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2006 Isole e Olena “Collezione de Marchi” Chardonnay, Tuscany, Italy

Chardonnay is just about the last grape variety I think about when I daydream about Italian wine. In casual conversation, I might have even been overheard to suggest that planting Chardonnay in Italy would be a waste of a good vineyard. Now, that isn’t to say that I haven’t had good Chardonnays from Italy — I’ve had a couple of them that are quite good — but with all the fabulous indigenous grape varieties that exist, I tend to confine my white wine drinking to grapes that are a little harder pronounce. All of which meant for the perfect set up to one of my favorite kinds of wine moments at a recent dinner.

The restaurant was Italian, the sommelier, knowledgeable, the wine list, superb. The recommendation of this Chardonnay from Tuscany raised my eyebrow, but no more. I was happy to try it, especially with the unqualified endorsement of the guy in charge of the wine list. And I was even happier when the wine exploded out of the glass to slap me across the face and tell me to save my raised eyebrows for some other international varietal and some other lesser known producer.

Had I possessed anything more than a vague recognition of the producer at the time, my first sensory experience of the wine might have been less of a surprise. Paolo de Marchi is one of Tuscany’s most well known vintners, and his label, named for the two vineyards “Isole” and “Olena” his family owns, has been one of the region’s most celebrated.

The De Marchi family has owned these two vineyard blocks and the small farmhouse that sits beside them in Tuscany’s Chianti region since the late 1950s. But the De Marchi winemaking roots go back four generations to their home region of Piedmont. Paulo de Marchi studied Oenology at the University of Torino, and after some time making wine for others around the world (including some time spent in California) settled down into this little nook of Chianti to make Tuscan wine on whose label he would be proud to put his family’s name.

De Marchi began his work in Chianti during a period of great experimentation and upheaval in the region as the appellation struggled to find a modern identity that could transcend cheap, tart red wine that came in bottles with baskets. Many producers were exploring modern technology in the cellar, but De Marchi decided change would ultimately come in the vineyards first. So he embarked on a decades long odyssey of viticultural exploration that, for all intents and purposes, he continues to this day. De Marchi planted various international and indigenous grape varieties in different places, some for the first time in the history of the region. He experimented with different trellising systems, rootstocks, and grape clones, and he’s still tweaking his efforts today.

But 20 years of experimenting in the vineyards and then in the cellar have produced a set of extraordinary wines, including one of the wines that began the “Super Tuscan” craze of the 90’s and some wines that have literally changed the way the whole region thinks about Chianti. And while he may not be satisfied with it quite yet, he also seems to be producing a wine that’s guaranteed to make most anyone rethink the tendency to raise an eyebrow at Italian Chardonnay.

De Marchi’s pioneering experiments with international grape varieties began with a notion that perhaps what Chianti needed was some additional varieties blended in to make a wine that was more accessible. Intriguingly, after more than a decade of trying everything from Cabernet to Syrah, De Marchi decided that the future of Chianti lay in simply choosing the right clones of Sangiovese and growing them properly. But De Marchi’s interest in (and skill with) international varieties continued to grow, leading him to create a series of wines labeled as “Collezione de Marchi” that would feature international grape varieties.

This Chardonnay is made from four different Burgundy clones that were grafted onto the estates ancient Cannaiolo vines more than 20 years ago. The very low yield grapes are destemmed and crushed directly into mostly old (10% new) French oak barrels, where they are fermented in small lots. I would guess from tasting it that some or all of it may be held back from going through a secondary malolactic fermentation, though I am not sure. The wine is aged on its lees (the sediments that remain after fermentation) for 14 months, with bi-weekly stirring or battonage, a process of mixing the lees into the wine to impart flavor and body.

If I wasn’t in an Italian restaurant when I had it, and I hadn’t seen the label, I could have easily pegged this wine for a white Burgundy, of quite high quality. So much so that it will now be my secret “ringer” wine the next time I am inclined to have some friends blind taste French Chardonnay.

I highly recommend it to anyone.

Tasting Notes:
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has an explosively aromatic nose of buttered popcorn and lemon zest. In the mouth it is simply a pink grapefruit explosion. I was electrified when it hit my tongue. Bright zingy flavors of grapefruit and lemon burst over the palate with fantastic acidity and beautiful notes of toasted bread and wet stones. An aromatic sweetness hangs like a mist around the swirling wine, as this perfectly dry, crisp and seamless wine lingers tantalizingly for minutes with hints of vanilla pastry cream that remind you to take another sip. Outstanding.

Food Pairing:
I had this wine with some duck ravioli in a lightly salty broth and it was off the charts. It will pair beautifully with everything from fish to heavier, creamier concoctions.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $40

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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