Dexterity, and the history of Calabrone

Before I launch into the history of Calabrone, here’s a picture of the first snow(!) here at the winery last week… It was a beautiful and messy morning.

OK… the story of Calabrone:
Right after the 1998 harvest, which was very difficult for red wines, I remember talking with Joe Bastianich and Emilio about the future of Red wine here. Joe has always been interested in pushing the envelope for quality in Friuli, with his wines in particular, and after tasting the nervousness and acidity of the ’98 reds, Joe and Emilo decided it would be interesting to see what would happen to high-acid grape varieties like Cabernet Franc and Refosco if they were dried for a little while.

Appassimento, as I said before, is a natural way to boost concentration. I remember taking a ride out to Verona, and Amarone country with Emilio (we visited the mythical Quintarelli cantina, as well as Tedeschi) and learned that high-acid was the key to making balanced Amarone. The grapes for Amarone are actually picked BEFORE the grapes for the “regular” Valpolicella, to keep the acidity balanced.

The big difference was that Amarone is often dried until December or even January, with a two-thirds loss in mass. A huge reduction. We wanted to give Cab Franc and Refosco a boost, not a blast, so we set our goal to a loss of one-third.

The old farm house was cleaned, screened, and prepared for 1999. Chains were hung from the rafters and literally THOUSANDS of “S” hooks were bent into shape from spools of wire.  You’ve seen the picture in the past post of the grapes hanging to dry. In 1999 we hung only about a thrid of what we dry now.

The drying season has to be, well, DRY for appassimento to go well. If it starts to rain when the grapes are hanging, it gets too humid, and instead of drying, the grapes start rotting, or getting mouldy. Then they have to be removed immediately, closely selected, and vinified.

In 1999, the season was perfect. Dry and warm for almost then entire month of October. Appassimento was a huge success.

Time came to pull down the grapes, crush, and start macerating and fermenting. First complication was that the stems were incredibly dry and brittle. Any contact with the bunches caused the berries to fall to the floor. A grape cassette was placed under each hanging chain of grapes to catch the falling fruit. Problem solved.

Then we arrived at the winery and there was a lot of trepidation about the destemming machine… would it be gentle enough to pop off the berries without breaking up the brittle stems? Those dried stems carry aromas and flavors we didn’t want in the wine.

One cassette was gently fed into the machine, running at it’s lowest speed…

From the bottom came a messy mash of grapes and stems. Damn. Pickers were re-called and the entire batch was then destemmed… BY HAND. It was the only way to get the grapes cleanly off the brittle stems.

We experimented with another, gentler, machine a year later, but the results simply weren’t good enough. And now, we destem by hand all of the dried grapes used for Calabrone.
It’s a long process that requres patience and dexterity. It’s also not the warmest time of the year, so you have a group of dedicated people with fast hands sitting in a chilly cantina pulling precious dried fruit off the stems for at least a couple of days. The fruit also has to be slightly “crushed” by hand as they’re dropped into the buckets to get the juice (what’s left of it) out of the berries…

We chose the name Calabrone because it means “hornet”. The hornets here in Italy are legendary. They’re much bigger, meaner, more aggressive and (supposedly) more dangerous than the common vespe (wasps). So when we made Vespa Rosso in 1998 (which was pretty damn good for the vintage) what could we call a wine even bigger and badder than the vespa? Calabrone was the logical choice.

Calabrone is made in very small quantites, and only in the best vintages. Apart from the appassimento, there is another big difference between Calabrone and Vespa Rosso… Pignolo. Pignolo is a hugely structured and complex red grape that ripens slowly and is ready to pick in mid-October. Often here in Friuli Mid-October is wet, so Pignolo really only comes around in the best vintages.. Oddly enough, the same vintages that are good for appassimento. The result is a very rich, but structured red that is extremely concentrated and balanced. Tons of fruit and plenty of tannins for aging, with a touch of RS to make it sing on the palate. It spends at least 2 years in barrel and then a year or 2 in bottle before it leaves us.

The 2003 Calabrone is sold out. 2004 Calabrone wasn’t made, and the 2005 Calabrone will be on the Market sometime in the second half of 2009. The grapes they’re destemming in the picture will go into 2008 Calabrone which you’ll be able to taste around 2012…
Good things come to those who wait…


3 thoughts on “Dexterity, and the history of Calabrone

  1. Jeff Del Nin

    Can you tell me, when does pignolo ripen in comparison to Merlot or Cab Franc? i.e. how many days after or before merlot?

  2. Wayne Young

    Merlot and Refosco tend to ripen first, with the Cabs coming in after that and Pignolo being the latest… Hope that answers your question, Jeff and thanks for the comment!


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