Meeting an Italian master

  • Thursday 1 May 2003

Carlo Ferrini, one of Tuscany's top consultants, is adamant that the key to great wine lies in the vineyard. STEVEN SPURRIER meets him

Carlo Ferrini, one of Tuscany's top consultants, is adamant that the key to great wine lies in the vineyard. STEVEN SPURRIER meets him

Carlo Ferrini, along with Franco Bernabei and Riccardo Cottarella, is one of Italy's foremost winery consultants. A countryman in his early forties with a black moustache and a strong character, Ferrini works closely with the owners of some of Tuscany's best estates.

Before becoming a consultant in 1992 – Ferrini stresses that he is neither a wine nor a vineyard consultant but an estate consultant, a more holistic affair altogether – he was the technical director of the Chianti Classico Consortium and was therefore well-known to the region's producers. His first clients were Castello di Fonterutoli, Le Corti and Poliziano in Montepulciano. Even these days, having established his reputation, he handles no more than a dozen other estates. I caught up with Ferrini at Castello di Fonterutoli, the Mazzei estate at Castellina in Chianti, during the 2002 vintage. There I had the opportunity to interview him and taste the full range of his wines at the same time, with Filippo and Francesco Mazzei providing a running translation.

SS: Is there such a thing as a 'Ferrini style'?

CF: I don't think so, it's more of an estate style. A consultant is rather like a football coach: each has his own way of working.

SS: What conditions do you need to see fulfilled before you begin working with an estate?

CF: Terroir is the most important thing, then I look for a sense of commitment from the owners. If either of these elements was lacking, I wouldn't be interested as I don't take on hopeless cases.

SS: Do you always work on your own or do you prefer to delegate to assistants?

CF: I don't even have an office! I believe it is vital that the owners of the properties I work with know what I am aiming for. That way the project can be managed from within the estate by someone who understands which direction we're going in. I do have an assistant who helps out, but I don't delegate responsibility.

SS: In your opinion, what are the most important elements of quality in a vineyard?

CF: First of all, it must have potential. If that's a given, then clones and rootstocks have to be selected or improved, vines planted close to the ground at high density, pruned and worked to create restricted yields and then harvested by hand. Even at Fonterutoli, it took 10 years to achieve the level of quality we have there today.

SS: Is the vineyard so much more important than the cellar?

CF: I think of myself as an agronomist who rents himself to the cellars. The focus has to be in the vineyard. I could imagine myself taking care of the vineyard only, but I could never see myself focusing exclusively on the cellars.

Francesco Mazzei: The original 'Super Tuscan' approach was driven more by technology than agronomy. The reason we hired Carlo was to maximise the quality coming out of our vineyards.

SS: But once in the cellar, what do you advise?

CF: Once the vineyards are in good health, the wines will, by definition, show their own character. I tend to take a different approach according to the characteristics of the grapes and the objectives I have agreed with the owners. I think it's fair to say that there is a Ferrini philosophy rather than a Ferrini style. Filippo Mazzei: The estates Carlo works with have owners who know what they want and who want to use his philosophy to help them achieve it.

SS: What is your view on the use of barriques?

CF: I like to use around 80% French oak in Chianti, but I don't like to use botte. In Montalcino I put the wine in oak later and may use a little American oak to soften some of the leaner wines, to give them more body. I never use it with the top-of-the-range wines.

SS: What about the ageability of the wines you work with?

CF: In Italy so many things have changed in winemaking over the last 20-30 years – even more in viticulture. We're still experimenting and success is not guaranteed. Most of the vineyards I work with are 10-12 years old, and it is only once one has understood the real potential that one can tell how the wines will age.

SS: Can you sum up what you are aiming for?

CF: I believe that my true challenge is to make wines that taste great even when they are young; wines which give great pleasure early yet show great potential.

FERRINI'S WINES

Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico 2000 ****

Very good colour, new oak still present, lots of black cherry fruit, needs two years. 2004–08. £13.50; Swg (key to stockists)

Le Corti Chianti Classico 2000 ****

Sangiovese 90%, Canaiolo/Colorino 10%. Finely extracted blackcurrant and black cherry fruit, ripe but showing natural grip and great depth. 2003–10. £8.45-11; C&T, See (key to stockists)

Le Corti 'Don Tommaso' Chianti Classico 2000 ****

Sangiovese 90%, Merlot 10%. Deep velvety colour, very rich looking, lovely wild violet nose with excellent extraction, ripeness and oak, supple yet complex, a lovely wine. 2003–10. £20; C&T (key to stockists)

Brancaia Chianti Classico 2000 ****

Typical very good deep colour, rich and slightly gamey fruit on nose and palate, smooth impression with good Chianti grip. 2004–10. £17.99; Swg (key to stockists)

Fattoria La Massa 'Giorgio Primo' Chianti Classico 2000 ****

Wonderful expression of wild violets and crushed black fruits on the nose, new wood and black cherry on the palate, a sophisticated wine with great length. 2003–12. £33–40; Arm, Dec, Han, HvN (key to stockists)

Fattoria Le Corti 'Don Tommaso' Chianti Classico 1999 ****

Sangiovese 90%, Merlot 10%. 70% new French oak. Huge colour, wonderfully rich blackcurrant fruit and fine expression of terroir, still young but very sophisticated and impressive. 2003–12. £20–23.75; C&T, PdT (key to stockists)

Nittardi Chianti Classico Riserva 1999 *** Fine deep colour, big jammy fruit, rich and rounded in a seductive, supple fashion. 2003–06. £15.95; YWD (key to stockists)

Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva 1999 ****

Deep firm colour, powerful, firm bouquet in the Pauillac, even Latour style, very ripe, concentrated, perhaps over-ripe grapes, slightly pruney fruit, a very serious, solid wine for the long term. 2004–12. £32.99; Wmb (key to stockists)

Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico Riserva 1999 *****

Superb colour, really fabulous nose of blackcurrant, black cherry fruit and oak perfectly blended in, superb balance, a really fine vineyard expression. Needs five years. 2005–15. £29.60; Lay (key to stockists)

Fattoria Le Corti 'Cortevecchia' Chianti Classico Riserva 1999 ****

Deep, rich colour, lovely concentration and pure ripe fruit, signs of long fermentation and extended wood ageing, ripe and firm. 2003–10.

Casanova di Neri 'Tenuta Nuova' Brunello di Montalcino 1997 ****

Sangiovese 100%. Good deep colour, ripe and gamey nose, rich, thick fruit, softer than the Chianti style and very good length. 2003–10. Euw (key to stockists)

Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano 2001 ***

Black cherry colour, very fine, pure ripe fruit with terrific length and grip for a Rosso. 2003–07. £10.99; Wmb (key to stockists)

Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1999 ****

Very deep colour, slightly minty oak with blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, elegant and intense with good length and acidity. 2003–12. £16.99; Wmb (key to stockists)

Poliziano 'Asinone' Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1999 *****

More blackcurrant, depth and spice than the previous wine, smoky new oak, powerful concentration of fruit, a really great expression of Sangiovese, 'the best of the tradition' according to Carlo Ferrini. 2004–15. £29.99; Wmb (key to stockists)

Tenuta San Fabiano Calcinaia 'Cerviolo' IGT 2000 *****

Sangiovese 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 40%, Merlot 30%. Rich, ripe and plummy, exceptional extraction and smoky length, robust yet smooth, not a 'trophy wine', needs five years. 2006–15. £17.50 (1998); Gll (key to stockists)

Tenuta Belguardo IGT 2000 ***

Cabernet Sauvignon 40%, Merlot 40%, Sangiovese 30%. Huge colour, really fine, ripe, almost sweet fruit, a softer, easier style than Chianti. 2003–08. £38.60; Swg (key to stockists)

Tenuta Sette Ponti 'Oreno' IGT 2000 ****

Sangiovese 60%, Cabernet Sauvignon 30%, Merlot 10%. Big colour, deeply extracted, quite thick and rich, rather New World style, but good grip at the end. 2003–10. £26.50; C&C (key to stockists)

Tenuta di Ghizzano 'Veneroso' IGT 1999 ****

Sangiovese 50%, Cabernet Sauvignon 45%, Merlot 5%. Fine deep colour, lovely nose with just a touch of new oak, fragrant, floral and elegant, a delicious, beautifully balanced wine. 2003–09. £22; Swg (key to stockists)

Tenuta Marsiliana 'La Partenza' IGT 2000 ****

Cabernet Sauvignon 60%, Merlot 20%, Mourvèdre/ Cinsault/Sangiovese 20%. Seductive blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, smoky from 18 months in new oak, polished style with a nice firm edge. 2003–10. £22–29.50; C&T, JiW (key to stockists)

Castello di Brolio 'Casalferro' IGT 2000 ****

Sangiovese 80%, Merlot 20%. Really fine colour and lovely nose, Merlot evident with ripe blackcurrant fruit and fine Sangiovese grip. Superb balance and length. 2004–12. £22.99; Swg (key to stockists)

Brancaia 'Il Blu' IGT 2000 ****

Sangiovese 55%, Merlot 40%, Cabernet Sauvignon 5%. Typical huge colour, very good expression of ripeness with concentration and depth, the Merlot showing a Cabernet firmness above its plummy blackcurrant fruit. 2004–12. £35.15; Lay (key to stockists)

Tenuta di Ghizzano 'Nambrot' IGT 2000 ****

Merlot 70%, Cabernet Sauvignon 30%. Really huge, impenetrable colour, big chunky wine, more Cabernet than Merlot, very masculine and rich and very impressive, a little smokiness from new oak and gaminess from the Cabernet. Vibrant and impressive. 2004–12.

Castello di Fonterutoli 'Siepe' IGT 2000 *****

Sangiovese 50%, Merlot 50%. Superb colour, rich, vibrant, oaky, seductive fruit, quite delicious in the Pichon-Lalande style, a wine with immense personality and charm. 2003–10. £48.50; Swg (key to stockists)

Castello di Terriccio 'Lupicaia' IGT 2000 *****

Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Merlot 15%. Huge colour, almost blood-like extraction, thick and slightly gamey, really good length and everything in balance despite the massive ripeness and structure. At least 5 years. 2005–15.

Casanova di Neri 'Pietradomice' IGT 2000 ****

Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Sangiovese 20%. The Cabernet was planted in 1995 and the Sangiovese over 20 years ago. Huge black colour, no impression of Cabernet – it is totally dominated by the old Sangiovese and Montalcino terroir, packed with ripe, earthy fruit and depth from warm vineyards. 2004–12. Euw (key to stockists)

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