The old school vs. new school trope gets a work out in Chianti.
After our brief flirtation with Florence, our tour headed south toward the Chianti Classico region of Gaiole with the first stop at Badia a Coltibuono (Abbey of the Good Harvest), an historic and highly regarded Chianti producer. This winery’s history reaches back to the 11th Century when Vallombrosan Monks founded the abbey and began planting vineyards. Records indicate they planted Sangiovese grapes and were among the first to plant olive trees in the region.
Fun fact: The monks drank about 4 liters of wine per person per day because their water was contaminated.
Over many centuries, the monks developed a flourishing wine business until 1810 when they were forced out by Napoleon and the winery put up for sale. In 1846, Coltibuono was bought by Guido Giuntini, a Florentine banker and great grandfather of Piero Stucchi-Prinetti, the present owner, whose children now run the winery. They own 64 hectares of organic vineyards with properties that include a bed and breakfast and restaurant, producing about 400,000 bottles per year.
The facility we toured is now used only for storage and hospitality–highlights include gorgeous gardens, a 16th Century cistern used to collect rain water, still in use today, several very old frescoes (that were covered with plaster to protect them from Napoleon’s depredations),
and some of the funkiest storage cellars you will ever see. The inches-thick black stuff on the walls and ceiling of their barrel room is mold that has been forming for centuries. Winery personnel claim the mold is essential for the aging process. It helps maintain the humidity in cellars without having to use expensive humidifiers, thus preventing excess evaporation which would increase alcohol levels and reduce volume.
Badia a Coltibuomo is a traditional Chianti producer using 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, and Colorino in their basic Classico wine, which is aged in large botti that hold 3000 bottles, and are as much as 50 yrs. old.
The wines stood up well to their reputation. Even the entry level Chianti Classico 2015 had some complexity showing earth, a bit of tarragon and savory balsamic notes. The Riserva level 2013, which spent 2 years in oak and 2 years in the bottle, with grapes harvested from 45-50 year old vines, had a beautiful earthy/ floral nose and impressive structure, round and full with a long finish. The 2009 Riserva was even more impressive, very elegant yet still firm in structure, developing aromas of wet leaves, tobacco, coffee and dark chocolate. For a traditional flavor profile I highly recommend these wines which are affordable and available in the U.S.
After departing Badia a Coltibuono we headed into the hills for lunch at Ristorante Le Contrade. This restaurant is in the middle-of-nowhere with sweeping views of the countryside. The lunch was this inventive trio of hot and trio of cold dishes—the star of the show was the “cappuccino” of frothy parmesan cheese topped with truffle, with runner up the boned quail stuffed with foie gras and lentils.
After lunch we headed to the southernmost part of Chianti Classico in the Castelnuovo Berardenga zone where Tolaini Winery is located. This is a much more modern approach to winemaking. After leaving his native Tuscany in 1956 to make enough money to start a winery, Pier Luigi Tolaini founded one of the largest trucking companies in North America. After 40 years in the transportation business he returned to pursue his true passion of making great wine. With his mechanical background, Pier created a state-of-the-art gravity-flow production system with unique, two chamber fermentation tanks and his own custom tractors that fit between the rows of their tightly spaced vines. The theory behind his viticulture is that hi-density planting, 7000-11000 plants per acre, will force the plants to compete driving the rootstocks deeper into soil seeking water and minerals. That high density planting makes this specialized tractor necessary in order to do the vineyard work.
His unique stainless steel tanks include a top fermenter that allows juice to drain into the tank below. The must is then pulled out of the top tank and pressed again. They also use a state-of-the-art optical sorter for their berry selection.
Just as their winemaking is innovative so is their wine line up. Their Al Passo is 80% Sangiovese and 15% Merlot, and although by current law they could sell it as Chianti, it’s sold as IGT Toscano to avoid Chianti’s somewhat tarnished reputation. And indeed this wine shows more plum and meat than standard Chianti. Their homage to Chianti Classico is in their Vigna Montebello Sette which bears the relatively new Gran Selezione designation. This is 100% Sangiovese aged for 30 months in large foudre casks. It’s rich, with dark fruit and earth, quite rustic with grippy tannins. It’s age worthy but needs time; it is sold in the U.S. for just over $30.
Picconero is their Bordeaux-style offering. A blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and produced only in the best vintages, it’s muscular and spicy with dark cherry, chocolate and a seam of minerality, a very successful rendition of Bordeaux in Italy. With 16 months in 100% new French oak, it sells for over $100 in the U.S. Finally, we tasted their Valdisanti, a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend with 20% Sangiovese and a bit of Cabernet Franc. The Cab influence is quite evident with cassis, sweet oak, and a very nice savory, herbal dimension. This spent 16 months in French barrique, 70% new, including 6 months on the lees. It’s a good bargain for around $30.
These wines get good scores from the Wine Spectator and other critics and are clearly designed for the international market.
So we had an interesting juxtaposition of old school and new school Chianti. Which was my favorite? These are all quality wines but the Badia a Coltibuono Riserva is the one that sticks in my mind. It’s distinctly Chianti Classico but offering much more than your garden variety bottom-shelf Chianti at under $30.
Next stop, the village of Montepulciano.
This tour was planned and executed by Chris Gluck, owner of The Wine Vault and Bistro in San Diego.