Pojer e Sandri Merlino – an Italian Unicorn
Pojer e Sandri is a Trentino winery owned by oenologist Mario Pojer and viticulturalist Fiorentino Sandri. This famous boutique estate started in 1975 with just two hectares. Four decades on, they have 26 hectares of organically certified vines. They make a wide range of acclaimed wines and also have a distillery.
This article focuses on their brilliant and unique fortified red dessert wine called Merlino.
The mountainous valley of the River Adige dominates this part of Trentino. On the eastern side is the village of Faedo, where vines occupy steep slopes formed from the limestone debris of glacial moraines. The nearby Val di Cembra is even more vertical, made of volcanic porphyry, where the vineyards reach up to 850 metres in elevation. There are hot summer days and cold nights here, moderated by Lake Garda and the “Ora” afternoon wind.
Pojer and Sandri have holdings at Faedo and the Val di Cembra. When they started, the area wasn’t known for high-quality wine. So from the outset, they innovated in the vineyard and the winery, supported by scientific research. The results were often spectacular, and critical acclaim came fast.
Innovation and experimentation
Perfection is what’s sought here, and more often than not, achieved. The organic philosophy of wine growing is about purity and zero-impact cultivation. The gravity-fed winery brings total control of processes. So, for example, they pioneered using a grape washing machine. Grape pressing under is inert nitrogen to prevent oxidation and reduce sulphur preservatives. There are no winemaking chemicals, fining or filtering.
They now grow a vast array of grape varieties. In white, there’s Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Bianco, Nosiola, Riesling Renano, Kerner, Traminer, Müller-Thurgau, Manzoni and Lagarino. In red, choose from Zweigelt, Franconia (Blaufränkisch), Negrara Trentina, Groppello Nonesiano, Schiava, Rotberger, Pinot Nero, Pinot Meunier, Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot and Lagrein. There are even hybrids such as Solaris. Perhaps surprising is that there’s no Teroldego, which is Ann otherwise familiar grape in Trentino.
It means that their wines are also legion, made under the umbrella of Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT. They include dry white, rosé and reds, as single-varietal wines and blends. There are also Classico and Ancestrale sparkling wines and a Botrytised sweet white. However, there are no dried-grape (passito) wines made here.
The Pojer e Sandri wine labels take inspiration from the famous German Renaissance artist and printmaker Albrecht Dürer. He stopped and painted in Faedo while travelling south to Venice.
Also, their distillery makes single-varietal grappas, fruit acquavitae and brandies. You’ll even find traditional Vinegar production.
But what about the wine they call Merlino?
Merlino is essentially a fortified red wine, made similarly to Port by adding alcohol to the fermenting wine. But the simple description of Rosso Fortificato does it an injustice. So does the title Vino Liquoroso, which only means “a liqueur wine”.
Merlino is much more, being the first of its kind in Trentino and probably in Italy. Here’s why.
Pojer e Sandri, Merlino 16/02 Rosso Fortificato, Vino Liquoroso, Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT, 2016. 19%
The first vintage of Merlino was in 2004, being a wine that unites the winery and the distillery. On the label, the 16 shows the vintage of the wine (2016), while the 02 shows the year the brandy was distilled (2002).
The Technical Bit
The Lagrien grapes for Merlino have an alcoholic potential of 13.5%. Therefore, they are destemmed but left whole and not pressed. Maceration is for 5-6 days; then, a specific cultured yeast starts the fermentation. As with Port, when the fermenting must reaches 4-5 % abv, strong alcohol is carefully added, which stops any further fermentation by killing the yeast. Port uses a neutral spirit, but Merlino uses old brandy at a cask strength of 77 % abv. This brandy is cognac-style, distilled from their Schiava and Lagarino base wines, kept for 14 years in 225-litre wooden casks.
The resultant proto-Merlino is 19% alcohol and naturally sweet from unfermented sugar (with 120 g/l residual sugar). Now it matures for 8-10 months in those empty brandy casks and clarifies naturally before bottling.
Served lightly chilled, it’s a deep purplish colour, the glass leggy with alcohol. An intense nose shows aromas of kirsch-like cherry and blackcurrant, with only a hint of spirit lurking in the background. A herbal note appears after ten minutes or so in the glass.
On the palate, it’s all about the purity and intensity of predominantly cherry and red berry fruit. The complexity comes from hints of liquorice, coffee, caramel and cocoa that appear as the wine opens up. With a mouthcoating viscosity, soft tannins are in harmonious balance with acidity and alcohol. As a result, there’s only a gentle alcoholic heat on a long finish, mellow rather than fiery, smooth rather than rustic. A final impression is of a mix of kirsch, vanilla and creme brûlée.
And in comparison with Port? Lagrein has a different flavour profile and is a little lighter in alcohol. The long-aged brandy also imparts its character, bringing a mellower feel and vanilla, caramel, and cocoa notes. In contrast, Port uses a neutral spirit to add fire rather than flavour.
Delicious now, an open bottle will easily last a week in the fridge, assuming you can resist that long. Will it improve? I imagine so, but I look forward to finding out over the next few years.
Dark chocolate (with plenty of cocoa) is the obvious choice for food, doubly because chocolate is usually a tough match. Extend that idea to chocolate or coffee ice cream, Tiramisu, Black Forest Gateau, chocolate puddings and espresso. Or pour it over strawberries. Blue cheeses like Stilton are good, as are nuts. Alternatively, a glass for quiet contemplation is all you need.
In short, Merlino is an authentic Italian Unicorn. The Unicorn is a rare and fabulous beast, wild and free, and a symbol of purity and grace. Only the Virgin Mary could ever tame it. That sounds like the perfect description of Merlino to me!
Pojer e Sandri
Via Molini, 4
Find more excellence from Trentino with my Wine of the Year 2021.