Seated in the drawing room at the 12th-century Castello di Trebbio, sampling some of the estate’s wines, I heard a door softly open. In came an extravagantly moustachioed, decidedly elderly man dressed for a day’s hunting, but styled as a century ago: breeches, woollen jacket and a jauntily feathered felt hat.
He said nothing, stoked the log fire, then left. The odd thing is that precisely the same sequence of events took place five years earlier during my previous visit to Trebbio. The dapper huntsman was the guardian – he doesn’t have much to do, but he does it with aplomb. Some things never change.
Much the same seems true of the Chianti Rùfina region as a whole. Just 16km east of Florence, it remains an area of large, often aristocratic estates, vineyards, olive groves and forests on the slopes of the Appenine mountains. Its quality was recognised by Cosimo III of Florence as long ago as 1716. It seems to have clung more closely to traditional ways than the more glamorous Chianti Classico region to the south.
The vineyards are high, some climbing to more than 500 metres. At the Colognole estate, Cesare Coda Nunziante tells me they are thinking of planting some white grapes at 800m. Autumn nights are chilly in Rùfina, so grapes retain good acidity and need a long season for full ripeness.Sangiovese rules here. You can find parcels of Merlot and Syrah but they are rarely blended with Sangiovese, even though the regulations, applicable to all Chianti zones, will soon permit up to 30% of international varieties to be used for Chianti Rùfina.
If local winemakers are to be believed, the proportion of French varieties hardly ever exceeds 10%. The wines, overwhelmingly Sangiovese, tend to be quite austere in their youth and well structured. As a group, they probably age better than many other Chiantis, and bottles from the 1960s are, apparently, still enjoyable.
Classic or Classico?
It’s a common complaint that the wines from Chianti Classico are deviating
from their typicity by becoming too fleshy and weighty. Global warming, higher ripeness levels, lower yields and generous additions of Cabernet or
Merlot have altered their character. Not that they are poor by any means, but they no longer taste like the edgy, taut wines, with beguiling aromas and flavours of sour cherries that drinkers with a long memory so relish. Yet these characteristics remain in many Rùfina wines.
Returning to the region after an absence of five years, I was astonished by the overall improvements in quality. The celebrated properties such as Selvapiana and Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi’s Nipozzano have always made great wines, but in the past there were too many also-rans, producing hard, charmless Rùfinas with excessive tannin and acidity. Better clones, lower yields, experienced consultants, and a watchful eye on a more demanding market probably account for much of the amelioration, as does a succession of excellent recent vintages. At a conference on Rùfina in Florence, the veteran Italian wine expert Burton Anderson remarked: ‘Rùfina deserves a higher reputation than it enjoys. It also offers terrific value.’
Some producers worry that Chianti Rùfina will always play second fiddle to Chianti Classico, and that it is simply not perceived by consumers as at a comparable quality level. Many are agitating for greater independence, proposing that the word Chianti be dropped altogether, so that Rùfina can stand alone. This also might help end the confusion with Chianti Ruffino, a distinguished producer, but not a region (though it does happen to have a winery in Rùfina).
Some wines are still angular and sinewy, which is fine, so long as there is sufficient fruit behind the structural frame. Wines from Marchese Gondi, Selvapiana and Colognole remain resolutely traditional. Others, such as those from Lavacchio, I Veroni and Basciano, are fleshier, more succulent and a bit higher in alcohol. Some criticise them for leaning towards a more international style, but I do not believe one should be too authoritarian in prescribing which styles of any wine are acceptable.
By and large prices remain reasonable, though sadly many are unavailable in the UK. Whereas many Chianti Classico estates have started charging silly prices (despite a catastrophic drop in demand, which by late 2009 had led some desperate producers to unload wine to wholesalers at the unsustainable equivalent of E1 per bottle), prices in Rùfina are generally sound.
Written by Stephen Brook