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Casa Vinicola Zonin, Italy

© 2014 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on the wines of Zonin, Italy with Denis Dubourdieu. It includes vertical tastings of Castello d'Albola in Chianti and Rocca di Montemassi in the Maremma, aimed at showing the progress being made following extensive changes to viticulture and winemaking in consultation with Professor Denis Dubourdieu of the University of Bordeaux. Tastings from two other Zonin wine group estates in Sicily and Friuli are included too.


albola The result witnessed by my tasting of five vintages of the Castello d'Albola Chianti Classico Riserva are impressive: though there is a definite improvement in quality year on year, the tasting of an early sample of the 2013 vintage shows a huge transformation with a much brighter, purer fruit quality shining through under the guidance of Denis Dubourdieu and his team from Bordeaux.

Acciaiolo was the first wine made at Castello d'Albola, a "super Tuscan" blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. The name comes from a family that lived on the farm in the renaissance and who built the original cellars. Its first vintage was 1980, a year after Zonin bought the estate.

Acciaiolo was meant to demonstrate power and elegance working together, but the Zonins decided that although a good wine, it was not representative of the area, so the Chianti Classico Riserva came later, 100% Sangiovese and meant as a 'terroir wine'. Winemaker Alessandro Gallo says they look to the future of the estate as delivering a very pure expression of Chianti Classico.

Castello d'Albola, Acciaiolo 2006, Italy
A 50/50 blend approximately of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese which spends 14 months in French oak, one third new, and one third each one and two years old. Both the 2006 and 2007 vintages tasted here were warm years, '06 marginally warmer. This has ripe cassis, berries and blood, maybe a little cedar, with tobacco and earthiness. The palate is tannic, with a straightforward fruit at the core, earthy and spicy, but at this stage lacking a little generosity? Big tannins and good acidity, a little smoky and tight, but there is black fruit though outweighed at this stage. Denis is certain this is in a good stage of its evolution. 90/100.

Castello d'Albola, Acciaiolo 2007, Italy
Creamier, mintier, and a fresher on the palate. There is a creaminess to this, with more lift and finesse, perhaps not the brooding power. The palate is much smoother and softer than the 2006, with still a tight and structured core of tannin and acidity, with a touch of greenness perhaps, but a more harmonious palate. A little sour lemon note adds a savoury element. Very different from the 2006, certainly does not have the structure and muscle, and whilst I'd prefer the softer appeal of this to drink now, it perhaps lacks a touch of mid-palate fruit weight and ripeness. 89/100.

Castello d'Albola, Chianti Classico Riserva 2006, Italy
100% Sangiovese, this is very shy on the nose, with a touch of smoke and lightly spiced berry fruit, but it does not give an awful lot. Dry on the palate, a touch leathery, a touch lean, with a certain elegance and some extract dryness but not the fruit plumpness that would really make it pleasurable. Given the hot vintage, might be in need of cellaring to tame the tannins as it is serious and savoury. 88-89/100.

Castello d'Albola, Chianti Classico Riserva 2010, Italy
More oak present, and a much brighter fruit quality, a hint of cherry as well as spice and cedar. A hint of vanilla. The fruit is edgy and racy, with lots of élan, that cherryish edge and good weight and texture. Not a hugely complex wine, finishing on spice, but good drinking and balance. Perhaps a tiny touch of hollowness at the core. 90/100.

Castello d'Albola, Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, Italy
A barrel sample of the 'new' wine made in consultation with Denis Dubourdieu. Now 60% goes into large 'botti', and of the 40% in barrel only 15% is new oak. Terrific inky purity from young vineyards that have been renovated. Obviously very youthful aromas, but has violet and kirsch lift and purity, with a gentle tobacco note, but really all about the buoyancy of the fruit. The palate too has wonderful balance and a dry, savoury freshness. It has energy and the sweetness of really ripe and naturally concentrated fruit, with a silkiness to the tannins and a x-factor of charm that is missing in both the 2010 and 2006. A clear step-change in style and I have to say, quality. 92-93/100.

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MONTEMASSI This is the newest estate in Zonin's portfolio, established in the late 1990s. It is based in the Maremma, on the Tuscan coast. Winemaker Federico Giovannetti explains there were very few vineyards - just a small plot for home consumption, not a professional production - when Zonin bought the farm. The Maremma has a warmer climate than the rest of Tuscany, with easy ripening of vines, and Federico says that whilst Bordeaux varieties thrive here, there is still significant vintage variation. In 2003 a project was started with Denis Dubourdieu to make a new top wine bearing the estate name. Choosing from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot, the percentages of each variety used changes each year because of those vintage variations. The first release was in 2008.

"It's a Bordeaux Hermitage" jokes Denis, explaining that in all five vintages we will taste there is always Syrah and Petit Verdot, but the inclusion of Merlot and Cabernet depends on the year. Asked if that means Petit Verdot and Syrah are better suited to this terroir, he agrees.

Rocca di Montemassi, 2009, Italy
A little age on rim, just softening. A nicely autumnal feel. Spicy and a touch meaty, with a deep spicy mulberry fruit. Tobacco richness. On the p[palate the fruit is smooth and sweet, with a touch of liquorice, endive bite to the tannins and the fruit extraction. It seems a touch hot too? There is a nice fruit core to this, and a softening touch to the finish, though it retains that serious bittersweet bite. No Merlot in this year as it was "too shrivelled and pruney." 40% Syrah, 40% Petit Verdot, 20% Cabernet. 90-91/100.

Rocca di Montemassi, 2010, Italy
Feels a little dank or diffuse compared to the 2009, without the clarity of fruit. There is a big dry extract core to this - too dry - with vinosity and vestigial sweetness, but it is pretty tough at this stage. Late on the palate a little glimpse of sweet fruit, but so dry and rather uncompromising. Cabernet dominates in this vintage, and Denis says it need considerable time. 88/100.

Rocca di Montemassi, 2011, Italy
A little lighter, ashy and peppery lift to this. Is it a touch briary. But I like the lift and pure perfume. The palate has more silk too - silkier tannins and a purer, softer black fruit of cassis and cherry. Lovely wine, that touch of red fruit brightening and sweetening the big tannins and coffeeish depth of the finish. Long and sweetly structured. All varieties used: 45% Petit Verdot, 21% Cabernet, 17% Syrah, 14% Merlot. 91/100.

Rocca di Montemassi, 2012, Italy
A sample of the finished and blended wine that will be bottled in one month. Spiced plum fruit is lovely, and has a little cassis and the oak adding a cedar and vanilla smoothness. On the palate very well balanced, with lovely cassis and sweetness coming through. Has lovely lift and sweetness, very pure. Long, youthful but has such nice balance and openness. No Cabernet - too green. 48% Petit Verdot, 35% Syrah, 17% Merlot. 92-93/100.

Rocca di Montemassi, 2013 Italy
Just blended, but not bottled. Primary aromas of course but has a lovely Syrah lift, a touch of game and meatiness, but lovely buoyant fruit is coming through very nicely. The palate has a lean streak to the tannins and plenty of acidy, but there is a real sense of structure supporting sweet fruit here. The dry extract gives a smoky, ashy dryness, but there is a fruit sweetness at the core and the oak sits nicely adding just a spice. A very promising wine this. No Merlot, 40% Syrah, 40% Petit Verdot, 20% Cabernet. 93-94/100.

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The wine tasted - Deliella - is one of the top 'Crus' of the Feudo Principi di Butera estate in the province of Caltanissetta in Sicily, which Zonin acquired in 1997. It is made from 100% Nero d'Avola, grown at 350 metres altitude on limestone and marl soils. Christophe Olivier from Denis Dubourdieu's team says Nero d'Avola is a variety that has adapted to the heat of Sicily and needs half the water of many other European varieties to survive. He does not think it is a variety to age - suggesting it is normally best to drink within five years perhaps.

Feudo Principi di Butera, Deliella 2012, Italy
Not yet bottled. Maturation for 18 months in 350-litre tonneaux and large, 3,000 litre oak barrels followed by a further twelve months in bottle before release. Delightful cherry freshness and lift here, with a touch of charcoal and inkiness, but really it is about the fresh fruit. The palate has juiciness and life. It is powerful, but there is such a sweet core of fruit and the cleansing acidity, of tart cherry and plum skins powers through this. There is plenty of dry extract, but it has lovely fruit and racy balance and harmony. Charming fruit complexity and really expressive Nero d'Avola, with hints of peach and passionfruit. 90-91/100.

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Denis Dubourdieu started working with the Ca' Bolani estate in Friuli in 2009. The goal for the wine we would taste - Aquilis - is to produce age-worthy Sauvignon Blanc. When questioned about whether people really wanted to age their Sauvignon Blanc, Denis answered "Making a wine to age is security - if someone in a restaurant in 2014 is served a wine from 2010, the wine must be capable of ageing to 2020 to ensure it is in perfect condition."

Aquilis From the 2013 vintage 25% of the wine is fermented and aged in 2,500-litre large botti. "Without the use of oak it is difficult to avoid reduction," says Denis. "The sulphur compounds of reduction and of the Sauvignon Blanc variety are similar, but ageing in the big oak casks allows us to manage this and also achieves extra apparent sweetness without sugar." What style of Sauvignon is he trying to create? "Not Marlborough style," he answers, explaining that the overtly green tones of pyrozene are not what he aims for. But he points out that Sauvignon Blanc is a category that has no 'model' style: "An area like Chablis is a category where most wines are representative and follow a model, but that is not always true - some categories have no real model."

Ca' Bolani, Aquilis 2011, Italy
From Friuli, 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A touch of gooseberry and asparagus aromatics, with gently handled elderflower notes, and a core of quite peachy, almost nectarine like fruit. It has real texture and mouth-filling presence, with exotic fruit character and lots of grapefruit and orange. There is a touch of the Sauvignon Blanc grassiness, but this is relatively low in acidity (for SB) with that developed nectarine fruit and orangey acidity. Delicious stuff. 88/100.

Ca' Bolani, Aquilis 2013, Italy Unbottled sample. This still has some ferment aromas of pear-drops that are masking the real fruit character a little, but there is a grassy, soft herb note here that is lovely. The palate seems considerably more sharply focused than the 20011, a keen, racy, almost mineral edge to the fruit and acidity with lemon rather than orange, but then a pithy grapefruit zest finish adds a real sharpness and definition. Potential to have the drinkability of the 2011 but with added élan and focus. 90-92.

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