Postcard from a Tuscan vineyard

The Chianti region of Tuscany seems the natural choice of oenophiles for vineyard visits in sun-soaked Tuscany. But in the province of Grosseto there’s an alternative map of cantine. When we ring Rooca di Montemassi, a wine producing farm near the high, historical town of Massa Marritima, tour there’s an uncertainty about the tour booking process.

‘We cannot do five o’clock, but perhaps later, say six o’clock?’ says the man with English who’s handed the phone. Three o’clock is agreed without giving any names or details.

The man with English is Aloysius, a big, burly man who strokes the curls of his beard as he answers questions during our tour. For over an hour he walks the 450 hectare estate with just two of us, showing us the land and the process of making Rocca’s red, white and rosé wines. The museum of the farm, with exhibits of implements and practices from over a century of farming, contains a particularly arresting photograph of workers and perhaps the owners playing Booce (boules in Italy), the photo full of expressions and social signposts. Aloysius points out that we know the photograph was taken after 1900 by the woman who’s bearing her arms, unacceptable before the turn of that century.

About one hundred and fifty years earlier, with Peter Leopold, grand duke of Tuscany that the swampy land of the region was drained to rid it of mosquitos and their deadly threat of malaria. With the drainage complete wine production, first practised here by the Etruscans, thrived.

About forty people work on the Montemassi farm, which produces two million bottles of wine annually. Seventy-five per cent is exported. Aloysius shows us how the grapes are skinned, the juices fermented and the two different processes of exposing the juice to the grape skins to give the wine its colour. The storing of wine is costly: the wooden casks, lasting twelve years, cost €12,000 each to produce; the longer-lasting metallic ones cost €40,000 each. Different wines require different storage, the two different barrel costs reflected in the price we pay for a bottle.

Conversation reveals Alfonso’s Irish connection, a year spent in N.U.I. Galway studying political science in 1993-4. He hasn’t been back recently because work brings him a lot to America.

After inspecting the white, horned cows that live in harmony with the vines, we head inside to try two whites and three reds. An Italian calls into the wine shop, tries two wines that Aloysius tells him about, then buys a few bottles to take away. Aloysius exudes pride when the passer-by compliments the produce.

No breeze abates the dead heat to which we emerge, but the winds of change blow across the farm. Italian demand for wine is decreasing, according to our guide. The company that bought the farm in the 1999 has made farming an organic one, requiring changes to fertilising and land-use.

And then there’s the climate. Alfonso strokes the curls of his beard again. They’ve seen unprecedented temperatures over the past ten years. The history is drainage but the future may be drought.

‘Did you ever get to use your political science degree in the real world?’ we ask him as we shake hands.

‘No. Only in dealing with difficult people in business,’ he laughs.

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