Terra delle Ginestra offers a flavor of the past
Ancient nectars produced at this winery
are unforgettable - so is a visit here
By ET1 (AGF-3) David Hambleton
Terra delle Ginestra. Land of the Scots broom. Home to gentle climate, gentlemen, and genteel ladies. Terra delle Ginestra exists in a niche above science, but symbiotically supported by and supporting research; above politics, but benefiting from and returning blessings to the free commerce of ideas; and above any one person, but fulfilling each person involved on whatever level they choose to be engaged. All of the patrons share a sentiment expressed with near-tearful passion by Principal Sommiliere, Giulio Marrone, "We do this for a love of our land."
What they do is create unforgettable and unique wines.
Driving up from Naples along the Tyrrhenian coast, and turning right, toward Cassino, the road is modern and well maintained. Just before the high pass at Ausonia is the village of Spigno Saturnia. The exit is on the right, and then a left turn takes you over a bridge and into the timeless architecture of south-central Italy. Just off the bridge, the nice pavement goes right or left, but fold your mirrors inward and follow what seems like a goat path that leads straight on. Up the hill the road widens into a gravel country intersection, and on your left hand is the wall of the old Mallozzi estate. The smiling gentlemen waving hello -- if they happen to be there -- are bound to be one or more of the patrons of Terra delle Ginestra.
The countryside is gentle, having supported human inhabitants since long before recognized civilization. This is the land where Virgil claims Aeneas touched down after the fall of Troy and his sojourn to Egypt where he broke Dido's heart (explaining the Turkish influence, including the presence of the Turkish Abbuoto grapes found here). Just down the road is the promontory town of Gaeta, named after Aeneas' nurse maid, the only stronghold on the Italian peninsula to withstand the Saracen invasions at the end of the first century A.D. Aeneas purportedly is the progenitor of Romulus and Remus, who nursed from a wolf, the former being the founder of Rome. These hills have also seen Phoenecian, Aragonian, Norman, Mongol and Germanic invaders. Did they all come for the wine?
In March 1998, a group of third-year sommiliere (viniculture) students in Formia started talking about history, their homeland, grapes and one another. Inspiration was everywhere; in the old ways, in the old grapes and in the old wines of this land - and the new ones, too. Encouraged by the Association of Italian Sommilieres, they began searching for the grapes of legend.
The Abbuoto grape had already been rediscovered in the mountains between Itri and Fondi by the Agency for Regional Agricultural Development in Lazio, and is the key ingredient in making the Cecubu (pronounced "Chek-u-bu") wine celebrated in ancient Roman literature. Uva Vipera, the snake grape, is another ongoing project, and there may be more yet as local growers are still being interviewed about isolated vineyards and the unique varietals that grow there.
Growing the grapes is the cornerstone of Terra delle Ginestra's delightful wines, and the only way to do it is the old way. Nothing is used in the native soil except what was used by growers in the (original) days of the toga. Copper Sulfite, just like the ancients used to keep pests down, is the only preparation added to the soil in the strictly organic process.
Each normal grape plant is capable of yielding upward of 15 kilograms of grapes each year. Most wineries only allow about four kilos to grow, thereby getting good flavor characteristics by letting the plant focus limited resources on only a small number of fruits. Here they only grow about two kilos per plant. The work is not about productivity, but about quality at Terra delle Ginestra.
The estate is lovely, with views of the valley and the mountains above, greens of every hue in the olive trees, vines of course, and the scrub and grasses beneath. The Mistral breeze blows sea air gently up the hillside from Formia out on the coast. The old house was converted into offices for the patrons with some living quarters, but they are not now used. The carriage house has been rehabilitated from its 1985 moss-covered state and converted to a lovely boutique winery.
Opposite the door of the antechamber rests a small nondescript French oak cask. Removing the bung restored my zeal and fortified my feeling of well-being. This is Abbuoto. It yields a full-bodied rich and warm sweet vanilla and berry aroma unlike anything I have ever experienced … anywhere. The smell filled the room with an aura of happiness and prosperity, and I was instantly certain of the future of this little winery. I was almost heartbroken to learn there are no immediate plans to make an Abbuoto wine.
Due in part to limited availability, the Abbuoto is not bottled alone, but blended with other grapes to yield the locally renowned wine named for the past owner of the estate; Signore Benito Mallozzi, General of the Carabinieri, the vaunted Italian military police.
Il Generale, Terra delle Ginestra's flagship wine is blended of Abbuoto and other local grapes and matured in French oak for eight months, yielding a rich spiced woodland berry flavor that is a treat alone or excellent with red meats or other flavorful dishes.
Ricordi is the other red offering, and it is a wonderful table wine with just about anything. Crafted with old techniques and the result of much research into local custom, its name means "remember." This is truly archetypal colloquial Italian table wine. A bit lighter and not intensely spiced, it crosses boundaries to go well with whatever you care to drink it with.
Lentisco is one of my favorite white wines. Aged in chestnut casks and not overly filtered, it truly has its own rich character. Fruity and refreshing, hardly light but not heavy, it is light enough for fish, but flavorful and hearty enough to hang out with red wines on a table with upland game. I imagine the ancients enjoying this wine with chinghiale (pronounced "chin-galy"), Italian wild boar.
Ginestra is a throwback celebrating the Bacca Bianca grape, a native of southern Lazio. It is a gentle wine of all seasons, easily washing down flavorful fish and poultry or soft cheeses.
Invito is the lightest offering, benefiting from a dedication to the archetypal local fish-wine. Cool and refreshing, I - not being a great fish eater - find this perfectly presented in a bucket of ice next to a chaise lounge on an afternoon or evening veranda.
Promessa, last but hardly least - to come off the vine as well as in my list here - is a true delight. This late harvest vine-sweetened dessert wine is the product of limited fruit growth vines (for fewer, highly flavorful grapes), two years in French oak barrels and another in the bottle, and the loving care of artisan vintners. It is a delectable after-dinner wine crafted for the heart and palate with utter disregard for the financial well-being of the winery. A perfect dessert.
The wines are limited production boutique wines, and are available only locally. The grapes are organically grown and limited per-vine for peak flavor. The varieties of grapes used are very specialized and do not command enough capital investment to warrant recognition for Denomination of Origin registration. They are not selling 20,000 bottles of Chateau-Neuf Du Pape here. Handcrafted and bottled with only the best Sardinian corks, it seems there will never be shortcuts or new-generation polymer stoppers in Terra delle Ginestra wines. Modern silicon stoppers may give a more complete seal, but only the Sardinian cork and glass bottles are true to the ancient form. This allows for some micro-oxygenation, which adds to the character development of the wine.
There are practical as well as principle-driven reasons for not switching to high gear productivity. Research goes on to find more about the practices of the ancient cultures here regarding the growing and fermenting processes. Local grapes are even now being DNA analyzed to determine other truly indigenous types, as well as the times and origins of imports. Once identified, vines must be painstakingly reproduced.
Terra delle Ginestra's 11,000 square meters of estate is home to 1000 mature Abbuoto vines and another 600 juveniles, waiting for grafting to their phylloxera-resistant American host roots.
In the late 1800s, phylloxera threatened the entire grape crop of Europe. An American entomologist, Charles Valentine Riley, who would become the first chief entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was hired by the French government to seek a solution. Riley grafted French vines onto American grape roots, because the American grapes were resistant to phylloxera. Now, every viable concern growing grapes in Europe grafts its vines to roots from the New World.
Plans are in place to add more vines as supplies come available, but not to ever grow into a commercially driven concern. None of the patrons wants - or needs - to make economic decisions about their art.
Something capitalist in me wanted to suggest a Bed and Breakfast. The same capitalist leaning suggested adding more vines all over the countryside and advertising everywhere. This could be so BIG! But after getting to know these men and their hearts, it seems almost sacrilege.
Look for the artisans and their families at local craft shows. They love to tell the stories and share a glass, and you can buy modest quantities of the wines, if and when they are available, for very modest prices. You can have them in-situ at Aeneas' Landing in Gaeta or at Chinappi in Formia, among a small host of other fine restaurants in the area.
As in any Italian concern, nepotism can influence where these wines will be available, so you may enjoy asking the restaurateur how they come to be connected with Terra delle Ginestra.
During my first visit to the winery, two gentlemen pulled up to the gate while we visited in the courtyard. They were searching for the source of Il Generale, having enjoyed a couple of bottles at dinner the previous evening at a local restaurant on the coast. With vague directions, they ventured into the hinterland at the mere hope of finding the winery and someone who might sell a few cases or even a bottle or two. The probability of finding someone at the estate is not good. The patrons all have homes and families of their own, and tending the vines and the wine-making are very much part-time concerns for them. The happy gentlemen left with a few bottles, having enjoyed a great quest and were able to look forward to sharing a delightful bottle of ancient nectar upon return to the 21st-century world.
The magnanimous patrons are Giulio Marrone, principal industrial chemist at Boston Tape in Sessa Aruncia; Americo Chiericoni, industrial chemist, who teaches chemistry lab at Liceo Scientifico in Scauri; Sandro Nello, cardiologist at the hospital in Formia; Giuseppe Godono, insurance inspector; Nicola Marrone, naturalist; and Mauricio Desimone, enologist. Each brings his own flavor and passion to the art.