It was remiss of me not to have visited our Tuscan suppliers last year, but with three such great vintages to taste this year, I was more than just a little keen to make the effort this. Having booked my flights to Pisa and a four seater car, it seemed silly not to fill it – after all flights are still unbelievably cheap and the three nights accommodation were all being hosted at the vineyards. My back-up team was made up of Andrew Hooper (store manager in Barnes), David Porter (office and store manager Chelsea) and Peter Lorimer (on-trade sales manager), and off we flew. We were greeted at Pisa airport by brilliant sunshine and fresh breezes, with more than just a hint of warmth in the air, which was lucky as almost everywhere we went we were told that it had been raining cats and dogs for the past week – or as the Italian say ‘Piove a catinelle’ (It’s raining from buckets).
A fast road from Pisa took us to an old estate, new to us and only recently making decent wine, La Collina in Montalbano, to taste our exciting new find at Vinitaly, an exceptionally good value Chianti ‘Don Guido’. Here were were met by the rakishly good-looking Iacopo Morgante (who we have known for some years at Colombaio di Cencio) whose wife’s family own this rather beautifully positioned vineyard in the hills of Montalbano, and where he has launched his own new project of revitalising the vineyards and the estate. It is easy to see the charm of the area with its rolling hills and valleys; vineyards studded with olive, oak and cherry trees, artichoke and tomato plants, all growing in wonderful harmony, and with such apparent ease in such fertile land. Iacopo showed us the simple winery with its old cement tanks (so often replaced by stainless steel, but now much in favour once more) and newly acquired large Slovenian oak ‘botte’. A lunch on the terrace consisted of salamis, sausages, cheeses, bread olive oil and raw, freshly podded broad beans. For a nano-second one might have thought one was on holiday. After a tight, dark espresso it was back into the car to follow Iacopo across country to the heart of the Chianti Classico region and the incredibly swanky estate of Il Colombaio di Cencio at Gaiole (now on the market for a cool €16 million if anybody has a large fortune they would like to convert). Iacopo has been involved here since he was first commissioned as architect, and then became increasingly involved with both the winemaking and commercial aspects of the estate. Everything here is breathtaking in its attention to detail with no expense spared from the computer controlled, travertine marbled floored fermentation cellar, to the extensive new barrel store – a massive contrast to both La Collina and Poggerino, our next stop. The wines here used to be massively extracted and heavily worked in new oak, with great emphasis on their flagship wine, Il Futuro, but with changing tastes, as well as spend, they have tempered the oak and now concentrate on making the finely textured and elegant Chianti ‘I Massi’.
Our next and final stop for the day was only a short drive away (mercifully it would seem by my passengers’ reactions to the winding roads of central Tuscany) to Poggerino, at Radda. Piero and Benedetta Lanza are two of the hardest working and down to earth winemakers we have come across, as well as being incredibly hospitable. Piero’s vineyards are on the opposite hillside to the famous estate of Montevertine, but while Montevertine’s wines seem to have got stuck in some sort of time warp back in the late eighties, Piero’s wines just get better and better with every vintage. He is passionate about his vines, and has recently moved to fully biodynamic practices. It is fascinating to talk to him about his work in the vineyards and to see how extraordinarily close he is to them, to the extent that he is planting different cover crops even in the same row of vines according to the vigour of each particular vine on that part of the hillside. However, not everything runs according to plan, and sometimes his experimental techniques do not pay off, such as last year when he tried spraying the vines with organically produced milk to fight mildew (some dodgy Aussie’s theory apparently). However, the inclement weather resulted in the milk exacerbating the problem followed by severe rot and loss of a large part of his crop. In his very practical, if slightly disorganised cellar, Piero moves from barrel to barrel treating each with the intimacy of a child, selecting a range of wines from successive vintages for us to taste. It is wonderfully illuminating and impressive at the same time. His wines are personal, of great purity and characterised by a combination of minerality, acidity and fruit. Piero very modestly says to us: ‘I do not say that we make better wines at Poggerino than anybody else, only that we are making the most expressive wines that we can from the vineyards we have.’ Over a delicious supper cooked by Benedetta, all from produce grown and made locally, the highlight being ravioli stuffed with stinging nettle and ricotta cheese, we drank Both Piero’s Chianti Classico and the stunning Bugialla vineyard Reserva. They have renovated a charming house to a bed and breakfast with very comfortable rooms, adjoining the old chapel on the estate (they plan to renovate than next so that they can have weddings on the estate), and needless to say we all slept like kings.