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Jefford on Monday: The Tuscan Original

Andrew Jefford discovers a different way of doing things at Fattoria La Vialla.

How might you run a wine estate in a comprehensive biodynamic spririt, rather than just producing wine from BD-grown grapes?  How do you create success in a less-than-fashionable part of large wine region?  And how could you turn a modern wine farm into a source of intensive local employment, rather than just another lean and lonely wine enterprise?

I recently visited a wine farm which has managed to find answers to all three questions.  It may also be the most innovative and original wine estate I have ever visited.

It’s called Fattoria La Vialla, and you’ll find it close to Arezzo in the Chianti region of Colli Aretini.  The story began almost 40 years ago, when textile entrepreneur Piero Lo Franco and his wife Giuliana bought a run-down house in the countryside because they wanted their three sons to be close to nature in the holidays.  The end of the mezzadria (sharecropping) system in Tuscany in the 1960s, though unquestionably a social advance and long overdue, had also drained the land of the labour which rendered it so astonishingly productive during the many preceding centuries; two decades later the woods and hills were full of tiny, empty, broken-down farms.  What began as a hobby for the couple became a kind of vocation: they bought more land, which included more ruined farmhouses; they began to farm vines and olives, and restore the houses in a modest though sensitive spirit.  After a decade of this, Piero Lo Franco called his sons together and talked to them.  “He told us,” remembers second son Antonio, “that he wanted to change his job and go into the fields.  He asked us if we would be ready to participate in this project.  We were very serious and a little bit worried.”  No wonder: they were 20, 18 and 13 at the time.  But they said yes — and the family is still a working unit. Antonio, his elder brother Gianni and younger brother Bandino share their roles and “do everything together”.

la vialla, tuscany

The three brothers. Credit: La Vialla / Franco Firera.

Piero was convinced that he wanted to run his farm organically (indeed he now feels that any other form of agriculture should be outlawed), and he also cherished an ideal of self-sufficiency at a time when these were not yet fashionable concepts.  When the family learned about biodynamics, it was an instant fit; they worked with the French biodynamic pioneer François Bouchet until his death in 2005.  BD is practiced with great seriousness and sincerity here: the family buried 1,800 cow horns last year to make preparation 500, for example.  All of their vineyards (which in addition to the 120 ha at the home base in Tuscany also now includes 240 ha in other regions – San Gimignano, Maremma, Oltrepò Pavese, Marche, Puglia and Sicily) are biodynamic – as indeed are all their other farming activities.

One aspect of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings which is often ignored by winegrowers, albeit of necessity, is that each farm should be self-contained and self-sustaining.  “In reality,” Steiner said in his second Koberwitz lecture (10.6.1924), “every farm ought to aspire to this state of being a self-contained entity.”  He did go on to recognise that this “cannot be achieved completely, but it needs to be approached.”  The Lo Franco family had the land, and the will, to try to do this.

la vialla, biodynamic

Burying cow horns with Ruben Barbuzza (right) and Maurizio Giustini. Credit: La Vialla / Hetty Van Oijen.

They’re biodynamic farmers and producers not just of grape and wine, but of olives and olive oil (30,000 trees); of cereals, pasta and bread (baked in wooden ovens using wood from their own forests); of 1,300 sheep whose Pecorino cheese is rubbed in the residues from the olive press; of chickens and eggs and biscuits and cakes; of honey, from around 100 hives in the forest; and of fruits and vegetables which, once grown, they bottle and preserve or turn into sauces which are also bottled and preserved, all on the estate.  They also have their own phyto-purification plant and solar farm, and the whole enterprise is carbon neutral.  But I still haven’t got to the most extraordinary bit of all.

In the early years, Piero Lo Franco tried selling locally, in Tuscany, and then nationally, in Italy.  It was a flop: no one wanted organic wine in Italy back then, and this wasn’t a chic aristocratic domain in the posh part of Tuscany.  But he’d also opened the farms as an agriturismo, inviting guests to stay in the restored farmhouses in the woods.  They came – mostly from Northern Europe, from Germany, Holland, Belgium, the UK.

The Germans in particular already treasured the organic ideal, and said they’d like to buy these organic wines and cheeses and pasta and sauces back home in Germany.  So young Gianni (who’d only had his driving licence for a month) and Antonio Lo Franco hitched a trailer to the back of a battered Renault Espace and piled car and trailer full of La Vialla foods and wines, and set about delivering personally to customers in Munich and Stuttgart.  “The customers were so happy to have our visits,” remembers Gianni, “that we can home full of enthusiasm to do that for the future.”  Which, thirty years later, they still do: everything is still sold directly, often via beautiful hampers with all the different items impeccably wrapped and packed in biodynamic straw.  They have 10,000 direct-delivery clients in Germany alone.

La Vialla’s final originality lies in its unforgettable presentation and communications.  To start with, everything the farm did from wine labels down was written out in the rounded handwriting of an architect friend of the family, Felice Giancarlo.  They later came to develop their own typeface based on his handwriting, and issue ‘books’ twice a year in three languages (English, German and Dutch), full of pictures, stories and recipes as well as elaborate product descriptions, all of them still written by Giuliana and Piero Lo Franco.  They send out little notes, letters, cds, all beautifully wrapped, finished and printed.  It looks almost childlike at first glance.  What all of this succeeds in communicating and selling is, in a way, a dream of Italy for northerners – the simple, sensual Italy Goethe fell in love with and alluded to in the poem ‘Kennst du das Land?’ from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.  It also incarnates a timeless, polycultural, hand-crafted Italy that has often now been lost, but the Lo Franco family has somehow managed to … well, is it save it or recreate it?  I’m not quite sure, but it works.

The team includes four full-time graphic designers and three full-time translators, and provides employment for 160 people, of 25 nationalities, mostly near a city still hard hit by the collapse of its traditional goldsmithing trade.  In high summer, at the heart of the farm, the scene is like a real-life Smurf village, even down to the white hats which all the food preparers are wearing.  Another Lo Franco policy, by the way, was never to hire “a chef”, with all that that implies.  All the cooking and food preparation is done in a massaia (‘housewifely’ or ‘home-cooking’) spirit.

Cynics might speculate at this point that the wines a) aren’t very good, and b) cost a lot on money to pay for all of this.  Neither is true.  The range is huge, and there are some excellent wines among them (see my notes below).  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  In the last two editions of the Decanter World Wine Awards, La Vialla has won two ‘Platinum Best in Category’ awards: Best Sweet Tuscan in 2017 (for its 2010 Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice) and White Tuscany IGT over £15 (for its 2014 Barricato Bianco).  It also won separate Vin Santo golds in both editions of the competition, too.

Prices?  In fact if you were to buy the Barricato Bianco in a six-pack in the UK by direct mail order from Italy, it would work out at no more than £9.85 per bottle (it’s €7.90 at the estate), while I truly wonder if there is a better authentically made biodynamic wine available anywhere for its price than the 2015 Casa Conforto Chianti Superiore DOCG, which is available as a six-pack in the UK for £7.70 per bottle by direct mail-order, and which can be bought from the farm itself for €5.90.

The wine world is full of rapacious pricing, colossal pretentions and marketing deceptions.  But not here.

A taste of La Vialla

Strong points of the La Vialla range include many innovative sparkling wines and many successful cloudy (unfiltered) wines made with low sulphur levels, though not yet zero-sulphur wines.  The Vin Santo wines are exemplary.  Discerning the ‘energy’, ‘limpidity’ and ‘purity’ often ascribed to successful biodynamic wines is a subjective matter, but you might well find this in the fresh, poised reds.  There are of course no artificial additives or ‘adjustments’, and the Lo Franco family are great believers in the health benefits of polyphenols, so the reds are left as long as might be appropriately possible with their skins.  Less prominent use of oak on some of the more ambitious wines would be welcome, but winemaking (under the thoughtful and resourceful winemaker Marco Cervellera) is already heading that way.

Sparkling wines

Lo Chiffón Spumante 2015

An unfiltered spumante still containing its yeast deposits which you can either drink in limpid form by standing it up for a while, or in cloudy form (favoured at La Vialla) by inverting the bottle first.  The blend combines 40 per cent each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the balance from Trebbiano.  It has a soft mousse, scents of orchard fruits and sliced white mushroom.  The flavours are very dry and closer to grape than apple, balanced by a softly yeasty bite.   88

Cuvée No 2 2012

A true traditional-method sparkler made from Pinot Nero grapes grown in Otrepò Pavese, and aged for 41 months on its lees; I tasted both a cloudy, unfiltered version and a limpid, filtered version.  I preferred the latter: clean, fine-spun spring flower and apple scents, with a poised, fresh flavour in which softer pear and bright lemon joins the apple.  89

White wines

Torbolino, Vino Bianco da Tavola 2016

This attractive and attractively priced blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer, made from fruit grown in various small parcels on the La Vialla estate, has lots of clean, pretty aromatic lift: lemon and orange, with musky spice.  On the palate, the wine is bright and perfumed, yet has the depth and structure to work at table.  Zesty bitter orange on the finish.  There is also an unfiltered version which is inevitably yeastier, with less pure fruit aromatics.   90

Barricato Bianco, Bianco da Toscana IGT 2015

The Barricato Bianco began as a blend of selected Chardonnay and Malvasia fermented in 500-l barrels, and given lees stirring for 10 months; since 2014, though, the Malvasia has been replaced by Viognier.  Cloudy and full gold in colour, with complex, creamy, lush, rich flower-blossom scents.  On the palate, it is mellow, broad-beamed, nutty and rich, though not sweet in any way: a satisfying food white with plenty of intricate aromatic appeal.   90

Red wines

Casa Conforto, Chianti Superiore DOCG 2015

This blend of Sangiovese with 10% Canaiolo is very successful in 2015 and perfect now: perfumed black and red fruits with both spicy and savoury notes, and a vivid, deep palate moving from juicy sweet fruits at it opens to something a little more grippy and austere at the end.  Brilliant refreshment with complexity: an amazing buy for the €5.90 it costs at the estate.  91

Riserva, Casa Conforto, Chianti Superiore DOCG 2013

This blend for the Riserva level is 80% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo (aged in large Slavonian oak) with 10% Cabernet (aged in barriques).  More complex aromatically, with bergamot perfumes joining the red and black fruits; complex and intense on the palate, too, with no visible oak but ample savoury, woodland complexities to joint and structure the fruit.  92

LeccioMoro, Montecucco DOC 2015

The blend this time is Sangiovese with 10% Merlot, grown on clay-rich soils in the small DOC of Montecucco, close to Brunello but running on into the Upper Maremma.  It’s a deeper, more generous wine with rich, sensual plum scents and a savoury, earthy, amply expressive palate with plenty of textured fullness.  Another sure-fire BD bargain for €6 at the estate or £8.50 in the UK by mail-order.  91

Podere La Casotta, Rosso di Toscano IGT 2013

An intriguing and unique red wine made from five indigenous Tuscan varieties: Pugnitello (30%), Malvasia Nera (30%), Aleatico (20%), Colorino (10%) and Sangiovese (10%).  The Pugnitello and Colorino are fermented normally, then mixed with the other varieties after up to three months’ passito drying.  Further fermentation follows, followed by 18 months in mostly old barriques, six months after blending in concrete, then a further year in bottle.  Saturated dark black-red in colour, with a fascinating scent of sweet plums and prunes mingled with tar, warm attic dust and vanilla tobacco leaf.  The palate is deep, rich, exotic, almost explosive, with ample wild black fruits and surprisingly vivid acidity; there’s something a little tarrier on the finish.  Characterful, if a hard wine to place in a blind tasting.  90

Vin Santo

Occhio di Pernice, Vin Santo DOC 2010

La Vialla produces a a normal, light-walnut-coloured Vin Santo made from 70% Malvasia and 30% Trebbiano, but this ‘partridge-eye’ Vin Santo is made from a blend of 80% Sangiovese with 20% Trebbiano, dried between harvest and Christmas during which the grapes are attacked by noble rot.  The fruit is then softly pressed and both fermented and aged (for three years) in tiny 97-litre caratelli barrels.  The wine is russet-hued, with scent of caramel, apple and smoky root spices.  On the palate, it is rich, deep, searching, vivid and tangy; the caramel now has an intriguing bitter-edged complexity.   92 

Occhio di Pernice Riserva, Vin Santo DOC 2009

The Reserva version is made from 90% Sangiovese blended this time with 10% Malvasia and not Trebbiano, and the ageing period is longer.  Lingering, refined, elegant aromas which evoke red cherry fruits and fine moist vanilla pods with just a little Christmas spice.  The palate is long, seamless and much less caramel-led than the normale, the red fruits now honeyed, finely detailed yet seamless, wealthy yet graceful and almost floating.  Perfect afternoon sipping.  93

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