Vertical Tasting of Castello di Monsanto's Chianti Classico Il Poggio Riserva

Located high in the hills of Barberino Val d'Elsa in Chianti Classico, the splendid villa of Monsanto dominates the valley below.  Monsanto ("my saint") was named in honor of Saint Ruffiniano, who died here in 998 B.C., along with 150 other people involved in a battle.

Castello di Monsanto is widely considered one of the top dozen Chianti Classico estates of today, especially if its top wine, the Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio, is mentioned.  Like many other famous Italian wine estates, Monsanto's fame is only relatively recent; it was barely known prior to the 1960s.  Originally, Monsanto wasn't even Monsanto:  it was known as the Palloni estate, which belonged to two sisters who did not get along and had carved the property into two.

Then came Aldo Bianchi.  While visiting the area one day in the late 1950s, he fell in love with the natural beauty of the place (he wasn't mistaken:  I strongly recommend a visit to what is one of Italy's top 10 or 20 most beautiful wine estates) and bought the first half of the Palloni estate in 1961.  He and son Fabrizio were able to acquire the remaining half in 1965, changing the estate's name in the process to the one that has become world-famous.  It is noteworthy that many of Castello di Monsanto's most famous vineyards such as Il Poggio, La Chiesa and Sornano had already been planted at the time, and so this is one wine estate in Italy that has been able to rely on old vines through the years.  Replanting began, one small parcel at a time, in 1963 and 1964; Il Poggio proved particularly difficult in this respect, as dynamite was needed to blow up the extremely hard rock subsoil in order to allow the vines's roots to penetrate deeper.

In the beginning, Fabrizio, a true gentleman farmer with a vision and discipline that few shared, limited himself to making small batches of artisanal wines with his uncle; 1962 was their first vintage.  However, Fabrizio's natural curiosity and quest to make the best possible wines led him to try many different experiments in winemaking, and so by 1967 he had already experimented with longer, hotter macerations, eliminated the stalks (essentially unheard of in Italy back then) and, even more courageously, jettisoned all white grapes from his Chianti blend, which at the time was an illegal practice.  In terms of his viticulture, he was also one of the first to change over to a mono-variety agriculture, one in which vines were grown in specific vineyards and not amid corn fields, olive trees and other crops.

Fabrizio's daughter Laura came to work full-time on the estate in 1989.  After having completed law studies and spending a brief period in that world, she decided that home was where her heart was.  "My first harvest, 1989, was a horrible one; I wanted to cry every day," she recalled.  "Fortunately, this vintage was followed up by the magical 1990; if not, who knows, I might have run away from Monsanto again."  Since 2000 she has been running the estate full-time, although Fabrizio is on hand to help out.  In 2000, a full-time winemaker--Andrea Giovannini, previously at Ornellaia--was also brought on board.

Although Castello di Monsanto is known for many different wines, it is the Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio that has made this estate's reputation.  This very ageworthy, silky yet powerful wine is from a true cru, five hectares of vines with many different exposures; the vines are planted parallel to the side of the hill, at an altitude between 280 and 320 meters on very poor, friable galestro soil.  The modern-day Il Poggio wine, made without the inclusion of white grapes and using more modern winemaking practices and a percentage of grapes from the newer plantings, was born in 1968.  However, I have been following this wine since I first got the wine bug, and I can guarantee that the more old-fashioned wines made prior to '68 can be exceptional when kept in a good cellar, including the 1962. I point out that the Riserva Il Poggio (as well as Monsanto's non single-vineyard Chianti Classico Riserva) are always fairly shut down when young, and really need five to eight years of bottle age to begin showing all they have to offer.

The wines reported on in this article were tasted on three different occasions in Rome during the last two years, in February and June of 2011 and again in late November of 2012 at my home. The wines for the first two tastings came directly from the estate and were tasted in the presence of Laura Bianchi.  The most recent tasting featured bottles from my own private cellar, which I purchased shortly after release--and not from auctions, overseas venues or wine stores with dubious storage facilities.  I was able to include a few more vintages that I did not have the chance to try in the other two tastings. The tasting notes below refer to the November 2012 tasting, but I'd like to emphasize how remarkably consistent my notes and scores were in all three tastings.