When I was talking to Giovanni Bertani of the Tenuta Santa Maria Alla Pieve winery last year about Amarone he mentioned that they had a number of bottles of Recioto from the 1928 vintage and the wine had a very unusual history, He said that next time he came to NYC he would bring some of the bottles to taste and explain their unique story.
Giovanni was a good as his word and next time I saw him I was able to taste a wine that was 85 years old.
Tenuta Santa Maria Alla Pieve was established in 1991 by Gaetano Bertani. They are the former owners of “Bertani” The property had been owned by the Bertani family since the 1860’s and managed by Gaetano since 1971. Today Giovanni and Gugliemo, his two sons, assist him. Gaetano is the wine maker and the consulting enologist is Franco Bernabei
Giovanni said that the name Acinatico derives from the Latin, acinaticum, signifying grape or grape stone, and is the ancient name for Veronese Recioto wines. The 1928 vintage was a blend of grapes, Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara and Sangiovese, and was exposed to an unusually extended drying period at the Bertani family cellars in the Valpolicella-Valpantena DOC.
He said that Piero Venturi, a long-time cellar master, vividly recalled the singular conditions of the 1928 vintage: hot, above-average temperatures and little precipitation, followed by an exceptionally cold, dry winter – in short, ideal conditions from which to produce a Recioto of truly outstanding quality. According to Venturi, the grape skins were exposed to a particularly long maturation, favoring especially high sugar content.
The 1928 Acinatico was aged in a 60-hectoliter oak barrel, which exists to this day. In 1938, after about 10 years of barrel aging, the wine was bottled in specially purchased handmade bottles bought from a supplier in Verona. Such bottles were reserved exclusively for use with the finest wines of the period, such as Recioto, Marsala and Port.
In 1940, soon after the outbreak of WWII, German soldiers were staying in a villa adjacent to the Bertani family’s cellar. Faced with loss of their entire stocks to thirsty German troops, the family determined to preserve at least their very best wines. Giovanni said he was told that the German troops were drinking and breaking everything in sight. The Acinatico was discreetly moved to the family’s Saccole farmstead. They borrowed bottles from all their neighbors to bottle the wine that was still in the barrel and carefully walled them in, to remain lost from sight and from mind, destined not to see the light of day for the next 40 years.
That was until 1984 when laborers carrying out construction work uncovered this extraordinary and forgotten cache of wine. Wood cases containing 7,500 bottles of the precious wine were carefully removed and returned to their original resting place in the Bertani family cellars as an important part of the family’s heritage.
Giovanni said that tastings showed that the wine was perfectly conserved and its enological condition was spectacular, due to the excellent storage conditions, a 17.8% alcohol content and an acidity level of 0.33%. He reports that a bottle recently opened was re-corked and then subsequently re-opened the next day – its freshness was astonishing.
Soon after the bottles were discovered, a decision was made that they would not be sold but preserved instead for special occasions. Four bottles were, however, put up for auction by Christie’s New York on January 12, 2001 and sold to a single buyer for $9,200. Giovanni said that about 2,500 bottles remain in their cellars today.
I could not believe that this wine was so old. It is complex, elegant and well balanced. It had all the classic aromas and flavors of a classic mature Recioto, cooked prunes, raisins, figs, chocolate and a touch of spice.