It is not easy to choose to live as Jacopo from Ajola winery does with his two friends, Trisha from Australia and Gigi from Orvieto. It takes a life time of commitment and a great dose of courage.
All seems beautiful and idillic: the rolling hills of Orvieto, nature at its best, crisp pure air, fresh produce from the garden, animals and a gorgeous farm house set far away from civilisation, however the romantic life has its down turns and only strong determination and a huge amount of dedication can drive people like them.
In 2011, Jacopo, a graduate in agricolture, decided to buy with two friends an abandon vineyard on the outskirts of Orvieto (Umbria). Everyone thought he was a crazy man: located at over 500m above sea level, he was told that grapes there will never reach maturity. The vineyard was neglected for years and treated conventionally with whatever was necessary to combat vines’ diseases. At the beginning grapes were purchased to maintain the cash flow and financial sustainability of the farm, however criticism soon arrived as the concept of purchasing was against the “natural” idea of making wine. Although only a few so far have come up with a specific meaning of “natural wine”, I personally cannot see any problems in purchasing grapes, as far as they are sourced from reliable producers.
Today Jacopo does not buy grapes anymore, but he rents a plot nearby, with a total of 3,5 hectares managed entirely from his own resources. The EU does not help wineries with less then 5 hectares and taxes are equally paid (in percentage) by the giant who makes a million bottles and the little guy with a production that barely reaches 8000. The bureaucracy is so intricate that Jacopo cannot plant new vines in the traditional “vite maritata” training, or a vine supported by a tree, as the etruscan used to do. The system is no longer recognised and vines cannot be registered, so you can plant them, but then the wine made will be illegal!
Pesticides and systemics are band from the property, sulphur and copper are carefully selected and used to avoid contamination, nettle infusion is sprayed to protect from downy and powdery mildew, but little can be done when rainy vintages like 2014 reduces the yield to minimum and yes in front of mother nature producers have no power. Only a few days ago a massive hail storm wiped out the majority of his grapes: big holes can been seen on leaves and grape berries were split in half and partially commencing to rot. A very sad scenario after over half a year of hard work and consequences that will be seen for the following vintage. What to do next is very hard to say in particularly with the vinification approach that Jacopo has. No SO2 is used, neither enzymes or selected yeasts. Spontaneous fermentation takes place in stainless steel and fiberglass with whatever time is necessary. Low pH, hygiene and temperature controlled vinification rooms are crucial factors for Jacopo to avoid contamination and bacterial spoilage. It is a very delicate process with little guarantees and the consciousness that some wines might be wasted. Extensive experimentation is taking place, French oak barrels, chestnuts and terracotta anfora are vessels used to understand where the wine expresses best. It is a necessary time needed to gain experience and find a unique identity.
Jacopo is honest and recognises all the limits, but Jacopo is also brave and on a life time quest. He is open for suggestions and keen to take risks. The barrel samples we tasted from vintage 2016 are expressions of the work in progress, but also clearly address a style of wine that escapes trends and looks for uniqueness and somehow lack of perfection.
The wines are never generous and sometimes hostile at the nose, but with a little time and swirling they emerge from the glass with their honesty and sincere nature. The Orvieto classico blend 2016 ( a blend from the field, as tradition dictate) suffers of reduction and high VA, however the palate was fresh, well balanced and incredibly lifting, macerated for 5 days and kept in a chestnut oval shaped barrel. The 100% Procanico was my favourite with 1 months’ maceration, a slight tannic attack, great acidity and floral scents of camomile, unripe apricot and acacia on the finish. Less convincing the nose on the Sangiovese, kept in old French oak barrique, much better however the palate well balanced and finely calibrated.
Of course these wines are for a niche clientele, call it “natural”, “organic”, “biodynamic”, “sustainable”, Jacopo is not looking for a certification or a label to stick on his product, but is looking for authenticity and the revival of ancient practises forgotten by the industry.
Is this the way forward? Yes it could be, but not the only one. In the wine world there is space for everyone and a good wine critic should observe all the possible point of views with an open mind and soul. It was inevitable that eventually the world of wine would have changed.
The question is: is perfection necessary ?
Nature is full of imperfection and often the fruits less appealing at the eye are the ones with much more taste. Maybe the concept of perfectly clean and luminous wines, scented and perfumed, immaculate at the palate is not necessary a unique approach. Less perfection and more personality, variability and lack of consistency. All concepts against business and market expectation, but after all everyone is free to take its path, let the market continue, but also let people like Jacopo believe that there are other ways to make and appreciate wine. Everyone is free to embrace or reject the style, no one however should criticise without understanding.
I take my hat off to Ajola winery and hope for a system that one day will give credit to young people who choose to confront themselves with nature. Making a living out of the land, as Jacopo and his friends do, is hard work, you have to take the good and the bad and accept it with an open mind and the clear consciousness that in the space of no time your hard work may be wiped out by a freak storm!