X Marks the Spot – a Tuscan Mystery

Pietro Beconcini Agricola – even lovely on a rainy day

San Miniato is not a big place, but midway between Pisa and Florence it is part of a landscape that has produced wine since Etruscan times. Unlike the more famous areas of Tuscany though the wine has traditionally been seen purely in local terms. In the past it seems that many of the region’s big producers have bought grapes or wine from the farmers of San Miniato to beef up their own wines and give high quality at a good price. Much like Fronsac in Bordeaux it has historically been something of an insider’s secret.

Who knows what they made here during the Middle Ages, but the history is closely bound up with that of Chianti which was originally only produced between Firenze and Siena, but as the wine’s fame spread so its area of production grew. As with so many things we think of as traditional, the history is hazy, we do not even know what the historic Chianti grapes were and there is evidence that it was mainly white wine. In fact it was not until 1872 that BaronBettino Ricasoli, an early Prime Minister of Italy whose family have been producing wine at their Castello di Brolio since 1141, encapsulated 30 years of research by writing down the Sangiovese dominated recipe for Chianti that, with a few tweaks, we know today. Eventually the boundaries were settled too and Chianti Classico, the original heartland, became a separate entity with the outlying areas entitled to use the Chianti name for their wines. Of course a wine maker can now also ignore the Chianti regulations and produce I.G.T. wines from any grape they fancy.

There is no dominant producer like an Antinori or Capezzano here though, just farmers scratching a living from the land. It must be hard to be ambitious for your wine here, but Leonardo Beconcini is just that. His family have farmed here for generations and in the early 1950s were among the very first to buy the land they had previously rented and ever since have had a growing emphasis on wine.

When Leonardo took over the family firm in the mid 1990s he was determined to make the best wines he could. To do this he wanted to really understand his vineyards and his vines, so he set about seriously studying them. He also experimented with foreign grapes, but was unhappy with the results that Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot produced, as he did not want to make an international wine, but one that represented his land and the traditions of the place.

So, he looked at his various Sangiovese vines and steadily carried out a field selection – massal selection – taking cuttings from the best adapted vines on the estate and propagating them before settling on what he felt were the two best Sangiovese ‘clones’ for his wines. Unusually Leonardo was also very pleased with the Malvasia Nero, which in many wine books has often been mistaken for an Italian form of Tempranillo.

The growing season underway…

However, the vine that he felt gave him the best results was something of an oddity in that it had been there for hundreds of years, but no one actually knew what it was. The family had apparently always called it ‘Giacche‘ and research shows me that there is a grape called ‘Giacche’ thatcomes from this part of the world and has recently been resurrected from virtual extinction in Tuscany and Lazio. Some experts rather excitingly claim that it is an ancient Etruscan variety, but that is not what Leonardo had.

Leonardo’s father hated this mystery grape as it ripened much quicker than his beloved Sangiovese and as he harvested and vinified everything together – very normal practice until surprisingly recently – he felt it added a raisiny character that marred his wine. Local experts scratched their heads, but were none the wiser. It was not until 2004, when the great Professor Attillio Scienza, of Milan University, took some samples away for DNA testing that the truth became known. Astonishingly this mystery vine turned out to be Tempranillo – Spain’s most famous grape.

I love Spanish wine and am fascinated by Tempranillo, so as soon as I heard about this Tuscan Tempranillo that Leonardo grew at San Miniato I just had to experience it for myself. It was not only the wines that drew me, but the story – above all how and why did the grape get there?

Who took Tempranillo to Tuscany and when? Was it deliberate, or just a happy accident? If it had been found in Southern Italy or the Islands it would have been more logical as they were under Spanish or Catalan dominion for a long time. They certainly took Garnacha / Grenache / Garnatxa to Sardinia where it is known as Cannonau and Carineña / Carignan which the Sardinians today call Carignano.

Sadly we will almost certainly never know how, when or why, but there are some fascinating pointers and clues.

The Via Francigena runs through the estate to this day – this signpost points pilgrims in the right direction.

Leonardo’s estate is the Pietro Beconcini Agricola and the Via Francigena passes right through their land. This is one of the great pilgrim routes of  medieval Europe and it runs from Canterbury to Rome linking Abbeys and pilgrim hostels, one of which is being excavated just on the boundary of Leonardo’s land. Of course the Via Francigena is not isolated and like most Pilgrim routes in the Middle Ages it was astonishingly busy – such journeys were the mass tourism of their day complete with infrastructure and souvenirs. There are many points along its route where it connects with some of the distant parts of the more famous Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James. The most famous bit of the Camino cuts across northern Spain on its way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Along the way it passes through Navarra – where Tempranillo is an important grape – and very close to Logroño in Rioja – where Tempranillo is the dominant variety.

San Miniato was a very important place for the Church because of the Via Francigena. In these secular times it is easy to forget how important the Church was, but in the Middle Ages it was the repository of all knowledge, keeper of most of the wealth and owned most of the land. It also employed a large proportion of the most talented and ambitious people, in many ways it was the first multinational corporation.

The local church borders the estate – the regions history is tied up with the church.

It seems that for hundreds of years the Church sent priests to oversee all the agricultural work including grape growing and wine making and training the peasant farmers in how best to maximise the results of the land. One of their duties was to plant new vineyards and that was done in those pre-Phylloxera days by planting grape seeds as it was easier to carry a pot of seeds than a big bundle of vines. Perhaps one of these priests had been on the Camino before taking up his duties and been given some seeds by a colleague that he met along the way? We will never know for sure, but it just goes to show that wine has never stood still.

My own over active imagination saw another possible link. I have actually walked some of the Camino de Santiago. In Spain’s Basque Country I walked just a couple of kilometres through an estate called Finca Jakue. ‘Jakue’ is pronounced ‘Jack-way’ and is the Basque for James as in Saint James or Santiago – given an Italian accent it also sounds very similar to ‘Giacche’. Who knows, perhaps this is an old linguistic memory that shows it was once known that this grape came from the Camino de Santiago? 

Whatever the truth, it was this grape that Leonardo took to his heart and felt defined his land. Wonderfully for thirteen years before the DNA results were known he called the vine X and even planted 5 more hectares of the mystery vine. To this day one of his Tempranillo wines is called ‘Ixe’ – the local Tuscan pronunciation of X is Ix-ay.

So, you see for me X really did mark the spot.

My Visit & Tasting

Eva and Leonardo

This was a most wonderful visit, Leonardo and his wife Eva, who is also the Export Manager, were both so kind and hospitable, they really wanted me to enjoy the visit and to understand what they were all about.
The only fly in the ointment was the torrential rain that caused my favoured train to be cancelled and made tramping the vineyards a hurried affair between downpours. Everything else, by which I mean the tasting and lunch,  was perfect.

Eva cooked us a delicious and memorable lunch that we enjoyed after the tasting with all the left over wine – the food and the wine were perfect together:

The antipasti was some superb collation of Crostini di Fegato, stewed rabbit and a tiny portion of Lasagne.

The primo was Tagliatelle with a wild boar and porcupine ragù – only my second taste of rodent.

The secondo was a decadently rich wild boar stew.

A fossil from the vineyard

The estate is very beautiful, 12 hectares of south, southeast and southwest facing vines growing on a heavy white clay. Of course this soil can hold a lot of water and make the work hard and time consuming, but there are also layers of sand – helping drainage and minerality – and more excitingly abundant marine fossils as this area was once ancient seabed. These fossils are found in such numbers that they have an amazing impact on the wines, imparting a minerality and a freshness that I found to be the hallmark of Leonardo’s wines. This freshness is important to him as he always wants his wines to have what he calls ‘drinkability‘.

Their Sangiovese based wines

2010 Chianti Antiche Vie – a reference to the Via Francigena
D.O.Cg Chianti
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
80% Sangiovese with Canaiolo and Malvasia Nero – no oak.

Lovely nose of rich red fruit with savoury herbal notes notes, a touch of leather while the moss / earth-like character and fragility is slightly reminiscent of Pinot Noir.
The palate is fresh, lively and juicy, more sweet fruit than I had expected and loads of lovely freshness giving good acidity and balance. Silky well integrated tannins and lovely Sangiovese cherry, pomegranate fruit. Very long, clean and fresh finish with just a hint of drying tannins.
I kept coming back to this wine throughout the tasting and meal and although it was the simplest wine there it went perfectly with all the savoury foods. It was a really good wine giving stylish everyday drinking, a lovely honest wine, or as Leonardo put it, this wine is ‘simple but not banal‘.
I would award it a silver medal in a wine competition – 88/100 points.

£9.95 a bottle in the UK from Caviste, Wadebridge Wines & Butlers Wine Cellar

2009 Pietro Beconcini Chianti Riserva
D.O.Cg Chianti
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
85% old vine Sangiovese (40-50 year old) with 15% Canaiolo – aged 12 months in 2500 litre Slavonian oak botti and French barriques.  

The nose showed floral and herbal notes, red fruit, dried fruit too, spice and vanilla with delicate caramel in the background.
The palate was round spicy and vibrant at first, while the mid-palate became very traditional showing classic dry, leathery, earthy, dusty and mineral characters making this medium bodied wine elegant with great freshness and vitality.
This is the driest wine with the least emphasis on fruit, but it is still very drinkable and elegant. The long finish is floral and earthy with lovely cooked strawberry fruit too, while the tannins are elegantly firm – 89/100 points.

Not yet available in the UK.

2009 Maurleo Rosso
I.G.T Toscano
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
50% Sangiovese with 50% Malvasia Nero – aged 12 months French barriques. Maurleo was the old name of Pietro Beconcini’s Chianti, however 50% Malvasia Nero is not permitted in a Chianti, so it has to be I.G.T.

An intense deep plum colour.
The nose delivered sweet red ripe fruit together with spice and coffee from the oak, this was richer deeper, more fragrant and complex than the Chiantis with plums, cherries and ripe strawberry fruit – it was a superbly ripe vintage.
The rich palate was succulent and textured with ripe plum, a lovely freshness of acidity and minerality balanced by firmer tannins, cherry flesh and cherry stone and black cherry fruit. An earthiness does show through, but the succulence dominates right now. Lovely acidity and supple tannins on the finish. Really elegant, great balance, nothing is over extracted. I like this very much indeed – 90/100 points.

£13.95 a bottle in the UK from Caviste

2007 Reciso
I.G.T Toscano
Pietro Beconcini Agricola

100% old vine Sangiovese (40-50 year old) – aged 18 months in 2500 litre Slavonian oak botti and French barriques. Leonardo created this wine in 1995, it was his first creation and he is proud of it.

The nose offered lifted spicy rich plum fruit and earthy, mineral notes.
The palate is rich and concentrated, but very savoury with fresh acidity and balance.
The oak shows as a wonderful spice note, well integrated, but could use a little time yet to lose its hard edge. Fine grain tannins and smoky oak really accentuate the spice and the seamless quality, coffee flavours starting to develop. A lovely wine, great with pasta, but I would love to try it in a few years too – 91/100 points.

Around £25 a half bottle in the UK from May 2012.

Their Tempranillo wines 

2008 IXE
I.G.T Toscano
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
90% Tempranillo with 10% Sangiovese – aged 12 months French barriques. Made from the younger Temranillo vines on the estate – 7-12 years old at the moment.

Deep rich intense and vibrant colour, deep black cherry – near opaque.
The nose is rich, fragrant, lifted and vibrant with real richness, herbal, earth and chalk mineral notes together with black cherry, kirsch, leather and a touch of chocolate.
Again the palate has lovely balance, good extraction, elegant, balanced, lovely fruit, it is supple and long. Good acidity giving more freshness than most Tempranillo I have tried, it is very long with a little smear of chalky tannins on the finish.
I could see all sorts of Tempranillo characters in this wine, but it did not feel Spanish. I cannot help feeling it has more in common with the structure of a Tempranillo / Tinto Roriz from the Douro.
This is a terrific wine that feels as though it has been made purely in the vineyard and not the winery, it is balanced and not forced or overworked at all and is more mineral and the oak is in a more supporting role than is normal in Spain – 91/100 points.

£14.95 a bottle in the UK from Caviste & Butlers Wine Cellar

2007 Vigna alle Nicchie
I.G.T Toscano
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
100% Tempranillo – aged 20 months French barriques (70%) and American barriques (30%). Made from 90 year old ungrafted / Piede Franco Tempranillo vines on the estate, I assume there is enough sand in the soil for these vines to have survived without being grafted. 
The grapes are dried for 4 weeks to reduce the water content by 30% and so increase the concentration in the finished wine. Only 300 bottles were made. 
The name means ‘wine of the shell’ in Tuscan dialect with reference to the fossils in the soil.

This rich wine has a deep very bright black cherry chocolate opaque colour. This follows through onto the nose with deep black cherry notes, spice and dark chocolate.
The palate is rich, smooth and concentrated with glorious fruit making it deep juicy and supple, lovely spice, rich raspberry and cherry fruit making it very flavoursome, but beautifully balanced with good acidity. The oak is well integrated and the tannins are silky, with hints of kirsch on the finish.

An amazingly concentrated wine, this is unlike any other Tempranillo I have ever tasted – 92/100 points.

Not yet available in the UK.

Leonardo also makes an excellent dessert wine:

2003 Caratello Vin Santo del Chianti
D.O.C. Vin Santo del Chianti
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
Malvasia Blanco,  Malvasia Nero, Trebbiano & San Colombano grapes dried for 6 months until 80% of the water has been lost – aged 6 years in sealed small oak and chestnut barrels – Chestnut is traditional and Leonardo likes to retain it.

The colour is like molten golden toffee.
The aromas are of rich fig, caramel, coffee, nuts and raisins and it these same characters that dominate the palate. It is rich, but there is balance there  from just enough fresh acidity. It only has 130grams per litre of residual sugar, so never seems sickly/LRS. I liked this, it was a very good Vin Santo indeed and it was perfect with the lovely Tuscan easter cakes we had for dessert, which were not unlike a Pannatone, so that combination would work too. Leonardo only makes 800-100 half bottles of this wine and he considers it his ‘passion’ – 91/100 points.

Not yet available in the UK.

Actually I got the distinct impression that all the wines were Leonardo’s and Eva’s passion, not just the Vin Santo. Everything here is done with the utmost care and it shows, Leonardo and Eva clearly love their land and the wines they produce and delight in being able to do something a little bit different and yet totally traditional to their estate. These are artisan wines made from beautifully tended vines whose low yields produce concentrated, but balanced, fresh, elegant and honest wines that represent great value for money – do try them if you can. It all just goes to show that wine is still capable of delivering surprises.

Thanks Eva and Leonardo for a wonderful experience.

Pietro Beconcini wines are imported into the UK by Carte Blanche Wines and into the USA by SullaTavola.

16 thoughts on “X Marks the Spot – a Tuscan Mystery

  1. As a Spaniard, hard to admit this, but could we have the opposite case here… could these be the great great grandfather vines of Spanish Tempranillo that Romans brought to Hispania some 2000 years ago and somehow a tiny patch of the variety has managed to survive all the changes in Italian winemaking? Food for thought.. Truly enjoyed this post, thanks Quentin!

    • Hi, thanks for that. Glad someone enjoyed it. I found it really interesting, but seemingly few others do!
      Hey, that would be great if it was the last remnant of what became Tempranillo – it seems the DNA is only an 80% match – a bit like Zinfandel in Croatia! So it really could be that way round – going from Italy to Spain, who knows. It is a real mystery, especially as it happened long before Tempranillo was established as the main grape of northern Spain – a lot of research shows that Rioja, like Chianti, mainly made white wine until relatively recently.
      I hope we do find out. Thanks for commenting, Quentin

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