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CALABRIA: Santa Venere

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01.12.2016Every Italian wine-producing region you can think of lays claim to great antiquity, but few if any can outboast Calabria, better known, or more clearly located in the mind’s eye, as the toe of Italy. Here they talk of libations associated with ancient Olympic Games, and they are proud to claim as an adoptive son the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, whose school civilised the hills of Krotone centuries before the arrival of preachers bearing crosses.
There is a magical, mystical atmosphere in this land, so blessed and so cursed. Benedetto for abundance of sunlight, for hills and mountains throughout the spine of the region which gather water and allow it to pour and trickle down to the vineyards and olive groves, the vegetable gardens and citrus and other fruit orchards below. There are even palm trees and cactuses with their fichi d’India (prickly pears) ripe for the plucking, and yet ski slopes an hour’s drive from the sweltering – in summer – sand beaches with their turquoise waters. Maledetto for a chronically inefficient (or worse) regional and local government and a fuorilegge organisation about which the less said, perhaps, the better.
Like every wine-producing region of Italy and Europe, Calabria towards the end of the 19 th/ beginning of the 20th centuries was reeling from the triple whammy of phylloxera, peronospera and oidium. The coup de grace came in 1908, when an extremely powerful earthquake comprehensively laid waste the capital, Reggio Calabria, and surrounds. With all its problems Calabria was slower than most to make a comeback, and hundreds if not thousands of Calabresi, including many wine-growers, fled to America, Argentina, Australia in search not just of a better life but of life itself. But however far they ran, they never forgot the motherland, as the multiplicity of partly built (therefore partly unbuilt) constructions along both the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian coasts testify. (Whenever their distant owners managed to save enough they had another floor added on.) Once a Calabrese always a Calabrese.
And it is this determination to overcome the difficulties and fight for their rightful inheritance which is shaping the positive attitude of forward-looking wine-producers today; growers like Librandi of Ciro who from the 1980s have been emphasizing high quality rather than volume, ultimately a necessary choice given the competition in the rest of Italy, not to say the world. Calabrians may have the advantage of copious sun-hours, slopes aplenty, water from the hills and a millennial tradition but the sun can give off excessive heat, the water supply apt to dry up in summer, the slopes too steep for tractors and the tradition more old-fashioned than technically up-to-date and equipped. Most challenging of all, though, are the uniquely Calabrian grape-varieties, capable of delivering unique flavours and sensations to palates weary of Chardonnay and Cabernet, but unknown or virtually unknown in the rest of the wine world.
Recently Vinexus visited this brave old world, specifically the area that can best be described as the heartland of Calabrian viniculture: Ciro` in the province of Crotone. The specific winery we went to see is called Santa Venere, a property owned by the Scala family since the 17th century (No one can say the place doesn’t have history). The owner is a dynamic fortyish-year-old called Giuseppe (Beppe) Scala, a lawyer who left the law and took over the running of the family estate when his father Federico died in 2012. The enological aspect is presided over by Massimo Bartolini, and the 25 hectares of vineyard are in the care of agronomist Domenico Spataro. Most significantly, overall quality control and strategy is entrusted to the widely-hailed consultant Riccardo Cotarella, a man active throughout vinous Italy and one whom Vinexus has cause to admire thanks to his work at the outstanding La Guardiense co-operative in Campania’s Beneventano. One might wonder what a man of Cotarella’s distinction is doing here in this modestly-sized winery in the depths of Italy’s most backward wine-region. One might conclude that he doesn’t find it so much backward as full of promise and potential. Like much of now-revitalized Central and Northern Italian wine-land was in the 1980s, say.
The heart of any winery is the vineyard, a large section of whose slopes and obstacles Beppe took us through in his 4-wheel drive (don’t ask me what type – I know zilch about cars). Flying through the air upside down in a ‘fun’fair has nothing on this experience, and I’m not sure how much of Beppe’s commentary I heard through the noise of chattering teeth, churning stomach and inward screams for mercy. The main gist of what I did hear centred on their preference for native Calabrian grape-varieties over the internationals, a policy with which we are in full accord.
Two grapes which Scala and co. have devoted much energy to are, in the red corner, Marsigliana Nera, and in the white, Guardavalle. The former’s origin seems to be a matter of some doubt in the minds of the ampelographical pundits, but it probably wouldn’t be too presumptuous to surmise that, like many grape varieties of Magna Grecia, it arrived a couple of thousand years ago or more with the Greeks and has, in the intervening period, had plenty of opportunity to insinuate itself, a plant here, a couple there, into the vineyards of Calabria. It is a very tannic grape responding best to a shortish maceration. This is what Ian D’Agata writes about it in his excellent book on the wine-grapes of Italy: “Federico Scala of the organically farmed Santa Venere estate in Ciro’ produces a monovarietal wine called Speziale” (from spezie/spices). “We selected vines from old vineyards and planted it in an amphitheater-shaped vineyard. (It) appears very resistant to diseases and is not very vigorous, though that may be due to our vineyard, high in the hills and on very poor nutrient-deficient soil.”
As for Guardavalle (a name which suggests that it prefers hilltop sites; looking into the valley), there seems to be some evidence that it is, or is related to, Greco Bianco di Ciro`, but one might have one’s doubts on the grounds that the Greco that pervades the vineyards of Ciro` tends towards the ordinaire whereas a good Guardavalle has a lot of character in the area of lemon, nuts, perhaps a hint of Bergamot, to say nothing of its creamy texture, complexity and harmony, and length.
For the proof of wine is not in the intellectualising but in the drinking – or at least the tasting, an activity to which we happily leant ourselves later on in our visit, after we had checked out the winery (unexceptional, functional, clean) and taken sight of yet another standard bottling line – i.e. of a type which one might see anywhere in the world of wine but might not expect in such a ‘backwater’ as Calabria. Each wine, we agreed, had a particular character, a presence of its own, which of course is the name of the game since there’s not much point in foisting upon the world wines which one could source from less inaccessible locations at a lower price (there’s always someone who can offer you a cheaper version of what tastes essentially the same).
WINES OF SANTA VENERE (the name refers to a stream that runs through the property, up in the hills)
2015 Greco Bianco di Ciro` DOC. Despite what we have written above, this proves exceptionally fresh and lively, citrusy, dry, very satisfactory finish.
2015 Ciro` Rosato DOC. 100% Gaglioppo (blanc de noirs from Calabria’s most widely-planted variety, pronounced gal-YOP-po). A remarkable feature of this wine is that the Gaglioppo grapes are harvested up to two months earlier than those for the Rosso, also 100% Gaglioppo. The maceration period is a few hours, and the method is not salasso (bleeding) because that would exaggerate tannins unwanted in the pink wine. The nose is fresh and attractive, but perhaps influenced by talk about tannin I find it a bit weighty on the finish.
2015 Scassabarile Rosato, Calabria IGT; 100% Marsigliana Nera. Pink with onion-skin tints; fragrant (violets), citrusy/herbal nose; mouth-wateringly fresh and long in mouth, good backbone, successful blend of the serious with the highly drinkable. The name suggests broken barrels (having been rolled along an uneven road)
2015 Vescovado, 100% Guardavalle, aged in stainless steel and bottle. Light yellow colour, lemon-curd nose (D’Agata finds hazelnuts, red fruit and tobacco), good concentration and balance on palate, interesting blend of flavours held in place well by firm acidity; good length,
2014 Ciro` Rosso DOC. 100% Gaglioppo, aged in stainless steel and bottle. Med deep colour with slight oranging on reminiscent of Barolo, for which it is sometimes mistaken. Tarry nose underlines this impression. Mellow and ripe on palate with a bitter twist on finish; medium long. Wine of character which probably needs another year or two in bottle.
2013 Ciro` Rosso Riserva DOC ‘Federico Scala’; aged 12 months in barrique. Pungent, herby/tarry aromas on nose. Concentrated, grainy but ripe tannins, sweet ripe fruit against firm tannins on finish; a thinker’s wine
2014 Vurgada`, Calabria IGT. Blend of Nerello Cappuccio and Gaglioppo. Some of the Nerello is dried on canes for about 1.5 months, a la Amarone. Wine is then blended and aged 6 months in oak barriques. Very deep, youthful colour. Full, plum/prune nose. A touch of sweetess on the finish, some amaro on the finish. The wine is roughly in the style of Amarone, but has its own character.
 Nicolas Belfrage MW
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