On an early warm morning of the 20th of June 2019, our curious group of fifty people comprised of sommeliers, journalists and trade professionals in the wine sector boarded a chartered boat at the Italian port of Livorno. The group was led by Lamberto Frescobaldi, a 30th-generation Tuscan winemaker and the president of the Marchesi Frescobaldi Group, flanked by Nicolò D’Afflitto, Frescobaldi’s Chief Oenologist.
The destination: Gorgona Island.
Gorgona Island is the northernmost island in the Tuscan archipelago, between Corsica and Livorno with a distance of about 19 nautical miles (35 kilometers) from Livorno, the nearest port. It is esteemed for its wildlife and isolation. Historically, it hosted monastic communities in different eras starting from the 4th century and the last one being the Gorgona Abbey that was eventually abandoned in 1425. In 1869, it was revived again, becoming an agricultural penal colony where prisoners can serve the latter part of their sentences while learning agricultural skills before their reintegration with the society. Here, prisoners from all over Italy, excluding sex or Mafia related offenders, following good behavior, can request for transfer when they are at the last phase of serving their sentences to learn different agricultural skills before leaving the island for freedom. They are free to move around the island during to learn new skills and to work during the day and they return to their cells at curfew time.
The interesting part is that from a prison island it became a producer of world-renowned wines under the care of the Marchesi Frescobaldi Group, owning seven estates in Tuscany in addition to Ornellaia, Masseto, Luce della Vite and Attems. The social improvement project was launched in 2012 when Lamberto Frescobaldi received an email from the prison director in July of that year asking for help in making good wine from the existing 2.3 hectares of Vermentino and Ansonica vineyards in the island. The prisoners have tried to produce wine destined for government employees but failed and realized that they needed proper oenological knowledge in making good wine. The then prison director Santina Savoca, emailed more than a hundred wineries in Livorno asking for collaboration in producing wine in the island of Gorgona and it was only Lamberto Frescobaldi who answered. Three days later, he was on a boat to Gorgona Island to better understand the situation. There, he found hope for a new life from the inmates and the desire to help them became the driving force of the project.
That was the beginning of one of the most courageous and successful projects ever undertaken in the world of wine.
Being a prison island, visiting Gorgona Island is not open to the public.
This trip happened because of the invitation of Frescobaldi for the special day of unveiling the 7th vintage of Gorgona and the 150th year of the establishment of the prison. It was a significant occasion for everyone because it’s a rare opportunity to go to visit the island with Lamberto Frescobaldi himself with Nicolo D’Afflito guiding the tour to the vineyards and the winery.
The walk up to the vineyards was scenic with salty sea breeze caressing the air, a typical setting of a Mediterranean island. A couple of inmates were diligently pruning the branches of the vines while Frescobaldi and D’Afflitto explained the technical details about the growth of the vines. The great potential they foresaw in the growing the vineyards on the favorable conditions of schist soil with southeastern exposure coupled with the salty sea breezes gave way to exceptional wines resplendent of Mediterranean character.
A blend of Vermentino and Ansonica, the Gorgona Costa Toscana Bianco is appreciated for its complexity, acidity, fruit-driven characteristics with hints of tropical fruit, herbs, citrus blooms and pronounced sapidity.
When Frescobaldi took over the collaboration, they immediately brought one hectare of the vineyard that was planted in 1999 in the only protected area of the island from harsh sea winds to complete restoration and in 2015, they added another 1.3 hectares of Vermentino to the existing one. They follow a strict regimen from managing the vines to harvest until fermentation at the cellar. The Frescobaldi oenologists and agronomists work side by side the selected inmates who are assigned tasks in the operations from tending the plants to the management cellar. Agrotractors of Gruppo Argo donated a vineyard tractor for use in the island. Other than the tractor, the Gorgona wines are still made with zero technology in the small and basic cellar, fermented in used wooden barrels coming from Frescobaldi’s Castello Pomino Estate for about 6 months, without climate control system nor added yeasts. In winter, the wine is shipped while still in the barrels to Frescobaldi’s Rèmole Estate where it goes through the final stage of blending, bottling and labeling. The fact is, even if the inmates help in the production of wine, one of the strict rules that they follow is the avoidance of drinking alcohol. The only time they are allowed to taste with a little sip of the fruit of their hard work is during the annual first tasting of the vintage in the island.
Over the past seven years, this organically-made wine that costs around €80 a bottle with its limited production of only 9,000 bottles per annum, has conquered the international market, from the U.S. to Japan, because not only does it have a beautiful story to tell but it also is an excellent organic wine.
“This project makes me prouder every year,” stated Lamberto Frescobaldi. “Gorgona’s bouquet and palate display everything: love for the island, meticulous attention in production, influence of the sea, and that extraordinary environment that shapes inimitable wines that are themselves symbols of hope and freedom. In sum, the wine expresses the essence of this island and of a project that unceasingly gifts emotions, above all to the inmates.”
“I always tell them: Be proud, for in every bottle is your hard work and your desire for redemption.”
Now on its 7th vintage, Gorgona Costa Toscana Bianco 2018 expresses the island’s distinctive Mediterranean terroir.
The climatic year had been characterized by a mild autumn and winter, intensified rainfall in spring and warm dry summer months. September particularly favorable with breeze sunny days and mild temperatures. The 2018 vintage reflects a bright straw yellow color with golden highlights. It immediately imparts a complex bouquet of aromas of ripe exotic fruits, mature yellow stone fruits, Mediterranean herbs of thyme and rosemary and citrus blooms. The sea immediately comes to mind at the first taste for its distinctive sapidity. The play of ripe fruits stay in the mouth as well as a delicate acidity and a persistent finish.
The island has a certain peace that definitely benefits the well-being of the prisoners before returning to society. Vegetable plots are maintained, working animals are taken cared of, roads are paved, buildings are maintained, kitchen skills are learned, cheese and honey are even produced. Typically, the percentage of the reoffenders in Italy is 70% but if they are able to work, the average drops to 30% according to the penitentiary statistics. Giving them the possibility to attain skills for better reintegration greatly benefits themselves, their families and their communities. Gorgona is a successful project which has profoundly touched the human aspect of helping and creating. It’s not only a bottle of wine like the others. It’s a bottle of wine that speaks of hope for a better life and a courageous man who took a step forward and gambled a part of himself to give the pleas of help a second chance.
Some Facts About Gorgona:
The first vintage, Gorgona 2013, was presented to the the authorities in Rome and magnum number 0 to Giorgio Napolitano, then President of Italy.
Andrea Bocelli created the text and signed the bottle label of the 2013 vintage.
Simonetta Doni, a wine-label design specialist with Studio Doni & Associati, donates her talents every year for the label graphics, thus artistically interpreting the qualities that make the island and the project unique.
Giorgio Pinchiorri, owner of Enoteca Pinchiorri, one of the most famous Italian restaurants world-wide, participates in the project by utilizing his distinctive cuisine to promote appreciation of Gorgona’s tradition of food and wine.