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The French Connection

text and photographs © 2014 Tom Cannavan

Casa Vinicola Zonin is the biggest family wine company in Italy, indeed one of the largest family wine concerns in all of Europe. From their Veneto roots, the Zonins have expanded to own estates not only in local appellations including Friuli and Prosecco, but on to Piedmont, Tuscany, Puglia, Sicily and indeed, the length and breadth of the country. They have also expanded their vision across the Atlantic, to Virginia where their highly-regarded Barboursville Vineyards estate is planted with both French and Italian varieties, including Nebbiolo and Barbera.

Zonin is undoubtedly a significant producer, with 20 full-time agronomists and 15 winemakers on its staff. The quality of wines across their portfolio of estates has always been good, but perhaps has never reached the highest levels: Zonin's reputation has been for solidly good, and very good value wines, but not for exciting wines that pushed the boundaries of their appellations.

Zonin team My visit was to Zonin's Castello d'Albola estate in Tuscany, producer of Chianti Classico and 'super-Tuscan' wines. There I would meet technical director of the wine operations, Domenico Zonin, and the winemakers for Castello d'Albola, Alessandro Gallo, and for Zonin's Rocca di Montemassi estate in the Maremma region of Tuscany, Federico Giovannetti. But also present was Professor Denis Dubourdieu of Bordeaux, along with his right hand man, Christophe Olivier (the photo shows, from left to right, Christophe, Domenico, Denis, Alessandro and Stefano Ferrante, the Chief winemaker for the whole Zonin group).

Denis Dubourdieu is one of the world's most respected authorities on vine growing and wine making. As well as his Professorship at Bordeaux University, he is owner of several estates in Bordeaux including Châteaux Clos Floridène, Doisy-Daëne and Reynon, and consults at other Bordeaux estates including Cheval Blanc. But Dubourdieu has also become one of the world's most respected consultants working in a global arena. One of his long term associations has been with Casa Vinocole Zonin, where he has worked since 1999, first in their vineyards in the Maremma and Veneto, and then across several of the estates in the portfolio.

Here at Castello d'Albola, the work of the Professor and his team has concentrated on the vineyards. But they have recently taken on a more integrated role that includes winemaking, all aimed at elevating the wines of Castello d'Albola into the top ranks of the region.

In the vineyards

Carlo Castello d'Albola is situated amongst the high hills and pine forests of Radda in Chianti, one of the coolest sub-regions of the Classico zone. Its vineyards rise from 250 metres elevation to those surrounding the Castello at 600 metres. Group agronomist Carlo de Biasi (left) took me on a comprehensive tour to see the before, after and yet to be of the Castello d'Albola estate.

The sizeable estate of 1000 hectares (with 150 under vine) is in the midst of a massive replanting programme being overseen by Carlo and Denis Dubourdieu. Five hectares per year are being completely transformed (or "renovated," as Carlo puts it). At 50,000 Euros per hectare that's a cool quarter of a million for this estate alone, but similar work is going on across the Zonin portfolio of companies.

Why the wholesale change to rootstocks, clones, planting densities and training systems? Denis Dubourdieu explains: "There are many pests and diseases that can afflict a vineyard, from Phyloxerra to Odium. But the biggest pest of all is the Professor of Viticulture." Denis Dubourdieu, Professor of Viticulture at the University of Bordeaux, is joking of course, but he points out that the old vineyards of Castello d'Albola were planted 30 or 40 years ago when thinking on wine production was very different. The old system saw very widely spaced rows of vines, and very widely spaced plants within those rows - every vine two metres or more from its nearest neighbour. The vineyards were also planted with rootstocks and vine clones maximised for vigour and yield. The whole vineyard was planned around mechanisation, to minimise labour: machines could harvest easily, and there was little need to plough, prune or tend the vines. The high yielding vines produced copious large bunches and were easy to manage. The return on investment may have been good, but purely in terms of cash, not necessarily in terms of wine quality.

old vines I toured both the old vineyards (pictured right) and the renovated vineyards where planting density has been more than doubled (now each vine in a row is only 80cm from its neighbour), the late-ripening, small-berried and low-yielding Sangioveto clone has been planted on selected rootstock and new training systems have been introduced. Together with sustainable, low chemical use practices and a little green harvesting on these young vines, the quality of juice being produced has dramatically improved. Soils are typical of the region, either Alberese (a fine-grained, compact limestone) or Galestro (clay-based shale).

"Radda is a top terroir," says Denis, "and we want to express the elegance of this terroir. I believe it is amongst the best of the Zonin family." But his job is specifically to get the best from Sangiovese in these vineyards. He says that the old thinking that was quite common in Chianti was flawed: "The Sangiovese is a light and difficult variety, so the logic was to plant something else - Merlot or Cabernet. But that was the wrong the decision: it was the viticulture that was wrong, not the variety." As well as achieving the best by matching vine to the soils and climate, Denis has encouraged closer examination of the 'perfect' moment for harvesting at Zonin too - "This is not fruit to eat, this is fruit to make wine, which is a very different thing. We do not want green, but we do not want prune flavours either."

In the winery

Denis That work to replace the old vineyards - along with brand new plantings following the template on virgin ground - is ongoing, but although the home team at Castello d'Albola was already seeing year-on-year improvements, from the 2013 vintage onward Denis Dubourdieu and his team are consulting not only in the vineyards, but in the winery too. Amongst many refinements, out went 100% use of small 225-litre barriques in favour of a major proportion of large 2,500-litre 'botti', and the regime of remontage (pumping over) has been drastically scaled back to make extraction softer and less aggressive.

"Vinification must be simple," says Denis (right). "It should be soft and perfect. The grapes give their best by simple diffusion, not by harsh extraction. We reduced dramatically the volume of pumping over and the grapes are sorted and crushed softly. During ferment we decrease pump over every day so that it finishes before fermentation finishes." At end of ferment, the team samples every day. "But," says Denis, "We must have a target in our heads of where we are trying to reach. If you have no target, you don't know where you are going. You cannot set sail without knowing where you will find a harbour."

More thoughts on winemaking

Tasting notes on the wines of Castello d'Albola follow, plus notes on wines from the Zonin estates in the Maremma, Friuli and Sicily. But Denis is a wonderfully engaging character who is not scared to voice his opinions on a range of topics...

Denis and Christophe are sceptical about the tendency to use 'Old Vines' on the label more as a marketing tool than a quality statement. "Last week I tasted a Malbec from Argentina that I really enjoyed," says Denis. "Normally I am not a fan of the caramel taste found in many young Argentine Malbecs. But this one from 100-year-old vines, planted on their own roots, was terrific." He uses that almost as an example of the exception that proves the rule: "Today with better rootstocks, clones, careful viticulture and a little green harvest, it is possible to get better wine from young vineyards - five years old - than you will necessarily get from 'Vieilles Vignes'. Of course a really great and well managed old vineyard will be superior to a young one, but age of vines in itself is not necessarily a sign of superiority."
Denis says he relishes opportunities like this to sit around a table with knowledgeable wine lovers as a check and balance on his work: "The winemaking world is not based on or driven by consumer research, but on us making the wine we love and hoping consumers like it too. But it is important to ask now and again, and have a discussion, just to check that we are doing the right thing; going in the right direction."
He takes a gentle swipe at wine critics who lack the knowledge to be able to identify and how ageworthy young wines will develop over time. He cites 'premox' in white Burgundy as a perfect example: "The potential for Premox should have been obvious to those who tasted the wines 15 years ago," he says. "We saw the white Burgundies being ranked very highly by critics, but we 'doctors of wine' already knew these were wines that would not age."
And a final bon mot from the waspish Denis. "Please," he urges the wine writers attending the tasting, "stop calling Cabernet Sauvignon an 'international variety'." He shrugs, with a twinkle in his eye: "It is a French variety. I travel a lot, but I think I am still French."

the wines

The tasting compared several vintages of the wines of Castello d'Albola and other Zonin estates, to see what difference could be discerned following the changes to viticulture and winemaking that the teams in France and Italy have made.

for tasting notes on 13 wines from Castello d'Albola and other Zonin estates

Find all stockists of Zonin wines on wine-searcher.