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The Waiting Game

June 03, 1998|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Deep in thought, Luca di Napoli stares out at the Tuscan countryside through an open window of his family home, Castello di Rampolla. He sits as coolly as the somber figure of the cleric Abbas de Stanislaus Rampolla--an ancestor of his--shown in an 18th-century painting on the wall of the tasting room. You get the impression that nothing could really excite Di Napoli.

However, as he turns to his visitor and describes the reception of his 1996 Vigna d' Alceo at the Vinitaly wine fair in Verona a few weeks before, his eyes suddenly sparkle with life. "Many people came to our stand just to taste this wine. It was fascinating to watch them put the wine in their mouth," he says, drawing a circle around his mouth with his index finger as he speaks, "then the first unconscious reaction, often of surprise, and finally their words."

On the table is a glass of Vigna d'Alceo, named after his father, who had planted the first vines for this wine nine years ago. When Alceo di Napoli died two years later, none had borne their first grapes.

In fact, it was five more years before the vines gave a crop large enough to merit bottling separately. "In 1995, we only got 2,000 liters, so it was blended into another wine," Di Napoli, 43, says. So 1996 is really the first vintage."

Vigna d' Alceo is a great and unique wine. Almost black, it has an enveloping bouquet of dark fruits. Swirling it in the glass, one is reminded of blackberries, then black currants and mulberries, but none of these comparisons really satisfy, since none of those fruits is as spicy as this wine.

In the mouth it is a wine of monumental proportions, rich and firm, yet with its components so perfectly interwoven it is anything but heavy. The aftertaste seems to stop, as if Vigna d'Alceo were already a good friend who keeps repeating his farewell to delay his departure.

The secret to this wine? There are several, but the most important is the extremely dense planting of 3,200 to 4,000 vines per acre, compared with the maximum of 1,200 per acre in traditional Chianti vineyards. High vineyard density means a smaller crop per vine; in this case, just 2 to 3 pounds of grapes per vine instead of the 6- to 8-pound yield in traditionally planted vineyards. This yields grapes riper and richer in flavor, leading to more expressive and harmonious wines.

Another "secret" is the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot grapes from which it is made. Alceo di Napoli was one of the first vintners in Chianti to plant Cabernet Sauvignon during the early 1970s. During the 1980s, the Sammarco of Castello di Rampolla, a blend of about 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% the Sangiovese grape of Chianti, became one of the most sought-after Italian red wines.

Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot comes from Bordeaux. However, unlike Cabernet, Petit Verdot is anything but fashionable. Because it is a fickle grape that is late-ripening and prone to rot once it is ripe, many of Bordeaux's leading cha^teaux have removed it entirely from their vineyards in recent years. None of the region's top estates has more than 10% of their vineyards planted with the varietal. Vigna d'Alceo is therefore unique among the premium red wines of the world in being made from 20% Petit Verdot.

After Alceo's death in 1991, his son Matteo took over the running of the estate. However, the wine quality was erratic and often not up to the standards of the previous decades. Luca di Napoli says he and his sister Maurizia took over in 1991 after their brother "changed jobs." However, several figures in the Tuscan wine business say that the estate had experienced business difficulties and that the family decided to replace Matteo. Luca di Napoli was clearly more interested in talking about the new wines than this chapter in the family's history.

"Wine is about pleasure and concentration, about conscious pleasure," Di Napoli says gently as he brings the 1994 Chianti Classico "Riserva" to the table. Asked about tradition--since the oldest parts of Rampolla's cellars date to the 13th century and the estate, just outside Panzano in Chianti, has been in Di Napoli ownership for nearly three centuries--he replies with a grin:

"No, in Burgundy they have centuries of tradition, but we have only 30 years, and a mere 15 on the present course. No, pleasure is more important."

One of the first things he did when he took charge of Rampolla in 1994 was to let weeds grow between the rows of vines to reduce the vigor of their growth and channel more of their energy into the grapes.

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