Thursday, May 15, 2003
THERE SEEMED to be one less chicken in the yard than there had been in the morning, but my mind was too satisfied to think of much else besides the beautiful afternoon. We had just finished a wonderful lunch at Oasi degli Angeli, an agriturismo and home to Kurni, a wine rapidly becoming the most famous wine in Marche and one of the most collectable wines in Italy.
Eleonora Rossi and Marco Casolanetti are Oasi degli Angeli and Kurni. They are the creators of the wine, food, and sensations that surround this hidden spot in the often ignored Marche region. The Marche is an extremely beautiful region on the Adriatic Sea with Romagna to the north and Abruzzo to the south.
Oasi degli Angeli, located just outside of Cupra Marittima, is an estate that dates back three generations when the great-grandfather of Eleonora created a small farm in the Marche dedicated to the growing of grapes, olives, fruits trees, and vegetables. In the middle of the 1990's Eleonora and Marco, her companion in life and a winemaker, decided to dedicate the farm to the cultivation of wine grapes and to make an agriturismo (a small guest-house in the countryside) out of the family estate. They chose to call their wine Kurni, nickname of the family of Eleonora. Although Kurni has been released only four times, they have already been awarded the prestigious Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), three times by the Gambero Rosso, their top award, and barely missed a fourth in the difficult 1999 vintage. The Gambero Rosso will have to come out with 'four glasses' award to keep up with the exceptional Oasi degli Angeli Kurni as Marco and Eleonora continually strive to improve their creation.
When I asked Marco and Eleonora what they thought the difference was between Oasi degli Angeli and other estates, they enthusiastically and spontaneously answered: "Us!" I agree with them.
Marco and Eleonora bring a unique level of passion and energy to their work and the results of this intensity are clear to see -- and to taste. Eleonora directs her energy to the kitchen and Marco to the winery, but the results of their partnership creates a symbiosis that brings the food, the wine, and the hospitality to peak levels.
The small osteria at Oasi degli Angeli offers the best the estate can grow, all prepared with great care and creativity by Eleonora. This is country food prepared at a very high level with exceptional ingredients. A simple chicken roasted with fresh picked herbs makes you think you have never before tasted chicken. Marco has assembled a wine list that not only offers the best of Marche, but wines from cutting-edge winemakers from all over Italy. The room may be rustic, but the shelves filled with Riedel crystal alert you to the pleasures soon to arrive at your table. Four lovely rooms await those who decide that one meal is not enough.
The Marche has been ignored by generations of wine lovers as a region that only produces a simple white wine, in a fish-shaped bottled, called Verdicchio. Like so many forgotten Italian wine regions, however, the Marche is making a strong comeback, with many small producers emerging to make some excellent wines, both red and white.
Reds are leading the way with fine examples of montepulciano and sangiovese blends being produced in Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno. In Rosso Piceno, Saladini Pilastri is producing some of the best values in Italy with single vineyard wines, Piediprato and Monteprandone, which are dominated by montepulciano. Sangiovese in Marche can be thin and sharp, but in blends dominated by the powerful montepulciano the tart Marche sangiovese brings a refreshing liveliness. Even in the much-maligned Verdicchio there are producers like Villa Bucci making extraordinary wines.
Kurni is on a whole different level of being. A garage wine in the true sense, the 1.4 hectare vineyard yields a miserly 4,000 bottles in a good vintage. Kurni is produced from 100% montepulciano with the vines averaging over 35 years of age, grown at an altitude of 80 to 100 meters above sea level, with a sun-bathed southern exposure. The soils here are calcareous with clay and sand. Marco has cut yields to brutally low levels and as a result these vines yield grapes with concentrated and powerful flavors unrivaled in Marche or in any other montepulciano.
Then Mad Marco the Winemaker takes over in the winery, making wine in a way that can only be calculated to drive his accountant insane. Marco reduces the yields further by taking a small percentage of his few remaining grapes and makes them in a passito fashion much like they do when making Amarone. The rest of the wine is given a long maceration and fermentation in stainless steel vats (approximately 40 days) at a temperature of about 29 degrees centigrade. After fermentation the wine goes into 100% brand-new 224-liter French-oak barrels for 9 months. Then, just to be sure, after 9 months all the wine is racked into a completely new set of 100% brand-new 224-liter French-oak barrels for another 9 months. That's right, all new barrels -- twice. "It's not for the oak flavors, but for the oxygen," says Marco, referring to the fact that montepulciano needs to be oxygenated well to open up and develop finesse. After another four months of bottle age, Kurni is ready for sale.
Selling the wine is the least of Marco's problems, as Kurni has become the darling of the European wine press and demand far outdistances the 4,000 bottles he lets escape from the vines.
Kurni is a majestic, powerful wine most decidedly in the modern camp of Italian winemaking. It is a dark ruby-purple with a rich bouquet redolent of ripe wild berries, sweet vanilla oak, and the rugged earthiness of montepulciano. It is a mouthful of a wine, but the intense flavors are carried wonderfully by a zesty acidity. Drinking Kurni is both a profound and a hedonistic experience -- just like Marco and Eleonora.
As we walk off our lunch with a stroll through the vineyard, my mind goes back to that missing chicken. I wonder where she went?