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19 Novembre 2012

La Cucina Italiana

the magazine of the Italian kitchen since 1929

the first lady of teroldego
in the high-altitude reaches of Trentino, Elisabetta Foradori eschews convention, elevating overlooked grapes and near-forgotten winemaking techniques to laudatory heights
by Robert Camuto
photographs by Stefano Scatà

ELISABETTA FORADORI ARRIVES at the top of a wooden staircase at the entrance of her family’s 19th century home dressed in a fitted t-shirt and white pants, her straight salt-and-pepper hair loosely knotted behind a regular face. At 46, she appears far to stylish to be a winemaker who has worked the vines all her adult life.
Her storybook-perfect winery and vineyards rest on the floor of Campo Rotaliano – the alluvial plain wedged between sheer limestone mountain cliffs in the once-Austrian Trentino. The view from here is a picture postcard of vineyards, mountains and blue sky. The Foradori estate, housed in a sprawling Tyrolean manor that is reminiscent of the home of The Sound of Music Von Trapp family lies at the edge of the village of Mezzolombardo, a small town of almost 7,000. It’s marked by a discreet brass plaque out of the front gate, which opens onto a large courtyard of period Alpine buildings draped with wines hanging from massive eave timbers.
Foradori and her eponymous winery are notable because in the last quarter century, she has single-handedly raised the local grape teroldego from an everyday, inexpensive wine to one that is found on some of the best wine lists in the world. In that time she has become one of Italy’s most influential winemakers: a woman who raised the opinion of Trentino wines, become one of the country’s leading advocates for organic viticulture, and distinguished herself has an innovator, whose techniques are watched and copied by others. She has earned the nickname “signora del teroldego”, roughly “the first lady of teroldego”, and Italy’s most influential wine guide, Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines, has consistently given her flagship teroldego wine – called Granato – is highest rating of Tre Bicchieri, of three glasses.
Trentino is a tiny wine producing area, download by brand names like Ferrari and Cavit that produce millions of bottles of sparkling wine every year. Using familiar methods and grapes as Champagne, the Trento DOC now produces some of the best sparklers in Italy. But most of the region’s still wines have a poor reputation and remain obscure. Foradori’s wines are one of the few exceptions. Her road to success was not the easiest. At 19, she took over the family estate eight years after her father’s untimely death. She restored lost traditions – from the way wines are planted and cared for, to the way grapes are vinified – and bucked Trentino’s winemaking establishment to do so.
She leads me through her vineyards with her energetic Munster Lander hunting dog, Argo. “When I do something I do it,” she says. “ I don’t say ‘yes, no ,maybe,’ ” She explains that her biggest struggle in raising the quality of the local wine has been convincing other growers and producers to adopt standards, and to take the first, and necessary, step of slashing grape of production. Through a lower yield means less wine, it generally makes for better quality grapes, which results in wines with more complex, concentrated aromas and flavors.
Unable to convince them to change, she pulled her red wines out of Teroldego Rotaliano DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) – the official appellation that oversees local teroldego wine production – in two phases, starting with the 2000 vintage and ending in 2009. Rather than have her wines associated with what she saw as an inferior DOC, she chose to label her wines as the humbler IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). This designation is normally given to regional wines of independent wine makers that don’t follow the stricter DOC regulations. Foradori’s case was the opposite: She had stricter standards – and was better known than the application – so she decided to drop out of classification. The resulting irony is the Teroldego DOC without the woman most associated with the grape. For Foradori, nothing changed but the labelling of her wine.
“It was,” she says of the move, touching the tips of her thumb and forefinger together for emphasis, “il pincipio!”.
Foradori admits that she has alienated many, including some of the bigger regional wine producers, in her portrayals of a David vs. Goliath struggle of independent quality producers against a soulless industry. But even some who disagree with the tougher standards she sought praise her influence.
“Elisabetta’s Foradori made teroldego known to the world” says Leonardo Pilati, director of Mezzolombardo’s cooperative winery Cantina Rotaliana, which produces more than a million bottles annually – more than six times that of Foradori.
“ For me, it was too bad that she left the DOC,” he says. Pilati adds that Foradori led the way in innovations that many other local winemakers have adopted – including aging teroldego wine in wood barrels, conserving older vineyards and moving to organic agriculture.

THE STORY OF HOW THIS independent mother of four became a passionate definer of teroldego is equal parts fate and will. Foradori’s grandfather, a Trentino lawyer, bought the estate in 1929, little more than a decade after the Italian-speaking Trentino and German-speaking Alto Adige were annexed by Italy from Austria following World War I. Teroldego – a genetic ancestor of syrah – had been prized by the Austrians but suffered as part of Italy, which had plenty of popular wines already.
Her grandfather sold the wine in bulk, but her father, Roberto, started bottling in the 1960s. when he died of cancer, Elisabetta, his only child, was 11 years old. Eight years later, after studying oenology and agriculture, she took over the winery.
“My mother didn’t force me,” she says, gathering the fingers of her right hand and shaking in to emphasize her point. “But che cosa fai? What could I do? It was my responsibility”.
As winemaker, Foradori tackled her first vintage in 1984s, and with it, several life-changing decisions. Most of the estate’s vineyards were planted with productive teroldego clones. While they made great quantities of fruit, she found their flavour blend compared with the grapes that came from there of her pre-war vineyards.
“In generally, the quality of the grapes [from the younger wines] was a disaster,” she says. Many of the vineyards had been planted with the intention of producing grapes for cheap, bulk wine, with no consideration of quality. “I chose to go back to the roots of this varietal and to try to find their potential,” she says.
She set out on a 20-year project to tear up more than half the estate’s 50-plus acres and replant them with cuttings she selected from the older vines. Every aspect of the new vineyards – from the dense plantings to the French short pruning methods used to train the vines – was geared to limit quantity and boost quality. Foradori says, “If the genetics of a vineyard are boring, your wine will be boring.”
Starting in 1986, she released her signature wine, Granato, using grapes from only the oldest vineyards, and she aged the wine for nearly two years in oak barrels. By the early 1990s, Granato was wowing critics on both sides of the Atlantic with its silky elegance, spice and complexity.
Though the Teroldego Rotaliano DOC was created in 1972 to promote quality winemaking, most of what it produced was, until recently, no more than quaffable table wine. Pilati of the Cantina Rotaliana cooperative praises Foradori’s Granato as the first great wine made from Teroldego, and says it is better known that the grape itself. “Foradori was the first to work with teroldego this way, and to age in the wood,” he says. “Now everybody does it.”

FORADORI IS A WOMAN IN constant motion, “a volcano of ideas and inspiration” says Elisabetta Dalzocchio, a vignaiola, of winemaker, who has been making Pinot Nero wine on her family farm since the mid-1990s.
Small producer-winemakers represent only 10 percent of Trentino’s production, but Foradori has helped others with sometimes daunting task of getting their wines known outside of Italy. “She [Foradori] is the only [of Trentino’s independent producers] who is known all over the world, and that is so important for us,” Dalzocchio says, “Because she presents the wine of Trentino in a good way.”
Three years ago, Foradori formed an association of 11 small-production, tradition-minded winemakers from the area that includes Dalzocchio. The group, called I Dolomitici for their proximity to the Dolomite Mountains, has worked to resurrect other local varietals, such as nosiola e manzoni bianco, and shared their research and old vine cuttings freely with other producers. Foradori also convinced those who were not farming organically to do so.
Dalzocchio remembers one day a few years ago, when Foradori called a meeting of the group. She said she knew of a grape grower who was going to tear up his 100-year-old vineyards with an acre of lambrusco a foglia frastagliata, an old, local variety that Foradori found worth saving. The grower was going to start ripping up the vines the next day. Foradori told the group they could save the vineyard by renting the plot, but, Dalzocchio says, “We had to make a decision that night.”
The group agreed to Foradori’s plan and took over the vineyard. Today, they produce about 3,000 bottles of wine from the plot under the Ciso label, which is vinified in Foradori’s cellars and has developed a cult following among natural wine lovers.

AS WE WALK through the vineyards, she talks about her second greatest career achievement: converting to biodynamic agriculture in 2000. “The vineyards told me, ‘we are tired’, and I was tired, too,” she says. “I was losing my instinct in the vineyards and I made another revolution.”
In the last decade, biodynamic agriculture based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, a turn-of-the-century Austrian philosopher, has become increasingly popular throughout the wine world. Biodynamic aims to strengthen ecosystems methods pegged to the phases of the moon, which farmers (including American founding father Benjamin Franklin) have long said affect the roots, leaves and fruit of plants. In 2009, Foradori took the dramatic and risky step of using only herbal teas grown in her garden to strengthen her vines and ward off common fungal diseases that can devastate grape crops. She also stopped fertilizing and tilling her vineyards, and instead encourages wild grass and weeds, which are mowed and raked into the soil. This is a far cry from the modern grape growing methods that became popular in the post-World-War II Italy – using fungicides and pesticides to keep disease away, and chemical weed killers to keep vineyards clean. But in the last few years, more and more independent winemakers, including many across Italy, have converted their vineyards to such natural systems, bolstered by anecdotal evidence that the green vineyards can work, and also produce some of the world’s best wines.
Foradori has become a leading naturalist who has accelerated Italy’s green movement, says Giulia Graglia, the roman filmmaker who featured Foradori and three other independent women winemakers in her 2011 documentary “Senza Trucco” (“Without Makeup”). “Foradori was one of the most important wines in Trentino already,” Giulia says. “So when Elisabetta decided to change and produce biodynamic wines, she had a big impact.”
Foradori now bottles a half-dozen red and white wines from her low-tech methods. She says she chose to forget most of the modern tricks she learned in oenology school, and instead ferments her wines primarily in open wood casks and steel vats using only indigenous yeasts. Nothing is added during winemaking, and she does not control temperatures,. She adds small quantities of sulfites only before bottling, and does not filter the wines.
Many of the great wines of Europe are made with time-honored, traditional practices that are known to create the complex mix of scents, flavors and textures that wine lovers and connoisseurs seek –and expect – in the glass. When the combination of soil, grapes and winemaking makes something deliciously distinct, a wine said to have that elusive trail: “personality.” Foradori’s wines are brimming with personality. Recent vintages of Granato have the traits of a fine Burgundy – from smoky, woodsy scents to a long, refreshing acid-polished finish in the mouth – perfect for meats, mushrooms, pasta and legumes.

FORADORI CONTINUES TO challenge herself and, in the last four years, has jointed the handful of Italian winemakers using terra cotta amphorae (large-scale vessels), a technique that dates to ancient Greek and Roman eras. It is one of the oldest winemaking methods in the world, and has attracted traditionalist winemakers,
Foradori started working with amphorae in 2008, after leasing the vineyards of an old estate called Fontanasanta, nestled on a wooded hilltop near the city of Trento. She was determined to make a dry white wine with the local varietal nosiola. The name comes from the Italian word for hazelnut that emerges during vinification.
What attracted her to amphorae was the search for a container in which she could ferment nosiola and leave it on the skins for eight months in order to coax out its full aromas and tannins. She wanted the breathable qualities of wood without oak flavor. Every year since, she has added another 20 neck-high amphorae to her cellar. She currently makes two whites in amphorae – the second from the grape manzoni bianco – as well as two teroldego wines, called Morei and Sgarzon, each made with grapes from a single vineyard.
The new underground cellar Foradori excavated a decade ago at the estate is now filled with upright amphorae, which create a visually dramatic experience. More than that, the initial results are deliciously promising. But this kind of winemaking – with wine staying in contact with skins and seeds for such long periods – is risky business. Conventional white wines are usually pressed the day of picking and red wines are usually pressed after finishing fermentation in a matter of weeks. Leaving so much organic matter in contact with the wine, if not carefully sealed and monitored could produce a vinegary disaster. Foradori, who has never taken the easy road, wouldn’t have it any other way.

GABRIELLA, FORADORI’S MOTHER, sets out lunch in the tasting room. The meals is simple and hearty, and starts with bean soup flavoured with rosemary and strips of speck, the lean, delicious Tyrolean cured ham.
We taste all the most recent vintages of Foradori wines, including the amphora teroldegos, which are leaner and livelier than Granato. But the wine that is showing best this day is 2010 Fontanasanta nosiola, an amphora wine that is served cool but not cold. It is soft in the mouth with subtle aromas – a classy, pretty wine that carries us through to the next course of pan-roasted veal with potatoes and radicchio.
After a stovetop espresso, she finds a pouch of tobacco and hand rolls a thin cigarette – a vice, she says, that she cannot resist after a meal. So what about the future of Azienda Agricola Foradori? She has four children – two boys and a girl from her marriage to her late husband, the German naturalist and writer Rainer Zierock (whose writing Foradori quotes on the back labels of her wine), and a young boy with her long-time current partner, a Bolzano lawyer.
Her eldest child, Emilio, 23, has a university degree in philosophy and studying in a post-graduate wine program – the perfect blend for working at Foradori. “If one of my children would like to come and work here, I will say goodbye,” Foradori says. She draws on her cigarette and adds the word “basta” for emphasis.
“I will go into the mountains and make cheese,” she says, smiling. She insists she is not kidding. “to be a winemaker is a very personal thing. My mother didn’t know how to make wine, so I was free in my work to do what I wanted. But if I am here and Emilio, my son, is here, I don’t know if he will want to make wine like I do.”
“And,” Foradori adds, starting what to the rest of the world would seem obvious, “I don’t know if I can be here and do nothing.”

France-based writer Robert Camuto is the author of Palmeto: a Sicilian Wine Odyssey.

 

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