Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Paolo di Marchi: The Philosopher-Peasant of Chianti Classico (Part 1)
I first met Paolo four years ago at a local tasting and was impressed with his wines and personality. He was down to earth, charming and intelligent. His Chianti Classico is one of my favorite wines of that type and his iconic Cepparello is superb. I have several vintages of Cepparello in my wine cellar. So, when I knew I was traveling to the Chianti Classico region, I fervently hoped that I would get the opportunity to visit his Isole e Olena winery. Luckily for me, we visited Paolo's winery and it lived up to my expectations.
During the visit, I took more notes than at any other winery as Paolo was quite informative and philosophical. It is clear he has devoted much thought and analysis to viticulture and viniculture, to trying to understand Chianti Classico, Sangiovese, wine making, and so much more. And he freely shared with us his thoughts on these matters. Isole and Olena are separate estates and we visited Isole, located on the western slopes of the region, and it was beautiful with a stunning view of the area. It is situated only about forty kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, so it acquires some influence from the sea.
Paolo began his discussion by stating that a person needs to learn some history to properly understand the Chianti Classico region. He stated, "If we understand the past, we get a healthy path to the future." Everyone should learn about and discuss mistakes from the past, to avoid making those mistakes again in the future. As we had not received previously a detailed lesson on that history, Paolo provided us an overview of the topic, giving us a solid foundation to comprehend the basis of this region. Though it almost sounds contradictory, Chianti Classico is a "very old region but also very new." So what does that mean?
Within the system of mezzadria, the land owner allowed sharecroppers to occupy, but not own, small portions (called "poderi") of the estate and keep half ("mezza" means "half") of the crops they raised. The system varied a bit from region to region and slowly started to end after World War II though remnants would not vanish until the 1980s. The land owner usually hired an overseer to watch over the sharecroppers, and might rarely journey to his own estate. It was difficult work for the sharecroppers and they had to find the best ways to utilize the small amount of land they occupied. Everything was done by hand, and they often grew the crops which provided the highest yields.
This sharecropping system was patriarchal and children simply followed in their parents' footsteps. In addition, the water in this area wasn't too good, so few drank it undiluted, preferring a mixture of wine and water, commonly 1/3 wine and 2/3 water. Those who grew grapes and made wine usually produced light wines, made to be consumed immediately. Plus, so many other crops were more valuable so vineyards had a low priority for most sharecroppers. Thus, though wine making in Tuscany extends back at least to the ancient Etruscans, the quality of wine during the mezzadria period was rather low.
In 1967, Italy commenced an ambitious five-year project to replant vineyards, ending up replanting 8,000 vineyards. The problem was that large vineyards were created, with little concern for soil or terroir. It was also in 1967, that the formula for Chianti was enacted into law, allowing up to 30% Malvasia and Trebbiano. So, when vineyards were replanted in the Chianti regions, many were planted with white grapes. As Paolo stated though, you "can't rush planting vineyards," especially if concerned with quality. Though the mezzadria system was being eliminated, the overall quality of Chianti Classico still had a ways to go.
Antinori (Tiganello) and Tenuta San Guido (Sassacaia). It was an auspicious time for a new wine maker, and it was during this period that Paolo stepped forward to produce his first wine.
Paolo's first vintage was 1976, which was considered a disastrous vintage in Chianti Classico, though great in other parts of Italy. He considered these first wines to be "lemonade," very tart and acidic, and they didn't reflect how he felt seem Sangiovese should taste. It must have been incredibly frustrating to have such a tragic first vintage. Some wine makers might have quit at that point, moving on to another endeavor, discouraged by this setback. Yet nothing would quell Paolo's passion and he simply used it as a learning experience, forging ahead, seeking to produce high quality wines.
To Be Continued...