Tuscany – Hotbed of Innovation
If this puppy rolls we’re all dead.
The thought flashed briefly through my mind as Dales D’Alessandro, Operations Manager for Agricola Querciabella deftly swung the small, white pickup over the crest of the vineyard and angled it down the dirt track — no wider than a footpath, really — towards the levelled terrace where we finally came to a stop. Considering D’Alessandro probably piloted this route more or less daily, it was pretty unlikely that we’d be sent careening 600 or so metres down the slopes of these biodynamic vineyards to the valley floor below. It was, after all, my first trip to Italy, and I really didn’t want it to be my last.
I have some Italian blood in the family. I had tasted and taught about the wines of Italy, dabbled in its culinary traditions and knew a little of its history, art and culture. I even had music from obscure Italian rock bands on my iPod and sat (begrudgingly) through Under the Tuscan Sun. But thanks to an invite from a friend who was heading over for a week in Tuscany, there I was. We spent four days touring seven wineries (do not attempt this if the activity “relaxing” is on your agenda), an unforgettable experience that combined an equal measure of the expected and unexpected.
The first thing I didn’t expect was for the weather during this first week in October to be like summer. I don’t think anyone did. Not the management of the hotel we stayed in on our last night, who had shut off the A/C for the season. And not the mosquitoes that came out for a last chance to dine on some of the imported stuff (me). But what was perhaps most unexpected was just how ahead of the curve this Old World wine region actually was.
Sure, I had, on numerous occasions, spoken and written about how Tuscany was a hotbed of innovation and experimentation, and how Italian wine laws seemed destined to be broken by Tuscans who refused to comply with what they perceived as wrong-headed and limiting (see “There’s Something About Sangiovese,” Tidings, September 2008 for a refresher). But it was something else to see this first hand.
Everywhere we visited we saw an almost seamless integration of the historic and the modern. Wineries housed within ancient stone walls that hid gleaming stainless steel tanks, experimental fermenters, new takes on the old oak barrels (like the completely untoasted ones at Fontodi — a practice so unheard of that even the coopers themselves were reluctant to build them). In San Gimignano at the Falchini winery, we were introduced to an imposing machine with glowing lights and digital readouts that resembled the HAL 9000 computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame hunkering inside 900-year-old walls.
“This was the first of its kind in the region,” explained Michael Falchini. “It allows us to monitor and keep precise control over both the fermentation temperature as well as the aging temperature of our wines.”
Over a delicious lunch at the Ristorante La Mandragola, partially built right into the edifice of the old city, we tasted the results of the Falchini family’s fruit, labour and love and listened to Michael’s father Riccardo talk about the past, present and possible future of the Falchini estate and of San Gimignano. Yet for all his experience, he admitted there is still much to understand. “This is my 44th vintage, and you would think I should know everything. But every day I am still learning.”
In fact, I was repeatedly taken aback by the humility of people who were obvious masters of their craft, and by the hospitality shown us at this extremely busy time of the year. Take Fontodi’s Giovanni Manetti, for example. Considering the international accolades his wines have won, the importance of his family in Tuscan business and his job of running a Chianti estate in the midst of harvesting and crushing, I would have thought Manetti would have simply been too “in demand” to entertain a pair of harried visitors.
Yet there we were, on the patio of Osteria le Panzanelle on a glorious Tuscan afternoon. While we tucked into wild boar stew and tasted some stellar Fontodi wines, Manetti told us the whimsical story of Chianti Classico’s “Gallo Nero” logo and how the region’s boundary dispute between Florence and Siena was finally settled (a story for a future Tidings, perhaps).
His winery overlooks vineyards situated in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone (one of Chianti’s seven sub-appellations) in the south-facing “Conca d’Oro” — a natural amphitheatre of vines. His herd of 24 white Chianina cattle graze freely nearby, and the perimeter of the vineyard is encircled by … electrified wire? “To keep out the wild boars,” Manetti explained. Seems the boars in Tuscany are as much of a nuisance as raccoons in Canadian cities (though better eating, to be sure). He showed us evidence of a boar’s assault on bunches of grapes, not eaten so much as sucked dry.
In light of his achievements, you might expect Manetti to be content to kick back, relax and bask in his success. Nothing could be further from reality, and tomorrow brings new challenges. “I try to work for the future, not for today,” he confessed as we prepared to bid farewell. But before we left his office, we couldn’t help but ask about the Jamie Oliver cookbook resting among technical works on winemaking and historical tomes. “Jamie gave it to me when he was here buying olive oil. He gets his oil from me exclusively.”
Olive oil is the “other” great liquid (besides grappa) of Tuscany. As we drove through the rolling Tuscan “hills” (something of an understatement, as ski lifts wouldn’t seem out of place on most of them), what stretched in every direction, to each far horizon, were vineyards and olive groves. Miles upon miles of iridescent green with the silvery leaves of olive trees shimmering like vast schools of airborne minnows in the wind.
Almost every estate we visited produced olive oil. To many, it’s a labour of love, as the work is intense and the profits, if even realized, are scant. Though his oil is some of the best I’ve tasted, Michael Falchini admitted he’d sell his groves if a buyer could be found. But like an orphaned puppy that shows up on your door step, you can’t just send it packing, so you might as well treat it the best you can. And so it was with his groves.
Tradition and High Tech
The thinking is different over in Radda in Chianti at Castello di Volpaia. In 1985 a severe frost decimated all but 79 of the estate’s 2,782 olive trees. Seeing it as a blessing in disguise, the Mascheroni family chose to replant.
As we stood in front of a basin containing three massive granite mullers that travel in a circular motion, crushing the olives, Nicolò Mascheroni Stianti explained the unique method used at Volpaia to extract his certified organic oil.
“The Sinolea System, as it is called, works on a simple law of physics,” he pointed out. “Liquids with different molecular cohesion have different surface tensions. The Sinolea machine has 7000 stainless steel blades that pass through the mashed olives slowly and continuously. With each pass, oil sticks to the blades, but most of the water runs off. We extract between 60 to 80 per cent of the oil using no pressure at all. The rest we capture using the same method most producers use for their entire production. So our second grade oil is of the same standard as the first grade stuff from other mills.”
Volpaia became a certified organic producer in 2003, though the estate was basically following the required practices all along. “There was a lot of bureaucracy required to obtain certification for a practice we were already following,” Stianti admitted, adding that organic farming does require extra effort. But the effort is worthwhile. He noted the overall health of the vines and their ability to withstand harsher climactic variances and the proliferation of beneficial insects and animals as proof of the power of organic farming. To us, the proof was in the wines and olive oil we tasted.
From Volpaia we headed back towards the town of Grassina, just south of Florence, to the Tenuta Poggio Casciano, one of the seven Tuscan properties that make up the Ruffino empire. As navigator I had succeeded, with a consistency bordering on the poetic, in getting us lost at practically every turn during the course of our trip. Not big lost, but lost enough that I’d have to get out of the car and do my scusami routine while waving my map and blabbering the name of the winery/town/hotel we sought. (Once when I did this a poor fellow listened to me, most likely with extreme amusement, for almost a minute before asking, in perfect English, “Do you speak English?” I thought it pretty bloody obvious I didn’t speak Italian.)
But we found Poggio Casciano and were warmly greeted by Damien, who introduced us to Public Relations Manager Francesco Sorelli. After a quick tour of the impressive barrel cellars, we sat down to a first-rate dinner cooked in-house with accompanying wines. We talked about wine, culture, Tuscany, the eccentricities of wine writers and the lengths that some wineries go to entertain them. The relaxed manner of these men belied the no doubt hectic work lives they both lived.
They bid us goodnight, and left us with the Poggio Casciano guest house. A modest little suite, decorated with priceless art and complete with grappa bar, pool room, sunken lounge and bedrooms sporting “probably the best linens I’ve ever slept on,” according to my friend, who would know such things. And, in keeping with the “traditional on the outside, high-tech on the inside” theme, it also contained satellite TV, internet access and an iPod dock (a nice touch given the battery in “mypod” was pretty much drained). The bad thing about Poggio Casciano was that we’d have to leave early in the morning. And considering my directional prowess, the earlier the better.
As we headed south to Querciabella in Greve in Chianti, my mind wandered back to our first night in the Tuscan countryside spent at Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia in Bolgheri, a few kilometres inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Now, nobody knows everything about wine. But there’s not a wine geek on earth who doesn’t know of Ornellaia. When you are asked, “What’s new in Tuscany?” Ornellaia certainly comes to mind. Established in 1981 (putting it still in diapers in the context of Tuscan history), it went from zero to legendary practically overnight. It makes Italian wine, but has no Italian grapes planted, and the sleek, ground-hugging winery would feel right at home sunk into a Napa Valley hillside. While I knew a bit about its regal red wines, I didn’t know the estate produced a white: a white that would have been lost for good if Mother Nature didn’t have other plans.
Over dinner at Osteria Magona in the walled town of Bolgheri, Alex Belson, Ornellaia’s Sales and Marketing Director, ran over the unique story of Poggio alle Gazze, the Sauvignon Blanc-based white wine we had as an aperitif. As it turns out, they originally had Sauvignon Blanc planted on the estate. A decision was made to regraft these vines to Merlot — the signature grape of Ornellaia. About a thousand vines decided that they didn’t want to go red and the grafts didn’t take. So back to Sauvignon Blanc the vines went, breathing new life into Poggio alle Gazze.
The next morning, after an amazing tour of the vineyards and winery courtesy of the effervescent Sonia Salvato, we sat down to a memorable tasting with winemaker Axel Heintz. “You have to have an idea of where you want to go before going there,” he said when asked about the evolution of Ornellaia’s wines. “But things change and develop and you don’t want to push things too far in any direction.” The Poggio alle Gazze story seems to demonstrate what happens when you push too far. Mother Nature intervenes and says, “Whoa there, don’t do that!” And, typically, she wins any argument.
Working in complete harmony with nature is, in fact, the basis of biodynamic viticulture and viniculture. In a nutshell, biodynamics is both a way of farming and a philosophical life tenet where what is taken from the land is given back to the land. Nothing artificial is introduced and the lunar calendar dictates planting, pruning and harvesting cycles. Imagine organic taken one step further. While it’s been getting a fair bit of attention on these shores, it’s a well-established practice in the Old World where it is being used by some of the world’s leading wine estates.
Querciabella went “bio” in 1999, having been completely organic prior to this. “The owner of the winery strongly wanted this change,” D’Alessandro explained, “since biodynamic is not only an agricultural method; it is, most of all, a lifestyle that respects every living system.”
Like Stianti, D’Alessandro commented on the strength of the vines and the profusion of beneficial organisms in the vineyard as proof of a natural approach. “In soil treated with man made chemicals, you might have hundreds of beneficial organisms in a gram of soil. With biodynamic, you have more than a billion. In not so many years we have managed to achieve, both in the vineyard and in the wines, a balance between the essential constituents that were lacking before, and we have achieved an intense minerality in the wines.”
As I alluded to earlier, Tuscany’s “liquid gold” comes in three configurations: wine, olive oil and grappa. The last is a love-it-or-leave-it proposition. I happen to love it. And, as luck would have it, we’d be spending the night as guests of the producer of what has to be one of Italy’s top grappas: Altesino winery in the famed Montalcino district.
Altesino’s Guido Orzalesi is one of those rare types who, upon meeting once, you feel you’ve known forever. A producer of top-flight Brunellos, Vin Santo and Supertuscans, his winery also produces fabulous olive oil and a hauntingly complex Grappa di Brunello Riserva.
“There are a few things that make for a good grappa,” Orzalesi listed when asked what made his product so profound. “Make sure that the pommace [the skins, pips and other winemaking by-products] gets to the distillery to be refermented within 24 hours of the wine’s fermentation, and ensure you find a very good distillery that uses steam heating and batch distillation.” Orzelesi explained that getting the pommace (which also includes a measure of wine) distilled quickly avoids the formation of acetic (vinegar-producing) acid. He also added that the talents of the master distiller and the final aging of the grappa four to five years in cherry wood barriques also adds to the quality.
Grappa of this level is generally consumed as a digestif at room temperature, and it was most welcome after a hearty meal featuring a massive bistecca alla fiorentina and a bevy of Altesino reds that night at Montacino’s intimate Ristorante L’Assedio 1553.
As I write this on a cold November day, a sip of Altesino’s grappa transports me momentarily back to Tuscany. Back to the smell of fresh rosemary in the air at Ornellaia. To the sight of grapes hanging from the rafters to be transformed into luscious Vin Santo at Volpaia. To the feel of the warm sun atop Querciabella’s vineyards, and to the sound of corks popping at every winery and restaurant we visited. To the incredible tastes of the wines, the grappa, the olive oil and the incredible food. But mostly to the people we met who embodied the grace and hospitality those working the Tuscan soils are known for. I hope to see them again soon.
Highlights from the Tuscan Tour
Falchini Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Vigna a Solatio” DOCG 2005, ($24)
This classy and complex white is fermented in French oak for four and a half months and given six months bottle aging prior to release. Floral and citrus aromas with a hint of almond and vanilla. Ripe, full and round on the palate with a touch of anise, lemon butter and a hint of brine in the finish.
Querciabella Batàr 2006, ($99)
Tuscany’s answer to top end white Burgundy. A blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco aged nine months in Allier, Tronçais and Vosges oak, it sports complex aromas of nuts, spice (clove), vanilla and a whiff of smoke. Fabulously rich and concentrated with perfectly integrated oak woven around a core of buttery, mineral-laced chewy fruit.
Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli DOCG 2003, ($120)
A single vineyard Brunello. The 2003 vintage in Brunello was challenging for more than one reason. However, Altesino’s ’03 Montosoli comes through with flying colours. It delivers a multifaceted nose of mocha, dark chocolate, violet and cedary/tobacco box nuances that segued into flavours of dark berry, vanilla and smoky spices.
Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve 2005, ($84)
A 100% Sangiovese first produced in 1981. Aged for 18 months in 225 litre barriques and another year or so in bottle prior to release. Inky in colour, it shows notes of warm, spicy black currant and cedar along with hints of vanilla, new leather and a subtle touch of earthiness. Dark plum and berry fruit on the palate with moderate tannins and a long, vanilla-tinged finish. Perfect with wild boar stew.
Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva “Ducale Oro” DOCG 2004, ($44)
The flagship Chianti of the Ruffino stable, Ducale Oro is aged for a total of 30 months in oak casks, tank and bottle prior to release. Earthy and spicy on the nose with a complex tapestry of leather, sandalwood, balsamic, herb and floral nuances. Supple, refined and intense with flavours of dark plum, exotic spice, black olive and coffee.
Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore 2001, ($377)
From a terrific vintage in the Bolgheri DOC, this flagship wine of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It offers up a Bordeaux-inspired nose of wet slate and plum with some Mediterranean notes of black olive and wild herbs. Intense and weighty, yet elegant and seamlessly integrated with commendable length.
Castello di Volpaia Vin Santo di Chianti Classico DOC 2001, ($35/375 ml)
The grapes for this sweetie are harvested in October and hung to dry into February to concentrate the sugars, and then fermented in small oak casks and matured for five years. The resulting wine has a captivating nose of crème brûlée, chocolate, nuts and fruitcake with mild sherry overtones. Flavours of candied orange peel, toffee, caramel, almond biscuit and apricot are balanced by refreshing acidity.