I have never offered this wine before, and yet I have tasted a good number of vintages, and it has received very good reviews for a number of years. Somehow, it has never quite clicked for me until now. Herein lies the point behind Atlas offers; we taste all the wines we offer in these emails as we believe in our judgement and do not want to be simply parroting what critics say without finding out what we think. I don’t want to labour this point too much, but I am really proud of this approach, which we adopted from day one. Normally we have the chance to taste as a team, so everyone has the chance to assess the wine in question, but the COVID situation has put pay to that for now. We are fortunate to be receiving a steady stream of samples to our home addresses from suppliers and estates, as any local delivery driver in my area can testify!
Now to the wine in question. Siepi has become a Tuscan icon, but it is a highly unusual blend of grape varieties, namely Merlot and Sangiovese. The blending of a so-called international variety and an indigenous one is no issue, particularly given that Merlot has been in evidence in a number of great Tuscan wines for many decades now, but these two varieties aren’t necessarily natural blending partners. More interesting still is the fact that Siepi is a blend of 50% of each variety – it isn’t as if one variety is merely a footnote; each variety makes an equal imprint.
Based a couple of kilometres from Castellina in the Chianti district, we find the hamlet of Fonterutoli. The estate is extensive, with 117 hectares under vine divided into five important subzones. The Siepi vineyard covers 14 hectares at an altitiude of 250 to 330 metres with a south/south-west exposure. Almost the entire expanse is devoted to Sangiovese and Merlot, with just a small planting of Cabernet Sauvignon. Unsurprisingly, the soils comprise clay with marly limestone and sandstone – with the important clay component leading to the Merlot planting, which was first made in the 1980s, predating the planting of many other Tuscan vineyards with this variety. Amazingly, the Siepi vineyard was mentioned in a family document in 1435 so ranks as one of the oldest recorded vineyards in Italy.
Today the estate is run by Filippo Mazzei, who is on record as stating that he ‘doesn’t believe in 100 per cent Sangiovese wines, one year they’re great, the next they’re worth nothing’. He goes on to say that ‘in years like 2006 and 2004, okay 100 percent Sangiovese is possible. In years like 2005 or 2003, it’s difficult…I prefer to be consistent and tell people exactly what I am doing.’ Maybe these comments predate the run of vintages that Tuscany has witnessed since 2010, when perhaps we have seen consistently warmer summers and full ripeness has not proven tricky to achieve, but Filippo Mazzei follows his own philosophy and the wines speak for themselves. The Siepi vineyard, with its particular microclimate and soil, permit both Merlot and Sangiovese to succeed, and the proportions planted with each variety are largely reflected in the wine itself.
I have always found it fascinating to have these two varieties planted in one vineyard and one day I would be interested to walk the vineyard to understand the decision and learn more, particularly having tasted the headturning 2018. It is worth noting that these two varieties necessitate different approaches; they ripen more than a month apart (Merlot in mid-August and Sangiovese towards the end of September in a vintage like 2018). They require different handling in the winery too given the fruit profile, with Merlot typically treated to shorter maceration times than Sangiovese. This blend is not constructed for ease, but because the Mazzei family see the merit in the style and how the components work together, elevating the quality of the whole.
Being honest, I haven’t always seen it. Sometimes I have found the Merlot to be a little headstrong and dominant with its richness of fruit and tannins. Sometimes, the brighter fruited Sangiovese’s race is revealed to the end of the palate, with the abundant Merlot frontloading the palate. That said, I have never tasted a 10–15-year-old example and perhaps that is the moment when the Merlot is tempered a little with age and the harmony is found – Siepi isn’t a wine that is often open for early drinking. With all this in mind, I opened the sample of Siepi 2018 and everything was turned on its head – the wine seemed incredibly well-integrated after thirty minutes in a decanter. You could see the role of Sangiovese from the outset, breathing freshness into the blend, and the Merlot seemed less forceful and beautifully expressive. I had wondered if the softer nuanced ripeness of the 2018 vintage might have favoured this wine. I don’t think I have tasted a better Siepi – this is a glorious wine. Frankly, I enjoyed tasting it over a couple of hours. So, count me as a convert.
Please see my note below along with Antonio Galloni’s comments and 97-point score on vinous.com. On this occasion, I am certainly on the same page as him as regards Siepi 2018’s qualities.
97 points, Antonio Galloni, Vinous
Siepi, Fonterutoli’s Merlot/Sangiovese blend, is absolutely gorgeous in 2018. Rich, pliant and creamy, Siepi offers all of the seductiveness of Merlot with the bright acids and grip of Sangiovese. Inky blue/purplish fruit, lavender, dried herbs, spice, licorice and new leather meld together in an open-knit, inviting Tuscan red with no hard edges and tons of allure shaped by alberese soils with a good bit of clay. The 2018 is an undeniably sexy wine with so much immediacy. 2026-2040.
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All the best,