Over the last couple of decades, Italy has achieved more dramatic increases in wine quality than any other country in the world. Tuscany has emerged as the leader in advances in viticulture and winemaking, producing both newer-style as well as traditional Sangiovese-based red wines.
But prior to this renaissance, there were big problems in Tuscany. For example, in 1965 it was possible to buy a villa on 200 acres for around $15,000. The value of the land was depressed because of the low average quality of wine. Italian wine sold well because it was inexpensive; it was considered a good value. At that time, Italian winemakers found it difficult to imagine selling any Italian wine at a high price.
All this began to change in 1968 when a winery in Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast, called Tenuta San Guido produced Sassicaia from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In terms of image and marketing, the success of Sassacaia followed three years later by Antinori’s Tignanello (Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon) helped focus attention on Tuscany. These pioneers in the 1960’s and 1970’s inspired many other producers, some more interested in exploiting the untapped potential of Sangiovese.
Giacomo Tachis, the first generation of Tuscan enologists, is most closely associated with the big changes in Tuscan viticulture and winemaking. Tachis had the opportunity to work with the famous Bordeaux enologist Emile Peynaud who Antinori had hired as a consultant to produce Sassacaia. The next generation of enologists to achieve visibility and success included Franco Bernabei, Maurizio Castelli and Vittorio Fiore. These technically trained winemakers or consulting enologists as they came to be known, blazed Tuscany’s trail to worldwide recognition. They brought a better scientific understanding and a single-minded focus on quality through increasing spacing, better clones, rootstocks, replacing the cement, fiberglass-lined tanks with stainless steel, the use of better techniques to extract color and flavor and the elimination of white grapes from the Chianti Classico blend. As a result, Tuscany has only begun to realize the awesome potential for quality which has always existed in the form of a favorable climate and low-vigor, hillside, well-drained soils, conditions as well suited to fine wine production as anywhere in the world.
Vittorio Fiore was born in Bolzano in 1941. He specialized in Viticulture and Enology at the Scuola Tecnica of San Michele all’Adige (Trento) and graduated from the Conegliano Technical Institute of Agronomy in 1961. After a 10-year period working in several wineries in northern Italy, Fiore moved to Tuscany in 1978 where he established consulting relationships with producers such as Tenuta Caparzo, Costanti, Poggio Salvi, Vecchie Terre di Montefili, Fattoria Viticcio, Fattoria Terrabianca and Borgo Scopeto. Fiore has written numerous technical articles and frequently attends seminars in France, Spain and the United States. He recently realized his dream of creating his own property, Podere Poggio Scalette where he produces the Super Tuscan, Il Carbonaione. In the interview that follows, Fiore gives a personal account of the role he has played and continues to play in Tuscany’s emergence as a producer of world-class red wines.
ROSS: Can you summarize your achievements as a consultant?
Before 1991, prior to making my own wine, my professional activity was dedicated to the improvement of Italian viticulture and enology in general and of Tuscany in particular with the objective of the renovation of Italian viticulture, the increased efficiency of winery technology and the modernization of the laws regulating all the activities of our region.
ROSS: When you say winery technology, what are you referring to?
I tried to change the old mentality, which involved concrete tanks, which made it impossible to obtain the optimal extraction of color and tannins from the skins of the red grapes. We introduced new, larger diameter tanks and mechanical systems to move the skins during the fermentation. Sangiovese, like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir is very different from Cabernet or Merlot in that it is more difficult to extract tannin and color. Another factor is the kind of wood. Aging in newer barriques results in better color. If you put the same wine in a barrique and a stainless steel tank, after six months you don’t recognize them as the same wine. The two wines are completely different, in the taste as well as in the color. Because the wood has this property to increase the color, obviously to give another taste of course because of the character of the wood.
ROSS: What do you mean by the renovation of Italian viticulture.
When I started in Tuscany around the end of the ‘70’s, I realized that the great handicap of the vitiviniculture of this region was the vineyard. The plantation system was not correct because it did not fully utilize the soil, too few plants per hectare so each plant had to work too hard. At Caparzo, Borgo Scopeto, Terrabianca, Fattoria Zerbina, Montefili, and Sorbaiano and in many other wineries we utilized different clones and rootstocks and increased the number of plants per hectare to better utilize the soil. We had a quality result because each plant works less and so works better.
ROSS: What factors inspired the change of focus in Italy from quantity to quality?
At the beginning of the ‘70’s there were many things contributing to change in Italy. One was the press—we had Luigi Veronelli who waged a big fight against the old mentality to produce wine in Italy. Then we had people who invested a lot of money in the vineyards. The new mentality included the use of technicians, enologists to be responsible for the quality. In the past one man was responsible for the entire farm—olive oil, wine, wheat, cows. With the new mentality people were buying the farms as investments with the primary focus of producing a high quality wine; and for that they asked the enologists to be responsible for the quality.
ROSS: Tuscany and Umbria in particular appear to be producing new wines from new grapes faster than any other region. Why?
Yes, it is definitely true. After WWII, the owners of big properties, noble families from Tuscany—Frescobaldi, Antinori for instance, started to sell pieces of their property because they needed money to survive. So a big property like Brolio—5,000 hectares—became a smaller property creating ten or fifteen other properties such as San Giusto di Rentanano and Felsina. So in Tuscany, at the end of the 1960’s the farm in Tuscany cost nothing. Those who had bought these properties were people with good ideas, people from industry. They didn’t make the wine themselves, they asked a winemaker, they asked me for instance, they said, “OK Mr. Fiore you have to produce the best wine possible on this farm, what do you need to do that”? I said I need such and such, the market will ask for this kind of wine, if everything goes well in five or seven years, we will have a return. In the majority of cases it was so.
ROSS: Which winegrowing region has had the greatest influence on you?
France and more specifically, Bordeaux. Since the 70’s, not only have I gone to Bordeaux at least once a year but I also attended various courses and presentations given at the University of Bordeaux.
ROSS: Let’s talk about the Chianti Classico region. The Il Carbonaione vineyard is in Greve. Were the Chianti Classico boundaries made according to terroir? In other words, does wine character differ between Gaiole and Greve like it does from Gevrey Chambertin and Chambolle Musigny?
Chianti Classico DOCG is subdivided into the following zones: Colli Senesi, Colli Aretini, Rufina, Colli Fiorentini, Montalbano, Colline Pisane, Montespertoli (recognized in 1997). If we talk about Chianti Classico (which from 1996 is a DOCG different from Chianti) surely there are differences between wines produced in Greve from those produced in Gaiole. This is a general concept that is demonstrated even when the grape variety is the same; obviously more evident in a wine—like Chianti Classico—in which producers can include along with 75% Sangiovese (minimum % allowed by law), 10% Canaiolo and the remaining 15% of other grapes authorized or recommended by the provinces of Florence and Siena.
ROSS: So differences in blend can be more important than differences in terroir?
It is true that the different terroirs—Greve, Castellina, Radda—produce different characteristics in the wines But we can’t know at this moment the exact influence of the soil because until 1997 it was mandatory to have in the Chianti Classico between 2-5% white grapes and between 5–10% Cannaiolo. Even though as of 1997 it is possible to produce Chianti Classico with 100% Sangiovese, the vineyards now have this composition. So it is very difficult to determine whether the differences are coming from the soil or the varieties. Montalcino, on the other hand uses only Sangiovese to produce Brunello so it is possible to find different characteristics coming from different areas confirming that the soil gives specific character to the wine.
ROSS: Are the changes in the laws positive or negative?
Definitely positive. In my opinion, each producer has to emphasize his own personality to produce the wine. It is foolish to make all of the wines in the same way. Otherwise why not send all the grapes to a cooperative and make one wine? Now there are producers using 100% Sangiovese, another one adds some Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah or Colorino.
ROSS: Could Il Carbonaione be called a Chianti Classico Riserva?
Since 1997, the year in which it became possible to produce Chianti Classico with 100% Sangiovese, Il Carbonaione could be called Chianti Classico. But not Riserva since it is released several months before the period of aging required for Chianti Classico Riserva. Having produced Il Carbonaione since 1992 from 100% Sangiovese we have designated it with the IGT Alta Valle della Greve which we continue to label it.
ROSS: From a marketing standpoint, how does Il Carbonaione benefit from being a Super Tuscan rather than a Chianti Classico? Can you charge higher prices?
I started to produce an IGT Alta Valle della Greve because at the time I wanted to produce a 100% Sangiovese and it was forbidden to call such a wine a Chianti Classico. Starting in 1997 it became possible but I don’t change because if you call a wine a Chianti Classico if the consumer doesn’t know your image or your name he will not recognize the wine. When I promote the name Il Carbonaione if someone wants to taste the wine they can ask for Il Carbonaione.
ROSS: Some people feel that Tuscan wines are losing their identity by the increased use of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Do you feel the use of these varieties violates Tuscan traditions?
Before responding it needs to be above all established what is known as “Tuscan tradition”. For example, we can’t forget that Cabernet was surely part of Tuscan tradition in Carmignano whose regulations were established in 1716. In second place although I personally consider Sangiovese among the world’s greatest wines, I think it is useless to assign a grape to a region. Each vine belongs to humanity and if we discover that a certain vine gives the best results in a certain area, I don’t see any reason to prevent it from being planted there. If it weren’t like this we wouldn’t have the great wines of California, Australia, Chile, New Zealand or South Africa.
ROSS: Discuss the challenges of working with Sangiovese.
One of the difficulties is the time of maturation. Normally at the end of September we have nice weather in Tuscany but at that time Sangiovese is usually not ripe. Starting the first week of October the time in which Sangiovese is harvested, the risk of rain is high. Since this variety, because of its thin skin, is very sensitive to rot (particularly botrytis), a prolonged period of rain can compromise an entire vintage. We need therefore to study new, earlier maturing clones of Sangiovese.
ROSS: Do you feel Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are well suited to the soils and growing conditions in Tuscany?
Yes, sure but they change character. They lose some varietal aroma but they have much more body, become richer and heavier.
ROSS: Will Il Carbonaione always be 100% Sangiovese?
Yes. Personally, I don’t like Cabernet very much. I realize that 10–15% can help in the vintages when Sangiovese does not do well. In my opinion it can be too evident so in a wine which has a character of Sangiovese, if I find a note of Cabernet I am not as happy as when I drink 100% Sangiovese. Merlot and Syrah don’t have the same tendency to dominate like Cabernet.
ROSS: Will more Cabernet Sauvignon be planted in Italy in place of the less well-known local varieties?
There is not as much Cabernet planted in Tuscany as there was 10 years ago. People are going in the direction of Merlot. Merlot ripens even earlier than Cabernet. And Merlot has the character to start later in the spring compared to Sangiovese, so you can plant the Merlot in a position where the frost comes earlier in the spring. It also needs less sun than Sangiovese so it can be planted where Sangiovese would not ripen.
ROSS: Cabernet and Merlot do well in Tuscany yet they are not traditional. Pinot Noir is also difficult to grow in Burgundy but they are not planting new grape varieties. Why are traditional grape varieties in so much flux in Italy?
Burgundy and Bordeaux started one century before Italy to try to see which grape varieties are best suited. We are still looking for these answers. We don’t know for instance in Umbria, Lazio or Liguria which grape varieties are best because we don’t have experiments. We found Sangiovese in Tuscany but it does not mean it is the only grape variety which does well. We have here trebbiano but trebbiano is a bad variety which was planted because it was certain to produce a lot of quantity, which was what they were looking for at that time. But if you want to produce good wine you don’t plant trebbiano. So just because we find certain“traditional” grape varieties it doesn’t mean we have to continue on that road. We have to experiment with every variety and then choose those varieties that grow well and make the best wine. Also, the criteria used in the past to choose grape varieties were completely different from the criteria we use today. At that time wine was drunk only in the area of production, there was no transport or exportation of the wine. The choice of which variety to plant was not made for the market or the quality but only to produce a lot of wine and sell it cheaply in the area of production. When someone says tradition you have to judge whether it was a choice made with intelligence to achieve a specific goal or just something that was done at the time.
ROSS: Some winemakers are making wines to appeal to the critics. The trend is to harvest at higher sugar levels resulting in wines with more alcohol followed by aging in more new oak. Is this happening in Italy?
I should say by the way that my colleagues and I do not adopt these criteria. Because reading the various wine journals the same wine is getting judged differently according to the journalist who tasted it. This situation could even permit the producers to make their own classification of journalists and say, “be careful, if you want your wine to be liked by Robert Parker you should make certain characteristics prevail. If instead you decide to obtain a high score from James Suckling go in this other direction, or instead if you want three glasses from Gambero Rosso, give to your wine these other characteristics.
ROSS: The United States is an important market for Italian wines. The popular American taste is for ripe, opulent, oaky wines which explains the popularity of Australian, Chilean and California wines. As a consultant are you at all influenced by these factors?
After 40 year’s experience in various areas of the viticulture world there are few things that can influence me. Nevertheless, it is true that you cannot produce wines of great importance without keeping and eye on the trends and realities of the market. In any case, the element that the production of great wine is most dependent on is certainly the terroir. This marvelous combination of factors [terroir] give the wine produced in a certain area this indelible imprint that leaves it unique, unrepeatable and different from any other wine produced in any other part of the world.
ROSS: I agree, but a disturbing trend—worldwide—is the excessive use of oak, which masks terroir. The irony is that so many of these wines score above 90 points What is your opinion regarding Italian wine and Tuscan red wines in particular?
As in all things, even the use of oak for the aging of quality wines requires moderation. In recent times, some marketers demonstrated a clear preference for “oaky” wines which pushed some producers to emphasize these characteristics. The American market for example seems to be rather favorable to this characteristic. In other cases, instead it seems that this tendency is strongly reduced. Fortunately, both the Italian market in general and Tuscany in particular offers great red wines (and also whites) that present the characteristic note of “oak” at different levels of intensity.
ROSS: Discuss the evolution of the use of oak in Tuscany.
When I started to work here in Tuscany in 1979 there were no oak barrels only old, big barrels. I asked myself why in France barrique is normal but here they were not used. So I started in 1979 with La Casa to use the barriques then also for Chianti Reserva and then for Super Tuscans. I was among the first enologists with this idea but Giacomo Tachis had already used the barrique for Sassacaia with brilliant results under the knowledgeable guidance of Emile Peynaud then consulting for Antinori. Then, other colleagues followed such as Castelli and Bernabei. Following the French school, I always tried to use the barrique for wines that had sufficient structure and quality. Unfortunately, the barrique was often used thinking that it could cover some defects in the wine. But that was at the beginning; now winemakers are using more discretion.
ROSS: The perception exists that there are two styles of Italian winemakers: those using traditional methods and those producers embracing more modern techniques. Is this perception accurate?
It is important to identify which wines you are speaking about. For Barolo, there is no unique way to make the wine. They haven’t had the phenomenon we had in Tuscany which is the entry of industrial people who had bought farms and in turn asked the winemaker to produce the wine. In the past, everyone in that region was very conservative so it was not possible to find many modern styles. In the last five or six years in that region we have a lot of different styles of Barbaresco and Barolo because a lot of winemakers are trying to adopt modern techniques. Until there is agreement on the best way to produce Barolo or Barbaresco there will be wine with old style, wine with new style, oaky wine and over-oaky wine.
ROSS: Monsanto comes to mind as a traditional style, do you agree and can you name others?
Monsanto represents a good example of traditional mentality in producing wines coming from Tuscany soil. However, Monsanto also produces Cabernet and Chardonnay. Very similar examples could be Badia a Coltibuono and Castell’ in Villa.
ROSS: We see more high quality, reasonably priced red wines from Scansano? What about the potential of this area?
Morellino di Scansano is one of the most important new wines in Tuscany. Morellino is like Brunello in that it is the name of the Sangiovese clone in the commune of Scansano. Many producers from different parts of Italy have bought some vineyards in the Scansano area, specifically in the Maremma area in the province of Grosseto. There are many new DOC’s in addition to Morellino di Scansano, for instance Sovana, Monte Regio and Montecucco. I think in the next few years we will see these wines become much more important.
ROSS: We hear a lot about the potential of Southern Italy—Campania, Sicily and Apuglia. What do you think?
Now there is a big effort to increase the image and the quality of the wines, particularly in Sicily. Some wineries like Zonin for instance have bought a large surface of vineyards because Sicily has all of the conditions necessary to produce red, white and dessert wines of high quality and in large quantities.
ROSS: What is your opinion on Sangiovese produced in California?
I have yet to taste a great Sangiovese like ours. I believe they don’t have the right viticulture to produce Sangiovese. The Sangiovese vine doesn’t like to be too productive. In the cellar, the technology is perfect, giving good perfume in the nose, good wood but the result is light wine, empty wine. In Italy we have many regions where Sangiovese is produced but only in a few of them do you obtain a wine that can age for many years
ROSS: What do you think of the rating system in the United States where wines that receive 90 points and above are guaranteed to sell?
I think that the American consumer doesn’t feel very well prepared to judge the quality of a wine and so relies on the judgement of wine writers. So if he can choose he would rather buy a wine with a very high score instead of paying the same and risk buying a wine of inferior quality.
ROSS: Some followers of Italian wine feel that each consulting enologist has a recognizable style. Do your wines have a common style?
When people talk about me they say I try to emphasize the elegance of the flavor and the harmony and softness of the taste. If this can be considered a style then very well, this is my style.
ROSS: What has been your greatest challenge or success?
Certainly, the most stimulating project for me was to succeed in starting my own winery, Podere Poggio Scalette, with my own property with the help of my son Jirij who graduated from the School of Enology in Beaune. After so many years of consulting activity during which I helped other producers to attain success, to succeed in creating. It was difficult because in Italy it is not possible to plant new vineyards unless you have the right to plant from a viticulturalist who decides to destroy that vineyard. So In 1991 I was asked if I knew someone interested in buying this right so I went to see the vineyard and immediately decided to buy not only the right but also the soil, the existing vineyard to start my own estate, Il Podere Poggio Scalette, where I produce Il Carbonaione made from 100% Sangiovese. Today, the production totals 3,500 cases of which 20% is exported to the United States.
ROSS: What challenges remain for you?
The next challenge is to produce a very high quality dessert wine in Tuscany in my own winery. Not a vin santo, a botrytis style, a project which will take at least five years. Also, just recently invested in a wonderful estate in Romagna, Azienda Castellucio di Modigliana. Here too, my goal will be to express the quality potential of this wonderful area.
ROSS: It has been a pleasure talking with you. What are your thoughts about the future of Italian wine?
I am excited about the progress Italy has made but I think we are in the middle of the river. All the viticulture must be changed, clones, spacing and rootstock. We are at this moment 40–45% replanted. When we have replanted a minimum of 80% of the vineyards we will see the right face of the enology of Italy.