The Power and Elegance of Chianti Classico

The author and the Black Rooster
A Bit About Terroir

Few wine regions, and their wines, combine power and elegance as well as Tuscany. The land best known for sangiovese is remarkably hilly, the roads featuring few straights or flats of consequence. It experiences the kind of challenging weather one might expect from such topography that rises, at various points, over 1,000 feet above sea level. While this makes traveling the region by car both exhilarating and stressful, it also helps explain the meat and starch dominate local diet that demands the area’s naturally powerful wines. The region’s rich history of both nourishing its inhabits and challenging their existence is an added plot line.

Tuscany’s picturesque vistas bely the challenges of living among them, challenges that might not seem so obvious if we focus on our Hollywood association of Tuscany with self and romantic discovery. It’s a land populated for millennia and plagued, until relatively recently, by frequent bloody fighting among neighboring villages. Yet in more recent times, Tuscany has benefited as much from modernity as anywhere else in the world, becoming a tourism haven based on its natural beauty, incredible history, unique traditions, amazing food and wine, and welcoming people. Enter the elegance.

In Tuscany terroir is more than the connection between land and grape; it permeates the elements of daily life. This is especially evident in the region of Chianti Classico where I spent the week of Thanksgiving last year. I am a newcomer to Chianti Classico, a sub-region of Chianti within Tuscany defined essentially as a portion of the land between Siena and Florence. It has a history of second class wine world citizenship behind its Tuscan neighbor, Montalcino, comparable in many ways but almost always overshadowed by it due, in part, to centuries of decidedly second class quality.

Chianti’s Path To(wards) the Top

Before the first Chianti was bottled and labeled as such (in 1398 – a white wine, in fact), the Tuscan power centers of Florence and Siena, at war since the Middle ages, decided in the 13th Century to settle their territorial dispute in an unusual way: Each city would chose a rooster and a knight, and on the same day each knight would set off towards the other city on horseback when their respective rooster crowed. Wherever the two knights met would become the border.

To gain an advantage, the Florentines put their rooster in a box with no food for the few days leading up to the event so that it would crow earlier than usual out of hunger when the day came. It worked, giving their knight a head start and allowing him to get to within just 20 kilometers of Siena before encountering the Sienese rider. Four centuries later, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, formalized Chianti as a wine region with its southern tip located where the riders met.

In 1565, an artist named Giorgio Vasari chose the Florentine black rooster that had given the city’s knight a head start to depict the region in a painting that eventually served as the inspiration for Chianti’s winemakers who formed Italy’s first consortium of winemakers in 1924 and adopted the rooster as their logo.

In 1932 the Italian government expanded Chianti beyond the Cosimo III-defined area, and in 1984 gave that original Cosimo III Chianti the designation of Chianti Classico to reflect its origins. At this time both Chianti and Chianti Classico received the Italian government’s highest certification of quality, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

By the time the DOCG designation was made, Chianti Classico had not yet fully recovered from the reputation the region had developed over centuries of producing mediocre wine, especially when compared to their southern neighbors in Montalcino. Although the wines were improving, the region was still suffering from this second class reputation.

The requirements on what could be bottled and labeled as Chianti Classico underwent several rounds of refinement with the goal of improving quality and credibility. For the vast majority of the region’s existence, white grapes made up considerable portions of red blends; in the 1950s, trebbiano was often a third of a red wine’s contents, for example.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the production of 100% red wine was even authorized – limited to sangiovese. In 2005, the region’s consortium set a requirement that all Chianti Classico wines must include at least 80% sangiovese, with the following year becoming the first that producers began leaving white grapes out of their red wines.

As part of its efforts to improve quality and reputation, the consortium established designations for wine sbased on a variety of factors, including maximum vineyard yields, alcohol levels, extraction rates, duration of aging before the wines are both bottled and released. In 2014, the latest designation was made: Gran Selezione, which sits above Chianti Classico Riserva and Chianti Classico.

The oldest Chianti Classico I’ve tried is 2007, so I cannot speak to the evolution of quality from first hand experience. This limited exposure, however, was enough to pique my interest, and so when I decided to take a solo trip it last November wasn’t terribly difficult to settle on Chianti Classico.

Landing in Panzano
One of Panzano’s many breathtaking views

My first destination after landing in Rome was the small hilltop town of Panzano, a sort-of mid-point between Siena and Florence. I had heard about a butcher there, Dario Cecchini, who has become famous in part due to a visit by Anthony Bourdain. The Cecchini family has leveraged that fame to launch several restaurants and a bed and breakfast in Panzano, and I figured there might be no better entry point to November in Tuscany than a hearty and traditional local meal.

Upon arrival in Panzano, I checked into the Cecchini’s Rosso del Chianti and made my way by foot down the hill and into town where I stopped by a wine, cheese, and meat store called Wine Gourmet la Ripa to kill some time before dinner. The proprietor put together a small plate of delicious local meat and cheese, and paired with it a glass of 2019 Monte Bernardi Retromarcia Chianti Classico. I’d never heard of Monte Bernardi before, but liked it so much that I decided to fit a quick visit into my itinerary. More on that later. La Ripa was a wonderful find.

Wine Gourmet la Ripa in Panzano

My dinner was at Officina della Bistecca, the Checchini’s restaurant located the floor above their butcher shop, which offers a 50 euro set menu that includes four different beef courses plus a few quintessential Tuscan side dishes, bread, dessert, and a metal plant pot full of raw vegetables to gnaw on.

The open kitchen, where diners sit at rustic tables, features an open grill where your main courses are prepared in real time. I wound up seated next to a family that lives in a town close to where I grew up, and thoroughly enjoyed the friendly conversation. The drink menu is BYO, so I brought a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva from their store downstairs. The meal was exceptional, and I particularly enjoyed the traditional Tuscan tartar.

The combination of Rosso del Chianti, la Ripa, Officina, and the beautiful views from the small town were a fun way to start the trip, and the next day I made my way to Siena, which would be my home base for the remainder of the trip.

Officina della Bistecca

My time in Siena lasted five nights, and the plan was to sleep in each day, enjoy the hotel’s extensive breakfast, leisurely make my way to one winery where I would spend several hours, return to nap, and then walk to the historic old city for exploration and dinner. The only changes to this itinerary ended up being the addition of two wineries, both of which I’m very glad to have visited.

One note before proceeding: In lieu of scoring each wine I tasted, I’ve adopted a formatting meant to draw attention to the wines I found particularly compelling. Those in bold are wines that left a mark, and ones that I hope to encounter again. Bolded and italicized wines are those that I plan to seek out. Bolded, italicized, and underlined are those that I prioritized adding to our collection, purchasing them at the wineries at the time of tasting.

Cecchi

My first winery visit was Cecchi, one of the largest conglomerates in Chianti featuring a range of wines produced by a number of properties. The gorgeous property of Cecchi itself (spoiler alert: every property I visited is gorgeous (it’s Tuscany!)) has been planted with vines since 1081, and features facilities both modern and traditional. I was given a nice tour and then an extensive seated tasting with the chance to taste through a range of wines, from entry level to the highest end.

The Cecchi line-up

We started with the 2019 Cecchi Sangiovese di Toscana, a sangiovese from Chianti Classico not produced according to the region’s specifications and therefore unable to be labeled as such. It sees no oak, and is designed to be an easy-drinking wine for any occasion. The nose was fruit-forward, plum-driven, and featured rhubarb. The palate was smooth, low on tannin, and its red fruit and easy spice made it refreshing.

Next up was the 2020 Cecchi Chianti, a blend of grapes mainly from the Siena province that also see no oak. The nose was a bit more saturated than the Toscana and featured dried herb and juniper along with the tradition red and black fruits of the region. The palate was quite smooth, bordering on lush, but elevated by its bright acid. The tannins were long and lean, featuring tobacco along with the fruit.

Chianti Classico wines are known for significant tannins, and their arrival with the 2019 Cecchi Storia di Familglia Chianti Classico signaled things were getting local. The plum-led nose featured more depth and complexity than the prior two wines, featuring prune and star anise aromas that kept my nose going back for more. Those substantive tannins were balanced by good acid, and the wine poured quite dark. Flavors included blackberry, licorice, black strap molasses, violet, and dark fruits. Roughly 1 million bottles of this, a homage to the Cecchi family’s history, get produced each year. The grapes come entirely within the Castellina sub-region, and the blend is at least 90% sangiovese each vintage.

From there we ventured to the 2017 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Fagmilia. This one is a blend of 90% sangiovese and 10% cabernet sauvignon that is produced entirely off the estate vineyard and aged 12 months in oak. The earthy nose offered some fungal notes along with plum, cassis, currant, and violet. The sturdy and broad tannins framed a highly structured wine, thankfully elevated by juicy acid. The profile included lots of similarly earth-forward flavors along with a nice note of blood orange. This really shined on the palate, and is one I’d like to enjoy over a long evening in 2027.

By this point my mouth was filling up with tannin, but I was eager to soldier on when the 2016 Cecchi Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Valore di Famiglia was poured. It comes from older and higher elevation vines, and although the oldest wine of the lineup, it will require the most aging. The reticent and floral note is similar to the Riserva di Fagmilia, though time will likely expose more complexity. The most substantive and layered of the Cecchi Chianti Classicos, the graceful palate layers blood orange, raspberry, cherry, tobacco, violet, pepper, and tomato leaf. I wouldn’t touch this one for at least ten years.

The penultimate wine was the 2015 Coevo, the pinnacle wine of the Cecchi brand. Always a blend, this vintage is 50% sangiovese, 20% each cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and 10% petit Verdot. The sangiovese qualities are apparent on the nose, though the cherry is turned up, and augmented by fresh herb, sweet flower, and a variety of marmalades. The smooth, substantive, and elegant palate shows the sangiovese DNA at its core, which is surrounded by strawberry, cocoa, sweet leather, and black pepper. This is a very elevated wine; the tannins do serious work as they mix with oxygen, but the acid keeps the wine lively and juicy. There should be no rush to drain these bottles.

We finished on a very different note with a pour of the 2014 Tenuta Alzatura Montefalco Sagratino. From the Montefalco Sangratino area of Umbria (way outside Chianti), this sturdy variety reminded me of several wine tastings I’ve done in Virginia that feature mostly Bordeaux varieties but end with tannat, a grape historically from Uruguay that is dark, tannin-rich, and peppery.

The Sagratino, of which roughly 13,000 bottles are produced each year, has a dark set of aromas that include tar, licorice, plum, blackberry, fungus, and blueberry; effectively a more complex version of tannat. On the palate it’s very structured and incredibly tannic, but surprisingly balanced because of the bright acid – something rarely achieved by tannat. Similar to petit verdot, it’s very peppery, and also carries loads of tar, mulled blackberry compote, licorice, and dark moist earth. I was told that it pairs well with boar dishes.

The Cecchi range represents a number of characteristics: High quality, differentiation between each bottling, varietal (and location) signatures, and value. Emphasis on the value. Cecchi’s three Chianti Classicos, for example, showed the characteristics you would expect for high quality examples of the region’s quintessential wines, but at price tags you’d expect to find on lesser wines. And bonus: With the exception of the Sagratino, these are widely distributed within the United States.

Villa di Geggiano (Geggiano pronounced “jay-ja-no”)

Villa di Geggiano was my introduction to Chianti Classico. I took a flyer on their 2007 Riserva when I came across it a few years ago on Winebid, and it was one of the most memorable wines I drank in 2020 – and still counts as one my favorite red wines. That bottle led to more exploration of the region that ultimately inspired the trip, so after I booked my flights and accommodations, they were the first winery I reached out to schedule.

Though the winery and estate came into the Bianchi Bandinelli family in the 1500s as a dowry, its history as a winery goes back further – its cellar, for example, dates back the 1300s. The property itself has several gardens, both ornamental and functional, and is a declared National Heritage site. When I arrived, Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli gave me a tour of the area immediately surrounding the unbelievably gorgeous villa, which is a functioning guesthouse. We walked through several gardens, Andrea telling me about the history of the property and some of their future plans for it.

One of the estate’s highlights is an outdoor raised theater, the Teatro di Vezura, that was built in the 18th Century and is surrounded by incredibly tall Cyprus trees and hedges. Playwright and poet, Vittorio Alfieri, the founder of Italian tragedy, was a frequent guest of the property in the 18th Century and even performed one of his tragedies there. Live concerts and other performances are still held at the Teatro year-round.

The Geggiano Villa

While I’m glad the place I stayed at in Siena was within walking proximity to historic Siena, in hindsight I should have spent at least a night or two at Geggiano. The family puts its heart and soul into not just its wine but its entire property, committing the long hours – and money – to maintain everything, including the villa’s flour-to-ceiling (and ceiling-covering) frescos, intricate flooring, and everything else in and around the building. My favorite mural, among many, in the villa was done in 1780 by a traveling Austrian painter depicting the four seasons.

Although Geggiano began exporting its wines to the United Kingdom in 1795, exportation lagged during the winery’s more recent history until Andrea and his brother took over in 1989. Chianti Classico producers of its size – around 40,000 bottles per year – typically sell locally and have just a few big clients, but Andrea, who speaks great English and is well-traveled, saw exporting as an important diversification strategy and took it on. The effort has been so successful in England that the family opened an outpost in London in the form of a restaurant in 2014.

The Grounds

One of Andrea’s early connections was to Kermit Lynch, who liked what he tasted so much that Geggiano became Lynch’s second Italian client. “Kermit tasted the wines and told us to stop filtering, and we did,” Andrea told me. “Before that we only filtered half our wines, but after trying it we agreed with Kermit that it was better to not filter any of our wine.”

One winemaking technique used at Geggiano that stood out to me is the addition they make of dry ice to their three-day cold soak, putting the dry ice in the destemmer so it comes out with the berries. “When the dry ice melts it releases carbon dioxide, which acts as a natural preservative and means we don’t have to use as much sulfites,” Andrea said, explaining that this allows the fermentation to extract “more flavor and aromas in more delicate ways.” There is a sense of uniqueness to Geggiano wines, a more precise window into the wine’s terroir than I’m used to experiencing with most wine, and perhaps this dry ice technique is a reason why.

A large cistern helps provide for the estate’s water needs

After spending considerable time walking and talking, we sat down at a table in one of the side rooms of the villa to taste. The first wine poured was the 2019 Bandinello Toscano, a blend of 60% sangiovese and 20% each of syrah and ciliegolo. This blend of younger vine fruit is intended to be an early drinking wine with great freshness, and delivers a textural footprint framed by deceptively light tannin and elevated acid, byproducts of a three month stay in “very old” barrels before bottling. Andrea told me that he likes to serve it slightly chilled in the summer. I found its combination of fruit and earthly aromas and flavors, which produce a nice spicy plum undercurrent, very enjoyable. I usually default to Rosso di Montalcino when I am in need of a light red, but as I tasted it I couldn’t help but think how great it would go with marinara dishes and grilled meat.

From there we sent to the 2017 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico, a bottling of 100% sangiovese from the mid-age range of their vineyards. This wine poured quite dark, and the immediate seriousness of what I had experienced with that 2007 Riserva struck me. “2017 is not considered an easy vintage,” Andrea warned me, as I smelled the wine. “However, it didn’t produce enough Riserva-level fruit so we put all those grapes into this wine.” No wonder it reminded me of the Riserva!

It is a full, round, and flavorful wine with a beautifully perfumed nose (a signature of Geggianio Riserva). The surprisingly mature structure seemingly belied the immaturity of the prototypical Chianti Classico flavors, which remained buried under the tannin that, although substantive, avoided most of the astringency one might find in young Chianti Classicos from even the top producers. This will have a long and interesting evolution.

Wine aging in the Geggiano cellar built in the 1300s

Next was the 2016 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico Riserva. When I tasted it, it had been in bottle for only three months and Andrea cautioned me against making too many conclusions about it. The grapes for the Riserva come from the oldest at the estate. The blackish-red wine was bigger, rounder, and juicier than the Classico, and showed the Geggiano team’s effort to produce “a more elegant and aromatic” wine.

Unlike the Classico, a small percentage of the winery’s 40-year old cabernet sauvignon vines, 5% of the blend in this vintage, is added “to give more breadth to the bouquet.” Florals showed through in both the aromas and flavors, while the tannins showed elegance and refinement rarely found in Classico and balanced well with the beautifully deft acid. This one struck me as particularly age worthy – I wouldn’t touch it before 2030.

We finished with a 2008 Classico, a treat from the cellar that I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience. The then-13-year old wine showed a beautifully mature bouquet and a level of freshness worthy of a much younger wine. In fact, the palate remained tight after an hour of aeration in both structure and flavor, but also showed some mid-life qualities of baking spice and sweet balsamic reduction. I got the feeling it would continue to mature and improve at least through its 20th birthday. Like every Geggiano I’ve tasted, there’s less blood orange than I typically experience in Chianti Classico wines, and I found myself noting but not missing it with this or any of the other Geggiano wines tasted.

One topic of discussion throughout my time with Andrea was the impact of climate change on their vineyards and winemaking, which Andrea said he and his brother have experienced, in often wild waves, ever since taking over the estate.

“The previous generation would harvest in October, but now we typically do that September 10th-15th or so. There’s been a lot of draught, heat waves, and big rains,” he told me. They have employed a variety of techniques to account for these dramatic weather events, for example pruning later so that flowering isn’t killed by the increasingly frequent spring frosts, and leaving clippings on the soil to slow evaporation (“our clayish soil helps us with this as well” as it retains moisture very well).

Geggiano has not yet produced a Gran Selezione, making its Riserva the highest end of its range. Taking the designation seriously, that a Gran Selezione should be notably and noticably better than a Riserva, the family has taken its time determining where it might develop fruit that qualifies. “We’ve wanted to have an established new normal [of weather] before putting the time and investment into a Gran Selezione,” Andrea told me.

The time for one, though, appears to have come. They are now working on what Andrea described as a “cru” 1-hectre vineyard on a southeast-facing slope right up against the villa, with the intent to eventually produce such a wine. The Geggiano Riserva is such a good wine, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better version, though I am quite keen on tasting it what they put together.

I went into my Geggiano visit excited and left even more so. Too often I come across a single bottle of wine I love, and then as I explore the producer come to realize that whether founded in reality or perception, no other wine from that producer will top my initial experience. With Geggiano that is not the case. As a note from for those in or visiting New York, Andrea told me their wines can be found now at 11 Madison Park.

San Guisto a Rentennano (Guisto pronounced “jew-stow”)
San Guisto a Rentennano’s concrete tanks

As I was leaving Villa di Geggiano, Andrea and I discussed my remaining plans for the trip including both winery visits and restaurant reservations. The one winery he really pushed me to add to my itinerary was the renowned San Giusto a Rentennano. Close friends of his, he called one of the family members and set the visit up for me the very next day. There was zero way I was saying no.

As one leaves the main road to drive the private road up to the estate, taking in the sweeping landscape, vineyards, and olive tree groves, it is impossible to not feel the history and tension of Tuscany. San Giusto’s property was originally a monastery for nuns called San Giusto a Monache that opened in the late 900’s. Later, in 1204, after signing a border treaty with the Sienese, the Florentines fortified it and used it as a defensive post. It was later destroyed and rebuilt in the 1600s. Although most of the Florentine fortifications have fallen prey to time, some remain, and a portion of those along with other old foundations were used to create the 800+ year-old cellar still used today, which I was able to visit in total awe.

A corner of the cellar

Later, when I sat down to taste, I was able to see oyster shells, frequently unearthed on the property, that date back toa period roughly 60 million years ago (yes, you read that right) when this part of Tuscany was under the sea. The shells make the cellar seem modern.

The current family of owners, the Martini di Cigalas, took the property over when it came to them through marriage in 1914. In 1957 it was inherited by Enrico Martini di Cigala and his nine children. Today, six family members form the owner partnership including Anna, who showed me around the property and its facilities and gave me a tasting I’ll never forget.

The family tree

The property is 160 hectares with an average elevation of 270 meters, or just shy of 900 feet above sea level, of which 31 are planted to vine, 11 to olive trees, 40 to woods, and 78 reserved for grazing and “cultivated” purposes. Like much of Tuscany, the property experiences dramatic differences between day time and night time temperatures, and because of its geographic aspects gets a lot of wind.

The oldest vines on the property are now about 50 years old. Beginning in 1989, the family began replanting one hectare of vineyard per year using land that had undergone five to six years of revitalization prior to replanting. The vine density is between 5,000 and 7,000 vines per hectare, which is high, to drive competition by forcing the roots to grow deep into the ground to find sustenance. This tactic shines through in the wines, which demonstrate incredible depth of flavor.

Producing wine is clearly a labor of love for the di Cigala family. During the summer months, for example, the vines are thinned by as much as 50% in a practice known as “green harvesting” to limit resource dissemination in the vines and boost the quality of those grapes that ultimately end up in the wines. Each row is eventually harvested three times as the team looks for different selections to serve their range of wine: The larger bunches of sangiovese go into the Chianti Classico, the medium sized into the Riserva, and the smallest into the flagship Percarlo. 

The Vin Santo drying and barrel room

Perhaps the most inspiring example of the care put into San Giusto’s winemaking is their Vin Santo, a traditional sweet Chianti wine made of sangiovese that has been air dried before it is pressed to concentrate the flavors and sugars. In this winery’s case, the grapes are dried for three months and then pressed into small barrels, many of which are over 100 years old and none of which are ever cleaned.

The fermentation is jumpstarted with an addition from the “mother” barrel, something similar to a sour dough starter, that is a family product dating back multiple generations. Filtration takes a month-and-a-half to two months to complete and requires a canvas-like filter that needs multiple cleanings during the process.

Producing vin santo “is more [about] passion, not economics,” Anna told me as we stood in the drying room in the top floor of the winery. It’s a process in which San Giusto “ends up with a wine measuring 10-12% of what could have been produced using the same grapes to make a dry wine.”

~60 million, give or take, year-old oyster shells

Anna and I sat down to taste in a room with wonderful views of the property and display cases of oyster shells and other paraphernalia from the property. We started with the 2019 Chianti Classico, a blend of 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo that spends 10 months in oak. Considered a good vintage, the structure, as with all of the San Giusto wines I tasted, was absolutely seamless, melding its tannin and acid to produce serious grip and lifted floral notes that included lavender, violet, and rose. The flavor profile also included warm leather and blood orange to go with sweet cherry. This was better than many of the Riservas and Gran Seleziones I’ve had from other Chianti Classico producers, and was (and remains) the most serious-smelling Classico I’ve put my nose over to date.

Next came the 2018 Riserva le Baròncole, which is 97% sangiovese and 3% canaiola. While production is similar to the Classico, it receives an additional six to ten months of French barrel and cask aging. Once bottled, San Giusto lets it rest for six months before moving it out the door. The berries used for it are smaller in size than those that go into the Classico, and this choice shines in the concentration and depth of the wine. The nose seems infinitely layered, showing promise in its youth of a variety of sweet and leathery aromas. The mouthfeel and structure is otherworldly, allowing the wine to be both thicker than the Classico and somehow more delicate at the same time. Similarly seamless, the amazingly pure fruit – a cornucopia of red and black types – plays well with the sweet earthy aromas. It hits that magical point that few wines do of being more than the sum of its parts. While the Classico might go from really good to great in the next five years, this Riserva will need twice as long to achieve its best, if not more.

The 2017 Percarlo, meaning “For Carlo” and named after a family friend who died one year before the first vintage of this wine, is 100% sangiovese and befitting of a wine named after a special person. It spends 23 months in oak and then one year in bottle before becoming available to the public, and is a cuvée of the smallest berries from the best parts of the vineyards.

My first written note is “this is quite something – incredibly substantive in every direction; the vista is incredible.” The nose was more reticent than the palate at this stage, with a focus on delicate violet florals and that crushed Sweetart thing. The acid was bright, maybe brighter than the Classico or Riserva, but remained perfectly balanced. On the tannin side it was the most refined of the three sagiovese wines (quite a feat); “pure perfection on that front,” I jotted down.

I never found a rhythm going back and forth between the Percarlo, the Classico, and the Riserva, because all were so good that I couldn’t stay focused on one for very long before grabbing the next glass to check in. Thankfully, the next two wines were the 100% merlot 2018 and 2015 La Ricolma, which pulled me out of my sangiovese circuit.

These two wines were the most pleasant surprise of the trip and examples of a wine I’d put up against any other merlot in the world with great confidence that they’d stand up to, if not defeat, their challengers. The Ricolma is the result of a decision to plant merlot for the purpose of blending into the Chianti Classico. “We never did produce a Classico with any merlot because [when we tried it] we didn’t like it. Instead, we turned it into a unique project that we call “a Chianti merlot,” Anna explained.

It was fascinating to taste a traditionally smooth variety like merlot that was grown in a region known for robust tannin. Rentennano are able to build a very smooth mouth feel into this regional peculiarity by developing just enough of the right acid to smooth out a classically Chianti tannic profile. This is a merlot like no other.

The 2018 has some of the sweetness of the Rentennano Chiantis as well as some of their florals, but there remains sufficient quintessential merlot typicity that while one might be confused about its physical origin, they would be unlikely to confuse the variety. Despite age being on its side, the cooler vintage 2015 struck me as more austere and angular, more grippy and earthy, and less sweet than the younger 2018. Both are going to benefit with time, but are already quite special.

We finished with the 2013 Vin Santo, a sweet wine unlike any I’d had before – Vin Santos included. Vin Santos have a an almost gelatinous mouth feel that is not for everyone; I tend to describe them, and especially San Guisto’s, as slimy wine, for better or worst.

San Guisto purposefully fills their Vin Santo barrels only two-thirds of the way full to oxidate the wine. By the time it gets bottled, the sugar is around 400 grams per liter. By way of comparison, that’s roughly four times the sugar of a typical Port; the far end of Wine Folly’s chart of sugar in wine notes that “very sweet” wine falls within the 120-220 grams per liter range. Thankfully this one has brilliant acid, which appropriately redirects the high sugar with depth and crispness; you “feel the structure of the sugar more than you taste the sweetness,” I wrote.

Since returning from Tuscany, I’ve spent more time thinking about and purchasing San Giusto a Rentennano wines than any other wine I tasted on the trip. The time spent there was one of those life-changing events, up there with the likes of our visits to Emidio Pepe and Markus Hüls a few years ago. I went to Chianti knowing I loved Villa di Geggiano, and I came back knowing that I’d never get board of Chianti Classico again because now I have San Giusto as well.

Monte Bernardi

As mentioned earlier, I enjoyed a single glass of Bernardi Chianti Classico my first night in Tuscany, when I was staying in Panzano and visited a small wine and charcuterie shop. I asked the proprietor to pick the wine for me, and as he told me about his selection I could see a couple at the table next to me listening and chuckling. After the proprietor left, they leaned over and told me how hilarious they found it that even though I had traveled to Italy, I had been given a wine made by a winery owned by a fellow American. The wine was good, so I didn’t care.

As I sat there, I did a 30 seconds of Googling and noticed two things: Monte Bernardi was less than five minutes down the hill from where I was sitting, and it seemed to be popular among the natural wine crowd. I wasn’t really looking to add another winery visit, but I figured that if I found myself out and about and interested in another tasting, I could pop in for a quick tasting. Towards the end of the trip I indeed did find myself in that position, and made the stop.

Monte Bernardi’s name as an estate goes back to 1085, though the first wines produced under that name were made with the 1992 vintage. Prior to that, grapes grown on the property were sold to wineries. Perched on their own mini hilltop, the tasting room has direct line of vision to some of the winery’s estate vineyards. Monte Bernardi only produces wines from its own vineyards and does so biodynamically. The 53-hectare estate has 9.5 of them planted to vines, which average 40 years in age. The estate was indeed purchased by an American family, the Schmelzers, in 2003, and remains under their ownership.

I didn’t get into many details with the person in the tasting room, but a few things stuck out that are in keeping with a biodynamic approach to winemaking: minimal human intervention, very neutral oak, concrete tanks, and low sulfur dioxide. One thing that did surprise me was the duration of wood aging, which is significantly longer than the legally required amounts. For example, the portion of the Retromarcia Chianti Classico that gets oak aging spends 18 months in large casks. The Sa’Etta, my favorite of the lineup and a riserva, can spend as long as 30 months in wood.

On a future trip I plan to reach out to the winery to see if I can spend more time on the property as my brief encounter with the wines left me wanting more. They are not the hardest niché Chianti Classicos to find in the US, and for those looking to try something a little different I highly recommend them.

Sorelli and Felsina

I also made visits to Cantina Sorelli and Felsina, though my notes from those visits have somehow vanished. I spent time at Sorelli with Matteo Sorelli, one of the younger generation of the Sorelli family who is undertaking considerable efforts to modernize and refine the long-time operation that produces a range of wines of wide quality and type, mostly in the lower tier of price points, across a range of brands. A conglomerate, they own (among many others) Castello di Uzzano, makers of serious Chianti Classico. I really enjoyed my time with Matteo, and left very impressed with his business, and wine, acumen. I’ll be curious to see where he steers the company has he seems to take a minority view among the company by prioritizing quality over quantity.

Just one portion of the sprawling cellar of Felsina

Felsina is an industry standard of Chianti Classico. Their wines are widely available in the United States, and are held up as a standard bearer of the region. I had a nice tour of the cellar, and then a guided tasting of three Chianti Classicos, their Tuscana red blend called Fontalloro, their chardonnay, and their non-vintage spumante. I will admit to both a subpar experience with previous bottles of their Rancia Riserva, and an extremely good prior experience with their spumante. I hoped that this visit would give me a more rounded experience with their wines. While I wasn’t able to taste many of their wines that would have been new to me, I took to the 2018 Fontalloro and 2016 Spumante Brut, both of which are now aging in our cellar.

I’ll Be Back

In the last two years, the quantity of sangiovese in our collection has multiplied by a factor of six. Much of that growth has happened since this Tuscan trip. I brought back some Geggiano, Monte Bernardi, and Felsina, and have gone on a mini Rentenanno buying spree as I continue to look for more Geggiano domestically.

Two of the many beautiful things about Chianti Classico are its affordability and its long lifespan. It’s financially feasible to stock up on Chianti Classicos relative to, say, Brunello, and the affordability allows you purchase more wine and experience them at more stages of their development. This is true of even the highest end Chianti Classicos, and it permits you to get to know the wines, their winemakers, and terroir more intimately, connecting you more deeply with the varietal and a region of the world that is enticing, inviting, beautiful, and challenging. Chianti Classico is a gift that keeps on giving in this regard.

My favorite city in Europe is Florence, and I was very tempted to make that my home base for this trip. But I knew that with my daily trips to the wineries, I would have to battle the traffic of whatever city I stayed in. My terrible experience with Florence’s traffic is what pushed me to Siena, a city I had never been before. I’ll just say that I am quite pleased with how it worked out.

Siena is smaller than Florence, but offers its own brand of charm and history. The old city is quite beautiful, and I really enjoyed getting to know it by foot as I ate and drank my way through it. Geggiano’s Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli, in addition to connecting me with Rentennano, sent me to a restaurant in old Siena called Osteria Le Logge, owned by a friend of his. It was one of my last dinners of the trip, and definitely the best; those traveling through Siena should not miss it. Le Logge has its own multi-floor underground cellar, located a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant, and I was treated to a tour of it by its master. I ultimately selected and enjoyed a Faccoli Franciacorta Riserva Extra Brut 2005, yet another example of how underrated Italian sparkling wine can be.

Italian sparkling wine is vastly underrated

While I was able to cover a lot of ground in Chianti Classico, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. My first trip won’t be my last, and I look forward to visiting the friends I made on this trip while making new ones as I eat and drink my way through a region that deserves every bit of the legend it has.

Really Good Brunello: Bartoli Giusti

Giusti agriturismo

Bartoli Giusti’s vineyards and agriturismo

During our honeymoon in Europe last summer, Kayce and I visited three wineries: Emidio Pepe in Abruzzo, Italy; Weingut Markus Hüls in the Mosel Valley in Germany; and Bartoli Guisti in Italy’s Montalcino. Emidio Pepe blew our minds, and I didn’t wait very long to write about it. Hüls revolutionized our mutual appreciation for rielsing. Finally, eight months later, I’m getting around to writing about Guisti. Don’t let the gap throw you, though, the wine is stellar and worth seeking out.

The city of Montalcino is the center of the small wine-producing region known as Brunello di Montalcino, often referred to simply as “Brunello.” Brunello di Montalcino has the Italian government’s highest wine classification, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or DOCG for short. Although there are some wines from Brunello not made from the red grape sangiovese, the most famous, creatively called “Brunello di Montlacino,” is entirely that grape. When people say “Brunello” it is sangiovese that they mean.

Montalcino city

Montalcino is a gorgeous city draped over the top of a mountain. The roads that wind up to the city center at the top of the hill are long and steep, and pass many wineries, vineyards, olive groves, and other agricultural businesses. The old(est) and (most) historic part of the city is mostly made of roads too narrow for car travel, so you feel the incline in every step. Shops, homes, restaurants, tasting rooms and bars alternate with each other and mingle with apartments and historic churches, making the small city a cohesive place to visit. It’s a truly lovely city, even if you don’t make it to a winery.

Of the 100% sangiovese wines, there are aging rules that dictate how the bottle is labeled. The youngest wine is called Rosso di Montalcino, and must be aged at least one year, in oak and/or in barrel, before release. Brunello di Montalcino Normale (it is rare to see the “Normale” distinction on the label, most just say “Brunello di Montalcino”) must be released no earlier than five years post vintage, and have spent at least two of those years in barrel and four months in bottle. Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, as you might expect, ages the longest: six years from vintage with a minimum of two years in barrel and six months in bottle.

Many Brunello aficionados believe that Brunello di Montalcino “Normale” and the Riserva demand at least ten years of aging post vintage before the might even begin to enter their prime. Sitting on the best Normale’s and even standard Riserva’s for fifteen to twenty years is not only common, but frequently recommended. The best examples are why Brunello is considered among Italy’s, and the world’s, very best wines.

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The Consorzio 2012 vintage tasting

My first real exposure to Brunello came through an invitation to a large tasting hosted in New York in January of 2017 by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, a consortium of wine producers from the region. The tasting was the industry’s first real access to the then-newly released 2012 vintage, which received the Consorzio’s full five star rating, marking it as one of the few in the last few decades to receive such praise and faith from the producers themselves. One of the reasons why people age Brunello for at least a decade is because of how tannic the wines are when first released. As someone with a low tolerance for high tannin, it was a struggle to taste through the fifty or so producers at the event. By the midpoint, it was hard to detect much beyond the tannin structure and acid.

Nevertheless, I walked away very intrigued and began exploring more from Montalcino. Eight months later, I attended the grand opening tasting of Zachy’s DC and fell for the 2012 Marchesi Antinori Pian Delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino, which was being poured. Although built with a sturdy tannin structure, the flavors popped more than many of the 2012’s I had tasted in January and made me feel confident enough to bring home three bottles to lay down. Barely a month later, I came across a 1998 of the same wine, took it home and liked it so much that I placed it third on my most memorable wines I tasted in 2017.

I’ve slowly stockpiled more Brunello, but have come to really love the Rosso di Montalcino’s as well. With a less extractive winemaking process, most Rosso are much more accessible and flavorful upon release than Brunello. Compared to the ~$50 entry point for most Brunello di Montalcino (many go $100+), a high quality Rosso will set you back, at most, $30, with many great ones closer to $20, and is a real treat. This is my segway to Bartoli Guisti.

Old vintages

Guisti is imported by our friends at Weygandt-Metzler, who connected us with the winery as well as helped set up our visit with Markus Hüls. I had not tried Giusti prior to the visit, but had asked Peter Weygandt if he could connect us with one of his Brunello producers. I’m not sure why or how Guisti was the choice, but I’m grateful that it was.

The Guisti family isn’t sure how long they’ve been making wine, but based on documents found during the last winery renovation, they know their ancestors were active in the wine business in the early 1700s. Still run by the family today, their vineyards cover nearly 30 acres within Brunello di Montalcino, with an additional 74 acres of olive trees. The winery and cellar is located on the outskirts of Montalcino in an area called Osservanza.

The vineyards are tended to by hand, from pruning to harvesting and everything between. Production is a modest 20,000 bottles of Rosso, 50,000 bottles of Brunello and a small amount of Riserva made only in the best years. These are quantities that relative to vineyard size indicate high standards for the grapes that make it into the wine. Put another way, through cluster dropping or meticulous sorting, or both, production is lower than it could be. Nearly half of the vineyards are new plantings that went into the ground in 2017, 2018 and 2019 under an expansion plan meant to boost both quality and quantity of production. Grapes these vineyards are still coming online and for the most part haven’t entered production wine yet. Currently, 60 or so percent of their production is exported.

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Guisti’s production area

The wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks and made somewhat reductively using pump overs. Fermentation typically takes between 15 and 20 days. The wood aging vessels are made in Veneto, Italy, from oak sourced from Slovania, and hold more than 2100 gallons each. These large (and old) barrels mean that while the wine benefits from the structure and mellowing that the oak provides, there is little to no flavor added to the wine by the wood. These oak barrels are one of the reasons why I was drawn to Giusti’s wines: all the structural upsides with none of the oaky flavor downsides. Unfortunately, there is a sizable portion of Brunello made in a more New World style these days that feature oak-forward flavor profiles. Giusti stands apart from this newer trend, thankfully, and maintains a focus on nuanced elegance rather than tannic power.

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Giusti’s oak barrels

After making our way into the center of Montalcino and working through some logistical mix-ups, we met Anna Maria Focacci, who shares ownership, winemaking duties and management of Giusti with her brother, and proceeded to the winery for a tour through the cellar and a tasting in a nicely-appointed family room on the top floor of the “cantina” adjacent to the winery. Anna, whose first vintage was 1970, did not speak much English, but we did our best to learn the information I’ve conveyed in this post so far. What did not require translation, however, were her beautiful and elegant wines.

We started with the 2017 Rosso di Montalcino, a wine we’ve had several times since returning from the trip because we love (LOVE) it. It’s always an open question of how well a wine travels, and it’s always interesting to see how a wine ages, so for comparison’s sake I’m posting my tasting notes from the visit on July 1st, 2019 and a more recent tasting on January 25th of this year.

From the visit in Montalcino, Italy: The nose is very perfumed with high-toned aromas of red fruit, spice, leather and florals. It’s medium body is very juicy and spicy. It delivers good mineral earthiness and a range of sweet red fruit: cranberry, strawberry and huckleberry. The fine grain tannin is mouth filling and offers engaging grip that accentuates the flavors. It is very clean and crisp. Additional oxygen is exposing a chili flake and scorched earth finish. Very good, very complete with lots of depth of flavor and concentration. 92 points. Value: A+.

From a few weeks ago in Washington, DC: This elegant, pretty nose offers aromas of sweet and spiced plum sauce, rhubarb, muddled strawberry, red current, seasoned leather and cardamom. The medium body coats the mouth with juicy acid and sweet, fine tannin that develops a slightly grippy sensation the longer the wine remains in the mouth. Flavors include blackberry, mountain strawberry, sweet balsamic, blood orange, fresh leather and mild black pepper. This is absolutely singing at the moment and impressively accessible. 92 points. Value: A+.

We have accumulated a small stock of the 2017 Rosso and are going through at a rate of 1-2 per month. It is an absolutely great wine to enjoy on its own, and the modest but grippy tannin, bright and integrated acid, and combination of fruit and earthy flavors make it a versatile food pairing wine as well. At about $20 per bottle, it’s an incredible value.

Anna then poured the 2013 Brunello di Montalcino. The aromas wafted plum, cigar, boysenberry, raspberry, cracked black pepper, graphite, violet and a menthol-type aroma. Despite its youth, it was pulled together nicely on the palate by refined tannin and an elegant balance between acid and texture. Unlike many young Brunello, the core of tannin shows better construction and was not entirely separate and apart from the other structural components. The flavors are dark fruited and dark spiced, and bolstered by orange peel, green pepper, herbaceous undertones and scorched earth. While somewhat approachable, the density suggests it requires the usual ten-plus years of aging to get the full experience. 94 points. Value: A.

We have a few of these aging away, but haven’t opened any, and won’t until at least 2023. At about $40, this one continues the Giusti tradition of amazing value.

Riserva

The final wine opened was the 2012 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. The nose packed a huge punch and was marked by considerable depth and concentration. The longer one inhaled, the more they got: asphalt, sweet cherry, spearmint, leather, balsamic reduction, and more. The full body was well-rounded with velvety and gorgeously smooth tannin (especially for a young Riserva). The flavors will require time to fully delineate, but at that moment showed promise of red, purple and black fruit, as well as mint, spice and earth. It’s all there, but don’t dare open it until at least 2025. 96 points. Value: unknown.

Unfortunately, the Riserva is not imported to the United States at this time, though I’m working on Weygandt to bring some in. It is a truly spectacular wine and, I would imagine, another exceptional Brunello value.

Grappa

We finished with a taste of the estate’s grappa, which is a brandy made from the leftover bits (called “pomace”) of the wine production – stems, seeds and skins. I’m a grappa lover, but don’t drink much of it outside of Italy because of the ridiculous markup it receives in the United States. Like its wine, Giusti’s grappa is spectacular and I bought a 700ml bottle hoping to get a good way through it before we flew home. Quite strong, I put down about 60% of it before the end of the trip, making it an entirely worthwhile purchase. Here is the tasting note:

Fruity and spicy on the nose, I get cactus fruit, passion fruit, aloe vera, anise and strawberry. The flavor is almost Tequila-esque, but without the bite. This has more warmth and fruit – namely cactus, melon and papaya – to go with strong herbal flavors.

Like the Riserva, this is also not available in the US, but also like the Riserva, I’m working on Weygandt to change that. Fingers crossed.

Guisti will be a difficult find for most Americans as it is imported in small quantities and not widely distributed. That’s unfortunate because the quality and value are off the Brunello charts. Brunello is not an accessible wine no matter how you measure it, price or palate. The flavors are not for everyone, and few have the patience or cellar to age it into the version of itself that would be easier for a wider audience to appreciate. Guisti is anything but elitist, as are most Brunello producers, but the quality of the soils, the climate, the winemaking, everything about Giusti suggests that it is a rare winery that services everyone from the Brunello neophyte to expert.

The limited production is, I’m sure, part of why Giusti impresses to this extent. After all, it is usually more difficult to make world class wine at higher production numbers than lower ones, all things considered. However, as the new plantings come online and production is boosted a bit, it’s my hope that more people in the United States will be able to find it.

If you’re interested in visiting Montalcino, Giusti has an agriturismo that I imagine, if the effort put into the hospitality is anything like the effort put into wine, would be a great experience. The winery’s tasting room is conveniently located in the heart of Montalcino as well. In short: if you’re visiting, there is no excuse or justification for missing some aspect of Giusti.

Arizona makes world class wine, it’s true.

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Barrels hanging out in the Arizona desert

I didn’t set out to purposefully make Good Vitis about up-and-coming wine regions, but the phenomenal experiences that this blog has led to in Maryland and now Arizona are encouraging me to think more about that theme. Not as a focus of the blog, but more as a way of preventing myself from becoming a myopic wine consumer reliant on established reputation. To that end, this weekend myself and some friends will be tasting through two mixed cases of wine from Ontario, Canada, which will be written up for Good Vitis in the coming weeks. And, in May, Hannah (a.k.a. “The Photographer”) and I will be traveling to the Republic of Georgia with friends to, among other things, check out its 8,000 year-old wine scene. I’ve also covered wineries in California and Israel in these pages, and I’ve reviewed wines from Washington, Oregon, France, Spain and elsewhere, and will continue to cover any region where good wine is made. The newest region in which I’ve discovered good wine is the State of Arizona, where magic is fermenting.

Our trip to Arizona was purposed around visiting my father, who lives in Phoenix. I’m out there several times per year. During one visit he took me to Jerome, a old mining town built on the side of a mountain, where Arizona’s most famous winery, Caduceus, is located. I did a quick tasting at their tasting room and popped into Cellar 433. Between the two I found surprisingly good wine that was mostly priced above its global equivalents. Those were my first and last Arizona wine experiences until a year or so later when friends of ours brought over a bottle of Caduceus, which had six years of bottle age, that was spectacular. It reawakened my interest in Arizona wine and I knew that eventually I’d have to make a point of trying a few more.

That happened last month with visits to Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines. Dustin Coressel, the marketing and sales guy at AZ Stronghold, and John Scarbrough, Stronghold’s cellar master, met us one morning at the winery, which is not open to the public, to show us around and pour a few barrel samples. AZ Stronghold is the largest winery in Arizona by production, producing around 20,000 cases annually distributed across twenty-five states. It’s also one of the oldest, and it’s role in the state’s industry is one of a grandfather with many a winery getting its start using Stronghold’s custom crush services, which include not only production but also in-house bottling and labeling capabilities.

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Their winemaking style is decidedly old world, and this is obvious not only in technique but in what comes through in the glass as well: open top fermentation, (very) neutral oak for most of its wines (using a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels), incomplete malolactic fermentation for whites and vineyard management aimed at limiting the amount of manipulation needed in the winery. The terroir also helps. Arizona’s vitis vinifera is grown in the southern most part of the state, not far from the border with Mexico, which features a decidedly Mediterranean climate of long, warm days moderated by robust breezes, and cool nights. This combines to keep sugar development in check. The soils ain’t bad either, I’m told. Most of Stronghold’s vineyards – owned and leased – are around 3,500 feet in elevation, with their Colibri site at 4,250 feet, making it the highest vineyard in America by mine and Scarbrough’s estimation. I imagine most people are like me in conjuring up images of a 110+ degree, dry and stale climate in Arizona but there is considerable acreage in Arizona primed for grape growing.

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They grow wine in Arizona. Picture credit: wine-searcher.com

For barrel samples we tried their Nachise and Bayshan Rhone-style blends, both promising wines of character and structure. We also had the “Dolla” cabernet sauvignon, a refreshing and light cab with gorgeous red fruit, cinnamon and cocoa that retails for a very competitive $20, a very pretty and bright sangiovese and a gamey syrah.

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While the wine may be old school, Stronghold’s business model incorporates some new school components, notably a significant keg production. I’ve long been smitten with the idea of putting drink-now wine in kegs for restaurant by-the-glass menu; it just makes so much sense in that it preserves the wine for a long time, making it not only more profitable for restaurants but better for the customer as well. Kegs are also much easier, safer, cheaper and more financially and environmentally efficient to transport that glass bottles packed by the dozen. The practice has become quite profitable for Stronghold, which has gone a step further than any keg program I’ve seen by using reusable and recyclable kegs made from plastic, which makes transportation and storage easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly that the normal metal kegs.

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Scarbrough and I geeked out for a few minutes at the end of our visit over vineyard management. Dormancy usually ends around March with harvest coming in August or September. The biggest dangers are Spring frosts and monsoons, which threaten the vineyards usually in July. Asked about brix at harvest, Scarbrough said that they aim to pick reds in the 23-24.5 range and whites as close to 22 as possible to preserve aromatics. Add this to the climate and wine making style and the results, which are detailed below in reviews of the wines I tried at their tasting room in Cottonwood and in bottle at home, are unsurprising in the high levels of quality, flavor, and elegance they deliver.

As Dustin walked us out to our car he suggested that we visit Scarbrough’s side project, Fire Mountain Wines, whose tasting room was across the street from Stronghold’s. Why Joe didn’t mention it I don’t know, but the humility is a bit bizarre after tasting Fire Mountain’s stuff, which is fantastic. Fire Mountain is majority owned by a Native American business partner of Joe’s, making it the only Native American-owned winery in Arizona. I can’t recommend Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines enough as great entries into the Arizona wine scene.

Going through my tasting notes there did emerge some themes. Among the whites, bodies were usually medium and lush, but moderated by zippy acidity that is very citrusy and pure flavors. The reds, which as a group showed more complexity, were medium to full bodied but well balanced. They offered juicy acidity and good Earthiness to go with pure red fruits. Standouts included Arizona Stronghold’s mourvedre, the exceptional Dragoon Vineyard merlot (best in tasting), and Lozen reds, along with Fire Mountain’s mostly Malbec “Ko” and “Skyfire,” which is a hopped sauvingnon blanc (you read that right, and believe me, it delivers). The award for exception value is Arizona Stronghold’s rose which way, way over-delivers for its $12 price tag. The wines of both wineries are enjoyable, some age worthy, and all of good value. I highly recommend a trip to Cottonwood, which has become a hub for winery tasting rooms, for a representative taste of what Arizona wine offers.

Arizona Stronghold

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Chardonnay Dala – Neutral oak and partial malolactic fermentation. Nose: prototypical chardonnay nose. Bit of toast, bit of butter, bit of lemon, bit of peach pit. There is a hint of parsley and some slate to add some variety. Palate: medium body, nice bright acidity but balanced out by a welcomed dose of buttery fat offering a glycerin sensation to fill out the mouthfeel. Meyer lemon, grapefruit and lime sorbet provide a nice variety of citrus. Definitely stone minerality as well and a brief hit of honeysuckle. Overall a really enjoyable mid-weight table chardonnay offering generous amounts of simple pleasure. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Diya – 50/50 blend of viognier and chardonnay. The nose is muted, offering lemon, banana, pineapple and dandelion. It’s full bodied offering moderate acidity and evidence of partial malolactic fermentation. Barrel notes are significant on the body, which is offers a slight sweetness and good balance. There is underripe banana, lemon curd and white pepper. This is built to age and clearly it has more to offer than it’s letting on right now. With 2-3 years of cellaring it likely become more lively and complex. 90 points. Value: C+

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Tazi – Very aromatic and tropical nose with big honeysuckle, pineapple and vanilla. The body has medium weight but is quite lush with, limey acidity. There are zippy streaks of saline and chili flake spice along with a dollop of lime sorbet. This is a porch pounder wine if there ever were one. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malvasia Bianca Bonita Springs – The nose is quite floral and offers baking spice notes as well. On the palate, honeysuckle is the major theme but it has a Starfruit burs along with lime and dandelion. Quite lean and acidity, it’s a lip smacker. 87 points. Value: C+

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Gewürztraminer Bonita Springs – The nose offers apricot, white pepper, (inoffensive) kerosene and gorgeous florals. The palate is lean and mean with modest acidity. Flavors are dominated by apricots and peaches, though there is some cinnamon and a touch of green as well. A very unusual gewurtztraminer, it’s quite racy. 88 points. Value: B

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Dayden Rose – The nose is dominated by burnt sugar and augmented by cherry, orange and rose hips. The palate is medium-plus in weight and quite lush, but the bright acidity helps it sing. The flavors are wonderful, with strawberries, charcoal, and lime at the forefront. Straw and white pepper sit subtly in the background. At $12 this is among the very best values for rose. 88 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malbec Arizona Stronghold Site Archive Deep Sky – Strong, ripe aromatics of red beet, macerated cherries, smoke, and dried cranberries. The palate is medium bodied with precise acid and thin, grainy tannins. The structure and weight balance nicely to produce a nimble wine with a slight bit of astringency that dries the palate. It offers flavors of black pepper, acai, raspberry, red beet juice and smoke. There’s a bit of celery seed, damp soil and mushrooms as well. Very enjoyable, it goes down easy and smooth. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Grenache Buhl Memorial Vineyard – Red fruit on the nose, strawberry and raspberry, joined with cinnamon and cocoa. It is medium bodied with well-integrated tannin and acid. The red fruit – strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry – is nicely augmented by cinnamon and almond pound cake. 90 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Mourvedre – The nose features smokey and red fruits, and is relatively mild compared to the bigger palate. It is full bodied, but the bright acidity and fine grained tannins keep it nimble. Nice black pepper spice along with big hits of cherries and rhubarb. There’s also burnt blood orange and a touch of parsley. A very cool wine. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Merlot Dragoon Vineyard – This has a really twisted nose that is bloody and brooding, featuring cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa iodine and Herbs de Provence. The palate is mouth coating and gorgeous with dark fruits, black pepper, saline and juicy acidity. The limited use of oak on this allows the Dragoon terroir to really shine. This may benefit from a year or two in the cellar and has a solid five years of prime drinking ahead of it. 93 points. Value: A

2012 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise – The nose is quite savory, very meaty, dark and spicy. It’s full bodied with its fine grained tannins hitting the palate immediately. The initial hit on the tongue is savory with iodine, smoke and celery. This is followed up with a nice blend of cherries, blackberries and blueberries. Black pepper comes in at the end. Drinking nicely with five years of age, it has a couple more years to go before it declines. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Syrah Norte Block Buhl Memorial Vineyard – From 20-year old vines. The nose offers big fruit and is a bit one-dimensional at the moment, though a few years should help it develop complexity. The palate is big, round and balanced. It offers cherries, strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, and blood orange. Quite juicy, the fruit is very fleshy. This will benefit from two years in the cellar and then can be fully enjoyed over the following five years. 90 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Lozen – The nose is quite meaty and savory, with iodine, smoke, cherry, orange and pipe tobacco. It’s full bodied with grainy tannins but is nicely balanced by a touch of sweetness and bright acidity. It shows its portion of new oak in the flavors as well. There is cocoa, dark plums and cherries, tobacco and oregano. This is a baby, and with three-plus years of aging will emerge. Give it five or six years and the complexities will likely blow you away. 92 points. Value: B

Fire Mountain Wines

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Sauvignon Blanc Skyfire – Only 17 cases made, this wine included the addition of Cascade and Azacca hops, which show their intriguing presence on the nose where they dance with zesty citrus and minerality. The body features less hop influence, it’s medium bodied with sweet fruit, lime zest and little bit of lushness. They experimented here and hit a home run. 92 points. Value: B

2015 Fire Mountain ya’a’ (Sky) – Nose of starfruit, pear, melon and vanilla curd. The palate is full bodied with peach and apricot nectars, chili flake spice, and celery. The acid is nicely balanced and keeps it from becoming too lush. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Cicada rose – Made with sangiovese. The fruit was cold soaked for 48 hours. The nose smells of lees and strawberries while the palate is quite restrained with good acidity. It offers strawberries, herbs and general green flavors. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Fire “Ko” – over 80% malbec. The nose is a bit oaky, but offers blackberries, plums, black pepper and pipe tobacco as well. A bit one-dimensional now, this will change with time. It’s full bodied, but balanced and juicy. The fruit includes cherries, strawberries and this wonderful note of guava. It also offers cocoa, smoke, black pepper and iodine. It’s a bit shadowed at the moment by oak, but this is built to age. This is only going to get better. I’d say sit on this for at least two or three years, but I’d be very curious to try it in ten. 92 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Earth – A very elegant and perfumed nose of cranberries, huckleberries and a little toastiness. The palate is more toasted and very deep, offering raspberries, cranberries, rhubarb, and cigar tobacco. The tannins are fined grained, and the acidity is lively. Best with one or two years of aging, drink this over the next five. 91 points. Value: B