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Castello d'Albola: Breaking Tradition


RADDA IN CHIANTI — The wine of Chianti--red, dry and in the midst of a renaissance--is composed as much of heritage and history as of wine-making expertise, so it is noteworthy when a winery defies tradition.

Here in the parched, rocky hills of the Chianti country, it is not easy to make changes. Zoning laws all but prohibit expansion of buildings; Common Market laws all but prohibit new plantings. Cost factors override everything, making renovation a practical impossibility.

Money, however, can help. Two of Italy's most successful modern wine producers, Villa Banfi and Antinori, got where they are today because they had always been money makers, which permitted those two far-thinking companies to reinvest their profits and improve their wines.

Castello d'Albola is also a product of profit reinvestment. Unlike Banfi and Antinori, Albola has not yet won wide fame, but its new wines are indicative of two truisms of Chianti:

--The old methods that focus on excellent grapes still make great wine.

--Modern techniques of farming, fermenting and finishing can combine with the older methods to make wine greater than anything yet seen.

Still, there is one absolute that binds these two thoughts: To do anything right here requires money, preferably a load of it.

The 11th-Century watchtower atop the main building at Castello d'Albola indicates that this place--once known as Pian d'Albola--has been making wine for centuries. But it is only during the last two years that it has been making great wine.

The funding behind the renovation of Albola comes from the huge Italian wine firm Zonin, which bought a decaying 1,200-acre estate here in 1979 and immediately began upgrading the whole operation, from restoring the vineyards to building a massive new wine-making facility.

"There was a great amount of deterioration of the vines during the time when they were not properly tended," said Bruno Zaratin, director. He pointed out that because of the large number of vines per acre in the densely planted, steeply sloped Albola vineyard, it cost about $20,000 per acre to replant the vines (about five times the cost of a valley floor vineyard in California). There are about 375 acres of vines here, a costly replanting job for at least one other reason: labor here is scarce and thus expensive.

It is interesting to note, though, that approaching this facility from Radda, one must leave the paved road and drive more than a mile on an unpaved rock-strewn path to the ancient walled castle. In other words, though Zonin was prepared to spend millions on the vineyards to produce quality wine, paving the road was clearly viewed as a frill.

The renovation of this property includes a monstrous, 80,000 square-foot winery, modern in every respect including the design. Getting this structure approved required the patience and cash to fight bureaucratic intransigence.

"How long did it take you to get the permits for this place?" I asked Zaratin as we walked around the $3 million structure, still uncompleted.

"Only four years!" he exclaimed in exultation. "Not many people can get permits that quickly here. This is one of the most protected places in all of Italy." Then he added quickly: "And then three months after we got the final permit, the law was changed again, so now it's even harder to get a permit."

In 1988, two things occurred to make Albola a true property of potential. The first was when the winery placed Filippo Pedron in charge of vineyard and winery operations. A talented wine maker, Pedron was charged with making only great wine and selling off anything not satisfying that mandate.

Then Zonin entered into an international marketing agreement with the Seagram Classics Wine Co., a powerhouse in the business.

Driving around the estate with Pedron and Zaratin, I saw touches of care everywhere: matching the grape variety to a particular soil, careful choice of clone (13 different clones of Sangiovese are used here), concern over sun exposure for a type of pruning system, even the location of the new olive trees. (Making olive oil is as much a Chianti tradition as making wine.)

Tasting the latest releases, I was quite impressed with the wines, the 1988s and 1989s even more than the excellent 1987s, evidence that Pedron has had an immediate impact on the quality.

The 1987 Chianti Classic ($7) is an excellent, balanced and fruity red wine with a bone-dry finish, perfect for pasta.

Utterly sublime, however, was the 1988 Chianti Classico ($9), which will be released in two months. A flowery aroma and soft cherry-raspberry notes make it appealing, and the aftertaste is a joy because of lower tannins and an extremely long finish.

Pedron said he made the wine with new rototanks that gently roll the juice and the skins around together, extracting proper flavors without excessive tannins. It's a method used with great success by the Australian wine industry.

This is a striking wine, one of such immense appeal that it was declared the winner of the Douja d'Or for 1990--the highest award in a wine competition of 849 wines from throughout Italy.

Albola also has two newer-styled Tuscan wines. Both are marvelous, if a bit pricey. The better of the two is 1988 Accaiolo, a soft, very rich, toasty red wine with a marvelous cherry-nutmeg spice quality and an intense, deep aftertaste. At $26, it sounds expensive, but it may become one of the cult wines of the 1991 season.

A companion wine, 1989 Castello D'Albola Chardonnay ($21), is also superb, mainly because of its lean, fresh aroma, creamy mid-palate and fruity finish. It is excellent wine and competes with the best Chardonnays of the New World.

However, with its 1987 and 1988 Chianti Classico wines, Castello d'Albola will make its mark in a more obvious way: great red wines at a price most people can afford.

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