Naturae et Purae Conference – The Future of Viticulture

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I had a change of scenery yesterday, spending the day in the stunning Castel Trauttmansdorff in South Tyrol, at the Naturae et Purae conference, discussing the future of natural wine and the potential place for biotechnology and genetically modified vines.

It’s not the first conference of this kind that I’ve attended this year but it is the most interesting. This piece may run on a little but I do encourage you to take a couple of minutes to read it.

The speakers: (L-R) Attilio Scienza, Werner Morandell, Giorgio Grai, Luca D’Attoma, Helmuth Koecher, Carlo Nesler, Angiolino Maule, Hayo Loacker, Angelo Carillo.

After the welcoming speeches from Angelo Carillo and then Helmuth Koecher, owner of the best eyebrows in the business and organiser of the Merano Wine Festival, we get underway!

We start on a pessimistic note with a speech from Giorgio Grai, a respected oenologue now well into his 80s. He sets out the current situation of our environment: the state of our air pollution and the prevalence of fine particles, that  64% of the world’s water is polluted and we have unprecedented levels of heavy metals in our alimentary channels. “How can you have an organic vineyard situated right next to a motorway with all the exhaust fumes?” he asks. The effort needed to clean up our environment is huge. We’re not starting at 0, we’re currently at -100. 

Next up is Luca d’Attoma, an oenologue in his 50s, who explains his belief that “organics is a form of respect between man and his environment.” He quotes some statistics about the rise of organic agriculture in Italy: an increase of 24% between 2015-2016 of certified organic vineyards and a 51% increase in the mass retail sector between 2015-16 in sales of organic produce. Unlike Giorgio before him, he beliefs that organic and biodynamic wines are “more original, authentic and therefore richer” than wines made from conventionally farmed grapes. That said, he acknowledges that the restrictions on organic vinification are too light. For example, 150mg/l of SO2 is allowed in conventional red wines and 100mg/l for organic red wines. He highlights problems with the controllers who certify if a farmer or winemaker is working to organic principles. There are too few controls and far too much disparity in the quality of these controls between the north and south of Italy.

Following is Hayo Loacker. The Loacker family own three wineries but the flagship is the Tenuta Schwarhof in Alto Adige. They were the pioneers in the area for organic then biodynamic agriculture (starting in 1978) and in the 90s and 00s the inspiration for many other local wineries (e.g. Lageder) to convert. What is interesting is that despite their homeopathic approach to viticulture, they have planted hybrid grape varieties as well as the traditional and autochthonous varieties; essentially incorporating modernity with the past teachings of Steiner.

After that came Angiolino Maule, guns blazing. Whilst it’s a positive step that the big players are now working their vineyards organically (Angelo Gaja, Bellavista, Ca del Bosco), how does a small guy survive? Increased knowledge and transparency is the answer. He talks about how VinNatur is carrying out scientific experiments to take natural viticulture forward. Essentially, they are conducting detailed research of determined microbial indices in the vineyard and using sophisticated algorithms to create mathematical models of what ideal soil fertility looks like. (Won’t go further as I’m stepping into work territory but email me if you would like more information on this.)

Angiolino puts forward a little-known nutritional argument for natural wines quoting a study by Dr Laura Di Renzo (Univ. of Tor Vergata) in which it was found that conventional wines only had negative side effects on the human body (pesticides, alcohol, sulfites.) Organic wine had some anti-oxidants which compensated the alcohol but was pretty nutritional-neutral. Unfiltered, low-sulphur natural wine, however, had so many positive benefits that it far outweighed the alcohol on balance. Responding to Luca D’Attoma’s comment, Angiolino tells the room how VinNatur’s own members have told the controllers how to conduct the tests and what to look for.

Werner Morandell

Next up is Werner Morandell from the organic Lieselehof Winery. His detailed speech explains what are called PIWI grape varieties (vines with new genotypes, resulting from the crossbreeding of fungi-resistant vine varieties.) Some of the newly-created varieties quoted (Bronner, Souvignier Gris and Merlot Khorus) are resistant to powdery and downy mildew, and the cold, allowing him to plant at high altitudes and bring the plant to full maturity whilst only doing 1 treatment even in bad years.

Attilio Scienza is next to take the stage. He’s an animated speaker and he comes alive during his presentation, which admittedly would have more suited to a university philosophy lecture. He puts forward the case for genetically modified foods and particularly cis-genetic vines, fortunately without going far into the scientific nitty-gritty.

Knowing that there was resistance to GMO in the audience, he starts by breaking down our preconceptions. Picking up on Giorgio’s gloomy state of affairs (the first speech), it’s natural that we want to save ourselves from the end of the world, he argues rather arrogantly, and understandable that we ignorant Muggles are clinging to organics and biodynamics as the solution. Why are we against genetics? It’s just science and we shouldn’t be afraid of science. It’s progress, the future.

Society is increasingly opposed to science, he continues, mentioning the increasingly common opposition to vaccines and the frequency that experts are being poopoo-ed in the media. After dipping into Greek mythology for a few choice quotes and metaphors, he gets to the point: we should accept that GM foods are already here. Strawberries, apples and tomatoes are all crossbreeds. Grains have been genetically engineered and improved. Nature does this itself, he argues, bringing up the complicated genetic lineage, with all the mutations, of the traminer variety. 

The moment, though, that a member of the audience asks a question – about repercussions and secondary effects – the response is that anyone who doesn’t believe in GM is ignorant and backward.

Last but not least, Carlo Nesler, talking about fermentation. He’s admits being specialised in food rather than wine but his insight comes at a particularly poignant moment after Attilio Scienza. He recounts how primitive human-beings and even primates knew how to ferment food and wittingly or unwittingly, it would have been an important part of their diet.

And yet, despite at least 3000 years of history, microbiotics (bifidus digestivum, kombucha and the like) have only recently been “discovered” by scientists as being essential elements for our well-being. We should always work with nature, is his conclusion, not against it.


My question was the last of the day. A simple yes-no in response to: is there a place in the future of natural/organic wine for genetically modified vines?

I didn’t really need to have asked the question. The most telling thing about the day’s conference was how it finished.

On one side of the room is Angiolino Maule, Luca D’Attoma and Carlo Nesler, closely huddled together. In the middle, distanced from the ‘Naturalists’ but seated diplomatically in his assigned spot is Werner Morandell. Loacker has already retreated to the back of the audience, which leaves us with futurist Attilio Scienza, arms-folded, seated as far apart as possible on the other side of the room.

It was startlingly obvious that we had just heard from two different worlds which seem to be mutually incompatible. That chasm was the elephant in the room.

It’s time to wrap up but Angiolino has the final say: terroir.

A picture is worth a thousand words

 

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Harvest 2016: The Final Week

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We are (finally!) approaching the end of Harvest 2016, up here in Castelcerino, in the Soave hills. It’s been by far the longest harvest that anyone here at the winery can remember. Since the 1st September, between 3 and 6 people have been hand-harvesting the 15 hectares, meticulously arranging the precious bunches of grapes into small boxes.


Looking Back Over Harvest 2016

The Preparations – starting the yeast pied-de-cuve.

Early September – at the beginning of the harvest, when I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Mid-September – at this point I still had plenty of energy and had concretised my place in the team.

End of September – with the end of harvest in sight, I was feeling tired but happy.


Continue reading

I’m Hanging In There!

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Apparently, it’s the 27th September; however, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. All I know is that we started harvesting on Sept 1st and we’re only just over half-way. I’m now one of the old hands – one of two people left from the original team of pickers.

At the weekend, the team of Polish labourers arrived.

You can say what you like about the EU but in the agricultural sector, free movement of people is essential.

We started harvesting with a team of Italians. Half were friends and family of the winery; the other half were hard-core contadini from the local area. Continue reading

Harvest 2016: the second week

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We’re approaching the end of the second week of harvest here – Day 12, to be precise – and I can’t tell you how exhausting it is.

I fall asleep at 10pm and dream about tractors and trailers until 6am when the alarm goes off and it all starts over again.

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The Turbiana vineyard – the highest vineyard in Soave and completely surrounded by woodland.

The morning routine is so comfortable now that I don’t even need an espresso to locate the same old trousers, trusty straw hat, water bottle and my forbici (secateurs.)

We’ve moved from the guyot-trained vineyards to the more traditional Veronese pergola. It’s gone from being absolutely back-breaking (I even googled “hunchback” at one point) to being an Ironman workout for the shoulders.

The last two weeks have been seriously hot: over 30°C every day. However, today the weather changed dramatically and a heavy thunderstorm meant that we’ve had to take a break from harvesting. I’m now making the most of this overdue “down-time” to get bash away at my computer keyboard in a futile attempt to whittle down my burdensome inbox.

It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the past three weeks. Culturally, linguistically, and also personally, I’ve learnt so much in this short time.

If you’re planning on moving to Italy and/or learning Italian, there are two really essential verbs that I hear all the time here but which I hadn’t seen in the textbook:

spostare: to move something. i.e.  we need to move the pallet – dobbiamo spostare questo bancale

=> spostarsi: to move (or relocate) yourself

buttare: to chuck or throw away. i.e. butta il grappolo – throw away the bunch

I’d always used gettare – because it is more similar to the French word jeter – but buttare is what I hear most commonly here.

There’s so much more that could be said but I’d better sign off this blog post and go back to the cellar to do the final rimontaggio (pump over) of the day.

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Tasting wines just off the press. Photo to prove that not every wine tasting has a sexy or idyllic setting.

 

Harvest 2016: the first week

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Harvesting started last week here in Soave. We’re not actually picking the garganega (the emblematic grape variety here) for at least another ten days but the chardonnay, merlot and trebbiano is done.

If you were wondering what life is like here at the winery, here is a run-through of my day today:

08.00 – I’ve just wolfed down breakfast, which, this morning, consisted of just a coffee and a couple of biscuits. My boots are on and my water bottle has been refilled; I’m ready to jump on the tractor and head out to the vineyard. Normally we start at 7am, but last night we got home at 1am (after the Soave Versus tasting in Verona) and such an early wake-up call would have been very difficult.

Until 13.00, there’s a team of five of us in the vineyards picking the last of the chardonnay grapes. There’s an experienced Polish guy, a local Italian, winemaker Filippo and his nephew (on work experience) and myself. The banter back and forth doesn’t stop. Continue reading

The Italian Job

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It’s been a remarkably busy week. It’s the case for many people across Europe as they come back from holidays and go back to their office jobs. I always quite like this time of year because it’s full of good energy and many new projects are undertaken.

It’s a stressful week if you’re a winemaker because you’re carefully watching the weather and judging when to start the grape harvest. 2016 has been a disastrous year in France and I think most vignerons are just happy to have made it to the finish line. In Italy, however, it’s been a very hot and dry summer and it’s shaping up to be one of the best vintages of the decade.

For me personally, it was the week that I finally packed up the car and rode off into the sunset…

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Well… except, in my case, riding off into the sunset means crossing the border between France and Italy. Continue reading