Tuscany trip: Day one – Chianti, Cars and Cantucci

On Sunday 18th June, we flew from London to Pisa for the beginning of our grand tour of Tuscany. To be fair, the schedule was more whistle-stop than grand, but nonetheless, it was an exciting looking itinerary. Flying on the Sunday was designed to avoid Monday-morning stress and for us to be able to hit the ground running first thing; overnight in Florence was just an added benefit. We had reckoned without a malfunctioning sat-nav and florentine traffic, however, and Monday morning had more than its fair share of mayhem and misadventure, as we tried to find our way out of the inexplicably ill-signposted city. Once free of Florence (with a little help from a hastily purchased map and a helpful man in a garage) however, we managed to wend our way in Chianti country with relative ease.

Arriving at Fontodi surprisingly on time and – at 10am – already an extraordinarily hot day, we were greeted by the charming Giovanni Manetti who immediately chucked us into his landrover and took us off to his vineyards in the concha d’oro, just outside Panzano. Seeing himself more as farmer than winemaker and more “naturally self sufficient” than “commercially organic”, he was keen to introduce us both to his beautiful white Tuscan cows and to the barley that he grows between the rows of vines, which a) keeps weeds down b) provides competition for the vines, preventing too much vigour and c) feeds the cows, who – in turn – provide fertiliser for the vines and meat for the vineyard owner. This circular, self-sustaining relationship was something about which Giovanni was particularly fond, having learned it – he told us – from the elderly people that used to farm the land in previous generations. Over 80% of the vineyards around Panzano are organic, with the vineyard owners working together to create a more natural environment. Returning to the winery, we were shown around the very sparkling, neat and beautiful facility, before settling down to taste the wines: 2008 Chianti Classico, 2008 Vigna del Sorbo Riserva, 2008 Flaccianello and the 2007 Syrah. Without going into the wines in too much detail, suffice to say it was a great way to start the tour. The Chianti Classico was open, expressive and alive with bright red berry fruit and freshening minerality; the Vigna del Sorbo (a single vineyard wine) was darker, more serious, more complex; the Flaccianello, appealing, intense and fragrant, with a linear framework; the Syrah, a charming, juicy revelation. As a treat, he also opened a 1995 vintage Flaccianello for us to try, 1995 being a vintage comparable with 2008. If this is the case, then the 2008s have a great future ahead, as the 1995 was still packed with amazing, fresh fruit and acidity, but intertwined with notes of supple leather, sandalwood and porcini mushroom.

Tearing ourselves away from one great producer, we were off to another, as headed somewhat south and a little west to Isole e Olena, where we met with Paolo De Marchi. One does not have to encourage Italian wine producers to talk and in the space of the first 20 minutes of our arrival, we had covered the estate, the effect of planting density, recent vintages, bottle closures, winemaking and global warming. The wines however were more than capable of speaking for themselves and demonstrated ably why Isole e Olena is considered one of the top producers in the region. The 2010 Chardonnay was beautifully balanced; ripe and rich, yet with a steely minerality. We then tasted three vintages of the Chianti Classico and two of the Cepperello, the 2008 of the latter showing pure, delicate fruit and an almost Burgundian structure.

Back on the road, we were heading for Il Borghetto, when disaster struck our little Fiat Cinquecento due to a puncture, an unforeseen problem that would haunt us throughout the rest of the trip. Our wheel kindly changed by Domenico from Italian-agency Vinexus and Antonio Cavallini from Il Borghetto, while – I must say – we watched on rather guiltily, we enjoyed a quick tour of the Il Borghetto winery, where Antonio seeks inspiration from Burgundy and Oregon to create a Sangiovese so Burgundian that he feels it has to be bottled in Burgundy bottles, thus denying himself the right to label it as Chianti (due to DOC rules that state it can only be bottled in a Bordeaux style bottle or in a flagon). The obsession with Pinot Noir is evident in the wines, which are in general on the elegant side, with the exception in “Clante”, a more robust and concentrated style, which has seen more new oak and longer in barrel than the others.

Onwards from there, we proceeded (with caution due to the midget tyre we now had to drive on) to Casa Sola, where Matteo Gambaro showed us around the property, while explaining his winemaking philosophy, which tends towards less intense handling and a focus on aromatics. To be honest, we heard this a lot from producers that we visited throughout this trip and there is a real sense that they are looking for both a pure expression of Sangiovese and their unique terroirs. While few would describe themselves as “modern”, there definitely seems to be a move to make the wines more approachable while young, while maintaining the quality and concentration required for long ageing. At Casa Sola, we not only tasted the exemplary Chianti Classico across three vintages, but also their “super Tuscan”, Montarsicchio, made from Cabernet, Merlot and Sangiovese and grown on a single plot. We were also at this stage introduced to the joys of Vin Santo and Cantucci biscuits, the latter dipped into the former – a compelling combination that may be a new addiction.

Our final stop on day one was in the hilltop settlement of Volpaia, at once both dramatic and pretty, with narrow lanes and geraniums and hollyhocks in abundance. Once a medieval village in its own right, the whole place is now given over to the winery and the associated agroturismo. In a deconsecrated church, one finds tanks that had to be lowered through the roof; pipes run under the entire village to take wine from tank to barrel and barrel to bottle. The winemaking is the only reason the place still exists and yet it is near invisible. As with many of the estates, wine is only part of the farming that goes on and olive oil and vinegar are also commercial enterprises. An at-times terrifying drive through the steep inclines of the vineyards in a rickety landrover, driven by the impeccably neat Federica Stianti, demonstrated the extent of the property and the nature of the vineyards, and we returned very much shaken and a more than a little stirred to taste the wines. As we were also staying at Volpaia overnight, we were able to taste the wines in the context of dinner as well, a context that obviously suits Sangiovese very well. The 2008 Coltasalla and 2008 Balifico were ideal, enjoyed with traditional chicken cacciatora (not cacciatore as it appears in theUKso often) and excellent company. It was a lovely end to our first day and we slept incredibly peacefully in the beautiful accomodation our hosts had provided.

Day two awaited…

Kat Wiggins

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