There are no seatbelts in Roberto Anselmi’s small, tinny Fiat Panda 4x4 that he uses to cruise around his steep vineyards in Northern Italy’s Soave region.
Well, actually there are seatbelts but they, along with the car’s seatbelt warning, have been rendered inoperable by spare latchplates intentionally jamming the buckles. Basically it’s no belts, no buzzer.
“Don’t worry,” says Anselmi with a mischievous grin as he guns the engine and points the car up a muddy strip of earth between rows of vines—soaked by nearly a week of winter rain. He engages the clutch and the car lurches forward, wheels spinning like a whisk through cake batter, as the car’s tail swerves side to side. The steering wheel shimmies violently in Anselmi’s grip as he steers his way to the top of volcanic Monte Foscarino.
“I am a good pilot, no?” Anselmi says. The laugh lines appear at the edges of his aviator glasses. On the way down, about a half-hour later, he has his vineyard workers position a tractor at the bottom of the slippery slope—as a barrier to prevent the car from going over the cliff below if we slide too far.
What gives you confidence in moments like these is that Anselmi has done this before. An energetic 71 years old, he’s still going strong, bucking convention, bureaucracy and many of his neighbors.
“You are going to write that Anselmi is crazy,” he says, as if he’s inviting the description. “Next time we will take the helicopter!”
Crazy? Naaahh. Though Roberto Anselmi is certifiably obsessive.
For more than 40 years, Anselmi has earned his reputation as Soave’s rebel with a cause. Going against a tide of just so-so Soave, he started out as one of a handful of independent winemakers who coaxed expression and delicious contours out of Soave’s workhorse white grape, Garganega, paving the way for many more quality-focused producers in the area today.
Anselmi’s grandfather was a grower who sold the family vineyards during World War II. After the war, his father, Marino, built a booming wine négociant business around the family home in Monteforte d’Alpone, buying grapes and wines from across Italy.
In the 1970s, after studying economics, Anselmi tried to work for his dad: “But I didn’t want to work in an industrial cantina. The future of wines was in quality.”
Learning from northern Italian pioneers like Fausto Maculan and Mario Schiopetto, Anselmi bought a small vineyard and began bottling his first Soave in 1976. Then he took over his father’s négociant business and closed it—selling off the remaining stock to buy vineyards and focus on estate wines.
“It was a war,” Anselmi remembers. “My father didn’t talk to me for at least 10 years.”
Anselmi also learned by travelling to France’s great white wine appellations, starting with Alsace and ending in Sauternes, where he was inspired to make I Capitelli, his version of Soave’s sweet white Recioto, traditionally made from grapes desiccated in warm drying rooms, like Amarone.
Anselmi put his mark on the wine by using cool, damp dessication rooms that preserved freshness while encouraging the right amount of botrytis, the naturally occurring “noble rot” that concentrates the sugars in the grapes used to make Sauternes. The first vintage of I Capitelli (then and still 100 percent Garganega) reviewed by Wine Spectator, the 1988, scored 95 points in a blind tasting.
Anselmi also became known for his main dry white, the Soave Classico Superiore San Vincenzo blend, along with two Soave hilltop crus—Capitel Foscarino, from the higher-altitude, volcanic soils on Monte Foscarino, and Capitel Croce from a limestone-rich site of the same name. (See scores and tasting notes for Anselmi wines.)
In the 1990s, Anselmi fought another war—this one against the large cooperatives and bottlers that he believed were ruining Soave’s reputation with overproduction from the valley floor.
“I am tired of belonging to an appellation which, instead of boosting my image, pulls me down,” Anselmi told Wine Spectator in 2000, after deciding to declassify his wines from the 1999 vintage on and label them with the broader, more flexible Veneto IGT.
With the break, Anselmi says, “I became free. … I made anti-Soave.”
Soave DOC rules today require the still whites to contain at least 70 percent Garganega, allowing up to 30 percent of Trebbiano di Soave and/or Chardonnay, along with 5 percent of other local, non-aromatic white grapes. (The Soave Superiore DOCG caps Chardonnay at 5 percent.) Anselmi already grew Chardonnay and, freed of the appellation regulations, added aromatic Sauvignon Blanc to his San Vincenzo blend. He also planted hybrids Goldtraminer and Incrocio Manzoni and has been adding them in small amounts to the blend since 2010. In recent years, he has planted Riesling in some of his highest vineyards, but doesn’t yet know what he will do with it.
Today, Anselmi, thin and still youthful-looking with his longish gray hair and moustache, remains winemaker and patriarch over a staff of a dozen, including his son, Tommaso, 36, in the cellar and daughter, Lisa, 40, in sales.
Seeing him interact with his kids and staff, I’d describe him as charming, but also a perfectionist, a workaholic and a grump.
You can see the perfectionism in his sprawling, highly technical winery that produces 50,000 cases per year. He avoids adding sulfites by creating a nearly oxygen-free environment for the wines, protecting them with nitrogen from crush to bottling.
Likewise, in his vineyards he has spent years replacing the local, traditional pergola-trained vines with cordon, Guyot and head-trained vines. He describes the pergolas as too lush and productive. “It’s like the Amazon forest, what can you do with it?”
Another example of Anselmi’s stubborn independence: He farms organically, but refuses to apply for certification—despite the urgings of his daughter.
“Bureaucracy kills me,” Anselmi bellows, back at his office, where he downs a late-morning coffee. “I am happy to be organic, but I have no interest in someone saying, ‘Yes, he does it—it’s true.’”
“But if it would help you sell in certain markets like Sweden and Northern Europe …,” Lisa offers.
“If it’s necessary, it’s not my market,” Anselmi protests playfully. “If an inspector comes to certify us, I will jump out the window.”
OK, maybe he is a little crazy after all.