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Vertical Tasting of Castello di Ama's Chianti Classico Vigneto BellavistaAma is a Chianti estate whose wines, though expensive, rank among the best not just in Chianti but the world. Known today as Castello di Ama (I remember well when back in the '70s and '80s everyone referred to it with a more humble Fattoria di Ama), it has been around for some time; in fact, its existence has been documented back to 998 A.D.
Quality winemaking on the premises is a more recent event, as the real leap into wine stardom occurred only with the arrival of Lorenza Sebasti (one of Ama's owners) and winemaker Marco Pallanti. This now wife-and-husband team has been running Ama with talent and flair for more than 25 vintages. Until recently, Pallanti was also the acting President of the Chianti Classico Consortium.
The estate owns 90 hectares of vines averaging roughly 30 years of age, most of which are planted between 300 to 500 meters above sea level. Located in the hamlet of Lecchi, in Gaiole in Chianti, one of the three historic towns where Chianti was born (along with Radda in Chianti and Castellina in Chianti), Ama benefits from one of the true grand cru areas of all of Chianti Classico.
Perhaps the single most important contribution made by Sebasti and Pallanti over the years, not just to Ama but to Chianti Classico in general, has been the relentless promotion of Chianti Classico as a great wine in its own right. I remember the guffaws and smirks of those in attendance at a wine tasting in Rome in 1985 when Lorenza Sebasti said she strongly believed that Chianti had little to envy in the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley. Bewildered looks and scornful comments were also plentiful when it came to the high prices Ama asked for its wines. "I have always felt sangiovese was one of the world's great grape varieties," Sebasti told me in a wine tasting many years ago, "but it was hampered, even diminished, by shoddy winemaking and a lack of ambition on the part of many producers. I believed it could and should have been so much more. For this reason, at Ama we did not produce a Supertuscan wine containing sangiovese, preferring to reserve all of our best sangiovese grapes for our Chianti Classico." (As a sign of the continuing progress and evolution of Ama's wines and understanding of its terroir, only recently did Ama finally begin to produce a sangiovese Supertuscan wine, called Haiku.)
Another contrarian view held by Sebasti and Pallanti, at least for those times, was that Chianti, despite the presence of large estates owned by noble families, actually had more in common with Burgundy than Bordeaux, because they feel that sangiovese has a lot more in common with pinot noir (site-sensitivity, a medium red color due to relatively low anthocyanin concentration, and a medium rather than full body) than it does with the cabernets and merlots of the world.
The desire to produce world-class Chianti and the idea that sangiovese could express site specificity as clearly as nebbiolo or pinot noir motivated Pallanti to carry out a zonation study of Ama's terroir (not a common practice in Italy's wine scene in the '80s), in order to identify single plots that might produce different and better sangiovese wines. With the information obtained through this study, and with the belief that sangiovese and pinot noir shared similar characteristics, the logical next step was to create a single-vineyard Chianti. Thus, beginning with the 1978 vintage (when the Chianti Classico Vigneto Bellavista was born), four different single-vineyard or cru bottlings were produced at Ama. The Bellavista was followed by the Vigneto San Lorenzo (first made in 1982), Vigneto La Casuccia (1985) and Vigneto Bertinga (1988).
While the regular Chianti is certainly an excellent wine (though in my view, with its sometimes generous dollop of merlot and aromas and flavors more reminiscent of pinot noir it's hardly a traditional Chianti), there is no doubt that the La Casuccia and Bellavista are two of Italy's best red wines. La Casuccia is roughly 90% sangiovese and 10% merlot, while Bellavista is typically 80% sangiovese and 20% malvasia nera, depending on the vintage. Earlier vintages also had a little canaiolo nero included in the blend, so beware the many inaccurate reports that blindly state that this wine is always 80% sangiovese and 20% malvasia nera.
In my opinion, the top star here is the Vigneto Bellavista, the oldest cru wine made at Ama: it speaks more of Chianti's terroir than does La Casuccia, whose merlot presence can dominate in many vintages. On the contrary, Bellavista benefits from the magical synergy that happens between sangiovese and malvasia nera (something that is also true of canaiolo nero and sangiovese.) This is because neither canaiolo nero nor malvasia nera overwhelms the delicate aromas and flavors of sangiovese but rather complement them, something that rarely happens, despite what you may read or hear elsewhere, with the more brutal, forceful cabernets and merlot. In contrast to canaiolo nero, malvasia nera adds an aromatic, spicy/herbal note to sangiovese. Malvasia nera's synergy with sangiovese is also exemplified by two other truly great Tuscan wines, Castellare's I Sodi di San Niccolò and Capannelle's Solare.
The Bellavista vineyard consists of roughly 23 hectares (or about 56 acres), with southeast and southwest exposures. The soil is the poor, friable galestro typical of Chianti Classico, where the best sangiovese are made, and the vines were planted between 1967 and 1975 at an altitude ranging from 456 meters above sea level (in the Campinuovi area) to 530 meters (in the Bellaria portion.) The winemaking has not changed a great deal over the years, though with the 1982 vintage small oak barrels were introduced, and gradually the very large traditional oak casks were phased out.
As for the wine, the Vigneto Bellavista is a standout Chianti Classico, amazingly elegant and perfumed in the better vintages, but not made every year. Its silky tannins and its very pure aromas and flavors, which in some vintages bear more than a passing resemblance to pinot noir (witness the standout 1988), make it an often compelling and distinctive Chianti Classico. Besides the presence of the malvasia nera, Bellavista is also characterized by the high acidity and refinement that come from the higher altitude at which the grapes grow--not to mention the much cooler microclimate than that of most other Chiantis.
When all is said and done, the extent to which Sebaste and Pallanti have succeeded in fullfilling their vision for the Chianti Classico of Ama is borne out by the high prices and critical acclaim achieved by their wines all over the world. The wines for this report came from my personal cellar and were tasted in November of 2012 in Rome; I also had the opportunity to taste most of the same vintages on two occasions in Rome in 2011, from samples provided by the estate. Marco Pallanti was present at the first tasting, and I thank him for providing background data on the estate and the wines. My scores and tasting notes are from the 2012 tasting, although results were quite similar in all three tastings. In my notes, I have pointed out a few instances where I found noticeable differences between the various bottles tasted. Readers may notice that the range of scores for these wines is rather small; to some extent, this is due to Ama's uncanny ability to excel in lesser vintages.
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