Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France


Salicutti – attention to detail makes real wine

Podere Salicutti, to give this property its full name, is a small, very special estate, which is essentially the personal expression of its creator, Francesco Leanza.  When he bought it in 1990 it was a typical traditional farm, completely unmodernised.  It had been inhabited by an old farming couple who had done without electricity or modern heating.  While there was a vast amount of work to be done in the house and creating the winery, and just as much on the land, this was in effect starting with a clean slate.  No doubt that was its great attraction – and challenge.  Sig. Leanza is a chemist by profession and oversaw the work on the land in 1992 and the planting of the first vineyards in 1994.  He moved there to give himself to the project entirely in 1997, a year after the very first grapes were harvested.  The farm was run organically from the first and the first in Montalcino to receive organic certification.

The site is extremely attractive if demanding, a quite steep slope facing south, south-east and south-west.  It is classic Montalcino – warm, arid, a mixture of soil types, 450 metres above sea level and, in this southern sector, with protection from the cold north wind.  There are 11 hectares of land overall, of which four are under vine, one and a half devoted to olive trees and the remaining three-plus hectares is woods.  To keep one’s spirits up, there are spectacular views of the unfolding landscape and Monte Amiata.

There are few obvious signs at Salicutti of its owner’s scientific background. One exception is perhaps the map of the geological survey of the property on display. It gives a detailed account of the size, slope, and orientation of each vineyard, and the clones planted, rootstocks used, and so on. Of course, any modern vineyard will make use of the full panoply of modern agricultural knowledge, but few record this in a public way.  In the vinification cellar, there are the standard temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation vats, so this is a more of a conventional winery than, say, the formidably old school Montevertine in Chianti. But stainless steel is now virtually a given: cleanness is next to godliness (and possibly above it) in modern winemaking, while the ability to control fermentation speeds is a vital contribution to expressing the quality of grapes produced.  But apart from the contemporary fermentation vessels, everything else is here about the simplest, traditional methods, working by hand, organic viticulture, slow ageing in wooden vats of various sizes and literally endless attention to detail.  Outstanding wine is not just ‘made in the vineyard’.  It is the slowly nurtured product of thousands of small, undramatic decisions made in the vineyard and the winery, working to get the best out of the potential of a particular place.  This is Francesco Leanza’s philosophy.

geological mapWith four hectares of vines planted at 5,000 vines per hectare, Leanza spends a great deal of his time, along with two workers, on caring for the 20,000 vines.  A current preoccupation is the rising alcohol levels of wines.  While many growers are carrying out a green harvest, reducing yields in the (admirable) pursuit of quality, or at least concentration, Leanza has decided now to keep nearly all the bunches on the wine.  Instead of a green harvest, he and his workers are spending hundreds of hours ensuring that the individual bunches are as equally spread as possible on the vine and so can mature well while carrying more grapes will mean that the skin to pulp ratio will be high – if all goes well, he will end up with plenty of character from the skins and reasonable alcohol levels.  The balance of the wine will be sought through blending the potentially higher alcohol grapes from the sunny Teatro vineyard with the grapes from the marginally less well exposed other vineyards.  The original plants were a ‘Talenti’ massal selection (named after the farm manager who revolutionised quality in Montalcino after the war); now Leanza is working with the University of Pisa to identify the three or four best clones for new plants for the future. There is always much to do here, despite there only being four hectares to work.   He has recently had to plant a new section of the vineyard to replace a parcel on the slope which turned out not to be stable …

Nor is any effort is spared in the winemaking.  A traditional press is used and there is no cold maceration of the must.  Alcoholic fermentation is carried out by the natural yeasts, initially in open vats with lots of access to oxygen – regular rack-and-return in addition to punching down the cap. So there is lots of physical work involved.  Maceration times for the must are between two and three weeks depending on the year – too much alcohol means that the pips can give up overly bitter tannins which has to be avoided.  The wines ferment to dryness without any difficulties despite the 15%+ levels of alcohol and are subject to malolactic fermentation while still in the stainless steel vats. The latter can be used both to keep high fermentation temperatures from getting above 30° C and, further on in the process, to keep the wine warm enough to allow the malo to take place – Montalcino can be cold in autumn and into winter.

Once the malo is completed the wines can be racked off into the wooden maturation barrels.  Leanza has a very clear method here with the long ageing Brunello being moved progressively into bigger containers.  The young wine starts in small barrels (5 hectolitres, ie roughly twice the size of a barrique) and then is moved to 10hl, then to 20hl and finally to 40hl vats.  This means that the youngest, most edgy wine gets the most exposure to the slow oxidation effect of being in oak and then moves (and is blended together) as it grows up … In a small estate, there are relatively few variables at this point.  Much depends on the barrels that you have available and the financial decisions you make about releasing young v. matured wines.   Here for example, because of the smallness of the operation, Leanza makes just the two main wines, Rosso and Brunello.  The wine is initially made separately vineyard by vineyard.  Then a decision can be made as to how much wine is selected for long ageing to become Brunello and how much will be released as Rosso.  Even the latter is hardly rushed out.  The regulations would allow it to be released a year after the harvest. By contrast, this Rosso is matured for 18 months in wood, plus 6 months in bottles, before going on to the market.  The Brunello spends three years completing its education in French oak (though the largest botti are still Slavonian but will be replaced in due course with what we agreed is not the Rolls Royce but the BMW of oak barrels), and then spends at least a year in bottles before release.

We tasted a number of vintages (August 2012), some maturing in wood, plus the current releases:

cask sample‘Brunello’ Teatro 2011 – technically this is ‘wine in the process of becoming Brunello’ as it is years away from release for sale in 2016. It is still a single vineyard wine, from the Teatro vineyard. This infant showed superb, elegant cherry and red plum fruit, lively fine tannins and excellent persistence. It was difficult to believe that it was this young. Modern, expertly made, Brunello doesn’t need years of ageing to become drinkable, it needs the time in wood to begin to express some of its complexity and potential. The wines are not clarified or stabilised in any way other than racking off carefully.  Leanza’s view is: wine really makes itself, we must not spoil it. refilling the airlockHe is certainly succeeding in that aim.

‘Brunello massa’ 2009 – This is the wine which is two years further on in its development as Brunello-to-be.  It is the product of the selected wines from a range of vineyards from this one vintage.   The wine is no longer just about fruit, but the nose has begun to develop those haunting perfumed notes that will only develop further in the bottle.  Plenty of acidity here to balance things out, fine tannins, sour cherry fruit, fine and elegant. Not quite perhaps in the same league as 2011 but good complexity and fruit.

In bottle:

Rosso di Montalcino DOC Sorgente, 2009 – with the finished wines, this estate uses the vineyard names as names for the two wines, reflecting the vineyards from which most of the fruit comes. Thus, the Rosso is called Sorgente, while the Brunello is called Piaggione.   Beautifully light and refreshing to the taste (despite the aforementioned rising alcohol), the acidity shows through positively in this younger wine.   We fell to discussing the aftermath of the Brunello scandal halfway through this wine so my notes are a bit short at this point.  But the hallmark of this Rosso was its suppleness and drinkability.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Piaggione 2007 – evolving leather, tobacco, liquorice, plum and sour cherry notes on the nose; excellent concentration on the palate and a fine cleansing finish. Still crunchy tannins but all round a complex, balanced wine, outstanding.  Buy a case and drink a bottle every two years for the next two decades …

oak vats of various sizesBrunello di Montalcino
Leanza’s approach to the Brunello scandal was to make a positive initiative. He left the Consorzio with dissatisfaction over a proper response to the problems and, with some like-minded growers, set up SPA.  This word is both the equivalent of the English commercial  ‘limited company’ in Italian and an acronym for ‘Sangiovese as a friend’, Sangiovese per amico. Rather than seeing Sangiovese as a ‘problem’ to be solved by adding softening Merlot, SPA hired a research company to carry out a study over three years to create a standard for 100% Sangiovese wines through chemical analysis.  (Once a chemist, always a chemist!)  Each of the three participating wineries will provide vineyard by vineyard samples and so in time a standard for comparison will be established to highlight the purity and provenance of this wine – according to its anthocyanin and flavonoid profile. Leanza is fully aware that this is only a start and is in part a symbolic gesture, but it is a positive contribution to developing Rosso and Brunello as wines made with exclusively Sangiovese grapes in this part of Tuscany.

With many thanks to Sig. Leanza and with much admiration for your commitment to those thousands of small decisions and actions which lead to the creation of real wines of character.  By the time we left the full moon was rising …

Moon and Rocca d'Orcia


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Page created 14 August 2012

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