I like Umbria more and more with every visit there and I generally find Umbrians more open and engaging than Tuscans. Despite waking every morning to a lovely view of Tuscany, Nicola Chiucchiurlotto is Umbrian through and through and he farms in border country where for centuries first the Guelphs of Perugia and the Ghibellines of Siena and Arezzo would dispute this territory and then the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States would eye each other suspiciously across these hills.
Two thousand years before these skirmishes, nearby Chiusi was one of the most important of the twelve Etruscan city-states and was ruled for a time by Lars Porsenna who became famous for his succesful siege of Rome in 508 B.C. Some of the ancient subterranean aqueducts built by the Etruscans in Chiusi can be seen today, appropriately named the Labyrinth of Porsenna.
Border country people always know their history well and as Nicola introduced us to his land he pointed out the two ancient towers below us on the south side of Lago di Chiusi. The original structures date back to 1280 when the Bishop of the Ghibelline city of Arezzo asserted his rights over the lake by erecting an octagonal tower at what was then a ferry pier across the flooded plain.
The Perugians retaliated immediately with a larger tower opposite, built higher up on on a small hill. In a battle of insults the first tower was called Beccati Questo and the Perugians responded by naming theirs Beccati Quello (giving each other the finger is perhaps the best way of describing these names). It was a mutual challenge to combat that probably never actually took place because a few years later the Arezzo Bishop was felled in the Battle of Campidoglio with a young Dante Alighieri on the opposing side and the towers soon became more useful operating as tax collecting customs houses.
Nicola is now the fourth generation to manage the property and he is very much a farmer as well as winemaker. His 160 acres of land have always been planted to a variety of crops even though the wine business is now the most visible and time consuming part of the estate.
Vines today account for about a quarter of the acreage with olive groves, cereals and legumes taking up the rest of the space as well as some land left to woodland. This not only reflects the heritage and tradition of Madrevite but provides the often underrated biodiversity that keeps the ecosystem of the entire farm healthy.
This article is about Nicola's wines but we also came away with a bottle of his excellent olive oil, his two varieties of Crema di Ceci and his dried Fagiolina del Trasimeno, an ancient type of bean cultivated since Etruscan times that was in danger of disappearing completely until the Slow Food Presidium and local farmers like Nicola revived it. It's a type of black-eyed pea that has now also found a home in Michigan.
As the manager of a diversified family farm Nicola is keenly aware of the need for environmental sustainability through organic farming and the elimination of chemicals and, with the next generation already born, it is only through Nicola’s careful stewardship of the land that his children’s patrimony will be safeguarded.
These days winemakers seem to fall into one of two camps. There are those for whom the ‘natural wine’ label has become such an overriding priority that almost no normal intervention in the cellar is acceptable. For these people respecting the process is more important than the quality of the finished product, which as a result can sometimes be a little suspect and yet still finds its way into the marketplace.
The second camp, loosely described as ‘traditional’ winemakers, are motivated instead by creating wines that are clean and stable with no off-flavors so they can reflect the fullest potential of the grape variety and the terroir. These people are pragmatists and as such harbor no philosophical objections to sensible interventions like temperature control in the cellar or the use of a minimal amount of sulphur dioxide to ensure the soundness of the wine in bottle or to block malolactic conversion for white wines that would otherwise taste flabby and dull, shorn of their natural acidity by the very hot and arid summers fast becoming the norm in Italy.
Nicola is firmly in the second camp together with many other winemakers we have written about and whose wines we buy regularly for our own consumption like Le Fraghe, Ottaviano Lambruschi, Bisson, La Mesma, Le Calcinaie, Dacapo and many others.
There is a lot of truth in the overused cliché that great wine is made in the vineyard but between harvesting the grapes and bottling the wine there is a lot that can go wrong, especially if you simply let nature take its course, come what may, without using all the tools at a winemaker’s disposal. As a fourth generation winemaker Nicola understands traditions as well as anyone but as a student of agronomy and oenology he also knows that excellent wines do not happen by accident. He describes it best himself on the Madrevite website:
"A Madrevite is an ancient tool the Umbrian wine producers of the past used in the wine cellars to fasten the spigot to the barrels full of wine. It symbolizes the bond between the past and the traditions which, together with modern agronomic and wine cellar practices, is the true essence of our wine production."
As an example of Nicola's pragmatic approach to winemaking, his red wines are fermented spontaneously from the native yeasts whereas his two still white wines (Trebbiano Spoletino and Grechetto) benefit from cryomaceration for 1-2 days followed by temperature controlled fermentation using selected yeasts and no subsequent malolactic conversion. The results speak for themselves.
The story of Madrevite is a familiar one in Italy and when you add up all of the individual winemaker stories we have written about and the vast number of similar stories as yet untold then it should be no surprise that Italian wine in general has experienced such a massive increase in quality over the last quarter century.
As experienced at countless other family vineyards and farms, the generational change at Madrevite from father to son provided the impetus to progress from a simple vino sfuso operation to a modern winery with a high quality range of unblended artisan wines.
Nicola absorbed many lessons watching his grandfather and father at work and then working alongside them and he cherishes the humility and trust with which the older generations constantly strove to improve and give value to their crops and their wines.
Madrevite was founded in 2003, by which time Nicola had acquired a wine education that also included two years studying agronomy just up the road in Cortona as well as some practical experience in the Loire valley in France.
He was inspired by the successful small scale family wineries in the Loire and when his main focus became the production of monovarietal wines he installed a new cellar in the old stables below his house where he could better experiment with the best aging vessels for these wines.
The attributes of concrete vs wood (typically botti grandi of Slavonian or French oak) and the merits of whole cluster fermentation are some of the challenges occupying him today and even with the passage of two decades since the founding of Madrevite, Nicola retains his enthusiasm and curiosity in the relentless pursuit of the best expression of each grape variety.
One of the main reasons for our visit to Madrevite was Nicola’s growing reputation for his wines from Grenache and Syrah, which together make up 5 of the 10 wines in his portfolio. However, prepare to be confused when you look at the Madrevite website or the labels on his Grenache wines because they are described as ‘Gamay del Trasimeno’, which at first glance will have you thinking that Beaujolais is being made in Umbria. Not true of course because this grape, like Cannonau in Sardegna, Tai Rosso in Veneto and Bordò in le Marche, is in actual fact Grenache.
More precisely it is Spanish Garnacha and most likely arrived as part of the dowry of Eleonora Mendoza on her marriage in 1610 to the last Lord of Castiglione del Lago. Centuries later the migration of Sardinian shepherds brought Cannonau grapes to this part of Umbria further entrenching the presence of Grenache here. Though it may not technically be an autochthonous Italian grape, after so much history it can certainly now be described as a traditional grape for this area, much like the Cabernet Sauvignon grape in Carmignano that arrived as a result of a similar wedding in 1533.
Madrevite’s Grenache vineyards owe much to Nicola’s grandfather, Zino, who in the 1970s created a new vineyard by grafting ancient cuttings and this work was then nurtured by Nicola’s father, Enio, who remains active today supporting his son’s vision for the business. Their combined knowledge and experience has allowed them to select the best hillside locations for the grape on the western side of Lago Trasimeno where the clay is broken up by pebbles and marine fossils and where the proximity of three lakes (the third and smallest lake being Lago di Montepulciano) mitigates the extremes of summer and winter temperatures and provides ventilating breezes.
The Syrah grape also has a long history in the Cortona area, going back to the 1700s, but only in the last 20 years has it produced a serious high quality wine, an evolution that Nicola witnessed first hand during his time in Cortona. As Madrevite’s property lies less than 20 miles south of some of the more famous Tuscan sites for this grape and also shares the same climate and terrain it was a natural development for Nicola to cultivate Syrah himself.
Nicola has grown his business quite rapidly in recent years to a level above 60,000 bottles per annum and in the process has taken on new full time employees. He is of the opinion that involving young people in the enterprise is part of his social contract and he likes to delegate responsibilities whenever he can so his staff can grow and learn. An abiding curiosity is the quality Nicola looks for in youth because it is something he always had himself and still retains.
In his responses to our two more lighthearted questions Nicola revealed himself to be something of a traditionalist when it comes to food, naming Tagliatelle con ragù and Baccalà in umido con bietole as two of his favorite dishes. But much less traditional were his wine choices of Pinot Nero (Burgundy) and Nerello Mascalese (Sicily).
1. The Classics:
'Elvé 2021 - Trasimeno DOC Grechetto (13.5% alcohol)
(100% Grechetto, aged 6 months in stainless steel)
What a fabulous Grechetto! We've mostly experienced this grape from much further south in Umbria but whether it's due to the location or Nicola's ability, it doesn't really matter because the end result is a wine that outshines every other Umbrian Grechetto we've had over the last 10 years. The nose is powerful and distinctive, aromatic even with ripe pear, thyme and a touch of bergamot and bright lemon. On the palate it's rich and thick with very concentrated fruit and a streak of crunchy acidity that makes it a deeply refreshing and cleansing wine. Just a flat out great wine that makes you sit up and take notice.
il Reminore 2021 - Umbria IGP (13% alcohol)
(100% Trebbiano Spoletino, aged 6 months on its lees in stainless steel)
Grapefruit and some tropical notes on the nose it's very full and viscous on the palate with good fruit but then on the finish there's a lovely almond bitterness that kicks in. There's a zingy tartness to this wine that really whets the appetite keeping it very fresh.
Glanio 2019 - Trasimeno DOC (14% alcohol)
(100% Sangiovese, aged 12 months in concrete)
Living in Tuscany and drinking our fair share of Sangiovese neither of us would have guessed that this was 100% Sangiovese. It's an understated wine, approachable but not too soft with just the right amount of acidity yet having completely unobtrusive tannins. There's a richness to the fruit that after 3 years is starting to develop some sweetness, making it a very seductive wine.
Opra 2021 - Gamay del Trasimeno DOC (14.5% alcohol)
(100% Gamay del Trasimeno, aged 10 months in concrete)
Nicola has three different Grenache vineyards, harvested separately.
A very expressive nose with scents of mature plums and blackberries gives way to dark fruit and cherries on the palate. This is a real lip-smacking wine with fresh acidity and soft tannins that can be drunk young and can be happily sipped even without food. A very pleasing wine that I much prefer to the often much heavier style of Grenache made in Sardinia.
Tiulla 2020 - Umbria IGP (14% alcohol)
(100% Syrah, aged 10 months in concrete)
There's nothing holding back this wine as it's very easy to drink with no hard edges. Very dark with purple at the edges it looks like a classic Syrah in the glass. It's more expressive on the palate than on the nose with rich fruit of cherry and plum and notes of Mediterranean brush. Texturally it is 'croccante', best translated as fresh and juicy, with good but very unobtrusive acidity and tannins that have simply melted away. There's something irresistible about this wine because the bottle disappeared quickly.
2. The Iconics:
Futura 2021 - VSQ Brut Nature Metodo Ancestrale (12% alcohol)
(100% Trebbiano Spoletino, secondary fermentation in bottle in the spring with no disgorgement, 5,300 bottles produced)
Lively and refreshing with lovely yeasty and lemon notes on the nose that follow through on the palate. Racy acidity throughout and a thirst quenching sourness on the finish that is reminiscent of fresh bubbly lievito madre. Super wine and very versatile.
C'osa 2020 - Gamay del Trasimeno DOC (14.5% alcohol)
(100% Gamay del Trasimeno, aged 6 months in concrete and then 12 months in botti grandi and concrete, 2,600 bottles produced)
Enticingly aromatic on the nose with scents of blackberry and cherry. It's silky smooth on the palate with lots of juicy red fruit and a little spice and the finish is long and persistent with fully integrated tannins. This is a stunningly good wine, balanced, elegant and a joy to drink with or without food.
Capofoco 2015 - Umbria IGP (15.5% alcohol)
(100% Montepulciano, aged 12 months in French barriques, 3,500 bottles produced)
Still very dark in color the nose gives a hint of what's to come with notes of stewed prunes and plums. On the palate it's a big, powerful chewy wine with a little pepper on the sweetish finish and still some noticeable tannin.
By the second evening, after 24 hours of aeration, the tannin in the remaining half bottle had softened considerably and everything was in perfect balance so this is a wine that can develop further.
Che Syrah Sarà 2016 -Umbria IGP (15.5% alcohol)
(100% Syrah, aged 12 months in French and American barriques, 3,460 bottles produced)
In 1979 I went to my first formal wine tasting in London and I was blown away by the Paul Jaboulet 1961 Hermitage 'La Chapelle', after which I emptied my bank account and bought a case of the 1978 vintage, something I never regretted except for the fact that if I had kept just one of them until today I could have swapped it for 80 bottles of Nicola's fabulous Syrah.
It would have been a very good trade because this is the best Syrah I've tasted outside the Rhone valley and that includes the great John Alban wines of Reva, Lorraine and Seymour from Arroyo Grande on the Central Coast of California that I drank regularly for a period of ten years during another chapter of my life.
Nicola's wine is deep purple with lashings of dark fruit and peppery spice which flows through onto the palate. Full, rich and concentrated this has layers of flavor but never becomes heavy or cloying and the finish is long and persistent. Just a super wine.