Conventional winemakers are often disparaged these days by the natural wine crowd, for whom almost no intervention in the cellar is deemed to be acceptable. But more often than not organic wines made with common sense cellar practices are what we buy for ourselves.
We remain agnostic in the debate as to which approach is ‘better’ but as long time consumers of Italian wine our view is that there are certain perfectly normal interventions in the cellar that are often required if you want to make clean, reliable wines which properly reflect the terroir and the aroma and taste profile of the grape, ie. wines that taste as they should.
Marco Santori is such a winemaker, someone who doesn’t overcomplicate things and doesn’t believe in reinventing the wheel. However he is passionate about the autochthonous grapes of this area and he farms organically, harvests his grapes by hand and wants nothing more from his wine than it should fully reflect the ideal conditions of the Colli Piceni in this beautiful part of southern le Marche.
"a noi non manca nulla per fare bene: abbiamo un territorio generoso, abbiamo la tradizione, vitigni autoctoni, tanto knowhow, e allora proviamo noi ad eccellere, ad essere noi di esempio in qualità e stile!"
His approach reminds us of many other conventional winemakers whose wines we love and whose wines we can always buy with complete confidence, like the Rosina sisters at La Mesma, Simone Santini at Le Calcinaie and Fabio and Ottaviano Lambruschi at the winery that bears their name.
Many of the cellar practices that these winemakers have in common include temperature control during the fermentation and the use of selected yeasts rather than wild yeasts to ensure a smooth and uninterrupted fermentation without the risk of any accidental introduction of off-flavors.
Blocking malolactic conversion for white wines using filtration may be an act of heresy for natural wine devotees but when the natural acidity of the grape is under threat these days from increasingly hot summers what is the point of ‘natural wine’ if the end result is a flabby and unbalanced beverage lacking in acidity?
Too often, producing a zero intervention wine so it can be described as ‘natural’ has become the overriding goal, regardless of how the finished wine actually tastes.
Marco was not born into winemaking and though his grandfather had a small vineyard making vino sfuso and selling his wine locally, his parents turned instead to building up a plant nursery business that continues today. In fact the fertile river valleys of south-east le Marche have always been ideal for this purpose with the adjacent hills better suited to vines, olives and grains.
Born and raised in the nearby coastal town of Grottammare, perhaps our favorite seaside resort in the whole of Italy, Marco was a young adult before he seriously began to think of winemaking as a career.
Graduating from the University of Teramo with a degree in viticulture and oenology he travelled first to Valencia in Spain via the Erasmus program to continue his studies and acquire some practical experience, followed by a short spell in California and then on the Right Bank of Bordeaux working in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion.
By 2012 with both a degree and some experience under his belt it was time to return home and become a winemaker in his own right, first with his grandfather’s vineyard and then gradually buying more parcels of land until today, ten years later, Tenuta Santori vineyards extend to 45 acres in the Montebove district between Ripatransone and Cossignano, a few miles west of Grottammare.
At about 1,000 feet of elevation the hillsides here that slope down to the river valley can be quite steep with mostly limestone soils but also heavy clay visible all around.
Marco cultivates 4 indigenous grape varieties, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Sangiovese, Passerina and Pecorino from which he makes two red wines, two whites and one Passerina spumante. All of the wines are fermented in stainless steel and the whites aged also in stainless steel. The Rosso Piceno is aged partly (20%) in French oak barriques as Marco moves towards a softer fruitier style for this wine and the Offida Rosso is aged 100% for 18 months in French oak barriques. Current production is a little more than 50,000 bottles per annum.
His Pecorino wine benefits from a single vineyard site that is rich in limestone and the first year that Marco made this wine with the help of his long time friend and oenologist, Pierluigi Lorenzetti, it won the coveted Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri award.
Our visit to Tenuta Santori near Ripatransone on October 1st coincided with the Sangiovese and Montepulciano crush with the white grapes already fully harvested, having started on August 22nd; the vendemmia in Italy gets earlier every year it seems with the torrid summer heat now becoming normal.
Marco these days is clearly a winemaker with everything organized and under control so in the middle of the vendemmia he was still able to welcome a large group of tourists who arrived by bus for a tasting and even had time to show us around the spectacular new six bedroom luxury villa he has constructed in part from salvaged pieces of the old farmhouse.
It's positioned at the apex of the hill right above the cellar and is available for rent in the summer months. I looked at the prices for 12 people next summer on the Anita Villas website and having rented large villas in Italy before I would say that Marco has priced this very reasonably; knowing this area very well we would actually rather be here in the summer than in overcrowded and overpriced Tuscany.
Finally, Marco's responses to the two fun questions that we often like to ask winemakers:
Favorite dish? lasagne, pared with Rosso Piceno Favorite other wine? the red wines of Piemonte
Passerina 2021 - Offida DOCG (12.5% alcohol)
The Pecorino may be the wine with the awards but the Passerina was the welcome surprise because this grape can often result in a bland wine in the border country of le Marche and Abruzzo, but Marco has done an excellent job here. Fresh and floral on the nose with notes of white peach, honeysuckle and aromatic herbs this is crisp and cleansing with zest of orange on the palate and a touch of bitterness in the finish. Under 10 euros is great value.
Pecorino 2021 - Offida DOCG (13.5% alcohol)
Quite a full nose with citrus at the forefront and on the palate too it's rich and full with notes of lemon peel. There's a very refreshing and mouthwatering acidity to this wine with a clean minerality on the finish. This has plenty of body and can be consumed quite happily winter or summer. A solid, reliable Pecorino that provides excellent value at under 11 euros.
Passerina Spumante Brut (12% alcohol)
This is a pleasant well-made sparkling wine that can be drunk as a summer aperitif or with food. There's a crisp refreshing acidity that is typical of sparkling wines made with the Passerina grape in this part of Italy and a nice tangy bitterness on the finish. A decent quaffing wine that represents good value under 10 euros.
Rosso Piceno Superiore 2020 - DOC (14% alcohol)
65% Montepulciano, 35% Sangiovese
Still quite inky black in the glass, on the nose there are notes of marinated cherries and sweet spices which become quite full and round on the palate. There's a luscious core to this wine obscured a little by the tannin that remains. A little more time in bottle will do wonders I think. Good value under 11 euros.
Offida Rosso 2018 - DOCG (15% alcohol)
The nose here is sweet and perfumed with nutmeg and cinnamon. It is fully mature with notes of stewed dark fruits on the palate and a delicious finish that reminds me somewhat of a baby Amarone. A very appealing wine, now in its prime at 4 years of age and well worth the 18 euros.