From Botticino to Grand Central station. Buy this and help seriously underequipped hospitals in northern Italy.
From €14.12, 18.32 Swiss francs, £17.30, $20.99
This wine of the week is, believe it or not, inspired by the pandemic that is cursing the world, with the worst rate of infections in Italy. The greatest concentrations of COVID-19 are in two regions in the north: Lombardia, with the metropolis of Milan as its focal point, and Veneto, where it seems to have originated in Vò, a small village of barely 3,000 inhabitants and a stone's throw away from Padova where I live. Owing to its rapid spread, the whole of the nation is now in its second week of lockdown, a word that in no time has become a fixed part of the Italian vocabulary.
Lockdown in Italy doesn't mean empty supermarket shelves due to panic buying. We don’t see people running around with 10 packs of toilet paper, leaving everyone else short. There are no signs of hoarding in the European country that, so far, has been hit hardest by the virus. Spring has come and a near-silent city is bathing in gentle warm sunlight under a perfect blue sky contrasted by the fierce yellow of mimosa and the soft, pastel pink and white of the blooming magnolia tree in my street. The eerie silence is interrupted only by the occasional ambulance siren and the patrolling police telling people via megaphone restare a casa, to stay at home. 'Surreal' is the only word that can describe the current situation.
While Veneto is on high alert, with an exponential daily increase of cases, it is Lombardia and the cities of Bergamo and Brescia that are the hardest hit in the whole of the country. A video showing 10 pages of obituaries in the local newspaper L'Eco di Bergamo (normally no more than a handful) soon went viral on Italian social media. I found this more disturbing than anything else, because until then the general understanding was that Covid-19 had a similar fatality rate to that of flu. This indicated something much worse.
I called Giovanni Arcari, who, together with Nico Danesi, runs the Arcari + Danesi estate in Franciacorta, right on Brescia's doorstep. As I wrote here, both he and Nico are radically changing the Franciacorta style and making it more transparent by refusing to use sugar at any stage in the production of their sparkling wine. They insist that great wine can come only from fully ripe grapes, something the majority of producers here seem unwilling or unable to achieve, relying on sugar instead and making highly technical wines.
Incredible as it sounds, their philosophy is so unusual in Franciacorta that when they stopped using sugar in the vinification of their wines, they requested the inspection of their cellars by the Guarda Finanza, Italy's anti-fraud police, to prove they weren't buying and using sugar illegally.
Arcari told me that hospitals in Brescia and neighbouring Bergamo were about to collapse under the enormous number of patients, especially those needing intensive care. Basics such as hand sanitiser and face masks are in short supply and the number of respirators and ventilators available far outnumbers the number of critically ill patients. The banal reason of not having enough of these machines is alas contributing to the increased mortality rate.
The next day the ping of WhatsApp announced a message on my phone: Arcari + Danesi are selling the entire remaining production, 4,000 bottles, of their rosato Grace with the proceeds donated to the hospitals of Brescia.
I immediately bought a case, not just because I wanted to do something to help, but just as much because I think it is a great wine.
In addition to radically changing Franciacorta, they have also taken on the 80-year-old pergola-trained vineyard shown above, overlooking the plain of Brescia in the ancient DOC of Botticino. This almost-forgotten DOC, with only around 30 ha (75 acres), is on the brink of extinction. Yet it is Brescia's true historic viticultural nucleus, whereas Franciacorta is a recent creation that before the 1960s was unknown as a viticultural area in its own right.
It was in 2014 that the pair stumbled upon this tiny vineyard, planted on its own roots with Schiava and a few Barbera, Marzemino and Sangiovese vines, at the foot of the hills that become the pre-Alps of Brescia to the north. Arcari described the vineyard's mixed plantings, especially Schiava and Marzemino, as a kind of historical thread running through many alpine reds, from Botticino to Trentino and further north to Alto Adige, or South Tyrol.
The first couple of vintages were dedicated to observing the vineyard and analysing its potential. The grapes were harvested in one go and fermented together to make a gorgeously light, fragrant and linear rosato, called 'Grace'. The name refers to Gra(nd) Ce(ntral), the iconic Manhattan station, whose distinctive marble came from the quarry of Botticino, when it was still in operation. In the near future a red wine is projected and therefore this may well be the last time Grace will see the light of day as a classy, screwcapped 12% rosé.
I am aware that I tend to suggest wines of the week that are hard to get, and this is the case yet again because Arcari + Danesi, highly regrettably, have no UK distributor – yet. Although the wine broker Tannico, who hold no stock but promise to procure, are listing it in the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland at the prices shown above. Wine-Searcher list a sole US stockist, Wainscott Wines of New York. I also think this offer might be relevant to our Italian readers and may inspire other estates to follow this wonderful example.
Again a ping on my mobile. It is Giovanni again, this time sending me a picture of the Vittoria Alata, The Winged Victory, a bronze sculpture from 250 BC which is on permanent display in the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia. It is the personification of grace as the 'divine blessing', and the city's symbol. Underneath the picture it reads: Siamo Bresciani. Ci vedrete in ginocchi solo per raccogliere funghi. ‘We are the people of Brescia. You will see us on our knees only when we pick mushrooms.’
Those in Italy can order the 2018 vintage of Grace at €150 a dozen, including delivery, by sending an email to email@example.com.