The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Castello dei Rampolla’s Harmony with Nature

Why biodynamic agriculture doesn’t need to make sense to make great wines

Biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla

Biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla

Farmers who use biodynamic growing methods choose to plant, weed, treat, harvest and, if they’re winemakers, vinify in concert with the movement of the planets. The point of biodynamic growing, an agricultural movement that looks at organic farmers as folks who do something right if somewhat incompletely, is to look at the growth cycle of the entire field as one holistic unit. To those of us who bear an empirical mind and like to see cold, calculating and clear evidence to support assertions (and I do count myself among that number), biodynamic practices with their airy-fairy reliance on manure-filled and cow-horns that are buried and exhumed, water’s circular memory, and a vague tie between planetary movements and “energy” can make us roll our eyes.

Some people decry the ability of biodynamic agriculture to actually make a difference in winemaking. It’s too magical, too lacking in substance, too weird, and too unscientific, they argue. It is hard to understand exactly how or why water that has moved in one direction rather than another would affect a plant’s hydration, and it’s hard to see how burying a cow horn would do anything to affect a vineyard’s production. Being fairly empirically minded, I might accept these arguments had I not spent an afternoon with Luca di Napoli Rampolla at his biodynamically maintained Tuscan estate, Castello dei Rampolla. This afternoon changed my thinking about biodynamic methods, and even if I don’t understand them, I became a believer.

It might have been spending a couple of hours walking around the estate as Luca pulled up tufts of grass and named each plant in his hand. It might have been his patient explanation of the ways that his vines interact with the trees that surround them, with the soils that support them, and with the weather that touches them. It might have been the clear, unremitting commitment that Luca makes in every choice for his estate—from the solar panels on top of the vinification area to the placement of his chicken coop.

It might be all of that talking, walking and looking helped me grasp that choosing to prune according to how the alignment of the planets will affect the plants. Or it might be sitting on Luca’s terrace, drinking the wine that he made helped me believe. But on that Thursday afternoon, I became a biodynamic convert. I don’t really care how the science works. It’s clear to me that there’s something very special, very alive and very unique about this wine.

Italy, unlike the United States, is a place where people continue to believe in magic. I’ve never lived long enough in other areas of the world to make further comparisons, but while Americans might wistfully wish for magic, Italians feel it. It’s in the mountains and in the sea. It’s in the cities, like Venice and Rome, that shouldn’t exist, not as they do, not after all these centuries. It’s in the food and in the wine. And sometimes, I think, you just have to put science on hold, sit back, exhale, and enjoy the magic. It’s ephemeral, beautiful and vital. If it’s biodynamic, then it’s simply all the better.

IWM has the new 2011 Sammarco release coming from Castello dei Rampolla. Don’t miss this extraordinary biodynamic Super Tuscan!

Enjoying the Amber Wines of Josko Gravner

Friuli’s food-friendly, mysterious, magical wines

Gravner's "orange" Ribolla Gialla

Gravner’s “orange” Ribolla Gialla

White wine with red meat? I say yes—when the wine in question is made byJosko Gravner. These magical golden wines from Friuli are fascinating on their own, and they’re even more enticing when paired with food. They are some of the most versatile wines I have ever tasted. Not only do I enjoy partaking in these wines but also I take great pleasure in playing with spices, herbs, textures and proteins to bring out different flavors and nuances in these special wines. Similar to great red wines, Gravner’s Ribolla promise vitality and are destined to live a long life through their acidity and tannins.

Friuli’s Josko Gravner is an iconoclastic producer; he’s ever evolving and constantly refining his embrace of a “new-old” approach in his winemaking. Gravner’s passion for perfection through experimentation changed his philosophy; today he strives to achieve great wine through great simplicity, retaining the unique character and of each vintage, the integrity of his grapes and most importantly the “life” that exists in each amphorae and bottle of wine.

I had once had the privilege of tasting through seven vintages of meeting Josko Gravner and tasting through his prized Ribolla Gialla, 1998 through 2006. These mysterious Ribolla wines aren’t always instantly scrumptious; instead they slowly draw you in, evolving with time. Drinking them is similar to the feeling I get when a book or a movie starts slowly then gradually draws me in, and next think you know I’m hooked. These cerebral Ribollas require an open mind and time to observe and appreciate the life that each bottle has to offer.

The majority of the time people pair wine to go with their food; however, when a bottle of Gravner is involved, I believe it should go the other way around. Indigenous to Friuli, Ribolla is a somewhat obscure grape, but Gravner’s natural approach and use of amphorae give the wines weighted layers of earth, fruit and spice. When I think of pairings for Gravner’s indescribable amber wines, I immediately go to foods that will play off their texture, fruit and spice, while matching their weight and intensity. I encourage you to try it with anything from a simple steak and eggs or oven roasted chicken to French cassoulet, mushroom risotto, adobo pork, veal blanquette or ossobucco. The bottom line is to have fun and indulge all of your senses to experience the full breadth of what these special Ribolla wines can offer.

Inside Umbria, Toscana’s Overlooked Neighbor

There’s more to Umbria than Orvieto–so, so much more

Sagrantino grapes ripening at Paolo Bea

Sagrantino grapes ripening at Paolo Bea

Although Umbria and Toscana abut, Umbria is very much its own region—one that has been coming into its own and attracting the notice of both critic and consumer. Umbria has traditionally privileged products other than wine. Its terroir, however, has always served it well: the collaboration between sea and mountain breezes offer great ripening, while the volcanic soils put the vines under “motivational” stress. These conditions have been behind some of the zone’s most successful wines.

In a general sense, Umbria’s most prolific DOC—Orvieto— captures in microcosm the zone’s efforts to establish a distinct identity. While many examples of this wine tend to be fairly light and acidic, it’s actually open to a diverse stylistic range. Thus, some producers blend with a view to achieving a considerable degree of concentration, limiting the contribution of the neutral Trebbiano Toscana, maximizing the presence of aromatic Grechetto, and sometimes using Chardonnay. Some work with proportions can take these wines outside the DOC, providing a rather striking testimony to what Umbria’s grapes can do—particularly through monovarietal Grechettos, often in production in the Colli Martani and Colli del Trasimeno zones.

The issue of what constitutes the “Umbrian style” is even more complicated when we consider the spectrum of reds, as three main categories comprise Umbria’s red portfolio. For quite some time, however, Lungarotti constituted the sole reference point for red; indeed, it was founder Giorgio Lungarotti who gave Umbria a market presence in traditional style wines. There are several producers, however, who champion of the international style. Occupying the middle ground is the Montefalco DOC, the home of Umbria’s most famous and distinctive red, Sagrantino. Not only is this grape exclusive to the region of Umbria, but also it limits its presence there to a mere 400 acres. A rich and demonstrative wine of ancient origin, Sagrantino was accorded its own DOCG designation in 1992, and has achieved notable acclaim through the work of producers such as Paolo Bea and Arnaldo Caprai. Sagrantino also plays a minor role (minimum of 10%) in wines of the Montefalco DOC (led by Sangiovese at 60%).

Despite Orvieto’s struggles to define itself in the white still genre, it has always distinguished itself in the sweet wine category.  In fact, Orvieto’s sweet side has very little to do with its dry sensibility. Derived primarily from grapes that have realized a considerable degree of concentration and been affected by noble rot, the sweet wines of Orvieto are intense and decadent. Antinori’s Muffato della Sala is regarded as the most accomplished in its class. The reds, however, provide some pretty intense competition, as Montefalco’s sweet wines are vinified from dried grapes (via the appassimento process), rendering them considerably dense and voluptuous.

Umbria has considerable interest in the gourmet market, especially in its black and white truffles and its extra-virgin olive oils. Outside this realm, the region is a prolific producer of legumes and grains. Farro, which has been grown in Umbria since the time of the Etruscans is prominent, as it produces a darker, tastier flour than the more common white version used elsewhere. The celebrated farro di Monteleone di Spoleto, grown in the heart of the central Apennine mountains, appears both as a grain accompanying hearty dishes accompanied by legumes—such as lenticchie di Norcia (lentils)—and as flour for the production of dried and/or egg pasta and breads such as lumachelle—baked bread rolls enriched with pieces of cheese and cured meat. Umbria also excels in meat, offering its own regional prosciutto di Norcia and succulent porchetta(pork roast), much like that produced by the neighboring Lazio. Mazzafegati(piquant liver sausages with orange rinds, pine nuts, and raisins) is one of the region’s most unique and prized dishes.

From the wild, natural wines of Paolo Bea to Antinori’s world-class Umbrian white wines made at Castello della Sala to Sassicaia spin-off Tenuta di Solideo, owned by Marchesa Nerina Corsini Incisa della Rocchetta’s and managed by her sons Giovanni and Piero, to the great Sagrantino wines of Arnaldo Caprai,Umbria has much to offer. It’s one region with no need to hide in the shadows anymore.

Visiting Umbria’s Paolo Bea

A look into the life and the cellar of one of Italy’s great winemakers

unnamedIWM recently offered a quartet of new Paolo Bea releases, which makes it the perfect time to revisit John Camacho Vidal’s visit to this iconic winemaker’s estate.

When I visited Italy in 2014, I planned on attending the 35 Enologica di Sagrantino in Montefalco, a tasting of Sagrantino. I love the wines of Umbria and, wanting to learn more about Sagrantino and the wonderful wines it produces, I took advantage that this tasting was being held during my time visiting to attend. I was also excited of the possibility of seeing the Paolo Bea Estate. Like many people I was introduced to the region and to Sagrantino through his wondrous biodynamic wines.

unnamed-3My friend Barbara, who runs a tour company based in Perugia, was able to call ahead of time for me and arrange a visit. Needles to say my visit to Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea was amazing and unforgettable. We were met by Sergio, who has been working at the winery for over a decade. He was very apologetic because it turned out that on that day the bottling machine, which goes from producer to producer, happened to be available and they were in the process of bottling and corking wine. We got a tour of the new winery, which was planned and designed by Giampiero, Paolo Bea’s son, who is in charge and, according to Paolo Bea, has taken the winery to the next level. All aspects of Giampiero’s design take the wine into consideration and the winery was constructed with materials from the surrounding area that provide natural ventilation, humidity and temperature.

unnamed-2As we went from room to room and stared in awe at the various barrels both wood and steel, we got an opportunity to taste the grapes that were being dried to make Bea’s famous Passito, and as we walked further down to the cellar we heard the clinking of the bottling machine. We were also able to witness the entire family busy reaching for bottles of wine from the assembly belt and quickly but diligently place them in crates where they will rest for another two years or so. When we walked down to the final level, Giampiero greeted us with his son and walked us through the rest of the cellar and the process.

unnamed-5After our tour of the cellar and watching the bottling process in action, we followed Sergio to a tasting room a few yards from the winery. There we sat down and I was able to taste through all of the Paolo Bea wines. All of them were spectacular.

unnamed-4Giampiero stopped in again and we chatted about the wine and his philosophy; after about 10 – 15 minutes Paolo Bea himself walked in. I’m not really the kind of guy that follows sports and I didn’t understand why people would freak out when they saw their favorite athlete, actor or artist, but when I saw Paolo Bea ‎walk in to greet us I felt goosebumps. I stood up to shake his hand and everything I wanted to say to the man just went blank. I mumbled a few words and he gave me a hard handshake and a hug. I presented him with some coffee that I brought from Colombia just for this occasion.

unnamed-6We tasted the rest of his wines together. Both Paolo and Giampiero grabbed a bottle and signed the label for me and gifted it—it felt like getting a rock star’s autograph. When I returned to New York, I nestled these bottles in the back of our wine fridge, where they will stay until I celebrate a very special occasion. I always say that there is no better way to taste a wine than to taste it with the person behind the wine. Not only did I have the opportunity to taste these wines at the source but also I was able to taste them with the people responsible for what’s in the bottle. After our tour and tasting it took me a few hours to come down from the excitement.


Wine Gifts from the Heart

It’s the feeling that counts

Spring at the biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla estate in Panzano.

Spring at the biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla estate in Panzano.

Marcel Proust had a point when he bit into that madeleine. Our human sensory experiences sit inextricably twisted with our personal histories. That’s why, for example, I can’t smell a solid Brunello without being transported to this beautifully wabi-sabi stone villa I lived in for a month in Montalcino in 2011. Wine, like bread or salt, bonds the disparate elements in a meal, raising them to a higher plane than the components alone deserve. But unlike bread or salt, wine alone has the faculty of making company sparklier, words more meaningful, feelings more manifest, and people closer. For this reason, to give wine is akin to giving books: the best gift is steeped in sentiment.

Il Palazzone grows its grapes and its olives naturally

Il Palazzone grows its grapes and its olives naturally

Sentiment is why I once gave my dad a bottle of 2000 Il Palazzone Brunello. My dad had read my rapturous descriptions of Brunello and had responded as I’d intended: he wanted some. However, he’s a stolid, level-headed, frugal Vermonter, not given to buying hundred-dollar bottles of wine for himself. So he bought one for a friend as an anniversary gift. I sent him one for himself because he deserved to enjoy it, because I have spent many glorious days at Il Palazzone, and because its estate manager, Laura Gray, is both a friend of mine and shares the same birthday as my dad and myself. It’s kind of a mille feuille of feelings.

It’s pretty easy for me to pick out the wines I’d give as gifts because they’re the wines that make me clap my hands with glee. Anyone who knows me knows that this is something I don’t do often. This is why I would pick wines from Josko Gravner. The first time I had Gravner Breg and Gravner Ribolla Anfora, I was in Verona with IWM Founder Sergio Esposito for VinItaly. We had dinner with Filippo Polidori, one of Sergio’s close friends and the sales manager for Josko Gravner, at this café that was very clearly the industry spot. I can’t separate the heady, textured feel of drinking these wines from the glittery Verona night, its spectacular romance and the sense that the air was buzzing with everyone wine.

I’d give Castello dei Rampolla because I visited the estate on this insanely gorgeous April day, a visit that culminated with Lucca di Napoli drinking a bottle of wine with Eleanor Shannon, my guide at the time, and me. We didn’t even look at the cantina. We just toured the fields, talked for a couple of hours and drank. Every wine tour should be so generous and lovely. The wines are forever linked with spontaneous friendship.

Lionel Tondini of Cupano

Lionel Tondini of Cupano

I’d likewise give Cupano because its makers Ornella and Lionel are inspiring, beautiful, magical people, and their wines reflect their family’s fairytale existence. And Bodega Chacra, especially its entry-level Barda, because Piero Incisa della Rocchetta embodies a citizen-of-the-world glamor to which I can only aspire. I’d give Grattamacco because I fiercely love its unabashed geeky aesthetic, and Le Macchiole because Cinzia Merli spoke to me with such passion about understanding her wines as her children, and Bartolo Mascarello Barolo because Maria Teresa Mascarello is one strong, upright, forthright woman; an unmitigated badass, she commands instantaneous respect.

Having visited Italy, I have a rosy set of experiences from which to draw. But all wine-lovers have wines that they’ve come to love because of the people they drank them with, or because the wine was so glorious that it made a bad situation at least tolerable, or because they stumbled on the wine in some serendipitous way. These are the wines that make the best gifts because in giving them, we’re giving a piece of ourselves and our memories. And with these wines of sentiment we can make more memories—or help others, and that’s really what giving is all about.

For more suggestions, please leaf through IWM’s 2015 Holiday Gift Guide.

keep looking »