If you ever want to meet the original, archetypical maker of artisan wines, head for Gradoli – a small town on the west of Lake Bolsena, about 70 miles north of Rome – and look for Francesco from La Carcaia. If you don’t know where to begin, go to the tiny tourist office in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and ask one of the very helpful people who work there because everyone knows Francesco and his wines made from Aleatico grapes. They were even kind enough to phone him for me! If you then have time to kill whilst waiting for him, pay a visit to the Palazzo Farnese which houses a fabulous museum of costumes from medieval Italy. The exhibits were hand-made in 1998 using old paintings as exemplars.
Francesco is such a part of the fabric of the town that, as we followed his old white van up the hill to his vineyard just outside Gradoli, Vinnie and I found ourselves stopping every few yards as he paused to exchange greetings with the people in the street. The vineyard is worth every yard of the short journey if only for the spectacular view over the caldera that is Lake Bolsena. By any standards this is a small vineyard (a total of three hectares) that Francesco inherited from his grandmother Vittoria. Here, he cultivates three local grape varieties, Aleatico, Procanico, and Greghetto Rosso. During the summer months he also hosts events here on a small patch of ground surrounded by vines – a truly beautiful place. If you visit his Instagram page you will even see a grand piano amongst the vines.
He produces a range of five artisan wines with a total production of around 8,000 bottles a year so availability may be limited and, because of the small area under cultivation, there will be possibly more year to year variation due to climatic factors than with the larger vineyards. To be blunt, one hailstorm at the wrong time of year and a small wine producer like Francesco is in real trouble. If you think making wine is just one endless holiday in the Italian sun think again; these people are battling pests, wildlife that think that the grapes are just a freebie for them, as well as the weather.
Back in Gradoli, we went to the tiny artisan cantina where Francesco works his magic with the most basic of tools. While this may lack the sophistication of larger operations, the love and care that he puts into his wine more than makes up for the lack of technical resources. His wines are all fermented in steel and he has just a few old French tonneau for maturing the red wines. Now that may jar with people who are used to seeing nice new barrels in the wineries they visit but as a barrel ages it gives up the flavours and tannins that it possessed when new, so by using an old barrel the qualities of the grape are allowed to shine through – Francesco knows a thing or two.
The tasting started with a wine called Bianatico 1,0. The name reflects that it is Bianco or white and it is 100% Aleatico. The Aleatico is a very local grape variety and is certainly one that deserves to be more widely appreciated. The first thing that hits you is the colour, rich and golden like autumn sunshine. On the nose there is honey and lemon, with a hint of resin. On the palate there is a pleasing acidity, with a touch of salinity that comes from the volcanic soil of the vineyard, together with flavours of pineapple, almonds, and bitter orange. Too strong for a traditional pairing like fish, I would suggest pork, chicken or perhaps duck.
By way of a complete contrast, Livaticum 484 is a late harvest sweet dessert wine, again made from 100% Aleatico. The colour is rich and dark, a complex nose with cherry jam and hints of balsamic and roses. On the palate it is sweet but with a balancing acidity and a warmth that comes from the alcohol and full of cherry flavour. If you consider that both these wines are made from the same grape then you start to appreciate Francesco’s almost magical skills. If you only want to buy an example of these rare gems, they are on sale in the tourist office in the centre of town and when you look at the portrait of the lady on the label you are looking at his grandmother who made it all possible.
Unfortunately, Francesco does not have a website but you can find the vineyard on Facebook at https://m.facebook.com/lacarcaia.aziendaagraria/.