Driving around the hillsides of Le Marche, we serendipitously encountered a winery in Loro Piceno, a picturesque Medieval town.
It was a complex of two small buildings and a house. There was no one there except a young man mowing a lawn. He turned out to be Ercoli Christian, current owner of Azienda Agricola Lorese.
Christian, a slim, polite young man with a boyish look, quit mowing his lawn and graciously asked us to wait while he changed clothes. He was not about to show us his family winery in yardwork coveralls.
He then gave us what turned out to be the most unique wine experience of our two week sojourn in Italy. Christian, as it turns out, tends to a local Marche tradition passed down through generations: vino cotto.
The term directly translates as cooked wine.
His grapes are all locally grown. They are Trebbiano, Montepulciano and Sangiovese, common, well known varietals. What Christian does with them however, is unusual.
After a late harvest in October, the grapes are crushed and cooked in giant vats for seven days. One of the houses in the complex was built for this purpose, with huge cauldrons inside and fenestrated walls outside that allow for wood fires beneath the vats.
We commented that tending to the fires and cleaning the ash must be an arduous mess. Christian agreed. Not only that, he added, but the boiling juice also required constant attention. The scum floating to the surface had to be repeatedly cleaned. He showed us a porous shovel especially made for this purpose.
It’s hard work, said Christian. Day and night, we have to be constantly vigilant.
It seemed risky for a winemaker to cook his harvest this way, reducing the juice to half its original volume. What if something went wrong and the entire harvest was lost? A problem for novice winemakers maybe, but not for Christian. He possessed centuries of know-how passed down to him. He worked his task confidently.
The juice was fermented naturally, no yeast added. The wine was then stored in his grandfather’s wood barrels for eight years before bottling.
The result: a semi-sweet dessert wine, dark amber in color, with a port-like nose but lighter palate feel. It features pleasant flavors of apricots and peaches and an acid finish with hints of almond.
The wines are all non-vintage. Christian mixed and matched the juice as he went along. He told us that you can open a bottle, drink some and re-cork it. The wine would keep. I have previously only encountered this routine with fortified wines like Madeira.
We bought a bottle to take home. No one back home has ever heard of vino cotto. My Friday night wine group would certainly find it interesting.
Two days later we had our final dinner in Le Marche at Agritourismo Agra Mater, a country inn, another hidden gem we had discovered here. At the end of the meal, I wanted a dessert wine to go with a chocolate mousse atop a biscuit sprinkled with apricot shavings. I asked Matteo, our chef, for a recommendation.
He replied without hesitation that the best he could offer was a local vino cotto. It was not Christian’s but same style and as good. Light in structure and acidic, it went well with the delicate dessert, not overpowering it. I savored each sip and thanked my lucky stars for the chance encounter that had introduced us to this rare offering.