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Felsina - Religious Reverence in Chianti

Castelnuovo Beradegna. It sits perched on top of a hill, the last outpost of Chianti on the southern border looking towards Siena and the Colli Senesi. In the distance looms Monte Amiata towering over Montalcino. As you head past the huge black cockerel which reminds you that you are still, just, in Chianti Classico, you see a line of cypress trees standing like soldiers at attention, heading to a car park where you slide your vehicle in between olive trees.

In front of you stands a huge, rather plain stone façade with a top floor with 3 ancient windows. It was an Etruscan granary, a major staging post on the ancient trading route from Florence to Siena.

Felsina. Get the enormous key and you unlock, as so often in Italy, eight hundred or so years of history. In front of you huge botti quietly ferment under trendy, crazy lights.

There are upstairs lofts full of religion (as we will discover) and underground tunnels full of barrels, a sort of hidden treasure trove of a winery, a darkened maze of heady, vinous intoxication.

Thanks to Mark Williamson we had an invitation, not obvious in this era of covid closures. As we sat outside to taste (fresh air and social distancing oblige) sangiovese grapes hung in a remarkably beautiful and complicated array of maturity, one bunch ranging from green to yellow to burnished pink to a more blushing crimson and then a mature blue-black. Heaven help any grape picker trying to sort that lot.

Like any self-respecting Tuscan estate, they have olive oils too, single varietals and a blend (with stones), so you can blind taste your olives as well as your grapes. But the king here, thankfully in my opinion, is sangiovese, the veritable blood of Jesus, no French interlopers and international grapes, no inky dark chocolate wines here and blockbuster flavours.

The current owners purchased the 300 hectares back in 1966 mainly for the hunting, but given the multitude of vineyards, decided to make wine and to concentrate on the best quality massal selection sangiovese they could find.

About 18 months ago I came across two 1995 chiantis on sale in France. As the French probably think any 20+ year old chianti is best poured over your frites, they were cheap. They turned out to be Rancia, the single vineyard here, and Fontalloro a wine of more humble IGT status as it’s a mixture of chianti classico and chianti colli senesi grapes just a stone’s throw across the border. Both had a wonderful old sour creamy cherry flavour and texture, soft, rounded, ripe and delicious. And way too good for the frites! Sadly, there were only 2 on sale.

My favourite of the line up would be Rancia, (named after a Benedictine monastery, to continue the divine theme), perhaps the most elegant of all, curranty and dusty but ripe and lingering, a wine that needs time and care. The Colonia Gran Selezione 2011 is the flagship, a single vineyard next door where they used to bring sick people to take the sun, but I found it almost confit in its ripeness and showing quite a lot of meaty age, perhaps a wine made more to impress? As so often I prefer the less elevated chiantis to the more forced grand selections. It also carries a consequent price tag. All of the wines are destemmed, with punch downs and pump overs, wines that to my taste need at the very least a decade of bottle age to show their best, but give me Fontalloro and, especially, Rancia, lovely versions of what sangiovese can do in a less extravagant package (& price).

They also, by the way, make a remarkably good and well priced spumante brut millesimato from pinot noir, chardonnay and 40% sangiovese, light, refreshing and a perfect aperitif for a blazing Tuscan sunset.

But before we leave the noble blood, we must recall the last wine in the tasting, and one for which you should really be upon your knees in due reverence. Vin Santo. I first came across it, as I am sure do so many, in a humble osteria near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence as a student on holiday. Of course, it came with its plate of cantucci almond biscuits, hard as stone until you dunked them in the sacred wine and they began to dissolve. The wine was doubtless cheap commercial rubbish, but the combination brings a wonderful comfort food finale to any meal. Only years later did I buy a bottle of Isole e Olena and realise that this was a precious, ancient dessert wine that deserved suitable attention and not vulgar pollution by a crumbling of biscuit crumbs.

The Mediterranean has specialised in straw wines since the Romans and Greeks. Is Vin Santo the sacred wine used for the Eucharist or a reference to sweet wine from Santorini, where vines crouch behind little stone walls on black volcanic soil and, traditionally, could be dried on straw mats to produce raisiny-sweet nectar?

Either way, it’s as old as the centuries, like balsamic vinegar, small caratelli barrels left in lofts to age for years. At Felsina the drying is done on mats on the top floors of thousand year old appassitoio farmhouses on the Rancia estate, the sugar levels increasing as the water evaporates and the grapes shrivel until January-February after the harvest. It’s made from an interesting mix of the more common Trebbiano and Malvasia (as in the wonderful sweet fortified malmsey wines of Madeira) and thirty percent (red) sangiovese, but this is not a pink ‘occhio di pernice’ version.

As in anything Italian, the key here is the mother. In a parallel story to the Tour d’Argent, when the Nazis invaded Tuscany, the estate built a fake wall and behind it they hid just two things. The silver and the madre. No, dream on, they did not brick up the mother in law, but the sacred dregs of previous vintages and natural yeast – just like any baker will tell you that their yeast is the secret to their bread, so the madre is the key to the individualistic glory of any vin santo, and just as sacred.

Once made into wine, it is left in small 100 litre barrels in the loft of the ancient granary to age for 7 years, each one only two-thirds filled to respect the ancient tradition of ullage (from very porous chestnut caratelli barrels) and to allow oxidation to transform the wine from yellow to a more amber gold. The angels take more than their share, and it’s always a lottery as to what you will taste when you open a cask after so long. Golden wine or something heading for very upmarket vinegar? When you consider that you can buy half bottles for 27 euros widely in Tuscany, you have a balanced medium weight and delicious wine at a silly price given the pains to make it, the risks, the ullage and loss plus the massive weight of history. I guess we should be happy (price-wise) that ‘sweet’ wines are so out of fashion, but it’s almost criminal to see such artistry be sold for so little. Go buy some and make sure that this delightful part of the Etruscan, Roman and Greek heritage survives for future generations.

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