I’ve spent so much time in Italy, but haven’t yet made it to Umbria. Still, somehow, it has a piece of my heart. I’d imagine you eat lamb all day and drink Sagrantino all night. The nearly impossible to tame grape won’t grow outside of Umbria, being so married to the land from which it comes that it cannot help but taste like its birthplace and cannot exist anywhere else.
Even though I’ve never been, I feel like I have, because of the Bea wines and stories. He is one of my all time favorite producers across all categories, and is a man of legendary status in Umbria – especially through the eyes and tellings of one of my other favorite wine people, Neal Rosenthal.
It’s important to understand Neal to understand the story. It’s hard to convey how his eyes light up when he’s talking about a special producer, and how the energy in the room shifts completely when he captures his audience to take you on a wine journey. But when he’s talking about how he met a producer or discovered a wine, every turn in the story is pivotal, every detail perfectly accounted for. He once shared a recipe with me, not by measurements and weights, but informally in conversation. Still, in the telling of it, the bottle of Barolo Chinato he was cooking lobster with was tilted at an exact 45-degree angle as it poured into the pan, a detail he included seamlessly along with the smells in the air and the reaction of heat and wine, and then butter. So captivating, that I have been thinking about attempting that recipe for at least three years. But back to Bea and the San Valentino.
Neal owned a wine shop in New York and was just starting a wine import business. He had heard of a radical wine maker through word of mouth, a man in Umbria.
Maybe radical wouldn’t apply so much now, but it’s important to grasp what the natural wine movement was decades ago. It was mostly unheard of. Natural wine doesn’t have a technical definition but the word organic doesn’t even come close to covering it. Sure, organic wines come from grapes grown without chemicals or pesticides – still a good thing – but they can be manipulated freely once pulled from the vine: adding sugars, color, nitrogen, acids, tannins, oak essence, water, heavy preservatives, the list of offences goes on.
A natural winemaker truly adds nothing and removes nothing from the wine. Only the natural yeasts present on grape skins are used to kick-start fermentation. Grapes are plucked by hand, dumped in a vessel, and left to do their thing – very hands off. What natural winemakers seek, religiously, is a wine that tastes like the place it’s from. That was Paolo Bea’s approach.
Neal called the Bea family with no introduction, no email cc, no previous connection. He asked Paolo’s son to meet, who agreed to join a random American in the main square of Montefalco at 5pm. Yep, Neal recalls the specific meeting time in every telling of this story.
It’s not like he was meeting Bea in Times Square. Montefalco is an old town, a collection of cobblestone roads and ancient walls settled sometime between the 9th – 4th centuries B.C. It’s radial in the sense that all main roads converge in the center in Piazza del Comune. In no way is it bustling, it wouldn’t be hard to spot Giampiero.
The day was nearing an end, shopkeepers locking up for the day and the light going away fast. The grays and browns of the old buildings and dimming light interrupted only by the bright splashes of Bougainvillea curling over a few tall buildings. Bea hadn’t shown up. Neal was upset, disappointed even, but not surprised.
Everything in the square of Montefalco nearly locked up, so he ambled into a tiny corner market and asked the quintessential Nonna standing at the counter whether she happened to know the Bea family. As things in Italy always seem to go, of course she did. She picked up a phone and dialed Giampiero himself; less than 5 minutes later (an impressive timeline, but still a detail he recounts), a handsome, 30-something Italian architect-bon-vivant type showed up in the square of Montefalco to pick up Neal as if nothing had been lost.
The winemaker showed Neal his village and expressed a profound love for his tiny town. Their informal tour landed them at Bea’s simple cantina. Neal drank the deep-colored wines straight from the barrel, immediately falling in love with the rustic, brambly fruit and wild character. The Bea family had farmed the land with the same natural principles since the 1500s. They had a wild quality that moved Neal right away to import them to the U.S. when they were completely unknown the market wasn’t super interested in obscure Italian wine. Now, they are so highly allocated it is nearly impossible to get a decent quantity of this particular bottling, the San Valentino.
Bea’s wines had never left Umbria before Neal’s impromptu pilgrimage to the little hamlet in Umbria. But fate, as Neal puts it, can have lovely consequences, and Neal’s chance encounter with Giampiero became the unearthing of one of the greatest domains in Italy.
To me, Bea’s are some of the most personal, enchanting, and sensual wines I have ever had. They smell like blue fruits and dried leaves and earth and wild forest, and are among the most romantic and mysterious. Every bottle is marked with an individual number, corresponding to the year’s total production; demand always outruns supply.
Drink this with pleasure and abandon don't even think about anything technical. You do not need to know a thing about wine to understand and feel its depth. Neal’s concept of terroir is one of my favorite, and there might be no wine in the world that better brings this notion to life. I have never been to Umbria, but somehow I can imagine smells like braising lamb wafting out of apartment windows, dried leaves carried through the air on a fall breeze, an air that is free of traffic pollution and too many people. All of the beautiful monasteries and frescoes from the 7th century, the old country roads that the Franciscan monks walked, all of it somehow lands in this bottle. I have this tangible grasp of Umbria’s easy pace. There is a stillness there that is far from boring, and all you need to do is taste this wine to experience it.
THE CHEAT SHEET
THE WINE: Paolo Bea ‘San Valentino’ Rosso, Umbria, Italy 2010
THE GRAPE: Sagrantino, Sangiovese, Montepulciano
HOMETOWN: Montefalco, Umbria in Italy. Umbria is the only land-locked region in Italy.
TASTES LIKE: Blue fruits, wild forest-like things, spiced earth, rough but elegant, deep, and lasting.
GOES DOWN EASY WITH: Rustic foods and flavors, like mushrooms, lentils, sausages, lamb, pastas, steaks…keep going?
IF YOU LIKE: Deeply rustic, textured reds, wild and still pure as can be. This one has it all.
NERDY EXTRA CREDIT: Deeply rustic, textured reds, wild and still pure as can be. This one has it all.