After my tempestuous arrival to my hillside accommodation, after food and wine, and a good’s night sleep, I walked through morning mist and fog the short distance to the villa of Colognole to meet Cesare Coda Nunziante to talk and taste wine. I first met Cesare in Missoula, Montana, at Summit Beverage’s Best of Book back in 2011. I loved the 2007 Chianti Rufina so much I bought an entire case at a great price, wholesale at $11 per bottle. A case of wine is great to have on hand–bottles make great hostess gifts, or for last-minute dinner parties, and for emergencies after a rough day. Having fine wine in my house makes it feel like home. I think I still have a bottle or two in my collection.
The region of Chianti Rufina is not far from Florence, towards the east in the rugged hills of the Sieve River valley. In this wine growing region there are only about 20 producers in the DOCG compared to the 300 in Chianti Classico. The cooler microclimate and higher elevation create greater temperature swings between day and night that impart higher concentrations of acidity and lend a more vibrant structure to the wines. Soils are rocky with shale and clay, and vineyards are planted facing south. Colognole is considered a medium small producer at around 18,000 cases, about 2,500 cases are imported to the US by the Sonoma County-based importer, VEDI (Vintners Estates Direct Importing). All the fruit is estate grown.
Besides grapes, the hills are alive with 6,500 olive trees that are hand-picked every season. Cesare explained that every year they are lucky to break even on the olive oil harvest. But the tradition continues. In Tuscany, it is actually illegal to cut down olive trees as they are part of the integral landscape. They are a challenge to destroy as new shoots will start growing from cut stumps, and actually take seven years to produce a viable crop. Before leaving Colognole, after my three nights there, I loaded my Fiat 500 with five liters of olive oil in a tin vessel from the last harvest. Five liters is over a gallon, and it weighs a lot. I wanted olive oil, and I got it. Now I’m sharing with friends and family, and have enough oil for the rest of the year. I schlepped that olive oil with me to Rome, and Marco wondered why my bag was so heavy. Well, it wasn’t just my shoes. A tin is a good idea, though, because it doesn’t break. I considered shipping it, but it would have been a small fortune and more than what the oil cost.
Great earthy mushroom permeates the 2008 Chianti Rufina vintage of 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo. Layers of dried raspberry and cherry mingle with herbal notes of thyme and mint. Great limestone minerality lingers in the glass. This wine is so approachable, versatile and quick to please. Easy tannins and fresh acidity keep the wine lively on the palate. This vintage was the second release from vineyards re-planted in 1995. The previous vines were over twenty years old and were taking on too much minerality and not showing a lot of fruit.
In 2010, hail in June, July and August damaged leaf growth to the extent that photosynthesis was halted, and the fruit was too late to ripen. No wines were released that year.
The single-vineyard 2004 Collezione was an experiment with ten-year old vines. Cesare admits that it “lacks a little density.” A lighter mouth-feel reveals more a mineral driven, earthy style of wine that shows off bosenberry and pie cherry with faint strawberry-rhubarb on the end of the sip. I thought the tannin structure showed a style more similar to Pinot Noir. From 100% sangiovese aged for three years in casks and three years in bottle. Other sites are showing real potential for future single-vineyard releases, and Cesare will be looking at these for forthcoming vintages.
In the fields around the vineyards grow wild fennel, thyme, lavender, rosemary, and other herbs that add character to the wine. In the 2007 Riserva Chianti Rufina del Don, rosemary and hazelnuts add great non-fruit components to a balanced oak presence. Solid tannic structure supports dried, dark fruits like plum and black cherry. Dark chocolate and black pepper add even more complexity to this powerhouse. Very present, it still is a pretty suave wine that pairs nicely with braised wild pheasant (from the estate), house-made pasta with butter, pancetta and sage, wild boar that roam the hills, and hares brought in from neighbor boys that have been hunting in the woods.
In the amazing restaurant on the property, Il Colognolo, my service was graciously attended by Sonia, and by the end of my stay it felt like we were old friends. I’d see her several times a day at meals, or for my afternoon coffee. It reminded me that restaurant comes from the Latin word restaurare, to restore. Here I was able to try some older vintages, and on my first night was reminded why I love this wine so much in the first place. The 2005 Chianti Rufina has mellowed out to a lush glass of dried fruits full of prune and dried cherry, cassis and blueberry. Delicious! Great, soft tannins and still lively acidity balance the dark fruits with just a rounded sense of oak. For every occasion, well, maybe not breakfast, but this wine could be served with almost anything. The 2006 is a little more meaty with darker fruit. Leather, herbs and tobacco underlie a more masculine style wine. It has a rustic edge and more textured tannins, adding grip and more that back-of-the-mouth dryness.
Some international varietals are being cultivated on soils similar to the rocky soils of the Cote-du-Rhone, including, of course, syrah, and merlot. Only one hectacre (since 2005) is planted with syrah that gets blended with sangiovese and merlot. And chardonnay gets IGT status as an international white grape. IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, and rates below DOC or DOCG–Denominazione di Origine Controllata or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. These are the rules and regulations of Italian wine making that ensure regional specificity, alcohol levels and aging requirements for Riserva wines. Look for forthcoming vintages of these blends.