Leisure: Four Star Italians

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Though the winemaking traditions of the Italian peninsula are almost immeasurably old, the push among vintners to produce wines of a level of quality to compete with the finest wines grown elsewhere in Europe has been relatively recent. Unlike the grand châteaux of Bordeaux and the domaines of Bur­gundy, which, in the wake of World War II, maintained their exacting standards, many of Italy’s producers emphasized quantity over quality in winemaking. Consequently, in the postwar era, many of Italy’s most famous regions saw a decline in their reputations among the cognoscenti, inspiring a new generation of vintners (some new to wine, others from families long engaged in the trade) to commit their talents to the revitalization of the art of Italian winemaking.

These four family-owned wineries have played significant roles in shifting the focus from bulk production to the crafting of fine wine within the regions of Piedmont, Chianti Classico, Carmignano, and Friuli-Venezia Giu­lia. Pioneers and innovators, they set new standards for quality from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, a period that has come to be known as the Italian wine renaissance.

Ceretto, Piedmont

From the perspective of the traveler who must get from one place to the next, Piedmont appears anything but practical. This semirural region undu­lates eastward from the city of Turin in precarious parabolic curves of stone and earth crisscrossed by orderly rows of vineyards. It is difficult to imagine how these plots are reached, much less farmed. Yet Piedmontese winemakers are a resourceful tribe; they have had to be. Conditions in northwest Italy can be harsh, and the most critical seasons for the harvest, spring and fall, hurl at vintners an unpredictable array of meteorologic extremes.

In this region of dramatic landscapes, the Ceretto family has managed, over the course of three generations, to perfect their own blend of practicality and passion. Founded in 1937 by Ric­cardo Ceretto as Casa Vinicola Ceretto, Ceretto Aziende Vitivinicole, as it is now known, has always approached winemaking with a contemporary spirit. Particularly in Barolo, producers have tended for decades to embrace one of two philosophies: adherence to strictly traditional methods of winemaking (prescribed temperatures and maceration periods, as well as aging in old oak barriques) or to a more modern approach (shorter fermentations and aging in new oak barrels) that yields a fruitier, more international style of wine. Ceretto has sought to balance the two influences, according to Roberta Ceretto, whose father, Bruno, and uncle, Marcello (locally known as the “Barolo Brothers”), inherited the company from their father in the 1960s.

“Maybe the greatest and most revolutionary innovation introduced by Ceretto has been our extreme attention to the selection of the best vineyards and the production of single-vineyard wines,” says Roberta, who serves as the company’s marketing and communications manager. “Bruno and Mar­cello made this choice [at a time] when the common trend was to blend grapes coming from different vineyards of the region. Nowadays, their philosophy has become common among wine producers, and in the Langhe district, thousands of different single-vineyard labels exist.”

Several of the vineyards in the Ceretto portfolio—Cannubi, Bricco Rocche, and Brunate—have achieved cult status among collectors whose thirst for these long-lived red wines is unquenchable. The Brunate vineyard, located near La Morra, is a favorite spot for Roberta: Its small chapel of Santissima Madonna della Grazie, built in 1914, was redesigned by artists David Tremlett and Sol LeWitt as a carnival-colored capriccio in weathered terra-cotta brick that reflects another side of the Ceretto family’s spirit. “Some of the innovations brought to Piedmont by the Cerettos are not linked to wine production,” Roberta says. “Bruno and Mar­cello have supported design and culture (contemporary art, book prizes), conscious that people who approach wines like Barolo and Barbaresco have a high degree of education.”

The glass-cubed entrance and sculptural geometric lines of the Bricco Rocche winery in Castiglione Falletto (one of four owned by the Cerettos) embody this artistic sensibility. Although the family’s range of wines includes Barbaresco, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera, and Arneis (as well as red and white blends made from international varietals), only Barolo is made in this facility, which, Roberta notes, will soon be enlarged to accommodate the production of the label’s newest Barolo, from Cannubi, the inaugural vintage of which will be the 2003. While both the Bricco Rocche Brunate and the Bricco Rocche Prapò Barolos capture the graceful power typical of Barolo, the Bricco Rocche Bricco Rocche remains Ceretto’s highest expression of the Nebbiolo grape. The 2001 vintage ($210) evokes intense aromas of dried red cherry and lingonberry, while the dense palate presents complex strata of warm fruit, allspice, cedar, and licorice that, like the Ceretto family members themselves, unite the best qualities of Barolo’s traditional and modern styles.

Castello di Monsanto, Chianti Classico

Laura Bianchi, though young, possesses the poise, cordial warmth, and easy conversation of the landed aristocrat groomed to deftly navigate a wide assortment of social and business situations. Nevertheless, though she resides, while in Flor­ence, at her father’s 16th-century palazzo adjacent to the Basilica di San Lorenzo and, in the country, within a medieval Tuscan castle, she is relatively new (by Italian standards) to the gentrified life. The castle in question is Castello di Monsanto, one of the most important estates in Chianti Classico, which Laura’s father, Mila­nese textile manufacturer Fabrizio Bianchi, acquired in 1961. The decision to purchase the then-dilapidated castle, however, was not an arbitrary one.

“My grandfather Aldo (my father’s father) was born in Tuscany, in San Gimignano,” explains Laura, now Cas­tello di Monsanto’s managing director. “Before the Second World War, he moved to Milan to find a job. In the late ’50s, he started to discuss with my father the possibility of buying a house near the place he was born. As soon as they visited the property of Monsanto, they fell in love.”

The breathtaking vistas mesmerized Fabrizio, but it was the wines he discovered stored in the cellar that transformed his vision of a country idyll into something much more ambitious. He recognized in these wines the potential for greatness. Working with an uncle who produced wine in Piedmont, Fabrizio managed his business in Milan and the estate simultaneously, applying to the latter enterprise the same critical and creative faculties that had made his success in the former.

Fabrizio pioneered new winemaking practices at Monsanto from the beginning. In 1968, he eliminated the white Trebbiano and Malvasia from his Chianti Classico. “We were outside the law with that decision,” Laura admits, “but, thank God, no one put us in jail!” Fabrizio believed it was possible to produce red wine to challenge the best reds in the world, and he took a strong position, says his daughter, against the orthodoxies of the day, which changed in 1984, when DOCG guidelines discarded the required blending of white grapes with red. Fabrizio, having long insisted that the Sangiovese grape should define Chi­anti Classico, prevailed at last.

Although Fabrizio turned over the reins of production to Laura and winemaker Andrea Giovannini in 2000, his passion for perfection of Sangiovese carries on in the estate’s current releases, which encompass wines ranging from a single-vineyard Chardonnay (another of Fabrizio’s inspirations) to the Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio 2003 ($55). The latter, a medium-bodied blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Colorino, bears all the richness of that warm vintage. Ripe blackberry, sandalwood, and leather aromas furnish a heady overture to deep berry flavors accented by dark chocolate and wrapped in soft tannins. This powerful, velvety wine is Fabrizio’s oenological ideal realized.

Tenuta di Capezzana, Carmignano

One autumn morning not long ago, Count Ugo Contini Bonacossi, crossing the second-floor gallery of his Renaissance villa at Capezzana in Carmignano, noticed a large gilded wood object resting on a polished mahogany bench. His bright eyes sharpened with recognition as he carefully lifted the object to reveal a deep scratch on the polished surface of the mahogany. “Filippo is always leaving his paintings lying around,” exclaimed Count Ugo, visibly distressed by the gouge but apparently indifferent to the state of the picture, which turned out to be an exquisite predella from the school of Botticelli. Filippo, his son and the vineyard manager of Capezzana, had been out among the vines for hours. Neither his neglect of this minor masterpiece, nor his father’s nonchalance, surprised the observer: Old master paintings (including an oil portrait by Velázquez) clutter the walls of the gallery; the works are the lingering fragments of the Contini Bonacossi Collection assembled by Count Ugo’s grandfather, Count Alessandro, and now housed in a private wing of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. At Capezzana, art, like winemaking, is a way of life.

The villa lies at the center of a sprawling property that covers more than 1,600 acres in one of Tuscany’s lesser-known appellations. Wine jars discovered in this small region west of Florence date to the Etruscan era, suggesting that Carmignano’s winemaking traditions go back as far as 1000 BC. Its boundaries were established in 1716, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, an admirer of the region’s wines, passed laws regulating production, making Carmignano one of Italy’s first denomination-controlled areas.

The estate of Capezzana bears an equally ancient legacy. Records in the state archives confirm that wine and olive oil were the property’s principal products as early as 804 AD. But the estate’s modern winemaking story properly begins in the 1920s, when Count Alessandro and his wife, Countess  Vittoria, returned to Italy from Spain.

“My great-grandparents loved wines,” remarks Beatrice Contini Bonacossi, Count Ugo’s daughter. “In fact, while they traveled in America, she missed drinking wine. So when they returned to Tuscany, they decided to buy Capez­zana, in order to make great wines of their own.”

Count Alessandro recognized the potential of the property, which rests on Mount Albano’s eastern slopes. Under the stewardship of Count Ugo and his children, the estate has blossomed, producing six wines that range from the traditionally styled Villa di Capez­zana (a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon) to a beautiful Vin Santo and Ghiaie della Furba, a Super Tuscan–style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Opulently dark in color, the Capezzana Ghiaie della Furba 2001 ($50) unfolds in rich aromas of boysenberry, plum, black cherry, and vanilla. This soft, complex red exhibits a masterful balance, as powerful and subtle as any masterwork from the Contini Bonacossi Collection.

Livio Felluga, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Nothing about the village of Braz­zano di Cormóns, in northeastern Italy, would suggest that it is an international hub of any kind; and yet, this picturesque bórgo lies at the center of Italy’s most diverse wine region. Friuli-Venezia Giulia stretches from the ancient port city of Aquileia around the northern tip of the Adri­atic Sea to Trieste, bridging western and central Europe. Trade has flowed through this geographically advantageous district—as have armies of every stripe, with the result that local borders have shifted regularly, and local maps have been continuously redrawn. Indeed, many of the residents of Friuli are the descendants of refugees from the Istrian peninsula, which once was an Italian possession but now is part of Croatia. This instability has had at least one material benefit, however: While Friuli represents a small fraction of Italy’s total wine production, it boasts more varietals of grape than do any of the country’s other regions.

“The political turbulence of [Fri­uli] has brought the introduction of new varietals—for example, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot during Napoléon’s rule,” notes Andrea Felluga of Livio Felluga, perhaps the region’s most important winery. “Also, we have learned and absorbed a variety of influences from different winemaking schools, including the French and the Austro-Hungarians.”

Andrea’s great-great-grandfather made wine in Istria, while his father, Livio, learned winemaking from his own father, Giovanni, who managed the family’s winemaking enterprise in Grado. When the Second World War displaced the Fellugas, Livio made the momentous decision to pursue viticulture in the Collio region of Friuli. By the postwar era, most of the vineyards suffered badly from neglect, but Livio, undaunted, purchased a handful of acres in Rosazzo. While he would, in subsequent decades, continue to add to his vineyard holdings, which now include the winery in Brazzano and more than 330 acres planted to vines, Rosazzo remains the soul of the Livio Felluga label.

“Rosazzo is a unique viticultural area,” says Andrea. “The soil is marl and sandstone flysch from the Eocene era, locally known as ponca. Rosazzo is also near the sea and protected by the Alps, making for an unusual microclimate. In addition, we have thousands of years of history in winemaking, which has created a tradition between the land and the vines.”

Two of Livio Felluga’s signature wines are grown in Rosazzo: Colli Orientali del Friuli Rosazzo Bianco Terre Alte ($80) and Colli Orientali del Friuli Rosazzo Rosso Riserva Sossó ($80). The first important international blends in the region, these wines take full advantage of the diversity of varietals for which Friuli is renowned. The Terre Alte 2004 combines Sauvi­gnon Blanc, Tocai Friulano, and Pinot Blanc to achieve a bright, bracing medley of pear, apple, and white peach fruit, honeyed almonds, and cool, wet granite. Made with Merlot and Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Sossó 2001 is a dark red infusion of blueberry, violets, cocoa, and bay leaf. This stunning red wine from an area strongly identified with its whites redefines the boundaries of what most of us imagine Friuli to be.

Castello di Monsanto, www.castellodimonsanto.it

Ceretto, www.ceretto.com

Livio Felluga, www.liviofelluga.it

Tenuta di Capezzana, www.capezzana.it

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