I put a question to some friends of mine recently: If you could only drink wine from one country in the world, what would that be?
As questions go, for those of us who hold our hands up and freely admit to being wine geeks, it’s a little bit like asking a parent to choose between their children; the world of wine is huge. Given that I had asked the question, I had thought about my answer for some time: Italy; no other country has such a history and array of varieties, nor a tradition of crafting wines to go with food. So when I was offered the chance to travel to Tuscany and visit some of the winemakers responsible, how could I pass up such an opportunity?
Our guides and boon companions for this very educational experience were Ruth and Sergio from Enotria. We arrived in Pisa to a somewhat drizzly sky, loading into our hire cars and setting off through the Tuscan hills to our first destination where we would be spending the night, at Fonterutoli.
The Mazzei family who own Fonterutoli have been producing wines from the region since 1435, indeed, the first documentation that refers to Chianti wines specifically requested their wine, so where better to begin? The present winery is a relatively new installation, designed by one of the present generation who has eschewed the wine trade in favour of architecture. The installation is impressive, and constructed to allow ‘gravity flow’ from the surface to the tapered fermentation tanks below ground, and the cellar below that. Their cellar has a rather unique feature: an exposed cave wall with an underground spring. This combination of subterranean depth and flowing water serves to provide natural temperature control and humidity.
Though we tasted a great many of their wines, including a delicious Morellino di Scansano, one of the stand-outs was their 2010 Chianti Classico. 2010 was set to be a difficult vintage for Chianti, yet is now being hailed as one of the finest since 2007, where the best producers have crafted classically fresh Chianti wines. Fonterutoli have excelled, crafting a wine with dense black cherry with classic smoky fruit, giving way to layers of sandalwood and oak, before leaving fresh red fruits on the finish; a truly elegant, classic wine.
Dinner was served after our tasting, featuring hand-made pasta with local ragu, and one of the most delicious, perfectly cooked steaks that has ever passed my (very appreciative) lips. Each course was paired to the wines, from their Maremma Vermentino, Rosé, and Classico to the top-quality Castello Chianti Classico, underscoring the point that Tuscan wines perform a virtuoso performance with good food.
Morning brought sunshine, and a view that could catch the breath of even the most jaded traveller, let alone our band. After a very continental breakfast (where else would cheese and ham be served alongside pastry and cake?), we set off for a Majestic stalwart: Poliziano, by Montepulciano.
Frederico Caletti’s father founded Poliziano in 1961, naming it for the 15th Century poet who hailed from Montepulciano and had been a tutor to the famed Medici family of Firenze. Their specialisation is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, however they produce a Chianti exclusively for Majestic in the UK, in addition to their excellent Rosso di Montepulciano. When asked about his wine, Frederico has a refreshing perspective, “The typical producer in Tuscany says: ‘My Wine is the best in the world.’ No,” he explained, “I am confident my wine, quality, balance, typicity, is good for the price.” Typicity is important to him, as it is to the Mazzei family, who recognise the importance of microclimates and individual terroirs.
Harvest had been finished only the week before, and just in time given the sudden downpour the day we arrived. Nevertheless, tricky conditions this year had meant they had discarded between 15-20% of their crop ensuring only the best fruit was kept. Our cellar tour revealed similar techniques to those employed at Fonterutoli, including unusual truncated cone fermenters which allow for improved skin contact when the wines are punched down. Their small size also allows for tighter batch control when fermenting, giving the winemakers tight control over fruit from different terroirs.
Like Fonterutoli, Poliziano have also invested in vineyard sites in Maremma to include a Morellino di Scansano to their range, the Lohsa, which has featured previously as a parcel in the Majestic range. Their Chianti is soft, with approachable tannins, crunchy acidity and plenty of juicy cherry and red fruit. The 2010 Rosso di Montepulciano exhibited the best traits of the vintage, with bright cherry fruit, plum and damson, fine tannins and a seam of fresh acidity. Though it could happily age, the fruit makes for a very drinkable wine now.
Tasting the 2009 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was an exercise in everything that gives Sangiovese its name. It translates as Blood of Jove, better known from the Roman pantheon as Jupiter. Ruby to garnet in the glass, black cherry and strawberry integrated with spice, toast and oak. The fruit was rich and soft, silken and full tannins revealed a mellow wine; a bit too rounded to be truly elegant, rather a voluptuous creature with superb structure. 2009 was another challenging year, where the risk of rot meant many harvested early – not so Poliziano, who waited for full ripeness and exercised careful selection.
After a late lunch of Antipasti, hand-made pasta and a Ragu Toscana, we left with thanks still on our lips, and continued our expedition onwards to Montalcino, where we would be spending the night at Il Poggione.
Our tour was to be given by the present generation winemaker, Alessandro Bindocci, and we could not have asked for a better host. Il Poggione was founded in 1890, when the Florentine Franceschi family purchased the land, and it has been under their ownership since. They have 130 hectares under vine, the rest is given over to olive trees, and pasture for cows and pigs, indeed almost everything we were to be served over our tasting dinner was grown on the farm; self-sufficiency is a key feature of their operation, even down to solar panels to feed back into the grid.
Production is modest, only 600,000 bottles, of which 200,000 are their flagship Brunello di Montalcino. Their control over vinification certainly impressed, using precise temperature control and remote computer management to the point that, Alessandro explained, he can monitor and make changes as required from a mobile app. After vinification, the wines are transferred to massive 5,000 and 3,000 litre barrels crafted from French oak, but made locally by their own cooperage. This size allows for very gentle oak contact, meaning they can age their wines for longer than the DOCG requirements without overly impacting the fruit quality of their wines. The Rosso di Montalcino is aged for one year in 380 litre barriques, which are recycled into feature furniture, staircases or sold after use.
Our tasting was conducted over dinner, all of which was made from produce from their farm, from the wines to the wild boar ragu, to the olive oil pressed only the day before we arrived and the grappa that finished off the meal (and finished us!). By almost unanimous agreement, the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004 was crowned the top wine of the night, with some sympathy for those who declared preference for the Brunello di Montalcino 2006. We were fortunate to experience their Vermentino Chardonnay blend, a spectacular Sangiovese Rosé, a deliciously fruity sparkling Moscato, and an outstandingly complex Vin Santo alongside other courses. If dinner the previous night had underscored the point, this meal used calligraphy and fine strokes to make it yet again. Tuscan wine and food are peerless in their partnership. I felt compelled to ask what other world foods might Alessandro match with these wines, and he was more than happy to explain they had paired well with exotic Indian and Asian cuisine as well as the local fayre. We retired sated.
Our grappa-soaked heads were somewhat tender, but not so much that we could not appreciate the final winery on our tour. A return to Chianti took us to Cecchi, which proved a fascinated counterpoint to the wineries whose productions were very modest by comparison; Cecchi are a relative giant, yet for what some might unfairly call a ‘commercial’ wine (their Morellino di Scansano, for example, is a production of over a million bottles annually), the quality was gratifyingly high. Where the other wineries we had visited exhibited features specific to their microclimates and local terroirs, Cecchi show Tuscany as a whole.
Over the course of barely three days, we had tasted Chianti, Morellino di Scansano, Vermentino, Moscato, Vinsanto, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, Super Tuscans and more besides. While Sangiovese was, undoubtedly, the leading light of our experience, it was amazing to discover that even in wines where none was present, there was characteristic cherry-smoke present in the red wines that called it to mind. It is this element which, with characteristic freshness, reveals a true wine of Tuscan terroir.
My thanks, and those of my colleagues, go to all of those at Fonterutoli, Poliziano, Il Poggione and Cecchi who were our gracious hosts and looked after us so kindly; special thanks in particular to Enotria for organising the visit. It was a tremendous experience, and I would recommend a visit to any of these wineries should you have reason to find yourself in Tuscany.