WWC24 – 'I don't want to be a statue', by Emilie Aspeling

Paolo De Marchi casts an expert eye over the Isole e Olena vineyards.  photo is author's own

Wine educator Emilie Aspeling writes this WWC24 entry about the unforgettable experience of meeting Chianti icon Paolo de Marchi. See also our guide to this year's competition.

Emilie Aspeling writes Emilie Aspeling is an ex-sommelier who cut her teeth in Michelin-starred dining rooms and wine bars in the South of England before hopping the channel to settle in Paris where she now works in wine education at Kedge Wine School

'I don’t want to be a statue' – Paolo de Marchi's last visitor at Isole e Olena

As my hire car bumped its way down a seemingly endless, dusty Tuscan road I felt a little nervous about turning into Isole e Olena’s olive tree-lined driveway and finally meeting Chianti legend Paolo de Marchi. Yet his charming smile, welcoming bacio and over-excited golden retriever instantly put me at ease.

It turns out that my visit was Paolo de Marchi’s last before he relinquished control of Isole e Olena after selling his Chianti Classico winery to the EPI group last August. Invited to remain on as a consultant for 10 years to ensure a smooth transition, Paolo will instead be retiring to join his son in Piedmont, the family’s ancestral region. Not wishing to be a silent and ultimately powerless figurehead of the estate, Paolo has instead chosen to leave Isole e Olena completely - relinquishing his home, his control and his legacy. Undoubtedly a painful and bittersweet separation, yet De Marchi maintains that he does not wish to “be a statue”.

As Paolo led me through his vineyards, pointing out every rain pocket, centurion tree, and rock formation, he walked me back through Chianti’s history - a history that is intricately interwoven with that of both Paolo and his estate. We walked, he talked, and our steps took us back to the Middle Ages to the time of mezzadria or ‘sharecropping’, when the land his estate occupies was used for grazing animals and cultivating wheat, olives and vines for individual consumption. Yet what seems like ancient history is closer than one might think, as De Marchi explains the sharecropping economy was still firmly in place as late as the 1960s. With Paolo’s first vintage at Isole e Olena arriving in the cantina in 1976 it’s clear that in as little as a single generation the region of Chianti has gone from a medieval to a global economy.

It’s these daily walks which have been integral to Isole e Olena’s success. From 1967-1972, the EU ran a 5-year project to overhaul and modernise Chianti, yet their replantings were uninformed and misguided, resulting in 30% of white grape varieties being planted. Yet Paolo maintains that “history is not a shame, it’s where you came from” and so he spent his first 10 years learning as much as he could about his vineyards. From 1977-1987, instead of hiring costly, outside consultants Paolo walked his vines daily and did his own visual massal selection. He manually tagged vines that performed consistently across multiple vintages. He learnt every micro-climate, rain pocket, and snow pocket (“when it snows, I sit and look where the snow melts first and last”). Undeterred by the EU’s misplantings, he spent 10 years learning his vineyards by heart before he was ready to launch his own replanting scheme. 

De Marchi describes his own work as a “bridge” between history and modernity - throughout the 1990s he tirelessly rebuilt the historic terraces bulldozed during the EU planting programme, yet in 2005 he began bottling a proportion of his iconic wine Cepparello under screw cap following practices he observed during his travels to Australia and New Zealand. He insists that he “had to try” and explains that he’s constantly pushing himself to imagine the other side, which in this case is a wine industry where screw caps were standard and the cork an outlier. He is unfailingly open-minded, and his wines reflect this optimism. The 2016 Cepparello was simply delicious, a pureness of fruit with a supporting duo of balance and power.

Paolo shared his history, his wines and his table with a natural and easy hospitality. I have been lucky to visit many wineries in what has been to date a relatively short career in the wine industry, and yet my visit to Isole e Olena will neither be forgotten nor outshone given what a poignant moment in history it represented for both a tireless winemaker and a trailblazing estate. It was clear that he was devastated to leave the estate he had painstakingly built over the previous 47 years of his life. He wasn’t just leaving a job, but vines as familiar as old friends, terraces he’d built by hand, and the thousands of visitors who’d come to share in his passion for Chianti Classico. Finishing the bottle of 2016 Cepparello over our lunch of a delicious summer torte in his shaded courtyard, Paolo made no secret of how the near future left him heavy-hearted.

The end of the day brought the arrival of his grand-children from Piedmont, reminding me that even though the winery sale might have marked an official end to Paolo De Marchi’s time in his beloved Tuscany and the end of Isole e Olena as we currently know it, the next stage of his life was just getting started: that of retiree, father, grand-father and undoubtedly still a winemaker - only this time in Alto Piemonte.

The photograph, captioned: 'Paolo De Marchi casts an expert eye over the Isole e Olena vineyards', is the author's own.