When asked about their winemaking philosophy and the changes they have made on their journey to where they are today, Anna Mattioli simply shrugged and smiled, replying that nothing fundamental has ever really changed at Collecapretta: “we make wine here the way we’ve always done”.
To people unfamiliar with all the developments in the wine world in recent years that might seem an unremarkable statement. But to us and probably most of their peers in the industry it’s quite astonishing that for many decades Collecapretta has followed the ‘natural wine’ philosophy long before that term was even coined. Even before 2005 when they only produced two vino sfuso wines, a white and a red, their view was that the principles they followed were not just the right way to make wine but in fact the only way to make wine how nature intended it to be made.
One of the unacknowledged pioneers of zero intervention wines, which are now all the rage, Anna and her husband Vittorio have always practiced organic land management for their entire farm which includes 15 acres of vines, 5 acres of olives and 5 more of ancient wheat grains. Untouched since time immemorial by herbicides, pesticides or anything else ending with -cides (derived from the Latin verb occidere, to kill), their land is nourished only with the natural manure from their farm animals.
Their grapes are hand harvested and fermentation takes place spontaneously from the wild yeasts on the grape skins. In the cellar they crush the grapes with a very traditional hand operated basket press, which is no easy task given a current annual production of around 18,000 bottles. They employ no artificial temperature control, eschew fining or filtration and do not add sulfites at any stage of the process. Even the labelling of their bottles is done by hand.
It's very easy to simply list the things that they do or don't do but harder to describe the know-how that comes from decades of experience. For example, the only clock that guides them is the lunar calendar and when Vittorio wants to know when maceration is completed he simply feels the texture of the wine must with his hands and then tastes it, drawing on his memory bank of over 45 vintages to guide him.
(Above right, Anna showing us the classic form of a bunch of Trebbiano Spoletino grapes still on the vine, with two wings at the top, a narrower central body and two spreading feet at the bottom, all of which increasingly resembles the geographic form of the Italian peninsula as the season progresses - a very patriotic vine!).
Collecapretta therefore ticked all the boxes of natural wine many decades ago and now others in the wine world are catching up with them. Their eldest daughter, Annalisa, has been gradually taking over the winemaking responsibilities, continuing in the same vein as Vittorio, and if winemaking fashions were to change in the years ahead then I’m sure Collecapretta would simply carry on as before without a second thought.
However, while their winemaking philosophy may not have changed, their wines certainly have because in the space of 17 years they have gone from two wines poured out of a tap for appreciative friends to today’s lineup of 12-14 different bottles, virtually all of which are based on single grape varieties. Which naturally begs the question as to what was the catalyst for this great leap into becoming a much more ambitious winery with enthusiastic customers today right across the globe.
It was a simple gathering of family friends for which they had bottled some of their vino sfuso with self-designed labels that set the events in motion because by pure happenstance one of the bottles came into the hands of a certain Danilo Marcucci. At that time he was simply a neighbor involved in Umbrian wine sales but today he is renowned as both a natural winemaker himself, who has rejuvenated the old and neglected estate of Conestabile della Staffa, as well as one of the leading natural wine consultants with clients throughout Italy.
The Collecapretta vino sfuso that he drank that day in 2004 was to change his life as well as the direction of Collecapretta for it was Danilo who persuaded Vittorio and Anna to bottle their wines and sell them commercially, convincing them also that their wine was in fact of much higher quality than they themselves realized.
As Anna retells the story, they were initially reluctant because of the investment required at the same time as they were busy completing a new cellar and putting two children through university. Once persuaded they took a cautious approach and launched just 3 labels in 2006 with Danilo helping them with sales and marketing, a role he continued to perform for several more years.
In the same way that word of mouth had always sold out their vino sfuso, now interest in their bottled wine quickly grew and a few years later a French importer arrived out of the blue on their doorstep in this remote part of Umbria. It’s still not clear why a Frenchman sought them out first but perhaps it was because France led the way with natural wines and Collecapretta was one of very few commercially available Italian natural wines at that time.
Also out of the blue in late 2008 a local journalist wrote an article full of praise for their wine. Momentum was gathering. Then an American wine importer specializing in natural wines discovered Collecapretta and arrived in Terzo La Pieve with a proposal to bring their wines to the US. The proposal was met with some hesitation at first because one of the reasons most winemakers are fearful of not adding sulfur dioxide to their wines is that if they are not absolutely perfect there is some considerable risk of spoilage when transported long distances. The importer took on the risk himself and a flourishing long term relationship was established.
On the topic of spoiled wines we, like many others, have tasted natural wines that seemed a little too funky in taste to be completely sound, due perhaps to oxidation or volatile acidity, and Anna understands the need to be rigorous at all stages. She is well aware that there are natural wine producers who occasionally bottle wines that are less than perfect through economic necessity or whatever and it can negatively impact the wider reputation of natural wines, tarring everyone with the same brush.
At Collecapretta, staying true to their principles has resulted in several setbacks over the years, including only last year when a dry summer resulted in very high sugar levels and the lack of temperature control during the fermentation meant they were unable to prevent a stuck fermentation when the temperature dropped precipitously. Rather then re-start the fermentation artificially to consume the residual sugar the whole batch was sacrificed. And this was not just any old batch but in fact the highly prized Vigna Vecchia Trebbiano Spoletino and unfortunately as a result there was not even a single bottle for us to buy and bring home.
The moral of the story being that if you aspire to make natural wines at the same time as wanting to protect the reputation of your brand for producing only high quality products then these are the business risks you will inevitably face and one of the reasons why natural wines tend to be a little more expensive than conventional wines where the spoilage risk during fermentation or transportation has been completely eliminated.
During our long discussion Anna had no hesitation in naming Trebbiano Spoletino as the grape she has truly fallen in love with and as we were sipping the sublime Terra dei Preti at the time, we could see why. It's a grape variety found only in Umbria and very common in the area around Spoleto which is where Collecapretta is situated.
Anna, who has spent much of her 42 year involvement with Collecapretta tending to the vineyards and is therefore well qualified to talk about this grape, told us that for a long time it was mostly grown alongside the river beds and valleys and as a result it was getting much less sun than it actually needed. Once planted on the more exposed hilltops people began to witness its true potential.
It's up for discussion though as to how much of the Trebbiano Spoletino grown in Umbria is actually correctly classified as such and after walking many Umbrian vineyards over his decade of research for his book 'Native Wine Grapes' of Italy, Ian D'Agata remarked that "no two Trebbiano Spoletino producers have grapes that look alike". My only comment would be that the few Trebbiano Spoletino wines that we have had before didn't taste anything like Collecapretta's Terra dei Preti.
Anna's beef however is not whether other wineries are correctly identifying their Trebbiano Spoletino grapes but rather the fact that the local DOC rules permit blended wines to be labelled as Trebbiano Spoletino, with up to 15% of other white grape varieties in the final blend. This is so antithetical to Collecapretta that they refuse to label their two 100% Trebbiano Spoletino wines as DOC wines, with the result that the local DOC authorities do not allow them to even put the name of the grape on their bottles.
They were then forced to come up with an imaginative but faintly ridiculous label description on the two Trebbiano Spoletino wines as follows: "da una selezione di uve autoctone di Trebbiano tipiche del Sud dell'Umbria". The Mattioli family ploughs its own furrow in every respect and they have earned the right not to compromise when important principles are at stake.
Finally, below is a 5 minute video taken in 2021 in which Anna describes the critical work that goes on in the vineyard throughout the year and after watching it, you quickly become aware that the non-interventionist philosophy of natural winemaking in the cellar is only possible when one is of necessity incredibly interventionist in the vineyard.
The various risks taken with natural winemaking require that the grapes arrive at the cellar door in the best condition possible. La Potatura is a labor intensive process and if not carried out properly the minimalist approach in the cellar will not hide any defects in quality arising from a lack of attention or expertise in the vineyard.
Il Rosato di Casa Mattioli 2021 - Rosato Umbria IGT (14% alcohol)
2,198 bottles produced from Barbera grapes
A lovely pinkish shade of peach in the glass, this is a very expressive wine with a powerful scent of orange rind on the nose that is so luscious one almost expects the wine to be sweet. Lots of flavor on the palate with notes of pomegranate, crisp acidity and a refreshing, slightly bitter finish. A delicious wine from an underrated grape for rosato.
Il Burbero 2019 - Sangiovese IGT Umbria (14% alcohol)
1,872 bottles produced, using late harvested Sangiovese (80%), Merlot (10%) and Ciliegiolo 10%. This wine was first made somewhat accidentally from overripe grapes ("una surmaturazione occasionale delle uve" in Collecapretta's own words).
The effect of the slightly later harvest and the particular combination of grapes has created a wine with a fascinating profile that pushes the boundaries a little but stays on the right side of all the lines. It's soft, rich and deep with layers of flavor that run the gamut of tobacco, spice and chocolate and even a little licorice on the finish. The slight sweetness is never cloying and there's very little tannin to disrupt what is a very fruit forward and mellow wine. The cherry flavor of the sangiovese here leans more towards the jammy end of the spectrum which gives it a plush velvety texture that is so easy to drink.
Merlo Nero 2020 - Merlot IGT Umbria (14% alcohol)
1,502 bottles produced from Merlot grown at an elevation of 2,000 feet
Leather and candied fruits on the nose have you expecting a big, bold wine but on the palate it's actually rather elegant and refined. Rich red fruits abound with some definite sweetness but there's enough acidity here to keep everything in check. Not your typical Merlot that's for sure.
Le Cese 2020 - Sangiovese IGT Umbria (12.5% alcohol)
2,148 bottles produced
This is a very fruity wine with a heady scent of cherries. On the palate it's astonishingly smooth for such a young wine with very soft tannins and notes of balsamic and aromatic herbs. Surprisingly light in alcohol at only 12.5% it's a very different type of wine to the Tuscan Sangiovese wines that most people will be familiar with.
Il Galantuomo 2012 - Barbera IGT Umbria (14% alcohol)
1,002 bottles produced from 40 year old vines
What a pleasure to drink this 10 year old Barbera. Toffee and spices on the nose give way to tertiary flavors of stewed plums and tobacco on the palate. Very soft but still with enough acidity, many people might think that this was over the hill but I've always loved fully mature red wines that are slightly redolent of old tawny ports. A lovely wine.
Terra dei Preti 2021 - Trebbiano IGT Umbria (12.5% alcohol)
3,937 bottles produced from Trebbiano Spoletino grapes
After a week on the skins this is way beyond an orange wine, instead it's a stunning shade of amber in the glass. There's a rich, heady nose of stewed apricots but any suggestion of sweetness is dispelled instantly on the palate where it comes across as fresh, dry and very fruity with apricots to the fore as well as a touch of lime. A very distinctive wine that is aromatic and thirst-quenching and a perfect accompaniment to Anna's favorite dish of Pasta alla Carbonara.