Posts Filed Under on the road
[ Editor’s note: here’s one more from the vault of pieces sent to a magazine that didbn’t publish it or pay me; I’m running it here so that it’s not lost to posterity. Enjoy! ]
One of Tuscany’s most dynamic – and endangered – wine regions is hiding in plain sight
Donatella Cinelli Colombini could be your Italian grandmother. Affable, generous, and quick-witted, Colombini is the matriarch of Fattoria del Colle, her family estate in the almost unbelievably charming area of Tuscany’s Trequanda, replete with accommodations on an estate that dates back to the late 1500s, cooking classes, three pool, a spa, and an upscale-farmhouse restaurant. She also also oversees production of the Tuscan wine label that bears her name.
But Colombini has another job: in some ways, she’s trying to save the future of what the Consorzio del vino Orcia calls “the most beautiful wine in the world.”
Donatella Cinelli Colombini
“The landscape here is a perfect harmony between history, man, and nature,” she remarks. “We have to preserve that. Every month, every wine producer here receives a call from a realtor asking them to sell.”
While you will almost certainly have heard of the winemaking gems of Montalcino and Montepulciano, you probably aren’t familiar with Orcia, the winemaking area that sits between them near Tuscany’s southern tip. The problem isn’t that Orcia’s twelve municipalities, formally recognized as a wine region in 2000, don’t make excellent wine; in many cases, Orcia’s reds rival those of its more famous neighbors, planted on vineyards that have been literally designed from the ground up for producing small quantities of high quality fine wine grapes, primarily Tuscany’s “native son” of Sangiovese. The problem is that Orcia is almost too amazing of a place in and of itself.
Thermal baths in Orcia
Orcia boats the kind of beauty that makes you think that you’ve stepped directly into a scene from Under the Tuscan Sun. Think sun-drenched hillsides lined with cypresses, dotted with tiny ancient towns like Pienza (housing a terracotta museum), terme thermal spas like those in S. Casciano dei Bagni and S. Quirico d’Orcia (yes, some of the spa treatments involve wine), and no shortage of gorgeous castle tower ruins along the routes between them all, replete with deep history and past political intrigue (the region once played host to the duke of Tuscany, who ordered the draining of the the valley in the 1700s to spur agricultural growth, but also used his time there to liase with his mistress). Orcia has seen travelers since the time of the Etruscans, and its castle and fortress ruins are a testament to the popularity of the routes within the area, where bandit attacks once were frequent. It has hosted religious pilgrims, popes, poets, archbishops, mercenaries, dukes, the Medici clan, and even Charlemagne. The landscape has remained relatively unchanged for the last four hundred years…
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[ Editor’s note: Following is a piece that a wrote for a magazine, but after waiting over a year for them to publish it and pay me, I’m giving up and putting it here so that it can see the light of day and you can get some insight into a region that doesn’t see a lot of media play. Enjoy! ]
Northern Spain’s “Small California”
Why your next favorite Cab, Merlot, or Gewürztraminer might just be coming from Somontano
Take a second or two, and think about your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, your go-to Chardonnay, even your last Gewürztraminer.
What region was emblazoned on the labels of those tasty wine? Paso Robles? Washington? Chile?
Chances are very good that the word “Somontano” was not the area printed on the label. And yet, chances are also very good that this relatively small northern Spanish Denominación de Origen has been growing those same fine wine grapes longer than the more famous regions that produce your favorite versions of those same wines.
Somontano’s ancient Alquézar
Like most of the wine regions in Western Europe, viticulture in Somontano was probably established by the Romans, and also probable predates reliable written history, extending back to the second century BC. That it took the region until 1984 to become an officially recognized Denominación de Origen (DO) is, in a way, indicative of the minor identity crisis that defines the modern Somontano. At a time when “uniqueness” is the marketing battle cry of most luxury fine wine regions, Somontano is the odd man out.
Of the grapes officially permitted in the DO, only three (the white Alcañón, and reds Moristel and Parraleta) are indigenous. A few others (such as Garnacha and Tempranillo) are Spanish in origin but not native to Somontano. The rest are a hodgepodge of some of the wine world’s most famous – and decidedly not Spanish – grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.
What makes Somontano such an awkwardly difficult topic in marketing meetings is the same thing that makes many of its wines so good: the place has a great climate growing famous international grape varieties. As winemaker Jesús Artajona Serrano, from Enate (one of the founders of the Somontano DO) puts it, “we are in a small California…”
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One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that
a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and
b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”
Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele
One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.
And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.
And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…
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Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who founded the farming practices now known under the certification of Biodynamics, was largely full of sh*t.
For example, Steiner was all about making wild claims based on anonymous sources long before it became the new standard of presidential tweeting in the U.S.; just check out a handful of the claims he made in his The Submerged Continents of Atlantis and Lemuria:
“As to the sources of the information to be given here, I am for the present obliged to be silent. He who knows anything at all about such sources will understand why this must be so…”
“…it was only in the course of time that the forms of man and woman arose from an earlier, original form in which the human being was neither the one nor the other, but both at the same time.”
Working the good sh*t at Troon in Oregon
“Just as we have contrivances for transforming the latent force of coal into the power to propel our engines, so had the Atlanteans devices for heating by the use of plant-seeds in which the life-force was changed into a power applicable to technical purposes. In this way were propelled the air-ships of the Atlanteans, which soared a little above the earth. These air-ships sailed at a height rather below that of the mountains of Atlantean times, and they had steering appliances, by means of which they could be raised above these mountains.”
So we’ve got, with literally no evidence, Steiner on the record challenging how humans evolved, and claiming that ancient Atlanteans had airplanes powered by seed oil. So if you’re not at least a little bit skeptical of the guy’s take on farming, then you have deep issues with how you handle facts, logic, and the scientific method.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that with Biodynamics he didn’t stumble upon something incredibly useful for coalescing several centuries-old, tried-and-true farming practices that turned out to be great for fine wine vineyards. But it does mean that we need to approach anything that Steiner wrote with healthy (and probably substantial) levels of skepticism. We’ve tackled this topic before on these virtual pages, giving equal “air time” to both prominent Pro and Con voices regarding BioD, and more or less ended up not that much farther from our starting point (or, at least, I didn’t).
And so it was with a sort of mixed fascination and trepidation that I recently observed firsthand Troon Vineyard‘s Biodynamic compost preparations (#502-507) in the gorgeous (but, at the time, quite smokey) Applegate Valley, to literally see “the good sh*t”…
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