All technology looks like magic until you understand it. The act of turning grapes into wine pivots on the process of fermentation, a step that can happen spontaneously and looks exactly like a miracle when you can’t see the wee yeast beasties floating in the air that made it possible.
Which isn’t to say that people didn’t use yeast, they did so obliviously all the time. The foam from fermenting beer was used to rise bread; crushed Roman grapes in an amphora eventually started to bubble in a way that resembled boiling – in fact the term fermentation comes from the Latin fevere: to boil. They knew the how but not the why, and wouldn’t truly understand until Louis Pasteur identified the mechanics of how yeast cells multiply in 1857. Until then: magic.
The Renaissance-era Florentines were feeling mighty magical when they came up with a fix for inconsistent vintages in Tuscany. In the 1400s (when the world was cooler), using the crush-and-wait approach made your nascent wine vulnerable to the temperature swings of autumn, if you had a warm fall the yeasts would thrive and eat up all the yummy sugars, producing a drier wine (still a bit sweeter than today’s standards). A cool autumn made fermentation take way longer and could even make the yeasts go dormant, leaving elevated sugars in your accidentally sweet wine. To the entrepreneurial Florentines, who were making large coin exporting Chiantis to Europe with their new snazzy Sangiovese grape, this was a big marketing problem: how could your consumer trust your wine when they never knew how sweet it was gonna be?
The fix they came up with was called the Governo method, and it would be used all over Tuscany and beyond until the advent of electricity. It goes like this: you do your regular vineyard harvest, but reserve a couple rows to let the fruit hang and ripen until it just about falls off the vine. You do your standard crush and ferment (but you don’t inoculate because you don’t know about yeast yet), but as the fermentation slows down (“stuck” in winemaker parlance) you pick and crush the remaining grapes (at this point semi-dried and hella sweet) and add the juice to the mix, reviving and strengthening the yeasts and resulting in a stronger, drier wine, lower in acid and consistent year after year.
Modern Tuscan winemakers can control their ferments with a temperature dial, so the Governo method is nearly extinct, but there are a few renegade producers experimenting with it, particularly Andrea Valiani and his son Marco of Terrescure, a relatively young, upstart winery (although Andrea has been in the wine business his whole life). My “Back Up The Truck” wine today is their Lotto Unico 2016 Toscana IGT, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot that I’ve been calling the “Tuscan Amarone”.
To be clear: there’s no such thing as Tuscan Amarone. Amarone is only found further north in Valpolicella near Verona (and the Tuscans would argue that the Governo method predates Amarone by centuries). It is a helpful shorthand, though, to describe this rustic beast, a throwback to pre-industrial styles of Italian wine mixing raisinated grapes into the heady brew of roasted plums, mocha and caramel apple. Because the ancient Governo process is by nature oxidative, there’s also a soft basalmic quality on the nose, before unfolding into a full body (but not as heavy as Amarone) and a two-minute finish. The dried grape addition puts the sweetness slightly above Amarone levels (15g/l compared to 12g/l), drier than many Californian reds but sweeter than most bone-dry modern Tuscan wines; on average, wines have never been drier than they are today, and Lotto Unico is a nostalgic homage to a different age when sweetness, not ubiquitous as it is today, was considered a luxury.
This is a wine for the end of the evening or the beginning of one, on a patio, with or without food (although I could destroy a burger with this, and great, now I’m hungry), and it’s a way-cool glimpse into the history of winemaking and the styles of yesteryear. I wish I had more...
Terrescure Lotto Unico 2016, Toscana I.G.T. 99 points Luca Maroni, 8 6-packs available, $59.98 +tax
Until next time, have a great weekend, stay safe, and Happy Drinking!
POSTSCRIPT: I know that the word “sweet” is the opposite of a safe-word for many wine drinkers, so I just wanted to give some context as to the residual sugar levels of a few popular wines. The antiquated 00-0-1-2-etc. dryness scale describes the impression of sweetness, which can be slewed by glycerine, acids and tannins (Coca-Cola famously hides its 39 grams of sugar per can behind a hefty dose of phosphoric acid – Apothic Red can appear dry to some because it balances its 19g with stemmy tannins), it is much more helpful to show the actual sugar content:
Chateau de Beaucastel: 4g/l
Purple Angel: 4g/l
Kendall Jackson Chardonnay: 7g/l
The Prisoner: 8g/l
Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon: 9g/l
Belle Glos Pinot Noir: 10g/l
Masi Costasera Amarone: 10g/l
Brut Champagne: up to 12g/l
Lotto Unico: 15g/l
Apothic Red: 19g/l
Dr. Loosen “Dr. L” Riesling: 44g/l
Taylor Fladgate Tawny 10yr Port: 112g/l
Jackson-Triggs Vidal Icewine: 225g/l