Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Paolo di Marchi: The Philosopher-Peasant of Chianti Classico (Part 1)

As a child, Paolo di Marchi, the owner and wine maker of Isole e Olena in the Chianti Classico regionloved to grow things, to work in the family fields. He preferred to have toy tractors rather than race cars. Because of his interests, his father affectionately referred to him as the "peasant" of the family.

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.

The estate contains approximately 300 hectares, with about 200 being forest, mostly pure Cypress, which is less common in this part of Chianti Classico. Wild boars and deer live in these forests and are a significant nuisance to the vineyards, eating as much as 30% of the crop. So, when boars are caught and end up on a family menu, it is considered a "sense of revenge." About 50 hectares of the estate are devoted to vineyards, 34 being planted with Sangiovese. There are also 15 hectares of olive oil trees. The estate is located at an average of 412 meters above sea level, and the vineyards are spaced out over 330-480 meters above sea level. During harvest, there is a one week difference according to a 100 meter difference in altitude.

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?

Paolo's family was originally from the small town of Lessona in Piemonte and they owned some vineyards. The fifth of six siblings, Paolo received a classical education, though his true love was agriculture, the peasant of the family. After World War II, the family moved to Torino, still within Piemonte, abandoning their vineyards, and then in 1956, Paolo's father purchased the Isole & Olena estate in Tuscany. At this time, the estate, known as a fattorie, was still part of the mezzadria, an ancient quasi-feudal system of sharecropping.

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.

When Paolo's father purchased the estate, it was not intended as a business but rather just a piece of land. He hired an overseer to run the fattorie as it was a one-day journey from Torino to the estate. About 120 people lived on the estate, each family allotted about 5-7 hectares. The estate was a local and closed economy, where people essentially had no money and traded for any extras they needed. The most valuable item that was not produced on the estate was salt, which is probably a significant reason why Tuscan bread developed a tradition of not using salt.

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.

After World War II, as industrialization began to spread through the major cities, young people started to move out of the countryside to acquire jobs in the cities. The early 1960s saw plenty of migration to the cities so the mezzadria system began losing its sharecroppers. At the Marche estate, by the end of the 1960s, the population of sharecroppers had drastically decreased, from 120 to 14, and all in the span of only seven years. The Chianti Classico region needed the elimination of the mezzadria system before it could transform into a higher quality region.

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.

As the 1970s began, there were a few wine makers in Chianti Classico who were passionate about producing high quality wines, but felt confined by the appellation system. So they began making wines which could not be classified as Chianti Classico. This was the start of the Super Tuscan movement, led by pioneers like 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...

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