Urbino Project 2011

Multimedia Journalism in Italy

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Where the Wild Cherries Grow

By Kerri DeVries

A small group of vintners strive in the rugged mountains of Le Marche to keep the delicious tradition of wild cherry wine alive.

CANTIANO, ITALY – It’s a hot summer day on a mountainside near this central Italian town as Igor Lupatelli walks through his field of young trees and tries to explain the mission that has become his livelihood: Preserving the tradition of making Visciole – a sweet wine using the tiny, bitter wild cherries called viscioles that are indigenous to Italy’s le Marche region.

“Our firm was born six years ago, not in this building, but in a little workshop, one kilometer away from here,” Lupatelli said through a translator. “We have started Morello Austera for personal reasons and also because the market had started going well.”

It is almost guaranteed that any tree you look up into in June will be filled with ripe red viscioles.

Viscioles can be found across Italy, but they have been cultivated for wine only in the mountainous western half of le Marche (pronounced MAR-kay), one of Italy’s least visited regions. The area is dotted with small towns cradled between steep terrain that holds deep snow in the winter and can bake under extreme heat in the summer – rugged conditions that the wild cherries thrive in.

It’s difficult to export the wine outside of Italy and even le Marche region.

A tiny, deep-red fruit about half the size of the consumer cherries found in markets, viscioles are the products of the “Prunus cerasus” plant. Originally, farmers used the wild cherry bushes to divide the ground and as a source for sugar-rich syrup to give them a boost of energy before going to work in the fields.

About 100 years ago, Lupatelli said, farmers discovered they could mix fermented viscioles with traditional grape wine and produce a delicious dessert wine that was at once sweet and tart.

Igor, 36, joined that tradition in 2005 after 20 years in the catering business.  “The reason for this choice was plain: we were tired of working in the catering sector,” he admitted. “We wanted to stand out with a local produce.”

At first glance, the property clinging to the mountainside seems small, but Igor said it holds 480 wild cherry trees, enough to produce some 35,000 bottles of the wine each year, making their business one of the two largest of the estimated 30 Visciole producers in le Marche region.

In the valley shadowed by the Catria Moutains in Cantiano, Italy, you will find Morello Austera, a five-year-old cherry winery owned by the Lupatelli family.

Wine production is a year round job.  The Lupatellis harvest viscioles throughout June, and the fruit is then fermented in a stainless steel tank that holds 20 tons of wine for about 40 to 50 days, depending on the temperature. Morello Austera has two steel tanks on the property, one is for fermenting and the other is for resting the wine. Seventy kilos of viscioles are combined with sugar and 50 liters of Sangiovese wine from the Fano region to the south. The mixture then rests in the steel tank for another three to four months.

The wine is then bottled, labeled, corked, and sealed in Morello Austera’s small production room, which echoes to the sounds of modern machinery attended by a two-man crew. Following another six months of maturing in the bottles, the wine is shipped to stores and restaurants across le Marche. Little of the sweet wild cherry wine ever finds its way out of Italy.

Morello Austera owner Igor Lupatelli stands in front of the stainless steel tanks at the rear of the production building.

“It’s difficult to export the wine outside of Italy and even le Marche region,” Igor explained.  “Twenty years ago lots of countries wanted to buy only sweet wine and now they don’t want it because of the economic crisis.”

Although the wine never leaves Italy the Morello Austera label travels the world on other products. In August and September, the Lupatellis harvest strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries which are combined with a sweet syrup for a product similar to a preserve for export as far away as Australia, Japan, America, and the Czech Republic.

Despite the current economic conditions, the brothers have plans for improvements to their property, such as an irrigation system being installed in August, and they are confident that they have a promising future in wine production.

The passion Igor displays explains his plans for the future of his business and the wine tells a visitor this is not just a job, but also a calling.

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