Wine notes

Friday 28 January 2011


The news in 2008 that Avignonesi, arguably Vino Nobile di Montepulciano's most emblematic producer, had sold the majority of its shares to the Belgian Virginie Saverys sent a ripple through Italian wine blogs - all of them worried about a historic Italian estate falling into foreign hands. What most of the critics did not realise was that although the Avignonesi name goes back to at least the 16th century, it didn't start bottling wine until 1978.

Whereas grape growing and winemaking had always been part of the Avignonesi activity, its vinous rise to fame started only after Adriana Avignonesi married the agronomist Ettore Falvo in the 1970s. It was he who immediately modernised the estate with replantings and regraftings and introduced French barriques to the cellar. By bringing the Falvo holdings in Cortona and Val di Chiana into the operation, the Avignonesi portfolio was also enlarged by quite a few international grape varieties, notably Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. With enough critical mass available to penetrate the international market (some 700,000 bottles a year currently), Avignonesi became the indisputed leader of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano denomination, with their Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo [look out for my tasting notes on a range of Vin Santos next week - JR] a star in its own right, as well as the international blends Grifi and Desiderio.

The 2008 sale of the majority stake was instigated by Ettore Falvo's wish to leave the company, but already in 2007 Saverys, director of Belgian shipping company Compagnie Maritime Belge, had acquired a minority stake of 30%. The Falvo family retained 10% of Avignonesi. Although according to the initial agreement Alberto Falvo would remain responsible for the winemaking, Saverys decided to buy out the last Falvo member in 2009 and embark on her own. From one day to the next she found herself running a winery as well as Avignonesi's international wine, spirits and foods distribution company Classica, and that without any prior wine knowledge apart from drinking it.

Doubts have been expressed in recent years over the quality of the estate's wines, with the exception of the Vin Santo. This was all the more surprising because the Falvo family had always been keen on research and viticultural experiments in an ongoing effort to improve the wines, some of those research projects in conjunction with the University of Florence. Under the direction of Saverys, the estate's entire 110 ha of vineyards are being converted to biodynamic viticulture.

Before I met with Saverys, her consultant agronomist Dr Adriano Zago showed me the vineyards. Avignonesi consists of four separate estates or vineyard areas: I Poggetti in Montepulciano proper; Le Capezzine, the actual estate with the ageing cellars west of Montepulciano; and La Selva and La Lombarda in the recent Cortona denomination, a playground for international grape varieties, and sensibly demarcated without overlapping the Vino Nobile production area (unlike Montalcino's Sant'Antimo). Made DOC in 1999 to highlight its unique propensities for Syrah in particular, Cortona still has to prove itself.

The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG actually consists of two individual zones: the hills around the township of Montepulciano and, about 10 km to the west and separated by the very flat Val di Chiana, the hills around the township of Valiano. According to Zago, the original denomination was enlarged some 30 years ago by the addition of the hills of Valiano, apparently to accommodate large holdings of newcomers at that time. Although I have not found evidence to confirm this, the fact is that most of Valiano's vineyards are in the hands of large and very large estates, such as Antinori (La Braccesca), Trerose (Tenimenti Angelini), Lodola Nuova (Ruffino) and Barbanera.

While driving up to the Le Capezzine estate I had already noticed that vineyards here are planted ad alberello and trained on stakes. Lately, alberello, or gobelet, training has become the sacred cow of Italy's left field 'natural wine' movement, and considered proof of a producer's true dedication to the natural wine cause. It can, however, also be seen as the emperor's new clothes, with alberello cultivated in parts where it never was the traditional method and in places where it is completely unsuitable. Avignonesi, Zago told me, started planting ad alberello as early as 1996 and continued doing this until 2001. Although this may seem at first glance truly visionary, it turned out quite the opposite, of which more later.

I Poggetti, near the town of Montepulciano, is in comparison a conventional vineyard, planted 40 years ago with Sangiovese, Vino Nobile's main ingredient, called Prugnolo here. Although Avignonesi have always embraced the international varieties, their Vino Nobile traditionally consisted of Tuscan varieties only, complementing Sangiovese with Canaiolo and Mammolo, with the curious exception of the Riserva, to which a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon was added.

La Selva and the La Lombarda vineyards in the aforementioned Cortona DOC are the source of the Cortona Sauvignon Blanc (which includes 15% Chardonnay), Il Marzocco Cortona Chardonnay, Avignonesi's stab at creating an ambitious burgundy-style white, including barrel fermentation, and Desiderio Cortona Merlot (which includes 15% Cabernet Sauvignon). It remains to be seen which of these wines will continue to be produced under the new ownership.

The hills of Montepulciano and Valiano are not exclusively vine territory, sharing the clay and limestone soils with sunflowers and wheat. While his four-wheel drive literally ploughed its way through heavy clay (pictured above left on Zago's boot) during my visit, Zago, who consults for a variety of estates in Chianti Classico, Carmignano and Montalcino, mentioned his surprise that he couldn't find a single stone in the Avignonesi vineyards. Montepulciano's soils consist mostly of clay with some limestone. Sandy soils are apparently much less prevalent than is frequently mentioned in the wine literature.

I met Virginie Saverys in her office at the Le Capezzine estate. She is an elegant, understatedly dressed, and attractive woman in her late forties who seems to communicate with her staff in an informal, open way. It was only when she asked if I would like tea, which she ordered by telephone and was brought in by a waiter, that I briefly realised I was sitting opposite one of the richest women in Belgium. I also could not help noticing that she probably hasn't given many interviews yet in her new role, something I deduce from her sincere and open answers. Only briefly was she distracted by the regular sound of Skype messages pouring in on her laptop, which, after a short while, she resolutely closed.

I began by asking her why she decided to buy a wine estate, considering her background in a completely different industry. Saverys wouldn't be the first wealthy person to turn a passion for wine drinking into wine producing without any prior knowledge, but her answer was much more profane than I expected. She told me she already knew the Falvo family personally and initially bought the first minor stake to 'help a friend', indicating that the estate was in financial need of some sort, but she also wanted to diversify her investment portfolio. When I remarked that one needs a large fortune to make a small one in wine, she replied that she at first saw it as a real estate investment opportunity only with the land and the buildings representing a certain value. Within less than a year, however, her share went up to 90%. The deal that came with this, was that one of the Falvo brothers would teach her the business of the trade, but when this plan didn't materialise soon enough, she managed to buy him out (the total sum of the acquisition remains undisclosed).

All of a sudden Saverys found herself in charge of a sizable estate without any prior knowledge. She admits that originally she didn't intend to get steeped in wine, but she quickly put her mind to it, deciding she had the time and the passion, 'and anyway, there was no longer a way out', she pragmatically added. This was spring 2009, and while the Falvo family was no longer in charge, the staff they had worked with for years stayed on. When I ask her what it was like she says it was a steep learning curve with mistakes, mostly by relying on the staff and their ways of working in the vineyard and cellar. But Saverys is not only passionate, she is also thorough. She started visiting estates both in France and Italy, and had the entire estate, including all work processes, completely audited.

Calling herself a curious person, she started to read widely about wine. It was thus that she came across biodynamics, and decided to go to Burgundy where she began following courses under Pierre Masson, who introduced her to the biodynamic preparations and the Maria Thun calendar, now a permanent fixture on her desk. It was Masson who suggested she should work with Zago to convert the estate's vineyards to biodymanics.

While talking to Saverys and Zago (pictured here, with more clay), I started to understand that the main issue with the fomer staff was the management of the vineyards and in particular the use of chemicals they had got so used to working with during the Falvo management. According to both Saverys and Zago, at Avignonesi staff were previously accustomed to work with a staggering amount of chemicals, some nine different chemical treatments including herbicides and insecticides, apparently applied to the vines and the vineyards according to a protocol, regardless of whether there was a need for them or not. The first decision Saverys took was to abandon all chemical products. She felt that some of the staff were unable or unwilling to follow her in this, and hence some of the workers had to go.

The cost of biodynamic viticulture must be high, thanks to the intense and mainly manual vineyard management, especially on Avignonesi's extensive vineyards, but Saverys maintains that it is in large part offset by no longer having to buy expensive chemical products. The direct consequence is that yields are bound to go down, at least in the first few years when soil and plants start to regenerate. Saverys added that biodynamics does not necessarily exclude mechanical ways of working, but the main concern is that heavy machinery will compress the soils. But while some of the work can be done mechanically, the alberello vineyards, due to their high density and their stake training, are a limiting factor, the high clay content of the soils another.

Biodynamics has already begun improving the soils, as Zago showed me in the vineyard. During my visit Zago took soil samples and showed me how compact the clay is. He also pointed out its blueish hue, a sign of reduction. It is very wet too. To improve this, herbs are planted between the rows. Zago pulled out a weed and showed that the clay around its roots is much less wet, more crumbly, less compact. Planting herbs improves soil aeration, structure and regulates water content, while stimulating the development of microorganisms working the soil. I asked him how many cow horns, the most famous of all biodynamic preparations, he will need for 110 ha. A great many, he said, smiling.

Zago has also pointed out that the Sangiovese planted ad alberello is causing viticultural and logistical issues that he and Saverys are still trying to find a solution for. Sangiovese is a naturally vigourous variety, even more so on clay, and the alberello training method with its low trunk system cannot easily accommodate the many branches the vine produces, which not only shades the fruit, but restricts ventilation and aeration causing increased humidity in the canopy, which in turn can lead to fungal infections. Neither does it allow for a large enough canopy surface to maximise photosynthesis, and hence fruit ripening, not to mention the intense manual work that bushvine training demands. Apparently, high density, even at 7,500 vines per ha, doesn't reduce vigour in proportion to the number of plants. They had to abandon the plan to pull every second albarello out, as this would have led to a density per ha below that of the official DOCG regulations. Now they are considering bringing in a trellis system, at high cost.

Saverys explained all this with an ease which almost matches that of Zago. She told me that she started following courses and lectures on viticulture at Bordeaux's ENITA, which she still does. It was ENITA she assigned to do the audit of Avignonesi's vineyards, and which unearthed a wealth of information on soil diversity, structure, and clonal selection. This, again, led to the mapping of all individual plots, something which had never been done before at Avignonesi, with each and every plot vinified separately from the 2009 vintage on, unlike in the past when such distinctions were never made.

What all this shows is that the previous owners of Avignonesi may have been undoubtedly focused on quality wine production, but despite the viticultural experiments, the focus was still very much on the cellar. Evidence of this, except for the styles of wines produced in the recent past, are the more than 1,600 barriques that the Avignonesi cellars contain. Although the actual fermentation is done in Cortona in an open-air battery-like collection of stainless-steel tanks (another thorn in Saverys side), there are also some smart Stockinger conic fermentation vats at Le Capezzine just waiting to be used for fermenting the finest plots. Until now they have been used only for ageing. At Avignonesi you get the impression that all the ingredients to create something exceptional are there, it just hasn't happened yet.

It is easy to see that from the beginning of the 1970s, with Falvo's innovative ideas, lower yields and investment in modern vinification techniques, the wines must have been perceived as enormously different from their old-fashioned peers, and easily received the recognition they so rightfully deserved. At the same time, the next page, that of in-depth terroir investigation, was never turned. Until now, that is.

Saverys is still acquainting herself with the estate's terroir, and biodynamic techniques have already helped to identify some superior plots in the vineyards which are so promising that she is considering single-vineyard bottlings in the future.

With the philosophical course of Avignonesi so radically changed, how will she deal with the fact that the wines are bound to go through a phase of variation, which undoubtedly will lead to stylistic change? Is she worried about losing customers? With an air of pragmatism she brushed this off, saying she will have to communicate intensely what it is she is trying to do at Avignonesi. At the same time she mentioned that she may well lose customers, but will win new ones in return. She has started to ferment with indigenous yeast only, and she expects this to have a huge impact on the wine and, potentially, the following. 'I owe it to my customers, to the land and to the people I work with, that at least they know they don't get any chemical stuff,' she told me.

She also indicated that there will be little change to the range. Avignonesi is a very strong brand, especially on the international market, and it seems only wise to keep the names, while going through changes. The entry level will remain the IGT red Rosso di Avignonesi, a blend of Sangiovese and mainly Merlot, a new IGT white (a blend of Sauvignon and Chardonnay), and a rosato from Pinot Noir which, as Saverys says, was previously 'dumped in the IGT Rosso', but she feels it is too good for that. And making a rosato for the sake of it, by using saignée, is something she says she is not interested in.

The first 'real', indigenous wine will be the Rosso di Montepulciano, which she plans to give less ageing to make it in a fresher style. Cortona will be the next level up, and she intends to keep the barrel-fermented Chardonnay Marzocco (with an annual production of around 8,000 bottles), as well as the apparently highly popular Desiderio Merlot (30,000 bottles), but the latter, again, will receive less oak ageing. 'Before, Desiderio was like a Swiss clock, it always got 18 months of oak, without fail, no exception.' Now she wants to vary time in barrel on the basis of the vintage and quality of the wine. Saverys wants to change and fine tune the barrel regime - not an easy task with the amount she inherited.

We briefly discuss Grifi, a wine created on the crest of the Supertuscan wave, an iconic blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon in equal parts. Its production was stopped by the previous owners, although she thinks it is a great wine. I sense she would like to have a go at it at some stage, but in the vineyards of Cortona, where the Cabernet is grown, there is no Sangiovese, and she is, at least for the moment, unwilling to resurrect Grifi by blending it with Montepulciano Sangiovese. I understand, it should be a proper DOC Cortona wine, while the actual top of the pyramid will all be Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, featuring Sangiovese and indigenous varieties only. She considers Sangiovese a difficult and fickle grape, but when she tasted the 2009 vintage, she started to realise the true potential of the variety. This did not deter her, however, from declassifying all the fruit to Rosso di Montepulciano, as she felt the vintage was not good enough to produce a good Vino Nobile. [This should be a wine worth seeking out - JR]

By the way, the previous consultant oenologist under Falvo management, Paolo Trappolini, was discarded too. Saverys is working now with the relatively unknown oenologist Giampaolo Chiettini, as she wanted a very good technician and felt the estate had no need for a big name. Chiettini, incidentally, makes a Sangiovese Shiraz (sic) in collaboration with the South Australian Primo Estate's Joe Grilli in Cortona. She told me Stéphane Derenoncourt visited Avignonesi, and she could have asked him to work for her, but good wine starts in the vineyard, she asserted, and there are already too many people making wines in the cellar.


To become IGT Bianco: 60% Chardonnay, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, fermented in stainless steel by indigenous and cultured yeast. Very fresh and yeasty and not too fruit driven. Salty notes. Medium length.

Sauvignon Blanc from sandy soil. Same salty impression again, with grapefruit and hints of passion fruit. A touch buttery. Restrained aromatics. Not very typical. With a spicy lemony finish.

To become Marzocco Chardonnay: hand-picked selection fermented in second-year barriques. Notes of yeast, dough, spicy apple and lemon rind. Soft vanilla touch, with lemony fruit flavour. Very good length pushed by zippy acidity.

Bushvine trained Merlot from the top of La Selva in Cortona. Soils consist mostly of clay, but with more chalk on the top. Could possibly become Desiderio or a component for 50/50 (the curious joint venture wine with Capanelle from Chianti Classico's Panzano, who brings Sangiovese to the blend). Yeasty and reductive at this stage. There is some good concentrated fruit underneath, with quite big tannins, but overall good structure.

Merlot from the La Selva vineyards in Cortona planted in 1974. A touch reductive, but quite concentrated, brooding and impressive on the nose. Only a hint of vanilla. Slight malolactic prickle and massive but ripe tannins. Very long, if initially reluctant.

Sangiovese acquired from a 40-year-old vineyard close to Poggetti on tufo soils. Fermented in stainless steel with indigenous yeast. Floral red fruit with hints of walnut skin. Bright red fruit, at this stage somewhat unsettled, with tannic spine and bright acidity. Aromatic finale with a tannic core.

Sangiovese from alberello-trained vines from I Poggetti. Fermented in stainless steel, and transferred to Stockinger 20-hl foudres. Quite reductive at first. Very fine and ongoing waves of tannins. Quite mute on the attack, but opens up slowly on the finish. Powerful, impressive.

Sangiovese blend of old vines trained on a high trellis system. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in 135-hl botte. Muted nose, but generous, sweet fruit attack and grainy tannin. Very long finish which grows on you. Precise, focused fruit. Very, very long.

Sangiovese planted in 1997 ad alberello at Le Cappezine. Fermented in stainless steel and only very recently put into third-year barriques. Red fruit and a touch of iron. Viscous mounthful at first, with ripe, sweet fruit shot through by acidity on the finish. Grainy tannins. Closes up. Less structure and depth than the Sangiovese trained on high trellis.

Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 2001 ad alberello in La Selva, Cortona. Reluctant dark fruit and hint of rhubarb. Sweet, rich and concentrated and quite tannic. Hint of fennel seed and liquorice. Very tannic finish.