By Andrew Sainsbury
I take a few steps down the row to admire a particularly beautiful bunch of pinky-red grapes, the skins just winning the battle to restrain the sweet juices within. “Is this Refosco?” I ask, pretty much 100 percent sure of the answer. I shouldn’t have bothered asking, really! Definitely Refosco.
There are twelve of us standing in the vineyard. We have come from different parts of Canada to Italy for four busy days to learn about Venetian wine and the culture that it exists within. We are in Masi’s Stra’ del Milione Vineyard in the northeast corner of Italy, an old stop along the ancient road that Marco Polo followed east from Venice to Central Asia and China. This is where Modello comes from.
It’s the last day of August and the sun is strong, but the salty Bora wind coming off the nearby Venetian Lagoon makes the conditions just about ideal for grapes and humans.
“This is Refosco, right?” I ask the winemaker again, pretty pumped for the inevitable congrats on my impressive feat of amateur ampelography.
“No. It is Pinot Grigio.”
The soft-spoken winemaker, Andrea dal Cin, corrects me in the gentlest manner you could imagine. Silly me. I should have recalled that ‘Grigio’ means grey, which in grape-speak means pinky-red.
Funny. Pinot Grigio, the trendiest white wine in the world, is made from grapes that are more-or-less red but pressed immediately after picking.* I take a couple of pictures as evidence for my Pinot Grigio swilling acquaintances back home. (There are many.)
The group takes a few healthful strides towards the Dolomites (aka the Italian Alps, aka The North!) and we soon encounter some rows of the elusive red-skinned Refosco. The skins are really, really, obviously red and I now realize the brunt of my foolish error.
This is the first time I’ve laid eyes upon this rare variety, so I collect a bunch for scientific purposes and put a single perfect berry to my mouth.
Wow. Juicy wildberry fruit bolstered by zesty acidity and a touch of earthiness. In other words, ideal qualities for a gulp-able yet interesting wine.
My forbidden taste of the delicious vineyard sample confirms what Andrea had been trying to explain to us if we weren’t so busy pilfering his best grapes: 1) that Refosco is a highly underrated variety, and, 2) that Masi discovered this fact a while ago and now are growing it very, very well in this vineyard.
There are further interesting varieties to discover, so we cross a tiny bridge over a culvert. It seems a shame these vineyards don’t need drip irrigation because the spring-fed stream beneath our feet is crystal clear and home to small trout and prawns. (Reminder to self: bring fly rod next time).
Across the gravel road we see some rows of Verduzzo, a local variety usually used for sweet wine. These grapes are about a month away from picking for use in Masianco (after a short appassimento and brief barrel aging and battonage in old oak).
Our stomachs were grumbling for a meal of food so we headed back towards the shed but not before passing some rows where the Pinot Bianco had been picked the night before. Harvest 2016 was underway.
Despite the fact that we rudely showed up in the middle of harvest, we returned to find the vineyard manager stationed in front his gleaming New Holland tractor with the most incredible spread you could imagine.
The Modello began to flow. There were meats. There were cheeses of varying degrees of hardness. There were breadsticks wrapped in prosciutto and there was an insane local soft cheese that became fondue-like in the hot sun (in a good way). There was a delicious nutty, cooling, refreshing barley salad that quickly became the talk of the group. Someone asked for the recipe.
Of course, being a wine crowd, we talked about the wine, too. We agreed the Pinot Grigio was fresh and crisp and engaging and the Refosco & Merlot was juicy and delicious and perfect with the charcuterie. Tasting a wine in the vineyard from which it is made is always a special experience, so forgive any bias there.
The Bora winds were losing the battle with the mid afternoon sun so a few of us took cover under the shade of the tractor. We savoured the last drops of Modello in our glasses. There may have been some light snoozing.
A half-hour or so later it was time to go to Venice. A car bolted down the gravel road into the vineyard as we woke from our naps. A woman stopped the car and got out in an urgent manner. She strode toward us and handed the vineyard manager a piece of paper. I was pretty sure we were in trouble.
It was the vineyard manager’s daughter with the barley salad recipe.
Andrew Sainsbury is Masi’s Regional Manager in Ontario (though he prefers to go by ‘MASI guy’). He holds a Certified Sommelier designation which means he is legally allowed to drink wine for breakfast and he makes up for his lack of Italian heritage by subsisting on a strict diet of ragu Bolognese.
*Wines like “Blanc-de-Noirs” Champagne—literally ‘white-of-reds’, made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier—are a reminder that white wines can be made from red-skinned grapes, and that it is only the lengthy soak upon the pigmented red skins that gives red wines their colour.