Monte Bernardi | Estate in Panzano in the commune of Greve in Chianti in the Chianti Classico DOCG region of Tuscany, Italy. The estate can be traced back to 1085, when it was separated from a larger landholding, and was named Monte Bernardi. The current buildings are over three hundred years old. The vineyards are situated in the hilly, southern-most region of Panzano in Chianti. It is the southernmost vineyard in the province of Florence, with Fontodi to the north and Castello dei Rampolla to the north-west. Monte Bernardi is farmed using Biodynamic practices and with organic certification.
The first Monte Bernardi wines to be bottled were produced in 1992 under the estate’s previous owner, Stak Aivaliotis, a commercial photographer based in London with a passion for fine wine, especially Bordeaux. He bought the then run down estate in 1985. The grapes were initally sold to Castello dei Rampolla until Stak and his oenologist Giorgio Marrone were able to make wine on site. In 2003 siblings Michael and Jennifer Schmelzer bought Monte Bernardi from Stak, who was proving to be increasingly destructive both to himself and to the estate (he subsequently died of alcoholism). Wines are made under the Chianti Classico DOCG and Colli della Toscana Centrale IGT.
Owner | Michael and Jennifer are from a German-American family and grew up in Michigan. Michael was born in 1975. He studied civil engineering in the US. He studied business administration and marketing at Boulder. He then did a Wine MBA at Bordeaux Business School. He studied oenology at Adelaide. He is a cordon bleu chef. He joined the Australian BD association and met Biodynamic producer Julian Castagna (Australia) and James Millton (New Zealand). Michael’s daughter Olivia was born on 9th Sept 2006.
The Schmelzers purchased Monte Bernardi in 2003 when there were 5 hectares of vines. ‘We were looking for property that had everything that we wanted as a family,’ Michael Schmelzer told me. ‘My mother and sister Jennifer were probably looking more for lifestyle and being near a city that they wanted to live in. I was more interested in the potential for winemaking. I wanted to be in a place where I thought we could make great wines, possibly a less well-known area, partly because of budget, probably, as well. When we were looking in Tuscany, we reached out to Sean O’Callaghan, who I’ve known since the the late 1990s. The first place he mentioned was actually Monte Bernardi. Sean, an Englishman, was winemaker at Riecine in Gaiole. He strongly influenced my decision to also become a winemaker. I was just coming out of culinary art school, finishing up my degree in Marketing and Administration in Colorado, and trying to figure out where I wanted to go, knowing that I did not want to cook anymore. I had gotten the bite for wine in France, and having met Sean, I decided to study winemaking and viticulture.’
Michael on Chianti Classico | ‘As a small producer, I feel that instead of following the kind of Gran Riserva, Gran Selezione road, Chianti should really be moving towards the sub-zone distinctions to break up this large area and help us and our consumers understand the big differences between this large area, so that they can all be appreciated, and have people start writing books about the different areas and the different soils, and what makes each sub-region special so that the whole market will expand for all of us.
Vineyards | The vineyards are situated in the hilly, southern-most region of Panzano, an area that has been acknowledged as one of the Grand Cru of Chianti Classico. The vines are surrounded by the estate’s own oak forest. The estate vines are planted on a soil of a high rock content mixture, which depending on the vineyard, consists of shale (galestro), sandstone (arenaria, or pietra forte) and limestone (alberese). The vineyards are at an altitude of 350 meters above sea level, surrounded by forests and enjoying a southern exposure, with the river Pesa flowing just a few hundred metres to the south. | 2003 There were 5 hectares of older vineyards when the Schmelzer family bought the estate. | 2006 Michael and Jennifer added 0.5ha of new plantings, and by 2008 they will have another 4 hectares, which will make 10ha in total. They have also found another well-positioned farm north-west of Panzano, behind La Massa, which has south-facing vineyards; they are leasing 1ha from this farm, and are managing it themselves. | 2008 The west and south-west facing Bacío vineyard was grubbed up as it had become degenerate, and was to be replanted and enlarged. Down below the Panzano–Castellina road the half hectare new plantings will come into production in 2008, but for the time being, there are just 4.20 hectares yielding a crop: 2 hectares (4.9 acres) in Sa’etta, 0.70 hectares in Tzingana and 1.5 hectares (acres) of Chianti Classico. For this reason, and because there will be for some years young vines, Michael and Jennifer Schmelzer decided to create another label called Retromarcia (see below), buying in fruit from local farmers, who do not themselves bottle. | 2015 17 hectares hectares of vines, contiguous plots. | 2019 Michael told me he was buying 10ha of vines and 5ha of olive trees from La Sala, whose owners did not bottle wine (they sold their grapes). ‘They had good clones and good rootstocks but were not organic. I will create a new label for the wines from these grapes in the short term until they get their full organic certification,’ he told me at the 2019 anteprima.
1) Vigna Grande | 2.5ha, high, south facing ridge. Powerful, structured wines.
2) Vigna Baccio | The 1.5 hectare Bacío (“kiss) vineyard just below the house was replanted in spring 2006 having been ravaged by esca. It was also extended, doubling in size (to 3 hectares), the extra land which had not had vines on it for around 50 years (wild vegetation was cleared before planting). The entire site was then fenced to protect it from wild boars, roebuck and and deer. A slightly wider vine spacing compared to the rest of the estate was chosen to reduce soil compaction and improve airflow. The vineyard soil here is a mixture of Galestro and Pietra Forte. The original 1.5 hectares faced west/south-west from a slope. The newer 1.5 hectares of Sangiovese comprises two terraces with high concentrations of galestro. The upper terrace faces south is arguably Monte Bernardi’s warmest, sunniest site. Delicate, aromatic wines.
3) Vigna Mezzo and Piccola | 2ha, south/south-west facing slope; intensely fruity wines. At some stage the Schmelzers also took over a neighbouring plot of five hectares.
Michael Schmelzer told me (in 2016) ‘If you travel through the hills here, and you see the vineyards and the soils, you can’t say that Chianti Classico, in this part, doesn’t have everything you expect to find in a grand cru area of vineyards. It has the steep slopes; it has the rocky soils; it has the big drop in temperature at night. There’s nothing that we don’t have that you would expect in a grand cru area of any other region that’s well-known. We just have to fight against that old image, and make wines that are consistent and true to our area so that people can start appreciating and understanding those differences.
‘We’re in an area that is in the centre [of the Chianti Classico region] and has some of the steepest slopes and rockiest soils. We have three primary soil types; they’re all very rocky. One is the Galestro, which is a purple/brown shale, which absorbs heat and radiates heat at night. That gives us softer, fleshier Sangiovese. Then we have the sandstone, that we’re known for, the Pietra Forte, which we make our Sa’etta Chianti Classico Riserva from. It’s a more reflective stone and tells the vine to produce more tannins in [the grape] skin to protect against burning; but it also increases the light reflection up to the bunch, so you get a darker spectrum of fruit, compared to the Galestro purple/brown shale stones. Then we, as Monte Bernardi, have about ten percent of alberese limestone as well, which has similar effects to the sandstone.
‘Being in this part, we have this big drop in temperature at night, more than ten degrees celsius even in the hottest month. What that does is, coupled with the high rock content, all that heat that has been accumulated in the day is being expressed out in the night. So when I come back in the vineyard the next morning, I feel the stones, they’re ice-cold; the leaves are ice-cold; the bunches are ice-cold. That puts the vine in a much better place to make aromatics and perfumes and fresh fruit aromas and flavors. It’s a huge advantage to us, for that elegance and finesse that we talked about. ‘The highest vineyard we farm at present goes into our Retromarcia, 410 metres, almost 15 year old vineyard. Sa’etta would be the highest of the riserva vineyards at 360 metres, planted in 1970.’
Viticulture | Michael Schmelzer does not trim the vines, but wraps the shoots along the top supporting wires. He feels doing so maintains more elegant tannins and lower alcohol levels in the wines. In addition, trimming provokes the vines to produce lateral shoots which augment humidity levels in the canopy and overly shade the fruit which promotes the risk of disease and pests (eg shade-loving grape berry moths. As well as promoting a balanced canopy, it promotes overall vine balance too. Topping the shoots means you remove the shoot’s hormonal driver just when the vine is switching its focus from producing vegetation to ripening the grape bunch. The vine now has to expend more energy to produce new vegetation before it can change its focus to ripening the tannins in the grape. The resulting delay will mean sugar levels will continue to increase, as the bunch requires more time on the vine to ripen. Later in the season, when we see the shoot tips are gone and tannin ripening is well underway, we may then trim excess vegetation above the top wire; this, however, is something we do mainly for aesthetics. Warm growing areas with more fertile soils will inevitably have to tip their shoots, as the vegetation growth is too great to wrap along the top wire. Unfortunately, the end result will likely be greener tannins and/or higher alcohol levels.’
Biodynamics | ‘I guess what makes us unique is that we’ve been farming biodynamically since we started in 2004. In 2003, we took over the estate after the harvest. I have always tried to apply biodynamics in a very practical, pragmatic way. We’re certified organic, but I’d say that we follow biodynamic practices. It was important for me, as a producer, to understand what the practices were bringing to my vineyard. So I took the time to research and learn the microbiology behind the practices and what I concluded was that these practices are essentially a collection of old practices that have been around central Europe for hundreds of years. [Rudolf] Steiner [of Steiner school fame] took these practices and started teaching them again, and he wasn’t a farmer, so he gave explanations that often impeded the spread of these practices. Although, of course, we should be grateful that he collected them in the first place. For me, I took those practices that I felt were very tried and true and went behind them to try to understand why they work so I could convince myself that it wasn’t just mumbo-jumbo. This year (2006/7) for the first time I’m using the Dandelion 506 compost preparation for increased soil fungi to make more trace elements available to my plants. I also am planning to spray my vines with Equisetum arvense 508 to restore the fungi balance before budburst on my old wood to prepare for the next season of growth and sprays. I like the idea of doing this after every copper spray that we do, it makes sense to restore the beneficial fungal balance after each spraying copper, but we will see. Every year I am working at reducing my copper output. In 2004 and 2006 I was more successful than in 2005,’ Michael told me.
‘When we talk about biodynamics, often the spiritual and less tangible aspects are emphasized in order to explain why one has good results in the vineyard. When I became interested in biodynamics in Australia, I did not connect with the spiritual aspect of biodynamics right away. I was attracted to the practice from a purely hedonistic point of view – the best products I found – at the time not wine, but eggs, orange juice, and vegetables – were labeled biodynamic. My curiosity was piqued, and I reached out to Australian and New Zealand winemakers Julian Castagna and James Millton, both of whom were actively using biodynamics in their vineyards with great success. I have never been the type of person to accept something blindly and say, ‘well, it just works’. So, over the years of following biodynamics I came to realize why this practice works from a more practical point of view,’ Michael told me.
‘In 2004-2005 I only used Horn manure 500 to increase soil activity and balance. In Dec 2006 Michael sprayed it for the second time, and said “I am spraying my winter 500, using my flowform and Quad sprayer with a 500 nozzle I bought from Australia tomorrow (16/12), as the moon is in opposition to Saturn. I agree about it being too cold for the 500, but I put out some organic compost at a really low quantity per hectare and I just think a little more 500 would be like frosting on the cake for my sleeping bugs! Plus I have bit leftover from this season and this will be the 2nd time since after harvest. I have been hesitant to use 501, because of its reputed burning and leaf defoliating capability, plus my understanding is that it is useful in getting that last half degree, full degree of sugar, which we so far haven’t ever desired,’ Michael told me.
Cover crops | After the 2005 harvest wheat, barley, lupins and fava bean were sown as cover crops.
Certification | 2012 First vintage with full organic certification, from June 2012. ‘I have not started Demeter certification. I’m not sure it is worth the cost’, Michael told me in 2016.
Chianti Classico versus Burgundy | ‘I’ve made this reference in the past,’ Michael told me in 2016. ‘Eight thousand hectares of Sangiovese planted in Chianti Classico is the same amount of Pinot Noir vines planted in Burgundy. We can’t imagine every Pinot Noir leaving Burgundy and just being called Burgundy, but that’s what we’re doing here in Chianti Classico. Every wine leaves Chianti Classico is just a Chianti Classico. Often, as a traveling wine-maker showing my wines in the market, or go to a retailer, they might say, “Oh, we like the wines a lot, but we already have three Chianti Classicos.” You can’t imagine someone saying, “Oh, I have three Bordeaux, or three Burgundies, I don’t need any more. The biggest challenge for us is making people aware that Chianti Classico is so diverse and has so many amazing soil types and expressions. Sangiovese is very unique and it’s one of those varieties that really expresses very different characteristics based on the soil type and the altitudes. Where we are here in the center, in fact, the top of our farm in the center is called the bellybutton, with twenty-eight kilometers from Florence and twenty-eight kilometers from Siena, and we have some of the highest altitudes, steepest slopes, rockiest soils, and we get this big drop in temperature at night. From day one, I’ve always tried to bring that out in our wines. I feel like it’s being in Côte-Rôtie in the Rhône Valley: you want to express that uniqueness of the area. So I’ve tended toward larger barrels, less new oak, native grapes only, and longer aging to bring out that inherent perfume and elegance that I think is special to this part of Chianti Classico.?
2003 The wines were raised, but not made, by Michael.
2004 Michael’s first vintage. Cool, enough sun with rain at the right time, but at the end the threat of rain meant they picked about a week early. The grapes had reached ripeness but the hope was acidity levels would fall. Awful weather at harvesting. less new oak from this vintage onwards. Grapes from the first triage went into the Sa’etta, and then those from the second triage made the Chianti. The strict selection meant he was only able to produce 8,000 bottles in total (normally 12,000 bottles), and a lot of the Sa’etta was actually blended into the Chianti. He continues to make a tight selection for Sa’etta, and the difference between that and the Chianti Classico is very striking.
2005 Had some rot, but was able to sort the crop. ‘Towards the end of the season it rained frequently, and as we approached harvest, I woke each time a storm rolled in, worrying what it might bring – disease or perhaps destruction from hail? Fortunately, despite the challenges of 2005, the wines turned out to be delicious and the vintage brought with it a valuable lesson. I learned that organic farming done well results in better-balanced canopies and healthier vines, which in themselves are more resistant to disease and pests. In the end, we did have disease (mould), like everyone else, but in our case it started later and was less severe, which meant we lost less crop and were able to pick later – a big advantage in a year like 2005. The wines we produced in 2005 convinced me that farming biodynamically was the right course, and helped instil a healthy attitude: the weather is not in our control; we can only strive to make the best wine possible, according to the vintage,’ says Michael.
2006 The excellent 2006 vintage was comparable to 2004, although the spring was a little warmer. A warm, dry spring was followed by relatively high temperatures in July and August, but the cold nights allowed the vines to “rest”, ensuring a perfect ripening of the grapes. By early September sugar levels were equivalent to those you would normally expect 3 weeks on, but the acidity and tannins were not as advanced, so it was imperative to wait. Two days of rain in mid-September thankfully diluted the sugar levels, and by the first week of October, the harvest began (a week earlier than normal). The resulting wines are incredibly aromatic and complex, with a high acidity, which gives them a great ageing capability. It is worth noting that all of the 2006s spent 20 months instead of the customary 11 months in wood, in order to improve the elegance and overall balance of the wines.
2007 Michael Schmelzer describes 2007 as being “particular”. The winter was mild, and the spring cool, yet there was very little rain so budding was early. The weather then remained consistent except for one week of burning hot sunshine in July, and as August was cooler yet sunny, the early sugar ripeness was balanced by an early ripening of tannins, which led to the earliest harvest in the history of Monte Bernardi, starting the 19th September. Overall, the vintage may lack the complexity of 2006, but the wines are prettier, with lovely dense fruit and floral overtones. Michael describes 2007 as having very “aromatic fruit”. Harvest was a month earlier than customary, starting the 19th September. Again 2003 seemed to be the vintage of comparison, although the hot weather, set fair since the Spring, cooled off in August. The major difference, as everyone points out, is that 2007 was blessed with fresh nights. An increasingly impressive and sure-footed property, in conversion to biodynamics.
2010 A high quality, if strange season year. Small crop. Super late harvest. The shoots had barely reached the top wire by mid-June. Tiny bunches. ‘Looking over my notes for the 2010 season, one could only describe the season as a disaster, and with incredible lack of sunlight that lasted from winter through to mid spring. The lack of sunlight also delayed the start of the vine growth by as much as three weeks, especially in our older vineyards and poor sunlight exposure in the early season produced reduced cluster formations (bunches shorter in length and width) than in a typical year. The bunches were also missing their winged lobe off the main bunch (ali), classic to Sangiovese, and the berries were smaller and fewer., Michael says. However, despite a couple of hailstorms which caused a further reduction in yields, the summer and autumn weather was much better, and because the vines had been thinned out, this allowed the remaining fruit to ripen more quickly than might have been expected given the late start. Consequently, Michael was able to harvest ripe, disease free fruit, as the smaller berries and looser bunches also reduced the potential for mould infection. In the end, production was down by more than half (only 34hl produced as opposed to a normal crop of 80hl) so, although overall quality is very good, no Sa’etta or Rosata was produced last year.
2011 The 2011 vintage was Monte Bernardi’s twentieth vintage as a producer of estate-bottled wines. Michael says ‘it was also the first anxiety-inducing vintage since our eye-opening 2005 experience. The 2011 vintage followed a year with drastically low production: in 2010 we had 30% less fruit in the young vineyards, and 50% less fruit in the older vineyards. So in 2011, when the vines burst their buds several weeks early, the thought that a frost could yet again reduce our yields was nerve-racking. Abundant winter rain followed by warm temperatures tricked the vines into thinking spring had arrived, and thus enticed them to an early start. With the delicate young leaves fully exposed, the fear was that the weather would return to near-freezing temperatures, damaging the tender new growth, and potentially destroying the first shoots. Had this happened, the auxiliary buds would have grown new shoots, which are always less fruitful than the primary ones. Fortunately the frost-risk temperatures did not return and the danger passed. I was once again able to sleep peacefully. The season continued on its early course all the way through harvest, with some extreme heat in the hotter months of July and August. It was so hot in fact that the oak trees growing on the Chianti hillsides showed burning on their leaves, giving the impression that autumn had arrived early. Like much of Europe, we started picking some of our vineyards as early as the last week of August, and continued picking until we finished on 19 September – three weeks earlier than what would be considered typical for our area (Panzano), and certainly earlier than ever recorded over Monte Bernardi’s 20 years. In 2011 the last five weeks of bunch ripening occurred during much higher mean temperatures than in a normal season. As a result, the wines have riper aromas and less freshness, and express fewer of the aromatics and elegance which we think are unique to Panzano. Instead, to the taster, it may seem as if our vineyards were plucked out of our beautiful hillside and momentarily dropped into a warmer region for a one-off vacation. I hope it will be a rare voyage.’
2012 To the outsider, the 2012 vintage was just as hot as, maybe even hotter than, the 2011. July and most of August were certainly very hot and dry, but the absence of rainfall over the winter and during the growing season may have actually saved the vintage and, in the end, allowed us to produce wonderfully aromatic, fresh wines with the lowest alcohol levels since 2004. The utter lack of winter and spring rain created a stress which delayed veraison by several weeks. We had bunches in which just a few berries changed colour; further ripening did not occur until several weeks later. When the much-needed rain finally came at the end of August, the vines were able to complete veraison and ripen during a cooler September through to early October, with harvest concluding on 16 October. In the end what seemed to many to be a season that concluded with unseasonable heat had a wonderful outcome.
2014 Michael told me (14 May 2019) ‘I like 2014 as it was written off by many even before a grape was picked. For us 2014 was one of the best harvests of the decade. We had late veraison, which usually takes place in the first week of August. It stopped raining in the 3rd week of August. Before then it was raining each week. In the 3rd week of August the sun came out. Very good weather from then onwards to picking: sunny, bright, dry, not too hot, no rain. Picked 10th Oct. V Dry. An average crop in terms of yield. Super healthy grapes, we took photos. Grape quality validated our choice of Biodynamic farming. We had ripe stems.’ Michael made less Saetta than normal as worried it would be a hard sell.
2015 Highest yield so far at Monte Bernardi.
2016 Yields down 20% on the norm. Small bunches, small berries. Wines with good acidity. |
2017 Yields 40-45% down depending on the site. Frost on 23rd April. Did get some second crop. Previous big frost was as far back as 2001. Developed a negociant side to maintain cashflow. Maybe do an ‘IGT Italia’, opposite of what we do here. CC may got from 2.20 litre to 4 euros a litre bulk this year,’ Michael Schmelzer told me by ‘phone 03rd Oct 2017.
2018 Stressful start to the season. Rain came early and continued into May. Then stopped. Then high heat encouraged a never before seen explosion of vegetation. Had to trim the more vigorous plots (Michael tries to avoid trimming because it stimulates the plant to produce yet more vegetation). Lost some crop to oidium (‘which never happens’) in a small section of vineyard due to an inexperienced (young) tractor driver not spraying correctly on a slope. Second highest yield for the estate so far. Long macerations. Left more stems in than usual.
Wine production | 80,000 bottles would be a normal harvest (Michael told me in Oct 2018). Around 55,000 of that is Retromarcia.
Wine style | ‘When I moved to Australia, I loved the over-the-top, rich varietal wines that were being made in Australia. It was an important part of my education. They were easy to understand, very varietal, and I enjoyed making them and drinking them, but by the time that I got to the end of the program, I realized that they didn’t really exhibit an identity. I was about to move to Italy and take over the production of Monte Bernardi, and I was determined to make a wine that could be, not only made in Chianti Classico, but also made here at Monte Bernardi in Panzano in Chianti. I brought in this desire to bring out the unique characteristic of the estate, from that perspective of being in a place that was known for making,’ Michael Schmelzer told me. ‘‘We’re in a higher, cooler area than Montalcino, so we tend to be bright cherry, black cherry kind of dominant fruit, especially through the the galestro soils, more present acidity, quite present but elegant tannins. Then, in warmer years or from the lighter stones, we might have aa darker berry spectrum fruit in our wines, but we’re also have kind of an anise, fennel quality coming into the wines. Wild herbs as well. For me, and primarily with the type of wine-making that I do, my goal is really to give the widest drinking window of enjoyment to people. You get the best of both worlds when you age in larger barrels, because you get less oxygen exposure, so the wines age very well; but you get elegance and approachability sooner, as well.’
Michael told me ‘we really focus on Sangiovese and Chianti Classico here. Over ninety percent of our vineyards are planted with Sangiovese. Our every day, let’s say, Chianti Classico is called Retromarcia Chianti Classico, the throwback to the traditional kind of pure Sangiovese. That comes from our younger vineyards, four to fourteen year old vineyards, all three soil types that we have around the property, aged in small, medium, large used oak barrels for eighteen months, and about two months minimum in the bottle. Then we make two riservas from our old wines, the over forty-five year old wines. One is purely in a Galestro, it’s called the Monte Bernardi Riserva; and one is called Sa’etta, which is the sandstone Pietra Forte. Both are aged in the large three thousand meter botte grande for two years on average, and then they get anywhere from six months to twelve months in the bottle. Then we have smaller productions of a Rose, Rosetta, which is made with the traditional Chianti Classico grapes: Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Malvasia, and Trebbiano. Then we have two small production Super Tuscans, one that’s from the old vines that’s been made on the property for over twenty-two years, and then a young vine version of that. They have no Sangiovese in them, and they’re Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and a bit of Petit Verdot or Canaiolo. Essentially, the new one is the same varieties planted in places not adapted for Sangiovese: frost pockets, less advantageous positions so that when I pull out the Tzingana, which is a prime Sangiovese plot, I can plant Sangiovese there in the future. We’re sort of working back to just Tuscan grapes only. It’s hard for us to not make those wines that are Super Tuscans, because there’s always a bridge of knowledge to be gapped and taste. Sangiovese’s one of those grapes that you don’t initially- people don’t usually fall in love with immediately. It’s something that they learn to love, like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir; but often when they come to love those varietials, they often don’t go back.’
Winemaking | Michael says ‘our methods involve maximizing the quality of the fruit that comes from our vineyards, harvesting at optimal ripeness and selecting only the best fruit when hand picking and sorting. The fruit is de-stemmed and lightly crushed directly into small, stainless steel or oak fermentation tanks. The grape must is held 3 to 5 days in pre-fermentation maceration in a temperature controlled condition; thereafter the temperature is allowed to rise to a maximum of 30°C for alcoholic fermentation. During this time the ferment is regularly hand plunged. After 20 to 27 days, the wines undergo malolactic fermentation in oak. Depending on the desired style, varying sizes of oak are selected for maturation. After maturing 8 to 30 months in oak, the wines are bottled without filtration or fining*. All fruit is sourced from Monte Bernardi and only indigenous yeast and bacteria are used. The minimal addition of sulfites is kept to the minimum consistent with ensuring the longevity of the wine’s natural flavor and color. In short, the result of this labor of love is pure wines which express the essence of Panzano.
Michael told me ‘I would say I’m a very hands-off winemaker, even though I studied oenology in Australia, which is known to be quite hands-on, very industrial. Basically, I really like to bring in very good, perfectly ripe, clean, healthy grapes. We might do a plunge or pump over twice a day for a very short amount of time; our fermentations are quite long. I feel like if you’re making a stew, you’re not going to sit there and stir it constantly. We have an average fermentation of over twenty-two days; it’s not necessary to be so exaggerated and work so much to try to extract everything out of it. We are in the center of Chianti Classico, with more present, aggressive tannins, more acidity therefore, we need to take a long, slow evolutionary approach to our wine-making process, which means the larger the vessel that breathes, the better.‘
Temperature controlled stainless steel vats. Bit of cold maceration, not too much extraction. Ferment at 30ºC maximum. No filtration or fining. New Seguin-Moreau and one wine second hand barrels from Chateau Latour. The early vintages were oaky says Michael Schmelzer because they had new oak vats, but over time their impact on the wines has diminished.
‘Cement breathes; oak breathes; stainless steel doesn’t breathe. By putting our wines into a large cement tank, or oak barrel, we get more [not less] oxygen coming into that wine. So the evolution is much slower, but much more elegant. It’s similar in the vineyard, where you’re getting sugar accumulation, which is influenced by the sun, but the tannin ripeness is influenced more by time. You can’t really speed it up by vineyard practices. The same applies in the winery. You can bring out fruitiness and sweetness, let’s say, in small barrels very quickly, but the structure will remain raw and crude. By putting it into larger barrels, I feel I get the best of both worlds: the elegance and the finesse from slower, longer aging and less oxygen, and the fruit and the complexities start to come out at the same time,’ says Michael..
Michael told me on 14 May 2019 ‘From 2011 I became convinced that high acidity and high tannins work and are the way to go. II pick the grapes on taste, not analysis. I have no idea of the pH or TA. 30% stems roughly. After ferment I do check that the sugars are all fermented out and that MLF is finished. Then we press and the wines go to barrel or (in the case of Retromarcia) concrete tanks. I add sulfites twice, at racking and again pre-bottling. My total sulfite levels are around 20ppm of which around half is free. Making wines with low added sulfites is part of our evolution rather than a pre-conceived master plan.’ He also told me that Sa’etta and the Monte Bernardi fermented on skins for 30-35 days in Nomblots. The vats are then topped up for a total cuvaison time of 30–90 days on skins. Then the wines are pressed off. This longer maceration is a throw back to how the old-timer farmers did it. They took their time to press off. I learned that my favourite producers, from Barolo and Barbaresco, were the ones who used the biggest barrels and aged the longest. Also in Montalcino, a hot area making Sangiovese, a much hotter area than us. Yet producers using very big barrels and aging longer would bring out a freshness and an elegance that just made me realize that there’s something about the whole mass aging together in the slow way, traditional way, that brings out character and takes the roughness off the edges in a way. Like in Barolo, old-timer wines had tannins with real texture.’
‘When I moved to Australia, I loved the over-the-top, rich varietal wines that were being made in Australia. It was an important part of my education. They were easy to understand, very varietal, and I enjoyed making them and drinking them, but by the time that I got to the end of the program, I realized that they didn’t really exhibit an identity. I was about to move to Italy and take over the production of Monte Bernardi, and I was determined to make a wine that could be, not only made in Chianti Classico, but also made here at Monte Bernardi in Panzano in Chianti. I brought in this desire to bring out the unique characteristic of the estate, from that perspective of being in a place that was known for making every varietal that is in wine, but not really exhibiting and identity from where it came from. When I started here in the early 2000s, people were very confused as to why I would want to use oak large vats rather than small barrels and new wood, and why I would take a successful 100% Sangiovese that was labeled as an IGT Super Tuscan, and the first year, immediately bring it back into the Chianti Classico fold when Chianti Classico wasn’t fashionable. I really wanted to say that our best wine was a Chianti Classico. It’s a more specific region than just ‘Tuscany’. To me, I couldn’t imagine leaving it in a category that was much broader and more general. It didn’t make sense to me. I think that there’s a definite return to a pure Sangiovese and less oak. So I’m very optimistic at the direction that things are going,’ Michael Schmelzer told me.
Rosato | A blend of ‘traditional’ Chianti Classico grapes. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo Nero, Malvasia and Trebbiano Toscano. Hand selected from the cooler areas of the vineyards (more aromatic, delicate). Juice left on skins for 12 to 24 hours, the free run juice is naturally fermented and then undergoes malolactic fermentation in oak. The wine remains in barrel for 8 to 10 months, followed by finishing in bottle for a minimum 6 months.
Chianti Classico DOCG, Retromarcia | Retromarcia is a Chianti Classico made from 100% Sangiovese grapes (since 2010). The grapes come from vineyards consisting of shale (Galestro) 70%, sandstone (Arenaria-Calcare-Pietraforte) 20%, limestone (Alberese) 10%. The vineyards age range from plantings 2003-2010. Vinification and maturation is reminiscent of a more traditional style Chianti Classico; the result is a fresh and fruity, medium-bodied, well-balanced wine, with a nice structure, juicy acidity and a long finish. ‘The Italian word Retromarcia means more to us than its literal translation “to back up” or “to reverse”, it has been our aim to produce intensely typical and expressive wines from Tuscany’s historic zone – Chianti Classico, using only traditional grapes. With the name Retromarcia, we are emphasizing a return to the natural elegance and charm of Sangiovese,’ says Michael.
This label was originally created for wine made from bought-in fruit from local growers in the mid-2000s when estate vineyards like Bacío (see above) were being replanted. The name “Retromarcia” literally means “to go backwards”, hence the gear shift motif on the label; the name was chosen to evoke a return to simplicity and traditional tastes. As Michael says ‘When I came here, I had a moment where I was a disillusioned so many Chianti Classicos didn’t taste like Sangiovese, didn’t feel like they expressed where they were coming from. That’s why I called my first Chianti Classico Retromarcia, because I wanted to say that I wanted to go back in time. Retromarcia literally means to reverse; to go backwards. That was the first wine that I created the name. Locals would ask me why I wanted to go backwards when they wanted to step forward because they associate the past with poverty and hard times. It was ironic a foreigner from somewhere with very little culture, practice, and history in wine and farming wanted to learn it and adapt tradition, when a lot of the locals were trying to move as far away from that as possible.’ | 2006 Retromarcia was first produced in 2006. The grapes were sourced from two small family vineyards (non-organic) in the Conco D’Oro in Panzano with excellent positions and soils. The plan is to supplement the production with the new vineyards as they become available. This is an attractively priced, higher volume Chianti Classico made up of a combination of fruit from Galestro (shale) and Alberese (limestone) soils, giving the wine a rich fruitiness, minerality, and freshness. | 2007 Bottled. | 2008 95% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot & Canaiolo. The third vintage of Retromarcia. A combination of young vine estate fruit, and fruit from two managed estates on the outskirts of Panzano with similar soils. | 2009 95% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot & Canaiolo. As well as sourcing fruit for this wine from the two estates near Panzano, there is a little more estate fruit in the blend this year. 30,000 bottles. | 2016 100% Sangiovese. Lovely limpid colour, exceptionally pure fruit (Anteprima 2018). | 2017 40% frost. Lovely weight (Anteprima 2019). | 2018 Bright, fluid fruit, very clear expression of tannin (Anteprima 2020).
Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva, Sa’etta | The name means ‘thunderbolt.’ A reserve style Chianti Classico made from the best 100% Sangiovese grapes from Sa’etta, a single vineyard in Panzano in Chianti which benefits from the best position, exposure and terrain on the estate. South-facing. The vineyard comprises slopes on very hard, rocky soil: this consists of highly reflective sandstone (Arenaria-Calcare-Pietraforte), rich with quartz inclusions, resulting in a complex reserve style Sangiovese which is elegantly balanced; given time, this wine reveals luscious fruit components, a strong minerally-driven backbone, floral-minerality, and balanced acidity and firmly structured but elegant tannins. The Sangiovese on this site produces dark berries with the highest tannins as the tannin protects the skins from the ‘burning’ or heat reflected from the white stoney soil. 2,200 kilos per hectare. Natural fermentation and maceration on skins in large oak casks for 20 – 27 days. Allowed to rise to a maximum of 30°C. Basket pressed. 3 bar – as hard as you can press without splitting the pips. The wine is placed in a combination of German and Austrian oak where it undergoes malolactic fermentation. The wine remains in oak for at least 24 months, followed by finishing in bottle for another 12 months. No filtration or fining. | 2003 Sa’etta IGT Toscana Rosso Good grip, again integrated alcohol, red fruit, floral, mineral too; realistic Sangiovese colour; new oak starting to integrate too at the winery in 2005. | 2004 Sa’etta IGT Toscana 100% Sangiovese. Two passes in the vineyard and only first pass will go in. 20% new oak as opposed to 40% in 2003. | 2005 Sa’etta Chianti Classico DOCG 100% Sangiovese. | 2006 Sa’etta Chianti Classico DOCG Quite brawny at the Richards Walford organic and biodynamic wine tasting at Vinoteca, London 8 Nov 2010. | 2007 Sa’etta Chianti Classico 100% Sangiovese. | 2008 Sa’etta Chianti Classico DOCG. | 2014 90 days on skins. Did not press off after 30 days of fermentation. Another 60 days on skins. No greeness in the Sangiovese. This wine can be laid down to be enjoyed in the years to come, but can also be enjoyed upon release. | 2016 100% Sangiovese. Very Sangiovese-sappy. Very wild, very light, but very intense fruit (Anteprima 2020).
Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva, Monte Bernardi | As far away as one can imagine from the meaty rich style of Chianti so prevalent, this is a pure expression of Sangiovese, delicate, poised and redolent of red cherries. Michael told me (14 May 2019) that on galestro Sangiovese is more reductive–dark berry, deep berry–compared to when from sandstone, which this wine is from. | 2003 Hot vintage. Powerful, concentrated, forward and without the longevity of previous vintages. | 2004 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo. 10% new oak as opposed to 30%. | 2005 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo. Raised largely in botti. No new barriques purchased for 2 years. Very fruit-driven Chianti. Hasn’t the complexity or intensity of 2004. | 2006 Longer than usual lees contact. Vibrant soft red with that dry, Tuscan austerity, decent finish at the Richards Walford organic and biodynamic wine tasting at Vinoteca, London 8 Nov 2010. | 2007 This was released later than usual as it developed more slowly than the 2006 vintage. | 2008 95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo. 3,000 bottles. | 2013 Bottled. | 2014 13.5% 24 months in wood. Unfiltered. Nice red fruit crunch at Viale Piave 32 in July 2017. | 2015 95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo. 24m in botti. Pure, concentrated, delicate, exceptionally good (Anteprima 2018). 2017 Michael felt 2017 was slightly atypical as a vintage. 95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo nero. Galestro soil. Lovely tannin (Anteprima 2019). Bright fruit with wonderful texture (Anteprima 2020).
Tzingana, Colli della Toscana Centrale IGT | Bordeaux-style blend. Merlot (45%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20%), Cabernet Franc (20%), and Petit Verdot (15%). The unique characteristic of this wine is due to the simultaneous vinification of the four varietals, which allows for greater complexity and integration. | 2001 About 1,200 bottles. Some pepper but integrated alcohol, bit more extracted than the Tuscan style. | 2002 None made. The grapes were sold. | 2003 Bottled. | 2004 45% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot. 30% new oak used as opposed to 50%. | 2005 45% Merlot, 20% Cab Sauvignon, 20% Cab Franc, 15% Petit Verdot. | 2006 Bottled. | 2007 45% Merlot, 20% Cab Sauvignon, 20% Cab Franc, 15% Petit Verdot. | 2008 45% Merlot, 20% Cab Sauv, 20% Cab Franc, 5% Petit Verdot.
Fuoristrada, Toscana Rosso | ‘In 2010, we had a very difficult vintage at Monte Bernardi, says Michael. ‘The vines started a month late, and we had thirty percent less fruit in young vineyards, and fifty percent less fruit in the old vineyards, not because of disease or problems, but just because of smaller bunches. It really scared my sister and I into thinking if we had two years like that in a row, we’d have to shut our doors. I came up with a creative way to grow our family business without changing our original goals here at Monte Bernardi, and that is putting organic négociant wine into one-liter Tetra Paks we call the Fuoristrada lines. We’ve been doing that since 2011. We take advantage of savings in transportation and packaging to give very high quality wine in one-liter paks at a very attractive retail price in the United States. Fuoristrada means “off-road”: the idea is that we’re going off the beaten track, the road less travelled with these alternative package offerings.‘
Rooms for rent.
Richards Walford vintage reports.
Via Chiantigiana, SR 222 Km 33.V-VI,
I-50020 Panzano in Chianti (SI = Siena), Italy
Tel+39 055.852400 | www.montebernardi.com
GPS 43.52299217054212, 11.298888623714447