Travel Journal

Italy Road Trip, 11/24-12/1: Chianti

(Friday 3 December 2010) by Joanne Chang
***Warning -- there's a lot of wine talk in Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano; if you're not interested, skip the italicized parts or you'll be bored to death***

***Chianti, 11/26-11/28***
I'm so excited to get to Chianti that I leave Orvieto earlier than necessary to get to Felsina Berardenga (the winery) for my 11 a.m. appointment (this rarely happens, I am always leaving and arriving late). Felsina is in Castelnuovo Barendenga, the southernmost part of the Chianti Classico region. Just south is Colli Senesi, another subregion of Chianti (an important delineation in the Italian wine world). I arrive in town 30 minutes early and stop for my second morning cappuccino to bide the time, but because I'm me when it's time to get there I blindly drive past the winery and start heading up an unpaved path up through the hills. It's raining and I'm skeptical this is the right way, and the road is gnarly so I'm clutching the wheel hoping I don't hit a tree or pop a tire. Eventually I call them and go back the way I came, arriving late, as always. Maybe some things about yourself you can't change, but I'll keep trying!

Irene is awesome, and I'm the only one there, excited for my first Chianti education. She shows me through caves from the 12th century and the storage cellar where they use the large Slavonian oak barrels and French "barrique" (like the barrels we use in the States). This mix of barrel types is typical of all the wineries I visit, though they've only started using barriques and non-Italian grape varietals (Cab, Merlot) in the past couple decades for "modern" or "international" wines, ie Super Tuscans -- predominantly to appease markets like the U.S. where the demand is for a rich, round, oaky wine. (As I travel through Tuscany I find that the move towards producing "international" style wines is a bone of contention for those committed to preserving Italy's tradition and the true expression of their varietals and terroir -- I side with the latter.) For wines ages in Slavonian oak they use air locks invented by Leonardo DiVinci to top up barrels and keep oxygen out -- I've never seen this in the States but it turns out all the wineries here use them. I taste the Chianti Classico 2008, Chianti Classico Riserva "Rancia" 2007, Fontalloro 2007, Fontalloro 2004 and Colli Senesi 2009 -- all of which are beautiful Sangiovese-based wines, big, bright clean fruit with a strong earth backbone. The Fontalloro is 100% Sangiovese blended from two vineyards in Colli Senesi and one in Chianti Classico, and though it's their most expensive wine aged longer than the Riserva, it has to be labeled IGT vs. DOCG due to the mix. So, I learn that IGT is not "worse" than DOCG, you just won't always know what you're getting because it's not regulated by the Consortium. I also try my first Vin Santo (dessert wine), made from Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes by hanging or laying the grapes to dry for 6 months, then pressing and aging the juice in very small oak barrels sealed with wax. Nothing goes in or out of these barrels until they break them open for bottling, producing a rich, gold, concentrated sweet wine. Chris McGuire, you would have loved this wine. I leave two hours later with a big smile and a half bottle of their 2006 Chianti Classico. Afterwards I have a belated Thanksgiving lunch of tagliatelle with shaved black truffles at the trattoria across the road. Awesome morning.

My next venture is San Giusto a Rentannano, which was specifically recommended to me by Leonardo from the wine shop in Florence. I don't have an appointment, and they aren't easy to track down. On the way the rain turns into snow! And I'm loving it. Chianti in the snow! When my GPS tells me I've arrived at San Giusto, I see a courtyard with old stone buildings and an an empty office but no apparent winery. I ring a random doorbell and wa-la! It's Elizabetta, one of nine children whose father owned the winery before he passed. Seven of them still live on the property and the brothers make the wine. She takes me to the tasting room / cellar (unmarked, no sign) and there's absolutely nothing fancy about this place -- this is where the work is done and nothing's for show. There's an ancient press in the middle of the room and behind it, a wine rack where the family keeps their collection -- very old vintages, just for them and the journalists. I am so happy and lucky to have found this place, the kind of place I expected to visit in Chianti, an old school family-owned traditional winery. Thank you Leonardo! I taste their Chianti Classico 2008 and Percarlo 2006 (they're sold out of the Riserva). They blow me away. The Classico has a bright raspberry-heaven and floral/violet nose that is really surprising and plain gorgeous. The palate reveals the same, bright clean fruit balanced by an earthy floral backbone and I really love this wine. Yum yum yum. It's one of the best wines I've tasted in Italy, and only 12 euros. The Percarlo is their high-end wine, made with 100% Sangiovese but still labeled IGT, legacy to when 100% Sangiovese wines weren't allowed to carry the DOCG label. This changed in the 1980s but San Giusto decided not to change their designation. I like that -- they don't need to prove to anyone that their wine is good by slapping a DOCG label on it. While I taste she gives me a tour of the very old cellars and the drying room where they make Vin Giusto (ie, Vin Santo), with grapes dried for 4 months and barrel aged 6 years. It's a very dense, almost syrup-y wine, and I can tell it's good but not my style.
I really love this private tour, and Elizabetta is so sweet and the feeling I get from this place is pure joy. So lucky to be here.

On day 2 in Chianti I check out Radda and it's absolutely adorable (I think I say that about all the little Italian towns I go tobut it's true, they are). It's tiny with underground tunnels that house restaurants and shops, and the alleys twist and turn so I'm actually lost in this dime-sized town. It may be the quaintest town I've been to here. It's quiet in the winter and most shops are closed, but I imagine it's bustling in the summer and think I'll need to come back! :D I have a 3 p.m. appointment at Volpaia, not far from Radda, so in between I drive south to Castello di Maleto, an old castle-winery, and San Gusme, a little hamlet (think newborn baby, but old, like Benjamin Buttons). The drive and views are incredible and the sun is out today! Sunny Chianti is exactly what you picture the Italian countryside to be, and more. Picturesque rolling hills, fall colors of gold and green, absolutely stunning. San Gusme is kind of funny, people live there but there's literally nothing open and nobody there. I see maybe five people in total and their piazzas are smaller than my hotel room. There's not much to see here, except more beauty of Chianti which is worth everything, in the end.

Then, Volpaia -- situated just north of Radda on a hilltop, up up up. 37 people live in this village and they all have something or other to do with the wine or olive oil production. They've built pipes underground to move free-run juice via the hilltop's natural gravity from fermentation to barrel -- very cool! Also on the tour are a couple from San Francisco (small world) and Evans from Texas. The most I've interacted with Americans on this trip. We have a formal sit-down tasting of their Vermentino (Prelius) 2009, Chianti Classico 2008, Riserva 2006 and Balifico, a "Super Tuscan" of 65% Sangiovese and 35% Cab. The Chianti Classico contains 10% total of Merlot and Syrah, which soften the acidity and complement the perfume of the Sangiovese, but overall I prefer Sangiovese to stand alone. The Super Tuscans blended with Cab and Merlot overpower Sangiovese and end up tasting more like a California wine to me. Big difference too, in Sangiovese I've had in California vs. Italy. We simply cannot produce this kind of Sangiovese on our land. Rats.

It turns out that Evans and I are staying in the same hotel, and there's only one restaurant open so we go together. They serve complimentary arancini (fried risotto balls), I have mozzarella wrapped with eggplant and prosciutto and a bowl of white bean and sausage soup, and we drink a 2006 Barolo from producer Enrico Serafino. Even decanted, the wine never really opens up; it's big, dense and tannic, and shouldn't be on the wine menu for another couple years, or you need to open it a day before you drink it. Shame. Evans lives in Naples working for the US government to renovate the navy base; he's been here a year and doesn't speak a word of Italian -- he says "I'm from Texas, I can't even speak American" -- and I think not speaking Italian in Naples must be lonely. He'll be here another year, and I'd go out of my mind living in a country that long without being able to speak the language. After two months it's getting on my nerves, you can't really connect with people and you'll always be a tourist, but to each his own. He insists on buying, and I let him. I'll pass it on.

Tomorrow, Montalcino! Mmmm.....Brunello.


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