The Sportoletti Success Story

As wine lovers are aware, this has been a blisteringly hot summer in Europe, and now in mid-August, weeks early, the grape harvest has already begun. We’ve had no rainfall so the berries are smaller, with yields half the size as in a normal year. Coupled with our late frost in April, it’s been a terrible year for agriculture in general.

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So I’m staying inside and taking this opportunity to write about Sportoletti, a winery located between Assisi and Spello, that I’ve enjoyed visiting over the years. Early in the summer, before the heat descended, my friends Jed and Simone proposed a visit. Jed writes the blog Italywise, http://italywise.com/sportoletti-cantina-umbria-makes-amazing-wine/ and Sportoletti are his “house wines”. Rossana was busy working at La Palerna, so I invited my friend Addie to come along for a little holiday.

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Remo Sportoletti

Remo and Ernesto Sportoletti inherited the wine making tradition from their father, Vittorio. We met Remo and his nephew Fabio who took us through their pristine cantina, describing the equipment and processes. The brothers have three sons all of whom work in the family business.
Remo says he’s more of a talker than his brother and had a very early stint in radio. He recalled that in the old days making wine wasn’t too precise or hygienic, and his father kept rabbits in the barn along with the wine, though Vittorio did make the boys wash their feet before they stomped the grapes.

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But since 1979, when they produced their first thousand bottles with handwritten labels, the winery has become a sophisticated endeavor, winning accolades and prizes. Robert Parker called their 2011 Villa Fidelia Rosso “a wine of enormous depth and power”, and gave it a 92+ rating. Their output now ranges between 200,000 and 220,000 bottles each year, much of which is distributed abroad. Their organic olive oil, too, is superb.
Becoming such a success in one generation was a process of education, courage, and hard work. The brothers admired the wines of northern Italy but wanted their own wines to be special, to express the unique qualities of their own territory. They planted sangiovese, merlot and cabernets sauvignon and franc for their two reds, Villa Fidelia Rosso and Assisi Rosso, and grechetto and chardonnay for two white wines, Villa Fidelia Bianco and Assisi Grechetto. A fifth, a passito dessert wine, is made of 100 percent grechetto. Since 1998 they have consulted with the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella.

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Jed, at our tasting. Happy guy!

The vineyards, covering 26 hectares, are planted on steep, south facing hillsides with good drainage and cooling breezes. During the devastating frosts in the late spring, Sportoletti’s vines suffered less damage than in vineyards at lower altitudes where the cold settled.

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When we were there, the rosebushes at the end of each row of vines were in full bloom. We’d always heard that if the roses showed signs of disease, the grower was alerted to potential problems with the grapes. Nowadays, with modern monitoring equipment, roses are unnecessary but are still planted for their beauty.
The winery welcomes visitors, and will provide tastings, but if you can’t make it to Spello, Sportoletti wines are sold in Italy at supermarkets and in wine shops.

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Addie, in flower-filled Spello

After our visit, we drove up for lunch to Spello, which must be every tourist’s dream of the ideal, picture book Umbrian hill town, with its open air restaurants, medieval architecture and winding, narrow streets enlivened with riotous color from the residents’ potted flower gardens.
Another perfect day in Umbria with good friends.
Sportoletti Ernesto e Remo
Via Lombardia 1
06038 Spello (PG)
0742 651 461
http://www.sportoletti.com

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Beyond Umbria: April in Sicily

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Wisteria frames a view of the vineyard at COS winery

Last month Rossana and I travelled in two different directions: she went north to Verona for Vinitaly, and I was in the southeastern part of Sicily, enjoying early spring in the countryside, sampling Sicilian sweets, and with Sicily guide Renee Restivo, checking out two wineries I was curious about, both widely known for their fresh, elegant wines.

IMG_3156The Cerasuolo di Vittoria wine zone is Nero d’Avola country, yet another picturesque and fertile part of Sicily. 10 kilometers from the mountains and the Mediterranean, olive groves and vineyards are separated by low walls of unmortared limestone rock, collected by local farmers from their stony fields. Refreshing breezes from the sea make this an ideal place to grow grapes

I was interested in the first company, COS, because they’re making wine in an ancient way, in terra cotta amphorae, a trend that seems to be growing, and in the second, Azienda Agricola Arianna Occhipinti, because I’d heard that it was a biodynamic farm. The two wineries are located near each other and, it turns out, the owners are related.

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One of the founders of COS, architect Giuso Occhipinti, led us to a roomful of amphorae, buried nearly up to their necks in the ground. This is a way of making wine that he’d observed on a visit to Georgia in the former Soviet Union, where for centuries terra cotta vessels have been used for the fermentation, storage and transport of wine. Ten years ago, weary of working with barriques, of having to replace them after a few years and not fond of the oak flavors they imparted, he switched to amphorae. The porosity of terra cotta allows the wine to breathe and the amphorae don’t wear out; they just need to be thoroughly cleaned every year. (They smelled delicious!) Burying keeps them at a steady temperature.  

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Tasting COS wines and olive oil with the dynamic Giuso Occhipinti

Giuso likes to say that the amphorae give the wine a sense of freedom. Half his production is still made in the traditional way, but the wine he calls Pithos, amphora in Greek, designates what comes out of terra cotta.

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Just down the road is the winery of Giuso’s niece, Arianna Occhipinti. She also comes from a family of architects and like COS she has created a beautifully designed workplace.

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Collars on the new vines protect them from hungry rabbits

Her assistant, Damiano Buscema, showed us around and explained that her winemaking is not strictly biodynamic (followers of the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner) but like many Italian farmers she works her land in accordance with the phases of the moon. 

Arianna’s wines are organic, she uses no chemicals, plants green manure, tills and harvests by hand, and cherishes what she has been given:  the soil, the slopes, the climate, the other plants in the fields, all the elements which make up “the originality of the vineyard”. We walked across a lawn that turned out to be a roof over one of the buildings, a natural insulation.

Elizabeth with Arriana

With the young winemaker Arianna Occhipinti at the end of our tour

These owners are not only masterful and successful winemakers, they are also wonderfully poetic about what they are doing. Arianna writes eloquently about her farm and Giuso plays classical music in the cantina. Their wines are available in the United States and worth seeking out.

www.cosvittoria.it

S.P. 3 Acate-Chiaramonte, Km. 14,300

97019 Vittoria (RG), Sicily
tel. +39 (0) 932 876145

www.agricolaocchipinti.it

Azienda  Agricola Arianna Occhipinti

Contrada Bombolieri

S.P. 68, Vittoria-Pedalino, Km. 3.3

97019 Vittoria (RG), Sicilia

Tel. +39 (0) 932 1865519

Check out these articles for more about amphorae, as well as biodynamic wine making in Italy. (One producer is right here in Cortona.)

http://www.gwa.ge/upload/file/qvevri_eng_Q.pdf

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/ancient-winemaking-techniques-armenian-karas-renaissance-180962212/

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/travel/italy-wine-biodynamic-tuscany-sicily.html

Reinventing a life: Azienda Agricola Preggio

preggio-street-sceneelena-and-dogLast week Rossana and I got together for lunch and decided to start writing about local wine again. For her, 2016 was a year of travel and work, selling wine for La Palèrna—in Burgundy, Finland, England, Luxembourg, and up and down the Italian peninsula. I stayed close to home here in Umbria, converting my stable into living quarters, and now it’s done.

So a few days ago we were back on the road, this time it was the road through the Niccone valley, “my” valley, partly in Umbria, partly in Tuscany, where in the 24 years since I moved here, the agricultural landscape has changed quite a lot. To the west new fruit and olive orchards have been planted, a lavender farm is up on the hill behind my house, I buy vegetables and fruit from a stand down the road, and look out onto hillside vineyards where previously wheat and alfalfa were grown.

We were on our way to Preggio, the tiny, ancient hilltown which rises above the end of the valley along the route to Lake Trasimeno. Almost deserted in these winter months, in the summer Preggio draws music lovers to its high quality concerts and a yearly, locally produced opera held in the church garden. Later, in mid October, people arrive from all over Umbria to sample mosto, the new wine and roasted chestnuts at the popular chestnut festival. I first came to Preggio in 1990, to the delightful La Castagna restaurant, which offers traditional, local dishes like game, truffles and porcini mushrooms–forest fare–and spectacular views. It’s still the only eatery in the village.

We drove up the winding chestnut tree-lined street to the piazza, passed by the bar and church, then headed down the slope, taking the paved road for 500 meters before hitting a bumpy , unpaved strada bianca. After 2.5 km we arrived at the Azienda Agricola Preggio and were greeted by three friendly white dogs, honking geese, and the charming Elena Vezzoli, sommelier, wine maker and bee keeper.

Last fall I visited the farm with the guide Martin Daykin and photographed the vineyard, so on this rainy day Rossana and I relaxed in Elena’s cozy dining room, admired precious old photos of the family who lived there in the past, sampled Elena’s wines, nibbled on pecorino cheese and her excellent homemade bread, and talked about how she and her husband, Bruno Piarulli, had come to Preggio.

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Originally from Bergamo in the north of Italy, the couple were drawn to country living after selling a high tech business ten years ago. They travelled around, even visiting Australia, looking for a piece of land where they could have animals and try their hand at farming. Eventually they found this property (“love at first sight”), an old contadini farm at 500 meters elevation with south-facing slopes, a vineyard of mixed vines, a cantina, and most importantly, a natural spring which produces water of superior quality.

Elena became a sommelier, and hired an agronomist. On 2.5 hectares, about 6 acres, they planted Sangiovese, Grechetto di Todi, a few Trebbiano and Malvasia, and surprisingly, Incrocio Manzoni, named for the professor who developed it in the 1920s in Conegliano, and usually grown in the Veneto. Being from the north Elena and Bruno were familiar with this grape.elena-opening-wine-1

She produces 3,000 bottles of white wine and 6,000 bottles of red. Elena says she has had the best luck with her white grapes, as the faster maturing Grechetto vines are robust. 2014 was a hard year with fewer grapes due to the rain, but the ones that struggled through that year were of very good quality. I liked her 2014 white Deèlena and wound up buying several bottles. By contrast, the glorious weather of 2015 made for an easy year all over Italy. Turning to the subject of red wine, Rossana agreed that thin skinned, late harvested Sangiovese can be difficult. I think that Elena’s light red wine is would go nicely with pasta.  Her wine is biologico but as vinification takes place at another winery that is not, it can’t be labelled as such.

Another passion for Elena is bee keeping. It all started with the capture of a swarm on the property. Local people gave her advice early on, she then took courses, and now has 22 hives. She welcomes visitors who are curious to learn more.

She sells her honey and wine directly from the Azienda, but also from the bar and La Castagna restaurant in Preggio, at Bellona restaurant nearby, and in Perugia at the enotecas Gio and Storie Perugine.

Her wines average at around 10 euros per bottle. We recommend a visit if you are staying in the area; be sure to call in advance.

Preggio Azienda Agricola

Elena Vezzoli

www.preggio.it

elena@preggio.it

39 334 395 1747

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Morami winery on Lake Trasimeno

Morami 13On a wintry day in December we drove down to Panicarola, a village near Castiglion del Lago, on the south shore of Lago Trasimeno. It can be foggy and mysterious around the lake and that day was no exception, but we were greeted with warmth by Sabrina Morami, the dynamic and personable young entrepreneur whose winery bears her name.

 

Handshake in an Umbrian bar

Though her ancestors had moved away long ago, the zone has been known as “Morami” since the 1700s, and mention of the farm appears in documents dating as far back as the 1500s. In 1998 Sabrina’s Milanese father learned that Morami was for sale and, wishing to return to his family’s roots, he struck a deal, wrote out an agreement in a bar on a piece of newspaper, and followed it with a handshake. The family was in shock; they weren’t farmers, and suddenly there were farm buildings to repair and 120 hectares (297acres) of farmland to make productive.

Morami 12Young Sabrina’s degree was in political science but with the encouragement of her mother and father she changed gears and took on this new venture, first restoring eight apartments to create an agriturismo and modernizing the farm buildings. Next she renewed a thirty year old vineyard. Currently the farm produces vegetables, fruit, olive oil, walnut and cherry woods for furniture making, and on 11 hectares (27 acres), wine.

Developing the winery

At first Sabrina sold her grapes to the local cantina sociale but in 2007 she decided to make wine and created her first offering, Renaia 2007 (50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc), which was an immediate hit, recognized by the Danish wine magazine Vinulen.

Morami three bottles

In 2009 she added white Pratolungo (70% Grechetto and 30% Viognier) and red Podicerri (70% Sangiovese and 30% Alicante), and in 2011 the precious Cardissa of which she is especially proud. For the first three years she utilized another cantina but in 2010 she opted to vinify her own wine. In just fifteen days she built a state of the art wine making facility, then doubled its size in 2012. Her neighbors bring her their grapes too, and she produces ten other wines for them besides her own four. She is working on a fifth, a pure Sangiovese, that will reside two years in tonneaux and two years in the bottle. In fact, Sabrina declares that she participates in every phase of the process except the pruning of the vines.

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CardissaCardissa, Chardonnay for a celebration

Her golden Cardissa, 100 percent Chardonnay, was created for her fortieth birthday. Only 400 bottles were produced, and only magnums. After harvest the must is placed in tonneaux and the lees are stirred daily, then at six months it goes into stainless steel before bottling. To Sabrina the word Cardissa expresses femininity, character and elegance and is related to cardio, heart in Latin. There is also a heart shaped cockle shell called cardium cardissa that can be either yellow or red.

Her wines are designated IGT Umbria and are “biologico”, the vines treated only with copper and sulphur. She avoids organic certification, preferring to be free to intervene with curative measures if necessary. Production is still small, 12,000 bottles per year, which are mostly sold in Italy, Denmark, at the Morami farm, and in local enotecas like Umbertide’s Wine Club.

Morami, Vocabolo Morami, 06060 Panicarola (PG) / www.morami.it

 Stay tuned! Rossana will be reporting on two important winter wine events: the new releases of Vino Nobile previewed in Montepulciano last weekend, and the upcoming Benvenuto Brunello at Montalcino.

The Lost Vines of Montegabbione

Vicciuta forest

The Alto Orvietano

 

 

A discovery in the forest

 

As all wine lovers know, the ancient vineyards of Europe were devastated in the late 1800s by the phylloxera vitifoliae aphid which attacks the roots of grape plants. A huge sector of the economy of Europe was affected. The only solution was to graft plants on to American rootstock which had grown resistant to the pest, and replant.

Now, remarkably, ancient pre-phylloxera vines which escaped destruction have been found hidden in a forest near Orvieto, including six varieties that have never been identified before, true Umbrian natives.

We Wine Girls had to investigate!

Renato with vine by roadSo in September we drove south to the hills above Orvieto where we met up with Renato Montagnolo, the former mayor of Montegabbione. We wanted to see the centuries-old vines which have given impetus to a reclamation project begun in 2012, “Terra della Vicciuta”, Land of the Vicciuta, the climbing vines. If all goes well, the fruit of these precious plants could give a boost to the local economy of the Alto Orvietano.

What is La Vicciuta?

Vic list (1)Renato explained that “vicciuta” is the term chosen for vines which farmers in the past abandoned at the edge of their property, often near a ditch, perhaps because they were no longer productive. These vines were not pruned or treated to produce grapes for wine, and so they grew as Mother Nature intended: climbing everywhere, creating lots of leaves and little fruit, returning to their wild state, “marrying” with nearby trees. However, they continued to live in a marginal way as part of the economy of the property. Some produced white grapes, some black. In the last century landowners still gathered them to make a sweet, alcoholic wine. Renato told us that old people who had the opportunity to taste this wine said that it was very good.

How old ARE these vines?

Vic group on the pathRenato, still a dynamo in retirement, explained that for some time it was known that very old grape vines existed in the forest outside of Montegabbione, on the slopes of Monte Arale. He had seen them when he hunted in the forest. The collection of testimonies by hunters and truffle hunters was the first step in locating them, and just the beginning of a fascinating scientific project which we learned about as the day progressed.

Piling into a four wheel drive, we began our ascent of the mountain, eventually turning onto a rough track leading into dense growth. At a certain point we disembarked and continued the rest of the way on foot, clambering over boulders and streams. Renato, in the lead, hacked through the underbrush with his sharp falce sickle and before long we were there.

Noting the huge size of the trunks and how high the branches have climbed, Renato observed that the vines must date from the latter part of the 1800s. We wondered how it’s possible to find an ungrafted grapevine, more than 100 years old, living in the middle of a forest? He explained that seeds may have been disseminated by birds, deer or boar, or possibly an isolated farm once existed here, eventually abandoned by impoverished share croppers. Nevertheless, to be out of range of the dreaded aphid, for once Umbria’s isolation was a benefit!

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Taming the wild grapevines

Along with his friend Luciano Giacché, professor of food anthropology at the University of Perugia and a lover and promoter of the Alto Orvietano, Renato began a project which encompasses the five communes and two provinces where the vicciute were found: Città della Pieve, Piegaro, Montegabbione, Ficulle, Parrano, Fabbro, Monteleone di Orvieto and San Venanzo. Now four years later, two experimental vineyards are being established to save these old varieties and discover if they will produce good wine.

But before planting, endless research was required. Genetic testing on 40 examples involved scientists in Arezzo and Conegliano and their findings were a surprise. Along with local varieties Drupeggio, Trebbiano Perugino, Nocera, Sangiovese, Trebbiano Toscano, Morellino del Valdarno, Verdicchio, Famoso delle Marche, and Montonico Bianco, they found a Cabernet Sauvignon! How did that end up here? Even more astonishing was the discovery of six unknown, never before catalogued varieties. These were named for the places where they were collected; for example Montarale testa 1 because it was found on Monte Arale.

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The count’s vineyard

Leaving the forest Renato took us to meet Conte Lorenzo Misciatelli who is, along with nine other wine makers, a participant in the project. The count has rooted 1,300 cuttings, 50 plants of each variety and the minimum needed for microvinification, in a field below his imposing Castello di Montegiove, where he produces wine under that name. count (1)(Near Città della Pieve, the second vicciuta vineyard will be created in 2017 by Paolo Bolla of Podere Fontesecca.) The little plants are growing slowly. In 2018 the first vinification will probably take place, and the wine assessed as to its potential.

experimental vineyardIt is a fascinating experiment and the whole of this territory bordering Tuscany and Umbria may benefit, a tribute to Renato, Professor Ghiacchè, his fellow scientists, and the seriousness of today’s Umbrian wine makers.

We can’t wait to try it!

We dedicate this blog to the memory of our beloved friend, Ann Burbank Nelson.

 

 

 

Francesco Bianchini in the Upper Tiber Valley

Becoming a wine maker

A Cantina Bianchini, Francesco with wine press 1

Francesco and his wine press

When Francesco Bianchini’s father Alvaro died, his uncle Ulisse continued to make wine for the family on 1300 square meters of terrain near their country home in Cerbara, north of Città di Castello. As a boy Francesco wasn’t interested in wine making. Forty years ago local people didn’t have access to the information available now. There were no books on wine making, hygiene was problematic, copper and sulphur might be applied at the wrong times, and analysis wasn’t possible as it is today. Most farmers aimed for quantity over quality.

At a certain point a decision had to be made: sell the property or get serious about improving the wine. After some soul searching Francesco made the commitment and began his wine education. He became a sommelier, traveling and tasting to learn about “quality” in wine. He read and re-read books in the local library by Professor Alvaro Cartechini, and followed courses in agronomy and enology at the University of Perugia.

Starting over, and the dream of sparkling wine

A Franceso checking out the new white

Then in 2010-2011 Francisco made big changes in his life: he got married, left his day job at a local printing company, renovated the cantina, rented more land and planted anew, and changed musical instruments from trumpet to trombone, even becoming the president of the local band.

The cantina is his laboratory, and Francesco approaches wine making as a science. The rules for other areas of Umbria don’t apply here. The Upper Tiber Valley is a zone of temperature extremes between night and day, and clayey soil.  After a course with Professor Christophe Guerlain of Reims he determined that these are the right conditions for a type of Chardonnay grape grown specifically for sparkling wine.  From two hectares (about 5 acres), he plans to produce 10,000 bottles this year.

Vendemmia with friends

AThe vendemmia squadron

Harvesting the Sangiovese

Meanwhile, he makes other highly regarded reds, whites and rose, all IGT Umbria. His production tends to vary each year depending on his inclination. He has planted Merlot and Shiraz, taking advantage of the soil’s acidity, which speeds up grape maturation to produce a structured, more perfumed red wine, and is important for spumante. His friends, including a dentist and a lute player, participate in September’s vendemmia, harvesting in the early morning at one of his vineyards above the valley, and they frequently drop by the cantina to see how his various wines are coming along. His production is small and his wines are so esteemed locally that he tends to run out.

The big farm families of the old days, where there might be ten or more offspring in a household, are a thing of the past. Many Italians born at the end of World War II are now at retirement age, with just one or two children whom they’ve sent to university to be trained for a “better life”.  However, the dearth of jobs in Italy for these young people, has led many to move to countries where prospects are more promising. So it’s a pleasure to meet Francesco who is bringing creative thinking, energy and smarts to an occupation that’s as old as the hills.

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Francesco Bianchini
Soc. Agricola Fratelli Bianchini
s.s. Via Biturgense 17/bis
06012 Cerbara di Città di Castello (PG)

Cell: +39 3336740521

Email: info@agricolabianchini.it

Is 2015 a “Good Wine Year”?

Wine is made in the vineyard. . .

. . .is the phrase we always hear from winemakers.

It all happens there!

Impossible to predict

La Palerna agronomist

Agronomist Lauretta Bernini checks Merlot grapes at La Palèrna before harvest

Every cantina, even if located in a specific zone with others, has distinctive qualities: soil, position, microclimate, altitude, variety of grapes, age of the vines, and the philosophy of the owner. All these elements are like keys on a piano, which every producer can play in his or her different and unique way, adjusting to climatic developments.

A hot summer

To find a thread, and attempt to understand the “leitmotive” that connects Umbrian wineries in 2015, we look to the weather.

If 2014 was characterized by strong rains and a short summer growing season (two weeks at the end of July and the beginning of August humidity created difficult maturation and susceptibility to mold on the berries), 2015 on the contrary was a summer which went by the rulebook, with hits of heat in high summer at the end of June and early July, and concentrated, short bouts of precipitation.

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View of La Palèrna’s vineyard, above the Upper Tiber Valley

The winter had been mild, the spring fresh and rainy, and the first warmth of May and June brought about strong growth in the vines, anticipating the germination of the grapes. In July’s heat, responding to the lack of water, the vines slowed their growth, conserving precious sap. In general, younger vines suffered from the heat more than older plants which, with their strong roots, can search deep for water.

Controlling temperature in the vineyard

La Palerna boots

End of the day

Depending on the zone, type of grape and so forth, growers can lower temperatures in the vineyard, for example by planting a grass cover crop between the rows, or by defoliation, begun at the beginning of September (always depending on the zone). Removing excessive foliage allows the passage of air through the vine and helps to lower temperatures so that the plant suffers less. Defoliation is performed in such a way that important leaves are left on the plant to aid the maturation of the grapes and protect them from the rays of the sun. It’s this last maneuver which prevents the infamous “cooked wine” which can happen in hot years. And it’s here that the hand of man can intervene in a knowledgeable way to assist the plant in achieving a product of excellence.

September: the home stretch

The rain that arrived at the end of August along with an accompanying lowering of temperatures put the vines back on track and the bunches matured rapidly, permitting an earlier harvest by a couple of weeks than in 2014 and preceding years.

In September, we experienced a dramatic temperature contrast between day and night, more than 10 degrees C (50 degrees F), depending on the zone. (During those weeks we couldn’t decide how to dress because it was cold in the mornings, then later in the day there was an explosion of heat!)  This last factor favored not only the maturation of the grapes but above all the development of terpenes, the molecules responsible for the perfumes in wine.

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Working with nature

Man, with his culture, his technical knowledge, his experience and philosophy, contributes to the birth of healthy, mature grapes which he carries to his cantina at harvest time, ready for vinification and the production of quality wine.

So, back to our question, is this a good wine year? As there were both quantity and quality in the vineyard, 2015 will be remembered as an excellent year for wine.