Paolo De Marchi took over his family's estate, Isole e Olena, in Tuscany when he was just 20 years old. De Marchi quickly learned that the task in front of him was more daunting than he had imagined. The Sangiovese he found in his vineyards was highly productive. As the market for Chianti was poor in the 60s and 70s, the Sangiovese planted in most of Tuscany was overly productive. More was viewed as better. On a recent visit to Paolo's new Piedmont property, Proprieta Sperino, Paolo told us that back in the 1970s, Tuscan harvesters could be seen tossing wheat in one direction while bending to pick under-ripe grapes in the other. Chianti Classico was selling for $4/bottle. With so small a return, it was thought to be more profitable to grow grain than grapes.
It took De Marchi a quarter of a century to transform Isole e Olena into a world class winery, and the jewel of Chianti Classico. One would think, after 25 years of vineyard development and incessant refinement of winemaking techniques, that a 50 year-old man would feel accomplished. But, not so with De Marchi. So when he visited his family's abandoned estate in Lessona, in northern Piedmont, a 20 year old's spirit returned to the middle-aged man. It was time to start a second career in a region that had once produced some of the greatest, most refined wine in Italy.
When we visited Sperino, the De Marchi family's tiny 7-hectare estate in Lessona, we felt like we were transported back in time. When we entered the old Âcastello,' we discovered a dusty, forgotten library, Paolo's grandmother's reading room. Brittle-paged books filled the old bookcases and a calendar hung on the wall. The calendar was turned to April, 1926. Lessona, once one of Piedmont's most illustrious winemaking villages, is just another sleepy hamlet. Of the hundreds of hectares of Nebbiolo that were once planted, only 11 remain. The De Marchi family's small holding represents more than half of the appellation!
But most remarkable was the education we received while driving to the castello. Paolo, one of Italy's and the world's most respected viticulturalists, couldn't stop talking about the potential of Lessona. Driving up the windy road towards the village, he stopped, urging us out of the car. He scooped up the earth in his palms, allowing the fine sandy soil to sift through his fingers. "This," he said, "will make great Nebbiolo."
This is the first release from an estate that is likely to signal a renaissance of one of Italy's greatest, forgotten appellations. A blend of Nebbiolo and old vine Vespallina, Uvaggio 2004 ("Uvaggio" means "blend") is a wonderfully aromatic, complex wine that speaks of the light, sandy soil from which it's made and of the brilliance of one of Italy's most ingenious winemakers.
The 2004 Uvaggio is a wonderfully versatile wine. One one hand, it's decidedly Burgundian, light on its feet, excellent with roasted game, all kinds of cheese, even grilled salmon. But Uvaggio also has a sneaky power, allowing it to stand up to grilled steak and stews. Be sure to serve this at cellar temperature -- 58-60 degrees.