The Folonari name has been associated with Italian wine production for generations. In 1882, brothers Italo and Francesco Folonari began expanding their wine business with the purchase of Ruffino. With that came extensive distribution rights, in Italy and abroad and the purchase of the Cabreo il Borgo estate in 1967. As a result of this early success, this lead to the purchase of the Tenuta di Nozzole estate in 1971.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Giovanni Folonari and tasting three consecutive vintages of his pure Cabernet, Il Pareto. This is the debut wine in my new series I’ll call “Verticale”.
Il Pareto is a single vineyard that was planted in 1981. The vineyard lies approximately 350 meters above sea level and spans 5 1/2 hectares. No expense is spared in harvesting the Cabernet from Il Pareto. The grapes are hand harvested, sorted by hand and then sorted again with an optical laser scanner. The use of these machines is increasing and they’re state of the art.
As the berries pass across the sorting belt, the scanner optically takes a picture of each berry and in an instant analyzes the berries based on a pixel image. If the berry is rejected, a blast of compressed air pulses and forces the berry off the table before it enters the crushing hopper.
Here is a video of this tool in action: Optical Scanning Machine
Il Pareto is 100% Cabernet and produced only in the best vintages. It was first produced in 1987 but its origin is naturally an interesting tale. After Antinori created Tignanello, and a few other producers began experimenting with Super Tuscans, it was obvious to Folonari that most of these wines were Sangiovese blended with Cabernet or Merlot. Upon graduating from UC Davis in California, Folonari interned at Robert Mondavi and gained invaluable experience. The seeds were planted for Il Pareto to be born and for it to be a mono-varietal wine.
Tasting Il Pareto
At Giovanni’s suggestion, even though the wines are still young and close in age, we decided to begin with the 2017 and work backward.
The 2017 Tenuta di Nozzole il Pareto (15.5%) is a deep, dark purple. Ripe plum and black fruits on the nose emerge with hints of violets. Rich dark fruit on the palate with pretty leather and cured meat notes. The freshness is commendable and it’s juicy with hints of licorice. The tannins are not at all intrusive. They are very well integrated. You sense a hint of over ripeness on the finish.
Because of the heat and drought present during the vintage, the risk of the vines shutting down in order to survive was high. As a result, Folonari green harvested aggressively to eliminate the stress on the vines and allow the vine to survive while ripening the remaining grapes. 91 points. About 10,000 bottles produced. As a benchmark, generally production of Il Pareto is twice that amount. Find this wine.
The 2016 Tenuta di Nozzole Il Pareto (14.5%) is a deep, dark purple. Hugely floral on the nose with lilac and violets backing the fruit. Shows hints of leather too. Crushed plums with mint and leather emerge on the palate. This is elegant and feminine. Black plums continue through the finish where licorice notes peek through. This is a lovely 2016. 94 points. Find this wine.
The 2015 Tenuta di Nozzle Il Pareto (15%) is a deep, dark purple. Not surprisingly, this a bit more structured than 2016. Black plums, leather and mint on the nose lead into an amazing mouthfeel. Round and juicy with licorice, leather and cured meat, on the finish. A touch of blueberry hints at the purity of this fruit. This is really delicious. 96 points. Find this wine.
La Intervista con Giovanni Folonari
First, I would like to publicly thank Giovanni for his time and accommodating my schedule. He is amiable, passionate and a “straight shooter”. In short, like almost every other Italian winemaker I’ve been privileged to meet. We discussed a range of issues while tasting the wine and although the interview is brief, it was illuminating.
Tuscan Vines: We know that Il Pareto is a 100% Cabernet from a single vineyard. What did you see in that plot of land that told you Cabernet would flourish there?
Giovanni: Well, of course you are never completely certain. But we saw what Antinori and others were doing. Most people were blending Sangiovese with Merlot or Cabernet. But back in 1987 no one was using 100% Cabernet in Chianti Classico. We were among the first, if not the first, to do that. The vineyard’s altitude and exposition were suitable for Cabernet and so is the soil. Plus, we very much believe that Cabernet can be uniquely Tuscan. People always ask me that. Why make something like this when Italy has so many indigenous grapes to use? It’s simple – because it is different here. It is not like Napa or Bordeaux. Cabernet displays the leather, tobacco and cured meat notes here. We have seen that in the wines. You don’t find that in Bordeaux. So, if we can do it in a Tuscan style, why not?
Tuscan Vines: I couldn’t agree more! People ask me that same question all the time. Why use international varietals in Tuscany? I tell them simply, because they can and because they are different. This wine would stick out in a Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet tasting. It is different.
Giovanni: Bravo Giovanni! It is so good to hear that and to have passionate writers like you who want to educate people and write – not just score wines. Bravo!
Tuscan Vines: So, what experiences at Mondavi did you pick up and bring with you? Did working there inspire you to plant Il Pareto with Cabernet?
Giovanni: Oh, it really opened my mind when I was working for Mondavi. Being away at school is hard enough but then staying there too – which was tough for a Mama’s boy like me. And like many Italian sons! But I learned a lot about small lot winemaking at Mondavi. It is critical to understand and do this correctly. See, you don’t have much time to process a vintage in the moment so it’s hard to experiment. You must take your time working with the various lots and change only one thing per lot when you experiment. Otherwise if you change 2 and 3 things, then you can’t tell it apart from the other lots or know if what you did made any impact. We had a lot of people in Mondavi so this is something that was important.
Tuscan Vines: What differences do you see in the wines we’re tasting that is attributable to the vintage?
Giovanni: Well, I think it’s clear how they reflect the vintage. First, you can see the alcohol levels where the 17 is the highest. That was a hot year with drought and lots of frost in the Spring. We really worked hard to reduce the crop in order to make what I think is an elegant wine. You know, we have that optical scanner now for the berries. When it’s working, and it rejects a grape, it makes like a “pssst” sound when it blows the grape off the belt. In 2017 and also in 2014 we felt like we were at war! Every two seconds we were hearing, “pssst” “pssst” pssst”. That’s not what you want to hear!
Now the 16, I love. That was a year when just about everything was perfect with the weather. The rain was nice, even and steady. Just enough to water the vines because we don’t irrigate. And way better than some of the “water bombs” we seem to be getting lately. Plus, the temperature swings between day and night really developed the aromatic quality of the Cabernet. And the growing season was long. I think in 2017 we harvested in the first week of September. In 2016, not until mid-October.
2015 is also great, but very different than 16. It’s much more masculine but likely the one to live the longest because of its structure. Even still, if you ask me, and unfortunately we can’t drink Il Pareto everyday, but for me I like the 2016 the best.
Tuscan Vines: One thing I notice about these wines is that there’s no trace of oak. The wine is very pure in that regard. That’s clearly a reflection of the winemaking.
Giovanni: Correct. We want the vineyard to speak. We vinify and begin our aging – for a few months – in stainless steel. Then we aged the wine in 225 liter French barrels but only where 1/3 are new, 1/3 are 2 years old and the final third is 3 years old.
Tuscan Vines: Let’s talk a bit about 2021. I’ve spoken to a lot of winemakers that had issues with frost damage in the early Spring. What happened at your estates?
Giovanni: Oh it’s true, it has been horrible in many places. Yes, we had damages around Easter time when the buds were very small. We used a bit of pot fires, candles and stoves around the perimeter of some of the vineyards. But we couldn’t protect everything. And this was a different kind of frost. It was more like a Siberian wind that blew up from Sardinia. It was almost a “wind burn” effect and they even had damages in Maremma! Maremma never sees frost damage because it lies so low and benefits from the sea breezes. This was very different than 2017.
So, we did suffer maybe 20% less production in Montalcino at our La Fuga estate. This is significant because La Fuga is our smallest property. In 2017 the damage there was so bad that we couldn’t make any wine at all. Nozzole was touched less overall but just across the way at Cabreo il Borgo we lost some wonderful Sangiovese production. Probably 30-40%. Now, the sleeping buds are growing, but they won’t produce fruit for 2021. Maybe they can have fruit in 2022 but that depends on the weather and the animals! But, 2019 and 2020 are both going to be excellent vintages so there will be wine!
Tuscan Vines: Since you mention Cabreo Il Borgo, I will also be doing a vertical article on that wine as well. It was a bit too much to taste today because I have 5 vintages I think. 2012-2017 all but 2014.
Giovanni: Ha! That’s because 2014 didn’t meet our standards for Cabreo and so we skipped that year. I should say too that tasting will be interesting. Until the 2015 vintage, Cabreo was 70% Sangiovese and 30% Cabernet. From 2016, now Cabreo is 33% Sangiovese 33% Merlot and 33% Cabernet. That was the vintage too that was awarded the Tre Bicchieri.
Tuscan Vines: Grazie mille Giovanni …… a te Giovanni!
What’s coming next in the Verticale series? Cabreo il Borgo, Michele Chiarlo Barbera, Michele Chiarlo Barolo, Tenuta di Biserno, Villa Cerna Primocolle and more. So stay tuned!