Podere Forte – aiming for uniqueness

The Val d’Orcia is an inbetween sort of place. It has beautiful towns, sheep (the local cheese, Pecorino di Pienza, is famous), rolling cornfields and of course vineyards and olive groves.  In wine terms it is the less well-known interlude between Montepulciano and Montalcino.  On the whole the wines are good to very good, not outstanding – and certainly not exceptional. 

Podere Forte’s mission statement is therefore quite arresting: 

These lands are the basis for a project that aims, particularly in terms of its wine production, to go from good to excellent to superlative… to unique. (my emphasis)

This is no empty aspiration. The beautiful property, the sophisticated logo and the quality of the people who attended the launch in 1998 are testment to outstanding ambition.  For example, Professor Attilio Scienza, one of Italy leading wine academics, made a speech alongside the founder, the architect and so on.  The estate is owned and supervised by Pascale Forte, Calabrian by birth, successful entrepreneur in Lombardia by profession. He has set up the estate with the best of everything – organic and biodynamic work in the vinyard, certified standards for the company and expensive investment in the winery.  Twenty years on Podere Forte is having a PR push in the UK with bloggers and wine writers being provided with samples to try the wine and in order to spread the word. The question then is: do the wines live up to the ambition?

Petruccino, Val d’Orcia DOC, 2015, 15% 

This is a 6,000 bottle production from fruit from the younger vines, 85% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot.  The estate itself is large (168 hectares), but only 15 hectares are under vine. As a result, this wine is quite a large production by their standards which tells its own story: the wine game here is not about numbers or economy of scale.  The winemaking is textbook modern – spontaneous fermentation, 12 to 20 days on the skins, temperature controlled so as not to be excessive, malo in barrel. The ageing, however,  tells you this is an ambitious estate. This ‘baby wine’ spends 14 months in French oak barrique, 60% new, 40% second use. For a Sangiovese-based wine, this is a lot of new oak.  

The nose is tightly packed with a clear whiff of very expensive oak. The fruit is ripe, well-poised, sour to black cherry, hint of plumminess.  The wine combines an approachability with some complexity, not just from oak but the fruit too.  The texture is fine-grained, with very ripe, chalky Sangiovese tannins.  

Petruccio, Val d’Orcia DOC, 2014, 14% 

This is the top wine of the estate but it seems best to talk about it here, alongside its fellow Sangiovese-based wine. It is named after the historic family and indeed the hamlet in which the property is based. Sangiovese here is bush trained in rows which presumably allows for some mechanical work between the rows. The fruit for Petruccio comes from the very best plots. (The website says best vineyards but the volumes are tiny so perhaps plots is a better word). The total production is a miniscule 1,200 bottles.  

For this top wine the key word is selection – of the best plots, then selection of bunches and berries on the sorting table.  Each lot is vinified separately and then selected and blended into the final wine.  Time on the skins is a longer 18-24 days. The oak regime is similar to Petruccino except that here there is a mixture of barriques and tonneaux, and therefore less oak influence. The estate, like so many others, is experimenting with large oak formats, which is to be welcomed. The general wisdom is that Sangiovese needs the mild oxidation provided by maturing in oak but not the overt vanilla and spice aromatics of new oak. 

In the glass this wine looks like Sangiovese, a pale ruby tending to garnet, not the mid ruby of Petruccino or the deep ruby of the third wine.  The nose is muted but with attractive sour red cherry and dried tobacco with a touch of cinders.  The palate shows some but not outstanding concentration and very fine, powdery tannins.  There is a ripeness to the fruit which I associate with the lower sites of the Orcia rather than, say, the fruit restraint and intense savouriness of Montalcino. This is undoubtedly a very good wine but I am not really sure whether it is aiming at immediate drinkability at the expense of longer term ageing potential. Or it just a shy beginner?  

Guardiavigna, Toscana IGT, 2014, 14.5%

For this wine the blend is 45% Cabernet Franc, 44% Merlot and 11% Petit Verdot. What is fascinating is the different lengths of maceration on the skins for the three varieties.  Just 7-10 days for the Petit Verdot (would longer have made for too much tannin/spiciness – or was it fully extracted at this point?), a fairly long 18 days for Merlot and a long 30 days for the Cabernet Franc. It would be fascinating to understand the reasons for these decisions.  As with all the wines here, MLF was carried out in barrel (thought to be better for integration of flavours). The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques, 60% new and 40% second use.  

Here we are in proper Super Tuscan territory and in an immediately recognisable style. The wine offers intense black plum fruit with vanilla and spice oak notes, deep colour, warming alcohol. The palate shows ripe and succulent fruit with supple if evident tannins. The most Tuscan thing about it is the crisp acidity which makes it all hang together.  The wine shows concentration and length. At the same time it is remarkably ready to drink and a credit to the property as both this wine and the Petruccio come from the difficult, rainy 2014 vintage.  

Who will like these wines?

These wines are beautifully polished with rounded, rich fruit and elegant, evident oak. My first thought was that they are made to a very high technical standard by a winery that has huge resouces of knowledge and equipment. In short they are made in an international style. I think a lot of drinkers in the USA and those who like modern style Super Tuscans in Italy will love these wines. If you prefer more traditional styles and wines with a strong sense of place you will admire the wines but you may not love them. 

Who are the wines made for?

These wines are expensive. There is no way of getting around this – £30 for Petruccino, £72 for Guardiavigna (so it’s a direct competitor for Tignanello) and an eye-watering £140 for Petruccio.  I don’t have a problem with this pricing as it directly related to the tiny numbers of wines produced. And, at the end of the day, a producer is free to name any price he or she likes for their wines and then it is up to us to decide whether we want to pay that price.  In sum, I think these will appeal to affluent wine buyers who are willing to pay a premium for exclusivity. 

Podere Forte is well-funded experiment to produce world-class wines in a little known appellation.  Only time will tell whether these wines develop with bottle age to match the ambition ‘to go from good to excellent to superlative… to unique’.  Personally I would think that Guardiavigna is most likely to do that.  

P.S. What did tasting these wines alongside some Tuscan classics tell us about personal preference v wine quality?  Find out here.


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