The landscape for Sangiovese has changed drastically in Tuscany. There was a time when Brunello was the only game in town, and Chianti was too variable to trust. However, in 2003, when Italian authorities put Brunello under the microscope for suspicion of adding international varieties to a wine that’s supposed to be 100% Sangiovese—suddenly the market began to change. Consumers and critics alike started to look outside of Brunello, and what they found was that a small number of producers were making varietal Sangiovese, which could not only compete, but dominate, and at a better price.
The evolution in Tuscan Sangiovese brought fame, and rightly so, to the likes of Montevertine Le Pergole Torte, Poggio Scalette’s il Carbonaione, Felsina Rancia, Fontodi Flaccianello and Isole e Olena Cepparello; all 100% varietal Sangiovese with potential for the cellar. Yet of all of these, if I had to choose one for its balance, elegance, intensity, and consistency—it would be Isole e Olena Cepparello.
The talent behind Isole e Olena is its forward-thinking owner, Paolo de Marchi. Having taken over the winery in 1976, Paolo admits to his experience as being one of constant evolution. Paolo was also one of the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in this area with tremendous success (detailed below). However, it is his 100% Sangiovese Cepparello which has been hailed as one of the greatest expressions of the grape from Tuscany today. This didn’t happen overnight, yet for the last 15 years, this property has been on fire.
Having just tasted the newly-released 2011 Isole e Olena Cepparello, I was immediately impressed by its sheer class and elegance–perfectly married to those textbook Sangiovese notes of red berry fruit, leather, earth, dried flowers and with a zing of acidity. The 2011 is beautiful now and surprisingly drinkable, yet is sure to mature into a model of grace in the cellar (94 points). I would put Cepparello against the best from Brunello, and with each vintage, it finds its way into my cellar.
Yet Isole e Olena does not begin and end with Cepparello. When Paolo de Marchi started to experiment at Isole e Olena, it was at a time when 100% pure Sangiovese wasn’t widely accepted from the region. It was because of this that he planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah for blending purposes. However, it wasn’t long before he realized the potential of his Cepparllo as a mono-varietal wine, and so he created a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon under the label “Collezione de Marchi.” Today, Isole e Olena’s Cabernet Sauvignon is being called one of the best in Tuscany, with the competition charging twice the tariff. This is not a Cabernet for the table tonight; instead it finds its perfect place in the cellar with five or more years of maturity—yet once reached, good luck finding another Tuscan Cabernet which can compete.
The nose on the Isole e Olena Cabernet Sauvignon was dark and inviting with unbridled intensity, showing notes of thick blackberry jam, sweet clove, herbs and dusty minerals with a hint of vanilla. On the palate, it was rich with velvety textures and ripe dark fruits. Juicy acidity lent balance to this concentrated effort, nearly masking its formidable tannin, while notes of menthol, herbs and savory cherry sauce lingering through finish. (94+ points)
And finally, at the top of the Isole e Olena pyramid is the just released 2006 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. This wine is only now starting to turn up in the States. When the Gran Selezione designation was created, Paolo struggled with the decision to use it. He didn’t want to confuse consumers and felt that his Cepparello was rightly ‘The’ Chianti Classico Riserva of his portfolio; and so, he decided to go in a completely different direction.
The Isole e Olena Chaniti Classico Gran Selezione is a barrel selection from the 2006 Cepparello, blended with 12% Cabernet Franc and 8% Syrah, then aged in oak (1/3 new) for two years. After bottling, it was held in the winery’s cellar for another five years. That said, Paolo didn’t start this project with the intention of using it for the Gran Selezione designation, but instead saw it as a 50th anniversary wine to celebrate his father’s purchase of the Isole and Olena estates in the 1950s. However, Paolo saw this as an opportunity and chose to release it as Gran Selezione which will retail around $200, placing it in competition with Tuscany’s elite. If anyone can succeed in such a bold move, I put my money on Paolo di Marchi. Plans are also in place to do the same with the 2010 vintage.
The nose on the 2006 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico Gran Selezione was dark and almost sensual, showing a mix of rich raspberry and cherry, followed by notes of plum, savory herbs, tobacco, hints of forest floor and mint. It was savory on the palate with silky textures contrasted by a spine of brisk acidity, resulting in a toothsome experience with dried cherry, exotic spice, tobacco and a hint of citrus. The finish was long, yet structured, showing dried red fruits, spiced orange and mountain herbs. (95 points) This is a serious wine, still in need of time, even after eight years of perfect aging. Yet I can’t help but sense greatness here—as I’m sure you can tell from my tasting note.
When you consider the caliber of the Isole e Olena profile, I think it becomes pretty clear that this estate will only continue to gain momentum. Unfortunately, prices are likely to rise as consumers look outside of Brunello for their top-shelf Tuscan drinking. However, there’s always the Chianti Classico, which is an excellent introduction to the Isole e Olena style, at a fraction of the Cepparello’s price.
My final words of wisdom–put Isole e Olena at the top of your “Watch List”.
Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido