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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Category Archives: Italy

Cantina Giardino Gaia

Italy (Campania)


The roots of their winemaking go back to 1997, when Daniela De Gruttola and winemaker Antonio di Gruttola were touring the Ariano Irpino region of Campania in southern Italy. They discovered several farmers with patches of old vines untouched by modern treatments. Old vines, Antonio contends, are better able to defend themselves against disease and climate change. They have stronger immune systems than seedlings cloned in laboratories. “Their diversity is their strength for survival; no disease will kill them.”

Spurred on by the possibilities for winemaking at its most natural, Daniela and Antonio, with four friends and relatives joined forces to vinify about two thousand bottles for their own use, all in the garage of Pasquale Giardino, the senior partner of the group. By 2003 Cantina Giardino was born, the commercial enterprise began, and today production is up to about 24,000 bottles annually, with 90% of it exported. It is made up of ten different bottlings, both red and white, each enhanced with a label designed by one of their artist friends. At this scale there is not a great deal of profit to be made. So why do it? The answer — “Because  it makes us feel better.”

They view their approach to winemaking as fundamentally a “philosophical-cultural” concern. It embraces respect for the environment and the consumer, emphasizing “originality, craftmanship, and authenticity.” Central to that approach is the restoration of varietals indigenous to the region, including Aglianico Irpinia, Fiano, Greek, and Coda di Volpe.

Our bottle of Gaia is all fiano, from vines 40-70 years old. The various organic growers from which they purchase grapes work their vines only by hand. Once harvested in mid-October, the grapes undergo a rigorous selection process. A four-day cold maceration on the skins is followed by manual pressing with a wooden press. Fermentation on the lees extends to three months, in barriques of chestnut and acacia, and then in oak barrels of 600-litre capacity. Only indigenous yeast. A year-long aging on the lees. Bottling with no fining or filtration. Minimum addition of sulphites, and in some years, none at all.

Recently the group has purchased two hectares of their own vines. There is increased use of 200-litre terra cotta amphorae (manufactured locally) for the vinification. This has led to a new enthusiasm. The heart grows fonder. 

Cantina Giardino Gaia 2009

The natural qualities of the wine are immediate, in the golden haze in the glass, and the exciting, uncommon aromas. Rich and earthy, a complex menage of brackish smoke and spice. In the mouth it is no less lively, with a cut of tannic sourness that makes for an authentic, unstripped, thoroughly memorable encounter.  $$

[Thanks, Elena, for the wine photos, and the food!]


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Abbazia di Novacella Kerner

Italy (Alto Adige)


This is Abbazia di Novacella, a flourishing Augustinian monastery located just south of the Alps, in the Alto Adige wine region of Italy. It houses an exceptional winery, one of the most northerly in the country. Here wine-making dates back 850 years. The cool climate, high elevation, and mineral-rich soils allow the working order of monks to produce classic whites of crisp acidity.

(My bottle of 2010 Kerner is itself looking rather crisp against a cool, pristine waterfall in the remote northern coast of Labrador.)

Kerner is among the abbey’s several white varietals, a cross between the red grape trollinger and the white riesling, more widely known in Germany and first bred there in 1929. (It was named named for Justinus Kerner, a poet whose writing often turned to the intriguing subject of wine.) The aromatic grape found its way into Italy about 40 years ago, ideally suited to the terroir of Alto Adige.

The kerner of Abbazia di Novacella grows at about 700m above sea level, in a mix of gravel and sandy-clay glacial moraine. Following an extended ripening season, harvest takes place in October. Fermentation is in stainless steel tanks, at a controlled temperature of 20 degrees C, using only natural yeasts. The wine is matured for six months, also in stainless steel. Kerner makes up 80,000 of the half-million bottles produced annually by this non-certified, but organic estate.

Despite its long history, winemaking here is a state-of-the-art operation. Modern in outlook, yet steeped in tradition, the abbey’s wine production is consistently world class. In 2009 oenologist  Celestino Lucin was named “Winemaker of the Year” by Vini d’Italia, the country’s most prestigious wine publication. The world-wide sale of wine (and to a more modest extent, the local sale of farm produce), the tourist trade, together with a small school specializing in the study of viticulture, all combine to make Abbazia di Novacella entirely self-sufficent.

If there is any one thing that rivals the richness of the wines, it is the richness of the abbey’s interiors, its art and antiquities. Among the 20,000 volumes in the stunning library are two copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Visitors come to tour the abbey and its grounds and stay to enjoy the wines, likely leaving with several bottles to rekindle memories of this special place.

Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2010

Light straw in colour with a tinge of green, and with pronounced aromas that include apple and citrus. Solid, medium body. A lovely, ample mouthful, with a rich acidic zing. Very nicely crafted, full flavoured. Lingers in the mouth and indeed in the memory. So very good for this price.  $

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La Stoppa Ageno

Italy (Emilia-Romagna)

malvasia di candia aromatica (60%), ortrugo & trebbiano (40%)

No doubt about it, it’s an orange wine. Not to everyone’s liking for sure, but I find something exhilarating about it, something that redefines the notion of wine, so far from the mass-produced, over-refined wine that stock the shelves of most wine shops as to get the wine senses pumping.

La Stoppa Ageno 2007

An orange and cloudy brew, yeasty apple, non-sulphured apricot. Nothing tame in these aromas. Medium-body, with the fullness of a red, but openly atypical of anything normally encountered in a wine glass. Strong acidity, with tannic weight. Juicy, honeyed, floral bitters. Textured. Will leave no drinker without a strong opinion!  $$

It’s orange in colour because maceration on the white wine skins has gone on for 30 days, unlike white wines which would stop the exposure to the skins early to enhance the fruitiness of the wine (and in the process retain its mild colour). At La Stoppa this is done in large temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, where fermentation takes place (using only indigenous yeasts and without the addition of sulphur dioxide). Aging also begins here, then continues in used French oak barriques, followed by two years in the bottle. No filtration. Total production: 13,000 bottles, and so not many make it across the ocean.

La Stoppa, an ancient estate located along the slopes of the Val Trebbiola, near the River Trebbia in north-central Italy, is the terroir of Elena Pantaleoni, whose family purchased it in 1973. The previous owner (Ageno, after whom this wine is named) had planted mainly French red varietals. The Pantaleoni family invested heavily in the property, renovating the cellar and restructuring the vineyards, with an additional focus on indigenous grapes. Today the majority of wines are still red, but wines with that amber glow have taken their place at centre stage.

Daughter Elena assumed control in 1997 and since that time has run the 58-hectare estate, with Giulio Armani as winemaker for most of those years. Both are strongly committed to organic production. Thirty of the hectares are under vine, and it is to the vines that the owner has directed much of her energy. “Wine is born in the vineyard,” she says. Her wish for the wine drinker: to “recognize and feel my passions and my land.”

At La Stoppa all vineyard work is done by hand, leading to a careful harvest of only the best fruit, for the production of young wines as well as those with more aging potential. La Stoppa produces ten different bottlings, both red and clearly brilliant orange.

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Sergio Mottura Poggio Della Costa

Italy (Orvieto)


As the story goes, once organic production took hold, the indigenous porcupine returned to the Mottura estate. Hence the spiny critter on the label. And as for the wine varietal, it too is indigenous. The rich, lively grechetto is very much at home here on the northern border of Lazio and Umbria, in the Orvieto DOC. Common throughout these regions, it is most often blended with other grapes. Yet in knowledgeable  hands grechetto on its own yields great rewards. “Sergio Mottura could be defined as the most skilled interpreter of grechetto in the world” says the guidebook to Italian wines Gambero Rosso, which backed up the pronouncement with one of its much-coveted “tre bicchiere” awards.

The Mottura estate consists of  130 hectares on gently sloping hillsides about 100 km north of Rome. The area is decidedly rural, well out of reach of industrial development. There are 50 hectares of vineyards at its core, and within that, at an altitude of 140 m, is the east-facing “Poggio della Costa” vineyard. It is seven hectares of volcanic clay, particularly suited to grechetto.

The gentleman with the kindly smile oversees vineyards that are tended with great care. The grapes are hand-picked, then crushed softly in horizontal presses. The must is cooled, hastening the separation of the foreign particles, leaving the pure juice, in which a slow, temperature-controlled fermentation takes place for about three weeks. It is matured over winter in stainless steel tanks on its own lees before bottling in early spring. The bottles are moved underground, to the caves that serve as the Mottura cellars.

The estate has been in the Mottura family since 1933, when it was the domain of Sergio’s uncle, Alessandro. Sergio assumed control when he was 20 and has brought the estate to an annual production, entirely organic, of about 14,000 cases. Chardonnay, merlot, and pinot noir share space with old world varietals, of which grechetto remains his favourite.

To again quote Gambero Rosso, “It would be hard to find a man more in love with his grapes.” And thanks to such passion and enthusiasm an old, under-appreciated varietal has found new expression. Wine drinking can only be enriched by such pursuits. We need more Sergios in the wine world.

Sergio Mottura Poggio Della Costa 2009

On the lighter side of yellow gold in the glass. A nose that immediately draws your atttention. Floral elements vie with a pleasant dose of crisp pineapple. Then again cheese, blue cheese perhaps, or parmesan.  A bit more mellow in the mouth. Citrus cutting some notions of butter. An old varietal with something fresh to say. Distinct and delightfully character driven.  $

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Giuseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore

Italy (Veneto)

covina, rondinella, molinara + others

[no website]

The 50th birthday of a dear friend called for a special wine. Italian wines don’t come any more special than those of the legendary Guiseppe Quintarelli. Known as the Maestro of Veneto, his Amarone (at $300 a bottle) is unparalleled. His  Valpolicella is hardly less praised, and is superior to many Amarones.

There seems to be good reasons for that: the extreme care that is taken with the making of the wine, and the fact that about six months into production it is blended with the lees of the estate’s Amarone (the “ripasso” method) and thus adding to the wine’s texture and complexity. And of course there is the Quintarelli standard of aging some of the wines up to seven years in large Slavonian oak casks, releasing his wines several years later than most producers in the region.

‘Patience,’ Quintarelli has said, ‘…is the most important attribute in winemaking.’ The man should know. He has been exhibiting it with spectacular results for more than 50 years. Now in his 80s, he has recently turned the operation over to his eldest daughter, Silvana. With just 12 hectares and an annual output of 60,000 bottles, it remains small, and as understated as ever. No website, not even a roadside winery sign. (Check the village of Cerè, near the larger village of Negrar.) Given the fact there is a long wait list of importers eager for even a small allocation, it would seem the reputation of the wines sells itself.

It is charmingly and authentically artisanal. The unchanged handwritten labels (until recently applied by hand with a brush and glue) could never been mistaken for those of any other winery. Maintaining tradition is uppermost in the minds of everyone now attached to the production, including his grandson Francesco and nephew Marco. If the Quintarelli wines were made, in Guiseppe’s words, “exactly as my father taught me”, then it is more than worthwhile to stand on tradition. After all, it has led more than one wine enthusiast to place Quintarelli among the best wine made anywhere.

The vineyards lie on the steep slopes outside Negrar, the soil volcanic in nature. Quintarelli views the soil as the ultimate key to the success of the winemaking. Grape selection is meticulous, equal, it has been said, to that of the great Sauternes producers. The work in the cellar is simple and non-interventionalist, letting the wine determine the pace of maturation. Patience above all, “Patience in growing, patience in selection, and patience in vinification.”

Giuseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2001

Purple / brick red in color, with a fine, fine nose, a mix of robust semi-sweet fruit and mineral elements. Instantly complex. On the palate, reminiscent of amarone to be sure, yet with exceptional qualities in its own right. Clean, not laboured, yet with a richness and an altogether pleasant acidic balance. Both textured and nuanced, this is a wine that speaks volumes. Released 9 years after harvest. With more time in the bottle, it would have to be wondrous. $$$

Update to this posting: Sadly, Guiseppe Quintarelli died on January 15, 2012, at age 84. The memory of the extraordinary man and winemaker will shine bright for many years to come.

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