Tuscan Greatness: Fonterutoli’s Siepi

I thought I had written quite enough about Tuscan wine recently, but when Palm Bay Imports invited me to a vertical tasting of Fonterutoli’s wonderful Siepi, I couldn’t refuse, and I can’t not write about it. Great wine is great wine, even when it contradicts my usual bias against French grapes in Italy (as did the two Syrahs I recently posted about).

Journalistically, Siepi belongs to the class of wines usually referred to as Super Tuscans, a designation I and many Tuscan winemakers hate. Technically, Siepi is classified as IGT Toscano, being a non-traditional and very unusual 50/50 blend of native Sangiovese and foreign Merlot. Historically, Siepi is a single vineyard attached to the Fonterutoli property, a beautifully preserved medieval metropolis now buzzing with some 70 inhabitants.
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Fonterutoli borgo

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It was already in vines when the Mazzei family acquired Fonterutoli 25 generations ago, in 1435, and it was already an important enough site to be mentioned by name in registry documents from 1461. Siepi is certainly one of the most historical viticultural sites in Tuscany and probably one of the region’s very best crus – and so not surprising as the source of one of Tuscany’s very best wines.

Gambero Rosso has called Siepi “one of the fifty wines that changed Italy.” I’m not entirely sure what GR meant by that, or which the other 49 are, but the statement does indicate clearly the esteem in which Siepi is held by Italian connoisseurs. Robert Parker said of one of its vintages, “this wine could easily compete with a first-growth Bordeaux.”  For me, that’s comparing apples and oranges, but clearly in his mind that is meant as the highest praise.

Which brings me logically to what I think of as Siepi’s greatest achievement – precisely that it doesn’t taste French, or even international, for that matter. Siepi is immediately recognizable by its acidity and by its own distinctive harmonics as an Italian wine, and a great one – balanced, lively, deep without being ponderous, elegant without losing vivacity.

Siepi_NVI wrestled for a long time about whether it could be described as authentically Tuscan, until I realized I had to expand my notion of what Tuscan style – toscanità – could embrace. If a winemaker or a vineyard can assimilate a foreign grape well enough to produce native-tasting wine, then even though the grape is new to the region it can be regarded – at least, I can regard it – as typical. Merlot lends itself to this, and often – in the right places – complements Sangiovese beautifully. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, doesn’t. Wherever it’s planted, it stubbornly remains Cabernet, and even in small quantities it dominates rather than complements Sangiovese (which is why I continue to be unimpressed by Tignanello and Solaia).

That’s probably more than enough enological rumination for one post. Here are the vintages I tasted at the vertical:

2005: A good but not a great vintage. Separate stainless steel fermentation for each variety, followed by over a year in largely new oak before the Sangiovese and Merlot were blended (this is the standard winemaking procedure for Siepi). The resulting wine offers pronounced Merlot aromas, plus cedar and dry earth, though the Merlot is far less pronounced on the palate, which shows big, soft, mulberry fruit and a long, dried-cherry-and-leather finish. Very elegant, with years of life before it. Very fine, 5 out of 5.

2006: The Mazzei rate 2006 an outstanding vintage, and the wine supports the claim. A very persistent and elegant mulberry and leather nose precedes an equally elegant and balanced, live and fresh wine, dominated by gorgeous Sangiovese flavors. This is a wonderful wine, probably the best of the tasting. 5

2007: Also rated outstanding, 2007 yielded a wine with aromas quite similar to the 2006 but a very youthful, still evolving palate, not yet fully in balance. The fruit still shows side-by-side elements of Sangiovese and Merlot that haven’t yet knit together – but they will, and when they do, the wine will be sensational. Now 4.5

2008: The Mazzei describe the 2008 growing season as only “very good,” compared to the “outstanding” of the two preceding years, but I gave this wine a 5. Mulberry and cherry in the nose. In the mouth, Sangiovese cherry tones dominate the rich fruit and a fine acid/tannin balance. Long, long cherry finish. Already fine, although very young.

2011: An aroma of mulberry and mushrooms, with rich, lively, and very young Sangiovese fruit on the palate. Balanced and elegant, as all these wines are. Now 4.5, though I think this is a vintage of very great promise that I would love to retaste in a few years.

Siepi 20122012: Serendipitously, “a distinctive vintage” (Mazzei) to mark the 20th anniversary of Siepi, though the cold, dry winter and the hot, dry summer produced only half the normal quantity of grapes and wine. A mere 600 bottles have been allocated to the United States. The still slightly closed nose gives earth, black fruit, and funghi. The palate offers big fruit and still firm tannins. This wine needs lots of time, which it will amply reward. It almost scores 5 points already: Call it minimally 4.5

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Francesco MazzeiFrancesco Mazzei, who presented the wines, explained that he wasn’t showing any 2010 – a very much praised year in Tuscany – simply because they didn’t have any left, a fact that speaks volumes about Fonterutoli’s standing among Tuscan wine fanciers. All these wines were top-flight, marked in every case by elegance and balance, and showing no taste of wood despite the use of new barriques. That, and the impressive continuity of style from vintage to vintage, bespeak masterly winemaking. What else can I say? Here the Merlot works brilliantly in cooperation with excellent Sangiovese to produce a wine unique and yet authentically Tuscan.

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