Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio 1962-2017


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 bottles.

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 exceptional.

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 surrounding vineyards.

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.

Proprietor Laura 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 designation.

Castello di Monsanto’s extensive collection of older vintages is stunning for both its depth and uniqueness.

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 wine.

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