The Waiting Game

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Deep in thought, Luca di Napoli stares out at the Tuscan countryside through an open window of his family home, Castello di Rampolla. He sits as coolly as the somber figure of the cleric Abbas de Stanislaus Rampolla--an ancestor of his--shown in an 18th-century painting on the wall of the tasting room. You get the impression that nothing could really excite Di Napoli.

However, as he turns to his visitor and describes the reception of his 1996 Vigna d' Alceo at the Vinitaly wine fair in Verona a few weeks before, his eyes suddenly sparkle with life. "Many people came to our stand just to taste this wine. It was fascinating to watch them put the wine in their mouth," he says, drawing a circle around his mouth with his index finger as he speaks, "then the first unconscious reaction, often of surprise, and finally their words."

On the table is a glass of Vigna d'Alceo, named after his father, who had planted the first vines for this wine nine years ago. When Alceo di Napoli died two years later, none had borne their first grapes.

In fact, it was five more years before the vines gave a crop large enough to merit bottling separately. "In 1995, we only got 2,000 liters, so it was blended into another wine," Di Napoli, 43, says. So 1996 is really the first vintage."

Vigna d' Alceo is a great and unique wine. Almost black, it has an enveloping bouquet of dark fruits. Swirling it in the glass, one is reminded of blackberries, then black currants and mulberries, but none of these comparisons really satisfy, since none of those fruits is as spicy as this wine.

In the mouth it is a wine of monumental proportions, rich and firm, yet with its components so perfectly interwoven it is anything but heavy. The aftertaste seems to stop, as if Vigna d'Alceo were already a good friend who keeps repeating his farewell to delay his departure.

The secret to this wine? There are several, but the most important is the extremely dense planting of 3,200 to 4,000 vines per acre, compared with the maximum of 1,200 per acre in traditional Chianti vineyards. High vineyard density means a smaller crop per vine; in this case, just 2 to 3 pounds of grapes per vine instead of the 6- to 8-pound yield in traditionally planted vineyards. This yields grapes riper and richer in flavor, leading to more expressive and harmonious wines.

Another "secret" is the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot grapes from which it is made. Alceo di Napoli was one of the first vintners in Chianti to plant Cabernet Sauvignon during the early 1970s. During the 1980s, the Sammarco of Castello di Rampolla, a blend of about 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% the Sangiovese grape of Chianti, became one of the most sought-after Italian red wines.

Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot comes from Bordeaux. However, unlike Cabernet, Petit Verdot is anything but fashionable. Because it is a fickle grape that is late-ripening and prone to rot once it is ripe, many of Bordeaux's leading cha^teaux have removed it entirely from their vineyards in recent years. None of the region's top estates has more than 10% of their vineyards planted with the varietal. Vigna d'Alceo is therefore unique among the premium red wines of the world in being made from 20% Petit Verdot.

After Alceo's death in 1991, his son Matteo took over the running of the estate. However, the wine quality was erratic and often not up to the standards of the previous decades. Luca di Napoli says he and his sister Maurizia took over in 1991 after their brother "changed jobs." However, several figures in the Tuscan wine business say that the estate had experienced business difficulties and that the family decided to replace Matteo. Luca di Napoli was clearly more interested in talking about the new wines than this chapter in the family's history.

"Wine is about pleasure and concentration, about conscious pleasure," Di Napoli says gently as he brings the 1994 Chianti Classico "Riserva" to the table. Asked about tradition--since the oldest parts of Rampolla's cellars date to the 13th century and the estate, just outside Panzano in Chianti, has been in Di Napoli ownership for nearly three centuries--he replies with a grin:

"No, in Burgundy they have centuries of tradition, but we have only 30 years, and a mere 15 on the present course. No, pleasure is more important."

One of the first things he did when he took charge of Rampolla in 1994 was to let weeds grow between the rows of vines to reduce the vigor of their growth and channel more of their energy into the grapes.

This made the 1994 Chianti Classico "Riserva" impressively full-bodied and firm for a good, but by no means exceptional vintage. Like Sammarco, it is a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, but with the proportions almost exactly reversed, 90% of the indigenous Tuscan grape being complemented with 10% of the French varietal. Its black cherry, licorice and anise character is rich and subtle, and the wine's generous tannins are supple enough that it drinks beautifully now even though its strength will enable it to benefit from several years of aging.

In contrast to 1994 and the overrated 1993 vintage, 1995 is a great year for Chianti Classico. "In 1995 we were able to influence the vines' growth throughout the entire growing season, which was much better," Di Napoli says.

The superior vintage and changed vineyard management show in the magnificent 1995 Chianti Classico "Riserva." Even coming straight off the bottling line, it has a vibrant bouquet of spice and earth. It is a perfect example of how Chianti can be as powerful as any of the world's other great red wines, but when it reaches this intensity, it retains a freshness and delicacy that is unique. It is sinuous and elegant, having an effortless grace like two great ballet stars dancing a pas de deux.

"I like it when wine is a dance between several elements," Di Napoli says. For such comments some would call him eccentric; certainly the woolen cap he wears, hanging down over one side of his head, is unlike the studied designer elegance of many other Tuscan winemakers. But it is certainly in keeping with the medieval appearance of the castle's cavernous living room.

Likewise, his interest in biodynamic viticulture--the organic farming technique based on the ideas of the German philosopher Rudolf Steiner--has raised the eyebrows of many colleagues. In France, where leading wine estates such as Domaine Leroy in Burgundy and Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace have practiced biodynamic viticulture for nearly a decade, these ideas are nothing new. But Di Napoli is taking a path that is radical, even revolutionary, for Tuscany.

"To make great wines so many things must come together," he says. "'Many vintners know about the cellar, but not the soil; or they understand the vineyards but not winemaking. My father taught me about the cellar, and my interest in biodynamics made me study the soil. Only when you have both can you make great wines."

The 1980s brought a winemaking revolution to Chianti, the number of wineries in the region vinifying their wines professionally increasing many fold during the decade. Internationally, the Chianti area became synonymous with the "New Italian Wine." However, to age well, red wines must not only be well vinified, they must also have plenty of "structure." This happens only when each vine carries a small crop that is able to ripen fully and evenly. Because of weaknesses in vineyard cultivation, these conditions were not often met in Chianti during the 1980s.

For example, many Chianti Classicos and so-called Super-Tuscan red wines (made from French grape varieties or blends of these with the local Sangiovese grape) of the highly acclaimed 1985 vintage now taste dull and tired. The 1985 Sammarco is an exception to this rule, a beautifully silky, mature wine. The 1994 Sammarco is as impressive as that wine was when young. Despite being loaded with tannin, it is rich, with a plush texture. Already delicious, it should age as well as the 1985.

"I am lucky that Castello di Rampolla enjoys the reputation it does," Di Napoli says, "since it enables us to take risks and to be a little crazy."

Judging by the new releases, it is the right kind of craziness. The estate's wines have regained the stature they had under his father. With Vigna d'Alceo, Di Napoli has created a new wine no less revolutionary for Tuscany than Sammarco was 15 years ago.

"Even for young people, it is extremely difficult to break with the past," he says just as his young son bursts in with a friend, bows and arrows in their hands.

Indeed, just as a bowman must stand by as the wind sends his arrow in an unexpected direction, so the vintner must accept what the weather does to his grapes. And so a vintner waits, and if his instincts are right, he hits the target and realizes his vision.

Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer.

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