While on holiday by Lake Garda a couple of years ago, my wife and I dined al fresco at Pizzeria Leon d’Oro, a stereotypically bustling Italian restaurant squeezed into one of Riva Del Garda’s many narrow, winding streets.
Negotiating wine lists in Italy can be a tricky affair, given each region’s unwavering commitment to its own – usually esoteric and obscure – local grape varieties and wineries. The result is like reading someone else’s shorthand notes: you can take a stab at some recognisable elements, but overall coherence is unlikely.
Luckily for me that night I did spy a well-known and highly-regarded name: Isole e Olena from Tuscany. Though I hadn’t tasted it before, the winery’s reputation preceded it, and thankfully it delivered on all levels, providing characteristic Italian cherry fruit but with the concentration, balance and finesse befitting the estate’s esteemed status.
However since that day in 2013, I for some inexplicable reason failed to get my hands on the wine again, despite being easy enough to find. Imagine my delight, then, when none other than Paolo de Marchi himself, proprietor of Isole e Olena, was in Ireland at the end of last year for an open meet-and-greet in the excellent Terroirs wine shop.
And so it was on a dark cold November night in Dublin I got the chance to rekindle some dolce vita once again … albeit this time in Donnybrook.
“You Won’t Fool the Children of the Revolution”
The Isole e Olena estate is located in the heart of the Chianti Classico region at the midway point between Siena and Florence, and the name came about in the 1950s when the De Marchifamily purchased and combined two adjoining estates, ‘Isole’ and ‘Olena’, each of which dated back hundreds of years – indeed, the earliest documentation of the village of Olena goes as far back as the 12th century.
The De Marchi family are actually from Piedmonte in the north-west of the country, an area known for its Barolo, perhaps the single most famous Italian fine wine style. After establishing the new Isole e Olena estate, the De Marchi family immediately set about rejuvenating the vineyards and updating the winery in a quality drive that was novel to the region at the time.
Paolo is the fourth winemaking generation of his family, taking over the reins at Isole e Olena in 1976, which he still runs it today with his wife Marta. Their eldest son, Luca, now runs the family estate in Piedmonte, Proprieta Sperino.
When Paolo arrived from Piedmonte, fresh from a degree in Agriculture at the University of Turin followed by several harvests in California and France, he found much need for improvement and modernisation in Chianti. To say that the region was beset by inertia and apathy at the time is an understatement – Chianti by the 1970s was terribly outmoded, with quantity preferred over quality and much plonk produced. None of this seemed to bother the region’s producers however, who were still selling their wine by the truckload to homesick Italian emigrants in the US and elsewhere.
But none of this sat well with Paolo the perfectionist, who tore up the unwritten rule book and set about with the aim of elevating Chianti to the heights he felt befitted the region he fell in love with.
The “Extra Tuscan”
Indeed, his zeal for improvement and experimentation coincided with the rise of what became called the “Super Tuscan” movement. Spearheaded by Piero Antinori and his now-iconic Tignanello, the Super Tuscans defied tradition and regulation by growing ‘international’ varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot and either blending them with native Italian grapes or indeed excluding them all together.
In the eyes of the antiquated and outdated wine regulatory body, these acts were considered scurrilous, and Super Tuscans were downgraded to ‘table wine’ designation.
Nevertheless, wine critics and lovers worldwide loved the results, leading to a revolution in the quality of Italian wines and the amendment of once-immovable regulations around wine production in Italy. The Super Tuscans are now considered icons and change hands for the same prices as the classed Bordeauxs they sought to imitate.
Paolo similarly planted international varieties at Isole e Olena, and to much success, but he tended away from the “Bordeaux Blend” of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which many other Super Tuscans were striving to replicate.
Instead he was one of the early pioneers of Syrah in Tuscany, a small drop of which finds its way into his benchmark Chianti Classico, as well as establishing an outstanding Chardonnay (more of which below).
But it’s Sangiovese and its distinctive expression in Chianti that is the true passion for Paolo, something evident in almost every account written on him to date. At all times he has striven to make the purest Chianti possible, updating tecnhiques and m
odernising methods as much as possible yet maintaining as much of the distinctive and much-loved qualities of traditional Chianti.
The apogee of this effort is manifested in Cepparello, a barrique-aged Sangiovese classified as an IGT – a designation usually reserved for basic weekday wine – because at the time of its creation in the 1980s a wine comprising 100% Sangiovese could not legally be labelled as Chianti.
But just like the Super Tuscans, Paolo felt that in order to create the best wine possible the rules had to be ignored, and so it was that Cepparello, a love-letter to the Sangiovese grape and its Tuscan home, has since become a legend in the Italian wine world … indeed, some have playfully given it the fitting moniker “Extra Tuscan”.
A Legend in Tweed
Given Paolo’s reputation for single-minded attention to detail, his pursuit for perfection and his bloody-mindedness in challenging the establishment, you might be forgiven for assuming he’s a difficult character in person.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Standing in Terroirs that day in November was one of the most affable and charming people you’d ever have the pleasure to meet.
A diminutive character with tousled silver hair and tweed jacket, Paolo de Marchi seemingly never stops smiling. The fact that he is a genuine wine celebrity seems to have had no effect on him, and he gave his time easily and generously to anyone who wanted it.
Interestingly, owners of Terroirs Seán and Françoise Gilley have known Paolo’s family personally for a number of years: Marta, Paolo’s wife, came to Ireland in July 1999 to study English and the Gilleys soon became very good friends with her, often having her around to their home for long dinners paired with some stellar wine from around the world. In the words of Françoise, “Marta and Paolo have remained lovely friends and we are delighted to have their splendid wines and olive oil on our shelves.”
Of course, I couldn’t meet a winemaker without having a bottle signed, and naturally Paolo did so with great enthusiasm. While he was about to hand over the bottle of Isole e Olena Chianti Classico I recounted the memory of last enjoying his wine in Riva Del Garda. This inspired Paolo to suggest he dedicate the bottle to my wife, fittingly completing the circle so to speak.
And so it is that I have a treasured bottle of one of the finest Chianti Classicos on my shelf at home, on which is written in gold: “To Helen, Paolo de Marchi”. So now, for me and my rekindled relationship with Isole e Olena, a quote Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca comes to mind: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
THREE TO TRY
Isole e Olena, Chianti Classico
A blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and 5% Syrah, this is one of those wines I like to call ‘experiential’ – there isn’t one element that catches your attention, and instead it’s the wine’s overall purity, balance and elegance which strikes a chord.
Of course there’s lots of fresh cherry fruit, perfect tannin and delicate oak, but to reduce this wine to a list of flavours wouldn’t do it justice. Just buy a bottle and see what I mean.
Isole e Olena, Cepparello
As mentioned above this is 100% Sangiovese, and is a more intense, serious version of their Chianti Classico.
The wine I tried was the 2008 vintage and even at eight years old I felt it was still too young to drink. A tautly-wound, concentrated wine which isn’t giving up much at the moment, you can be sure that this will start to sing in a few years’ time.
Isole e Olena ‘Collezione Privata’ Chardonnay
This really took me by surprise. Terroirs co-owner Seán Gilley introduced the wine as being akin to Meursault, which was a neat summation of what was a decadently poised, textural and experiential wine.
It’s so well balanced, with oak, fruit and minerality all playing their part in equal measure. Oaked Chardonnay gets a bad rep nowadays, but a glass of this would convert any naysayers.