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The savants of Sangiovese: Il Marroneto

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Alessandro Mori has produced every vintage in Il Marroneto’s 47-year history. As he prepares to hand this legacy to the next generation, we caught up with him to pause and consider his teachers – two legendary Tuscan figures that helped establish Il Marroneto as one of Montalcino’s top estates

Last year Alessandro Mori completed his 47th vintage at Il Marroneto in Montalcino. Now aged 60, Il Marroneto has been his life’s work. Despite the challenges, his passion for winemaking has never wavered and when he speaks about the estate and its wines today, he sounds as giddy as the boy who first arrived at the winery, aged just 14.

He discovered Il Marroneto in 1975. At that time, it was just a farm on the northern slopes of Montalcino, with a few vines growing alongside olive trees and a small orchard. His father was so taken by the view – stretching out 60km across the valley floor towards Siena, his hometown – he bought the property the next day. The entire family – a young Mori, his brother and their parents – would spend their weekends tending the vineyard, which they planted on arrival. Initially just half a hectare, this site would become Madonna delle Grazie – Brunello’s most lauded vineyard today.

Those first few years working alongside his family were some of Mori’s happiest days – and would shape the rest of his life. Il Marroneto remained a family hobby, and when he finished school, Mori became a lawyer. It was only in 1994, aged 33, that he decided life behind a desk wasn’t for him. “I had to express myself,” says Mori, “so I decided to continue to live the life I started with my parents and my brother.”

He moved to Montalcino with his wife and new-born baby, living and sleeping in one room. At the time, Il Marroneto was only producing 3,300 bottles a year. It was all very financially tight at the beginning. “It became a big problem for me,” admits Mori. “I only slept two to three hours a night, kept awake thinking how could I make this work? I was full of worry, but also I was happy because I loved my work. I really loved my work.”

Mori explains how this lifestyle change brought him a welcome sense of freedom. “There is soul in what I do every day,” he says. “There is a soul to the region too. This work gives me freedom, freedom from all the everyday life lived today. The order you have to follow. I am free from this in my mind.” But Mori’s passion is more than just the freedom it has given him. He’s always felt the work he was doing, the wine he was producing, was something important. He was carrying on a tradition that stretches back thousands of years and that brought a sense of purpose and responsibility.

After all these years Mori remains amazingly humble considering his success. If you have ever read an interview with Mori or had the pleasure of visiting him, he never fails to mention his debt to his teachers. These two wise men – the late Mario Cortevesio and Giulio Gambelli – are legends in winemaking circles, and they taught Mori everything he needed to know to make great Sangiovese.

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The Madonna delle grazie vineyard and Il Marroneto estate

Mori was fortunate to have such mentors – especially when most were looking outside the region for expertise. As Brunello di Montalcino gained recognition, investment flooded the region. There were fewer than 50 wineries when Mori first arrived, but now there are 250. “The first thing these people do is look for a doctor in oenology and agronomy – to plant the vineyard and build the cellar,” says a bemused Mori. New arrivals, looking to make their mark, rarely speak to people who have grown grapes in the region for decades, instead hiring outsiders – many of whom have never even been to Tuscany. “Now these people are using concrete eggs, amphora and oak from Austria,” he laughs, “but no one goes to the old people that live here and asks them, what is the way of our forefathers?” But that is exactly what his father did – looking to the village elders. In return they got the eyes and ears of first Cortevesio and then Gambelli.

Coretvesio and Gambelli had an extraordinary influence on winemaking in Tuscany. “They were like two brothers,” says Mori. “Born in the same year, they studied together, they worked their whole lives together and they died within two months of each other.” They would split their time between Chianti and Montalcino. For Mori, they were his most important teachers when it came to making Sangiovese. Despite Cortevesio largely focusing on the Chianti region, for the first seven years at Il Marroneto it was Cortevesio who was their consultant (due to a friendship with Mori’s father). Mori remembers that when he was just 14, Cortevesio used to visit the farm and share his wisdom with him and his brother. “To make good wine, you need respect,” Cortevesio would say. “Respect, respect, respect – everywhere there must be respect! Respect the animals, the plants, the place, the people. You are starting to grow a grape that took more than 3,000 years to become perfect in this area, so you respect the grape!”

Cortevesio was adamant it was the wonders of Sangiovese that lay behind the region’s great artists (“the real important guys that passed before us,” says Mori); Sangiovese had fuelled Da Vinci to paint La Giaconda (the Mona Lisa), Boccaccio to write Decamerone and Giotto to design the Campanile – the iconic gothic belltower of Florence’s cathedral.

Speaking with vignerons today, often the emphasis is on work in the vineyard – believing that is where great wine is made. But Mori likes to contradict that claim: “Wine is born in the cellar,” he says defiantly. “The hand of the man, his actions, are the secret of everything. I use the same techniques as our forefathers. They didn’t have yeasts to start fermentations. They didn’t have sulphur. They used natural methods.” Mori explains that Cortevesio and Gambelli believed it was possible to make precise wines using traditional methods – but only if the vigneron was fastidious in everything they did.

Right from the start it was Cortevesio’s influence – and his mantra “passion, precision and patience” – that promoted such a traditional approach at Il Marroneto. To make wine in this way requires a lot of hard work in the winery – indeed Cortevesio was fastidious about cleanliness in the winery. Mori remembers constantly cleaning barrels and the cellar to try to win his respect.

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Alessandro Mori during his 48-hour shift pumping over the must prior to fermentation

In the early days, despite Mori’s best attempts, Cortevesio would still think the cellar was dirty. He would taste the wine and say, “It’s tired.” As Cortevesio got older, he suffered with pain in his throat following an operation on his neck. It became difficult for him to speak and so he rarely did. He famously used to communicate with a smile, recalls Mori, and even that was difficult for him. Mori remembers the day he first smiled after tasting Il Marroneto, calling the wine “precise”, the finest compliment any vigneron could hope to hear when judging a wine, Mori believes.

While Cortevesio became largely mute, Gambelli – who hunted almost daily – was completely deaf. After 10 years, Gambelli took over consulting for Il Marroneto (from 1985) and continued to visit up until 1993. Like Cortevesio, Gambelli had a maniacal approach to cleanliness and extolled monastic-like patience when ageing the wine.

Mori was amazed by how this duo – one mute, the other deaf – could communicate. While both famous for saying very little, what they did say mattered – and their legacy, the lessons they shared with Mori, lives on today.

After 17 years of tutelage under Cortevesio and Gambelli, Mori went his own way. “The wine of Marroneto remains the wine of Cortevesio and Gambelli because I am their pupil,” says Mori. “I continue to make the wine as they taught me – but with my hand.”

The biggest change for Mori was the introduction of the Madonna delle Grazie cuvée. Often considered the region’s finest wine, it is the only Brunello to have been awarded multiple 100-point scores from the Wine Advocate – and universally loved by critics and afficionados around the world. The wine comes from the estate’s oldest and original vineyard – the one he worked as a child – and is made completely differently to Marroneto’s classic Brunello.

Mori continues to make the traditional Brunello exactly as he did when he was 14. This “true” Brunello “requires a lot of movement in order to extract the best parts of the grape – the pulp that sits one millimetre under the skin,” explains Mori, “this is where you find the best anthocyanins, the polyphenolics, the complex fruity smells. The first 48 hours following harvest extracting these are key.” Mori and his team are up for two days solid, constantly working the must. Mori comically compares it to the Big Bang. “The grape material explodes, the material goes everywhere; it is the birth of the universe, and the wine is born.”

After 48 hours, they stop and the must – thanks to all the agitation and natural humidity created in the winery – immediately starts fermenting. After just a few hours, the must has heated up to 34-35˚C and sometimes reaches 40˚C. These are not temperatures ever mentioned in modern wineries, but Mori knows what he is doing. “Sangiovese likes to fly high like an eagle when fermenting,” he says, “it is important for the characteristics of the Sangiovese chemically to fix the volatile smells.” At these sorts of temperatures, the fermentation is over in a week.

Mori deliberately makes Madonna delle Grazie completely differently – and contradicts all that he does with his classic Brunello cuvée, such is the quality of the grapes from this special vineyard. When the grapes arrive at the winery, the fruit is left alone. The fermentation is much slower and much cooler (between 28-30˚C), lasting 20-25 days. It is, in short, totally the opposite.

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Alessandro Mori and his son Iacopo in the vineyard

“With the Madonna delle Grazie, to our surprise, we found no power,” says Mori, “but a complexity in which the Sangiovese is similar to that of Pinot Noir – the technique brings elegance.” “Every part of the Madonna is high (the acidity, the tannins, the alcohol, the polyphenolics, the anthocyanins, the fruity characters, all are high, but without the power – altogether it makes a complex wine. Together it makes for an extraordinary equilibrium.”

Mori has been perfecting his techniques over the last 27 years, but two years ago it was his turn to become the teacher as his son – Iacopo – joined him in the winery during the pandemic. “Now I try to let my son learn this kind of traditional winemaking – not simply as Gambelli and Cortevesio taught me, but Gambelli, Cortevesio with the hand of Alessandro,” he says.

“Today, he is more careful in the cellar than I am. Sometimes a little too much,” laughs Mori. He has obviously taught him well. Mori has also been imparting his knowledge to Emilio Parri – his cellar hand and protégé, who has been working in the cellar since he was 18.

Overriding everything, Mori’s job as a teacher, he believes, is to “transmit the passion”. Mori still has a strong bond with his wine – he talks to it every day. When leaving the winery he shouts down to the cellar – “Ciao ragazzi, see you tomorrow!” Mori’s underlying philosophy for making great wine is to make wine with sentiment. “You have a relationship with the wine – the more you give to the wine, it gives it you back 10 times more. You see the wine grow up like a child, it is fantastic.” Encouraging this relationship, encouraging both Iacopo and Parri to fall in love with the work and the wine is his goal.

With Mori’s support, his son has created a new cuvée, the stunning Rosso di Montalcino Selezione Iacopo. Iacopo took different proportions of wines ageing in the cellar to concoct his own blend. The 2019 was the first limited release and has already been highly praised by the critics (Eric Guido wrote, “The word ‘wow’ does not do this justice.”).

While Mori thinks his son could afford to relax a bit and “take it easy” – the skills he and Parri are showing in the cellar means perhaps it is Mori, after 47 years, who can now start to relax. While Mori contemplates his retirement, albeit just for 30 seconds, he knows he will never really leave. Like Gambelli and Cortevesio before him, he will share the ways of his forefathers with anyone in Montalcino that will listen.

Find out more about and browse listings from Il Marroneto, or read more about Italy

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