Hilary's Article: Tuscan Profile - Petrolo

August 15th, 2013

Tucked into the rolling hills between Chianti Classico and Chianti Colli Aretini is one of Tuscany’s most esteemed merlot vineyards on Luca Sanjust’s Tenuta di Petrolo.  This isn’t an area typically associated with French varieties, despite the success of IGT wines throughout Tuscany and the south, but the family has been planting merlot here for 25 years nonetheless.  Tradition, however, is taken seriously at Petrolo and there are much older Sangiovese vines still in production as well as hundreds of olive trees, oak and all the wild herbs and flowers that make biodiversity here less a buzz word and more a way of life.  Luca puts it plainly, “The soils and the aspects tell us what to plant; these hills are special.”  Examining them through my camera lens at the 500-meter summit, a tiny single vineyard of cabernet sauvignon, I have to agree. 

Acquired by the family in 1947, Petrolo today has 26 hectares of vines each producing 20 hectolitres, which translates to strictly controlled yields and a relatively small amount of wine to satisfy strong international demand from Asia, North America and Europe.  The philosophy and practices of the estate have always been organic; Petrolo’s olive oil is certified but Luca has yet to apply for organic certification for the wines, a daunting process in Italy.  Still, strict pruning regimes, harvesting, and bunch selection boost quality and promote a sense of luxury in the wines – handmade products in short supply.

The mainstay bottling at Petrolo is predominantly sangiovese, often blended with 10 percent merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Its name, Torrione, is the Italian word for tower, which pays homage to the Etruscan, an Etruscan stronghold extending upwards 100 meters from the hill that Petrolo now occupies.  It’s an assertive building growing out of the landscape like one of the ancient oaks and is a fitting namesake to a sturdy and powerfully structured wine that is, overall, smooth and complete.  Torrione is a true and full expression of Petrolo, incorporating grapes from across the estate to embody balance and harmony.  The scents of the wild sage and rosemary found among the vines, with red fruit and bright acidity are signatures of this wine.  Of the portfolio, Torrione is the easiest on the wallet and can be found in the UK for under £20.

In contrast to Torrione, the wine’s two siblings are single-vineyard, single-varietal expressions.  I was particularly excited by Boggnia, a 100 percent sangiovese which I’d not come across before, made from the oldest vines on the estate going back 40 years.  Boggina is fermented in large, used 500l oak casks that preserve the vibrant fruit character and energy of the wine without imparting oaky tones.  Boggina has a creamy texture and bursts with balsamic notes and mulberry with juicy strawberry and supportive tannin.  The vineyard is 350 meters above sea level and the cool nights and hot days add to the wine’s fresh character. 

As of 2011, Petrolo has been fermenting a small proportion of the Boggina harvest in amphora, a wine known simply as Bogginanfora. Luca explains that using the vessel is a way of expressing Tuscany’s agricultural heritage.  Olive oil was stored in amphora in Roman times until stainless steel started being employed in the last century.  The feeling is that this wine has taken on an almost spiritual significance.  Certainly there’s no denying that the sangiovese has taken to it like an old flame.  Bogginanfora ferments for six months on the skins while the porous amphora protects the wine from reduction and softens phenolic extraction.  With a similar strawberry, mulberry and fresh herb profile as the classic Boggina, the tannins in this wine are finer and the fruit more crisp.  The creamy texture is replaced by an energetic zing that really leaves a preference for either down to a matter of taste rather than quality.

The success of Petrolo’s wines is in no small part down to the expertise of winemaker Stefano Guidi, who has been working the grapes for nearly two decades – although, if you ask him his secret, he will no doubt reel off detail of Petrolo’s unique terroir.  Stefano keeps strict temperature control, a clean environment and has tailored as well as toned-down the oak regime on all the wines.  Equally as important to the success of the estate is Luca himself, a dynamic and charismatic face who travels the globe speaking face to face with trade and consumers alike.  Both men are contagiously passionate about their wines and their quest for quality is relentless. 

Galatrona is Petrolo’s flagship 100 percent merlot which, in the best vintages, can easily be compared to a fine Pomerol thanks to its sheer power and simultaneous elegance, though I feel it’s juicy, moreish acidity shines of Tuscany.  Perhaps it’s the olives that have been fertilizing the soil for millennia, but I am sure that there’s a hint of tapenade lingering with abundant chocolate and plum fruit on the palate.  The flavors are in no question sublime, but it’s the rare combination of smooth tannin, that wonderful acidity, and a weightless concentration that really electrifies Galatrona.  I was lucky to taste the 2011 vintage from its concrete purgatory and even then, with all its youth, Galatrona is as supple, uplifting and elegant.

Petrolo combines methods both old and new, embraces traditional and non-traditional grape varieties and remains open to experimentation.  The close-knit directors and winemaking team keep their senses attentively tuned in to the terroir and the wines as well as the requirements of their global markets to ensure they’re delivering their best.  It’s a post-modern winery without the bells and whistles of many of the James Bond styled facilities that you see nowadays, but with a strong heart and awareness of themselves as part of a bigger picture in terms of both agriculture and business.  When it comes down to the single vineyard expressions, you will find yourself paying similar prices to those of Tuscany’s more notorious, top brass IGTs, which some consumers may find difficult to swallow.  In the context of the luxury wine market, however, I can see how Boggina and Galatrona are justifiably priced.  For lovers of Tuscany’s finest new wave producers, Petrolo is a must try.

Hilary Howes is a Canadian living in London. Struck with oenophilia at an early age, she is now a wine professional who spends her time tasting, travelling and writing with wine in mind. To hear more visit www.hilaryhoweswine.com.


What to find out for yourself why Petrolo's IGTs are up their with Tuscany's best, and sell for what they do? Join James in the winery's top vineyards, Galatrona and Boggina, in HD video:

Click for the video on Galatrona

Click for the video on Boggina


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