Wine notes

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.

For stockists contact Passione Vino on 020 77201600