Sunday, October 22, 2017

The 2017 Harvest in Umbria and Tuscany - Fear and "Global Weirding" - Pt.III

"What do you get when you fall in love? A guy with a pin to burst your bubble."

There are parts of Tuscany that evade Brunello and Chianti Classico’s snares. They don’t get the attention, and sometimes the respect, but nonetheless, people set up their vineyards, their castles and their dreams in these places. After all, it is Tuscany, how bad can it be?

Rain was threatening a parched Tuscany. What everyone wanted, they also feared. It had been a long, hot, miserable summer. Wine writers, bloggers, winemakers were all bringing the sky down with their lamentations of misery over Nature’s course. With all the crazy weather, and all the other disruptive acts occurring in these times, does anyone really care that this is the worst harvest in years? And didn’t people say that about 2002, 2003, 2011,2014? Fear, that’s what these people are harvesting, and one can never make a great, or even a good wine, with fear as the main component. Think about 1942, 43,44, those were worst harvests. But fear fuels the constant Greek chorus of wails, and draws eyes and hits on web sites. As William Shakespeare’s Macbeth intoned, “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

The Ferragamo family fear little, if nothing. A large family, some of them looked outside the clothing business to make room for their dreams. In a little corner near Arezzo, they found such a place. I had no idea of the place, other than the wine which passed by my table from time to time, and for their famous American wine writer, James Suckling, who lives there when in Italy (his Porsche resides there, full-time, under a cover). A little borgo, put together like a jig saw puzzle, every piece gold-leafed into place.

Il Borro is one of those places that famous people go, to be in Italy, but to be under their own cover. It’s safe, in a sense. But there are wild things, too. Just not free-ranging wild. Salvatore Ferragamo, grandson to the first Salvatore Ferragamo, met our troop there, along with his consultant, Stefano Chioccioli. This was shaping up to be an Executive Platinum day. Chioccioli was especially animated. Having met him a time or two over samples of wine from some of the many estates he consults for, he is a busy man. He and his peers, Ferrini, Cotarella, Antonini, Lanati, among others, are the second wave following the Tachis tsunami. As with many of these consultants, there is the danger of them following a formula . And there is a second threat, that of those who perceive these men and women to be standing still, not evolving. That would be a serious mistake. Chioccioli is definitely moving forward.

He was especially proud of the experimental wines they were making. Concrete eggs, funny stainless steel tanks, the mad scientist and his techno tools. Yeah. Isn’t it telling that what some people consider fringe winemaking (amphora, qvevri, etc.) are influencing the influencers? Chioccioli doesn’t have a problem with that. And the experimental wines we tasted, out of the eggs, barrels, tanks, showed a willingness to learn from the outliers, from Friuli to Etna. No borders, nothing off-limits. We are truly in a golden age of winemaking in Italy right now.

An hour away, by car, is Rufina. Selvapiana is there.

Selvapiana, it had been 30+ years since I’d first visited the place. Not much changed, still making those lovely Sangiovese Rufina wines. Francesco Giuntini no longer ran the place, having ceded decision making to his two adopted children, Federico and Silvia. I knew Francesco, but hadn’t seen him much since he retired. We came across him, sitting in his drawing room.

I’ve said this before, if there is anyplace in the world where saying goodbye is tough, Italy has to be right up there. Life is good in Italy. People eat well, drink these lovely wines, surrounded by beauty and art and well, to leave all that behind is molto difficile. And so, for someone like Giuntini, who is in a reflective mode for the rest of his life, to not only not be an active part of the life around but to also eventually have to say arrivaderci, well, it’s something we all must face. But for an Italian, I feel for them.

And the wines? We tried all the new releases from Selvapiana, and Federico asked me if there was anything I’d like to revisit. I told him, “Yes, I’d like to try the ’77.” A difficult vintage, but one which I remember had brought much pleasure to me and my circle at the time in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, the first bottle we tried was corked and the second bottle was a shadow of the wine I remembered. It had been harvested late that year, picking in November. Bernabei was consulting. The memory outlasted the wine. Fortunately, the newer vintages were fine. The 2015 was mellow, with a good grip, healthy acidity and a dollop of fruit. Ok, who needs the ’77?

As we had to be on the other side of the Florentine hills in Montespertoli, I gathered up our team and made our way, post-haste to Castello Sonnino. The Barone was waiting for us. It’s not nice to keep the Barone waiting.

Once we got there, one in our team came up to me with a sheepish look on his face, the kind of look his young son has after he breaks something important that belongs to his dad. “I left my wine bag at Selvapiana,” he said. “No problem," I countered, “They can always send it to you later.” An uncomfortable pause ensued. “I left something inside of my wine bag that I might need,” he said. I asked, “What?” With a hangdog expression, he reluctantly said, “My passport.”

Ok, no problem, I ventured back the way I’d come and left the team to their tasting. I’d been there, done that. And so, I retrieved a very important document and two hours later I was sitting in the courtyard of Castello Sonnino, drinking wine and gobbling snacks.

Sonnino. I’ve written about this wine a bunch. But my takeaway this time, is that the wines come out better than they have to. I don’t know if there are just low expectations for Montespertoli or what? But every time I sip on these wines, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how delicious and also what great values they are. Kind of the perfect bookend to Selvapiana. Just wish it had been a one hour bookend, not three.

Our last day, heading back to Rome, I got inside my head one more visit. Instead of taking the main highway from Florence to Rome, how about a coastal route, and a nice visit to a winery in the southern part of the Maremma, near Scansano, and a last lunch in a real, non-touristic spot? I was driving, so it wasn’t any sweat off my brow. So, we ventured forth to visit Francesco Bolla and his daughter Valentina at Poggio Verrano.

I’ve gone way over word length with this post, forgive me.

Look, I struggle with wine from this area. They aren’t locked into any specific identity, so anything goes. Which means, they are fairly difficult to market to Americans who want an answer and a “bucket” to put everything in. And it’s the Wild West out there. Well, it’s the Ancient repository of Etruscan Female Goddess Energy in cahoots with the Wild West. And that’s the kind of stuff that makes Americanos crazy.

Regardless, there are some exciting wines made in the zone. If I were making wine, I’d choose this place, from all of Tuscany. With not even a blink of the eyes. It calls to my Californismo-ness. I prefer a non-linear winemaking stage. Obviously, I like the idea of wine from the Maremma. And this is one of the places which is less a winery and more of a workshop, a laboratory of ideas. Let’s face it, Francesco Bolla doesn’t need the money. Like running a marathon, it's a challenge to him and his daughter, to make something new in someplace very old, which has no tradition of winemaking. I wish I had the time and money. The spirit of the place excites me. But I had to go there, and see it in person. From a distance of thousands of miles, I just didn’t get it. Once I walked inside the winery and felt the place, I knew.

These are lucky people to have the resources and the health and predilection to pursue something like this. They don’t have to, they could bask in their haute monde and never get their fingers dirty. But they choose not to. Good for them.

At the end of this, it seems this trip was less about the 2017 vintage and more about the journey. And why not? There are hundreds of vintage reports floating around the internet. And most of them aren’t worth a damn. You want to know what 2017 was like? You had to be there, that’s what I’ll tell you. Even if you were at one winery, the one next door might have a totally different story or set of circumstances. Don’t get all hung up on quantifying something you cannot measure so very well. You’ll be more successful trying to contain sand within your cupped hands.

Signing off for now.

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