The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Great, Geeky, Gorgeous Grattamacco

A look at a Bolgheri pioneer

Vines growing at Grattamacco

Vines growing at Grattamacco

Founded in 1977, Grattamacco, one of the pioneers of Bolgheri and the Super-Tuscan movement, was the second winery in Bolgheri—Sassicaia was the first, and these two estates have vineyards that abut one another. In this respect, Grattamacco sits both literally and figuratively in the shadow of its more famous neighbor. But that seems to be a position that fits the unassuming Grattamacco. It’s a winery that revels in its intellectual approach to winemaking.

Grattamacco sits on a windy plain 100m above sea level. Winemaker Luca Marrone explained that the estate gets 300 sunny days a year and a steady breeze, which helps their organically grown grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Vermentino—ripen without rot, and in an unusual move, Grattamacco sweeps through and picks all the different types of grapes for its blends in one shot. The estate takes tender loving care of their grapes, even to the point of inventing Rube Goldberg looking machinery that gently tips the sorted grapes into the vats to keep their skins from bruising and thus releasing harsh tannins.

IMG_1333Grattamacco’s wines are anything but also-rans, and in their tasty minerality, they speak of the stony soil (in Etruscan, it’s the “macco” of Grattamacco) where their grapes grew. And unlike neighboring Sassicaia, the flagship blend includes a percentage of Sangiovese, increasing that sense of place and history. The wines embody the estate’s personality, that of an A-level student whom you like as much for his brains as his sense of humor. It’s a gorgeous, geeky winery that makes joyfully intellectual wines.

Today’s eLetter offer spotlighted two recent vintages of Grattamacco’s flagship Bolgheri Rosso Superiore; read more here.

The Heart of Suvereto, Tua Rita

You really can’t go wrong with Tua Rita

IMG_1445 The day I visited Tua Rita, the grass had just been cut, and the air was filled with the green of grass tinged with the pointy scent of wild scallions that grow in and among the grass. It was a day of bright blue skies, wispy white clouds, and the heat of springtime sun warming the earth from its long winter nap. It was an ideal day to visit Suvereto’s Tua Rita, a winery that is pure heart.

There’s a cheery, open disposition to the winery, from the shambling gate of the estate’s old dog to the down-to-earth guide, Francesca, who didn’t proffer a business card. Like Le Macchiole’s Cinzia Campolmi who runs the estate after her husband Eugenio’s death, Tua Rita’s eponymous Rita runs the winery that she started with her late husband, Virgilio. The estate is the epitome of the cliché “labor of love.” Everything about the estate feels like a business run by a family who really enjoys what they do.

IMG_1455The smell of the air seemed to match the relaxed, convivial visit that ended with Francesca’s expansive opening of the estate’s entire line of wines, and her drinking the Syrah. “It’s my favorite,” she said conspiratorially. “Don’t tell anyone.” But, really, how could I not? There’s a wink in her eye, and a wink in all that Tua Rita does. While the surface seems to be all fun and warm love, there’s also a steely resolve and a serious entrepreneurial work ethic at Tua Rita. The wines taste like the salt of the earth, and that only makes them sweeter and more engaging.

IMG_1443Tua Rita’s wines are always favorites of clients, critics, and just about anyone who drinks them. It’s not hard to see why; Tua Rita’s wines throw their arms open and welcome you to their ample bosoms. It’s not that they they lack finesse or complexity. Rather, it’s that pure, unadulterated, even giddy pleasure is at the foundation of these wines. They taste delicious, and they make you smile, even when you remember them years later.

IWM presented the new 2013 release of Redigaffi, Tua Rita’s Merlot in today’s eLetter. It’s going fast.

Recollections of Sassicaia’s Maker

The quiet, aristocratic beauty of Tenuta San Guido

Sebastiano Rosa before Sassicaia's barriques

Sebastiano Rosa before Sassicaia’s barriques

There is an unmistakable scent when wine ages. It’s a smell of ineffable purple, of life and wood and grapes and the alchemy of fruit becoming something else, something greater. The air of every winery I’ve ever visited has that certain aging wine odor, yet they are all unique unto themselves. The closest analogy I can think of, and this will make sense only to horse-lovers, is the scent of horse barns. Every horse barn smells the same, for each one is, after all, a mixture of the same elements. And yet, each barn is individual and, to a horse-lover, something beautiful. Such is the case with wineries.

This analogy makes the most sense when you consider Tenuta San Guido, makers of Sassicaia. Both horse breeders and winemakers, Bolgheri’s Tenuta San Guido owns every inch of its aristocratic heritage. In America, we tend to think of aristocrats as haughty and pretentious—and, certainly, some of them are—but Sassicaia has an intense comfort with itself. It needs to prove nothing to anyone, so it can be simple, beautiful, hi-tech, clean and quiet. It’s a winery of buffed wood or shiny glass and steel. The winery, begun as a foray into experimental wine culture Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, is all these decades later serious business, and its seriousness imbues the wines, which are products of careful study, ceaseless experimentation, and an indefatigable commitment to its grapes.

IMG_1360“Good grapes make good wines,” says Sebastiano Rosa, who was Tenuta San Guido’s Director of Communications when I visited. They do, indeed, but no matter how much the estate tries to play down its viniculture in favor of its viticulture, it’s still a place where wine moves from vat to barrique and barrique to bottle by forced nitrogen so that it isn’t harmed by pumping or mechanization. There’s a serene, spare confidence to Sassicaia, and it’s telling. It’s in the architecture of the buildings. It’s in the air of the tasting room. And it’s in the wines. You can taste the self-assuredness, and it’s comforting and starkly, unattainably beautiful.  These are fairytale wines. This is, after all, where the Super-Tuscan revolution began in 1964, and it remains the beating heart of this extraordinary shift in Italian winemaking.

IMG_1371Today, IWM’s eLetter presented one of the most fabled vintages of Sassicaia, the 1985. Most people will never taste this wine (I haven’t), but that’s okay. There’s always the estate’s Guidalberto or Le Difese, the estate’s second-tier and entry-level wines, and they’re entirely first rate.

Gianfranco Soldera, the Man, the Estate, Same Difference

You can’t explain the mysteries of Case Basse; you can only enjoy them

Gianfranco Soldera

If Montalcino is a magical place (and I believe that it is), then Gianfranco Soldera’s Case Basse estate sits at the center of its mystical convergence. Much has been made about how the eco system of the vineyard works to create an insanely perfect spot to grow grapes. The vineyard has been studied by agriculturalists, microbiologists, botanists and enologists. No one can explain why, exactly, it is so ideal.  The estate seems to function as a perfectly balanced organism of water, insects, birds, flowers, trees and, of course, grape vines. It all revolves around one man, Soldera.

It’s almost less important what Soldera said in the few hours that I and my friendEleanor Shannon spent with him. He spoke in streams of Italian uttered in comforting tones and repetitive phrasing. He spoke of opera and how, as in opera, everything in nature must work in concert, and how if there is one discordant note, the entire piece falls flat. He spoke of Italy, the importance of its peninsular shape, the ranges of mountains and how they direct the air currents, and the way that the seas on all sides affect the climate. He spoke of bees and of water and of knowing how many yeast parts per million his wines contain at various stages of development. He spoke about his wine, all wine, wine throughout time, and yet what he said the loudest he didn’t say in words.

In the cellar with Gianfranco Soldera--no spitting!

It happened twice, actually. Soldera bent down, grabbed a handful of soil, and crumbled it through his fingers. He said something in Italian too, something about how the minerals in the soil is what makes the wine taste the way it does, something about how the vines need to suffer to produce good grapes (when he said this about suffering, I got an image of Degas’ ballerinas, their fatigue and their beauty). But I didn’t find the meaning in the words he was saying—though they had import—rather, I found meaning in his old man’s hands, the almost caressing way he held the soil, and the way that he reluctantly let it dribble through his fingers.

And then it came to me: This is a man who doesn’t just know his estate; this is a man who is his estate.

IMG_1033I had the chance Soldera’s cellars, and I got to smell them in all their grape-cardboard-wet-rock-and-wood glory. I got to drink wine out of his botti, wine a few years old, and wine just a few months, and it was bright and beautiful. (In fact, it occurs to me now that I got to taste the 2008 Rosso IGT, just recently offered–would I have tasted it differently had I known then what I know now? Probably.) I got to do things that most Brunello lovers never get to do, but imagine when they look at books of Montalcino or dreamily sip a bottle of Brunello. I got to ask Soldera questions, and as I did, I got to feel inadequate. How often do we have the opportunity to take up the time of a genius? And how can we do it without feeling the pains of our own ordinariness?

Yet what I’ll remember is the magic of Montalcino filling the air, the presence of its greatest magician, and the hush of it all held in this unforgotten moment.

In today’s eLetter, IWM proudly offered the latest release from Gianfranco Soldera, the Casse Basse Soldera 2008 Rosso IGT, called thus because Soldera left the Brunello Consortium in 2012.

The Beauties of Baricci, a Historic Brunello Estate

Remembering a trip to Italy and the pleasures of a family made wine

A bottle of Baricci Brunello from the 1970s

A bottle of Baricci Brunello from the 1970s

Drive up any long, winding road out of Montalcino, and you’ll pass any number of Brunello makers. So many wineries, so little time. It’s hard to know which wines to drink and which to pass by. I’m fortunate to have met more than my fair share of the region’s best winemakers. Still, I have my favorites.

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The chicken coop at Baricci

The Baricci family is terribly humble, their winery incredibly small. Chickens cluck in a nearby coop, and the family’s hunting dogs kennel just beyond them. I grew up in rural Vermont, and the neat house sitting on ramshackle property reminds me of the farms where my parents would get their organic eggs and unpasteurized milk.

It’s easy never to have heard of Baricci. The family estate, founded in 1967 by Nello Baricci and now in the hands of son-in-law Pietro Buffi and his sons, make only about 12,000 bottles a year, and their entire 2010 Brunello production was fermenting in three shining stainless steel tanks the day I visited. Pietro Buffi, the father, is a gaunt man with a generous spirit. His family transitioned from sharecroppers to winemakers as post-WWII low-interest loans gave them the ability to move from “fame di fama”—or in English from hunger to fame, and Pietro’s attitude of gratitude is as real as the mud on his boots.

Pietro Buffa in the cantina

Pietro Buffi in the cantina

When I visited the Baricci estate in March 2011, it was drizzling with a foul intensity. Rain dripped from the eaves and the trees, and the ground was sucking mud. It was cold, unpleasant, and depressing weather. It was hard to understand why anyone would want to be a farmer, which is essentially half of Pietro’s job description. But Pietro was warm and inviting, and rather than merely taste his wine in a sterile tasting room or snuggled around the botti, he invited Eleanor, my guide and translator, and me to the family’s dining room table, where we drank his rustic, umano Brunello with fennel sausage that his wife had made. Pietro apologized for not having roasted a cinghiale for us. He’d not had enough time to prepare, he said, and he felt bad.

One of the two Baricci boys

One of the two Baricci boys

Today, our eLetter announced the release of the estate’s 2010 Brunello di Montalcino, which is breathtaking (even though it really needs several years in my wine fridge!). Drinking a wine to which I have a deep personal connection always sweetens the experience, and whenever I see a Baricci wine on a wine list, I pretty much always leap to order it, to enjoy it again, and to share its maker’s story with someone new. I still dream of that fennel sausage, though. Sadly, that taste remains an unrequited memory.

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