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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Elisabetta Fagiuoli's elegant appearance, grey-hair and bright brown eyes, conceal a steely firm commitment to ancient methods of cultivating grapes and a belief that women traditionally make the wine.
When she was growing up in Custozza, not far from Verona, Italy, women made wines because it was a home affair.
"There were only women taking care of their men. They were asking their vines what they wanted, what they needed, in order to thank them for the grapes they got," she explained as she poured a glass of her Tradizionale, a white wine made from 100 percent Vernaccia di San Gimignano, an ancient variety believed to have been cultivated by the Etruscans, the Romans and the Knights Templar.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano was the first of Italy's wine regions to win the coveted DOCG, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantitam,the highest category of Italian wine.
Her Vernaccia di San Gimignano wines carry the prestigious designation.
The first thing she reveals about her vineyards on 494 acres and her winery, Sono Montenidoli, on top of a Tuscan hill between Florence and Siena is how it was once under the sea. As a result, the soil is filled with marine fossils rich in carbonates and perfectly suited to full-bodied, long-lived whites.
She and her husband, Sergio, bought the land in the 1960s. Her family had been making wines in Custozza since the 17th century, so it was only natural that she looked at the vines and started making wine -- but in the old way.
"Fads come and go, but culture remains," she said at the Vino 2010 gathering of winemakers in New York.
"Organic and biodynamic may be new terms, but the concept is a trust as ancient as the people who talk with their lands ... If St. Francis spoke to the birds, the farmers, by glancing at the leaves, can understand their lands," she explained, referring to the sermon the saint gave to a flock of birds.
Fagiuoli understands her land, which gives three different whites made from the Vernaccia di San Gimignano grape.
In addition to Tradizionale, there is Fiore, which is made from free-run juice, fermented in steel and aged on the lees to gain roundness and complexity. It has a dry, crisp finish.
But the pinnacle of the expression of this grape is the Carato. Selected from the best vines it spends 12 months in barriques - oak barrels usually used for Bordeaux. It is a golden colored white wine filled with citrus and honey scents. It is white wine meant to age much as the fine whites of Burgundy
"It takes a long time to make a good wine. You know as I always say wine and men are very similar because with time, they either improve or they become vinegar," Fagiuoli says. "So we want our wines - and our men to improve."
Reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; editing by Patricia Reaney