WINE AS AN ART FORM

Peter Fem­fert knew noth­ing about wine­mak­ing when he took over Nit­tardi in Tus­cany more than 30 years ago. Since then, the pas­sion­ate gal­lerist has turned the es­tate into one of Chi­anti’s top pro­duc­ers

Wine & Dine - - Contents - WORDS LIN WEIWEN

A look at one of Chi­anti’s top pro­duc­ers, Nit­tardi

PPeter Fem­fert smiles when I ask him how he got started in wine­mak­ing. “A woman,” he says. He ap­pears to pon­der his next words but breaks into a chuckle. “It al­ways be­gins with a woman.” Love. The an­swer to life’s mys­ter­ies. But the 72-year-old Ger­man tells me that he was once a scep­tic of ro­mance. As a youth, he em­braced his bach­e­lor­hood, and was con­vinced that mar­riage and kids were not for him. In the 1970s, he had a high-pay­ing job as gen­eral man­ager of Avis, an Amer­i­can car rental com­pany, in Frank­furt, but he did not en­joy it. The com­pany’s nasty in­ter­nal pol­i­tics trou­bled him. “I was fed up,” he re­calls. “I spent a third of my time there de­fend­ing my­self, mak­ing sure no one sawed off a leg of my chair. Peo­ple were af­ter my po­si­tion. It was a shark pool.”

Dis­en­chanted, he left the job in 1977 and spent a year trav­el­ling around South­east Asia and is­land-hop­ping in the Pa­cific. In 1979, to feed his love for art, he set up Die Ga­lerie, a mod­ern art gallery in Frank­furt. Then he met Ste­fa­nia Canali, an Ital­ian, at a con­ven­tion in Berlin, fell deeply in love, and “threw out all my pre­vi­ous con­vic­tions about bach­e­lor­hood”. Af­ter their mar­riage, Canali mooted the idea of own­ing a dream house in Tus­cany. Fem­fert scanned the lands of Chi­anti. In 1982, he bought Nit­tardi, an an­cient es­tate, which once be­longed to painter and poet Michelan­gelo Buonarotti in the 16th cen­tury.

Lo­cated in Castel­lina, Nit­tardi is clas­sic Tus­cany, with its cleanly cut nougat-like walls of stone, and rus­tic ter­ra­cotta roof. The es­tate orig­i­nally had four hectares of vine­yards, which, un­be­known to Fem­fert, were in­cluded in the prop­erty sale. “I was thrown into the deep end of the wa­ter as I knew noth­ing about wine­mak­ing,” he re­calls, “but I de­cided to make some­thing good out of it.” He has come a long way. To­day, Nit­tardi’s vine acreage has grown to

40 hectares in Chi­anti Clas­sico and Maremma, while the es­tate is re­garded as one of the top Chi­anti pro­duc­ers in the re­gion.

HIS OWN RULES

The va­ri­etal com­po­si­tion of Chi­anti wines has gone through an evo­lu­tion over the past few cen­turies. In an­cient times, the ex­act grapes used were un­clear. It wasn’t till the 19th cen­tury that Ital­ian aris­to­crat Bet­tino Ri­ca­s­oli de­vel­oped a recipe for Chi­anti: 70 per­cent San­giovese, 15 per cent Canaiolo and 15 per cent Mal­va­sia or Treb­biano. De­spite the odd in­clu­sion of white va­ri­eties Mal­va­sia and Treb­biano, the blend be­came the blue­print for Chi­anti pro­duc­ers. When the DOC reg­u­la­tion for Chi­anti was drawn up in 1967, Ri­ca­s­oli’s for­mula was adopted with a lit­tle tweak—San­giovese had to be blended with 10 to 30 per cent of Mal­va­sia and Treb­biano.

The Ri­ca­s­oli for­mula even­tu­ally drew its fair share of crit­ics. (Those who did break the rules to blend their San­giovese with other non-per­mit­ted va­ri­eties even­tu­ally cre­ated the Su­per Tus­cans.) When Fem­fert took over Nit­tardi’s four-hectare plot in 1982, the vines were a mix of San­giovese, Mal­va­sia and Treb­biano. He was puz­zled. “It was just strange to have white grapes in my red wine,” he says. “Since I was such a small pro­ducer then, I de­cided not to fol­low [the rule] and not tell any­one. So I re­placed the white grapes by graft­ing San­giovese vines onto the Treb­biano and Mal­va­sia root­stocks.” His first wine, Casan­uova di Nit­tardi, was a straight San­giovese.

Like many Chi­anti pro­duc­ers who flouted the rules at that time, Fem­fert didn’t have much to worry as by 1995, the DOC reg­u­la­tion had changed again to le­galise a 100 per cent San­giovese pro­duc­tion. By then Fem­fert had grown his wine port­fo­lio, planted new vine­yards, re­placed the an­cient vat room with a mod­ern cel­lar, and hired Carlo Fer­rini, a renowned con­sul­tant oe­nol­o­gist and wine­maker whose clients in­clude Casanova dei Neri and Fon­terutoli. They in­creased the vine den­sity, from 3,000 vines per hectare, to 6,700 vines per hectare.

“As you in­crease vine den­sity, you let the plants ‘fight’ for nu­tri­ents.

You get a lower yield but grapes with bet­ter flavour and a higher ex­tract of

min­er­als,” he ex­plains. Vine­yard lo­ca­tion is key, too, adds Fem­fert. For ex­am­ple, Casan­uova di Nit­tardi’s plot, Vigna Doghessa, sits on a south-fac­ing hill at 450 me­tres, giv­ing it ex­cel­lent ex­po­sure to the sun, and im­part­ing a rich ripeness to the wine.

Casan­uova di Nit­tardi holds a spe­cial place in Fem­fert’s heart: ever since he launched the wine’s first vin­tage af­ter tak­ing over the es­tate in 1982, Fem­fert has been com­mis­sion­ing an in­ter­na­tional artist to paint the la­bel of each suc­ces­sive vin­tage. Over the years, creatives like Yoko Ono, play­wright Dario Fo, and Shang­hai-born Tai­wanese artist Hsiao Chin have ap­plied their brushes to the bot­tle’s mien.

Fem­fert still man­ages Die Ga­lerie, and it was in­evitable that he’d also turn the Nit­tardi es­tate into a lit­tle mu­seum of sorts: A sculp­ture gar­den—a trove of arte­facts that in­cludes tow­er­ing steel fig­ures by Ger­man artist Horst Antes and a metal sil­hou­ette of Ro­man em­peror Au­gus­tus by Ger­man sculp­tor Heiner Meyer—lends a play­ful at­mos­phere to the prop­erty. There are also 20 lion stat­ues, which are a sym­bolic ref­er­ence to Canali’s Vene­tian back­ground.

KEEP­ING UP WITH TIMES

Nit­tardi’s viti­cul­ture is cer­ti­fied or­ganic, thanks to the ini­tia­tive of Fem­fert’s son, Leon, 34, who took over wine­mak­ing du­ties four years ago. One of their or­ganic wine­mak­ing prac­tices in­volves turn­ing net­tle into a tea, which is then sprayed onto the vines as a nat­u­ral pes­ti­cide and fungi­cide.

“Dur­ing my time, I didn’t think it was nec­es­sary to be com­pletely or­ganic as I was us­ing very lit­tle chem­i­cals. For fer­tiliser, I used chicken or horse ma­nure,” re­veals Fem­fert. “But when Leon be­came our wine­maker, he was keen [to turn the vine­yards or­ganic] as he saw it as the cur­rent trend. I didn’t re­ject his idea be­cause when you give some­one a big re­spon­si­bil­ity, you should not de­mo­ti­vate him.”

To­gether with Fer­rini, Leon, who has tenures at La­pos­tolle in Chile and Frog’s Leap Win­ery in Napa Val­ley, rep­re­sent Nit­tardi’s new wine­mak­ing chap­ter; an as­tute buddy cop pair­ing of youth­ful vigour and sagely nous.

While turn­ing the es­tate fully or­ganic was an at­tempt to set a new viti­cul­ture stan­dard and em­brace a trend, Fem­fert isn’t one to jump on the band­wagon all the time. In 2014, the con­sorzio of Chi­anti Clas­sico launched Gran Selezione, the high­est tier for a Chi­anti wine. (Hith­erto, the high­est cat­e­gory was a Chi­anti Ris­erva.) The dif­fer­ence be­tween the two tiers isn’t ex­actly night and day: A Ris­erva needs to be aged for at least 24 months, while a Gran Selezione has to be aged for at least

30 months. For the lat­ter, grapes also have to come from the pro­ducer’s own vine­yards and not a con­tracted grower. Fem­fert thinks this is an un­nec­es­sary cat­e­gory for Chi­anti Clas­sico; a move that isn’t ben­e­fi­cial to smaller or bou­tique pro­duc­ers like him­self. He has no plans to cre­ate a Gran Selezione.

“In a way, the Gran Selezione re­sem­bles what I have been do­ing for my Ris­erva Selezion­ata, which I have been pro­duc­ing for 25 years,” he muses. The Ris­erva Selezion­ata is Nit­tardi’s top am­brosia—only the best San­giovese grapes are picked from Vigna Alta, a south-fac­ing hill­side vine­yard. The vino, which is re­leased only in the best years, is aged for 24 months in French bar­rels, fol­lowed by an­other six months of bot­tle age­ing. The 2013 vin­tage, with its vanilla and choco­latey notes, earned 95 points from wine critic James Suck­ling, and was also men­tioned as one of his Top

100 Ital­ian Wines of 2016.

“I have been very for­tu­nate. We have good vine­yards with a mix of lime­stone, schist and clay,” says Fem­fert. “If you have a bad vine­yard, you can work on it as much you like, but the re­sults will never be good. Sim­i­larly, if you have poor rice, even the best chef in the world will not be able to turn it into a good risotto.”

Op­po­site page Har­vest time at Nit­tardi’s vine­yard; Leon Fem­fert in Bar­ri­caia;

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