Spotlight on Chianti Classico: Castello di Ama Riserva 2009

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photoWith this article we move north from Castelnuovo Berardenga to the commune of Gaiole and one of Chianti’s oldest, most famous producers. Castello di Ama is also fairly controversial for its use of merlot, new oak barrique and its extremely high prices. Ama is particularly famous for its single vineyard wines, all of which are priced over $200 a bottle in this market.

Castello di Ama is a useful winery to discuss two key concepts: plant biology and blending. The former because Castello di Ama introduced the Lyre Guyot method of training to Chianti and the latter due to Ama’s embrace of Merlot as a central element of all their Chianti Classicos.

Sangiovese, Plant Biology and Quality

Quality sangiovese requires high density planting and a training method that combats the plant’s high level of vigour. Guyot, which was introduced to Chianti by Castello di Ama, is the most favoured trelissing approach for quality producers (a perpendicular approach to training the new fruiting canes, which limits the vine’s vegetation), though some use the alberello method of bush-training that allegedly allows more even maturity and acidity and increases polyphenols (the aromatic compounds that allow us to smell so much in a wine’s bouquet). The density required for quality Sangiovese ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 plants per hectare.

Beyond planting, rootstock selection and clones is grape maturity or ripening. As I alluded to in the last post in this spotlight, light is highly important to grape maturation, particularly for Sangiovese. When talking about seasons we traditionally focus on temperatures. We speak of hot years and cool years. But this is an overly narrow perspective. Fairly recent work has shown that the amount of light to which grapes are exposed has a significant impact on their maturity. Hence, canopy management is becoming an essential aspect of most farming, and particularly so for the light-sensitive Sangiovese grape. Better canopy management can allow for less green harvesting, which some have argued can actually negatively impact grape quality. There is no conclusive word on the best approach and producers are still learning about what works best for their vineyards. Continued experimentation with canopy management should eventually answer these questions and increase wine quality.

Blending and International Varieties

Perhaps of greater importance for Castello di Ama, the winery emphatically embraces Sangiovese as best in situ with other grapes. In other words, blends rule. This 2009 Riserva bottling is a good example, with 80% Sangiovese blended in with 20% Malvasia Nera and Merlot (the exact percentage of each of these latter two grapes is not disclosed). The use of Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot resulted from the popularity of the Super-Tuscan wines in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These varieties compensated for Sangiovese’s fickle quality (it is highly prone to mutation and there are so many clones it is difficult to get all the characteristics one wants from a single clone) by adding depth, colour and structure to the wines. Such grapes are permitted to comprise up to 20% of any wine labelled Chianti Classico. Now, of course, the argument is that use of these grapes has disguised the true terroir of Chianti Classico even though most acknowledge they grow well and make quality wines.

It is this blending element that left me most ambivalent about this Riserva.

Chianti with Merlot

The 2009 Riserva from Ama is a bit of a bargain since they did not bottle any single vineyards in the 2009 vintage and so all the best fruit went into this wine, at a mere fraction of the price of the top wines.

The vineyards are planted between 390 and 530 metres above sea level, so I would consider them mid-range elevation for Sangiovese. Many of the vines are pretty old, ranging from 20-40 years. The younger fruit goes into the basic Chianti with the old vine material destined for the single vineyard bottlings and this Riserva. Stainless ferments lead to maturation in barrique (20% new).

The wine tastes quite modern to me and very dense. This is not high toned, aromatic Sangiovese, but dark toned and inward looking. I feel it needs more age than other wines at this level, though I also think the Merlot stamp is detectable and pulls me somewhat away from adoration. The pleasure comes from spices, herbs, dark berry fruits wrought together in a fresh, balanced wine. I would lean towards grilled meat rather than lighter fare for this wine.

Very Good+
$50 at BCLDB


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