New Winery Discoveries: Monte Bernardi, Panzano

by John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Monte Bernardi is a gem in the southernmost part of Panzano, Greve, producing a superb range of transparent wines from organically/biodynamically-farmed vines. German-American Michael Schmelzer just completed his 16th harvest from the 15ha of vineyards surrounding the winery. His trajectory into the winegrowing business was a bit unusual. Born in Germany but raised in the United States, he graduated from the Cordon Blue cooking school in Paris before turning to wine. He studied at Roseworthy College (now part of the University of Adelaide) and made wine in Australia before moving with his family to Tuscany when the opportunity to buy Monte Bernardi arose in 2003.

Despite the technical Australian training, Schmelzer arrived in Chianti Classico with the aim of making pure and unfettered wines from the start. He immediately set about converting the estate to biodynamic farming, what he calls “a collection of ancient farming techniques, things that have been done for centuries. It’s practical biodynamics.” He eschews categorization, however. “I try not to put any of those labels on my wines.” He says, not wanting to be put in a box. [Biodynamics] should be a reason why our wines are good, but it shouldn’t be the defining factor.” The estate is certified organic.

Monte Bernardi

Monte Bernardi

Schmelzer is very calm and soft spoken. Although very technically prepared, one gets the impression that he would feel out of place in a laboratory. Much of what he learned came from intuition, observation and feel, a skill perhaps learned at cooking school.

Several farming practices set Monte Bernardi apart. Schmelzer does not top his vines (prune upper shoots), but rather wraps them on the upper trellising wire. “Topping creates lateral shoots, which in turn increases canopy thickness and thus disease pressure. Wrapping shoot tips has the effect instead of directing the energy of the vine into ripening stems, seeds, skins and grapes [rather than growing lateral shoots]”, he explains. “It gives me better [higher] acids at lower sugar.” It also explains why Schmelzer is able to include a significant percentage of stems in his ferments, adding additional structure and freshness without bitterness or harsh tannins. Green/unripe stems, very common in sangiovese, prevent most producers from using them.

Monte Bernardi

Monte Bernardi Inside

He believes that choice of rootstock is also critical. “The standard 420A, which is widely planted in Chianti Classico, has a superficial rooting zone. So in dry years basal leaves drop [the lowest leaves on the shoots], exposing bunches and resulting in burnt, jammy fruit, and high alcohols.” Considering the last decade in Chianti Classico, with ever-increasing extremes of heat and drought, this will become an increasing challenge in the region, one which Monte Bernardi is well-positioned to handle.

Monte Bernardi’s vineyards sit at between 300-410 m vineyards, relatively high elevation, another explanation for the wines’ freshness and firmness. Soils vary from parcel to parcel, featuring generally high rock content from a mixture of shale (galestro), sandstone (pietraforte or arenaria) and limestone (alberese). According to Schmelzer, galestro yields “a softer, fruitier expression” of sangiovese as they tend to be warmer, while pietraforte, “reflects light and leads to thicker stems, more tannins, darker fruit. They are my most mineral and floral wines.”

Yet regardless of origin and soils, all wines at Monte Bernardi are worth a look.

Monte Bernardi Wines

95 2015 Monte Bernardi Chianti Classic Riserva Sa’Etta
From a single site planted in the 1960s, particularly stony and rich in pietraforte (macigno, or sandstone), Monte Bernardi’s Sa’Etta is generally the tightest, most tannic expression of pure sangiovese from the estate, but also very floral. About 50% stems are added back to the ferment, and total time on the skins is an exceptional 40-60 days. The net result is simply gorgeous, a beguilingly floral expression, vital and vibrant, with perfectly ripened and poised fruit character, fresh. No wood is evident, and the palate bears the very sapid and savoury hallmark of great sangiovese. Tannins are indeed abundant, very tight, and fine-grained, firm and dusty, while coursing acids frame this beautiful, sinewy wine, vibrant and vital. Although drinking now, it really needs another 3-5 years to turn properly savoury and mature. First class wine. Tasted February 2019.

92 2015 Monte Bernardi Chianti Classic Riserva
Pure galestro, 5% cannaiolo, vineyard planted in the 1960s. Fermented in concrete with stems, moved to large cask for malolactic, with a portion in tonneaux.  Really fine perfume, lifted, floral, elegant, spicy, maturing nicely now. Tannins are present but supple -Monte Bernardi’s wines are not showy, but rather classy and aristocratic, for fans of the reserved, old world style. Tasted February 2019.

91 2016 Monte Bernardi Chianti Classico Retromarcia
This wine represents three-quarters of Monte Bernardi’s production, sourced from all of the estate’s vineyards under 50 years old (average age of about a dozens years), multiple exposures and a mix of galestro, shale, and macigno soils. All destemmed, but stems are added back (not looking for carbonic), during spontaneous fermentation. The only addition the wine sees is sulphur dioxide, but nothing before a year. Stems add natural tannins and deacidify (more stems used in cool years). c. 25 days fermentation, then extended maceration on the skins. Basket press to three bars; press juice is always blended back in. The wine is appealingly resinous, open and oxidative, showing pot pourri perfume, dried flowers. Fresh, lean tightly wound palate, classic, traditional styling. Very fine and firm – will love to see this in another 3-5 years – has the stuffing and structure to age.  Tasted February 2019.

91 2015 Monte Bernardi Tzingana Colli della Toscana Etrusca IGT
The old vine version of Monte Bernardi’s Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, colorino, from 50 year-old vines over-grafted on an old sangiovese vineyard in the 1980s by the previous owner. It delivers a  lovely perfume, complete and complex, a quality wine to be sure. This has depth and length, powdery tannins, very fine. Firm and bright. Quality wine. Tasted February 2019.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS