There are two kinds of debut wines: wines that are simply new, and wines that have an impact.
Elisabetta Geppetti, a pioneer of Tuscany's coastal Maremma region, believes her new wine has the potential for greatness. After more than 30 vintages at her Fattoria Le Pupille, she is releasing her first all-Syrah red, a wine simply called Le Pupille.
The debut 2015 vintage of 250 cases was a group effort with her eldest daughter, Clara Gentili, and winemaker Luca D'Attoma.
Le Pupille, I discovered at the wine's launch in Milan, is a long, juicy and intriguing Syrah with Mediterranean spice. There's also something different about its style—likely due to fermentation of much of the blend in large, clay, pot-bellied amphorae known in Tuscany as orci.
Geppetti is surely a trailblazer. As a young woman in the 1980s, she was among the first who saw the potential of the Maremma. Her flagship top wine, Saffredi (2015, 94 points, $125), is a classic super Tuscan blend of Bordeaux varieties that usually scores 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.
So why Syrah? And why now?
The grape, considered an excellent interpreter of terroir, has long been in the mix at Fattoria Le Pupille.
"I was in love with Côte-Rôtie from Guigal," explains Geppetti, who inherited Le Pupille in 1985 when the father of her first husband, who didn't want to get involved in the wine business, died and left the estate to her. She was 20 years old and had taken a keen interest in wine, working with her father-in-law and his friend Giacomo Tachis, one of Italy's leading enologists. "Syrah has been a grape and wine that has been interesting from the beginning."
Geppetti, 53, is a bold, room-filling presence—tall, with blue eyes and a mane of tawny-colored hair. She exudes the confidence of a woman who has lived a full life: two ex-husbands, five children and four star winemakers. (In addition to Tachis, she worked with Riccardo Cotarella and Château Latour alumnus Christian Le Sommer before hiring D'Attoma in 2013.)
All the while, she has built Le Pupille from a small family sideline with less than 10 acres to an estate of more 180 vineyard acres, now producing a total of nine wines, adding up to more than 40,000 cases a year.
Ever since she began planting Syrah in choice parcels in 2000, Geppetti dreamed of making a single-variety Syrah red. But she didn't rush it: "To make a pure Syrah, you need mature vineyards."
Until now, Syrah has gone into Le Pupille's RosaMati rosé, which is entirely Syrah; the Pelofino red blend, and, for a time, Saffredi, replacing the small amount of Alicante added to the Cabernet Sauvignon–Merlot blend (later to be replaced by Petit Verdot). Finally, in 2012, mother and daughter began experimenting with micro-vinifications of Syrah.
Today, Le Pupille is blended from a pair of vineyards totaling five acres. It was Gentili's and D'Attoma's idea to vinify grapes from the cooler and smaller Pian de Fiora vineyard in orci—long used for storing olive oil.
Orci have had a renaissance in Tuscany thanks to Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, who in recent years has experimented with the vessels; his family's terracotta company now produces them for winemaking using Tuscan clay.
Gentili became intrigued with making wine in clay—a method that allows for microxygenation without the tannins added by fermenting or aging in wood barrels.
"The clay has an influence, but not directly. It really highlights the variety," says Gentili, 27. "We weren't looking to make an alternative wine but a good wine."
For the 2015 Le Pupille, grapes from Pian di Fiora were destemmed by hand and, relying on wild yeasts, fermented in orci, where the juice remained in contact with the skins a full eight months. The rest, from east-facing La Vigna del Palo, followed the same low-tech process but was fermented in open 500-liter oak barrels for 25 days. The final blend was aged 10 months in French oak barriques before going to bottle.
Clay-fermenting Syrah over four vintages has been an unpredictable adventure. "Making wine with amphorae is new for us. And at first, I was scared," Geppetti says, "Frankly, every year is very different."
Because of the greater oxygen contact in uncoated clay, wine macerations have to be monitored carefully and adjusted to concentrate flavors and aromas and avoid oxidation. While the orci part of the 2015 blend macerated eight months, for the 2018 harvest that lasted less than five months.
Le Pupille (the pupils) takes its name from a pair of old farmhouses that locals in the medieval village of Pereta likened to a couple of school kids. It's an apt choice for the new wine, says Geppetti.
"We are learning," she says. "We are just at the beginning."