There was no better place to be for the young Italian boy than sitting next to his grandfather, who was playing cards and sharing his homemade wine with his friends, in the Abruzzo region of Italy as there was always an electric energy in the air created by the deep connections of such intimate gatherings. The young boy came from a multi-generational family of grape growers – no one in the family was a professional winemaker – yet his grandfather was a serious hobbyist in making wine in his home cellar. He spent so much time in his cellar making enough wine for himself and his friends that one would have thought he was a professional but that was the personality of this man, a person intensely driven by his passions. This grandfather was a man of few words when it came to crowded situations with people he didn’t know well. He could be quite reserved at times as he never liked to be the center of attention yet when it came to those he trusted and considered true friends, he was the most generous man in the world.
The young boy would spend a great deal of time with his grandfather in the cellar, helping to rack the wine and clean the barrels, whatever was needed, as his grandfather was his hero, a man who lived life to the fullest. When the boy became a man, losing his grandfather when he was 18, he knew he wanted something in his life that would infuse it with passion like his grandpa; hence he kept up the winemaking hobby.
But as this young man, Luca Marrone, saw his own family struggle to survive selling wine grapes as growers, he knew that he needed to follow a different path when it came to making a living, thus, he started to take law classes at university. Through time, he realized that a career in law was not for him, consequently, he decided to take winemaking and viticulture classes as he realized that he wanted his life to be mainly filled with moments that resembled the life his grandfather lived.
His grandfather was his first mentor, initially placing him on the winemaking path but other mentors would steer his fate to one day overseeing some of the most historic estates in the famous Italian wine region of Tuscany.
First Job that Continues for 20 Years
Luca Marrone’s first real job after university was at the historic Super Tuscan estate Grattamacco, the second winery to establish itself in the Super Tuscan area of Bolgheri, being only second to Sassicaia. How did a recent graduate become the winemaker at such an important estate in one of Italy’s most prestigious wine areas? Another key mentor in Luca’s life would have much to do with it, a mentor who would become like a second father, believing in Luca more than he believed in himself.
uring his time at university, Luca was able to intern at a winery in Montecucco, a wine area in the southern section of Tuscany that produces wines made from Sangiovese and hence he was given an opportunity to write about a man named Claudio Tipa in an Italian food and wine magazine called Gambero Rosso, as Claudio was making a considerable investment in Montecucco, one of the last areas in Tuscany left in the economic depression that started after the Second World War. Luca was excited at the prospect of a new endeavor lifting this neglected area out of poverty so he sought an internship at Claudio’s estate called ColleMassari yet there was no winery at that time and they were using their neighbor’s winery. So he decided to intern at ColleMassari’s neighbor, Salustri; both wineries would eventually establish the Montecucco appellation and promote this unknown Tuscan wine area worldwide.
Luca enjoyed working at Salustri and often ate dinner with the family at their home but he didn’t know that Claudio Tipa would be staying at a house on the Salustri property and coming into the winery almost every day. Claudio would even join the Salustri family dinners where Luca could interact with him informally. But when he inquired about the winemaker’s position at ColleMassari among the employees who worked there, he was told that they were looking for someone with more experience and there was already another young man who better fit the bill.
Shortly after he left the internship, he went to a wine tasting where he ran into Claudio Tipa again and Claudio inquired if Luca had found a job yet and Luca answered that he was still looking. Surprisingly, Claudio asked Luca, “Why don’t you interview for the winemaking position at ColleMassari?” Despite Luca knowing they were going to go with someone else, he accepted out of respect for Claudio.
It was a good interview with Claudio Tipa at the winery regarding their good rapport. Luca was happy to spend more time with a man he greatly admired but then Claudio said he wasn’t in a hurry to select someone, although Luca quickly chimed back, “I understand, but I am in a hurry.” In three days, Luca would be going to the esteemed Gaja winery in Piedmont for an interview to work with a legendary winemaker who taught seminars at his university. If they offered him the job, he would have to accept and after explaining the situation, Claudio abruptly picked up the phone and called the general manager of his winery and said, “We have a new winemaker.”
A Legend Who Teaches the Purity of Sangiovese
After working at ColleMassari for a little over just a month, one day Luca was told to pack his bags as he would live in Bolgheri starting the next day and become the winemaker for the historic Super Tuscan estate Grattamacco. This was over 20 years ago and when Luca looks back at it now, he laughs because, at the time, he didn’t want to go. “I didn’t know anybody there, I didn’t know the winery, the vineyards,” Luca remarked. And not only did he have the challenge of the Grattamacco team looking at him as an outsider as he was new to the area and he had very little experience but it was the extremely difficult 2003 – a vintage that was so unexpectedly hot that people in Europe died because of the heat.
But today, he always has lunch and dinner with his team and has a close relationship with them. He is tremendously grateful that he became the winemaker of such an excellent estate at the beginning of his career.
Luca ended up spending a lot of time with the founder of Grattamacco since he wound up living near him and over dinner, they would talk about the vineyards and the importance of being true to the terroir. Regarding the idea of irrigation in the vineyards, the founder of Grattamacco would say, ‘We don’t waste terroir with water.” Luca kept those words close to his heart but as more vintages became hot and dry, the agronomists encouraged Luca to open the valves to the irrigation lines, which he agreed to yet when night came he turned them off. Today, he understands that the words about not wasting terroir with water were spoken with different climatic conditions in mind. If one doesn’t give water to the vines during particular vintages, they will shut down, so it is a matter of survival.
Since word got around that Claudio Tipa was doing a great job keeping the integrity of the Grattamacco estate, he was given the opportunity to buy another historic wine estate in 2011 but this time in the Tuscan wine area of Montalcino, Poggio di Sotto. Not only was it an estate that crafted some of the purest expressions of the Sangiovese grape from older vines that included over 120 different biotypes1 but it also had a legendary consultant known as one of the great masters of Sangiovese, Giulio Gambelli.
Giulio was at the end of his life when Luca worked with him at Poggio di Sotto yet he learned so much. Until then, Luca only knew Giulio as a great giant of the Tuscan wine world, someone he could only dream of meeting. Still, life has a funny way of working out as Luca spent a significant amount of time with Giulio at his home as he had problems getting around, so he wanted the wine samples to be brought to him. “He was in the stage of his life where he was more about giving than taking,” Luca said of his time with Giulio Gambelli. Luca could sense that Giulio was fond of him by how much he trusted him and despite Giulio passing away a couple of years from the time he met him, Luca knew that in his “heart” it was enough time to understand how to manage the “purity of Sangiovese.”
Poggio di Sotto doesn’t decide what vines will become Brunello di Montalcino versus Rosso di Montalcino in the vineyards, the former being more serious with a longer aging potential and the latter being more friendly and generous earlier; instead, they wait two years after it has aged in neutral casks before making such a decision. One time, when Luca and the team were conducting tastings to choose which wines were to be Brunello and which were Rosso, they ran up against a major problem – the second blind tasting of what they thought should be Brunello and Rosso was utterly different than the first blind tasting.
“How could this be?” Luca thought in a panicked state. The only thing he could think to do was to bring the samples to Giulio Gambelli at his home. Giulio was a man of few words and didn’t like to be in the spotlight; instead, he preferred to focus intensely on the work, although his face said everything. As Luca respectfully stood there observing Giulio taste the wines, he could see by a look in his eyes that told him, “this is a Rosso,” or his eyes would get really bright and he knew “this was a Brunello.” Luca would taste along with him and once Giulio’s eyes told him all that he needed to know, he would say to himself, “Yes, this is definitely a Brunello. How was I not able to identify it before?”
At that moment, when Giulio Gambelli told him everything he needed to know about tasting and picking blends of Sangiovese, he flashed back to working with his grandfather in his home cellar as he had a similar personality of being a quiet man who threw himself into his passions. Luca’s grandfather made very basic wine that was nowhere near the level of the legendary Gambelli. Still, they were both men who communicated with their bright eyes filled with so much life, making Luca want to feel just as alive as they did.
No one continues to make wine in Luca’s grandfather’s cellar. Sadly, the little local restaurant where his grandpa would play cards with friends while sharing his wine doesn’t exist anymore. Still, Luca is following in his grandfather’s footsteps, maybe unimaginably because back then, who could have ever imagined that a kid from Abruzzo would be leading some of Italy’s most prestigious wine estates in Tuscany? But he is living a life based on passion, on deep connections and rooted in a community that is doing everything in their power to keep that passion alive and that is all his grandpa ever wanted for him.
***Link to original article on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2023/02/21/winemaker-of-historic-wine-estates-in-tuscany-and-the-mentors-that-inspired-him-to-make-great-wine/
2016 Castello ColleMassari, Poggio Lombrone, Sangiovese Riserva, Montecucco, Tuscany: 100% Sangiovese from the section of the vineyard with Sangiovese over 50 years old; the vineyard is located at almost 1,000 feet in elevation directly across from Montalcino. A pristine expression of Sangiovese with bright red cherries, spices and floral notes on the nose with well-integrated tannins and a lifted finish.
2017 Poggio di Sotto, Rosso di Montalcino, Montalcino, Tuscany: 100% Sangiovese from the Poggio di Sotto estate which has become the benchmark for many classic Brunello di Montalcino wines. This baby brother Rosso is still excellent as much of the wine they blend into it could be used as Brunello by many other estates but does not qualify for the high standard for Poggio di Sotto Brunello. Hence, it is a Rosso on a much higher level than most and equal to some other Brunello. Crushed rocks and fresh tobacco on the nose with a wonderful fleshiness on the palate that gives a round and lovely texture with lots of black fruit, finishing with savory spices.
2017 San Giorgio, Ugolforte, Brunello di Montalcino, Montalcino, Tuscany: 100% Sangiovese from the San Giorgio estate. Luca said that this property is a continuation of the prestigious Poggio di Sotto estate as not only are the two properties right next to each other but they share similar soils, climatic conditions and exposures and so it is considered a second wine to Poggio di Sotto. Luca noted that Poggio di Sotto is more elegant with an overall finesse compared to the more structured San Giorgio. This Brunello packs a punch with tons of juicy, concentrated layers of red and black fruits with crushed rose petals and slightly firm tannins yet the purity of Sangiovese can still express itself despite the power.
2015 Grattamacco, Bolgheri Superiore, Bolgheri, Tuscany: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Sangiovese. The 2015 Bolgheri Superiore Grattamacco is big, bold and absolutely stunning and it is built to age with its intense power and concentration. The rich flavors of plum pie are balanced by the depth of complexity of cigar notes with hints of cured meats finishing with silky tannins and a bright cranberry note. 2015 is a great vintage that produced big, bold, stunning wines.
2017 Grattamacco, Bolgheri Superiore, Bolgheri, Tuscany: 35th-anniversary edition; Blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Sangiovese. A surprising saline minerality to this wine with dried cranberry fruit and fresh herbs with some grip to the big-shouldered tannins that is ideal with a nice steak. 2017 was a hot, dry vintage.
2018 Grattamacco, Bolgheri Superiore, Bolgheri, Tuscany: Blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Sangiovese. Luca calls this a classic vintage that overall was cooler. Blackcurrant leaves and fresh thyme on the nose with vibrant black cherry fruit on the palate intermixed with underbrush notes and a more linear body with lots of vitality.
2019 Grattamacco, Bolgheri Superiore, Bolgheri, Tuscany: Blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Sangiovese. Warmer weather but not as hot or dry as the 2017. A seamlessly beautiful wine with delicious blue fruit such as blueberry tart and an enchanting background of aromas such as rose oil and lavender sea salt that has an incredible density and a long, silky finish.
1Biotypes (a.k.a. clones) are the same variety of grape yet distinguish same variety vines with slightly different qualities within a sub-category of another biotype name.