Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fontodi Winery: Refreshing A Chianti Tradition

Giovanni Manetti, the owner of the Fontodi winery, is a man of conviction, desirous of reconnecting with an old Chianti tradition, and he is surrounded in the Panzano region by many people with similar beliefs. The Panzano region is a model in some respects for other wine regions, a story of cooperation, a story of principles, a story of connecting with nature.

Though Giovanni was dressed as a businessman, it seemed clear he was very much home in the vineyards, even walking through the Chianina cow enclosure with us to give us a closer look at those fine creatures. His passion and good humor were evident and it was a pleasure to spend time with him. Giovanni was also quite excited as Fontodi had just won an Oscar del Vino for Best Winery of the Year 2012, awarded by the Italian Association of Sommeliers.

Giovanni's family was once in the terracotte tile business and Giovanni's father was passionate about wine. In 1968, his father purchased the Fontodi estate, having known the previous owner. The estate is located in what is known as the Conca d'Oro ("Golden Bowl"), because the area's shape resembles an amphitheater. The Manetti family residence is situated in the middle of the estate, and Giovanni loves to walk through the vineyards.

The estate extends over 130 hectares of which 80 are planted with vineyards, and over 95% of those vineyards are planted with Sangiovese. That works well as most of their soil is galestro, considered the best soil for Sangiovese. Besides a little Cabernet Sauvignon, the vineyards also have a little Pinot Noir and Syrah, both planted in 1985, and the winery produces about four to five thousand cases of those wines. In fact, Fontodi may be one of the last vineyards in this region with any Pinot Noir. As for the Syrah, it was planted at the same time as Paolo di Marchi of Isole e Olena planted Syrah in his own vineyard. They did so though separately, without discussing it.

The estate also includes about 25 hectares of olive trees, from which they produce an extra virgin olive oil, a blend of Correggilo and Moraiolo olives. The overall estate has an average altitude of 450 meters, while most of the vineyards have a southern exposure, providing lots of sun during the day and cool nights, perfect growing weather.

As a winery owner, Giovanni believes it is a "moral duty to do our best, to maximize the potential." As such, Giovanni wanted to reinstate a Chianti tradition, to create a closed system Tuscan farm. The estate has possessed vineyards for many years and practiced what many would consider "biodynamic" practices before Steiner's agricultural lectures of 1924 detailed the practices. Fontodi is now a certified organic estate, inspired by a concern for nature and sustainability, seeking a better expression of terroir.

They also perform many biodynamic practices, though they do not use any of the preparations so they will never be certified as biodynamic. The phases of the moon are very important to Giovanni and certain vineyard and cellar practices are guided by those moon phases. For example, they feel that the moon's elliptical orbit changes gravity and thus affects liquids so the descending moon is considered best for removing sediment and bottling. On the other hand, the ascending moon is considered best for replanting vineyards.

Cover crops are grown in the vineyard, with barley situated in every other row of grape vines (as pictured above). The barley, harvested in July, is used to feed their cows and the barley also helps by absorbing excess nitrogen, which leads to smaller grape berries with thicker skin. I have previously discussed the Chianina cows that Giovanni raises on his estate, another element of that closed farm system as well as continuing a practice which had been done by his father.

Giovanni also stated that the winery had not seen an overall increase in expenses because they went organic, as though they needed more labor, they saved money from not needing to purchase products such as pesticides. He admits that organic will not work everywhere, but that those areas where it can be done are quality regions. Giovanni also feels that it is easy to make good wine anywhere if you use chemicals. In the Chianti Classico region, you will find very few biodynamic producers and only a small portion, maybe 20%, of organic producers. But that may be changing.

There are about twenty wineries in the Panzano region and about 80% are now either organic or biodynamic, and even the few holdouts are moving in that direction. Only ten years ago, that was not the case as only 4-5 of those wineries were organic/biodynamic. The Panzano wineries don't really view themselves as competitors, as they generally share a similar philosophy and strategy. That has enabled them to create a region that is almost completely organic, and within five years could be 100% organic. They share convictions and principles, which have enabled them to work together for this greater objective. Other wine regions should look to Panzano as a shining example of cooperation.

To Giovanni, a "bottle of wine is something to enjoy." That is certain a truism, reducing wine to its most essential aspect. For a wine is nothing if it cannot be enjoyed. I would also add that a bottle of wine is something to be shared as well, and not just enjoyed on one's own. About 50% of Fontodi's production is Chianti Classico, which is 100% Sangiovese, and their best export market is currently North America.

We had lunch with Giovanni at the Osteria Le Panzanelle, a more traditional Tuscan restaurant which also uses many seasonal ingredients. During lunch, we tasted through a few Fontodi wines as some of their olive oil, which was fresh, clean, and fruity. The food at this restaurant was quite tasty and we shared a number of appetizers before each having our own entree.

A steak tartare, with tender, red beef, that is simply prepared with a little spice, olive oil and lemon. Why do so many U.S. restaurants add so many other ingredients to their tartare?

For my entree, I chose the Tagliatelle con ragu di agnello (a lamb sauce), and it was superb. Fresh pasta, cooked to a firm al dente, with lots of flavorful and well spiced lamb. It was a plentiful dish and a Chianti Classico was an excellent pairing. A hearty Tuscan meal that is sure to satisfy any hunger.

The 2009 Fontodi Chianti Classico, which is 100% Sangiovese, is fermented in stainless steel with indigenous yeasts and spends about 12 months in French oak barrels. It was a bit more modern in style, with sweet red fruits, good acidity, and a bright freshness. An easy-drinking wine for pizza, pasta and burgers.

In comparison, the 2007 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva, Vigna del Sorbo, was more traditional in style despite the fact it is a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is fermented in stainless steel with indigenous yeasts  and spends about 24 months in French oak barrels, about 50% new. The grapes were vinified separately and the wine sees no fining. Giovanni stated that his goal was "power and elegance" and he succeeded in that regard. There was a rustic element to the wine, with flavors of cherries, plum, violets, and a mild spice component. I preferred it to the basic Chianti Classico though both were good companions with our lunch.

Fontodi's top wine is their Flaccianello, a Super Tuscan which they started producing back in 1981. The concept behind this wine was to make the best wine they could from 100% Sangiovese. They use only their best grapes, all hand harvested and double sorted. There is a minimum of 20-30 days of maceration and they use only indigenous yeast with very little sulfur dioxide. The wine also spends a minimum of 18 months in new French oak barrels, and usually two years in the bottle. About 50-60,000 bottles are annually produced. Though it would quality now as Chianti Classico, Fontodi still keeps it as an IGT wine. The prominent cross on the label is a design from the church on the estate which has existed there for centuries.

The 2007 Flaccianello is very dark red in color, almost purple, with a muted aroma of spice and black fruit. On the palate, it is dark and brooding, with plenty of ripe fruit flavors, strong spice, a hint of eucalyptus, fine grain tannins, good acidity and a lengthy finish. It may possess a bit more power than elegance but that will likely balance out with a bit of aging. It is an excellent wine though I would prefer it with more maturity.

What a difference with ten more years of aging! The 1997 Flaccianello, which is from one of the vintages of the century, showed the vast potential of this wine. The color has faded some, and there is a bit of brown, and the aroma is more pronounced, with plenty of subtleties. Though it still possesses some power, the finesse  and elegance is dominant. There were alluring and complex flavors of black fruits, minerality, dark spice and earthiness. Silky tannins and a long and lingering finish, this is a wine to slowly savor over dinner, to relish every fine sip.

The 1982 Flaccianello, which was only its second vintage, was an even lighter red color with much more brown, and a bit of a musty aroma. But with a little time in the glass, the mustiness vanished. It was an interesting wine, that was pure elegance with intriguing flavors of earth, black truffle, licorice, and dried fruit. There was almost a smokiness to it as well. I loved how the Flaccianello evolved over time, and it is evidence of the great potential of Sangiovese.

Chianti Classico is usually made more for commercial purposes, but the production of Vin Santo is often more personal. Giovanni stated that, "Vin Santo is at the heart of Chianti Classico" and that it is first made for the family and then the remainder can be sold off commercially. The 2003 Fontodi Vin Santo is a blend of 50% Sangiovese and 50% Malvasia de Chianti, the grapes which have dried out for 5-6 months. It had a minimum of 7 years of aging and has 300 grams of residual sugar and 12.5% alcohol. This wine had a dark amber color and was rich with a nice melange of apricots, dates, orange peel, dried fruit, and mild spicer. It is sweet but with a good acidity that balances much of it. A great choice for a dessert wine.

1 comment:

Aloisi de Larderel said...

And don't forget that there is a wonderful boutique hotel next to Fontodi: Villa le Barone, www.villalebarone.com. Charm, serenity , and alsoo excellent food. Fontodi wine is also served !