Who: Paolo Cianferoni
Where: Radda in Chianti, heart of Tuscany
What grapes: Sangiovese, Colorino, Canaiolo, Trebbiano, Malvasia
How many bottles: 20,000
Key facts: This certified-organic (by CCPB) one-man estate makes compelling wine from old vines in the heart of Chianti Classico, with very little manipulation or modern technology.
Caparsa Bianco di Caparsino
Soil type: Alberese, Galestro, clay, sand
Grapes: Trebbiano, Malvasia Bianca
Method of fermentation: Spontaneous with indigenous yeasts for 30 days. Aged 10-12 months in stainless steel.
Bottles made: 1,200
Caparsa Rosso Toscano IGT
Rosso di Caparsa is certified organic by CCPB. It is made in Radda in Chianti, the heart of Tuscany, on hilly, high-elevation vineyards. Wild yeasts are used for fermentation, and the wine ages in stainless steel. I’ll let Paolo explain the blend: “The Wine “Rosso di Caparsa is made with Sangiovese and two white grapes: Trebbiano and Malvasia. This wine remembers the ancient Chianti wine made for the peasant to drink a lot. It is a brilliant red, with very intense aromas of flowers. The taste is very agreeable. It is not full-bodied, so you can drink a lot of it. It is not a white wine, not a rosé wine; it is a natural expression of a traditional wine.”
Soil type: Alberese, Galestro, clay, sand
Grapes: Sangiovese, Trebbiano and Malvasia
method of fermentation: Spontaneous with indigenous yeasts for about 12 days. Aged in cement tanks.
Caparsa Chianti Classico Riserva Caparsino
Soil type: Alberese, Galestro, clay, sand
Method of fermentation: Spontaneous with indigenous yeast in large lined cement tank and big old barrels.
Caparsa Vin Santo
Soil type: Alberese, Galestro, clay, sand
Grapes: 50% Malvasia, 50% Trebbiano
Method of fermentation: Aged and Fermented in large old oak barrels for over a decade.
Paolo Cianferoni speaks at great pace, an uninterrupted stream of essential information regarding Caparsa. His narrative begins immediately, abruptly, and conveys the tremendous amount of work and focus necessary to elevate a winery to this level. Along with being the engine behind this small estate, he is the father of five children, three of whom were born on the estate. Speed and efficiency are critical with that much on your plate!
His work began in 1982. It was initially a matter of rebuilding, to shape the estate into a leading organic farm. The land had been purchased by his family in 1965: the oldest side of the house dates to the 16th century. The vineyards are truly in the heart of Chianti, a perfect location. They radiate out with the cellar as their center.The best vines are situated a few hundred meters farther up the hill from the cellar (450 meters above sea level) and are heavily planted with Sangiovese. Small amounts of Canaiolo, Malvasia Nera, Colorino, and Trebbiano are also grown.
Respect for nature and balance with the larger environment are core principles at Caparsa. Sixty percent of the estate’s land remains forested for biodiversity. There is clear-headed, correct farming happening at Caparsa, and the yield is impressive. “Herbicides simplify a vineyard,” Cianferoni stated. Chemicals have an undeniable dulling impact on a farm’s products. Making wines this thrilling has to be done naturally.
Cianferoni is in the process of selecting and replanting portions of his old vineyards with plant stock culled from his oldest vineyards: massale replanting. He believes these 46-year-old vineyards produce wines that are rustic at first, yet are innately very age-worthy. The vines grow in gallestro and alberese soils. The roots must work hard to derive life from this rocky ground, fight to reach the abundant water deep under the surface. Cianferoni appreciates the struggle of his vines. “When life is too easy it becomes boring, and you kill yourself” he said. We need toil to sustain us, and so do vines.
Capara’s Caparsino Chianti Classico Riserva is in a league of its own. “Others use notes or paint, I use nature.” The wine is 95% Sangiovese. Cianferoni points out the richness and acidity of Caparsino as fundamental elements necessary for the wine to age. Caparsino shares its name with the house Cianferoni lives in on the property. “It is a wine for wine lovers, with great complexity and strong emotions. It is too much for some people. It represents, more than the other wines, the terroir (of Caparsa.)”
Cianferoni says his riservas benefit from 15-20 years of ageing. But they are fundamentally meant to drink. “It is great with beef, simple bread and olive oil. The wine is to provide just a little happiness, not to get out of your mind.”
Caparsa’s cellar is stone, old and cold, with minimal technology. Everything here is deliberate. Fermentations begin with wild yeasts, and for the reds, last about 12 days. Cianferoni uses 10 hectoliter large barrels to age his reds. “Wood has many risks. Small barrels dry too much the wine. And the extra tannin (from small barrels) can be toxic.” He likes a complex mix of Slovenian, American, Hungarian and French oak for his big barrels.
Cianferoni bottles once per year, an average of 20,000 bottles. “If I stay small I control everything.” He ferments in concrete. The very appealing and real Bianco di Caparsa (equal parts Trebbiano and Malvasia) is made by destemming the clusters, then allowing the white juice to stay on its skins for 14 days. The wine varies significantly in character vintage to vintage according to the thickness of these skins, impacted of course by weather. Cianferoni does nothing to control malolactic fermentations. The wines are bottled unfiltered. He culls extensively in the cellar to maintain top quality. In a typical year he may sacrifice/sell off in bulk 3 to 4 of his 10 large barrels. Only the absolute best are bottled as Caparsa.
Caparsa’s wines are certified organic by the CCPB. “I drink a liter of wine a day. It has to be made in a healthy way.” There is a touch of genius to what is going on at Caparsa. Paolo Cianferoni is a man on his own course, guided by a vision.
Summer 2016 Update
People often flatter me by saying how wonderful it would be to see Italy at my side, winery-by-winery. They blur out the hard realities of my work travel life. It’s cool.
A few friends have lived with me on the road in Tuscany. Here is their story. Or, here’s a day from my travel journal, at close to the end of a challenging two weeks abroad.
Friday, in a week of winery visits. Our ranks thinned. Wine tourism gets dull, even if you really enjoy drinking. Unless you are stricken with the need for ever more granular knowledge, sand falling into in a very deep well. Attrition. The undeniable appeal of surrounding Tuscany pulled Phoebe (who cooked all the food) and Chuck (who took all the best photos) to markets and distilleries, and olive oil frantoias. They kept a trio of children in their care, which makes them unheralded saints.
I won’t know if Phoebe minded cooking for 11 people for a week, her time off from making food for a living. She’s one of my very best friends, but she holds emotions tightly. I think the week had been a mix of high and low for her. The flight to Florence had been harrowing, her son melted down spectacularly. She clearly loved an early visit to Il Casalone, a tiny Lambrusco farm run by the impossibly kind Alberici family. We ate simple food and talked while the kids played soccer on the patio. Phoebe said she was close to tears. I understand the sentiment. These little beautiful places still exist, filled with marine blue beehives and giant abandoned wooden wine barrels and selfless, generous farmers.
Chuck had a mob of children thrust upon him. He longed to see art but was unlucky to be on a foodie excursion, our art was prosciutto, not Giotto. He gamely stood watch by the cold deep swimming pool, surrounded by lemon trees, with specks of grazing sheep forming patterns across the valley. He drew perfect illustrations of our verdant stone fortress. He captured the light, the surreal Tuscan sunsets. I’ve seen similar wonderful light in Bordeaux, at nearly 10pm on a clear summer evening. And crossing the Arizona desert with Megan, 21-year-olds in a tiny Mazda, dreaming of the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, and falling in love for the first time.
Kate (my favorite nocturnal Brooklynite) was holding on. She was awake earlier than her biorhythms normally allow, because I’d lied about our departure time. I know my people. We needed to shove off at 10am, so I told Kate nine. Among many primary virtues, Kate remains up for every adventure, a team player and an upbeat companion. She underestimates how much her presence means to me, and many others around her. This morning she was fast to make coffee, which we’d brought in bulk from America. You can’t take chances. In the kitchen of a rented Italian farmhouse, even a beautifully restored fancy one on an organic farm, the stovetop espresso can be a little too industrial to swallow in the first fragile moments of morning.
Megan doesn’t need the sleep I need. We’ve shared a bed for many years. Under nearly identical conditions she rises an hour earlier, a feat of strength. She is physically strong, and glues my world together with willpower. I feel connected. I miss her when she’s not around.
Three-year-old Fiona napped the entire duration of our cellar tour and tasting. Which was perfect.
Coffee importer and Italophile Grant was fresh off the plane. He brought good Mescal gathered on a work excursion to Oaxaca. It made the last night in Italy memorable. Grant will go the extra mile for distinct wine experience, and seemed pretty stoked to spend afternoons with proprietors of quality-centric Chianti farms. He injected enthusiasm and product experience into our group. It created the right balance of relationships to wine within our small mob.
23-year-old Emma joined us the night before, from solo travel in Piemonte. We’ve spent 1,000 hours on the road together.
We piled into two cars, and drove south, to near Radda in Chianti.
Paolo Cianferoni doesn’t behave like a man that lost 60% of this vintage’s production to hail a couple weeks before we arrived. Temperament, or the cumulative experiences of two decades of farming? “The vines will struggle (because of the hail) and make better wine,” he said.
According to Paolo, 60% of Chianti Classico is under foreign ownership today. And 60% of the territory is still forested. That’s a greater percentage than is tree-covered in the larger surrounding region of Tuscany, and it’s a qualitative asset to winemakers in Chianti Classico. Paolo owns 12 hectares: 10 hectares are planted with vines. Paolo started planting new vineyards in 1999. 98% of his new vineyards are planted with Sangiovese. The rest is Trebbiano and Malvasia. Until the turn of the century he was solely working vineyards planted by his father in the mid-1960’s.
There is evidence that Etruscans made wine at Caparsa. Before World War II the whole area was farmed by sharecropping. Peasants had no rights. By the time he was six, Paolo was working on the tractor. By the age of 13 he was working in fields with peasants who had farmed the land before the war.
According to Paolo, 30 years ago the average vintage at Caparsa made 11% alcohol wine naturally. Now the average is 13%, even with their northeast-facing position. The maximum permissible yield in Chianti Classico is 53 hectoliters per hectare. The normal, natural yield at Caparsa, because of how they farm, is 40-45hl/ha. Paolo’s fields are planted in a galestro/clay/alberese soil mix. He still only bottles about 33% percent of production, because of constraints of time, cellar size, and a serious focus on only releasing the very best wine under the label “Caparsa.” He sells the less-good fruit to Ruffino and Antinori. While Paolo will expand the cellar, he doesn’t really want to change the character of his life. He wants Caparsa to stay small, and to remember an older way of life.
Paolo views Caparsa as a love story. He restored Caparsino, his 16th-century house and cellar, along with his wife Gianna. They raised five children at Caparsino. Doccio a Matteo, Caparsa’s top cuvee, is named after a natural spring that provides water for Caparsino. The couple’s oldest son is 27, and has a passion for making movies. Paolo’s second son started helping out around the farm seven months ago. The family still use a wooden basket press to crush the grapes. Paolo never filters his wine. He does decant it two to four times, depending on the wine.
“Sangiovese matures in October,” Paolo said. The late-ripening means “Sangiovese sees more influence of the land.”
After a vineyard and cellar tour, Paolo leads our ragged group to a picnic table under a tree outside Caparsino, to taste wines. Paolo is generous, opening a comprehensive array of the estate’s wines. I think we were all taken aback by the diversity of character and underpinning excellence of the line-up.
We started with 2014 and 2015 Rosato. The latter wine was exceptionally fruity and good. It gets its dark cherry color from a full day of skin contact. The rosato is made from fruit harvested in shady parts of Paolo’s vineyards. The wine is put into stainless tanks for tartaric stabilization, which is the only real way to accomplish this step because Caparsa is certified organic (so Paolo can’t add a stabilizer) and the cellar has no temperature control. It was bottled at the end of January.
Then we sampled the 2012 Caparsino Chianti Classico riserva. “My wines need time,” Paolo said. “It’s better to open them the day before.” After 24 hours of aeration the wine tastes quite grapey, strong. This is a high quality wine encountered in its infancy.
The 2010 Caparsino is a level up: very ripe, full, tannic: very good. Paolo has been making this wine since 1982. He was 24 years old.
The 2009 Caparsino is wide open aromatically at this stage. The wine is really approachable. Paolo said 2009 was a regular season in Chianti Classico. He made about 6,600 bottles of the Caparsino in that year, which is a little more than normal.
Caparsa usually makes about 4,000 bottles of Rosso di Caparsa. It’s an IGT wine, which Paolo likes because there’s no bureaucracy (in comparison to making DOCG Chianti Classico riserva.) He can use lighter glass, and the wine is bottled with no vintage on the label. Yields can be higher. The 2014 and 2011 bottlings of this wine are really great, naturally 12%, thirst-quenching and fun.
Maximum permissible yield is a dodgy thing in Chianti Classico, and really everywhere in the wine world. The ceiling is 52 hectoliters per hectare in Chianti Classico… with a caveat. You can only bottle 52hl/ha as Chianti Classico, but an additional 18hl/ha from the same fields can become IGT rosso Toscano. So in terms of farming, that permits 70hl/ha. And you can go to 90hl/ha if you bottle solely IGT wine, and as high as 140hl/ha for basically unregulated vino rosso. Which is staggering, industrial, un-ripenable.
Labels are always confusing. “Prodotto e imbottigliato” sounds like produced and bottled, but the laws around this label term permit 50% purchased fruit to be used, as long as you grow the other 50%. Paolo adds the term “integralmente” to his back labels, which means legally that the wine is 100% estate-made.
We ran through a crash course on Doccio a Matteo, essentiall his top wine (though not my favorite.)
The 2011 had more grip. It was really nice.
The 2008 saw some barrique. It was more open… at first. Then tannins clamp down. 2007 was another warm year. The wine is tannic. Paolo believes it needs 10 more years.
The 2006 was probably my favorite of the line-up for drinking today.
In 2003 Paolo lost 70% of the vintage. Today the wine seems fully mature.
“1997 was considered the beginning of the renaissance of the wines of Chianti,” Paolo states. “By then, many vines being used by were 20-30 years old. Big companies were busy buying up a lot of very small wineries in the area.”
“We have the power of the culture of wine and food,” Paolo said. There are more than 1,000 grapes in Italy. And 400,000 producers.” It’s an optimistic viewpoint. Italy is doggedly resistant to homogenization.
With this positivity circling us, we set off toward lunch, down the gravel hillside driveway and along a winding forested road toward Volpaia. To Bar Ucci. Where the food is really good! It seems to prove Paolo’s point. Waves of tourists wash through Volpaia, yet Bar Ucci continues to serve solid, high-quality traditional fare. They could easily sell out, take it easy. My fresh pasta and cinghiale-flavored sauce speak to stronger, older motivations.
WINTER 2013 UPDATE
Sometimes I feel like I am chasing Paolo Cianferoni. This year I stalked him with wine and cheese, improving my chances. He was happy to see the gifts, sent along from old friends at Corzano e Paterno, and happy enough to see me as well.
Paolo is a real farmer and knowing him requires time outside. We didn’t need to taste and the late afternoon sun made it a better day to be among vines. Enough has been written about the light in Radda and the rest of Chianti, but it is special.
Caparsa is hilly. Only a rudimentary knowledge of viticulture is necessary to know this is territory for great wine. Above the noise of ordinary wine, in a place that deserves to be treated reverently but is (in other hands) often abused. Taste Caparsa’s wines and the mistakes and manipulations of many Chianti Classico makers become harder to forgive. This is wine that adds life to days, really grabs you and offers insight and a bit of untethered joy.
I’ve noticed the wines of Caparsa hit some people like a lightning bolt: immediate awakening to the genius of Paolo and value of this place. The Bianco di Caparsino has been sneaking up on me for at least nine months. Initially I was borderline… uncertain. I think the wine grabbed Luc first. I became confident of its necessity from his enthusiasm. Then the wine gained traction. With repeated encounters the flavor fanned out, bent into new territory. Instead of getting tiresome, the prospect of encountering a slightly shifted iteration of Bianco di Caparsino sent sparks through my atrophied grey matter. The obvious parallel is a creamy maturing natural cheese, a good robiola for example. This wine and its peers are more like moving creatures than inanimate consumables. I like this wine in the way I like friends more over a span of time. At a point, with familiarity, the discourse leaves banalities for meatier territory.
The Rosso di Caparsa is wildly delicious and needs very little from me. This is untamed Sangiovese at its most directly appealing.
The Chianti Classico Riserva is real, traditional, and completely unready for drinking now. You can decant it for half a day and access 80% of what’s there. But keep it, because it seems likely the other 20% is really worth the wait.
I hold a grudge that I learned of Caparsa’s rose via social media. When you make 800 bottles of a delicious wine, secrecy is required. So this treat may come late to our dinner tables… but it will come. I am determined. Paolo will need to be convinced.