During a recent vacation, I toured Tuscan wineries in a Fiat 500 car—known in Italy as a Cinquecento (pronounced CHINK-way CHEN-tow). The word—roll with alliteration—can apparently also set the accent. The car is a movable piece of culture – compact and steeped in history, like the Italian Republic.
A Florentine winemaker named Paola, or Paolini (a diminutive or affectionate form of the word) pushed us into it white as milk Cinquecento (itself a diminutive and affectionate form of locomotion).
We moved from Florence to the hills of Montalcino and then into the Chianti Classico, then south to the Maremma, north again to near Pisa and back to the Chianti Colli Fiorentini wine region outside of Florence.
The common denominator of the foray was Sangiovese, a kind of Swiss army knife of Tuscan grape varieties because it is both robust and versatile. “A chameleon,” Paolina explained in her wobbly Florentine accent. Wines made from Sangiovese can be earthy/tannic/fruity or gritty/meaty/spicy or a myriad of other lightning-fast combinations. If Sangiovese is not performing optimally, Tuscan winemakers sometimes tame any robust or twisting characteristics by blending juice from grape varieties common in France, whether typical of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone or Jurançon.
The other common denominator was our Fiat 500 transport, a car model that inaugurated Beautiful life (sweet life) of the 1960s in Italy and was built to replace a car called Topolino, which means—really—Mickey Mouse. Apparently adept at creating upbeat car names, Fiat also produced an open-air version of the model. Cinquecento for beach cruising, called Jolly. Our version, the dashboard filled with a child’s pink stuffed octopus, came out both sweet and cheerful.
Since the late 1950s, when the original Fiat 500 was first launched on narrow bucolic roads, the engine and door hinges have moved back to the front, its weight has tripled and the sound system has gone from no radio and the sound of crickets to outdoors to a 320W “audio experience” with “high definition touchscreen infotainment”. Simplicity is gone.
I finished my morning frothy cups of cappuccino and soon walked the cypress-lined Strada Provinciale del Brunello, green ridges, rolling roads and red-tiled roofs under clear skies.
Fifteen minutes southwest of Montalcino we stopped at Podere Giodo – the brainchild of renowned oenologist Carlo Ferrini, sort of what Italian winemaking is to movies’ Monica Bellucci.
Our dust Cinquecento he parked and shooed away the gesticulating Italian winery owner, Paola.an owner of a canteen— and her thirsty American friend. We met Bianca, Carlo’s winemaker daughter, and her winemaker boyfriend Ricardo (with musically resonant last names of Ferrini and Ferrari).
We toured, tasted and raised eyebrows and gasped a little at the holy communion of sipping seductive glasses of Brunello di Montalcino – the region’s 100% Sangiovese wine known for its earthy juiciness and elegant flavor.
Giodo includes eight Sangiovese clones growing next to thick forests on three hectares (7.5 acres) of vines at altitudes between 300 and 400 meters (1,000 to 1,300 feet). It produces 15,000 bottles of sparkling Brunello di Montalcino wine each year. The newly built winery includes double walls for temperature control, gravity-fed processes, a roof covered with Mt. Etna gravel from the company’s Sicilian operation, and a mobile sliding arm that pushes grape caps into open tanks.
Tasting notes from Giodo –
Podere Giodo. La Quinta. Tuscany. IGT. 2020. 95 points.
Overwhelming, superlative and commanding aromas of red plums and red cherries and Bourbon chocolate chip cookies—deep and deliciously elegant. In the mouth, clear acidity, aroma of red plums with a solid tannic structure and a persistent finish. Try pairing this with a truffle risotto.
Podere Giodo. Brunello di Montalcino. DOCG. 2017. 97 – 98 points.
The color of brick and Amarone. One sniff of these flavors of orange, sandpaper, plum, fig, mocha and a slice of eucalyptus and you’re hooked. Saturated with emotional pleasure, there is no escaping the seduction of this glass. Flavors include caramel and cherries and figs in juice with strong acidity and textured but subtle tannins. Pair with a shish kebab skewer that includes slices of pineapple to match the acidity.
Off I zoomed in again, tuning the car radio to subasio station — named after a peak in Umbria near Assisi. The song was Palla Al Centro— meaning “ball in center field” or — playing time. Suitable for exploration.
We stopped at the iconic Biondi Santi winery, named after the previous owners – a powerful family graced with huge personalities, huge dreams, olfactory finesse and great cyclical swings in fortune; they started making Brunello di Montalcino wine (100% Sangiovese) in 1888 and had the intelligent curiosity to look for (and find) molecular vine clones capable of giving the wine its supple taste.
(I met Jacopo Biondi Santi at his Maremma estate years ago, dining under hand-blown glass chandeliers imported from Venice at a huge oak table, while eating wild boar meat and tasting vintages amazing; “legendary experience” would be an understatement.)
Today, Biondi Santi is owned by a French company led by Christopher Descours, which preserves estate traditions and avoids straying far from its Tuscan roots, producing 90,000 bottles annually.
“The concept of time is always in front of us,” Lene Bucelli said as she showed us the property – 27 hectares (67 acres) on five sites, chosen for their altitude and soils.
The new owners, using thermoelectric scans, identified the vine soil types and then overlaid them with a vegetation map. They then drilled holes to identify the relationships between soil types and vine roots to better understand the building blocks of vineyards. From the results of this analysis they selected a dozen vine plots to harvest separately.
Intriguingly, silking techniques used decades ago made it economical to intersperse olives with vines. A recent university analysis of soils from the same sites shows that the same land includes optimal characteristics to ultimately provide balance and variety to the wines. In other words, what was economically expedient in past ages turns out to be biologically beneficial today.
The wines are matured exclusively in large Slavonian oak. Surprisingly, an imposing and age-worthy Biondi Santi wine rarely exceeds 13.5% alcohol.
“Americans like Brunello,” Lene said. “We’re trying to make people understand that they shouldn’t be afraid to open young bottles and pair wine with food. Get your taste buds sizzling.
Tasting notes from Biondi Santi –
Biondi-Santi Estate Greppo. Brunello di Montalcino. DOCG. 2016. 95-96 points.
This wine was obtained by push-ripening the grapes and includes a tense balance that is not typical of a warm vintage. Strong aromas of black cherries, cassis, minestrone and broad herbs. Multiple layers that include flavors of licorice, morel and — after five minutes in the glass — figs and mocha. This balanced wine with clean acidity is a meal in itself.
Biondi-Santi Estate Greppo. Brunello di Montalcino. Reserve. DOCG. 2015. 95+ points.
From a great harvest, this is made from grapes from the oldest vineyards where September tramontana northeasterly winds help maintain the aromatics. Deep aromas include wet forest, caramel, figs, ebony, teak, blackberries and red cherries – powerful dark beauty. In the mouth, aromas include plums, figs, some cumin and sage. Firm tannins. Consider pairing with ratatouille or a lentil pilaf.
Chianti Classico –
We are next cinquecentoed (not just a noun and an insult, but also a verb) at Brolio Castle, belonging to the Ricasoli family—who have been associated with wine production since 1141 and today own only 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares—or about four and a half). square miles). The property is dotted with oak and chestnut forests, hilly beauty and olive groves, as well as 240 hectares (590 acres) of vines. From the magnificent castle you can see 40 miles (60 kilometers) into the distance.
Baron Francesco Ricasoli is a kind and precise man with liquid green eyes, scrupulous attention to detail and an appreciation for adventure (obviously – he volunteered to drive us around his family’s generous acres, with himself as driver and Paola’s. Cinquecento as a chariot). We flew around, taking tours and listening to the baron’s story of how the Nazis occupied his family castle during World War II. The dominant German bid, on departure, was ordered to bombard the castle and reduce it to rubble. Instead he ordered mortars to be fired on right and left, but never on the castle, which he lacked the heart to destroy. He was imprisoned for this refusal to obey orders and began an exchange of letters from the penitentiary with Francesco’s grandfather as the war waned.
Baron Ricasoli values order (the wine store is as clean as an operating room) and community (today, third-generation members of local families continue to work with Ricasoli). His mind is constantly clicking and thinking about the future (“Yesterday we had a meeting,” he said. “Because I want to cover our roofs with solar panels”).
Tasting notes from Ricasoli –
Ricasoli Roncicone Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. DOCG. 2019. 96 points.
From the deposited marine soils comes this 100% Sangiovese wine with a generous set of rippling aromas including earth, nuts, red plums, black berries and some tarragon. Balanced and generous in the mouth, this is a creamy and firm wine with which to start an autumn main course.
Ricasoli CeniPrimo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. DOCG. 2019. 95 points.
From grapes grown on river-deposited soils, this wine includes generous, layered and complex flavors. This 100% Sangiovese features characteristic licorice and some Provence herbs, juicy acidity, firm, broad-shouldered tannins, and a finish that includes tangerine and some mint.
Ricasoli Casalferro. IGT. 2018. 95 points.
A different Merlot as aromas include earth, sage, black pepper and spice. A solid wine with smooth acidity and structured yet rounded tannins that make it easy to pair with food. Layers of black pepper, red and black fruits; easy and satisfying to drink.
[In Part 2 of this article—cinquecento moves to Ipsus and Siepi in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany, then to Fattoria Le Pupille in the southern Maremma region.]