We were travelling through southern Tuscany but the landscape was unfamiliar. Instead of the carefully manicured rolling hills dotted with artistically positioned cypress trees providing necessary counterpoints for the succession of foreign photographers, we were in deep forest mainly consisting of chestnut trees. “Why so many chestnut trees?” asked Vinnie. Well, the answer to that one goes back to a time when a large proportion of the population were living on the poverty line and chestnuts provided a cheap staple addition to the diet, particularly in the form of chestnut flour. As well as food, a lot of the beams that you see in old Italian properties are from chestnut trees so it was an integral part of the rural economy. Today, interest in the chestnut is being revived by Italian chefs but it is no longer the staple that it once was. The forest that we were driving through is on the slopes of Monte Amiata, an extinct volcano that dominates the area. At over 1,700 metres above sea level the summit used to be covered in snow for three months of the year. Although the snow now lasts barely a month, it still attracts skiers from the local area.
As the road descended, we left the forest behind and suddenly found the familiar sight of the landscape of the Val d’Orcia laid out before us. After a short journey down a strada bianca – the romantic term the Italians use for a dirt road – we arrived at Azienda Agricola Basile. The owner, Giovan Battista Basile, bought it in 1999 when it had been abandoned for 30 years and has farmed it organically from the outset. He prides himself on having zero environmental impact as he has photovoltaic cells on the roof of his winery that feed surplus power into the grid as well as other panels that provide hot water. Out of a total holding of 34 hectares only 8 are devoted to wine and from them he produces around 40,000 bottles per year.
The wine that he makes is Montecucco DOCG. I suspect that in many regions of Italy this would be a matter of some importance but here he is up against the likes of Brunello and Chianti and so it was with great interest that I went to taste his wines.
Cartacanta is a red that is 100% Sangiovese. It is fermented in steel before maturing for 12 months in wood, 30% of which is new, the rest old. Avoiding overuse of new wood prevents the wine from being swamped by the wood. A typical garnet colour, on the nose there are cherries and blackberries with a hint of vanilla. In the mouth the tannins are smooth and the structure is good. Giovan Battista told me that this wine was served to ex-president Obama at a meal in Montreal – fame indeed!
Commandante is a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot in equal proportions. The Sangiovese is fermented in wood and the Merlot in steel before spending 18 months in tonneaux and barrique of French oak. The colour is ruby rather than garnet due to the presence of the Merlot. The bouquet is of soft cherries and fruits of the forest with a hint of old books, whilst on the palate the tannins are more assertive, thus forming a good structure with the acidity. The finish is long. This will go well with roast red meat or mature cheese.
The final wine I sampled is called Ad Agio and is a DOCG Riserva. To fully understand this wine you need to know that from Giovan Battista’s vineyard you can look across the Val d’Orcia and see Montalcino in the distance. The river forms the boundary between the Montecucco and Brunello appellations. He also told me that, from his research, this vineyard was in production 400 years ago. This wine is 100% Sangiovese, just like its cousin from across the valley. Selection of the grapes is done on the basis of taste and production is limited to 4,000 bottles per year. Fermentation is in tini of wood and the wine then spends two years in tonneaux and a further two years in the bottle. The colour is garnet as you would expect. The bouquet is a revelation; on a blind tasting I doubt I could tell the difference between this and a Brunello and on the palate it is full and rounded with bitter cherry and hazelnuts. This, for me, qualifies as a vino di meditazione, something that can be enjoyed by itself on a winter’s evening beside the fire in a comfortable armchair.However, if you wish to pair it with something I would suggest a steak grilled over hot embers or perhaps a very mature Parmesan.
Giovan Battista Basile has spent half his working life bringing his wines to this point and I have to say he should be very proud of his achievements. For me these are wines that deserve a much wider audience and I am sure that in the future they will be recognised for their quality outside Italy as today they are inside the country.