When Less Is More

Planning an itinerary for a week along Montefalco’s Strada del Sagrantino should be a breeze. With a cantina around every bend in the road, there are certainly enough choices. That’s the problem – so many wineries, so little time. Booking visits at well known places is a sound strategy, but there’s the chance of missing some hidden gems. So, what cosmic force led me to Azienda Francesco Botti? A website that featured a quote from Virgil: “Praise a large estate but cultivate a small one.” A winemaker with an appreciation of the classics was someone I had to meet.

Francesco Botti isn’t a poet or philosopher, just content to be sole operator of Colle del Saraceno. He cultivates only a portion of nine hectares (22 acres) on the western slope of the valley that bisects Umbria, land that has been in the family for over a century. As we sat on a shaded veranda overlooking vines and olive trees, Francesco poured his four wines as his assistant Monica translated. He makes about 2800 cases a year and has no desire to expand, or compete with neighbors who routinely have busloads of wine tourists at their door. “Staying a small producer I can respect nature and its cycles, I can maintain the traditional essence using modern techniques.”

Had he ever thought about hiring a consultant? “My wines have to be the expression of my character, of my ideas, but I can only interpret what every season offers me. I prefer to make my wines by myself. Every year is a challenge, and what the market wants is important but it cannot decide in place of me. An enologist would only suggest the best wine for selling!” He went on to say he wanted his wines to represent his little corner of Montefalco, that consultants sometimes have an identifiable style that can be repeated anywhere.

Giving our glasses of an aromatic Sagrantino time to open, I wanted to get his thoughts on what is important in making wine, and his connection to the land. “I was born among olive trees and vineyards and I felt that nature had to accompany me in my life. So I think the most important thing in making wine is the passion and seriousness which guided me in the difficulties I found along my human and professional paths.”

The discussion turned to Sagrantino being a hard grape to understand and warm up to. Francesco agreed, adding that “…it has a thick skin and bold tannins. Our wines have to withstand strong climatic stress all year from long winter to hot, dry summer. They need to have character, the same character you will find in their fragrance, body and structure. To know Sagrantino you must learn where it is born, lives and grows and the vegetation all around. Only after this you can say you know it.”

The 2012 we were drinking had character to spare, and Francesco’s low key thumbprint was evident. Unfiltered and unrefined, it wasn’t a punch in the mouth or a kiss on the cheek, more a balancing act of power and finesse, of density and structure. A good middle-of-the-road introduction for newbies to a grape that can be ornery. It would be interesting to see what it will be with five to ten years of cellaring.

Author’s note: When you reach a certain age, time may be the wine’s friend, but not yours. I plan to open the bottle that Francesco gave me this autumn!  

The artisanal wines of Colle del Saraceno make a personal statement. They are as serious, direct and unassuming as their creator. Grechetto 2015 was lively and savory, far better than many I had on the trip that were basically forgettable house wines that come in a quarto. It was a literal and figurative eye opener at 10:30 in the morning. Galdino is a proprietary blend of mostly Sagrantino with Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot. Francesco doesn’t adjust the percentages from year to year, in contrast to what seems a common practice used to maintain product consistency. As he pointed out, “The wine will change anyway because each season is different.” The proof was in front of me, successive vintages that couldn’t have been more unalike. A duo of smooth, darkly fruity and rich Sagrantino Passito topped off the morning. The older one had the elegance and depth of a vintage Port, the other more like a Tawny that needs time to grow up and fill out. Francesco hopes that his wines “…tell about the land they come from, wonderful and welcoming but hard and reserved at the same time.” On that score he has nothing to worry about.

On the way back , I pictured Virgil sharing a bottle with him, praising his small estate and contemplating the winemaker’s words: “If you learn to listen to nature, every day it teaches you something about life.”

all photos via http://www.cantinabotti.com/