Michael Schmelzer & the Wines of Monte Bernardi

7/9/20 -

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.

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.

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.

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

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