When my father died on 23rd July 1981, the grapes were already plump and in a few days would begin to take on their true colour. They were my grapes, the same type which, at six years of age, I found myself crushing by turning the handle on my grandfather’s cast iron wine press, something which made me feel like a real grown-up. I wasn’t to know that the entire smallholding had been planted up almost entirely with Tocai, and that this could potentially have been a problem.
At the time I was 25, and was working as a pharmacist and I was only involved in the harvest through necessity; I would commit myself to the craft of winemaking only some weeks later. So it was that the following summer, with the wine having been bottled, the problem of selling it presented itself. My father provided a cellar where I put the wine in bottles with a label bearing the name of the winemaker, and I then presented my Tocai to a well-known wholesaler from Milan who already knew of it. He carefully tasted it, complimented me upon it and said that he would be happy to buy it. “But there’s a problem”, he said, “it has an odd name…invent one that I can sell”. I didn’t get it. I said that if the wine is good, then why should it be ashamed of its name? I felt humiliated; that was my wine, my family’s wine, the wine of my childhood and of my land (Brazzano was already known as the land of Tocai). I replied that the wine would bear its own name, bid him good day and returned home.
In the months that followed, I attempted to understand and carefully tasted other growers’ Tocais; and actually, I didn’t like them. I asked myself what it took to confer a wine more dignity. My intuition told me that it had to be enhanced, and above all to lend it an elegance which it had still not really known. The enologists of the time were obsessed with acidity. Seeing as that variety when ripe is never very acidic, they tended to harvest early with the result of obtaining a rough-edged wine with unstable acids and a tendency to oxidise. Moreover, Tocai is a generous vine if given the chance. Convinced that it was impossible to produce a good wine, they made more of it to make up for the low sale price.
I decided that my vines would produce less. I tailored my production to level required of other more renowned vines. It wasn’t easy, as a reduction in volume must leave the vine in equilibrium, otherwise the plant takes sugars produced by photosynthesis away from the grapes to be used for the building of woody cellulose. I had to create in the vineyard those special conditions which favour the laying down of sugars along with other aromatic compounds in the grapes. I began to let the grass grow between the rows, to reduce and then eliminate fertilisers, to rethink the ways in which I managed the vegetation and more generally the relationship between the vines and their surroundings.
The first step was to investigate the idea of a specific wine-making process for Tocai, reckoning that the accepted wisdom applied to the other whites would not work for this variety with its distinctive parameters. I calculated that to make a refined product it was necessary to harvest ripe grapes and to balance the must by means of a gentler pressing. Then it would be given more roundness during an extended contact with the fermentation yeasts. The first harvest I was truly happy with was in 1983. Since that time I have continued to perfect and refine my wine-making process. A long list of cellar operations wouldn’t be of much use here; I would just like to add that to boost the complexity, and to give the vine itself a central role, I tend to use a hands-off approach as much as possible and in general adopt techniques which allow us to recognize the vine of origin in the wine. This is a vital requirement because if we, the people who make it, don’t recognise the mother vine then there’s no point making the wine at all. An essential tool to achieve this are the small wooden barrels; they guarantee clarity and definition in the fragrance which would otherwise be difficult to achieve with the variety. I don’t like talking about the organoleptic aspects of my wines, above all because describing wines is not my profession, and then because I feel it takes something away from the tasting, it blunts the delight of discovery. I’d rather say a few words about its destination. The delicate, slightly bitter, elegant structure through which the wine expresses itself, with a refined and not overpowering aroma, renders it a highly drinkable wine. The moment you’ve drained your glass you immediately want another. It also goes really well with a wide range of foods, and in particular with salty or bitter flavours. Fabulous, therefore, with white fish, vegetables (including those with a bitter taste), with raw red meats – beef tartare for example – and dry cured ham, rare-cooked fillet steak, and is sublime with oysters.
It goes strikingly well with olives and olive oil and this makes it the king of wines for Mediterranean cookery. You could go one step further and even pair it with savoury egg-based dishes. It also matches up perfectly with certain Oriental dishes and sits well alongside soya sauce. I was often told that our Tocais were mentioned in the guides as the benchmark Tocais, the wines against which all others in the category are measured and this gave me enormous satisfaction. But alas, the woes of this vine, so generous yet so unlucky, were not over; that name, so very dear to me, a name which I had tried to defend with gritted teeth in order to save it from being snatched away by the brutal logic of the markets, today is gone, stolen by the European Union. Its new name is Friulano.
Collio Ronco della Chiesa is a wine produced from around 12,000 square metres of vineyard right next to the hamlet where the company is located. Its aspect is south-east facing, and the fields overlook the sea which is separated from us by around twenty miles of coastal plain. This sheltered and fairly warm position, where in the summer warm onshore breezes gently blow, is ideal for growing Tocai in all its fullness of refinement and complexity. The soil is typical of the Collio, and the substrate, known as Cormòns Flysch, is made up of alternating layers of marl and sandstone through which, during the driest periods of the year, trickle small amounts of water (a little perennial spring flows around the side of the escarpment).
The current aspect was arrived at by tilling the land by hand, and therefore not by altering the natural curves of the original levels, leaving the underlying geological strata intact. The variety of Tocai here is the so-called “green” Tocai, the most aromatic. Most of the vines are now around sixty years old. The planting density is high considering how steep the terrain is; it was planned to be cultivated by horse power and curiously for this reason it is very modern and functional.
The wine, in its best years, bears a very high level of elegance and complexity. Only when this happens is it bottled with the name of the vine on the label, even though the maximum potential production of 4-5,000 bottles a year is rarely achieved. Much to my chagrin, since the time of Collio Ronco della Chiesa 1998, the wine has no longer gone its real name, “Tocai” on the label.