A portrait of an artist: Bibi Graetz

On the eve of the latest 2016 releases of Testamatta and Colore we retrace our visit to the winery of Bibi Graetz last Spring when we first got to taste these incredible 2016s for the first time from barrel.

Tasting with Bibi in his winery based in the magnificent Castello de Vincigliata, a castle quite literally overlooking the city of Florence was an incredibly memorable vinous experience. Firstly, it was the first 2016s we had tasted from Tuscany in what has proved to be an epic vintage for the region. And secondly, Bibi’s honesty in regards to his developments as a winemaker was really refreshing to hear and the latest 2016 wines are really something special. 

Bibi Graetz is a man not afraid to take risks and he freely admits many of these risks in hindsight were mistakes. His style through the years has changed dramatically when it comes to élevage and extraction and today he feels much more comfortable with the wines he is producing. Tasting the many different barrels that would eventually go into Testamatta and Colore wines, we got to understand better Bibi’s winemaking philosophy and his love for certain “special” vineyards he has discovered in the surrounding hills of Tuscany. 

Testamatta means ‘crazy head’ and refers to Graetz’s rogue winemaking approach. He openly admits he didn’t listen to anyone when setting out his vision of wine production. A son of an artist (Giddon Graetz) and initially an artist himself, a graduate from the Academia dell’Arte of Florence, it is perhaps understandable that Bibi was not afraid to approach winemaking differently. After taking over from his parents winery in the early nineties aged 33, it was not until the early 2000s he felt he had made enough mistakes to know what he needed to do to make wine the way he wanted and to break away from the DOCG regulations of Chianti Classico that the winery had previously adopted. The first vintage under his own Testamatta label (with a IGT appellation status) was produced in 2000.

A more recent turning point in Bibi’s winemaking philosophy came following the 2009 vintage. For Tuscany it was a very wet vintage and he was very concerned his Testamatta would be weak and lack intensity, but once in bottle he found it to be beautiful, elegant and charged with a wonderful energy. He said when his restauranteur customers came to buy the wines from his cellar, they all opted for the 2009s over the more powerful and ripe 2010s. It was at this moment that he realised that Sangiovese in particular, benefits from more elegance than power.

Through his winemaking journey he became obsessed with old vine vineyards and in particularly he started to love the cooler sites – the north facing vineyards, he loves the vineyards at the top of the hills where there is more variation in temperature and thinner top soil that brings more acidity and elegance to the wines as well as the all-important energy. For Bibi this energy comes from old vines in these extreme expositions. Since Testamatta’s conception Bibi began a quest to source only from selected vineyards in the Chianti region that had these characteristics.

As we tastewines from each of the barrels, his eyes light up when describing the vineyards they originate from. We taste a barrel from one 2-hectare vineyard, his most northern, surrounded by forest at 400 metres altitude. The soil is full of galet stones which it states help store heat and help ripen the grapes in this extreme exposition. The wine has a wonderful purity to the fruit, a great silkiness – great perfume and super fine tannins, all the hallmarks of a great Testamatta.

When I probed more about the mistakes he had made and has since moved away from, he states his reliance on the advice of consultants was a mistake. There was a pressure to follow the market and over-oak everything and introduce international varietals which for him, in Chianti was a mistake. Also, there was an obsession with structure. It is a similar complaint when talking recently with Angelo Gaja – who also agreed that consultants continue to push structure in Italy when varietals like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese should be celebrated for their medium bodied properties. Pushing the structure and concentration of these varietals is in danger of losing its greatest character traits of perfume and elegance.

These days he opts for open top fermenters which bring lots of oxygen to the mix helping maximise and fix colour, the quality of the tannins are also exposed forcing the grapes in the first place to be in perfect condition. Any potentially bad grapes using this method results in too much volatile acidity.  He uses no temperature-control in the vats, preferring to vinify in smaller lots and therefore naturally controlling the temperature. These days he only uses 2 – 3% new oak as he believes any more than this gives the wine too much body. All the wine in barrel is free run juice, to promote the elegance and then the pressed juice from the different vineyards is aged together and then blended carefully following elevage. Initially Bibi used small barriques for ageing Testamatta, now he opts for a mix of smaller and larger barrels. He is ‘anti-everything’ opting for lower sulphites and virtually no new oak throughout the ageing process. 

In the vineyard he has also refrained from the popular technique in premium vineyards of green harvesting. He is no longer looking for concentration in the grapes through this approach. Rather than doing a green harvest he removes extra bunches just 3 weeks before harvest in order to keep the plant in good health through the growing season. He refrains from cutting the shoots of the vines too, believing it causes a detrimental interaction between the plant and the grapes. Cutting the vines means the energy goes into the shoot regrowth rather than into the grapes. This is a similar philosophy to Madam Bize Leroy in Burgundy who also refrains from shoot cutting for the same reason.

The Vintage

On tasting both the bottled 2015s and the 2016s from barrel we asked how Bibi compares these 2 top vintages for the region in the modern era. For Bibi the 2015 are undoubtedly exceptional and incredibly charming and elegant from the get go. The 2016s in comparison are darker, deeper wines, more powerful, more tannic and with more density. As beautiful as the 2015s, but definitely require more time to come round.

Why a Super Tuscan?

Despite professing to be a Super Tuscan Testamatta and Colore are made entirely from indigenous grapes from Tuscany so strictly speaking it is not a Super Tuscan (the term originally being designated for the International varietals being grown in Bolgheri). But there is no question philosophically Bibi Graetz sees Testamatta as more Super Tuscan in its non-conformist approach. While the reputation of Chianti Classico has certainly improved since the birth of Testamatta, Graetz’s winemaking approach for now is more comfortable with the free-thinking connotations and the qualitative approach of the Super Tuscans than the more classical DOCG classification of Chianti. Whatever the labelling, the wines from Graetz have to be tasted to be believed, they are beautifully elegant, fine expressions of Sangiovese. Don’t. miss the release early next week.