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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Category Archives: natural wine

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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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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Gravner Ribolla Anfora

Italy (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)

ribolla gialla

Two stunning whites within a week. Among the many things this wine blogging experience has taught me is a greater appreciation of white wines. There are those wine drinkers who claim, with some degree of self-congratulations, that they only drink red. In my view they are missing out on some truly exceptional wine experiences. This is one of them.

Gravner Ribolla Anfora 2004

The amber richness in the decanter is immediate indication that something special has emerged from the bottle. Thrilling in colour to be sure, if somewhat quiet on the nose. In taste, dry and sherry-like without the sense of being fortified. Quince comes to mind for one person sharing the wine, toasted nut for another. Very nicely balanced, richly structured, sophisticated yet generously open. Very much alive, it retains a rustic, tannic naturalness, as if the grapes passed unencumbered into wine. Not to be forgotten.  $$$

This is not ordinary winemaking to be sure. It is the work of a master experimenter, someone who has reached back to ancient methods in an effort to make wine at its natural best. The person in question is Josko Gravner. For thirty years he has been at work in northern Italy, near Oslavia, where his 18 hectares of vines straddle the border with Solvenia. He has gone from his early days of fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel, to the use of oak barriques, to the introduction in the late 1990s of 3,500-litre terracotta amphorae, lined with beeswax and buried up to their necks in a specially designed cellar. Asked to comment on the difference this last switch to clay has made in his wines, Gravner has said, “It is like being asked to describe someone’s soul. The amphora wines have much more spirit.”

His 45 or so amphorae have been imported from Georgia, one of the few places to still have the technology to fire such massive pots, a technology that supplied winemakers in Roman times. Fermentation and extended maceration of the ribolla grapes (an ancient, little-known varietal that Gravner has taken pains to re-establish) takes place for several months in the amphorae. The long exposure to the skins gives rise to the wine’s deep, rich colour. Eventually the wine is transferred into large wooden barrels for aging, then is further aged in the bottles before release.

Gravner takes what he terms a “natural” approach to his winemaking. Organic cultivation of the grapes, followed by fermentation with indigenous, wild yeasts only, and without temperature control. The wines are bottled unfiltered.

Gravner’s approach was initially met with considerable skepticism. Many in the business of wine rejected it, noting the fact that Gravner’s wines made from his previous methods were highly acclaimed. Wasn’t he the “King of Italian Whites”? Why tinker with success? In Gravner’s mind, he did so because there was a purer, more interesting, more natural and healthy alternative, one that returned to ancient methodology. He would be the first to admit that his wines lack broad appeal in the technology-driven world of modern winemaking. But, so be it. His wines have found their admirers, their strong advocates who seek out something very special, and have found it in the world of Gravner wines.

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Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen Contadino 5 (2007)

Italy (Sicily)

nerello mascalese (70%), several white varietals

A wine for an uncommon setting. A wine to share with adventuresome friends who appreciate diversity in the wines brought to their table.

I knew we were in for something different when I took the wine from the rack earlier in the day and eyed a distinct pinkish sediment along the length of the bottle. Or when the wine pouring into the glasses turned out to be the colour of overripe strawberries, and noticeably cloudy. I had the feeling that ‘polished’ or ‘finessed’ were not about to surface in our search for words to describe this vino, one purchased from the natural wine-loving folks at Artisan and Vine in London a couple of months ago.

Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen Contadino 5 (2007)

Yes, a dark strawberry red, that turns darker with time in the glass. The immediate reaction on bringing it within reach of the nose — sauerkraut juice. Yes, a pickled earthiness. Wine boundaries are expanding very quickly…

Ascend we do into uncharted territory, where grape-life is in flux, where rules have not yet evolved. There is a raw, unstructured intensity, a primal quality that most (but not all) of us find appealing. Yes, of course, there is fruit (wild cherry, wild raspberries) but seemingly a comparable number of vegetal and animal notes. Good acidity and workmanlike tannins. Rustic fruit, alive in the glass.

What the earth has offered up has been left in its basic state, left to its own devices, to develop in whatever direction comes naturally to it. And the result? I suspect we are encountering one of a series of results, that with each vintage the wine takes on a life of its own, that one year could be very different from the next. The winemaker’s aim is not consistency, rather full expression of the variables in play year to year.

Not a wine for the timid drinker. It is neither smooth, nor warm-hearted. It’s a walk into times past. Old world renewed. Old style, yet stylishly healthy and natural.  $

Frank Cornelissen works 8.5 hectares of vines in the North Valley of Mount Etna in Sicily. Belgian in background, Cornelissen came to the region of the famous volcano in 2001. He set himself on a unique path — some would say an extreme path — where nature rather than the winemaker dictates the qualities of the wine produced. No intervention, no treatments of any kind, No sulphur, no copper, no manure or compost. Wines, he would say, as nature intended.

The vines are free-standing, without wire or other supports, in what is called the “gobelet” or “bush vines” style of vine training. The estate balances the vines with olive, fruit and nut trees, as well as plantings between the vines, such as buckwheat. Bees form an integral part of the vineyard ecosystem.

Harvest is in October and November. Only heathy grapes at prime ripeness are gathered. Fermentation begins outdoors in 1000-litre polyethylene tubs, and eventually the wine is transferred to the cellar and into terracotta amphorae (or “giarre”) which have been buried to their necks in ground volcanic ash. Masceration takes place over several months, before basket-pressing removes the skin and seeds. Aging continues in the amphorae “until several full cosmic cycles have passed.” It’s another year or more before the wine is ready for its gentle transfer into see-through bottles with their see-through labels.

Here in his cellar Frank Cornelissen sits, his amphorae behind him. Transparent wine rebel? Unconventional, idiosyncratic viticulturalist? Certainly a wineman to stir things up. The wine world needs more like him.



[second and third photos by EP, fourth by ACM]













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Dario Princic Sauvignon

Italy (Friuli)

sauvignon blanc

This is the start of a month of new drinking terroirs. I am headed to Languedoc & Roussillon in France, to explore. That would include its food, and, of course, its wines.

But first, a day in London en route. An afternoon of research for a current project leads on to a recently opened wine bar and restaurant, one that I’ve been reading very good things about online — — Artisan & Vine at 126 St. John’s Hill, Battersea. Its wine list is thoroughly organic and natural. As it turns out, so are the people working there when we arrive. And delightfully engaging. Suvi, Oli, Marie, and Karlee — thanks everyone; we loved our evening!

Most memorable is a wine of Dario Princic. Neither white nor red, but what is sometimes called an ‘orange’ wine, its colour originating from the fact that the skins of its sauvignon blanc grapes have been left to add to the wine’s colour and structure during maceration, rather than being removed, as is the case in the making of most white wines. Pigment and tannin, which most white wine-makers would be at pains to avoid, are there for your drinking pleasure. Naturally interesting.

And orange, as you see. Or in Italian ramato, copper-coloured.

 Dario Princic Sauvignon Blanco 2002

A somewhat cloudy ‘ramato’. Reminds me of unfiltered cider, leading me to think that I have been putting all too much emphasis on the clarity of wine in its glass.  Regardless, the aromas filling its surface are quickly the focus. Earthy salts and minerals, and particles of seasoned fruits. Richly concentrated. In the mouth it is no less robust, with the citrus coming through, fine-grained in taste and structure. Lively. I am thoroughly loving this wine.  $$

It goes particularly well with the scallops which the chef prepares just behind where we are sitting, our location having the advantage of being able to toss bits of conversation back and forth as he works (including our cross-Atlantic experiences of lobster). The seared scallops are resting on a pesto-like bed of mint and green pea. Delicious, absolutely. Equally so the lamb cutlet and tuna entrées that follow. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the brilliant chocolate brownie with warm chocolate sauce. Artisan & Vine thoroughly won us over. Return visit planned on the way back home.

Dario Princic makes his wines near the town of Oslavia in north-eastern Italy, very close to the border with Slovenia. Here limestone predominates. The dry winds are an aid to organic viniculture, which Princic has been practicing for more than twenty years. An individualist, it goes without saying, from his production of unfashionable ‘orange’ wine to their Motherwell-like labels. He is one of the founding members of Vini Veri, an association of Italian natural wine producers. The man obviously relishes his wine-making, and the culinary pleasures that accompany it.

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