Pruning with Danilo Marcucci at Conestabile della Staffa

I left Dora and Sanguineto and blasted over to Monte Melino outside Magione in Umbria.  It was close and the Alfa was very fast.  I arrived a bit early but Marco was there at the wine garage to meet me.  We walked over into the vineyards.  They were kind of over grown and Marco described it as being like the Amazon.  Danilo generally waits until later into the spring to prune in order to delay bud break and avoid some risks of late frost killing the buds.  

20190315_052347Conestabile della Staffa Vineyards

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Marco sharpening up some shears for me

 

Danilo pruning an old Grenache vine.  Interestingly he thought the trunk was too large, dried out, and old to effectively produce grapes so he makes a shallow cut in the bark low down on the trunk in order to stimulate new growth there when the vine heals.  Then a year or two later he will cut off the old dried out trunk.

Marco and Danilo were discussed everything as they went.  They kept telling me the same things but then doing conflicting things as they pruned but by watching I started to get a feel for what the strategy was.  We were pruning older Merlot vines that had been grafted over to Aleatico in the previous spring.  On some plants the grafts hadn't worked out, so with them the strategy was to prune back enough so that the vine wouldn't produce many grapes (Danilo didn't really want to have Merlot that he would then have to do something with) and also leave one good promising branch that could grow thick enough to attempt grafting again the following year.  

 
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On the plants where the graft had worked out we would prune most of the new growth but leave two stalks to grow grapes and leaves from.  We would cut off the gemma (proto buds) from the trunk, but leave them on the two branches we were encouraging.  Part of the trick was choosing solid branches that were close enough to the trunk to get plenty of nourishment from the roots.  Then the branches had to be preliminarily trained in order to make room for the other vines on either side.  Shoots from below the graft (which would be Merlot) were all cut off.  Extra old growth would be cut off, including possibly the trunk or larger branches.  If we were cutting larger branches or the trunk off we had to make sure to do it at least 3 inches up from any branches that we were keeping.  The idea was that if we cut a stalk or trunk off there would be drying and possibly bacterial contamination an inch or two down the stalk from what we had pruned.  Leaving a buffer of at least 3 inches was enough to avoid that drying from interfering with the circulation of sap to the new branches.  Danilo called this the Respect Cut
 
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It was a bit different from normal pruning because Danilo was intentionally trying to leave several young branches and a bunch of buds to encourage more growth and production.  This is counter to conventional fine wine philosophy which is that you try to lower yields to concentrate the flavors more.  The thing is that Umbria is warm and sunny so ripeness isn't much of a problem.  Instead of pruning aggressively to limit yields and raise the wine's concentration, Danilo was looking to encourage a relatively larger production so that the grapes would have good flavor but the wine wouldn't have too much alcohol.  The idea being that very ripe grapes with high alcohol make it hard to taste the complexity of the terroir.
 

Danilo explaining to me how to prune

Grafting Trebbiano Vines with Danilo at Ceppaiolo

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The lovable wreck that is the Ceppaiolo winery

Saturday we were all kind of hung over but we headed out to Ceppaiolo.  Danilo let me drive the Audi.  It was very fast.  the technology is pretty bleeding edge stuff.  We got to Ceppaiolo quickly....  Ceppaiolo is a fantastically decrepit falling down little brick work shop with random junk around it such as an old fiat sedan and a moldering camping trailer.  It's in a sort of weird suburb area of the town Bastia.  Danilo uses it as sort of a test vineyard.  There's no family depending on making wine from these vines in order to pay the bills so Danilo can sort of do whatever he wants and experiment with old wine making tricks and ideas he's just heard stories about.  As far as I can tell he never makes the same wine twice here.  It's all different depending on the vintage, what ideas he wanted to try out, and what batches of wine work and which fail.  So it's super unusual and really almost not a commercial vineyard.  He sells the wines, but selling them and making money isn't even the goal, the whole point is just to experiment and gain more knowledge.  If you ever see any of these wines out in the wild they're always worth grabbing because they'll be an unusual unique experience; you'll learn something and it will be a wine that will never exist again.

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While waiting for Danilo we explored some of the forgotten treasures around Ceppaiolo

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I was threatening to move into the derelict camper....

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Eventually Danilo finished on the phone and we went to work

There were a bunch of Grechetto vines that Danilo wanted to graft over to Trebbiano Spoletino.  Nothing against Grechetto but Danilo just really wanted to have more of this particular local type of Trebbiano.  

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First we cut a 1 year old branch ( a bit thinner than my pinky finger) that already had sapp running in it off of a Trebbiano Spoletino plant.  Then we cut that branch into sections.  Grape vines grow in these sort of segments, generally 3 or 4 inches long between joints and the joints are where the buds with grapes and eventually other branches sprout from.  So once we had the pieces of Trebbiano Spoletino prepared we went down the line of Grechetto vines looking for ones that were thick enough to graft: at least about an inch in diameter.  They were all grafted Vines to begin with so we would cut the vine's trunk off just below the old original graft.  That way no grechetto was left, just whatever the original rootstock was.  Then we would use a very sharp little knife to make a slice straight down into the top of the vine's trunk, about1.5 inches deep.  After that we would shave down the end of one of the Trebbiano cuttings into a sharp wedge shape and work that down into the cut.  It was important to keep the surface of the vine flush with the side of the Trebbiano cutting being inserted so that the bark would grow over quickly and well.  Always we shaved down the end of the cutting opposite the joint and potential bud.  Once we had two cuttings (to double the odds that at least one would take) we would wrap the trunk of the Vine with tape to keep everything tight and sealed.  Then a special paste was put over the whole thing to make sure it was protected from drying out or bacteria.  And that was pretty much it! 
 
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Danilo making the slice splitting the vine's trunk so we could insert the twigs of Trebbiano
 
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wedging one of the Trebbiano segments into the trunk of the vine.
 
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Wrapping the newly grafted vine in electrical tape to keep everything tight and let the sapp flow from the trunk into the newly grafted Trebbiano cuttings.
 
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Final Step: putting the wax on after the graft is done.
 
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the finished product
 
It was pretty special to be there in that odd Italian suburb and be doing a wine growing practice that has existed for thousands of years.  Aside from having tape and swiss army knives now, the actual process hasn't really changed in all that time.  Getting to do something like that which wine makers thousands of years ago would have recognized and have had the same sensations of feeling the vine's bark and whittling down the branches into wedges: it was a powerful experience.
 

Here's a whole damn How Too video that Danilo and I made!
 
We went inside and found some moldy decomposed food in the fridge.  Riccardo showed up on a moped and brought us bread, cheese, and salami.  And then we tasted the two new Ceppaiolo wines this vintage.  Danilo had not made a white: just a rose pet nat and a still red.  I forgot to ask why no white.  I think he used all the grapes for the pet nat which seems to be a mix if everything but direct press and no skin contact.  
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Both wines kicked ass.  The petnat was juicy wild wacky and had a tiny bit of residual sweetness but it came across as racy and full of life thanks to the bubbles and minerality.  All that intense pink grapefruit.  This was in fact the coolest wine that I tasted in the whole trip in Italy!
 
The red was really great and surprising.  Very clean and clear and focused.  It was light and clear but with intensity like an alpine red.  It was taut like I could pluck it with a finger and it should vibrate.  
 

Tasting the CeppaFrizz with Danilo 


Visit to Cantina Ribela in Frascati

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Ribela is hard to describe.  It's like trying to describe a dream, because actually that's sort of what it is.  Chiara and Daniele together became fed up with Rome and developed a passion for natural wine in around 2010.  In 2013 they started working with Danilo Marcucci at Vigneti Campanino up in the mountains of eastern Umbria.  As they cut their teeth there they simultaneously started looking for a unique vineyard closer to Rome, the locality they had grown up in.  In 2014 they found it: a tiny 2 ha vineyard in a pocket sized valley perched up in the Castelli Romani above Frascati.  It looks down on the chaos of Rome just about 20 minutes away.  The vineyard is a reality bending bubble high up in these extinct volcanic hills pretty much invisible and difficult to find.  Sheltered by the hill sides around and full of healthy vines, fruit trees, and olives the atmosphere is tranquil and rural, but Rome is visible but silent, there in the distance.  Not only that, just a 1/4 mile away, over the hill is a busy commuter street with cars and trucks whizzing by on as everyone rushes about their business.  I know, I went running back and forth and all up and down around the winery in the Castelli Romani and I almost got hit by cars at least 3 times trying to navigate the round abouts!

20190318_123445In the afternoon before I went to Ribela I really wanted to go running in the Castelli Romani, but there didn't seem to be anywhere to park in order to enter the hills and their trails, so I ended up just leaving the Alfa in this turn off for about 40 minutes while I ran all over and up and down the back roads.  

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Here's another view from up on top of the Castelli Romani.  The views were great and the hills were a great work out.

DSC00080This is the road to Ribela.  Not the easiest to find!

As I understand, the vineyard had previously been owned by an old man who had a bakery in Frascati and maintained this tiny vineyard.  He never sprayed pesticides in it and, in addition to vines of traditional grape varieties like Cesanese, Malvasia di Candia, Bombino, and Malvasia di Lazio there were cherry trees, olive trees, pears, and a peach tree.  All the flowering trees blossomed at different times and helped to bring more insect and animal life into the vineyard. 

For the first couple years Daniele and Chiara rented space in a co-op winery to make their wine.  In the two years after they first bought the vineyard they managed to add one more hectare and they broke ground on a new winery/house.  Oh, and they had a baby too.  So it was a lot in the space of 3 years.  I got to see it in early 2017 when they had just started to excavate and pour the foundation for the new winery.  I remember how cool it was to see all the volcanic sand and strata in the soil thanks to the excavation!  Now the winery is built and Chiara and Daniele are living and making wine there.

I arrived in the early evening after an hour of running up and down the Castelli Romani all around the winery.  Daniele and I took our time walking through the vineyards and new Cantina and let our conversation wander along with our feet.  He'd just planted a new vineyard of about a hectare.  While he really likes the pergola training method he had had to remove some because the vines had been too much of a field blend and the drastically different ripening times had made working them too complicated.  He's been planting some more red grapes: Aleatico and Cesanese.  He was clear that the Cesanese is a local version, different from the better known Cesanese de Piglio from the hills further east.  He's proud of the old style pergola system the vineyard has.  He was saying that originally it was created to spread the leaves more and help production, but it also has the effect of better shading the grapes and helping to keep them from getting desiccated by the intense Roman sun.  It helps provide more shade and maintain acidity and he thought it was a primary reason he was still able to make vibrant  lively whites in 2017, a year that was very hot and dry and that many wine makers struggled in. 

DSC00079There's Rome down there in the background!

 

Here's a longish video of Daniele talking about his vineyard and what he's doing.  Why take it from me when you can hear his own words on it?

He remarked that pergola training had been banned in DOC Frascati now because the association thought it made for higher yields and less ripe grapes.  He felt that in such a hot sunny place as central Lazio too much ripeness and too much sun is more likely a problem.  Also he thought a reason that the pergolas weren't allowed any more was that you couldn't really work them mechanically with tractors and mechanical harvesters and there's a big push to get all the wine makers to upgrade to modern equipment to the benefit of the manufacturers of modern tractors and harvesters.   He said that the going rate that the big companies paid growers for 100 kilos of grapes in Frascati was about 30 euros.  Half of that is payable by Christmas of the year the grapes were harvested and the other half over the following 3 years.  Neither of us could imagine how a farmer could really support and family on that and have a sustainable life.  Daniele said that back in the late 90s the rate had been nearly 90 euros.  So the rate today is a third of what it was 20 years ago and that doesn't even account for inflation.  No wonder Frascati has a low reputation and the wines aren't very good!  Anyway, the point is that this is part of Daniele and Chiara's motivation for Ribela: trying to break out of this broken system and find a way to live with the land and make wines that are more sustainable.

The new winery was also super impressive.  The attention to detail and thoroughness was slightly intimidating for someone like me who is comfortable in a low level of chaos.  But everything seemed very well thought out for the flow of wine and work and processing.  Daniele used to be an architect and he had already spent a couple years making wine when he designed the winery so he had a lot of very clear ideas of what should be where in order to make it easier.  For me the most impressive part were the barrels.  

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The 1st chestnut barrel is on the left, the cherry wood barrel is in the center, and the newer chestnut on the right.

 

Here's a quick video of the barrels and cellar.

They had found an old artisan cooper to make a traditional chestnut cask for them.  The hoops were clearly hand worked.  then after that first cask he had had the cooper make a second slightly larger cask and then another of the same size out of wild cherry trees from the Ribela property.  Cherry wood and chestnut are both traditionally used for making wine casks, but they interact with with wine differently than oak does.  Daniele and Chiara aren't exactly sure how yet, but they gonna find out!

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Here's some of that interesting volcanic soil.  It was gritty and beaded up on the surface of the ground.

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The more Malvasia and Trebbiano from around Central Italy that I drink: the more I realize how unique these wines are.  They have the body that I have come to expect from these varieties, but there's an elegance and poise and refinement that I don't think I've tasted anywhere else.  The fruit is lush and giving, but there's also a vital intense minerality.  I don't know why, it's probably a complicated mix of they're wine making, the techniques that Daniele and Chiara are using in the vineyard, the elevation and exposure of the vineyard, and of course there's also that gritty volcanic soil.  After talking with them into the night about our experiences growing up and values in life and wine, one of my big conclusions is just that: that these wines and the place are unique.  Sure there are other people making natural zero sulfur wines, but these have a very different character and voice.  2017 was only their 4th vintage.  If they were somewhere like the Loire valley or in Tuscany I'm sure they would have gotten much more attention by now.  But because Frascati is just known as simple mass produced wine they're sort of in a compelling natural wine dessert; it's the idea that the best place to hide is in plain sight and as a winery Frascati is very much a great "hiding in plain sight" spot.  Daniele and Chiara recently ended their relationship with Danilo Marcucci so all the decisions are solely their experience and intuition now.  The wines that are absolutely worth seeking out and I think it will be really exciting to see where they go as they develop.

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Here's another view of inside the winery

 


Visit with Moretti Omero and New Vineyard Visit

     I don't even remember how long it is that I've been working with the wines of Omero.  It's a been a while, but I first went and met them in the spring of 2017.  Unusually I buy sort of direct from the winery which makes the relationship a bit more direct but also makes inventory more difficult.  

Omero started out farming pigs but soon decided it wasn't for him (the neighbors complained to the authorities about the smell and he felt it wasn't worth the hassle).   Serendipitously just as he was having second thoughts about raising pigs the Montefalco Rosso DOC was created in the early 90s.  So Omero sold off his pigs, bought some vineyard and some empty land, and started learning to make wine.  He obviously attacked wine making in a serious methodical way because I can taste his curiosity and thorough hard work in all his wines: from the table wine up through his crazy passito Sagrantino dessert wine that is a labor of love made from dried grapes.  His winery, while not flashy, is an impressive use of space and very serious.  There are tanks in front of tanks, two stories to make it easy to process the fruit and move wine with less pumping, and he seems to always be experimenting with tweaking his technique or making new wines. 

OmeroHere he is with his experimental first year Ciliegolo Rosato

 

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This new vineyard was the high point of visiting, well aside from getting to see him and his daughter Giusy.  They've planted a new vineyard of Trebbiano Spoletino and Ciliegiolo.  Two important traditional local grapes that are sort of unknown outside central Italy.  It's up on top of a ridge and is open and windy so it should get good sun but stay relatively dry and not be too terribly hot.  It's a great demonstration of who he is that even though Omero isn't a spring chicken anymore he's still pushing forward and continuing to build.

 

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Giusy and I in front of a famously ancient olive tree on their property.  they're famous for their olive oil which I do also import.


vineyard and Winery visit with Leonardo Sassi

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Sunday March 17th I drove down through rural Umbria and up some fantastic winding switchbacks to just over the border with Lazio to meet Leo Sassi and check out his new little winery.  I have to say that although I got a little lost blasting through those tight winding flowing empty rural roads in a new Alfa Romeo Giulia an listening to opera was really fantastic and I was in a great mood when I finally arrived. 

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2018 was only Leo's second vintage.  I'm not sure how much wine he made this time around but in 2017 it was just a few hundred cases.  Leo's family is from out here in the vicinity of Terrano, and his grandparents are still here, but he and his family have always lived in Rome where they have a bakery, wine bar, and excellent restaurant.  

After about 4 decades in Rome and starting a family Leo and his wife began to think about relocating somewhere the pace of life was a little less intense.  His family still owned a large hill (Collina Sassi) out on the border with Umbria and they had a love of natural wine that had developed along with their wine bar, so they made the decision to plant a vineyard and try to build a small winery from the ground up.  Serendipitously Leo was already friends with Danilo Marcucci thanks to the wine bar and Danilo was willing to come on as a consultant.  

After driving back and forth past it many times, I met Leo at his grandparents garage.  He's currently renting a little old vineyard next door to his land and getting his feet wet (ha ha it's a pun!) doing wine making on a very small scale while the 3.3 hectares he's planted grow up enough to produce grapes.  Everyone talks about Romans as being very fast and frenetic and I could see that a bit in Leo's intensity, but he was great about speaking slowly for me so I could try to follow along in Italian.  The winery was small, clean and to the point.  I tasted his new 2018 rosato and Coraggio bianco which were both excellent both thanks to the particular qualities of the 2018 vintage and his improvement as a wine maker.

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This is the little rented vineyard

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Here's the newly planted vineyard

 

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The vines were planted last year so it will still be maybe another 2 years until they really produce fruit.  He's got Ciliegiolo, Cesanese, Malvasia, and Trebbiano planted. I'm not sure if there's Sangiovese as well...  Interestingly the Ciliegiolo is a local clone that seems to be kind of different from what's grown up in Umbria.  Interestingly he and Danilo spent a while studying the hill and different possible sites to plant the vineyard and eventually decided that it would be best to plant on a gently sloping north facing hillside below the peak.  As Leo explained: central Italy is always hot in the summer no matter where you are.  Getting the grapes ripe isn't a problem even here at relatively high elevation.  So instead of planting on a traditional south facing slope to get more sun, he and Danilo decided a slightly less sunny north facing slope would be better in order to make brighter and fresher wines and to be able to have a bit of flexibility to deal with the warming climate in the future. 

Leo Sassi has 3.3 ha of vines planted over two different soil types.  One is red and slightly volcanic and sandy while the other is whiter and has more clay in it.  Leo was still trying to decide exactly where to build his permanent winery on the property and was already a little worried about navigating the Italian permitting and construction process in order to have it ready for when the new vineyard started to produce 2 years in the future.  The new vineyard might be large enough to triple his production and would definitely be too much to handle in his grandparents garage.  That's a real hard deadline!  No arguing with nature! 

After seeing everything we walked back to our cars, I wished him good luck, and we were just about to take off (because he had to make it back to the restaurant in Rome and work there) when he sort of paused, thought, and asked if I wanted an espresso.  I said sure because I always want espresso.  So he said to follow him and he led me down to a Tabacheria down the ridge.  We grabbed an espresso and were about to part ways again when he sort of paused again...then he said "Hey, I'm sorry I'm in such a rush to get back to the restaurant, would you like to come to Rome with me and I'll give you lunch in my restaurant?  It's good traditional Roman cuisine.  I was going to say no, I'd rather run up and down all these insane hills out here when my brain kicked back on and I realized that I would be an idiot to refuse the invitation of a free fantastic lunch in Rome.  So off we went through the countryside and then onto the A1 to the Ponte Flaminia in Rome.

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Panificio Nazzareno

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This was an amazing fried squash blossom with cheese

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Pasta Amatriciana

 

Look!  Here's video of Leo talking about his new vineyard


Visit with Dora Forsoni at Poderi Sanguineto

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 It seems like everytime I go to Montelulciano it's a dark and rainy night. All two of the times!  Actually, it wasn't too late when I arrived, but the sun set and the Agritourismo I thought it was staying at was completely dark. I wandered around for a bit and knocked on the door of another house which was completely unhelpful.  Then it started to rain.  I resorted to calling Dora Forsoni on the phone and I was shocked that she picked up.  Turns out there's this other dumb winery/agritourismo with the name Sanguineto that's just up the street.  I went the wrong way and Dora had to come retrieve me, but she was laughing the whole time and I never got the hint that she thought I was a helpless American (which at that moment I was).  Once I made it to the real Sanguinetto Dora and Patrizia welcomed me and we had a fantastic traditional Tuscan meal with pigeons that Dora had shot, a pork roast, various bruschetta, guanciale they had made, and sausage from wild boar Dora had shot. 

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Pigeons

 

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In the first few minutes of meeting Dora I noticed her hands.  She's such a small delicate looking woman, but her hands show the scars and proud story of all the work she's done for...I don't know...40 years in the vineyard?  She told me she was 79 but I think it was a language barrier mis-understanding, I'm pretty sure she's 69 years old.  It was shocking and humbling how happy and honest she was. In no way was she trying to consciously project an image: she was just so happy to be alive and there in Tuscany and to be able to tell me stories.  It was amazing.  

The next morning I got up earlyish and spent an hour running to Aquaviva and back.  Dora was out in the yard feeding the chickens and as I ran up the driveway asked if I wanted breakfast.  When I said yes, without pausing she waved for me to follow and got into her old diesel Mitsubishi truck.  We drove back in to Aquaviva to a Cafe in the gas station that was obviously the spot where everybody in town came to get the local gossip.  I was sweaty and in short shorts and mildly amused by what the bundled up Italians must have thought of me but Dora didn't even seem to be aware of it, until I mentioned that they must think I was crazy and we both laughed.  Dora goes there most mornings and lots of people said hi to her.  I got the feeling that is sort of a of local institution and legend.  
 
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Looking up the hill at the winery
 
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The view from my room of the gently sloping hillside vineyard
 
We drove back to the winery in her bouncy old truck that smelled and felt exactly like the old Toyotas I grew up with on Cranberry Island.  I changed and then we went and did a vineyard walk.   Different parts of the vineyard had been planted in 1935, some in I think 58, and some in the 70s.  I wish I could have understood more about the mammolo, Canaiolo, trebbiano, malvasia, and Grechetto that she had, but of course most of her vines were Sangiovese.  She was adamant that all the Sangiovese on the estate was Prugnolo Gentile variety and not some other clone of Sangiovese.  I asked what she did when she had to replace a vine that was dead and she said that it was possible to buy vines that were certified as Prugnolo Gentile from the Montepulciano Consortium.  She got up in arms at the idea of people planting non Prugnolo Gentile and was sure some wine makers did.  She prunes aggressively in January when the vine is really asleep.  She tries to really limit the production of each plant so that the wine is more powerful.  All her Sangiovese is on Terra Rosa.  It's noticeably red soil that has volcanic matter in it because long long long ago Montepulciano was a volcano.  That blood colored soil is part of where the name sanguineto comes from and it gives the wines more power and minerality.  It's a building block of what makes Sanguineto Sanguineto. 
 
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Here's a shot of both Terra Rossa in the background and Terra Bianca in the foreground
 
 
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Also, all of her Vines were trained in Guyot so that they'd only have 1 or 2 fruit bearing branches.  

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Then I went for another quick run while she did some other work.  After that Dora, Patrizia, and I went into Aquaviva for lunch.  We had another series of Bruschetta (i), some fantastic very peppery pasta, and then thinly sliced fantastic rare grilled beef.  The meal was rounded out with Pecorino.  We polished off two bottles of her Rosso di Montepulciano.  Very Tuscan.  
 
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Some of the scenery running
 
 
After lunch Dora took a nap and I ran the hills into Montepulciano and back. It's an amazing medieval Hilltop Town built on top of itself at a peak of 650 m.  When I got back Dora showed me her cantina. 
 
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It was very small and we'd already tasted her wines at dinner and again at lunch. I tasted the 2018 vintages of Rosato and Bianco from the tanks and then also the 2017 Rosso which was basically done but she had to have an analysis done first and then she wouldn't have permission from the Consortium until sometime in April.  2017 was hot and very dry but the wine was still obviously classic Sanguineto, it was just a bit juicier and more forward.  The 2018 Rosato and Bianco were fantastic!  Bright and really tasty, vivid, and energetic.  I don't usually go in for Sangiovese Rosato, I guess I'm just a traditionalist, but it was very good and Dora was excited about it.  
 
 
The big thing Dora kept repeating was that she only made 1 wine.  The difference between the Rosso di Montepulciano,  Vino Nobile, and Vino Nobile Riserva is strictly the aging. I asked whether she made some kind of choice in the vineyard to decide which grapes would be used for which wine and she emphatically said no. She said that her father had taught her to only make one wine. That way everything is of the best possible quality and it simplifies things as well; making one wine allows better focus.  So the Rosso is aged 1 year, the Vino Nobile for 2, and the Riserva for 3 years.  Dora also said it would be ridiculous to make a determination in the vineyards because Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Mammolo all ripen at slightly different times.  And you have to declare in advance what wine you will make from a given piece of vineyard so in Dora's case it would be too complicated to decide a year or more in advance what wine she will make from a given vineyard, so effectively all three reds are made to the same level as the Riserva.  
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At dinner that night we had another fantastic humble meal around their kitchen table with more pork roast,  pasta carbonara that Dora was emphatic about only using egg yokes, no whites in the sauce.  We had jarred wild boar head cheese and then for dessert some of her olives that she had thrown in a jar with fresh olive oil and minced bits of orange peel and then frozen.  The olives were too oily to actually freeze solid so they had this soft grainy meaty texture and slowly melted in your mouth alongside the fresh bite of the orange.  
 
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Dora told me about how hot and dry 2017 had been and that she had therefore made big powerful wines.  We were tasting 2015, a maybe even hotter vintage, but she said it wasn't worth drastically altering the way she worked.  The wine had a lot of alcohol but it wasn't very apparent tasting it because it was balanced with classic Sangiovese fruit (not too ripe!), salt, a bit of smoke, tannic structure, and dry earth.  This prompted her to tell me that she knew some wine makers added water to their 2017s in order to keep the alcohol down.  I imagine that is something you'd have to do if the grapes had ripe levels of sugar but you had harvested a little too early and didn't have proper fruit and aromatic ripeness.  Or you could just be a snake and decide that since the wine only has to be 13 percent but yours is 14, you could add some water and still have wine that shows 13.5 % and you'll have a significant bit more wine to sell and make more money.  Dora said you could get an idea of whether there was water added to the wine by dabbing a bit on a white paper napkin and observing how it diffuses.  She demonstrated and you could see the pigment along with all the tannin etc spread out but the color got a teeny bit lighter further out until at the very edge there was just a thin clear ring of liquid: that was water.  Wine is a heterogeneous fluid (wine 101) meaning it's a non uniform mix of all the stuff in it and over time the fluid can separate into its component parts.   The tannin, pigment, minerality, etc gets stuck as the wine spreads out through the paper napkin because on a molecular level it's larger and stickier than the water.  That's why at the outer edge there should be that thin ring of water that was able to make it further through the napkin than the pigment.  There should only be this very thin bit of water.  I suppose it's slightly different for different types of wine so you'd have to make some experiments.  But once you have a baseline of what for example a Rosso di Montepulciano should look like you would be able to spot one that had a larger thicker ring of water around it's napkin splotch.  Pretty smart!
 
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The next morning I did more running and we went to the bar and had another espresso for breakfast.  After that we talked some more about work and life.  I took a picture of her very impressive hands which she was proud to oblige with.  She showed me her hunting trophies and various tractors.  We were talking a bit about how I like cars and the new Alfa Romeo I was driving.  Then her face lit up (hard to imagine more lit up but it did) and she led me into one of the little out buildings.  Behind a tractor she had a sweet old Alfa Romeo 2.0 GTV from the mid 70s.  It had obviously been sitting but was in good clean shape and the interior was really good.  She said it was her old car from decades ago and she used to blow the doors off BMWs with it.  She hopped in and it actually fired up!  It was rough at first but it smoothed out.  God knows how old the gas and battery were and it must have some crazy old mechanical Spiega fuel injection system but it was bad ass.  
 
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A bunch of the other wine makers I visited knew her and were concerned for her health.  She seemed very active and spry but she can't weigh even 120 lbs.  I heard she had broken a leg a year or 2 ago but she seemed to be moving around fine.  Even with my shitty Italian meeting her was amazing.  People describe her as a force of nature and now I get it.  
 
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Sunset at Sanguineto

Nasciri Vino Rosso UNU 1 and 3

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I don't know anything about these.  Well, not quite true.  I know that the Vino Rosso I is Aglianico and that the III is Nero Calabrese.  They also taste very very wild and zero sulfur.  Both are 2013. Beyond that though I don't know; which is very intriguing!

Vino Rosso unu III

Interesting aroma: it smells like dried cherries, stewed tomatoes, sweet Italian sausage with fennel seed in it....It's very evocative of place and food smells.  On the palate the III is pretty big and rustic in a way I really like and (to me) is very old school.  There are pretty serious dry tannins.  It's dark and spicy and makes me think of that sweet Italian sausage with fennel seeds in it again.  I'm not sure if it's because that's what I want to eat or the wine tastes like it...or both.  Man!  It's a big dry dusty dense old wine and very impressive. 

Vino Rosso unu I

This smells so much brighter!  Like really juicy fresh cherries off of the tree!  Like a home baked cherry pie!  The smell of bright juicy cherries is so intense that I half expect to be sipping cherry compote!  But I'm not.  It's wine; spicy wild warm big sunny wine.  The fruit is brighter than in the III but it also has powerful dry tannins.  There's also a wild vital edge to it....there's the tiniest touch of VA, like so slight that it doesn't really taste like VA but the wine has a wild sort of bright edge. It's jammy and wild and brambley...and then has this real strong back bone of tannin.  

These are super interesting compelling wines.  At first I didn't know what to think but they opened up and got really impressive.  I'll have to try to get my hands on some.


Thoughts on the Natural Wine Movement

This past Monday I taught a seminar for restaurant people about "WTF is Natural Wine".  The hand out I created for it ran to 8 pages long for this approx. 2 hour seminar; there was a lot of ground to cover!  I spent a lot of time preparing, researching, and reflecting on my time in the wine business.   It made me think that there's probably value in me capturing some of those thoughts while they're fresh.  

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A natural fermented zero sulfur red blend from central Umbria

Something that's great about the Natural Wine movement is that for nearly every rule or definition there's an exception and a story.  Nothing is ever black and white.  I really think that loose chaotic grass roots identity is what has helped keep Natural Wine vital.  Yeah, everyone shares the goal of making wines that express the place they come from without manipulating the wine, but it's all so personal and subjective (taste, personal experience and preference).  Where do you draw the line of how much VA is too much?  How much new oak is ok?  It's easy to say that inoculating with engineered yeasts is not truly natural, but what about a pied de cuve of yeasts taken from that vineyard?  I think it's great the Natural Wine isn't too dogmatic.  I think anyone who thinks it can be boiled down to a bunch of rules hasn't tasted enough wine and met enough wine makers.

There's also real value in how Natural Wine has forced wine agriculture to take a real look at the environmental and human health impacts of their agricultural and wine making practices.  It's weird: on the one hand grapes are generally a very high pesticide load agricultural product, however wine is a high value romantic product so producers can afford to push the agricultural limits and experiment with pricey but more environmentally friendly techniques.  If those techniques work they can usually be refined, made more efficient, and then passed down to other lower value crops like tomatoes or cucumbers.  I'm not sure how much that has happened yet but it should slowly.  The Natural Wine movement is still really young and it's already changed the face of wine.  

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A wild natural Vermouth from Spain

When I started in wine, back in 2000-2001 Natural Wine wasn't really a thing in America yet.  Or at least 18 year old me in Maine didn't know about it.  I did however realize that I liked wines that had a freshness to the taste, that were more complex and interesting without just being big; I liked wines that tasted like where they came from and not wines that were trying to hew to some formula or recipe that the maker thought a market wanted.  I always love explaining the danger of a wine maker making wine not with the intention to make it taste like the place it came from, not making it taste the way they personally like, but instead making it the way that they imagine some alien export market would want it to taste with my Baywatch analogy.  The Baywatch analogy is that a wine maker in Southern France or Piedmont Italy probably grew up there.  The big city for them might be Marseilles or Milan.  Maybe they've visited New York.  Maybe they've visited LA.  But they've probably only gotten a very quick glimpse of any of America.  Their idea of America and Americans is most likely based on pop culture like the TV Series Baywatch more than anything else.  Baywatch doesn't even exist!  I don't want to drink Baywatch wine.   Anyway, Natural Wine didn't exist as a term yet, but a lot of those wines I was drinking were effectively natural wines.  

At some point we all needed a quick way catchy way to explain that the wines we were drinking were different from the glossy full page adds for Kendall Jackson in the Wine Spectator and the term Natural Wine stuck.  Some times I think it's a little unfortunate because it can come off as holier than thou, but it's not bad to shine a light on the bad agricultural and social practices of some parts of the industry.  

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A great picture from a 2001 Wine Spectator of a wine maker at a control panel that could be out of a power plant

I have a theory, and really it's a flimsy theory, but I think we're kitting a turning point in Natural Wine.  Not only is it more established and sort of main stream, but Natural Wine has existed as a movement for so long that there are young people starting out as wine makers who have been exposed to Natural Wine as a cultural movement for their whole adult lives.  That's a big change!  Originally natural wine makers were mostly farmers who made a personal decision to change how they made wine, but it was sort of in a vacuum.  Then there was a surge of people coming from other careers to make wine and choosing to do it naturally.  But now that Natural Wine has been around so long and people have grown up with it it's almost like a possible feed back loop.  Does this matter?  I think it probably does.  How does it matter?  I have no idea, but I think it's worth noting.

20190307_103420Oh that fancy fancy Kendall Jackson.  Also from this 2001 Wine Spectator


Chateau le Bergey Bordeaux

2018

Vintage 2018!  

Yes, that's right, it's 55 days into 2019 and I'm already drinking 2018 vintage Bordeaux.  And it's really good!  Wow!  

Bergey is made by Gerard Laurent, a retired successful engineer who bought this winery when he sold his company and retired.  He applied his empirical skills to the task of making wine and within several years felt he'd seen enough evidence that natural fermentations and more natural farming produced better wine and so he threw himself into making wine with less intervention.  This is his least expensive entry level wine that he makes and I think sells for less than he should just to get more people to enjoy Bordeaux!

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Aroma: Wow, the aroma is very nice!  The Bergey smells of juicy black brambly fruit.  There's also a tiny bit of spice to the aroma, but mostly it smells like fresh ripe blackberries that I'm just about to pick off the vine and stuff into my face.  .....I'd say there's also some tomatoes and poblano peppers growing not too far away because there's a bit of a cool leafy spice woven in amongst the fruit the aromas as well.

Taste:  .  It actually tastes darker than it looks.  The color isn't so deep in the glass, but the flavors are dark, spicy, and nicely warm.  ....Yeah, it's 2018 and it tastes young; it's like a german shepard puppy that's just too excited and can't calm down.  But who doesn't love puppies?!  The 2018 Bergey is juicy and ripe but what makes it awesome is that it's got real tannin and good tart acidity that makes the wine taste...real.  It's not just ripe fruit as many wines at this price are: the Bergey tastes more vivid like tart ripe cherries and a bit of dark chocolate...like 70% dark chocolate.  It's also got that black pepper little bit of bitterness rounding out the friendly fruit which is exhibit A in what Merlot should be and why Merlot is famous to begin with.  

This is very good Merlot.  Everyone who thinks they don't like Merlot should drink this just to make sure.  Because this is so good and so honest and compelling without being over the top or annoyingly one dimensional.

Eat More Cheese, Bootlegger's Topsham, Bath Natural, Farm Stand, Bow St Freeport, Royal River Natural Foods, Rosemont Markets, Whole Foods, Tess Market, Rising Tide Co-Op, Lois's Natural foods, and the Clown


Calcarius Biancopuglia

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Calcarius Biancopuglia; hmmm, what do I know about this wine?  It's made by Valentina Passalaqua and Danilo Marcucci down in Puglia, but at the northern edge of the region.  This is from land on Valentina's family estate that has an extremely high proportion of Calcerous rock in the soil.  Valentina makes natural wine and got to know Danilo (of Umbria) through crossing paths in the wine world.  At some point Danilo visited her winery and was intrigued by this piece of land.  They started talking, bouncing ideas around....and now they make wine together.  

The grape is Bombino Bianco, which I'm told is a version of Trebbiano.  But there are many versions of Trebbiano which all have various qualities (Trebbiano Giallo, Trebbiano Verde, and Trebbiano Spoletino being three others).  Bombino is reputed to have larger berries and larger looser clusters than other versions of Trebbiano, so I think it's fair to call it by this different name.  I haven't had too many straight Bombinos but this bottling at least certainly does not have the qualities I usually associate with Trebbiano.

Aroma: Well, there's a fresh lemon/lemon zest/lemon grass kind of smell.  Maybe also a tiny bit of aromatic leafy herbal something....not mint although that would be convenient since this pretty much smells like dry made from scratch lemonade.  Confession: I'm drinking this from a rocks glass so it's not the ideal kind of vessel to detect nuance....

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Taste: Crisp and vivacious, lots of lemon and lemon zest, also sort of a tart, almost but not quite ripe, apricot: there's bitterness of the apricot skin and lushness of the flesh.  It's got a zippy little prickle that kicks in on the mid palate alongside a bit of stony minerality, but then a bit of the body I sort of associate with Trebbiano comes in and makes the wine a touch rounder and more friendly.  The Calcarius Bianco is super thirst quenching and fun, but at the same time it does have some interestingly complex flavors all working together.  This Bombino is energetic and fun and up on the balls of it's feet.  To give it personality it tastes like just nothing get's it down; it's unflappable and just dances through life soaking it all in and enjoying it on it's own terms.  Hell yeah, I appreciate that kind of spirit.

Turns out we've mostly sold the Calcarius Bianco to restaurants!  The only places to get it retail at the moment are Maine and Loire and Eat More Cheese in Belfast.