Liberation, Partisans and Romeo & Juliet

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Once you start to scratch the surface, wine is so much more than a drink. Of course, there is what you see on a shop shelf as your eye has been caught by a flashy label and you pause to think about varietals and food pairings… but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

You may think I’m talking about winemaking – that non-stop rollercoaster ride of sugars, yeasts, bacteria, acids, oxidation and reduction… but even though there are still some things we don’t understand, it has been covered time and time again by people far more knowledgeable than myself and it’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

There’s another aspect to wine which fascinates me, probably because even from a very early age I’ve always loved history. Wine is the vehicle for being able to talk to winemakers and ask questions about their land – not necessarily the age and density of the vines – but the history of the place. Who lived there. What they did. Who they loved. Why.

I have found the Italians to be more open about these things than the French. I suppose it’s because Italians really do live up to that old stereotype of strong family ties and plenty of tradition. I was a 20-something girl who spoke little-to-no Italian when I visited Elena at La Stoppa, Giovanna at Pacina and Emilio at La Busattina. They had no real idea who I was but in each case, a mid-morning visit to the winery turned into lunch together with the family, cousins, etc… Probing into family histories is not to be attempted while tasting tank samples in a damp, frigid cellar but once you reach the end of a leisurely lunch and a waft of freshly brewed coffee reaches your nose, I’ve found that you can tentatively ask your host to tell you something about their ancestors.

Some of the stories that I’ve heard are still too sensitive and private for me to be able to recount here but that does not mean that the stories have been in any way forgotten. In many cases, I’m still filled with gratitude that they confided in me.

Those trees conceal a natural bunker, a strategic position near the crest of the hill but just off the main path.

April 25th is Liberation Day in Italy, celebrating the fall of the nazi-fascist regime at the hands of the Allied troops and the local resistance. Today I went for a walk through another part of the vineyards (you may remember my walk the other week to see the two castles) to go and revisit a partisan hide-out that I know of on the hillside.

This is where you turn off from the footpath. Watch out for snakes as you go through the long grass. I often see harmless black “scarbonassi” around here.
My four-legged companion is agile enough to have found a different route down to the bunker.
Stones from the rudimentary shelter the partisans made.

That pile of stones pales into insignificance compared to the grotto that is hidden at the Filippi winery across the valley near Soave.

I wish I could go and visit to take photos but we’re still in lockdown here so I’ll just describe it to you. There’s a path that runs through the dense woodland just below the Vigne della Brà vineyard. After a couple of hundred metres, look out for two sticks placed “haphazardly” on the left. It’s Filippo’s telltale sign to turn off the path and head even deeper into the forest. After another 40 or so metres, you’ll discover a large grotto carved out by hand by workers wanting the soft limestone rocks to build the house and the entrance arch.

13th century arch made from limestone rocks dug out from the grotto.

The grotto is about 40 metres long, 2 to 3 metres high and 4 or 5 metres deep in places. There is very little natural light as barely any sunshine can penetrate the thick woodland canopy. As a result, it’s an eerily mystical place. When it has been raining heavily, the lower half of the grotto will be underwater and the dogs go there to drink. It was a very important place for the resistance fighters as their local knowledge of the area meant that they could go there for shelter.


Today feels like a fitting day to recount my in-laws’ family link to the partisan resistance. Now the lineage is rather convoluted but the story is centred around my grand-uncle-in-law (that is: my father-in-law’s father’s brother.) At the outbreak of the ear, he was young, determined and not afraid to stand up for his beliefs. Like many others of his generation, he refused to accept the fascist regime and became part of the local resistance.

What makes this particular story more remarkable is that his girlfriend at the time decided to join him in the resistance! There were very few active female fighters in these parts and so because they were the only couple active in the hills near Verona, they were given the code names Romeo and Juliet. They cut off all contact with their families and eeked out an existence on the hills for years, in hideouts like those I’ve seen and described. The story becomes a little less romantic because Romeo’s brother – my grandfather-in-law – was arrested frequently and each time interrogated harshly by the local authorities who wanted to find the location of the two lovebirds but he never yielded.


Whilst wine has allowed me to discover these stories, it feels horribly limited and superficial at times. The majority of people only care about the taste on their tongue and the buzz afterwards. Is there a wine which would be a fitting tribute to the Romeo and Juliets, to honour those who walked back alone from the other side of the Mediterranean after they found out second-hand that the war had ended, to remember those who fell in love with the wrong person at the most inopportune of times? Or is it enough to spend a few minutes thinking about them and about how, for all we complain about our current situation, 75 years ago it was far, far worse?

Harvest 2016: preparing the Pied de Cuve

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“Would you mind popping over, watering the flowers and making sure there’s food for the cat?” is what most people ask their neighbour before they go away. Amongst hipster foodie circles, I’m aware that it’s not unheard of for it not to be a cat that needs feeding, but actually a batch of sourdough or kefir.

However, living on a winery in the run-up to harvest, I’ve been given another type of yeast to keep alive.

Yesterday Filippo picked a few bunches from the vineyard that we’re going to be harvesting from in earnest next week. These grapes were then crushed (by foot) and put in a bucket with a bit of water. Over the next few days, while he’s away, I have to keep stirring to aerate this (very attractive) mixture.

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Just like sourdough, it will start to ferment and eventually become our natural yeast starter next week. The technical term for this is the pied de cuve – literally “foot of the tank.” And yes, I agree that it sounds far better in French.

The advantage of using a pied de cuve starter is that it allows you to have some confidence in your indigenous yeasts. To know that your yeast is active and already fermenting vigorously gives you a kind of peace of mind that you normally only get with selected strains. It (apparently!) can be quite risky to let fermentation to start directly from your pressed grape juice – especially here where the fermentation takes place in stainless steel in a relatively recent cellar.

A Forgotten Wine: The Sweet Recioto di Soave DOCG

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When you think of Soave, you probably think of a tall, thin bottle of non-descript white wine in a cheap Italian restaurant. If you know your stuff, you’ll think of the market-leading producers: Pieropan, Gini and Coffele.

You’re very unlikely to think of the Recioto di Soave wine, a traditional passito wine which has been made in this area for well over a millennium.

Recioto di Soave was the first wine in the Veneto region to be awarded the prestigious DOCG title (Controlled AND Guaranteed.) That was back in 1998.

Nowadays, a miniscule 0.33% of the total Soave production is of the Recioto di Soave. (Statistic from i-winereview.) One third of one percent. Yep. Nada.

As a result, this is a wine that when you see it, you should jump at the occasion to try it. Continue reading

Back In The Vineyards (And Harvesting!) With: Filippo Filippi (Soave)

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Castelcerino is a tiny village situated on the top of the highest point in the Soave hills. It also happens to be where Filippo Filippi lives.

There are two ways to get to Castelcerino. First is to go through the picturesque town of Soave, skirting the mediaeval castle but then tackling a series of perilous hair-pin bends in the climb up to the village. Alternatively, you take the low road a couple of kilometres further through the valley and then turn right, straight up the hill at a gradient which apparently averages +36%!

The first time I came to the Filippi estate was during Vinitaly for a dinner and my GPS took me and my colleague, Marco, up the hair-pin bends. The rental car struggled to get any grit and grind and I’m sure I uttered more than just a few swear words. A couple of months later, I came back with my veteran Renault Clio which subsequently gained the nickname “Super Clio” for its nippy performance up those bends. It was only after a few days that I realised that there was another far less cumbersome route.

I returned in the middle of September 2015 to get my hands dirty. Harvest started here a couple of weeks ago with the Chardonnay (for Susinaro), the Trebbiano di Soave (for Turbiana) and the Merlot. The Garganega, however, is being particularly problematic. It’s been very, very hot here this year. What rainfall there was, was too little and too late. Subsequently the sugar content is high but the grapes haven’t yet reached full maturity. A hail storm in mid-June didn’t help matters either and some vines are still showing signs of damage.

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Healthy but not quite ready… Garganega turns a wonderful salmon pink colour when it is fully ripe.

While we wait for the Garganega, there’s still work to be done in the cellar. There is a rogue steel tank of Trebbiano which needs a remontage morning, noon and night. The Chardonnay is fermenting nicely… but looks like it will get to 13% ABV this year which is higher than normal (but not unusual, given how hot this year has been.)

Then there is the Merlot. In previous years, Filippo has made the Merlot into a rosato, under the name Roaron. All change this year as it will become a fully fledged red. It is currently sitting in what can most accurately be described as an over-sized bucket, in which we do a remontage and pigeage (with a large wooden stick) twice a day. “Country style,” Filippo says in English. “Hand-made in Italy,” we joke should be written on the label.

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There are just four of us, doing everything from picking to pressing. Even though the Garganega grapes for the dry wines (Castelcerino, Vigne della Bra and Monteseroni) are still not going to be ready for at least another week, there is still harvesting to be done for the Recioto wine.

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After each expedition to the vineyards, we stack the boxes in the cellar and leave the grapes to dry out. Meanwhile, we go back to that old routine: pump over the whites, punch down the Merlot, pizza. This was our regime – day in and day out.

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You mean you don’t also have a bath tub in your wine cellar….?

On my final morning, I went back to check on the wines. The temperature of the troublesome Trebbiano has fortunately gone down to a more reasonable figure. The Merlot has finished its fermentation and we rack it into a steel tank. It has taken on a beautiful dark garnet colour.

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It is so unbelievably peaceful here. As I sit in my make-shift office, with a truly stupdendous view over the adjacent Valipollicella hills and with Verona in the distance, I cast my mind back to the last few days.

It was already pretty clear to me, but I’ve become much more convinced in the benefits of organic agriculture. (I haven’t read or experienced enough to have a completely reasoned opinion of if biodynamics are indeed even better, although I’m inclined to believe that they are.)

Just while I’ve been writing this post, I’ve spotted six different types of butterfly and had an UFO-insect fly straight into my chest and then spend a couple of moments, sitting on my keyboard, clearly concussed.

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Even just a short walk through the vineyards will reveal a mosaic of wildflowers and herbs (especially mint, oregano and rosemary) as well as all the native grasses and even wild hops. I’m also astounded by how much wildlife there is in these woods; I’ve spotted deer, grouse and a snake and seen traces of wild boar. Turns out that wild boar like to munch on any low-hanging grapes… but don’t let the term ‘low-hanging’ fool you. They are easily capable of eating bunches which for me are at waist-height… and I’m five foot nine!

Of all the wineries that I have visited in Italy, the one that sums up true paradise is Tenute Dettori, with its restaurant overlooking the sea. A close second is possibly Andrea Occhipinti’s view over Lake Viterbo in Lazio. (Clearly I have a thing for water!) This, however, is nature.

As I wrote in the first blog post, half of the land here is untouched woodland. Filippo is first and foremost an agrarian and this is very much in evidence. The Turbiana vineyard on the top of the hill, for example, is comprised of two fields, each surrounded by trees and completely isolated. The wind in the trees is echoed by the buzzing of insects in the grass.

The soil is rich too; changing from basalt to clay to seabed within metres. There are grottos with natural spring water. This is the complete anethetis of industrial, modern winemaking and I love it.

As I am packing my bags, I remember a conversation with my colleague Marco in the car on the way up to Filippi the first time. He was explaining to me that Castelcerino was so isolated, perched up there on the hill, that Filippo rarely leaves. Marco’s words resonate with me at that moment. Castelcerino had become my haven too. I don’t want to leave.

Visiting Filippi (May 2015)

Making Recioto di Soave at Filippi (May 2016)

Filippi on Facebook

In The Vineyards With: Filippo Filippi (Soave, Veneto)

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Billy is getting increasingly agitated. The smell of the BBQ is too much to bear. This is a rustic kind of grill and it always requires some time for it to reach the right temperature. Fortunately, now that the embers are glowing, the spare ribs, hamburgers and polenta are sizzling away.

There are four of us are sitting around the garden table, enjoying a magnum of Vigne della Bra 2006. (Incidentally, it was stunning and remarkably fresh!)

This is my first night staying here and we’re making small talk. However, it turns out that I had just made that very English faux-pas of not rolling my Rs enough. Trying to explain about a marinated meat (“carne“) that I had many times in Siberia called shashlik, it turns out that I had just said that marinated dog (“cane“) was delicious!

No wonder Billy’s protests had been becoming louder and louder. Billy is Filippo’s German Shepherd, in case you were wondering!

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May 2015. Photo (c) Emma Bentley

Located a short drive east from Verona is the village of Castelcerino, which at 400m above sea level is the highest point in the hills of Soave. The Filiippi vineyards are situated just a couple of hundred metres outside the Soave Classico DOC area… so the wines are labelled Soave DOC or Verona IGT instead.

From where we are sitting, there are breathtaking views over the valley. Wave after wave of teal green hillside, which stretch for as far as the eye can see. Immediately below us are rows of vines which eventually resurface as the Valipolicella hills. It is so picturesque, it feels as though it has come straight out of a painting or an American feel-good film set in Italy.

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May 2015. Photo (c) Emma Bentley

When we think of volcanic wines, our thoughts automatically jump to exotic islands like Sicily or Santorini. That Soave’s terroir is also made up of black basalt soil is harder to comprehend.

Filippo makes parcellaire wines – meaning that the names of the wine correspond to the precise plot of land from which the grapes have come.

In such a geologically-rich land, each of the different parcels have their very distinct typicities. Castelcerino, for example, has a very marked volcanic terroir; in contrast, the Vigne della Bra plot is made up of red clay soil. Vigne della Bra, with its south-easterly facing slopes, is also exposed to the softer rays of the evening sun.

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May 2015. Photo (c) Emma Bentley

There are 14 hectares of vines in total and a further 20 of woodland and forest. A mountain source of fresh water flows down the hillside and, if you know where to look, hidden between the Monteseroni and Vigne della Bra, you’ll find a magical grotto.

At the top of the hill, completely surrounded by woodland, is the Turbiana vineyard, planted with Trebbiano di Soave. There is also Susinara, planted with Chardonnay in guyot. The Garganega (the most dominant grape in Soave) is planted in the Veronese pergola style. All the vineyards are worked organically.

The amount of bird song you hear in this enchanted place is astounding. From the very first rays in the morning until nightfall, there is an audible tapestry of cuckoo, pigeon, swallow, woodpecker, everything…

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May 2015. Photo (c) Emma Bentley

Moving into the cellar, this is natural winemaking so only indigenous yeasts, no enzymes and minimal sulfites. The whites ferment and age in large stainless steel tanks, where they will stay, by and large, for 18 months on the lees (obviously, this depends on the bottling and the particularity of each wine and its vintage.)

Filippo’s first vintage was 2007 but previously he had been working alongside his brother (N.B. the brother did the winemaking, while Filippo did the agriculture.)

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Filippo himself is a fantastic character. At first, he’s a bit of an enigma. Age-less. Larger than life. He’s always laughing – either at a joke or a funny turn of events. Simple things seem to amuse him. It’s an energy that is immediately conveyed to those around him. Once you get to know him better, you realise that this energy is like an aurora. It’s magnetic.

One of my most vivid memories of him from this trip was of him trudging through the courtyard, muttering “piogg, piogg, piogg..” (rain, rain, again…) He was clearly frustrated that he couldn’t get on with his work but the tone of voice was almost childlike.

Normally, I only take one photo of the winemaker to illustrate the blog post but for Filippo, because his expression so often, I felt I needed three!

Harvesting at Filippi (September 2015)

Making Recioto di Soave at Filippi (May 2016)

Filippi on Facebook