The way to sangiovese

Giovanni Manetti in his Fontodi vineyards in the heart of Chianti. French oak barriques.
Nanjing Night Net

IT’S one of the most prized vineyard sites in Tuscany, evocatively known as conca d’oro – or golden shell – with its south-facing slopes perfectly formed and framed by its natural amphitheatre shape. At its hill’s crest, old stone buildings, including the majestic 11th-century Panzano castle, are a reminder of the area’s history and its ancient dirt.

And that free-draining soil, called galestro, a friable schist-based compound of marl and clay, is scattered throughout Tuscany, especially the Chianti region, wedged between Florence in the north and Siena in south. However, conca d’oro stands alone because it’s mostly galestro. And that suits sangiovese perfectly.

It’s one of the reasons, explains Fontodi winemaker-owner Giovanni Manetti, why his flagship wine, Flaccianello della Pieve, has always been a 100 per cent sangiovese sourced from the best parcels off the conca d’oro vineyards his family have owned since 1968. Yet, Fontodi’s Chianti Classico is also 100 per cent sangiovese – although Italian wine law permits 20 per cent of other red grapes to be added.

”Panzano is regarded as the heart of Chianti, admired for centuries for its vines, and this parcel of land is right in the middle. It’s made for sangiovese,” Manetti says. ”There’s lots of light; it’s cooler between 450 to 520 metres; and it really has a unique microclimate with its galestro soils, so it’s dry and not so fertile and the vines’ roots go down deeply. That’s why the flavours of the territory come out in the wine.”

He believes the region’s wine laws should be stricter. ”Some people say the 80 per cent sangiovese rule is too much but I want it to be more. Then people say, ‘Ah, but you are in Panzano, you’re lucky; in some areas we need to add merlot.’ I don’t agree with that. If winemakers are looking for quality and spending time in their vineyards doing the right job, they can make beautiful sangiovese everywhere in Chianti.”

There are many wonderful sangiovese blends made, with the best allowing the sangiovese to shine. Yet Flaccianello, which has been produced since 1981, is the essence of the variety. It has astonishing energy and definition, yet is fine and subtle, given that it spends 18 months in new French oak barriques. Few can match that refinement.

So how does Fontodi achieve that? It’s all about the minutiae – starting with the detail in vineyards.

The Fontodi estate covers 130 hectares, with about 80 hectares under vine (of which 95 per cent is sangiovese), plus there are olive groves and a herd of magnificent Chianina cattle, all farmed organically and sustainably.

Between every second row of vines, Manetti grows barley to reduce the vines’ vigour, and in turn the crop is harvested in July and fed to the cows, along with legumes, to return nitrogen to the soil, which smells sweet and alive.

”The soil is breathing,” Manetti says. ”It’s never compacted. With organics and this natural approach, we are seeing a self-sufficiency of the vines; they are most resistant to extreme conditions. We are working on the health of the vine.” During vintage, the marc is also fed to the cows, with their manure returned to the vines as compost.

Manetti is mindful that a few decades ago, chemicals were used to achieve the goal of quantity rather than quality. No herbicides or pesticides are used in the vineyards, and since 1990 Fontodi has been organic. The wines are also treated naturally in the winery – no added yeast or enzymes, no fining, just a gentle filtration before bottling.

Now, Manetti is moving into biodynamics. Panzano is a hub of organic and biodynamic practices and Manetti says about 80 per cent of growers employ those methods. He believes that in a few years, the region will be entirely organic.

The movement has been spearheaded by the Unione Viticoltori di Panzano, of which Manetti is president, a group of 20 like-minded growers determined to eradicate synthetic herbicides and pesticides and ensure the region embraces sustainability.

Part of the group’s charter reads: ”Talking about quality, we are convinced that quality wine or excellent wine is, and will always be, one that represents its terroir.”

There’s no better expression of terroir, of conca d’oro, than in Flaccianello, tasted through a bracket comprising the 1981, ’86, the 2001 – the first vintage in which top fruit selection became the focus and has remained so – the ’06, ’07, ’08 and finishing with the beautiful ’09, Fontodi’s best vintage to date.

The 1986 was stonkingly good – medium-bodied, savoury with fine tannins and lovely pure acidity. It has years ahead of it. The ’01 was definitely several steps up in quality and beautifully balanced, with the ’09 promising to be equally long-lived.

Fontodi’s 2008 vintages are due in Australia in September. Try Prince Wine Store in South Melbourne.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.