 13% vol.

2) 2006 Chianti Classico Castello di Vicchiomaggio
Looking already mature. Earthy fruit with cherry and a touch of strawberry preserve and fruit cake. Round and fullbodied, with hints of sweeet fruit and a touch of oak. Quite well integrated acidity, and very nice sweet sour bite. Dusty (oak) tannins on the finish. 90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino, 5% Canaiolo, but Peter wonders whether another grape (starting with C) found its way into the blend. 13% vol.

3) Chianti Classico Ruffino
VERY dark (international grapes?). Opulent, sweet fruit nose, with a touch of kitchen spice and lead pencil. Touch of fruitcake. Full attack, with sweet fruit, followed by highish acidity and crunchy tannins, leaving quite fresh and concentrated finish. Fruit still compact, will need more time, and although tannic it should have a great future. From the commune of Castelllina in Chianti. 5% other varieties…Stainless steel temperature controlled fermentation followed by malolactic in tank and barrel. 8 months in oak. 13.5% vol.

4) 2006 Chianti Classico Savignola Paolina
Dark fruits and spice, meaty notes too, but not particularly open. Quite lean and restraint fruit with drying tannins. Closed on the finish with some fruit aroma and oak. Wait. 85% Sangiovese with 15% Malvasia (seems to ripen roughly at the same time as Merlot, but needs close monitoring when reaching full maturity in the vineyard) and Colorino. 13.5% vol.