Agricola San Felice and Fèlsina: two top wineries in Castelnuovo Beradenga

The politics of the Chianti Classico designation are well known. Should it be an appellation around its historic core, the villages of Gaiole, Castellina and Radda (the fourteenth century ‘Lega del Chianti’) plus Greve, as stated by Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1716? Or was it correctly expanded to include surrounding hilly areas, as per the DOC of 1932? The latter point is critical: Chianti Classico is a wine of altitude, not of the plain. In addition ideally the soils are a mixture of weathered sandstone known as Alberese and chalky marlstone called Galestro typical of the hills of the Classico heartland. Whatever the debate, the area of Castelnuovo Beradenga, modern Chianti Classico’s most southeasterly corner, is home to two important if contrasting estates. In short, Fèlsina has become the foremost exponent of single varietal wines, mostly Sangiovese of course, while Agricola San Felice is a major research station with an interest in local varieties. We start with the latter.

Agricola San Felice: Tuscan blends

The winery is situated in the ancient and beautiful borgo (hamlet) of the same name, now a luxury hotel. Working vineyard and winery, research station and luxury hotel make for quite a combination! Behind the scenes – and no doubt the bank balance – is the German giant company Allianz. But from a wine style point of view the critical points are that the estate is at 350-400m of altitude and that the soil is a mix of, first, rocky Alberese which constrains the natural vigour of Sangiovese, then silt and, finally, sandy soils which produce the lightest wines. The research station has experimental rows of 200 mostly local varieties which are being assessed in the field. The first result of this research is the championing of the local variety, Pugnitello, of which more below. Because of the scientific work here it is not surprising that San Felice has used infrared technology to create a detailed map of the vigour of the vineyards. In the light of this detailed decisions can be made about adjustments to nutrition and the use or none use of cover crops; and a plan made to maximise sustainability. In all this the tag could be ‘innovation to bring into the present the best of the past’.

Leonardo Bellacini has been the head wine maker at San Felice for 30 years. Reflecting on that period he singles out three major improvements. The first is the improved work in vineyard as noted. Secondly, extraction from Sangiovese has improved during the fermentation and maceration phases. While maceration time has risen to 25 days, it is gentler all around. Pump over and occasional rack-and-return are favoured over punch down. Thirdly, a subtler approach to oak ageing was pioneered and developed. Leonardo Bellacini was not a big fan of barriques in the 1990s but was one of the first to use the intermediate size, 500 litre, tonneau for top Sangiovese wines. For him it strikes the right balance in terms of modest new oak character and slow development through controlled exposure to oxygen. But as alway, the proof of the pudding is in the eating:

Wines tasted, 9 Sept 2015

San Felice, Chianti Classico, 2012, 12.5% – this €10 bottle is made from 80% Sangiovese and then local blenders Colorino (a good colour plus spicy notes, can be treated as a quality variety) and Pugnitello. While the last named is a tannic variety the tannins are sweeter and a good complement to Sangiovese. The result is a wine which is pale ruby in colour, a moderate 12.5% alcohol, overall a proper, light and refreshing wine. It has too much fruit to call it old school but it has successfully resisted the trend to fuller and fuller wines. Classic sour cherry and herb notes, moderate but present grippy tannins. Perfect for everyday and a range of fully flavoured dishes.

Il Grigio, Chianti Classico riserva, 2011, 15% – 100% Sangiovese and 0% new oak. Lovely gunflint, violet and cherry notes on nose and palate. Warm and weighty in the mouth, I didn’t feel this has quite the fruit for the alcohol. Classic grippy tannins for the long haul development in the bottle.

Il Grigio da San Felice, Gran Selezione, Chianti Classico, 2010, 14% – this is San Felice’s offering for the new Gran Selezione category. As such it is characteristic of the estate that it is a blend and a Tuscan one: 80% Sangiovese and then Abrusco, Ciliegiolo, Malvasia Nera, Mazzese and Pugnitello, most of which you will not have heard of. The ageing is 24 months, half in large Slavonian oak casks and half in a mix of barriques and tonneaux. This is already a pretty complete wine showing bold savoury fruit, the beginnings of leather and smoke notes, great intensity and approachable fine tannins. A great year and a great selection from a number of top vineyards. The following vintage, 2011, has very firm, dense fruit, higher concentration and lots of potential to develop.

Poggio Rosso, Chianti Classico riserva 2010, 14.5% – another great top wine, again a blend, this time 80% Sangiovese, 10% Colorino and 10% Pugnitello, which has spent 20 months in French oak tonneaux. In other words this wine is the (very) grown up version of the estate’s Chianti Classico. Fabulous fragrance and concentration, powerful and elegant. Austere tannins which will need time to soften and lengthen.

Pugnitello, Agricola San Felice, Toscana IGT, 2010, 14% – this is the single varietal version of San Felice’s favoured son, in their view the top performer of all the local varieties they have trialled. It apparently has many similarities with the Montepulciano variety (as grown in Abruzzo), especially abundant dark plummy fruit, though at DNA level some micro satellites are different. Intriguing intensity on the nose, dark berry fruit with more savoury notes than I associate with Montepulciano, spicy. On the palate the seam of acidity is very evident, providing the contrast to the richness. Powerful, well balanced, even at this early stage in its life showing some evolution in the glass. Agricola San Felice also has a winery in Montalcino called Campogiovanni. We tasted the Brunello di Montalcino 2010, 14.5%. This wine, 100% Sangiovese grown in the south west part of the denomination, spends three years in wood, 60% in large casks and 40% in second use tonneaux. In a word: elegance supported by some power. Very precise, pure sour cherry and meaty notes, clean lines, a tiny touch of vanilla and spice from oak, already some silkiness, very firm fine tannins. All in all Agricola San Felice is making a real contribution both to the recovery of old varieties in Tuscany and in terms of the exceptional quality and typicity of its wines.

Fèlsina: varietal wines 

The Fèlsina estate is on the edge of the town of Castelnuovo Beradenga itself, down a suitably cypress-lined drive way. We managed to miss the obvious entrance from the car park but nonetheless were made very welcome by a somewhat circuitous route – the admin block is in a part of the beautifully restored old estate buildings. There are basically two adjacent facilities here – a modern winery well hidden away from the traditional estate buildings in which some of the wines are aged and which makes a very evocative and informative tour for wine tourists. The total 900 hectare estate straddles the boundary between Chianti Classico and the Crete Senesi. The winery and estate buildings are at 230m of altitude but the two single Chianti Classico vineyards are much higher: Rancia at 320m and Colonia at 450m. The winery makes a full range of wines – Chianti Classico of course (59 rocky, calcareous, hectares), but also Chianti Colli Senesi (sandstone to alluvial, 37 ha) for a more everyday product; a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon called Maestro Raro which we did not taste; Chardonnay, bottle-fermented sparking wines and Vin Santo. In keeping with the monovarietal approach, there are four single-varietal estate olive oils too.

Wines tasted 9 September 2015

Spumante Brut NV – classic method sparkling wine made from – in a departure from the monovarietal rule – Sangiovese (60%), Chardonnay (20%) and Pinot Noir (20%). The wine spends 20-22 months on its lees in bottle. Mild biscuity nose, streams of lively fine bubbles, lemon and savoury fruit, softened by perhaps 8g/l residual sugar. Very competent sparkling wine in a hot area.

Spumante Brut Rosé NV – 50% Sangiovese, 30% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay with 24 hours skin contact for a pale onion skin colour. This maceration of red varieties makes a marked difference to the wine with the savoury notes of Sangiovese being much more pleasantly evident and giving the wine greater complexity – the savoury theme is joined by a brioche note and red-berried fruit.

Spumante Millesimato 2010 – the same varieties as the Spumante Brut NV but a more complex blend of 40% Sangiovese, 25% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay from the 2010 vintage pus 15% of reserve wine from 2009. 32 months bottle ageing. More powerful brioche and hazel nut aromas plus that signature savoury Sangiovese theme, lively acidity, finishes long and nutty. Much more than a local sparkling wine.

‘I Sistri’, Chardonnay, IGT Toscana, 2013 – apparently named after an ancient instrument used in the worship of Isis in ancient Egypt. The fruit for this wine comes from the Colli Senesi area and this wine is aged for 8-10 months in French oak barriques in their second to fourth year of use. Clean, clear peach essence and a touch of vanilla on the nose and then more tropical fruit follows as the wine opens up. The body is quite fat and has good concentration but with plenty of acidity to keep it lively.

After this aperitivo, so to speak, we start on the reds commencing with a very instructive pair of entry level wines, Chianti Colli Senesi and Chianti Classico, both 100% Sangiovese, 2012 and 13.5% alcohol. The Colli Senesi shows warm, blackberry fruit, moderate acidity and firm tannins, while the Chianti Classico is markedly cooler in expression, more red fruit (classic sour cherry), high acidity and crisper, grippier tannins and is longer on the finish. The former is €9.50, the latter €16.50 Both are well made, very good every day wines and they show the difference that altitude and soils make. Incidentally the Chianti Classico was the wine which appeared in the 2015 Master of Wine exam, paired with a Brunello di Montalcino. I at least argued it was Chianti Classico but thought it was a traditional Sangiovese blend. Two cheers?

On to the grander wines:

Chianti Classico riserva, 2011, 14% – a selection of the best fruit from the same 11 vineyards from which the entry level wine also comes and produced for the American market. 70% of the wine is aged in Slavonian large casks, while the rest gets the luxury treatment in 2-3 year old barriques. The grapes for this wine are picked a bit later for a fuller ripeness. The fruit is now on the turn from sour to black cherry and does a good job of covering the firm ripe tannins.

Rancia, Chianti Classico riserva, 2011, 14.5% – a single vineyard wine which gets slightly longer maceration time (16-20 days) and then is aged for 18 months in French oak barriques, 60% new. A very opulent style with ripe blackberry fruit, very good integration with the oak and just the first tertiary leather and tobacco notes beginning to appear after 4 years. Powerful, complex, has the capacity to age for a decade and more.

Fontalloro, IGT Toscana, 2011, 14.5% – this is a top quality Chianti in all but name, being 100% Sangiovese made from fruit from both parts of the estate, ie both in the Chianti Classico zone and in the Colli Senesi. This explains the use of the IGT Toscana designation. (The other options would have been simple ‘Chianti DOCG’ or the even more basic ‘vino’; clearly neither were appealing.) Bold blackberry fruit and black cherry, there is so much fruit here you could be forgiven for thinking this was not Sangiovese at all until you get to the firm, fine tannins. The wine has the intensity to deal well with around 20 months of maturation in 70% new French oak barriques. We also tasted the 2010 which is a real star: beautifully ripe fruit, excellent concentration, finesse, layers of fruit, savoury notes, vanilla and clove, fine substantial tannic structure, wine with a real wow factor.

Colonia, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, 2009, 13% – just 3,000 bottles were made, ours being number 932, from this small, high, sunny vineyard at the top of the Poggio a Rancia estate. The land here is so stony that it was initially prepared in the 1970s by using dynamite to break up the surface, until this became illegal. After being abandoned in the 1980s, less exciting and less dangerous means were used when the preparations for the vineyard restarted in the 1990s with planting finally taking place in 1993. The first single vineyard wine was sold in 2006 and Fèlsina then decided to use this special bottling for the new Gran Selezione category from this vintage, 2009. The young wine is matured in mostly new French barriques for 30 months. The resulting wine is deep in colour with a dense, tight and rich nose already showing balsamic notes, black fruit and sweet and peppery spice. The palate is a silk glove over a powerful youthful tannic structure, with that classic Sangiovese herbal fruit and meat combination. Outstanding concentration.

Fèlsina are to celebrated for their single-minded devotion to Sangiovese and for the range of everyday and top quality wines they produce from this great variety.

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