On the return leg from Lambrusco country in 2018, I planned a catch up with three friendly winemakers in the Colli Piacentini region. Never heard of it? I don’t blame you. This green and hilly corner of northern Emilia-Romagna doesn’t trouble many wine textbooks or travel bucket lists. Its main claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Stradivari, AKA the most famous violin-maker the world has ever known. Nearly three hundred years after his death, his name lives on around Cremona, and the area remains steeped in classical music.
But I was there to visit craftsmen of a different nature. Alberto Anguissola (Casè), Massimiliano Croci and Andrea Cervini (Vino del Poggio) make some of the most joyful orange wines I know. Their secret weapon? Malvasia di Candia Aromatica: a white grape that produces a marvellously stinky, dried flower bouquet when fermented with its skins – as of course it damn well should be.
Over dinner, I learned that all three of these passionate vignaioli owed their inspiration to the same mentor: Giulio Armani. It wasn’t an unfamiliar name. Giulio is the long-time winemaker at La Stoppa, an iconic and sizeable nearby estate. And La Stoppa produces one of Italy’s, if not the world’s most seminal orange wines – a wild, tannic beast named Ageno, after the lawyer who formerly owned the land. Armani also has his own label, Denavolo. The Denavolo cuvées, all white skin-fermented blends, are similarly rustic and headstrong.
The character of the wines and the surname Armani had merged in my mind, forming a confused mental picture of the man. I imagined a youthful, long haired tearaway, or a rebel walking down the catwalk dressed in high fashion. After all, these were defiant natural wines, properly cloudy, tannic as stewed tea, and made without the safety net of added sulphites or anything else.
Anguissola laid out my schedule for the following day. I had been summoned to La Stoppa to meet the owner Elena Panteleoni. The next morning, we drove to the winery. Elena was nowhere to be seen, but her friendly dogsbody Nicholas took me for a tour. As we tasted recent vintages of Ageno, followed by La Stoppa’s ageworthy red blends, I asked tentatively “So is Giulio around?”. Nicholas replied “He’ll come later, and then he’s taking you to his place for lunch”, and then added “He doesn’t speak English. Actually he doesn’t really speak much in general”.
Sure enough, Giulio arrived mid-way through our tasting. Sporting a three-pointed Poirot-esque beard and a neatly ironed button-down shirt, he barely uttered a word. Tasting complete, we jumped into his jeep, only to meet Elena driving in the other direction. I exchanged a brief hello through the wound-down window.
With my limited Italian, French was brokered as a shared language. The conversation was concise but established a little background. Giulio lives on the site of an abandoned village named Gatavera di Denavolo. He and various family members have restored some of the houses, but it’s an isolated spot. The paths are littered with rubble and headstones from buildings that long-since succumbed to decay. The house itself boasts a dramatic picture window, which surveys the Denavolo vineyard on the other side of the valley. In all other respects it’s a minimalistic yet homely place.
A welcoming lady who I mistakenly took to be Giulio’s wife was preparing lunch. We sat down at the large wooden table that dominated the living room. Giulio disappeared for a moment, returning with a clutch of bottles. First up was Catavela 2014, a lightweight charmer produced from his young vineyard. Then came Dinavolino 2017, a wine produced from the lower half of the Denavolo vineyard, which is cited on a steep incline. Even though this is the lighter, more easy-drinking expression, it’s made in exactly the same fashion as its big brother Dinavolo, with roughly four months skin contact and ageing in old wooden barrels.
As with all Giulio’s wines, grapes are the only ingredient. Pro tip: If you are in any way sensitive to the natural wine scourge known as mousiness, don’t drink this wine on release – cellar it for another year. How do I know? Giulio opened three more vintages, each more delicious and stable than the last.
As I tasted, feverishly scribbled notes and grabbed the occasional photo, Giulio would open the next bottle and push it gently towards me. A quizzical smile was the only introduction. I realised we’d been joined by a few more friends. There were now seven or eight people sat around the table, including Alberto. We sipped quietly, with a lowkey murmur of conversation. Giulio went to grab more bottles from the cellar, and started opening vintages of Dinavolo – the wine from the top part of the vineyard, which is released a year or two later than its baby brother.
There is no better demonstration of terroir: two wines made from the same blend in the same vineyard in the same manner, but just from two different parts of the hill. Dinavolo has a grandeur about its structure, and a thrilling complexity of flavours – hay, dried herbs, papaya, mango, marigolds. And it ages like a red.
The full Denavolo
At some point, food was served. There were delicious antipasti, freshly baked bread and an outstanding pasta. It was hard to do it justice, as I tried to keep up with the flood of bottles. After the first seven or eight vintages of Dinavolo, it dawned on me. Giulio was going for the full vertical. And sure enough, he did – even opening an unreleased 2014, deemed substandard at the time. Four years down the line, it tasted great. Finally, the inaugural 2005 was uncorked. It proved hands down that these wines don’t just have the capacity for ageing, they actually demand it.
Watching as he carefully opened and decanted wines, I could see Giulio’s fastidious nature. Earlier at La Stoppa, I glanced into his office, revealing that he hand draws the Denavolo labels afresh each year. Every vintage has a subtle difference in the colour or the height of the script. His barrels are chalked correspondingly to match the labels. Giulio started working at La Stoppa in 1980 when he was 20, and essentially learned on the job. Decades of refining his minimalist craft have paid off. The wines have a kind of artifice-free confidence. They are outspoken and compelling but not in any way show-offy.
About those confusing names: wine labelling law is an ass. Because Giulio’s wines are bottled as table wines (one or two vintages sneaked in as IGT), the name of the vineyard isn’t allowed as the name of the wine. So although the brand and the vineyard are Denavolo, the labels are deliberately mispelt as Dinavolo and Dinavolino.
Freshly adorned with a tea-towel around his waist to catch the drips, Giulio still wasn’t done. He silently opened a few blind bottles for good measure. We were treated to Alberto’s pretty Casè Bianco 2012, and a Tuscan orange from Tunia. Finally, a stunning 2004 Ageno reinforced the ageing imperative in spades. Alberto and I dragged ourselves away for a planned visit to his nearby vineyards. Returning a few hours later, we found the remaining guests lounging in a post-prandial haze while Giulio sat reading a book.
As afternoon turned to evening, everyone gathered around the table, grazing on leftovers and delicious sips from the throng of bottles littering the table. Conversations rebooted, then guests gradually peeled away into the night. Shortly after nine, Alberto and I exchanged a look. We were the last. Giulio looked mildly disappointed. “Can I offer you something else? Whisky, grappa?” he ventured. We made our excuses and headed out to the car.
“Does Giulio usually do that?”, I asked Alberto on the ride home, referring to the vast and generous vertical. “Not really” he replied “but he knows you like orange wines. I guess he thought you might appreciate it”.