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January 21, 2022

Profile: Mazzei Castello di Fonterutoli, Toscana IGT “Siepi” 2019

Siepi, a single vineyard blend of roughly equal amounts of Sangiovese and Merlot, is a true Super Tuscan wine.  The vineyard, believed to be one of the oldest in Italy, dates from the 15th century if not earlier, its existence having been noted in a document from 1435.  The site has always been considered to be a great locale for Sangiovese, according to Francesco Mazzei, head of Fonterutoli.  He recalls how Biondi Santi from Brunello took cuttings from the Siepi vineyard when he started in Montalcino.  

So, what Mazzei did in the early 1980s was either crazy or brilliant.  Mazzei relates how they pulled out Sangiovese at Siepi and planted Merlot “on a hunch.”  Mazzei reminds us that, at that time, there was no Merlot in the Chianti Classico region.  There was a little Cabernet Sauvignon planted at Tignanello, but Merlot was nowhere to be found.  Mazzei felt that Merlot was a complementary grape to Sangiovese, providing flesh to Sangiovese’s structure.  In retrospective, maybe it wasn’t just a hunch, since clay in this 35-acre vineyard makes it an excellent site for Merlot.  

The Mazzei family, like the Antinori and Frescobaldi families, have been making wine in Tuscany for centuries.  The Mazzei’s main estate, which dates from 1435, is Fonterutoli, which lies principally in Castellina, bordering Radda and Castelnuovo Berardenga.  Over the last two decades they’ve expanded outside of Chianti Classico with an estate, Belguardo, in the Maremma, and Zisola, located outside of Noto in Sicily.

About 15 of the 35 acres of the vineyard, planted equally between Merlot and Sangiovese, provides grapes for Siepi.  Grapes from the remaining vines find their way into Fonterutoli’s other bottlings.  Even though the vineyard is planted equally with the two grapes, the blend of Siepi can vary from 40 to 60 percent of Sangiovese depending on how each variety fares in a given year.  The vines were planted in 1983 and 1984 at what was then felt to be a cutting edge “high-density” of 2,000 vines/acre.  By today’s standards, viticulture practices having changed over the last 35 years, that density would be considered average.  

The first vintage of Siepi was 1992.  Average annual production is about 30,000 bottles.  In a weak year, especially for Sangiovese, such as 2002, Mazzei opted to make little Siepi, the blend hugely favoring the Merlot (80 percent).  And some years, such as 2009 and 2014, no Siepi at all was made.  

In 2007, the new, gravity-flow winery opened, allowing Mazzei to parcelize the vinification.  Tanks of varying capacity now reflect the size of individual parcels of the vineyard, such that they can be vinified separately.  Moreover, a gravity-flow winery eliminates pumping, which can harm the wine.  A vertical tasting of Siepi a few years ago demonstrated how the new winery resulted in a fine tuning of an already marvelous wine.  

Mazzei has no formula for the barrel aging of Siepi, which depends, in part, on the variety.  For example, they age anywhere from 80 to 100 percent of the Merlot in 225-liter French (Allier) oak barrels (barriques), half to three-quarters of which are new, whereas they age Sangiovese in 900-liter barrels (tonneaux).  As with the exact blend, the exact oak aging depends on the vintage.  

Like the Mazzei family themselves, the 2019 Siepi displays power, elegance, and suaveness.  It’s got everything, as you’d expect from a great producer.  Intense, savory and ripe, it displays a masterful combination of dark cherry-like fruitiness and earthy minerality.  The tannins are fine, giving a silkiness to the wine’s texture.  The 2019 Siepi finishes with a delectable hint of bitterness, not sweetness or heat, despite a 14.5 percent stated-alcohol.  Gorgeous Tuscan acidity keeps it fresh and energetic.  From my experience with Siepi, it develops beautifully over ten to twenty years.  If you can afford it, by all means, do cellar at least some of their splendid 2019.  It’s sure to be one of their stars.  $130 … 96 Points

Posted by Michael Apstein at 12:54 PM