Pumped-Up on Chianti?

It was an “on-again off-again” affair with me and Castello di Ama. I was familiar with the Tuscan estate, a touted and very respectable producer in the Chianti Classico region with a flair for international varietals like Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I’d considered them not-so traditional and not-so modern, but somewhere safely in between the two battling wine genres. I tasted their “Chianti Classico Riserva” many times… I liked it. I had it on my wine list, took it off the list, and then put it on again six months later, a slightly annoying sommelier habit. Then in October of 2013, something clicked.

I encountered Lorenza Sebasti Pallanti at a mutual friend’s apartment in Florence. We were chatting in the kitchen enjoying an appetizer of tangy and crusty bread when a confident fist knocked on the door. In walked Lorenza, an angled face too cool for make-up, with boy-short hair that was a little messy but fitting and dressed in thick greys and black. But nothing about Lorenza was grey or black. The conversation of the evening was the wines of Chianti Classico and the perception of the wines in the market in the United States. Are the wines big and bold, fattened with Cabernet and the alluring sweet spices of new oak? Are the wines red-fruited, pure and charming, aged quietly in used old barrels? I listened to Lorenza speak with her anxious shoulders and the up-and-down curls of her brow. Antinori had just completed his new monumental winery in Chianti Classico and Lorenza vocally applauded him, “He could’ve built a winery anywhere in Tuscany, and he chose Chianti!” Lorenza was a stoplight of colors to me, selfless green then fiery red with a softness of yellow. She spoke about the frustrations with the changing laws with the Consorzio (her husband Marco was the former president) and the innate obligation of producers and owners to improve and protect the quality of the region (once wrongly belittled by an outpouring of average quality and market bliss in the 1980s).
Sitting there, listening, in awe of her energy and passion, I thought, “I’m so pumped-on… Chianti?” Lorenza was leaving for Moscow the next day on a business trip, and I was driving back to the outskirts of Siena. Before our good-bye she insisted that I visit Ama. “Marco is hosting a tasting on Friday, you must meet Marco! You must go to Ama!”

Lorenza is Roman. Her family was one of the original families who jointly purchased Castello di Ama in the 1960s. Marco Pallanti, her husband and proud Tuscan, arrived to the estate in the early 1980s after graduating from Enology school in Florence. Almost 32 years later, he is still there. It’s where he met Lorenza; it’s where he would raise three children and unknowingly carve-out the beginnings of an Italian wine legacy. When Marco came to Ama he grafted Merlot vines over the older vines of Malvasia and Canaiolo. These re- grafted parcels evolved into the L’Apparita vineyard and its celebrated namesake wine, the first purely Merlot “Super Tuscan” in 1985, just a year before the release of the iconic “Masseto” in 1986. Lorenza and Marco admire international grapes and play with them well. In the cellar there’s a collection of big and little barrels, but it is unbefitting to call their style “modern” when they’ve been living and breathing Ama together for over thirty years. Their “Chianti Classico Riserva” has a proper stuffing of Malvasia Nera, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, and in “Il Chiuso” you can smell the lip gloss of Pinot Noir but the wines, like Marco, are Tuscan at the core – underneath the skin of shiny fruits, there are seamless threads of Tuscan earth - iron and stone.

It was Friday, and I was sitting kitty-corner from Marco at a thick wood country table, the kind of table built for big eating and conversations initiated by midday drinking. Lunch was Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc with a platter of veal meatballs and bowls peppery spaghetti, followed by a basket of autumn fruits married with a day-cap of Vin Santo.
If Lorenza was a stoplight, then Marco was a beacon, quiet and reserved but powerful by constant. Marco recalls:

"Lorenza she’s…. she’s…. so funny you know… I remember at the winery when we I first met her she use to drink the must from the tanks… ah how she loved drinking must (laugh). Ah, I have to call Lorenza! She’s flying… I have to see if she landed ok, excuse me."

As I reached over to pick-out the nicest-looking fig from the bowl, I saw a bird looking right at me, staring me down. It was the type of stare that makes you feel you did something wrong, and then you stop and think. I can still feel the stare. But the bird didn’t flinch or tweet; it was a strange kind of bird. Its head was the nubby top part of a pear, its beak was a pointed brown stem, and its eye – was the perfect imperfection, a small indentation bruised to the darkest brown. Upon Marco’s return I pointed to the bowl, and he saw the image right away, surprisingly even more amazed and amused than I. From that moment on, Ama stuck with me, wherever I go. Now, I always have the wines on one of my lists, I pass-on the story of Ama, and I’m still pumped to sell Chianti.