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.
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.
This is the little rented vineyard
Here's the newly planted vineyard
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.
This was an amazing fried squash blossom with cheese
Look! Here's video of Leo talking about his new vineyard