If we don’t happen to serendipitously stumble across a winery by virtue of having sampled a single bottle somewhere (as with Monte Bernardi for example) then how do we choose a wine producer to visit from among the many thousands of wineries all over Italy? Our goal is always to find very good wines at very fair prices but we also want to know the full story behind the wine. We want to understand the philosophy guiding the whole process and meet the owner and key people responsible for what we are pouring into our glass. At least for us, being able to connect the wine on our dinner table to the people and the land from whence it came immeasurably heightens the pleasure of drinking wine.
If we have never tasted the wine beforehand some of the clues we look for for in deciding where to go are often related to the range of wines that a winery produces, in other words do they make slightly different wines from their neighbors or use the native grape varieties in more interesting ways. Or perhaps their wines have recently come to the favorable attention of professional wine tasters or in other cases there may have been an important change in their winemaking direction involving new personnel or a return to a more natural style.
At La Torre alle Tolfe in fact, all of the above clues were present so it was an easy decision for us to make the short drive to Siena to try the wine for ourselves and discover more about the estate.
We’ve been lucky so far with the wineries we’ve chosen to visit in meeting some very talented people behind the wines who all have an obvious passion for what they do coupled with a deep understanding of their land, their grape varieties and what is required in the vineyard and in the cellar to get the best out of each year’s harvest. And Mania Castelli, the c0-owner and driving force behind La Torre, is no exception.
Her personal involvement in every aspect of the winemaking and olive oil production quickly became clear on her detailed and comprehensive tour of the estate. There must be something about the rigors of a medical training that inculcates a meticulous approach to winemaking because Gerardo Pascale demonstrated this trait in Fosdinovo and, as a previously practicing veterinarian, Mania Castelli has clearly applied her scientific mind to all aspects of the estate management at La Torre.
On arrival at La Torre alle Tolfe you are immediately struck by its commanding hilltop position (top photos). It’s a classic Chianti scene with vineyards sloping down from their 8th century tower and the Siena rooftops with the famous Torre del Mangia clearly visible a few miles away beyond the surrounding woodland. Historical documents record the first mention of wine here in 1316 and during the centuries of conflict between Siena and Florence the tower at La Torre played an important role protecting Siena’s northern flank, initially as a lookout tower and then subsequently militarized for defensive purposes.
This property has many other links to the history of Siena, including providing the Chianina oxen to pull the processional wagons at the start of the famous Palio and the plough used by these massive beasts to till the land is one of the many old artifacts on display at the estate (below).
La Torre alle Tolfe was purchased by the Castelli family in 1953 when the mezzadria system of sharecropping still existed here as in many parts of Tuscany. The estate underwent a lengthy period of reconstruction, including the tower itself which at some prior point in history had been reduced in height and was effectively hidden amongst the buildings. La Torre alle Tolfe today is a substantial property and includes 17 guest rooms with the full range of amenities and it is without doubt a perfect and very scenic location for touring the southern Chianti hills and spending time in Siena.
Mania now represents the third generation of the family to manage the estate and she relocated back here with her family in 2015 to assume control after spending many years in England completing her education and working professionally as a vet.
The entire property covers about 250 acres and includes vineyards, olive groves, productive arable land and woodland. The vineyards are within the Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG zone and the eastern border of La Torre is formed by the Bozzone river, the other side of which is the start of the Chianti Classico zone, so this estate is as close as you can get to Chianti Classico without actually being in it.
After spending a couple of years getting her feet wet Mania took some decisive action to both improve the quality of the wines and start to raise the profile of the estate.
In 2018 she hired a new oenologist, Giacomo Mastretta, originally from Piedmont but who obtained his wine education in Montpellier in France and subsequently honed his skills with the Sangiovese grape at several vineyards in the Chianti Classico zone. He’s a winemaker who sees similarities between the Nebbiolo grape of his upbringing and the Sangiovese grape of his professional career in that both produce bright acidic wines and he is not someone who is trying to change the natural characteristics of the grape, nor is he is a proponent of barriques or any type of intrusive wood ageing for Chianti.
Giacomo is a well-travelled winemaker, having visited South America, Australia, New Zealand and many times to France, but his real passion remains Sangiovese. He also had the good fortune of working with one of the iconic Tuscan winemakers, Giulio Gambelli, which gave him the confidence to experiment more, especially with regard to longer maceration times.
Giacomo seems a perfect fit for La Torre because he is not an interventionist winemaker and his philosophy of organic farming and allowing the vineyard location and soils to express themselves in the wine is a fundamental approach shared also by Mania, who has made it a priority to promote the fullest extent of bio-diversity across the whole estate. Organic vineyard practices for many wineries like La Torre are now just the starting point for completely natural winemaking and Mania also employs an agronomist to maintain the health of all of the crops on the estate.
Another change that Mania made a short while ago was to employ Emily O’Hare (above) to conduct tastings for hotel guests and visitors alike. Emily is very well known in the wine world, initially for being the Head Sommelier for many years at the first high quality Italian restaurant in London, the iconic River Cafe, and for the last 7 years based in Tuscany as a wine writer, wine educator and Italian Wine Ambassador. Someone whose enthusiasm for Tuscany and Chianti is immediately apparent and who has that rare capacity among sommeliers of being able to describe wines and the tasting process using everyday language.
In the vineyard, where everything starts, the soils at La Torre tend to be sandy and rich in fossils with none of the galestro clay of many parts of the nearby Chianti Classico zone. Some of the ancient marine fossils uncovered here are displayed at the winery (above photo).
Natural winemaking at La Torre extends to not cleaning the natural bloom on the grapes when they arrive to be pressed at harvest time, which preserves the indigenous yeasts and facilitates spontaneous fermentation in the cellar. Both fermentation and aging take place in concrete or stainless steel and the only wood visible in the cellar is old, much used and well beyond imparting any flavor to the wine.
Returning to where this article started, the first thing that grabbed our attention about La Torre alle Tolfe was the fact that they make a Canaiolo in purezza and a Colorino in purezza. These are both used typically as Chianti blending grapes and employed in much smaller percentages than Sangiovese and both have different roles to play in the final blend. We rarely see these grapes used entirely on their own to make wine and when we do it's a sign for us that it's a wine producer worth visiting.
Torre alle Tolfe 2019 - Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG (80% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo, Colorino, Ciliegiolo)
(fermented and aged in glass-lined concrete vats, 14% alcohol)
Very full expansive nose of violets, cherries and dark fruit. There's plenty of juicy acidity here to complement and lift the fruit with remarkably soft and integrated tannins for such a young wine, a testament perhaps to the sandy soils here and the fact that the Sangiovese component is kept to 80%. Just at the start of its drinking window this will probably improve further but it's a pleasure to drink now and even in the midst of a hot Italian summer when red wines can seem heavy, this is fresh and juicy and can pare well with lighter dishes.
At 13 euros it's a great value Chianti that can hold its own against many of the Classico wines just across the river.
Torre alle Tolfe Riserva 2018 - Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG (100% Sangiovese)
(fermented and aged for 2 years, partly in glass-lined concrete tanks and partly in chestnut botti, 14.5% alcohol)
Still very bright in the glass though the nose is showing signs of maturity. Quite powerful with warm complex notes of dried flowers and slightly stewed red fruits which really lend it some character. Perhaps it's the chestnut botti influence because it's really quite different. Full and rich in the mouth with good acidity and when accompanied by food the tannins are perfect. Lingering very savory finish. At 22 euros this just edges out the Canaiolo below for value.
Torre alle Tolfe Colorino 2019 - Rosso Toscano IGT (100% Colorino)
(aged for 18 months in old oak tonneaux)
Deep very dark red just starting to lighten at the rim. Powerful nose of black fruit with just a hint of toffee in the background. Still much too tannic on the palate for our taste but this might change with some more time in the bottle. It's quite concentrated with decent fruit and a firm backbone of acidity. In another couple of years this could develop into an interesting wine, but priced at 22 euros it's not great value compared to the numerous balanced Chianti Classico wines in the low to mid teens, including in fact the first Torre alle Tolfe wine in this tasting, the Chianti Colli Senesi at 13 euros.
Torre alle Tolfe Canaiolo 2019 - Rosso Toscano IGT (100% Canaiolo)
(fermented in glass-lined concrete tanks, 13.5% alcohol)
Deep red with a pale rim starting to emerge. Lots of red fruits on the nose, fully mature and even a little candied. There's a very slight barnyard whiff here that I am personally fond of. Elena is a big fan of Canaiolo and particularly liked the floral and refreshing taste of this wine. On the palate it's bright and lively with soft tannins, good acidity and a long lingering flavor of dried herbs. This is a very good wine that continued to improve the second evening, so much so that if I were in Mania's position I would be tempted to rip out the Colorino grapes and plant more Canaiolo because at the same price of 22 euros we much prefer this wine to the prior one. It's not even close.
Rosato Lunella 2020 - Toscana Sangiovese Rosato IGT (80% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo)
(fermentation partly in stainless steel and partly in tonneaux, 13% alcohol)
A deepish color for a rosato, pink but moving towards burnt amber. On the nose there's the same lovely aroma as I remember from the thick peel oranges in Ventura County which are not at all sweet like Florida oranges. This is quite a meaty rosato, very much a food wine for us. It's fresh and crisp with good but not obtrusive acidity and there's a real sour cherry Sangiovese flavor that comes through as it sits in the glass. It's refreshing and very tasty. Not a wine that needs to be over-chilled, cellar temperature is fine. Good value for 12 euros.
In conclusion, if you're visiting the Siena region there's no better way to spend a morning than having a guided tour of the winemaking operations at La Torre from Mania followed by a tutored tasting with Emily and lunch. It will make for an excursion that is both interesting and fun and, if you think about it, they are the two adjectives you should want to be able to use to describe your holiday in Italy.
There were two other couples at our very convivial tasting and whenever you have a chance to chat with Italians in their country you always come away with helpful advice. In this case we happened to be on our way to Mantova several days later and the Italian couple in the center of the table were coincidentally from Mantova and gave us one of those excellent restaurant recommendations that only locals seem to know about.
We took their advice and it was one of those superb evenings where we were the only non- Mantovani in the restaurant. We surrendered ourselves to the waiter's recommendations and were repaid with excellent food and wine, all local and traditional. We don't tend to write about restaurants very much but Cento Rampini deserved a mention.