Cristiano Guttarolo is a pure joy. The guy is humble, enthusiastic, generous, respectful of his land and others, always up for a good laugh and most importantly, constantly questioning his work in order to improve. Not to mention his wines are ON POINT.
Most of Cristiano's vines surround his house and cantina. We began by checking out some young Primitivo planted in 2005.
The vines around the house are all trained in Guyot. The soils consist of clay and limestone. Currently, Cristiano works 6.5 hectares of land, with the possibility of planting 13.
The white flowers you can spot in every picture grow wild, and are closely related to chicory. Cristiano only does one light tilling in the summer, which is why the vineyards were so dense in greenery.
Cristiano has been doing biodynamic treatments for the last two years, and is extremely satisfied with the results. Though it is still very early, he already feels a new, inspiring energy he'd never noticed prior to the conversation. And while fully convinced, he has no plans of asking for certification. None of the vineyards have irrigation systems. Cristiano only did one copper and sulfur treatment in 2013, and none in 2012!!!
Continuing our walk through the vines, the sun started hitting the landscape in a way that, in alignment with the white flowers and lush greenery, struck Eben and I as the perfect photo-op for the cover of a cheesy rock album.
Here is the cover of my debut album, Reaching for the Sky.
Alternate titles: A New Beginning or Shine Your Light.
A little further, Cristiano showed us a small plot of Negroamaro.
You can't see those little guys amongst the flowers, but trust me, they're there.
These were re-grafted 3 years ago on Primitivo rootstock. Many haven't matured correctly because it has been too cool. Not too far off, he's also planted some Chardonnay, mostly as an experiment to see how they will behave in his terroirs.
"Limestone grabs macro-elements from the soil, which takes the vines longer to properly express the terroir. But when it does, it's splendid. This is why so many vines and great wines of the world come from limestone soils."
Has also recently planted some very young Sussumaniello, as well as 1 ha of a white grape I didn't catch the name of.
The last part of the the vineyard that we visited was an experiment on Cristiano's part, intentionally re-training some Primitivo vines to Albarello.
He doesn't mind the results, but prefers the superior yield controls of Guyot.
As we were chatting, our little friend Lady Bug decided to say hi.
By the time we were done walking through the vines, the sun was setting.
More importantly the picture above will serve as the back-cover to Reaching for the Sky.
Before we knew it, it was cellar time!
Most of Cristiano's vinifications are in stainless steel.
Here's the top-of-bottle waxing station in all its exciting glory.
And of course, here are the beautiful amphoras that produce the unique and extremely limited wines that instantly sell out as soon as we get them.
Interestingly, Cristiano does 3 passes on average each harvest, and has no idea what wines he will make until the last minute.
"I need to bring in the the new material (grapes) first to decide what I want to do with it."
His reasoning is that having a set game plan every year would standardize the process and be pointless.
We got to taste 2013 Primitivo Rose, 13 Susumaniello, 13 Primitivo, Lamie della Vina 12, and Antello Antelo delle Murge 10 from barrel. Everything was ON POINT: Cristiano's wines have this transcendent quality, where you forget you're drinking wine from Puglia or Italy. They are infinitely complex yet incredibly drinkable, and I'll let Cristiano have the final word on what really matters:
"Es fondamentale que GLOU GLOU GLOU!"
"By 1976 I had already stopped using herbicides, and this was the first step towards organic production. It was a simple observation on my part: "Why can't we live with the herbs?" It just felt completely normal to respect this, and after 3 or 4 years, I started to notice more and more humus in the vineyards, which encouraged me to not use fertilizers."
The legendary Clemens Busch drops all types of knowledge in his interview.
GO READ IT!!!!!!
Having never been to Puglia, I'd always visualized the landscapes to be dry and barren, like Mad Max minus the evil guys with dyed red mohawks shooting at you with bows from a motorcycle. And though our Perrini visit kind of fed into my dystopian post-punk fantasy, our stop at Natalino Del Prete's estate threw me off completely. The last thing I was expecting was lush, green scenery, and Natalino's vines are amongst some of the most beautiful I've had the pleasure of experiencing.
Just kidding. Those vines Natalino's neighbor who bombards them with herbicide year round. Directly across the street though, you get this:
Ok, you get the idea...
This first vineyard we visited consists of 2 hectares of Primitivo planted in massale 30 years ago by Natalino, as well as some 50+ Negroamaro.
Factoid: did you know Primitivo has very thin skins?
"When you don't use chemicals, it keeps the grapes tender."
Natalino was planning to start pruning a few weeks after our visit, followed by an annual plowing. The vines are trained in "half-gobelet", which makes for low yields. The soils are clay.
Before checking out more vines, we did a quick stop to a field of Natalino's olive trees.
A short drive then landed us in the Torre Nova vineyard.
Seriously, TOO BEAUTIFUL!
This 3 ha lieu-dit produces a bottling under the same name, and is planted in Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera. The soils consist of clay with rocky pebbles. Next to the older vines, Natalino recently replanted some Malvasia Nera in massale.
"Without fertilizing the soil, they will grow very slowly."
The end-game is for the vines to dig their roots deeper into the ground to feed themselves from the minerals of the subsoil, in turn leading to a greater concentration and minerality in the grapes. Not fertilizing means waiting a minimum of 3 vintages before these young vines start producing, but for Natalino it's totally worth the wait.
We ended our visit in the cellar to taste the 2013's.
The cellar used to belong to one of the area's biggest négociants, and it's huge. Natalino's total production takes up about a 20th of the space.
"All the big négociants around me keep claiming: "We have the best wine!". And then they close."
Besides those beautiful old-school concrete tanks, a lot of wine ferments and ages in these underground vats.
Natalino has so much room in his cellar that he bottles to order. So the later on in the vintage you're drinking the wine, the longer it has aged in concrete
The 2013's are stunning, and I know it sounds schnooky saying this, but this will be a blockbuster vintage for Puglia. I particularly liked the Torre Nova, a co-ferment of the the Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera mentioned above.
After tasting in the cellar, we went upstairs to have a banging lunch prepared by Natalino's wife Anne. It was a good chance to re-taste the 2012's, but my favorite part of the meal was having thirds of the best Eggplant Parmigiana ever. I didn't realize, but the red-sauce cooking that has become a staple of Italian-American cuisine mainly originates from the south of Italy. While I stuffed my face with more eggplant, Anne inadvertently answered something I'd always wondered about but had never actually looked up: why is is called "Parmigiana" when the cheese used is mozzarella?
Well, as it turns out, Eggplant Parmigiana originates from Emilia-Romagna, where parmesan is from. And since everyone loves melted cheese on things, the dish was adopted by other regions, who then adapted it to their local production. Since Puglia is the home of mozzarella, this became the go-to cheese to use, and this is the version that made it stateside.
Louis/Dressner Blog: You don't only learn things about wine, but also the origins of delicious dishes™
At the end of the meal, Anne busted out these Moscato grapes infused in really, really strong booze.
I had one and was semi-wasted for a few hours. Thankfully, it wasn't my turn to drive.
At this point, most people associate the Cuvée Buster - a wine named after Joe and Denyse's late dog and official Louis/Dressner mascot - with Thomas-Labaille's best barrels of Sancerre from the ultra-steep Monts Damnés vineyard. But the origins of the Cuvée Buster date back to 1998, and perhaps a history lesson is in order.
During a summer visit to Sancerre, Jean-Paul Labaille tasted Joe, Denyse and Kevin on a single barrel of 1997 (a legendary year throughout the Loire Valley). Up until that time, there were no burgundian barrels at the estate; everything was made in stainless steel, enamel-lined tanks or large, very old foudres. Jean-Paul wanted to bottle it as its own cuvée, and everyone agreed. However, when the time came to name the wine, names like "Cuvée Prestige" or "Vin Par Excellence", accompanied by the obligatory imagery of gold crowns, or bottlings named after the winemakers children, grandparent, mentor, horse, etc..., seemed not only lacking, but also completely meaningless in the ocean of wines claiming the exact same thing. Keeping true to Louis/Dressner's contrarian spirit, Joe - who had long been disdainful of the wine industry's pomp and tendency to take itself way too seriously - Denyse and Kevin decided to find the most flippant, irreverent name possible for this truly exceptional bottling. The Cuvée Buster was born.
The rules of the Cuvée Buster are as follows:
1. The wine must begin with a daring, innovative or introspective fluke of the winemaker with regards to his/her terroir or the special character of a particular vintage.
2. There are not more than 50 cases.
3. The wine must be enjoyable to drink on release.
As a way to keep this inside-joke going, Jean-Paul Labaille has continued adding the Buster neck label to his Monts Damnés each vintage, but the original idea was to display a one-off, unique bottle of wine. The Cuvée Buster record is as follows:
1. Thomas-Labaillle Sancerre Monts Damnés 1997 (continued every year since then, and using that same barrel)
2. Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon 1998 (this would go on to be the Nº5 version, which started being made in too large a quantity to continue the CB designation)
3. Filliatreau Saumur-Champigny Clos Candi 1997 (normally blended with the other vineyards)
4. Domaine de la Pépière Old Vines 1997 (from the old vines in the Pépière parcel now used in Clisson wine. It had been vinified separately because some bunches had been affected by an ultra rare phenomenon: noble rot on Melon de Bourgogne. Marc Ollivier, who had earlier sworn never to adorn one of his bottlings with the picture of the "ugliest dog in the universe", ate his words to celebrate this most unorthodox of Muscadets, and it was released it in 2001)
5. Franck Peillot Altesse de Montagnieu 1999 (a single barrel vinification that merited a special bottling)
6. Mas des Chimères Grenache Vin de Pays 2000 (a particular vinification we tasted in the cellar and asked Guilhem to bottle for us)
7. Laurent Barth Pinot d''Alsace 2006 (Pinot Noir pressed as blanc because the vintage did not merit vinification as a red wine)
8. Somewhere in all this, there was another special bottling - Château d'Oupia Minervois "Hommage à Poupette" 2004: an all-Grenache wine we tasted in André's cellar. The family dog, Poupette, a miniature poodle that was none-too-fond of Buster, had recently died and we therefore thought it proper to give props.
Today, we continue this tradition by announcing the 9th Cuvée Buster, the first in 8 years and even more exciting, the first from Italy! Introducing the 2000 La Stoppa Cuvée Buster!
The story of this Buster goes like this: when La Stoppa proprietor Gian-Carlo Ageno was faced with the post-devastation of phylloxera in the 1920's, he used this opportunity to replant many of Europe's noble grapes in his vineyards. Alongside the indigenous Bonarda and Barbera varieties, he began planting, amongst many others, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Tokay, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Sauvignon. The goal was, perhaps naively, to produce world class wines with world class grapes.
Fast forward 60 years later, with a young Giulio Armani hired as head vignaiolo of La Stoppa. For over fifteen years, he tried his best to produce wines up to par with Burgundy, Bordeaux and Alsace. But after years of trial and (mostly) error, Giulio realized that many of these early ripening varieties were simply too fragile to grow in the very warm climates of Emilia-Romagna. In such, the decision to rip a large percentage of these vines was made with new owner Elena Pantaleoni.
By 1996, Elena and Giulio had both agreed to replant the estate in the more suited and indigenous Bonarda and Barbera. Still, Giulio needed to conduct one more experiment for peace of mind. This involved sourcing out three grape varieties that were ideally suited for La Stoppa's terroir, to see if it was in fact possible to make a world class wine from another region's grapes. After much diligent research, he decided to plant a small amount of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre to see what would happen. The result is the 2000 Cuvée Buster.
"But wait!" screams a probably non-existent La Stoppa nerd who knows everything about the estate, "Didn't they end up going through with the plan and replanting everything in Bonarda and Barbera, along with a little bit of Malvasia di Candia?"
They did, and that's what makes this wine so special: it's the very reason Giulio went through with the decision in the first place! Yes, this 2000 "GSM" blend is great; in fact, Giulio was shocked at how much he liked the wine's balance, purity of fruit and elegance. But what surprised him the most was that the wine tasted like a place: it tasted like La Stoppa. And by confirming his suspicions that great wine comes from terroir and not grapes, the estate began its final conversion in the direction we all know and love.
When we first tasted it last fall, Giulio poured it to us more as an afterthought than anything else; the wine was un-labelled, and had been sitting in the cellar for over a decade. Kevin's Buster-Radar (trademark pending) instantly started beeping, and after a few back and forths with Elena and a bit of tug-of-war with Giulio (who considers this "his" wine), we were able to secure some.
This story, like so many others, is what consistently inspires us to do what we do. Our growers are a truly curious bunch, and their undying dedication to making the best wine possible - in this case putting over a decade's hard work into question - validates everything we believe in as importers.
VIVA LE BUSTER!