Defining a New Italy

Defining a New Italy

The road between Siena and Montalcino is a winding thoroughfare snaking its way through the earth-toned farmhouses and cypress trees. It’s a stretch of road Andrea Lonardi often takes to check on the handful of vineyard estates he oversees. As the operations director for Bertani Domains, Lonardi manages the viticulture, winemaking, and marketing teams for each of the wineries under the Bertani Domains umbrella, including Bertani Vineyards, in Valpolicella; Tenuta San Sisto, in Castelli di Jesi, Marche; Cantina Puiatti, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Tenuta Trerose, in Montepulciano; San Leonino, in Chianti Classico; and Val di Suga, in Montalcino.

On this occasion, he had driven this route to share the wines of Val di Suga with me. Dressed in jeans, a black sweater, and a fitted puffy vest, with mirrored sunglasses and a Burt Reynolds mustache, he had a long, lean frame that bore more resemblance to that of an F1 driver than an Italian agronomist. But the second he began to speak about his approach to viticulture and winemaking, it was clear that he was the latter.

Originally from Valpolicella, with a degree in agrarian sciences and a master’s in management, Lonardi spent time in France and California in his early wine career before handling viticultural management for various wine brands across Italy. In 2012, he joined Bertani Domains to oversee viticulture, wine production, and marketing.

“When I first came on board, the focus was more on the product than the place,” Lonardi says. “So our first goal became strengthening the health of the vineyards while taking a much more minimal approach in the cellar. Today, I like to say we produce old-fashioned wines in a very contemporary way.”

In the cellar, we were joined by Pietro Riccobono, a winemaker and viticulturist from Sicily, who has been working with Lonardi for 20 years.

“When we began this project, we decided that Pietro’s Mediterranean background was very important to help us combat climate change in Tuscany,” says Lonardi. “This expertise, combined with the experience of our vineyard manager at Val di Suga, who has more than 35 years in this place, will help us for the future.”

The two led me into an expansive building that was once a livestock barn for Tuscany’s revered breed of cattle, Chianina. They stopped just past a line of three stainless steel fermenters and described one for controlled pumping over, one in which there is significantly less pumping over, and one in which there is no pumping over.

“I think stainless steel is very interesting for fermentation, but I don’t think there is a good reason to ferment in oak,” says Lonardi. “I don’t feel that oak brings anything special to the wine. We believe in two major things when it comes to aging the wines. The first is less oak age and more bottle age. The second is less stainless steel and oak and more cement. This is something you can feel when you taste our wines.”

He paused as if to choose his words carefully. “I completely believe that in order for us to move into the future, we have to respect the way things were done in the past while also looking at new technology and modern techniques to push the quality of wine forward,” he says. “I think there is a lot of opportunity to respond to climate change and to make the future of quality wine possible for the next generation. Winemaking is important, but there has to be a strong viticultural approach. This is the new Italy.”

The new Italy? The phrase caught me off guard. How exactly is modern technology being used in the vineyard? Is this just in response to climate change, or are the goals broader? Is Lonardi’s approach unique, or is this happening across the country?

The experience was already turning out to be a bit unconventional. After all, I was following an agronomist and winemaker from Valpolicella and his colleague from Sicily, who are employing southern Mediterranean viticultural practices in the heart of Montalcino. The juxtaposition of this eclectic mix was intriguing.

The New Italy

Craig Collins, MS, Brand Development Director for the wine importer Vintus, comments, “We’re actually seeing a lot of this throughout Italy, especially from the Veneto with larger producers like Bertani and Tommasi. They’ve casually mentioned details to me over the past few years that have surprised me. They insist it’s no big deal. But I think it’s a very big deal. It’s not just about innovations; [they are] adapting new techniques over methods that have been a tradition for years.”

Tommasi Family Estates has been a top producer of Amarone della Valpolicella for more than a century. The brand has expanded beyond the Veneto into other regions, such as Maremma, Montalcino, Basilicata, and Sicily. This experience in multiple regions has helped strengthen processes in the vineyard and the cellar. 

Pierangelo Tommasi, Executive Director of Tommasi Family Estates, explains, “When you consider that we start picking Pinot Grigio in Lugana in the middle of August and we don’t finish until November with picking grapes in Basilicata—and now with our new project in Etna—we see so many different things. It has given us a better understanding of how to work toward elegance in all of our wines.”

Similarly, Marchesi Frescobaldi has been a standard-bearer in Tuscany since the eighth century and has grown to include estates throughout the region, in Montalcino, Bolgheri, and Chianti Classico. In 2000, the brand acquired the historic Friuli producer Attems, expanding its red-centric portfolio to include a broader offering of white wines. In recent years, Attems has implemented new vineyard practices that have dramatically raised the quality of the wines.

Though there are many large brands with access to and insight into numerous growing regions, smaller producers are also looking to the future with an open mind. Collins points to Petrolo, in Val d’Arno di Sopra; Le Cinciole, in Chianti Classico; Tabarrini, in Montefalco; and Le Macchiole, in Bolgheri. 

“You know, I hate to use cool-kid words like crunchy, but that’s how Mattia Campolmi, one of the winemakers at Le Macchiole, described his wines, and it’s true!” Collins explains. “They are a leaner, lower-alcohol style. They are doing things differently with their vineyard and in the cellar, and they’re not doing it to chase a trend. It’s because they believe it’s right for their area. It’s a real departure from the Bolgheri region, and you’re finding examples like this all over the country.” 

At first glance, practices such as amending soil health, reducing oak usage, and using modern technology may not seem like very much or even very new. But when viewed as a whole, these elements contribute to a better quality of wine overall that will sustain a positive future for Italian wine.

In the Vineyard

As a relative newcomer to an otherwise historic winegrowing region, Lonardi has been free to introduce new methods and techniques in the vineyards. Val di Suga employs partial root-zone drying, which uses a drip at specific parts of the plant so that the roots continue to grow downward in the soil, rather than creeping toward areas where water pools at the surface. The technique also improves water use efficiency.

Lonardi explains, “It’s extremely important, especially for the future. Climate change has really affected the appellation in a big way. We see a lot of vintages in Montalcino with more than 15% alcohol. We have to be much more intentional with our water in order to combat too much ripeness.”

Bertani has also adjusted how its three estate vineyards are managed. The climate is more continental at the winery site, where the Vigna del Lago vineyard is located. As a result, the vineyards are planted at a higher density to achieve the desired concentration in the grapes. But in the southwest part of the region, the Spuntali vineyard site has a more Mediterranean climate, which prompted a transition to high-density bush vines. The logic behind the higher densities is that vines planted closer together must compete for nutrients and water, pushing their roots deeper. This struggle results in the plant creating greater concentration in the grapes.

Further south, the environment at the Poggio al Granchio vineyard is more like that of Chianti Classico, and the vines are grown with standard density on the cordon system. This has helped the grapes achieve the ripeness Lonardi desires. “Today, we are very focused on looking for balance and pH,” says Lonardi, whose ultimate goal is to achieve lighter, more elegant wines that will have the same longevity as wines from the 1980s and 1990s.

In Bolgheri, at Ornellaia and Masseto, Axel Heinz, the estate director and winemaker, has introduced alternate training systems with more bush vines in areas that warrant more canopy coverage and protection from the sun. It’s an approach that pertains as much to managing appropriate crop levels as to responding to the changing climate. 

Nearby at Le Macchiole, broadening the biodiversity of the vineyard has been a priority. Cinzia Merli, the owner of the winery, was an early advocate of preserving the landscape to ensure quality and respond to changing growing conditions. She and her team have implemented organic and biodynamic practices, planting a series of “green stripes” throughout the vineyard with native trees and plants. They have also implemented integrated pest management to manage insects, weeds, and diseases, using a combination of biological and organic chemical measures.

“We find ourselves in an environment of continuous evolution, characterized by climate changes, that we have no choice but to confront,” Merli says. “This is why we think it is our daily obligation to pay attention to innovations in the field, maintaining a personal approach that is often critical but in a constructive way.”

In general, the winegrowing world is increasingly moving toward organic farming, whether in practice and approach or for official certification. But different producers believe that what has distinguished the quality of their wines is the additional steps they have taken.

Precision Farming 

Today, many producers in Italy use a form of satellite GPS technology in the vineyards. Some use this tool of precision farming as more of a guide, while others use it as a crucial vineyard control. 

At Le Cinciole, in Chianti Classico, Luca Orsini believes the technology helps paint a clearer picture of what’s happening in the vineyard. But ultimately, he makes decisions based on instincts gained from walking the land. 

“To have the technology is a big support, especially as so many things are changing right now,” Orsini says. “But my experience with it has taught me to be more attentive in the vineyard. You use shears to cut the grapes for harvest; that’s a tool. I think precision farming is the same thing: a tool. You don’t trust just one thing; you use all you have to give you the necessary information.”

Others, like Lonardi, have fully embraced the benefits of this technology. At the Bertani properties, technology has influenced, among other practices, how the vines are fed and pruned. The pruning team can see this information by using a digital app to help guide the process.

“At the top part of the Vigna del Lago vineyard, where there is more sand, we tend to leave fewer buds on the vine,” says Lonardi. “At the bottom of the vineyard, the cover crop we use is wheat to extract water, which rebalances the high vigor you have in that part.” 

In addition, Bertani works with a harvesting machine that uses satellite control to separate grapes grown in different soils found within the vineyard, whether clay, sand, or galestro, a common soil type for Montalcino.

Bringing Back Original Clones

In Montalcino, when Federico Radi joined Biondi-Santi as director of viticulture and winemaking, in 2017, he inherited what he considers a genuine treasure: a vineyard originally planted in the 1930s. In the 1970s, Franco Biondi-Santi officially registered the clone in this vineyard as Brunello Biondi-Santi (BBS11). With an eye toward the future, Radi has spent the past few years developing a nursery cultivating massal selections of this native clone.

“The intent is to propagate the genetic identity of this vineyard through the selection of several mother plants,” says Radi, who matures the new plants in an estate nursery for two years before planting them. “These will become the progenitors of the planting material for our new vineyards. This way, we can bring into the future a genetic footprint unique to our terroir.” 

At Val di Suga, Lonardi’s team has introduced a similar project. Lonardi explains, “I’m convinced that in the ’80s and ’90s, when there were completely different growing conditions, we started using clones that are not well suited for today. To correct this, we have reintroduced older clones from some of the original plants we had in our older Spuntali vineyard.”

Further south, in Sicily, Donnafugata has launched a research initiative with the Sicilia DOC Consortium to discover regional native grape varieties. Donnafugata’s Antonio Rallo, who currently helps run the Donnafugata winery, founded by his parents, and who is chairperson of the consortium, explains, “We have discovered more than 70 different varieties, but most people around the world are only familiar with less than 10 of them. Many of them had almost disappeared, but we are working to bring them back. They may be a key to what works better in the future.”

Green Manure and Healthy Soils

Though it’s not universal, some form of single cover crop, such as winter rye or mustard, has long been used by growers. It’s a way of preventing erosion and adding nitrogen back to the vines. Once the cover crop has completed its growth cycle, it is sometimes tilled back into the earth or kept short with mowing during the grapegrowing season. But many top producers today have gone a step further, using a broader variety of grasses, legumes, and other herbs together to promote greater diversity and microbial health deep in the soil.

At Ornellaia and Masseto, Heinz uses organic practices in the vineyard, but he argues that there’s nothing natural about this. After all, a vine growing in the wilderness would never naturally put itself on a trellis in perfect rows at the perfect hillside aspect. Human intervention is a part of grapegrowing and, by extension, winemaking. He also concedes that he has the advantage of working with young estates in a relatively unspoiled environment. Both Ornellaia and Masseto were planted in the early 1980s. 

Heinz comments, “We don’t come from centuries and centuries of intensive viticulture that has had time to ruin the environment. It also helps that Tuscany, in general, is by default a region of biodiversity because of the agricultural landscape it has embodied for centuries. You have woodlands, olive groves, wine, herbs, everything.”

At the same time, Heinz is fully aware that climate change has disrupted this otherwise pastoral location. He has developed a natural green cover of native flora in the vineyard to help prevent water loss. It also promotes better microbiological life in the soil that supports the growth of both the vine above ground and the roots below. 

In Friuli, Attems is one of the founding producers of the Collio Goriziano DOC (aka Collio DOC). Daniele Vuerich has managed the estate’s 104 acres of hillside and plateau vineyards for the past decade using the “green manure” method, in which a cover crop is grown within the vineyard and tilled into the soil while still green. Using several different species, he can incorporate various elements of organic matter into the soils. During the rainy season, this is particularly helpful. Each species, such as rye or oats, has a different root system, which breaks down and improves the structure of the soil. Other species, such as brassicas, have top roots that help capture soil nitrogen, which is then available as nutrients to the vines.

“Friuli-Venezia Giulia has always been a beautiful region incredibly suitable for viticulture, but things are changing,” Vuerich says. “And as winemakers and growers, we must somehow find new techniques that [allow us to] reach the target of high-quality grapes that respect our natural resources.”

In the past few years, Vuerich has noticed a difference in the quality of the grapes and the must before vinification. Since introducing the green manure method, he has identified increased aromatic complexity in the resulting Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Ribolla Gialla wines.

In Alto Adige, Alois Lageder has long promoted the idea of introducing biodiversity in the vineyards on multiple levels. For example, last spring, the winery planted a new vineyard to Chardonnay—a variety believed to be well suited to warmer temperatures in lower altitudes. The site was planted with cover crops and a fence line with diverse plants, flowers, and Mediterranean herbs to promote pollination and soil health. In addition to plants, oxen are used during the colder months to graze in the vineyards and promote diversity and fertility.

Regenerative Viticulture

In truth, everything from organic and biodynamic practices, cover crops, and adjusting trellising to integrated pest management, incorporating animals, and mending the soils with the help of earthworms is an element of one thing: regenerative viticulture. 

In his latest book, Regenerative Viticulture, the wine writer Jamie Goode explains the premise: “taking something that was damaged or misused and then regenerating it. Modern agriculture has depleted the life and functioning of the soil, and this is about farming in such a way as to restore it, make it healthy, to replenish what has been taken out, to encourage biodiversity, and get it functioning again. And into this, we must add social capital, too. This is true sustainability.” 

This is a philosophy Radi has applied for the past five years at Biondi-Santi. Understanding that the wines of Biondi-Santi are known for their longevity, Radi concluded that the soil’s health was the key to maintaining this quality. He says, “The concepts of soil quality and wine quality are interlinked. Healthy soil means soil that is alive, with a good percentage of organic matter, with a good microbiological life above and below ground. A management of the vineyards focused on soil wellness creates a balanced habitat for the vine, and I am sure that it leads to better wines as well. When the vine’s roots can extract the right nourishment from the soil, this transfers into the wine.”

The common thread among this selection of producers, and for many who are exploring this approach worldwide, is the desire to take land that may have previously been poorly managed and restore it to its full potential. In this way, what may seem at face value to be rustic and simple is modern and forward thinking.

“I think everyone’s talking about regenerative farming even if they don’t realize they’re talking about it,” says Craig Collins. “If you’re looking at a holistic approach to the vineyard and the land, expanding biodiversity, and using organic and biodynamic methods, you’re talking about it, or at least a component.”

In the Cellar

Over the past decade, many of the cellar practices have changed at Val di Suga, in Montalcino, including adjusting extraction during fermentation and, more recently, using optical selection technology to sort grapes during harvest. Twenty years ago, the wines were made with pumping over the full volume of the must 10 to 15 times during fermentation. Today, pumpovers are performed two or three times, or in some fermentations, not at all.

Says Lonardi, “This is a mandatory part of controlling the tannin structure in the wines. A lot of people say that Sangiovese is a very high-tannin variety. No, no, no. Sangiovese, in bad conditions, tends to develop dry tannins, but there is some high level of tannins that can be very beautiful. It’s important to really understand the structure and the tension of these tannins depending on the site in which [the wines] are grown.” 

Over the years, Lonardi and his team have determined that putting Brunello in a barrel for 24 months is not necessarily best for the wine, though this is the requirement of the DOCG. They have found that resting the blended wines in cement for six months before bottling is a good compromise that allows them to stay within DOCG regulations.

Lonardi explains, “Cement is a key to helping with the oak aging. I think it will be a very important component for the appellation to consider as part of the future. We prefer the structure this maintains in the wines, as placing them in stainless steel can make the wines [feel] thinner.”

At Ornellaia and Masseto, in Bolgheri, Heinz approaches the challenge of making wine in resonance with the environment, showing less concern about adhering to a stylistic trend. “We’re not afraid of ripeness,” he says. “We’re not afraid of a certain degree of concentration or about a certain degree of opulence in our wines. After all, we come from a sunny climate, so it’s normal to express that. What I don’t want is excess. And we realize that we don’t actively need to look for richness or push for a minimum concentration level.”

Heinz shared that simple methods have changed in the cellar, with shorter macerations, fewer pumpovers, and lower fermentation temperatures. He says, “These are not radical changes. We’re not trying to turn everything upside down. We’ve realized that by doing less, you get more in terms of natural balance to your wines because nothing seems as if it was forced.”

In the same region, Merli has made similar steps at Le Macchiole, not only adjusting the maturation regimen to use less oak and more concrete but also refining the selection process with the cooperage. Says Merli, “We wanted to work on lighter toasts for our barrels to pull back on the finished wine, to be lighter than in the past.”

By working in multiple regions, Tommasi has gleaned a few new methods to help refine the wines at different domaines. He says, “We used to produce white wines in the Veneto that have historically been a little higher in residual sugar. But in Basilicata, our Falanghina, grown in volcanic soils at higher altitudes, was leaner. We cooperated with our team there to figure out how to get the best from our white grapes, whether from Fiano in Puglia, Turbiano in Lugana, or Garganega for our Soave. Now, these wines are drier and with nicer acidity.”

Spreading the Word

In theory, responding to climate change by applying new viticultural methods; adopting new fermentation and maceration processes in the cellar; and employing less oak, more concrete, and more bottle age are all excellent practices. And certainly, using advanced technology to help facilitate more precision is an asset. But it’s all for nothing if the wine doesn’t shine. This snapshot may not be broad enough to say definitively, yet there is a consensus that there has been a shift in how the wines taste.

Collins says, “Winemakers have discussed some of these changes they’re making as if it’s just a detail that isn’t special, whether it’s cutting back on oak and using cement or switching from barrique to Slavonian cask. It’s special! These wines are different from previous years, and we should be talking about this!”

Collins’s charge as an importer is to help with sales by finding new stories to share about his producers. He’s fully aware that the perception about Italians—particularly in America—is that they are rooted in tradition. It’s one of the aspects of the culture that is widely admired. But, says Collins, “It’s almost as if they feel bound by this sometimes and don’t want to tell anybody that they’re breaking tradition, and [that] they don’t realize that even though they’re all leaning into their own component for what makes sense for them, there are so many others doing it, too.”

The truth is that the market is noticing changes in the quality of these wines, and consumers need to know why. The wines are good because of new approaches that are being taken in the vineyard and the winery.

Of course, not everyone is keeping quiet. Lonardi travels extensively to different regions, learning what he can from other producers and environments, such as Alto Adige, Ribera del Duero, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. He’s taken a particular interest in Rioja. 

“Both Sangiovese and Tempranillo can age in an oxidative way, and it’s important to manage the approach and develop wines with a lot of ripeness and freshness that also have a lovely oxidative evolution,” says Lonardi. He also opens his doors to up-and-coming winemakers each harvest. “We need perspectives from different young people. This is when it is best to open a bottle of wine and discuss what’s inside.” 

Antonio Rallo of Donnafugata agrees. Donnafugata has been an invaluable resource for many producers purchasing vineyard land in Etna, including Tommasi and Bertani. Rallo points to biodiversity, clonal selection, and sustainability as important pieces in the future of Italian wine, but communication is also key. He comments, “In the end, you are the only one who knows your parcel of land, but you can take advantage of the different experiences of other producers worldwide to become even better.”

This conversation isn’t limited to Italy. Producers throughout the world are responding to climate change, taking advantage of new technologies, and doing what they can to safeguard natural resources. But in some ways, this is a particularly Italian story. 

Heinz explains, “The last 30 to 40 years have been dedicated almost exclusively to establishing Italy as an important source of fine wines. That has taken a lot of effort, and quite rightly so. Because while Italy was historically together with France as [having] some of the largest wine producers in the world, it hadn’t acquired that status as a country producing excellent fine wine. Much of that work has been done now. And today, we need to shift the goal from making quality wine to doing it in a consistent, sustainable way.”

Individual appellation consortiums and official certifications for organic, biodynamic, and sustainable farming have a part to play in this shift. Yet much of the work remains up to individual approach.

Lonardi says, “If we want to achieve our goals for quality wine, we have to look at the things that were done in the past that may have hurt long-term progress. And we have to look at how to restore what resources we naturally have. If we want to protect our wines from climate change, we need to make these changes. We are very proud of our Italian-ity. I think there are many opportunities to show this new phase of Italy in winemaking with a very strong viticultural approach. It takes time, but I believe the effort is worth it. What is in the bottle needs to announce the beauty of this place.”

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Goode, Jamie. Regenerative Viticulture. Self-published, Jamie Goode, 2022.