Wine Ink: Zooming to Tuscany in a virtual tasting
Roberto Stucchi Prinetti talks us through Chianti, which like many things Italian can be complicated
It is a place. It is a style of wine. But most of all, it is a state of mind.
I was reminded of that as I found myself surrounded by five bottles of Sangiovese wines from the region as I looked into a Zoom camera on my laptop. There, on the screen, I was joined by a gathering of a dozen or so wine writers — all of whom had shown up to taste the aforementioned five wines — virtually, with their maker, the esteemed and very charming Roberto Stucchi Prinetti. Roberto not only makes the wines of Badia a Coltibuono, but he is also a member of the family that has owned and operated the estate and winery since 1846.
I had been looking forward to tasting the wines, but when the Zoom call began and I saw Roberto sitting in an office in Tuscany I was transported to Chianti in my mind. Such, I guess, is the power of Zoom.
I first became aware of Badia a Coltibuono not from the wines they produce but rather through their exquisite olive oils that are imported to the U.S. under the same name. I can remember finding bottles of their oil in upscale markets many years ago, and thought at the time that oil was the raison d’etre for the house.
Ah, but as time as gone on and I began to become more familiar with the wines of the region I came to realize that Badia a Coltibuono, and Roberto Stucchi Prinetti, were not just producers but very important players. I have since become a fan of the Chianti Classico wines that are produced by Badia a Coltibuono, and so the opportunity to taste the wines together was an anticipated pleasure.
The heart of Badia a Coltibuono is the original abbey, or “badia,” in Gaioli in Chianti between Florence and Sienna. The abbey was founded in 1051 by Benedictine monks — wine has been produced almost consistently ever since. The Badia has remained intact and is today a thriving hospitality center with apartments and villas that are available for rental.
The grounds now host a professional educational kitchen and cooking school, and the gardens surrounding the Badia are among the most beautiful in Tuscany. Badia a Coltibuono is a premier destination for those who wish to be inspired by the beauty, history, culinary traditions and, of course, wines that make Tuscany so special. The name Coltibuono translates to mean “Good Cultivation or “Good Harvest” and that tradition carries forward to this day.
If you have been to Tuscany, you know just how beautiful the countryside is, how important food is to the people there and how wine borders on being a religion. Actually, for many producers and consumers in Chianti, wine actually trumps religion.
Like many things Italian, Chianti can be complicated.
The name “Chianti” was first used in reference to wine in 1389. But the region, with its sunny climate, hilly terrain and nurturing limestone and clay soils, had been a mecca for ancient winegrowers for centuries. In 1716, Grand Duke Cosimo III dé Medici of Tuscany’s ruling family decreed a law identifying it as a unique production zone that would forever define a portion of the landscape between Florence and Sienna. This was an early instance of legislation defining a specific area as a wine-growing region and it has provided the template for how wine regions are regulated around the world.
Today, the wines of Chianti are divided and designated in a number of different ways, ranging from geography to quality. A wine that is grown from the greater Chianti region will carry the name Chianti on the label. But there is a special region that is designated as Chianti Classico, and the wines from this region bear that name along with the Gallo Nero, or Black Rooster, on the label. For a wine to wear the Rooster it must consist of at least 80% Sangiovese grapes grown in the Chianti Classico region. The wines, when consumed young, can be very fruity and vibrant with flavors of bright cherries and strawberries and a nose that smells like a basket of freshly picked flowers, still holding dirt on their roots.
Then there is a more recent designation, established in 2014, called “Gran Selezione,” or Grand Selection, that applies to wines that are from single vineyards and vintages that have been decreed as the best and aged an additional six months, for a total of 30 months, in oak barrels before release. The criteria for these wines is still evolving (and there is controversy about which wines actually qualify). Badia a Coltibuono does not currently produce a Gran Selezione designated wine, though many other producers have embraced the moniker.
“To me, the rules of the Gran Selezione are not as well defined as I would like,” Roberto said about the category.
Ah, but they do produce a range of Sangiovese wines that are true to the nature of the region. The wines that the Zoom crew were tasting began with a simple offering from the general Chianti region that was produced with fruit from non-estate vineyards. This inexpensive (you can find it for around $12) accessible wine, called Cetamura (pronounced chay-ta-MOO-ra) was fresh (it was a 2019) and made from 100% Sangiovese. Chilled and served with a pizza on a summer night, it would be an easy sipper. Light and lovely.
But the wines from the Chianti Classico region were a different thing entirely.
We next tasted the 2019 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico DOCG, followed by the 2016 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva. In Chianti Classico, a wine labeled Riserva requires aging for two years in barrel, plus an additional three months in bottle.
“Sangiovese is a grape that can be impacted by the intentions of the painter,” Roberto said about the pliability and versatility of the grape. And both of these wines showed the beauty of Sangiovese. To me, the biggest difference in the 2016 Chianti Classico was the texture of the wine. There was weight to it. The fruit was fresh and present up front and the wine tasted of fresh cherries.
The Riserva also brought to bear differences in mouth feel and refinement. The tannic structure of the wine was evident as the wine had spent two years (the time needed for a Chianti Classico to be designated a Riserva) in large French and Austrian oak casks. This was a wine of substance and one that has the ability to live long. A true example of the best of what the region can offer.
In addition to his role at Badia a Coltibuono, Roberto serves as president of an organization of Chianti-based growers and producers under the “Biodistretto del Chianti” moniker that is dedicated to the propagation of organic and biodynamic practices in the Chianti wine region. Badia a Coltibuono farms organically and is committed to the practices with both their vineyards and olive groves.
“I first became aware of biodynamic farming back when I was a student in the 1970s, but I never caught up with the spiritual side of Steiner,” he said, referring to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the biodynamic movement. But in his oenology studies at the University of California, Davis in the 1980s, Roberto began to be exposed to the certified organic movement that was developing. “We are early in the project (initiated in 2016) but we hope to make a difference in how we farm here in Chianti. It may sound boring, but practices from composting to cover crops can produce better yields and better wines.”
The call was only an hour in length, but it was as informative as it was tasty. And it made all of us who were on it long for a real trip, not just virtual, to the Tuscan countryside.
2015 Badia a Coltibuono “Sangioveto di Toscana” Toscana IGT Sangiovese
As if the Chianti, Chianti Classico and “Gran Selezione” designations were not enough, there is another designation for wines in Italy, the IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica. It is used to describe a wine that is “typical of a geographic region,” but uses other grapes (think blends with Merlot for example) or does not adhere to other rules. In 1980 Badia a Coltibuono defied tradition and made an IGT wine that was 100% Sangiovese from their oldest and best estate vines. While rules have changed, they have determined that they should keep their IGT status. Go figure.
Regardless of the politics and rules, this is a delicious wine and one that is a unique example of the beauty of the grape named for “the blood of Jupiter.” It was a deeper ruby red and had both the elegance and heft of a wine that was intentionally made by its painter. While the other Chianti and Chianto Classico wines of the tasting were delicious, this wine seems to have a different role. Another food-friendly wine, but one that would pair with Bistecca and creamy pastas and not just the more traditional pizza.
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