In the owner’s absence, Stefano the cantiere (cellar worker) does a great job in showing Janet and I around one of the most famous estates in Chianti, Montevertine, named simply after its locality. He is full of a proper pride in his work, in the estate and in the very particular approach which has been followed in recent decades by Sergio Manetti and now his son Martino. Most famous wineries have gone the full modernisation route and are full of new stainless steel tanks and every last gadget. By contrast, Montevertine has decided to stay with the methods of the past and to pay attention in ‘maniacal detail’ (Stefano) to quality working. After this, it is something of a surprise that the estate has a website, though in keeping with its approach, the only item on the ‘news’ page is of the ‘new’ website launched in June 2007. ‘Wine as our parents made it – perfected’ could be their motto.
The story of the estate is well known. It was bought in 1967 by Sergio Manetti, an industrialist who worked in the steel industry and who loved horses, complete with two hectares of vines. He restored it as a country home. When the wine was made from 1971 onwards, it was found to be of good quality. It was taken to Vinitaly, the national trade fair, by the Sienese Chamber of Commerce where it was met with acclaim. In time Sergio left the steel business to concentrate on wine and created one of the most famous wines in Italy. He fell out with the Chianti Classico consortium, specifically over the then ban on the wines being 100% Sangiovese and over the introduction of non-Tuscan varieties in the blend. He was the first grower ever to leave the consortium and with it, the ability to market the wine as Chianti. The wine became vino da tavola and eventually IGT, but neither of these designations stopped it becoming a huge success. Following Sergio’s death in 2000, his son Martino took over the reins and continues in the same mould today.
Montevertine now has 15 hectares of vineyards, with the Le Pergole Torte being nearly all Sangiovese and 46 years old, while Montevertine (the former field for horses) is 40 years old. The vines are trained to a short form of Guyot and Cordone speranato, normally used for volume, but here only four buds are left on the plant. Yields are very low. While they have not gone in for certification in reality they are organic (wines as our parents made them) and biodynamic. They make their own compost and use traditional sprays when it has rained and there is threat of disease. The soils are a mixture of galestro and alberese. The harvest takes place in the early weeks of October because of the altitude of 450 metres when the skins and pips are croccante, crunchy, ensuring around 13 degrees of alcohol and powerful tannins.
Inside, the winery is wonderfully old-fashioned. The wine is moved by gravity but that is about as flash as it gets! The fermentation takes place in old-style vetrified cement containers with no gadgets for temperature control. If things threaten to get over heated, the sole recourse is to take the wine out of the large container, let it cool down a bit and then put it back. Cleaning is by steam and citric acid only, with no commercial products being used. A really unusual feature is the virtual complete absence of stainless steel in the winery, the exception being the closures which complete the cement fermentation vessels. They go to immense lengths to use wood closures on the large wood barrels (botti) and wood and hessian stoppers for the barriques. As a result the wine is really only in contact with the glass lining of the tanks and wood. I am intrigued but puzzled by this.
The same attention to detail is shown in the use of the barriques. As they do not want to mask the fruit, they use the barriques for five years and change a portion every year so that no wine has been predominantly in new wood. They fill the barriques to within one centimetre of the top and close them with a wood plug wrapped in hessian, the later being there to stop the barrel splitting as it expands. The wine and the wood create a perfect seal. The barriques are then tipped by five degrees (so that the closure is always in contact with the wine) and left untouched for a year. The wine gains oxygen but it is micro-filtered through the wood. As there has been so little contact with air, it is worth decanting bottles as they may smell strange to start with but they will recover.
The winery now produces three reds and a private Vin Santo. There used to be a simple white, which they have abandoned, and once they experimented with rosé. Although the three reds are named after vineyards, they are in fact selections, rather than strictly single vineyard wines, the very best Sangiovese going into Le Pergole Torte, old vine Sangiovese with some Colorino (a very small production but with good colour) and some Canaiolo (sweetness) into Montevertine and the fruit of young vines being used for Pian del Ciampolo. The last wine is a sort of replacement for the former ‘Il Sodaccio di Monte Vertine’, though this in fact was second wine of the estate. When the vineyard was replanted Montevertine was promoted to second wine and the newcomer has to serve time waiting for the vines to age! – or rather, now as the vineyard is more mature, the third wine is a selection from younger vines from the whole estate.
My first taste of Montevertine, the second wine, was a few years ago when we ended up in Radda looking for lunch. We had tried in another town but the recommended restaurant, really the whole town, was closed because of a funeral so we drove to Radda instead and fell into the very smart ‘Al Chiasso dei Portici’. I asked what wine they had by the glass and chose the more expensive one. I vividly remembered quizzing the waitress about the wine as I was so impressed by its outstanding quality – and it was Montevertine, ‘an estate just outside the town’. By 2011, the same restaurant – superb food, too many Brits on a summer’s evening in the height of summer! – served Pian del Ciampolo by the glass instead, Montevertine having become rather a serious wine.
While the three wines are very different in intent and in price, they are aged in similar, though not identical ways. Pian del Ciampolo, intended for drinking young, is aged for a year in large botti – well, actually, while they are much bigger than a barrique they are really small botti as the tiny spaces in the old horse stables don’t allow large anything. Montevertine spends two years in the botti and is moved just once. Le Pergole Torte by contrast spends a very quiet year, untouched, in the variously aged barriques and a second in the botti. That is about as complicated as it gets in this winery.
The final section of our route through the winery leads through the storage area which is a homage to past vintages and labels. They have a bottle of the very first vintage – complete with Chianti Classico on the label – and then everything else that followed and some lovely large format bottles. Pride of place goes to Le Pergole Torte and its series of labels. There has been a new one each year since 1988, painted by artist Alberto Manfredi, featuring a woman’s face in a very attractive, broadly Art Deco style.
At the end of a a really engrossing tour, we tasted the current wines:
Montevertine 2008 – lovely reserved nose, enticing sour cherry and pale ripe fruit; edgy with young acidity and tannins, very long for a supposed second wine; surprisingly drinkable now but will improve significantly with more bottle age
Le Pergole Torte 2008 – a denser, slightly more drying version of the above, but a wine that has hardly started on its development in the bottle, with much greater persistence. What is really striking is that these wines are basically about balance and fruit with a fine, acidic and tannic structure. They do not impose themselves on you with large amounts of fruit extraction or alcohol. At the same time they have all the ingredients to develop in the bottle, plus poise, tension and drinkability. Wine as our parents made it – perfected.
For an excellent article and a resumé of current and older vintages of Montevertine, see John Gilman’s View from the Cellar, no. 25, Jan-Feb 2010 (PDF). Many thanks to Stefano and all at Montevertine – may the future be as good as the past.
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