Tuscans have testicles, no doubt about it.
Think back on the early days of the so-called ‘Super Tuscans’ when a handful of vintners decided they could make better wines using grape varieties that the Denominazione di Origine Controllata did not allow; thus, they went ahead and added Cabernet and Merlot to their Sangiovese and shrugged off the government’s initial reluctance to designate their wines anything but the lowly Vino da Tavola.
In fact, the Tuscans not only accepted the insult, they made the me ne frego chin flick and sold their wine for exorbitant prices anyway.
On a somewhat smaller, but still hormone-sopped scale, last Friday I met with Marco Stevanoni, Export Manager for Podere Le Ripi—Montalcino’s coffee-financed, passion-fueled, iconoclast-run winery. The iconoclast is Francesco Illy, who, well-armed with the family fortune (Illycaffè, specializing in the production of espresso), bought 135 acres of sheep-grazing land in rural Tuscany where, in time, he figured he should produce some wine.
Ironically, for the sort of patient beauty that washes over this country—a languid slice of timelessness—Illy is a man who lives very much in the the now. When he was told by Burgundians that a vine required a minimum of 35 years to produce truly magnificent wines (based primarily on root depth) Illy—already in his mid-fifties—didn’t want to wait. So he launched a series of experiments with vine density, decreasing the space between his vines until he had planted the sardine can of viticulture, the most cramped vineyard in the world with more than 25,000 vines per acre.
To level set, in Burgundy—where the planting density is considered high—the average is 3600 vines per acre. Most of Europe is content with about 2,500.
Illy’s goal in this outrageous experiment, which even his agriculture consultant thought was whackadoodle, was to force the vine roots to develop downward at a faster pace since in the over-crowded neighborhood, that’s the only place they’ll have to stretch their legs taproots.
And, in fact, a scant three years later, when he took a tape measure to the root system, Illy found that not only were they far deeper than they’d have been under less stressful conditions, they produced useable fruit in the second year; an almost unheard of bonus.
Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud
Of course, my question to Marco Stevanoni, Podere Le Ripi’s Export Manager, was: “If this idea is so revolutionary and the result so indisputable, why isn’t every enologo in Italy jumping on the high-density bandwagon?”
“Because,” Stevanoni replied, “Illy only gets 500 bottles per acre. And he drinks a hundred of them himself.”
Leaving (by my math) four hundred of Bonsai Sangiovese for the rest of the contiguous solar system.
To level set once more, a single healthy vine should be able to produce, at a minimum, two bottles of wine—again, using my math, 25,000 vines, properly spaced, should result in 50,000 bottles; a hundred times more than he wound up with.
That’s some cloud; that’s some brace o’ bollocks.
Although, believe it or not, the nads displayed by this super Tuscan winemaker and his high-density trickle of Sangiovese, which goes for $162 a fifth and should probably sell for a lot more, is not the stugots that the title of this piece refers to:
Rather, those belong to Marco Stevanoni, who, after spending twenty minutes describing this avant-garde technique and raving about the unfathomably scrumptious results and generally tooting his Tuscan taskmaster’s trumpet, he informed me that there wasn’t enough to go around and I wouldn’t be getting a taste, but I should write about it anyway.
Now, that took stugots.
But write about it I shall, and no hard feelings—there was a quintet of lesser wines, mere mortals from other vineyards with sensible vine spacing and roots systems not terrified into performing.
And you know what? They weren’t bad at all—although, ironically, I thought the entry level was the best, and noteably so. I probably wouldn’t have appreciated the golden child anyway.
And I have the balls to say so.
Podere Le Ripi, ‘Amore e Follia’, 2007; $24: Deliciously luscious and sweet, with all sorts of desserty flavors—dark chocolate and licorice and blackberry jam. Huge fruit in the nose and a bright, albeit brief finish. It’s a blend of Sangiovese, Syrah and Merlot, and the name, perhaps fittingly, means ‘Love and Insanity’.
Podere Le Ripi, ‘Amore e Magia’, 2009; $28: Nice tannins, beautifully up front acids; a bit earthier and meatier than the predecessor, but 2009 was a vintage that drew out fuller flavors and tighter tannins in Tuscany and is probably just beginning to drink well. ‘Love and Magic’ touches on the herbal side of Sangiovese that is a lovely foil for the fruit.
Podere Le Ripi, Brunello di Montalcino ‘Lupi e Sirene’, 2007; $58: Let confusion over ‘Brunello’ be laid to rest: It’s a local term for Sangiovese Grosso, one of the ninety or so Sangiovese clones, and to qualify for the designation, the DOCG must be made with 100% Brunello grapes. It is, in fact, the only Tuscan wine that is not a blend. This one is a bit restrained on the nose, but intense in the mouth, with notes of cigar tobacco, bitter chocolate, espresso, dried ginger and black currant jelly.
Podere Le Ripi, Brunello di Montalcino Lupi e Sirene Riserva, 2008; $85: Still in a futile search of that explosive aroma that the younger wines are so ready to yield; but to qualify as ‘Riserva’, the wine is required to age in oak (often Slavonian) for a minimum of two years and are released a year later than standard Brunello di Montalcinos, six years after harvest, and this may sap some of the savory. What’s left is the ponderous complexity that connoisseurs of this style are after: A chiseled, austere wine where the focus is on burnished autumnal flavors—smoke, forest undergrowth, cinnamon, toasty vanilla, menthol and just a hint of black cherry.
Podere Le Ripi, Brunello di Montalcino Lupi e Sirene Riserva, 2004: Same wine, more mature; the extra hang-around time pretty much removes youthful vigor from the picture. The wine is devoid of anything fresh and fun, and has settled into the fuddy-duddy great uncle and the family reunion who sits in the corner and smokes a cigar. Of course, the uncle has many stories to tell, some more interesting than others. If you care to listen, this uncle is primarily about tobacco—the scents that waft from the glass make you think you are standing in a humidor. There are acids aplenty despite the age, and the oak tannins have settled into an inky accommodation; there is no fruit whatsoever remaining in the flavors, however, and those presented are all sort of clubby, leathery and rather masculine—which may be an ideal close to a tale that began with a tribute to testosterone.