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A Rhone Ranger in Chianti Country


A pink ribbon announcing the birth of a baby girl has been pinned to the door of an ancient house in the Tuscan hamlet of Olena.

"Look. Isn't it wonderful?" asks Paolo de Marchi excitedly. The 47-year-old winemaker is not simply being sentimental. He is excited about a sign of new life in this ghost village, which lies within the boundaries of Isole e Olena, his family's estate in the Chianti Classico winegrowing region.

Seated in a cramped, battered old Fiat, he is on his way to inspect new vineyards above Olena, where he is hoping to write a new chapter in the history of his estate and of the region.

Isole e Olena is one of the estates that was responsible for Chianti Classico's growing reputation for quality during the 1980s. The son of a Turin lawyer whose family bought the estate in 1956, de Marchi is well aware that the roots of Chianti Classico's recent success lie in a disaster: the sudden depopulation of the region during the early 1960s.

"The movement of the rural population, which took a century or longer in most of Western Europe, took place here within the space of five years," he says. "It was this and the arrival of new landowners which led to the big changes here."

New landowners like the De Marchis brought a vision of something far above the region's traditional rustic vins ordinaires. They also brought new methods and technology with them, initiating a winemaking revolution.

De Marchi took control of the estate in 1976 after studying agricultural science at Turin University. During his studies, he worked the 1973 harvest, then spent the next winter at a large winery in California's Central Valley. "It was the time of big changes in the wine industry there, so this was very exciting and stimulating," he says.

The red wines that de Marchi has made from the native Sangiovese grape have gained an international cult following. What is less well known is that he has also played a leading role in revolutionizing viticulture in Chianti. For despite his own success and that of his region in general, he sees fundamental problems in the vineyards of Chianti Classico.

"The development we had the last 20 years was great, but we still have a long way to go," he says. "People here talk with pride about their old vines and low yield per acre, both of which ought to be very good for quality, but often this is nonsense." Nonsense because the statistics told to journalists by vintners may be true, but they say nothing about the wine in the glass.

The problem he all too frequently sees behind such stories is a high crop level per vine, resulting in disappointing wine quality. "Six to eight pounds of grapes per vine is not unusual, and it is far too much," he says.

De Marchi does not mince words, and his critique of Chianti's failings is precisely thought out. Just like fruit from trees that have been encouraged to crop too heavily, grapes from overloaded vines taste watery.

His solution to this problem, which also affected many of the vineyards he inherited at Isole e Olena, has been a long series of experiments, beginning in 1987, in planting vineyards at high densities: twice to nearly four times the traditional 1,000 vines per hectare [equivalent to 405 vines per acre]. As he replanted, he also took the opportunity to experiment with new grape varieties, including Syrah from France's Rhone Valley.

"Planting at 2,800 vines per hectare enables each vine to carry a maximum two pounds of grapes, which ripen perfectly and give us a decent-sized total crop," he says, shifting the Fiat down into first gear to take a steeply inclined track so badly eroded it is like climbing a bare rock face.

This is a remote and rugged corner of the region, and man's hold on the land is still tenuous here. Few of the many American and German tourists who flock to Tuscany each summer make it to this corner of Chianti. The last three miles of the way are nothing more than a dirt track through forests and scrub. It's hard believe that the bustling town of Siena is less than half an hour's drive away.

Emerging from the forest, de Marchi climbs a steep hillside, to which rows of newly planted vines cling. Two years ago this land was a forest littered with boulders.

"We had to remove 3,000 truckloads of rock to plant these 17 acres," de Marchi explains, as excitedly as he had pointed out the pink ribbon in Olena. "We were lucky that a construction company specializing in coastal defenses was so glad to get our rock they took it away free of charge."

The combination of the steep slope and southerly exposure could make this site ideal for the late-ripening Sangiovese grape. If this proves to be the case, the herculean task of establishing them will have been worthwhile.

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