Thirty years ago, a regular customer at the Rosenthal Wine Merchant retail shop presented Neal a bottle of 1985 Montefalco Rosso Riserva from Paolo Bea—a wine he had brought back in his luggage because he wanted so much to share it with him. Neal, no stranger to that sort of pitch, wasn’t expecting much, but the bottle so ignited his imagination that he built in a trip to Umbria a few weeks down the road to make the acquaintance of Giampiero, Paolo’s young son.
The rest, as they say, is history, and Giampiero—both through his own deeply personal wines and his wide-ranging influence—has become a cornerstone of our family of growers. Building on the work of his father—a through-and-through farmer whose Umbrian dialect is so thick as to be nearly incomprehensible to outsiders—Giampiero realized what made Paolo’s wines so special and built a philosophy around it. In a series of decades that saw Italian winegrowers embracing modern technology whole-hog, Giampiero—as co-founder of the ViniVeri (“Real Wine”) group—advocated for respectful vineyard work, biodiversity, a de-emphasis on technology in the cellar, non-engagement with professional critics, and an overall trust in old agrarian wisdom.
Thankfully, these principles have become far more commonplace today than they were thirty years prior, but Bea’s wines remain singular—boisterous, unabashedly wild expressions of their undulating, sun-drenched hills of origin, each new vintage of which is eagerly anticipated by a legion of loyal clients. Giampiero’s wines always proudly display their vintage, and he pointedly resists striving for a consistent “product” from year to year: there is no green harvesting and no excessive sorting, as he wants each wine to reflect the entire season’s crop and not just a choice section; fermentations begin and end without being forced in either direction, thus varying in duration notably from vintage to vintage; and the wines are bottled when they’re deemed ready to be rather than according to some schedule. There is no regulation of temperature, no pumping, no fining, and no filtering. Giampiero relies on patience, and plenty of it, to clarify his wines, and what is in the bottle is always a full-on reflection of the fruit and the story of the season that birthed it.
We are poised to receive the first of several releases from the 2012 vintage at Bea: “Arboreus,” “San Valentino,” and “Pagliaro” (“Lapideus,” “Rosso de Veo,” and “Pipparello” will be released in early autumn). Like 2011, the 2012 vintage in Montefalco was extraordinarily hot and dry, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit on multiple occasions during summer. Intense hydric stress resulted in a 35% reduction in yields, and Giampiero reported incidents of scorched bunches, as well as phenolic development temporarily halted by heat and lack of water. Still, through these extreme conditions—conditions that seem to be becoming de rigeur as our climate continues its inexorable evolution—Giampiero pulled off a series of wines that, while undeniably large-scaled, display aromatic nuance, textural complexity, and a real sense of place.
2012 “Arboreus” Umbria Bianco
One of the early success stories in the modern-day revival of skin-macerated white wines, Bea’s beloved “Arboreus” originates from exceedingly old Trebbiano vines (up to 150 years of age) in the village of Spoleto, halfway between Bea’s home village of Montefalco and nearby Trevi. A striking instance of non-standard training, these ancient vines wrap themselves around the trunks and branches of trees (hence the wine’s name), growing and ripening high above the ground. Bea picks the fruit quite ripe, and conducts an extended skin maceration (in the case of the 2012, 23 days), after which he leaves the wine on its gross lees for the better part of a year—a technique that nourishes the wine and ensures its ultimate expressive depth, but one which requires supreme confidence in the quality of one’s raw materials. Whereas, the 2011 was lavish and opulent, this 2012 cuts a leaner figure, with a dazzling nose of marzipan, fresh apricot, gunflint, and Indian spices—not a far cry from the coveted and cultish Trebbiano from the Valentini clan in Abruzzo, in fact. The palate is chiseled, markedly tannic (though well-balanced), and driven by resonant acidity, with the marzipan and apricot notes echoing strongly. The 2012 is perhaps the most poised and focused version of this wine we have yet seen, and the fact that it arose from such a challengingly hot vintage is testament to Giampiero’s mastery of craft. “Arboreus” must be served no cooler than cellar temperature to appreciate its full spectrum of aromas and flavors.
2012 “San Valentino” Umbria Rosso
Like the “Arboreus” above, the 2012 “San Valentino” is remarkably poised given its ripe-vintage origins. A blend of 70% Sangiovese with 15% each Sagrantino and Montepulciano, it spent a lengthy 38 days on its skins, and ended up a modest 13.5% alcohol. While Sagrantino even in such a small proportion can sometimes dominate the nose (especially in the wine’s youth), Sangiovese drives the 2012, with a smoky savory note (imagine the most perfect beef bouillon) and a plethora of exotic spices. Giampiero’s refusal to regulate temperature and his predilection for long ageing and minimal sulfur means that his wines sometimes walk the tightrope when it comes to volatile acidity—though only very rarely do they fall off. Indeed, this 2012 displays the barest trace, and one that complements the wine’s density remarkably well. This is a gorgeous, superbly balanced “San Valentino,” and while “velvety” isn’t a part of the Bea adjectival realm, this is strikingly elegant and accessible.
2012 “Pagliaro” Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco
Bea produces perhaps his most renowned wine from pure Sagrantino grown on the prized hilltop site of “Pagliaro,” situated at 1300 feet above sea level in Montefalco proper. In keeping with the wines above, this vintage of “Pagliaro” maintains equilibrium and freshness in the face of its scorching season of origin. Sagrantino’s fruit character can sometimes be midnight-black, but the 2012 hints at cherry liqueur, offering a bit of brightness amidst the usual spicy savagery. An autumnal spirit permeates the wine, with aromas and flavors of fallen leaves, fresh pipe tobacco, and woodsmoke. “Pagliaro” is never light and never polite, but the tannins on this 2012 manage to be digestible and balanced—although there is enough structure to reward some cellaring, to be sure.
IN STOCK NOW:
2007 Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito
Bea’s rare and mind-bendingly complex passito (the traditional method for making Sagrantino di Montefalco, in fact) comes from pure Sagrantino harvested at a high brix level and left to dry on straw mats completely naturally in the upper level of his grand winery. After several months of drying, the bunches are destemmed and crushed, and fermentation skulks along until the sugar levels reach 16% to 18%, at which point an infinitesimal amount of juice is pressed forth from the ultra-shriveled berries. The final product carries around 100 grams per liter of residual sugar and delivers a visceral blast of Sagrantino essence: spice cake, cured tobacco leaves, peppery black fruits, old leather, and a profound sense of umami. Always released after a significant amount of ageing (thereby increasing its already stunning complexity), it’s an idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping wine that feels like a transmission from another era.