Story & Photos David Bolling
Love it or hate it, embrace it or reject it, if you live in the Sonoma Valley you are at least partially defined by wine.
It’s the primary industry, the most common crop by far, it shapes the contours of the Valley and permeates the culture, the economy, the ecosystem, the conversations, the meals, and the meetings we share with others.
Most of us know the most popular local varietals—cabernet, pinot noir, zinfandel, merlot, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. We’ve also come to appreciate sangiovese, malbec, grenache, mourvedre and syrah, along with pinot grigio (the single most popular wine in the world), viognier and the newly dryer Gewürztraminers.
That said, measured in anecdotal terms, our collective wine knowledge appears to pale before that of the French, Italians, Spanish, Germans, Greeks, British, and probably the Luxembourgers.
How many of us, for instance, are familiar with Assyrtiko, believed to be the oldest continuously cultivated wine grape in the world? Assyrtiko is native to Greece—specifically, the island of Santorini—and people who know claim it dates back as much as 3,500 years before Christ. That means the vines would have to have survived the volcanic eruption that blew Santorini apart around 1,600 BC, leaving a steaming caldera that, in due time, became both an international vacation playground with one of the most dramatic coastlines on the planet and an officially historic Greek winemaking appellation.
Which is what led me not long ago to the Boutari Winery, perched near the edge of that caldera, almost a 1,000 feet above the blue Aegean Sea.
Boutari is an iconic label, dating back to 1879, and still in the founding family’s hands, now run by Constantine Boutari, three generations removed. Boutari has been a leader in the preservation of indigenous Greek grape varietals and historic vineyards. He kicked Greek wine tourism into gear nearly 30 years ago on this very island by offering organized wine tours and tastings.
So I did a tour, and discovered the baskets.
That’s right baskets, or, as the Greeks call them, “kouloura.”
To fully understand the meaning of all this you have to better understand what it’s like to grow wine grapes on Santorini, a dormant volcano shaped by one of the greatest volcanic explosions in earth history that expelled 15 cubic miles of magma and rock, and another 24 cubic miles of tephra (smaller rocks and dust) into the atmosphere.
So, the island has very little actual soil and a surface composed primarily of volcanic ash, pumice stones, lava rock, and sand. On top of that, Santorini’s climatological classification is similar to an arid desert. Its summers can be brutally hot, it receives less than half the average annual rainfall of Sonoma, and it is buffeted by strong onshore winds. There’s very little organic matter in the ground and, since groundwater is scarce, the vines can’t be irrigated. What to do?
Baskets, like something the Miwok weavers might have made in Sonoma County, but way bigger.
On Santorini, most of the grapevines are trained into a circular pattern on the ground, row-over-row as they grow longer, so that the grapes are protected inside this leafy circle, a virtual basket that continues to be trained around and around for 50 or 60 years, or more. Yields drop as the vines increase in length, so by 75 years the vines are cut off at the base allowing the roots to grow new vines, which will bear fruit in two or three years. The cycle can continue several times, which means that some Assyrtiko roots are estimated to be as much as 500 years old.
The wines from these vines are equally unique. Assyrtiko—which is now planted all over Greece—produces a dry white wine with crisp acidity, strong minerality, citrus overtones, and often a pleasantly briny edge, usually attributed to the moist ocean breeze absorbed at night by the pumice stones surrounding the vines and released in the daytime into the root zone. The wines are complex, sturdy, and age well.
Boutari has a 2016, 100 percent Assyrtiko that Robert Parker gives 92 points.
Assyrtiko is also combined with two other Santorini whites—Athiri and Aidani—and dried in the sun for up to two weeks, then pressed and aged in oak to produce a spectacular dessert wine called “Vinsanto,” with a complex bouquet of dried fruits that is sweet but not at all cloying.
Because the Greek wine industry has been decades behind Italy and France in production technology, and yields are naturally low, most of the country’s production is consumed at home. But if you have the chance to try a nice crisp Assyrtiko, especially from Boutari, you’ll taste a hint of Santorini, you’ll understand why there is a vast wine world beyond the borders of California, and you’ll discover a varietal best suited, perhaps, to endure climate change.
Meanwhile, Back in Tuscany
It’s a relatively brief flight from Santorini to Florence, followed by a gorgeous one-hour drive through the Tuscan hillside to Castellina, in the heart of the Chianti Classico subregion, where you’ll find Poggio Amorelli, a family-owned winery popular on Tuscan tours that perfectly illustrates sustainable, hands-on winemaking at its Italian best.
Owned and managed by the Mazzarini family (which includes Marco, Adriana and two of their three children), the winery is posed on a postcard-perfect hillside, enveloped in a vineyard of sangiovese grapes.
The wines served are all estate grown, with the exception of one Brunello produced in a separate partnership. As is the prevailing practice across Europe, all the vines are dry-farmed, meaning there is no vineyard irrigation, a practice that can result in fines and severe sanctions, unless approved to temporarily nurture new plantings. Adding water is widely viewed as an opportunistic shortcut to increase production at the expense of quality, and as sommelier Lorenzo Moschini pointed out, “We have been growing wine grapes here without irrigation for thousands of years. It is not necessary, the roots go very deep and the flavor is richer without the water.”
There are elaborate restraints on Italian winemakers to follow a rigid set of rules, imposed to ensure the integrity of label names and bottle contents.
And classification can be confusing, especially in the Chianti region, which has eight subzones, with different rules depending on which one you’re in.
The Chianti Classico subzone, for example, is generally considered to produce better wine than the Chianti region at large. That assumption imposes a higher standard (and allows higher prices), requiring 80 percent sangiovese content in Chianti Classico-labeled wine, and at least 12 months of aging, versus just 70 percent for the larger region.
All subregions also have a higher, “Riserva” level of quality, requiring a minimum of 24 months of aging. And within Chianti Classico, there is an even higher quality level, called, Gran Selezione, requiring at least 30 months of aging. It’s hard to keep all this straight in your head unless you have a Lorenzo to guide you through it. But what emerges is the story of winemaking that had been evolving for centuries before California fermented its first Mission grape.
The Poggio Amorelli experience took us well beyond wine, as Lorenzo lavished us with plates of buffalo mozzarella on toast, drenched in the estate’s extra virgin olive oil, with fresh, sweet tomato slices from the winery’s organic garden, dribbled with the estate’s 20-year-old balsamic vinegar and, of course, some locally aged salami.
The wine, of course, covered the table. We ran through an extra dry Vermentino Spumante, an extra-dry Rosé Spumante, a Vermentino IGT, a Chianti Classico DOCG, a Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva and, lastly, a Super Tuscan IGT Toscana called “Oracolo,” that turned out to be 75 percent sangiovese, 20 percent merlot and 5 percent colorino, a grape I’d never heard of. Turns out, it’s mainly there for the color.
All the wines were exceptional. We raved about the Vermentino Spumante, even more for the Classico DOCG Riserva, and the Oracolo inspired one of us to send a case home.
It was an idyllic interlude, not unlike many you can enjoy around the Sonoma Valley, but for two things. It was comforting to know, with the looming face of climate change, that the wines we enjoyed did not require irrigation. But much more than that was the ineffable satisfaction of being embraced in the arms of so much winemaking history. The unwatered roots of sangiovese vines certainly run deep, but even deeper were the roots of tradition that watered Poggio Amorelli. You could feel it in the stonewalls of the winery, in the play of the vines across the hillside, in the manifest evidence of Old World mastery we are still unpacking in California.
And then there’s Cinque Terre
Of all the improbable, absurd, almost impossible places in the world to grow wine grapes, Cinque Terre has to be at the top of the list. (There is a myth that Norse explorers grew wine grapes in Greenland a thousand years ago, which may explain Trump’s interest, but those who know insist Greenland has never grown a grape.)
An Italian National Park and World Heritage site strung along the precipitous edge of the Ligurian coast south of Genoa, Cinque Terre is a collection of five villages stuck like colorful limpets just above the ocean, linked by a stunning, sometimes exhausting and occasionally treacherous system of trails and an extremely well-engineered railroad line. There’s really no practical automobile access, so if you want to visit, you walk, take the train or catch a local ferry.
My first visit was a youthful accident before the entire world decided to come take a look. On my second trip, the whole world was there, especially in Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost village, and the only one with a real beach and enough space to absorb endless waves of tourists. But escape is easy, if you’re willing to walk, and if you do walk, be prepared for a lot of up and down. Especially, up. The five villages are not far apart. You can see them coming and going on the Blue Trail, the most direct walking route, and end to end it’s only about seven miles. But before you start, get a trail update; parts of the Blue Trail have been severed on and off for years, and there are conspiracy theories afloat claiming that either the national park has spent all the repair money, the trails are being closed to impede the seasonal tourist onslaught, or maybe it’s all climate change.
Whatever the trail situation, Cinque Terre is very much open for business, and part of that business is wine. Specifically, a delightful local blend of white grapes, including bosco, albarola, and vermentino, that produces a soft, fragrant, savory but dry wine with about 12.5 percent alcohol and a pale yellow color.
But what really sets these wines apart is the very fact that they exist. For perhaps a thousand years, residents of these rocky cliffside communities have painstakingly, stubbornly, and repeatedly built stone terraces into the impossible steep slopes. When you walk the Blue Trail to the Village of Vernazza, just south of Monterosso, you come upon lush rows of grapevines, anchored one row at a time into stone terraces that stair-step toward the sea.
Year after year some terraces wash out in the winter rains, and year after year they are repaired.
One local resident has estimated there are 7,000 kilometers of stonewalls in Cinque Terre (about 4,300 miles), which is longer than the Great Wall of China. Tending the vines, and harvesting the grapes are not easy tasks, but the tradition persists, and the wines are a defining element, and therefore an essential part, of village life.
Knowing the wines of Santorini, of Chianti Classico, and of Cinque Terre, also means knowing the cultures and communities they come from. The wines are a current connecting us with each other, with the past, with future places we can taste before we get there.