Ferenc Máté, born in Hungary in 1945 and raised in British Columbia, is a photographer, sailor and wine producer, and the author of several books, including two memoirs, The Hills of Tuscany (1999) and A Vineyard in Tuscany (2007). Máté and his artist and winemaker wife live in a 13th-century friary they restored near Montalcino. Their winery, Máté Wines, produces five bottlings, including Brunello di Montalcino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and a Sangiovese-based blend. Wine Spectator caught up with him in Venice, where he was photographing the city by night.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Ferenc Máté: Well, in Hungary, it was a tradition, always drinking wine with meals. The wine was terrible—this was Soviet Hungary—but always there. I really fell in love with it in the early '80s. My wife, Candace, and I lived in Paris for a year. Every weekend, we'd scour the Michelin red [dining] guide for an inexpensive and good destination, and match with the green [travel] guide for something cultural, and go off to Bourgogne or the Loire. We'd eat at these places, and talk to the owners and chefs and ask after wines, and they almost always would dig out these dusty old bottles thinking that, because we were asking, we must know something and could appreciate it.
Once we showed up at a restaurant on Mother's Day and were turned away—they were full. The woman who owned the place saw us shuffling away and took pity on us. She called after us and said she could put a table by the stairs. We had the most amazing Nuits-St.-Georges that day. It's that generosity, that care, that's where the passion started, I guess.
WS: Was there a specific moment where you thought, "Hey, let's grow grapes and make wine"?
FM: After lunch, you've finished your half-bottle, which often inadvertently leads to another half-bottle, and you go walking in the countryside. I don't think there's anything more beautiful, especially the Burgundy vineyards—those small plots on the hillsides, it's romantic. And you go visit the wineries, and sometimes you get invited into the cellars. The crunch of the gravel under your feet, the smells, musky light in the cellars—it's kind of monastic, and that appealed to me, but also the combination of that with the sun blazing in the vineyards.
We were researching a book in Sweden, and it was bloody cold so we went to the Amalfi coast to warm up. Heading back north, we stopped at Orvieto. After a winey lunch we were walking, and we stopped by this church wall, and Candace was unhappy, saying, "We've moved all around, lived on a boat for three years, and in Whistler, we should settle down, have a house, a garden, kids." And I said, "How about here? We could get a farm, you could paint and I could write." And she said, "You don't know anything about farming." I said, "I'll read a book." She said, "You don't speak Italian." I said, "I'll take some lessons." She said, "You don't even know where you are." And I said, "I'll just ask somebody."
We rented a place between Montepulciano and Montalcino, because it seemed the most visually and historically intact, and it turned out that we bumped into one of the best wine regions in the world. Not only that, but we're on the seaward side of Montalcino, by the Tyrrhenian Sea, so we have the sea breeze in the afternoon, and the greatest mix of terroir—less clay than elsewhere. And then of course when Angelo Gaja moves in next door, it's like having the Pope move in next door to you if you're Catholic. I felt obligated to steal all of his experts, anyone who knew anything about how he made wine, basically I stole them.
I've stumbled into amazing things in my life; I think it's idiot's luck. Well, and perseverance. I did spend four years on bicycles and foot and car looking for the place.
WS: So you have roots now?
FM: Well, we have 42,000 roots now on our vines. [Laughing.] The nice thing about making wine is you never forget about those vines. I look after the vineyards and go through fermentation, punching down the vats in the middle of the night. And I'm an expert at leaving the pump on, pumping a river of Brunello out of the cellar into the gutter. [Laughing.] But it is fun. Having so many different tasks in the vineyard and cellar, you're learning always and talking with winemakers about how to make it better. That's what keeps you young, the learning, if you have any vital interest in a thing.
Candace is the winemaker. She learned from Carlo Corino. The most important thing we learned from him is that you can only make great wine from great grapes. In the cellar you can interfere 10 to 15 percent, but the rest depends on the perfect clone for the perfect soil and so on. Once you concentrate on that, then you have to be the most meticulous babysitter going, and that's where this combination of being an artist and a maniac scientist helps. I once asked Carlo for some secrets for making wine, and he said, "There are a million steps, and every step has to be done perfectly, and then you have great wine." So the lesson is that you don't think about the end product, but about what you have to do that day, that week.
WS: Who are your favorite winemakers? Surely Angelo Gaja is one?
FM: Yeah, even though he has all these vineyards and is traveling all the time, he's just great company. I too often judge a wine by the maker, so if the person is not much fun, then I don't like the wine. I think that's what happens when you're really involved in growing and making the wine, whatever you are sort of comes across in it. It's the same way a pet sometimes takes on the personality of its owner.
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