Casa Raia: Natural Brunello With Stories to Tell

Pierre Jean Monnoyer is a winegrower of quiet humility whose adventures in a remote village in China eventually led him to vineyards planted by the legendary Biondi-Santi family in Montalcino. He grew up in Nice, a meeting point between his father, who was from Reims in the north and  where his  mother, who was from the island of Corsica. His father spent summers helping his uncle make wine. Pierre Jean keeps these two bottles (1949 and 1957) of French wine from Chateauneuf du Pape, not far from Nice, in the cellar as reminder of his roots.

I first tasted Pierre Jean’s Brunello di Montalcino when he and his wife, Kalyna, brought it to a mutual friends’ dinner party on the Monte Amiata. I had never heard of it and was intrigued by its combination of authenticity and elegance…none of the oaky, overripeness of some Brunellos. It wasn’t surprising to learn later that Casa Raia is part of VinNatur and one of fewer than 10 vineyards in Montalcino making “natural” Brunello.

Here is Pierre Jean explaining why once you treat the vines and the vineyards with industrial herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, you have to continue using industrial methods in the cellar. By contrast, his natural vineyard methods mean that he can make high quality, delicious wine without adding commercial yeasts or other chemicals in the cellar.

That was the wine. Then, I started learning the fascinating story behind the wine.

After graduating from university in France, Pierre Jean set off traveling, using an ancient text of divination, the Book of Changes (I Ching) as his guide. It came into existence some 3-4,000 years before Confucius before the Chinese had started developing their writing. The tortoise shell lines used to draw the 64 signs of divination became the basis for the first Chinese characters.

Pierre Jean ended up learning Chinese and opening his own bar in the ancient city of Dali, built during the medieval Ming Dynasty in Yunnan Province in China.
When Pierre Jean was there 2001-3, the town with its four gates and cobblestoned streets was still a bohemian hideaway, largely undiscovered and unnoticed. It attracted foreigners or Chinese, who wanted to live outside the mainstream. Its culture and history was influenced by its proximity to the Golden Triangle of Opium trade next door in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.

The bar served two kinds of beer: blonde and dark, as well as wine made in the area, whose origins could be traced back 400 years to medieval monks. “Most of them had residual sugar,” Pierre Jean told me, “And only about half of them were close to drinkable.” (Photo below of the bar entrance courtesy of Pierre Jean)

One evening at the bar, Pierre Jean met Kalyna Temertey, who had arrived from Toronto to study ceramics. A Canadian born to a Ukrainian family with Greek roots, Kalyna shared Pierre Jean’s sense of adventure. They eventually left China together, lived for a while in Tunisia, then, ended up in France where Kalyna was making ceramics and Pierre Jean was in an administrative position.

“By then, we were married,” Pierre Jean explained, “and I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life there in that job.” The couple often visited Kalyna’s mother, Ludmilla Temertey, who had bought Podere Scarnacuoia, now Casa Raia. She had renovated the abandoned farmhouse, had begun replanting the olive groves destroyed by a severe frost in 1984, and was renting out the vineyards.

In 2005, Pierre Jean and Kalyna decided to move to Casa Raia take responsibility for the vineyards. They lived on the estate until their third child was born in 2012 when they moved nearby to a home on the Monte Amiata.

The vineyards, located at 365 meters (1200 feet), overlook pristine hills just below the town of Montalcino. They face south and south west and have the classic clay and limestone soil of the area that add elegance to the wine. The limestone comes from the shells and bones of sea creatures deposited when the land was under the sea millions of years ago in the Eocene era. As we walked through the vineyard, Pierre Jean picked up a fossilized sea shell.

Old vines also contribute complexity and depth to the wine.

The iconic Biondi Santi family, who first made Brunello once owned the property. A German family, who bought the property from them, planted these 45-year old vines as well as some that are now 20 years old. Grapes from the oldest vines go into Casaraia Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG. He has not made Rosso di Montalcino since 2010. In addition to the traditional Sangiovese Grosso or “Brunello”grape, Casa Raia has some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines that are used to make Casaraia Bevilo IGT (Sangiovese Grosso 90% and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot 10%).

Pierre Jean farms with a combination of organic and biodynamic methods. Antonio Mori, an oenologist, who worked with the Frescobaldi family in Montalcino for 15 years, has done consulting for Pierre Jean, but with the help of WWOOFers does the work in the vineyard and in the cellar himself.

The Sangiovese Grosso grapes ferment spontaneously in these large wooden tanks with indigenous yeasts…
Then, age in wood barrels before bottling and 4-5 months of aging in the bottle. In his early vintages, Pierre Jean used barriques (small, French oak, 250 liter barrels) but since 2009, has used larger barrels (1000 or 3000 liters) for his Brunello di Montalcino (4 years aging).

For a year before making his first vintage in 2005, Pierre Jean worked for Lionel Cousin of Cupano, a fellow Frenchman whose natural Brunello is strongly influenced by his love of Burgundy wines and use of barriques in making the wine. Over time, Pierre Jean has developed his own style, elegant but not overly rich.

For tasting the most recent vintage, the Brunello di Montalcino 2010, Pierre Jean and I went to lunch with 2 enthusiastic WWOOFers (both from California). Their job post grape harvest was to “harvest” rocks from the vineyard. Every year, new rocks surface, and Pierre picks them up with his young helpers. This is one of many jobs that is long and tedious, but critical to the vineyard, the soil, the grapes and eventually, the wine.

We ate at Demetra, a farm to table restaurant and cooking school a few kilometers up the hill near the village of Montalcino (feature in next week’s post). The wine paired beautifully with this plate of cheeses.

Pierre Jean’s low sulfite wines reflect not only the his land and microclimate, but his personality. They are subtle rather than overpowering. They, like Pierre Jean, don’t try to call attention to themselves. The more you get to know them, the more you appreciate their coherence and honesty.

At 14.5% alcohol, the wines have a lot of structure but do not come across as being overbearing. Pierre Jean is just hitting his stride now. He is playing with the limits of “natural” processes using science and technology to understand hat those are. It is going to be exciting to watch this capable winegrower and keep tasting his wines in the years to come.

Casearia Brunello is sold in the US, the UK and other countries around the world. Check Wine Searcher or contact Pierre Jean or Kalyna for information on locations and prices.

Pod.Scarnacuoia 284, Montalcino 53024, SI Italy

tel: +39 0577 84 72 54
cell: Pierre-Jean +39 340 099 4091
cell: Kalyna +39 348 1784 098

February, 2017

UCRDC Interviews Ludmilla Temertey, Child of Holodomor Survivors, Ukraine Weekly by Oksana Zakydalsky, September 18, 2015.

Living the Tuscan Dream: How One Canadian Family Got There, by Terry Wong, Dec. 29, 2011, Food Network Canada.


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Tags: biodiversity, biodynamic wine, Brunello, Dali, Demetra, Holodomor, Italian wine, natural brunello, natural Italian wine, natural red wine, organic wine, Red wine, soil vitality, Ukraine, vineyard health, Yunnan Province
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