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The Grape Crusaders

Sitting down to a nice Chianti once meant drinking cheap wine from a wicker bottle. A small group of stylish Italian vintners put the past to rest and gave Chianti the respect—and look—it deserves.

This," says GUIDO STUCCHI PRINETTI, "is a fiasco." A fiasco? I know that sitting on an ancient oak cask in the dank, dim vault of Coltibuono, Prinetti's thousand-year-old Tuscan estate, drinking spectacular red wines, might not be everyone's idea of time well spent—but a fiasco?

"No, you don't understand. This," Prinetti says, pointing to one of those bulbous, long-necked bottles of wine wrapped in wicker that once defined "cheap" Italian wine, "is a fiasco."

The fiasco, Prinetti explains, was how Chianti was packaged when it was just a simple local wine: The wicker cover kept it from breaking en route to local markets. "In the sixties, my father put Chianti in a traditional bottle. Replacing the wicker changed how people—especially Americans—see our wine."

An impression, he admits, that was sadly warranted. The blame lies almost fully with the white grapes called for in the vintner's recipe, which made Chianti acidic, tart, and difficult to age. In 1984 pressure from Chianti makers led to an order from the Italian government that did away with the white-grape requirement and freed vintners to make a more robust and deep Chianti. In 1996 the government refined the recipe again, declaring that Chiantis must be at least 75 percent Sangiovese, a red grape. By 2006 absolutely no white grapes will be allowed in its production.

These days, with the government firmly behind them, Prinetti and a growing number of other vintners are leading a small revolution in Tuscany, elevating the once lowly Chianti to a standard it had never known. In spring, using Florence as my starting point, I spent five days snaking through the Chianti district, a 20-mile stretch of wine country that runs from Florence to Siena. The area is roughly the size of New York City, but don't expect to zoom around it. You won't want to. Enjoy the dusty back roads and the views of rolling hills. And as you would if you were visiting New York for the first time, bring a good map.

Coltibuono's 2002 Chianti Classico, Prinetti tells me, is 90 percent Sangiovese. "The Romans gave the grapes that name, which means 'blood of Jupiter,' because they are so dark." The wine can only be described as fantastic, thick, and meaty, like drinking jelly.

Over the past few years, Prinetti has made significant changes to the land his family bought in 1846, including converting the entire vineyard to an organic state—a bit of a bold move in a business so steeped in tradition, but Prinetti prides himself on always being a step ahead. "I don't accept anything until I've touched and tasted it myself."

The family consists of a paternal line responsible for building Italy's first automobiles, and a maternal side descended from the Medicis. Thirty-four-year-old Guido, as everyone knows him, spent much of his youth running from this weighty legacy. After attending Colgate University in upstate New York for two years, he spent his twenties traveling throughout Southeast Asia.

"After seeing the world," he says, "I realized there was no better place to live than here." Here, after all, is Coltibuono, an estate established by Benedictine monks who gave it, and Prinetti's wine, the name that means "cultivate good things." "The monastery has always been a place of culture," Prinetti says. "I'm proud my family is helping to continue that."

TASTING NOTE The Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico, a hearty but not overwhelming choice, makes a perfect introduction to Chianti ($20; www.coltibuono.com).

At Rignana, the estate that COSIMO GERICKE and his wife, Sveva, have painstakingly restored, tradition also reigns. Gericke, 38, has been working the 250-acre spread since 1999, when he took it over from his father, who bought it during "the abandonment"—that period in the late sixties when a generation of farmers turned their backs on the family business. There have been days when he wondered if maybe he should do the same. Take June 18, 2003, for example. On that day, Gericke tells me, "it hailed and I lost forty percent of the crop. Now, whenever the sky turns black, I get nervous."

Before taking over Rignana, Gericke lived in London and South Africa. When he moved back, he sought the counsel of famed wine expert Giulio Gambelli. "Giulio taught me to trust my taste," he says. "Chianti is a wine of the soil. There is a movement to make it more international by blending it with grapes from other vineyards. But I think if you lose your soil, you lose your soul." I taste Gericke's 2001 Riserva and breathe in an invigorating scent, full of earth, with a mix of blackberry and mint. He looks at me as I'm lost in taking it all in. "I will be here on this land for a long time," he says. "I'm not going anywhere."

TASTING NOTE The Chianti Classico Riserva has just become available in the United States. ($20; www.fattoriadirignana.com).

I like to say Chianti is vino sincero—the most real wine," says GIOVANNI RICASOLI-FIRIDOLFI, 40, as we stand on a stone balcony overlooking Castello di Cacchiano, his 74-acre vineyard and, it would appear, the whole Tuscan valley. His family has had its hand in winemaking since the 1850s, when Baron Bettino Ricasoli defined exactly what makes a Chianti a Chianti. Ricasoli-Firidolfi wears his blue blood well. With his thick red hair and bright blue eyes, he looks like a nobleman who stepped out of an ancestral painting of the type lining the walls of the 16th-century estate—especially the one of his great-great-great-grandfather, a prime minister in the kingdom of Italy.

TASTING NOTE Castello di Cacchiano's best Chianti is its 2003 Millennio ($34; www.castellodicacchiano.it).

FRANCESCO and FILIPPO MAZZEI's Castello di Fonterutoli winery isn't just centered around Fonterutoli, an ancient hamlet of a hundred people; it has virtually devoured it. Open any of the weathered old doors in the tiny village and you are likely to stumble upon fine casks of wine bearing the Castello di Fonterutoli label. The new wine center the brothers are building down the road should free up some cellars at last.

The Mazzei family, the makers of all this wine, have been here since 1435. The success of their business is directly due to the labors of Francesco, 45, and Filippo, 46, who took over the vineyard in the eighties from their father, Lapo. In the dining room, over pasta, veal, and a bottle of their 2001 Chianti, a painting of the family tree dating back to the 11th century dominates an entire wall. Another Lapo Mazzei, a forebearer who died in 1421, is credited as the first person to use "Chianti"—in a 1398 contract—as a reference to a type of wine. Until then, the term referred only to the region. And judging by the taste of their powerful 2001 Castello di Fonterutoli, it's a legacy the brothers do not take lightly.

TASTING NOTE Castello di Fonterutoli's finest Chianti is its flagship wine of the same name: a great blend of power and elegance ($25; www.fonterutoli.com)

You learn a couple of things about Tuscany from traveling its back roads: First, you will get lost at least once a day. Second, everyone here knows everyone else. Take my introduction to the Fontodi vineyard and owner GIOVANNI MANETTI. When I mention that I just came from the Fonterutoli estate, he laughs. "Filippo and Francesco! We grew up together at local wine fairs."

If you are lucky enough to have a glass of wine with Giovanni inside his cluttered office, he will probably show you two photographs that hang there. The first is of him at age eight working at one of those local fairs. "I was hooked from the beginning," he says of the family business. The second photograph is from a 1986 article in Newsweek magazine on Super Tuscan wines, which his father helped pioneer. (The production of Super Tuscans, made mostly from Sangiovese and Cabernet grapes, was how people started to take Tuscan wine seriously.) "I learned so much from him," he says. "He was a genius."

At 41, Manetti still looks boyish. He pours me one of his best recent vintages, the 1999 Chianti Classico Fontodi. It's a wine that reflects the care the family has brought to the 173-acre estate since the father bought the property in 1968. (Giovanni took over in 1979.) "I had to convince my father to invest in equipment, and in the land," he says. "It was scary at first, but then we really hit it."

TASTING NOTE Fontodi makes a superb Chianti, the best of which is the unforgettable Flaccianello ($70; www.fontodi.com).

At lunch with FILIPPO CONTINI BONACOSSI and his father at Capezzana, the first thing Papa wants to know is how the grapes look. "Good," his son tells him, "but there's still so much that can go wrong."

Bonacossi, 40, is reserved—especially in the presence of his father. The Bonacossis have been on Capezzana since 1920, but Roman soldiers started farming the land in A.D. 804. Since he took over the estate from his father (like Manetti's, he was a pioneer of Super Tuscans), Bonacossi has increased production here by focusing on more organic growing methods. The wines he produces—for example, the rich Barco Reale di

Carmignano—are valued for their lushness. "You need to remember," he says, "Tuscany came from the sea." The entire region, he points out, was, for a long time, under water. "You can still taste this in Chiantis," he insists before raising a glass. "Wine is a gift," he says, toasting us. "Some years are better than others. And when things go wrong, you have to say to nature, Well, it was the thought that counts."

TASTING NOTE Capezzana's rich, lush Barco Reale di Carmignano is a standout ($14; www.capezzana.it).

At Il Borro, nature abounds. So, too, do the extremely well dressed. But then this 1,700-acre spread in the Valdarno region is owned by the family Ferragamo. And fashion's famous clan doesn't just own the vineyard. They own all of Il Borro, a small town and resort that is essentially Brigadoon Italian-style. For years, the town and the surrounding countryside were the hunting reserve of the Italian aristocrats.

In 1993 FERRUCCIO FERRAGAMO, then 47, bought the storied location from descendants of such Italian royalty. He had known the area through his escapades as a hunter. "I like to say that I came for the food and I stayed for the wine," Ferragamo says. It has now become a family affair. His 33-year-old son, Salvatore, runs the day-to-day operation of Il Borro and the production of its wine—a blend of reds that has received exceptionally good ratings in the last two years—while Ferruccio's brother, Massimo, bought a 4,300-acre property in Montalcino last year from one of the early producers of Brunello. It might seem like an odd match—the Ferragamos and wine. But Ferruccio thinks it makes perfect sense: "Wine is not so far from fashion. Both aim for the same high level of quality and attention to detail."

TASTING NOTE Il Borro's Toscana 2000 is a luscious, juicy blend of reds ($80; www.ilborro.com).


On the Road to Chianti

GETTING THERE
FLY into Florence and spend the night at the Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo. Ask for room 7, which has an enormous window and a breathtaking view of the Duomo—so close you could hit it with a baseball. But don't. Instead, submerge yourself in the private whirlpool and enjoy the splendor of it all. Rates, $295-$670. At 2 Via dei Servi; 39-055/282-412; www.niccolinidomepalace.com.

FROM FLORENCE, rent a car and buy a good local map. Remember, as beautiful as the Tuscan countryside is, to get to some of these vineyards you will have to travel on some dusty back roads.

WHERE TO STAY
IN TUSCANY, check in to Castello di Vicarello in Poggi del Sasso. The Castello dates back to 1100 and was a ruin when Carlo and Aurora Baccheschi Berti bought it, eventually spending ten years restoring it. There are five suites, the largest of which can accommodate four. Meals are also served, using estate-grown produce. Be sure and ask Aurora for her homemade pigeon paté or her artichoke, potato, and onion soup with fennel—it defines sublime. Rates, $370-$865. In Poggi del Sasso; 39-056/499-0718; www.vicarello.it.

Fattoria di Rignana is a small jewel hidden in the Tuscan hills, with simply prepared food and an infinity pool that gives a jaw-dropping view of the countryside. The villa for rent on the property has two apartments, each with four bedrooms and a kitchen. You can take the whole villa or reserve individual rooms. Rates, $150 per night for individual rooms; $7,300 per week for entire villa. At 15 Via di Rignana; 39-055/852-065.

If you enroll in a weeklong course at the Badia a Coltibuono cooking school, you can stay in the main building, in one of the rooms formerly occupied by monks. Don't worry—they're anything but spartan. It's worth a visit for the restaurant alone, which serves superb local cuisine. Five-night cooking course, $4,030 per person. In Badia a Coltibuono; 39-057/774-4832.

A NOTE ABOUT VISITING THE WINERIES
ALL THE VINEYARDS mentioned are open to visitors. Usually you can set up an appointment through the winery's Web site. But Tuscany being Tuscany, hospitality abounds. Should you arrive unannounced, chances are, you will be rewarded with some spectacular wine.