Giampaolo Chiettini, consultant winemaker at Avignonesi, is not your typical star-winemaker, although he has helped several important wineries achieve major success with their wines. He doesn’t flaunt a family crest, promote his name as if it were a brand, wear a tailor-made suit or drive a snazzy car. Rather, his boots often covered with mud and the thick sweaters he wears under his parka attest that he’s not scared to get his hands dirty. But behind his air of an eternal student, Giampaolo is unquestionably a super-pro. He may not have the look but he’s got the touch.
I met Giampaolo over lunch in Montepulciano. He jumped right in and started telling me his life story.
‘I was born in the mid-sixties in a remote mountain village in Trento and started studying enology because my father made wine. But I honestly had no idea that there was so much culture - philosophy, history and literature - in winemaking until I moved to Tuscany after college. I remember one day at school, my teacher asked who wanted to go to Tuscany to learn about wine…and I was the only one to raise my hand.
That decision - that raised hand! - led to my first job as a cellar rat at Isole e Olena. Owner and winemaker Paolo de Marchi took me in and trained me. I stayed there for a total of 8.5 years in two different segments. Whenever someone came to the winery to visit, we’d stop our activities and go and talk to them, answer their questions, explain what we were doing, and why. Thanks to the support I had from another winery, I started visiting wineries around the world. The first place I went was California: I took a case of wine with me and nothing else! I met people and talked, listened and learned.’
As he ate his pici with duck sauce and I my ribollita soup, both of us enjoying a Nobile, he explained his philosophy - and specifically in relation to Avignonesi.
‘Big egos and winemaking are not good bedfellows. It’s like in drama, ham actors may have some success, but in the long run they tire the audience. Stella Adler, the acclaimed acting teacher, when talking about actors unknowingly gave a very modern definition of a winemaker: ‘…they should conjure up emotions not by using their own personal memories, but by using the scene’s given circumstances…’ We really are interpreters of vines, conduits of expression, conductors of a score whose music is the vintage and the orchestra is the terroir. Humility (like the Latin word humus) is a winemaker’s principal virtue; as it keeps him in permanent touch with what happens in the vineyards.’
For a winery like Avignonesi, whose motto is “Terroir speaks; we listen,” Chiettini is the virtuoso conductor who brings the parts – vintage, terroir, grapes, vintner, dream and reality - together.
‘I believe it is vital to understand the potential: of the terroir, the soil, the grapes, the vintner and the consumer’s expectations. When I work with someone, I try to understand what they want as much as I need to see what the soil, the vintage, the vines, their leaves and the fruit are telling me. I spend as much time as I possibly can in the vineyards observing and examining the plants, and hours in the winery doing tastings. Talking to the producer and understanding their perspective is equally as important.
I understood from the start that Virginie Saverys wanted to make high quality wines, and that is why I accepted to work with her. Over time, we have gotten to know each other, we have a running dialogue about the identities of each of the wines. She understands the importance of vinifying the parcels separately - in fact, after three months of tastings, we finally decided the blend of Sangiovese for our 2012 Grandi Annate, which will be bottled this spring.’
Giampaolo talks fast, his ideas running ahead. He talked about wood, explaining how it should highlight the wine’s qualities without masking its nature. We went on about his travels around the world, his family in Florence, his favorite wines. Then came our second course: he digs into his tripe and I savor a fillet of beef. He apologizes for jumping from one idea to the next, but it all makes perfect sense. He’s giving me a complete picture of his role, of how he sees himself.
‘When vintners have a dream, I try and help them achieve it. But I always tell them that it is not just about ideas: it’s about sales too. It doesn’t make sense to make a so-called ideal wine that nobody drinks in the end. In this, Virginie is a powerhouse. Her partner, Max, oversees the business side so that she can focus on the ideas in the wine… The decision to go for 100% Sangiovese Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was a courageous one, even if it distanced Avignonesi apart from the general practice of blending other varietals into the Nobile.
It is pleasant to hear the band, but sometimes you just aspire for more closeness with the music and want to listen to the keyboard, especially when the soloist is Nobile Sangiovese from Montepulciano: the Tuscan star.’
Chiettini’s words, like his manner, are noble and sincere. We finish our lunch and say goodbye. As he drives back to Florence and his family, I can imagine no better person to conduct Avignonesi’s complex orchestra than Giampaolo Chiettini.
Estate Manager, Avignonesi