This history of Chianti is long and complex and today the region of production is divided into several sub-regions with the Chianti Classico region – considered the best of them, and where it all began – at its heart sitting neatly between Firenze in the north and Siena in the south. Early attempts to define what the make up of the wine should be resulted in too great a proportion of white grapes being permitted but this has, over time, been corrected to the point in 2006 where the use of white varieties in Chianti Classico was outlawed. The traditional white varieties are still permitted (up to certain levels) in the surrounding regions of Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Pisane, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Montalbano and Chianti Rufina but Chianti Classico wines now have a distinctive character all of their own, and are much the better for it.
Mario and Galina Lazarides own and run Rietine (pronounces Re-ee-tine-ay) a winery in the south of the Chianti Classico region, about 8km as the crow flies south east of the town of Radda in Chianti. It feels like about 20km by road because you don’t go anywhere quickly in Tuscany. The undulating hills, sweeping valleys and mix of vineyards, olive groves and forest somehow always seem to be in the way and it’s one of the easiest, but nicest, places on the planet to get lost!
|Mario & Galina in their cellar at Rietine
Mario explains that he has 12 hectares in total of which 7 hectares are vineyards. There is an approximate mix of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot as well as a few small plantings of other varieties. He aims to make about 5,000 litres per hectare as long as he has no vines missing, and many vineyards in Chianti Classico are missing vines – mostly white varieties that were grubbed up following the 2006 ruling. Indeed some producers still make 5,000 litres per hectare even when their vineyards are missing vines which obviously has an effect on concentration. The Consorzio are now checking vineyards for missing vines and adjusting permitted yields accordingly. “About time too!” says Mario.
Each vine is expected to yield 6 or 7 bunches of grapes, though vines destined for Chianti Classico Riserva production will be reduced to 4 or 5 bunches in about June to encourage concentration. In August some leaves are removed from the vines to aid ripening and the grapes, once ripe, are hand-harvested enabling close inspection and selection of each bunch. 2011 is a good vintage but quantity is down by about 30%.
|The vineyards of Chianti Classico
|Mario has several different varieties on oak casks in his cellar, all French but from different oaks (Allier, Troncais, Limousin, Nevers and Vosges) each barrique is marked with a letter to denote its origin. Chianti Classico Riserva and Rietine’s “Super Tuscan” (Tiziano) see 24 months in oak. New casks are toasted gently for 45 mins before use. Mario is quite particular about which oak variety is used for what.
Rietine’s 2007 Chianti Classico is 80% Sangiovese (which is must be by law) and 20% Merlot. It is poised, balanced and fine with fresh cherry fruit on the nose expanding in the mouth to hints of damson. The flavours are focussed and pure. Mario explains that he is not 100% happy with the 2008 Chianti Classico which will be sold off as declassified wine. This is honourable in my book and demonstrates Mario’s adherence to strict quality standards for his wines. His 2007 Chianti Classico Riserva is 100% Sangiovese and is much more concentrated than the straight Classico; rich yet elegant, not simply bigger and oakier which many other Riserva can so often be. The use of oak is very gentle adding, correctly, a seasoning to the wine to lift and enhance the natural fruit flavours and balance rather than dominating the palate. There are complexities here which flesh out the finish.
Tiziano is Rietine’s “Super Tuscan”. Super Tuscan wines are those which do not stick to the local rules (for example they include non-permitted varieties which prohibit the wine from being called Chianti). Originally many had to be simply labelled as table wines because no other classification existed which produced the anomaly of “Vino da Tavola” selling for higher prices than much Chianti, but the introduction of the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) classification now gives them a more suitable “home” as far as labelling is concerned. Tiziano is 90% Merlot and 10% Ancelotta the latter of which I never knew was a grape variety until this visit (I thought he used to be the Chelsea Manager…). The 2004 Tiziano is ripe, plummy and rich. It shows more evident vanilla oak than the Chiantis, but has the structure to take it. The finish is long and rich with an almost sweet note at the end balanced by a nip of grape skin astringency. The 2007 Tiziano is the same blend and has a more obvious note of Merlot on the nose, a youthful appearance and very pink edges. It smells full ripe and rich with the oak bringing an almost sweet element. In the mouth is a rich mouthful of chewy fruit with a gentle savoury edge. It clearly needs a few years yet to reach its full potential.
From tank we tasted the 2009 Chianti Classico which Mario was due to bottle on 11th October. It’s a super wine with lots of fruit and concentration and still some way to go to reach its full potential. The 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva (again from tank) seems even better than the 2009 but it could be that it’s just more approachable. Again Rietine’s well-judged use of oak is evident with ripe almost raisin-like notes on the finish. The Riserva 2008 was due to be bottled on 20th October 2011. The 2008 Tiziano is also a big wine, full rich and concentrated, almost difficult to taste because it’s so young.
Before we depart we are treated to a taste of the 1997 Vin Santo which reminded me of sherry in a sort of Oloroso-meets-PX way. The grapes for this are harvested late so are already very ripe when they leave the vines (in about October). They are then dried over the winter and crushed in late January. Normally you might expect to get 75 litres of juice from 100kg of grapes, but by the time these are dried 100kg of grapes will produce about 22 litres. The wine is then aged in casks for over 10 years. It is wonderfully rich and concentrated. Someone else said “Twiglets” which may seem like an odd flavour for a sweet wine, but I know exactly what they mean! The Rietine Grappa di Chianti Classico is clean and pure and reminded me of some of the French Eaux de Vie de Fruits with its purely fruity nose. We were able to compare it with the same Grappa which had seen 2 years in oak which was drier, fuller and just as elegant. The group was split 50/50 on which they preferred.
The whole experience at Rietine was fascinating. The wines are skilfully hand-crafted and Mario and Galina utterly charming. They insisted we took a glass or two of Chianti Classico before we departed! My final note records that this visit was like looking at Chianti through a microscope in terms of the level of detail, the elegance of the wines and the definition of the myriad of flavours.
We can obtain the following wines from Rietine should you be interested – please contact us for details:
2007 Chianti Classico, Rietine £15.95
1998 Chianti Classico Riserva Rietine £18.95
2000 Chianti Classico Riserva Rietine £19.95
Vintages and prices correct as at 4th November 2011