BRIAN ST PIERRE talks to Adolfo Folonari of the great Tuscan merchant house and grower, Ruffino

BRIAN ST PIERRE talks to Adolfo Folonari of the great Tuscan merchant house and grower, Ruffino

  • The Ruffino brand has been synonymous with Chianti for more than 100 years.
  • ‘We were the first to take Chianti out of the straw-wrapped flasks a generation ago.’
  • Cabreo Il Borgo and Riserva Ducale Oro are Ruffino’s flagship wines.
  • In common in the wines was elegance and structure, a clear, strong line of well-defined flavour.
  • One way we define a vista is to steal a little from Alan Jay Lerner, who topped us all by writing: ‘On a clear day, you can see forever.’ Most of us have to do quite a bit of foreshortening from that when we point out the local sights. Not Adolfo Folonari, however. On a clear day, up on the hill at Montemasso, his family’s prime vineyard estate in the heart of Chianti country, he can see Florence, and from 410 metres up, 16 kilometres away across a landscape of tightly massed ranks of steep hills, it’s a view that won’t take a back seat to many.

    Montemasso is one of several single-vineyard estates in Tuscany that make up what the Folonaris, who have owned the Ruffino wine house since 1913, call their tenimenti, comprised of 750 hectares of agricultural jewels scattered around the hills, most in the Chianti Classico zone. Separately and together, they produce a panoply of wines, but this slope, head and shoulders above its neighbours, is the one that produces the super-Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon known as Cabreo Il Borgo, and most informs the Chianti Classico known as Riserva Ducale Oro – Ruffino’s flagship wines.

    Spectacle aside, the view is also a welcome sight on a late-autumn day because it means the sun is shining brightly on this steep hillside, taking some of the edge off the steady northwesterly breeze known as the maestrale. ‘It’s even more of a blessing for the vines,’ laughs Adolfo as I button up my jacket. ‘The hill always catches the wind, and the air movement keeps the grapes cool and healthy. There’s Cabernet here, and Sangiovese just below – when we say they make our top wines, we’re not kidding.’

    The Ruffino brand has been synonymous with Chianti for more than 100 years; for the last 20, the Folonaris, who sold their other wine holdings elsewhere to concentrate on Tuscany, have been walking a fine line of terroir, with carefully delineated, modern Chianti Classicos on one side, and ‘wines of personality but outside of tradition’ from foreign grapes, notably Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, on the other. ‘We were the first to take Chianti out of the straw-wrapped flasks a generation ago,’ says Adolfo. ‘Since then, we have continued to modernise, to explore the possibilities of the region, lately investing millions in vineyards – we have at least one vineyard in each of the major areas in Tuscany. We’re not making any investments elsewhere – our focus is here, concentrating more and more on our single-vineyard and estate wines.’

    Back in the villa at Nozzole, that serves as headquarters, we set about pulling corks on a dozen vintages of Il Borgo and Riserva Ducale Oro, to see how much of a family resemblance might show between these well-groomed cousins. Il Borgo has been made for 20 years, since the early days when super-Tuscans were cast out into the wilderness of ‘table wines’, while Riserva Ducale Oro has been commercially available since the 1950s. Both are made only in exceptional years, so the vertical selection was a little gap-toothed, five vintages back to 1985 of the former, seven to 1958 of the latter.

    There was something comforting about the mechanics of setting up glasses, water jugs, bread sticks and the other paraphernalia of a tasting, partly because we were on level ground again after a day of trudging up and down the tilted landscapes of the various tenimenti, and also because we weren’t moving – Adolfo’s notion of distance between vineyards was measured more by time than space, through the classic Italian method of getting into fifth gear as fast as possible without noticing the blurring landscape or paleness of passenger. (On the other hand, he has his priorities straight – we didn’t view a bottling line all day.)

    At 40, Adolfo is one of several members of his generation, brothers and cousins, who have lately been taking the reins at Ruffino, under the eyes of their fathers and uncles. (‘The board of directors is also the family – it gets interesting sometimes, planning strategy,’ he says with an ironic smile.) His responsibility is exports, which are world-wide, keeping him on the road half the year. ‘I was immediately surprised to find how markets can put some added pressures on you, which you don’t anticipate. Some don’t want anything to change: for example, Mexico, which is very conservative and thinks of Ruffino as only Chianti. India has very high taxes and thinks of all wine as an expensive luxury, so our increasing concentration on the top end puts some pressure there. The US is more open to diversity; it accepted the idea of single-vineyard Chiantis and super-Tuscan wines more readily.

    ‘Sometimes it can be incredible, the differences in perception, and sometimes funny. A few years ago, we did a vertical tasting of our Cabreo La Pietra Chardonnay. It’s fermented and aged in oak, and has a malolactic fermentation, it’s a serious wine. We poured it at a dinner during Vinitaly, for an international crowd, to show how it had evolved. The 1983 was not very woody, fruity; the Germans liked it a lot, Italians weren’t sure, Americans thought it was too light. The 1985 was rounder, nice balance of fruit and wood, firm acidity; the French preferred it. The 1987 was pretty oaky; the Americans went crazy for it, and the Italians thought it was corked!’

    We began with the Cabreo Il Borgo, a 70:30% blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Montemasso estate where we’d admired Florence. ‘Super-Tuscans are still a relatively small category,’ said Adolfo. ‘The wines have become more interesting, with the accumulated knowledge and rising standards of the past two decades (in the computer business, that’s several generations, but in wine, not so much). I think experimentation is over for most people, you can see it in the consistency of the wines. There’s less reliance on barriques, certainly – 10 years ago, a lot of the wines tasted like oak juice! Il Borgo we consider to be a super-Sangiovese rather than super-Tuscan. There is 30% Cabernet in it, which improves the complexity and structure while giving the Sangiovese room to show itself; more than that, and the Cabernet character would take over.’

    We tasted the 1985, as a point of orientation; they were still experimenting with oak, and the wine was subdued, literally boxed in. By 1988 – probably the vintage of the decade – wood was much less apparent, and the wine shone through, still lightly fruity and at its peak. A trio from recent years, 1995–1997 demonstrated how the curve had come around to real elegance, with deep, dark garnet colour, aromas that meet you more than halfway, only a light vanillin touch from oak, and sound, subtly precise structure, especially in the 1997, the best vintage of the three years, and not yet released. ‘It’s a real problem, the release time – people want the new vintages, they want full-bodied wines with complexity, but they often drink them right away. I’m troubled to see wines like this already on wine lists in restaurants, being drunk before they’ve developed. It’s a problem with many wines, but with such a fantastic vintage as the 1997, it would be a real shame not to age it for at least 10 years.’

    It was a good warm-up for the Riserva Ducale Oro, which is a more exalted version of the plain Riserva Ducale, more or less a ‘riserva’s riserva’, made only in very good years and from the higher elevations of Ruffino’s best estates, such as Montemasso – the cream skimmed from the tops of the ridges. It is a Chianti Classico, aged for its first six months in French oak before spending two more years in large casks and another year in bottle, and it is 100% Sangiovese. In other words, a thoroughly modern Chianti Classico.

    The 1993 was a nicely knit, quietly elegant wine, with only a touch of cedar revealing its French-oak origins, an aspect not at all evident in the lovely 1990 and 1988, two of the best years in memory for Chianti. These were a pair of well-structured beauties balancing elegance and complexity gracefully. The 1985, as with the Il Borgo, showed the early enthusiasm for oak, while the 1983, 1979 and 1958 had held up and were drinkable at least, quite different from each other as they reflected different aspects of evolution – wines of their time, good indicators of how far Chianti has come.

    The family resemblance between Il Borgo and Riserva Ducale Oro was in the background, as it was probably bound to be, given the other variables, but what there was in common was elegance and structure, a clear, strong line of well-defined flavour, as much of a tip-off of aristocracy as posture, cheekbones and easy grace.

    From the terrace at sunset, there was another marvellous view, back up across the hills to Montemasso, just catching the late-afternoon light. ‘There are not too many lucky vineyards in the world, are there?’ said Adolfo. He looked as contented as a man who’d just taken delivery on a brand-new Ferrari, and I couldn’t blame him a bit.

    Written by BRIAN ST PIERRE