The day starts at 6.30am here at the Cascina degli Ulivi, if for nothing but the very simple reason that the cockerels do not allow you to sleep in any later.
Besides the vast host of poultry who make up the dawn chorus, this is a fully self-sufficient working farm with geese, ducks, goats, cows, horses… not forgetting the two dogs, Paco and Diana, who worship Stefano and follow him around faithfully. I would suspect that there is also a cat… but he or she is one of those creatures that only makes you aware of their presence once you’ve tripped over it.
Tucked away in the Piemontese hills near Novi Ligure (45 minutes from Genova), the Cascina degli Ulivi estate is made up of just over 35 hectares of land, of which approximately 22 are planted with vines.
Stefano Bellotti took over the estate from his father in 1977 and has always worked the land according to the exacting most principles of biodynamic farming (officially since 1984.) He describes himself as a farmer first and foremost, not a winemaker. It would certainly be an understatement to say that he has a low-intervention winemaking style… “nil-intervention” is probably more accurate.
We’re in the Gavi region, but the grape varieties planted on the estate are not limited to Cortese. There is also Riesling, Verdeo, Bosco, Aromatic Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Dolcetto and Barbera, plus miniscule quantities of a scattering of others.
There are two main vineyards – Filagnotti and Montemarino – of which the former is at approximately 200 metres above sea level and the latter ranges between 310 and 350m. Filagnotti has mainly red clay and limestone under its south-west-facing slopes, whilst south-facing Montemarino has white clay.
Whilst we’ve established that Stefano is very hands-off in the cantina, it worth noting that he does meddle somewhat with nature in the vineyards. While I was there, we spent an afternoon planting a rare variety of Asian rootstocks (aromea, I believe) in the Filagnotti vineyard.
He will also not shy away from controversy if his convictions are strong enough. Filagnotti actually lost its DOCG accreditation in 2008 and came under the scorn of the Italian authorities when the apricot trees were planted. The addition of these new plants means that the land is no longer considered (by EU terms, at least) to be a vineyard. Have they not heard of biodiversity?!
Even though this means that he loses out on a hefty sum of EU subsidies, Stefano, ever remaining true to himself, couldn’t give a *beep*.. and despite knowing full well that others will see it as defiance, he is planting his new vineyard of Timorasso grapes with almond trees. (Almond trees, in case you were wondering, are apparently a natural barrier for phylloxera.)
Over the years, Stefano has gained a bit of a reputation. “Anarchist” “revolutionary” and even “bat-shit-mental” are some of the words I’ve heard being bandied around. After spending four days at the Cascina seeing for myself what’s going on, I’d like to throw my tuppence into the debate.
Though the farm is chaotic – what else would you expect with chicken and geese roaming freely – the team of people that Stefano has working for him are some of the most efficient, motivated and yet also down-to-earth people that I had the pleasure of meeting during my trip.
Stefano himself is a sweetheart. He has such a kind, generous character and (but don’t tell him I have written this) he’s also very sensitive. A pioneer of biodynamics, he has long been questioned and attacked for beliefs that were against the norm but which for him are so inherent that it’s as if it’s woven into his flesh. Sure, I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Stefano but I respect him massively for who he is and what he’s done.
Changing the subject – at one point in Jonathon Nossiter‘s new film “Natural Resistance” (2014), in which Stefano stars, somebody quippes that the winemaker’s job has now become a full-time one answering the telephone. Never has a truer observation been made.
Picture the scene: There are a couple of us in Stefano’s open-plan kitchen, welcoming the feeling of Jean Delobre’s Syrah slipping down our throats after a hot day in the field. Stefano has just hopped past in his undies, in the direction of the shower.
Moments later, from behind the bathroom door, we hear Stefano yelling out that there is no more hot water. David puts down his glass and goes to fiddle with the knobs on the boiler. Pu-pu-chouuu. The gas flame relights. We hear the sounds of water running again. Suddenly, Stefano is using all kinds of rich Italian language that is not in the dictionary. David hot-foots back to the boiler. The water is still running when we hear Stefano’s phone ring. No surely he won’t pick up, I think to myself. Surely enough, he does: “Pronto!”