On the Trail

Tuscan on His Own Terms

David Driscoll

You would think that an ancient Tuscan property located in the heart of Chianti (with vineyards that can trace their origins back to the 15th century) would be 100% dedicated to growing world-class sangiovese, but that isn't the case at La Massa. Giampaolo Motta, who first purchased the land back in 1991, was trained as a winemaker in Bordeaux, so he's partial to the French varietals as well. I spoke with our Italian buyer Greg St. Clair via the phone this week as he romped through Tuscany in search of more deals; he had just spent the evening hanging with Giampaolo and said, "This guy only drinks three things: his wine, Bordeaux, and Champagne. His winemaking team is French. His mindset is French. He's pretty much a Frenchman at heart." That's part of the reason a portion of his roughly thirty hectare property is planted to cabernet, merlot, and petit verdot as well as the local sangiovese varietal. The other part has to do with the terroir. After a few vintages of Chianti Classico, Giampaolo realized that a portion of his land wasn't all that suited to growing sangiovese, so he ripped out all the vines, dug down more than eight feet into the earth, and made a detailed map of the soil types located on his property. He then replanted those vineyards with what he felt were the more appropriate varietals based on the make-up of each particular section. The soils that were best suited for sangiovese remained sangiovese, but the other locations became dedicated to Bordeaux grapes. Giampaolo was empassioned by the property's transformation to terroir-focused production, utilizing the lessons he had learned from his enology education abroad.

Of course, it's one thing to decide you're going to start making Chianti wines made from Bordeaux varietals and another to present that forward-thinking agenda to the consorzio vino Chianti Classico that oversees the laws and regulations of the appellation. In order to legally classify a wine as Chianti Classico, the requirement states that the wine must be composed of at least 80% sangiovese. Given his new vineyard DNA, however, and the breakdown of varietal by percentage planted, Giampaolo didn't think he could make that work. Therefore, he presented his case to the consorzio that the regulations be changed so that new and improved versions of Chianti (like his own) could be released with the appellation name. Not known for their modernity or affinity to new ideas, the consorzio soundly rejected Giampaolo's plan and decided that Chianti Classico was to remain sangiovese-dominated. Not one to be stifled, however, an angry Giampaolo moved forward with his Super Tuscan version La Massa in 2002, declassifying the label and releasing it under a more general IGT designation, with a depiction of a dead rooster hanging by its neck on the label—an attempt at black humor using the region's historic symbol as a commentary on how bureaucratic regulations would signal the death of the appellation's growth. From that point forward, he would make wines using the varietals he wanted in the percentages he felt appropriate and never look back. In his mind, Chianti could remain stale and stagnant if it wanted to. He would move forward with his La Massa and Giorgio Primo labels on his own terms. 

While it may seem like a simple act to disassociate oneself from the confines of wine bureaucracy, garnering attention as a Tuscan IGT is a lot like a cabernet from Pauillac or Margaux trying to market itself as a simple AOC Bordeaux rouge. There's a certain amount of prestige that comes from an association with the Chianti appellation, but Giampaolo was certain the quality of his wines would trump that advantage. Sure enough, when the ratings came out and the critics had their say, the wines were scored as high as they ever were and sales for La Massa and Giorgio Primo didn't skip a beat. Given the freedom to operate with his own standards and practices, Giampaolo was able to express a truer sense of place with his expressions. We've carried the La Massa wines for more than a decade, but when the opportunity to work directly and bring the wines in ourselves came about, it was a no brainer. Giampaolo approached Greg about four years about working exclusively with K&L and the relationship continued from there. What has changed, however, is the pricing to the consumer. Whereas our retail price for the La Massa before ranged somewhere between $27-$32 a bottle, we're now able to offer the wine for a more attractive $19.99. A few other changes have occurred at the property since then as well. Giampaolo has hired his friend Stéphane Derenoncourt, who has worked at Canon-la-Gaffelière and Pavie-Macquin, to help in the cellar and work with sustainable methods in the vineyards. Their first vintage together was the 2009 release. Four harvests later, the wines are even more pure, expressive, and terroir-driven than previously. The 2013 release is a revelation in my experience with Super Tuscans, full of deeply-concentrated dark fruits, violets, mineral notes, and subtle notes of oak on the finish. For wine drinkers like myself who enjoy both Bordeaux and Chianti, the La Massa is like the best of both worlds; it has the structure and the drive of a fine French claret, but the juiciness and supple ripeness of a great sangiovese. 

With our direct import pricing, the La Massa is a can't-lose scenario. It's a world-class wine made by a forward-thinking master for a price that's lower than ever. In the same way Giampaolo has bucked the system in Chianti, he's done it with the three-tiered American distribution system going directly to the public via K&L for a more affordable price. Simply put: don't try and tell this guy what to do. 

-David Driscoll