01.03.2016. Best of the Coast
In the hills above the Amalfi Coast, a place called Tramonti is marked on road maps, around halfway between Ravello and the Chiunzi pass that leads over the Lattari mountains towards the Bay of Naples. Ask a local to direct you to the ‘centre’, however, and you’ll be politely informed that there isn’t one – because the town of Tramonti doesn’t actually exist. It’s a loose assemblage of thirteen rural hamlets, each with its own name, that were too small to have separate town halls and so were combined into one comune sparso or ‘spread-out town’.
It’s telling that these exist mostly in Alpine regions of northern Italy. For the area of Tramonti has something distinctly mountainous about it, even though most of its territory is only between 300 and 600 metres above sea level. It’s a place of ancient rural traditions, small vegetable plots and dairy farms, and a climate that is almost always a few degrees cooler than that of the Costiera down below – partly due to the altitude and abundance of greenery, partly due to the wind that funnels down this wide valley to the sea. Tramonti means ‘Among the mountains’ but it’s also related to the Italian name for the cold north wind – la tramontana.
Wine has long been made in these hills. The oldest vines in the Tenuta di San Francesco estate go back over a century. A visit to these magnificently gnarled specimens, trained in shady pergolas amidst chestnut groves, is included in the winery tour that is led personally by the estate’s gregarious owner, Gaetano Bove, who manages to juggle his commitment to the winery he co-owns with three associates with his day job as a veterinarian.
Bove explains that until 2004, grapes from the 18 scattered vineyards that make up the estate were sold to other producers, but in that year the three families behind the company decided to risk going it alone, producing and bottling their own wines under the Tenuta San Francesco label. There’s been a reaction against the planting of international varieties like Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvingnon among Italian winemakers and consumers in recent years, but Tenuta San Francesco’s decision to take a gamble on rare indigenous grapes – what Italians call varietà autoctone – is not a question of fashion. Varieties like Tintore, Aglianico, Piedirosso, Falanghina, Biancolella, Pepella, Ginestra, Biancazita and Biancatenera had always grown around here, and the owners of the winery were confident that with the help of a leading Campanian enologo or winemaker – Carmine Valentino from Avellino – these native grapes were capable of great things.
Six wines are made in most years: a white, red and rosé carrying the D.O.C. Tramonti appellation, perfect for everyday quaffing, and three rather more complex wines. Floral, apply white Per Eva is a single-vineyard blend of Falanghina, Pepella and Ginestra from the estate’s highest vineyards; robustly tannic red 4 Spine blends Tintore, Aglianico and Piedirosso; while another red, the graceful È Iss – which means “It’s him!” in Neapolitan dialect – is a 100% Tintore varietal, deriving from ancient pergola-trained vines that survived the phylloxera outbreak which devastated European wine production from the mid 19th century onwards.
Tenuta San Francesco has come on apace in its relatively short 12-year history, garnering plaudits from Italian and international wine critics, among them the coveted ‘Tre Bicchieri’ award handed out to the 2013 vintage of Per Eva in the 2016 edition of leading Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso – Vini d’Italia. The wine tasting lunches they organise here, based around a seemingly endless array of local specialities cooked by a brigade of village women, have made the place a hit on the Amalfi Coast visitor circuit too. As we left, our critical faculties somewhat befuddled by yet another slug of something called ‘you must try this!’, Gaetano proudly pointed out the framed photos he keeps of VIPs who have made the trek to his little corner of rural paradise – among them Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, who visited in the summer of 2008. Four years later they returned to Italy to marry; those wines must have made a good impression.
Tenuta San Francesco
Via Sofilciano 18, Tramonti
Tel +39 089 856190 or 876748
Photos © Roberto Salomone