Since I first moved to Italy 25 years ago, I have noticed a gradual change - the sense of place is disappearing. Distinctions and traditions which characterize it are being eroded by homogenisation. There is loss of the appreciation of quality; quality that is the essence or special nature of a thing. Characteristics are formed by a series of unique relationships between the climate, the earth, the vegetation, individual sensibility and the past. They are directly reflected in the produce or cultural expression of specific natural environments so place makes a qualitative difference.
In the area surrounding the Amiata where we live and work, I was lucky to discover that many local traditions and practices have survived. It represented to me a model of 'place'.
When people ask me about how one decides what and where to plant, what type of barrel to use and why, I try to explain about the future memory of taste. Many elements are weighed up in the wine-maker’s mind - earth, microclimate, plant husbandry, local character, all the decisions in the cellar. You try to project onto your mind's palate the taste of the resultant quintessential liquid. In this sense, wine-making is akin to composing music or poetry: the composition creates a sort of liquid writing. So, what are some of these elements?
The vineyard at the Castello di Potentino is situated on the slopes of the highest peak in Tuscany, Monte Amiata, an extinct volcano. Our valley is low, and sheltered. This means that in the summer we have hot days but cold nights as the air comes down from the mountain. The earth is volcanic, geologically very new and mineral rich. This minerality creates a notably sapid and fine wine, with subtle bouquets and a rich but not heavy body. It is because of this gift of nature that we named our first wine Sacromonte, in honour of the sacred mountain of the Etruscans.
Soil, Microclimate & Vines
Castello di Potentino’s wines are representative of the delicate relationship between nature and the human, earth and the climate; a symbiosis based on observation and respect, sensibility and discipline. Due to our unique micro-climate and mixed volcanic soil we are able to grow 3 of the most site sensitive varieties together in one small vineyard – Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Alicante.
Just 30km from Montalcino, bordering on the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Castello di Potentino is in the newly founded Montecucco D.O.C region. All the wines are I.G.T.
Micro-climate, micro-life and soil
The land lies in a sheltered valley used since Etruscan times for the production of wine. This continuous tradition exists thanks to the very particular microclimate of the area surrounding the Castle and it contributes to a uninterrupted build up of micro-life and yeasts. There is no mono-culture in the valley and modern farming techniques, including mass use of herbicides and pesticides, have not impacted the area. As a result, wild animal, bird, insect (bees in particular) and plant life abound whilst there are many fruit trees, especially cherries and olives. These are all elements which create a healthy and vigorous ecosystem which is extremely rare in this day and age.
The vineyards are only at 350m but benefit from higher altitude conditions being directly underneath Monte Amiata, the highest mountain in Tuscany and an ex-volcano. At night, during the summer, the vineyard is cooled by the mountain air and very well ventilated by dry, hot air drawn off the sea and coastal plains during the day.
The valley itself is shaped like a basin and very well protected. This crucible-like form has ensured that, unlike other areas of the Amiata where there has been erosion, volcanic matter has been gathered and blended, not washed away. The soil is mixed volcanic - marly schist, calcite, and quartz on a bed of metamorphic marine clay. With this mineral rich, geologically new volcanic soil and extreme changes in temperature, Potentino is the ideal location for photosynthesis and the concentration of the natural sugars needed to make a fine and elegant wine.
Making the wine
Charlotte Horton, an English woman who has now been making wine in Tuscany professionally for over 20 years, planted the vineyard to take full advantage of this very particular microclimate to grow Pinot Noir, a grape that is not common to Tuscany, along with Alicante and the traditional Sangiovese grape varieties.
The 4 hectare (10 acre) vineyard is planted at a low density (5,000 plants per hectare) and every care is taken to ensure that the grapes are in peak condition at the time of harvest. Measures include:
- Low Yields - The vines are green pruned to limit the quantity of grapes to only 65 quintals per hectare. Our total production is about 20,000 bottles a year.
- Vines tended by Hand - The vines are tended to and harvested by hand so that the highest and most rigorous levels of quality control are maintained throughout the growing cycle.
- Careful Picking - The grapes are carefully picked to ensure that they do not arrive to the cellar damaged so that fermentation begins in the cellar under controlled conditions.
- Minimum Intervention - In the castle cellars, attention is focused on ensuring the grapes express their essential quality. Castello di Potentino aims to keep mechanical and chemical intervention to a minimum. A couple of examples of this philosophy can be seen in the:
- Fermentation of the grapes- The fermentation uses only wild yeasts found on the skins of the grapes and is not augmented by the use of industrial aids.
- Pressing the grape skins - When the grape skins are racked off after fermentation they are left to drain naturally without being pressed, further ensuring that some of the harsher more obvious tannins are not present in the wine.
- The aging of the wine - The wine is kept in wood throughout the majority of its time in the cellar. It is fermented and stored in large 5,000 litre capacity French Allier Oak fermenting vats. Castello di Potentino does not use barriques or wood chips that are typical of larger scale more industrial wine producers.
- Fining and filtration - The wines are not fined or overly filtered.
- Low sulphite levels - The only additives used are sulphites - which are necessary to stabilize wine, especially for transport - but at a level lower than that allowed in organically certified Italian wines. This means that drinking our wine does not lead to a terrible headache.
This soft, natural approach results in 5 elegant, mineral and thoroughly structured wines that maintain the vigour of fruit and youth, mature but not old, clean and precise and infinitely drinkable. For this reason we have chosen to name all our wines after stones and jewels.