A light hearted insight into wine with no agenda other than to sniff out wine stories which capture the imagination… follow The Nose…

01/07/2021

Biodynamics -Twelve Apostles spread the word

“Sowing another future” Sven Leiner
“A sustainable and holistic approach for plants, our souls and for the family.” Johannes Zillinger

When Christophe Hoch converted to biodynamics did he consider this to be evolution or  revolution? In a candid response he feels his neighbours saw revolution, while for the Hoch family  it was simply an evolution in their 400 year vinous history. 

Evolution through co-operation was the overarching sentiment expressed in a recent tasting organised by two biodynamic organisations Demeter Austria and respekt-BIODYN. This tasting brought together twelve biodynamic producers and discussion centred on the themes of ‘the farm organism’ (self- sufficiency to you and me), building strength in the vineyard (improving your vineyard’s resistance to pests, disease, climate change et al); creating soil fertility naturally in the field (cover crops and composting) and what this can do for a healthier future in general, not only for our wines.

Demeter, which is an international association, dates back to 1928 and was founded to provide guidelines for biodynamic farming based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. It was adapted for wine production in the 1990s and has today there are approximately seventy biodynamic wine estates in Austria cultivating 800 hectares. 

Respekt is much newer and smaller ‘community’ set up in Austria as an alternative to Demeter in 2007. It has 25 converts across Austria, Germany, Hungary and Italy who jointly cultivate 850 hectares. It is also based on Steiner principals, methods and preparations, but biodynamics is viewed as a means to an end – to achieve the highest possible quality.  

Initially it seems Demeter wasn’t entirely happy with sharing the biodynamic space, but with their differences sorted, the two organisations are now dedicated to sharing experiences and knowledge to further the understanding and efficacy of biodynamic viticulture and to spread the gospel. As Nikolaus Moser remarks, “Already 3% of the the world’s viticulture is organic and the biodynamic family within this is growing.”  

For those considering a biodynamic conversion, both organisations run seminars which are open to non-members. Nikolaus Moser considers it’s easier these days to take the plunge into biodynamics as many producers are willing to share information. He moved directly from conventional viticulture into biodynamics in the late 1990s without dallying in organic farming first and he recalls learning as he went along. “At the beginning of the 2000s organic viticulture didn’t have a good reputation and biodynamics was seem as hocus locus… now we can still be laughed at, but there is more understanding.” He describes a bitter wind of skepticism in the early days, “while now there is so much shared knowledge and lots of people prepared to help.”

And a quick head ups here – if you are tempted to convert to biodynamics, don’t expect a rapid response from your vineyards.  On average you’re looking at 6 or 7 years.

But it’s clear from listening to the twelve producers that biodynamics reaches beyond cultivating a vineyard and making wine, rather it’s an approach to life or even a philosophy for living.

Clemens Busch spoke of preserving the history and culture of wine. Fifty year ago, on the Mosel’s steep slopes and terraces, every family had a few vines, grew their own food and kept some livestock. Viticulture became more professional from the 1970s and this way of life has all but  disappeared, but he feels the biodynamic approach can help keep the traditional spirit alive. 

Sven Leiner from the Pfalz is particularly eloquent. He describes the biodynamic approach as “creating a new relationship with our cultural space.” He didn’t intentionally set out to convert to biodynamics, but found things evolved step bu step; starting with the soil and then the cover crops, which brought composing within the vineyard. He remarks “you can only make good wine with healthy vines.”

The concept of the farm organism was discussed. Everyone seems to grow cover crops in the vineyards which can be ploughed back as natural homegrown fertiliser. Moreover they cultivate the  plants ‘herbs’ to use for the various biodynamic teas which are sprayed on the vineyards according to biodynamic practices in order to boost the plant’s natural resistance to pests and diseases.

There was much talk of expanding the boundaries of the vineyard. Many, if not all of the twelve producers, manage their land around the vineyards to support the biodynamic ethos. This includes planting trees, keeping chickens, sewing wildflower meadows, setting up insect houses, keeping bees and maybe some cows to use the mature for composing.

Moreover Sven Leiner remarks “It doesn’t end with your property line.” There is impetus to spread the word and convert their neighbours and rationalises that when one’s neighbours become aware of the benefits, for example that wildlife which has not been seen for years begins to return, it will encourage the whole region to become involved. His vision is grand and admirable. “We are sewing another future,” he says.

Herbert Zillinger does not mince his words about conventional agriculture. “Sick exploitation…not good for the soil, the environment or our health. When you change to biodynamics, working with respect of nature, all problems resolve themselves.” 

While some made a starting leap to biodynamics, others took a gentler approach, among them  Johannes Zillinger, by evolving the organic approach of their parents into biodynamics and together with this, the idea the farm organism. And as they look forward to their children’s future, they are upshift again to truly holistic approach. 

“Biodynamics is about allowing the vineyard, the vine and nature to express itself. It is sustainable and holistic – for our plants, our souls and and the family,” remarks Johannes Zilliinger.

Brigit Braunstein talks about an holistic way of winemaking which places every being, animal and plant and the centre of her work. 

While Judith Beck, a pioneer of biodynamics, remarks, “I never expected how life changing this would be. It changed my views on food.. and raising children. It has an influence on all parts of our life. She goes back to the point that Clemens Busch made. Her grandparents had a small holding with animals and she laments how easily this was lost in just one generation. She can’t replace the cows, but sources manure for compost from a neighbouring cattle farmer. While not exactly self sufficient, this does tap into the local community. 

She made an interesting point about cover crops. She had been ‘taught’ that the sunny and dry area of Gols, East of Neusiedlersee, where she has her vineyard, would not support cover crops ,a they would be too competitive. On the contrary.

Others confirmed that a biodynamics approach can be helpful in a drier areas. Herbert Zillinger and his wife Carmen who have a 16 hectare estate in Weinviertel (very dry and warm place) found the biodynamic prep 500 helped increase humus and the water retaining capacity of the soil. “It livens up dry soils,” and adds, “with good work on the soil, we don’t need to be afraid of climate change.” 

It’s widely acknowledged that keeping the soil ‘alive’ and healthy, supports healthier vines and better balanced fruit. Herbert Zillinger has noticed the improvement brought about through biodynamics. The juice has lower pHs (3.2-3.3), higher and riper acidity, more dry extract and lower sugar. And he feels there is more vibrancy in the final wine.

Clemens Busch, who is a member of respekt-BIODYN (quality is the ultimate goal) comments, “People tell me the wine has more structure and depth; more tension and minerality.” 

But what about the economics? I would have thought that yields would be smaller, affecting the bottom line. However not everyone has found this so. Georg Schmelzer saw his production  become more stable after the first 3-5 years. 

Schmlezer is also in the dry Neusiedlesee area. Georg confesses their vineyard is very untidy as they let the cover crops grow untrimmed – sometimes they grow as tall as the vines, but he finds the vines are stronger and healthier and the yield more reliable. There is no copper of sulphur used. 

His neighbours may laugh at this vineyards, but he responds that consumers are attracted by the idea of ‘natural wine,’ and of course he is right. Natural has become a buzz word among consumers, many of whom will be unaware of exactly what it entails, but like the thought of something closer to nature – or something made more naturally – and will purchase based on their ideals. 

Seems to me that biodynamics has a winning combination – an holistic, sustainable approach which can make sense economically and is in step with a wide global environmental sentiment. 

So, by sowing a new future, have these these biodynamic winemakers got it all sewn up?

Ultimately it has to come down to the wine and how it tastes. A biodynamic approach has to produce a good wine. I should ‘fess up that I make some of my wine in Burgundy using grapes grown by one of the finest biodynamic domaines. I am fully convinced by the potential for this approach to encourage the very best from a vineyard.

However, I am not yet convinced that eschewing all sulphur in the making and bottling of white wine produces the best results. I found some wines slightly oxidised and quite cider-like. For me, these natural wines are just a step too far.

*-***denotes the wines I particularly liked. 

**Weingut Clemens Busch, Marienburg Fahrlay GG VDP GROSSE LAGE 2017

Mosel, Germany. Member of respekt-BIODYN. Fahrlay. is a 1.6 hectare cru section within the 18 hectare Marienburg vineyard. It is midway on the Mosel river and has diverse soil types, but this cru is particular for its blue slate. South facing on a small terrace.

Straight, fine and cleanly edged. This has a high and pure line. Just a delicate richness wrapped around the middle palate, but this is essentially a swift, trebble-pure wine. Hits a high and sustained note – the finish is persistent and ringing.  

*-**Weingut Sepp Moser, Riesling Ried Gebling 1ÖTW 2019

Kremstal, Austria Member of Demeter. C16th generation Nikolaus Moser is Lenz Moser’s grandson (Lenz Moser of prolific wine proportions). Nikolaus’s  father Sepp Moser made the first significant change, separating and  focusing on the best 30 hectares of vineyard, but he wasn’t interested in organic viticulture. Niki Moser took up the reins in the late 90s and he went directly to biodynamic. “It was a gut decision to convert to biodynamic faming without knowing much about it.”  Demeter certified since 2009. His vineyards are in Kremstal. He makes the point that the vines in Gebling vineyard were first mentioned in 1284.

Salted caramel with a hint of mint, cinnamon and camomile on the nose. Very intriguing aroma. The palate is smooth and rich and rounded for Riesling with hints of caramelised orange zest. It’s almost exotically floral. It’s supple and silky – smoothly creamy for Riesling. By the second day after opening it, there were ripe apricot and almonds notes on the palate. It is quite spicy on finish, which is dry, rich and savoury. Seductive indeed.

***Weingut Hirsch, Ried Zöbinger Gaisberg 1ÖTW Kamptal Riesling 2017. 

Kamtal , Austria Member of respekt-BIODYN. When the red wine became popular in the late 1990s, Johannes Hirsch pulled out his red wine and planted Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, bucking the trend. Moreover he put the entire range under screw cap. In addition to bio-dynamic practices, Hirsch utilises soft pruning, a method he learned in Alto Adige to minimise the amount of cuts and thus lessening the amount of tissue exposed to disease and old wood near the pruned area. In the vineyards, manure from celebrated cheese maker Robert Paget’s water buffalo and goats, grazing in the pastures in front of the vineyards, is used.

This is powerful, vigorous wine with a keen, straight and slicing palate. Richly punchy, but crystalline with clean cut edges. It finishes on a fine saline finish. Too early to drink this wine really. It should develop over the next 15 to 20 years – so to 2040. Tip top.  Score 17

Weingut Christophe Hoch, Hollenburger Riesling NV

Kremstal Austria Member of Demeter. Christophe’s family can trace their winemaking back to 1640. The bedrock of Hollenburger is limestone. He felt the vintage was in front (dominated) the wine, hence he decided to make the unusual choice of blending vintages.

Cidery aroma. Light, lean and straight palate with a sour-apple note and a saline finish.  

*Wiengut Sven Leiner, Kapelle Weissburgunder 2019

Pfalz, Germany Member of respekt-BIODYN Pfalz had the highest number of biodynamic producers in Germany – somewhere between 15 and 20. Kapelle is Sven’s best site. Note the ladybird on the label.

Fresh, lemony aroma. The palate is lightly rounded, broad and actually quite gusty. Definitely plenty of energy with an earthy intensity with a lively quality. Firm savoury sapidity on the finish; I like the tactile note at the end. It’s tangy. It does needs some time or decanting. When I first opened, it was battened down and took a couple of days to start opening up.  From 2023-28

Weingut Schmelzer, Weissburgunder 2018

Neusiedlersee, Austria Member of Demeter. No sulphur or copper, only home made teas and biodynamic preps. Natural wine.

This has a light apple and yeasty aroma which continues onto the palate with caramelised apple notes, which become lightly orangey. The acidity is quite tart. There are hints of lime on nose and palate. It’s 13 % but feels light light and breezy and it finishes on a nutty and salty note.   

*Weingut Herbert & Carmen Zillinger, Gruner Veltiner Kalkvogel 2019

Weinviertel, Austria Member of respekt-BIODYN Biodynamics can result in thicker skins requiring longer pressing. Not a problem for the Zillingers, who have the time and patience. This wine comes from a barren limestone soil. Herbert feels this is his best Gruner Veltliner. He and Carmen make several. Pressed and put straight into large old barrels. No debourbage and then on year on lees. Low sulphur levels of 30-40pp.

Candied citrus richness on nose and palate. Creamy texture. Lush lemon curd in the middle palate with a lovely balance of freshness. Sherbet-like energy. I really like this natural wine which is uber fresh, unlike some whites in this flight. Such an attractive wine –  vibrant, rich and pure. It is not super complex, but it is certainly yummy. 

Weingut Johannes Zillinger Parcellaire blanc 1# 2019

Weinviertel, Austria Member of Demeter. A blend of Welschriesling and Chardonnay from the coldest North and North/East facing slopes. If I understood correctly the Welschriesling, as whole bunches, is fermented in amphora and  the Chardonnay is kept under flor.

A really rather creamy wine with attractive viscosity. Just nicely rounded with a pretty white peach character; so peaches and cream cut through with quite tart acidity. There is a light fragrance that floats over fruit.  

Weingut Ploder-Rosenberg, Cara 2018

Styrian Volcanoland, Austria Member of Demeter. Maria, Alfred and son Manuel Ploder are pioneers in their region of extinct volcanos. Vineyards on the volcano’s slopes. He uses PIWI varieties – crossings which are fungus resistant – including 30% Souvignier Gris and  40% Bonner. The former has good natural acidity which is important here as the gravelly soils result in high pHs – 3.3-3.5. 

This is a very light, delicate wine with a hint of apple and some salinity. 

Weingut Judith Beck, Chardonnay Bambule 2018

Gols/Neusiedlersee, Austria. Member of Respekt -BIODYN. Gravel soil near the lake. This is fermented for 12-14 days on skins. No sulphur. Judith calls it zero intervention. Chardonnay was the first varied on which she used this approach back in 2011. She presses before the ferment has finished to protect it from oxygen. Aged in amphora for a year.  

This is this the most interesting of the wines with no sulphur. It is quite funky. Full, quite rounded and rich, but with bright acidity. It a bit quirky and finishes attractively saline.

*-**Weingut Birgit Braunstein, Blaufrankisch Thenau 2013

Neusiedlersee-Hugelland, Austria Member of Demeter

An invitingly farmy aroma, showing its more evolved character, mingles with red fruit and I do like the rich and fresh earthiness.  The palate has marked energy. Loads of black fruit with cherry and charcoal notes. It’s snappy in both energy and texture and there’s a real twang on the finish. I expect wine produced using biodynamic approach to exhibit lively energy and this does.   

***Weingut Feiler-Artinger, Blaufrankisch Leithaberg DAC Ried Oberer Wald 2018

Member of Respekt-BIODYN. The texture, which starts smooth and evolves a crisp crunch, is instantly arresting and so is the energy. This is both vibrant and has a vibration. The quivering energy carries to a well sustained finish. I like the ripe, juicy richness of blueberry fruit and the  contrasting lively freshness. Its 14 % but carries it with ease. What a lovely wine. I like it lightly chilled. Now and until 2028.

07/06/2021

Handsome Italian

Ventaglio vineyard

Among the celebrity estates of Bolgheri, Tenuta Argentiera flies somewhat under the radar. 

The ‘Nose’ picked up the scent having been invited to a zoom talk and tasting. I was intrigued  by the story of a wine named Ventaglio for this promised something more unusual for Bolgheri – not only is it a single varietal Cabernet Franc, but it is a true terror wine coming from a single 1.2 hectare vineyard. It is called Ventaglio, after the rows of vines which fan around the circumference of a small hill.  

I expected something ostentatious – a bold and showy  IGT in a heavy bottle – Cabernet Franc sexed up – but on the contrary Ventaglio is sleek, sophisticated and serious, a handsome wine indeed – albeit in a heavy bottle. 

Ventaglio – handsome Italian wine

But let’s backtrack a moment and set the scene. As all wine lovers know Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta put Bolgheri on the map by commercialising the 1968 vintage of Sassicaia, the Bordeaux blend his father Mario had made for family and friends from vines planted in the 1940s at Tenuta San Guido. 

This coastal area of Maremma is quite distinct from heartland Tuscany. The land around the village of Bolgheri was traditionally used for growing vegetables, olives and grapes to produce rosé wine. Away from the coastal strip there were cereal crops, grazing used for cattle and scrubland. Sassicaia, followed by Ornellaia in the mid 80s, raised awareness in the potential of this coastal area, and it was gradually converted to viticulture. In their wake Bolgheri estates eschewed Sangiovese and focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. True to Bordeaux fashion the wines are generally estate blends, drawing on a diversity of terroir. 

Bolgheri attained DOC status in 1994 for a style of wine, an Italian interpretation of a Bordeaux blend. The Bogheri expression can be more restrained than Super Tuscans from heartland Tuscany. The proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea may permit an elegant expression, however there is no escaping the fact that it can be pretty hot here. Moreover the reflected light from the sea increases the total light with its ‘mirror effect’. On the other hand the sea helps to moderate the temperature, cooling the vineyards with damp coastal breezes. 

Tenuta Argentiera, named after the Etruscan silver mines of the region, lies in the Donoratico Hills, far to the south of Bolgheri away from the epicentre clustered around the famous estates. It began with a flourish in 1999, a latecomer in some respects. The estate belonged to the Fratini family, who in just three years cleared sixty hectares of scrub and planted vines. The Antinori family were instrumental in getting this project off the ground, lending their expertise to Fratini in the early days. 

Leonardo Raspini

The zoom tasting was hosted by general manager and agronomist Leonardo Raspini and Nicolò Carrara, the winemaker. It was certainly lively as Leonardo leapt up on a number of occasions to hold large large boards in front of the camera to illustrate the terroir. (Tenuta Argentiera’s website is also very informative.)

The estate (now 80 hectares) has diverse terroir, encompassing a patchwork of soil types, but it seems the most significant differences with the land around Bolgheri village, are the higher altitude and the east facing ridge which is sheltered by the forest along which the vineyards are planted. Together these factors create a marginally cooler microclimate of approximately 2 degrees celsius. 

The Nose was sent three wines to taste.

First up is Villa Donoratico, DOC Bolgheri Rosso. This comes from a eleven hectare section in the northern part of the estate (nearest to the village of Bolgheri) and from lower lying vineyards. While these are further from the coast, with fewer coastal breezes, the vineyards have a northern exposure which help retains freshness. The lowest vineyards at 30m are more sandy, while those at 100m combine some clay (in which Merlot thrives) and stone. The sandier soils would certain account for the fruity accessibility of this wine. 

A quick aside about vintages. The 2019 vintage was equally successful in Bolgheri as inland Tuscany. It was hot and dry, but there were good water reserves and some rain at the end of July. The stems were properly lignified in 2019 and some whole bunches were used. 

The 2018 was a cooler, wetter and more challenging vintage. July and August were quite cool, but September was dry and windy. I found the 2018 Argentiera fresh and energetic.

2016 was described as a tough vintage for the vegetation. A large rainfall at the end of August helped. It’s a powerful vintage. 

Nicolò Carrara

Leonardo and Nicolò point out that the quality and health of vintages on the coast do not always follow inland Tuscany. In cold, fresher and rainier vintages Bolgheri typically suffers less from disease, while the light reflected off the sea in the afternoon gives vines an advantage. Vintage timing is earlier in Bolgheri – mid September for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, which in some vintages can be an advantage, but in 2010 the weather in the first half of September was poor, while inland (Montalcino was singled out) benefited from holding out through the much better second half of the month. 

Winery

Moving up the hierarchy, there is Argentiera, a Bolgheri Superiore. This wine is a blend, the grapes for which come from a myriad of vineyards which range from low lying sandy vineyards at 20m up to 200m, but the focus is on the higher altitude. The second level has more clay and the the upper more stone and schist. At 150-200m the terroir is Fliche – geologically one the oldest formations (sedimentary rocks consisting of limestone, marl and argillite with sandstone and siliceous rock). To keep it simple – these higher vineyards have more clay and of course a greater temperature swing between warm days and cooler nights.

And top of the heap – Ventaglio

In 2012 a small hill, 80m above sea level and 2 km from the coast, was planted with Cabernet Franc. The rows were planted through 270 degrees – South to North-East – like the spokes of wheel or indeed a fan, after Ventaglio from this hillside vineyard takes its name. The soil is clay loam with gravel and limestone pebbles – a profile known as Eagle’s Nest in regional classification.   

In 2015 the estate changed hands, bought by the Austrian industrialist Stanislaus Turnauer. He clearly has a passion for wine for he moved his family to Bolgheri, but wisely gave his talented team the liberty to focus on the terroir and produce the best wine with minimal intervention.  

Stanislaus Turnauer

Ventaglio is made in wooden tanks and aged largely in 500l barrels with a maximum of 25% new oak, some coming from the Austrian cooperage Stockinger. 

The first vintage of Ventaglio, 2015, was 85% Cabernet Franc, while 2016 is 100%. (There are 2400 bottles, which are already allocated to collectors.) The tentative first step wasn’t explained, but why not go for broke? A single varietal must be labelled IGT, but in the context of Super Tuscan history, this is patently not an issue.  It’s not the first single vineyard, single varietal. Merlot based Masseto is the stellar example, but with this newcomer, the team at Tenuta Argentina have their sites set on a place in the Bolgheri firmament.  

Tenuta Argentiera, Villa Donoratico, Bolgheri 2019

50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cebernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.  

A ripe, forthright expressive aroma with a hint of liquorice, methyl and Earl Grey tea. Packs a juicy punch. Deliciously ripe, but vibrant and the tannins have a bit of grip. Nicely balanced. An appetisingly bitter umami note to finish. This is a well structure wine which delivers on fruit and a decent level of complexity. Score 16.

Tenuta Argentiera, Argentiera, Bolgheri Superiore 2018

It is 50% Cabenet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. 

Seductively perfumed aroma combining high toned white pepper notes with lower toned shades of violet, vanilla and camomile. It flows into a sumptuously smooth and inviting palate, which has elegant fluidity. It is quite trim and just deliciously laced with freshness. Soft at the beginning, it focuses across the palate, to become tighter and lively and even quite piquant. The finish is nicely sustained and has vibrancy, lift and brightness.  Score 17.5 From 2024-33

Ventaglio, IGT 2016

Discreet aroma – a subtle, silky perfume. Quiet and intense palate. It has a refined texture and shimmers with freshness. The flavour spectrum includes some earthier notes, a light herbal edge and tangy, sooty bitterness on the finish which contrasts and balances the sweeter smoothness in the mid palate. Such a refined Cabernet Franc. Beautifully persistent with a chalky, powdery quality on the finish. Score 18.5 From 2025-35+

Tenuta Argentiera website

02/05/2021

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

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