Capturing Italy’s character with organic wines

Cantina Tollo is letting local grape varieties shine thanks to organic farming, writes Peter Ranscombe.

BEING stuck in a coronarvirus lockdown hasn’t stopped Italian wine co-operative Cantina Tollo from innovating.

The Abruzzo-based producer has launched its “biologico” range of five wines that carry both organic and vegan certification.

The co-op, which was founded in 1960, intends to sell the wines primarily in bars, restaurants and other parts of the on-trade but, with social distancing restrictions in place, it’s taken to social media to start selling the wines to consumers directly.

In fact, across its whole range, the winery has sold as much wine online in the past two and a half months as it would normally in a whole year.

The new wines have been part of that success, with the initial run of 6,000 bottles selling out.

Making organic wine is not a fad at Tollo; some of its growers began farming organically in the 1980s as part of a wider movement across Abruzzo, Veneto and other Italian regions, driven by children seeing how their parents’ health had suffered from working with agricultural chemicals without protection.

Now, about 50 of Tollo’s 700 growers practice organic farming, spread across 200 hectares of the 2,700 hectares controlled by the co-op.

As well as its main Cantina Tollo brand, the group also consists of Feudo Antico – which focuses on wines produced in the local Tullum area – and Auramadre, which makes organic wines.

Tollo’s existing organic regional blends sell for around €5 in Italian shops, while its organic wines from more specific sites change hands cost about €7.50.

The new range marks a step-up in quality, and will sell in Italy for about €9 a bottle.

The ladybirds and the bees

These are brand new wines – they were only released last month – and so there aren’t any UK stockists listed yet, but keep an eye on Euro Wines, which imports Tollo’s other bottles, and on Great Wines Direct.

Each of the labels carries a picture of a different species – a bee, beetle, butterfly, dragonfly, and ladybird – which act as indicators of the health of the vineyards; if you see a butterfly flitting among the vines then it’s a good sign about the health of the wider farm.

For me, organic wines always display more expressive aromas and more concentrated fruit flavours, and the co-op’s examples are no exception.

Tollo has trumpeted the environmental credentials of its packaging – with no PVC plastic in the capsule covering the cork, and labels made from recycled paper and cotton.

The only fly is the ointment – or bee or beetle – is the weight of the bottle; tipping the scales at about 500 grams, compared to around 350-400g for standard bottles.

Don’t get me wrong; Tollo’s bottles are gorgeous – I love squat wine bottles, whether they’re from Italy or Sashi Moorman’s Piedrasassi from California.

Yet it’s getting harder and harder to justify the extra weight and accompanying carbon dioxide emissions to produce them and transport them – especially if you’re building a brand around sustainability.

It’s an issue that came up last month too with a tasting of Viña Ventisquero’s pinot noirs from Chile.

Fair play to him, Andrea di Fabio, Tollo’s sales and marketing director, held his hands up and said the bottle was chosen because it’s the traditional shape for the region, and that he’s working with his suppliers to develop lighter versions – watch this space.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at the liquid inside those pretty – if heavy – wee bottles…

Trebbiano d’Abruzzo
The dragonfly: Really pretty floral and lemon notes on the nose spread their wings into more concentrated lemon, apricot and grapefruit flavours on the palate, with a savoury lemon rind twist to its very long tail. Lots of really fresh acidity, but well balanced by the concentrated fruit flavours.

Terre di Chieti Passerina
The bee: Just like the humble bee, Italy’s passerina variety is underrated. Here, the wine is buzzing with crisp acidity, but it’s subtler than the trebbiano, mixing apricot and lemon curd on the nose, with the curd being replaced by fruiter lemon sherbet on the palate.

Terre di Chieti Pecorino
The stag beetle: Much more aromatic on the nose, with peach joining the lemon sherbet and floral notes. On the palate, those peach and lemon sherbet flavours rise up like the twin jaws of the stag beetle, again with enough peachiness to balance the crisp acidity.

Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo
The butterfly: It may be a dayglow bubblegum colour, but don’t let that put you off – this rosé flutters with fresh floral, strawberry and raspberry aromas. A splash of cream joins the strawberries on the palate. Well worth a try with salumi.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
The ladybird: Montepulciano, Abruzzo’s red grape, was once a tannin-fueled monster that needed lots of oak and lots of ageing to tame its grip. Yet Tollo’s biologico example shows what can happen when gentler winemaking allows the fruit flavours to be brought to the fore, with concentrated red plum, red cherry and ripe raspberry. There’s still enough grip to the tannin to face lamb or a casserole, but it’s manageable as a stand-alone glass, helped by a healthy kick of fresh acidity.

Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.