Tuscany is at the forefront of organic winegrowing
Wine is the earth’s poetry, Mario Soldati used to say. Hard, challenging, thankless poetry. For centuries and generations, farmers were virtually powerless when faced with seasonal whims and the climate’s bizarre volubility, not to mention the effect of plant diseases and the limited or widespread infestation of their fields. This remained true until progress generated chemical products for use in the vineyards. In one way or another, their aim was to protect vine growth and grape development, while guaranteeing a minimal but constant level of protection. Yet, what was the price to pay—for nature, the environment and our health? This question has given rise to an interesting debate in Italy and Tuscany, inspired by an awareness-raising campaign underway in France and other countries.
This quest for ecological awareness has spurred the revision of harvesting techniques with the intent of rediscovering natural systems. In other words, it’s a question of developing sustainable, organic wine-production. In essence, this translates into a respect for the environment, by favoring renewable resources and recycling. It also implies employing natural mechanisms for increasing harvests, controlling disease and eliminating harmful insects. During this process, chemical synthesis pesticides are avoided, as are growth hormones, antibiotics and OGM. Conversely, only natural fertilizers are used. Nonetheless, it should be noted that, unlike the regulations in force for field work, there is still a lack of wine-making norms, specifically linked to work carried out in cellars. Thus, one shouldn’t speak of ‘organic wine’ per se. Indeed, it is more accurate to discuss wine ‘obtained through organic agriculture’.
Are we simply talking about a snobby fad or easy returns based on environmentalism? According to statistics, we’re not. Tuscany has become Italy leading region: today, organic wine-making involves 6,000 hectares of the region’s territory. (in 2001, there were 2,000 hectares). This amounts to approximately 10% of its vineyard surface area—nearly 65,000 hectares, of which over 35,000 are registered producers of DOC wines. Additionally, vineyards occupy 6% of Tuscany’s agricultural land dedicated to organic crops. When it comes to Tuscan wine, organic varieties have found important applications and supportive enthusiasts. Pierpaolo Rastelli, curator of an Italian organic wine guide ‘Guida ai vini d’Italia bio’ which is currently in its 13th edition, explains the reason behind this trend.
‘Thanks to its more moderate temperatures, Tuscany is a territory that facilitates this choice. Endemic vines can benefit from a natural process,’ Rastelli explains, ‘International wines are more ductile, but they are also becoming more and more similar; with organic processes, it’s possible to increase the territory’s influence.’ So much so, that the 2010 guide counted 69 Tuscan companies with 203 reviewed wines and no less that 37 award-winning bunches. Tuscan vineyards belonging to the Loacker family (known for their world famous cookie-producing company) have always employed organic methods, for example. In Brunello’s realm, in Corte Pavone (west of Montalcino), sixteen hectares of vineyards are currently growing at an altitude of 500 meters. This light clay-like soil is ‘contaminated’ by aromatic herbs like thyme and lavender. Valdifalco, an area in the Maremma that’s separated from the sea by the Uccellina hills, hosts twenty-one hectares. ‘Philosophy with heart and soul’ is Rainer Loacker’s motto. He entrusted the company’s management to his son Heiner and the entire estate, including its cellars, was planned and created according to organic, bio-dynamic principles. In the Chianti Classico area, Badia a Coltibuona—the ‘good harvest abbey’ founded by Vallombrosian monks in 1051—was the first giant to opt for organic methods, starting from the use of organic fertilizers and chestnut piles at the head of each vine row. Seventy hectares of vines are the result of a process that began in 1990, with the conversion of twenty hectares’ worth of olive groves.
‘Experience is showing us that our products—Chianti Classico wine and extra-virgin olive oil—are establishing themselves with a stronger identity whose demand is constantly growing,’ explains Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti. ‘As these choices reveal their results and gain importance within agriculture’s slow time-scheme, our wine and oil are getting more and more acclaim and recognition: their quality is constantly improving.’
Giovanni Manetti expresses a similar opinion. He’s the owner of Fontodi, whose wine—Flaccianello della Pieve 2007—walked away with eighth place in Wine Spectator’s recently published top-ten list. It’s the first organic Italian wine to receive such acclaim. (Only eight Italian varieties captured a spot among the first 100 mentioned). Thus, Fontodi is at the center of a very special phenomenon, ‘the Panzano in Chianti case’. There, over 70% of the area’s vineyards (nearly 300 hectares) are cultivated according to organic methods. Wine-producers in the area have banned together, creating a network of 20-some companies managed by people in their 40s and 50s.
Many of these owner/managers are not of Tuscan descent, but they have become passionate enthusiasts of organic methods. ‘Today, this is a new starting point for us—a way to continue our constant search for sustainable productivity: in favor of the environment and for our own benefit as producers who face a sometimes unscrupulous market that we’re deeply involved with day by day,’ explains Luca Orsini, a Roman, who manages ‘Le Cinciole’ with his Lombard wife, Valeria. Obviously, the Panzano case is not just a chance trend without proper foundations. It wouldn’t be around without the work of Ruggero Mazzilli, an agronomist from outside of Tuscany who has lived in the Chianti area since 1998. Initially, he worked as a freelance professional; for several years now, he has worked alongside his wife, as the founder and soul of the first experimental center for sustainable viticulture. Mazzili is a die-hard supporter of Agro-ecology electrical plants. He’s a guru within the sector—and the results show that he’s right.