The Butcher, The Baker and The Flaccianello Maker – A trip to Dario Cecchini and Fontodi in Panzano

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I had forgotten how small the village was. That was my overridding thought when we arrived in Panzano, my base for a week during my recent visit to Italy. For a village that has garnered its fair share of international exposure, Panzano has still managed to retain the personality of rural Italy, its tiny main square remaining a meeting place for the village elders who, in a strangely reassuring manner, still view tourists with a modicum of suspicion. If the influx of tourists manages to ruffle their feathers, one suspects that the wares of the local bakery-cum-cafe, which includes such curiosities as biscuits fashioned in the shape of ass cheeks adorned with underwear icing, send them into fits of apoplexy.

For many, Panzano has been put on the map by Dario Cecchini, the famed butcher who would surely rival Marco Pierre White in the terrifying cleaver wielding stakes. Dario, like the village itself in many ways, manages to successfully tread the highwire between respecting Italian traditions and pedalling a product that will appeal to the global masses.

Dario’s product of course is the Bistecca alla Fiorentina and her siblings the Costata alla Fiorentina and the Bistecca Panzanese. People travel from far and wide to put themselves in the hands of the butcher and to decide whether “to beef or not to beef…”. I like to think that my bullshit radar is set to a fairly low threshold and, although I enjoyed my first course or two with a fair pinch of scepticism, I must admit that by the time I was slovenly slathering herb-spiked lardo onto my last slices of barely seared beef, all my cynicism had long since gone. Officina della Bistecca is certainly a must visit for anyone travelling in the area.

If Dario’s various enterprises standout amongst the shopfronts of the village, the dominant feature of the surrounding slopes is undoubtedly the vineyards of Fontodi. I’ve written about the wines of Fontodi before, but this was my first opportunity to visit the winery. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to meet owner Giovanni Manetti – a disappointment as I was keen to find out more about the latest developments for the winery that has long been lauded for its eco-sustainable culture. Perhaps more interestingly though, I would’ve really liked to quiz him about his plans for the terracotta amphora that I saw in the cantina.

The cantina itself is a case-study in modern design, its multi-storey structure allows for wine to be transferred from the fermenting vats on the upper floor to the barrel cellar below via pipe access points located throughout the flooring. Although many producers strive to minimise the use of pumps in transferring wine around the winery, this was certainly the first time I’d seen such an efficient multi-storey structure employed.

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Fontodi’s flagship wines, Flaccianello Della Pieve (100% Sangiovese) and Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico Riserva (90% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) are both aged, partially in the case of the latter, in new French oak barriques. As a result, the whiff of new oak dominates the air as you descend the staircase to the cellar. ‘It’s a formidable scent… It stings the nostrils. In a good way’.

Well, maybe not so much actually, because it has become such a feature of Flaccianello that no matter how well integrated the oak and forward the fruit, tasting the wine before it hits puberty can amount to little more than infanticide. Having visited Tenuta di Valgiano in the days prior to this, I would’ve also liked to hear Giovanni Manetti’s take on the theory that the human body is not conditioned to easily digest and process woody flavours and compounds, particularly as he has experimented with a variety of barrel toast levels.

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Fortunately, I had a bottle of the more mature 1999 Flaccianello on hand to sip while surveying the Pecille slopes. As the sun set, you could still just about make out the transition in colour from the beetroot core to the brick like rim. Both the nose and palate were packed full of classic savoury characteristics of aged Sangiovese alongside an impressive concentration of sweet fruit. Many vintages of Flaccianello that I taste seem to showcase a beguiling underlying spicy characteristic that I can never quite put my finger on. The 1999 was no different in that regard but, in contrast to the bombastic structure of more recent vintages, the 1999 slid accross the palate with an oily slickness; elegant and seamless with a bitter finish that lingered almost as long as the sunset.

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(YouTube Credit: Fabrizio Ricotti and Unknown)

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