Family Proprietor Silvia Vannucci of the Piaggia Estate

Silvia Vannucci is the family proprietor of the Piaggia Wine Estate in Carmignano, Tuscany.  A vivacious, elegant, woman – with a witty, dry, somewhat irreverant sense of humor, she was gracious enough to sit down with Tuscan Vines and also facilitated the following interview with Piaggia winemaker: Emiliano Falsini.

Grazie Siliva, come stai? 

Bene, bene grazie.

Silvia, you are the owner of the Piaggia estate now, yes?

Si, I’m actually the owner of Piaggia and I’m running the winery with my  Father, Mauro, who bought our first vineyard in the mid 70’s. 

Va bene.  And your winemaker is Emiliano Falsini.  A well respected consulting winemaker throughout all of Italy.  What led you to retain Emiliano’s services?

Emiliano is a young and talented winemaker. He has been working with us for many years. I can honestly say we have grown up together and are very proud of the work he has done at Piaggia. His skills are well known.

Running a family business can be difficult.  What sort of challenges, if any,  do you see within the wine industry – an industry typically dominated by men in Italy, that makes it hard for a woman to overcome? 

I don’t really agree with this question.  In Italy now, especially recently, many women are involved in the wine business. Some as owners, some as winemakers or both. Some as commercial managers.  I have a lot of female friends that are doing very well in this business, so I think it’s not a matter of gender, but what really matters is passion and will power – the will to succeed.

Interesting, and that’s an excellent attitude to have.  Before we get to Emiliano,  if you could let my readers know something about Piaggia, or Carmignano, what would it be?

In Carmignano, the wine tradition has been in existence for centuries. Caterina De Medici imported the Cabernet grape variety from France in the 16th Century. My Father and I, with passion and hard work, are proud to have created a brand recognizable all over the world – definitely in the elite of Italian wine producers.

Definitely.  Ok, let me continue on with Emiliano….

Emiliano Falsini, is the Consulting Winemaker for the Piaggia Estate in Tuscany. Thank you very much for taking the opportunity to speak with me today.  As consulting winemaker for over 40 estates throughout Italy, I’m sure your time is in demand. Grazie, amico.

Prego Giovanni!

Emiliano Falsini:  Piaggia Winemaker, and Winemaking Consultant

Emiliano, one of the first things that intrigued me while preparing for this interview was the depth of experience you have.  As part of that experience, I see that you’ve worked at Robert Mondavi in the Napa Valley.  When was that and what do you think you learned at Mondavi that translates well to winemaking in Tuscany?

I was in California many years ago. At the time the idea of wine  was very different than today. In Mondavi I learned mostly the great professionalism, the cleaning of the wines, the use of barrels and the market of wine tourism. I don’t know if my idea of wine now is derived from the experience of California or in another country that I visited and where I spend my time (New Zealand or Argentina), But my idea of wine now is focused on the Italian style. I want to make italians wines in our traditional style but in a modern way without losing the Italian taste and idea of wine. I love to work with our indigenous varieties and discover new concepts for wines.

I recently reviewed the 2008 Piaggia Carmignano “Il Sasso”.  I was struck by how expressive and complex the aromas of that wine were.  In my review, I called Carmignano, “The Forgotten DOCG”.  Do you think that’s fair?  Why do you think Carmignano doesn’t garner the level of respect or attention that it’s DOCG counterparts attain?  Could it be partly due to the relatively small area under vines?

I love Carmignano because it is one of the best terroir in Tuscany for making excellent red wines. This area  is one of the oldest appellations in Italy and for many centuries the people understand it’s great potential.  I agree with you when you call it the Forgotten appellation,  but the problem here is not the quality of the wines. For me the problem is that this is a very small area with probably no more than five good producers and for us it’s difficult to be competitive compared to other  historic Tuscan appellations like Chianti, Vino Nobile and Brunello where there are many excellent wineries. You taste Il Sasso 2008 Carmignano produced by Piaggia and this is an exemple how Carmignano can be competitive with its wines. The quality now is very good we must communicate our wines to the world. This is our new challenge!

Carmignano is a wine based in Sangiovese.  By law, it must be at least 50% Sangiovese.  The “Il Sasso” is 70% with the balance to Cabernet and Merlot.  Does this change depending upon the relative success of each vintage?  Who makes the ultimate decision on the blending?

The Il Sasso’s blend is more or less the same since our first vintage because the vineyards are the same. We can change but usually the Sangiovese is no less than 70%. We change the use of oak now because we want to mantain the taste of the grapes and not cover the taste with the barrels. I make the final blend tasting all the barrels some months before the bottling date helping Mauro Vannucci, the owner and founder of Piaggia, to find the style we prefer for our idea of Carmignano.
As a winemaking region, Carmignano was established in the 18th century.  The blending of Cabernet with Sangiovese in Carmignano far pre-dates any of the so-called “Super Tuscans” of the 20th century.   Why do you think Carmignano is not held in higher regard for it’s innovative beginnings? Do you think it is partly because of the non-Italian varietals in the blend?

Simply because 20-30 years ago when we started the new age of Super Tuscans in Carmignano there were few producers and it was not enough to simply have Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyard to influence the Tuscan wine world. The first Carmignano made in a modern style, looking at the international market, was Piaggia in 1994. We harvested very ripe fruit and we used new barrels, producing a very new kind of wine. This was a revolution for the area but not for Tuscany. We were part of the revolution but honestly not the only protagonist.

I was thrilled to see the following statement on your website:  “The process to create a great wine begins in the vineyards: fine wine can be produced only from quality grapes. I believe in an oenology respectful toward the raw materials, not invasive and with a main aim: to satisfy the consumers.”   This seems to hint that a winemaker is merely a “custodian” and that he should be a minimalist, not an interventionist.  Do you think this is a fair statement?   Isn’t this the very essence of the argument for “wines made for the table” and against “cocktail wines”?

That’s right, for me the wine is the expression of terroir and we can make excellent wines only from grapes of great value. The winemaker is not a wizard. I am a professional who must interpret the characteristics of each terroir and especially the style of each winery. I like to be a minimalist because I am convinced that the quality of a wine is not the result of technology and chemistry…
Working in Italy in many historic appellations of course I prefer wines for the table. My idea for wines is that they are a part of the culture of food!!
Vineyards at Piaggia – from where Carmignano “Il Sasso” is sourced
Bravo! I agree.  The one thing I dislike most, is when you find a highly regarded wine that is so extracted or so over handled, that it becomes impossible to marry it with food. 
I agree, and this you will not find in Piaggia, or in any of the wines I make!
Wine lovers have been debating constantly about the merits of new oak vs. used oak, large botte, or small barrique.   What is your stylistic trademark regarding oak influence in your wines?  And do you think Sangiovese needs or benefits from extended oak aging?

The taste of wine changes as we change our habits and customs.  Ten years ago the people produced wines using a lot of new oak, now I prefer the logical use of oak and I love making wine where you can feel the fruit and where the oak is just a part; well integrated with the wine. Regarding the Sangiovese, certainly I prefer the used barrels or the traditional large Botti for long term aging.

Among the many Estates for which you consult, three strike me as especially intriguing: Giacomo Fenocchio in Piemonte, Tabarinni in Sagrantino and Moris Farms in Toscana.  Regarding Moris Farms, their delicious flagship wine Avvoltore,  grown in the Maremma region of Tuscany, is generally a blend of Sangiovese (75%) and Cabernet (25%) very like Carmignano.  Do you approach each wine similarly because they are similar blends or does the lack of DOCG regulation in Maremma allow for more freedom, more experimentation?  Is it easier to make wine in Carmigano or Maremma?

The blend is similar but different!

In Il Sasso, we use Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon. In Avvoltore, we blend Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah. The regions are very different for climate and soil so we havest the grapes earlier than in Carmignano because Maremma is warmer and the soil has more clay in Carmignano.
The winemaking approch is similar, we harvest each variety separately, ferment with natural yeast, elevation in mostly used barrels and bottle without fining and filtration. When you want to make great wines it’s not easy to make them in any area because you can’t lose the quality in any aspect. In general, it’s probably easier to pick good, sound grapes in the warmer areas.

As I mentioned earlier, you also consult for Giacomo Fenocchio in Piedmont.  What challenges in crafting Barolo from Nebbiolo grapes stand out compared to working with Sangiovese and Cabernet?   Which varietal is more unforgiving? 

Probably Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are the challenges most exciting and where you can not make mistakes in the vineyard. Both are very susceptible to climate and soil, and this requires a deep knowledge of variety, soil and climate. Cabernet is easier to grow sound grapes from and not susceptible to the vagaries of weather like the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.

I’ve enjoyed many of the wines you’ve made, long before I was aware that there was a common thread to the winemaking.  Which of the estates that you’re consulting for now should I search for?  Which is the “unknown star” that is about to emerge?

I am working in many italian regions: Sicily, Tuscany, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Piemonte, Emilia-Romagna and Umbria. In each region I can find great grapes and varieties, probably the unknown star should be the Southern part of Italy like the Etna area but I want to bet on Montefalco and its Sagrantino.
Speaking of Sagrantino, I am working on an interview with Giampolo Tabarrini, the rising Sagrantino producer. There are some funny quotes on the Tabarrini website regarding the personalities of the people there.  What is Giampaolo like? How is he to work with?

I know Giampaolo from the biginning and he’s a very funny man but also very clever, passionate and very caring. A perfectionist!  For me he’s a client and a friend of mine. He’s similar to Mauro Vannucci. Both want to make the best wines with great character. I like his idea of wine and I agree with Giampaolo that Sagrantino is one of the best variety in Italy!!

Emiliano,  thank you again for your thoughts.  Please keep up the excellent work.  When you are done travelling around the peninsula and finally able to relax – what wine have you been reaching for to enjoy?   

Good question!

I like to try different kinds of wine in different seasons.  I like Sangiovese wines like Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile and Brunellos, but also Barolos, Etnas and Sagrantinos.  But if I really want to relax during my summer holidays I drink a good Sparkler… 

Ci vediamo amico. Grazie!  To learn more about consulting winemaker Emilian Falsini, please see: Emiliano’s Professional Website
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