Peter Femfert knew nothing about winemaking when he took over Nittardi in Tuscany more than 30 years ago. Since then, the passionate gallerist has turned the estate into one of Chianti’s top producers.
Peter Femfert smiles when I ask him how he got started in winemaking. “A woman,” he says. He appears to ponder his next words but breaks into a chuckle. “It always begins with a woman.” Love. The answer to life’s mysteries.
But the 72-year-old German tells me that he was once a skeptic of romance. As a youth, he embraced his bachelorhood, and was convinced that marriage and kids were not for him. In the 1970s, he had a high-paying job as general manager of Avis, an American car rental company, in Frankfurt, but he did not enjoy it. The company’s nasty internal politics troubled him. “I was fed up,” he recalls. “I spent a third of my time there defending myself, making sure no one sawed off a leg of my chair. People were after my position. It was a shark pool.”
Disenchanted, he left the job in 1977 and spent a year travelling around Southeast Asia and island-hopping in the Pacific. In 1979, to feed his love for art, he set up Die Galerie, a modern art gallery in Frankfurt. Then he met Stefania Canali, an Italian, at a convention in Berlin, fell deeply in love, and “threw out all my previous convictions about bachelorhood”. After their marriage, Canali mooted the idea of owning a dream house in Tuscany. Femfert scanned the lands of Chianti. In 1982, he bought Nittardi, an ancient estate, which once belonged to painter and poet Michelangelo Buonarotti in the 16th century.
Located in Castellina, Nittardi is classic Tuscany, with its cleanly cut nougat-like walls of stone, and rustic terracotta roof. The estate originally had four hectares of vineyards, which, unbeknown to Femfert, were included in the property sale. “I was thrown into the deep end of the water as I knew nothing about winemaking,” he recalls, “but I decided to make something good out of it.” He has come a long way. Today, Nittardi’s vine acreage has grown to 40 hectares in Chianti Classico and Maremma, while the estate is regarded as one of the top Chianti producers in the region.
His Own Rules
The varietal composition of Chianti wines has gone through an evolution over the past few centuries. In ancient times, the exact grapes used were unclear. It wasn’t till the 19th century that Italian aristocrat Bettino Ricasoli developed a recipe for Chianti: 70 percent Sangiovese, 15 per cent Canaiolo and 15 per cent Malvasia or Trebbiano. Despite the odd inclusion of white varieties Malvasia and Trebbiano, the blend became the blueprint for Chianti producers. When the DOC regulation for Chianti was drawn up in 1967, Ricasoli’s formula was adopted with a little tweak—Sangiovese had to be blended with 10 to 30 per cent of Malvasia and Trebbiano.
The Ricasoli formula eventually drew its fair share of critics. (Those who did break the rules to blend their Sangiovese with other non-permitted varieties eventually created the Super Tuscans.) When Femfert took over Nittardi’s four-hectare plot in 1982, the vines were a mix of Sangiovese, Malvasia and Trebbiano. He was puzzled. “It was just strange to have white grapes in my red wine,” he says. “Since I was such a small producer then, I decided not to follow [the rule] and not tell anyone. So I replaced the white grapes by grafting Sangiovese vines onto the Trebbiano and Malvasia rootstocks.” His first wine, Casanuova di Nittardi, was a straight Sangiovese.
Like many Chianti producers who flouted the rules at that time, Femfert didn’t have much to worry as by 1995, the DOC regulation had changed again to legalise a 100 per cent Sangiovese production. By then Femfert had grown his wine portfolio, planted new vineyards, replaced the ancient vat room with a modern cellar, and hired Carlo Ferrini, a renowned consultant oenologist and winemaker whose clients include Casanova dei Neri and Fonterutoli. They increased the vine density, from 3,000 vines per hectare, to 6,700 vines per hectare.
“As you increase vine density, you let the plants ‘fight’ for nutrients. You get a lower yield but grapes with better flavour and a higher extract of minerals,” he explains. Vineyard location is key, too, adds Femfert. For example, Casanuova di Nittardi’s plot, Vigna Doghessa, sits on a south-facing hill at 450 metres, giving it excellent exposure to the sun, and imparting a rich ripeness to the wine.
Casanuova di Nittardi holds a special place in Femfert’s heart: ever since he launched the wine’s first vintage after taking over the estate in 1982, Femfert has been commissioning an international artist to paint the label of each successive vintage. Over the years, creatives like Yoko Ono, playwright Dario Fo, and Shanghai-born Taiwanese artist Hsiao Chin have applied their brushes to the bottle’s mien.
Femfert still manages Die Galerie, and it was inevitable that he’d also turn the Nittardi estate into a little museum of sorts: A sculpture garden—a trove of artefacts that includes towering steel figures by German artist Horst Antes and a metal silhouette of Roman emperor Augustus by German sculptor Heiner Meyer—lends a playful atmosphere to the property. There are also 20 lion statues, which are a symbolic reference to Canali’s Venetian background.
Keeping Up with the Times
Nittardi’s viticulture is certified organic, thanks to the initiative of Femfert’s son, Leon, 34, who took over winemaking duties four years ago. One of their organic winemaking practices involves turning nettle into a tea, which is then sprayed onto the vines as a natural pesticide and fungicide.
“During my time, I didn’t think it was necessary to be completely organic as I was using very little chemicals. For fertiliser, I used chicken or horse manure,” reveals Femfert. “But when Leon became our winemaker, he was keen [to turn the vineyards organic] as he saw it as the current trend. I didn’t reject his idea because when you give someone a big responsibility, you should not demotivate him.”
Together with Ferrini, Leon, who has tenures at Lapostolle in Chile and Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley, represent Nittardi’s new winemaking chapter; an astute buddy cop pairing of youthful vigour and sagely nous.
While turning the estate fully organic was an attempt to set a new viticulture standard and embrace a trend, Femfert isn’t one to jump on the bandwagon all the time. In 2014, the consorzio of Chianti Classico launched Gran Selezione, the highest tier for a Chianti wine. (Hitherto, the highest category was a Chianti Riserva.) The difference between the two tiers isn’t exactly night and day: A Riserva needs to be aged for at least 24 months, while a Gran Selezione has to be aged for at least 30 months. For the latter, grapes also have to come from the producer’s own vineyards and not a contracted grower. Femfert thinks this is an unnecessary category for Chianti Classico; a move that isn’t beneficial to smaller or boutique producers like himself. He has no plans to create a Gran Selezione.
“In a way, the Gran Selezione resembles what I have been doing for my Riserva Selezionata, which I have been producing for 25 years,” he muses. The Riserva Selezionata is Nittardi’s top ambrosia—only the best Sangiovese grapes are picked from Vigna Alta, a south-facing hillside vineyard. The vino, which is released only in the best years, is aged for 24 months in French barrels, followed by another six months of bottle ageing. The 2013 vintage, with its vanilla and chocolatey notes, earned 95 points from wine critic James Suckling, and was also mentioned as one of his Top 100 Italian Wines of 2016.
“I have been very fortunate. We have good vineyards with a mix of limestone, schist and clay,” says Femfert. “If you have a bad vineyard, you can work on it as much you like, but the results will never be good. Similarly, if you have poor rice, even the best chef in the world will not be able to turn it into a good risotto.”
This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s Jan/Feb 2018 issue – Embracing Clean & Green.