Gnocchi with girolles, chanterelles and black truffle paired with the 2011 vintage of Castello di Fonterutoli's super-Tuscan Siepi, at a dinner hosted by Giovanni Mazzei at The Petersham restaurant in London
The text of this article was first published in The World of Fine Wine issue 64
The first person I met at the Siepi winemaker dinner at The Petersham restaurant in London’s Covent Garden was an engagingly conversational Jermyn Street shirtmaker. He didn’t say whether he counts royalty among his customers but did tell me for whom, among what might pass as wine-trade royalty, he makes shirts. Discretion stops me from naming two high-profile members of the press and the distinguished MW with whose measurements he is intimately familiar, but you may wish to speculate – or observe at the next smart press and trade tasting who wears handmade shirts. Meanwhile I’ll get on with the business of the evening, though business is hardly the word for so gastronomic an experience.
The dinner was hosted by Giovanni Mazzei, 34-year-old 25th generation marquis of Castello di Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico and currently the global export manager as well as the founder of Petersham Cellar, the online retailer of high-end Italian wines whose club members were among the diners. For those who don’t know the connection, Giovanni is married to Lara Boglione, managing director of Petersham Nurseries (and daughter of the founder-owners). They make something of a dream team – young, glamorous, informal, although clearly Giovanni can turn on the formality when required. He says he has never seen his 94-year-old grandfather, Fonterutoli’s still-active chairman Marquis Lapo Mazzei, without a tie, and jackets are always worn at meals. Giovanni spends about a third of his time at Fonterutoli (the rest divided between London and travelling) and the family – his father and uncle are joint managing directors – lunches together at their grandfather’s table. Very often there are guests, “such as ambassadors”, and his grandfather introduces a suitable subject of conversation: neither business nor food are deemed appropriate, although Giovanni, who likes the formality, assures me you do eat well.
On with the dinner and, first, an introduction to Siepi. The 14-hectare vineyard is in the northwest of the estate lying at between 250 and 330 metres, facing south and southwest. It was mentioned in a document as far back as 1435, as one of Madonna Smeralda Mazzei’s properties, but it was another five and a half centuries before it gave birth to the first vintage, 1992, of Castello di Fonterutoli’s IGT Toscana, Siepi.
An early adopter of Merlot
It was one of the early super-Tuscans and one of the first to include Merlot, Lapo Mazzei having planted Merlot in the early eighties, when Chianti Classico’s viticulture was in transition and nurseries had started selling Bordeaux varieties. The velvety dark fruit and chocolate of Merlot looked a promising complement for the energy and savoury character of Sangiovese – and so it proved to be. The soils were promising for Merlot too: marly limestone and calcareous sandstone, often quite rich in clay. There is still one of the original 35-year-old Merlot plots, the rest having been replanted, along with the Sangiovese that makes up the other 50 percent of the Siepi blend.
Thanks to a programme of massal selection, underway since the mid-1990s, there are now 20 clones of Sangiovese extending across the 14 Siepi plots and six of the 20 are exclusive to the Mazzei family. This exclusivity is one of the things Giovanni believes gives the wine its individuality and quality. They select the best grapes of both varieties from 6 hectares (there is a core of these mostly at 240–250m asl) to make the 35,000 bottles of Siepi – although not every year: none was made in the exceptionally hot 2009 vintage nor in the much cooler 2014. Half the annual production is now sold on the Bordeaux Place.
One of the best things I ate in 2018: venison tartare with 82% Cacao, Zisola almonds (from the Mazzei family's Zisola estate in Sicily) and wood sorrel, paired with Siepi 2008; 45-day Hereford beef sirloin cooked over coals with Pied de Mouton, celeriac and parsley root, paired with Siepi 2015
As for winemaking, the cellarmaster is Gionata Pulignani, who came as “a very young, very talented” agronomist in 2001. Giovanni Mazzei, who “loves the winemaking” side, is also involved, especially with the tasting. The 14 plots are vinified separately and they do microvinifications, enabling them to “do a bit of everything”, for example, some indigenous yeast fermentations. The constants include vinifying and ageing the two varieties separately (both, since 2010, for 18 months in 70% new barriques) then blending the wine in concrete and resting it in concrete for four more months before bottling.
Giovanni also oversees and makes the wine decisions at Villa Marcello, his mother’s family’s large estate in Treviso. Villa Marcello Prosecco EGO Dosage Zero was the aperitif at the dinner and was an impressive wine. I do my duty when Prosecco turns up at tastings, but whenever I’m in danger of being served it to drink I always suddenly remember that I’m driving. I shan’t do that if offered the EGO Dosage Zero.
The aperitif was followed by six vintages of Siepi, served oldest to youngest, with a six-course menu prepared by Petersham Nurseries’ chef director Damian Clisby. The dishes were imaginative, sensitive and sympathetic, among them a venison tartare with cacao, almonds and wood sorrel that was one of the best things I ate in 2018. The vintages were a mix of the most highly ranked and those initially greeted with fewer accolades but which have revealed their class with time. If you don’t know it, I recommend The Petersham. It opened in 2017 as part of Petersham Nurseries’ new Covent Garden set-up that has a deli and wine merchant (Petersham Cellar), café (La Goccia), homewares shop (including antiques and one-offs) and florist.
Giovanni Mazzei, global export manager of the family's Castello di Fonterutoli, and his wife Lara Boglione, managing director of Petersham Nurseries; Siepi 2007
From a coolish, wet, modestly rated vintage, described by Giovanni Mazzei as “not much considered at the time”, this wine has blossomed into something strikingly silky and graceful. Its reassuringly deep colour heralds sultry, black cherryish fruit, sweetness, delicate plumpness and sustained freshness. Smoky balsamic, spicy and sweet herb notes add complexity to a palate bound by gossamer-fine tannins and acidity. Altogether complete and harmonious. It was served alongside the more powerful 2007 with appetisers of exceptional hand-cut San Daniele prosciutto (from Friuli, aged for 24 months), Delica pumpkin and sage, and chard bruschetta and this 2005 was the more companionable match. 94+
A warm, ripe, enthusiastically received vintage throughout most of Tuscany. Its ripeness shows here in the mouth-filling opulence, power and tannic presence and in ample, concentrated dark fruit, intense bitter-sweet chocolate base-notes, a thread of licorice, and broad-shouldered, fleshy tannins. It can be drunk with pleasure but is still very much evolving. On the food front, it would have no trouble accompanying a weighty, meaty or game dish and/or sauce. 93+
A cooler, smaller vintage in Tuscany, not greeted with any of the fanfare of 2007, but this is a lovely wine: fragrant, sweetly fruity, fresh, pure and resonant, with the same arresting silkiness as the 2005. It trades the chocolaty power and richness of the 2007 and the smoky balsamic mellowness of the 2005 for quiet intensity and complexity and compelling drinkability. It will take another decade in its stride and was partnered perfectly on this occasion by the venison tartare with 82% cacao, Zisola almonds and wood sorrel. (Zisola is the Mazzei wine, olive oil and almond estate in Noto, Sicily.) 94
A hot vintage and a great one for Sangiovese, according to Giovanni Mazzei. A rich, powerful wine but one with markedly fresh expression and energy. Deep chocolaty aromas and flavour, with a suggestion of savoury game underneath the gleaming black-fruit intensity and polished oak. Sustained by driving mineral freshness and a fine backbone of tannins. The umami hit of girolles, chanterelles and generous black truffle with gnocchi was just right – but, as with the 2007, it would be at ease with bigger, meatier dishes. 94
Hailed as one of Tuscany’s best vintages… only to be succeeded immediately by a vintage that many feel has eclipsed it. A majestic wine, one that wears its heart on its sleeve: brimming with aromas of violets, black cherry and mocha chocolate and with a monumental, foursquare structure. Yet, for all its extravagant fruit and flavour, it has a peppery vitality and a balance, not just ballast, of finely textured tannins. It doesn’t have the brightly dancing quality and fragrance of the 2016, but there’s no question of it being anything but very long-lived. I couldn’t fault the match with 45-day dry-aged Hereford beef sirloin cooked over coals with pied de mouton, celeriac and parsley root. (The other option was baked fillet of Cornish turbot with Jerusalem artichoke and sea beet.) 95
A wonderfully fragrant, expressive wine with a floral, fresh blackcurrant and spice perfume and a whisper of balsamic. The palate has a flowing sweet-fruited intensity and purity and a backbone of mineral freshness, but it’s supple and rounded at the same time with effortless tannins. There’s so much going on but quietly and gently; nothing shouts. It didn’t strain with the cheese course – Robiola, Gorgonzola dolce and Pecorino Sardo with lavosh (Middle Eastern crisp bread) and damson paste. I also tried both this and the 2015 with the dessert of Original Beans chocolate (a dense, smooth, fine cream) and Morello cherries and found the 2015 marginally better suited. 97
Photographs by Joanna Simon