By Celia Strong
It’s my second week in Italy, sorry you’re all not here too. There’s so much to do and see and eat and drink. Today we’re going to have a structured and organized drink, or drinks, all courtesy of our tour and tasting and lunch with Fattorie Melini.
We will learn about the old history and grape varieties from the region we are visiting, Tuscany, and also some first-hand information about the Melini winery — its history, founders and wines.
Some of the oldest winemaking regions in the world are in Italy. Greeks and Etruscans had vineyards here way before the Romans. There is archeological evidence that the Romans had vineyards planted by the 2nd century BC, and they spread all over the country.
Italy is now the world’s largest producer and the fifth in per capita consumption. (I have a slight suspicion that their consumption number may be lower after some of us get out of their country.) There are 20 wine regions, each with a wide range of grape varieties. Many of these grow in more than one region, and many are indigenous to Italy.
Since we are living in Tuscany for the time being — and to save too much boredom from repeating too much from previous articles — we are going to look at the main red variety that Tuscany is known for: Sangiovese. This is the red grape that is responsible for all Chianti wines and other superb red wines as well. (Fattorie Melini is a Chianti winery.)
The name Sangiovese means the “blood of Jove,” Jove being a Roman deity who was king of all the Gods and ruled over the sky/heavens and thunder and lighting. He was also known as Jupiter and was the main Roman deity until Christianity became the primary religion.
There are at least 14 clones of Sangiovese. Brunello is one, and others have been loosely categorized as “grosso” and “piccolo” — big and little — which refers to grape size, not the weight and body of any wine. Some of the clones make better wines when they are blended with other varieties, Chiantis being a perfect example.
Sangiovese is high in acidity and lighter in body. It also has fewer color compounds in its skins. Modern winemakers use low yielding vines, temperature controlled fermentations, extended maceration times, oak barrel aging, malolactic fermentation in barrels and blending in of other varieties to make better wines. When it comes to oak, Sangiovese is a sponge, able to absorb everything from the oak.
Young Sangiovese wines have fresh, fruity flavors of strawberry and a little spiciness. Sangiovese wines are very receptive to barrel aging, picking up oak and vanilla and even tarry flavors, depending on what type of oak, the age of the barrels and how long the wine sits. Traditional Sangiovese shows herbal and bitter cherry notes. In Tuscany, and with Chiantis particularly, legal “recipes” for wines have been adjusted. With the addition of small amounts of Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), Chiantis and Tuscan red wines have achieved new heights. And great success in world markets.
Since 1996, Chianti and Chianti Classico have been, legally, 75 to 100 percent Sangiovese, up to 10 percent Canaiolo (a local red variety), and up to 20 percent of any other approved varieties — Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah.
In 2006, the use of white varieties like Trebbiano and Malvasia were prohibited in Chianti Classico. Legally, Chianti Classico must have a minimum of 12 percent alcohol and be aged for at least seven months in oak. Chianti Classico Riserva must have a minimum of 12.5 percent alcohol and be aged at the winery for at least 24 months. The vineyard yields are legally lower for Chianti Classico by about 30 percent than plain Chianti. (There are other sub-zones in Chianti, besides Classico, but we see almost exclusively Classicos.)
Moving on to our winery, Fattorie Melini is a top level Chianti producer established in 1705. It is located in Gaggiano di Poggibonsi (sort of half way between Siena and Florence) and is carved out of a 1,000 foot high slope.
The Melini family were wealthy Florentines from the Val de Sieve. Their coat of arms included three stars for the Guelfic alliance (an alliance with Popes) and three pomegranates — symbols for sincerity, magnanimity and accord. Their very first wine was Vermiglio, an ancient red Tuscan wine, that they sold in Italy and other parts of Europe in barrels. Of course, the barrels caused problems because the wines were not well preserved in them and they were heavy and wieldy to ship. After consulting with some of the leading experts in enology, the Melinis became more and more the leaders in innovative winemaking, storing and shipping — the whole thing.
In 1830, they also learned to heat their wines to 122 degrees Fahrenheitt — way ahead of their time on this one! (Louis Pasteur “discovered” pasteurization in 1866.)
In 1860, Melini started using the flask shaped, glass bottles, invented by Paolo Carrai, to ship their wines. I’m sure we have all had a straw-covered flask of Chianti at some point in our lives. The city of Florence gave the Melini family a gold medal in 1877, “for having established the most extensive and secure trade of Tuscan wines to foreign markets.”
And, over the years Melini continued to maintain their position as a leader in Tuscan wines.
In 1900, the last Melini died and the winery passed through various owners and wine companies. They are now owned by Gruppo Italiano Vino, which moved them to their present location in the middle of Chianti Classico vineyards. They currently own about 1,200 acres of Chianti land.
And, still leading the way for others, they made, in 1969 for the first time, Melini La Selvanella Chianti Classico Riserva. At the winery today in Italy, surrounded by Sangiovese vines, way up on a hill, we got to taste the 2010 vintage of the great wine. It is made from 100 percent Sangiovese (Sangiovese Grosso). It is all estate grown grapes, fermented, followed by a malolactic fermentation and the wine is aged in French oak barrels for 24 and more months.
Obviously, as soon as you taste this wine you know it’s not just another Chianti. “La Selvanella” is one plot of land. That means this is a vineyard designated Chianti Classico — the first ever in all of Tuscany; a very revolutionary idea when Melini made the first one in 1969. Really, this is one of the very first vineyard designated wines in all of Italy. A Grand Cru, if you like. The Riserva comes from the aging, at the winery, before we get it, but what else would we expect from such great beginnings? Also, La Selvanella is not made every year. Only the good vintages. Sounds like vintage Champagne, doesn’t it? While tasting the 2010 La Selvanella, the question came up about how long it would age. From the winemaker’s mouth: “10 to 15 years.” A pleasant surprise, for sure.
In South Carolina, the 2007 is the current vintage of La Selvanella. It has less tannic, smoother, more developed flavors (truffle, earth, leather, red fruits and berries). This one was aged 30 months in French oak barrels. And the ‘07 vintage in Tuscany? One of the best ever. And tasted beside the 2010, it was hard work. I guess one of us has to do it. The lunch of beef filet with Chianti Classico cream sauce was perfect too.
For $27.99 you can sip this great wine. A Grand Cru Chianti with a mere 93 to 95 point rating. Enjoy.