Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Giampiero Bea - Magnificent Wines from Montefalco

Giampiero Bea, Proprietor, Paolo Bea
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

This past Monday at a distributor tasting in Chicago, I saw my friend Steven Alexander, wine director for the city's internationally famous Spiaggia Restaurant. He asked me if I had any specific recommendations of Italian wines I enjoyed at the tasting and then graciously asked me to a special lunch at Spiaggia Café with Giampiero Bea from the Paolo Bea estate in Montefalco, Umbria. Of course, I accepted his invitation and I'll be forever grateful to him as this was a rare opportunity to try ten of Bea's wines with superb food, while listening to Giampiero discuss his winemaking philosophy.

In the Montefalco zone of Umbria, not far from the towns of Spoleto and Assisi, there are a few dozen producers that work with the indigenous Sagrantino grape. This is a very tannic variety - arguably the most tannic in all of Italy (even more so than Nebbiolo) - so while this means long-lived wines, many examples are rather rough upon release with a noticeable bitter edge. Some producers even age their wines in barriques, apparently thinking that the spice from the barrels will add more flash to the wine. However, it's been my experience with barrique-aged Sagrantino that too many examples are not that well balanced, as the small barrels actually add tannins.

A completely different way of working with Sagrantino is employed by Giampiero Bea who is a believer in making natural wines; the resulting bottlings are sublime. No less an authority than Filippo Antonelli, one of Montefalco's very best producers, recently told me that in his opinion, the finest wines of Montefalco are from the Paolo Bea estate. Even though I have visited the Montefalco wine zone on three separate occasions, I had only tried a handful of these wines, as Bea does not participate in the local Consorzio tastings.

At this lunch we tasted ten wines from Bea in this order:

2007 Santa Chiara (Umbria Bianco)
2006 Arboreus (Trebbiano - Umbria Bianco)
2005 Rosso de Veo (Umbria Rosso)
2004 Montefalco Rosso "San Valentino"

2005 Montefalco Rosso Riserva "Vigna Pipparello"
2004 Montefalco Rosso Riserva "Vigna Pipparello"
2005 Montefalco Sagrantino "Vigna Pagliaro"
2004 Montefalco Sagrantino "Vigna Pagliaro"
2003 Montefalco Passito

I'll give some general comments on the wines. The Santa Chiara is an amazing white, an equal blend of five varieties: Chardonnay, Grechetto, Malvasia, Sauvignon and Garganega. Bright orange in color and displaying aromas of apricot and zucchini squash (!), this offers distinct minerality with a pleasing bitterness in the finish. The Arboreus is a more traditional white with pear and lemon peel aromas with great complexity. These are superb whites and stood up beautifully to grilled octopus and mozzarella.

As good as the whites were, the reds were the true stars of this lunch. Bea produces both Montefalco Rosso, which is primarily Sangiovese with lesser percentages of Montepulciano and Sagrantino; Montefalco Sagrantino, a DOCG wine made exclusively from Sagrantino as well as Montefalco Passito, also produced exclusively from Sagrantino. Bea's wines are striking in so many ways, especially in the aromatics, which focus on cassis, currant, cherry and red flowers (poppies). The wines have a supple feel on the palate, silky tannins and excellent persistence. The acidity is precise (especially in the 2005s) while the wood notes are barely noticeable. Think of most wines made from Sagrantino and you associate them with power; Bea's wines, on the other hand, are all about finesse.

The Passito is truly a singular bottling of this wine; while most examples are lush, ripe and medium sweet, Bea's is much more low-key. The wine has only a trace of sweetness and offers notes of tobacco in the finish. "I call this a vertical wine," he says. "It starts sweet and finishes dry." Because of that, Bea likes to pair the passito not with fruit desserts, but rather with cheeses. It is with the Montefalco Sagrantino dry wines that he prefers biscotti, cakes or chocolate.

Bea uses organic methods in the vineyards as makes certain he carries through with this philosophy in the cellar. "We do more work when the moon is waning because things go slower," he says. "This is in keeping with our philosophy of taking our time to make wines that will live for a long time." Bea ages his Sagrantino for one year in steel and two years in large barrels before bottling, so his wines are released later than almost any other producer; the 2005 is his current vintage, while most producers have their 2006s on the market with several 2007s set for release later this year. This is just one reason why he does not participate in the Consorzio events in Montefalco.

At tihs lunch, Bea talked a great deal about the technical data of his wines as well as his winemaking philosophy. Yet he did not once mention awards or how certain critics have praised his wines. He is a humble, thoughtful man who lets his wines do the talking - in fact, he does not even call himself a winemaker, preferring to say he is "assisting the wine."

Yet he did offer his thoughts on the work of producers from around the world who only make wine for the marketplace and not for themselves. "These people have cellars full of wine. They blame it on the economic crisis, but the truth is they are making wine without emotion."

One could never say that about Giampiero Bea.


  1. Thanks for the post, Tom. Love the emotion

  2. Thanks Alfonso:

    This was clearly one of the most special group of wines I've ever tasted.

    Enjoy your upcoming trip to Italy!