Panzano is our favorite town in Chianti as we described a couple of years ago and the wine from the Panzano sub-zone is also our favorite Chianti. One of the best value Chianti Classico wines not just in Panzano but throughout the Classico area has to be the Retromarcia Chianti Classico from Monte Bernardi whose price in Italy remains below 15 euros despite its steadily increasing reputation as a consistently reliable and well-made wine.
The Fontodi Chianti Classico is also a benchmark for quality and reliability and over the years we have probably bought more of this Panzano wine than any other Chianti. Unlike the Retromarcia however it is no longer the bargain it once was, being priced close to 25 euros in Italy, but while it may not be better value than the Retromarcia it is I think the better wine.
Lying exactly half-way between Florence and Siena, Panzano stands out for many reasons. Agriculturally and historically it was famous first for it’s Conca d’Oro or ‘golden basin’, a name reflecting its role for centuries as one of the best wheat growing areas in this part of Tuscany when bread was a critical part of daily nutrition.
But as wine grew in economic importance and more efficient areas elsewhere were planted to wheat, grapes became the prominent crop and it proved to be a perfect spot. The natural amphitheater of Panzano and its surrounding hills are rich in galestro, a rocky schistous clay soil ideal for Sangiovese, and the vineyards are mostly situated between 1,100 and 1,600 feet. At these elevations the diurnal temperature range is quite significant, helping to preserve the freshness, aromatics and acidity of the grapes at a time when summers in Italy are becoming increasingly hotter and drier.
Panzano can also lay claim to being Italy’s first organic winemaking district, starting almost a quarter of a century ago, well before the organic movement had achieved any real momentum.
Today, of the 25 wineries in the Panzano sub-zone, as many as 24 are organic, including some that have also adopted biodynamic practices.
Included in these is Fontodi where Giovanni Manetti has long been a trend-setter for the commune, both in organic practices as well as in the more judicious use of wood to return his Chianti to a more elegant and restrained style, much like Michael Schmelzer at Monte Bernardi. ‘Trend-setter’ is not really the right phrase and in fact gives the wrong impression because both these wineries represent a return to traditional practices, which is why the name ‘Retromarcia’ was chose by Schmelzer, meaning ‘reverse gear’.
Monte Bernardi employs many biodynamic practices because Schmelzer believes in their efficacy but he really doesn’t care about certification and it is probably the same story at Fontodi because they make no mention of biodynamics on their website.
However Fontodi is widely reported to also follow a flexible and pragmatic rather than slavish approach to biodynamics, including for example relatively common practices like paying attention to the lunar phases for certain tasks in both the vineyard and cellar.
Contadini everywhere would routinely do this in ages past, long before it was given the fancy name of 'biodynamics', and Manetti makes it his business to regularly consult with various contadini around Panzano. Another of our favorite Panzano wines to mention here is the Castello dei Rampolla Chianti Classico and the people behind Rampolla are certainly not afraid of the biodynamic label because it's the very first word that appears on their website.
Giovanni Manetti has been in charge of Fontodi since 1980 and as one of the elder statesmen of Chianti he is also the President of the Chianti Classico Consortium. His family has also been directly involved in a famous local industry that is even more historically Tuscan than wine and that is the ancient craft of terracotta manufacturing. The three centuries old Manetti Gusmano & Figli is based in Ferrone just south of Impruneta from which the clay originates that is made into a variety of products including amphora wine vessels for Fontodi.
Fontodi’s three most notable wines are all now 100% Sangiovese. They are fermented spontaneously in stainless steel using only indigenous yeasts and are aged in barriques for between 18 and 24 months, mostly now consisting of more neutral non-toasted oak. The price points in Italy for these wines seem to almost follow a neat arithmetic doubling with the flagship wine Flaccianello at 110 euros, the Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione at 55 euros and the Fontodi Chianti Classico at about 25 euros. Production of the latter is approximately 170,000 bottles per annum so there is always plenty to be found abroad given that 80% of Fontodi’s wines are exported.
Fontodi’s mostly south-facing 180+ acres of vines are in the Conca d’Oro at about 1,500 feet, located south of the town of Panzano. The soil contains Alberese (limestone) as well as Galestro and all the time that has passed since strict organic farming was introduced is now perhaps the reason why the Fontodi vines are managing the summer heat and drought so well.
Manetti’s response to a question by a UK importer on this topic last year was as follows:
"For now, they (the vines) are coping well with the drought, quite surprisingly. One hypothesis is that they are adapting naturally to the change in climate. Another is that all the years of organic viticulture with crop cover between the rows and the use of our own compost has increased greatly the presence of organic substances in the soil which help capture the right amount of moisture for the roots.”
Fontodi, being Panzano's most famous winery, has an interesting connection to Panzano's most recognizable personality and celebrated chef, Dario Cecchini of Antica Macelleria fame. The winery raises a herd of the iconic white Chianina cattle specifically for Cecchini.
Tasting Notes from wines in our cellar:
2012 Fontodi Chianti Classico DOCG (14% alcohol)
Still dark red in the center of the glass this wine is in a perfect place almost 11 years after the vintage. The cherry fruit has sweetened with age, likewise the acidity and tannin have softened but are still present and there are tertiary notes appearing. Hints of spice and leather on the nose give way to powerful and still quite dense flavors but balanced and velvety on the palate. A long satisfying finish suggests more development ahead as this wine may not have reached its peak yet.
2013 Fontodi Chianti Classico DOCG (14% alcohol)
Showing more signs of maturity than the 2012 reflecting the very different conditions of 2013, this is a very elegant wine today. The cherry fruit and acidity are both present but the tannin has softened considerably. It is a lighter style wine but still very much requiring food and unlikely to develop any further.
2015 Fontodi Chianti Classico DOCG (14.5% alcohol)
This is a powerful and complex wine that is gorgeous now but I don't think has yet unleashed its true potential. There is still a brooding energy to it that suggests a long life ahead and I will keep our remaining bottles to find out just how good this becomes. Everything is in place right now with lots of fruit, fine tannins and good acidity that fill the mouth but there is still something of a coiled spring about this wine that promises so much more.
2016 Fontodi Chianti Classico DOCG (14% alcohol)
Still inky black in the glass. This has a perfumed, slightly sweet nose that becomes full and luscious on the palate with rich cherry fruit and some spice. On the finish it's a little drying with some unresolved tannins. A very good wine but not in the same class as the 2018 below.
2018 Fontodi Chianti Classico DOCG (14.5% alcohol)
This wine is simply irresistible, to steal from Robert Palmer's song and many of the other lyrics from his great 1988 song are also applicable here. The nose is rich and powerful with ripe cherries and spices that follow through on the palate where there is an intensity of flavor that I've rarely come across before. There are layers of complexity here with leather, licorice and concentrated tertiary notes lingering on the finish but there's also purity and elegance. It never overpowers but stays harmonious and balanced.
Writing this in summer 2023 we immediately went on-line to buy some more as this was our only bottle and using winesearcher we found 8 bottles at 21.70 euros - the bargain of the century.
As an aside it always amazes me how prices can vary so much for the same bottle in the same country. The most expensive Fontodi 2018 in Italy using winesearcher was 35 euros a bottle. Why would anyone pay that when you can buy it for 21.70 with free shipping on orders over 100 euros? Retail wine buying is still a very inefficient market.