For Rosenthal Wine Merchant’s longtime clients, the wines of Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea likely need no introduction.
Since the mid-1980s, the bold, unpolished, yet intellectually stimulating and singular wines from this beautiful family farm in Montefalco, Umbria, have delighted and challenged a steadily growing fan base in the United States. Now, each new series of releases is eagerly anticipated and tightly allocated. Paolo’s son, Giampiero, the restless mastermind behind all of the family’s vinous endeavors, is a true visionary—a man who has consciously been making wines as naturally and ethically responsible as he can, and long before such things were in fashion. (In fact, along with Teobaldo Cappellano in Barolo, Giampiero was one of the founders of the ViniVeri organization, and he remains its president to this day.) Despite having visited Bea scores of times over the many years of our partnership, we always come away from a visit with Giampiero having learned something. It helps that Giampiero himself is always taking on new projects, and he is a man who can spend as much time ruminating on an ancient strain of wheat he is attempting to revive as he can on the weather conditions of the most recent vintage. And the wines spend so long aging before they’re bottled—notice that we are just now releasing the 2011s—that simply tracking each wine during its long evolution is a lesson in itself. Like few growers anywhere in the world, Giampiero combines an experimental streak with an innate trust in nature, and his faith in the quality of his fruit is unshakeable and absolute. Like the greatest wines in the world, his creations are both deeply expressive of terroir and ineffably personal—they could be made nowhere else, but they could also be produced by no one else.
The 2011 vintage in Umbria was a scorcher, with temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit for a brief spell during summer’s apex. Giampiero told us of fruit whose skins had begun slightly to shrivel in the face of such solar intensity, and certainly it was a challenge to combat surmaturite in the vineyards. However, Bea has a history of performing extremely well in hot vintages, as proven by his jaw-dropping 2007s and 2005s, and these 2011s are indeed among the most arresting and lively wines we have experienced in our long history together. Bea is justly lauded for producing the most nuanced, layered, energetic renditions of the thick-skinned, difficult Sagrantino in existence, but his Sangiovese-driven wines in 2011 easily equal the Sagrantinos in power and depth. Furthermore, while folks unfailingly line up for his red wines, don’t forget that Giampiero was one of the earliest growers to revive the ancient practice of employing extended skin macerations for white wines in order to produce them in a more natural and visceral fashion—and the 2011 “Arboreus” is easily the most incredible white wine he has ever produced. The wines below will reach our shores around the 20th of March.
2011 “Arboreus” Umbria Bianco
One of the early success stories in the modern-day revival of skin-macerated white wines, Bea’s legendary “Arboreus” originates from exceedingly old Trebbiano Spoletino vines (up to 130 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 2011, 22 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. This 2011—which spent almost five years in tank without temperature stabilization—is a tour de force, undoubtedly the most thrilling “Arboreus” we’ve yet seen. Its wildly expressive nose of freshly shaved white truffles, veal stock, white pepper, and cardamom is almost shocking in its boldness, enveloping the taster in layers of aromatic intensity. On the palate, a sense of non-confected richness belies the warmth of the vintage, yet there is neither alcoholic heat nor flab—just power. Layers of flavor, both intense and mellow, unfold on the palate, combining savory saline elements with fruit in many forms: fresh, baked, preserved, and candied, all underpinned by an intense spiciness. Few wines of any color or methodology achieve this level of wild majesty, and “Arboreus” must be served no cooler than cellar temperature to appreciate its full spectrum of aromas and flavors.
2014 “Lapideus” Umbria Bianco
Giampiero acquired a parcel of 80-year-old Trebbiano Spoletino in the town of Pigge di Trevi several years back, and thus with this 2014 we have an exciting new addition to the Bea lineup. Arising from a cooler microclimate than the “Arboreus” above, “Lapideus” spent a lengthy 35 days on it skins after pressing, followed by 210 additional days on the gross lees—a similar vinification to “Arboreus,” yet one that yielded entirely different results. Though no less deeply amber in its appearance, “Lapideus” has a leaner, racier carriage than the broad-shouldered “Arboreus,” with more filigree, a less overwhelmingly intense nose of apricots, cloves, and candied ginger. If “Arboreus” is a sea to swim in, “Lapideus” is a rocket to ride, emphasizing drive and lift over layered density. It is still a wine of impressive power, especially given its modest 12% alcohol, but the fruit here is more direct, pure, and foregrounded. So often the so-called “orange wines” seem to stand alone, iconoclastic creations that defy fine-tuned peer-group comparisons and revel in their singular personalities. Even the discourse that surrounds them tends to treat them more as wines of technique than wines of terroir. Thus, it is fascinating to experience the same grape variety given roughly the same treatment by the same grower, whereby the differences in the wines are largely driven by the differences in their underlying places of origin. The challenging 2014 growing season yielded a mere 1800 bottles of this wine.
2011 “San Valentino” Umbria Rosso
Bea’s red wines in the 2011 vintage are explosively intense, and the never-exactly-demure “San Valentino” delivers even more firepower and gutsiness than usual. During our last visit, Giampiero recounted a meeting with the famous Giuseppe Quintarelli, who told him that a proper maceration requires a minimum of two months—the first for extraction, and the second for elegance (the seeds apparently eat away chemically at the tannins’ rougher edges during this period)—and indeed this 2011 “San Valentino” spent a full 60 days on its skins. Well-balanced despite its 15% alcohol, its exuberant nose is a maelstrom of Indian spice, black fruits, and sandalwood, with a subtle yet crucial note of volatility—a classic Bea signature—adding lift to the primordial funk. Despite its richness, the palate is kinetic with plenty of acidity and a real sense of energy to the formidable tannins. This is a wine of controlled chaos, an unabashedly wild creation borne of risk and patience, and none of its many historical fans should find it anything less than stupendous. The blend in 2011 is 70% Sangiovese, with 15% each Sagrantino and Montepulciano.
2011 “Pipparello” Montefalco Rosso Riserva
Comprising 60% Sangiovese, 25% Montepulciano, and 15% Sagrantino, the 2011 “Pipparello” underwent a 56-day maceration, followed by a full four years of elevage—the first two in non-temperature controlled steel, the last two in enormous Slavonian oak casks. Similarly large-scaled as the “San Valentino” above, “Pipparello” is more overwhelmingly brooding, and even more intense in its concentration. The glowering, ultra-savory nose is a thick swamp of camphor, black olives, fresh tar, and sandalwood, with pretty high-toned spices lurking in the background. Like “San Valentino,” its palate is arrestingly dense, yet it carries an incredible amount of energy given its overall disposition—a study in opposing forces that contributes welcome tension. This is a rough-and-tumble, wholly uncompromising wine without a polite bone in its body, yet it still manages to be erudite and nuanced—an embodiment of the spirit of the Bea style at its most extreme.
2011 “Rosso de Veo” Umbria Rosso
Compared to the bestial “Pipparello” above, the pure-Sagrantino 2011 “Rosso de Veo” is more restrained, with a greater sense of freshness and a more pronounced purity of fruit—not that it’s at all debonair, it has simply attended an etiquette class or two. On the nose, the fruit veers more toward deep red than black, with ripe cherries offering lusciousness and lift. There are still plenty of earthbound elements here—fresh pipe tobacco, black truffles, liberal amounts of exotic spice—but the overall impression is friendlier and less savage. On the palate, the structure actually comes across as more authoritarian at the moment, perhaps because there are fewer wild elements swirling around to distract from it, but also undoubtedly due to the grape variety’s inherent tannic ferocity. Still, it carries its size with (dare we say) grace, and this 2011 is an especially deep and detailed version of “Rosso de Veo.”
2011 “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. As one might expect given the power of the 2011 vintage, this wine approximates a cosmic event—neutron-star-dense, with a brooding interweaving of elements that seem to have its own gravity field yet bristles with explosive energy. On the nose, one feels the presence of the whole plant and the earth in which it grows: savory, complex fruits both fresh and dried, all laced with a balsamic undertone; black licorice and warm spice cake; and stem-influenced, wispy, almost herbal notes which counterbalance the wine’s bottomless depth. Somehow, amidst all of this, a sense of restraint emerges—shocking to behold in a wine that exceeds 15% alcohol, but Bea’s wines are always rife with happy contradictions. This is a bold, riotous, flashy vintage of “Pagliaro” that will surely stun all those who cross its path.
2007 Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito
Bea’s super-rare and mind-bendingly complex passito 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, with no artificial temperature control and no additions whatsoever. 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 pure Sagrantino essence: spice cake, cured tobacco leaves, peppery black fruits, old leather, and a deep sense of umami. Always released after a significant amount of aging (thereby increasing its already stunning complexity), it’s an idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping wine that feels like a message from another era.
IN STOCK NOW:
2015 “Santa Chiara” Umbria Bianco
Another longstanding skin-contact favorite in the Bea lineup, “Santa Chiara” is the easygoing younger brother of the more inward and serious “Arboreus.” Produced from equal parts Grechetto, Garganega, Malvasia, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, from a small parcel in the great “Pagliaro” vineyard, it still spends several weeks on its skins, yet with a briefer elevage in steel. This 2015 is juicy and ripe, with beguiling aromas that lean toward the floral and spicy (as opposed to the more somber and earth-driven aromatics of “Arboreus”). It displays a bold tannic presence, but the palate is more delineated and perkier than that of the “Arboreus,” with vivid, crunchy pit fruits and lurking mineral heft. Like Bea’s peerless red wines, “Santa Chiara” is a wine of opposing forces, both exuberant and firm, both challenging and deeply delicious.