People are still asking me questions about my late March, early April Italy trip to Florence, Siena, and Arezzo. Prior to departure, I said I was going for the art. Turns out, I went for the wine! I believe that Tuscany conjures iconic images for most Americans: columnar cypress-lined lanes leading up to stone houses, rosemary growing like weeds, and rolling hills covered in vineyards.
Understandably, Chianti is one of the first wines that comes to mind, but the Sangiovese varietal has long been my favorite and before I stepped foot in Tuscany my research revealed Viator’s small-group Brunello di Montalcino Wine-Tasting trip from Siena (5493MONTALCINO). Our guide, Daniel, was well-informed and eager to talk about a subject close to his heart. He picked me up at Hotel Italia S.p.A., on Viale Cavour 67. Hotel Italia is adorable and has the friendliest most helpful staff I have ever enjoyed anywhere. With one more stop to get the rest of our group, a lovely Ohio family, we were away into the hills.
While I knew to some degree what to expect in wine, I did not expect the astonishing array of viticulture philosophies. As a country kid from Montana, I understand the business of operating a family agricultural estate: grow, market, and harvest a crop. Wine is, after all, an agriculture product, a branch of the science of horticulture to be exact, and as such, it is regulated meticulously. There are specific requirements to which a vintner must adhere throughout Tuscany and all of Italy, but even more for a wine to be called a Brunello. Daniel humorously shared with remarkable insight his extensive knowledge about the business as well as the three wineries we visited.
Like most agriculturists making a living from the soil, viticulturists are an independent lot and have strong opinions about their production practices. First, understand that planting a vine and seeing it to maturity takes a few years. There is no instant return on the investment. Every year conditions change, the vines adjust and adapt, and thus the wine is different. All factors are considered: altitudes, acidity in the soil, amount of precipitation, tillage, pests, timing, heat…. For example, the philosophy driving the crew at the Podere Le Ripi Vineyard is somewhat radical. Their vines are not planted in neat rows far enough apart so that a tractor may till the weeds in between. A grapevine’s natural practice, horticulturally speaking, is to spread the roots a few inches under the soil to access the available moisture. But the soil under the Podere Le Ripi Vineyard is a heavy clay which holds more moisture longer, so their vines are planted a few inches apart forcing the vines to push their roots deeper into the soil toward that heavy clay, and do it faster. The vines are so close together they provide shade for their roots and keep invasive weeds from taking over.
Our little group also visited the Molino Di Saint’Antimo winery where the wine was equally delicious and wonderful, but there I was more impressed by the women. Here in Montana, I would call them Ranch Divas. There, well, it still applies. One daughter, our host, is in charge of marketing. Her sister is in charge of the vines. I was over-whelmed by the sheer beauty of their estate. Their father, an architect, renovated the simple stone structure where the bottom level was traditionally used to house the livestock with the living quarters upstairs into a wholly modern structure without losing the inherent beauty.
Their mother made the most delicious lunch with simple bruschetta, uovo pomodoro (eggs poached in tomato sauce), and a light spaghetti in a garlic sauce all served with wonderful white and red wine pairings from their estate . We sat in their dining room over-looking the wine cellar and talked of how an Italian farmer’s life is not much different from any other farmer’s life. I rather wished they would adopt me!
The more I spoke with these vineyard farmers, the more impressed I became by their modern manipulation of centuries old practices to coax the absolute best from the grapes in spite of all seasonal challenges. The Il Paradiso Di Frassina winery was considered down right crazy no doubt when Carlo Cignozzi first began using music in his vineyard in 1999. But then an interested sound guy from Boston, USA, got involved, and the Bose Corporation assisted in placing speakers directly in the vineyard where the grapes bask in the perfection that is Mozart. I know it sounds crazy at first, but think about it, music is nothing but the vibration of sound waves at specific intervals and for varying lengths of time. What the guess that turned into an experiment revealed is that not only do the vines sprout sooner and grow more consistently under constant musical accompaniment, but certain destructive insects are driven away by the same vibration.
Italy has much to offer a serious wino like myself. But there is more to it than just growing a productive vine. These people are serious about combining traditional practices with modern ideas. They talk about science, the pull of the moon, the resonation of matter on a molecular level, and even though they spend every year trying to work with Ma Nature to the best advantage of the grapes and thus a good product to sell, it is clear to me that we are not just drinking wine. That head-rush bouquet, garnet colour, and velvety mouth feel of a fine Brunello is truly passion and magic in a glass.