The economics of some wineries are fairly obvious. Let’s assume you are in quality sector of the market and can sell your bottles for between €10 and €25. If you want to maintain direct control of everything you will have to limit yourself to between 10 and 15 hectares of vineyards and produce 70,000 to 100,000 bottles. If you want to make serious money, you probably need a lot more land and be prepared to manage a medium size concern. On the other hand you can make a choice about a life style and live within your means, hopefully contentedly.
Massa Vecchia (‘old Massa’), 125 kilometres south of Pisa in Southern Tuscany, is very small by these standards – just 3.5 hectares tucked in under the hill on which the ‘new’ Massa Marittima (mainly 1200 onwards) was built. But when you visit, it is absolutely transparent that every aspect of this enterprise is driven by conviction – biological farming, very low intervention in the winery and an acceptance that some years you will have very little to show for your work because of the weather and disease. The small size of the enterprise is matched by ingenuity in the winery. In short, when you buy a bottle of their wine at the winery for €20-30 you are buying not only a commodity but also the result of a whole set of choices, the expression of a place, and even a part of someone’s life.
This farm was set in this direction by Fabrizio Niccolaini in 1985 who gave up his studies of Maths at university to run it, later assisted by his wife, Patrizia. Some of the vineyards are older, planted by his grandfather in the 1970s. In the intervening decades it has become one of the best know labels of the ‘true wines’ (Vini Veri) movement. But in this niche, acknowledgement doesn’t bring the sorts of rewards that most are looking for – but it might just bring you a real satisfaction and certainly makes you sleep well at night.
The winery is increasingly run by Patrizia’s daughter, Francesca, and her collaborators, with Fabrizio acting as consultant. He has moved to a new project, a farm on which to become self-subsistent. On the day of our visit, in mid August 2010, at 10am Stefano, Francesca’s husband, was just finishing the early morning’s work which involved putting up the electric fence around the vineyards. The local wild boar, cinghiali, have a penchant for ripening grapes, but they are not the most discriminating eaters. Unlike the birds which peck at the grapes, the boar are just as likely to damage the vines wholesale or strip the fruit and then leave it on the ground, so measures need to be taken.
Our visit last year concentrated on the winery, so this year we walked around the vineyards. Nothing changes fast here, but everything has a reason. The vines were planted from 1972 onwards, which accounts for the wide rows. The predominant system is spurred cordon, with the plants trained at different heights according to their needs. The Aleatico (which will make the sweet, highly perfumed, dessert wine) is ideally suited to the harsh island climate of nearby Elba. As a result, here inland, it is trained very low to get the benefit of the heat reflected off the ground. By contrast, Sangiovese and Alicante are kept well above the ground with quite a lot of leaf to sustain the plants in the long term. Different again, the relatively recent arrival, Cabernet Sauvignon (picture), needs a lot of space to romp around in and can carry a dense canopy of leaf and lots of fruit. Despite its small berries, you can see why it is increasingly popular.
The vineyards are managed very personally, including replacing failing plants by rooting the branch of an adjacent vine. This is not only very economical, but it ensures that the new plant has the help of its parent for as many years as it needs it. Without this help, the new vine would have to compete in its early years with the massive root systems of the established plants. This practice makes a lot of sense as there is deliberately no irrigation here. And of course it secures an exact match in terms of genetic material. When the new plant is strong enough and the rooted branch begins to wither, it can be severed, freeing the new vine from its parental support. It is this long term low-intervention, respect for the land and continuity which marks out Massa Vecchia.
The tour of the vineyards shows overwhelmingly healthy vines in quite a difficult year. There have been very few ‘normal’ years recently, what with a hotter, and at times wetter, climate. 2008 was particularly difficult with only a small proportion of the wines being made. And it is not just the natural wine makers who were affected. At nearby Moris Farms, there was no top wine Avvoltore in 2005 or 2008, and the wine from that prestigious vineyard was sold as ‘open wine’, a huge comedown. At Massa Vecchia a bad year just means having to live on whatever they had before and waiting. Fortunately 2009 was very good to excellent and 2010 is now looking good – though of course no one will tempt fate as the last few weeks before harvest are all important.
Despite the very wet late spring of 2010, which seemed interminable at the time, Francesca is sure that their very low intervention methods, in effect using copper spray as a barrier, has left them in a much better position than their neighbours who grow conventionally, ie who treat chemically. The basic theory is that you should attend to the life of the soil. This done by feeding it with natural fertilisers, by conserving water and allowing the plant to do the rest. If you let the plant do the work, establishing deep roots and building itself up, it will develop enough strength and natural resistance to get through the difficult times. There are a few signs this year of the fungal diseases, peronospera and oidium, but nothing to stop a good harvest. One plant shows signs of stress from lack of water or potassium (picture) but it’s bearing a good crop. And if something fails, then it fails, and that is part of the deal of working with nature.
The grapes are just on the turn. The bunch on the left is Alicante, a version of Grenache which has been in the Maremma for two hundred years. On the right is Aleatico, which has now been shown to be a relative of Moscato bianco – this might seem strange as it is a coloured grape but it makes sense given its extraordinary aromatic quality.
They have a little Trebbiano here, the old work-horse white grape of central Italy, and plan to make some Vin Santo, ie by drying out the grapes first and then vinifying them. They used to do this with Sangiovese to make a red dessert wine but, typically, they are now using this harvest for another wine and deciding to make a few bottles of white Vin Santo instead. And of course you don’t need many plants of Trebbiano to get a lot of grapes.
When we return to the winery, a basic agricultural building, we have a walk around. By the standards of good years, there is not much wine in store – 80% of the 2008 was lost to the extremely wet spring, setting up ideal conditions for attack by peronospera. Given the long ageing time they use, this means that there is little in barrels now and fewer bottles in store than usual – note the empty racks in the picture below. They did make a rosé in 2008 which is still in old barrels, a pale but interesting wine with what was left of the Aleatico, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malvasia nera. The smell of roses so typical of Aleatico is quite prominent but then there is a serious structure and quite a lot of complexity on the palate. This is typical of Massa Vecchia’s approach – the wine is quite unlike anything anybody else is making (aged rosé) and probably they won’t do it again with this particular blend. It reflects the particular conditions of the 2008 season.
This point is made very eloquently in the new book published this year on the ‘natural wines’ of Italy. Giovanni Bietti is a musician, writer and established taster with L’espresso which produces one of the standard annual guides to Italian wine. With collaborators, he has now launched on a four volume series on the natural wines of Italy, a first in publishing terms. We bought a copy of the book at Massa Vecchia and it is an excellent introduction to natural wines. It is a highly controversial subject but Bietti does a good job in setting out some definitions and making plain his approach. He is an enthusiast but a clear sighted one who knows that the best he can do in a short introduction is to set out his own case. Massa Vecchia gets a major write up in the book as the featured winery for the Tuscany coast. It is introduced as ‘the historic producer for natural wines and without doubt at the peak of quality on the Italian scene’ (Giovanni Bietti, Vini naturali d’Italia. Manuale di bere sano, Vol 1, Italia centrale, p. 77, Edizioni Estemporanee, Roma 2010)
Bietti argues that one of the distinguishing features of natural wines is that they really ought to taste different from year to year. Even if the land is the same, the grapes are the same and the vinification very similar, the wine should reflect the particularities of the weather of that season, the aggregate of rain, hail, wind, sun and much more. This of course is the complete opposite of most modern wineries and their striving for consistency.
A further reason for year to year variation is fermentation with naturally occurring yeasts. The wild yeasts present on the skins of grapes are are not reliable and quick in the manner of modern selected yeasts. This can mean long, slow process, slowing to a crawl if the autumn is cool and only getting going again more steadily in the spring – so again, you get difference year to year. So the aim should be – says Bietti – to produce wines that reflect the year and the place, not perfectly clear, clean wines that are the same from year to year. Massa Vecchia certainly achieves that goal.
This variability is part of the Massa Vecchia’s approach. It produces different wines (or at least differently composed wines) each year depending on what succeeded that seasons. Despite their small size, they have nine grape varieties in the vineyards including some very old clones of Tuscan grape varieties. From these they make up a range of wines as the season gives and, in bad years, as necessity dictates. They then make wine in very traditional ways, with long maceration times on the whole and very long ageing in old wood barrels. The rosé shown above is a good example. When we tasted the 2008 rosé at the winery in August 2010, it was still in barrels, pretty unusual for a rosé.
In August 2010 we tasted from the barrels:
Bianco 2009: after the difficulties of 2008, 2009 was a very good year and helped to replenish the cellar. This year, this wine is 70% Vermentino and 30% Malvasia bianca. The pronounced aromatics of the Malvasia were evident at this stage, but as it matures the Vermentino will come to the fore. This is a substantial, even chunky wine, as much a food as a drink, reflecting a strong theme of natural wines as nutrition, not just accompaniment or enhancement. It was Luigi Mancini in the Marche who pointed out to us that wines were grown in the past for their food value – the calorie content, a cause of concern for us overfed Westerners, was a prime value for hungry peasant farmers in the past.
Rosato 2008: as noted above, this is the precious remnant of the demanding 2008 season, made up of Aleatico, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malvasia nera. What survived ripened, creating this big 15° wine. By conventional rosé standards this is an unusual wine – floral Aleatico nose, big structure and fruit from Cabernet, long ageing potential.
Vino da tavola rosso, 2009: another innovation, to deal with a good crop of Sangiovese and the tougher economic climate. This simpler red is made from some young Sangiovese, planted by Fabrizio, sold, but now rented back by Francesca. To this is added some Merlot which is only macerated for three days. Francesca’s comment is that the fruit in the wine comes from the Merlot, with Sangiovese contributing meatiness. In terms of the market, it could also attract some to try these wines at a lower price.
Aleatico 2009: in a word, fantastic! Sweet and perfumed red wine is not to everyone’s taste, but the amazing richness on the palate, balanced by good acidity, means that this is and will be outstanding. It won’t be bottled until 2011.
I also tried the Grappa which could convert a convinced non-Grappa drinker like me. I couldn’t begin to describe the complex aromatics but I could see what all the fuss might be about.
Many thanks, Francesca, for the privilege of walking the vineyards with you and getting an insight into your values and approach. In a world of increasing homogeneity and global branding, Massa Vecchia offers another way, another set of (constantly changing) wines and a commitment to a less grasping way of life.
For a tasting of some of the other wines produced, see my post on our earlier visit of July 2009. Since our visit I have translated the farm’s website into English, so do read Francesca’s manifesto: click here.
On to the homepage for the Tuscan Maremma.