An exploration of wine

Chianti Classico: a four-dimensional view of the beating heart of Tuscany

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Classi Chianti Classico hills

Classic undulating patchwork hills of Chianti Classico

By invitation through the IMW, 4 Tuscan Consorzi, representing the finest in gastronomic production from primarily the Chianti Classico region, ran a press trip for UK-based wine writers and bloggers.

The Consorzio Vini DOCG Chanti Classico (wine), Consorzio Olio DOP Chianti Classico (olive oil), Consorzio Proscuitto Toscano and the Consorzio Pecorino Toscano, were kind enough to fly me, alongside 5 other writers / bloggers, to Pisa and back for a 4-day food and wine tour of Tuscany, and primarily Chianti Classico.

What a great way to make a first-ever visit to the region. I brought my vineyard map along…

These are therefore my thoughts my first taste of Toscana and Chianti Classico in the flesh, and on the wine, cheese and charcuterie (apart from those being more-or-less my dinner of choice, anytime, anyplace).

 

Summary

  • Chianti Classico quality: truly a fine wine region, with distinctive and characterful wines that can age. Yet it seems to have an inferiority complex, especially against Brunello, as well as feeling hamstrung by the perceptions generated by lower quality of generic Chianti. The new, 2013, Gran Selezione category, akin to Gran Reserva Rioja is partly a reaction to that – to differentiate with a quality hierarchy that doesn’t exist outside the region – but it perhaps needs time to refine itself into something that is truly the peak
  • Chianti Classico positioning: given the challenge they believe they have in being recognised as a top wine region because of the quality ‘anchor’ of generic Chianti, could the fantastic image of Tuscany itself for beauty and above all gastronomy play a stronger, associative part? Place Chianti (Classico) as “the beating heart of Tuscany”? And tie tightly to tourism. Interestingly, this was a view held amongst the Prosciutto producers for their (admittedly Tuscany-wide) product
  • Chianti Classico style: the wines themselves did show variability in style and quality of course, but there were both several top flight examples from Rocca della Macìe and the beautiful Cinciano. There was also more stylistic homogeneity then heterogeneity: brisker acidity than Brunello or Morellino, reduction in use of barriques and also lessening use of international varieties, to give more transparent Sangiovese character
  • Olive oil quality: a clear commitment to production quality in the DOP, with high quality examples used to illustrate that of course. Overall, this introductory tasting suggested a style that was less rich, but more aromatic and characterful than equivalents from other regions – mainly from the south, particularly Puglia
  • Olive oil style: a pleasantly bitter twist seemed a key component, with the Frantoio variety contributing much of that, and fruitiness seeming to lead over pepperiness – especially from the Leccino
  • Prosciutto Toscano style: a distinctively deeper and saltier style than either Parma or San Daniele hams, described by them as “sweeter”, with more drying. Moreover, depth and complexity of flavour come from curing the hams with much more than just salt – a blend of salt, black pepper, fresh garlic and a range of other spices that vary by producer
  • Prosciutto Toscano producers: Piacenti’s attention to quality shines through in the meats tasted – with great depth, length of flavour and tenderness of texture across the range, whether DOP Prosciutto, roasted prosciutto, porchetta and so on
  • Prosciutto Toscano quality: impressive attention to detail for QA in both the factories visited, especially at the point of producing sliced, packed Prosciutto, which must be done in the region. Exceptional quality standards
  • Pecorino Toscano style: a subtler, milder and notably less salty than Sardegnan Pecorino Sardo for example, but with a nuttiness that shines with age and complements the ‘ewe-ness’ of its sharp, lactic flavour. Busti had particularly fine examples, though the co-op’s Stagionata was enjoyable in a saltier fashion
  • Pecorino Toscano producers: Busti’s process showed how hand-made can be done authentically whilst still being run as a business, with efficient, continuous-batch work and fastidious cleanliness

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Day 1: Arrival and cheese

Caseificio Busti, Pisa

Our first visit, straight off the plane, was to a cheese-makers – “caseificio” having the same linguistic roots as milk protein, casein, often used for fining wines. Time to learn more about Pecorino (and not the Abruzzo / Marche grape variety, making a welcome return from near-extinction in the early 1990s), whose name derives from “pecora” meaning “ewe”.

Alessandra Munari, from Caseificio Busti hosted us, with Daniele Corti from the Consorzio di Pecorino Toscano, alongside colleague Marco, translating. Alessandra’s production colleague, Lara also joined us, to give an excellent technical perspective on the production process.

Busti Pecorino Toscano productoin

Alessandra beginning our tour of the Busti facility

Pecorino can be made anywhere in Italy – it’s simply ewe’s milk cheese – but there are some DOPs. Pecorino Toscano is one of the oldest recognised types of cheese in Italy along with Parmigiano Reggiano. It became a DOC in 1986, with the Consorzio formed in 1985, and taking an oversight and regulatory role in 1988. The PDO status was recognised by the EU in 1996, giving Europe-wide control of the name. 17 dairy factories are members of the consorzio and 200 sheep farms, across Toscana and Lazio.

The DOC was originally brought into being because other regions, particularly Sardegna, were naming their Pecorinos in similar ways, such as “Toscanello”, which the region felt infringed the ‘brand’ of Pecorino Toscano. DOC status thus got rid of the ‘fakes’.

Pecorino is a 100% ewe cheese and Busti make primarily ewe cheeses, including DOP Pecorino Toscano. They also make mixed ewe and cow cheeses, and some goat, with ricotta made as a by-product from some of the excess whey generated by the primary cheesemaking.

Busti receive milk daily, in the morning (and produce straightaway) or the evening (and produce the next morning). On receipt, they test for acidity, fat, water (to ensure no watering down), antibiotics, and that there has been no contamination with milk from other animals. Quality grading goes by fat and protein content, and Busti pay their contract farmers higher prices for higher quality milk.

Once tested and accepted, the milk is pasteurised at 71°C. This is too warm to work in, so the milk is cooled either to around 32-33°C or 37-38°C depending on the cheese. Lactoacetic bacteria are added, then rennet to cause coagulation. The curds are stirred and cut into larger ‘crumbs’ holding more water content, for fresh cheeses (3-4 week maturation), or smaller ‘crumbs’ for cheeses that could be aged (several months to 1 year+), and which need to be drier.

Cutting Pecorino curds

Cutting the coagulated curds to different sizes

Flavourings such as almond, truffle or chilli are added at this point, though these are not permitted in DOP Pecorino cheeses.

Flavoured Pecorino production

Adding chopped almonds to the cut curds to create flavoured Pecorino

Excess whey from non-flavoured cheesemaking goes to ricotta manufacturing, where it is cleaned and fresh milk is added for richness. They make ewe, cow-ewe and goat milk ricottas. With a 20-day shelf-life this is mostly sold locally, but they recently began flying some to the US via Roma, which is itself an impressive feat.

Any further dairy by-products, including whey, are pooled locally amongst cheese producers, and made into animal feed.

DOP regulations control not only milk origin, but also minimum fat and protein content, bacteria and rennet that can be used, and coagulation temperatures. Flavourings, as mentioned, are not permitted in DOP Pecorinos.

The freshly-made cheeses are gently pressed into moulds, then move to a 3-step maturation process:

  • Step 1 – acidity: maturation in the Camera Calda. Here, warmth gets the previously-added bacteria to produce acidity until pH falls to the desired level (5.5-5.7), typically in around 3-4 hours. Once at the target pH, the cheeses are chilled to inhibit bacterial activity
  • Step 2 – salting: this involves salting all faces of the cheese round by hand, using rock salt from nearby Volterra. Bigger wheels of cheese are salted twice. Other cheesemakers use an alternative method of bathing the cheese in brine, but Busti believe hand-salting gives a better end-product
  • Step 3 – cellar maturation: cheeses are matured with humidity control, at temperatures in the 7-15°C range, depending on the cheese, with lower temperatures for longer-aged cheeses. Mould initially grows on the rind, and rinds are washed periodically. A ‘young’ style Pecorino has a minimum 20-day maturation. Over 4 months is an aged, “stagionato” Pecorino, which could be aged for a year or more. The intermediate, semi-stagionato, ageing would typically be 2-3 months

We then finished with a tasting of Busti’s range, over a light lunch, with some wine provided. Tasting notes below.

Busti cheese range

Busti’s range of cheeses awaiting despatch

 

Cheeses

Busti Frescopecoro (14 / 20)
Soft, 2 weeks’ ageing only
P: Creamy, lactic, chalky, simple

Busti Marzolino (14.5 / 20)
Traditionally made in March
P: sharp, creamy, smooth paste, fresh, hint of spice

Busti Pecorino with Peppercorn and Turmeric (15 / 20)
A: Vibrant yellow colour, with peppercorns punctuating
P: slightly chalky, ewe milk, peppercorn, spice, pungent turmeric tang

Busti Pecorino Stagionato del Latte Crudo (organic) (16 / 20)
P: rich and intense, with a paste-like texture, nutty & creamy

Busti Pecorino DOP (16.5 / 20)
P: Peppery, rich, creamy and smooth. Youthful but with depth. Creamy finish

Busti Pecorino Semi-stagionato (16 / 20)
P: citric tang to crumbly, milky / creamy flavour. Medium-long

Busti Pecorino Stagionato DOP (17.5 / 20)
P: powerful, nutty, with crumbly texture, citric tang, dry. Salty mid-palate but not so many salt crystals. Powerful and long

 

Wine

Panizzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano Vigna Santa Margherita 2016 (16 / 20)
€20 / bottle in Holland, according to fellow trip participant, chef and owner of Eetwijn in Amsterdam, fellow cyclist, and all-round good bloke, Martijn Hendriks, who has imported this to Holland.
A: Pale gold
N: Apple peel. Nutty almond touch. Lemon rind touch. Lavender scent emerges
P: Smoky / flinty. Grapefruit pith and lemon. Nutty. Dense. Bitter finish twist. A little cold, but medium-long. Pretty good

 

From Pisa, we took the all-important trip to see the glory of Florence and stay there overnight.

Firenze Arno river

The weir across the Arno in Florence

Ponte Vecchio view

Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio with shops on it

Duomo square Firenze

Florence’s equally famous Duomo – interestingly, tiled by Chianti estate, Fontodi

We dined with Emore Magni from the Proscuitto Consorzio, at Trattoria Armando. Over dinner, we had a couple of whites, both of which were Vermentino blends with Petit Menseng.

Vermentino from Elba

My first Elba wine: Tenuta Ripalte Vermentino-Petit Manseng blend

The first, from Tenuta Ripalte pictured, was my first ever wine from the (Tuscan) island of Elba. This was attractively fruity, with some palate salinity, but a little short (15.5 / 20).

Bolgheri Vermentino blend

Bolgheri take on Vermentino from DonnaOlimpia1891, with Petit Manseng and Viognier

The second, which also included Viognier, was from Donna Olimpia 1891 in Bolgheri and was smarter, more complex and a sophisticated white, with some subtle barrel maturation notes (16.5 / 20). The 2013 Chianti Classico Riserva from Querciabella was young, but with plenty of ripe, sour-cherry fruit weight, notable cinnamon oak and finely-crafted tannins, pointing to a good life ahead (17 / 20). A 2004 Vin Santo to finish, from Palagetto in San Gimignano was much less impressive, with angular acidity and a simple style (14 / 20).

 

Day 2: Chianti Classico wine and olive oil

Casa Chianti Classico

Radda in Chianti is pretty-much in the heart of Chianti Classico, straddling the watershed between rivers feeding the Northern, Firenze / Florence half (containing key town, Greve in Chianti) and the Southern, Sienese / Siena half of the region (with nearby Gaiole in Chianti on the Eastern side, Castellina in Chianti to the West and Southernmost Castelnuovo Berardenga, on the border with the Colli Senesi).

That makes Radda the ideal location for the regional promotional HQ, the Casa Chianti Classico. We met Caterina Mori, Marketing & Communications for the Consorzio Vino and Fiametta Nizzi Grifi, who is an agronomist by training, from the Consorzio Olio there. We had presentations by both, a tutored olive oil tasting by Fiametta, then lunch with some Chianti Classicos.

Casa Chianti Classico Radda

Casa Chianti Classico, a converted monastery in Radda in Chianti

The Casa is in a restored 18th century monastery, bought in the 1990s but with the restoration only completed in 2014. It has a wine shop and restaurant open to the public. It also has a museum, though this is better described as an educational experience, looking at colour and aroma education, as much as history and information. The colour map was developed by taking 60 bottles of Chianti Classico, picturing the rim colour and matching to a Pantone® reference colour, then creating the spectrum below:

Chianti Classico wine colours

Illuminated wall showing the ranges of colours in Chianti Classico wine

 

Chianti Classico aromas

Aroma jars showing principle characteristics of Chianti Classico wines

As we saw driving through the region, Chianti Classico is not a monoculture of vines, but a polyculture including grains, animals and above all olive groves, in addition to vines.

Chianti Classico polyculture

Chianti Classico is a polyculture of vines, olives, woodland and other crops

Chianti Classico has 7,200Ha of vines planted in a total area of 70,000Ha for the DOCG, in the Provincias of Siena and Firenze. There is an almost equal surface area of 7,000Ha of olive trees. The Classico borders were delimited by the Medicis in 1716, to counter counterfeiting, with the Consorzio Vini formed in 1924 and Classico added in 1932. The wine DOCG was awarded in 1987.

Consorzio Vini presentation

The Consorzio has 580 members, 376 of whom actually bottle wines. 22% goes to Italy, 32% to the US, 13% to Germany, Canada 8% and the UK just 5%. Total market growth has recently been 1% per year.

The Consorzio has 2 roles – firstly legal defence of the trademark and legal support for growers e.g. in exporting, and secondly promotion of the region to the press and to consumers, both in Italy and abroad. The major event is mid-February, presenting the new vintage to the trade, the most recent edition of which had 186 growers present.

The DOCG Disciplinare specifies 80% Sangiovese and up to 20% red indigenous or international varieties. Colorino, Mamolo, Canaiolo are principle indigenous varieties and international grapes are declining in use.

Today, 3 tiers of quality are recognised in the region, with Gran Selezione added in 2013 and valid from 2011 vintage:

  • Chianti Classico Anata: 12 months minimum ageing and a fruity style. 12% ABV minimum and 24 g/L dry extract. 73% of production. Anata is not
  • Chianti Classico Riserva: 24 months, and more structure. 12.5% ABV and 25 g/L dry extract. 23% of production
  • Chianti Classico Gran Selezione: 36 months aging including 3 months in bottle and estate grown grapes only. Can also be a single estate. 13% ABV and 26 g/L dry extract. Only 4% of production

Members are currently debating and researching regional differences to explore the potential for regional labelling and regional expression. Whilst difficult to get agreement for all, the main goal of the Chianti Classico group is to show the quality of the region overall, so it could be possible. A challenge is then how to specify it as well as to communicate it clearly.

Gran Selezione was added with the intention of differentiating the region from Chianti and others, which don’t have higher quality categories than Riserva, and clearly doing so on quality. But it is also split in its concept. It can either a special selection of an estate’s best grapes, in the manner of a Rioja Gran Reserva, with ageing similarly being a key component to define “quality”. Or it can be a single vineyard expression, like Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo – which was simply upgraded from Riserva after the 2010 vintage. This perhaps reflects this ongoing debate between cross-regional quality blends and sub-regional expression.

Within Chianti Classico, albarese limestone-heavy soils, clay-sand and stony galestro are the principle soil types. Climate is continental (-4 to +35°C typical, but greater extremes possible) with modest rainfall (600-800mm). Maximum permitted growing altitude is 700m, with most vineyards in the 250-650m range. A cool start to 2018 means it is slightly late in vine development but not too retarded; in the 2nd week in April we only saw budbreak in the warmer, lower, western edges of the region.

Consorzio Olio

The olive oil PDO has the same borders as the Chianti Classico wine region and was recognised in 2002 by the EU, with a Disciplinare for oil production, plus chemical and expert organoleptic tasting analysis to qualify. In general, only IGP and PGO oils need chemical or taste analysis. Oils simply labelled Extra Virgin etc. are, in effect, self-certified.

Only Extra Virgin olive oil is made in the DOP Chianti Classico. There are 4 other PDOs in Tuscany for olive oil, such as Terre di Siena. These DOPs were awarded after Chianti Classico. The Consorzio has 24 mills and 70 bottlers producing DOP olive oil. Almost 50% of producers are organic, particularly in Gaiole and Panzano.

Production can only include mechanical processes like washing, centrifuging, decanting and filtering; no chemical extraction is permitted in the EU.

Quality is driven by 2 factors:

  1. Olive varieties: in Chianti Classico, there are 3 permitted – Frantoio, Moraiolo, Leccino, of which Frantoio and Leccino will be tasted in purezza
  2. Extraction processing: handling care to avoid fruit damage and oxidation

Chemical analysis of the olive includes (low) acidity level and peroxide (oxidation) number, both of which rise with fruit damage. This means, for quality, undamaged fruit needs to be used, then carefully handled to minimise damage en route to processing. Triglycerides oxidise to increase acidity and chemical & biological oxidation reduces polyphenols and increases peroxides. Thus, speed of harvest is a critical determinant of quality.

Harvest is permitted between 20th October and 30th November. As fruit matures, polyphenols (but not strictly tannins) decline and soften, becoming ‘sweeter’ and softer toward maturity. But olives are harvested before peak ripeness, after skin colour has changed, but before pulp colour-change (the pulp is still white-ish in both black and green olives) to avoid either sunburn or animal consumption, leaving some phenolics. Presence of extensive woodland interspersed between olive groves helps moderate temperature extremes and makes ripening more subtle in Chianti Classico.

From harvest to oil production in 1 day is ideal as the olive fruit begins to oxidise within 4 hours from harvest. Mechanical harvesting is generally better as fruit damage is less than hand-harvesting and much faster. However, clay soils mean that harvesting by machine is not possible if it is raining. One olive tree yields enough olives to provide around 75cl of oil.

Washing is mandatory before pressing. Pressing (more akin to crushing in winemaking) is the critical stage for aromatic formation through the release of fatty acids by lipoxygenases, activated by the act of crushing the olive fruit.

Kneading with a horizontal screw-press type machine encourages aggregation of small oil droplets into larger, to facilitate subsequent separation of pulp and oil, as well as encouraging the breakdown of the oil-water emulsion formed during pressing. Today, pressing and kneading takes 20-30 minutes, thereby preserving fruity characters and vitamins.

Extraction takes place with a horizontal ‘decanter’ that gently presses the oil. In the DOP, no water is added, to avoid water-extraction of polyphenols and vitamins. This liquid is then centrifuged to strip out residual water and sugars and filtered immediately.

Warmth, oxidation and light-strike can damage the oil in storage, so an opaque bottle is important. A recent study compared a light bottle, dark bottle and stainless-steel canister. After 12 months’ ageing, oil in the stainless-steel bottle had only 10 mequiv / O2 vs. 55 mg / L in dark bottles and 65 mg / L in light bottles. 20 mg / L is the legal limit for sale, illustrating both the importance of packaging, but also the limited shelf-life.

In the DOP, oil can be bottled up to the next harvest, but has a total 2-year lifetime. Bottling dates are also mandatory.

Professional tasting for DOP inclusion is a regulated process. Colour is not a parameter that is evaluated. The main steps are to swirl, inhale deeply and assess aromatics, then taste with air and spit, looking for fruit, bitterness and pepperiness.

 

Olive Oils

Olio di Oliva (12 / 20)
Faulty olives that fail tests for higher quality and made in industrial process, with up to 2% Virgin oil permitted to be added; no vitamins or polyphenols remain, but it is resistant to higher temperatures, so good for cooking.
A: Mid lemon green
N: Neutral, slightly spicy, oily
P: Neutral, nutty-oily

Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva Comunitaro (14 / 20)
EU blend; mostly Spanish oil.
A: Mid-deep green-gold
N: Pine-nut, some fruitiness, simple but clear
P: Some nutty, grassy spiced tones, less thickly oily, longer

Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva Italiano (15 / 20)
A: Deep olive-green
N: Herbal, subtle pepper, lemon and olive fruit, more complex again
P: Nutty, slightly bitter, herbal-peppery; rich

Chianti Classico DOP Monocultivar Frantoio (17.5 / 20)
A: Mid-deep olive green
N: Marked, intense, grassy and lemon rind aromatics; powerful
P: Creamy-spicy, oily, with a clear bitter finish

Monocultivar Frantoio Italiano (15.5 / 20)
From Marche.
A: Mid olive-green
N: Less intensely aromatic, but with a citrus lemon fruit
P: Less intensely bitter, but peppery and some saltiness, with decent length

Chianti Classico DOP Monocultivar Leccino (16 / 20)
A: Mid-deep gold, green glints
N: Moderate intensity olive fruitiness, hint of pine nut and pepper
P: Subtle bitterness, with olive fruit and spice

Monocultivar Leccino from Puglia (16 / 20)
N: Olive fruit, some grass, with moderate intensity
P: Moderate fruit with nut touch, with more marked bitter-pepper finish with good length

Chianti Classico DOP Blend 2017 (17 / 20)
Blend of all 3 principal varieties.
A: Mid olive-green
N: Richly aromatic, fruity with a citrus twist, subtle pine nut, herbal
P: Fresh, nutty / grassy, with a marked peppery mid-palate; creamy finish with nice bitterness

Chianti Classico DOP Blend 2016 (15.5 / 20)
N: Muted, slight fresh leather notes and maybe some rancid tones? Fruity olive below
P: Neutral, flat fruit, some gentle bitterness

 

Wines

Chianti Classico wines

3 levels of Chianti Classico with lunch at the Casa

Querceto di Castellina Chianti Classico l’Aura 2015 (16 / 20)
Organic estate in Castellina in Chianti. 2015 was a balanced vintage, not too hot. 14% ABV.
A: Pale-mid ruby
N: Clay earth, subtle garrigue, spice, some clove background oak. Bright, perfumed red cherry fruit. Attractive, with an orange peel tang
P: Juicy red cherry, background oak tones, spice, some sweetness to the fruit. Firm, grainy tannins, but not rough. Warming finish, but fairly-long length. Brisk acidity with harmonious fruit and spice

Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva 2012 (15 / 20)
San Casciano-Val di Pesa. Owned by Beringer-Blass. 13.5% ABV. First bottle 2013 corked, so switched to 2012.
A: Medium garnet
N: Moving to maturity – dried cherry fruit, some conserved tones and a touch of VA lift. Subtle milk chocolate and a touch of spice
P: Dried black cherry. Spice and clove. Some old leather. Cinnamon. Firm, grainy, chalky tannins. Needs time to resolve but maturing quickly. Medium-long, with some alcohol standing out

Castello di Radda Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2013 (16+ / 20)
14.5% ABV. Heavy bottle. 100% Sangiovese. Owned by Agricole Gussalli Beretta.
A: Medium ruby, subtle garnet glints
N: Nutty oak, dried herb, cedar. Sweet red cherry and dried cherry tones. Decent intensity of aromatics, showing savoury maturity
P: Intense sour and bitter red cherry. Smoky, flinty minerality. Cedar tones. Chalky, firm tannins – much better textured than the Riserva. Decent length, but will the oak and tannins resolve and come together?

 

Cipressi in Chianti

A few minutes’ drive from the Casa Chianti Classico is Cipressi in Chianti prosciutto production facility, just outside Radda. Specifically, Cipressi in Chianti just slices and vacuum-packs the hams, and does this for hams from across Toscana. It has moved from its original location in the heart of Radda, so don’t let Google fool you! M&S buyers come here to taste and approve their Prosciutto Toscano,  packed here.

We began with a 5-minute introduction to Prosciutto Toscano. The Consorzio was formed in 1990 by a group of producers aiming to preserve local traditions. Prosciutto di San Daniele and di Parma were already well known. Outside there, many places called their ham Prosciutto Toscano, so the local producers wanted to protect and define it. The DOP was granted in 1996. Currently 4 provinces produce the ham, but it could be made from anywhere in Toscana. Pigs must be born, reared and slaughtered in the region, and the ham manufacture, including slicing, must be done within Toscana also.

To understand the PDO, the 3 key components are the territory, quality and history. Producers began by studying the history of the ham from Etruscan times, who imported piggeries, followed by the Medici who added some production rules around 1500. From this history, the producers adopted some of the historical methods and developed the regional style. Some producers are now at the 4th generation of family ownership.

Production rules were codified in 1990 and members of the Consorzio must adopt the rules. 21 producers are now members, having started with 28, but some smaller producers could not follow the rules, so opted-out. The DOP Disciplinare controls which animals and which parts of the animal can be used for production.

Key differences from Parma and San Daniele:

  • More skin is cut off at the leg-cut, to allow more salt and flavouring to penetrate to the interior of the ham. The warmer, drier climate of Toscana requires removal of more skin and massaging-in of preservatives to get deeper penetration and drying, to enhance preservation
  • Salted not only with salt, but with Tuscan spices to give a particular flavour to the ham: garlic, black pepper, rosemary etc. are used, with different producers having their own secret recipes, giving a range of flavours
  • Different ageing periods at different temperatures in different rooms, depending on the stage of the ham’s evolution. Minimum ageing is 12 months cumulative across all rooms
  • Only Proscuitto Toscano is finished with black pepper covering the skinned parts. Originally to deter flies, it is now a clear mark of distinction

After 1 year, the hams are tested using a traditional method, piercing the ham in 4 positions with a horse femur spike and smelling, to assess if the ham is good, ready and appropriate for the DOP. Near the bone is important as spoilage problems are most likely to be found there.

Once tested, the hams are branded with the Proscuitto Toscano mark and the producer’s number. Each ham is also marked with where the pig was born and where it was slaughtered.

We then looked at the slicing process. For someone used to a fair standard of hygiene and quality assurance processes in the bottling of wine, this was a whole different level. Cipressa have what they refer to as a ‘white room’ in which the ham is sliced and packed. This is sealed off from the rest of the factory, with ultra-high hygiene standards.

Cipressa white room

The white room at Cipressa could be mistaken for a surgical theatre

These QA processes include workers in hygienic outfits not dissimilar to a surgery, with disposable clothes changed on exit, a clean-down of all equipment every 2 hours and at the beginning and end of every shift, all knives used are changed frequently during the day, with different knifes kept separate for different procedures. And staff roles are separated, down to different colour clothing and clothing styles. QC involves monitoring by eye, random batch-testing, plus auto-detection of correct weight and metallic foreign objects.

All sliced meats are packed under inert, modified atmospheres (N2 and CO2 mixes).

Interestingly, packets with slices of the narrower leg end-cuts are pulled off the line as they can’t be sold. Despite having the most concentrated, best flavour, they are not long, lightly fat-edged slices, so don’t have the required consumer appeal! A shame, so we had to take some back with us, looking a little like this:

Prosciutto Toscano sliced gambetta

The gambetta (leg) of Prosciutto Toscano, eaten at home (with some Brunello)

 

Rocca delle Macìe, Castellina in Chianti

Rocca delle Macie estate

Rocca delle Macie estate

Next, we visited the Rocca della Macìe winery in the western-central part of Chianti Classico, in the commune of the township of Castellina in Chianti, for a winery visit and tasting. We were introduced to the winery and taken on a brief tour by their brand ambassador / sommelier, Georgeta Perhald.

Sergio Zingarelli joined us, to lead the tasting, along with Commercial & Marketing Director Marco Toti and Thomas Francioni, their Marketing & Comms Manager. Thomas’ background was in agronomy, so he gave a significant amount of technical detail to support the tasting.

Continental Wine & Food is the main UK importer for central and Northern UK, with 3 smaller importers in the South of England, one of whom is specifically to manage the relationship Rocca have with the Spaghetti House restaurant chain. For a sizeable and premium estate, this seemed a surprisingly fragmented approach to the UK, however they had a challenging experience in 2009 with a previous importer, who went bust with some stock.

The estate was bought by movie producer Italo Zingarelli in 1973. He planted the first serious vines in 1974, opposite the Rocca delle Macìe winery, where previously some vines had been planted for domestic consumption by estate workers.

Since then, they have expanded and now have 6 properties covering 600Ha of terrain with 200Ha planted to vines: mainly Sangiovese, alongside Colorino, Canaiolo, Merlot and Syrah. 2 of the 6 estates are in Maremma, comprising 50Ha of the 200Ha of vines, with the other 4 all the in Castellina in Chianti area:

  • Chianti Classico estates: Rocca delle Macìe, Riserva di Fizzano, Tenuta Sant’Alfonso, Tenuta le Tavolelle
  • Maremma estates: CampoMaccione, Casamaria

They produce 3.7-3.8m bottles total, including 2 Anata, 1 Riserva, and 2 Gran Selezione Chianti Classicos, all of which we went on to taste. Beyond those, they have 2 straight Chiantis from bought-in grapes, 2 Maremma estate Vermentinos, and the SanSyr IGT blending Sangiovese and Syrah. They also have 7,000 olive trees, making organic olive oil.

Sergio is the youngest son, who took over from his father after first joining him in winemaking in 1984. He is also currently serving his second, 3-year term as President of the Consorzio Vini.

Fermentation is now in stainless steel. Concrete epoxy 200HL tanks were built in the 1970s and are now used for MLF, as well as to cold-stabilise wines and rack them 5-6 times, before transfer to botti for maturation.

Maturation takes place in old 95-100HL circular Slavonian oak botti, re-shaved every 10 years to strip sediment layers and re-toast, plus more recently, smaller 36HL French oak barrels that can be re-toasted once. Barriques are also used, but Sergio doesn’t like them so much. Botti are used for the Anata, with the smaller French barrels for the Riserva and Gran Seleziones, which also see some barrique maturation.

Botti are cleaned every 6 months, with steam disinfection / sterilisation to complete the process. Total water usage per bottle of wine is 80 bottles for cellar and barrel cleaning alone, so the estate has put in rainwater collection and reservoir storage systems in the winery and vineyards.

All wines are bottled at the Rocca estate and stored in 2 owned warehouses at the Rocca estate and elsewhere before release.

On the day we visited, it was one day before the “Rocca Wine Experience” for their group of international importers. Being 3 days before Vinitaly, this was a convenient moment for the group to get together, to taste the wines and to discuss commercial intentions for the coming year. Rocca also have an equivalent event, RAI, for the c. 100 agents who sell the wines within Italy.

Their style has changed since mid-1990s, as a result of restructuring the vineyard, including replanting the original 1973 vineyard, which had mixed clones causing inhomogeneous ripening. In 1997-8 they replanted with 5 of the clones selected through the Chianti Classico 2000 clonal selection project, which were better adapted to the environment and had smaller bunches, alongside F9 Lamole, CH20, CH21, CH22 1990s selections.

In the early-2000s they had a consultant winemaker who like sur-maturity for roundness, but 9 years ago decided to change the consultant to Lorenzo Landi who is an agronomist first and who focuses on the aromatic profile. They are aiming for aromatic elegance. They are also now avoiding artificial fertilisers, so interplanting fava beans and grasses, varied for the soils – so in clay, more fava for nitrogen fixation and soil breaking, but in sand more wheat and spelt. No herbicides, pesticides etc. are used. Copper and sulfur are used against peronospora (plasmopara viticola) and oïdium (uncinula necator), and sexual confusion methods to control grape berry moths.

Interplanted vines at Rocca

Home vineyard at Rocca delle Macie, showing their interplanting strategy

There are 3 different soils across their 4 Chianti estates. Rocco is more calcareous and more stony. Riserva di Fizzano has less stone and deeper, sandier, warmer soils. Sant’Alfonso has more cool, clay soils. Careful selections of rootstocks and clone for each parcel within each of the vineyards of each estate was made, matching vigour to site.

Sergio was a prime mover in Gran Selezione and believes in it, as they need to have order in the DOCG. However, he feels further rules are likely needed such as excluding international varieties and perhaps making the category 100% Sangiovese, in order for the category to mature into what it should ultimately be at the pinnacle of quality. However, this would likely take a lot of time – it took 18 months just to agree the name, “Gran Selezione” amongst the over 300 members of the consorzio.

 

Wines

Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico range

The range of Chianti Classicos from the Rocca della Macie stable

Rocca delle Macìe Chianti Classico 2016 (15.5 / 20)
95% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot. Just being released. Owned and rented vineyards, as it has a 70,000 case production. Around 1/4 of all production. Around £10 in UK.
A: Mid ruby
N: Relatively muted. Orange peel. Subtle cedar-like notes. Toasty-spicy and nutty notes. Focused red cherry fruit beneath
P: Crisp acidity but ripe red cherry to match. Supple, fine-grained and moderate tannins. Some salinity. Fair length

Rocca delle Macìe Tenuta Sant’Alfonso Single Vineyard Chianti Classico 2016 (16 / 20)
Bought in 1973. Largest estate and crosses into Chianti region around Poggibonsi. Separate vinification and released as a single vineyard since 1985. From 1996 could be made with 100% Sangiovese under the rules, so has been ever since. Being expanded. Just released.
A: Mid ruby with a garnet hint
N: More orange peel and some violets. Some lavender
P: Ripe cherry fruit entry, then some subtle spice and chocolatey, dusty mineral. Medium-full bodied. Orange peel tones through Medium-long finish. Fine, moderately-firm tannins. Floral

Rocca delle Macìe Chianti Classico Riserva 2015 (16.5 / 20)
90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino (since 2015), 5% Cabernet Sauvignon
A: Medium ruby-garnet
N: Cedar oak tones over clay-earth and deep, slightly smoky red and black cherry. Weightier. Lavender herbal tones and a hint of orange peel
P: Orange peel and red cherry. Medium bodied. Fairly firm, very fine tannins. Some graphite minerality through the finish. Elegant yet savoury. Pretty long

Rocca delle Macìe Riserva di Fizzano Single Vineyard Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2015 (17.5+ / 20)
Only able to be released in July. 93% Sangiovese, 7% Colorino.
A: Mid-deep garnet
N: More overt clove oak. Ripe black cherry. Flinty, stony mineral touches. Complex, savoury and inviting. Integrated
P: Powerful, smoky-flinty black cherry. Chalky, fine, firm tannins. Juicy acidity. Spicy, smoky tones through the long finish. Weighty. Long

Rocca delle Macìe Chianti Classico Sergio Zingarelli Gran Selezione 2014 (16.5 / 20)
Small quantity of good quality Sangiovese so decided to make a Gran Selezione. First vintage 2010. Normally 90% Sangiovese, 10% Colorino. Now 100% Sangiovese and new 20-25HL barrels for maturation instead of barriques.
A: Medium garnet, with some brick tones
N: Lighter, moderate density red cherry with some grilled meat tones already emerging. Some cedar spice tones and fresh earth touches
P: Ripe red cherry entry. Spice. Cedar oak and earth. Firm, slightly grainy tannins. Fairly long, but is missing a bit of dimension on the mid-palate. A decently-fine wine, but maybe not Gran Selezione standard?

 

Locanda di Pietracupa, San Donato in Poggio

We then travelled to Pietracupa, for dinner and to stay just down the road at Borgo di Cortefreda, in the heart of the Chianti Classico countryside. At dinner, we were joined by Silvia Fiorentini, who is responsible for PR and comms for the Consorzio Vini.

Silvia pre-selected a range of examples of Anata and Riserva Chianti Classico, including an older 2006 Riserva, from Poggio delle Rose. Encouraged by other members of the group, she picked out some additional wines from the restaurant’s list, including not only a Gran Selezione, but a much older 1994 of the Poggio delle Rose. This generosity on her part allowed us to see clearly the capacity for some Chianti Classico wines to age, because, at 24 years of age, this showed very well and was only starting to decline.

We discussed with her both the challenges of Gran Selezione and of building a stronger position in the UK market. She echoed much of Sergio’s perspective that the Gran Selezione is a work-in-progress, which may result in tighter rules in future. On the UK, and on positioning the region more generally, she recognised the strength of fellow Tuscan region, Brunello di Montalcino and also the challenge of overcoming negative perceptions of Chianti caused by the distinctly average wines of the wider Chianti denomination.

We also touched on the role of tourism and the strength that Tuscany as a whole has in terms of its reputation for gastronomy and for beautiful countryside, scenic villages and wine. In discussion with Martijn also, it seemed to us that here was a true point of differentiation for Chianti Classico, which lies almost in the centre of Tuscany. Why not place it at the heart – the beating heart – of Tuscan gastronomic culture and use the more varied, dramatic scenery of Chianti Classico as the backdrop for building the brand? Tourism clearly plays a role in that.

On that note, we learned about the cycle event, the Gran Fondo del Gallo Nero – the 133km cycle loop around the region – to be held on 30th September. For cycle nuts like Martijn and myself, this would be a very good start to exploring the region’s vineyards!

Interestingly, Chianti Classico are partnering with the CIVC of Champagne, to share insights and information around regional promotion and tourism vs. protection of the regions name and branding.

 

Wines

Chianti Classico wine bottles

The range of dinner Chianti Classicos at Locanda di Pietracupa

Monte Raponi Chianti Classico 2015 (15.5 / 20)
Radda in Chianti. 100% Sangiovese.
A: Mid ruby
N: Ripe red cherry and orange peel. Subtle earth spice and some cedar / dried herb
P: Vibrant acidity. Bright red cherry. Moderately-firm, chalky, slightly sandy tannins. Medium body. A little short

Fontodi Chianti Classico 2015 (16 / 20)
Panzano.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Clove. Fresh earth, dense, rich, nutty tones to fresh and dried forest fruit
P: Crisp acidity. Quite pungent spice, fresh earth, chewy, grainy, firm tannins. Fairly long

Quercia al Poggio Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 (16.5 / 20)
Barberina Val d’Elsa.
A: Pale-medium garnet with a brick rim
N: Torrified oak and oxidative tones. Dried cherry. Some dried tobacco complexity
P: Slightly stewed dried red cherry. Balsamic tinge. Tobacco. Firm, sandy tannins

Fèlsina Berardenga Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia 2011 (17 / 20)
Castelnuovo Berardenga.
A: Deep ruby-black
N: Papery, cheesy oak. Toasted coconut tones. Dark chocolate and fresh tobacco, gentle clove and crushed rock. Deep
P: Crisp acidity. Dense black cherry. Focused and precise. Smoky rock mineral. Spice and cinnamon. Firm, chalky tannins. Long. Heady

Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2012 (16 / 20)
100% Sangiovese, from Antinori’s single estate, a former abbey (“badia”).
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: nutty, almost coconut oak, gentle oak spice, some meaty tones, rich and ripe dark cherry. Dense
P: Brisk acidity. Medium weight. Filigree, elegant, moderate tannins. Medium-long, lightly peppery finish

Castel’in Villa Poggio delle Rose Chianti Classico Riserva 2006 (17.5 / 20)
Castelnuovo Berardenga.
A: Deep Black-garnet
N: Black tea, Bolognese and grilled meat development, nutty oak, dried black and red cherry. Some flint
P: dense, dried black cherry and balsamic. Complex with black tea and subtle spice. Resolving fine tannins, fairly firm through the long finish. Yes!

Castel’in Villa Poggio delle Rose CC Riserva 1994 (17- / 20)
Castelnuovo Berardenga. Very different label from the 2006, which helpfully peeled off without assistance, so now in Book 7!
A: Mid-deep brick-garnet
N: fully-mature, but not old. Hint of mushroom, but mostly old leather and tobacco, truffle, earth and brown spice
P: Black tea, dried black cherry, cinnamon spice and earth, brisk acidity, fairly firm, chalky tannins. Starts to fade in the glass, but plenty there. Medium-long length

 

Day 3: Chianti Classico and prosciutto

Salumificio Toscano Piacenti, San Gimignano

Our morning journey took us west, strictly out of Chianti Classico, to the hilltop, tower-dominated village of San Gimignano – famous for its Vernaccia di San Gimignano wine and the saffron that brought the wealth that built all the towers.

But the order of the day was Prosciutto, with a visit to Salumificio Toscano Piacenti. Emore joined us once again, as we went through the creation process for the Prosciutto itself. For good reasons of hygiene, to reduce contamination of finished cooked meat with bacteria from fresh, we did the entire production process in reverse.

That meant we began with the new, slicing plant, then crossed the road to the production facility and went from final curing to meat receipt. Since that was quite confusing to understand, the below notes are ordered from start-to-finish of the process, rather than visit order!

Piacenti is one of the larger producers in the Consorzio, with origins in 1959. They make Prosciutto for slicing, whole hams and other meat products, including Finocchiona IGP using wild fennel seeds. This was the first inkling that these guys were serious about quality: the wild fennel took 3 years to find and select; it is very aromatic and small, from prize-winning eco-producers in Basilicata that Lorenzo, the production and quality manager stumbled upon – and they pay 15 times average market price for fennel seeds! It fetches €7-9 / kg at retail, so the cost still works. Also they make their porchetta with honey and saffron from San Gimignano.

Their quality credentials were topped by the fact that, for a long time they were the only firm allowed to export Prosciutto to the US and now only 3 have the stringent FDA certification to do so. They export to EU, US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Australia, amongst other places. They produce around 40,000 Prosciutto hams a year, 18,000 go to the US.

Previously part of the much larger, Parmacotto Group, President Marco Cozoni, led an MBO to run the company. He welcomed us, as well as joined for the final tasting. Though smaller than Parma ham, which is better known, they feel fortunate because the region of Tuscany itself has brand strength in gourmet food that can help sell the ham – exactly the philosophy that Martijn and I had discussed the previous day with respect to Chianti Classico.

Lorenzo took us through both plants – slicing and the ham production itself. QC is very important in the slicing plant, as achieving the US food safety certification required for export is tougher than any other regime. They have an in-house vet who constantly tests all aspects of production, and production is shut down on any failure.

The firm uses specific-breed, cinta senesi white pigs for hams other than Prosciutto, grazed at no more than 5 pigs / Ha, often in woods, eating acorns, truffles etc, to create specific breed hams and sausage. However, unlike jamón de belotta from Spain, with black-legged pigs only fed on acorns, the pigs for the DOP Prosciutto don’t have as specific requirements for feeds.

Only rear legs are used for DOP Prosciutto, with shoulders and other parts going into other products.

Once received, the fresh legs are salted heavily then rest for 1 week, before being brushed off and salted again. A second, 2-week rest and brush off, and they are ready to move to cold hanging.

Salting Prosciutto Toscano

Salting fresh pig hind legs to start the process at Piacenti

Salting involves their recipe of black pepper, fresh, wild juniper berries, fresh garlic, clove, nutmeg and secret ingredients, giving the grey-green tone to the colour of the salt above. They used to use dried juniper berries from Serbia and Montenegro, but needed 10 times the volume to get the same intensity of juniper, so got a license to harvest protected, wild, fresh, Tuscan berries.

The hams hang in cold storage for around 100 days. After 4 months, they are washed and prepared for maturation.

During the first 1 week of drying after washing, drying is warm, at over 24°C to ensure correct colour, flavour etc fixing as a result of by zinc-porphyrin ring physico-chemical stabilisation.

Prosciutto Toscano drying

Main stage of drying, with the muscle fully-exposed for up to 6 months

Stage 2 of drying, taking the total time to 6 months involves exposing the whole meat area of the ham, including V-cut down the leg. After 26.5% total weight loss, the ham is ready for the final drying step. Humidity control makes the drying process steady and soft.

Final drying lasts around 6 months, but in all steps, the hams move drying rooms on weight loss alone. In this step, the muscle area is greased to stop water loss, except the V-cut line is left exposed, meaning the lower leg is the area that mainly dries out in the final stage. 32-36% total weight loss will have taken place across entire process.

Gambetta drying of Prosciutto Toscano

The final stage leaves just the edge of the V-cut exposed to dry the leg (gambetta)

The V-cut is important not just to dry the ham for preservation, but to ensure that the bottom of the leg – the gambetta – dries at all. The first 6 months’ drying covers the whole leg, with the main part of the meat exposed, while the second 6 months is primarily the gambetta portion that dries, through greasing of the main part of meat, but leaving a V-shape at the edge exposed.

The hams are then branded and certified for the DOP once they reach at least 12 months of age. The rejection rate of their hams at this stage is 0.09% rejection rate, better than 6-Sigma quality standards.

To finish the ham, Piacenti use a large grain, strong-flavoured, but not too pungent black pepper, coriander seed and other spices in their final covering of the whole V-cut muscle area.

A de-boned DOP Prosciutto will sell for €13 / kg wholesale and €20-25 / kg retail for a whole leg, unsliced.

For slicing, Piacenti also use a clean room. This too is sealed, with ultra-fitration allowing a maximum 1,000 particles per sq ft of dirt. Higher internal air pressure also reduces particle ingress. Temperature and humidity control stop condensation of water forming on the cooler-temperature slices. Packing is under mixed N2 / CO2 atmospheres, with the mix depending on the product. For example, salamis have more lactobacilli, which detect CO2 and modify their fermentation rate; thus, using different amounts of CO2 suppresses their fermentation and prolongs shelf-life.

They have an additional, separate clean room with appropriate kit to permits manual slicing of Prosciutto with the bone in, lengthways, in the traditional manner. Most sliced Prosciuttos use pre-boned, compressed hams, sliced into full-width pieces.

We then tasted 4 principal categories of ham that the factory makes, including machine and manually-sliced DOP Prosciutto Toscano. The latter, surprisingly, seemed to have more depth of flavour.

 

Hams

Piacenti ham and Prosciutto Toscano tasting

Tasting Piacenti’s cured meats: roasted Prosciutto (top left), porchetta (top right), finocchiona (bottom left), Prosciutto Toscano (bottom right)

Toscano Piacenti Prosciutto Arrosti (18 / 20)
P: Rich, deep porky meat. Salty but not too much. Tender, with no graininess. Long

Toscano Piacenti Porchetta (17.5 / 20)
Award-winning for innovation from US Restaurant Association.
P: Richly porky, with a juiciness from the soft fat. Delicately but deeply herbed, with a subtle very long pungent touch of saffron

Toscano Piacenti Finocchiona Toscana IGP (17 / 20)
Around 50% of the pre-sliced Finocchiona market in Italy.
P: Intense, spicy, salty attack. Then delicate overtones of fennel, with some pungent earth tones

Toscano Piacenti Prosciutto Toscano DOP (17.5 / 20)
P: Some chew, but deep, spicy meatiness. Salty mid-palate. Builds intensity. Some creaminess and good length. Not quite such intensity as Jamón Ibérico, but plenty of depth – especially when hand-cut

 

Cinciano, Poggibonsi

Back in Chiantishire, we met Valerio Marconi at Cinciano, in the town of Poggibonsi, at the westernmost edge of central Chianti. Valerio trained as an enologist. He was the production manager from 2010-2015 and is now the Sales Director.

We visited the winery, then tasted the wines over lunch at their excellent osteria (charcuterie, beautiful pork fat and some pate, open beef lasagne, square of roasted pork belly, then excellent, lightly-brûléed, delicately-liquorice-tinged, crème brûlée).

Originally a mediaeval hamlet before becoming a winery, osteria and agriturismo centre, the estate has been owned by the Garre ship-building family from Genova since 1983, but with evidence of the settlement dating back to 1126, when the local bishop moved in.

Cinciano Poggibonsi estate

The 1126 Osteria in the heart of the Cinciano estate

The original Roman road still runs down into the heart of the estate’s complex of buildings. The business of commercial wine and olive oil production dates back to around 1860. The estate required extensive renovation including after a heavy winter frost in 1985 that dropped to -22°C and killed their olive trees. In 2008-9 they planted new vines on 15Ha and replanted some of the vineyards first planted in the 1970s. This planting programme finished in 2013.

Roman road in Cinciano

The old Roman road came into the heart of the Cinciano hamlet

Soils are primarily medium-textured, stony, calcareous, albarese soils, giving minerality. During the replanting, Sangiovese 2000 clones were mostly planted, but Valerio wanted to retain some of the genetic heritage of the older, 1971 vines, so took cuttings to their nursery supplier, and had them graft and prepare rootlings for the vineyard planted last.

The estate has 40Ha of olive trees, 30Ha of natural forest and 24Ha vines. Vines are mainly Sangiovese, with 1Ha Merlot and 2,000m2 Cabernet Sauvignon. A small number of white vines were interplanted in the old vineyards. The white Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianca vines are harvested later, dried and used for Vin Santo.

Only Sangiovese is used for their for Chianti Classicos (with less than 5% of the 1971 vineyard also being planted with Colorino and Malvasia Nera). The international varieties are blended into a super-Tuscan. They make 7 wines in total, including the Vin Santo. Their dry bianco is made from bought and blended wines.

They only make 20 vats, yielding 130,000 bottles. They are imported into the UK by Gastronomica and mostly sold in London.

Vineyard and cellar work is primarily by hand. Manual pruning, leaf-stripping, berry selection and harvest is done. They stop treatments 50-60 days before the expected harvest date, to avoid fungicide transfer to the wine. They are not organic, but use integrated agriculture with minimal spraying, and aim for copper-sulfur only. Their focus is for quality first, rather than certification, and want to be honest about what they do in the vineyard to achieve that. Typical yields are 2.5-3t / Ha from their older vines vs the DOCG limit of 7.5t. Hand-harvest into 20kg boxes is done to deliver unbroken berries to the winery.

For tannin management of Sangiovese, Valerio’s view is to get the harvest date right. This is based on chemical analysis plus tasting – including breaking the seeds – to understand tannin astringency.

Clusters are fully-destemmed, with no whole bunches, and crushed just enough to break the skins. Cellar work is mostly by hand, e.g. doing manual pumpovers, rather than automatically, a s they prefer to incur the higher manual costs in exchange for the closer control.

Their Chianti Classico is aged for 8-12 months in their largest, 5,000L untoasted Slavonian botti, to retain primary character. The Riserva, only from their 1971 vines, is vinified in one tank and then has 18-24 months in 25HL botti. The Gran Selezione comes from vines pre-selected before harvest then matured a few days longer on the vine for rounded tannins, and is aged in their smallest 5-12HL barrels.

Cinciano botti cellar

Valerio showing his passion in Cinciano’s botti cellar

Their barrique and tonneaux cellar has a range of ages of barrel, to deliver for 10-12 months’ ageing of Piedra Forte super-Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are aged separately before blending.

From a sales and marketing perspective, Valerio prefers ProWein for its capacity to deliver business. They do go to Vinitaly, but find it more chaotic, particularly with consumers attending. They have changed strategies to save money, taking samples and pre-arranging meetings for around €1,000 compared with e.g. taking a 1m2 table at the Consorzio’s stand, which costs €5,000 for 4-5 days for the stand alone.

Cinciano is in the western, Poggibonsi region, which Valerio believes has a balance between ripeness, minerality and structure – a little of everything, by comparison with other zones:

  • Castellina in Chianti: higher altitude so more aromatic, less structure and more acidity – elegance
  • Radda in Chianti: more minerality and structure, with lots of length
  • Castelnuovo Berardenga: more fertile soil so ripe, rich, darker but a little shorter

Valerio believes the Consorzio is going in the direction of exploring regional differences, using the 9 different communes as bases for differentiation. Jeff Porter, Beverage Director of Bastianich is leading presentation of these differences, as the new Ambassador for Chianti Classico.

 

Wines

Lunch Chianti Classico wines

Cinciano’s Chianti Classico wines presented at lunch in the 1126 osteria

Cinciano Bianco 2016 (15.5 / 20)
70% Viognier, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Grechetto made wines are bought and blended. Sauvignon Blanc gives acidity and Grechetto gives some salinity. 2017 just bottled but not yet settled and integrated. 13.5%.
A: Pale-medium gold
N: Creamy peach-apricot aromatic entry, with a hint of lime peel. Clean and simple
P: White flower, white peach, bright citrus acidity. Some mid-palate salinity. Fair length. Well made

Cinciano Rosato Gotifredo 2016 (16 / 20)
Sangiovese. Gotifredo was the bishop who arrived in 1126. Saignée is traditional method in Toscana for rosé making, but Valerio used his experience in New Zealand to harvest some Sangiovese before phenolic ripeness, crush and cool to 8-10°C and macerate for 10-12 hours. Once the right pinkness is achieved, they drain the juice from the skins, settle and remove from gross lees. Fermentation is between 12-14°C as a white wine. 6,000 bottle production.
A: Medium salmon, some orange glints
N: Slightly reductive sulfur tang. Flinty, hint of herb emerges over time. Some red cherry
P: Rounded, orange and cherry skin with citrus. Hint of sweetness from 4.5 g/L RS. Crisp acidity. Fair length. Minimal back-palate phenolics

Cinciano Chianti Classico 2015 (16 / 20)
Blending across parcels to get e.g. warm plot ripeness, cool plot acidities etc. €9.50 / bottle local retail. Harvest and fill tanks, then selected yeast fermentation for older vines, with young vines wild-yeast fermentation. 28-30°C fermentation to drive extraction, but avoid exceeding 30°C to avoid stressing the yeast. 7-10-day fermentation to dryness. Young vines, separate from skins quickly, but older vines, choose to macerate under CO2 in a cuve-close to allow yeasts to autolyse – up to 14 days.
A: Medium ruby with some purple glints
N: Perfumed red cherry. Some violets. Some almost toasty brown spice. Dried herb touches. Clay-earth mineral savouriness, then fresh leather and bitter almond traditional winemaking emerges
P: Dense red and black cherry fruit. Plenty of fruit-weight. With some vivacity of brisk acidity. Medium to firm, peppery tannins that are well integrated. Medium to long

Cinciano Chianti Classico Riserva 2013 (16.5 / 20)
Single, oldest vineyard, planted in 1971, with a line of clay through the vineyard that gives more power. Less than 5% of the interplanted vines are Colorino, Malvasia Nera and others, so technically a field-blend, but more than 95% Sangiovese. Normally mid-to-late October harvest as a later maturing plot. Sometimes pre-ferment cold-macerate for colour extraction, cooling from 26-28°C to 13-15°C. This temperature is cool enough to stop fermentation. Reductive winemaking in fermentation, so pumpover without air / oxygen, to avoid anthocyanin oxidation. Only once tannin extraction has happened halfway through fermentation, introduce oxygen to deliver tannin-anthocyanin-oxygen combination to stabilise. Can post-ferment macerate for up to 30 days. €16 / bottle at cellar shop. 6,000 bottles. Intended to express the savoury, not-fruity style of Sangiovese as distinct from fruitiness of Chianti Classico. None made in 2014, as the best fruit went to the Gran Selezione. 14% ABV.
A: Deep ruby
N: Chocolate entry. Smoky tobacco. Brooding. Hint of fresh leather. Some violets. Blackberry and black cherry. Deep and distinctive. Smoky-flinty
P: Black cherry, sweet-sour entry. Dense. Heady alcohol through the mid-palate. Dark chocolate, chilli spice, ripe, peppery medium-firm tannins. Fairly long. Appetising

Cinciano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2013 (17 / 20)
Select best from 8 Sangiovese vineyards (in reality, from the best 3-4). Leave best-looking bunches on the vines during main harvest for additional maturation. Not normally from 1971 vineyard, but in 2014 did use best Riserva grapes to make Gran Selezione. 6,000 bottles. €21 / bottle at the cellar shop. 14.5% ABV.
A: Medium-deep ruby
N: Rich chocolate and old leather maturity. Gentle, elegant flavour integration, with some cinnamon hints, some tobacco tones. Gravel minerality. Dried black cherry beneath
P: Rich, fruit-sweet black cherry entry. Dense. Spice. Some tobacco and leather hints to mid-palate spiciness. Firm, very fine, peppery tannins. Long, with a touch of warmth

Cinciano Pietra Forte IGT Toscana 2012 (17 / 20)
80% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Barrique-aged. Could be Chianti Classico, but the flavour is not right for Chianti Classico. Sangiovese in oldest barriques and the Merlot and Cabernet in the newest barriques. Around 25-33% new oak. 3,000 bottles and €25 / bottle at the cellar shop. 13.5% ABV.
A: Deep ruby with garnet glints
N: Cassis and black cherry, gentle cinnamon toast, some plump black fruit. Spice
P: Juicy Sangiovese acidity. Plenty of sour cherry and cassis fruit, then cinnamon, dried herb and fresh tobacco. Subtly spiced. Fairly firm, fine tannins. Long

Cinciano Vin Santo di Chianti Classico 2009 (16.5 / 20)
Aiming for between dry and sweet wine, good for desserts and also pasticceria from the local area. Dried till the beginning of December. Crush into paste, into barrels. Fermented in small chestnut 90-100L barrels and old barriques. Leave with a bubble cap for first 2 months, then close and leave for minimum 4 years. Trebbiano Toscana and Malvasia Blanca. 16.5% ABV. Bottled 2016. 1,000 half-bottles maximum. 70-80 g/L RS. €19.50 / 37.5cl.
A: Pale-medium amber
N: Old beeswax, chestnut, hazelnut and old leather, with some dried apricot. Some cheese
P: Dry style for Vin Santo – medium sweetness. Crisp acidity. Finishes dry. Nutty and dried stone fruit, with toasty wood touches. Warming alcohol finish. Needs hard cheese

 

Castello di Monsanto, Barberino Val d’Elsa

Still on the west side, we moved on to winery Castello di Monsanto, in the commune of Barberino Val d’Elsa, and met Veronica Lagi, their Commercial Director. We also met their excellent winery dog, Uva (“grape”):

Uva winery dog

Uva, Monsanto’s excellent winery dog

The estate has been owned by the Bianchi family since 1961 when the grandfather bought the estate. Father Fabrizzio was given it as a wedding present in 1964 and daughter Laura is now taking over running the estate. It has 220Ha in total, with 72Ha under vine, of which just over 50Ha are in Chianti Classico; the rest are in Chianti Colli Senesi (labelled as Chianti for simplicity).

Much investment was made in the 1960s and 1970s. Sangiovese is the primary variety, with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon also planted to make IGT single varietal wines, plus some Canaiolo and Colorino. Only estate grapes are used. Andrea Giovannini is the winemaker, ex-Ornellaia.

All land under 300m altitude was under the sea in prehistoric times, as can be seen from the large cretaceous fossilised shells that are found only below that altitude.

Monsanto mollusc fossils

In the entrance to Monsanto is this display of large fossilised mollusc shells typical of the region’s soils

Much of the soils are clay-heavy galestro stony soils, with small stones at the surface and much larger below. Some are galestro schisto, with limestone and schist strata. The rest are compressed sand Tufo soils. Galestro gives structure and minerality, with perfumed elegance from Tufo.

Fermentation is in stainless steel, temperature-controlled, cuve-close, tanks, including conical vats introduced in the 1990s. Convection circulation reduces the need for pumpovers. Wild yeast fermentation takes place for all the wines except for Chardonnay.

They are aiming for less heavy extraction on Sangiovese, to moderate tannins, so use the conical tanks and déléstage / rack and return. They also place chains in the middle of each vat to catch and break the cap fully during déléstage. In mid-fermentation, déléstage is 3 times a day, followed by just cap-wetting in later stages. Average fermentation temperature is 28°C.

Newly-made, Gamba, oval 38HL botti are used to age young wines and the Chianti Classico. For higher-level wines, smaller barrels are used, but since early-2000s they have moved toward larger tonneaux, especially for Sangiovese. Riserva is the largest production of the estate, unusually, and this and the Cabernet are small-oak aged.

Conical fermentation vats

Monsanto’s vinification area packs plenty of modern punch

10% of the top, single vineyard expressions and their Nemo Cabernet Sauvignon are held back for library releases, for example at 10 years of age. They are recorked every 35 years and topped-up with the same vintage from other bottles.

80% is exported, with US the main market, then Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Japan. Canada has varied over the last 30 years. They are in Hong Kong and in 5 years have changed importers twice in China, first to access Beijing and Shanghai, then in Shenzen. They are not currently imported into UK, but have a consultant to find a new importer. In the past they were brought in by The Sampler and do sell some intermittently via Bordeaux Index – mostly requests for older vintages.

 

Wines

Castello di Monsanto Chardonnay Collezione IGT Toscana 2016 (16.5 / 20)
Only white wine on the estate, from two 1976 and 1985 vineyards. 1/3 aged in new French tonneaux for 6 months – much reduced in recent years, then held in bottle for a year pre-release. 14% ABV. Only label sold more in Italy than exported, with most sold in Tuscany.
A: Mid lemon-gold
N: Ripe, floral yellow melon and white peach. Subtle nutty, mealy oak. Some oyster shell and subtle dusty mineral. Rich
P: Saline entry with some crushed rock minerality. Lots of saline interest, but the rich, ripe melon fruit is unusual with the minerality and salinity. Medium-long, nutty oak and spicy finish

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico 2015 (15.5 / 20)
90% Sangiovese with 10% Canaiolo and Colorino is the standard ‘house’ blend across all Chianti Classico. Just released. Aim to hold vintages back as long as possible, including Anata, as they believe the wines have the tannic structure and acidity for longevity.
A: Mid ruby-purple
N: Crunchy red fruit – cranberry and red cherry. Smoky, clay-earth minerality, old leather and bloody notes
P: Brisk acidity. Ripe, perfumed red cherry. Crushed rock. Spice. Fairly firm, slightly grainy tannins, but which are resolving. Warming. Medium-long

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva 2014 (15.5 / 20)
Yellow label. Multi-vineyard blend. Each vineyard harvested separately, then after the early part of oak maturation, barrels are sampled and evaluated blind. 25% new French oak maturation. 30% reduction in volume due to stringent selection in the tough vintage.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Nutty oak, fresh earth, chilli and black pepper spice. Meaty tones. Crushed rock
P: Red cherry. Spice. Crushed rock. Some espresso bitterness to the finish which dances with unripe astringency. Some ripeness issues? Medium-long

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio 2013 (16.5+ / 20)
Single vineyard, original old vineyard. Top of the rounded ‘poggio’ hill. 320m altitude is the highest part of the estate. Only galestro soil.
A: Medium-deep garnet, with a narrow brick rim
N: Hazelnut and cedar oak tones. Rocky, smoky minerality. Dried rosemary herb. Savoury. Dried red and black cherry
P: Juicy sweet-savoury, sour red cherry. Very Sangiovese. Brisk acidity. Firm, chewy tannins. Some chalky oak tannins. Nutty character. Herbal complexity and plenty of rocky minerality. Some sawdust oak on the finish. Long.  Needs time

Castello di Monsanto Nemo IGT Toscana 2012 (16 / 20)
Nemo is Latin for no one, derived from “no one is a prophet in his own country”. Cabernet Sauvignon from Il Molino vineyard. Vineyard just uprooted and being left fallow, for replanting in the next couple of years. Around 12,000 bottles. Mostly new French barrique ageing.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Herbal pyrazine – a fair chunk of capsicum, with a grilled character a bit like some South African Cabernet. Lean. Red berry fruit. Vanilla and clove oak tones. The greenness harmonises in the glass though, to yield more tobacco character
P: Clove, spice, lean cassis. Firm, chalky tannins – mouthcoating. A touch of pyrazine through the mid-palate, but attractive. Some salinity. Fairly elegant. Long

 

Finally, we drove South-west, right out of Chianti Classico, past Montalcino, to Grosseto the main town of the Maremma, staying in the beautiful Grand Hotel Bastiani there. This is sited immediately inside the old city walls, dating from the 16th century, that encompass the heart of the town in a hexagon with diamond bastions at each point of the hexagon, reflecting the defensive military science of the time.

Grosseto square

The main square of Grosseto in the luminous blue of early evening gloaming

Over dinner, with another of the Directors of the Pecorino Consorzio, Andrea Righini (and once more accompanied by Marco to translate), we tried a range of wines with some emphasis on the Maremma. The aged Morellino was just old – even the fresher bottle – suggesting a style better suited to younger-maturing wines? But the two Montecucco wines – my first that I can recall – were very enjoyable, particularly the 2010 of volcanic origin.

Andrea also explained more clearly the differences between Pecorino Toscano and Pecorino Sardo. Only calf or vegetable rennet can be used in Toscano vs ewe and goat also permitted in Sardo. More importantly, Sardo can be salted for up to 40 days in Sardo, yielding 4-5% saltiness, vs 1 day and 1-1.5% in Toscana. Certainly, the 1 year old Pecorino Sardo we had been served in Locanda di Pietracupa the previous evening had been notably saltier and drier, and came across older and more powerful than the Pecorino Toscanos we tasted.

 

Wines

Banfi Tener Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay Spumante Brut Alta Langha NV (13.5 / 20)
Charmat method.
A: Pale lemon, brisk bubbles
N: Simple, cool-ferment green fruit with some nuttiness
P: Somewhat sweet entry. Loose mousse. Grapefruit. Moderate length

Castellare di Castellina Chianti Classico 2014 (14 / 20)
A: Pale-medium garnet
N: Developed, with some aldehyde tones. Both bottles relatively developed. Dried cherry and pot pourri. Lightweight
P: Brisk acidity. Dried red cherry. Light spice. Light tannins. Pot pourri. Short

Castellaccia Morellino di Scansano Riserva 2011 (15- / 20)
A: Mid-deep garnet with a bricking rim
N: Some VA, Bolognese, old leather. Fully mature
P: Old leather, flat
2nd bottle was brighter with less VA, but still with very mature character.

Amiata Montecucco Sangiovese Lavico DOC 2010 (16.5+ / 20)
Old volcano at 400-450m altitude. 18 months in large oak botti.
A: Mid Deep garnet
N: Vibrant black and red cherry. Subtle clove and dried herb. Rich and ripe. Nutty oak. Some crushed rock
P: Ripe black cherry. Chilli and clove spice. Fairly firm, slightly furry tannins. Warming. Medium-long

Poggio Velluto Montecucco Sangiovese DOC 2009 (16 / 20)
Appears to be no additives in winemaking and therefore no added sulfur.
A: Mid-Deep garnet; brick rim
N: Touch of VA, broad, cooked cherry, some coconut and vanilla. Some meatiness
P: Sweet cherry entry then vanilla-cinnamon oak. Baked fruit. Brisk acidity. Moderate, ripe tannins. Supple. Good, toasty length. Noticeably sweeter than the Amiata Lavico

Antinori Muffato delle Sala 2014 (15.5 / 20)
Blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto, Sémillon, Gewürztraminer and Riesling.
C: Pale gold
N: Spice from Gewürztraminer and botrytis. Exotic fruit and mandarin
P: Sweet but vibrant acidity to balance. Some stone fruit and preserved grapefruit. Moderate length

La Madonna Passito IGT Toscana 2014 (14 / 20)
100% Merlot. Made by Russian Konstantin Tuvykin.
A: Deep garnet
N: Dried, smoky black cherry and plum
P: Bitter, smoky, dried black cherry. Alcoholic. Sweet, but not overly so. Fairly firm tannins come through the finish

 

Day 4: Pecorino and Pisa

Caseificio Sociale Manciano, Manciano

In the commune of Roccalbegna, in the Grosseto region, our final visit was back to cheese, at this co-operative cheese-makers, with 220 farmer-members. Andrea, who manages the facility, and Marco conducted the visit.

Rather than go through the process a second time, I would simply highlight the differences with Busti, visited on day 1. Process-wise, Manciano was bigger, with more of a production line setup in terms of layout, the key difference being the salting method, discussed below.

Pecorino Toscano production line

The cheese production line at Manciano co-op

Further, staff looked as though they were engaged in a factory process, rather than artisanal creation. Finally, the buildings and facilities looked dated and tatty, with crusts and rust. The co-op was founded in 1961 and many of the buildings looked like they were built then. The salting room especially reflected that:

Manciano Pecorino Toscano brine bath

The brining room with 18% salt brine bath

Here, rather than hand, dry-salting, Manciano use brine-bath salting. During 1 day, in the 1m deep brine channel shown, the cheeses circulate in an 18% solution of brine. Taste-wise, this gave a depth of salinity that really emerged through the finish and aftertaste, especially on the Stagionato DOP Pecorino.

The Stagionato PDO Pecorino is aged exactly 1 year before stamp certifying. They also, interestingly, make Halal cheese with Halal-certified rennet, primarily for the Italian market, and some vegetable rennet cheeses for the Jewish market. Halal is 5% of production and organic cheeses, 10%.

 

Cheeses 

Manciano Pecorino DOP (15 / 20)
Soft, creamy, gently sweet, with a mature aftertaste and subtle salinity; easy (15 / 20)

Pecorino DOP without cholesterol (15.5 / 20)
Drier, pastier texture than the regular, but some deeper flavour with a touch of nuttiness to the cream

Pecorino Stagionato DOP (16 / 20)
12 months minimum age.
Crumbly, dry, with nutty almond, some finish salinity and a touch of old cream

 

Wines

Cantina di Pitigliano Bianco di Pitigliano DOC Ildebrand 2016 (14.5 / 20)
50-80% Trebbiano Toscano, with many others permitted, including Greco, Malvasia Bianca, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. 13.5% ABV.
A: Mid-lemon
N: Moderate intensity white peach and fresh pear fruit. Bright
P: Full body. Ripe pear, melon fruit. Some warmth. Moderate length

Il Poderone Ciliegiolo Briglia IGT Toscana 2016 (15.5 / 20)
13% ABV.
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Wild black cherry, some herb and bitter almond touches
P: Crisp, bright black cherry, flinty touches and chilli pepper spice. Light-moderate, peppery tannins. Fresh acidity. Moderate length

 

A final bite to eat with these cheeses, then a trip back to Pisa. We snatched a half-hour – and a few welcome rays of sunshine – in the centre of town for the standard photoshoot…

Leaning Tower of Pisa

The next time you hear an adult ask “so why do they call it the Leaning Tower of Pisa?”, you’ll know…

…then to Pisa Airport and a bid farewell to the beautiful (if grey, rainy and cool) Toscana, and a return to grey, rainy and cool London.

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