By Sunny Brown
Category: Winery of the Month
There are a lot of instances in the wine industry where innovation and perspiration collide. A little sweat, a little creativity and a little confidence and boom a wine is created that is so profound, so unique and so magical that we are blown away by its sheer brilliance. An instance occurs where the wines are born instead of crafted, when the mold is set instead of followed. The wines of Andrea Franchetti fit this description to a tee.
Mr. Franchetti has created two unique properties, Tenuta di Trinoro, located in the confluence of southern Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria, and Passopisciaro which sits on the volatile volcanic slopes of Sicily's Mount Etna. The wines of each are astounding examples of why the desire to reach for one more bottle of Chianti should be resisted, and the urge to experience something new should be indulged.
In addition to owning a restaurant in Rome, Mr. Franchetti also worked as a wine distributor in New York City in the 1980's. He made many friends in the industry, chief among them were Jean-Luc Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud in Saint-Emilion and Peter Sisseck of Domino de Pingus in Ribera del Duero. Each were visionaries in their own right, and their wines are some of the most respected in all of the world, so there was no shortage of great advice for Andrea to fall back on. But ultimately it was Mr. Franchetti's genius that has led the way.
Tenuta di Trinoro was Mr. Franchetti's first creation. It was and is a departure from the normal way of doing things. For starters Mr. Franchetti selected a spot in a sleepy corner of southern Tuscany to plant his vines, a place where sheep and wild roses were more common than vines. A place where new grapes had not been planted in over a century. Then he decided to plant his vines high on the slopes of Mount Amiata in a place where the eroded rock of the mountain gave way to the limestone and clay of an ancient sea floor. And to top it all off he planted Bordeaux varietals instead of the ubiquitous Sangiovese. He even planted Petite Verdot- a grape notorious for its fickle nature and the long growing season necessary to bring it to full ripeness.
From the beginning Mr. Franchetti set out to make the greatest wine possible. The vines were created from grafts of some of the best vines in the Graves and St.-Emilion. Crop thinning is mandatory, with up to 60% of the grapes cast to the ground in order to protect only the healthiest bunches. The growing season in this very hot corner of Tuscany extends often into November, but the high elevations at which the vines are planted ensures that they remain balanced. Each parcel is harvested and vinified separately in small fermentation tanks, only indigenous yeasts are used, and only the free run juice makes it into tank. Mr. Franchetti only uses French Oak to age his wines.
Mr. Franchetti's other estate, Passopisciaro, sits on an old volcanic flow at a very high elevation on the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. Active? Absolutely, in fact just a couple of years ago a ski lift that sits above one of Etna's best vineyards was destroyed by a lava flow. Only a man of Mr. Franchetti's daring and vision would have attempted to produce wines of such quality from an untested region. The vineyards sit at about 3,300 feet in elevation, and the warm days and cool evenings provide an incredibly long growing season for the vines, often stretching into November and beyond. Petite Verdot again here plays an integral role, particularly in Mr. Franchetti's top wine, an outstanding elixir simply called Franchetti.
I recently had the opportunity to spend a day with Erika Ribaldi, a beautiful and vivacious women who not only runs much of the day to day operations of both estates but she also is responsible for representing the wines worldwide. Her passion and respect for the wines of Mr. Franchetti are infectious, as is her zeal and lust for life. But in the end the wines speak for themselves. I will share with you below a conversation that we had recently:
Winegeeks.com What drew Mr. Franchetti to plant vines in such a remote region in Tuscany where no new vines had been planted for so long?
Erika Ribaldi When Mr. Franchetti choose to retire from Rome to Val d'Orcia he was moved from the magnetic beauty of the location, he spent the winter of 1990 growing vegetables, taking care of the refurbishing of his 16th century home and finding the mental peace he needed after years of travelling in the USA and around the world. When spring came and the family demanded him back to Rome, he needed an excuse to remain in his private corner of the world, and decided to plant vines. As all he has done in his life, he decided to aim to the best and looked at Bordeaux as a model for his own property. He went to Bordeaux looking for inspiration and information and never looked back. This was the first year of his journey.
WG Petite Verdot is a difficult grape to work with. Was there ever any concern that Petite Verdot would not work at such a high elevation or in the low vigor soils on Mt. Amiata?
EB As one of the Bordueax varieties, Mr. Franchetti planted some, to give nerve and colour to his wines, of course being the pioneer of winemaking in Val d'Orcia, he didn't know what would be the results, but this was never a limit for him. Petit Verdot is a late ripening variety and not every year we can produce the same quality, but when the rain delays PV adds elegancy and acidity that is needed to balance the ripeness of Merlot and Cab Franc.
WG Twice now Mr. Franchetti has introduced "foreign" grapes to very traditional areas. The results are amazing, but has he made any enemies along the way with his unconventional practices?
EB The Italian wine world is quite provincial, so it is normal that the controversial way of Mr. Franchetti made rumour. But Mr. Franchetti is a man of Charisma, and he maintains a very low profile and this has always helped him to smooth the edges of any fight that others want to pick. I would say that in all occasions Mr. Franchetti has treated people living in his environment with great respect, bringing not only notoriety, but jobs and wealth in very abandoned areas and this has helped him to be not only accepted but respected. People can be moved by envy to criticize what we do, but no matter what someone can say we will always have our respect and politeness.
WG Tenuta di Trinoro was a big leap of faith. Mr. Franchetti used grapes not normally found in Tuscany, in an area where modern wines had never been produced, and at an altitude that seemed crazy. Was there ever any doubt that it would be such a success?
EB Mr, Franchetti once told me that he could not sleep during his first harvest, he told me that he had doubts but he found the confidence to pursue when in 1998 he went to Bordeaux and received the applause of the greatest Garagiste of Bordueux. Still now after 10 years every vintage is different, we face problems and we learn from mistakes, but there is no more doubts that we have achieved the Olympus and that we have to be grounded to our feet to look and aim only to the best possible results. The vines are getting older and wiser, and along with our passion and enthusiasm we can only improve. But as we are the new kids on the block we don't have the luxury to disappoint whomever pops a bottle of our wine, and to achieve this we can not fall into the compromise to bottle "no matter what." Some years we will produce more, some less and always a different bland. Mr. Franchetti is the solely owner and winemaker of Tenuta di Trinoro and my job is the one of making his life easier to make great wines, But without Andrea Franchetti nothing of what you have tasted will be possible. We are only accessory to his greatness.
WG Are there any plans for Mr. Franchetti, Jean-Luc Thunevin and Peter Sisseck to make a wine together? They could call it "The Three Wise Men."
EBPassopisciaro was a project involving peter and Mr. Franchetti, but as they all are men of great personality it was not easy to work as an ensemble. I think that the possibility of the three making the wnes together is quite remote, but you can trust me when I say that Both Jean Luc and Peter are among the few producers that Mr. Franchetti unlimitedly respects and admires.
WG New winemakers are pouring onto the slopes of Mt. Etna everyday. In the future when there will be several to choose from in the U.S. market, what will set Mr. Franchetti's wines apart from the rest?
EB Mr. Franchetti has been the first one to look at Mt. Etna without the myopic view of whom is seating on a gold mine and can not see it. Mr. Franchetti's not only is the first one to dare to late harvest Nerello Mascalese, but he is first and foremost the admirer of Sicilian culture. His appreciation for Sicily made him the benchmark for this new renaissance of Sicilian winemaker.
Trust me when I say that whatever will land in USA from the Vulcano can only be a wine of quality, (as you need to be an idiot to make bad wines on the volcano) so if more wines from this region will arrive, this will benefit all. Passopisciaro is the first one and this is priceless, people will not forget it, and I hope that consumer will never expect less than Passopisciaro to come to their tables.
WG You stay really busy with such a high demand for the wines. How many countries do you represent, and how do you have any free time for yourself?
EB I am the very proud representative of a man not only I respect but I first and formost admire. Because I am the interface between the kingdom of Trinoro and the real world people always welcome me with great respect and this make it easier to travel the 48 countries in which we offer Mr. Franchetti's wines. For me to travel the world on behalf of Mr. Franchetti is a source of motivations, of growing gratitude for a man that has molded me into the professional I am today.
WG How did you and Mr. Franchetti meet?
EB At the time when I met Mr. Franchetti I was the young wife of a fantastic, wealthy man, living like a queen in Cambodia and volunteering for an NGO training young adults of the dump site of Phnom Phen about wines to become wine stewards in five-star hotels around south east Asia.
Unfortunately the poverty of this country hit me mostly for the lack of dignity that this slice of human kind was treated with. I decided that was unfair to me and to them to keep leaving a luxury I didn't earn for my self and I must go back to work to make sure I was doing my share to make a living. So I sent Mr. Franchetti my resume, hoping to make an impression to the only wine producer that I never could effort to try. Few minutes later I sent my resume he called me asking me for an interview and few days later I was in Europe ready to meet such a person.
The very first moment I entered Val d'Orcia I was hit by the same amazement that led Andrea Franchetti to remain there and when I met him, it was love at first sight and decided that I could only work for him. Since then (three years ago now) I became the very first fan of Tenuta di Trinoro!
WG How lucky are you to have such an amazing project to work with?
EB I think I deserve what I have achieved and I think Mr. Franchetti deserves only the best from me and my team, by the way I can do what I do because I am backed up by fantastic young people that share the same enthusiasm I have and I have never taken for granted their talent.
Now, let's explore these fantastics wines, starting with the 2005 Tenuta di Trinoro Le Cupole, which is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot with splashes of Cesanese, Petite Verdot and Uva de Troia. Though technically the second wine of Trinoro, this is a first-rate Tuscan red. The Cabernet Franc provides a haunting perfume on the nose that swings from blackberry essence to violets and finishes with hints of mocha and dark earth. The palate is rich, round, plush and more concentrated than most anything else hailing from Tuscany, but it stays light on the tongue with a balance of natural acidity on the finish.
I was lucky enough to sample the 2005 Tenuta di Trinoro about a year ago and I found it to be amazing. The 2006 Tenuta di Trinoro may be even better! A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this is as close as heaven and Bordeaux can get to southern Tuscany. A rich frame of power, tannin and grace was given flesh by a sea of dark fruits, earthen spices and a touch of mineral nuance. The aromas positively leapt from the glass, and the finish went on for what seemed like an eternity. Truly an extraordinary wine.
From Mr. Franchetti's estate in Sicily the 2007 Passopisciaro Guardiola was a Chardonnay unlike any other I have ever sampled. Incredible waves of pineapple, peaches and mandarin orange crashed against my palate with a richness that begged for attention. At first I feared the wine might be too much show and not enough substance, but nuances of white flowers, salty minerality and a crisp finish proved that this is a wine of immense quality and depth, and not just another Chardonnay show-pony. It helps that it is truly a unique wine grown on a volcano out of ancient lava. Pretty cool, indeed.
When pressed about the Guardiola, Erika offered this in reply: "Guardiola is a working in progress. Next vintage we will start to work with cement instead of stainless still tanks, next vintage few acres of vine will enter production and we will finally produce a wine can be more visible and more people will asses the state of the potential of the volcano for white wines, especially Chardonnay, so in my opinion the greatness of Guardiola has still to come, and will be up to the consumer to define it."
The 2005 Passopisciaro was crafted from 60-100 year-old Nerello Mascalese vines that are grown at very high elevations. This indigenous grape variety is like an uncut gem just waiting for the masterful hand of Mr. Franchetti to hone it and reveal its true brilliance. The wine and the estate derive their name from local town, which in turn received its name for the local fish-monger's road Similar in weight to a Pinot Noir, the wine opened with a rush of red cherry and orange blossom on the nose followed by deeper more ethereal notes of dry earth and a gamey, animal note. The palate was as smooth as silk and seemed to caress my cheeks with gentle tannins not unlike the sort found in a well-aged Bordeaux. Full and present, but not obtrusive, this is is an amazing and thought-provoking wine.
Last but not least was the 2005 Passopisciaro Franchetti. A blend of Petite Verdot and Cesanese, as far as I am concerned this is the benchmark for Sicilian wines. Too often wine lovers think of Sicily and immediately think Nero d'Avola, but here is proof that incredible things can be created from this jewel of an isle. Dark and brooding, yet lithe and elegant, this wine seemed to provide a new sensation at every turn. Aromas of smoke, blueberries and blackberry jam wafted from the glass with ease and determination. The palate was rich and complex, with notes of fresh black raspberries, an earthen grip and a little barrel spice on the finish. There were plenty of tannins on the very long finish, but already they were well-integrated and chewy despite the very young age of this masterpiece.
Andrea Franchetti has proven with these wines that there is life outside of the normal Tuscan conventions, and that Bordeaux is not the only region that can craft world-class Bordeaux-inspired wines. If you are lucky enough to find the wines of Andrea Franchetti I urge you to grab them while you can. Demand is high and production low, but the riches that await will take your breath away.