I Balzini – breaking the rules

I Balzini breaks many of the rules.  For a top Tuscan estate, it is not in a famous appellation, being just a few kilometres outside of the boundary of Chianti Classico. It could label suitably composed wines as Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG (no less) but it has chosen not to.   It has also decided to major on the so-called international varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for all the top wines – with Sangiovese in a supporting role.  For a relatively small estate (13 hectares), it also keeps old vintages which shows confidence in the wines’ ability to develop in the bottle.  Finally, it has marketed its wines in a very contemporary way with a series of colour themes rather than the more traditional place names or grape varieties. Here is the clue:

The colour scheme I Balzini vineyards

The wines are called: green, red, white and black, with perhaps an ‘aubergine’ waiting in the wings.  There is also a Pink Label which is, of course, rosé.  This marketing strategy is a bold step by traditional Italian standards and the key is a husband and wife partnership with complementary strengths. 

The estate was founded by Vincenzo D’Isanto who planted the vineyard below the winery which you see in the picture above.  There is a second vineyard on the other side of Barberino.  Vincenzo has then made some great choices. First he has had outstanding technical help.  He was advised by the famous maestro assagiatore, master taster, Giulio Gambelli of Montevertine fame.  His consulting wine maker was Andrea Mazzoni and latterly Barbara Tamburini.  These are top names and make it clear that there is great vinous ambition here, not just routine wine making at a country retreat.  Secondly, he (very wisely!) married Antonella who brought with her great marketing skills, drive and a warm, outgoing personality. 

Vincenzo and Antonella d'Isantoold vintages

The viticulture here reflects classic, high quality practice. The vineyard on the property faces the sun and has a steep incline. There is some cooling effect from being 225 metres above sea level, though that is at the lower end of the range by Chianti Classico standards.  The poor, stony soil ensure low yields – up to a kilo per plant in normal years, more like 600g per plant in a hot, dry year such as 2012 when we visited in late July – the colour of the soil in the vineyard pictured above tells its own story.  Grapes are selectively picked by hand when they are ripe into small baskets and fermented with temperature control to retain aromatics.  The malolactic may take place as late as January-February of the following year as the fermentations can be very slow.  The overall aim is for perfumed, elegant wines. 

In our tasting, we moved from the recently introduced wines made for younger drinking (Green and Red) to the ageable White and Black.

tastingJanet concentrating
All the estate’s wines use the broad church designation of IGT Colli Toscani Centrale which does at least specify an average minimum of 200 metres above sea level (and maximum average 400m) which means cool nights and retention of aromas and acidity. In contrast to the DOCGs it gives the possibility of using a large range of varieties, with even Gamay getting a mention! Thus the main point is flexibility – the wines can be Sangiovese based or Cabernet and so on.

Green Label 2011 – just 12% alcohol from 80% Sangiovese and 20% Mammolo, so a genuinely Tuscan blend.  The Green Label is a straightforward pleasure – mid intensity ruby with some hints of youthful purple visible at the edges; very good depth of flavour for a simple wine and good perfume; lovely drinking.

Red Label 2010 – again this is a simpler wine by choice which is aged in used barriques for eight months and can be sold two years earlier than the top wines.  The blend is roughly one third each Merlot, Cabernet and Sangiovese, so this is in effect a young drinking Super Tuscan.   Primary red and some black fruit, great balancing acidity, good length. 

White Label 2008 – this top wine is a 50/50 Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend made from low yielding vines (40 ha/hl).  Despite the hefty amount of Cabernet, Antonella is rightly proud of the gran impronta toscana, the imprint of Tuscany on this wine.  Excellent black fruit on nose and palate, plenty of fine tannins. The highest praise I can give it is that while it clear has something other than Sangiovese in it, it does not shout ‘Cabernet’ at you.  There is elegant, balanced fruit with fine acidity and the proper Tuscan rasp of tannins. 

Black Label 2008 – all varietal Tuscan-rootedness (‘Tuscanity’ does not exist in English) is abandoned here for a wine which is a 50/50 Cabernet/ Merlot blend.  If Antinori or the Incisa della Rocchetta families can do this, why not the D’Isanti?  Powerful, elegant, blackcurrant notes, top quality oak, a huge mouthful of fruit rounded out by ageing and excellent length.  Even in a four year old wine you can taste some development and these last two wines will certainly age well. 

I noted above that I Balzini breaks the rules and it certainly breaks one of mine – I would always prefer to visit a traditional grower who focuses on local varieties. But there has to be an exception and I Balzini is it.  Perhaps it was a real advantage to be outside the Chianti Classico boundary? 

With many thanks to the D’Isanti for a memorable visit.  I will add the tasting notes of the older vintages when we find a suitably grand occasion on which to drink them. 

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