San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

What is the essence of Tuscany? And where its heart?

For the art lover Tuscany has everything, indeed it is everything. Florence, a city-state that made fabulous wealth from the manufacture and trade in textiles, was the birthplace of the Renaissance. The wealth of art and culture can leave today's unprepared visitor overwhelmed: Botticelli, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Titian and Vasari tear at every emotion. For the music lover there is Mascagni, Rossini and, of course, Puccini, described as the last romantic in the history of opera. In La Bohème Tosca and Madama Butterfly instruments play at limits of their range and singers reach deep into their hearts. But perhaps it is his aria 'O Mio Babbino Caro' from the one act opera Gianni Schicchi that, thanks to the genius of A Room With A View producer Ismail Merchant, paints a thousand images of Tuscany that will never fade. For the wine lover there is Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the 'Super Tuscans'. Indeed, its wines are perhaps the very essence of Tuscany. But the heart of Tuscany lies between the rival cities of Florence and Siena; the hilly vineyards of Chianti Classico.

And so to these beautiful Tuscan hills, oh so serene in the autumn sun when I visited following last year's grape harvest. However, I do not forget that here many soldiers died in World War II, from both enemy action and the freezing winter weather. And for centuries before, and even in the years after the war the Tuscan hills were home to much poverty. 'Mezzadria' a share cropping system was dominant from the 15th Century up until the 1950s. Landowners who usually resided in Florence, provided housing and tools to growers and received part of the harvest as payment. Many farms grew grains, olives and grapes, the crop mix provided some insurance against a failure of one of the crops in a bad year. What are now prestigious wine estates were, until the last 40 years or so, run down mixed farms. The migration of labour from the countryside to the cities in the post war years was to lead to mew investment in the land, to mechanisation where possible, and to another renaissance: fine wine production in the Tuscan hills.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

The Chianti Classico DOCG appellation runs from just south of Florence (Firenze) to just north of Siena. The vineyards cover some 7,000 hectares out of a total of 70,000 hectares of land. Woodland accounts for over 40,000 hectares, and olive groves another 10,000 hectares, helping the biodiversity of the region as well as delighting the eye. There are more than ten different types of soil, and many microclimates. There are some 480 producing estates - over 50% of these are certified organic. Eighty per cent of Chianti Classico production is exported.

The history of wine production in the area goes back some 2,500 years, and there have certainly been ups and downs. However, the renaissance of Chianti Classico in the last 50 years has been one of the greatest stories in the world of wine. Back in the 1970s Chianti generally had a low reputation. The straw encased bulbous fiaschi bottles looked great but the bottle was often the most delightful aspect of the wine. In today's world of uniform win bottles it is interesting to note that at the beginning of the Twentieth Century fiaschi production employed about 1,000 glass blowers and 30,000 basket weavers! The low reputation of Chianti, together with the restrictive production regulations, was on the the reasons for the creation of 'Super Tuscan' wines: the first was Vigorello, produced by San Felice in 1968. This was a project of Enzo Morganti, who was the oenologist and director of the winery, and the wine was made from 100% Sangiovese - forbidden by the Chianti Classico regulations of the time, which required that white grapes be included. Other Super Tuscans, notably Sassicaia and Tignanello followed in the early 1970s.

The Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico is celebrating its Centenary this year, and its on a high. On July 1st 2023, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture gave final approval for UGA wines (Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive Utilizzabilli). These must come from one of the 11 individual named sub-regions where the grapes had been grown.

There is a 'quality pyramid' of Chianti Classico wines. The base of this is Chianti Classico (Annata), the middle level is Chianti Classico Riserva, which has 24 months ageing - an extra year of over the Annata wines. At the top of this pyramid is Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. This category was introduced in 2014 (although it could be applied to wines from the 2010 vintage onwards). Current production is in the region of 2 million bottles a year, which represents about 6% of all Chianti Classico production. The wines must come only from estate grown grapes. The aim of the Gran Selezione is for producers to make an expression for their best wines, and to show that Chianti Classico can compete with the greatest wines of the world. The wines cannot be released to the market until at least 30 months following the 1st January of the year after the harvest. From 2027 the grape mix must comprise at least 90% Sangiovese, with up to 10% of other local varieties - 'international' varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon are not permitted. Many producers are now making a 'single vineyard' Gran Selezione - the ultimate expression of terroir. The 'sense of place' is of ever growing importance to the quality conscious producers.

Biodiversity and sustainably are paramount in the vineyards today. Nearly all producers recognise that sustainability, quality and expression of terroir are inexorably linked. It is well recognised that having many flora specie, together with open canopy management are the keys to reducing cryptogam diseases. There is a high percentage of 'old vines' (over 35 years old) - in dry years these prove particularly valuable, requiring less water. They also cope better in wet years. Giovanni Manetti, President of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classicand owner of the great Fontodi estate says, "the idea that every 30 years we have to replant a vineyard is so wrong; so wrong. its something from the past, an old idea."

And so to San Felice. There can be no better producer to reveal the heights that Chianti Classico can reach, and the vision of Gran Selezione than this sublime estate, which lies close to the south-east border of the appellation, a few kilometres north of Siena. At the heart of the estate is the Borgo San Felice - an entire medieval hamlet, which has been painstakingly and sympathetically transformed into a 5 star resort. The wine estate and Borgo are two complementary operations, both focused on quality, that inhabit this wonderful location.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

The aristocratic Grisaldi Del Taja family owned the manor of the Borgo San Felice from the year 1700. By the early 20th Century the family were investing in vineyards, and in 1924 were one of the first members of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico. By the late 1960s, as with many large Tuscan estates, the young generation had largely left the countryside and moved to the cities to find a 'better quality of life' (sic). This led to a huge loss of labour, and in 1968 the property was sold to Enzo Morganti, who already owned the Poggio Rosso vineyard. Enzo put his heart and soul into San Felice, and the wines. 1968 saw the introduction of the Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva as well as Vigorello, as noted above. There was new investment in the late 1970s. The new owner invested heavily, and bought other small properties. Today, the total estate has some 685 hectares, including woods and 60 hectares of olives. There are 188 hectares of vineyards, of which 150 are located by the Borgo, with 120 planted as Chianti Classico. San Felice also has 23 hectares in Montalcino, the Campogiovanni estate, and has recently purchased 16 hectares in Bolgheri, the Bell'Aja estate. All the vineyards are 'dry farmed'.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

Back In the summer of 2023, I was fortunate to have participated in an on-line' vertical tasting of San Felice's top Chianti Classicos: Il Grigio Gran Selezione from the 2010, 2013 and 2019 vintages, followed by the flagship single vineyard Poggio Rosso: the 2007 and 2010 Riserva and 2015 and 2018 Gran Selezione. The tasting was led by oenologist Leonardo Bellaccini. Leonardo was keen to show vintages of different characters. He suggested we tasted the older wines in each flight first. This perhaps defies the conventional wisdom of tasting order, but I fully concur. The elegance, complexity and tertiary development of mature wines shines through before the bold, primary fruit domination of young vintages.

This was a delightful and hugely informative tasting. Each wine was true to its vintage. In 2007 there was small yield. The Poggio Rosso vineyard, at an altitude of around 400 metres is not usually affect by spring frost but this year it struck, reducing the crop by 15-20% and carrying out a natural selection. There followed a warm dry summer and the grapes were very ripe. The nose and palate shows a long lasting combination between fruit and spice with the extra dimension of 'sous bois'. The finish is oh so long.

The contrast between the two 2010s was fascinating. This was aperfect year, and the Poggio Rosso is still a baby, but has layers of rich and opulent fruit escaping from an underlying broodiness and firm tannic structure. Il Grigio 2010 (the first vintage for Gran Selezione) is fully mature with herby, tobacco notes and gentle tannins.

2013 was a less hot year - there was some rain until the end of June, but then dry weather persisted and the yield of approximately 5 tonnes a hectare (35 hl/ha) was down some 20% on the average. The Il Grigio is a very elegant wine with a fresh acidity, marked minerality enlivening the red cherry and herby Sangiovese flavours.

2015 produced firmer wines, and the Poggio Rosso shows solid structure. The fruit includes black and red cherries, overlaid with the finest Cohiba Havana tobacco, and some hints of liquorice.

2018 was another low yield year, and the Poggio Rosso has a tremendously complex nose, showing black fruits and some raspberry tones. The palate is rich, with a classic salinity. This wine is still developing, and Leonardo confesses that he did not like the wine in youth. It might have been described as the ugly duckling' wine, but today the swan is showing its finery, with greater beauty yet to be revealed

2019 is a perfect year. The grapes were a little larger, more juicy with higher acidity and less sugar. The nose of Il Grigio already shows violets and an array of Italian herbs, with bitter sweet, red cherry flavours on the palate. The wine is delightfully fresh with silky tannins. Although it has years ahead of it, I can happily drink it in its youthful blush.

Throughout this tasting, I could feel each wine exuding a sense of place. But I wanted so much to see, to breathe, to smell the and to touch the place where such wines were created. A few months later my wish was fulfilled.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

Leonardo Bellaccini

So here I am, with a few writer colleagues, in this great estate. Leonardo is overflowing with information about the soils, the vineyards, the work undertaken on Sangiovese clones, the collaboration with the universities of Florence and Pisa, and the resurrection of almost forgotten local varieties. In 1986 the estate created a 'Vitiarium' - a 2.5 hectare experimental vineyard in which were, a collection 270 largely unknown grape varieties.

Pugnitello was particularly successful. The name translates as 'little fist' on account of the small tight bunches and the variety has become something of a San Felice signature grape. It is bottled as a single variety ''Super Tuscan' Toscana IGT wine. I tasted the classy 2020 vintage - a very bold wine with blackcurrant and bitter cherry aromas and flavours, overlaid with cedar and cigar-box notes. Pugnitello is also one of the five indigenous varieties that adds complexity, elegance and the 'statement of place' to Il Grigio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. Sangiovese accounts for approximately 80%, of the blend with the other 20% being Abrusco, Pugnitello, Malvasia Nera, Ciliegiolo, and Mazzese.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

The 2023 harvest was Leonardo's 40th vintage at San Felice, and he is philosophical about changes in that time. Those in the control of the estate have been universally positive. He proudly explains that for 13 years they have been self-sufficient in electricity. All the water used in winery and resort is purified and collected for reuse, including on the flowers and gardens. "We are trying to reuse water in cellar and reduce waste - wine cellars use copious amount of water," he notes.

Of course the changing climate is of major concern. Leonardo recalls that nearly 50 years ago as a student, to earn some spending money by picking grapes - they would need to wear boots, jeans and jackets. There would usually be mists in the mornings and occasional showers. "Since late 90s and early 2000s everything changed.. We used to start picking between October 5th and 8th. Now we pick Sangiovese around September 10t! In 20, 21 and 22 it was even earlier."

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

Leonardo is both pragmatic visionary. He muses that everybody wants to be seen as sustainable, from farmers to car manufacturers. I can see that he has no time for 'green washing'. "Our philosophy to be sustainable first of all on the economic side. If we lose money, where is the future? But we want to leave to next generation a better estate."

Leonardo is delighted to be working with General Manager Carlo de Biasi. Carlo moved to San Felice from Cantina Toblino in Trentino in October 2022 (for my impressions on Cantina Toblino please see: Gold in the Silver Mine. "Carlo has been involved in regenerative agriculture for many years, and this is our aim at San Felice. This is a great step forward - it's something more than organic."

"We very much take a social approach. There's a little vegetable garden where we produce vegetables for restaurants and markets in the area. This is managed by guys with disabilities'. There are 11 of these, each with their own specific tasks, including gardening and looking after the chickens. Two of the team have 'moved up within the organisation - I hired one to work with me in the cellar and the other is now gardener at hotel." However, there is not a hint of virtue signalling - I sense the teams knows the importance of really being philanthropic and caring, rather than to be seen to be caring.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

The 'sense of place is crucial for Leonardo. "Anybody who puts their nose in glass should say 'Chianti Classico'. We try to make a wine that can age, but also appreciated young."

We discuss winemaking, and it clear to me that to Leonardo it as much art and culture as it is science. "I like to produce wine in a classic way." He regards perfect fruit as the key. "In the early 2000s we had a selection of grapes in the vineyards. Since 2007 sorting in vineyards became tough, so we installed a sorter at the reception of grapes. There is a berry selection after de-stemming, including a 'size of berry' selection. Th colour of the skin and shape also criteria. If the berries are not round they go into into the '2nd choice wine'.

The wines are fermented using the 'Bordeaux method, at a temperature of 28 degrees or so. There is a gentle pumping over. "It is easier to extract tannins with riper grapes and I do not want to over extract. I do not regularly use rack and return (délestage), but decide by tasting. If I think that if I want to extract a bit more, or the yeast needs more oxygen, I then do. If you do long maceration or délestage skins can be manipulated too hard. I try to be more soft in skin manipulation."

One change that has ben made since 2010 is a reduction by a few days of the (post fermentation) maceration period. There used to be 4 weeks skin contact, now it is more like 3 weeks. He clearly cannot stand Chianti Classicos with a heavy handed oak usage -thankfully these are now less numerous. "Oak is a tool and must be used in a proper way, and let the wine evolve before bottling." The wines usually spend 20 - 24 months in 500 litre tonneaux. "I don't use any barriques for Sangiovese. Sangiovese is gentle and delicate. 500 litres is the good size for this variety."

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

I have already mentioned the importance of 'a sense of place' - fine wine will exude this. The place, however, isn't just the vineyard, the winery, and its immediate surroundings. It is the people, the culture and history, and the nearby villages and towns. The 'capital' of southern Chianti is Siena, which has been described as Italy's loveliest medieval city.

There are 17 contrade, or wards, in Siena - each has its own flag depicting an animal or symbol. The contrade compete twice each summer in the Palio Di Siena horse race, held in the Piazza del Campo, in the heart of the city.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

Carlo de Biasi and Alessandra Zambonin

It is here, eating ravioli and sipping 2018 Poggio Rosso Gran Selezione, that I have chance to discuss with general manager Carlo de Biasi the direction San Felice will take in the coming years and how it will continue to thrive. Carlo notes, "A future path that is certainly not easy also due to ongoing climate change which requires us to find suitable viticultural and oenological models in a changed context. We have therefore decided to undertake with determination the path of regenerative viticulture which we believe is the suitable vineyard management model in this context."

Which leads us back to country, back to the hills north of the city.

The resort at Borgo San Felice is a remarkable but relaxing destination for wine lovers and foodies alike. There are 28 bedrooms and 31 suites - I stayed in the villa Casa Nova, peacefully located a few hundred metres from the heart of the Borgo, with its own kitchen and beckoning pool a few steps outside. The resort has 2 restaurants. Osteria Il Grigio is very relaxing, with dishes that are rustic with a stylish edge. The ristorante Il Poggio Rosso has a Michelin Star, and a Green Star. There are 5 and 6 course menus that are a true voyage through the finest Tuscan cuisine, with a Colombian influence.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

Presentation is delicate and classy - there are no gimmicks here. Service is smooth, friendly and relaxed. There is a focus on the freshest vegetables grown in the estate gardens. Executive chef Juan Quintero says proudly, "picking a vegetable in the garden a few minutes before cooking is a value that we want you to find in our dishes." Of course there is a San Felice wine to reveal its wonders with each course. However, I make no apologies - there is no way I am going to be distracted by writing tasting notes now! Indeed, as I reflect upon some of the the great wines I have tasted over the decades, the most memorable were enjoyed with delightful meals, shared with relaxed company, and were wines that were truly 'at home', wherever home happened to be.

San Felice - The Blood Of Jupiter Meets The Soul Of Verismo

Florence is a city that I know and love, but sadly there is no time to visit now. I don't feel cheated, and I reflect upon Castelnuovo Berardenga, the Borgo San Felice and the estate wines, sculpted with the skill of Michelangelo and the elegance of Botticelli. But now to Puccini and to Verismo, entwined with a glass of Poggio Rosso Gran Selezione, crafted from Sangiovese, the blood of Jupiter.