Chianti, an area of Tuscany located between Florence and Siena, is beautifully grooved with vineyards over wide rolling hills. Castles often decorate the tops with their surrounding estate of vineyards full of grapes grown plump and aromatic under the warm Tuscan sun. Castello Di Verrazzano, overlooking the town of Greve in Chianti, is one of them.
The “vineyards situated in Verrazzano,” are mentioned in a manuscript dating back to 1170, preserved in the Abbey of Passignano. Olive groves are recorded to have been growing on the estate simultaneously.
Today, the Renaissance villa is built around the tenth century tower. Originally, the castle was an Etruscan, then a Roman settlement until the Verrazzano family acquired it in the seventh century.
Giovanni da Verrazzano, born in the castle in 1485, was a Florentine navigator who explored the bay of New York and most of the East Coast of North America in the early 1500’s. Not one to keep a low profile, while seeking entrance to the Pacific Ocean near South America on his third and final voyage, he mistakenly landed on an island with cannibalistic natives. End of story….almost. New York immortalized him by naming their double-decker suspension bridge the Verrazzano-Narrows in 1964.
The Verrazzano Estate’s boundaries have not changed in over one thousand years.
Today the Cappellini family runs the estate after acquiring it in 1958. At the time it was in a neglected state and needed repairs. The villa was restored and the surrounding 220 acres of land reorganized, nourished and replanted in vines which are replaced every twelve years. A system of thorough organic fertilization as well as the practice of agronomic techniques has contributed over time to superior wines. The harvest is done exclusively by hand through a careful selection of grapes.
Most good stories have a great ending, and this is no exception. In my next post you are invited to come along with me on a wine tour of Castello Da Verrazzano. I promise a dungeon with cells, but no dragons! Stay tuned…..coming this Wednesday!
Marchesi Antinori has put his foot down at last. No more reckless development of his beloved Italy. Instead, he is fanning a new wave of sustainability and preservation, one that is in perfect harmony with nature. His new Antinori Cantina, located in the heart of Chianti Classiconear Florence, is solid proof of his commitment to the development of superior wine planted and nurtured in organically enriched soil and processed in a facility built entirely using sustainable methods.
“Invisibility” was the goal from the planning stages, made possible largely by the innovative work of Archea Associatiarchitectural studio, engineered by Hydea. It took seven years of work. Today, the Cantina sits in complete harmony with its surroundings, covered entirely with vineyards.
As I drove by on the freeway which runs in front of it, I almost missed it. What I saw appeared to be two long horizontal incisions in a hillside with vines growing up and over it. The cantina is literally dug into the hillside. Whatever was removed to build the cantina was put back into place afterwards. To make it even harder to see, the construction of terracotta, wood, corten steel, and glass created a reddish-brown color matching that of the earth. It reminded me of a huge Hobbit house. The cellars were designed to impact the environment minimally while attaining a significant savings in energy.
The new vines that have been planted on the roof of the Cantina are in fairly shallow dirt, so it is experimental at this point. Grape roots can grow very deep into the soil, but they may not need it to produce a crop of great wine. Only time will tell.
Grape varieties planted around the Cantina are Sangiovese (the predominate grape in Chianti Classico wine), Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, Colorino, Malvasia Nera, Mammolo, and a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
State-of-the-art architecture greatly impressed me. Everywhere I looked I saw a clean streamlined earthiness. No frill, fluff or fancy, yet beautifully laid out.
After driving up a long winding driveway to the guard station, I was instructed to park inside the underground garage. Taking an elevator upward, I stepped off onto the reception floor. Outside huge glass doors is a large patio with a corkscrew stairway leading up to the roof. From there you can walk over green lawn and see the young vineyards planted all around. Simply unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it.
There is no need for mechanical pumping to move the grapes and must through fermentation. The building was designed to allow them to be moved by gravity flow. As a result of this naturally delicate process, the wine tastes much more balanced and elegant.
Antinori has achieved the ability to maintain ideal temperatures for aging the wine in barrels by means of completely natural processes, like using local terracotta to enclose the cellars. No refrigeration plants here.
Vinsanto, a wine that the Antinoris have always produced, is a very old wine that has held a highly prestigious position since the Middle Ages. Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasiadel Chianti bunches are picked and laid out on reed mats to slowly dry. During this time, the grapes dehydrate (like raisins). This creates a higher sugar content resulting in a sweeter wine. It takes three kilograms of grapes to obtain one kilogram of dried grapes. They are then pressed into must and put into small oak barrels to ferment slowly. To achieve the best flavor and fragrance, the Vinsanto ages for at least three years.
Olive oilis another product that is made here at the Cantina. This area where olive oil is produced is called the orciaia. Traditionally, terracotta is used to store olive oil. If you look behind the pots, you can see stainless steel containers which today is preferred over the terracotta. Both are still used. The Antinori’s Peppoli Estate, from which three different olive varieties are harvested, provide the olives for some of the stored olive oil here.
At the end of the tour we were all taken into the tasting room to experience some Antinori wines. The taste and quality were all there. Delicacy, superb care and crispness is what I recall. We were quietly absorbed as we first sniffed, than tasted our wine.
The restaurant, named after the founder of the 26 generation dynasty, Rinuccio degli Antinori, is on the rooftop of the cellars. Glass panels run along the entire length of it, giving an astounding panoramic view of the Chianti countryside.
The Antinori Cantina also includes a museum, showcasing the 26 generations of family history which began in 1385 Florence, as well as an auditorium and shop.
Twenty-six generations of wine production has created an outstanding family of vintners. But, I discovered that the Antinori estates are more than that. They have created an idea, a goal to give back to the environment as well as bring people together to savor the earths bounty of wine responsibly and lovingly produced. It is an act of goodwill through an innovative process that challenges others to be better stewards of the land.
“It has passed into a proverb, that wisdom is overshadowed by wine. Pliny the Elder (Caius Plinius Secundus), Roman officer and encyclopedist, (23-79)
The properties of wine making are very possibly Rome’s most lasting contribution to the world today. What began as wild grapes that grew throughout the mediterranean region, cultivated by the Greeks and Etruscans, and embellished to an art by the Romans, is now considered an essential ingredient to socializing and fine dining.
The rise of the ancient Roman Empire saw an increase in technology and awareness of wine making which spread to all parts of the empire. Because the Romans held the attitude that wine was a daily necessity of life, wine became democratic and available to everyone regardless of class. By the 2nd century BC, wine and grape production soared. Large slave-run vineyards dotted the peninsula along the coastline. As the Roman empire expanded, wine and viticulture was introduced throughout the regions to ensure steady supplies for Roman soldiers and colonists. Conquered territories, such as France, Germany, Portugal and Spain traded with the Romans for wine even before the Romans annexed the regions and cultivated vineyards.
Unlike the Greeks and Etruscans, the Romans took a deep interest in the art of wine making. They cared about the quality of the wine, its taste, its aroma and its flavor. Some of the earlier wines, which tended to be harsh, could be ignited due to the high amount of alcohol, so it was necessary to dilute wine with seawater. Flavor changing properties were added to wine including honey, herbs and/or spices of all sorts, and chalk added to reduce acidity.
Roman historians Pliny the Elder and Horace claimed the best wine to be Falerno, produced in northern Campania, the region of Naples. Martial, however, prefered the wine of Albano, from the same area south of Rome that today produces the popular wines of the castelli romani. And finally Horace, who was fond of Caleno (a wealthy persons wine), Massico, and Cecubo, produced near Fondi, in the south of Lazio, which he considers “generous and strong.”
Almost all of these wines were preferably stored for generations in beautiful amphorae, slender and elegant, with elongated handles and necks. Horace gives specific instructions on how to taste aged wine, stating the best to be the Albano which was aged for nine years. You sip the wine, he says, together with your lover.
So how has all of this Roman viticulture carried down through the centuries to our wine making practices today?
To begin with, they developed the attitude that wine should be available to everyone (populi) and established its importance in everyday life. As a result, vineyards were planted and cultivated throughout the Roman Empire whose borders encompassed most of Europe. As far as wine production, they introduced props and trellises in wine growing, improved the presses used for extracting juice, and classified which groups of grapes grew best in which climates. They sought to develop a better taste with aged wine, and they were the first to store it in wooden barrels. It is likely that they were the first to store wine in glass jars with corks.
Many thanks to monks in European monasteries who, after the fall of Rome, kept the art of wine-making alive and well.
Today, wine consumption is still enjoyed by many and brings a strong connection within the realm of socializing. It is continually being improved upon and perfected by wine-makers all over the world. And to this day, as Horace instructed, wine is still to be ‘sipped together with one’s lover.’
I found myself relaxing at a quiet taverna in Naples one evening while watching the sun set over the boundless sea. Musing, I noticed that my glass of Verdicchio dei Castelli began to create a sparkling prism effect on the white tablecloth. As the sun continued to set, the golden shafts of angled light became even more magnificent. Mesmerizing. Engaging.
When did wine making begin in Italy? And where?
Well, what I do know is that the Greeks, always admired by the Romans, began cultivating grapes in southern Italy well before the first century. They called Italy “Enotria,” the land of wine. Their wine techniques spread northward to central Italy, which were adopted by the clever Etruscans.
In time, the Romans grew wealthy from conquests throughout the Mediterranean, creating markets to invest in vineyards. As a result, vine-growing became very advanced as the Romans knew which areas produced the best wine.
Wine was exported in exchange for slaves to cultivate the large estate vineyards, which grew even larger. People were forced off their land and emigrated to Rome. By the first century Rome was a metropolis with one million inhabitants!
“Imports of wine are absolutely forbidden…it makes men soft and unequal to hard work.” Caesar
For a time, Caesar prohibited Roman wine to pass the borders into Germany. But, Roman vines did spread along the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Trier, on the slopes above the Moselle, began growing grapes as early as the second century. Today these predominately white grapes are a vast supplier of some of the best white wine from Germany.
Pliny, Roman writer and historian, noted that wine-producing had spread like wildfire, covering much of Gaul by 71 AD.
By this time, the Romans had developed over 50 distinct varieties of grapes. The best wines came from Campania, north of Naples on the plain between the sea and the mountains.
Wine was available to all societal levels, like a sacred right. There was, of course, no tea, chocolate or coffee, no soft drinks or spirits. And beer, though it did exist, was considered a barbarians drink. Imagine that!
“Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.” Homer, Greek poet
As we all know, wine was a huge part of the Roman’s daily life. So, how did they stay sober?
Romans never drank wine ‘neat’, but diluted it with water, usually one part wine and two parts water. They sometimes used seawater or sweetened with honey. The Greeks diluted their wine even more.
The intention was to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of the wine while at their symposium by becoming intoxicated just enough to enjoy spontaneity and converse freely. The Roman counterpart, called the convivium, was not as tame. In each society it was considered disgraceful to become intoxicated in public and was not the norm.
How did all of this culminate into the wine we drink today, almost 2,000 years later?
In my next post I will share popular wines we drink today that are the very descendent of these Roman vineyards. You won’t want to miss it so…stay tuned!