Jarno Trulli: Vintage Racer PDF Print E-mail

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Panasonic Toyota Racing's Jarno Trulli escapes the pressures of Formula 1 by retreating to his own private vineyard in the Abruzzo region of his Italian homeland, where he is laying down some fine wines for the future. Images section: Jarno at home.

 On top of a hill in central Italy, Jarno Trulli is picking cherries in a vineyard. Yes, you heard that right. Rows of vines trained higher than a tall man march across the summit and then vertiginously down the slopes. However, they're fringed with mature cherry trees. It's a question of decoration. Italians have an eye for landscaping needs, even when nature has excelled itself. Certainly, there's something rhythmically just right about the scene here, as man's ordered cultivation runs down and then up to the savagery of snow-capped Apennine peaks beyond.

Jarno is lobbing cherries alternatively into his mouth and his basket, as he's quite entitled to do. These are his cherries, his vines – and this is also his country. He looks at ease, at last.

Jarno is not the planet's only celebrity wine producer. These days, people from the people pages queue up to buy vineyards. Gérard Dépardieu and half the rest of French showbiz have their own. Ornella Mutti is among those who have followed suit in Italy.

Last year, Bob Dylan joined forces with a wine maker in the nearby Marche region to put out a few thousand bottles of Planet Waves. Evidently, wine enhances glamorous standing as other agricultural products don't. It's somehow difficult to imagine Bob or Ornella buying into processed peas or a pig farm.

But Jarno's wine venture is of a different stripe. When, in 2000, he bought the 32-hectare Podere Castorani estate on foothills overlooking Pescara and the Adriatic, he wasn't signing on with the image-conscious. He was renewing roots.

"My grandfather was a wine producer," he says.

So, for the past several millennia, were a great many men of this Abruzzo region, where Jarno was born 31 years ago. Wine has been the life-blood of the place, a key constituent of its identity. In buying a vineyard, Jarno was lining himself up with the land and its past.

"I need that link," he says – not least because the racing life regularly takes him about as far from Abruzzo as it's possible to get.

The montepulciano has, incidentally, nothing to do with the Tuscan town of the same name. But, handled properly, the grape can provide, in the words of British wine writer Hugh Johnson, "one of Italy's tastiest reds, full of flavour and warmth".

Quite, and it was at this top end of the spectrum that Jarno determined to play. Which is understandable. A chap aspiring to be an F1 world champion cannot reasonably stick his name on plastic bottles full of throat-rot.

"I'm a perfectionist. I wanted a quality wine," he says.

So he got three friends on board, plus his dad (also called Enzo) as overall administrator, and bought the Podere Castorani domain in the commune of Alanno. Reached up a swirling hill road that dissipates into a dirt track, it's a spectacular spot, lording it over a landscape where man and nature clearly made their peace some little time ago. In the foreground, anyway. There are those bears in the arresting peaks behind, although that only serves to enhance the picture with a sort of tense grandeur.

Owning this spread could easily convince you that you were a pretty important person, so it's not entirely surprising to learn (from the website, www.poderecastorani.it) that the vineyard and villa once belonged to a law professor who advised the dictator Benito Mussolini (prime minister of Italy from 1922-'43). Which doesn't seem to leave much doubt what colour the prof preferred his shirts. Il Duce also apparently visited Castorani.

Are you sure this is a selling point, Jarno?

"It's simply a strong image from the past," he replies, and there's no arguing with that.

And, more generally, the past is vital to the Trulli operation. It gives meaning and integrity to the exercise. That's why Luca Patricelli, wine maker at Castorani, trains the vines up high, so they form a tent of foliage. It's rather romantic to walk through. This tendone system has always been Abruzzo's way.

 It's also why Luca uses only the region's traditional grape varieties – overwhelmingly montepulciano – rather than external intruders. But then he applies modern methods. Vinification is in steel tanks, not big old wooden vats, and goes on for an unusually long time. It's followed by a year's ageing in new wood barrels and more again in the bottle – all things for which Abruzzo folk have rarely had the patience, or cash.

The aim? It's precisely to go beyond pleasant peasant plonk, to get an expression of what the French, untranslatably, call terroir. The French, of course, would. Only they could come up with a concept covering a semi-mystical blend of particular soil, site, climate and man's millennial know-how. It's what roots a wine to a given spot ("Lends it specificity," says Luca), and is claimed by all great European producers.

Now, you either believe all that or you don't, and, by and large, New World producers don't. They prefer to emphasise the grape variety, reckoning the notion of terroir is hokum. Merlot remains first and foremost merlot wherever it's planted, they say. The effects of terroir are secondary, if not negligible.

Herein lies the great ideological divide between old and new wine worlds. On one side, wine articulates a land-based culture; on the other, it's, well, a jolly good drink.

Jarno, Luca and the team are firmly in the culture club. Their wines are intended to speak of the sun, earth and (who knows?) soul of Abruzzo. That's their point, and sales pitch. Of course, having Jarno's name on the bottle also helps, even if it is printed small and only on the back. It is, though, merely a kick-start.

 "We can sell initially because of my image," says Jarno. "But, if the wines aren't good, we won't sell any more. We've got to keep pushing quality to the limit."

Frankly, they aren't doing too badly. In its 2001 incarnation, the domain's top wine, Podere Castorani, is a belter: structured, elegant and full-bodied, as a proper wine buff might say. It's one for sniffing, swirling and looking contemplative about. The second wine, Coste-delle-Plaie 2003, is slightly softer, easier but still an item of substance. And sipping it on Jarno's splendid hilltop certainly seems to do the right thing in the right place (which may be another definition of terroir).

In his own words, Jarno's "a quiet man who likes simple things". These don't include books or soccer, but do include pizza. And making fine wine and, um, becoming F1 world champion.

"Probably I'll beat [Fernando] Alonso next year," he says.

We can certainly drink to that.
Last Updated on Friday, 03 February 2006 16:11

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