Toscana - The Heart of Italian Wine
I have visited all corners of the globe and no wine region beats Tuscany in terms of scenery, It is just drop-dead gorgeous. Tuscany is the heart of Italian wine and produces more top-scoring wines than any other region in Italy. However, as I have discovered many many times this year, within each region many different styles exist. Sangiovese is the grape of Tuscany, yet, takes on many different forms; from light and elegant, to muscular and bold, finishing with rich and powerful. These forms existed in Greve and Radda in Chianti along with Montalcino in southern Tuscany. Bolgheri is home of the Super Tuscans, and some of the highest-scoring wines in Italy come from Bolgheri. However unlike their neighbours, the wines are not made form Sangiovese, but from Bordeaux blends. Another side of Tuscany, which is explored in this report.
Recent vintages of Tuscany have been quite varied with a challenging 2014, yet a stellar 2015 and 2016. The 2014 vintage saw a mild summer and frequent hailstorms, yet some producers crafted some classic wines. The 2015 vintage was hailed by wine critics as one of the best that Tuscany has ever seen, with a hot and dry summer. The 2016 is promising to be even better, with less rain and a slightly cooler summer, the fruit produced is said to be even better.
With two classic vintages just released, I felt it was time to visit the heart of Italian wine and see just how good these vintages were. This report includes the wineries of Fontodi, Fattoria Vignavecchia, Fattoria di Montemaggio, Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona, Casanova di Neri and Ornellaia. Other wines have been included which were tasted as part of an independent tasting.
Fontodi located in Panzano, Chianti was my first stop. Fontodi has been in the Manetti family since 1968 and is both organic, sustainable and estate grown. Upon arriving at the winery, you are able to see over 90% of their vineyards within the Panzano valley. Over 95% of their vines are Sangiovese, however, they also produce a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah. I walked around with Silvano Marcucci, who emphasized at Fontodi, it is all about quality and showing the best of their terroir. All wines are hand-harvested, use natural yeast and even produce their own fertilizer with their cows. Their focus is on Sangiovese, and they produce what I would refer to as rustic, terroir-driven, cellaring Sangiovese. Their wines perfectly showcase the Sangiovese grapes, though, those who can wait to pull the cork on their wines will be deeply rewarded. Their wines are best enjoyed after 7-8 years of cellaring, if drinking early, ensure a long decant.
Highlights included the Fontodi Syrah Case Via Colli della Toscana Centrale IGT 2009 (94 points), This has a full-body and rich palate, with overripe dark black fruit, liquorice, anise, vanilla, crushed stones and polished tannins. The finish was long and elegant. Along with the Fontodi Vigna del Sorbo 2015 (95 points), with a fruit-driven nose, and a palate which was rich and full, along with a wonderful purity of fruit, orange peel and anise with a rich finish. Finally the Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve 2015 (96 points), is a real stunner and shows the quality of what the Sangiovese grape is capable of. Aromas of violets, lavender, wild herbs, mushrooms and dark fruit which lead to a wonderfully velvety palate of rich sweet blackcurrant and cherries, nicely woven muscular yet polished tannins. Fontodi is a benchmark in Chianti, though these are not for early drinking, waiting is the secret for these wines.
Vignavecchia is located in the region of Radda in Chianti. It was founded by Odoardo Beccari in 1876, and so has a long history. The current owners date back four generations and is currently run by Orsola Beccari. The question though is how I came across this small family-run winery? I am always blind tasting and their basic Chianti Classico 2016 came in at a similar score to that of wine three times the price! I was automatically hooked and after a few late emails we set up a tasting. Those who are in search of excellent value to quality wines should look no further than Vignavecchia. Highlights included the Vignavecchia Tulipa Rosato Toscana 2018 (92 points), which was full of freshly cut strawberries, raspberries along with a clean and well-focused finish. The Vignavecchia Raddese Rosso di Toscana IGT 2014 (93 points), with good concentration, wonderful purity of fruit along with smooth elegant chalky tannins. Finally the Vignavecchia Chianti Classico Riserva 2015 (92 points), which was more structured compared to the CC, with more muscular tannins along with dark fruit, concentration yet with good freshness and bright acidity, a steal in terms of price. Vignavecchia is a family-owned winery which delivers top-quality Chianti at excellent prices, what else could you ask for?
Fattoria di Montemaggio
Getting to Montemaggio is a challenge, it involves driving for around 5km on gravel roads up and around the hills of Radda in Chianti, but it is worth the drive. Montemaggio means Big Mountain, and even though the vineyard does sit higher than most, I am not sure I would go as far as calling it a mountain! Valeria Zavadnikova and her team do a fantastic job in producing some higher altitude, drinkable and sense of place wines. When Valeria took over the winery 11 years ago, the first decision which was made was to hold back the wines. This was to allow for additional ageing and ensure that when they reached the market they were ready to drink. What this means in reality, is that most of their wines could be passed off as a higher classification (i.e. a Chianti Classico could be classified as a Chianti Classico Reserva). Yet, they keep this original designation, since they feel that is what this designation should taste like. I also appreciated how along with Ilaria Anichini, they focus on being organic, sustainable and eco-responsible. Their wines perfectly showcase their terroir and require little cellaring to be fully enjoyed.
Highlights include Montemaggio Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 (93 points), which showed good concentration of fruit along with freshness and bright acidity leading to a lean and clean finish. Also, the Montemaggio Quinta Essentia Toscana IGT 2013 (92 points), with a blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Sangiovese showed soft red fruit, spicy notes, black pepper and an elegant fresh finish. Finally, the Montemaggio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2012 (93 points), with aromas of lavender, herbs, dried violets leading to a full and structured palate of prunes, figs along with fresh red fruits, the tannins were serious yet elegant. Fattoria di Montemaggio produces elegant wines which are ready to drink upon release as well as showing a fantastic expression of the higher altitude Radda region.
Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona
Montalcino is located around 2 hours drive south of the Chianti region of Panzano. Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona is now run by Paolo and Lucia Bianchini, the son and daughter of Giuseppe Bianchini. Giuseppe was a farmer who inherited the farm from Elda Ciacci Piccolomini in 1985. The focus of their wines are on the Sangiovese grape, however, they have recently expanded their portfolio into some entry-level wines. Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona has a traditionalist style, and even though their Brunellos were outstanding, I was not as impressed by their entry-level wines, which I felt downgraded their name a little.
Highlights included the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2013 (94 points), the vintage had a dry free summer which produced a wine full of fruit on the nose, along with balsamic and leather, the palate was full of dark red fruit, dark chocolate, black pepper and a spicy finish. Also the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2014 (94 points), with plenty of dark fruit compote, dried fruit, pepperiness, leather and a whiff of tobacco. The palate was rich and lean showing black and red fruit, cake spices, along with medium tannins and a clean finish. Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona produces some rustic yet elegant Brunellos, which are both approachable young and which have excellent ageing potential.
Casanova di Neri
Casanova di Neri was founded in 1971 by Giovanni Neri, a wheat trader who moved from Florence to Montalcino. In the 1970s Montalcino was not as popular as today with around 17 wineries in production compared to over 250 today. Whilst others were focusing on the quantity the Neri's were focusing on quality which is what his son of Giacomo and his two sons Giovanni and Gianlorenzo are focusing on today. Whilst walking around with Gianlorenzo, he explained that the secret of the Casanova di Neri wines was the land and that most of the work was done in the vines and not the winery. Once in the winery, the grapes are sorted twice by hand and then are processed by an optical sorter. I only know of three other wineries who have this: Chateau Margaux, Ornellaia and Alpha & Omega. These optical sorting machines are excellent for identifying less than acceptable grapes and allow for a further selection step which helps to really improve the quality. Gianlorenzo mentioned this became extremely important during the 2014 vintage which was rather challenging. It also helped to bring a certain cleanness to the finish. I was impressed by every single one of Casanova di Neri's wines, and found a crescendo in styles from the Rosso all the way up to the Cerretalto, without any drop in quality. There are less family-owned vineyards in Montalcino, Casanova di Neri is one of the last remaining, the passion, love and dedication they put into their wines is remarkable and I look forward to seeing the continuous improvements in the years to come.
I was impressed by all of Casanova di Neri's wines, independent of the price, the quality was always high. My main highlights were the Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto 2013 (97 points), was rich and medium-bodied with blackberries, blackcurrants, florals and allspice, there was a stony-mineral texture which could be felt dancing on the palate. I was also impressed by the Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 2015 (96 points), The palate felt rich and enticing, with dusty black cherries, currants, strawberries and a touch of fig and spice, the tannins were beautifully pure and structured, the finish clean, elegant and long. Finally the Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2013 (95 points), full of dark and red berry fruit, along with fresh violets, oregano and a little star anise. The palate was quite fruit-driven with more fruit purity and concentration
Ornellaia is one of the most famous wineries in Italy, their Bordeaux blend has been consistently given some of the worlds highest wine critic scores, and it is not even 40 years old! This winery was originally founded by the Antinori family in 1981, and now the Frescobaldi family owns both the Ornellaia and Masseto vineyards. The focus of my visit was on the 2016 vintage which followed a near-perfect 2015. The 2015 vintage was marked by hot sunny days, whereas the 2016 was marked by cooler night and less rain. The question is did the 2016 turn out better? As a side note, since 2006 famous artists have designed some of the labels as a description of the vintage. For the 2016 vintage, the artist Shirin Neshat came up with the name 'La Tension'.
For such a young winery, Ornellaia is certainly at the forefront of technology, including the recent purchase of an optical sorter. The harvest is performed by individual lots which allow for 60-80 base wines, which would then be blended to give a final wine. The blend would aim to produce the style of Ornellaia and the second wine Le Serre Nuove. Unlike most second wines which use younger vines to produce a simpler final product, Le Serre Nuove can be described as a high-quality baby Ornellaia. A wine which is accessible earlier yet goes through a similar process to that of the first wine. The oak used in the Ornellaia winery is all french oak, however, Olga Fusari (winemaker at Ornellaia), explained it is there to enhance the vineyard and not necessarily dominate the palate. This brings me onto the 2017 vintage, which was the hottest on record for Ornellaia. This is where all of their experience was required, I asked Olga the steps which were made to ensure the wines came out balanced, fresh along with good acidity instead of dry and high alcohol. I was told the main factors were the optical sorter, along with less extraction, less pump over and shorter maceration really help to produce a surprisingly balanced wine. I tasted the Serre Nuove of this vintage and was also surprised by how it still had great acidity and freshness. Tasting the Ornellaia range is always a treat, however, as the vineyard approaches maturity, Olga and her team are really dialled in, and are focused to continuously improve the quality of Ornellaia in the years to come. Ornellaia and the Bolgheri region is often compared to Bordeaux, the blends are the same, yet the climate is different. Both regions produce high-quality wines, and after this trip, I feel more than ever that Ornellaia can easily compete with some of the best wines produced in Bordeaux. When you look at prices you do notice a significant difference, and for lovers of Bordeaux who find the prices too high, I recommend the wines of Bolgheri, where you will not be disappointed.
The Ornellaia 2016 (98 points), was my wine of my trip to Italy, with a lush, concentrated and complete palate, along with blackcurrant compote, dusty chocolate and spice, the tannins are so pure and whilst the palate is nicely round the finish is clean, precise, elegant. The Le Serre Nuove 2017 (94 points) was a complete surprise, I was expecting drying tannins and little in the way of fruit due to the hot and dry 2017 vintage. However it showed surprising depth, concentration and elegance. I believe the Ornellaia 2017 will be a suprise in this difficult vintage. Finally a white wine is also produced which showcases some Italian varieties. The Poggio alle Gazze Toscana IGT 2017, was refreshing and light with pineapple, Meyer lemon, almond and crisp acidity. I was here to taste the 2016, and the Ornellaia 2016 is one of the top wines of the vintage. Looking forward to 2017, which will go down as a much more challenging year will also produce very good, high-quality wines. As I mentioned to Olga, it is not about the good years but the challenging years which defines a winery. It is clear that Ornellaia can produce world-class wines in both the good and bad!
Tuscany has such a variety of wines, 10 days was not enough to properly cover the region. Yet, I was able to taste a range of both 2015s and 2016s, which confirmed the quality coming out of Tuscany is improving. This, along with some surpising 2014s and 2017s which showed those ahead of the game could produce very high quality wines, in a less than stellar vintage. Whether you prefer your Sangiovese more muscular, delicate or earthy, there are wines in Tuscany for every style. For me Fontodi and Casanova di Neri are making some of the best wines of the region. However smaller producers such as Vignavecchia and Fattoria di Montemaggio also produce well-priced wines of their terroir. As for Bolgerhi, Ornellaia is just improving every year, and for the price, it is easily competing with some of the Bordeaux top growths, at a fraction of the cost. All this to say, Is 2016 better than 2015? Based on the tasting I did, I feel it is a point or so higher. However, Tuscany lovers will enjoy both vintages. Below is a selection of the most impressive wines tried.