Wine notes

Monday 30 March 2009


It is not everyday that one stumbles upon 120 year old vines, and although Australia has it fair share of centenarian vineyards, mainly in areas unaffected by phyloxera (South Australia and Henschke’s Hill of Grace in particular immediately springs to mind), in Europe they tend to be extremely rare. Part of the explanation is that except for afore mentioned phyloxera, old vines produce less grapes, and yields can become so uneconomically low that the plants are uprooted and replaced. But often the lifespan of many vines is also unnecessarily shortened by the unreasonably high yields demanded of them, which literally wears the plant out. This is especially true for many of Italy’s vineyards, where high yields are responsible for diluting wine as well as reputation.

The vineyard in this particular case, Madonna del Carmine, yields so little it is nothing short of a miracle its vines were allowed to grow to such old age. Its owner Alfonso Arpina jumps through this tiny patch bordering a small chapel, after which it is named, and keeps on shouting to me: vieni qua – come here! He grasps my hand and drags me from vine to vine, all ungrafted and on their own rootstocks, pointing out a bird’s nest hidden in one of the mansize trunks, or a particular long branch meandering its way throughout the entire vineyard making bends and u-turns. One branch is so long it is impossible to follow it with the eye, and, mostly out of disbelief, I walk along it to the very end of the vineyard. Arpina kneels down and hugs one of his vines (he knows them one by one) to show me how wide their trunk is. After the assault on all senses, which Naples is, the tranquillity in this part of Campania, in Italy’s South, is almost overwhelming, with only the sound of rain contrasting it.

Alfonso Arpina, medic by day and viticoltore by conviction is the proud owner of this and 3 other old vine vineyards, which have been in the possession of his family for as long as he can remember. Until the early 1990s they had been rented out leaving only a small portion of the grapes to be vinified by Arpina himself in his kitchen using demijohns and plastic canisters.

The vineyard’s main protagonist is the Tintore, an indigenous red grape variety, and even by Campanian standards very rare. As its name indicates, it belongs to the Teinturier family,
sporting red flesh as well as juice, resulting in deeply coloured wines with lots of extract. The wine’s structuring element is its high level of acidity, which, in combination with the intense red and black crushed fruit and tamarind aromas and flavours, creates a lipsmacking sensation without ever being heavy or alcoholic.
In Italy in the past all grape varieties belonging to the Tenturier family were conventionally referred to as “tintore”, although 19th century ampelographic research, notably by the Campanian scholar Giuseppe Froio, already distinguished between the Tintore di Tramonti, Tintora di Lanzara and Olivella Tingitora, with “Tintora”, a variety cultivated on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, appeared to have no relationship with the Tramonti variety either.

The Tintore di Tramonti is characterised by elongated loose bunches with small berries, which makes it much less prone to fungal diseases than varieties with compact bunches. It is an early ripener, at least to Campanian standards, as it is normally harvested at the end of September, a full four to six weeks earlier than Aglianico, Campania’s signature grape. The variety is almost exclusively confined to the Monte Lattari valley, where Alfonso’s vineyards lie. Its existence, however, is duly acknowledged in the larger Costa d’Amalfi DOC, in which it can be a minor ingredient in a blend featuring Campania’s most universal red varieties Piedirosso, Sciascinoso and Aglianico. Curiously, the Costa d’Amalfi distinguishes officially three subzones, of which Tramonti is one (the others being Furore and Ravello), but its historical and cultural vineyards of Tintore have been completely ignored when the regulations were drawn up in 1995. Hence a Tintore “in purezza” can only be marketed under the modest IGT designation, which is basically no more than a table wine with a geographical indication.
This, however, doesn’t make any difference to Arpina, who has been convinced of Tintore’s greatness and ageing potential ever since he tasted a wine made by his father in 1974. This made him decide to cease renting his vines out and instead start for himself, albeit only on a part time basis. And thus the Monte di Grazia estate was born.

Arpina’s holding is tiny, a mere 2,7 ha located in the commune of Tramonti, in the heart of the Monte Lattari and a stone’s throw away from Costa d’Amalfi while 45 km from Naples. The terraces on which the vineyards have been planted consist of volcanic ashes, originating from eruptions of the nearby Vesuvius in the past, and red clayey soils. Although a secluded spot, well hidden from Naples, there is continuous ventilation coming from the nearby coast as well as inland winds blowing from the North, which not only has a mitigating effect in summer as well as winter, but the constant thermic movement add to the special micro climate in this part of the hills.

The vines are Tendone trained, and similar to a pergola with an overhead trellis from which the fruit hangs down. This not only facilitates picking but normally also allows for very high yields. But in this case the antiquity of the vines means yields are a fraction of what can normally be expected, whereas the organic methods used by Arpina reduce this even further. Interestingly, the branches (canes is not an appropriate reference due to their size) are tied to the tendone by using willow shoots. These shoots are also used to construct a series of hedge like walls not unlike the ones used for horse jumping, which are scattered around the vineyard, and which turn out to be a biological way to combat Esca, a fungal disease. The fungus is more attracted to the humid willow hedges than to the old vines it would normally attack.

Although with an average of 25 hl yields are truly tiny, it is still a hell of a lot to ferment in a kitchen. Arpina therefore took a plastic bottle, filled it up with his Tintore red, and headed off to Naples to look for a consultant who could help him build a cellar.
This may not seem the most logical place to search for one, but Arpina was looking for is Gerardo Vernazzaro, a young oenologist in charge of his family’s Cantine Astroni, in the Campi Flegrei, or Phlegraean fields, an area existing of craters dotted around the Vesuvius. This DOC, with its flag bearers the white Falanghina and the red Piedirosso, is right in the middle of Naples’ urban sprawl fighting a lost cause against speculation and real estate, making the vineyards of Chateau Haut Brion in the suburbs of Bordeaux look distinctly rural.
Gerardo told me that he still remembers seeing Arpina turn up with his plastic bottle to present him the home made contadina style 2003 vintage, black as the night and with more than 15% alcohol. Gerardo expected a dirty, oxidised wine, but was immediately taken by its complexity and high acidity. Two days later he drove down to the Madonna del Carmine vineyard, and after having seen the ancient vines he immediately decided to team up with Alfonso. A minuscule cellar was constructed, so tiny you wonder how they got the already quite small stainless steel tanks in there.

The pair started off with the somewhat unforgiving 2004, a very cold vintage giving grapes with searing acidity and little extract. They did the best they could, but Gerardo admits that at that stage he didn’t know the grape very well. He also wanted to use oak to make the wine look more flattering, but Alfonso, who had gained his experience with Tintore using plastic demijohns and glass ballons only, vetoed this, and Gerardo never suggested it again.
Under Gerardo’s guidance an equally impressive white wine from Pepella, Ginestra and Bianca Tenera, as well as a Rosé version of Tintore are produced. With a total production of a mere 7000 bottles in total one can easily understand how obscure grape varieties remain just that. Their extinction is often literally prevented by the likes of Arpina and Gerardo, whose driving force passion only, as the expectancy on a financial return on the estate is as low as the yields of the centenarian vineyard.

The wines
The vineyard plots are all vinified separately in stainless steel tanks and without any use of sulphur. Malolactic fermentation is hoped for but not actively sought, as Tintore’s acidity can be of such high level that it inhibits the activity of the bacteria.
After its fermentation Tintore may be blended with a tiny portion of Moscio, another obscure and ancient Campanian red variety, of which the quantities are too small to justify a separate bottling. However, Arpina and Gerardo are experimenting with a passito version of Moscio. The idea to produce a dessert wine of partially dried grapes came when they faced their first cool and rainy year, and they felt they were struggling to produce a good wine. As Tintore’s high acidity and low extract in those vintages doesn’t create something exceptional, Gerardo wants to “declassify” in such years the Rosso and make only a Rosé. In very good years on the other hand, he wants to make a Moscio passito, the grapes of which are now used as a tiny component in the Rosé.

Monte di Grazia, Bianco 2008 Campania IGT cask sample 17.5 Drink 2010-14
Healthy as well as a proportion of very lightly botrytised Pepella, Ginestra and Bianca Tenera grapes where left in the pneumatic press to macerate overnight.
Pepella has the genetic peculiarity of sporting tiny as well as large berries on the same bunch, however there is no difference in ripeness between the small and large berries. And although Ginestra can easily be considered Campania’s greatest grape according to Gerardo, due to the tiny numbers of vines left, the grapes are generally blended into the white to increase the production.
Deep, brilliant yellow. Opens very sweet and multilayered, with notes of apricot preserve and develops almost Riesling like. Full, concentrated apricot, peach and apple palate, well balanced by lots of lemony acidity. Lemon fruit finish. Pristine acidity, crystal clear. 1000 btls produced. 12.5%

Monte di Grazia Bianco 2007 Campania IGT 16.5 Drink 2009-214
Ginestra, Pepella, Bianca Tenera.
Very pale yellow. Perfumed sweet pear and peach jelly, with high acidity immediately kicking in on the palate, carrying a long, softly fragrant fruit finish. Elegant. 11.5%

Monte di Grazia, Rosato 2008 Campania IGT cask sample 17 Drink 2009-14
A blend of Tintore and Moscio.
This wine was made properly as a rosé instead of being the result of the saigné method, which improves the skin-juice ratio during red wine vinification, and with the Rosé being a left over product.
Tintore was left to macerate for 8 hours in the press, which suffices for the skins to release an unusual amount of anthocyans, the colour pigments, and therefore there is no need to start the first part of the fermentation on the skins to distract some colour of the skins. The wine went partially through malolactic fermentation, but the wine’s high acidity prevented a full functioning of the bacteria responsible for this transformation.
Pale violet ruby.
Heady, fragrant nose of red fruit coulis, strawberry and cherry. On the palate immediate and intense impressions of sweet summer fruit salad and cherry lifted by high, linear acidity. Ends on cherry, strawberry and lemon sorbet. Unusual and unique. 13% vol.

Monte di Grazia Rosso 2008 Campania IGT cask sample 17.5 Drink 2009 -16
After the wine has finished fermentation it is being racked every month, exposing it to as much oxygen as possible to stabilise the colour and aid the polymerisation of the tannins.
Impenetrable, almost black violet. At this stage reductive, showing shy notes of stalky red fruits, but the enormous concentration behind it is immediately apparent. Develops into lots of minerally fruit with hints of pepper corns. Signature freshness and concentration on the palate, with very fine, filigran tannins absorbing the acidity. Closes up again on the finish. Very pure and crystal clear, impressive and long. 13.5% vol.

After this wine Gerardo handed me a sample without actually telling my what it was:
Same impenetrable, black violet as the previous wine. The nose seems more open though, with bright cherry and stalky dark fruits. The impression you get when smelling a wine just finishing fermentation with notes of hay. Full, sweet concentrated and intense fruit attack, but closes up immediately on the finish. Finely grained, powdery tannins. It turns out to be the press wine of the 2008 Campania Rosso.

Monte di Grazia Rosso 2007 Campania IGT 17 Drink 2010-18
This wine has just been bottled, but will not be released on the market for another year.
Deep, concentrated violet ruby. Plum, spice and lots of dark fruits, with succulent red and dark fruit palate, with hallmark freshness. Somewhat compact and closed on the finish, but already showing lots of potential for extended cellaring. 14% vol.

Monte di Grazia Rosso 2006 Campania IGT 18 Drink 2010-18
Deep, violet ruby, extremely youthful looking. Fascinating nose of crushed blueberry, basil leaves and a touch of pepper, as well as savoury, minerally notes all at once. Lots going on here. Smoky, minerally plum, blackberry and blueberry notes and very fine tannins. Very long and elegant, developing on the finish. Impressive in its elegance. Not ostentatious at all. 14% vol

Monte di Grazia Rosso 2005 Campania IGT 17.5 Drink 2009-18
Very dark ruby. Almost upfront nose of spicy, almost oriental nose with lots of black and red fruits. Lots of depth on the palate too with persistent dark and red fruit salad impressions with a fine layer of grainy, soft tannins. Very long and elegant, with potential. 13% vol.