Visiting Fontodi in Tuscany by Keri Kunzle

I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Tuscany and Umbria last week. While I had been to the cities and towns before (Florence of course, Siena, Lucca, and San Gimignano – all of which are very different and each wonderful), I had never been to visit a single wine estate there. Quale orrore!.

Flaccianello grapes after double sorting

Flaccianello grapes after double sorting

We arrived late in the afternoon at Fontodi, in Panzano in Chianti, where Giovanni Manetti – proprietor, winemaker, and as I was to discover, vineyard worker, met us in the vineyards. Bucket in hand, boots on, his hands having clearly seen dirt (and not just the occasional grape either), he had most definitely worked amongst the harvest workers all day. The estate has been in Giovanni’s family since 1968 and has a gorgeous setting: the vineyards are set in the sun-splashed bowl known as the ‘Conca d’Oro’ (shell of gold).

Our visit was perhaps not well planned, from the perspective of getting Giovanni’s undivided attention – we had arrived in the middle of harvest – and he was very much focused on the job at hand. That is to say, getting the grapes in before the rains arrived. And not just any grapes – the ones from his beloved Flaccianello della Pieve vineyard. A wine that has become one of the top Tuscan wines over the last decade.

A super-Tuscan, because it is 100% Sangiovese, and at the time the wine was first done, this was not allowed via the DOC laws in Chianti. This was partly because Sangiovese at that time was not seen as being able to produce good quality wines on its own (remember the straw covered not-very-good bottles that were on the tables of Italian restaurants not too long ago?). So the DOC laws required additional varietals but only very specific ones. To get away from these restrictions, winemakers started making wine under the IGT classification which enabled them to do pretty much what they wanted as far as varietals were concerned (both including international varietals as well nothing outside Sangiovese).

Sangiovese has undergone extreme scrutiny as people have looked at how to improve the quality of the wines made from it. The particular clones planted, the density of plantings, green harvesting, etc. have all been studied. The upshot of all this was — surprise, surprise — that they all matter. And when yields are kept low and the grapes are planted on the best sites, results completely above and beyond your traditional Chianti can be achieved. Witness any of Fontodi’s wines. Where they have been practicing all this for decades.

For more discussion on “international varietals” and how the laws have evolved in Chianti Classico wines, see a previous blog, Nice Guy Johnnie and Chianti Classico.

While the laws have changed, some wines, both those that are 100% Sangiovese and those with a significant percentage of other grapes, have chosen to continue to use the IGT classification and are still known as Super-Tuscans. Most of these lean toward the bigger and brawnier versions with noticeable amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Giovanni’s ‘Flaccianello della Pieve’ however is elegant, complex, and “remains one of the deeper, darker expressions of varietal sangiovese” [David Lynch and Joe Bastianich’s Vino Italiano Buying Guide]. Not a block-buster, not a wine that is overtly showy, this is a wine reflective of the man who makes it.

Giovanni Manetti is so clearly passionate about what he does, so connected to the land and the grapes grown there, so conscious of every decision that goes into the entire process, that the results perhaps are not surprising.

Giovanni  Sorting

Giovanni Sorting

He was in the vineyards – up to determine where the picking should be done at 6 AM, working with the harvesters until 7 PM. At least his commute is non-existent: he has chosen to live literally in the vineyards. He was at the sorting table (the Flaccianello grapes are double sorted), in the cellar, conferring with the oenologist, not just overseeing but doing every component that goes into his wines. He talked in detail about every step. He pointed out how the grapes at the ends of the rows seldom make it into this wine because they have access to too much in the way of nutrients; they aren’t in competition with neighboring vines on either side. How the grapes are a little smaller, and the bunches a little looser for the grapes that go into the Flaccianello.

We were privileged to taste multiple vintages during our visit, both in the cellar, and over two dinners (definitely another blog. Just two things: white truffles in Tuscany in October, and Mac Dario the butcher in Panzano). In the cellar we tasted all the 2007’s with Giovanni: the Chianti Classico, the Sorbo and Flaccianello. At dinner we had the 2007, 2006, and 1995 Flaccianello along with the 2007 Sorbo. Another dinner saw us with the 2006, 1997, and the 1993 Flaccianello and the 2006 Sorbo. Of all of these, the 1995 Flaccianello was my personal favorite. Incredible beauty and elegance with dried cherries, lots of earth and underbrush, and new leather. It evoked a bit of classed Bordeaux for me – but with red and black cherries instead of currants.

For all I can do to describe it, it remains a wine that must be tasted if you can afford it. It is absolutely a splurge, and definitely a wine for laying down if you buy one of the more recent vintages. Of which the 2006 was fabulous, the 2007 shows great promise – although young of course it is more accessible early on, still with excellent aging potential. It is also worth every penny. If you do get an older vintage make sure it comes from a place with excellent provenance – this is not a wine that will stand up to being mishandled.

And yes, we in fact have managed to procure just two cases of the 1995 from a top-notch importer, who keeps wines impeccably from the time they arrive from Italy to when they are delivered (in this case to our temperature-controlled cellar). If you are interested in any of the Fontodi wines please go to:www.maslow6.com.

View over the Fontodi vineyards

View over the Fontodi vineyards

With the days’ harvest behind him and another promised day of sunshine ahead, Giovanni relaxed – a little – at dinner. We left Panzano the next morning, and I felt like if I were to go home that day, my visit to Italy would have been worthwhile. I have no doubt that in the coming days, Giovanni turned his energy and focus to the grapes that were to be harvested next – his “basic” Chianti Classico – in the same way he was giving the Flaccianello the attention while we were there. One has only to taste his wines to know the difference that having such an individual behind them makes.

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