Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ruffino: an anchor name in Chianti

Photo: Ruffino chief winemaker Gabriele Tacconi

Since 1919, the Ruffino winery has had just three head winemakers. Gabriele Tacconi, 48, the current incumbent, has held the post since 1997.

The lesson: count on Ruffino wines to be consistent.

Ruffino was one of the 60 Italian wineries at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival. In the tasting room, the Ruffino wines included perhaps the most iconic of Chianti brands, the Ruffino Riserva Ducale. The brand was created in 1927; the underlying Chianti has been produced much longer.

And the brand is still thriving. In British Columbia, it is listed in 126 government liquor stores and in numerous private wine stores. At $27, it is still good value.

But it is by no means the same Chianti that it was in 1927. The improvements in viticulture and winemaking in Tuscany (as elsewhere in the wine world) have been huge.
“In the last 20 years, all Italian wineries, especially Tuscan wineries including Ruffino, made big improvements in everything: in the vineyard, being sustainable, working, analyzing, selecting the clones; cleaning up all the rootstocks and varietals from viruses,” Tacconi told me in an interview. “A lot of innovation was applied to everything. That was followed by improvements in the techniques in the cellar.”

If your last bottle of Chianti was a thin wine in straw-covered flask (which Ruffino discontinued in 1975), your next one will taste a lot different.

The Ruffino winery, the first Chianti producer to export to North America, was established in 1877 by cousins Ilario and Leopoldo Ruffino. It has changed hands several times since and today is owned by Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine group. One has the sense that Constellation generally leaves the Ruffino team to run their own show as long as they produce results. Tacconi’s service record suggests he has been delivering.
Ruffino’s founders established a good track record early, winning gold medals with their Chianti at big fairs in 1881, 1884 and 1885. The medals were fundamental to the development of the Riserva Ducale. As the winery recounts on its website:

Why this name? Ducale means ‘duke’ in Italian. Riserva Ducale honors the Duke of Aosta who braved a journey over the Alps to taste the Ruffino wines that he had heard so much about. He was so impressed by the wine that in 1890 he appointed Ruffino as the official supplier to the Italian royal family. In 1927, Ruffino returned some of the honor bestowed upon its wines by releasing its first vintage of Riserva Ducale—named after the Duke of Aosta as an acknowledgement of his esteemed patronage.

The wine brand endures even if the Italian monarchy is long gone. Victor Emmanuel III, the last king of Italy (and the king who had Mussolini arrested), abdicated in 1946 and died the following year in exile.

Today, Ruffino produces eight to nine million bottles of Chianti each year. The company (there actually are six wineries) has a total annual production of about 20 million bottles including a Pinot Grigio called Lumina, an Orvieto and, most recently a Prosecco.

The anchor remains Chianti. The company’s 500 hectares of vineyard include 180 hectares in the Chianti Classico production zone.

The Ducale Riserva brand was extended in 1947 with the addition of a premium Chianti called Riserva Ducale Oro, listed here at $45 a bottle. Recently, when the Chianti Classico producers decided to identify top tier Chianti wines as Gran Selezione, that designation was also conferred on the Oro. This wine, made only in the best vintages, is more intense in flavour and texture than the Riserva Ducale. The quality supports the price.

Ruffino is the only producer among the Constellation wineries that makes wine with Sangiovese. This variety is the primary red in Tuscany. As difficult to deal with as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese is notorious for “not travelling well.” In other words, not many Sangiovese wines made outside of Tuscany are as successful as those made in Tuscany.

Beppe D’Andrea, Ruffino’s senior global brand ambassador, has an explanation why Sangiovese succeeds primarily in Tuscany. “Sangiovese is like an Italian. Italians at 20 or 30 or 60 years old always love Mama. For Sangiovese, Mama is in Tuscany. Sangiovese gives us the best only in that specific place.”

Winemaker Tacconi is not a Tuscan, however. He was born in Modena, about an hour and a half northeast of Tuscany. When he graduated from university in 1995, he spent three months in France and then a year as a winemaker in Sicily. “As soon as a Tuscan winery advertised a position for a winemaker, I applied,” he says. “It was scary at the beginning. I was young and I was coming into a winery with a lot of stories, a lot of well recognized wines. Normally a winemaker wants to do something immediately, just to change or to create. I did not have to do that. The first speech from the old winemaker said to me was, remember, we have a wine and we have a style; do not jeopardize anything.”

It is not surprising that he describes Ruffino as “very traditional.” The Chianti Classico is never a 100% Sangiovese but always a blend. Typically, there will be about 85% Sangiovese together with a small amount of Colorino and a total of 10% Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Colorino is another of Italy’s native grapes. Its small berries and intensely dark flesh adds colour to Chianti. Other producers use a grape called Canaiolo, a juicier varietal with less intensity.

“What I want to keep in this wine is the aroma and color of Sangiovese, and this kind of fruity, cherry character,” Tacconi says. “I always keep the Classico in traditional big oak casks for one year; and two years for the Gran Selezione; but not new oak. I understand it could be amazing with new French oak, light to medium toast, but it would change the wine completely.”

Ruffino has its own Super Tuscan wine, a blend called Modus, first made in 1997. It is 50% Sangiovese and 25% each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Modus 2012 is about to be listed in British Columbia for about $35 a bottle.  A few years ago, it was on the Wine Spectator’s list of 100 best wines for the year. Tacconi notes with some satisfaction that many other wines on the list were three or four times more expensive than Modus.

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