For those unfamiliar with the wine world, it might come as a surprise to find a Sri Lankan-born British winemaker employed at a Chianti Classico cantina founded by a fellow Englishman and now owned by a Russian businessman. But Sean O’Callaghan, production manager and oenologist at acclaimed winery Riecine, near Gaiole in Chianti, is part of the paesaggio in this corner of Tuscany: he’s been turning out distinctive and discerning wines here since 1991. When I met O’Callaghan for The Florentine, he spoke of the vines and the wines in very human terms, of his intention ‘to guide the wines, like you hope to with your children, not to dictate to them’.
Emily O’Hare: This year will be your 25th anniversary at Riecine. How did you get here?
Sean O’Callaghan: My uncle owned a small vineyard near Yeovil; he was the one who suggested to me that I might enjoy the vineyard life. Taking his advice, I moved to the Nahe in Germany to do a two-year apprenticeship at Schlossgut Diel before taking a four-year viticulture degree at Geisenheim University in the Rheingau, the same university that my son’s now attending. Then I moved back to Schlossgut Diel as a winemaker for two years, making Riesling, Grauburgunder and Pinot Noir. I was on holiday in Tuscany in 1991, celebrating handing in my thesis, when I met fellow Brit, John Dunkley, then owner of Riecine. Two weeks later, a letter arrived inviting me to come and work at Riecine. I had dreamed of working in a small winery, and Gaiole was, and still is, a beautiful place, so I just decided, “Why not?”
EOH: You studied winemaking in Germany where white wines are royalty. Are there any parallels between Sangiovese and Riesling?
SOC: If you believe in fruit, elegance and acidity, then Riesling is the queen and Sangiovese is the king.
EOH: What distinguishes the reds of Gaiole from those of the other Chianti Classico communes: Radda, Greve and Castellina?
SOC: We are very rocky and most of Gaiole is quite high up, so our reds tend to be elegant and acidic, whereas the other areas are generally richer and darker.
EOH: Unusually these days, you foot press to crush the grapes in the winery instead of using machines like in most cantine. Have you always done it that way? Why?
SOC: We have always got into the bins but since 2013 everything is foot crushed. It’s softer and fun!
EOH: Do you need to be of a certain constitution to be a good winemaker? Or is it like being an artist and having a varied palette to paint with—different ingredients according to the nature of the fruit thanks to weather conditions?
SOC: Every year is a new prospect, hail is a disaster, but there is nothing you can do, so you step back and go ‘F*ck! But let’s keep going!’ The most important thing about being a winemaker is not to be a chemist… So, yes, be an artist and use your experience.
EOH: Chianti Classico can be a fine wine. Do you get fed up of hearing about Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo being Italy’s great reds?
SOC: No, I don’t, because they are. Unfortunately, Chianti Classico has all the problems of a young adolescent child trying to become an adult. It has no idea what it really wants to be when it grows up.
EOH: Recently, you started making a rosato. I’ve heard Italians are not great pink drinkers despite its great food matching potential, so who’s your main market for rosé?
SOC: The main market is my house! I love it. Seriously though, it’s going down very well in the UK and the US.
EOH: How do you feel about vintage reports? Are they credible? For example, 2014, like 2002, in Tuscany was reviewed pretty miserably: is that a fair reckoning?
SOC: Harvest reports tend to be fair, but wiping out entire vintages is a shame. 2002 Chianti Classico can be wonderful… 2003, very hot and dry, produced some amazing wines, atypical but amazing all the same. It’s important to follow the producers, not the vintage reports.
EOH: What changes a wine more—the age of the vine or the ageing of the winemaker?
SOC: I’ve certainly improved with age… Not as frightened, more secure. But in 25 years, it’s the climate that has changed more than anything else.
Emily on Riecine: “If you’ve tried the wines of Riecine you’ll note the lack of pushy parenting. Wine critics describe them as ‘pure, fine, fresh, elegant, never over-ripe, rich or fat, never overworked, always natural, lively and bright.’”