'I want to talk to you... about wine of origin'. Short in stature and calm in manner, it is not easy to understand how the man before you commands attention, but when he talks, you listen. And this is a history lesson.
As Patriarch of the Chianti Classico estate Isole e Olena, Paulo De Marchi has developed it into one of the most respected producers in the region, through experimentation and hard work, and listening to what his wines and the land tell him. To have him in Reserve (one of only two stops on his quick tour before he heads back to finish harvest) is truly special - an event which may take hindsight and contemplation to consider its significance. Perhaps over a glass of wine.
We pour his first white, 2008 'Erbaluce di Caluso' from Paulo's Piedmont property Sperino as he guides us through his winding narrative paths, detailing how his family came by Isole e Olena, how wine-making in Lessona (Piedmont) has changed beyond recognition in only a handful of decades, and how he too came to be there. Made with native Erbaluce, the wine is fresh, simple, unoaked and a perfect introduction to a range of real diversity and quality.
'Why do you grow international varieties?' is aimed as a slight joke at Paulo, when we are tasting his Isole Chardonnay, as he talks about his 'wine of origin'. Recognising the apparent contradiction, he answers 'Chardonnay is not an international variety - it is a French variety.' The Chardonnay used to be blended with local varieties, but the Chardonnay stood out, whereas the local ones produced unappealing wines. 'Winemaking rule number one: you cannot just blend everything together to get good wine. If you blend good wine with bad wine, you just get more bad wine.' The results are in the glass. Crystal clear, elegant and savoury with a complexity to rival the best in Burgundy, but with an accessibility you couldn't find there (this being his '08), though it has plenty of life ahead of it. When I ask whether he would ever consider making wine in France considering he also made Syrah and both Cabernets, his silence and look of bemusement provoke a roar of laughter from the attendees. It is a question I already know the answer to.
'Back to Piedmont? I already have to do the drive every weekend!' Paulo exclaims as we move back from Tuscany to Piedmont to taste his next wine from Sperino, a rose. Expecting it to be underwhelming after the Chardonnay, it is held up by a spine of acidity and sweetness. Apparently the sugar levels were too high to convert it all into alcohol - 'We had to choose, sweetness and balance or dryness? We chose balance.' The wine, red liquorice flavoured, isn't my thing, but he is right: most importantly, it is balanced.
The 2006 'Uvaggio', again from Sperino, is a blend (Uvaggio translates as 'blend') of two thirds Nebbiolo, and the remainder Vespolina and Croatina. Scented, quite earthy and lacking in any Nebbiolo roughness, I note obvious parallels with red Burgundy. 'My son says in fifty years, people will be saying - isn't this red Burgundy like a wine from Piedmont!' Big laughs again. I wonder how much the landscape of Piedmont and Burgundy will change in fifty years, and whether Paulo's son's prophecy will ring true, especially considering global warming. It is a sobering thought.
After heading back to Tuscany for Isole's textbook Chianti Classico, which is met with approval from all those in the room, we move onto Paulo's Super-Tuscan 'Cepparello', which he notes 'has been my life's work'. He says this with such sincerity that I can't help but be moved. I (perhaps rudely) suggest I would like to have tried the '07, which has received rave reviews. He quips, 'The '06 is better! Don't believe point scores and Robert Parker!' He has bottled Cepparello under both screwcap and cork since '05. He says he is not happy when he opens old bottles with friends to find they are corked, but he is concerned that screwcaps make wines develop too slowly, and he has been experimenting with adding less sulphur to the wines under this closure. I would not be surprised if he came out one day as a keen ambassador on the side of the artificial closure. He finishes by saying that 'Wine is not a closure'. I'm unsure as to whether these quick-witted responses are rehearsed and re-used or off-the-cuff, but he certainly means every word: this is no sophism.
Over his wonderful Vin Santo (which he calls a 'lazy-winemaker's wine), he notes that, although he has moved towards 100% Sangiovese for his Super-Tuscan he 'is not convinced that 100% Sangiovese is best'. Conceding room for improvement in his 'life's work', he finishes his talk on 'wine of origin', insisting that he must listen to what the terroir and to what his wines tell him as to where to go next. He leaves after much applause, heartily shaking everyone's hand, to fly home and see what the harvest has given him to work with this year.
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