You are currently viewing Chiara Condello: classicism, daring and reviving Predappio

Chiara Condello: classicism, daring and reviving Predappio

The Greeks introduced winegrowing to Southern Italy around 800BC, planting vineyards throughout Sicily, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria. The Etruscans, who had arrived from the east, were growing vines further north, making wine, and trading it into Gaul and beyond the Alps. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD—which had democratized wine and advanced winemaking and trade—Italy’s economic condition quickly deteriorated, marked by a severe deprivation lasting until the early Middle Ages, followed by a revival of trade during the 11th and 12th centuries, and an explosion of banking, finance, printing, and publishing following the Italian Renaissance. After 1600, Italy’s economy collapsed again, and world trade shifted to north-western Europe. After the Great Depression and two world wars, the Marshall Plan stimulated Italy’s ‘economic miracle’. Subsequently, industrialisation, mechanisation of agriculture, and policies promoting urbanisation and modernisation encouraged mass migration from the countryside—more people emigrated from southern Italy during this period than from any other region. Amongst these aspirational deserters, Francesco Condello left his home for Bologna in the late 1970s,

Francesco began working as an estate agent, later setting up his own agency and working as a successful financial broker for banks. While working in Bologna, he met his wife, Giusi, who had left her home near Predappio and was studying in the city. Despite both their successes in metropolitan Italy, Francesco and Giusi yearned for the countryside, where both had been raised in winegrowing families. The pair’s agrarian ambitions were so strong that as soon as Francesco had saved enough money he began searching for land in Emilia-Romagna, where Giusi’s parents had lived and worked. Francesco was scrupulous in his search; consulting local winemakers; reading studies, research, and notary acts; and searching for historic sites suited to growing sangiovese—the local clone, of course. In 2001, he bought a small plot of land and a house in Predappio, marking the genesis of Condé. Little by little Francesco added vineyards, rescued baron land and defunct farms, planted olive trees, and purchased nearby forests for preservation.

Eleven years after buying the Predappio property, Francesco’s daughter Chiara joined the family business. Chiara had been studying Economics at Bocconi University in Milan, and after graduating had returned home for a month to help at the family winery before starting work as a consultant. Just as her parent’s memories had torn them from Bologna, Chiara’s agrarian preoccupations tore her from a fledgling corporate career. The first month passed quickly, as so did the second. Eventually, Chiara resigned from her new role as a consultant and spent the entire summer at the winery, remaining with her family to work harvest and learn more about the seasonal vicissitudes of winegrowing. In the beginning, Chiara learned from and worked closely with, long-time Condé winemaker, Stefano Zoli, who joined the winery as a young man. Importantly, Stefano introduced Chiara to the innovative and disruptive principles of the late Giulio Gambelli; during her first months at the winery, the pair drank a Poggio di Sotto—where Gambelli had been a consultant—which Chiara recalls opened her eyes to an ‘alternative’ expression of sangiovese.

In 2013, Chiara enrolled at Milan University to study viticulture and oenology, studying for two years and passing exams in chemistry, biology, and agronomy. Despite Zoli’s ongoing mentorship, Chiara recognised she needed technical prowess too to make great wine at Condé—at this time she had no intention of founding her own estate. Besides studying and working with Zoli, Chiara began networking, reading, and travelling to progressive wine regions, bolstering her technical knowledge and practical knowhow with varied and diverse insights and experiences of growers outside Predappio. These efforts were rewarded when atypical spring frost struck which Chiara had spotted early and deferred pruning. 

In 2015, Chiara created her eponymous estate and began purchasing small vineyards in Predappio which would otherwise have been grubbed up. Winemaking in Predappio dates to the Etruscans and was further developed during Roman occupation and in the Middle Ages, when Benedictine monks cultivated vineyards and produced wine for liturgical purposes. Sadly, local winegrowing declined sharply during the late 19th and 20th centuries, due to phylloxera, and industrialization, which led to the abandonment of many traditional agricultural practices. Since joining Condé, Chiara had gotten to know local producers and farmers, many of whom wanted to grub up old vineyards, she felt this was a great pity and saw rousing potential in the region and its native sangiovese biotype. She’d also seen the difference between old and new vines in her own family’s vineyards and jumped at the opportunity to own mature plots of her own.

The first three vineyards (totalling 4ha) Chiara bought were within a three-kilometre radius and now contain vines for her Predappio; later the same year she acquired her 0.8ha Le Lucciole vineyard (deriving its name from the fireflies inhabiting the site) which is also the source of her Lo Stralisco, a 500-bottle production made infrequently from a small parcel inside Le Lucciole. Le Lucciole is planted on very rocky soil rich in ‘spungone’ (calcareous sandstone rock) on a modest slope. The upper section is rocky with poor soil while the lower section boasts more topsoil. The remaining three vineyards are all clayey; one is planted on deep clay at 350 meters asl; another is on red soil, coming from iron mixed in with the clay; and the other is lowest closer to the village, on calcareous clay and 150m asl. The vineyards are surrounded by forests and mountains on one side, promoting beneficial biodiversity, and the Adriatic sea on the other, tempering warm temperatures and extending the growing season.

As well as enlisting Zoli’s help, Chiara consulted esteemed agronomist and oenologist Federico Staderini, who is celebrated for his contribution to contemporary Tuscan winegrowing. Condello and Zoli worked collaboratively with Staderini, sharing thoughts and contemplations. When Staderini first visited Chiara, he came from Florence and the pair spent the entire day walking local vineyards, including her own. Federico listened instead of instructing, ultimately Chiara settled on her own philosophy; an old, ancient approach to the vineyard and cellar with a modern sensibility to oenology and winery management.

Early releases were well received, reviews came mostly from the Italian wine press, including from Slow Wine and Gambero Rosso, then from Vinous when Ian D’Agata was its Italian correspondent. Chiara’s travels and networking also proved advantageous, she was supported by fellow winegrowers and began carefully curating suitable merchants and distributors, some of whom already imported Condé wines. Business was steady until 2019’s COVID pandemic, and then Chiara observed an appreciable uptick in interest, enquiries, and critical acclaim. Chiara rather humbly attributes most of this success to being in the right place at the right time. As sure as I am that this is at least partly true, I am equally convinced that her meticulous and considered work in the vineyard, winery and in public relations has resulted in her present, growing success. 

In the vineyard

In the beginning, Chiara was unsure how to divide her vineyards; to start with, she vinified everything separately and began ageing the resulting wines. Subsequently, she decided to bottle two wines not four, observing the most distinct differences between those wines grown on clay and those from Lucciole grown on rocky soils. The vineyards are all planted to Sangiovese di Predappio, a sangiovese clone native to Predappio. The clone produces smaller, more dispersed berries with thicker skins than the Sangiovese Grosso clone common to Montalcino and Tuscany. Sangiovese di Predappio also yields wines with very vivid colour and is distinctly fruity in its youth. Chiara believes in preserving the clone. Notably, Gambelli rejected using registered clonal selections from nurseries and believed in propagating local clones from massal selections.

Vines are all spur pruned, Chiara cuts back the previous year’s growth and retains a spur with 4-5 ‘eyes’, generally resulting in two bunches per spur. Pruning is completed according to the Simonit & Sirch method, promoting small cuts on one-year-old wood, respecting ‘sap flow’ and basal buds and favouring healing and homogeneity of vegetive points. All this helps tackle esca, which has been a challenge for Chiara; flavescence dorée has not struck sangiovese (in Predappio) yet. Chiara also tries to postpone pruning now compared to previous harvests to limit the impact of more frequent spring frosts; postponing pruning can delay budbreak by as much as a week.

If growers have previously been preoccupied with ripeness, today’s challenge is maintaining freshness coupled with achieving physical ripeness—there is a distinct gap between technical and phenolic ripeness in sangiovese. Chiara works the canopy depending on the vintage, trimming for appropriate air circulation while retaining sufficient leaves to protect against sunburn. This can involve retaining leaves only on the front of rows. Chiara is also trialling no hedging in Le Lucciole—it is thought that not trimming the apical shoot results in smaller berries with higher solid-to-juice ratios and higher levels of organic acids, reduced second crop, and earlier physiological maturity relative to sugar accumulation. However, Chiara remains unconvinced in her own vineyards and continues to observe trials.

Chiara has never applied synthetic pesticides or herbicides, weeding is manual and mechanical; soils are managed organically, including cover crop which later serves as green manure fertiliser; copper sulfate is applied for fungus and bacterial threats; and biodynamic preparations and homemade, homoeopathic infusions are regularly sprayed. All this, from pruning to canopy and soil management, results in distinctly, naturally low yields and physiologically ripe fruit. Chiara’s yields range from 37.5 hl/ha to 25 hl/ha, markedly less than average for sangiovese in Chianti (53 hl/ha). None of this work is the result of sweeping change, Chiara makes small steps each year and has grown in confidence since her first vintages, leaving grapes on plants for longer and taking greater risks in her treatment of sickness and soil. 

In the winery

The 90s were a decade of excess, for sex, drugs and sangiovese. Italian growers imitated international and domestic trends and pursued ripeness, extraction, and concentration—sangiovese had been particularly cursed by the flamboyance of its blended, Super Tuscan brethren. Amidst this identity crisis, there were beacons of hope. Giulio Gambelli, who was chiefly influenced by Tancredi Biondi Santi, was advising many private and Consorzio clients, including Soldera and Poggio di Sotto, and helped revive traditional ideas, blending them with modern knowhow, and fashioning what he believed to be a more authentic sangiovese more reflective of place. Gambelli’s work strongly influences Chiara’s own winemaking.

Following careful selection, whole, intact grapes are fermented spontaneously by indigenous yeast in 70hl, open-topped conical vats (tino) and some small tanks and tonneau. Whole berry ferments can minimise tannin extraction and lend an elevated, primary characteristic to a finished wine. Similarly, open-topped vats are more aerobic than lidded tanks and maintain cooler fermentation temperatures—helpful in controlling phenolic extraction without temperature control. Chiara also incorporates an increasing percentage of whole bunch, which she is more confident managing now.  Pumpovers are frequent, as often as three times per day for 45 minutes in the beginning. Sangiovese can also be prone to reduction, so sufficient oxygen is critical at this stage. Moreover, oxygen exposure during fermentation and élevage can produce more stable, long-lasting red wines with elongated, smooth tannins and stable colour. As alcoholic fermentation progresses and completes, pumpovers slow down so as not to over-extract—alcohol is a more potent solvent than unfermented grape juice. There is never any punching down, Chiara prefers to simply wet the cap, maintaining microbiological stability and encouraging consistent, healthy ferments. 

Macerations are long, generally totalling 18-40 days depending on the cuvee— Le Lucciole has macerated for as long as 70 days before being pressed. These long, cool ferments can help extract and retain desirable aromatics. After maceration, skins are pressed pneumatically. Chiara has also trialled a basket press and speaks positively of the results, noting more control over press cycles and resulting juice. Ageing is in old 3500l botti, plus a little concrete occasionally. Once in situ, the wines are racked around spring followed by ageing for two years. The resulting wines are aromatic, layered, and resonant, with powdery tannins and bright, girdling acidity, even in struggling vintages. 

Reviving Predappio

14th-century Predappio notary documents stipulate pruning and picking rules for maintaining quality, and local ruins reveal communal cellars that were constructed to promote local enterprise. Grapegrowing was expanded with the construction of a new railway line between Florence and Forlì in the early 19th century, which simplified wine transportation and improved sales. During the same century, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was born in Predappio in 1883. Forty years later, a landslide hit the town and left many residents homeless. The Italian government responded by building a bigger, more prestigious township to celebrate the birthplace of Mussolini. Despite its industrious and stirring history, Predappio fell into obscurity through the course of the 20th century—the war, industrialisation, mechanisation, and emigration devastated the local economy. By 2011, wine from Predappio was so unknown that it was commonly labelled as Sangiovese di Romagna.

Contemporary wine is awash with authentic, courageous winegrowers practising avant-garde viticulture and winemaking emboldened by a buoyant global market for fine, artisan wine, even in remote and overlooked regions. Today, against all odds, Predappio has its own effervescent cheerleader whose wines have garnered global acclaim. Chiara Condello ships wine to forty countries via seventy, selected importers and has enthused avid collectors and keen critics—her entire annual production is already sold on allocation. Crucially, she is committed to promoting Predappio, its native sangiovese clone, and its growers. Just as audacious winemakers defy the confines of their own geographic anonymity, so too must drinkers; keep your eyes peeled on this burgeoning Italian commune, Chiara’s success is spreading fast. 

Chiara Condello wines are available via UK specialist fine wine importer Ultravino

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.