A TALE OF TWO VINEYARDS

For Cipriano Barsanti winemaking is about interpreting a place. And each place is different.

Cipriano Barsanti gathering herbs at Macea

Cipriano Barsanti stands in his vineyard, Macea, in the shadow of the Apuan Alps, holding a wild carrot. Not a vegetable but a herb, the wild carrot, pungent and aromatic. Look, says Cipriano, feel how damp its roots are — this is working for us. He gestures at the mass of wild herbs and grasses growing among the vines around him, their roots acting to lock moisture into the fast-draining schistous soil. They are crucial to the wine that ends up in the bottle, nourishing the vines and managing stress levels so that roots don’t grow too deep, staying instead in the middle ground. The middle soil, explains Antonio, Cipriano’s brother, is crucial to the Macea flavour, and where they have found its sense of place.

But ‘Cipo’ (to his friends) is not only talking about wild carrots. He’s using them as an example of what he believes winemaking is about, at its heart — interpretation. Seeding wild carrot in his vineyard was just one of many possible routes into a place, and towards the identity of a wine. Here, at Macea, where he and his brother Antonio were born, and where they have been making what we believe is indisputably world-class wines for 20 years, Cipo’s form of interpretation is well-established. He knows the place like he knows himself, and he knows, just as easily as he can look at a blue sky and predict rain in the afternoon — what his wines should look like. But it is not always so easy.

In 2013, Cipo had run out of space to grow grapes at Macea, so he took a lease on seven hectares a bare 20 minute drive away across the valley: Camiliano. Seven hectares, maybe 20,000 more bottles a year — and the prospect of making his tiny family enterprise somewhat more of a business. His initial thought was to absorb these vines under his existing label, and scale his reputation accordingly. But there was a problem: he saw quickly that the identity he and Antonio had created for Macea, their interpretation of that place, was at odds with this other vineyard. The climate, the human element, the history: it was all different. So, totally against the counsel of his fellow winemakers, who said he was mad, he set up an entirely new label. Camiliano: a whole new exercise in interpretation, and a guessing game — he doesn’t know what his wines, in the end, will look like. But they will look different than Macea’s.

The 13th century watchtower at Macea, where all three generations of the Barsanti family live.

MACEA: UN LUOGO SPECIALE

Macea is, by the brothers’ account, ‘un luogo speciale’: a special place. Several hectares of vines, a couple hundred olives, kaki, passionflower, wild pear — and a lot of wild carrot: all orbiting the 13th century watchtower where the brothers were born.

Macea is a finely orchestrated wilderness of vines, olives and fruit

When Cipo talks of interpretation here, he’s talking about an identity he and his brother have formulated over a lifetime — one which is inextricable from their own. Antonio shows how the vines reveal his and his father’s past selves; how they’re a record of historical choices, negotiations and decisions. To look out over the hillside is also to look deep into themselves. Their Bianca Toscana is labelled with their father’s self portrait: an alien head sketched on a scrap of paper in the margins of his desk job. It’s a private drawing; the wines, in their heart, are private as well. The project here is a bare 6,000 bottles a year. And if today the wines grace world class lists, there’s the distinct sense that such an outcome is a kind of accident. Of course this is all part of the brand. Macea doesn’t come at just any call. These are wines that just as particular about where they end up, as who brings them there.

Cipriano and Antonio Barsanti; the ‘pyramid’ planted with Pinot Nero

The curious thing about Macea is that, looked at objectively, it’s not immediately obvious terroir. Anyone wanting to make a typical Tuscan wine here would have a hard time. The climate is cool, and it’s blocked by mountains that cast long shadows over the vines, sends them copious rainfall and wind, and makes for wide thermal excursions. Sangiovese would say: no thanks. But this very atypically is Macea’s strength: the brothers couldn’t just passively make some wine from some vines; they had to actively think very hard about their complex set of givens, and the result is something, necessarily, highly articulated.

They looked at their home: the 13th century watchtower. And they looked out to their valley, where further watchtowers, now largely ruined, are scattered like giant vertebrae. They thought about temperament — it is darker, more primitive here, says Cipo. The artistic expression is earlier and plainer, the valley peaked before the Rinascimento had even arrived in Florence. This was their way in — a wine which, after all, had to make sense drunk within the vast, metre thick perimeter walls of their dining room.

So they planted cool climate varietals here: pinot noir, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc. They pick fresh. Each year, a little fresher — very much against the market grain. In the case of pinot nero, fresh is almost green: from one patch of hillside which barely breaks shade. They vinify with stems, partial carbonic maceration and punch downs with a piece of ancient olive branch. They then age in stainless steel tanks. And the result is a wine that is all about tracery and evanescence, the total opposite of full-bodied Tuscan extraction. Its a wine that, Cipo says, has never tasted better than when drunk, 800ft overlooking their estate, in the 13th century ruins of the Monte Bargilio tower. Tasting, pairing: or better yet, interpretation in action.

CAMILIANO: A WINE IN PROGRESS

A mere 20 minute drive across the valley, on the gentle slopes of the Pizzorne mountains, Camiliano is another world. Beyond family, here Cipo’s partnership is professional rather than fraternal. Antonio stays at Macea: winemaking is about Macea. But perhaps for Cipo, winemaking is about winemaking, and Macea is just the start.

Here, there is no lifetime of material to draw on and thus no immediate, innate sense of the wine. Rather than see clearly and transparently through the wine in the glass, to its subject, these wines give us interpretations that are — as yet — about interpretation. They foreground their thinking process and their researches — each year, in these early vintages, Cipo and his business partner Samuele are looking for new angles into their subject. Skin contact vs. no skin contact; whole bunch fermentation vs. destemming; among other experiments. Each year, Camiliano shifts its identity, and will continue to do so, Cipo says, for a decade at an absolute minimum.

Cipo starts from the beginning. Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Vermentino: grapes which would struggle at Macea but here sit out under full exposition in clay soil and ripen to syrup. In place of the ingrained heritage that he has at Macea, at Camiliano Cipo sources his inspiration from the countertops and the bars in town. He starts to build his soil profile from the people. He explains how Baroque, and now ornamental this region is: studded with 17th century villas and statuary, rather than ruins, and smoother, more contained. The property has noble blood; instead of his father’s portrait, the profile of the Paolo Giugini, once Lord of Lucca, appears on the label. Yet — key detail — at the neighbouring Villa Torrigiani, the owner mows his own (very large) lawn; and in the sleepy minimarket, the main goods are raw sausage, slapped into vast slabs of bread. There’s something at odds with the ornament here, and Cipo think he needs a rabelaisian belly laugh and a groundedness to wines that otherwise will be about richness, texture and finesse. Buried in the graffiti scrawl issuing from the Luccan Lord’s mouth on the 2016 Sangiovese is this partisan message: pisa è un pezzo di merda. But unless Cipo’s told you that, at the local bar, you’d never know.

Two vineyards, two different labels which — as Camiliano grows up, will move further into their oppositional sides of the valley camps. But, one factor will always hold in common: biodynamics. For Cipo, this is an interpretation in its own right (remember those grassed over vines, so radical in natural-sceptic Tuscany). But it is also the conduit for everything else: the medievalism of Macea, the fact that aristos eat raw sausage in Camiliano. Without the noise of artificial intervention, those things can speak; with it, he might as well not have bothered and just brought both vineyards under one roof. As we speak, we watch the pomace from the spent fermentation at Camiliano being returned to the vineyards for next year: fertilising the vines with their own fruit; that biodynamic cycle in motion. Further out a worker is cropping grass with a machete. Interpretation runs deep. All the while intervention stays minimal.

All photography by Benjamin McMahon

Words by Virginia Hartley