From Just above Lucca, Tracing Roots to Napoleon

Lucca Hills - TenutaFrom one of the most interesting, even important, estates in Tuscany that you’ve probably never heard of, Tenuta di Vagliano Palistorti Rosso is simply a captivating wine for enjoying right now and for years to come.

Lucca native Moreno Petrini and his wife, Laura di Collobiano, purchased this 15th Century wine estate in 1991 with the intention of making enough wine and olive oil to pay the bills. With help from oenologist Saverio Petrilli, they quickly learned that their unique vineyard had too much potential to be a hobby.

The vineyard looks down at the walled city of Lucca and backs up to a large hill of the Apennine mountain range. The dead south exposure gives plenty of warm sunshine balanced by cool breezes blowing inland from the sea and cool air sliding down the hills from the mountains. The mountain and a river that runs through the heart of the property give Palistorti di Valgiano remarkably varied and unique soils. As in the rest of Tuscany, there’s clay here, but the chalk found in Chianti and Montalcino is replaced by rounded river pebbles and sandstone eroded from the hill behind the property.

Unique soils and weather demanded unique farming practices, and Petrini began converting his vineyards first to organic (1995) and then more exotic and demanding biodynamic practices in 2001. Petrini explains the change as part of a transition from passively “watching” the vineyards to actively “seeing” them. By all accounts, the change in vine health and fruit quality has been astonishing here. Even in extremely challenging vintages (like 2010) where neighbors lose 20-30% or more of their crop to rot and disease, Palistorti Di Valgiano’s vines thrive and ripen fruit beautifully.

Napoleon

Napoleon caused French varietals Merlot and Syrah to be planted here.

The French Invasion of 1802. Even with better farming, Sangiovese alone struggles to make a balanced wine, as the cool air sliding down the nearby mountains slows ripening compared to the sunny hills of Chianti.

Fortunately, Laura di Collobiano (who runs the estate today) has two complementary grapes to work with. Syrah thrives on the portions of the vineyard where soils come from fractured mountain rock and old river pebbles. Merlot loves the rich clay soils that dot the vineyard, while Sangiovese does best in the majority of the vineyard where river stones keep the clay from becoming too hard packed.

Planting these French varietals to help soften Sangiovese’s hard edges became popular in Chianti in the 1990s, but these “invaders” have a longer history in Lucca. When Napoleon invaded France and established the Republic of Italy (soon the Kingdom of Italy) in 1802, he and his court despaired of finding good wine to drink – or at least familiar wine. Most of the Napoleonic zone of control was too cool for French grapes, but the hills and plain near Lucca – on the southern edge of the zone – seemed promising.

So, Napoleon and his step-son, the titular “King”, required growers in the Lucca area to plan French grapes and soon discovered that both Merlot and Syrah showed promise. When the Kingdom ended in 1814, the French grapes remained, gradually occupying niches warm enough for red wine vines but not quite right for Sangiovese.

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