TLDR: Perfect wines occupy the past, present, and future all at once, flooding our brains with the endorphins we crave. Il Guercio from Sean O'Callaghan magically speaks to more than three decades of work in Tuscany, pursuing a unique and singular expression of Sangiovese. It is utterly delicious at the moment and leaves me wondering what will come next from Tenuta di Carleone under Sean's masterful guidance. - Damien Casten
Il Guercio has all the components of a perfect wine.
It is utterly delicious to drink, but it also demands, in the gentlest way possible, that we stop and savor it. The specifics of the wine are stunning - its elegance, its gentle tannins, the yin and yang of its fruit that is both ethereal and intense at the same time, and its beautiful, long finish, all that help to make it greater than the sum of its parts. But this wine goes from stunning to perfect for me as I become aware that the pleasure it contains evokes happy times past, thrills me now, and excites me for what will come in the future.
Turns out that there is an established field of research, led by Dr. Fred S. Bryant, a Chicago-based Psychologist, which shows that savoring experiences like this is fairly central to health and happiness. I've tried to explain how I incorporate this approach into evaluating wines for Candid when I consider whether perfect wines can even exist. I strongly encourage you to listen to Dr. Bryant's interview on Hidden Brain, especially if you've ever had a wine stop you in your tracks and force you to slow down and smile.
I met Sean O'Callaghan at a natural wine fair called Vini Veri back in 2008. Irrationally, it was the second time I had been in Italy in less than two months despite living with the serious financial constraints of a small business.
A few months prior I had toured Piedmont with the support of the team at Slow Food in Bra. They provided introductions to the giants of Piedmont and I visited many. I started my day with Giuseppe Rinaldi. He gave me more than an hour of his time, alone in his cellar, with a wine thief, his barrels, and a massive wheel of parmesan from which he unceremoniously hacked off large pieces to share as we tasted wine. I remember the beauty of his Freisa from barrel. I didn't know the grape well and he was adamant that it could be a truly noble wine. It was electric. I can still taste the strawberry juice it seemed to contain.
I ended my day with Teobaldo Cappellano, whose drive to make and share wines that literally overflow with pleasure and passion was like none I have ever seen. He tasted me through barrels of Barolo, each delicious and remarkable, before introducing his "Pie Franco", the wine from a small plot of own-rooted vines that he had planted in order to taste what Nebbiolo on his soil tasted like without the interference of root-stock. Wasn't he worried phylloxera would kill the vines? Yes, indeed he was, but life is short and we will all die, he told me, but if we can pour ourselves into making something beautiful that no one has ever experienced, then the effort is justified. That wine, tasted from barrel with the inspired and possibly mad genius who created it, was magical.
As I finished learning about his family's recipe for Chinato and savored the last of the small glass he shared, Teobaldo Cappellano invited me back to Italy. "Come to Vini Veri" he implored. "It's a wonderful show and you will meet people you will enjoy and taste wines you will adore. I will be there too. It's next month."
A month later, I walked into Vini Veri, somewhat illogically back in Italy simply because I had been invited. I saw Teobaldo briefly and for the last time. He died shortly thereafter of a disease that he must have been fighting as we toured his cellar. A few tables down, Sean O'Callaghan was pouring his Chianti and, as good fortune would have it, interested in selling his wines in Illinois.
Sean's already wild ride in life had taken him from Sri Lanka where he was born to tea farmers, to England where he worked with an Uncle who planted a vineyard, to Guisenheim where he studied wine, to Schlossgut Diehl where he made wine in 1989 and 90, to Gaiole in Chianti where he was hired by another Englishman to make Chianti Classico. For more than two decades Sean made the wines at Riecine that he was pouring that day at Vini Veri.
Fluent in Italian and deeply entrenched in the local culture, Sean is as Tuscan as any outsider can be, but he is still an outsider. While he preaches the potential of Sangiovese with all the fervor of the converted, he is less of a fan of the rules and regulations that define Chianti Classico and even less of the trend towards higher alcohol, denser wines. He told me more than ten years ago that the problem in Chianti is that the area if compared to Burgundy or Barolo, was still very much a teenager. It didn't know what it wanted to be and was trying to figure out which direction to take.
This combination of reverence and disdain led him to Tenuta di Carleone and Il Guercio. If Antonio Gallioni's reviews of the last three vintages are any indication, the future is bright.
2017 Il Guercio (is) a wine with tons of intrigue. It is hard to fully capture the Guercio with words; think of a wine that brings together the high-toned aromatics of a Martini clone Pinot, the acidity of Sangiovese and the structure of a traditionally made Barolo.
2018 Il Guercio : Another striking wine... Alpine herbs, rose, petal and mint to play off pristine Sangiovese fruit. Exquisite and ethereal, Il Guercio pushes the boundaries of Chianti Classico (the region). It is a beautiful, captivating wine full of personality and soul.
2019 Il Guercio ...Sangiovese... as seen through Sean O'Callaghan's lens. The flavors are bold and pungent, yet there is a feeling of transparency here that is utterly beguiling. Crushed flowers, leaves, spice and sweet red cherry fruit linger on the effortless finish. This gorgeous, idiosyncratic wine is an absolute winner.
Il Guercio is a wine born from the highest altitude sites in Gaiole, where Sean finds fruit that has all the elegance of cooler climate Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, but which retains the clear and precise acidity of Sangiovese. Sean described the site and the wine in great detail to an importer from the Netherlands.
In my experience, the wine is the definition of captivating. It literally obliges me to slow down. The aromas are broad and full of soft red fruits; filling without overpowering my nose. There are myriad layers of fruit with ideas of more tart cranberry and cherry coexisting with softer strawberry and raspberry. It is both generous and pointed. Texturally the wine fills the mouth but remains delicate. The wine is a perfect example of yin and yang, here and there. It's as though it occupies many spaces at once, reflecting all that Sean has learned over three decades in one sip. "Utterly beguiling", indeed. Of 2020, Antonio Gallioni wrote:
2020 Il Guercio is airy, gracious and perfumed. Crushed red berry fruit, flowers, white pepper, orange zest and mint lend notable aromatic presence to this mid-weight, eccentric Sangiovese. All the elements are so nicely balanced. Il Guercio is one of the most distinctive wines in all of Chianti Classico.
Pairing-wise, I've found it sings with tomato sauce, but rebels against fresh tomatoes. Mushrooms, duck, slow-cooked beef, aged steaks, and even fatty salmon all appeal.
Sean brought the fruit and his ties to this vineyard in Gaiole with him to Carleone when they started the project. Sitting at 700M the vineyard's elevation offers a natural defense against rising alcohol levels in the region. Five years in the ideas behind Il Guercio seem to be bearing fruit and I can think of no more exciting projects in the wine world right now than what Sean will do with this wine and with the entirety of the Carleone project.
The other thought that came to mind almost instantly when I first tasted Il Guercio was how exciting it would be to share with friends and customers in our world here in Chicago. A list of sommeliers who might find the wine as impactful as I do formed almost instantly in my head. At the same time, I knew I'd bring a bottle home to share with my wife and that we'd immediately be reminded of our trip to Tuscany more than a decade ago and our time with Sean.
Past, present, and future pleasures rush forward so quickly with a wine like this that I feel obligated to slow down and acknowledge them all. The more I savor them, the happier I become. This is why I entered the wine world in the first place. This is perfection.