Talking Sangiovese

Consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini has worked with Tuscany’s signature red grape for more than 30 years
James Suckling
Posted: October 30, 2009

Carlo Ferrini was born and raised in Tuscany. His early dream was to make cheese, but the University of Florence didn't offer dairy science so he studied enology instead. Now, at 55, he is one of Italy's leading consulting enologists.

Ferrini began his career as the in-house winemaker for the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium, and for nearly three decades has been a force in the renaissance of Italian wines. He took part first hand in modernizing the vineyards and cellars of the region to produce some of the world's most exciting wines. Ferrini works for more than three dozen wineries in Italy, most of them located in Tuscany. His clients include some of the biggest names of the region, among them Casanova di Neri, Sette Ponti, Fonterutoli, La Massa, Brancaia, Brolio, Petrolo, Sapio, Terriccio and San Fabiano Calcinaia.

Ferrini is a tall and reserved man who is thoughtful and passionate about what he does. He is a hands-on winemaker and believes that the best wines come from the best-grown grapes. He understands every facet of viticulture and enology. When it comes to Sangiovese, Tuscany's principal indigenous grape, few winemakers have as much experience, or as much success, as Ferrini. I sat down with him recently to talk about Tuscany and Sangiovese.

James Suckling: Is it difficult to make good Sangiovese?
Carlo Ferrini: You have to be crazy to make Sangiovese. To make serious Sangiovese, first you have to have an ideal position for your vineyard. The grape doesn't like mistakes. If you don't have the right soil, the right altitude or the right exposure, it doesn't work. And then you need to produce small quantities of grapes. Tuscany has gone from 120 quintales [12 tons] of grapes per hectare in the beginning to about 60 quintales [6 tons] today. The density in the vineyards has gone from 2,500 plants per hectare to 6,000 to 7,000. It is fundamental not to produce more than 1 to 2 kilograms per plant.

JS: So the clone is less important?
CF: No, the clone is very important. It is all-important. We are working with much better clones after all the work that the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium did in the late 1980s, developing the right clones of Sangiovese. The altitude [at which Sangiovese is grown] is also very important.

JS: What's the best altitude to grow Sangiovese?
CF: From 250 meters [850 feet] to 400 meters [1,300 feet].

JS: So Chianti Classico can be a problem because some people grow it at 600 meters or higher?
CF: At 600 meters you need a coat! It's not good for Sangiovese.

JS: Do you think you need to blend Sangiovese with other grape varieties to make a serious red? After all, the original regulations for Chianti required that Sangiovese be blended with other grapes, and the new ones do as well-as much as 20 percent.
CF: My greatest dream is to achieve a pure Sangiovese in a magnificent place. It is possible. It has been done. But I repeat: There are conditions that are fundamental. Sangiovese needs a combination of great soil, altitude and exposure. It all has to be perfect. Cabernet and Merlot are much easier [to grow], and they blend well with Sangiovese. If you have a winery with 50 hectares in Chianti Classico, it's difficult for all the vineyards to be optimum for Sangiovese. It doesn't exist. So you must compensate for the difficulties of the Sangiovese with other grape types.

JS: What works best? Merlot? Cabernet? Syrah?
CF: For altitude, usually Merlot. If you have land that is lower and deeper soils, I prefer to put in Cabernet. These days there is Syrah and Petit Verdot as well. I love Petit Verdot, for example.

JS: How does Sangiovese work with wood? Do you think it is better in small French barrels or larger ones?
CF: I prefer slightly larger barrels to age Sangiovese. Ideally, I like sizes of 5 hectoliters. And you cannot use all new wood; it will kill the Sangiovese.

JS: So Sangiovese is a little like Pinot Noir?
CF: Well, Pinot Noir has better acidity, and in the right conditions, it makes you salivate and gives you a great sensation in your mouth. Often Sangiovese doesn't. If it has acidity, it can be thin and difficult. Let's say you can compare the two, but I wouldn't compare them too much.

JS: So Sangiovese is truly unique?
CF: In its character, I would have to say it is very unique.

JS: What positive characteristics does Sangiovese have?
CF: Today, we have beautiful Sangiovese. A good Sangiovese gives you good color, and perfumes and scents that are fascinating. It can have great body and, recently, great length.

JS: And the negatives?
CF: After a couple of years, it can begin to turn brown. It is a wine that [if not cared for] in the vineyard can be a disaster.

JS: You can't improve the color of Sangiovese in the cellar through techniques such as reverse osmosis or bleeding the vats during fermentation or micro-oxygenation?
CF: Absolutely not. You can try, but it doesn't improve.

JS: Is it that sensitive?
CF: Yes. It is very sensitive.

JS: In your opinion, is Tuscany the best place in the world to make Sangiovese?
CF: A very good question. I have tasted Sangiovese from other areas and countries, but I have not been that impressed. I love it so much in Tuscany. It is a special place. Perhaps if I traveled more to France, the United States, South Africa and other places, I could find another place to make Sangiovese. But I haven't found that yet.

JS: Where is the best place in Tuscany for Sangiovese?
CF: Undoubtedly Montalcino. This I can be sure of. In Chianti Classico there are some beautiful areas such as Panzano, Monti and Castelnuovo Berardenga. But Montalcino is the best place in Tuscany for Sangiovese.

JS: Based on your long experience, what have been the best vintages for Tuscan Sangiovese?
CF: I place a lot of value on 1999. For me, it was a great vintage, and for years we have forgotten about it. We also talk a lot about the 1997 vintage-beautiful, the 1997. 2001 was another great vintage. 2004, too. 2006 may be the greatest, or maybe 2007.

JS: What do you see as the future of Sangiovese in Tuscany? Or even in the world?
CF: I love Sangiovese. Sometimes too much. We need to have the courage now to work out where to plant and not to plant Sangiovese. We need to research where to plant it like they did in Burgundy with Pinot Nero a long time ago.

SELECTED WINES OF CARLO FERRINI

Score Wine Price
98 CASANOVA DI NERI Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto 2004 $175
98 PETROLO Toscana Galatrona 2007 $120
97 LA MASSA Toscana Giorgio Primo 2007 $65
96 BARONE RICASOLI Chianti Classico Castello di Brolio 2006 $54
96 BRANCAIA IN MAREMMA Maremma Toscana Ilatraia 2007 $79
95 FONTERUTOLI Toscana Siepis 2006 $118
95 SETTE PONTI Toscana Oreno 2007 $95

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