[This article was first printed in the latest Summer/Autumn newsletter for my workplace. I have adjusted it to be a little more casual for LDdV.]
Castello di Ama is a unique place, a fusion of art and vines, located in the heart of the historical zone of Chianti Classico in Gaiole. The 90 hectares of vineyards sit high up in the quiet hamlet of Ama, surrounded by rolling hills of calcareous soil full of shale and large rocks. This land is what defines the Castello di Ama terroir and makes it such an inimitable landscape for vines. The property is run by Lorenza Sebasti and her highly skilled winemaking husband and former President of the local consorzio, Marco Pallanti. Together they are ambassadors for the great wines of Chianti Classico.
My workplace, Enoteca Sileno, has been representing Castello di Ama in Australia for thirty years. Despite this long-standing relationship, it was only in October that we had the opportunity to host Lorenza Sebasti in Australia for the very first time. This would be my first experience of working directly with a wine producer during their visit. Suffice to say I was a wee bit excited.
While her husband Marco Pallanti was in San Francisco for a Wine Spectator event, Lorenza headed in the other direction to Australia for an “official” launch of their newest wine Haiku, an exciting red blend of Sangiovese with Cabernet Franc and Merlot from their Montebuoni vineyard.
On her first day in Melbourne, Lorenza was helped over her jetlag with some delicious dishes prepared by Enoteca’s head chef who paired the food to accompany the Castello di Ama wines. This coincided with her meeting two friends of mine and Australia’s leading wine writers, Jane Faulkner and Nick Stock, and having a nice relaxing chat.
Over the few days she had in Melbourne, Lorenza hosted an exclusive retail event with John Portelli and a room full of wine-loving Enoteca customers, an industry master class with a group of local restaurateurs and sommeliers, and got to visit some of our best Italian restaurants like Sosta Cucina and Il Bacaro. The first burst of Melbourne sunshine saw Lorenza take the opportunity to visit the Yarra Valley, where she raved about the quality of our Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
For the past twelve years, Lorenza and Marco have invested a lot of energy and money into their passion for art, creating a constantly-expanding permanent art collection at the estate. Each year they host an artist to take inspiration from Castello di Ama and build an installation. This exhibition has built a world-wide reputation, housing the work of artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Daniel Buren, Kendell Geers, Anish Kapoor and the late Louise Bourgeois.
It was extremely fortuitous that Lorenza found herself in Sydney during the week of Sculpture by the Sea. We received a personal tour conducted with the Director, David Handley, who had coincidentally visited the Castello di Ama property and its art collection only a week prior.
Stefano Manfredi’s latest restaurant Balla was selected as the location for a special lunch with many of Sydney’s most important sommeliers and wine writer Huon Hooke, who enjoyed a selection of current and past vintages of Castello di Ama’s outstanding crus.
The remainder of Lorenza’s time in Sydney saw her visit many of the other important Italian establishments, such as Pilu at Freshwater, Pendolino, The Ivy, and a timely meeting with Sydney restaurant legend, Armando Percuoco of Buon Riccordo, where the discussion naturally developed into their mutual passion for art and sculpture. It was beautiful to watch.
Our female bonding time would not have been complete without a small bout of shopping. This was completed successfully with Lorenza generously purchasing herself an outfit and me a gift of a beaded flower by my favourite Australian designer, Akira Isogawa.
For Lorenza, Castello di Ama has been a labour of love. She has been part of its core since its inception in 1972, as the daughter of one of four families who jointly purchased the property. This young girl from Rome would visit the estate each year to immerse herself in its beauty. As a young viticulturist, Marco began running the vineyards and winery in 1982, having now spent most of his 30-year career on this small piece of land in southern Chianti. Lorenza joined Marco in 1988 to take over administration and they married in 1992. Circumstances in the 1990s put them in a position where they had to decide whether to take over the winery as co-owners or walk away. Fortunately for all of us, they stayed.
As Lorenza’s first trip to Australia, I wasn’t the only one left with an insatiable thirst for more of Castello di Ama’s terroir-driven wines. I thank Lorenza for spending time down in Australia and opening my eyes to the culture, beauty and inspiring wines that are coming from the Castello di Ama estate and the Chianti Classico area.
The Rosato 2011 (Italian for Rosé) is made using the saignee process of bleeding the juice from the fresh Chianti Classico juice. This achieves a pale colour from the small amount of time on skins. It has aromas of sour cherry, wild strawberries and roses with an outstanding refreshing base of minerally acidity.
Il Chiuso 2010 is the name of the vineyard and this wine, which is made up of 60% Sangiovese and 40% Pinot Nero. Lorenza noted that Il Chiuso is made as a simpler wine compared to their Chianti Classico. She notes that, “A simple wine is not easy. A simple wine is about soft tannins. A simple wine is about finesse. A simple wine is about terroir.” It has a flavour profile of cherry and blueberry fruits with fresh alpine scents. With delicate caressing tannins, Il Chiuso could even suit the warmer weather when served chilled to 14°C to accentuate its delicious, crunchy acidity.
2009 is the inaugural vintage of Haiku, a wine that was born from the Montebuoni vineyard after planting some Cabernet Franc in 1997. The blend is made up of 50% Sangiovese and the remaining 50% of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Some may call this wine a Super Tuscan due to its unconventional blend. However Lorenza is quick to remove that tag ever since she observed the trend of producers making wines that were more ‘Super’ and less ‘Tuscan’ in order to please the point-scoring journalists. It is for this reason that she prefers to call her wine a Super Ama.
A Haiku is a three-lined poem used traditionally in Japan which expresses the maximum degree of emotion through the highest form of formal intellectualism. The intention behind the name is that the three varieties in the blend represent one of the three lines in the poem, which speaks of its season and nature. It is an important wine, beautiful in its youth with aromas of tobacco, dried rhubarb, raspberry jam and a rich but mild palate that shows lots of depth and lifted acidity.
The Chianti Classico is the flagship wine for the Castello di Ama estate made from a blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Malvasia Nera, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Each year the vineyard parcels are vinified separately with the blend creating a palate with more colours.
The more recent 2008 Chianti Classico shows classic sour cherry aromas alongside briary, red berry notes and delicate spices with a crunchy almond biscuit finish. The 2007 comes from a hallmark vintage and holds an incredible density and depth with velvety texture and opulent ‘Marilyn Monroe’ buxom tannins. It has excellent minerality and a long, brooding black cherry spice finish.
Each year before harvest, winemaker Marco assesses the grapes and poses the question to Lorenza, “Shall I be able to make the wine this year? Will it be an improvement on previous years?”
When the conditions are not up to Marco’s exacting standards, he will admit, “I don’t think we will taste the crus this year.” In these instances, the fruit for the crus goes into the standard Chianti Classico. In the last twelve years there have only been five vintages considered to be of acceptable quality for the crus: the 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2007 with the 2011 vintage not currently released. These are important wines of the highest quality that best showcase the expression of the Castello di Ama land.
The first vintage for the outstanding Bellavista Chianti Classico was 1978. The wine has been a blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Malvasia Nera since its inception as these were the grapevines already planted together. The 2007 is a shining example of what can be achieved in the Chianti Classico zone. Lorenza always says that “you have to swim in Bellavista” because of its depth in its complex nose of cranberry, sour cherry, clove and blood plum, and its palate of the finest silt-like tannins, spice, sage and almond skin phenolics.
La Casuccia is the name of Castello di Ama’s oldest vineyard, having been planted during 1964 to 1975. The blend for this Chianti Classico cru is 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot. This high altitude plot (520masl) reveals cool poised fruit with great depth and international appeal. The 2007 La Casuccia opens with sour cherry fruits and violets before deepening to Asian spices, tobacco and enveloping velvety texture.
Castello di Ama’s L’Apparita Merlot became world famous when the 1987 vintage won a competition in Zurich against the 1988 Petrus in 1991. Since then, the L’Apparita vineyard has continued to impress, even to Lorenza, who once admitted to not being a particular fan of Merlot in general, but has since become enamoured with the terroir of Ama and the refinement seen in its Merlot fruit.
The L’Apparita vineyard is situated at the upper end of the Bellavista vineyard. Originally planted to Canaiolo and Malvasia bianca grapes back in 1975, winemaker Marco decided to graft the vines over to Merlot in the mid 80’s as he realised the rich, clay soils and the cool sites of the Ama estate would be suitable for the Merlot vine. The 2007 L’Apparita is an impressive wine with cool wild berry and black fruits, flowers, sage, red and black spice, with excellent acidity and a warm, chocolatey finish.
There will always be a place for beautiful Vin Santo (Holy Wine). It must be true as Australia continues to be Castello di Ama’s largest market for this dessert wine. Vin Santo has its roots in antiquity and is still made today by drying the best Malvasia Bianca and Trebbiano clusters in chains that dangle down like a curtain. Over two months the grapes lose 70% of their weight and concentrate the components. After the grapes are crushed, the sweet nectar is left in topped up Allier oak barriques for five years. With time the result is an incredibly refined and beautiful, rich nectar with quintessential aromas of fresh apricot, candied citrus, almond and a steely backbone of acidity. Try it with cantuccini, sweet desserts and pastries.
For more background information on Castello di Ama and the wines, you can read a booklet I created for her events by clicking here.