"When you taste a young wine, you never know what it will become. It’s like if you were able to scan a baby’s mind; you don’t know if he or she will grow up to win the Nobel Prize, and there is no way of knowing."
When LITTLEWINE met Aris Blancardi
We arrived in Liguria late last night. It’s a crisp sunny morning in January, and we hop on the back of Aris’ pickup truck, with a picnic packed. Before we know it, we’re driving up a narrow path that snakes its way rapidly up the hillsides. We gulp and close our eyes as we round extreme bends, narrowly missing where the road has crumbled, on many occasions the tyres spinning up dust. This is true rural Italy; everywhere around us are old ruins of houses that have been left behind in centuries gone by. We can’t help but ponder who once lived there, wondering what lies below the trees and climbing plants that have made the floors and walls their home.
We finally arrive at the top; at his vineyard “Ciapissa.” Apart from a shed and two little reclusive houses in the distant mountainside, we are alone, save for birdsong and the odd rustle in the bushes.
We cut bread, cheese and tomatoes in the shed, and Aris smiles. He points to the fireplace.
“When I have time, I come up here and sit alone with a book, light a fire, and sleep on a mattress.”
We push open the shutters to the window and gaze out into the blue skies, fresh air streaming in. There is a resounding sense of quiet and peace. A family of little lizards scuttle further away; we have disturbed their morning sunbathing spot, but they don't seem too bothered by our presence.
We sit outside and allow the sun to wash over us in convivial silence.
“This area is called Negi. Once upon a time there were more vineyards here.” Aris comments after a while. “Once upon a time, it was considered the top region for Rossese. We even have old documentation that depicts these wines as being served at the Hotel Royale… but now, it’s hard to get up here; it’s out of the way. People said I was crazy when I took these vines on. It’s only half a hectare and it doesn’t make much sense financially, but I think there’s a kind of magic to be found...”
Aris is pensive, his eyes shimmering. We are quiet but urge him to go on, sitting back to listen, our eyes closed, ready to hear his story.
Until 2004, Selvadolce was a flower farm.
“It wasn’t easy, the decision to halt the flower business and farm vines instead,” Aris begins, a little emotional.
He explains that his great grandfather had been one of the first to revolutionise the sale of flowers from Liguria to Russia. These flowers with their somewhat wild genetics could be kept fresh on ice for a long time, the time it took to travel to Russia by train. Back then, high society in Russia spoke French, which many Ligurians speak due to their position on the border. Business was good.
Fast forward a few generations, and Aris’ brothers were predominantly involved in the business, so Aris followed his own dream to become a horse vet. He remembers,
“I became a vet because I loved horses. I loved my work. One time, around Christmas, a couple rang me late at night, begging me to come out to see their sick horse. All night I couldn’t sleep, worrying about the sick horse, so I took off in my car at 2am. I was thinking to myself… “What should I charge? It’s Christmas, it’s late at night… should I charge double?” … Then I arrived in the mountain village to meet a poor, elderly couple, and their unwell elderly horse. I stayed with them and they fed me and put me up in their home. The next day, they thanked me gratefully and asked me how much I would charge. I smiled and said, “don’t worry... we can figure something out next time...” For me, this was about people, not making lots of money.”
A few weeks later, Aris was in Kentucky, operating on a world-class racehorse.
“I was carrying out orthopaedic surgery; putting screws in horses’ knees, mending broken backs… you name it. These were things that weren’t even available to human beings back in Italy! I realised at that stage that this was all for commercial purposes. The horses were business for these people. Suddenly my job had become about business.”
It was with this realisation that Aris agreed to join his family when his elderly father asked him to step in.
“I was the bookkeeper at first,” Aris smiles, laughing. “I knew nothing about book-keeping! But I was determined to succeed, so I did well and introduced all sorts of new technology. But really, I was sad. I was stuck inside; in an office; not outside with horses, or with nature.”
Eventually, when Aris’ father asked him if he’d like to take over the farming, he agreed, relieved to no longer be inside. But one summer’s day, it was extremely hot and Aris was sweating profusely, wearing a mask across his face to protect himself from the pesticides they were spraying on the flowers; pesticides that are now banned in the EU. He jumped off the tractor, pulled off his mask and firmly said,
“Stop. Enough is enough. I don’t want to do this,” pointing at the sprays. “I’ll end up killing myself, and I’ll end up killing our employees.”
This coincided with a chance meeting of a friend of a friend, who had been learning about biodynamic vegetable farming. The next thing he knew, he was on a course in the Langhe, learning about biodynamics from Nicolas Joly; one of the gurus of biodynamic viticulture. There was a vineyard at Selvadolce, so he began to consider the idea of farming it biodynamically and making wine. He decided to ask some local “wine experts” for help, and so his first winemaking experiment came about in the year 2000.
“These “wine experts”, they advised me to use selected yeasts. Nothing happened, so we added more yeast, and then more. Suddenly, it was like a shaken-up Coca Cola bottle, fizzing everywhere. The wine went dry within a few hours.” He laughs heartily. “Now, some of my fermentations last three years! It was the WORST wine,” he adds emphatically.
He went to more classes, and continued to be inspired.
“I was going a bit mad. It drove me crazy, I was obsessed! I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so one day I decided to take back the vineyard from the guy who had been renting it.”
He approached his father, and said, “Father, I know what we should do with Selvadolce. I’m going to become a biodynamic winemaker and grower.”
His father responded, “Yes... You are a horse vet. You don’t drink wine. You know nothing about agriculture. It’s a good start!”
He laughs and we all burst into hysterics. His eyes glimmer and he continues, “but… my father, he said, “I know you. I can see the light in your eyes… you’re going to do something great here.”
Selvadolce’s viticultural future was born.
The home plot of Selvadolce spans across three hectares, spaced out along terraces. Ciapissa represents just half a hectare and is twenty minutes’ drive up into the mountains at 600 metres above sea level.
Aris began to convert the vineyard to biodynamics in 2004, moving the land away from its previous state of being pummelled with fertilisers and pesticides. He explains that when a vineyard is treated with artificial fertilisers, the vines no longer need to go deep down to find the water and nutrients they need. Instead, they find these fertilisers, which sit in the topsoil. Hence, the first thing Aris did was to cut these superficial roots that spread across the surface to give the message to the vines that they need to learn how to plunge deep.
“There were so many superficial roots that I had to empty the tractor all the time. Just three years later, the roots were plunging deep naturally. I had no idea that the soil can regenerate itself so quickly. Nature is so powerful. Now, we never have to irrigate. The vines are strong all on their own.”
Viticulture is biodynamic, but for Aris it is not about labels. For him, it is a problem that people use organics or biodynamics for marketing purposes.
“It’s not about doing something to get a sticker for your bottle. We are all playing our our own roles, with our own beliefs. It’ll take time – sure – but hopefully we’ll make it in the future, together.”
It is clear that his relationship with nature is deep rooted. He talks to us at length about observing the relationships between plants; for example watching the positive effects that green manure has on the roots and mycorrhizae.
"Nature gives itself what it needs. That is what’s so terrifying about GMO in the plant world. Us humans, we use technology and software. If a program fails, we can start again – we can reboot the computer. But if we permanently modify something in a plant and it doesn’t work, nature’s answer is evolution, and that can take millions of years.”
He ploughs every other row of the vineyards once a year, to open the soil to allow the roots to oxygenate. These rows he then seeds with green manure to introduce biodiversity to the vineyard, which he feels needs a helping hand in its monocultural state.
The original vineyard is now over sixty years old, planted to Vermentino and Pigato. Although “genetically identical”; Vermentino and Pigato have very different characteristics, the latter being known for its freckles and subtle bitterness. In a sense, it is like comparing identical twins; they may share the same DNA but they express themselves differently.
The younger vineyards have been planted with massale selection from the older vineyards, and Aris is working with nurseryman Lillian Bérillon in the South of France to not only propagate his old vines for his own vineyards, but also to make them available “on the market” for other growers.
“This is important to me. In fact… It is an honour. You hear about people wanting to save the genetic material of their vineyards for themselves, but this is wrong. We can’t "own" plant material; it doesn’t belong to us. We shouldn’t put a copyright on a plant or on a seed,” he stresses.
Aris is very open about the fact that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing at the beginning.
“I was a horse vet!” he reminds us. “I would ring Nicolas Joly or Stefano Bellotti for help, and they’d either ask me what I was smelling or tasting, or they’d say; take the fine lees, not the heavy lees. I had no idea how to describe what I was smelling or tasting, and what on Earth were the fine lees?! I had no idea! I even used a mattress pump for my first vintage!”
We laugh, stunned, and think to ourselves, “did he really just say a mattress pump?!”
Since the beginning, Aris has left his wine on the lees and in bottle for extended periods, as he noted that this had a positive effect on the stability of the wine. However, this made it hard for him to sell locally. The majority of businesses in both the Italian and French Riviera are known for being obsessed with the latest vintage, so when he came with a vintage from two or three years before, they’d give him an odd look and say, “right… well…. This might be good for cooking with?”
Nonetheless, he persevered. When he had problems with a wine that had residual sugar, the laboratory advised him to filter.
“No!" He profused to himself. "I won’t! I’m a biodynamic winemaker!”
But, out of curiosity, he bought filtered wines to taste, and he filtered one of his own wines as an experiment. After five years he noted that although it was technically perfect, there was no life in that bottle in comparison to his unfiltered wines.
“Why do people buy such fancy filtering equipment? They spend all year farming, and the wine itself takes years to develop. Why kill the lees; the bit that keeps the wine alive; with a filter?”
We don’t have an answer, but we also don’t think he is looking for one.
“I don’t look for tasting notes or aromas, you know… those things they teach in sommelier schools. I look for emotion. When people come here and they tell me that they’re here because they drank my wine and it gave them goosebumps… there’s no money in that, but it’s emotional. I know that the emotions I put into my bottles won’t get lost… they’ll get passed on, and that’s what’s important in life.”
Aris’ four white wines are from the Selvadolce home vineyard. The original, old-vine vineyards produce VB1 (Vermentino) and Rucantu (Pigato), both of which see a period of maceration, and regular bâtonnage (every two to three weeks) to add a little richness to the palate. He allows a little headspace in these barrels to encourage a small amount of oxidation.
Meanwhile, the younger vineyards produce Crescendo (Pigato) and Rebosso (Vermentino), which are not macerated and remain topped up, in more of a reductive state. One day, when they vines are older, Aris will make these wines in the same way as Rucantu and VB1, but for now, he is adamant that the vines don't yet produce grapes that are powerful and balanced enough for skin macerated wines. He explains that with age, the vines find an equilibrium, and in turn the wines will find their own inherent balance. He deems this is of utmost importance for wines that see skin contact.
The reds are produced from Rossese and Garnacha, either destemmed or with a small percentage of whole bunch maceration. The occasional other cuvée also makes it into the mix depending on vintage and experimental ideas. Tucked away, there is a white blend in a barrel in the corner, which has been left for several years as it began its life with a temperamental nature. Now, it is developing a flor and turning into a wine in the vein of a Ligurian vin jaune. Sulphur-wise, he uses only mined sulphur, and adds very small amounts (or none) before bottling, depending on the vintage.
We ask him how and why he has come to make all these decisions.
He smiles, and says in his mysterious way,
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “You taste, you look… It is a feeling. Each wine is different. When you taste a young wine, you never know what it will become. It’s like if you scan a baby’s mind… you don’t know if he or she will grow up to win the Nobel Prize, and there is no way of knowing.”
Want to taste a wine that transports you to the seaside? Ever wondered what energy-trapped-in-a-bottle feels like?