Sorting your Chiantis from your Chianti Classicos
When you learn about wine, you're told that Chianti Classico is the best part of Chianti, its bottles sporting the famous black cockerel (gallo nero). While this is true to a certain extent, I discovered that rather than being a sub-zone of the Chianti region, Chianti Classico is actuallly a demarcated area with its own DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the highest quality classification). The vineyards within Chianti Classico in the area between Florence and Siena correspond to the original zone of production of Chianti wines dating back to the 1300s at least; these were the original Chiantis, if you like.
It was only when popularity of the wine increased that it started to be produced in a wider area to meet demand – these early wines were originally known as 'Chianti style' reds. In 1984 the whole of the Chianti region was promoted to DOCG level, but even so, Chianti Classico wines have more stringent regulations for production than straight Chianti and are produced in what are considered to be the best part of the region.
The wider Chianti areas has several named sub-zones, the best of which is Chianti Rufina. The wines from this part of the region are on a par with Chianti Classico wines in terms of quality, but are very different in style. So in this sense it is not strictly true to say that 'the best Chianti is made in the Classico region', that would do a disservice to Chianti Rufina.
All becomes so much clearer when you get to visit a region and are able to appreciate the differences first-hand.
Azienda Frascole – an organic farm high up in the hills
Husband and wife team Enrico and Elisa Lippi of Azienda Agricola Frascole
Rufina Chianti has been described as 'mountain wine'. The region lies to the east of Florence and has the most continental of climates of the whole of Chianti and the vineyards are up as high as 500m above sea level (the average for Chianti is 300m). Husband and wife team Enrico and Elisa Lippi farm in one of the highest and coolest parts of Rufina, high up on the hill of Frascole overlooking the town of Dicomano.
Frascole are a relatively new supplier to The Wine Society. Enrico and Elisa are both qualified agronomists, they worked for other people but dreamed of having their own estate one day. Starting in 1992 with just four hectares, they now have 16 (with a further nine of olive groves). They also have some holiday houses on the property for rent. Enrico carried on working elsewhere until 1995 when he was able to devote himself fulltime to Frascole - until then Lisa had run the place.
Winding our way up to their property from the valley floor on twisty-turny lanes, it felt more like Wales than Tuscany (especially in March – I'm sure it's different in the summer!). This isn't the Tuscany of tall Cypress trees but is much more wooded and all-together more green.
A charming spot at Enrico and Elisa's organic farm, named Frascole after the hill on which it sits at the far north of Chianti Rufina
And talking of green, Enrico and Elisa were committed to farming organically from the start, gaining certification in 1999. It's a challenge they say in more difficult vintages, though. We parked up and wandered through the gates to make our way to their tasting room. Spring hadn't really sprung, but the gardens were pretty and artistic nonetheless, with tasteful metal sculptures dotted around the place, and lots of cats! It would be a lovely relaxing spot for holidays; Enrico and Elisa would be charming hosts, I'm sure.
A taste of Rufina
As is often the case on these trips, we were on a tight schedule, so we quickly got down to talking weather, vintages and tasting the wines. We started with their white Frascole In Albis 2013 made from 100% trebbiano Toscano which they first started producing in 2011. Appley and full-flavoured but a little stalky on the nose for me, it needs a little time to come around. The Lippis like to serve it with bacalao and wild mushroom risotto.
Next comes the Frascole Chianti Rufina 2013 from mix of older and younger vines, some dating back to 1970. Sebastian says this has a very 'precise' flavour and you certainly get the aromatic and floral character typical of Rufina. I thought the nose quite herbal and Lisa informed us that there was lots of wild rosemary growing around these vineyards. Attractive, full flavour and excellent structure are testament to the care taken with the wine by the Lippis. Sebastian said that we had bought this wine and would ship some more.
Finally, we tasted the Frascole Chianti Rufina Riserva 2012, made from vines at the highest part of the estate on the stoniest soils and grey, crumbly sandstone. The grapes here are smaller and more perfumed, Enrico tells us and also says that the Rufina area has lots of different soil types, adding to the complexity of flavours and aromas in these wines. In this wine, I could detect that typical aroma of roses that one is supposed to find in Chianti; there was also a hint of prosciutto. The wine is richer than the straight Chianti and has been fermented in wooden barrels before having a year in barriques and a further year ageing in bottle before release.
Sadly, our time here with this lovely couple was over and it was back into the car to head south again. It was a great introduction to the Rufina style and inspiring to meet a young couple going it alone.
Poggiopiano – the home of our Exhibition Chianti Classico
The drive here felt very different from the wilds of Rufina. In fact the fattoria isn't far from the town of San Casciano, which is about 15km south of Florence. You drive off the motorway then up into what feel like the town suburbs before suddenly you're our out on the crest of a flat-topped hill (poggio means 'hill or knoll'; piano – 'flat, level'), with vineyards on either side and view across the valley to San Casciano in the distance. In terms of the Chianti Classico area, this lies in the north-west of the classification; Antinori, one of Chianti Classico's most famous wine families, are nearby.
Vines and olive groves in a perfect setting looking down to San Casciano
Sebastian tells me that the key to this property, and what made it the choice for our Exhibition wine, is not just the location of the vineyards in a prime position, but also the fact that they work with an excellent consultant winemaker (enologo), Valentino Ciarla. He is part of a group of young forward-looking oenologists who have come together under Atillio Pagli, one of Italy's most admired winemakers. Valentino has been working with the owners of the estate, the Bartoli family since 2005. He has been helping brothers, Stefano and Allesandro to better manage the vineyards and making the wine for them. As he has got to know us too he has understood very well the style of wine we like, working on blends with Sebastian to get them to our liking.
The Bartoli brothers of Poggiopiano, home of The Society's Exhibition Chianti Classico, with enologo Valentino Ciarla, left and buyer Sebastian Payne MW, 2nd from right
We were delighted that Valentino was going to be at the cantina to taste with us and share his thoughts on vintages as well as insights from projects that he was working on.
How the Bartoli family went from shoes to wine
But before we got down to wine talk, Stefano told me the background to his family's property. They first came here in 1993, having been involved in shoe manufacturing previously. Competition from China and elsewhere meant that cheap imports were making their business untenable, so Stefano's father Beppe, now in his late eighties, decided to buy the property.
Now that Beppe has retired his two sons Alessandro and Stefano run the estate. Stefano looks after the winemaking and vineyards with the help of Valentino while Allesandro is estate manager and commercial director. Stefano clearly has a deep love for the vineyards and seems to know each row (and possibly each vine) individually, as he points out various traits and characteristics from the terrace outside the tasting room.
Such attention to detail is what makes the difference between estates, especially in more challenging vintages like 2014, where we'd discover later in our tasting, just how such assiduous care from Stefano had paid off. It shows too just how important it is to live on the land so that you can notice things quickly and take appropriate action.
Much of their 10 hectares of vineyards dates back to the 1960s (they used to work with a further 10ha of bought in or leased vineyards too, but say that it is better to concentrate on your own land to have better control). There is a programme of re-planting going on, however, as vines become less productive.
The plot of land in front of the villa is the oldest with vines dating back to the 1960s
Cool summer winds help keep the grapes fresh in the heat of a Tuscan summer
Surveying their vines from the vantage point of the terrace, we are buffeted by a strong and rather chilly wind and Stefano says that even in summer there's a very fresh breeze here, helping to keep the grapes fresh and in good condition in the fierce Tuscan sun.
It was a relief to duck back inside out of the wind to taste with Valentino.
The Poggiopiano line-up
Our Exhibition wine among Poggiopiano's labels
We started with the 2014 vintage of our 2014 Exhibition Chianti Classico. Sebastian and Valentino had previously made the blend up, so this was a tasting from tank of a wine that would be bottled in a couple of weeks. The wine usually spends 12-14 months in barrel before going into old concrete tanks for storage ageing before bottling, which Valentino says makes the wine more stable and keeps it fresher than storage in stainless steel, for example.
We were amazed at just how full the wine was given the challenges of the 2014 vintage, but the Bartolis explained that much less wine was made, so the resulting wine was more concentrated than it would have been and was showing lovely rounded, crunchy, soft berry-fruit flavours with an appealing freshness. 'Nicely perfumed, clean, soft fruit, ready to enjoy now,' says Sebastian.
We then tried some of the estate's own-label Chiantis. Their Rosso di Sera is actually marketed as a Toscana IGT since its launch in 1995 (originally for commercial reasons at the time, they told us, though with 90% sangiovese and 10% colorino, it is in fact a classic Chianti Classico).
Rosso di Sera means 'red sky at night', or does it mean, 'your red wine of the evening', which they say starts after midday in Tuscany?! We started with the 2011, which was all crushed Morello cherries and full-on silky oak, powerful at 15% alc but vibrant and juicy fruit mean it doesn't taste heavy. It could last at least 10-15 years, we thought.
The 2012 Rosso di Sera was still in barrels and tank and was the product of an odd vintage, Valentino told us, 'the last rain we had was in May, then it didn't rain again until August/September. The plants stop photosynthesising but the grapes carry on... inevitably, in such drought conditions, you end up with a lot less fruit (down 50% here) but it is really concentrated.'
Red sky at night - Poggiopiano's Rosso di Sera
Valentino said that the wine was still changing, tasting different from one day to the next, it was notable that he had managed to retain freshness in the wine which was full and ripe with cruncy, dark-fruit flavour.
An older 2003 vintage of the Rosso di Sera, while giving some indication of how the 2012 might age (it too was a very hot year), displaying roast coffee and chocolate notes, was made before Valentino's arrival. The mark of the winemaker had shown in the better made wines of the later years.
La Tradizione – a Gran Selezione hopeful
Next we moved onto another 2012, a wine which was destined to be the estate's Gran Selezione level wine, subject to its approval by the consorzio's tasting panel. Gran Selezione is the new top tier of Chianti Classico, above Riserva wines whose introduction just a few years ago hasn't been without controversy.
(If you're interested in the debate, Italian wine expert Nicolas Belfrage MW touches on the subject in this article on our website).
Stefano said that they had always produced this wine (it's a selection of their best grapes from the estate and aged for 30 months rather than 24 for the Riserva wines). Just as for Chianti Classico, Gran Selezione wines must have a minimum of 80% sangiovese in the blend, but unlike others', Poggiopiano's wine is 100% sangiovese.
Tasting the wine, it was full of berried fruit and chocolatey flavours, very full-bodied but also rather hefty on the tannins. It had also been in some new wood, which we felt had left its mark rather too much at this stage. It would be interesting to see whether it gets through the consorzio's tasting panel as a Gran Selezione wine.
Colorino – a Tuscuan curiosity
Finally, the last wine we tasted opened up a new discussion in which Valentino was able to dispel some of the myths we'd heard about the colorino grape. Colorino is a rare Tuscan grape which is often used in Chianti to 'colour' the wine, or so we had thought. But Valentino explained to us that, a bit like sangiovese, there are many colorinos! He says it's a generic term for these colouring grape varieties (known as teinturier in France), where the flesh is red in colour as well as the skin.
But the grape used here is called colorino del Val d'Arno, which in common with most red grapes, has white flesh and black skin. Valentino says 'it's the real deal and that's why we have made it into a wine on its own.' They have been making it since 2006, 'tasting around different barrels in the cantina I realised that the colorino was showing something a bit different; it has really interesting fruit character that you don't find in other grapes.' Convinced it was worth making into a varietal, Poggiopiano are one of the few to have done this.
Valentino explained that it needs long wood ageing and needs some oxygen to tame the high tannins; 30 months or so for these to polymerise. It is tricky getting the colour to stabilise too, Valentino says.
It's deep in colour with strong, vigorous fruit and still obvious tannin and still needs time, Sebastian says. A fascinating and rare opportunity for us to taste, nonetheless.
The wine goes by the name of Taffe Tá and it's a Toscana IGT – I wasn't sure whether the name meant taffeta, as in the fabric - well it was quite silky I suppose!
Visiting these two estates was a graphic demonstration to me of the very different styles of Chianti Classico and Rufina. The former, richer and with more hints of chocolate and coffee, while the latter has more herbal and floral notes about it; a massive over-simplification, of course, but some useful style cues to work with.
Further travels in Tuscany
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Montalcino: a Tuscan treasure >
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