Massimiliano Croci: ‘Refermenting wine is the most spontaneous way to make wine.’
We recently talked about Tenuta Croci, a winery located in Emilia, Italy. Today we have a great friend of ours, Antonio Sicurezza, owner of the natural wines store Wine Attack in Madrid, who will collaborate with us interviewing Massimiliamo Croci.
Buongiorno, Massimiliano, tell us why and how did you begin making wine. Do you have a winemaking tradition in your family?
My family has been a farming family for generations and has always produced wine, primarily for personal consumption and after the Second World War, they started to sell it.
My grandfather Giuseppe, born in 1898, was a farmer in Mignano di Vernasca, a mountainous area, and decided to leave the valley in the hills, so in 1935 he bought a farm in Monterosso di Castell. In the following years, he built the house, the barn, the stable and moved with the family in the 1940s during the war.
My father, Ermanno, born in 1938, he was the only one of nine children (the other emigrated) who remained to run the farm and in the 1970s, because on the hill the only crop that could give some decent money was grapes, he made the change and stopped taking care of the cattle.
I was born when he started bottling with his own label. Although I studied something different for my own interest, dedicating to winemaking was something spontaneous to continue this activity by an innate passion and desire to live in this land.
After a few years since your first harvest, how your work in the vineyard and in the cellar has changed?
Essentially, it has not changed; I have more experience and consciousness so I have to ask less for advice to my father. We have always been organic, not because of beliefs or otherwise, but because this area is dedicated to viticulture, if the vineyards get sick, it only takes a little copper and sulfur, other systemic products are much more expensive and for my father, who had never had a lot of money, the choice was obvious.
Let’s talk about your region: Piacenza, the first city of Emilia coming from Milan and traveling south. If we were in the 1990s talking about a “grunge” scene a little as it was called the Seattle music: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc… What was so special about your territory and how did you work naturally your wines related to tradition but also within an important stylistic research?
Piacenza has a long history of viticulture, as well as the remains of Vitis Vinifera in the Paleolithic, since Roman times clearly demonstrates the importance of wine in the agricultural economy of the area, probably because the hills are poor and with the vine they can be cultivated.
In addition, the Via Emilia in Piacenza has always been a crossroads of cultures that over the years have refined the world of winemaking when selling it in the old days. This generated an ancient tradition that has survived to this day, to all those who had or actually have a family-owned vineyard and making wine for personal consumption, with very limited means and therefore respecting the technical employed methods that obviously were natural due to the lack of technology and enology knowledge.
Therefore, it is not our generation the one that invented a new method of winemaking. We are just keeping a modern awareness of what our ancestors have created mixing different influences.
If I have to explain abroad, what is the movement Emilia sur Li, how would I start? What makes this it unique (if it’s really unique)?
For us, refermenting sparkling wine in the bottle when its lees remain at the bottom of the bottle has always been normal and if it would not turn sparkling meant that something bad had been done in winemaking or bottling. Especially for the “home” personal consumption wines.
The reason is that in these lands, washed by sea in the Pliocene era, often times and due to the lack of nitrogen, wines could not complete the fermentation during harvest, going straight to the bottle to keep it after the cold winter had helped decant it, clean it and refine it. The yeasts awake with warm weather and end the fermentation in the bottle. Therefore, it’s not a fashion but the true tradition of sparkling wines.
Croci rhymes (symbolically) with wines refermented in the bottle. Once and for all, can you explain the difference between an Ancestral wine and a Pet Nat? There is a big confusion about it.
For me, Ancestral, Pet Nat, and in the background, also Surli and Sur Li, are just trade names to stand out.
For my grandfather it was just sparkling wine, period. For me they are Charmat wines, which should indicate that they are made in a “machine”.
Fortunately (and unfortunately) these wines are experiencing a kind of fashion and many wineries are improvising producers who bottle this wines referring to them by any means, including bottling during the harvest and still in fermentation.
For me, the refermentation must be spontaneous as tradition says.
Now we need a little culinary fun fact. What do you eat in Piacenza? What did your grandparents eat, for example,? In what context fit wines and food?
As we said, Piacenza is a crossroads of cultures and therefore talking about food, we are midpoint between the austere use of ox in the Piedmont and Emilian pork. In Piacenza, you can find wines matching everything.
My grandparents ate anything that was not selling, for example, they did not eat pork or ham culatello, parts that were sold immediately after the killing. They ate mostly fat spicy parts as lard, bacon, goletta and of course salami. Meals that perfectly match with our wines.
How many times have you heard (more or less as a joke) that your wines were the result of a technical error, as it is bottled with incomplete fermentations?
When I started selling our wines outside of our territory, very often, especially by those which now produce Petillant natural.
The status quo of refermented wines: is it a fashion or they are actually linked to the territory? Do not you think there are too many sparkling wines now? Has the demand increased or producers just… got bored and thought of alternative ways?
We are experiencing a time in which too structured wines have become tiresome and many producers see in refermentations a way to sell young fresh wines so they can pay the bills early instead of waiting long for the ageing.
There is a lot of talk about the refermented wines, but you and many others in Emilia make this way the so-called still wines. Is not a risk that an excessive carbonic characterization of the wines gives a distorted picture of your territory?
For sure, few people in the world know that these wines have always been made this was. Unfortunately, when fashion happens, many will disappear, and we will continue because this is the most spontaneous way to make wine.
Let’s take a look at the situation of natural wines in Italy. Has their quality improved? In addition, what about sales? (We also talk about money, since we are not virgins).
Quality has always been high, we say that demand has increased nowadays; today many winemakers and consultants have specialized and many new wineries enter this market even if they are not located in this area and can offer natural wines with quality, although personally by the very fact of using consultants, I would not call them natural wines. In my opinion, the decisions have to be done in the vineyard and in the cellar by the winegrower.
Will Italy reach a true partnership protocol to try to define the basic criteria to define natural wine?
If anything comes, it will be a protocol that industrial manufacturers will also take advantage of.
By the way, do you like the natural adjective or do you think it is something forced?
I do not dislike it, but of course in some cases or situations it may be somewhat forced. Let’s keep in mind the term natural is now used everywhere and legally outside the world of wine, even in soaps. However, I prefer the term spontaneous.
And what do you think the wine buyer has understood about all this in the last ten years?
Some people know, read, understand and make conscious decisions, but unfortunately only drink what is fashionable.
Back to the vineyards and the wine born there. How do you work in them?
Like my grandfather and my father did: copper, sulfur and fertilizer when needed.
What is the most difficult wine to make of your portfolio?
Obviously the Ice Wine, due to weather conditions, but all the still wines are complicated because for them not to referment in the bottle, we have to wait until it finishes in the tanks, and sometimes in large masses refermentations do not want to finish.
We talked about two grape varieties unknown to the public, or almost: red Bonarda and white Ortrugo. Could you explain the main features of these grapes?
The Croatina, called Bonarda in Piacenza and Pavia, is a high-yielding red grape, is has an open cluster that matures late. In our lands, it shows a vivid color (antocians), with hints of berries and a tannic structure, so our elders have understood that the right combination for it is the Barbera, very acid and less tannic, so they found ways to balance both grapes.
The Ortrugo is an indigenous grape variety found only in Piacenza, a very compact green grape. The name derives from a dialectic expression meaning “the other grape”; virtually nameless. Until the 1970s, it was only used in blends with our Malvasia di Candia Aromatica. It gives a very dry, fresh, good acidity, with notes of freshly harvested cereal or wheat.
Remember one thing: our wines are made with traditional maceration on the skins. Orange Wine is a modern concept that came from abroad to distinguish our wines to the clarified ones, but here for my grandfather and my father, maceration was the only way to produce wine. The intense color was normal and the wines were simply called white wines. They were very white wines not to be normal wines.
Massimiliano, how do you see Italian natural wine abroad?
I would say that the most attentive consumers understand our rural spontaneity in the production of wines
As a winelover, what kind of wines do you drink and what are you passionate about?
Firstly, in our family we drink our wine every day, some 700 bottles a year. Then I drink everything, it depends on the mood and the season, but always natural wines, of course. However, when I need a wine to comfort me, I always end up drinking a wine from Piacenza as La Stoppa, a Denavolo, the Poggio or Casè.
Now the opposite question: Let’s be bad for once. Will you tell me some world wine area that you consider it is awful?
Australia. Fortunately, some little young producer is trying to reverse this trend.
What do you know about alternative wine in Spain?
I’ve drank a lot, some things I like, some others less, but I do not know enough to talk about it.
We finish with classic apocalyptic question: tell me five wines you would bring to a deserted island in the event of a planned trip without return.
I’m a simple guy who likes to drink and then enjoy. If we exclude my Gutturnio and my Campedello:
Macchiona de La Stoppa
Malvasia di Camillo Donati
Lambrusco di Vittorio Graziano
Camporenzo de Monte dell’Ora
Verdicchio La Oche de Fattoria San Lorenzo
A really heartfelt thanks will never be enough to thank you.