Montalcino-based Castiglion del Bosco winery has been making big strides, thanks to the meticulous viticulture efforts of winemaker Cecilia Leoneschi.
Growing up with a father who was a winemaker in Maremma, Cecilia Leoneschi was exposed to plenty of vino. Although she did not work with her dad, she recalls tasting wines alongside him. Winemaking, however, wasn’t her first career choice: She had wanted to be a vet.
But, as she’d find out, the wine industry has a trope—you can’t escape your winemaking heritage; avoid it and it comes back to knock on your door. “My friends encouraged me to study wine because there were very few women [in the scene] then,” recalls the 44-year-old, whose whirl of dark, curly hair accentuates her intense eyes. “So I enrolled in a viticulture and oenology degree programme at the University of Pisa.”
After graduation, Leoneschi joined Montepulciano-based winery Avignonesi in 1997, where she focused on red grape varieties. In 2003, she joined Castiglion del Bosco—an 800-year-old estate in Montalcino purchased by Massimo Ferragamo, scion of fashion designer Salvatore Ferragamo—as its oenologist and winemaker to help revive its winemaking tradition. By then, Leoneschi was starting to turn Sangiovese, Tuscany’s main red grape, into her area of specialty.
“Sangiovese has different expressions throughout the land,” she explains, drawing an imaginary map with her fingers. “Generally, in Chianti, in the centre of Tuscany, Sangiovese has a rustic, earthy character. As you move towards the sea, the weather changes, and you have very hot days and cool nights, which help encourage acidity development. For us in Montalcino, where it is warm and dry, we tend to get very ripe tannins, which are important for developing complexity and ageing potential.”
Laying the Foundation
Sangiovese is invariably synonymous with Chianti, thanks to the region’s sheer range of wines, the consortium’s marketing prowess and quality control, and a certain Hannibal Lector-type predilection for the vino. The hilly town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany may not have the pop star status of Chianti, but it remains the only DOCG area where producers have to make a 100 per cent Sangiovese for their Brunello di Montalcino wines (Chianti wines, on the other hand, must have a minimum of 70 percent Sangiovese). For many oenophiles, Brunello di Montalcino is a Sangiovese expression at its purest.
“Producing a 100 per cent Sangiovese is our main difference,” says Leoneschi. “In Chianti, where the soil is largely clay, Sangiovese can taste fresh and floral. In Montalcino, we get more plum aromas and mineral notes because of the region’s galestro soil; a mix of rocky shale, clay and limestone. The dry characteristic of the galestro forces the vine’s roots to grow deeper into the ground to search for water and nutrients. You can pick out this particular scent of the earth—the minerality—in our wines.”
Being gifted with good soil conditions doesn’t mean you can simply stick a vine into the earth and expect it to grow well. One of the first things Leoneschi did after joining Castiglion del Bosco was to replace some of the underperforming vines with new rootstocks, such as Richter 110, a rootstock that grows well in dry soil conditions and is known for its moderate vigour. She also increased vine density from 4,500 vines per hectare to 5,600 vines per hectare. Along with Ferragamo, she oversaw the construction of a modern, two-storey, gravity-driven cellar with a capacity of 3,000 hectolitres. The facility, which was built in 2004, holds 100-hectolitre to 150-hectolitre tanks on the lower level to allow the winemaking team to ferment parcels individually. The cellar also has an overhead glass walkway that lets you overlook the army of big, 50-hectolitre French oak barrels used for ageing.
Big barrels weren’t always in vogue for Brunello di Montalcino wines. “In the past, many producers in Montalcino, including Castiglion del Bosco, preferred small casks or barriques over big barrels as the former imparted a little more spice and woody notes,” reveals Leoneschi. “Today, it’s the opposite, as we want to have less oak and more fruit flavours.” It was while observing the evolution of the Sangiovese from the estate’s 42-hectare Capanna hillside vineyard that prompted Leoneschi to consider adopting more big barrels for ageing: With each subsequent vintage, she discovered the fruit was showing more signs of finesse. Thus, small barrels, with their higher surface area-to-wine ratio, would mask the Sangiovese’s increasingly elegant and complex profile.
Focus on the Vines
Castiglion del Bosco currently produces 120,000 bottles per year. Campo del Drago, named after the prized south-facing parcel that sits atop Capanna at a height of 450 metres, is a delicious ambrosia. The 2012 vintage offers a rich bouquet of cherries and mint, and a seamless blend of dark fruit notes, minerally touches and silky tannins on the palate.
The estate’s Limited Edition Zodiac—a Riserva with a label that depicts a Chinese zodiac animal—comes from a small parcel of less than a hectare on Capanna. Leoneschi reckons the Zodiac has “incredible ageing potential”. The label of the 2011 vintage released this year features a painting of a dog by Chinese artist Li Fu Yuan. Aged for 36 months in oak, the vino has a longer finish and a little more acidity than the Campo del Drago. The Zodiac has excellent structure and balance, like a well-trimmed steak with just the right amount of fat. Its seductive, bold fruit aroma hints at a meticulous work ethic in the vineyards.
Castiglion del Bosco’s vines are grown organically. Compost made from grape pomace are used instead of chemical fertilisers, while cover crops like legumes (fava beans and peas) are planted next to vines to help give nitrogen to plots with dry soil. In the estate’s Gauggiole vineyard, where the soil is richer, barley and oats are planted to reduce the vigour of the earth and encourage the vine roots to reach deeper. Leoneschi adds that cover crops also increase plant diversity and improve the biodiversity of the vineyard.
“Today, winemakers in Montalcino are spending more time in the vineyards instead of the cellars,” remarks Leoneschi. “This is a good change. If you want terroir in your wines, you need to be ‘connected’ to the vines: Go out there often to see, smell and touch the plants and the earth, and not just during harvest time.
This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2018 issue – Wonder Women.