Sommelier India mourns Piero Masi, winemaker extraordinaire

Piero Masi assessing a tank sample with Aessio Secco

With a deep sense of loss and sadness, we mourn the passing away of Piero Masi from cancer at the end of April 2022. What follows is an introduction and extract from an interview with Piero Masi from Sommelier India’s archives

Introduction Agronomist and viticulturist extraordinaire with wide-ranging experience in Tuscany, Masi worked previously as a consultant to the well-known Chianti wine estate, Castello Vicchiomaggio. He was also the viticulturist at the renowned Tuscan winery, Isole e Olena. Well versed in the viticultural conditions of the area, Masi also contributed to raising the quality of the fruit produced at the Casa Sola winery in the Chianti Classico wine zone.

The late Piero Masi, chief winemaker at Fratelli Vineyards

When first presented with the idea of producing wine in India, a tropical country very different from his own, Masi was hesitant. “I didn’t have all the answers to growing grapes and producing wine in India,” he says. “I needed to first observe and work out exactly what the challenges were.”

Fratelli’s holdings cover 240 acres at Akluj, 170 km from Pune, and are spread over three sites – Motewadi, Nimgaon and Garwad. The vineyards are planted with 12 grape varieties along a 330 km trench line. Akluj is not a traditional grape growing area and Fratelli is the only winery in the region. The land where these blocks are located was barren with no water and very little topsoil.

Developing virgin territory required imagination, planning and grit, not to mention money. Trenches for planting vines had to be carved out of stony land and a water body created. But first, a three-kilometre pipeline was required to lift water from the nearest canal.

Extensive tests were carried out and the region’s microclimate was studied, especially in summer when temperatures go beyond 40° C.  Extreme heat can rid the berries of flavour and aromas. However, drip irrigation and judicious spraying ensure the health of the saplings. The flat land around Akluj was graded to form gentle slopes for better drainage.

Fratelli imported 35,000 cuttings from the well-known Guillaume Grapevine Nursery, with multiple clones in order to experiment and select the ones suited to their terroir.

With good canopy management and green harvesting, Masi is able to control the yields of the 12 varietals currently under cultivation and produce grapes concentrated in flavour, colour and acids.

Research and experimentation are ongoing, however, along with the search for better locations beyond Nashik.

A nostalgic image from the past of Kapil Sekhri and Piero Masi in happier times with Alessio Secci in the tank room of the winery. (Photo from SI’s archives)

Reva K Singh: How did you get interested in viticulture and winemaking?
Piero Masi:
It was always in my genes. Oenology and winemaking have been a part of my family and have been passed on from one generation to the next, from my ancestors to my family who has lived in the countryside. I intend and hope to continue the same through my son Giovanni who is currently studying oenology at Florence University.

 When did you make your first wine and where?
I clearly remember making my first wine – which incidentally was also my first job – at the age of 22 years. I started my career with Casa Sola, a Chianti Classico DOCG winery 15 kilometres away from my house.

What made you decide to come to India?
Well, it is a mix of professional as well as personal reasons. In European and American viticulture and oenology, there is hardly any space left for research or changes, both in vineyards or in the wineries. Laws and regulations have been set up and made rigid due to a long tradition, not only in terms of time but, in particular, regarding the levels of quality in the vineyards. In India, we have recently started to think of how to establish a protocol that will guarantee a quality result. This was a big challenge for me and also the biggest incentive to be in India. From a personal perspective, I have known Alessio’s and Andrea’s father, Claudio Secci, for a very long time and through him, I met the Sekhri family, Kapil in particular. I felt that there were also perfect human conditions in terms of reliability and trust to take up this project and make wines in India.

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What are some of the difficulties of growing grapes here?
The main difficulty is related to the tropical climate. In winter, it forces the plants to keep growing without a period of dormancy which is a very vital time in the cycle of the vine plant, in order to make reserves for the production season. In India, therefore, all our agronomical activities must be concentrated on the goal of letting our plants accumulate as many reserves as possible in order to obtain better quality grapes and wines. This is also a boost for the long life of the vine plants.

What’s the easy part?
The positive side, too, is connected to the peculiar climate of Akluj. Being mainly hot and dry, apart from the two months of rain,  the development of pest diseases is very much reduced and not so vigorous, making it easier for us to produce high-quality grapes.

What do you think of the age of the vines? Does it affect the cellaring potential of a wine?
Yes it does. A young vine plant is by nature always unbalanced and gives more rough tannins in red wines and a more rough acidity in white wines. The ageing of the vine,  on the other hand, contributes to smoother, rounder and more elegant tannins in red wines and in white wines, the acidity tends to be less pungent. This result is due to a backlog of mineral salts and sugars in the old wood of the vine which is then released into the grapes, giving the wines more flavour. The grapes become rich in minerals with a much higher quantity of polymerized tannins inside the grapes themselves. This makes the wine high in quality and perfect for ageing.

How do you see Indian winemaking developing in the next 10 years? How long do you think it will take for our wines to gain international recognition?

I definitely feel Indian wines are coming of age. It is good to see that the trend Fratelli started of focusing on grape quality has caught on. I can’t speak for others but we are confident of putting Fratelli on the world map in 10 years, not forgetting that by then our vineyards will be 15 years old. I can’t wait to make Sette with these mature plants!