Riecine Vineyard at Gaiole in Chianti
Posted by Sean Caulfield (12 December 2014)
For most visitors to Tuscany (and residents like me) the excellent quality of the local wine is one of the main attractions. Is there anything finer than sitting out on a warm Tuscan evening sipping away at a nice Chianti or Vin Santo? Luckily for me, I have a direct line to the good stuff, thanks to my friendship with Sean O’Callaghan, head wine producer at Chianti’s Riecine vineyard.
Located near Gaiole in Chianti, Riecine has been going in its current incarnation for over 40 years, with Sean having been there for the last 23. However, there is evidence of wine production in the area since at least 1112AD, meaning this part of Chianti is steeped in the heritage of wine-making.
The vineyard specialises in Chianti Classico and Sangiovese, both styles of wine with a strong connection to the area. Chianti is protected name, meaning it can only be produced with grapes grown in the Chianti region and following certain guidelines. I paid a visit in early October this year, to see just what makes Riecine wines so special.
According to Sean, when he first started at Riecine back in 1991, things were very different at the vineyard. Back then, the emphasis amongst local farmers used to be on quantity over quality, a throwback to their days as tenant farmers, when they had to give half of everything they produced to their landlord. Sean changed all that, focusing on quality and allowing only the very best grapes into the wine he produces while also switching the vineyard to be totally organic. The result was a massive improvement in the quality of Riecine wine and a growing reputation around the world.
This focus on quality and organic production sets Sean apart, almost as much as being an Englishman producing wine in Chianti! However, there is one other way in which his methods differ from the competition – Sean still juices his grapes the old-fashioned way – by crushing them with his (and any willing helpers’) feet. Given that this is such an iconic part of the image most people have of Italian wine-making, seeing it in action at Riecine is really wonderful and well worth the trip.
The grapes are first brought in from the vineyard, separated from the stalks by a machine and collected in vats ready for pressing. Sean, his staff and any volunteers then climb, barefoot, into the vats and gently press the grapes underfoot, releasing the juice in a much less violent fashion than with modern, mechanical methods. Sean insists that this level of care is vital to making really great wine and it’s also a really great experience for visitors to the winery who are always very welcome to join in and lend a foot!
Sean explains that he left the harvest until mid-October this year, so he could pick his grapes at the exact right level of ripeness. However, when he first started at the vineyard it used to be a real struggle to get the grapes to ripen by this time of the year. Climate change has resulted in the grapes maturing far earlier in the year and to a higher “sugary standard”. This is currently allowing for the production of superior wine, although long-term climate change could be just as damaging to the vineyards of Chianti as to the rest of the world.
This year hasn’t been ideal for wine-making apparently, with a lot of humidity throughout the summer in the Chianti region, making grapes susceptible to mould growth. However, his years of experience have allowed Sean to manage his grapes well and produce another harvest of the excellent quality people have come to expect from Riecine.
The vineyard and farm cover around 35 hectares and include olive groves and oak woodland, offering a perfect example of the typical Tuscan countryside ripe for exploration. The site has recently been bought by a Russian investor, who has put money into updating the vineyard, with special attention to the cantina where the wine itself is made, adding new equipment and new storage rooms. The building work has just been finished and the results are very impressive.
Once you’ve explored the farm, you can sit on the terrace and try some of Riecine’s finest produce while basking in the beautiful Tuscan scenery. Sean has a wine tasting facility there, so you can try all the different wines he has to offer and, of course, buy a bottle or two to take home.
Although around the harvest is the perfect time to visit the Riecine vineyard at Gaiole in Chianti, the vineyard is open to visitors all year round. You don’t have to make an appointment and can just turn up, but it’s probably best to ring beforehand, especially if you want to catch the harvest and have a go at the grape stamping! For more details, head to the Riecine website.