Out of the shadows
- Thursday 1 August 2002
Tuscan regions Colli Fiorentini and Colline Pisane have long sat under the shadow of Chianti Classico. ROSEMARY GEORGE MW finds out what each region is now doing to assert its identity
There is Chianti, then there is Chianti – or, to be more precise, there is Chianti Classico and then the sotto zoni scattered around its edges, namely, the Colli Aretini, Colli Senesi, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Montespertoli and Rufina. While some of these sotto zoni remain obscure, others are finding ways to establish an identity in the shadow of Chianti Classico. The Colli Fiorentini and the Colline Pisane provide an interesting contrast in their approach to the problem.
The Colli Fiorentini is a diverse area covering some 17 communi to the south of Florence, and the east and west of Chianti Classico, stretching from Rufina in the northeast to Montespertoli in the southwest. Some vineyards snuggle amid the suburbs of Florence while others adjoin Chianti Classico, with virtually no difference between the two, so some estates make both Chianti Classico and Chianti Colli Fiorentini. Here the difference may be more one of method than terroir, with the Chianti Colli Fiorentini undergoing a shorter maceration, or ageing in traditional botti or cement vats, rather than in barriques. The profits on making Colli Fiorentini do not allow for expensive winemaking – a hectolitre of Chianti Classico sells for 800,000 lire, compared with 550,000 lire for Colli Fiorentini and 400,000 lire for simple Chianti.
But the producers of Chianti Colli Fiorentini are not deterred by this. They feel very strongly that the Florentine hills have a specific identity that can be developed and promoted. I talked to Count Ferdinando Guicciardini whose family have owned the castle of Poppiano for more than 800 years. He is president of the recently formed producers' consorzio, which now comprises 25 members from the region. The consorzio is for producers alone; merchants who buy wine in bulk are excluded, as their interests are seen to be opposed to those of the producers. The consorzio has a precise aim: to link the image of the wine with its area. For the count, the brand of Chianti is a weakness; they need to emphasise the diverse characteristics of the various sotto zoni. The aim is to work together to promote the region and its wines. In broad terms the climate of the Colli Fiorentini is milder than in Chianti Classico. There is also a significant difference in altitude, an average of 150 metres for the Colli Fiorentini, compared with 300–350 metres for Chianti Classico, which has a noticeable effect on temperature, certainly during the spring. The soil itself is mainly albarese, a mixture of clay and stones of alluvial origin, also found in Chianti Classico. The members of the consorzio identify their bottles with a logo, the rampant lion – part of the coat of arms of Florence – and the word 'Firenze' is prominent on the label. Yet they do not live by Chianti Colli Fiorentini alone. The effect of the Super-Tuscans is felt all over Tuscany, and the Colli are no exception.
This is the case at Lanciola, in the suburbs of Florence, where Giovanni Guarnieri goes beyond Chiantis Classico and Colli Fiorentini. His flagship wine, both red and white, is Terricci, so called because his property formed part of the estate of the old Florentine family of Ricci. The white, a pure Chardonnay, includes some wine that is fermented and aged in barrel, then blended with wine vinified in stainless steel vats, with some skin contact. Compared with some Tuscan Chardonnay, this is quite delicate, with a hint of oak, but understated and fresh. Red Terricci is a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Guarnieri was reluctant to divulge the exact proportions and for my tastebuds the influence of the new oak barrels was very obvious, with sweet vanilla notes, as well as fruit and tannin. For fun, he also has a hectare of Pinot Noir. Trying to make Pinot Noir in Tuscany is like having a wager, he says.
A change of ownership or generation can make a considerable impact on the dynamics of an estate. A key example is Castelvecchio, near the village of San Pancrazio, which is benefiting from the input of a young brother and sister team, Stefania and Filippo Rocci. Their grandfather bought the estate in 1960 and until 1991 the wine was sold in bulk; their father paved the way for change, but since 1998 they have developed their sales in bottle, not only with Chianti Colli Fiorentini, but also Il Brecciolino, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, which enjoys at least 15 months of ageing in new oak, to give some sweet fruit and firm tannins.
Hills of plenty
While the key producers of the Colli Fiorentini try to promote the Florentine associations of their Chianti, in sharp contrast only one producer in the Colline Pisane, the small group of hills outside Pisa, actually puts the words 'Colline Pisane' on its label. Everyone else produces plain Chianti, without any mention of Pisa. Their solution is to create a new DOC, Terre di Pisa, which will encompass the various wines that have been developed as an alternative to Chianti. The production criteria have not yet been finally defined, but the broad outline allows for two options – namely, a wine that is a blend of grape varieties, with a minimum of 60% Sangiovese, and Canaiolo, Malvasia Nera, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; or a wine that states a single variety on the label, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah, and contains a minimum of 85% of that variety. A further requirement is a minimum of 5,000 vines per ha (hectare). The maximum yield is limited to 1.5kg per vine. Twelve months' ageing in wood is mandatory, nor can the wine be sold until at least 18 months after the vintage. If Terre di Pisa is accepted, as they hope, within three or four years, it will create an anomaly in that the DOCG wine, Chianti, will be perceived as being inferior to the DOC Terre di Pisa. However, no one seems very concerned.
Ginevra Venerosi Pesciolini at Tenuta di Ghizzano explains. She used to produce Chianti Colline Pisane but gave up doing so after the 2000 vintage. She has only 14ha (hectares) of vineyards and her Chianti was one of the most expensive in the region at 14,000 lire a bottle (the average is 10,000–12,000 lire). From the same vines she can make the acclaimed Venerosa, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon with a dash of Merlot, which will sell for 45,000 lire. Now she is introducing Nambrot, named after the founder of her family, which is a blend of Merlot, with some Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines are impressive, with Veneroso combining the elegance of Sangiovese and the body of Cabernet Sauvignon. Nambrot is more bordelais in character with cassis fruit and structured tannins. Ursula Mock, who bought Bruno Moos' pioneering estate in Soiana when Bruno relocated to Canada in 1999, shares Ginevra's views about Chianti. Her grape varieties are more traditional. She concentrates on Sangiovese, with some Malvasia Nera, Ciliegiolo and Canaiolo for reds, and Vermentino and Malvasia Bianca for whites, but again there is no mention of Chianti on her labels. Her Soianello is finally crafted with some delicious cherry fruit, while the oak-aged Fontestina is more substantial. If it were sold as Chianti, she would not be able to afford new barrels for it every year.
Paolo Giusti and Fabio Zanza, who own the run-down Scopicci estate, are intent on developing an international reputation for their wines, and in this context they find Sangiovese a handicap. It is not a marketing tool, especially in a region with no historical reputation. They are replanting their vineyards, unusually, with 10,000 vines per ha. Their first vintages promise well. Dulcamore, from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, has structured cassis fruit, while Belcore, from Sangiovese, with 20% Merlot, has ripe berry fruit. They are confident in Terre di Pisa's future as the solution to the region's reputation.
Rosemary George MW is head of the Circle of Wine Writers.