Wine notes

Monday 19 October 2009


Oltrepò Pavese, located south of Milan in the south of Lombardy, remains one of Italy's most obscure wine regions. Sandwiched between Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna, and with the majority of its vineyards planted on the foothills of the Ligurian Apennines, it is responsible for 60% of Lombardy's entire DOC output. The region has consistently presented itself as bulk producer of international grape varieties with substantial plantings of Pinot Noir (some 3,000 ha at the latest count and going up) followed by Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio.
As the average quality of grapes grown on the hills can be quite high, Oltrepò Pavese has traditionally been the prime source for sparkling wine producers from outside the region, especially from Piemonte and Trentino. Only very recently has the region begun to market itself on its suitability for Burgundian varieties. Its Metodo Classico Oltrepò Pavese was promoted to DOCG status in 2007 and, beginning with the 2008 vintage, the regulations stipulate a minimum of 85% Pinot Noir, the balance being Chardonnay, while the still red wine Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Noir must be 100% of this grape.

While these measures aim at upgrading Oltrepò Pavese's reputation, they continue to ignore its own indigenous grape varieties. It seems that it takes an outsider to ignite an interest in Oltrepò Pavese's own grape varieties, and to save the rarest from oblivion. Dario Tiraboschi is such a person. He combines an administrative job in Bergamo, more than 170km north of Oltrepò Pavese, with running the Fattoria Mondo Antico, in the beautiful, secluded Rocca Susella.
Tiraboschi is a descendant of a family of cheesemakers, which has equipped him with a strong interest in anything agricultural, but he turned to wine by accident. Twenty years ago, one of Tiraboschi's relatives, who was living in Oltrepò Pavese, mentioned he was interested in buying a farm which came with a vineyard. The initial interest of his relative ebbed away, but Dario decided to buy the property himself after having seen the magnificent Collina del Pernione, a steep hill with perfect south to south-west exposition.

Dario proceeded to divide the steep 5-ha slope, characterised by white terra bianca soil, rich in limestone and not unlike those found in Jerez, into several blocks using the different expositions to suit his grape varieties' needs. The first is the south-facing slope planted with two local types of the Croatina variety, which Dario planted in 1993 to create Agenore, a wine which he wants to be a proper vehicle of terroir in a sea of indifferent Croatina blends pouring out of the region. Vigneto Chardonnay was planted the same year with the white burgundy grape and takes up the south-west-facing part of the hill producing. it produces Perpolio, an unoaked Chardonnay aged under the film-forming yeast flor (see your online Oxford Companion to Wine for more), while the top part is a minuscule 0.5 ha planted with four different clones of Pinot Noir.

Another plot of 1.7 ha right in front of the hill is the Vigneto Vigna Vecchia Rosso, a seemingly neglected vineyard full of old vines, most of them 60 years and older. Although its unkempt state would never suggest this, it is a true treasure trove of ancient and forgotten grape varieties. With the help of a viticulturist, Dario started to isolate, select and propagate the rarest and, from a quality point of view, most promising varieties.
The first grape he stumbled upon was the red Moradella. One of the region's oldest grape varieties. nowadays it can be found only in old vineyards because, owing to some perverse act of fate, the variety is not officially registered in the Catalogo Nazionale delle Varietà di Vite (Italy's official, but apparently not exhaustive, register of the nation's grape varieties) and is therefore absent from the DOC regulations. There is, however, a general assumption, that the typical OP reds, Buttafuoco and the sweet Sangue di Giuda, mainly consisting of Barbera and Croatina, were much more interesting in the past when Moradella was still included in the blend. According to Dario, the variety has a thick skin and therefore shows good resistance to rot, which it needs, being a late ripener picked normally at the end of October.

As well as Moradella, Dario discovered a superior clone of small-berried Barbera and also the red Uva Cascina, considered practically extinct. This variety is apparently almost the total opposite of Moradella, ripening a full three weeks earlier, giving very perfumed, full-bodied red wines. Dario is convinced that all three varieties are of high quality because of their small, but not-too-compact bunches with tiny berries resulting in a good skin to juice ratio in the fermentation tank. He plans to vinify and bottle the varieties separately as an ongoing investigation into their peculiarities, with the first bottlings not expected before 2010.

In this museum of grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir seem the odd ones out, and Dario is gradually replacing the 'too international' Chardonnay with the indigenous white Verdea, an ancient grape used in the past for making sweet wines, and Pinot Noir, for which he seems to have a genuine passion.

However, Mondo Antico's Chardonnay is most unusual, not just because of its complete absence of oak, but because of the flor that develops after fermentation on the surface of the wine, which is then aged under it for a year. Dario discovered this style by chance while visiting a wine fair in France's Jura. He followed the Jura practice by racking off the wine after fermentation and then leaving it in a vessel a third unfilled, in this case made of stainless steel rather than oak. After a couple of weeks, a fine film of yeast appeared on the surface. Normally when tanks or casks are not properly topped up, wine falls prey to oxidation and can turn into vinegar. Why this is not the case here, Dario is unable to explain.

It could be that part of the explanation for the occurrence of flor lies in the exceptionally white terra bianca, soil rich in potassium, phosphorus and magnesium, nutrients that yeasts thrive on. The high limestone content has excellent water-retaining capacity, soaking up winter precipitation. This forms a water reservoir the vines can dip into during the growing cycle, especially welcome on steep slopes. A disadvantage, however, is its low organic matter. To increase this, soy, mustard and fava beans are planted and then mowed in during the spring. This is complemented by spraying the biodynamic 500 preparation (the infamous dung-filled cowhorn) twice a year, in spring and immediately after the harvest.

Dario's unorthodox approach, saturating the wine with oxygen during the entire vinification, may also be part of the explanation of the flor riddle. Throughout the fermentation he racks frequently, whites as well as reds. As he explains, it allows for a steady and quick fermentation, without having to rely too much on temperature control, and he even allows the temperature to go up to 20-24 ºC for his whites. The reds are more or less left to their own devices, but as Dario vinifies them in small epoxy tanks, the heat developed during fermentation can escape quickly and the wine never exceeds 30 ºC.

Dario has started to produce a still, unoaked Pinot Noir. In his cellar, which is dominated by small stainless-steel and epoxy-resin vessels, a couple of abandoned barriques stand in the corner. Dario tried them but found that the resulting wine was dominated by the taste of oak and dry tannins. He is convinced that his Collina can produce great Pinot Noir, but, as if to prove his seriousness of intent, he declassified all his 2007 because he was not happy with the level of ripeness. And neither is there any of the 2006 maiden vintage left. It was snapped up by a German importer, who came across it at Prowein in Düsseldorf and, after tasting it, bought the lot without a second thought.

Mondo Antico, Perpolio 2007 Oltrepò Pavese Chardonnay 16.5 Drink 2009-10?
The name Perpolio comes from Latin and signifies something 'refined'. The yield per hectare for this wine was less than 40 hl. The wine is fermented in stainless steel. During the first month Dario does a closed remontage on the lees twice a week followed almost immediately by spontaneous malolactic fermentation. The whole process takes about four weeks, after which the wine is racked off the gross lees into another tank, which is filled to only 2/3 of its capacity, where after some 15 days a fine film of flor appears.
Light amber, indicating a late harvest of very ripe fruit and oxidative winemaking. At first intense apricot jam, with iodine notes and bruised apples, a touch creamy too. Less refined than its name indicates, but certainly fascinating, it has an almost wild quality to it. This also goes for the palate, showing opulent fruit with a fine citric edge and yeasty, bready impressions. Ends warm and a touch sweet (RS 5-6g/l). Very peculiar and in the 'love-hate' category. 13% (WS)

Mondo Antico, Sinodo 2006 Oltrepò Pavese Rosso 16.5 Drink 2009-12
From 60-year-old vines, this can be considered a classic Oltrepò Pavese blend uniting Barbera, Croatina, Uva della Cascina and Moradella, although this last is not officially allowed. The name of this wine comes form the Greek, meaning 'assembly' or 'meeting'. The grapes stem from the old, mixed vineyard. Owing to their different ripening times, several passages through the vines are needed to complete the harvest. The first two are done only by Dario's family, without the help of other pickers, as through experience they can distinguish the different varieties, and know what to pick and what to leave. The wine is fermented in steel and undergoes lots of remontages and déléstages. Regardless of whether alcoholic fermentation has been completed or not, the wine is racked off the skins after 12 days or so to prevent further tannic pickup. Once the fermentation is terminated, the wine gets one racking only to separate it from the gross lees, after which malolactic fermentation immediately starts, presumably because so little sulphur is used at this stage. Racking at regular intervals is done throughout the year to prevent reduction, which is a greater risk when using totally inert glass-fibre and stainless-steel tanks.
A deep crimson colour. Immediate, lifted, vivid nose with a touch of VA. Dark fruits with a layer of maraschino cherry and savoury notes, followed by a rustic, energetic palate of sweet concentrated fruit with crunchy, bitter tannins. Ends warm and rustic. Very animated and long. Seems quite young. RS about 5 g/l. 14% (WS)

Mondo Antico, Agenore Bonarda 2006 Oltrepò Pavese 16 Drink 2009-12
This wine is in fact a 100% Croatina. Bonarda is the local synonym for Croatina, and the Oltrepò Pavese Bonarda DOC requires at least 85% Croatina and doesn't allow the use of Bonarda Piemontese, a completely different variety. (If Dario wanted to label the wine Croatina, he would have to declassify it and label it IGT.) Bonarda Piemontese is apparently not present in Oltrepò Pavese. The wine's name is derived from the Greek, meaning 'virile' or 'strong'. Quite an apt name as it turns out.
Deep purple, with intense sweet forest fruit nose. Again a touch volatile and lifted, with layers of cherry liqueur and notes of garden herbs. On the palate, multilayered with just a touch of spritz and dark fruits with structuring acidity. On the finish, a bitter tannic twist offsetting all that dark-fruit abundance. Singular, with signature rusticity and not for the faint hearted. The wine's various components seem unsettled, suggesting further bottle age is needed. Great length, though. 14% (WS)