Grass between the vines in Panzano at Monte Bernardi (montebernardi.com)

Michael Schmelzer & the Wines of Monte Bernardi

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Monte Bernardi's Rosato 2018 has been one of my favorite bottles this year. Substantial in texture, full of red fruits, citrus, and herbs. It's drinking beautifully now, but has many years to develop deep and savory complexity. The producer recommends laying the wine down for a minimum of 5 years. Rosé with this type of aging potential offers a mostly unexplored frontier for drinkers. Monte Bernardi, nestled in the center of Chianti Classico, is in a league of acclaimed estates, from regions like Bandol and the Rioja, that produce rosé wines with this type of longevity.

Chambers Street has proudly worked with Monte Bernardi and winemaker Michael Schmelzer for more than a decade, but the last few months have been my personal introduction to these wines. I've found Schmeltzer's wines to be a delicious balance between tradition and innovation and his journey to be a poignent story in light of today's pandemic.

A map from Monte Bernardi website, with the estate in the center (monteberardi.com)

Schmelzer has run the winery since his family purchased the property in 2003. Located in the Panzano sub-region of the larger Chianti Classico DOCG, the area has a long winegrowing and agricultural history. To that respect, like most of Tuscany, Sangiovese is king in Panzano, which is a rule that Schmelzer, for the most part, respects. His line-up includes single varietal expressions, like the Retromarcia and the Sa'etta, as well as blends with other classic regional grapes.  All that I've had show a wonderful heartiness, though not lacking freshness. And to further highlight our respect for Schmelzer's skill, the only Super Tuscan that we carry is Monte Bernardi's Tzingana, a Bordeaux-blend. We typically avoid the category, as its packed with wines that lack a sense of place. The Tzingana is on our shelves, however, because it is a rare example that contradicts this assumption.

In full, Schmelzer is dedicated to the land that he grows his vines on. His family's 53 hectares, of which only 10 hectares are given to vines, are supplemented with a 5 additional hectares on long-term lease. The vineyards, surrounded by dense forests, sit on southern-facing slopes, reaching 350 meters above sea level and lie about 300 meters north of the Pesa River. The hills are rocky, composed of shale, sandstone, and limestone. The fruit that goes into the Retromarcia comes from Schemlzer's younger vines, while that for the Sa'etta and the IGT Colli della Toscana Centrale come from the estate's oldest vines. The Rosato that I adore is made with fruit from the coolest sites on the property.

Image found on backlabel of Schmelzer's bottles (viticoltoripanzano.com)

Since 2004, Monte Bernardi has been working biodynamically and is certified organic today. This type of farming became a passion for Schmelzer while enrolled at Adelaide University's winemaking program years before. In the Panzano vineyards, cover crops, cow manure, herbal teas, and other natural preperations are used to ensure the health of the vines and soil. All vines are pruned and picked by hand. To kick off winemaking and cellar work, the grapes are lightly crushed, after being destemmed, into either stainless, concrete, or oak vessels. Wine is kept on the skins, before alcoholic fermentation, for up to 5 days. Natural primary fermentation lasts from 20 to 27 days and then secondary fermentation begins in oak. The final step before bottling is an elevage in oak or concrete, up to 30 months depending on the wine being made. Limited sulfur is used to ensure the integrity of the wine.

As well as supporting the land through concious production methods, Schmelzer has done more than anyone to lift the name of Panzano. To him, consumers should know the exact part of Chianti that the wine they buy comes from. He has referenced Burgundy, with its ultra site specific designations and tiered labeling, as a system suited for his own region. Monte Bernardi wines, and those of 18 other producers, now carry a marker that confirm their Panzano origin.

The Schmelzer family is not from Panzano, despite Michael's dedication to the region. He was, in fact, born in Italy, but he moved with his parents and siblings to Michigan at an early age. An episode of Levi Dalton's I'll Drink to That! featuring an amazing conversation with Schmelzer (episode 195) recounts an odyssey of nation-hopping that truly puts our current situation into perspective. The family moved from the United States to Germany, where Schmelzer went to high school and worked in restaurants. Later, in addition to attending univesity in Colorado, he spent the summers at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. It was here he fortified his love for wine. Next was his winemaking education at Adelaide University in Australia. Despite the curriculum focusing on conventional techniques, he picked up his earnest, biodynamic ways.

Schmelzer at work (montebernardi.com)

Today, as the majority of us feel uncomfortable just opening our front doors, and country borders are closed between allies and enemies alike, I feel it is crucial to remember the importance of experiences like Schmelzer's. Over the years and across the planet, he found influences that helped form his ideas of what quality means in food, wine, and agriculture. He learned priceless histories of those around him and their different ways of life. He read. He cooked. He made friends. He started clubs and shared bottles. He tended vines and worked in cellars. Though patience is essential at this dire time, we at Chambers hope that a healthy world will reopen soon. When it is safe. We hope, once again, that people with passion and drive will have the opportunity to travel, meet, share and implement the methods neccessary to push this industry (and the human community) further along the track of peaceful, united, and truly sustainable progress, for the benefit of nature and society.

Below, we are very happy to offer an incredible line-up from Monte Bernardi. To me, they reflect the blend of experience and talent that Michael Schmelzer has accumulated over his life and career. A global trekker, but so dedicated to his family's home in the hills of Panzano. David Hatzopoulos

Monte Bernardi 2016 Chianti Classico Riserva Sa'etta

A Chianti Classico Riserva that pushes tender dark fruit and fresh earth into leading roles. 100% Sangiovese from the Sa'etta Vineyard on the Monte Bernardi estate in Panzano. This single vineyard has southern exposure, boasts soils of shale and limestone, and maintains vines of 40(+) years of age. The area is described by the producer's website as having the "best position, exposure, and terrain on the estate." The choicest grapes are picked by hand from vines tended with biodynamic practices. Once moved to the winery, natural fermentation begins in large oak casks. After malo naturally occurs in Austrian and German oak, the wine ages in wood for 18-30 months. Bottle aging before release is a minimum of 12 months. The wine is unfiltered. Powerful and full, the color in glass is black at the core, with dark burgundy edges. The nose is a basket of fresh black olives, sage leaves,  bushy stems of oregano, dried dark cherries and milled cocoa. Large ripe plums and dates are the foundation to a dish of flavors that also include less forward notes of Provencal herbs and subtle black tea. There is an overarching "of-the-earth" quality, aromatically and flavor-wise, that makes this Sa'etta '16 so comforting and pleasant to drink. It has medium acidity and a tempered, though engaging, chew. Please enjoy in 2020, but know that the wine has been made to develop well over many years. Sipped alongside Parmesan-polenta with sausage, shrimp, onions and tomato.  Looking forward to revisiting today after a night open... David Hatzopoulos 

  • red
  • 15 in stock
  • $37.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur

Monte Bernardi 2016 IGT Colli della Toscana Centrale

IGT? Chianti Classico? This wine didn’t pass the tasting test held by the local panel which is charged with ensuring standards of quality and typicity. This is something that we’ve seen before in many places in Italy (and even more in France): a wine which, in our view, is of the highest quality and typicity, is rejected by a panel that doesn’t know its ass from its elbow. This frequently occurs for reasons of local commercial politics, and also because these panels are usually dominated by the largest producers, who tend to apply standards rooted in highly processed, technical wines that are as much the result of marketing as of farming. In Chianti Classico, for example, the governing bodies have moved away from accepting lighter, old-school wines in favor of concentration, power, and bizarrely viewing dark colored wines as demonstrating quality.

Michael Schmelzer, winemaker at Monte Bernardi, explained what happened in the following note he sent to his customers:“For the vintage 2016 only, the wine that has always been and was to be our Monte Bernardi Riserva Chianti Classico, from the 50 year old plus vineyards and classic Galestro soils, will be declassified and labelled as Monte Bernardi Colli della Toscana Centrale Rosso IGT.This is a result of subjective conflicting opinions of style and what constitutes a Chianti Classico Riserva. The wine passed all of the analytical tests for a Chianti Classico Riserva, but it did not past the tasting panel portion. It was deemed too light in color and structure. We are of course disappointed that these subjective elements have led to declassification, especially when our opinion is that the 2016 couldn’t be more wonderful and true to our Classico style, which is, by nature, not intensely colored yet entirely natural in it’s Sangiovese hues and elegant in structure.”

With or without this information, the IGT is a gorgeous wine – in my opinion, offering everything one could want in a gorgeous Chianti Classico. It’s very aromatic: flowers, bramble, slate, black plum and currant. The fruit on the palate is bright and fresh – the wine is just delicious, medium-bodied but very lifted, and ripe without a hint of anything syrupy. It’s very long, and really blossoms in time for a second pour. Tasted (for the 3rd time in the last 12 months) on a hot and sticky July night, it was super-drinkable just a little chilled. Whatever the local pundits might have thought, this is a beautiful Chianti. Jamie Wolff

Now that’s more like it! The controversial 2016 Monte Bernardi Colle Della Toscana Centrale IGT (really a magnificent Chianti Classico Riserva, rejected by the consorzio for being too f***ing cool, too delicious and also apparently not purple enough). Friends, this is the real g**damn deal! Morello cherry, sous-bois, saddle leather and a little ‘Live Rust’ on the nose. The palate is concentrated, but lively and deeply, mineral. Lots of salt and sapidity and 100,000 watt Marshall stack electricity. More Crazy Horse than Sabbath, but plenty of mineral crunch to go with that sturm und drang. Michael Schmelzer is making terrific wines—that’s what he does—and the 2016 IGT is sensational, embodying all that high altitude Panzano brio and the deep-rootedness that his organic viticulture affords. Strong &^)!ng re-buy, probably by the case. It was fantastic with wild boar sausage, duck fat potatoes with garlic and herbs, and chard. John McIlwain

  • red
  • 27 in stock
  • $26.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur

Monte Bernardi 2015 Colli Della Toscana Centrale IGT Tzingana

This is the only Super Tuscan we carry in the store, and an anomaly within the character. 45% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc, and 15% Petit Verdot. All estate grown fruit, picked by hand, from southern facing slopes. Natural Fermentation in steel, secondary fermentation in oak, with 18-24 months of aging in barrique and tonneaux before bottling. Not over-extracted or over-oaked, this is a brighter and fresher expression, with a beautiful mix of red and black fruit and ample acidity. Notes of dried herbs and hay round out the palate. Great now, this will only improve with time. Oskar Kostecki

  • red
  • 13 in stock
  • $54.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur

Monte Bernardi 2018 IGT Colli della Toscana Centrale Rosato

Grapes from Monte Bernardi's cooler sites in Panzano with southern exposure. A blend of majority Sangiovese (90%) and additional Tuscan grapes - Canaiolo, Malvasia, and Trebbiano. All fruit is certified organic and biodynamically farmed. Wine is pressed and left on the skins for half a day to two full days. After natural fermentation, the wine goes through malo in oak barrel. Aged in barrel for 8 to 12 months, and bottled without filtration, where it remains for at least 6 more months before release. Producer website states, "Drink upon release, but can also be aged for greater complexity..." The color is a dark, fiery pink that is familiar to me from other barrel aged rosé. The nose is a perfumed cherry, with lots of floral elegance, upon a base of crushed strawberries and fresh herbs. The wine has an engaging mouthfeel of soft tannic structure and medium acidity. Flavors of wild cherry and orange peel lead to a long minty finish. Knocked it out of the park with a salad of sauteed zephyr squash, beet greens, fennel fronds, chopped onions and honey balsamic. However, like the producer hinted, I'm going to cellar a couple because there's no doubt stunning layers of fruit will develop after two or more years of age. David Hatzopoulos

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $19.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur

Monte Bernardi 2018 Chianti Classico Retromarcia

Retromarcia means “to back up” or “to reverse” and is Michael Schmelzer’s reference to an old approach to Chianti that is hard to find today, focused on allowing the character of Sangiovese to show above everything else.  The wine is made from 100% Sangiovese composed of young vines planted on a mix of galestro and sandstone soils.  The grapes are fermented with native yeast on the skins for 2 weeks in stainless steel and then raised in a mixture of old barrels and unlined concrete tanks for 18 months before being bottled unfiltered. In the glass, the wine has a deep red center, with pale red edges. The nose is enticing, with wild red berries, stems and leaves, fragrant warm spices, and a hint of freshly cracked coconut. On the palate, the wine is plummy, with red and black stone fruit. There is a nuance of cocoa and a long minty finish. As a classic Chianti should be, the acidity is mouthwatering, warming up the palate for a range of food.

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $21.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur