900 years to get it right

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

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.

www.winecom­pan­ion.com.au

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