Italy's premium fine wine region may have a long-standing reputation of producing great wines, but in the last 20 years, things have got so much better
Last year I was lucky enough to accompany buyer Sebastian Payne MW to Italy twice. Once at the beginning of the year as part of our grand tour visiting five regions in five days, then again at the end of harvest time, to Tuscany, with the winning members of our 'trip of a lifetime' prize draw.
The trip at the beginning of the year was primarily to assess the new vintage, visit key suppliers and blend our next bottlings of Society and Exhibition wines. That trip ended in Tuscany and I would get to see some of our Tuscan suppliers twice in one year, offering a wonderful opportunity to really get to know more about them and their wines.
It had been some twenty years since my previous visit with Sebastian and not only was there so much to catch up on and learn, but it was also incredible to see how much things had changed.
In a recent office clear out, we happened upon Sebastian's report from the visit I accompanied him on 20-odd years ago. Looking back, it's quite prophetic:
'Of all the wine-producing countries in the world, Italy probably has the most potential for improvement. The fact that much of that potential is still unrealised makes it all the more exciting to visit. Each time I go there I discover new things, new possibilities and new people with glints in their eyes who also believe this. You feel that you are present at a fascinating time in Italian wine history – in 'at the birth' as it were.'
Sebastian Payne MW – 1997 buying report
Twenty years on, we are now enjoying these 'babies' and the fruits of the labours of those involved as well as the enterprise of the new generation who were just kids or going off to university when I visited before.
In that same report, Sebastian made mention of the 'visionary Chianti 2000 scheme, testing in the most practical way possible 100 or so variations of training, density of planting, cloning, etc'. We would learn from Paolo de Marchi on our members' trip to Isole e Olena just how important this work turned out to be and his own personal in-put into the research.
I remember distinctly our visit to Castello di Brolio back in '97. Francesco Ricasoli had just taken back ownership of his family's estate after it had been in the hands of huge multi-nationals (Seagrams and then Hardy's) since the early seventies. It's such an impressive property and so important in the history of Chianti, that it was a shame to see it looking rather down at heel and the wines only good not great back then. But at the time, Francesco had plans to get things back on track. How thrilling to return last year and see the results of these and find the wines back up where they belong. The estate too was resplendent and now thoroughly geared up to greet tourists, offering tours of the castle with its fascinating history, picnic and tasting packages and a fantastic vineyard restaurant.
Magnificent Castello di Brolio birthplace of the Chianti formula
Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi one of the modern day heroes of Chianti Classico
On that earlier trip in 1997 we had also visited the charming Giovanni Manetti at Fontodi. Sebastian had written in his report: 'Giovanni Manetti is making better and better wine each year as his vines gain maturity and his understanding of their potential increases.' Like Paolo de Marchi, Manetti is one of the modern-day heroes of Chianti, driving quality ever upwards and converting not only his own vineyards to organic production but also persuading his neighbours to become organic too.
We have been buying from Fontodi since 1982. He could easily sell his whole production in the USA, but luckily he likes us and continues to supply us with fantastic wines as well as play gracious host during harvest time to our winning group of members!
One of the big revelations of the two trips was just what a huge variety of styles of wine Tuscany's signature grape, sangiovese, is capable of producing. From the tiny, historic region of Carmignano 20kms west of Florence to the hill-top town of Montalcino in the south, where the sangiovese-based wines go by the name of Brunello, then the Chiantis in between - the 'mountain' wines of Chianti Rufina, north and east of Florence and the panoply of stunning estates in the hilly Classico region that stretches between Florence and Siena, there really is something for everyone.
Vintage variation, terroir and winemaking differences aside, it is astounding how such a wide variation of styles from one region can be made from, primarily, one grape. Thanks to the patience of the people we met who took the time to explain how and why their wines are different, we gained a useful insight into the capricious sangiovese grape.
Where to go next?
Would the real sangiovese please stand up! >
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