Natural Italy: Interview with Winemaker Matteo Furlani

Natural Italy: Interview with Winemaker Matteo Furlani

Feb 24, 2023Dedalus Staff

Matteo Furlani is a winemaking magician. From his perch in the Dolomites above the city of Trentino, he crafts brightly hued still and sparkling natural wines — mountain juice, hewn from textural clay and granite soils.

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His approach is natural. Harvests are by hand, necessitated by the steep vineyards. Fermentations are with natural yeasts. And the wines are clarified in steel tanks set outside of the winery during the cold winter months — taking advantage of the natural conditions to give them clarity or aroma and color.

Confronted with a full lineup of Furlani bottles, the effect is otherworldly, like a liquid rainbow. But when you taste Matteo’s macerated Pinot Grigio, or his still white wine, a blend of local grapes, you’re immediately transported to the mountainside by their distinct Alpine floral aromas.

Dedalus spoke with Matteo (and for a brief moment, his wife Annalisa), about their unique location, methods, and our collective thoughts on the future of natural winemaking.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place between Sadie Williams (copywriter), Ashley Bryant (Chief Marketing Officer), Matteo and Annalisa Furlani.

Sadie: Matteo, I would love it if you could describe the place where your vineyard is. Could you paint a picture for us of what that looks like?

Matteo: Allora, we’re in Trentino-Alto Adige, in the north of Italy, in the Dolomite Valley, and around the valley in Trentino is the big mountain. The mountain is around 3000 meters, 2000 meters. It's very high. It's possible to ski all winter and sometimes possible to ski in the summer. And the temperature in the winter is very cold. In the summer there’s a lot of wind usually and the temperature is nice. The soil here, we have a lot of rock. It's more porphyric, Dolomitic soil. There’s a lot of stone and calcaric stone, white stone. All the vineyards are on the mountain. And we work in all the vineyards totally by hand.

Sadie: Beautiful. And so I understand it's very green and lush and beautiful in the summers, but in the winters it's colder. And what does your schedule look like? What does your work look like in the winter when you're not out skiing?

Matteo: We’re pruning all winter in the vineyard. On the farm, we have apple trees and we prune the apple. I don't make cider, but I sell the fruit.

In the winter the other work is to check on the wine, because, after the harvest, all the wine usually stays outside of the cellar. For me, the cold temperatures are fantastic for cleaning the wine. When the temperature goes down and the steel tank is outside, the wine is fantastic because the sediment settles down and the wine becomes very, very clean. This is fantastic for the wine because all the perfume, all the aroma, stays in the wine.

Ashley: This is a unique part of your winemaking, this long, slow fermentation that allows you to develop these really beautiful complex aromatics and taste in the wine. I'm glad that you mentioned that because I do think that is distinct to you and your winemaking style there, that's really beautiful and unique.

Sadie: It's so cool that you can work with your environment to achieve that. That your environment has this unique feature, which is the elevation and the cold. And instead of letting that be an obstacle, you're working with it.

I was wondering about your macerated white wines. Is that unique for you in your area? Are you one of the only people doing that kind of macerated Pinot Grigio, and if so, where did that come from? Where was the inspiration for that technique coming from for you? It’s not something I’ve seen in a lot of Alpine wines.

Matteo: Allora, the Macerato is the Pinot Grigio. The historic name for Pinot Grigio in Alto Adige is Rulander, because the color of the typical Pinot Grigio is the onion skin color. In my Macerato, I macerate for the extraction, for the perfume. And there’s an automatic change in the color because of the extraction. Because the skin from the Pinot grape is a little pink. It changes the color, but I work a lot with maceration with all the grapes because I don't use sulfites, I don't use the chemical yeast.

Ashley: So it's more almost a byproduct of trying to get the perfume, the florals that are found in the skins. And also, because you're not using sulfur or other preservatives, the tannins in the skin also help protect those. That's interesting.

So we’re in the middle of Vermont winter over here, and we were wondering: Do you ski and if so, do you have any of your wines at ski resorts or drink them during après with food?

Matteo: It's the same here. Usually, we go skiing. I ski a lot, when I have time, with the children.

Ashley: And do you ever go to restaurants up in the mountains that have your wines?

Matteo: Here in the Trentino? No, because, this is one problem, [laughing] because in Trentino, usually, there’s a lot of conventional wine. Natural wine, it's possible to find maybe in the restaurant. But no, you won’t find it at an apres-ski. On the mountain, it’s oysters and Champagne.

However, since there are a lot of people here skiing, it's common to have apres-ski drinks and aperitifs. The wine selection is usually quite traditional. The marketing for these places is different because they may cater more to locals who come for lunch, rather than to those visiting from outside the area.

Usually, I return home and make events with Analisse, with the wines.

Sadie: Do you think that's going to change in your area? In your area, up in the mountains, do you think that there will be a change in the kind of wines that people are drinking in the next 5, 10, 15 years, that they might start drinking more natural wine?

Matteo: Yes, I think so, because in Italy, when I started my work and my process in the natural wine, in 2004, the market for natural wine was zero. Because in Italy, it is conventional wine. My first market was in the north of Europe, in Belgium, Denmark, and France, because the people have more of a sensibility around organic food and organic drink. But now, in Italy, there’s change.

Ashley: Do you consider your wine to be Alpine wine?

Matteo: Yes. I consider my wine Dolomite wine. It's of the mountain, the rock, the calcaric soil. The acidity from the mountain, for me it's special.

Ashley: Yes. A true mountain wine.

Matteo: All of Italy is beautiful, it's one beautiful country. In the north, we have the mountain and acidity and the temperature, in the south, there's the sand and other temperature. So it's fantastic, the diversity, for wine and for food. And I think Trentino is the place for the white or red wine, younger, with acidity.

Ashley: What do you eat in the wintertime with your wines? What do you typically like to eat aside from Orzotto? At this time of year, when it’s cold?

Matteo: Usually when I return home, I make the aperitivo with Analissa, before dinner. Usually, we cut speck or other meat. And quality cheese, for me it's fantastic with that pét-nat. Because the acidity is very good for cleaning the palate, it's a fantastic combination.

Sadie: Ashley has been telling me about a soup that she had when she went to visit you a few years ago, before the pandemic. Do you remember what it was? Is it a family recipe or a local recipe?

Matteo: It’s an orzo zuppa with barley and vegetables. It’s a local soup, a typical dinner for agricultural people. Because in the winter, when people finish working in the vineyard or outside, you go home and are very cold and have this warming zuppa. It’s called Orzotto.

(Matteo’s wife Analissa steps into the call.)

Analissa: It’s typical around here and his mother makes it so wonderfully, it’s unbelievable. Because it’s not as easy as it seems.

Ashley: I’ve tried at home and it’s never as good!

Analissa: No no. Me too. I’m from Emilia Romagna, I tried many times but it’s not as good as his mother's. Never.

Matteo: I have one curiosity, another question we touched on before. Do you think that people will drink more or less natural wine in the future?

Ashley: I think we’ll see more and more natural wine in the future. I see people come into Dedalus of all ages who are learning more about wine and want to know what is in their wine or what is not in their wine. Although Sadie and I have been talking and she was saying that the younger generation, so Generation Z, is drinking less wine, but more expensive. So willing to invest more in one bottle than maybe Millennials or older.

Matteo: Yes. And do the young generation prefer pét-nat or champagne?

Ashley: I think both. I love sparkling Pét-nat and champagne. I like to start my meal with that, or before. An aperitivo, of sparkling or champagne but I like still as well. For dinner, maybe more still. And for aperitivo or a snack, I usually go sparkling. So I think both, we see a lot of both.

Sadie: I think what's interesting about the younger generation is that, they still want a wine that tastes good, but I think they care less about, is it still, is it sparkling? And they care more about what's the story? Who's making this? They want to know that it's something good, well made. And I think that's a really interesting shift.

Ashley: You come from a winemaking family, Matteo. Did your family think you were crazy for making wine this way? Or were they accepting of that?

Matteo: My father was a little so-so. “I don't know, I think it's not correct. This one is cloudy.” It was hard work in the family to change the conventional system. But now, my father understands the wine, he likes it. And sometimes, he comes to my home for dinner or we go make dinner at theirs, and we drink natural wine.

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