Vinnie and I were in Lombardy, heading for the small town of Capriano del Colle. “So how many DOC wines are there in Italy?” I asked him. “No idea,” was his somewhat truculent response. So I explained that there are some 330 areas whose wines are entitled to carry the blue and white label and that Capriano was one of them, albeit one of the smallest. Now, he and I agree that the small wine producers are the more interesting so what better place to go than an area with only around 100 hectares of vines producing both red and white wines? To narrow our research further, I was looking for red wines made with the local Marzemino grape. The origins of this variety are obscure but it is certainly mentioned in the writings of the 16th century agronomist, Agostino Gallo, and it also makes a cameo appearance in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, although I suspect that was more to do with the librettist needing to complete the couplet, “Versa il vino! Eccellente Marzemino”.
Our search took us to Cantina San Michele where we met Mario Danesi who runs the cantina with his wife, Elena. The winery is situated in the Monte Netto regional park in the hills above the town. The origins of the business go back to 1982 when the family bought some small patches of land. In those days production was focussed on selling wine in bulk in large containers. In Italy they call this vino fuso which literally translates as loose wine. You can still find it available today in local grocery shops all over the country. Generally, you will see large cylindrical stainless steel containers in the shop and locals queuing up with an ad hoc selection of disparate containers waiting to collect some wine to accompany their evening meal.
But, for Cantina San Michele, time and tastes in wine moved on and they realised that the Marzemino grape had potential that they could exploit. Accordingly, the last few years have been a time of change and innovation for San Michele; in 2015 the production was certified as organic and two years ago the cantina was extensively refurbished. Yet they remain, quite literally, true to their roots as demonstrated by the vineyard next to the cantina where the vines are more than 35 years old. From 16 hectares of vines they produce around 70,000 bottles of wine per year in a range that includes white and rosé offerings but, for me, the pick are the red wines.
The first of their wines that I sampled is simply called Marzemino and was from 2019. It is 100% Marzemino and is fermented for around 10 days on the skins in steel before maturing for 6 months in cement vessels. A full ruby colour, this is a wine with a big bouquet filled with strawberries and raspberries and touches of liquorice and pepper. On the palate the tannins are soft and there is a good acidity. At 12.5% ABV this makes a perfect accompaniment for lunch and Mario recommends pairing it with fish or grilled meat.
Again from 2019, Carme is a blend of 50% Marzemino, 40% Merlot, and 10% Sangiovese. After 15 days of maceration the wine is matured for 12 months in cement. The intense ruby colour has hints of garnet and on the nose it is delicate with plums and roses – in the mouth there are bitter cherries with the tannins coming from the Sangiovese balanced with a nice acidity. At 13% ABV, this is a wine to enjoy either with lunch or dinner, paired with a full-flavoured pasta dish such as Amatriciana or Arrabbiata or grilled meat.
1884 is a riserva made only in the best years and is 50% Merlot, 40% Marzemino, and 10% Sangiovese. The grapes are harvested late and left on the skins for around 20 days. 12 months of slow maturing in tonneaux of French oak is followed by another 12 months of repose in the bottle. With a deep ruby hue with hints of garnet, it comes as no surprise that the result of all this lavish care is a wine with a complex bouquet full of cherries and plums with vanilla, tobacco, and the leather of old books. On the palate it is full-bodied and generous with soft tannins and a long finish. Enjoy it with roast or grilled meat or a mature cheese.
The final wine we sampled is an innovation enigmatically called M. Made from 100% Marzemino this is a passito wine. This means that after the harvest the grapes are left – in this case for four months – to lose water and gain sugar, before they are macerated for 20 days in steel. There follows 6 months in which the wine matures in either barrique or tonneaux of French oak before a final 12 months in the bottle. The result is a complex and rewarding dessert wine that is a very approachable 14.5% ABV. There is an intense ruby colour and on the nose there is vanilla, red berries, liquorice, and pepper. In the mouth it is smooth and silky with a full, luxurious flavour, low acidity and tannins. Suggestions for pairing this delight include chocolate fondant and strawberry cheesecake.
Capriano del Colle is such a small DOC that the wines are not well known outside of the immediate area and that is a shame because Cantina San Michele definitely deserves a wider audience. Mario and Elena, with the help of their enologist, Nico, are blending innovation and tradition to make some great wines.