To read Part I of Gemma’s post, please click here.
One of the most memorable tastings I had at VinItaly was with Valli Unite, a cooperative I visited in 2006, located in the hills outside of Tortona (essentially in the DOC Gavi growing area). Dreadlocked Alessandro, who now greets me on a first name basis, excitedly mentioned that in 2009 he made all of his wines without added sulfur. He recalled all of the questions and concerns that I have had over the years about sulfur usage. After some successful initial trials with Barbera and Dolcetto, he is confident enough to move forward with a more natural, minimalist approach in the cellar. This courage impressed me a great deal as did his desire to express as much terroir as possible in his wines. One of the questions that I like to ask growers is with regard to the future of their wines and their farming practices. Some producers express an ambition to sell more wine, expand into additional markets and find new exporters. Others talk about trying natural yeast fermentations, yield-reducing practices and no-sulfur cuvées. The latter type of grower is the one with whom I definitely want to establish a relationship. One can ascertain very quickly and easily who is thinking, trying, experimenting and who is merely responding to the market.
At Vin Natur, I had the opportunity to taste outdoors with an organic grower from the Mt. Etna region of Sicily, Frank Cornellisson. Frank was recently in Boston and stopped into Formaggio Kitchen on his way to do a tasting, inviting us to taste his most recent vintage and olive oil. Tasting outdoors is a tremendous experience: the cool, open air seems to lift the aromatic esters, giving them more emphasis and clarity. Frank’s latest Contadino, a field blend of indigenous red and white grapes, drinks like a Pinot Noir in its delicacy and personality. His Munjebel white is coming soon to our shelves – it is long, elegant and contains no added sulfur. It gracefully combines complex fruit flavors with an umami/savory quality. I can’t wait!
As the days passed, I realized that I was struggling with the sameness of a great deal of the wine that I was tasting and had tasted prior to this trip. The reality is that there are a number of factors that give a wine its character: varietal, training, exposition, drainage, soils, canopy management, vine density, vine age, organics, biodynamics, weather, yields, fermentation style, skin contact, élevage and aging technique to name a few. It takes thoughtful, knowledgeable growers and winemakers to navigate all of the factors involved. Furthermore, some farmers are working harder than others, which, ironically, in some cases, might mean actually doing less. It seems as though it takes the right mix of intuition, courage, and providence to make a really great wine…and, when you come across one, it can really shake you up, making you reevaluate long-held beliefs. On this trip, I found that by accepting that I will always be a student of wine, that there will always be more to learn, I became more excited to taste, re-taste and ask questions. The days I spent tasting at VinItaly, Vin Natur, and Vini Veri reminded me how crucial it is to spend time with a producer to gain an understanding of their work. Each conversation with a grower reveals a little more, nourishing us in a way that allows us to find language for our customers and colleagues, to translate what wines are saying about their place of origin and the process that brought them from vine to bottle.
Gemma Iannoni is the wine buyer and a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.