Gaja’s Santa Restituta restoration project fascinated me

This is the first in a series of posts culled from my recent trip to Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. While on the road, I was only able to post short snippets and highlights from my visits. Starting today, and in the weeks that follow (as time permits), I’ll be posting in-depth accounts of my conversations with winemakers and restaurateurs and what I tasted. Thanks for reading…

Above: Can you imagine my delight when I got to tour the Pieve di Santa Restituta restoration site in Tavernelle (Montalcino) a few weeks ago? The white bassi rilievi (bas-reliefs) are possible indications of the presence of a Romanic church on this site, i.e., a pagan temple that was converted and consecrated as a Catholic church in the Middle Ages.

When I tasted with Gaia Gaja back in the spring of this year in Chicago, one of the things I was most curious about was her family’s restoration of the Pieve di Santa Restituta and the church of the parish (pieve) in the Orcia River Valley, where her family makes Brunello di Montalcino.

I first visited the Orcia River Valley in Tuscany (perhaps the most photogenic and photographed swath of this beautiful land) in 1989 and have been fascinated ever since by the medieval hilltop towns and the rich ancient religious traditions that thrive here, like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (in Castelnuovo) or the Madonna di Vitaleta (in San Quirico).

Above: The medieval façade of the Chiesa di Santa Restituta.

The pieve and church of Santa Restituta are particularly remarkable because the site represents an entirely unique and anomalous tradition in the context of the Orcia River Valley: the church is the only one in Tuscany devoted to Santa Restituta, the patron saint of Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples, where Tracie P lived for nearly 5 years before we met.

Since Gaia (the fifth-generation winemaker in one of Itay’s most famous winemaking families) first told me about the church and her family’s restoration project, I’ve also been absorbed by the powerful legend of Santa Restituta. During my recent visit with her in Tuscany, she very generously photocopied an essay entitled “Una madre vegliarda: la Pieve di Santa Restituta (Montalcino)” (“An Old Mother: the Parish of Santa Restituta”)* and published in 1978 in Arezzo by a gentleman named Angelo Tafi, who spent the better part of the second half of the twentieth century documenting the many small parishes that dot the Tuscan countryside. On the plane ride home from Europe, I devoured this wonderful piece of writing, so generously given to me by Gaia.

Above: Many of the relics currently being cataloged in the restoration process date are from the nineteenth century, when this parish was populated by a vibrant community of sharecroppers.

St. Restituta was born in Africa during the rule of Diocletian (284 to 305). She is believed to be one of the Martyrs of Abitina (modern-day Tunisia). When she refused to worship Jupiter, the Romans ordered that she be covered in tar and burned on a boat. Miraculously, her captors’s vessel caught fire and her boat drifted away before they could set it ablaze.

Most scholars believe that her relics were brought to Naples by African Christians who fled persecution in the sixth century. Today, the Cathedral of Naples now stands where the Church of Santa Restituta was established at that time. Ultimately, the relics were transferred to the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia where a church devoted to her still stands.

Above: I don’t know if she planned to do so, but Gaia’s handsome outfit was reminiscent of a nun’s habit that day. The parish and the church have a truly magical aura about them.

Her feast is celebrated in May on the island, where the legend is re-enacted each year in a colorful and widely popular pageant. In the contemporary version of her story, her boat finds its way to the bay of San Montano in Lacco Ameno, where her body is discovered by Lucina, a local matron, who proclaims that a virgin has been delivered by the hand of God. Her cult on the island is so powerful that many families still name their daughters Restituta (as Tracie P can attest!).

No one really knows why the church in Tavernelle was devoted to Santa Restituta, although — as Tafi demonstrates — it’s unlikely that there is a relation to Latium’s homonymous Santa Restituta di Sora. The site was a well established state-owned farming community in Roman times and it’s possible that Neapolitan merchants settled there in the late Middle Ages: anyone who knows the coastal road from Fiumicino airport in Rome to Sant’Angelo in Colle (the southern outpost of Montalcino) will immediately recognize the strategic location of the Pieve di Santa Restituta with relation to Naples.

I simply cannot convey the electric sensation of touring this beautiful property. A team of artisans buzzed around us, delicately chipping away at a stuccoed wall to reveal the classic brown limestone of the Orcia Rivery Valley underneath.

Above: Tafi’s research shows that the Sugarille vineyards were already devoted to the cultivation of grapes by the fifteenth century.

In his research, Tafi discovered that certain parcels were already devoted to viticulture by the fifteenth century. Today, Gaja uses those same growning sites for its flagship Brunello, the vineyard-designated Brunello Sugarille (the vineyard of the cork trees, sugheri in Italian).

Gaja’s vineyards lie adjacent to those of Soldera (who, together with his wines, will be the subject of an upcoming post). Many consider these historic growing sites to be among the best in the appellation. My guess is that centuries of sharecropping ultimately depleted the soil’s nutrients, making the white and brown earth ideal for the cultivation of fine wine grapes (but more on that later).

Above: Gaia poured me a flight of wines that spanned 1996 through 2008.

Of course, I was also there to taste Gaia’s family’s wines and I will not conceal that I was thoroughly impressed by the 2008 Brunello Sugarille (single vineyard) and the 2006 Brunello Rennina (which is sourced from three different vineyards on the estate). As you can see from the color in the image above, the wines were bright and transparent, and I found them to be excellent expressions of Sangiovese Grosso and the Brunello appellation. The red fruit was balanced by good acidity and powerful tannin (still very youthful in the case of the Sugarille) and there was none of the woodiness that I’ve found in earlier vintages of this wine. Here, in this most western subzone, elegance and purity trump the earthier expressions of Sangiovese that you find in the central, southwest, and southeast areas.

In my limited experience with Gaja’s bottlings of Brunello (since I can hardly afford them), I’ve seen an evolution (and I think that Gaia would agree) bringing them more into line with the classic profile of great Brunello. I thought the most recent vintages were great.

But, most of all, I was impressed by this fascinating restoration project, adding yet another destination to the many sites on my list of places to take Tracie P the next time we’re there. Truly exciting stuff for geeks like me!

*The reference to the madre vegliarda is culled from the great nineteenth-century Italian poet Giosué Carducci’s poem “La chiesa di Polenta” (“The Church of Polenta”). The title alone is worthy of a stand-alone blog post but it will have to wait.

Video of Soldera’s vineyards

Above: A shot of Sant’Angelo Colle taken from Il Poggione’s farmhouse at 10:30 a.m., September 15, 2010 (using my Blackberry).

It rained heavily in Tuscany on Monday night while I was in the Maremma (on the coast), although according to accounts from Montalcino, the vineyards in Sant’Angelo in Colle emerged unscathed.

Last night, I slept at Il Poggione’s farmhouse and watched the sun rise: at daybreak, when I went outside to take some photos, it was so chilly that I had to wear my Adidas jacket and cowboy hat.

At 10:30 a.m., as I write this, it’s 61° F. and the weather is fantastic, clear skies and sunshine.

Here’s what it looked like on Sunday, in the vineyards of Gianfranco Soldera, in Santa Restituta, not far from Sant’Angelo, also in the southwestern subzone of the Brunello di Montalcino appellation.