Isole e Olena: A Classic Chianti Winemaker

A Chianti Classico from Isole e Olena winery, Tuscany
A Chianti Classico from Isole e Olena winery, Tuscany. Stefano Scata/Getty Images

In the late 1980 s, wine master  Rosemary George wrote an excellent book entitled Chianti and the Wines of Tuscany, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in Italian wines. When I first read it, I was struck by one fact: Whenever she touches on a thorny issue, for example the use of so-called "complementary grapes" (extra-Tuscan grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot, or whatever) to give Chianti a more international flavor, she invariably quotes Paolo de Marchi of Tuscany's venerable Isole e Olena vineyard.

While doing research for an itinerary in the Chianti Classico region, I met him and understood why. Paolo and his wife, Marta, are two of the kindest people I know; very open and quite willing to take the time to help people. He is also considered one of the top ten small wine producers in the world. His opinions are carefully thought out and make a great deal of sense. And yes, they have changed somewhat since he talked with Rosemary for her book.

At that time, Paolo was still intrigued by the prospect of using extra-Tuscan grapes to add polish and luster to Chianti Classico, and this requires a brief parenthesis. Though the region between Florence and Siena has always produced excellent wines, when Baron Bettino Ricasoli developed the formula for Chianti Classico in the 1850s he used mostly Sangiovese, Tuscany's great red grape, and some Canaiolo Toscano (another red grape, to temper the Sangiovese).

Though the wines were excellent and won medals, they required aging, so he also developed a more ready-to-drink wine that included Malvasia del Chianti, a white grape.

Unfortunately, the Commission that developed the DOC for the Chianti Classico region adopted the latter formula and forced producers to include white grapes in their wines; much of the wine produced according to the rules was poor, the image of Chianti suffered, and many of the better producers began to experiment with blends of Sangiovese and Cabernet or other foreign grape varieties - for example, Antinori developed Tignanello, a superb Sangiovese-Cabernet blend that is labeled Vino da Tavola (table wine, the lowest category) because it doesn't qualify for DOC status.

Soon everyone was experimenting with alternative wines along these lines, and many were also adding smaller percentages of Cabernet or Merlot to their Chianti Classico to give it a more international flavor. Paolo planted a vineyard of Cabernet, "in part because the land was good for Cabernet grapes, and in part because everyone else was doing it." He had originally thought to use the Cabernet to improve the body and color of his Chianti Classico, but then decided that the Cabernet would overpower the Sangiovese (he does have a point; many of the Chiantis that have Cabernet in them do have a distinctive hint of underbrush in their bouquets).

He finally decided that the ideal grape to compliment Sangiovese is Syrah, the noble French grape from the Rhone Valley, and planted a few acres of it. However, by the time the vineyard came into production, he was having second thoughts about the whole idea of using complementary grapes: "They need to be reconsidered," he says. "Tuscany's strength, like that of any wine producing region, lies in the typicity of the wines, the unique characteristics that make the wines undeniably Tuscan." These characteristics come primarily from the Sangiovese grape, and he has now come to the conclusion that Tuscans must work with their Sangiovese clones (a clone is a variety of grape), selecting only those produce the best grapes so as to produce the best possible wines.

In his opinion, the key to producing quality wine is work in the vineyard; what happens in the winery after the harvest is secondary. It's the grapes that count.

Paolo's belief in the importance of the typicity of the wines is not merely snobbery; he exports to 26 (at last count) countries, has worked in California, has visited Australia repeatedly, and has tasted wines from all over the world.

Australia has tremendous resources, Chile has very low labor costs, as does South Africa, and Eastern Europe is an unknown quantity that may turn out to be a sleeping giant. As he points out, almost anyone can turn out an "international" wine with a significant component of Cabernet and other grapes, and do an excellent job; the Tuscan producers who follow this path in an attempt to appeal to international taste could find themselves priced out of the market because their costs are much higher than those of competitors who are able to employ cheap labor or mechanization.

If, instead, they work to produce the best Tuscan wines possible, they will be producing something that is uniquely theirs, and which will be always sought after by connoisseurs.

You may be wondering, at this point, what Paolo does with the grapes from his Cabernet and Syrah vineyards. Make wines, which he labels Collezione De Marchi. There is Cabernet Collezione De Marchi, which has won Gambero Rosso's coveted 3 goblets and Parker scores in the high 90s, L'Eremo, a Syrah that placed fourth in a blind tasting a few years ago, behind three great Rhone Valley wines, and Chardonnay Collezione De Marchi, a barrel-fermented Chardonnay that Paolo is still not completely satisfied with, "though it gets better every year."

The Isole e Olena label, on the other hand, is reserved for the traditional Tuscan wines one would expect of an estate in the Chianti Classico region. There's Chianti Classico, made from about 80% Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and (if the year requires it) up to 5% Syrah. Then there's Cepparello, "what Isole e Olena is all about," an extremely refined 100% Sangiovese table wine that would have been Paolo's Chianti Classico Riserva had the DOC commission allowed Chianti Classico to be made from just Sangiovese. Now that Chianti Classico can be made from just Sangiovese, we shall see what Paolo decides. Finally, there is Vinsanto, Tuscany's traditional wine of welcoming and conviviality, which is made from white grapes (Malvasia and Trebbiano) that are picked early in the harvest, allowed to wither into raisins, pressed in January, and then barrel-fermented and aged for 4 years before bottling. Paolo's yields are ridiculously small, and his Vinsanto is considered one of the top Italian dessert wines.

Visitors are welcome at Isole e Olena, though you shouldn't expect people to stop what they're doing upon your arrival unless you've called ahead to make an appointment; the first time I went I found a couple of guys fixing a trailer with an arc-welder in the courtyard ("clearing rocks beats the hell out of machinery"), and ended up driving out to the new vineyard (in all, the estate has a bit more than 100 acres of vineyards) with Piero Masi, the estate manager, to see how things were coming along.

To reach Isole e Olena, take the highway from Florence to Siena, and exit at San Donato; drive past San Donato, towards Castellina, and turn right when you come to the sign for Isole. The road, which is now partially paved, is one of the reasons Paolo doesn't practice Agritourism: "I did rent a room for a week, once," he told me. "The guy had a Bentley. He bottomed out as he drove up to the house, and left for Florence the next morning." The other reason? "It would take time from my wines."

[Edited by Danette St. Onge]