Looking at the coastline of what we now call the Maremma in Tuscany you might have a hard time believing that in the 6th century BCE these beaches and hills were home to one of the world’s most mystical and innovative civilizations. Today much of the area has been turned into beachfront playland where inland dwellers flock in the summer to escape the oppressive mugginess that no amount of fanning will blow away. However, long before the appearance of the many gelateria, flip-flop shops and a swimsuit boutiques this was the area where the Etruscans settled, fished, farmed, smelted iron (so much iron that they’re credited with being among the harbingers of the Iron Age) made wine and praised their gods.
The Etruscans recognized early on the great potential of the area. Beyond the abundance of fish in the sea, game in the woods and iron ore in the northern hills and on the island of Elba there were luxurious mineral springs and the soft, limestone hills called tufa — a type of earth ideal for carving homes, shops, kilns, furnaces, roads, cellars and tombs. This abundance of life’s necessities in one sunny region surely had to have been placed there for them by kind and munificent gods. As a testament to this seeming spiritual inescapability of the area the Etruscans stayed. Not just the duration of their lives but into their afterlives, taking their eternal rest in the hundreds of tombs and necropoli that have been discovered throughout much of the Maremma.
By the 4th century BCE the absorbtion of the Etruscan civilization into the Roman Empire was complete and the complexion of the region began to shift into a less habitable state. Depopulation along with some seismic activity turned the lowlands to swamps and the villages, vineyards and pastures became overgrown. Sections of the region were largely forgotten for centuries and those areas that were viable as farmland or for building ports, were repeatedly fought over by Sienese, Pisan and Florentine armies, then Napoleon’s troops. By the mid-1800s the coastal marshlands were considered to be some of the most dangerous places in Italy, home to bandit hideouts and mosquito infested swamps. The average life-expectancy of a male living in the region from Pisa to the north and Grosetto to the south was 18 years. Number one cause of death: malaria.
Into the 20th century the condition of the region began to change. During the Mussolini years the swamps were re-drained and the resort town of Piombino developed as a favorite vacation spot for Fascists who had grown rich through corruption. After the war the town of Bolgheri was revitalized and grew to great fame entirely because of Incisa della Rochetta who planted what are now his famous vineyards with cuttings from Chateau Lafite-Rothschild hoping to create a Bordeaux in Italy.
Despite the ups and downs in the region’s past there remains a somewhat reclusive hideout feel to the area. The Maremma has maintained an aura of mystery and has carried through time a reputation for being a magical place where the ghosts of Etruscans deities still sit on the hilltops watching the fortunes of men rise and fall. It is this quasi-mythical aura that continues to lure certain people to the region and in some cases is so otherworldly and compelling that it entices them to stay.
One such visitor who was attracted by the seeming spiritual pull of the place is Olivier Paul-Morandini, owner of Volpaiole vineyard and winery. (In the Tuscan dialect, the word 'Volpaiole' means “fox corner.”)
“It would have been nearly ten years ago,” the Belgian-born Olivier explains as to how he found his place in the hills between Suvereto and Campiglia Marittima, “we were on holiday with friends in Tuscany. We were having a meal in Suvereto and we had a bottle of Volpaiole. The taste was so unique that I just had to meet the producers. And so, the following morning we set out for Volpaiole which lies at the end of a long country journey, enough to discourage all but the most determined traveller. It was there that we met Armin and Liliana, a couple who, having reached retirement age, had left Switzerland to buy a plot of land to plant some vines and produce a little wine for their old age. Every year I came back to buy two hundred bottles which I shared out with some friends. In 2007, Liliana told me in her very gentle voice and a confidential manner that they had to talk to me. They announced that they were selling Volpaiole because the work was now too much for them. For the whole of the next year I came down every month to follow Armin in the vineyard and in the wine store, and then I took the plunge.”
There was more than just the vacationer’s-love-of-place that kept Olivier coming back to Tuscany. His ancestry is Italian. “My grandfather was a native of Friuli and it was actually he who was responsible for my destiny and this affection for a country of inexhaustible richness and flavors of all kinds.”
Shortly after taking up permanent residence in Italy Olivier was able to attract the attention of one of Italy’s most respected and sought-after winemakers, Luca D’Attoma. “Before I called Luca and arranged to meet him at Volpaiole, I had been shadowing him via several of his wines and what I was experiencing was not so much a style as the clear expression of wines which were like no others: among them the Fattoria la Torre Esse Syrah 2001, Paleo 2001 and 2004 Le Macchiole which stirred real emotions. At our first meeting, Luca D’Attoma expressed in a very straightforward, frank way exactly what was required to bring out the identity of the Volpaiole wines to perfection, and in no time at all we had come to an agreement about the direction we were about to take together. I trust Luca completely – it is his instinctive awareness and enormous sensitivity which have made it possible for him to create his masterpieces.”
Olivier adds that, “There are a large number of winemakers whose style tends to predominate, since they systematically impose it to the detriment of various aspects, like the soil, a grape variety, a type of winemaking – the very factors which define the actual identity of a wine. Luca D’Attoma has taken a stand as a winemaker who is determined above all to preserve these different factors which give a real identity to the wines they make.”
As Olivier became more immersed in his vineyards and involved in the community it became clear that he felt the same metaphysical pull the Etruscans seemed to have experienced. “It was at that time that I realized how much I liked working with people, not just for the pleasure of being able to provide them with a good wine, but also to be able to tell them something about wine, about the producers, their philosophy, their environment and their unique characteristics. This is the same way I approach art, or indeed, people. The more I come to understand about a painter, a work of art, a country or a person, the better able I am to understand them, to appreciate them in the most fine-tuned way. There's nothing original in this, but fine-tuning is important for me. As for my wines, I dream of making those who drink them want to meet me, so I can explain my work, my environment, my philosophy. If Volpaiole succeeds in being a moving experience for two people who are sitting at a table to eat, and makes that moment better, then I'm the happiest man alive!”
Olivier Paul-Morandini Azienda Agricola Fuori mondo S.S.
Via Fonte Corboli 13
57021 Campiglia Marittima (LI)
Info [at] volpaiole [dot] com
To learn about Olivier Paul-Morandini’s other pursuit (the European equivalent of the American 9-1-1 system) contact:
European Emergency Number Association - EENA 112
Avenue Louise 262
Tel: +32 (0)475 84 00 82
To find Volpaiole wines in the U.S. Visit: Lyaeus Imports