Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tuscan Tempranillo and More, at Pietro Beconcini

San Miniato, a town on the left bank of the Arno River about 30 miles downstream of Florence, is not particularly known for its wine. Not that they don't grow grapes -- they do, and many farmers traditionally sold to nearby areas that are known for their wines -- but the wines they make never enjoyed much of a reputation.

This of course made is extremely difficult for those who did try to support themselves through winemaking, and while Leonardo Beconcini's father Pietro did manage to install a few cement tanks in the cellar under their house, he wasn't able to line them with glass -- that improvement was made by Leonardo, when he took over operations in the early 90s. Since then Leonardo has added a number of new tanks, all but two cement (he bought a pair of steel tanks one year when he was unable to find used cement tanks), which he keeps outside and uses during the winter months, bottling the wines they contain or transferring them to the cellar when it gets too hot out.

For that matter, Leonardo, whose only white is a Vinsanto, also makes do without computer-regulated refrigeration during fermentation: He keeps an eye on the temperatures in the vats, and if the fermenting wine gets too hot transfers it to a cooler tank outside, and then pumps it back over the cap. Temperature control is something he's like, but for now he makes do with what he has.

This frugality of necessity has also had a profound affect on the way he (and his father before him) managed their vineyards: Rather than periodically pull up the vines and replant them, as is generally done in Italy, Leonardo replaces the individual vines that die with cuttings from the best vines in the vineyard. Doing it this way allows him, on the one hand, to not loose production (and income) for the 3-5 years it takes a newly planted vineyard to begin producing, and, on the other, maintains balance in the vineyard, as most of the vines at any given time are mature, and some as much as 80-90 years old. This way of vineyard management has also led to some unusual surprises.

In particular, he had about 300 vines of a red varietal unlike any to be found in any of his neighbors' vineyards. It was quite particular, budding late and ripening early, and from an agronomic standpoint was actually better adapted to the region than Sangiovese, requiring less effort to cultivate as it was much more resistant to funguses and disease, and thus required fewer treatments -- something that is also important from an environmental standpoint. Moreover, it didn't want a tremendous amount of sun, but rather worked well in the lower parts of the hills.

When he tried microvinifying the grapes from the mystery vine separately the resulting wine was good enough that he decided to use it to make a single-varietal wine of it, rather than add it to the blend as they had always done previously. To make a single-varietal wine one must say what the grape is (to the authorities, especially), and this is where he ran into problems -- while the experts who came to look ruled out the various lesser Tuscan indigenous varietals, for example Foglia Tonda or Pugnitello, nobody was willing to hazard a guess as to what it was.

So Leonardo simply called it X, and continued studying it, propagating it through cuttings from the best vines. The answer finally came from Professor Attilio Scienza, who ran a DNA analysis on the mystery vine, and then called Leonardo to ask how it was that he had Tempranillo vines -- vines not exactly like the Tempranillo now grown in Spain, but clearly displaying the same DNA fingerprint -- in his vineyard.

While Tempranillo is very common in Spain, this was its first known occurrence in Italy, and to have it turn up in a very old and very traditionally managed vineyard rather than an experimental vineyard belonging to someone bent on trying new things was puzzling indeed.

The probable answer is a historical accident. San Miniato was one of the rest stops of the Via Francigena, the route pilgrims traveling overland followed to Rome from points to the north and to the west, and the land now belonging to Leonardo's family once belonged to the Bishopric of San Miniato, which was at one point one of the most important in Tuscany. Bishops of course had to manage their lands, and between 1730 and 1780 Leonardo's parish was home to Giovanbattista Landeschi, who was a cleric, but also a respected agronomist, and introduced many innovations; among other things he had the farmers terrace overly steep lands. Don Landeschi was also interested in viticulture, and wrote about making vineyard selections to improve wine quality -- he didn't go so far as to name the vines he was selecting, but it stands to reason that given his interest in vines a pilgrim might have brought him some, a travel souvenir from a trip to Spain, as it were, and that, when he saw that they were good, he propagated them in the vineyards he managed directly.

As I said, Leonardo took advantage of the time he spent trying to identify "Vine X" to study it, and once he got it approved for cultivation used it to rationalize his vineyards. His land, as you can see from the photographs, gently slopes to the valley floor. In the traditional Tuscan manner it was planted primarily to Sangiovese, and he told me that the grapes (red and white) in the lower vineyards, where the soil is also quite clayey, with enough moisture that drought is never a problem -- further up slope there are also abundant of sea shells, scattered through the sediments and also in lenses -- almost never ripened completely, and also suffered from mildew and other problems to an extent that would make them unusable today.

Enter Tempranillo, which buds late, making it less susceptible to the frosts that can strike valley bottoms in the spring, and ripens early too: The cooler temperatures of the valley bottom slow its ripening some, allowing it to develop greater complexity while ripening fully, while its resistance to disease and mildew allow it to stand up to the moisture. So Leonardo has planted the areas unsuited to Tuscan varietals to Tempranillo. Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia Nera are in the central areas, and there are also two ridge crest plots planted to Sangiovese, for a total of about 12 hectares.

The Wines, Tasted January 12 2012:

Pietro Boconcini Maurleo IGT Toscana 2008
Lot 54/11
Pietro named this after his two sons, Maurizio and Leonardo. It's their base wine, a 50-50 Sangiovese and Malvasia Nera IGT that was originally planned as a Chianti Superiore, though the grapes available made this impossible. It is, instead, typical for San Miniato, and ages in 2, 3, 4, and 5-year old small oak. Deep cherry with black reflections and some almandine in the rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with jammy cherry fruit laced with some wild berry fruit and slight graphite shavings hints iodine, and some spice. On the palate it's medium bodied, with bright cherry fruit supported by greenish vegetal accents and bright acidity shot with some licorice root, and by tannins that are fairly bright, and flow into a tart slightly vegetal finish. Pleasant in a fairly zesty key; there is lively acidity and the oak balances it without muzzling it, providing a smooth round underpinning. A wine that will work well with grilled meats -- spare ribs, for example -- or stews, and also with hearty meat based pasta dishes -- sugo alla Bolognese for example.
1 stars

Pietro Boconcini Chianti Riserva 2009
Lot 336/11
These grapes are from old vines, and in the past Leonardo put them into Reciso, his Sangiovese in purezza. However, these vines are more productive, and he therefore siphoned them off into a new wine, allowing them to produce more. It's 85% Sangiovese, with a mix of Canaiolo and Malvasia Nera. They have always had some Canaiolo -- not a lot, but some, and he even has some Canaiolo rosa (which for now goes into his reds). It ages in large oak. Black cherry with black reflections and some almandine in the rim, which is brick. The bouquet is moderately rich, with cherry fruit laced with menthol and some brambly accents, and also some acidity to provide zest. Also hints wood smoke. On the palate it's medium bodied, with fairly bright cherry fruit supported by moderate acidity and tannins that are fairly smooth. Simple, and fairly direct, a food wine that will work well with what it's served with, not demanding attention, and go very fast.
2 stars

Pietro Boconcini Reciso IGT Toscana 2007
Lot 243/09
This was Leonardo's first wine, first vintage in 1995, and is from 6 small ridge-crest plots on two hilltops. Very steep slopes, and quite different exposures. 4 weeks maceration, more or less. -- it depends upon the quality of the skins. This vintage was aged in barriques and tonneaux (66/33, about 18 months); he now has added 10 hl botti to the mix. Deep black cherry with cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with cherry fruit supported by slight menthol, and some graphite shavings with spice and slight bramble, also some sweetness from alcohol -- it's 14.5% . Nice harmony, and the alcohol is not apparent as such. On the palate it's medium bodied, with full cherry fruit laced with nutmeg spice, and supported by minerality and savory notes, quite mineral, and by tannins that have a warm mineral burr and flow into a clean fairly long mineral finish. Quite pleasant in a rather austere key; it's far from a fruit bomb and as such more particular than some. If you like the style you will enjoy it considerably, but you have to like the style. Nice aging potential too.

Their land is marine sediments, with quite a bit of salt, and also an abundance of fossil shells that release carbonates into the soil.

The Tempranillo Wines

Pietro Boconcini IXE 2008 IGT
Lot 11/11
Ixe (pronounced eexeh) is the Italian pronunciation of the letter X; this is Leonardo's lesser Tempranillo-based wine, made from the roughly 4.5 hectares of Tempranillo he planted between 1997 and 2005. It's about 4.5 ha in all. Here he allows the vines considerable liberty -- they're planted to 6,500 vines ha, and the production of the individual vines depends upon the number of buds. He green harvested through the 5th vintage, but once they reached equilibrium cut back, saying, "it's a very precocious varietal, and reducing the bunch load would lead to overly early ripening. The goal is a simple wine; production is a bit less than 2 k per vine, 130 quintals per hectare. It ages in small oak, all old, and about 30% American oak, which Leonardo uses because American oak oxygenates more, and this counters Tempranillo's tendency to go into reduction. Deep black cherry, close to poured ink. The bouquet is bright, with sour cherry fruit laced with chopped tomato acidity, and savory notes, also some underbrush and bramble, and some wood smoke too, with underlying vegetal notes. On the palate it's medium bodied, with bright rather balsamic fruit -- it's quite distinct from Sangiovese -- supported by warmth and spice, and by tannins that are warm and balsamic and flow into a clean savory finish,. Also some mint on palate and nose. It's interesting, quite pleasant, and also quite obviously not Sangiovese, though just as obviously not one of the popular French varietals; if someone were to hand it to me and say "where's it from?" I might have guessed Calabria. Very fresh -- one wouldn't guess it's 14.5% alcohol -- and will work well with foods, especially grilled meats.
2 stars

Pietro Boconcini Vigna Alle Nicchie IGT Toscana 2007
(Forgot to note the lot number)
This is from the historic vineyard, with the old vines that Leonardo started with, and a small parcel he planted on a ridge crest in 1998 -- a trial, which he is using for this wine. The grapes from the ridge crest are harvested early, and allowed to dry for 4 weeks prior to vinification. His aim is to make a Tempranillo with aging capacity, and to do this he needed ripe grapes. However, ripe grapes are low in acidity, so he harvests some earlier to have the acidity, and then works with the rest, allowing them to ripen. In the end it works it out. The wine is deep pigeon blood ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is powerful, with rich cherry fruit laced with berry fruit jam, some menthol, slight underbrush, and some cumin seed. Interesting, and again clearly distinct from Sangiovese. On the palate it's full, and quite smooth, with elegant balsamic cherry plum fruit supported by savory accents and balsam-laced tannins with some cedar, and as the other elements fade lasting balsamic warmth. Interesting, and enjoyable, powerful and charged too, and because of its sweetness, which is in part alcohol -- 15.5 % -- it will work better with stews or succulent not too fatty roasts than grilled meats. It's reminiscent in some ways of an Amarone type wine, though the drying cycle is much faster. In terms of accompaniments, one might go with peposo, sweet-and-pungent hare (or boar), and other savory dishes with chocolate.
Particular, and though it won't work everywhere it will be perfect in the proper setting.
2 stars

Pietro Boconcini Caratello Vin Santo del Chianti 2001
This is quite traditional, with some Malvasia Nera -- the percentage varies with the vintage, up to 30%. Leonardo generally dries the grapes until February, though this year (2011) it was dry enough that he pressed them at the end of December. The wine ages at least 5 years in a mix of oak and chestnut casks. Leonardo has also begun making an Occhio di Pernice (Vinsanto from red grapes), but won't release it until 2014. This wine is tawny amber with greenish brown accents on the rim and some apricot reflections too. The bouquet is smoky, with considerable walnut skin and some nutmeats, and also quite a bit of sea salt and toasted almonds, and slight brown sugar. None of the oatmeal that sometimes emerges from Vinsanto. Slight dried fig, however. On the palate it's sweet, with the sweetness balanced by considerable savory notes, and by a tremendous wash of walnut supported by some savory accents, flowing into a walnut and toasted almond finish that lasts and lasts. Nuts in a glass, and quite pleasant, and as the nuts fade maple sugar sweetness emerges -- something I hadn't noted in a vinsanto before, but find quite nice.

Want to know more? Visit Pietro Beconcini's Site

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