Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mannucci Droandi Experimental Vineyard Wines: An Example To Follow

Italy is blessed with an extraordinary wealth of grape varietals: On the one hand, the nobles, clerics, merchants, and sailors who traveled brought home promising cuttings (for example the Vermentino that yields excellent whites in Sardegna and along the Tuscan and Ligurian coasts, and which is Spanish in origin, or the Cabernet Sauvignon that adds an extra touch to Carmignano, which was introduced to the hills above Prato in the early 1700s by Cosimo III De'Medici). And on the other, the farmers who worked the lands generation in and generation out noted the slightest variations in the vines they worked with, and with time propagated anything that seemed remotely promising, developing new varietals with time.

Some of these new varietals gave quality, complementing the primary varietals -- Colorino and Mammolo, Tuscan varietals that provide color and enrich the bouquet come to mind -- and as such are still interesting today, while others gave security -- Bottaio, for example, whose name derives from botte, or cask, and suggests it could be depended upon to provide quantity, and still others were simply able to grow in steep marginal lands unsuitable for other more profitable crops. The end result of this long-term vine breeding was that the average traditional vineyard in Italy had a few primary varietals and could have any number of lesser varietals. In other words, they were hodge-podges.

The development of specialized viticulture in the last century has been positive in many respects, but has also had a dreadful impact upon the diversity of Italian varietals. For two main reasons.

  • First, when planting new specialized vineyards, rather than take the trouble of propagating what was positive from the existing vineyards, the vast majority of winemakers go to nurseries and order specific clones of specific varietals. What had been variable therefore became an entire vineyard planted to one, or just a few varietals, with a consequent loss in vineyard diversity.
  • The second mechanism leading to diversity loss is more unexpected: The appellations themselves. Italian wine-making law gives precise compositions for Appellation wines (DOC or DOCG wines): They can be single varietal, say Nebbiolo, or a specific blend, or, if the appellation offers more leeway, from the varietals (red or white as the case may be) approved for use in the province where the appellation is made. And herein lies the catch: If the varietal is not on the Region's list, it's not legal (nor is a wine made with it) even if it has been growing on a particular hillside for 10 generations. The winemaker should (the law says) rip it all out.

And the sad thing is that many winemakers, either fearing the problems a zealous bureaucrat can raise, or convinced that the old vines are worthless because the world markets demand something else, do rip them out. It's a serious loss: Local clones of the major varietals will probably be better adapted to a particular terroir than something from a nursery, while good local lesser varietals can add accents and characteristics nobody else has. The end effect of the reduction in biodiversity is a progressive standardization of taste, and while this may be positive for large wineries that are aiming for uniform products, it's not at all positive for the small producer who is trying to produce wines with a personal touch of the sort that wine lovers eagerly seek out.

Fortunately, some people are trying to buck this trend.

Roberto Droandi, of the Azienda Agricola Mannucci Droandi in the Upper Valdarno (one of the four areas Cosimo III De'Medici recognized in the Bando Sopra la Dichiarazione dé Confini delle quattro Regioni Chianti, Pomino, Carmignano, e Val d'Arno di Sopra he published in 1716, the first establishment of appellations), has gathered and propagated (to date) 43 lesser varietals that were once grown in the vineyards of the area. Some are red, and others white, and he found most in vineyards owned by elderly farmers who have not modernized their lands.

He has set aside a vineyard and grows enough of each for a microvinification -- in other words 50-80 kilos of grapes, enough to yield about 50 liters of wine. This is, he says, much more difficult than making wine at a larger scale, because with small volumes problems that arise proceed at much quicker rates than they do with larger volumes, and therefore the is much less time to correct them. Nor are the difficulties limited to the cellar; since nobody remembers much about these lesser varietals, he has to proceed by trial and error when it comes to vineyard management and judging when to harvest -- he has waited too long more than once, and thus ended up with badly overripe wines. The solution? Take notes and do things a little differently the next time. The ultimate goal of course is to evaluate the wines, certify the best grapes so they can be grown commercially, and continue to evaluate the rest while seeking out other forgotten varietals before they are lost.

I felt quite flattered to be invited to the first presentation of the wines. They are all 2006, and all were fermented in steel, the whites at low temperatures, using selected yeasts, racked a few times to clarify them, and bottled in the spring. They are all from the 2006 vintage, and these are my notes as I took them, with asides woven in.

The Whites:

This is from the Valdarno, and specifically Mercatale, was first mentioned in the 1850s by a Swiss who found a vine on his land. This has been written into the national catalogs, can be grown commercially. It's white, pale brassy yellow with greenish reflections and brassy highlights. Interesting bouquet slightly greenish with some butterscotch that's grape, nice acidity, hints eucalyptus. On the palate it's vinous, and quite lively, with bright acidity, fairly rich and a chewy feel to it. Nice herbal notes, more herbal than fruity. Interesting and quite promising, brings to mind a strutting bantam.
Considerable potential.

They're still working on figuring out when it's best to harvest the grapes. Forgotten varietals that people have to learn how to work.

Crepolino, or Cascarella:
A first vintage. This is from the Valdarno, and is called cascarilla because it drops berries from the bunches. It's charged greenish gold with greenish highlights. Unusual, rather medicinal bouquet with floral accents overshadowing it; with time it gains considerable almond accents that bring to mind some of the almond liqueurs of the deep south. On the palate it's medicinal, and greenish, with fairly bright grapefruit acidity; it has a lumbering quality to it. The harvest might have been a little late, though it has interesting grapefruit acidity.

A first vintage. It's quite productive, and the name refers to the fact that one could fill a cask with a few vines. Pale brassy white with brassy reflections. The bouquet is interesting, quite mineral with minty accents, and considerable greenish acidity; it's a bit more aromatic, and a bit more floral. On the palate it's fairly rich, and softer than either of the other two, with lively grapefruit fruit acidity, and quite fresh. It's a bit thinner on the palate, lighter, waterier than the others. It's a good blending varietal that could contribute to a wine made primarily from another varietal, filling in voids.

The reds: This is the first Lacrima they have made. They have some experience with the others. One thing: In the Valdarno some families call Sangiovese San Vicetro.

Sangiovese Montanino:
This is a smaller graped Sangiovese that ripens sooner, so they used to plant it on hillsides. It's deep ruby that's not too dark, and has an elegant red berry fruit bouquet with pleasant spice and some acidity, also hints of cedar. On the palate it's pleasant, in a fairly light key, with rich fruit and fairly bracing acidity, with fairly smooth sweet tannins. Quite promising, in a fairly light key. Old style, and interesting. A well made wine of the past.
Considerable potential.

A synonym of Sangiovese from the Aretino (Sangiovese is also called Calabrese in some parts of southern Italy, it turns out). Deep pigeon blood ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is spicy, with hints of cumin, and quite a bit of India ink, On the palate it's a bit medicinal, without much in the way of acidity. Fairly light. As it opens the medicinal characteristics remain on the palate, but the spices become considerably more interesting.
A potentially intriguing vitigno complementare, or blending varietal.

Lacrima D'Arno:
An old vine that used to be common throughout Tuscany. It's quite tardy, and quite acidic too. Hence the name, because it was tart enough to make one cry. Also very deep color, and they think that it could be a good blending wines. Impenetrable pyrope with black reflections. The bouquet is bright, with berry fruit supported by quite a bit of slightly floral acidity. Fresh. On the palate it's bright, with chewy dusty tannins and fairly rich fruit supported by fairly lively acidity. Considerable stoffa to it, chewy and leaves your teeth squeeking But it has potential. With time, the bouquet Lacrima D'Arno now smells of leaf tobacco, perhaps even pipe tobacco.
It could work as a vitigno complementare, or blending varietal.

This is from the Grossetano, and San Felice has just released the 2003, which they have been working with for a while. It's a close relative of Montepulciano. Poured ink, with violet rim. The bouquet is reductive, with pleasant plum and underbrush. Nice balance, and interesting. Has a feel of Montepulciano to it. On the palate it's elegant, with rich berry fruit supported by pleasant tannic structure and lively slightly sour acidity with underlying hints of graphite.
Considerable potential to it, and quite nice.

In the Valdarno they have always sought color, so this is a vine wine to blend into lighter wines. It's impenetrable purple poured ink. The bouquet is rich, with ripe black cherry laced with slight graphite and hints of underbrush that are the solforosa, added to put the wine in wood. Impressive. On the palate it's full, with rich cherry fruit supported bypowerful cedar-laced tannins that have an inky bitterness to them, while the acidity is relatively light. It's quite astringent, and tannic in spades. In the past they used it for the governo toscano, which it contributed to without the run away tannins.

These two are from very young vineyards, planted in 2002

This varietal is from Massa, on the Tuscan coast. This they have enough of to bottle, and it's a cask sample. Impenetrable pyrope with black cherry rim. It's quite oaky now -- it was put in a barrique because they had that volume of wine. It's quite oaky and this is because it was just bottled and drew heavily from the cask. On the palate it's fairly rich, with mineral fruit supported by moderate acidity that flows into a clean tannic finish. The tannins are quite sweet, and it has quite a bit of potential. Tooth cleaning.

Foglia Tonda:
Quite productive, and requires considerable pruning. It's inky purple with violet rim. The bouquet is rich, with violets and red berry fruit with some spice as well. On the palate it's elegant, with rich berry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins and lively berry fruit acidity that flow into a clean slightly tannic cedar laced finish with some balsamic overtones. Quote pleasant, and will stand alone very convincingly. By comparison, the Barsaglina is more of a blending wine.
Interesting, and brings to mind a Lagrein in its minerality.

A fascinating experience, and this is something winemakers in other parts of Italy should also be doing, because there is tremendous undiscovered potential in the old vines that will be lost if they aren't evaluated before someone replants them with something from a nursery.

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