This time I take the Stand:
In 1997 I went to talk with Sean O'Calaghan at Riecine, and came away much impressed by the wines he and John Dunkley were making, especially the 1994 Chianti Classico Riserva (you'll find the writeup here). Neither of us could have guessed that 1997 was destined to be a turning point: it is becoming increasingly apparent that with that year the weather patterns in Chianti Classico changed.
Before then, Sean says, the summer generally "broke" in mid August, with a week or so of rains, and then warmed again, though usually without reaching the searing summer temperatures, and grape ripening continued though the months of September and into October, when the harvest of the red varietals began, and could continue into November. This aiming for polyphenolic ripeness (ripeness of the tannins and other compounds responsible for the characteristics of the wine), which lags behind sugar ripeness; Sean says that if the weather held they got it, whereas if it started to rain they brought the grapes in. They had to struggle to reach alcohol contents of 12%, while lack of acidity (and the freshness it brings) was never a problem.
1997 was the first really hot year, with heat that carried unbroken into September -- rather than the rainy spell of old, under the new weather pattern there are huge thunderstorms and the sun comes back out -- and the effect on the growing cycle is dramatic: the vines shut down and ripening stops until the temperatures fall off in later September. Sean says they do get phenolic ripeness in the end, but with high sugar contents that lead to wines with 14-15% alcohol; the PH goes up, acidity goes down, and because of this the wine is less stable and more susceptible to Brettanomyces, a decidedly unpleasant alteration.
The post-1997 wines tend to be riper and richer, he says, though there are some exceptions -- 1998, for example, was cooler and he likes it better than the 97 -- and required an adjustment to technique that has taken a number of vintages to figure out; the end result is wines that "will compete more readily with the inky black stuff from around the world."
And the adjustments are on-going; in 2009 Sean decided to do something about excessive alcohol, leaving more bunches on the vines, which as a result distribute the sugars through a larger volume of grapes, keeping concentrations lower, and also leaving more of the leaf canopy to protect the grapes from excessive sunlight. Come September they work through the vineyards, gathering the least promising third of the bunches to make rosato, while the better bunches stay on the vines to finish ripening.
The difference between the 2008 and 2009 vintages is quite apparent. The 2008 Chianti Classico, which was a hot vintage (and such that there will be only a little La Gioia and no Riserva), is brambly on the nose with fairly rich fruit, and on the palate light, ripe, and with a touch of overripeness that translates into softness, while the tannins are brambly and flow into a brambly finish. I found it undecided, wavering along the line between ripe and overripe, like a tightrope walker on a wiggly rope. 14% alcohol.
2009 was cooler, so Sean left a larger fraction of grapes on the vine into September, but did shade everything with the leaf canopy. The 2009 vintage is deep cherry ruby with a deft bouquet that has berry fruit and spice with floral accents and violets; it's much fresher than the 08, and also livelier. The same freshness and life comes though on the palate too, where there is a livliness to the acidity not present in the 08, fresher fruit as well, while the tannins seem somehow smoother because they are better balanced by the acidity. In short, I found it to be a breath of fresh air well worth seeking out. About 13% Alcohol.
This June, as we talked and sipped, looking out over the vineyard below the winery buildings (trained in the Alberello or shrub technique, which Sean likes because there are no wires, though because of the way Sangiovese grows it is difficult to manage) Sean said that the growing cycle was about 3 weeks ahead of schedule. If it cools some, or drought stress kicks in the cycle will slow, but those are ifs.
Looking forward, Sean says winemakers in Chianti (and elsewhere, I would add) have to figure out how to work with the heat, changing viticultural techniques and adjusting winemaking to compensate for it
He is leaving more grapes on the vines to distribute the sugars through a greater volume, and then harvesting some while letting the rest ripen fully. The fresh rosato is a positive development (the rosato he used to make by bleeding some of the must off the top of the fermentation tanks to increase the concentration of what remained was 14% alcohol), while he is also thinking about picking some of the Sangiovese even earlier, when it is more acidic, to make something bubbly, a Blanc de Noirs.
There is by now little doubt that times are changing, and it is going to be very interesting to see how people adapt. Sean, it seems to me, is setting out on a good path.
Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.
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