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The Wine Wizard

Riccardo Cotarella, nicknamed "the Wizard," is the winemaker of themoment both at home in Italy and, believe it or not, in France.

French enologists have been traveling to Italy for decades in an effort to refine the winemaking manners of their neighbors to the south. But an Italian enologist in Bordeaux? Isn't this teaching the fish how to swim?

Certainly, Riccardo Cotarella knows what he's up against. As I was soon to learn, he has served as enologist for wineries all over Italy, and his own winery in Umbria is the talk of international circles. If the French, like the rest of the world, are falling in love with Italy, then the daring and zealous Cotarella--Il Mago (the Wizard), as he's called--might be just what they need to cast a rescuing Italian light upon certain faded, forgotten châteaus. The proprietor of Château Tourans in Saint-Emilion and Château Cap de Rive in Côtes de Castillon suffers from such an acute case of Italian fever that he's bypassed the obvious French consultant choices (Michel Rolland would probably head the list) in favor of Riccardo Cotarella.

"The whole idea [of consulting in France] makes me a bit nervous," Cotarella told me. With his outsize glasses and the graying hair he wears long over the ears, he could be a poet-professor or a country doctor--a G.P. who would quickly gain your confidence. "Not that I don't feel up to the job," he quickly adds. "It's a question of how to manage my life. I'm a family man, after all." After tasting a barrel sample of Cotarella's first promising effort, the dark, full-bodied 1999 Caprice d'Angélique from Château Cap de Rive, I can confidently say that his efforts are paying off.

But the bulk of Il Mago's business is still in his native Italy. Generous and cordial, he found time to show me around his young Umbrian estate, Falesco, even though later that same day he would be presenting his wines to the keeper of the Vatican cellars--not surprising, as the Popes have been drinking Umbrian wines since Saint Peter's was an unimproved rock.

Cotarella's portfolio as an enologist includes some of the hottest new Italian stars: Campoleone, from Lamborghini in Umbria; Terra di Lavoro, from Galardi in Campania; and Don Antonio, from Morgante in Sicily. But the wines of Falesco, the business he co-owns with his brother, Renzo, are born of a brighter gleam in his eyes.

Cotarella is famous for powerful red wines, but his early notoriety came from whites. "White wine is about to stage a comeback," he told me. "Sure, reds are the fashion now, but fashions change." His whites are the result of long years of trial and error, driven by his interest in reviving, before it's too late, the ancient grapes that have been grown in Umbria since Roman times. "The whole world has Chardonnay and Sauvignon," he said, "but we have Roscetto." There was a touch of irony in his tone as he pronounced, emphatically, the word Roscetto, as if to say, "I know you think I'm crazy!"

A thick-skinned grape that forms compact bunches, Roscetto turns vaguely red as it ripens (but the wine is white). Cotarella worked for several years developing the desired clones, and the world's first serious 100 percent Roscetto will soon be making its debut from Falesco under the name Ferentano. Full-bodied and ambitious, the 1998 Ferentano offers unique aromas: scented geranium, wild fennel seed, ripe loquat and buttered toast.

Driving across the highlands to the east of Orvieto, Cotarella suddenly pulled over to the side of the road to show me a newly posted and cordoned vineyard. "This is my research project," he explained, "four acres of red grapes, just about every variety known." This extraordinary little vineyard encapsulates his winemaking philosophy. "We have to search," he said. "If I weren't someone who looked far and wide, I'd still be making the boring little wines my ancestors made. Now I'm making first-class wines and doing it in the most unlikely places imaginable, in Campania and in Sicily. I'm working with Italy the way the Americans once did with their own unexplored ground."

Cotarella took me to the Falesco aging cellars. No buses full of rubbernecking eno-tourists will ever make their way to this industrial enclave near Montefiascone; one of the winery's neighbors is a car crusher. The trappings of glamour play no part in the sales effort. The wines say it all.

"When a wine has character," Cotarella said as he poured us both a generous taste of Falesco's Vitiano, "it's an open book. An experienced taster should easily identify its grape content, its region of production, even its producer." And this Umbrian wine offers a set of flavors very different from those of a Tuscan wine of the same blend. Vitiano, a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese, is made to be drunk young. The 1999 is stunning, dark and multilayered--and it sells for under $10.

But the champion of Falesco's stable of reds is Montiano. I tasted the 1998. Unrefined, unfiltered and 100 percent Merlot, this is a wine that expresses its origins to the maximum. At once Italian and international in style, it's in a league with the best Merlots made anywhere.

With my nose in a grand cru glass of Montiano, I thought about the roadside wildflowers I'd just admired as Cotarella and I toured one of his vineyards near Castiglione in Teverina. The blooming thistles and malva, the poppies and wild marjoram--they were all part of Montiano's big, distinctive bouquet. "How do you think the Pope will take to this?" I asked.

"I think he'll prefer my Poggio dei Gelsi Vendemmia Tardiva," Cotarella said, referring to his honey-rich dessert wine. I tasted its sweet godliness and understood. What could be better suited for a papal Mass than a wine blessed by Riccardo Cotarella?

Paul Gervais is the author of, most recently, A Garden in Lucca (Hyperion).

Published October 2000
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