A passion for the Sangiovese grape helped an Italian family create some exceptional wines in Chianti
Paulo di Marchi
I first met Paolo di Marchi some 20 years ago at a wine fair in Italy. Having completed a massive tasting of Chianti at a nearby generic stand I was intrigued by how different his wines were. Whereas the others were tough and lacking in flavour, his were soft and elegant with wonderful precise fruits. The reason? “Well I make my wine with Chianti grapes,” he said. He told me that only he and a handful of other small growers could resist the temptation of (illegally) adding much cheaper wines from outside the region, including Sicily and Apulia further south.
Di Marchi is a reflective and modest man but not afraid to voice his opinions, including frequent criticisms of the authorities in Chianti. Although he pioneered the move to bring foreign grape varieties to Tuscany, and makes excellent Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, he is also considered the foremost expert on the local Sangiovese grape. From this he fashions some of the finest Chianti Classico, grown on some of the very best vineyards in the region.
His Piemontese father bought the estate in 1956. Until the 1960s there were 120 people living and working in the twin hamlets of Isole and Olena. Within five years that number dwindled to 14 as workers migrated to the big cities and the promise of well-paid work. Under the medieval mezzadria system, these sharecroppers grew a variety of crops, including grapes.
“This is so important to understand what happened to Chianti in the 1970s and 1980s,” says di Marchi. “A huge change occurred in a very short time, forcing growers to change rapidly.”
There were hurried replantings, often using clones of grape designed to produce quantity rather than quality. This lead to a glut of cheap inferior wines that flooded the market in the 1970’s and 1980’s ruining the good name of Chianti. Thankfully times have changed and nowadays there is no shortage of good producers in the Classico region (and sadly no shortage of average wines either).
Di Marchi is passionate about Sangiovese. “You always have to think about this grape,” he says. “It is a difficult variety. Ripeness is everything. I harvest late, later than my neighbours, and then I am very selective with my grapes and careful with my winemaking.” In the early 1980’s Di Marchi released a Vino do Tavola or table wine called Cepparello, made from 100 per cent Sangiovese, the classic Tuscan grape variety. When it first appeared few people believed that Sangiovese was capable of producing good wine on its own, and needed the help of other varieties. Di Marchi proved them wrong with a superb wine that was every bit as good as the Cabernet-based wines that were in vogue in Tuscany at the time. In those days, Chianti had to be made from a blend of Sangiovese and other, sometimes inferior, grapes. For 26 years it couldn’t be called Chianti, although others could add Cabernet Sauvignon to a wine and call it Chianti. So when the rules were relaxed recently he saw no need to change from the humble Vino do Tavola designation.
“The best wines,” he says, “always need less intervention. The better the grapes, the more special the place, the better the wine. It is that simple.” Life has become easier for di Marchi. “For many years it was difficult to sell my wines. Wine drinkers used to big, extracted wines would tell me they didn’t understand the price and reputation of my wines. I had to constantly explain that Isole e Olena is all about elegance and lightness. Now this style is in vogue once more.”
In a neat turnaround, the original family vineyards in Piemonte have been revitalised with di Marchi’s elder son Luca currently in charge. The Proprita Sperino wines are expensive but quite sensational. Made from local grapes, including Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Croatina they have the hallmark di Marchi elegance, and are comparable with other more famous names such as Barolo and Barberesco.
Di Marchi made a brief visit to Dublin before Christmas where he hosted a dinner for customers of the Corkscrew in Ely wine bar.
I caught up with him beforehand and tasted his entire range of wines. Without exception they were excellent. I include three as bottles of the week, with another unrelated Italian wine for those looking for something less expensive.