Tuscan Vineyard Tour Spring 2009 Part 2

by Patrick Sandeman

Day two – another glorious day, with cloudless blue skies and only a gentle breeze – started with a longish, fast and winding drive to Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro near Cortona, where we were greeted by the rather lovely Valentina Davida, and the very charming owner, Massimo d’Alessandro (incidentally, another architect). It was unfortunate that one of our party had not quite found his ‘sea-legs’ and spent the first five minutes of our visit depositing his breakfast behind the car. After a steadying and alarmingly strong black coffee we were treated to a trip around the vineyards to see how what had been new plantings on my last visit had matured. Massimo is passionate about Syrah and following a great deal of trials with different clones heplanted the first Syrah vineyards in Cortona in 1988,which weresubsequently expanded between 1993 and 1997. Originally advised by Danny Schuster on all matters viticultural, 8000 vines per hectare were planted to provide only four bunches of grapes per vine. Production grew as more vineyards came on stream, and it became difficult to see how they would focus on producing just two red wines at a level of quality they were aiming for, let alone sell them all. Numerous changes have taken place since we bought our first vintage, 1994. Although always under the same continued ownership, the estate has changed it name at least twice, the blend of the wines three times and the labels probably half a dozen, so it is with some relief that Massimo informed us of his ‘final’ changes. He is now assisted by Lucca Currado of Vietti (Piedmonte) and Christine Vernay (George Vernay estate, Rhone), and while the estate is producing from 50 hectares of vines, only 20 hectares are selected for the d’Alessandro wines, the balance of the production all being sold to Antinori. The Cortona Syrah continues to be the main production of the estate, as an easy drinking forward ‘Crozes-Hermitage’ style of wine, while Il Bosco remains the flagship from a selection of five plots on the estate. Due for release for the first time later this year will be a super cru called ‘Migliara’ , made by Christine Vernay from a 4 hectare block of vines identified apart exclusively for this wine. The range of wines we tasted from both 2006 and 2007 vintages were fabulously exciting, and we left feeling confident that after so many years of change, Massimo had finallyfocused on the futurefor this unique estate.

Another winding road, but only really a hop and a skip as we made our way over to Montepulciano to visit Caterina Dei. The Villa Martiena, summer home of the Dei family, nestles below the town of Montepulciano in an amphitheatre of vineyards. Since my first visit some fifteen years ago the winery has expanded beyond recognition, funded in part by Caterina’s family marble business, and eventoday they are still building an enormous ‘chais’ to house their newbottling line and stock rooms. Caterina took us into the vineyards and showed us with justifiable pride the vineyard that is ‘Bossona’, the source of Bossona Riserva , released only in the best vintages. It still continues to surprise me walking through these vineyards, at 350 metres above sea level, that one continually kicks up marine fossils, evidence of the fact that these vineyards were covered by the oceans many millions of years ago, and this to a large extent makes the soils so suitable for growing vines. Our tasting with Caterina confirmed the fact that Dei continue to produce some of the best and most true to style wines of the Montepulciano region, from the simple Rosso, the crunchy Vino Nobile to the single vineyard IGT Sancta Caterina. A brief, simple, but rather delicious lunch in a newly opened and very impressive ‘osteria’ La Dolce Vitain the town of Montepulciano left us running late for our next appointments in Montalcino.

The road from Montepulciano to Montalcinois via thehill top town of Pienza, once stately homeof Pope Pius II, and which enjoys fantastic views across the Val d’Orcia towards the Monte Rufeno with its own ski resort. However, our lack of time gave us only the briefest glimpse of this Renaissance town as we headed to the neighbouring hill top thataccommodates Montalcino. Our arrival at the Fuligni estate was thankfully less stressful than usual since Roberto was unable to meet us due to his commitments at Siena university, which meant that his terrifying terrier ‘Tito’, the scourge of many a visiting wine writer and critic, was not in residence. However, Maria Flora, Roberto’s aunt, owner of the estate and winemaker (she is a qualified oenologist) most certainly was, and as her diminutive but forceful figure descended the steps of the house, dressed more smartly than I can recall, with her handbag over one arm, we collectively thought of HRH. Maria Flora has a tendency to take one firmly by that arm and walk you around the estate, talking at such a rate that my Italian comprehension is all but lost. There is a feeling of great confidence at Fuligni, nothing flash or showy, just that they have been doing what they do for a long time, they know that what they are doing is right, and this is reflected in the wines. Traditional in style, yet with leanings to modernity in their execution, eschewing the use of too much new oak and allowing the true expression of the Brunello (sangiovese) clone to speak of the ‘terroir’. Our tastings from barrel of the 2006 and 2007 vintages reconfirmed what we have already tasted in the early released Rosso di Montalcino, that there are more great vintages of Brunello to follow the recently released great vintage that is 2004.

Sant’Angelo in Colle is a short drive west, on the other side of the Montalcino hill, and home to some of the larger estates of the region. High above the massive Col d’Orcia vineyards, covering 142 hectares, is the tiny estate of Collemattoni. Marcello Bucci took over the running of his family estate some ten years ago, and has since elevated the quality of the wines so that they are today rated alongside Fuligni’s, making them amongst the best of the region (certainly always among the top six or seven), and certainly the best value. There are those who say that the Montecito vineyards on this side of the region, which look towards the Maremma and the sea, make onlyclumsy and alcoholic wines, and given the size of some of the estates there is some truth in this. However, Collemattoni’s vines are all 420 meters above sea level, coveringonly 7 hectares, and while the soils are darker and richer he always has enough acidity in his wines to maintain a balance and freshness that is so important. Here wewere treated toone of the most enjoyable and illuminating tastings of the week. Marcello is young, passionate and yet incredibly humble in spite of the plaudits he receives for his wines, almost as if he cannot quite believe what the fuss is all about. The Reserva ‘Fonteleontano’ 2004, due for release next Spring, is a massivestep up from his fabulous Brunello 2004. Exciting stuff. The Rosso 2007, which we will ship shortly after we sell out of the fabulous drinking 2006 Rosso, is a fabulous indication of how great a vintage that 2007 is in this region. Finally we tasted his 2008 from ‘botte’, still so youthful but impressive, but tinged by the rather depressing knowledge that he lost as much as 70% of his crop to hail damage in a storm that lasted only a matter of minutes, and which even left cars pock marked from the hail stones.

The drive from Sant’Angelo to Grossetto and on to Scansano, takes one from the heart of Tuscany to the softer and more Mediterranean landscape of the Maremma. Here the countryside is made up of rolling hills with a hill top townsoverlooking the plains running towards the sea. Our arrival at Fattoria di Magliano found us ‘drawing straws’ as wediscovered that we were sharing bed-rooms due to an ‘administrative error’, and then being rushed through to an early supper by our most genial but sports lovinghost Agostino Lenci, as the Chelsea vs Barcelona Champions League semi-final waskicking off at 8.30. The dining room enjoys a fantastic panoramic view towards the hilltop town of Scansano in one direction, and the countryside towards Piombino and the sea in another. A large and loud group of elderly American touring cyclists were already in full swing, and as we ate our way through an amazing supper of antipasti, pasta, and wild boar stew, the noise level became so great that we decided an early kick off would be in order and we left the dining room clutching our glasses and an array of bottles. Unfortunately Chelsea were on the wrong end of the result but we all went to bed in high spirits after another fabulous day tasting in Tuscany. A beautiful morning followed, marred only by two things, the first being that having spent the night with what could only be described as a ‘cingiale’ in the bed next to me I was exhausted, the second being the sight of the American tourists arriving at breakfast in a series of gaudy,ill fitting, and over stretched lycra. However, the morning improved as Agostino took us on a tour of the vineyards, and to what was possibly the most beautifullysited vineyard of the week, ‘Poggio Bestiale’. This is set in a landscape incredibly reminiscent of the most rural Dorset countryside, the only difference being the olive trees and the Italian oaks (I was going to say vines too, but I am told that there are plenty of ‘champagne’ vineyards in Dorset now). These rolling pastures and hedgerows were once the home of Sardinian peasants who settled here with their flocks of sheep. The Poggio Bestiale vineyard caps the top of a beautifully situated hill on a soil base that is not at all unlike the best you would find in the Medoc (in fact Agostino even talks of the fact that Chateau Latour came looking for a vineyard here). Earlier in the week we had heard somebody say (probably Iacapo Morgante) that ‘ the best vineyard is like a woman’s buttocks, caressed allday by the sun’, which is something to think about, and the Poggio Bestiale brought this thought home to us. Back in the winery we tasted a number of wines from a combination of stainless steel, cement vats and oak barrels and it was fascinating to see the differences. Agostino has trialled a number of different cement vats in different sizes (the experimental ones sitting to one side, all different shapes and sizes, like something out of Area 51),and with great results and as is evidenced by bothhis Sinarra Sangiovese, with its ripely textured soft tannins, and the Heba Morellino. For the first time Agostino also admitted to me that a small percentage of Viognier is grown and used in the Pagliatura Vermentino, which I rate as one of the best Italian Vermentinos, and certainly the best from Tuscany.

The drive South to Capalbio is through gently rolling farming land without a vine in sight, until you head slightly inland to the hill of Montenti and Tenuta Monteti. Owned by the very genteelPaola Baratta, a financier and one timemember of the Italian government, he settled upon this region, which has little history of wine growing, because he thought it beautiful and with great potential for growing both Cabernet Franc and Alicante Bouchet (as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdotand Merlot), and he was right on both counts. He cleverly employed a young winemaker, Andrea Elmi, to both make the wines and also to sell them. The vineyards are very beautiful, and one can see that it was something of a financial labour of love to plant them here as they had to dig out andmove huge numbers of monolithic boulders from the ground before planting. Furthermore, all of the vines are planted following the contour of the land, which gives the most amazing effect when you look down on them and can see the different bands of leaf of the different vines. The winery is state of the art with nothing left to chance; each barrel has a number which is logged in a computer with every detail of its content, racking and progress. Impressive stuff, if ever so slightly sterile. Thankfully, however, the wines are full of character and truly reflect the ‘terroir’ as well as the skilful winemaking. Andrea and his colleague, Christian, showed us around the vineyards and the cellar. Although they look identical, they are not in fact brothers as we had assumed; both with tight black curly hair, both dressed in tight black jeans, both ever so slightly laid back and very ‘Italian stallion’, but most alarmingly both speaking English withmore than just a strong hint of a mancunian accent! They gave us a fascinating tasting of the component parts that make up the two wines; Cabernet Sauvignon , Alicante and Merlot for the Cabunio, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for the superior blend Monteti, followed by the final blends themselves. Alicate Bouchet is variety that gives crisp acidity, low alcohol and colour (not unlike Austrian Blaufrankish), while Cabernet Franc, here at least, gives sweet aromatic and elegant fruit.The Monteti blend is only finalised after the component wines have spent twelve months in barrels, and the blend is then put back into barrel for a further four to six months. While Caburnio is awine in its own right, with wines destined for the blend being aged only in ‘tonneau’ (the larger barrels), some of the blend is made up of wines ‘de-selected’ from Monteti, and these will have spent time in barrel. Overall there is a move here to use less barrel in the long term and move more toward ‘tonneau’ so as to retain the acidity and freshness of fruit in the wines.

Our next destination was Le Macchiole at Bolgheri, a good two hour drive North from Grosetto, up the coastal road, the ‘Aurelia’. Cinzia Campolmi has now run this estate for seven years, since the death of her husband Eugenio, and far from floundering as many people had expected, she has elevated the property and the wines to the highest standards so that demand worldwide is now greater than ever. We were greeted once more by the lovely Valentina Davida (cf d’Alessandro – she works for both estates on the commercial side) andVeronica, who helps run the estate, and immediately taken through to the tasting room where Cinzia was awaiting us with an array of all the wines for us to tastetogether withanother delicious light lunch of salamis, cheeses (the best fresh ricotta ever) and salads. In the company of three such lovely women and such wonderful wines, we were all quite awestruck. Once more I found myself ‘translating’ for Peter; although pretty much everywhere we had been our Italian hosts spoke English to some degree, they almost all to a person could not cope with Peter’s Kiwi accent, and almost every question he asked had to be repeated in ‘English’. The line up of wines here were Paleo Bianco, Le Macchiole Bolgheri Rosso, Paleo Rosso (Cabernet Franc), Messorio (Merlot) and Scio (Syrah) – an awesome line up and a thrill to taste all together. Lunch was followed by a look at the vineyards which surround the winery and stretch off almost as far as the eye can see. However, Le Macchiole own only seventeen hectares, which have now been surrounded, almost engulfed in fact, by vineyards planted by Antinori. Cinziatalked throughthe work in the vineyards, which has over the years moved increasingly towards ‘biological’ (organic) practices. Peter pointed out small bands on some of the vines, which Cinzia explained to us are there to control spiders in the vineyard; they send out pheromones which confuse the female spiders and stop them mating doing away with the need to spray in secticides. In the winery Cinzia showed us the new vats that they have been using for the Cabernet Franc, large Slovenian oak ‘botte’ and unlined cement tanks both of which soften tannins and give texture to the wine. Also working here is ‘rugby man’ and young oenologistLucca Retondini, whose lives up to his name in stature andwhom I had met two years previously working at Dei in Montepulciano. He is here to assist with the winemaking and seems to be more than just competent as he showed us around the ‘barricaia’ and selected numerous different barrels for us to taste. We were shown examples of Merlot from the same vineyard and from the same oak, but picked fifteen days apart; Cabernet Franc from different sized oak barrels a large part of which is now fermented in ‘botte’ rather then barrel; Syrah from different vineyard plots, some of which were fermented in open barriques, and finally a ‘blind’ wine from barrel which turned out to be Grenache (which is not ‘allowed’ to be grown in the region, but should be judging by the result). An absolutely fascinating tasting and one which left us feeling immensely privileged, not only to have tasted the wines, but also to be selling them.

Our final destination, only twenty minutes further up the coast, was Castello del Terriccio, home of Tassinaia and Lupicaia, as well as the recently introduced Rhone style blend Terriccio. Each time I enter the gates to this 1700 hectare estate, I cannot help but think back to the first time I visited, some twelve years ago, and ‘discovered’ Terriccio; I was the first foreign wine buyer to have ever visited and tasted the wines. On that occasion, the owner,Gian Annibale Rossi di Medelana, thankfully referred to as ‘Pucci’, had interviewed me a full twenty minutes in Italian before breaking into the most impeccable English. Sadly Pucci had been called away to Rome on business,but we were left in the hands of Bettina Bertheau, his commercial assistant, who toured us around this most beautiful estate in a land rover. The estate rises from the entrance gates and rises as high as 350 meters above sea level with stunning views to the sea and as far as the island of Capraia and on a clear day to Sardinia in the far distance. Rollingacres of corn fields are interspersed by dense woodlands, lakes, pastures and of course vineyards. There are now 60 hectares of vines, making this an important estate, and most are surrounded by mature eucalyptus trees which act both as wind barriers, but also I am convinced give something to the wine. Our trip around the vineyard was followed by a tasting on the terrace of a beautifully positioned, newly renovated house, which turned out to be our accommodation – with swimming pool and all. Bettina at this point had another appointment to attend and we were left to our own devises. I was not entirely surprised by the fact that we had not been shown the winery, or been given any barrel tastings, since Pucci is very reticent to allow anybody to do either unless he, or his winemaker Carlo Ferrini are present, and I would have to say that this is one of the big weaknesses of this estate. The wines speak for themselves; Tassinaia still represents fantastic value, Terriccio is fascinating for what it is, and Lupicaia exceptional if expensive. But the way the estate is run shows a lack of direction andI slightly hesitate each vintage because of the uncertainty of what direction Pucci might have taken the wines and the estate. For the moment, however, all looks well.

Dinner that evening was on the beach at La Pineta, Bibbona Mare, which is one of the truly great fish restaurants of Europe, after which we returned to our palatial accommodation at Terriccio to polish off the opened bottles from our tasting. As we were relaxing into the deep sofas, with glasses charged, Peter went ‘walkabout’ and returned clutching bottles of Tassinaia 2001 and Lupicaia 2000 which he had found ‘in a cupboard under the stairs’. It seemed silly to miss an opportunity to catch up on past vintages and we set upon them in a most academic fashion, reconfirming my long held theory that Tassinaia is a wine that you can drink all night, especially under the Tuscan night sky, with little ill effect.

Our final glorious morning started with a refreshing swim to dilute an excess of Tassinaia, and a drive to the lovely town of Lucca with a visit to the Bruton birreria, owned by Agostino Lenci (Fattoria di Magliano) and run by his two sons. After three days of intense wine tasting (and an excess of Tassinaia) a beer tasting was just the ticket. We tasted all five styles, some on draught, and some from bottle. The pale, light and refreshing Bianca, the Pale Ale Lilith, the fuller bodied Momus, and the winter warming Dieci. A formidable line up and one which works very well food too.

Fired up and full of enthusiasm we headed for Pisa airport and the boys bought ice-creams as I fuelled up the hire car. It was at this stage that I had to say to them that if any one of them said thank you for a great ‘holiday’ once more, they would be fired, and to remind them that wine buying trips are usually very hard work!