Last year at Vino 2015 I became friendly with Carlotta and Sam Pignato who introduced me to the wines they represent with Tuscan Vineyard Imports. These wine entrepreneurs specialize in discovering and promoting artisanal fine wines and bio-dynamic wines – some identified as Slow Wines – and work with distributors in the Southeast U.S. I was particularly interested in the story the Pignatos told me about a delicious wine with an “X” in its name because of how vintner Leonardo Beconcini discovered an unidentified grape vine on his property.
This year at VINO 2016 at the Hilton Midtown on February 8-9, I was happy to meet producer Leonardo Beconcini and Eva Bellagamba, the export manager who works closely with him for Pietro Beconcini Agricola. They discussed the specifics of the mysterious grape vine discovery on Leonardo’s land, which lies between Florence and Pisa. He developed and cultivated an unidentified grape varietal which thrived in his terroir, whose seashell-rich clay soil is enhanced by moderating breezes from the nearby Mediterranean. His dedicated cultivation of the unrecognizable vines eventually led to the evolution of three fabulous, unique, Tuscan red wines: Frecso DI Nero, IXE, and Vigna Alle Nicchie.
The story of the “X” grape varietal began when Leonardo was selecting hardy Tuscan grape vines to make exceptional wines. These vines were on the old family farmland and vineyards that had been worked by his grandfather when he was a sharecropper on the lands of the Marchesi Ridolfi family. His grandfather was one of the first to free himself from the sharecropping system to purchase the land from the Ridolfi family estate in the 1950s.
The farming tradition was carried on to the next generation and Leonardo’s father used the land strictly for the wine trade. Years later after Leonardo had joined his father in the winemaking business, he wanted to expand the evolution of the grape growing and wine making by using trending techniques. That meant selecting, cultivating, and developing choice vines.
While selecting vines from the some of the old vineyards, Leonardo immediately recognized widely planted Tuscan grapes: Sangiovese, Malvasia Nera, Canaiolo, and others which have grown for centuries in the San Miniato area where Leonardo’s vineyards are found. Since it is a fine growing area and the Tuscan vines were robust (no chemicals or Monsanto herbicides used, thank goodness), Leonardo was able to produce wines with the known Tuscan varieties just three years after beginning his newer winery implementations.
However, something intriguing occurred when he was selecting beautiful, hardy vines for his quality wines. He stumbled across vines that were completely unrecognizable as Tuscan indigenous varietals! Yet here they were, growing and changing their morphology because they had found an accommodating home, and prospering by extracting the essentials of the San Miniato terroir. Indeed, they were becoming Tuscan, even though they were not of Tuscan origin.
Leonardo was intrigued by these mystery vines that happily flourished on his gently sloping hills, soaking up the sun, feeding from the nutrients in the rich soils, enjoying the breezes. Because they had readily adapted to the seasons of the San Miniato microclimate, Leonardo decided to propagate a number of hectares of the “X” vines while he researched high and low for the vine’s origin with the help of expert academics and winemakers who had been in the wine business before he was born.
For years, the “X” vine grew and remained unnamed, like an orphan whose parents were long deceased. All the experts Leonardo questioned were stumped. Were the vines from France, brought by traveling monks and planted because the climate was similar to their hometown parishes and the terroir suitable?
Could it have been settlers, traveling merchants, migrants? Perhaps the vine was brought even before traveling monks journeyed to preach and teach, during one of the European land migrations when people fled persecutions and wars or just wanted to come down from the mountains into a better climate in the hope of achieving a better life. Of course travelers would bring their vines with them because in those days, most were wine makers and if you could settle long enough to cultivate a fine grape, you would have wine in a few years’ time. There was always wine to be drunk and savored with your meals.
The questions persisted until finally Leonardo and others thought, “Enough!” After 13 years of calling the vine “X” they decided to commission a DNA analysis. With the help of distinguished Professor of Enology at the University of Milan, the erudite Attilio Scienza, the vine was identified as a Tempranillo.
This grape varietal indigenous to Spain is found nowhere else in Italy. The name Tempranillo is the diminutive of the Spanish “temprano” which means early; Tempranillo ripens earlier than most Spanish varietals. It dislikes a hot, dry climate and its origins in the Iberian Peninsula date back to Phoenician settlements. How the vine from Spain arrived in Tuscany, became rooted and thrived, was probably assiduously cultivated for a time, then neglected until its discovery by Leonardo, is a romantic story that one can only imagine.
The story has a happy ending. In 2009 the winery requested that the Tempranillo grape be admitted to the official list of varietals permitted to be grown in Tuscany. Tempranillo has become a grape “citizen” of Italy where Leonardo has put it to work creating fabulous wines, two of which I tasted at Vino 2016: Vigna alle Nicchie and IXE. Both were delicious.
The IXE 2012 is aged 14 months in French oak (70%) and American Oak (30%) and 6 months in the bottle. The wine is a clear dark red with “violet and blue highlights.” The nose is floral with fruity fragrances. The palate is smooth, with deep layers of fruit, and complex, with tannins present but not overpowering to give it a lasting finish. It is easily drinkable with aperitifs, sharp cheeses, and salumi, or savory, slow-cooked roasts and game dishes.
The Vigna alle Nicchie 2010 is aged 24 months in French oak and 24 months in the bottle. It is a profound red. The nose has flowery and fruity aromatics, with hints of coffee, cocoa, and licorice. The palate is velvety with notes of spice and fruit that have a memorable elegance with notable but not oppressive tannins. The finish is long and is easily savored. It goes well with earthy vegetables, braised meats, game, saucy pastas, and Grana Padano or other sharper cheeses and spicy salumi.
I also tasted two of the winery’s lovely Chiantis. The Reciso 2011 is deep garnet, with a lively wild berry nose and hints of roasted coffee. The palate is dry and spare with chocolate notes and a lasting finish. The Pietro Beconcini Chianti DOCG Riserva is deep ruby, with a vanilla/berry nose. The palate is velvety with hints of fruit in elegant layers. It is mildly tannic with an expressive finish. I am continually surprised by bio-dynamic Chiantis such as these which are exceptional and blow away the Chiantis of the “days of old” which were not organic and did not represent the fine-quality wine making these do. Both the Reciso 2011 and the Pietro Beconcini Chianti DOCG are very drinkable and may be paired with pasta dishes, game, savory meats, and medium cheeses.
Pietro Beconcini is an amazing winery in San Miniato, Tuscany. Its innovation, determination, and interest in discovering an unknown grape and moving to have it officially classified as a Tuscan Tempranillo speak to the passion of winemaker Leonardo Beconcini. It is obvious that his mission is to respect and honor his vineyards so that they may tease out exceptional wines. Embracing organic and bio-dynamic growing techniques, he has been able to create the finest quality wines that his vines may produce. If you are in Tuscany between Pisa and Florence, it is worth it to give the winery a look-see and taste test. You will not be disappointed by its amazing wines.