Cirò: Wine Women of Calabria

Maria Grazia Parilla is taking the reins at Tenuta Del Conte. Her father, Francesco, still has primary responsibility for the vineyards, but she is running the cellar. “I have to like the wine I make,” she told me, “I can’t possibly sell something I don’t want to drink myself.”

This honesty led her to letting a longtime winemaker go in order to start a conversion to organic grape growing and natural wine making. “I realized that for me, making good wine was a way of respecting Gaglioppo [the native grape variety], our vineyards and my family.”

Tenuta Del Conte will be certified organic in 2016 with both the vines and the cellar being converted to “natural” methods (only indigenous yeasts, limited or no sulfites and no additives or industrial processes). Maria Grazia’s father is in full agreement,

“If you give to the vines, they give back to you. They are always generous. They give back everything that is given to them.” His rough hewn hands and tanned face belie the fact that he still spends days working in the 15 hectares (37 acres) of vines divided into 5 vineyards in different locations from the hills to the sea.

While I was with Maria Grazia, she was managing her family and professional roles with firmness, vision and a good sense of humor. She was partly catapulted into leadership when one of her brothers passed away from a freak illness. The other brother lives in Puglia and helps in certain ways, but she is now in charge.

In cellar

Francesco di Franco of A Vità stops in to help and encourage Maria Grazia in her quest toward making high quality wine with natural methods. He was with me as we tasted Maria Grazia’s wines and noted, “There is no such thing as a perfect wine. There are so many choices and so many variables.”

He and Maria Grazia went over some of her choices and their effects. It was a fascinating session. Maria Grazia’s wines are still evolving, as is she in her leadership position, but she is taking off in a wonderful direction. “This is a beautiful line of work,” she said, “Simple but not easy. I love the fact that I get to experiment.”

Greco

We tasted her Tenuta Del Conte Cirò Bianco DOC 2014 from the stainless steel container. She explained that in September, if the Greco di Bianco grapes are not picked, they change to an orange color (attigrato–like a tiger) to protect themselves from the sun. With the color comes tannins. Waiting too long for the grapes to ripen fully often means too much tannin. Picking the grapes early means lots of acidity, but Maria Grazia prefers the wine to be fresh and acidic. For her, the color tells the story of the wine, whether it is “living” and full of vivacity or not. “It is less the actual color that matters,” she said, “And more the vivacity you see in the wine. Healthy grapes are fundamental to the vivacity I want in the glass.”

The Tenuta Del Conte Rosato IGT 2014 stays 30 hours on the skins of the Gaglioppo grapes. Maria Grazia uses only indigenous yeasts and adds no sulfites. In her view, if the grapes are clean and good, she doesn’t need the sulfites. Like all the Gaglioppo rosés wines, Maria Grazia’s is fresh but also tannic.

Finally, we tasted Tenuta Del Conte Rosso Classico Superiore DOC from the tanks as well as the most recent bottled vintage. Both were ruby red with dark red fruit flavors and aromas with the characteristic tannins that I was learning to enjoy after several days in Cirò. It was beautiful to see not only Maria Grazia’s enthusiasm for the wine but her enthusiasm for learning from her colleague, Francesco de Franco. Her courageous desire to steer the family business toward excellence with natural methods came through loud and clear.

Tenuta Del Conte
Cirò Marina (KR)

Maria Grazia’s cellar, like Sergio Arcuri‘s, is right in the middle of the small port town of Cirò Marina. The bright aqua blue of the port…
port
contrasts with the dark stone of buildings dating back several centuries.
stone bldg in port

The far end of the port leads out to a white, sandy beach that stretches for miles (where Francesco De Franco, Sergio Arcuri and Maria Grazia all have vineyards).
toward beach

On the way out of town, Francesco stopped at the computer store of another friend and colleague, Assoluta Dell’Aquila, who has her cantina behind the store. It felt like a speak easy. One minute Assunta was selling me a hard drive and the next, we were tasting her wines.
assunta in cellar

The most notable aspect of my visit to Cirò/Cirò Marina was Francesco De Franco’s insistence that I visit not just his vineyards and cellar but those of his colleagues (Sergio Arcuri, Maria Grazia Parilla, Cataldo Calabretta and even, Assunta, who is just beginning). They have a kind of “wine excellence” incubator going on in a place that was previously known only for industrial wine made more for quantity than quality.

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