900 years to get it right
THERE aren’t too many wineries in Europe able to print ‘‘ Established 1124’’ on their bottle labels. Castello di Gabbiano, in the heart of Italy’s Chianti Classico territory, does so, having been part of the Tuscan countryside for most of the second millennium. Fully restored, there is every reason to suppose that Castello will sail through the third millennium.
The date 1124 marks the erection of the square tower that was initially a fortress. Built on the top of a hill, the panoramic views of the rolling countryside below are as breathtaking for the tourists of today as they were eight centuries ago, offering the ability to detect hostile forces at great distances.
From the 14th century to the 18th century it was owned by the Solderini family, although their occupation was rudely interrupted by the Medici family of Florence, forcing them to abandon the fortress in the mid-16th century. When they were eventually able to return, they greatly enlarged the buildings into a quadrant, with round towers on the corners connected by walls that are more than two storeys high.
Since that time there has been no change to the exterior, although progressive renovations inside led to 10 luxurious double bedrooms that now constitute the hotel side of the business.
The making of wine and olive oil was first recorded here in 1464 and in all probability began somewhat earlier, although the 1124 establishment date has an element of poetic licence, Italian style.
The reality of today is that Castello di Gabbiano is one of the largest vineyard owners in Chianti, with three holdings, the two largest facing each other directly in front of the castello and its large winery.
The most distant of the two, on the opposite slope and separated only by the narrow road taking you to the castello, was owned by the family that makes Fernet Branca (which has a distilled herb base, with no grapes). When the family decided to cease operating the 58ha vineyard, Gabbiano was the logical lessee (for 30 years), managing it and the home vineyard of 55ha as a single unit. The third vineyard of 12ha is a little distance away, adding a different register of fruit flavours thanks to its terroir.
Beringer had been the distributor of Gabbiano wines in the US for years, during which time sales had increased significantly. In 2000, Beringer became aware that the owner wished to sell the business (to recoup his large investment), and Beringer moved quickly to buy it. Then Foster’s acquired Beringer, complete with an Italian arm.
Gabbiano bottles 180,000 cases of pinot grigio from the Friuli, Veneto and Trentino regions of northern Italy. Eighty-five per cent goes to the US but some will come to Australia for the June launch of Gabbiano. The 2007 Grigio (89 points, $17.99) is fresh, clean, bone-dry (surprising given its main market) and has undeniable varietal fruit wrapped around a spine of lemony-minerally acidity.
Australian winemaking know-how has led to the introduction of a small production of 2007 rose made from bought sangiovese grapes. Once again, it is crisp and refreshingly dry. The big-volume red wines are the chianti (150,000 cases) and chianti classico (80,000 cases). The 2007 Chianti (87 points, $17.99) comes from bought grapes from the Siena-Arezzo region, Italian wine law stipulating that chianti can’t come from the Classico region. A pleasant unoaked bistro wine, it is about 85 per cent sangiovese, the remainder cannaiolo and colorina.
The classico is made partly from bought grapes under long-term contracts and partly from estate grapes. The 2006 (89 points, $25.99) has significantly more colour and concentration, and spicy rather than harsh tannins.
Finally, the 2005 Chianti Classico Riserva (91 points, $35.99), from 100 per cent estate-grown sangiovese, is a big step up again. Given 18 months in oak, it has black fruits, spicy notes and rounded tannins, rather than the harsh tannins often encountered in Australian sangiovese.
As anyone who has been to Tuscany knows, it is an enchanted place of exceptional beauty, and the Chianti Classico region is the jewel in the crown. Florence, 20 minutes’ drive to the north, and Siena, 40 minutes to the south, are equally magnificent cities. Finding a place to park is a nightmare unless you ignore the parking signs, emboldened by a rental car bearing French registration plates.
Restaurants are everywhere but one you will not find in guidebooks for Florence is Coco Lezzone on via Purgatorio (near Dante’s birthplace), which serves the best bistecca fiorentina cash can buy. No credit cards, no coffee and the 1kg bistecca is only served rare, very rare. More: www.gabbiano.com.