- Published: 12 October 2022 12 October 2022
Tenuta di Arceno is situated just northeast of Siena and south of Florence in the Municipality of Castelnuovo Berardenga in the Chianti Classico region. The area is picture book Tuscany with rows of vines, orchards, and a relentless daubing of Cyprus trees completing every perspective of the landscape.
We are in Sangiovese country but as with all things modern, diversification is much in evidence and Cabernet Franc is flourishing, as well as more expected varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In my interview with winemaker Lawrence Cronin, we discuss how Arceno is working with these varieties in the face of advancing climatic pressures
The centaur that adorns the Arcanum label; an enduring image.
The estate of Tenuta di Arceno was among the first vineyards purchased by Jess Jackson and Barbara Bank outside of the United States. Their portfolio today is enormous and there is an embedded consciousness across the business for taking decisive action on climate change and respecting nature. Despite this broader international perspective, I get the impression from the team that I meet that they work with a great deal of autonomy to achieve the best they can from learning and experience.
We check into our apartment in San Gusmé, a tiny village a few kilometres from the winery but with blocks of vines stretching away both steeply upwards to the right and more gently downwards to the left.
Standing in front of the main entrance to the small walled village that has a natural elevation from which to survey the vista, there is a warm breeze blowing a mixed scent of the rich curated landscape across our senses. There is a hypnotic and seductive calm, especially now that I have learned of a local vermouth that promises to gently knead away the tensions incurred by the long drive from Liguria.
Luca Cava showing the way...
Before aperitivo, we walk the circumference of the tiny walled town. On the outside of the walls, erected in the 14th century to defend against mercenaries, there is the stone carving of a man in squat position obviously relieving himself, apparently to alert the townspeople where best to defecate so that the waste can be reused as fertiliser (no longer compulsory).
Delve into the Tuscan landscape
The area is stunning and impresses itself easily upon the senses but we are here with purpose. I am keen to learn about the wines of Arceno, the impacts of a changing climate on the land and how it is impacting the decisions that the team here are making.
On our first night, we dine with Pepe Schib Graciani, the Brand ambassador, at the Osteria in the neighbouring village of Villa a Sesta. This is terrific spot to eat but also note that there are two Michelin-starred restaurants in the village and the next evening we return to further indulge. Over the course of dinner we discovered that Pepe is a fountain of knowledge and charm. The next morning he takes us on a tour of the vineyards surrounding Arceno and then to meet head winemaker Lawrence Cronin.
Pepe Schib Graciani highlights different crus of Arceno
Entering the estate, the symbols used on the labels materialise as statues of the iconic centaur, ancient tunnels, and avenues of cypress trees, which together help delineate the flow of endless vineyards. Arceno produces wine from 112 hectares of vines on 1000 hectares of land that spin-off everywhere across changing soils, from iron-rich sandy, to clay and to higher elevations that sweep into shallow declines.
Reason for being (here)
Lawrence is a former New Yorker who has been here since 2002. He has worked closely with the esteemed winemaker Pierre Seillan, who has been a leading proponent of micro-cru philosophy where parcels of vines are subdivided even further based on specific characteristics. Seillan also has a long history of working with Cabernet Franc, which explains why Arceno was the first in the area to plant theirs 20 years ago, ahead of the current trends.
Lawrence Cronin discussing blending the crus
The following interview with Lawrence discusses his experiences of winemaking in Chianti Classico and his anecdotal aberrations of how things are changing on a vintage by vintage basis. I have included the video version, podcast version and also the transcript.
Below is the list of wines we tasted with notes. I have also added the climatic notes for each vintage as they correspond to Lawrences observations.
2022 vintage report - Responding to heat
2022 gives new insights into what a heating climate looks like. Across the world in multiple instances where people are responding to acute climate changes, there is one characteristic that needs to be understood. The past is no longer an indicator for future forecasting.
Faced with uncertainty and irregular more extreme conditions, an agile response is a key component for survival. It is this ability to respond to the conditions at hand, using a combination of expertise and past knowledge. This is something Lawrence outlines here in his summary of the 2022 vintage. The micro-cru approach allows for precise responses and a reordering of picking schedules during the harvest:
The late spring-to-summer months of May, June, and July were incredibly warm with no rain. We did see some rain (92mm) in August that replenished the vines, and then a small rain again September 3rd (8mm). But overall, the drought conditions from earlier in the season yielded small, high-quality berries with a high concentration of sugar. It has been a fast and strong harvest that began September 7th – it is now September 23rd, and we are still picking great quality fruit with roughly one more week remaining.
It was an unusual year in that certain blocks ripened at different rates from what we see in a “normal” year. Typically, we pick a few blocks of Merlot, and Cabernet Franc first, and Sangiovese from lower elevation at 350m to higher at 600m. But many of the blocks we typically pick first were picked later this year.
Fortunately, in our micro-cru, block by block approach, we give attention to each of the 63 blocks individually and can adjust the timing and approach to each. I spent a lot of time traveling between blocks, discovering surprise sites that were ripe and ready to pick. The first Merlot is almost ready to press and we’re very excited about the quality. I’m happy to have many “post-card grapes” that look picture perfect in terms of quality.
Lawrence Cronin: “When I go into my cellar on a Tuesday night to pick a wine, I'm like "do I want a hot year or do I want a cool year and it depends on Tuesday night, probably a cool year. Friday night is probably a hot year. There is nothing you can really do about the climate and you have to pick the best grapes you can according to that year. Some years are very easy and you pick when you want and there's other years where it's so hot, you pick fast, or it's gonna rain. Friday there's a storm is coming... Depends on the year some years nice and easy, or I call them reggae vintages and some years or a punk rock.”
Chianti Classico 2020 - Mixed climate vintage with early rain, warm summer and cooler harvest
85% Sangiovese, 15% cabernet sauvignon. 10months in 2-3 year French oak.
Young purple hue. Floral and red berry fruit perfume with some cacao and vanilla. Youthful juicy tannin, modern vibrant contemporary style.
Classico Riserva 2019 - Cooler vintage
90% Sangiovese, 10% cabernet sauvignon, 10 months in French oak.
24 months from harvest to sale
Darker translucent deep red
Deeper blackcurrant, blueberry, green pepper, aromas - juicy tannins, fresh finish, leaves me wanting.
Classico Riserva 2018 - A perfectly balanced climatic vintage
90% Sangiovese, 10% cabernet sauvignon, 10 months in French oak.
34m between harvest and sale.
Bigger fruit, hotter vintage wine, chewier, still powerful. Long.
Strada al Sasso Gran Selezione 2019 - Cooler vintage
From la porta from vine planted 98-2001
Aromas of red fruit, violets, savoury component. Red juicy, fresh tannin, light footed-finish.
Strada al Sasso Gran Selezione 2012 - Perfect climatic vintage, dry summer and cool vintage.
100% Sangiovese with 10-12 months in French oak.
Colouring brick to brown on the edge
Dark fruit, fruits of the forest, still youthful but complexing factors, coffee bean, savoury and retaining a bright/fresh finish. Deliciously more-ish.
Il Fauno 2020 - Mixed climate vintage with early rain, warm summer, and cooler harvest
41% Merlot 34% Cab Franc 20% Cab Sauvignon 5% Petit Verdot
Deep purple rim, youthful
Roses, herbaceous notes, darker fruits, cherry and damson. A little zing of freshness on the palate. Accessible and interesting.
Valadorna 2013 - Cooler vintage
74% Merlot 13% Cab Franc 12% Cab Sauvignon 1% Petit Verdot
Rich purity of berry/cherry and sweet spices. Complex, juicy chewy tannin, again youthful.
Valadorna 2016 - A warm classic vintage
60% Merlot 2 plots 1 on clay that is harvested later in sept. Sangiovese & Cabernet Franc
12 months in 80% new French oak. Always use secondary oak.
Dark berries, cocoa, succulent tannin, fine, velvety. An elegant fine wine.
Valadorna 2018 - A perfectly balanced climatic vintage
Bright open fruit, se flowers, cherry,
Smooth silky structure. Longer fruit.
Arcanum 2012 - Hot summer vintage but with cooler harvest
71% Cab Franc 16% Merlot 10% Cab Sauvignon 3% Petit Verdot, French Oak - 12 Months, 80% new oak.
Youthful tannin, primary fruit - blueberry, mint, sage, a little fresh tobacco leaf coming through but distinctly young.
Arcanum 2014 - wet difficult vintage
60% Cab Franc 25% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot
Darker forest fruit, great intensity and silky but present structure. Long and enjoyable despite the challenges of the climate this year.
Arcanum 2016 - Perfect balanced climatic vintage with warm days and cool nights
100% Cab Franc
Herbaceous, bright fresh fruit, firm structure, youthful, interesting next to the others, more focused. The subconscious mind instinctively steers the conscious mind toward the next glass. Would love to taste it again as it matures.
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Transcript of interview with Lawrence Cronin at Tenuta di Arceno, recorded on June 17th 2022:
Nick Breeze 00:00
Lawrence, can you tell me what has been the most significant change, evolution, or development in the 20 years, you've been at Chana.
Lawrence Cronin 00:07
I came here in 2002. It's now 2022. So it's about 20 years. When I first got here, you would say there's cold years, hot years and there was kind of mixed in between. Now there's more hot years than cold years. Cold years are now an anomaly and it's quite rare. There is no such thing as 13.5% alcohol wines anymore. You have to try to make a 13.5% Alcohol wine by picking early. So everything gets to 14%, which is not a bad thing. But you have to really be careful that you don't go 14.5% - 15%. It is very easy to get high alcohol. But slowly, but surely it's getting warmer and warmer.
Nick Breeze 00:54
Has the fingerprint of climate change been noticeable in the vineyard, or even in the winery, or in the wines themselves?
Lawrence Cronin 01:01
Well, we have to really pay attention to the root stock, and that's the roots that go into the ground and whether the roots go deeper, you can get more aggressive rootstock, they search for water deeper in the ground. So we're changing rootstocks that are much more aggressive, aggressive in the sense that they look for the water. Soils are really important now. We are looking for more soils that have a little more clay in it. Here there's a lot of sandy loam, a lot of sandstone and things like that which are great, but if you plant certain varietals on these, then they really suffer for the water like Merlot, for example, on the heat will really suffer. So Merlot on clay works really well but Merlot on sandy soil might get ripe too fast or start to raisin from the excessive heat. So we have to either re-graft things like Merlot on sandy soil to something like Sangiovese, which gets ripe later, or Cabernet Franc, which gets started later, or only plant early ripening varieties where there's a lot of moisture and cool microclimates on the estate. So we really have to pay much more attention to what we plant where we plant it.
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Nick Breeze 02:13
I noticed you've got some quite bushy Merlot out there. What are you doing with the canopy is that to do with heat management as well?
Lawrence Cronin 02:20
When I first got here, it was standard practice to leaf pull and what that means is the east side, or the morning side, starting in August, you'd pull the leaves away, literally go through and take them away. So the sun and the air gets through and touches the leaves and that protects against things like botrytis and mildew if it rains, but it also gives the grape some sun, which helps the tannin development and the evolution of the grapes. But we've noticed with Merlot, we don't pull the leaves anymore, because we need like an umbrella like in a beach umbrella to protect the Merlot from any sun. If we leave too much sun in the Merlot, and we had a hot year, we can't predict it and add it on. You can pull the leaves in August and they can be cold and rainy, or you can pull the leaves in August and it could be 40 degrees. So you have to hedge your bets and so the best way to do that is not pull the leaves early and then basically there's always that one day when summer ends and fall begins. That's where we can go in and pull the leaves and go from 40 degrees or 25 degrees and summers finished and now it's fall, then it's okay. And then maybe pull the West Side later, right before the harvest.
Nick Breeze 03:40
Okay, very hands-on reactive.
Lawrence Cronin 03:42
Very hands on, very precise, quick acting. I really love our vineyard crew here. We have like 20 people that have been working here for a long time, 20 years, some of these people, and we call them, "go and pull the leaves!" and they're in there and we're pretty hands on with a quick reaction time.
Nick Breeze 04:01
Can you talk a little bit about your micro cru philosophy and how you utilise your expertise with Pierre Seillan, how you work together to craft the wines of Arceno.
Lawrence Cronin 04:13
I arrived here 2002 and Pierre also in 2002, a month apart from each other, the first thing we did is we went to every vineyard to classify the blocks of the vineyard not only which block but block of the blocks. So you can see the difference in elevation. There's a part that's more vigorous and a part that's a little more dry. So in a hot year, the lower part with a little more moisture might be better than the upper part and vice versa. So the micro cru philosophy is you never pick a vineyard. You pick part of it, ferment that separate, pick the other part of it, ferment that separate and then you have all these blending options later. The whole micro cru philosophy is to pick the vineyard according to each ripeness and the soil. Because if the upper parts really ripe, the lower parts not really ripe, you don't want to mix them to make an average [wine], you want to get both of those blocks at their optimum ripeness and timing structures, etc. So you pick everything when they're ripe, and in a block, unless it's a nice flat, perfect homogenous vineyard, it won't get ripe at the same time.
Nick Breeze 05:29
Firstly, how many blocks are you talking about?
Lawrence Cronin 05:31
I stopped counting. We have we have 110 hectares in production. And, you know, 60, 70, 80, you know, 60, 70 different micro crus. But it keeps growing every year and I stopped counting. Maybe after a harvest, for example, I might have 110 different lots, different, little blocks, and that goes to six wines. But keep everything separate as possible to have your options to blend later.
Nick Breeze 06:05
So when you're blending, and you've got all of these blocks, you're relying on memory selection, all these kinds of things going on in your in your selection process.
Lawrence Cronin 06:15
I mean, it's definitely memory of the harvest and how that block was, but a lot of times I do a little secret, really high-tech, I put a little sticker on the bottom or glass of different vineyards because if you remember the fermentation of a certain block, then in a blend, you might be pulling for that one to be in the blend. But you might be fooling yourself and it might not be the best component. So I always like mixed them up. And then I go back, okay, that was the vineyard that all came in a little late, or came a little early, whatever it was, to understand what it was, but you have to remember everything and what you did for the future. But sometimes when you're making the blends, it's better to be not influenced by your past decisions.
Nick Breeze 07:02
When you're making decisions about all of these things, really vinification, blending, the maturing of wine, how much is what we find in the glass, a balance between what you want it to be and how much it is the expression of place.
Lawrence Cronin 07:18
Europe in general, you're a slave to the vintage. What is the vintage? That's why people are always talking about: is at a hot year, is it a cold year? So every year you need to find the expression of that vintage. So you're just a steward navigating what nature gave you that year. So it's not like I have an expectation of, "I want this, this year". It's like, "What is nature giving me? What's the heat? What's the rain? What's the temperature during harvest? Cool nights? If the nights are hot?" So you basically get the maximum you can and then you make the blend according to that vintage so the vintage is always the boss and the vintage will tell you what kind of wine you have. Maybe it's a little boring, I was talking about hot year, cold year, it changes everything here. Cold years will be a little cooler a little leaner, little more Cypress, little more herbal, mushrooms, and the hot years would be fruit forward and voluptuous. A different experience. When I go into my cellar on a Tuesday night to pick a wine, I'm like "do I want a hot year or do I want a cool year and it depends on Tuesday night, probably a cool year. Friday night is probably a hot year. There is nothing you can really do about the climate and you have to pick the best grapes you can according to that year. Some years are very easy and you pick when you want and there's other years where it's so hot, you pick fast, or it's gonna rain. Friday there's a storm is coming... Depends on the year some years nice and easy, or I call them reggae vintages and some years or a punk rock.
Nick Breeze 09:06
Temperatures are rising and will continue to rise in the coming years. Are you discussing how to respond to increased pressures like drought or other impacts?
Lawrence Cronin 09:15
The only thing we can do is change the varietals and, like we talked about before, leaf pulling and things like that. There is really not much you can do. We have some irrigation here on some blocks. We can't irrigate everything but things like Merlot benefits from irrigation. When we say irrigation, we are not growing corn, we're not trying to grow big grapes. We're just trying to keep the plants happy and surviving and ripening the fruit without blocking because if it gets too hot the plant will shut down and save its energy not working the grapes because it wants to survive. So really not so much you can do except for changing the varietals the rootstocks picking your zone where you plant that's the coolest zones possible. East facing slopes, things like that. But for the next 20 years, Sangiovese will be happy because Sangiovese is late ripening. So the next 20-30 years (like it's possible for me to say) Sangiovese is going to get nice and ripe and juicy. Merlot needs to be more in certain areas, but after 30 years, I don't know if it'll be too hot for Sangiovese, we won't know and I won't be here!
Nick Breeze 10:31
We are standing next to a whole bunch of 10 of wines here. What's the variety is exciting you the most at the moment?
Lawrence Cronin 10:39
Well probably our two main varietals here are Sangiovese, of course, because we're in Chianti Classico, Toscana, and Cabernet Franc. So these are the two varietals I really like to play with and we make 100% Sasso is 100% Sangiovese and Arcanum is 100% Cabernet Franc. So it's really these two grapes. I love them all. It's like asking me which children I like best. But it's really fun to work with the 100% Sangiovese and 100% Cabernet Franc because they're more difficult to make something 100%. But it's a more pure expression of something, of the terrain, of what it is, and especially something Arceno which is one vineyard, we use the same vineyard every a year, so if you do a vertical like 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, really what you're tasting is the vintage and the climate of that vintage.
Nick Breeze 11:38
There's obviously a lot of excitement around Cabernet Franc in the moment, and you planted just over 20 years ago, what are the characteristics that you think make it exciting right now?
Lawrence Cronin 11:51
I will have to blow our own trumpet. In 1998 we planted our first Cabernet Franc and people thought we were nuts. Why do you plant Cabernet Franc? Why are you planting Cabernet Franc here? And we realized quite quickly that Cabernet Franc has a nice characteristic, it doesn't get right too early, it doesn't get ripe too late. It comes in perfectly on the cool rainy years and also comes in fine on the hot years. So it doesn't want to raisin. The way the order ripening goes is with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon. It always comes in in a window where it has a beautiful ripeness and with different characteristics of a cool year and a hot year, but it's always perfectly ripe. When Pierre is here I line up all the Cabernet Francs on one table and all the Merlot on one table and so on. We taste through them and he gives his rankings of these wines. And, Sangiovese might be A, B, C, with one that came in at the end of the harvest. For Cabernet Franc you really have to look hard for the one that is not as good as the other ones because they're all quite consistent in quality. We have a little bit more minerality here for the Cabernet Franc than the coast with Bolgheri where they began the super Tuscan movement, I guess. So there is a little, not saying it is bad, but it's like it is rounder and flatter and ours has a little more tension to it, a little more minerality of this area. So it's a different expression. It grows really well here and you should delete this because I don't want anybody else to get the idea that people are starting to plant Cabernet Franc around here now. Many, many people are starting to plant it now.
Nick Breeze 13:46
Lawrence, thank you very much. It's been great to talk to you!
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