Northwest of Tuscany, between Turin and Pisa, lies Liguria - the sliver of land that cradles the port of Genova. Dramatic cliffs and the alluring multicolor port towns of the Cinque Terre have made this Italian enclave a vacation staple for the well-to-do and wealthy.
As the unmarked footpaths wind from hidden bay to rocky outcrop, the houses get fewer and the flora more vibrant; spines of limestone hills furnished with untamable leaves of pink-flowering knapweed, far away from the vacationers. We are heading inland, through dense coastal dense scrub vegetation, to Il Monticello and the Colli di Luna DOC. This is wine country of a different kind- enthralling, hidden and tropical.
When we visit Azienda Agricola Il Monticello, it is fall. The azienda lies at a particular geographical point, the lay of the land sheltering it from incoming coastal breezes and extending the temperate weather past October. As we approach the winery, the still herb-scented meadows croak softly with the last crickets, the silvery olive trees bowing heavy with ripe fruit.
Il Monticello is all about Alessandro and Davide Neri, the brothers who meet us with unmistakable matching grins. We pull up to a classic 19th century house that their father Pier inherited in 1982. An electrical engineer by profession, he saw the potential for viticulture and started working the land.
“We were just students when our father started this wine hobby, but we were both instantly captivated,” recalls David, “We loved wine, and the whole idea… of course we encouraged him!”
By the time Alessandro and Davide took over Il Monticello, it had grown to 12 hectares. The brothers acquired 2 hectares of olive groves too, from which they make oil from the ancient Ligurian variety Razzola. The real expansion though, Alessandro tells us, was in 1994 when, under the guidance of Pietmontese enologist Claudio Icardi, the brothers made a serious commitment and converted to organic and biodynamic farming.
The Vermentino vineyard, the beating heart of Il Monticello, is 100 meters asl on a south to southwest facing slope blessed with a silty-sandy-clay mixture rich in structure and well draining. The vines look out to a scattering of houses on the outskirts of the town of Sarzana and the nearby Magra River, down which the Romans sent ships packed with Lunese wine to be sold all over the Mediterranean.
Surveying the land with the brothers, we too feel the onus of responsibility, the urge to protect. Here, two sides of the same hill grow utterly diverse vegetation, from continental to Mediterranean. The land unfurls, revealing its individuality. It is a place like no other, where tropical plants thrive mere meters from evergreen firs. Silence would befall even the most vocal skeptics of micro-climate and terroir.
“Our promise to sustainable agriculture underpins every action we take in the vineyard,” says Davide as we walk among the vines, “If it is not good for the land, and the grapes, not just now- but for the future- then we are not going to do it. For us there is no grey area.”
That responsibility and care evidently transfers into the cellar which the Neri brothers oversee in partnership with enologist Nicola Tucci. The classical vaulted ceiling seems like it couldn’t possibly have been built for anything but winemaking. Cool stones, bright echoes, and just the right grade of humidity to encourage ambient yeasts.
Stylistically, Il Monticello embraces both old wood and steel.
“The barriques take the flavor of the wine on each year, so it is always getting richer and more integrated with itself,” explains Davide, “At the same time old and new.”
Conversely, hi-tech temperature controlled aluminum vats are employed for their flagship Vermentino called ‘Grappolo’- the one we are dying to taste. The wine undergoes long cool fermentation to accentuate delicate aromatics, and extended lees aging for 6 months, usually from October to February. These techniques were introduced and championed by Tucci, who honed his craft in Mosel, the reknowned German benchmark zone for delicate, yet compelling white wines.
When Alessandro starts to pour the Grappolo Vermentino, the bouquet of sprightly aromas practically leap out of the glass.
Down the coast in famous Bolgheri, Tuscany, the Vermentino is rich and oily, recalling heavier styles of Viognier, but here in Colli di Luna, the deep potential for nuance is explored to its fullest. It is fresh, with crisp minerality and a palate of peach and lemon peel, refreshing and expressive.
Technically, the DOC allows up to 10% of other grapes with the Vermentino, but the Neri brothers are purists. So much love is put into the Vermentino plants, some of which are 30 years old, presenting the carefully coaxed aromatics of dried herbs and delicate salinity. Quite simply, to blend would be scandalous.
Our table is rich with local flavors. Sgabei, the plural of sgabeo in Ligurian-Tuscan dialect, are big strips of yeast dough fried and salted. Served alongside cured ham, sapid with its salinity. Davide suggests grilled sardines, marinated octopus with lime, something fresh, something oily, the wine is totally versatile.
“For us, it’s also perfect alone after a long day of work…” says Alessandro, swirling his glass.
We couldn’t agree more. What greater pleasure than to rest on this flora rich hillside with a glass of Grappolo - one of the most sought-after Vermentinos in Italy, from a dynamic company who take their environmental responsibility seriously. Il Monticello’s wine and their message is truly uplifting and we are all the better because of it.