Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Beconcini, Chianti

Pietro Beconcini – Chianti but not as we know it

In June the Caviste shops hosted tastings of the wines of Pietro Beconcini, a family winery between Pisa and Florence in northern Tuscany. The property is in the wider Chianti zone, but unfortunately, this does little to enhance its reputation. When the Chianti area was defined in 1932 the net was thrown broadly to allow growers to exploit the famous name of Chianti. Scant regard was paid to the distinctive soils of what became Chianti Classico, itself an enlargement of the ancient Lega del Chianti. As a result, top quality growers in the vast area now labelled simply ‘Chianti’ had to find a way to distinguish their bottles from the often dull red wines that flooded the market and ruined the reputation of a once-great name.

The Beconcini family set about this task in a number of ways. They kept a rigorously Tuscan approach to the making of their Chianti-style wines. They also developed a pair of wines which focus on the mystery grape variety which they found growing on their land. Finally, they continued to make the most demanding and quirky of the Tuscan wines, artisan Vin Santo. Let’s look IMG_0989at these three wine styles in turn. Authentic Chianti Wine quality in Tuscany in the 1960s and 1970s underwent something little short of a revolution. The sudden, world-wide, fame of wines such as Sassicaia and Tignanello, raised the ambitions of many growers. They featured French grape varieties (especially Cabernet Sauvignon) and were aged in new 225-litre French barriques. For centuries wine had been made literally for home consumption; suddenly the ambition was to produce world-beating wines which sold for unheard of prices. But in the short term, the revolution also created a real dilemma for producers about the style of the wine to be produced. Was Sangiovese, the main red grape of central Italy, to be the star of the show with its subtle flavour profile (sour cherry, dried fruit, herbs, earth) or was it to become the adjunct to French grape varieties? Was the role of Sangiovese to give the new Bordeaux blends a Tuscan twang? Pietro Beconcini’s choice was to keep to the local grape varieties and oaking regime, ageing the wines in large neutral barrels which did not add flavours. Rather than go down the Super Tuscan route, his aim was to make high-quality Chianti in a style former generations would recognise and which was an expression of Tuscany itself.

This work continues today with the next generation of Leonardo Beconcini and Eva Bellagamba. The entry-level wine Antiche Vie, the standard Chianti and the Chianti riserva are all blends of Sangiovese along with the local minor blending varieties – Canaiolo (softening fruit which fills out the palate), Colorino (colour), Malvasia Nera (perfume) and Ciliegiolo (cherry fruit). They also do a very unusual 50/50 blend of Sangiovese and Malvasia Nera called Maurleo. In these wines, Sangiovese continues to be the dominant factor, fleshed out and given more colour by the local varieties.

The wine of which they are most proud, Reciso, is both traditional (being 100% Sangiovese) and non-traditional, in that it is not a blend. ‘Reciso’ in Italian means ‘sharp’, ‘curt’. In the past Chianti was always a blend including white grapes which helped to soften its astringent tannins and high acidity. Growers simply did not have the skill or the understanding to produce top wines from this difficult and demanding variety, nor was there a market for them. The Beconcini family’s first good move was to devote their best, hill-top, vineyards to the variety. They then select the best parcels for Reciso, fermenting it in the most neutral environment (glass-lined concrete tanks) with naturally occurring yeasts. The wine is aged for up to two years in large, neutral, old wooden barrels (‘botti’) and some French oak 550-litre tonneaux. These enable a long slow oxygenation which allows the wine to develop slowly but without adding new oak flavours. The result is a wine of great concentration which needs perhaps five years in the bottle (the current vintage is 2007) and will be at its best for the next 15 years.

The stranger in our midst

In the vineyards of the estate, alongside the Tuscan clan of Sangiovese and its local blenders, there was also a stranger. Sangiovese is a very late ripening variety but what was this red-berried vine which ripened much earlier and which produced quite lush and aromatic red-berried fruit? Investigation of the leaf shape and, latterly, DNA testing showed that it was the Spanish variety Tempranillo in a rare, perhaps unique, Tuscan manifestation. How did it get there? Probably in the baggage of a pilgrim returning from Santiago de Compostela as the Beconcini estate in San Miniato is on the pilgrim route going south to Rome. Beconcini make two wines from this variety. IXE (ie ‘X’ in Italian), to denote the mystery factor here, is a 90% Tempranillo/10% Sangiovese blend aged in older French and American barrels. Vigna alle Nicche Tempranillo is a top wine which has much greater concentration and ageing potential. For the latter, the fruit of the oldest vines is selected and then air-dried for 3-4 weeks. The wine is aged for two years in new barriques (70% French oak; 30% American oak for the faster ageing which this wood with larger pores gives) and then given a further two years in the bottle before release.

Home sweet home

The traditional Tuscan wine of welcome is Vin Santo, a wine which should be a highly specialised, artisan production. Unfortunately, there are far too many cheap, industrial versions cashing in on the name. The Becconcini offer is genuinely old school. The current vintage of Caratello Vin Santo del Chianti is 2003 and fewer than 1,000 half-bottles were made from the old Tuscan varieties, Trebbiano, Malvasia Bianca, Malvasia Nera and, unusually, a small amount of. The grapes are picked in perfect condition in late September or October and then hung up to dry undercover in a well-ventilated place until March. The resulting raisin juice is then fermented in sealed small barrels (‘caratelli’) which are sealed and left to their own devices for five years. The fermentation process for this very sweet liquid stops and starts through the seasons, defying the standard of good practice in modern wine-making. The end result is only about 20% of the original volume of liquid – so clearly the angels have had more than their fair share. The final wine is a nectar redolent of walnut, date and citrus rind, luscious but not over-sweet with balancing high acidity. This is the wine for which the phrase ‘vino da meditazione’ was invented.

The wines of the Beconcini family are a wonderful example of passionate commitment to their own territory and its wine styles, augmented by a happy historical accident. These are wines to explore and to cherish.

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