- Wednesday 1 August 2001
NICOLAS BELFRAGE MW discovers the best winemakers in Tuscany
The model of a quality Tuscan red wine has changed so much since 30 years ago that typical examples of the two eras would be practically unrecognisable as coming from the same place. In 1970 the grapes of almost any Tuscan red – not just Chianti – would have been mostly Sangiovese, with some Canaiolo, Trebbiano and/or Malvasia. It would have been lightish in colour, oranging at the rim, with a nose of tea leaves and dried fruits, quite evolved, with some leather and spice, no oak. On the palate it would, by modern standards, have been rather acidic with some drying tannins showing through such fruit as there was. Today the typical Tuscan red is deep and vibrant, fresh-fruity (morello cherry, cassis, ripe plum) on the nose with probably a whiff of vanilla and/or toast. It would be rich and almost fat in the mouth, with high alcohol, comparatively low acidity and plenty of extract. The principal grape will still be Sangiovese (although of a different set of clones), often accompanied now by varieties associated with Bordeaux or the Rhône.
How did this transformation happen? Certainly most estate owners could not have brought it off on their own, being for the most part business or property people – with little notion of how to achieve a luvverly bunch of grapes. They, for the most part, are in it for the investment, or the good life, in one of the wine world's most beautiful settings.Step forward the consultant oenologist, that ubiquitous, rapid-moving and fast-living counsellor without whom the renaissance of Italian wine would not have happened. These are not antipodean 'flying winemakers' nor necessarily native Tuscans, but Italians who have identified Tuscany as the point where the rainbow ends, although in most cases they operate also in other, sometimes quite far-flung, parts of Italy, indeed of the world.
The doyen of this select band of miracle-workers is the ex-technical director of Antinori, Giacomo Tachis. It was Tachis who brought the techniques of his erstwhile guru Emile Peynaud (fully ripe fruit, quicker extraction of polyphenols and malolactic immediately following fermentation) to Tuscany in order to update the wines of the Antinori group, which at that time – late 1960s – included one from an unknown property over on the edge of the world, at Bolgheri, called Sassicaia. Sassicaia was followed by the Sangiovese-Cabernet blend Tignanello (1975) and subsequently by 'the world's number one wine' (according to a certain American publication), Solaia. Tachis left Antinori at the beginning of the 1990s and today consults for a few big names on the Tuscan scene, including Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia), Castello dei Rampolla and Argiano.
Maurizio Castelli, Vittorio Fiore and Franco Bernabei
Of those whose independent work began towards the late 1970s/early 1980s, the main names are Maurizio Castelli, Vittorio Fiore and Franco Bernabei. Castelli was technical advisor to the Consorzio Chianti Classico before taking off on his own with a handful of estates. He is still responsible for the wines of Castello di Volpaia and Castellare in Chianti Classico, plus Mastrojanni in Montalcino and Grattamacco in Bolgheri, though he spends an increasing amount of time abroad (California). Of the wines of the various consultant oenologists active in Tuscany today, Castelli's come nearest to the best of the traditional style, and display the least French influence. Vittorio Fiore, raised and trained in Trentino-Alto Adige, also describes himself as an afficionado of the French school of winemaking. The style of his wines depends on the lead he gets from the producer. 'They all want to make great wine,' he laughs, 'but some think twice when it comes to making the necessary commitment in terms of time and money.' Those who have gone all the way with Fiore have not regretted it – they include Caparzo, Costanti and Jacopo Biondi Santi in Montalcino, Vecchie Terre di Montefili and Terrabianca in Chianti Classico and a number of others. Since 1992 he has had his own estate, Poggio Scalette, above Greve in Chianti, where he produces an outstanding IGT from very old vines, and some new clones of Sangiovese called Il Carbonaione. Franco Bernabei, from the Veneto, started advising Selvapiana of Rufina in the early 1980s, and has since become associated with other highly rated estates like Fontodi in Panzano, Felsina in Castelnuovo Berardenga and Lisini in Montalcino. His technique involves computers, so that he can tell, by checking his screen, what stage any given barrel is at in a given winery. But the wines, including Selvapiana's Bucerchiale, Fontodi's Flaccianello and Felsina's Vigna Rancia, are not in the least hi-tech, bridging the gap between the best of the old and the new.
So far, those mentioned have been men whose emphasis has been on what they can do in the winery rather than on what happens in the field. It is a feature of most of the winemakers of a younger generation (those in their 30s and 40s who have made their name principally during the 1990s) that they see what happens in the vineyard as being of equal if not greater importance.
Castelli's successor in the Chianti Classico consortium post graduated from Florence University. It was Ferrini who initiated the Chianti Classico 2000 project that is doing so much to change the face of Tuscan vineyards today. He became a freelance consultant in 1992 and today represents big names like Ricasoli, Fonterutoli and La Massa in Chianti Classico and Il Terriccio and Ghizzano in the province of Pisa. Ferrini's success, in terms of highly rated Tre Bicchieri-type wines, has been phenomenal. His approach is integral and he believes that the oenologist must take all aspects into account, from the planting upwards, 'to create a product as close as possible to one's original idea'.
D'Afflitto has a degree in oenology from the University of Bordeaux and declares himself 'convinced that wine quality is born first of all in the vineyard, from the terroir that is the union of soil, climate, vine type and human input'. He is careful to stress that fruit should remain the top priority in the wine, which should never be over oaked. The wines he makes, mainly those of Frescobaldi in Rufina, Montalcino and elsewhere, and of the Frescobaldi-Mondavi partnership, Luce, as well as at his own Chianti Classico estate Castel Ruggero, bear this out: plenty of ripe, sweet fruit with the mature tannins that can only come from full ripening in the vineyard.
One whose work has been especially lauded in recent years is Chioccioli, another graduate, in 1985, of Florence University in agrarian studies – he qualified as an oenologist only in the mid-1990s. In almost all his 20 or so Tuscan consultancies he offers both viticultural and oenological services. Top names include Capezzana at Carmignano, whose wine he has transformed from good to excellent, Cafaggio at Panzano, and Buonamico at Montecarlo.
Marone, a Piemontese who understudied, then succeeded Tachis in the Antinori hot seat, also began his studies on the agricultural side, graduating from the Agricultural Faculty of the University of Turin before turning to matters oenological. Following a less than felicitous experience as Antinori technical director he went independent in 1994. Marone likes to interpret the owner's ideas as best he can, from vineyard through to bottling, rather than try to impose his own. His major achievement has been with the wines of the chaotic genius Stak Aivaliotis at Monte Bernardi in Panzano, and he has also done excellent work at such heterogenous Chianti Classico estates as Rocca delle Macie, Vicchiomaggio, Vignamaggio, Casa Sola and Riseccoli.
Antonini, despite his youth, has been Antinori's director of oenology (1993–96, after Giorgio Marone), as well as Frescobaldi's assistant winemaker. His training, while polished in oenological studies at the University of Bordeaux, was originally as an agronomist, and he has carried his concern for linking vineyard and cantina into his recent work as a consultant oenologist with Matura, a consultancy group he helped set up in 1997. In this capacity he consults to about 30 Tuscan producers, as well as working elsewhere in Italy and the world. The wineries he works with tend to be of the up-and-coming sort such as Collelungo and Castello di Bossi in Chianti Classico and Piaggia in Carmignano.
Antonini's partner in Matura is Pagli, who graduated from the Istituto Tecnico of Siena (1985) with a qualification in viticulture and oenology combined. In the 1980s he has devoted himself for nearly 20 years to the work of libero professionista (freelance consultant), engaged in vineyard research and development in conjunction with cantina improvements. Well-known names among the 30 or so he is associated with in Tuscany include Moris Farms at Massa Marittima, San Giusto in Rentennano at Gaiole in Chianti and Valdicava at Montalcino.
D' Attoma, born 1964, is one of the youngest, brightest stars among the new boys. A rugby fanatic whose time in the conscription army was served with the Carabinieri, he trained as an oenologist at Conegliano, another of northern Italy's big three wine academies but has recently formed a partnership under the Wine Evolution Consulting banner with agronomist Fabrizio Moltard. He began as a libero professionista in 1992 and quickly became associated with some of the big new stars of the Maremma, notably Tua Rita and Le Macchiole, as well as with Sangervasio and Ghizzano of Pisa and Montepeloso of Suvereto, but he has also made a name for luscious, full-blown Sangioveses from the heartland (Poggiopiano and, recently, Badia a Coltibuono).
Of the other independent oenologists of Tuscany probably the busiest is Vagaggini, who looks after a third of the producers of Montalcino and a third at Montepulciano, plus a few in Chianti Classico. Vagaggini, like Marone, is a non-interventionist, and the wineries for which he consults span the extremes of the traditionalist-modernist divide – Biondi Santi at Il Greppo and Siro Pacenti representing the poles.
We should not forget the granddaddy of them all, the maestro assaggiatore (master taster) Giulio Gambelli, who is still, despite advancing age, active at classic vineyards like Monte Vertine and Lilliano in Chianti Classico, Case Basse and Poggio di Sotto in Montalcino, and Le Casalte in Montepulciano. For the best and truest in the traditional style, Gambelli is the man to follow.
Castello dei Rampolla, La vigna di Alceo
Castello di Volpaia, Chianti
Poggio Scalette, Il Carbonaione
MGs, Nic, L&W
Felsina, Chianti Classico Riservo
£23.95–25,95; Ben, Bla, Els, Har, HHC, Old, Por, P&S, Sta, V&C, You
Il Terriccio, Lupicaia,
Redigafi, Tua Rita
Price on request; Arm
Monte Bernardi, Sa'etta
£25.46-27; Imp, Rae, Sec
Piaggia, Carmignano Riserva
Moris Farms, Avvoltore
Poggiopiano, Rosso di Sera
£21.89; DBy, WfW, Cle