Does anyone have more fun making wine than Bibi Graetz?
He grew up in a castle outside Florence, Italy, and still lives there, making wine from an assortment of old vines sourced from around Chianti Classico, including 37 acres of vineyards at his property in Fiesole, where I caught up with him and his cellarmaster, Luigi Temperini.
"I found this 75-year-old guy with 75-year-old vines," the 45-year-old Graetz said, going on to describe how it took him a few years to convince the grower to slash his production to meet Graetz' exacting standards for high-quality grapes.
Graetz is full of stories like this, recounting them with a boyish grin as Temperini draws samples of Sangiovese from the 2012 harvest.
"This one comes from a vineyard at 600 meters [almost 2,000 feet above sea level] in Lamole," Graetz laughed as we tasted the pure violet- and black currant–scented wine sampled from a concrete tank.
Another Sangiovese resting in concrete from a source in Rufina is firm and racy, while the same wine from a used barrel boasts a pure cherry flavor. Tasted from a new oak barrel, the same wine smells of vanilla, with the cherry fruit lurking underneath.
Ethereal strawberry is the mark of a sample from Panzano, a San Casciano version features juicy cherry notes and yet another is elegant and floral, this time from Montefili.
As good as these 2012 samples taste from barrel, tank and concrete vat, it was a challenge for Graetz to meet his production goal from the 2012 harvest. When he realized the yield from his own vineyards was reduced by 50 percent due to the heat and drought, Graetz visited more than 1,700 acres of vineyards looking for top quality fruit to make up the difference.
He eventually found it, but it will be a few years before you can taste the results of this geographical tour of Sangiovese from the Chianti Classico area. Eventually, they will be blended to create Graetz' three IGT reds: Soffocone da Vincigliata, Colore and Testamatta.
The Soffocone 2010, which has a small amount of Canaiolo and Colorino, offers rich cherry and blackberry flavors accented by oak spice, a fresh, balanced profile and savory aftertaste.
The Colore 2007 blends equal parts Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino. It spends up to two years in barrique, plus an additional three in bottle before release. A touch of oak graces pure, fresh cherry, berry, tobacco, spice and mineral notes.
The current vintage of Testamatta is 2010, and it's an intense, powerful red, packed with cherry, tobacco and mineral aromas and flavors. There was a vibrant, energetic quality thanks to the terrific acidity and a long finish. It shows how good a pure Sangiovese can be.
Graetz also makes a pure Canaiolo. The 2009 revealed a distinctive nose of pomegranate, rhubarb and cherry. Rich and supple, it finished with a hint of spice.
Graetz' value wine, the Toscana Casamatta, has taken a new twist. To keep the price competitive on this 100 percent Sangiovese, most of which comes from purchased wine, Graetz came up with the creative idea of declassifying Casamatta from IGT to Vino da Tavola. This allows him to blend as much as 20 percent of the previous vintage to maintain volume and consistency. He decided to take it one step further and now uses a solera system for this red. The current release is a blend of the 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages.
It's this creative spirit and playful humor that keeps the Graetz range fresh and innovative, but the quality is there too.