The drive from Montalcino to visit Rocca di Frassinello was from the heights of Tuscany towards the sea near Grosseto. Grape growing in this part of Italy continues the adventure.

This is an aggregate of properties now reaching 500 hectares with 75 planted, done over the period 1997-1999. There is room for expansion.

It would be imagined that this powerfully thought-through tenuta had a magnificent opening on June 30, 2007. I wished I was there.

But this Domaines Lafite Rothschild (Bordeaux)-Castellare in Castellina (Chianti Classico) joint venture has been cleverly designed; in parts with its conservative Tuscan thinking yet in other ways very much out there-chic, modern, even colour coordinated.

Castellare owner Paulo Panerai had a small dalliance by planting some sangiovese on this coastal strip 20 km north of the Grosseto in the early ’90s, whereas the heavyweights (Ornellaia, Sassicaia and crew) have shone with Bordeaux-origin grapes plus some syrah.

You see the patter went that sangiovese would neither grow well nor produce high end red wine here akin to its cousins in Chianti or Montalcino.

The Tuscan thought is that sangiovese must struggle during growth and that its major natural environment to do this is in its existing homelands.

I am not entirely convinced on this but am firmly of the opinion that the grape variety’s crop load has much to do annually with quality in the bottle. Growth with this variety is hardly backward.

Paulo Panerai proved this generalisation wrong, as his sangiovese test site provided ample ammunition to proceed with a larger planting; also including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. A small patch of vermentino has since been added in front of the winery.

Three more farms were purchased for that planting, essentially old olive groves and country with a previous history of minerals and mining, sheep country and marshland not previously taken to viticulture. But that is a similar story for Bolgheri, Scansarno and Montecucco.

That’s where the Bordeaux producer Domaines Rothschild joined in the plans and has since conspired with Panerai to make French sensed Italian-style international wines typical of the coastal terroirs (the sea is 10km away) from this region.

From my visit and tastings the wine reliance is on sangiovese with support from oak-tensed blending parcels of cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

And another wine, Baffonero is conceived along the lines of challenging the supremacy of Ornellaia’s Masseto merlot, with super-charged oak handling and assertive, fleshy tannins as found in a few garargiste style merlots from Pomerol.

Unlike typical left bank Bordeaux or the Bolgheri clans, this tenutas major wine output centres around the highest quality sangiovese that can be grown in this new terroir. Driving past the vineyards post the harvest, it is clearly easy to see how much is left behind when harvest comes, as the reject bunches still litter the vineyard floor.

In the case of the Baffonero vineyard, the bunch selection is sequential, first by removing down to one bunch per shoot (merlot often produces three), and eventually removing all bunches save one for the vine, in pursuit of hyper-concentration of flavour, ripeness and high levels of ripe skin tannin.

Rocca di Frassinello is also a statement about balance; that of colour and harmony as the design skills of young architect Renzo Piano permeate the daily activities of the winery staff.

They drive towards the place of business to see a modern winery on the hill painted orange (earthy) and see the doors and window trim (bright green) as perverse tints of the surrounding landscape.

The winery in its different levels occupies 9000 square metres, with the cellar door section morphing into a huge flat roof top. Part of this is used for the grape preparation, under the cover of umbrellas, the hand harvested grapes are drawn up to the roof top to be berry sorted, then dropped by gravity through the roof into fermenters below.

Piano designed this winery to have few windows, preferring on a central light source originating from the roof and making its focal point the floor of the barrel room. This could be an ampitheatre but each shelf is occupied by barrels.

As winemaker, Florentine-born Massimo Cassegrande, notes “this is the eyes of the wine”. The large cellar is kept partly dark, naturally holding 14-15 oC in winter, stretching to 19-20 oC in summer without any environment control.

The 2007 wines from the property were reviewed last July 16; but I was fortunate to try the 2006 release not previously sold in Australia.

The entry, unwooded wine is Poggio alla Guardia, here tasted was 2008 (90), 14%, a fruity, generous wine, expressive in its main component of merlot (45%), then cabernet (40%), a touch of petit verdot and the rest sangiovese. Though it’s looked down on as a basic wine, it has full personality for accessible drinking and loads of ripe varietal character (leaf and black fruits).

The next level, Le Sughere di Frassinello 2006 (92), 13.5%, is strong on the nose, oak cedar, no traditional fast-aging sangiovese notes, fruit sweet then long and well woven tannins from 50% sangiovese, 25% each of merlot and cabernet. New oak use is 30%.

Rocca di Frassinello 2006 (94), 13.5%, is a wine driven by its concentration, then around that comes the longer 100% new oak aging, so that the plump fruit takes on a chocolate and mocha coffee aroma, stretching to a drying, weighty palate (60% sangiovese, 20% each of merlot and cabernet).

The 2007 has been modified to more sangiovese, 65%, 20% cabernet for backbone, 10% merlot and 5% syrah.

The 2007 Baffonero was retasted: this is very ripe, 13.5%, very deep coloured, supple and fruit sweet.

On ageworthiness Massimo says “my opinion is that Poggio alla Guardia, it’s a bottle that can live at least five years from the release, Le Sughere di Frassinello from ten to twelve years, Rocca di Frassinello and Baffonero, probably, twenty or more years.” So we start the wait.

I came away with a quaint Italian descriptive phrase for wine with obvious elevated volatile acidity caused by extended oak aging. It’s the “balsamic effect”.

Like the latest
wine & travel news

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.