I've insisted many times that the story behind a wine is an important part of my enjoyment of a wine -- knowing about who made a wine and the circumstance of its creation is part of appreciating it fully. Sometimes, though, the story of a wine is so compelling that it can transform the experience of drinking the wine into something else entirely.
Such is the case with the wines of Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi. The story behind this man, his wine cellar, and the wines that he made was so extraordinary when I first heard it, I hardly imagined that I would ever get the chance to experience them firsthand (especially considering they number only in the thousands of bottles). Now, thanks to the kindness of a friend who was just as enthralled as I with the story of these wines, and who was willing to hunt them down for his own cellar, I have been able to try one.
But I am getting ahead of myself, and that is not a way to tell a proper story. Everyone knows how a real story begins...
Once upon a time, there was a prince. His name was Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, and by all accounts, he was, well, a bit eccentric. And that's putting it politely. Like all good princes, he had an estate, and like all good Italian princes (or so I fantasize) his estate had grapevines on it. Most princes would never pay much attention to the foliage on their grounds. They're usually more interested in the various fringe benefits of being princely (of which we all know there are many). Our prince Ludovisi didn't much care for fast cars, or for people, or conversation, for that matter.
He did care for wine, however.
Or rather, he was somewhat obsessed with wine and winemaking. So in the 1970s, he started making it, apparently without any formal training, and without much of any help from anyone else. Despite no real background in the subject, he had very particular views on the winemaking process, and the sort of wine he wanted to make.
The prince's estate lies a ways outside of Rome, and was originally planted with local, nondescript varieties of grapes. He ripped these vineyards out and planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malvasia, and Semillon. He practiced complete organic farming, eschewing all pesticides before there was an official label for what he was doing, and kept the yields on his vines incredibly low. His wines were made in large, old oak casks which he reused vintage after vintage to age the wines, numbering them and the wines they produced carefully. Apart from these numbers, and the name of his estate, Fiorano, he gave no other name to the wines.
Now we all know that every really good story has got some magic in it, and in this story, the magic comes from the prince's cellar. Specifically, the prince's wine cellar was covered with a downy white mold, which he believed to not only be harmless, but actually play an important part of his winemaking process, as it coated neatly everything in the cellar, from the barrels to the bottles which he laid down to rest there for years. The prince insisted that his wines required age, that they would in fact age for decade, and pretty much they weren't for sale.
Occasionally, over the years, though, a few bottles would get out onto the market, but only through the persistence of a few buyers who were constantly exasperated at the prince's tendency to refuse orders, or when he accepted them, to send whatever he wanted, regardless of what was ordered. Eventually, he stopped selling his wines altogether, and in 1995, he stopped making them as well, ripping out all but a few of his vines, and closing the doors to his cellar.
And there the wines sat -- 14,000 bottles, slowly covered with the friendly, magic white mold, slowly being forgotten, except for by a few who knew of the treasure that slept beneath the prince's estate. One of those people was one of Italy's most prominent wine journalists, Luigi Veronelli, who passed away this past year. In 2000, Veronelli pursued a careful quest to get the prince to give him a sample of a few wines, and when a merchant friend of Veronelli's showed up to pick up the wine, he was told he could not have just one bottle, he could have them all, provided that he promise to sell them "properly."
And so the wines surfaced again, and were shown to a select group of journalists, which is really the only reason I knew about these wines. Eric Asimov told their story in the New York Times, and some of the wine eventually reached the United States.
And then some even reached my glass last week, ending the story and perhaps beginning a new one.
This wine is made from the Malvasia Bianca varietal, which is planted quite widely (but not in high volume) in Italy, but has its origins in ancient Greece. Malvasia invariably makes up a portion of much of Italy's unremarkable blended white table wine, found nearly everywhere in the country, and is rarely made into a single varietal wine (the one exception being in the Friuli region). At one point this grape was also made into a relatively famous dessert wine, but these days no one seems to make (or have heard of) Malvasia di Grottaferrata. In general the grape is thought to be unremarkable and not worthy of serious winemaking effort.
Apart from the details of the prince's winemaking mentioned above I have no further information on how this wine was made, or how long it remained in oak before bottling. The original number of bottles produced is unknown, but there are likely only a couple hundred bottles of this wine in existence.
This wine is a light amber-gold color in the glass and has a very unusual nose of pine sap, herbs, juniper, candle wax, and petrichor (the smell of the ground just after a rain). In the mouth it has a light acidity and complex, brittle flavors of unripe pears, apple seeds, wax, and minerals. Surprisingly the wine has an astonishingly long finish that brings in vague hints of peppermint oil as it tapers indefinitely in the back of the mouth. I wouldn't have guessed that this was a 20 year old wine, and it is definitely unlike anything I've ever tasted before, though certain elements recall aged Chenin Blanc, and very old vintage champagne.
I would think this wine would be best with something simple and elemental, like fresh goat cheese and toasted rounds of country bread, or a simple soup like my favorite potato leek soup with tarragon.
Overall Score: 9.5
How much?: When available, these wines must be purchased in mixed cases which run about $120 per bottle.
This wine is only available for purchase through the Italian Wine Merchant.
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