“Le ova sono finite!” – A Wine-Making Story in Panzano
When the last grapes enter the cellar in October, Vicky and Guido brace for a new season of wine making. Their estate, Le Fonti, located in Panzano in Chianti, lies in the heart of Chianti Classico, home to a renown wine biodistrict. This is where my journey begins. How do you make wine out of a bunch of grapes? I came to study an artisan winemaker. I arrived in mid May in Panzano, to complete a four-week course on the philosophy of food and I fell in love with the culture of wine-making. I became fascinated during this short amount of time with the artisanship that goes into making a craft wine. While I was only in Tuscany for a month, I was able to gain valuable insight from the producers and from my own studies on the production of wine, after the harvest.
As the last of the grapes enter the cellar, already hand selected from the vineyards, they are sent to the press. Here they are lightly pressed, in order to start the juicing process. Guido and Vicky are very focused on producing an organic product, that allows for the sustainability of the land. This means that they let the grapes go though the process of turning into wine with as little outside input as possible. After being lightly pressed, the grapes enter large metal vats. It is crucial that the grapes from different vineyards are separated into different vats. Guido explains that each vineyard can produce a different quality grape and it is important to not blend them until the quality of wine is determined.
The grapes, now in the metal vats, will start to undergo the fermentation process. This process occurs in two steps while in the metal vats. The first fermentation will occur within the first 21 to 26 days. This is when the sugars in the grape are converted to alcohol. The grape juice is very reactive with oxygen at this point so it is crucial to avoid air contact throughout this whole period. The alcohol percentage has the potential to vary greatly year to year. It is entirely dependent on how hot the summer is. With a hotter summer, you will get a sweeter grape, which, in turn, means less alcohol. However, if the weather is not as hot, you will get a less sweet grape, which allows for a higher alcohol concentration. Some producers will add chemicals and yeast to aid the fermentation process. However Guido and Vicky do not believe in this philosophy. They choose to let the grapes undergo their process at their own pace, because the grapes have a natural yeast that they will produce in order to drive the fermentation.
As the grapes ferment in the metal vats, the skins will start to separate from the grape. The skins and other solid parts of the grape will settle down on the bottom of the barrel. This causes a problem for Guido because this could limit fermentation and also affect the color of the grape. To resolve this, Guido goes from container to container with a pump, slowly bringing the contents on the bottom of the vat up to the top. The process is slow as to not break the grape’s seed, which contains bitter oils that will have a negative impact on the quality of wine. With the slow pump, you get the added benefit of recycling the contents of the vat and also without breaking the grape seeds. Guido repeats this process daily throughout these first 3 weeks.
It is now the beginning of November and the grapes have completed their first step of fermentation. The grape skins are now ready to be removed and the second step of the fermentation process can begin. During the next month, the acetic acid that is in the grapes will be converted into maleic acid. In order for this process to proceed, bacteria will need to be present in the vat. Many producers will spend thousands of dollars to buy the desired bacteria to add to the vat. However, Le Fonti has derived a way to “trick the grapes into producing the correct bacteria.” By keeping the metal containers around 20oC the grapes will start to produce the natural bacteria that is needed to complete this second step of fermentation. This not only saves Guido and Vicky from undesired costs of production but also is in line with their all natural philosophy. These choices by Guido and Vicky early on in the production process already start to distinguish Le Fonti’s Chianti Classico from the many other producers.
Walking into the cellar, the aroma of grapes is instantly apparent. The metal vats are neatly arranged around the border of the cellar while two wooden barrels sit in the middle of the room. One of the things I appreciated the most is the cleanliness of the whole room. Everything was without a scratch and no dirt could be found. This reflects kindly on the Le Fonti operation because it shows the precision and care that they put into their work. If you walk into a cellar that is a mess, it could show carelessness, however, if everything is kept clean and the workspace is organized, then it demonstrations that the producer is dedicated to the quality of their wine.
After months spent in the metal vats, the grapes have finished the fermentation process. Its now December and the blending of the grapes is now in full swing. Among the vats, you can observe that Sangiovese dominates the collection. Along with this, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can be found. Guido and Vicky are attempting to determine which grapes from this year will be used in their different wine offerings. To help with their selection process, they will send blind samples from each of their vats to a consultant who will offer his recommendations. Vicky explains that they trust his input very much and have been with him for a considerable amount of time. Taking the consultants recommendations into account, Vicky and Guido decide on the final blend for the Chianti Classico. In order to sell a wine as Chianti Classico, Guido needs to meet certain criteria. Specifically, the wine needs to be at least 80% Sangiovese, and aged for at least 12 months. All the grapes need to be grown in the Chianti region and all are required to be red. Guido and Vicky believe that 80% Sangiovese is not the correct percentage to create a good wine. While the exact percentages can vary from year to year, Le Fonti’s Chianti Classico is usually slightly over 90% Sangiovese. With the remaining, there is Merlot, usually around 5-6%, and then finish off with Cabernet Sauvignon, with about 3-4%. This combination, in their opinion, produces a complex, well-rounded wine.
Le Fonti finds it crucial to blend the wine before aging it. While many producers will blend their grapes after the aging in oak barrels, Guido and Vicky believe that this is not the correct strategy for today’s market. If the grapes are blended after the aging process, the wine needs to be aged for a longer period of time before it is pleasant to drink. Vicky explains, “In the first four or five years this type of wine could taste bitter and unpleasant to drink.” The grapes do not have enough time to adjust to each other so as a result, they need to age in the bottle before it is ready to be drank. By blending the grapes and then aging in oak, the grapes are given a longer time to adjust to each other. As a result, you get a very harmonious wine that is ready to be drank young. In todays wine market, the consumer is looking for a wine that can be drank within a year or two of being purchased. As a result, a wine that requires aging for about five years will not perform well on the market.
I found this to be very interesting. I was under the assumption that the blending of the grapes occurred as the last step before entering the bottle. The concept that the grapes need to get acclimated to each other was also something that contradicted with my prior understanding.
As the heart of winter closes upon Tuscany, the Chianti Classico blend enters the oak barrels. Guido and Vicky are very particular about what barrels they will use for their wines. There are several oak options for the barrels. American and Hungarian Oak are options, but both face a similar problem; they are too porous and as a result give a very strong oak taste. As a result, Le Fonti has decided on a French Oak, which they believe provides the perfect amount of structure for the Chianti Classico. With that decision behind them, they were then faced with the decision on whether to use the barrel right away with the Chianti Classico, or to use it on other wines. Guido and Vicky decided on the later, for a similar reason for choosing the French barrel, the new barrel will be overpowering for the Chianti Classico. Le Fonti sends its barrels through a rotation. The new barrels are used on their Reserva and Fontissimo because they can handle the strong oak influence. After they are used there, the barrels can then be used on the Chianti Classico wine. The main reason for aging in oak barrels is that it provides stability to the wine. As Vicky explains, this means that a wine that would normally only last one or two years can now last from five all the way up to ten in some cases. While in Tuscany, we visited many other wine producers in the area. The ability to give a wine a longer life is very important because it will make their wine more marketable. With the wine now blended and sitting in the oak, the long days in the cellar draw to a close. The wine will now sit in the oak for at least a year before being bottled and sent out to face the market and critiques.
Le Fonti produces Chianti Classico wine that is in tune with the philosophy of Guido and Vicky – to create a production that is natural, organic, and allows for the sustainability of the environment. While the guidelines for a Chianti Classico wine are stricter than ever before, Le Fonti is able to produce a product that is truly unique in its production and taste. The production of wine takes a true artisan in order to get out a high quality product. It is important to have someone dedicated to not only spending long days tending the vineyards, but also spending hours in the cellar with the wine. By owning the winery and also making the wine, Vicky and Guido are able to construct wines that are in line with their philosophy and are able to fine-tune their craft to meet their desires in the wine. The Chianti Classico that is bottled each and every year is a true work of art that embodies the dedication, work ethic, and skill that is evident at Le Fonti Winery. I look forward to additional enjoyable wines and many more successful years of wine production, as I am sure Guido and Vicky do as well.