Beppe d’Andrea: Tradition & Change in Tuscany

Beppe D’Andrea is a dynamic and enthusiastic spokesperson for his native Tuscany. He is the leader of the Slow Food Movement in the Chianti Classico region. He is a long time winemaker, who has transferred his skills to the promotion of the region, and he is also the Senior Brand Ambassador for the Ruffino winery. On his way through North America, he stopped in New York, and we had a chance to speak.

In your long career in Tuscany, what are the most significant changes you have seen? What are their causes, and how has it affected the region and its wines?

I started working in the wine industry in 1981. Chianti was the most famous Italian wine in the world. In Italy, we had four of the first DOCG wine regions; Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo in 1980, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Barbaresco in 1981. Many families were still making wine, which years later became wineries. Quantity was still more important than quality.

The business was changing because many wineries from the New World were making wines. We had to improve the quality of our wines.

Some Tuscan producers, including Ruffino, started pulling and then replanting vineyards with different vine density, from 1500v/a to 3,000 v/a, and dedicating certain vineyards to the planting of specific clones of Sangiovese. Of course, we had to reduce the production of grapes at not more than 22 pounds per vine doing the ‘Green Harvest.’ This was not an easy operation because we were still working in the vineyards with an older generation of workers — people who were educated for quantity. Wine was for them, an important source of nutrients; the average consumption per person in a year was around 40 gallons. Once these changes were in place, it made quality improvement all the more easy. The immediate effect in the region was that some families understood that significant investment in their vineyards was necessary to improve the quality of wines produced.

Further, the Gallo Nero Association started the ‘Chianti Classico 2000 Clonal Research.’ This research was done in the 1990s, in 16 experimental vineyards, over almost 60 acres. The first was aimed to verify the behavior of agronomic and enological value of some clones of certain red grapes (Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino and Malvasia Nera) already in use of the area, including those which comprise the blend of Chianti Classico. The study investigated the characteristics of a series of rootstocks, some of them the most currently used because best suited to the Chianti climate and soil as well as the most suitable planting density in relation to the environment and the desired level of production. Additionally, the experiment studied the training system, in order to ascertain their impact on the quality of grapes grown and wines produced, taking in to account the need to reduce the cost of manual pruning. At the end, 24 clones of Sangiovese, 8 Canaiolo, and two Colorino were selected as optimal.

Chianti and its Sub-Regions
Chianti is an area that has for centuries been identified as a wine region. Actually, we have two different wine regions in Chianti.

Chianti Classico, south of Florence and north of Siena; about 175,000 acres of land, 17,500 acres of vineyards, 600 wine producers and 3.5 million 9Litre cases per year. It has been DOCG classified since 1984 as a sub-region of Chianti and since 1996 as Chianti Classico DOCG. The DOCG requires 80 percent to 100 percent Sangiovese blended with red wines, a minimum vineyard age of four years, minimum of 1800 vines/acre, 2.4 tons per acre and a maximum 4.4 pounds per vine resulting in wines with a minimum 12 percent alcohol, aged for a minimum of one year, and two years for the Riserva designation.

Chianti is much bigger, including seven sub-regions- Rufina, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Aretini, Colli Pisani, Colline Senesi, Montalbano, and Montespertoli- with 32, 125 acres of vineyards, 2, 500 producers and 9.0 million 9 litre cases per year. It has been classified since DOCG classified since 1984, requiring 70 percent to 100 percent Sangiovese blended with red wines, a minimum vineyard age of three years, minimum of 1,600 vines per acre, maximum 6.6 pounds per vine, resulting in a wine with a minimum 11 percent alcohol, aged for a minimum of five months, and a minimum of two years for Chianti Riserva. Chianti Superiore requires 2.4 tons per acre and 4.4 pounds per vine, resulting in a wine with a minimum of 12 percent alcohol, aged for a minimum of ten months.
Ruffino has estates in both wine regions; Poggio Casciano and La Solatia in the Chianti region, Montemasso, Santedame, and Gretole in the Chianti Classico region.

Explain Chianti in contrast to other areas of Tuscany. Talk about stylistic differences, philosophical differences. Talk about the difference in clones of Sangiovese, and why they are used in different areas.

The Sangiovese is a characteristic Italian grape varietal, illustrating that we cannot produce the same wine everywhere. The experience of Chianti Classico 2000 with Rauscedo vine nursery, has been very important for all wineries, not only the development of Sangiovese clones, but also rootstock clones. This combination makes the difference. After years of study, our team of Agronomists — led by Maurizio Bogoni, Director of Ruffino Estates and Valeria Fasoli, Ruffino’s vineyards manager — are still studying the characteristics of soils, while already improving our vineyards. In our Greppone Mazzi estate in Montalcino, we have just replanted a vineyard that was more than 80 years old. There they have classified some vines as ‘mother vines,’ and from there they picked material, branch and bud, and grafting on the specific rootstock they ‘created’ the ‘sons,’ which, when planted in place of the ‘mother vines’ provides the same quality of grape. This is a sort of mass selection and the clone is now classified as VCR5. This, with other clones like Tin 10, Janus 50 and BF 10, permits us to create a Brunello that is 100 percent Sangiovese. However, this is not the same for our Gretole estate, where we make Riserva Ducale Oro. There we have less nutrients for the vines, with rocks, stones and clay, so we need mainly another clone of Sangiovese -F9 and R24 – grafted on 110R. In Montepulciano, southeast of Tuscany, we have only clay, and thus different nutrient, different drainage, requiring a different clone of Sangiovese: mainly VCR 23 and 779 pulsen. We love this very much because all Sangiovese-based wines made in Tuscany are great wines, even as they differ greatly from one another. Brunello di Montalcino is a great wine, austere, rich, for very long aging. Chianti Classico is a great wine for medium long aging and a fruity full body. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is also a great wine but more elegant, fine tannins. Chianti is the perfect great wine for any meal, easy to drink, with a fruity, medium body. Many Sangiovese for many types of soils and many different wines; this is great.

Please speak of the traditional producers in Chianti versus the modernists. Name some of the best, in your opinion, of each style.
My opinion is that in the most famous wine region in Tuscany we mainly have traditional producers which have improved very much in the last 10 to 15 years through investment in their vineyards. The rules of production are very strict, meaning that it is not very easy to be very innovative. In my opinion, the modernists are in the newer wine regions, where the rules are more flexible and winemakers can do almost anything. For example, someone tried to change something in Montalcino, but 70 percent of the 220 producers were still convinced that the very difference setting this region apart, is to make traditional wines. I still remember great wines made in the 1980′s, and even if the style is a bit different, and we are 20 years on, some wineries are still making great wines; Montevertine, Castell’in Villa, Fontodi, Felsina, San Giusto a Rentennano, Selvapiana.

Although Vernaccia from San Gimignano was one of the first Italian whites to get serious acclaim, today it seems to take a back seat to other regions. What steps do you think producers from this region need to take to improve their quality, and their visibility?
“Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a great white wine; I love it very much. Maybe years ago, it was easier to sell this wine because its reputation and Tuscan pedigree meant more in a global market that was less ‘crowded’ with wines from other world regions. The wine is still great but the competition now is much harder. Wines made in Friuli and in Trentino/Alto Adige…the Chardonnay made everywhere in the world competes with Vernaccia di San Gimignano. I do not know the solution, but certainly they have to improve the quality across the board, becoming all great wineries and ultimately working together to give this great wine visibility and the right space it deserves for its history of tradition and innovation.”

What is the Gallo Nero? Why should a modern consumer regard the Gallo Nero as a symbol of superior quality? Are there better quality measures like DOC and DOCG? Or… after the Super Tuscan revolution, do you just have to know the producer?

The Chianti wine was already a very famous wine, thanks in part to Ruffino, sold around the world, when in 1932, 33 wine producers asked the Italian government to approve the appellation Chianti Classico, which was granted surprisingly late. The wine producers of Chianti Classico were looking for an emblem which could help consumers around the world to identify a bottle of Chianti Classico from Chianti. Based on the story/legend dating back to 1206, they chose the Gallo Nero, Black Rooster. Chianti Classico is different wine than Chianti. As you know both are DOCG and both are good, but the rules of Chianti Classico are more strict than Chianti. The Chianti Classico wines are a bit richer.

The Supertuscan designation in the 1980′s greatly helped to improve the Chianti Classico and Riserva wines because at the time those wines were still made by the addition of some white grape varietals. When producers lobbied to change the rules preventing white grapes and replacing them with other, new grape varietals, the wines improved and the perception followed. As you know, Supertuscan is not a designation, you do not see this mention on the label. The designation is ‘IGT Toscana’, Typical Geographic Indication, Toscana. The rule is very flexible. We can source the grape in Tuscany, the winery decides the blend, the aging, and when the wine is ready to release. For consumers, because al inexpensive and very expensive IGT Toscana wines are often grouped together in stores, the appellation does not help indicate quality advantage of one over another; in this case, the brand is the warranty.

What does the 60th anniversary of Ruffino “Gold Label” mean to you personally?

Our roots, my roots. This wine is part of our history.

The first Riserva Ducale Oro was produced in 1947, two years after World War II, when may people’s very survival was threatened, houses destroyed, and people suffered very low morale. Mother (Momma) Nature, gave a great sign of rebirth, change, producing great quality of grapes. Ruffino’s winemaker heeded this signal, making higher quality Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Oro, Gold Label. This wine, made in only the best vintages, 35 times in 60 years, represents the height of quality; not only the quality of wine, but also the quality of life, the environment. Nowadays, we can taste a bottle of RDO, made 20 or more years ago, and we still can immensely enjoy drinking it. These vintages are wines made with respect for quality, and serve as reminders that we must do the same for future generations.