I spent a long-awaited and satisfying 18 hours in the Collio Orientale denomination, hard by the Italian-Slovenian border last week. The destination was the biologico winery I Clivi, a small family winery owned and run by Ferdinando Zanusso and his son Mario. I had encountered Mario for the first time at one of the Vinitaly fringe events, VinNatur, last April. Since then I had seen him several other times. The purity and complex flavors of the wines fascinated me, and I was eager to get an up-close view of the vineyard and the men who run it.
Above: Galea vineyard southward view. This vineyard surrounds the Zanussos' house.
I Clivi has been in existence for less than 20 years. The name means "steep hillside," and the roughly 8 hectares of vineyards live up to that description. The terreno of the winery consists of two small parcels. One is the vineyard that surrounds the house itself, called Galea. The other, Brazan, is several miles away on an equally steep hillside. Brazan is closer to the Adriatic, and Mario told us that its hill is the first to receive moderating, refreshing breezes from the sea. The entire area around I Clivi is well-insolated and quite windy, which keeps mold and rot away from the plants. Such natural protections against common vineyard scourges are essential if you are growing vines with little or no chemical intervention.
The soil is calcareous, lending the wines minerality and structure. The clay in the soil enables the vines to avoid water starvation during the relatively parched summer season.
One of the things I didn't expect was to find, at both vineyards, a great many old vines of 50-60 years, and even older. The varieties grown here are Tocai Friulano, Malvasia and Verduzzo. The Zanussos do produce a red, which is light and pleasing, but the whites are the story here.
Before I write about the wines we tasted -- which will have to wait till another post -- I think it's important to air a couple of Mario's and Ferdinando's strongly worded comments about a certain wine-making philosophy (or cult?) that has grown up in their area of late, not to mention a certain scorn for "oenologists."
As we drove around inside Slovenia -- less than a mile as the crow flies from the Zanussos' house -- I asked Mario what he thought of the Gravner thing with the amphorae and so on. We were speaking Italian, so I'll condense his comments to a few bullets in English.
* Gravner's experiment is ludricous, a gimmick, a marketing strategy.
* Gravner's wines are dirty. "Technology gave us cleanness, and this is a huge advance for winemakers. We can make cleaner, more healthful wines. They taste better. They don't make you sick or go off. Why throw out the benefits of modern methods along with the overmanipulation?"
* Gravner's prices are absurd. "Especially since he's not spending a lot of money on oak!"
* Perhaps most damning of all, "Gravner is not part of the community here. He doesn't give anything back. He doesn't share or take part in things. And if you question his methods, you're attacked as if you've violated a cult. There's no rationality, so no basis for learning or the improvement of the area's wines."
I confess that I find such "dirty" wines interesting but no more. Certainly I wouldn't spend a great deal to drink them; I'm not sure I could drink, as opposed to taste. (And spit.)
At dinner, Ferdinando was no less adamant about "oenologists," at least the breed that is turned out by Italy's oenological institutes. "They're trained as chemists, and they approach wine with formulas as to what a 'great' wine should be like, what chemical elements it needs to have in it." In other words, these enologi are as much to blame for the homogenization of Italian wine as anybody from the United States. "It is assumed that every wine should possess such characteristics."
An interesting point of view -- not the first time it's been expressed, that's for sure -- but it is fitting that Ferdinando and Mario are producing subtle, interesting and very drinkable wines that don't easily fit into the usual categories. Their wines, nearly all blends of the local grapes listed above, age gracefully and develop for years. Although their retail price in the States is in the moderate $25 range, they are definitely vins de garde, or worthy of being such.
This subtlety and longevity has made it hard for I Clivi wines to
gain a sound foothold in the United States. Based on the implicit
comparisons between their wines and long-lived French whites, whether
from Burgundy or the Jura, the Zanussos have twice selected US
importers whose orientation was preponderantly French. Neither
relationship worked out because, as Mario told me, "They thought
Italian wines are Serie B." Second-rank. Both importers, for whatever their reasons, remained much more involved with their French portfolio.
I don't wish to give you an impression that Mario and his father are malcontents who can't cope with the world. Far from it. They're highly intelligent, well-educated and -traveled. But they do have firm ideas of what wine should be and how it should be marketed. They're relaxed about how long it takes to build a market presence in a large and complex place like the US. "These wines will get better for years. It's not as if we had to sell them off quickly or they'll go off. Their interest and value only grow with time."
Based on the vertical tasting we had, I'd have to agree with Ferdinando Zanusso. More to come soon.
In the Brazan vineyard
An old vine in Brazan vineyard