Paolo Bea: Natural Wine Pioneer in Umbria

Paolo Bea’s family has been making wine just outside the walls of the Umbrian town of Montefalco for 500 years. He and his wife, Marina, began in the seventies with a philosophy that is becoming popular but was then radical: make wine with grapes…only grapes…and grapes grown with biodynamic agricultural methods at that.

On the day I visited Paolo Bea in 2013, he was supervising workers outside the cellar. He could have passed for one of them, except that he was clearly giving the orders.
Paolo Bea

The tiny 500 hectares of the Sagrantino di Montefalco zone is the smallest DOCG area in Italy with only 26 member producers. It is located in the rolling hills between Rome and Florence.

Montefalco Map copy

Until very recently, the native grape variety, Sagrantino (a red loaded with tannins—some say the most tannic Italian grape) was used only to make a passsito wine from dried grapes. Here is a natural drying rack with grapes left on it.

grapes drying

Out of season, the racks are stacked in this beautiful configuration in the drying room of the new Bea cellar. The windows on both sides of the room can be carefully adjusted to allow air flow that dries the grapes. Bea’s son, Gianpiero, who earned a degree in architecture before returning home to make wine, made creative use of natural materials in designing the building. Instead of using modern machines to control temperature and humidity, he integrated shutters and windows to adjust light and air in this room and…
stacked racks
A creative system of natural stone, tubing and “open” walls in the downstairs cellar to maintain air flow and ideal conditions for aging his wine in large barrels.
new cellar

The new cellar with drying room overlooks the vineyards closest to the house. Bea was one of the first Italian winegrowers to use biodynamic agricultural methods. Gianpiero, who largely manages the vineyards now, continues his philosophy and helped to found Vini Veri, a consortium of winegrowers committed to “natural” methods in the vines and in the cellar.
Optimized-vineyards by cantina copy

In 2013, Bea was one of the signatories of the letter sent by natural winegrowers to the wine guide, Gambero Rosso to dispute a writer’s supposition that all “natural” wine is oxidized or defective in some way.

As beautiful as the new cellar is, I felt privileged to taste Bea wines in the old cellar. It was under the family’s home and crowded with large barrels. Bottles from past vintages were tucked into the wall above the tasting table.
old cellar

Before the Sagrantino wine that Bea is most famous for, we tried two whites: first, Paolo Bea Santa Chiara IGT, a skin contact wine (about 2 weeks) that ferments with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel (no temperature controls). It has rich complexity from the short skin contact, but is not a full on “orange wine”, which stays longer on the skins.

Every Bea label is hand written annually with a full description of how it is made and with what ingredients. No filtering because Bea finds that it strips the wine of its essence. A tiny bit of sulfites are added at bottling. (Vini Veri and other natural wine groups have lobbied unsuccessfully for all wine producers to list ingredients. Wine is the only food product on the market without an ingredients list.) All Bea labels also note that no sample bottles are sent to guides for tasting, even upon request, “out of respect for our mutual professions.”
Santa Chiara copy
Santa Chiara is a sensual mixture of 20% each: Malvasia, Grechetto, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Garganega grapes. It has both light, fruity aromaticity and fresh clean acidity.
santa chiara 2011

The second wine, also white, Paolo Bea Arborerus IGT, is made from Trebbiano Spoletino grapes from 140 year-old vines. It ferments with indigenous yeasts with two weeks of skin contact then rests seven months on the lees before bottling…no filtration.
Arboreus copy

The wine is hard to describe because of its uniqueness, rich and complex, but still fresh.

The last wine, Paolo Bea Pagliaro Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG 2005 (14.5%), remains as one of my unforgettable wine moments. The dark, complex sensuality of the wine combined with the elegant grab of the tannins in a persistent unveiling of earthy richness. 100% Sagrantino, from what Bea describes as one of his most “balanced and extraordinary” years. Fermented with the skins for 48 days, then, aging a year in stainless steel, two in large barrels, then, put bottled without filtration. The label says: “Sediment guarantees that THE WINE IS ALIVE.”


Bea also makes a slightly lighter red, Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Pipperello DOC, 60% Sangiovese, 25% Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and 15% Sagrantino (14%).

For price info or to buy wines, check Wine Searcher

Paolo Bea
+39 (0)742 378128

May, 2016

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Tags: artisan, biodynamic, biodynamic wine, Italian wine, Italy, natural wine, organic wine, Umbria
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