The conca d’oro, ‘golden bowl’, of Panzano is the closest Chianti gets to a Grand Cru. Of course there is no official Cru system here, growers having to rely either on their own brand names or vineyard names to separate themselves from the pack. But the sheer unbroken expanse of wines below the village of Panzano tells its own story in terms of this very favoured micro-climate.
As you can see in the picture, the top of the slope is covered in cypresses and other trees with vines on the most favoured sloped. The vines don’t have it entirely their own way though, with olives also well represented.
The main vineyard you are looking at belongs to the famous estate of Fontodi, which we visited back in 2006. Their wines are well known in Italy, the UK and beyond for their consistent excellence. The estate, then a very run down farm, was bought in 1968 reputedly only costing $20,000 in a period before great interest was being shown by the Germans and the British in the territory. All the vines were replanted and are now in full maturity. The Manetti family employed top enologist Franco Bernabei and started to make a then revolutionary style of Chianti – relatively deep in colour, full of fruit and integrating new oak. The Fontodi Chianti Classico makes up 50% of the production and is 100% Sangiovese. The wine is aged in French barriques for a year but with no new barrels being used for this wine. Tasted in 2006, 2004, which was an excellent year with high acidity, was redolent of red cherries, violets and minerals, a lovely, sophisticated wine, silky in the mouth but with high acidity for the medium haul. Vigna del Sorbo, Chianti Classico Reserva, 2001 is a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet from a vineyard of the same name, with 25,000 bottles being made but only in the best years. It is aged for two years, with 50% new barriques. It had darker notes on the nose. A superb wine, with blackberry, plums and cherries on the nose and palate, greater concentration, with 20 years of life.
There are then a further two top selections. Flaccianello della Pieve, named after the village Flaccianello is 100% again, but from a rigorous selection of the best bunches from all the vineyards, smaller bunches with small berries which are perfectly mature, for a richer wine. Ageing is for 18-20 months in new barriques and therefore needs time in the bottle and has great development potential. As with other Tuscan superstars Sassicaia or Le Pergole Torte, this started life as a vino da tavola as it wasn’t a Chianti blend as then required by the DOC but it is now IGT Colli della Toscana Centrale, but now could be Chianti DOC. 2001 had a beautiful, integrated nose even in youth, and was muscular and rich with lots of extract. The tannins were a bit sandy but will smooth out in time. Absolutely gorgeous I noted back in 2006 but still needed time to develop. If Syrah is your thing, then there is Casa Via, Syrah, with vines having been planted in the late 1980s – a great piece of foresight when Cabernet was still king for Super Tuscans. This variety did well in the very hot year of 2003: 12-18 months in barriques, 70% new, a superb attack of blackcurrants and black cherry, full and soft in the mouth, excellent – the best non-Sangiovese wine of our 2006 trip I noted. The estate also produces a Vin Santo, a Pinot Noir (a bit different!) and a white called Meriggio, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and oak-fermented Pinot Bianco which I have not tasted.
Six wines are made of which we tasted four. Il Volano IGT Toscana 2007 is 75% Sangiovese and 25% Merlot and as good an entry level wine at €7.25 as you could wish to find: very rich for this price level, excellent depth of fruit, some spiciness which could remind you of oak (but this is aged in stainless steel and bottle). I don’t really approve of Merlot in Chiantishire but on its own merits this is a very good ‘basic’ wine. The Chianti Classico 2007, 100% Sangiovese, from the same excellent year, is an attractive pale ruby red, with fine cherry, leather and some raison notes, cherry and plum on the palate. The bottle we tasted from had a slightly stale or cardboard flavour but I suspect that was just a single bottle problem. Raised in a mixture of barriques, tonneaux and botti, Chianti Classico Riserva 2004 Il Margone is also 100% Sangiovese but with lower yields (35-7 hl/ha) and, I assume, from a single vineyard. 2004 was also a very good year and this is now in its stride: complex and typical riserva combination of red and black fruit, leather, liquorice and smoke on the nose, a fine and rich palate and very good length. Gratius IGT Toscana 2004 is marketed as a Super Tuscan but is in fact 100% Sangiovese. Mr Field obviously understands the American market. The logic goes something like this: the best wines from Tuscany are Super Tuscans; this is our top wine; therefore it is a Super Tuscan – ignoring the point that there is no Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah in sight. The distinctive here is the very low yields of only 22 hl/ha at the highest point of the estate, 400 metre above sea level. The wine is aged in first and second use tonneaux and barriques. Surprisingly, after seven years, this wine leads with new oak on the nose but the fruit is beautiful, full and refined, with powerful if fine and classy tannins.
Around the hill and further to the south there is a sharp turn off the main road which if you take it and persevere you reach the Borgo Salcetino surrounded by the most perfect Tuscan countryside – quite steep slopes, manicured vineyards, traditional farm and country building, olives and woods. It is a perfect little kingdom of its own. The property has been part of the Friuli-based Livon group of wineries since 1996. The building and winery were reconstructed and extended in 2000-04. The estate in total is 20 hectares with 12 hectares planted with Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Standards are high here – the vines are planted at a dense 7,000 plants per hectare with the aim of producing one kilo per plant, with the grapes being picked entirely by hand.
Rossole 2009 – a Sangiovese and Merlot entry level blend – an excellent and lively combination with a Tuscan edge, similar in conception to their neighbours Il Volano (see above).
Chianti Classico 2009 - 100% Sangiovese, just €8, light in colour, cherry fruit, almost like Nebbiolo less the smoke, a good structure with acidity and tannins but perfectly balanced and in harmony, delicious.
‘Lucarello’ Chianti Classico riserva 2007 – the name is what Italians rather charmingly call un nome di fantasia, ie its a selection of the best grapes, not a vineyard name. While it is said to be Sangiovese with a bit of Canaiolo, we were told that in reality it is 100% Sangiovese. Mid weight, very good fruit again developed with choice leather and smoke aromas from two years of ageing in barrels. Very good.
Amid the plethora of good wineries in the Chianti Classico zone, Panzano has a special place on account of its exceptional vineyard and the charm of the countryside.
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