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Tramonti Diary: The Oldest Vines

Tenuta San Francesco1.jpgAlmost every viticultural area has its artists: people who do more than just grow grapes and make wine from them. Often they work with their grandparents’ vines, gnarled stalks that evidence fifty or even a hundred years of careful annual pruning. They produce soulful wine from their grapes, where the human component of care is so pronounced that one quickly sees — and tastes — that there is more than an economic activity under way. When we visited Tenuta San Francesco in Tramonti, a town just shy of the mountain pass that separates the Amalfi Coast from the Naples plain (scene of heroic fighting by Darby’s Rangers in WWII), we expected excellent wine, a dedicated vigneron, and the usual orderly rows of old grapevines. We were surprised:

Tenuta San Francesco.jpg

The winery has 15 acres of vines between 250-300 years old, which are trained out on trellises to create a cooling canopy over the vineyards. These old vines — the oldest in the world? — somehow resisted the phylloxera louse that ravaged almost all of Europe’s vineyards in the second half of the 19th century, and continues to attack ungrafted vines to this day.

Tenuta San Francesco’s top red wine, E Iss (Neapolitan for “That’s It”; the Italian would be “E questo!”), made from the indigenous tintore grape, is light on its feet and yet also seems to have the stuffing to age well. But that judgement will have to wait for our two-case order to reach Paris in October — we asked Tenuta San Francesco to ship when the weather is cooler — so that we may live with the wines for a while. Tasting in situ can be deceptively seductive.

Addendum: In our visit with proprietor Gaetano Bove, he had us taste E Iss before and then again after eating a few local blackberries. One went from wine to fruit and then back to wine again quite seamlessly and delightfully, though the wine took your palate to places that Mother Nature alone could not.

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