Initially, I thought of Noella Morantin – a spunky female winemaker in the Loire whom I particularly admire.
I then wanted to pick someone less known amongst the predominantly French audience of les Vendredis du Vin. I thought of Giovanna Tiezzi (Pacina, Tuscany) or Elena Pantaleoni (La Stoppa, Emilia) or Elisabetta Foradori (Trentino)… all strong women who make fantastic wine.
But then I realised that I’m already a day late for submitting this piece and I needed to pick a subject that was going to run off the tongue easily…
Helena Variara was one of the first Italian natural winemakers that I got to know. It was back in 2011-2012 when she and her husband, Dante, were working with just 4 hectares of Sangiovese, Colorino, Canaiolo, Trebbiano and Malvasia vines.
They were – and still are now – true contadini…. in the best sense of the term. Helena is totally down-to-earth, pleasant and kind; I aspire to be more like her.
I have a long way to go! Some of my most embarassing rookie errors took place in her presence.
It was within the first year of being in Paris and of my job working at a wine importers. It was a small company – six people in the office and one sales rep out and about. I was “the natural one” so, even though I was hugely out of my depth, when any of our unconventional winemakers came to visit, I had to plan and execute the programme.
I remember, all too vividly, trying to parallel park the enormous company car into a tiny space in Les Batignolles area of Paris’ 17th arrondissement. After several failed attempts and scratched bumpers, Dante kindly got out to help guide me into the space and Helena smiled stoically.
The day got worse. Over lunch, Helena whispers over that the wine bar to which I’d taken them was actually owned by a rival natural-wine importer. And, even worse, that this rival company had the distribution of their wines only a few months before!
I wanted the ground to swallow me up there and then!
It’s rare to find a woman who married into a winemaking family and who is as involved as Helena.
The Colombaia estate has been owned and farmed by husband Dante’s family for generations, but I get the impression that, even though he is very active, Helena is now the driving force.
Her passion comes across instantly. Watch Rebecca‘s video below and try to tell me that you don’t feel even just a little bit connected to Helena’s twinkling eyes. On a more personal level, she is wonderfully forthright and I have a ton of respect for this rare trait.
If you get a chance to meet Helena at a wine tasting, I encourage you to stop and take a moment to try her cuvées. Her predominantly-Sangiovese wines have an incredible purity and vibrancy. They’re not filtered, nor are they fined, and, as such, they have the ability to express themselves far beyond other wines from this region.
The winery is Demeter-certified, part of Renaissance des Appellations and participates in a great number of the natural wine tastings (RAW Fair in London, Berlin, New York; Greniers St Jean in Angers; La Remise in Arles…)