For those of us who collect things, there’s often a relentless focus on the new, whether it’s new to the market or new to our own collection. I have a good-sized collection of cologne bottles—modest by the standards of some fragrance bloggers—but I have even more of those tiny cologne sample vials. Given a handful of samples from a brand, I might pick a couple favorites and shelve the others, intending to revisit them when my enthusiasm for the standouts wanes. But in the quest for the new, I seldom delve into the archives.
This is the case with Eau d’Italie. It’s a favorite line, one I’ve written about more than once. As brands go, I’ve mined Eau d’Italie pretty thoroughly. I wear Bois d’Ombrie often (it’s a near perfect leather fragrance) and I was wearing it when I stopped by the Lafco booth at the Capsule trade show in New York a couple weeks ago.
When I mentioned this to Jon Bresler, Lafco’s founder and the U.S. distributor for Eau d’Italie, he confided that he was wearing Sienne l’Hiver, describing it with such personal passion (“It’s like a fine cognac”) that I resolved to find my sample and give it another try.
Sienne l’Hiver, or “winter in Siena,” was created by the perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and released in 2006 with two of his other works for Eau d’Italie, the aforementioned Bois d’Ombrie and Paestum Rose.
In 2008 Chandler Burr reviewed it for the New York Times‘ T Magazine, giving it five stars and calling it “transcendent.” Burr is a fan, both of Eau d’Italie and Duchaufour; six months earlier he had given Paestum Rose five stars.
“Of all Duchaufour’s works [...] Sienne l’Hiver is arguably the most interesting,” Burr wrote.
Sienne l’Hiver starts on the skin with iris notes, followed by a momentary hint of tomato leaf, then a rush of earthy mushroom. There’s a pale metallic note in there alongside the mushroom. It’s strange and fresh all at once. Taking another sniff, I’m reminded of the leathery iris notes in Bois d’Ombrie, but this isn’t as rounded or sweet. Then I get the tomato leaf again. The drydown is smooth and cool and reminiscent again of Bois d’Ombrie. There is a hint of leather, and a mild spice and subtle smoke. It’s closer to the skin though and thus more soothing. The fragrance retailer Lucky Scent calls it “comforting and contemplative,” and that’s accurate.
Sienne l’Hiver is a much more unisex fragrance than Bois d’Ombrie (although when it launched Bois was their second-best seller among women). The official notes are geranium leaves, violet petals and fern (top); iris, white truffle and frankincense (middle); with hay, labdanum and gaiac wood (bottom).
Sebastián Alvarez Murena, one of the co-founders of Eau d’Italie (with his wife, Marina Sersale), told me Sienne l’Hiver was a sort of seasonal companion to Bois d’Ombrie. “Both fragrances were born from the same idea, that of autumn/winter in Italy,” he said in an e-mail from Rome. “In fact I often say that Sienne l’Hiver and Bois d’Ombrie are like two very different brothers, who nonetheless have the same origin. It was all part of a wide project that we discussed with Bertrand at length, and on many occasions. There was also a brief which described not only the notes we wanted to evoke, but also images and sensations. The whole process was a long, very close collaboration, and let be it said: a wonderful, unforgettable experience.”
When I asked Murena to describe Sienne l’Hiver in his own words, he was characteristically thoughtful, invoking both art and a sense of place.
“In watercolor, each layer deposits the pigments on the paper, and when it dries you can lay down another layer on top of the previous one,” he told me. “This subsequent layer will also reflect the pigments of the previous one, and so on. The same process happens in Sienne l’Hiver, in which layer on top of layer of different notes create an intriguing, beautiful final image.”
“What we had in mind was a Proustian interior, the dressing room of a gentleman some time between the ’20s and ’30s, and the many notes that would have been part of this olfactory universe,” he explained. “This is why the opening notes are of violet, which at that time would have been a classic gentleman’s fragrance, but these we wanted to be just a quick note, in a way a nod to those who would be able to catch it, and at the same time a subliminal call to the gentleman that (hopefully!) lives inside a modern man.
“After that, Sienne l’Hiver has notes of fern, which in our minds would have been from plants living inside the house, possibly a conservatory, a glassed room in which you can get some sun during winter. It has also Iris of Florence, a classic note from Tuscany.
“Then there is a white truffle accord (an accord being a group of olfactory notes evoking a particular smell), and the reason for its being there is very simple: white truffles from the Crete Senesi (the hills around Siena), have a wonderful, indescribable aroma, a part of which we wanted to be present in Sienne l’Hiver. Since truffles are harvested in autumn, it was very much part of the season we wanted to depict.”
Even the color of the packaging was chosen carefully. “[It's a] very special blue with shades of periwinkle that represents a Siennese sky in winter, just before the sun sets.”
Chandler Burr wrote how Sienne l’Hiver invoked an abundance of earthly elements, from the stone of Siena’s streets to the smoke over the fields. And yet Lafco’s Bresler said it reminded him simply of a fine cognac. I asked Murena if there was room for all of that in this fragrance.
“I think we should look at this from a different angle: if Sienne l’Hiver reminds a person of cognac, we should actually think of how cognac smells to this person, and perhaps what notes Sienne l’Hiver and cognac may have in common,” he said. “Let me give you an example of a different kind: you smell a beautiful rose, and what do you smell? Go deeper and try to analyze that rose smell: what is it made of? Are there fruity notes in it? Is it peach that you smell in there? Is there also a watery note? It may sound obvious but it’s worth remembering it: fragrance is perception.”
And to him? “Coming back to what Sienne l’Hiver conjures up to me, I have to go back to my previous answer: To me Sienne l’Hiver is winter in Sienna. And that gentleman’s dressing room…”