Castello di Monsanto Chianti
Classico Riserva Il Poggio 1962-2017
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | APRIL 04, 2023
Castello di Monsanto’s Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio forever
changed the history of Chianti Classico as a region and wine. Consistency, a
fervent belief in Sangiovese blended with a touch of indigenous red varieties,
and a remarkable track record going back several decades have elevated Il
Poggio to what is today – one of Italy’s most iconic wines. This unforgettable vertical
back to the inaugural 1962 vintage provided myriad insights into the history of
the estate and the evolution of the wine over the last five decades.
I was fortunate to be exposed to the wines of Chianti
Classico pretty early on. Because of that, it did not take me long to start to
understand that Chianti Classico was an exceptional appellation for fine, age-worthy
wines, perhaps even more notable than some of its more famous neighbors. That interest
led me to taste verticals of many, if not most, of the Chianti Classico
reference points, starting well before Chianti Classico became the fashionable
region it is today. Readers will find all of those notes in our database. One
wine remained elusive. Monsanto’s Il Poggio. It’s not that I didn’t want to do
a retrospective, but rather that I wanted something to look forward to.
An incredible flight
of Il Poggios from the 1960s.
This vertical, held at the estate last summer, provided an
unparalleled opportunity to raid Monsanto’s cellar and essentially taste every
vintage remaining at the property. I was thrilled to be joined by my esteemed
colleague, Alessandro Masnaghetti, for this extraordinary voyage through time. It
was just the two of us, and the team led Laura Bianchi, Castello di Monsanto’s
dashing proprietor and one of the great ambassadors for Chianti Classico. The
wines were served in flights at a leisurely pace over several hours, which
provided ample opportunity to revisit them, and also replace any suspect
All the wines were sourced directly from the Castello’s
ample cellar, a vast network of tunnels that require six years of work to
complete. While we are on that subject, let me just say that maintaining a
library is a prerequisite for any winery that wishes to consider itself elite. Cellaring
older wines presents an opportunity to learn from the past, it is a sign of
respect for current work, and it is also an investment for future generations
to be able to glean insights from the past. Sadly, very few estates in Italy
share this view, but that just makes Castello di Monsanto all the more
Castello di Monsanto’s
cellars, carved out of galestro, were built over six years.
This tasting encompasses nearly every vintage of Il Poggio
made, with the exception of the 1973, 1979, 1986, 1993 and 1994. Monsanto did not
bottle Il Poggio in 1963, 1965, 1976, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2002 or 2005. As a quick note,
all wines older than 1977 were served from bottles that had been reconditioned
and recorked, a measure often required to ensure wines aren’t spoiled by the
natural degradation of cork over many decades.
Gazing westward from
Il Poggio. On a clear day, the Tuscan coast is visible.
From San Gimignano to Milano and Back to the Roots
Castello di Monsanto is located in Barberino Val d’Elsa, in
the northern sector of Chianti Classico, a very specific part of the
appellation where the wines are naturally more lithe and elegant than the
richer wines found in Chianti Classico’s southern districts. Neighboring
estates include Isole e Olena and Castello di Paneretta.
The property as it exists today was founded by Laura
Bianchi’s grandparents, Aldo and Anna Bianchi. Aldo Bianchi was born into a
poor, humble family in nearby San Gimignano, the Medieval Tuscan town made
famous by its towers. Like many young people in post-World War II Italy,
Bianchi left the bleak economic wasteland of the countryside in search for a
better life in Italy’s fast-growing cities. Bianchi achieved notable prosperity
in the exploding textiles sector, but his dream was to one day own a property
closer to his roots. Bianchi’s wife, Anna, was from a winemaking family in
Piedmont’s Tortona region and had wine in her blood. The Bianchis visited
Castello di Monsanto and were charmed by its castle, landscape and stunning
views of San Gimignano.
Castello di Monsanto’s
impeccably maintained grounds.
At the time, the Castello di Monsanto and its surrounding
property were owned by two sisters. The Bianchis bought half of the land and
castle from one of the sisters in 1961 and undertook a major project to restore
the property and its many buildings. The second sister passed away a year later.
Having no heirs, she bequeathed her part of the estate to the Florence church.
In 1964, Aldo and Anna Bianchi gifted Castello di Monsanto to their son,
Fabrizio, and his new bride, Giuliana, as a wedding gift. The Bianchis were
able to buy the second half of the property from the church that year,
reuniting the entirety of the estate and castle under their sole ownership.
At the time there
were just 7 hectares of vineyards, 2.5 at Il Poggio and another 4.5 spread
across the various poderi, or
micro-estates managed by the mezzadri,
the sharecropping families that had once lived on the property. The Bianchis
planted another 20 hectares of vineyards in the 1970s and continued expanding. A
neighboring 30-hectare parcel was added in the 1990s. Today, Monsanto spans a
total of 210 hectares, of which 130 are forest, 70 are vineyards, with the
remainder dedicated to olives and other crops.
The Vin Santaia offers
a window into the past and traditional methods of aging for Vin Santo, Chianti
Classico’s famous sweet wine.
Aldo Bianchi commuted between Milan and Tuscany, but the
center of his professional life revolved around his textile business, and he
had no real interest in agriculture. Anna Bianchi had more of a natural leaning
toward wine because of her family’s background. She essentially ran Castello di
Monsanto with their son, Fabrizio, who was only 25 when his parents bought
Monsanto. Fabrizio Bianchi had been exposed to viticulture and wine as a young child
visiting his Piedmontese relatives and had a natural inclination to work with
his mother at the Tuscan estate.
Il Poggio and
The Birth of Modern Chianti Classico
Fruit from Il Poggio that first harvest was so exceptional
that the Bianchis decided to bottle it separately, giving birth to Chianti
Classico’s first single-vineyard wine. It was just the beginning. The year was
1968. That was the year everything changed at Monsanto, and one could say in
Chianti Classico as well. Fabrizio Bianchi was convinced the future for Chianti
Classico was as a wine that only used red grapes, whereas, at the time, the disciplinare required the use of white varieties.
In 1968, Bianchi made the first Chianti
Classico using only red grapes, an illegal wine at the time, setting the stage
for many wines that would follow. He also abandoned stems in fermentation and Governo Toscano, as detailed below.
Bianchi (center), flanked by Head of Sales - Italy, Francesco Guazzugli Marini
(left) and Winemaker Andrea Giovannini (right).
The Current Generation
Laura Bianchi is one of three siblings; her sister is not involved in the wine business, while her brother passed away a few years ago. Bianchi grew up in Milan, where she attended university and later law school. Summers were spent at the family estate in Tuscany, but she swore she would never work with her father. Eight months in a law office in Siena was all it took to understand that her interests lay elsewhere. That was 1989. Since then, Laura Bianchi has taken the work of her grandmother and father to the next level. Her love for this property is palpable as we tour the estate. The castle, the vineyards, the forests and the Vin Santaia, where Chianti Classico’s famous dessert wine is allowed to age for years in sealed barrels in totally natural conditions.
This vineyard map of Castello di Monsanto from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s book Chianti Classico: The Complete Atlas of UGA Vineyards highlights key sites and the parcels within Il Poggio. Masnaghetti’s book is available to US readers through the Rare Wine Co. and to readers from all other countries through Enogea.
Il Poggio – A Special Place and Wine
Il Poggio is a very distinctive hillside vineyard – the sort
of site Italians colorfully refer to as a panettone
– that is planted on all four sides. Two hectares were added in 1975, and
another hectare was developed in 2001, when the terraces were rebuilt, bringing
the total size of Il Poggio to approximately 5.5 hectares. It is magical and
evocative. On a clear day, the naked eye can see all the way to the Tuscan
coast from the stone platform that forms the visual center of the vineyard. Il
Poggio is almost exclusively Sangiovese, with bits of interplanted Canaiolo and
Colorino, the tradition in Chianti Classico. Terrain is the white/gray porous
rock known as galestro that is
typical of Chianti Classico.
The cask room at
Castello di Monsanto.
Farming & Winemaking
Sangiovese is harvested and co-fermented with the Canaiolo
in three picks that take about a week. Colorino, which ripens later, is crushed on its own prior to being blended into the Sangiovese/Canaiolo
shortly after fermentation. Time on the skins is 20-22 days in stainless steel tanks. Typically Castello di Monsanto produces three lots
from Il Poggio. Those lots are evaluated to see which ones are suitable for Il
Poggio bottling. In vintages where some of the wine is not deemed of high
enough quality, it is blended into the Riserva, which, incidentally, is one of
the very best values in all of Italy.
The first vintages were made with decidedly rustic means. It
was very early days in Chianti Classico. The disciplinare, the set of criteria wines had to meet to be
considered Chianti Classico, required the use of white grapes alongside
Sangiovese. White varieties (up to 30%) were required until 1984 and were
eliminated from the disciplinare
entirely in 1996. It is my belief that white grapes will one day be used in
Chianti Classico again. In the 1960s and 1970s, grapes were farmed for high
yields, so of course, white grapes were dilutive, literally and figuratively.
Today, farming is much improved, while the challenges of climate change suggest
a touch of freshness from white varieties might be welcome if not needed. But
that is a story for another day.
Back to Monsanto. There was no destemming, bunches were
fermented with whole clusters, stems, jacks and all. Ripeness was hard to come
by, so the wines got an extra dose of concentration with the addition of
clusters left to overripen on the vine after harvest. These bunches were picked
around December and then added to the fermenting musts in order to add
richness, depth and concentration, a method known as “Governo Toscano.”
Early vintages spent three to three and half years in 50HL chestnut botti, as was typical of the time. Fabrizio
Bianchi began transitioning to 50 and 50HL Slavonian oak botti in 1971. French oak was introduced in part in 1990. Il Poggio
was aged in French oak barriques from 1995 through 2001, the year winemaker
Andrea Giovannini arrived from Tenuta dell’Ornellaia. Two thousand three saw the
gradual move towards larger format oak. French oak tonneaux were used from 2003 through 2013. Starting in 2014,
Monsanto returned to botti, specifically
38HL French oak casks. Time in wood is now eighteen months. Il Poggio has
always been a single-vineyard Chianti Classico Riserva. Beginning with the 2014
vintage, it became a Gran Selezione with the introduction of that new
Castello di Monsanto’s
extensive collection of older vintages is stunning for both its depth and
Chianti Classico Vintages – Then & Today
This tasting was full of highlights. Certainly the last
decade has been especially brilliant. I imagine that is a combination of
generally favorable seasons and experiences accumulated over long periods of
time. The 2016, 2013 and 2010 are all brilliant, while the 2014 is an
unexpected surprise. In the 2000s, the standouts are the 2001, 2006 and 2008.
There seems to be less brilliance in the 1990s. Perhaps the vintages themselves
weren’t so strong, but I suspect the more pushed style of winemaking that was
in vogue at the time has some influence as well. Going further back, the
condition of bottles becomes paramount, but all the usual suspects showed well.
The truly great vintages are fewer, largely because exceptional growing seasons
were the exception and not the rule. Some of the older wines showed rough
contours and rustic brett and botrytis notes typical of this era, a time when
farming and winemaking were done with far less sophisticated means than they
are today. I was especially struck by the 1980 and 1966, wines from two nearly
forgotten vintages that were simply exquisite.
One of the most fascinating aspects of a vertical such as
this one is considering how much ideas have evolved with regard to what makes a
‘great’ vintage. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when fruit struggled to ripen,
dry, warm conditions were greatly welcomed. Hot years were often considered
great years. It was not until the 2000s, when seasons started to become
unrelentingly hot, that the idea of optimal conditions shifted to seasons with
more balanced, if not cool, weather. In the present day, with climate change
seemingly accelerating, owners and growers far prefer cooler vintages.
Perhaps the most important signature of Il Poggio for
readers to keep in mind is that it is deceptively potent, slow to mature
Chianti Classico. This tasting proved that time and time again. Il Poggio
really starts to shine around age ten. In some vintages, the wine can of course,
be enjoyed earlier, but the magic really only develops in bottle. For the
consumer, Il Poggio remains one of the very best relative values in fine, age-worthy
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