Montesecondo: Chianti Undressed in Tuscany

Silvio Messana’s biodynamic Chianti Classico is unabashedly direct, not “covered” by processes, additives or international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Made only from Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino, it is “undressed” (as opposed to “natural”, a word Silvio eschews for good reason.)

In this video, Silvio explains that the grapes and the vineyard give the taste and personality to the wine. “When the grapes are ready, the wines are ready,” he says.

His philosophy is to let the grapes and the wine speak for themselves. And they do. I remember when I tasted Silvio’s base wine Montesecondo Rosso Toscana IGT 2012 for the first time a year ago.
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It stood out as being not at all your “usual” Tuscan Chianti/Sangiovese based wine. It was fresher with lots of acidity and character that immediately made me want to have another glass, open another bottle. I wondered what the story behind the wine was and discovered that it wasn’t “usual” either.

Born in Florence but spending the first 18 years of his life in Tunisia, Silvio played the saxophone and dreamed of being a jazz musician. To be more practical, he went to study engineering and economics at the university in Florence. His Italian father was a jazz musician and winemaker, who had been born in Tunisia and lived there all his life, but wanted to maintain ties with his homeland.

The family traveled back for part of each summer and Silvio’s father bought the 20 hectares of Montesecondo in the early sixties. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot along with Sangiovese because international grape varieties commanded higher respect and prices at the time. At harvest, the grapes were sold in bulk at the local coop where weight and sugar content determined price.

There was a house on the property (hidden in the trees in the distance in this photo), but it was in ruins. Silvio didn’t develop an attachment to the place because during summer visits from Tunisia because the family stayed in a different family home in the Mugello.

field

He does have memories from his father’s vineyards and winery in Libya. “I still vividly remember the smells of the cellar,” Silvio recalled in an interview with “I’ll Drink To That”. By the time his father died in the 80s, the family winery had been seized by Gaddafi. Silvio’s mother and sister were living back in Italy, but they all agreed to sell the farm because they couldn’t make it pay for itself.

In an odd twist of fate after Silvio left for Boston to live his dream and study saxophone at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, the buyer for Montesecondo disappeared, leaving the downpayment. With that, his mother did basic renovations to make the house livable, opened it as an agriturismo and kept the vineyards going by selling the grapes wholesale.
house

Silvio remained in the United States, moving to New York to work for a wine importer, who specialized in artisan, organic and biodynamic wines. At that time, Silvio wasn’t thinking of making wine at Montesecondo. He was playing music and learning to sell wine.

But by way of his work, he began tasting wine, better and different than he had ever known and began meeting the people behind the wine. By the time the importer visited Montesecondo and told him he should be making his own wine, he took the idea seriously and moved home. The first vintage he bottled himself was in 2000.

cement

Partly in an outdoor shed with no walls and partly in the old cellar under the house, he fermented the grapes that had been grow with conventional methods adding products like powdered tannins, enzymes and commercial yeasts that everyone told him to use and aged all the wine in barriques, small, wood barrels. Since he hadn’t studied winemaking and wasn’t trained in using additives or industrial processes, he stopped.

He began experimenting with using less wood and now mostly ferments either in stainless steel and ages in cement (left) or uses clay amphorae (right). Only the Chianti Classico ages in large wood barrels. Nothing goes in barriques.

Then, he met Nicholas Joly, who was creating Renaissance Italia, a group of vintners committed to biodynamic methods, and began following biodynamic guru Paolo Pistus. By 2004, he had switched not only to using nothing by indigenous yeasts in the cellar, but to biodynamic vineyards.

In Cerbaio, in the soft hills of the northernmost corner of the Chianti zone, the soil is mostly clay.
hills:vineyard

Clay naturally holds humidity and tends to become very compact, but Silvio’s biodynamic growing methods keep it open, crumbly, healthy and draining well. “I don’t like to talk that much about biodynamic methods, because people get confused and distracted,” he told me. “It’s more important to look at the results, the health of the soil and the plants and the way the wine tastes.”
earth

It’s impossible not to notice that Silvio made another unconventional choice, which was to replace his father’s “guyot” style vines with alberello, where every vine stands alone. Widely used in the south of Italy, this method allows light and air to reach all sides of the plant. In the humidity of this area, it protects the grapes from mold and disease.
alberello

Silvio explains in this video.

Silvio and his helper work the vineyards and the cellar together. The photo shows other plants growing in the rows between the vines for sovescio (green manure) and the tips of the vines growing in all directions. “I stopped cutting the tops of the vines. Each vine finds her own equilibrium with her own intelligence.”
with helper

On the day that I visited, they were checking on vines that had just been grafted. (European vines have been grafted onto American rootstock, which is resistant to phylloxera, ever since 90% of European vines were destroyed by the insect in the late 19th century.)
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I took three wines home to open and taste.
Montesecondo Chianti Classico DOCG 2013
Sangiovese with small amounts of Canaiolo and Colorino. Vivacious, ruby red with bright acidity, light tannins and about 13% alcohol. From the estate’s oldest vines. Fermentation in stainless steel with aging after in large barrels. Can age 10-15 years but can also be enjoyed earlier. Silvio’s flagship and a delightful, “undressed” Chianti that pairs with just about anything.

Rosso Toscana IGT 2013
Almost 100% Sangiovese with about 2% Trebbiano, the white grape that was required for a Chianti Classico but is now banned from that classification. Made from the youngest Montesecondo vines. A lighter and less complex version of Silvio’s Chianti Classico but similar. The grapes ferment in steel, then, rest in cement before bottling. Can age 6-8 years but very drinkable before.

Il Rospo IGT 2013
Silvio still does a small production of Cabernet Sauvignon from fifteen year-old vines. The wine is a violet red, darker and more intense than the Sangiovese wines, but not a “usual” Cabernet Sauvignon. It has more acidity and freshness than bold fruitiness or tannins. Medium weight with only 13% alcohol. A very drinkable wine as well.

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A few years ago, Silvio began experimenting with clay amphorae to produce even fresher and more immediate wines.
Tïn Sangiovese IGT 2013
All Sangiovese. From 20-year old vines. Grapes ferment and age in clay amphorae with a 10-month maceration on the skins. Only 12.5% alcohol.

Tïn Trebbiano IGT 2014
All Trebbiano. Grapes ferment and age in clay amphorae with a 6-month maceration on the skins. About 11.5% alcohol.

Montesecondo wines can be found on Wine Searcher in the range of $20-25, they are an outstanding value.

Montesecondo
info@montesecondo.com
Via per Cerbaia, 18
50020 Cerbaia val di Pesa, San Casciano – Firenze

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