The fifth in a generation of grape growers and winemakers, on joining the family business in the early 1970s Silvio was clear in his mission to introduce novel farming practices and clean winemaking methods to Jermann. And he was about to hit the zeitgeist.
This was a time of profound changes on the Italian gastronomy scene. The “nouvelle cuisine” movement eschewed traditional rich food, championing a lighter, simpler cuisine made with fresh, local ingredients. Likewise, the wines of the time tended to be on the heavier side, bitter and often excessively alcoholic. Worst of all, they didn’t age at all well in the bottle, often oxidizing within a couple of years.
The young Silvio was a great admirer of Mario Schiopetto, the master of Italian white wine and a pioneer who, as part of a group of producers, was at the time setting out to radically modernize wine making and production. His method involved adapting ancient ways of grape growing and marrying this with clean, modern production methods. And he was causing quite the stir.
Silvio lights up when discussing Schiopetto. “He was looking to the techniques of German white wine producers for freshness, bouquet and a better balance of acidity, and to create wines that could age well in the bottle,” he tells me. “Schiopetto was a mentor to me. During my studies, whenever I could, I worked with him and he would explain what he was doing with great passion. He gave me energy and motivated me to go in this direction.”
Much like his tutor, Silvio learnt from old grape-growing traditions and in particular field blending. Most wineries plant their grape varieties separately and then blend them in the production process. Jermann, though, dedicates parcels of land to its individual wines: each plot will grow the grape varieties for that particular blend, all of which are harvested by hand on the same day and fermented together. So, rather than being a blend, the wines are made with a blend of grapes, which creates wines that are unique to this place and the exact moment of harvesting.
Silvio began rediscovering forgotten local varieties as well as cultivating ancient grapes. “Nowadays people talk of autochthone grapes and traditional winemaking, but back then in the 1970s no one did.” Even the Ribolla Gialla, the most famous Friulian grape, wasn’t under DOC then. He also invested in modern methods of winemaking. This meant the gentle extraction of “free run” juice, followed by a long and cool fermentation in stainless steel, and then aging it for more than a year on the lees before bottling.
“My father didn’t agree with my ideas,” Silvio recounts. “He followed local ways, selling bulk wine that was bottled by others who were taking most of the profit. But I could see that the local market was limited, people wouldn’t pay more for their wine, and I knew I needed to take my wines through Italy to find the right customers.” And so, he created his first wine, Vintage Tunina, as a true expression of Jermann to take on the road.
“Vintage Tunina had to be full-bodied, elegant, for it to age well in the bottle and maintain its freshness and floral-ness,” he explains. To achieve this balance, while maintaining a strong link to Friuli, Silvio worked with half international varieties (Chardonnay and Sauvignon), the half indigenous grapes (Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia, with a touch of sweet Picolit) for a blend that he admits was created quite by chance.
“It was a little trial and error. The first 1973 vintage was good but I needed to perfect my blended wine, which I achieved with the 1975.” Released in 1977, with its equal parts power and precision, Vintage Tunina caused a sensation and Silvio became an icon in the wine world.
“My father wasn’t happy with my ideas. He wanted me to take another job and make wine as a hobby, rather than work the fields and the cellars.” He shakes his head smiling at the memory. “In those days we only had around four hectares (nine acres) of land with stables and fruit trees, which were taking energy away from viticulture. I had to fight with my father to convince him to give up the stable, explaining that we’re better off buying manure for farming from the local village. He finally agreed and we began concentrating on viticulture alone.”
Today’s Vintage Tunina label is the same one Silvio sketched in 1975. At the beginning it was labeled “DOC Collio” but after two years he decided to call it simply “White Table Wine.” He smiles at the memory. “Ah, this too caused a scandal here among winemakers as everyone in Collio was using DOC.” Back then, Friuli was seen as the finest white wine region in Italy. Silvio, though, wanted to focus on the brand name, Jermann. “I wanted our wines to represent the vineyard, the land and our winemaking philosophy rather than rely on the success of a big-name-area.”
Bravely, Silvio priced Vintage Tunina double that of local wines. “My theory was that if you understood the wine, you would pay for it,” he says frankly. “I didn’t do any advertising. I put the bottles in the back of my car and with the Michelin Guide to the best restaurants, went around introducing Vintage Tunina, explaining our winemaking method. And I relied on recommendations and word-of-mouth.”