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A Very Particular Pergola

Vinnie and I were heading for the small town of Pergola in the Marche, a region to the east of the Apennine Mountains. As always, we were on the hunt for artisan wines but we wanted to know what else there was to see in the town. In fact, there is something very rare and interesting on display there that gives us a small glimpse into life in the Roman Empire, namely a group of four gilt bronze statues that escaped being melted down.

There are so many facets to the Empire and one that is easy to overlook is the power of the economy of this huge area, linked by road and naval connections that enabled trade over great distances. The Romans produced bronze in Cornwall that was used all over the Empire for a huge variety of uses, including sculptures. After the collapse of the Empire there was no longer access to supplies of bronze and neither was there the wealth to expend on statuary so existing statues were melted down for other uses and the knowledge of how to cast bronze statues was lost. In fact, it was not until the 15th century in Renaissance Florence, with its great wealth, that the art of casting bronze statuary was rediscovered.


However, we were in Pergola to find out about the local Pergola DOC wines. In the past, the local grape used for this wine was called Vernaccia di Pergola but it has now been identified as a clone of Aleatico. The name Vernaccia surfaces in other places such as San Gimignano but from its Latin root all it really means is local; think of the English word, vernacular. The Aleatico also appears in other parts of Italy; for example, on the other side of the Apennines in northern Lazio there is the DOC Aleatico di Gradoli. This is a grape that is often associated with sweeter dessert wines produced using the appassimento technique. But to explore what makes Pergola wines special we visited the Fattoria Villa Ligi winery.


A painting by a friend of Stefano's - it hangs in the sales room

The Tonelli family have been running the business for four generations - it dates back to 1912 - and we were shown around by Stefano. The enterprise moved from Pergola itself to its current site, just outside the town, in 1962 and a tour of the winery is like a trip through time - the original cement tanks from that date are still there. 1970 was a bad time for the local area as a big employer, the sulphur mines, closed and the local economy was badly hit. Stefano also characterises this as a terrible period for Italian wine nationally, finally culminating in the methanol adulteration scandal of 1986.


To keep the Fattoria Villa Ligi business alive and ensure the survival of his family, Stefano’s father, Francesco, worked as a technology teacher for 22 years whilst his mother taught biology - after hours, they tended to their vines. To understand why they went to such lengths, it is necessary to understand the attachment that Italians feel for the land and their traditions. In Italy, the family is very important and there is always a sense of commitment, almost debt, to one's progenitors.

The depth of this commitment can run very deep - by 1985 there were only two vineyards left with the Vernaccia di Pergola vines but that did not prevent Stefano’s father, Francesco, from starting a campaign in 1987 to have the Pergola wines awarded DOC status. Surprisingly, there was a lot of resistance from certain segments, and when an Italian bureaucrat doesn’t want to do something he can produce a million reasons as to why it cannot be done. However, Francesco was not going to give up and in 2005, eighteen years later, he finally succeeded in his quest. Today, the Tonellis produce around 50,000 bottles per year from 31 hectares of vines and, sitting on the patio in front of the sales area, we tasted the fruits of their labours.


The first one on offer was the 2020 Vernaculum, 100% Aleatico, with a bright ruby red colour. It is macerated and fermented in stainless steel before spending six months maturing in cement tanks and a final two to three months in the bottle. The bouquet is fruity, full of blackberries and raspberries and in the mouth it is light, bright, and acidic with a taste of cherries. This should pair well with meaty pasta dishes, ragu, or sausages.


Grifoglietto, the second wine we tasted, is made from grapes from the oldest part of the estate and is a Pergola Aleatico Superiore. The vines are more than 60 years old and we sampled the 2017. After a long maceration this wine spends 10 to 12 months in large oak botti before bottling. A bright ruby colour, on the nose it is rich with fruit and hints of vanilla. On the palate it has a bright acidity and the tannins are low, a characteristic of the grape, but it still has ageing potential. This would be a wine to pair with roast beef.


Fattoria Villa Ligi produces Fiori which is a rosé - or, in Italian, rosato - with a twist. Using cryo maceration to quickly extract the colour from the Aleatico grape over a very brief period of three to four hours, the wine is then fermented in steel before spending four months in cement tanks, unusually for a rosato, on the lees. On the nose there are strawberries and tropical fruits but it is on the palate where the surprise comes. Rosato wines can be a little bland but Fiori is surprisingly acidic that will make it a partner for the stronger flavours of cold cuts or dishes with mushrooms or truffles.

Pergola DOC wines are still very much a rarity; in 2019 there were only six hectares of vines in production and the survival of this variety is very much down to the doggedness of the Tonelli family. I think wine lovers everywhere should raise a glass to them for their dedication to the cause.

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