“They always choose the best grapes,” remarks Ivano Reali. “Not the sweetest, not the largest, nor the juiciest—but the best grapes for making wine. They have noses for the Sangiovese. This is perhaps why,” he adds, “they are best appreciated when they are stewed in it.”
As we sit in his SUV, Reali, managing director of Castello di Gabbiano in Chianti Classico, gazes toward the side of the narrow dirt road. A wire fence has been torn away at the edge of a vineyard, across which the careful, symmetric rows of vines sway gently with the onset of a breeze, their fine clusters of burnished berries showing a ripe iridescence from beneath a coating of terra-cotta dust. The cinghiali, or wild boars—scourges of the rolling countryside and staple of the Tuscan table—have conducted a raid on this remote corner of the estate, and Reali regards the violation with a mix of suspicion and dismay. We have been touring the ancient 250-acre estate throughout the afternoon, winding our way over the undulating landscape of pale golden waves, crested by sweeps of pine and divided by silver-shadowed troughs of olive. As we bounce along the rutted road, he recounts the difficulties of the 2002 harvest: the 100-year storms that assailed the vines through spring, the unusual summer heat in July, and of course in August, more rain. And now this, he sighs.
But with the talent for optimism shared by all people whose living must be wrested from the fury of storms, the withering sun, the winds, and the gnashing teeth of ravenous boars, Reali shrugs and smiles. They will have their two harvests this year: the first for their reserves and the second for their other wines. As Reali eases off the brake, we roll forward, toward a farther hill, where the scarred facade of the castle Gabbiano stands as it has for nearly 1,000 years, its baked bricks a luminous lemon yellow in the September sun, its turrets scaling toward a tempera sky as blue and clear as a fresco by Michelangelo.
Indeed, we are told, there is a connection between the estate in San Casciano and this celebrated son of Florence. Built in 1100 as a fortress along the route to Siena by a powerful banking family, the Bardis, the estate was sold in 1408 to the Soderinis, another prominent Florentine clan. In 1506, Piero Soderini—a childhood friend of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci and head magistrate (or gonfalonier) of Florence—was charged with providing Michelangelo Buonarroti with a letter of introduction when he was sent to Bologna to sculpt a bronze statue of Pope Julius II, under whom Piero’s brother, Francesco, was a cardinal.
Yet Gabbiano’s deepest historic roots are to be found in the art of winemaking—a tradition that began in this region 3,000 years ago, during the Etruscan age—as the construction of a large wine cellar in 1124 attests. Reali escorts us into this curious catacomb, whose archaic masonry lines the corridors and walls, tracing rounded arches that connect the delicately vaulted chambers. Between rows and rows of antique arches stand enormous bótti—gigantic oval-shaped barrels that, because of their volume, impart fewer essences, and so are used for the softer, less-structured riserva wines. Smaller barrels, or barriques, made of both local and French oak, store, among other things, the Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot used to make the estate’s Super Tuscans, Alleanza and Bellezza.
These two wines, Reali informs us during lunch in the castle’s restaurant, Cammillo di Gabbiano, were introduced in 1997 and represent a collaboration between Giancarlo Roman, the estate’s winemaker, and Ed Sbragia, the winemaster at Beringer in California’s Napa Valley. The first, Alleanza (or “alliance”), comprises 50 percent Sangiovese, 40 percent Merlot, and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Both the 1997 and the 1999 vintages (no 1998 was produced) exude a lovely, sweet lavender nose. The color is as dark as a Burmese ruby, the body pleasing. The taste is bountiful with ripe cherry, solid tannins, and a wonderfully rustic wood finish, which balances the rather gamy goat prosciutto that Reali has selected for our first course.
The 1999 Bellezza (“beauty”) consists of 100 percent Sangiovese from the estate’s best vineyards. The color is bright on the sunlit terrace where we dine, the nose redolent of cedar, oak, and vanilla bean. And as we sip the wine quietly, a luscious medley of cherry gathers on the tongue, with just a hint of citrus. Reali admires his glass and—as the waiter presents us with an enormous platter, our secondi—gives a pitiless grin as he announces the course: “Cinghiale cón porcini.”
Castello di Gabbiano, +39.055.82.10.53, www.gabbiano.com