Chablis Diary: the New Wave in Chablis

I was going to call this blog “the Young Turks of Chablis,” but that would not have been quite accurate since change is not so much coming from a younger generation as from producers who have simply rethought what sort of wine they want to make. The common feature lies with people who established domains relatively recently, sometimes turning around old family domains with a change of generations, sometimes starting from scratch.

Chablis seems to me to have shown less change than other areas of Burgundy over the past twenty or thirty years. Whereas on the Côte d’Or there has been a steady move towards growers bottling their own wines, and recently “micro-negociants” have become the form of expression for producers who do not own vineyards but want to make high quality wine, in Chablis there remain many small growers who send their grapes to the cooperative (admittedly La Chablisienne is one of the best co-ops in France).

Large producers from Beaune have not made a huge impact in Chablis, although Drouhin-Vaudon is long established, Louis Latour bought Simonnet-Febvre in 2003, and Faiveley bought Billaud-Simon in 2014. Land prices in Chablis have not soared in the same way as the Côte d’Or, but fragmented holdings and unwillingness to sell have restricted supply, so it has not been easy for new producers to come into the market. However, in the past few years there have (finally) been some changes, and visiting this week, I found several (relatively) new, dynamic producers.

I found the first Young Turk on a previous visit in 2014 (A Visit to Patrick Piuze). Patrick’s driving force is interest in the variety of terroirs. “The essence of the place depends on the mosaic of soils, when you realize this you want to make lots of cuvees not just one. Most people here blend, they don’t worry if the vines are old. We try to buy grapes we like from special sites. I want to be as close as possible to a domaine without having to purchase land.” A bit tight when young, his wines have real intensity, with alcohol levels a bit lower than average.

My first visit this week was to Catherine & Louis Poitout, who have set up their domain in an old building on the banks of the Serein. The domain started in 2011 with family vineyards from both sides. There were many small parcels of varying qualities, and in 2012 the holdings were rationalized. “The true taste of Chablis is mineral, with the most simple vinification,” says Louis. “We do the same vinification for all cuvées. There is never any wood, everything is kept as simple as possible.” The range extends from a direct and fruity Petit Chablis, to Chablis Bienommé where minerality begins to emerge, Chablis Les Venerées from old vines, offering increased sense of texture, and premier crus Vaucoupin (all minerality) and Les Fourneaux (herbal and round).

The Pitout domain is in a charming old house on the banks of the Serein.

But the most unusual Pitout wine may be the Vin de France, Franc de Pied, L’Inextinct, which as its name indicates, comes from very old, ungrafted vines. “We found this parcel in 2012, it was in very bad condition, the vines had been cut across at the base, and everyone thought they would die because they’d been cut at the graft, but they just regrew. They are ungrafted and we regenerate them by the old method of sticking a shoot in the soil. The wine is labeled as Vin de France because it doesn’t fit our idea of Petit Chablis, and it’s not in Chablis AOP.” It offers great sense of fruit purity, with richness on the palate, but retaining the liveliness of Chablis.

The Fèvres are a very old family in Chablis, but the husband and wife team of Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre formed their own domain relatively recently. Both Gilles’s grandfather and father were presidents of the cooperative, and Nathalie was the oenologue. “In 2003 we decided to form our own domain so we left the coop,” Gilles explains. With 12 ha of family vineyards, they built a small winery, and then in 2005 the domain expanded to 50 ha with the inheritance of more family vineyards. “All the wines are around the village (Fontenay-près-Chablis), basically between here and the grand crus, so we are a right bank domain.” The Petit Chablis is lively and crisp, intended to be consumed in the first year, Chablis has greater weight and more fragrancy, Fourchaume has greater sense of texture and that fragrancy of the house style comes out more clearly, Valourent moves towards greater richness, and Preuses shows more subtlety. A tasting here is a real demonstration of differences in right bank terroirs. “You can taste the difference in the grapes from different terroirs when they come into the cuve,” says Nathalie. There is light use of wood in vinification. “We think 30% in barriques is enough, we want to keep freshness and minerality, Chablis should be tense and mineral.”

Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre constructed their winery in the heart of the vineyards at Fontenay-près-Chablis.

Samuel Billaud spent twenty years making the wine at the family domain, Billaud Simon, sold to Faiveley in 2014, before leaving to form his own domain, which is now located in renovated mediaeval buildings right under the ramparts of Chablis. The very stylish cuverie has many small stainless steel fermenters to allow vinification by parcel. He has a few family vineyards but also buys grapes as a negociant. His bright style brings out lively citrus flavors across the range, starting with a Petit Chablis coming from a vineyard that used to be considered at premier cru level long ago but was not included in the AOC. The same style follows in a Bourgogne that is a blend between the areas of Chablis and Mâcon, and then the style intensifies in the Chablis. There’s increased sense of focus and precision in the premier crus, increased richness moving from left bank to right bank, and then from premier cru to grand cru. There’s consistency of style, with greater texture and flavor variety, and more subtle impressions, moving up the range.

Samuel Billaud’s domain is a cluster of old buildings around a courtyard in the center of Chablis.

My last visit in Chablis was to Thomas Pico who created Domaine Pattes Loups with only two hectares of family vineyards when he decided that he wanted to be organic, but his father, at Domaine Bois d’Hiver, didn’t want to make the conversion. Today Thomas has about 12 ha for Pattes Loup (with roughly an equal area remaining in Bois d’Hiver). Even allowing for the fact the most of the wines were tasted from cuve, because the 2015 vintage is undergoing an unusually long élevage, these were among the most concentrated and forceful wines I tasted in Chablis. Fruits tend to citrus, bright and intense. It takes about a year for the wines to develop roundness; the 2014s are just beginning to soften. Thomas is committed to an artisanal approach. My companion, the Anima Figure, remarked that winemaking has become more scientific. “No it hasn’t,” Thomas shot back.

Thomas Pico has a modern building for Domaine Pattes Loup in the village of Corgis.

Each of these producers has their own style, of course, but the common feature is a sense of authenticity, a commitment to a view of the typicity of Chablis that preserves freshness and minerality. It’s a wonderfully refreshing antithesis to a general tendency to make all wines taste the same, with vaguely amorphous soft aromatics that can be attractive but don’t convey a sense of place.

Here are suggestions for reference wines that give a good idea of the style of each producer:

  • L & C Poitout, Chablis, Les Venérés
  • Nathalie et Gilles Fevre, Fourchaume
  • Samuel Billaud, Mont de Milieu
  • Pattes Loup, Chablis, Vente d’Ange

 

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Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

You sniff a glass of wine: it has a bouquet of aromas characteristic of its variety, promising an interesting palate. The palate is full of the anticipated flavors, rich and perhaps a touch exuberant, but not yet multi-dimensional as this is a recently released young wine. This is a beautifully crafted wine, representing its region and grape variety, but then a sense of warmth hits you on the finish, sometimes running into an impression of overt heat. The wine would be perfect if only it had a percent or so less alcohol. I have had this experience many times on this visit to Napa.

When asked about alcohol levels, a small minority of winemakers in Napa say it’s a concern, but most say this is what the climate gives you, and the wine is balanced, so there is no problem. Well, my response is yes and no. Generally the wine is balanced, and at a tasting you may not always notice the high alcohol, although it may express itself more forcefully in the course of drinking a bottle with a meal. But even when alcohol is not obvious, I believe the reason is that the balance that is necessary to hide it involves more extraction. It’s the combination of high alcohol and extract that makes the wine fatiguing rather than the alcohol alone—after all, fino Sherry is 15% alcohol and can be delicate and elegant. Indeed, some wines are getting into fortified territory. My companion, the Anima Figure, who is less tolerant of high alcohol than I am, commented on a Chardonnay at dinner, “This winemaker should be working in a distillery,” because the sense of raw spirits entirely hid the fruits.tokalon10

Napa Valley viewed from the To-Kalon vineyard.

Balance is surely a compromise, and the problem, I think, is that achieving phenolic ripeness is regarded as the ne plus ultra, so all other aspects of balance are pushed into the background. Okay, in the old days balance used to be regarded as basically getting enough sugar to achieve 12% or 12.5% alcohol; next a slightly more sophisticated approach was to look at sugar/acid ratios: it was assumed that if the ratio was about right the wine would be good. Those wines would be regarded as seriously unripe by the criterion of phenolic ripeness (although that is not so new: in ancient Rome, Pliny recommended tasting the seeds to judge when grapes were ready for harvest).

But does making phenolic ripeness the single criterion for harvest achieve balance? What if phenolic ripeness is achieved at punishing alcohol levels—Pinot Noir at 15% or more, Cabernet Sauvignon at 15.5% and up, Zinfandel well into the 16%s. Doesn’t “balance” imply making some compromise between sugar, acid, and phenolic ripeness, in which the first two count for something, if perhaps not as much as the last? Is it heretical to ask whether the wine might actually be better if the grapes were picked at slightly lower ripeness, but with better balanced sugar and acidity?

I question whether it’s a true balance if grapes are picked solely for ripeness and then acidity is added, alcohol is adjusted, or water is added to get to more acceptable parameters. (I have not found a single winemaker in Napa who denies needing to use watering back at some point: adding water when the sugar level is too high is now legal, but it seems a dubious means for achieving balance.) Part of the problem is that the current generation of winemakers is not really conscious of the great change in alcohol levels. “This vintage is quite moderate, alcohol is only 14.5%,” one winemaker said, “sometimes we have been pushed up over 15%.” Another said, “As long as I’ve been making wines, I have never seen alcohol below 14%.”

When 14.5% alcohol can be regarded as moderate, we are in big trouble. Even if I enjoy it at a tasting, it is too fatiguing to share a bottle over a meal. My own rebellion against this is not to purchase any wine for my cellar which is over 14% alcohol, and to look at the label before opening a bottle at a restaurant: if it’s over 14% I send it back and make another choice. I recognize that a one man consumer rebellion won’t get very far but you have to start somewhere.

The mantra in Napa Valley is that the Cabernets can be enjoyed more or less on release but will also age well. How soon you can drink them depends largely on your tolerance for tannin in young wine; for my palate most of these wines really need four or five years before the tannins calm down enough to let fruit flavor variety show, but more to the point is that alcohol is likely to become more evident as the tannins and fruits lighten up. With lower alcohol, many of these wines would have great potential for classic longevity; but with alcohol around 15%, I suspect they are Cheshire Cat wines: the grin of the alcohol may be all that is left.

What can be done about this? Part of the problem is that the current combinations of rootstocks and cultivars are generating higher sugar levels in the grapes. One change came when AxR1, widely planted in Napa, had to be replaced because of its sensitivity to phylloxera: the rootstocks that replaced it give higher growth rates. Another is that the ENTAV clones introduced over the past decade or so were selected thirty years ago in a cooler period specifically in order to ripen sooner to avoid past problems with insufficient accumulation of sugar. We need new clones and rootstocks designed for the era of global warming. But that takes time: right now winemakers need to start regarding balance as something where reasonable alcohol and acidity are part of the equation as well as phenolic ripeness, and not ancillary factors that you either live with or adjust artificially when they get completely out of control.

Grand Cru Bordeaux 2014: A Splendid Restaurant Year

I went to this year’s tasting of the Union of Grand Cru Bordeaux in the slightly surreal surroundings of Miami. Outside people were playing in the pool; inside we were tasting the first showing in the States of the 2014 vintage. Ten or twenty years ago, if I had said this was a restaurant year, it would have been taken as meaning that the wines were relatively light and enjoyable to drink in the mid term without having the potential to age longer term. That is a reasonable description of Bordeaux in 2014 except for a big difference: most of the wines are virtually ready to drink now because of the refinement of the tannins; in the past they would still have needed several years to come around.

Few of the 2014 vintage need more than another year or so, and even for those it’s more a matter of preference than a necessity. Because the wines do not have punishing levels of extract, and the wines are more restrained than usual, this is a great year for seeing the differences between appellations. Typicities are especially clear on the Left Bank, although the restrained style of the vintage makes the Right Bank seem less rich and powerful than usual.

This is not a great year for whites, although there is more variety in the character of Pessac-Léognan than usual, from Domaine de Chevalier’s usual crystalline precision, to Smith Haut Lafite’s crisp Sauvignon edge to a rich palate, and Pape Clément’s exotic opulence. Most others show a tendency to display Sauvignon Blanc’s herbaceous side, sometimes with an exotic overlay.

The relatively light character of the vintage shows through in Pessac-Léognan, where the wines tend to elegant black fruits rather than power. They are well balanced for current drinking; some give the impression that it may be important to enjoy before dilution begins to set in. The extremes of precision versus breadth show as usual in Domaine de Chevalier (one of the few that really does need some time) and Pape Clément (less international than usual). Haut Bailly is definitely top flight Left Bank, but seems more Médocian this year. It’s a relatively crisp vintage in the Graves, some might even say tending towards mineral. I think Malartic-Lagravière have upped their game in recent years, and the 2014 is a very good representation of the vintage in Pessac: sweet ripe black fruits show a smooth palate with refined tannins in the background, and just a faint hint of herbal impressions.

The characteristic velvety core with a sense of lightness of being that marks the Margaux appellation is evident in this vintage. The difference from the more direct structure of St. Julien is clear. Marquis de Terme, Kirwan and Prieuré-Lichine show the velvet, Durfort Vivens and Rauzan-Ségla capture the elegance of Margaux, and Lascombes seems less international than usual. With light, refined tannins, most are almost ready to drink now, will be fully ready in a couple of years, and should improve over a few years. Margaux is more homogeneous than usual in this vintage.

St. Julien shows its usual elegant structure. As so often for me, Léoville Barton is the benchmark of the appellation: elegant palate, refined structure, complexity underneath. Langoa Barton is not so complex; Léoville Poyferré shows signs of its more international style in a faintly chocolaty finish to a smooth palate, as does Lagrange. Chateau Gloria is ironically the quintessence of a grand cru with a very fine sense of structure, while St. Pierre is less subtle and more forceful. Gruaud Larose has that typically tight impression of youth; Beychevelle as always is dryly elegant. Most need another couple of years and should be good for more or less a decade.

Moving from St. Julien to Pauillac, there’s an immediate sense of smooth black fruits, an overlay that is quite velvety and rich. Chateau d’Armailhac is the quintessence of Pauillac this year, with that characteristic plushness of the appellation. As always, Grand Puy Lacoste shows the refined side of Pauillac, with the vintage expressing itself by a slightly overt touch of structure at the end. Lynch Bages is a bit on the tight side, but the structure is just protected by the fruits and should support longevity.

St. Estèphe is always hard to judge at the UGCB because so few chateaux are represented, but my general impression is that the typical hardness of the appellation shows rather obviously on the palate. Yet the approachability of Ormes de Pez is a vivid demonstration of the change in style of Bordeaux over the past twenty years.

Listrac-Moulis and the Haut Médoc generally make a more traditional impression than the great communes, perhaps showing more resemblance to the Cru Bourgeois than to the grand crus. Sometimes the bare bones of the structure shows past the fruits. Showing the lightness of the year, Chasse-Spleen is quite classic, Cantemerle flirts with traditional herbaceousness, La Lagune is a bit fuller than its neighbors in Margaux, and La Tour Carnet shows the 2014 version of the international style.

The one word that describes this vintage in St. Emilion is unusual in the context of the appellation: restrained. The wines show their usual flavor spectrum, but are toned down from their customary exuberance. Canon and Canon la Gaffelière show great purity of fruits, Beauséjour Bécot is a marker for the appellation in this vintage, Clos Fourtet and La Gaffelière are attractive but without a great deal of complexity.

Pomerol also merits an unusual description: elegant. Most wines display their usual flavor spectrum, without enough stuffing for longevity, but with the restrained nature of the vintage letting purity of fruits show through. Perhaps the succulence of Beauregard is the most Pomerol-ish, Bon Pasteur is the most elegant, and Clinet, La Pointe, and La Cabanne really represent the character of Pomerol in this vintage with a balance between softness and freshness.

This is not a great vintage for Sauternes. Even so, “I’ve stopped spitting,” announced my companion, the Anima Figure, when we reached Sauternes. The wines are sweet and citric, a little honeyed and piquant, but mostly without the intensity of botrytis. Chateau de Fargues stood out for me for its higher level of botrytis and classic balance.

While this is a lesser vintage, there are some lovely wines, with the style representing a move back to classicism in its freshness, yet staying in the modern idiom by its approachability. There is much less difference in approachability than usual between the Left and Right Banks: St Emilion and Pomerol are absolutely ready, and the Left Bank is virtually ready. If nothing stood out as superlative, none failed to represent their appellation. They will give a taste of the authentic Bordeaux for the next few years.

Cru Bourgeois in 2014: Fresh and Lively

A presentation of twenty Cru Bourgeois châteaux in New York gave a view of the 2014 vintage that will be an interesting contrast with the forthcoming tasting of the UGCB (grand crus).

Perhaps I was biased by the first few wines I tasted, but the first single word that came to mind to describe the vintage was “acidity.” This is perhaps a bit unfair, but continuing on it certainly seemed that fresh and lively would be a reasonable description. These wines are a far cry from the exuberant style to which the grand crus have been moving.

The wines are mostly well balanced in the traditional style of Bordeaux, which is to say showing fresh fruits with a lively palate. Traditional may be a bit misleading if you think back to when Bordeaux was bitter when young, as one impressive quality is that virtually all are ready to drink now. Tannins are light and never obtrusive, there isn’t an overt sense of structure, but there’s enough to stop the wines from becoming simple fruits. None will be especially long lived, but most should last well for six to eight years. What does this suggest about the vintage? More classic than modern would be fair comment.

These are definitely food wines. I suspect they wouldn’t show so well at a tasting with wines in a more “international” idiom, because you have to look for flavor variety rather than having it thrust at you, but the restrained quality puts them into a class where they should offer a refreshing counterpoise to a meal.

Alcohol is a surprise: it is not noticeable on any of the wines. Given the impression they offer of traditional Bordeaux, you would expect the level to be around 12.5%, but in fact it is usually 13.5%. It’s the first time I’ve been able to accept that 13.5 is the new 12.5 as the alcohol is not accompanied by an impression that dry extract had to be increased to balance it. I don’t know whether the alcohol is all natural or there has been some chaptalization.

These wines are good value, mostly around the $25 mark, and an interesting contrast with, say, New World Cabernet at that price level, where the wines usually seem to me to be trying too hard to imitate more expensive varietal wines. Here the pattern is more bimodal: I see the Cru Bourgeois as striking a different balance, and having a different objective, rather than running as a continuum into the grand crus.

Three wines that particularly stood out for me were Château Labardi (Haut Médoc), for its delicacy and silkiness, Château Peyrabon (Haut Médoc) for a smooth, spicy balance, and Château Rollan de By (Médoc) for its full, generous black fruit impression.

An Exercise in Bottle Variation in Less Than Twenty Years

An evening of 1998 Pomerol was as much a demonstration in the difficulty of judging wines at this age due to individual variation as an opportunity to get a bead on this unusual vintage, where the right bank performed well but the left bank was miserable.sunset24

Sunset over Pomerol. The church at the center of the village is on the right

We started with La Conseillante. The first bottle was corked, okay that’s an occupational hazard. The second bottle was slightly corked. Bad luck. The third bottle was brilliant, typical La Conseillante, giving that impression of iron in the soil you get from the edge of Pomerol, fully on form from what has always been one of my favorite chateaux.

A bottle of L’Eglise Clinet was rather restrained for Pomerol, with a fresh sense of acidity to the palate, almost at the edge of piquancy. But then a second bottle showed clear, pure fruits with more spice, and a greater sense of Cabernet Franc, perhaps more in line with expectations from St. Emilion, but very fine. Presumably the second represents the real l’Eglise Clinet, but without any obvious flaw in the first bottle, it would have been easy to dismiss the chateau.

Clinet showed as softer than Eglise Clinet, more Merlot-ish but again quite restrained. Fresh, pure, good structure but not obtrusive. Ah, but a second bottle showed greater fruit purity, more sense of spice, gorgeous. I would not buy Clinet based on the first bottle, but I would definitely buy it based on the second.

No problems with Trotanoy: spicy, full, pure, very refined impressions of Merlot. Then Vieux Chateau Certan, which some people described as sexy, and which for me seemed more typical Pomerol, which is perhaps why Trotanoy, with more restraint, was my favorite.

Then back to bottle problems. The first bottle of Le Gay was quite undeveloped, somewhere between rich and structured, with good acidity, but no very distinct character. This is just not a very good wine, said my neighbor. Then a second bottle showed greater fruit and precision, with distinctly more purity.

So out of six wines, only two were unequivocally in peak condition. (And, of course, it might be that because they were so good we did not ask to try another bottle, but there could have been less successful bottles at other tables.) In the four cases where the first bottle presented a problem, only the La Conseillante was obviously corked. If a second bottle had not been available, it would have been easy to put all the other cases down to poor winemaking. This is a real killer for the chateaux.

There was no question of provenance here, each wine had been bought as a lot in good conditions, usually en primeur, and stored properly. So what can it be but the corks? This is woefully unacceptable. If an appliance, say a refrigerator, performed with such variability, its manufacturer would go out of business.

I’ve never really liked the idea of screwcaps for red wines destined for aging, because I worry about problems of reduction, but when I’ve had the opportunity to compare the same wines bottled under cork and screwcap (specifically in New Zealand and Australia, where the wines were about ten years old), the screwcap wine was always fresher and younger. Whether it would ultimately age in the same way as a wine under cork is the big question in my mind. I think it is time for the chateaux in Bordeaux to do some experiments and find out.

A Day at Three Mythic Wineries in Montalcino

“This destination is not on the digital map,” my GPS announced, when I entered the coordinates for Cerbaiona, but we knew the destination was in sight when we saw the huge crane looming over the construction. The buildings are in full flight of reconstruction with a two year project to renovate and extend the cellars, improve the vineyards, and plant a new vineyard. Cerbaiona is one of the mythic producers of Brunello, created when Diego Molinari left Alitalia in 1977, and instead of flying planes, began making wine.

cerbaiona2

The crane showed me where to find Cerbaiona

 Winemaking might more accurately have been called idiosyncratic rather than traditional, with vinification in cement tanks with fiber glass lining, and aging in very old botti. But the wines won worldwide acclaim.

cerbaiona1

The house at Cerbaiona is being restored

Cerbaiona was a manor house, and the east-facing vineyards just below the house are adjacent to the La Cerbaiola estate. Cerbaiona was purchased in 2015 by a group of investors led by Matthew Fioretti, a Californian who spent some of his education in Italy, and started in wine by importing Italian wines into the United States. Now he is living at Cerbaiona and managing the massive reconstruction. “I thought we could do it one step at time, but I realized we would have to do everything at once,” Matthew explains. Just below the house a 1 ha olive grove has been replanted with vines, and an additional vineyard may be added at slightly higher elevation (the estate is at 450 m).

“The Molinaris were the ultimate garagistes, making some wine in the basement,” is how Matthew describes the previous situation. Working around the construction, the current vintage is being made in new equipment, with wood fermenters and new botti. So there may be a bit more wood showing for the next year or so. Tastings of the Rosso and Brunello presently maturing in botti show the characteristic combination of density with elegance. Will there be any permanent change in style? “Well, it’s the vineyards that count,” Matthew says, but there will be better handling of the fruit, so look for increased purity in the wine.

The adjacent vineyard is La Cerbaiola—Diego Molinari used to say that Cerbaione and Cerbaiola were part of the same estate a century ago—but to visit you don’t go to the winery, but to the cellars in Montalcino. The tiny scale of production at La Cerbaiola is indicated by its aging cellar, underneath the family house in Piazza Cavour in the town of Montalcino: it has 6 botti of 20 hl. That’s the total production for one of the mythic producers of Montalcino.

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The unassuming entrance hides the cellar of one of Montalcino’s top producers

The property at La Cerbaiola, three vineyards totalling 4 ha in a 20 ha estate, has been in the Salvioni family for three generations, but winemaking is relatively recent. “Our story started in 1985 when my father decided to make wine, says Alessia Salvioni.   Guilio Salvioni’s first vintage in 1985 was an immediate success: the traditional approach, using indigenous yeast, botti (albeit of medium size), and lack of filtration, marked the wines firmly in the artisanal camp.

The entire vineyard is declared for Brunello, but some is declassified to Rosso when the crop is unusually large or there is a poor vintage. There are certainly ups and downs in production. In 2012 there were 12,000 bottles of Brunello, in 2013 there were only four botti (about 10,000 bottles), in 2014 the entire crop was declassified to Rosso, and in 2015 there will probably be 15,000 bottles, all Brunello. The wines have that combination of full flavor and density, yet elegant expression, that marks the vineyards of Cerbaiola and Cerbaiona.

And then for something completely different, I went to Valdicava, in the northeast of the appellation. Well, not completely different: a sense of Déja Vu all over again, as we had to go a long way round to the back entrance, because the front was blocked by massive reconstruction works. Driving through the extensive estate on the way to the winery, we passed the Madonna del Piano, a small building that used to be a church, and which is just above the famous 8 ha vineyard of its name.

valdicava2

Madonna del Piano overlooks the famous vineyard

The work is to build a new winery, a stable for the racing horses (another interest), and a tasting room. The present winery is small facility, packed with equipment and botti. One of the older established producers in Montalcino, Valdicava was turned into something of a cult wine after Vincenzo Abbruzzese took over in 1987. The estate was founded by his grandfather, Bramante Abbruzzese, in 1953. Valdicava was a founding member of the Consorzio, and has been bottling wine under the Valdicava label since 1977 (previously they carried a generic description from the Consorzio with the winery’s name).

The vineyards occupy only a small part of the 135 ha estate, which extends into the famous Montosoli hill, where the most powerful wines of Montalcino are produced. Valdicava produces three wines: Rosso (from the youngest vines), Brunello, and the single vineyard Madonna del Piano Riserva, produced only in the best vintages in small amounts (around 800 cases). Wines are aged only in botti, which are natural wood with no toast. Botti are replaced after fifteen years, and Vincenzo buys the wood and stores it in advance.

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The gracious back of Valdicava’s winery hides all the work at the front

The style is forceful, and at all levels the wines give an impression of the density that comes from low yields (in fact some of the lowest in the region), and the wines correspondingly need time to come around. Although forceful, Valdicava does not lose elegance and purity of fruits. Madonna is not so much more intense than Valdicava as different in its profile, with an intriguing blend of minerality on the bouquet and chocolate on the finish. “It’s different but it’s just between the other vineyards, there must be something in the soil.” Its character comes right through vintage variation, but it needs a long time to come around, perhaps twenty years. How long will these wines age? Vincenzo has been quoted as saying, “I guarantee the Riserva for the lifetime of the buyer.”

Will Gran Selezione Pull Chianti Classico Out of the Doldrums?

On my research visit to Tuscany last month for the Guide to Wines of Tuscany, I spent a morning at Rocca Delle Macìe, where I had a long conversation with Sergio Zingarelli, presently the chairman of the Consorzio of Chianti Classico. Founded by Sergio’s father in 1973 as a small winery, Rocca Delle Macìe has grown to include four estates in Chianti Classico and two in Maremma, and its total annual production is numbered in millions of bottles. The original winery is a tiny building now used to store botti, and around it is a gracious courtyard with family buildings and a tasting room; just below is the large, modern winery. I’m going to report the conversation verbatim without much commentary, as it casts an interesting light on the great progress being made in Chianti.

roccamacie1The black rooster in the courtyard at Rocca Delle Macìe

“The quality of Chianti Classico had increased a lot, due to changes in the cellar and the work on the Sangiovese grapes,” Sergio started, “but the image was not up to the level of the wines and the wineries. There are two big problems. One is the confusion between Chianti and Chianti Classico. We’ve given the black rooster more visibility, and we hope everyone will put Gallo Nero on the neck in the future.” This refers to the emblem of Chianti Classico—which is prominent as a large metal sculpture in the courtyard at Rocca Delle Macìe. [Chianti tout court refers to the huge area around Chianti Classico which also produces wines based on Sangiovese, but it is a completely separate DOCG with different regulations.]

“The second problem is that the best wines from the best wineries were not Chianti but IGT [the so-called super-Tuscans]. People would ask why the top wines were not Chianti Classico if they come from the Chianti Classico area and fit within the rules for the Chianti Classico blend.” The answer to this has been to introduce a new category, Gran Selezione, starting with the 2011 vintage. “It took two years to decide the name of the new category. The idea is that it has to represent the very best. In 2014 the first presentation was by 24 wineries with Gran Selezione; now there are over 100 wineries. Even some of the wineries that voted against have started the production of Gran Selezione. It’s important that the commission tastes the wine.” A big difference from Riserva (which still exists) is that wines must be approved: when I asked how often a wine is rejected, Sergio would not be drawn into details, but said that it’s certainly not a pro forma procedure.

I asked about the controversial decision that Gran Selezione is restricted to a producer’s own grapes, but not to an individual vineyard. Sergio gave a big sigh—obviously this had been a hard fought point. “No, it’s not required—but most of them do, 80 or 90%.” An informant in the Consorzio explained that there are some important top Chianti Classicos that don’t come from single vineyards, a prominent example being Ruffino’s Ducale Oro (which actually comes from two estates in the same commune). Ruffino wanted this to be Gran Selezione. “It was difficult to say no to Ruffino…”

Will IGTs be relabeled as Gran Selezione, I asked? “This is our goal. We are waiting.” In the meantime, some new top cuvées have become Gran Selezione, including Rocca Delle Macìe’s wine named for its owner. “The Sergio Zingarelli cuvée would have been an IGT if the Gran Selezione category had not been created,” Sergio says. I have come across a couple of former super-Tuscans that are now labeled as Gran Selezione, but most producers tell me they do not plan to change the label.

Chianti is a large area, covering seven or so communes, with different soil types, and climatic variation from north to south and from low to high elevations, so I asked whether producers will be allowed to indicate zones on labels. Wouldn’t this be a useful movement towards distinguishing character? “We are working to see what geographical information could be included. If we divided by soils and geography we would have to have 100 different classifications. We have to work by steps. Now we are working to have more information on the label where a wine comes from; if this happens it will probably be for Gran Selezione and Riserva.”

The rules for Chianti Classico have undergone continual evolution from the old regulations requiring white grapes to be included and limiting the proportion of Sangiovese (both factors that drove many top wines into the super-Tuscan category). Today Sangiovese has to be at least 80%, white grapes are forbidden, and international varieties can be included, but there’s something of a move back to indigenous varieties. “In the eighties when we understood we had to improve the quality, a lot of wineries felt they had to use international varieties because it was difficult to reliably produce high quality with Sangiovese. But with Chianti Classico 2000 [a research project to develop better grape varieties], we found several clones of Sangiovese and one each of Colorino and Canaiolo that are high quality for Chianti. For example, in a vineyard my father planted with 3,000 plants/ha, we could have two weeks difference in ripening between adjacent plants. We’ve analyzed the soil and replanted at more or less double density, and we don’t have the same problems with ripening. With these changes probably the international grapes will begin to decrease. Twenty years ago some people wanted to increase the international proportion allowed, but now this is anachronistic; people are increasing Sangiovese and indigenous grapes. I think in the natural way Sangiovese will increase—but I think Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are important grapes in the area.”

I admit I was sceptical when I first encountered Gran Selezione. However, whereas at the first showing, most Gran Seleziones were the same cuvées that had previously been labeled as Riservas, in Tuscany last month I found many new cuvées, often representing single vineyards or specific terroirs, and the quality was a definite step up from where Riservas used to be. Is Chianti Classico closing in on Brunello di Montalcino (where the wines have to be 100% Sangiovese) in terms of quality?