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A Love Affair with Chianti Classico: Sebastian Payne MW

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Sebastian Payne MW Sebastian Payne MW / 07 July 2020
Minuccio Cappelli and Sebastian Payne MW
Minuccio Cappelli and Sebastian Payne MW

Panzano, the small hill town at the heart of Chianti Classico, has a special attraction for me, because it was where I first met real chianti. The estate, whose wines had stood out from a comparative tasting at Vinitaly, the annual Verona wine fair, was MONTAGLIARI. So, John McLusky and I decided to visit the owner, Minuccio Cappelli.

We discovered a large, beaming, affable man, Tuscan to the core. His family had owned the property since 1730, though they had to abandon the house in World War Two, first to the Germans, then to the allies, while young Minuccio camped in the woods. Minuccio's father, who died in 1965, was a founder member of Gallo Nero, the Classico consorzio. He cried when Ricasoli left and and divisions arose.

Minuccio was steeped in the land and its traditions. With a rare library of older vintages, such as probably only two other Chianti properties could match, and a Vinsanteria of some 650 small casks (caratelli) of Vin Santo aged in different woods, he made his Chiantis to the traditional recipe set by Bettino Ricasoli in the mid nineteenth century; 80 to 85% sangiovese, 5-10% canaiolo and 10% malvasia and trebbiano.

To add richness to his Chianti, Cappelli used the traditional governo system, re-fermenting the wine with dried grapes. More commercial outfits, like Rocca della Macie, were using concentrated must which left their wines with a sweeter but stewed taste. Much high-yielding sangiovese had been planted throughout the region after World War Two, producing pale and tannic wine; and another solution to boost colour and body was to blend sangiovese with international grapes like merlot and cabernet. This was allowed up to 10% by law in 1984 and up to 20% in 2000, but was eschewed by Montagliari, because it alters the character of the wine noticeably. Leading up to 2000, a great deal of work had gone into producing higher quality clones of sangiovese with lower yields and better flavour, so many of the finest Chianti Classicos are now 100% sangiovese, only allowed since 1996. 100% sangiovese wines made before this date, like Flaccianello and Cepparello, were labelled only Vini da Tavola for this reason.

Another attraction in Panzano was Minuccio's trattoria, next to his house. Here Rosa (lunch time) and Anna (evenings) presided over the kitchen, which you could walk through to inspect the dishes on your way to the table. Everything was locally produced. Tagliatelli with hare sauce, woodcock, ravioli with walnut sauce, rigatoni with porcini, arrosto di porco … the chickens were delivered by a local prince. Minuccio was very proud to receive Prince Charles when he visited on holiday.

Alas, when he sold the trattoria in his seventies, standards dropped sadly. Winemaking was Minuccio's love. He made money from his real-estate business in Florence, selling properties to Americans and other foreigners. John Matta bought Vicchiomaggio through him. We loved his simple fresh Chianti Classico, La Quercia, which we bought at a very keen price for our first Society Chianti Classico. It was a wine that charmed and left the head clear at any time of day, including late breakfast! Montagliari Riserva was a delight, with haunting bouquet and palate. The 1962 was still a joy in 1985.

Through Minuccio we met his neighbour, another Tuscan, Dino Manetti, who had bought the Fontodi estate on the other, southern, side of the town. They used to hunt and dine together. Dino was a remarkable man with a flourishing terracotta business providing tiles for the Uffizi and Pitti palaces, amongst others. He had the vision to stand back from his business to allow his two young sons to take over. Marco ran the terracotta business. Giovanni, who was 22 when I first met him in 1985, was responsible for the Fontodi winery, with guidance from his father and respected consultant, Franco Barnabei.

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi in Chianti
Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi in Chianti

Thirty five years later, Giovanni has made Fontodi one of the most sought-after labels in Chianti Classico, rebuilding the vineyard from less than 20 hectares to 70 hectares, cultivating organically, and remarkably persuading 30 out of 31 of his Panzano neighbours to do the same. Recently elected President of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, his aim is to raise the standards of wine produced in the Classico region, and eventually to focus on the different production zones. No mean task in a region with over 500 members of the Consorzio, some very small, and some 350 bottlers – two of the biggest of whom go for low price rather than quality; but 37% of Classico production is now Riserva or Gran Selezione, the best that growers can make. Within the hilly regions of Chianti Classico's 7,300 hectares, there are a thousand subtle shadings of soil, micro-climates and altitudes, planting densities, training systems and grape mixes. But the best sangiovese sites in each production zone do produce results with different characteristics. Franco Bernabei found Panzano sangiovese evocative of autumn leaves, violets and porcini; in Castellina, hints of mulberry and cherry; in Castelnuovo Berardenga, the southernmost and warmest zone, full-bodied wines with notes of tobacco.

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi with Sebastian Payne MW
Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi with Sebastian Payne MW

A good comparison you can try for yourself would be to taste Frascole, from the northernmost vineyard in the cooler Rufina valley, Chianti Classico's only rival for quality, known for its perfumed wines; The Society's Exhibition Chianti Classico from Poggiopiano in San Casciano in the north west of Chianti Classico, made very much on the fruit; and La Leccia from further south in Castellina, which shows darker black fruit flavours. Filetta di Lamole from a vineyard high up above Panzano, or Riecine in the eastern part of the Gaiole zone are distinguished by their perfume. Isole e Olena, in the far west in Barberino Val d'Elsa, is also famed for its fragrant fruit but an individual style.

Getting to grips with the key communes of Chianti Classico
Getting to grips with the key communes of Chianti Classico

Today's top sangiovese Chiantis are the result of enormous improvements in using better clones. Fontodi uses over twenty different ones, some selected from their best vines by massal selection. Paolo de Marchi at Isole e Olena has cultivated one of the finest sangiovese clones on his estate and it is named after him. Fonterutoli makes a fantastic sangiovese from thirty six different clones, called simply Mix 36.

Paolo de Marchi, thirty years ago, among the vines he takes such care of.
Paolo de Marchi, thirty years ago, among the vines he takes such care of

Tuscan Grapes

Sangiovese

A very complex multi-faceted grape on the up. Journalist Victoria Moore's description of it is the best I know: 'Like so many red Italian grapes, sangiovese has a tang of cherries and refreshing acidity. It can also have hints of dried herbs, tea and, as it ages, a scent of mushrooms, autumn leaves, church incense, leather, earth and dust.'

In Montalcino which is much warmer than Chianti Classico, sangiovese is called brunello. Brunello di Montalcino should be pure sangiovese. On the Tuscan coast, near Scansano, it is called morellino, more evocative of damsons, cherry and leather. In Montepulciano it is called prugnolo and tends to produce chunkier firm-flavoured wines.

With climate change and hotter summers, sangiovese on good sites no longer has a problem ripening and local canaiolo grapes, long considered part of a Chianti Classico blend, help to add add softness and fragrance.

Canaiolo

Canaiolo played a necessary, if secondary role in Ricasoli's Chianti Classico recipe, being fragrant, lighter but gentler, and many of us feel that it was a great mistake to replace it in the blend by merlot and cabernet which seriously alter the style of Chianti. It is seldom bottled on its own but many growers are now appreciating its role. Alberto Antonini makes full use of it in his wine at his estate, Poggiotondo.

The canaiolo grape was traditionally used in the blending of Chianti Classico wines
The canaiolo grape was traditionally used in the blending of Chianti Classico wines
Colorino

As the name implies colorino in its different forms was used to add colour to chronically light-hued sangiovese. The best examples have distinctive character; full, structured, with flavours of dark berries, liquorice and blackberry jam and hints of menthol and herbs. Poggiopiano's Rosso di Sera uses it extremely well.

Minuccio Cappelli
Minuccio Cappelli
Vin Santo

Montagliari's vin Santeria of 650 caratelli (1,200 hectolitres) was an exceptional collection. Cappelli left the barrels sealed for a minimum of seven years before broaching the wine, never knowing in advance whether the resulting wine would turn out dry, off-dry or sweet, or no good. He preferred it dry or off-dry and sold his sweet barrels to a producer in Montepulciano, who became famous for his Vin Santo. Montagliari's best – I remember the 1948 – were a revelation with mature Parmigiano cheese or almond biscuits. These days, sweet Vin Santo is expected, though each producer makes it differently though in a more controlled way. Fontodi uses only sangiovese; Isole e Olena, which makes the finest I know, uses a mix chiefly of white grapes.

In his later years, Cappelli applied the same principle to ageing his wine vinegar, aceto balsamico, moving it over twelve years into progressively smaller barrels each in diminishing size, made from a series of different woods: cherry, pear, chestnut, oak and juniper. Like vin santo, a labour of love.

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