What Happened When I Ran Out of Wine

Jem and a map of Tuscan geology

The real reason I started Fanciulle Vini was to make the wines I wanted to drink. Over the years, I had finished drinking most of the bottles of a cellar of Burgundy wines I had inherited, and not only could I not afford to replace them, the wines I had gotten used to sipping with dinner weren’t even on the market–most of them were allocated before release directly from the winery to long-time wholesale buyers. How could I make wines like the ones I loved–“high-toned,” as a friend of mine called them, floral, tangy, mouthwatering, complex yet light-on-their feet? Sangiovese [san-gio-vay’-zay] was the place to start, I thought, having tasted a few Sangiovese wines that alluded to this profile. But Sangiovese from which part of Tuscany? Working in the wine trade and visiting vineyards in France and Italy had taught me that the best vineyard land is hilly and rocky, but there are lots of those kinds of sites here. I started to look at the geology of Burgundy, where the wines I loved were produced, and of Tuscany to see what the two had in common. To make a long story short, after 18 months of investigating, talking to French and Italian geologists and traipsing around vineyards in both places, I had an idea of the terrains here that interested me most, and I set out to taste the wines they produced.

It turns out that this was impossible! I would go to an estate with a vineyard on sandstone sub-soil, for instance, and ask which of their wines was made from that vineyard. Usually, the answer was none. The best wines were made from grape—not terrain—selections, i.e., the best grapes from any or all of the vineyards the estate owned, or even from grapes they bought. The base wines were made from the leftovers, which were often fine in terms of grape quality but similarly mixed in terms of origin—they came from all over the estate. The wineries would explain to me that the heterogeneity of the sub-soils under their vineyards was a strength—in different vintages, the fruit from whichever vineyard produced the best grapes would go into the top wine. It’s a good point of course, but I realized that moving the grape source around from year to year would not help consumers learn about the style of wines one particular type of terrain produced.

Estates own vineyards on vastly differing soils in Burgundy, too, but in many cases, grapes are vinified and wines are aged and bottled in small lots that reflect the vineyard of origin. Somewhat less prestigious cuvées are vinified to reflect the village if not the vineyard of origin–Burgundian villages reflect a geological identity. Of course, within the villages there are variations, but not the dramatic ones we see within Tuscan village confines—variations of tens of millions of years of geological evolution. My desire to taste and compare Tuscan Sangioveses grown on different soils could therefore not be guided by the different villages they were from, nor even the different estates.

I would go to Montalcino, I thought, where the wine production rules are notoriously strict, where a Brunello is a Brunello is a Brunello. Except that the story is not much different there. I was surprised to learn that there is no such thing as a Brunello vineyard. Each estate has a quota of Brunello hectares (or acreage), of Rosso hectares, of IGT (regional red wine) hectares. For each hectare of Brunello rights, the estate is allowed to produce a certain quantity of grapes, but those grapes can come from any of the estate’s vineyards or from bought grapes, even. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and many producers appreciate the flexibility of using the best grapes in a given vintage to make their top wine, but it’s not a rule that ties Brunello production to certain, superior vineyard sites, especially since the municipality of Montalcino has vineyards planted on at least four major types of sub-soil with different chemical and physical characteristics, origins spread across forty million years, exposition ranging 360 degrees and altitudes from 100 to 600 meters.

I wanted to link a certain style of wine—certain tastes, certain textures—especially—to specific sub-soils because I wanted to classify them (for myself) in terms of which favored the production of grapes for making the style of wine I liked, sure, but also because I was interested in seeing how common or rare those soils—those areas–are. If we, as consumers, prefer wines made from grapes grown on sandstone, say, it follows that the swath of sandstone that runs from northwest-to-southeast in the eastern part of Tuscany will be prized. In order to come to that conclusion, we consumers will first have to understand, all other things being equal, what kind of wines sandstone vineyards tend to produce. (Any guesses?) Sandstone will then become linked in the consumer’s mind with a style of wine, which is good for the consumer (so they can buy or avoid “sandstone” wines) and good for whomever owns land with sandstone sub-soil.

A geologist friend of mine wrote his master’s thesis in the 1980s on different sub-soil types in Montalcino and graduated with honors, but the university would not publish the paper—they were afraid to reveal the widely differing soil types present in the vineyard land of a handful of famous estates, and to this day, even in the wine trade, there is not much talk about the different Tuscan sub-soils. And that’s too bad, for both the consumer, who would have a chance to relate terroir more closely to her own taste in wine, but also for producers, who are missing out on better characterising their wines. Just think what a help it would be if wines were more precisely described—not in terms of how they’re produced but of how they taste and smell and feel on your tongue.

I never could find enough single-vineyard Sangiovese wines for a tasting of Tuscany’s different terroirs. So I decided to make them, and Fanciulle Vini was born.

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