The Italian Wine Trail Is Rocky and Real
The seven-day Appenninica MTB race was unforgettable, but one of the best experiences didn’t happen on the bike.
It isn’t easy to find a direct translation from Italian to English for raspo. The best that Google can offer is “stalk,” as in the stalk of a plant. But I learned about raspo in a little shop on a narrow, cobbled street in Fanano, Italy, and came to understand it as far more than a bit of plant morphology.
I was here in this sleepy corner of the Apennine mountains for the seven-day Appenninica mountain bike race. For years, my college friend, Matt, and I had been trying to find a way to make it to Italy for this event. He first discovered Appenninica in 2018 or 2019, one of the first editions of this cross-country stage race. Then, there was COVID. In 2021, travel was still a bit up in the air. (Matt and I ended up racing the Dakota 50 instead, but that is another story.) Finally, last winter, we committed. And that’s how we ended up in the Apennines during a stretch of perfect September weather, racing mountain bikes for an entire week.
This story isn’t really about the bike race, though.
You see, the word raspo came up in conversation between Matt and Tiziano, the owner of this little grocery that focuses on regional specialties. One such specialty was a bottle of wine called Morastello, a Lambrusco made with traditional methods, using grapes from heirloom vines, grown on the undulating terrain surrounding Fanano — the mountains through which we were going to race in a matter of days.
Matt is founder and owner of SelectioNaturel, a wine importer that specializes in Italian natural wines. Wines like Morastello.
Tiziano warned him that this wine was very raspo, not the usual tourist fare. Matt insisted that this was the type of thing he loved, and, in fact, the type of wine he often sold. The wine was great. Matt was brimming with excitement.
So, when we returned to Fanano a few days later, after Appenninica’s brutal queen stage, 68 miles of racing with 13,400 feet of climbing, we paid Tiziano another visit. Matt asked him if there was any way to get in touch with the person behind this wine. Of course. In this tight-knit region of a tight-knit country, everyone knew Luigi, the man who makes Morastello. And naturally, since he sold the wine, Tiziano knew him quite well. So, he promised to do his best to make the connection.
A couple days later, our race rolled into Porretta Terme, a larger village tucked into a valley, with thermal baths and a history of world-class jazz music. The guy running the desk at our hotel checked us in, and then told Matt he had a message for him. He gave him a hand-written note. It was from Luigi. As promised, Tiziano passed along word that this American mountain biker/wine importer was interested in his wine. And in typically hospitable Italian fashion, Luigi was happy to make time for us. Perhaps dinner tomorrow evening?
It was kismet. The next day, we were back up in the mountains, staying in Lizzano, not far from Luigi’s house. After a misty 35-mile race through forests we shared with mushroom-hunting boscaioli, we landed in yet another tiny Italian hamlet. And Luigi picked us up at the hotel for dinner.
Getting into his Skoda wagon, I braced for a frightening ride along the narrow roads up and down these mountains. Fortunately, he defied the typical Italian way of driving, instead taking pains to show off all of the landmarks and points of interest on the drive. Of course, we had to begin with aperitivos at a friend’s bar. Then, we made a quick stop at his house to meet his wife and admire the mushrooms she’d just harvested. Finally, it was on to a classic little restaurant in the basement of an ancient building. Luigi quickly put five bottles of his wine onto the table. It seemed like a lot, but we only had one day of racing left, and split among four of us … Well, I don’t have to explain myself do I?
The dinner was wonderful, and Luigi was a gracious host. In fact, the next day, we ran into him in Lizzano, and he insisted on grabbing a quick drink with us before we went to the awards banquet.
He also gave us two cases of his wine, and though our rental car was crammed with bike cases, luggage, bikes, and everything else you’d need for an extended stay in Italy and seven days of racing, we made room. We had to.
We drank a bit more of that Morastello — not a whole case, although it would have been excusable, after racing over 280 miles of trail with more than 50,000 feet of climbing in one week.
In a vague way, it all seemed a bit related, through this subjective quality of raspo. The stalk, the stem, the tough cord that binds together the fruits. The natural, unfinished flavor that evokes these mountains — not a scientifically controlled vat of juice from the anonymous Po Valley vineyards, far below places like Fanano and Lizzano. Just like the stems of the old vines that Luigi cultivates for his wine, the brambles of blackberry bushes throughout the Apennines, and even the twisting ancient trails and roads that took us deep into these mountains, raspo is of the place.
This wildly difficult mountain bike event was rewarding because it was so authentic. It wasn’t organized by a large corporation. The man behind the race was an indefatigable Italian named Beppe, who rallied his crew of volunteers, friends, and family, and hosted 150-odd mountain bikers with the same warmth as Luigi did in sharing his wine. I’ve been lucky enough to take part in a few bike events that offer this sort of raspo, a feeling that you’ve been welcomed to a unique place for a unique experience. Appenninica might have been the best yet.
I guess this story is about a bike race, at least a little bit.
Last month, Matt sent me a text. Luigi’s wine was on its way to America. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get a little taste of that raspo, and you’ll see what I mean.