To use a cliché no wine journalist can resist, Tuscany is always in ferment – which is partly why I’ve given Tuscan wines so much attention recently. But also, many of the wines are just plain good, and, while many of those are already well known, others deserve more attention than they’ve been getting. A case that fits all those points is Bibbiano, a 150-year-old, family-owned estate that is making excellent Chianti Classico and conducting some very interesting experiments, as well.
I recently had lunch with Tommaso Marzi, the just-turned-50 proprietor (with his younger brother Federico) of Bibbiano and its very peripatetic face in the world. He is an enthusiast, which in my book is the prime quality needed in anyone working in any capacity in the wine world, and he is very knowledgeable about his vineyards and their qualities. Bibbiano’s fields lie in the western reach of the Chianti Classico zone’s fabled Conca d’Oro, a ridge of splendid soils and exposures that arcs west from Castellina in Chianti toward Val d’Elsa. The Bibbiano estate contains two large swatches of vineyards, Montornello in the northeast and Capannino in the southwest. These are often bottled as separate crus, and Capannino provides the source of Bibbiano’s Gran Selezione.
For many years, Bibbiano’s vineyards and cellar were under the care of Tuscan doyen Giulio Gambelli, for decades the most respected nose and palate in the whole region. He is credited with keeping Bibbiano in the forefront of traditional Chianti winemaking, and in particular with planting in its field clones of Sangiovese grosso ultimately derived from his days of working with Tancredi Biondi Santi.
Over a light lunch at Il Buco Alimentaria, we tasted an astutely chosen array of Bibbiano’s bottles, which showed both the charms of the young wines and what their older siblings are capable of.
First, Chianti Classico 2014. This was a very pretty wine, blended from all the estate’s vineyards and totally untouched by wood. Fermentation on the skins started in stainless steel and finished in cement vats. All native grapes: 97% Sangiovese, 3% Colorino. Nicely balanced, fresh and lively (excellent acidity), with gentle plum flavors emerging as it opened in the glass. And a good buy, at a suggested retail price of $22.
Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2013 was next. That emerging plum flavor in the basic Chianti was much more pronounced in this wine, which also shared the fine balance of the first. This was vinified entirely from Sangiovese from the 13-hectare northeast vineyards and aged in barriques and tonneaux for 18 months. I didn’t inquire, but I’d guess they were well-used barrels, because I detected no wood or vanilla or espresso – just fine fruit and underbrush scents and flavors in this substantial, very young wine. Also nicely priced: SRP $27.
Then we tasted Chianti Classico Riserva Montornello 2000, just to see how these wines develop. The answer is, beautifully. 2000 was a very warm year, and the wine, though very much alive, did show signs of the heat in its slightly elevated alcohol. But the key fact is that the wine was live and lithe and enjoyable, which a lot of 2000s aren’t, and it grew more pleasing as it opened in the glass. It loved Il Buco’s fried rabbit, a dish whose paradoxical delicacy and strength could challenge many another wine.
Next up was Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 2011. Made entirely from Sangiovese grosso grapes, this wine originates on a soil rich in limestone in the vineyard that Signor Marzi regards as having the best exposure and microclimate on the estate. Harvested in the second week of October; 25-day maceration and fermentation on the skins; partly aged in French tonneaux and partly in Slavonian oak barrels. This wine seemed very young but already strikingly elegant. An excellent wine, with classic Sangiovese flavors, it has great structure: It needs and will take lots of time. At an SRP of $40, I think it’s a bargain for a wine of this degree of cellar-worthiness. It was probably the wine of the day for me.
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino 1995 followed, to make clear just what the potential of this vineyard is. I’ve been lucky enough over recent months to have drunk a lot of 1995 Chianti Classico Riservas (which is technically what this wine is, the Gran Selezione category not having been in existence in 1995), and they have been uniformly wonderful: It was a great vintage, and it is maturing beautifully.This wine was easily one of the best I’ve tasted: a gorgeous tobacco/funghi/cherry nose, lively on the palate, with a similar medley of flavors supported by great acidity – no sign of tiredness at all. Simply a very, very fine Chianti Classico, showing, at 21 years of age, just what a choice vineyard can do.
The final red wine of the day was Bibbianaccio 2011. This is an experimental blend, vinified from grapes drawn from all over the estate: 50% Sangiovese, 44% Colorino, and 6% Trebbiano and Malvasia. That’s correct: there are some white grapes in there, alongside that huge amount of Colorino. Fermentation took place in open barrels and included some of the woody stalks. After that, malolactic fermentation and 12 months’ aging in French oak tonneaux, then another 12 months in Slavonian oak botti, and finally 6 months in bottles before release.
I found this wine intriguing: Its fruit was complex, on both the nose and the palate – an improbable combination of berries and apples, tobacco and mushrooms, finishing long and leathery. It had perfect acidity to lighten the weight of all that Colorino. An interesting and different wine, which was all the more haunting because it was also familiar. Here Bibbanaccio is returning in several respects to what Chianti Classico used to be, when the old formula based on the 19th century Baron Ricasoli’s researches was the norm. That formula mandated some white grapes in the blend. Now they are forbidden, and wine using them cannot label itself Chianti Classico: How the world changes! But anyone nostalgic for what Chianti Classico at its best used to taste like will love this wine. I know I did.