The tour: Avignonesi (Montepulciano and Cortona)
As we drove through the vineyards of Avignonesi’s Le Capezzine estate in Montepulciano towards the purpose-built visitor centre, Lorenzo hinted that we’d be in for a different experience than at d’Alessandro.
The centre was modern with a shop, bar and tasting area. It was fitted and furnished with a lot of polished wood and although it was nicely done, it didn’t seem especially Tuscan. It made me think of a Scandi-modern take on the Great Northern hotel in Twin Peaks, or possibly the reception area of an upmarket Finnish sauna. There were numerous staff.
By the time we were given some complimentary Prosecco we’d been greeted three times by different Avignonesi employees, all young and all wearing smart-casual uniform polo shirts. They were all friendly and they all asked if we were going on a tour and having a tasting; they all said that we’d love it.
If I’d said “Good morning,” and they had answered, “Yes, the conditions are almost optimal for the achievement of our great project; although the vines would favour a little more rain,” I would not have been surprised. Everyone was terrifically on-message. Nonetheless, it was hard not to like them and the atmosphere was genuinely pleasant.
The touring party was reasonably large, but not huge. There were a couple of pinch-faced and steel-haired Dutchmen, there was a quiet young Russian family, and there was a Canadian couple who somehow gave the impression that they’d just retired and were on the trip of a lifetime—perhaps they said so, because the gentleman tried to make a group out of us, addressing a series of friendly remarks to the company in general, many of them autobiographical, before giving up in the face of international indifference. There were also some British and American bourgeoisie, but they were everywhere and attracted no attention.
Being in a group made the tour less personal and if I think our guide was called Maria, that might just be because she reminded me of my half-Italian friend’s sister of that name. Anyhow, “Maria” was pleasant and a little earnest, she knew her stuff, and she did her best by us.
We started with the vines. These, we were told, were planted in a novel pattern that had both mystical and scientific significance. They looked good and we took some snaps of them.
The tour then moved around the estate, which seemed large, impressive and in excellent trim. We traversed buildings, looked in cellars, admired the landscape. Aside from some of Maria’s commentary, all I can remember is some very old clay pots, of the type that were used in traditional local winemaking but are now (we were told) banned by the EU. We admired them and took more pictures.
As the tour went on it became clear that at Avignonesi—motto Terroir speaks; we listen—they think there are more things in heaven and earth, reader, than are dreamt of in our philosophies.
Their winemaking is biodynamic, which is to say it follows the quasi-mystical agricultural principles espoused by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian anthroposophist and originator of Steiner schools. It takes account of the phases of the moon, among many other things. It’s a painstaking and expensive approach, with a lot of attention to detail.
Avignonesi is also working towards organic certification, while the newish owner, Virginie Saverys, an ex-corporate lawyer from Belgium, is interested in homeopathic principles.
As this became clearer, some of the touring party began to exchange glances. I realised why my nose for dystopian smells had been twitching; the combination of modernity, business-like ultra-efficiency and faith is a classic signature of the genre. (It also then occurred to me that the staff reminded me just a little of the youth group who follow Graham Norton around in Father Ted, except happier.) But when we are finally enslaved my guess is that our overlords will be tech-heads rather than winemakers, so I shrugged and enjoyed it. I am not afraid of Avignonesi.
Some of the party didn’t like this side of things much, however. When Maria told us about how every year they stuff a cow horn with dung, bury it and then dilute the result in huge quantities of water before drizzling it on the vines, the two pinch-faced Dutchmen openly scoffed at her. This seemed pretty poor repayment for the hospitality we were receiving and the way Maria, who seemed a little embarrassed by the whole subject, had gamely told us about the horn while maintaining a decent show of conviction.
JFD asked me what I thought and I said that while I didn’t go for it, it was quite literally bullshit, they obviously paid a lot of attention to detail, which probably indicated good winemaking. She nodded and muttered “Fucken Dutchcaps.”1
What I should have done was defend Maria by misquoting something Voltaire didn’t say but is often credited with: “I disbelieve your bullshit, but I will defend to the death your right to spread it.”2 Maybe next time. If they want to put homeopathic quantities of macerated shit and horn on their grapes, that’s their business, so long as their wine is good.
So, Avignonesi: a mix of clever science, ancient craft and enlightened hokum.
The tasting (and luncheon)
We’d signed on for the full luncheon tasting, with a three-course meal and a lot of wine with it. This was a good decision.
In another cruel blow for JFD, the first and only dry white wine was Avignonesi’s Il Marzocco Chardonnay. Naturally, she’s a member of the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) club. Hates it. She managed to force a fair bit down, though, and our glasses were filled again and again before we ate; we were among the last to be served and so drank a lot of the aperitivo wine.
The Marzocco was deep gold but had a nice firm flavour, there was nothing fat or overly opulent about it, unlike some warm weather Chardonnay. I was surprised by how much I liked it. ST drank steadily, while AFD was inclined to be extremely enthusiastic about whatever anyone happened to say.
The food was good and of a type to be acceptable to tourist palates without being bland.
More wine came. It was all good. I remember being impressed by the fact that the red all had a good bit of bottle age. Other than that, I seem to have tuned out agreeably for a while as we ate, until the grandest wines appeared.
We were asked to choose between Avignonesi’s top traditional Sangiovese (Riserva Grandi Annate Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon) and their top Supertuscan (50&50, half Merlot and half Sangiovese, half Cortona and half Montepulciano), but when they heard AFD and I talking about how we’d like to try both they brought us both—in fact, they were very liberal with the wine throughout, at least until we came to the precious Vin Santo.
AFD and I drank the two noble reds gravely, trying them against each other and discussing our findings. We agreed that we preferred the Grandi Annate, despite it being the less expensive wine. AFD thought it might be one of the best wines he’d ever had. ST and JFD agreed that we were pompous drunks and out of our depth.
At last, the Vin Santo came out: the Vin Santo di Montepulciano (made from white grapes) and the Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo di Montepulciano (made from Sangiovese). It’s hard to explain how rare and valuable these wines are. They take an age and infinite care to make; they are part of an ancient tradition; Avignonesi’s are famously good and hard to obtain.
We were brought tiny glasses. The liquid sat dark at the bottom and left a resiny wash when swirled. It was extraordinarily thick.
PF: “It’s amazingly exotic. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s exceptionally good.”
AFD: “Bloody marvellous.”
ST: “Mmm hmm.”
JFD: “It’s like a diabetic has been eating raisins and hasn’t touched a drop of water for a week and pissed into a glass.”
A note on the wines
Avignonesi’s Sangiovese vineyards (eight of them) are in Montepulciano. This is where the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is made. Note: Montepulciano is a town, a wine-growing area (related to the town) and a grape. Vino Nobile (and Rosso) di Montepulciano is made from a Sangiovese grape clone called Prugnolo Gentile. The Montepulciano grape is most famously grown in Abruzzo (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo) to the east. There’s no relation between Vino Nobile and the Montepulciano grape.
Prugnolo Gentile tends to make more potent wines than the Sangiovese clones used in Chianti, but less dark and powerful wines than the Brunello clone used in Montalcino. This means that aging the wine is particularly beneficial; Avignonesi’s policy of giving their wines time to develop and serving reasonably mature wines at tasting/meals is unusually enlightened. (They were impeccably generous in serving their wine, too, the tasting was expensive but good value. Unless, like JFD, you don’t like any of the wines on principle.)
What is Sangiovese like? Despite often being relatively light-bodied, it’s chewy. There’s a nice bit of acidity and tannin and it’s usually dry and savoury, with light cherryish fruit. The best ones can have herbal notes and all sorts of complexity. In other words, it’s not like the dark, easygoing, fat wines that you’re more likely to find on supermarket shelves and pub wine lists. They’re reliable and agreeable in a characterless way, like a Foreign Office diplomat in the medium of wine, while Sangiovese almost always has character, even if it’s not always a good one. It’s a bit of a lazy tag, but Sangiovese is an adult wine.
Avignonesi’s “international” grapes—Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon—come from their relatively new Cortona vineyard. The idea of the Supertuscan 50&50 is to marry the two contrasting terroirs of Montepulciano and Cortona, and the old and the new.
I haven’t supplied any tasting notes, because I was too busy enjoying my meal to record specific impressions. Which is how it should be.
Somehow we were hungry not long after we returned by car and said farewell to Lorenzo and so went to the pizzeria in the local village to buy takeout. We sat outside a bar as we waited for our pizza, drinking Moretti beer on draught and chatting idly. When we got back we drank some cheap and cheerful red wine from a five-litre bottle, bottles of Moretti and in JFD’s case, Aspall cider—the FDs brought a few cases of it with them when they drove down from the UK, Italy not having enough booze for them.
As JFD mocked AFD and me for our pretensions during the tasting, I reflected on the wine-lover’s colony at d’Alessandro and tasting wine with like-minded people: it sounds like hell. I love good wine, but I love good company and old friends more. And the wine tasting was better with people who hated it all in a good-natured fashion, or refused to express an opinion under any circumstances, or enthused amiably over the water we were given with lunch, than it would’ve been with people drinking carefully and saying the right things. God between us and like-minded people.
I enjoyed the fine wines, but the casual beer and cheap wine with pizza was pretty good, too.
Paul Fishman (Il Toro, June 2014)
1. The Dutch are not the most popular visitors in Tuscany because of their love of bringing their caravans and their dislike (according to the locals) of spending any money while they’re staying. ↩