Friday, January 15, 2021

Sangiovese, the cultivar at Italy's core: Part II, Viticulture -- 15th to 19th century*

Sangiovese is the most widely planted of the Italian varieties (63,000 ha; 10% of all plantings) and is the basis for some of the most important wines in Central Italy. I had previously written about the variety but ongoing research has yielded additional information, requiring an updating of the original material, as well as the way in which it is presented. Towards that end, I will present a more comprehensive view of the variety in four separate posts: clones, viticulture (broader Tuscany in the 14th century; Chianti, 15th to 19th century; Chianti, 20th century), winemaking, and wines. I continue herein with 15th- to 19th-century Chianti viticulture.

Chianti wine has its deepest roots in the period between 1450 and 1550 and a “culture of carefully managed vineyards of Sangiovese in Chianti and Val di Greve dating back to at least 1552” (Nesto and di Savino). Alberello and Testucchio (discussed in a previous post) were two of the most important vine-training systems utilized in the region during the covered period.

Vine Training
Alberello Vine Training
Alberello-trained vines, normally supported by chestnut stakes, were planted in rows along the gradient of the steep hills of Chianti with distances of 1 meter between vines and rows. Olive and fruit trees were sometimes planted among the vines, with the olives especially prized due to their value. According to Nesto and di Savino, the pre-Phylloxera Lamole vineyard was specialized and was planted at more than 10,000 vines/ha. Chianti was so tightly associated with low-training that the method was called all'uso del Chianti when employed elsewhere.

Low-trained vines on steep hillsides will result in steady erosion of topsoil and, over time, a loss of productivity. The farmers in Chianti addressed that problem in two ways. First, they planted the vine rows along the contour of the slope. This impeded the flow of water (and soil) downslope and allowed for more water to be absorbed into the soil. In the case of even steeper slopes, the farmers built stone walls that "would hold back the land and create terraces." 

Alberello-trained vineyard with chestnut staves and 
terraces (For example purposes only; actually a
Mt. Etna vineyard)

Constructing these terraces required "... backbreaking work of countless sharecroppers to break up and excavate the rocks and strata of hardened clay, limestone, and sandstone below the top soil" (Nesto and di Savino). The terraces were configured as follows:
  • Vine rows ran parallel to the curve of the walls
  • Terrace walls preferably faced south providing cover from the cold north winds
  • Radiant heat stored in the rocks warmed the vines, thus advancing ripening
  • Moisture seeping through the walls served as a natural form of irrigation
  • These terraces ranged between 5- and 12-meters wide; the steeper the incline, the narrower the terrace.
Controlled water movement down the terrace levels was of critical importance and was facilitated by a variety of drainage schemes.

Testucchio Vine-Training System
Whereas the alberello is a low-trained system, the Testucchio (local Tuscan name for the hedge maple) was a system of "running vines up trees with tree branches or reeds stuck into the ground to support the vines planted in between ... The testucchi formed a wall of vegetation that usually surrounded a field where other crops were grown or covered a field themselves, in parallel lines." Such a system is illustrated below.

This system was a massive producer of fruit -- in addition to protecting the vines from heat in the summer and absorbing excess humidity during rainy periods -- but, unfortunately, they were rarely fully ripe and generally were the source of low-quality wines.

The ideal locations for this system were soils deep and fertile enough to support the tree growth. In the first half of the 1800s in Chianti, this system was used in the fertile plains and in the low hills. This system was increasingly employed as the mezzadria system became more institutionalized (Nesto and di Savino).

Mezzadria was an evolution of feudalism where the landowner and sharecropper (mezzadro) collaborated in a profit-sharing scheme wherein the landowner provided raw materials, implements, and housing and the sharecropping family:
  • Grew grapes and olives for the production of wine and olive oil
  • Grew vegetables and wheat
  • Raised animals for milk and cheese
  • Raised chickens for eggs
  • Raised other animals for food.
According to Nesto and di Savino, the 1779 period saw the “solidification and expansion of the mezzadria system in Tuscany and Chianti in particular.”

Vine Planting — Replacement and New
The growers had a number of means available to them during this period for replacing vines or planting new vineyards.

Vine Replacement
There were three methods for vine replacement: propagginazione, capogatto, and magliolo. The chart below illustrates the functioning of the initial two systems.

The magliolo system makes use of 2-year-old budwood, approximately 1 meter in length, with the short stub of a 1-year-old cane at one end. The unencumbered end of the budwood is forced into the ground until only the stub is left exposed. This approach is used in a variety of planting scenarios.

Planting New Vineyards
The system for planting new vineyards is similar to the magliolo system described above as regards the implantation of budwood but differs in that the budwood used has been subjected to a type of maturation prior to planting.

According to Nesto and di Savino, lengths of cane from 2-year-old canes are selected and the end with the oldest wood placed into moist, loose soil. After 10 to 12 months, the wood is removed from the soil and is shown to have grown a tuft of roots (That tuft of roots resembles a beard — barba — hence the name barbatella (singular).). This wood is now ready for planting. 


In the Fall prior to planting, a trench 1-meter-wide, and of similar depth, is dug along the contour of the hillside and is halfway filled with rocks; largest rocks at the bottom, smaller ones at the top. The barbatelle are placed in the middle of the trench -- equi-distant from each other -- which is then filled out with loose, rich dirt. The vines are often planted in a quincunx pattern (Nesto and di Savino).

The Quincunx planting system is, essentially, a square planting system with a fifth plant in the center.

Quincunx planting system (
As described in
In viticulture, the quincunx is a planting pattern: the vines, trained as bushes, are arranged in staggered rows that repeat the lines hinted at in the quincunx. It was the favorite system of the ancient era, because at the same time it met the requirements of order, efficient use of the space and aesthetics: the vineyard looks symmetric regardless of the terrains shape.
It is a way of doing viticulture that is very expensive in terms of energy and economic resources: machinery, in fact, can only be employed to a limited extent. Furthermore, to grow and maintain a healthy bush vineyard planted in the quincunx pattern, it is essential that the growers have a long experience in the area where they operate. 
Vine Diseases and Infestations
The region confronted a number of vine diseases and infestations in the latter half of the 19th-century and the early part of the 20th. The first instance was powdery mildew in the 1852 - 1853 period. “The traditional remedies proved to be completely unfounded and useless and were unable to prevent the destruction of the vineyards. Only the new fungicidal substances containing sulphur gave concrete results, but in order to use them, it was necessary to overcome the consolidated opposition of the farmers who were against the rise of such techniques, not only because of the cost, but also because they required the acceptance of the scientific theories of the time” (Mocarelli and Piñeiro).

Downy mildew followed soon after and its solution was the use of copper sulfate. The onslaught of these two diseases overwhelmed the capabilities and knowledge bases of the mezzadri, forcing the region towards a more scientific approach to viticulture. 

The mother of all vine problems was the Phylloxera louse. First evidenced at Castello di Brolio in 1885, it had, by 1932, touched every corner of the region. As was the case throughout Europe, the solution was replantation with vines cleaved to phylloxera-resistant rootstock.

In addition to its economic impact, phylloxera caused a loss of biotype diversity (due to abandonment) and a re-ordering of the cultivar landscape. Sangiovese, for example, became the dominant red variety while Trebbiano Toscana substituted for Malvasia Bianco on the white-variety front.

Viticulture Issues in the 19th Century
In the 19th century it was commonly held that the wines of Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche were of poor quality (Mocarelli and Piñeiro):
  • The maritate system resulted in vines married to tall plants full of leaves which, in turn, prevented the full ripening of the grapes
  • Wide variety of grapes grown in bulk
  • Different types of grapes, though ripening at different times, is harvested simultaneously and co-fermented
  • Mezzadria system promotes quantity over quality 
  • As late as the 1880s, there were still few farmers cultivating low vineyards and specialized vineyards were still rare.
Bettino Ricasoli, proprietor at Castello di Brolio and father of the modern Chianti recipe, identified, as early as 1833, a set of mistakes commonly made by the growers of Chianti and advanced relevant solutions. The mistakes (Nesto and di Savino):
  • Vines planted too densely within rows
  • Leaving heads without cordons forced canes to grow directly from the trunk 
  • Sowing crops among the rows allowed vegetation to bury grape bunches
  • Leaves stripped form low-trained vines too early.
From the middle of the century, Ricasoli had been engaged in the promotion of agriculture capable of raising the economic destiny of the country. In his Regolamento agrario (1843), he advocated that (Nesto and di Savino):
  • Vines be trained low on hills and where exposures were excellent
  • Testucchio system be used with discretion near streams and in flat areas. 
“Guided by his belief in the technical and scientific renewal of agriculture, Baron Ricasoli transformed his Tuscan “Castle of Brolio” into an oenological laboratory to create Chianti” and “ succeeded in convincing the farmers to modify obsolete cultivation criteria.”

Chianti wine had its deepest roots in the period between 1450 and 1550 and a “culture of carefully managed vineyards of Sangiovese in Chianti and Val di Greve dating back to at least  1552” (Nesto and di Savino). Alberello and Testucchio were two of the most important vine-training systems utilized in the region during the covered period.

Low-trained vines on steep hillsides will result in steady erosion of topsoil and, over time, a loss of productivity. The farmers in Chianti addressed that problem by planting the vine rows along the contour of the slope and, on steeper slopes, building stone walls that "would hold back the land and create terraces." 

In the 19th century it was commonly held that the wines of Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche were of poor quality. Bettino Ricasoli, proprietor at Castello di Brolio and father of the modern Chianti recipe, identified, as early as 1833, a set of mistakes commonly made by the growers of Chianti and advanced relevant solutions.

By the end of the period, the region had confronted and mitigated powdery and downy mildew but phylloxera was still an ongoing scourge; its solution was known, however, and was being implemented.

Luca Mocarelli and Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro, Viticulture in the Italy of the Mezzadria (Tuscany, Umbria and Marche) in A. Silvia, et al., Ed., A History of Wine in Europe, 19th to 20th Centuries, Volume I: Winegrowing and Regional Features, Palgrove, 2019.
*Draws heavily on Nesto and di Savino, Chianti Classico.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Vine-Training Systems in use in 14th-century Tuscany*

Siena, in the 14th-century, was a powerful and prosperous city-state ruled by a council of nine rotating citizens who met and conducted the people's business in the Council Room of the Palazzo Pubblico. This Council commissioned the Italian painter Ambrogio Lorenzetta (1290 - 1348) to paint frescoes on the three open walls of the Council Room to illustrate the benefits of good government. Lorenzetta's work is titled The Allegory of Good and Bad Goverment. The fresco on the right wall shows the benefits of good government in the town and in the countryside; and it is the detail of the latter that is of interest to us.

The relevance of the fresco, for our purposes, is its depiction of three different vine-training systems in use in the countryside. The systems illustrated in the painting are identified by Nesto and di Savino as Alberata, Alberello, and (what I refer to as) Anguillara-Pancata. The first and third are of Greek origin, and were brought to Italy by the colonizing Greeks, while the middle system is high-trained and of Etruscan origin. These systems are detailed in the chart below.

It should be noted that Alberata as indicated in the figure above is a part of an extended family with vita Maritata (married to a tree) referring to vines married to a single tree while Alberata refers to vines growing up and through trees and linked to vines on other trees. The concepts are illustrated in the figures below.

Alberata Vine-Training System
(Source: Maria Antonietta Aceto,
La rappresentazione della vite maritata: alcune
recenti identificazioni, Rivista Terra di Lavora,
Anno XI, n. 1, Aprile 2016, pp. 1- 24)

Vita Maritata Vine-Training System
(Source: Maria Antonietta Aceto, 
La rappresentazione della vite maritata: alcune
recenti identificazioni, Rivista Terra di Lavora,
Anno XI, n. 1, Aprile 2016, pp. 1- 24)

Writing two centuries after the completion of the fresco, Girolamo da Firenzuola, reiterated the use of the above training systems and introduced a new one: Pergolas or broncone. Broncone are "tall columns or poles topped with transverse pieces of wood or cane" (Nesto and di Savino).

*After Nesto and di Savino, Chianti Classico.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Tasting the wines of DRC: Échézeaux, Romanée-Saint-Vivant, La Tâche, and Romanée-Conti

In yesterday's post I described the wines tasted at the DRC estate. Today, I describe selected DRC tastings beyond the estate

DRC 2012 Vintage Preview
One of the most highly anticipated events of the 2015 edition of La Paulée de New York was the Domaine de La Romanée-Conti (DRC) 2012 Vintage Preview which was to be held at Daniel and led by the Domaine's co-Director Aubert de Villaine. This event was the first sold out because: (i) of the high esteem in which the Domaine and its wines are held; (ii) it was going to be the first public tasting of this vintage since its bottling; and (iii) given the size of the vintage, there were probably not going to many tasting opportunities of this type in the future. Four of the Domaine's labels were scheduled to be included in the tasting.

Daniel Johnnes (La Paulée founder and Sommelier extraordinaire) introduced the event and then turned the floor over to Jack Daniels, principal of Wilson Daniels, DRCs US importer. Jack added his words of welcome -- to include that the wines had been opened 40 minutes prior and apologizing beforehand for the fact that allocations for this vintage were going to be exceedingly low. He then yielded to Aubert who began with an extensive discusssion of the vintage conditions.

According to Aubert, 2012 had been a vintage of constant change. It was warm in March but then became cold and rainy in April, making it very difficult to work in the vineyards. The vines flowered in the cold weather leading to millerandage. The weather became warm again in June but a heat wave therein caused the loss of some berries. The weather became better in July but then August brought storms. The berries experienced rapid sugar gains in the August- September period. There was no sign of botrytis so they waited to harvest and eventually began on September 21st. It rained for two days during harvest and remained cold. The berry skins were thick, however, and, in addition, the soil did not transfer water to the berries. The final 2012 crop was one-half to one-third the size of a healthy crop.

The wines tasted at the event were as follows:
  • DRC Échézeaux Grand Cru 2012
  • DRC Romanée-Saint-Vivant Grand Cru 2012
  • DRC La Tâche Grand Cru Monople 2012
  • DRC Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Monople 2012
The Échézeaux exhibited pale strawberry, creaminess, and leather on the nose. On the palate ripe Pinot fruit, attractive levels of acidity, spice, balance, and great length. Slight astringency and long, drying finish.

The RSV was less structured than the Échézeaux. On the nose a floral rose aroma along with ripe Pinot fruit, vanilla, and a hint of reduction. On the palate ripe fruit, complexity, and a long, sweet finish. Somewhat reserved and mysterious. A sense of something hidden.

The La Tâche exhibited layered Pinot fruit, richness, wax, and earth. On the palate strawberry, hot spices, baking spice and a long finish.

The Romanée-Conti had cherry, tree bark, and baking spice on the nose to go along with hot spice and savoriness on the palate. Complexity and power. Long, balanced finish.

In his summarization of the tasting, Aubert indicated that the 2012 DRCs had a tendency towards reduction. They had persistence and depth on the palate and are all approachable at this time. They were recently bottled and he was surprised at how well they have taken to the bottle. They are still young but, even at this early stage, are already displaying their individual characteristics:
  • Échézeaux: character
  • RSV: an elegant nose yet austere and hard in the mouth
  • La Tâche: layering
  • La Romanée-Conti: reserved complexity.
He saw the wines of the vintage as being somewhat akin to those of 1991 and 1992 but cautions that we should take them as they are. 

DRC Mini-Horizontal at Bern's
Bern's is one of the most famous mature-wine restaurants in the country, with many wine lovers flying into Tampa to take advantage of its stocks. Winelovers living in the area are loath to have "outsiders" reap all of the bounty of this institution so visit the establishment as often as they can. On one of those trips, Ron, Bev, Parlo and I had ourselves a DRC mini-horizontal.

The first wine tasted in our DRC mini-horizontal was the 2000 Grands Echezeaux. This wine was initially highly floral -- lavender -- to accompany notes of petrol, cherries, and coconut. On the palate this wine was peppery and saline with drying tannins. Initially non-complex, acidic, and lacking a full, round mouthfeel. The finish was medium length. As the wine evolved in the glass, it developed weight but the fruit remained muted and the length remained a challenge. Ron noted cherries and tobacco leaf. He felt that the wine was probably 5 years away from its peak; "It took a while but started to open and strut its stuff." He agreed with my assessment of weight gain over time.

The second bottle was the 2000 Richebourg which was much darker at the core than the Grand Ech and had a floral nose with tar and petrol at the back end. My first thought was that someone had messed up and put a Barolo in a DRC bottle. As the wine evolved, notes of strawberry, watermelon, cigar box and cedar box became apparent. On the palate, spice, great acidity, and a very long finish. This is an extremely high quality wine.

The 2000 La Tâche was even darker at the core than was the Richebourg. Talcum powder and chalkiness on the nose. Over time the talcum powder evolved into soy. Rose petals tea, coffee, burnt tobacco, smoke, coffee grounds, nutmeg, and menthol. Power and weight on the palate along with bright acidity, non-aggressive tannins, and a long, drying finish. Ron characterized this as "another big step up." In his words, "the aromatics really soared after 1 hour in the glass." 

The Night the Lights went out at Bern's
Allan Frischman, of Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart Wine Company, was coming into Orlando on business and, as he had never been to Bern's Steakhouse -- a gap in his wine/food experience that he was anxious to fill -- Ron arranged for us to host him at the restaurant. The opening of the Epicurean Hotel across from Bern's has made traveling to Tampa to eat at the restaurant even more appetizing as your bed is only a stone's throw away from a stellar dining/foodie experience.

Our regular Somm at the restaurant is Brad and before we were fully seated he had appeared with the first of the many wonderful wines that we would have that evening. Now this was a dual purpose visit: (i) the Bern's education of Allan and (ii) drinking a lot of great wine. The wine lists were handed out (a ceremonial process really as we tend to come to the restaurant with a set of defined targets in mind -- wines that have to be drunk before the carpetbaggers drink them all) and Allan remarked that he thought the list would be more commanding in size. Brad left and returned with the list as it used to be in the olden days -- behemoths that had to be chained to the table.

Ron and Allan examining a ginormous vintage Bern's wine list

The second wine poured was the 2000 DRC Grand Échézeaux. This wine was much more rustic in comparison to the La Romanée. It exhibited cinnamon and baking spices along with turpentine, pimento, mocha, coffee, road tar, and animal skin. Over time the mocha and coffee gave way to mushrooms and dried herbs. On the palate, elegant, fine grained, with drying tannins. Layered complexity with a long, elegant finish.

The third wine opened was the 2000 DRC Richebourg. Floral with coriander and cumin on the nose and baking spices layered on top. Coconut oil and orange rind. Sprightly and elfin on the palate though bolstered with an earthiness.

Before the lobster bisque arrived, the lights went out. Luckily this is hurricane country so emergency lights flipped on immediately. The lights stayed off for about 5 minutes during which time Bev kept assuring Allan that this was highly unusual. "This has never happened before," she said. There were no grand announcements from management. No one seemed overly concerned. So I began wondering whether it was a divine message targeted at me. Could it be that some higher power was saying get out while you still can? Bern's has it hands halfway down your pockets but if you leave now you will still be able to feed your family in the future. I looked around but no one else seemed to be paying attention to this voice. So I ignored it. And I paid. Dearly.

With lights once again abundant, we turned to the fourth bottle from the Grand Cru vineyards of Vosne-Romanée/Flagey-Échézeaux, the 2000 DRC La Tâche. This wine was dusky, ephemeral, and muted, with a loose tea leaf note. Expressive on the palate, much more so than on the nose. Bright red fruit. Rich but elegant. Appropriate acidity. Stony minerality with a drying character. Balanced with a tea finish.

As Ron pointed out, the drinking of this bottle of La Tâche signals the end of an era. Brad had told us a few visits ago that we had drunk the last bottle of 2000 La Tâche but then he had found two more cases in the byzantine cellar. He again informed us on Friday night that we had bought the last bottle of the wine. This means that if you ever see this wine on the Bern's list, they would have acquired it at auction ( a non-Bern's original) and it will be priced accordingly.

Victoria and Albert Tasting
We followed up the white Burgs with a red Burgundy flight: 1971 Remoissenet Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru1966 Leroy Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru, and 1983 DRC Richebourg. The Richebourg was musty and moldy with notes of preserved dried cherries and orange rind. Disappointing on the palate. Disaggregated and lacking acidity. 

Throwback Brunch at Hyatt La Cocquina
We were excited when the Hyatt Grand Regency Orlando opted to reprise its classic La Coquina Brunch and snapped up a few tickets. So were a lot of other local folks as we ran into a lot of friends who had, like me, come to recapture some of the memories. I was in the kitchen with Adam of and Eric K., looking over the wine offering of the hotel when we noticed that they had a bottle of 1988 DRC La Tache. We called the manager over and began a discussion about acquiring it. I went back to my table while the Manager went off to consult with his people about the sale of the bottle. The next thing I knew I was called over to the wineontheway table; they had bought the bottle. The wine appeared rather delicate in the glass but the fragrance was powerful. Strawberries and muted red fruits. Firm on the palate but elegant nonetheless. Still youthful. Balanced. Slight drying tannins. This elevated what had already been a glorious day. 

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Reprise of a visit to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) with Raj Parr

With a history dating back to 1232, and wines that are revered by collectors, critics, and fellow winemakers alike, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is the most esteemed of the world's wine estates.

This exalted position -- and limited production volume, customers, and selling effort required -- renders a visit to the property a hard get. Due to Ron's efforts, however, we were able to secure an invitation and visited this hallowed ground in the company of Raj Par. The visit actually unfolded over three days: (i) a visit to the Grand Cru vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet; (ii) an extensive visit to the Vosne-Romanée and Flagey-Échézeaux vineyards; and (iii) a second (brief) trip to the Vosne-Romanée vineyard and the winery visit/tasting.

Currently DRC farms 27.8146 ha of vines distributed among the Grand Cru vineyards illustrated in the maps and pictures provided below. Of that total: 25.54 ha are owned and 2.2746 ha rented; 27.1446 are planted to Pinot Noir and 0.67 ha to Chardonnay; 16.67 ha are in Vosne-Romanée, 8.2 ha in Flagey-Échézeaux, 0.67 ha in Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, and 2.2746 ha in Aloxe-Corton; and two vineyards (7.87 ha) are monopole.

Montrachet illustrated by the wine-colored rectangle.
Chevalier-Montrachet in foreground and Montrachet beyond.

DRC owns vineyards in all of the above Grand Cru properties except 
La Grande Rue and La Romanée. Source:

Corton showing the three climats (midpoint, right-hand side) 
wherein DRC has rented land: Les Clos du Roi, Bressandes, 
and Renardes.

                                                 DRC Vineyards and Production
Grand Cru Vineyard
Size (ha)/DRC Share
Average Vine Age (Years)
Production (2010 btls)
La Tâche
Brown calcareous; deeper at top

Romanée Conti
Brown limestone soils 60 cm deep; major clay component

Brown calcareous over hard limestone

Similar to Romanée-Conti but deeper
Grands Échezeaux
Marl and gravel over limestone; eastern exposure; 230 - 300 m elevation

Same as for Grands; 3 - 4% slope; 250 m elevation
Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet
Le Montrachet
Thinner, stonier, less fertile than neighbors

Rented vyds in 3 climats:
  • Le Clos du Roi
  • Bressandes
  • Renardes


Late Jurassic soils
First vintage 2009; total of 8480 bottles in 2010

The farming philosophy that rules at DRC is a "respect for the soils and its equilibrium" with the winemaker's role being restricted to translating the soils' qualities "with fidelity." The vines are farmed biodynamically and yields are kept low (20 to 30 hl/ha versus the permitted 42 hl/ha) through a combination of rigorous green harvesting and old vines. The combination of climate, soils, and viticultural practices ensures delivery of consistently high quality fruit to the cellar for the production of these magnificent wines.

We arrived at DRC estate right on time for our tour and tasting. The DRC office is separated from the street by a walled, paved courtyard with ingress provided through a black wrought-iron door. The gate was locked but there was a communication device on the wall and we used that to announce ourselves. A tinny voice queried as to who we were there to see and whether we had an appointment. We provided the required information and, after a short delay, were buzzed in. We crossed the courtyard and entered the building through the main door. A woman was sitting at a desk to the right of the entrance portal and she asked us to sit and await M. de Villaine's arrival. The M. (Aubert) de Villaine, co-Managing Director and the face of DRC. This was great news to us. 

M. de Villaine literally came down from the floor above and meticulously shook the hands of every person present. He paused for some additional dialogue with Raj and then proceeded to address us as a group. He first thanked us for coming and then apologized for not being able to lead us in the tasting due to a prior commitment. He then introduced us to Bernard Noblet, the DRC Cellar Master who, he said, would be leading us in the tasting in his stead. He explained that we would be tasting the 2013 vintage out of barrels in the cellars below. After some additional dialogue he turned us over to Bernard who beckoned for us to follow him.

Ron and Aubert de Villane

We exited the building via the door we had entered and made our way to a second door which Bernard opened. Small stone steps led down into a series of small, oak-barrel-occupied rooms. While still on the outside, we had each been provided with a wine glass. Bernard was carrying a pail which contained a wine thief and his wine glass.

Our first stop was at the room containing the 2013 Échézeaux. According to Bernard, all of the wines we would be tasting would be in one stage or the other of malolactic fermentation (MLF); this particular wine was approximately 50% through. The 2013 vintage had been a difficult one he said ( a refrain we heard at every stop during our tour of the region) due to widespread rain and hailstorms which kept volumes low.

Bernard working the wine thief

As Bernard began pulling wine out of the barrels for us to taste, he shared some of the estate's winemaking philosophies and practices with us. The chart below is a high level view of DRCs winemaking steps and practices.

The estate harvests its grapes late as it pursues phenolic ripeness. They sort assiduously and will make several passes through the vineyards in their effort to ensure that every berry is picked at optimal ripeness. In his view, wines should be drinkable at any point in their bottled life so they strive to make wines that are accessible but will still age well.

The entire lineup had been tasted by the time we exited the cellars. The wines were in varying stages of malic acid to lactic acid conversion, polymerization had not yet begun softening the tannins, and the micro-oxygenization associated with oak aging had not yet begun to make a meaningful contribution to the final organoleptic characteristics of the wine. There was some hardness to the wines and aggressive tannins in the case of the Grand Echezeaux and Romanée-St-Vivant. Ron found the Corton approachable and in possession of cherry flavors. Bernard described the Richebourg as still awkward, "like a girl that has not gone through puberty." The La Tâche was smoother and more elegant with an element of savoriness. The Romanée-Conti, even at this early stage, manifested finesse and elegance to accompany a florality. Overall, the quality of these wines were unmistakeable.

A couple of times during the tasting, Ron and I looked at each other and smiled in disbelief. We were at DRC tasting the "drops of God" out of barrel in a vintage where production had been severely curtailed so every glass was extremely valuable; with the person (Bernard) who had been responsible for the elaboration of these wines for many a year; accompanied by one of the leading Burgundy experts (Raj); and our wives were along to share the experience. It was fascinating and educational to watch and listen to the interaction between Bernard and Raj. Bernard, while dressed as a farmer, exuded an air of confidence and suave urbanity while his wine descriptors were loaded and suggestive of an appreciation of the fairer sex. He only spoke French while his audience spoke English (with 1.5 exceptions) but he did not allow the facts on the ground to in any way limit his verbosity. Peter Thustrup, a wine dealer specializing in DRC, was along on the tasting and did a yeoman job of translating the Bernard/Raj interactions and Bernard's ruminations for us.

Ron, Jean-Charles, and Peter

We had been down in the DRC barrel cellars for a while so the light seemed especially bright when we re-emerged from our temporary subterranean domicile. Our struggles to adjust to the light did not in any way diminish our high. We had just completed tasting-through the 2013 lineup from barrel and were ready to go talk about it over lunch. But wait. Not yet. Bernard said something and then began walking off into the distance. Peter said that we needed to follow him as the tasting was to continue at the estate's bottle storage facility which was housed in another building a little ways away. This was a welcome, though unanticipated, development. A crowner. A topper. Found money.

We followed Bernard down a few narrow streets for about 250 yards to our eventual destination. We entered through large wooden doors and then immediately stepped down into the obligatory cellar. Except this one was populated by dark, unlabeled bottles set into alcoves, with each alcove identified by the wine contained therein and the number of bottles in the stock.

We rolled by a number of these alcoves until we arrived at a dimly lit room -- which was also the terminal point of the cellar -- furnished with a solitary table positioned centrally and adorned with two candles on stands. Bernard laid his (now) straw basket on the table and disappeared. After a short while he re-appeared with three .375 ml unlabeled bottles which he placed on the table beside the straw basket. We were going to be blind-tasting the wines contained in these bottles and providing our conclusions as to the labels and vintages. We were okay with this. We had two "Somms" in our group.

As he was pouring the first wine, Bernard mentioned that it was from a great vintage where both the quantity and quality of the harvested grapes were high. The wine showed some stemminess along with floral notes and spice. Great complexity and a lengthy finish. Youthful. This wine was revealed to be a 1999 Grand Échézeaux and I do not recall anyone hitting that on the button.

The second bottle, according to Bernard, was from an exceptional vintage. It had a reductive nose which soon gave way to a savory complexity. Ron noted ripe fruit, elegance, and power. This wine had some age on it. Revealed to be the 1990 Grand Échézeaux and my notes do not indicate anyone jumping up and down because they nailed it.

The third bottle had apple-pear notes, a rich oiliness, honey, brown butter, hazelnut, almonds, caramel and a stemminess. I thought the acid level was low. This wine turned out to be a "ringer." It was a 2007 Bâtard-Montrachet, a wine of which the estate only produces 300 bottles for family consumption. Ron felt that it was the best Bâtard that he had ever had. I know that no one got this one right.

Bernard was having such a great time that he brought a fourth bottle to the table. While pouring, he described the wine as the product of a difficult vintage. It had a watery-gold color with a broad, pale rim. On the nose, molasses, brown sugar, caramel, a nuttiness, dates, figs, and mushrooms. Ron thought it had, additionally, tangerine and orange-rind notes. Balanced on the palate. This was a unique wine for both Ron and me. Raj thought that it was a 1977 Montrachet and provided the reasons for his conclusions. It was  a 1977 Montrachet. I was doubly impressed: first by the wine and then by Raj's recall.

Now Bernard had created a monster. We kept saying things like "encore" but he did not get the message. He began trudging purposefully towards the exit. We followed grudgingly. It was over. Now we could go to lunch and talk about our great experiences.

I will cover my tastings of DRC outside of Burgundy in a follow-up post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Sangiovese, the cultivar at Italy's core: Part I, the clones

Sangiovese is the most widely planted of the Italian varieties (63,000 ha; 10% of all plantings) and is the basis for some of the most important wines in Central Italy. I had previously written about the variety but ongoing research has yielded additional information, requiring an updating of the original material, as well as the way in which it is presented. Towards that end, I will present a more comprehensive view of the variety in four separate posts: clones, viticulture, winemaking, and wines. I begin herein with Part I, clones.

The Variety
The grape, the name of which translates to "Blood of Jove," is small-to-medium in size, round-to-oval in shape, and grows in tight clusters with wings at the shoulders. The skin is thin, with a deep-blue to dark-purple color. The flesh is translucent, seeded, and endowed with high acidity and medium-to-strong tannins.

In addition to the name Sangiovese, the variety has been referenced variously as: Sangiovese grosso, Sangiovese piccolo, Sangioveto, Sangiogheto, San Gioveto, San Zoveto, Prugnolo, Morellino, Brunello, and Nielluccio.

Research has shown it to be the offspring of Calabrese Contenuova and Ciliegiolo but this finding has been disputed by subsequent, competing research results.

A total of 70,948 ha of Sangiovese is planted worldwide, with 63,000 ha of that total located within the borders of Italy. Argentina (2804 ha), Romania (1700 ha), Corsica (1633 ha), California (1371 ha) and Australia (440 ha) are the other "significant" players on the field. Within Italy, plantings are concentrated within the Central provinces but are also to be found in Lombardia, Emilia Romagna, Valpolicella, Campania, and Sicily.

In their book Chianti Classico, Nesto and di Savino highlight some of the early confusion as regards Sangiovese biotypes. Writings from 1906 had identified two Sangiovese biotypes: Grosso (also called dolce) and Piccolo (also called forte). It was believed that the Grosso biotype had three distinct subgroups: Sangioveto in Chianti Classico, Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano, and Brunello (Sangiovese Grosso) in Montalcino. Post the 1990s, however, genetic studies have revealed all of the foregoing to be a single biotype differentiated by the growing environment. According to Professor Malle of the University of Florence (quoted in Nesto and di Savino), Sangiovese is "phenotypically unstable."

From 1960 to 1980, Sangiovese was grown almost exclusively for quantity. The most important goal in clonal research, according to Kerin O'Keefe (Brunello di Montalcino), is improving and stabilizing quality, with disease control as the main focus. Nesto and di Savino identify the characteristics that have the most value for biotype selection as:
  • Early ripening
  • Looser bunches -- less compact bunches allow air and light to pass through, provisding better resistance to many fungal diseases and giving berries in the middle of the bunch the chance to attain phenolic ripeness (O'Keefe)
  • Small bunches
  • Thick skins
  • Small berries
  • Growth that balances fruit and vegetation
  • Disease resistance.
Prior to the 1980s, clonal research on the Sangiovese variety was small scale and carried out primarily at the academic level. For example, Biondi Santi had aligned with the University of Florence and that collaboration at Il Greppo yielded the now-famous BBS11 clone which was itself selected over a number of clones grown at the facility over a five-harvest period (O'Keefe).

During the 1970s, four clones of Sangiovese were propagated for use. Nesto and di Savino refer to these as first-generation clones. They are shown in the table below. Of the four, T19 was never certified because of its virus load.

Table 1. First-Generation Sangiovese Clones (after Nesto and di Savino)






  • Original budwood selected from Lamole in Chianti Classico
  • Known as Grosso Lamole
  • High-yielding clone that was criticized in the 1990s for making pale, thin wines



  • Known as Media Predappio
  • Selected and developed in the Romagnon hills northeast of Tuscany
  • Popular for making fruity and moderately colored wines


University of Florence

  • Selected from Tuscany
  • Deeper color than R10


Viticulturist Remigio Bordessi in Emilio-Romagno

  • Deepest color, most sugar, highest acidity, lowest pH among all clones
  • Floral aromas and firm tannins a la R24
  • Matured later than all other Sangiovese clones
  • Loose bunches
  • Could not be certified because it had two viruses

In 1982, Banfi, in cooperation with the University of Milan, initiated a Sangiovese clonal study which initially identified 650 clones, further whittled down to 180 and then to 15 which represented "the greater part of the grape's inherent variables." From these 15 clones they distilled six (Janus 10, Janus 20, Tin 10, Tin 50, BF 30, BF 10) which were registered in 1996. The foregoing, plus the VCR5 and VCR6 clones selected from Il Poggione vineyards by Rauscedo, comprise Nesto and di Savino's second-generation clones.

Table 2. Banfi Clones (after Banfi)



BF 10

  • Medium-big clusters and berry, high yield and concentration of phenols and anthocyanins
  • Wine characterized by spicy and phenolic scents with high typicity and significant tannic content

BF 30

  • Medium clusters, medium-big berry, average yield, and high concentration of phenols and anthocyanins
  • The wine shows a high typicity with good structure and phenolic concentration
  • Aromas of red fruits, phenol, and tobacco
  • Good alcohol content


  • Medium-small clusters and berries, average yield, higher-than-average sugar content
  • Good typicity with greater structure and phenolic content
  • Aroma of ripe apples and flowers


  • Medium-small clusters and berries, lower-than-average yield
  • Wine of very high typicity, showing a deep color and good polyphenolic and alcohol content
  • Aromas of flowers and red fruits

TIN 10

  • Large cluster, medium berry, average yield, with high phenolic content
  • Aromas of ripe apple, flowers and spice
  • Good structure with high alcoholic strength and a higher-than-average polyphenolic level

TIN 50

  • Medium-large cluster and berries with high yield and polyphenolic content
  • Intense bouquet
  • Good typicity with high alcoholic structure and dry extract

As stipulated by Banfi, the goal of their research was not to identify a super clone but, rather, "a group of clones that together" could best harness the complexity and variability of Sangiovese. "As a result, starting in 1992 all of the new plantings of Sangiovese on the estate are characterized by the presence of at least three selected clones that are complementary to each other, chosen for the individual characteristics of the soils in each vineyard site" (Banfi).

The initiation of the Chianti Classico 2000 study signaled a changing approach to clonal research. This study was initially designed by the Chianti Classico Consorzio in 1987 with the goals of modernizing viticulture in the region and improving the quality of future wines (Tim Gaiser MS). The design of the effort included 16 experimental vineyards (planted over 25 ha) and five research cellars to vinify the grapes. This collaboration between the Chianti Classico Consorzio and the Universities of Florence and Pisa unfolded over 16 years and studied all aspects of cultivation to include cultivars, vine planting density, rootstocks, training systems, and soil management.

The initial portions of the study identified 239 clones in the Chianti Classico area and these were whittled down to 34 (24 Sangiovese, eight Canaiolo, and two Colorino) which had high immunity to common viral diseases. In 1995 these clones were planted to specific vineyard soils and resulted in the identification of eight new clones that were ideally suited to the Chianti Classico region. These clones were characterized by (Gaiser MS):
  • Smaller berries
  • Thicker skins
  • More open bunches
  • More consistency through varied climatic conditions
These eight new clones were registered as CCL 2000 nos. 1 - 8.

Another clone set that bears mentioning is the collaboration between Col d'Orcia and the University of Florence in the former's Poggio al Vento vineyard. The work yielded the SG-CDO-4 and SG-CDO-5 clones in 2003 and the SG-CDO-8 in 2001.

Massal Selection
Nesto and di Savino point to a movement among Sangiovese growers away from clonal selection and towards massal selection. Decanter describes mass(al) selection thusly:
... some growers prefer to plant new vineyards, or replace dead vines ... with wood taken from old vineyards planted before the days of clonal planting. By doing this, they can preserve the clonal variation of these older vineyards, many of which were planted with vines produced from wood taken from a region's successful vineyards. Thus their vineyards are populated with vines having significant clonal variation ...
For Nesto and di Savino, the Sangiovese growers are just plain comfortable with the performance of their selections that they propogate because they have observed their successful performance in the "target environment"over a long period.

I will continue this series with a future post on Sangiovese viticulture.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme