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Super-Duper Chianti

Isole e Olena

“It was hard to declare Cepparello as a table wine,” my father was appalled, but it was 100% Sangiovese so we had no choice and in fact it saved the estate,” says Paolo de Marchi.

Paolo de Marchi is referring to the ‘bad old days’ when it was mandatory to include white grapes (Trebbiano and Malvasia) in Chianti. Today the estate of Isole e Olena is a byword for quality in Classico region and Cepparello is one of best know and loved of its wines, but Paolo describes his start in Chianti as ‘a real adventure.’ 

Back in the 1960s, when the estate was founded by his father, the regional economy in Chianti was based on share cropping, but things were changing fast. “Chianti experienced a social earthquake,” says Paolo de Marchi. Within five years at the estate, 130 people, working the land to feed their families, and keeping half of the crop, diminished to forty employees earning a wage. “It was a turbulent time.”

In the midst of this, the appellation regulations were drawn up. The intention was to improve the quality of the wine and prosperity of the Chianti region, starting with “Chianti Classico’ as the sub-region with the worst problems. Sadly the new wine legislation enshrined some poor practices, including the mandatory use of white wine in red. Added to which many vineyards were planted with inferior clones of Sangiovese. 

“It was a difficult time, but one of great possibilities.. and the door was open to in-comers,” remarks Paolo de Marchi who made his first vintage 1976. He describes his efforts as “lemonade in a sandpaper glass,” which certainly does not sound like a success. “It was all acid and tannin. These are the fingerprint of Sangiovese, but they should not hurt your palate!” It was a first attempt and it had rained through the season, but there was also the pesky inclusion of white wine and the fundamental issue of poor clonal material.

So to kick off, Paolo de Marchi picked the white vines separately and sold off the fruit. In 1987 he grafted some Chardonnay onto Malvasia vines planted in the best vineyard locations for white production including a five hectare vintage at 400m on limestone and marl soil. This became the first wine in his “Collezione Privata” A collection which includes a Syrah and a Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The parcels where Chardonnay thrives are the cooler spots. The vineyards receive the sun late in the day or loose it early, and as such these sites are unsuitable for ripening Sangiovese.  (As a brief  aside on climate change, Paolo strongly believes that combating climate change will not be achieved by opting for cooler sites, but rather by selecting later ripening clones.) 

The Chardonnay is fermented in small barrels, one third new, where it remains on lees for a year. “A Chardonnay for Chianti Classico is now historic,” comments Paolo de Marchi. “There is very little Italian white wine from older vintages. It has a unique story here.” 

In his second year Paolo de Marchi began a lengthy project to address the problem of clonal material with regard to Sangiovese. He began identifying the best vines, walking up and down the rows, tagging those that performed best, and over the years some vines had a plethora of tags, giving him a growing understand of the variety and the vineyards. 

These ‘super’ vines were used to create the highest expression of Chianti at the estate  – Cepparello. 

At the time the famous names in southern Tuscany were busy perfecting their ‘Super Tuscan’ blends; a fashion for blending Sangiovese with non-native varieties which was most often aged in French barrique. This had become popular from the mid Seventies after Tignanello whipped up a storm of interest. 

Paolo di Marchi comments on blending, “It was not our vision, which was to make the best Sangiovese.” Albeit he has made a blend of his own, for he swiftly admits, “When we took out our best Sangiovese for Cepparello, it weakened our Chianti Classico, so we decided to ‘complete’ it with some Syrah. Syrah is earlier ripening and can bring more ‘ripeness’ as well as colour.” This was possible by a change in the regulation in 1984 when Chianti Classico DOCG permitted 10% non-native grapes in the blend.

So the first Syrah was grafted onto Canaiolo vines in 1984 and was included in Isole e Olena’s Chianti Classico together with a little Canaiolo, both helping to boost the main component which is of course Sangiovese. Subsequently Paolo planted a two hectare, high density vineyard of Syrah and began producing a single varietal Syrah. 

This was breaking new ground. Isole e Olena was the first estate  in Itlay to produce a pure Syrah wine. Paolo de Marchi labelled it ‘Hermitage’ in a bid to draw attention and it worked. “I was stealing a name, but I was invited to show it at a big tasting in Hermitage and came 8th or 9th of 800 wines.” The second year the Syrah joined the “Collezione” and was labelled as Syrah. 

And then there was Cabernet. In the Eighties, a powerful lobby pressing for Bordeaux varieties to be included in the appellation emerged, and Paolo de Marchi felt he should become familiar with the varieties. If I understand correctly he made a Cab Sav, Cab Franc and Merlot blend, but the wine that made the Collezione is 95% Cabernet Sauvignon with soupçon of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. What’s it like? Well Paolo says, “Cabernet Sauvignon here is not the the Tuscan coast which is more like Bordeaux.” From my tasting of the Cabernet, I think he might mean it is more subtle.

Not a man to stand still without a project, Paolo de Marchi has plans for Canaiolo. “It would be a pity if this unique variety died out. Caniaolo is a little spicy and has aromatics. It can be difficult. It has big clusters and loose bunches. They are easy to hang and are traditionally eaten at Christmas. Very little work has been done on Canaiolo.” He has selected vines which have berries “that look like blueberries”. In two years he will produce a Canaiolo which will join the Collezione Privata. “Canaiolo is very specific, while Sangiovese is everywhere.” 

But, Sangiovese is the core variety in Chianti and work, from the mid Eighties, has continued across the estate (and the region)  on upgrading the vineyards. Many vines which are now 15 years old have been ripped out and re-planted using superior clonal material. The vines are planted in higher density and I gather that Paolo de Marchi prefers to plants rows across the contour rather than up and down the hill, to help prevent erosion. In Chianti it is most unfortunate that a vine virus (Esca) has infiltrated the vineyards, as it has in so many regions, and consequently the estate aspects to lose around one third of the  new plantings. Hence their 7,000 density plantings will become 5,000 in time.

Going back to those multi-tagged Sangiovese vines, Paolo took cuttings and planted them in one place to monitor how they performed on a level playing field. Subsequently the best were used to replant the estate. 

Cepparello is made from the best sites – sunny south/west slopes at 400-480m on largely galestro, a schistous clay. The vines are 12-54 years old. This is the flagship of the estate. In 2005 it became permissible to make Chianti Classico with 100% Sangiovese but he prefers to hang on to the IGT label. The current vintage is 2018, which I tasted for this blog.

2018 was a challenging vintage. Rain in spring with a very hot summer and rain at the end of August and into September. Rain and Sangiovese don’t really get on. Harvest was largely in September and Paolo comments “I like to harvest in October. After the 21st September the nights are longer then the day, so the light from the sun takes longer to reach its height. You are able to have a longer hang time. 2018 may have a little dilution but it is light and bright. It is high in alcohol, but you can’t do much about that. I think it is well balanced.” 

Actually it’s a hefty 15%. “It is difficult to go against nature, when you want to go with it!” Paolo de Marchi points out that you can’t pick Sangiovese early – “the evolution of acidity and tannin is not at the same pace as the manufacture of sugar.” When he tried topping the vines, the sugar levels dropped, but the malic acidity increased and tannins were green. He has found it more effective to pull off the lateral leaves just before they reach full size. These leaves are powerhouses of photosynthesis, which is fine when the sugar is going into foliage growth, but after they are fully grown the energy is used to ripen the berries. Time for them to go. However this  leaf plucking is a lot of work. It is only used in some vineyards, while he develops a practical system to carry it out throughout the estate. 

And lastly we tried the Selezione. Paolo had hoped that this new appellation – the cherry on the cake for Chianti – would be used to incorporate the ‘Super Tuscans’ into the appellation fold. It didn’t happen and he feels the authorities have missed an opportunity to include all the best wines made in the region. In the event, the rather draconian rules stipulate 100% Sangiovese from a single vineyard or 90% Sangiovese with 10% of local grapes. The 2015 vintage is Paolo’s forth vintage of Selezione and it includes 8% Petit Verdot. 

The range of wine from Isole e Olena estate is not truly traditional, but nor is it ‘Super Tuscan’. Paolo de Marchi has brought together elements of both approaches in his own style of ‘Super-Duper Chianti’.

Isole e Olena ‘Collezione Privata, Chardonnay 2019 

Light citrus aroma, so the rich butteriness and glossy roundness of the palate comes as a surprise. It is richly savoury rather than fruity and has light nutty and biscuit note and a touch of bitter fennel on the finish. There is certainly good freshness and good ‘drive’ on the finish, despite the warm summer and early harvest. This is showy and quite impressive. Score 17.75. From 2022-30+

14%. £59

Isole e Olena ‘Collezione Privata, Syrah 2017

Blackberry fruit and up-toned spicy aroma. Very sweet on the strike, almost jammy. It’s richly textured; a thick suede swath. Voluptuous mid palate with a saturated quality to the fruit. Very moreish and I like the contrast, which comes through on the finish, of something more piquant – black chocolate a fresh and energetic bite. This is a full-on, hedonistic wine. Score 18. From 2023-35 

14.5%. Twenty-Five percent new French and American oak here. £62.99

Isole e Olena ‘Collezione Privata, Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

A somewhat dusty aroma. A rich and seductive Cabernet on the strike; there is sweetness of blackcurrant fruit in middle palate with good depth and density. The glycerol and elevated alcohol are quite apparent. Richly ripe and velvet tannins. It is lighter, fresher and more energetic on the finish. I like the tanginess at the end which is accompanied by appetisingly fresh and herbal aromatics. Score 17.75. From 2025-35

14.5% £84.99.

Isole e Olena ‘Chianti Classico’ 2018

Lightly herbal aroma with touch of cherry pastille. On the palate, light-bodied, bright and quite breezy with a slightly grassy character.  Lightly grained tannins. It is fresh and quite self-effacing and very accessible. A nicely balanced, floaty and quite delicate wine for near term drinking. You might expect it to be overpowered by the level of alcohol, but actually it carries it off. Score 16.5. From 2021-25  

14.5% £27.99

Isole e Olena, Cepparello, 2018

Spicy marzipan aroma. This glides into the palate. Gorgeous texture. Satin smooth and rippling. It’s straight and elegant. Just beautifully woven. A lovely equilibrium. It purrs. The persistent finish is sleek and feline. This is in a different league to all the wines which have gone before, so much more subtle, and I am quite amazed that it carries off the high alcohol with ease. My sort of wine and by far my favourite. Score 18.5. From 2024-35

I5% £99.99

Isole e Olena Gran Selezione 2015

Touch of evolution on the aroma with a hint of forrest floor. Very intense on the strike. Multi layered and compact. It is seriously battened down. There is liquorice density and power, but bunched. Needs time to unfold and certainly a wine which will develop over many years. The finish is very aromatic. Score 18.75. From 2025-40+  

14.5% £279


Famously traditonal

While some winemakers are famous for flouting the rules (plenty of these in Italy), another breed take the best of tradition and improve it. Franco Biondi Santi was among the latter. He firmly believed in the tradition of single varietal Sangiovese matured in large old barrels of Slavonian oak.

This is perhaps not surprising as his family were instrumental in developing the wine we know today as Brunello di Montalcino when Clemente Santi won acclaim at the regional agricultural fair for his “rosso scelto” del 1865 – wine made from the clone of Sangiovese, which became known as Brunello and is now planted throughout the region.  

Not everyone was convinced by Sangiovese. It was widely considered to be a rather a ‘work horse’ grape variety, incapable of making a great wine on its own and by the 1970s it became fashionable in Tuscany to blend it with Bordeaux varieties and age it in new French barriques.

Meanwhile the Biondi Santi family eschewed fashion and continued their pursuit of the best quality of vine material. Franco Biondi Santi identified a super clone – Sangiovese Grosso BBS/11. He  continued the work of his grandfather Ferruccio who began selecting the very best plant material from the vineyards at Tenuta Greppo as far back as the 1800s. Franco Biondi Santi focused on understanding of the complexities of the terroir, work which continues today through micro-vinifications of small parcels of vines across the Greppo estate. 

The Greppo estate lies in the South East of Montalcino with vines planted on hillsides between 385-507m in stony, marl rich soil. The riserva is made from a selection of the oldest vines planted on the highest parcels. Franco-Biondi Santi expanded the estate from four hectares to the current twenty-five and his work and encouragement inspired many others to produce Brunello di Montalcino. The seventy-six hectares registered to Brunello in 1967 is now over two thousand.  

Biondi Santi produces three wines. The younger vines are used for Rosso di Montalcino; the middle aged vines become Brunello di Montalcino, while the vines over twenty-five years may become Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, but only in exceptional years. Just forty vintages of riserva have been made since 1888.

The riserva 2012 was the last vintage made by Franco Biondi Santi who passed away in 2013. In 2016 the Greppo estate was sold to French company EPI, owned by Christopher Descours, who are committed to continuing Franco’s work. The 40th vintage of the riserva has recently been released. ( 2013 vintage). Of the three wines I tasted, I particularly liked the rosso and the riserva. 

Rosso di Montalcino 2017

2017 was a hot and dry summer with the harvest from mid September. This is aged for 12 months in Slavonian oak barrels. 13.5% alcohol. 

Ripe red fruit aroma with a dusky rose petal and peppery note. Plump and generous with ripe summer fruits, underscored with tanginess. The texture is soft and the tannins smooth, but with some crunch on the finish. It’s very appetising. Drinking now until 2027. 

Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2013

Rainy spring delayed the start of the growing season. From mid July the weather was warm with marked swings between day and night temperatures. The harvest began a little later than usual towards the end of September. The reserve is matured in Slavonian oak for three years. 13.5% alcohol. 

Most alluring gamey aroma, somewhat sweet and feral with a hint of basil. Slips onto the palate on supple tannins. It has a sophisticated texture, sleek and rippling, and is underpinned by lively freshness and tangy energy. It has intensity and silky, elegant persistence. It’s also rather aromatic with anise and fennel frond and on the finish, a light hint of mint. I think this is a lovely moment to enjoy the wine while it still shows the vibrancy of youth with the complexities of some age. As it matures further, it will become more tertiary, complex and fragile, but not necessarily better. Now-2035+



Champagne without bubbles

No, not flat Champagne, but Coteaux Champenois, the still wine of the region. Not familiar with this? You will not be alone for production dwindled in the C20th. It was simply too difficult to ripen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make a regular wine, whereas the edgy acidity was perfect for making Champagne. The reversal of fortune came around 1850 when sparkling production outstripped still. Never-the-less Champagne houses continued to produce still wine long after this and Louis Roederer was among those to commercialise a pre-war Coteaux Champenois. 

Charmont in the cru of Mareuil-Sur-Ay

No, not flat Champagne, but Coteaux Champenois, the still wine of the region. Not familiar with this? You will not be alone for production dwindled in the C20th. It was simply too difficult to ripen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make a regular wine, whereas the edgy acidity was perfect for making Champagne. The reversal of fortune came around 1850 when sparkling production outstripped still. Never-the-less Champagne houses continued to produce still wine long after this and Louis Roederer was among those to commercialise a pre-war Coteaux Champenois.

Recently there has been a light bubbling of interest in the style with some of the high profile producers releasing a Coteaux Champaneois including Bollinger (La Côte aux Enfants) and Egly-Ouriet (Ambonnay Rouge) together with a host of smaller producers. At Louis Roederer, cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon draws a parallel with the trend for grower Champagne and single vineyard Champagne. Climate change has greatly improved ripeness, which has diminished the dependance on blending – not only blending grapes from numerous parcels, some riper than others, but blending vintages for consistency in the non-vintage Champagne. In the past growers had little choice but to sell to a Champagne house, whereas warmer summers have enabled them to make their own Champagne, including Champagne from a single vineyard and vintage.

This blog focuses on Roederer’s Coteaux Champenois ‘Homage à Camille,’ a red and white cuvée, the second vintage of which has just been released. They are named in honour of Camille Olry-Roederer who captained the company from 1932-75. She continued to produce small quantities of Coteaux Champenois for her own pleasure, with which she liked to surprise her dinner guests. 

Lécaillon explains that the concept of the resurrected Coteaux Champenois – now a commercial project – “to express terroir through a single vineyard and a single variety”.

The origins of Roederer’s project go back to the late ‘90s when Lécaillon began extensive research to understand the terroir of their many parcels, as part of their conversion to organic and biodynamic management. Both the soil and the root profile were studied and in the process he discovered five to six parcels with a high percentage of clay. “It’s the opposite of chalk, which is our DNA in Champagne,” remarks Lécaillon, but the clay parcels were promising for Pinot Noir, “to give the body, depth and structure.” (The appellation allows red, white and rosé, but in practice Coteaux Champenois is largely red.) 

Roederer focused on the lieut-dit of Charmont in the cru of Mareuil-Sur-Ay. The slope is full south facing. It has white clay in the middle third of the slope, top soil which has slipped down with erosion, leaving the highest third very chalky. The existing vines were removed from the mid section, which was left fallow for a couple of years, before replanting it in 2002 with a massale selection from Alsace and Burgundy. 

It is necessary to manage the vineyard with a taller and more open canopy to maximise the sunshine, which is quite the opposite of Champagne practice to shelter the grapes with foliage to retain the acidity. In the winery the approach has to be very different too. “We don’t want phenolics for Champagne, so we have a very soft press and minimal skin contact,” but with still wine we want extended time on the skin, as the skin, pips and stalks bring with them the expression of terroir.” 

Lécaillon and his team have clearly enjoyed experimenting with the winemaking process, although he confesses that not all has gone to plan. In 2014 they harvested too late “I had the wrong idea. I thought we should pick two weeks after Champagne.” In 2015, a ripe year, he concentrated on phenolic ripeness, which was achieved around the same time as the Champagne harvest, and he de-stemmed the bunches. He felt the wines were much better, very fruity, but too easy and crowd pleasing. In 2016 the stems were removed, passed along the sorting table and tasted to re-introduce the best. 2017 was bypassed as the vineyards were affected by botrytis. 

And now to 2018, the first vintage to be commercialised. Lécaillon used 40% whole bunch. No tasting the stems this year. He is keen to retain the whole berry for the intracellular fermentation. It is fermented in small vat with the grapes pushed down gently by hand. Twenty percent is subsequently aged in terracotta amphora “for the fruitiness, softness and delicacy it brings to the wine, but you must be careful with amphora, which has very attractive texture and fruit, but misses something at the end of the palate.” The majority is aged in oak barrels – ranging in size from 200-500l, forty percent of which is new. He considers some new oak is necessary to stretch the finish for both Pinot and Chardonnay cuvées.

Finding the right terroir for a still Chardonnay was not as straightforward as Lécaillon had imagined. He envisaged finding it on the Côte des Blancs in Avize or Cramant, leading cru for Chardonnay with which to make Champagne. “We tried again and again, but found the resulting wine tasted like the vin clair (base wine) for Cristal.” (Roederer’s prestige cuvée.) 

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon
(photo Michael Boudot)

He changed direction having been greatly impressed by a 1961 Coteaux Champenois from Les Mesnil-San-Oger and specifically the lieut-dit of Volibarts. In this lieut-dit the vines are suffering from the court-noué virus. “They produce tiny bunches of very tasty berries, also high in acidity. I took advantage of this and used all the fruit from the virus infected  vines and macerated them on skins for 2-3 hours and then adding them to the rest of the bunches.” The white was fermented and aged in limestone eggs, with twenty percent in new oak and twenty percent in stainless steel “for the flintiness it brings.” 

“We have a very pure expression of Chardonnay. In the Chablis style, but specifically Champenois for its purity. There is very little white Coteaux Champenois and it has to establish an identity. Too many people are using a lot of new oak, trying to be Burgundian.”

“Every step we take is to move stylistically away from Burgundy. It is not interesting for us to make Burgundy.”  

And how would he differentiate the styles? “Burgundy is larger, richer and more concentrated. There is more texture, particularly in the Côte de Nuits. We have to find complexity from somewhere else.” 

It seems the special identity and complexity of Coteaux Champenois is linked its vibrancy. “Even if we have climate change and ripeness, we have wines that are full of energy. Our low pHs mean the wines react to things. (Typical pH for the whites is 3.1 and red 3.4). They are full of energy.” He seems concerned this character can sometimes be too extreme. “We want to domesticate them and make them more relaxed.”

“Now,’ says Lécaillon, “We can speak about Champagne terroir. This is not just good for communication, but for our understanding of our terroir, which is beneficial for the Champagne we make.”

This is just the beginning. There are plans for a collection of single vineyard wines. In 2008 a parcel in Dizy was planted on darker clay with a massale selection of Pinot Noir from Roederer’s  own vineyards. “This will give a much darker fruit expression,” says Lécaillon, and in 2012 the first parcel of green clay was cultivated. And Roederer are also planting field blends of the seven historic and official varieties recognised in Champagne, which include Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. “We want to keep our biodiversity.” And as he points out, the varieties may prove useful as the  climate is unpredictable. “They have been grown here for 400 years during which the climate has gone through many changes.”  

In the climate change stakes it would appear the Champagne region is a winner. As Lécaillon remarks, “I can harvest when I want and it is always ripe and, with teh exertion of 2017,  we have not had botrytis in 15 years.”  But, it is not climate change alone which is responsible for improved ripeness and health. It is also that many producers are changing to organic practices and are decreasing their yields. “We have a new generation who are more artisanal in their approach and have a feeling for the land.”  

“Now,” he says, “is the golden age of Champagne.” 

It’s intriguing to taste wine from a single vineyard in Champagne which is not obscured by bubbles, autolysis and dosage. I was pleasantly surprised by the two cuvées. They are not wannabe Burgundy, with the exception of the pricing, which is very punchy.

Tasting Notes 

As an expression of a singe vineyard, the white wine showed a translucency to chalky soil. I am not convinced the Pinot showcases the clay. It felt more like a wine from calcareous soil with its somewhat strict finish, straight palate and vibrancy. I would like to see more depth, intensity and complexity in both wines, but it’s early days. I find the wines lively, stylish and elegant. 

Louis Roederer Hommage à Camille Coteaux Champenois Blanc 2018

Breezy aroma which is fresh, elegant and floral with a hint of lime leaf. Airy and delicate, it floats lightly on the palate, straight, lively and pure into a finish which has a light note of salinity. I like the crisp, tissue-paper finesses of this wine.  As the wine evolved over 3 days it became more salty, chalky and focused. 2022-25 (Price approx £130)

Louis Roederer Hommage à Camille Coteaux Champenois Rouge 2018

Pure and fruity aroma with the freshness of cranberry. A crisp and energetic spring on the attack. Talcy tannins mid palate. The oak is apparent in the hints of smoky tobacco and liquorice.  Bitter cherry tanginess combines with higher toned, elegant florals and lower toned earthy notes. It’s bright and vivacious with a slightly strict and snappy austerity at the end. Over three days it settled nicely into its fresh and crunchy character. From 2021-26 (Price Approx £155)

I have written about Roederer’s still wines for Club Oenologique. Follow the link to Club O’s website for articles by other writers on Champagne and Coteaux Champenois. https://cluboenologique.com/story/reviewed-louis-roederers-new-still-champagne-wines/


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