Visit with Frank Cornelissen on Etna

8 years ago when I originally met Frank Cornelissen, he told me that he was spending all his money on buying more land on Etna.  He said that more than anything he wanted to make wines that taste like liquid volcanic rock.  He said he wanted to see Etna established as one of the premier wine regions in the world. 

Those goals sounded audacious back then, but Frank has stuck by them and is on his way to achieving them. That's crazy. 

Frank pouring wine at lunch

Three and a half years ago I visited Frank on Etna.  He'd just upgraded his bottling line, installed ultraviolet lights everywhere, argon on the bottling line, ozone injectors in the heat pump systems, etc.  Frank had gone all out to keep the winery clean and avoid any contamination in the wine.  His goal wasn't just to ferment wine that tasted like liquid volcanic rock with native yeast and bottle with no sulfur or other additives, he wanted the wine to come out totally clean and stable every time.  His logic was "what's the point of all his work if the wines taste different by the time people get to drink them?"  He wanted people to experience his vision the way he intended.  


Fermenting grapes at Frank's winery

In these 8 years since I met him, Frank's wine making has changed a lot technically, but the changes are completely in the pursuit of his goals.  So this time around I was excited to see Etna with fresh eyes.    


The famous filtration device

The first afternoon that I met up with Frank, the son of a close friend had flown to Sicily to ask his advice about transitioning from being a high level race car engineer to becoming a wine maker.  We hopped in the car and headed to a restaurant for what turned into a 4 hour lunch.  Talk ranged from what starting a business will do to your life, the quirks and pressures of the wine business, to the conflict between the business and romantic sides of making wine.  And politics and cars and I told a lot of stupid stories.   It was great and lots of catching up.


The new more gentle wire insert for the destemmer.  

Something Frank said that stuck with me was that you have to push past your limits to the realm where things break and then pull back to a place where you're comfortable and can exist sustainably.  It's a sentiment I identify with personally.  Frank went on to say that technology can fill the spaces where you're less comfortable once you push throw that ragged edge to where things may break.  We talked about it and he clarified this as meaning that with technology or more accurately technique, used in the right way, you can create a bit more space, a bit more time.  As an example: in wine making that can mean maybe you don't have to do the fermentation as fast, maybe you can be a little bit more deliberate and thoughtful.  With everything perfect you can stretch the primary fermentation of some of the red out even longer because you know that the hyper clean winery and soft destemmer and vibrating sorting table and C02 in the press all bought you a little bit more time before any kind of unwanted bacteria growth could start.  And you can do it with out resorting to using enzymes or sulfur in the process. 


In the Barbabecchi vineyard


Old vines in Barbabecchi up where the Magma comes from 


I think originally, (18 years ago?) Frank was rebelling against the broad trend of to much technique and technology destroying the honest sense of place in many wines he had experienced.  Through experience and experimentation Frank has honed his technique in order to find that fine line of using technique to set up the natural processes of fermentation to be able to cleanly run their course.  It's the idea of technique as a framework that is out of sight and allows the land to speak.  He's still fermenting with native yeast and not adding anything to the wine, but he has nearly 100% more wine making experience than when I first met him.  He's producing about 130,000 bottles now.  That's a whole different scale.  In my own experience, my wine wholesale company is a completely different structure from what it was 10 years ago because the structure that worked at that scale would be impossible at the current size.  It's like I've had 4 or 5 different companies over the years.  Similarly Frank started out making wine essentially out of a garage and now has a winery that has gone through 17 years of technical evolution and refinement.

Working on the same project for nearly 2 decades changes your perspective, not just of the project but also of time and progress.  I saw this in another subject that Frank and I touched on: making the step from great wine to exceptional wine and maintaining that quality over time.  Frank has proven to himself that he can make exceptional wines.  He's also proven to himself that he can consciously evolve and improve what he does in order to address issues or new problems he identifies.  But making exceptional wine is a moving target so you have to put those two things together.  Expressing the unique character of each vintage, and doing it at an extremely high level seemed like something Frank was rolling around in his mind.    We agreed that a lot of the changes you make to get there are very small in impact, but they may be big and hard to accomplish in reality.  Technology came back into the conversation here.   Frank has been trying to customize much of the equipment he uses in order to increase his options.  For example he's changed to a larger pump with a larger diameter output that ends up being easier on the grapes (a larger volume space at the same pump pressure decreases velocity).  Another example: Frank also added a voltage inverter to step the voltage down and effectively give the pump a lower speed range that is also more gentle on the grapes.  The bottling line that uses argon through the whole process includes a leveler to make sure each bottle is at exactly the same volume when filled with wine: all of these things give him more options.  Having more options and flexibility allows him to respond to different vintage situations with more finely tuned inputs that just achieve exactly what he wants...or that's the goal.  But getting companies to custom manufacture new equipment takes time. 

We drove around for part of a day looking at different vineyards that Frank has planted or recently bought with the goal of planting.  He's aiming to get up to about 150,000 bottles of production per year, feeling that is a good sweet spot where he can still be very hands on and keep quality extremely high, but it will give him the margins to have a slightly more robust operation.  And, to repeat myself, more vineyard sites in a way mean more options....  It was cool driving around and stopping to see people because it opened my eyes to how much Frank has really become part of the community.  Sure, he's been here on Etna for 18 ish years but I heard all kinds of stories of how hard it was for him as an outsider when he started.  Etna is a unique place and people can naturally be skeptical of outsiders.  But as we went and got breakfast and wondered around people would stop him in the street, wave and honk as he went by, it was really clear that the community has accepted him and appreciates the attention he's brought to Etna.  


Tasting through wines from the same Contradas but from different wine makers

Reflecting after the trip: I can't think of another contemporary wine region that has risen to prominence like Etna in as short a time.  Even more unique is that one of the driving forces behind Etna's rise is a guy who's a poster child for the natural wine movement.  Etna's rise as a wine region is due to the hard work and sacrifice of many people.  Passopisciaro, Terre Nerre, Salvo Foti and others have done a ton of work to advance Etna's reputation, but Frank is one of the absolute top flagship producers on Etna and I think it's really unique that he is a "Natural" wine maker.

So Frank is in a refinement and evolution phase.  He's building a house for himself finally that will have an attached warehouse (he and his family have been in a little rented apartment all this time).  Frank has always sort of been a lightning rod, for how he makes wine, that he's from away, that he has big goals; I don't know if he's exactly made his peace with that situation but he's certainly used to it now.  Bottom line: people can like or dislike what he does, but it's impossible to deny that he took a huge leap years ago, stuck by it, and has accomplished a hell of a lot since then.  At this point you can't deny the importance of him, his wines, and Etna.  Everyone is free to like or dislike Etna or Frank's wines, but they've been pretty important in modern wine culture.

20191111_131203Frank's new vineyard up near Rampante and Monte Dolce.  He's planning to build some old school rock terraces on the edges for vines, but probably not plant it all.

Parting thought from Frank: people think Etna is an extreme place.  If Etna was an extreme place then how do vines live to 150 years old?   If Etna was extreme for vines they wouldn't live half that long.  It's not an extreme place for viticulture (maybe for people), but for viticulture Etna is a unique and special place.  

The Contrada system on Mount Etna


I recently spent 4 days on Mount Etna and visited Passopisciaro, Frank Cornelissen, I Vigneri & Salvo Foti, Eduardo Torres Acosta, and SRC Vini.  I work with Frank, Passopisciaro, Eduardo, I Vigneri, and Romeo Castello so I wasn't just there for fun.  

Etna is to me one of the most exciting wine regions in Italy.  Top reason is the land and climate.  I mean; it's an active volcano that is also the tallest mountain in Italy south of the Alps.  The steep terraced vineyards crawl along the broken surface of the volcano, sometimes facing, east, then north, then west, and back all in the space of a few 100 meters.  The weather can go from raining to sunny or even both at once in the distance of a Kilometer.  Sicily and Etna are just off the coast of Africa, so summers are long and warm, but up on Etna vineyard temperatures can swing by 25 degrees Celsius between day and night.  Warm salty humid air comes of the Ionian sea and runs smack into cold air cascading down from Etna's almost 11,000 ft peak.    

A result of that crazy terroir/weather and Etna's heritage of small contadino farming, Etna has an interesting system of named vineyards.  It's sort of like premier cru vineyards in Barolo and Burgundy, but not as codifed yet.  Most all of these vineyards have existed as named entities for generations as names used by the locals to understand and talk about the crazy volcano landscape they were farming.  Just like Burgunday, Barolo, and Barbaresco most of these vineyards have many owners who each have different pieces.  So the names aren't recognized or controlled by any regulatory body and as such borders are fuzzy.  

The Contrade (as they're called locally) are important and each has its own character.  Etna is still emerging as a world class wine zone; in 2012 there were 30 something wineries and today there are more like 130.  More and more wineries are bottling individual Contradas separately and putting the names on their labels so I'm sure that over time borders and recognition will firm up.  As my contribution to moving that process along here's all the info I've got, including a fantastic map!  

Contrada Vineyard Map Mount Etna

I'm so excited to have gotten my hands on this map.  It's hosted here in high res so click on it to open it in a new window and then zoom in to get a better view.


Land, weather, terroir are just pieces of what makes a wine.  There's also farming.  And wine making.  The Contradas are important because they are part of how the people on Etna understand and make sense of farming there.  So understanding them can help you better understand the wines.  But you can't boil wine down to rocks and sun.  The decisions made by the farmer/winemaker about whether and how to prune, when to rack, whether to allow cover crops, whether or how much to work the soil, how to press, do you press?  do you just use free run juice.....   So wines from the same contrada but made by different wine makers are obviously going to taste very different.  Frank and I spent an afternoon drinking wines from the same contrade specifically to make that point.  Thanks Frank!

Contrada Rampante













Here's a great example.  Frank and Passopisciaro disagree about where the borders of Barbabecchi and Rampante are.  So the picture below of Frank's sign saying "Barbabecchi" is only a couple hundred yards from Passopisciaro's sign saying "Rampante".  It's hard to tell from the map above that shows Rampante, but Contrada Barbabecchi is also listed there.














Contrada Rampante





















I think Frank maintains that Rampante is lower down in between Marchesa and Monte Dolce.

Contrada Barbabecchi


















I don't even see Porcaria on the big map.  I know it's somewhere in the Solicchiata area, but I didn't visit it this trip.  I did go visit it 3 and a half years ago though with Vincenzo from Passopisciaro.  It's flatter and several hundred meters lower down than Barbabecchi.  The soil seems to be finer and Vincenzo said the wine from here is usually a little richer, finer, and approachable a bit younger.














Guardiola is another high elevation vineyard near Barbabecchi but maybe a bit more exposed.  Andrea Franchetti's Passopisciaro winery is actually located here in the middle of the vineyard.  The higher reaches are really up there and I think Franchetti has mostly planted that part to Chardonnay.  Lower down near the winery he's planted some Petit Verdot and Cessanese.  Below that there's old vine Nerello Mascalese.

Contrada Guardiola Etna













90 year old Nerello Mascalese in lower Guardiola

Sciara Nuova

Sciara Nuova Contrada








Contrada Sciara nouva Etna















Sciara Nuova is over in the west of Guardiola and at slightly less elevation over all.  Guardiola is a bit steeper, extends further up, and the folds of the land face sometimes more east or west.  Sciara Nuova, at least what I saw, was a bit more just north facing and open, probably getting great sun and also plenty of wind.




































Sciara Nuova looking north at the Nebrodi Mountains.

Monte Dolce













Monte Dolce is on the first map of all the Contrade, but it's show as an actual peak: the sweet peak.  Vincenzo explained it as a newer (like several thousand years old) volcanic vent up above Solicchiata.  I ran all back and forth through and around it and it seemed generally more flat and there was a lot of new planting in it.  


















Here's some new planting by Passopisciaro in the Monte Dulce Contrada.  If I understood right, the little hill just beyond the vineyard is the actual Monte Dolce.

Chiappe Macine













I totally can't find Contrada Chiappe Macine or any of the other Contrade shown on this specific Contrada map on the big map up top.  And I've never visited it.  But it's lower down and abuts a more recent lava flow.  Oh well, next time I'm back on Etna I'll go find it.  

Calderara Sottana

Contrada Calderara Sottana

















I visited SRC Vini and their winery is right in the middle of Calderara Sottana, so here's a picture of that.  Again, a bit lower down and at this spot not terraced.  

Contrada Calderara Sottana













SRC Vini's new winery in Calderara Sottana

Visit to Lamoresca in Sicily


On my second day in Sicily I left Etna and headed south in the general direction of Gela on the south coast.  It was rural rolling farm country interspersed with just empty sharp rocky ridges.  I found Lamoresca without much trouble though. Lamoresca is nearly an houra and a half south but you can still see Etna on the horizon hulking over all the hills. 


Filippo met me in the driveway but was clearly worried because I was early and he was doing 5 things at once.  I assured him that I had come early specifically to go running, so I took off for an 8 mile run and he finished up what he was working on. 


When I got back Filippo was all fired up and immediately took me down the street to see his new project: a giant outcropping of eroded sand stone rock that he'd bought!  Hooray!  It's actually super interesting and unusual for the area (mostly rolling hills of sandy clay) and it came with an abandoned house, over grown prickly pear cactus orchards, and more olive trees. 


I think it's something like 12 hectares in total that he just bought!  The soil was really unique: super light airy very fine eroded sand that compressed and was springy under my feet; it made me think of videos of walking on the moon.  Filippo is mostly going to plant olives and cactuses here, but he is planning a few hectares of Frappato on an open piece of sand.


Here's a video of Filippo and I talking about the soil.


Filippo explicitly said that he thinks of himself as a farmer and not as a wine maker.  Most everything he talked about was planting this or that, the work trimming, the cover crops he's working with, and the new agronomist he's hired to try to fine tune the natural ways he tries to keep the vineyards healthy.

The prickly pear cactuses were so overgrown and covered in brambles that you couldn't even see the rock outcropping.   The property had been abandoned for 30 years so Filippo has had a great time going through cleaning and cutting and exploring.  There's also an old house on the property and workman were in the process of putting a new roof on it.  


Filippo plans to make it into several apartments he can rent out as a sort of agri-tourismo.  He's trying to make the house pretty authentic and what a Sicilian house would have been like a couple generations ago.  He even bought old used hand made terracotta tiles for the roof instead of new ones.  Is all the work really worth it?  Probably not according to Filippo, but he sure does enjoy it and that's why he's doing it all.  He just really loves farming and the land there!


Filippo had also planted a couple hectares of fava beans so that he can harvest and then plant them as cover crops on his vineyards as opposed to buying seeds like he does now.  Currently his vineyards were planted with a mix of herbs, daikon, fava beans, and chick peas in order to replenish nutrients and aerate the soil.  He was super excited about seeing the new cover crops starting to come up and how the daikon roots would help work the soil with out anyone manually doing anything.

Then we tasted through all the Lamoresca wines that were in tank.  They were so beautiful!  I write about good wines very often, it's sort of what I do, but the Lamoresca wines have an energy, purity, and beauty that's really rare and on another level.    He talked a lot about how he wants to make "True Wine" and doesn't want to get pigeon holed as Natural Wine.  He does farm naturally and ferment with wild yeast, so yeah they are natural wines.   I get the feeling he's uncomfortable with having any label attached to himself.  He seems to like doing things his own way.  That's probably part of why he chose to make wine in an area where no one else is (and that he's from there).  He doesn't want his wines to be thought of as Natural Wines because he doesn't want to be a part of a "movement", also because he feels that the natural wine movement is too excepting of flawed wines and that some "Natural" wines don't actually express terroir.  One example he offered was a pet nat made in a hot sunny place, but harvested early when the grapes weren't too ripe in order to make a light and easy drinking wine. Filippo argued that doesn't really express the climate and terroir, which is a pretty fair point.  In a pet nat like that you're tasting technique more than anything else.  As an after thought as he was turning out the lights in the winery he said "oh yeah, this is the winery." 


He quickly ran through "the grapes come in, they ferment in open tanks, I press them off with that wooden basket press, I've got those cement tanks and botte back there."  He was very clear that he sees all the real work happening in the vineyard and then he just keeps everything clean and precise in the winery and makes sure the wines are doing what they're supposed to.  He's pretty much there at the winery all the time and tastes the wines in tank and barrel every day so he has a very clear understanding of how they're evolving and if he needs to do something like rack a wine to a different tank.


In another contrarian mood he talked about how popular his Frappato is and so as a result he's decided to focus on Nero d'Avola because he thinks it's under appreciated.  And I have to say his Nero d'Avola was searingly good and drank like exciting lush racy Morgon.

When I asked why his wines are so pretty and precise he would only say that it was a reflection of his personality and that it was due to his excellent memory of everything he has tasted over the years.  There was a real continuity of thoroughness and thoughtfulness and aesthetics through everything around the azienda and he was up front that he takes pride in it.

Some of that awareness comes from the many years he spent in Belgium running a restaurant and selling wine there.  It gave him more of a cosmopolitan understanding of wine culture than the average farmer.  He moved there to follow his Belgian wife (they'd met in Italy), but after over a decade he decided he wanted to start spending more time back where he grew up in rural southern Sicily.  He bought the land that would become Lamoresca in 2000 with plans to plant olives on it.  At some point though Filippo started to think "why not plant vines too?"  And so he did in 2005 and slowly, little by little, he started on this path.

20191107_120935copyHere's the view looking back over the hills at his winery, vineyards, and olive orchards.

Tasting Wine at Pianogrillo in Chiaramonte Gulfi Sicily

In the morning I headed over to Chiaramonte Gulfi to find Pianogrillo.  Lorenzo was outside supervising some work with the olive trees and also a special breed of black Sicilian pigs they raise on the farm.  Pianogrillo is a 100 hectare estate that's been in his family for many generations.  He seemed super involved in the details of day to day running of the farm and seemed to be particularly passionate about working in and with nature.  


First he gave me a short tour of the family house, which long long ago had been a fortified watch tower protecting the surrounding valley. 


The house was beautiful and he showed me a cabinet of Greek and Phoenician artifacts that his family had found while working in the fields.  They had a little family chapel that was still consecrated, and an amazing old traditional Sicilian marriage cart!  It seemed like he wanted to rush through all that and get to the wines but those classical Greek ceramics were insane.


He showed me an area where he's experimenting planting vines and olive trees together.  This is super traditional but rare now.  Lorenzo is experimenting with it to see if shade from the trees can help protect the grapes as the climate keeps warming.  


The winery is a high point on the ridge with the olive orchards all around.  In fact Pianogrillo is very famous in Italy for their olive oil and that's their primary business.  I wouldn't call the wine an after thought, Lorenzo is too obviously focused on it and the quality is too good.   Pianogrillo only making a few thousand cases of wine per a year so it must be a drop in the bucket compared to olive oil.  


After touring the property we went into his new winery and tasted through all the Pianogrillo wines.  It's a nice clean simple modern winery.  Lorenzo was also clear that he sees himself as a farmer and not a wine maker who intervenes and makes the wine through chemistry.  They're certified organic and pretty much just use stainless steel to preserve the wines freshness.  The limestone in the soil seems to often give the wines more acidity.  


Lorenzo particularly loves Frappato and we both agreed that it's a grape that deserves more international attention.  The Cerasuolo di Vittoria in particular was fantastic.  It's 50/50 Frappato and Nero d'Avola and sort of reminded me of an awesome uplifting Morgon from Beaujolais.

Revisit to Etna

My solo running trip to Etna 3 and a half years ago to Etna was a life changing experience.  It was incredible but it was also over whelming so I've wanted to go back and see Etna again.  I've also seen a lot of new wines and producers come out of Etna since then, so it really felt important to get back for several reasons.

So now I'm staging to get to the airport at 4 am and board an early flight to Rome and then JFK and on to Portland.  I visited 7 wineries and spent almost a week on Etna plus a couple days down near Noto and Chiaramonte Gulfi in Sicily.  I'll be putting up posts about all the individual producers in quick succession, but here's a broad reaction to what I just saw and experienced.

Sicily has taken some big steps in making serious wine and establishing recognized wine regions and types.  Etna is the hulking volcano that you see from everywhere but there's a lot happening down south and out west too.  


My first stop was up in Milo on the slopes of Etna.  Milo is totally different from what we think of as Etna because it face the sea and you can feel it in the air.  It's much more influenced by the Mediterranean.  I visited Simone Foti and had a great time talking about their particular micro climate and how they only grow white grapes here.  The top of the vineyard is just over 900m.  Simone's father, Salvo, has been making wine around on the north slope of Etna in Randazzo for years but recently bought this property after buying grapes here for years.

20191107_174204Simone pointing out Cataratto and Minella in their vineyards.

Down South and Lamoresca


On the drive I stopped to take a picture of this old Fiat.  An older man in coveralls came out of the house and motioned me to follow him


Turns out he had a shop building Fiat race cars and machines his own high performance parts



Individual throttle bodies and carburetors on a Fiat 600!


The name of his company is La Spina.  It's cast into that sick rear oil cooler on his personal Fiat 695 Biposto race car.  It had a sequential 6 speed transmission.  Which is pretty insane.

Anyway, then I got back to wine:


Then I went down south and visited Filippo Rizzo at Lamoresca, a domaine he built from scratch after buying olive trees and empty land back in 2005.  This is sand and clay here.  The grape varieties are Frappato and Nero d'Avola (and he grows a bit of Vermentino too).


Filippo had just bought this hill of decayed Sandstone and is so so pumped to clean it up, re build the abandoned house, plant more olives, plant more vines, and on and on.  He's a super excited positive guy.  His Frappato is almost unbelievably beautiful but he was more focused on Nero d'Avola partially to be a contrarian.  The Nero was also brilliant and reminded me of great Morgon.

It is a really unique geologic feature and now Filippo has over 20 hectares has farming.  Most isn't vines.


Lorenzo and I at Pianogrillo in Chiaramonte Gulfi.  Lorenzo's family has owned this estate for a very very very long time. This is Frappato country down near Vittoria


In between the olive trees you can see some of Lorenzo's Grillo vines.  Notice the soil is pretty white because of all the limestone here

Lorenzo's winery


In case you needed a reminder of how crazy Sicily is, heres a cabinet or Greek and Phoenician artifacts Lorenzo's family has found in the fields over the years






Look at that guy throwing up from too much wine!  I love the subject matter of ancient Greek ceramics

And that guy is riding a dolphin!


Lorenzo's family chapel


A traditional Sicilian marriage cart that's been in Lorenzo's family




Then I went to Etna...


Tons of new construction in Linguaglossa

It doesn't really seem like a problem, but Etna has developed a lot as a tourist destination and a wine region


I made it to Cave Ox.  A wine bar with a few rooms for rent.  Convenient 


Classic wild overgrown abandoned building on Etna

Land Frank has bought adjacent to the Rampante Contrada.  He's planning to plant some of the ridge tops but also mix in chestnut trees



This house/palazzino across the street from Frank's looks empty.  I wonder what it would cost....


A new custom barrel for in the destemmer that Frank had made to be more gentle on the grapes.


Fermenting Nerello


The vineyard Magma comes from


A fuzzy shot of Vincenzo, manager at Passopisciaro 


Eduardo the one man show that is Versante Nord.  An awesome guy and talented wine maker doing things right.  Guys like him are what Etna needs to keep moving in the right direction 

Rainbow over the 120 year old vines of Passopisciaro in Contrada Guardiola 


SRC's new winery


Very densely planted Nerello at SRC.  SRC  is another small new natural winery that's making some really authentic and elegant wines from several different Contrada they have vines in.  They're making a little less than 2000 cases per year but they certainly have room to grow in this winery.  


A small basket press at SRC.  they also have a serious brand new pneumatic bladder press.  


Tasting Wines with Roberto Henriquez from Itata and Bio Bio

I met Roberto in autumn of 2018 and was blown away by his wines and his determination.  Last year Roberto's wines had just come into the US so there weren't too many available and it was a really fast trip.  A year's time can make a big difference and this autumn Roberto was back with new wines and more of them available!  These wines are completely natural but are very precise and beautiful and pure tasting.  They're expressive and elegant and real in a combination that is very rare in my experience.  These are, to me, very important wines that demonstrate what Chile can evolve into and prove how pure natural wines can be.  They also demonstrate how talented Roberto is!

Roberto has been making wine for 6 years now, 4 commercially.  He's down in the central Chile in the Bio Bio valley, about 300 miles south of Santiago and near the border of where the Spanish conquest stopped centuries ago.  Wine making is a big part of the culture here; locals have been growing Pais and making wine here since the Spanish conquest brought grapes.  Wine culture in Bio Bio and Itata are different from up north near the capital.   Much of the wine making up north is larger companies making modern wine for export.  Down in Bio Bio and Itata wine making has generally been more small scale, for local consumption, and done by small indigenous farmers.  Wine making down here had traditionally been looked down upon by northern Chile and the rest of the world, but that view is shifting.  There are lots of reasons for the emergence of Bio Bio and Itata as internationally recognized wine regions, but one is certainly that there's a large amount of 150-200 year old vines planted on their own rootstock.  Pais, Corinto (Chasselas), Muscat d'Alejandria, and Semillon are more common but there's also grapes like Trousseau and Pineau d'Aunis that were brought before Phyloxera changed the vinilogical landscape of Europe. 

Roberto was born in Concepcion and studied wine making and agronomy there.  From there he traveled and made wine in Canada, South Africa, and then the Loire Valley with Agnes and Rene Mosse.  The wines and wine making techniques of Agnes and Rene had a big impact on him.  Roberto returned to Concepcion and decided to make wines with the traditional grape varieties there, but with the perspective he'd gained from working other places and particularly Agnes and Rene Mosse.  Most of Roberto's red wines come from vineyards in Bio Bio and most of the whites come from Itata.


Roberto farms organically and ferments with native yeast.



20191022_184844First up in the line up we had was the Santa Cruz de Coya 2018.  This is from a 3 hectare vineyard of 200 year old Pais vines planted on decayed granitic soil in Bio Bio.  Roberto said this vineyard is kind of remote and isolated so the vines don't ever suffer from any infestations from other nearby vineyards...because there aren't any.  For this reason Roberto doesn't apply any treatments to this vineyard, no copper sulfate or anything.   The Coya vineyard was abandoned so Roberto has been working to revive it.  I think this is the third year since Roberto started working the vineyard and yields are slowly increasing.  In 2018 the vineyard produced 1 ton of fruit per hectare.  The primary alcoholic fermentation for Santa Cruz de Coya is always really fast!  in 2018 it took about 4 days to ferment dry.  Roberto theorizes that's due in part to the lack of any treatments in the vineyard.  He doesn't use temperature control but still the fermenting wine only tops out at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  2018 was a cooler vintage than 2017 and these wines are really pretty, elegant, and supple. 

The Santa Cruz de Coya smelled a lot like Pineau d'Aunis to me, but the prettiest Pineau d'Aunis ever.  There were fresh raspberry, a little bit of aromatic peppery spice, and some cranberry.  On the palate the Coya was gorgeous: smooth, supple, bright, really pretty, and still with just a little hint of wild spicy pepper.  It had really fantastic purity and focus.

Santa Cruz de Coya is available at Vessel and Vine, The Cheese Shop, Lois's Natural Food, Maine and Loire, and Grippy Tannins


The 2018 Notro Tinto is also from 200 year old Pais vines.  This is a separate vineyard from the Coya though.  The vineyard for the Notro is a 1 hectare hill that millions of years ago was a bend in the Bio Bio river.  The soil around here is volcanic and there's lots of volcanic sand, but this little hill got piled up with alluvial rocks and debris from the river, so it's a really unique outlier.  There are other vineyards around here so Roberto has to treat with the usual organic preparation of copper sulfate a couple times a year.  And differently from the Coya the Notro tinto takes about 15 days to complete it's primary fermentation.  everything else is the same: same building, some lack of temperature control same stainless steel tanks.  

The Notro is very different smelling and tasting from the Coya.  It's more crisp and crunchy, more angular and has a bit more tannin and acidity to it.  The Notro has more power and I can imagine it being better with a lot of foods.

Notro Tinto is available at Lois's Scarborough, Maine and Loire, Blue Hill Wine Shop, and Vessel and Vine.



Fundo la Union 2018: this is I think the first vintage of this wine.  It's 150 year old Pais vines from a vineyard in Itata, much closer to the coast than the vineyards down in Bio Bio.  This vineyard is also on decayed granite, like the Santa Cruz de Coya.  The Union sort of splits the difference between the Coya and the Notro to me.  It has some bright cranberry and raspberry and rose aromas.  On the palate the Fundo la Union has a bit more mineral angularity in the mid palate than the Coya but more suppleness than the Notro.     It's fantastic.  Only about 50 cases came into the united States.

Each of the red wines gets about 1 manual punch down per day.  Roberto doesn't want to be too extractive with the Pais.  He believes that if he works it too hard manually he'll pull out too many of the tannins from the skins and seeds.  This is what makes most Pais rougher.  The reds are sort of semi carbonic.  Roberto doesn't add any C02 but as the natural fermentations get going Roberto covers the tanks with a piece of board and the natural C02 displaces the oxygen.  

You can find this at Maine and Loire, Bow St Beverage, Vessel and Vine, The Cheese Shop, and Lois's Natural Foods


Notro Blanco 2018 is 40% Moscatel d'Alejandria, 40% Semillon, and 20% Corinto.  Roberto changes the blend each year to experiment.  The grape varieties are farmed separately, they're harvested separately and not co-fermented.  The juice spends 1-3 weeks on the skins in it's primary fermentation and then is racked off and the skins are pressed.  This is a super traditional way of making white wine here in the area.  The Notro Blanco smelled like quince, tarragon, and ripe mango.  It's an aromatic white that has a bit of color to the wine and some real presence on the palate.  The palate is long and it has a bit of spice to it.  It tastes sunny and there's a lot of white wild flower in the flavor.

Notro Blanco is available at Maine and Loire, Vessel and Vine, The Cheese Shop, and the Blue Hill Wine Shop


Molino del Ciego 2018.  And this is...sort of crazy.  This is 100% Semillon from a 1 hectare vineyard right near the ocean in Itata.  The vineyard produces about 3 tons from that hectare, which is on the low end.  The primary fermentation took about 3 weeks here and Roberto was doing 3 punch downs per day.  So this is actually more extrative, has more skin contact, and is made more like a red wine than Roberto's actual red wines.  Those 3 tons made about 2800 bottles

The Molino is deep and dense and long!  It actually has a little bit of tannin woven in on the palate.  It's a ripe sunny aromatic white that smells tropical and sunny.  There's ripe peach and pineapple but there's also a little bit of a minty wintergreeny spice from the skins in the mid palate.  The aroma is a mix of aromatic tropical fruit with a whiff of spruce and mint as well.  Roberto's Molino is super interesting, complex, and unique.
Molino del Ciego is available at Bow St Beverage, Maine and Loire, Vessel and Vine, Grippy Tannins, The Cheese Shop, and MJ's

Here's a video of me with them all just before traveling to Montana

Here's a video from last year of Roberto talking about how he makes wine

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


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.  

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
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


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.


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


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


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.  


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! 
Danilo making the slice splitting the vine's trunk so we could insert the twigs of Trebbiano
wedging one of the Trebbiano segments into the trunk of the vine.
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.
Final Step: putting the wax on after the graft is done.
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.  
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


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.  


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.  


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!


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




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.


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



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.


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.