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Meet the Winemakers: La Cantina Di Enza

La Cantina Di Enza, Montemarano

As the name implies, the wines that come to you from this small, family-run cantina are the result of the passion, hard work, and incredible skill of Enza Saldutti. Enza was one of the very first wine makers I met in Irpinia. We were introduced through the famous Macelleria Mario Carrabs in Gesualdo, a founder of the Slow Food & Wine movement in Irpinia and a local Southern Italian legend. When Mario tells you a restaurant serves delectable food, or that a wine is phenomenal, you know it’s going to be true and you go there as soon as possible.

Enza among the vines

Back in October 2017, I stopped by for a chat with Mario in his shop with my good friend Raffaele Pietropaolo and before I knew what was happening, Mario was calling his good friend, Enza, to ask her if Raffy and I could come by and visit. I barely spoke Italian at this point in my journey, and Enza spoke pretty much no English, so I was wondering how this was all going to work out, but wasn’t going to let that stop me.

After a beautiful drive across the hills and valleys that separate Gesualdo from Montemarano, Raffaele and I arrived at Enza’s house, which also serves as her winery. Attached to the house, in what was used previously as the family garage, sits Enza’s laboratory and “cantina.” Enza greeted us warmly at the gate and we crossed the country road to walk through her grapevines on land that has been in her family for generations. You knew instantly she was a powerhouse, strong in every sense of the word. She and her father work this land by hand, day in and day out. They know every row of vines and seemingly every bunch of grapes growing on their steeply sloping volcanic clay soils.

Looking out over her vines from the highest vantage point in their vineyard, you’ll see a hillside descending about 100 meters crawling with vines ranging in age from 20-100 years in age. Depending on the month, you’ll be greeted by views of snow (winter), bright greens (spring), deeper greens (summer), and the most gorgeous mix of bordeaux/bright red/yellow/orange/green (fall) leaves across the rolling incline of vines. Some of the vines are in the old “quadratta” style that used to dominate the Irpinian landscape, and some are in the traditional rows most modern wine drinkers are accustomed to viewing today.

The “quadratta” formation is where you’ll find the grape vines growing at about head height in a square pattern. Why? This was widely used in the past to get double use of the land by the often very poor families working the land. Under the grape vines they could grow additional crops like potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, etc. to feed their hungry families. Irpinia has never been what would be considered a rich area, and land was not readily available to all families. So everyone made the best use of whatever they had. Today, you’ll still find the quadratta planting style across the Irpinian landscape, most often associated with older vines.

As Enza, Raffy and I walked through the vines, the amazing thing was that somehow, despite the language barriers, we were all able to communicate, and communicate well for that matter. Of course I didn’t understand every word that Enza said, but thankfully she spoke slowly and she used small words. There was no way you could possibly mistake the passion this fourth generation winemaker brought to the table.

In the (MANY) times since I’ve been back since that first visit, I’ve been able to fill out the whole story with my improved Italian. Enza and her family used to sell their Aglianico grapes to other larger winemakers in Irpinia and beyond, while saving some of their grapes to make wines as well for family and friends. It had been this way for generations, and it was only a few years ago when Enza decided enough was enough. No more selling their grapes to others to make inferior wines from the grapes they’d worked so hard to cultivate. She knew her wines were worthy of their own label and from that day forward, Enza took the important first steps to officially bring her wines to market under her own name.

And we should all be thankful for Enza’s bravery and determination. Her wines are brilliant and she does it all without the help of a professional wine consultant used by nearly all of her contemporaries. Her wines are the result of a passion and dedication that is almost incomprehensible at times. She crafts certified natural wines. This means that in addition to adding or removing nothing in the vineyard or cantina to the grapes/wine, she doesn’t temperature control during any stage of the winemaking process. Her wines are made through a spontaneous fermentation process, and she doesn’t clarify or filter the wines.

I mean, this is quasi insanity.

Just think of every variable that could lead to disaster during the winemaking process. What she does in her winemaking is the equivalent to hitting a bullseye every time a dart is thrown or an arrow is shot and adding a blindfold to the process. And she executes it all flawlessly.

I once asked Enza how she could possibly know everything she needed to know to make her incredible wines. How was it possible that she knew everything, including, not just how to grow perfect grapes of the ancient varieties she cultivates so lovingly on her family's land, but to do it all without an enologist, or a wine consultant’s assistance, to help her and her father to craft their absolutely stunning wines. Enza’s response left a memory permanently seared on my brain when she said, “Because Sarah, these grapes flow through my veins. We have been doing this for generations in my family, I don’t have to think, I don’t need anyone else to tell me, I just know.”

Here’s how she does it: Enza and her father are in the vineyard every single day, checking on the vines, watching the progression of the grapes and how the year’s weather conditions are affecting how the wines will turn out. They walk the rows on foot, stopping to examine leaves, the budding grapes during the spring, and how the bunches are maturing during the summer and the fall months.

Last year, Enza asked me to be a part of her vendemmia (grape harvest), where apart from her father, it was all women. I don’t know why, but it made the experience even more special. Why? I couldn’t put that into words for you, I just know it was awesome. It was like an Irpinia female empowerment rally, all of us shoulder to shoulder rhythmically cutting the grapes and gently placing them in the boxes to be transported to the cantina.

Enza even let me join her for the hunt for the Volpe Rossa, a nearly impossible grape variety to find anywhere in the world apart from the oldest sections of her vineyard. What is Volpe Rossa? Glad you asked. Enza is one of two Irpinia winemakers using the Volpe Rossa grape to craft a wine exclusively from this grape varietal. Her Coda di Volpe Rossa has a beautiful flavor and structure that jumps out of the glass and into your mouth. It’s almost garnet in color and there are notes of violet and dried fruit in the glass. It’s elegant, it’s warm, and the acidity is just right. There’s no missing it was grown in soil high in minerals, all of which leads to this wine being an absolute favorite. Enza generally makes only 250 bottles of this incredible wine a year all from individually hunted and hand harvested bunches of grapes in her vineyard.

It was in a section of 80 plus year old vines where the grapes are grown in “quadratta,” that we hunted the Volpe Rossa grapes. The vines are intertwined with those of the Aglianico grape growing side by side, creating a literal hunt for the purplish foxtail shaped grape bunches hanging from the vines.

I’ll be honest, on my first outing, there were more than a few times I over exuberantly engaged in the hunt, confusing the Aglianico grapes for Volpe Rossa, with Enza gently chuckling and educating me on how to quickly distinguish the grape bunches from the other. It’s a memory I’ll cherish when I gladly drink one or more of the 250 bottles that will be made of 2019 Volpe Rossa when it’s released in 5 years or so.

No amount of attention to detail is too small, and Enza can tell you about the weather conditions of each vintage of her wine from memory. All you have to do is ask, and she’ll explain how the hotter weather during the summer months leads to higher levels of sugar in the grapes resulting in higher alcohol levels in the wines. Or she can rattle off the dangers that existed in the 2008 vintage due to storms and how 2014 was basically a disaster when it came to weather, but some incredible wines were produced by those who used their generations of winemaking knowledge to overcome the obstacles. As a side note, I’ll tell you 2014 might easily be one of my favorite Irpinia vintages.

Enza is willing to experiment with her wines, using different grapes and aging processes, to craft new styles of wine many “traditional” wine makers would shy away from. This woman is seemingly scared of nothing and no one. If you don’t like her wine, it doesn’t bother her. Drink something else. You think she’s crazy for her approach to winemaking, you think she should have an enologist, you think she should have a more refined approach? That’s nice. Go eff yourself. She’ll keep doing things the way she thinks is best. She’ll often talk something over with her father on how best to get the results she’s looking for from the grapes, but don’t try to tell her she needs to change her approach. And I’ll be honest, after drinking so many of her wines over the years since I first met her, I’d have to agree with her. The proof is in the pudding, or in the wine bottle in this case. Enza is a master.

In fact, I wish more people would take a note from Enza and tell people to take a hike when they’re told to produce wines “more for the international market.” That’s where the soul of wine goes to die. Why, why, why would you ever craft a wine that tastes like everything else out there in the hopes it will sell better to a wider audience? It’s a huge mistake. Doesn’t it make so much more sense to take Enza’s approach, and that of so many other winemakers in Irpinia, and create wine you think is great without any explanation needed? It might take more time, more heartache, a bit more struggle, but at the end of the day, if you’re producing quality wines, people will line up in droves to buy it there’s no doubt about that.

So it’s all that to say, I love Enza. I love her approach to winemaking. I love her family, and I love her wines (Taurasi, Irpinia Aglianico, Rosatto, Coda di Volpe, Volpe Rossa, and soon to come Fiano and some sparkling experiments). My hope is you’ll come to love Enza’s wines as much as I do and one day have the chance to come meet Enza and know the reality that is Irpinia winemaking.

In the meantime, you can buy her wines through our partners at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill and bring a little piece of Irpinia to your door.


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