Like a lot of people these days, Piero Incisa della Rocchetta has a tattoo. It's modest, as tattoos goa line drawing of a bee, on his right foot. But unlike a lot of people's tattoos, that bee is modeled on a drawing done by Michelangelo for the coat of arms of one of Piero's ancestors.
I noticed Piero's tattoo in the kitchen of his modest house in Patagonia, Argentina (he was wearing sandals), while he was shaving bottarga (cured mullet roe) over a cutting board and telling me about Bodega Chacra, the winery he founded here in 2004. Piero lives in Patagonia five months out of the year; the rest of the time he's either in New York or at his family's estate in the Bolgheri region of Tuscany. That estate, Tenuta San Guido, produces one of Italy's greatest red wines, Sassicaia. Created by Piero's grandfather Mario and made famous by his uncle Niccolò, Sassicaia was a groundbreaking red. It proved Tuscany could produce world-class Cabernet Sauvignon; it also proved that a Tuscan red could garner the same level of sustained international respect as the great first-growths of Bordeaux.
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In Patagonia, on the other hand, Piero's ambitions are focused on making world-class Pinot Noir. At least when he's not trying to avoid slicing off his fingertipsthe chunk of mullet roe had shrunk to a nub, and his grater was very sharp. The bottarga was for a platter of spaghetti with almond bread crumbs. Earlier, he'd prepared grapefruit segments and avocado slices for a crabmeat salad. Outside in the yard, local chef Mauricio Couly was baking spinach-and-green-pea empanadas in a big clay oven.
All this work was to prepare an alfresco lunch for the winery and vineyard workers at Bodega Chacra. It was a feast, and one that never could've taken place back in Italy, where a person with Piero's exalted background is far more constrained by the rules of class.
He added a small plateful of bread crumbs to the bottarga and recalled, "In Italy, I once went into the office and said tu to the estate manager." (The Italian language has two forms of "you"an informal one, tu, which implies a kind of familiarity or closeness, and a more formal one, Lei.) "I was reprimanded and told that no one in our family has ever addressed an estate manager as tu."
Outside, the employees were gathering on the lawn. On the tables were bottles of Barda, the most affordable of Bodega Chacra's wines ($20). Piero produces three Pinots: Barda, a bright, lively red; Cincuenta y Cinco, which is fragrant and silky and comes from a single vineyard planted in 1955; and Treinta y Dos, more powerful and intense, again from a single, small vineyard, this one planted in 1932.
They're impressive wines, and they do express a side of Pinot Noir that isn't quite like Pinot from anywhere else. There's a certain familiar Old World elegance, a fine texture to the tannins and a complexity of aroma that suggest good Burgundy; there's also a little of the familiar forwardness of New World Pinot, possibly recalling Martinborough in New Zealand. Then there's something else. Patagonia-ness, for lack of a better word.
There was a gust of laughter outside, and Piero glanced out the window. Spanish, like Italian, has a formal "you" (usted), but it was impossible to imagine anyone using it much at Bodega Chacra. "It's different here," he said. "These people devote their lives to follow my passion! So I owe them." He turned to the stove and poured olive oilItalian olive oil, made at Tenuta San Guido and bearing the Sassicaia labelinto a sauté pan. "I'm not criticizing the Italian system," he said with a shrug. "But it's not who I am."
As for who Piero Incisa della Rocchetta really iswell, one suspects that his presence in this remote location is in some way an attempt to answer that for himself. There are, of course, the facts: First and inescapably, he is an Incisa della Rocchetta, a noble Piedmontese family whose ancestry can be traced back to the 11th century. Second, though there are no formal titles in his family's business, he is the de facto international representative of (and possibly next in line to oversee) Sassicaia. Third, he is a charming fellowelegant in an unstudied way, philosophically inquisitive, witty. And fourth, he is a winemaker trying to create something profound in Patagonia. Some people in the wine business probably think that also qualifies him as being completely out of his mind.
Often, when people use the phrase the middle of nowhere, they're exaggerating. But the Río Negro region of Patagonia, where Chacra is located, is really, truly in the middle of nowhere. To get to it, you must fly to Buenos Aires, catch a four-hour connecting flight south to the small city of Neuquén, drive for an hour down a narrow highway past fruit stands, scruffy-looking casinos and more than one bored-looking prostitute waiting for an interested trucker. Then you take a left onto an unmarked road, drive another half hour over gravel and dirt roads and get out. What's there? Not much. The Río Negro itself; the narrow corridor of fertile land on either side of the river, which the English irrigated in the 1820s; the arid edges of the valley, lifting up to dune-colored, mesa-like cliffs; and then, as Piero calls the desolate scrubland beyond, "2,000 kilometers of nothing."
That morning we had a simple breakfast, eggs baked en cocotte. It's an excellent and easy way of cooking eggs; they end up just about perfect for dipping toast into. Afterward, we went for a walk through his vineyards. In the poplarsplanted throughout Río Negro because they grow extraordinarily fast and block the windflocks of yellow-headed parrots chattered maniacally at one another. The light was brilliant: Patagonia is so far south that the sun's luminosity gives the trees a knifelike edge against the sky. It is not, to put it mildly, an easy place to make wine. There's always wind, which, in September, can reach 80 miles per hour. Unseasonable frost can wipe out whole crops. Plus there are the man-made problems: "The power goes out, the water goes out, they change the lawsyou must be very persistent," Piero said. Not long ago, he said, an English entrepreneur bought vineyards near here. He struggled along for a year and finally left, right in the middle of harvestpacked up and drove off. Didn't even bother to lock the doors. The workers had no idea what to do. The wine died in the tanks. "He disappeared," Piero said philosophically. "He just couldn't take it anymore."
But not everyone gives up. In fact, since 2000 or so, Patagonia has become home to several new wineries, though most of them produce affordable, basic reds rather than what Piero would call "wines of consequence, wines that stimulate your soul."
One exception is Bodega Noemía, a specialist in old-vine Malbec, owned by Piero's cousin Noemi Marone Cinzano. That evening, we headed there for dinner. Noemi is a countess, a Cinzano on one side and an Agnelli on the other; visiting her were two friends, Elisabetta Foradori of the Foradori estate in Italy's Alto Adige and Piero's and Noemi's cousin Laura di Collobiano, who co-owns Tenuta di Valgiano in Tuscany. The concentration of stupendously blue-blooded Italians in this particular corner of the Argentinean boondocks was, for that night at least, bizarrely high.
As we stood in the dusk drinking a juicy Malbec rosé and snacking on a crisp tuna, tomato and aioli pizza, Piero recounted his first intimation that Patagonia might be a great Pinot Noir region. It was in 2002, when he tasted a wine from the Humberto Canale winery, the oldest one in Río Negro. Piero recalled, "I fell in love with the DNA of that wine. It was not so much that particular wine, but the potential you could sense in it."
It is clear, though, that Piero doesn't just love Patagonia's potential. He also loves the Sisyphean nature of making wine here. Like any challenge, it's a way of proving oneself. Sassicaia's shadow is substantial. Making Pinot Noir in Patagoniapotentially a world-class Pinot Noir, a variety no one would have expected in a place where no one would have thought it possiblewould certainly silence any doubters.
I mentioned something about the similarities between Piero's ambitions here in Patagonia and those that drove his grandfather and uncle to create Sassicaia. Piero responded with a wry nod. "Yes," he said. "And the funny thing isI get goose bumps just thinking about itI never noticed that until other people started pointing it out."
Patagonia Wine: Value Picks
2009 Humberto Canale Estate Malbec ($10)
A berry-rich red, it's from Patagonia's oldest winery.
2008 Bodega del Fin del Mundo Postales Malbec ($11)
A huge estate in the Neuquén region makes this earthy red wine.
2009 Jelu Pinot Noir ($15)
Juicy and tart, this is a fine Pinot value.
2007 Bodega Chacra Barda ($20)
This bright Pinot comes from Piero Incisa's youngest vines.
2007 Bodega Noemía A Lisa Patagonia ($23)
A small amount of Merlot adds richness to this spicy Malbec.