Tuesday, June 18, 2019

In Tuscany, Leaving it all Behind, for the Odyssey of a Lifetime

Pt. II
“What this person is asking, is what are we doing here? Have we come to help?” my friend translated.
We were tired, we were thirsty, and we were idiots. But we were here already, so why not help? We were young and who knows where this would lead? Of course, we were hoping to grab some enlightenment from this wise old winemaker, and maybe even taste the wine, which in Florence, was the stuff of legends. Only one restaurant had even had the wine on the list and in those days was reported to be on the list for ₤90,000 (with ₤880 = US $1.00 at the time). Of course, no one in our circle had ever seen the wine, let alone taste even a sip of it. We had to do whatever it took to get closer to that wine. We were so close; we didn’t even see the blood on the doorstep.

As we made our way to the voice, I noticed hundreds of lucciole flittering about in the fields, as if choreographed to the music of the cicadas. This place was alive! My mind raced. Who was this person we were heading towards? What strange power did he or she have over these creatures? And did it bleed over into the plant world? Or was this just a lucky happenstance? Many questions.

We finally made it to the center of the field where our mage was directing a couple of pensioners. “Good, I’m glad they sent you. We need help.” We were handed a pair of ancient wooden handled grape knives and told to “Follow me.”

Once we got to the rows of vines we were led to, there were 5 small gondolas. “Fill them up, grapes only, no stems, no rocks, no little mice, and when you have them all filled, call out to me.” Talk about cryptic. And demanding. But if this was the price to pay to get to taste wine made from these grapes, so be it. We had time, time on our hands. After all, we were younger.

Three hours later, under a descending sun, and in a warmish day (for Tuscany in the autumn) we looked around and saw there were no more gondolas to fill. So, we called out to our taskmaster. We heard something that sounds like “Vieni qui,” and so we proceeded to follow the nearly incomprehensible voice, as if we were blind penitents in some medieval era.

It was about 4:30, dusk being about two hours off. We were instructed to grab a small trailer attached to one of those three wheeled vehicles, an ancient Piaggio Ape, and go fetch our harvest to be brought in to the fermenting room. When we did, we were told to drop the crates on the floor in the room. Crushing and fermentation would commence in the morning. “I like to start two hours before sunrise, giving the grapes time to rest, let them gather their thoughts, before they face their personal oblivion and amalgamate into something greater than their singular selves,” my companion translated. “In the meantime, let’s taste something. All this work and heat has made me thirsty.” Finally, what we came for.

There’s no real way to describe what happened in the next seven hours, save for the memory that I have and cannot let it go. We tasted, and tasted. In the barrel. In bottles. From demijohns. Red wine. White wine. Brown wine. Dry wine. Sweet wine. Oaky wine. Acid-searing wine. There seemed to be no singular theme, rather a laboratory of invention. And, try as I might, I was smitten by each and every one. It was as if these wines were all the children of this atypical winemaker. And we still had no idea if the winemaker was a man or a woman. And frankly, it really didn’t matter at that point. We’d stumbled upon one of the greatest winemakers in Tuscany. In Italy? In the world? And we were tasting the complete catalog of the life-work of this soul. And the wines were out of this world.

Later, after the sun set, and we were invited in to have a modest meal (We were staying the night to help with the crushing? Yes, of course!) our host took of their ubiquitous hat. And an outpouring of the longest most beautiful silver hair flowed from it. And with it, these words:
“I was born a woman, but I thought I had to compete in a world made for, and by, men. I don’t remember my mother. So, I didn’t have a lot to guide me. My father rarely, if ever, took me into Florence. He said the city destroyed the heart. I had no aunts or uncles that I knew of. No siblings. It was papa and me. And I wanted to please this sad old, lonely man. So, I became the son he never had. This went on for 50 or more years. I never married, never had the chance. Papa said we were married to the vines. And like the nuns down the road in the abbey who married Jesus, I took the vows of poverty (unavoidable) chastity (there was no opportunity in the country) and obedience (to my craft). That was my life. Period.”

“And then, one day after all external vestiges of my female being dropped from me like almonds from the tree, I realized that I was not a man in a man’s world. I was, and had always been, a woman. But I kept it concealed. Except to the vines. They knew, and they knew me. I was their servant, and they loved me. So, they took me into their world, and shared everything about themselves. That is why all these wines are so different. Not because I lacked a “style” of winemaking. Not because I was unmoored in this life. Because I was busy, listening to the grapes as they frothed in the tanks and wove tales of all their lives into one cacophonous concerto. Year after year. It was like listening to Beethoven, but from a different world. And I was their major-domo, their chief steward. Their servant. Their only human connection. Until the symphony was finished. And then it became wine and went out into the world.”

“One could say I left it all behind, although I’m not sure what I left. I was young, I was a woman, it was a man’s world, and I was thirsty to be a part of a world, any world, where there was no longer any war, or death, or brutality. So, my journey took me to the field and through the vines right in front of the grapes. And there they were, every one a story, all these little passages they made, sacrificing their life for something bigger, something hopefully greater than their singular, globular being. And my task, my calling, was to listen and try and understand all their little lives and put some sense of order, and beauty, to them. That has been my odyssey. And I never even left my little localit√†.”

The Tasting Notes

I’ve chosen three, out of the scores of wines we tasted that night, and many days to follow. Consider these as growth ring adumbrations from the larger tree.

I. The Red – from an odd sized bottle, 1.8 Liter, oblong, bottom wrapped in straw. Vintage is marked LXV (65) in Roman numerals. This was pulled out of a wall that had numerous bottles, sizes and years. There is no label, but a hand written tag, faded, with only the words “Granoir” in a beautiful and old-fashioned script. The color was light, no signs of brown around the edges, still a bright crimson, but with a slight fade. The nose had aromas of cherries, plums, almonds, evergreen (ever so slightly) and there was a thick undertone of what the French call garrigue. Very attractive and totally integrated aromas. In the flavor there was spice in the entry, sandalwood and ripe dried fruits, like figs and pears. I’ve never smelled or tasted a wine like this. It seemed youthful, but our host told us this wine was almost 20 years old. It was, in a word, perfect.

II. The White – in a small brown bottle, 720ml. Again a hand written tag, with the Roman numeral LXXVII (77) on it. Other words were Santa Lucia and underneath scribbled, hastily, the word Procanica. The wine was golden hued and bright, with a slight haze from the nonfiltered bottle. “I wanted to see what the wine would do on its own, no wood, just the i resti from slaughtering all those innocent grapes.” It seemed our host was a little maudlin when we tasted this wine, as it was late (or by then, early) and we’d been up many hours after working a hard day’s work. What bewitched me about this wine was wave after wave of aromas, as if we’d opened up King Tut’s tomb after many thousands of years. Honey, almond, lemon zest, I cannot even begin to do justice to the wine. And what a backbone it had! It was lively and racy, but well balanced. We drank two bottles of this and they were both exceptional.

III. The Sweet Brown – this had the roman numeral XLV (45) on it and it was in a small 200ml fiasco, again oblong. There was only one word, perhaps a name, or a blend, it was Aleacrimone. Our host told us it was a field blend of three grapes, which she didn’t remember. She noted that this was made as the German Army was retreating from Tuscany and The Allied forces were making their way north. Hence, the grapes were left to hang longer on the vines, with a short spike of heat and sun in the week before harvest (and when it was safe to go outside and work again). The color, while I call it brown, was a shimmery, translucent kind of cinnamon, probably more maroon with years of ageing. It was breathtaking. The aromas had a fatty, buttery, oleaginous, unctuous quality about it. It was more a perfume of seduction than something one expects from a wine. But it was timeless, recognizable and heraldic. In the flavors, there was a sweetness, tinged with an alacrity that was very bracing. Great acidic backbone, layered with fruit and juice and honey and persimmon marmalade. Again, like nothing I’d ever had (or have had since).

Our host, who asked not to be identified, invited us to return in January, when she was pressing some dried grapes for a vinsanto. “You will return?” Of course, we promised. It would be up to us to hold true to that promise. We’d found Eldorado in the hills of Tuscany. I couldn’t imagine not going back.

Pt. II - to be continued...?

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fromyourmindseye.com said...

Beautifully written, this tale is capitivating.

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks, sis. this is part 3 in a series (so far) categorized under "The greatest winemaker the world has never known" on my blog. I'm increasingly bored with wine blogs that are merely factual renderings of what they tasted, where they were, etc. So, I'm bending the genre a bit. And, yes, it is all made up. https://bit.ly/2XD5xCE

jimmymaciii said...

Made up, but True nonetheless... Thanks!

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