About two weeks ago, I hosted a private evening tasting for thirty people, the theme being Tuscan wines. I selected six wines based upon both their significant traditional as well asinnovative contributions in the development of the high quality wines that we see today. Here are some excerpts of my talk surveying a general history of Tuscan wines and a word about one of the wines tasted, the 2010 Fontodi “Vigna del Sorbo” Riserva Chianti.
It is certainly true that in Tuscany we see archeological evidence of grape cultivation (it is widely accepted the grape was the parent form of Sangiovese) by the Etruscans dating as far back as the 8th century BC. These people were very cultured in art, literature and trade, both with the Greeks, who made mention of their wines in their writings, and eventually with the Romans until they became assimilated into the Roman Republic in the 4th century. As a matter of fact, the Romans referred to the Etruscans as Tusci which is the origin of the term Tuscany, or Toscana if you are speaking Italian.
Now let’s fast forward a few centuries. After the fall of the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages, it was the monasteries that both produced and incorporated wine for religious purposes, mostly reserved for clergy and Bishops.Gradually during this time, however, aristocratic and merchant classes emerged and there began a system of share cropping known as Mezzadria. This was an arrangement where the landowner provided the land and resources for planting a crop in exchange for half or, Mezza, of the yearly crop. Many of the Tuscan landowners would then turn their half of the grape harvest into wine and sell it to merchants in Florence. The earliest reference to Florentine wine retailers dates to 1079 andlater a guild was created in 1282. This guild, called the Arte deVinattieri, established very strict regulations on how these merchants could conduct business. For example they could not serve wine to children under 15, or serve it to thieves or prostitutes, and no wine was to be sold within 91 meters, or 100 yards of a church. These rules certainly did not inhibit sales as records show that the equivalant of 8 million US gallons of winewere sold every year in Florence at this time! By the 14th century references to wine names like Chianti, the name referred to wines from the area of a mountain named Chianti, and VinoNobile di Montepulciano began to appear. Interestingly, there was a merchant, known as the Merchant of Prato, who described Chianti as a pale, light, white wine. Eventually it evolved into a more deep colored red wine although it had a reputation for being coarse. In the 14th century, Chianti winemakers developed a technique known as governo where half-dried grapes were added to the grape must which provided plenty of sugar for the yeast to ferment, allowing for more flavor and concentration, but could also leave the wines with a slightly sparkling or fizzy character due secondary fermentation. As Chianti’s quality andreputation grew, it was in 1716 that Cosimo III de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, issued and edict delineating the boundaries that would eventually become the heart of the Chianti Classico region that is the same to this day.
Now, let’s move forward to the 19th century, where two individuals were key figures in the development ofTuscan wines. The first was a man named, Bettino Ricasoli, who not long after the end of the Napoleanic wars in the 19th century inherited an ancestral estate in Broglio located in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. The estate was somewhat run down and the vineyards needed much attention as well. Determined to improve the situation, Ricasoli traveled to Germany and France, studying grape varieties and viticultural practices and experimented with different grape varieties in his own vineyards. Eventually he believed that he had discoveredthe right combination of grapes to make the best wine. There were three of them, two red, Sangiovese, for its aromatics, and Canaiolo to help soften the tannins of Sangiovese, and importantly as we shall see later, one white grape, Malvasia Bianca, also to further soften the wine. This became the followed “recipe” for Chianti, even though Ricasoli became more involved in poitics than wine, and went on to be Prime Minister of Italy after unification.
The second key person in the development of Tuscan wines was a farmer named Clemente Santi, who in the mid 19th century was able to isolate a clone of Sangiovese that became known as the Brunello clone. He planted this new clone, also known as Sangiovese Grosso, in the area near the medieval town of Montalcino, south of Siena. Later toward the end of the century his grandson Ferruccio Biondi-Santi continued to make and refine the wine, making it richer, more intense and concentrated. But in spite of the major strides in wine quality by these two individuals, the late 19th century saw oidium and phylloxera epidemics take its toll on the vineyards throughout Tuscany. As a result, many vineyard workers and winemakers left and emigrated abroad. Those who stayed tended to replant high yield varietals like the white grape Trebbiano or Sangiovese clones from nearby Romagna. As a result quality was average at best. And, following World War II the general trend in the world market was for cheap, easy drinking wine where producers were more interested in quantity than quality. However, during this same period a group of producers began working outside the boundaries of strict regulations to make what they believed would be higher quality wines made from other nontraditional blends or varietals.
So, as you can see, Tuscany has definitely had a long history of wine production spanning about three thousand years. But I would argue that, much like the California wine industry, the realization of the great potential of Tuscan wines did not fully arrive until the last half of the 20th century. And, a good example of this are wines from a producer in the Chianti Classicothat continues to excell, and that is Fontodi. But first, a little more history, specifically about Chianti Classico.
Back in my youthful days just about every Italian restaurant or pizza place not only served Chianti but often had the bottle in the basket, called a fiasco, as the candle holder on the table. These wines were usually just fun and fruity, easy to drink and hardly complex or age worthy. As mentioned before, the formula or recipe for Chianti was originally developed by Benitto Ricasoli but later it became the basis of a strict regulation when the DOC, the Italian version of the French Appellation system, originated in 1960. To be granted DOC status, a Chianti had to consist of a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, with other red grapes Canaiolo or Mamolo, and the white grapes either Trebbiano or Malvasia Bianca. If you chose to make a wine that was 100% Sangiovese, or it included an unauthorized red grape in the blend, say Cabernet Sauvignon, or not include the white grapes, it could only be classified as Vino da Tavola, or simple “table wine” no matter how good or complex it was. That classification had little prestige as it was the lowest rung on the ladder. In an attempt to seriously improve Chianti, a huge project was established in the decade of 1990’s called Chianti 2000. Numerous different clones were planted in various microclimates to see what worked best and it turned out to be quite successful in selecting the best clones resulting in the trend toward higher quality.
Fondoti has definitely been in the forefront in regard to higher quality. This property’s history dates back to Roman times and was purchased in 1968 by the Manetti family, famous in Italy for their terracotta tile factory, and has been overseen and made by Giovanni Manneti since 1980. They are located in Panzano in the heart of the Chianti Classico. This wine is made from a single vineyard named Vigna del Sorbo and is a blend of 95% Sangiovese and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. It spent 24 months in French Troncais and Allier barriques, what the Italians refer to as the 225 liter barrels like what you see when in Napa. Now, you may have noticed that this wine has no white grapes and the other red grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, yet the wine is classified as a Chianti Classico. How can this be since it does not follow the so-called recipe?
Much of the credit for the changes in the grape composition of Chianti goes to one producer, Piero Antinori. In the 1970’s Antinori released a wine, now quite famous, called Tignanello, originally a Riserva Chianti Classico. It’s name came from a single vineyard and when the blend changed to 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, it could only be categorized as a Vino da Tavola, or table wine. Even so its reputation grew rapidly and it was highly sought after by collectors. Tignanello, and other innovative Tuscan wines, during the next couple of decades were referred to as “Super Tuscans” instead of table wines fetching much higher prices than Chiantis. Eventually, because of the great success of these wines, laws were reformed in the early 1990’s which allowed for Chianti to be 100% Sangiovese, or blended up to 20% with other grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon. The white grape requirement was eliminated for Chianti Classico. And, for the Vino da Tavola wines, a new designation called Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT, was established to give more credentials to these wines, with less and less emphasis on the name Super Tuscan.
So, Fontodi, based on the relatively new guidelines, has made a Chianti Classico Riserva that rivals some of the finest red wines of Tuscany. And, at $80.00 a bottle, it now fetches a price that is on par with numerous IGT wines. The 2010 Vigna del Sorbo is a spectacular wine that will require a few years of cellaring and should drink well for a couple of decades. I highly recommend it!
Gary M., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant