Sunday, July 14, 2019

Cracking Open the Corycian Cave (and the Key to Peace)

Pt. VI

"This was my revolution. Italian wine, in 1957, was not so delicious. It had alcohol, lots of dried earth flavor, but it was lacking life. I wanted the wine to be young and vibrant, youthful. Not tired. Not vinegar. Not brown. Red, like my blood. White, not brown. Like the clouds. And golden yellow, like a sun setting. I was totally immersed in this dreamworld, and there was nobody telling me to stop. And so, I ventured forth, and began my symphony of wine in 100 movements."

Daria let me in, it was barely sunrise and Diana was in her little study. As I approached her, I noticed the dog-eared book she loved so much was open to this passage:

“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” ― Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

I was not a philosophy buff in college, tending more towards the arts, with a sprinkling of theology and mythology in my courses. I took a non-western course of studies, and words were not the emphasis I was being directed towards. It was a visual path: painting photography, filmmaking, ancient cultures. And to my introverted being, that was just fine. But here we were, in this little room, with these words. Perhaps words could be an artform too? In the hands of someone like Masanobu Fukuoka, this was a certainty. I’m not even sure my last sentence is defensible within philosophical discourse. I went into the kitchen; I needed some coffee.

The work of the day was to crack open the cavern where forty years of wine slept. Sure, some of it had escaped and one could find it in places in Florence, like I’ve said in earlier dispatches. But friends in my circles didn’t have 90,000 lire for wine. Those wines were for the collectors, the unicorn hunters. We were working our way up through adulthood, trying to get a job, get some clothes that weren’t moth-worn and eat decently. Wine was part of lunch and dinner, not some Holy Sacrament to be worshiped. But here I was in a Corycian Cave of sorts, with long winding passages, and room after room, filled with wine. And not just wine, but ALIVE wine! Where do we start?

Fortunately, Diana had a plan of sorts. Start with the white wines, as their lifespan would normally be shorter than the reds and the stickies.

The room reminded me of a section in the catacombs in Palermo that held the little children. With one exception. Everything in here was alive. Ann Rice wrote of an underground room in her novel, Interview With The Vampire. It was in the Théâtre des Vampires. And while these vampires were somewhat alive, they had none of the life these wines had. But like all three, the children in Palermo, the vampires in Paris and the wine in Tuscany, all were trapped. These could be saved, salvaged, even redeemed. But who in the outside world, outside of the trophy hunters, would care?

It was the time of big, heady wine with loads of wood and alcohol. The wines of the times shouted. These whispered. The highly regarded wines, rewarded with high points, 90 and above, were extroverts, screaming. These wines were introverts, barely audible. These were not the wines in fashion.

And too make matters more complicated, many of them were just wines in bottles, no denomination, sometimes not even a vintage. All we knew was that they were grown above in the vineyards in their native state. And they were made in a natural way. Not in the prepossessed way of the present in which every wine maker, merchant and marketer who wants to be seen as “in” make statements with regards to their sustainability, their non-interventionism, their indigenous yeasting, their no sulfur regimen, all the trigger words to mark that one has “arrived” in the world of real wine. None of this was stirring in these dark, cool, quiet rooms. Only wine, made naturally in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. They had no one above on the outside world, proselytizing for them – they were invisible. But God, were they alive!

Tasting notes:

1955 - White labeled “SL-P” – 200 720ml bottles stacked
My notes: Deep rich amber color. Notes of peach and linoleum. Very extracted, but alcohol, while healthy, is in check. Acidity is alive but not out of control. The finish is long. The flavor is plump but not fat. This could be a red wine if we were blindfolded. There is the flavor of toasted wheat, with notes of wildflowers, grass, even slight oregano, but not at all overpowering. This wine, at the time almost 30 years old, is very much alive.

1966 - hand labeled “L'imperatore Pazzo – Stravecchio” – 52 demijohns.
Diana told me that this was a difficult year. It was a late harvest, compounded with torrential rains, a wheat harvest that was left partially on the ground, as the rains did not permit the workers to harvest. The grapes stayed on the vine, while Diana and her town worked in Florence to save precious artworks from the Arno floodwaters. When she came back there were “10 glorious days of sun, warm and reinvigorating to the vines, saving the grapes, shriveling them a little to reduce the water they had been plumped up with. And we laid these grapes out on the mats to dry a little more, watching for rot. The vines had always been healthy, so this turn of events, while precarious, for grapes grown in harmony with nature, was not a fatal blow. But the wine took on a different life, and the color was deeper. That was why I put them in the demijohns, sealed them and left them to live out their youth in the dark here.”

My notes: Almost a vermouth sharpness to the wine as we raised the cork out of the demijohn. Like a genie escaping from the bottle. The color is chartreuse-like. It “shimmers.” A slight petulance, with a healthy dose of acidity. But the fruit is subtle, mellow, in the shadows. I could drink this whole bottle, but a Tuscan restaurant has reserved several of these demijohns when they will be released and for a pretty penny.

1977 - White labeled “Santa Lucia – Procanica” – 300 720ml bottles stacked.
Diana noted that a famous wine consultant had been on the cellar recently, as he was working on a white wine project for one of the big families of Tuscany and he’d been friends with her father. This man noted that this wine was an archetype and said he wanted to make this kind of wine “famous for the world.” She doesn’t know what happened with that project as he never came back.

Diana said 1977 was an interesting vintage for her vines, in that there was a long, protracted season well into October. I remember because I was in Tuscany and Umbria in the fall of 1977 with my family and it was pleasant, little if any rain, constant sun, but regulated, not the beat down it has become in vineyards in August lately in this current era.

My notes: not as deeply colored as the 1955, but going towards a bright yellow into a dusky area of color. Clear, although showing sediment (tartrates, lees?) when the bottle was set upright, but which fell to the bottom of the bottle within 15 minutes. The flavor is umami-meaty and savory, with the plumpness this grape seems to exhibit in these vineyards. The fruit is ripe but not sickly sweet, again more savory than sweet. A very long finish with notes of persimmon, ginger and dried fig. Really a mouth filling wine without being a show-boat.

1980 - labeled simply “Soli Ardenti” -still in a 550-liter concrete holding tank.
There was a long growing season, with plenty of sun, some needed heat, but then cooling off in September and ripening into early November. These were a field blend of predominantly white wine grapes, about 6 of them, with two thinner skinned red varieties normally used for bouquet or rosato wines. But Diana decided to harvest and ferment together with all the native yeasts from four different parcels on the property, essentially the four corners of the property as it was then. The wine went through a 6-month fermentation in concrete and was racked only once to clean out any detritions and then put back into the concrete tank in which it began its life. “It’s incubator,” Diana likes to call it. “This is one of my different children, with many personalities and very complex. But it could rival my red wines in terms of majesty and particularity. It has a little fizziness right now; it is still young and will probably lose the baby fuzz. But it has a wealth of fruit and is fat and how did you call it – roly-poly?”

My notes: indeed, this wine is fat and roly-poly. It’s like a giant peach with an underlying edge of nervosity. I remember a wine like this from the Haute-Savoie, very similar. The aromas, along with the peach, is like a giant fruit salad, in fact Diana calls this “my big little Macedonia.” The wine is dry, but the fruit is rich with all that baby fat still on it. Wow – I could drink this in the morning instead of coffee to a totally different destination. But it is one of the greatest white wines I have ever had. And it’s not even ready to be bottled, yet.

After a long week digging through just the white wines, I left on Friday afternoon for the weekend, where a friend of mine was having a photography exhibition. On parting, Diana gave me a hug and shared one of her favorite Fukuoka quotes,
“I contadini dappertutto nel mondo sono fondamentalmente gli stessi. Lasciateci dire che la chiave per la pace si trova vicino alla terra.”

― to be continued

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