Meet The Winemakers: Maximilien de Zarobe, Virginie Saverys And Alessio Gorini Of Avignonesi
Continuing my series of intimate (if long-distance) chats with winemakers, I recently spoke with Maximilien de Zarobe and Virginie Saverys, owners of Avignonesi in Montepulciano, Tuscany––Italy’s largest biodynamic wine estate––and Alessio Gorini, Avignonesi’s Agronomist and COO.
Avignonesi has been lauded for taking biodynamics––a set of intensely attentive farming principles that aim to bring the farm back in harmony with nature––to their 100+ dispersed hectares of vineyards. However, our discussion focused more on their project to create single-vineyard expressions of sangiovese, five of which I tasted along with their blended Vino Nobile. Though widely recognised as one of Italy’s three most outstanding red grapes (and known for sensitivity to its environment), sangiovese in single-site bottlings is not as common as you might expect, so I was excited to taste it.
As a quick reminder, the Montepulciano we’re talking about is a wine region, not the grape of the same name, primarily made in Abruzzo and Marche rather than Tuscany. Alessio opened with a presentation about the area and its millions of years of geological history, part of which it spent under the Mediterranean. This explains the presence of limestone on some sites. Most of the soils in the region derived from sedimentary deposits of sand or clay rather than hard rock––which are found more in parts of Chianti Classico and Montalcino.
Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation:
Sarah Heller (SH): Is there a defining characteristic of Montepulciano that you think distinguishes it from Chianti Classico and Montalcino, the other two key Sangiovese regions in Tuscany? For example, you mentioned its extreme diurnal variation [day-night temperature difference]?
Alessio Gorini (AG): If you are in Chianti Classico, the eastern side or towns higher in altitude have more or less the same diurnal effect. The most important factor for Montepulciano is a combination of this climate effect and the variation between sandy soils and rich clay soils.
Maximilien de Zarobe (MdZ): Sangiovese is so sensitive that it defeats the purpose of classifying it according to administrative boundaries––Montalcino, Montepulciano, whatever––the sangiovese couldn’t care less about them. There is as much diversity within one area as there is between them.
Virginie Saverys (VS): In a way, what you’re describing––trying to make it easy to understand––with sangiovese is difficult. Look at Burgundy: In the same village, one producer might be right next to somebody else, but his wines will be different. The fascinating thing for me is to do a barrel tasting in Burgundy. That’s a little bit what we’re trying to recreate with these single-vineyard wines. We can’t allow ourselves to do this, but in a vineyard like Banditella, we could do five single vineyards, and they would have something different to say.
SH: How long have you been working in this way, dividing the vineyards into smaller plots; was it this way right from the beginning?
VS: Sadly, no. I started investing in Avignonesi in 2007, but I’ve owned it since 2009. When I took over, the previous winemaker was still here. I remember arriving one morning, and they were harvesting a vineyard in Montepulciano and a vineyard in Cortona (about 30km away across the valley), and they were putting it all together in one big tank. In 2012 we acquired a cellar with small tanks to vinify separately, not just in tanks of 200 hL. Then our lives changed, and we could start that project. Even though we are large, we work in a less industrial way than some so-called artisanal producers. For example, in the lower part of Banditella we always harvest at a different time to the upper part. Sometimes in vineyards like Caprile we have vintages where we pick eight times.
Sarah Heller (SH): So, how did you get to where you are?
Alessio Gorini (AG): It is because of the curiosity Virginie has had since the beginning. We have about 100 hectares of sangiovese, which we usually vinify separately as more than 70 plots. Sangiovese is a variety that changes according to where it’s growing, and we have many different soils and microclimates. In one 20m row, you can find bunches of 200g or 400g. The University of Bordeaux has helped us; they have come here twice and helped us define every soil type on maps, but we are still learning.
SH: Do you think 70 parcels is enough, or are you looking to go even more micro?
VS: It depends on the vintage; the climate of that year determines what we’ll do. With this 2021 vintage, it will be way less because we have been badly hit by frost. I think we’ll have to rent some tiny tanks of 500L.
AG: I think 70 plots are enough. Now it’s like when you’re a kid and you have Lego and the first thing you do is to deconstruct it and then you have to create it again. We have separated everything, but now we need to understand how each plot will interact best with the others.
SH: Is the zonation done principally by soil or some other means?
AG: We observe a lot. One of the first jobs that Matteo (winemaker and CEO) and I did in Greppo Estate is we went row by row with a ribbon putting a sign on each post saying “we need to harvest from there to there.” The support of the soil and vigour maps were helpful, but we are always led by observation.
SH: When you make the wines, you said that you are not necessarily trying to make the perfect wine but trying to capture the character of that vineyard. Have you tried to keep the winemaking and oak handling the same across all the wines?
AG: It’s all there in the grapes – we don’t add anything like acid, tannins or sugar to change the balance of the wine. If we see the extraction is starting to be too much during vinification, we stop the maceration, but otherwise, the rhythm is the same between the different wines. But for example, in Banditella 2016, we found that we needed to balance the freshness and greenness so we used a little more new oak tonneaux. This has impacted the flavour. In general, we have reduced our new oak because we don’t want to cover the character of our wines. Oceano is probably the most drinkable right now. With Banditella and Badelle you will likely have to wait a bit longer, but those tannins may be more attractive in 10-15 years.
VS: For us, the purpose of these single-vineyard wines is almost educational, not to put large quantities on the market. It’s more for the wine geeks, those who love sangiovese, to allow them to taste up to six expressions. It’s not every year––sometimes we don’t make a single vineyard because we don’t like what it’s expressing. Having this educational walk through the various vineyards where it’s the same hand treating is interesting.
The Avignonesi wines to try in 2021
Vino Nobile 2016
Sour cherry with a waft of petroleum, green peppercorns and powdery florals. The texture is satiny, with only a brush of tannin on the end and bright but not aggressive acidity.
This cool, north-facing site is free-draining with yellow gravels and typically produces huge bunches (300g), resulting in a vertical, angular wine. It opens with a coconut and dill sweetness from new oak, the fruit beneath lively with candied cherry and sugar plum. The acidity is energising; lean flesh exposes crunchy tannins beneath.
El Grasso 2016
This site lies right in front of Banditella but is, by contrast, warm and south-facing, with the sandiest soils among the Avignonesi vineyards, giving more fruit richness and softer tannins. Aromas of black cherry and medicinal herbs sit over an almost caramelised quality. Tannins are very soft and luxuriant, with acidity less assertive.
Avignonesi’s oldest Sangiovese site––planted in 1978––which may explain why this wine is remarkably consistent year to year despite the changing climate. Virginie remains adamant that she will not pull the vines despite being urged to see Caprile as their benchmark for elegant Sangiovese. In recent vintages they have changed the name to “Poggetto di Sopra.” Smoky iron filings sit over dried cherry and thyme; the palate is lithe and finely constructed with silky tannins.
This clay-heavy site is, unusually for Tuscan sangiovese, planted with bush vines, which produce tiny bunches (110g) of immense concentration. The topsoil – blue clay, saline and lime-rich – would have been 3m below the surface except that 20 years ago, the previous owners bulldozed the land before planting, something Virginie would never allow now. The nose is oily, almost petrochemical, with dense plummy notes and an umeboshi finish. Thick, mouth-filling tannins are supported by a tender bitterness but less acidity.
Avignonesi’s highest altitude site with deep lime-rich soils and striking diurnal variation delivers the darkest, most tannic wine. Dense and chewy, it has black, figgy fruit and a liquorice finish.
See also: The Winemaker Behind China's Ao Yun Talks Producing Wine At The Foot Of The Himalayas And Its New Vintage