Landing into Pisa airport we were greeted by the type of picturesque landscape which shouts “Bonjourno!" The snow-capped Italian Alps illuminated the scene as we descended towards the coast. What a perfect introduction to a place which encapsulates the beauty behind the wines; something I have always admired from afar.
Upon arrival we were upsold a Mercedes Benz rental instead of the Fiat Panda we had booked, an unwise decision which we came to regret as we scraped up the rocky path to Querciabella Estate in a ‘low-rider’. In later discussions it came to light how well the Panda performs on local roads and it was this idea of using what works with the land that became a defining theme of the trip.
Our first stop was Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri. What a start to be at the home of Sassicaia! Before any tasting or formalities, we sat down for lunch in the cantina. The Marchese chose a bottle of Guidalberto 2012 to accompany our meal which was surprisingly approachable at this stage and proved extremely hard to resist.
Dining with the Marchese and Priscilla, with a surprise appearance from Sebastiano Rosa (currently winemaker at Agricola Punica in Sardinia), was a unique and humbling experience. This is the family behind one of the world’s most sought-after wines; a wine seen in distinguished collections across the globe. I already had the utmost respect for these people and now I had the chance to meet them. Needless to say, I was nervous. How was I meant to compose myself having just landed into Italy and immediately being faced with the prospect of lunching with some of my vinous heroes? The Guidalberto 2012 certainly helped calm the nerves and as the conversation flowed, anxiety was swiftly replaced by enthusiasm and excitement over the visits and tastings that lay ahead.
After lunch we were offered a preview of Sassicaia 2012 and 2013 as well as current releases and this short visit was concluded, leaving me with the opinion that the people of Tenuta San Guido radiated understated class, just like their wines. I have included my tasting notes below, and will continue to do so throughout this blog for each of the wineries we visited.
Le Difese 2013 - Ripe yet sour black cherry, black raspberry jam with hints of crushed black pepper and a rich minerality. The fruit is opulent and balanced out with a good level of spice, making it a very enjoyable style. The finish is personified by fresh mint and fine, slightly grainy tannins giving it a rural feel.
Guidalberto 2012 - Pure flavours with definition and structure. Cut violets on the nose introduce a full bouquet of floral aromas. Bright red berries, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg define the palate along with supple tannins. A round resonating finish makes for an incredibly delicious wine to enjoy now, but this will develop further with its depth and complexity.
Sassicaia 2012 - Rich opulent fruit and dark violet aromas set the scene for a wine of both power and finesse. Dark berries abound. Some raspberries and blueberries adding depth and complexity behind the fleshy fruit. Red liquorice, tobacco and smokey notes make up the spice profile. Chewy tannins. There is a rich mineral vein of graphite running through the thick fruit. This is a powerful wine, without being a show off. Similar to the 2010. The vines for Sassicaia were at an altitude where they were protected from the heat of the vintage. The result is a wonderfully crafted wine that I’m sure will please many fans.
Sassicaia 2013 - Black raspberries, succulent blackberries and blueberries hint at a tremendously multi-layered fruit profile. Earthy, forest floor notes and hints of liquorice compounded with that undeniably Tuscan characteristic of minerally-driven graphite added to the complexity. The delicate, silky tannins hold the wine together with remarkable structure. There is a level of restraint behind all this flavour created by the cooler vintage. This is a cocoon patiently waiting to blossom into a wine at the top of its game. The finish resonates and echoes luxurious flavours that will only develop and come to fore with cellaring. Beautiful, understated class. The only problem is that we have to wait so long for this release.
The next stop was Ornellaia, a journey so short that we could have walked it. These neighbours are a stone's throw from each other and have together put Bolgheri on the lips of fine wine enthusiasts across the world. Knowing the prestigious history of both estates one would assume there to be fierce competition, however it was testament to the deep sense of community felt across Tuscany to hear Priscilla from Sassicaia say “we view Ornellaia as our colleagues, not competitors.”
Unfortunately we had to forgo a tour of the Ornellaia vineyards, however I can confirm that the winery is an incredibly impressive sight. The walls are lined with large formats of the Vendemmia d’Artista project dating back several vintages. A true sight to behold; a palace fit for Tuscan royalty.
Despite the brief visit, we still found time to taste and as usual Axel Heinz’s wines never fail to impress.
Le Serre Nuove 2012 - We were able to taste the current vintage of Le Serre Nuove 2012, which reflected the fact that 2012 was a fantastic year for Merlot, due to its warmth. This was an alluring and attractive wine with a good level of minerality and spice to balance out the generous fruit. Le Serre Nuove is certainly a wine to follow as the estate increasingly focuses on removing the title of a second wine. A worthy cause as this is a wine that certainly deserves individual recognition.
Ornellaia 2012 - Next up was an exciting opportunity to taste the new, unreleased vintage of Ornellaia, the 2012. This was an enchanting vintage for the wine which carried striking floral aromatics to compound the rich fruit and mineral qualities. The density of fruit and mouth drying tannins suggested that the wine required plenty of cellaring, but I have no doubt that this will bloom into a classic in years to come. Another Axel Heinz masterpiece, I dare say.
To finish the first day we took the long drive South, down to the Maremma coast to taste through the wonderful wines of Tua Rita. This was such a welcoming experience. We arrived at the estate in darkness and toured through the winery with a special tasting before dinner. And what a dinner it was!
Rita Tua, the namesake of the estate, cooked up a delightful 4 course extravaganza made from local produce and specialities presented in the manner of a fine, Michelin starred restaurant. My eyes lit up when I was told that we would be uncorking bottles of Redigaffi 2004 and Giusto di Notri 2002 over dinner. These are some of my favourite expressions of Bordeaux varieties from anywhere in the world and I had the honour of tasting them whilst enjoying homecooked delicacies in the dining room of Rita Tua herself! Dinner was a true pleasure; I always believe that great wine evokes great conversation and we went far beyond midnight as we slowly tucked our tasting notes away and removed the spittoons.
In the morning, I awoke to this beautiful view.
Finally, before we left I got a sneak preview of the Merlot 2014, a tasting of the fruit that could possibly make up Redigaffi 2014 in three years when the wine is released.
Rosso dei Notri 2012 - Delicious crushed red fruit personifies this wine. There is bracing acidity behind a pure, minerally driven palate. The velvety tannins provide poise on the long finish. A show stopper at this price. Very exciting wine which deserves more attention.
Perlato del Bosco 2012 - Still a little young. This is a spicy, lovely modern Sangiovese containing sour cherry and a complex array of flavours from rubber, leather and pepper. Lifted, refreshing finish that echoes the sweet fruit. This is delicious now, but cellaring would do the wine more justice.
Giusto di Notri 2012 - This Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend contains excellent intensity of fruit behind the minty, slightly leafy character. Rich, opulent notes of cherry and blackberry are waiting to blossom even further. Perfumed aromatics adds a touch of grace. The palate is meaty, fruit filled and contains beautiful notes of cinnamon, cloves and liquorice. This is a wine that usually requires at least 5 years of age, but the 2012 is largely approachable now with a further 10 years of development. A classy Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot that provides excellent value compared to some of its counterparts.
After visiting the beautiful town of San Gimignano (highly recommended), we arrived at Querciabella, high in the hills of Chianti. This region is fascinating from an historical point of view. The hills are lined with “castellos”, erected in the Middle Ages, when high walls were needed as a defense from attacks and feuds over land ownership. Once hotbeds for violence, these monuments now line the horizon as striking features. In the total darkness we could not appreciate the landscape, however we did enjoy a truly memorable dinner at a local restaurant on the border between Siena and Florence.
It was at this restaurant that I learned of a quintessentially Tuscan delicacy; "cinghiale" (wild boar). Never one to go into something half-hearted, I ordered the cinghiale pasta as a starter, followed by a cinghiale main and complimented the whole meal beautifully with Querciabella wines.
After dinner, an audience with Manfred Ings, the head winemaker of this revered estate, was a relaxed affair. Manfred brought out some local Pecorino from the market to go alongside a bottle of the Chianti Classico Riserva 2011. This is a wine where the Riserva is only made in exceptional years and this was an outstanding showing of Querciabella’s famous Chianti Classico.
The next morning, after a spectacular walk up towards the vineyards, we headed to the winery for a tasting of new vintages and a special bottle of Camartina 2007. Stunning.
Camartina 2010 – Very pretty nose of perfumed violets form a luxurious floral characteristic. A rich array of fresh blackberries and black cherries form the backbone of the fruit profile and combines with a spicy mix of red liquorice, cigar box, forest floor. There is currently some restraint and a lean quality behind the wealth of flavour that turns this wine into an elegant and modest masterpiece. The resonating finish contains fresh mint and a mineral quality made up of graphite and forest floor. Rich, silky tannins combine to provide backbone and structure throughout. A seriously good wine.
Chianti Classico 2012 - Rich, fresh fruit which is expected for the vintage. Sweet rhubarb, morello cherries form the profile of this wine’s round and fleshy fruit. Red liquorice, red pepper, cloves and the smallest hint of cayenne pepper adds bite and a savoury edge. The long, spicy finish rounds off this excellent Chianti Classico.
Mongrana 2011 - Rich, opulent fruit, sour cherry, rounded dark red fruit. Spice and forest floor. Firm, structured tannins suggest that the wine could do with another year in bottle. An excellent entry-level wine to their range.
Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 - Sweet spice, sour morello cherries, round, fleshy luxurious fruit compounded with an incredibly complex array of Christmas spices, liquorice, cloves, cinnamon and tobacco. Lengthy finish resonates on the palate. A luxurious Sangiovese that deserves attention with or without food.
Camartina 2007 - Opulent, developed fruit with the smallest hint of plum and port. Dark cherries, dark raspberries. Luxurious truffles and gamey notes show excellent development in the bottle to go alongside a notes of clove and forest floor. The finish contains a fresh mint character and racy acidity that helps the wine resonate with a tremendously long finish.
The perfect way to round off a trip to Tuscany was to go deep into the heart of the Chianti Classico region and visit a winery that is the very essence of local charm. An old 19th century farming settlement that was once a monastery, the first thing we discussed was the winery’s identity. Searching for words to describe the estate, Michela Rosa, part-owner of the estate along with her husband, alluded to previous descriptions as ‘classic’ and ‘traditional’. The feeling was that these words made the estate sound old-fashioned, a trait they did not wish to portray.
After tasting through the wines and observing first-hand how they operate, I would choose the terms ‘local’ and ‘boutique’. This is not a large, well-oiled machine where wine is turned out like clockwork. It is a small, bespoke operation with an unmistakable appreciation for local custom and its indigenous varieties. There is a Chianti Classico and a Riserva along with a particularly charming Vin Santo. The Chianti Classico is released at least three years after fermentation, the Riserva usually takes a minimum of four years and the Vin Santo is created within a small lodge outside the house where the grapes hang dry and then mature in barrel once vinified. Once bottled, the wines are continually tasted and left to age for a period of time depending on vintage and selection.
These are not pristine, polished wines but that doesn’t mean they lack structure or complexity. This is classic Sangiovese, mixed with local varieties including Colorino and Canaiolo. It is made with a striking honesty transmitting the heart of Chianti Classico, collating local charm in every bottle. This is the type of character that is difficult to find in large and sophisticated corporate operations. These wines evoke memories of the region, the smells, the views, the food, the people. It is a wine made to encompass all of these sensory elements.
Chianti Classico 2009 - 80% Sangiovese and 20% Ciliegiolo, Canaiolo and Colorino. The rich sour cherry characteristic of Sangiovese is wonderfully accentuated by the addition of local varieties that add body and rich layers behind the otherwise thin-skinned Sangiovese. This is a hugely enjoyable Chianti Classico. The fruit has a slight brambly character giving it a darker fruit profile than your typical Sangiovese. There is a rich vein of minerality led by notes of pencil shavings and bracy acidity to match the concentrated fruit. Very traditionally made, the estate age this wine for a minimum of 3 years and will not release until it is within its drinking window. The perfect accompaniment to a meaty Tuscan stew.
Vin Santo 2007 - A tremendously complex and layered Vin Santo.Candied orange, ripe notes of banana and raisin, alongside sweet chesnut and honey. Bracy acidity matches and balances out the residual sugar. A voluptuous texture and wealth of flavour makes this the perfect dessert wine. Highly suggest matching this with a banana and chocolate chip loaf. Scrumptious!
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The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Before flying back to London we had just enough time to do a little more sightseeing. This of course involved a trip to the Leaning Tower of Pisa where we struck the standard holiday shot for comedy value. Sadly my version didn’t make it into this blog post, but James' certainly did.
A mighty man holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa
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