Out of the Funk

Can “natural wine” be free of faults? Ask Angiolino
Out of the Funk
Along with his dry whites, Angiolino Maule makes a recioto with Garganega grapes hung to dry until February to concentrate their sugars. (Robert Camuto)
Feb 21, 2019

Angiolino Maule’s 30-year career has been one long “competition” with his chief winemaking rival: himself.

“I am never content,” Maule says one foggy winter morning at his kitchen table, looking out upon the hills of northeastern Italy’s tiny Gambellara appellation, neighbor of the more famous Soave. “It’s in my DNA.”

Maule’s competitive drive has turned this former pizzamaker and son of a small grapegrower into a leader among European “natural wine” producers. He takes a meticulous approach to cultivation that continually pushes beyond organic principles, while also striving to improve the quality of wines—his and others’—made without commercial yeasts, winery additives or filtration.

Trim and fit at 65, with elflike features and a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, Maule runs his La Biancara estate and winery with the help of his four sons. He also leads VinNatur, an association he founded 13 years ago that now counts more than 170 likeminded producers across Europe.

La Biancara is known for its white wines; the vast majority of the 10,000 cases of wine Maule makes every year is based on the Garganega grape, grown in volcanic soils on sloping hillside sites.

“It’s identical to Soave,” says Maule, who ferments his two signature whites in large wood casks after modest skin contact. His Sassaia bottling comes from parcels around his winery, and his Pico label is from higher-altitude vineyards.

Though Maule has often referred to himself as an “extremist,” he limits skin contact to no more than three days and protects his must from air to avoid the Sherry-like oxidation found in more intense skin-contact “orange wines.”

“Oxidation makes all wines taste the same,” explains Maule. “You can’t tell if it’s Chardonnay, Garganega or Ribolla.”

These are tough words for a producer who has continually defied convention. But Maule, who relies entirely on spontaneous fermentations with native yeasts and rarely adds sulfites, is adamant about eliminating the faults that plagued his early vintages: from oxidation to high levels of barnyard-smelling brettanomyces and vinegary volatile acidity.

Working in the orderly, spick-and-span cellars below his home, Maule has come to believe such problems can be avoided with rigorous winemaking based on three fundamentals: “cleanliness, control of oxygen and control of temperature.”

Maule has taken a long and winding road to get this far.

As a young man, he dreamed of buying his own vineyards, apart from his father’s. In 1977, at age 23, he and his wife, Rosamaria, opened a bar/pizzeria together to earn and save money. After two years, the couple bought La Biancara, a farmhouse with about 15 acres of vineyard land, three of which were planted with old Garganega vines.

Maule planted the rest, farming organically, and worked evenings at the pizzeria, which attracted local winemakers, including great Soave producers Olinto Gini, Roberto Anselmi and Leonildo Pieropan.

“At the bar (of the pizzeria), I learned from all the experience of everyone,” Maule says. “That’s where my idea of making wine was born.”

In his winery built from pizza profits, Maule made his first wine in 1988, using conventional methods.

But in the early 1990s, his life took a turn when he befriended a small group of Friuli winemakers, including Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, who were making skin-contact whites with native yeasts, minimal amounts of sulfites and no other additives.

Maule joined their experiments, though he says, “We all made wines with defects. They pleased extremist drinkers—not everyone.”

This period was financially painful. Orders of his wine plummeted. Wine Spectator scored three La Biancara whites from the 1997, ’98 and ’99 vintages at between only 78 and 85 points.

Maule dipped into his savings to feed his family and contemplated a return to pizza making. Then, in the late 1990s, a Japanese importer who admired his efforts committed to buy all the wine Maule could make, allowing him to continue.

In 2006, Maule founded the VinNatur association to work with university botanists, enologists and entomologists to improve results in organic vineyards and winemaking without sulfites or other additives.

Maule has since redoubled his efforts to up his wine quality, finding help from an unlikely source in Franco Giacosa, a retired enologist from Zonin, a giant producer that owns multiple estates around Italy.

Giacosa became intrigued with the challenge of making fine organic and additive-free wine, but told Maule, who’d never worked with an enologist, “You're a great viticulturist, but you're an awful winemaker."

Thus began their now-decade-long friendship and collaboration.

These days, Maule has little trouble selling his wines across the globe. In addition to three dry whites, he makes a sweet white recioto from air-dried grapes and a bottle-fermented sparkler in the col fondo style. He also makes a trio of reds: Merlot from vineyards in Gambellara, an easy-drinking Merlot-Cabernet blend and Grenache (locally known as Tocai Rosso) from the nearby Colli Berici area.

Meanwhile, he is still pursuing a pastoral ideal in his vineyards, which he treats with plant-based teas and, reluctantly, with organically certified fungicides containing copper or sulfur.

“My final dream is to grow grapes without adding anything,” Maule says. “To transform solar energy into the chemical energy that is wine. But I am not there yet.”

Italy People Orange Wines Natural Wine

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