Paolo Ponticelli is a boscaiolo (woodsman) turned winemaker who is as comfortable wielding an axe as he is holding a wine glass though he looks much less ferocious doing the latter.
However the publicity shot on his website, which we reproduce below, is sufficiently moody and foreboding to make him a shoe-in for Jack Nicholson’s role in a sequel to ‘The Shining’ and the mountains above Rufina would also be a good substitute for the Mount Hood Wilderness in Oregon.
You don’t have to inherit a vineyard in Italy to become a good winemaker. Sometimes, as with Paolo, it’s sufficient to grow up on a few acres of land and over time understand its potential for vines and then create your own vineyard from scratch.
Paolo’s grandfather Ugo was the fattore (manager) of the local sharecroppers in the Fattoria del Poggiolo and was responsible also for winemaking on the estate. When the mezzadria system was finally reformed in Tuscany in the 1960s and landowning became more democratic, Ugo purchased one of the estate’s buildings together with some land which now form Paolo’s winery, home and vineyard.
Paolo planted his first vines here in 1999 and for the first few years he sold the grapes to his neighbor, the much more famous Chianti Rufina winery of Fattoria Selvapiana. In 2006 he made his first Chianti Rufina DOCG Sangiovese wine and the Il Balzo label was born. This was followed five years later with a 100% Sangiovese Riserva.
We have noted before from our discussions with winemakers how collegial and collaborative the Italian wine industry can be and Il Balzo is another example of the friendly relations between neighboring wineries; Paolo’s two consultants are Federico Giuntini, the owner of Selvapiana, and the renowned enologist Franco Bernabei, who has served Selvapiana in that role since 1978.
In 2015 an unusual late season weather event prompted Paolo to make a new wine. Just before the harvest there was a violent hailstorm in his highest vineyard that punctured the skins of many of the individual grapes (chicchi in Italian) so when the storm passed and the hot sun returned they started to spontaneously ferment on the vine. A natural appassimento as it were, leading to more concentrated juices which persuaded Paolo to make a separate wine that he named Addiaccio, derived from the local Tuscan dialect equivalent of 'ghiaccio' or ice. Effectively a single vineyard 'cru' wine only made in exceptional years in very small quantities and we include the 2017 version in our tasting notes below.
For someone like Paolo who has spent his life outdoors, organic practices and biodiversity come naturally. Il Balzo has been certified organic since 2016 and of his 74 acres of land only a little over 12 are under vine with a further 7 devoted to olive trees. The remainder is a mixture of pasture, arable land and forest, ranging between 1,000 and 1,400 feet above sea level.
The soil here is composed of clay with calcareous deposits and littered with stones and rocks which promote good drainage. Soils are described as being ‘calcareous’ when the crushed up and fossilized shells and bones of sea creatures are present and depending on how much heat and pressure they’ve been subjected to, the soil can be as soft as chalk, or as hard as limestone or even marble. Many of the world’s renowned wine areas like Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Tuscany, Alsace, the Loire, parts of Bordeaux and Chateauneuf-du-Pape all have this in common with Tuscany to a greater or lesser extent.
Rufina is the northernmost Chianti wine area and quite small in acreage compared to the other Chianti sub-zones. It lies either side of the Sieve river starting from Pontassieve just east of Florence all the way north to Dicomano situated right in the middle of the Apennines with mountains in every direction.
Not only are the vineyards in Rufina quite elevated compared to many of the other Chianti zones but the presence of the high mountains also produces a cooler climate with a greater diurnal temperature range.
This is an important aspect for preserving the freshness and acidity in the wine and Rufina is particularly well situated to cope with the hotter summers resulting from climate change that are impacting lower lying vineyards throughout Chianti and elsewhere.
Rufina itself is certainly not the most beautiful wine town in Tuscany but the area around it is a lovely, under-appreciated part of Tuscany with many fascinating quiet towns that are never besieged with tourists the way that the Chianti Classico towns are during the summer months. To the west of the river Sieve, directly north of Florence, is the area known as Mugello and to the east are the mountain passes that lead to the northern end of Pratomagno and the Casentino valley. Just on the other side of the Passo della Consuma before Omomorto there is the tiny hamlet of Ponticelli, from where Paolo’s surname originated, so his local roots go way back in time.
Chianti Rufina 2018 - DOCG (13.5% alcohol)
(90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, Colorino and Malvasia Rossa)
Fermentation in stainless steel and aging in glass-lined concrete and barriques for about 18 months. Between 10,000 and 15,000 bottles produced depending on whether or not a Riserva is made that year. This wine has the classic profile on the nose and palate of a Chianti Rufina. It's elegant and restrained with dark red fruit, good acidity and mellow tannins. Medium in body there's nothing showy or extravagant here. It's a well-balanced wine that makes for an unpretentious and very affordable Chianti. Paolo's prices at the winery door are very reasonable indeed, which is not always the case in Italy, so at 9 euros it's well worth making the effort to visit him.
Chianti Rufina 2019 - DOCG (13.5% alcohol)
The same wine as above but the 2019 vintage instead of 2018. This wine has more flavor and strangely seems more developed and mature than the 2018 giving some added softness. It's really juicy with its flavour nicely balanced between red fruits and spices. Perhaps it was the weather in Rufina in 2019 but, whatever the reason, we found this a more seductive wine than the 2018 version, with less acidity and much more extrovert in character. We like it a lot and the price is the same.
Chianti Rufina Riserva 2017 - DOCG (14% alcohol)
(100% Sangiovese) About 5,000 bottles produced, only in the best years.
This is a soft and understated Riserva style with everything in balance and at its peak right now. It's elegant with balsamic notes and yet surprisingly also quite restrained. 2017 was a challenging year in Chianti with extreme heat and drought so this may not be a typical Riserva style for Il Balzo. 15 euros
Addiaccio 2017 - Toscana IGT (14% alcohol)
(90% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot)
Fermentation in stainless steel with half of the blend aged in large oak botti and half in glass-lined concrete. First produced in 2015 and only produced in very good years.
A very mature nose of slightly candied fruit follows through on the palate with notes of cherries soaked in alcohol. The Merlot is hiding in the background, providing lighter notes of coffee and cocoa while doing its job of softening up the Sangiovese. The result is a very appealing wine that's ready to drink now, but with a trace of tannin left this will likely improve further and become something quite special. About 3,000 bottles produced and avaiable at the winery for 15 euros
Pettinaringhe 2021 - Toscana IGT (12% alcohol)
(60% Vermentino, 20% Trebbiano Toscano, 20% Malvasia Bianca)
A new wine in 2018, only about 1,000 bottles produced.
You never quite know how a new and interesting grape combination will work until you try it and I'm not sure what Paolo's thought process was in coming up with this unusual blend, but at the first sip we both nodded in appreciation. It's very fresh and lemony with a lip-smacking sapidity that has you searching for some nibbles to go with it. In the glass it develops even more interesting flavors particularly vanilla, orange, anise and thyme. Very mouth-watering indeed and perfect as a summer aperitivo with the low alcohol content being a further point in its favor. A very good value 9 euro wine.
Podere Il Balzo - Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Paolo cultivates his olive trees in one of the most well-suited areas around Florence between Acone and Monte Giovi and he is able to use the local Frantoio Olcas just down the road in Pontassieve to process his olives into oil. It's a Cantina Sociale we know well because we've often bought their olive oil as well as the Cantina VICAS wines vinified there from local grapes.
This oil is from the 2020 harvest as Paolo had no fruit last year. It's not uncommon for olive trees to take a year off or at least produce a very small harvest after a larger one, though it's not something you can predict. While the label is obliged to state that it's best consumed by June 2022, there's plenty of life left in this if stored properly.
Mediterranean herbs and some grassy notes on the nose, it's quite smooth on the palate until very late on the finish when there's a noticeable peppery kick; the hallmark of a good Tuscan olive oil.