April 17, 2021

Uncorked: Innovation driving success in Chianti wines

Roberto Stucchi has pushed Badia a Coltibuono to new heights.

It’s part of a rising tide, as wines from Chianti have never been better. Progressive farming practices and Mother Nature’s recent trends have led to delicious sangiovese from the Italian region.

“Climate change is a major issue and it’s a paradox,” Stucchi said in a Zoom tasting. “There are more random bursts of heat or cold that can cause storm damage. But it has also helped the ripening of sangiovese over the last decade. In the 1980s and ’90s, we planted denser rows with better clones and better winemaking. For 10 years now, we’ve also had the expansion of organic practices, which has led to healthier soil and less erosion.”

In addition to his winemaker post at Badia a Coltibuono, Stucchi also is the president of the Biodistretto del Chianti, and has championed organic and environmentally friendly practices in an attempt to make fine wines, to preserve the land for future generations, and to capture the vineyards’ message.

“The way I see it is Badia has a strong voice if we are willing to listen to it,” Stucchi said. “There are a lot of old Tuscan places where people don’t listen to what it says. It’s an inspiration – I’ve always been curious how agriculture was in the old days. At the same time, Chianti is perceived as a palace of great history, but it’s been reborn so many times. What is here today has more to do with innovation than with history.”

It wasn’t until World War II that vineyards specialized for wine grapes. Prior to that, vines were planted alongside other crops. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was an exodus of local farmers, which ushered in a new crew of vintners and a different style of winemaking. In the 1980s, there was high-density planting and what Stucchi said is most important, the turn toward environmentally responsible practices.

Early adopters of organic practices, Badia eliminated herbicides and pesticides in 1985. A full embrace of organics occurred in the 1990s.

“Chianti left the Middle Ages in the 1960s,” Stucchi said. “We have a history, but we’ve been reborn many times.”

Part of the rebirth was a challenge. Stucchi studied at the University of California-Davis. He loved the sun-drenched wines made on the West Coast, but knew colleagues back home who attempted to copy that style were in trouble.

Sangiovese is more delicate and shows best without massive amounts of extraction or oak influence. He knew it was hard to get sangiovese “just right,” and wanted to make wines that represented Chianti.

The Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico 2018 ($22) is one of two wines tasted that does just that: offers a precise picture of what is best about Chianti.

Even though he said the 2018 was “a peculiar vintage,” due to its wet August and early September, a hot and dry week arrived just in time. By mid-September, alcohol levels had jumped and concentration increased. The wine is very bright-colored red in the glass and has cherry, tobacco, leather, spice and dried violet flavors.

“It’s the most important wine for me because it’s the one we make the most of,” Stucchi said. “As much as I love the Riserva and to enjoy it with a steak, I’ve grown to love the everyday wines. I’ve got a very soft spot for wines that are a little more approachable. They are different wines. It’s very important the young Classico expresses the place best. Even more than the Riserva. There’s more to it, but it’s different.”

Because the Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 2016 ($36) has two extra years of bottle age, the aromas and flavors are more evolved. There are strawberry and cherry flavors to go along with an iron-like minerality and pine needle note. It was excellent when opened, and the leftovers further softened and evolved the next day.

“There are deeper aromas; it’s even a little woodsy,” Stucchi said. “We take a respectful approach to winemaking and embrace the characteristics of the vintage.”

While much of the culture prior to World War II was lost or evolved under stewardship of new farmers, Stucchi has made a return to the past with vineyard practices. Just this month, fruit trees and shrubs were planted every few vineyard rows to help “break up the monoculture.” Insects that deter pests can thrive in this environment, the trees also can shade vines and further aid the leafy canopy in a steadier fruit ripening.

In what he said is “a long-term battle,” he’d also like to see classification sub-zones for their vineyards in Gaiole. As he moves into the future and all the benefits of organic farming and classification zones, he’s also got an eye on the past. The paradox is thus continued.

“In vineyards in the south of France, rows of trees shade the vines, there are pine trees widely spaced,” Stucchi said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to slow down and delay innovation.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.