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.
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.
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.
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?