2018 Coenobium, 2018 Ruscum, and 2018 Benedic
It’s difficult to believe that we are preparing to receive our fourteenth vintage from the sisters of Monastero Suore Cistercensi. Led by Adriana and Fabiola (pictured left), this convent of 70 Cistercian nuns has been organically farming their five hectares of vines in Vitorchiano, Lazio, since the early nineties, but it wasn’t until the legendary Giampiero Bea began advising them in the early 2000s that their wines gained a larger audience. Today, a ravenous US audience eagerly awaits each new release of “the nun wine,” and we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant cannot even come close to satisfying the huge demand. Even before Giampiero began helping them gently refine their approach and commercialize their wines—only to the US and Japan, it should be noted—he was struck by the frankness of a white wine produced with almost no technology. In a region rife with highly controlled, highly sulfured concoctions, here was a wine of real character, an unadorned expression of healthy grapes grown in a fascinating volcanic-soiled terroir. Each time we visit with the sisters, we are amazed by their warmth of spirit, their serene energy, and the shockingly spartan nature of their operation. The “winery” is nothing more than a toolshed packed to the gills with old steel tanks, fiberglass containers of various sizes, and glass demijohns tucked here and there—proving yet again that it takes the barest minimum to produce a wine of character and truth. We are excited to receive a trio of 2018s from the sisters, which will reach our shores around the second week of January.
The 2017 Coenobium caused quite a stir, as it ended up—in true non-interventionist fashion—taking on a sparkle in the bottle! While many drinkers enjoyed this accidental trait, and while the wine was indeed delicious, Coenobium is intended to be a still wine, and the incoming 2018 is assuredly lacking in bubbles. The wine is a blend of Trebbiano, Verdicchio, and Malvasia, harvested together and co-fermented without added yeasts or temperature stabilization. It is aged on its fine lees in steel and fiberglass tanks, and bottled just before the next harvest without fining or filtering. The 2018 growing season here was warm and solar, and this vintage of Coenobium displays notable breadth—yet it is muscular and chiseled rather than corpulent. Furthermore, the 2018 spotlights Vitorchiano’s volcanic soils in a more direct manner than usual, with a somber smoke-iron interplay underpinning the classic Coenobium notes of green apple, fennel frond, and honey.
An alternate lens into the nuns’ terroir, Ruscum comes from the same vineyards and the same harvest as Coenobium, but its juice spends in excess of two weeks in contact with the skins. If Coenobium is a wine of autumn, then Ruscum is its winter sibling—always richer and more substantial, though the degree of difference between the two changes markedly from vintage to vintage. Interestingly, in 2018, Ruscum is relatively elegant in comparison with Coenobium despite its warm-vintage origins, with remarkably supple tannins and a brightness at its core. Notes of apricot jam, white pepper, grapefruit rind, and gunflint frame a concentrated, almost oily-textured palate, and a zesty acidity contributes to the wine’s overarching sense of friendliness.
The sisters produce a very small amount of red wine: a blend of roughly equal parts Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo, augmented for the first time in 2018 with a splash of Merlot from a newly planted site near their historical holdings. Despite a two-week maceration, Benedic is always a pale-colored, translucent wine that more than makes up for in charm what it lacks in power. The 2018, owing to the ripeness of the vintage, offers more color than usual as well as a bit more palate density, but it remains as easygoing as ever. An appealing hint of balsamic on the nose underlines the link between the nuns and Bea and speaks to the wine’s lack of manipulation, and the palate offers macerated cherries, black tea, and an intriguing spice element vaguely reminiscent of red chilies. Note: Benedic performs best when served around cellar temperature, which emphasizes its innate freshness.