ISOLE E OLENA — PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
BY MATTHEW BROWMAN
We all have it. But what do we learn from it?
The first time I met Paolo de Marchi, owner of Isole e Olena in Tuscany, I was an insignificant young wine seller working the floor in a shop in south Calgary. I’d recently tasted his Chianti Classico and had been astounded by its elegance and understatement; by how it tasted true to its origins. He must have handled it so deftly to capture and hold the drinker’s attention without making it showy and loud (and how appropriate for the times…).
I told him how elegant I found his wine, and he couldn’t have been more genuinely humble and grateful that I enjoyed it. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t “the buyer”, or “the owner”, or a provincial liquor monopoly principal, or even another winemaker.
His character is reflected in his wines which reflect his character. Perhaps because of this humility, he has worked tirelessly for almost five decades to understand and improve his vineyards and winemaking. This has earned him a reputation as an encyclopedia of all things wine-growing, including how hornet guts spread vineyard yeasts. To top it all off, according to Wine Spectator, he claims that “After 40 years, you don’t know anything.”
The estate surrounds two hamlets: Isole and Olena
Isole e Olena (poetically pronounced EE-zol-ay ay oh-LAY-na) are the names of the two hamlets his 800-acre estate surrounds. His lawyer father bought the land in 1956. In those days, the Chianti way was to grow and make as much wine as possible. This led to highly mechanized farming including bulldozing vineyards into terraces to make them more machine-friendly.
Now, machine harvesting has its place, but not in a high-quality pursuit. Twenty years later, Paolo took over managing the estate and set about studying the vineyards to learn how to reverse the existing mess. Ten years after that, he started replanting. To this day, he continues his methodical, careful approach to studying and selecting the right clone of every vine and grape type to match the location. This near half-century later he still has a few acres of his roughly 120 planted left to redo.
The last time I saw Paolo, he was tired, almost distractedly so. He had flown in to Calgary that morning, had visited restaurants and retail shops in the Rocky Mountains all day, and was giving a private tasting of his wines to ten eager customers into the late hours of the night.
And he was so grateful they liked them.
The wines of Isole e Olena
This Sangiovese-Cannaiolo-Syrah blend ages for a year in a mix of old (95%) and new (5%) oak. This is the essence of perfect, elegant, dusty, red-cherryish Tuscany with a hint of exoticism from the leathery, smoked-meaty Syrah.
Paolo selects this 100% Sangiovese from the best parcels of his many vineyards atop the rolling hills around the hamlets of Isole and Olena. The strength of the fruit means a more robust oak program, with higher percentages of new and younger oak with longer rest (14-16 months) than the Chianti Classico.
Age it for longer. It offers darker cherry with the red cherry, deeper spice and dust, a moist leather, and some floral-herb aromas. It’s chewier and more tannic than the Classico.
Paolo was one of the early-adopters to experiment with French varieties on Tuscan soil. The Cabernet comes from a five-hectare parcel facing south-southwest with vines ranging from 20 to 60 years of age. It sees 50% new oak (French and American) for 24 months, plus another two years bottle age before release.
This is a several-decades ager if you can wait. If not, decant if for a few hours and make sure you have a sizzling ribeye ready (lamb would be too sweet). It offers classic Cabernet black currant and herb with the telltale Tuscan leather and dust.
After first grafting Chardonnay onto existing vines as an experiment, the result convinced Paolo of the potential so much that he planted a new vineyard with five clones from Burgundy. Those vines are now 30 years old.
Great Chardonnay is typically barrel-fermented, because the oxygen and oak flavours integrate into the fruit. This wine is both creamy and streamlined with acidity holding up the richness. It shows toast, almond, stone, flint, yellow apple, lemon, and melon aromas.
While many of his Tuscan contemporaries turned their attention to Cabernet Sauvignon, Paolo experimented with Syrah. The original plan was to add it his Chianti Classico (which he does) according to new laws in 1984 that allowed foreign varieties into the Chianti blend (up to 10%). He now sources from a 7.5-acre parcel planted to Rhone clones, and he bottles the Syrah as its own variety.
It shows smoke, meat, leather, violets, black-and blueberry, and expresses the structured Rhone style versus the voluptuous Australian style. It’s an aging, have-with-meat, chewable beast to drink slowly.