Tuscany's Grape Innovators
From off-the-grid vineyards to all-women wineries, grape growers in Tuscany are making great wines and challenging industry standards.
One of southern Italy’s most striking wineries lies hidden in plain sight. Located south of Florence on the way to Siena, the sprawling steel and terracotta structure, which houses the Antinori Winery, was designed by Archea Associati to blend into the hillside. Seen from the highway its curving façade follows the gentle folds of the landscape and its roof is planted with vines.
The architectural marvel reveals itself slowly. First in the curvature of the car park, then in the twisting, free-floating staircase visitors ascend to reach the podium level. Here, the façade of rust-colored Corten steel blazes against a blue sky. Inside, the dimly lit cellar has soaring cathedral-height ceilings lined with terra-cotta tiles, and private tasting rooms are theatrically cantilevered over the oak barrels. “It’s very 007,” my husband remarks, leaning over the railing.
The scale and proportions of the building are indeed a far cry from the stone farm buildings that house most Chianti wineries. But bold design isn’t altogether surprising coming from the Antinori estate. The noble Florentine family has winemaking and art patronage roots dating back 26 generations and was one of the first to rebel against the tight controls the Italian authorities imposed on wine producers.
Traditionally, wine makers had to include a proportion of white grapes in the Sangiovese blends typical of the Chianti region. But in the 1960’s and 1970s, the Antinori winery began experimenting with French grape varieties to create Italy’s first so-called “Super Tuscan” wines. Today, they have become the region’s most expensive and highly prized.
By building a museum-like headquarters (at a cost of US$ 110 million) that includes production facilities, offices, as well as a 200-seat auditorium, a rooftop garden and a contemporary arts program, the winery sees itself as continuing the family’s legacy of innovation. “The huge investment is justifiable only if thinking of the next generation,” says Piero Antinori during an introductory company video.
But marrying tradition with a forward-looking approach is not limited to the Antinori enterprise -- discerning which traditions to preserve and which to reform appears to be one of the region’s most defining characteristics.
Certainly this was central to Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s entrepreneurial vision. She founded award-winning wineries that are informed by generations of know-how (her family has been making wine in the Montalcino region since the 16th century) but also address a deep-rooted gender bias in the industry.
Growing up among the vines and barrels at her family’s estate, Colombini says she always dreamed of one day starting her own winery, and she branched out on her own in the late 1990s. But when it came time to staff her cellar, a shortage of available cellar masters threatened to halt operations. Desperate not to lose the season’s yield, she persisted in her search and eventually discovered that the labor shortage was only for male cellar masters. Plenty of skilled women were available, but leading wineries didn’t want to hire them.
“I discovered discrimination that was so old and widespread that it had become normal and invisible,” Colombini says. In Italy, women who work in grape growing or wine making comprise 28 per cent of the total, but very few succeed in reaching leadership positions.
Colombini decided to do something to “demonstrate that the production of great wines has no gender,” and founded two wineries, Casato Prime Donne in Montalcino and Fattoria del Colle in southern Chianti, both of which are Italy’s first all-women vineyards.
Her award-winning wines (including the celebrated Brunello Prime Donne) are cultivated mostly by hand and using an organic and biodynamic regime that is becoming increasingly popular among Tuscan grape growers. Some producers claim biodynamic wines have better expressions of terroir. For Colombini the reasoning is simple: “you get better grapes and the vineyard is alive”.
About 40 kilometers east, the enologist currently revolutionizing Italy’s move toward sustainable winemaking is Michele Manelli, founder of Salcheto Winery. He is developing ‘Equitas’ a new standard for managing sustainability and biodiversity in the winemaking world, and his own winery, the first in Europe to use 100 per cent sustainable energy, is a compelling model for what future wineries might look like.
The cellar, which looks out over the picturesque town of Montelpuciano, is lit via glass ‘solar tubes’ that draw and refract natural light underground. Here, the temperature is regulated via geothermal cooling and there is an insulating vertical garden that grows along the outer wall. On very hot days, the roof is irrigated with water from a small nearby pond.
Along with passive cooling and closed-loop production cycles—oak barrels come from sustainable forests and are later up-cycled into furniture pieces—Manelli partnered with a company called Lasi to design tanks that utilize naturally produced CO2 to gently mix grapes during fermentation, removing the need for electrical pumps.
In pursuit of sustainability, the winery continually makes use of technological advances. Most recently, Selcheto has developed a way to calculate the carbon footprint of each bottle of wine—consumers can access this via a QR code on the label. The bottles Salcheto uses are also made from a lighter type of glass. “Today the technology allows us to take a lighter bottle that is as resistant as the traditional bottle,” Manelli explains. But, he says, the perception still exists that quality is associated with weight.
Prevailing opinions may take time to change, but Salcheto’s range of award-winning Classic and Obius lines, which are distributed worldwide, prove that when it comes to winemaking, a progressive approach need not come at the expense of quality.
This story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Portfolio magazine