Wine notes

Tuesday 15 September 2009


Luca Zaia, Italy's charismatic and controversial agricultural minister, has recently attracted a storm of protest after having expressed his dismay that a total ban on drinking and driving would criminalise the Italian wine industry. Critics accused the minister of putting economic interests first, and suggested the minister's comments that a glass or two of wine would not impair driving capabilities were 'unscientific' to say the least.

The minister, a keen media player, started his counter-offensive on Wednesday on his own website, (with its portrait of Zaia shown here allowing no doubt as to his allegiance to the wine industry). In the website's news section, called Zaia News, the minister published his 'Ten Questions no one is asking', aimed at steering the anti-alcohol debate away from the almost exclusive concentration on alcohol-related lethal traffic accidents.

Some of the questions Zaia would like to have answered are:

How come that until now no other statistics are published on other possible causes of accidents, such as the abuse of pharmaceuticals and medications, especially since consumption of antidepressants rose 7.9% and tranquilizers 7.8% in 2007?

How come no one considers the effect of prolonged hours of driving which surely cause psychological stress and hence many accidents?

Why is using a mobile phone while driving a car not considered serious?

Why is no one saying that the main cause for accidents are lack of respect for the rules concerning overtaking, stopping at traffic lights, and stop signs (17.59%), ignoring speed limits (12.20%), or keeping too little distance (9.83%, all statistics from Aci-Istat, the official Italian Automobile Club).

Zaia also asks why until now in the debate some astonishing figures have been ignored, such as the consumption of cocaine from 1.3% in 1991 to 14.2% in 2007 (no source cited), or why smoking while driving a car is still not forbidden.

One of the last on Zaia's list is the rhetorical question, why, instead of demonising wine, has no one ever inquired into the general state of Italy's infrastructure and traffic signs? According to Zaia, the anti-alcohol lobby maintains that alcohol, including wine, is the main cause of road accidents, ignoring that many other factors play their part such as the psychological and or physical state of the driver, the inappropriate consumption of spirits and pharmaceuticals, the general condition of the vehicle, drug consumption, use of mobile phones, and general lack of respect for traffic rules.

Friday 4 September 2009


Amarone, one of Italy’s most famous wines, seems especially hit by the current economic situation. With total production for 2009 forecasted at some 15 million bottles, the Consorzio of Valpolicella recently admitted that this is double that of what the international market is able to absorb. In an effort to ward off the prospect of cellars full of wines that nobody wants, it has sent out an urgent recommendation to its members to drastically reduce production of this wine, and apparently with success.
And while recently a group of 10 illustrious producers teamed up under the name “Amarone Families” in a marketing effort to prevent Amarone to fall further from grace, and, more importantly, its traditionally elevated price point, one woman producer from the region has given up altogether on the production of this wine, not out of trend, fad, or precaution, but out of conviction, and this already since 1990.

Originally from a Veronese family of innkeepers, Cecilia Strucchi, a trained garden architect, and her family came across a baroque edifice, the Villa Bellini, in the Valpolicella Classico region in 1987. The elegant 17th century building, high up in the hills and overlooking the plains, where much of the maligned cheap Valpolicella, and now also low priced Amarone is being produced, sits on the verge of the road that exits the pretty village of Castelrotto.
The Villa is set in a beautiful garden, surrounded by low storage and service buildings and bordering about 6 ha of terraced vineyards enclosed by an ancient stone wall. The whole place is doused in tranquillity, while exuding a distinct air of being unfinished. Strucchi tells me that she is still in the process of revamping the storage buildings into an agriturismo, Italy’s rural answer to “Bed and Breakfast”. Originally, the plan had been to transform the Villa into a hotel, but for years the plan was obstructed by draconian bureaucratic rules. In hindsight a lucky thing, as the owners of Le Ragose drew Strucchi’s attention to the Villa’s vineyard instead, which until then was rented out and tended by local peasants. They told her that in the past it had been famous for producing the finest Recioto in the region. As a consequence, Strucchi took control over the entire vineyard in 1990, an exceptional vintage for Recioto it later turned out.

With little actual knowledge of viticulture, but a great fascination for plants, the first task Strucchi took on was the restoration of the stone vineyard terraces, called “Marogne” or “dry built wall” in local dialect, referring to the intricate stapled stone structure held together without any binding agent. She also decided to tend her entire “Clos” organically. Back in 1990 this certainly was highly unusual, and the conversion to organics became a bone of content with the neighbours, mostly small landholders and peasants, who argued the Villa Bellini vineyard would soon become the source of all kinds of disease and maladies. Ironically, it was she, who had the real problem of staying organic, surrounded by growers using conventional methods and therefore chemicals, potentially contaminating her vines. The high wall as well as the shrubs and trees around them, certainly provided a much needed shield.

Another unusual step she took when she decided to replant most of the vineyard “ad alberello”, or bush vine training. She tells me she always disliked the modern and conventional trellis systems, its rigid wires upsetting the countryside’s natural aesthetics, but became truly convinced of the benefits after having seen organic bush vine vineyards in Sardinia.
Unsurprisingly, her vines are not planted in neat rows but follow a diamond pattern, with 80 cm distance between the plants horizontally and 130 cm diagonally. In this way the vines benefit from sunshine that can reach all parts of the plants, and the very high density of 10,000 plants per hectare creates competition among the vines, forcing them to develop a deep root system.

There is, however, a considerable downside to the narrow interspacing and high density: it only allows for manual work. As Strucchi also chose to allow herbs and grass to grow freely between the vines and with no mechanical equipment available, it condemned her to pull weeds manually, until only very recently a befriended professor in engineering helped her building a tiny tractor, which can move through the vines and cut the herbs. The machine is still in the prototype phase, and after each use amendments still need to be made to suit the vineyard. However awkward the phase, Strucchi’s time pulling weeds and grass has dropped significantly. She remarks dryly that before the machine’s invention she always had great difficulty finding people to work at the estate. Most of the applicants were trained on working with machines and as soon as they saw the high density low bush vine vineyards their initial eagerness to work for the estate instantly dried up.

But the weed controlling work is essential if the ad alberelo vineyards are to come to fruition. Weeds and herbs can become competition for moisture, and will shade the fruit and the leaves, impairing proper photosynthesis and hence fruit ripening. And although the vineyards are all southwest facing and twice cooled by currents of northerly winds from the Alps, the weeds can also obstruct much needed ventilation in more humid conditions.

When I ask her why she persevered with a training system that demands such total dedication, she tells me that from quite early on she was rewarded with fruit of such high quality it surpassed her wildest expectations. But more interestingly, while Corvina has the impracticable tendency of not bearing fruit on the first four buds, in an experiment, she began in 1999, she disregarded this defect by pruning much shorter than normally is the case. And against all odds from 2003 on the plants started to respond, giving now fruit on the third and fourth bud.

Mercifully, a small part of the vineyard is trained on pergola, with ungrafted Molinara vines of over a hundred years old. Strucchi is not a huge fan of Molinara, a grape she considers very average, but with vines this old, she tells me it gives very little but superb fruit adding a structuring acidic vein to the blend. However, it is not just the age of the vines, but also an ancient genotype, which is superior to the more modern clonal selection of Molinara, which invariably has been cultivated to produce high yields. She is working on a clonal selection programme to protect her Molinara from extinction and replace the very old vines with that once they die.

Her rejection of Amarone initially did not grew out of her general dislike for alcoholic and heavy reds, but, as she phrases it, she wanted to “free her mind of the Amarone dogma”, which, according to her, has lead to nothing else but full cellars especially since the 2006 vintage. Her main objection to Amarone is the selection process it automatically entails. “I never wanted to divide the grapes into different styles”, she comments, “I want to have the full picture, to see what the vineyards are capable of.” At the beginning she felt she didn’t know the vineyard well, and needed to build up knowledge and experience in its characteristics. By selecting out bunches and drying these for up to 4 months, the resulting wines would show less the vintage differences, and therefore she feared she would never understand fully the soils and their potential.

“Amarone is actually only a very recent phenomenon, whereas Recioto is a historic wine”, Trucchi explains. But as she produces Recioto only in outstanding vintages, the main part of the production is focused entirely on the creation of a still dry red wine, and with this she goes against all current trends in Valpolicella. She also stopped using ripasso more than 13 years ago. Ripasso, unsurprisingly, is another style she doesn’t appreciate. According to her, Valpolicella proper has been degraded to what she calls a “vinello” a simple wine, and ripasso mainly employed to boost its meagre alcohol level. Her “straight” Valpolicella Classico Superiore, called “Taso”, is Villa Bellini’s most important wine.

Taso, meaning “to remain silent” in local dialect, summarises the estate’s philosophy in a nutshell: “not to speak, or to remain silent is fundamental in order to grasp the nuances of the territory incapsulated in this wine.” the 2005 vintage, with modest 13% alcohol, shows a beautifully focused, lifted sweet cherry nose, with an attractive edge of oak. A surprisingly youthful palate is at this stage harnessed by the acidity, and although already attractive it will need more age to open up. It is a serious wine with a serious price tag, retailing at the same level as many wellknown Amarones. It is a consequence of the intense manual work and very low yields, but one senses also a certain stubbornness from the side of its creator, who feels strongly that her wine actually expresses terroir, has structure as well as “a story to tell”, as she herself puts it. Almost involuntarily she grins, when adding that she herself thinks Taso very ambitious plan.

On the very rare occasion she gets to produce a Recioto, the bunches are not dried in temperature and humidity controlled storage rooms as is now standard practice in the region, but in wooden crates in the open air, only protected by a roof. Her estate is high up in the Classico hills, well over the fog line. These fogs, rolling in during autumn as well as winter can promote grape rot, and therefore, until the introduction of mechanical temperature and humidity control equipment, the production of Recioto as well as Amarone was traditionally confined to the hills.
The Taso gets a different treatment. Strucchi harvests each single plot at the optimum ripeness, but vinifies the whole lot at the same time. This means that the first bunches are stacked up in their wooden cases in an attic, waiting for the last fruit to be harvested. This can mean a period of up to two weeks, but according to Strucchi it is not an “apassimento”, and has very little aromatic impact on the final wine. Interestingly, after vinification in stainless steel, the wine spends around two years in casks, of which 50% is renewed every year. When I air my surprise at such high level of new oak, she argues that the use of new oak as such has been demonised, while according to her it all depends on how you use it, and, most importantly, whether your grapes have the concentration needed to stand up to the treatment and gain by it. She coyly adds, that the 50% new oak is only an estimate, as it all depends on how much she has in her wallet. All wines are fermented by indigenous yeast, but, refreshingly, she doesn’t consider herself an advocate of the “No Sulphur” trend, also because according to her Rondinella has a tendency to oxidise. And with this she again seems to go counter a trend that has become almost a dogma within organic wine cycles.

The 2004 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Taso is imported into the UK by Aubert & Mascoli Ltd, London
020 7374 6033