Sorry once again for the lapse in posts. For reasons you'll discover in part 8, I haven't been able to have any real internet access until today. Fortunately for you guys, I'm back in the U.S of A where the internet flows freely from everywhere.
After our visit at Cerreto Libri, it was off to visit the lovely ladies over at Sanguineto for an overnight stay and a tour of the farm and cellar in the morning.
Dora Forsoni runs the farm alone with her life and business partner Patrizia Castiglioni. This is not an exaggeration; Dora takes care of 100% of the vine maintenance, meaning she works the soil, prunes and ties every vine of her 3.5 hectare estate by herself; the only time someone else ever steps foot in the vines is during harvest when a small team of friends helps out.
As you could imagine, Dora is one tough cookie.
For starters she is a renown hunter: the season just started and she's already nabbed four 70 kilo deer. In her own words:
"4 deer, 4 bullets. I shot each one straight in the heart! Only males, because they make the best trophies."
Please don't read into that as some kind of feminist thing: Dora showed us the heads (trophies), which she simply explained make better mantle pieces because of the antlers. Obviously she eats every last bit of each animal, and butchers them herself.
She's been working the family farm her entire life, and learned everything she knows about agriculture, viticulture and vinification from her father; her work in the vineyards therefore leans less on philosophy and more on tradition; a tradition that results in much purer, honest wine than 99% of her neighbors.
She can't weigh more than 110 pounds (and I'm being generous).
When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by Ali, the dog pictured above. His specialty is catching rabbits, and they can't let him loose on the farm, otherwise the free roaming chickens and geese would be in for it.
Dora let us in and told us she was glad we were here. In the kitchen she was roasting freshly picked chestnuts and preparing a wild board stew (from meat she'd hunted a few days earlier) with polenta.
I've always had a thing for wild boar because of the french comic strip Astérix, where the Gauls are constantly seen eating sanglier.
It was one of the best dishes I've ever had. Josefa had thirds.
Right after we got in, someone called Dora on her cellphone and she said she couldn't talk because she was with her importer Kevin. The person didn't seem to understand, because unlike France where Kevin (pronounced Keveen) and Steeve (pronounced Steeeeve) have become popular names in the last decade, a name like Kevin sounds unfamiliar to the Italian ear. Dora explained:
"Kevin! Kevin! Like Kevin Costner! Haven't you seen Balla coi Lupi?"
This caught on at dinner, and for the rest of the meal, Mr. McKenna was referred to as:
"Kevin Costner: Balla coi Lupi".
Besides the food and hilarious 90's movies references, Dora keyed us in on some interesting aspects of her work and that of her neighbors. First of all, I've never met a grower who so passionately expresses how much they love their wine.
With every bottle opened, Dora exclaimed how "fantasic" and "beautiful" and "delicious" it was without a shred of pomp or attitude. In the context of our meal, it was hard to disagree.
I really think my father was on to something when he wrote that a to truly understand a wine, you need to understand the person who made its personality.
Dora is as much part of her terroir as the indigenous grapes that grow from her sandy clay soils: she emanates a sense of place and local tradition, and you can taste her passion in each bottle.
A poignant example would be her choice to vinify and bottle a Toscana Bianco. At dinner, she explained that traditionally Nobile would be blended with up to 10% white grapes to lighten the color and alcohol. But she loves her grapes so much (both the whites and the reds), that she refuses to blend them so that they can better express themselves on their own. She pointed to her glass of white and said:
"This is MY Nobile!".
The final noteworthy comment was about this year's harvest. Most of Italy had a very hot 2011 harvest, and Montelpulciano was no exception. Dora had to start her harvest early in late August. By the time she was halfway done, her neighbors were just starting.
"I harvested at optimal maturity and my alcoholic potential this year got close to 15%! Either my neighbors will be blending their juice with a lot of water or they won't be making any wine this vintage."
Bets are in for what's most likely to happen...
In the morning, we checked out the vines.
Most of the vines on the estate were planted in 1963 by Dora's father.
"He taught me that you make good wine by working well in the vineyard. To work in harmony with the vines, to listen to them to take care of them. To make a good broth, you need a good chicken!"
The vines are all selection massale and franc de pied due to a technique that Dora learned from her father where she allows a shoot to come off from the base of the vine, which eventually caps off the old stump and lets the new shoot take over as the producing vine.
Her next door neighbors have just torn out their vines for the third time since Dora's were planted in order to make way for another generation of uber-productive clones pumped full of fertilizer.
The ground is worked twice a year, and Dora lumps soil around the bottom of of each vine during the winter (buttage) to better resist the cold. She undoes this (debuttage) in the spring.
After our tour of the vines it was cellar time.
As far as vinification goes: maceration on the skins and alcoholic and malolactic fermentation occur in large concrete tanks. You could hear the 2011's still fermenting. Dora exclaimed: "They are singing to me and to each other!". The song went something like this:
"Bloop. Bloop. Bloop Bloop. Bloop."
The wine is then then racked to large oak vats (30 hl) and aged for a minimum of two years, then bottled. Dora's father bottled his wine independently and his last vintage was in 1978 (Dora says they are still delicious to this day). For reasons unclear, Dora sold her grapes to the cooperative until 1997 when she bottled her first vintage herself.
The red wine is always a blend of Canaiolo, Prugnolo Gentile (a type of Sangiovese characterized by big, juicy berries) and Mammolo. The blend varies each year but is the same for each cuvée, which are bottled according to years aged in wood.
One exception is the I.G.T Rosso Toscano. This wine is made with a strain of 40 year old Sangiovese called Nero Toscano, sees 6 months on average for alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in concrete, and is then aged two years in oak.
We tasted a few 2010's, but more importantly the 09's which are about to be bottled. Though the fruit is young and the tannins are strong, there is already a great balance on the palate with pronounced minerality and sharp acidity. It's definitely drinkable now, but should start showing its' full potential in 5 years.
Much to Ali's regret, after our tasting we had to jet over to Massa Vecchia.
There is no highway to get there, and since the estate is in the mountains, one must navigate the most twisty-turny route any of us have ever experienced to accomplish this.
Because we were late, Alex and Kevin were driving like mad men, taking those turns like Formula 1 racers. Mind you that I hadn't eaten breakfast because, although it is customary to eat insanely large dinners at Sanguineto, apparently breakfast is out of the question. When I woke up nothing was set on the table and all Dora offered me was coffee.
The combination of an empty stomach, having just tasted a large amount of tannic and acidic red wines, twisty roads and Kevin's Michael Schumacher impersonation was too much. For the first time in my life, I got violently car sick. Luckily, Alex noticed something was wrong when I stuck my head out of the window and promptly pulled over. I rushed out in the nick of time and luckily, things didn't get messy.
Our Massa Veccia visit was to be a quick one and we were late. Kevin looked around and made some phone calls but Francesca was nowhere to be found. I took advantage of this to eat some white chocolate with macadamia nuts, the only thing I could find in the car.
Alas it was looking like we'd missed our chance and the most we were going to get out of the visit was my nausea and this picture Alex took of a donkey.
Kevin wrote a note on the two pack Dora had given us for Francesca and we hopped in the car. Alex turned on the engine and was about to pull out when we heard a van driving up the road. It was none other than Francesca Sfrondrini!
After letting us into the cellar, Francesca gave us the lowdown on 2011. It was a difficult vintage, and she joked that right around harvest they were worried that they would be stuck with "1000 kilos of Passito!". They started in late August, and a few days of rain, along with some much needed cool nights, saved the day. In the end it will be a great vintage for the whites and for Sangiovese in higher elevations (which they possess).
If necessary, a small pied de cuve is made in this concrete tank.
Everything is then fermented in open chestnut vats, with the exception of the Rosato which is made in stainless.
Francesca explained that they prefer working with big, neutral barrels.
The Querciola, made from 72 year old vines planted by Francesca's great-grandfather, is aged in the old, larger Rinaldi barrel you can see to my left.
Francesca also has some small cherry and chestnut barrels reserved for making their Sangiovese Vin Santo.
Side Note: Francesca has the coolest pony tail I've ever seen.
As of this year, a new law passed that the wine has to be pressed before Christmas to be given the Vin Santo title. Francesca explained, however, that for the Sangiovese style, traditionally one does not press until late January, which is what she did. When Kevin asked why this law was passed the answer was simple:
"It benefits big companies who mass produce Passito."
In such, they will be obliged to label the wine as Passito, which is technically false because unlike other straw wine, Vin Santo is made by hanging hand picked grapes to dry from rafters as opposed to laying them out to dry. Another distinction is that they are then fermented and aged in small cherry, chestnut or pear tree barrels and aged for much longer than the average Passito (up to ten years). Whenever she ends up bottling it, Francesca plans to explain on the back label that the wine was made traditionally but that the law forces them to label it incorrectly.
The visit was ending when I noticed a box that said: "Etichette McKenna."
Kevin wants you to know that, as official Verifier of Winery Import Label Management (V.W.I.L.M), everything at Massa Veccia is in order.
Tune in tomorrow (I promise! It's already written!) for our crazy adventures visiting Altura on the Isola del Giglio!