Vinnie and I were in the Veneto in northeast Italy, just to the west of the city of Vicenza. Although he was not born in the city, the architect Andrea Palladio spent most of his life there. He lived in the 16th century when the Republic of Venice was fabulously rich and the merchants of the city were building country villas in the hinterland. Palladio was their ‘go to’ architect and in and around the city there are many of his buildings. His influence on western architecture over the succeeding centuries cannot be overstated. When you look at Monticello, the residence of Thomas Jefferson, it could be a Palladian country villa near Vicenza.
However, we were more interested in wine and our eyes were cast across the plain to some hills a few miles away. ”Those are the Berici Hills and that is where we are going tomorrow,” I explained to Vinnie. While we were admiring the vista, a sudden storm blew up and we rushed inside to avoid the apocalyptic hailstorm. This far north these fearsome storms are not uncommon and are caused by the collision of hot air from the south meeting the cold air of the Alps.
In the morning a short trip across the alluvial plain brought us to the Berici Hills where the DOC Berici wines are to be found. The rules for the production of DOC Berici wines allow for the use of several grape varieties, but I was looking for one in particular called Tai Rosso. Originally called Tocai, its name was changed in 2007 after Hungary’s claim to the name Tokaji was accepted and consequently Tocai was deemed to be too close – and so a new name was chosen. The new name retains the memory of the old one whilst differentiating itself enough to keep the lawyers happy. The grape itself is genetically identical to Grenache but after all this time spent adapting to the conditions of the Berici Hills it is sufficiently different to be considered a biotype.
At the base of the hills in the small town of Barbarano Vicentino I met Alessandro Pialli. His grandfathers had adjacent properties where they each produced and sold their own wines. In 1999 both men retired and in 2001 a new generation began the process of merging the two businesses into a single cantina working organically and concentrating on the vinification of Tai Rosso. If that sounds like a large-scale operation nothing could be further from the truth as the total area of the vineyards is only four and a half hectares and annual production is around 17,000 bottles. However, this year that target will not be achieved because, as Alessandro explained, the storm that we had witnessed yesterday had cost him 15% of his crop. Yet, for all that, he was in good spirits as we sat down to taste some of his wines.
We first tried Cio Bacaro from 2018, a wine dedicated to one of his grandfathers. The harvest takes place in late October and is done by hand. Fermentation on the skins, using natural yeasts, takes place in steel tanks over a period of 2 weeks before the wine is left to mature in tonneaux of French oak for 18 months. Finally, it rests in the bottle for a year before being ready to meet its public. The colour is ruby with hints of garnet. On the nose there are cherries with vanilla from the oak, and on the palate the tannins are soft with a nice acidity and a pleasant pepperiness. This is a wine that clearly will age well and would be a great accompaniment to red meat.
From 2016 we next sampled Due Pleniluni – or two full moons. This is a wine that is the result of much care and thought in its production. The grapes come from 15-year-old vines and at the time of the harvest the stalks of the bunches are partially cut through and they are then left for a period of passimento where the sugars are enhanced and the water content reduces. Leaving them on the vine is a very traditional method for this process. Fermentation, again using natural yeasts, takes place during 30 days of maceration on the skins. This extended period gives the wine its name as it crosses two full moons. It then spends two years in used tonneaux before a final year in bottle. The colour is a lovely full garnet. Because of the age of the tonneau used there was no vanilla in the bouquet but it was still full and complex with liquorice, balsam, tobacco, and chocolate. In the mouth the tannins were soft with a low acidity and plenty of blackberries and good finish. This would be a wine to pair with mature cheese.
The final wine we tasted was a 2015 Gregorio named after the other grandfather. This is an astounding 16% ABV! It is made using grapes from 30-year-old vines that are macerated for 3 weeks in steel tanks using the natural yeasts for a spontaneous fermentation before spending 36 months in old oak. After a final year in the bottle it is ready. The colour is a deep garnet and on the nose it is wonderfully complex with vanilla, old books, and tobacco. On the palate it is sweet and rich, almost like a port. For me this is a true vino di meditazione, a wine to be enjoyed on a cool winter’s evening sitting by the fire whilst contemplating how good life can be.
Alessandro is only a small producer but this is also his strength. He finds the time to innovate and experiment, teasing the best from the Tai Rosso to produce wines of great character and distinctiveness.