Who: Daniele and Camilla Piccinin
Where: Lessinia, Verona
What grapes: Durella, Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella, Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Nero
How many bottles: 12,000
Key facts: Daniele is a former chef who makes lively, engaging wine using natural methods. This estate specializes in Durella, a very local white grape.
Piccinin Rosso dei Muni
Organic: Certified Organic and Practicing biodynamic
Soil type: Calcareous clay
Elevation: 300-500 meters
Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara
Method of fermentation: Grapes all vinified together, destemmed and left in contact with skins in stainless steel tanks then aged in barrique.
Piccinin Bianco dei Muni
Organic: Certified Organic and practicing biodynamic
Soil type: Calcareous clay
Grapes: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Durella
Method of fermentation: Indigenous yeast fermentation in stainless steel then moved to large wooden barrels.
The trip to San Giovanni Ilarione is quick. It’s 6:30 when Daniele Piccinin somehow magically spots me by the side of the road. I had stopped for a moment to look up his phone number in front of what turned out to be Daniele’s dad’s plumbing company. I apologize for being late but he wants nothing of it. He is happy I made it. He suggests I leave my car, jump in with him to go up the hill to see his cellar. And I do because this stranger already feels like my Italian cousin (he’s taller than me!). On the way up he repeats what he had emailed me about a week or so before this visit. Tonight is the night he’s got to start making his salami. It’s already dark, we won’t be able to see much of the vineyards but we’ll go check out his cellar. Then we’ll come back down to go to his aunt’s house for dinner. It turns out this “salami making business” is part of a 54 year old family tradition. Every year, under the first descending moon of January, this family, grand mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, mom and dad (16 total) get together to slaughter a pig and spend the weekend making various cured meets. So, first I get to see the cellar. Small and awesome. I get to taste little sips of all his 2012 wines out of the tanks and barrels. He shows me some technical and experimental stuff and tells me that he has a culinary education and worked as a chef in Verona. He spent time picking brains of winemakers and sommeliers before he decided to start this solo operation. He now has 5 hectares of vineyard on calcareous clay soil at the foot of Lessinia in the Alpone valley, about an hour east of Verona. He focuses on native varieties (Durella) and sticks with natural methods. He makes about 12,000 bottles of wine per year.
On the way out of the cellar Daniele grabs a few bottles and we jump back in his car. A few minutes later we park behind a house. I see people through fogged up kitchen windows. Inside two women and four men with blood stained white aprons are gathered around a big sturdy wooden table. I’m introduced and feel welcome right away. The butchering appears to be done. Large plastic tubs with pig bits are everywhere. Daniele quickly explains what is what and what it will become: lardo, pancetta, prosciutto, salami, etc. Then it’s dinner time. We all gather around a large table. I feel honored to be part of this. Dinner is simple and delicious. Some of these folks speak English, most don’t. It doesn’t matter, I understand all of them.
After dinner, completely happy and exhausted, we drive to Daniele and his wife Camilla’s place.
Next morning, fly home.
January 2015 update
I had five minutes to kill. Daniele was driving to meet me, it turns out from diagonally across the street. I went into a little shop selling local food to locals, meats and cheeses and stale biscuits… they were not great, but I ate them. I grunted and pointed, and bought a bunch of stuff. Fresh off the plane, I could not access even the rudimentary Italian that I garble to communicate. Staring. Silence. Eventual cold comprehension. Now I own a hunk of old cheese the size of a tablet PC.
Why go shopping? Attack of the food was about to begin, and by this stage in my career I should know to fast and hide, not seek out optional calories. Within the hour Daniele and his wife had funneled food sufficient for a week into my belly: truffle risotto, gnocci (made by grandma, Daniele cooked the rest,) cotichino (a fresh sausage made of pig skin and other grizzly bits) a stale bread-black pepper gravy, capone, cheeses, homemade fresh bread, probably dessert, but honestly my food brain’s storage capacity maxed out sometime after the chicken showed up. No unforced meals is a maxim I live by while traveling to Italian farms. It’s about survival.
The groceries would remain a weight to haul through Italy, Slovenia, Austria and beyond for many days. As I left the shop, unwise purchases in arms, Daniele pulled up with his dad. They live together in a big normal building above a small cellar (they have two other cellars close to the family vineyards, and wish to build a new place up there, in the high hills among their seven hectares of vines, a spot where they can live and do all the winemaking under one roof. It’s a dream for now. At their current residence in the village of San Giovanni Ilarione on the Alpone river, I met bunches of Piccinins: brothers, kids, wives and partners. I couldn’t determine who belongs where and to whom, and it doesn’t matter. A genial lot. Daniele has a charmingly shy one-year-old daughter, a sweet quiet kid attached to mama’s shoulder because a strange man was in her house. During the 12 days of Christmas, I think this big family hang around together a lot. At the right moment in the lunar calendar, this year beginning this year on January 10th, dozens of Piccinins will make sausages in a multi-day party of pig deconstruction. Specific tasks belong to each, with Daniele as overseer/meat quality analyst. He used to be a chef, which shows in his risotto.
I really need to write about Daniele. He has unwavering dedication to making healthy wine by farming in the correct way. His methods reach well beyond basic organic agriculture. Daniele is discovering the right path for his estate, sure of the goal he’s aiming for but absolutely eyes wide open in his daily approach. He recognizes and speaks frankly about failures, and freely admits that making real wine where he lives is a path not a recipe. “Durella is an oxidative grape, and we are making it with little sulfur (to stop oxidation.)This is why they are making more sparkling wine now: carbon dioxide slows oxidation. “Additions kill the flavor of the wine, so we avoid them. Durella is a grape that has the capacity to age really well, the root word means hard, because the grape has a lot of Malic acid.” Daniele is still working on how to optimally shape their indigenous grape, and I’m still working on how to talk about it. With lunch the wine is just so good, satisfying, it’s a presence in the room. Daniele talks about how the wine makes drinkers feel, healthy, he thinks this focus will promote natural unmanipulated wines effectively. I hope so, even if I’m more skeptical. Getting a swath of drinkers to appreciate a wine whose appeal is slow to reveal, a drink with no big, flashy simple-to-define stock flavors in the foreground: I must work at this a bit.
The best wine of our lunch was the 2012 Muni Quattroventi frizzante Durella. 1,000 bottles made, with no sulfur, no sugar, and spontaneous yeast for the fermentation. Daniele dries the grapes until February, they hang in vertical racks like Corvina does in near-ish Valpolicella. Muni is a place, the small area where Daniele’s father was born and where they hope to build a new home one day.
The 2013 Bianco di Muni tastes too young. It will be bottled in April, and I’m glad we still have some 2011 in our N.C. warehouse. 2013 was a better vintage than 2011, but the wine needs years in bottle to wake up.
The 2013 Rosso di Muni is a blend of Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. It is clean and bright, an expression of the high elevation calcerous fields where the vines grow. Daniele is fond of planting massale selections of vines, and will soon have a new vineyard to use, planted on the volcanic soils of the east side of his valley.
Daniele makes a selection of pure Durella called Montemagro. It comes from the best sites, from 50 to 70 year-old vines. Only 300 hectares of Durella are planted in Italy, and I believe we work with both biodynamic producers of this variety.
I’m considering a long detour back for sausage day. It sounds festive, if a little messy. I leave with confidence of this estate’s direction. Daniele can talk at length about his work, the perspective that informs his farming. Confidence without hubris.