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Monte Bernardi, Panzano: A return to elegance

the full range of Monte Bernardi wines

We were staying in the attractive small town of Panzano a couple of years ago, deep in the heart of Chianti country exactly half way between Florence and Siena, and on a whim bought a single bottle of Retromarcia 2016 in the local enoteca, probably because we liked the old fashioned label and the sentiment implied by the name, meaning something along the lines of ‘throwback to the past’. So, yes, more confirmation unfortunately for marketing people everywhere that we can all be seduced occasionally by the outside of a bottle before we discover what’s inside.

Once back in Lucca the bottle was lost in an untidy mass of other bottles for about 18 months before it was plucked at random one evening. Luckily it was not one of those bottles stuffed under the bed for lack of space because they can stay lost for years.

the Monte Bernardi tasting room in Panzano

Immediately on popping the cork the quality of the Retromarcia 2016 was apparent. A rich, full nose of red and black fruit gave way to a very elegant but juicy wine with soft tannins and perfect balance.

Monte Bernardi 2016 retromarcia chianti

A classic medium bodied Chianti with sour cherry notes and just a touch of that attractive ‘barnyard’ whiff that is always for me reminiscent of old Bordeaux.

After living in California for ten years and consuming too many over-extracted wines with high alcohol levels (all that sunshine) that lack subtlety and finesse, I have really come to appreciate (again) red wines with more delicacy and elegance and, just as importantly, more typicity. This seems to be exactly the philosophy at Monte Bernardi.

Drinking this sort of wine is like my own personal ‘retromarcia’ to the bottles of red Bordeaux of the late 1960s and 1970s that would appear on our family dinner table at weekends in the pre-Robert Parker days of non-interventionist winemaking. Well before Parker appeared on the scene winemakers were judged by the more traditional palates of Edmund Penning Rowsell and Michael Broadbent for their ability to produce elegant and balanced wines that reflected their terroir. This was the environment in which my wine tastes were first formed and with Parker’s recent retirement we may be coming full circle again.

the Monte Bernardi vineyards in Chianti Classico

The common complaint I hear about Chianti, not without some justification, concerns the characteristic acidity and tannin of the Sangiovese grape. Most fine wine is consumed in its youthful awkward stage because few people have either the financial resources or physical storage space to be able to drink Chianti Classico at its absolute best.

I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about all of the detailed viticultural practices and vinification techniques to say definitively how the talented people at Monte Bernardi craft their wines to be approachable so young, but it’s enough that they do because the result of their efforts is a range of wines that don’t require lengthy cellaring to be enjoyed at their peak. I’m sure that it’s probably a combination of all the deliberate steps they take from vineyard to bottle and I’m equally confident that the indispensable part, as it always seems to be with wine, is the patch of land where their vines grow.

Monte Bernardi grapes in Panzano

Panzano sits on the famous ‘Conca d’Oro’ (the so-called ‘golden basin’ of much earlier times when wheat was the prized crop of this area) and it has to be one of the top terroirs in the whole of Italy with ideal Sangiovese elevations of between 1,000 and 1,600 feet. The altitude of the vineyards here is perhaps the single most important factor in allowing Monte Bernardi to maintain sufficient acidity in their wines

a piece of sandstone rock in the Monte Bernardi vineyard

because the impact of climate change in the lower elevation vineyards in Chianti has been to diminish this acidity, rendering the wines of lower lying producers more atypically jammy. So for those who don’t like the natural acidity of Sangiovese it may soon be a case of being careful what you wish for.

The other characteristic of Panzano, and of Monte Bernardi too, is the predominance of galestro in the soil, which is a type of friable shale that crumbles under the action of rain, sun and temperature fluctuations, releasing minerals into the soil and the vines.

Galestro retains moisture but also drains well and can produce darker and richer wines compared to both sandstone (known here as pietraforte) and limestone. These two are also present at Monte Bernardi but in smaller proportions than the galestro.

There is an important physical difference in the vineyard between galestro and sandstone. The sandstone (above photo) is much lighter in color than galestro and tends to reflect much of the intense Tuscan sunshine back onto the grapes which creates more tannin, whereas the darker galestro does exactly the opposite.

Therefore the first clue to explaining the reduced tannins and early approachability of the Retromarcia and Sangió Chianti Classico wines can be found under your feet as you walk around the galestro rich vineyards from which they come. Both the galestro and pietraforte rocks can be seen in the glass containers in the tasting photographs below next to the relevant wines.

the Monte Bernardi stainless steel fermentation and aging tanks

The proprietor and oenologist at Monte Bernardi is Michael Schmelzer, an American who probably feels as much at home in Tuscany as anywhere given his wine education took him to Bordeaux and Australia for several years before the family purchase of Monte Bernardi in 2003. His frustration with the lack of individuality in Australian wine twenty years ago in those peak Robert Parker years prompted his move to Tuscany and also gave him a desire to make Chianti in a traditional or throwback style that had fallen out of fashion when he first arrived in Panzano.

Immediately he set about becoming completely organic and within a year he was also following biodynamic practices in his vineyards, not an easy philosophy to employ as it involves various disciplines from microbiology to astronomy, but it is a growing and highly respected movement within the wine industry internationally and involves vineyard practices that in many cases have been around in one form or another for centuries but without the fancy name ‘biodynamics’. What could be more ‘retromarcia’ than that?

the Monte Bernardi cellar in Panzano

Equally fundamental to the style of wine that he set out to produce was his choice of aging vessel. The very large barrels known as botte (above) that have always been used in Piedmont for Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as further south in Tuscany for Brunello, had given way to the smaller barriques for many Chianti producers by 2003.

To achieve the right balance and elegance in his wines he went back to the past (more ‘retromarcia’) because the large botte imparts much less wood to the wine and admits much less oxygen so the balance of the wine is maintained throughout the aging process.

But no new oak though, second hand botte only where the wood influence is muted by prior use. (The smaller barriques you see in the photo below for the Sa'etta 2019 are older and heavily used barrels where the wood is now almost neutral and in fact it was apparently a bit of an emergency measure due to the size of the 2019 harvest.)

the Monte Bernardi aging room in Chianti Classico

Traditions in wine don’t become traditions without good reason and perhaps that is the true lesson of the retromarcia Monte Bernardi story. He also uses concrete vessels in preference to stainless steel for the same reason as Pascale Francesca; they are inert but they breathe and, as with the botte, it’s the ability to slowly breathe that is one of the keys to reducing aggressive tannins and acidity.

Monet Bernardi vineyards in Panzano

You only have to drive around Chianti or even just the Panzano sub-zone to appreciate the diversity of aspect, altitude and soils that exists and it is Michael Schmelzer’s firm conviction that these differences should be recognized officially as they have been in Burgundy for example, where a distance of a few hundred yards can make all the difference to a wine.

Terroir here is just as important and Monte Bernardi’s vineyards with their high elevations, steep slopes and specific mix of rocks have a direct and distinctive impact on the finished wine.

As was explained to us during our visit, it’s normal to have a 10 degree celsius temperature swing from day to night at Monte Bernardi even in the hottest part of the summer and with this comes forth the elegance and perfume, neither of which can be coaxed out of the wine solely in the cellar. This is also part of the definition of terroir. The stainless steel fermentation vessels seen in one of the photographs above are also, somewhat unusually, in the open air but the roof, the wall of the steep hillside and the night time coolness prevents overheating.

The differentiation starts in the vineyard and rather than everything being simply labeled Chianti Classico, Panzano deserves its own ‘cru’ status. It would also be very helpful to consumers. Chianti is an overused description geographically because if you strip Classico out of the phrase, Chianti is the prefix for many wines all the way from Pisa to Arezzo, a very large area indeed. In fact as I was writing this article the Consorzio of Chianti Classico just announced the introduction of 11 sub zones that will be able to appear on a Chianti Classico label, but only for Gran Selezione wines, so not yet particularly useful for most consumers. It's a good first step, if an overly cautious one, but at least Panzano is one of the 11 approved sub zones.

the Monte Bernardi tasting room

Monte Bernardi’s production in a normal harvest is about 80,000 bottles per annum of which 55,000 are Retromarcia. Only 62 of their 135 acres are currently under vine, most of which have southerly exposure and are surrounded by natural woodland that also forms part of the estate. Visually it’s everything you would expect from such a privileged position in the Chianti hills and a visit here with Monte Bernardi’s very knowledgeable and charming Jacy Farrell as your guide is not to be missed.

Tasting Notes:

Sangió 2019 - Chianti Classico DOCG

(100% Sangiovese, 13.5% alcohol)

Monte Bernardi Sangió 2019

Apparently Michael Schmelzer had been trying to get his hands on the storied Sala vineyards high above Panzano for several years until the owner finally sold it to him in 2018. The wine from this predominantly galestro vineyard may go into Retromarcia once the organic certification is confirmed but until then it goes by the temporary name of Sangió.

I find wine tastings quite arduous in the sense that it it’s difficult to assess a wine properly from a couple of sips while you’re still forming an opinion of the previous wine and in Panzano I was a bit unsure about the Sangió but now over the course of a couple of evenings and being able to taste it before food, with food and after food, I like it more and more.

Now I begin to understand why the Sala vineyard was so coveted because this is a good medium bodied Chianti Classico that only 20 months after the harvest has plenty of fruit that is lifted and made vibrant by just the right amount of acidity yet with most of the Sangiovese drying tannins softened and made agreeable. I thought the days of 12.50 euro Chianti Classico of this caliber were long gone but apparently not quite yet. This is very good Chianti for the price.

Monte Bernardi 2017 - Chianti Classico DOCG - Riserva

(95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo Nero, aged in very large botte for 2 years then 1 year in bottle, 13.5% alcohol)

Monte Bernardi 2017 chianti classico riserva

From 50 year old vines grown in pure galestro soil (above). This is a subtle and understated wine and reminds me a little of the late Jim Clendenen's approach to winemaking. (I met him a few times in Santa Barbara both when his wines were in fashion in the mid 1990s and when they subsequently weren't over the next 15 years, but he never compromised his winemaking style). Let this wine sit in the glass for a while and drink it slowly because it really opens up.

The first thing you notice is the bright ruby red color. Then there's lots of cherry on the nose and some noticeable acidity but no harsh tannins. This is a well made wine with elegance and freshness that is a delightful wine to drink and at 18 euros in Italy this is excellent value for a Chianti Classico Riserva.

Sa’etta 2016 - Chianti Classico DOCG - Riserva

(100% Sangiovese, aged in very large botti for 2 years then 1 year in bottle, 13.5% alcohol)

Monte Bernardi Sa'etta 2016

This is a single vineyard unfiltered wine from 50 year old vines grown in sandstone, known as pietraforte. The name translates as ‘thunderbolt’. This is a 5 year old riserva just hitting its full stride we would say. Drinking it any younger is to miss out on some of the emerging complexity here and as there is still no real evidence of tertiary flavors it may well develop further.

Be that as it may, it's in a good place right now. Medium red with with the beginnings of a colorless rim, it takes a few minutes to really open up in the glass. Then there's a full nose of dark flowers and a little spice, cloves and a touch of cumin perhaps. On the palate there's certainly plenty of acidity left but also deep red fruit flavors and little tannin to speak of. This wine is a great example of a Chianti that comes into its own with food, and pared with chicken and pancetta involtini the acidity was perfect for cutting through the fatty flavors. At 28 euros in Italy this is not bad value but would I take 2 bottles of Retromarcia instead? Probably.

Retromarcia 2018 - Chianti Classico DOCG

(100% Sangiovese, 13.5% alcohol)

From 15-20 year old vines grown at 1,300 feet in 70% galestro soil.

Given that ‘elegance’ is in the title of this article I should perhaps have said right from the start that when you see that word in a sales context it can often be a euphemism for ‘thin’ in the sense of lacking body or structure.

This is very definitely an elegant wine in the proper sense of the word with finesse and breeding and at the same time full of flavor and richness so it is the antithesis of a thin wine. The sour cherry flavor of the Sangiovese grape is full and ripe in this vintage but still well balanced with good acidity. Yet hardly a trace of tannins anywhere, remarkably. Chianti skeptics should hunt this wine down and try it for themselves because it will convert them instantly. Really fabulous wine and an absolute steal at 14 euros in Italy, if there's any left to buy.

Retromarcia 2019 - Chianti Classico DOCG

(100% Sangiovese, 13.5% alcohol)

Monte Bernardi retromarcia 2019

Quite a full expressive nose of red fruits. This is a very young wine but already it's coming together. The fruit and acidity are nicely in balance and the tannins will soften soon though they are clearly noticeable right now; however with food they are not particularly intrusive. In a year or two this will be a very pleasing medium weight wine and it's very attractively priced at 13.50 euros in Italy.

Tzingarella 2019 - Colli della Toscana Centrale IGT (14% alcohol)

This is a Super-Tuscan blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Colorino. The name translates as ‘gypsy girl’. Aged in barriques and tonneaux for 18 months.

Somehow this bottle of wine drifted into the third night after opening it with about one quarter left and it just got better and better every evening. There was a little funk the first night that had disappeared by the following evening and those Bordeaux flavors really hit their stride in the last few glasses. For such a young wine the tannins were already soft and the acidity subdued but enough for balance and sufficient to highlight the fruit.

This is a well rounded and very easy wine to drink at a very affordable price and very much a Bordeaux wine from the hills of Chianti. For the last 8 years I have almost exclusively consumed wines made from Italian grape varieties and it was a nice change to drink a Bordeaux blend at a very non-Bordeaux price. A real bargain at 13.50 euros in Italy and pared exceptionally well with a piece of melino al forno, which if you ever find yourself in a butcher's shop in Tuscany is the best cut to use for roast beef and much better then the girello which is the normal cut you'll see behind the counter.

Tzingana 2015 - Colli della Toscana Centrale IGT (13.5% alcohol)

Another Super-Tuscan blend, this time 45% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot. Simultaneous vinification of all 4 varietals followed by aging in barriques and tonneaux for 2 years then 1 year in bottle.

Monte Bernardi Tzingana 2017

Just when I was starting to think that I preferred Chianti to Bordeaux we popped the cork on this bottle and I was re-united with the first 40 years of my wine drinking life, memories not easily expunged. This is a luscious wine for sure with the tannins now completely integrated and though quite soft there's still enough balancing acidity. The Merlot is not as dominant in the wine as the 45% proportion would suggest and there's a good backbone of Cabernet present. The nose is heady and perfumed and reminds me of one of those 2nd or 3rd cru wines from Margaux in a warm year which, even though the percentages of Cabernet and Merlot are the other way round, have the same perfume and softness.

This is a rich and delicious wine that you can keep on drinking long after dinner is finished.

Fiasco! (13% alcohol)

Sold in 1 liter glass bottles with a ‘tip of the hat’ on the label to the long tradition of wicker flasks in Tuscany, this is a fun wine available also in export markets.

Monte Bernardi Fiasco wine

It's a blend from many different areas of Italy including, I believe, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Le Marche, Nerello Mascalese and Nero d'Avola from Sicily as well as local Sangiovese and Canaiolo from Tuscany, but I'm sure the specific ingredients probably change every year. It's a great idea and at 10 euros a liter it's a heck of a good price. The first thing I noticed was the fact that it has the Monte Bernardi name prominently displayed on the bottle so that was the first clue for me even before drinking it that it was sure to be good quality for the very low price.

And indeed it is. Well made and very enjoyable wine for immediate drinking, with none of the roughness that often comes with this price elsewhere. Good stuff. The newer version is the similarly squat 1 liter bottle in one of the photographs above with Italia blazoned across it in multi colors. I prefer the label on the bottle we bought but what do I know.

Monte Bernardi Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva

Monte Bernardi 2020 olive oil

Monte Bernardi has become well known internationally for its wines but they also produce an outstanding olive oil from their 1,000 or so olive trees. Cultivars in the blend: Frantoio, Correggiolo e Moraiolo.

On the nose this oil is quite aromatic with notes of freshly cut grass and herbs, particularly fresh oregano. Also citrus notes of lemongrass and fresh green tomatoes. On the palate it reveals its Tuscan soul, expressing a pleasant bitter artichoke taste and there's the trademark chili pepper on the finish which catches at the back of the throat as all good Tuscan oils should.

Monte Bernardi hand written ledger from 80 years ago

The hand written ledger above dates back about 80 years and shows the various local estates under common ownership but operating within the mezzadria system, a form of sharecropping that continued for centuries in Italy, particularly in Tuscany and other parts of central Italy, but not as punitively administered as sharecropping was in the US. Key to the system was crop rotation and the columns in the ledger reveal the importance of grain, potatoes and beans as well as wine and olive oil. Monte Bernardi's contribution at the bottom looks to be among the highest for both grain and wine, reflecting its favored location on the Conca d'Oro.

The Monte Bernardi buildings in Panzano


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