Still Essential: Villa Calcinaia and Selvapiana

How Two Tuscan Estates Confirmed Their Stature on a Recent Visit

Wines from Villa Calcinaia and Selvapiana ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
10 min read

When I selected Tuscany as the focus of my spring editorial trip, I had three estates in mind right away: Badia a Coltibuono, Villa Calcinaia and Selvapiana. Each have been listed as Essential Winemakers of Italy for a number of years, but only on the strength of tasting their wines from afar. I wanted to step across the threshold at each winery, know their story more intimately, and hold them up against their peers to ensure my curated list for you all was as indicative of Tuscan wine as possible.

Of course, the work for such an ambitious list is never complete. Wineries undergo changes, for one, and the wealth of talented winemakers is overwhelming. Yet with confidence, I still believe these three Chianti wineries continue to deserve special mention.

I am not including Badia a Coltibuono in this article because my visit was so extensively chronicled in my recent long-form piece on the future of Chianti Classico, as well as the resulting Tasting Report, where their 2017 Chianti Classico Riserva earned highest marks. I’ve since given council to a handful of friends and subscribers with Tuscan travel plans, telling them that Badia a Coltibuono should be highest on their list of places to visit, both for their wine as well as their cooking classes and mystical abbey-in-the-woods environment.

But here is why Villa Calcinaia and Selvapiana continue to impress me, in the form of narrative from my visits.

Villa Calcinaia: Clarity on Gran Selezione

Imagine what your set of expectations would be in this scenario: You are rolling up to a wine estate in the hills of Chianti Classico. You know that you’ll be meeting with a winemaker whose family lineage at the estate dates back to 1524, and that his noble heritage has allowed him to preserve the name of Conte, or Count, before his first and last name. And he has made it clear ahead of time that he’d like to show you his vineyards.

I’m an American. The ways of the nobility are a mystery to me, but I know enough to expect something like a Land Rover when it comes to this sort of vineyard tour.

But instead, Conte Sebastiano Capponi emerged from his winery — neatly trimmed beard, knit stocking cap, a scholarly accent to his English — shook my hand, welcomed me, and then motioned to a mid-1980s Fiat Panda that had all the elegance of a cardboard box on wheels. This would be our vineyard chariot.

I squeezed into the front seat with my camera bag, and away we went. The Panda, which surprisingly had 4WD, clanged off the rutted road and climbed steeply through the verdant pistachio-green hills of the estate, proving more than capable of handling the Capponi family’s terrain. No wonder he had stuck by it for all these decades.

A pair of hoopoe’s glided past on their pulsing wings, a treasure of a bird to see in person, and a first for me. I pointed them out with excitement.

“Ah yes, they appear to be a couple,” Capponi said.

A Clinic in Chianti Classico’s Geology

As he drove, Capponi immersed me in the geology of his vineyards at Villa Calcinaia. The soils underneath Chianti Classico are ideal for Sangiovese: poor in organic matter, and very permeable. But identifying the exact geology from one plot to the next is complicated because of how mixed the conditions can be. Region wide, terroir studies are clouded by the use of the terms galestro and alberese, the two most celebrated soil types. The former has a schist-clay composition, the latter has a limestone-clay composition, and while understanding them is fundamental for a vineyard manager, things are not so black-and-white in the glass for consumers. That’s because the soils are a rather chaotic mix, and isolating their attributes independent of elevation and climate — let alone winemaking technique and aging regiment — is extremely difficult. I find the two terms unhelpful as a means to seek clarity in selecting the right wine.

But at Villa Calcinaia, Capponi makes the soil statement rather clear, and he does so at the Gran Selezione level of all places. In short, the single-vineyard “Fornace” comes from looser, sandier soil and shows juicier traits; “Contessa Luisa” packs power because of its denser, more clay-rich soil; and “Bastignano” hails from silty soils, striking a middle ground.

“I think Chianti Classico Riserva and Gran Selezione are on the same level of quality.”
Conte Sebastiano Capponi, Villa Calcinaia

Since its introduction in 2013, the Gran Selezione category has been a tricky wine to figure out. It was as though producers, seeking a way to charge luxury prices for their best wines, fabricated a new level to do just that. (One producer even admitted this was the case, and that it was a good thing for his winery and his peers). But Gran Selezione has not been universally embraced throughout the DOCG, with many of the top estates continuing to produce upper-echelon wines labeled as Riserva. At various points, I heard the three categories referred to as a pyramid, but that leaves the Riserva in a weird middle ground.

But Capponi, who is not shy with his opinions, has a firm idea on where this should all go. “I think Chianti Classico Riserva and Gran Selezione are on the same level of quality,” he told me during our tasting. “I think the Gran Selezione eventually will become the single-vineyard cru wines, while Chianti Classico Riserva will give the winemaker the ability to assemble all the different parcels.”

While the region is a long way off from adopting a formal policy of this (let alone consensus), the approach Capponi is taking simplifies things and, most importantly, justifies the existence of Gran Selezione beyond simple commercial reasons. Capponi offers a balanced approach to his winemaking, and gives these three wines, as well as his Riserva, the space they need to reveal hallmarks on the palate.

I came away from the tasting without a firm preference on one wine or the other, because — even at their young age — they showed such subtlety and poise, I wasn’t quite finished with them. It was like reading the first paragraph of four different chapters in a book.

In the end, that’s what we ought to demand from age-worthy, structured red wines: a compelling invitation to keep going. And Villa Calcinaia delivers that in abundance.


Selvapiana: Enduring Wines from an Ancient Place

Winter was clearly not done with Tuscany. The problem was that Giuntini’s Sangiovese vines were ready for spring. Clearly, they didn’t get push notifications from AccuWeather.

Federico Giuntini had just noticed something: a bud on one of his vines. The final days of March had been a parade of much-needed rainy days, but on April 2 when I visited, the sudden shift in weather had brought about a new concern: a hard freeze. Adorning the mountains above Rufina, we could see a dusting of snow. Winter was clearly not done with Tuscany. The problem was that Giuntini’s Sangiovese vines were ready for spring. Clearly, they didn’t get push notifications from AccuWeather.

He inspected the bud, tried to get a focused image of them on his phone, and then he propped his glasses on his forehead while he texted his son. Nightfall was still hours away, but they needed to come up with a plan.

I apologized for taking up his time when he had more important matters to attend to, but he was unphased and unhurried. In fact, Giuntini is about as collected as winemakers come: for lack of a better word, he’s chill, and he doesn’t talk up his wines either. He lets them speak for themselves. (“For me, the olive oil is the most special thing from Selvapiana,” he even told me at one point.)

It was a Saturday, so the cellar tour was a quiet one. No employees, just a handful of cats milling about. Our footsteps echoed in a ghostly way through its Renaissance-era and post-war corridors, and we eventually found our way to a dining room for a tasting.

Selvapiana occupies a lovely hill overlooking the Sieve River. For wine lovers, it looks tailor-made for sun-dappled vineyards, but to military commanders in Florence centuries ago, it was coveted as a defensible position. A watchtower was built on the hill during the Medieval period, and eventually, a villa was added because — well, because it is a lovely place to be as long as its not being attacked by an invading army.

Little-Known Pomino

Selvapiana works in two distinct appellations: Pomino DOC and Chianti Rufina DOCG. Pomino lies over the hills to the east and is about a 20-minute drive away. As a wine appellation, it is every bit as historic as Chianti Classico. In 1716, it was codified in the famous Bando edict alongside what we now call Chianti Classico, as well as Carmignano and Val d’Arno di Sopra. The reason few people talk about Pomino today, I believe, is because its regimented blend is a bit of a salad bar: red wines must be a minimum 50% Sangiovese, with Merlot and Pinot Nero allowable up to their own 50%. Auxillary red grapes can comprise up to 25%. That is a very wide spectrum of flavors without a clear identity.

Just because a wine grape is in the majority does not always mean it is the winemaker’s intended star.

“At what percentage of Merlot or Cabernet does a Sangiovese majority wine cease to be about Sangiovese, and more about Merlot or Cabernet?” I asked Giuntini directly. “Ten percent?”

“That is already too much,” he responded.

Selvapiana’s “Villa Petrognano” Pomino is exquisite, but until he answered that question, I had struggled with a context to put it in. It is beautifully aromatic and silky on the palate. There is nothing too aggressive, just like Giuntini’s personality, but the broadly sweet tones of dark berries, the black pepper-like snap of pyrazine, and the floral and nutty tones had my mind in Bordeaux. Those are not Sangiovese flavors, yet the wine is 60% Sangiovese, with 20% each for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

I asked Giuntini how he felt this wine fit into modern wine circles, and through our discussion I discovered that I was simply hung up on the percentages as well as an assumption that the appellation name leant distinction in the glass. This wasn’t a taste of Pomino as much as it was a taste of Villa Petrognano — of Giuntini’s unique vision of Merlot, Cabernet and Sangiovese working together in harmony (for once). That was enough because it was beautiful on its own.

Giuntini also made me realize that just because a wine grape is in the majority does not always mean it is the winemaker’s intended star. I’ve ranted about Sangiovese’s lack of alchemy with international varieties on more than one occasion this year, and I firmly believe that their co-mingling does not lead to terroir-centric wines. Or at least, terroir-centric wines with Sangiovese as the vehicle for understanding.

But what about Merlot-centric wines whereby Sangiovese’s acidity keeps the wine from getting stuck in the mud on your palate? (That is, after all, my biggest objection to these blends — their heft).

Indeed, that is where the beauty of Villa Petrognano shines. It has Merlot and Cabernet’s flavors without the excess muscles and heft. However, since Pomino’s regulations are so open-ended, it is best to see this wine as an outlier. It is not what it says about Pomino or Sangiovese that is special; it is what it says about high-elevation Merlot and Cabernet and what they can demonstrate when they strap-on a pair of Sangiovese’s ice skates and go for a sprint.

Bucerchiale vineyard in Tuscany ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
A view of the vines at Selvapiana’s Bucerchiale vineyard in Chianti Rufina. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Chianti Rufina: The Real Beauty

Chianti Rufina, the wine appellation, is special in its own right; not to be confused with Chianti Classico, nor to be lumped in with the chaos of Chianti Colli Senesi or the six other subzones codified under the one catch-all Chianti DOCG. When I first met Giuntini, in 2017 in Denver, he discussed this at length with me. Because of its compact size, smaller production (roughly 3 million bottles per year, appellation-wide) and most notably, its higher elevation, Rufina registers in the glass a little differently than the other Chiantis — it seems more aromatic if a bit simpler, while the tannins are more mellow and the acidity more versatile to a wider array of cuisine.

Chianti Rufina’s landscape is more akin to a mountain valley than the ambling, cypress-spiked hills of Tuscany that you conjure in your mind’s eye. After all, it is upstream of Florence. (To get there, you drive up along the Arno until you reach the confluence of the Sieve River). On the day of my visit, that high-altitude position was responsible for Giuntini’s phone pinging every few minutes as he and his son formulated a plan.

Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina demonstrates this needle-threading climate perfectly. Bright on the palate, lifted on the nose, yet surprisingly complex if you go looking for details. It is perhaps Italy’s most terroir-expressive $15 wine, and for that reason alone, I love it dearly. Things get more serious and age-worthy with the single-vineyard “Bucerchiale,” but even then, you are still coming in under the $30 mark in most vintages.

Giuntini’s friend and colleague in Chianti Classico, Enrico Pozzesi of Fattoria Rodanò, told me that part of his bond with Giuntini is that “we both sell our wines for too little,” he laughed. He once told Giuntini this, and Giuntini’s response was as centered and unphased as the man himself: “Yes, but we sell,” he responded.

Touché.

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