Caring for Chianti

Marco Pallanti and Lorenza Sebasti have grown love, family and great wine in Tuscany

Excerpted from the Oct. 31, 2007, issue

He has also found love. His wife and partner, Lorenza Sebasti, is Castello di Ama’s general manager and a daughter in one of the families that jointly bought the property in the 1970s. The couple now owns Ama together.

But having mastered the property’s 650 acres, Pallanti has pledged himself to protecting a larger piece of land—all 170,000 acres of Chianti Classico. In 2006, the members of the appellation’s consorzio, or wine consortium, elected him president. After decades of watching the reputation of its region grow weaker, the trade group has successfully won new authority from the Italian government and has worked hard to woo back the many producers who quit when the organization had little clout.

Pallanti hopes to once again make Chianti Classico Italy’s most famous—and respected—wine. It won’t be an easy task.

For centuries, Chianti was synonymous with good Italian wine. But by the 1980s, other regions had surpassed it in quality and prestige. And many of Chianti’s best wines have been marketed as “super Tuscans,” without the Chianti Classico DOCG.

How bad is the situation? In 2002, Giampaolo Motta, the owner of La Massa, told Wine Spectator that he was proud to sell his top wine, Giorgio Primo, as a Chianti Classico. “Why shouldn’t Chianti Classico be considered one of the best wines in the world, just like great Bordeaux?” he said. But by 2004, he was bottling the wine as a super Tuscan, carrying the designation IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). Adding insult to injury, the back label showed a black rooster, the symbol of the Chianti Classico consorzio, on a barbecue spit. “My dream was to make Chianti Classico,” Motta says now. “But for 10 years I had to fight the market.” The difficulty is selling a quality Chianti at the price that quality requires.

Is Chianti Classico simply a brand name that has lost its value? After devoting himself for a quarter of a century to his patch of soil, Pallanti is convinced of the special terroir of the wider appellation. And Lorenza thinks that his achievement at Ama proves what the region is capable of. “As president of the consorzio, Marco can offer his experience to others,” she says. “After 25 years, Castello di Ama can be an example to Chianti Classico.”

The rocky slopes surrounding the little village of Ama are ideal for vines, not cars. Pallanti makes that apparent as he drives a battered old Fiat 4×4 through the vineyards on a gray afternoon. Rain is pouring down the windshield, and the truck is struggling to climb a steep incline of the hill. Halfway to the top, the wheels lose hold of the rocks underneath, and the Fiat starts lurching backward.

Pallanti, 52, has short gray hair, bright eyes and a boyish face. He presses on the brakes calmly, as though this happens all the time, shifts the vehicle into four-wheel drive and hits the gas. The groaning truck inches up the hill with slow determination.

Even through the rain-streaked windows, the view is gorgeous. Ama is a tiny hamlet—really just a small cluster of buildings—located 15 miles northeast of Siena. It sits atop one of the higher outcroppings in Chianti, at almost 1,800 feet above sea level. The terrain drops off dramatically on all sides, and olive trees dot the high, level ground.

The soil in the vineyards, a mix of clay and limestone, is completely covered by piles of big stones. Pallanti points out the stones that are lighter in color—these are albarese, made of limestone—and the darker ones, almost black, called galestro, made of schist. Out of the estate’s 650 total acres, 210 are under vine and another 100 planted with olive trees.

When Lorenza’s family bought the property in 1972, it did not look as good. Many of Chianti Classico’s vineyards were a mess at that time. In the years following World War II, Italy’s government ended the sharecropping system, or mezzadria, that had dominated (and stymied) Italian agriculture for centuries. The country was undergoing an industrial revolution—an economic miracle spurred by the Marshall Plan—and millions of peasants left the Tuscan countryside for the cities. Ama, then owned by absentee landlords in Siena, was left in neglect.

“We bought the land for almost nothing,” says Lorenza, 42, who is petite, with short-cropped black hair and intense eyes. Her parents and three other families, all of them from Rome, purchased the property. “In the beginning, they just fell in love with the place,” she says. “And then they recognized that there was an opportunity to restart a great wine tradition.” With the help of a consultant, they built a brand new winery.

Marco grew up in Florence, where he studied agricultural engineering. The university did not offer an enology degree, so he traveled to Bordeaux, where the French professors laughed at Chianti, mocking that, at the time, the wines contained between 10 percent and 30 percent white grapes. “One professor said that to produce white wines you could use white or red grapes, for red wines you use red grapes, but only Italians believe you can make a red wine from white grapes,” he says.

While working in a lab back in Tuscany, Marco heard from a friend that a winery in southern Chianti was looking for a winemaker. He started right before the harvest in 1982. Lorenza began working at the winery six years later and became general manager in 1993. “When Lorenza came,” says Marco, “she believed in this project. She married the project, and later me too.”

Though they live in Florence, where their three children attend school, and make the long drive down most days for work, they have also made a home at the estate. In the summer months, the whole family moves to Ama.

Watching the couple as they talk, it’s easy to understand why they form such a good partnership. Laid-back and intellectual, Marco attempts to explain their bond with the land, while Lorenza, who is warm but focused, is passionate about the work they have put into Ama. They seamlessly complete each other’s thoughts.

The Chianti Classico is now the estate’s flagship wine. Selling a Chianti Classico at a higher price point than most of their neighbors has not always been easy, but Marco and Lorenza have not compromised their standards or changed the wine to an IGT.

Pallanti remains convinced that the land, the steep hills covered in vines, oaks and olive trees, is up to the job. “We have the land to produce unique wine,” he says. “But we have to believe. When the producers ran into problems in the past, they chose to make commercial wines. But that wine will be impossible to sell when the sea of New World wines—cheaper-to-produce wines—arrives. We have to make unique wine, or we are finished.”

Lorenza and Marco believe that Ama is an example of what Chianti Classico can produce. And they are willing to work hard to give back to the land, to make sure their children can one day make distinctive wine there as well.

“I want him to teach our son,” says Lorenza, speaking of Marco and 10-year-old Arturo. “Arturo loves this place. Every moment he wants to be here.”

With lunch over and the rain stopped, Marco gets up from the table for a walk through the vineyards. He’ll leave for London in a few days for a series of tastings to promote the consorzio‘s members. But for now, he’s on his little patch of land. The organization’s website proudly proclaims, “It’s the land that makes the difference.” After 25 years on this estate, Pallanti knows that. His next challenge is proving it.