Castelvetro has now become the mental and physical stop of my summer wanderings in search of real wine: a crossroads and suture of Matildic and ducal territories, a sweet theory of hills and castles that narrates continuity and inspires lives, like that of the winemaker Max Brondolo and his “Podere Sotto Il Noce”; for me who, in addition to wines, usually look for stories, it is the perfect place to get lost and find them.
Max inaugurates his farm in 2017: he is Milanese, he is a manager, with a great passion for wine, and Burgundy in his heart, but he decides to change his life, move to Castelvetro, and resume the path left years earlier by his grandparents, wine producers in the Asti area, following the path perhaps less easy today in Italy, that of biodynamic agriculture. The return to the earth thus becomes the goal that catalyzes all his strength and his intentions.
The Podere is a land of about six hectares located in a pre-hilly and hilly area, on the slopes of the hill exactly opposite that of Vittorio Graziano’s, of which I had the opportunity to tell you about a year ago: it is a little land, not at all mechanizable, steep, on the flat side of which stands the huge walnut tree from which the farm takes its name, while, on the hill, the border is supported by a thick woodland, just like in the past. Around the walnut tree, rows of old vines, some over sixty years old, together with the new ones planted by Max: the varieties are the local Lambrusco Grasparossa, Fioranese and Sorbara, Trebbiano (from Spain and Modenese) and native grapes in mixed portions, such as Uva Tosca.
The ground under my feet is red and dark, blood iron veins emerge from the sedimentary clays: Max does not use, ça va sans dire, any synthetic or chemical product in the vineyard, and lets the soil express in the vine, with the minimum intervention, its typicality, together with that of the varietal, letting each plant speak freely with its land companion. Grassing, annual green manuring and no irrigation (which in drought years such as 2021 means losing a lot of crops and even newly planted young seedlings) complete the agronomic picture. Even the cellar practices are aimed at the least possible human impact: the mysterious and natural language of the hill is thus expressed without filters. The grapes, selected cluster by cluster, arrive in the cellar only when fully ripe, an anti-contemporary philosophy, of course, but a harbinger of quality, then they are de-stemmed, gently pressed and the must obtained is fermented with only indigenous yeasts. The decantings, carried out with extreme care, are the only complement to a vinification that allows the terroir to breathe directly, and the second fermentations in the bottle, followed with obsessive attention, are practiced, to perfectly close a cycle consistent with itself, with the addition of refrigerated must pertaining to the same vintage of vinification.
The vintage is, for Max, a sensitive needle of the universal scale, it marks his signature on every wine: this is why he reports an accurate description on each label. No wine is ever the same from year to year, and speaking of labels, they are all original drawings by Denis Riva, a painted synthesis of the soul of wine, harnessed and sealed in bulky dark glass bottles.
Max welcomes me for a tasting in the cool, dim attic of the old farmhouse where part of the winemaking operations are carried out and the bottles are kept.
Its wines, all with a speaking name and linked to history and the local dialect, are almost always the result of the vinification of several varieties, which insist on a specific parcel of land, just as it used to be, all refermented in the bottle: “Cattabrega”, rosé from Grasparossa, Sorbara and Modenese, “Confine”, red from the grapes of the oldest vineyard, “Saldalama”, red from Grasparossa, Sorbara and Trebbiano from Modena, “Mennabò” instead Grasparossa di Castelvetro in purity, as well as “Funambol” is Trebbiano di Spagna, 100%, while “Valtiberia” is a blend of Trebbiano Modenese and Trebbiano Di Spagna; “Franzes” is Grasparossa, Sorbara and Trebbiano Modenese, the same grapes, in different proportions, which enter the “Parpain”, where the last two have a greater space. Max generously makes me taste all of his creatures, and two above the others capture my senses and my attention: “Funambol” and “Confine”.
“Funambol”, providential equilibrist on the thin rope of Trebbiano di Spagna, is a wine without comparison of its kind, a concentrate of complexity, freshness and controlled oxidation. The grapes are pressed in whole clusters, in a very delicate way. Fermentation takes place in Clayver containers, and the must is clarified only by racking and racking, without any correction: it is only the quality of grapes that speaks. The wine is then bottled under the crescent moon, and in the glass it reveals to be dense and full, of the color of the stones illuminated by the setting sun on the hill: the nose is delicate and floral at the beginning, and then unsheathed as the temperature rises, a masterful freshness of herbs, spices and ripe apricot. In the mouth it is a triumph of flavor, large citrus peel, nuts, balsamic and light oxidation, complex and direct at the same time. I tasted the 2020 vintage with Max, and I brought home a 2019 vintage which, recently opened, has shown to be even more interesting and evolutionary. Wine also suitable for the first autumn low temperatures and unusual combinations, it went very well with a plate of risotto with porcini mushrooms.
The other coup de coeur of my day is “Confine”, perhaps the wine that best interprets the soul of the Podere and Max’s philosophy. average age of 60 years and no less than 12 different varieties of local grapes, left to grow spontaneously until ripening, and meticulously selected. In the cellar, the must macerates on the skins for about 6 days: Max is not a big fanatic of maceration, yet he uses it if considered in line with the creature he has in mind to give birth. The rest is done by the usual and careful series of decanting and rigorous attention in each step of the vinification. I taste the 2019 vintage, 1062 bottles produced, bottled on May 26, 2020, under crescent moon, obviously unique proportion of the grapes between white and red.
In the glass, the color is bright ruby, transparent: although the light is dim, it shines intensely, as if it was the fresh juice of an unknown fruit. The nose is at the same time oriental and local, combining black tea, spices and morello cherries, while in the mouth what arrives first is the freshness of the red berries of the forest, which seems to me I am chewing, then the intensity of the humid and ferrous earth, and the spiciness blunt of black pepper. The vibrant flavor and acidity makes it very long and even more throbbing, truly a living creature.
It is the wine born from the great walnut, a spell of wild and ageless grapes, the color of fresh blood, never the same from year to year, but always vinified, like a bulwark at the Podere: a border to the asphalt, to the present that wants perfect wines yet soulless, against the wines that instead are narrating of our fertile and free land and of our roots, of the hard daily bread which was fortunately also wine and not just bread.
That old vineyard, beyond any definition, now thrives in incredible symbiosis with the walnut, and is a living testimony of this border that Max defends every year, aware that the undertaking will be increasingly difficult, but not without wonder.
It’s almost lunchtime when we say goodbye. I dare to stop again in my beloved Castelvetro. I walk barefoot through the medieval red stone paths and the semi-deserted squares under the August sun, to better hear the silent noise of time, before sitting down for a good plate of tagliatelle and a glass of wine, with the calm and grateful awareness that here traditions and boundaries will always be respected.